A REGION more impressionable than Tarascon was never seen under the sun of any land. At times, of a fine festal Sunday, all the town out, tambourines a-going, the Promenade swarming, tumultuous, enamelled with red and green petticoats, Arlesian neckerchiefs, and, on big multi-coloured posters, the announcement of wrestling-matches for men and lads, races of Camargue bulls, etc., it is all-sufficient for some wag to call out: “Mad dog!” or “Cattle loose!” and everybody runs, jostles, men and women fright themselves out of their wits, doors are locked and bolted, shutters clang as with a storm, and behold Tarascon, deserted, mute, not a cat, not a sound, even the grasshoppers themselves lying low and attentive.
This was its aspect on a certain morning, which, however, was neither a fête-day nor a Sunday; the shops closed, houses dead, squares and alleys seemingly enlarged by silence and solitude. Vasta silentio, says Tacitus, describing Rome at the funeral of Germanicus; and that citation of his mourning Rome applies all the better to Tarascon, because a funeral service for the soul of Tartarin was being said at this moment in the cathedral, where the population en masse wept for its hero, its god, its invincible leader with double muscles, left lying among the glaciers of Mont Blanc.
Now, while the death-knell dropped its heavy notes along the silent streets, Mile. Tournatoire, the doctor’s sister, whose ailments kept her always at home, was sitting in her big armchair close to the window, looking out into the street and listening to the bells. The house of the Tournatoires was on the road to Avignon, very nearly opposite to that of Tartarin; and the sight of that illustrious home to which its master would return no more, that garden gate forever closed, all, even the boxes of the little shoe-blacks drawn up in line near the entrance, swelled the heart of the poor spinster, consumed for more than thirty years with a secret passion for the Tarasconese hero. Oh, mystery of the heart of an old maid! It was her joy to watch him pass at his regular hours and to ask herself: “Where is he going?..” to observe the permutations of his toilet, whether he was clothed as an Alpinist or dressed in his suit of serpent-green. And now! she would see him no more! even the consolation of praying for his soul with all the other ladies of the town was denied her.
Suddenly the long white horse head of Mile. Tournatoire coloured faintly; her faded eyes with a pink rim dilated in a remarkable manner, while her thin hand with its prominent veins made the sign of the cross.. He! it was he, slipping along by the wall on the other side of the paved road . . . At first she thought it an hallucinating apparition . . . No, Tartarin himself, in flesh and blood, only paler, pitiable, ragged, was creeping along that wall like a beggar or a thief. But in order to explain his furtive presence in Tarascon, it is necessary to return to the Mont Blanc and the Dôme du Goûter at the precise instant when, the two friends being each on either side of the ridge, Bompard felt the rope that bound them violently jerked as if by the fall of a body.
In reality, the rope was only caught in a cleft of the ice; but Tartarin, feeling the same jerk, believed, he too, that his companion was rolling down and dragging him with him. Then, at that supreme moment — good heavens! how shall I tell it? — in that agony of fear, both, at the same instant, forgetting their solemn vow at the Hôtel Baltet, with the same impulse, the same instinctive action, cut the rope — Bompard with his knife, Tartarin with his axe; then, horrified at their crime, convinced, each of them, that he had sacrificed his friend, they fled in opposite directions.
When the spectre of Bompard appeared at the Grands-Mulets, that of Tartarin was arriving at the tavern of the Avesailles. How, by what miracle? after what slips, what falls? Mont Blanc alone could tell. The poor P. C. A. remained for two days in a state of complete apathy, unable to utter a single sound. As soon as he was fit to move they took him down to Courmayeur, the Italian Chamonix. At the hotel where he stopped to recover his strength, there was talk of nothing but the frightful catastrophe on Mont Blanc, a perfect pendant to that on the Matterhorn: another Alpinist engulfed by the breaking of the rope.
In his conviction that this meant Bompard, Tartarin, torn by remorse, dared not rejoin the delegation, or return to his own town. He saw, in advance, on every lip, in every eye, the question: “Cain, what hast thou done with thy brother?..” Nevertheless, the lack of money, deficiency of linen, the frosts of September which were beginning to thin the hostelries, obliged him to set out for home. After all, no one had seen him commit the crime . . . Nothing hindered him from inventing some tale, no matter what . . . and so (the amusements of the journey lending their aid), he began to feel better. But when, on approaching Tarascon, he saw, iridescent beneath the azure heavens, the fine sky-line of the Alpines, all, all grasped him once more; shame, remorse, the fear of justice, and, to avoid the notoriety of arriving at the station, he left the train at the preceding stopping-place.
Ah! that beautiful Tarasconese highroad, all white and creaking with dust, without other shade than the telegraph poles and their wires, erected along the triumphal way he had so often trod at the head of his Alpinists and the sportsmen of caps. Would they now have known him, he, the valiant, the jauntily attired, in his ragged and filthy clothes, with that furtive eye of a tramp looking out for gendarmes? The atmosphere was burning, though the season was late, and the watermelon which he bought of a marketman seemed to him delicious as he ate it in the scanty shade of the barrow, while the peasant exhaled his wrath against the housekeepers of Tarascon, all of them absent from market that morning “on account of a black mass being sung for a man of the town who was lost in a hole, over there in the Swiss mountains . . . Té! how the bells rang . . . You can hear ’em from here . . . ”
No longer any doubt. For Bompard were those lugubrious chimes of death, which a warm breeze wafted through the country solitudes.
