Swiss Fairy Tales




They say that the soul of Belgium is the carillon. In many a tower, far up in the air hang a hundred bells or more, of all sizes. These are struck by hammers, which are worked by the carillonier, who presses the keyboard, as if playing the piano. Very famous are these chime-masters, and sweet is the music, which sounds in the air. When away from home, in a foreign land, the Belgian gets homesick, amid strangers, and is often down-hearted, because of the silences of the strange country. Should he hear the sweet chimes of a city church, a vision of the home land, with its quaint houses and high towers, its carrier pigeons, and river-dykes, and flower markets, and happy children, playing in the streets, rises before him. Then he thinks of the years of his childhood, in his old home.

In Switzerland, it is not the tower bells, or even the church-spires, sounding out the tollings for a funeral, or the merry peals of wedding bells, or the strokes calling to worship, that so deeply stir the mountain man’s heart, as do the yodel music and the carillon of the cows.

On summer days, let one stand in the high pastures above the valleys, or on a mountain slope, and he will hear the tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, of bells, bells, bells. They sound and echo from near and far. They float on the air, from unseen nooks in the distance.

Even the cattle enjoy the music of the bells. Just as soon as the shepherds sound the Alpine horn, or start the call, for the herds to come home, every goat moves forward and cows leave their grazing on the grass, or they rise from chewing the cud. Then one may see the long lines of the milk-givers marching towards the chalets. There the men, at night, and in the morning, milk the cows. When the animals are housed for the night, they start the fires. They put in the rennet, that curdles the cream and turns the white and golden liquid into cheeses, so solid that one can roll them down the hills.

Everyone in America knows about the delicious white Schweitzer cheese. When cut open, it is seen to be full of holes, as if well ventilated, or, in many places, bored with an augur.

So well do the cows like to wear the leather collar, or neck strap, and hear the tinkle of the bells, that sometimes they die of homesickness, when these are taken away, or they lose their sounding collar; or, when among their sisters, thus decorated, they have none.

In old days, when it was the fashion for young men to be soldiers of fortune and enlist in the armies of France, or Germany, or Italy, or Holland, a Swiss man could forget, even his country, unless he had a sweetheart at home.

But when any one would start the yodel song, it made him and his comrades so homesick, that they wanted to leave at once, for their native land. So many soldiers were found to desert, on this account, that the generals forbade any one ever to sing the yodel songs, or play the yodel music, such as Queen Anne introduced into England. The “Ranz des Vaches,” or Song of the Cows, is more truly Switzerland’s national music, than is even the carillon of Belgium for the Belgians, or even that of the Swiss song, “Stand Fast, O Fatherland.”

In this country, where the music box was invented, the yodel is centuries old. It is almost like telling a fairy tale, to narrate the story of the cow parade in June, as it assembles and moves up to the high pastures, called “the Alps,” which are spangled with flowers of gorgeous colors. From June to October, these highland meadows are rich in the sweet aromatic herbs, which the cows so enjoy, especially the plant called the Alpine Poa. Almost as wonderful, is the cow parade, on its return downwards, in October.

During the long winter, every boy in the villages looks forward to the time, counting the last few days on his fingers, when he can go, with his father and hired men, and along with the dogs and donkeys, to spend the summer in outdoor life in the highlands. Then, he can be like a virtuous Indian, or a moral pirate, or an antique shepherd; and, indeed, the frisky goats, though all named and numbered, will give him plenty to do. He waits patiently, during the long house life of the cold time, when, walled in by the winter snow, he thinks of the long, bright summer days that are coming. Then, he can live nearer the sky, and until the sun begins again to set earlier and the snows drive men and cattle home.

The wonderful fact, in the cow parade, that reminds one of a fairy tale, is the way these horned creatures organize, of their own accord, and drill. They fall into line and march, as if they were playing soldiers, or were a company of real warriors, or cavalry horses, going to war. Each milker knows her place, and, if any young heifers try to be fresh, and show off too much, they get a hint from the horns of the old ladies of the herd, that they had better know and keep their place. Such snubs and punishments are not forgotten. After such discipline, a young snip of a cow behaves better, until grown up. Then, with more sense, she takes and holds her place, in good bovine society.

