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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAyesha - Chapter IV - THE AVALANCHE
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Ayesha - Chapter IV - THE AVALANCHE Post by :makessmiles Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :May 2011 Read :3294

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Ayesha - Chapter IV - THE AVALANCHE

On the morning of the second day from that night the sunrise found us
already on our path across the desert. There, nearly a mile behind us,
we could see the ruined statue of Buddha seated in front of the
ancient monastery, and in that clear atmosphere could even distinguish
the bent form of our friend, the old abbot, Kou-en, leaning against it
until we were quite lost to sight. All the monks had wept when we
parted from them, and Kou-en even more bitterly than the rest, for he
had learned to love us.

"I am grieved," he said, "much grieved, which indeed I should not be,
for such emotion partakes of sin. Yet I find comfort, for I know well
that although I must soon leave this present life, yet we shall meet
again in many future incarnations, and after you have put away these
follies, together tread the path to perfect peace. Now take with you
my blessings and my prayers and begone, forgetting not that should you
live to return"--and he shook his head, doubtfully--"here you will be
ever welcome."

So we embraced him and went sorrowfully.

It will be remembered that when the mysterious light fell upon us on
the peak I had my compass with me and was able roughly to take its
bearings. For lack of any better guide we now followed these bearings,
travelling almost due north-east, for in that direction had shone the
fire. All day in the most beautiful weather we marched across the
flower-strewn desert, seeing nothing except bunches of game and one or
two herds of wild asses which had come down from the mountains to feed
upon the new grass. As evening approached we shot an antelope and made
our camp--for we had brought the yak and a tent with us--among some
tamarisk scrub, of which the dry stems furnished us with fuel. Nor did
we lack for water, since by scraping in the sand soaked with melted
snow, we found plenty of fair quality. So that night we supped in
luxury upon tea and antelope meat, which indeed we were glad to have,
as it spared our little store of dried provisions.

The next morning we ascertained our position as well as we could, and
estimated that we had crossed about a quarter of the desert, a guess
which proved very accurate, for on the evening of the fourth day of
our journey we reached the bottom slopes of the opposing mountains,
without having experienced either accident or fatigue. As Leo said,
things were "going like clockwork," but I reminded him that a good
start often meant a bad finish. Nor was I wrong, for now came our
hardships. To begin with, the mountains proved to be exceeding high;
it took us two days to climb their lower slopes. Also the heat of the
sun had softened the snow, which made walking through it laborious,
whilst, accustomed though we were to such conditions through long
years of travelling, its continual glitter affected our eyes.

The morning of the seventh day found us in the mouth of a defile which
wound away into the heart of the mountains. As it seemed the only
possible path, we followed it, and were much cheered to discover that
here must once have run a road. Not that we could see any road,
indeed, for everything was buried in snow. But that one lay beneath
our feet we were certain, since, although we marched along the edge of
precipices, our path, however steep, was always flat; moreover, the
rock upon one side of it had often been scarped by the hand of man. Of
this there could be no doubt, for as the snow did not cling here, we
saw the tool marks upon its bare surface.

Also we came to several places where galleries had been built out from
the mountain side, by means of beams let into it, as is still a common
practice in Thibet. These beams of course had long since rotted away,
leaving a gulf between us and the continuation of the path. When we
met with such gaps we were forced to go back and make a detour round
or over some mountain; but although much delayed thereby, as it
happened, we always managed to regain the road, if not without
difficulty and danger.

What tried us more--for here our skill and experience as mountaineers
could not help us--was the cold at night, obliged as we were to camp
in the severe frost at a great altitude, and to endure through the
long hours of darkness penetrating and icy winds, which soughed
ceaselessly down the pass.

At length on the tenth day we reached the end of the defile, and as
night was falling, camped there in the most bitter cold. Those were
miserable hours, for now we had no fuel with which to boil water, and
must satisfy our thirst by eating frozen snow, while our eyes smarted
so sorely that we could not sleep, and notwithstanding all our wraps
and the warmth that we gathered from the yak in the little tent, the
cold caused our teeth to chatter like castanets.

The dawn came, and, after it, the sunrise. We crept from the tent, and
leaving it standing awhile, dragged our stiffened limbs a hundred
yards or so to a spot where the defile took a turn, in order that we
might thaw in the rays of the sun, which at that hour could not reach
us where we had camped.

Leo was round it first, and I heard him utter an exclamation. In a few
seconds I reached his side, and lo! before us lay our Promised Land.

