An Alpine Home

IF my poor mother as a good Catholic had not acted very wisely in consenting that I should be sent to school in Germany, she scarcely chose a better part when I came home to Mantua infected with Protestantism to such a degree that I abhorred with youthful ardor, not only the confessional, but all the offices of her religion, and in accompanying her to church never could be got farther than the door. The case is a very common one in Italy now, but thirty years ago affairs were different. Converts to Protestantism were rare, and the laissezfaire treatment was by no means in favor. A family and ecclesiastical council was held concerning me ; and it was decided that nothing would do me so much good as some months’ reflection in the cell of a convent, where I could enjoy perfect quiet without the distractions of books or society. This decision was made known to me by accident; in fact, I overheard it; and being only eighteen years old, and absurdly in earnest about personal liberty and the freedom of religious opinion, I could not bring myself to look upon it with equanimity. I ran away from home that night; and pursuing my northward journey through Lombardy, up the Lake of Como, and across the Septimer, I stood at last with my hand on the railing of the stile that formally separated Austrian Italy from Switzerland. At this important moment, when I thought to leave my troubles behind me forever, two gendarmes, belonging to the little custom-house on the frontier, suddenly appeared, crossed their muskets above the plank in front of me, and, lightly touching me on either shoulder, begged me to do them the pleasure of halting. They had been watching me for some time, they said ; they knew I had a companion laden with smuggled goods, and was a lure thrown out to divert them from him; they added that whilst I was making up my mind to tell them where my comrade was, they would trouble me for my passport. “ If you should happen to have such a paper,” they added, “ you can of course go at once.”

Now I happened to have no paper of that kind, and I could only surrender myself in despair. The gendarmes marched me off towards their station, putting a hundred questions to me on the way, and among the rest the demand, “Where do you come from?”

“ Mantua,” was the answer.

“ Mantua ! I don’t know how it is,” said one of the gendarmes, “ but your voice sounds very much like that of the captain we had when we were stationed at St. Benedetto, not far from Mantua.”

A ray of hope broke upon me, and I eagerly asked, “ Was it Antonio T. . . . ?

“ Exactly! ”

“That is one of my brothers,” 1 said I exultantly, “ he is in that neighborhood yet.” And on the impulse of the moment I poured out my whole story to my captors.

They listened, and when I had done, they laughed, and one said : “ Why did n’t you mention this at once ? We should not have kept you a minute in suspense. It’s our custom to handle roughly those who fall into our hands, for spies are often sent to see if we do our duty; but we never arrest, when we can safely avoid it, either deserters or young men flying from the conscription. Many a time we are tempted to go over the bridge ourselves, instead of serving these accursed Austrians. As to the smugglers, we know them too well to act against them, except when Austrian officers are among us ; then we show fight, in order not to be betrayed. You can go where you like ; but mind that, whatever happens, you have never seen us.”

So saying they both shook hands with me. I gladly gave them something to get a good dinner and a bottle of wine in which to drink success to my enterprise, and, stepping lightly over the stile, found myself in Switzerland.

I suppose that any traveller, who now chanced to cross the Septimer by that obscure pass, would not find it at all different from what I saw it, nor would he find the mountaineers of the region in the least disturbed or changed by the great events that have taken place during the last thirty years. I am sure, therefore, a sketch of a family of these people as I saw them will have at least the merit of novelty and of fidelity to existing facts.

The Canton Grisons, where I now found myself, is the largest in the Confederation, or as large as Geneva, Zug, Unterwalden, Schwytz, Glarus, Soleure, Bâle, Schaffhausen, Appenzell, Thurgovia, and Neufchâtel put together, but has only about fifteen thousand inhabitants. More than one half of these are, of course, in the capital and the forty or fifty principal townships, leaving to the square mile for the remainder of the canton some sixteen or seventeen souls. These few thousand Grisons, up to 1848, governed themselves in twentysix independent, microscopic republics, having each a complete legislative, executive, and judiciary; but in remote times when the Grisons were yet fewer in number, they formed but three leagues, called respectively the League of God, the League of the Ten Jurisdictions, and the League Grisha, or Gray, from the color of their clothes, and this league gave its name to the whole canton.

