The Lady of the Lift
THE LADY OF THE LIFT
IT was the Man from Winchester who gave her that name: the Man who was Swiss godfather and godmother to half the hotel. Whiskers and the Suffragite, the Meenister and the Limit, were a few more of his baptismal efforts;, but it is only fair to state that he called us these things behind our respective backs, whereas we called him Man to his impudent little laughing face. The one exception to a redeeming rule was the Lady of the Lift, who delighted in her nom d'hôtel and made much of its inventor. The Man was in fact a sufficiently healthy and hearty specimen of the young barbarian; but though doubtless a very small molecule at Winchester, where he had but finished his first term, it must be confessed that there was a good deal of him at the Alpine haunt to which his people had brought him for the Christmas holidays.
It was one of those spots to which half one's friends flock nowadays in the latter part of December, to return with the complexions of Choctaws all too early in the New Year. A group of gay hotels, with as many balconies as a pagoda, and an unpopular annex in the background, had broken out upon a plateau among the dazzling peaks. Snow of an almost incandescent purity and brilliance rose in huge uncouth chunks against a tropically blue sky; the softened shapes of mountains lay buried underneath; and snow clung in great gouts to the fir-trees, that bristled upon the lower slopes like darts from the blue. You had to freeze for hours on a sledge, skimming dizzy ledges, climbing all the time, to reach this fairy fastness from the nearest railway. But it was worth the freezing, even before the journey's end, if you made it by moonlight, as just before Christmas one did. And the hotels when you reached them (if only they really had reserved those rooms) were quite wonderfully managed and equipped: surely there are volumes in the fact that there was a lift in even one of them, a lift with a crimson velvet seat, where a poor lady could sit and watch the fun at nights, of it but not in it, and so not in the way at all, though accessible to chivalry not otherwise engaged.
The poor lady! That was her life in the hotel; and everybody was sorry for her except herself. It seemed such a sad-case. The exact trouble was unknown—she never spoke of herself—but its outward sign was a crutch. And her face was so young, and her hair so gray! But younger than her face was the whole spirit of the Lady of the Lift: her humor, her courage, her breezy outlook on life, her keen interest in everybody and everything. And the cruel part of it was that nature had cast her in athletic mould, that in fact she had excelled at those very sports which she was now constrained to watch at a distance from the bedroom balcony where she took her modicum of open air.
Madame Faivre she was called to her face; and her English was just a little broken. But who she had been formerly, who or what her husband, or any other detail of her sad life, nobody knew or even pretended to know, with the possible exception of old Whiskers, and he was both vague in his ideas and chary of expressing them.
Old Whiskers, so dubbed by young Winchester on account of a somewhat feline or Teutonic moustache, was an Alpine veteran who climbed in summer and curled in winter. He was understood to improve the equinoxes in some scholastic capacity at Oxford. The personality of Madame Faivre quite worried Whiskers for a day or two after his arrival; he could have sworn that he had met her somewhere, and so he told her with the easy modest sociability which made him another favorite himself.
"It was before I gave up skating," said Whiskers. "I can't help feeling that we've skated together, somewhere or other."
"It must have been many years ago," said madame. "I also have given it up quite young. I have had a weak ankle. I have to thank that ankle also for this crutch."
Whiskers felt embarrassed. He was in fact the first to be informed that the lady's infirmity was originally due to an accident; but he kept the information to himself, and discussed Madame Faivre no more with his hotel acquaintances. He felt he had already committed a minor breach of tact and taste; he made amends with many little deferential attentions; but still the vague memory, the elusive association, would cause him a certain amount of mental exasperation whenever they met, as a riddle of no consequence that yet refused to be given up.
Then an old skating friend turned up, and was turned away, without so much as seeing the rooms he had engaged seven weeks before; but he did insist on having his lunch, and parenthetically he solved the mystery for Whiskers at a glance.
"Remember her! Why, of course I remember her; don't you?" And he whispered the maiden name for which Whiskers had racked his brain in vain.
