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Chapter 38



Nov. 9.

A few days ago I received a letter from my cousin at Heidelberg, describing his solitary walk from Genoa over the Alps, and through the western part of Switzerland. The news of his safe arrival dissipated the anxiety we were beginning to feel, on account of his long silence, while it proved that our fears concerning the danger of such a journey were not altogether groundless. He met with a startling adventure on the Great St. Bernard, which will be best described by an extract from his own letter:

"Such were my impressions of Rome. But leaving the 'Eternal City,' I must hasten on to give you a description of an adventure I met with in crossing the Alps, omitting for the present an account of the trip from Rome to Genoa, and my lonely walk through Sardinia. When I had crossed the mountain range north of Genoa, the plains of Piedmont stretched out before me. I could see the snowy sides and summits of the Alps more than one hundred miles distant, looking like white, fleecy clouds on a summer day. It was a magnificent prospect, and I wonder not that the heart of the Swiss soldier, after years of absence in foreign service, beats with joy when he again looks on his native mountains.

"As I approached nearer, the weather changed, and dark, gloomy clouds enveloped them, so that they seemed to present an impassible barrier to the lands beyond them. At Ivrea, I entered the interesting valley of Aosta. The whole valley, fifty miles in length, is inhabited by miserable looking people, nearly one half of them being afflicted with goitre and cretinism. They looked more idiotic and disgusting than any I have ever seen, and it was really painful to behold such miserable specimens of humanity dwelling amid the grandest scenes of nature. Immediately after arriving in the town of Aosta, situated at the upper end of the valley, I began, alone, the ascent of the Great St. Bernard. It was just noon, and the clouds on the mountains indicated rain. The distance from Aosta to the monastery or hospice of St. Bernard, is about twenty English miles.

"At one o'clock it commenced raining vary hard, and to gain shelter I went into a rude hut; but it was filled with so many of those idiotic cretins, lying down on the earthy floor with the dogs and other animals, that I was glad to leave them as soon as the storm had abated in some degree. I walked rapidly for three hours, when I met a traveler and his guide descending the mountain. I asked him in Italian the distance to the hospice, and he undertook to answer me in French, but the words did not seem to flow very fluently, so I said quickly, observing then that he was an Englishman: 'Try some other language, if you please, sir!' He replied instantly in his vernacular: 'You have a d--d long walk before you, and you'll have to hurry to get to the top before night!' Thanking him, we shook hands and hurried on, he downward and I upward. About eight miles from the summit, I was directed into the wrong path by an ignorant boy who was tending sheep, and went a mile out of the course, towards Mont Blanc, before I discovered my mistake. I hurried back into the right path again, and soon overtook another boy ascending the mountain, who asked me if he might accompany me as he was alone, to which I of course answered, yes; but when we began to enter the thick clouds that covered the mountains, he became alarmed, and said he would go no farther. I tried to encourage him by saying we had only five miles more to climb, but, turning quickly, he ran down the path and was soon out of sight.

"After a long and most toilsome ascent, spurred on as I was by the storm and the approach of night, I saw at last through the clouds a little house, which I supposed might be a part of the monastery, but it turned out to be only a house of refuge, erected by the monks to take in travelers in extreme cases or extraordinary danger. The man who was staying there, told me the monastery was a mile and a half further, and thinking therefore that I could soon reach it, I started out again, although darkness was approaching. In a short time the storm began in good earnest, and the cold winds blew with the greatest fury. It grew dark very suddenly and I lost sight of the poles which are placed along the path to guide the traveler. I then ran on still higher, hoping to find them again, but without success. The rain and snow fell thick, and although I think I am tolerably courageous, I began to be alarmed, for it was impossible to know in what direction I was going. I could hear the waterfalls dashing and roaring down the mountain hollows on each side of me; in the gloom, the foam and leaping waters resembled streaming fires. I thought of turning back to find the little house of refuge again, but it seemed quite as dangerous and uncertain as to go forward. After the fatigue I had undergone since noon, it would have been dangerous to be obliged to stay, out all night in the driving storm, which was every minute increasing in coldness and intensity.

"I stopped and shouted aloud, hoping I might be somewhere near the monastery, but no answer came--no noise except the storm and the roar of the waterfalls. I climbed up the rocks nearly a quarter of a mile higher, and shouted again. I listened with anxiety for two or three minutes, but hearing no response, I concluded to find a shelter for the night under a ledge of rocks. While looking around me, I fancied I heard in the distance a noise like the trampling of hoofs over the rocks, and thinking travelers might be near, I called aloud for the third time. After wailing a moment, a voice came ringing on my ears through the clouds, like one from Heaven in response to my own. My heart beat quickly; I hurried in the direction from which the sound came, and to my joy found two men--servants of the monastery--who were driving their mules into shelter. Never in my whole life was I more glad to hear the voice of man. These men conducted me to the monastery, one-fourth of a mile higher, built by the side of a lake at the summit of the pass, while on each side, the mountains, forever covered with snow, tower some thousands of feet higher.

