"Then don't let us corner him!" said Bravida hastily.
Tartarin called them milksops. But while they were arguing, suddenly, abruptly, they all disappeared from one another's gaze in a warm thick vapour that smelt of sulphur, through which they sought each other, calling:
"Are you there, Placide?"
"Keep cool! Keep cool!"
A regular panic. Then a gust of wind broke through the mist and whirled it away like a torn veil clinging to the briers, through which a zigzag flash of lightning fell at their feet with a frightful clap of thunder. "My cap!" cried Spiridion, as the tempest bared his head, its hairs erect and crackling with electric sparks. They were in the very heart of the storm, the forge itself of Vulcan. Bravida was the first to fly, at full speed, the rest of the delegation flew behind him, when a cry from the president, who thought of everything, stopped them:
"Thunder!.. beware of the thunder!.."
At any rate, outside of the very real danger of which he warned them, there was no possibility of running on those steep and gullied slopes, now transformed into torrents, into cascades, by the pouring rain. The return was awful, by slow steps under that crazy cliff, amid the sharp, short flashes of lightning followed by explosions, slipping, falling, and forced at times to halt. Pascalon crossed himself and invoked aloud, as at Tarascon: "Sainte Marthe and Sainte Helene, Sainte Marie-Madeleine," while Excourbanies swore: "Coquin de sort!" and Bravida, the rearguard, looked back in trepidation:
"What the devil is that behind us?.. It is galloping... it is whistling... there, it has stopped..."
The idea of a furious chamois flinging itself upon its hunters was in the mind of the old warrior. In a low voice, in order not to alarm the others, he communicated his fears to Tartarin, who bravely took his place as the rearguard and marched along, soaked to the skin, his head high, with that mute determination which is given by the imminence of danger. But when he reached the inn and saw his dear Alpinists under shelter, drying their wet things, which smoked around a huge porcelain stove in a first floor chamber, to which rose an odour of grog already ordered, the president shivered and said, looking very pale: "I believe I have taken cold."
"Taken cold!" No question now of starting again; the delegation asked only for rest Quick, a bed was warmed, they hurried the hot wine grog, and after his second glass the president felt throughout his comfort-loving body a warmth, a tingling that augured well. Two pillows at his back, a "plumeau" on his feet, his muffler round his head, he experienced a delightful sense of well-being in listening to the roaring of the storm, inhaling that good pine odour of the rustic little room with its wooden walls and leaden panes, and in looking at his dear Alpinists, gathered, glass in hand, around his bed in the anomalous character given to their Gallic, Roman or Saracenic types by the counterpanes, curtains, and carpets in which they were bundled while their own clothes steamed before the stove. Forgetful of himself, he questioned each of them in a sympathetic voice:
"Are you well, Placide?.. Spiridion, you seemed to be suffering just now?.."
No, Spiridion suffered no longer, all that had passed away on seeing the president so ill. Bravida, who adapted moral truths to the proverbs of his nation, added cynically: "Neighbour's ill comforts, and even cures." Then they talked of their hunt, exciting one another with the recollection of certain dangerous episodes, such as the moment when the animal turned upon them furiously; and without complicity of lying, in fact, most ingenuously, they fabricated the fable they afterwards related on their return to Tarascon.
Suddenly, Pascalon, who had been sent in search of another supply of grog, reappeared in terror, one arm out of the blue-flowered curtain that he gathered about him with the chaste gesture of a Polyeucte. He was more than a second before he could articulate, in a whisper, breathlessly: "The chamois!.."
"Well, what of the chamois?.."
"He's down there, in the kitchen... warming himself..."
"You are joking..."
"Suppose you go and see, Placide."
Bravida hesitated. Excourbanies descended on the tips of his toes, but returned almost immediately, his face convulsed... More and more astounding!.. the chamois was drinking grog.
They certainly owed it to him, poor beast, after the wild run he had been made to take on the mountain, dispatched and recalled by his master, who, as a usual thing, put him through his evolutions in the house, to show to tourists how easily a chamois could be trained.
"It is overwhelming!" said Bravida, making no further effort at comprehension; as for Tartarin, he dragged the muffler over his eyes like a nightcap to hide from the delegates the soft hilarity that overcame him at encountering wherever he went the dodges and the performers of Bompard's Switzerland.
The ascension of the Jungfrau. Ve! the oxen. The Kennedy crampons will not work. Nor the reedlamp either. Apparition of masked men at the chalet of the Alpine Club. The president in a crevasse. On the summit. Tartarin becomes a god.
Great influx, that morning, to the Hotel Bellevue on the Little Scheideck. In spite of the rain and the squalls, tables had been laid outside in the shelter of the veranda, amid a great display of alpenstocks, flasks, telescopes, cuckoo clocks in carved wood, so that tourists could, while breakfasting, contemplate at a depth of six thousand feet before them the wonderful valley of Grindel-wald on the left, that of Lauterbrunnen on the right, and opposite, within gunshot as it seemed, the immaculate, grandiose slopes of the Jungfrau, its neves, glaciers, all that reverberating whiteness which illumines the air about it, making glasses more transparent, and linen whiter.
But now, for a time, general attention was attracted to a noisy, bearded caravan, which had just arrived on horse, mule, and donkey-back, also in a chaise a porteurs, who had prepared themselves to climb the mountain by a copious breakfast, and were now in a state of hilarity, the racket of which contrasted with the bored and solemn airs of the very distinguished Rices and Prunes collected on the Scheideck, such as: Lord Chipendale, the Belgian senator and his family, the Austro-Hungarian diplomat, and several others. It would certainly have been supposed that the whole party of these bearded men sitting together at table were about to attempt the ascension, for one and all were busy with preparations for departure, rising, rushing about to give directions to the guides, inspecting the provisions, and calling to each other from end to end of the terrace in stentorian tones.
"Hey! Placide, ve! the cooking-pan, see if it is in the knapsack!.. Don't forget the reed-lamp, au mouain."
Not until the actual departure took place was it seen that, of all the caravan, only one was to make the ascension: but which one?
"Children, are we ready?" said the good Tar-tarin in a joyous, triumphant voice, in which not a shade of anxiety trembled at the possible dangers of the trip—his last doubt as to the Company's manipulation of Switzerland being dissipated that very morning before the two glaciers of Grindel-wald each protected by a wicket and a turnstile, with this inscription "Entrance to the glacier: one franc fifty."
He could, therefore, enjoy without anxiety this departure in apotheosis, the joy of feeling himself looked at, envied, admired by those bold little misses in boys' caps who laughed at him so prettily on the Rigi-Kulm, and were now enthusiastically comparing his short person with the enormous mountain he was about to climb. One drew his portrait in her album, another sought the honour of touching his alpenstock. "Tchemppegne!.. Tchemppegne!.." called out of a sudden a tall, funereal Englishman with a brick-coloured skin, coming up to him, bottle and glass in hand. Then, after obliging the hero to drink with him:
"Lord Chipendale, sir... And you?"
"Tartarin of Tarascon."
"Oh! yes... Tartarine... Capital name for a horse," said the lord, who must have been one of those great turfmen across the Channel.
The Austro-Hungarian diplomat also came to press the Alpinist's hand between his mittens, remembering vaguely to have seen him somewhere. "Enchanted!.. enchanted!.." he enunciated several times, and then, not knowing how to get out of it, he added: "My compliments to madame..." his social formula for cutting short presentations.
But the guides were impatient; they must reach before nightfall the hut of the Alpine Club, where they were to sleep for the first stage, and there was not a minute to lose. Tartarin felt it, saluted all with a circular gesture, smiled at the malicious misses, and then, in a voice of thunder, commanded:
"Pascalon, the banner!"
It waved to the breeze; the Southerners took off their hats, for they love theatricals at Tarascon; and at the cry, a score of times repeated: "Long live the president!.. Long live Tartarin!.. Ah! ah!..fen de brut!.." the column moved off, the two guides in front carrying the knapsack, the provisions, and a supply of wood; then came Pascalon bearing the oriflamme, and lastly the P. C. A. with the delegates who proposed to accompany him as far as the glacier of the Guggi.
Thus deployed in procession, bearing its flapping flag along the sodden way beneath those barren or snowy crests, the cortege vaguely recalled the funeral marches of an All Souls' day in the country.
Suddenly the Commander cried out, alarmed: "Ve! those oxen!"
Some cattle were now seen browsing the short grass in the hollows of the ground. The former captain of equipment had a nervous and quite insurmountable terror of those animals, and as he could not be left alone the delegation was forced to stop. Pascalon transmitted the standard to the guides. Then, with a last embrace, hasty injunctions, and one eye on the cows:
"Adieu, adieu, que!"
