A Question of Courage by Dora Sigerson Shorter
We know who you are looking at, Miss Roche!
But Miss Roche only answered with a blush, and gazed through the
telescope more earnestly than before. Those who watched her suddenly
saw her stiffen, her face grow ghastly, and her hands clench together,
as though she were stricken with death. They sprang up and surrounded
her, as she rushed from her place screaming.
Help! help! she cried; and then, seeing nothing but the far-off
snow peaks before her, returned to her place, roughly pushing back the
gathering crowd. Those who had for the moment of her absence looked
through the telescope saw, on the far-away snow mountain, three
struggling human beings, sliding, sliding, sliding down to their death.
Along the icy slope they went, clutching the crumbling snow, gliding
ever downward to the mouth of a purple crevasse. The end of the tragedy
had not come before the girl was back at the glass. She put the others
who crowded around her, back with rough hands; they did not resent her
passage or dare usurp her place, for she was engaged to one of those
three men who they had for a moment seen so near, and yet were too far
off to help.
The girl never moved during the awful minutes of the tragedy which
she alone could see. She swayed, moaning and crying for some one to aid
the poor victims, and, at last, with a choking cry, fell to the ground,
from whence she was tenderly lifted and carried into the house. The
moment her eyes left the glass others had taken her place, as full of
pity as she, perhaps, yet anxious not to miss the morbid excitement of
looking at least upon the disaster, since they were too far away to be
The man who had taken the telescope in his hands, prepared as he was
for what he should see, started back at the first glance, then settled
to watch in pitiful uselessness.
They have slipped to the edge of a crevasse, he said. Three men.
My God! Two of them are over, the third man is trying to keep them up;
but he can't do ithe can't do it! He is slippingslippingno! he
has stopped; he has driven his axe into the groundit holds. One of
the fallen men is struggling to mount the rope, but cannot! The other
is stillperhaps unconscious, dead! The rope is twisting and turning
them round and round in the awful air. O God! the third man is giving
wayhis axe is broken, or has lost its hold. He is slipping towards
the edgehe is on the edge. Heaven help him! he is over. No! The rope
has broken; he saves himselfhe saves himself! He lies in the snow,
like one dead, poor chap!
Here the watcher was pushed aside by a frantic woman, who took his
place. She looked through the glass, trying to focus it to eyes dimmed
There is one safe, you say! she cried; it is my son! is it notmy
only son? The men draw her aside. No one could be sure at the
distance, they tell her, trying to calm her. Pray God it be her son.
Then, seeing the other woman near, pale and wild, repeat, No one can be
sure who it isbetter wait.
Ah! the suspense of waiting. The whole population of the vast hotel
were as anxiously watching for the return of the one survivor as though
they were related to him. Lunch was hastily eaten with little
conversation, and that little the one absorbing subject of the
accident. Telescopes and glasses were levelled for hours at the
snow-peak where the tragedy had been. But they saw nothing; after the
accident, the man remaining had crawled out of sight.
At dawn next morning the rescue party returned with the one living
creature they had found and the bodies of the mangled dead. Those who
had forgotten in sleep the tragedy of the day before were awakened by a
woman's cry, and sprang up alarmed. But one girl who had not lain down
to sleep, but trod the floor all night, pressed her hands above her
heart, hearing the scream. It is not her son! she said. Thank God!
* * *
Edward Rounds recovered slowly from the shock and exposure which he
had suffered, and when he came amongst his friends again they could see
lines of suffering upon his face that had never been there before.
He had gone amongst these companions for a few days before it became
evident to him that there was some coldness in their attitude towards
him since the accident. At first he could not believe that it was not
his imagination. He remembered the enthusiastic welcome they had given
him upon his appearance with the rescue party, how they had cheered him
from their windows, and hurried down in the dawn to congratulate him on
his escape. Thinking thus, he went amongst them as formerly, but soon
found he was firmly, though almost imperceptibly, snubbed, and set
aside. The dozen friends who had joined with him to spend their
holidays in Switzerland were avoiding him. His neighbours at the table
moved their places, one saying the draught was too much, the other, not
hearing the excuse, that the heat that end of the table was oppressive.