Far beneath us, ten thousand feet at least--for it must be remembered
that we viewed it from the top of a mountain--it stretched away and
away till its distances met the horizon. In character it was quite
flat, an alluvial plain that probably, in some primeval age, had been
the bottom of one of the vast lakes of which a number exist in Central
Asia, most of them now in process of desiccation. One object only
relieved this dreary flatness, a single, snow-clad, and gigantic
mountain, of which even at that distance--for it was very far from us
--we could clearly see the outline. Indeed we could see more, for from
its rounded crest rose a great plume of smoke, showing that it was an
active volcano, and on the hither lip of the crater an enormous pillar
of rock, whereof the top was formed to the shape of a loop.

Yes, there it stood before us, that symbol of our vision which we had
sought these many years, and at the sight of it our hearts beat fast
and our breath came quickly. We noted at once that although we had not
seen it during our passage of the mountains, since the peaks ahead and
the rocky sides of the defile hid it from view, so great was its
height that it overtopped the tallest of them. This made it clear to
us how it came to be possible that the ray of light passing through
the loop could fall upon the highest snows of that towering pinnacle
which we had climbed upon the further side of the desert.

Also now we were certain of the cause of that ray, for the smoke
behind the loop explained this mystery. Doubtless, at times when the
volcano was awake, that smoke must be replaced by flame, emitting
light of fearful intensity, and this light it was that reached us,
concentrated and directed by the loop.

For the rest we thought that about thirty miles away we could make out
a white-roofed town set upon a mound, situated among trees upon the
banks of a wide river, which flowed across the plain. Also it was
evident that this country had a large population who cultivated the
soil, for by the aid of a pair of field glasses, one of our few
remaining and most cherished possessions, we could see the green of
springing crops pierced by irrigation canals and the lines of trees
that marked the limits of the fields.

Yes, there before us stretched the Promised Land, and there rose the
mystic Mount, so that all we had to do was to march down the snow
slopes and enter it where we would.

Thus we thought in our folly, little guessing what lay before us, what
terrors and weary suffering we must endure before we stood at length
beneath the shadow of the Symbol of Life.

Our fatigues forgotten, we returned to the tent, hastily swallowed
some of our dried food, which we washed down with lumps of snow that
gave us toothache and chilled us inside, but which thirst compelled us
to eat, dragged the poor yak to its feet, loaded it up, and started.

All this while, so great was our haste and so occupied were each of us
with our own thoughts that, if my memory serves me, we scarcely
interchanged a word. Down the snow slopes we marched swiftly and
without hesitation, for here the road was marked for us by means of
pillars of rock set opposite to one another at intervals. These
pillars we observed with satisfaction, for they told us that we were
still upon a highway which led to the Promised Land.

Yet, as we could not help noting, it was one which seemed to have gone
out of use, since with the exception of a few wild-sheep tracks and
the spoor of some bears and mountain foxes, not a single sign of beast
or man could we discover. This, however, was to be explained, we
reflected, by the fact that doubtless the road was only used in the
summer season. Or perhaps the inhabitants of the country were now
stay-at-home people who never travelled it at all.

Those slopes were longer than we thought; indeed, when darkness closed
in we had not reached the foot of them. So we were obliged to spend
another night in the snow, pitching our tent in the shelter of an
over-hanging rock. As we had descended many thousand feet, the
temperature proved, fortunately, a little milder; indeed, I do not
think that there were more than eighteen or twenty degrees of frost
that night. Also here and there the heat of the sun had melted the
snow in secluded places, so that we were able to find water to drink,
while the yak could fill its poor old stomach with dead-looking
mountain mosses, which it seemed to think better than nothing.

Again, the still dawn came, throwing its red garment over the
lonesome, endless mountains, and we dragged ourselves to our numbed
feet, ate some of our remaining food, and started onwards. Now we
could no longer see the country beneath, for it and even the towering
volcano were hidden from us by an intervening ridge that seemed to be
pierced by a single narrow gulley, towards which we headed. Indeed, as
the pillars showed us, thither ran the buried road. By mid-day it
appeared quite close to us, and we tramped on in feverish haste. As it
chanced, however, there was no need to hurry, for an hour later we
learned the truth.

Between us and the mouth of the gulley rose, or rather sank, a sheer
precipice that was apparently three or four hundred feet in depth, and
at its foot we could hear the sound of water.

Right to the edge of this precipice ran the path, for one of the stone
pillars stood upon its extreme brink, and yet how could a road descend
such a place as that? We stared aghast; then a possible solution
occurred to us.

