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Chapter 21


Embark in the Winkelried.—Discussion with an Englishman.—The Valais.—Free Trade.—The Drance.—Terrible Inundation.—Liddes.—Mountain Scenery.—A Mountain Basin.—Dead-houses.—Melancholy Spectacle.—Approach of Night.—Desolate Region.—Convent of the Great St. Bernard.—Our Reception there.—Unhealthiness of the Situation.—The Superior.—Conversation during Supper.—Coal-mine on the Mountain.—Night in the Convent.

Dear ——,

After spending a few more days in the same delightful and listless enjoyments, my friend C—— came over from Lausanne, and we embarked in the Winkelried, on the afternoon of the 25th September, as she hove-to off our mole, on her way up the lake. We anchored off Villeneuve in less than an hour, there being neither port, nor wharf, nor mole at that place. In a few minutes we were in a three-horse conveyance, called a diligence, and were trotting across the broad meadows of the Rhone towards Bex, where we found one of our American families, the T——s, on their way to Italy.

C—— and myself ate some excellent quails for supper in the public room. An Englishman was taking the same repast, at another table, near us, and he inquired for news, wishing particularly to know the state of things about Antwerp. This led to a little conversation, when I observed that, had the interests of France been consulted at the revolution of 1830, Belgium would have been received into the kingdom. Our Englishman grunted at this, and asked me what Europe would have said to it. My answer was, that when both parties were agreed, I did not see what Europe had to do with the matter; and that, at all events, the right Europe could have to interfere was founded in might; and such was the state of south-western Germany, Italy, Savoy, Spain, and even England, that I was of opinion Europe would have been glad enough to take things quietly. At all events, a war would only have made the matter worse for the allied monarchs. The other stared at me in amazement, muttered an audible dissent, and, I make no doubt, set me down as a most disloyal subject; for, while extending her empire, and spreading her commercial system, (her Free Trade à l'Anglaise!) over every nook and corner of the earth where she can get footing, nothing sounds more treasonable to the ears of a loyal Englishman than to give the French possession of Antwerp, or the Russians possession of Constantinople. So inveterate become his national feelings on such subjects, that I am persuaded a portion of his antipathy to the Americans arises from a disgust at hearing notions that have been, as it were, bred in and in, through his own moral system, contemned in a language that he deems his own peculiar property. Men, in such circumstances, are rarely very philosophical or very just.

We were off in a char with the dawn. Of course you will understand that we entered the Valais by its famous bridge, and passed St. Maurice, and the water-fall à la Teniers; for you have already travelled along this road with me. I saw no reason to change my opinion of the Valais, which looked as chill and repulsive now as it did in 1828, though we were so early on the road as to escape the horrible sight of the basking crétins, most of whom were still housed. Nor can I tell you how far these people have been elevated in the scale of men by an increasing desire for riches.

At Martigny we breakfasted, while the innkeeper sent for a guide. The canton has put these men under a rigid police, the prices being regulated by law, and the certificate of the traveller becoming important to them. This your advocate of the absurdity called Free Trade will look upon as tyranny, it being more for the interest of human intercourse than the traveller who arrives in a strange country should be cheated by a hackney-coachman, or the driver of a cart, or stand higgling an hour in the streets, than to violate an abstraction that can do no one any good! If travelling will not take the minor points of free tradeism out of a man, I hold him to be incorrigible. But such is humanity! There cannot be even a general truth, that our infirmities do not lead us to push it into falsehood, in particular practice. Men are no more fitted to live under a system that should carry out the extreme doctrines of this theory, than they are fitted to live without law; and the legislator who should attempt the thing in practice, would soon find himself in the condition of Don Quixote, after he had liberated the galley-slaves from their fetters:—in other words, he would be cheated the first moment circumstances compelled him to make a hard bargain with a stranger. Were the canton of Valais to say, you shall be a guide, and such shall be your pay, the imputation of tyranny might lie; by saying, you may be a guide, and such must be your pay, it merely legislates for an interest that calls for particular protection in a particular way, to prevent abuses.

Our guide appeared with two mules harnessed to a char à banc, and we proceeded. The fragment of a village which the traveller passes for Martigny, on his way to Italy, is not the true hamlet of that name, but a small collection of houses that has sprung up since the construction of the Simplon road. The real place is a mile distant, and of a much more rural and Swiss character. Driving through this hamlet, we took our way along the winding bank of a torrent called the Drance, the direction, at first, being south. The road was not bad, but the valley had dwindled to a gorge, and, though broken and wild, was not sufficiently so to be grand. After travelling a few miles, we reached a point where our own route diverged from the course of the Drance, which came in from the east, while we journeyed south. This Drance is the stream that produced the terrible inundation a few years since. The calamity was produced by an accumulation of ice higher in the gorges, which formed a temporary lake. The canton made noble efforts to avert the evil, and men were employed as miners, to cut a passage for the water, through the ice, but their labour proved useless, although they had made a channel, and the danger was greatly lessened. Before half the water had escaped, however, the ice gave way, and let the remainder of the lake down in a flood. The descent was terrific, sweeping before it every thing that came in its way, and although so distant, and there was so much space, the village of Martigny was deluged, and several of its people lost their lives. The water rose to the height of several feet on the plain of the great valley, before it could disgorge itself into the Rhone.

