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The Story of the St. Gotthard by August Strindberg

 

It was Saturday night in Goeschenen, in the canton of Uri, that part of Switzerland which William Tell and Walter Fuerst have made famous. The pretty green village on the northern side of the St. Gotthard is situated on a little stream which drives a mill-wheel and contains trout. Quiet, kindly people live there, who speak the German language and have home rule, and the “sacred wood” protects their homes from avalanche and landslip.

On the Saturday night I am speaking of, all the folks were gathering round the village pump, underneath the great walnut tree, at the hour when the church bells were ringing the Angelus. The postmaster, the magistrate, and the colonel were there, all in their shirt-sleeves and carrying scythes. They had been mowing all day long, and had come to the pump to wash their scythes, for in the little village work was sacred and every man was his own servant. Then the young men came trooping through the village street, carrying scythes too, and the maids with their milk-pails; finally the cows, a gigantic breed, every cow as big as a bull. The country is rich and fertile, but it bears neither wine nor olives, neither the mulberry tree nor the luxurious maize. Nothing but green grass and golden corn, the walnut tree and the luscious beet-root grow there.

At the foot of the steep wall of the St. Gotthard, close to the pump, stood the inn, “The Golden Horse.” All the tired men, regardless of rank or position, were sitting at a long table in the garden, not one of them was missing: the magistrate, the postmaster, the colonel and the farmers' labourers; the straw-hat manufacturer and his workmen, the little village shoemaker, and the schoolmaster, they were all there.

They talked of cattle breeding and harvest time; they sang songs, reminiscent in their simplicity of cowbells and the shepherd's flute. They sang of the spring and its pure joys, of its promise and its hope. And they drank the golden beer.

After a while the young men rose to play, to wrestle and to jump, for on the following day was the annual festival of the Rifle Club, and there would be trials of strength, and competitions; it was im-portant therefore that their limbs should be supple.

And at an early hour that night the whole village was in bed, for no man must be late on the morning of the festival, and no one must be sleepy or dull. The honour of the village was involved.

***

It was Sunday morning; the sun was shining brightly and the church bells were ringing. Men and women from the neighbouring villages, in their best Sunday clothes, were gathering on the village green, and all of them looked happy and very wide awake. Nearly every man carried a gun instead of the scythe; and matrons and maids looked at the men with scrutinising and encouraging eyes, for it was for the defence of their country and their homes that they had learned to handle a gun; and to-night the best shot would have the honour of opening the dance with the prettiest girl of the village.

A large waggon, drawn by four horses, gaily decorated with flowers and ribbons, drew up; the whole waggon had been transformed into a summer arbour; one could not see the people inside, but one could hear their songs. They sang of Switzerland and the Swiss people, the most beautiful country and the bravest people in the world.

Behind the waggon walked the children's procession. They went by twos, hand in hand, like good friends or little brides and bridegrooms.

And with the pealing of bells the procession slowly wound up the mountain to the church.

After divine service the festivities began, and very soon shots were fired on the rifle-range, which was built against the rocky wall of the St. Gotthard.

The postmaster's son was the best shot in the village, and nobody doubted that he would win the prize. He hit the bull's-eye four times out of six.

From the summit of the mountain came a hallooing and a crashing; stones and gravel rolled down the precipice, and the fir trees in the sacred wood rocked as if a gale were blowing. On the top of a cliff, his rifle slung across his shoulders, frantically waving his hat, appeared the wild chamois hunter Andrea of Airolo, an Italian village on the other side of the mountain.

“Don't go into the wood!” screamed the riflemen.

Andrea did not understand.

“Don't go into the sacred wood,” shouted the magistrate, “or the mountain will fall on us!”

“Let it fall, then,” shouted Andrea, running down the cliff with incredible rapidity.

“Here I am!”

“You're too late!” exclaimed the magistrate.

“I have never been too late yet!” replied Andrea; went to the shooting-range, raised his rifle six times to his cheek, and each time hit the bull's-eye.

