Tartarin on the Alps, by Alphonse Daudet

9.

At the “Faithful Chamois.”

The next day it was charming, that trip on foot from Interlaken to Grindelwald, where they were, in passing, to take guides for the Little Scheideck; charming, that triumphal march of the P. C. A., restored to his trappings and mountain habiliments, leaning on one side on the lean little shoulder of Commander Bravida, and on the other, the robust arm of Excourbaniès, proud, both of them, to be nearest to him, to support their dear president, to carry his ice-axe, his knapsack, his alpenstock, while sometimes before, sometimes behind or on their flanks the fanatical Pascalon gambolled like a puppy, his banner duly rolled up into a package to avoid the tumultuous scenes of the night before.

The gayety of his companions, the sense of duty accomplished, the Jungfrau all white upon the sky, over there, like a vapour — nothing short of all this could have made the hero forget what he left behind him, for ever and ever it may be, and without farewell. However, at the last houses of Interlaken his eyelids swelled and, still walking on, he poured out his feelings in turn into the bosom of Excourbanîès: “Listen, Spiridion,” or that of Bravida: “You know me, Placide . . . ” For, by an irony on nature, that indomitable warrior was called Placide, and that rough buffalo, with all his instincts material, Spiridion.

Unhappily, the Tarasconese race, more gallant than sentimental, never takes its love-affairs very seriously. “Whoso loses a woman and ten sous, is to be pitied about the money . . . ” replied the sententious Placide to Tartarin’s tale, and Spiridion thought exactly like him. As for the innocent Pascalon, he was horribly afraid of women, and reddened to the ears when the name of the Little Scheideck was uttered before him, thinking some lady of flimsy morals was referred to. The poor lover was therefore reduced to keep his confidences to himself, and console himself alone — which, after all, is the surest way.

But what grief could have resisted the attractions of the way through that narrow, deep and sombre valley, where they walked on the banks of a winding river all white with foam, rumbling with an echo like thunder among the pine-woods which skirted both its shores.

The Tarasconese delegation, their heads in the air, advanced with a sort of religious awe and admiration, like the comrades of Sinbad the Sailor when they stood before the mangoes, the cotton-trees, and all the giant flora of the Indian coasts. Knowing nothing but their own little bald and stony mountains they had never imagined there could be so many trees together or such tall ones.

“That is nothing, as yet . . . wait till you see the Jungfrau,” said the P. C. A., who enjoyed their amazement and felt himself magnified in their eyes.

At the same time, as if to brighten the scene and humanize its solemn note, cavalcades went by them, great landaus going at full speed, with veils floating from the doorways where curious heads leaned out to look at the delegation pressing round its president. From point to point along the roadside were booths spread with knick-knacks of carved wood, while young girls, stiff in their laced bodices, their striped skirts and broad-brimmed straw hats, were offering bunches of strawberries and edelweiss. Occasionally, an Alpine horn sent among the mountains its melancholy ritornello, swelling, echoing from gorge to gorge, and slowly diminishing, like a cloud that dissolves into vapour.

“‘T is fine, ‘t is like an organ,” murmured Pascalon, his eyes moist, in ecstasy, like the stained-glass saint of a church window. Excourbaniès roared, undiscouraged, and the echoes repeated, till sight and sound were lost, his Tarasconese intonations: “Ha! ha! ha! fen dé brut!

But people grow weary after marching for two hours through the same sort of decorative scene, however well it may be organized, green on blue, glaciers in the distance, and all things sonorous as a musical clock. The dash of the torrents, the singers in triplets, the sellers of carved objects, the little flower-girls, soon became intolerable to our friends — above all, the dampness, the steam rising in this species of tunnel, the soaked soil full of water-plants, where never had the sun penetrated.

“It is enough to give one a pleurisy,” said Bravida, turning up the collar of his coat. Then weariness set in, hunger, ill-humour. They could find no inn; and presently Excourbaniès and Bravida, having stuffed themselves with strawberries, began to suffer cruelly. Pascalon himself, that angel, bearing not only the banner, but the ice-axe, the knapsack, the alpenstock, of which the others had rid themselves basely upon him, even Pascalon had lost his gayety and ceased his lively gambolling.

At a turn of the road, after they had just crossed the Lutschine by one of those covered bridges that are found in regions of deep snow, a loud blast on a horn greeted them.

“Ah! vaï, enough!.. enough!” howled the exasperated delegation.

The man, a giant, ensconced by the roadside, let go an enormous trumpet of pine wood reaching to the ground and ending there in a percussion-box, which gave to this prehistoric instrument the sonorousness of a piece of artillery.

