Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Guides and glaciers

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Nine and thirty years ago, that is to say in the year 1821, guides in Switzerland were by no means so numerous as they are now. Those who follow that occupation are necessarily men of intelligence and thorough respectability, and, whilst in many families the calling is hereditary, no man offers himself to fill the responsible duties of such a post, unless he be assured that he is considered equal to the undertaking.

Henri Rochat, of the valley of Grindelwald, had been tacitly allowed for several years to be the guide selected when any man of science visited that locality, as he who could give the best information on the subjects of botany and geology. Henri could tell where the mountain gentian, or anemone, or the brightest and rarest mosses grew most luxuriantly, or where the formation of such and such a glacier had receded or advanced. His moral character also stood very high, notwithstanding that in a Roman Catholic canton he had been educated by his parents in the Protestant faith. This circumstance had, it is true, often cost him a jeer and reproach among his comrades, and the sobriquet of M. le Protestant, was certainly not intended to convey either compliment or good will.

Henri lost his father when he was about fifteen years of age; and before he had reached his twenty-second year, the usual age when men are admitted amongst the limited number of guides, he had already escorted more than one traveller to the neighbouring glaciers and heights. Alpine House (Skelton).pngHe attached, perhaps, too much importance to the good name which he enjoyed, and an event occurred which, as is often the case, affected him in the most vulnerable part of his character.

Several summers had succeeded to that in which he had first assumed his rank amongst the “guides,” and it was in the year 1821 that a visitor arrived at the priest’s house, whose reputation as a savant had reached the ears of even the simple inhabitants of the valley, and Henri was immediately summoned to attend him in his pedestrian expedition.

This gentleman was M. Meuron, a Protestant clergyman from a neighbouring canton,—a young man much beloved and esteemed by his friends and every member of his flock; and in addition to his amiable disposition, were joined an ardent thirst for knowledge, and an enthusiastic love of enterprise,—qualities which received hourly gratification and encouragement in mountain excursions. The first day was devoted to visiting the glacier of Rosenlaüy, so exquisite in intensity of colour, and so grand in extent, that M. Meuron was excited to an increased ardour for exploring the wonders of the neighbourhood.

It was on the 31st of August that he set out, accompanied by his chosen guide, Henri Rochat, to visit a Mer de glace, situated above the inferior glacier of Grindelwald. They started immediately after dawn, on one of those days when the air itself appears to awaken inexpressible delights in the traveller’s heart, and when each fresh gleam of light adds an unexpected and increasing beauty to the enchanting scene which greets the eye. They followed, at first, the path at the foot of the valley, which, passing through meadows and small pine forests, continues rising for about three-quarters of a league, the bright and sparkling glaciers frequently appearing between the branches and foliage of the dark firs. At nine o’clock they reached a peasant’s hut, where they rested a short time. A little beyond the hut, the path winds along the edge of a fearful precipice, where it is so narrow, that there is not space for two feet to be placed together. But M. Meuron, preceded by Henri, crossed it in safety. As soon as he was once more on the broad path, he turned to gaze with awe and admiration on the lofty peak of the Eiger, which rises on the opposite side of the glacier with a formidable front, and Henri pointed out to his companion a round aperture, through which, twice in the year, the sun shines and lights up the church and cemetery of Grindelwald.

