Above the Cloud-line


Above the Cloud-line


An essay, written in the style of a letter, on the scenery and activities to be enjoyed in southeastern Switzerland.


Bancroft, Marie E.


November 1888


essay (travel)


pp. 23–27


I am again in my beloved England! Beloved, indeed, for its quiet and beautiful valley has truly been my good friend. After hard-working seasons, and managerial labour, it has for nine years given me strength and vigour for my work.
Without its healthful and peace-giving influence I believe that neither I nor my husband would have been able to pull through our arduous duties, and I have never left Pontresina without kissing my hand to it and saying, "Thank you, my good friend, I am very grateful." There cannot be a better proof of its health-giving qualities than the fact of meeting the same faces here year after year. I have seen them arrive looking worn, weary, and depressed, and very "end-of-the-London-seasonish," but with an expression of "Welcome, old friend," and of hope that the dear old place will again come to the rescue. This hope is rarely, if ever, disappointed. For those who, like myself, are troubled with nerves, or suffering from nervous exhaustion, brought on by overwork, or an overwrought brain, there is no air like that of the Engadine.
As you perhaps have never been here, a little description of this lovely spot might interest you. At this time of the summer the valley (which is the highest in Switzerland) is at its best, for the heat of the day is tempered by cool breezes. The mornings and evenings, before the sun has risen and after he has gone to bed, are a little chilly, and one puts on an extra wrap, but during the day the lightest of dresses can be worn. When we rise in the morning the first thing we instinctively look at is the Roseg Glacier, of which our hotel, the "Boseg,'' has the best view. There is the famous glacier, with the "Little Nun," and the broad face of the "Capuchin Monk.” You see the dark beard and large mouth, the broad nose and receding forehead, the sunken eyes, which sleep only in the winter, and the head covered by a cowl of everlasting snow. It all seems so close, and yet it is seven miles away from us. In the morning's cool we take our walks, but as the sun asserts himself later on, we saunter into the woods and sit about, and in the still, soft air read or think, and feel more or less at peace with the world. Those who have gone on some big expedition started at a very early hour, and, if all goes well, will return some time in the evening, healthily tired, and delighted with their wonderful experiences — experiences of which I know but little, for my snow and ice climbs have been few. I can only listen to the accounts of these expeditions, and wish that I were a man and able to go too. I content myself with a limited number of climbs, sometimes very long and tiring ones, but within any woman's capabilities. There are some tempting little stalls in the village, laden with coral, Swiss embroideries, mosaic ornaments, fabrique de sculptures sur bois, Swiss hats, &c., and various odds-and-ends which one delights to purchase to carry home as souvenirs to one's friends. There are lovely drives and charming walks, during which one would not be surprised to see fairies tripping about, if it were not that one may hear a voice amongst the trees bursting forth with "Jolly coffee they make here," which awakens you from your reverie and tells you that the place is still material! But one wanders on and on to get as far as possible from these unpoetic minds, and then, choosing some sweet secluded spot, one sits down and meditates on the beauty of everything around; with the bright hot sunshine dancing amongst the rushing waters, its warm breath bringing forth the loveliest of wild flowers, and making the earth one vast nature-tinted carpet. The busy ants are ever at work, carrying all day long their contributions for winter housing to some place best known to themselves. The cascades of laughing waters dance through the rocks and trees, accompanied by the tinkling of cow-bells, while the ever-welcome sun peeps into nooks and corners playing at "hide-and-seek." There you sit quite lost in poetic admiration of Nature's boundless wealth of beauty, until a gentle touch of appetite for the next meal acquaints you with the fact that you yourself are after all but mortal. So with a sigh of regret one leaves the sweet spot, where so many romantic thoughts have filled the mind, to enter once more upon the dull materialism of life. As you walk below, the watchful marmots, that sleep from autumn until spring, announce to you, by their well-known signal, that they are awake and on the mountainside, and scream warnings to their companions. In the evening after dinner one strolls in the garden, gazing constantly at the starlit sky; stars so bright and big! "That vast canopy, the air" is crowded with them, the blue sky thickly bedecked with glittering gems. And then the various lights which gather round the mountains as the night draws in are beyond all description. No such purples, blues, pinks, or yellows could ever be reproduced on canvas. Many a time during dinner we have been called away to look at the setting sun upon the Roseg Glacier. Our admiration has been expressed in one large "Oh!" The stars are so much bigger here than at home, but then we are 6,000 feet nearer to them. They glitter and shimmer like diamonds. The little graveyard above the village at the back is an interesting spot. I often wander to it. The disused church is very old; on its porch is the date 1477. The gravestones bear the simplest inscriptions in Romansch, but some of them are very touching in their simplicity: —