“Ask him if he knows of an inn,” said the president to Excourbaniès, who, with enormous cheek and a small pocket dictionary undertook, now that they were in German Switzerland, to serve the delegation as interpreter. But before he could pull out his dictionary the man replied in very good French:

“An inn, messieurs? Why certainly . . . The ‘Faithful Chamois’ is close by; allow me to show you the place.”

On the way, he told them he had lived in Paris for several years, as commissionnaire at the corner of the rue Vivienne.

“Another employé of the Company, parbleu!“ thought Tartarin, leaving his friends to be surprised. However, Bompard’s comrade was very useful, for, in spite of its French sign, Le Chamois Fidèle the people of the “Faithful Chamois” could speak nothing but a horrible German patois.

Presently, the Tarasconese delegation, seated around an enormous potato omelet, recovered both the health and the good-humour as essential to Southerners as the sun of their skies. They drank deep, they ate solidly. After many toasts to the president and his coming ascension, Tartarin, who had puzzled over the tavern-sign ever since his arrival, inquired of the horn-player, who was breaking a crust in a corner of the room:

“So you have chamois here, it seems?.. I thought there were none left in Switzerland.”

The man winked:

“There are not many, but enough to let you see them now and then.”

“Shoot them, is what he wants, “ said Pas-calon, full of enthusiasm; “never did the president miss a shot!”

Tartarin regretted that he had not brought his carbine.

“Wait a minute, and I ‘ll speak to the landlord.”

It so happened that the landlord was an old chamois hunter; he offered his gun, his powder, his buck-shot, and even himself as guide to a haunt he knew.

“Forward, zou!“ cried Tartarin, granting to his happy Alpinists the opportunity to show off the prowess of their chief. It was only a slight delay, after all; the Jungfrau lost nothing by waiting.

Leaving the inn at the back, they had only to walk through an orchard, no bigger than the garden of a station-master, before they found themselves on a mountain, gashed with great crevasses, among the fir-trees and underbrush.

The innkeeper took the advance, and the Taras-conese presently saw him far up the height, waving his arms and throwing stones, no doubt to rouse the chamois. They rejoined him with much pain and difficulty over that rocky slope, hard especially to persons who had just been eating and were as little used to climbing as these good Alpinists of Tarascon. The air was heavy, moreover, with a tempest breath that was slowly rolling the clouds along the summits above their heads.

Boufre!“ groaned Bravida.

Excourbaniès growled: ”Outre!

“What shall I be made to say!” added the gentle, bleating Pascalon.

But the guide having, by a violent gesture, ordered them to hold their tongues, and not to stir, Tartarin remarked, “Never speak under arms,” with a sternness that rebuked every one, although the president alone had a weapon. They stood stock still, holding their breaths. Suddenly, Pas-calon cried out:

the chamois, ..”

About three hundred feet above them, the upright horns, the light buff coat and the four feet gathered together of the pretty creature stood defined like a carved image at the edge of the rock, looking at them fearlessly. Tartarin brought his piece to his shoulder methodically, as his habit was, and was just about to fire when the chamois disappeared.

“It is your fault,” said the Commander to Pascalon . . . “you whistled . . . and that frightened him.”

“I whistled!.. I?”

“Then it was Spiridion . . . ”

“Ah, vaï! never in my life.”

Nevertheless, they had all heard a whistle, strident, prolonged. The president settled the question by relating how the chamois, at the approach of enemies, gives a sharp danger signal through the nostrils. That devil of a Tartarin knew everything about this kind of hunt, as about all others!

At the call of their guide they started again; but the acclivity became steeper and steeper, the rocks more ragged, with bogs between them to right and left. Tartarin kept the lead, turning constantly to help the delegates, holding out his hand or his carbine: “Your hand, your hand, if you don’t mind,” cried honest Bravida, who was very much afraid of loaded weapons.

Another sign of the guide, another stop of the delegation, their noses in the air.

“I felt a drop!” murmured the Commander, very uneasy. At the same instant the thunder growled, but louder than the thunder roared the voice of Excourbaniès: “Fire, Tartarin!” and the chamois bounded past them, crossing the ravine like a golden flash, too quickly for Tartarin to take aim, but not so fast that they did not hear that whistle of his nostrils.

“I ‘ll have him yet, coquin de sort!“ cried the president, but the delegates protested. Excourbaniès, becoming suddenly very sour, demanded if he had sworn to exterminate them.

“Dear ma-a-aster,” bleated Pascalon, timidly, “I have heard say that chamois if you corner them in abysses turn at bay against the hunter and are very dangerous.”

