Chalets of the Jura

Leaving Orbe, while the mists of early morning are still hanging about its old dark streets, we begin our gradual ascent in the direction of the Chalet Delessert. My companion and guide to this elevated point of the Jura, a tall and energetic man, with his well-used herbarium slung on his shoulder, is the pharmacien of the town.

Think not contemptuously of my friend, because his small pharmacie is not resplendent with coloured liquids and engraven brass — he is earnest and well educated, the third of his generation who, in the same unpretending locale, is dispensing healing and consolation to the inhabitants of his native town and the mountain villages around. You might have guessed his vocation from his dress and demeanour, and the more easily from his having that pale brow and dishevelled hair, peculiar to clever chemists of all countries; he has something instructive or amusing to say on all subjects, and speaks French in most unexceptionable purity.

How pleasantly passed the first hours of our mountain ramble — now on the winding high road, where we meet the night diligence from Paris, with its dusty, sleepy occupants, and the five greys trotting and jingling with slackened traces down the gradual descent — now we pass over broad pastures — then, by narrow paths, through forests of firs, or along dried torrent-beds, or at the foot of high grey crags, where my companion suddenly finds a scarce botanical specimen.

Further on he points to the precipice from which a young botanist of Orbe, in his too eager search for the same plant, had fallen. As we stood where his mutilated body was found, how pathetic and picturesque was the description of the sad event, which he concluded with an apt quotation from Ovid, as he remarked the unusual quantity of bright flowers which grew in the immediate neighbourhood.

Higher up, on the mountain side, we pass through a black and gloomy village, partially destroyed by fire; the uncleared ruins still standing on either side of the narrow and ill-paved streets. I would willingly have sketched the quaint old fountain, with its fantastic iron work and granite column, and those four full jets of limpid crystal; but there is something so repulsive in the old crones, who are defiling with their villanous “blanchissage,” the cistern of pure water, that I prefer for subject the picturesque chalet, into which my friend has entered — no doubt to administer the contents of that bottle, whose safety has caused him so much uneasiness in our rough climb up the mountain.

He would indeed be a skilful artist, who could faithfully give the colour and detail of that high roof and massive chimney, the compact scantling — here bleached to a silver grey by the action of the weather, there decaying, in richest brown, from the dripping of the overhanging foliage — huge lofts apparently inaccessible, and long galleries which lead to nothing.

Festoons of Indian corn, hang with golden and ruddy fringe from the prominent eaves; still deeper in the shadow of the roof, are rude shelves, on which is drying the oily produce of the two neighbouring walnuttrees, which those long slender poles are supposed to have thrashed into proper bearing.

What picturesque confusion in yonder angle of the building — rude implements of husbandry — the light “char,” with the yoke and harness for oxen; and under an indescribable mass the winter’s sledge, awaiting its coming time of usefulness. In the foreground is that heap of abomination, so valued that its sides are adorned with plaited straw, and a stone reservoir contains its dark filtration — facetiously called the “dot,” or dowry, for, however fair the maiden at the chalet door may be, the young Swiss “about to marry,” has always an eye to this strong indicator of the quantity of live stock, and proof of the owner’s thrift and prosperity.

* * * * *

After another hour’s ascent we occasionally caught sight of the Chalet Delessert through the drifting clouds which had come up from the North. Then, entirely enveloped in the chilling mist, with no other guide than the imprint of the cattle’s feet on the sward, we reached our destined point. The hail fell sharply as we entered. After a few words of welcome from the principal herdsman, we were attracted by the noise and confusion to the large cow-shed beyond. Imagine the interior of an enormous barn, capable of containing a hundred head of cattle, with a high pointed roof; at either end a small low door through which one animal only can enter at a time.

The hail-storm increasing, rattling with violence on the great scantling roof; the cattle driven hurriedly from the pasturage and forcing their way, one by one, through the narrow entrances; the herdsmen beyond gesticulating and shouting in the pelting storm; the noise and confusion increased by the jingling of the large cow-bells and the lowing of the cattle. Observe how each animal as it enters, goes directly to its place — “knoweth its own stall,” until the two long ranks are completely formed down the sides of the cow-shed.

