Tartarin on the Alps, by Alphonse Daudet

7.

The nights at Tarascon, Where is he? Anxiety. The grasshoppers on the promenade call for Tartarin. Martyrdom of a great Tarasconese saint. The Club of the Alpines. What was happening at the pharmacy. “Help! help! Bêzuquet!”

“A letter, Monsieur Bêzuquet!.. Comes from Switzerland, vé!.. Switzerland!” cried the postman joyously, from the other end of the little square, waving something in the air, and hurrying along in the coming darkness.

The apothecary, who took the air, as they say, of an evening before his door in his shirt-sleeves, gave a jump, seized the letter with feverish hands and carried it into his lair among the varied odours of elixirs and dried herbs, but did not open it till the postman had departed, refreshed by a glass of that delicious sirop de cadavre in recompense for what he brought.

Fifteen days had Bêzuquet expected it, this letter from Switzerland, fifteen days of agonized watching! And here it was. Merely from looking at the cramped and resolute little writing on the envelope, the postmark “Interlaken” and the broad purple stamp of the “Hôtel Jungfrau, kept by Meyer,” the tears filled his eyes, and the heavy moustache of the Barbary corsair through which whispered softly the idle whistle of a kindly soul, quivered.

Confidential. Destroy when read.“ Those words, written large at the head of the page, in the telegraphic style of the pharmacopoeia (“external use; shake before using”) troubled him to the point of making him read aloud, as one does in a bad dream: ”Fearful things are happening to me . . . ” In the salon beside the pharmacy where she was taking her little nap after supper, Mme. Bézuquet, mère, might hear him, or the pupil whose pestle was pounding its regular blows in the big marble mortar of the laboratory. Bézuquet continued his reading in a low voice, beginning it over again two or three times, very pale, his hair literally standing on end. Then, with a rapid look about him, cra cra . . . and the letter in a thousand scraps went into the waste-paper basket; but there it might be found, and pieced together, and as he was stooping to gather up the fragments a quavering voice called to him:

Vé! Ferdinand, are you there?” “Yes, mamma,” replied the unlucky corsair, curdling with fear, the whole of his long body on its hands and knees beneath the desk. “What are you doing, my treasure?” “I am . . . h’m, I am making Mile. Tournatoire’s eye-salve.”

Mamma went to sleep again, the pupil’s pestle, suspended for a moment, began once more its slow clock movement, while Bézuquet walked up and down before his door in the deserted little square, turning pink or green according as he passed before one or other of his bottles. From time to time he threw up his arms, uttering disjointed words: “Unhappy man!.. lost . . . fatal love . . . how can we extricate him?” and, in spite of his trouble of mind, accompanying with a lively whistle the bugle “taps” of a dragoon regiment echoing among the plane-trees of the Tour de Ville.

Hé! good night, Bézuquet,” said a shadow hurrying along in the ash-coloured twilight.

“Where are you going, Pégoulade?”

“To the Club, pardi!.. Night session . . . they are going to discuss Tartarin and the presidency . . . You ought to come.”

Té! yes, I ‘ll come . . . ” said the apothecary vehemently, a providential idea darting through his mind. He went in, put on his frock-coat, felt in its pocket to assure himself that his latchkey was there, and also the American tomahawk, without which no Tarasconese whatsoever would risk himself in the streets after “taps.” Then he called: “Pascalon!.. Pascalon!..” but not too loudly, for fear of waking the old lady.

Almost a child, though bald, wearing all his hair in his curly blond beard, Pascalon the pupil had the ardent soul of a partizan, a dome-like forehead, the eyes of crazy goat, and on his chubby cheeks the delicate tints of a shiny crusty Beaucaire roll. On all the grand Alpine excursions it was to him that the Club entrusted its banner, and his childish soul had vowed to the P. C. A. a fanatical worship, the burning, silent adoration of a taper consuming itself before an altar in the Easter season.

“Pascalon,” said the apothecary in a low voice, and so close to him that the bristle of his moustache pricked his ear. “I have news of Tartarin . . . It is heart-breaking . . . ”

Seeing him turn pale, he added:

“Courage, child! all can be repaired . . . Différemment I confide to you the pharmacy . . . If any one asks you for arsenic, don’t give it; opium, don’t give that either, nor rhubarb . . . don’t give anything. If I am not in by ten o’clock, lock the door and go to bed.”

With intrepid step, he plunged into the darkness, not once looking back, which allowed Pascalon to spring at the waste-paper basket, turn it over and over with feverish eager hands and finally tip out its contents on the leather of the desk to see if no scrap remained of the mysterious letter brought by the postman.

