James De Mille.

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THE AMERICAN BARON.

A Novel.

by

JAMES DE MILLE,

Author of
"The Dodge Club," "The Cryptogram," "Cord and Creese," &c.

With Illustrations.







[Illustration:
"AND AS THEY STOOD THE CLERGYMEN SLOWLY CAME OUT OF THE HOUSE"
- (SEE PAGE 132.)]



NEW YORK: HARPER & BROTHERS, PUBLISHERS,
FRANKLIN SQUARE.
1872.


* * * * *


By PROF. JAMES DE MILLE.

_THE DODGE CLUB_; or, Italy in 1859. Illustrated. 8vo,
Paper, 75 cents; Cloth, $1.25.

_CORD AND CREESE_. A Novel. Illustrated. 8vo, Paper, 75
cents; Cloth, $1.25.

_THE CRYPTOGRAM_. A Novel. Illustrated. 8vo, Paper, $1.50;
Cloth, $2.00.

_THE AMERICAN BARON_. A Novel. Illustrated. 8vo, Paper.

Published by HARPER & BROTHERS, New York.

_Sent by mail, postage prepaid, to any part of the United States, on
receipt of the price._

* * * * *

Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1871, by
HARPER & BROTHERS,
In the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.




THE AMERICAN BARON.




[Illustration: "PARDON, MEES."]




CHAPTER I.

THE AVALANCHE.


Somewhat less than a hundred years ago a party of travelers might have
been seen crossing over the Simplon Road, _en route_ for Italy. They
had been detained at Brieg by reports that the road was impassable;
and, as it was the month of March, the prospect of snow and storms and
avalanches was sufficient to make them hesitate. At length the road
had been reopened, and they were informed that the journey might be
made on sleds.

Unwilling to wait at Brieg, and equally unwilling to make a detour so
as to take the railroad, the party decided to go on. They were
informed that they could go on wheels as far as the line of snow, but
that afterward their accommodations would not be so comfortable as
they might desire. The road had been cleared for only a few feet; the
snow was deep; the sleds were rude; and progress would be slow. These
statements, however, did not shake the resolution of the party;
and the end of it was that they determined to go on, and cross the
mountain if it were possible.

On leaving Brieg the road began to ascend with a very slight incline,
winding around in an intricate sort of way, sometimes crossing deep
gullies, at other times piercing the hillside in long dark tunnels;
but amidst all these windings ever ascending, so that every step took
them higher and higher above the little valley where Brieg lay. The
party saw also that every step brought them steadily nearer to the
line of snow; and at length they found the road covered with a thin
white layer. Over this they rolled, and though the snow became deeper
with every furlong of their progress, yet they encountered but little
actual difficulty until they approached the first station where the
horses were to be changed. Here they came to a deep drift. Through
this a pathway had been cleared, so that there was no difficulty about
going through; but the sight of this served to show them what might be
expected further on, and to fill them all with grave doubts as to the
practicability of a journey which was thus interrupted so early.

On reaching the station these doubts were confirmed. They were
informed that the road had been cleared for sleds on the preceding
day, but that on the previous night fresh snow had fallen, and in such
quantities that the road would have to be cleared afresh. The worst of
it was that there was every probability of new snow-storms, which
would cover the road still deeper, and once more obliterate the track.
This led to a fresh debate about the journey; but they were all
unwilling to turn back. Only a few miles separated them from Domo
d'Ossola, and they were assured that, if no fresh snow should fall,
they would be able to start on the following morning. This last
assurance once more confirmed their wavering resolution, and they
concluded to wait at the station.

For the remainder of that day they waited at the little way-side inn,
amusing themselves with looking out upon their surroundings. They were
environed by a scene of universal white. Above them towered vast
Alpine summits, where the wild wind blew, sweeping the snow-wreaths
into the air. In front was a deep ravine, at the bottom of which there
ran a torrent that foamed and tossed over rocks and boulders. It was
not possible to take a walk to any distance. Their boots were made for
lighter purposes than plunging through snow-drifts; and so they were
forced to remain indoors, and pass the time as best they could.

