The Man and the Mountain by Bret Harte
He was such a large, strong man that, when he first set foot in the little
parallelogram I called my garden, it seemed to shrink to half its size and
become preposterous. But I noticed at the same time that he was holding in
the open palm of his huge hand the roots of a violet, with such infinite
tenderness and delicacy that I would have engaged him as my gardener on
the spot. But this could not be, as he was already the proud proprietor of
a market-garden and nursery on the outskirts of the suburban Californian
town where I lived. He would, however, come for two days in the week,
stock and look after my garden, and impart to my urban intellect such
horticultural hints as were necessary. His name was "Rutli," which I
presumed to be German, but which my neighbors rendered as "Rootleigh,"
possibly from some vague connection with his occupation. His own knowledge
of English was oral and phonetic. I have a delightful recollection of a
bill of his in which I was charged for "fioletz," with the vague addition
of "maine cains." Subsequent explanation proved it to be "many kinds."
Nevertheless, my little garden bourgeoned and blossomed under his large,
protecting hand. I became accustomed to walk around his feet respectfully
when they blocked the tiny paths, and to expect the total eclipse of that
garden-bed on which he worked, by his huge bulk. For the tiniest and most
reluctant rootlet seemed to respond to his caressing paternal touch; it
was a pretty sight to see his huge fingers tying up some slender stalk to
its stick with the smallest thread, and he had a reverent way of laying a
bulb or seed in the ground, and then gently shaping and smoothing a small
mound over it, which made the little inscription on the stick above more
like an affecting epitaph than ever. Much of this gentleness may have been
that apology for his great strength, common with large men; but his face
was distinctly amiable, and his very light blue eyes were at times wistful
and doglike in their kindliness. I was soon to learn, however, that
placability was not entirely his nature.
The garden was part of a fifty vara lot of land, on which I was
simultaneously erecting a house. But the garden was finished before the
house was, through certain circumstances very characteristic of that epoch
and civilization. I had purchased the Spanish title, the only LEGAL one,
to the land, which, however, had been in POSSESSION of a "squatter." But
he had been unable to hold that possession against a "jumper,"—another
kind of squatter who had entered upon it covertly, fenced it in, and
marked it out in building sites. Neither having legal rights, they could
not invoke the law; the last man held possession. There was no doubt that
in due course of litigation and time both these ingenuous gentlemen would
have been dispossessed in favor of the real owner,—myself,—but
that course would be a protracted one. Following the usual custom of the
locality, I paid a certain sum to the jumper to yield up peaceably HIS
possession of the land, and began to build upon it. It might be reasonably
supposed that the question was settled. But it was not. The house was
nearly finished when, one morning, I was called out of my editorial
sanctum by a pallid painter, looking even more white-leaded than usual,
who informed me that my house was in the possession of five armed men! The
entry had been made peaceably during the painters' absence to dinner under
a wayside tree. When they returned, they had found their pots and brushes
in the road, and an intimation from the windows that their reentrance
would be forcibly resisted as a trespass.
I honestly believe that Rutli was more concerned than myself over this
dispossession. While he loyally believed that I would get back my
property, he was dreadfully grieved over the inevitable damage that would
be done to the garden during this interval of neglect and carelessness. I
even think he would have made a truce with my enemies, if they would only
have let him look after his beloved plants. As it was, he kept a passing
but melancholy surveillance of them, and was indeed a better spy of the
actions of the intruders than any I could have employed. One day, to my
astonishment, he brought me a moss-rose bud from a bush which had been
trained against a column of the veranda. It appeared that he had called,
from over the fence, the attention of one of the men to the neglected
condition of the plant, and had obtained permission to "come in and tie it
up." The men, being merely hirelings of the chief squatter, had no
personal feeling, and I was not therefore surprised to hear that they
presently allowed Rutli to come in occasionally and look after his
precious "slips." If they had any suspicions of his great strength, it was
probably offset by his peaceful avocation and his bland, childlike face.