After a further ascent of two hours they reached Serenberg, where a goatherd’s hut tempted our travellers to repose for a time; M. Meuron shared his provisions with Henri and the owner of the hut, and conversed cheerfully and kindly with them both. The herd accompanied them some distance from his habitation, leaving them about ten minutes before they reached the frightful abyss, from which this unfortunate young man was destined never to return. The width of the chasm which lay before them, in the glacier to which they had climbed, was about seven or eight feet, and its length from twelve to fifteen feet. M. Meuron continued to contemplate this wondrous icy well, and commented upon the difficulty of gauging its great depth. To give him an idea of the sound produced by throwing down some substance into the vast fissure, Henri went back a few paces in search of a stone: he stooped to pick up one, and on raising himself and turning round, to his terror and alarm he no longer perceived M. Meuron. He approached the chasm, but saw nothing, excepting the Alpen-stock, which, with its iron spike, was fixed in a fissure of the rock, a few feet below the brink. In a state of mind bordering on distraction, Henri went round the aperture, calling aloud with all his strength. Alas! no answer was returned! He could only conclude that in the brief interval of his turning back, M. Meuron had approached the very edge of the precipice to examine it more closely, had leaned upon his pole fixed in the manner described, and his feet slipping upon the ice, he had lost his balance, and thus fallen into the abyss. Who that has experienced the agony of witnessing a sudden and fatal accident, has not felt the wild despairing thought, “if the last five minutes could but be recalled?” To poor Henri came this cruel pain of unavailing regret. Help must be had; he would seek the nearest. With all speed he returned to Serenberg, in search of the goatherd, and they hastened together to the spot. All their cries were unresponded to, and their eyes strained in vain to discover some glimpses of the body.

Nothing could be done, but to carry the mournful intelligence to the valley and to the curé, who alone could communicate with the friends and family of M. Meuron. Henri redescended the path, accompanied by the goatherd,—that path which a few hours before he had taken with him who now lay senseless in an icy grave!

The sad tale was told! And now what could be done to recover the body, if, indeed, as they feared, life was extinct?

The curé lost no time in summoning four strong men from the village, and decided to ascend the glacier with them, Henri and the goatherd, in spite of the rain and the darkness of the evening, which was fast closing in.

After a rugged and tedious walk, they arrived at the fatal abyss. Its yawning mouth seemed indeed a sepulchre. But he was there, and although they ceased to hope for life, they must endeavour to recover his body. They had been obliged to use lanterns during the last half-hour of the ascent, and, lowering one from a cord, they kept their eyes attentively fixed upon the light, but no dark object met their view. They held their breath to listen, but the falling water of the cascade below was the only sound which met their ears. All present exertions were evidently ineffectual, and all felt the sorrowful necessity of retracing their steps to the valley. The next morning the curé’s first care was to communicate the sad event to the Government of Berne, and to the friends and relations of the deceased.

The exciting news spread rapidly from mouth to mouth in Grindelwald; and two or three guides, and some young men of the village, loitered all night at the sign of the Ours Noir (at that time its only inn), and discussed the event over and over again, each one giving his view of what had happened, and what remained now to be done. Everyone knows in a village, how the smallest event becomes exaggerated, and truth and facts are perverted. The awful and sudden disappearence of a fellow-creature, whom several of them had seen depart from the valley full of health and spirits in the early morning, naturally gave rise to all sorts of speculations. Alas, for human nature!—envy and ill-will found their place in the peaceful and beautiful Grindelwald. After many useless discussions as to how the event had happened, the suggestion was whispered, that there might have been foul play;—a rival of Henri Rochat, who envied the favour of pretty Justine Berthet, spoke out more boldly than the rest. Another bigoted and cynical neighbour, remarkable for his protracted genuflexions to his patron saint (who certainly did not encourage generous tempers), hinted that Protestants, he knew, were capable of any crime, if they could get anything by it, and that M. Meuron had a purse full of money and a gold watch upon his person, quite a sufficient temptation to rob and murder him in a silent spot like the Mer de Glace. Some two or three peasants would not relinquish their faith in Henri’s honour and probity, but they were silenced, and, before another morning dawned, poor Henri was a suspected murderer.

For himself, night having set in, he had returned almost heartbroken to his châlet. His grief relieved itself in words and tears, as he recounted to his sympathising mother all the events of the sad day. He dwelt upon his companion’s kindness and goodness, and again and again he detailed the agony he felt as he turned and found himself alone!

At length he yielded to Madame Rochat’s request to try and sleep; but he could not rest in the narrow wooden crib, with slanting roof—the peasant’s usual bed—and he longed for air. So, softly opening the door upon the gallery, he crept out and passed the chill hour or two before the dawn broke over the distant and snowy peaks, in sorrowful reflection. He resolved, as soon as he saw signs of movement amongst his neighbours, he would visit Justine, and hear her kind words of consolation in this sorrow—little anticipating what awaited him, in the cold looks of his former friends and companions.