On the following morning they found every thing in readiness for a
start. In front of the inn they saw five sleds of that kind which is
universally used in the northern part of America. Each sled was of the
rudest possible construction, and was drawn by one horse; straw was
spread over the sled, upon which fur robes and blankets were flung.
The party was distributed among these sleds, so that each one should
have as light a load as possible, while one of the rude vehicles
carried the luggage.

Thus arranged, they all started off. And now, since they are all
fairly under way, I propose to introduce them, individually and
collectively, to my very good friend the reader.

First of all I must mention the fact that the party consisted chiefly
of ladies and their attendants.

Of these the most prominent was a slim, tall, elderly lady, with
large, dark, soft eyes, that spoke of a vanished youth and beauty from
her heavily wrinkled face. She was the Dowager Lady Dalrymple, and
acted toward the rest of the party in the multifarious capacity of
chaperon, general, courier, guide, philosopher, friend, and Mentor.

Next came Mrs. Willoughby, a widow of great beauty and fascination, a
brunette, good-natured, clever, and shrewd. I might here pause, and go
into no end of raptures on the various qualities of this lady's
character; but, on the whole, I think I'd better not, as they will be
sufficiently apparent before the end of this story is reached.

Then there was Miss Minnie Fay, sister to Mrs. Willoughby, and utterly
unlike her in every respect. Minnie was a blonde, with blue eyes,
golden hair cut short and clustering about her little head, little bit
of a mouth, with very red, plump lips, and very white teeth. Minnie
was very small, and very elegant in shape, in gesture, in dress, in
every attitude and every movement. The most striking thing about her,
however, was the expression of her eyes and her face. There was about
her brow the glory of perfect innocence. Her eyes had a glance of
unfathomable melancholy, mingled with childlike trust in the
particular person upon whom her gaze was fastened. Minnie was
considered by all her friends as a child - was treated as a
child - humored, petted, coaxed, indulged, and talked to as a child.
Minnie, on her part, thought, spoke, lived, moved, and acted as a
child. She fretted, she teased, she pouted, she cried, she did every
thing as a child does; and thus carried up to the age of eighteen the
bloom and charm of eight.

The two sisters were nieces of the Dowager Lady Dalrymple. Another
niece also accompanied them, who was a cousin of the two sisters. This
was Miss Ethel Orne, a young lady who had flourished through a London
season, and had refused any number of brilliant offers. She was a
brunette, with most wonderful dark eyes, figure of perfect grace, and
an expression of grave self-poise that awed the butterflies of
fashion, but offered an irresistible attraction to people of sense,
intellect, intelligence, esprit, and all that sort of thing - like you
and me, my boy.

I am taking up too much time and anticipating somewhat, I fear, by
these descriptions; so let us drop Miss Ethel.

These ladies being thus all related formed a family party, and had
made the journey thus far on the best of terms, without any other
escort than that which was afforded by their chaperon, general,
courier, guide, philosopher, friend, and Mentor - the Dowager Lady
Dalrymple.

The party was enlarged by the presence of four maids and a foreign
gentleman. This last-mentioned personage was small in stature, with a
very handsome face and very brilliant eyes. His frame, though slight,
was sinewy and well knit, and he looked like an Italian. He had come
on alone, and had passed the night at the station-house.

A track about six feet wide had been cut out through the snow, and
over this they passed. The snow was soft, and the horses sank deep, so
that progress was slow. Nor was the journey without the excitement of
apparent danger. At times before them and behind them there would come
a low, rumbling sound, and they would see a mass of snow and ice
rushing down some neighboring slope. Some of these fell on the road,
and more than once they had to quit their sleds and wait for the
drivers to get them over the heaps that had been formed across their
path. Fortunately, however, none of these came near them; and Minnie
Fay, who at first had screamed at intervals of about five minutes,
gradually gained confidence, and at length changed her mood so
completely that she laughed and clapped her little hands whenever she
saw the rush of snow and ice. Thus slowly, yet in safety, they pushed
onward, and at length reached the little village of Simplon. Here they
waited an hour to warm themselves, lunch, and change horses. At the
end of that time they set out afresh, and once more they were on their
winding way.

