Tartarin on the Alps, by Alphonse Daudet

13.

The catastrophe.

On a dark, dark night, moonless, starless, skyless, on the trembling whiteness of a vast ledge of snow, slowly a long rope unrolled itself, to which were attached in file certain timorous and very small shades, preceded, at the distance of a hundred feet, by a lantern casting a red light along the way. Blows of an ice-axe ringing on the hard snow, the roll of the ice blocks thus detached, alone broke the silence of the névé on which the steps of the caravan made no sound. From minute to minute, a cry, a smothered groan, the fall of a body on the ice, and then immediately a strong voice sounding from the end of the rope: “Go gently, Gonzague, and don’t fall.” For poor Bompard had made up his mind to follow his friend Tartarin to the summit of Mont Blanc. Since two in the morning — it was now four by the president’s repeater — the hapless courier had groped along, a galley slave on the chain, dragged, pushed, vacillating, balking, compelled to restrain the varied exclamations extorted from him by his mishaps, for an avalanche was on the watch, and the slightest concussion, a mere vibration of the crystalline air, might send down its masses of snow and ice. To suffer in silence! what torture to a native of Tarascon!

But the caravan halted. Tartarin asked why. A discussion in low voice was heard; animated whisperings: “It is your companion who won’t come on,” said the Swedish student. The order of march was broken; the human chaplet returned upon itself, and they found themselves all at the edge of a vast crevasse, called by the mountaineers a roture. Preceding ones they had crossed by means of a ladder, over which they crawled on their hands and knees; here the crevasse was much wider and the ice-cliff rose on the other side to a height of eighty or a hundred feet. It was necessary to descend to the bottom of the gully, which grew smaller as it went down, by means of steps cut in the ice, and to reascend in the same way on the other side. But Bompard obstinately refused to do so.

Leaning over the abyss, which the shadows represented as bottomless, he watched through the damp vapour the movements of the little lantern by which the guides below were preparing the way. Tartarin, none too easy himself, warmed his own courage by exhorting his friend: “Come now, Gonzague, zou!“ and then in a lower voice coaxed him to honour, invoked the banner, Tarascon, the Club . . .

“Ah! vaï, the Club indeed!.. I don’t belong to it,” replied the other, cynically.

Then Tartarin explained to him where to set his feet, and assured him that nothing was easier.

“For you, perhaps, but not for me . . . ” “But you said you had a habit of it . . . ” ”Bé! yes! habit, of course . . . which habit? I have so many . . . habit of smoking, sleeping . . . ” “And lying, especially,” interrupted the president.

“Exaggerating — come now!” said Bompard, not the least in the world annoyed.

However, after much hesitation, the threat of leaving him there all alone decided him to go slowly, deliberately, down that terrible miller’s ladder . . . The going up was more difficult, for the other face was nearly perpendicular, smooth as marble, and higher than King Rene’s tower at Tarascon. From below, the winking light of the guides going up, looked like a glow-worm on the march. He was forced to follow, however, for the snow beneath his feet was not solid, and gurgling sounds of circulating water heard round a fissure told of more than could be seen at the foot of that wall of ice, of depths that were sending upward the chilling breath of subterranean abysses.

“Go gently, Gonzague, for fear of falling . . . ” That phrase, which Tartarin uttered with tender intonations, almost supplicating, borrowed a solemn signification from the respective positions of the ascensionists, clinging with feet and hands one above the other to the wall, bound by the rope and the similarity of their movements, so that the fall or the awkwardness of one put all in danger. And what danger! coquin de sort! It sufficed to hear fragments of the ice-wall bounding and dashing downward with the echo of their fall to imagine the open jaws of the monster watching there below to snap you up at the least false step.

But what is this?.. Lo, the tall Swede, next above Tartarin, has stopped and touches with his iron heels the cap of the P. C. A. In vain the guides called: “Forward!..” And the president: “Go on, young man!..” He did not stir. Stretched at full length, clinging to the ice with careless hand, the Swede leaned down, the glimmering dawn touching his scanty beard and giving light to the singular expression of his dilated eyes, while he made a sign to Tartarin:—

“What a fall, hey? if one let go . . . ”

Outre! I should say so . . . you would drag us all down . . . Go on!”

The other remained motionless.

