SKETCHES AND STUDIES IN ITALY AND GREECE
BY JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS
AUTHOR OF "RENAISSANCE IN ITALY", "STUDIES OF THE GREEK POETS," ETC
LONDON JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET, W. 1914
In preparing this new edition of the late J.A. Symonds's three volumes of travels, 'Sketches in Italy and Greece,' 'Sketches and Studies in Italy,' and 'Italian Byways,' nothing has been changed except the order of the Essays. For the convenience of travellers a topographical arrangement has been adopted. This implied a new title to cover the contents of all three volumes, and 'Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece' has been chosen as departing least from the author's own phraseology.
HORATIO F. BROWN. Venice: June 1898.
THE LOVE OF THE ALPS
WINTER NIGHTS AT DAVOS
BACCHUS IN GRAUBUeNDEN
OLD TOWNS OF PROVENCE
COMO AND IL MEDEGHINO
BERGAMO AND BARTOLOMMEO COLLEONI
CREMA AND THE CRUCIFIX
CHERUBINO AT THE SCALA THEATRE
A VENETIAN MEDLEY
THE GONDOLIER'S WEDDING
A CINQUE CENTO BRUTUS
TWO DRAMATISTS OF THE LAST CENTURY
SKETCHES AND STUDIES
ITALY AND GREECE
THE LOVE OF THE ALPS
Of all the joys in life, none is greater than the joy of arriving on the outskirts of Switzerland at the end of a long dusty day's journey from Paris. The true epicure in refined pleasures will never travel to Basle by night. He courts the heat of the sun and the monotony of French plains,—their sluggish streams and never-ending poplar trees—for the sake of the evening coolness and the gradual approach to the great Alps, which await him at the close of the day. It is about Mulhausen that he begins to feel a change in the landscape. The fields broaden into rolling downs, watered by clear and running streams; the green Swiss thistle grows by riverside and cowshed; pines begin to tuft the slopes of gently rising hills; and now the sun has set, the stars come out, first Hesper, then the troop of lesser lights; and he feels—yes, indeed, there is now no mistake—the well-known, well-loved magical fresh air, that never fails to blow from snowy mountains and meadows watered by perennial streams. The last hour is one of exquisite enjoyment, and when he reaches Basle, he scarcely sleeps all night for hearing the swift Rhine beneath the balconies, and knowing that the moon is shining on its waters, through the town, beneath the bridges, between pasture-lands and copses, up the still mountain-girdled valleys to the ice-caves where the water springs. There is nothing in all experience of travelling like this. We may greet the Mediterranean at Marseilles with enthusiasm; on entering Rome by the Porta del Popolo, we may reflect with pride that we have reached the goal of our pilgrimage, and are at last among world-shaking memories. But neither Rome nor the Riviera wins our hearts like Switzerland. We do not lie awake in London thinking of them; we do not long so intensely, as the year comes round, to revisit them. Our affection is less a passion than that which we cherish for Switzerland.
Why, then, is this? What, after all, is the love of the Alps, and when and where did it begin? It is easier to ask these questions than to answer them. The classic nations hated mountains. Greek and Roman poets talk of them with disgust and dread. Nothing could have been more depressing to a courtier of Augustus than residence at Aosta, even though he found his theatres and triumphal arches there. Wherever classical feeling has predominated, this has been the case. Cellini's Memoirs, written in the height of pagan Renaissance, well express the aversion which a Florentine or Roman felt for the inhospitable wildernesses of Switzerland. Dryden, in his dedication to 'The Indian Emperor,' says, 'High objects, it is true, attract the sight; but it looks up with pain on craggy rocks and barren mountains, and continues not intent on any object which is wanting in shades and green to entertain it.' Addison and Gray had no better epithets than 'rugged,' 'horrid,' and the like for Alpine landscape. The classic spirit was adverse to enthusiasm for mere nature. Humanity was too prominent, and city life absorbed all interests,—not to speak of what perhaps is the weightiest reason—that solitude, indifferent accommodation, and imperfect means of travelling, rendered mountainous countries peculiarly disagreeable. It is impossible to enjoy art or nature while suffering from fatigue and cold, dreading the attacks of robbers, and wondering whether you will find food and shelter at the end of your day's journey. Nor was it different in the Middle Ages. Then individuals had either no leisure from war or strife with the elements, or else they devoted themselves to the salvation of their souls. But when the ideas of the Middle Ages had decayed, when improved arts of life had freed men from servile subjection to daily needs, when the bondage of religious tyranny had been thrown off and political liberty allowed the full development of tastes and instincts, when, moreover, the classical traditions had lost their power, and courts and coteries became too narrow for the activity of man,—then suddenly it was discovered that Nature in herself possessed transcendent charms. It may seem absurd to class them all together; yet there is no doubt that the French Revolution, the criticism of the Bible, Pantheistic forms of religious feeling, landscape-painting, Alpine travelling, and the poetry of Nature, are all signs of the same movement—of a new Renaissance. Limitations of every sort have been shaken off during the last century; all forms have been destroyed, all questions asked. The classical spirit loved to arrange, model, preserve traditions, obey laws. We are intolerant of everything that is not simple, unbiassed by prescription, liberal as the wind, and natural as the mountain crags. We go to feed this spirit of freedom among the Alps. What the virgin forests of America are to the Americans, the Alps are to us. What there is in these huge blocks and walls of granite crowned with ice that fascinates us, it is hard to analyse. Why, seeing that we find them so attractive, they should have repelled our ancestors of the fourth generation and all the world before them, is another mystery. We cannot explain what rapport there is between our human souls and these inequalities in the surface of the earth which we call Alps. Tennyson speaks of
Some vague emotion of delight In gazing up an Alpine height,
and its vagueness eludes definition. The interest which physical science has created for natural objects has something to do with it. Curiosity and the charm of novelty increase this interest. No towns, no cultivated tracts of Europe however beautiful, form such a contrast to our London life as Switzerland. Then there is the health and joy that comes from exercise in open air; the senses freshened by good sleep; the blood quickened by a lighter and rarer atmosphere. Our modes of life, the breaking down of class privileges, the extension of education, which contribute to make the individual greater and society less, render the solitude of mountains refreshing. Facilities of travelling and improved accommodation leave us free to enjoy the natural beauty which we seek. Our minds, too, are prepared to sympathise with the inanimate world; we have learned to look on the universe as a whole, and ourselves as a part of it, related by close ties of friendship to all its other members Shelley's, Wordsworth's, Goethe's poetry has taught us this; we are all more or less Pantheists, worshippers of 'God in Nature,' convinced of the omnipresence of the informing mind.
Thus, when we admire the Alps, we are after all but children of the century. We follow its inspiration blindly; and while we think ourselves spontaneous in our ecstasy, perform the part for which we have been trained from childhood by the atmosphere in which we live. It is this very unconsciousness and universality of the impulse we obey which makes it hard to analyse. Contemporary history is difficult to write; to define the spirit of the age in which we live is still more difficult; to account for 'impressions which owe all their force to their identity with themselves' is most difficult of all. We must be content to feel, and not to analyse.
Rousseau has the credit of having invented the love of Nature. Perhaps he first expressed, in literature, the pleasures of open life among the mountains, of walking tours, of the 'ecole buissonniere,' away from courts, and schools, and cities, which it is the fashion now to love. His bourgeois birth and tastes, his peculiar religious and social views, his intense self-engrossment,—all favoured the development of Nature-worship. But Rousseau was not alone, nor yet creative, in this instance. He was but one of the earliest to seize and express a new idea of growing humanity. For those who seem to be the most original in their inauguration of periods are only such as have been favourably placed by birth and education to imbibe the floating creeds of the whole race. They resemble the first cases of an epidemic, which become the centres of infection and propagate disease. At the time of Rousseau's greatness the French people were initiative. In politics, in literature, in fashions, and in philosophy, they had for some time led the taste of Europe. But the sentiment which first received a clear and powerful expression in the works of Rousseau, soon declared itself in the arts and literature of other nations. Goethe, Wordsworth, and the earlier landscape-painters, proved that Germany and England were not far behind the French. In England this love of Nature for its own sake is indigenous, and has at all times been peculiarly characteristic of our genius. Therefore it is not surprising that our life and literature and art have been foremost in developing the sentiment of which we are speaking. Our poets, painters, and prose writers gave the tone to European thought in this respect. Our travellers in search of the adventurous and picturesque, our Alpine Club, have made of Switzerland an English playground.
The greatest period in our history was but a foreshadowing of this. To return to Nature-worship was but to reassume the habits of the Elizabethan age, altered indeed by all the changes of religion, politics, society, and science which the last three centuries have wrought, yet still, in its original love of free open life among the fields and woods, and on the sea, the same. Now the French national genius is classical. It reverts to the age of Louis XIV., and Rousseauism in their literature is as true an innovation and parenthesis as Pope-and-Drydenism was in ours. As in the age of the Reformation, so in this, the German element of the modern character predominates. During the two centuries from which we have emerged, the Latin element had the upper hand. Our love of the Alps is a Gothic, a Teutonic, instinct; sympathetic with all that is vague, infinite, and insubordinate to rules, at war with all that is defined and systematic in our genius. This we may perceive in individuals as well as in the broader aspects of arts and literatures. The classically minded man, the reader of Latin poets, the lover of brilliant conversation, the frequenter of clubs and drawing-rooms, nice in his personal requirements, scrupulous in his choice of words, averse to unnecessary physical exertion, preferring town to country life, cannot deeply feel the charm of the Alps. Such a man will dislike German art, and however much he may strive to be Catholic in his tastes, will find as he grows older that his liking for Gothic architecture and modern painting diminish almost to aversion before an increasing admiration for Greek peristyles and the Medicean Venus. If in respect of speculation all men are either Platonists or Aristotelians, in respect of taste all men are either Greek or German.
