It cost me something of a pang to lose that fine sight, but I lived down the desire, a nd gained in my self-respect through the triumph. I had a finer and a grander sight, however, where I was. This was the mighty dome of the Jungfrau softly outlined against the sky and faintly silvered by the starlight. There was something subduing in the influence of that silent and solemn and awful presence; one seemed to meet the immutable, the indestructible, the eternal, face to face, and to feel the trivial and fleeting nature of his own existence the more sharply by the contrast. One had the sense of being under the brooding contemplation of a spirit, not an inert mass of rocks and ice--a spirit which had looked down, through the slow drift of the ages, upon a million vanished races of men, and judged them; and would judge a million more--and still be there, watching, unchanged and unchangeable, after all life should be gone and the earth have become a vacant desolation.
While I was feeling these things, I was groping, without knowing it, toward an understanding of what the spell is which people find in the Alps, and in no other mountains--that strange, deep, nameless influence, which, once felt, cannot be forgotten--once felt, leaves always behind it a restless longing to feel it again--a longing which is like homesickness; a grieving, haunting yearning which will plead, implore, and persecute till it has its will. I met dozens of people, imaginative and unimaginative, cultivated and uncultivated, who had come from far countries and roamed through the Swiss Alps year after year--they could not explain why. They had come first, they said, out of idle curiosity, because everybody talked about it; they had come since because they could not help it, and they should keep on coming, while they lived, for the same reason; they had tried to break their chains and stay away, but it was futile; now, they had no desire to break them. Others came nearer formulating what they felt; they said they could find perfect rest and peace nowhere else when they were troubled: all frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps; the Great Spirit of the Mountain breathed his own peace upon their hurt minds and sore hearts, and healed them; they could not think base thoughts or do mean and sordid things here, before the visible throne of God.
Down the road a piece was a Kursaal--whatever that may be-- and we joined the human tide to see what sort of enjoyment it might afford. It was the usual open-air concert, in an ornamental garden, with wines, beer, milk, whey, grapes, etc.--the whey and the grapes being necessaries of life to certain invalids whom physicians cannot repair, and who only continue to exist by the grace of whey or grapes. One of these departed spirits told me, in a sad and lifeless way, that there is no way for him to live but by whey, and dearly, dearly loved whey, he didn't know whey he did, but he did. After making this pun he died--that is the whey it served him.
Some other remains, preserved from decomposition by the grape system, told me that the grapes were of a peculiar breed, highly medicinal in their nature, and that they were counted out and administered by the grape-doctors as methodically as if they were pills. The new patient, if very feeble, began with one grape before breakfast, took three during breakfast, a couple between meals, five at luncheon, three in the afternoon, seven at dinner, four for supper, and part of a grape just before going to bed, by way of a general regulator. The quantity was gradually and regularly increased, according to the needs and capacities of the patient, until by and by you would find him disposing of his one grape per second all the day long, and his regular barrel per day.
He said that men cured in this way, and enabled to discard the grape system, never afterward got over the habit of talking as if they were dictating to a slow amanuensis, because they always made a pause between each two words while they sucked the substance out of an imaginary grape. He said these were tedious people to talk with. He said that men who had been cured by the other process were easily distinguished from the rest of mankind because they always tilted their heads back, between every two words, and swallowed a swig of imaginary whey. He said it was an impressive thing to observe two men, who had been cured by the two processes, engaged in conversation--said their pauses and accompanying movements were so continuous and regular that a stranger would think himself in the presence of a couple of automatic machines. One finds out a great many wonderful things, by traveling, if he stumbles upon the right person.
I did not remain long at the Kursaal; the music was good enough, but it seemed rather tame after the cyclone of that Arkansaw expert. Besides, my adventurous spirit had conceived a formidable enterprise--nothing less than a trip from Interlaken, by the Gemmi and Visp, clear to Zermatt, on foot! So it was necessary to plan the details, and get ready for an early start. The courier (this was not the one I have just been speaking of) thought that the portier of the hotel would be able to tell us how to find our way. And so it turned out. He showed us the whole thing, on a relief-map, and we could see our route, with all its elevations and depressions, its villages and its rivers, as clearly as if we were sailing over it in a balloon. A relief-map is a great thing. The portier also wrote down each day's journey and the nightly hotel on a piece of paper, and made our course so plain that we should never be able to get lost without high-priced outside help.
I put the courier in the care of a gentleman who was going to Lausanne, and then we went to bed, after laying out the walking-costumes and putting them into condition for instant occupation in the morning.
However, when we came down to breakfast at 8 A.M., it looked so much like rain that I hired a two-horse top-buggy for the first third of the journey. For two or three hours we jogged along the level road which skirts the beautiful lake of Thun, with a dim and dreamlike picture of watery expanses and spectral Alpine forms always before us, veiled in a mellowing mist. Then a steady downpour set in, and hid everything but the nearest objects. We kept the rain out of our faces with umbrellas, and away from our bodies with the leather apron of the buggy; but the driver sat unsheltered and placidly soaked the weather in and seemed to like it. We had the road to ourselves, and I never had a pleasanter excursion.
