Tarascon, five minutes’ stop! The Club of the Alpines. Explanation of P. C. A. Rabbits of warren and cabbage rabbits. This is my last will and testament. The Sirop de cadavre. First ascension, Tartarin takes out his spectacles.
When that name “Tarascon” sounds trumpetlike along the track of the Paris-Lyons-Mediterranean, in the limpid, vibrant blue of a Provençal sky, inquisitive heads are visible at all the doors of the express train, and from carriage to carriage the travellers say to each other: “Ah! here is Tarascon!.. Now, for a look at Tarascon.”
What they can see of it is, nevertheless, nothing more than a very ordinary, quiet, clean little town with towers, roofs, and a bridge across the Rhone. But the Tarasconese sun and its marvellous effects of mirage, so fruitful in surprises, inventions, delirious absurdities, this joyous little populace, not much larger than a chick-pea, which reflects and sums up in itself the instincts of the whole French South, lively, restless, gabbling, exaggerated, comical, impressionable — that is what the people on the express-train look out for as they pass, and it is that which has made the popularity of the place.
In memorable pages, which modesty prevents him from mentioning more explicitly, the historiographer of Tarascon essayed, once upon a time, to depict the happy days of the little town, leading its club life, singing its romantic songs (each his own) and, for want of real game, organizing curious cap-hunts. Then, war having come and the dark times, Tarascon became known by its heroic defence, its torpedoed esplanade, the club and the Café de la Comédie, both made impregnable; all the inhabitants enrolled in guerilla companies, their breasts braided with death’s head and cross-bones, all beards grown, and such a display of battle-axes, boarding cutlasses, and American revolvers that the unfortunate inhabitants ended by frightening themselves and no longer daring to approach one another in the streets.
Many years have passed since the war, many a worthless almanac has been put in the fire, but Tarascon has never forgotten; and, renouncing the futile amusements of other days, it thinks of nothing now but how to make blood and muscle for the service of future revenge. Societies for pistol-shooting and gymnastics, costumed and equipped, all having band and banners; armouries, boxing-gloves, single-sticks, list-shoes; foot races and flat-hand fights between persons in the best society; these things have taken the place of the former cap-hunts and the platonic cynegetical discussions in the shop of the gunsmith Costecalde.
And finally the club, the old club itself, abjuring bouillotte and bézique, is now transformed into a “Club Alpin” under the patronage of the famous Alpine Club of London, which has borne even to India the fame of its climbers. With this difference, that the Tarasconese, instead of expatriating themselves on foreign summits, are content with those they have in hand, or rather underfoot, at the gates of their town.
“The Alps of Tarascon?” you ask. No; but the Alpines, that chain of mountainettes, redolent of thyme and lavender, not very dangerous, nor yet very high (five to six hundred feet above sea-level), which make an horizon of blue waves along the Provençal roads and are decorated by the local imagination with the fabulous and characteristic names of: Mount Terrible; The End of the World; The Peak of the Giants, etc.
‘T is a pleasure to see, of a Sunday morning, the gaitered Tarasconese, pickaxe in hand, knapsack and tent on their backs, starting off, bugles in advance, for ascensions, of which the Forum, the local journal, gives full account with a descriptive luxury and wealth of epithets — abysses, gulfs, terrifying gorges — as if the said ascension were among the Himalayas. You can well believe that from this exercise the aborigines have acquired fresh strength and the “double muscles” heretofore reserved to the only Tartarin, the good, the brave, the heroic Tartarin.
If Tarascon epitomizes the South, Tartarin epitomizes Tarascon. He is not only the first citizen of the town, he is its soul, its genius, he has all its finest whimseys. We know his former exploits, his triumphs as a singer (oh! that duet of “Robert le Diable” in Bézuquet’s pharmacy!), and the amazing odyssey of his lion-hunts, from which he returned with that splendid camel, the last in Algeria, since deceased, laden with honours and preserved in skeleton at the town museum among other Tarasconese curiosities.
Tartarin himself has not degenerated; teeth still good and eyes good, in spite of his fifties; still that amazing imagination which brings nearer and enlarges all objects with the power of a telescope. He remains the same man as he of whom the brave Commander Bravida used to say: “He’s a lapin . . . ”
Or, rather, two lapins! For in Tartarin, as in all the Tarasconese, there is a warren race and a cabbage race, very clearly accentuated: the roving rabbit of the warren, adventurous, headlong; and the cabbage-rabbit, homekeeping, coddling, nervously afraid of fatigue, of draughts, and of any and all accidents that may lead to death.