At present the German, the indefinite, the natural, commands; the Greek, the finite, the cultivated, is in abeyance. We who talk so much about the feeling of the Alps, are creatures, not creators of our cultus,—a strange reflection, proving how much greater man is than men, the common reason of the age in which we live than our own reasons, its constituents and subjects.
Perhaps it is our modern tendency to 'individualism' which makes the Alps so much to us. Society is there reduced to a vanishing point—no claims are made on human sympathies—there is no need to toil in yoke-service with our fellows. We may be alone, dream our own dreams, and sound the depths of personality without the reproach of selfishness, without a restless wish to join in action or money-making or the pursuit of fame. To habitual residents among the Alps this absence of social duties and advantages may be barbarising, even brutalising. But to men wearied with too much civilisation, and deafened by the noise of great cities, it is beyond measure refreshing. Then, again, among the mountains history finds no place. The Alps have no past nor present nor future. The human beings who live upon their sides are at odds with nature, clinging on for bare existence to the soil, sheltering themselves beneath protecting rocks from avalanches, damming up destructive streams, all but annihilated every spring. Man, who is paramount in the plain, is nothing here. His arts and sciences, and dynasties, and modes of life, and mighty works, and conquests and decays, demand our whole attention in Italy or Egypt. But here the mountains, immemorially the same, which were, which are, and which are to be, present a theatre on which the soul breathes freely and feels herself alone. Around her on all sides is God, and Nature, who is here the face of God and not the slave of man. The spirit of the world hath here not yet grown old. She is as young as on the first day; and the Alps are a symbol of the self-creating, self-sufficing, self-enjoying universe which lives for its own ends. For why do the slopes gleam with flowers, and the hillsides deck themselves with grass, and the inaccessible ledges of black rock bear their tufts of crimson primroses and flaunting tiger-lilies? Why, morning after morning, does the red dawn flush the pinnacles of Monte Rosa above cloud and mist unheeded? Why does the torrent shout, the avalanche reply in thunder to the music of the sun, the trees and rocks and meadows cry their 'Holy, Holy, Holy'? Surely not for us. We are an accident here, and even the few men whose eyes are fixed habitually upon these things are dead to them—the peasants do not even know the names of their own flowers, and sigh with envy when you tell them of the plains of Lincolnshire or Russian steppes.
But indeed there is something awful in the Alpine elevation above human things. We do not love Switzerland merely because we associate its thought with recollections of holidays and joyfulness. Some of the most solemn moments of life are spent high up above among the mountains, on the barren tops of rocky passes, where the soul has seemed to hear in solitude a low controlling voice. It is almost necessary for the development of our deepest affections that some sad and sombre moments should be interchanged with hours of merriment and elasticity. It is this variety in the woof of daily life which endears our home to us; and perhaps none have fully loved the Alps who have not spent some days of meditation, or it may be of sorrow, among their solitudes. Splendid scenery, like music, has the power to make 'of grief itself a fiery chariot for mounting above the sources of grief,' to ennoble and refine our passions, and to teach us that our lives are merely moments in the years of the eternal Being. There are many, perhaps, who, within sight of some great scene among the Alps, upon the height of the Stelvio or the slopes of Muerren, or at night in the valley of Courmayeur, have felt themselves raised above cares and doubts and miseries by the mere recognition of unchangeable magnificence; have found a deep peace in the sense of their own nothingness. It is not granted to us everyday to stand upon these pinnacles of rest and faith above the world. But having once stood there, how can we forget the station? How can we fail, amid the tumult of our common cares, to feel at times the hush of that far-off tranquillity? When our life is most commonplace, when we are ill or weary in city streets, we can remember the clouds upon the mountains we have seen, the sound of innumerable waterfalls, and the scent of countless flowers. A photograph of Bisson's or of Braun's, the name of some well-known valley, the picture of some Alpine plant, rouses the sacred hunger in our souls, and stirs again the faith in beauty and in rest beyond ourselves which no man can take from us. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to everything which enables us to rise above depressing and enslaving circumstances, which brings us nearer in some way or other to what is eternal in the universe, and which makes us know that, whether we live or die, suffer or enjoy, life and gladness are still strong in the world. On this account, the proper attitude of the soul among the Alps is one of silence. It is almost impossible without a kind of impiety to frame in words the feelings they inspire. Yet there are some sayings, hallowed by long usage, which throng the mind through a whole summer's day, and seem in harmony with its emotions—some portions of the Psalms or lines of greatest poets, inarticulate hymns of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, waifs and strays not always apposite, but linked by strong and subtle chains of feeling with the grandeur of the mountains. This reverential feeling for the Alps is connected with the Pantheistic form of our religious sentiments to which I have before alluded. It is a trite remark, that even devout men of the present generation prefer temples not made with hands to churches, and worship God in the fields more contentedly than in their pews. What Mr. Ruskin calls 'the instinctive sense of the divine presence not formed into distinct belief' lies at the root of our profound veneration for the nobler aspects of mountain scenery. This instinctive sense has been very variously expressed by Goethe in Faust's celebrated confession of faith, by Shelley in the stanzas of 'Adonais,' which begin 'He is made one with nature,' by Wordsworth in the lines on Tintern Abbey, and lately by Mr. Roden Noel in his noble poems of Pantheism. It is more or less strongly felt by all who have recognised the indubitable fact that religious belief is undergoing a sure process of change from the dogmatic distinctness of the past to some at present dimly descried creed of the future. Such periods of transition are of necessity full of discomfort, doubt, and anxiety, vague, variable, and unsatisfying. The men in whose spirits the fermentation of the change is felt, who have abandoned their old moorings, and have not yet reached the haven for which they are steering, cannot but be indistinct and undecided in their faith. The universe of which they form a part becomes important to them in its infinite immensity. The principles of beauty, goodness, order and law, no longer connected in their minds with definite articles of faith, find symbols in the outer world. They are glad to fly at certain moments from mankind and its oppressive problems, for which religion no longer provides a satisfactory solution, to Nature, where they vaguely localise the spirit that broods over us controlling all our being. To such men Goethe's hymn is a form of faith, and born of such a mood are the following far humbler verses:—
At Muerren let the morning lead thee out To walk upon the cold and cloven hills, To hear the congregated mountains shout Their paean of a thousand foaming rills. Raimented with intolerable light The snow-peaks stand above thee, row on row Arising, each a seraph in his might; An organ each of varied stop doth blow. Heaven's azure dome trembles through all her spheres, Feeling that music vibrate; and the sun Raises his tenor as he upward steers, And all the glory-coated mists that run Below him in the valley, hear his voice, And cry unto the dewy fields, Rejoice!
There is a profound sympathy between music and fine scenery: they both affect us in the same way, stirring strong but undefined emotions, which express themselves in 'idle tears,' or evoking thoughts 'which lie,' as Wordsworth says, 'too deep for tears,' beyond the reach of any words. How little we know what multitudes of mingling reminiscences, held in solution by the mind, and colouring its fancy with the iridescence of variable hues, go to make up the sentiments which music or which mountains stir! It is the very vagueness, changefulness, and dreamlike indistinctness of these feelings which cause their charm; they harmonise with the haziness of our beliefs and seem to make our very doubts melodious. For this reason it is obvious that unrestrained indulgence in the pleasures of music or of scenery may tend to destroy habits of clear thinking, sentimentalise the mind, and render it more apt to entertain embryonic fancies than to bring ideas to definite perfection.
If hours of thoughtfulness and seclusion are necessary to the development of a true love for the Alps, it is no less essential to a right understanding of their beauty that we should pass some wet and gloomy days among the mountains. The unclouded sunsets and sunrises which often follow one another in September in the Alps, have something terrible. They produce a satiety of splendour, and oppress the mind with a sense of perpetuity. I remember spending such a season in one of the Oberland valleys, high up above the pine-trees, in a little chalet. Morning after morning I awoke to see the sunbeams glittering on the Eiger and the Jungfrau; noon after noon the snow-fields blazed beneath a steady fire; evening after evening they shone like beacons in the red light of the setting sun. Then peak by peak they lost the glow; the soul passed from them, and they stood pale yet weirdly garish against the darkened sky. The stars came out, the moon shone, but not a cloud sailed over the untroubled heavens. Thus day after day for several weeks there was no change, till I was seized with an overpowering horror of unbroken calm. I left the valley for a time; and when I returned to it in wind and rain, I found that the partial veiling of the mountain heights restored the charm which I had lost and made me feel once more at home. The landscape takes a graver tone beneath the mist that hides the higher peaks, and comes drifting, creeping, feeling, through the pines upon their slopes—white, silent, blinding vapour-wreaths around the sable spires. Sometimes the cloud descends and blots out everything. Again it lifts a little, showing cottages and distant Alps beneath its skirts. Then it sweeps over the whole valley like a veil, just broken here and there above a lonely chalet or a thread of distant dangling torrent foam. Sounds, too, beneath the mist are more strange. The torrent seems to have a hoarser voice and grinds the stones more passionately against its boulders. The cry of shepherds through the fog suggests the loneliness and danger of the hills. The bleating of penned sheep or goats, and the tinkling of the cowbells, are mysteriously distant and yet distinct in the dull dead air. Then, again, how immeasurably high above our heads appear the domes and peaks of snow revealed through chasms in the drifting cloud; how desolate the glaciers and the avalanches in gleams of light that struggle through the mist! There is a leaden glare peculiar to clouds, which makes the snow and ice more lurid. Not far from the house where I am writing, the avalanche that swept away the bridge last winter is lying now, dripping away, dank and dirty, like a rotting whale. I can see it from my window, green beech-boughs nodding over it, forlorn larches bending their tattered branches by its side, splinters of broken pine protruding from its muddy caves, the boulders on its flank, and the hoarse hungry torrent tossing up its tongues to lick the ragged edge of snow. Close by, the meadows, spangled with yellow flowers and red and blue, look even more brilliant than if the sun were shining on them. Every cup and blade of grass is drinking. But the scene changes; the mist has turned into rain-clouds, and the steady rain drips down, incessant, blotting out the view. Then, too, what a joy it is if the clouds break towards evening with a north wind, and a rainbow in the valley gives promise of a bright to-morrow! We look up to the cliffs above our heads, and see that they have just been powdered with the snow that is a sign of better weather.
