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CHAPTER I THE GRAND PRIX AT ANDANA
The sleigh climbed the heights laboriously, jolting heavily in the ruts which last night's frost had hardened. Minute by minute now new pictures were revealed. The Rhone valley appeared to be shaping itself more clearly at every zigzag; so that, while Sierre below had become but a toy village upon a child's board, the majestic Weisshorn now stood up in detached sovereignty and all the encircling peaks could be named with assurance.

There had been a blizzard blowing for thirty hours, and it had detained the little company at Sierre; but the morning of the day broke gloriously fine, so that the travellers set off at eight o'clock and were to reach the hotel at Andana before eleven.

A truly British company, some of them had come to winter in Switzerland for the first time. Others were veterans, who brought their own skis, talked knowingly of Vermala and the Zaat, and could show you, even when far down the valley, exactly where the Palace Hotel lurked behind a forest of pines. Of these the gentle old clergyman, Harry Clavering, was the most prominent—and he, as one of whom much was expected, offered generous and courtly help to the more timid of the wayfarers.

But even Harry Clavering, despite his seven and fifty years, was not insensible to the charm of the "little widow," and his conscience found a ready excuse when he craved permission to share a sleigh with her—and obtained it, to the great annoyance of Sir Gordon Snagg, the coal-merchant from Newcastle, who had already confided to his intimates of the company the unnecessary information that the "little woman" in violet was the best "view" he hoped to see in Switzerland.

There were five sledges in all taking the company to Andana, and two of them devoted to ungovernable youth. These lads from the universities and the schools, convinced that Switzerland existed as a republic merely by their patronage, hastened at every turn to give some demonstration of their superiority, either as performers upon the bugle, or as "yoodlers," or merely as marksmen, with the passers-by on the slopes below for their targets. The newly-fallen snow delighted them by its promise of good ski-ing for some days to come. But for the glorious panorama of the Rhone, for the wonder of height and valley, they cared not a straw.

Of the others, a fat man in a well-made suit of tweeds, and a bright little woman, whose luggage was marked "Lady Coral-Smith," were the subjects of some mischief in the other sleighs and of not a little gossip. They were old friends, as they were careful to tell everyone who did not ask; and by the oddest coincidence in the world, they met on the platform at the Gare de Lyon. So they were travelling to Andana together—where, as Lady Coral-Smith explained, her poor dead husband, who had thrice been mayor of Brampton-upon-Sea, died after a long illness some four years ago. She would tell this with the air of one who invited sympathy for what she had gone through and some tolerance for a gaiety of spirit natural to the circumstance. Nor was she without a certain measure of good looks, bravely as her "art" strove to disguise them.

The Major on his part—Major Boodle to be exact—was an excellent example of the half-pay officer, who is driven to a perpetual conflict between his desires and his pension. He had seen a little service in the South African War and in Egypt, and spoke of it good humouredly, but without any sense of proportion. To him, the Boers were still "those d——d Dutchmen," and he remembered little about the campaign apart from the attack of enteric which kept him three months at Colesberg. His laugh was loud, his face fat and without distinction, and his chief concern the absence of any restaurant between Sierre and the hotel. Someone, he thought, should write to the Times about that, and he had said as much to the "little widow" before they started—and would have said more but for the sharp eyes of the mayor's relict, who called him to her side with the asperity of a colonel on parade.

This was the little company which left Sierre at eight o'clock upon the morning of the first day of February and searched with eager eyes for the first glimpse of the plateau of Andana and its destination. The most part of them, newly come out of England, discussed the glorious sunshine to begin with, and upon that the fog and rain which would then be exasperating their own countrymen. By here and there, they paused to cast backward glances at the genial parson and the "little widow"; while Bob Otway, a mature philosopher of one-and-twenty, remarked to his friend, Dick Fenton, a practised cynicist of like years, that "old Harry" was certainly "going it." Which reflection he capped by the assurance that Andana was a "devilish mouse-trap" for the men, and that a fellow was wise to be careful.

"It's perfectly impossible not to propose to a girl if her Q's are all right," he said—and then, by way of illustration—"look at Mondy Thurl, who was here last year. He married that Toogood girl just because she could hold out the tails of her threes. Rotten idea, I call it—"

Dick Fenton, who was tramping doggedly by the side of his sledge, admitted that there was something in it—but he spoke of consolations.