We know that this prudence did not prevent him from showing himself brave and even heroic on occasion; but it is permissible to ask what he was doing on the Rigi (Regina Montium) at his age, when he had so dearly bought the right to rest and comfort.
To that inquiry the infamous Costecalde can alone reply.
Costecalde, gunsmith by trade, represents a type that is rather rare in Tarascon. Envy, base, malignant envy, is visible in the wicked curve of his thin lips, and a species of yellow bile, proceeding from his liver in puffs, suffuses his broad, clean-shaven, regular face, with its surface dented as if by a hammer, like an ancient coin of Tiberius or Caracalla. Envy with him is a disease, which he makes no attempt to hide, and, with the fine Tarasconese temperament that overlays everything, he sometimes says in speaking of his infirmity: “You don’t know how that hurts me . . . ”
Naturally the curse of Costecalde is Tartarin. So much fame for a single man! He everywhere! always he! And slowly, subterraneously, like a worm within the gilded wood of an idol, he saps from below for the last twenty years that triumphant renown, and gnaws it, and hollows it. When, in the evening, at the club, Tartarin relates his encounters with lions and his wanderings in the great Sahara, Costecalde sits by with mute little laughs, and incredulous shakes of the head.
“But the skins, au mouain, Costecalde . . . those lions’ skins he sent us, which are there, in the salon of the club?..”
“Té! pardi . . . Do you suppose there are no furriers in Algeria?..”
“But the marks of the balls, all round, in the heads?”
“Et autremain, did n’t we ourselves in the days of the cap-hunts see ragged caps torn with bullets at the hatters’ for sale to clumsy shots?”
No doubt the long established fame of Tartarin as a slayer of wild beasts resisted these attacks; but the Alpinist in himself was open to criticism, and Costecalde did not deprive himself of the opportunity, being furious that a man should be elected as president of the “Club of the Alpines” whom age had visibly overweighted and whose liking, acquired in Algeria, for Turkish slippers and flowing garments predisposed to laziness.
In fact, Tartarin seldom took part in the ascensions; he was satisfied to accompany them with votive wishes, and to read in full session, with rolling eyes, and intonations that turned the ladies pale, the tragic narratives of the expeditions.
Costecalde, on the contrary, wiry, vigorous “Cock-leg,” as they called him, was always the foremost climber; he had done the Alpines, one by one, planting on their summits inaccessible the banner of the Club, La Tarasque, starred in silver. Nevertheless, he was only vice-president, V. P. C. A. But he manipulated the place so well that evidently, at the coming elections, Tartarin would be made to skip.
Warned by his faithfuls — Bézuquet the apothecary, Excourbaniès, the brave Commander Bravida — the hero was at first possessed by black disgust, by that indignant rancour which ingratitude and injustice arouse in the noblest soul. He wanted to quit everything, to expatriate himself, to cross the bridge and go and live in Beaucaire, among the Volsci; after that, he grew calmer.
To quit his little house, his garden, his beloved habits, to renounce his chair as president of the Club of the Alpines, founded by himself, to resign that majestic P. C. A. which adorned and distinguished his cards, his letter-paper, and even the lining of his hat! Not possible, vé! Suddenly there came into his head an electrifying idea . . .
In a word, the exploits of Costecalde were limited to excursions among the Alpines. Why should not Tartarin, during the three months that still intervened before the elections, why should he not attempt some grandiose adventure? plant, for instance, the standard of the Club on the highest peak of Europe, the Jungfrau or the Mont Blanc?
What triumph on his return! what a slap in the face to Costecalde when the Forum should publish an account of the ascension! Who would dare to dispute his presidency after that?
Immediately he set to work; sent secretly to Paris for quantities of works on Alpine adventure: Whymper’s “Scrambles,” Tyndall’s “Glaciers,” the “Mont-Blanc” of Stephen d’Arve, reports of the Alpine Club, English and Swiss; cramming his head with a mass of mountaineering terms — chimneys, couloirs, moulins, névés, séracs, moraines, rotures — without knowing very well what they meant.