Sleep must have surprised him, or his senses at least have been stupified for a brief hour, since when he again raised his head from his hands, the sun was sending slanting gleams down the valley, and all the village was astir. He descended to the fountain in the small garden, and in the cool water there he endeavoured to wash away the traces of outward emotion, which no man, much less a sturdy mountaineer, likes to be seen on his sun-burnt face. He wandered from home between the low stone walls which bounded the narrow path of the village, but on addressing a few words to the first neighbour he met, he was only answered by a shrug of the shoulder or some strangely inappropriate remark, when he spoke of the sad event of the previous day. He could not comprehend their strange conduct, but he quickened his steps to Justine, whose tenderness and sympathy were sure not to disappoint him.

He entered the small outhouse attached to her father’s châlet, where he knew he should find her, either starting to, or returning from her goats, who browsed on the hill side; and this morning she was there, not actively bustling about amongst her white wooden pails, but sitting weeping, and apparently heedless of the steps which now sounded on the earthen floor. Henri soon claimed her attention, and by degrees extorted from her the confession, that her father was indignant at a rumour which had reached him; and at length, with many tears and tender assurances of her own confidence in his integrity, she made him understand the cruel suspicions which had circulated in the village. Even conscious innocence could not save the poor fellow from the pain of being supposed guilty of so great a crime: it needed all Justine’s fond words of encouragement to be patient for a while, to soothe and cheer him; and at length he felt that the heaviest trial in store for him was to communicate what he had heard to his mother. With difficulty he made Madame Rochat understand of what he was accused; and her indignation at the calumny knew no bounds. They could only gain consolation in their belief that M. Meuron’s family would certainly desire to recover the body, and they both desired that every step should be taken for that end.

It was on the 6th of September, that two friends of the deceased made their appearance at the priest’s house. The clear and circumstantial account given by the curé, proved how inevitable the sad event had been, and their only desire now was, to find the inanimate body of their beloved friend. They begged to be guided to the glacier, and Henri immediately requested to be their escort, to which they consented. They conversed with him by the way, and heard every detail of the catastrophe: but on approaching the fatal spot, they all acknowledged the obstacles which existed to realising their last hope. They had brought no appliances for the recovery of the body, and they occupied themselves in sounding the depth of the abyss, which was found to be from 125 to 130 feet, and in devising what means should be adopted for descending it. Poor Henri retraced his steps to the village, following the rest of the party. It required some struggle to conquer his impatience, and to wait quietly for the development of events;—he longed to be called into exertion, and thus to lessen the pressure upon his over-taxed mind. He had in the agony of his wounded feelings resolved that he would not see Justine again until his good name was restored to him. Her father had suspected him, and he would not make another visit to his châlet until he could again be received with a cordial greeting beneath that roof. Confined to his own small house, a voluntary prisoner as it were, he tried to occupy his hands, if not his thoughts, with wood-carving, in which he was so skilful. His tools and box-wood rarely saw the daylight in those long days when mountain expeditions and visits to the cows in their lofty pastures, were his usual occupation, for they were reserved to beguile the tedium of winter evenings, and the sale of them to those persons who disposed of them in the large towns brought a considerable addition to the family store.

But now he sat and carved and chiselled, and spoiled in one day more than he could restore the next. He pined to be up and doing; and there is no harder lesson to a man of his character than to be patient in inactivity.

It seemed to Henri a month; but it was on the morning of the 11th of September that Madame Rochat entered the house with an expression on her face which told of some news of interest. As she returned from spreading her flax upon the small greensward she possessed at a short distance from the châlet, she had heard that two more of M. Meuron’s friends had arrived at early dawn, and that every arrangement was making for an expedition the following morning. Henri sprung from his stool, and declared his resolution to form one of the party. It could not be refused to him. He set out immediately, ran hastily to the Presbytère, and, presenting himself to the curé, entreated to make one of the fifteen men who were to be employed in the laborious work before them. The good old man acknowledged the justice of the request, and it was agreed that Henri, the goatherd, and Berguez, the master of the small inn, were to take part—the three gentlemen and M. le Curé were necessarily of the party.

