He pictured to himself all historical Switzerland living upon this imaginary hero; raising statues and chapels in his honour on the little squares of the little towns, and placing monuments in the museums of the great ones; organizing patriotic fetes, to which everybody rushed, banners displayed, from all the cantons, with banquets, toasts, speeches, hurrahs, songs, and tears swelling all breasts, and this for a great patriot, whom everybody knew had never existed.
Talk of Tarascon indeed! There's a tarasconade for you, the like of which was never invented down there!
His good-humour quite restored, Tartarin in a few sturdy strides struck the highroad to Fluelen, at the side of which the Hotel Tellsplatte spreads out its long facade. While awaiting the dinner-bell the guests were walking about in front of a cascade over rock-work on the gullied road, where landaus were drawn up, their poles on the ground among puddles of water in which was reflected a copper-coloured sun.
Tartarin inquired for his man. They told him he was dining. "Then take me to him, zou!" and this was said with such authority that in spite of the respectful repugnance shown to disturbing so important a personage, a maid-servant conducted the Alpinist through the whole hotel, where his advent created some amazement, to the invaluable courier who was dining alone in a little room that looked upon the court-yard.
"Monsieur," said Tartarin as he entered, his ice-axe on his shoulder, "excuse me if..."
He stopped stupefied, and the courier, tall, lank, his napkin at his chin, in the savoury steam of a plateful of hot soup, let fall his spoon.
"Ve! Monsieur Tartarin..."
It was Bompard, former manager of the Club, a good fellow, but afflicted with a fabulous imagination which rendered him incapable of telling a word of truth, and had caused him to be nicknamed in Tarascon "The Impostor."
Called an impostor in Tarascon! you can judge what he must have been. And this was the incomparable guide, the climber of the Alps, the Himalayas, the Mountains of the Moon.
"Oh! now, then, I understand," ejaculated Tartarin, rather nonplussed; but, even so, joyful to see a face from home and to hear once more that dear, delicious accent of the Cours.
"Differemment, Monsieur Tartarin, you 'll dine with me, que?"
Tartarin hastened to accept, delighted at the pleasure of sitting down at a private table opposite to a friend, without the very smallest litigious compote-dish between them, to be able to hobnob, to talk as he ate, and to eat good things, carefully cooked and fresh; for couriers are admirably treated by innkeepers, and served apart with all the best wines and the extra dainties.
Many were the au mouains, pas mouains, and differemments.
"Then, my dear fellow, it was really you I heard last night, up there, on the platform?.."
"Hey! parfaitemain... I was making those young ladies admire... Fine, isn't it, sunrise on the Alps?"
"Superb!" cried Tartarin, at first without conviction and merely to avoid contradicting him, but caught the next minute; and after that it was really bewildering to hear those two Tarasconese enthusiasts lauding the splendours they had found on the Rigi. It was Joanne capping Baedeker.
Then, as the meal went on, the conversation became more intimate, full of confidences and effusive protestations, which brought real tears to their Provencal eyes, lively, brilliant eyes, but keeping always in their facile emotion a little corner of jest and satire. In that alone did the two friends resemble each other; for in person one was as lean, tanned, weatherbeaten, seamed with the wrinkles special to the grimaces of his profession, as the other was short, stocky, sleek-skinned, and sound-blooded.
He had seen all, that poor Bompard, since his exodus from the Club. That insatiable imagination of his which prevented him from ever staying in one place had kept him wandering under so many suns, and through such diverse fortunes. He related his adventures, and counted up the fine occasions to enrich himself which had snapped, there! in his fingers—such as his last invention for saving the war-budget the cost of boots and shoes... "Do you know how?.. Oh, moun Diou! it is very simple... by shoeing the feet of the soldiers."
"Outre!" cried Tartarin, horrified.
Bompard continued very calmly, with his natural air of cold madness:—
"A great idea, wasn't it? Eh! be! at the ministry they did not even answer me... Ah! my poor Monsieur Tartarin, I have had my bad moments, I have eaten the bread of poverty before I entered the service of the Company..."
"Company! what Company?"
Bompard lowered his voice discreetly.
"Hush! presently, not here..." Then returning to his natural tones, "Et autremain, you people at Tarascon, what are you all doing? You haven't yet told me what brings you to our mountains..."
It was now for Tartarin to pour himself out. Without anger, but with that melancholy of declining years, that ennui which attacks as they grow elderly great artists, beautiful women, and all conquerors of peoples and hearts, he told of the defection of his compatriots, the plot laid against him to deprive him of the presidency, the decision he had come to to do some act of heroism, a great ascension, the Tarasconese banner borne higher than it had ever before been planted; in short, to prove to the Alpinists of Tarascon that he was still worthy... still worthy of... Emotion overcame him, he was forced to keep silence... Then he added:—
"You know me, Gonzague..." and nothing can ever render the effusion, the caressing charm with which he uttered that troubadouresque Christian name of the courier. It was like one way of pressing his hands, of coming nearer to his heart... "You know me, que! You know if I balked when the question came up of marching upon the lion; and during the war, when we organized together the defences of the Club..."
Bompard nodded his head with terrible emphasis; he thought he was there still.
"Well, my good fellow, what the lions, what the Krupp cannon could never do, the Alps have accomplished... I am afraid."
"Don't say that, Tartarin!"
"Why not?" said the hero, with great gentleness... "I say it, because it is so..."
And tranquilly, without posing, he acknowledged the impression made upon him by Dore's drawing of that catastrophe on the Matterhorn, which was ever before his eyes. He feared those perils, and being told of an extraordinary guide, capable of avoiding them, he resolved to seek him out and confide in him.
Then, in a tone more natural, he added: "You have never been a guide, have you, Gonzague?"
"He! yes," replied Bompard, smiling... "Only, I never did all that I related."
"That's understood," assented Tartarin.
And the other added in a whisper:—
"Let us go out on the road; we can talk more freely there."
It was getting dark; a warm damp breeze was rolling up black clouds upon the sky, where the setting sun had left behind it a vague gray mist.
They went along the shore in the direction of Fluelen, crossing the mute shadows of hungry tourists returning to the hotel; shadows themselves, and not speaking until they reached a tunnel through which the road is cut, opening at intervals to little terraces overhanging the lake.
"Let us stop here," pealed forth the hollow voice of Bompard, which resounded under the vaulted roof like a cannon-shot. There, seated on the parapet, they contemplated that admirable view of the lake, the downward rush of the fir-trees and beeches pressing blackly together in the foreground, and farther on, the higher mountains with waving summits, and farther still, others of a bluish-gray confusion as of clouds, in the midst of which lay, though scarcely visible, the long white trail of a glacier, winding through the hollows and suddenly illumined with irised fire, yellow, red, and green. They were exhibiting the mountain with Bengal lights!
From Fluelen the rockets rose, scattering their multicoloured stars; Venetian lanterns went and came in boats that remained invisible while bearing bands of music and pleasure-seekers.
A fairylike decoration seen through the frame, cold and architectural, of the granite walls of the tunnel.
"What a queer country, pas mouain, this Switzerland..." cried Tartarin.
Bompard burst out laughing.
"Ah! vai, Switzerland!.. In the first place, there is no Switzerland."
Confidences in a tunnel.
"Switzerland, in our day, ve! Monsieur Tar-tarin, is nothing more than a vast Kursaal, open from June to September, a panoramic casino, where people come from all four quarters of the globe to amuse themselves, and which is manipulated and managed by a Company richissime by hundreds of thousands of millions, which has its offices in London and Geneva. It costs money, you may be sure, to lease and brush up and trick out all this territory, lakes, forests, mountains, cascades, and to keep a whole people of employes, supernumeraries, and what not, and set up miraculous hotels on the highest summits, with gas, telegraphs, telephones..."
"That, at least, is true," said Tartarin, thinking aloud, and remembering the Rigi.
"True!.. But you have seen nothing yet... Go on through the country and you 'll not find one corner that is n't engineered and machine-worked like the under stage of the Opera,—cascades lighted a giorno, turnstiles at the entrance to the glaciers, and loads of railways, hydraulic and funicular, for ascensions. To be sure, the Company, in view of its clients the English and American climbers, keeps up on the noted mountains, Jungfrau, Monk, Finsteraarhorn, an appearance of danger and desolation, though in reality there is no more risk there than elsewhere..."
"But the crevasses, my good fellow, those horrible crevasses... Suppose one falls into them?"
"You fall on snow, Monsieur Tartarin, and you don't hurt yourself, and there is always at the bottom a porter, a hunter, at any rate some one, who picks you up, shakes and brushes you, and asks graciously: 'Has monsieur any baggage?'"
"What stuff are you telling me now, Gonzague?"
Bompard redoubled in gravity.
"The keeping up of those crevasses is one of the heaviest expenses of the Company."
Silence fell for a moment under the tunnel, the surroundings of which were quieting down. No more varied fireworks, Bengal lights, or boats on the water; but the moon had risen and made another conventional landscape, bluish, liquides-cent, with masses of impenetrable shadow...
Tartarin hesitated to believe his companion on his word. Nevertheless, he reflected on the extraordinary things he had seen in four days—the sun on the Rigi, the farce of William Tell—and Bompard's inventions seemed to him all the more probable because in every Tarasconese the braggart is leashed with a gull.
"Differemment, my good friend, how do you explain certain awful catastrophes... that of the Matterhorn, for instance?.."
"It is sixteen years since that happened; the Company was not then constituted, Monsieur Tartarin."
"But last year, the accident on the Wetterhorn, two guides buried with their travellers!.."
"Must, sometimes, te, pardi!.. you understand... whets the Alpinists... The English won't come to mountains now where heads are not broke... The Wetterhorn had been running down for some time, but after that little item in the papers the receipts went up at once."
"Then the two guides?.."
"They are just as safe as the travellers; only they are kept out of sight, supported in foreign parts, for six months... A puff like that costs dear, but the Company is rich enough to afford it."
"Listen to me, Gonzague..."
Tartarin had risen, one hand on Bompard's shoulder.
"You would not wish to have any misfortune happen to me, que?.. Well, then! speak to me frankly... you know my capacities as an Alpinist; they are moderate."
"Very moderate, that's true."
