Tartarin on the Alps, by Alphonse Daudet


On the boat. It rains. The Tarasconese hero salutes the Ashes. The truth about William Tell. Disillusion. Tartarin of Tarascon never existed. “Té! Bompard.”

He had left the snows of the Rigi-Kulm; down below, on the lake, he returned to rain, fine, close, misty, a vapour of water through which the mountains stumped themselves in, graduating in the distance to the form of clouds.

The “Föhn” whistled, raising white caps on the lake where the gulls, flying low, seemed borne upon the waves; one might have thought one’s self on the open ocean.

Tartarin recalled to mind his departure from the port of Marseilles, fifteen years earlier, when he started to hunt the lion — that spotless sky, dazzling with silvery light, that sea so blue, blue as the water of dye-works, blown back by the mistral in sparkling white saline crystals, the bugles of the forts and the bells of all the steeples echoing joy, rapture, sun — the fairy world of a first journey.

What a contrast to this black dripping wharf, almost deserted, on which were seen, through the mist as through a sheet of oiled paper, a few passengers wrapped in ulsters and formless india-rubber garments, and the helmsman standing motionless, muffled in his hooded cloak, his manner grave and sibylline, behind this notice printed in three languages:—

“Forbidden to speak to the man at the wheel.”

Very useless caution, for nobody spoke on board the “Winkelried,” neither on deck, nor in the first and second saloons crowded with lugubrious-looking passengers, sleeping, reading, yawning, pell-mell, with their smaller packages scattered on the seats — the sort of scene we imagine that a batch of exiles on the morning after a coup-d’État might present.

From time to time the hoarse bellow of the steam-pipe announced the arrival of the boat at a stopping-place. A noise of steps, and of baggage dragged about the deck. The shore, looming through the fog, came nearer and showed its slopes of a sombre green, its villas shivering amid inundated groves, files of poplars flanking the muddy roads along which sumptuous hotels were formed in line with their names in letters of gold upon their façades, Hôtel Meyer, Müller, du Lac, etc., where heads, bored with existence, made themselves visible behind the streaming window-panes.

The wharf was reached, the passengers disembarked and went upward, all equally muddy, soaked, and silent. ’Twas a coming and going of umbrellas and omnibuses, quickly vanishing. Then a great beating of the wheels, churning up the water with their paddles, and the shore retreated, becoming once more a misty landscape with its pensions Meyer, Müller, du Lac, etc., the windows of which, opened for an instant, gave fluttering handkerchiefs to view from every floor, and outstretched arms that seemed to say: “Mercy! pity! take us, take us . . . if you only knew!..”

At times the “Winkelried” crossed on its way some other steamer with its name in black letters on its white paddle-box: “Germania.”.. “Guillaume Tell” . . . The same lugubrious deck, the same refracting caoutchoucs, the same most lamentable pleasure trip as that of the other phantom vessel going its different way, and the same heart-broken glances exchanged from deck to deck.

And to say that those people travelled for enjoyment! and that all those boarders in the Hôtels du Lac, Meyer, and Müller were captives for pleasure!

Here, as on the Rigi-Kulm, the thing that above all suffocated Tartarin, agonized him, froze him, even more than the cold rain and the murky sky, was the utter impossibility of talking. True, he had again met faces that he knew — the member of the Jockey Club with his niece (h’m! h’m!..), the academician Astier-Réhu, and the Bonn Professor Schwanthaler, those two implacable enemies condemned to live side by side for a month manacled to the itinerary of a Cook’s Circular, and others. But none of these illustrious Prunes would recognize the Tarasconese Alpinist, although his mountain muffler, his metal utensils, his ropes in saltire, distinguished him from others, and marked him in a manner that was quite peculiar. They all seemed ashamed of the night before, and the inexplicable impulse communicated to them by the fiery ardour of that fat man.

Mme. Schwanthaler, alone, approached her partner, with the rosy, laughing face of a plump little fairy, and taking her skirt in her two fingers as if to suggest a minuet. “Ballir . . . dantsir . . . very choli . . . ” remarked the good lady. Was this a memory that she evoked, or a temptation that she offered? At any rate, as she did not let go of him, Tartarin, to escape her pertinacity, went up on deck, preferring to be soaked to the skin rather than be made ridiculous.