Meantime, I had begun the usual useless legal proceeding, but had also
engaged a few rascals of my own to be ready to take advantage of any want
of vigilance on the part of my adversaries. I never thought of Rutli in
that connection any more than they had.
A few Sundays later I was sitting in the little tea-arbor of Rutli's
nursery, peacefully smoking with him. Presently he took his long
china-bowled pipe from his mouth, and, looking at me blandly over his
yellow mustache, said:—
"You vonts sometimes to go in dot house, eh?"
I said, "Decidedly."
"Mit a revolver, and keep dot house dose men out?"
"Vell! I put you in dot house—today!"
"Shoost so! It is a goot day! On der Suntay DREE men vill out go to valk
mit demselluffs, and visky trinken. TWO," holding up two gigantic fingers,
apparently only a shade or two smaller than his destined victims, "stay
dere. Dose I lift de fence over."
I hastened to inform him that any violence attempted against the parties
WHILE IN POSSESSION, although that possession was illegal, would, by a
fatuity of the law, land him in the county jail. I said I would not hear
"But suppose dere vos no fiolence? Suppose dose men vos villin', eh? How
vos dot for high?"
"I don't understand."
"So! You shall NOT understand! Dot is better. Go away now and dell your
men to coom dot house arount at halluff past dree. But YOU coom, mit
yourselluff alone, shoost as if you vos spazieren gehen, for a valk, by
dat fence at dree! Ven you shall dot front door vide open see, go in, and
dere you vos! You vill der rest leef to me!"
It was in vain that I begged Rutli to divulge his plan, and pointed out
again the danger of his technically breaking the law. But he was firm,
assuring me that I myself would be a witness that no assault would be
made. I looked into his clear, good-humored eyes, and assented. I had a
burning desire to right my wrongs, but I think I also had considerable
I passed a miserable quarter of an hour after I had warned my partisans,
and then walked alone slowly down the broad leafy street towards the scene
of contest. I have a very vivid recollection of my conflicting emotions. I
did not believe that I would be killed; I had no distinct intention of
killing any of my adversaries; but I had some considerable concern for my
loyal friend Rutli, whom I foresaw might be in some peril from the
revolver in my unpracticed hand. If I could only avoid shooting HIM, I
would be satisfied. I remember that the bells were ringing for church,—a
church of which my enemy, the chief squatter, was a deacon in good
standing,—and I felt guiltily conscious of my revolver in my
hip-pocket, as two or three church-goers passed me with their hymn-books
in their hands. I walked leisurely, so as not to attract attention, and to
appear at the exact time, a not very easy task in my youthful excitement.
At last I reached the front gate with a beating heart. There was no one on
the high veranda, which occupied three sides of the low one-storied house,
nor in the garden before it. But the front door was open; I softly passed
through the gate, darted up the veranda and into the house. A single
glance around the hall and bare, deserted rooms, still smelling of paint,
showed me it was empty, and with my pistol in one hand and the other on
the lock of the door, I stood inside, ready to bolt it against any one but
Rutli. But where was HE?
The sound of laughter and a noise like skylarking came from the rear of
the house and the back yard. Then I suddenly heard Rutli's heavy tread on
the veranda, but it was slow, deliberate, and so exaggerated in its weight
that the whole house seemed to shake with it. Then from the window I
beheld an extraordinary sight! It was Rutli, swaying from side to side,
but steadily carrying with outstretched arms two of the squatter party,
his hands tightly grasping their collars. Yet I believe his touch was as
gentle as with the violets. His face was preternaturally grave; theirs, to
my intense astonishment, while they hung passive from his arms, wore that
fatuous, imbecile smile seen on the faces of those who lend themselves to
tricks of acrobats and strong men in the arena. He slowly traversed the
whole length of one side of the house, walked down the steps to the gate,
and then gravely deposited them OUTSIDE. I heard him say, "Dot vins der
pet, ain't it?" and immediately after the sharp click of the gate-latch.
