AT Chiavenna and thereabouts the presence of the diligence still confronts the traveller with its particular memories of leisurely travel.
The railroad is fast crowding the good old stage-coach off most of the lines of travel in the Alps. It has long since done so in the plains. We are witnessing the slow extinction of a peculiar method of transportation, the few reminders of which will presently find themselves among the curiosities of the lumber-room, or will be catalogued in museums under the head of the history of travel, and labelled in a list beginning with the ox-cart and ending with the flying machine. The diligence ,is daily growing to be more and more of a memory. In some parts of the Alps it already belongs to the good old times. Therefore its reminiscence should be promptly chronicled.
There are railroad plans and counter-plans for tunnelling, spanning, circling, overcoming, and generally circumventing the Alps. New inventions and novel appliances are being brought to bear on the transit problem, making startling promises and raising grand hopes. Especially is little Switzerland busy in this attack upon the integrity of the Alps. After making its own valleys and peaks accessible to the tourist world, it has drawn its big neighbours into connivance to destroy the aloofness of the great European back-bone and lower its pride. Two historic tunnels already connect the progressive little republic with Italy and the Italian lakes, namely, those of the St. Gothard and the Simplon. France has its Mont Cenis on the west and Austria its Brenner on the east, both placing the traveller within short distances of the lakes. Other connections must follow in due time, every fresh enterprise of this sort displacing some old-established line of diligences and relegating these vehicles to a past which is not without its cherished and particular adventures.
Therefore, without permitting ourselves to disparage in the least the virtues of train and steam or electric traffic, virtues which are many and welcome, let fancy range for awhile over the achievements and merits of the diligence as a means of travel.
It would seem that the children have been the ones to appreciate the merits of the diligence even more than their elders. They have had no sense of responsibility for en-gaging places, for seeing the baggage on, for making sure of rooms at the end of the journey; they have felt no pressure to arrive on time, or to make connections anywhere with anything. They have been care-free, tuned to enjoy the exhilarating sense of being on the go, in a large-sized carriage, from which they have actually been allowed to get out and walk uphill. The elders might complain of the dust or expostulate against the scorching sun, but nothing could destroy for the children that delightfully adventurous sensation of going on and on into the great world, not knowing whither and not needing to know.
The pace of the diligence may be slow, but it moves to its destination from valley to slope, from zigzag to pass, up hill and down dale in such a way as to let the country be seen. The telegraph-poles do not fly past, but succeed each other without losing a decorous identity. It is possible to sight a favourite flower or bird on the edge of the forest, to catch a smile or return a greeting from a wayside cottage, to see the haymakers in the field and the women drawing water at the village fountain.
The equipment and accoutrements of diligence travel vary in the different portions of the Alps, from Savoy through Switzerland to Tyrol and Styria, but resemblances are many. The coaches are invariably yellow. On the great Swiss diligences there is a glass-covered box in front and a hooded lookout up behind. During the height of the tourist season diligence travel pretty much everywhere means getting up at dawn and manoeuvring in the half-light so as not to be forced to ride inside the diligence itself. This seems paradoxical. The explanation is that all, except those who have secured out-side seats, want to ride in one of the nice open extra carriages, which are generally found necessary during the season. Hence there is much hanging back, quite unaccountable to the novice, but perfectly clear to the tourist who has ever ridden all day inside the diligence. Time-inured and season-hardened tourists aver that there is a way of being too late for the inside of the diligence and just in time for a seat in the extra carriage, — but there are risks.
Now let us indulge in a supposed trip by diligence, which shall be thoroughly reminiscent, and yet not commit us to any particular starting-place or point of arrival. The seats having been apportioned, the four or five horses can now be led out from the stables. Their hoofs are blackened, the strings of bells around their necks jingle interestingly, and the stable-boy with the tasselled cap helps the driver hitch them up. It cannot be said that they look particularly gay or festive. They do not champ impatiently to be off, like the steeds in historical romances, but they seem willing; they can be made, to see their duty and to do it. As the journey progresses, we learn to appreciate their kindly demeanour even under trying circumstances, and at the various halting-places we strike up a speaking acquaintance with the fat one whose legs are white and the bay mare that cocks one ear.
We are off! The cool morning air soon removes all traces of heated arguments about seats. An astonishing alpine freshness pervades the whole landscape. A slow-moving panorama of pictures unfolds itself and continues throughout the trip. The sun rises, and odours of mown fields, of thyme and heather, of larch and pine, issue from the side valleys. Toward noon the diligence reaches the outskirts of a village larger than the rest. The horses swing with a will into its single narrow cobbled street, their hoofs reecho loudly and their bells strike an imperative note. The driver cracks his enormous whip with professional dexterity, as the great yellow coach curves into the village square, where stand the, post-office and the posting-inn. Another stable-boy with tasselled cap rushes forward with buckets of water. There is a noise like that of many pumps, as the horses get their noses into the buckets. Then the stable-boy pulls some troughs from under the eaves of the inn and feeds the horses with oats and bran. There is some pushing and shoving, to see who shall be first, and we are led to remonstrate mildly with the fat one whose legs are white for trying to crowd out the bay mare that cocks one ear. The horse-flies, too, annoy our good steeds. In alpine regions these flies seem to make up in size and industry for the shortness of the summer.
Under the full sunshine the diligence rolls out into the open country once more. Now we pass a grand hotel, where considerable fashion is displayed at little tables, in the doorway and upon a well-placed terrace. Again we find ourselves plunging into a dark tunnel. The people in the extra carriage hold up shawls to keep off the drippings from the vaulted ceiling. Those inside the diligence make note of this, and for the first and only time congratulate themselves on their sheltered seats. On the other side of the tunnel we mount a last series of zigzags and so reach the summit of the pass. Then the driver descends from the box, crawls under the coach, and presently there is a mysterious rattle of chains. The diligence has put on its shoe and proceeds down-hill at a comfortable trot, without danger of overspeeding. So the day passes, and, with the evening air drawing down from the heights in alternate currents of warm and cold, the end of the journey is in sight. Perhaps it is some town-like village of the Up-per Rhine Valley or of the Engadine, or some high-placed summer resort of Tyrol, or some white-walled, sun-baked Italian frontier post. Whenever and whatever the objective point, there will surely be supper and an early bed for the children, and for the horses, besides their oats and bran, there is likely to be a portion of the rough black bread of the country as an extra titbit.
Years after, the children, grown to men and women, will remember with undiminished enthusiasm the bright skies and woolly-white clouds of that day on the stage-coach, the sudden corners opening up vistas of towering snow peaks, the gray torrents fresh from the mouths of glaciers, the stretches of sombre pine forests, the wide extent of velvet slopes, the deep blue lakes, the patient, kindly peasants, and the flashing beauties of emerald, sapphire, and of scintillating opal along this typical diligence ride.