The Benediction

ALL the village was astir while the hours were yet dark. Before the outlines of the chalets were distinguishable upon the hillside, fires were aglow on the hearths of their windowless kitchens as in central hollows of the earth, and, in the chill of the August morning, preparations for the day were going forward. The clouded night passed by imperceptible degrees to a clouded dawn, and the sun concealed his rising ; but it did not rain, and there was no question of postponement. At half past four a service was held in the church, and at five the church bell rang out anew over the forming of the procession. The occasion was one which partook of the double nature of festival and pilgrimage; for the procession had a stiff climb before it of two hours to the top of a mountain pass, and a descent into the high valley beyond, where it was to assist at the benediction of the cows, already grazing there—it is to be hoped not wholly unblessed— for three summer weeks.

The church stood midway of the village, on a little terrace above the street, a simple stuccoed pile, with a pointed steeple cased in new shining tin. Beside it huddled the village graves, not a numerous company, marked by black crosses, some of wood, others of wrought iron, tilted at all angles, and garlanded with immortelles and wreaths of tissue paper. The service over, white-veiled women came out of the porch and grouped about a large white-and-gilt banner ; the rest of the congregation followed, and the terrace was soon alive with figures moving in and out, the masses of white showing pure and cool, with gray shadows, against the gray walls in the early clouded light. Each found a place at last in the procession, which, when formed, consisted of the entire adult population of the village, with the exception of the infirm and those whom some special necessity kept at home. It could not measure its length in the churchyard, but it was not very imposing in extent, for all that; for Fins Hauts has scarce a foothold on its own mountain side, and the proportion of space which it occupies on the earth’s surface and in the geographical census is of extreme modesty. The herald and vanguard of the procession was a small boy armed with a dinner bell, which he rang with lusty solemnity at regular intervals. He was followed by the young girls and unmarried women, wearing large square veils of white linen. The foremost carried the white-and-gilt banner, — no light weight considering the destination of the band; but the maiden to whom it was entrusted, the younger of the two Demoiselles C., who presided over the household destinies of our pension, walked erect, with placid Puritan countenance, under this “ burden of an honor,” and had evidently no desire to relinquish it. There were some pretty faces under the stiff linen veils, and many more pleasing and wholesome ones, with that expression of great simplicity, good sense, and a sort of reticent sweetness which greets us everywhere in Switzerland, especially in the French cantons, and which, in the rarity of any striking distinction of feature or coloring, may be taken as a gracious substitute for a national type of beauty.

After the maidens came the choristers and young men, with a red banner bearing the image of St. Sebastian, and a shrine mounted on a pole, wherein a prim doll Virgin stood, with the Child in her arms, behind curtains of lace paper; then the curé, walking in the centre of his flock, in red robe, with open book and chaplet; next the married men, each hat in hand ; and lastly the matrons, each with a basket on her arm containing the bread for the breakfast. The women wore no distinctive peasant costume, no bright bodices or gay skirts, but gowns of neutral gray, brown, or dull blue, and wide graceful straw hats bound with black ribbons. The gala hat of the canton of Valais, a monument of gilt lace, is rarely found nowadays in the mountain districts, being, fortunately, beyond the slender resources of the people.

Small though it was, and subdued in color, the Fins Hauts procession satisfied the eye, and the spirit also: it was simple, touching, reverent. As it moved through the churchyard, one or another of the participants turned aside to bow the head and make the sign of the cross before some special grave, acknowledging in the nearest loss the universal mystery and omnipotent law ; and two by two, singing as they went, they descended the slanting path from the terrace and turned into the village road.

