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The Old Saint-Gothard

LEAVES FROM A NOTE-BOOK


Berne, September, 1873.--In Berne again, some eleven
weeks after having left it in July. I have never been in
Switzerland so late, and I came hither innocently supposing the
last Cook's tourist to have paid out his last coupon and
departed. But I was lucky, it seems, to discover an empty cot in
an attic and a very tight place at a table d'hôte. People are all
flocking out of Switzerland, as in July they were flocking in,
and the main channels of egress are terribly choked. I have been
here several days, watching them come and go; it is like the
march-past of an army. It gives one, for an occasional change
from darker thoughts, a lively impression of the numbers of
people now living, and above all now moving, at extreme ease in
the world. Here is little Switzerland disgorging its tens of
thousands of honest folk, chiefly English, and rarely, to judge
by their faces and talk, children of light in any eminent degree;
for whom snow-peaks and glaciers and passes and lakes and chalets
and sunsets and a café complet, "including honey," as the
coupon says, have become prime necessities for six weeks every
year. It's not so long ago that lords and nabobs monopolised
these pleasures; but nowadays i a month's tour in Switzerland is
no more a jeu de prince than a Sunday excursion. To watch
this huge Anglo-Saxon wave ebbing through Berne suggests, no
doubt most fallaciously, that the common lot of mankind isn't
after all so very hard and that the masses have reached a high
standard of comfort. The view of the Oberland chain, as you see
it from the garden of the hotel, really butters one's bread most
handsomely; and here are I don't know how many hundred Cook's
tourists a day looking at it through the smoke of their pipes. Is
it really the "masses," however, that I see every day at the
table d'hôte? They have rather too few h's to the dozen, but
their good-nature is great. Some people complain that they
"vulgarise" Switzerland; but as far as I am concerned I freely
give it up to them and offer them a personal welcome and take a
peculiar satisfaction in seeing them here. Switzerland is a "show
country"--I am more and more struck with the bearings of that
truth; and its use in the world is to reassure persons of a
benevolent imagination when they begin to wish for the drudging
millions a greater supply of elevating amusement. Here is
amusement for a thousand years, and as elevating certainly as
mountains three miles high can make it. I expect to live to see
the summit of Monte Rosa heated by steam-tubes and adorned with a
hotel setting three tables d'hôte a day.

[Illustration: THE CLOCK TOWER, BERNE]

I have been walking about the arcades, which used to bestow a
grateful shade in July, but which seem rather dusky and chilly in
these shortening autumn days. I am struck with the way the
English always speak of them--with a shudder, as gloomy, as
dirty, as evil-smelling, as suffocating, as freezing, as anything
and everything but admirably picturesque. I take us Americans for
the only people who, in travelling, judge things on the first
impulse--when we do judge them at all--not from the standpoint of
simple comfort. Most of us, strolling forth into these bustling
basements, are, I imagine, too much amused, too much diverted
from the sense of an alienable right to public ease, to be
conscious of heat or cold, of thick air, or even of the universal
smell of strong charcuterie. If the visible romantic were
banished from the face of the earth I am sure the idea of it
would still survive in some typical American heart....

