ORDEAL BY SNOW
With one plunge over the world’s rim he must salvage his pride and win a girl’s respect, though disaster curled sleepily in the bright sunlight
THRUSTING interminably upward, merging at star level with the numb, black night, the mountain towered like a frozen giant. Looking out through the ski lodge windows was like staring into onyx; he could not see the mountain’s gnarled, misshapen bulk. But Clark Patterson knew the mountain was there. Even when walking the streets of the city, or lying on the warm sand in summer, he knew it was there, always to stir recollections which grated mercilessly against the depth of his pride.
Like a few drops of rare wine, or a few grains of bitter quinine, he thought dully, sometimes the smallest things have the most lingering taste.
Three years earlier, in the glaring sunlit space of but two minutes, the mountain had bludgeoned its will against him. In that small episode he had received a lasting injury; not in body, but in mind and spirit. Its acrid flavor would not leave him.
The sigh came from deep inside his tall, loosely built frame, and his sensitive grey eyes were shadowed. Sometimes he wondered if anything he could ever do would restore the easy peace he had known before that day.
He missed that peace only fleetingly, but in such strength, as he did now, that the lack seemed always to have been with him.
He drank some of t he beer in his glass, decided it had gone flat, and stared again at the black sheet of night framed by the window. To that old and deep futility galling him, Clark realized, he could add a new one.
He had a reputation, he admitted. He had it, and didn’t want it, but didn’t know what to do with it. And it was costing him the only girl he ever had cared enough about to dread losing.
He sighed, and turned. The lodge, big, warm and smelling comfortably of pine, held the usual week-end crowd with its gay rise and fall of voices, the bright flakes of laughter, the occasional clumping of ski boots. Erratic flames danced happily in the big stone fireplace. His restless eyes searched for Pauline.
CHE was sitting beside a table at the far end of the long room, patiently turning the dials on an irascible radio. Jerry Dennet leaned against the table, his head low and an assertive smile on his dark face.
Clark paused beside them and summoned a grin. To Pauline, he said, “That thing hasn’t worked properly since it left the city. Don’t you ever give up?”
Jerry, short and stocky, stared impassively. “Well,” he said. “El Lobo—I didn’t hear you howl.”
Clark held the grin on his lips, but some of it left his eyes. Jerry wasn’t pulling punches, which could mean that he had found Pauline interesting, too.
Clark said, “Let me get you guys a beer.”
“I’ll get it,” Jerry said and moved away.
Clark looked long after him. Pauline’s voice came low and pleasantly. “This is wonderful, Clark. A city gets to be a cooped-up place, doesn’t it? I’m glad you asked me to come.”
It was polite, he thought, and cool. Her voice didn’t give him an inch. It hadn’t, since shortly after their arrival. She was clever, and intelligent, and even in a light vein the other girls could have said something to touch off a wariness in her.
Regardless, it was there. He had seen it growing beneath her manner, somewhat like the attitude of a lamb suddenly aware of the presence of shears. He wanted to tear it down, but the reputation and the mountain and the futility were so inextricably
snarled together that he knew mere words would not do it.
She said, “Your friends are nice.”
Eire glow danced along the strong planes and the soft curves of her face. Her mouth was a shade too wide for perfection, but he liked the generous tolerance it gave her smile. “He’s a good skier, isn’t he?”
“Yes. Did he tell you?”
She laughed. “I managed to gather as much.”
He liked the laugh, and the gentle forbearance in it which he could appreciate. Somehow there didn’t seem to be enough of that to go around.
HIS interest in her had been quick, and growing;
so alive it had at first startled him, then touched him with a warmness and hope. It had been that way almost from the start. She was secretary to one of Clark’s new customers. In the process of obtaining a large order for photo supplies, he had seen her frequently. Perhaps her smile had been a little warmer, her kindliness a little more than was customary from efficient secretaries. He
talked easily with her, and when she mentioned she enjoyed skiing he had offered the invitation.
They had a dinner date before she accepted. That, and the long motor trip into the mountains, had let him discover more about her, and he liked all of it.
But since their arrival the doubt had stolen into her manner, and reflected against him. She had come downstairs with Gwen and a couple of other girls, and he had smiled and taken her hand. A trifle too quickly, she had withdrawn it.
A few moments later, sprawled beside her on the divan, he had rested his arm behind her. She had turned her head slowly, something faintly sceptical in her eyes; new, and enough to make him wonder. But more evident, was the coolness in her voice. “You’re quick on the draw, podner.”
