The Man And The Mountain by Bret Harte

Story type: Literature

He was such a large, strong man that, when he first set foot in the little parallelogram I called my garden, it seemed to shrink to half its size and become preposterous. But I noticed at the same time that he was holding in the open palm of his huge hand the roots of a violet, with such infinite tenderness and delicacy that I would have engaged him as my gardener on the spot. But this could not be, as he was already the proud proprietor of a market-garden and nursery on the outskirts of the suburban Californian town where I lived. He would, however, come for two days in the week, stock and look after my garden, and impart to my urban intellect such horticultural hints as were necessary. His name was “Rutli,” which I presumed to be German, but which my neighbors rendered as “Rootleigh,” possibly from some vague connection with his occupation. His own knowledge of English was oral and phonetic. I have a delightful recollection of a bill of his in which I was charged for “fioletz,” with the vague addition of “maine cains.” Subsequent explanation proved it to be “many kinds.”

Nevertheless, my little garden bourgeoned and blossomed under his large, protecting hand. I became accustomed to walk around his feet respectfully when they blocked the tiny paths, and to expect the total eclipse of that garden-bed on which he worked, by his huge bulk. For the tiniest and most reluctant rootlet seemed to respond to his caressing paternal touch; it was a pretty sight to see his huge fingers tying up some slender stalk to its stick with the smallest thread, and he had a reverent way of laying a bulb or seed in the ground, and then gently shaping and smoothing a small mound over it, which made the little inscription on the stick above more like an affecting epitaph than ever. Much of this gentleness may have been that apology for his great strength, common with large men; but his face was distinctly amiable, and his very light blue eyes were at times wistful and doglike in their kindliness. I was soon to learn, however, that placability was not entirely his nature.

The garden was part of a fifty vara lot of land, on which I was simultaneously erecting a house. But the garden was finished before the house was, through certain circumstances very characteristic of that epoch and civilization. I had purchased the Spanish title, the only LEGAL one, to the land, which, however, had been in POSSESSION of a “squatter.” But he had been unable to hold that possession against a “jumper,”–another kind of squatter who had entered upon it covertly, fenced it in, and marked it out in building sites. Neither having legal rights, they could not invoke the law; the last man held possession. There was no doubt that in due course of litigation and time both these ingenuous gentlemen would have been dispossessed in favor of the real owner,–myself,–but that course would be a protracted one. Following the usual custom of the locality, I paid a certain sum to the jumper to yield up peaceably HIS possession of the land, and began to build upon it. It might be reasonably supposed that the question was settled. But it was not. The house was nearly finished when, one morning, I was called out of my editorial sanctum by a pallid painter, looking even more white-leaded than usual, who informed me that my house was in the possession of five armed men! The entry had been made peaceably during the painters’ absence to dinner under a wayside tree. When they returned, they had found their pots and brushes in the road, and an intimation from the windows that their reentrance would be forcibly resisted as a trespass.

I honestly believe that Rutli was more concerned than myself over this dispossession. While he loyally believed that I would get back my property, he was dreadfully grieved over the inevitable damage that would be done to the garden during this interval of neglect and carelessness. I even think he would have made a truce with my enemies, if they would only have let him look after his beloved plants. As it was, he kept a passing but melancholy surveillance of them, and was indeed a better spy of the actions of the intruders than any I could have employed. One day, to my astonishment, he brought me a moss-rose bud from a bush which had been trained against a column of the veranda. It appeared that he had called, from over the fence, the attention of one of the men to the neglected condition of the plant, and had obtained permission to “come in and tie it up.” The men, being merely hirelings of the chief squatter, had no personal feeling, and I was not therefore surprised to hear that they presently allowed Rutli to come in occasionally and look after his precious “slips.” If they had any suspicions of his great strength, it was probably offset by his peaceful avocation and his bland, childlike face. Meantime, I had begun the usual useless legal proceeding, but had also engaged a few rascals of my own to be ready to take advantage of any want of vigilance on the part of my adversaries. I never thought of Rutli in that connection any more than they had.