"Do you think, nevertheless, that I could, without too much danger, undertake the ascension of the Jungfrau?"
"I 'll answer for it, my head in the fire, Monsieur Tartarin... You have only to trust to your guide, ve!"
"And if I turn giddy?"
"Shut your eyes."
"And if I slip?"
"Let yourself go... just as they do on the stage... sort of trap-doors... there 's no risk..."
"Ah! if I could have you there to tell me all that, to keep repeating it to me... Look here, my good fellow, make an effort, and come with me."
Bompard desired nothing better, pecaire! but he had those Peruvians on his hands for the rest of the season; and, replying to his old friend, who expressed surprise at seeing him accept the functions of a courier, a subaltern,—
"I could n't help myself, Monsieur Tartarin," he said. "It is in our engagement. The Company has the right to employ us as it pleases."
On which he began to count upon his fingers his varied avatars during the last three years... guide in the Oberland, performer on the Alpine horn, chamois-hunter, veteran soldier of Charles X., Protestant pastor on the heights...
"Ques aco?" demanded Tartarin, astonished.
"Be! yes," replied the other, composedly. "When you travel in German Switzerland you will see pastors preaching on giddy heights, standing on rocks or rustic pulpits of the trunks of trees. A few shepherds and cheese-makers, their leather caps in their hands, and women with their heads dressed up in the costume of the canton group themselves about in picturesque attitudes; the scenery is pretty, the pastures green, or the harvest just over, cascades to the road, and flocks with their bells ringing every note on the mountain. All that, ve that's decorative, suggestive. Only, none but the employes of the Company, guides, pastors, couriers, hotel-keepers are in the secret, and it is their interest not to let it get wind, for fear of startling the clients."
The Alpinist was dumfounded, silent—in him the acme of stupefaction. In his heart, whatever doubt he may have had as to Bompard's veracity, he felt himself comforted and calmed as to Alpine ascensions, and presently the conversation grew joyous. The two friends talked of Tarascon, of their good, hearty laughs in the olden time when both were younger.
"Apropos of galejade [jokes]," said Tartarin, suddenly, "they played me a fine one on the Rigi-Kulm... Just imagine that this morning..." and he told of the letter gummed to his glass, reciting it with emphasis: "'Devil of a Frenchman'... A hoax, of course, que?"
"May be... who knows?.." said Bompard, seeming to take the matter more seriously. He asked if Tartarin during his stay on the Rigi had relations with any one, and whether he had n't said a word too much.
"Ha! vai! a word too much! as if one even opened one's mouth among those English and Germans, mute as carp under pretence of good manners!"
On reflection, however, he did remember having clinched a matter, and sharply too! with a species of Cossack, a certain Mi... Milanof.
"Manilof," corrected Bompard.
"Do you know him?.. Between you and me, I think that Manilof had a spite against me about a little Russian girl..."
"Yes, Sonia... "murmured Bompard.
"Do you know her too? Ah! my friend, a pearl! a pretty little gray partridge!"
"Sonia Wassilief... It was she who killed with one shot of her revolver in the open that General Felianine, the president of the Council of War which condemned her brother to perpetual exile."
Sonia an assassin? that child, that little blond fairy!.. Tartarin could not believe it. But Bompard gave precise particulars and details of the affair—which, indeed, is very well known. Sonia had lived for the last two years in Zurich, where her brother Boris, having escaped from Siberia, joined her, his lungs gone; and during the summers she took him for better air to the mountains. Bompard had often met them, attended by friends who were all exiles, conspirators. The Wassiliefs, very intelligent, very energetic, and still possessed of some fortune, were at the head of the Nihilist party, with Bolibine, the man who murdered the prefect of police, and this very Manilof, who blew up the Winter Palace last year.
"Boufre!" exclaimed Tartarin, "one meets with queer neighbours on the Rigi."
But here's another thing. Bompard took it into his head that Tartarin's letter came from these young people; it was just like their Nihilist proceedings. The czar, every morning, found warnings in his study, under his napkin...
"But," said Tartarin, turning pale, "why such threats? What have I done to them?"
Bompard thought they must have taken him for a spy.
"A spy! I!
"Be! yes." In all the Nihilist centres, at Zurich, Lausanne, Geneva, Russia maintained at great cost, a numerous body of spies; in fact, for some time past she had had in her service the former chief of the French Imperial police, with a dozen Corsicans, who followed and watched all Russian exiles, and took countless disguises in order to detect them. The costume of the Alpinist, his spectacles, his accent, were quite enough to confound him in their minds with those agents.
"Coquin de sort! now I think of it," said Tartarin, "they had at their heels the whole time a rascally Italian tenor... undoubtedly a spy... Differemment, what must I do?"
"Above all things, never put yourself in the way of those people again; now that they have warned you they will do you harm..."
"Ha! vai! harm!.. The first one that comes near me I shall cleave his head with my ice-axe."
And in the gloom of the tunnel the eyes of the Tarasconese hero glared. But Bompard, less confident than he, knew well that the hatred of Nihilists is terrible; it attacks from below, it undermines, and plots. It is all very well to be a lapin like the president, but you had better beware of that inn bed you sleep in, and the chair you sit upon, and the rail of the steamboat, which will give way suddenly and drop you to death. And think of the cooking-dishes prepared, the glass rubbed over with invisible poison!
"Beware of the kirsch in your flask, and the frothing milk that cow-man in sabots brings you. They stop at nothing, I tell you."
"If so, what's to be done! I'm doomed!" groaned Tartarin; then, grasping the hand of his companion:—
"Advise me, Gonzague."
After a moment's reflection, Bompard traced out to him a programme. To leave the next day, early, cross the lake and the Bruenig pass, and sleep at Interlaken. The next day, to Grindelwald and the Little Scheideck. And the day after, the JUNGFRAU! After that, home to Tarascon, without losing an hour, or looking back.
"I 'll start to-morrow, Gonzague..." declared the hero, in a virile voice, with a look of terror at the mysterious horizon, now dim in the darkness, and at the lake which seemed to him to harbour all treachery beneath the glassy calm of its pale reflections.
The Bruenig pass. Tartarin falls into the hands of Nihilists, Disappearance of an Italian tenor and a rope made at Avignon, Fresh exploits of the cap-sportsman. Pan! pan!
"Get in! get in!"
"But how the devil, que! am I to get in? the places are full... they won't make room for me."
This was said at the extreme end of the lake of the Four Cantons, on that shore at Alpnach, damp and soggy as a delta, where the post-carriages wait in line to convey tourists leaving the boat to cross the Bruenig.
A fine rain like needle-points had been falling since morning; and the worthy Tartarin, hampered by his armament, hustled by the porters and the custom-house officials, ran from carriage to carriage, sonorous and lumbering as that orchestra-man one sees at fairs, whose every movement sets a-going triangles, big drums, Chinese bells, and cymbals. At all the doors the same cry of terror, the same crabbed "Full!" growled in all dialects, the same swelling-out of bodies and garments to take as much room as possible and prevent the entrance of so dangerous and resounding a companion.
The unfortunate Alpinist puffed, sweated, and replied with "Coquin de bon sort!" and despairing gestures to the impatient clamour of the convoy: "En route!.. All right!.. Andiamo!.. Vorwarts!.." The horses pawed, the drivers swore. Finally, the manager of the post-route, a tall, ruddy fellow in a tunic and flat cap, interfered himself, and opening forcibly the door of a landau, the top of which was half up, he pushed in Tartarin, hoisting him like a bundle, and then stood, majestically, with outstretched hand for his trinkgeld.
Humiliated, furious with the people in the carriage who were forced to accept him manu militari, Tartarin affected not to look at them, rammed his porte-monnaie back into his pocket, wedged his ice-axe on one side of him with ill-humoured motions and an air of determined brutality, as if he were a passenger by the Dover steamer landing at Calais.
"Good-morning, monsieur," said a gentle voice he had heard already.
He raised his eyes, and sat horrified, terrified before the pretty, round and rosy face of Sonia, seated directly in front of him, beneath the hood of the landau, which also sheltered a tall young man, wrapped in shawls and rugs, of whom nothing could be seen but a forehead of livid paleness and a few thin meshes of hair, golden like the rim of his near-sighted spectacles. A third person, whom Tartarin knew but too well, accompanied them,—Manilof, the incendiary of the Winter Palace.
Sonia, Manilof, what a mouse-trap!
This was the moment when they meant to accomplish their threat, on that Bruenig pass, so craggy, so surrounded with abysses. And the hero, by one of those flashes of horror which reveal the depths of danger, beheld himself stretched on the rocks of a ravine, or swinging from the topmost branches of an oak. Fly! yes, but where, how? The vehicles had started in file at the sound of a trumpet, a crowd of little ragamuffins were clambering at the doors with bunches of edelweiss. Tartarin, maddened, had a mind to begin the attack by cleaving the head of the Cossack beside him with his alpenstock; then, on reflection, he felt it was more prudent to refrain. Evidently, these people would not attempt their scheme till farther on, in regions uninhabited, and before that, there might come means of getting out. Besides, their intentions no longer seemed to him quite so malevolent. Sonia smiled gently upon him from her pretty turquoise eyes, the pale young man looked pleasantly at him, and Manilof, visibly milder, moved obligingly aside and helped him to put his bag between them. Had they discovered their mistake by reading on the register of the Rigi-Kulm the illustrious name of Tartarin?.. He wished to make sure, and, familiarly, good-humouredly, he began:—
"Enchanted with this meeting, beautiful young lady... only, permit me to introduce myself... you are ignorant with whom you have to do, ve! whereas, I am perfectly aware who you are."
"Hush!" said the little Sonia, still smiling, but pointing with her gloved finger to the seat beside the driver, where sat the tenor with his sleeve-buttons, and another young Russian, sheltering themselves under the same umbrella, and laughing and talking in Italian.
Between the police and the Nihilists, Tartarin did not hesitate.
"Do you know that man, au mouain?" he said in a low voice, putting his head quite close to Sonia's fresh cheeks, and seeing himself in her clear eyes, which suddenly turned hard and savage as she answered "yes," with a snap of their lids.
