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Chapter 21

As yet the trembling year is unconfirmed,
And winter oft, at eve, resumes the breeze,
Chills the pale morn, and bids his driving sleets
Deform the day delightful:----


The horn of Pierre Dumont was blowing beneath the windows of the inn of
Martigny, with the peep of dawn. Then followed the appearance of drowsy
domestics, the saddling of unwilling mules, and the loading of baggage. A
few minutes later the little caravan was assembled, for the cavalcade
almost deserved this name, and the whole were in motion for the summits of
the Alps.

The travellers now left the valley of the Rhone to bury themselves amid
those piles of misty and confused mountains, which formed the back-ground
of the picture they had studied from the castle of Blonay and the sheet of
the Leman. They soon plunged into a glen, and, following the windings of a
brawling torrent, were led gradually, and by many turnings, into a country
of bleak upland pasturage, where the inhabitants gained a scanty
livelihood, principally by means of their dairies.

A few leagues above Martigny, the paths again separated, one inclining to
the left towards the elevated valley that has since become so celebrated
in the legends of this wild region, by the formation of a little lake in
its glacier, which, becoming too heavy for its foundation, broke through
its barrier of ice, and descended in a mountain of water to the Rhone, a
distance of many leagues, sweeping before it every vestige of civilization
that crossed its course, and even changing, in many places, the face of
nature itself. Here the glittering peak of Vélan became visible, and,
though so much nearer to the eye than when viewed from Vévey, it was still
a distant shining pile, grand in its solitude and mystery, on which the
sight loved to dwell, as it studies the pure and spotless edges of some
sleepy cloud.

It has already been said, that the ascent of the great St. Bernard, with
the exception of occasional hills and hollows, is nowhere very precipitous
but at the point at which the last rampart of rock is to be overcome. On
the contrary, the path, for leagues at a time, passes along tolerably even
valleys, though of necessity the general direction is upward, and for most
of the distance through a country that admits of cultivation, though the
meagreness of the soil, and the shortness of the seasons, render but an
indifferent return to the toil of the husbandman. In this respect it
differs from most of the other Alpine passes; but if it wants the variety,
wildness, and sublimity of the Splugen. the St. Gothard, the Gemmi, and
the Simplon, it is still an ascent on a magnificent scale, and he who
journeys on its path is raised, as it were, by insensible degrees, to an
elevation that gradually changes all his customary associations with the
things of the lower world.

From the moment of quitting the inn to that of the first halt, Melchior de
Willading and the Signor Grimaldi rode in company, as on the previous day.
These old friends had much to communicate in confidential discourse which
the presence of Roger de Blonay, and the importunities of the bailiff, had
hitherto prevented them from freely saying. Both had thought maturely,
too, on the situation of Adelheid, of her hopes, and of her future
fortunes, and both had reasoned much as two old nobles of that day, who
were not without strong sympathies for their kind, while they were too
practised to overlook the world and its ties, would be likely to reason on
an affair of this delicate nature.

"There came a feeling of regret, perhaps I might fairly call it by its
proper name, of envy," observed the Genoese, in the pursuance of the
subject which engrossed most of their time and thoughts, as they rode
slowly along, the bridles dangling from the necks of their mules,--"there
came a feeling of regret, when I first saw the fair creature that calls
thee father, Melchior. God has dealt mercifully by me, in respect to many
things that make men happy; but he rendered my marriage accursed, not only
in its bud, but in its fruit. Thy child is dutiful and loving, all that a
father can wish; and yet here is this unusual attachment come to
embarrass, if not to defeat, thy fair and just hopes for her welfare! This
is no common affair, that a few threats of bolts and a change of scene
will cure, but a rooted affection that is but too firmly based on
esteem.--By San Francesco, but I think, at times, thou wouldst do well to
permit the ceremony!"

"Should it be our fortune to meet with the absconding Jacques Colis at
Turin, he might give us different counsel," answered the old baron drily.

"That is a dreadful barrier to our wishes! Were the boy anything but a
headsman's child! I do not think thou couldst object, Melchior, had he
merely come of a hind, or of some common follower of thy family?"

