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Chapter 22

LETTER XXII.

Sublime Desolation.—A Morning Walk.—The Col.—A Lake.—Site of a Roman Temple.—Enter Italy.—Dreary Monotony.—Return to the Convent—Tasteless Character of the Building.—Its Origin and Purposes.—The Dead-house.—Dogs of St. Bernard.—The Chapel.—Desaix interred here.—Fare of St. Bernard, and Deportment of the Monks.—Leave the Convent.—Our Guide's Notion of the Americans.—Passage of Napoleon across the Great St. Bernard.—Similar Passages in former times.—Transport of Artillery up the Precipices.—Napoleon's perilous Accident.—Return to Vévey.


Dear ——,

The next morning we arose betimes, and on thrusting my head out of a window, I thought, by the keen air, that we had been suddenly transferred to Siberia. There is no month without frost at this great elevation, and as we had now reached the 27th September, the season was essentially beginning to change. Hurrying our clothes on, and our beards off, we went into the air to look about us.

Monks, convent, and historical recollections were, at first, all forgotten, at the sight of the sublime desolation that reigned around. The col is a narrow ravine, between lofty peaks, which happens to extend entirely across this point of the Upper Alps, thus forming a passage several thousand feet lower than would otherwise be obtained. The convent stands within a few yards of the northern verge of the precipice, and precisely at the spot where the lowest cavity is formed, the rocks beginning to rise, in its front and in its rear, at very short distances from the buildings. A little south of it, the mountains recede sufficiently to admit the bed of a small, dark, wintry-looking sheet of water, which is oval in form, and may cover fifty or sixty acres. This lake nearly fills the whole of the level part of the col, being bounded north by the site of the convent, east by the mountain, west by the path, for which there is barely room between the water and the rising rocks, and south by the same path, which is sheltered on its other side by a sort of low wall of fragments, piled some twenty or thirty feet high. Beyond these fragments, or isolated rocks, was evidently a valley of large dimensions.

We walked in the direction of this valley, descending gradually from the door of the convent, some thirty feet to the level of the lake. This we skirted by the regular path, rock smoothed by the hoof of horse and foot of man, until we came near the last curve of the oval formation. Here was the site of a temple erected by the Romans in honour of Jupiter of the Snows, this passage of the Alps having been frequented from the most remote antiquity. We looked at the spot with blind reverence, for the remains might pass for these of a salad-bed of the monks, of which there was one enshrined among the rocks hard by, and which was about as large, and, I fancy, about as productive, as those that are sometimes seen on the quarter-galleries of ships. At this point we entered Italy!

Passing from the frontier, we still followed the margin of the lake, until we reached a spot where its waters trickled, by a low passage, southward. The path took the same direction, pierced the barrier of low rocks, and came out on the verge of the southern declivity, which was still more precipitous than that on the other side. For a short distance the path ran en corniche along the margin of the descent, until it reached the remotest point of what might be called the col, whose southern edge is irregular, and then it plunged, by the most practicable descent which could be found, towards its Italian destination. When at this precise point our distance from the convent may have been half a mile, which, of course, is the breadth of the col. We could see more than half a league down the brown gulf below, but no sign of vegetation was visible. Above, around, beneath, wherever the eye rested—the void of the heavens, the distant peaks of snow, the lake, the convent and its accessories excepted—was dark, frowning rock, of the colour of iron rust. As all the buildings, even to the roofs, were composed of this material, they produced little to relieve the dreary monotony.

The view from the col is in admirable keeping with its desolation. One is cut off completely from the lower world, and, beyond its own immediate scene, nothing is visible but the impending arch of heaven, and heaving mountain tops. The water did little to change this character of general and savage desolation, for it has the chill and wintry air of all the little mountain reservoirs that are so common in the Alps. If anything, it rather added to the intensity of the feeling to which the other parts of the scenery gave rise.

Returning from our walk, the convent and its long existence, the nature of the institution, its present situation, and all that poetical feeling could do for both, were permitted to resume their influence; but, alas! the monks were common-place, their movements and utterance wanted the calm dignity of age and chastened habits, the building had too much of the machinery, smell, and smoke of the kitchen; and, altogether, we thought that the celebrated convent of St. Bernard was more picturesque on paper than in fact. Even the buildings were utterly tasteless, resembling a barnish-looking manufactory, and would be quite abominable, but for the delightfully dreary appearance of their material.