The road from Vernayaz to Chamonix which passes through Fins Hauts is one of the most beautiful in Switzerland, having more charm and variety than the nearly parallel route, more often chosen by tourists, from Martigny over the Tête-Noire ; but much of its loveliness, alas, will soon become a memory, if the railroad fiend, who is already eying it speculatively, should succeed in fastening his claws in its mountain flanks. It is a narrow road and very steep, the only vehicle that can be used on it being a little one-horse carriage with low wheels, holding one or t wo persons. The economical tourist is apt to be rather taken aback at first by the demand made by the tariff at Vernayaz of fifty francs for the day’s journey to Chamonix in this modest conveyance, with a proportionate charge for a small cart to carry trunks. The rate is considerably less for parties of three or four, though in such cases an extra carriage has to be sent. Kven the solitary traveler, however, by the time he has reached his noonday halt at Fins Hauts, is becoming convinced that the stout little horse and his driver, both of whom have walked all the way, are earning their money, and that the sum does not require comparison with a New York hack fare to appear a reasonable one. it is a delightful route for pedestrians, — for those of uphill tastes, at least; for to get the full sense of its scenery it should be traversed from the Rhone Valley towards Chamonix. The ascent begins immediately after leaving Vernayaz. On either side of the valley’s broad smooth level a line of mountains rises abruptly, almost precipitously, without a break or a beguiling foothill. Our road plunges right at one of these walls of wild rock and forest, mounts in sharp zigzags up its front, crossing the descending torrent no less than forty-eight times, allowing backward views over the valley, vistas of the perilous-looking steps ascended, and of the lacing of little bridges over the stream above ; then it strikes across the top of the ridge to the picturesque village of Salvan, nestling among its orchards, — a place with little breadth of prospect, but famous as a centre for excursions, and especially as a startingpoint for the ascension of the Dent du Midi. After leaving Salvan it takes to the woods again, and later, in their depths, is seized for a moment in the roar and dampness of the Cascade du Triège, which falls seething through a series of rocky wells, then gathers itself for a final descent close to the bridge, and rushes away under its high stone arch to join the Trient in the ravine below. A pause of a few moments gives time for ascending the steps leading to the waterfall, and allows the horse to stand tranquilly on the bridge, amid damp and noise, and munch oats from a wooden crib. Then forward again into the silence of the forest, and up a long ascent, with views of stern, rugged mountains rising above the road and over against it, — mountains to which the traveler’s relation changes every few minutes. There is something very fascinating to the intellect in this kaleidoscopic action of a mountain range ; in the mighty individuality of a mountain which merges itself, as we approach it, in other individualities and threatens to disappear, yet is always there, clear, vigorous, inalienable.

At the highest point of the road after it has emerged from the forest and crossed a rocky ledge, the traveler comes suddenly in sight of Fins Hauts lying directly before him, with its steep hayfields running up on the right to a ridge of alp and gray rock dominated by the Bel Oiseau Mountain, and descending on the left to a ravine with a torrent rushing through it, too far below to be heard. The forward view, up the ravine, terminates in the abrupt stern precipice of the Perron and the broad shoulders and sharp peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges, at the entrance of the Chamonix Valley, symmetrical in outline, ruddy in color, and often streaked and powdered with summer snow. On the left-hand side of the valley, directly opposite the village of Fins Hauts, a break in the row of dark mountains allows the torrent to receive a tributary stream descending straight from the Glacier du Trient, and discloses to view the glacier itself crowned by a dome of snow. The Tête-Noire road avails itself of this opening to descend from the Col de la Forclaz, and, curving round the pine-clad mountain from which it gets its name, runs for a time parallel to the Vernayaz road on the other side of the valley. They descend to meet, as Emerson says men do; the tryst being at the village of Châtelard, which is reached from Fins Hauts by a staircase of zigzags similar to the one above Vernayaz. The approach to the Chamonix Valley, facing its glaciers, is therefore the same for both routes, but the wild changeful picturesqueness of the Vernayaz road is its own ; it catches the first view of Mont Blanc immediately after leaving Fins Hauts, and in striking through that village it has chosen the higher and more open side of the valley, and passed one of the loveliest spots that a handful of houses can cling to.

