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   Chapter 11 EASTER ON LES AVANTS.

Faces and Places By Sir Henry W. Lucy Characters: 28714

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


We nearly lost our Naturalist between Paris and Lausanne. It was felt at

the time, more especially by the latest additions to the party, that

this would have been a great calamity. Habits, long acquired, of

stopping by the roadside and minutely examining weeds or bits of stone,

are not to be eradicated in a night's journey by rail. Accordingly,

wherever the train stopped the Naturalist was, at the last moment,

discovered to be absent, and search parties were organised with a

promptness that, before we reached Dijon, had become quite creditable.

But the success achieved begat a condition of confidence that nearly

proved fatal. In travelling on a French line there is only one thing

more remarkable than the leisurely way in which an express train gets

under way after having stopped at a station, and that is the excitement

that pervades the neighbourhood ten minutes before the train starts. Men

in uniform go about shrieking "En voiture, messieurs, en voiture!" in a

manner that suggests to the English traveller that the train is actually

in motion, and that his passage is all but lost.

It was this habitude that led to our excitement at Melun. We had, after

superhuman efforts, got the Naturalist into the carriage, and had

breathlessly fallen back in the seat, expecting the train to move

forthwith. Ten minutes later it slowly steamed out of the station,

accompanied by the sound of the tootling horn and enveloped in thick

clouds of poisonous smoke. This sort of thing happening at one or two

other stations, we were induced to give our Naturalist an extra five

minutes to gather some fresh specimen of a rare grass growing between

the rails or some curious insect embedded in the bookstall. It was at

Sens that, growing bolder with success, we nearly did lose him,

dragging him in at the last moment, amid a scene of excitement that

could be equalled elsewhere only on the supposition that the station

was on fire and that five kegs of gunpowder were in the booking-office.

Shortly after leaving Dijon a conviction began to spread that perhaps if

the fates had proved adverse, and we had lost him somewhere under

circumstances that would have permitted him to come on by a morning

train, we might have borne up against the calamity. Amongst a

miscellaneous and imposing collection of scientific instruments, he was

the pleased possessor of an aneroid. This I am sure is an excellent and

even indispensable instrument at certain crises. But when you have been

so lucky as to get to sleep in a railway carriage on a long night

journey, to be awakened every quarter of an hour to be informed "how

high you are now" grows wearisome before morning.

It was the Chancery Barrister who was partly responsible for this. He

found it impossible to sleep, and our Naturalist, fastening upon him,

kept him carefully posted up in particulars of the increasing altitude.

This was the kind of thing that broke in upon our slumbers all through

the night:--

Our Naturalist: "1200 feet above the level of the sea."

The Chancery Barrister (in provokingly sleepy tone): "Ah!"

Then we turn over, and fall asleep again. A quarter of an hour later:

Our Naturalist: "1500 feet now."

Chancery Barrister: "Really!"

Another fitful slumber, broken by a strong presentiment that the

demoniacal aneroid is being again produced.

Our Naturalist (exultantly, as if he had privately arranged the incline,

and was justly boastful of his success): "2100 feet."

Chancery Barrister (evidently feeling that something extra is expected of

him): "No, really now!"

This kind of thing through what should be the silent watches of the

night is to be deprecated, as tending to bring science into disrepute.

There was a good deal of excitement about the baggage. We were a

personally conducted party to the extent that the Hon. Member who had

suggested the trip, had undertaken the general direction, or had had

the office thrust upon him. Feeling his responsibility, he had,

immediately on arriving at Calais, changed some English money. This

was found very convenient. Nobody had any francs except the Member, so

we freely borrowed from him to meet trifling exigencies.

With the object of arriving at the best possible means of dealing with

the vexed question of luggage, a variety of expedients had been tried.