Before he realized it, Edward had strangers beside him when he ate.
After a week or so these strangers had forgotten their excitement in
his escape from death, or only remembered it if a son or a friend
begged to go on the same eventful climb. Then Edward was pointed out as
a warning of its danger, and was begged to tell his story over again.
How he shrank from the telling nobody knew, but the limpness and
coldness of his replies soon froze the friendliness of those beside
him. He was left to himself and silence. For some time Edward refused
to believe that his friends shunned him. Yet their awkwardness in
meeting him, their various excuses to get away, their refusal to walk
with him for many inadequate reasons, his difficulty in keeping up
conversation with them when he found them alone, his own very isolation
amongst the strangers at the hotel, could not but open his eyes to the
fact that, without a word of explanation, he was being put away from
the friendships he desired, and from the affection that had been his.
The bitterest drop in this cup of bitterness was the coldness of the
girl whom he had hoped to make his wife. He had known her a year, and
had prevailed on her fathershe was motherless to join the trip that
he and his friends were making to Switzerland. And the old man, one of
his dearest friends, had willingly consented. He smiled on the youth
when he asked for his company, and Edward answered the unspoken thought
: I hope to ask something from you before the holiday is through,
but I do not know if she cares for me yet.
The old General had wished him good luck, with a warm grasp of the
hand. Now he was one of those who seemed to Edward to avoid him most.
The girl appeared to share her father's dislike, or whatever it was,
and Edward could now never meet or speak with hr alonenever could
prevail on her to walk with him, or get her to converse.
She does not care for me, he thought; but the memory of certain
looks and words of hers came to him. She has grown tired, or loves
another. His hands clenched at the possibility. The shadow of his
friends' unkindness fell darkly upon him in his weakness. His strength
had not come back to him since his adventure in the snow, and the
short, severe fever that followed. The holidays were drawing to a
close; he dreaded to go back to the city with the consciousness of this
entanglement with his companions. He dreaded the desolation of his life
amongst the crowd, without love or friendship; he made friends so
slowly, and had always dreaded strangers. He dreaded most of all to go
back to the little house he had hoped to make a home with the woman he
On one day he would breakfast in his room, take his lunch out to eat
alone upon the hillside, dine in silence, without looking up from his
plate, and disappear to his room the moment he left the table. The next
morning he would wake with the strong conviction that he was imagining
grievances, and that it was his own folly that made his friends seem
heartless. So rising, he would go to them with the frankness and
affection with which he always met them, only to meet again the repulse
he could feel; though he neither heard nor saw any sign to mention,
even to himself.
One day he sat with his head upon his hands, alone in the wood. He
was so still that a girl half passed before she became aware of his
presence. At her start of surprise he woke from the sadness of his
dreaming, and looking into her face, saw her wish to pass unnoticed. A
sudden anger seized him; he sprang to his feet and stood in her path,
he caught her dress in his hands as she turned to go back.
You shall not go! he cried, half in anger, half in entreaty, not
till you tell me what all this coldness means.
I am not aware of any coldness, she said, her face flushed and half
turned away. It's later than I thought. I must go back; Father will
You will not go back, he answered, till you tell me what it all
means? Why have my friends turned from me? Why am I sent to Coventry?
What have I done? Alice, he continued, as she tried to face him with a
look of surprise, so badly feigned on her honest face that she blushed
at her own deception, don't pretend not to understand me; be true to
yourselfto me. Tell me what I have done.
Done! she echoed. I don't know that you have done anything wrong;
it's onlyonly it's a matter of feeling.
A matter of feeling! He caught her hands as she turned to go.
You must tell me, Alice! You know what I hopedyou know what I
meant to ask you. Is it thatthat is keeping you from me? Is it that
you do not care now? You did once, Alice; you did once.
Oh, let me go! she said, half crying. Perhaps that's it; I did
careand I do not care now. Let me go!
He loosed her hands at once, and she went sobbing homeward through
the woods; but he crouched there till darkness came, when he rose and
His friends were deep in a loud discussion when he entered the
smoking-room, which they had all to themselves that evening. They did
not hear the door open till his appearance chilled them all to silence.
