“I remember perfectly well what London society is like.”
Diana’s eyes sparked, and she looked up at him defiantly. “Perhaps you think very little of me now, as I’m only a stupid, foolish girl who married an older man and stayed home while you were out exploring the world. But my husband is forever on the continent. It was a godsend for me when you returned. You are the closest thing I have to a brother, and I will not let you throw away your reputation or your good position in society, simply because you’ve got some antiquated notion of chivalry in your head.”
“There’s nothing antiquated about basic human decency,” Evan snapped.
“Listen to yourself! This is not who you are—this stodgy fellow, dressed in brown. I know you. You haven’t had a bit of fun since your father passed away. I did not drag you all the way to Hampshire so you could wallow in boredom.”
“I don’t mind a bit of amusement,” he said quietly. “But I no longer think that ruining a lady’s life is a reasonable way to pass the time.”
She shrugged one shoulder. But she didn’t understand, and she didn’t believe him. He could tell, because throughout dinner she needled Elaine with a constant stream of sly innuendo, and no amount of repressive throat-clearing on his part would cut her off.
Dessert was soured by the tiny barbs his cousin delivered. And when Evan and the other gentlemen joined the ladies once more after port and cigars, he could see immediately that she’d not let off her sport. Lady Elaine sat on a long divan, bracketed between Diana and her mother. Even if he hadn’t known Diana, there was a particularly hunted look in the lines around Lady Elaine’s eyes that told him everything he needed to know.
Someone suggested cards; another person a game of charades. The discussion continued, as servants handed out delicate flutes of dark-red wine punch, chilled until condensation collected on the glass.
It was Diana who stopped the argument, gesturing with her glass of punch.
“Please,” she said, “my cousin has not been in company at all. And I have been dying to have him tell of his adventures.” Diana smiled at him prettily.
“Do tell,” Mr. Arleston said. And like that, everyone turned to regard Evan.
“Lady Cosgrove makes it sound so interesting.” Evan settled into the cushions of the chair. “But I only did the usual, I suppose. I wandered a season in Italy, a summer in Greece. I spent most of my time in France and Switzerland, though.”
“Oh, Paris. I love Paris.” That, from Mrs. Arleston.
Evan had forgotten what it was like to be the center of attention, everyone watching him, waiting for his next words. People had a pull for him, and even though he’d vowed he wouldn’t do it, he felt some of that old energy return. “I passed through Paris on a weekend, but I didn’t stay. I spent most of my time in Chamonix.”
The knowing looks turned to puzzlement, and all around people leaned forward in their chairs.
“Chamonix is a town in the French Alps, near Mont Blanc.”
“Is it beautiful, then?” Mrs. Arleston was frowning. “I can’t quite imagine spending all my time in a small town.”
“It is beautiful,” Evan said quietly. “But it huddles at the feet of the highest mountain in the entire alpine region. I climbed Mont Blanc three times.”
“Three times?” Mr. Patton set one hand over his rounded belly and shook his head. “Once, I can understand. It gives you a dubious set of bragging rights, I suppose. But thrice seems to be the product of an excess of ambition.”
“First time anyone has ever accused me of that,” Evan replied.
The ladies in the crowd smiled and shifted.
“I thought of attempting the Matterhorn, but I prefer to remain among the living. But my accomplishments are not so many. In that time, my cousin has married and produced four children. Surely that is the greater achievement.”
Diana was watching him now with a curious stare, and she took a sip of her wine. “Good heavens. How long does it take to climb Mont Blanc?”
“Depending upon the conditions? Not much more than a few days of grueling work, across desperate traverses covered in snow.” He paused to let the desolation of the landscape sink in.
Across from Diana, Mr. Patton frowned. “Well, you’ve accounted for a week out of ten years. What were you doing with the rest of your time?”
Evan raised an eyebrow. “Preparing to climb Mont Blanc.”
“Preparing? For ten years? Does it take so long to buy rope and the like?”
Evan shook his head and bit back a smile.
But Diana burst in hotly, almost shoving her elbow into Lady Elaine at her side in her haste to speak on his behalf. “Mountaineering,” she lectured, “is quite dangerous, as anyone would know. There are…well, mountaineering moves that must be learned. Special ones. I’m sure we can’t understand the time that must be involved.”