“A fine chance to be done with life, to return into chaos through the bowels of the earth, and roll from fissure to fissure like that bit of ice which I kick with my foot . . . ” And he leaned over frightfully to watch the fragment bounding downward and echoing endlessly in the blackness.

“Take care!..” cried Tartarin, livid with terror. Then, desperately clinging to the oozing wall, he resumed, with hot ardour, his argument of the night before in favour of existence. “There’s good in it . . . What the deuce!.. At your age, a fine young fellow like you . . . Don’t you believe in love, qué!

No, the Swede did not believe in it. Ideal love is a poet’s lie; the other, only a need he had never felt . . .

Bé! yes! bé! yes!.. It is true poets lie, they always say more than there is; but for all that, she is nice, the femellan— that’s what they call women in our parts. Besides, there’s children, pretty little darlings that look like us.”

“Children! a source of grief. Ever since she had them my mother has done nothing but weep.”

“Listen, Otto, you know me, my good friend . . . ”

And with all the valorous ardour of his soul Tartarin exhausted himself to revive and rub to life at that distance this victim of Schopenhauer and of Hartmann, two rascals he’d like to catch at the corner of a wood, coquin de sort! and make them pay for all the harm they had done to youth . . .

Represent to yourselves during this discussion the high wall of freezing, glaucous, streaming ice touched by a pallid ray of light, and that string of human beings glued to it in echelon, with ill-omened rumblings rising from the yawning depth, together with the curses of the guides and their threats to detach and abandon the travellers. Tartarin, seeing that no argument could convince the madman or clear off his vertigo of death, suggested to him the idea of throwing himself from the highest peak of the Mont Blanc . . . That indeed! that would be worth doing, up there! A fine end among the elements . . . But here, at the bottom of a cave . . . Ah! vaï, what a blunder!.. And he put such tone into his words, brusque and yet persuasive, such conviction, that the Swede allowed himself to be conquered, and there they were, at last, one by one, at the top of that terrible roture.

They were now unroped, and a halt was called for a bite and sup. It was daylight; a cold wan light among a circle of peaks and shafts, overtopped by the Mont Blanc, still thousands of feet above them. The guides were apart, gesticulating and consulting, with many shakings of the head. Seated on the white ground, heavy and huddled up, their round backs in their brown jackets, they looked like marmots getting ready to hibernate. Bompard and Tartarin, uneasy, shocked, left the young Swede to eat alone, and came up to the guides just as their leader was saying with a grave air:—

“He is smoking his pipe; there’s no denying it.”

“Who is smoking his pipe?” asked Tartarin.

“Mont Blanc, monsieur; look there . . . ”

And the guide pointed to the extreme top of the highest peak, where, like a plume, a white vapour floated toward Italy.

Et autremain, my good friend, when the Mont Blanc smokes his pipe, what does that mean?”

“It means, monsieur, that there is a terrible wind on the summit, and a snow-storm which will be down upon us before long. And I tell you, that’s dangerous.”

“Let us go back,” said Bompard, turning green; and Tartarin added:—

“Yes, yes, certainly; no false vanity, of course.”

But here the Swedish student interfered. He had paid his money to be taken to the top of Mont Blanc, and nothing should prevent his getting there. He would go alone, if no one would accompany him. “Cowards! cowards!” he added, turning to the guides; and he uttered the insult in the same ghostly voice with which he had roused himself just before to suicide.

“You shall see if we are cowards . . . Fasten to the rope and forward!” cried the head guide. This time, it was Bompard who protested energetically. He had had enough, and he wanted to be taken back. Tartarin supported him vigorously.

“You see very well that that young man is insane . . . ” he said, pointing to the Swede, who had already started with great strides through the heavy snow-flakes which the wind was beginning to whirl on all sides. But nothing could stop the men who had just been called cowards. The marmots were now wide-awake and heroic. Tartarin could not even obtain a conductor to take him back with Bompard to the Grands-Mulets. Besides, the way was very easy; three hours’ march, counting a detour of twenty minutes to get round that roture, if they were afraid to go through it alone.

Outre! yes, we are afraid of it . . . ” said Bompard, without the slightest shame; and the two parties separated.

Bompard and the P. C. A. were now alone. They advanced with caution on the snowy desert, fastened to a rope: Tartarin first, feeling his way gravely with his ice-axe; filled with a sense of responsibility and finding relief in it.

