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What Could He Do?








This was another of Marriot's perplexities of the heart. He had been on
the Continent, and I knew from his face, the moment he returned, that I
would have a night of him.



On the 4th of September, he began, playing agitatedly with my
tobacco-pouch, which was not for hands like his, I had walked from
Spondinig to Franzenshohe, which is a Tyrolese inn near the top of
Stelvio Pass. From the inn to a very fine glacier is only a stroll of a
few minutes; but the path is broken by a roaring stream. The only bridge
across this stream is a plank, which seemed to give way as I put my foot
on it. I drew back, for the stream would be called one long waterfall in
England. Though a passionate admirer of courage, I easily lose my head
myself, and I did not dare to venture across the plank. I walked up the
stream, looking in vain for another crossing, and finally sat down on a
wilderness of stones, from which I happened to have a good view of the
plank. In parties of two and three a number of tourists strolled down
the path; but they were all afraid to cross the bridge. I saw them test
it with their alpenstocks; but none would put more than one foot on it.
They gathered there at their wit's end. Suddenly I saw that there was
some one on the plank. It was a young lady. I stood up and gazed. She
was perhaps a hundred yards away from me; but I could distinctly make
out her swaying, girlish figure, her deer-stalker cap, and the ends of
her boa (as, I think, those long, furry things are called) floating in
the wind. In a moment she was safe on the other side; but on the middle
of the plank she had turned to kiss her hand to some of her more timid
friends, and it was then that I fell in love with her. No doubt it was
the very place for romance, if one was sufficiently clad; but I am not
'susceptible,' as it is called, and I had never loved before. On the
other hand, I was always a firm believer in love at first sight, which,
as you will see immediately, is at the very root of my present
sufferings.

The other tourists, their fears allayed, now crossed the plank, but I
hurried away anywhere; and found myself an hour afterward on a hillside,
surrounded by tinkling cows. All that time I had been thinking of a
plank with a girl on it. I returned hastily to the inn, to hear that
the heroine of the bridge and her friends had already driven off up the
pass. My intention had been to stay at Franzenshohe over night, but of
course I at once followed the line of carriages which could be seen
crawling up the winding road. It was no difficult matter to overtake
them, and in half an hour I was within a few yards of the hindmost
carriage. It contained her of whom I was in pursuit. Her back was
toward me, but I recognized the cap and the boa. I confess that I was
nervous about her face, which I had not yet seen. So often had I been
disappointed in ladies when they showed their faces, that I muttered
Jimmy's aphorism to myself: 'The saddest thing in life is that most
women look best from the back.' But when she looked round all anxiety
was dispelled. So far as your advice is concerned, it cannot matter
to you what she was like. Briefly, she was charming.

I am naturally shy, and so had more difficulty in making her
acquaintance than many travellers would have had. It was at the baths of
Bormio that we came together. I had bribed a waiter to seat me next her
father at dinner; but, when the time came, I could say nothing to him,
so anxious was I to create a favorable impression. In the evening,
however, I found the family gathered round a pole, with skittles at the
foot of it. They were wondering how Italian skittles was played, and,
though I had no idea, I volunteered to teach them. Fortunately none of
them understood Italian, and consequently the expostulations of the boy
in charge were disregarded. It is not my intention to dwell upon the
never-to-be-forgotten days--ah, and still more the evenings--we spent
at the baths of Bormio. I had loved her as she crossed the plank; but
daily now had I more cause to love her, and it was at Bormio that she
learned--I say it with all humility--to love me. The seat in the garden
on which I proposed is doubtless still to be seen, with the chair near
it on which her papa was at that very moment sitting, with one of his
feet on a small table. During the three sunny days that followed, my
life was one delicious dream, with no sign that the awakening was at
hand.

So far I had not mentioned the incident at Franzenshohe to her. Perhaps
you will call my reticence contemptible; but the fact is, I feared to
fall in her esteem. I could not have spoken of the plank without
admitting that I was afraid to cross it; and then what would she, who
was a heroine, think of a man who was so little of a hero? Thus, though
I had told her many times that I fell in love with her at first sight,
she thought I referred to the time when she first saw me. She liked to
hear me say that I believed in no love but love at first sight; and,
looking back, I can recall saying it at least once on every seat in the
garden at the baths of Bormio.

Do you know Tirano, a hamlet in a nest of vines, where Italian soldiers
strut and women sleep in the sun beside baskets of fruit? How happily we
entered it; were we the same persons who left it within an hour? I was
now travelling with her party; and at Tirano, while the others rested,
she and I walked down a road between vines and Indian corn. Why I should
then have told her that I loved her for a whole day before she saw me
I cannot tell. It may have been something she said, perhaps only an
irresistible movement of her head; for her grace was ever taking me by
surprise, and she was a revelation a thousand times a day. But whatever
it was that made me speak out, I suddenly told her that I fell in love
with her as she stood upon the plank at Franzenshohe. I remember her
stopping short at a point where there had probably once been a gate to
the vineyard, and I thought she was angry with me for not having told
her of the Franzenshohe incident before. Soon the pallor of her face
alarmed me. She entreated me to say it was not at Franzenshohe that I
first loved her, and I fancied she was afraid lest her behavior on the
bridge had seemed a little bold. I told her it was divine, and pictured
the scene as only an anxious lover could do. Then she burst into tears,
and we went back silently to her relatives. She would not say a word
to me.



We drove to Sondrio, and before we reached it I dare say I was as pale
as she. A horrible thought had flashed upon me. At Sondrio I took her
papa aside, and, without telling him what had happened, questioned him
about his impressions of Franzenshohe. 'You remember the little bridge,'
he said, 'that we were all afraid to cross; by Jove! I have often
wondered who that girl was that ventured over it first.'

I hastened away from him to think. My fears had been confirmed. It was
not she who had first crossed the plank. Therefore it was not she with
whom I had fallen in love. Nothing could be plainer than that I was in
love with the wrong person. All the time I had loved another. But who
was she? Besides, did I love her? Certainly not. Yes, but why did I love
this one? The whole foundation of my love had been swept away. Yet the
love remained. Which is absurd.

At Colico I put the difficulty to her father; but he is stout, and did
not understand its magnitude. He said he could not see how it mattered.
As for her, I have never mentioned it to her again; but she is always
thinking of it, and so am I. A wall has risen up between us, and how to
get over it or whether I have any right to get over it, I know not. Will
you help me--and her?

Certainly not, I said.





Next: Primus

Previous: The Romance Of A Pipe-cleaner



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