16th June 1901: The Candle Calls It

… or maybe for a tramp; I thought that this was the moment when Belloc was arrested but it looks like that comes later. On this occasion, the search light went on its way and so did Belloc.

Thinking about it again, I realise that I am confusing Belloc’s pilgrimage with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s walk across Europe thirty or so years later. Yes, he definitely was arrested by a lake.

Tired and weary, Belloc trudged on. He had three francs in his pocket and thirty-eight miles until Milan. He came to a house, and asked the woman who was looking out of the window for a bed. She told him they had no rooms. A man looked out another window and confirmed this.

The man and woman then started chatting to each other while Belloc did his best to make them change their minds. Presently, a young man opened the front door and let Belloc in. Inside, however, he reiterated that they had no rooms to spare.

Whatever I have in common with these southerners made me understand that I had won, so I smiled at him and nodded; he also smiled, and at once beckoned to me. He led me upstairs, and showed me a charming bed in a clean room, where there was a portrait of the Pope, looking cunning; the charge for that delightful and human place was sixpence, and as I said good-night to the youth, the man and woman from above said good-night also. And this was my first introduction to the most permanent feature in the Italian character. The good people!

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome, p282

I love his comment about the pope – it’s the kind, of course, that only someone who loves Peter’s successor can say without risking being called a bigot. What makes it all the funnier is that in 1901, the pope was Leo XIII, a man who I doubt could have looked cunning if he had scowled while wearing a hat with ‘I am Cunning’ written across it.

Pope Leo XIII, ‘Cunning’

Belloc crossed the border into Italy at Chiasso. From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to Como. Belloc, however, was tired and the day was hot, so no doubt trudged there.

Beautiful Como, but Belloc found it underwater. Poor men ferried the rich around on carts, and Belloc got himself a much needed meal.

Now, he had to decide what to do next. He was still twenty-five or more miles from Milan. If he walked, the journey would take into the evening, and he would arrive to find the post office shut. But he would need to eat.

I could beg, but there was the risk of being arrested, and that means an indefinite waste of time, perhaps several days; and time, that had defeated me at the Gries, threatened me here again. I had nothing to sell or to pawn, and I had no friends.

The Path to Rome, p.291

Belloc went into Como cathedral to consider his options. There, he saw two votive candles about to go out. He decided that if the candle on the left went out first, he would walk – even if it meant becoming ill for want of food; if the candle on the right went out first, though, he would take the train.

The candle on the right shot up its death flame and it looked for a second like Belloc would be walking, but all of a sudden, the candle on the left died. The train it was.

I have a feeling that Belloc would have found a way to take the train, anyway; I don’t think he had a heart for walking, and he wasn’t stupid – he would not have put himself at such risk (his attempt to cross the Gries Pass notwithstanding).

So, he boarded the train. He had just enough money for a ticket to Milan, and no more. Upon his arrival, he withdrew his money and sat down at a café outside the cathedral. He felt bad for being so dirty and scruffy, so bought an expensive drink for the café owner to keep him onside. The man sat down with him and they talked in French.

Belloc’s feeling of unease on account of his appearance lasted until evening. That night, he ate in another inn before taking a room there (?). It was a squalid place,

The walls were mildewed, the place ramshackle and evil, the rickety bed not clean, the door broken and warped, and that night I was oppressed with the vision of poverty. Dirt and clamour and inhuman conditions surrounded me. Yet the people meant well…

The Path to Rome, p.296

The ellipsis, by the way, is Belloc’s.

Belloc could and should have removed himself from this room but perhaps he stayed because he felt that because he looked like a tramp this is where he deserved to be. This, by the way, was not an attitude the belonged to his pilgrimage – if I recall correctly, Belloc was worried by the spectre of poverty throughout his life; it’s why he wrote so much.

Credit Where It’s Due
Portrait of Pope Leo XIII: Wikipedia

14th June 1901: Failed Ascent

At three o’clock this morning, the man woke Belloc up. After a quick breakfast of coffee and bread, they set out.

To get to the Nufenen and Gries Passes they had to cross a ravine. There, they trod carefully as they ploughed through avalanche snow. The need to be careful was emphasised not long later when they saw a cross – planted in memory of a man who had fallen and died there just a couple of months earlier.

The walk did not easier.

We noticed… many disquieting things. First, all that bowl or cup below the passes was a carpet of snow, save where patches of black water showed, and all the passes and mountains, from top to bottom, were covered with very thick snow; the deep surface of it soft and fresh fallen. Secondly, the rain had turned into snow. It was falling thickly all around. Nowhere have I more perceived the immediate presence of great Death. Thirdly, it was far colder, and we felt the beginning of a wind. Fourthly, the clouds had come down.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.241

The guide knew what the snow, coldness and wind, and low clouds meant – the passes would be closed, and told Belloc this, but he wanted and needed to advance on his pilgrimage and insisted they continue. Alas, Belloc was not as kind to this stranger as he and his wife had been to him, and it almost cost him his life.

The Nufenen Pass was clearly blocked so they made for the Gries Pass.

Neither of us spoke, but occasionally he looked back to make sure I had not dropped out.