"No imprudence, au mouain..." they parted. As for proposing to the president to go up with him, no one even thought of it; 'twas so high, boufre! And the nearer they came to it the higher it grew, the abysses were more abysmal, the peaks bristled up in a white chaos, which looked to be insurmountable. It was better to look at the ascension from the Scheideck.
In all his life, naturally, the president of the Club of the Alpines had never set foot on a glacier. There is nothing of that sort on the mountainettes of Tarascon, little hills as balmy and dry as a packet of lavender; and yet the approaches to the Guggi gave him the impression of having already seen them, and wakened recollections of hunts in Provence at the end of the Camargue, near to the sea. The same turf always getting shorter and parched, as if seared by fire. Here and there were puddles of water, infiltrations of the ground betrayed by puny reeds, then came the moraine, like a sandy dune full of broken shells and cinders, and, far at the end, the glacier, with its blue-green waves crested with white and rounded in form, a silent, congealed ground-swell. The wind which came athwart it, whistling and strong, had the same biting, salubrious freshness as his own sea-breeze.
"No, thank you... I have my crampons..." said Tartarin to the guide, who offered him woollen socks to draw on over his boots; "Kennedy crampons... perfected... very convenient..." He shouted, as if to a deaf person, in order to make himself understood by Christian Inebnit, who knew no more French than his comrade Kaufmann; and then the P. C. A. sat down upon the moraine and strapped on a species of sandal with three enormous and very strong iron spikes. He had practised them a hundred times, these Kennedy crampons, manoeuvring them in the garden of the baobab; nevertheless, the present effect was unexpected. Beneath the weight of the hero the spikes were driven into the ice with such force that all efforts to withdraw them were vain. Behold him, therefore, nailed to the glacier, sweating, swearing, making with arms and alpenstock most desperate gymnastics and reduced finally to shouting for his guides, who had gone forward, convinced that they had to do with an experienced Alpinist.
Under the impossibility of uprooting him, they undid the straps, and, the crampons, abandoned in the ice, being replaced by a pair of knitted socks, the president continued his way, not without much difficulty and fatigue. Unskilful in holding his stick, his legs stumbled over it, then its iron point skated and dragged him along if he leaned upon it too heavily. He tried the ice-axe—still harder to manoeuvre, the swell of the glacier increasing by degrees, and pressing up, one above another, its motionless waves with all the appearance of a furious and petrified tempest.
Apparent immobility only, for hollow crackings, subterranean gurgles, enormous masses of ice displacing themselves slowly, as if moved by the machinery of a stage, indicated the inward life of this frozen mass and its treacherous elements. To the eyes of our Alpinist, wherever he cast his axe crevasses were opening, bottomless pits, where masses of ice in fragments rolled indefinitely. The hero fell repeatedly; once to his middle in one of those greenish gullies, where his broad shoulders alone kept him from going to the bottom.
On seeing him so clumsy, and yet so tranquil, so sure of himself, laughing, singing, gesticulating, as he did while breakfasting, the guides imagined that Swiss champagne had made an impression upon him. What else could they suppose of the president of an Alpine Club, a renowned ascensionist, of whom his friends spoke only with "Ahs!" and exultant gestures. After taking him each by the arm with the respectful firmness of policemen putting into a carriage an overcome heir to a title, they endeavoured, by the help of monosyllables and gestures, to rouse his mind to a sense of the dangers of the route, the necessity of reaching the hut before nightfall, with threats of crevasses, cold, avalanches. Finally, with the point of their ice-picks they showed him the enormous accumulation of ice, of neve not yet transformed into glacier rising before them to the zenith in blinding repetition.
But the worthy Tartarin laughed at all that: "Ha! vai! crevasses!.. Ha! vai! those avalanches!.." and he burst out laughing, winked his eye, and prodded their sides with his elbows to let them know they could not fool him, for he was in the secret of the comedy.
The guides at last ended by making merry with the Tarasconese songs, and when they rested a moment on a solid block to let their monsieur get his breath, they yodelled in the Swiss way, though not too loudly, for fear of avalanches, nor very long, for time was getting on. They knew the coming of night by the sharper cold, but especially by the singular change in hue of these snows and ice-packs, heaped-up, overhanging, which always keep, even under misty skies, a rainbow tinge of colour until the daylight fades, rising higher and higher to the vanishing summits, where the snows take on the livid, spectral tints of the lunar universe. Pallor, petrifaction, silence, death itself. And the good Tartarin, so warm, so living, was beginning to lose his liveliness when the distant cry of a bird, the note of a "snow partridge" brought back before his eyes a baked landscape, a copper-coloured setting sun, and a band of Taras-conese sportsmen, mopping their faces, seated on their empty game-bags, in the slender shade of an olive-tree. The recollection was a comfort to him.
At the same moment Kaufmann pointed to something that looked like a faggot of wood on the snow. 'T was the hut. It seemed as if they could get to it in a few strides, but, in point of fact, it took a good half-hour's walking. One of the guides went on ahead to light the fire. Darkness had now come on; the north wind rattled on the cadaverous way, and Tartarin, no longer paying attention to anything, supported by the stout arm of the mountaineer, stumbled and bounded along without a dry thread on him in spite of the falling temperature. All of a sudden a flame shot up before him, together with an appetizing smell of onion soup.
They were there.
Nothing can be more rudimentary than these halting-places established on the mountains by the Alpine Club of Switzerland. A single room, in which an inclined plane of hard wood serves as a bed and takes up nearly all the space, leaving but little for the stove and the long table, screwed to the floor like the benches that are round it. The table was already laid; three bowls, pewter spoons, the reed-lamp to heat the coffee, two cans of Chicago preserved meats already opened. Tartarin thought the dinner delicious although the fumes of the onion soup infected the atmosphere, and the famous spirit-lamp, which ought to have made its pint of coffee in three minutes, refused to perform its functions.
At the dessert he sang; that was his only means of conversing with his guides. He sang them the airs of his native land: La Tarasque, and Les Filles d'Avignon. To which the guides responded with local songs in German patois: Mi Vater isch en Appenzeller... aou... aou... Worthy fellows with hard, weather-beaten features as if cut from the rock, beards in the hollows that looked like moss and those clear eyes, used to great spaces, like the eyes of sailors. The same sensation of the sea and the open, which he had felt just now on approaching Guggi, Tartarin again felt here, in presence of these mariners of the glacier in this close cabin, low and smoky, the regular forecastle of a ship; in the dripping of the snow from the roof as it melted with the warmth; in the great gusts of wind, shaking everything, cracking the boards, fluttering the flame of the lamp, and falling abruptly into vast, unnatural silence, like the end of the world.
They had just finished dinner when heavy steps upon the ringing path and voices were heard approaching. Violent blows with the butt end of some weapon shook the door. Tartarin, greatly excited, looked at his guides... A nocturnal attack on these heights!.. The blows redoubled. "Who goes there?" cried the hero, jumping for his ice-axe; but already the hut was invaded by two gigantic Yankees, in white linen masks, their clothing soaked with snow and sweat, and behind them guides, porters, a whole caravan, on its return from ascending the Jungfrau.
"You are welcome, milords," said Tartarin, with a liberal, dispensing gesture, of which the milords showed not the slightest need in making themselves free of everything. In a trice the table was surrounded, the dishes removed, the bowls and spoons rinsed in hot water for the use of the new arrivals (according to established custom in Alpine huts); the boots of the milords smoked before the stove, while they themselves, bare-footed, their feet wrapped in straw, were sprawling at their ease before a fresh onion soup.
Father and son, these two Americans; two red-haired giants, with heads of pioneers, hard and self-reliant. One of them, the elder, had two dilated eyes, almost white, in a bloated, sun-burned, fissured face, and presently, by the hesitating way in which he groped for his bowl and spoon, and the care with which his son looked after him, Tartarin became aware that this was the famous blind Alpinist of whom he had been told, not believing the tale, at the Hotel Bellevue; a celebrated climber in his youth, who now, in spite of his sixty years and his infirmity, was going over with his son the scenes of his former exploits. He had already done the Wetterhorn and the Jungfrau, and was intending to attack the Matterhorn and the Mont Blanc, declaring that the air upon summits, that glacial breath with its taste of snow, caused him inexpressible joy, and a perfect recall of his lost vigour.
"Differemment," asked Tartarin of one of the porters, for the Yankees were not communicative, and answered only by a "yes" or a "no" to all his advances "differemment inasmuch as he can't see, how does he manage at the dangerous places?"
"Oh! he has got the mountaineer's foot; besides, his son watches over him, and places his heels... And it is a fact that he has never had an accident."
"All the more because accidents in Switzerland are never very terrible, que?" With a comprehending smile to the puzzled porter, Tartarin, more and more convinced that the "whole thing was blague," stretched himself out on the plank rolled in his blanket, the muffler up to his eyes, and went to sleep, in spite of the light, the noise, the smoke of the pipes and the smell of the onion soup...