"Two or three of the noble St. Bernard dogs barked a welcome as we approached, which brought a young monk to the door. I addressed him in German, but to my surprise he answered in broken English. He took me into a warm room and gave me a suit of clothes, such as are worn by the monks, for my dress, as well as my package of papers, were completely saturated with rain. I sat down to supper in company with till the monks of the Hospice, I in my monkish robe looking like one of the holy order. You would have laughed to have seen me in their costume. Indeed, I felt almost satisfied to turn monk, as everything seemed so comfortable in the warm supper room, with its blazing wood fire, while outside raged the storm still more violently. But when I thought of their voluntary banishment from the world, up in that high pass of the Alps, and that the affection of woman never gladdened their hearts, I was ready to renounce my monkish dress next morning, without reluctance.

"In the address book of the monastery, I found Longfellow's 'Excelsior' written on a piece of paper and signed 'America.' You remember the stanza:

At break of clay, as heavenward,
The pious monks of St. Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air:

It seemed to add a tenfold interest to the poem, to read it on old St. Bernard. In the morning I visited the house where are kept the bodies of the travelers, who perish in crossing the mountain. It is filled with corpses, ranged in rows, and looking like mummies, for the cold is so intense that they will keep for years without decaying, and are often recognized and removed by their friends.

"Of my descent to Martigny, my walk down the Rhone, and along the shores of Lake Leman, my visit to the prison of Chilian and other wanderings across Switzerland, my pleasure in seeing the old river Rhine again, and my return to Heidelberg at night, with the bright moon shining on the Neckar and the old ruined castle, I can now say no more, nor is it necessary, for are not all these things 'written in my book of Chronicles,' to be seen by you when we meet again in Paris?

Ever yours,

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Dec. 16.

I took a walk lately to the tower of Galileo. In company with three friends, I left Florence by the Porta Romana, and ascended the Poggie Imperiale. This beautiful avenue, a mile and a quarter in length, leading up a gradual ascent to a villa of the Grand Duke, is bordered with splendid cypresses and evergreen oaks, and the grass banks are always fresh and green, so that even in winter it calls up a remembrance of summer. In fact, winter does not wear the scowl here that he has at home; he is robed rather in a threadbare garment of autumn, and it is only high up on the mountain tops, out of the reach of his enemy, the sun, that he dares to throw it off, and bluster about with his storms and scatter down his snow-flakes. The roses still bud and bloom in the hedges, the emerald of the meadows is not a whit paler, the sun looks down lovingly as yet, and there are only the white helmets of some of the Appenines, with the leafless mulberries and vines, to tell us that we have changed seasons.

A quarter of an hour's walk, part of it by a path through an olive orchard, brought us to the top of a hill, which was surmounted by a square, broken, ivied tower, forming part of a storehouse for the produce of the estate. We entered, saluted by a dog, and passing through a court-yard, in which stood two or three carts full of brown olives, found our way to the rickety staircase. I spared my sentiment in going up, thinking the steps might have been renewed since Galileo's time, but the glorious landscape which opened around us when we reached the top, time could not change, and I gazed upon it with interest and emotion, as my eye took in those forms which had once been mirrored in the philosopher's. Let me endeavor to describe the features of the scene.

Fancy yourself lifted to the summit of a high hill, whose base slopes down to the valley of the Arno, and looking northward. Behind you is a confusion of hill and valley, growing gradually dimmer away to the horizon. Before and below you is a vale, with Florence and her great domes and towers in its lap, and across its breadth of five miles the mountain of Fiesole. To the west it stretches away unbroken for twenty miles, covered thickly with white villas--like a meadow of daisies, magnified. A few miles to the east the plain is rounded with mountains, between whose interlocking bases we can see the brown current of the Arno. Some of their peaks, as well as the mountain of Vallombrosa, along the eastern sky, are tipped with snow. Imagine the air filled with a thick blue mist, like a semi-transparent veil, which softens every thing into dreamy indistinctness, the sunshine falling slantingly through this in spots, touching the landscape here and there as with a sudden blaze of fire, and you will complete the picture. Does it not repay your mental flight across the Atlantic.