Without understanding a thing that had happened, I rightly conceived this
was the cue for my appearance with my revolver at the front door. As I
opened it I still heard the sound of laughter, which, however, instantly
stopped at a sentence from Rutli, which I could not hear. There was an
oath, the momentary apparition of two furious and indignant faces over the
fence; but these, however, seemed to be instantly extinguished and put
down by the enormous palms of Rutli clapped upon their heads. There was a
pause, and then Rutli turned around and quietly joined me in the doorway.
But the gate was not again opened until the arrival of my partisans, when
the house was clearly in my possession.
Safe inside with the door bolted, I turned eagerly to Rutli for an
explanation. It then appeared that during his occasional visits to the
garden he had often been an object of amusement and criticism to the men
on account of his size, which seemed to them ridiculously inconsistent
with his great good humor, gentleness, and delicacy of touch. They had
doubted his strength and challenged his powers. He had responded once or
twice before, lifting weights or even carrying one of his critics at arm's
length for a few steps. But he had reserved his final feat for this day
and this purpose. It was for a bet, which they had eagerly accepted,
secure in their belief in his simplicity, the sincerity of his motives in
coming there, and glad of the opportunity of a little Sunday diversion. In
their security they had not locked the door when they came out, and had
not noticed that HE had opened it. This was his simple story. His only
comment, "I haf von der pet, but I dinks I shall nod gollect der money."
The two men did not return that afternoon, nor did their comrades. Whether
they wisely conceived that a man who was so powerful in play might be
terrible in earnest; whether they knew that his act, in which they had
been willing performers, had been witnessed by passing citizens, who
supposed it was skylarking; or whether their employer got tired of his
expensive occupation, I never knew. The public believed the latter; Rutli,
myself, and the two men he had evicted alone kept our secret.
From that time Rutli and I became firm friends, and, long after I had no
further need of his services in the recaptured house, I often found myself
in the little tea-arbor of his prosperous nursery. He was frugal, sober,
and industrious; small wonder that in that growing town he waxed rich, and
presently opened a restaurant in the main street, connected with his
market-garden, which became famous. His relations to me never changed with
his changed fortunes; he was always the simple market-gardener and florist
who had aided my first housekeeping, and stood by me in an hour of need.
Of all things regarding himself he was singularly reticent; I do not think
he had any confidants or intimates, even among his own countrymen, whom I
believed to be German. But one day he quite accidentally admitted he was a
Swiss. As a youthful admirer of the race I was delighted, and told him so,
with the enthusiastic addition that I could now quite understand his
independence, with his devoted adherence to another's cause. He smiled
sadly, and astonished me by saying that he had not heard from Switzerland
since he left six years ago. He did not want to hear anything; he even
avoided his countrymen lest he should. I was confounded.
"But," I said, "surely you have a longing to return to your country; all
Swiss have! You will go back some day just to breathe the air of your
"I shall go back some days," said Rutli, "after I have made mooch, mooch
money, but not for dot air."
"What for, then?"
"For revenge—to get efen."
Surprised, and for a moment dismayed as I was, I could not help laughing.
"Rutli and revenge!" Impossible! And to make it the more absurd, he was
still smoking gently and regarding me with soft, complacent eyes. So
unchanged was his face and manner that he might have told me he was going
back to be married.
"You do not oonderstand," he said forgivingly. "Some days I shall dell to
you id. Id is a story. You shall make it yourselluff for dose babers dot
you write. It is not bretty, berhaps, ain't it, but it is droo. And de
endt is not yet."
Only that Rutli never joked, except in a ponderous fashion with many
involved sentences, I should have thought he was taking a good-humored
rise out of me. But it was not funny. I am afraid I dismissed it from my
mind as a revelation of something weak and puerile, quite inconsistent
with his practical common sense and strong simplicity, and wished he had
not alluded to it. I never asked him to tell me the story. It was a year
later, and only when he had invited me to come to the opening of a new
hotel, erected by him at a mountain spa of great resort, that he himself
alluded to it.
