Confidences in a tunnel.
“Switzerland, in our day, vé! Monsieur Tar-tarin, is nothing more than a vast Kursaal, open from June to September, a panoramic casino, where people come from all four quarters of the globe to amuse themselves, and which is manipulated and managed by a Company richissime by hundreds of thousands of millions, which has its offices in London and Geneva. It costs money, you may be sure, to lease and brush up and trick out all this territory, lakes, forests, mountains, cascades, and to keep a whole people of employés, supernumeraries, and what not, and set up miraculous hotels on the highest summits, with gas, telegraphs, telephones . . . ”
“That, at least, is true,” said Tartarin, thinking aloud, and remembering the Rigi.
“True!.. But you have seen nothing yet . . . Go on through the country and you ‘ll not find one corner that is n’t engineered and machine-worked like the under stage of the Opera — cascades lighted à giorno, turnstiles at the entrance to the glaciers, and loads of railways, hydraulic and funicular, for ascensions. To be sure, the Company, in view of its clients the English and American climbers, keeps up on the noted mountains, Jungfrau, Monk, Finsteraarhorn, an appearance of danger and desolation, though in reality there is no more risk there than elsewhere . . . ”
“But the crevasses, my good fellow, those horrible crevasses . . . Suppose one falls into them?”
“You fall on snow, Monsieur Tartarin, and you don’t hurt yourself, and there is always at the bottom a porter, a hunter, at any rate some one, who picks you up, shakes and brushes you, and asks graciously: ‘Has monsieur any baggage?’”
“What stuff are you telling me now, Gonzague?”
Bompard redoubled in gravity.
“The keeping up of those crevasses is one of the heaviest expenses of the Company.”
Silence fell for a moment under the tunnel, the surroundings of which were quieting down. No more varied fireworks, Bengal lights, or boats on the water; but the moon had risen and made another conventional landscape, bluish, liquides-cent, with masses of impenetrable shadow . . .
Tartarin hesitated to believe his companion on his word. Nevertheless, he reflected on the extraordinary things he had seen in four days — the sun on the Rigi, the farce of William Tell — and Bompard’s inventions seemed to him all the more probable because in every Tarasconese the braggart is leashed with a gull.
“Différemment, my good friend, how do you explain certain awful catastrophes . . . that of the Matterhorn, for instance?..”
“It is sixteen years since that happened; the Company was not then constituted, Monsieur Tartarin.”
“But last year, the accident on the Wetterhorn, two guides buried with their travellers!..”
“Must, sometimes, té, pardi!.. you understand . . . whets the Alpinists . . . The English won’t come to mountains now where heads are not broke . . . The Wetterhorn had been running down for some time, but after that little item in the papers the receipts went up at once.”
“Then the two guides?..”
“They are just as safe as the travellers; only they are kept out of sight, supported in foreign parts, for six months . . . A puff like that costs dear, but the Company is rich enough to afford it.”
“Listen to me, Gonzague . . . ”
Tartarin had risen, one hand on Bompard’s shoulder.
“You would not wish to have any misfortune happen to me, que?.. Well, then! speak to me frankly . . . you know my capacities as an Alpinist; they are moderate.”
“Very moderate, that’s true.”
“Do you think, nevertheless, that I could, without too much danger, undertake the ascension of the Jungfrau?”
“I ‘ll answer for it, my head in the fire, Monsieur Tartarin . . . You have only to trust to your guide, vé!“
“And if I turn giddy?”
“Shut your eyes.”
“And if I slip?”
“Let yourself go . . . just as they do on the stage . . . sort of trap-doors . . . there ’s no risk . . . ”
“Ah! if I could have you there to tell me all that, to keep repeating it to me . . . Look here, my good fellow, make an effort, and come with me.”
Bompard desired nothing better, pécaïré! but he had those Peruvians on his hands for the rest of the season; and, replying to his old friend, who expressed surprise at seeing him accept the functions of a courier, a subaltern —
“I could n’t help myself, Monsieur Tartarin,” he said. “It is in our engagement. The Company has the right to employ us as it pleases.”
On which he began to count upon his fingers his varied avatars during the last three years . . . guide in the Oberland, performer on the Alpine horn, chamois-hunter, veteran soldier of Charles X., Protestant pastor on the heights . . .
“Quès aco?“ demanded Tartarin, astonished.
“Bé! yes,” replied the other, composedly. “When you travel in German Switzerland you will see pastors preaching on giddy heights, standing on rocks or rustic pulpits of the trunks of trees. A few shepherds and cheese-makers, their leather caps in their hands, and women with their heads dressed up in the costume of the canton group themselves about in picturesque attitudes; the scenery is pretty, the pastures green, or the harvest just over, cascades to the road, and flocks with their bells ringing every note on the mountain. All that, vé that’s decorative, suggestive. Only, none but the employés of the Company, guides, pastors, couriers, hotel-keepers are in the secret, and it is their interest not to let it get wind, for fear of startling the clients.”