Such rainy days ought to be spent in places like Seelisberg and Muerren, at the edge of precipices, in front of mountains, or above a lake. The cloud-masses crawl and tumble about the valleys like a brood of dragons; now creeping along the ledges of the rock with sinuous self-adjustment to its turns and twists; now launching out into the deep, repelled by battling winds, or driven onward in a coil of twisted and contorted serpent curls. In the midst of summer these wet seasons often end in a heavy fall of snow. You wake some morning to see the meadows which last night were gay with July flowers huddled up in snow a foot in depth. But fair weather does not tarry long to reappear. You put on your thickest boots and sally forth to find the great cups of the gentians full of snow, and to watch the rising of the cloud-wreaths under the hot sun. Bad dreams or sickly thoughts, dissipated by returning daylight or a friend's face, do not fly away more rapidly and pleasantly than those swift glory-coated mists that lose themselves we know not where in the blue depths of the sky.
In contrast with these rainy days nothing can be more perfect than clear moonlight nights. There is a terrace upon the roof of the inn at Courmayeur where one may spend hours in the silent watches, when all the world has gone to sleep beneath. The Mont Chetif and the Mont de la Saxe form a gigantic portal not unworthy of the pile that lies beyond. For Mont Blanc resembles a vast cathedral; its countless spires are scattered over a mass like that of the Duomo at Milan, rising into one tower at the end. By night the glaciers glitter in the steady moon; domes, pinnacles, and buttresses stand clear of clouds. Needles of every height and most fantastic shapes rise from the central ridge, some solitary, like sharp arrows shot against the sky, some clustering into sheaves. On every horn of snow and bank of grassy hill stars sparkle, rising, setting, rolling round through the long silent night. Moonlight simplifies and softens the landscape. Colours become scarcely distinguishable, and forms, deprived of half their detail, gain in majesty and size. The mountains seem greater far by night than day—higher heights and deeper depths, more snowy pyramids, more beetling crags, softer meadows, and darker pines. The whole valley is hushed, but for the torrent and the chirping grasshopper and the striking of the village clocks. The black tower and the houses of Courmayeur in the foreground gleam beneath the moon until she reaches the edge of the Cramont, and then sinks quietly away, once more to reappear among the pines, then finally to leave the valley dark beneath the shadow of the mountain's bulk. Meanwhile the heights of snow still glitter in the steady light: they, too, will soon be dark, until the dawn breaks, tinging them with rose.
But it is not fair to dwell exclusively upon the more sombre aspect of Swiss beauty when there are so many lively scenes of which to speak. The sunlight and the freshness and the flowers of Alpine meadows form more than half the charm of Switzerland. The other day we walked to a pasture called the Col de Checruit, high up the valley of Courmayeur, where the spring was still in its first freshness. Gradually we climbed, by dusty roads and through hot fields where the grass had just been mown, beneath the fierce light of the morning sun. Not a breath of air was stirring, and the heavy pines hung overhead upon their crags, as if to fence the gorge from every wandering breeze. There is nothing more oppressive than these scorching sides of narrow rifts, shut in by woods and precipices. But suddenly the valley broadened, the pines and larches disappeared, and we found ourselves upon a wide green semicircle of the softest meadows. Little rills of water went rushing through them, rippling over pebbles, rustling under dock leaves, and eddying against their wooden barriers. Far and wide 'you scarce could see the grass for flowers,' while on every side the tinkling of cow-bells, and the voices of shepherds calling to one another from the Alps, or singing at their work, were borne across the fields. As we climbed we came into still fresher pastures, where the snow had scarcely melted. There the goats and cattle were collected, and the shepherds sat among them, fondling the kids and calling them by name. When they called, the creatures came, expecting salt and bread. It was pretty to see them lying near their masters, playing and butting at them with their horns, or bleating for the sweet rye-bread. The women knitted stockings, laughing among themselves, and singing all the while. As soon as we reached them, they gathered round to talk. An old herdsman, who was clearly the patriarch of this Arcadia, asked us many questions in a slow deliberate voice. We told him who we were, and tried to interest him in the cattle-plague, which he appeared to regard as an evil very unreal and far away—like the murrain upon Pharaoh's herds which one reads about in Exodus. But he was courteous and polite, doing the honours of his pasture with simplicity and ease. He took us to his chalet and gave us bowls of pure cold milk. It was a funny little wooden house, clean and dark. The sky peeped through its tiles, and if shepherds were not in the habit of sleeping soundly all night long, they might count the setting and rising stars without lifting their heads from the pillow. He told us how far pleasanter they found the summer season than the long cold winter which they have to spend in gloomy houses in Courmayeur. This, indeed, is the true pastoral life which poets have described—a happy summer holiday among the flowers, well occupied with simple cares, and harassed by 'no enemy but winter and rough weather.'
Very much of the charm of Switzerland belongs to simple things—to greetings from the herdsmen, the 'Guten Morgen,' and 'Guten Abend,' that are invariably given and taken upon mountain paths; to the tame creatures, with their large dark eyes, who raise their heads one moment from the pasture while you pass; and to the plants that grow beneath your feet. The latter end of May is the time when spring begins in the high Alps. Wherever sunlight smiles away a patch of snow, the brown turf soon becomes green velvet, and the velvet stars itself with red and white and gold and blue. You almost see the grass and lilies grow. First come pale crocuses and lilac soldanellas. These break the last dissolving clods of snow, and stand upon an island, with the cold wall they have thawed all round them. It is the fate of these poor flowers to spring and flourish on the very skirts of retreating winter; they soon wither—the frilled chalice of the soldanella shrivels up and the crocus fades away before the grass has grown; the sun, which is bringing all the other plants to life, scorches their tender petals. Often when summer has fairly come, you still may see their pearly cups and lilac bells by the side of avalanches, between the chill snow and the fiery sun, blooming and fading hour by hour. They have as it were but a Pisgah view of the promised land, of the spring which they are foremost to proclaim. Next come the clumsy gentians and yellow anemones, covered with soft down like fledgling birds. These are among the earliest and hardiest blossoms that embroider the high meadows with a diaper of blue and gold. About the same time primroses and auriculas begin to tuft the dripping rocks, while frail white fleur-de-lis, like flakes of snow forgotten by the sun, and golden-balled ranunculuses join with forget-me-nots and cranesbill in a never-ending dance upon the grassy floor. Happy, too, is he who finds the lilies-of-the-valley clustering about the chestnut boles upon the Colma, or in the beechwood by the stream at Macugnaga, mixed with garnet-coloured columbines and fragrant white narcissus, which the people of the villages call 'Angiolini.' There, too, is Solomon's seal, with waxen bells and leaves expanded like the wings of hovering butterflies. But these lists of flowers are tiresome and cold; it would be better to draw the portrait of one which is particularly fascinating. I think that botanists have called it Saxifraga cotyledon; yet, in spite of its long name, it is beautiful and poetic. London-pride is the commonest of all the saxifrages; but the one of which I speak is as different from London-pride as a Plantagenet upon his throne from that last Plantagenet who died obscure and penniless some years ago. It is a great majestic flower, which plumes the granite rocks of Monte Rosa in the spring. At other times of the year you see a little tuft of fleshy leaves set like a cushion on cold ledges and dark places of dripping cliffs. You take it for a stonecrop—one of those weeds doomed to obscurity, and safe from being picked because they are so uninviting—and you pass it by incuriously. But about June it puts forth its power, and from the cushion of pale leaves there springs a strong pink stem, which rises upward for a while, and then curves down and breaks into a shower of snow-white blossoms. Far away the splendour gleams, hanging like a plume of ostrich-feathers from the roof of rock, waving to the wind, or stooping down to touch the water of the mountain stream that dashes it with dew. The snow at evening, glowing with a sunset flush, is not more rosy-pure than this cascade of pendent blossoms. It loves to be alone—inaccessible ledges, chasms where winds combat, or moist caverns overarched near thundering falls, are the places that it seeks. I will not compare it to a spirit of the mountains or to a proud lonely soul, for such comparisons desecrate the simplicity of nature, and no simile can add a glory to the flower. It seems to have a conscious life of its own, so large and glorious it is, so sensitive to every breath of air, so nobly placed upon its bending stem, so royal in its solitude. I first saw it years ago on the Simplon, feathering the drizzling crags above Isella. Then we found it near Baveno, in a crack of sombre cliff beneath the mines. The other day we cut an armful opposite Varallo, by the Sesia, and then felt like murderers; it was so sad to hold in our hands the triumph of those many patient months, the full expansive life of the flower, the splendour visible from valleys and hillsides, the defenceless creature which had done its best to make the gloomy places of the Alps most beautiful.
