Littell's Living Age/Volume 1/Issue 1/The Mauvais Pas
“THE MAUVAIS PAS.” A SCENE IN THE ALPS.
ILLUSTRATING A PASSAGE IN THE NOVEL OF ANNE OF GEIERSTEIN.
Is there an individual, who has trod at all beyond the beaten track of life, who does not harbor within his mind the recollection of some incident or incidents of so eventful a nature, that it requires but the shade of an association to bring them forward from their resting-place, bright, clear, and distinct, as at the moment of their existence? We suspect there are many who, in their hours of solitude, might be seen to manifest symptoms of such reminiscences; and many who, in the busy world, and amidst the hum of men, might also be seen to start as if visions of things long gone by were again before them, and to shrink within themselves, as though spirits of olden times “were passing before their face, and causing the hair of their flesh to stand up.”
It is now many years ago since an event of this character occurred to the writer of these pages. This event, however, such as it is, would, in all probability, never have been recorded on any other tablets than those of his own private thoughts, or have wandered beyond the limited circle of others, who, from natural causes, were interested in its details, had it not, within the last few days, been brought vividly before him, by a writer, whose unrivalled descriptive powers have so often given a semblance of truth to tales of fiction, and excited a thrill on the recital of perils and adventures, where no personal interests were called forth to give additional animation to the narrative. Long before they can peruse these lines, the readers of Blackwood’s Magazine will, doubtless, have made themselves acquainted with Anne of Geierstein; and many a mountain traveller, accustomed to sojourn amidst the heights and depths of Alpine scenery, will have borne testimony to the splendid representation of Mont Pilate, arrayed in its gloomy panoply of “vapor, and clouds, and storms,” and will have followed the daring Arthur Philipson, with breathless interest, as he wound his cautious way on the ledge of the granite precipice upreared before him: and such readers will scarcely be surprised, that a description like this should make no ordinary impression on one, who, without the slightest pretensions to the vigor and muscular activity of a hardy mountaineer of the fifteenth century, once found himself in a predicament somewhat similar, and oddly enough occasioned by a disaster akin to this, which so nearly proved fatal to the travellers from Lucerne. Believe me, Mr. Editor, when, in Sir Walter Scott’s 34th page, I descended from the platform on which the adventurous son bade adieu to his father, and gained with him the narrow ledge, creeping along the very brink of the precipice, days, months, and years shrunk away, and once again did I feel myself tottering on the airy pathway of the very platform, on which I also was once doomed to gaze, with feelings which time can never efface from my recollection.
It was in the year 1818 that I arrived in the village of Martigny, a few days after that memorable catastrophe, when, by the bursting of its icy mounds, the extensive Lake of Mauvoisin was, in an instant, let loose, pouring forth six hundred millions of cubic feet of water over the peaceful and fruitful valleys of the Drance, with the irresistible velocity of sixteen miles an hour, carrying before its overwhelming torrent every vestige of civilized life which stood within its impetuous reach. The whole village and its environs exhibited a dreary scene of death and desolation. The landlord, with many others of his acquaintance and kinsfolk, had been swept from their dwelling-places, or perished in their ruins. The wreck of a well-built English carriage occupied part of the inner court-yard, while the body, torn from its springs, had grounded upon a thicket in the field adjacent. The plains through which the treacherous stream was now winding its wonted course, had all the appearance of a barren desert. Luxuriant meadows were converted into reservoirs of sand and gravel; and crops nearly ripe for the sickle, were beaten down into masses of corrupting vegetation. Here and there amorphous piles of trees, beams, carts, stacks, and remnants of every description of building, were hurled against some fragment of rock, or other natural obstacle, forming, in many cases, it was too evident, the grave-mound of human victims soddening beneath. On the door of the dilapidated inn, the following appeal was attached; but it required no document written by the hand of man to tell the tale of wo: “The floods had passed over it, and it was gone, and the place thereof was known no more.”
“Un mouvement de la grande nature vient de changer une contrée fertile et riante en un theatre de désolation et de la misère, par l’irruption du lac de Getroz, arrivée le 16 Juin, 1818. Les victimes de cette catastrophe tendent leurs mains vers vous, images de la Divinité bienfaisante. Quelle occasion favorable d’exercer votre vertu favorite, et de verser des larmes de plaisir, en tarissant celles de malheur!”