The hotel was a wonderful affair, even for those days, and Rutli's outlay
of capital convinced me that by this time he must have made the "mooch
money" he coveted. Something of this was in my mind when we sat by the window
of his handsomely furnished private office, overlooking the pines of a
Californian canyon. I asked him if the scenery was like Switzerland.
"Ach! no!" he replied; "but I vill puild a hotel shoost like dis dare."
"Is that a part of your revenge?" I asked, with a laugh.
"Ah! so! a bart."
I felt relieved; a revenge so practical did not seem very malicious or
idiotic. After a pause he puffed contemplatively at his pipe, and then
said, "I dell you somedings of dot story now."
He began. I should like to tell it in his own particular English, mixed
with American slang, but it would not convey the simplicity of the
narrator. He was the son of a large family who had lived for centuries in
one of the highest villages in the Bernese Oberland. He attained his size
and strength early, but with a singular distaste to use them in the rough
regular work on the farm, although he was a great climber and mountaineer,
and, what was at first overlooked as mere boyish fancy, had an insatiable
love and curious knowledge of plants and flowers. He knew the haunts of
Edelweiss, Alpine rose, and blue gentian, and had brought home rare and
unknown blossoms from under the icy lips of glaciers. But as he did this
when his time was supposed to be occupied in looking after the cows in the
higher pastures and making cheeses, there was trouble in that
hard-working, practical family. A giant with the tastes and disposition of
a schoolgirl was an anomaly in a Swiss village. Unfortunately again, he
was not studious; his record in the village school had been on a par with
his manual work, and the family had not even the consolation of believing
that they were fostering a genius. In a community where practical industry
was the highest virtue, it was not strange, perhaps, that he was called
"lazy" and "shiftless;" no one knew the long climbs and tireless vigils he
had undergone in remote solitudes in quest of his favorites, or, knowing,
forgave him for it. Abstemious, frugal, and patient as he was, even the
crusts of his father's table were given him grudgingly. He often went
hungry rather than ask the bread he had failed to earn. How his great
frame was nurtured in those days he never knew; perhaps the giant
mountains recognized some kin in him and fed and strengthened him after
their own fashion. Even his gentleness was confounded with cowardice. "Dot
vos de hardtest," he said simply; "it is not goot to be opligit to half
crush your brudder, ven he would make a laugh of you to your sweetheart."
The end came sooner than he expected, and, oddly enough, through this
sweetheart. "Gottlieb," she said to him one day, "the English Fremde who
stayed here last night met me when I was carrying some of those beautiful
flowers you gave me. He asked me where they were to be found, and I told
him only YOU knew. He wants to see you; go to him. It may be luck to you."
Rutli went. The stranger, an English Alpine climber of scientific tastes,
talked with him for an hour. At the end of that time, to everybody's
astonishment, he engaged this hopeless idler as his personal guide for
three months, at the sum of five francs a day! It was inconceivable, it
was unheard of! The Englander was as mad as Gottlieb, whose intellect had
always been under suspicion! The schoolmaster pursed up his lips, the
pastor shook his head; no good could come of it; the family looked upon it
as another freak of Gottlieb's, but there was one big mouth less to feed
and more room in the kitchen, and they let him go. They parted from him as
ungraciously as they had endured his presence.
Then followed two months of sunshine in Rutli's life—association
with his beloved plants, and the intelligent sympathy and direction of a
cultivated man. Even in altitudes so dangerous that they had to take other
and more experienced guides, Rutli was always at his master's side. That
savant's collection of Alpine flora excelled all previous ones; he talked
freely with Rutli of further work in the future, and relaxed his English
reserve so far as to confide to him that the outcome of their collection
and observation might be a book. He gave a flower a Latin name, in which
even the ignorant and delighted Rutli could distinguish some likeness to
his own. But the book was never compiled. In one of their later and more
difficult ascents they and their two additional guides were overtaken by a
sudden storm. Swept from their feet down an ice-bound slope, Rutli alone
of the roped-together party kept a foothold on the treacherous incline.
