Tartarin on the Alps, by Alphonse Daudet

8.

Memorable dialogue between the jungfrau and Tartarin. A nihilist salon. The duel with hunting-knives. Frightful nightmare, “Is it I you are seeking, messieurs?” Strange reception given by the hotel-keeper Meyer to the Tarasconese delegation.

Like all the other choice hotels at Interlaken, the Hôtel Jungfrau, kept by Meyer, is situated on the Höheweg, a wide promenade between double rows of chestnut-trees that vaguely reminded Tar-tarin of the beloved Tour de Ville of his native town, minus the sun, the grasshoppers, and the dust; for during his week’s sojourn at Interlaken the rain had never ceased to fall.

He occupied a very fine chamber with a balcony on the first floor, and trimmed his beard in the morning before a little hand-glass hanging to the window, an old habit of his when travelling. The first object that daily struck his eyes beyond the fields of grass and corn, the nursery gardens, and an amphitheatre of solemn verdure in rising stages, was the Jungfrau, lifting from the clouds her summit, like a horn, white and pure with unbroken snow, to which was daily clinging a furtive ray of the still invisible rising sun. Then between the white and rosy Alp and the Alpinist a little dialogue took place regularly, which was not without its grandeur.

“Tartarin, are you coming?” asked the Jung-frau sternly.

“Here, here . . . ” replied the hero, his thumb under his nose and finishing his beard as fast as possible. Then he would hastily take down his ascensionist outfit and, swearing at himself, put it on.

Coquin de sort! there’s no name for it . . . ”

But a soft voice rose, demure and clear among the myrtles in the border beneath his window.

“Good-morning,” said Sonia, as he appeared upon the balcony, “the landau is ready . . . Come, make haste, lazy man . . . ”

“I ‘m coming, I ‘m coming . . . ”

In a trice he had changed his thick flannel shirt for linen of the finest quality, his mountain knickerbockers for a suit of serpent-green that turned the heads of all the women in Tarascon at the Sunday concerts.

The horses of the landau were pawing before the door; Sonia was already installed beside Boris, paler, more emaciated day by day in spite of the beneficent climate of Interlaken. But, regularly, at the moment of starting, Tartarin was fated to see two forms arise from a bench on the promenade and approach him with the heavy rolling step of mountain bears; these were Rodolphe Kaufmann and Christian Inebnit, two famous Grindelwald guides, engaged by Tartarin for the ascension of the Jungfrau, who came every morning to ascertain if their monsieur were ready to start.

The apparition of these two men, in their iron-clamped shoes and fustian jackets worn threadbare on the back and shoulder by knapsacks and ropes, their naïve and serious faces, and the four words of French which they managed to splutter as they twisted their broad-brimmed hats, were a positive torture to Tartarin. In vain he said to them: “Don’t trouble yourselves to come; I ‘ll send for you . . . ”

Every day he found them in the same place and got rid of them by a large coin proportioned to the enormity of his remorse. Enchanted with this method of “doing the Jungfrau,” the mountaineers pocketed their trinkgeld gravely, and took, with resigned step, the path to their native village, leaving Tartarin confused and despairing at his own weakness. Then the broad open air, the flowering plains reflected in the limpid pupils of Sonia’s eyes, the touch of her little foot against his boot in the carriage . . . The devil take that Jungfrau! The hero thought only of his love, or rather of the mission he had given himself to bring back into the right path that poor little Sonia, so unconsciously criminal, cast by sisterly devotion outside of the law, and outside of human nature.

This was the motive that kept him at Interlaken, in the same hotel as the Wassiliefs. At his age, with his air of a good papa, he certainly could not dream of making that poor child love him, but he saw her so sweet, so brave, so generous to all the unfortunates of her party, so devoted to that brother whom the mines of Siberia had sent back to her, his body eaten with ulcers, poisoned with verdigris, and he himself condemned to death by phthisis more surely than by any court. There was enough in all that to touch a man!