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A few Sundays later I was sitting in the little tea-arbor of Rutli’s nursery, peacefully smoking with him. Presently he took his long china-bowled pipe from his mouth, and, looking at me blandly over his yellow mustache, said:–

“You vonts sometimes to go in dot house, eh?”

I said, “Decidedly.”

“Mit a revolver, and keep dot house dose men out?”


“Vell! I put you in dot house–today!”


“Shoost so! It is a goot day! On der Suntay DREE men vill out go to valk mit demselluffs, and visky trinken. TWO,” holding up two gigantic fingers, apparently only a shade or two smaller than his destined victims, “stay dere. Dose I lift de fence over.”

I hastened to inform him that any violence attempted against the parties WHILE IN POSSESSION, although that possession was illegal, would, by a fatuity of the law, land him in the county jail. I said I would not hear of it.

“But suppose dere vos no fiolence? Suppose dose men vos villin’, eh? How vos dot for high?”

“I don’t understand.”

“So! You shall NOT understand! Dot is better. Go away now and dell your men to coom dot house arount at halluff past dree. But YOU coom, mit yourselluff alone, shoost as if you vos spazieren gehen, for a valk, by dat fence at dree! Ven you shall dot front door vide open see, go in, and dere you vos! You vill der rest leef to me!”

It was in vain that I begged Rutli to divulge his plan, and pointed out again the danger of his technically breaking the law. But he was firm, assuring me that I myself would be a witness that no assault would be made. I looked into his clear, good-humored eyes, and assented. I had a burning desire to right my wrongs, but I think I also had considerable curiosity.

I passed a miserable quarter of an hour after I had warned my partisans, and then walked alone slowly down the broad leafy street towards the scene of contest. I have a very vivid recollection of my conflicting emotions. I did not believe that I would be killed; I had no distinct intention of killing any of my adversaries; but I had some considerable concern for my loyal friend Rutli, whom I foresaw might be in some peril from the revolver in my unpracticed hand. If I could only avoid shooting HIM, I would be satisfied. I remember that the bells were ringing for church,–a church of which my enemy, the chief squatter, was a deacon in good standing,–and I felt guiltily conscious of my revolver in my hip-pocket, as two or three church-goers passed me with their hymn-books in their hands. I walked leisurely, so as not to attract attention, and to appear at the exact time, a not very easy task in my youthful excitement. At last I reached the front gate with a beating heart. There was no one on the high veranda, which occupied three sides of the low one-storied house, nor in the garden before it. But the front door was open; I softly passed through the gate, darted up the veranda and into the house. A single glance around the hall and bare, deserted rooms, still smelling of paint, showed me it was empty, and with my pistol in one hand and the other on the lock of the door, I stood inside, ready to bolt it against any one but Rutli. But where was HE?

The sound of laughter and a noise like skylarking came from the rear of the house and the back yard. Then I suddenly heard Rutli’s heavy tread on the veranda, but it was slow, deliberate, and so exaggerated in its weight that the whole house seemed to shake with it. Then from the window I beheld an extraordinary sight! It was Rutli, swaying from side to side, but steadily carrying with outstretched arms two of the squatter party, his hands tightly grasping their collars. Yet I believe his touch was as gentle as with the violets. His face was preternaturally grave; theirs, to my intense astonishment, while they hung passive from his arms, wore that fatuous, imbecile smile seen on the faces of those who lend themselves to tricks of acrobats and strong men in the arena. He slowly traversed the whole length of one side of the house, walked down the steps to the gate, and then gravely deposited them OUTSIDE. I heard him say, “Dot vins der pet, ain’t it?” and immediately after the sharp click of the gate-latch.