The weather in the early morning did not seem quite propitious to their wishes, for vapoury clouds were hanging low and heavily; but in the hope that the sun might ere long have its influence and disperse them, they set forward on the route, now become familiar to several of their number. As they passed the small forest of firs, they selected two which were straight and strong, and cut them down for future use. These were carried by four men, two to each, until they arrived at the place where the path became dangerous from the projecting rock before mentioned, and here, as only one person could attempt the passage, the goatherd of Serenberg stepped forward, offered his services, and with as much courage as dexterity, he passed in safety, carrying first one fir and then another. Seven or eight of the labourers had set out before the rest of the party, to begin the work of turning the course of the torrent which falls into the abyss, as the spray from it would render any descent into the icy well both rash and fruitless; and for this purpose they had hollowed in the ice a channel, through which the water flowed. As soon as they reached the aperture, others of the labourers occupied themselves in placing the two fir trees over it, and in fixing to them in a very solid manner a smaller piece of wood, to form a cross-beam. Henri exerted himself to assist with his utmost strength, and every circumstance which seemed to retard operations made him feel irritable and impatient. The rain, which had long been threatening, now fell in torrents, and the whole party, driven from their work and superintendence of it, were obliged to seek shelter at the two or three huts in Serenberg. As soon as it was a little abated, they returned to the glacier, each man carrying a clod of earth, to render the banks of the water-course more compact and secure; and it was decided to attempt the descent. Henri would glady have undertaken it; but with the odious suspicion attached to him, his native delicacy of feeling told him it must be left to others to proclaim his innocence. He could not conceal from himself what many others have experienced in a similar situation, that innocence and guilt often assume the same appearance. His nervous fears, his irritation, and impatience of manner, might have produced the same impression upon the bystanders, whether originating from the fear of detection, or the hope of exculpation. He listened with a beating heart to the proposals which were about to be made. A guide, who the previous day had offered his services to perform the task, refused to venture under such unfavourable circumstances. The landlord of the Bear Inn stepped forward, and declared he was ready to descend. Being provided with a change of clothes, it appeared that his resolution had been previously formed, although he had not communicated it to anyone. He was immediately enveloped in a net made with strong cords firmly united together, to which stronger cords of considerable length were attached. One of them, called the safety cord, was fastened round the arm, others to the shoulders and waist, and a spare one was to be used as occasion might require. His head was covered by a goat’s skin, to protect him in some degree from the dashing of the water, ten or twelve strong men having firm hold of the ropes in such a manner as to pay them out gently. Berguez seated himself on the transverse beam, which was supported by the firs, and then gradually letting go his hold, he began the descent slowly. Soon after a cry was heard, and the labourers began to draw back the ropes. A breathless group awaited the arrival of the enterprising man who had reached the top. As soon as he had recovered himself sufficiently to speak, he told them that he thought he had seen the body, but that from the continual dashing of the water upon his head, he became so giddy that he durst not descend far enough to be assured of the fact. Having, however, restored himself with some kirschen-wasser, he descended a second, and even a third time, equally unsuccessfully.

