We got away pretty early in the morning, after a hot breakfast, and went bowling over a hard, smooth road, through the summer loveliness of Switzerland, with near and distant lakes and mountains before and about us for the entertainment of the eye, and the music of multitudinous birds to charm the ear. Sometimes there was only the width of the road between the imposing precipices on the right and the clear cool water on the left with its shoals of uncatchable fish skimming about through the bars of sun and shadow; and sometimes, in place of the precipices, the grassy land stretched away, in an apparently endless upward slant, and was dotted everywhere with snug little chalets, the peculiarly captivating cottage of Switzerland.
The ordinary chalet turns a broad, honest gable end to the road, and its ample roof hovers over the home in a protecting, caressing way, projecting its sheltering eaves far outward. The quaint windows are filled with little panes, and garnished with white muslin curtains, and brightened with boxes of blooming flowers. Across the front of the house, and up the spreading eaves and along the fanciful railings of the shallow porch, are elaborate carvings--wreaths, fruits, arabesques, verses from Scripture, names, dates, etc. The building is wholly of wood, reddish brown in tint, a very pleasing color. It generally has vines climbing over it. Set such a house against the fresh green of the hillside, and it looks ever so cozy and inviting and picturesque, and is a decidedly graceful addition to the landscape.
One does not find out what a hold the chalet has taken upon him, until he presently comes upon a new house-- a house which is aping the town fashions of Germany and France, a prim, hideous, straight-up-and-down thing, plastered all over on the outside to look like stone, and altogether so stiff, and formal, and ugly, and forbidding, and so out of tune with the gracious landscape, and so deaf and dumb and dead to the poetry of its surroundings, that it suggests an undertaker at a picnic, a corpse at a wedding, a puritan in Paradise.
In the course of the morning we passed the spot where Pontius Pilate is said to have thrown himself into the lake. The legend goes that after the Crucifixion his conscience troubled him, and he fled from Jerusalem and wandered about the earth, weary of life and a prey to tortures of the mind. Eventually, he hid himself away, on the heights of Mount Pilatus, and dwelt alone among the clouds and crags for years; but rest and peace were still denied him, so he finally put an end to his misery by drowning himself.
Presently we passed the place where a man of better odor was born. This was the children's friend, Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas. There are some unaccountable reputations in the world. This saint's is an instance. He has ranked for ages as the peculiar friend of children, yet it appears he was not much of a friend to his own. He had ten of them, and when fifty years old he left them, and sought out as dismal a refuge from the world as possible, and became a hermit in order that he might reflect upon pious themes without being disturbed by the joyous and other noises from the nursery, doubtless.
Judging by Pilate and St. Nicholas, there exists no rule for the construction of hermits; they seem made out of all kinds of material. But Pilate attended to the matter of expiating his sin while he was alive, whereas St. Nicholas will probably have to go on climbing down sooty chimneys, Christmas eve, forever, and conferring kindness on other people's children, to make up for deserting his own. His bones are kept in a church in a village (Sachseln) which we visited, and are naturally held in great reverence. His portrait is common in the farmhouses of the region, but is believed by many to be but an indifferent likeness. During his hermit life, according to legend, he partook of the bread and wine of the communion once a month, but all the rest of the month he fasted.
A constant marvel with us, as we sped along the bases of the steep mountains on this journey, was, not that avalanches occur, but that they are not occurring all the time. One does not understand why rocks and landslides do not plunge down these declivities daily. A landslip occurred three quarters of a century ago, on the route from Arth to Brunnen, which was a formidable thing. A mass of conglomerate two miles long, a thousand feet broad, and a hundred feet thick, broke away from a cliff three thousand feet high and hurled itself into the valley below, burying four villages and five hundred people, as in a grave.
We had such a beautiful day, and such endless pictures of limpid lakes, and green hills and valleys, and majestic mountains, and milky cataracts dancing down the steeps and gleaming in the sun, that we could not help feeling sweet toward all the world; so we tried to drink all the milk, and eat all the grapes and apricots and berries, and buy all the bouquets of wild flowers which the little peasant boys and girls offered for sale; but we had to retire from this contract, for it was too heavy.
