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Chapter 24

LETTER XXIV.

The Swiss Mountain Passes.—Excursion in the neighbourhood of Vévey.—Castle of Blonay.—View from the Terrace.—Memory and Hope.—Great Antiquity of Blonay.—The Knight's Hall.—Prospect from the Balcony.—Departure from Blonay.—A Modern Chateau.—Travelling on Horseback.—News from America.—Dissolution of the Union predicted.—The Prussian Polity.—Despotism in Prussia.


Dear ——,

You may have gathered from my last letters that I do not rank the path of the Great St. Bernard among the finest of the Swiss mountain passes. You will remember, however, that we saw but little of the Italian side, where the noblest features and grandest scenes on these roads are usually found. The Simplon would not be so very extraordinary, were it confined to its Swiss horrors and Swiss magnificence, though, by the little I have seen of them, I suspect that both the St. Gothard and the Splugen do a little better on their northern faces. The pass by Nice is peculiar, being less wild and rocky than any other, while it possesses beauties entirely its own (and extraordinary beauties they are), in the constant presence of the Mediterranean, with its vast blue expanse, dotted with sails of every kind that the imagination can invent. It has always appeared to me that poets have been the riggers of that sea.

C—— and myself were too mountaineerish after this exploit to remain contented in a valley, however lovely it might be, and the next day we sallied forth on foot, to explore the hill-side behind Vévey. The road led at first through narrow lanes, lined by vineyards; but emerging from these, we soon came out into a new world, and one that I can compare to no other I have ever met with. I should never tire of expatiating on the beauties of this district, which really appear to be created expressly to render the foreground of one of the sublimest pictures on earth worthy of the rest of the piece.

It was always mountain, but a mountain so gradual of ascent, so vast, and yet so much like a broad reach of variegated low land, in its ornaments, cultivation, houses, villages, copses, meadows, and vines, that it seemed to be a huge plain canted into a particular inclination, in order to give the spectator a better opportunity to examine it in detail, and at his leisure, as one would hold a picture to the proper light. Some of the ascents, nevertheless, were sufficiently sharp, and more than once we were glad enough to stop to cool ourselves, and to take breath. At length, after crossing some lovely meadows, by the margin of beautiful woods, we came out at the spot which was the goal we had aimed at from the commencement of the excursion. This was the castle of Blonay, of whose picturesque site and pleasant appearance I have already spoken in my letters, as a venerable hold that stands about a league from the town, on one of the most striking positions of the mountain.

The family of Blonay has been in possession of this place for seven hundred years. One branch of it is in Sardinia; but I suppose its head is the occupant of the house, or castle. As the building was historical, and the De Blonays of unquestionable standing, I was curious to examine the edifice, since it might give me some further insight into the condition of the old Swiss nobility. Accordingly we applied for admission, and obtained it without difficulty.

The Swiss castles, with few exceptions, are built on the breasts, or spurs, of mountains. The immediate foundation is usually a rock, and the sites were generally selected on account of the difficulties of the approach. This latter peculiarity, however, does not apply so rigidly to Blonay as to most of the other holds of the country, for the rock which forms its base serves for little else than a solid foundation. I presume one of the requisites of such a site was the difficulty or impossibility of undermining the walls, a mode of attack that existed long before gunpowder was known.

The buildings of Blonay are neither extensive nor very elaborate. We entered by a modest gateway in a retired corner, and found ourselves at once in a long, narrow, irregular court. On the left was a corps de bâtiment, that contained most of the sleeping apartments, and a few of the others, with the offices; in front was a still older wing, in which was the knight's hall, and one or two other considerable rooms; and on the right was the keep, an old solid tower, that was originally the nucleus and parent of all the others, as well as a wing that is now degraded to the duties of a storehouse. These buildings form the circuit of the court, and complete the edifice; for the side next the mountain, or that by which we entered, had little besides the ends of the two lateral buildings and the gate. The latter was merely a sort of chivalrous back-door, for there was another between the old tower and the building of the knight's hall, of more pretension, and which was much larger. The great gate opens on a small elevated terrace, that is beautifully shaded by fine trees, and which commands a view, second, I feel persuaded, to but few on earth. I do not know that it is so perfectly exquisite as that we got from the house of Cardinal Rufo, at Naples, and yet it has many admirable features that were totally wanting to the Neapolitan villa. I esteem these two views as much the best that it has ever been my good fortune to gaze at from any dwelling, though the beauties of both are, as a matter of course, more or less shared by all the houses in their respective neighbourhoods. The great carriage-road, as great carriage-roads go on such a mountain-side, comes up to this gate, though it is possible to enter also by the other.

Blonay, originally, must have been a hold of no great importance, as neither the magnitude, strength, nor position of the older parts, is sufficient to render the place one to be seriously assailed or obstinately defended. Without knowing the fact, I infer that its present interest arises from its great antiquity, coupled with the circumstance of its having been possessed by the same family for so long a period. Admitting a new owner for each five-and-twenty years, the present must be somewhere about the twenty-fifth De Blonay who has lived on this spot!

