Authors: Susan Barrie
Toni Darcy was stranded, penniless and alone, when Kurt Antoine offered her a job in his new hotel in the Austrian Tyrol.
It seemed at first the answer to her problems—until she
that she has incurred the
s beautiful manageress.
THE man on the ledge above the little green plateau could see the girl plainly, and he knew she was afraid to move either backwards or forwards. She was afraid to go on climbing, and she was terrified to go down by the way she had come.
She was a slender girl in shorts—his lip curled as he reflected how addicted the English were to the wrong type of clothing for the region they were in—and her legs looked very long and slim, and were tanned to the pale hue of honey. Her hair was a soft brown cap that had intrigued him when he saw her for the first time two nights ago, in the lounge of the mountain hotel where she and her employer were staying.
It was absolutely straight hair, and he supposed it was really mouse-coloured, but she had cut it in a short, straight fringe that drew attention to her large uneasy eyes. He began to wonder whether they were always uneasy... always apprehensive, as if she was always fearing the worst; and fearing the worst had become a kind of obsession with her.
Of course, with an employer like hers it was not, perhaps, so surprising. The woman was a harridan, a kind of human harpy, and the girl was having her spirit slowly drained away from her. Apart from that she had a pretty, drooping mouth and a flower-like throat, but few men would ever direct a second look at her. And if they did she would shy away like a frightened colt, sending them a startled look back out of those dark blue eyes of hers that were like gentians clinging shyly to the summit of a mountain, and then retreat into herself like a rabbit into a burrow.
His mixed similes amused him, and he smiled. The night he saw her in the hotel the fat, gross woman who paid her her salary had been reproving her—in a voice the whole room couldn’t fail to overhear—for getting her knitting wool into a tangle. She hadn’t held the skein right, while the other wound, and the woman had snatched it off her hands and ordered her to fetch another from her room.
“From the top drawer of my dressing-table
... and whatever you do don’t make a mess of my things! You’re so clumsy—so infuriatingly clumsy!—that I hesitate to ask you to do anything at all.” She glanced round the lounge, with wooden walls and ibex horns adorning it, and quite plainly invited sympathy; but all she received were blank stares, while the girl fled.
The man on the ledge thought of all the things that could be done to an unpleasant old woman like that, and of all the dangers that might possibly beset her if she ever ventured—like the girl on the plateau below him—right up here into the heart of the mountains, instead of taking quiet strolls on a level with her hotel. And then he carefully and casually lighted himself a cigarette while he watched the slim shape lying pressed to the short, sweet grass below him, and he knew that she was perspiring in sheer panic.
She didn’t dare to lift her head. She certainly didn’t dare to stand up. She had been seized with a relentless
she couldn’t overcome because her fascinated gaze was directed downwards to the valley, and he knew that her pupils were mere pinpricks of magnetised dread like the pupils of the rabbit when it sees the stoat.
The sun shone brazenly from a
ear heaven, and there was a constant chirping of crickets from the green slopes all around—an endless beating of emerald green wings amongst the harebells, and the early autumn crocuses that blossomed there. Down in the valley there was little or no movement because the cows were all up in the high pastures, but there was an occasional flash of a scythe as a haymaker worked on a small plot. The thought of him standing on the edge of a dizzy drop made the girl shudder as if a sudden gust of wind had caught at her, and she closed her eyes for an instant to shut out the bright glare, the dark woods, the silver streams like ribbons running down from the heights; and, above all, the peaks themselves
... aloof, majestic, but cruel. Utterly indifferent to human frailty.
She had been so eager to get nearer to them; and now, with their light powdering of snow that had survived the blistering heat of summer, they kept advancing and retreating, as if they were part of a swaying backcloth.
The man on the ledge called down to her clearly:
“What are you afraid of?”
Toni’s heart lurched with surprise, and then she dared to put back her head and gaze up at him. He was coolly smoking his cigarette a dozen or so feet above her; and although it was a much more perilous ledge than the green island to which she clung, he was obviously quite unaffected by any sensation of height. He was lying on one elbow, a pack beside him, and a lizard—or something that looked like a lizard— kept darting about the rock above his head. Toni’s eyes grew wide, fascinated as much by the lizard as the complete sangfroid of the man.
He didn’t look as if he wanted to be of any assistance to her. He was smiling sleepily, his teeth very even and white in the blinding sunshine, his face dark and tanned. His hair was thick and black, with an inclination to wave crisply.
“You’ve got plenty of room,” he informed her conversationally. “Stand up and walk round on the inside of that boulder, and then get back on to the path.”
“I—c-can’t!” she gulped.
“Yes, you can! Can’t is a futile word when you’ve got as far as this. What do you imagine you’re going to do? Remain where you are all night? It’s cold in the mountains once the sun has set!”
The sheer brutality of his tone struck through her fears and aroused her indignation. What sort of a human being was he, she wondered, when he must be perfectly well aware that she was petrified by the very thought of moving? If he wanted to give her confidence all he had to do was join her on the plateau, and then perhaps she would find enough courage to stand up. Although the very thought of it caused her to avert her face hurriedly from the valley.
If only she had a hand to cling on to!...