What an accompaniment of the return of the great Tartarin to his native town!
For one moment, one, when the gate of the little garden hurriedly opened and closed behind him and Tartarin found himself at home, when he saw the little paths with their borders so neatly raked, the basin, the fountain, the gold fish (squirming as the gravel creaked beneath his feet), and the baobab giant in its mignonette pot, the comfort of that cabbage-rabbit burrow wrapped him like a security after all his dangers and adversities . . . But the bells, those cursed bells, tolled louder than ever; their black heavy notes fell plumb upon his heart and crushed it again. In funereal fashion they were saying to him: “Cain, what hast thou done with thy brother? Tartarin, where is Bompard?” Then, without courage to take one step, he sat down upon the hot coping of the little basin and stayed there, broken down, annihilated, to the great agitation of the gold fish.
The bells no longer toll. The porch of the cathedral, lately so resounding, is restored to the mutterings of the beggarwoman sitting by the door, and to the cold immovability of its stone saints. The religious ceremony is over; all Taras-con has gone to the Club of the Alpines, where, in solemn session, Bompard is to tell the tale of the catastrophe and relate the last moments of the P. C. A. Besides the members of the Club, many privileged persons of the army, clergy, nobility, and higher commerce have taken seats in the hall of conference, the windows of which, wide open, allow the city band, installed below on the portico, to mingle a few heroic or plaintive notes with the remarks of the gentlemen. An enormous crowd, pressing around the musicians, is standing on the tips of its toes and stretching its necks in hopes to catch a fragment of what is said in session. But the windows are too high, and no one would have any idea of what was going on without the help of two or three urchins perched in the branches of a tall linden who fling down scraps of information as they are wont to fling cherries from a tree:
“Vé, there’s Costecalde, trying to cry. Ha! the beggar! he’s got the armchair now . . . And that poor Bézuquet, how he blows his nose! and his eyes are all red!.. Té! they’ve put crape on the banner . . . There’s Bompard, coming to the table with the three delegates . . . He has laid something down on the desk . . . He’s speaking now . . . It must be fine! They are all crying . . . ”
In truth, the grief became general as Bompard advanced in his narrative. Ah! memory had come back to him — imagination also. After picturing himself and his illustrious companion alone on the summit of Mont Blanc, without guides (who had all refused to follow them on account of the bad weather), alone with the banner, unfurled for five minutes on the highest peak of Europe, he recounted, and with what emotion! the perilous descent and fall; Tartarin rolling to the bottom of a crevasse, and he, Bompard, fastening himself to a rope two hundred feet long in order to explore that gulf to its very depths.
“More than twenty times, gentlemen — what am I saying? more than ninety times I sounded that icy abyss without being able to reach our unfortunate présidain whose fall, however, I was able to prove by certain fragments left clinging in the crevices of the ice . . . ”
So saying, he spread upon the table-cloth a fragment of a tooth, some hairs from a beard, a morsel of waistcoat, and one suspender buckle; almost the whole ossuary of the Grands-Mulets.
In presence of such an exhibition the sorrowful emotions of the assembly could not be restrained; even the hardest hearts, the partisans of Costecalde, and the gravest personages — Cambalalette, the notary, the doctor, Tournatoire — shed tears as big as the stopper of a water-bottle. The invited ladies uttered heart-rending cries, smothered, however, by the sobbing howls of Excourbaniès and the bleatings of Pascalon, while the funeral march of the drums and trumpets played a slow and lugubrious bass.
Then, when he saw the emotion, the nervous excitement at its height, Bompard ended his tale with a grand gesture of pity toward the scraps and the buckles, as he said:—
“And there, gentlemen and dear fellow-citizens, there is all that I recovered of our illustrious and beloved president . . . The remainder the glacier will restore to us in forty years . . . ”
He was about to explain, for ignorant persons, the recent discoveries as to the slow but regular movement of glaciers, when the squeaking of a door opening at the other end of the room interrupted him; some one entered, paler than one of Home’s apparitions, directly in front of the orator.
And this race is so singular, so ready to believe all improbable tales, all audacious and easily refuted lies, that the arrival of the great man whose remains were still lying on the table caused only a very moderate amazement in the assembly.
“It is a misunderstanding, that’s all,” said Tartarin, comforted, beaming, his hand on the shoulder of the man whom he thought he had killed. “I did Mont Blanc on both sides. Went up one way and came down the other; and that is why I was thought to have disappeared.”
He did not mention that he had come down on his back.
“That damned Bompard!” said Bézuquet; “all the same, he harrowed us up with his tale . . . ” And they laughed and clasped hands, while the drums and trumpets, which they vainly tried to silence, went madly on with Tartarin’s funeral march.
“Vé! Costecalde, just see how yellow he is!..” murmured Pascalon to Bravida, pointing to the gunsmith as he rose to yield the chair to the rightful president, whose good face beamed, Bravida, always sententious, said in a low voice as he looked at the fallen Costecalde returning to his subaltern rank: “The fate of the Abbé Mandaire, from being the rector he now is vicaire!“
And the session went on.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53