Sunday, July 24, 2011

Count Henry Russell Hermit of the Pyrenees

By A. Anderson.

 His name is Count Henry Russell, and he is the proprietor of that great Pyrenean giant, the Vigne-. male. He lives on his barren estate, and apparently has no desire to return to the world. The photos. show that from the point of view of beautiful natural surroundings the Hermit is to be envied.

To deliberately elect to sleep in the open air on the top of a mountain 11,000 ft. high, instead of in a com­fortable bed in the valley, sur­rounded by all the accessories of civilization, is clearly not the action of an every­day nineteenth-century man. But then Count Henry Russell is not an everyday nineteenth­ century man. 'To begin with, he abominates nothing more than what is termed" civilized life," and he has the courage to say so to all and sundry. "During nine years I believed I liked it, or rather I tried to make myself like it; those years were the bitterest of my existence."

From his early youth Count Henry Russell, the principal living representative of the Irish branch of the illustrious house of Russell (of the English branch of which the Duke of Bedford is the head), has led a nomadic existence. From his mother, who was French, he inherited an un­quenchable love of Nature, and, above all, a passionate ado­ration for the Pyrenees, in the shadows of the lofty summits of which his first years were passed. Fifty years ago, when he was little more than a youth, and long before "globe­trotting" had been rendered as unexciting as a game of bil­liards, and when there were still a few corners of the world left into which the "personally conducted" ones never pene­trated, he set out one day from Pau, his home in Southern France, to walk to Pekin and, what is more to the point, actually reached his destination, after enduring the horrors of the Gobi Desert and Siberia in mid-winter. Then came the turn of Japan, America (both North and South); India, where he nego­tiated successfully some of the most inaccessible regions of the Himalayas, and walked on foot from Madras to Goa; and, finally, Australia and New Zealand, where he almost left his bones, being lost for three days in the mountains, during which time not a morsel of food passed his lips. Fate, however, had other uses for Count Russell, and brought him safely back to Paris. He carried in his memory material for scores of romances, and has since given abundant proof, en grand seigneur, that his pen was one that might have won for him a place in the foremost ranks of literature. Some of his most striking souvenirs he turned over to that modern literary magician, Jules Verne, who wove them into his celebrated romance of "Michael Strogoff," one of the characters in which, Russell Killough, is none other than the hero of this present narrative.

For some years after his return to Paris Count Russell tried hard to lead the life of most other young men of his class, but the horror of such a tedious, futile exis­tence always op­pressed his spirit. That subtle "go fever," too, which Kipling has diag­nosed so well, and the germ of which can never be com­pletely eradicated from the system, was in his blood. Often he found himself with an infinitely tender yearning harking back to his first love, the stately Pyrenees. One day in Paris - it was a Sunday evening - I was seized with such a fit of melancholy that I rushed for refuge into the Church of the Madeleine, far from the roar of the street, just at the moment of the Benediction. The incense mounted in aromatic clouds, and the whole edifice was flooded as with a vaguely superb melody. When I came out of the church I was already half-consoled, leaving for the Pyrenees the task of completing my cure."

Since that day nearer forty than thirty years have elapsed, and the patient is more than ever satisfied with the physician, more than ever under the charm of the treatment.

During all that time Count Russell, who nominally lives in Pau, has prac­tically made the mountains his home. In every valley, from one end of the Pyrenean chain to the other, the tall silhouette, vaguely reminding the beholder of some modern Don Quixote, is known and greeted affectionately. And in this matter - of - fact, utilitarian age there surely is something eminently Quixotic in such a career and - why should one be ashamed to admit it? - something lovable. Never did the chivalrous knight of Salamanca attempt to break a lance with greater fervor against the ravishers of distressed beauty than this modern rival of his infuses into his tilts against depressing conventionalities. The snowy mountain peaks symbolize for him everything that is pure and noble. He worships them, as a lover might a mistress, and speaks of them and to them as if there were some secret affinity between him and them. He has chanted their beauties and their glories in every key, and in their honor has so modulated the French language, the only one he employs for literary purposes, that he might well make a Lamartine envious.