“Courage! keep cool!.. We shall get out of it all right,” he called to Bompard repeatedly. It is thus that an officer in battle, seeking to drive away his own fear, brandishes his sword and shouts to his men: “Forward! s. n. de D!.. all balls don’t kill.”

At last, here they were at the end of that horrible crevasse. From there to the hut there were no great obstacles; but the wind blew, and blinded them with snowy whirlwinds. Further advance was impossible for fear of losing their way.

“Let us stop here for a moment,” said Tartarin. A gigantic sérac of ice offered them a hollow at its base. Into it they crept, spreading down the india-rubber rug of the president and opening a flask of rum, the sole article of provision left them by the guides. A little warmth and comfort followed thereon, while the blows of the ice-axes, getting fainter and fainter up the height, told them of the progress of the expedition. They echoed in the heart of the P. C. A. like a pang of regret for not having done the Mont Blanc to the summit.

“Who ‘ll know it?” returned Bompard, cynically. “The porters kept the banner, and Chamonix will believe it is you.”

“You are right,” cried Tartarin, in a tone of conviction; “the honour of Tarascon is safe . . . ”

But the elements grew furious, the north-wind a hurricane, the snow flew in volumes. Both were silent, haunted by sinister ideas; they remembered those ill-omened relics in the glass case of the old inn-keeper, his laments, the legend of that American tourist found petrified with cold and hunger, holding in his stiffened hand a note-book, in which his agonies were written down even to the last convulsion, which made the pencil slip and the signature uneven.

“Have you a note-book, Gonzague?”

And the other, comprehending without further explanation:—

“Ha! vaï, a note-book!.. If you think I am going to let myself die like that American!.. Quick, let’s get on! come out of this.”

“Impossible . . . At the first step we should be blown like straws and pitched into some abyss.”

“Well then, we had better shout; the Grands-Mulets is not far off . . . ” And Bompard, on his knees, in the attitude of a cow at pasture, lowing, roared out, “Help! help! help!..”

“To arms!” shouted Tartarin, in his most sonorous chest voice, which the grotto repercussioned in thunder.

Bompard seized his arm: “Horrors! the sérac!“.. Positively the whole block was trembling; another shout and that mass of accumulated icicles would be down upon their heads. They stopped, rigid, motionless, wrapped in a horrid silence, presently broken by a distant rolling sound, coming nearer, increasing, spreading to the horizon, and dying at last far down, from gulf to gulf.

“Poor souls!” murmured Tartarin, thinking of the Swede and his guides caught, no doubt, and swept away by the avalanche.

Bompard shook his head: “We are scarcely better off than they,” he said.

And truly, their situation was alarming; but they did not dare to stir from their icy grotto, nor to risk even their heads outside in the squall.

To complete the oppression of their hearts, from the depths of the valley rose the howling of a dog, baying at death. Suddenly Tartarin, with swollen eyes, his lips quivering, grasped the hands of his companion, and looking at him gently, said:—

“Forgive me, Gonzague, yes, yes, forgive me. I was rough to you just now; I treated you as a liar . . . ”

“Ah! vaï. What harm did that do me?”

“I had less right than any man to do so, for I have lied a great deal myself, and at this supreme moment I feel the need to open my heart, to free my bosom, to publicly confess my imposture . . . ”

“Imposture, you?”

“Listen to me, my friend . . . In the first place, I never killed a lion.”

“I am not surprised at that,” said Bompard, composedly. “But why do you worry yourself for such a trifle?.. It is our sun that does it . . . we are born to lies . . . Vé! look at me . . . Did I ever tell the truth since I came into the world? As soon as I open my mouth my South gets up into my head like a fit. The people I talk about I never knew; the countries, I ‘ve never set foot in them; and all that makes such a tissue of inventions that I can’t unravel it myself any longer.”

“That’s imagination, péchère!“ sighed Tartarin; “we are liars of imagination.”

“And such lies never do any harm to any one; whereas a malicious, envious man, like Coste-calde . . . ”

“Don’t ever speak to me of that wretch,” interrupted the P. C. A.; then, seized with a sudden attack of wrath, he shouted: ”Coquin de bon sorti it is, all the same, rather vexing . . . ” He stopped, at a terrified gesture from Bompard, “Ah! yes, true . . . the sérac;” and, forced to lower his tone and mutter his rage, poor Tartarin continued his imprecations in a whisper, with a comical and amazing dislocation of the mouth — “yes, vexing to die in the flower of one’s age through the fault of a scoundrel who at this very moment is taking his coffee on the Promenade!..”