“Bun ans vair miens chers amos."
(May we meet again, my beloved ones.)
“II sain della terra contain miens amos."
(The bosom of the earth contains my love.)
"La memoria dels giists resta in benedicziun."
(The memory of the just rests in blessing.)
There are some English graves. One covers the remains of a clergyman who lost his life here twelve years ago. He wandered on to some rocks above, and must have gone too far, and was overtaken by the darkness of the night. When he was missed every effort was mode to find him, and guides were sent out in all directions, but in vain. At last a large reward was offered, but still the search was useless. At the end of a year the body was accidentally discovered by a poor shepherd at the bottom of a rock, where the unfortunate gentleman must have fallen. Parts of his body were devoured by birds of prey, but his money and watch were untouched. The Burgamasque shepherd got the reward and became afterwards a prosperous man.
Since I was here last an addition has been made to the sad group of graves: Madame Leupold, who was music-mistress to the Princess of Wales's children. She had been a sad invalid for a long time, and spent all her summers here in company with a most devoted son, who gave up the promise of a fine career to be ever by his mother’s side. She has often spoken to me of him with her eyes full of tears, and thanked God for giving her such a son. They at length built a sweet little châlet up on the hill-side, and there they both lived summer and winter; the son never tiring of his devotion and attention to his mother. She died two winters ago, and her grave can be seen carefully tended by the son, who remains near, that he may watch over her in death as lovingly as he did in her life. She was a most amiable and kindly lady, and all who knew her loved her. The children of the village stood round her grave with garlands and bunches of Engadine flowers, gathered and formed by loving hands, and sang the hymns and chants which she herself had taught them.
There is a beautiful walk through the woods to St Moritz, and a sweet shady path to the left, where there is a rustic bench bearing the words "Marie Bancroft's seat." It was placed there by the people of Pontresina in recognition of services I rendered. There is a pretty old bridge, of which you read in Rhoda Broughton's book, "Good-bye, Sweetheart," which affords much pleasure to sketchers. At the end of your walk through the pine-woods to St. Moritz you see the soft lake of emerald-green spreading out between the trees and sloping meadows. Turn where you will, the giant snow-tipped mountains tower above you, shrugging their shoulders and looking down upon us poor creatures with silent pity — for what pygmies we are in their presence! We must look up at them with respect, they are so dignified and independent. There is a lovely excursion for ladies to the Val del Fain (Valley of Hay). It has an abundance of the most exquisite flowers. Ladies take their lunch with them, and return home laden with lovely blossoms. I could fill reams of paper in telling of all the grandeur and beauty of this valley, but I must limit myself to a mere glance as it were; and now as I write the day is fading away, and the groups of Italian hay-makers who are studded about, relieving the bright green grass by their picturesque costumes, are preparing to return to their homes; but the early morning will see them again at work, singing and laughing as if toil were pleasure. The inhabitants of the Engadine are a thrifty and industrious people; they are comfortably off, and there is not a beggar amongst them. You will now and again meet with one, but he comes from the Italian side, and you are requested not to encourage him and he will soon disappear.
The Diavolezza tour is an expedition which is long and hard, but many ladies accomplish it. I did it once, but I don’t think I could go through it again. Before I went I could not form a notion of the wonders of the ice-world, and so I am glad that I have done it. We started at a quarter to six in the morning, and went by carriage to the foot of the mountain on the Bernina side, where some of us mounted mules, and others walked. I prefer walking, as a mule to me is an anxiety in many ways. He likes to stop now and then to nibble grass, and always on a nasty dangerous place, where the slightest misunderstanding between you and the mule results in a tumble, which might or might not be serious; so there you must sit mounted on the back of this thing waiting patiently until he feels inclined to go on. You don't look your best at such a moment, for, although you dare not express your impatience in words or movements, your looks are awful! But then our friend the mule does not see this, so "his withers are unwrung." In about two hours we reached the Diavolezza lake, with small and picturesque floating icebergs. On again, on foot this time, having discharged our tiresome friend, till we reach, after pulls and tugs and gasps, the snow-field; in another half-hour or so we arrive, after a long and tedious up-hill drag, looking like goodness knows what, our faces covered with cold cream to spare our skins, huge hats, gauze veils, and blue spectacles, and pulled along by our guides. I began to wish that I had never started, but when we reached