The Chancery Barrister, having read many moving narratives of raids made

upon registered luggage in the secrecy of the luggage van, had adopted a

course which displayed a profound knowledge of human nature. He had

argued with himself (as if he were a judge in chambers) that what proved

an irresistible temptation to foreign guards and other railway officials

was the appearance of boxes and portmanteaux iron-clasped,

leather-strapped, and double-locked. The inference naturally was that

they contained much that was valuable. Now, he had pointed out to

himself, if you take a directly opposite course, and, as it were, invite

the gentleman in charge of your luggage to open your portmanteau, he

will think you have nothing in it worth his attention, and will pass on

to others more jealously guarded. You can't very well leave your box

open, as the things might tumble out. So, as a happy compromise, he had

duly locked and strapped his portmanteau, and then tied the key to the

handle.

As he observes, with the shrewd perception that will inevitably lead him

to the Woolsack, "You are really helpless, and can do nothing to prevent

these gentlemen from helping themselves. If you leave the key there,

there is a fair chance of their treating your property as the Levite

treated the Good Samaritan. If not, your box will be decently opened

instead of having the lock broken or the hinges wrenched off."

That was a good idea, and proved triumphantly successful; for, on

arrival at Montreux, the Chancery Barrister's portmanteau turned up all

right, the key innocently reposing on the handle, and, as subsequent

investigation showed, the contents untouched.

Our Manufacturer had a still better way, though, as was urged, he comes

from Yorkshire, and we of the southern part of the island have no chance

in competition with the race. He lost his luggage somewhere between

Dover and Paris, and has ever since been free from all care on the

subject.

Perhaps it was the influence of these varied incidents that led to a

scene of some excitement on our arrival at Montreux station. There,

what was left of our luggage was disgorged, and of fourteen packages

registered, only nine were visible to the naked eye. It was then the

Patriarch came to the front and displayed some of those qualities which

subsequently found a fuller field amid the solitude of the Alps.

We call him the Patriarch because he is a grandfather. In other respects

he is the youngest of the party, the first on the highest peak, the

first down in the afternoon with his ready order for "tea for ten," of

which, if the party is late in arriving and he finds time hang heavy on

his hands, he will genially drink five cups himself. With the care of

half a dozen colossal commercial undertakings upon his mind, he is as

merry as a boy and as playful as a kitten. But when once aroused his

anger is terrible.

His thunder and lightning played around the station-master at Montreux

on the discovery of the absence of five packages. The Patriarch has a

wholesome faith in the all-sufficiency of the English language. The

station-master's sole lingual accomplishment was French. This

concatenation of circumstances might with ordinary persons have led to

some diminution of the force of adjuration. But probably the

station-master lost little of the meaning the Patriarch desired to

convey. This tended in the direction of showing the utter incapacity

of the Swiss or French nature to manage a railway, and the discreditable

incompetency of the officials of whatever grade. The station-master was

properly abashed before the torrent of indignant speech. But he had his

turn presently. Calmer inspection disclosed the fact that all the

fourteen packets were delivered. It was delightful to see how the

station-master, immediately assuming the offensive, followed the

Patriarch about with gesticulation indicative of the presence of the

baggage, and with taunting speech designed to make the Patriarch

withdraw his remarks--whatever they might have been. On this point

the station-master was not clear, but he had a shrewd suspicion that

they were not complimentary. The Patriarch, however, now retired upon

his dignity.

It was, as he said, no use arguing with fellows like this.

Les Avants sit high up among the mountains at the back of Montreux.

It seems madness to go there at a time when fires are still cheerful

and when the leaves have not yet put forth their greenness. But, as

was made apparent in due time, Les Avants, at no time inconveniently

cold, would be, but for the winds that blow over the snow-clad hills

surprisingly hot. To build an hotel here seems a perilously bold

undertaking. It is not on the way to anywhere, and people going from

the outer world must march up the hill, and, when they are tired of it,

must needs, like the Duke of York in his famous military expedition,

march down again. None but a Swiss would build an hotel here, and few

but English would frequent it. Yet the shrewdness of the proprietor has

been amply justified, and Les Avants is becoming in increasing degree

a favourite pilgrimage.