At night, his dreams were fearful with interminable slides and sudden falls into bottomless crevasses. Avalanches rolled him down, icy arêtes caught his body on the descent; and long after his waking and the chocolate he always took in bed, the agony and the oppression of that nightmare clung to him. But all this did not hinder him, once afoot, from devoting his whole morning to the most laborious training exercises.
Around Tarascon is a promenade planted with trees which, in the local dictionary, is called the “Tour de Ville.” Every Sunday afternoon, the Tarasconese, who, in spite of their imagination, are a people of routine, make the tour of their town, and always in the same direction. Tartarin now exercised himself by making it eight times, ten times, of a morning, and often reversed the way. He walked, his hands behind his back, with short-mountain-steps, both slow and sure, till the shopkeepers, alarmed by this infraction of local habits, were lost in suppositions of all possible kinds.
At home, in his exotic garden, he practised the art of leaping crevasses, by jumping over the basin in which a few gold-fish were swimming about among the water-weeds. On two occasions he fell in, and was forced to change his clothes. Such mishaps inspired him only the more, and, being subject to vertigo, he practised walking on the narrow masonry round the edge of the water, to the terror of his old servant-woman, who understood nothing of these performances.
During this time, he ordered, in Avignon, from an excellent locksmith, crampons of the Whymper pattern, and a Kennedy ice-axe; also he procured himself a reed-wick lamp, two impermeable coverlets, and two hundred feet of rope of his own invention, woven with iron wire.
The arrival of these different articles from Avignon, the mysterious goings and comings which their construction required, puzzled the Taras-conese much, and it was generally said about town: “The president is preparing a stroke.” But what? Something grand, you may be sure, for, in the beautiful words of the brave and sententious Commander Bravida, retired captain of equipment, who never spoke except in apothegms: “Eagles hunt no flies.”
With his closest intimates Tartarin remained impenetrable. Only, at the sessions of the Club, they noticed the quivering of his voice and the lightning flash of his eyes whenever he addressed Costecalde — the indirect cause of this new expedition, the dangers and fatigues of which became more pronounced to his mind the nearer he approached it. The unfortunate man did not attempt to disguise them; in fact he took so black a view of the matter that he thought it indispensable to set his affairs in order, to write those last wishes, the expression of which is so trying to the Tarasconese, lovers of life, that most of them die intestate.
On a radiant morning in June, beneath a cloudless arched and splendid sky, the door of his study open upon the neat little garden with its gravelled paths, where the exotic plants stretched forth their motionless lilac shadows, where the fountain tinkled its silvery note ‘mid the merry shouts of the Savoyards, playing at marbles before the gate, behold Tartarin! in Turkish slippers, wide flannel under-garments, easy in body, his pipe at hand, reading aloud as he wrote the words:—
“This is my last will and testament.”
Ha! one may have one’s heart in the right place and solidly hooked there, but these are cruel moments. Nevertheless, neither his hand nor his voice trembled while he distributed among his fellow-citizens all the ethnographical riches piled in his little home, carefully dusted and preserved in immaculate order.
“To the Club of the Alpines, my baobab (arbos gigantea) to stand on the chimney-piece of the hall of sessions;”
To Bravida, his carbines, revolvers, hunting knives, Malay krishes, tomahawks, and other murderous weapons;
To Excourbaniès, all his pipes, calumets, narghilés, and pipelets for smoking kif and opium;
To Costecalde — yes, Costecalde himself had his legacy — the famous poisoned arrows (Do not touch).
Perhaps beneath this gift was the secret hope that the traitor would touch and die; but nothing of the kind was exhaled by the will, which closed with the following words, of a divine meekness:
“I beg my dear Alpinists not to forget their president . . . I wish them to forgive my enemy as I have forgiven him, although it is he who has caused my death . . . ”
Here Tartarin was forced to stop, blinded by a flood of tears. For a minute he beheld himself crushed, lying in fragments at the foot of a high mountain, his shapeless remains gathered up in a barrow, and brought back to Tarascon. Oh, the power of that Provençal imagination! he was present at his own funeral; he heard the lugubrious chants, and the talk above his grave: “Poor Tartarin, péchère!“ and, mingling with the crowd of his faithful friends, he wept for himself.