Lucerne, September. --Berne, I find, has been filling with
tourists at the expense of Lucerne, which I have been having
almost to myself. There are six people at the table d'hôte; the
excellent dinner denotes on the part of the chef the easy
leisure in which true artists love to work. The waiters have
nothing to do but lounge about the hall and chink in their
pockets the fees of the past season. The day has been lovely in
itself, and pervaded, to my sense, by the gentle glow of a
natural satisfaction at my finding myself again on the threshold
of Italy. I am lodged en prince, in a room with a balcony
hanging over the lake--a balcony on which I spent a long time
this morning at dawn, thanking the mountain-tops, from the depths
of a landscape-lover's heart, for their promise of superbly fair
weather. There were a great many mountain-tops to thank, for the
crags and peaks and pinnacles tumbled away through the morning
mist in an endless confusion of grandeur. I have been all day in
better humour with Lucerne than ever before--a forecast
reflection of Italian moods. If Switzerland, as I wrote the other
day, is so furiously a show-place, Lucerne is certainly one of
the biggest booths at the fair. The little quay, under the trees,
squeezed in between the decks of the steamboats and the doors of
the hotels, is a terrible medley of Saxon dialects--a jumble of
pilgrims in all the phases of devotion, equipped with book and
staff, alpenstock and Baedeker. There are so many hotels and
trinket-shops, so many omnibuses and steamers, so many Saint-
Gothard vetturini, so many ragged urchins poking
photographs, minerals and Lucernese English at you, that you feel
as if lake and mountains themselves, in all their loveliness,
were but a part of the "enterprise" of landlords and pedlars, and
half expect to see the Righi and Pilatus and the fine weather
figure as items on your hotel-bill between the bougie and
the siphon. Nature herself assists you to this conceit;
there is something so operatic and suggestive of footlights and
scene-shifters in the view on which Lucerne looks out. You are
one of five thousand--fifty thousand--"accommodated" spectators;
you have taken your season-ticket and there is a responsible
impresario somewhere behind the scenes. There is such a luxury of
beauty in the prospect--such a redundancy of composition and
effect--so many more peaks and pinnacles than are needed to make
one heart happy or regale the vision of one quiet observer, that
you finally accept the little Babel on the quay and the looming
masses in the clouds as equal parts of a perfect system, and feel
as if the mountains had been waiting so many ages for the hotels
to come and balance the colossal group, that they show a right,
after all, to have them big and numerous. The scene-shifters have
been at work all day long, composing and discomposing the
beautiful background of the prospect--massing the clouds and
scattering the light, effacing and reviving, making play with
their wonderful machinery of mist and haze. The mountains rise,
one behind the other, in an enchanting gradation of distances and
of melting blues and greys; you think each successive tone the
loveliest and haziest possible till you see another loom dimly
behind it. I couldn't enjoy even The Swiss Times, over my
breakfast, till I had marched forth to the office of the Saint-
Gothard service of coaches and demanded the banquette for to-
morrow. The one place at the disposal of the office was taken,
but I might possibly m'entendre with the conductor for his
own seat--the conductor being generally visible, in the intervals
of business, at the post-office. To the post-office, after
breakfast, I repaired, over the fine new bridge which now spans
the green Reuss and gives such a woeful air of country-cousinship
to the crooked old wooden structure which did sole service when I
was here four years ago. The old bridge is covered with a running
hood of shingles and adorned with a series of very quaint and
vivid little paintings of the "Dance of Death," quite in the
Holbein manner; the new sends up a painful glare from its white
limestone, and is ornamented with candelabra in a meretricious
imitation of platinum. As an almost professional cherisher of
the quaint I ought to have chosen to return at least by the dark
and narrow way; but mark how luxury unmans us. I was already
demoralised. I crossed the threshold of the timbered portal, took
a few steps, and retreated. It smelt badly! So I marched
back, counting the lamps in their fine falsity. But the other,
the crooked and covered way, smelt very badly indeed; and no good
American is without a fund of accumulated sensibility to the
odour of stale timber.

Meanwhile I had spent an hour in the great yard of the
postoffice, waiting for my conductor to turn up and seeing the
yellow malles-postes pushed to and fro. At last, being told my
man was at my service, I was brought to speech of a huge, jovial,
bearded, delightful Italian, clad in the blue coat and waistcoat,
with close, round silver buttons, which are a heritage of the old
postilions. No, it was not he; it was a friend of his; and
finally the friend was produced, en costume de ville, but
equally jovial,and Italian enough--a brave Lucernese, who had
spent half of his life between Bellinzona and Camerlata. For ten
francs this worthy man's perch behind the luggage was made mine
as far as Bellinzona, and we separated with reciprocal wishes for
good weather on the morrow. To-morrow is so manifestly determined
to be as fine as any other 30th of September since the weather
became on this planet a topic of conversation that I have had
nothing to do but stroll about Lucerne, staring, loafing and
vaguely intent on regarding the fact that, whatever happens, my
place is paid to Milan. I loafed into the immense new Hotel
National and read the New York Tribune on a blue satin
divan; after which I was rather surprised, on coming out, to find
myself staring at a green Swiss lake and not at the Broadway
omnibuses. The Hotel National is adorned with a perfectly
appointed Broadway bar--one of the "prohibited" ones seeking
hospitality in foreign lands after the manner of an old-fashioned
French or Italian refugee.