A common housemaid showed us through the building, but, unfortunately, to her it was a house whose interest depended altogether on the number of floors there were to be scrubbed, and windows to be cleaned. This labour-saving sentiment destroys a great deal of excellent poetry and wholesome feeling, reducing all that is venerable and romantic to the level of soap and house-cloths. I dare say one could find many more comfortable residences than this, within a league of Vévey; perhaps "Mon Repos" has the advantage of it, in this respect: but there must be a constant, quiet, and enduring satisfaction, with one whose mind is properly trained, in reflecting that he is moving, daily and hourly, through halls that have been trodden by his fathers for near a thousand years! Hope is a livelier, and, on the whole, a more useful, because a more stimulating, feeling, than that connected with memory; but there is a solemn and pleasing interest clinging about the latter, that no buoyancy of the first can ever equal. Europe is fertile of recollections; America is pregnant with hope. I have tried hard, aided by the love which is quickened by distance, as well as by the observations that are naturally the offspring of comparison, to draw such pictures of the latter for the future, as may supplant the pictures of the past that so constantly rise before the mind in this quarter of the world; but, though reasonably ingenious in castle-building, I have never been able to make it out. I believe laziness lies at the bottom of the difficulty. In our moments of enjoyment we prefer being led, to racking the brain for invention. The past is a fact; while, at the best, the future is only conjecture. In this case the positive prevails over the assumed, and the imagination finds both and easier duty, and all it wants, in throwing around the stores of memory, the tints and embellishments that are wanting to complete the charm. I know little of the history of Blonay, beyond the fact of its great antiquity, nor is it a chateau of remarkable interest as a specimen of the architecture and usages of its time; and yet, I never visited a modern palace, with half the intense pleasure with which I went through this modest abode. Fancy had a text, in a few unquestionable facts, and it preached copiously on their authority. At Caserta, or St. Cloud, we admire the staircases, friezes, salons, and marbles, but I never could do anything with your kings, who are so much mixed up with history, as to leave little to the fancy; while here, one might imagine not only time, but all the various domestic and retired usages that time brings forth.

The Ritter Saal, or Knight's Hall, of Blonay has positive interest enough to excite the dullest mind. Neither the room nor its ornaments are very peculiar of themselves, the former being square, simple, and a good deal modernized, while the latter was such as properly belonged to a country gentleman of limited means. But the situation and view form its great features; for all that has just been said of the terrace, can be better said of this room. Owing to the formation of the mountain, the windows are very high above the ground, and at one of them is a balcony, which, I am inclined to think, is positively without a competitor in this beautiful world of ours. Cardinal Rufo has certainly no such balcony. It is le balcon des balcons.

I should despair of giving you a just idea of the mingled magnificence and softness of the scene that lies stretched before and beneath the balcony of Blonay. You know the elements of the view already,—for they are the same mysterious glen, or valley, the same blue lake, the same côtes, the same solemn and frowning rocks, the same groupings of towers, churches, hamlets, and castles, of which I have had such frequent occasion to speak in these letters. But the position of Blonay has about it that peculiar nicety, which raises every pleasure to perfection. It is neither too high, nor too low; too retired, nor too much advanced; too distant, nor too near. I know nothing of M. de Blonay beyond the favourable opinion of the observant Jean, the boatman, but he must be made of flint, if he can daily, hourly, gaze at the works of the Deity as they are seen from this window, without their producing a sensible and lasting effect on the character of his mind. I can imagine a man so far blasé, as to pass through the crowd of mites, who are his fellows, without receiving or imparting much; but I cannot conceive of a heart, whose owner can be the constant observer of such a scene, without bending in reverence to the hand that made it. It would be just as rational to suppose one might have the Communion of St. Jerome hanging in his drawing-room, without ever thinking of Domenichino, as to believe one can be the constant witness of these natural glories without thinking of God.

I could have liked, above all things, to have been in this balcony during one of the fine sunsets of this season of the year. I think the creeping of the shadows up the acclivities, the growing darkness below, and the lingering light above, with the exquisite arabesques of the rocks of Savoy, must render the scene even more perfect than we found it.

Blonay is surrounded by meadows of velvet, the verdure reaching its very walls, and the rocks that occasionally do thrust their heads above the grass, aid in relieving rather than in lessening their softness. There are just enough of them to make a foreground that is not unworthy of the rocky belt which encircles most of the picture, and to give a general idea of the grand geological formation of the whole region.

We left Blonay with regret, and not without lingering some time on its terrace, a spot in which retirement is better blended with a bird's eye view of men and their haunts, than any other I know. One is neither in nor out of this world at such a spot; near enough to enjoy its beauties, and yet so remote as to escape its blemishes. In quilting the castle, we met a young female of simple lady-like carriage and attire, whom I saluted as the Lady of Blonay, and glad enough we were to learn from an old dependant, whom we afterwards fell in with, that the conjecture was true. One bows with reverence to the possessor of such an abode.

