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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XLII

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XLII


[Chillon has a Nice, Roomy Dungeon]

Switzerland is simply a large, humpy, solid rock,
with a thin skin of grass stretched over it. Consequently,
they do not dig graves, they blast them out with power
and fuse. They cannot afford to have large graveyards,
the grass skin is too circumscribed and too valuable.
It is all required for the support of the living.

The graveyard in Zermatt occupies only about one-eighth
of an acre. The graves are sunk in the living rock, and are
very permanent; but occupation of them is only temporary;
the occupant can only stay till his grave is needed
by a later subject, he is removed, then, for they do not
bury one body on top of another. As I understand it,
a family owns a grave, just as it owns a house. A man dies
and leaves his house to his son--and at the same time,
this dead father succeeds to his own father's grave.
He moves out of the house and into the grave, and his
predecessor moves out of the grave and into the cellar
of the chapel. I saw a black box lying in the churchyard,
with skull and cross-bones painted on it, and was told that
this was used in transferring remains to the cellar.

In that cellar the bones and skulls of several hundred of
former citizens were compactly corded up. They made a pile
eighteen feet long, seven feet high, and eight feet wide.
I was told that in some of the receptacles of this kind
in the Swiss villages, the skulls were all marked,
and if a man wished to find the skulls of his ancestors
for several generations back, he could do it by these marks,
preserved in the family records.

An English gentleman who had lived some years in this region,
said it was the cradle of compulsory education.
But he said that the English idea that compulsory
education would reduce bastardy and intemperance was an
error--it has not that effect. He said there was more
seduction in the Protestant than in the Catholic cantons,
because the confessional protected the girls. I wonder
why it doesn't protect married women in France and Spain?

This gentleman said that among the poorer peasants in the Valais,
it was common for the brothers in a family to cast lots
to determine which of them should have the coveted privilege
of marrying, and his brethren--doomed bachelors--heroically
banded themselves together to help support the new family.

We left Zermatt in a wagon--and in a rain-storm, too--
for St. Nicholas about ten o'clock one morning.
Again we passed between those grass-clad prodigious cliffs,
specked with wee dwellings peeping over at us from
velvety green walls ten and twelve hundred feet high.
It did not seem possible that the imaginary chamois
even could climb those precipices. Lovers on opposite
cliffs probably kiss through a spy-glass, and correspond
with a rifle.

In Switzerland the farmer's plow is a wide shovel,
which scrapes up and turns over the thin earthy skin of his
native rock--and there the man of the plow is a hero.
Now here, by our St. Nicholas road, was a grave, and it
had a tragic story. A plowman was skinning his farm
one morning--not the steepest part of it, but still
a steep part--that is, he was not skinning the front
of his farm, but the roof of it, near the eaves--when he
absent-mindedly let go of the plow-handles to moisten
his hands, in the usual way; he lost his balance and fell
out of his farm backward; poor fellow, he never touched
anything till he struck bottom, fifteen hundred feet below.
[1] We throw a halo of heroism around the life of the
soldier and the sailor, because of the deadly dangers they
are facing all the time. But we are not used to looking
upon farming as a heroic occupation. This is because we
have not lived in Switzerland.

1. This was on a Sunday.--M.T.

From St. Nicholas we struck out for Visp--or Vispach--on foot.
The rain-storms had been at work during several days,
and had done a deal of damage in Switzerland and Savoy.
We came to one place where a stream had changed its
course and plunged down a mountain in a new place,
sweeping everything before it. Two poor but precious farms
by the roadside were ruined. One was washed clear away,
and the bed-rock exposed; the other was buried out of sight
under a tumbled chaos of rocks, gravel, mud, and rubbish.
The resistless might of water was well exemplified.
Some saplings which had stood in the way were bent to the ground,
stripped clean of their bark, and buried under rocky debris.
The road had been swept away, too.

In another place, where the road was high up on the mountain's
face, and its outside edge protected by flimsy masonry,
we frequently came across spots where this masonry had
carved off and left dangerous gaps for mules to get over;
and with still more frequency we found the masonry
slightly crumbled, and marked by mule-hoofs, thus showing
that there had been danger of an accident to somebody.
When at last we came to a badly ruptured bit of masonry,
with hoof-prints evidencing a desperate struggle
to regain the lost foothold, I looked quite hopefully
over the dizzy precipice. But there was nobody down there.

They take exceedingly good care of their rivers in Switzerland
and other portions of Europe. They wall up both banks
with slanting solid stone masonry--so that from end
to end of these rivers the banks look like the wharves
at St. Louis and other towns on the Mississippi River.

It was during this walk from St. Nicholas, in the shadow
of the majestic Alps, that we came across some little
children amusing themselves in what seemed, at first,
a most odd and original way--but it wasn't; it was in
simply a natural and characteristic way. They were roped
together with a string, they had mimic alpenstocks and
ice-axes, and were climbing a meek and lowly manure-pile
with a most blood-curdling amount of care and caution.
The "guide" at the head of the line cut imaginary steps,
in a laborious and painstaking way, and not a monkey
budged till the step above was vacated. If we had waited
we should have witnessed an imaginary accident, no doubt;
and we should have heard the intrepid band hurrah when they
made the summit and looked around upon the "magnificent view,"
and seen them throw themselves down in exhausted attitudes
for a rest in that commanding situation.