After passing many weeks among the high Alps it is a pleasure to descend into the plains. The sunset, and sunrise, and the stars of Lombardy, its level horizons and vague misty distances, are a source of absolute relief after the narrow skies and embarrassed prospects of a mountain valley. Nor are the Alps themselves ever more imposing than when seen from Milan or the church-tower of Chivasso or the terrace of Novara, with a foreground of Italian cornfields and old city towers and rice-ground, golden-green beneath a Lombard sun. Half veiled by clouds, the mountains rise like visionary fortress walls of a celestial city—unapproachable, beyond the range of mortal feet. But those who know by old experience what friendly chalets, and cool meadows, and clear streams are hidden in their folds and valleys, send forth fond thoughts and messages, like carrier-pigeons, from the marble parapets of Milan, crying, 'Before another sun has set, I too shall rest beneath the shadow of their pines!' It is in truth not more than a day's journey from Milan to the brink of snow at Macugnaga. But very sad it is to leave the Alps, to stand upon the terraces of Berne and waft ineffectual farewells. The unsympathising Aar rushes beneath; and the snow-peaks, whom we love like friends, abide untroubled by the coming and the going of the world. The clouds drift over them—the sunset warms them with a fiery kiss. Night comes, and we are hurried far away to wake beside the Seine, remembering, with a pang of jealous passion, that the flowers on Alpine meadows are still blooming, and the rivulets still flowing with a ceaseless song, while Paris shops are all we see, and all we hear is the dull clatter of a Paris crowd.
THE ALPS IN WINTER
The gradual approach of winter is very lovely in the high Alps. The valley of Davos, where I am writing, more than five thousand feet above the sea, is not beautiful, as Alpine valleys go, though it has scenery both picturesque and grand within easy reach. But when summer is passing into autumn, even the bare slopes of the least romantic glen are glorified. Golden lights and crimson are cast over the grey-green world by the fading of innumerable plants. Then the larches begin to put on sallow tints that deepen into orange, burning against the solid blue sky like amber. The frosts are severe at night, and the meadow grass turns dry and wan. The last lilac crocuses die upon the fields. Icicles, hanging from watercourse or mill-wheel, glitter in the noonday sunlight. The wind blows keenly from the north, and now the snow begins to fall and thaw and freeze, and fall and thaw again. The seasons are confused; wonderful days of flawless purity are intermingled with storm and gloom. At last the time comes when a great snowfall has to be expected. There is hard frost in the early morning, and at nine o'clock the thermometer stands at 2 deg.. The sky is clear, but it clouds rapidly with films of cirrus and of stratus in the south and west. Soon it is covered over with grey vapour in a level sheet, all the hill-tops standing hard against the steely heavens. The cold wind from the west freezes the moustache to one's pipe-stem. By noon the air is thick with a coagulated mist; the temperature meanwhile has risen, and a little snow falls at intervals. The valleys are filled with a curious opaque blue, from which the peaks rise, phantom-like and pallid, into the grey air, scarcely distinguishable from their background. The pine-forests on the mountain-sides are of darkest indigo. There is an indescribable stillness and a sense of incubation. The wind has fallen. Later on, the snow-flakes flutter silently and sparely through the lifeless air. The most distant landscape is quite blotted out. After sunset the clouds have settled down upon the hills, and the snow comes in thick, impenetrable fleeces. At night our hair crackles and sparkles when we brush it. Next morning there is a foot and a half of finely powdered snow, and still the snow is falling. Strangely loom the chalets through the semi-solid whiteness. Yet the air is now dry and singularly soothing. The pines are heavy with their wadded coverings; now and again one shakes himself in silence, and his burden falls in a white cloud, to leave a black-green patch upon the hillside, whitening again as the imperturbable fall continues. The stakes by the roadside are almost buried. No sound is audible. Nothing is seen but the snow-plough, a long raft of planks with a heavy stone at its stem and a sharp prow, drawn by four strong horses, and driven by a young man erect upon the stem.
So we live through two days and nights, and on the third a north wind blows. The snow-clouds break and hang upon the hills in scattered fleeces; glimpses of blue sky shine through, and sunlight glints along the heavy masses. The blues of the shadows are everywhere intense. As the clouds disperse, they form in moulded domes, tawny like sunburned marble in the distant south lands. Every chalet is a miracle of fantastic curves, built by the heavy hanging snow. Snow lies mounded on the roads and fields, writhed into loveliest wreaths, or outspread in the softest undulations. All the irregularities of the hills are softened into swelling billows like the mouldings of Titanic statuary.
It happened once or twice last winter that such a clearing after snowfall took place at full moon. Then the moon rose in a swirl of fleecy vapour—clouds above, beneath, and all around. The sky was blue as steel, and infinitely deep with mist-entangled stars. The horn above which she first appears stood carved of solid black, and through the valley's length from end to end yawned chasms and clefts of liquid darkness. As the moon rose, the clouds were conquered, and massed into rolling waves upon the ridges of the hills. The spaces of open sky grew still more blue. At last the silver light came flooding over all, and here and there the fresh snow glistened on the crags. There is movement, palpitation, life of light through earth and sky. To walk out on such a night, when the perturbation of storm is over and the heavens are free, is one of the greatest pleasures offered by this winter life. It is so light that you can read the smallest print with ease. The upper sky looks quite black, shading by violet and sapphire into turquoise upon the horizon. There is the colour of ivory upon the nearest snow-fields, and the distant peaks sparkle like silver, crystals glitter in all directions on the surface of the snow, white, yellow, and pale blue. The stars are exceedingly keen, but only a few can shine in the intensity of moonlight. The air is perfectly still, and though icicles may be hanging from beard and moustache to the furs beneath one's chin, there is no sensation of extreme cold.
During the earlier frosts of the season, after the first snows have fallen, but when there is still plenty of moisture in the ground, the loveliest fern-fronds of pure rime may be found in myriads on the meadows. They are fashioned like perfect vegetable structures, opening fan-shaped upon crystal stems, and catching the sunbeams with the brilliancy of diamonds. Taken at certain angles, they decompose light into iridescent colours, appearing now like emeralds, rubies, or topazes, and now like Labrador spar, blending all hues in a wondrous sheen. When the lake freezes for the first time, its surface is of course quite black, and so transparent that it is easy to see the fishes swimming in the deep beneath; but here and there, where rime has fallen, there sparkle these fantastic flowers and ferns and mosses made of purest frost. Nothing, indeed, can be more fascinating than the new world revealed by frost. In shaded places of the valley you may walk through larches and leafless alder thickets by silent farms, all silvered over with hoar spangles—fairy forests, where the flowers and foliage are rime. The streams are flowing half-frozen over rocks sheeted with opaque green ice. Here it is strange to watch the swirl of water freeing itself from these frost-shackles, and to see it eddying beneath the overhanging eaves of frailest crystal-frosted snow. All is so silent, still, and weird in this white world, that one marvels when the spirit of winter will appear, or what shrill voices in the air will make his unimaginable magic audible. Nothing happens, however, to disturb the charm, save when a sunbeam cuts the chain of diamonds on an alder bough, and down they drift in a thin cloud of dust. It may be also that the air is full of floating crystals, like tiniest most restless fire-flies rising and falling and passing crosswise in the sun-illumined shade of tree or mountain-side.
It is not easy to describe these beauties of the winter-world; and yet one word must be said about the sunsets. Let us walk out, therefore, towards the lake at four o'clock in mid-December. The thermometer is standing at 3 deg., and there is neither breath of wind nor cloud. Venus is just visible in rose and sapphire, and the thin young moon is beside her. To east and south the snowy ranges burn with yellow fire, deepening to orange and crimson hues, which die away and leave a greenish pallor. At last, the higher snows alone are livid with a last faint tinge of light, and all beneath is quite white. But the tide of glory turns. While the west grows momently more pale, the eastern heavens flush with afterglow, suffuse their spaces with pink and violet. Daffodil and tenderest emerald intermingle; and these colours spread until the west again has rose and primrose and sapphire wonderfully blent, and from the burning skies a light is cast upon the valley—a phantom light, less real, more like the hues of molten gems, than were the stationary flames of sunset. Venus and the moon meanwhile are silvery clear. Then the whole illumination fades like magic.