It was unusual of late for him to come among them, and the look upon
his face was unusual too. One of the more merciful of them rose to
leave the room, saying he was tired. He knew the snubs that would
follow Edward's arrival, and dreaded having to contribute to them.
But Edward stood against the door and faced the room. There was a
stern purpose in his eyes as they dwelt upon his friends.
Before you go, gentlemen, he said, there is something I have to
say to yousomething you have to answer to me. I have known you all
for yearsyou have all known me. You owe me, I think, for the sake of
our friendshipour past friendship, I expect you would wish to sayan
explanation of your conduct to me lately. He paused. Only one man
Our conduct, Edward? he said awkwardly; what on earth is wrong
with our conduct to you lately?
Edward turned upon him bitterly.
Don't pretend you don't know what I mean, he said; out with it,
some of you! What have I done?
The men moved uneasily. Some one muttered, That is no way to speak.
Edward lowered his voice at the rebuke; he spoke more gently, but held
his position at the door.
No one leaves the room till I know my fault. Why have you thrust me
from you without even the justice of knowing what I have done? If I
cared for your friendship less, I would not trouble you to ask; but you
were my friends, my only companions: if I lose you I shall make no new
affections. Why have you turned against me? The loneliness is
There was silence for a moment, then one man leant forward to strike
a match, and, shielding it with his fingers to keep it alight, he
turned his shoulder to the young man. Edward thought he meant it as a
snub. The truth was, the man was trying to break an awkward silence,
and his movement was only to hide from the gaze he felt fasten on his
You, General! do not turn away from me. For God's sake, what have I
done? The old man knocked the dead ashes from his pipe.
What have you done? He looked round at his companions as if for an
answer. I don't know that you have exactly done anything.
Edward flushed with fresh anger. Out with it! What have I done? He
spoke roughly. Why have you all avoided me?
Have the others avoided you? man looked around him. I did not
know. If I avoided you it was unknown to myselfat least, I did not
know I put my feeling into any expression.
Your feelingwhat feeling?
A young man at the other end of the room leaned forward. He spoke as
though to put an end to the suspense.
If I have shown you any coldness, I apologize, he said slowly. If
I have avoided you, it has been because of a feeling that I I cannot
explainever since you returned from that terrible day on the ice.
YesEdward turned to himit is since that day. What have I done
since that day? The young man flushed. It wasn't since that day, he
said; it was on that day.
He moved uneasily; some one else muttered Yes! on that day; and he
resumed, I don't know if it's the same thing that we all feel since
we heardsince we heard
Go on! Edward cried hoarsely, his face losing its red flush of
anger and growing pale. But I know that with me it's only a certain
feeling I have. I dare say that I am all wrongI dare say that we
should all have done what you did.
What did I do? Edward's voice came in a rough whisper. Well, they
say, you knowthe guides who found youthat the rope did not
breakwas cut, you know; and, I suppose, we all feelthe same about
it. We know you would not have done it, only there was no chance for
the others. But, all the same, we feel queer about it. Is that it, you
There was a movement of assent in the room.
Edward leaned against the door, his face ghastly. He spoke at last,
slowly and as if with difficulty.
Yes, he said, I cut the rope. It was to cut it or die; it made no
difference to them. It is only a matter of feeling, as you say. I
should have gone with them. Do you think, he cried, clenching his
hands together, do you think I do not know it now? Night after night I
lie awake, and go through the agony again: I feel the rope tighten on
my chest, and those dead men pulling me down. I was one of the three.
They have not forgiven me for leaving them; why should you? They haunt
meI hear their voices, I feel their hands. Did you know when you
banished me all that I was sufferinghow I have thought of it till it
almost maddened me? did you think I had forgotten the sound of their
cries, the tearing of their fingers upon the ice, the thud of their
falling bodies going down, down, down, the bite of the rope across my
chest, the slackening of it? Do you think I can forget? A matter of
feeling, it is nothing else. Was I bound to kill myself, when I had one
little chance of escape?hardly a chance I thought at the time.
