CHAPTER XXXV. Swindling the Coroner
A great and priceless thing is a new interest! How it takes possession of a man! how it clings to him, how it rides him! I strode onward from the Schwarenback hostelry a changed man, a reorganized personality. I walked into a new world, I saw with new eyes. I had been looking aloft at the giant show-peaks only as things to be worshiped for their grandeur and magnitude, and their unspeakable grace of form; I looked up at them now, as also things to be conquered and climbed. My sense of their grandeur and their noble beauty was neither lost nor impaired; I had gained a new interest in the mountains without losing the old ones. I followed the steep lines up, inch by inch, with my eye, and noted the possibility or impossibility of following them with my feet. When I saw a shining helmet of ice projecting above the clouds, I tried to imagine I saw files of black specks toiling up it roped together with a gossamer thread.
We skirted the lonely little lake called the Daubensee, and presently passed close by a glacier on the right-- a thing like a great river frozen solid in its flow and broken square off like a wall at its mouth. I had never been so near a glacier before.
Here we came upon a new board shanty, and found some men engaged in building a stone house; so the Schwarenback was soon to have a rival. We bought a bottle or so of beer here; at any rate they called it beer, but I knew by the price that it was dissolved jewelry, and I perceived by the taste that dissolved jewelry is not good stuff to drink.
We were surrounded by a hideous desolation. We stepped forward to a sort of jumping-off place, and were confronted by a startling contrast: we seemed to look down into fairyland. Two or three thousand feet below us was a bright green level, with a pretty town in its midst, and a silvery stream winding among the meadows; the charming spot was walled in on all sides by gigantic precipices clothed with pines; and over the pines, out of the softened distances, rose the snowy domes and peaks of the Monte Rosa region. How exquisitely green and beautiful that little valley down there was! The distance was not great enough to obliterate details, it only made them little, and mellow, and dainty, like landscapes and towns seen through the wrong end of a spy-glass.
Right under us a narrow ledge rose up out of the valley, with a green, slanting, bench-shaped top, and grouped about upon this green-baize bench were a lot of black and white sheep which looked merely like oversized worms. The bench seemed lifted well up into our neighborhood, but that was a deception--it was a long way down to it.
We began our descent, now, by the most remarkable road I have ever seen. It wound it corkscrew curves down the face of the colossal precipice--a narrow way, with always the solid rock wall at one elbow, and perpendicular nothingness at the other. We met an everlasting procession of guides, porters, mules, litters, and tourists climbing up this steep and muddy path, and there was no room to spare when you had to pass a tolerably fat mule. I always took the inside, when I heard or saw the mule coming, and flattened myself against the wall. I preferred the inside, of course, but I should have had to take it anyhow, because the mule prefers the outside. A mule's preference--on a precipice--is a thing to be respected. Well, his choice is always the outside. His life is mostly devoted to carrying bulky panniers and packages which rest against his body--therefore he is habituated to taking the outside edge of mountain paths, to keep his bundles from rubbing against rocks or banks on the other. When he goes into the passenger business he absurdly clings to his old habit, and keeps one leg of his passenger always dangling over the great deeps of the lower world while that passenger's heart is in the highlands, so to speak. More than once I saw a mule's hind foot cave over the outer edge and send earth and rubbish into the bottom abyss; and I noticed that upon these occasions the rider, whether male or female, looked tolerably unwell.
There was one place where an eighteen-inch breadth of light masonry had been added to the verge of the path, and as there was a very sharp turn here, a panel of fencing had been set up there at some time, as a protection. This panel was old and gray and feeble, and the light masonry had been loosened by recent rains. A young American girl came along on a mule, and in making the turn the mule's hind foot caved all the loose masonry and one of the fence-posts overboard; the mule gave a violent lurch inboard to save himself, and succeeded in the effort, but that girl turned as white as the snows of Mont Blanc for a moment.
The path was simply a groove cut into the face of the precipice; there was a four-foot breadth of solid rock under the traveler, and four-foot breadth of solid rock just above his head, like the roof of a narrow porch; he could look out from this gallery and see a sheer summitless and bottomless wall of rock before him, across a gorge or crack a biscuit's toss in width-- but he could not see the bottom of his own precipice unless he lay down and projected his nose over the edge. I did not do this, because I did not wish to soil my clothes.
Every few hundred yards, at particularly bad places, one came across a panel or so of plank fencing; but they were always old and weak, and they generally leaned out over the chasm and did not make any rash promises to hold up people who might need support. There was one of these panels which had only its upper board left; a pedestrianizing English youth came tearing down the path, was seized with an impulse to look over the precipice, and without an instant's thought he threw his weight upon that crazy board. It bent outward a foot! I never made a gasp before that came so near suffocating me. The English youth's face simply showed a lively surprise, but nothing more. He went swinging along valleyward again, as if he did not know he had just swindled a coroner by the closest kind of a shave.