All the charms of which I have been writing are combined in a sledge-drive. With an arrowy gliding motion one passes through the snow-world as through a dream. In the sunlight the snow surface sparkles with its myriad stars of crystals. In the shadow it ceases to glitter, and assumes a blueness scarcely less blue than the sky. So the journey is like sailing through alternate tracts of light irradiate heavens, and interstellar spaces of the clearest and most flawless ether. The air is like the keen air of the highest glaciers. As we go, the bells keep up a drowsy tinkling at the horse's head. The whole landscape is transfigured—lifted high up out of commonplaceness. The little hills are Monte Rosas and Mont Blancs. Scale is annihilated, and nothing tells but form. There is hardly any colour except the blue of sky and shadow. Everything is traced in vanishing tints, passing from the almost amber of the distant sunlight through glowing white into pale greys and brighter blues and deep ethereal azure. The pines stand in black platoons upon the hillsides, with a tinge of red or orange on their sable. Some carry masses of snow. Others have shaken their plumes free. The chalets are like fairy houses or toys, waist-deep in stores of winter fuel. With their mellow tones of madder and umber on the weather-beaten woodwork relieved against the white, with fantastic icicles and folds of snow depending from their eaves, or curled like coverlids from roof and window-sill, they are far more picturesque than in the summer. Colour, wherever it is found, whether in these cottages or in a block of serpentine by the roadside, or in the golden bulrush blades by the lake shore, takes more than double value. It is shed upon the landscape like a spiritual and transparent veil. Most beautiful of all are the sweeping lines of pure untroubled snow, fold over fold of undulating softness, billowing along the skirts of the peaked hills. There is no conveying the charm of immaterial, aerial, lucid beauty, the feeling of purity and aloofness from sordid things, conveyed by the fine touch on all our senses of light, colour, form, and air, and motion, and rare tinkling sound. The magic is like a spirit mood of Shelley's lyric verse. And, what is perhaps most wonderful, this delicate delight may be enjoyed without fear in the coldest weather. It does not matter how low the temperature may be, if the sun is shining, the air dry, and the wind asleep.
Leaving the horse-sledges on the verge of some high hill-road, and trusting oneself to the little hand-sledge which the people of the Grisons use, and which the English have christened by the Canadian term 'toboggan,' the excitement becomes far greater. The hand-sledge is about three feet long, fifteen inches wide, and half a foot above the ground, on runners shod with iron. Seated firmly at the back, and guiding with the feet in front, the rider skims down precipitous slopes and round perilous corners with a rapidity that beats a horse's pace. Winding through sombre pine-forests, where the torrent roars fitfully among caverns of barbed ice, and the glistening mountains tower above in their glory of sun-smitten snow, darting round the frozen ledges at the turnings of the road, silently gliding at a speed that seems incredible, it is so smooth, he traverses two or three miles without fatigue, carried onward by the mere momentum of his weight. It is a strange and great joy. The toboggan, under these conditions, might be compared to an enchanted boat shooting the rapids of a river; and what adds to its fascination is the entire loneliness in which the rider passes through those weird and ever-shifting scenes of winter radiance. Sometimes, when the snow is drifting up the pass, and the world is blank behind, before, and all around, it seems like plunging into chaos. The muffled pines loom fantastically through the drift as we rush past them, and the wind, ever and anon, detaches great masses of snow in clouds from their bent branches. Or again at night, when the moon is shining, and the sky is full of flaming stars, and the snow, frozen to the hardness of marble, sparkles with innumerable crystals, a new sense of strangeness and of joy is given to the solitude, the swiftness, and the silence of the exercise. No other circumstances invest the poetry of rapid motion with more fascination. Shelley, who so loved the fancy of a boat inspired with its own instinct of life, would have delighted in the game, and would probably have pursued it recklessly. At the same time, as practised on a humbler scale nearer home, in company, and on a run selected for convenience rather than for picturesqueness, tobogganing is a very Bohemian amusement. No one who indulges in it can count on avoiding hard blows and violent upsets, nor will his efforts to maintain his equilibrium at the dangerous corners be invariably graceful.
Nothing, it might be imagined, could be more monotonous than an Alpine valley covered up with snow. And yet to one who has passed many months in that seclusion Nature herself presents no monotony; for the changes constantly wrought by light and cloud and alternations of weather on this landscape are infinitely various. The very simplicity of the conditions seems to assist the supreme artist. One day is wonderful because of its unsullied purity; not a cloud visible, and the pines clothed in velvet of rich green beneath a faultless canopy of light. The next presents a fretwork of fine film, wrought by the south wind over the whole sky, iridescent with delicate rainbow tints within the influences of the sun, and ever-changing shape. On another, when the turbulent Foehn is blowing, streamers of snow may be seen flying from the higher ridges against a pallid background of slaty cloud, while the gaunt ribs of the hills glisten below with fitful gleams of lurid light. At sunrise, one morning, stealthy and mysterious vapours clothe the mountains from their basement to the waist, while the peaks are glistening serenely in clear daylight. Another opens with silently falling snow. A third is rosy through the length and breadth of the dawn-smitten valley. It is, however, impossible to catalogue the indescribable variety of those beauties, which those who love nature may enjoy by simply waiting on the changes of the winter in a single station of the Alps.
* * * * *
WINTER NIGHTS AT DAVOS
Light, marvellously soft yet penetrating, everywhere diffused, everywhere reflected without radiance, poured from the moon high above our heads in a sky tinted through all shades and modulations of blue, from turquoise on the horizon to opaque sapphire at the zenith—dolce color. (It is difficult to use the word colour for this scene without suggesting an exaggeration. The blue is almost indefinable, yet felt. But if possible, the total effect of the night landscape should be rendered by careful exclusion of tints from the word-palette. The art of the etcher is more needed than that of the painter.) Heaven overhead is set with stars, shooting intensely, smouldering with dull red in Aldeboran, sparkling diamond-like in Sirius, changing from orange to crimson and green in the swart fire of yonder double star. On the snow this moonlight falls tenderly, not in hard white light and strong black shadow, but in tones of cream and ivory, rounding the curves of drift. The mountain peaks alone glisten as though they were built of silver burnished by an agate. Far away they rise diminished in stature by the all-pervading dimness of bright light, that erases the distinctions of daytime. On the path before our feet lie crystals of many hues, the splinters of a thousand gems. In the wood there are caverns of darkness, alternating with spaces of star-twinkled sky, or windows opened between russet stems and solid branches for the moony sheen. The green of the pines is felt, although invisible, so soft in substance that it seems less like velvet than some materialised depth of dark green shadow.
Snow falling noiseless and unseen. One only knows that it is falling by the blinking of our eyes as the flakes settle on their lids and melt. The cottage windows shine red, and moving lanterns of belated wayfarers define the void around them. Yet the night is far from dark. The forests and the mountain-bulk beyond the valley loom softly large and just distinguishable through a pearly haze. The path is purest trackless whiteness, almost dazzling though it has no light. This was what Dante felt when he reached the lunar sphere:
Parova a me, che nube ne coprisse Lucida, spessa, solida e pulita.
Walking silent, with insensible footfall, slowly, for the snow is deep above our ankles, we wonder what the world would be like if this were all. Could the human race be acclimatised to this monotony (we say) perhaps emotion would be rarer, yet more poignant, suspended brooding on itself, and wakening by flashes to a quintessential mood. Then fancy changes, and the thought occurs that even so must be a planet, not yet wholly made, nor called to take her place among the sisterhood of light and song.
Sunset was fading out upon the Rhaetikon and still reflected from the Seehorn on the lake, when we entered the gorge of the Fluela—dense pines on either hand, a mounting drift of snow in front, and faint peaks, paling from rose to saffron, far above, beyond. There was no sound but a tinkling stream and the continual jingle of our sledge-bells. We drove at a foot's pace, our horse finding his own path. When we left the forest, the light had all gone except for some almost imperceptible touches of primrose on the eastern horns. It was a moonless night, but the sky was alive with stars, and now and then one fell. The last house in the valley was soon passed, and we entered those bleak gorges where the wind, fine, noiseless, penetrating like an edge of steel, poured slantwise on us from the north. As we rose, the stars to west seemed far beneath us, and the Great Bear sprawled upon the ridges of the lower hills outspread. We kept slowly moving onward, upward, into what seemed like a thin impalpable mist, but was immeasurable tracts of snow. The last cembras were left behind, immovable upon dark granite boulders on our right. We entered a formless and unbillowed sea of greyness, from which there rose dim mountain-flanks that lost themselves in air. Up, ever up, and still below us westward sank the stars. We were now 7500 feet above sea-level, and the December night was rigid with intensity of frost. The cold, and movement, and solemnity of space, drowsed every sense.
The memory of things seen and done in moonlight is like the memory of dreams. It is as a dream that I recall the night of our tobogganing to Klosters, though it was full enough of active energy. The moon was in her second quarter, slightly filmed with very high thin clouds, that disappeared as night advanced, leaving the sky and stars in all their lustre. A sharp frost, sinking to three degrees above zero Fahrenheit, with a fine pure wind, such wind as here they call 'the mountain breath.' We drove to Wolfgang in a two-horse sledge, four of us inside, and our two Christians on the box. Up there, where the Alps of Death descend to join the Lakehorn Alps, above the Wolfswalk, there is a world of whiteness—frozen ridges, engraved like cameos of aerial onyx upon the dark, star-tremulous sky; sculptured buttresses of snow, enclosing hollows filled with diaphanous shadow, and sweeping aloft into the upland fields of pure clear drift. Then came the swift descent, the plunge into the pines, moon-silvered on their frosted tops. The battalions of spruce that climb those hills defined the dazzling snow from which they sprang, like the black tufts upon an ermine robe. At the proper moment we left our sledge, and the big Christian took his reins in hand to follow us. Furs and greatcoats were abandoned. Each stood forth tightly accoutred, with short coat, and clinging cap, and gaitered legs for the toboggan. Off we started in line, with but brief interval between, at first slowly, then glidingly, and when the impetus was gained, with darting, bounding, almost savage swiftness—sweeping round corners, cutting the hard snow-path with keen runners, avoiding the deep ruts, trusting to chance, taking advantage of smooth places, till the rush and swing and downward swoop became mechanical. Space was devoured. Into the massy shadows of the forest, where the pines joined overhead, we pierced without a sound, and felt far more than saw the great rocks with their icicles; and out again, emerging into moonlight, met the valley spread beneath our feet, the mighty peaks of the Silvretta and the vast blue sky. On, on, hurrying, delaying not, the woods and hills rushed by. Crystals upon the snow-banks glittered to the stars. Our souls would fain have stayed to drink these marvels of the moon-world, but our limbs refused. The magic of movement was upon us, and eight minutes swallowed the varying impressions of two musical miles. The village lights drew near and nearer, then the sombre village huts, and soon the speed grew less, and soon we glided to our rest into the sleeping village street.
