Tartarin on the Alps, by Alphonse Daudet

3.

An alarm on the Rigi. “Keep cool! Keep cool!” The Alpine horn. What Tartarin saw, on awaking, in his looking-glass, Perplexity. A guide is ordered by telephone.

“Quès aco?.. Quî vive?” cried Tartarin, ears alert and eyes straining hard into the darkness.

Feet were running through the hotel, doors were slamming, breathless voices were crying: “Make haste! make haste!..” while without was ringing what seemed to be a trumpet-call, as flashes of flame illumined both panes and curtains.

Fire!..

At a bound he was out of bed, shod, clothed, and running headlong down the staircase, where the gas still burned and a rustling swarm of misses were descending, with hair put up in haste, and they themselves swathed in shawls and red woollen jackets, or anything else that came to hand as they jumped out of bed.

Tartarin, to fortify himself and also to reassure the young ladies, cried out, as he rushed on, hustling everybody: “Keep cool! Keep cool!” in the voice of a gull, pallid, distraught, one of those voices that we hear in dreams sending chills down the back of the bravest man. Now, can you understand those young misses, who laughed as they looked at him and seemed to think it very funny? Girls have no notion of danger, at that age!..

Happily, the old diplomatist came along behind them, very cursorily clothed in a top-coat below which appeared his white drawers with trailing ends of tape-string.

Here was a man, at last!..

Tartarin ran to him waving his arms: “Ah! Monsieur le baron, what a disaster!.. Do you know about it?.. Where is it?.. How did it take?..”

“Who? What?” stuttered the terrified baron, not understanding.

“Why, the fire . . . ”

“What fire?..”

The poor man’s countenance was so inexpressibly vacant and stupid that Tartarin abandoned him and rushed away abruptly to “organize help . . . ”

“Help!” repeated the baron, and after him four or five waiters, sound asleep on their feet in the antechamber, looked at one another completely bewildered and echoed, “Help!..”

At the first step that Tartarin made out-of-doors he saw his error. Not the slightest conflagration! Only savage cold, and pitchy darkness, scarcely lighted by the resinous torches that were being carried hither and thither, casting on the snow long, blood-coloured traces.

On the steps of the portico, a performer on the Alpine horn was bellowing his modulated moan, that monotonous rànz des vaches on three notes, with which the Rigi-Kulm is wont to waken the worshippers of the sun and announce to them the rising of their star.

It is said that it shows itself, sometimes, on rising, at the extreme top of the mountain behind the hotel. To get his bearings, Tartarin had only to follow the long peal of the misses’ laughter which now went past him. But he walked more slowly, still full of sleep and his legs heavy with his six hours’ climb.

“Is that you, Manilof?..” said a clear voice from the darkness, the voice of a woman. “Help me . . . I have lost my shoe.”

He recognized at once the foreign warble of his pretty little neighbour at the dinner-table, whose delicate silhouette he now saw in the first pale gleam of the coming sun.

“It is not Manilof, mademoiselle, but if I can be useful to you . . . ”

She gave a little cry of surprise and alarm as she made a recoiling gesture that Tartarin did not perceive, having already stooped to feel about the short and crackling grass around them.

Té, pardi! here it is!” he cried joyfully. He shook the dainty shoe which the snow had powdered, and putting a knee to earth, most gallantly in the snow and the dampness, he asked, for all reward, the honour of replacing it on Cinderella’s foot.

She, more repellent than in the tale, replied with a very curt “no;” and endeavoured, by hopping on one foot, to reinstate her silk stocking in its little bronze shoe; but in that she could never have succeeded without the help of the hero, who was greatly moved by feeling for an instant that delicate hand upon his shoulder.

“You have good eyes,” she said, by way of thanks as they now walked side by side, and feeling their way.

“The habit of watching for game, mademoiselle.”

“Ah! you are a sportsman?”

She said it with an incredulous, satirical, accent Tartarin had only to name himself in order to convince her, but, like the bearers of all illustrious names, he preferred discretion, coquetry. So, wishing to graduate the surprise, he answered:—

“I am a sportsman, efféctivemain.”

She continued in the same tone of irony:—

“And what game do you prefer to hunt?”

“The great carnivora, wild beasts . . . ” uttered Tartarin, thinking to dazzle her.

“Do you find many on the Rigi?”

Always gallant, and ready in reply, Tartarin was about to say that on the Rigi he had so far met none but gazelles, when his answer was suddenly cut short by the appearance of two shadows, who called out:—

“Sonia!.. Sonia!..”

“I’m coming,” she said, and turning to Tartarin, whose eyes, now accustomed to the darkness, could distinguish her pale and pretty face beneath her mantle, she added, this time seriously:—

“You have undertaken a dangerous enterprise, my good man . . . take care you do not leave your bones here.”

So saying, she instantly disappeared in the darkness with her companions.

Later, the threatening intonation that emphasized those words was fated to trouble the imagination of the Southerner; but now, he was simply vexed at the term “good man,” cast upon his elderly embonpoint, and also at the abrupt departure of the young girl just at the moment when he was about to name himself, and enjoy her stupefaction.

