Lesser lights are to be found among the Kursaal heroes who will confess to nothing more unusual in the way of activity than salmon-fishing in the neighboring lakes or bagging red partridge and hazel hens in the upper meadows. But these, by contrast, appear sportsmen of so mean an order that the stranger who has fed fat on the succulent yarns of the Munchausens receives with impatience information for which, in fact, he should be grateful. For instance: that in the winter the thermometers of the higher settlements get down to fiftyfour below freezing and yet the dry air keeps people warmer than in the valleys, and that the snow falls in such incredible quantities that artificial lights have to be used in the lower stories of the houses all day and trenches cut for exit; that up there when the terrific Fohn blows from the south no man can make headway against it, but must lie flat on his face and hang on and then jump up and dart forward a few yards between gusts; that those people can foretell the weather by changes in the color of the ice – blue meaning fine, green for snow, and white for fog; that the Alpine crows of the summits are dark blue, with yellow beaks and red feet, and the “wall-creepers” are gray as mice, with white and red spots on their wings and with beaks shaped like awls. At some such point as this the stranger will rise with a yawn and go away in disgust, annoyed at being taken for a credulous fool. The seed, however, has been sown and it flourishes like the fabled mustard. The new arrival becomes a confirmed zealot and burns with all the ardor of a convert; albeit his brain is a confused and bewildered muddle of harsh-sounding mountain names, all, apparently, ending in horn.
When he comes out on the lawns he finds the guests still thronging the verandas, although it is nearly eleven and prodigies of mountaineering are slated for the morrow, and he hears the bands still engaged with Puccini and the latest Vienna successes. In the fragrant, dewy gardens fountains are playing, and lovers are discreetly screening behind clumps of flowering shrubs. Returning excursionists are excitedly vocal over the illumination of the Giessbach, whence they have just arrived in one of those pompous lake steamers whose sure and cautious pace reminded the satirical Victor Tissot of “the dignified motion of a canalboat.” To hear these enthusiasts, this appears to have been one more of those exceptionable occasions that the absent are always missing, and that the renowned waterfall never before roared and tumbled and foamed half so extravagantly in making its long, mad plunge through the dusky, dark-green firs. Out on the Hoheweg a walking-party in knickerbockers and hobnailed shoes, and with edelweiss stuck in green felt hats, are flourishing their alpenstocks and driving bargains with sunburned guides whose names, undoubtedly, are either Melchior or Mathias; these latter, we are to learn, are of a fearless but canny and laconic nature, “economical as gypsies and punctual as executioners.”
How keenly people take their pleasures in the sparkling evenings of Interlaken. How sharp and distinct are sounds and sights, and how varied the night life. Each little street is as gayly illuminated as though for some special celebration, and so hearty with good cheer that one looks for some band of Bernese wrestlers, returning in triumph from a festival, to round the next corner and strike up that clarion anthem “Stehe fest, O Vaterland.” It would seem as though the “Fete du Mi-Ete” must actually be in full swing right here, instead of afar in the upland pastures. Even at this hour a joyful multitude still streams along under the Hoheweg’s century-old walnuts, hatless, radiant, and babbling in every European tongue. They flock about the confectioners’ stands and in and out of the curiosity-chalets, greeting acquaintances with eager pleasure and proposing jolly plans for tomorrow. Each little shop seems selling to capacity.
Occasionally a peasant gi’rl passes, brusque and stolid, in short skirt and bright bodice, with V-shaped rows of edelweiss buttons. Out on the green Hohenmatte lively groups loiter about aimlessly, and somewhere in the vague distance some one is singing the ever-popular “Trittst im Morgenrot daher.” The thickly-wooded Rugen seems a colossal black mastiff asleep with his head between his paws. Away up the misty valley, whose vital air is so sweet with refreshing odors and so soothing with soft music, the regal Jungfrau looms in dim and spectral outline, as ghostly and deceptive as any faint feathering of cumulus clouds.
A distant Jodel or the lilt of a plaintive Ranz des Vaches excites cordial thoughts of this fair Helvetia and her strong and devoted people. “I wonder,” a friend once said to me at Interlaken, “if these men and women really appreciate how lovely their country is.” Perhaps the best answer is to be found in the desperate resolution with which they have held it for six hundred years. Hard necessity has taught these brawny mountaineers, whom Mr. Ruskin ungenerously called “ungenerous and unchivalrous,” that to be “painfully economical” is wiser than to chance privation. One thinks with wonder of the hardships endured by the herdsman away up in the mountain pastures, eating his-sweet-bread and draining his milk-filled wooden bowl in a rude pine hut, with goats and kine for comrades, and, for his sole diversion, an occasional glimpse of a leaping chamois, a sly mountain fox, a white hare, or the whistling, rat-like, shadowy marmot. With his long alphorn he calls the cattle home or sounds the vesper hour, until the loud echoes shout back from snowfield and ice gorge and the great ravens swerve in their swimming flight. In summer, fluttering clouds of butterflies will drift above the pansies and Alpine roses and gentians on his meadow; but in winter the pallid, velvety edelweiss is all the huntsman will find on those frozen ledges. What a wild and tragic region it must be when the last Senn has driven his herd down into the valleys and old Winter is in undisturbed possession of his “dear domestic cave.” The herdsman may rejoice that he is not there then; for it becomes a world of black and white, of illimitable snow and blotches of black forests, of death and waste and the frightful stillness of stupendous heights. Then it is a deserted realm of ice and snow set with pitfalls of treacherous crevasses and dreadful perils from hidden gulfs and pitiless avalanches; a shuddering space of cloud banks and waving vapor-scarfs; a haunted borderland of sinister shapes in the writhing mists like wraiths of Alpine legends.