Here this young Titan, with bleeding fingers clenched in a rock cleft,
sustained the struggles and held up the lives of his companions by that
precious thread for more than an hour. Perhaps he might have saved them,
but in their desperate efforts to regain their footing the rope slipped
upon a jagged edge of outcrop and parted as if cut by a knife. The two
guides passed without an outcry into obscurity and death; Rutli, with a
last despairing exertion, dragged to his own level his unconscious master,
crippled by a broken leg.
Your true hero is apt to tell his tale simply. Rutli did not dwell upon
these details, nor need I. Left alone upon a treacherous ice slope in
benumbing cold, with a helpless man, eight hours afterwards he staggered,
half blind, incoherent, and inarticulate, into a "shelter" hut, with the
dead body of his master in his stiffened arms. The shelter-keepers turned
their attention to Rutli, who needed it most. Blind and delirious, with
scarce a chance for life, he was sent the next day to a hospital, where he
lay for three months, helpless, imbecile, and unknown. The dead body of
the Englishman was identified, and sent home; the bodies of the guides
were recovered by their friends; but no one knew aught of Rutli, even his
name. While the event was still fresh in the minds of those who saw him
enter the hut with the body of his master, a paragraph appeared in a Berne
journal recording the heroism of this nameless man. But it could not be
corroborated nor explained by the demented hero, and was presently
forgotten. Six months from the day he had left his home he was discharged
cured. He had not a kreutzer in his pocket; he had never drawn his wages
from his employer; he had preferred to have it in a lump sum that he might
astonish his family on his return. His eyes were still weak, his memory
feeble; only his great physical strength remained through his long
illness. A few sympathizing travelers furnished him the means to reach his
native village, many miles away. He found his family had heard of the loss
of the Englishman and the guides, and had believed he was one of them.
Already he was forgotten.
"Ven you vos once peliefed to be det," said Rutli, after a philosophic
pause and puff, "it vos not goot to ondeceif beoples. You oopset
somedings, soomdimes always. Der hole dot you hef made in der grount,
among your frients and your family, vos covered up alretty. You are loocky
if you vill not fint some vellars shtanding upon id! My frent, ven you vos
DINK det, SHTAY det, BE det, and you vill lif happy!"
"But your sweetheart?" I said eagerly.
A slight gleam of satire stole into Rutli's light eyes. "My sweetheart,
ven I vos dinks det, is der miller engaged do bromply! It is mooch better
dan to a man dot vos boor and plint and grazy! So! Vell, der next day I
pids dem goot-py, und from der door I say, 'I am det now; but ven I next
comes pack alife, I shall dis village py! der lants, der houses all
togedders. And den for yourselluffs look oudt!'"
"Then that's your revenge? That is what you really intend to do?" I said,
half laughing, yet with an uneasy recollection of his illness and
"Yes. Look here! I show you somedings." He opened a drawer of his desk and
took out what appeared to be some diagrams, plans, and a small
water-colored map, like a surveyor's tracing. "Look," he said, laying his
finger on the latter, "dat is a map from my fillage. I hef myselluff made
it out from my memory. Dot," pointing to a blank space, "is der mountain
side high up, so far. It is no goot until I vill a tunnel make or der
grade lefel. Dere vas mine fader's house, dere vos der church, der
schoolhouse, dot vos de burgomaster's house," he went on, pointing to the
respective plots in this old curving parallelogram of the mountain shelf.
"So was the fillage when I leave him on the 5th of March, eighteen hundred
and feefty. Now you shall see him shoost as I vill make him ven I go
back." He took up another plan, beautifully drawn and colored, and
evidently done by a professional hand. It was a practical, yet almost
fairylike transformation of the same spot! The narrow mountain shelf was
widened by excavation, and a boulevard stretched on either side. A great
hotel, not unlike the one in which we sat, stood in an open terrace, with
gardens and fountains—the site of his father's house. Blocks of
pretty dwellings, shops, and cafes filled the intermediate space. I laid
down the paper.