"It were far better that he should have come of one like ourselves,
Gaetano. I reason but little on the dogmas of this or that sect in
politics; but I feel and think, in this affair, as the parent of an only
child. All those usages and opinions in which we are trained, my friend,
are so many ingredients in our happiness, let them be silly or wise, just
or oppressive; and though I would fain do that which is right to the rest
of mankind, I could wish to begin to practise innovation with any other
than my own daughter. Let them who like philosophy and justice, and
natural rights, so well, commence by setting us the example."

"Thou hast hit the stumbling-block that causes a thousand well-digested
plans for the improvement of the world to fail, honest Melchior. Could we
toil with others' limbs, sacrifice with others' groans, and pay with
others' means, there would be no end to our industry, our
disinterestedness, or our liberality--and yet it were a thousand pities
that so sweet a girl and so noble a youth should not yoke!"

"'Twould be a yoke indeed, for a daughter of the house of Willading;"
returned the graver father, with emphasis. "I have looked at this matter
in every face that becomes me, Gaetano, and though I would not rudely
repulse one that hath saved my life, by driving him from my company, at a
moment when even strangers consort for mutual aid and protection, at Turin
we must part for ever!"

"I know not how to approve, nor yet how to blame thee, poor Melchior!
'Twas a sad scene, that of the refusal to wed Balthazar's daughter, in the
presence of so many thousands!"

"I take it as a happy and kind warning of the precipice to which a foolish
tenderness was leading us both, my friend."

"Thou may'st have reason; and yet I wish thou wert more in error than ever
Christian was! These are rugged mountains, Melchior, and, fairly passed,
it might be so arranged that the boy should forget Switzerland for ever.
He might become a Genoese, in which event, dost thou not see the means of
overcoming some of the present difficulty?"

"Is the heiress of my house a vagrant, Signor Grimaldi, to forget her
country and birth?"

"I am childless, in effect, if not in fact; and where there are the will
and the means, the end should not be wanting. We will speak of this under
the warmer sun of Italy, which they say is apt to render hearts tender."

"The hearts of the young and amorous, good Gaetano, but, unless much
changed of late, it is as apt to harden those of the old, as any sun I
know of;" returned the baron, shaking his head, though it much exceeded
his power to smile at his own pleasantry when speaking on this painful
subject. "Thou knowest that in this matter I act only for the welfare of
Adelheid, without thought of myself; and it would little comport with the
honor of a baron of an ancient house, to be the grandfather of children
who come of a race of executioners."

The Signor Grimaldi succeeded better than his friend in raising a smile,
for, more accustomed to dive into the depths of human feeling, he was not
slow in detecting the mixture of motives that were silently exercising
their long-established influence over the heart of his really
well-intentioned companion.

"So long as thou speakest of the wisdom of respecting men's opinions, and
the danger of wrecking thy daughter's happiness by running counter to
their current, I agree with thee to the letter; but, to me, it seems
possible so to place the affair, that the world shall imagine all is in
rule, and, by consequence, all proper. If we can overcome ourselves,
Melchior, I apprehend no great difficulty in blinding others."

The head of the Bernois dropped upon his breast, and he rode a long
distance in that attitude, reflecting on the course it most became him to
pursue, and struggling with the conflicting sentiments which troubled his
upright but prejudiced mind. As his friend understood the nature of this
inward strife, he ceased to speak, and a long silence succeeded the

It was different with those who followed. Though long accustomed to gaze
at their native mountains from a distance, this was the first occasion on
which Adelheid and her companion had ever actually penetrated into their
glens, or journeyed on their broken and changing faces. The path of St.
Bernard, therefore, had all the charm of novelty, and their youthful and
ardent minds were soon won from meditating on their own causes of
unhappiness, to admiration of the sublime works of nature. The cultivated
taste of Adelheid, in particular, was quick in detecting those beauties of
a more subtle kind which the less instructed are apt to overlook, and she
found additional pleasure in pointing them out to the ingenuous and
wondering Christine, who received these, her first, lessons in that grand
communion with nature which is pregnant with so much unalloyed delight,
with gratitude and a readiness of comprehension, that amply repaid her
instructress. Sigismund was an attentive and pleased listener to what was
passing, though one who had so often passed the mountains, and who had
seen them familiarly on their warmer and more sunny side, had little to
learn, himself, even from so skilful and alluring a teacher.