"Anyway, my boy, she didn't hold out the tails of your threes, and that's something. Poor old Mondy! I expect he's wondering what he did it for now. He must have thawed a bit before he got back to town. A man can't be expected to know what he's doing out here—and that Toogood girl could fall down. Why, I believe she practised it before the glass just to show what a pretty ankle she had got. She always used to come down just when old Mondy was there to pick her up."

"Of course she did. She specialised in him, just as those Rider girls would specialise in you, Dick, if they got the chance. You heard they came over from Caux on Thursday?"

"Yes, the parson told me—what an old dear he is, making love to the 'little widow' at his time of life! Why, she can't be five-and-twenty—"

"And she is undoubtedly 'it.' I'm beginning to be sorry for the Rider girls, Dick."

Dick sighed.

"It's the way they take the last corner on the ice-run," he said sorrowfully, "I know I shall be done for if I win the doubles with Marjory. She holds my neck so tight that I believe she'll strangle me some day—"

"She'll do that unless you propose to her; you'd better get it over, old chap, and I'll write to your people. By Jove, though, it's hot, isn't it?—couldn't you drink a lager beer?"

He stopped to wipe his forehead and to look back for an instant at the valley below and the little town of Sierre, now become more toy-like than ever, but for its skating rink, which sparkled like a jewel dropped from the heights. Even the pines carried a burden of the hoar to-day, and every thicket upon the steep slopes, every wood through which the sleighs carried them, had some picture more fantastic than its predecessors to show them. The air was keen as a breath of life itself; it had brought the colour anew to the "widow's" pale cheeks, and her eyes were dancing while she listened to the rhapsodies of the genial old clergyman, who knew and loved the scene and delighted to dwell upon it. Twenty times already had he named the different peaks to her, but his enthusiasm was unabated.

"Vermala is up above the forest," he said, "we often take luges and have tea up there. You can see the Matterhorn from the plateau before the tea-house. Oh, yes, and Mont Blanc; there's a fine view of that and of the Dents Blanches from the Park Hotel. Beginners always go there to learn to ski—I suppose you are already an expert?"

The "little widow" shook her head.

"It's all quite new to me. I have been to Switzerland many times in the summer; but never in the winter—I had expected something quite different. All this is very beautiful—but is it not just a little too exciting? Would not one have to be something of an acrobat to enjoy it thoroughly?"

Harry Clavering laughed.

"Ah," he said, "everyone thinks that when he first comes out. But we all become acrobats and do the most wonderful things before we have been here a week. Why, even I have been down the ice-run at my age—dear, dear, to think of it—and I am fifty-seven.

"Do you not believe, then, that a man is as old as his capacities?"

The parson beamed beneath his glasses—she certainly was a delightful woman to travel with, and he had yet to learn her name.

"I believe in thinking of pleasant things," he said, "old age is pleasant enough if you forget it. And we all become young here; the air inspires us—I think it makes us quite mad sometimes. Then the scenery is so beautiful, so very, very beautiful. Look at those peaks—how the sun shines upon them! And I have wasted one whole week in London when I might have been here. Deplorable! That week has gone forever—"

She liked his enthusiasm, yet could not forbear to intrude upon it.

"But I hear of blizzards," she exclaimed. "Whatever do you do at Andana when there is a blizzard?"

"We grumble and are happy. Snow is as necessary to us here as water to the Arab of the desert. We are thankful to see the snow falling, and we go into our corners and play bridge. I suppose you will join us there? I felt sure you played bridge directly I saw you."

She laughed, showing him how white were her teeth, and how deeply the blue of her eyes contrasted with the azure of the cloudless sky.

"Oh," she said, "one has to do the necessary things. But I am a dreadful player, and the old ladies get very angry with me. I should never have the courage to play with strangers—"

He hastened to correct her.

"No one is a stranger here. That is the best of it. In a way, we are all friends—though, of course, there are people we like better than others."

"Which means to say that you find yourself already devoted heart and soul to Lady Coral-Smith, and the intimate acquaintance of that dreadful person in the yellow suit, Sir Gordon Snagg."

He shook his head as one who would not do battle with her.

"Come, come," he said. "We must not be unkind. Some give and take is necessary in a society like this—and we can always choose our own road if we prefer. Sometimes, I wander by myself all day—once, when I felt the need of rest, I went over to Grindelwald—with a guide for my companion."