It was just past midnight. The moon had fallen to the western horns. Orion's belt lay bar-like on the opening of the pass, and Sirius shot flame on the Seehorn. A more crystalline night, more full of fulgent stars, was never seen, stars everywhere, but mostly scattered in large sparkles on the snow. Big Christian went in front, tugging toboggans by their strings, as Gulliver, in some old woodcut, drew the fleets of Lilliput. Through the brown wood-chalets of Selfrangr, up to the undulating meadows, where the snow slept pure and crisp, he led us. There we sat awhile and drank the clear air, cooled to zero, but innocent and mild as mother Nature's milk. Then in an instant, down, down through the hamlet, with its chalets, stables, pumps, and logs, the slumbrous hamlet, where one dog barked, and darkness dwelt upon the path of ice, down with the tempest of a dreadful speed, that shot each rider upward in the air, and made the frame of the toboggan tremble—down over hillocks of hard frozen snow, dashing and bounding, to the river and the bridge. No bones were broken, though the race was thrice renewed, and men were spilt upon the roadside by some furious plunge. This amusement has the charm of peril and the unforeseen. In no wise else can colder, keener air be drunken at such furious speed. The joy, too, of the engine-driver and the steeplechaser is upon us. Alas, that it should be so short! If only roads were better made for the purpose, there would be no end to it; for the toboggan cannot lose his wind. But the good thing fails at last, and from the silence of the moon we pass into the silence of the fields of sleep.
The new stable is a huge wooden building, with raftered lofts to stow the hay, and stalls for many cows and horses. It stands snugly in an angle of the pine-wood, bordering upon the great horse-meadow. Here at night the air is warm and tepid with the breath of kine. Returning from my forest walk, I spy one window yellow in the moonlight with a lamp. I lift the latch. The hound knows me, and does not bark. I enter the stable, where six horses are munching their last meal. Upon the corn-bin sits a knecht. We light our pipes and talk. He tells me of the valley of Arosa (a hawk's flight westward over yonder hills), how deep in grass its summer lawns, how crystal-clear its stream, how blue its little lakes, how pure, without a taint of mist, 'too beautiful to paint,' its sky in winter! This knecht is an Ardueser, and the valley of Arosa lifts itself to heaven above his Langwies home. It is his duty now to harness a sleigh for some night-work. We shake hands and part—I to sleep, he for the snow.
The lake has frozen late this year, and there are places in it where the ice is not yet firm. Little snow has fallen since it froze—about three inches at the deepest, driven by winds and wrinkled like the ribbed sea-sand. Here and there the ice-floor is quite black and clear, reflecting stars, and dark as heaven's own depths. Elsewhere it is of a suspicious whiteness, blurred in surface, with jagged cracks and chasms, treacherously mended by the hand of frost. Moving slowly, the snow cries beneath our feet, and the big crystals tinkle. These are shaped like fern-fronds, growing fan-wise from a point, and set at various angles, so that the moonlight takes them with capricious touch. They flash, and are quenched, and flash again, light darting to light along the level surface, while the sailing planets and the stars look down complacent at this mimicry of heaven. Everything above, around, beneath, is very beautiful—the slumbrous woods, the snowy fells, and the far distance painted in faint blue upon the tender background of the sky. Everything is placid and beautiful; and yet the place is terrible. For, as we walk, the lake groans, with throttled sobs, and sudden cracklings of its joints, and sighs that shiver, undulating from afar, and pass beneath our feet, and die away in distance when they reach the shore. And now and then an upper crust of ice gives way; and will the gulfs then drag us down? We are in the very centre of the lake. There is no use in thinking or in taking heed. Enjoy the moment, then, and march. Enjoy the contrast between this circumambient serenity and sweetness, and the dreadful sense of insecurity beneath. Is not, indeed, our whole life of this nature? A passage over perilous deeps, roofed by infinity and sempiternal things, surrounded too with evanescent forms, that like these crystals, trodden underfoot, or melted by the Foehn-wind into dew, flash, in some lucky moment, with a light that mimics stars! But to allegorise and sermonise is out of place here. It is but the expedient of those who cannot etch sensation by the burin of their art of words.
It is ten o'clock upon Sylvester Abend, or New Year's Eve. Herr Buol sits with his wife at the head of his long table. His family and serving folk are round him. There is his mother, with little Ursula, his child, upon her knee. The old lady is the mother of four comely daughters and nine stalwart sons, the eldest of whom is now a grizzled man. Besides our host, four of the brothers are here to-night; the handsome melancholy Georg, who is so gentle in his speech; Simeon, with his diplomatic face; Florian, the student of medicine; and my friend, colossal-breasted Christian. Palmy came a little later, worried with many cares, but happy to his heart's core. No optimist was ever more convinced of his philosophy than Palmy. After them, below the salt, were ranged the knechts and porters, the marmiton from the kitchen, and innumerable maids. The board was tesselated with plates of birnen-brod and eier-brod, kuechli and cheese and butter; and Georg stirred grampampuli in a mighty metal bowl. For the uninitiated, it may be needful to explain these Davos delicacies. Birnen-brod is what the Scotch would call a 'bun,' or massive cake, composed of sliced pears, almonds, spices, and a little flour. Eier-brod is a saffron-coloured sweet bread, made with eggs; and kuechli is a kind of pastry, crisp and flimsy, fashioned into various devices of cross, star, and scroll. Grampampuli is simply brandy burnt with sugar, the most unsophisticated punch I ever drank from tumblers. The frugal people of Davos, who live on bread and cheese and dried meat all the year, indulge themselves but once with these unwonted dainties in the winter.
The occasion was cheerful, and yet a little solemn. The scene was feudal. For these Buols are the scions of a warrior race:
A race illustrious for heroic deeds; Humbled, but not degraded.
During the six centuries through which they have lived nobles in Davos, they have sent forth scores of fighting men to foreign lands, ambassadors to France and Venice and the Milanese, governors to Chiavenna and Bregaglia and the much-contested Valtelline. Members of their house are Counts of Buol-Schauenstein in Austria, Freiherrs of Muhlingen and Berenberg in the now German Empire. They keep the patent of nobility conferred on them by Henri IV. Their ancient coat—parted per pale azure and argent, with a dame of the fourteenth century bearing in her hand a rose, all counterchanged—is carved in wood and monumental marble on the churches and old houses hereabouts. And from immemorial antiquity the Buol of Davos has sat thus on Sylvester Abend with family and folk around him, summoned from alp and snowy field to drink grampampuli and break the birnen-brod.
These rites performed, the men and maids began to sing—brown arms lounging on the table, and red hands folded in white aprons—serious at first in hymn-like cadences, then breaking into wilder measures with a jodel at the close. There is a measured solemnity in the performance, which strikes the stranger as somewhat comic. But the singing was good; the voices strong and clear in tone, no hesitation and no shirking of the melody. It was clear that the singers enjoyed the music for its own sake, with half-shut eyes, as they take dancing, solidly, with deep-drawn breath, sustained and indefatigable. But eleven struck; and the two Christians, my old friend, and Palmy, said we should be late for church. They had promised to take me with them to see bell-ringing in the tower. All the young men of the village meet, and draw lots in the Stube of the Rathhaus. One party tolls the old year out; the other rings the new year in. He who comes last is sconced three litres of Veltliner for the company. This jovial fine was ours to pay to-night.
When we came into the air, we found a bitter frost; the whole sky clouded over; a north wind whirling snow from alp and forest through the murky gloom. The benches and broad walnut tables of the Bathhaus were crowded with men, in shaggy homespun of brown and grey frieze. Its low wooden roof and walls enclosed an atmosphere of smoke, denser than the external snow-drift. But our welcome was hearty, and we found a score of friends. Titanic Fopp, whose limbs are Michelangelesque in length; spectacled Morosani; the little tailor Kramer, with a French horn on his knees; the puckered forehead of the Baumeister; the Troll-shaped postman; peasants and woodmen, known on far excursions upon pass and upland valley. Not one but carried on his face the memory of winter strife with avalanche and snow-drift, of horses struggling through Fluela whirlwinds, and wine-casks tugged across Bernina, and haystacks guided down precipitous gullies at thundering speed 'twixt pine and pine, and larches felled in distant glens beside the frozen watercourses. Here we were, all met together for one hour from our several homes and occupations, to welcome in the year with clinked glasses and cries of Prosit Neujahr!