My object was to reach some Protestant friends in St. Gall, upon whose hospitality I knew I could rely, and I had arrived in this Canton Grisons, as I have said, by the Septimer, choosing the most direct road because I had neither money nor physical strength in superfluity. Yet the Septimer had not in itself been a delightful anticipation, for I knew that it would take me into the wildest Alpine region and among vast glaciers.

Persons who, in closed and comfortable sleighs, coaches, and, recently, railway carriages, have crossed the Simplon, St. Gothard, Splügen, Mt. Cenis, or any other passes, may suppose that all the Alpine roads are more or less alike. But this is a great mistake. Very few travellers indeed cross the Septimer, for two reasons : first, it leads only into wild regions ; secondly, the road was and is indescribably bad. That miserable communication between Switzerland and Italy is used mostly, I should say, only by cattledrivers, who sell their stock in Lombardy, in the neighborhood of Lake Como, and by smugglers who know every tree and every stone.

Streams and ravines cross and recross it at every moment, and the hand of man has done nothing for the road, except where it runs quite upon the brink of the precipices. At times all vestiges of a path disappear, and for all guidance you might as well be in the prairies of the West or the untrodden fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains.

I hurried forward with what speed I could, but my feet soon became so swollen that I could not endure the pressure of my boots, and having slung these over my back, I picked my way barefoot through the snow and frozen gravel. The only relief I found was occasionally afforded by the slippery rocks, polished by ice, rain, snow, and extending across the space between the frequent curves of the path ; sliding twenty or twenty-five feet down these would save me ten to twelve minutes’ walk ; but even this pleasure had its pains, for I could not always stop on the path below, and sometimes brought up in a snow-bank or a briery thicket.

The reader who is enamored of this method of travel will regret to learn that the accommodations by the way are poor. His food will be rather worse than that we give to cattle ; hair or spring mattresses there are none ; and he may be obliged one evening to invite slumber on a bundle of straw, another to stretch his weary limbs in a hay-loft, and only where civilization has outdone herself may he have happy dreams on a nice, clean, dry, comfortable heap of oak and ash leaves. The minister or the priest in larger villages may shelter a respectable traveller for one night, but inns or hotels are unknown ; for if they existed, who would support them ?

Crossing marshy fields, pursuing rough paths, and descending rocky slopes through thorny brakes and primeval forests (I had the misfortune one day to follow the dry bed of a stream which I mistook for a path, and so lost myself in a large wood), coasting, as a New England boy would call it, without a sled down those smooth rocks, — I had left the Septimer behind me, and was one day, after a miserable breakfast, dragging slowly onward. The sun had passed the meridian ; the mountain air and the exercise had so sharpened my appetite that it could have competed with the finest razor in keenness ; I had become cross and fierce enough to dispute the hind foot of a lamb with a wolf; but I had given up all hopes of finding a human habitation (and it would not have been the first night I had spent in the hollow of a rock), when I reached a very small valley containing a solitary house.

As I eyed the structure, a dreadful doubt seized me; there was no chimney, yet the house was too good for a cattle-shed, and besides there were many steps ; that decided the matter in my favor. The cabin must have been some thirty or thirty-six feet long, and perhaps twenty feet deep. The walls consisted of round trunks of trees cut within a few feet more or less of the same length, and placed lengthwise one on the top of the other, and fastened here and there with strong wooden pins. The interstices between the logs were filled in with a composition of fine-cut straw and mud or clay, which, when dry, makes such walls wind and water tight, and forms a perfect quadrilateral for vermin and insects. When I saw on Boston Common the log-cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born, it appeared to me almost the exact counterpart of this Alpine home.

The strangest part of the whole building was the roof. Thick logs took the place of rafters, and in their turn were covered, not with stone flags, shingles, slates, or tiles, but with monstrously thick wooden slabs, also fastened with long pegs ; and, in order to resist the wind, which in those high valleys sweeps everything before it at times, enormous stones, some of them weighing more than a hundred pounds, were laid on the slabs, and kept from sliding by wooden pegs.

Not having seen any smoke, I waited for some other sign of life about the place, but to no purpose. It harmonized perfectly with the death-like stillness of that whole region.