Now, he really was the best shot, but the club had its regulations, and, moreover, the dark-skinned men from the other side of the mountain, where the wine grew and the silk was spun, were not very popular. An old feud raged between them and the men of Goeschenen, and the newcomer was disqualified.

But Andrea approached the prettiest girl in the grounds, who happened to be the magistrate's own daughter, and politely asked her to open the dance with him.

Pretty Gertrude blushed, for she was fond of Andrea, but she was obliged to refuse his request.

Andrea frowned, bowed and whispered words into her ear, which covered her face with crimson.

“You shall be my wife,” he said, “even if I have to wait ten years for you. I have walked eight hours across the mountain to meet you; that is why I am so late; next time I shall be in good time, even if I should have to walk right through the mountain itself.”

The festivities were over. All the riflemen were sitting in “The Golden Horse,” Andrea in the midst of them. Rudi, the son of the postmaster, sat at the head of the table, because he was the prize-winner according to the regulations, even if Andrea was the best shot in reality.

Rudi was in a teasing mood.

“Well, Andrea,” he said, “we all know you for a mighty hunter; but, you know, it's easier to shoot a chamois than to carry it home.”

“If I shoot a chamois I carry it home,” replied Andrea.

“Maybe you do! But everybody here has had a shot at Barbarossa's ring, although nobody has won it yet!” answered Rudi.

“What is that about Barbarossa's ring?” asked a stranger who had never been in Goeschenen.

“That's Barbarossa's ring, over there,” said Rudi.

He pointed to the side of the mountain, where a large copper ring hung on a hook, and went on:

“This is the road by which King Frederick Barbarossa used to travel to Italy; he travelled over it six times, and was crowned both in Milan and in Rome. And as this made him German-Roman emperor, he caused this ring to be hung up on the mountain, in remembrance of his having wedded Germany to Italy. And if this ring, so goes the saying, can be lifted off its hook, then the marriage, which was not a happy one, will be annulled.”

“Then I will annul it,” said Andrea. “I will break the bonds as my fathers broke the bonds which bound my poor country to the tyrants of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden.”

“Are you not a Swiss, yourself ?” asked the magistrate severely.

“No, I am an Italian of the Swiss Confederation.”

He slipped an iron bullet into his gun, took aim and shot.

The ring was lifted from below and jerked off the hook. Barbarossa's ring lay at their feet.

“Long live Italy!” shouted Andrea. throwing his hat into the air.

Nobody said a word.

Andrea picked up the ring, handed it to the magistrate and said:

“Keep this ring in memory of me and this day, on which you did me a wrong.”

He seized Gertrude's hand and kissed it; climbed up the mountain and disappeared; was seen again and vanished in a cloud. After a while he reappeared, high above them; but this time it was merely his gigantic shadow thrown on a cloud. And there he stood, shaking a threatening fist at the village.

“That was Satan himself,” said the colonel.

“No, it was an Italian,” said the postmaster.

“Since it is late in the evening,” said the magistrate, “I'll tell you an official secret, which will be read in all the papers to-morrow.”

“Hear! hear!”

“We have received information that when it became known that the Emperor of France was made a prisoner at Sedan, the Italians drove the French troops out of Rome, and that Victor Emanuel is at this moment on his way to the capital.”

“This is great news. It puts an end to Germany's dreams of promenades to Rome. Andrea must have known about it when he boasted so much.”

“He must have known more,” said the magistrate.

“What? What?”

“Wait, and you'll see.”

And they saw.

***

One day strangers came and carefully examined the mountain through their field-glasses. It looked as if they were gazing at the place where Barbarossa's ring had hung, for that was the spot at which they directed their glasses. And then they consulted the compass, as if they did not know which was the North and which was the South.

There was a big dinner at “The Golden Horse,” at which the magistrate was present. At dessert they talked of millions and millions of money.

A short time after “The Golden Horse” was pulled down; next came the church, which was taken down piece by piece and built up again on another spot; half the village was razed to the ground; barracks were built, the course of the stream deflected, the mill-wheel taken away, the factory closed, the cattle sold.