But Whiskers was getting to the age at which memory begins to fail; he was not immediately the wiser.
"I seem to remember the name at Davos one year," he said. "Or was it St. Moritz?"
"Davos. I should think you did remember it!"
"Well, for one reason you used to skate with her every day; you were about the best pair there."
"So I told her!" cried Whiskers.
"You don't mean to say she denied it?"
"Certainly; no recollection whatever, so she said."
The old skating friend came up to Whiskers's good ear. They were waiting in the hall for lunch, and the lady as usual was waiting in the lift, had indeed gone up and down in it more than once rather than relinquish her favorite seat. But now she hung at anchor a few inches above the level of the hall, exchanging the sprightliest and kindest glances with all the hungry, bright red faces, just in from sun and snow.
"Of course you know why she denies it?" whispered the old skating friend.
"I suppose she's forgotten me too."
"How long is it ago?"
"Seven or eight years, I suppose."
"That's it, then; we've both aged."
"She has, if you like!" said the skating friend. "She looks twenty years older—might be another woman altogether—but she isn't, by Jove! Don't look, but she's got her eye on us now."
She had, though she was rallying her young Man at the same time, and he her with perfectly unintelligible Winchester repartee. Whiskers begged his friend to refresh a treacherous memory.
"Well," began the other, "it was such a terrific scandal at the time …"
Whiskers did remember the whole thing. It made him grave. His friend, about to be turned back through the snow, vowing an Englishman's vengeance in the Times, and really only distracted from his grievance by seeing and hearing about the Lady of the Lift, now took a mordant satisfaction in pouring vitriolic comments on the forgotten scandal into the good ear that Whiskers was lending him perforce. That ripe gray scholar listened grudgingly; more than once he begged for a lower whisper; and it was through him that the pair stayed behind in the hall when all the rest had trooped off to luncheon.
"It's a good many years ago," the old boy said. "She must have married and settled down since then, and had a hard time of it at that, I'm afraid; it's most awfully bad luck our crossing her path like this. She shall never know I spotted her. Women should always have another chance. And this one has been smashed up into the bargain: an accident, I gather: probably one of those infernal motors. I must look after her a bit more. Remember her? Do you remember her rocking turns and three-change-threes?"
Old Whiskers was as good as his word; at least he was as good to the poor lady as she would allow him to be. Now he remembered her better every time he saw her, and marvelled more and more at the change which a few short years had wrought in her. At sixty he himself looked to all intents and purposes as good a man as he had been at fifty-three; the salt had gained upon the pepper in his hair and moustache; his mirror advised him of no graver change. Yet here was a fine athletic girl transformed into a decrepit elderly lady in little more than a lustrum. Nemesis had handled her very roughly; her present case was sufficient punishment for any past, even for that which seemed incredible when one looked upon the bright young smile under the beautiful silver hair. Old Whiskers was not sure but that it was an improvement, that hair!
It was about all he saw of Madame Faivre for a day or two; she held her nightly court in the lift when the young people were dancing in the hall, but the next time her elderly admirer approached she seized the lever herself and shot straight into the upper stories. He was waiting for the lift, however, if not for her, when she came floating down again with a book, and by means of an adroit compliment he got her to take him up again for his pipe. Nor did he immediately desert the lift in favor of younger blood on their return to the hall level.
"My waltzing days are over," said he, with a cunning sigh, as they looked out over the dancers, he loading his pipe particle by particle with pauses in between.
"So are mine," said she, falling into the trap set for her sympathy.
He looked at her with a kindling eye.
"Ever waltz on the ice, Madame?"
"Very badly, half a century ago!"
He laughed politely. "Ah! that's dancing," he said; "it makes all this sort of thing look silly."
The pipe got itself slowly, very slowly, loaded while he bragged about his own skating without asking any more questions about hers; until just as he was going, match in hand.
"Ever try a rocking turn?" he said.
"Never," she smiled, confidently.
"Or a three-change-three?"
"No more have I," he said, "for about a century by your reckoning, and I suppose I never shall again."