The Path to Rome, p.242

The weather deteriorated – ‘the snow began to fall more thickly’ (The Path to Rome, p.242) and the wind grew in strength; Belloc thought the guide would protest but for now he kept his peace. A ‘sheer steep of snow’ (The Path to Rome, p.243) terrified Belloc as he was no climber. The guide promised him that it could be negotiated safely, and even if he fell, one might only die if one struck rocks.

They began climbing. Less than half an hour later, the wind was at gale force and the snow ‘whirring furiously past out ears’ (The Path to Rome, p.244). They took refuge under a great rock. Here, the guide told Belloc – shouted at him to make himself heard – that they could not continue. In his desperation, Belloc betrayed the man’s kindness and offered him such money as he had in his pocket to continue.

… it was folly in me, because if I had had enough to tempt him and if he had yielded we should both have died. Luckily it was but a little sum. He shook his head. He would not go on, he broke out, for all the money there was in the world.

The Path to Rome, p.245

The evil of our disordered hearts. It makes us do the most foolish things.

The guide told Belloc that they had to turn back. He did not disagree for by now the cold was starting to numb him. They made their way back to the inn; it was not an easy journey, being in its way almost as perilous as the climb. Belloc felt humiliated. Worse, he could not afford to wait at the inn for the weather to improve. He would have to make his way into Italy on the same route as all the dreadful tourists.

So, he did by going ‘over the Furka; exactly as easy a thing as going up St. James’ Street and down Piccadilly’ (The Path to Rome, p.249). He tells us that he stopped at ‘all the inns’ (Ibid) along the way – I wonder how much he drunk – and told whoever would listen about his failed attempt to cross the Gries Pass. But,

… they took me for a liar… I became silent even within my own mind.

The Path to Rome, p.250

In the evening, Belloc reached Airolo. He rejoiced to hear Italian being spoken – ‘the speech of civilised men’ (The Path to Rome, p.251). His lack of money, though, still weighed heavy on his heart. Boy, do I know that feeling. The first few days of my Camino involved plenty of worry over how much money I had and was spending. I never truly got over it.

Needing to get on, Belloc left the Airolians behind. That night, two hours out of Airolo, he left the Ticino valley behind and entered Faido where he slept.

13th June 1901: Take the Stranger’s Case

The Grimsel Pass is marked with an X. I don’t know what route precisely Belloc took so can only say perhaps it was the one I have arrowed.

Like a hobbit, Belloc had two breakfasts; the first at the hotel, where the waiters were very courteous even if they did charge the earth for his food and coffee, and then at an inn. Breakfast there comprised of brandy and, well, just that. Belloc does not say what the inn keeper was like or how much he charged.

Leaving the inn behind, Belloc began his ascent of the Grimsel Pass. In doing so, he left a ‘companion’ behind – the Aar river. A thousand feet later, he was at the top of the pass. It was another misty day. On the way down, he passed the Lake of the Dead, which sounds like it belongs in Middle-Earth. The mist lifted; hopefully, the world now seemed a little less dead.

Belloc continued his descent. Somewhere near the Rhone river, he came to a large hotel. He asked the hotelier what the cost of a meal would be.

… “Four francs,” they said.
“What!” said I, “Four francs for a meal! Come, let me eat in the kitchen, and charge me one.” But they became rude and obstinate, being used only to deal with rich people, so I cursed them, and went down the road.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.232

Hilaire Belloc – either making friends or being as annoying as hell towards people. Okay, they were rude, but really.

Further on he met some moree – ‘a sad Englishman reading a book’ (The Path to Rome, p.232), ‘two American women in a carriage’ (Ibid), and then a priest. If he talked to them, though, he doesn’t record doing so. Interestingly, he does mention making an effort to touch iron after seeing the priest. From whence this superstition? The good news, though, is that Belloc felt good again. ‘… I thought myself capable of pushing on to the next village’ (The Path to Rome, pp.232-33) even though he was hungry and his boot was now severely damaged.

Despite this, he did walk on. He passed through ‘a village called “Between the Waters”‘ (The Path to Rome, p.233), and then ‘another called “Ehringen”” (Ibid). Finally, faint from hunger, he stopped at an inn in Ulrichen.

There, he me ‘one of the women whom God loves’ (Ibid) – a simply, kindly soul. She fed him (not very well, it seems, but at least she appears not to have overcharged him) and then persuaded Belloc not to set out for the Gries Pass on account of bad weather. When Belloc told her what he meant to do, she was horrified and called in a man, perhaps her husband, to warn Belloc off making the attempt.

[He] told me that he knew more of the mountains than any one for miles… He said that he had crossed the Nufenen and the Gries whenever they could be crossed since he was a child, and that if I attempted it that day I should sleep that night in Paradise.

The Path to Rome, pp. 236-7

Belloc – albeit reluctantly, for he was mindful of his ever shrinking purse – listened to him. He took a room at the inn but enjoined the man to wake him at three AM the next day and guide him over the mountain. The man agreed. Belloc sent his boots to be cobbled and settled down to read.

Anything that Belloc achieved after this day in 1901 we have the woman and her husband to thank. They proved better friends than many others, even though Belloc was only a stranger to them. They were better friends because of the goodness of their hearts which led them to be concerned for the stranger whom God had put into their home. Their witness to friendship, to love even, is an inspiration.