He had said lightly, “Are my fangs showing?” But he withdrew his arm, and in a moment she had gotten up and was trying the radio.
Now he saw Jerry, trailed by big Art Polachek, come out of t he kitchen. As Jerry handed Pauline a glass, he said to Clark, “Done any racing lately?” Clark flushed. Art Polachek laughed, and held his glass to the light, studying the amber. “Going with us tomorrow, Clark?”
Pauline turned expectantly. “Jerry was telling me. It sounds like fun.”
“Could be,” replied Clark. “I’m for fun.”
“We’re going to tackle Sky Point.” Jerry stared at him. “May be our last chance before the season folds up—If you don’t want to go,” he added bluntly, “1 can look after Pauline.”
She started to speak, then held silence as though suddenly aware of a deeper significance in this exchange. Clark blinked, and sipped his flat beer.
Sky Point, was the wind-whipped summit, of the mountain whose flanks served as flowing, peaceable ski runs. Those lower runs had been sufficient for Clark and the majority of others in their short: week ends of skiing. Sky Point, however, towering above the pine-quilled valley like a fierce eagle hovering over a nest, was a strenuous two-hour climb above the main hill.
Only once had Clark made that journey. His face grew warm as his mind roved back those three years.
rpHE idea of his racing was something he had JL always found difficult to treat seriously. He had seldom found anything he wanted badly enough to cause him to extend himself, ski trophies included.
“Ski and let ski,” he had told Jerry and Art three years ago when they opened the subject. “Why should I bust myself in two for a little cup? Pretty, sure— but so is life.” He had grinned. “I’m no racer. That’s for you guys with all your brains in your feet. I’m not good enough. Besides, I don’t see any point, in it.”
Art, tall and broad, had squinted at him. “Maybe you don’t like competition.”
“I’ve never had to worry about it,” Clark said easily.
Jerry scowled. “You’re good enough, Patterson. Nobody expects you to win, but the club ought to have more guys entered. It’s the regionale, you know. If we make a good showing, it’ll be in all the papers. We’ll get more members.”
“And more money,” Clark pointed out, “for you race characters to spend on trips.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” answered Clark, “from your standpoint.”
Art said, “The course is going to be set on the main hill. You ski that all the time. It’ll be easy.”
Jerry stared at Clark. “You owe it to the club.”
That nettled him. “I keep my dues paid. I don’t leave my skis in the hall,
I turn off the lights when I leave and I don’t throw rocks at paying guests. I figure that keeps me square with the club.” He weighed the obvious scepticism in their expressions, and sighed. Sometimes, caring what people thought could be a dubious virtue. He wasn’t afraid, but there seemed no other way to convince them. “All right,” he said. “I’ll race.”
He had admitted to some misgiving when he learned that an unusual breath of warm weather had made the high face of Sky Point the only area in which snow conditions were suitable for the race. He had never skied Sky Point. He had never had a reason.
The mountain dropped sharply away, a perilous chute glistening beneath the pale rays of winter sun. The day of the race had turned bitterly cold. As he looked down that awesome plunge he gripped his poles tightly, feeling a numbness coming to his face and a stiffness through his legs.
A friendly gesture, a brief word might have chased that from him. It was only nervousness. But he had been alone except for the two thoroughly chilled officials who were too intent on getting him started to offer encouragement. He was the last to start down—and had fallen almost immediately.
He had floundered for fleeting balance, then rolled for a blinding, fearsome eternity that shocked the breath and wavering faith out of him. Cold and wet, he had regained his feet, only to sprawl and slide again on the icy facing. Panic ran through him as he felt a ski catch, felt the traplike grab of the mountain on his leg, felt the ski break free at the almost final moment.
He scrambled erect, still trying. Just once more, he thought desperately. In the next instant he had crouched quickly in an effort to regain control but was too late. Sitting in the snow, lungs gasping, humiliation flooded over him. He unfastened his ski bindings with fingers that shook. Head down, he walked heavily through the snow. In the group that met him stood Jerry and Art.
Jerry’s face was stony. “If you were hurt, it would be different. You quit.”
Clark had been badly shaken, and immediately read the expressions on Jerry and Art as speaking for the others. The contempt he saw hit him hard, but the fear still was fresh in him, at that moment overpowering his pride. He tightened his lips, and turned away. Behind him he heard Jerry say, “Did you see that? He just quit.”
Someone else said, “It was pretty rough.”
And Jerry said, “He quit.”