At short distances--and they were entirely too short--all along the road, were groups of neat and comely children, with their wares nicely and temptingly set forth in the grass under the shade trees, and as soon as we approached they swarmed into the road, holding out their baskets and milk bottles, and ran beside the carriage, barefoot and bareheaded, and importuned us to buy. They seldom desisted early, but continued to run and insist--beside the wagon while they could, and behind it until they lost breath. Then they turned and chased a returning carriage back to their trading-post again. After several hours of this, without any intermission, it becomes almost annoying. I do not know what we should have done without the returning carriages to draw off the pursuit. However, there were plenty of these, loaded with dusty tourists and piled high with luggage. Indeed, from Lucerne to Interlaken we had the spectacle, among other scenery, of an unbroken procession of fruit-peddlers and tourists carriages.
Our talk was mostly anticipatory of what we should see on the down-grade of the Brünig, by and by, after we should pass the summit. All our friends in Lucerne had said that to look down upon Meiringen, and the rushing blue-gray river Aar, and the broad level green valley; and across at the mighty Alpine precipices that rise straight up to the clouds out of that valley; and up at the microscopic chalets perched upon the dizzy eaves of those precipices and winking dimly and fitfully through the drifting veil of vapor; and still up and up, at the superb Oltschiback and the other beautiful cascades that leap from those rugged heights, robed in powdery spray, ruffled with foam, and girdled with rainbows--to look upon these things, they say, was to look upon the last possibility of the sublime and the enchanting. Therefore, as I say, we talked mainly of these coming wonders; if we were conscious of any impatience, it was to get there in favorable season; if we felt any anxiety, it was that the day might remain perfect, and enable us to see those marvels at their best.
As we approached the Kaiserstuhl, a part of the harness gave way.
We were in distress for a moment, but only a moment. It was the fore-and-aft gear that was broken--the thing that leads aft from the forward part of the horse and is made fast to the thing that pulls the wagon. In America this would have been a heavy leathern strap; but, all over the continent it is nothing but a piece of rope the size of your little finger--clothes-line is what it is. Cabs use it, private carriages, freight-carts and wagons, all sorts of vehicles have it. In Munich I afterward saw it used on a long wagon laden with fifty-four half-barrels of beer; I had before noticed that the cabs in Heidelberg used it--not new rope, but rope that had been in use since Abraham's time --and I had felt nervous, sometimes, behind it when the cab was tearing down a hill. But I had long been accustomed to it now, and had even become afraid of the leather strap which belonged in its place. Our driver got a fresh piece of clothes-line out of his locker and repaired the break in two minutes.
So much for one European fashion. Every country has its own ways. It may interest the reader to know how they "put horses to" on the continent. The man stands up the horses on each side of the thing that projects from the front end of the wagon, and then throws the tangled mess of gear forward through a ring, and hauls it aft, and passes the other thing through the other ring and hauls it aft on the other side of the other horse, opposite to the first one, after crossing them and bringing the loose end back, and then buckles the other thing underneath the horse, and takes another thing and wraps it around the thing I spoke of before, and puts another thing over each horse's head, with broad flappers to it to keep the dust out of his eyes, and puts the iron thing in his mouth for him to grit his teeth on, uphill, and brings the ends of these things aft over his back, after buckling another one around under his neck to hold his head up, and hitching another thing on a thing that goes over his shoulders to keep his head up when he is climbing a hill, and then takes the slack of the thing which I mentioned a while ago, and fetches it aft and makes it fast to the thing that pulls the wagon, and hands the other things up to the driver to steer with. I never have buckled up a horse myself, but I do not think we do it that way.