Without understanding a thing that had happened, I rightly conceived this was the cue for my appearance with my revolver at the front door. As I opened it I still heard the sound of laughter, which, however, instantly stopped at a sentence from Rutli, which I could not hear. There was an oath, the momentary apparition of two furious and indignant faces over the fence; but these, however, seemed to be instantly extinguished and put down by the enormous palms of Rutli clapped upon their heads. There was a pause, and then Rutli turned around and quietly joined me in the doorway. But the gate was not again opened until the arrival of my partisans, when the house was clearly in my possession.

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Safe inside with the door bolted, I turned eagerly to Rutli for an explanation. It then appeared that during his occasional visits to the garden he had often been an object of amusement and criticism to the men on account of his size, which seemed to them ridiculously inconsistent with his great good humor, gentleness, and delicacy of touch. They had doubted his strength and challenged his powers. He had responded once or twice before, lifting weights or even carrying one of his critics at arm’s length for a few steps. But he had reserved his final feat for this day and this purpose. It was for a bet, which they had eagerly accepted, secure in their belief in his simplicity, the sincerity of his motives in coming there, and glad of the opportunity of a little Sunday diversion. In their security they had not locked the door when they came out, and had not noticed that HE had opened it. This was his simple story. His only comment, “I haf von der pet, but I dinks I shall nod gollect der money.” The two men did not return that afternoon, nor did their comrades. Whether they wisely conceived that a man who was so powerful in play might be terrible in earnest; whether they knew that his act, in which they had been willing performers, had been witnessed by passing citizens, who supposed it was skylarking; or whether their employer got tired of his expensive occupation, I never knew. The public believed the latter; Rutli, myself, and the two men he had evicted alone kept our secret.

From that time Rutli and I became firm friends, and, long after I had no further need of his services in the recaptured house, I often found myself in the little tea-arbor of his prosperous nursery. He was frugal, sober, and industrious; small wonder that in that growing town he waxed rich, and presently opened a restaurant in the main street, connected with his market-garden, which became famous. His relations to me never changed with his changed fortunes; he was always the simple market-gardener and florist who had aided my first housekeeping, and stood by me in an hour of need. Of all things regarding himself he was singularly reticent; I do not think he had any confidants or intimates, even among his own countrymen, whom I believed to be German. But one day he quite accidentally admitted he was a Swiss. As a youthful admirer of the race I was delighted, and told him so, with the enthusiastic addition that I could now quite understand his independence, with his devoted adherence to another’s cause. He smiled sadly, and astonished me by saying that he had not heard from Switzerland since he left six years ago. He did not want to hear anything; he even avoided his countrymen lest he should. I was confounded.

“But,” I said, “surely you have a longing to return to your country; all Swiss have! You will go back some day just to breathe the air of your native mountains.”

“I shall go back some days,” said Rutli, “after I have made mooch, mooch money, but not for dot air.”

“What for, then?”

“For revenge–to get efen.”

Surprised, and for a moment dismayed as I was, I could not help laughing. “Rutli and revenge!” Impossible! And to make it the more absurd, he was still smoking gently and regarding me with soft, complacent eyes. So unchanged was his face and manner that he might have told me he was going back to be married.

“You do not oonderstand,” he said forgivingly. “Some days I shall dell to you id. Id is a story. You shall make it yourselluff for dose babers dot you write. It is not bretty, berhaps, ain’t it, but it is droo. And de endt is not yet.”

Only that Rutli never joked, except in a ponderous fashion with many involved sentences, I should have thought he was taking a good-humored rise out of me. But it was not funny. I am afraid I dismissed it from my mind as a revelation of something weak and puerile, quite inconsistent with his practical common sense and strong simplicity, and wished he had not alluded to it. I never asked him to tell me the story. It was a year later, and only when he had invited me to come to the opening of a new hotel, erected by him at a mountain spa of great resort, that he himself alluded to it.