And it rained!.. and the sky was dirty!.. To complete his gloom, a whole squad of the Salvation Army, who had come aboard at Beckenried, a dozen stout girls with stolid faces, in navy-blue gowns and Greenaway bonnets, were grouped under three enormous scarlet umbrellas, and were singing verses, accompanied on the accordion by a man, a sort of David-la-Gamme, tall and fleshless with crazy eyes. These sharp, flat, discordant voices, like the cry of gulls, rolled dragging, drawling through the rain and the black smoke of the engine which the wind beat down upon the deck. Never had Tartarin heard anything so lamentable.

At Brünnen the squad landed, leaving the pockets of the other travellers swollen with pious little tracts; and almost immediately after the songs and the accordion of these poor larvae ceased, the sky began to clear and patches of blue were seen.

They now entered the lake of Uri, closed in and darkened by lofty, untrodden mountains, and the tourists pointed out to each other, on the right at the foot of the Seelisberg, the field of Grütli, where Melchtal, Fürst, and Stauffacher made oath to deliver their country.

Tartarin, with much emotion, took off his cap, paying no attention to environing amazement, and waved it in the air three times, to do honour to the ashes of those heroes. A few of the passengers mistook his purpose, and politely returned his bow.

The engine at last gave a hoarse roar, its echo repercussioning from cliff to cliff of the narrow space. The notice hung out on deck before each new landing-place (as they do at public balls to vary the country dances) announced the Tells-platte.

They arrived.

The chapel is situated just five minutes’ walk from the landing, at the edge of the lake, on the very rock to which William Tell sprang, during the tempest, from Gessler’s boat. It was to Tartarin a most delightful emotion to tread, as he followed the travellers of the Circular Cook along the lakeside, that historic soil, to recall and live again the principal episodes of the great drama which he knew as he did his own life.

From his earliest years, William Tell had been his type. When, in the Bézuquet pharmacy, they played the game of preference, each person writing secretly on folded slips the poet, the tree, the odour, the hero, the woman he preferred, one of the papers invariably ran thus:—

“Tree preferred? . . . . . . . . . . . the baobab.
Odour? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . gunpowder.
Writer? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fenimore Cooper.
What I would prefer to be .. William Tell.”

And every voice in the pharmacy cried out: “That’s Tartarin!”

Imagine, therefore, how happy he was and how his heart was beating as he stood before that memorial chapel raised to a hero by the gratitude of a whole people. It seemed to him that William Tell in person, still dripping with the waters of the lake, his crossbow and his arrows in hand, was about to open the door to him.

“No entrance . . . I am at work . . . This is not the day . . . ” cried a loud voice from within, made louder by the sonority of the vaulted roof.

“Monsieur Astier-Réhu, of the French Academy . . . ”

“Herr Doctor Professor Schwanthaler . . . ”

“Tartarin of Tarascon . . . ”

In the arch above the portal, perched upon a scaffolding, appeared a half-length of the painter in working-blouse, palette in hand.

“My famulus will come down and open to you, messieurs,” he said with respectful intonations.

“I was sure of it, pardi!“ thought Tartarin; “I had only to name myself.”

However, he had the good taste to stand aside modestly, and only entered after all the others.

The painter, superb fellow, with the gilded, ruddy head of an artist of the Renaissance, received his visitors on the wooden steps which led to the temporary staging put up for the purpose of painting the roof. The frescos, representing the principal episodes in the life of William Tell, were finished, all but one, namely: the scene of the apple in the market-place of Altorf. On this he was now at work, and his young famulus, as he called him, feet and legs bare under a toga of the middle ages, and his hair archangelically arranged, was posing as the son of William Tell.

All these archaic personages, red, green, yellow, blue, made taller than nature in narrow streets and under the posterns of the period, intended, of course, to be seen at a distance, impressed the spectators rather sadly. However, they were there to admire, and they admired. Besides, none of them knew anything.

“I consider that a fine characterization,” said the pontifical Astier-Réhu, carpet-bag in hand.