They had now the gratification of finding that they were descending
the slope, and of knowing that this descent took them every minute
further from the regions of snow, and nearer to the sunny plains of
Italy. Minnie in particular gave utterance to her delight: and now,
having lost every particle of fear, she begged to be allowed to drive
in the foremost sled. Ethel had been in it thus far, but she willingly
changed places with Minnie, and thus the descent was made.

The sleds and their occupants were now arranged in the following
order:

First, Minnie Fay alone with the driver.

Second, Mrs. Willoughby and Ethel.

Third, the Dowager and her maid.

Fourth, the three other maids.

Fifth, the luggage.

After these five sleds, containing our party, came another with the
foreign gentleman.

Each of these sleds had a driver to itself.

In this order the party went, until at length they came to the Gorge
of Gondo. This is a narrow valley, the sides of which rise up very
abruptly, and in some places precipitously, to a great height. At the
bottom flows a furious torrent, which boils and foams and roars as it
forces its impetuous way onward over fallen masses of rock and trees
and boulders, at one time gathering into still pools, at other times
roaring into cataracts. Their road had been cut out on the side of the
mountain, and the path had been cleared away here many feet above the
buried road; and as they wound along the slope they could look up at
the stupendous heights above them, and down at the abyss beneath them,
whose white snow-covering was marked at the bottom by the black line
of the roaring torrent. The smooth slope of snow ran down as far as
the eye could reach at a steep angle, filling up all crevices, with
here and there a projecting rock or a dark clump of trees to break its
surface.

The road was far beneath them. The drivers had informed them that it
was forty feet deep at the top of the pass, and that its depth here
was over thirty. Long poles which were inserted in the snow projected
above its surface, and served to mark where the road ran.

Here, then, they drove along, feeling wearied with the length of the
way, impatient at the slowness of their progress, and eager to reach
their journey's end. But little was said. All had talked till all were
tired out. Even Minnie Fay, who at first had evinced great enthusiasm
on finding herself leading the way, and had kept turning back
constantly to address remarks to her friends, had at length subsided,
and had rolled herself up more closely in her furs, and heaped the
straw higher about her little feet.

Suddenly, before them, and above them, and behind them, and all around
them, there arose a deep, low, dull, rushing sound, which seemed as if
all the snow on the slope was moving. Their ears had by this time
become sufficiently well acquainted with the peculiar sound of the
rushing snow-masses to know that this was the noise that heralded
their progress, and to feel sure that this was an avalanche of no
common size. Yes, this was an avalanche, and every one heard it; but
no one could tell where it was moving, or whether it was near or far,
or whether it was before or behind. They only knew that it was
somewhere along the slope which they were traversing.

A warning cry came from the foremost driver. He looked back, and his
face was as pale as death. He waved his hands above him, and then
shouting for the others to follow, he whipped up his horse furiously.
The animal plunged into the snow, and tossed and floundered and made a
rush onward.

But the other drivers held back, and, instead of following, shouted to
the first driver to stop, and cried to the passengers to hold on. Not
a cry of fear escaped from any one of the ladies. All did as they were
directed, and grasped the stakes of their sleds, looking up at the
slope with white lips, and expectation of horror in their eyes,
watching for the avalanche.

And down it came, a vast mass of snow and ice - down it came,
irresistibly, tremendously, with a force that nothing could withstand.
All eyes watched its progress in the silence of utter and helpless
terror. It came. It struck. All the sleds in the rear escaped, but
Minnie's sled lay in the course of the falling mass. The driver had
madly rushed into the very midst of the danger which he sought to
avoid. A scream from Minnie and a cry of despair from the driver burst
upon the ears of the horrified listeners, and the sled that bore them,
buried in the snow, went over the edge of the slope, and downward to
the abyss.




CHAPTER II.

THE PERILOUS DESCENT.