He made a few steps in the direction the group had taken, hearing a confused murmur, with coughs and sneezes, of the clustering tourists waiting impatiently for the rising of the sun, the most vigorous among them having climbed to a little belvedere, the steps of which, wadded with snow, could be whitely distinguished in the vanishing darkness.

A gleam was beginning to light the Orient, saluted by a fresh blast from the Alpine horn, and that “Ah!!” of relief, always heard in theatres when the third bell raises the curtain.

Slight as a ray through a shutter, this gleam, nevertheless, enlarged the horizon, but, at the same moment a fog, opaque and yellow, rose from the valley, a steam that grew more thick, more penetrating as the day advanced. ‘T was a veil between the scene and the spectators.

All hope was now renounced of the gigantic effects predicted in the guide-books. On the other hand, the heteroclite array of the dancers of the night before, torn from their slumbers, appeared in fantastic and ridiculous outline like the shades of a magic lantern; shawls, rugs, and even bed-quilts wrapped around them. Under varied headgear, nightcaps of silk or cotton, broad-brimmed female hats, turbans, fur caps with ear-pads, were haggard faces, swollen faces, heads of shipwrecked beings cast upon a desert island in mid-ocean, watching for a sail in the offing with staring eyes.

But nothing — everlastingly nothing!

Nevertheless, certain among them strove, in a gush of good-will, to distinguish the surrounding summits, and, on the top of the belvedere could be heard the clucking of the Peruvian family, pressing around a big devil, wrapped to his feet in a checked ulster, who was pointing out imperturbably, the invisible panorama of the Bernese Alps, naming in a loud voice the peaks that were lost in the fog.

“You see on the left the Finsteraarhorn, thirteen thousand seven hundred and ninety-five feet high . . . the Schreckhorn, the Wetterhorn, the Monk, the Jungfrau, the elegant proportions of which I especially point out to these young ladies . . . ”

Bé! vé! there’s one who does n’t lack cheek!” thought Tartarin; then, on reflection, he added: “I know that voice, au mouain.

He recognized the accent, that accent of the South, distinguishable from afar like garlic; but, quite preoccupied in finding again his fair Unknown, he did not pause, and continued to inspect the groups — without result. She must have reentered the hotel, as they all did now, weary with standing about, shivering, to no purpose, so that presently no one remained on the cold and desolate plateau of that gray dawn but Tartarin and the Alpine horn-player, who continued to blow a melancholy note through his huge instrument, like a dog baying the moon.

He was a short old man, with a long beard, wearing a Tyrolese hat adorned with green woollen tassels that hung down upon his back and, in letters of gold, the words (common to all the hats and caps in the service of the hotel) Regina Montium. Tartarin went up to give him a pourboire, as he had seen all the other tourists do. “Let us go to bed again, my old friend,” he said, tapping him on the shoulder with Tarasconese familiarity. “A fine humbug, qué! the sunrise on the Rigi.”

The old man continued to blow into his horn, concluding his ritornelle in three notes with a mute laugh that wrinkled the corners of his eyes and shook the green glands of his head-gear.

Tartarin, in spite of all, did not regret his night. That meeting with the pretty blonde repaid him for his loss of sleep, for, though nigh upon fifty, he still had a warm heart, a romantic imagination, a glowing hearthstone of life. Returning to bed, and shutting his eyes to make himself go to sleep, he fancied he felt in his hand that dainty little shoe, and heard again the gentle call of the fair young girl: “Is it you, Manilof?”

Sonia . . . what a pretty name!.. She was certainly Russian; and those young men were travelling with her; friends of her brother, no doubt.

Then all grew hazy; the pretty face in its golden curls joined the other floating visions — Rigi slopes, cascades like plumes of feathers — and soon the heroic breathing of the great man, sonorous and rhythmical, filled the little room and the greater part of the long corridor . . .

The next morning, before descending at the first gong for breakfast, Tartarin was about to make sure that his beard was well brushed, and that he himself did not look too badly in his Alpine costume, when, all of a sudden, he quivered. Before him, open, and gummed to his looking-glass by two wafers, was an anonymous letter, containing the following threats:—

Devil of a Frenchman, your queer old clothes do not conceal you. You are forgiven once more for this attempt; but if you cross our path again, beware!

Bewildered, he read this two or three times over without understanding it. Of whom, of what must he beware? How came that letter there? Evidently during his sleep; for he did not see it on returning from his auroral promenade. He rang for the maid on duty; a fat, white face, all pitted with the small-pox, a perfect gruyère cheese, from which nothing intelligible could be drawn, except that she was of “bon famille,” and never entered the rooms of the gentlemen unless they were there.

“A queer thing, au mouain,” thought Tartarin, turning and returning the letter, and much impressed by it. For a moment the name of Coste-calde crossed his mind — Costecalde, informed of his projects of ascension, and endeavouring to prevent them by manoeuvres and threats. On reflection, this appeared to him unlikely, and he ended by persuading himself that the letter was a joke . . . perhaps those little misses who had laughed at him so heartily . . . they are so free, those English and American young girls!