One evening, on coming out of the cafè, the moon was shining so brightly and clearly, that I involuntarily bent my steps towards the river; I walked along the Lung'Arno, enjoying the heavenly moonlight--"the night of cloudless climes and starry skies!" A purer silver light never kissed the brow of Endymion. The brown Arno took into his breast "the redundant glory," and rolled down his pebbly bed with a more musical ripple; opposite stretched the long mass of buildings--the deep arches that rose from the water were filled with black shadow, and the irregular fronts of the houses touched with a mellow glow. The arches of the upper bridge were in shadow, cutting their dark outline on the silvery sweep of the Appenines, far up the stream. A veil of luminous gray covered the hill of San Miniato, with its towers and cypress groves, and there was a crystal depth in the atmosphere, as if it shone with its own light. The whole scene affected me as something too glorious to be real--painful from the very intensity of its beauty. Three moons ago, at the foot of Vallombrosa, I saw the Appenines flooded with the same silvery gush, and thought also, then, that I had seen the same moon amid far dearer scenes, but never before the same dreamy and sublime glory showered down from her pale orb. Some solitary lights were burning along the river, and occasionally a few Italians passed by, wrapped in their mantles. I went home to the Piazza del Granduca as the light, pouring into the square from behind the old palace, fell over the fountain of Neptune and sheathed in silver the back of the colossal god.

Whoever looks on the valley of the Arno from San Miniato, and observes the Appenine range, of which Fiesole is one, bounding it on the north, will immediately notice to the northwest a double peak rising high above all the others. The bare, brown forehead of this, known by the name of Monte Morello, seemed so provokingly to challenge an ascent, that we determined to try it. So we started early, the day before yesterday, from the Porta San Gallo, with nothing but the frosty grass and fresh air to remind us of the middle of December. Leaving the Prato road, at the base of the mountain, we passed Careggi, a favorite farm of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and entered a narrow glen where a little brook was brawling down its rocky channel. Here and there stood a rustic mill, near which women were busy spreading their washed clothes on the grass. Following the footpath, we ascended a long eminence to a chapel where some boys were amusing themselves with a common country game. They have a small wheel, around which they wind a rope, and, running a little distance to increase the velocity, let it off with a sudden jerk. On a level road it can be thrown upwards of a quarter of a mile.

From the chapel, a gradual ascent along the ridge of a hill brought us to the foot of the peak, which rose high before us, covered with bare rocks and stunted oaks. The wind blew coldly from a snowy range to the north, as we commenced ascending with a good will. A few shepherds were leading their flocks along the sides, to browse on the grass and withered bushes, and we started up a large hare occasionally from his leafy covert. The ascent was very toilsome; I was obliged to stop frequently on account of the painful throbbing of my heart, which made it difficult to breathe. When the summit was gained, we lay down awhile on the leeward side to recover ourselves.

We looked on the great valley of the Arno, perhaps twenty-five miles long, and five or six broad, lying like a long elliptical basin sunk among the hills. I can liken it to nothing but a vast sea; for a dense, blue mist covered the level surface, through which the domes of Florence rose up like a craggy island, while the thousands of scattered villas resembled ships, with spread sails, afloat on its surface. The sharp, cutting wind soon drove us down, with a few hundred bounds, to the path again. Three more hungry mortals did not dine at the Cacciatore that day.

The chapel of the Medici, which we visited, is of wonderful beauty. The walls are entirely encrusted with pietra dura and the most precious kinds of marble. The ceiling is covered with gorgeous frescoes by Benevenuto, a modern painter. Around the sides, in magnificent sarcophagi of marble and jasper, repose the ashes of a few Cosmos and Ferdinands. I asked the sacristan for the tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent. "Oh!" said he, "he lived during the republic--he has no tomb; these are only for Dukes!" I could not repress a sigh at the lavish waste of labor and treasure on this one princely chapel. They might have slumbered unnoted, like Lorenzo, if they had done as much for their country and Italy.

December 19.

It is with a heavy heart, that I sit down tonight to make my closing note in this lovely city and in the journal which has recorded my thoughts and impressions since leaving America. I should find it difficult to analyze my emotions, but I know that they oppress me painfully. So much rushes at once over the mind and heart--memories of what has passed through both, since I made the first note in its pages--alternations of hope and anxiety and aspiration, but never despondency--that it resembles in a manner, the closing of a life. I seem almost to have lived through the common term of a life in this short period. Much spiritual and mental experience has crowded into a short time the sensations of years. Painful though some of it has been, it was still welcome. Difficulty and toil give the soul strength to crush, in a loftier region, the passions which draw strength only from the earth. So long as we listen to the purer promptings within us, there is a Power invisible, though not unfelt, who protects us--amid the toil and tumult and soiling struggle, there is ever an eye that watches, ever a heart that overflows with Infinite and Almighty Love! Let us trust then in that Eternal Spirit, who pours out on us his warm and boundless blessings, through the channels of so many kindred human hearts!

Bayard Taylor