And then three thousand Italian-speaking labourers with dark hair and olive skins arrived on the scene.

The beautiful old songs of Switzerland and the pure joys of spring were heard no more.

Instead of that, the sound of hammering could be heard day and night. A jumper was driven into the mountain at the exact spot where Barbarossa's ring had hung; and then the blasting began.

It would not have been so very difficult (as everybody knew) to make a hole through the mountain, but it was intended to make two holes, one on each side, and the two holes were to meet in the middle; nobody believed that this was possible, for the tunnel was to be nearly nine miles long. Nearly nine miles!

And what would happen if they did not meet? Well, they would have to begin again at the beginning.

But the engineer-in-chief had assured them that they would meet.

Andrea, on the Italian side, had faith in the engineer-in-chief, and since he was himself a very capable fellow, as we know, he applied for work under him and soon was made a foreman.

Andrea liked his work. He no longer saw daylight, the green fields and snow-clad Alps. But he fancied that he was cutting a way for himself through the mountain to Gertrude, the way which he had boasted he would come.

For eight years he stood in darkness, living the life of a dog, stripped to the waist, for he was working in a temperature of a hundred degrees. Now the way was blocked by a spring, and he had to work standing in the water; now by a deposit of loam, and he stood almost knee-deep in the mire; the atmosphere was nearly always foul, and many of his fellow-labourers succumbed to it; but new ones were ever ready to take their place. Finally Andrea, too, succumbed, and was taken into the hospital. He was tortured by the idea that the two tunnels would never meet. Supposing they never met!

There were also men from the other side in the hospital; and at times, when they were not delirious, they would ask one another the all-absorbing question: “Would they meet?”

The people from the South had never before been so anxious to meet the people from the North as they were now, deep down in the heart of the mountain. They knew that if they met, their feud of over a thousand years' standing would be over, and they would fall into each other's arms, reconciled.

Andrea recovered and returned to work; he was in the strike of 1875, threw a stone, and underwent a term of imprisonment.

In the year 1877 his native village, Airolo, was destroyed by fire.

“Now I have burnt my boats behind me,” he said, “there is no going back—I must go on.”

The 19th of July 1879 was a day of mourning. The engineer-in-chief had gone into the mountain to measure and to calculate; and, all absorbed in his work, he had had a stroke and died. Died with his race only half run! He ought to have been buried where he fell, in a more gigantic stone pyramid than any of the Egyptian Pharaohs had built for tees, and his name, Favre, should have been carved into the stone.

However, time passed, Andrea gained money, experience, and strength. He never went to Goeschenen, but once a year he went to the “sacred wood” to contemplate the devastation, as he said.

He never saw Gertrude, never sent her a letter; there was no need for it, he was always with her is his thoughts, and he felt that her will was his.

In the seventh year the magistrate died, in poverty.

“What a lucky thing that he died a poor man,” thought Andrea; and there are not many sons-in-law who would think like that.

In the eighth year something extraordinary happened; Andrea, foremost man on the Italian side of the tunnel, was hard at work, beating on his jumper. There was scarcely any air; he felt suffocated, and suffered from a disagreeable buzzing in his ears. Suddenly he heard a ticking, which sounded like the ticking of a wood-worm, whom people call “the death-watch.”

“Has my last hour come?” he said, thinking aloud.

“Your last hour!” replied a voice; he did not know whether it was within or without him, but he felt afraid.

On the next day he again heard the ticking, but more distinctly, so that he came to the conclusion that it must be his watch.

But on the third day, which was a holiday, he heard nothing; and now he believed that it must have been something supernatural; he was afraid and went to mass, and in his heart he deplored the futility of life. He would never see the great day, never win the prize offered to the man who would first walk through the dividing wall, never win Gertrude.

On the Monday, however, he was again the foremost of the men in the tunnel, but he felt despondent, for he no longer believed that they would meet the Germans in the mountain.

He beat and hammered, but without enthusiasm, slowly, as his weakened heart was beating after the tunnel-sickness. All of a sudden he heard something like a shot and a tremendous crashing noise inside the mountain on the other side.

