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   Chapter 2 A NIGHT ON A MOUNTAIN

Faces and Places By Sir Henry W. Lucy Characters: 21111

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


There are not many English abroad this morning on the top of

the hill. In fact, unless they had passed the night here it

would not be easy for them to present themselves, seeing that

San Salvatore, though a very modest mound, standing as it does

in the neighbourhood of the Alps, is high enough to lift its

crest out of the curtain of mist that lies over the lower world.

Lugano, its lake, and its many small towns--as like each other

when seen from a distance as if they had been turned out of a

mould--are understood to lie at some uncertain depth beneath

the mist. In truth, unless they have wholly disappeared in the

night, we know that they are there, for we walked up in the

late afternoon with intent to sleep here.

The people of Lugano, more especially the hotel-keepers, were much

exercised at this undertaking. Nobody in recent recollection had been

known to spend the night on San Salvatore, and if the eccentricity

were permitted and proved enjoyable, no one could say that it might

not spread, leaving empty beds at Lugano. There was, accordingly,

much stress laid on possible dangers and certain discomforts.

Peradventure there was no bed; assuredly it would be hard and damp

and dirty. There would be nothing to eat, nor even to drink; and

in short, if ever there was madness characteristic of the English

abroad, here was the mid March of its season.

But the undertaking was not nearly so mad as it looked. I had been

up Salvatore on the previous day and surveyed the land. It is a

place that still holds high rank in the Romish calendar of Church

celebrations. Many years ago a chapel was built on its summit, and

pilgrimages instituted. These take place at Ascension and Pentecost,

when the hillside swarms with devout sons and daughters of Italy, and

the music of high mass breaks the silence of the mountains. Even

pilgrims must eat and drink and sleep, and shortly after the chapel

was built there rose up at its feet, in a sheltered nook, a little

house, a chapel-of-ease in the sense that here was sold wine of the

country, cheese of the district, and jambon reputed to come across

the seas from distant "Yorck." A spare bedroom was also established

for the accommodation of the officiating priests, and it was on the

temporary reversion of this apartment that I had counted in making

those arrangements that Lugano held to be hopelessly heretical.

When, on my first visit to the top of San Salvatore, I reached

the pilgrimage chapel, I found an old gentleman standing at the

door of the hostelry by which the pilgrim must needs pass on

his way to the chapel--a probably undesigned but profitable

arrangement, since it brings directly under his notice the

possibility of purchasing "vins du pays, pain, fromage,

saucissons, and jambon d'Yorck."

When I broached the subject of the night's entertainment the

landlord was a little taken aback, and evidently inclined

to dwell upon those inconveniences of which Lugano had made

so much. But the more he thought of it, the more he liked the

idea. As I subsequently learned, the hope of his youth, the

sustenance of his manhood, and the dream of his old age was

to see his little hut develop into a grand hotel, with a porter

in the hall, an army of waiters bustling about, and himself in

the receipt of custom. It was a very small beginning that two

English people should propose to lodge with him for a night.

Still, it was something, and everything must have a beginning.

Monte Generoso, among the clouds on the other side of the lake,

began in that way; and look at it now with its chambres at

eight francs a day, its table d'h?te at five francs, and its

bougies dispensed at their weight in silver!

"Si, signor"; he thought it might be done. He was sure--nay,

he was positive.

As the picture of the hotel of the future glowed in his mind he

became enthusiastic, and proposed that we should view the

apartments. The bedroom we found sufficiently roomy, with both

fireplace and one of the two windows bricked up to avoid

draughts. The mattress of the bed, it is true, was stuffed with

chopped straw, and was not free from suspicion of harbouring

rats. But there was a gorgeous counterpane, whose many colours

would have excited the envy of Joseph's brethren had their

pilgrimage chanced to lead them in this direction. The floor

was of cement, and great patches of damp displayed themselves

on the walls. Over the bed hung a peaceful picture of a chubby

boy clasping a crook to his breast, and exchanging glances of

maudlin sentimentality with a sheep that skipped at his side.

The damp had eaten up one of the legs of mutton, and the sheep

went on three legs. But nothing could exceed the more than

human tenderness with which it regarded the chubby boy with the

crook.

We soon settled about the bed, and there remained only

the question of food. On this point also our host displayed

even an increase of airy confidence. What would signor? There

were sausage, ham of York, and eggs, the latter capable of

presentation in divers shapes.

