Chapter Seventeen.

A Night of Terror.

“For the strength of the hills we bless Thee,
    Our God, our Father’s God;
Thou hast made our spirits mighty,
    By the touch of the mountain sod!”

“Here you all are, then,” said the cheerful voice of Mr Kennedy, as Julian, Eva, and Cyril, followed by the guide, entered the little Mürrem Inn.

“Here are three of us,” answered Julian; “haven’t Edward and Violet arrived? Not having seen them for the last half-hour, I fancied they must have got before us by some short cut.”

“No, they’ve not come yet. Fortunately for you, Eva, Aunt Dudley is very tired and has gone to bed,” he said laughing, “otherwise you would have got a scolding for not taking better care of Violet.”

“Oh, then, they must be close behind somewhere for certain,” said Julian; “they could not have missed the path—it lay straight before us the whole way.”

“Well, I hope they’ll be in soon, for it begins to look lowering. I’ve ordered tea for you; make haste and come down to it. You’re ready for tea, Cyril, I have no doubt.”

Rather!” said Cyril, reviving; for fatigue had made him very quiet during the last half-hour. And, indeed, the tempting-looking display on the table, the bright teapot, and substantial meal, and amber-coloured honey, would have allured a more fastidious appetite.

They ran up-stairs to make themselves comfortable before having tea and retiring to bed, and on re-entering the warm and glowing room, their first question was, “Have they come?”

“No,” said Mr Kennedy, anxiously, and even the boy’s face grew grave and thoughtful as Julian rose from the tea-table and said, “I must go and search for them.”

He seized his straw hat, put on his boots again, and ran out, calling on the guide to accompany him. They took out with them a lighted torch, but it was instantly extinguished by the streaming rain. Julian and the guide shouted at the top of their voices, but heard no sound in reply; and the darkness was now so intense, that it was madness to proceed farther amid that howling storm.

They ran back to the inn, where the rest sat round the table, pale and trembling with excessive fear. In reply to their hasty questions, Julian could only shake his head sorrowfully.

“The guide says that in all probability they must have been overtaken by the storm, and have run to some chalet for refuge. If so, they will be safe and well-treated till the morning.”

“You children had better go to bed,” said Mr Kennedy to Eva and Cyril, who reluctantly obeyed. “You cannot be of any help, and directly the storm begins to abate, Julian and I will go and find the others.”

“Oh, papa,” sobbed Eva; “poor Eddy and Violet! What will become of them? Perhaps they have been struck by the lightning.”

“They are in God’s hand, dearest,” he said, tenderly kissing her tearful face, “as we all are. In His hand they are as safe as we.”

“In God’s hand, dear Eva,” said Julian, as he bade her good-night. “Go to sleep, and no doubt they will be here safe before you awake.”

“I shall not sleep, Julian,” she whispered; “I shall go and pray for their safety. Dear, dear Eddy and Violet.”

Cyril lingered in the room.

“Do let me stay up with you, Julian. I couldn’t sleep—indeed, I couldn’t; and I might be of some use when morning comes, and when you go to look for them. Do let me stay, Julian.”

Julian could not resist his brother’s wish, though Mr Kennedy thought it best that the boy should go to bed.

So they compromised matters by getting him to lie down on the sofa, while they sat up, and stared out of the windows silently into the rain. How wearily the time goes by when you dread a danger which no action can avert.

Meanwhile the objects of their anxiety had hurried up to the light, and found that it came from the ragged windows of an old tumble-down tenement, built of pine-boards which the sun had dried and charred, until they looked black and stained and forbidding. Going up the rotten wooden steps to the door, and looking through the broken windows, Kennedy saw two men seated, smoking, with a flaring tallow candle between them.

“Must we go in there?” asked Violet; and Kennedy observed how her arm and the tones of her voice were trembling with agitation.

“Isn’t it better than staying out in this dreadful storm?” said Kennedy. “The Swiss are an honest people, and I daresay these are herdsmen who will gladly give us food and shelter.”

Their voices had roused the inmates of the châlet, and both the men jumped up from their seats, while a large and fierce mastiff also shook himself from sleep, and gave a low deep growl.

