XVII. Over the Snow.

When Yejiro pushed the shoji and the amado (night shutters) apart in the morning, he disclosed a bank of snow four feet deep; not a snowfall over night, but the relic of the winter. I found myself in a snow grotto beyond which nothing was visible. He then imparted to me the cheerful news that the watchman had changed his mind, and now refused to set out with us. It was too late in the day to start, the man said, which, in view of his having informed us only the night before that the snow would not be fit to travel on till this very hour, was scarcely logical. The trouble lay not in the way, but in the will. The man had repented him of his promise. Things look differently as certainties in the morning from what they do as possibilities overnight. Fortunately he proved amenable to importunity, and finally consented to go. His fellow was much worried, and followed him distressfully to the outer threshold; whence in perturbation of spirit he watched us depart, calling out pathetically to his mate to be very careful of himself. His almost motherly solicitude seemed to me more comical at the time than it came to seem later.

The sky was without a fleck of cloud, and, as we struck out across the snow, I feared at first for my eyes, so great was the glare. For I had neither goggles nor veil. In fact, we were as unprepared a troop as ever started on such an expedition. We had not a pair of foot spikes nor a spiked pole to the lot of us.

The jagged peaks of the valley's wall notched the sky in vivid relief, their sharp teeth biting the blue. We below were blinking. Luckily before very long we had crossed the level and were attacking the wall, and once on it the glare lessened, for we were facing the south, and the slant of the slope took off from the directness of the sun's rays. The higher we rose, the greater the tilt became. The face of the slope was completely buried in snow except where the aretes stuck through, for the face was well wrinkled. The angle soon grew unpleasant to visage, and certainly looked to have exceeded the limit of stable equilibrium. In mid-ascent, as we were winding cautiously up, a porter slipped. He stopped himself, however, and was helped on to his feet again by his fellow behind. The bad bit was preface to a worse effect round the corner, for on turning the arete, we came upon a snow slope like a gigantic house-roof. It was as steep as you please, and disappeared a few hundred feet below over the edge into the abyss. Across and up this the guide, after looking about him, struck out, and I followed. The snow was in a plastic state, and at each step I kicked my toes well in, so wedging my footing. The view down was very unnerving. It soon grew so bad I fixed my thought solely on making each step secure, and went slowly, which was much against my inclination. In this manner we tacked gradually upward in zigzags, some forty feet apart, each of us improving the footprints of his predecessor.

After a short eternity, we came out at the top. I threw myself upon the snow, and when I had sufficiently recovered my breath asked the guide, with what I meant for sarcasm, whether that was his idea of "a good road." He owned that it was the worst bit on the way, but he somewhat grudgingly conceded it a "gake." I sat corrected, but in the interest of any future wanderer I submit the following definition of a "gake," which, if not strictly accurate, at least leans to the right side. If the cliff overhang, it is a "gake;" but if a plumb line from the top fall anywhere within the base, it is no longer a "gake," but "a good road."

On the other side the slope was more hospitable. Even trees wintered just below the crest, their great gaunt trunks thrust deep into the snow. We glissaded down the first few hundred feet, till we brought up standing at the head of an incipient gorge, likewise smothered in snow. Round the boles of the trees the snow had begun to thaw, which gave me a chance to measure its depth, by leaning over the rim of the cup and thrusting my pole down as far as I could reach. The point of it must have been over seven feet from the surface, and it touched no bottom. My investigations took time enough to put a bend of the hollow between me and the others, and when at last I looked up they were nowhere to be seen. As I trudged after them alone I felt like that coming historical character, the last man on our then frozen earth.

For some minutes past a strange, far-away musical note, like the murmur of running water, had struck my ear, and yet all about everything looked dead. Of animate or even inanimate pulsation there was no sign. One unbroken sheet of snow stretched as far as I could see, in which stood the great trees like mummies. Still the sound continued, seeming to come from under my feet. I stopped, and, kneeling down, put my ear to the crust, and there, as distinct as possible, I heard the wimpling of a baby brook, crooning to itself under its thick white blanket. Here then was the cradle of one of those streams that later would become such an ugly customer to meet. It was babily innocent now, and the one living thing beside myself on this May day in the great snow-sheeted solitude.