Listen! Do you know how we fell? The guide went first,I think he was
ill; there was no reason for his fall,and he lay helpless when he was
down. Robertson went next, and I was drawn after them. We slid a man s
length and stopped. I had my axe in the ground. The guide never
stirred; he was a heavy man, and the strain was awful. Robertson tried
to get a hold, and his struggles loosened the axe; we slid again, and
again I got my blade in the ice. I held as long as I could, but, under
the weight, the handle of my axe broke; then we slid downward again. My
God! how awful it was! We clung to each other, we tore at the iron
ground with our naked hands; we tried to get our feet into the ice, to
fasten our teeth into the snow; but we rolled and slipped down, down,
the guide, helpless, dragging us the quicker to our death. I do not
know how long it was till we reached the end hours it seemedand
then the two went over into the horrible emptiness, and I alone
remained to save them. I tore with my nails, I thrust my teeth into the
ice; I had my feet on a tiny ridge, and for a moment I held them up. I
heard Robertson calling to me to hold on and he would climb the rope.
But he could not, he was in the middle. I heard the guide call out
feebly something I did not understand; then he was quiet. Robertson
could not move. There was no time to think before I began to slip
He stopped and thrust his hands out. The nails were half torn away,
and upon the hands were the signs of a cruel struggle.
Look here! See how I held! I was slipping again, and there was no
chance of recovery. Oh, you fellows, sitting there in judgment, I swear
before God if it had been a question of the faintestthe faintest
chance of saving them, I would have given my life upon that chance. I
would have died for them, if there was a possibility of their rescue by
doing so. But it is not asked of us to die with a comrade, though we
may give our lives for his rescue. If there had been no rope and they
had slipped over, would you have expected me to jump over after them?
No, you would not. My hands were powerless, the rope bit into my flesh.
I was half over the edge. I thought life was fairer than it is. I saved
myself by a miracleI cut the rope. I fought hard for them.
He dragged his shirt open at the breast as he spoke, showing them so
cruel a bruise that some of the men turned away in pity.
My wounds speak for me. Oh, he continued, with a sudden cry of
appeal, you are men with wives, sweethearts, sisters, mothers, homes;
I am a solitary man without a relative in the world, with loneliness
mistress in my home; I cannot make new friendshe looked towards the
GeneralI cannot make new loves. Do not turn your faces from me. You
see how weak I am to speak to you like thishow I value you all.
In the silence that followed the door opened and Alice entered,
followed by her dog, a pretty Russian poodle.
Is my father here? she said.
And the strain upon the nerves of the company was broken by her
voice. The men rose to their feet with a deep breath of relief, some
bidding her come in, others seizing the moment of disturbance to slip
out of the room, glad to escape the unusual atmosphere of awkwardness.
Edward stood beside the door and let them pass. They slunk by him as if
he were the judge and they the condemned. Some said, Good-night. One
muttered he would see him in the morning, with a secret resolution to
be up and catch an early train before any one was moving; another had
to give orders for an excursion next day; a couple, feeling indisposed,
went to order breakfast in their rooms. All passed without the offer of
a hand, till only Alice and her father were left.
The young man and the old faced each other. Well, sir, and you? The
young man spoke bitterly. The other moved towards the door.
I have to see a man about that drive to-morrow, or I shan't get a
carriage Then, seeing the look on the young man's face, he added: You
see, my boy, nothing you can say or do just now makes any difference.
It's a feeling one has about it all. I dare say we are wrong, and in
time it will wear away; but there's a feeling about these things one
can't get over just at first.
He hastily left the room, forgetting his daughter.
Edward turned to her.
I only came to ask Dr. Thornton how to use this; it's poison. She
held up a little bottle. I have such neuralgia, and I am so busy; we
leave in the morning. I have so many letters to write. Then she cried,
as if afraid, Oh, let me goI am so busy.
I am not detaining you, he said; and opened the door for her. He
sat down in the empty room and took up the phial she had dropped in her
haste. Life was so sweet, I was afraid to die. He held the bottle to
the lightit was quite full. Life was so sweet.
He laughed aloud, and the dog who lay upon the hearth rose and came
to him, laying its head upon his knees with a long, low whine.