If it had been merely a fear, he could have conquered it. But added to it was the shock of complete humiliation. Too many had seen and heard, and he placed value on the opinions of others. He was proud, and thus could be shamed.
He had brought Gwen that week end. Later, in the lodge, she had gravitated toward Art, who was flushed with his victory. Clark had taken her home, driving in a thick silence, for ! Gwen wasn’t much help. He didn’t call j her for a few weeks. Then his vacation had come along, and when he returned he learned with a slight shock that she and Art had been married. *
He didn’t care, really, but no one believed that. Somehow, the assumption had grown that Art had taken her away from him.
Pride wouldn’t let him quit the club under these dark circumstances. He wouldn’t race again, Clark knew. The dread of further humiliation was too great. He would rather let that memory rest and ultimately die. But he thought that at least he could straighten out this misconception about his feeling toward Gwen.
It was with this motive that he began bringing many other girls to the lodge on week ends. He would show them all that a girl was just any girl to him. The simplicity of his plan, while not original, brought him a casual enjoyment. Suddenly, however, it had
boomeranged. He found he had
acquired a reputation.
Before he met Pauline, he had
managed to shrug it away with a wry hopelessness. He was beginning to
believe that it did not matter what anyone thought. Trying to please others had given him only bitterness.
BUT now three years later he could not shrug that reputation away. It was there, even though it had no basis in fact, to hold Pauline away from him.
For a brief moment he could think ruefully of the idiotic complexities of living. If he attempted to show Pauline how much he cared for her, she probably would think his motives were tarnished. Yet, if he didn’t make the attempt, how was she to know he cared?
The thoughts of his sad and bitter time had flashed through his mind as he stood beside her, sipping the beer. He studied Jerry. It seemed now that the old, sharp feeling between them no longer was the only reason for Jerry’s obvious hospitality. Jerry had been drawn to Pauline, too, to some measurable extent. And seeing only the immediate result, Jerry would like to discredit him—Clark drew a breath. A great deal more than a ski run, he realized, lay beneath the invitation to join them on Sky Point tomorrow.
Art and Jerry stood there, as though in a pact not to speak until he gave his answer. In this awkward silence, Pauline said hesitantly, “If you’re thinking of me, Clark—Jerry said I could make it all right.”
Art said easily, “Gwen goes every season.”
Clark’s voice tasted dry. “Gwen’s a good skier.”
Jerry turned to Pauline. “You can
take it easy.
“The men always take it fast—it’s a helluva ride.” He flashed a superior glance at Clark. “The girls take it slower, but they enjoy it.”
Her eyes were bright. “I’m just a fair skier, but I’d like to try it. It sounds—”
“Like fun,” Clark finished shortly. He was certain she would not go without him, and the prospect of being left to spend the day with her in a knowing, shaming duel of strained cordiality struggled with his dread of repeating that old humiliation.
Even atop Sky Point, Clark remembered, there was a way out. Handled properly, he might salvage his pride and avoid defeat. Whether or not he liked the color of it, it was a way. He stared bitterly at Jerry.
“Ease up,” he said. “We’ll go,”
LATER, at the door of the room j Pauline was sharing with three j other girls, Clark cleared his throat. “I hope you’ll be comfortable. It’s a big lodge. But if you’d rather be alone, there's a room down the hall—”
He saw her expression, and was suddenly stricken.
“Sometimes,” she said gently, “I think you hurt people without knowing it. Even yourself.”
He realized what she was thinking, and groaned aloud. “Pauline, it’s not —I wasn’t—”
“Force of habit?” Her tone was cool. She paused, and looked away. “I—I guess 1 wanted to be the one exception,” she said, as though she were a very little girl making a very big and impossible wish. She sighed, and stepped inside, and the door closed softly in his face.
SHORTLY before bright mid morning, they left the chair lift and attached the climbing skins whose bristles would give them traction against the steeply rising slopes. Clark’s heart pounded as he straightened and looked into the glistening distance.
They were below timber line. Closely ranged pine trees strayed in a green, ragged formation for perhaps a thousand feet above them. The route lay through these trees and up onto the hard white shoulder of the mountain. Along that open, higher path, disaster curled sleepily in the glaring sunlight. From the shoulder, rising into the forbidding peak of Sky Point, steep sides plunged away into pine-darkened ravines.
Beside him, Pauline said softly, “It’s beautiful.”
“Great,” he said, without enthusiasm for the sight, or for the plan in his mind.