One of his guides was shaking him for departure, while the other poured boiling coffee into the bowls. A few oaths and the groans of sleepers whom Tartarin crushed on his way to the table, and then to the door. Abruptly he found himself outside, stung by the cold, dazzled by the fairy-like reflections of the moon upon that white expanse, those motionless congealed cascades, where the shadow of the peaks, the aiguilles, the seracs, were sharply defined in the densest black. No longer the sparkling chaos of the afternoon, nor the livid rising upward of the gray tints of evening, but a strange irregular city of darksome alleys, mysterious passages, doubtful corners between marble monuments and crumbling ruins—a dead city, with broad desert spaces.
Two o'clock! By walking well they could be at the top by mid-day. "Zou!" said the P. C. A., very lively, and dashing forward, as if to the assault. But his guides stopped him. They must be roped for the dangerous passages.
"Ah! vai, roped!.. Very good, if that amuses you."
Christian Inebnit took the lead, leaving twelve feet of rope between himself and Tartarin, who was separated by the same length from the second guide who carried the provisions and the banner. The hero kept his footing better than he did the day before; and confidence in the Company must indeed have been strong, for he did not take seriously the difficulties of the path—if we can call a path the terrible ridge of ice along which they now advanced with precaution, a ridge but a few feet wide and so slippery that Christian was forced to cut steps with his ice-axe.
The line of the ridge sparkled between two depths of abysses on either side. But if you think that Tartarin was frightened, not at all! Scarcely did he feel the little quiver of the cuticle of a freemason novice when subjected to his opening test. He placed his feet most precisely in the holes which the first guide cut for them, doing all that he saw the guide do, as tranquil as he was in the garden of the baobab when he practised around the margin of the pond, to the terror of the goldfish. At one place the ridge became so narrow that he was forced to sit astride of it, and while they went slowly forward, helping themselves with their hands, a loud detonation echoed up, on their right, from beneath them. "Avalanche!" said Inebnit, keeping motionless till the repercussion of the echoes, numerous, grandiose, filling the sky, died away at last in a long roll of thunder in the far distance, where the final detonation was lost. After which, silence once more covered all as with a winding-sheet.
The ridge passed, they went up a neve the slope of which was rather gentle but its length interminable. They had been climbing nearly an hour when a slender pink line began to define the summits far, far above their heads. It was the dawn, thus announcing itself. Like a true Southerner, enemy to shade, Tartarin trolled out his liveliest song:
Grand souleu de la Provenco Gai compaire dou mistrau—
A violent shake of the rope from before and behind stopped him short in the middle of his couplet. "Hush... Hush..." said Inebnit, pointing with his ice-axe to the threatening line of gigantic seracs on their tottering foundations which the slightest jar might send thundering down the steep. But Tartarin knew what that meant; he was not the man to ply with any such tales, and he went on singing in a resounding voice:
Tu qu 'escoules la Duranco Commo un flot de vin de Crau.
The guides, seeing that they could not silence their crazy singer, made a great detour to get away from the seracs, and presently were stopped by an enormous crevasse, the glaucous green sides of which were lighted, far down their depths, by the first furtive rays of the dawn. What is called in Switzerland "a snow bridge" spanned it; but so slight was it, so fragile, that they had scarcely advanced a step before it crumbled away in a cloud of white dust, dragging down the leading guide and Tartarin, hanging to the rope which Rodolphe Kaufmann, the rear guide, was alone left to hold, clinging with all the strength of his mountain vigour to his pick-axe, driven deeply into the ice. But although he was able to hold the two men suspended in the gulf he had not enough force to draw them up and he remained, crouching on the snow, his teeth clenched, his muscles straining, and too far from the crevasse to see what was happening.
Stunned at first by the fall, and blinded by snow, Tartarin waved his arms and legs at random, like a puppet out of order; then, drawing himself up by means of the rope, he hung suspended over the abyss, his nose against its icy side, which his breath polished, in the attitude of a plumber in the act of soldering a waste-pipe. He saw the sky above him growing paler and the stars disappearing; below he could fathom the gulf and its opaque shadows, from which rose a chilling breath.
Nevertheless, his first bewilderment over, he recovered his self-possession and his fine good-humour.
"Hey! up there! pere Kaufmann, don't leave us to mildew here, que! there 's a draught all round, and besides, this cursed rope is cutting our loins."
Kaufmann was unable to answer; to have unclenched his teeth would have lessened his strength. But Inebnit shouted from below:
"Mossie... Mossie... ice-axe..." for his own had been lost in the fall; and, the heavy implement being now passed from the hands of Tartarin to those of the guide (with difficulty, owing to the space that separated the two hanged ones), the mountaineer used it to make notches in the ice-wall before him, into which he could fasten both hands and feet.
The weight of the rope being thus lessened by at least one-half, Rodolphe Kaufmann, with carefully calculated vigour and infinite precautions, began to draw up the president, whose Tarasconese cap appeared at last at the edge of the crevasse. Inebnit followed him in turn and the two mountaineers met again with that effusion of brief words which, in persons of limited elocution, follows great dangers. Both were trembling with their effort, and Tartarin passed them his flask of kirsch to steady their legs. He himself was nimble and calm, and while he shook himself free of snow he hummed his song under the nose of his wondering guides, beating time with his foot to the measure:
"Brav... brav... Franzose..." said Kaufmann, tapping him on the shoulder; to which Tartarin answered with his fine laugh:
"You rogue! I knew very well there was no danger..."
Never within the memory of guides was there seen such an Alpinist.
They started again, climbing perpendicularly a sort of gigantic wall of ice some thousand feet high, in which they were forced to cut steps as they went along, which took much time. The man of Tarascon began to feel his strength give way under the brilliant sun which flooded the whiteness of the landscape and was all the more fatiguing to his eyes because he had dropped his green spectacles into the crevasse. Presently, a dreadful sense of weakness seized him, that mountain sickness which produces the same effects as sea-sickness. Exhausted, his head empty, his legs flaccid, he stumbled and lost his feet, so that the guides were forced to grasp him, one on each side, supporting and hoisting him to the top of that wall of ice. Scarcely three hundred feet now separated them from the summit of the Jungfrau; but although the snow was hard and bore them, and the path much easier, this last stage took an almost interminable time, the fatigue and the suffocation of the P. C. A. increasing all the while.
Suddenly the mountaineers loosed their hold upon him, and waving their caps began to yodel in a transport of joy. They were there! This spot in immaculate space, this white crest, somewhat rounded, was the goal, and for that good Tartarin the end of the somnambulic torpor in which he had wandered for an hour or more.
"Scheideck! Scheideck!" shouted the guides, showing him far, far below, on a verdant plateau emerging from the mists of the valley, the Hotel Bellevue about the size of a thimble.
Thence to where they stood lay a wondrous panorama, an ascent of fields of gilded snow, oranged by the sun, or else of a deep, cold blue, a piling up of mounds of ice, fantastically structured into towers, fleches, aiguilles, aretes, and gigantic heaps, under which one could well believe that the lost megatherium or mastodon lay sleeping. All the tints of the rainbow played there and met in the bed of vast glaciers rolling down their immovable cascades, crossed by other little frozen torrents, the surfaces of which the sun's warmth liquefied, making them smoother and more glittering. But, at the great height at which they stood, all this sparkling brilliance calmed itself; a light floated, cold, ecliptic, which made Tartarin shudder even more than the sense of silence and solitude in that white desert with its mysterious recesses.
A little smoke, with hollow detonations, rose from the hotel. They were seen, a cannon was fired in their honour, and the thought that they were being looked at, that his Alpinists were there, and the misses, the illustrious Prunes and Rices, all with their opera-glasses levelled up to him, recalled Tartarin to a sense of the grandeur of his mission. He tore thee, O Tarasconese banner! from the hands of the guide, waved thee twice or thrice, and then, plunging the handle of his ice-axe deep into the snow, he seated himself upon the iron of the pick, banner in hand, superb, facing the public. And there—unknown to himself—by one of those spectral reflections frequent upon summits, taken between the sun and the mists that rose behind him, a gigantic Tartarin was outlined on the sky, broader, dumpier, his beard bristling beyond the muffler, like one of those Scandinavian gods enthroned, as the legend has it, among the clouds.
En route for Tarascon. The Lake of Geneva. Tartarin proposes a visit to the dungeon of Bonnivard. Short dialogue amid the roses. The whole band under lock and key. The unfortunate Bonnivard. Where the rope made at Avignon was found.