The ascents now became more severe, though we occasionally made as sharp descents. The road lay through a broken valley, the mountains retiring from each other a little, and the wheel-track was very much like those we saw in our own hilly country, some thirty years since, though less obstructed by mud. At one o'clock we reached Liddes, a crowded, rude, and dirty hamlet, where we made a frugal repast. Here we were compelled to quit the char, and to saddle the mules. The guide also engaged another man to accompany us with a horse, that carried provender for himself, and for the two animals we had brought with us. We then mounted, and proceeded.

On quitting Liddes, the road, or rather path, for it had dwindled to that, led through a valley that had some low meadows; after which the ascents became more decided, though the course had always been upward. The vegetation gradually grew less and less, the tree diminishing to the bush, and finally disappearing altogether, while the grasses became coarse and wiry, or were entirely superseded by moss. We went through a hamlet or two, composed of stones stained apparently with iron ore, and, as the huts were covered with the same material, instead of lending the landscape a more humanized air, they rather added to its appearance of sterile dreariness. There were a few tolerably good bits of savage mountain scenes, especially in a wooded glen or two by the wayside; but, on the whole, I thought this the least striking of the Swiss mountains I had ascended.

We entered a sort of mountain basin, that was bounded on one side by the glacier of Mont Vélan; that which so beautifully bounds the view up the Valais, as seen from Vévey. I was disappointed in finding an object which, in the distance, was so white and shining, much disfigured and tarnished by fragments of broken rock. Still the summit shone, in cold and spotless lustre. There was herbage for a few goats here, and some one had commenced the walls of a rude building that was intended for an inn. No one was at work near it, a hut of stone, for the shelter of the goatherds, being all that looked like a finished human habitation.

Winding our way across and out of this valley, we came to a turn in the rocks, and beheld two more stone cabins, low and covered, so as to resemble what in America are called root-houses. They stood a little from the path, on the naked rock. Crossing to them, we dismounted and looked into the first. It was empty, had a little straw, and was intended for a refuge, in the event of storms. Thrusting my head into the other, after the eye had got a little accustomed to the light, I saw a grinning corpse seated against the remotest side. The body looked like a mummy, but the clothes were still on it, and various shreds of garments lay about the place. The remains of other bodies, that had gradually shrunk into shapeless masses, were also dimly visible. Human bones, too, were scattered around. It is scarcely necessary to add that this was one of the dead-houses, or places in which the bodies of those who perish on the mountain are deposited, to waste away, or to be claimed, as others may or may not feel an interest in their remains. Interment could only be effected by penetrating the rock, for there was no longer any soil, and such is the purity of the atmosphere that putrescence never occurs.

I asked the guide if he knew anything of the man, whose body still retained some of the semblance of humanity. He told me he remembered him well, having been at the convent in his company. It was a poor mason, who had crossed the col, from Piémont, in quest of work; failing of which, he had left Liddes, near nightfall, in order to enjoy the unremitting hospitality of the monks on his return, about a fortnight later. His body was found on the bare rock, quite near the refuge, on the following day. The poor fellow had probably perished in the dark, within a few yards of shelter, without knowing it. Hunger and cold, aided, perhaps, by that refuge of the miserable, brandy, had destroyed him. He had been dead now two years, and yet his remains preserved a hideous resemblance to the living man.

Turning away from this melancholy spectacle, I looked about me with renewed interest. The sun had set, and evening was casting its shadows over the valley below, which might still be seen through the gorges of our path. The air above, and the brown peaks that rose around us like gloomy giants, were still visible in a mellow saddened light, and I thought I had never witnessed a more poetical, or a more vivid picture of the approach of night. Following the direction of the upward path, a track that was visible only by the broken fragments of rock, and which now ascended suddenly, an opening was seen between two dark granite piles, through which the sky beyond still shone, lustrous and pearly. This opening appeared to be but a span. It was the col, or the summit of the path, and gazing at it, in that pure atmosphere, I supposed it might be half a mile beyond and above us. The guide shook his head at this conjecture, and told me it was still a weary league!

At this intelligence we hurried to bestride our mules, which by this time were fagged, and as melancholy as the mountains. When we left the refuge there were no traces of the sun on any of the peaks or glaciers. A more sombre ascent cannot be imagined. Vegetation had absolutely disappeared, and in its place lay scattered the fragments of the ferruginous looking rocks. The hue of every object was gloomy as desolation could make it, and the increasing obscurity served to deepen the intense interest we felt. Although constantly and industriously ascending towards the light, it receded faster than we could climb. After half an hour of toil, it finally deserted us to the night. At this moment the guide pointed to a mass that I had thought a fragment of the living rock, and said it was the roof a building. It still appeared so near, that I fancied we had arrived; but minute after minute went by, and this too was gradually swallowed up in the gloom. At the end of another quarter of an hour, we came to a place where the path, always steep since quitting the refuge, actually began to ascend by a flight of broad steps formed in the living rock, like that already mentioned on the Righi, though less precipitous. My weary mule seemed at times, to be tottering beneath my weight, or hanging in suspense, undecided, whether or not to yield to the downward pressure. It was quite dark, and I thought it best to trust to his instinct and his recollections. This unpleasant struggle between animal force and the attraction of gravitation, in which the part I played was merely to contribute to the latter, lasted nearly a quarter of an hour longer, when the mules appeared to be suddenly relieved. They moved more briskly for a minute, and then stopped before a pile of rock, that a second look in the dark enabled us to see was made of stone, thrown into the form of a large rude edifice. This was the celebrated convent of the Great St. Bernard!

