Tartarin on the Alps, by Alphonse Daudet

12.

Hôtel 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 façades 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 Hôtel 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 ”présidain“ 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-Réhu 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, vé! 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 Hôtel Baltet, when served with the warmed-over soup and entrées of the table d’hôte, they ate voraciously, without saying a word, eager only to get to bed. All of a sudden, Excourbaniès, 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.

Vi! Bompard . . . ”

Té! the Impostor . . . ”

Hé! Gonzague . . . How are you?”

Différemment, 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 mère Baltet, who, together with her husband had a horror of the cooking for the table d’hôte.

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, vé!“ 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, qué, 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! vaï! 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 père 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.

“Sugar, Tartarin?”

“Of course not, commander . . . You know very well . . . Since Africa!..”

“True; excuse me . . . Té! here comes M. Baltet.”

“Sit down there, qué. Monsieur Baltet.”

“Vive Monsieur Baltet!.. Ha! ha! fen dé brut.”

Surrounded, captured by all these men whom he had never seen before in his life, père 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 père 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 père 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, té! 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.

Exciting moment!

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, bé! 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 . . . té!“ 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-baniès growled out: “He ‘ll keep us here till midnight.” But Bravida jumped up, furious. “Let us go to bed, vé! 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.

Té! 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, vaï, 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 Excourbaniès (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 névés.

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 Excourbaniès 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 séracs, 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, vé!.. 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 névés 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! vaï, 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 galéjade 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 . . . ”

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