As a result of the ascension, Tartarin's nose peeled, pimpled, and his cheeks cracked. He kept to his room in the Hotel Bellevue for five days—five days of salves and compresses, the sticky unsavouriness and ennui of which he endeavoured to elude by playing cards with the delegates or dictating to them a long, circumstantial account of his expedition, to be read in session, before the Club of the Alpines and published in the Forum. Then, as the general lumbago had disappeared and nothing remained upon the noble countenance of the P. C. A. but a few blisters, sloughs and chilblains on a fine complexion of Etruscan pottery, the delegation and its president set out for Tarascon, via Geneva.
Let me omit the episodes of that journey, the alarm cast by the Southern band into narrow railway carriages, steamers, tables d'hote, by its songs, its shouts, its overflowing hilarity, its banner, and its alpenstocks; for since the ascension of the P. C. A. they had all supplied themselves with those mountain sticks, on which the names of celebrated climbs were inscribed, burnt in, together with popular verses.
Here the delegates, at the suggestion of their master, decided to halt for two or three days in order to visit the famous shores of Lake Leman, Chillon especially, and its legendary dungeon, where the great patriot Bonnivard languished, and which Byron and Delacroix have immortalized.
At heart, Tartarin cared little for Bonnivard, his adventure with William Tell having enlightened him about Swiss legends; but in passing through Interlaken he had heard that Sonia had gone to Montreux with her brother, whose health was much worse, and this invention of an historical pilgrimage was only a pretext to meet the young girl again, and, who knows? persuade her perhaps to follow him to Tarascon.
Let it be fully understood, however, that his companions believed, with the best faith in the world, that they were on their way to render homage to a great Genevese citizen whose history the P. C. A. had related to them; in fact, with their native taste for theatrical manifestations they were desirous, as soon as they landed at Montreux, of forming in line, banner displayed and marching at once to Chillon with repeated cries of "Vive Bonnivard!" The president was forced to calm them: "Breakfast first," he said, "and after that we 'll see about it." So they filled the omnibus of some Pension Mueller or other, situated, with many of its kind, close to the landing.
"Ve! that gendarme, how he looks at us," said Pascalon, the last to get in, with the banner, always very troublesome to install. "True," said Bravida, uneasily; "what does he want of us, that gendarme? Why does he examine us like that?"
"He recognizes me, pardi!" said the worthy Tartarin modestly; and he smiled upon the soldier of the Vaudois police, whose long blue hooded coat followed perseveringly behind the omnibus as it threaded its way among the poplars on the shore.
It was market-day at Montreux. Rows of little booths were open to the winds of the lake, displaying fruit, vegetables, laces very cheap, and that white jewellery, looking like manufactured snow or pearls of ice, with which the Swiss women ornament their costumes. With all this were mingled the bustle of the little port, the jostling of a whole flotilla of gayly painted pleasure-boats, the transshipment of casks and sacks from large brigantines with lateen sails, the hoarse cries, the bells of the steamers, the stir among the cafes, the breweries, the traffic of the florists and the second-hand dealers who lined the quay. If a ray of sun had fallen upon the scene, one might have thought one's self on the marina of a Mediterranean resort between Mentone and Bordighera. But sun was lacking, and the Tarasconese gazed at the pretty landscape through a watery vapour that rose from the azure lake, climbed the steep path and the pebbly little streets, and joined, above the houses, other clouds, black and gray that were clinging about the sombre verdure of the mountain, big with rain.
"Coquin de sort! I'm not a lacustrian," said Spiridion Excourbanies, wiping the glass of the window to look at the perspective of glaciers and white vapours that closed the horizon in front of him...
"Nor I, either," sighed Pascalon, "this fog, this stagnant water... makes me want to cry."
Bravida complained also, in dread of his sciatic gout.
Tartarin reproved them sternly. Was it nothing to be able to relate, on their return, that they had seen the dungeon of Bonnivard, inscribed their names on its historic walls beside the signatures of Rousseau, Byron, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Eugene Sue? Suddenly, in the middle of his tirade, the president interrupted himself and changed colour... He had just caught sight of a little round hat on a coil of blond hair. Without stopping the omnibus, the pace of which had slackened in going up hill, he sprang out, calling back to the stupefied Alpinists: "Go on to the hotel..."
He feared that he might not be able to catch her, she walked so rapidly, the delicate silhouette of her shadow falling on the macadam of the road. She turned at his call and waited for him. "Ah! is it you?" she said; and as soon as they had shaken hands she walked on. He fell into step beside her, much out of breath, and began to excuse himself for having left her so abruptly... arrival of friends... necessity of making the ascension (of which his face was still bearing traces)... She listened without a word, hastening her pace, her eyes strained and fixed. Looking at her profile, she seemed to him paler, her features no longer soft with childlike innocence, but hard, a something resolute on them which till now had existed only in her voice and her imperious will; and yet her youthful grace was there, and the gold of her waving hair.
"And Boris, how is he?" asked Tartarin, rather discomfited by her silence and coldness, which began to affect him.
"Boris?.." she quivered: "Ah! true, you do not know... Well then! come, come..."
They followed a country lane leading past vineyards sloping to the lake, and villas with gardens, and elegant terraces laden with clematis, blooming with roses, petunias, and myrtles in pots. Now and then they met some foreigner with haggard cheeks and melancholy glance, walking slowly and feebly, like the many whom one meets at Mentone and Monaco; only, away down yonder the sunshine laps round all, absorbs all, while beneath this lowering cloudy sky suffering is more apparent, though the flowers seem fresher.
"Enter," said Sonia, pushing open the railed iron door of a white marble facade on which were Russian words in gilded letters.
At first Tartarin did not understand where he was. A little garden was before him with gravelled paths very carefully kept, and quantities of climbing roses hanging among the green of the trees, and bearing great clusters of white and yellow blooms, which filled the narrow space with their fragrance and glow. Among these garlands, this lovely efflorescence, a few stones were standing or lying with dates and names; the newest of which bore the words, carved on its surface:
"Boris Wassilief. 22 years."
He had been there a few days, dying almost as soon as they arrived at Montreux; and in this cemetery of foreigners the exile had found a sort of country among other Russians and Poles and Swedes, buried beneath the roses, consumptives of cold climates sent to this Northern Nice, because the Southern sun would be for them too violent, the transition too abrupt.
They stood for a moment motionless and mute before the whiteness of that new stone lying on the blackness of the fresh-turned earth; the young girl, with her head bent down, inhaling the breath of the roses, and calming, as she stood, her reddened eyes.
"Poor little girl!" said Tartarin with emotion, taking in his strong rough hands the tips of Sonia's fingers. "And you? what will you do now?"
She looked him full in the face with dry and shining eyes in which the tears no longer trembled.
"I? I leave within an hour."
"You are going?.."
"Bolibine is already in St. Petersburg... Manilof is waiting for me to cross the frontier... I return to the work. We shall be heard from." Then, in a low voice, she added with a half-smile, planting her blue glance full into that of Tartarin, which avoided it: "He who loves me follows me."
Ah! vai, follow her! The little fanatic frightened him. Besides, this funereal scene had cooled his love. Still, he ought not to appear to back down like a scoundrel. So, with his hand on his heart and the gesture of an Abencerrage, the hero began: "You know me, Sonia..."
She did not need to hear more.
"Gabbler!" she said, shrugging her shoulders. And she walked away, erect and proud, beneath the roses, without once turning round... Gabbler!.. not one word more, but the intonation was so contemptuous that the worthy Tartarin blushed beneath his beard, and looked about to see if they had been quite alone in the garden so that no one had overheard her.
Among our Tarasconese, fortunately, impressions do not last long. Five minutes later Tartarin was going up the terraces of Montreux with a lively step in quest of the Pension Mueller and his Alpinists, who must certainly be waiting breakfast for him; and his whole person breathed a relief, a joy at getting rid finally of that dangerous acquaintance. As he walked along he emphasized with many energetic nods the eloquent explanations which Sonia would not wait to hear, but which he gave to himself mentally: Be!.. yes, despotism certainly... He didn't deny that... but from that to action, boufre!.. And then, to make it his profession to shoot despots!.. Why, if all oppressed peoples applied to him—just as the Arabs did to Bombonnel whenever a panther roamed round their village—he couldn't suffice for them all, never!
At this moment a hired carriage coming down the hill at full speed cut short his monologue. He had scarcely time to jump upon the sidewalk with a "Take care, you brute!" when his cry of anger was changed to one of stupefaction: "Ques aco!.. Boudiou!.. Not possible!.."
I give you a thousand guesses to say what he saw in that old landau...
The delegation! the full delegation, Bravida, Pascalon, Excourbanies, piled upon the back seat, pale, horror-stricken, ghastly, and two gendarmes in front of them, muskets in hand! The sight of all those profiles, motionless and mute, visible through the narrow frame of the carriage window, was like a nightmare. Nailed to the ground, as formerly on the ice by his Kennedy crampons, Tartarin was gazing at that fantastic vehicle flying along at a gallop, followed at full speed by a flock of schoolboys, their atlases swinging on their backs, when a voice shouted in his ears: "And here's the fourth!.." At the same time clutched, garotted, bound, he, too, was hoisted into a locati with gendarmes, among them an officer armed with a gigantic cavalry sabre, which he held straight up from between his knees, the point of it touching the roof of the vehicle.