And Schwanthaler, a camp-stool under his arm, not willing to be behindhand, quoted two verses of Schiller, most of it remaining in his flowing beard. Then the ladies exclaimed, and for a time nothing was heard but:—

“Schön!.. schön . . . ”

“Yes . . . lovely . . . ”

“Exquisite! delicious!..”

One might have thought one’s self at a confectioner’s.

Abruptly a voice broke forth, rending with the ring of a trumpet that composed silence.

“Badly shouldered, I tell you . . . That crossbow is not in place . . . ”

Imagine the stupor of the painter in presence of this exorbitant Alpinist, who, alpenstock in hand and ice-axe on his shoulder, risking the annihilation of somebody at each of his many evolutions, was demonstrating to him by A + B that the motions of his William Tell were not correct.

“I know what I am talking about, au mouain . . . I beg you to believe it . . . ”

“Who are you?”

“Who am I!” exclaimed the Alpinist, now thoroughly vexed . . . So it was not to him that the door was opened; and drawing himself up he said: “Go ask my name of the panthers of the Zaccar, of the lions of Atlas . . . they will answer you, perhaps.”

The company recoiled; there was general alarm.

“But,” asked the painter, “in what way is my action wrong?”

“Look at me, té!

Falling into position with a thud of his heels that made the planks beneath them smoke, Tar-tarin, shouldering his ice-axe like a crossbow, stood rigid.

“Superb! He’s right . . . Don’t stir . . . ”

Then to the famulus: “Quick! a block, charcoal!..”

The fact is, the Tarasconese hero was something worth painting — squat, round-shouldered, head bent forward, the muffler round his chin like a strap, and his flaming little eye taking aim at the terrified famulus.

Imagination, O magic power!.. He thought himself on the marketplace of Altorf, in front of his own child, he, who had never had any; an arrow in his bow, another in his belt to pierce the heart of the tyrant. His conviction became so strong that it conveyed itself to others.

“‘T is William Tell himself!..” said the painter, crouched on a stool and driving his sketch with a feverish hand. “Ah! monsieur, why did I not know you earlier? What a model you would have been for me!..”

“Really! then you see some resemblance?” said Tartarin, much flattered, but keeping his pose.

Yes, it was just so that the artist imagined his hero.

“The head, too?”

“Oh! the head, that’s no matter . . . ” and the painter stepped back to look at his sketch. “Yes, a virile mask, energetic, just what I wanted — inasmuch as nobody knows anything about William Tell, who probably never existed.”

Tartarin dropped the cross-bow from stupefaction.

Outre! {*}.. Never existed!.. What is that you are saying?”

* “Outre” and “boufre” are Tarasconese oaths of mysterious etymology.

“Ask these gentlemen . . . ”

Astier-Réhu, solemn, his three chins in his white cravat, said: “That is a Danish legend.”

“Icelandic..” affirmed Schwanthaler, no less majestic.

“Saxo Grammaticus relates that a valiant archer named Tobé or Paltanoke . . . ”

“Es ist in der Vilkinasaga geschrieben . . . ”

Both together:—

was condemned by the
King of Denmark Harold
of the Blue Teeth . . . ”
dass der Islandische König
Needing . . . ”

With staring eyes and arms extended, neither looking at nor comprehending each other, they both talked at once, as if on a rostrum, in the doctoral, despotic tones of professors certain of never being refuted; until, getting angry, they only shouted names: “Justinger of Berne!.. Jean of Winterthur!..”

Little by little, the discussion became general, excited, and furious among the visitors. Umbrellas, camp-stools, and valises were brandished; the unhappy artist, trembling for the safety of his scaffolding, went from one to another imploring peace. When the tempest had abated, he returned to his sketch and looked for his mysterious model, for him whose name the panthers of the Zaccar and the lions of Atlas could alone pronounce; but he was nowhere to be seen; the Alpinist had disappeared.

At that moment he was clambering with furious strides up a little path among beeches and birches that led to the Hôtel Tellsplatte, where the courier of the Peruvian family was to pass the night; and under the shock of his deception he was talking to himself in a loud voice and ramming his alpenstock furiously into the sodden ground:—

Never existed! William Tell! William Tell a myth! And it was a painter charged with the duty of decorating the Tellsplatte who said that calmly. He hated him as if for a sacrilege; he hated those learned men, and this denying, demolishing impious age, which respects nothing, neither fame nor grandeur —coquin de sort!