The hero shuddered, but as one shudders at the theatre, with that delightful creeping of the epidermis which takes you when the action becomes Corsican, and you settle yourself in your seat to see and to listen more attentively. Personally out of the affair, delivered from the mortal terrors which had haunted him all night and prevented him from swallowing his usual Swiss coffee, honey, and butter, he breathed with free lungs, thought life good, and this little Russian irresistibly pleasing in her travelling hat, her jersey close to the throat, tight to the arms, and moulding her slender figure of perfect elegance. And such a child! Child in the candour of her laugh, in the down upon her cheeks, in the pretty grace with which she spread her shawl upon the knees of her poor brother. "Are you comfortable?.." "You are not cold?" How could any one suppose that little hand, so delicate beneath its chamois glove, had had the physical force and the moral courage to kill a man?
Nor did the others of the party seem ferocious: all had the same ingenuous laugh, rather constrained and sad on the drawn lips of the poor invalid, and noisy in Manilof, who, very young behind his bushy beard, gave way to explosions of mirth like a schoolboy in his holidays, bursts of a gayety that was really exuberant.
The third companion, whom they called Boli-bine, and who talked on the box with the tenor, amused himself much and was constantly turning back to translate to his friends the Italian's adventures, his successes at the Petersburg Opera, his bonnes fortunes, the sleeve-buttons the ladies had subscribed to present to him on his departure, extraordinary buttons, with, three notes of music engraved thereon, la do re (l'adore), which professional pun, repeated in the landau, caused such delight, the tenor himself swelling up with pride and twirling his moustache with so silly and conquering a look at Sonia, that Tartarin began to ask himself whether, after all, they were not mere tourists, and he a genuine tenor.
Meantime the carriages, going at a good pace, rolled over bridges, skirted little lakes and flowery meads, and fine vineyards running with water and deserted; for it was Sunday, and all the peasants whom they met wore their gala costumes, the women with long braids of hair hanging down their backs and silver chainlets. They began at last to mount the road in zigzags among forests of oak and beech; little by little the marvellous horizon displayed itself on the left; at each turn of the zigzag, rivers, valleys with their spires pointing upward came into view, and far away in the distance, the hoary head of the Finsteraarhorn, whitening beneath an invisible sun.
Soon the road became gloomy, the aspect savage. On one side, heavy shadows, a chaos of trees, twisted and gnarled on a steep slope, down which foamed a torrent noisily; to right, an enormous rock overhanging the road and bristling with branches that sprouted from its fissures.
They laughed no more in the landau; but they all admired, raising their heads and trying to see the summit of this tunnel of granite.
"The forests of Atlas!.. I seem to see them again..." said Tartarin, gravely, and then, as the remark passed unnoticed, he added: "Without the lion's roar, however."
"You have heard it, monsieur?" asked Sonia.
Heard the lion, he!.. Then, with an indulgent smile: "I am Tartarin of Tarascon, mademoiselle..."
And just see what such barbarians are! He might have said, "My name is Dupont;" it would have been exactly the same thing to them. They were ignorant of the name of Tartarin!
Nevertheless, he was not angry, and he answered the young lady, who wished to know if the lion's roar had frightened him: "No, mademoiselle... My camel trembled between my legs, but I looked to my priming as tranquilly as before a herd of cows... At a distance their cry is much the same, like this, te!"
To give Sonia an exact impression of the thing, he bellowed in his most sonorous voice a formidable "Meuh..." which swelled, spread, echoed and reechoed against the rock. The horses reared; in all the carriages the travellers sprang up alarmed, looking round for the accident, the cause of such an uproar; but recognizing the Alpinist, whose head and overwhelming accoutrements could be seen in the uncovered half of the landau, they asked themselves once more: "Who is that animal?"
He, very calm, continued to give details: when to attack the beast, where to strike him, how to despatch him, and about the diamond sight he affixed to his carbines to enable him to aim correctly in the darkness. The young girl listened to him, leaning forward with a little panting of the nostrils, in deep attention.
"They say that Bombonnel still hunts; do you know him?" asked the brother.
"Yes," replied Tartarin, without enthusiasm... "He is not a clumsy fellow, but we have better than he."
A word to the wise! Then in a melancholy tone, "Pas mouain, they give us strong emotions, these hunts of the great carnivora. When we have them no longer life seems empty; we do not know how to fill it."
Here Manilof, who understood French without speaking it, and seemed to be listening to Tartarin very intently, his peasant forehead slashed with the wrinkle of a great scar, said a few words, laughing, to his friends.
"Manilof says we are all of the same brotherhood," explained Sonia to Tartarin... "We hunt, like you, the great wild beasts."
"Te! yes, pardi... wolves, white bears..."
"Yes, wolves, white bears, and other noxious animals..."
And the laughing began again, noisy, interminable, but in a sharp, ferocious key this time, laughs that showed their teeth and reminded Tartarin in what sad and singular company he was travelling.
Suddenly the carriages stopped. The road became steeper and made at this spot a long circuit to reach the top of the Bruenig pass, which could also be reached on foot in twenty minutes less time through a noble forest of birches. In spite of the rain in the morning, making the earth sodden and slippery, the tourists nearly all left the carriages and started, single file, along the narrow path called a schlittage.
From Tartarin's landau, the last in line, all the men got out; but Sonia, thinking the path too muddy, settled herself back in the carriage, and as the Alpinist was getting out with the rest, a little delayed by his equipments, she said to him in a low voice: "Stay! keep me company..." in such a coaxing way! The poor man, quite overcome, began immediately to forge a romance, as delightful as it was improbable, which made his old heart beat and throb.
He was quickly undeceived when he saw the young girl leaning anxiously forward to watch Bolibine and the Italian, who were talking eagerly together at the opening of the path, Manilof and Boris having already gone forward. The so-called tenor hesitated. An instinct seemed to warn him not to risk himself alone in company with those three men. He decided at last to go on, and Sonia looked at him as he mounted the path, all the while stroking her cheek with a bouquet of purple cyclamen, those mountain violets, the leaf of which is lined with the same fresh colour as the flowers.
The landau proceeded slowly. The driver got down to walk in front with other comrades, and the convoy of more than fifteen empty vehicles, drawn nearer together by the steepness of the road, rolled silently along. Tartarin, greatly agitated, and foreboding something sinister, dared not look at his companion, so much did he fear that a word or a look might compel him to be an actor in the drama he felt impending. But Sonia was paying no attention to him; her eyes were rather fixed, and she did not cease caressing the down of her skin mechanically with the flowers.
"So," she said at length, "so you know who we are, I and my friends... Well, what do you think of us? What do Frenchmen think of us?"
The hero turned pale, then red. He was desirous of not offending by rash or imprudent words such vindictive beings; on the other hand, how consort with murderers? He got out of it by a metaphor:—
"Differemment, mademoiselle, you were telling me just now that we belonged to the same brotherhood, hunters of hydras and monsters, despots and carnivora... It is therefore to a companion of St. Hubert that I now make answer... My sentiment is that, even against wild beasts we should use loyal weapons... Our Jules Gerard, a famous lion-slayer, employed explosive balls. I myself have never given in to that, I do not use them... When I hunted the lion or the panther I planted myself before the beast, face to face, with a good double-barrelled carbine, and pan! pan! a ball in each eye."
"In each eye!.." repeated Sonia.
"Never did I miss my aim."
He affirmed it and he believed it.
The young girl looked at him with naive admiration, thinking aloud:—
"That must certainly be the surest way."
A sudden rending of the branches and the underbrush, and the thicket parted above them, so quickly and in so feline a way that Tartarin, his head now full of hunting adventures, might have thought himself still on the watch in the Zaccar. But Manilof sprang from the slope, noiselessly, and close to the carriage. His small, cunning eyes were shining in a face that was flayed by the briers; his beard and his long lank hair were streaming with water from the branches. Breathless, holding with his coarse, hairy hands to the doorway, he spoke in Russian to Sonia, who turned instantly to Tartarin and said in a curt voice:—
"Your rope... quick..."
"My... my rope?.." stammered the hero.
"Quick, quick... you shall have it again in half an hour."
Offering no other explanation, she helped him with her little gloved hands to divest himself of his famous rope made in Avignon. Manilof took the coil, grunting with joy; in two bounds he sprang, with the elasticity of a wild-cat, into the thicket and disappeared.
"What has happened? What are they going to do?.. He looked ferocious..." murmured Tartaric not daring to utter his whole thought.
Ferocious, Manilof! Ah! how plain it was he did not know him. No human being was ever better, gentler, more compassionate; and to show Tartarin a trait of that exceptionally kind nature, Sonia, with her clear, blue glance, told him how her friend, having executed a dangerous mandate of the Revolutionary Committee and jumped into the sledge which awaited him for escape, had threatened the driver to get out, cost what it might, if he persisted in whipping the horse whose fleetness alone could save him.
Tartarin thought the act worthy of antiquity. Then, having reflected on all the human lives sacrificed by that same Manilof, as conscienceless as an earthquake or a volcano in eruption, who yet would not let others hurt an animal in his presence, he questioned the young girl with an ingenuous air:—
"Were there many killed by the explosion at the Winter Palace?"
"Too many," replied Sonia, sadly; "and the only one that ought to have died escaped."
She remained silent, as if displeased, looking so pretty, her head lowered, with her long auburn eyelashes sweeping her pale rose cheeks. Tartarin, angry with himself for having pained her, was caught once more by that charm of youth and freshness which the strange little creature shed around her.
"So, monsieur, the war that we are making seems to you unjust, inhuman?" She said it quite close to him in a caress, as it were, of her breath and her eye; the hero felt himself weakening...
"You do not see that all means are good and legitimate to deliver a people who groan and suffocate?.."
"No doubt, no doubt..."
The young girl, growing more insistent as Tartarin weakened, went on:—
"You spoke just now of a void to be filled; does it not seem to you more noble, more interesting to risk your life for a great cause than to risk it in slaying lions or scaling glaciers?"
"The fact is," said Tartarin, intoxicated, losing his head and mad with an irresistible desire to take and kiss that ardent, persuasive little hand which she laid upon his arm, as she had done once before, up there, on the Rigi when he put on her shoe. Finally, unable to resist, and seizing the little gloved hand between both his own,—
"Listen, Sonia," he said, in a good hearty voice, paternal and familiar... "Listen, Sonia..."