"Don't you see," said Leo, with a hollow laugh, "the gulf has opened
since this track was used: volcanic action probably."

"Perhaps, or perhaps there was a wooden bridge or stairway which has
rotted. It does not matter. We must find another path, that is all," I
answered as cheerfully as I could.

"Yes, and soon," he said, "if we do not wish to stop here for ever."

So we turned to the right and marched along the edge of the precipice
till, a mile or so away, we came to a small glacier, of which the
surface was sprinkled with large stones frozen into its substance.
This glacier hung down the face of the cliff like a petrified
waterfall, but whether or no it reached the foot we could not
discover. At any rate, to think of attempting its descent seemed out
of the question. From this point onwards we could see that the
precipice increased in depth and far as the eye could reach was
absolutely sheer.

So we went back again and searched to the left of our road. Here the
mountains receded, so that above us rose a mighty, dazzling slope of
snow and below us lay that same pitiless, unclimbable gulf. As the
light began to fade we perceived, half a mile or more in front a bare-
topped hillock of rock, which stood on the verge of the precipice, and
hurried to it, thinking that from its crest we might be able to
discover a way of descent.

When at length we had struggled to the top, it was about a hundred and
fifty feet high; what we did discover was that, here also, as beyond
the glacier, the gulf was infinitely deeper than at the spot where the
road ended, so deep indeed that we could not see its bottom, although
from it came the sound of roaring water. Moreover, it was quite half a
mile in width.

Whilst we stared round us the sinking sun vanished behind a mountain
and, the sky being heavy, the light went out like that of a candle.
Now the ascent of this hillock had proved so steep, especially at one
place, where we were obliged to climb a sort of rock ladder, that we
scarcely cared to attempt to struggle down it again in that gloom.
Therefore, remembering that there was little to choose between the top
of this knoll and the snow plain at its foot in the matter of
temperature or other conveniences, and being quite exhausted, we
determined to spend the night upon it, thereby, as we were to learn,
saving our lives.

Unloading the yak, we pitched our tent under the lee of the topmost
knob of rock and ate a couple of handfuls of dried fish and corn-cake.
This was the last of the food that we had brought with us from the
Lamasery, and we reflected with dismay that unless we could shoot
something, our commissariat was now represented by the carcass of our
old friend the yak. Then we wrapped ourselves up in our thick rugs and
fur garments and forgot our miseries in sleep.

It cannot have been long before daylight when we were awakened by a
sudden and terrific sound like the boom of a great cannon, followed by
thousands of other sounds, which might be compared to the fusillade of
musketry.

"Great Heaven! What is that?" I said.

We crawled from the tent, but as yet could see nothing, whilst the yak
began to low in a terrified manner. But if we could not see we could
hear and feel. The booming and cracking had ceased, and was followed
by a soft, grinding noise, the most sickening sound, I think, to which
I ever listened. This was accompanied by a strange, steady, unnatural
wind, which seemed to press upon us as water presses. Then the dawn
broke and we saw.

The mountain-side was moving down upon us in a vast avalanche of snow.

Oh! what a sight was that. On from the crest of the precipitous slopes
above, two miles and more away, it came, a living thing, rolling,
sliding, gliding; piling itself in long, leaping waves, hollowing
itself into cavernous valleys, like a tempest-driven sea, whilst above
its surface hung a powdery cloud of frozen spray.

As we watched, clinging to each other terrified, the first of these
waves struck our hill, causing the mighty mass of solid rock to quiver
like a yacht beneath the impact of an ocean roller, or an aspen in a
sudden rush of wind. It struck and slowly separated, then with a
majestic motion flowed like water over the edge of the precipice on
either side, and fell with a thudding sound into the unmeasured depths
beneath. And this was but a little thing, a mere forerunner, for after
it, with a slow, serpentine movement, rolled the body of the
avalanche.

It came in combers, it came in level floods. It piled itself against
our hill, yes, to within fifty feet of the head of it, till we thought
that even that rooted rock must be torn from its foundations and
hurled like a pebble to the deeps beneath. And the turmoil of it all!
The screaming of the blast caused by the compression of the air, the
dull, continuous thudding of the fall of millions of tons of snow as
they rushed through space and ended their journey in the gulf.