The Alpine litter is sometimes like a cushioned box made fast between the middles of two long poles, and sometimes it is a chair with a back to it and a support for the feet. It is carried by relays of strong porters. The motion is easier than that of any other conveyance. We met a few men and a great many ladies in litters; it seemed to me that most of the ladies looked pale and nauseated; their general aspect gave me the idea that they were patiently enduring a horrible suffering. As a rule, they looked at their laps, and left the scenery to take care of itself.
But the most frightened creature I saw, was a led horse that overtook us. Poor fellow, he had been born and reared in the grassy levels of the Kandersteg valley and had never seen anything like this hideous place before. Every few steps he would stop short, glance wildly out from the dizzy height, and then spread his red nostrils wide and pant as violently as if he had been running a race; and all the while he quaked from head to heel as with a palsy. He was a handsome fellow, and he made a fine statuesque picture of terror, but it was pitiful to see him suffer so.
This dreadful path has had its tragedy. Baedeker, with his customary overterseness, begins and ends the tale thus:
"The descent on horseback should be avoided. In 1861 a Comtesse d'Herlincourt fell from her saddle over the precipice and was killed on the spot."
We looked over the precipice there, and saw the monument which commemorates the event. It stands in the bottom of the gorge, in a place which has been hollowed out of the rock to protect it from the torrent and the storms. Our old guide never spoke but when spoken to, and then limited himself to a syllable or two, but when we asked him about this tragedy he showed a strong interest in the matter. He said the Countess was very pretty, and very young--hardly out of her girlhood, in fact. She was newly married, and was on her bridal tour. The young husband was riding a little in advance; one guide was leading the husband's horse, another was leading the bride's.
The old man continued:
"The guide that was leading the husband's horse happened to glance back, and there was that poor young thing sitting up staring out over the precipice; and her face began to bend downward a little, and she put up her two hands slowly and met it--so,--and put them flat against her eyes--so--and then she sank out of the saddle, with a sharp shriek, and one caught only the flash of a dress, and it was all over."
Then after a pause:
"Ah, yes, that guide saw these things--yes, he saw them all. He saw them all, just as I have told you."
After another pause:
"Ah, yes, he saw them all. My God, that was ME. I was that guide!"
This had been the one event of the old man's life; so one may be sure he had forgotten no detail connected with it. We listened to all he had to say about what was done and what happened and what was said after the sorrowful occurrence, and a painful story it was.
When we had wound down toward the valley until we were about on the last spiral of the corkscrew, Harris's hat blew over the last remaining bit of precipice--a small cliff a hundred or hundred and fifty feet high--and sailed down toward a steep slant composed of rough chips and fragments which the weather had flaked away from the precipices. We went leisurely down there, expecting to find it without any trouble, but we had made a mistake, as to that. We hunted during a couple of hours--not because the old straw hat was valuable, but out of curiosity to find out how such a thing could manage to conceal itself in open ground where there was nothing left for it to hide behind. When one is reading in bed, and lays his paper-knife down, he cannot find it again if it is smaller than a saber; that hat was as stubborn as any paper-knife could have been, and we finally had to give it up; but we found a fragment that had once belonged to an opera-glass, and by digging around and turning over the rocks we gradually collected all the lenses and the cylinders and the various odds and ends that go to making up a complete opera-glass. We afterward had the thing reconstructed, and the owner can have his adventurous lost-property by submitting proofs and paying costs of rehabilitation. We had hopes of finding the owner there, distributed around amongst the rocks, for it would have made an elegant paragraph; but we were disappointed. Still, we were far from being disheartened, for there was a considerable area which we had not thoroughly searched; we were satisfied he was there, somewhere, so we resolved to wait over a day at Leuk and come back and get him.
Then we sat down to polish off the perspiration and arrange about what we would do with him when we got him. Harris was for contributing him to the British Museum; but I was for mailing him to his widow. That is the difference between Harris and me: Harris is all for display, I am all for the simple right, even though I lose money by it. Harris argued in favor of his proposition against mine, I argued in favor of mine and against his. The discussion warmed into a dispute; the dispute warmed into a quarrel. I finally said, very decidedly:
"My mind is made up. He goes to the widow."
Harris answered sharply:
"And MY mind is made up. He goes to the Museum."
I said, calmly:
"The museum may whistle when it gets him."
"The widow may save herself the trouble of whistling, for I will see that she never gets him."
After some angry bandying of epithets, I said:
"It seems to me that you are taking on a good many airs about these remains. I don't quite see what YOU'VE got to say about them?"
"I? I've got ALL to say about them. They'd never have been thought of if I hadn't found their opera-glass. The corpse belongs to me, and I'll do as I please with him."