To those who know Tarasconese excitability, it is easy to imagine the frantic condition of the little town after Tartarin’s abrupt disappearance. Et autrement, pas moins, différemment, they lost their heads, all the more because it was the middle of August and their brains boiled in the sun till their skulls were fit to crack. From morning till night they talked of nothing else; that one name “Tartarin” alone was heard on the pinched lips of the elderly ladies in hoods, in the rosy mouths of grisettes, their hair tied up with velvet ribbons:

“Tartarin, Tartarin . . . ” Even among the plane-trees on the Promenade, heavy with white dust, distracted grasshoppers, vibrating in the sunlight, seemed to strangle with those two sonorous syllables: “Tar.. tar.. tar.. tar.. tar . . . ”

As no one knew anything, naturally every one was well-informed and gave explanations of the departure of the president. Extravagant versions appeared. According to some, he had entered La Trappe; he had eloped with the Dugazon; others declared he had gone to the Isles to found a colony to be called Port-Tarascon, or else to roam Central Africa in search of Livingstone.

“Ah! vaï! Livingstone!.. Why he has been dead these two years.”

But Tarasconese imagination defies all hints of time and space. And the curious thing is that these ideas of La Trappe, colonization, distant travel, were Tartarin’s own ideas, dreams of that sleeper awake, communicated in past days to his intimate friends, who now, not knowing what to think, and vexed in their hearts at not being duly informed, affected toward the public the greatest reserve and behaved to one another with a sly air of private understanding. Excourbaniès suspected Bravida of being in the secret; Bravida, on his side, thought: “Bézuquet knows the truth; he looks about him like a dog with a bone.”

True it was that the apothecary suffered a thousand deaths from this hair-shirt of a secret, which cut him, skinned him, turned him pale and red in the same minute and caused him to squint continually. Remember that he belonged to Tarascon, unfortunate man, and say if, in all martyrology, you can find so terrible a torture as this — the torture of Saint Bézuquet, who knew a secret and could not tell it.

This is why, on that particular evening, in spite of the terrifying news he had just received, his step had something, I hardly know what, freer, more buoyant, as he went to the session of the Club. Enfin!.. He was now to speak, to unbosom himself, to tell that which weighed so heavily upon him; and in his haste to unload his breast he cast a few half words as he went along to the loiterers on the Promenade. The day had been so hot, that in spite of the unusual hour (a quarter to eight on the clock of the town hall!) and the terrifying darkness, quite a crowd of reckless persons, bourgeois families getting the good of the air while that of their houses evaporated, bands of five or six sewing-women, rambling along in an undulating line of chatter and laughter, were abroad. In every group they were talking of Tartarin.

Et autrement, Monsieur Bézuquet, still no letter?” they asked of the apothecary, stopping him on his way.

“Yes, yes, my friends, yes, there is . . . Read the Forum to-morrow morning . . . ”

He hastened his steps, but they followed him, fastened on him, and along the Promenade rose a murmuring sound, the bleating of a flock, which gathered beneath the windows of the Club, left wide open in great squares of light.

The sessions were held in the bouillotte room, where the long table covered with green cloth served as a desk. At the centre, the presidential arm-chair, with P. C. A. embroidered on the back of it; at one end, humbly, the armless chair of the secretary. Behind, the banner of the Club, draped above a long glazed map in relief, on which the Alpines stood up with their respective names and altitudes. Alpenstocks of honour, inlaid with ivory, stacked like billiard cues, ornamented the corners, and a glass-case displayed curiosities, crystals, silex, petrifactions, two porcupines and a salamander, collected on the mountains.

In Tartarin’s absence, Costecalde, rejuvenated and radiant, occupied the presidential arm-chair; the armless chair was for Excourbaniès, who fulfilled the functions of secretary; but that devil of a man, frizzled, hairy, bearded, was incessantly in need of noise, motion, activity which hindered his sedentary employments. At the smallest pretext, he threw out his arms and legs, uttered fearful howls and “Ha! ha! has!” of ferocious, exuberant joy which always ended with a war-cry in the Tarasconese patois: ”Fen dé brut . . . let us make a noise “ . . . He was called “the gong” on account of his metallic voice, which cracked the ears of his friends with its ceaseless explosions.

Here and there, on a horsehair divan that ran round the room were the members of the committee.

In the first row, sat the former captain of equipment, Bravida, whom all Tarascon called the Commander; a very small man, clean as a new penny, who redeemed his childish figure by making himself as moustached and savage a head as Vercingétorix.

Next came the long, hollow, sickly face of Pégoulade, the collector, last survivor of the wreck of the “Medusa.” Within the memory of man, Tarascon has never been without a last survivor of the wreck of the “Medusa.” At one time they even numbered three, who treated one another mutually as impostors, and never con~ sented to meet in the same room. Of these three the only true one was Pégoulade. Setting sail with his parents on the “Medusa,” he met with the fatal disaster when six months old — which did not prevent him from relating the event, de visu, in its smallest details, famine, boats, raft, and how he had taken the captain, who was selfishly saving himself, by the throat: “To your duty, wretch!.. “At six months old, outre! . . . Wearisome, to tell the truth, with that eternal tale which everybody was sick of for the last fifty years; but he took it as a pretext to assume a melancholy air, detached from life: “After what I have seen!” he would say — very unjustly, because it was to that he owed his post as collector and kept it ‘under all administrations.