Tartarin wanted to speak, to explain. Evidently there must be some mistake... He told his name, his nation, demanded his consul, and named a seller of Swiss honey, Ichener, whom he had met at the fair at Beaucaire. Then, on the persistent silence of his captors, he bethought him that this might be another bit of machinery in Bompard's fairyland; so, addressing the officer, he said with sly air: "For fun, que!.. ha! vai, you rogue, I know very well it is all a joke."
"Not another word, or I'll gag you," said the officer, rolling terrible eyes as if he meant to spit him on his sabre.
The other kept quiet, and stirred no more, but gazed through the door at the lake, the tall mountains of a humid green, the hotels and pensions with variegated roofs and gilded signs visible for miles, and on the slopes, as at the Rigi, a coming and going of market and provision baskets, and (like the Rigi again) a comical little railway, a dangerous mechanical plaything crawling up the height to Glion, and—to complete the resemblance to Regina Montium—a pouring, beating rain, an exchange of water and mist from the sky to Leman and Leman to the sky, the clouds descending till they touched the waves.
The vehicle crossed a drawbridge between a cluster of little shops of "chamoiseries," penknives, corkscrews, pocket-combs, etc., and stopped in the courtyard of an old castle overgrown with weeds, flanked by two round pepper-pot towers with black balconies guarded by parapets and supported by beams. Where was he? Tartarin learned where when he heard the officer of gendarmerie discussing the matter with the concierge of the castle, a fat man in a Greek cap who was jangling a bunch of rusty keys.
"Solitary confinement... but I haven't a place for him. The others have taken all... unless we put him in Bonnivard's dungeon."
"Yes, put him in Bonnivard's dungeon; that's good enough for him," ordered the captain; and it was done as he said.
This Castle of Chillon, about which the P. C. A. had never for two days ceased to discourse to his dear Alpinists, and in which, by the irony of fate, he found himself suddenly incarcerated without knowing why, is one of the most frequented historical monuments in Switzerland. After having served as a summer residence to the Dukes of Savoie, then as a state-prison, afterwards as an arsenal for arms and munitions, it is to-day the mere pretext for an excursion, like the Rigi and the Tellsplatte. It still contains, however, a post of gendarmerie and a "violon," that is, a cell for drunkards and the naughty boys of the neighbourhood; but they are so rare in the peaceable Canton of Vaud that the "violon" is always empty and the concierge uses it as a receptacle to store his wood for winter. Therefore the arrival of all these prisoners had put him out of temper, especially at the thought that he could no longer take visitors to see the famous dungeon, which at this season of the year is the chief profit of the place.
Furious, he showed the way to Tartarin, who followed him without the courage to make the slightest resistance. A few crumbling steps, a damp corridor smelling like a cellar, a door thick as a wall with enormous hinges, and there they were, in a vast subterranean vault, with earthen floor and heavy Roman pillars in which were still the iron rings to which prisoners of state had been chained. A dim light fell, tremulous with the shimmer of the lake, through narrow slits in the wall, which scarcely showed more than a scrap of the sky.
"Here you are at home," said the jailer. "Be careful you don't go to the farther end: the pit is there..."
Tartarin recoiled, horrified:—
"The pit! Boudiou!"
"What do you expect, my lad? I am ordered to put you in Bonnivard's dungeon... I have put you in Bonnivard's dungeon... Now, if you have the means, you can be furnished with certain comforts, for instance, a mattress and coverlet for the night."
"Something to eat, in the first place," said Tartarin, from whom, very luckily, they had not taken his purse.
The concierge returned with a fresh roll, beer, and a sausage, greedily devoured by the new prisoner of Chillon, fasting since the night before and hollow with fatigue and emotion. While he ate on his stone bench in the gleam of his vent-hole window, the jailer examined him with a good-natured eye.
"Faith," said he, "I don't know what you have done, nor why they should treat you so severely..."
"Nor I either, coquin de sort! I know nothing about it," said Tartarin, with his mouth full.
"Well, it is very certain that you don't look like a bad man, and, surely, you would n't hinder a poor father of a family from earning his living, would you?.. Now, see here!.. I have got, up above there, a whole party of people who have come to see Bonnivard's dungeon... If you would promise me to keep quiet, and not try to run away..."
The worthy Tartarin bound himself by an oath; and five minutes later he beheld his dungeon invaded by his old acquaintances on the Rigi-Kulm and the Tellsplatte, that jackass Schwan-thaler, the ineptissimus Astier-Rehu, the member of the Jockey-Club with his niece (h'm! h'm!..) and all the travellers on Cook's Circular. Ashamed, dreading to be recognized, the unfortunate man concealed himself behind pillars, getting farther and farther away as the troop of tourists advanced, preceded by the concierge and his homily, delivered in a doleful voice: "Here is where the unfortunate Bonnivard, etc..."
They advanced slowly, retarded by discussions between the two savants, quarrelling as usual and ready to jump at each other's throats; the one waving his campstool, the other his travelling-bag in fantastic attitudes, which the twilight from the window-slits lengthened upon the vaulted roof.
By dint of retreating, Tartarin presently found himself close to the hole of the pit, a black pit open to the level of the soil, emitting the breath of ages, malarious and glacial. Frightened, he stopped short, and curled himself into a corner, his cap over his eyes. But the damp saltpetre of the walls affected him, and suddenly a stentorian sneeze, which made the tourists recoil, gave notice of his presence.
"Tiens, there's Bonnivard!.." cried the bold little Parisian woman in a Directory hat whom the gentleman from the Jockey-Club called his niece.
The Tarasconese hero did not allow himself to be disconcerted.
"They are really very curious, these pits," he said, in the most natural tone in the world, as if he was visiting the dungeon, like them, for pleasure; and so saying, he mingled with the other travellers, who smiled at recognizing the Alpinist of the Rigi-Kulm, the merry instigator of the famous ball.
"Hi! mossie... ballir... dantsir!.."
The comical silhouette of the little fairy Schwan-thaler rose up before him ready to seize him for a country dance. A fine mood he was in now for dancing! But not knowing how to rid himself of that determined little scrap of a woman, he offered his arm and gallantly showed her his dungeon, the ring to which the captive was chained, the trace of his steps on the stone round that pillar; and never, hearing him converse with such ease, did the good lady even dream that he too was a prisoner of state, a victim of the injustice and the wickedness of men. Terrible, however, was the departure, when the unfortunate Bonnivard, having conducted his partner to the door, took leave of her with the smile of a man of the world: "No, thank you, ve!.. I stay a few moments longer." Thereupon he bowed, and the jailer, who had his eye upon him, locked and bolted the door, to the stupefaction of everybody.
What a degradation! He perspired with anguish, unhappy man, while listening to the exclamations of the tourists as they walked away. Fortunately, the anguish was not renewed. No more tourists arrived that day on account of the bad weather. A terrible wind blew through the rotten boards, moans came up from the pit as from victims ill-buried, and the wash of the lake, swollen with rain, beat against the walls to the level of the window-slits and spattered its water upon the captive. At intervals the bell of a passing steamer, the clack of its paddle-wheels cut short the reflections of poor Tartarin, as evening, gray and gloomy, fell into the dungeon and seemed to enlarge it.
How explain this arrest, this imprisonment in the ill-omened place? Costecalde, perhaps... electioneering manoeuvre at the last hour?.. Or, could it be that the Russian police, warned of his very imprudent language, his liaison with Sonia, had asked for his extradition? But if so, why arrest the delegates?.. What blame could attach to those poor unfortunates, whose terror and despair he imagined, although they were not, like him, in Bonnivard's dungeon, beneath those granite arches, where, since night had fallen, roamed monstrous rats, cockroaches, silent spiders with hairy, crooked legs.
But see what it is to possess a good conscience! In spite of rats, cold, spiders, and beetles, the great Tartarin found in the horror of that state-prison, haunted by the shades of martyrs, the same solid and sonorous sleep, mouth open, fists closed, which came to him, between the abysses and heaven, in the hut of the Alpine Club. He fancied he was dreaming when he heard his jailer say in the morning:—
"Get up; the prefect of the district is here... He has come to examine you..." Adding, with a certain respect, "To bring the prefect out in this way... why, you must be a famous scoundrel."
Scoundrel! no—but you may look like one, after spending the night in a damp and dusty dungeon without having a chance to make a toilet, however limited. And when, in the former stable of the castle transformed into a guardroom with muskets in racks along the walls,—when, I say, Tartarin, after a reassuring glance at his Alpinists seated between two gendarmes, appeared before the prefect of the district, he felt his disreputable appearance in presence of that correct and solemn magistrate with the carefully trimmed beard, who said to him sternly:—
"You call yourself Manilof, do you not?.. Russian subject... incendiary at St. Petersburg, refugee and murderer in Switzerland."
