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.

For my part I felt as if we had already arrived somewhere. I little knew what lay beyond. While I was plodding along in this blissfully ignorant state of mind, communing with a pipe, the path, which had frisked in and out for some time among the boulders, suddenly took it into its head to scale a cliff on the left. It did this, as it seemed to me, without provocation, after a certain reckless fashion of its own. The higher it climbed, the more foolhardy it got, till the down-look grew unpleasant. Then it took to coquetting with the gulf on its right until, as I knew would happen, it lost its head completely and fell over the edge. The gap had been spanned by a few loose boards. Over the makeshift we all, one after the other, gingerly crawled, each waiting his turn, with the abyss gaping on his side, for the one in front to move on.

We had not yet recovered from the shock when we came to another place not unlike the first. Here again the path had given way, and a couple of logs had been lashed across the inner elbow of the cliff. We crossed this by balancing ourselves for the first two steps by the stump of a bush that jutted out from a crevice in the rock; for the next two we touched the cliff with the tips of our fingers; for the last two we balanced ourselves alone.

For the time being the gods of high places had tempted us enough, for the path now descended again to the dry bed of the stream, and there for a certain distance tripped along in all soberness, giving me the chance to look about me. The precipitous sides of the mountains that shut in the narrow valley were heavily masked in forest; and for some time past, the ravines that scored their sides had been patched with snow. With each new mile of advance the patches grew larger and merged into one another, stretching toward the stream. We now began to meet snow on the path. In the mean time, from one cause and another, insensibly I fell behind. The others passed on out of sight.

The path, having lulled me into a confiding unconcern, started in seeming innocence of purpose to climb again. Its ingenuousness but prefaced a malicious surprise. For of a sudden, unmasking a corner, it presented itself in profile ahead, a narrow ledge notched in naked simplicity against the precipice. Things look better slightly veiled; besides, it is more decent, even in a path. In this case the shamelessness was earnest of the undoing. For on reaching the point in view and turning it I stood confronted by a sight sorry indeed. The path beyond had vanished. Far below, out of sight over the edge, lay the torrent; unscalable the cliff rose above; and a line of fossil footprints, leading across the face of the precipice in the debris, alone marked where the path had been. Spectres they seemed of their former selves. Crusoe could not have been more horrified than was I.

Not to have come suggested itself as the proper solution, unfortunately an impracticable one, and being there, to turn back was inadmissible. So I took myself in hand and started. For the first few steps I was far too much given up to considering possibilities. I thought how a single misstep would end. I could see my footing slip, feel the consciousness that I was gone, the dull thuds from point to point as what remained of me bounded beyond the visible edge down, down. . . And after that what! How long before the porters missed me and came back in search? Would there be any trace to tell what had befallen? And then Yejiro returning alone to Tokyo to report - lost on the Dragon peak! Each time I almost felt my foot give way as I put it down, right before left, left before right.

Then I realized that this inopportune flirting with fate must stop; that I must give over dallying with sensations, or it would soon be all over with me. I was falling a prey to the native Lorelei - for all these spots in Japan have their familiar devils - subjectively, as befits a modern man. I numbed sensibility as best I could and cared only to make each step secure. Between the Nirvana within and the Nirvana below, it was a sorry hell.

In mid-career the path made an attempt to recover, but relapsed to further footprints in the sand. At last it descended to a brook. I knelt to drink, and on getting up again saw my pocket-handkerchief whisking merrily away down stream. I gave chase, but in vain; for though it came to the surface once or twice to tantalize me it was gone before I could seize it. So I gave over the pursuit, reflecting that, after all, it might have fared worse with me. If the Lorelei had hoped to turn my head, I was well quit of my handkerchief for her only trophy.

Shortly after this, the main stream divided into two, and the left branch, which we followed, led up to a gorge, - beyond a doubt the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet. I do not remember a landscape more ghastly. Not a tree, not a blade of grass, not even decent earth in the whole prospect. Apparently, the place had been flayed alive and sulphur had then been poured into the sore. Thirty years before a cataclysm had occurred here. The side of one of the mountains had slid bodily into the valley. The debris, by damming up the stream, caused a freshet, which swept everything before it and killed quantities of folk lower down the valley. The place itself has never recovered to this day.

Although the stream here was a baby to the one below, it was large enough to be impassable to the natural man. From our woodcutter friends, however, we had learned of the leavings of a bridge, upon which in due time we came, and putting the parts of it in place, we passed successfully over.

We now began to enter the snow in good earnest, incipient glacier snow, treacherously honeycombed. It made, however, more agreeable walking than the boulders. The path had again become precipitous, and kept on mounting, till of a sudden it landed us upon an amphitheatral arena, dominated by high, jagged peaks. One unbroken stretch of snow covered the plateau, and at the centre of the wintry winding-sheet a cluster of weather-beaten huts appealed pitiably to the eye. They were the buildings of the Riuzanjita hot-springs; in summer a sort of secular monastery for pilgrims to the Dragon peak. They were tenanted now, we had been told, by a couple of watchmen. We struck out with freer strides, while the moon, which had by this time risen high enough to overtop the wall of peaks, watched us with an ashen face, as in single file we moved across the waste of level white.