A sudden stop of the landau interrupted him. They had reached the summit of the Bruenig; travellers and drivers were getting into their carriages to catch up lost time and reach, at a gallop, the next village where the convoy was to breakfast and relay. The three Russians took their places, but that of the Italian tenor remained unoccupied.
"That gentleman got into one of the first carriages," said Boris to the driver, who asked about him; then, addressing Tartarin, whose uneasiness was visible:—
"We must ask him for your rope; he chose to keep it with him."
Thereupon, fresh laughter in the landau, and the resumption for poor Tartarin of horrid perplexity, not knowing what to think or believe in presence of the good-humour and ingenuous countenances of the suspected assassins. Sonia, while wrapping up her invalid in cloaks and plaids, for the air on the summit was all the keener from the rapidity with which the carriages were now driven, related in Russian her conversation with Tartarin, uttering his pan! pan! with a pretty intonation which her companions repeated after her, two of them admiring the hero, while Manilof shook his head incredulously.
This was on the market-place of a large village, at an old tavern with a worm-eaten wooden balcony, and a sign hanging to a rusty iron bracket. The file of vehicles stopped, and while the horses were being unharnessed the hungry tourists jumped hurriedly down and rushed into a room on the lower floor, painted green and smelling of mildew, where the table was laid for twenty guests. Sixty had arrived, and for five minutes nothing could be heard but a frightful tumult, cries, and a vehement altercation between the Rices and the Prunes around the compote-dishes, to the great alarm of the tavern-keeper, who lost his head (as if daily, at the same hour, the same post-carriages did not pass) and bustled about his servants, also seized with chronic bewilderment—excellent method of serving only half the dishes called for by the carte, and of giving change in a way that made the white sous of Switzerland count for fifty centimes. "Suppose we dine in the carriage," said Sonia, I annoyed by such confusion; and as no one had time to pay attention to them the young men themselves did the waiting. Manilof returned with a cold leg of mutton, Bolibine with a long loaf of bread and sausages; but the best forager was Tartarin. Certainly the opportunity to get away from his companions in the bustle of relay ing was a fine one; he might at least have assured himself that the Italian had reappeared; but he never once thought of it, being solely preoccupied with Sonia's breakfast, and in showing Manilof and the others how a Tarasconese can manage matters.
When he stepped down the portico of the hotel, gravely, with fixed eyes, bearing in his robust hands a large tray laden with plates, napkins, assorted food, and Swiss champagne in its gilt-necked bottles, Sonia clapped her hands, and congratulated him.
"How did you manage it?" she said.
"I don't know... somehow, te!.. We are all like that in Tarascon."
Oh! those happy minutes! That pleasant breakfast opposite to Sonia, almost on his knees, the village market-place, like the scene of an operetta, with clumps of green trees, beneath which sparkled the gold ornaments and the muslin sleeves of the Swiss girls, walking about, two and two, like dolls!
How good the bread tasted! what savoury sausages! The heavens themselves took part in the scene, and were soft, veiled, clement; it rained, of course, but so gently, the drops so rare, though just enough to temper the Swiss champagne, always dangerous to Southern heads.
Under the veranda of the hotel, a Tyrolian quartette, two giants and two female dwarfs in resplendent and heavy rags, looking as if they had escaped from the failure of a theatre at a fair, were mingling their throat notes: "aou... aou..." with the clinking of plates and glasses. They were ugly, stupid, motionless, straining the cords of their skinny necks. Tartarin thought them delightful, and gave them a handful of sous, to the great amazement of the villagers who surrounded the unhorsed landau.
"Vife la Vranze!" quavered a voice in the crowd, from which issued a tall old man, clothed in a singular blue coat with silver buttons, the skirts of which swept the ground; on his head was a gigantic shako, in form like a bucket of sauerkraut, and so weighted by its enormous plume that the old man was forced to balance himself with his arms as he walked, like an acrobat.
"Old soldier... Charles X..."
Tartarin, fresh from Bompard's revelations, began to laugh, and said in a low voice with a wink of his eye:—
"Up to that, old fellow..." But even so, he gave him a white sou and poured him out a bumper, which the old man accepted, laughing, and winking himself, though without knowing why. Then, dislodging from a corner of his mouth an enormous china pipe, he raised his glass and drank "to the company," which confirmed Tartarin in his opinion that here was a colleague of Bompard.
No matter! one toast deserved another. So, standing up in the carriage, his glass held high, his voice strong, Tartarin brought tears to his eyes by drinking, first: To France, my country!.. next to hospitable Switzerland, which he was happy to honour publicly and thank for the generous welcome she affords to the vanquished, to the exiled of all lands. Then, lowering his voice and inclining his glass to the companions of his journey, he wished them a quick return to their country, restoration to their family, safe friends, honourable careers, and an end to all dissensions; for, he said, it is impossible to spend one's life in eating each other up.
During the utterance of this toast Soma's brother smiled, cold and sarcastic behind his blue spectacles; Manilof, his neck pushed forth, his swollen eyebrows emphasizing his wrinkle, seemed to be asking himself if that "big barrel" would soon be done with his gabble, while Bolibine, perched on the box, was twisting his comical yellow face, wrinkled as a Barbary ape, till he looked like one of those villanous little monkeys squatting on the shoulders of the Alpinist.
The young girl alone listened to him very seriously, striving to comprehend such a singular type of man. Did he think all that he said? Had he done all that he related? Was he a madman, a comedian, or simply a gabbler, as Manilof in his quality of man of action insisted, giving to the word a most contemptuous signification.
The answer was given at once. His toast ended, Tartarin had just sat down when a sudden shot, a second, then a third, fired close to the tavern, brought him again to his feet, ears straining and nostrils scenting powder.
"Who fired?.. where is it?.. what is happening?.."
In his inventive noddle a whole drama was already defiling; attack on the convoy by armed bands; opportunity given him to defend the honour and life of that charming young lady. But no! the discharges only came from the Stand, where the youths of the village practise at a mark every Sunday. As the horses were not yet harnessed, Tartarin, as if carelessly, proposed to go and look at them. He had his idea, and Sonia had hers in accepting the proposal. Guided by the old soldier of Charles X. wobbling under his shako, they crossed the market-place, opening the ranks of the crowd, who followed them with curiosity.
Beneath its thatched roof and its square uprights of pine wood the Stand resembled one of our own pistol-galleries at a fair, with this difference, that the amateurs brought their own weapons, breech-loading muskets of the oldest pattern, which they managed, however, with some adroitness. Tar-tarin, his arms crossed, observed the shots, criticised them aloud, gave his advice, but did not fire himself. The Russians watched him, making signs to each other.
"Pan!.. pan!.." sneered Bolibine, making the gesture of taking aim and mimicking Tartarin's accent. Tartarin turned round very red, and swelling with anger.
"Parfaitemain, young man... Pan!.. pan!.. and as often as you like."
The time to load an old double-barrelled carbine which must have served several generations of chamois hunters, and—pan!.. pan!.. T is done. Both balls are in the bull's-eye. Hurrahs of admiration burst forth on all sides. Sonia triumphed. Bolibine laughed no more.
"But that is nothing, that!" said Tartarin; "you shall see..."
The Stand did not suffice him; he looked about for another target, and the crowd recoiled alarmed from this strange Alpinist, thick-set, savage-looking and carbine in hand, when they heard him propose to the old guard of Charles X. to break his pipe between his teeth at fifty paces. The old fellow howled in terror and plunged into the crowd, his trembling plume remaining visible above their serried heads. None the less, Tartarin felt that he must put it somewhere, that ball. "Te! pardi! as we did at Tarascon!.." And the former cap-hunter pitched his headgear high into the air with all the strength of his double muscles, shot it on the fly, and pierced it. "Bravo!" cried Sonia, sticking into the small hole made by the ball the bouquet of cyclamen with which she had stroked her cheek.
With that charming trophy in his cap Tartarin returned to the landau. The trumpet sounded, the convoy started, the horses went rapidly down to Brienz along that marvellous corniche road, blasted in the side of the rock, separated from an abyss of over a thousand feet by single stones a couple of yards apart. But Tartarin was no longer conscious of danger; no longer did he look at the scenery—that Meyringen valley, seen through a light veil of mist, with its river in straight lines, the lake, the villages massing themselves in the distance, and that whole horizon of mountains, of glaciers, blending at times with the clouds, displaced by the turns of the road, lost apparently, and then returning, like the shifting scenes of a stage.
Softened by tender thoughts, the hero admired the sweet child before him, reflecting that glory is only a semi-happiness, that 'tis sad to grow old all alone in your greatness, like Moses, and that this fragile flower of the North transplanted into the little garden at Tarascon would brighten its monotony, and be sweeter to see and breathe than that everlasting baobab, arbos gigantea, diminutively confined in the mignonette pot. With her childlike eyes, and her broad brow, thoughtful and self-willed, Sonia looked at him, and she, too, dreamed—but who knows what the young girls dream of?
The nights at Tarascon, Where is he? Anxiety. The grasshoppers on the promenade call for Tartarin. Martyrdom of a great Tarasconese saint. The Club of the Alpines. What was happening at the pharmacy. "Help! help! Bezuquet!"
"A letter, Monsieur Bezuquet!.. Comes from Switzerland, ve!.. Switzerland!" cried the postman joyously, from the other end of the little square, waving something in the air, and hurrying along in the coming darkness.
The apothecary, who took the air, as they say, of an evening before his door in his shirt-sleeves, gave a jump, seized the letter with feverish hands and carried it into his lair among the varied odours of elixirs and dried herbs, but did not open it till the postman had departed, refreshed by a glass of that delicious sirop de cadavre in recompense for what he brought.
Fifteen days had Bezuquet expected it, this letter from Switzerland, fifteen days of agonized watching! And here it was. Merely from looking at the cramped and resolute little writing on the envelope, the postmark "Interlaken" and the broad purple stamp of the "Hotel Jungfrau, kept by Meyer," the tears filled his eyes, and the heavy moustache of the Barbary corsair through which whispered softly the idle whistle of a kindly soul, quivered.