I bethought me of the Romans, of the marauders of the middle ages, of the charity of a thousand years, and of Napoleon, as throwing a leg over the crupper, my foot first touched the rock. Our approach had been heard, for noises ascend far through such a medium, and we were met at the door by a monk in a black gown, a queer Asiatic-looking cap, and a movement that was as laical as that of a garçon de café. He hastily enquired if there were any ladies, and I thought he appeared disappointed when we told him no. He showed us very civilly, however, into a room, that was warmed by a stove, and which already contained two travellers, who had the air of decent tradesmen who were crossing the mountain on business. A table was set for supper, and a lamp or two threw a dim light around.

The little community soon assembled, the prior excepted, and the supper was served. I had brought a letter for the clavier, a sort of caterer, who is accustomed to wander through the vallies in quest of contributions; and this appeared to be a good time for presenting it, as our reception had an awkward coldness that was unpleasant. The letter was read, but it made no apparent difference in the warmth of our treatment then or afterwards. I presume the writer had unwittingly thrown the chill, which the American name almost invariably carries with it, over our reception.

By this time seven of the Augustines were in the room; four of whom were canons, and three novices. The entire community is composed of about thirty, who are professed, with a suitable number who are in their noviciate; but only eight in all are habitually kept on the mountain, the rest residing in a convent in the bourg, as the real village of Martigny is called. It is said that the keen air of the col affects the lungs after a time, and that few can resist its influence for a long continued period. You will remember that this building is the most elevated permanent abode in Europe, if not in the Old World, standing at a height of about 8,000 English feet above the sea.

As soon as the supper was served, the superior or prior entered. He had a better air than most of his brethren, and was distinguished by a gold chain and cross. The others saluted him by removing their caps; and proceeding to the head of the table, he immediately commenced the usual offices in Latin, the responses being audibly made by the monks and novices. We were then invited to take our places at table, the seats of honour being civilly left for the strangers. The meal was frugal, without tea or coffee, and the wine none of the best. But one ought to be too grateful for getting anything in such a place, to be too fastidious.

During supper there was a free general conversation, and we were asked for news, the movements in La Vendée being evidently a subject of great interest with them. Our French fellow-traveller on the lake of Brientz had been warm in his eulogiums on this community, and, coupling his conversation with the present question, the suspicion that they were connected by a tie of common feeling flashed upon me. A few remarks soon confirmed this conjecture, and I found, as indeed was natural for men in their situation, that these religious republicans[39] took a strong interest in the success of the Carlists. Men may call themselves what they will, live where they may, and assume what disguises artifice or necessity may impose, political instincts, like love, or any other strong passion, are sure to betray themselves to an experienced observer. How many of our own republicans, of the purest water, have I seen sighing for ribands and stars—ay, and men too who appear before the nation as devoted to the institutions and the rights of the mass. The Romish church is certain to be found in secret on the side of despotic power, let its pretensions to liberty be what it may, its own form of government possessing sympathies with that of political power too strong to be effectually concealed. I will not take on myself to say that the circumstance of our being Americans caused the fraternity to manifest for us less warmth than common, but I will say that our Carlist of the lake of Brientz eloquently described the warm welcome and earnest hospitality of les bons pères, as he called them, in a way that was entirely inapplicable to their manner towards us. In short, the only way we could excite any warmth in them, was by blowing the anthracite coal, of which we had heard they had discovered a mine on the mountain. This was a subject of great interest, for you should know that, water excepted, every necessary of life is to be transported, for leagues to this place, up the path we came, on the backs of mules; and that about 8,000 persons cross the mountain annually; all, or nearly all, of whom lodge, of necessity, at the convent. The elevation renders fires constantly necessary for comfort, to say nothing of cooking; and a mine of gold could scarcely be as valuable to such a community, as one of coal. Luckily, C——, like a true Pennsylvanian, knew something about anthracite, and by making a few suggestions, and promising further intelligence, he finally succeeded in throwing one or two of the community into a blaze.

A little before nine, we were shown into a plain but comfortable room, with two beds loaded with blankets, and were left to our slumbers. Before we fell asleep, C—— and myself agreed, that, taking the convent altogether, it was a rum place, and that it required more imagination than either of us possessed, to throw about it the poetry of monastic seclusion, and the beautiful and simple hospitality of the patriarchs.

James Fenimore Cooper

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