Milan, October.--My journey hither was such a pleasant
piece of traveller's luck that I feel a delicacy for taking it to
pieces to see what it was made of. Do what we will, however,
there remains in all deeply agreeable impressions a charming
something we can't analyse. I found it agreeable even, given the
rest of my case, to turn out of bed, at Lucerne, by four o'clock,
into the chilly autumn darkness. The thick-starred sky was
cloudless, and there was as yet no flush of dawn; but the lake
was wrapped in a ghostly white mist which crept halfway up the
mountains and made them look as if they too had been lying down
for the night and were casting away the vaporous tissues of their
bedclothes. Into this fantastic fog the little steamer went
creaking away, and I hung about the deck with the two or three
travellers who had known better than to believe it would save
them francs or midnight sighs--over those debts you "pay with
your person"--to go and wait for the diligence at the Poste at
Fliielen, or yet at the Guillaume Tell. The dawn came sailing up
over the mountain-tops, flushed but unperturbed, and blew out
the little stars and then the big ones, as a thrifty matron after
a party blows out her candles and lamps; the mist went melting
and wandering away into the duskier hollows and recesses of the
mountains, and the summits defined their profiles against the
cool soft light.

At Flüelen, before the landing, the big yellow coaches were
actively making themselves bigger, and piling up boxes and bags
on their roofs in a way to turn nervous people's thoughts to the
sharp corners of the downward twists of the great road. I climbed
into my own banquette, and stood eating peaches--half-a-dozen
women were hawking them about under the horses' legs--with an air
of security that might have been offensive to the people
scrambling and protesting below between coupé and intérieur. They
were all English and all had false alarms about the claim of
somebody else to their place, the place for which they produced
their ticket, with a declaration in three or four different
tongues of the inalienable right to it given them by the
expenditure of British gold. They were all serenely confuted by
the stout, purple-faced, many-buttoned conductors, patted on the
backs, assured that their bath-tubs had every advantage of
position on the top, and stowed away according to their dues.
When once one has fairly started on a journey and has but to go
and go by the impetus received, it is surprising what
entertainment one finds in very small things. We surrender to the
gaping traveller's mood, which surely isn't the unwisest the
heart knows. I don't envy people, at any rate, who have outlived
or outworn the simple sweetness of feeling settled to go
somewhere with bag and umbrella. If we are settled on the top of
a coach, and the "somewhere" contains an element of the new and
strange, the case is at its best. In this matter wise people are
content to become children again. We don't turn about on our
knees to look out of the omnibus-window, but we indulge in very
much the same round-eyed contemplation of accessible objects.
Responsibility is left at home or at the worst packed away in the
valise, relegated to quite another part of the diligence with the
clean shirts and the writing-case. I sucked in the gladness of
gaping, for this occasion, with the somewhat acrid juice of my
indifferent peaches; it made me think them very good. This was
the first of a series of kindly services it rendered me. It made
me agree next, as we started, that the gentleman at the booking-
office at Lucerne had but played a harmless joke when he told me
the regular seat in the banquette was taken. No one appeared to
claim it; so the conductor and I reversed positions, and I found
him quite as conversible as the usual Anglo-Saxon.

He was trolling snatches of melody and showing his great yellow
teeth in a jovial grin all the way to Bellinzona--and this in
face of the sombre fact that the Saint-Gothard tunnel is scraping
away into the mountain, all the while, under his nose, and
numbering the days of the many-buttoned brotherhood. But he
hopes, for long service's sake, to be taken into the employ of
the railway; he at least is no cherisher of quaintness and
has no romantic perversity. I found the railway coming on,
however, in a manner very shocking to mine. About an hour short
of Andermatt they have pierced a huge black cavity in the
mountain, around which has grown up a swarming, digging,
hammering, smoke-compelling colony. There are great barracks,
with tall chimneys, down in the gorge that bristled the other day
but with natural graces, and a wonderful increase of wine-shops
in the little village of Göschenen above. Along the breast of the
mountain, beside the road, come wandering several miles of very
handsome iron pipes, of a stupendous girth--a conduit for the
water-power with which some of the machinery is worked. It lies
at its mighty length among the rocks like an immense black
serpent, and serves, as a mere detail, to give one the measure
of the central enterprise. When at the end of our long day's
journey, well down in warm Italy, we came upon the other aperture
of the tunnel, I could but uncap with a grim reverence. Truly
Nature is great, but she seems to me to stand in very much the
shoes of my poor friend the conductor. She is being superseded at
her strongest points, successively, and nothing remains but for
her to take humble service with her master. If she can hear
herself think amid that din of blasting and hammering she must be
reckoning up the years to elapse before the cleverest of Ober-
Ingénieurs decides that mountains are mere obstructive matter
and has the Jungfrau melted down and the residuum carried away in
balloons and dumped upon another planet.