"Beneath the velvety southern sky the high white peaks glitter with so much grace and pride.; they are so white, so pure, so luminous, that the tempta­tion is often strong to bend the knee in front of them, as in presence of a tabernacle. They are Nature's cathedrals, tem­ples, of which the splendor and the solem­nity have some­thing at once austere and sacred; holy places, whose altars no pro­fane hand has ever overthrown. The altars of Christians have often been broken; but neither the pass­ing of the cen­turies, nor the furious elements, nor impious men have ever rob­bed the glories of these basilicas of snow and granite raised by Nature be­tween men and Heaven. Let us enter them with respect, as if they were places of worship, not theatres."

To hear Count Russell relate his mountaineer­ing exploits, as if they were the most ordinary occurrences in the world, one almost forgets what courage, agility, and resource are necessary to win the freedom of the glacier and the treacherous crevasse. To realize how perilous some of these feats to which the speaker refers so lightly have been, a good plan is to have half an hour's conversation with Henry Passet, the three stars on whose breast mark him as the chief guide of the Pyrenees. He will speedily enlighten you as to the extraordinary skill and daring of "Monsieur le Comte." And homage from such lips is no slight compliment. Whymper. himself was so impressed by the mountaineering skill of Passet, that he used every argument in his power to try and persuade him to accompany him in his explora­tion of the Andes. Henry Passet, however, though sorely tempted, could not tear himself away from the associations of the Pyrenees.

No fewer than thirty times has Count Russell scaled the Vig­nemale, the giant of the French Py­renees, which is his exclusive property, the several com­munes that owned it having agreed to present. it to him in token of grati­tude and re­spect. From a strictly business point of view the estate is not valuable, as not even thistles will grow on glaciers; but its proprietor would not exchange it for the richest land in the plain. For centuries the Vignemale was considered inaccessible; and it is satisfactory to Anglo­ Saxon pride to know that it was a plucky English­woman, Lady Lister, who first cleared up the mystery of its summit in 1838. Nowadays the route is tolerably well known, and it has been Count Russell's ambition to render the ascent as safe as such an undertaking can possibly be. The great danger to be apprehended is that of being overtaken in that desolate region by a tempest; and in no part of the world, perhaps, do the winds rage more furiously at times. The human being without shelter on such occa­sions is whirled about as helplessly as a piece of straw, and may be dashed down into icy depths where not even the light of the sun ever reaches. It is impossible to scale the loftiest peaks in one day. A night somehow or other must be passed on the mountains. As far as the proprietor of the Vignemale himself is concerned, this contin­gency is without terror. Safely ensconced in his lamb skin bag, and sheltered under the lee­side of a big boulder or in a hastily dug shallow trench, he sleeps the sleep of the just, wherever may be. One of his first experiences of this kind was in 1864, when, in company with his friend, Captain (afterwards Admiral Sir A.) Hoskins, he passed a night on the summit of Nethou.

It would be exaggeration to say that it was a pleasant night, though Count Russell declares that he remembers every incident as vividly as if it had occurred yesterday, and that the ensemble of the spectral picture was so splendid that he never experienced a greater desire to forsake once and for ever a civilized life. He admits, however, that if his imagination was inflamed, his body suffered considerably from the intense cold. As for Captain Hoskins, his teeth chat­tered with such a convulsive movement that one might have thought they were moved by some kind of mechanism; while his skin became absolutely blue.

Not everybody would care to. share such experiences, even for the sake of the souvenirs they may leave; and on behalf of these timid people Count Russell determined to devise some more efficient shelter than a leather bag. His esthetic sense was absolutely opposed to the idea of anything in the way of a building, which would have irretrievably marred for him the beauty of the sites he loved so well. The substitute that at once suggested itself to him was a cave in the rocks, and until he had tried, the idea seemed very practicable and simple. But the Vignemale, as the event turned out, was not to be mastered so easily as this. The rock proved so hard that the best tempered steel tools were blunted and rendered useless after a few strokes; and to transport these heavy instruments over dangerous, crevasse ­furrowed glaciers to an altitude of 10,000 ft. is by no means an easy task without the assistance of one of those funicular railways which Count Russell loathes as much as he does hotels out of place.

Perseverance, however, can overcome most difficulties, and now, after nineteen years of hard work, no fewer than seven roomy caves have been blasted out of the solid rock. Three of these, known as the Bellevue Caves, are at an altitude of 8,000 ft., three others. at 10,000 ft., and one, appropriately christened "Paradise," at 10,800 ft. They are of a uniform height within, namely, 6 1/2ft., and one of the Bellevue Caves is 32ft. long - ­large enough, in fact, to afford comfortable shelter to several score of wayfarers, if the Vignemale should ever be visited by so many at once.

