Tartarin on the Alps, by Alphonse Daudet

11.

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 Hôtel 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’hôte, 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.

Montreux!

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 Müller or other, situated, with many of its kind, close to the landing.

Vé! 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 cafés, 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 Excourbaniès, 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, Eugène 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 . . . ”

“Sonia!.. Sonia!..”

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 façade 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! vaï, 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 Müller 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: Bé!.. 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: “Quès 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, Excourbaniès, 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, qué!.. ha! vaï, 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-Réhu, 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! mossié . . . 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, vé!.. 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 Brünig, 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, vé!..” 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 Müller 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 bé!you’ve seen it now, that dungeon of Bonnivard’s that you were so set on seeing . . . I think you have seen it, qué?“ Excourbaniès, 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 Müller, 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 Excourbaniès, 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 . . . ”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53