The Alpinist was dumfounded, silent — in him the acme of stupefaction. In his heart, whatever doubt he may have had as to Bompard’s veracity, he felt himself comforted and calmed as to Alpine ascensions, and presently the conversation grew joyous. The two friends talked of Tarascon, of their good, hearty laughs in the olden time when both were younger.
“Apropos of galéjade [jokes],” said Tartarin, suddenly, “they played me a fine one on the Rigi-Kulm . . . Just imagine that this morning . . . ” and he told of the letter gummed to his glass, reciting it with emphasis: “‘Devil of a Frenchman’ . . . A hoax, of course, que?“
“May be . . . who knows?..” said Bompard, seeming to take the matter more seriously. He asked if Tartarin during his stay on the Rigi had relations with any one, and whether he had n’t said a word too much.
“Ha! vaï! a word too much! as if one even opened one’s mouth among those English and Germans, mute as carp under pretence of good manners!”
On reflection, however, he did remember having clinched a matter, and sharply too! with a species of Cossack, a certain Mi . . . Milanof.
“Manilof,” corrected Bompard.
“Do you know him?.. Between you and me, I think that Manilof had a spite against me about a little Russian girl . . . ”
“Yes, Sonia . . . “murmured Bompard.
“Do you know her too? Ah! my friend, a pearl! a pretty little gray partridge!”
“Sonia Wassilief . . . It was she who killed with one shot of her revolver in the open that General Felianine, the president of the Council of War which condemned her brother to perpetual exile.”
Sonia an assassin? that child, that little blond fairy!.. Tartarin could not believe it. But Bompard gave precise particulars and details of the affair — which, indeed, is very well known. Sonia had lived for the last two years in Zurich, where her brother Boris, having escaped from Siberia, joined her, his lungs gone; and during the summers she took him for better air to the mountains. Bompard had often met them, attended by friends who were all exiles, conspirators. The Wassiliefs, very intelligent, very energetic, and still possessed of some fortune, were at the head of the Nihilist party, with Bolibine, the man who murdered the prefect of police, and this very Manilof, who blew up the Winter Palace last year.
“Boufre!“ exclaimed Tartarin, “one meets with queer neighbours on the Rigi.”
But here’s another thing. Bompard took it into his head that Tartarin’s letter came from these young people; it was just like their Nihilist proceedings. The czar, every morning, found warnings in his study, under his napkin . . .
“But,” said Tartarin, turning pale, “why such threats? What have I done to them?”
Bompard thought they must have taken him for a spy.
“A spy! I!
“Be! yes.” In all the Nihilist centres, at Zurich, Lausanne, Geneva, Russia maintained at great cost, a numerous body of spies; in fact, for some time past she had had in her service the former chief of the French Imperial police, with a dozen Corsicans, who followed and watched all Russian exiles, and took countless disguises in order to detect them. The costume of the Alpinist, his spectacles, his accent, were quite enough to confound him in their minds with those agents.
“Coquin de sort! now I think of it,” said Tartarin, “they had at their heels the whole time a rascally Italian tenor . . . undoubtedly a spy . . . Différemment, what must I do?”
“Above all things, never put yourself in the way of those people again; now that they have warned you they will do you harm . . . ”
“Ha! vaï! harm!.. The first one that comes near me I shall cleave his head with my ice-axe.”
And in the gloom of the tunnel the eyes of the Tarasconese hero glared. But Bompard, less confident than he, knew well that the hatred of Nihilists is terrible; it attacks from below, it undermines, and plots. It is all very well to be a lapin like the president, but you had better beware of that inn bed you sleep in, and the chair you sit upon, and the rail of the steamboat, which will give way suddenly and drop you to death. And think of the cooking-dishes prepared, the glass rubbed over with invisible poison!
“Beware of the kirsch in your flask, and the frothing milk that cow-man in sabots brings you. They stop at nothing, I tell you.”
“If so, what’s to be done! I’m doomed!” groaned Tartarin; then, grasping the hand of his companion:—
“Advise me, Gonzague.”
After a moment’s reflection, Bompard traced out to him a programme. To leave the next day, early, cross the lake and the Brünig pass, and sleep at Interlaken. The next day, to Grindelwald and the Little Scheideck. And the day after, the JUNGFRAU! After that, home to Tarascon, without losing an hour, or looking back.
“I ‘ll start to-morrow, Gonzague . . . ” declared the hero, in a virile voice, with a look of terror at the mysterious horizon, now dim in the darkness, and at the lake which seemed to him to harbour all treachery beneath the glassy calm of its pale reflections.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53