Perhaps it was the brook that had undermined the snow. At all events, soon after I overtook the others, the guide, fearing to trust to it farther, suddenly struck up again to the left. We all followed, remonstrating. We had no sooner got up than we went down again the other side, and this picket-fence style of progress continued till we emerged upon the top of a certain spur, which commanded a fine view of gorges. Unfortunately we ourselves were on top of some of them. The guide reconnoitered both sides for a descent, pushing his way through a thick growth of dwarf bamboo, and brought up each time on the edge of an impassable fall to the stream below. At last he took to the arete. It was masked by trees for some distance, and then came out as a bare knife edge of rock and earth. Down it we scrambled, till the slope to the side became passable. This was now much less steep, although still steep enough for the guide to make me halt behind a tree, for fear of the stones dislodged by those behind. These came down past us like cannon-balls, ricochetting by big bounds.

At the bottom we reached the stream, and beside it we halted for lunch. Just below our resting place another stream joined our own, both coming down forbidding-looking valleys, shut in by savage peaks. On the delta, between the waters, we made out a band of hunters, three of them, tarrying after an unsuccessful chase. This last was a general inference, rather than an observed fact.

The spot was ideal for picturesque purposes, - the water clear as crystal, and the sunshine sparkling. But otherwise matters went ill with us. Our extempore guide had promised us, over his own fire the evening before, a single day of it to Arimine. On the road his estimate of the time needed had increased alarmingly. From direct questioning it now appeared that he intended to camp out on the mountain opposite, whose snowy slopes were painfully prophetic of what that night would be. Besides, this meant another day of it to Arimine; and even when we reached Arimine, we were nowhere, and I was scant of time. We had already lost three days; if we kept on, I foresaw the loss of more. It was very disheartening to turn back, but it had to be done.

Our object now was to strike the Ashikura trail and follow it down. The guide, however, was not sure of the path, so we hailed the hunters. One of them came across the delta to the edge of the stream within shouting distance, and from him we obtained knowledge of the way.

At first the path was unadventurous enough, though distressingly rough. In truth, it was no path at all; it was an abstract direction. It led straight on, regardless of footing, and we followed, now wading through swamps, now stumbling over roots, now ducking from whip-like twigs that cut us across the face, until at last we emerged above the stream, and upon a scene as grandly desolate as the most morbid misanthrope might wish. A mass of boulders of all sizes, from a barn to a cobblestone, completely filled a chasm at the base of a semicircular wall of castellated clay cliffs. Into the pit we descended. The pinnacles above were impressively high, and between them were couloirs of debris that looked to us to be as perpendicular as the cliffs. Up one of these breakneck slides the guide pointed for our path. Porters and all, we demurred. Path, of course, there was none; there was not even an apology for a suspicion that any one had ever been up or down the place. We felt sure there must be some other way out. The more we searched, however, the less we found. The stream, which was an impassable torrent, barred exit below on our side by running straight into the wall of rock. The slide was an ugly climb to contemplate, yet we looked at it some time before we accepted the inevitable.

When in desperation we finally made up our minds, we began picking our dubious way up among a mass of rocks that threatened to become a stone avalanche at any moment. None of us liked it, but none of us knew how little the others liked it till that evening. In the expansion of success we admitted our past feelings. One poor porter said he thought his last hour had come, and most of us believed a near future without us not improbable. It shows how danger unlocks the heart that just because, halfway up, I had relieved this man of his stick, which from a help had become a hindrance, he felt toward me an exaggerated gratitude. It was nothing for me to do, for I was free, while he had his load, but had I really saved his life he could not have been more beholden. Indeed, it was a time to intensify emotion.

As we scrambled upward on all fours, the ascent, from familiarity, grew less formidable. At least the stones decreased in size, although their tilt remained the same, but the angle looked less steep from above than from below.

At last, one after the other, we reached a place to the side of the neck of the couloir, and scrambling round the coping of turf at the top emerged, to our surprise, upon a path, or rather upon the ghost of one. For we found ourselves upon a narrow ridge of soil between two chasms, ending in a pinnacle of clay, and along this ribbon of land ran a path, perfectly preserved for perhaps a score of paces out, when it broke off bodily in mid-air. The untoward look of the way we had come stood explained. Here clearly had been a cataclysm within itinerary times. Some gigantic landslide must have sliced the mountain off into the gorge below, and instead of a path we had been following its still unlaid phantom. The new-born character of the chasm explained its shocking nakedness. But it was an uncomfortable sight to see a path in all its entirety vanish suddenly into the void.