It was impossible to contemplate effects consequent upon so awful a visitation, without a corresponding excitement of strong curiosity to follow the devastation to its source, and learn, from ocular inspection, the mode in which nature had carried on and completed her dreadful operations. Accordingly, having ascertained that although the regular roads, bridgeways, and pathways, were carried away, a circuitous course over the mountains was feasible to the very foot of the Glaciers of Mont Pleureur, which impended over the mouth of the lac de Getroz, a guide was secured, and with him, on the following morning, before sunrise, I found myself toiling through the pine-woods clothing the steep sides of the mountains to the east of Martigny. It is not, however, my intention to enter into details (though interesting enough in their way) unconnected with the one sole object, which, while I am now writing, hovers before me like Macbeth’s dagger, to the exclusion of other things of minor import. Suffice it to say, that as the evening closed, I entered a desolate large scrambling sort of mansion, formerly, as I was given to understand, a convent belonging to some monks of La Trappe; a fact confirmed by sundry portraits of its late gloomy possessors, hung round the dark dismantled chamber in which I was to sleep. The village, of which this mansion had formed a part, had been saved almost by miracle. A strong stone bridge, with some natural embankments, gave a momentary cheek to the descending torrent, which instantly rose, and in another minute must have inevitably swept away all before it, when fortunately the earth on every side gave way, the ponderous buttresses of the bridge yielded, down it sunk, and gave immediate vent to the cataract. While I was looking towards the heights of Mont Pleureur, on whose crest the spires and pinnacles of the Glacier de Getroz were visible, a stranger joined the owner of the house in which I was lodged, and from their conversation I collected that he, with a companion, had that day visited the scene of action. “And you saw it,” said the landlord. “I did,” was the reply. “And your companion?”—“No, for we did not go the lower road,” observed the traveller. “How so? did you take the upper?”—“We did,” was the answer. “Comment done? mais le Mauvais Pas?” “I crossed it,” replied the traveller. “Mon Dieu!” exclaimed the landlord; “and your companion?”—“He saw what it was and returned.” Having heard nothing of any extraordinary difficulties, I paid no great attention to this dialogue, particularly as I had the warranty of my guide that our course would be on the right bank of the river the whole way; and it was evident, that any thing like this Mauvais Pas of which the host and traveller spoke, was on the heights above the left bank. I therefore retired to rest, in high spirits, notwithstanding the sombre scowling looks of the monks which seemed to glance on me from their heavy black frames, ornamenting the panelled walls of the cheerless dormitory in which my pallet was stretched—quite sufficient, under other circumstances, to call up the recollection of every ghost and goblin slumbering in the mind, from the earliest traditions of nursery chronicles.
As the journey of the day promised, under the most favorable circumstances, to be not only long but fatiguing, and as some part of the road was represented to be passable for horses, by which much time and labor might be spared, a couple were hired, and another guide engaged to bring them back; and as we quitted the hostelry at early dawn, the beams of the rising sun were just glancing on the highest peaks of the Glaciers, at whose base our excursion was to terminate. For the first three or four hours, sometimes on the plains, at other times defiling over the heights, according to the obstacles interposed by the recent devastation, we pursued our course without any other interest, than that produced by a succession of striking objects, amidst the wildest exhibitions of mountain scenery I ever beheld. At length we descended into a valley of considerable extent, affording a flat platform, of what had been hitherto meadow land, though now a wide plain, on whose surface, in every direction, were scattered, in wild confusion, rocks and stones, and uprooted trees of all dimensions, deposited by the torrent, which had now returned to its original channel, through which it was roaring over a bed of broken granite, forming a sort of loose and coarse shingle. This valley, though unconfined towards the west, was apparently closed in towards the east, immediately in our route, by a stupendous barrier of precipitous rock, as if a mountain, impending over the river on our right, had shot forth one of its mighty arms for the purpose of arresting the waters in their progress. On drawing nearer, however, a fissure, extending from the summit to the base, through the very heart of the rock, was perceptible, through which the river rushed in a more confined channel. It naturally occurred to me, that, unless we could pass onwards through this fissure, we had nothing for it but to return; though having, in our