As they ascended, the air became purer and less impregnated with the
humidity of its lower currents; changing, by a process as fine as that
wrought by a chemical application, the hues and aspect of every object in
the view. A vast hill-side lay basking in the sun, which illuminated on
its rounded swells a hundred long stripes of grain in every stage of
verdure, resembling so much delicate velvet that was thrown in a variety
of accidental faces to the light, while the shadows ran away, to speak
technically, from this _foyer de lumière_ of the picture, in gradations of
dusky russet and brown, until the _colonne de vigueur_ was obtained in the
deep black cast from the overhanging branches of a wood of larch in the
depths of some ravine, into which the sight with difficulty penetrated.
These were the beauties on which Adelheid most loved to dwell, for they
are always the charms that soonest strike the true admirer of nature, when
he finds himself raised above the lower and less purified strata of the
atmosphere, into the regions of more radiant light and brightness. It is
thus that the physical, no less than the moral, vision becomes elevated
above the impurities that cling to this nether world, attaining a portion
of that spotless and sublime perception as we ascend, by which we are
nearly assimilated to the truths of creation; a poetical type of the
greater and purer enjoyment we feel, as morally receding from earth we
draw nearer to heaven.

The party rested for several hours, as usual, at the little mountain
hamlet of Liddes. At the present time, it is not uncommon for the
traveller, favored by a wheel-track along this portion of the route, to
ascend the mountain and to return to Martigny in the same day. The descent
in particular, after reaching the village just named, is soon made; but at
the period of our tale, such an exploit, if ever made, was of very rare
occurrence. The fatigue of being in the saddle so many hours compelled our
party to remain at the inn much longer than is now practised, and their
utmost hope was to be able to reach the convent before the last rays of
the sun had ceased to light the glittering peak of Vélan.

There occurred here, too, some unexpected detention on the part of
Christine, who had retired with Sigismund soon after reaching the inn, and
who did not rejoin the party until the impatience of the guide had more
than once manifested itself in such complaints as one in his situation is
apt to hazard. Adelheid saw with pain, when her friend did at length
rejoin them, that she had been weeping bitterly; but, too delicate to
press her for an explanation on a subject in which it was evident the
brother and sister did not desire to bestow their confidence, she
communicated her readiness to depart to the domestics, without the
slightest allusion to the change in Christine's appearance, or to the
unexpected delay of which she had been the cause.

Pierre muttered an ave in thankfulness that the long halt was ended. He
then crossed himself with one hand, while with the other he flourished his
whip, among a crowd of gaping urchins and slavering crétins, to clear the
way for those he guided. His followers were, in the main of a different
mood. If the traveller too often reaches the inn hungry and disposed to
find fault, he usually quits it good-humored and happy. The restoration,
as it is well called in France, effected by means of the larder and the
resting of wearied limbs, is usually communicated to the spirits; and it
must be a crusty humor indeed, or singularly bad fare, that prevents a
return to a placid state of mind. The party, under the direction of
Pierre, formed no exception to the general rule. The two old nobles had so
far forgotten the subject of their morning dialogue, as to be facetious;
and, ere long, even their gentle companions were disposed to laugh at some
of their sallies, in spite of the load of care that weighed so constantly
and so heavily on both. In short, such is the waywardness of our feelings,
and so difficult is it to be always sorrowful as well as always happy,
that the well-satisfied landlady, who had, in truth, received the full
value of a very indifferent fare, was ready to affirm, as she curtsied her
thanks on the dirty threshold, that a merrier party had never left her

"We shall take our revenge out of the casks of the good Augustines
to-night for the sour liquor of this inn; is it not so, honest Pierre?"
demanded the Signor Grimaldi, adjusting himself in the saddle, as they got
clear of the stones, sinuosities, projecting roofs, and filth of the
village, into the more agreeable windings of the ordinary path, again.
"Our friend, the clavier, is apprized of the visit, and as we have already
gone through fair and foul in company, I look to his fellowship for some
compensation for the frugal meal of which we have just partaken."

"Father Xavier is a hospitable and a happy-minded priest, Signore; and
that the saints will long leave him keeper of the convent-keys, is the
prayer of every muleteer, guide, or pilgrim, who crosses the col. I wish
we were going up the rough steps, by which we are to climb the last rock
of the mountain, at this very moment, Messieurs, and that all the rest of
the way were as fairly done as this we have so happily passed."