The cabin had two floors. The lower, a very little digged out of the ground, was divided into two sections, one of which served as a stable, the other as a cellar. The stable, it is true, was at the time empty, and it remained so for the whole summer, the cattle roaming day and night on the mountains ; but the cellar, placed at the north end, was nice and cool to keep the milk which was turned into butter and cheese,— articles which on the Swiss Alps in general are of the very best quality, for the cows in those regions eat only aromatic and sweet herbs, and the hay has a better flavor than what is called in America English breakfast-tea.

The upper floor of such a cabin serves, although all in one room, as the dwelling and sleeping apartments of the whole family, no matter how numerous it may be. Those mountaineers have advantage over the Irish peasantry, that while the latter associate directly with their pigs, goats, and hens, the former place a whole floor between man and beast.

Arrived at the door, I looked in vain for a latch, or a lock, or anything of the kind. Nothing was visible but a small string, by pulling which a wooden crossbar resting in a wooden catch within is lifted. Even hinges are unknown ; but instead there is a round stick fastened at one side of the door and projecting a little at the bottom and a little at the top, playing in two holes there.

I was surprised to see not the least sign of life after I had entered; and I was going out again to look about the house, when a voice startled me, saying in a strange idiom, “Why don’t you take a seat? ” It was the voice of an old man sitting close to an opening which, by a stretch of the imagination, could be called a window. A large table stood between him and me, and he was seated on a low stool as roughly put together as the remainder of the furniture. His elbows rested on his knees, and, as he supported his face in both his hands, he looked as immovable as a statue.

A shirt of very coarse material, and a very short pair of knee-breeches were all the garments which troubled or protected his person. His tibial bones were covered so parsimoniously with flesh that they seemed dry sticks of wood; his face, although very wrinkled, was so pale that, a few steps off, the skin looked like vellum, rather than the human epidermis. The eyesight of this old man was, of course, dim, although that sense had suffered less than his hearing.

“ Sit down, stranger,” said he a second time, and complying, I tried to enter into conversation, speaking as loud as a church-bell ; but I soon perceived that there were other difficulties besides his hearing, for he spoke only “ Romansch.”

All Switzerland seems to be inhabited by the descendants of those dreadful sinners who built the tower of Babel, and were turned into hopeless polyglots, and in Switzerland Canton Grisons labors under peculiar difficulties. As far back as the time of Julius Cæsar a Roman colony established itself in Switzerland, and principally in this part of it. Those Romans spoke a corrupt Latin, to which has been added, with years, more corrupt Italian, French, and German words. The whole is called, from its origin, the Romansch language, and this was my host’s idiom. Every one will, therefore, believe me when I say that I was obliged to guess at much of what he said.

He made me understand, however, that he had two sons and two daughters ; the former of whom were lazy, and always loafing in the valleys and at houses of their neighbors. They were Otherwise of very irregular conduct, for after having had some troubles with the magistrates (he meant, I think, that they had been imprisoned), every one avoided them, and now they had gone to serve the king of Naples and the Pope. It has always been the fate of the prince who rules in Rome to have for the protection of his sacred person soldiers who have escaped the prison or the gibbet. Pius IX.’s regiments are richly inlaid with such Canadian, Irish, Swiss, and Belgian jewels at this day.

As to his daughters, the old man told me that he was blest in them. He considered them handsome and diligent, and pearls of truth and chastity. They were at the moment two or three miles from home, on the mountain, but they would soon return. Towards evening I had, in fact, the pleasure to make the personal acquaintance of these “pearls,” in the shape of two of the hugest masses of womanhood my eyes had ever beheld. One of them measured five feet six inches in height, the other something more, and they were both large in proportion. No two human hands could, no matter how long the fingers, have encircled one of their arms; and as, according to the fashion of the place, their lower garments reluctantly reached only the upper part of the calf, their nether limbs were seen to be proportionably vast. Their cheeks were rosy, even scarlet, no doubt, but they were not over-prepossessing.

In one respect Nature had done a good piece of work, she had made them strong, and it was strength, and not beauty, they needed ; for, when they came home, each of them was loaded with a bundle of hay of such size and weight as a good-sized donkey might have been very proud to carry over those hills without breaking down.