From Blonay we crossed the meadows and orchards, until we hit a road that led us towards the broad terrace that lies more immediately behind Vévey. We passed several hamlets, which lie on narrow stripes of land more level than common, a sort of shelves on the broad breast of the mountain, and which were rural and pretty. At length we came to the object of our search, a tolerably spacious modern house, that is called a château, and whose roofs and chimneys had often attracted our eyes from the lake. The place was French in exterior, though the grounds were more like those of Germany than those of France. The terrace is irregular but broad, and walks wind prettily among woods and copses. Altogether, the place is quite modern and much more extensive than is usual in Switzerland. We did not presume to enter the house, but, avoiding a party that belonged to the place, we inclined to the left, and descended, through the vines, to the town.

The true mode to move about this region is on horseback. The female in particular, who has a good seat, possesses a great advantage over most of her sex, if she will only improve it; and all things considered, I believe a family could travel through the cantons in no other manner so pleasantly; always providing that the women can ride. By riding, however, I do not mean sticking on a horse, by dint of rein and clinging, but a seat in which the fair one feels secure and entirely at her ease. Otherwise she may prove to be the gazee instead of the gazer.

On my return home, I went to a reading-room that I have frequented during our residence here, where I found a good deal of feeling excited by the news from America. The Swiss, I have told you, with very few exceptions, wish us well, but I take it nothing would give greater satisfaction to a large majority of the upper classes in most of the other countries of Europe, than to hear that the American republic was broken up: if buttons and broadcloths could be sent after us, it is not too much to add, or sent to the nether world. This feeling does not proceed so much from inherent dislike to us, as to our institutions. As a people, I rather think we are regarded with great indifference by the mass; but they who so strongly detest our institutions and deprecate our example, cannot prevent a little personal hatred from mingling with their political antipathies. Unlike the woman who was for beginning her love "with a little aversion," they begin with a little philanthropy, and end with a strong dislike for all that comes from the land they hate. I have known this feeling carried so far as to refuse credit even to the productions of the earth! I saw strong evidences of this truth, among several of the temporary habitués of the reading-room in question, most of whom were French. A speedy dissolution of the American Union was proclaimed in all the journals, on account of some fresh intelligence from the other side of the Atlantic; and I dare say that, at this moment, nine-tenths of the Europeans, who think at all on the subject, firmly and honestly believe that our institutions are not worth two years' purchase. This opinion is very natural, because falsehood is so artfully blended with truth, in what is published, that it requires a more intimate knowledge of the country to separate them, than a stranger can possess. I spent an hour to-day in a fruitless attempt to demonstrate to a very sensible Frenchman that nothing serious was to be apprehended from the present dispute, but all my logic was thrown away, and nothing but time will convince him of that which he is so strongly predisposed not to believe. They rarely send proper diplomatic men among us, in the first place; for a novel situation like that in America requires a fertile and congenial mind,—and then your diplomatist is usually so much disposed to tell every one that which he wishes to hear! We mislead, too, ourselves, by the exaggerations of the opposition. Your partizan writes himself into a fever, and talks like any other man whose pulse is unnatural. This fact ought to be a matter of no surprise, since it is one of the commonest foibles of man to dislike most the evils that press on him most; although an escape from them to any other might even entail destruction. It is the old story of King Log and King Stork. As democracy is in the ascendant, they revile democracy, while we all feel persuaded we should be destroyed, or muzzled, under any other form of government. A few toad-eaters and court butterflies excepted, I do not believe there is a man in all America who could dwell five years in any country in Europe, without being made sensible of the vast superiority of his own free institutions over those of every other Christian nation.

I have been amused of late, by tracing, in the publications at home, a great and growing admiration for the Prussian polity! There is something so absurd in an American's extolling such a system, that it is scarcely possible to say where human vagaries are to end. The Prussian government is a despotism; a mode of ruling that one would think the world understood pretty well by this time. It is true that the government is mildly administered, and hence all the mystifying that we hear and read about it. Prussia is a kingdom compounded of heterogenous parts; the north is Protestant, the south Catholic; the nation has been overrun in our own times, and the empire dismembered. Ruled by a king of an amiable and paternal disposition, and one who has been chastened by severe misfortunes, circumstances have conspired to render his sway mild and useful. No one disputes, that the government which is controlled by a single will, when that will is pure, intelligent, and just, is the best possible. It is the government of the universe, which is perfect harmony. But men with pure intentions, and intelligent and just minds, are rare, and more rare among rulers, perhaps, than any other class of men. Even Frederic II, though intelligent enough, was a tyrant. He led his subjects to slaughter for his own aggrandizement. His father, Frederic William, used to compel tall men to marry tall women. The time for the latter description of tyranny may be past, but oppression has many outlets, and the next king may discover some of them. In such a case his subjects would probably take refuge in a revolution and a constitution, demanding guarantees against this admirable system, and blow the new model-government to the winds!

Many of our people are like children who, having bawled till they get a toy, begin to cry to have it taken away from them. Fortunately the heart and strength of the nation, its rural population, is sound and practical, else we might prove ourselves to be insane as well as ridiculous.




James Fenimore Cooper

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