The hotel was built nearly twenty years ago. Previously the little

valley it dominates had been planted with one or two chalets which

for more than half a century have looked out upon the deathless snows

of the Dent du Midi. There is one which has rudely carved over the

lintel of its door the date 1816. Noting which, the Chancery Barrister,

with characteristic accuracy, observed that "five centuries look down

upon us."

Our landlord is an enterprising man. His business in life is to keep an

hotel, and the height of his ambition is to keep it well. Only a

fortnight ago he returned from a grand tour of the winter

watering-places, from the Bay of Biscay to the Bay of Genoa. The

ordinary attractions of the show places from Biarritz to Bordighera had

no lure for him. What he studied were the hotels and their various modes

of management. He told us, with a flush of pride on his sun-tanned

cheek, that he travelled as an ordinary tourist. There was no hint of

his condition or the object of his journey, no appeal to confraternity

with a view to getting bed and breakfast at trade prices, or some

reduction on the table d'h?te charges. He travelled as a sort of Haroun

al Raschid among innkeepers, haughtily paying his bills, and possibly

feeing the waiters. He is a very good sort of a fellow, attentive and

obliging, and it is odd how we all agree in the hope that he was from

time to time over-charged.

It is a fair prospect looked out upon from the bedroom window on our

arrival. Almost at our feet, it seems, is the Lake of Geneva, though

we remember the wearisome climb up the hill, and know it must be miles

away. On the other side are the snow-clad hills that reach down to

Savoy on the east, and are crowned by the heights of the Dent du Midi

on the west. On the left, flanking our own place of abode, rise up the

grim heights of the Roches de Naye, and, still farther back, the Dent

du Jaman--a terrible tooth this, which draws attention from all the

country round, and excites the wildest ambition of the tourist. The man

or woman resting within a circuit of ten miles of Montreux, who has not

touched the topmost heights of the Dent du Jaman, goes home a crushed

person. A very small proportion do it, but every one talks of doing

it---which, unless the weather be favourable, is perhaps the wiser

thing to do. It fills a large place in the conversation as well as in

the landscape, and it will be a bad thing for the Lake of Geneva if

this tooth should ever be drawn.

Lovely as was the scene in the fresh morning air, with the glistening

snow, the dark pines on the lower hills, the blue lake, and the

greyish upland, they did but serve to frame the picture of the

Patriarch as he sat upon the bench in the front of the hotel. A short

jacket of blue serge, knickerbockers of the same material, displaying

the proportions of a notable pair of legs, the whole crowned by a

chimney-pot hat, went to make up a remarkable figure. The Patriarch

had in his hand a blue net for catching butterflies. The Naturalist

had excited his imagination by stories of the presence of the

"Camberwell Beauty," a rare and beautiful species of butterfly, of

which he was determined to take home a specimen. In later days he

was fair to see with his hat thrown back on his brow, his net in his

hand: and his stout legs twinkling in their haste to come up with a

butterfly.

The Alps have witnessed many strange sights since first they uplifted

their heads to heaven. But it is calculated that the Patriarch was

the first who brought under their notice the chimney-pot hat of the

civilised Englishman.

This haste to be up on the first morning was a faithful precursor of

the indomitable vitality of the Patriarch. He was always first up and

first off, and, amongst many charming peculiarities, was his

indifference as to which way the road lay. We generally had a guide

with us, and nothing was more common in toiling up a mountain side

than to discover the guide half a mile to the left and the Patriarch

half a mile to the right, something after the fashion of the letter Y,

we being at the stem. We saw a good deal more of the country than we

otherwise should have done, owing to the constant necessity of going

after the Patriarch and bringing him back. Sometimes he got away by

himself, at others he deluded some hapless member of the company into

follo

wing him. One young man, just called to the bar, had a promising

career almost cut short on the second day. In the innocence of his

heart he had followed the Patriarch, who led him through an apparently

impassable pine forest on to the crest of a remote hill, whence he

crawled down an hour late for luncheon, the Patriarch having arrived

ten minutes before him, and having already had his knife into every

receptacle for food that was spread out, from the loaf of bread to the

box of sardines, from the preserved peaches to the cup without a handle

that held the butter.