It was all very wanton, and at first he could not think why he had done it; but a little intellectual probing transfixed the reason in due time. It was not the romance which the knowing Man detected with such glee, and reported with strange epithets to his particular friends. Whiskers was not that kind of old fool; neither was he a crabbed bachelor with "no use for" the average woman. He could talk to her, on the contrary, with extreme cleverness and vivacity if she had any brains at all, with a hard sparkle in the worst of cases. He would even reason with the Suffragite. He liked talking to Madame Faivre; he would have loved madame to talk to him. He might have helped her. He heard himself sympathizing, advising, bracing her with advice. There was no woman in his life who had any need of his advice or sympathy. He had broad ideas, a generous judgment of all but intellectual shortcomings; he would have been glad to show himself in those colors, for they were his true ones, though he had seldom had a chance of running them up on the high seas of life.
That was all; it was a fairly frequent thought, never an obsession. Whiskers was out to enjoy himself, and he did that daily and hourly on the rink. He had given up skating, as he said, but he had taken to curling, and he loved the game; it appealed to his intellect and humor; he would caper like a boy, would "soop up" like a good Galloway Scot. His daily foe was the Meenister; the Meenister currr-r-r-led. Watching them in twinkling skates and grubby sweater, the volatile figure of the small Wykehamist might be seen a mile off; it was worth skating that way to note his impudent little nose creased up in delight at dialogue and antics alike; luckily the little devil wasn't there on the dreadful day when the Meenister used a much worse word!
The one to spread that scandal was the Limit, a swarthy plutocrat blessed with the most olive of olive-branches, whom the Man nevertheless described as "a hectic crowd." The Limit wore rings on his fingers and diamonds in the rings. The Limit had the most extensive wardrobe in the hotel, and Mrs. Limit glittered all over like a jeweller's window at table-d'hôte. These statements seem due to a natural talent for nomenclature which was usually apposite and often inoffensive.
The whole party, despite a capacity for internecine strife latent in several of the tithe who have now been mentioned, got on admirably together until the second week in January, when the weather played them false. It had been ideal up to then: hard blue skies, hard black frosts, and no more snow. Everybody slid everywhere on a luge, or dragged it cheerfully up the hill; bob-sleighs were in favor, but the place had not risen to the perilous luxury of an ice-run for true tobogganing. There was dancing every evening in all the hotels; there was even a combined fancy-dress ball, at which the Man—but enough of that valued contributor to the general gaiety. The thing was a success. The Lady of the Lift, who never left it all night, provided the only memorable instance of plain clothes; she made no change from the black crepon skirt which she wore day and night, with now one upper garment, now another; to-night it was merely the jet bodice of most nights, and yet Mrs. Limit in all her diamonds was often a lonely figure, but there was always a bevy about the lift.
That night the snow began. The next day it never stopped. The rink was covered, swept, covered deeper than ever, and finally deserted by disconsolate meenisters, scholars, and skating tag-rag. Because the London papers had never been so keenly desired, the afternoon sledge never came up with them; luckily there was a telephone to allay anxiety; luckily, indeed, for every reason. It was already the one remaining line of communication with the outer world. The mountain road was practically obliterated by the snow. The very contour of the mountains seemed more generous, less angular. The snow fell straight and thick as rain from a windless sky, in tiny flakes. It stuck everywhere, followed the minutest shape of everything, bent the slenderest twig under a coating three times its own thickness. It turned the telephone wires into thick white ropes that you lost against the roof from which they sprouted, but followed for miles against the darkling pines. The Limits played bridge, the Man was sadly spoiling for Winchester, the admirable Whiskers set about organizing an afternoon entertainment, and the Lady of the Lift told fortunes there for a local charity.
She was the life and soul of the place while things were at their worst, the witch who drew her children round her like the Pied Piper, only without piping, by just being herself and making play with a pack of cards and her own simple ready wit. Her hands, it was noted in this connection, were as smooth as her face; and the cruelty of the affliction that so aged her was more than ever emphasized by the splendid spirits which she not only maintained herself but infused into many of the most dejected sportsmen of both sexes.
