A Little Swiss Sojourn by William Dean Howells

Story type: LiteratureI Out of eighty or ninety days that we passed in Switzerland there must have been at least ten that were fair, not counting the forenoons before it …

Story type: Literature

I

Out of eighty or ninety days that we passed in Switzerland there must have been at least ten that were fair, not counting the forenoons before it began to rain, and the afternoons when it cleared up. They said that it was an unusually rainy autumn, and we could well believe it; yet I suspect that it rains a good deal in that little corner of the Canton Vaud even when the autumn is only usually rainy. We arrived late in September and came away early in December, and during that time we had neither the fevers that raged in France nor the floods that raged in Italy. We Vaudois were rather proud of that, but whether we had much else to be proud of I am not so certain. Of course we had our Alpine scenery, and when the day was fair the sun came loafing up over the eastern mountains about ten o’clock in the morning, and lounged down behind the western tops about half-past three, after dinner. But then he left the eternal snows of the Dent-du-Midi all flushed with his light, and in the mean time he had glittered for five hours on the “bleu impossible” of the Lake of Geneva, and had shown in a hundred changing lights and shadows the storied and sentimentalized towers of the Castle of Chillon. Solemn groups and ranks of Swiss and Savoyard Alps hemmed the lake in as far as the eye could reach, and the lateen-sailed craft lent it their picturesqueness, while the steamboats constantly making its circuit and stopping at all the little towns on the shores imparted a pleasant modern interest to the whole effect, which the trains of the railroad running under the lee of the castle agreeably heightened.

II

The Swiss railroad was always an object of friendly amusement with the children, who could not get used to having the trains started by a small Christmas-horn. They had not entirely respected the English engine, with the shrill falsetto of its whistle, after the burly roar of our locomotives; and the boatswain’s pipe of the French conductor had considerably diminished the dignity of a sister republic in their minds; but this Christmas-horn was too droll. That a grown man, much more imposingly uniformed than an American general, should blow it to start a real train of cars was the source of patriotic sarcasm whenever its plaintive, reedy note was heard. We had come straight through from London, taking the sleeping-car at Calais, and rolling and bounding over the road towards Basle in a fashion that provoked scornful comparisons with the Pullman that had carried us so smoothly from Boston to Buffalo. It is well to be honest, even to our own adulation, and one must confess that the sleeping-car of the European continent is but the nervous and hysterical daughter of the American mother of sleeping-cars. Many express trains are run without any sleeper, and the charges for berths are ludicrously extravagant–five dollars apiece for a single night. It is not strange that the native prefers to doze away the night bolt-upright, or crouched into the corners of his repellently padded carriage, rather than toss upon the expensive pallet of the sleeping-car, which seems hung rather with a view to affording involuntary exercise than promoting dear-bought slumber. One advantage of it is that if you have to leave the car at five o’clock in the morning, you are awake and eager to do so long before that time. At the first Swiss station we quitted it to go to Berne, which was one of the three points where I was told by the London railway people that my baggage would be examined. I forget the second, but the third was Berne, and now at Delemont I looked about for the customs officers with the anxiety which the thought of them always awakens in the human heart, whether one has meant to smuggle or not. Even the good conscience may suffer from the upturning of a well-packed trunk. But nobody wanted to examine our baggage at Delemont, or at the other now-forgotten station; and at Berne, though I labored hard in several dialects with all the railway officials, I could not get them to open one of our ten trunks or five valises. I was so resolute in the matter that I had some difficulty to keep from opening them myself and levying duty upon their contents.

III

It was the first but not the last disappointment we suffered in Switzerland. A friend in London had congratulated us upon going to the Vaud in the grape season. “For thruppence,” he said, “they will let you go into the vineyards and eat all the grapes you can hold.” Arrived upon the ground, we learned that it was six francs fine to touch a grape in the vineyards; that every field had a watch set in it, who popped up between the vines from time to time, and interrogated the vicinity with an eye of sleepless vigilance; and that small boys of suspicious character, whose pleasure or business took them through a vineyard, were obliged to hold up their hands as they passed, like the victims of a Far Western road agency. As the laws and usages governing the grape culture run back to the time of the Romans, who brought the vine into the Vaud, I was obliged to refer my friend’s legend of cheapness and freedom to an earlier period, whose customs we could not profit by. In point of fact, I could buy more grapes for thruppence in London than in the Vaud; and the best grapes we had in Switzerland were some brought from Italy, and sold at a franc a pound in Montreux to the poor foreigners who had come to feast upon the wealth of the local vineyards.