But immediately after, the sight of the sun streaming into his study and glittering on the weapons and pipes in their usual order, the song of that thread of a fountain in the middle of the garden recalled him to the actual state of things. Différemment, why die? Why go, even? Who obliged him? What foolish vanity! Risk his life for a presidential chair and three letters!..
’Twas a passing weakness, and it lasted no longer than any other. At the end of five minutes the will was finished, signed, the flourish added, sealed with an enormous black seal, and the great man had concluded his last preparations for departure.
Once more had the warren Tartarin triumphed over the cabbage Tartarin. It could be said of the Tarasconese hero, as was said of Turenne: “His body was not always willing to go into battle, but his will led him there in spite of himself.”
The evening of that same day, as the last stroke of ten was sounding from the tower of the town-hall, the streets being already deserted, a man, after brusquely slamming a door, glided along through the darkened town, where nothing lighted the fronts of the houses, save the hanging-lamps of the streets and the pink and green bottles of the pharmacy Bézuquet, which projected their reflections on the pavement, together with a silhouette of the apothecary himself resting his elbows on his desk and sound asleep on the Codex; — a little nap, which he took every evening from nine to ten, to make himself, so he said, the fresher at night for those who might need his services. That, between ourselves, was a mere tarasconade, for no one ever waked him at night, in fact he himself had cut the bell-wire, in order that he might sleep more tranquilly.
Suddenly Tartarin entered, loaded with rugs, carpet-bag in hand, and so pale, so discomposed, that the apothecary, with that fiery local imagination from which the pharmacy was no preservative, jumped to the conclusion of some alarming misadventure and was terrified. “Unhappy man!” he cried, “what is it?.. you are poisoned?.. Quick! quick! some ipeca . . . ”
And he sprang forward, bustling among his bottles. To stop him, Tartarin was forced to catch him round the waist. “Listen to me, qué diable!“ and his voice grated with the vexation of an actor whose entrance has been made to miss fire. As soon as the apothecary was rendered motionless behind the counter by an iron wrist, Tartarin said in a low voice:—
“Are we alone, Bézuquet?”
“Bé! yes,” ejaculated the other, looking about in vague alarm . . . “Pascalon has gone to bed.” [ Pascalon was his pupil.] “Mamma too; why do you ask?”
“Shut the shutters,” commanded Tartarin, without replying; “we might be seen from without.”
Bézuquet obeyed, trembling. An old bachelor, living with his mother, whom he never quitted, he had all the gentleness and timidity of a girl, contrasting oddly with his swarthy skin, his hairy lips, his great hooked nose above a spreading moustache; in short, the head of an Algerine pirate before the conquest. These antitheses are frequent in Tarascon, where heads have too much character, Roman or Saracen, heads with the expression of models for a school of design, but quite out of place in bourgeois trades among the manners and customs of a little town.
For instance, Excourbaniès, who has all the air of a conquistador, companion of Pizarro, rolls flaming eyes in selling haberdashery to induce the purchase of two sous’ worth of thread. And Bézuquet, labelling liquorice and sirupus gummi, resembles an old sea-rover of the Barbary coast.
When the shutters were put up and secured by iron bolts and transversal bars, “Listen, Ferdinand . . . ” said Tartarin, who was fond of calling people by their Christian names. And thereupon he unbosomed himself, emptied his heart full of bitterness at the ingratitude of his compatriots, related the manoeuvres of “Cock-leg,” the trick about to be played upon him at the coming elections, and the manner in which he expected to parry the blow.
Before all else, the matter must be kept very secret; it must not be revealed until the moment when success was assured, unless some unforeseen accident, one of those frightful catastrophes —“Hey, Bézuquet! don’t whistle in that way when I talk to you.”
This was one of the apothecary’s ridiculous habits. Not talkative by nature (a negative quality seldom met with in Tarascon, and which won him this confidence of the president), his thick lips, always in the form of an O, had a habit of perpetually whistling that gave him an appearance of laughing in the nose of the world, even on the gravest occasions.
So that, while the hero made allusion to his possible death, saying, as he laid upon the counter a large sealed envelope, “This is my last will and testament, Bézuquet; it is you whom I have chosen as testamentary executor . . . ” “Hui . . . hui . . . hui . . . ” whistled the apothecary, carried away by his mania, while at heart he was deeply moved and fully conscious of the grandeur of his rôle.