On entering Fins Hauts from Vernayaz the road goes through what is called “the tunnel,” formed by the upper stories of the chalets which meet above the highway. Farther on, beyond the church, it walks up against a wall, and, as if taken by surprise, turns at a right angle. It is nowhere wide, and at one or two places so narrow that a halt of one of the little carriages blocks the way even to an unencumbered foot passenger.

There was not room in the village for procession and spectators, so we started in advance, and after walking for a few minutes gained a point of vantage in a little ascent, where we paused and turned to watch its approach. The only level in sight was the road, which was sliced out horizontally along the edge of the mountain, following the curves of its modeling, and lying white against its newly shorn brown slopes, like a peeled line on a russet apple. Between us and the village this pale line was four times bisected by the whiter lines of slender torrents, visible all their length from the heights above, leaping downward in the short grass with a directness which was varied, not by loiterings, but by little accelerations of haste, petulant curves, and overlapping plumes of spray.

Along the white road, past the white torrents, came the white-veiled procession, singing and praying by turns, winding with the windings of the way, and blessing unconsciously the whole rugged landscape as it passed. When it reached us, the women with veils went by with downcast eyes, feeling themselves set apart for the service of the Church and of the day; but those of the men and matrons whom we knew had a smile and a nod of recognition for us, or a word of greeting, after which they resumed their beads and murmured prayers. The momentary interruption, simple and kindly as it was, took away nothing from the impressiveness or religious significance of the scene. Nor did it lose, to my mind, by the recollection of a conversation in which one of the women had said to me but a few days before : “ You Protestants have an easier religion than we. You do not have so many services, so many things required of you.” Does not one source of the strength of the Catholic Church, in its dealings with the poor and the toiling, lie in the fact that, while it presents religion to them as a distraction and a consolation, it also imposes definite and easily understood duties closely associated with sacred rites and higher promises? You will hear many a murmur against the necessity of work from peasants who toil faithfully all the days of their lives. This woman gave one little sigh to the obligations of her faith; but she had the faith, and lived up to it as to the labor of the day.

It was verily a service of body and soul that was performed that day by the Fins Hauts procession, — performed in a spirit of reverence and joyousness: and that not by members of a religious order, but by the whole hard-worked population of a little mountain village. Think of everyone of them, young and old, walking steadily upward for two hours on a rough, stony path without ceasing from their alternations of singing and praying! Their pace was so rapid that we who took no part in these exercises had difficulty in keeping up with them. It seemed hardly possible that those shrunken, weather-beaten old women could be capable of a performance requiring such lung power ; but we remembered that the entire hay crop of the region had just been cut and raked by these same villagers, men and women alike, on slopes so steep that the operation was a little like standing on the eaves to rake down the roof of a high-gabled house, and had then been carried, every spear of it, on their heads to the hay chalets where it was stored for the winter. Having worked thus, they were strong to celebrate and to worship by climbing the steep path through the woods that folded up their little procession, and stretched it out again by zigzags; changing constantly the relations of white veils and red and gilt banners to the vivid greens of the soft, deep moss which covered the great stones and boulders massed in confusion between the rough trunks of the pine-trees. After leaving the woods we came to a group of four or five dark brown chalets on a ridge, with a torrent coming down beside them, conducted through wooden pipes into troughs for the cattle. The weather was still gray; Mont Blanc was hidden from view, and the Glacier du Trient had an ashen look under the cloud that covered the white dome behind it ; but we knew well what a lifting of the mists, if it had taken place, would have disclosed from that point. The chalets wore a familiar, hospitable look. Only a short time before, we had spent the night there; climbing up through the woods with a lantern, sleeping for three or four hours in a hayloft, and coming out at three o’clock to stand shivering by the torrent and watch the first faint light in the sky, and then the wonderful rose touching the summit of Mont Blanc, and creeping slowly downwards over its snowy breast, and then the fire on the glacier as the light struck it from between the dark mountains. The sun does not hold all his levees on the Righi, though he has there his largest audience.