Near him sat the brothers Rognonas, twins and sexagenarians, who never parted, but always quarrelled and said the most monstrous things to each other; their two old heads, defaced, corroded, irregular, and ever looking in opposite directions out of antipathy, were so alike that they might have figured in a collection of coins with IANVS BIFRONS on the exergue.

Here and there, were Judge Bédaride, Barjavel the lawyer, the notary Cambalalette, and the terrible Doctor Tournatoire, of whom Bravida remarked that he could draw blood from a radish.

In consequence of the great heat, increased by the gas, these gentlemen held the session in their shirt-sleeves, which detracted much from the solemnity of the occasion. It is true that the meeting was a very small one; and the infamous Costecalde was anxious to profit by that circumstance to fix the earliest possible date for the elections without awaiting Tartarin’s return. Confident in this manoeuvre, he was enjoying his triumph in advance, and when, after the reading of the minutes by Excourbaniès, he rose to insinuate his scheme, an infernal smile curled up the corners of his thin lips.

“Distrust the man who smiles before he speaks,” murmured the Commander.

Costecalde, not flinching, and winking with one eye at the faithful Tournatoire, began in a spiteful voice:—

“Gentlemen, the extraordinary conduct of our president, the uncertainty in which he leaves us . . . ”

“False!.. The president has written . . . ”

Bézuquet, quivering, planted himself squarely before the table; but conscious that his attitude was anti-parliamentary, he changed his tone, and, raising one hand according to usage, he asked for the floor, to make an urgent communication.

“Speak! Speak!”

Costecalde, very yellow, his throat tightened, gave him the floor by a motion of his head. Then, and not till then, Bézuquet spoke:

“Tartarin is at the foot of the Jungfrau . . . he is about to make the ascent . . . he desires to take with him our banner . . . ”

Silence; broken by the heavy breathing of chests; then a loud hurrah, bravos, stamping of the feet, above which rose the gong of Excourbaniès uttering his war-cry “Ha! ha! ha! fen dé brut!“ to which the anxious crowd without responded.

Costecalde, getting more and more yellow, tinkled the presidential bell desperately. Bézuquet at last was allowed to continue, mopping his forehead and puffing as if he had just mounted five pairs of stairs.

Différemment, the banner that their president requested in order to plant it on virgin heights, should it be wrapped up, packed up, and sent by express like an ordinary trunk?..

“Never!.. Ah! ah! ah!..” roared Excourbaniès.

Would it not be better to appoint a delegation — draw lots for three members of the committee?..

He was not allowed to finish. The time to say zou! and Bézuquet’s proposition was voted by acclamation, and the names of three delegates drawn in the following order: 1, Bravida; 2, Pégoulade; 3, the apothecary.

No. 2, protested. The long journey frightened him, so feeble and ill as he was, péchèrel ever since that terrible event of the “Medusa.”

“I ‘ll go for you, Pégoulade,” roared Excour-baniès, telegraphing with all his limbs. As for Bézuquet, he could not leave the pharmacy, the safety of the town depended on him. One imprudence of the pupil, and all Tarascon might be poisoned, decimated:

Outre!“ cried the whole committee, agreeing as one man.

Certainly the apothecary could not go himself, but he could send Fascalon; Pascalon could take charge of the banner. That was his business. Thereupon, fresh exclamations, further explosions of the gong, and on the Promenade such a popular tempest that Excourbaniès was forced to show himself and address the crowd above its roarings, which his matchless voice soon mastered.

“My friends, Tartarin is found. He is about to cover himself with glory.”

Without adding more than “Vive Tartarin!” and his war-cry, given with all the force of his lungs, he stood for a moment enjoying the tremendous clamour of the crowd below, rolling and hustling confusedly in clouds of dust, while from the branches of the trees the grasshoppers added their queer little rattle as if it were broad day.

Hearing all this, Costecalde, who had gone to a window with the rest, returned, staggering, to his arm-chair.

Vé! Costecalde,” said some one. “What’s the matter with him?.. Look how yellow he is!”

They sprang to him; already the terrible Tournatoire had whipped out his lancet: but the gunsmith, writhing in distress, made a horrible grimace, and said ingenuously:

“Nothing . . . nothing . . . let me alone . . . I know what it is . . . it is envy.”

Poor Costecalde, he seemed to suffer much.

While these things were happening, at the other end of the Tour de Ville, in the pharmacy, Bézuquet’s pupil, seated before his master’s desk, was patiently patching and gumming together the fragments of Tartarin’s letter overlooked by the apothecary at the bottom of the basket. But numerous bits were lacking in the reconstruction, for here is the singular and sinister enigma spread out before him, not unlike a map of Central Africa, with voids and spaces of terra incognita, which the artless standard-bearer explored in a state of terrified imagination:

        mad with love reed
  -wick lam
              preserves of Chicago.
                      cannot tear myself
  Nihilist
          to death condition
      abom                in exchange
  for her
          You know me, Ferdi
  know my liberal ideas,
              but from there to tzaricide
        rrible consequences
  Siberia hung
                        adore her
  Ah! press thy loyal hand

  Tar Tar

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