"Confidential. Destroy when read." Those words, written large at the head of the page, in the telegraphic style of the pharmacopoeia ("external use; shake before using") troubled him to the point of making him read aloud, as one does in a bad dream: "Fearful things are happening to me..." In the salon beside the pharmacy where she was taking her little nap after supper, Mme. Bezuquet, mere, might hear him, or the pupil whose pestle was pounding its regular blows in the big marble mortar of the laboratory. Bezuquet continued his reading in a low voice, beginning it over again two or three times, very pale, his hair literally standing on end. Then, with a rapid look about him, cra cra... and the letter in a thousand scraps went into the waste-paper basket; but there it might be found, and pieced together, and as he was stooping to gather up the fragments a quavering voice called to him:
"Ve! Ferdinand, are you there?" "Yes, mamma," replied the unlucky corsair, curdling with fear, the whole of his long body on its hands and knees beneath the desk. "What are you doing, my treasure?" "I am... h'm, I am making Mile. Tournatoire's eye-salve."
Mamma went to sleep again, the pupil's pestle, suspended for a moment, began once more its slow clock movement, while Bezuquet walked up and down before his door in the deserted little square, turning pink or green according as he passed before one or other of his bottles. From time to time he threw up his arms, uttering disjointed words: "Unhappy man!.. lost... fatal love... how can we extricate him?" and, in spite of his trouble of mind, accompanying with a lively whistle the bugle "taps" of a dragoon regiment echoing among the plane-trees of the Tour de Ville.
"He! good night, Bezuquet," said a shadow hurrying along in the ash-coloured twilight.
"Where are you going, Pegoulade?"
"To the Club, pardi!.. Night session... they are going to discuss Tartarin and the presidency... You ought to come."
"Te! yes, I 'll come..." said the apothecary vehemently, a providential idea darting through his mind. He went in, put on his frock-coat, felt in its pocket to assure himself that his latchkey was there, and also the American tomahawk, without which no Tarasconese whatsoever would risk himself in the streets after "taps." Then he called: "Pascalon!.. Pascalon!.." but not too loudly, for fear of waking the old lady.
Almost a child, though bald, wearing all his hair in his curly blond beard, Pascalon the pupil had the ardent soul of a partizan, a dome-like forehead, the eyes of crazy goat, and on his chubby cheeks the delicate tints of a shiny crusty Beaucaire roll. On all the grand Alpine excursions it was to him that the Club entrusted its banner, and his childish soul had vowed to the P. C. A. a fanatical worship, the burning, silent adoration of a taper consuming itself before an altar in the Easter season.
"Pascalon," said the apothecary in a low voice, and so close to him that the bristle of his moustache pricked his ear. "I have news of Tartarin... It is heart-breaking..."
Seeing him turn pale, he added:
"Courage, child! all can be repaired... Differemment I confide to you the pharmacy... If any one asks you for arsenic, don't give it; opium, don't give that either, nor rhubarb... don't give anything. If I am not in by ten o'clock, lock the door and go to bed."
With intrepid step, he plunged into the darkness, not once looking back, which allowed Pascalon to spring at the waste-paper basket, turn it over and over with feverish eager hands and finally tip out its contents on the leather of the desk to see if no scrap remained of the mysterious letter brought by the postman.
To those who know Tarasconese excitability, it is easy to imagine the frantic condition of the little town after Tartarin's abrupt disappearance. Et autrement, pas moins, differemment, they lost their heads, all the more because it was the middle of August and their brains boiled in the sun till their skulls were fit to crack. From morning till night they talked of nothing else; that one name "Tartarin" alone was heard on the pinched lips of the elderly ladies in hoods, in the rosy mouths of grisettes, their hair tied up with velvet ribbons:
"Tartarin, Tartarin..." Even among the plane-trees on the Promenade, heavy with white dust, distracted grasshoppers, vibrating in the sunlight, seemed to strangle with those two sonorous syllables: "Tar.. tar.. tar.. tar.. tar..."
As no one knew anything, naturally every one was well-informed and gave explanations of the departure of the president. Extravagant versions appeared. According to some, he had entered La Trappe; he had eloped with the Dugazon; others declared he had gone to the Isles to found a colony to be called Port-Tarascon, or else to roam Central Africa in search of Livingstone.
"Ah! vai! Livingstone!.. Why he has been dead these two years."
But Tarasconese imagination defies all hints of time and space. And the curious thing is that these ideas of La Trappe, colonization, distant travel, were Tartarin's own ideas, dreams of that sleeper awake, communicated in past days to his intimate friends, who now, not knowing what to think, and vexed in their hearts at not being duly informed, affected toward the public the greatest reserve and behaved to one another with a sly air of private understanding. Excourbanies suspected Bravida of being in the secret; Bravida, on his side, thought: "Bezuquet knows the truth; he looks about him like a dog with a bone."
True it was that the apothecary suffered a thousand deaths from this hair-shirt of a secret, which cut him, skinned him, turned him pale and red in the same minute and caused him to squint continually. Remember that he belonged to Tarascon, unfortunate man, and say if, in all martyrology, you can find so terrible a torture as this—the torture of Saint Bezuquet, who knew a secret and could not tell it.
This is why, on that particular evening, in spite of the terrifying news he had just received, his step had something, I hardly know what, freer, more buoyant, as he went to the session of the Club. Enfin!.. He was now to speak, to unbosom himself, to tell that which weighed so heavily upon him; and in his haste to unload his breast he cast a few half words as he went along to the loiterers on the Promenade. The day had been so hot, that in spite of the unusual hour (a quarter to eight on the clock of the town hall!) and the terrifying darkness, quite a crowd of reckless persons, bourgeois families getting the good of the air while that of their houses evaporated, bands of five or six sewing-women, rambling along in an undulating line of chatter and laughter, were abroad. In every group they were talking of Tartarin.
"Et autrement, Monsieur Bezuquet, still no letter?" they asked of the apothecary, stopping him on his way.
"Yes, yes, my friends, yes, there is... Read the Forum to-morrow morning..."
He hastened his steps, but they followed him, fastened on him, and along the Promenade rose a murmuring sound, the bleating of a flock, which gathered beneath the windows of the Club, left wide open in great squares of light.
The sessions were held in the bouillotte room, where the long table covered with green cloth served as a desk. At the centre, the presidential arm-chair, with P. C. A. embroidered on the back of it; at one end, humbly, the armless chair of the secretary. Behind, the banner of the Club, draped above a long glazed map in relief, on which the Alpines stood up with their respective names and altitudes. Alpenstocks of honour, inlaid with ivory, stacked like billiard cues, ornamented the corners, and a glass-case displayed curiosities, crystals, silex, petrifactions, two porcupines and a salamander, collected on the mountains.
In Tartarin's absence, Costecalde, rejuvenated and radiant, occupied the presidential arm-chair; the armless chair was for Excourbanies, who fulfilled the functions of secretary; but that devil of a man, frizzled, hairy, bearded, was incessantly in need of noise, motion, activity which hindered his sedentary employments. At the smallest pretext, he threw out his arms and legs, uttered fearful howls and "Ha! ha! has!" of ferocious, exuberant joy which always ended with a war-cry in the Tarasconese patois: "Fen de brut... let us make a noise "... He was called "the gong" on account of his metallic voice, which cracked the ears of his friends with its ceaseless explosions.
Here and there, on a horsehair divan that ran round the room were the members of the committee.
In the first row, sat the former captain of equipment, Bravida, whom all Tarascon called the Commander; a very small man, clean as a new penny, who redeemed his childish figure by making himself as moustached and savage a head as Vercingetorix.
Next came the long, hollow, sickly face of Pegoulade, the collector, last survivor of the wreck of the "Medusa." Within the memory of man, Tarascon has never been without a last survivor of the wreck of the "Medusa." At one time they even numbered three, who treated one another mutually as impostors, and never con~ sented to meet in the same room. Of these three the only true one was Pegoulade. Setting sail with his parents on the "Medusa," he met with the fatal disaster when six months old,—which did not prevent him from relating the event, de visu, in its smallest details, famine, boats, raft, and how he had taken the captain, who was selfishly saving himself, by the throat: "To your duty, wretch!.. "At six months old, outre!... Wearisome, to tell the truth, with that eternal tale which everybody was sick of for the last fifty years; but he took it as a pretext to assume a melancholy air, detached from life: "After what I have seen!" he would say—very unjustly, because it was to that he owed his post as collector and kept it 'under all administrations.
Near him sat the brothers Rognonas, twins and sexagenarians, who never parted, but always quarrelled and said the most monstrous things to each other; their two old heads, defaced, corroded, irregular, and ever looking in opposite directions out of antipathy, were so alike that they might have figured in a collection of coins with IANVS BIFRONS on the exergue.
Here and there, were Judge Bedaride, Barjavel the lawyer, the notary Cambalalette, and the terrible Doctor Tournatoire, of whom Bravida remarked that he could draw blood from a radish.
In consequence of the great heat, increased by the gas, these gentlemen held the session in their shirt-sleeves, which detracted much from the solemnity of the occasion. It is true that the meeting was a very small one; and the infamous Costecalde was anxious to profit by that circumstance to fix the earliest possible date for the elections without awaiting Tartarin's return. Confident in this manoeuvre, he was enjoying his triumph in advance, and when, after the reading of the minutes by Excourbanies, he rose to insinuate his scheme, an infernal smile curled up the corners of his thin lips.
"Distrust the man who smiles before he speaks," murmured the Commander.
Costecalde, not flinching, and winking with one eye at the faithful Tournatoire, began in a spiteful voice:—
"Gentlemen, the extraordinary conduct of our president, the uncertainty in which he leaves us..."
"False!.. The president has written..."
Bezuquet, quivering, planted himself squarely before the table; but conscious that his attitude was anti-parliamentary, he changed his tone, and, raising one hand according to usage, he asked for the floor, to make an urgent communication.
Costecalde, very yellow, his throat tightened, gave him the floor by a motion of his head. Then, and not till then, Bezuquet spoke:
"Tartarin is at the foot of the Jungfrau... he is about to make the ascent... he desires to take with him our banner..."