“Light and shadow,” she murmured, gazing through the pattern of the trees.
“Now say that’s life,” he suggested dryly.
Her face was sober. “But—it is.” They began climbing. Through several weeks, the snow had melted and frozen, and had settled well until it had a glazed appearance. It was not crusty, but more like shaved ice.
They paused to rest. Clark .set his skis sideways into the slope, and sat on them. Tiny rivulets of sweat trickled into his eyes. His shirt was sticking to his shoulders. He said flatly, “Grim,, isn’t it?”
Pauline’s smile was full. “I’ll be stiff for a week. But it’s perfect. Look at the trees down there. So green against the snow.”
“Hit one of those pretty green trees,” said Clark with a sidelong glance, “and you’ll be stiff a lot longer than a week.” It was effort to keep on with this, but he had told himself this was the only way out, and now he tried to believe it. “This mountain is treacherous.”
“Really?” Her eyes clouded. “It’s steep,” she admitted, “but Jerry said—”
“Jerry’s an expert,” he broke in. “And you haven’t skied much this season. But don’t worry. Wait until we get to the top. Then, if it looks too tough, I can bring you down another way. It takes longer, but it’s easier.”
“Oh.” She paused. “The road?” He tried, but couldn’t quite meet her eyes. “Yes. There’s snow on it.”
She was silent. “We’ll see when we get there,” he said, not looking at Pauline, not daring to look at himself.
BADLY winded, they removed their skis on the narrow plateau atop Sky Point, and rested. Presently Jerry came toward them. To Pauline he said, “You’d better follow Gwen. She’ll take it easy. Start slow, lots of turns; even snowplow, if you have
to—” He glanced at Clark. “Let’s go.” “This might be too tough for Pauline,” Clark said with a thoughtful air. “I don’t know. I had forgotten how steep this thing was.”
“Forgotten?” echoed Jerry, as though such a possibility strained credulity. He laughed.
Clark felt the blood pounding through his face. He said doggedly, “I don’t want her to get hurt. It isn’t worth it.”
“But—I don’t want to ski the road alone,” Pauline said slowly.
It was his chance; the way out. Jerry and the others could never know whether taking the road had been Clark’s choice—or Pauline’s. He drew a breath.
Behind them, Gwen spoke. “It isn’t so bad, Pauline. We’ll make plenty of short stem turns. Let these schussboomers take it straight.” She smiled. “I think they bring us along just so they can display their courage.”
At that moment Art Polachek let out a wild, confident shout, and pushed over the brim of the chute. He dropped like a stone, snow powdering behind him in a wind-curled wake. Four or five others promptly followed, knifing in a slight arc across the face. Even to them, a straight plunge down Sky Point posed too great a test of skill and courage.
Cold despair coursed through Clark. Jerry said impatiently, “Well, Pauline?”
She looked straight at Clark as she said slowly, “I don’t know.”
Jerry stepped into his skis. At the lip of the drop-off, he called, “Don’t wait too long, Clark. It gets cold up here at night!” The taunt floated behind him.
Mildly, Pauline said, “I made a mistake last night.”
Clark avoided her eyes. “About the room?”
“1 wasn’t thinking of that. It would be a good thing to forget—1 told you 1 like your friends. I’ve changed my mind about, one of them.” Her eyes were calm and wise as they searched his face. “Do we take the road?”
The decision was his, just as it, had been from the beginning. Her question hung between them like a wall he had built himself. Sky Point no longer was just a daring ski run; it was a challenge to his way of thinking, his way of life. The road, the easy way out, was just a few yards away. There could be other ski clubs, other times, other girls— Something held him here. You can’t please everyone, he thought. And suddenly he saw the only sane compromise with living lay in trying to please only those who mattered the most to him.
His voice was strange in his ears. “You—you wanted to be the one exception. I’ve just found out you
He turned with strong decision, and took position at the edge of the chute. He would have been a fool to deny nervousness, but a queer, relieved happiness was beating through him. Far below, a knot of figures was color against white. He knew without study that Jerry and Art were there, in a moment long awaited. He filled his lungs, then shifted slightly so that his skis were pointed straight down, inside the gentler arc the others had chosen.
A gentle smile touched Pauline’s lips. “You’re trying to prove something to me. You care enough to want to prove it—” She put a hand on his arm. “We can take the road, now. It really doesn’t make any difference.”
He shook his head, and managed a grin. “To me it does—If I fall—will you pick me up?”
“I’ll probably get used to it,” she told him softly, still smiling. ★