I was leader of the Expedition, and all discoveries achieved by it naturally belonged to me. I was entitled to these remains, and could have enforced my right; but rather than have bad blood about the matter, I said we would toss up for them. I threw heads and won, but it was a barren victory, for although we spent all the next day searching, we never found a bone. I cannot imagine what could ever have become of that fellow.
The town in the valley is called Leuk or Leukerbad. We pointed our course toward it, down a verdant slope which was adorned with fringed gentians and other flowers, and presently entered the narrow alleys of the outskirts and waded toward the middle of the town through liquid "fertilizer." They ought to either pave that village or organize a ferry.
Harris's body was simply a chamois-pasture; his person was populous with the little hungry pests; his skin, when he stripped, was splotched like a scarlet-fever patient's; so, when we were about to enter one of the Leukerbad inns, and he noticed its sign, "Chamois Hotel," he refused to stop there. He said the chamois was plentiful enough, without hunting up hotels where they made a specialty of it. I was indifferent, for the chamois is a creature that will neither bite me nor abide with me; but to calm Harris, we went to the Ho^tel des Alpes.
At the table d'ho^te, we had this, for an incident. A very grave man--in fact his gravity amounted to solemnity, and almost to austerity--sat opposite us and he was "tight," but doing his best to appear sober. He took up a CORKED bottle of wine, tilted it over his glass awhile, then set it out of the way, with a contented look, and went on with his dinner.
Presently he put his glass to his mouth, and of course found it empty. He looked puzzled, and glanced furtively and suspiciously out of the corner of his eye at a benignant and unconscious old lady who sat at his right. Shook his head, as much as to say, "No, she couldn't have done it." He tilted the corked bottle over his glass again, meantime searching around with his watery eye to see if anybody was watching him. He ate a few mouthfuls, raised his glass to his lips, and of course it was still empty. He bent an injured and accusing side-glance upon that unconscious old lady, which was a study to see. She went on eating and gave no sign. He took up his glass and his bottle, with a wise private nod of his head, and set them gravely on the left-hand side of his plate-- poured himself another imaginary drink--went to work with his knife and fork once more--presently lifted his glass with good confidence, and found it empty, as usual.
This was almost a petrifying surprise. He straightened himself up in his chair and deliberately and sorrowfully inspected the busy old ladies at his elbows, first one and then the other. At last he softly pushed his plate away, set his glass directly in front of him, held on to it with his left hand, and proceeded to pour with his right. This time he observed that nothing came. He turned the bottle clear upside down; still nothing issued from it; a plaintive look came into his face, and he said, as if to himself,
" 'IC! THEY'VE GOT IT ALL!" Then he set the bottle down, resignedly, and took the rest of his dinner dry.
It was at that table d'ho^te, too, that I had under inspection the largest lady I have ever seen in private life. She was over seven feet high, and magnificently proportioned. What had first called my attention to her, was my stepping on an outlying flange of her foot, and hearing, from up toward the ceiling, a deep "Pardon, m'sieu, but you encroach!"
That was when we were coming through the hall, and the place was dim, and I could see her only vaguely. The thing which called my attention to her the second time was, that at a table beyond ours were two very pretty girls, and this great lady came in and sat down between them and me and blotted out my view. She had a handsome face, and she was very finely formed--perfected formed, I should say. But she made everybody around her look trivial and commonplace. Ladies near her looked like children, and the men about her looked mean. They looked like failures; and they looked as if they felt so, too. She sat with her back to us. I never saw such a back in my life. I would have so liked to see the moon rise over it. The whole congregation waited, under one pretext or another, till she finished her dinner and went out; they wanted to see her at full altitude, and they found it worth tarrying for. She filled one's idea of what an empress ought to be, when she rose up in her unapproachable grandeur and moved superbly out of that place.
We were not at Leuk in time to see her at her heaviest weight. She had suffered from corpulence and had come there to get rid of her extra flesh in the baths. Five weeks of soaking-- five uninterrupted hours of it every day--had accomplished her purpose and reduced her to the right proportions.
Those baths remove fat, and also skin-diseases. The patients remain in the great tanks for hours at a time. A dozen gentlemen and ladies occupy a tank together, and amuse themselves with rompings and various games. They have floating desks and tables, and they read or lunch or play chess in water that is breast-deep. The tourist can step in and view this novel spectacle if he chooses. There's a poor-box, and he will have to contribute. There are several of these big bathing-houses, and you can always tell when you are near one of them by the romping noises and shouts of laughter that proceed from it. The water is running water, and changes all the time, else a patient with a ringworm might take the bath with only a partial success, since, while he was ridding himself of the ringworm, he might catch the itch.