The hotel was a wonderful affair, even for those days, and Rutli’s outlay of capital convinced me that by this time he must have made the “mooch money” he coveted. Something of this was in my mind when we sat by the window of his handsomely furnished private office, overlooking the pines of a Californian canyon. I asked him if the scenery was like Switzerland.

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“Ach! no!” he replied; “but I vill puild a hotel shoost like dis dare.”

“Is that a part of your revenge?” I asked, with a laugh.

“Ah! so! a bart.”

I felt relieved; a revenge so practical did not seem very malicious or idiotic. After a pause he puffed contemplatively at his pipe, and then said, “I dell you somedings of dot story now.”

He began. I should like to tell it in his own particular English, mixed with American slang, but it would not convey the simplicity of the narrator. He was the son of a large family who had lived for centuries in one of the highest villages in the Bernese Oberland. He attained his size and strength early, but with a singular distaste to use them in the rough regular work on the farm, although he was a great climber and mountaineer, and, what was at first overlooked as mere boyish fancy, had an insatiable love and curious knowledge of plants and flowers. He knew the haunts of Edelweiss, Alpine rose, and blue gentian, and had brought home rare and unknown blossoms from under the icy lips of glaciers. But as he did this when his time was supposed to be occupied in looking after the cows in the higher pastures and making cheeses, there was trouble in that hard-working, practical family. A giant with the tastes and disposition of a schoolgirl was an anomaly in a Swiss village. Unfortunately again, he was not studious; his record in the village school had been on a par with his manual work, and the family had not even the consolation of believing that they were fostering a genius. In a community where practical industry was the highest virtue, it was not strange, perhaps, that he was called “lazy” and “shiftless;” no one knew the long climbs and tireless vigils he had undergone in remote solitudes in quest of his favorites, or, knowing, forgave him for it. Abstemious, frugal, and patient as he was, even the crusts of his father’s table were given him grudgingly. He often went hungry rather than ask the bread he had failed to earn. How his great frame was nurtured in those days he never knew; perhaps the giant mountains recognized some kin in him and fed and strengthened him after their own fashion. Even his gentleness was confounded with cowardice. “Dot vos de hardtest,” he said simply; “it is not goot to be opligit to half crush your brudder, ven he would make a laugh of you to your sweetheart.” The end came sooner than he expected, and, oddly enough, through this sweetheart. “Gottlieb,” she said to him one day, “the English Fremde who stayed here last night met me when I was carrying some of those beautiful flowers you gave me. He asked me where they were to be found, and I told him only YOU knew. He wants to see you; go to him. It may be luck to you.” Rutli went. The stranger, an English Alpine climber of scientific tastes, talked with him for an hour. At the end of that time, to everybody’s astonishment, he engaged this hopeless idler as his personal guide for three months, at the sum of five francs a day! It was inconceivable, it was unheard of! The Englander was as mad as Gottlieb, whose intellect had always been under suspicion! The schoolmaster pursed up his lips, the pastor shook his head; no good could come of it; the family looked upon it as another freak of Gottlieb’s, but there was one big mouth less to feed and more room in the kitchen, and they let him go. They parted from him as ungraciously as they had endured his presence.

Then followed two months of sunshine in Rutli’s life–association with his beloved plants, and the intelligent sympathy and direction of a cultivated man. Even in altitudes so dangerous that they had to take other and more experienced guides, Rutli was always at his master’s side. That savant’s collection of Alpine flora excelled all previous ones; he talked freely with Rutli of further work in the future, and relaxed his English reserve so far as to confide to him that the outcome of their collection and observation might be a book. He gave a flower a Latin name, in which even the ignorant and delighted Rutli could distinguish some likeness to his own. But the book was never compiled. In one of their later and more difficult ascents they and their two additional guides were overtaken by a sudden storm. Swept from their feet down an ice-bound slope, Rutli alone of the roped-together party kept a foothold on the treacherous incline. Here this young Titan, with bleeding fingers clenched in a rock cleft, sustained the struggles and held up the lives of his companions by that precious thread for more than an hour. Perhaps he might have saved them, but in their desperate efforts to regain their footing the rope slipped upon a jagged edge of outcrop and parted as if cut by a knife. The two guides passed without an outcry into obscurity and death; Rutli, with a last despairing exertion, dragged to his own level his unconscious master, crippled by a broken leg.