But while he thus fulminated, a clear spot began to show itself, little by little, in the sky. It snowed no more, it blew no more; and blue dashes tore away the gray of the sky. Quick, quick, en route; and once more fastened to the same rope, Tartarin, who took the lead as before, turned round, put a finger on his lips, and said:—

“You know, Gonzague, that all we have just been saying is between ourselves.”

Té! pardi . . . ”

Full of ardour, they started, plunging to their knees in the fresh snow, which had buried in its immaculate cotton-wool all the traces of the caravan; consequently Tartarin was forced to consult his compass every five minutes. But that Taras-conese compass, accustomed to warm climates, had been numb with cold ever since its arrival in Switzerland. The needle whirled to all four quarters, agitated, hesitating; therefore they determined to march straight before them, expecting to see the black rocks of the Grands-Mulets rise suddenly from the uniform silent whiteness of the slope, the peaks, the turrets, and aiguilles that surrounded, dazzled, and also terrified them, for who knew what dangerous crevasses it concealed beneath their feet?

“Keep cool, Gonzague, keep cool!”

“That ’s just what I can’t do,” responded Bom-pard, in a lamentable voice. And he moaned: ”Aïe, my foot!.. aïe, my leg!.. we are lost; never shall we get there . . . ”

They had walked for over two hours when, about the middle of a field of snow very difficult to climb, Bompard called out, quite terrified:—

“Tartarin, we are going up!

“Eh! parbleu! I know that well enough,” returned the P. C. A., almost losing his serenity.

“But according to my ideas, we ought to be going down.”

Be! yes! but how can I help it? Let’s go on to the top, at any rate; it may go down on the other side.”

It went down certainly — and terribly, by a succession of névés and glaciers, and quite at the end of this dazzling scene of dangerous whiteness a little hut was seen upon a rock at a depth which seemed to them unattainable. It was a haven that they must reach before nightfall, inasmuch as they had evidently lost the way to the Grands-Mulets, but at what cost! what efforts! what dangers, perhaps!

“Above all, don’t let go of me, Gonzague, qué!..”

“Nor you either, Tartarin.”

They exchanged these requests without seeing each other, being separated by a ridge behind which Tartarin disappeared, being in advance and beginning to descend, while the other was going up, slowly and in terror. They spoke no more, concentrating all their forces, fearful of a false step, a slip. Suddenly, when Bompard was within three feet of the crest, he heard a dreadful cry from his companion, and at the same instant, the rope tightened with a violent, irregular jerk . . . He tried to resist, to hold fast himself and save his friend from the abyss. But the rope was old, no doubt, for it parted, suddenly, under his efforts.

Outre!

Boufre!

The two cries crossed each other, awful, heartrending, echoing through the silence and solitude, then a frightful stillness, the stillness of death that nothing more could trouble in that waste of eternal snows.

Towards evening a man who vaguely resembled Bompard, a spectre with its hair on end, muddy, soaked, arrived at the inn of the Grands-Mulets, where they rubbed him, warmed him, and put him to bed, before he could utter other words than these — choked with tears, and his hands raised to heaven: “Tartarin . . . lost!.. broken rope . . . ” At last, however, they were able to make out the great misfortune which had happened.

While the old hut-man was lamenting and adding another chapter to the horrors of the mountain, hoping for fresh ossuary relics for his charnel glass-case, the Swedish youth and his guides, who had returned from their expedition, set off in search of the hapless Tartarin with ropes, ladders, in short a whole life-saving outfit, alas! unavailing . . . Bompard, rendered half idiotic, could give no precise indications as to the drama, nor as to the spot where it happened. They found nothing except, on the Dôme du Goûter, one piece of rope which was caught in a cleft of the ice. But that piece of rope, very singular thing! was cut at both ends, as with some sharp instrument; the Chambéry newspapers gave a facsimile of it, which proved the fact.

Finally, after eight days of the most conscientious search, and when the conviction became irresistible that the poor president would never be found, that he was lost beyond recall, the despairing delegates started for Tarascon, taking with them the unhappy Bompard, whose shaken brain was a visible result of the terrible shock.

“Do not talk to me about it,” he replied when questioned as to the accident, “never speak to me about it again!”

Undoubtedly the White Mountain could reckon one victim the more — and what a victim!

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