morning’s progress, more than once forded the stream, I concluded that a similar attempt would be made in the forthcoming case, in which I was confirmed by the two guides. When, however, we drew a little nearer, I remarked, that they looked forward repeatedly with something like an anxious cast of countenance, examining here and there at the same time certain blocks of stone embedded in sniall pools, on which, although there was a communication with the river, the current had no effect, the communication being so far cut off, as to exclude even the slightest ripple. “The waters are higher than they were yesterday,” said the one. “And are rising at this moment,” replied the other, who was carefully watching the smooth side of one of these detached blocks, half filling the calm and unruffled surface of one of these diminutive lakes. And again, with scrutinizing eyes, they looked forward towards the fissure. “Shall we be able to stem the torrent in yonder spot?” I asked. “We hope so,” they hastily answered; “but not a moment most be lost;” and, suiting the action to the word, the horses were spurred on to a full trot, the eyes of both being now intensely fixed on something evidently in or near the river. “Do you see a dark speck at the foot of the left hand precipice?” observed one of the guides to me. “I do.”—“Monsieur,” continued he, “the waters are rising rapidly, by the increased melting of the snows; and if that dark stone is covered when we reach the fissure, our passage through the torrent will be hazardous, if not impracticable.” From that instant every eye was rivetted to the fragment, which, instead of becoming more marked and visible, as we shortened the intervening space, very sensibly diminished in size; and, in spite of every effort to urge the horses on, soon dwindled to a speck, and was almost immediately after, to our great mortification, entirely lost under a ripple of white foam which broke over its highest point. “Ce n’est plus nécessaire d’avancer; il faut s’arreter,” said the guides; “c’est fini.” The horses were accordingly reined in. We alighted, and I sat down in despair to secure what I could by sketching the magnificent scene before me; demanding, in a tone of forlorn hope, if it was indeed impossible to proceed, either by scaling the opposing barrier, or by any other circuitous route. On saying this, they again examined the margin of the river; but it gave no encouraging sign. The white foam had even ceased to break over the hidden stone; a swift blue stream was hurrying over it, and not a token of its existence remained. While I continued my sketch, I observed that they were in earnest conversation, walking to and fro, now looking back on the road we had travelled, and then casting their eyes upwards to the right; the only words which I could distinctly hear, for they were more than once repeated, being “Mais il faut avoir bonne tête—a-t-il bonne tête?” At length, one of them came up, and said, “Monsieur, il y a un autre chemin, mais c’est dangereux—c’est un Mauvais Pas! Avez vous bonne tête.” As the correctness of any answer to the conclusion of this address depended much upon divers particulars, and certain other data, which it behoved me to know, I begged him to describe a little more at large the precise nature of this Mauvais Pas, the ominous term recalling in an instant the words I had heard from the traveller the night before.
The result of my inquiry was very vague. That it was high amongst the mountains, and somewhat distant, there could be no doubt. That, in order to get to it, we must return, and cross the river below, where, being wider, it might still be forded, were also preliminary steps. The heights on the right were, in the next place, to be gained, and that by no very inviting path, as I could see; but these were not objections calculated to deter me from proceeding, and wherein the real difficulty consisted I could not distinctly discover. “Is, then, this Mauvais Pas much more steep and difficult than the ascent which you have pointed out amongst those rocks on the right?”—“Oh, no,” was the reply; “it is not steep at all; it is on a dead level.”—“Is it, then, very fatiguing?”—“Oh, no; it is by no means fatiguing; the ascent which you see before you, is by far the most fatiguing part of the whole route.”—“Is it, then, dangerous, owing to broken fragments of rock, or slippery grass?” for I heard them mutter something about slipping. “Oh, no; it was on hard, solid rock; and, as for grass, there was not a blade upon it. It required but une bonne tête, car si on glisse, on est perdu!” This winding up was certainly neither encouraging nor satisfactory; but having so repeatedly heard the danger of these mountain passes magnified, and their difficulties exaggerated, and the vague information above mentioned, saving and except the definitive result, being by no means in itself appalling, I expressed my readiness to try this path, if they had made up their minds to guide me. To this they consented; and preparations were instantly made; “for,” added they, “the day is waning, and you will find there is much to be done.”