But I perceive that I have somewhat anticipated their arrival. I was yet alone with the old man, who gave me to understand that it was about ten years since he had lost his wife, who was a great comfort to him, for they loved each other very much ; and in saying this, involuntary tears started from his eyes. Since her death life was only a burden to him ; every day he wished for the moment when they should place him beside her under the sod.

Although it takes me but a few minutes to write this, it was the work of more than one hour to understand him. I showed due sympathy for him, but I had also the ruthless hunger of a boy, and, at last, I could not refrain from telling him that I was famished, and should be exceedingly glad if he would give me something to eat. In his turn he expressed compassion for me, but he declared that it was out of his power to go to the cellar. To prove this he got up from his seat and walked a few steps, which showed that his legs could scarcely carry him on level ground. His poor old head and neck were buried in his shoulders, so that he looked comparatively a small man, although, in his youth, he must have been a very tall one. He begged me to be patient until his girls came in.

Thinking it impertinent to volunteer my services in an exploring expedition to the cellar, I wound up my patience a little more, and made a virtue of necessity. In the mean time he explained to me that his only possessions were a few cows, but that, by selling calves, cheese, and butter to men who, except in winter, came regularly for those articles, he could buy all he wanted. He had not much tilled land, just enough for his girls to plant potatoes and wheat for their own use. It was now several years since he had been able, on account of a severe illness, to go out of the house ; it was difficult to get a doctor, and the nearest church, where his girls went in summer every Sunday, was eight miles away, unless you crossed a high mountain, which would reduce the road more than half. In winter almost all communication was cut off by enormous drifts of snow, and his stock of cheese and butter accumulated rapidly. Horses or mules were not used ; the dealers carrying everything on their backs.

He then wanted to know how I came into that valley, adding that he could not remember to have seen for many and many years a stranger like me. I told him very frankly that I had run away from home, and that it was less a matter of choice than of necessity that I had crossed the Septimer, and had gone astray into the bargain. While we were talking the girls came in, loaded, as I have described, with hay, which they had mowed on places where goats could hardly stand. Later in the evening they showed me an immense heap of wood piled against the house, and told me that they had felled the trees, cross-cut them, and split them without help from any one.

But these women at first, instead of seeming glad to see a stranger, frowned upon me, and their looks meant that I should feel myself an intruder. After some explanations from the father, a vast smile dawned upon their broad faces, which made me feel, not exactly at home, but, if we bad well understood each other, certainly on speaking terms.

I thanked all the gods of Olympus when I saw one of them take off her wooden shoes, or sabots, and go into the cellar for the dinner which was also to be supper for me. Waiting her return, I mechanically observed the dress of the other woman, which in all appearance consisted, like that of the man, of two articles only. The garment next her person was buttoned high up in the neck, but had very short sleeves. Her arms were therefore so sunburned that a negress could not have been darker. The other garment was neither too ample nor too long, and was made, like her father’s breeches, out of some orange-colored woollen stuff. I found out afterwards that all the clothing the family had worn for years was home-spun, home-woven, and homedyed. Yellow being the favorite color, it is given to a whole piece, from which breeches and dresses are cut. As to the wool, they can keep sheep by the thousands on the mountains ; but this family had only a few.

Amidst these observations I was alert to see the other maiden coming up stairs. She bore in her arms a loaf of bread, not very thick one way (some eight or nine inches), but measuring not less than two feet and a half the other. This she took to a large block, similar to those used by butchers, and in a masterly way with an axe (no other instrument could have touched the heart of that bread) split it first in two halves, then into quarters, and then into smaller pieces, with an almost mathematical precision.

What was the composition of the loaf? That is what puzzled me and would have, at first sight, brought to a stand-still even Liebig and Agassiz. All that could be seen at a few steps off was a mass of hairs, neither green nor blue, but something between the two shades ; and I discovered at last that instead of being mouldy-bread it was bready-mould.