“Then don’t let us corner him!” said Bravida hastily.

Tartarin called them milksops. But while they were arguing, suddenly, abruptly, they all disappeared from one another’s gaze in a warm thick vapour that smelt of sulphur, through which they sought each other, calling:

“Hey! Tartarin.”

“Are you there, Placide?”

“Ma-a-as-ter!”

“Keep cool! Keep cool!”

A regular panic. Then a gust of wind broke through the mist and whirled it away like a torn veil clinging to the briers, through which a zigzag flash of lightning fell at their feet with a frightful clap of thunder. “My cap!” cried Spiridion, as the tempest bared his head, its hairs erect and crackling with electric sparks. They were in the very heart of the storm, the forge itself of Vulcan. Bravida was the first to fly, at full speed, the rest of the delegation flew behind him, when a cry from the president, who thought of everything, stopped them:

“Thunder!.. beware of the thunder!..”

At any rate, outside of the very real danger of which he warned them, there was no possibility of running on those steep and gullied slopes, now transformed into torrents, into cascades, by the pouring rain. The return was awful, by slow steps under that crazy cliff, amid the sharp, short flashes of lightning followed by explosions, slipping, falling, and forced at times to halt. Pascalon crossed himself and invoked aloud, as at Tarascon: “Sainte Marthe and Sainte Hélène, Sainte Marie-Madeleine,” while Excourbaniès swore: ”Coquin de sort!“ and Bravida, the rearguard, looked back in trepidation:

“What the devil is that behind us?.. It is galloping . . . it is whistling . . . there, it has stopped . . . ”

The idea of a furious chamois flinging itself upon its hunters was in the mind of the old warrior. In a low voice, in order not to alarm the others, he communicated his fears to Tartarin, who bravely took his place as the rearguard and marched along, soaked to the skin, his head high, with that mute determination which is given by the imminence of danger. But when he reached the inn and saw his dear Alpinists under shelter, drying their wet things, which smoked around a huge porcelain stove in a first floor chamber, to which rose an odour of grog already ordered, the president shivered and said, looking very pale: “I believe I have taken cold.”

“Taken cold!” No question now of starting again; the delegation asked only for rest Quick, a bed was warmed, they hurried the hot wine grog, and after his second glass the president felt throughout his comfort-loving body a warmth, a tingling that augured well. Two pillows at his back, a ”plumeau“ on his feet, his muffler round his head, he experienced a delightful sense of well-being in listening to the roaring of the storm, inhaling that good pine odour of the rustic little room with its wooden walls and leaden panes, and in looking at his dear Alpinists, gathered, glass in hand, around his bed in the anomalous character given to their Gallic, Roman or Saracenic types by the counterpanes, curtains, and carpets in which they were bundled while their own clothes steamed before the stove. Forgetful of himself, he questioned each of them in a sympathetic voice:

“Are you well, Placide?.. Spiridion, you seemed to be suffering just now?..”

No, Spiridion suffered no longer, all that had passed away on seeing the president so ill. Bravida, who adapted moral truths to the proverbs of his nation, added cynically: ”Neighbour’s ill comforts, and even cures.” Then they talked of their hunt, exciting one another with the recollection of certain dangerous episodes, such as the moment when the animal turned upon them furiously; and without complicity of lying, in fact, most ingenuously, they fabricated the fable they afterwards related on their return to Tarascon.

Suddenly, Pascalon, who had been sent in search of another supply of grog, reappeared in terror, one arm out of the blue-flowered curtain that he gathered about him with the chaste gesture of a Polyeucte. He was more than a second before he could articulate, in a whisper, breathlessly: “The chamois!..”

“Well, what of the chamois?..”

“He’s down there, in the kitchen . . . warming himself . . . ”

“Ah! vaï . . . ”

“You are joking . . . ”

“Suppose you go and see, Placide.”

Bravida hesitated. Excourbaniès descended on the tips of his toes, but returned almost immediately, his face convulsed . . . More and more astounding!.. the chamois was drinking grog.

They certainly owed it to him, poor beast, after the wild run he had been made to take on the mountain, dispatched and recalled by his master, who, as a usual thing, put him through his evolutions in the house, to show to tourists how easily a chamois could be trained.

“It is overwhelming!” said Bravida, making no further effort at comprehension; as for Tartarin, he dragged the muffler over his eyes like a nightcap to hide from the delegates the soft hilarity that overcame him at encountering wherever he went the dodges and the performers of Bompard’s Switzerland.

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