The procession was ahead of us as we climbed up towards the Col de la Gueulaz. We had fallen into talk, of the sort that slackens the pace, — talk that is like reverie, leading nowhither, glancing where it lists, searchingly or idly. We tried to bridge with our thoughts the gulf which lies between participant and looker-on in such a scene ; to put ourselves for an instant in the place of a mind to which it was no mere spectacle, but a natural and harmonious part of life, — a mind akin, no doubt, to that which, in times gone by, painted naive, adorable frescoes on the walls of Italian churches. How can it be so near to the cultivated, skeptical mind of to-day that we are penetrated through and through with the feeling of those old frescoes, unable to look with dry eyes at the whiteveiled procession coming towards us on the winding road, or mounting through the deep-mossed woods; and, being so near, how can it be so remote ? Must comprehension pay for all its dearly prized gains by constant and inevitable loss? Or even is comprehension itself often but a perception and sense of things lost, or a compensation for things not to be found ? And then we came back from the abstract and the human to the strange scene about us, for we were going up the last ascent to the Col on a road made all of large broken stones, with the rocks of the Bel Oiseau above us on the one hand, and on the other, across a ravine, the mighty precipice of the Perron, with great clouds veiling and unveiling its stern brow. Clouds were gathering, too, about the narrow defile ahead of us which formed the summit of the Col, up which the procession was just climbing. The mist swept across its rear in puffs of white and gray, till the line of white veils and banners, and even the sturdy mountaineers behind, seemed made of its substance, though each figure was perfectly distinct. Two by two they mounted the rocky way under the sheer gray wall to the top of the defile, and then dropped, two by two, over its edge, as abruptly, yet quietly, as if they had stepped down into an oubliette of soft mist. In a moment the last figure had disappeared, and only the long streamers of gray and white mist remained sweeping across the rocky edge, to curl round the mountain and disappear in their turn.

And the wonderful contrast when we reached the top ! It was indeed abrupt as an oubliette, the descent by steps rough-hewn in the rock to the green valley below. A little valley it was, oval in shape, perfectly flat, with a placid, shallow stream flowing through it, and walls of rock, or almost equally sheer alp, on all sides. The sun had burst forth at last, and sent a long band of yellow light across the level verdure; and the procession was moving straight along this band of light as in a path of glory, the white veils gleaming splendidly, the sturdy russet-clad forms all warm and alive.

On descending to the valley we passed a little chapel on a green knoll. It could hardly have been more than five feet high. It had a decorated altar shut behind a grating. The procession had not halted there, but had gone on to the group of chalets beyond. On the outer wall of one of these chalets was a shrine garlanded with rhododendrons and other Alpine flowers, and presided over by a little blackened Virgin of carved wood. A short service had been held there before we arrived, after which the procession had broken up, and the people were busy over the preparations for breakfast. A fire was made in one of the chalets, and a huge caldron, one of those used for cheese-making, was set over it for boiling the milk. Boiled milk and white bread —the latter a luxury — formed the peasants’ breakfast. Their usual staff of life was a sort of black bread, which was baked for the whole village in a large oven once in three months. Meat was a rarity. They often started off for the fields on a breakfast of this black bread with butter or cheese and milk, and their noonday meal sometimes consisted of Indian-meal mush with milk and a piece of cheese. Yet they did not look ill nourished, and I saw no signs of the diseases which a too scanty diet could hardly have failed to produce.