The tolling bells above us stopped. Our turn had come. Out into the snowy air we tumbled, beneath the row of wolves' heads that adorn the pent-house roof. A few steps brought us to the still God's acre, where the snow lay deep and cold upon high-mounded graves of many generations. We crossed it silently, bent our heads to the low Gothic arch, and stood within the tower. It was thick darkness there. But far above, the bells began again to clash and jangle confusedly, with volleys of demonic joy. Successive flights of ladders, each ending in a giddy platform hung across the gloom, climb to the height of some hundred and fifty feet; and all their rungs were crusted with frozen snow, deposited by trampling boots. For up and down these stairs, ascending and descending, moved other than angels—the friezejacketed Buerschen, Grisons bears, rejoicing in their exercise, exhilarated with the tingling noise of beaten metal. We reached the first room safely, guided by firm-footed Christian, whose one candle just defined the rough walls and the slippery steps. There we found a band of boys, pulling ropes that set the bells in motion. But our destination was not reached. One more aerial ladder, perpendicular in darkness, brought us swiftly to the home of sound. It is a small square chamber, where the bells are hung, filled with the interlacement of enormous beams, and pierced to north and south by open windows, from whose parapets I saw the village and the valley spread beneath. The fierce wind hurried through it, charged with snow, and its narrow space was thronged with men. Men on the platform, men on the window-sills, men grappling the bells with iron arms, men brushing by to reach the stairs, crossing, recrossing, shouldering their mates, drinking red wine from gigantic beakers, exploding crackers, firing squibs, shouting and yelling in corybantic chorus. They yelled and shouted, one could see it by their open mouths and glittering eyes; but not a sound from human lungs could reach our ears. The overwhelming incessant thunder of the bells drowned all. It thrilled the tympanum, ran through the marrow of the spine, vibrated in the inmost entrails. Yet the brain was only steadied and excited by this sea of brazen noise. After a few moments I knew the place and felt at home in it. Then I enjoyed a spectacle which sculptors might have envied. For they ring the bells in Davos after this fashion:—The lads below set them going with ropes. The men above climb in pairs on ladders to the beams from which they are suspended. Two mighty pine-trees, roughly squared and built into the walls, extend from side to side across the belfry. Another from which the bells hang, connects these massive trunks at right angles. Just where the central beam is wedged into the two parallel supports, the ladders reach them from each side of the belfry, so that, bending from the higher rung of the ladder, and leaning over, stayed upon the lateral beam, each pair of men can keep one bell in movement with their hands. Each comrade plants one leg upon the ladder, and sets the other knee firmly athwart the horizontal pine. Then round each other's waist they twine left arm and right. The two have thus become one man. Right arm and left are free to grasp the bell's horns, sprouting at its crest beneath the beam. With a grave rhythmic motion, bending sideward in a close embrace, swaying and returning to their centre from the well-knit loins, they drive the force of each strong muscle into the vexed bell. The impact is earnest at first, but soon it becomes frantic. The men take something from each other of exalted enthusiasm. This efflux of their combined energies inspires them and exasperates the mighty resonance of metal which they rule. They are lost in a trance of what approximates to dervish passion—so thrilling is the surge of sound, so potent are the rhythms they obey. Men come and tug them by the heels. One grasps the starting thews upon their calves. Another is impatient for their place. But they strain still, locked together, and forgetful of the world. At length they have enough: then slowly, clingingly unclasp, turn round with gazing eyes, and are resumed, sedately, into the diurnal round of common life. Another pair is in their room upon the beam.
The Englishman who saw these things stood looking up, enveloped in his ulster with the grey cowl thrust upon his forehead, like a monk. One candle cast a grotesque shadow of him on the plastered wall. And when his chance came, though he was but a weakling, he too climbed and for some moments hugged the beam, and felt the madness of the swinging bell. Descending, he wondered long and strangely whether he ascribed too much of feeling to the men he watched. But no, that was impossible. There are emotions deeply seated in the joy of exercise, when the body is brought into play, and masses move in concert, of which the subject is but half conscious. Music and dance, and the delirium of battle or the chase, act thus upon spontaneous natures. The mystery of rhythm and associated energy and blood tingling in sympathy is here. It lies at the root of man's most tyrannous instinctive impulses.
It was past one when we reached home, and now a meditative man might well have gone to bed. But no one thinks of sleeping on Sylvester Abend. So there followed bowls of punch in one friend's room, where English, French, and Germans blent together in convivial Babel; and flasks of old Montagner in another. Palmy, at this period, wore an archdeacon's hat, and smoked a churchwarden's pipe; and neither were his own, nor did he derive anything ecclesiastical or Anglican from the association. Late in the morning we must sally forth, they said, and roam the town. For it is the custom here on New Year's night to greet acquaintances, and ask for hospitality, and no one may deny these self-invited guests. We turned out again into the grey snow-swept gloom, a curious Comus—not at all like Greeks, for we had neither torches in our hands nor rose-wreaths to suspend upon a lady's door-posts. And yet I could not refrain, at this supreme moment of jollity, in the zero temperature, amid my Grisons friends, from humming to myself verses from the Greek Anthology:—
The die is cast! Nay, light the torch! I'll take the road! Up, courage, ho! Why linger pondering in the porch? Upon Love's revel we will go!
Shake off those fumes of wine! Hang care And caution! What has Love to do With prudence? Let the torches flare! Quick, drown the doubts that hampered you!
Cast weary wisdom to the wind! One thing, but one alone, I know: Love bent e'en Jove and made him blind Upon Love's revel we will go!
And then again:—
I've drunk sheer madness! Not with wine, But old fantastic tales, I'll arm My heart in heedlessness divine, And dare the road, nor dream of harm!
I'll join Love's rout! Let thunder break, Let lightning blast me by the way! Invulnerable Love shall shake His aegis o'er my head to-day.
This last epigram was not inappropriate to an invalid about to begin the fifth act in a roystering night's adventure. And still once more:—
Cold blows the winter wind; 'tis Love, Whose sweet eyes swim with honeyed tears, That bears me to thy doors, my love, Tossed by the storm of hopes and fears.
Cold blows the blast of aching Love; But be thou for my wandering sail, Adrift upon these waves of love, Safe harbour from the whistling gale!
However, upon this occasion, though we had winter-wind enough, and cold enough, there was not much love in the business. My arm was firmly clenched in Christian Buol's, and Christian Palmy came behind, trolling out songs in Italian dialect, with still recurring canaille choruses, of which the facile rhymes seemed mostly made on a prolonged amu-u-u-r. It is noticeable that Italian ditties are specially designed for fellows shouting in the streets at night. They seem in keeping there, and nowhere else that I could ever see. And these Davosers took to them naturally when the time for Comus came. It was between four and five in the morning, and nearly all the houses in the place were dark. The tall church-tower and spire loomed up above us in grey twilight. The tireless wind still swept thin snow from fell and forest. But the frenzied bells had sunk into their twelvemonth's slumber, which shall be broken only by decorous tollings at less festive times. I wondered whether they were tingling still with the heart-throbs and with the pressure of those many arms? Was their old age warmed, as mine was, with that gust of life—the young men who had clung to them like bees to lily-bells, and shaken all their locked-up tone and shrillness into the wild winter air? Alas! how many generations of the young have handled them; and they are still there, frozen in their belfry; and the young grow middle-aged, and old, and die at last; and the bells they grappled in their lust of manhood toll them to their graves, on which the tireless wind will, winter after winter, sprinkle snow from alps and forests which they knew.
'There is a light,' cried Christian, 'up in Anna's window!' 'A light! a light!' the Comus shouted. But how to get at the window, which is pretty high above the ground, and out of reach of the most ardent revellers? We search a neighbouring shed, extract a stable-ladder, and in two seconds Palmy has climbed to the topmost rung, while Christian and Georg hold it firm upon the snow beneath. Then begins a passage from some comic opera of Mozart's or Cimarosa's—an escapade familiar to Spanish or Italian students, which recalls the stage. It is an episode from 'Don Giovanni,' translated to this dark-etched scene of snowy hills, and Gothic tower, and mullioned windows deep embayed beneath their eaves and icicles. Deh vieni alla finestra! sings Palmy-Leporello; the chorus answers: Deh vieni! Perche non vieni ancora? pleads Leporello; the chorus shouts: Perche? Mio amu-u-u-r, sighs Leporello; and Echo cries, amu-u-u-r! All the wooing, be it noticed, is conducted in Italian. But the actors murmur to each other in Davoser Deutsch, 'She won't come, Palmy! It is far too late; she is gone to bed. Come down; you'll wake the village with your caterwauling!' But Leporello waves his broad archdeacon's hat, and resumes a flood of flexible Bregaglian. He has a shrewd suspicion that the girl is peeping from behind the window curtain; and tells us, bending down from the ladder, in a hoarse stage-whisper, that we must have patience; 'these girls are kittle cattle, who take long to draw: but if your lungs last out, they're sure to show.' And Leporello is right. Faint heart ne'er won fair lady. From the summit of his ladder, by his eloquent Italian tongue, he brings the shy bird down at last. We hear the unbarring of the house door, and a comely maiden, in her Sunday dress, welcomes us politely to her ground-floor sitting-room. The Comus enters, in grave order, with set speeches, handshakes, and inevitable Prosits! It is a large low chamber, with a huge stone stove, wide benches fixed along the walls, and a great oval table. We sit how and where we can. Red wine is produced, and eier-brod and kuechli. Fraeulein Anna serves us sedately, holding her own with decent self-respect against the inrush of the revellers. She is quite alone; but are not her father and mother in bed above, and within earshot? Besides, the Comus, even at this abnormal hour and after an abnormal night, is well conducted. Things seem slipping into a decorous wine-party, when Leporello readjusts the broad-brimmed hat upon his head, and very cleverly acts a little love-scene for our benefit. Fraeulein Anna takes this as a delicate compliment, and the thing is so prettily done in truth, that not the sternest taste could be offended. Meanwhile another party of night-wanderers, attracted by our mirth, break in. More Prosits and clinked glasses follow; and with a fair good-morning to our hostess, we retire.