His cousin had always had a hot temper—and while she might seem fickle to many, Evan knew that she was loyal at heart. She would defend him at all costs.
“And then,” Diana was continuing, “one must be quite particular about one’s gear. For there is not only rope to consider, but the boots, and the, uh, the special packs, and also the tampons.”
“Crampons,” Evan supplied.
“Crampons,” she repeated, without missing a beat.
“But in my experience,” Evan interrupted, “those who spend all their time making purchases and arguing about whether to use wrought iron or forged iron for boot-nails spend no time on the mountains at all. The most important part of climbing a mountain is not choosing rope, but learning to function as part of a team. You can’t go out by yourself. What would you do in a rockslide? What if you misstep on the edge of a cliff? If you cannot trust your compatriots, you risk death.”
“Nonsense,” Mr. Patton put in. “You only hear about those puny Frenchmen expiring in such gruesome fashion. A strapping English lord? The mountains wouldn’t dare kill him.”
“What an amusing thing to say.” Evan didn’t feel like smiling. “I would not be here, had not a puny Frenchman saved me.”
“Nonsense,” Patton repeated, but with less certainty.
“We were on a glacier.” Evan fixed his gaze on the man’s eyes. “I don’t know what you’ve heard of them, but they’re quite dangerous—every step is slick, and you can’t trust the surface beneath your boots. There are crevasses that are miles deep, covered by only the slightest crust of ice. One step, and you could fall to your doom.”
The ladies gasped. All of them, except Lady Elaine. Her gray eyes met his, as if she too knew what it felt like to plummet to her death.
“You try to be as careful as you can, but you never know if you’re walking on a shelf of ice. The ground beneath your feet could swallow you up at any instant. Entire parties have vanished. Like that.” Evan snapped his fingers.
Diana looked faintly horrified. “How do you guard against such a thing?”
“Pray,” he said shortly. “And you rope together, so that if one man missteps, his mates can pull him out.”
There were wise nods all around.
“But—” That was Lady Elaine, speaking for the first time. “But if you are roped together, would that not mean one man could drag you into a crevasse as easily as he could be pulled out?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Diana snapped. “If any one man falls, the others can surely pull him out. It’s a sound plan, and safe.”
Elaine pulled back.
“It is not safe,” Evan heard himself contradict. “It is d—that is to say, it is entirely dangerous. You see, if a man falls fast enough, he could jerk a companion off his feet before the other man has a chance to brace himself. If a shelf of ice collapses, it could take two men at once—and that sort of dead weight could pull a whole party into the abyss.”
Diana’s eyes widened. “What do you do if more than one man is pulled in, and you cannot retrieve them?”
“What do you suppose? There’s no choice in the
matter. You cut the rope.”
Diana gulped more of her punch. “What? And send the ones who are dangling to their death?”
Evan gave a curt nod. “Yes. And you plan for it in advance. You practice on safe ground before you ever go onto a glacier, so you know exactly what your capabilities are as a team. You know when it is a choice between having one man fall and sacrificing the entire group.”
“The Bible got it wrong when it intimated that the valley contained the shadow of death. Death dwells in the high places.”
Everyone was listening to him now.
“So,” Diana whispered. “You nearly died. How?”
“It was just as I said. The ground vanished beneath my feet. I fell six feet in the blink of an eye and had the wind knocked out of me.”
“B-but your friends pulled you up, did they not?”
“My fall jerked Meissner off his feet, too. He was luckier—he caught the ledge, and was left dangling at the top, barely able to hang on. We had only one other man roped in—Dutoi.”
“Good Lord. It was a good thing you had practiced for such situations.”
“There had been no practice that could help,” Evan said. “We knew what we could manage. One man down, one man barely holding on…we couldn’t survive that. My weight was going to pull Meissner off the ledge, and when it did, all three of us would perish. We had tested it, you see.”
Diana sipped at her punch once more, and seemed surprised to find the glass empty. She gestured to a servant to refill it as she spoke. “What did you do?”