In Nevada I used to see the children play at silver-mining.
Of course, the great thing was an accident in a mine,
and there were two "star" parts; that of the man
who fell down the mimic shaft, and that of the daring
hero who was lowered into the depths to bring him up.
I knew one small chap who always insisted on playing
BOTH of these parts--and he carried his point.
He would tumble into the shaft and die, and then come
to the surface and go back after his own remains.

It is the smartest boy that gets the hero part everywhere;
he is head guide in Switzerland, head miner in Nevada,
head bull-fighter in Spain, etc.; but I knew a preacher's son,
seven years old, who once selected a part for himself compared
to which those just mentioned are tame and unimpressive.
Jimmy's father stopped him from driving imaginary
horse-cars one Sunday--stopped him from playing captain
of an imaginary steamboat next Sunday--stopped him
from leading an imaginary army to battle the following
Sunday--and so on. Finally the little fellow said:

"I've tried everything, and they won't any of them do.
What CAN I play?"

"I hardly know, Jimmy; but you MUST play only things
that are suitable to the Sabbath-day."

Next Sunday the preacher stepped softly to a back-room
door to see if the children were rightly employed.
He peeped in. A chair occupied the middle of the room,
and on the back of it hung Jimmy's cap; one of his little
sisters took the cap down, nibbled at it, then passed it
to another small sister and said, "Eat of this fruit,
for it is good." The Reverend took in the situation--alas,
they were playing the Expulsion from Eden! Yet he found
one little crumb of comfort. He said to himself, "For once
Jimmy has yielded the chief role--I have been wronging him,
I did not believe there was so much modesty in him;
I should have expected him to be either Adam or Eve."
This crumb of comfort lasted but a very little while;
he glanced around and discovered Jimmy standing in an
imposing attitude in a corner, with a dark and deadly frown
on his face. What that meant was very plain--HE WAS
IMPERSONATING THE DEITY! Think of the guileless sublimity of
that idea.

We reached Vispach at 8 P.M., only about seven hours
out from St. Nicholas. So we must have made fully
a mile and a half an hour, and it was all downhill,
too, and very muddy at that. We stayed all night at
the Ho^tel de Soleil; I remember it because the landlady,
the portier, the waitress, and the chambermaid were not
separate persons, but were all contained in one neat and
chipper suit of spotless muslin, and she was the prettiest
young creature I saw in all that region. She was the
landlord's daughter. And I remember that the only native
match to her I saw in all Europe was the young daughter
of the landlord of a village inn in the Black Forest.
Why don't more people in Europe marry and keep hotel?

Next morning we left with a family of English friends
and went by train to Brevet, and thence by boat across
the lake to Ouchy (Lausanne).

Ouchy is memorable to me, not on account of its beautiful
situation and lovely surroundings--although these would
make it stick long in one's memory--but as the place
where _I_ caught the London TIMES dropping into humor.
It was NOT aware of it, though. It did not do it on purpose.
An English friend called my attention to this lapse,
and cut out the reprehensible paragraph for me. Think of
encountering a grin like this on the face of that grim
journal:

ERRATUM.--We are requested by Reuter's Telegram Company
to correct an erroneous announcement made in their Brisbane
telegram of the 2d inst., published in our impression of the 5th
inst., stating that "Lady Kennedy had given birth to twins,
the eldest being a son." The Company explain that the message
they received contained the words "Governor of Queensland,
TWINS FIRST SON." Being, however, subsequently informed
that Sir Arthur Kennedy was unmarried and that there
must be some mistake, a telegraphic repetition was at
once demanded. It has been received today (11th inst.)
and shows that the words really telegraphed by Reuter's
agent were "Governor Queensland TURNS FIRST SOD,"
alluding to the Maryborough-Gympic Railway in course
of construction. The words in italics were mutilated by
the telegraph in transmission from Australia, and reaching
the company in the form mentioned above gave rise to the mistake.


I had always had a deep and reverent compassion
for the sufferings of the "prisoner of Chillon,"
whose story Byron had told in such moving verse; so I took
the steamer and made pilgrimage to the dungeons of the
Castle of Chillon, to see the place where poor Bonnivard
endured his dreary captivity three hundred years ago.
I am glad I did that, for it took away some of the pain
I was feeling on the prisoner's account. His dungeon
was a nice, cool, roomy place, and I cannot see why he
should have been dissatisfied with it. If he had been
imprisoned in a St. Nicholas private dwelling, where the
fertilizer prevails, and the goat sleeps with the guest,
and the chickens roost on him and the cow comes in and
bothers him when he wants to muse, it would have been
another matter altogether; but he surely could not have
had a very cheerless time of it in that pretty dungeon.
It has romantic window-slits that let in generous bars
of light, and it has tall, noble columns, carved apparently
from the living rock; and what is more, they are written
all over with thousands of names; some of them--like
Byron's and Victor Hugo's--of the first celebrity.
Why didn't he amuse himself reading these names? Then
there are the couriers and tourists--swarms of them every
day--what was to hinder him from having a good time
with them? I think Bonnivard's sufferings have been overrated.