The benediction was their peculiar festival. They were the hosts and hostesses of the occasion, discharging the duties of the office towards their foreign guests with a natural grace and kindliness. Some of the women invited us to join them, as they sat in little groups on the grass, offered us bowls of milk, and entertained us with pleasant talk of hay crops, of the long mountain winters, and the various labors and customs. Among themselves they spoke in the Valaisian patois, a dialect related to both the French and Italian languages; but they also spoke excellent French, expressing themselves very correctly and with a pleasing accent. They were an interesting people to talk with, well mannered, intelligent, ready to answer questions, and full of questions to ask in their turn about the distant land we came from. “ Are they all Protestants in your country?” one sweetfaced woman asked me. “ Oh, no,” I replied. “ There are many Catholic churches. The Catholics have equal rights with the Protestants.” “ But that is strange to have both in the same country.” “ Why, no,” I said. “It is like Switzerland. You are all Catholics in the Valais, but in Vaud they are Protestant, and in the canton of Neuchâtel both religions are supported by the state.” “That is true,” she said. “ I had never thought of it. We have both ; ” and added, probably rather from an instinct of politeness than from conviction or meditation, “The great thing is to live well.”

Sometimes the questions were frankly personal. We were always asked our ages, and learned in return those of our interlocutors. They were interested in comparing their modes of farming with ours. Were there any mountains in the country where I came from ? Was the haying the same as with them? Was it a beautiful country? They were surprised to hear that we did not cultivate to the same height on our mountain slopes, nor cut every wisp of grass round the edge of a precipice, nor raise a patch of wheat the size of a diningroom table for the sake of the straw to make hats. It must be a rich country that could dispense with these efforts. They asked about wages and the cost of living. The former might have inspired a desire to emigrate, if the latter had not been too much of a shock to their ideas. They had no conception of earnings large enough to justify such outlay. The amount of money which passed through their hands in the course of a year must have been a very small one ; and although, to people leading a life of such thrift and labor, there was a glamour about the notion of gaining, they had a deeper realization of the pain of spending.

It would be presumptuous and absurd to attempt any generalizations on the character of these peasants upon the data of a few weeks’ intercourse. Everybody knows how the summer boarder, however well treated, is held at arm’s length by the resident population even of a little New England village. In Europe, the line of demarcation between rural and urban folk is deeper and more impassable, although the intercourse between them is often friendly, and in Switzerland at least is marked by an equality of tone greater than that which prevails with us. Count Tolstóy is perhaps not far wrong in his ideas of getting at the people. The peasants may well wonder or smile at a man who wants to play at work without the obligation upon him; but the fact remains that their world is governed by work, and that people who have things without visibly working for them belong to another world. If a native of their own country, not of peasant birth or associations, is necessarily a trifle alien from them, how much more one of another nationality ! For difference of race, which lies deep, is bridged by cultivation, by habits of intercourse, and by personal sympathy, but is sure to be felt most strongly in relations with that class which is most truly national, most attached to local forms and customs, and least cognizant of the world outside. No, a tourist cannot pretend to know the true mind and inward bent of the people, as he learns to know the landscape and the mountain paths. With all his communicativeness, the peasant has a reticent side in intercourse with those who are not of his own race, class, and persuasion. He has his mental corner cupboard under lock and key. His true self is no more to be recklessly parted with than his bit of coin. A habit of courtesy, which is yet not servility, suggests to him the necessity of giving an answer agreeable to his interlocutor rather than one expressive of his own point of view, which he is perhaps not used to expressing. In giving my impressions of my Valaisian friends, I must speak as one who feels and honors their reserves; as an observer who can give no full or complete results of study, still less pronounce a final judgment upon the human beings in any canton or sphere whatsoever.