We had four very handsome horses, and the driver was very proud of his turnout. He would bowl along on a reasonable trot, on the highway, but when he entered a village he did it on a furious run, and accompanied it with a frenzy of ceaseless whip-crackings that sounded like volleys of musketry. He tore through the narrow streets and around the sharp curves like a moving earthquake, showering his volleys as he went, and before him swept a continuous tidal wave of scampering children, ducks, cats, and mothers clasping babies which they had snatched out of the way of the coming destruction; and as this living wave washed aside, along the walls, its elements, being safe, forgot their fears and turned their admiring gaze upon that gallant driver till he thundered around the next curve and was lost to sight.
He was a great man to those villagers, with his gaudy clothes and his terrific ways. Whenever he stopped to have his cattle watered and fed with loaves of bread, the villagers stood around admiring him while he swaggered about, the little boys gazed up at his face with humble homage, and the landlord brought out foaming mugs of beer and conversed proudly with him while he drank. Then he mounted his lofty box, swung his explosive whip, and away he went again, like a storm. I had not seen anything like this before since I was a boy, and the stage used to flourish the village with the dust flying and the horn tooting.
When we reached the base of the Kaiserstuhl, we took two more horses; we had to toil along with difficulty for an hour and a half or two hours, for the ascent was not very gradual, but when we passed the backbone and approached the station, the driver surpassed all his previous efforts in the way of rush and clatter. He could not have six horses all the time, so he made the most of his chance while he had it.
Up to this point we had been in the heart of the William Tell region. The hero is not forgotten, by any means, or held in doubtful veneration. His wooden image, with his bow drawn, above the doors of taverns, was a frequent feature of the scenery.
About noon we arrived at the foot of the Brünig Pass, and made a two-hour stop at the village hotel, another of those clean, pretty, and thoroughly well-kept inns which are such an astonishment to people who are accustomed to hotels of a dismally different pattern in remote country-towns. There was a lake here, in the lap of the great mountains, the green slopes that rose toward the lower crags were graced with scattered Swiss cottages nestling among miniature farms and gardens, and from out a leafy ambuscade in the upper heights tumbled a brawling cataract.
Carriage after carriage, laden with tourists and trunks, arrived, and the quiet hotel was soon populous. We were early at the table d'hôte and saw the people all come in. There were twenty-five, perhaps. They were of various nationalities, but we were the only Americans. Next to me sat an English bride, and next to her sat her new husband, whom she called "Neddy," though he was big enough and stalwart enough to be entitled to his full name. They had a pretty little lovers' quarrel over what wine they should have. Neddy was for obeying the guide-book and taking the wine of the country; but the bride said:
"What, that nahsty stuff!"
"It isn't nahsty, pet, it's quite good."
"It is nahsty."
"No, it isn't nahsty."
"It's Oful nahsty, Neddy, and I shahn't drink it."
Then the question was, what she must have. She said he knew very well that she never drank anything but champagne.
"You know very well papa always has champagne on his table, and I've always been used to it."
Neddy made a playful pretense of being distressed about the expense, and this amused her so much that she nearly exhausted herself with laughter--and this pleased him so much that he repeated his jest a couple of times, and added new and killing varieties to it. When the bride finally recovered, she gave Neddy a love-box on the arm with her fan, and said with arch severity:
"Well, you would have me--nothing else would do-- so you'll have to make the best of a bad bargain. Do order the champagne, I'm Oful dry."
So with a mock groan which made her laugh again, Neddy ordered the champagne.
The fact that this young woman had never moistened the selvedge edge of her soul with a less plebeian tipple than champagne, had a marked and subduing effect on Harris. He believed she belonged to the royal family. But I had my doubts.
We heard two or three different languages spoken by people at the table and guessed out the nationalities of most of the guests to our satisfaction, but we failed with an elderly gentleman and his wife and a young girl who sat opposite us, and with a gentleman of about thirty-five who sat three seats beyond Harris. We did not hear any of these speak. But finally the last-named gentleman left while we were not noticing, but we looked up as he reached the far end of the table. He stopped there a moment, and made his toilet with a pocket comb. So he was a German; or else he had lived in German hotels long enough to catch the fashion. When the elderly couple and the young girl rose to leave, they bowed respectfully to us. So they were Germans, too. This national custom is worth six of the other one, for export.