We remounted the horses, and hastened back about a mile to a wide part of the river, which we succeeded in fording without much inconvenience; and soon after left them at a spot from whence they could be sent for at leisure. We then turned again to the eastward, and soon reached the foot of the heights on the left bank of the river, forming the barrier which had checked us on the other side. Up there we proceeded to mount, pressing onwards through brake and brier, boughs and bushes, to the summit of the ridge. During this part of the task, I endeavored to pick up further particulars respecting the winding up of our adventure; but all I could learn was, that, in consequence of the suspension of all communication in the valleys below, by the destruction of the roads and bridges, a chamois-hunter had, since the catastrophe, passed over this path, and that some work-people, on their way to repair the bridges, finding it practicable, had done the same; but that it had never before been used as a regular communication, and certainly never would again, as none, but from sheer necessity, would ever think of taking advantage of it. But, by way of neutralizing any unfavorable conclusions I might draw from these representations, they both added, that, from what they then saw of my capabilities in the art of climbing—for the road, here and there, required some trifling exertion—they were sure I should do very well, and had no reason to fear. Thus encouraged, I proceeded with confidence; and, in the course of rather more than an hour’s sharp ascent, we attained a more level surface in the bosom of a thick forest of pine and underwood, fronted, as far as I could guess from occasional glimpses through gaps and intervals, by a grey dull curtain of bare rock. “We are approaching the Mauvais Pas,” said one of the guides.—“Is it as rough as this?” said I, floundering as I was through hollows of loose stones and bushes. “Oh, no; it is as smooth as a foor,” was the reply.—“In a few minutes we shall be on the Pas,” said the other, as we began to descend on the eastern declivity of the ridge we had been mounting for the last hour. And then, for the first time, I saw below me the valleys of the Drance spread forth like a map, and that it required but half-a-dozen steps at most to have cleared every impediment to my descending amongst them, in an infinitely shorter time than I had expended in mounting to the elevated spot from whence I looked down upon them. And then, too, for the first time, certain misgivings, as to the propriety of going further, and a shrewd guess as to the real nature of the Mauvais Pas, flashed across me, in one of those sudden heart-searching thrills, so perfectly defined in the single word crebling—a provincial term, expressing that creeping, paralyzing, twittering, palpitating sort of sensation, which a nervous person might be supposed to feel, if, in exploring a damp and dark dungeon, he placed his hand unadvisedly upon some cold and clammy substance, which his imagination might paint as something too horrible to look at.
But whatever were the force and power of these feelings, it was not now the time to let them get the mastership. It was too late to retract—I had gone too far to recede. It would have been unpardonable to have given two Swiss guides an opportunity of publishing throughout the cantons, that an Englishman had flinched, and feared to set his foot where a foreign traveller had trod the day before. On then I went, very uncomfortable, I will candidly confess, but aided and impelled, notwithstanding, by that instinctive sort of wish, common, I believe, to all people, to know the worst in extreme cases. Curiosity, too, had its share—not merely excited by the ultimate object for which I was about to venture myself in mid air, but a secret desire to see with my own eyes a pass which had so suddenly and unexpectedly assumed importance in my fate. And after all, though there were very unequivocal symptoms of something terrible in the immediate vicinage of the undefined grey skreen of rock before me, I had as yet no certainty of its appalling realities.