Kennedy knocked at the door. A gruff voice bade him enter; and as he stepped over the threshold, the dog flew at him with an angry bark. Violet uttered a cry of fear, and Kennedy struck the dog a furious blow with the knobbed end of his alpenstock, which for the moment stunned the animal, while it drew down on the heads of the tired and fainting travellers a volley of brutal German oaths.

“Can you give us shelter?” said Kennedy, who spoke German with tolerable fluency. “We have lost our way, and cannot stay out in this storm.”

The man snarled an affirmative, and Violet observed with a shudder that he was an ill-looking, one-eyed fellow, with villainy stamped legibly on every feature. The other peasant looked merely stolid and dirty, and seemed to be little better than a cretin, as he sat heavily in his place without offering to stir.

“Can’t you give us some food, or at any rate some milk?—we have been to the top of the Schilthorn, and are very tired.”

The man brought out a huge coarse wooden bowl of goat’s milk, and some sour bread; and feeling in real need of food, they tried to eat and drink. While doing so, Kennedy noticed that Violet gave a perceptible start and looking up, observed the one eye of their grim entertainer intently fixed on the gold watch-chain which hung over his silk jersey. He stared the man full in the face, finished his meal, and then asked for a candle to show the lady to her room.

“No light but this,” said the Cyclops, as Kennedy mentally named him.

“Then you must lend me this.”

And taking it without more ado, he went first to the cupboard from which the milk had been produced, where seeing another dip, he coolly took it, lighted it, and pushed open the creaking door which opened on the close, damp closet which the man had indicated as the only place where Violet could sleep.

This room opened on another rather larger; and here, putting the candle on the floor, for the room, (if room it could be called), was destitute of all furniture, he spread his plaid on the ground over some straw, and said—

“Try to sleep here, Miss Home, till morning. I will keep watch in the outer room.”

He shut the door, went back to the two men, looked full at them both, and leaving them their candle, returned to the closet, where, fastening the door with his invaluable alpenstock, he sat on the ground by the entrance of Violet’s room. He heard her murmuring words of prayer, and knew well that she could not sleep in such a situation; but he himself determined to sit in perfect silence, to keep watch, and to commend himself and her, whom he now knew that he loved more than himself, in inward supplication to the merciful protection of their God and Father.

He felt a conviction that they had fallen into bad hands. The man’s anger had first been stirred by the severe wound which Kennedy had in self-defence inflicted on the dog, and now there was too much reason to dread that his cupidity had been excited by the sight of the gold chain, and by Violet’s ornaments, which gave promise that he might by this accident gain a wealthy prize.

After an interval of silence, during which he perceived that they listened at his door, and were deceived by his measured breathing into a notion that he was asleep, he noticed that they put out the candle, and continued to whisper in low thick voices. He was very very weary, his head nodded many times, and more than once he was afraid that sleep would overcome him, especially as he dared not stir or change his position; but the thought of Violet’s danger, and the blaze of the lightning mingled with the yell of the wind kept him watchful, and he spent the interminable moments in thinking how to act when the attack came.

At last, about an hour and a half after he had retired, he heard the men stir, and with a thrill of horror he detected the sound of guns being loaded. Violet’s candle was yet burning, as he perceived by the faint light under her door, so he wrote on a leaf of his pocket-book in the dark, “Don’t be afraid, Violet, whatever you may hear; trust in God,” and noiselessly pushed it under the crevice of the door into her room.

The muffled footsteps approached, but he never varied the sound of his regular breathing. At last came a push at the door, followed by silence, and then the whisper, “he has fastened it.” Still he did not stir, till he observed that they were both close against the door, and were preparing to force it open. Then guided by a swift instinctive resolution, he determined to trust to the effects of an unexpected alarm. Noiselessly moving his alpenstock, he suddenly and with all his force, dashed the door open, shouted aloud, and with his utmost violence swung round the heavy iron spike. A flash, the report of a gun, and a yell of anguish instantly followed; and as Violet in terror and excitement threw open her door, the light which streamed from it showed Kennedy in a moment that the foremost villain, startled by the sudden opposition, had accidentally fired off his gun, of which the whole contents had lodged themselves in the shoulder of his comrade.