Silence; broken by the heavy breathing of chests; then a loud hurrah, bravos, stamping of the feet, above which rose the gong of Excourbanies uttering his war-cry "Ha! ha! ha! fen de brut!" to which the anxious crowd without responded.
Costecalde, getting more and more yellow, tinkled the presidential bell desperately. Bezuquet at last was allowed to continue, mopping his forehead and puffing as if he had just mounted five pairs of stairs.
Differemment, the banner that their president requested in order to plant it on virgin heights, should it be wrapped up, packed up, and sent by express like an ordinary trunk?..
"Never!.. Ah! ah! ah!.." roared Excourbanies.
Would it not be better to appoint a delegation—draw lots for three members of the committee?..
He was not allowed to finish. The time to say zou! and Bezuquet's proposition was voted by acclamation, and the names of three delegates drawn in the following order: 1, Bravida; 2, Pegoulade; 3, the apothecary.
No. 2, protested. The long journey frightened him, so feeble and ill as he was, pecherel ever since that terrible event of the "Medusa."
"I 'll go for you, Pegoulade," roared Excour-banies, telegraphing with all his limbs. As for Bezuquet, he could not leave the pharmacy, the safety of the town depended on him. One imprudence of the pupil, and all Tarascon might be poisoned, decimated:
"Outre!" cried the whole committee, agreeing as one man.
Certainly the apothecary could not go himself, but he could send Fascalon; Pascalon could take charge of the banner. That was his business. Thereupon, fresh exclamations, further explosions of the gong, and on the Promenade such a popular tempest that Excourbanies was forced to show himself and address the crowd above its roarings, which his matchless voice soon mastered.
"My friends, Tartarin is found. He is about to cover himself with glory."
Without adding more than "Vive Tartarin!" and his war-cry, given with all the force of his lungs, he stood for a moment enjoying the tremendous clamour of the crowd below, rolling and hustling confusedly in clouds of dust, while from the branches of the trees the grasshoppers added their queer little rattle as if it were broad day.
Hearing all this, Costecalde, who had gone to a window with the rest, returned, staggering, to his arm-chair.
"Ve! Costecalde," said some one. "What's the matter with him?.. Look how yellow he is!"
They sprang to him; already the terrible Tournatoire had whipped out his lancet: but the gunsmith, writhing in distress, made a horrible grimace, and said ingenuously:
"Nothing... nothing... let me alone... I know what it is... it is envy."
Poor Costecalde, he seemed to suffer much.
While these things were happening, at the other end of the Tour de Ville, in the pharmacy, Bezuquet's pupil, seated before his master's desk, was patiently patching and gumming together the fragments of Tartarin's letter overlooked by the apothecary at the bottom of the basket. But numerous bits were lacking in the reconstruction, for here is the singular and sinister enigma spread out before him, not unlike a map of Central Africa, with voids and spaces of terra incognita, which the artless standard-bearer explored in a state of terrified imagination:
mad with love reed -wick lam preserves of Chicago. cannot tear myself Nihilist to death condition abom in exchange for her You know me, Ferdi know my liberal ideas, but from there to tzaricide rrible consequences Siberia hung adore her Ah! press thy loyal hand
Memorable dialogue between the jungfrau and Tartarin. A nihilist salon. The duel with hunting-knives. Frightful nightmare, "Is it I you are seeking, messieurs?" Strange reception given by the hotel-keeper Meyer to the Tarasconese delegation.
Like all the other choice hotels at Interlaken, the Hotel Jungfrau, kept by Meyer, is situated on the Hoeheweg, a wide promenade between double rows of chestnut-trees that vaguely reminded Tar-tarin of the beloved Tour de Ville of his native town, minus the sun, the grasshoppers, and the dust; for during his week's sojourn at Interlaken the rain had never ceased to fall.
He occupied a very fine chamber with a balcony on the first floor, and trimmed his beard in the morning before a little hand-glass hanging to the window, an old habit of his when travelling. The first object that daily struck his eyes beyond the fields of grass and corn, the nursery gardens, and an amphitheatre of solemn verdure in rising stages, was the Jungfrau, lifting from the clouds her summit, like a horn, white and pure with unbroken snow, to which was daily clinging a furtive ray of the still invisible rising sun. Then between the white and rosy Alp and the Alpinist a little dialogue took place regularly, which was not without its grandeur.
"Tartarin, are you coming?" asked the Jung-frau sternly.
"Here, here..." replied the hero, his thumb under his nose and finishing his beard as fast as possible. Then he would hastily take down his ascensionist outfit and, swearing at himself, put it on.
"Coquin de sort! there's no name for it..."
But a soft voice rose, demure and clear among the myrtles in the border beneath his window.
"Good-morning," said Sonia, as he appeared upon the balcony, "the landau is ready... Come, make haste, lazy man..."
"I 'm coming, I 'm coming..."
In a trice he had changed his thick flannel shirt for linen of the finest quality, his mountain knickerbockers for a suit of serpent-green that turned the heads of all the women in Tarascon at the Sunday concerts.
The horses of the landau were pawing before the door; Sonia was already installed beside Boris, paler, more emaciated day by day in spite of the beneficent climate of Interlaken. But, regularly, at the moment of starting, Tartarin was fated to see two forms arise from a bench on the promenade and approach him with the heavy rolling step of mountain bears; these were Rodolphe Kaufmann and Christian Inebnit, two famous Grindelwald guides, engaged by Tartarin for the ascension of the Jungfrau, who came every morning to ascertain if their monsieur were ready to start.
The apparition of these two men, in their iron-clamped shoes and fustian jackets worn threadbare on the back and shoulder by knapsacks and ropes, their naive and serious faces, and the four words of French which they managed to splutter as they twisted their broad-brimmed hats, were a positive torture to Tartarin. In vain he said to them: "Don't trouble yourselves to come; I 'll send for you..."
Every day he found them in the same place and got rid of them by a large coin proportioned to the enormity of his remorse. Enchanted with this method of "doing the Jungfrau," the mountaineers pocketed their trinkgeld gravely, and took, with resigned step, the path to their native village, leaving Tartarin confused and despairing at his own weakness. Then the broad open air, the flowering plains reflected in the limpid pupils of Sonia's eyes, the touch of her little foot against his boot in the carriage... The devil take that Jungfrau! The hero thought only of his love, or rather of the mission he had given himself to bring back into the right path that poor little Sonia, so unconsciously criminal, cast by sisterly devotion outside of the law, and outside of human nature.
This was the motive that kept him at Interlaken, in the same hotel as the Wassiliefs. At his age, with his air of a good papa, he certainly could not dream of making that poor child love him, but he saw her so sweet, so brave, so generous to all the unfortunates of her party, so devoted to that brother whom the mines of Siberia had sent back to her, his body eaten with ulcers, poisoned with verdigris, and he himself condemned to death by phthisis more surely than by any court. There was enough in all that to touch a man!
Tartarin proposed to take them to Tarascon and settle them in a villa full of sun at the gates of the town, that good little town where it never rains and where life is spent in fetes and song. And with that he grew excited, rattled a tambourine air on the crown of his hat, and trolled out the gay native chorus of the farandole dance:
Lagadigadeou La Tarasque, la Tarasque, Lagadigadeou La Tarasque de Casteou.
But while a satirical smile pinched still closer the lips of the sick man, Sonia shook her head. Neither fetes nor sun for her so long as the Russians groaned beneath the yoke of the tyrant. As soon as her brother was well—her despairing eyes said another thing—nothing could prevent her from returning up there to suffer and die in the sacred cause.
"But, coquin de bon sort!" cried Tartarin, "if you blow up one tyrant there 'll come another... You will have it all to do over again... And the years will go by, ve! the days for happiness and love..." His way of saying love—amour—a la Tarasconese, with three r's in it and his eyes starting out of his head, amused the young girl; then, serious once more, she declared she would never love any man but the one who delivered her country. Yes, that man, were he as ugly as Bolibine, more rustic and common than Manilof, she was ready to give herself wholly to him, to live at his side, a free gift, as long as her youth lasted and the man wished for her.
"Free gift!" the term used by Nihilists to express those illegal unions they contract among themselves by reciprocal consent. And of such primitive marriage Sonia spoke tranquilly with her virgin air before the Tarasconese, who, worthy bourgeois, peaceful elector, was now ready to spend his days beside that adorable girl in the said state of "free gift" if she had not added those murderous and abominable conditions.
While they were conversing of these extremely delicate matters, the fields, the lakes, the forests, the mountains lay spread before them, and always at each new turn, through the cool mist of that perpetual shower which accompanied our hero on all his excursions, the Jungfrau raised her white crest, as if to poison by remorse those delicious hours. They returned to breakfast at a vast table d'hote where the Rices and Prunes continued their silent hostilities, to which Tartarin was wholly indifferent, seated by Sonia, watching that Boris had no open window at his back, assiduous, paternal, exhibiting all his seductions as man of the world and his domestic qualities as an excellent cabbage-rabbit.
After this, he took tea with the Russians in their little salon opening on a tiny garden at the end of the terrace. Another exquisite hour for Tartarin of intimate chat in a low voice while Boris slept on a sofa. The hot water bubbled in the samovar; a perfume of moist flowers slipped through the half-opened door with the blue reflection of the solanums that were clustering about it. A little more sun, more warmth, and here was his dream realized, his pretty Russian installed beside him, taking care of the garden of the baobab.
Suddenly Sonia gave a jump.
"Two o'clock!.. And the letters?"
"I'm going for them," said the good Tartarin, and, merely from the tones of his voice and the resolute, theatrical gesture with which he buttoned his coat and seized his cane, any one would have guessed the gravity of the action, apparently so simple, of going to the post-office to fetch the Wassilief letters.
Closely watched by the local authorities and the Russian police, all Nihilists, but especially their leaders, are compelled to take certain precautions, such as having their letters and papers addressed poste restante to simple initials.