This, it must be admitted, engendered a feeling of discouragement.

We had two days earlier tasted the sausage of the country when

served up in a first-class hotel as garnish to a dish of spinach.

It is apparently made of pieces of gristle, and when liberated from

the leather case that enshrines it, crumbles like a piece of old

wall. Sausage was clearly out of the question, and the ham of York

does not thrive out of its own country, acquiring a foreign flavour

of salted sawdust. Eggs are very well in their way, but man cannot

live on eggs alone.

Our host was a man full of resources. Why should we not bring the

materials for dinner from Lugano? He would undertake to cook them,

whatever they might be. This was a happy thought that clenched the

bargain. We undertook to arrive on the following day, bringing our

sheaves with us, in the shape of a supply of veal cutlets.

The ostensible object of spending a night on San Salvatore is to see

the sun set and rise. The mountain is not high, just touching three

thousand feet, an easy ascent of two hours. But it is a place

glorious in the early morning and solemn in the quiet evening.

Below lies the lake of Lugano, its full length visible. Straight

before you, looking east, is the long arm that stretches to Porlezza,

with its gentle curves where the mountains stand and cool their feet

in the blue water. To the west, beyond a cluster of small and

nameless lakes that lie on the plain, we see the other arm of the

lake, with Ponte Tresa nestling upon it, and still farther west the

sun gleams on the waters of Lago Maggiore. Above Porlezza is Monte

Legnone, and far away on the left glint the snow peaks of the Bernina.

High in the north, above the red tiles and white walls of the town of

Lugano are the two peaks of Monte Camoghe, flanked by something that

seems a dark cloud in the blue sky, but which our host says is the

ridge of St. Gothard. The sun sets behind the Alps of the Valais

among which towers the Matterhorn and gleam the everlasting snows of

Monte Rosa.

These form the framework of a picture which contains all the softness

and richness of the beauty of a land where the grape and the fig

grow, and where in these October days roses are in full bloom, and

heliotropes sweeten every breath of air. Yesterday had opened

splendidly, the morning sun rising over the fair scene and bringing

out every point. But as we toiled up the hill this afternoon,

carrying the cutlets, the sun had capriciously disappeared. The

mountains were hid in clouds, and the lake, having no blue sky to

reflect, had turned green with chagrin. There was little hope of

visible sunset; but there was a prospect of sunrise, and certainty

of a snug dinner in circumstances to which the novelty of the

surroundings would lend a strange charm.

It was rather disappointing on arriving to find that our acquaintance

of yesterday had disappeared. I have reason to believe the excitement

of our proposed visit had been too much for him, and that he had

found it desirable to retire to rest in the more prosaic habitation

of the family down in the town. He had selected as substitute the

most stalwart and capable of his sons, a man of the mature age of

thirty-five. This person had the family attribute of readiness of

resource and perfect confidence. The enthusiasm which had been too

dangerously excited in the breast of his aged parent had been

communicated to him. He was ready to go anywhere and cook anything,

and having as a preliminary arranged a napkin under his arm, went

bustling about the table disturbing imaginary flies and flicking off

supposititious crumbs, as he had seen the waiter do in the restaurant

at the hotel down in the town.

"Signor had brought the cutlets? Si, and beautiful they were! How

would signor like to have them done? Thus, or thus, or thus?" in a

variety of ways which, whilst their recital far exceeded my limited

knowledge of the language, filled me with fullest confidence in

Giacommetti.

That was his name, he told me in one of his bursts of confidence;

and a very pretty name it is, though for brevity's sake it may be

convenient hereafter to particularise him by the initial letter.

As I was scarcely in a position to decide among the various

appetising ways of cooking suggested by G., I said I would leave it

to him.

But, then, the signor could not make a dinner of cutlets. What else

would he be so good as to like? Sausage, ham of York, and eggs--eggs

à la coque or presented as omelettes. No? Then signor would commence

with soup? Finally potage au riz was selected out of the

embarrassment of riches poured at our feet by the enthusiastic G.