Tartarin proposed to take them to Tarascon and settle them in a villa full of sun at the gates of the town, that good little town where it never rains and where life is spent in fêtes and song. And with that he grew excited, rattled a tambourine air on the crown of his hat, and trolled out the gay native chorus of the farandole dance:

Lagadigadeoù

La Tarasque, la Tarasque,

Lagadigadeoù

La Tarasque de Casteoù.

But while a satirical smile pinched still closer the lips of the sick man, Sonia shook her head. Neither fêtes nor sun for her so long as the Russians groaned beneath the yoke of the tyrant. As soon as her brother was well — her despairing eyes said another thing — nothing could prevent her from returning up there to suffer and die in the sacred cause.

“But, coquin de bon sort!“ cried Tartarin, “if you blow up one tyrant there ‘ll come another . . . You will have it all to do over again . . . And the years will go by, vé! the days for happiness and love . . . ” His way of saying love —amour—à la Tarasconese, with three r’s in it and his eyes starting out of his head, amused the young girl; then, serious once more, she declared she would never love any man but the one who delivered her country. Yes, that man, were he as ugly as Bolibine, more rustic and common than Manilof, she was ready to give herself wholly to him, to live at his side, a free gift, as long as her youth lasted and the man wished for her.

“Free gift!” the term used by Nihilists to express those illegal unions they contract among themselves by reciprocal consent. And of such primitive marriage Sonia spoke tranquilly with her virgin air before the Tarasconese, who, worthy bourgeois, peaceful elector, was now ready to spend his days beside that adorable girl in the said state of “free gift” if she had not added those murderous and abominable conditions.

While they were conversing of these extremely delicate matters, the fields, the lakes, the forests, the mountains lay spread before them, and always at each new turn, through the cool mist of that perpetual shower which accompanied our hero on all his excursions, the Jungfrau raised her white crest, as if to poison by remorse those delicious hours. They returned to breakfast at a vast table d’hôte where the Rices and Prunes continued their silent hostilities, to which Tartarin was wholly indifferent, seated by Sonia, watching that Boris had no open window at his back, assiduous, paternal, exhibiting all his seductions as man of the world and his domestic qualities as an excellent cabbage-rabbit.

After this, he took tea with the Russians in their little salon opening on a tiny garden at the end of the terrace. Another exquisite hour for Tartarin of intimate chat in a low voice while Boris slept on a sofa. The hot water bubbled in the samovar; a perfume of moist flowers slipped through the half-opened door with the blue reflection of the solanums that were clustering about it. A little more sun, more warmth, and here was his dream realized, his pretty Russian installed beside him, taking care of the garden of the baobab.

Suddenly Sonia gave a jump.

“Two o’clock!.. And the letters?”

“I’m going for them,” said the good Tartarin, and, merely from the tones of his voice and the resolute, theatrical gesture with which he buttoned his coat and seized his cane, any one would have guessed the gravity of the action, apparently so simple, of going to the post-office to fetch the Wassilief letters.

Closely watched by the local authorities and the Russian police, all Nihilists, but especially their leaders, are compelled to take certain precautions, such as having their letters and papers addressed poste restante to simple initials.

Since their installation at Interlaken, Boris being scarcely able to drag himself about, Tartarin, to spare Sonia the annoyance of waiting in line before the post-office wicket exposed to inquisitive eyes, had taken upon himself the risks and perils of this daily nuisance. The post-office is not more than ten minutes’ walk from the hotel, in a wide and noisy street at the end of a promenade lined with cafés, breweries, shops for the tourists displaying alpenstocks, gaiters, straps, opera-glasses, smoked glasses, flasks, travelling-bags, all of which articles seemed placed there expressly to shame the renegade Alpinist. Tourists were defiling in caravans, with horses, guides, mules, veils green and blue, and a tintinnabulation of canteens as the animals ambled, the ice-picks marking each step on the cobble-stones. But this festive scene, hourly renewed, left Tartarin indifferent. He never even felt the fresh north wind with a touch of snow coming in gusts from the mountains, so intent was he on baffling the spies whom he supposed to be upon his traces.