She turned upon him with a face grown suddenly white.

"Grindelwald! But we are not near Grindelwald? It can't be."

"Indeed," he said, quite unconscious of her embarrassment, "it is quite near for the climbers, though men of my age generally prefer to go by train. Do you know Grindelwald, by chance?"

She feigned an answer, glad to think that her betrayal had escaped the ears of her kindly cicerone.

"I stayed there three nights; it seems a century ago, but I was on my honeymoon, and you will understand—"

"Perfectly, perfectly; I should not have put the question. You must forgive me."

The "little widow" replied with a commonplace, but both were silent for a full mile or more, and when next Clavering spoke, they had come out upon a wide plateau of the snow and were within twenty minutes of their destination. Here the scene changed in a measure, for there were woods upon the right hand, while the broad expanse of the snow hid the valley from their sight. A little village with a winding street and houses that should have come out of a child's play-box, stood between the plateau and the hotel; and when they had passed it, they entered the forest itself, following a tortuous path amid the pines and already meeting many of the revellers. From these, news of Andana was to be had, especially from a delightful woman of the world, whose age was thirteen and whose uncle was a Cabinet Minister. Skis permitted her to follow the sledge gracefully, and she talked as though the end of the world were at hand and would find her budget undelivered.

"Keith Rivers is here and he's winning everything," she said. "I'm in for the doubles with him to-morrow, and it's a certainty. Dr. Orange came yesterday. Of course, everyone is more in love with him than ever. The ice has been beastly, but we've put in a protest—in fact, we've riddled the enemy with potholes, and I suppose he'll do something. Do you know Ian Kavanagh, I wonder? He was a blue, and his father left him thousands and thousands. It's awful to start life with that on your shoulders, isn't it? But he seems strong. Of course, he can't skate a bit, but we forgive him, because he can do other things. Then I must tell you, there's Benny—do you know Benny? If you do not, you have missed the joy of your life. He's the most good-natured, stupidest, obstinate creature I ever met in all my days. Think of it—he'd never been on skis before, and he went out the day before the blizzard and actually tried to jump. I thought he was going to fall over the edge of the world before he'd stop. Oh, he is such a dear, and I do wish he'd move into the hotel, and not stop at that awful villa—"

An empty sleigh, drawn by two sturdy horses tandem fashion, came cantering down the path and the business of passing in so difficult a place stilled the ravenous tongue for a moment. When they got on again, Harry Clavering ventured upon an introduction:

"This is our philosopher and reigning monarch," he said genially—"Miss Elizabeth Bethune. Permit me to introduce her"; and he turned and waited, remembering that he had not yet the "little widow's" name. She remembered it also, and her face was crimson when she said:

"I am Mrs. Kennaird—I am glad to meet my sovereign."

"Oh, indeed," exclaimed Miss Elizabeth with a pretty pout; "this is not a golden age, I assure you, Mrs. Kennaird, and Mr. Clavering never will be sensible; I don't believe he could be if he tried. It would serve him right if I said nothing about the ghost—"

They both looked at her.

"The ghost! Here at Andana?"

"I should think so; everybody's seen it but Mr. Benny, and, of course, he's blind. Do you know the people in the villages are so frightened that some of them are going down to Sierre? Well, it's true, and even that horrid Dr. Orange, who believes in nothing but his 'brackets,' why, he's in a dreadful way about it. We're to have a picnic after dinner to-night, just to see if we can find it."

"I shall certainly come," rejoined Clavering; and then to Mrs. Kennaird he said:

"Perhaps you will join the expedition?"

But the "little widow" shook her head sadly.

"No," she said, "I think not—my life is too full of ghosts. I would not add to the number."

And that was the end of it, for the drivers whipped up their horses at the moment, and with a jangling of bells and guttural cries from the men, they emerged from the wood, and the Palace Hotel was before them. Here Dr. Orange and a few others were gathered, waiting the bell for luncheon. They greeted such of the new-comers as were known to them with an exuberant welcome; nor did they fail to bestow their interest upon the "little widow."

"A devilish dainty little woman," said that condescending young gentleman, Keith Rivers.

Dr. Orange, however, a slim, good-looking man of forty, had become suddenly preoccupied.

"By Jove!" he said, "I know that face almost as well as my own. Now where—?"
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