Then, the hour of departure being at hand, he desired to drink to the enterprise, “something good, qué? a glass of the elixir of Garus, hey?” After several closets had been opened and searched, he remembered that mamma had the keys of the Garus. To get them it would be necessary to awaken her and tell who was there. The elixir was therefore changed to a glass of the sirop de Calabre, a summer drink, inoffensive and modest, which Bézuquet invented, advertising it in the Forum as follows: Sirop de Calabre, ten sous a bottle, including the glass (verre). “Sirop de Cadavre, including the worms (vers),” said that infernal Costecalde, who spat upon all success. But, after all, that horrid play upon words only served to swell the sale, and the Tarasconese to this day delight in their sirop de cadavre.
Libations made and a few last words exchanged, they embraced, Bézuquet whistling as usual in his moustache, adown which rolled great tears.
“Adieu, au mouain“ . . . said Tartarin in a rough tone, feeling that he was about to weep himself, and as the shutter of the door had been lowered the hero was compelled to creep out of the pharmacy on his hands and knees.
This was one of the trials of the journey now about to begin.
Three days later he landed in Vitznau at the foot of the Rigi. As the mountain for his début, the Rigi had attracted him by its low altitude (5900 feet, about ten times that of Mount Terrible, the highest of the Alpines) and also on account of the splendid panorama to be seen from the summit — the Bernese Alps marshalled in line, all white and rosy, around the lakes, awaiting the moment when the great ascensionist should cast his ice-axe upon one of them.
Certain of being recognized on the way and perhaps followed —‘t was a foible of his to believe that throughout all France his fame was as great and popular as it was at Tarascon — he had made a great détour before entering Switzerland and did not don his accoutrements until after he had crossed the frontier. Luckily for him; for never could his armament have been contained in one French railway-carriage.
But, however convenient the Swiss compartments might be, the Alpinist, hampered with utensils to which he was not, as yet, accustomed, crushed toe-nails with his crampons, harpooned travellers who came in his way with the point of his alpenstock, and wherever he went, in the stations, the steamers, and the hotel salons, he excited as much amazement as he did maledictions, avoidance, and angry looks, which he could not explain to himself though his affectionate and communicative nature suffered from them. To complete his discomfort, the sky was always gray, with flocks of clouds and a driving rain.
It rained at Bâle, on the little white houses, washed and rewashed by the hands of a maid and the waters of heaven. It rained at Lucerne, on the quay where the trunks and boxes appeared to be saved, as it were, from shipwreck, and when he arrived at the station of Vitznau, on the shore of the lake of the Four-Cantons, the same deluge was descending on the verdant slopes of the Rigi, straddled by inky clouds and striped with torrents that leaped from rock to rock in cascades of misty sleet, bringing down as they came the loose stones and the pine-needles. Never had Tartarin seen so much water.
He entered an inn and ordered a café au lait with honey and butter, the only really good things he had as yet tasted during his journey. Then, reinvigorated, and his beard sticky with honey, cleaned on a corner of his napkin, he prepared to attempt his first ascension.
“Et autremain“ he asked, as he shifted his knapsack, “how long does it take to ascend the Rigi?”
“One hour, one hour and a quarter, monsieur; but make haste about it; the train is just starting.”
“A train upon the Rigi!.. you are joking!..”
Through the leaded panes of the tavern window he was shown the train that was really starting. Two great covered carriages, windowless, pushed by a locomotive with a short, corpulent chimney, in shape like a saucepan, a monstrous insect, clinging to the mountain and clambering, breathless up its vertiginous slopes.
The two Tartarins, cabbage and warren, both, at the same instant, revolted at the thought of going up in that hideous mechanism. One of them thought it ridiculous to climb the Alps in a lift; as for the other, those aerial bridges on which the track was laid, with the prospect of a fall of 4000 feet at the slightest derailment, inspired him with all sorts of lamentable reflections, justified by the little cemetery of Vitzgau, the white tombs of which lay huddled together at the foot of the slope, like linen spread out to bleach in the yard of a wash-house. Evidently the cemetery is there by way of precaution, so that, in case of accident, the travellers may drop on the very spot.