It is a misfortune that vice so often has the best of it in outward appearance. Although a little disposed to question the particular instance of taste, in substance, I am of the opinion of that religionist who was for setting his hymns to popular airs, in order "that the devil might not monopolize all the good music," and, under this impression, I think it a thousand pities that a little better keeping between appearances and substance did not exist on the Great St. Bernard.

The convent is said to have been established by a certain Bernard de Menthon, an Augustine of Aoste, in 962, who was afterwards canonized for his holiness. In that remote age the institution must have been eminently useful, for posting and Macadamized roads across the Alps were not thought of. It even does much good now, as nine-tenths who stop here are peasants that pay nothing for their entertainment. At particular seasons, and on certain occasions, they cross in great numbers, my guide assuring me he had slept at the convent when there were eight hundred guests; a story, by the way, that one of the monks confirmed. Some fair or festival, however, led to this extraordinary migration. Formerly the convent was rich, and able to bear the charges of entertaining so many guests; but since the Revolution it has lost most of its property, and has but a small fixed income. It is authorized, however, to make periodical quêtes in the surrounding country, and obtains a good deal in that way. All who can pay, moreover, leave behind them donations of greater or less amount, and by that means the charity is still maintained.

As many perish annually on the mountain, and none are interred, another dead-house stands quite near the convent for the reception of the bodies. It is open to the air, and contained forty or fifty corpses in every stage of decay apart from putrescency, and was a most revolting spectacle. When the flesh disappears entirely, the bones are cast into a small enclosure near by, in which skulls, thigh-bones, and ribs were lying in a sort of waltz-like confusion.

Soon after our return from the walk into Italy, a novice opened a little door in the outer wall of the convent, and the famous dogs of St. Bernard rushed forth like so many rampant tigers, and most famous fellows they certainly were. Their play was like that of elephants, and one of them rushing past me, so near as to brush my clothes, gave me to understand that a blow from him might be serious. There were five of them in all, long-legged, powerful mastiffs, with short hair, long bushy tails, and of a yellowish hue. I have seen very similar animals in America. They are trained to keep the paths, can carry cordials and nourishment around their necks, and frequently find bodies in the snow by the scent. But their instinct and services have been greatly exaggerated, the latter principally consisting in showing the traveller the way, by following the paths themselves. Were one belated in winter on this pass, I can readily conceive that a dog of this force that knew him, and was attached to him, would be invaluable. Some pretend that the ancient stock is lost, and that their successors show the want of blood of all usurpers.

We were now shown into a room where there was a small collection of minerals, and of Roman remains found about the ruins of the temple. At seven we received a cup of coffee and some bread and butter, after which the prior entered, and invited us to look at the chapel, which is of moderate dimensions, and of plain ornaments. There is a box attached to a column, with tronc pour les pauvres, and as all the poor in this mountain are those who enjoy the hospitality of the convent, the hint was understood. We dropped a few francs into the hole, while the prior was looking earnestly the other way, and it then struck us we were at liberty to depart. The body of Desaix lies in this chapel, and there is a small tablet in it, erected to his memory.

It would be churlish and unreasonable to complain of the fare, in a spot where food is to be had with so much difficulty; and, on that head, I shall merely say, in order that you may understand the fact, that we found the table of St. Bernard very indifferent. As to the deportment of the monks, certainly, so far as we were concerned, it had none of that warmth and hospitality that travellers have celebrated; but, on the contrary, it struck us both as cold and constrained, strongly reminding me, in particular, of the frigidity of the ordinary American manner.[40] This might be discipline; it might be the consequence of habitual and incessant demands on their attentions and services; it might be accidental; or it might be prejudice against the country from which we came, that was all the stronger for the present excited state of Europe.

Our mules were ready, and we left the col immediately after breakfast. A ridge in the rock, just before the convent, is the dividing line for the flow of the waters. Here a little snow still lay; and there were patches of snow, also, on the northern face of the declivity, the remains of the past winter.

We chose to walk the first league, which brought us to the refuge. The previous day, the guide had given us a great deal of gossip; and, among other things, be mentioned having been up to the convent lately, with a family of Americans, whom he described as a people of peculiar appearance, and peculiar odour. By questioning him a little, we discovered that he had been up with a party of coloured people from St. Domingo. His head was a perfect Babel as it respected America, which was not a hemisphere, but one country, one government, and one people. To this we were accustomed, however; and, finding that we passed for English, we trotted the honest fellow a good deal on the subject of his nasal sufferings from travelling in such company. On the descent we knew that we should encounter the party left at Bex, and our companion was properly prepared for the interview. Soon after quitting the refuge, the meeting took place, to the astonishment of the guide, who gravely affirmed, after we had parted, that there must be two sorts of Americans, as these we had just left did not at all resemble those he had conducted to the convent. May this little incident prove an entering wedge to some new ideas in the Valais, on the subject of the "twelve millions!"