"Never in my life... It is all a mistake, an error..."
"Silence, or I 'll gag you..." interrupted the captain.
The immaculate prefect continued: "To put an end to your denials... Do you know this rope?"
His rope! coquin de sort! His rope, woven with iron, made at Avignon. He lowered his head, to the stupefaction of the delegates, and said: "I know it."
"With this rope a man has been hung in the Canton of Unterwald..."
Tartarin, with a shudder, swore that he had nothing to do with it.
"We shall see!"
The Italian tenor was now introduced,—in other words, the police spy whom the Nihilists had hung to the branch of an oak-tree on the Bruenig, but whose life was miraculously saved by wood-choppers.
The spy looked at Tartarin. "That is not the man," he said; then at the delegates, "Nor they, either... A mistake has been made."
The prefect, furious, turned to Tartarin. "Then, what are you doing here?" he asked.
"That is what I ask myself, ve!.." replied the president, with the aplomb of innocence.
After a short explanation the Alpinists of Tarascon, restored to liberty, departed from the Castle of Chillon, where none have ever felt its oppressive and romantic melancholy more than they. They stopped at the Pension Mueller to get their luggage and banner, and to pay for the breakfast of the day before which they had not had time to eat; then they started for Geneva by the train. It rained. Through the streaming windows they read the names of stations of aristocratic villeggiatura: Clarens, Vevey, Lausanne; red chalets, little gardens of rare shrubs passed them under a misty veil, the branches of the trees, the turrets on the roofs, the galleries of the hotels all dripping.
Installed in one corner of a long railway carriage, on two seats facing each other, the Alpinists had a downcast and discomfited appearance. Bravida, very sour, complained of aches, and repeatedly asked Tartarin with savage irony: "Eh be!you've seen it now, that dungeon of Bonnivard's that you were so set on seeing... I think you have seen it, que?" Excourbanies, voiceless for the first time in his life, gazed piteously at the lake which escorted them the whole way: "Water! more water, Boudiou!.. after this, I 'll never in my life take another bath."
Stupefied by a terror which still lasts, Pascalon, the banner between his legs, sat back in his seat, looking to right and left like a hare fearful of being caught again... And Tartarin?.. Oh! he, ever dignified and calm, he was diverting himself by reading the Southern newspapers, a package of which had been sent to the Pension Mueller, all of them having reproduced from the Forum the account of his ascension, the same he had himself dictated, but enlarged, magnified, and embellished with ineffable laudations. Suddenly the hero gave a cry, a formidable cry, which resounded to the end of the carriage. All the travellers sat up excitedly, expecting an accident. It was simply an item in the Forum, which Tartarin now read to his Alpinists:—
"Listen to this: 'Rumour has it that V. P. C. A. Costecalde, though scarcely recovered from the jaundice which kept him in bed for some days, is about to start for the ascension of Mont Blanc; to climb higher than Tartarin!..' Oh! the villain... He wants to ruin the effect of my Jung-frau... Well, well! wait a bit; I 'll blow you out of water, you and your mountain... Chamounix is only a few hours from Geneva; I'll do Mont Blanc before him! Will you come, my children?"
Bravida protested. Outre! he had had enough of adventures.
"Enough and more than enough..." howled Excourbanies, in his almost extinct voice.
"And you, Pascalon?" asked Tartarin, gently.
The pupil dared not raise his eyes:—
"Ma-a-aster..." He, too, abandoned him!
"Very good," said the hero, solemnly and angrily. "I will go alone; all the honour will be mine... Zou! give me back the banner..."
Hotel Baltet at Chamonix. "I smell garlic!" The use of rope in Alpine climbing. "Shake hands." A pupil of Schopenhauer. At the hut on the Grands-Mulets. "Tartarin, I must speak to you."
Nine o'clock was ringing from the belfry at Chamonix of a cold night shivering with the north wind and rain; the black streets, the darkened houses (except, here and there, the facades and courtyards of hotels where the gas was still burning) made the surroundings still more gloomy under the vague reflection of the snow of the mountains, white as a planet on the night of the sky.
At the Hotel Baltet, one of the best and most frequented inns of this Alpine village, the numerous travellers and boarders had disappeared one by one, weary with the excursions of the day, until no one was left in the grand salon but one English traveller playing silently at backgammon with his wife, his innumerable daughters, in brown-holland aprons with bibs, engaged in copying notices of an approaching evangelical service, and a young Swede sitting before the fireplace, in which was a good fire of blazing logs. The latter was pale, hollow-cheeked, and gazed at the flame with a gloomy air as he drank his grog of kirsch and seltzer. From time to time some belated traveller crossed the salon, with soaked gaiters and streaming mackintosh, looked at the great barometer hanging to the wall, tapped it, consulted the mercury as to the weather of the following day, and went off to bed in consternation. Not a word; no other manifestations of life than the crackling of the fire, the pattering on the panes, and the angry roll of the Arve under the arches of its wooden bridge, a few yards distant from the hotel.
Suddenly the door of the salon opened, a porter in a silver-laced coat came in, carrying valises and rugs, with four shivering Alpinists behind him, dazzled by the sudden change from icy darkness into warmth and light.
"Boudiou! what weather!.."
"Something to eat, zou!"
"Warm the beds, que!"
They all talked at once from the depths of their mufflers and ear-pads, and it was hard to know which to obey, when a short stout man, whom the others called "presidain" enforced silence by shouting more loudly than they.
"In the first place, give me the visitors' book," he ordered. Turning it over with a numbed hand, he read aloud the names of all who had been at the hotel for the last week: "'Doctor Schwanthaler and madame.' Again!.. 'Astier-Rehu of the French Academy... '" He deciphered thus two or three pages, turning pale when he thought he saw the name he was in search of. Then, at the end, flinging the book on the table with a laugh of triumph, the squat man made a boyish gambol quite extraordinary in one of his bulky shape: "He is not here, ve! he has n't come... And yet he must have stopped here if he had... Done for! Coste-calde... lagadigadeou!.. quick! to our suppers, children!.. "And the worthy Tartarin, having bowed to the ladies, marched to the dining-room, followed by the famished and tumultuous delegation.
Ah, yes! the delegation, all of them, even Bravida himself... Is it possible? come now!.. But—just think what would be said of them down there in Tarascon, if they returned without Tartarin? They each felt this. And, at the moment of separation in the station at Geneva, the buffet witnessed a pathetic scene of tears, embraces, heartrending adieus to the banner; as the result of which adieus the whole company piled itself into the landau which Tartarin had chartered to take him to Chamonix. A glorious route, which they did with their eyes shut, wrapped in their rugs and filling the carriage with sonorous snores, unmindful of the wonderful landscape, which, from Sallanches, was unrolling before them in a mist of blue rain: ravines, forests, foaming waterfalls, with the crest of Mont Blanc above the clouds, visible or vanishing, according to the lay of the land in the valley they were crossing. Tired of that sort of natural beauty, our Tarasconese friends thought only of making up for the wretched night they had spent behind the bolts of Chillon. And even now, at the farther end of the long, deserted dining-room of the Hotel Baltet, when served with the warmed-over soup and entrees of the table d'hote, they ate voraciously, without saying a word, eager only to get to bed. All of a sudden, Excourbanies, who was swallowing his food like a somnambulist, came out of his plate, and sniffing the air about him, remarked: "I smell garlic!.."
"True, I smell it," said Bravida. And the whole party, revived by this reminder of home, these fumes of the national dishes, which Tartarin, at least, had not inhaled for so long, turned round in their chairs with gluttonous anxiety. The odour came from the other end of the dining-room, from a little room where some one was supping apart, a personage of importance, no doubt, for the white cap of the head cook was constantly appearing at the wicket that opened into the kitchen as he passed to the girl in waiting certain little covered dishes which she conveyed to the inner apartment.
"Some one from the South, that's certain," murmured the gentle Pascalon; and the president, becoming ghastly at the idea of Costecalde, said commandingly:—
"Go and see, Spiridion... and bring us word who it is..."
A loud roar of laughter came from that little apartment as soon as the brave "gong" entered it, at the order of his chief; and he presently returned, leading by the hand a tall devil with a big nose, a mischievous eye, and a napkin under his chin, like the gastronomic horse.
"Te! the Impostor..."
"He! Gonzague... How are you?"
"Differemment, messieurs: your most obedient..." said the courier, shaking hands with all, and sitting down at the table of the Tarasconese to share with them a dish of mushrooms with garlic prepared by mere Baltet, who, together with her husband had a horror of the cooking for the table d'hote.