An expedient now occurred to one of the party: it was to hollow out three small reservoirs, and employ a certain number of men to empty them as fast as they filled. This plan so completely succeeded, that in a very short space of time, no water at all fell into the abyss. All eyes now turned upon Berguez, who declared he was quite recovered and equal to the work, and he descended as before: having reached the bottom, and remained there five or six minutes, the spray evidently no longer distracted and oppressed him. From his account afterwards, it appeared that the well was nearly the same width the whole way, but slightly on the incline; the water, in falling, had dashed with violence against the side, and, forcing itself a passage, had formed a sort of lateral gallery, which in all probability communicated with the source of the Lutschen. The bottom was entirely covered with stones of various dimensions, differently sized boulders. It was at the entrance of this gallery that Berguez discovered the body, lying between two large stones, where no doubt it had been driven by the force of the current. It was frozen, and nearly half under water. After extracting it, and making it quite secure with his spare rope, he gave the signal to be drawn up. As soon as this laborious operation commenced, a painful anxiety filled each heart,—Henri’s beat almost to bursting. He knew his innocence, and only longed to see, and have seen by others, the corpse of the poor young man, in the same condition in which it fell. Still it was possible the body had received blows in falling which might excite suspicion. As it was being slowly drawn up, Henri, with many others, advanced close to the brink, and on hearing some muttered groan from one of the by-standers, and the exclamation, “The body is stripped!” he cast one despairing glance over the edge, and saw, to his unspeakable horror, that the limb which was visible was bare. It seemed as though some evil genius were at work for his destruction; and, trembling and in despair, he rushed to a short distance from the group, and sinking upon the ground, he buried his face in his hands. He was roused by a voice exclaiming, “Come and receive his purse and watch!” and Henri, starting up and breaking through the crowd, saw that the legs of the trowsers had been entirely torn off by the friction, and that the rest of the person was clothed as when he fell. The poor fellow burst into tears, and throwing himself into the arms of one of M. Meuron’s friends, embraced him with an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude. Each one in turn offered their congratulations, and for a few minutes their attention was called from him whom they had come to seek. They released the body from the cord attached to it, and those who had loved him for many years, drew near to contemplate the change which such a sudden death would have caused.

Although the body had remained twelve days at the bottom of the abyss, not a feature of the face had undergone any disfiguring alteration; even the eyes had a look of calmness and serenity, sufficient to warrant the hope that his sufferings, instead of being prolonged, were terminated at once by the fall. The forehead was a little compressed, and there were evident marks of contusion on the face. The left leg and arm were broken in several places, as also the backbone.

The body having been wrapped in a sheet, two of the fir trees were used, from which to sling it lengthways, and it was arranged it should be carried by two men at a time, relieving each other. Henri was impatient to be one of the first bearers of the sad burthen, but his agitation had left its effects in shaking his strong frame, and he resolved he would take his turn at the last, and thus bear it into the village. As they left the small pine forest, and came upon the open valley, Henri placed a pole upon his shoulders, and thus walked foremost of the sorrowful and large party as they wound slowly down on their way to the Presbytère. The glow of the sunset had just subsided, and all nature was under the influence of the death-like leaden hue which succeeds it, but which again in a few minutes gives place to a warm and roseate colouring. It is more than probable that one or more of those who contemplated this singular but unvarying effect at the setting of the sun, felt and applied some consoling thoughts to their present sorrow. Many of the villagers had assembled through curiosity, but Henri saw only two women, the one supporting the other. They needed no words to assure them that Henri’s innocence was declared, since the corpse was there, which was all that was necessary to proclaim it.

Alpine Glacier (Skelton).png

As soon as the melancholy duty was performed of laying the sad burthen in the small vestibule of the Presbytère, Henri hastened towards his home. His mother and Justine met him as he quitted the garden of the curé, and the happiness of that moment, when he alternately embraced them, repaid him for his previous hours of distress and anxiety. His friends and companions crowded round him with hearty expressions of good-will, and much as he had suffered from their defection, he was too happy not to be generous, and forgive their unjust suspicions.

The funeral followed very speedily. The sorrowing friends felt their mission was done. They should hear the last solemn service said over the remains of him they loved, and see them placed in the wild, but picturesque village cemetery. The train of mourners was very numerous; the friends of M. Meuron, the Syndic of the district, and most of the inhabitants of the place.

A lovely autumn morning shone upon the procession as it slowly left the Presbytère, and moved on its way up a beaten but rising path to the little church. Before the earth was closed over the coffin, and as the crowd, in profound silence, was standing round the earthy and not icy grave, which at last received the body of this excellent young pasteur, the stillness of the scene was broken by the sharp report of two or three small avalanches, which, loosened by the warmth of the sun, fell like streams of milk from the sides of a neighbouring mountain. One of his friends remarked afterwards, that Nature herself was rendering a last homage to one who had lost his life in the contemplation of her wonders.

The marriage of Henri Rochat and Justine Berthet was the next service performed in the little village church; but the events which preceded it long left a mournful impression upon the simple inhabitants of Grindelwald.

A son of Berguez, at the “Ours Noir,” still shows the medal which his father received from the municipality of Berne for his courage and humanity.