the "saddle" we were speechless with wonder; there we looked down upon a sight which I shall never forget. A gigantic basin filled with enormous masses of weirdly-shaped ice, and fringed with snow-peaks that seemed to almost touch the deep blue sky. Here, with this vast ice-sea below us, we halt to eat our lunch, and our enjoyment of it, with an appétit de loup, must be imagined. After a good rest, we prepare to descend towards the sea of ice, and it is terribly fatiguing and trying. But it was a wonderful experience, and one which any woman who has powers of endurance can attempt. I had a slight accident on the way. Just as I was congratulating myself on my progress and ascertaining every now and then as to whether my small nose was still complete, I discovered that the entire sole of my boot had come off. The guide secured it to the upper part by means of a strap as well as he could, but the cold penetrated to my foot and one of my toes was frost-bitten, and I did not recover the use of it for months. The walking parts took seven hours, and the excursion lasted nine. This experience is quite enough to give a woman a graphic notion of the ice-world; although it is of course as nothing compared with the climbs which big mountaineers take, and which I maintain ought never to be attempted by any but a very strong woman. High expeditions require not only a strong body but a strong head.
It is monstrous for a woman to join in a difficult ascent unless she is quite equal to it; it is sure to do her harm, and the whole expedition is spoiled by the fear of her fainting, which has frequently happened, thereby causing uneasiness and destroying the pleasure and upsetting the nerves of all the rest of the party. There is an abundance of lovely walking to be had, and good ascents which a woman can make with perfect safety and enjoyment. After the heaviest rains the roads dry in an hour or two. At the beginning of September sometimes bad weather sets in, and people make a great rush to get away, and the place becomes deserted; then the sun bursts provokingly out again, and there is a long spell of most exquisite weather. June and July bring forth the most perfect flowers. Wild pinks grow here in abundance, and the perfume from them is delightful. The gentian is a lovely deep blue, and the marguerite daisies larger here than I have ever seen them elsewhere; but flowers are everywhere, and the grasses are extraordinary in their variety. Then there is the pale and modest edelweiss, the last flower that grows on the mountain-tops. It seems strange that anything should bloom so high, near and amongst the snow where the cold is so intense; but kindly Nature has provided them with a coat of flannel. They are only to be found in the most out-of-the-way places, hidden under rocks and in corners, guarding themselves from the keen winds. Many a dangerous expedition is made to find them. It is considered a great achievement to pluck them yourself, and serious accidents have happened in the attempt; I care not for the glory, so I buy them; they don't cost much, and it is safer! For a few centimes I can possess myself of a good bunch, and return home whole. I come here for health, and not to leave behind me a leg or an arm, or maybe my whole body; I can do that at home!
There is an excellent Swiss doctor resident at Pontresina; he is not only clever but a favourite with every one. You meet him in the morning going his rounds, always with a pleasant smile upon his face, and a joke ever ready. "Why, you look too well, you are not a friend to me; not even a broken leg to offer me!" The change from our own climate is so great that all visitors should be cautious in protecting their throats as evening draws in. Many have imprudently walked about the garden unprotected in this way, and the consequence has been a feverish sore throat. But this is soon put right, and after benefiting by the experience, it does not occur again. The hotels are most comfortable. We always stay at the Roseg, where it is like home, and everything is done to make our visit as agreeable as possible. The coffee and chocolate are delicious, and the cream — well, you must come und taste it! All the people in the place seem happy, and somehow or other it appears to me that there is an absence of ill-nature and unkindness. I wonder if it is because we are so much nearer the skies. The higher we go the better
we seem to be. But though the scenery around us is so like fairyland, one is now and again reminded that we are of the world, for what would not affect fairies will affect us; and lovely as the valley is, nettles can be found in it! But then that is not serious, for the friendly dock-leaf is close at hand to soothe and cure
the sting. We are most fortunate with the weather. If we have rain it comes at night, but by the time we are
ready for our walk the roads are dry and the gaily-coloured butterflies are flitting about again, none the
worse for their washing, and are ready to precede us in our wanderings as avant-coureurs, stopping now and then to drink, by way of refreshment, the sweets which are hidden in the wayside flowers. Should you ever come to the Engadine I hope I may be here to witness your delight You must look out for the Wishing-stone, where many a woman, and man too, I'll be bound, have whispered their heart's best desire. I am not sure though whether they are aware of the proper form of expressing their wishes. I hope when you come you will obtain what you ask.
Pontresina, August 1887