Next, we took the train and went to Martigny, on the way
to Mont Blanc. Next morning we started, about eight
o'clock, on foot. We had plenty of company, in the way
of wagon-loads and mule-loads of tourists--and dust.
This scattering procession of travelers was perhaps a
mile long. The road was uphill--interminable uphill--and
tolerably steep. The weather was blisteringly hot,
and the man or woman who had to sit on a creeping mule,
or in a crawling wagon, and broil in the beating sun,
was an object to be pitied. We could dodge among the bushes,
and have the relief of shade, but those people could not.
They paid for a conveyance, and to get their money's worth
they rode.

We went by the way of the Te^te Noir, and after we
reached high ground there was no lack of fine scenery.
In one place the road was tunneled through a shoulder
of the mountain; from there one looked down into a gorge
with a rushing torrent in it, and on every hand was a
charming view of rocky buttresses and wooded heights.
There was a liberal allowance of pretty waterfalls, too,
on the Te^te Noir route.

About half an hour before we reached the village of
Argentie`re a vast dome of snow with the sun blazing on it
drifted into view and framed itself in a strong V-shaped
gateway of the mountains, and we recognized Mont Blanc,
the "monarch of the Alps." With every step, after that,
this stately dome rose higher and higher into the blue sky,
and at last seemed to occupy the zenith.

Some of Mont Blanc's neighbors--bare, light-brown, steeplelike
rocks--were very peculiarly shaped. Some were whittled
to a sharp point, and slightly bent at the upper end,
like a lady's finger; one monster sugar-loaf resembled
a bishop's hat; it was too steep to hold snow on its sides,
but had some in the division.

While we were still on very high ground, and before
the descent toward Argentie`re began, we looked up
toward a neighboring mountain-top, and saw exquisite
prismatic colors playing about some white clouds which
were so delicate as to almost resemble gossamer webs.
The faint pinks and greens were peculiarly beautiful;
none of the colors were deep, they were the lightest shades.
They were bewitching commingled. We sat down to study and
enjoy this singular spectacle. The tints remained during
several minutes--fitting, changing, melting into each other;
paling almost away for a moment, then reflushing--a shifting,
restless, unstable succession of soft opaline gleams,
shimmering over that air film of white cloud, and turning
it into a fabric dainty enough to clothe an angel with.

By and by we perceived what those super-delicate colors,
and their continuous play and movement, reminded us of;
it is what one sees in a soap-bubble that is drifting along,
catching changes of tint from the objects it passes.
A soap-bubble is the most beautiful thing, and the
most exquisite, in nature; that lovely phantom fabric
in the sky was suggestive of a soap-bubble split open,
and spread out in the sun. I wonder how much it would take
to buy a soap-bubble, if there was only one in the world?
One could buy a hatful of Koh-i-Noors with the same money,
no doubt.

We made the tramp from Martigny to Argentie`re in eight hours.
We beat all the mules and wagons; we didn't usually do that.
We hired a sort of open baggage-wagon for the trip down
the valley to Chamonix, and then devoted an hour to dining.
This gave the driver time to get drunk. He had a friend
with him, and this friend also had had time to get drunk.

When we drove off, the driver said all the tourists had
arrived and gone by while we were at dinner; "but," said he,
impressively, "be not disturbed by that--remain tranquil--give
yourselves no uneasiness--their dust rises far before us--
rest you tranquil, leave all to me--I am the king of drivers.
Behold!"

Down came his whip, and away we clattered. I never had such
a shaking up in my life. The recent flooding rains had
washed the road clear away in places, but we never stopped,
we never slowed down for anything. We tore right along,
over rocks, rubbish, gullies, open fields--sometimes with
one or two wheels on the ground, but generally with none.
Every now and then that calm, good-natured madman would
bend a majestic look over his shoulder at us and say,
"Ah, you perceive? It is as I have said --I am the
king of drivers." Every time we just missed going
to destruction, he would say, with tranquil happiness,
"Enjoy it, gentlemen, it is very rare, it is very unusual--
it is given to few to ride with the king of drivers--
and observe, it is as I have said, _I_ am he."

He spoke in French, and punctuated with hiccoughs.
His friend was French, too, but spoke in German--using
the same system of punctuation, however. The friend
called himself the "Captain of Mont Blanc," and wanted us
to make the ascent with him. He said he had made more
ascents than any other man--forty seven--and his brother
had made thirty-seven. His brother was the best guide
in the world, except himself--but he, yes, observe him
well--he was the "Captain of Mont Blanc"--that title
belonged to none other.

The "king" was as good as his word--he overtook that long
procession of tourists and went by it like a hurricane.
The result was that we got choicer rooms at the hotel
in Chamonix than we should have done if his majesty
had been a slower artist--or rather, if he hadn't most
providentially got drunk before he left Argentie`re.

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