The strongest impression made upon me by intercourse with these and other-peasants in Europe is that of a great simplicity of character as compared with a rural population in our own country. The aforementioned reticence of the peasant is no contradiction of this, for simplicity has its reserves as well as artifice, and the simplest things in the world are not always the easiest to understand ; often the more complex and involved ones force themselves nearer to our consciousness. Life to the European peasant is less complex, because more clearly defined, than to the New England farmer. The outward conditions of existence are practically the same for the whole village : it is not a life into which half the population have drifted by chance, and which they expect to give up for something else ; it is the life which their fathers have led before them, which they themselves expect to lead to the end of the chapter, and to hand on to their children. There is less loneliness than with us, less eccentricity and morbidness, and there are no such cases of mental alienation due to other than physical causes. The peasants have their noses to the grindstone ; practical questions and actual happenings fill their horizon. They are not so sturdily independent in money matters as our country people, but here it must be remembered that the conditions are different; that with them the pennies count, that wages are low, and that there has always been what may be called a greater interdependence of classes, a greater demand for small services on the one hand, and for small rewards on the other. They live more frankly and constantly before the eyes of their neighbors, peasants and strangers, than our farmers are ever called upon to do, but they do not seem to live to the same degree with a view to their neighbors’ opinion. They take things more simply, and are virtuous or vicious more as a matter of course. During half of every year their country is invaded by hordes of beings who spend without working (the poorest tourist comes for the nonce, however innocently, into this category), and who take possession of the whole landscape before the face of men and women who work from year to year without getting aught to spend. That the peasants go on their way with so little heed to these interruptions speaks something for their independence of character. Except in certain parts of the Oberland, where it has been introduced by lavish tourists and become an unmitigated nuisance, begging is little known in Switzerland. The peasants are often intelligent, but rarely exhibit smartness or cleverness, qualities which abound among the poorest rural populations of our own country. Numbers of New England farm boys become successful men of business, inventors, even clever artists, for one peasant who leaves his plough ; but when we come to count the gains of a country’s literature or art, we find here and there in Europe an imagination growing up amid these slow, hampered conditions, with the clods sticking to its roots and the prose of hard fact rubbed into its poetry, and the result is something that we can call great. Nature sacrifices a great many points and small effects to a larger end.

While we sat on the grass and talked, the cattle were waiting for their benediction, grazing meanwhile on the other side of the rivulet, the tinkle of their bells coming to us across the valley. After a while it was proposed that we should go over and view them, as each of our entertainers wished to show us her cow. So we strolled across to the boggy meadow where they were feeding, to be introduced to one after another of the largeeyed creatures, and to hear the record of their yieldings in milk, their calving, their haps and mishaps, their idiosyncrasies and good qualities. The benediction service was to be held at the little chapel, and each peasant was to pay for one or more masses, according to his means, for his own cow. Our offers to contribute in special cases towards a mass were declined. Only those who had cows, they said, needed to pay. Not with the money of the stranger could the blessing of God be bought.

About the chapel was gathered a lovely group, the white-veiled women kneeling, nunlike and devout, with their rosaries in their hands ; the other villagers, men and women, either kneeling or sitting in groups on the grass. The curé stood before the door — he was taller than the building — and said mass. Beyond, at a little distance, were the cattle feeding by the stream ; and above the alp covered with rhododendron bush, from which almost the last flowers had been stripped to decorate the altar, the gray rocks of the Bel Oiseau running up into the gray sky. That still little Barbarine valley had been the scene, far back in history, of a fierce battle; probably a fight for rights of pasturage between the people of Salvan or Fins Hauts and the Savoyards. The peasants told us about it. Like old Kaspar, they had forgotten

“ All about the war,
And what they killed each other for,”

but related with awe that there were many slain, “ and their bones are lying here under the grass. ” And for many a year it has been the annual custom for the whole village to repair thither, and for masses to be said for the safety and welfare of the cattle sent up there to graze through the mild weather.

The masses over, the procession formed again to climb the steps up to the Col and descend to Fins Hauts. As it passed under the high rocks near the top of the Col, a herd of mountain goats fell into line beside it, and ran along with it a little way, — delicate creatures, small, lithe, and brown, like chamois, confiding and tame as lambs. Two of them mounted a rocky pinnacle beside the path, and, standing poised in chamois attitude on its almost pointed top, where a green bush waved like a plume, looked down at the procession passing by. A procession of braves gens, of simple, kindly hearts : may they find year by year, for themselves and their cattle in the Barbarine valley, the blessing which they earn by the year’s toil as well as by the annual climb, with prayer and song, over the Col de la Gueulaz.