Within the caves the temperature never falls below about 40 deg. Fahrenheit, so that, with a bundle of straw for a mattress and a blanket as a coverlet, a night can always be passed in comfort. Count Russell himself frequently passes weeks at a time in the mountains, sleeping sometimes in the caves and sometimes in the open air. Needless to say that, on these occasions, he makes abundant previous provision of food, for none of the shopkeepers in the valleys have yet thought of opening branches on the glaciers, even if the proprietor of the Vignemale were disposed to give them permission to do so.

The one objection to Count Russell's caves is that access to them is not always so easy as it might be. The glaciers in front of the entrances have a most unpleasant habit of altering their level. Sometimes the door that one walked into last year in the simplest manner possible is found perched up on the side of the rock high above your head like an eagle's eyrie. At other times it is yards below your feet, with the solid wall of ice in front. In both cases you will need at least a share of Count Russell's nerve and muscle before you can say you are safely housed.

Count Russell does not confine himself by any means to the one peak. He is popularly credited with knowing every inch of the whole chain, and the French engineer officers have frequently had to thank him for a useful hint when constructing their maps.

One of his favorite excursions is to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, on which there is an observatory at an altitude of over 9,000 ft. There, a few years since, lived another hermit, bearing a name among the most popular in France, General de Nansouty, who has presented his country with one of its most remarkable scientific establishments. General de Nansouty began by constructing a small observatory in 1875, and the photograph represents him preparing to enter his dwelling-place through the roof, the door being blocked by an avalanche. He has replaced the sword that served him so well by an alpenstock, while on his head he wears, instead of a plumed hat, the chechia of the African Light Horse Regiment he commanded in 1867 against the Arabs. General de Nansouty, in his solitary home, has had several narrow escapes from avalanches and landslips, and shortly after his first installation he was able to give warning several days in advance of the terrible inundation of 1875 which ravaged the whole valley of the Garonne and devastated a great part of the town of Toulouse.

Eventually General de Nansouty erected the wonderful ob­servatory which now crowns the very summit of the Pic du Midi, the task being a truly herculean one. Seen from a little distance, the buildings convey the im­pression of an enormous battle­ship, the twelve high lightning conductors pass­ing in the imagination as masts.  In the interior the illusion is still more com­plete, the under­ground corridors and narrow sleeping rooms irresistibly recalling the arrangements on a great ocean-going vessel. The existence led by the inmates would not suit everybody. Even in summer snow never quite disappears, while in winter there is never less on the rocks around than from 25 ft  to 35 ft Once the winter has begun, of course, the inmates are absolutely cut off from all intercourse with their fellows, just as much as the keeper of some lighthouse on a desolate ocean rock. The only link between them and the rest of the world is the slender telegraph wire which fifty accidents in the course of the day may render useless.

In Count Russell's opinion there is no more salutary discipline both for the moral and physical man than mountaineering, when pos­sible alone; and of all the mountain ranges he has visited he prefers the Pyrenees. For him Mont Blanc and the Alps, which he also knows well, are types of the stern, gloomy, unbending male. The Pyrenees have, combined with a modicum of danger, the wayward, pretty graces of Eve's daughters.

"Every person has his own way of studying, climbing, and loving mountains. As for me, my tastes have not changed; and today, as a quarter of a century ago, my supreme joy con­sists in making lengthy sojourns at my ease, at great heights, dreaming through the love1y nights of the miseries of the plain, of its joys and its miasmas, as I look round on the immaculate glaciers and on the virgin snows where the moon is solemnly stalking. None of the human inventions that make us grow old do I regret. I am happy without them; for the tempests of the opera are not to be compared with those of the Grand Vignemale; the gas is not so sublime as lightning, and between such artificial delights and that of being free and well, on the summit of a great mountain, there is all the distance that separates pleasure from happiness."

Alas! How many are there who, while they fain would imitate the writer of the foregoing sentences, are fettered by bonds they cannot break save in their dreams!

It is not for lack .of desire that the Hermit of the Pyrenees has not more followers than all his caves put together could possibly shelter.

Originally published in The Wide World Magazine, August 1900.

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