To the mind curious in contrasts — surely one of the chief pleasures of travel — there can be no better preparation for a descent into Italy than a sojourn among the upper Swiss valleys. To pass from the region of the obviously picturesque — the country contrived, it would seem, for the delectation of the cœur à poésie facile — to that sophisticated landscape where the face of nature seems moulded by the passions and imaginings of man is one of the most suggestive transitions in the rapidly diminishing range of such experiences.
Nowhere is this contrast more acutely felt than in one of the upper Grisons villages. The anecdotic Switzerland of the lakes is too remote from Italy, geographically and historically, to evoke a comparison. The toy chalet, with its air of self-conscious neatness, making one feel that if one lifted the roof it would disclose a row of tapes and scissors, or the shining cylinders of a musical box, recalls cabinetwork rather than architecture ; the swept and garnished streets, the precise gardens, the subjugated vines, present the image of an old maids’ paradise that would be thrown into hopeless disarray by the introduction of anything as irregular as a work of art. In the Grisons, however, where only a bald gray pass divides one from Italy, its influence is felt, in a negative sense, in the very untidiness of the streets, the growth of rank weeds along the base of rough glaring walls, the drone of flies about candidly exposed manure heaps. More agreeably, the same influence shows itself in the rude old centaurean houses, with their wrought-iron window grilles and great escutcheons surmounting the malodorous darkness of a stable. These are the houses of people conscious of Italy, and transplanting to their bleak heights, either from poverty of invention, or an impulse as sentimental as our modern habit of “ collecting,” the thick walls, the small windows, the jutting eaves of dwellings designed under a sultry sky. So vivid is the reminiscence that one almost expects to see a cypress leaning against the peach-colored walls of the village douane ; but the cypress, with all it stands for, is missing. . . .
It is not easy, in the height of the Swiss season, to light on a nook neglected by the pervasive tourist; but at Splügen he still sweeps by in a cloud of diligence-dust, or pauses only to gulp a flask of Paradiso and a rosy trout from the Suretta Lakes. One’s enjoyment of the place is thus enhanced by the spectacle of the misguided hundreds who pass it by, and from the vantage of the solitary meadows above the village one may watch the throngs descending on Thusis or Chiavenna with something of the satisfaction that mediæval schoolmen believed to be the portion of angels looking down upon the damned.
Splügen abounds in such points of observation. On all sides one may climb from the shores of the Rhine, through larch thickets tremulous with the leap of water, to the grassy levels far above, whence the valley is seen lengthening southward to a great concourse of peaks. In the morning these upper meadows are hot and bright, and one is glad of the red-aisled pines and the streams cooling the aromatic dusk ; but toward sunset, when the shadows make the slopes of turf look like an expanse of tumbled velvet, it is pleasant to pace the open ledges, watching the sun recede from the valley, where stooping mowers are still sweeping the grass into long curved lines like ridges of the sea, while the pine woods on the eastern slopes grow black and the upper snows whiten like cold ashes.
The landscape is simple, spacious, and serene. The fields suggest the tranquil rumination of generations of cattle, the woods offer cool security to sylvan life, the mountains present blunt weatherbeaten surfaces rather than the subtle contours, wrinkled as by meditation, of the Italian Alps. It is a scene in which one feels that nothing has ever happened : the haunting adjective is that which Whitman applies to the American West, — “ the large unconscious scenery of my native land.”
Switzerland is like a dinner served in the old-fashioned way, with all the dishes put on the table at once : every valley has its flowery mead, its “ horrid ” gorge, its chamois-haunted peak, its wood and waterfall. In Italy the effects are brought on in courses, and memory is thus able to differentiate the landscape, even without the help of that touch of human individuality to which, after all, the best Italian scenery is but a setting. At Splügen, as in most Swiss landscapes, the human interest — the evidence of man’s presence — is an interruption rather than a climax. The village of Splügen, huddled on a ledge above the Rhine, sheepishly turns the backs of its houses on the view, as though conscious of making a poor show compared to the tremendous performance of nature. Between these houses, set at unconsidered angles like boxes hastily piled on a shelf, cobblestone streets ramble up the hills ; but after a few yards they lapse into mountain paths, and the pastures stoop unabashed to the back doors of Splügen.
Agriculture seems, in fact, the little town’s excuse for being. The whole of Splügen, at this season, is as one arm at the end of a scythe. All day long the lines of stooping figures —men, women, and children, grandfathers and industrious babes — spread themselves over the hillsides in an ever-widening radius, interminably cutting, raking, and stacking the grass. The lower slopes are first laid bare ; then, to the sheer upper zone of pines, the long grass thick with larkspur, mountain pink and orchis gradually recedes before the rising tide of mowers. Even in the graveyard of the high-perched church the scythes swing between mounds overgrown with campanulas and martagon lilies ; so that one may fancy the dust of generations of thrifty villagers enriching the harvests of posterity.
This, indeed, is the only destiny one can imagine for them. The past of such a place must have been as bucolic as its present: the mediæval keep crumbling on its wooded spur above the Rhine was surely perched there that the lords of the valley might have an eye to the grazing cattle and command the manœuvres of the mowers. The noble Georgiis, who lived in the escutcheoned houses and now lie under such a wealth of quarterings in the church and graveyard, must have been experts in fertilizers and stockraising ; nor can one figure, even for the seventeenth - century mercenary of the name, whose epitaph declares him to have been “captain of his Spanish Majesty’s cohorts,” emotions more poignant, when he came home from the wars, than that evoked by the tinkle of cow bells in the pasture and the cognate vision of a table groaning with smoked beef and Cyclopean cheeses.