For a furlong or two no great change was perceptible; there was a plentiful supply of twigs and shrubs to hold by, and the path was not by any means alarming. In short, I began to shake off all uneasiness, and smile at my imaginary fears, when, on turning an angle, I came to an abrupt termination of every thing bordering on twig, bough, pathway, or greensward; and the Mauvais Pas, in all its fearfulness, glared upon me! For a foreground, (if that could be called a foreground, separated, as it was, by a gulf of some fathoms wide,) an unsightly facing of unbroken precipitous rock bearded me on the spot from whence I was to take my departure, jutting out sufficiently to conceal whatever might be the state of affairs on the other side, round which it was necessary to pass by a narrow ledge like a mantel-piece, on which the first guide had now placed his foot. The distance, however, was inconsiderable, at most a few yards, after which, I fondly conjectured we might rejoin a pathway similar to that we were now quitting, and that, in fact, this short but fearful trajet constituted the substance and sum-total of what so richly deserved the title of the Mauvais Pas. “Be firm; hold fast, and keep your eye on the rock,” said the guide, as I, with my heart in my mouth, stept out—“Is my foot steadily fixed?”—“It is,” was the answer; and, with my eyes fixed upon the rock, as if it would have opened under my gaze, and my hands hooked like claws on the slight protuberances within reach, I stole silently and slowly towards the projection, almost without drawing a breath. Having turned this point, and still found myself proceeding, but to what degree, and whether for better or worse, I could not exactly ascertain, as I most pertinaciously continued to look upon the rock, mechanically moving foot after foot with a sort of dogged perseverance, leaving to the leading guide the pleasing task, which I most anxiously expected every moment, of assuring me that the deed was done, and congratulating me on having passed the Mauvais Pas. But he was silent as the grave—not a word escaped his lips; and on, and on, and on did we tread, slowly, cautiously, and hesitatingly, for about ten minutes, when I became impatient to learn the extent of our progress, and inquired whether we had nearly reached the other end. “Pas encore.”—“Are we half way?”—“A peu près,” were the replies. Gathering up my whole stock of presence of mind, I requested that we might pause awhile, and then, as I deliberately turned my head, the whole of this extraordinary and frightful scenery revealed itself at a glance. Conceive an amphitheatre of rock forming, throughout, a bare, barren, perpendicular precipice, of I knew not how many hundred feet in height, the two extremities diminishing in altitude as they approached the Drance, which formed the chord of this arc; that on our left constituting the barrier which had impeded our progress, and which we had just ascended. From the point where we had stepped upon the ledge, quitting the forest and underwood, this circular face of precipice commenced, continuing, without intermission, till it united itself with its corresponding headland on the right. The only communication between the two being along a ledge in the face of the precipice, varying in width from about a foot to a few inches; the surface of the said ledge, moreover, assuming the form of an inclined plane, owing to an accumulation of small particles of rock, which had, from time immemorial shaled from the heights above, and lodged on this slightly projecting shelf. The distance, from the time taken to pass it, I guessed to be not far short of a quarter of a mile. At my foot, literally speaking, (for it required but a semiquaver of the body, or the loosening of my hold, to throw the centre of gravitation over the abyss,) were spread the valleys of the Drance, through which I could perceive the river meandering like a silver thread; but, from the height at which I looked down, its rapidity was invisible, and its hoarse brawling unheard. The silence was absolute and solemn; for, fortunately, not a zephyr fanned the air, to interfere with my precarious equilibrium.
There was no inducement for the lesser birds of the fields to warble where we were, and the lammer-geyers and the eagles, if any had their eyries amidst these crags, were revelling in the banquet of desolation below. As I looked upon this awfully magnificent scene, a rapid train of thoughts succeeded each other. I felt as if I was contemplating a world I had left, and which I was never again to revisit; for it was impossible not to be keenly impressed with the idea, that something fatal might occur within the space of the next few minutes, effectually preventing my return thither as a living being. Then, again, I saw before me the forms and figures of many I had left—some a few hours, some a few weeks before. Was I to see them again or not? The question again and again repeated itself, and the oftener, perhaps, from a feeling of presumption I experienced in even whispering to myself that I decidedly should. “Si on glisse, on est perdu!” how horribly forcible and true did these words now appear,—on what a slender thread was life held! A trifling deviation in the position of a foot, and it was over. I had but to make one single step in advance, and I was in another state of existence. Such were a few of the mental feelings which suggested themselves, but others of a physical nature occurred. I had eat nothing since leaving the old convent, and the keen air on the mountains had so sharpened my appetite, that by the time I had reached the summit we had just quitted, I