Since their installation at Interlaken, Boris being scarcely able to drag himself about, Tartarin, to spare Sonia the annoyance of waiting in line before the post-office wicket exposed to inquisitive eyes, had taken upon himself the risks and perils of this daily nuisance. The post-office is not more than ten minutes' walk from the hotel, in a wide and noisy street at the end of a promenade lined with cafes, breweries, shops for the tourists displaying alpenstocks, gaiters, straps, opera-glasses, smoked glasses, flasks, travelling-bags, all of which articles seemed placed there expressly to shame the renegade Alpinist. Tourists were defiling in caravans, with horses, guides, mules, veils green and blue, and a tintinnabulation of canteens as the animals ambled, the ice-picks marking each step on the cobble-stones. But this festive scene, hourly renewed, left Tartarin indifferent. He never even felt the fresh north wind with a touch of snow coming in gusts from the mountains, so intent was he on baffling the spies whom he supposed to be upon his traces.
The foremost soldier of a vanguard, the sharpshooter skirting the walls of an enemy's town, never advanced with more mistrust than the Taras-conese hero while crossing the short distance between the hotel and the post-office. At the slightest heel-tap sounding behind his own, he stopped, looked attentively at the photographs in the windows, or fingered an English or German book lying on a stall, to oblige the police spy to pass him. Or else he turned suddenly round, to stare with ferocious eyes at a stout servant-girl going to market, or some harmless tourist, a table d'hote Prune, who, taking him for a madman, turned off, alarmed, from the sidewalk to avoid him.
When he reached the office, where the wickets open, rather oddly, into the street itself, Tartarin passed and repassed, to observe the surrounding physiognomies before he himself approached: then, suddenly darting forward, he inserted his whole head and shoulders into the opening, muttered a few indistinct syllables (which they always made him repeat, to his great despair), and, possessor at last of the mysterious trust, he returned to the hotel by a great detour on the kitchen side, his hand in his pocket clutching the package of letters and papers, prepared to tear up and swallow everything at the first alarm.
Manilof and Bolibine were usually awaiting his return with the Wassiliefs. They did not lodge in the hotel, out of prudence and economy. Bolibine had found work in a printing-office, and Manilof, a very clever cabinetmaker, was employed by a builder. Tartarin did not like them: one annoyed him by his grimaces and his jeering airs; the other kept looking at him savagely. Besides, they took too much space in Sonia's heart.
"He is a hero!" she said of Bolibine; and she told how for three years he had printed all alone, in the very heart of St. Petersburg, a revolutionary paper. Three years without ever leaving his upper room, or showing himself at a window, sleeping at night in a great cupboard built in the wall, where the woman who lodged him locked him up till morning with his clandestine press.
And then, that life of Manilof, spent for six months in the subterranean passages beneath the Winter Palace, watching his opportunity, sleeping at night on his provision of dynamite, which resulted in giving him frightful headaches, and nervous troubles; all this, aggravated by perpetual anxiety, sudden irruptions of the police, vaguely informed that something was plotting, and coming, suddenly and unexpectedly, to surprise the workmen employed at the Palace. On one of the rare occasions when Manilof came out of the mine, he met on the Place de l'Amiraute a delegate of the Revolutionary Committee, who asked him in a low voice, as he walked along:
"Is it finished?"
"No, not yet..." said the other, scarcely moving his lips. At last, on an evening in February, to the same question in the same words he answered, with the greatest calmness:
"It is finished..."
And almost immediately a horrible uproar confirmed his words, all the lights of the palace went out suddenly, the place was plunged into complete obscurity, rent by cries of agony and terror, the blowing of bugles, the galloping of soldiers, and firemen tearing along with their trucks.
Here Sonia interrupted her tale:
"Is it not horrible, so many human lives sacrificed, such efforts, such courage, such wasted intelligence?.. No, no, it is a bad means, these butcheries in the mass... He who should be killed always escapes... The true way, the most humane, would be to seek the czar himself as you seek the lion, fully determined, fully armed, post yourself at a window or the door of a carriage... and, when he passes....."
"Be! yes, certainemain..." responded Tartarin embarrassed, and pretending not to seize her meaning; then, suddenly, he would launch into a philosophical, humanitarian discussion with one of the numerous assistants. For Bolibine and Manilof were not the only visitors to the Wassiliefs. Every day new faces appeared of young people, men or women, with the cut of poor students; elated teachers, blond and rosy, with the self-willed forehead and the childlike ferocity of Sonia; outlawed exiles, some of them already condemned to death, which lessened in no way their youthful expansiveness.
They laughed, they talked openly, and as most of them spoke French, Tartarin was soon at his ease. They called him "uncle," conscious of something childlike and artless about him that they liked. Perhaps he was over-ready with his hunting tales; turning up his sleeve to his biceps in order to show the scar of a blow from a panther's claws, or making his hearers feel beneath his beard the holes left there by the fangs of a lion; perhaps also he became too rapidly familiar with these persons, catching them round the waist, leaning on their shoulders, calling them by their Christian names after five minutes' intercourse:
"Listen, Dmitri..." "You know me, Fedor Ivanovich..." They knew him only since yesterday, in any case; but they liked him all the same for his jovial frankness, his amiable, trustful air, and his readiness to please. They read their letters before him, planned their plots, and told their passwords to foil the police: a whole atmosphere of conspiracy which amused the imagination of the Tarasconese hero immensely: so that, however opposed by nature to acts of violence, he could not help, at times, discussing their homicidal plans, approving, criticising, and giving advice dictated by the experience of a great leader who has trod the path of war, trained to the handling of all weapons, and to hand-to-hand conflicts with wild beasts.
One day, when they told in his presence of the murder of a policeman, stabbed by a Nihilist at the theatre, Tartarin showed them how badly the blow had been struck, and gave them a lesson in knifing.
"Like this, ve! from the top down. Then there's no risk of wounding yourself..."
And, excited by his own imitation:
"Let's suppose, te! that I hold your despot between four eyes in a boar-hunt He is over there, where you are, Fedor, and I'm here, near this round table, each of us with our hunting-knife... Come on, monseigneur, we 'll have it out now..."
Planting himself in the middle of the salon, gathering his sturdy legs under him for a spring, and snorting like a woodchopper, he mimicked a real fight, ending by his cry of triumph as he plunged the weapon to the hilt, from the top down, coquin de sort! into the bowels of his adversary.
"That's how it ought to be done, my little fellows!"
But what subsequent remorse! what anguish when, escaping from the magnetism of Sonia's blue eyes, he found himself alone, in his nightcap, alone with his reflections and his nightly glass of eau sucree!
Differemment, what was he meddling with? The czar was not his czar, decidedly, and all these matters didn't concern him in the least... And don't you see that some of these days he would be captured, extradited and delivered over to Muscovite justice... Boufre! they don't joke, those Cossacks... And in the obscurity of his hotel chamber, with that horrible imaginative faculty which the horizontal position increases, there developed before him—like one of those unfolding pictures given to him in childhood—the various and terrible punishments to which he should be subjected: Tartarin in the verdigris mines, like Boris, working in water to his belly, his body ulcerated, poisoned. He escapes, he hides amid forests laden with snow, pursued by Tartars and bloodhounds trained to hunt men. Exhausted with cold and hunger, he is retaken and finally hung between two thieves, embraced by a pope with greasy hair smelling of brandy and seal-oil; while away down there, at Tarascon in the sunshine, the band playing of a fine Sunday, the crowd, the ungrateful crowd, are installing a radiant Costecalde in the chair of the P. C. A.
It was during the agony of one of these dreadful dreams that he uttered his cry of distress, "Help, help, Bezuquet!" and sent to the apothecary that confidential letter, all moist with the sweat of his nightmare. But Sonia's pretty "Good morning" beneath his window sufficed to cast him back into the weaknesses of indecision.
One evening, returning from the Kursaal to the hotel with the Wassiliefs and Bolibine, after two hours of intoxicating music, the unfortunate man forgot all prudence, and the "Sonia, I love you," which he had so long restrained, was uttered as he pressed the arm that rested on his own. She was not agitated. Perfectly pale, she gazed at him under the gas of the portico on which they had paused: "Then deserve me..." she said, with a pretty enigmatical smile, a smile that gleamed upon her delicate white teeth. Tartarin was about to reply, to bind himself by an oath to some criminal madness when the porter of the hotel came up to him:
"There are persons waiting for you, upstairs... some gentlemen... They want you."
"Want me!.. Outre!.. What for?" And No. 1 of his folding series appeared before him: Tartarin captured, extradited... Of course he was frightened, but his attitude was heroic. Quickly detaching himself from Sonia: "Fly, save yourself!" he said to her in a smothered voice. Then he mounted the stairs as if to the scaffold, his head high, his eyes proud, but so disturbed in mind that he was forced to cling to the baluster.
As he entered the corridor, he saw persons grouped at the farther end of it before his door, looking through the keyhole, rapping, and calling out: "Hey! Tartarin..."
He made two steps forward, and said, with parched lips: "Is it I whom you are seeking, messieurs?"
"Te! pardi, yes, my president!."
And a little old man, alert and wiry, dressed in gray, and apparently bringing on his coat, his hat, his gaiters and his long and pendent moustache all the dust of his native town, fell upon the neck of the hero and rubbed against his smooth fat cheeks the withered leathery skin of the retired captain of equipment.
"Bravida!.. not possible!.. Excourbanies too!.. and who is that over there?.."
A bleating answered: "Dear ma-a-aster!.." and the pupil advanced, banging against the wall a sort of long fishing-rod with a packet at one end wrapped in gray paper, and oilcloth tied round it with string.
"Hey! ve! why it's Pascalon... Embrace me, little one... What's that you are carrying?.. Put it down..."
"The paper... take off the paper!.." whispered Bravida. The youth undid the roll with a rapid hand and the Tarasconese banner was displayed to the eyes of the amazed Tartarin.
The delegates took off their hats.
"President"—the voice of Bravida trembled solemnly—"you asked for the banner and we have brought it, te!"
The president opened a pair of eyes as round as apples: "I! I asked for it?"
"What! you did not ask for it? Bezuquet said so.
"Yes, yes, certainemain..." said Tartarin, suddenly enlightened by the mention of Bezuquet. He understood all and guessed the rest, and, tenderly moved by the ingenious lie of the apothecary to recall him to a sense of duty and honour, he choked, and stammered in his short beard: "Ah! my children, how kind you are! What good you have done me!"