The population of this canton, more particularly the women, were much more good-looking on the mountain than in the valley. We saw no crétins after leaving Martigny; and soft lineaments, and clear complexions, were quite common in the other sex.

You will probably wish to know something of the celebrated passage of Napoleon, and of its difficulties. As far as the ascent was concerned, the latter has been greatly exaggerated. Armies have frequently passed the Great St. Bernard. Aulus Coecinna led his barbarians across in 69; the Lombards crossed in 547; several armies in the time of Charlemagne, or about the year 1000; and in the wars of Charles le Téméraire, as well as at other periods, armies made use of this pass. Near the year 900, a strong body of Turkish corsairs crossed from Italy, and seized the pass of St. Maurice. Thus history is full of events to suggest the idea of crossing.

Nor is this all. From the time the French entered Switzerland in 1796, troops occupied, manoeuvred, and even fought on this mountain. The Austrians having succeeded in turning the summit, contended an entire day with their enemies, who remained masters of the field, or rather rock. Ebel estimates the number of the hostile troops who were on this pass, between the years 1798 and 1801, 150,000, including the army of Napoleon, which was 30,000 strong.

These facts of themselves, and I presume they cannot be contested, give a totally different colouring, from that which is commonly entertained, to the conception of the enterprise of the First Consul, so far as the difficulties of the ascent were concerned. If the little community can transport stores for 8,000 souls to the convent, there could be no great difficulty in one, who had all France at his disposal, in throwing an army across the pass. When we quitted Martigny, I began to study the difficulties of the route, and though the road as far as Liddes has probably been improved a little within thirty years, taking its worst parts, I have often travelled, in my boyhood, during the early settlement of our country, in a heavy, high, old-fashioned coach over roads that were quite as bad, and, in some places, over roads that were actually more dangerous, than any part of this, as far as Liddes. Even a good deal of the road after quitting Liddes is not worse than that we formerly travelled, but wheels are nearly useless for the last league or two. As we rode along this path, C—— asked me in what manner I would transport artillery up such an ascent. Without the least reflection I answered, by making sledges of the larches, which is an expedient that I think would suggest instantly itself to nineteen men in twenty. I have since understood from the Duc de ——, who was an aide of Napoleon, on the occasion of the passage, that it was precisely the expedient adopted. Several thousand Swiss peasants were employed in drawing the logs, thus loaded, up the precipices. I do not think it absolutely impracticable to take up guns limbered, but the other plan would be much the easiest, as well as the safest. In short, I make no doubt, so far as mere toil and physical difficulties are concerned, that a hundred marches have been made through the swamps and forests of America, in every one of which, mile for mile, greater natural obstacles have been overcome than those on this celebrated passage. The French, it will be remembered, were unresisted, and had possession of the col, a garrison having occupied the convent for more than a year.

The great merit of the First Consul was in the surprise, the military manner in which the march was effected, and the brilliant success of his subsequent movements. Had he been defeated, I fancy few would have thought so much of the simple passage of the mountain, unless to reproach him for placing the rocks between himself and a retreat. As he was not defeated, the audace of the experiment, a great military quality sometimes, enters, also, quite properly into the estimate of his glory.

The guide pointed to a place where, according to his account of the matter, the horse of the First Consul stumbled and pitched him over a precipice, the attendants catching him by his great-coat, assisted by a few bushes. This may be true, for the man affirmed he had heard it from the guide who was near Napoleon at the time, and a mis-step of a horse might very well produce such a fall. The precipice was both steep and high, and had the First Consul gone down it, it is not probable he would ever have gone up the St. Bernard.

At Liddes we re-entered the char and trotted down to Martigny in good time. Here we got another conveyance, and pushed down the valley, through St. Maurice, across the bridge, and out of the gate of the canton, again, reaching Bex a little after dark.

The next morning we were off early for Villeneuve, in order to reach the boat. This was handsomely effected, and heaving-to abreast of Vévey, we succeeded in eating our breakfast at "Mon Repos."




James Fenimore Cooper

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