And so, two hundred, three hundred years hence, when Tartarin was spoken of there would always be Astier-Réhus and Professor Schwanthalers to deny that he ever existed — a Provençal myth! a Barbary legend!.. He stopped, choking with indignation and his rapid climb, and seated himself on a rustic bench.

From there he could see the lake between the branches, and the white walls of the chapel like a new mausoleum. A roaring of steam and the bustle of getting to the wharf announced the arrival of fresh visitors. They collected on the bank, guide-books in hand, and then advanced with thoughtful gestures and extended arms, evidently relating the “legend.” Suddenly, by an abrupt revulsion of ideas, the comicality of the whole thing struck him.

He pictured to himself all historical Switzerland living upon this imaginary hero; raising statues and chapels in his honour on the little squares of the little towns, and placing monuments in the museums of the great ones; organizing patriotic fêtes, to which everybody rushed, banners displayed, from all the cantons, with banquets, toasts, speeches, hurrahs, songs, and tears swelling all breasts, and this for a great patriot, whom everybody knew had never existed.

Talk of Tarascon indeed! There’s a tarasconade for you, the like of which was never invented down there!

His good-humour quite restored, Tartarin in a few sturdy strides struck the highroad to Fluelen, at the side of which the Hôtel Tellsplatte spreads out its long façade. While awaiting the dinner-bell the guests were walking about in front of a cascade over rock-work on the gullied road, where landaus were drawn up, their poles on the ground among puddles of water in which was reflected a copper-coloured sun.

Tartarin inquired for his man. They told him he was dining. “Then take me to him, zou!“ and this was said with such authority that in spite of the respectful repugnance shown to disturbing so important a personage, a maid-servant conducted the Alpinist through the whole hotel, where his advent created some amazement, to the invaluable courier who was dining alone in a little room that looked upon the court-yard.

“Monsieur,” said Tartarin as he entered, his ice-axe on his shoulder, “excuse me if . . . ”

He stopped stupefied, and the courier, tall, lank, his napkin at his chin, in the savoury steam of a plateful of hot soup, let fall his spoon.

Vé! Monsieur Tartarin . . . ”

Té! Bompard.”

It was Bompard, former manager of the Club, a good fellow, but afflicted with a fabulous imagination which rendered him incapable of telling a word of truth, and had caused him to be nicknamed in Tarascon “The Impostor.”

Called an impostor in Tarascon! you can judge what he must have been. And this was the incomparable guide, the climber of the Alps, the Himalayas, the Mountains of the Moon.

“Oh! now, then, I understand,” ejaculated Tartarin, rather nonplussed; but, even so, joyful to see a face from home and to hear once more that dear, delicious accent of the Cours.

Différemment, Monsieur Tartarin, you ‘ll dine with me, qué?

Tartarin hastened to accept, delighted at the pleasure of sitting down at a private table opposite to a friend, without the very smallest litigious compote-dish between them, to be able to hobnob, to talk as he ate, and to eat good things, carefully cooked and fresh; for couriers are admirably treated by innkeepers, and served apart with all the best wines and the extra dainties.

Many were the au mouains, pas mouains, and différemments.

“Then, my dear fellow, it was really you I heard last night, up there, on the platform?..”

“Hey! parfaitemain . . . I was making those young ladies admire . . . Fine, isn’t it, sunrise on the Alps?”

“Superb!” cried Tartarin, at first without conviction and merely to avoid contradicting him, but caught the next minute; and after that it was really bewildering to hear those two Tarasconese enthusiasts lauding the splendours they had found on the Rigi. It was Joanne capping Baedeker.

Then, as the meal went on, the conversation became more intimate, full of confidences and effusive protestations, which brought real tears to their Provençal eyes, lively, brilliant eyes, but keeping always in their facile emotion a little corner of jest and satire. In that alone did the two friends resemble each other; for in person one was as lean, tanned, weatherbeaten, seamed with the wrinkles special to the grimaces of his profession, as the other was short, stocky, sleek-skinned, and sound-blooded.