Then the doors are closed, and comparative silence succeeds — save that the hail still beats violently on the high roof, and occasionally some restless animal shakes his bell, and receives a loud reproof from the herdsmen in incomprehensible patois. As soon as the cattle have sufficiently cooled, and the thick mist which has risen from their reeking sides has passed through the roof, the herdsmen, ludicrously enough, armed with their one-legged stools, commence the process of milking, giving to each animal a handful of salt, as a security for quiet behaviour during the operation.

Contiguous are the buildings appropriated to the making of cheese and the habitations of the herdsmen; they are low, ill-ventilated — little better than log-huts — constructed of trunks of pine, and the crevices plastered with mud. In the interior of the principal hut hangs the large caldron, into which the freshly-drawn milk is poured.

The crane from which it is suspended will swing it over the “foyer,” so soon as the smoke from the fire of crackling fir has subsided and left the embers bright and glowing. On the walls, blackened with smoke, are hung the pails and other apparatus of the dairy; their perfect state of cleanliness contrasting strongly with the dirt around them. Beneath arc the troughs and presses for the cheese. But the milking is finished; the lowing of the cattle round the chalet tells that the animals are again at liberty.

The contents of the milking-pails have been poured into the cauldron, and the herdsmen gather round the foyer, enjoying in listless silence the warmth and momentary repose. They have little opportunity of indulging that Arcadian leisure which romance and the opera ballet assign to the Swiss mountaineers. The driving home of so many cattle, twice a-day, to be milked; the responsibility of keeping them from danger or straying on the mountains; the making of the cheese; the cleaning and arrangement of the dairy utensils, give them constant and arduous occupation.

A bed of straw is their resting-place during the short summer nights. Their food consists almost entirely of milk and cheese; consequently they are pale and delicate — “dairy-fed” — seldom tasting bread during their annual sojourn on the mountains. They usually ascend with their cattle in the beginning of June, and descend to the valley at the end of October. The quantity of cheese made during this time is very considerable. This may be calculated from the number of cows, seldom less than eighty. The best cows will yield in the summer-time between twenty and forty pounds of milk, and each cow produces (on an average) by the end of the four months, two hundred weight of cheese. Twice a year each cow is tried separately as to the amount of cheese which he is capable of producing in a given time. The proportion indicated by this trial regulates the division of the cheese among the owners at the conclusion of the season

After a slight repast, rendered still more frugal by our giving the white bread from our knapsacks as a bonne bouche to the herdsmen (clouted cream and a cigar being very questionable restoratives to hungry pedestrians), we prepared to depart homewards.

Turning towards the door of the chalet, we beheld the upper-part of the half-closed entrance occupied by the head and shoulders of an enormous bull, the patriarch of the herd. It was his favourite station where he ruminated and watched the proceedings within the chalet. By the palette of Paul Potter, and the pencil of Rosa Bonheur, the head of that formidable beast was a noble study. He was no sleek, well-groomed prize bull of the Baker Street type; but rough-coated and half-tamed, of the antique cast, with a broad, classical, and curly forehead, and horns which should have been gilded for the sacrifice.

The breath of his nostrils, condensed by the cold mountain air, bedewed his broad black muzzle, while the lustre and softness of his large eyes made me think that old Homer did not pay the goddesses so bad a compliment after all, by comparing their heavenly eyes to those of the bovine race. We blush to say that, in our childhood, bull’s eyes had a mysterious charm, but in a very vulgar and different sense.

Maurice was the name given by the herdsmen to this majestic quadruped — it ought to have been Jupiter. He bore a tolerably good character with his masters, but certainly was capricious. A handful of salt made us apparent friends; and as he had deigned to receive this token of good-will among travellers, we passed out with less apprehension. He immediately followed us, and an unworthy distrust of his intentions caused us to walk straight through the slough of poached earth and tilth which surrounds the chalet. We were not sorry when Maurice, finding that we had no more salt to give him, stopped, and quietly watched us off his premises. My companion had many anecdotes to tell of the ferocity of these Jura bulls.