The Devil's Bridge, with the same failing apparently as the good
Homer, was decidedly nodding. The volume of water in the torrent
was shrunken, and I missed the thunderous uproar and far-leaping
spray that have kept up a miniature tempest in the neighbourhood
on my other passages. It suddenly occurs to me that the fault is
not in the good Homer's inspiration, but simply in the big black
pipes above-mentioned. They dip into the rushing stream higher
up, presumably, and pervert its fine frenzy to their prosaic
uses. There could hardly be a more vivid reminder of the standing
quarrel between use and beauty, and of the hard time poor beauty
is having. I looked wistfully, as we rattled into dreary
Andermatt, at the great white zigzags of the Oberalp road which
climbed away to the left. Even on one's way to Italy one may
spare a throb of desire for the beautiful vision of the castled
Grisons. Dear to me the memory of my day's drive last summer
through that long blue avenue of mountains, to queer little
mouldering Ilanz, visited before supper in the ghostly dusk. At
Andermatt a sign over a little black doorway flanked by two dung-
hills seemed to me tolerably comical: Mineraux,
Quadrupedes, Oiseaux, OEufs, Tableaux
Antiques
. We bundled in to dinner and the American gentleman
in the banquette made the acquaintance of the Irish lady in the
coupé, who talked of the weather as foine and wore a
Persian scarf twisted about her head. At the other end of the
table sat an Englishman, out of the intérieur, who bore an
extraordinary resemblance to the portraits of Edward VI's and
Mary's reigns. He walking, a convincing Holbein. The impression
was of value to a cherisher of quaintness, and he must have
wondered--not knowing me for such a character--why I stared at
him. It wasn't him I was staring at, but some handsome Seymour or
Dudley or Digby with a ruff and a round cap and plume.

From Andermatt, through its high, cold, sunny valley, we passed
into rugged little Hospenthal, and then up the last stages of the
ascent. From here the road was all new to me. Among the summits
of the various Alpine passes there is little to choose. You wind
and double slowly into keener cold and deeper stillness; you put
on your overcoat and turn up the collar; you count the nestling
snow-patches and then you cease to count them; you pause, as you
trudge before the lumbering coach, and listen to the last-heard
cow-bell tinkling away below you in kindlier herbage. The sky was
tremendously blue, and the little stunted bushes on the snow-
streaked slopes were all dyed with autumnal purples and crimsons.
It was a great display of colour. Purple and crimson too, though
not so fine, were the faces thrust out at us from the greasy
little double casements of a barrack beside the road, where the
horses paused before the last pull. There was one little girl in
particular, beginning to lisser her hair, as civilisation
approached, in a manner not to be described, with her poor little
blue-black hands. At the summit are the two usual grim little
stone taverns, the steel-blue tarn, the snow-white peaks, the
pause in the cold sunshine. Then we begin to rattle down with two
horses. In five minutes we are swinging along the famous zigzags.
Engineer, driver, horses--it's very handsomely done by all of
them. The road curves and curls and twists and plunges like the
tail of a kite; sitting perched in the banquette, you see it
making below you and in mid-air certain bold gyrations which
bring you as near as possible, short of the actual experience, to
the philosophy of that immortal Irishman who wished that his fall
from the house-top would only last. But the zigzags last no more
than Paddy's fall, and in due time we were all coming to our
senses over cafe au lait in the little inn at Faido. After
Faido the valley, plunging deeper, began to take thick afternoon
shadows from the hills, and at Airolo we were fairly in the
twilight. But the pink and yellow houses shimmered through the
gentle gloom, and Italy began in broken syllables to whisper that
she was at hand. For the rest of the way to Bellinzona her voice
was muffled in the grey of evening, and I was half vexed to lose
the charming sight of the changing vegetation. But only half
vexed, for the moon was climbing all the while nearer the edge of
the crags that overshadowed us, and a thin magical light came
trickling down into the winding, murmuring gorges. It was a most
enchanting business. The chestnut-trees loomed up with double
their daylight stature; the vines began to swing their low
festoons like nets to trip up the fairies. At last the ruined
towers of Bellinzona stood gleaming in the moonshine, and we
rattled into the great post-yard. It was eleven o'clock and I had
risen at four; moonshine apart I wasn't sorry.