After dinner we talked with several Englishmen, and they inflamed our desire to a hotter degree than ever, to see the sights of Meiringen from the heights of the Brünig Pass. They said the view was marvelous, and that one who had seen it once could never forget it. They also spoke of the romantic nature of the road over the pass, and how in one place it had been cut through a flank of the solid rock, in such a way that the mountain overhung the tourist as he passed by; and they furthermore said that the sharp turns in the road and the abruptness of the descent would afford us a thrilling experience, for we should go down in a flying gallop and seem to be spinning around the rings of a whirlwind, like a drop of whiskey descending the spirals of a corkscrew. I got all the information out of these gentlemen that we could need; and then, to make everything complete, I asked them if a body could get hold of a little fruit and milk here and there, in case of necessity. They threw up their hands in speechless intimation that the road was simply paved with refreshment-peddlers. We were impatient to get away, now, and the rest of our two-hour stop rather dragged. But finally the set time arrived and we began the ascent. Indeed it was a wonderful road. It was smooth, and compact, and clean, and the side next the precipices was guarded all along by dressed stone posts about three feet high, placed at short distances apart. The road could not have been better built if Napoleon the First had built it. He seems to have been the introducer of the sort of roads which Europe now uses. All literature which describes life as it existed in England, France, and Germany up to the close of the last century, is filled with pictures of coaches and carriages wallowing through these three countries in mud and slush half-wheel deep; but after Napoleon had floundered through a conquered kingdom he generally arranged things so that the rest of the world could follow dry-shod.
We went on climbing, higher and higher, and curving hither and thither, in the shade of noble woods, and with a rich variety and profusion of wild flowers all about us; and glimpses of rounded grassy backbones below us occupied by trim chalets and nibbling sheep, and other glimpses of far lower altitudes, where distance diminished the chalets to toys and obliterated the sheep altogether; and every now and then some ermined monarch of the Alps swung magnificently into view for a moment, then drifted past an intervening spur and disappeared again.
It was an intoxicating trip altogether; the exceeding sense of satisfaction that follows a good dinner added largely to the enjoyment; the having something especial to look forward to and muse about, like the approaching grandeurs of Meiringen, sharpened the zest. Smoking was never so good before, solid comfort was never solider; we lay back against the thick cushions silent, meditative, steeped in felicity.
I rubbed my eyes, opened them, and started. I had been dreaming I was at sea, and it was a thrilling surprise to wake up and find land all around me. It took me a couple seconds to "come to," as you may say; then I took in the situation. The horses were drinking at a trough in the edge of a town, the driver was taking beer, Harris was snoring at my side, the courier, with folded arms and bowed head, was sleeping on the box, two dozen barefooted and bareheaded children were gathered about the carriage, with their hands crossed behind, gazing up with serious and innocent admiration at the dozing tourists baking there in the sun. Several small girls held night-capped babies nearly as big as themselves in their arms, and even these fat babies seemed to take a sort of sluggish interest in us.
We had slept an hour and a half and missed all the scenery! I did not need anybody to tell me that. If I had been a girl, I could have cursed for vexation. As it was, I woke up the agent and gave him a piece of my mind. Instead of being humiliated, he only upbraided me for being so wanting in vigilance. He said he had expected to improve his mind by coming to Europe, but a man might travel to the ends of the earth with me and never see anything, for I was manifestly endowed with the very genius of ill luck. He even tried to get up some emotion about that poor courier, who never got a chance to see anything, on account of my heedlessness. But when I thought I had borne about enough of this kind of talk, I threatened to make Harris tramp back to the summit and make a report on that scenery, and this suggestion spiked his battery.
We drove sullenly through Brienz, dead to the seductions of its bewildering array of Swiss carvings and the clamorous hoo-hooing of its cuckoo clocks, and had not entirely recovered our spirits when we rattled across a bridge over the rushing blue river and entered the pretty town of Interlaken. It was just about sunset, and we had made the trip from Lucerne in ten hours.