"How long have you had this idea?"
"Efer since I left dere, fifteen years ago."
"But your father and mother may be dead by this time?"
"So, but dere vill be odders. Und der blace—it vill remain."
"But all this will cost a fortune, and you are not sure"—
"I know shoost vot id vill gost, to a cend."
"And you think you can ever afford to carry out your idea?"
"I VILL affort id. Ven you shall make yet some moneys and go to Europe,
you shall see. I VILL infite you dere first. Now coom and look der house
I did NOT make "some moneys," but I DID go to Europe. Three years after
this last interview with Rutli I was coming from Interlaken to Berne by
rail. I had not heard from him, and I had forgotten the name of his
village, but as I looked up from the paper I was reading, I suddenly
recognized him in the further end of the same compartment I occupied. His
recognition of me was evidently as sudden and unexpected. After our first
hand-grasp and greeting, I said:—
"And how about our new village?"
"Dere is no fillage."
"What! You have given up the idea?"
"Yes. There is no fillage, olt or new."
"I don't understand."
He looked at me a moment. "You have not heard?"
He gently picked up a little local guidebook that lay in my lap, and
turning its leaves, pointed to a page, and read as follows:—
"5 M. beyond, the train passes a curve R., where a fine view of the lake
may be seen. A little to the R. rises the steep slopes of the ——,
the scene of a terrible disaster. At three o'clock on March 5, 1850, the
little village of ——, lying midway of the slope, with its
population of 950 souls, was completely destroyed by a landslip from the
top of the mountain. So sudden was the catastrophe that not a single
escape is recorded. A large portion of the mountain crest, as will be
observed when it is seen in profile, descended to the valley, burying the
unfortunate village to a depth variously estimated at from 1000 ft. to
1800 ft. The geological causes which produced this extraordinary
displacement have been fully discussed, but the greater evidence points to
the theory of subterranean glaciers. 5 M. beyond —— the train
crosses the R. bridge."
I laid down the guide-book in breathless astonishment.
"And you never heard of this in all these years?"
"Nefer! I asked no questions, I read no pooks. I have no ledders from
"And yet you"—I stopped, I could not call him a fool; neither could
I, in the face of his perfect composure and undisturbed eyes, exhibit a
concern greater than his own. An uneasy recollection of what he confessed
had been his mental condition immediately after his accident came over me.
Had he been the victim of a strange hallucination regarding his house and
family all these years? Were these dreams of revenge, this fancy of
creating a new village, only an outcome of some shock arising out of the
disaster itself, which he had long since forgotten?
He was looking from the window. "Coom," he said, "ve are near der blace. I
vill show id to you." He rose and passed out to the rear platform. We were
in the rear car, and a new panorama of the lake and mountains flashed upon
us at every curve of the line. I followed him. Presently he pointed to
what appeared to be a sheer wall of rock and stunted vegetation towering
two or three thousand feet above us, which started out of a gorge we were
passing. "Dere it vos!" he said. I saw the vast stretch of rock face
rising upward and onward, but nothing else. No debris, no ruins, nor even
a swelling or rounding of the mountain flank over that awful tomb. Yet,
stay! as we dashed across the gorge, and the face of the mountain shifted,
high up, the sky-line was slightly broken as if a few inches, a mere
handful, of the crest was crumbled away. And then—both gorge and
I was still embarrassed and uneasy, and knew not what to say to this man
at my side, whose hopes and ambition had been as quickly overthrown and
buried, and whose life-dream had as quickly vanished. But he himself,
taking his pipe from his lips, broke the silence.
"It vos a narrow esgabe!"
"Vy, dis dings. If I had stayed in my fader's house, I vould haf been det
for goot, and perried too! Somedimes dose dings cooms oudt apout right,
Unvanquished philosopher! As we stood there looking at the flying
landscape and sinking lesser hills, one by one the great snow peaks slowly
arose behind them, lifting themselves, as if to take a last wondering look
at the man they had triumphed over, but had not subdued.