The shriek of Minnie and the driver's cry of despair were both stopped
abruptly by the rush of snow, and were smothered in the heap under
which they were buried. The whole party stood paralyzed, gazing
stupidly downward where the avalanche was hurrying on to the abyss,
bearing with it the ill-fated Minnie. The descent was a slope of
smooth snow, which went down at an angle of forty-five degrees for at
least a thousand feet. At that point there seemed to be a precipice.
As their aching eyes watched the falling mass they saw it approach
this place, and then as it came near the whole avalanche seemed to
divide as though it had been severed by some projecting rock. It
divided thus, and went to ruin; while in the midst of the ruin they
saw the sled, looking like a helpless boat in the midst of foaming
breakers. So, like such a helpless boat, it was dashed forward, and
shot out of sight over the precipice.

Whither had it gone? Into what abyss had it fallen? What lay beneath
that point over which it had been thrown? Was it the fierce torrent
that rolled there, or were there black rocks and sharp crags lying at
the foot of the awful precipice? Such were the questions which flashed
through every mind, and deepened the universal horror into universal
despair.

In the midst of this general dismay Ethel was the first to speak and
to act. She started to her feet, and looking back, called in a loud
voice:

"Go down after her! A thousand pounds to the man who saves her!
Quick!"

At this the drivers came forward. None of them could understand
English, and so had not comprehended her offer; but they saw by her
gestures what she wanted. They, however, did not seem inclined to act.
They pointed down, and pointed up, and shook their heads, and jabbered
some strange, unintelligible patois.

"Cowards!" cried Ethel, "to leave a young girl to die. I will go down
myself."

And then, just as she was, she stepped from the sled, and paused for a
moment, looking down the slope as though selecting a place. Lady
Dalrymple and Mrs. Willoughby screamed to her to come back, and the
drivers surrounded her with wild gesticulations. To all this she paid
no attention whatever, and would certainly have gone down in another
moment had not a hand been laid on her arm, and a voice close by her
said, with a strong foreign accent,

"Mees!"

She turned at once.

It was the foreign gentleman who had been driving behind the party. He
had come up and had just reached the place. He now stood before her
with his hat in one hand and the other hand on his heart.

"Pardon, mees," he said, with a bow. "Eet is too periloss. I sall go
down eef you 'low me to mak ze attemp."

"Oh, monsieur," cried Ethel, "save her if you can!"

"Do not fear. Be calm. I sall go down. Nevare mine."

The stranger now turned to the drivers, and spoke to them in their own
language. They all obeyed at once. He was giving them explicit
directions in a way that showed a perfect command of the situation. It
now appeared that each sled had a coil of rope, which was evidently
supplied from an apprehension of some such accident as this. Hastily
yet dextrously the foreign gentleman took one of these coils, and then
binding a blanket around his waist, he passed the rope around this, so
that it would press against the blanket without cutting him. Having
secured this tightly, he gave some further directions to the drivers,
and then prepared to go down.

Hitherto the drivers had acted in sullen submission rather than with
ready acquiescence. They were evidently afraid of another avalanche;
and the frequent glances which they threw at the slope above them
plainly showed that they expected this snow to follow the example of
the other. In spite of themselves an expression of this fear escaped
them, and came to the ears of the foreign gentleman. He turned at once
on the brink of the descent, and burst into a torrent of invective
against them. The ladies could not understand him, but they could
perceive that he was uttering threats, and that the men quailed before
him. He did not waste any time, however. After reducing the men to a
state of sulky submission, he turned once more and began the descent.

As he went down the rope was held by the men, who allowed it to pass
through their hands so as to steady his descent. The task before the
adventurer was one of no common difficulty. The snow was soft, and at
every step he sank in at least to his knees. Frequently he came to
treacherous places, where he sank down above his waist, and was only
able to scramble out with difficulty. But the rope sustained him; and
as his progress was downward, he succeeded in moving with some
rapidity toward his destination. The ladies on the height above sat in
perfect silence, watching the progress of the man who was thus
descending with his life in his hand to seek and to save their lost
companion, and in the intensity of their anxiety forgot utterly about
any danger to themselves, though from time to time there arose the
well-known sound of sliding masses, not so far away but that under
other circumstances of less anxiety it might have filled them with
alarm. But now there was no alarm for themselves.