Unconsciously to myself my face must have looked almost equally sour; for the old man, upon some remark from one of the girls, which I could not understand, taking hold of my hands with the authority of a grandfather, said that surely at home I must have been a spoiled child, since I looked with so much diffidence at bread which was nearly fresh, being not yet two months old. They baked only three times a year, and there were loaves enough in the cellar to last two months longer. Toward the end they became, it was a fact, a little sour; but no man in his right sense could find fault with it now, it being as yet nice and sweet.

My face must have remained, even after this rebuke, somewhat dubious in expression, for the same daughter who had drawn his attention to me, after having broken some of the bread into morsels and thrown them into one of the large holes which, bowl-like, were cut out in the table (dishes and plates being unknown in those regions), and having poured about a quart of milk upon it, with a smiling countenance said to me: “Let it soak a few minutes, stranger; it will soon be as tender and sweet as sponge-cake.”

Bread was broken and milk poured into three other holes in the table, which was made of a three-inch plank, and fastened by the four legs into the floor, becoming thus a fixture. I think civilization, in this respect, is a few degrees higher in Canton Grisons than on the Bernese Alps, where I travelled afterwards, and where the food is thrown into one huge wooden or earthen bowl, which is placed on a small table in the centre of the room, and out of which father, mother, children, servants, and strangers must all eat.

Letters do not slip more easily or swiftly into a letter-box than the bread and milk found its way down the throats of the two women. The old man, on the contrary, was very slow, and I was simply a spectator. Potatoes were boiling, and 1 was waiting to commit an assault upon them, when, putting on a somewhat forced smile, I said to one of the women, that if they would give me a piece of cold meat I would pay for it. “Meat!” (carn) was repeated in a trio ; and, looking in each other’s faces, they burst into laughter which re-echoed several times in the little valley. “ Meat,” then said one of them, “ if you want to see any in this house you must come at Easter or on Christmas day,”

The potatoes were served. They had never ripened, and were green as frogs and as watery as a soaked sponge. At last my hosts, showing the pity they felt for a poor hungry lad, gave me some cheese, and the reader need not doubt that an enormous piece of it was washed down with plenty of milk. The repast put me, for the rest of the evening, in the best of spirits; and my eyes contentedly followed the women at their work, their first care being to wash with boiling water the table, which became as white as snow. A board was then placed over it, to prevent dust and dirt falling into the bowls.

As soon as it grew dark, the old man announced that it was time to go to sleep ; he, correctly enough, did not speak of going to bed, because beds there were none in the house. It was a large oblong rectangular room, having lengthwise, on both sides, large benches as fixtures, and above these small windows or holes to admit light, as in a ship’s cabin. The table was on one side close to the bench ; a few stools completed the parlor furniture. The kitchen was simply a chimney or hearthstone, with a few boards above it in one of the corners, the smoke finding its way out through a hole in the wall close to the roof. The pots and pans used in cooking were fastened to a chain.

To have an idea of the sleeping apartments, one must imagine at the upper end of the enclosure a stable with a double row of stalls, only instead of having a single passage in the centre, those stalls have one passage on each side of the wall, and the occupants’ heads would meet in the middle of the room if a board did not separate them. The partitions are five or six feet high and divide spaces or stalls three feet by six or seven. At the foot, the board is only twelve or fifteen inches high ; enough to keep as many inches of dried leaves for bedding in their place. There are two passage-ways, for the gentlemen sleep on one side, the ladies on the other. Several tiers of shelves ornament the whole hall ; there being no closets, no chests of drawers, or cabinets to enclose anything.

As it was now almost dark, light was made, not with an oil lamp or candle, but, as in the Black-Forest of Germany, with a resinous piece of wood wedged between two stones, which are fixed for that purpose in the wall. These sticks are about two feet long and half an inch thick, and burn from ten to fifteen minutes ; the smell is pleasant, the smoke not quite so ; and the light is as strong as that of three ordinary candles.

I wrapped up myself in my blanket, and was meditating the comforts or discomforts of the Alpine life when sleep fell upon me ; and the next morning I rose, much fresher than if I had spent the night upon a bed of down, and resumed my pilgrimage.

  1. The traveller visiting Milan will find the name of Antonio T., who fell fighting against the Austrians, inscribed on the monument to the martyrs of the revolution of 1848.