So completely are the peasants in the fields a part of the soil they cultivate, that during the day one may be said to have the whole of Splügen to one’s self, from the topmost peaks to the deserted highroad. In the evening the scene changes ; and the transformation is not unintentionally described in theatrical terms, since the square which, after sunset, becomes the centre of life in Splügen bears an absurd resemblance to a stage setting. One side of this square is bounded by the long weather - beaten front of the posting-inn — but the inn deserves a parenthesis. Built long ago, and then abandoned, so the village tradition runs, by a “ great Italian family,” its exterior shows the thick walls, the projecting eaves and oval attic openings of an old Tuscan house ; while within, a monastic ramification of stone-vaulted corridors leads to rooms ceiled and paneled with sixteenth - century woodwork. The stone terrace before this impressive dwelling forms the proscenium where, after dinner, the spectators assemble. To the right of the square stands the pale pink “ Post and Telegraph Bureau.” Beyond, closing in the right wing at a stage angle, is a mysterious yellowish house with an arched entrance. Facing these, on the left, are the dépendance of the inn and the custom house; while in the left background the village street is seen winding down, between houses that look like “ studies ” in old-fashioned drawing books (with the cracks in the plaster done in very black lead), to the bridge across the Rhine and the first loops of the post road over the Splügen. Opposite the inn is the obligatory village fountain, the rallying point of the chorus, backed by a stone parapet overhanging the torrent which acts as an invisible orchestra ; and beyond the parapet, snow peaks fill the distance.
Dinner over, the orchestra is heard tuning its instruments, and the chorus, recruited from the hayfields, begin to gather in the wings. A dozen choristers straggle in and squat on the jutting basement of the post office ; others hang picturesquely about the fountain, or hover up the steep street, awaiting the prompter’s call. Presently some of the subordinate characters stroll across the stage : the owner of the sawmill on the Rhine, a tall man deferentially saluted by the chorus ; two personages in black coats, with walking sticks, who always appear together and have the air of being joint syndics of the village ; a gentleman of leisure, in a cap with a visor, smoking a long Italian cigar and attended by an inquisitive Pomeranian ; a citizen in white socks and carpet slippers, giving his arm to his wife, and preceded by a Bewickian little boy with a green butterfly-box over his shoulder ; the gold-braided custom-house officer hurrying up rather late for his cue ; two or three local ladies in sunburnt millinery and spectacles, who drop in to see the postmistress ; and a showy young man with the look of having seen life at Chur or Bellinzona, who emerges from the post office conspicuously reading a letter, to the undisguised interest of the chorus, the ladies, and the Pomeranian. As these figures pass and repass in a kind of social silence, they suggest the leisurely opening of some play composed before the unities were abolished, and peopled by types with generic names, — the innkeeper, the postmistress, the syndic ; some comedy of Goldoni’s, perhaps, but void even of Goldoni’s simple malice. . . .
Meanwhile the porter has lit the oil lantern hanging by a chain over the door of the inn ; a celestial hand has performed a similar office for the evening star above the peaks; and through the hush that has settled on the square comes a distant sound of bells. . . . Instantly the action begins ; the innkeeper appears, supported by the porter and waiter; a wave of animation runs through the chorus ; the Pomeranian trots down the road; and presently the fagged leaders of the Thusis diligence turn their heads round the corner of the square. The preposterous yellow coach — a landau attached to a glass “ Clarence ” — crosses the cobble-paved stage, swinging round with a grand curve to the inn door; vague figures, detaching themselves from the chorus, flit about the horses or help the guard to lift the luggage down ; the two syndics, critically aloof, lean on their sticks to watch the scene ; the Pomeranian bustles between the tired horses’ legs ; and the diligence doors let out a menagerie of those strange folk whom one sees only on one’s travels. Here they come, familiar as the figures in a Noah’s ark : Germans first, the little triple-chinned man with a Dachshund, out of Fliegende Blätter, the slippered Hercules with a face like that at the end of a meerschaum pipe, and their sentimental females; shrill and vivid Italians ; a pleasant fat - faced priest; Americans going “right through,” with their city and state writ large upon their luggage; English girls like navvies, and Frenchmen like girls. The arched doorway absorbs them, and another jingle of bells and a flash of lamps on the bridge proclaim that the Chiavenna diligence is coming. . . .
The same ceremony repeats itself; and another detachment of the traveling menagerie descends. This time there is a family of rodents, who look as though they ought to be inclosed in wire-netting and judiciously nourished on lettuce; there is a small fierce man in knickerbockers and a sash, conducting a large submissive wife and two hypocritical little boys who might have stepped out of The Mirror of the Mind; there is an unfortunate lady in spectacles, who looks like one of the Creator’s rejected experiments, and carries a gray linen bag embroidered with forget-me-nots ; there is the inevitable youth with an alpenstock, who sends home a bunch of edelweiss to his awe-struck family. . . . These too disappear ; the horses are led away ; the chorus disperses, the lights go out, the performance is over. Only one spectator lingers, a thoughtful man in a snuff-colored overcoat, who gives the measure of the social resources of Splügen by the deliberate way in which, evening after evening, he walks round the empty diligences, looks into their windows, examines the wheels and poles, and then mournfully vanishes into the darkness.
At last the two diligences have the silent square to themselves. There they stand, side by side in dusty slumber, till the morning cow bells wake them to departure. One goes back to Thusis ; to the region of good hotels, pure air, and scenic platitudes. It may go empty for all we care. But the other . . . the other wakes from its Alpine sleep to climb the cold pass at sunrise and descend by hot windings into the land where the church steeples turn into campanili, where the vine, breaking from perpendicular bondage, flings a liberated embrace about the mulberries, and far off, beyond the plain, the mirage of domes and spires, of painted walls and sculptured altars, beckons forever across the dustiest tracts of memory. In that diligence our seats are taken.