Was it the national concoction, or the joy of meeting a compatriot, that delightful Bompard with his inexhaustible imagination? Certain it is that weariness and the desire to sleep took wings, champagne was uncorked, and, with moustachios all messy with froth, they laughed and shouted and gesticulated, clasping one another round the body effusively happy.
"I'll not leave you now, ve!" said Bompard. "My Peruvians have gone... I am free..."
"Free!.. Then to-morrow you and I will ascend Mont Blanc."
"Ah! you do Mont Blanc to-morrow?" said Bompard, without enthusiasm.
"Yes, I knock out Costecalde... When he gets here, uit!.. No Mont Blanc for him... You'll go, que, Gonzague?"
"I 'll go... I 'll go... that is, if the weather permits... The fact is, that the mountain is not always suitable at this season."
"Ah! vai! not suitable indeed!.." exclaimed Tartarin, crinkling up his eyes by a meaning laugh which Bompard seemed not to understand.
"Let us go into the salon for our coffee... We 'll consult pere Baltet. He knows all about it, he 's an old guide who has made the ascension twenty-seven times."
All the delegates cried out: "Twenty-seven times! Boufre!"
"Bompard always exaggerates," said the P. C. A. severely, but not without a touch of envy.
In the salon they found the daughters of the minister still bending over their notices, while the father and mother were asleep at their backgammon, and the tall Swede was stirring his seltzer grog with the same disheartened gesture. But the invasion of the Tarasconese Alpinists, warmed by champagne, caused, as may well be supposed, some distraction of mind to the young conventiclers. Never had those charming young persons seen coffee taken with such rollings of the eyes and pantomimic action.
"Of course not, commander... You know very well... Since Africa!.."
"True; excuse me... Te! here comes M. Baltet."
"Sit down there, que. Monsieur Baltet."
"Vive Monsieur Baltet!.. Ha! ha! fen de brut."
Surrounded, captured by all these men whom he had never seen before in his life, pere Baltet smiled with a tranquil air. A robust Savoyard, tall and broad, with a round back and slow walk, a heavy face, close-shaven, enlivened by two shrewd eyes, that were still young, contrasting oddly with his baldness, caused by chills at dawn upon the mountain.
"These gentlemen wish to ascend Mont Blanc?" he said, gauging the Tarasconese Alpinists with a glance both humble and sarcastic. Tartarin was about to reply, but Bompard forestalled him:— "Isn't the season too far advanced?" "Why, no," replied the former guide. "Here's a Swedish gentleman who goes up to-morrow, and I am expecting at the end of this week two American gentlemen to make the ascent; and one of them is blind."
"I know. I met them on the Guggi." "Ah! monsieur has been upon the Guggi?" "Yes, a week ago, in doing the Jungfrau." Here a quiver among the evangelical conventiclers; all pens stopped, and heads were raised in the direction of Tartarin, who, to the eyes of these English maidens, resolute climbers, expert in all sports, acquired considerable authority. He had gone up the Jungfrau!
"A fine thing!" said pere Baltet, considering the P. C. A. with some astonishment; while Pascalon, intimidated by the ladies and blushing and stuttering, murmured softly:—
"Ma-a-aster, tell them the... the... thing... crevasse."
The president smiled. "Child!.." he said: but, all the same, he began the tale of his fall; first with a careless, indifferent air, and then with startled motions, jigglings at the end of the rope over the abyss, hands outstretched and appealing. The young ladies quivered, and devoured him with those cold English eyes, those eyes that open round.
In the silence that followed, rose the voice of Bompard:—
"On Chimborazo we never roped one another to cross crevasses."
The delegates looked at one another. As a tarasconade that remark surpassed them all.
"Oh, that Bompard, pas mouain..." murmured Pascalon, with ingenuous admiration.
But pere Baltet, taking Chimborazo seriously, protested against the practice of not roping. According to him, no ascension over ice was possible without a rope, a good rope of Manila hemp; then, if one slipped, the others could hold him.
"Unless the rope breaks, Monsieur Baltet," said Tartarin, remembering the catastrophe on the Matterhorn.
But the landlord, weighing his words, replied:
"The rope did not break on the Matterhorn... the rear guide cut it with a blow of his axe..."
As Tartarin expressed indignation,—
"Beg pardon, monsieur, but the guide had a right to do it... He saw the impossibility of holding back those who had fallen, and he detached himself from them to save his life, that of his son, and of the traveller they were accompanying... Without his action seven persons would have lost their lives instead of four."
Then a discussion began. Tartarin thought that in letting yourself be roped in file you were bound in honour to live and die together; and growing excited, especially in presence of ladies, he backed his opinion by facts and by persons present: "Tomorrow, te! to-morrow, in roping myself to Bom-pard, it is not a simple precaution that I shall take, it is an oath before God and man to be one with my companion and to die sooner than return without him, coquin de sort!"
"I accept the oath for myself, as for you, Tar-tarin..." cried Bompard from the other side of the round table.
The minister, electrified, rose, came to the hero and inflicted upon him a pump-handle exercise of the hand that was truly English. His wife did likewise, then all the young ladies continued the shake hands with enough vigour to have brought water to the fifth floor of the house. The delegates, I ought to mention, were less enthusiastic.
"Eh, be! as for me," said Bravida, "I am of M. Baltet's opinion. In matters of this kind, each man should look to his own skin, pardi! and I understand that cut of the axe perfectly."
"You amaze me, Placide," said Tartarin, severely; adding in a low voice: "Behave yourself! England is watching us."
The old captain, who certainly had kept a root of bitterness in his heart ever since the excursion to Chillon, made a gesture that signified: "I don't care that for England..." and might perhaps have drawn upon himself a sharp rebuke from the president, irritated at so much cynicism, but at this moment the young man with the heart-broken look, filled to the full with grog and melancholy, brought his extremely bad French into the conversation. He thought, he said, that the guide was right to cut the rope: to deliver from existence those four unfortunate men, still young, condemned to live for many years longer; to send them, by a mere gesture, to peace, to nothingness,—what a noble and generous action!
Tartarin exclaimed against it:—
"Pooh! young man, at your age, to talk of life with such aversion, such anger... What has life done to you?"
"Nothing; it bores me." He had studied philosophy at Christiania, and since then, won to the ideas of Schopenhauer and Hartmann, he had found existence dreary, inept, chaotic. On the verge of suicide he shut his books, at the entreaty of his parents, and started to travel, striking everywhere against the same distress, the gloomy wretchedness of this life. Tartarin and his friends, he said, seemed to him the only beings content to live that he had ever met with.
The worthy P. C. A. began to laugh. "It is all race, young man. Everybody feels like that in Tarascon. That's the land of the good God. From morning till night we laugh and sing, and the rest of the time we dance the farandole... like this... te!" So saying, he cut a double shuffle with the grace and lightness of a big cockchafer trying its wings.
But the delegates had not the steel nerves nor the indefatigable spirit of their chief. Excour-banies growled out: "He 'll keep us here till midnight." But Bravida jumped up, furious. "Let us go to bed, ve! I can't stand my sciatica..." Tartarin consented, remembering the ascension on the morrow; and the Tarasconese, candlesticks in hand, went up the broad staircase of granite that led to the chambers, while Baltet went to see about provisions and hire the mules and guides.
"Te! it is snowing..."
Those were the first words of the worthy Tartarin when he woke in the morning and saw his windows covered with frost and his bedroom inundated with white reflections. But when he hooked his little mirror as usual to the window-fastening, he understood his mistake, and saw that Mont Blanc, sparkling before him in the splendid sunshine, was the cause of that light. He opened his window to the breeze of the glacier, keen and refreshing, bringing with it the sound of the cattle-bells as the herds followed the long, lowing sound of the shepherd's horn. Something fortifying, pastoral, filled the atmosphere such as he had never before breathed in Switzerland.
Below, an assemblage of guides and porters awaited him. The Swede was already mounted upon his mule, and among the spectators, who formed a circle, was the minister's family, all those active young ladies, their hair in early morning style, who had come for another "shake hands" with the hero who had haunted their dreams.
"Splendid weather! make haste!.." cried the landlord, whose skull was gleaming in the sunshine like a pebble. But though Tartarin himself might hasten, it was not so easy a matter to rouse from sleep his dear Alpinists, who intended to accompany him as far as the Pierre-Pointue, where the mule-path ends. Neither prayers nor arguments could persuade the Commander to get out of bed. With his cotton nightcap over his ears and his face to the wall, he contented himself with replying to Tartarin's objurgations by a cynical Tarasconese proverb: "Whoso has the credit of getting up early may sleep until midday..." As for Bom-pard, he kept repeating, the whole time, "Ah, vai, Mont Blanc... what a humbug..." Nor did they rise until the P. C. A. had issued a formal order.