The foremost soldier of a vanguard, the sharpshooter skirting the walls of an enemy’s town, never advanced with more mistrust than the Taras-conese hero while crossing the short distance between the hotel and the post-office. At the slightest heel-tap sounding behind his own, he stopped, looked attentively at the photographs in the windows, or fingered an English or German book lying on a stall, to oblige the police spy to pass him. Or else he turned suddenly round, to stare with ferocious eyes at a stout servant-girl going to market, or some harmless tourist, a table d’hôte Prune, who, taking him for a madman, turned off, alarmed, from the sidewalk to avoid him.

When he reached the office, where the wickets open, rather oddly, into the street itself, Tartarin passed and repassed, to observe the surrounding physiognomies before he himself approached: then, suddenly darting forward, he inserted his whole head and shoulders into the opening, muttered a few indistinct syllables (which they always made him repeat, to his great despair), and, possessor at last of the mysterious trust, he returned to the hotel by a great détour on the kitchen side, his hand in his pocket clutching the package of letters and papers, prepared to tear up and swallow everything at the first alarm.

Manilof and Bolibine were usually awaiting his return with the Wassiliefs. They did not lodge in the hotel, out of prudence and economy. Bolibine had found work in a printing-office, and Manilof, a very clever cabinetmaker, was employed by a builder. Tartarin did not like them: one annoyed him by his grimaces and his jeering airs; the other kept looking at him savagely. Besides, they took too much space in Sonia’s heart.

“He is a hero!” she said of Bolibine; and she told how for three years he had printed all alone, in the very heart of St. Petersburg, a revolutionary paper. Three years without ever leaving his upper room, or showing himself at a window, sleeping at night in a great cupboard built in the wall, where the woman who lodged him locked him up till morning with his clandestine press.

And then, that life of Manilof, spent for six months in the subterranean passages beneath the Winter Palace, watching his opportunity, sleeping at night on his provision of dynamite, which resulted in giving him frightful headaches, and nervous troubles; all this, aggravated by perpetual anxiety, sudden irruptions of the police, vaguely informed that something was plotting, and coming, suddenly and unexpectedly, to surprise the workmen employed at the Palace. On one of the rare occasions when Manilof came out of the mine, he met on the Place de l’Amirauté a delegate of the Revolutionary Committee, who asked him in a low voice, as he walked along:

“Is it finished?”

“No, not yet . . . ” said the other, scarcely moving his lips. At last, on an evening in February, to the same question in the same words he answered, with the greatest calmness:

“It is finished . . . ”

And almost immediately a horrible uproar confirmed his words, all the lights of the palace went out suddenly, the place was plunged into complete obscurity, rent by cries of agony and terror, the blowing of bugles, the galloping of soldiers, and firemen tearing along with their trucks.

Here Sonia interrupted her tale:

“Is it not horrible, so many human lives sacrificed, such efforts, such courage, such wasted intelligence?.. No, no, it is a bad means, these butcheries in the mass . . . He who should be killed always escapes . . . The true way, the most humane, would be to seek the czar himself as you seek the lion, fully determined, fully armed, post yourself at a window or the door of a carriage . . . and, when he passes. . . . .”

Bé! yes, certainemain . . . ” responded Tartarin embarrassed, and pretending not to seize her meaning; then, suddenly, he would launch into a philosophical, humanitarian discussion with one of the numerous assistants. For Bolibine and Manilof were not the only visitors to the Wassiliefs. Every day new faces appeared of young people, men or women, with the cut of poor students; elated teachers, blond and rosy, with the self-willed forehead and the childlike ferocity of Sonia; outlawed exiles, some of them already condemned to death, which lessened in no way their youthful expansiveness.