felt not only a good deal exhausted, but extremely hungry. But hunger, thirst, and fatigue, followed me not on the ledge. A feast would have had no charm, and miles upon a level road would have been as nothing. Every sense seemed absorbed in getting to the end; and yet, in the midst of this unenviable position, a trifling incident occurred, which actually, for the time, gave rise to something of a pleasurable sensation. About midway I espied, in a chink of the ledge, the beautiful and dazzling blossom of the little gentiana nivalis, and stopping the guides while I gathered it, I expressed great satisfaction in meeting with this lovely little flower on such a lonely spot. And I could scarcely help smiling at the simplicity of these honest people, who, from that moment, whenever the difficulties increased, endeavored to divert my attention, by pointing out or looking for another specimen. We had proceeded good part of the way, when, to my dismay, the ledge, narrow as it was, became perceptibly narrower, and, at the distance of a yard or two in advance, I observed a point where it seemed to run to nothing, interrupted by a protuberant rock. I said nothing, waiting the result in silence. The guide before me, when he reached the point, threw one foot round the projection, till it was firmly placed, and holding on the rock, then brought up the other.—What was I to do? Like Arthur Philipson’s guide, Antonia, I could only say, “I was no goat-hunter, and had no wings to transport me from cliff to cliff like a raven.”—“I cannot perform that feat,” said I to the guide; “I shall miss the invisible footing on the other side, and—then!”—They were prepared for the case; one of them happened to have a short staff; this was handed forward, and formed a slight rail, while the other, stooping down, seized my foot, and placing it in his hand, answered, “Tread without apprehension, it will support you firmly as the rock itself; be steady—go on.” I did so, and regained the ledge once more in safety. Time possible repetition of such an exploit was not by any means to my taste, and I ventured to question the foremost guide as to the chance of its recurrence, and the difficulties yet in store. Without pretending to disguise them, he proceeded to dilate upon the portion of our peregrination still in reserve, when the other interrupted him impatiently, and in French instead of Patois, (forgetting, in his anxiety to enjoin silence, that I understood every word he uttered,) exclaimed, “Not a word more, I entreat you. Speak not to him of danger; this is not the place to excite alarm; it is our business to cheer and animate;” and in the true spirit of his advice, he immediately pointed to a bunch of little gentians, exclaiming, “Eh, donc, qu’elles sont jolies! Regardez ces charmantes fleurs!” Long before I had accomplished half the distance, and had formed a correct opinion as to what remained in hand, the propriety of turning back had more than once suggested itself; but on looking round, the narrowness of the shelf already passed presented so revolting an appearance, that what with the risk to be incurred in the very act of turning about, and forming any thing like a pirouette in my present position, added to an almost insurmountable unwillingness to recede, for the reasons above mentioned, and the chance that, as it could not well be worse, the remainder might possibly be better, I decided on going on, estimating every additional inch as a valuable accession of space, with a secret proviso, however, in my own mind, that nothing on earth should induce me to return the same way, notwithstanding the declaration of the guides that they knew of no other line, unless a bridge, which was impassable yesterday, had been made passable to-day; and we knew the people were at work, for a man had gone before us with an axe over his shoulder.
Thus persevering with the speed of a tortoise or a sloth, the solemn slow movements of hand and foot forcibly reminding me of that cautious animal, we at last drew near to a more acute point in the curve of this gaunt amphitheatre, where it bent forward towards the river, and consequently we were more immediately fronted by the precipice forming the continuation of that on which we stood. By keeping my head obliquely turned inwards, I had hitherto in great measure avoided more visual communication than I wished with the bird’s-eye prospect below; but there was no possibility of excluding the smooth bare frontage of rock right ahead. There it reared itself from the clods beneath to the clouds above, without outward or visible sign of fret or fissure, as far as I could judge, on which even a chamois could rest its tiny hoof; for the width of whatever ledge it might have was diminished, by the perspective view we had of it, to Euclid’s true definition of the mathematical line, namely, length without breadth. At this distance of time, I have no very clear recollection of the mode of our exit, and cannot speak positively as to whether we skirted any part of this perilous wall of the Titans, or crept up through the corner of the curve, by some fissure leading to the summit. I have, however, a very clear and agreeable recollection of the moment when I came in contact with a tough bough, which I welcomed and grasped as I would have welcomed and grasped the hand of the dearest friend I had upon earth, and by the help of which I, in a very few more seconds scrambled upwards, and set my foot once more, without fear of slips or sliding on a rough heathery surface, forming the bed of a ravine, which soon led us to an upland plateau, on which I stood as in the garden of paradise.