But she grew paler under the strain; she had her very meals in the lift, despite draughts and cold; and after luncheon on the second day they found her there fast asleep.
"Why persevere in this extraordinary eccentricity?" asked old Whiskers in quite, a fatherly fashion. "To sit in a chilly lift by the hour together! Where can the fun come in?"
"I do it not for fun," she said.
"Then why do you do it?"
"Cannot you guess?"
"You used to say it was to see what was going on."
"It was true."
"But nothing has been going on to-day, except your own most philanthropic sideshow."
"Then why conduct it here? Why not transfer your court to a warm room?"
She smiled faintly.
"Could you keep it to yourself if I told you?"
"I won't give you away, Madame!" he exclaimed with some cordiality.
"It's because—by remaining in the lift—I—I have only one walk—to and from my room!"
He was horrified; she saw that he was, and signalled to the lift-boy.
"I will take your advice," she said, "and go to my room perhaps for the rest of the afternoon, if it has also finished to snow. Thank you very much for all your kindness." And up she went out of his ken, smiling down upon his blank upturned face.
It really had "finished to snow"—for the time being. That was why poor old Whiskers had come to have the Lady of the Lift to himself even for five minutes. The young people had all trooped out to see what could be done. It was just thawing. The Man shot a snowball with deadly aim at a young Limit, who ran off yelping to papa over his cigar and cognac in their private sitting-room. The missile had travelled like a cricket-ball till it went asunder on the nape of little Limit's neck, which it ran down like a waterfall.
The snow was declared to be "absolutely plumb" by the expert author of this dastardly attack; but the sky was black with more snow that might begin falling any minute. If an attack was to be made upon any or all of the other hotels, or a pitched battle fought with them in the open ("an' what for no?" cries the worthy Meenister), there's no time to be lost in manufacturing a casus belli (as Whiskers puts it), but a bloodthirsty challenge must be despatched at once. Budding Winchester takes it on his skis; he is not a Man any longer, but a boy of boys, his face flushed and his eyes shining for the fray. It comes on in incredibly few minutes. All are eager after it. A combat of the true Homeric type is soon raging in the snow; the aggressors become the defenders before they know where they are, or rather why they are back upon their hotel terrace. It is because the smaller hotels have converged upon them from three points of the compass. Hurrah! Three cheers for the Beau Site and Winchester! A bas Kurhaus—Belvedere—all the rotten lot!
Grand how the young boy hurls taunt and insult with his explosive cricket-balls; grander still to see "the old birds," "the old pets," "the stone-age gang," as he has called them behind their backs, shying, shouting, ducking, dodging with the best. Old Whiskers has not loosened some muscles so freely since cricket gave him up. The Suffragite is naturally to the front, and "Votes for Women!" becomes the bad boy's cry. He may say what he likes to anybody now. He has wiped out all his sins by bringing about this glorious battle, by his own heroic bearing in the van.
"Good shot, Daddy!"
"Look out, Mummy!"
That's the little dog both times; they will make something of him at Winchester yet. This is his show, remember! "I began it," he may boast all his days; for the least likely, the meekest, the quietest, the most stay-at-home-by-the-fire, all were in it before the end. O that Meenister! There were those who vowed they heard him railing to himself against "yon deevil," a prominent opponent, as he squeezed the snow from his beard. Even the unworthy Limit gathered great handfuls on his sitting-room balcony, where he and his were impregnably ensconced, and hurled them down like rocks upon the foe. …
And the whole thing has nothing whatever to do with the Lady of the Lift!
But the immediate sequel had.
In the first place they were asked not to make more noise than they could help, when they came in tramping and shouting, and some of the invaders with them for a drink. Madame Faivre had taken to her bed. She only begged not to be disturbed. But the good maître d'hôtel would have taken upon himself to telephone down for a doctor; but there, what could you expect in such cold weather? The telephone had broken down. No; it was no use trying the other hotels; his was the main wire, of which they were mere extensions. The whole humming, glittering plateau was cut off from the world. As well cross the mountains on skis, and drop down into Innsbrück, as risk an avalanche on the precipitous pass down to the railway miles below; for the first exploit infinite knowledge and experience of the country would be requisite, for the second an infinity of good luck.