All that was very well; but the drive next day from Bellinzona to
Como is to my mind what gives its supreme beauty to this great
pass. One can't describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor
would one try if one could; the floweriest rhetoric can recall it
only as a picture on a fireboard recalls a Claude. But it lay
spread before me for a whole perfect day: in the long gleam of
the Major, from whose head the diligence swerves away and begins
to climb the bosky hills that divide it from Lugano; in the
shimmering, melting azure of the southern slopes and masses; in
the luxurious tangle of nature and the familiar amenity of man;
in the lawn-like inclinations, where the great grouped chestnuts
make so cool a shadow in so warm a light; in the rusty vineyards,
the littered cornfields and the tawdry wayside shrines. But most
of all it's the deep yellow light that enchants you and tells you
where you are. See it come filtering down through a vine-covered
trellis on the red handkerchief with which a ragged contadina has
bound her hair, and all the magic of Italy, to the eye, makes an
aureole about the poor girl's head. Look at a brown-breasted
reaper eating his chunk of black bread under a spreading
chestnut; nowhere is shadow so charming, nowhere is colour so
charged, nowhere has accident such grace. The whole drive to
Lugano was one long loveliness, and the town itself is admirably
Italian. There was a great unlading of the coach, during which I
wandered under certain brown old arcades and bought for six sous,
from a young woman in a gold necklace, a hatful of peaches and
figs. When I came back I found the young man holding open the
door of the second diligence, which had lately come up, and
beckoning to me with a despairing smile. The young man, I must
note, was the most amiable of Ticinese; though he wore no buttons
he was attached to the diligence in some amateurish capacity, and
had an eye to the mail-bags and other valuables in the boot. I
grumbled at Berne over the want of soft curves in the Swiss
temperament; but the children of the tangled Tessin are cast in
the Italian mould. My friend had as many quips and cranks as a
Neapolitan; we walked together for an hour under the chestnuts,
while the coach was plodding up from Bellinzona, and he never
stopped singing till we reached a little wine-house where he got
his mouth full of bread and cheese. I looked into his open door,
a la Sterne, and saw the young woman sitting rigid and grim,
staring over his head and with a great pile of bread and butter
in her lap. He had only informed her most politely that she was
to be transferred to another diligence and must do him the favour
to descend; but she evidently knew of but one way for a
respectable young insulary of her sex to receive the politeness
of a foreign adventurer guilty of an eye betraying latent
pleasantry. Heaven only knew what he was saying! I told her, and
she gathered up her parcels and emerged. A part of the day's
great pleasure perhaps was my grave sense of being an instrument
in the hands of the powers toward the safe consignment of this
young woman and her boxes. When once you have really bent to the
helpless you are caught; there is no such steel trap, and it
holds you fast. My rather grim Abigail was a neophyte in foreign
travel, though doubtless cunning enough at her trade, which I
inferred to be that of making up those prodigious chignons worn
mainly by English ladies. Her mistress had gone on a mule over
the mountains to Cadenabbia, and she herself was coming up with
the wardrobe, two big boxes and a bath-tub. I had played my part,
under the powers, at Bellinzona, and had interposed between the
poor girl's frightened English and the dreadful Ticinese French
of the functionaries in the post-yard. At the custom-house on the
Italian frontier I was of peculiar service; there was a kind of
fateful fascination in it. The wardrobe was voluminous; I
exchanged a paternal glance with my charge as the douanier
plunged his brown fists into it. Who was the lady at Cadenabbia?
What was she to me or I to her? She wouldn't know, when she
rustled down to dinner next day, that it was I who had guided the
frail skiff of her public basis of vanity to port. So unseen but
not unfelt do we cross each other's orbits. The skiff however may
have foundered that evening in sight of land. I disengaged the
young woman from among her fellow-travellers and placed her boxes
on a hand-cart in the picturesque streets of Como, within a
stone's throw of that lovely striped and toned cathedral which
has the facade of cameo medallions. I could only make the
facchino swear to take her to the steamboat. He too was a
jovial dog, but I hope he was polite with precautions.

1873.

Henry James