In talking over our adventure, one of the guides mentioned a curious circumstance that had occurred either to himself or a brother guide, I forget which, in the course of their practice. He was escorting a traveller over a rather dizzy height, when the unfortunate tourist’s head failed, and he fainted on the spot. Whereupon the mountaineer, a strong muscular man, with great presence of mind; took up his charge, threw him over his shoulder, and cooly walked away with him till he came to a place of safety, where he deposited his burden, and awaited the return of sense; “but,” added he, “had such a misfortune occurred on the Mauvais Pas, you must have submitted to your fate; the ledge was too narrow for exertion,—we could have done nothing.”
We were now not much more than a league from our original destination, a space of which, whether fair or foul, I cannot speak with much precision, so entirely was every thought and sense engrossed in the business which had occupied so large a portion of the last hour. It is merely necessary to inform the reader, that at the expiration of a given time, I stood before the ruins of a stupendous mound formed of condensed masses of snow and ice, hurled down from above by the imperceptible but gradual advancement of the great Glacier of Getroz, nursed in a gorge beneath the summit of Mont Pleureur. Not a moment passed without the fall of thundering avalanches, bounding from rock to rock, till their shattered fragments, floundering down the inclined plane of snow, finally precipitated themselves into the bed of the channel through which the emancipated Lac de Mauvoisin had, in the brief space of half an hour, rushed, after it had succeeded in corroding the excavated galleries, and blown up in an instant its icy barrier.
Seated on a knoll immediately fronting the stage on which this grand scenery was represented, we rested for some time, during which we were joined by one or two of the workmen employed in repairing the roads and bridge to which the guides had alluded; and the first question asked was, “Peut on le traverser?” No direct answer followed; it was evidently, therefore, a matter of doubt, requiring at least some discussion, during which, although the parties conversed in an under-tone, I again heard, more than once, the disagreeable repetition of “Mais, a-t-il bonne tête?” and a reference was finally made to me. It seems the bridge had been completely destroyed, but some people had that morning availed themselves of the commencement of a temporary accommodation, then in a state of preparation, and had crossed the chasm; and provided Monsieur had a bonne tête, there was no danger in following their example. Hesitation was out of the question; for whatever might be the possible extent of risk, in duration and degree it clearly could bear no comparison with the Mauvais Pas, the discomfiting sensations of which were still too fresh in my recollection to indulge a thought of encountering them a second time in the same day. I therefore decided on the bridge without more ado, coute qui coute; and as we descended towards the river, I had soon the pleasure of seeing it far below me, and plenty of time to make up my mind as to the best mode of ferrying myself over. Of the original arch not a vestige remained; but across two buttresses of natural rock I could distinguish something like a tight rope, at the two extremities of which little moving things, no bigger than mites, were bustling about, and now and then I could perceive one or two of these diminutive monocules venturing upon this apparently frail line of communication. A nearer view afforded no additional encouragements At a depth of ninety feet below roared the Drance, foaming and dashing with inconceivable violence against its two adamantine abutments, which here confined the channel within a space of about thirty or forty feet. From rock to rock, athwart the gulf, two pine poles had that morning been thrown, not yet rivetted together, but loosely resting side by side. It certainly was not half
- “As full of peril, and adv-ent’rous spirit,
- As to o’erwalk a current, roaring loud,
- On the unsteadfast footing of a spear;”
but it was, notwithstanding, a very comfortless piece of footing to contemplate. Ye mariners of England, who think nothing of laying out on a topsail yard to pass an earing in a gale of wind, ought have smiled at such a sight, and crossed merrily over, without the vibration of a nerve; but let it be recollected, as a balance for a landsman’s fears, that these two spars were neither furnished with accommodating jack-stays, supporting footropes, nor encircling gaskets, to which the outlayer might cling in case of emergence. There they rested, one edge on each projecting promontory of the chasm, in all their bare nakedness. In the morning, I might have paused to look before I leaped; but what were forty or fifty feet of pine vaulting, in comparison with the protracted misery of a quarter of a mile of the Mauvais Pas? So forthwith committing myself to their support, on hands, and knees I crawled along, and in a few minutes trode again on terra firma, beyond the reach of further risk, rejoicing, and, I trust, not ungrateful for the perils I had escaped.
- ^ The technical term for an operation necessary in reefing topsails.