They laughed, they talked openly, and as most of them spoke French, Tartarin was soon at his ease. They called him “uncle,” conscious of something childlike and artless about him that they liked. Perhaps he was over-ready with his hunting tales; turning up his sleeve to his biceps in order to show the scar of a blow from a panther’s claws, or making his hearers feel beneath his beard the holes left there by the fangs of a lion; perhaps also he became too rapidly familiar with these persons, catching them round the waist, leaning on their shoulders, calling them by their Christian names after five minutes’ intercourse:

“Listen, Dmitri . . . ” “You know me, Fédor Ivanovich . . . ” They knew him only since yesterday, in any case; but they liked him all the same for his jovial frankness, his amiable, trustful air, and his readiness to please. They read their letters before him, planned their plots, and told their passwords to foil the police: a whole atmosphere of conspiracy which amused the imagination of the Tarasconese hero immensely: so that, however opposed by nature to acts of violence, he could not help, at times, discussing their homicidal plans, approving, criticising, and giving advice dictated by the experience of a great leader who has trod the path of war, trained to the handling of all weapons, and to hand-to-hand conflicts with wild beasts.

One day, when they told in his presence of the murder of a policeman, stabbed by a Nihilist at the theatre, Tartarin showed them how badly the blow had been struck, and gave them a lesson in knifing.

“Like this, vé! from the top down. Then there’s no risk of wounding yourself . . . ”

And, excited by his own imitation:

“Let’s suppose, té! that I hold your despot between four eyes in a boar-hunt He is over there, where you are, Fédor, and I’m here, near this round table, each of us with our hunting-knife . . . Come on, monseigneur, we ‘ll have it out now . . . ”

Planting himself in the middle of the salon, gathering his sturdy legs under him for a spring, and snorting like a woodchopper, he mimicked a real fight, ending by his cry of triumph as he plunged the weapon to the hilt, from the top down, coquin de sort! into the bowels of his adversary.

“That’s how it ought to be done, my little fellows!”

But what subsequent remorse! what anguish when, escaping from the magnetism of Sonia’s blue eyes, he found himself alone, in his nightcap, alone with his reflections and his nightly glass of eau sucrée!

Différemment, what was he meddling with? The czar was not his czar, decidedly, and all these matters didn’t concern him in the least . . . And don’t you see that some of these days he would be captured, extradited and delivered over to Muscovite justice . . . Boufre! they don’t joke, those Cossacks . . . And in the obscurity of his hotel chamber, with that horrible imaginative faculty which the horizontal position increases, there developed before him — like one of those unfolding pictures given to him in childhood — the various and terrible punishments to which he should be subjected: Tartarin in the verdigris mines, like Boris, working in water to his belly, his body ulcerated, poisoned. He escapes, he hides amid forests laden with snow, pursued by Tartars and bloodhounds trained to hunt men. Exhausted with cold and hunger, he is retaken and finally hung between two thieves, embraced by a pope with greasy hair smelling of brandy and seal-oil; while away down there, at Tarascon in the sunshine, the band playing of a fine Sunday, the crowd, the ungrateful crowd, are installing a radiant Costecalde in the chair of the P. C. A.

It was during the agony of one of these dreadful dreams that he uttered his cry of distress, “Help, help, Bézuquet!” and sent to the apothecary that confidential letter, all moist with the sweat of his nightmare. But Sonia’s pretty “Good morning” beneath his window sufficed to cast him back into the weaknesses of indecision.

One evening, returning from the Kursaal to the hotel with the Wassiliefs and Bolibine, after two hours of intoxicating music, the unfortunate man forgot all prudence, and the “Sonia, I love you,” which he had so long restrained, was uttered as he pressed the arm that rested on his own. She was not agitated. Perfectly pale, she gazed at him under the gas of the portico on which they had paused: “Then deserve me . . . ” she said, with a pretty enigmatical smile, a smile that gleamed upon her delicate white teeth. Tartarin was about to reply, to bind himself by an oath to some criminal madness when the porter of the hotel came up to him:

“There are persons waiting for you, upstairs . . . some gentlemen . . . They want you.”