This second man had also armed himself with a chamois-gun, which slipped out of his hands as he fell wounded to the ground. Springing forward Kennedy wrenched it out of his relaxing grasp, and presented it full at the head of the other, who, half-stunned with the blow he had received from the heavy iron-shod point of the ashen alpenstock, was crouching for concealment in the corner of the chalet.

“Violet,” he said, “all is now safe. These wretches are disarmed; if you like to take shelter here till the morning, I can secure you from any further attack. If you stir but an inch,” he continued, addressing the unwounded man, “I will shoot you dead. Lay down your gun.”

The man’s one eye glared with rage and hatred, but Kennedy still held the loaded gun at his head, and he was forced sullenly to obey. Kennedy put his foot upon the gun, and was in perplexity what to do next, fearing that the wounded murderer, who was moaning heavily, might nevertheless spring at him from behind, and also momentarily dreading an attack from the mastiff, who kept up a sullen growl.

“Let us leave this dreadful place,” said Violet, who, pale but undaunted at the horrors of the scene, had taken refuge by Kennedy’s side.

“Dare you pick up and carry the gun?” he asked. “It would be dangerous to leave it in their hands.”

Violet picked it up, where it lay under his feet, and then glided rapidly out of the châlet, while Kennedy slowly followed, never once taking his eye from his crouching antagonist. Before he stepped into the open air, he said to the men, “If I hear but one footstep in pursuit of us, I will shoot one of you dead.”

“Oh, what a relief to be on the mountain-turf once more!” said Violet in a low and broken whisper, as she grasped Kennedy’s arm, and he cautiously led her down a rude path, which was faintly marked a few hundred yards from the lonely cottage where they had been. “Are we safe now, do you think?”

“Yes, quite safe, Violet, I trust. They will not dare pursue me, now that their guns are gone, and I have this loaded one in my hand.”

“Dear brave Mr Kennedy. How shall I ever thank you enough for having saved my life so nobly? If you had not been so strong and watchful, we should both have now been killed.”

“I would die a thousand deaths,” he whispered, “to save you from the least harm, Violet. But you are tired, you must rest here till the dawn. Sit under this rock, dearest, and cover yourself with my plaid. I will keep watch still.”

She sat down wearily, and her head sank upon the rock. The storm was over: the thunder was still muttering like a baffled enemy in the distance, but the wind after its late fury was sobbing gently and fitfully like a repentant child. The rock gave her shelter, and after her fatigue and agitation she was sleeping peacefully, while Kennedy bowed down his head, and thanked God for the merciful protection which He had extended to them.

He had not been seated long when his eye caught the light of torches, being waved at a distance in the direction of the hotel. In an instant, he felt sure that Julian was come out to search for them, and gently awakening Violet, he told her with a thrill of joy that help was at hand. The torches drew nearer the place where they were seated, and he raised a joyous shout. As yet they were too far off to hear him, but suddenly it occurred to him to fire his gun. The flash and echoing report attracted their notice; the torches grew rapidly nearer; he could almost see the dark figures of those who carried them; and now in answer to his second shout came the hurried sound of familiar voices, and in five minutes more Julian and his father had grasped him by the hands, and Cyril had flung his arms round Violet’s neck.

And now at last Kennedy gave way to his emotion, and his highly-wrought feelings found relief in a burst of passionate tears. It was no time for questionings. Julian passed his arm round his sister’s waist, and, aided by Mr Kennedy, half-carried her to their hotel. Kennedy leaned heavily on the guide’s arm; the honest landlord, who accompanied the searching party, carried the plaid, the alpenstock, and one of the guns, and Cyril, impressed by the strange scene, carried the other gun, full of wondering conjecture what Kennedy could have been doing with it, and from whence it could have come.

And when Violet reached Eva’s room, in which she slept, she could only say, as they sat locked in a long embrace:—

“Dearest Eva, it is only through Edward that my life has been saved.”

Eva had never before heard Violet call her brother by his name, and she was glad at heart.

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