The entire crowd were in the fine big hall or lounge, their tanned and burnt faces glowing like lamps in the dusk, their voices hushed with one consent. It was sad to see the lift standing empty. None entered it, though many must have wished to sit down aloof, and more to be spirited upstairs. There was a consensus of vague feeling about it, and a well-known voice could be heard piping quite respectfully: "Poor old girl! She had her agony duck on all the morning!" Those who want to know what he meant had better apply to his alma mater.
Suddenly a bombshell burst on the assembly.
"Herr Breitstein! Herr Breitstein!" It was the Limit flying down the stairs. "We've been robbed, sir, robbed of everything in your confounded hotel, confound you!"
"’Sh! 'sh! 'sh!" went Herr Breitstein, as sharply as the sound allowed. "There's a lady ill upstairs."
"Confound the lady!"
"Shame! Shame!" And a treble voice: "Didn't I tell you he was the Limit?"
"Well, she's probably been robbed as well," said the Limit, finding himself an unpopular figure on the stairs. "I advise everybody with valuables to go and see to them; we've lost all ours, and they were worth something, as you know."
This took three or four ladies upstairs apace, including the Winchester mamma.
A mechanic appeared with a little bag while they were gone, and began talking German to mine host.
"Herr Je!" cries the good man, excitedly. "Do you know what he tell me, shentlemen? Our telephone wires have been cut, mit some sharbp imblement, on ziss side of ze inzulador outside ze top badroom vindow!"
Imagine the twin wires, thickened into ropes of snow, vanishing and reappearing against snow and trees for miles and miles, looking like live rails back to the world, yet being dead all the time!
The three or four anxious ladies were back upon the stairs behind the Limit before useful comment had emerged from the general consternation. They also had each lost something—a watch—a bracelet—a garnet necklace—whatever of any value they had left behind them in their rooms.
"But my little lot are worth about fifteen 'undred quid," cried the Limit, loudly. Nobody bid against him; but the good landlord again very properly checked the vociferous tone employed, repeating his reason on poor Madame Faivre's behalf. The name struck the lift-boy, struck a spark of memory that lit him up like a lamp. He struggled toward Herr Breitstein with roseate cheeks, and had his ears boxed for his pains the moment he ceased gabbling.
"Do you know what he tell me, ziss wretched poy? He zee a voman come out of ze room of Madame Faivre—fine young voman—ze tief, shentlemen, ze tief if she haf not also murdered madame!"
Up they rushed in a breathless bevy. There was no answer to their knocks, their hammering, their united shouts. The mechanic was called up to pick the lock; mine host was not going to send good money after bad blood. But no blood had been shed; no madame was there; but her crutch was, and her crepon skirt, and the jet bodice among others. …
It was the Suffragite who put the whole case beyond doubt. She disappeared suddenly, was back in a minute, and broke in breathless:
"I know what else has gone—my skis—and she always told me they were the best in the hotel!"
There was a shocked pause, hardly broken by a really carefully whispered: "Votes for Women!" It was poor Whiskers who spoke the first word aloud.
"Good God!" said he. "And I'd quite forgotten she was as good on skis as on skates!"
They turned on him like one man.
"Did you know her before?"
"Where did you know her?"
"What do you know about her?"
"I met her once at Davos years ago."
"Davos!" cried mine host. "Zey had such a case zere in 'ninety-nine, shoost such a case, shentlemen!"
"Oh, did they?" says Whiskers without a blush; and that was all he ever did say on the subject.
But the Man from Winchester is fairly entitled to the last word; it took him some time to think it out, and his hearers come to see his point.
"On the whole," said he, "I wasn't so far wrong, was I, when I called her the lady of the lift?"