There being yet an hour to dinner, we ascended the few steps that

led to the summit of the hill on which the chapel is perched, a

marvel to all new-comers by the highway of the Lake. The door was

open, and we walked in. There was no light burning on the altar,

nor any water in the stone basin by the door. But there was all

the apparatus of worship--the gaudy toyshop above the grand altar,

the tiny side chapels, with their p

ictures of the dying Saviour,

and the confessional box, now thick with dust, and echoless of

sob of penitent or counsel of confessor. It was evidently a poorly

endowed chapel, the tinsel adornments being of the cheapest and

the candles of the thinnest. But in some past generation a good

Catholic had bestowed upon it an altarcloth of richest silk,

daintily embroidered. The colours had faded out of the flowers,

and the golden hue of the cloth had been grievously dimmed. Still

it remained the one rich genuine piece of workmanship in a chapel

disfigured by an overbearing hankering after paper flowers and

tinsel.

Early the next morning, whilst reposing under the magnificent

counterpane on the bed of chopped straw, I was awakened by hearing

the chapel bell ring for mass. I thought it must be the ghost of

some disembodied priest, who had come up through the darkness of

the night and the scarcely more luminous mist of the morning to

say a mass for his own disturbed soul. But, as I presently learned,

they were human hands that pulled the bell-rope, and a living

priest said mass all by himself in this lonely chapel whilst dawn

was breaking over a sleeping world.

I saw him some hours later sitting on the kitchen dresser, in the

sanctum where G. worked the mysteries of his art. He was resting

his elbows on his knees as he leaned forward, and had in his mouth

a large pipe, from which he vigorously puffed. I found him a very

cheerful old gentleman, by no means unduly oppressed with the

solemnity of this early mass in the lonely chapel. He lived down

at Barbeng, at the back of the hill, and had come up this morning

purely as a matter of business, and in partial fulfilment of a

contract entered into with one of his parishioners, whose husband

had been lost at sea whilst yet they were only twelve months

married. The widow had scraped together sufficient money to have

a due number of masses said on San Salvatore for the repose of the

soul of her young husband. So once a week, whilst the contract ran,

the old priest made his way up through the morning mist, tolled the

bell, said the mass, and thereafter comforted himself with a

voluminous pipe seated on the dresser in G.'s kitchen.

This is a digression, and I confess I have rather lingered over it,

as it kept the soup waiting.

The preparation was brought in in a neat white bowl gracefully

carried aloft by G., who still insisted upon going about with a

napkin under his arm. Everything was in order except the soup. I

like to think that the failure may have been entirely due to myself.

G. had proposed quite a dozen soups, and I had ignorantly chosen

the only one he could not make. The liquid was brown and greasy,

smelling horribly of a something which in recognition of G.'s good

intention I will call butter. The rice, which formed a principal

component part, presented itself in conglomerate masses, as if G.,

before placing it in the tureen, had squeezed portions of it in his

hand.

Perhaps he had, for he was not in the humour to spare himself trouble

in his effort to make the banquet a success.

We helped ourselves plentifully to the contents of the tureen, which

was much easier to do than to settle the disposition of the soup. G.

was in an ecstasy of delight at things having gone on so well thus

far. He positively pervaded the place, nervously changing the napkin

from arm to arm, and frantically flicking off imaginary crumbs. At

length it happily occurred to him that it would be well to go and

see after the cutlets. Whereupon we emptied the soup back into the

tureen, and when G. returned were discovered wiping our lips with

the air of people who had already dined.

After all, there were the cutlets, and G. had not indulged in

exaggerated approval of their excellence when in a state of nature.

They were those dainty cuts into which veal naturally seems to

resolve itself in butcher's shops on the Continent. We observed

with concern that they looked a little burned in places when they

came to the table, and the same attraction of variety was maintained

in the disposition of salt. There were large districts in the area

of the cutlet absolutely free from savouring. But then you came upon

a small portion where the salt lay in drifts, and thus the average

was preserved. We were very hungry and ate the cutlets, which, with

an allowance of bread, made up the dinner. There were some potatoes,

fried with great skill, amid much of the compound we had agreed to

call butter. But, as I explained to G. in reply to a deprecatory

gesture when he took away the floating mass untouched, I have not

for more than three years been able to eat a potato. One of my

relations was, about that date, choked by a piece of potato, and

since then I have never touched them, especially when fried in a

great deal of butter.

