Page:Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II Dec 1859 to June 1860.pdf/62

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January 14, 1860.]

A WALK UP-STAIRS.

49


storied houses of Paris, or of old Edinburgh, or the ten-storied dwellings of Genoa, with seats on the landings like mountain-hospices, can supply such stairs. No: nor yet Albert House, with its crowning tricolor, planted probably by some venturous and successful member of the Alpine Club.

“Well, then, it is after all perhaps only a flight of imagination.”

By no means; but rather forty-nine bonâ fide flights of some eighty odd steps each.

“Good gracious! why that makes four thousand steps.”

Precisely, and that is the little walk up-stairs to which we desire to invite you.

“Oh, you mean the treadmill.”

Well, if this dilatoriness in coming to the point exposes a poor traveller to such unflattering surmises, he must at once clear himself from the imputation of having taken inglorious exercise in this obligato manner, and explain that it was, on the contrary, perfectly ad libitum, and at the Piedmontese mountain fort of Fenestrelle.

Most of the mountain passes leading from France into Italy, which are provided with roads practicable for horses or artillery, have similar forts erected on some commanding position. That of Bard in the valley of Aosta, is well known from the manner in which Napoleon (not much to the credit of the Austrian commander) slipped past before the campaign of Marengo, and after crossing the great St. Bernard, not as is generally pictured to youthful minds, on a rearing white charger, but on the far more convenient, though certainly less romantic conveyance—a mulet.

Mont Cenis also has its frowning defences; but in the way of stairs we believe Fenestrelle beats them all.

The spot which has been selected for its construction is where a spur of the mountain descends into the valley at a sharp turn in the course of the latter, and from the narrow ridge of which spur, the road up and down the valley is completely commanded for a considerable distance. Starting from a fort at the bottom, through the defences of which the road passes, the successive fortifications ascend in alternate loop-holed walls, batteries and forts, up to St. Elmo, which covers the loftiest rock at an immense height, and reposes in cold strength amid snow for nearly half the year, and clouds and mist for a good part of the remainder.

It is difficult at the present day to say what is, or is not, impregnable in the matter of fortifications; certain it is that a very good French general, Catinat, climbed his guns and army to a plateau high up on the mountain, in order to attack the works from thence, as being a position offering the best chances of success, but failed to take them; thus paying a great but no doubt very reluctant, compliment to the still more celebrated Vauban, whose engineering talents, earlier in Louis the Fourteenth’s reign, had planned these very defences, then situated on French ground. What rifled guns or steel-pointed shot may do, has yet to be proved; but while the locale is in the hands of 500 good artillerymen, it is very evident that any army hampered with all the impediments of war, must pass a “mauvais quart d’heure” in this valley of Pragelas.

“Revenons a nos escaliers.” It will readily be imagined that the privilege of ascending 4000 steps for about two hours is a rare treat, not to be obtained without asking. “Donnez vous la peine de monter,” is the polite mode in which a Frenchman will ask you up-stairs; but “Permettez nous la peine de monter,” is what we have to say to the general commanding, and he in our case gave a ready permission. Fortified with this paper, we (four in number) proceeded under the escort of a non-commissioned officer to a strong-looking door, covered with iron bars and nails, which appeared to be set in a stone wall. Unbarring, unbolting, and unlocking this door, he let us into a stone gallery, and intimated that we must ring a bell which we should find near the top flight. The sergeant, however, did not accompany us, but merely remarking: “Montez, montez toujours, Messieurs, et bon voyage!” he relocked, rebarred, and rebolted the door behind us.

It was not a case of “voi che entrate qui lasciate ogni speranza;” our hopes of egress were, it is true, 4000 steps off, but, these surmounted the bell would bring to our aid another serjeant, exalted at nearly the height of Skiddaw from the plain, above his comrade who had just barred us out from the rest of the world. Looking around, we found ourselves in a stone gallery—stone above and below and on each side—ending in a flight of stone steps of portentous length. Up these we proceeded briskly enough at first, but soon slackened our pace, as lungs and the new muscles thus unfairly brought into play began equally to object to so unusual a trial. “Chi va piano, va lontano,” said the most experienced of our party; and, taking his advice, we continued slower but steadily to mount, flight after flight, interrupted here and there by short landings, and inclining occasionally slightly to the right or left, but always following the upward course of the mountain ridge up which we were thus climbing, without, however, seeing much in our stone prison. Loopholes there were in the walls, now on one side now on the other, according as the galleries were constructed to command westward up the valley or eastward down it; but the view from most of these narrow openings was not extensive. Occasionally, too, we passed side-galleries, leading to the several batteries or block-houses; but generally it was one uniform succession of long flights of steps and short galleries. “One thousand,” said at last one of our party. “What! only one thousand!” broke from the lips of others: we thought we had achieved at least half. However, at length two thousand were really turned, and onwards we went, for now

we are up steps
Mounted so far, that should we climb no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

In fact, however, we found the second thousand decidedly easier than the first, and the third and fourth thousand less and less irksome. We were evidently becoming used to it. However, hot and winded by such continued mounting, we felt it would be too imprudent to call a halt with the wind blowing coldly through the narrow loop-