Even so, hundreds of failing foreigners go a long way up in those forbidding regions in winter for an “enthusiasm of the blood” and a “fairy titillation of the nerves.” And when the days are bright and of their peculiar crystal clearness, and the skies are a cloudless blue and the sunshine a deluge, these invalids revel in skating and curling and the hockey they call “bandy”; and will even try appalling flights by ski and toboggan through the “nipping and eager air,” over smooth trails of glistening snow, rivaling the records of the “blue-ribbon” Schatzalp course at Davos, where they do the two-mile run in something under four minutes. There is a chance observation in “Silas Marner” that “youth is not exclusively the period of folly! ”
Of a summer evening, however, it might not be altogether unpleasant in some parts of that cloudland. Could we return with the happy little mule-boy who has just now come “jodeling” down from the passes, doubtless we should find the sound of goat bells both romantic and soothing up there, and might even in time muster a respectable show of excitement over the passage of the four-horse diligences as they rattle by in storms of dust. Certainly we should come across many a charming little wayside inn far up those winding roads that climb to solitude, and they would have overhanging eaves and carved wooden balconies and boxes of rich orange nasturtiums before the tiny windows with the lozenge panes; and when we pushed open the door and walked in, there would be a great stone stove in a bar parlor and the face of William Tell on an old clock behind the door.
One reads in “Hyperion” of a stolid Englishman so far forgetting his cherished reserve as to exclaim: “This Interlaken ! This Interlaken ! It is the loveliest spot on the face of the earth!” It is a nice question as to whether any one might not easily be guilty of like enthusiasm, provided the time were evening, and that he were capable of responding to something of such passionate sympathy for mountain and valley as breathes through Schiller’s ” Wilhelm Tell.” It is impossible not to be moved by such unusual beauty or uplifted by such sublimity. Here jangled nerves recover rhythm and dulled interests vitality. Boredom and ennui fall away, and work and responsibility acquire new value and lustre. In the still of these pine-scented evenings, luminous with enormous stars, a keen and sobering joy of life takes full and welcome possession. Here, if anywhere, the sun of youth will have its afterglow.
There is something like benediction in a night-vision of the magic Jungfrau – peerless “bride of quietness.” With such an appealing spectacle in view, what wonder that the houses have so many windows, or the night “a thousand eyes.” It is the master touch to Interlaken, completing and glorifying the picture as it banks the far end of the valley with towering clouds of snow. Neither Mont Blanc nor the Matterhorn may rival this queen of the Alps, so charming in outline, vast in bulk, and ravishing in purity. It could not fail to dominate any region of earth, and Interlaken acknowledges its supremacy with a completeness that is not without a certain flavor of proprietorship. Each hillside has its view , pavilion, belvedere, or simple clearing, like so many chapels for devotion. We come each morning for our sunrise view, pass the day in adoration, marvel at sunset and the afterglow, and close the evening with a wonderwist contemplation of the phantom peak in moonlight. Of these “stations” of the mount, the afterglow is the climax. Nor is the reason far to seek, once you have stood among the awed and reverent throng that crowds the Hohenmatte each late afternoon, and have seen black night about you in the valley, while, for an hour or more after, the snowfields of the Jungfrau’s summits still con tinued to blaze brilliantly in full sunshine. And then, as we watched, there came the color-miracle of glittering white merging into every hue of the rose, into scarlet stains and a deluge of crimson, into deepening tints and sombre shades of blue, and finally fading gradually to a misty, grayish, cloudy shadow as the last fires burned out and the great mountain paled to a phantom of the night.
“When daylight dies, The azure skies Seem sparkling with a thousand eyes, That watch with grace From depths of space The sleeping Jungfrau’s lovely face.”
How spirit-like, how faint and fair the magic mountain swims at night among its silver cloud veils! What serenity and majesty invest it! Did God here plan another flood, and stay His hand when He had heaped an angry ocean into this dread tidal wave and left it piled in suspended motion, with giant frozen seas, furious with foam, mounting to that appalling crest that seems to dash its icy spray against the very skies? No man may look with undaunted heart upon the chaos of its glittering snowy plains, vast, chaste, and spectral in the moonlight. How base and contemptible appear the petty pursuits of man in the presence of such thrilling sublimity! It reconciles him to his lot in life, where his “much” is really so very little; and inspires courage, and shames the heart from low, ignoble ends.
There is reverent awe in thoughts of the breathless hush of the far, white vales no man has trod; the remote and shuddering abysses into which the very birds of the air look down with affright. There is magic of inspiration in its sublime aloofness – as with those ” unheard melodies that are sweetest,” those supremest joys that lie beyond attainment. Through the hidden, echoing caverns of this fair, pallid mount wan spirits of Snowland may even now be dancing; along its lonely, lovely glades are “horns of elfland faintly blowing.” Of its profoundest and most secret mysteries not even the friendly moon may have too curious knowledgemysteries unknown of man since first the morning stars sang together.