"Vive le presidain!" yelped Pascalon, brandishing the oriflamme. Excourbanies' gong responded, rolling its war-cry (" Ha! ha! ha! fen de brut..") to the very cellars of the hotel. Doors opened, inquisitive heads protruded on every floor and then disappeared, alarmed, before that standard and the dark and hairy men who were roaring singular words and tossing their arms in the air. Never had the peaceable Hotel Jungfrau been subjected to such a racket.
"Come into my room," said Tartarin, rather disconcerted. He was feeling about in the darkness to find matches when an authoritative rap on the door made it open of itself to admit the consequential, yellow, and puffy face of the innkeeper Meyer. He was about to enter, but stopped short before the darkness of the room, and said with closed teeth:
"Try to keep quiet... or I 'll have you taken up by the police..."
A grunt as of wild bulls issued from the shadow at that brutal term "taken up." The hotel-keeper recoiled one step, but added: "It is known who you are; they have their eye upon you; for my part, I don't want any more such persons in my house!.."
"Monsieur Meyer," said Tartarin, gently, politely, but very firmly... "Send me my bill... These gentlemen and myself start to-morrow morning for the Jungfrau."
O native soil! O little country within a great one! by only hearing the Tarasconese accent, quivering still with the air of that beloved land beneath the azure folds of its banner, behold Tartarin, delivered from love and its snares and restored to his friends, his mission, his glory.
And now, zou!
At the "Faithful Chamois."
The next day it was charming, that trip on foot from Interlaken to Grindelwald, where they were, in passing, to take guides for the Little Scheideck; charming, that triumphal march of the P. C. A., restored to his trappings and mountain habiliments, leaning on one side on the lean little shoulder of Commander Bravida, and on the other, the robust arm of Excourbanies, proud, both of them, to be nearest to him, to support their dear president, to carry his ice-axe, his knapsack, his alpenstock, while sometimes before, sometimes behind or on their flanks the fanatical Pascalon gambolled like a puppy, his banner duly rolled up into a package to avoid the tumultuous scenes of the night before.
The gayety of his companions, the sense of duty accomplished, the Jungfrau all white upon the sky, over there, like a vapour—nothing short of all this could have made the hero forget what he left behind him, for ever and ever it may be, and without farewell. However, at the last houses of Interlaken his eyelids swelled and, still walking on, he poured out his feelings in turn into the bosom of Excourbanies: "Listen, Spiridion," or that of Bravida: "You know me, Placide..." For, by an irony on nature, that indomitable warrior was called Placide, and that rough buffalo, with all his instincts material, Spiridion.
Unhappily, the Tarasconese race, more gallant than sentimental, never takes its love-affairs very seriously. "Whoso loses a woman and ten sous, is to be pitied about the money..." replied the sententious Placide to Tartarin's tale, and Spiridion thought exactly like him. As for the innocent Pascalon, he was horribly afraid of women, and reddened to the ears when the name of the Little Scheideck was uttered before him, thinking some lady of flimsy morals was referred to. The poor lover was therefore reduced to keep his confidences to himself, and console himself alone—which, after all, is the surest way.
But what grief could have resisted the attractions of the way through that narrow, deep and sombre valley, where they walked on the banks of a winding river all white with foam, rumbling with an echo like thunder among the pine-woods which skirted both its shores.
The Tarasconese delegation, their heads in the air, advanced with a sort of religious awe and admiration, like the comrades of Sinbad the Sailor when they stood before the mangoes, the cotton-trees, and all the giant flora of the Indian coasts. Knowing nothing but their own little bald and stony mountains they had never imagined there could be so many trees together or such tall ones.
"That is nothing, as yet... wait till you see the Jungfrau," said the P. C. A., who enjoyed their amazement and felt himself magnified in their eyes.
At the same time, as if to brighten the scene and humanize its solemn note, cavalcades went by them, great landaus going at full speed, with veils floating from the doorways where curious heads leaned out to look at the delegation pressing round its president. From point to point along the roadside were booths spread with knick-knacks of carved wood, while young girls, stiff in their laced bodices, their striped skirts and broad-brimmed straw hats, were offering bunches of strawberries and edelweiss. Occasionally, an Alpine horn sent among the mountains its melancholy ritornello, swelling, echoing from gorge to gorge, and slowly diminishing, like a cloud that dissolves into vapour.
"'T is fine, 't is like an organ," murmured Pascalon, his eyes moist, in ecstasy, like the stained-glass saint of a church window. Excourbanies roared, undiscouraged, and the echoes repeated, till sight and sound were lost, his Tarasconese intonations: "Ha! ha! ha! fen de brut!"
But people grow weary after marching for two hours through the same sort of decorative scene, however well it may be organized, green on blue, glaciers in the distance, and all things sonorous as a musical clock. The dash of the torrents, the singers in triplets, the sellers of carved objects, the little flower-girls, soon became intolerable to our friends,—above all, the dampness, the steam rising in this species of tunnel, the soaked soil full of water-plants, where never had the sun penetrated.
"It is enough to give one a pleurisy," said Bravida, turning up the collar of his coat. Then weariness set in, hunger, ill-humour. They could find no inn; and presently Excourbanies and Bravida, having stuffed themselves with strawberries, began to suffer cruelly. Pascalon himself, that angel, bearing not only the banner, but the ice-axe, the knapsack, the alpenstock, of which the others had rid themselves basely upon him, even Pascalon had lost his gayety and ceased his lively gambolling.
At a turn of the road, after they had just crossed the Lutschine by one of those covered bridges that are found in regions of deep snow, a loud blast on a horn greeted them.
"Ah! vai, enough!.. enough!" howled the exasperated delegation.
The man, a giant, ensconced by the roadside, let go an enormous trumpet of pine wood reaching to the ground and ending there in a percussion-box, which gave to this prehistoric instrument the sonorousness of a piece of artillery.
"Ask him if he knows of an inn," said the president to Excourbanies, who, with enormous cheek and a small pocket dictionary undertook, now that they were in German Switzerland, to serve the delegation as interpreter. But before he could pull out his dictionary the man replied in very good French:
"An inn, messieurs? Why certainly... The 'Faithful Chamois' is close by; allow me to show you the place."
On the way, he told them he had lived in Paris for several years, as commissionnaire at the corner of the rue Vivienne.
"Another employe of the Company, parbleu!" thought Tartarin, leaving his friends to be surprised. However, Bompard's comrade was very useful, for, in spite of its French sign, Le Chamois Fidele the people of the "Faithful Chamois" could speak nothing but a horrible German patois.
Presently, the Tarasconese delegation, seated around an enormous potato omelet, recovered both the health and the good-humour as essential to Southerners as the sun of their skies. They drank deep, they ate solidly. After many toasts to the president and his coming ascension, Tartarin, who had puzzled over the tavern-sign ever since his arrival, inquired of the horn-player, who was breaking a crust in a corner of the room:
"So you have chamois here, it seems?.. I thought there were none left in Switzerland."
The man winked:
"There are not many, but enough to let you see them now and then."
"Shoot them, is what he wants, ve" said Pas-calon, full of enthusiasm; "never did the president miss a shot!"
Tartarin regretted that he had not brought his carbine.
"Wait a minute, and I 'll speak to the landlord."
It so happened that the landlord was an old chamois hunter; he offered his gun, his powder, his buck-shot, and even himself as guide to a haunt he knew.
"Forward, zou!" cried Tartarin, granting to his happy Alpinists the opportunity to show off the prowess of their chief. It was only a slight delay, after all; the Jungfrau lost nothing by waiting.
Leaving the inn at the back, they had only to walk through an orchard, no bigger than the garden of a station-master, before they found themselves on a mountain, gashed with great crevasses, among the fir-trees and underbrush.
The innkeeper took the advance, and the Taras-conese presently saw him far up the height, waving his arms and throwing stones, no doubt to rouse the chamois. They rejoined him with much pain and difficulty over that rocky slope, hard especially to persons who had just been eating and were as little used to climbing as these good Alpinists of Tarascon. The air was heavy, moreover, with a tempest breath that was slowly rolling the clouds along the summits above their heads.
"Boufre!" groaned Bravida.
Excourbanies growled: "Outre!"
"What shall I be made to say!" added the gentle, bleating Pascalon.
But the guide having, by a violent gesture, ordered them to hold their tongues, and not to stir, Tartarin remarked, "Never speak under arms," with a sternness that rebuked every one, although the president alone had a weapon. They stood stock still, holding their breaths. Suddenly, Pas-calon cried out:
"Ve the chamois, ve.."
About three hundred feet above them, the upright horns, the light buff coat and the four feet gathered together of the pretty creature stood defined like a carved image at the edge of the rock, looking at them fearlessly. Tartarin brought his piece to his shoulder methodically, as his habit was, and was just about to fire when the chamois disappeared.
"It is your fault," said the Commander to Pascalon... "you whistled... and that frightened him."
"I whistled!.. I?"
"Then it was Spiridion..."
"Ah, vai! never in my life."
Nevertheless, they had all heard a whistle, strident, prolonged. The president settled the question by relating how the chamois, at the approach of enemies, gives a sharp danger signal through the nostrils. That devil of a Tartarin knew everything about this kind of hunt, as about all others!
At the call of their guide they started again; but the acclivity became steeper and steeper, the rocks more ragged, with bogs between them to right and left. Tartarin kept the lead, turning constantly to help the delegates, holding out his hand or his carbine: "Your hand, your hand, if you don't mind," cried honest Bravida, who was very much afraid of loaded weapons.
Another sign of the guide, another stop of the delegation, their noses in the air.
"I felt a drop!" murmured the Commander, very uneasy. At the same instant the thunder growled, but louder than the thunder roared the voice of Excourbanies: "Fire, Tartarin!" and the chamois bounded past them, crossing the ravine like a golden flash, too quickly for Tartarin to take aim, but not so fast that they did not hear that whistle of his nostrils.
"I 'll have him yet, coquin de sort!" cried the president, but the delegates protested. Excourbanies, becoming suddenly very sour, demanded if he had sworn to exterminate them.
"Dear ma-a-aster," bleated Pascalon, timidly, "I have heard say that chamois if you corner them in abysses turn at bay against the hunter and are very dangerous."