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Your true hero is apt to tell his tale simply. Rutli did not dwell upon these details, nor need I. Left alone upon a treacherous ice slope in benumbing cold, with a helpless man, eight hours afterwards he staggered, half blind, incoherent, and inarticulate, into a “shelter” hut, with the dead body of his master in his stiffened arms. The shelter-keepers turned their attention to Rutli, who needed it most. Blind and delirious, with scarce a chance for life, he was sent the next day to a hospital, where he lay for three months, helpless, imbecile, and unknown. The dead body of the Englishman was identified, and sent home; the bodies of the guides were recovered by their friends; but no one knew aught of Rutli, even his name. While the event was still fresh in the minds of those who saw him enter the hut with the body of his master, a paragraph appeared in a Berne journal recording the heroism of this nameless man. But it could not be corroborated nor explained by the demented hero, and was presently forgotten. Six months from the day he had left his home he was discharged cured. He had not a kreutzer in his pocket; he had never drawn his wages from his employer; he had preferred to have it in a lump sum that he might astonish his family on his return. His eyes were still weak, his memory feeble; only his great physical strength remained through his long illness. A few sympathizing travelers furnished him the means to reach his native village, many miles away. He found his family had heard of the loss of the Englishman and the guides, and had believed he was one of them. Already he was forgotten.

“Ven you vos once peliefed to be det,” said Rutli, after a philosophic pause and puff, “it vos not goot to ondeceif beoples. You oopset somedings, soomdimes always. Der hole dot you hef made in der grount, among your frients and your family, vos covered up alretty. You are loocky if you vill not fint some vellars shtanding upon id! My frent, ven you vos DINK det, SHTAY det, BE det, and you vill lif happy!”

“But your sweetheart?” I said eagerly.

A slight gleam of satire stole into Rutli’s light eyes. “My sweetheart, ven I vos dinks det, is der miller engaged do bromply! It is mooch better dan to a man dot vos boor and plint and grazy! So! Vell, der next day I pids dem goot-py, und from der door I say, ‘I am det now; but ven I next comes pack alife, I shall dis village py! der lants, der houses all togedders. And den for yourselluffs look oudt!’”

“Then that’s your revenge? That is what you really intend to do?” I said, half laughing, yet with an uneasy recollection of his illness and enfeebled mind.

“Yes. Look here! I show you somedings.” He opened a drawer of his desk and took out what appeared to be some diagrams, plans, and a small water-colored map, like a surveyor’s tracing. “Look,” he said, laying his finger on the latter, “dat is a map from my fillage. I hef myselluff made it out from my memory. Dot,” pointing to a blank space, “is der mountain side high up, so far. It is no goot until I vill a tunnel make or der grade lefel. Dere vas mine fader’s house, dere vos der church, der schoolhouse, dot vos de burgomaster’s house,” he went on, pointing to the respective plots in this old curving parallelogram of the mountain shelf. “So was the fillage when I leave him on the 5th of March, eighteen hundred and feefty. Now you shall see him shoost as I vill make him ven I go back.” He took up another plan, beautifully drawn and colored, and evidently done by a professional hand. It was a practical, yet almost fairylike transformation of the same spot! The narrow mountain shelf was widened by excavation, and a boulevard stretched on either side. A great hotel, not unlike the one in which we sat, stood in an open terrace, with gardens and fountains–the site of his father’s house. Blocks of pretty dwellings, shops, and cafes filled the intermediate space. I laid down the paper.

“How long have you had this idea?”

“Efer since I left dere, fifteen years ago.”