And now the stranger was far down, and the coil of rope was well-nigh
exhausted. But this had been prepared for, and the drivers fastened
this rope to another coil, and after a time began to let out that one
also.

Farther and farther down the descent went on. They saw the stranger
pursuing his way still with unfaltering resolution; and they sent
after him all their hearts and all their prayers. At last he plunged
down almost out of sight, but the next moment he emerged, and then,
after a few leaps, they saw that he had gained the place where lay the
ruins of the shattered avalanche. Over this he walked, sometimes
sinking, at other times running and leaping, until at length he came
to the precipice over which the sled had been flung.

And now the suspense of the ladies became terrible. This was the
critical moment. Already his eyes could look down upon the mystery
that lay beneath that precipice. And what lay revealed there? Did his
eyes encounter a spectacle of horror? Did they gaze down into the
inaccessible depths of some hideous abyss? Did they see those jagged
rocks, those sharp crags, those giant boulders, those roaring billows,
which, in their imaginations, had drawn down their lost companion to
destruction? Such conjectures were too terrible. Their breath failed
them, and their hearts for a time almost ceased to beat as they sat
there, overcome by such dread thoughts as these.

Suddenly a cry of delight escaped Ethel. She was kneeling down beside
Lady Dalrymple and Mrs. Willoughby, with her eyes staring from her
pallid face, when she saw the stranger turn and look up. He took off
his hat, and waved it two or three times. Then he beckoned to the
drivers. Then he sat down and prepared to let himself over the
precipice. This incident inspired hope. It did more. It gave a
moment's confidence, and the certainty that all was not lost. They
looked at each other, and wept tears of joy. But soon that momentary
hope vanished, and uncertainty returned. After all, what did the
stranger's gesture mean? He might have seen her - but how? He might
reach her, but would she be safe from harm? Could such a thing be
hoped for? Would she not, rather, be all marred and mutilated? Dared
they hope for any thing better? They dared not. And now they sat once
more, as sad as before, and their short-lived gleam of hope faded
away.

They saw the stranger go over the precipice.

Then he disappeared.

The rope was let out for a little distance, and then stopped. Then
more went out. Then it stopped again.

The rope now lay quite loose. There was no tension.

What was the meaning of this? Was he clinging to the side of the
precipice? Impossible. It looked rather as though he had reached some
place where he was free to move, and had no further need of descent.
And it seemed as though the precipice might not be so deep or so
fearful as they had supposed.

In a short time their eyes were greeted by the appearance of the
stranger above the precipice. He waved his hat again. Then he made
some gestures, and detached the rope from his person. The drivers
understood him as if this had been preconcerted. Two of them instantly
unharnessed the horse from one of the sleds, while the others pulled
up the rope which the stranger had cast off. Then the latter
disappeared once more behind the precipice. The ladies watched now in
deep suspense; inclining to hope, yet dreading the worst. They saw the
drivers fasten the rope to the sled, and let it down the slope. It was
light, and the runners were wide. It did not sink much, but slid down
quite rapidly. Once or twice it stuck, but by jerking it back it was
detached, and went on as before. At last it reached the precipice at a
point not more than a hundred feet from where the stranger had last
appeared.

And now as they sat there, reduced once more to the uttermost
extremity of suspense, they saw a sight which sent a thrill of rapture
through their aching hearts. They saw the stranger come slowly above
the precipice, and then stop, and stoop, and look back. Then they
saw - oh, Heavens! who was that? Was not that her red hood - and that
figure who thus slowly emerged from behind the edge of the precipice
which had so long concealed her - that figure! Was it possible? Not
dead - not mangled, but living, moving, and, yes - wonder of
wonders - scaling a precipice! Could it be! Oh joy! Oh bliss! Oh
revulsion from despair! The ladies trembled and shivered, and laughed
and sobbed convulsively, and wept in one another's arms by turns.



Online LibraryJames De MilleThe American Baron → online text (page 1 of 24)