The second breakfast gong sounded. He put the letter in his pocket: “After all, we’ll soon see . . . ” and the formidable grimace with which he accompanied that reflection showed the heroism of his soul.

Fresh surprise when he sat down to table. Instead of his pretty neighbour, “whom Love had curled with gold,” he perceived the vulture throat of an old Englishwoman, whose long lappets swept the cloth. It was rumoured about him that the young lady and her companions had left the hotel by one of the early morning trains.

“’Cri nom! I’m fooled . . . ” exclaimed aloud the Italian tenor, who, the evening before, had so rudely signified to Tartarin that he could not speak French. He must have learned it in a single night! The tenor rose, threw down his napkin, and hurried away, leaving the Southerner completely nonplussed.

Of all the guests of the night before, none now remained but himself. That is always so on the Rigi-Kulm; no one stays there more than twenty-four hours. In other respects the scene was invariably the same; the compote-dishes in files divided the factions. But on this particular morning the Rices triumphed by a great majority, reinforced by certain illustrious personages, and the Prunes did not, as they say, have it all their own way.

Tartarin, without taking sides with one or the other, went up to his room before the dessert, buckled his bag, and asked for his bill. He had had enough of Regina Montium and its dreary table d’hôte of deaf mutes.

Abruptly recalled to his Alpine madness by the touch of his ice-axe, his crampons, and the rope in which he rewound himself, he burned to attack a real mountain, a summit deprived of a lift and a photographer. He hesitated between the Finsteraarhorn, as being the highest, and the Jungfrau, whose pretty name of virginal whiteness made him think more than once of the little Russian.

Ruminating on these alternatives while they made out his bill, he amused himself in the vast, lugubrious, silent hall of the hotel by looking at the coloured photographs hanging to the walls, representing glaciers, snowy slopes, famous and perilous mountain passes: here, were ascensionists in file, like ants on a quest, creeping along an icy arête sharply defined and blue; farther on was a deep crevasse, with glaucous sides, over which was thrown a ladder, and a lady crossing it on her knees, with an abbé after her raising his cassock.

The Alpinist of Tarascon, both hands on his ice-axe, had never, as yet, had an idea of such difficulties; he would have to meet them, pas mouain!..

Suddenly he paled fearfully.

In a black frame, an engraving from the famous drawing of Gustave Doré, reproducing the catastrophe on the Matterhorn, met his eye. Four human bodies on the flat of their backs or stomachs were coming headlong down the almost perpendicular slope of a névé, with extended arms and clutching hands, seeking the broken rope which held this string of lives, and only served to drag them down to death in the gulf where the mass was to fall pell-mell, with ropes, axes, veils, and all the gay outfit of Alpine ascension, grown suddenly tragic.

“Awful!” cried Tartarin, speaking aloud in his horror.

A very civil maître d’hôtel heard the exclamation, and thought best to reassure him. Accidents of that nature, he said, were becoming very rare: the essential thing was to commit no imprudence and, above all, to procure good guides.

Tartarin asked if he could be told of one there, “with confidence . . . ” Not that he himself had any fear, but it was always best to have a sure man.

The waiter reflected, with an important air, twirling his moustache. “With confidence?.. Ah! if monsieur had only spoken sooner; we had a man here this morning who was just the thing . . . the courier of that Peruvian family . . . ”

“He understands the mountain?” said Tartarin, with a knowing air.

“Oh, yes, monsieur, all the mountains, in Switzerland, Savoie, Tyrol, India, in fact, the whole world; he has done them all, he knows them all, he can tell you all about them, and that’s something!.. I think he might easily be induced . . . With a man like that a child could go anywhere without danger.”

“Where is he? How could I find him?”

“At the Kaltbad, monsieur, preparing the rooms for his party . . . I could telephone to him.”

A telephone! on the Rigi!

That was the climax. But Tartarin could no longer be amazed.

Five minutes later the man returned bringing an answer.

The courier of the Peruvian party had just started for the Tellsplatte, where he would certainly pass the night.

The Tellsplatte is a memorial chapel, to which pilgrimages are made in honour of William Tell. Some persons go there to see the mural pictures which a famous painter of Bâle has lately executed in the chapel . . .

As it only took by boat an hour or an hour and a half to reach the place, Tartarin did not hesitate. It would make him lose a day, but he owed it to himself to render that homage to William Tell, for whom he had always felt a peculiar predilection. And, besides, what a chance if he could there pick up this marvellous guide and induce him to do the Jungfrau with him.

Forward, zou!

He paid his bill, in which the setting and the rising sun were reckoned as extras, also the candles and the attendance. Then, still preceded by the rattle of his metals, which sowed surprise and terror on his way, he went to the railway station, because to descend the Rigi as he had ascended it, on foot, would have been lost time, and, really, it was doing too much honour to that very artificial mountain.

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