Nor was this the worst of it, for as the deep snows above thinned,
great boulders that had been buried beneath them, perhaps for
centuries, were loosened from their resting-places and began to
thunder down the hill. At first they moved slowly, throwing up the
hard snow around them as the prow of a ship throws foam. Then
gathering momentum, they sprang into the air with leaps such as those
of shells ricocheting upon water, till in the end, singing and
hurtling, many of them rushed past and even over us to vanish far
beyond. Some indeed struck our little mountain with the force of shot
fired from the great guns of a battle-ship, and shattered there, or if
they fell upon its side, tore away tons of rock and passed with them
into the chasm like a meteor surrounded by its satellites. Indeed, no
bombardment devised and directed by man could have been half so
terrible or, had there been anything to destroy, half so destructive.

The scene was appalling in its unchained and resistless might evolved
suddenly from the completest calm. There in the lap of the quiet
mountains, looked down upon by the peaceful, tender sky, the powers
hidden in the breast of Nature were suddenly set free, and,
companioned by whirlwinds and all the terrifying majesty of sound,
loosed upon the heads of us two human atoms.

At the first rush of snow we had leapt back behind our protecting peak
and, lying at full length upon the ground, gripped it and clung there,
fearing lest the wind should whirl us to the abyss. Long ago our tent
had gone like a dead leaf in an autumn gale, and at times it seemed as
if we must follow.

The boulders hurtled over and past us; one of them, fell full upon the
little peak, shattering its crest and bursting into fragments, which
fled away, each singing its own wild song. We were not touched, but
when we looked behind us it was to see the yak, which had risen in its
terror, lying dead and headless. Then in our fear we lay still,
waiting for the end, and wondering dimly whether we should be buried
in the surging snow or swept away with the hill, or crushed by the
flying rocks, or lifted and lost in the hurricane.

How long did it last? We never knew. It may have been ten minutes or
two hours, for in such a scene time loses its proportion. Only we
became aware that the wind had fallen, while the noise of grinding
snow and hurtling boulders ceased. Very cautiously we gained our feet
and looked.

In front of us was sheer mountain side, for a depth of over two miles,
the width of about a thousand yards, which had been covered with many
feet of snow, was now bare rock. Piled up against the face of our
hill, almost to its summit, lay a tongue of snow, pressed to the
consistency of ice and spotted with boulders that had lodged there.
The peak itself was torn and shattered, so that it revealed great
gleaming surfaces and pits, in which glittered mica, or some other
mineral. The vast gulf behind was half filled with the avalanche and
its debris. But for the rest, it seemed as though nothing had
happened, for the sun shone sweetly overhead and the solemn snows
reflected its rays from the sides of a hundred hills. And we had
endured it all and were still alive; yes, and unhurt.

But what a position was ours! We dared not attempt to descend the
mount, lest we should sink into the loose snow and be buried there.
Moreover, all along the breadth of the path of the avalanche boulders
from time to time still thundered down the rocky slope, and with them
came patches of snow that had been left behind by the big slide, small
in themselves, it is true, but each of them large enough to kill a
hundred men. It was obvious, therefore, that until these conditions
changed, or death released us, we must abide where we were upon the
crest of the hillock.

So there we sat, foodless and frightened, wondering what our old
friend Kou-en would say if he could see us now. By degrees hunger
mastered all our other sensations and we began to turn longing eyes
upon the headless body of the yak.

"Let's skin him," said Leo, "it will be something to do, and we shall
want his hide to-night."

So with affection, and even reverence, we performed this office for
the dead companion of our journeyings, rejoicing the while that it was
not we who had brought him to his end. Indeed, long residence among
peoples who believed fully that the souls of men could pass into, or
were risen from, the bodies of animals, had made us a little
superstitious on this matter. It would be scarcely pleasant, we
reflected, in some future incarnation, to find our faithful friend
clad in human form and to hear him bitterly reproach us for his
murder.

Being dead, however, these arguments did not apply to eating him, as we
were sure he would himself acknowledge. So we cut off little bits of his
flesh and, rolling them in snow till they looked as though they were
nicely floured, hunger compelling us, swallowed them at a gulp. It was a
disgusting meal and we felt like cannibals: but what could we do?

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A week later came our opportunity of making this ascent of themountain, for now in mid-winter it ceased storming, and hard frost setin, which made it possible to walk upon the surface of the snow.Learning from the monks that at this season /ovis poli/ and otherkinds of big-horned sheep and game descended from the hills to takerefuge in certain valleys they scraped away the snow to findfood, we announced that we were going out to hunt. The excuse we gavewas that we were suffering from confinement and needed exercise,having by the teaching of our religion no scruples about killing game.Our
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