At last, however, the caravan started, and passed through the little streets in very imposing array: Pascalon on the leading mule, banner unfurled; and last in file, grave as a mandarin amid the guides and porters on either side his mule, came the worthy Tartarin, more stupendously Alpinist than ever, wearing a pair of new spectacles with smoked and convex glasses, and his famous rope made at Avignon, recovered—we know at what cost.
Very much looked at, almost as much as the banner, he was jubilant under his dignified mask, enjoyed the picturesqueness of these Savoyard village streets, so different from the too neat, too varnished Swiss village, looking like a new toy; he enjoyed the contrast of these hovels scarcely rising above the ground, where the stable fills the largest space, with the grand and sumptuous hotels five storeys high, the glittering signs of which were as much out of keeping with the hovels as the gold-laced cap of the porter and the pumps and black coats of the waiters with the Savoyard head-gear, the fustian jackets, the felt hats of the charcoal-burners with their broad wings.
On the square were landaus with the horses taken out, manure-carts side by side with travelling-carriages, and a troop of pigs idling in the sun before the post-office, from which issued an Englishman in a white linen cap, with a package of letters and a copy of The Times, which he read as he walked along, before he opened his correspondence. The cavalcade of the Tarasconese passed all this, accompanied by the scuffling of mules, the war-cry of Excourbanies (to whom the sun had restored the use of his gong), the pastoral chimes on the neighbouring slopes, and the dash of the river, gushing from the glacier in a torrent all white and sparkling, as if it bore upon its breast both sun and snow.
On leaving the village Bompard rode his mule beside that of the president, and said to the latter; rolling his eyes in a most extraordinary manner: "Tartarin, I must speak to you..."
"Presently..." said the P. C. A., then engaged in a philosophical discussion with the young Swede, whose black pessimism he was endeavouring to correct by the marvellous spectacle around them, those pastures with great zones of light and shade, those forests of sombre green crested with the whiteness of the dazzling neves.
After two attempts to speak to the president, Bompard was forced to give it up. The Arve having been crossed by a little bridge, the caravan now entered one of those narrow, zigzag roads among the firs where the mules, one by one, follow with their fantastic sabots all the sinuosities of the ravines, and our tourists had their attention fully occupied in keeping their equilibrium by the help of many an "Outre!.. Boufre!.. gently, gently!.." with which they guided their beasts.
At the chalet of the Pierre-Pointue, where Pas-calon and Excourbanies were to wait the return of the excursionists, Tartarin, much occupied in ordering breakfast and in looking after porters and guides, still paid no attention to Bompard's whisperings. But—singular fact, which was not remarked until later—in spite of the fine weather, the good wine, and that purified atmosphere of ten thousand feet above sea-level, the breakfast was melancholy. While they heard the guides laughing and making merry apart, the table of the Taras-conese was silent except for the rattle of glasses and the clatter of the heavy plates and covers on the white wood. Was it the presence of that morose Swede, or the visible uneasiness of Bompard, or some presentiment? At any rate, the party set forth, sad as a battalion without its band, towards the glacier of the Bossons, where the true ascent begins.
On setting foot upon the ice, Tartarin could not help smiling at the recollection of the Guggi and his perfected crampons. What a difference between the neophyte he then was and the first-class Alpinist he felt he had become! Steady on his heavy boots, which the porter of the hotel had ironed that very morning with four stout nails, expert in wielding his ice-axe, he scarcely needed the hand of a guide, and then less to support him than to show him the way. The smoked glasses moderated the reflections of the glacier, which a recent avalanche had powdered with fresh snow, and through which little spaces of a glaucous green showed themselves here and there, slippery and treacherous. Very calm, confident through experience that there was not the slightest danger, Tartarin walked along the verge of the crevasses with their smooth, iridescent sides stretching downward indefinitely, and made his way among the seracs, solely intent on keeping up with the Swedish student, an intrepid walker, whose long gaiters with their silver buckles marched, thin and lank, beside his alpenstock, which looked like a third leg. Their philosophical discussion continuing, in spite of the difficulties of the way, a good stout voice, familiar and panting, could be heard in the frozen space, sonorous as the swell of a river: "You know me, Otto..."
Bompard all this time was undergoing misadventures. Firmly convinced, up to that very morning, that Tartarin would never go to the length of his vaunting, and would no more ascend Mont Blanc than he had the Jungfrau, the luckless courier had dressed himself as usual, without nailing his boots, or even utilizing his famous invention for shoeing the feet of soldiers, and without so much as his alpenstock, the mountaineers of the Chimborazo never using them. Armed only with a little switch, quite in keeping with the blue ribbon of his hat and his ulster, this approach to the glacier terrified him, for, in spite of his tales, it is, of course, well understood that the Impostor had never in his life made an ascension. He was somewhat reassured, however, on seeing from the top of the moraine with what facility Tartarin made his way on the ice; and he resolved to follow him as far as the hut on the Grands-Mulets, where it was intended to pass the night. He did not get there without difficulty. His first step laid him flat on his back; at the second he fell forward on his hands and knees: "No, thank you, I did it on purpose," he said to the guides who endeavoured to pick him up. "American fashion, ve!.. as they do on the Chimborazo." That position seeming to be convenient, he kept it, creeping on four paws, his hat pushed back, and his ulster sweeping the ice like the pelt of a gray bear; very calm, withal, and relating to those about him that in the Cordilleras of the Andes he had scaled a mountain thirty thousand feet high. He did not say how much time it took him, but it must have been long, judging by this stage to the Grands-Mulets, where he arrived an hour after Tartarin, a disgusting mass of muddy snow, with frozen hands in his knitted gloves.
In comparison with the hut on the Guggi, that which the commune of Chamonix has built on the Grands-Mulets is really comfortable. When Bompard entered the kitchen, where a grand wood-fire was blazing, he found Tartarin and the Swedish student drying their boots, while the hut-keeper, a shrivelled old fellow with long white hair that fell in meshes, exhibited the treasures of his little museum.
Of evil augury, this museum is a reminder of all the catastrophes known to have taken place on the Mont Blanc for the forty years that the old man had kept the inn, and as he took them from their show-case, he related the lamentable origin of each of them... This piece of cloth and those waistcoat buttons were the memorial of a Russian savant, hurled by a hurricane upon the Brenva glacier... These jaw teeth were all that remained of one of the guides of a famous caravan of eleven travellers and porters who disappeared forever in a tourmente of snow... In the fading light and the pale reflection of the neves against the window, the production of these mortuary relics, these monotonous recitals, had something very poignant about them, and all the more because the old man softened his quavering voice at pathetic items, and even shed tears on displaying a scrap of green veil worn by an English lady rolled down by an avalanche in 1827.
In vain Tartarin reassured himself by dates, convinced that in those early days the Company had not yet organized the ascensions without danger; this Savoyard vocero oppressed his heart, and he went to the doorway for a moment to breathe.
Night had fallen, engulfing the depths. The Bossons stood out, livid, and very close; while the Mont Blanc reared its summit, still rosy, still caressed by the departed sun. The Southerner was recovering his serenity from this smile of nature when the shadow of Bompard rose behind him.
"Is that you, Gonzague... As you see, I am getting the good of the air... He annoyed me, that old fellow, with his stories."
"Tartarin," said Bompard, squeezing the arm of the P. C. A. till he nearly ground it, "I hope that this is enough, and that you are going to put an end to this ridiculous expedition."
The great man opened wide a pair of astonished eyes.
"What stuff are you talking to me now?"
Whereupon Bompard made a terrible picture of the thousand deaths that awaited him; crevasses, avalanches, hurricanes, whirlwinds...
Tartarin interrupted him:—
"Ah! vai, you rogue; and the Company? Isn't Mont Blanc managed like the rest?"
"Managed?. the Company?.." said Bompard, bewildered, remembering nothing whatever of his tarasconade, which Tartarin now repeated to him word for word—Switzerland a vast Association, lease of the mountains, machinery of the crevasses; on which the former courier burst out laughing.
"What! you really believed me?.. Why, that was a galejade a fib... Among us Taras-conese you ought surely to know what talking means..."
"Then," asked Tartarin, with much emotion, "the Jungfrau was not prepared?"
"Of course not."
"And if the rope had broken?.."
"Ah! my poor friend..."
The hero closed his eyes, pale with retrospective terror, and for one moment he hesitated... This landscape of polar cataclysm, cold, gloomy, yawning with gulfs... those laments of the old hut-man still weeping in his ears... Outre! what will they make me do?.. Then, suddenly, he thought of the folk at Tarascon, of the banner to be unfurled "up there," and he said to himself that with good guides and a trusty companion like Bompard... He had done the Jungfrau... why should n't he do Mont Blanc?
Laying his large hand on the shoulder of his friend, he began in a virile voice:—
"Listen to me, Gonzague..."