It is too late to think of bed. 'The quincunx of heaven,' as Sir Thomas Browne phrased it on a dissimilar occasion, 'runs low.... The huntsmen are up in America; and not in America only, for the huntsmen, if there are any this night in Graubuenden, have long been out upon the snow, and the stable-lads are dragging the sledges from their sheds to carry down the mails to Landquart. We meet the porters from the various hotels, bringing letter-bags and luggage to the post. It is time to turn in and take a cup of black coffee against the rising sun.
Some nights, even in Davos, are spent, even by an invalid, in bed. A leaflet, therefore, of 'Sleep-chasings' may not inappropriately be flung, as envoy to so many wanderings on foot and sledge upon the winter snows.
The first is a confused medley of things familiar and things strange. I have been dreaming of far-away old German towns, with gabled houses deep in snow; dreaming of chalets in forgotten Alpine glens, where wood-cutters come plunging into sleepy light from gloom, and sinking down beside the stove to shake the drift from their rough shoulders; dreaming of vast veils of icicles upon the gaunt black rocks in places where no foot of man will pass, and where the snow is weaving eyebrows over the ledges of grey whirlwind-beaten precipices; dreaming of Venice, forlorn beneath the windy drip of rain, the gas lamps flickering on the swimming piazzetta, the barche idle, the gondolier wrapped in his thread-bare cloak, alone; dreaming of Apennines, with world-old cities, brown, above the brown sea of dead chestnut boughs; dreaming of stormy tides, and watchers aloft in lighthouses when day is finished; dreaming of dead men and women and dead children in the earth, far down beneath the snow-drifts, six feet deep. And then I lift my face, awaking, from my pillow; the pallid moon is on the valley, and the room is filled with spectral light.
I sleep, and change my dreaming. This is a hospice in an unfrequented pass, between sad peaks, beside a little black lake, overdrifted with soft snow. I pass into the house-room, gliding silently. An old man and an old woman are nodding, bowed in deepest slumber, by the stove. A young man plays the zither on a table. He lifts his head, still modulating with his fingers on the strings. He looks right through me with wide anxious eyes. He does not see me, but sees Italy, I know, and some one wandering on a sandy shore.
I sleep, and change my dreaming. This is S. Stephen's Church in Wien. Inside, the lamps are burning dimly in the choir. There is fog in the aisles; but through the sleepy air and over the red candles flies a wild soprano's voice, a boy's soul in its singing sent to heaven.
I sleep, and change my dreaming. From the mufflers in which his father, the mountebank, has wrapped the child, to carry him across the heath, a little tumbling-boy emerges in soiled tights. He is half asleep. His father scrapes the fiddle. The boy shortens his red belt, kisses his fingers to us, and ties himself into a knot among the glasses on the table.
I sleep, and change my dreaming. I am on the parapet of a huge circular tower, hollow like a well, and pierced with windows at irregular intervals. The parapet is broad, and slabbed with red Verona marble. Around me are athletic men, all naked, in the strangest attitudes of studied rest, down-gazing, as I do, into the depths below. There comes a confused murmur of voices, and the tower is threaded and rethreaded with great cables. Up these there climb to us a crowd of young men, clinging to the ropes and flinging their bodies sideways on aerial trapezes. My heart trembles with keen joy and terror. For nowhere else could plastic forms be seen more beautiful, and nowhere else is peril more apparent. Leaning my chin upon the utmost verge, I wait. I watch one youth, who smiles and soars to me; and when his face is almost touching mine, he speaks, but what he says I know not.
I sleep, and change my dreaming. The whole world rocks to its foundations. The mountain summits that I know are shaken. They bow their bristling crests. They are falling, falling on us, and the earth is riven. I wake in terror, shouting: INSOLITIS TREMUERUNT MOTIBUS ALPES! An earthquake, slight but real, has stirred the ever-wakeful Vesta of the brain to this Virgilian quotation.
I sleep, and change my dreaming. Once more at night I sledge alone upon the Klosters road. It is the point where the woods close over it and moonlight may not pierce the boughs. There come shrill cries of many voices from behind, and rushings that pass by and vanish. Then on their sledges I behold the phantoms of the dead who died in Davos, longing for their homes; and each flies past me, shrieking in the still cold air; and phosphorescent like long meteors, the pageant turns the windings of the road below and disappears.
I sleep, and change my dreaming. This is the top of some high mountain, where the crags are cruelly tortured and cast in enormous splinters on the ledges of cliffs grey with old-world ice. A ravine, opening at my feet, plunges down immeasurably to a dim and distant sea. Above me soars a precipice embossed with a gigantic ice-bound shape. As I gaze thereon, I find the lineaments and limbs of a Titanic man chained and nailed to the rock. His beard has grown for centuries, and flowed this way and that, adown his breast and over to the stone on either side; and the whole of him is covered with a greenish ice, ancient beyond the memory of man. 'This is Prometheus,' I whisper to myself, 'and I am alone on Caucasus.'
* * * * *
BACCHUS IN GRAUBUeNDEN
Some years' residence in the Canton of the Grisons made me familiar with all sorts of Valtelline wine; with masculine but rough Inferno, generous Forzato, delicate Sassella, harsher Montagner, the raspberry flavour of Grumello, the sharp invigorating twang of Villa. The colour, ranging from garnet to almandine or ruby, told me the age and quality of wine; and I could judge from the crust it forms upon the bottle, whether it had been left long enough in wood to ripen. I had furthermore arrived at the conclusion that the best Valtelline can only be tasted in cellars of the Engadine or Davos, where this vintage matures slowly in the mountain air, and takes a flavour unknown at lower levels. In a word, it had amused my leisure to make or think myself a connoisseur. My literary taste was tickled by the praise bestowed in the Augustan age on Rhaetic grapes by Virgil:
Et quo te carmine dicam, Rhaetica? nec cellis ideo contende Falernis.
I piqued myself on thinking that could the poet but have drank one bottle at Samaden—where Stilicho, by the way, in his famous recruiting expedition may perhaps have drank it—he would have been less chary in his panegyric. For the point of inferiority on which he seems to insist, namely, that Valtelline wine does not keep well in cellar, is only proper to this vintage in Italian climate. Such meditations led my fancy on the path of history. Is there truth, then, in the dim tradition that this mountain land was colonised by Etruscans? Is Ras the root of Rhaetia? The Etruscans were accomplished wine-growers, we know. It was their Montepulciano which drew the Gauls to Rome, if Livy can be trusted. Perhaps they first planted the vine in Valtelline. Perhaps its superior culture in that district may be due to ancient use surviving in a secluded Alpine valley. One thing is certain, that the peasants of Sondrio and Tirano understand viticulture better than the Italians of Lombardy.
Then my thoughts ran on to the period of modern history, when the Grisons seized the Valtelline in lieu of war-pay from the Dukes of Milan. For some three centuries they held it as a subject province. From the Rathhaus at Davos or Chur they sent their nobles—Von Salis and Buol, Planta and Sprecher von Bernegg—across the hills as governors or podestas to Poschiavo, Sondrio, Tirano, and Morbegno. In those old days the Valtelline wines came duly every winter over snow-deep passes to fill the cellars of the Signori Grigioni. That quaint traveller Tom Coryat, in his so-called 'Crudities,' notes the custom early in the seventeenth century. And as that custom then obtained, it still subsists with little alteration. The wine-carriers—Weinfuehrer, as they are called—first scaled the Bernina pass, halting then as now, perhaps at Poschiavo and Pontresina. Afterwards, in order to reach Davos, the pass of the Scaletta rose before them—a wilderness of untracked snow-drifts. The country-folk still point to narrow, light hand-sledges, on which the casks were charged before the last pitch of the pass. Some wine came, no doubt, on pack-saddles. A meadow in front of the Dischma-Thal, where the pass ends, still bears the name of the Ross-Weid, or horse-pasture. It was here that the beasts of burden used for this wine-service, rested after their long labours. In favourable weather the whole journey from Tirano would have occupied at least four days, with scanty halts at night.
The Valtelline slipped from the hands of the Grisons early in this century. It is rumoured that one of the Von Salis family negotiated matters with Napoleon more for his private benefit than for the interests of the state. However this may have been, when the Graubuenden became a Swiss Canton, after four centuries of sovereign independence, the whole Valtelline passed to Austria, and so eventually to Italy. According to modern and just notions of nationality, this was right. In their period of power, the Grisons masters had treated their Italian dependencies with harshness. The Valtelline is an Italian valley, connected with the rest of the peninsula by ties of race and language. It is, moreover, geographically linked to Italy by the great stream of the Adda, which takes its rise upon the Stelvio, and after passing through the Lake of Como, swells the volume of the Po.
But, though politically severed from the Valtelline, the Engadiners and Davosers have not dropped their old habit of importing its best produce. What they formerly levied as masters, they now acquire by purchase. The Italian revenue derives a large profit from the frontier dues paid at the gate between Tirano and Poschiavo on the Bernina road. Much of the same wine enters Switzerland by another route, travelling from Sondrio to Chiavenna and across the Spluegen. But until quite recently, the wine itself could scarcely be found outside the Canton. It was indeed quoted upon Lombard wine-lists. Yet no one drank it; and when I tasted it at Milan, I found it quite unrecognisable. The fact seems to be that the Graubuendeners alone know how to deal with it; and, as I have hinted, the wine requires a mountain climate for its full development.