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."
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.