Walking up the hill behind the hotel on the way to the Jaman, the Member

had a happy idea. "Why," he asked, "should not the Parliamentary Session

be movable, like a reading party? Say the Bankruptcy Bill is referred

to a grand committee. What is to prevent them coming right off here and

settling down for a fortnight or three weeks, or in fact whatever time

might be necessary thoroughly to discuss the measure?"

They might do worse, we agreed, as we walked on, carefully selecting

the shady side of the road, and thinking of dear friends shivering in

England. The blue haze under which we know the lake lies; the Alps all

around, their green sides laced with snow and their heads covered with

it; the fleckless blue sky; the brown rocks, and over all and through

all the murmuring music of the invisible stream, as it trickles on its

way down the gorge, would be better accompaniments to a good grind at a

difficult Bill than any to be found within the precincts of Westminster.

"You remember what Virgil says?" the Chancery Barrister strikes in.

Divers things of diverse character we have discovered invariably remind

the Chancery Barrister of Virgil or Horace, occasionally perchance of

an English poet. This is very pleasant, and none the less so because

the reminiscences come slowly, gathering strength as they advance, like

the Chancery Barrister's laugh, which begins like the pattering of rain

on leaves, and ends in the roar of a thunderstorm. The Chancery

Barrister takes his jokes gently to begin with: he sees them afar off,

and, closing one eye, begins to smile. The smile broadens to a grin, the

grin becomes a cachinnation, then, as he hugs the fun, the cachinnation

deepens to a roar of laughter, and the thing is complete.

It is thus with his quotations, though these are not always

completed--at least, not in accordance with recognised authorities. As

one of the ladies says, with that kindliness peculiar to the sex, "The

Chancery Barrister is most original when he is making a quotation."

"What's that Wolsey says about the pomps and vanities of this world?"

"'Vain pomps and vanities of this world,'" the Chancery Barrister

begins, and we know we are in for a quotation. "No, not pomps and

vanities. 'Vain pomps and glories of this world' (that's it)--"

"'Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye.

I feel my heart new opened. O how wretched

Is the poor man that hangs on princes' favours!

There is betwixt the smile we would aspire to,

That sweet aspect of princes and their ruin,

More pangs and fears than wars or women have.'"

It's odd how one thing leads to another. By the time the Chancery

Barrister has got his quotation right, the Patriarch is half a mile

ahead in the wrong direction, and we all have to go and look for him.

The Col de Jaman is the salvation of many tourists. Not being regular

Alpine climbers, they start over the Dent and get as far as the Col,

rest awhile just under the great mountain molar, and come down. We had

a splendid day for our expedition. It had been freezing hard in the

night, and when we reached the snow region we found the pines frosted.

On the Col a beneficent commune has built some chalets furnished with

plentiful supply of firewood. Out of the sun it was bitterly cold, and

we were glad to light a fire, which crackled and roared up the broad

chimney and made a pretty accompaniment to the Chancery Barrister's

song about the Jolly Young Waterman. He sang it all in one key, and

that the wrong one. But it was a well-meant effort, and we all joined

in the chorus.

There's some talk to-day of a startling episode at an hotel up the

Rhone Valley. A Russian gentleman was sitting sipping his tea, when

there approached him a lady, who addressed him in three languages.

His replies not being satisfactory she shot him. This is cited by the

Chancery Barrister as showing the advantage of an early acquaintance

with foreign languages, and the desirableness of a pure accent.