“But your father and mother may be dead by this time?”

“So, but dere vill be odders. Und der blace–it vill remain.”

“But all this will cost a fortune, and you are not sure”–

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“I know shoost vot id vill gost, to a cend.”

“And you think you can ever afford to carry out your idea?”

“I VILL affort id. Ven you shall make yet some moneys and go to Europe, you shall see. I VILL infite you dere first. Now coom and look der house around.”


I did NOT make “some moneys,” but I DID go to Europe. Three years after this last interview with Rutli I was coming from Interlaken to Berne by rail. I had not heard from him, and I had forgotten the name of his village, but as I looked up from the paper I was reading, I suddenly recognized him in the further end of the same compartment I occupied. His recognition of me was evidently as sudden and unexpected. After our first hand-grasp and greeting, I said:–

“And how about our new village?”

“Dere is no fillage.”

“What! You have given up the idea?”

“Yes. There is no fillage, olt or new.”

“I don’t understand.”

He looked at me a moment. “You have not heard?”


He gently picked up a little local guidebook that lay in my lap, and turning its leaves, pointed to a page, and read as follows:–

“5 M. beyond, the train passes a curve R., where a fine view of the lake may be seen. A little to the R. rises the steep slopes of the —-, the scene of a terrible disaster. At three o’clock on March 5, 1850, the little village of —-, lying midway of the slope, with its population of 950 souls, was completely destroyed by a landslip from the top of the mountain. So sudden was the catastrophe that not a single escape is recorded. A large portion of the mountain crest, as will be observed when it is seen in profile, descended to the valley, burying the unfortunate village to a depth variously estimated at from 1000 ft. to 1800 ft. The geological causes which produced this extraordinary displacement have been fully discussed, but the greater evidence points to the theory of subterranean glaciers. 5 M. beyond —- the train crosses the R. bridge.”

I laid down the guide-book in breathless astonishment.

“And you never heard of this in all these years?”

“Nefer! I asked no questions, I read no pooks. I have no ledders from home.”

“And yet you”–I stopped, I could not call him a fool; neither could I, in the face of his perfect composure and undisturbed eyes, exhibit a concern greater than his own. An uneasy recollection of what he confessed had been his mental condition immediately after his accident came over me. Had he been the victim of a strange hallucination regarding his house and family all these years? Were these dreams of revenge, this fancy of creating a new village, only an outcome of some shock arising out of the disaster itself, which he had long since forgotten?

He was looking from the window. “Coom,” he said, “ve are near der blace. I vill show id to you.” He rose and passed out to the rear platform. We were in the rear car, and a new panorama of the lake and mountains flashed upon us at every curve of the line. I followed him. Presently he pointed to what appeared to be a sheer wall of rock and stunted vegetation towering two or three thousand feet above us, which started out of a gorge we were passing. “Dere it vos!” he said. I saw the vast stretch of rock face rising upward and onward, but nothing else. No debris, no ruins, nor even a swelling or rounding of the mountain flank over that awful tomb. Yet, stay! as we dashed across the gorge, and the face of the mountain shifted, high up, the sky-line was slightly broken as if a few inches, a mere handful, of the crest was crumbled away. And then–both gorge and mountain vanished.

I was still embarrassed and uneasy, and knew not what to say to this man at my side, whose hopes and ambition had been as quickly overthrown and buried, and whose life-dream had as quickly vanished. But he himself, taking his pipe from his lips, broke the silence.

“It vos a narrow esgabe!”

“What was?”

“Vy, dis dings. If I had stayed in my fader’s house, I vould haf been det for goot, and perried too! Somedimes dose dings cooms oudt apout right, don’t id?”

Unvanquished philosopher! As we stood there looking at the flying landscape and sinking lesser hills, one by one the great snow peaks slowly arose behind them, lifting themselves, as if to take a last wondering look at the man they had triumphed over, but had not subdued.

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