XV. Toward the Pass.
I was waked by good news. The porters had, to a certain extent, come round. If we would halve their burdens by doubling their number, they would make an attempt on the pass, or, rather, they would go on as far as they could. This was a great advance. To be already moving implies a momentum of the mind which carries a man farther than he means. I acquiesced at once. The recruits consisted of the master of the house - his father, the officiator at family prayers, had retired from the cares of this world - and a peasant of the neighborhood. The charcoal burners were too busy with their own affairs. From the sill, as I put on my boots, I watched with complacence the cording of the loads, and then, with quite a lightsome gait, followed the lengthened file out into the street. One after the other we tramped forth past the few houses of the place, whose people watched us go, with the buoyant tread of those about to do great things, and so out into the open.
The path appeared very well. It trotted soberly along across a mountain moor until it came out above the river. It then wound up stream, clinging to the slope several hundred feet above the valley bottom. It was precipitous in places, but within reason, and I was just coming to consider the accounts exaggerated when it descended to the river bed at a point where a butt of neve stuck a foot into the shingle. The stream, which had looked a thread from above, turned out a torrent when we stood upon its brink. The valley was nothing but river bed, a mass of boulders of all sizes, through the midst of which the stream plunged with deafening roar, and so deep that fording was out of the question. A man's life would not have been worth a rush in it.
We followed up the boulder bank in search of a more propitious spot. Then we followed down again. Each place promised at a distance, and baulked hope at hand. At last, in despair, we came to a halt opposite the widest and shallowest part, and after no end of urging, one of the porters stripped, and, armed with his pole, ventured in. The channel lay well over to the farther side; thrice he got to its nearer edge and thrice he turned back, as the rush of water became too great. His life was worth too much to him, he said, not unnaturally, for him to throw it away. Yet cross the stream we must, or return ignominiously; for the path we had so far followed had fallen over the cliff in front.
We improved the moments of reflection to have lunch. While we were still discussing viae and viands, and had nearly come to the end of both, we suddenly spied a string of men defiling slowly down through the wide boulder desert on the other side. We all rose and hailed them. They were so far away that at first they failed to hear us, and even when they heard they stared vacantly about them like men who hear they know not what. When at last they caught sight of us, we beckoned excitedly. They consulted, apparently, and then one of them came down to the edge of the stream. The torrent made so much noise that our men could make themselves intelligible only in part, and that by bawling at the top of their lungs. Through the envoy, they invited the band to string themselves across the stream and so pass our things over. The man shook his head. We rose to fabulous sums and still he repeated his pantomime. It then occurred to Yejiro that a certain place lower down might possibly be bridged, and beckoning to the man to follow, he led the way to the spot in mind. A boulder, two-thirds way in stream, seemed to offer a pier. He tried to shout his idea, but the roar of the torrent, narrow though it was, drowned his voice; so, writing on a piece of paper: "What will you take to build us a bridge?" he wrapped the paper round a stone and flung it over. After reading this missive, the spokesman held a consultation with his friends and a bargain was struck. For the huge sum of two yen (a dollar and a half), they agreed to build us a bridge, and at once set off up the mountain side for a tree.
The men, it seemed, were a band of wood-cutters who had wintered, as was their custom, in a hut at Kurobe, which was this side of the Harinoki toge, and were just come out from their hibernation. They were now on their way to Ashikura, where they belonged, to report to their headman, obtain supplies and start to return on the after-morrow. It was a two-days' journey either out or in.
Bridges, therefore, came of their trade. The distance across the boulder bed was considerable, and as they toiled slowly up the face of the opposite mountain, they looked like so many ants. Picking out a trunk, they began to drag it down. By degrees they got it to the river bed, and thence eventually to the edge of the stream. To lay it was quite a feat of engineering. With some pieces of drift-wood which they found lying about, they threw a span to the big boulder, and from the boulder managed to get the trunk across. Then, with rope which they carried at their girdles, they lashed the whole together until they had patched up a very workmanlike affair. We trod across in triumph. With praiseworthy care lest it should be swept away they then took the thing all down again.
Such valuable people were not idly to be parted with. Here was a rare chance to get guides. When, however, we approached them on the point, they all proved so conscientious about going home first, that the attempt failed. But they gave us some important information on the state of the streams ahead and the means of crossing them, and we separated with much mutual good-will.