He had seen all, that poor Bompard, since his exodus from the Club. That insatiable imagination of his which prevented him from ever staying in one place had kept him wandering under so many suns, and through such diverse fortunes. He related his adventures, and counted up the fine occasions to enrich himself which had snapped, there! in his fingers — such as his last invention for saving the war-budget the cost of boots and shoes . . . “Do you know how?.. Oh, moun Diou! it is very simple . . . by shoeing the feet of the soldiers.”

Outre!“ cried Tartarin, horrified.

Bompard continued very calmly, with his natural air of cold madness:—

“A great idea, wasn’t it? Eh! be! at the ministry they did not even answer me . . . Ah! my poor Monsieur Tartarin, I have had my bad moments, I have eaten the bread of poverty before I entered the service of the Company . . . ”

“Company! what Company?”

Bompard lowered his voice discreetly.

“Hush! presently, not here . . . ” Then returning to his natural tones, ”Et autremain, you people at Tarascon, what are you all doing? You haven’t yet told me what brings you to our mountains . . . ”

It was now for Tartarin to pour himself out. Without anger, but with that melancholy of declining years, that ennui which attacks as they grow elderly great artists, beautiful women, and all conquerors of peoples and hearts, he told of the defection of his compatriots, the plot laid against him to deprive him of the presidency, the decision he had come to to do some act of heroism, a great ascension, the Tarasconese banner borne higher than it had ever before been planted; in short, to prove to the Alpinists of Tarascon that he was still worthy . . . still worthy of . . . Emotion overcame him, he was forced to keep silence . . . Then he added:—

“You know me, Gonzague . . . ” and nothing can ever render the effusion, the caressing charm with which he uttered that troubadouresque Christian name of the courier. It was like one way of pressing his hands, of coming nearer to his heart . . . “You know me, que! You know if I balked when the question came up of marching upon the lion; and during the war, when we organized together the defences of the Club . . . ”

Bompard nodded his head with terrible emphasis; he thought he was there still.

“Well, my good fellow, what the lions, what the Krupp cannon could never do, the Alps have accomplished . . . I am afraid.”

“Don’t say that, Tartarin!”

“Why not?” said the hero, with great gentleness . . . “I say it, because it is so . . . ”

And tranquilly, without posing, he acknowledged the impression made upon him by Doré’s drawing of that catastrophe on the Matterhorn, which was ever before his eyes. He feared those perils, and being told of an extraordinary guide, capable of avoiding them, he resolved to seek him out and confide in him.

Then, in a tone more natural, he added: “You have never been a guide, have you, Gonzague?”

Hé! yes,” replied Bompard, smiling . . . “Only, I never did all that I related.”

“That’s understood,” assented Tartarin.

And the other added in a whisper:—

“Let us go out on the road; we can talk more freely there.”

It was getting dark; a warm damp breeze was rolling up black clouds upon the sky, where the setting sun had left behind it a vague gray mist.

They went along the shore in the direction of Fluelen, crossing the mute shadows of hungry tourists returning to the hotel; shadows themselves, and not speaking until they reached a tunnel through which the road is cut, opening at intervals to little terraces overhanging the lake.

“Let us stop here,” pealed forth the hollow voice of Bompard, which resounded under the vaulted roof like a cannon-shot. There, seated on the parapet, they contemplated that admirable view of the lake, the downward rush of the fir-trees and beeches pressing blackly together in the foreground, and farther on, the higher mountains with waving summits, and farther still, others of a bluish-gray confusion as of clouds, in the midst of which lay, though scarcely visible, the long white trail of a glacier, winding through the hollows and suddenly illumined with irised fire, yellow, red, and green. They were exhibiting the mountain with Bengal lights!

From Fluelen the rockets rose, scattering their multicoloured stars; Venetian lanterns went and came in boats that remained invisible while bearing bands of music and pleasure-seekers.

A fairylike decoration seen through the frame, cold and architectural, of the granite walls of the tunnel.

“What a queer country, pas mouain, this Switzerland . . . ” cried Tartarin.

Bompard burst out laughing.

“Ah! vaï, Switzerland!.. In the first place, there is no Switzerland.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53