It is quite agreed that if our Naturalist had been in the Russian's

place he would have been shot after the first question. This morning,

on ringing for his bath, he was answered by a chambermaid with a "Pas

encore." Why "not just yet" our Naturalist did not know. He was not

unusually early. But he had done his duty. He had tried to get up and

have his bath; it was not ready, so he might go back to bed with a

quiet conscience. Presently came another knock, and our Naturalist,

carefully robing himself, opened the door, and discovered the

chambermaid standing there with a plate, a knife, and a breakfast roll.

"What the dev----I mean qu'c'est qu'c'est?" he asked.

"Monsieur a demandé le petit pain," the girl replied, astonished at

his astonishment.

With great presence of mind he accepted the situation, took in the

bread, and did without his bath. The Member says that, coming upon him

suddenly amid the silence of the snow, he heard him practising the

slightly different sounds of pain and bain.

Nothing but snow between the Col and the Dent du Jaman, but snow at its

very best, hard and dry. Just before we reach the top we come upon a

huge drift frozen hard and slippery. We might have gone round, but we

decided to try and climb. The Patriarch of course was first, and

achieved the task triumphantly. Others followed, and then came the

Chancery Barrister. Another step, and he would have safely landed.

But unhappily a quotation occurred to him.

"This is jolly," he said, turning half round, with the proud

consciousness that he was at the crest and that with another stride all

would be well; "what's that Horace says about enjoying what you have?"

"'Me pascant olivae,

Me cichorea, levesque malvae,

Frui paratis, et valido mihi,

Latoe, dones, et, precor, integra

Cum----'"

Here the most terrible contortion appeared on the generally pleasant

countenance of the Chancery Barrister. He clutched desperately at the

ice; but his suspicion was too true. He had begun to move downwards

("When he got to cum he came," the Member, who makes bad jokes, says),

and with increasing impetus he slid down the bank. His face during the

terrible moments when he was not quite certain where he would stop, or

indeed whether he would ever stop, passed through a series of

contortions highly interesting to those on the bank above.

"Me pascant olivae!" cried the Member. "Olives are evidently no use as

a support in a case like yours, and diachylon would be more use to you

now than soft mallows."

The Chancery Barrister, who had happily reached the bottom, walked round

by a more accessible path, and nothing further either from Horace or

Virgil occurred to him for more than an hour.

Perhaps the difference in the weather had something to do with it, but

we found the Dent du Jaman not nearly so difficult to climb as the

Roches de Naye. After the scamper across the snow and the climb over

this little ice-collar down which the Chancery Barrister had slipped,

there is no more snow. We climb up by steps worn by the feet of many

adventurers. The top is a level cone with an area not much greater

than that of a moderate-sized dining-room. There was not a breath of

wind, and the sun beat down with a warmth made all the more delicious

by the recollection of the frozen region through which we had passed.

The Dent is only a trifle above six thousand feet high, but the prospect

as seen from it stretches far. Below is the Canton de Vaud, a portion of

the Jura chain of mountains, the far-reaching Alps of the Savoy, a bit

of the lake gleaming like an emerald under the white tops of the

mountains, a cloud on the southern horizon that the guide tells us are

the mountains of the Valais, and, still to the south just touched by the

sun, glitter the snow summits of the Great St. Bernard.

Coming down, we bivouac in the chalet, lighting up the fire again.

Here, twelve hundred feet lower down, it is bitterly cold, in spite

of, perhaps because of, the fire. The chalet is built with commendable

deference to the necessity for ventilation. The wind, smelling fire,

comes rushing over the snow, and we are glad to put on coat and caps.

The conversation turns to legal topics, and certain eminent personages

are discussed with great severity. Of one it is roundly asserted that

he is mad.

"I am quite sure of it," said the Chancery Barrister, who has recovered

his spirits with his footing, "and I'll tell you why. He seconded me

for the Reform Club, and----"

We all agree that this is quite enough; but the Chancery Barrister

insists on proceeding with his narrative, of which it seems this was

merely the introduction.

