“Ouf! Stop a minute, Nell! Let me catch my breath!”
The tall woman, the woman with the curling chestnut hair and the determined chin, laughed as she paused and looked back at her red-faced colleague, who had stopped a little way down the path and was bending over slightly, resting her hands on her thighs and panting with exertion.
“Lazy object!” she teased, one hand on her hip and the other resting on one of the boulders that lined the mountain path. “You haven’t had enough practice in term-time, my dear Hilda. You should be able to run up a mountain like this!”
“That is abject nonsense,” the woman named Hilda returned calmly as she straightened up and flexed her aching calf muscles. “Only a trained mountaineer, which I have never pretended to be, could “run up” a path like this. Just look at it!” she added, turning and casting her gaze down the rock-littered path that wound precipitously up the side of the great mountain they were climbing. “It’s nothing compared with our little mountains at home!”
“I’m managing,” observed Nell, with a twinkle in her eye.
“You’re used to it,” Hilda pointed out, clambering up the path to join her friend. “Every weekend you’ve had free you’ve spent up a mountain somewhere, you and Con…”
She broke off, remembering, but Nell’s eyes had hardened and she turned away without a word, resuming the climb, leaving Hilda to follow after her, wishing the last words unsaid and mentally rueing her uncharacteristic lack of tact.
“Fool!” she told herself. “Why didn’t you think?” Then her thoughts softened, and turned from her own iniquities to her friend. “Poor Nell. It’s hard for us all, but especially so for her. I wish there was something I could do…”
Her heart tugged at her - a little, jealous tug - but she pushed the feeling aside and set herself to following after Nell. She was hopeful of catching her and trying to cheer her with a little conversation, but soon she found her breath heaving rapidly and talking became impossible – she could only set one booted foot in front of the other and hope that her knees remained strong enough to hold her up until they reached the next plateau.
“Oh, whyever did I agree to this mountaineering trip?” she demanded of herself, hefting her slender weight forwards and upwards until, finally, to her abject relief, the plateau appeared. It materialised in that abrupt way that mountain plateaus tend to do; Nell arrived first and stopped, as Hilda came scrambling after her, and turned to look out over the valley below them. The hardness which had lurked sullenly in her eyes since the mention of Con Stewart lessened and an expression of wonder crept into them, a fact which did not go unnoticed by Hilda, who stumbled up the final few feet to join her and smiled privately to see the softness in her usually pragmatic colleague’s face.
“I presume this means it was worth the effort?” she asked breathlessly, and without waiting for an answer she turned, and caught her breath at the wonder of the sight before her. Two thousand feet below them was the valley floor, a tangled riot of pine woods and small villages, opening out into a pear-shaped lake, ringed with dark trees, an azure mirror in which glinted reflections of the silvery clouds and frosted mountaintops that rose above it on all sides. The craggy flanks of the Dolomite mountains climbed high over their heads, mottled where the snow touched the peaks and the great boulders broke through, in harsh relief against the blank whiteness. The sun had broken through in patches and illuminated fragments of the mountains and the valley, and the fingers of light that stretched down from the ragged holes in the clouds reminded Hilda of Jacob’s Ladder of angels. Only the hand of God could have wrought such beauty, she thought, and felt suddenly close to her Creator.
“Now I know why I let myself be dragged along on this expedition,” she murmured to Nell, who smiled, all stiffness gone, and sighed deeply.
“It’s worth it,” she replied. “It’s certainly worth it, for a view like this. But,” she added briskly, “this is nothing compared to the view from the top – and if we’re to get there and down again before night, we’d better press on.”
“What?” Beauty forgotten, Hilda turned and threw her friend a desperate look. “Can’t I stop and look at the view for a few more minutes? Just until I get some feeling back into my feet?”
“Don’t be silly!” returned Nell, as she turned and strode off along the plateau. “It’s quite easy after this!”
“Easy?!” Hilda hurried after her friend, her aching feet grumbling at every step. “You call this “easy”?”
“Absolutely,” replied Nell energetically. “It’s the bit near the top that you need to worry about. Now that is quite…tricky.”
“What? Are you telling me this gets worse? Oh, why on earth did I let you persuade me to come on this trip!”
“For the views, remember?”
And, arguing companionably along the way, the two friends marched along the plateau, up the mountain path and off into the distance.