The next morning we wandered back up the green valley, leisurely, with the curving walls of those bare and stupendous precipices rising into the clouds before us. I had never seen a clean, bare precipice stretching up five thousand feet above me before, and I never shall expect to see another one. They exist, perhaps, but not in places where one can easily get close to them. This pile of stone is peculiar. From its base to the soaring tops of its mighty towers, all its lines and all its details vaguely suggest human architecture. There are rudimentary bow-windows, cornices, chimneys, demarcations of stories, etc. One could sit and stare up there and study the features and exquisite graces of this grand structure, bit by bit, and day after day, and never weary his interest. The termination, toward the town, observed in profile, is the perfection of shape. It comes down out of the clouds in a succession of rounded, colossal, terracelike projections--a stairway for the gods; at its head spring several lofty storm-scarred towers, one after another, with faint films of vapor curling always about them like spectral banners. If there were a king whose realms included the whole world, here would be the place meet and proper for such a monarch. He would only need to hollow it out and put in the electric light. He could give audience to a nation at a time under its roof.
Our search for those remains having failed, we inspected with a glass the dim and distant track of an old-time avalanche that once swept down from some pine-grown summits behind the town and swept away the houses and buried the people; then we struck down the road that leads toward the Rhone, to see the famous Ladders. These perilous things are built against the perpendicular face of a cliff two or three hundred feet high. The peasants, of both sexes, were climbing up and down them, with heavy loads on their backs. I ordered Harris to make the ascent, so I could put the thrill and horror of it in my book, and he accomplished the feat successfully, though a subagent, for three francs, which I paid. It makes me shudder yet when I think of what I felt when I was clinging there between heaven and earth in the person of that proxy. At times the world swam around me, and I could hardly keep from letting go, so dizzying was the appalling danger. Many a person would have given up and descended, but I stuck to my task, and would not yield until I had accomplished it. I felt a just pride in my exploit, but I would not have repeated it for the wealth of the world. I shall break my neck yet with some such foolhardy performance, for warnings never seem to have any lasting effect on me. When the people of the hotel found that I had been climbing those crazy Ladders, it made me an object of considerable attention.
Next morning, early, we drove to the Rhone valley and took the train for Visp. There we shouldered our knapsacks and things, and set out on foot, in a tremendous rain, up the winding gorge, toward Zermatt. Hour after hour we slopped along, by the roaring torrent, and under noble Lesser Alps which were clothed in rich velvety green all the way up and had little atomy Swiss homes perched upon grassy benches along their mist-dimmed heights.
The rain continued to pour and the torrent to boom, and we continued to enjoy both. At the one spot where this torrent tossed its white mane highest, and thundered loudest, and lashed the big boulders fiercest, the canton had done itself the honor to build the flimsiest wooden bridge that exists in the world. While we were walking over it, along with a party of horsemen, I noticed that even the larger raindrops made it shake. I called Harris's attention to it, and he noticed it, too. It seemed to me that if I owned an elephant that was a keepsake, and I thought a good deal of him, I would think twice before I would ride him over that bridge.
We climbed up to the village of St. Nicholas, about half past four in the afternoon, waded ankle-deep through the fertilizer-juice, and stopped at a new and nice hotel close by the little church. We stripped and went to bed, and sent our clothes down to be baked. And the horde of soaked tourists did the same. That chaos of clothing got mixed in the kitchen, and there were consequences. I did not get back the same drawers I sent down, when our things came up at six-fifteen; I got a pair on a new plan. They were merely a pair of white ruffle-cuffed absurdities, hitched together at the top with a narrow band, and they did not come quite down to my knees. They were pretty enough, but they made me feel like two people, and disconnected at that. The man must have been an idiot that got himself up like that, to rough it in the Swiss mountains. The shirt they brought me was shorter than the drawers, and hadn't any sleeves to it--at least it hadn't anything more than what Mr. Darwin would call "rudimentary" sleeves; these had "edging" around them, but the bosom was ridiculously plain. The knit silk undershirt they brought me was on a new plan, and was really a sensible thing; it opened behind, and had pockets in it to put your shoulder-blades in; but they did not seem to fit mine, and so I found it a sort of uncomfortable garment. They gave my bobtail coat to somebody else, and sent me an ulster suitable for a giraffe. I had to tie my collar on, because there was no button behind on that foolish little shirt which I described a while ago.
When I was dressed for dinner at six-thirty, I was too loose in some places and too tight in others, and altogether I felt slovenly and ill-conditioned. However, the people at the table d'ho^te were no better off than I was; they had everybody's clothes but their own on. A long stranger recognized his ulster as soon as he saw the tail of it following me in, but nobody claimed my shirt or my drawers, though I described them as well as I was able. I gave them to the chambermaid that night when I went to bed, and she probably found the owner, for my own things were on a chair outside my door in the morning.
There was a lovable English clergyman who did not get to the table d'ho^te at all. His breeches had turned up missing, and without any equivalent. He said he was not more particular than other people, but he had noticed that a clergyman at dinner without any breeches was almost sure to excite remark.