We had some cheese, for which Earl Granville's family motto would

serve as literal description. You might bend it, but could not

break it. I never was partial to bent cheese, but we made a fair

appearance with this part of the feast, owing to the arrival of

G.'s dog, a miserable-looking cur, attracted to the banquet-hall

by unwonted savours. He seemed to like the cheese; and G., when he

came in with the coffee, was more than ever pleased with our

appreciation of the good things provided for us.

"Rosbif and chiss--ha!" he said, breaking forth into English, and

smiling knowingly upon us.

He felt he had probed the profoundest depths of the Englishman's

gastronomical weakness.

With the appearance of the coffee the real pleasure of the evening

commenced. Along nearly the whole of one side of the banquet-hall

ran a fireplace, a recess of the proportions of a spare bedroom in

an ordinary English house. There were no "dogs" or other contrivance

for minimising the spontaneity of a fire. There are granite quarries

near, and these had contributed an enormous block which formed a

hearth raised about six inches above the level of the floor. On this

an armful of brushwood was placed; and the match applied, it began

to burn with cheerful crackling laughter and pleasant flame,

filling the room with a fragrant perfume. For all other light a

feeble oil lamp twinkled high up on the wall, and a candle burned

on the table where we had so luxuriantly dined.

The fitful light shone on the oil paintings which partly hid the

damp on the walls. There was a picture (not a bad one) of St.

Sebastian pierced with arrows, and in his death-agony turning

heavenward a beautiful face. There was the portrait of another

monk holding on to a ladder, each rung of which was labelled with

a cardinal virtue. There was a crucifixion or two, and what

elsewhere might well pass for a family portrait--an elderly lady,

with a cap of the period, nursing a spaniel. The damp had spared

the spaniel whilst it made grave ravages upon the lady, eating

a portion of her cheek and the whole of her left ear.

G. having the dinner off his mind, and having, as was gathered

from a fearsome clattering in the back premises, washed up the

dishes, wandered about the shadows in the background and showed

a disposition for conversation. It was now he unfolded that dream

of the hotel some day to be built up here, with the porter in the

hall, the waiters buzzing round, the old man, his father, in the

receipt of custom, and he (G.) exercising his great natural talents

in supervising the making of soup, the frying of potatoes, and

the selection of elastic cheeses. He showed, with pardonable pride,

a visitors' book in which was written "Leopold, Prince of Great

Britain and Ireland." His Royal Highness came here one rainy day

in 1876, riding on a mule, and escorted by a bedraggled suite.

Did they partake of any refreshments?

No; the father, G. frankly admits, lost his head in the excitement

of the moment--a confession which confirms the impression that, on

a much less auspicious occasion, it has been thought desirable that

a younger and stronger man should assume the direction of affairs.

To proffer Royalty potage au riz on such brief notice was of course

out of the question. But the fatuous old gentleman had permitted a

Prince of Great Britain and Ireland to descend the mountain without

having tasted any other of the comestibles which were doubtless on

hand at the time, and portions of which most probably remain to

this day.

About eight o'clock there were indications from the shadowy

portions of the banqueting chamber that G. was getting sleepy, and

that the hour had arrived when it was usual for residents to retire

for the night. Even on the top of a mountain one cannot go to bed

at eight o'clock, and we affected to disregard these signals.

Beginning gently, the yawns increased in intensity till they became

phenomenal. At nine o'clock G. pointedly compared the hour of the

day as between his watch and mine.

It was hard to leave a bright wood fire and go to bed at nine

o'clock; but G. was irresistible. He literally yawned us out of

the room, up the staircase, and into the bed-chamber. There was a

key hanging by the outside of the door the size of a small club,

and weighing several pounds. On the inside the keyhole, contrary to

habitude, was in the centre of the door. From this point of approach

it was, however, useful rather for ventilation than for any other

purpose, since the key would not enter. Looking about for some means

of securing the door against possible intrusions on the part of G.

with a new soup, I discovered the trunk of a young tree standing

against the wall. The next discovery was recesses in the wall on

either side of the door, which suggested the evident purpose of the

colossal bar. With this across the door one might sleep in peace,

and I did till eight o'clock in the morning.

G. had been instructed to call us at sunrise if the morning were

fair. As it happened, our ill luck of the evening was repeated in

the morning. A thick mist obscured all around us, though as we

passed down to civilisation and Lugano the sun, growing stronger,

lifted wreaths of white mist, and showed valley, and lake, and

town bathed in glorious light.

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