It was the rain that spoiled the grapes, they said at Montreux, and wherever we complained; and indeed the vines were a dismal show of sterility and blight, even to the spectator who did not venture near enough to subject himself to a fine of six francs. The foreigners had protected themselves in large numbers by not coming, and the natives who prosper upon them suffered. The stout lady who kept a small shop of ivory carvings at Montreux continually lamented their absence to me: “Die Fremden kommen nicht, dieses regenes Wetter! Man muss Geduldt haben! Die Fremden kommen nicht!” She was from Interlaken, and the accents of her native dialect were flavored with the strong waters which she seemed always to have been drinking, and she put her face close up to that of the good, all-sympathizing Amerikaner who alone patronized her shop, and talked her sorrows loudly into him, so that he should not misunderstand.

VII

Early in October, before the vintage began, we seized the first fine day, which the Dent-du-Midi lifted its cap of mists the night before to promise, and made an early start for the tour of the lake. Mademoiselle and her cousins came with us, and we all stood together at the steamer’s prow to watch the morning sunshine break through the silvery haze that hung over Villeneuve, dimly pierced by the ghostly poplars wandering up the road beside the Rhone. As we started, the clouds drifted in ineffable beauty over the mountain-sides; one slowly dropped upon the lake, and when we had sailed through it we had come in sight of the first town on the French border, which the gendarmes of the two nations seemed to share equally between them. All these lake-side villages are wonderfully picturesque, but this first one had a fancy in chimney-tops which I think none of the rest equalled–some were twisted, some shaped like little chalets; and there were groups of old wood-colored roofs and gables which were luxuries of color. A half-built railroad was struggling along the shore; at times it seemed to stop hopelessly; then it began again, and then left off, to reappear beyond some point of hill which had not yet been bored through or blown quite away. I have never seen a railroad laboring under so many difficulties. The landscape was now grand and beautiful, like New England, now pretty and soft, like Old England, till we came to Evains-les-Bains, which looked like nothing but the French watering-place it was. It looked like a watering-place that would be very gay in the season; there were lots of pretty boats; there was a most official-looking gendarme in a cocked hat, and two jolly young priests joking together; and there were green, frivolous French fishes swimming about in the water, and apparently left behind when the rest of the brilliant world had flown.

Here the little English artist who had been so sociable all the way from Villeneuve was reinforced by other Englishmen, whom we found on the much more crowded boat to which we had to change. Our company began to diversify itself: there were French and German parties as well as English. We changed boats four times in the tour of the lake, and each boat brought us a fresh accession of passengers. By-and-by there came aboard a brave Italian, with birds in cages and gold-fish in vases, with a gay Southern face, a coral neck button, a brown mustache and imperial, and a black-tasselled red fez that consoled. He was the vividest bit of color in our composition, though we were not wanting in life without him. There began to be some Americans besides ourselves, and a pretty girl of our nation, who occupied a public station at the boat’s prow, seemed to know that she was pretty, but probably did not. She will recognize herself in this sketch; but who was that other pretty maiden, with brown eyes wide apart, and upper lip projecting a little, as if pulled out by the piquant-nose? I must have taken her portrait so carefully because I thought she would work somewhere into fiction; but the reader is welcome to her as she is. He may also have the spirituelle English girl who ordered tea, and added, “I want some kaetzchens with my tea.” “Kaetzchens! Kaetzchen is a little cat.” “Yes; it’s a word of my own invention.” These are the brilliant little passages of foreign travel that make a voyage to Europe worth while. I add to this international gallery the German girl in blue calico, who had so strong a belief that she was elegantly dressed that she came up on deck with her coffee, and drank it where we might all admire her. I intersperse also the comment that it is the Germans who seem to prevail now in any given international group, and that they have the air of coming forward to take the front seats as by right; while the English, once so confident of their superiority, seem to yield the places to them. But I dare say this is all my fancy.

I am sure, however, of the ever-varying grandeur and beauty of the Alps all round us. Those of the Savoyard shore had a softer loveliness than the Swiss, as if the South had touched and mellowed them, as it had the light-colored trousers which in Geneva recalled the joyous pantaloons of Italy. These mountains moulded themselves one upon another, and deepened behind their transparent shadows with a thousand dimmer and tenderer dyes in the autumnal foliage. From time to time a village, gray-walled, brown-roofed, broke the low helving shore of the lake, where the poplars rose and the vineyards spread with a monotony that somehow pleased; and at Nyon a twelfth-century castle, as noble as Chillon, offered the delight of its changing lines as the boat approached and passed.