The weather began to clear while we were driving up a valley called the Kienthal, and presently a vast black cloud-bank in front of us dissolved away and uncurtained the grand proportions and the soaring loftiness of the Blumis Alp. It was a sort of breath-taking surprise; for we had not supposed there was anything behind that low-hung blanket of sable cloud but level valley. What we had been mistaking for fleeting glimpses of sky away aloft there, were really patches of the Blumis's snowy crest caught through shredded rents in the drifting pall of vapor.
We dined in the inn at Frutigen, and our driver ought to have dined there, too, but he would not have had time to dine and get drunk both, so he gave his mind to making a masterpiece of the latter, and succeeded. A german gentleman and his two young-lady daughters had been taking their nooning at the inn, and when they left, just ahead of us, it was plain that their driver was as drunk as ours, and as happy and good-natured, too, which was saying a good deal. These rascals overflowed with attentions and information for their guests, and with brotherly love for each other. They tied their reins, and took off their coats and hats, so that they might be able to give unencumbered attention to conversation and to the gestures necessary for its illustration.
The road was smooth; it led up and over and down a continual succession of hills; but it was narrow, the horses were used to it, and could not well get out of it anyhow; so why shouldn't the drivers entertain themselves and us? The noses of our horses projected sociably into the rear of the forward carriage, and as we toiled up the long hills our driver stood up and talked to his friend, and his friend stood up and talked back to him, with his rear to the scenery. When the top was reached and we went flying down the other side, there was no change in the program. I carry in my memory yet the picture of that forward driver, on his knees on his high seat, resting his elbows on its back, and beaming down on his passengers, with happy eye, and flying hair, and jolly red face, and offering his card to the old German gentleman while he praised his hack and horses, and both teams were whizzing down a long hill with nobody in a position to tell whether we were bound to destruction or an undeserved safety.
Toward sunset we entered a beautiful green valley dotted with chalets, a cozy little domain hidden away from the busy world in a cloistered nook among giant precipices topped with snowy peaks that seemed to float like islands above the curling surf of the sea of vapor that severed them from the lower world. Down from vague and vaporous heights, little ruffled zigzag milky currents came crawling, and found their way to the verge of one of those tremendous overhanging walls, whence they plunged, a shaft of silver, shivered to atoms in mid-descent and turned to an air puff of luminous dust. Here and there, in grooved depressions among the snowy desolations of the upper altitudes, one glimpsed the extremity of a glacier, with its sea-green and honeycombed battlements of ice.
Up the valley, under a dizzy precipice, nestled the village of Kandersteg, our halting-place for the night. We were soon there, and housed in the hotel. But the waning day had such an inviting influence that we did not remain housed many moments, but struck out and followed a roaring torrent of ice-water up to its far source in a sort of little grass-carpeted parlor, walled in all around by vast precipices and overlooked by clustering summits of ice. This was the snuggest little croquet-ground imaginable; it was perfectly level, and not more than a mile long by half a mile wide. The walls around it were so gigantic, and everything about it was on so mighty a scale that it was belittled, by contrast, to what I have likened it to--a cozy and carpeted parlor. It was so high above the Kandersteg valley that there was nothing between it and the snowy-peaks. I had never been in such intimate relations with the high altitudes before; the snow-peaks had always been remote and unapproachable grandeurs, hitherto, but now we were hob-a-nob--if one may use such a seemingly irreverent expression about creations so august as these.
We could see the streams which fed the torrent we had followed issuing from under the greenish ramparts of glaciers; but two or three of these, instead of flowing over the precipices, sank down into the rock and sprang in big jets out of holes in the mid-face of the walls.
The green nook which I have been describing is called the Gasternthal. The glacier streams gather and flow through it in a broad and rushing brook to a narrow cleft between lofty precipices; here the rushing brook becomes a mad torrent and goes booming and thundering down toward Kandersteg, lashing and thrashing its way over and among monster boulders, and hurling chance roots and logs about like straws. There was no lack of cascades along this route. The path by the side of the torrent was so narrow that one had to look sharp, when he heard a cow-bell, and hunt for a place that was wide enough to accommodate a cow and a Christian side by side, and such places were not always to be had at an instant's notice. The cows wear church-bells, and that is a good idea in the cows, for where that torrent is, you couldn't hear an ordinary cow-bell any further than you could hear the ticking of a watch.
I needed exercise, so I employed my agent in setting stranded logs and dead trees adrift, and I sat on a boulder and watched them go whirling and leaping head over heels down the boiling torrent. It was a wonderfully exhilarating spectacle. When I had had enough exercise, I made the agent take some, by running a race with one of those logs. I made a trifle by betting on the log.
After dinner we had a walk up and down the Kandersteg valley, in the soft gloaming, with the spectacle of the dying lights of day playing about the crests and pinnacles of the still and solemn upper realm for contrast, and text for talk. There were no sounds but the dulled complaining of the torrent and the occasional tinkling of a distant bell. The spirit of the place was a sense of deep, pervading peace; one might dream his life tranquilly away there, and not miss it or mind it when it was gone.
The summer departed with the sun, and winter came with the stars. It grew to be a bitter night in that little hotel, backed up against a precipice that had no visible top to it, but we kept warm, and woke in time in the morning to find that everybody else had left for Gemmi three hours before-- so our little plan of helping that German family (principally the old man) over the pass, was a blocked generosity.