We found our Naturalist of very little use. We had expected he would

mount with us whatever heights we sought, and had pleasing views of

his explaining the flora as we went along. But he always had some

excuse that kept him on lower levels. One morning he declared he had

passed a sleepless night owing to the efforts of two Scotch lads who

occupied the room next to him. They had some taste for carpentering,

and were addicted to getting up in the dead of the night and doing odd

jobs about the room. At half-past five a.m. they left their couch and

began playing Cain and Abel. Only the Naturalist protested there is no

authority in Scripture for the fearful row Abel made when Cain got him

down on his back.

At other times our Naturalist had heard of a "Camberwell Beauty" in

the neighbourhood, and must needs go and catch it, which, by the way,

he never did. On the whole, we conclude our Naturalist is an impostor.

We reserved the Roches de Naye till the last day. It was rather a

stupendous undertaking, the landlord assuring us that four guides were

necessary. One led a horse that no one would ride, one carried the

indispensable luncheon-basket, and two fared forth at early morn to cut

steps in the snow. The sun was shining when we started on this desperate

enterprise, and it was hot enough as we toiled along the lower heights.

But when we reached the snow level, the sun had gone in, having just

shone long enough to make the snow wet. Then a cold bleak wind set in,

and we began to think that, after all, there was more in the Naturalist

than met the eye. Whilst we were toiling along, sometimes temporarily

despairing, and generally up to our waists in snow, he was enjoying the

comforts of the hotel, or strolling about in languid search of fabulous

butterflies.

Picking our way round a hill in which had been cut in the snow a ledge

about two feet wide, we came in face of the slope we were to climb. Up

at the top, looking like black ants, were the guides cutting a zigzag

path in the snow. The Member observed that if any one were to offer

him a sovereign and his board on condition of his climbing up this

slope, he would prefer to remain in indigent circumstances. As we

were getting nothing for the labour, were indeed paying for the

privilege of undertaking it, we stuck at it, and after a steady climb

reached the top, when the wind was worse than ever. It was past

luncheon time, and every one was ferociously hungry; but it was agreed

that if we camped here and lunched, we should never get to the top. So

on we went, through the sloppy snow, pursued by the keen blast that

cut through all possible clothing.

It was a hard pull and not much to see for it, since clouds had rolled

up from the west and hid the promised panorama. The wind was terrible,

and there was no shelter. But we could hold out no longer, and the

luncheon being laid upon the sloppy grass, the Patriarch, with his

accustomed impartiality, went round with his knife.

By this time we had induced him to take the sardines last, which he

obligingly did.

We ran most of the way back to the side of the hill where the snow had

been cut. The exercise made us a little warmer; and the genial influence

of the cold fowl, the hard-boiled eggs, the sardines and the thin red

wine beginning to work, we were able to enjoy the spectacle of the

Patriarch leading the first party down the perilous incline. We had

ropes, but didn't think it worth while to be tied. The party was divided

into two sections, half a dozen holding on to a rope. It must have been

a beautiful sight from many a near mountain height to watch the

Patriarch's chimney-pot hat slowly move downwards on the zigzag path.

"What's that Virgil says about ranging mountain tops?" said the Chancery

Barrister:

"Me Parnassi deserta per ardua dulcis

Raptat amor: juvat ire jugis, qua nulla priorum

Castaliam molli divertitur orbita clivo."

He had got in the centre of the second party, and with two before him,

three behind, and a firm grip on the rope, he thought it safe to quote

poetry.

We had eight days at Les Avants, of which this devoted to the ascent of

the Roches was the only one the sun did not shine upon. Whether on

mountain or in valley, what time the sun was shining it was delightfully

warm. The narcissi were not yet out, but the fields were thick with

their buds. How the place would look when their glory had burst forth on

all the green Alps we could only imagine. But already everywhere bloomed

the abundant marigolds, the hepaticae, the violets, the oxlips, the

gentians, the primroses, and the forget-me-nots.

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