But it was plain he had no intention of joining her on the plateau, and instead he continued to give her advice as to the best method of evacuating her impossible position. His voice was inhumanly cool; she had a curious conviction that he was actually enjoying her predicament, and by degrees that very inhuman, jibing quality that made his faintly accented English seem like a deliberate attack on her helplessness, so grated on every sensitive nerve she possessed that a kind of desperation seized her, and she began to crawl forward inch by inch across the plateau. She didn’t care to stand up until she reached the slight protection of the boulder, and then when she did do so her knees were knocking so badly, and her pulses hammering so loudly in her ears, that she was hardly aware of what she was doing, or what she ought to do next. She stood clinging on to the boulder until the advancing and retreating wall of mountains stopped advancing and retreating; and then she set her teeth, partly closed her eyes, and groped blindly for the path.
And no sooner had she reached the doubtful sanctuary of it than her tormentor dropped lightly down and stood beside her.
“Well done!” he said. He surveyed her white face and pallid
ps and nodded approvingly. “Quite well done!”
He took her by the arm and almost thrust her forward along the path until a small outcrop of pine trees encroached on it, and then she once more found herself lying supine, but this time amongst pine needles, with straight trunks rising all around her. A lighted cigarette was placed between her inert fingers, and the cap of a brandy flask unscrewed.
“I don’t suppose you’re used to raw spirit,” the voice that had so tantalised her observed calmly. “But it’s what you need at the moment, so take a cautious swig, and then lie still and get your breath.”
“Thank you,” she muttered faintly, when she had recovered from the suffocating sensation of downing a mouthful of neat brandy.
The man with the brown face and the brown eyes—they were like brown, lustrous, somewhat derisive velvet, she decided, when she at last gazed into them—lighted himself a cigarette, and sat smoking it thoughtfully.
“Why didn’t you help me?” she asked, her voice full of resentment, when she was fairly recovered. “Why did you tell me what to do, instead of giving me some actual assistance? I was scared to death on that ledge ... I’ve never been so terrified in my life! If I’d lost my head completely I’d have dropped, and that would have been the end of me.”
He shook his head with annoying complacence.
“I don’t think so. You’d have rolled a few feet, and then some outcrop of rock would have intercepted your fall, and you’d have sustained nothing worse than a few bruises. In any case, why did you attempt the climb if you’ve such a poor head for heights?” looking at her with cool criticism.
Indignation flowed over her, and then receded. “I’ve always wanted to climb. Today I had the opportunity, and so I took it. But I never realised before that I have such a poor head for heights.”
He regarded her with a fain
y puzzling smile.
“But at least you extricated yourself from your predicament without any real assistance from me. I goaded you into making an effort, but the glory was all yours. I’ll confess I wasn’t certain that you’d do it. I thought I might have to come down to you in the end, and then we’d never have found out whether you were capable of standing up to a situation, instead of running away from it.”
She raised herself on one elbow, and studied him as if she wasn’t certain she had heard aright. Then she suddenly remembered something about him, and she spoke with the colour seeping up under her fine skin.
“You were at the hotel the other night, weren’t you? And you kept staring at me so hard I made a mess of Mrs. Van Ecker’s knitting wool!”
She bit her lip hard, and the rising colour became a vivid flush. She could recall him clearly now, wearing an impeccable grey lounge suit, and yet looking as if he had had a satisfying, active day, healthily bronzed, enjoying his after-dinner coffee. Mrs. Van Ecker had made a remark about him afterwards, describing him as a “cut above” the usual run of hotel visitors, wondering whether he would be staying on for any length of time.
Toni had thought he would have fitted in better in one of the big hotels in Zurich, or somewhere along the lake shore, rather than a tiny mountain
“No doubt you heard her tell the rest of the people in the lounge that I was something of an affliction to her?” she got out, biting her lip so hard that a drop of blood spurted and stained her small white teeth.
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
Her abashed eyes met his. But just now they weren’t so much abashed as sullenly resentfu
“And as a result of what you heard the other evening you decided I wouldn’t have the—the guts to get off that ledge, is that it?” she demanded.
“Something like that,” he said.
She uttered a kind of choked protest, and leapt to her feet.
“I think you must be the most detestable man I’ve ever met!” she cried in the same choked voice. “I’m glad you did nothing more than goad me—proving that you were enjoying yourself hugely at the same time!—for at least I’ve got nothing to thank you for, and if the situation repeated itself I’d rather fall off the ledge than listen to a word of advice from you! And, as a matter of fact, it was simply because I thought you were so detestable that I did crawl off the ledge...”
She turned to rush blindly off down the path, but he rose with the sinuous movement of a man who was in perfect control of his muscles, and gripped her very purposefully by the arm.
“Don’t be a little idiot,” he said, his voice hard and contemptuous—and, despite the colloquialism, his alien accent was extremely noticeable. “Having seen the way you fled the other night, instead of spu
ing an old woman
who spoke to you like that, I think
there was some justification for any opinion I formed of you. But now I want to hear a few more things about you, so sit down.” He more or less thrust her down on a fallen tree-trunk. “Why do you do this sort of thing at all?”