And now a light burst on him; they had met.

He fell on his knees and thanked God. And then he arose and began to work. He worked during breakfast, during dinner, during recreation time, and during supper. When his right arm was lame with exertion, he worked with the left one. He thought of the engineer-in-chief, who had been struck down before the wall of rock; he sang the song of the three men in the fiery furnace, for it seemed to him that the air around him was red-hot, while the perspiration dropped from his forehead, and his feet stood in the mire.

On the stroke of seven, on the 28th of January, he fell forward on his jumper, which pierced the wall right through. Loud cheering from the other side roused him, and he understood; he realised that they had met, that his troubles were over, and that he was the winner of ten thousand lire.

After a sigh of thanksgiving to the All-Merciful God, he pressed his lips to the bore-hole and whispered the name, of Gertrude; and then he called for three times three cheers for the Germans.

At eleven o'clock at night, there were shouts of “attention!” on the Italian side, and with a thunderous crash, a noise like the booming of cannon at a siege, the wall fell down. Germans and Italians embraced one another and wept, and all fell on their knees and sang the “Te Deum laudamus.”

It was a great moment; it was in 1880, the year in which Stanley's work in Africa was done, and Nordenskoeld had accomplished his task.

When they had sung the “Te Deum” a German workman stepped forward and handed to the Italians a beautifully got-up parchment. It was a record and an appreciation of the services of the engineer-in-chief, Louis Favre.

He was to be the first man to pass through the tunnel, and Andrea was appointed to carry the memorial and his name by the little workmen's train to Airolo.

And Andrea accomplished his mission faithfully, sitting before the locomotive on a barrow.

Yes, it was a great day, and the night was no less great.

They drank wine in Airolo, Italian wine, and let off fireworks. They made speeches on Louis Favre, Stanley, and Nordenskoeld; they made a speech on the St. Gotthard, which, for thousands of years had been a barrier between Germany and Italy, between the North and the South. A barrier it had been, and at the same time a uniter, honestly dividing its waters between the German Rhine, the French Rhone, the North Sea and the Mediterranean . ...

“And the Adriatic,” interrupted a man from Tessin. “Don't forget the Ticino, which is a tributary to the largest river of Italy, the mighty Po . ...”

“Bravo! That's better still! Three cheers for the St. Gotthard, the great Germany, the free Italy, and the new France!”

It was a great night, following a great day.

***

On the following morning Andrea called at the Engineering Offices. He wore his Italian shooting-dress; an eagle's feather ornamented his hat, and a gun and a knapsack were slung across his shoulder. His face and his hands were white.

“So you have done with the tunnel,” said the cashier, or the “moneyman,” as they called him. “Well, nobody can blame you for it, for what remains to be done is mason's work. To your account, then!”

The moneyman opened a book, wrote something on a piece of paper, and handed Andrea ten thousand lire in gold.

Andrea signed his name, put the gold into his knapsack and went.

He jumped into a workman's train, and in ten minutes he had arrived at the fallen barrier. There were fires burning in the mountain, the workmen cheered when they saw him and waved their caps. It was splendid!

Ten more minutes and he was at the Swiss side. When he saw the daylight shining through the entrance to the tunnel, the train stopped and he got out.

He walked towards the green light, and came to the village and the green world, bathed in sunlight; the village had been rebuilt and looked prettier than before. And when the workmen saw him they saluted their first man.

He went straight up to a little house, and there, under a walnut tree, by the side of the bee-hives, stood Gertrude, calm, and a hundred times more beautiful and gentle. It looked as if she had stood there for eight years, waiting for him.

“Now I have come,” he said, “as I intended to come! Will you follow me to my country?”

“I will follow you wherever you go!”

“I gave you a ring long ago; have you still got it?”

“I have it still!”

“Then let us go at once! No, don't turn back! Don't take anything with you!”

And they went away, hand in hand, but not through the tunnel.

“On to the mountain!” said Andrea, turning in the direction of the old pass; “through darkness I came to you, but in light I will live with you and for you!”

 
 
 

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