The hail-storm had passed away, and there was the promise of a lovely afternoon. How wild and graceful was the rapid motion of those masses of vapour along the mountain side, dashing with noiseless violence against the high crags, seeming to soften their hard nature by the momentary contact; sweeping over the lofty pines, or making an easy passage through all the intricacies of their countless stems, then passing away over the valley and casting their shadows so far beneath as to give to our position the feeling of immense elevation.

The view was a most magnificent panorama. On the right of the plain was the Lake of Geneva, and at the opposite extremity that of Neuchatel; beyond rose the well-known form of Mont Blanc, and the other mountains of Savoy, and those faint forms, which might be mistaken for clouds, in the far east, are the snowy range of the Oberland.

As we descended, we did not take the same road as that of the morning, and consequently came through villages and communes of a different character, much more French in their aspect. Half-way down the mountain we passed through a small bourg, inhabited by an intelligent and thriving population, employed in the manufacture of watches, many of which, it is said, are smuggled over the neighbouring French frontier. A short time since, the Paris diligence from Lausanne was overturned in this vicinity; the pole, being broken, was found to be a hollow tube in which a large number of watches were ingeniously concealed.

The town of Orbe, to which we must return before night, was still distant in the valley, so that we were compelled to hurry down the mountain. I passed with regret many a rich subject for the pencil, reluctantly keeping the high-road above the Val d’Orbe instead of winding down the rocky defile through which the river forces its passage. We heard beneath us the roar of the Chute des Des, seeing only the grey mist which rose from its falling waters among the underwood.

Further on we could see into the bed of the torrent, here fretting its way in bright cascades among the grey boulders, there lying in unrippled pools, reflecting the overhanging woods. But the day is wearing on, and my companion is urging me forward in the direction of that square tower which commands the narrow defile. It is well named — Les Clefs — having been, in troublous times, “the key ” of the pass.

We descend the steep hill-side by a tortuous road, at one angle blocked up by a “char” and four oxen, conveying with difficulty a large cast-iron wheel and other machinery to the mills below. We pass through the village, nestled under the shadow and protection of the old tower, cross the high-arched bridge with the ruined portal, and in the gorge below are situated The Mills, built in a most perilous and picturesque situation, with the intention of turning to industrial profit the waters of the rushing Orbe, but with the evident apprehension of the violence and caprice of an Alpine torrent.

I regretted that the daylight was departing when I began my sketch, for in these days of mechanical improvement a picturesque mill is a treat for the sketcher. Indeed there was subject enough for many studies in those high-gabled roofs, and all the varieties of colour and construction, and the long sloping troughs of wood, with bright hissing jets forced through their decaying timbers, giving to the water a resistless action upon the massive wheels. Beneath, the river roars through narrow walls of rock, and bearing on its swift surface the accumulated foam of the Chute des Des and other falls which we had passed, plunges into the deep gully beneath the mill, undermining the rocks of porous stone, and wearing them away into most fantastic forms.

My sketch of these picturesque mills was hardly finished when the distant crags of the Jura became more grey in the increasing twilight. There is a change in the voice of the torrent, for the miller has given liberty to the water, and it leaps impatiently back into its natural channel; the sudden stoppage of the dark wheels increases the feeling of repose.

“The twinkling taper” of the miller, as he closes the rude shutters, is reflected for a moment on the swift waters below. We are admonished that it is time to take our departure to scenes where we can tread in more security. The shades of night are deepening fast in the narrow gorge, and in the solemn gloom we step cautiously over the plank which spans the gulf, and then direct our steps towards the town of Orbe.


Cover: Stream in the Jura Mountains – Gustave Courbet 1872


About libros19blog

Central Florida
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