"Dost thou anticipate difficulty, friend?" demanded the Italian, leaning
forward on his saddle-bow, for his quick observation had caught the
examining glance that the guide threw around at the heavens.

"Difficulty is a meaning not easily admitted by a mountaineer, Signore;
and I am one of the last to think of it, or to feel its dread. Still, we
are near the end of the season, and these hills are high and bleak, and
those that follow are delicate flowers for a stormy heath. Toil is always
sweeter in the remembrance than in the expectation.--I mean no more, if I
mean that."

Pierre stopped his march as he ceased speaking. He stood on a little
eminence of the path, whence, by looking back, he commanded a view of the
opening among the mountains which indicates the site of the valley of the
Rhone. The look was long and understanding; but, when it was ended, he
turned and resumed his march with the business-like air of one more
disposed to act than to speculate on the future. But for the few words
which had just escaped him, this natural movement would have attracted no
attention; and, as it was, it was observed by none but the Signor
Grimaldi, who would himself have attached little importance to the whole,
had the guide maintained Ins usual pace.

As is common in the Alps, the conductor of the travellers went on foot,
leading the whole party at such a gait as he thought most expedient for
man and beast. Hitherto, Pierre had proceeded with sufficient leisure,
rendering it necessary for those who followed to observe the same
moderation; but he now walked sensibly faster, and frequently so fast as
to make it necessary for the mules to break into easy trots, in order to
maintain their proper stations. All this, however, was ascribed by most of
the party to the formation of the ground, for, after leaving Liddes, there
is a long reach of what, among the upper valleys of the Alps, may by
comparison be called a level road. This industry, too, was thought to be
doubly necessary, in order to repair the time lost at the inn, for the sun
was already dipping towards the western boundary of their narrow view of
the heavens, and the temperature announced, if not a sudden change in the
weather, at least the near approach of the periodical turn of the day.

"We travel by a very ancient path;" observed the Signore Grimaldi, when
his thoughts had reverted from their reflections on the movements of the
guide to the circumstance of their present situation. "A very reverend
path, it might be termed in compliment to the worthy monks who do so much
to lessen its dangers, and to its great antiquity. History speaks often of
its use by different leaders of armies, for it has long been a
thoroughfare for those who journey between the north and the south,
whether it be in strife, or in amity. In the time of Augustus it was the
route commonly used by the Roman legions in their passages to and from
Helvetia and Gaul; the followers of Cæcinna went by these gorges to their
attack upon Otho; and the Lombards made the same use of it, five hundred
years later. It was often trod by armed bands, in the wars of Charles of
Burgundy, those of Milan, and in the conquests of Charlemagne. I remember
a tale, in which it is said that a horde of infidel Corsairs from the
Mediterranean penetrated by this road, and seized upon the bridge of St.
Maurice with a view to plunder. As we are not the first so it is probable
that we are not to be the last, who have trusted themselves in these
regions of the upper air, bent on our objects, whether of love or of

"Signore," observed Pierre respectfully, when the Genoese ceased speaking,
"if your eccellenza would make your discourse less learned, and more in
those familiar words which can be said under a brisk movement, it might
better suit the time and the great necessity there is to be diligent."

"Dost thou apprehend danger? Are we behind our time?--Speak; for I dislike

"Danger has a strong meaning in the mouth of a mountaineer, Signore; for
what is security on this path, might be thought alarming lower down in the
valleys; I say it not. But the sun is touching the rocks, as you see, and
we are drawing near to places where a miss-step of a mule in the dark
might cost us dear. I would that all diligently improve the daylight,
while they can."

The Genoese did not answer, but he urged his mule again to a gait that was
more in accordance with the wishes of Pierre. The movement was followed,
as a matter of course, by the rest; and the whole party was once more in a
gentle trot, which was scarcely sufficient, however, to keep even pace
with the long, impatient, and rapid strides of Pierre, who,
notwithstanding his years, appeared to get over the ground with a facility
that cost him no effort. Hitherto, the heat had not been small, and, in
that pure atmosphere, all its powers were felt during the time the sun's
rays fell into the valley; but, the instant they were intercepted by a
brown and envious peak of the mountains, their genial influence was
succeeded by a chill that sufficiently proved how necessary was the
presence of the luminary to the comfort of those who dwelt at that great
elevation. The females sought their mantles the moment the bright light
was followed by the usual shadow; nor was it long before even the more
aged of the gentlemen were seen unstrapping their cloaks, and taking the
customary precautions against the effects of the evening air.