“I’ll go afoot,” the valiant Tarasconese said to himself; “’twill exercise me . . . zou!”
And he started, wholly preoccupied with manoeuvring his alpenstock in presence of the staff of the hotel, collected about the door and shouting directions to him about the path, to which he did not listen. He first followed an ascending road, paved with large irregular, pointed stones like a lane at the South, and bordered with wooden gutters to carry off the rains.
To right and left were great orchards, fields of rank, lush grass crossed by the same wooden conduits for irrigation through hollowed trunks of trees. All this made a constant rippling from top to bottom of the mountain, and every time that the ice-axe of the Alpinist became hooked as he walked along in the lower branches of an oak or a walnut-tree, his cap crackled as if beneath the nozzle of a watering-pot.
“Diou! what a lot of water!” sighed the man of the South. But it was much worse when the pebbly path abruptly ceased and he was forced to puddle along in the torrent or jump from rock to rock to save his gaiters. Then a shower joined in, penetrating, steady, and seeming to get colder the higher he went. When he stopped to recover breath he could hear nothing else than a vast noise of waters in which he seemed to be sunk, and he saw, as he turned round, the clouds descending into the lake in delicate long filaments of spun glass through which the chalets of Vitznau shone like freshly varnished toys.
Men and children passed him with lowered heads and backs bent beneath hods of white-wood, containing provisions for some villa or pension, the balconies of which could be distinguished on the slopes. “Rigi-Kulm?” asked Tartarin, to be sure he was heading in the right direction. But his extraordinary equipment, especially, that knitted muffler which masked his face, cast terror along the way, and all whom he addressed only opened their eyes wide and hastened their steps without replying.
Soon these encounters became rare. The last human being whom he saw was an old woman washing her linen in the hollowed trunk of a tree under the shelter of an enormous red umbrella, planted in the ground.
“Rigi-Kulm?” asked the Alpinist.
The old woman raised an idiotic, cadaverous face, with a goitre swaying upon her throat as large as the rustic bell of a Swiss cow. Then, after gazing at him for a long time, she was seized with inextinguishable laughter, which stretched her mouth from ear to ear, wrinkled up the corners of her little eyes, and every time she opened them the sight of Tartarin, planted before her with his ice-axe on his shoulder, redoubled her joy.
“Tron de l’air!“ growled the Tarasconese, “lucky for her that she’s a woman . . . ” Snorting with anger, he continued his way and lost it in a pine-wood, where his boots slipped on the oozing moss.
Beyond this point the landscape changed. No more paths, or trees, or pastures. Gloomy, denuded slopes, great boulders of rock which he scaled on his knees for fear of falling; sloughs full of yellow mud, which he crossed slowly, feeling before him with his alpenstock and lifting his feet like a knife-grinder. At every moment he looked at the compass hanging to his broad watch-ribbon; but whether it were the altitude or the variations of the temperature, the needle seemed untrue. And how could he find his bearings in a thick yellow fog that hindered him from seeing ten steps about him — steps that were now, within a moment, covered with an icy glaze that made the ascent more difficult.
Suddenly he stopped; the ground whitened vaguely before him . . . Look out for your eyes!..
He had come to the region of snows . . .
Immediately he pulled out his spectacles, took them from their case, and settled them securely on his nose. The moment was a solemn one. Slightly agitated, yet proud all the same, it seemed to Tar-tarin that in one bound he had risen 3000 feet toward the summits and his greatest dangers.
He now advanced with more precaution, dreaming of crevasses and fissures such as the books tell of, and cursing in the depths of his heart those people at the inn who advised him to mount straight and take no guide. After all, perhaps he had mistaken the mountain! More than six hours had he tramped, and the Rigi required only three. The wind blew, a chilling wind that whirled the snow in that crepuscular fog.
Night was about to overtake him. Where find a hut? or even a projecting rock to shelter him? All of a sudden, he saw before his nose on the arid, naked plain a species of wooden chalet, bearing, on a long placard in gigantic type, these letters, which he deciphered with difficulty: PHO . . . TO . . . GRA . . . PHIE DU RI . . . GI KULM. At the same instant the vast hotel with its three hundred windows loomed up before him between the great lamp-posts, the globes of which were now being lighted in the fog.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53