“Want me!.. Outre!.. What for?” And No. 1 of his folding series appeared before him: Tartarin captured, extradited . . . Of course he was frightened, but his attitude was heroic. Quickly detaching himself from Sonia: “Fly, save yourself!” he said to her in a smothered voice. Then he mounted the stairs as if to the scaffold, his head high, his eyes proud, but so disturbed in mind that he was forced to cling to the baluster.

As he entered the corridor, he saw persons grouped at the farther end of it before his door, looking through the keyhole, rapping, and calling out: “Hey! Tartarin . . . ”

He made two steps forward, and said, with parched lips: “Is it I whom you are seeking, messieurs?”

Te! pardi, yes, my president!.”

And a little old man, alert and wiry, dressed in gray, and apparently bringing on his coat, his hat, his gaiters and his long and pendent moustache all the dust of his native town, fell upon the neck of the hero and rubbed against his smooth fat cheeks the withered leathery skin of the retired captain of equipment.

“Bravida!.. not possible!.. Excourbaniès too!.. and who is that over there?..”

A bleating answered: “Dear ma-a-aster!..” and the pupil advanced, banging against the wall a sort of long fishing-rod with a packet at one end wrapped in gray paper, and oilcloth tied round it with string.

“Hey! vè! why it’s Pascalon . . . Embrace me, little one . . . What’s that you are carrying?.. Put it down . . . ”

“The paper . . . take off the paper!..” whispered Bravida. The youth undid the roll with a rapid hand and the Tarasconese banner was displayed to the eyes of the amazed Tartarin.

The delegates took off their hats.

“President”— the voice of Bravida trembled solemnly —“you asked for the banner and we have brought it, té!

The president opened a pair of eyes as round as apples: “I! I asked for it?”

“What! you did not ask for it? Bézuquet said so.

“Yes, yes, certainemain . . . ” said Tartarin, suddenly enlightened by the mention of Bézuquet. He understood all and guessed the rest, and, tenderly moved by the ingenious lie of the apothecary to recall him to a sense of duty and honour, he choked, and stammered in his short beard: “Ah! my children, how kind you are! What good you have done me!”

Vive le présidain!“ yelped Pascalon, brandishing the oriflamme. Excourbaniès’ gong responded, rolling its war-cry (” Ha! ha! ha! fen dé brut..") to the very cellars of the hotel. Doors opened, inquisitive heads protruded on every floor and then disappeared, alarmed, before that standard and the dark and hairy men who were roaring singular words and tossing their arms in the air. Never had the peaceable Hôtel Jungfrau been subjected to such a racket.

“Come into my room,” said Tartarin, rather disconcerted. He was feeling about in the darkness to find matches when an authoritative rap on the door made it open of itself to admit the consequential, yellow, and puffy face of the innkeeper Meyer. He was about to enter, but stopped short before the darkness of the room, and said with closed teeth:

“Try to keep quiet . . . or I ‘ll have you taken up by the police . . . ”

A grunt as of wild bulls issued from the shadow at that brutal term “taken up.” The hotel-keeper recoiled one step, but added: “It is known who you are; they have their eye upon you; for my part, I don’t want any more such persons in my house!..”

“Monsieur Meyer,” said Tartarin, gently, politely, but very firmly . . . “Send me my bill . . . These gentlemen and myself start to-morrow morning for the Jungfrau.”

O native soil! O little country within a great one! by only hearing the Tarasconese accent, quivering still with the air of that beloved land beneath the azure folds of its banner, behold Tartarin, delivered from love and its snares and restored to his friends, his mission, his glory.

And now, zou!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/daudet/alphonse/tartarin-on-the-alps/chapter8.html

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