At Geneva we had barely time to think Rousseau, to think Calvin, to think Voltaire, to drive swiftly through the town and back again to the boat, fuming and fretting to be off. There is an old town, gravely picturesque and austerely fine in its fine old burgherly, Calvinistic, exclusive way; and outside the walls there is a new town, very clean, very cold, very quiet, with horse-cars like Boston, and a new Renaissance theatre like Paris. The impression remains that Geneva is outwardly a small moralized Bostonian Paris; and I suppose the reader knows that it has had its political rings and bosses like New York. It also has an exact reproduction of the Veronese tombs of the Scaligeri, which the eccentric Duke of Brunswick, who died in Geneva, willed it the money to build; like most fac-similes, they are easily distinguishable from the original, and you must still go to Verona to see the tombs of the Scaligeri. But they have the real Mont Blanc at Geneva, bleak to the eye with enduring snow, and the Blue Rhone, rushing smooth and swift under the overhanging balconies of quaint old houses. With its neat quays, azure lake, symmetrical hotel fronts, and white steamboats, Geneva was like an admirable illustration printed in colors, for a holiday number, to imitate a water-color sketch.

When we started we were detained a moment by conjugal affection. A lady, who had already kept the boat waiting, stopped midway up the gang-plank to kiss her husband in parting, in spite of the captain’s loud cries of “Allez! Allez!” and the angry derision of the passengers. We were in fact all furious, and it was as much as a mule team with bells, drawing a wagon loaded with bags of flower, and a tree growing out of a tower beside the lake, could do to put me in good-humor. Yet I was not really in a hurry to have the voyage end; I was enjoying every moment of it, only, when your boat starts, you do not want to stop for a woman to kiss her husband.

Again we were passing the wild Savoyard shore, where the yellow tops of the poplars jutted up like spires from the road-sides, and on the hill-sides tracts of dark evergreens blotted their space out of the vaster expanses of autumn foliage; back of all rose gray cliffs and crags. Now and then we met a boat of our line; otherwise the blue stretch of the water was broken only by the lateen-sails of the black-hulked lake craft. At that season the delicate flame of the Virginia-creeper was a prominent tint on the walls all round the lake.

Lausanne, which made us think Gibbon, of course, was a stately stretch of architecture along her terraces; Vevay showed us her quaint market square, and her old church on its heights; then came Montreux with its many-hotelled slopes and levels, and chalets peeping from the brows of the mountains that crowd it upon the lake. All these places keep multitudes of swans, whose snow reddened in the sunset that stained the water more and more darkly crimson till we landed at Villeneuve.

VIII

When December came, and the vintage and elections were over, and the winter had come down into the valley to stay, Italy called to us more and more appealingly.

Yet it was not so easy to pull up and go. I liked the row-boat on the lake, though it was getting too cold and rough for that; I liked the way the railway guards called out “Verney-Montreux!” and “Territey-Chillon!” as they ran alongside the carriages at these stations; I liked the pastel portraits of mademoiselle’s grandmothers on the gray walls of our pretty chamber that overlooked the lake, and overheard the lightest lisp of that sometimes bellowing body of water; I liked the notion of the wild-ducks among the reeds by the Rhone, though I had no wish to kill them; I liked our little corner fireplace, where I covered a log of the grand bois every night in the coals, and found it a perfect line of bristling embers in the morning; I liked Poppi and the three generations of Boulettes; and, yes, I liked mademoiselle and all her boarders; and I hated to leave these friends. Mademoiselle made a grand Thanksgiving supper in honor of the American nation, for which we did our best to figure both at the table, where smoked a turkey driven over the Alps from his Italian home for that fete (there are no Swiss turkeys), and in the dance, for which he had wellnigh disabled us. Poppi was in uncommon tune that night, and the voice of this pensive rheumatic lent a unique interest to every change of the Virginia reel.

But these pleasures had to end; it grew colder and colder; we had long since consumed all the old grape-roots which constituted our petit bois, and we were ravaging our way through an expensive pile of grand bois without much effect upon the climate. One morning the most enterprising spirit of our party kindled such a mighty blaze on our chamber hearth that she set the chimney on fire, thus threatening the Swiss republic with the loss of the insurance, and involving mademoiselle in I know not what penalties for having a chimney that could be set on fire. By the blessing of Heaven, the vigor of mademoiselle, and the activity of Louis and Alexis the farmer, the flames were subdued and the house saved. Mademoiselle forgave us, but we knew it was time to go, and the next Sunday we were in Florence.

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