The herds, when bound for the Alps, number from twenty to two hundred. Three magnificent cows, brindle, dun, or white, lead the procession and they feel their honors, as fully as a lieutenant, just fresh from West Point, feels his. On the neck of each, is a wide leather strap, often decorated with metal bosses, or knobs, to which is hung a bell, often as big as a bucket. Most proudly, with heads up in the air, the leaders step forward. The other cows, all having names, follow, each with a smaller strap and bell on her neck. Here are a few of the names, expressed in English: Star, Crow, White Stocking, Youngster, Mirror, White Horn, and Lady.

The boy who is on his first venture up with the herd, dressed in his best clothes, leads the flock of goats, which are put under his special charge. Each one has a name and he knows them all. They will give him plenty to do, for they are great tramps and vagrants. Nobody knows how a goat will behave. We get our word “caprice,” and “capricious,” from his Latin name.

Back of the columns, is the big sow, with her litter of little pigs, all of them. They are glad enough to go, and they look on the whole thing as a picnic. For now, instead of living on dry winter feed, they will get the juicy grass and herbage of the summer pasture. Mrs. Hog is certainly proud of her young porkers, but her music is hardly up to the carillon standard, for it consists chiefly of grunts, and this is the only language, in which the education of the piggies is carried on.

Feeling quite as important as any, and always wanting to hurry along, and go ahead faster, is the dog Tiger. This pet of the family and the terror of the goats, that give him a butt, when he gets too lively, looks more like a mastiff, than a collie, or one of his cousins, the stately St. Bernard dogs.

Finally, as the rear guard, is the daddy of the family. He leads the horse, on which are packed and strapped the cheese caldron, for boiling the milk and cream. From his position, Daddy can round up the unruly members of the herd, cows, goats, or pigs, that have too much genius, or temperament, or are too original, or independent, to obey rules. Just as often, in a marching army, the rear guard is the place of honor, so the last cow, usually a superb animal, carries the milking stool between her horns.

The cows’ parade marks a heyday for the whole village. The girls are all out, and in their best dresses. Most of them will not see their brothers, their beaux, or their lovers, until autumn. So they make the most of the fun for a day.

During the summer, and until October, there are few of the male sex, except old men and small boys, left in the mountain or dairy villages. Many are the farewells and handwavings, until the procession disappears around the curve of the mountains. Then the yodel music, the Ranz des Vaches, the Song of the Swiss, for centuries, is raised and echoed among the hills. The words are, in most cases, very old, and in a sort of French, that is never heard in Paris, or at the universities. The notes are very much as their Swiss ancestors sung them, before America was discovered. The words are, in many of the songs, quite witty. In one form or another, they are in praise of the work and craft of the cattle, or dairy men.

The yodel music will never die. The herds may change in breed, form, or numbers, but never the song. When heard near at hand, there is too much jingle, with many discords; but distance lends enchantment to the sound. When far away, all notes melt into sweetness and accord.

Once up in the regions near the sky, while the echoes, coming back from the peaks, make angelic sweetness, and heavenly harmony, the Swiss boy has a fine time in both work and play. At no other season are the meadows more beautiful. He soon finds out, however, the difference between cows and goats. The larger animals stay on the levels, obey the rules, and are faithful, punctual, and well drilled. They always move homewards when the horn calls, or the yodel music sounds. On the contrary, the goats are often obstinate, and act as if imps and elves were in them. Then, too, they love to climb and wander. It is, with them, a game of Johnnie Jump Up, pretty much all the time. They leap and scramble out of the meadows, and up over the rocks, climbing thousands of feet towards the mountain tops, and into the most difficult places, as if they loved to play hide and seek and plague the shepherds. This gives the boy plenty to do in hunting them, for it is hard to hear their bells tinkling, when the wind blows roughly, or in the wrong direction.

In autumn, when Jack Frost returns, and storms are many and frequent, and the snows heavy, the march back and down is made in good order. Then, all the village folk turn out again, to welcome the shepherds. As the men, cows, goats, pigs and horses return, the latter are well loaded with cheeses. These will be sold and sent to the cities in foreign countries, and especially across the sea to America.