The uncut end of the former trail led back to a little tableland supporting a patch of tilling and tenanted by an uninhabited hut. The Willow Moor they called it, though it seemed hardly big enough to bear a name. On reconnoitring for the descent, we found the farther side fallen away like the first; so that the plateau was now cut off from all decent approach. One of us, at last, struck the butt end of a path; but we had not gone far down it before it broke off, and delivered us to the gullies. This side, however, was much better than the other, and it took none of us very long to slip down the slope, repair the bridge, and join the Ashikura trail.

We were now once more on the path we had come up, with the certainty of bad places instead of their uncertainty ahead of us, a doubtful betterment. The Oni ga Jo lay in wait round the corner, and the rest of the familiar devils would all appear in due course of time.

Tied over my boots were the straw sandals of the country. They were not made to be worn thus, and showed great uneasiness in their new position, do what we might with the thongs. Everybody tried his hand at it, first and last; but the fidgety things always ended by coming off at the toe or the heel, or sluing round to the side till they were worse than useless. They were supposed to prevent one from slipping, which no doubt they would have done had they not begun by slipping off themselves. They wore themselves out by their nervousness, and had to be renewed every little while from the stock the porters carried. In honor of the Oni ga Jo I had a fresh pair put on beside the brook sacred to the memory of my pocket-handkerchief. We then rose to the Devil Place, and threaded it in single file. Whether it were the companionship, or familiarity, or simply that my right side instead of my left next the cliff gave greater seeming security, I got over it a shade more comfortably this time, though it was still far from my ideal of an afternoon's walk. The road to the next world branched off too disturbingly to the left.

At last the path descended to the river bottom for good. I sat down on a stone, pulled out my tobacco pouch, and lit a pipe. The porters passed on out of sight. Then I trudged along myself. The tension of the last two days had suddenly ceased, and in the expansion of spirit that ensued I was conscious of a void. I wanted some one with me then, perhaps, more than I ever craved companionship before. The great gorge about me lay filled to the brim with purple shadow. I drank in the cool shade-scented air at every breath. The forest-covered mountain sides, patched higher up with snow in the gullies, shut out the world. Only a gilded bit here and there on some lofty spur lingered to hint a sun beyond. The strip of pale blue sky far overhead bowed to meet the vista of the valley behind, a vista of peaks more and more snow-clad, till the view was blocked at last by a white, nun-veiled summit, flushed now, in the late afternoon light, to a tender rose. Past strain had left the spirit, as past fatigue leaves the body, exquisitely conscious; and my fancy came and walked with me there in that lonely valley, as it gave itself silently into the arms of night.

Probably none I know will ever tread where I was treading then, nor I ever be again in that strange wild cleft, so far out of the world; and yet, if years hence I should chance to wander there alone once more, I know the ghost of that romance will rise to meet me as I pass.

I own I made no haste to overtake the caravan.

Darkness fell upon us while we were yet a long way from Ashikura, with an uncertain cliff path between us and it: for the path, like a true mountain trail, had the passion for climbing developed into a mania, and could never rest content with the river's bed whenever it spied a chance to rise. It had just managed an ascent up a zigzag stairway of its own invention, and had stepped out in the dark upon a patch of tall mountain grass, as dry as straw, when Yejiro conceived the brilliant idea of torches. He had learned the trick in the Hakone hills, where it was the habit, he told the guide, when caught out at night; and he proceeded to roll some of the grass into long wisps for the purpose. The torches were remarkably picturesque, and did us service beside. Their ruddy flare, bowing to the breeze, but only burning the more madly for its thwarting, lighted the path like noonday through a circle of fifteen feet, and dropped brands, still flaring, into the stubble, which we felt it a case of conscience to stop and stamp out. The circle, small as it was, sufficed to disclose a yawning gulf on the side, to which the path clung with the persistency of infatuation.

The first thing to tell us of approach to human habitation was the croaking of the frogs. After the wildness of our day it sounded like some lullaby of Mother Earth, speaking of hearth and home, and we knew that we were come back to ricefields and man. It was another half hour, however, before our procession reached the outskirts of the village. Here we threw aside our torches, and in a weary, drawn-out file found our way, one by one, into the courtyard of the inn. It was not an inn the year round; it became such only at certain seasons, of which the present was not one. It had the habit of putting up pilgrims on their way to the Dragon Peak; between the times of its pious offices it relapsed into a simple farmhouse. But the owner received us none the less kindly for our inopportune appearance, and hasted to bring the water-tubs for our feet. Never was I more willing to sit on the sill a moment and dabble my toes; for I was footsore and weary, and glad to be on man's level again. I promise you, we were all very human that evening, and felt a deal aloud.