The reader is not to suppose, however, that all these little incidents of
the way occurred in a time as brief as that which has been consumed in the
narration. A long line of path was travelled over before the Signor
Grimaldi and his friend were cloaked, and divers hamlets and cabins were
successively passed. The alteration from the warmth of day to the chill of
evening also was accompanied by a corresponding change in the appearance
of the objects they passed. St. Pierre, a cluster of stone-roofed
cottages, which bore all the characteristics of the inhospitable region
for which they had been constructed, was the last village; though there
was a hamlet, at the bridge of Hudri, composed of a few dreary abodes,
which, by their aspect, seemed the connecting link between the dwellings
of man and the caverns of beasts. Vegetation had long been growing more
and more meagre, and it was now fast melting away into still deeper and
irretrievable traces of sterility, like the shadows of a picture passing
through their several transitions of color to the depth of the
back-ground. The larches and cedars diminished gradually in size and
numbers, until the straggling and stinted tree became a bush, and the
latter finally disappeared in the shape of a tuft of pale green, that
adhered to some crevice in the rocks like so much moss. Even the mountain
grasses, for which Switzerland is so justly celebrated, grew thin and
wiry; and by the time the travellers reached the circular basin at the
foot of the peak of Vélan, which is called La Plaine de Prou, there only
remained, in the most genial season of the year, and that in isolated
spots between the rocks, a sufficiency of nourishment for the support of a
small flock of adventurous, nibbling, and hungry goats.

The basin just alluded to is an opening among high pinnacles, and is
nearly surrounded by naked and ragged rocks. The path led through its
centre, always ascending on an inclined plane, and disappeared through a
narrow gorge around the brow of a beetling cliff. Pierre pointed out the
latter as the pass by far the most dangerous on this side the Col, in the
season of the melting snows, avalanches frequently rolling from its crags.
There was no cause for apprehending this well-known Alpine danger,
however, in the present moment; for, with the exception of Mont-Vélan, all
above and around them lay in the same dreary dress of sterility. Indeed,
it would not be easy for the imagination to conceive a more eloquent
picture of desolation than that which met the eyes of the travellers, as,
following the course of the run of water that trickled through the middle
of the inhospitable valley, the certain indication of the general
direction of their course, they reached its centre.

The time was getting to be that of early twilight, but the sombre color of
the rocks, streaked and venerable by the ferruginous hue with which time
had coated their sides, and the depth of the basin, gave to their
situation a melancholy gloom passing the duskiness of the hour. On the
other hand, the light rested bright and gloriously on the snowy peak of
Vélan, still many thousand feet above them, though in plain, and
apparently, in near view; while rich touches of the setting sun were
gleaming on several of the brown, natural battlements of the Alps, which,
worn with eternal exposure to the storms, still lay in sublime confusion
at a most painful elevation in their front. The azure vault that canopied
all, had that look of distant glory and of grand repose, which so often
meets the eye, and so forcibly strikes the mind, of him who travels in the
deep valleys and embedded lakes of Switzerland. The glacier of Valsorey
descended from the upper region nearly to the edge of the valley, bright
and shining, its lower margin streaked and dirty with the _débris_ of the
overhanging rocks, as if doomed to the fate of all that came upon the
earth, that of sharing its impurities.

There no longer existed any human habitation between the point which the
travellers had now attained and the convent, though more modern
speculation, in this age of curiosity and restlessness, has been induced
to rear a substitute for an inn in the spot just described, with the hope
of gleaning a scanty tribute from those who fail of arriving in season to
share the hospitality of the monks. The chilliness of the air increased
faster even than the natural change of the hour would seem to justify, and
there were moments when the dull sound of the wind descended to their
ears, though not a breath was stirring a withered and nearly solitary
blade of grass at their feet. Once or twice, large black clouds drove
across the opening above them, resembling heavy-winged vultures sailing in
the void, preparatory to a swoop upon their prey.

James Fenimore Cooper