The Brünig pass. Tartarin falls into the hands of Nihilists, Disappearance of an Italian tenor and a rope made at Avignon, Fresh exploits of the cap-sportsman. Pan! pan!
“Get in! get in!”
“But how the devil, que! am I to get in? the places are full . . . they won’t make room for me.”
This was said at the extreme end of the lake of the Four Cantons, on that shore at Alpnach, damp and soggy as a delta, where the post-carriages wait in line to convey tourists leaving the boat to cross the Brünig.
A fine rain like needle-points had been falling since morning; and the worthy Tartarin, hampered by his armament, hustled by the porters and the custom-house officials, ran from carriage to carriage, sonorous and lumbering as that orchestra-man one sees at fairs, whose every movement sets a-going triangles, big drums, Chinese bells, and cymbals. At all the doors the same cry of terror, the same crabbed “Full!” growled in all dialects, the same swelling-out of bodies and garments to take as much room as possible and prevent the entrance of so dangerous and resounding a companion.
The unfortunate Alpinist puffed, sweated, and replied with ”Coquin de bon sort!“ and despairing gestures to the impatient clamour of the convoy: “En route!.. All right!.. Andiamo!.. Vorwarts!..” The horses pawed, the drivers swore. Finally, the manager of the post-route, a tall, ruddy fellow in a tunic and flat cap, interfered himself, and opening forcibly the door of a landau, the top of which was half up, he pushed in Tartarin, hoisting him like a bundle, and then stood, majestically, with outstretched hand for his trinkgeld.
Humiliated, furious with the people in the carriage who were forced to accept him manu militari, Tartarin affected not to look at them, rammed his porte-monnaie back into his pocket, wedged his ice-axe on one side of him with ill-humoured motions and an air of determined brutality, as if he were a passenger by the Dover steamer landing at Calais.
“Good-morning, monsieur,” said a gentle voice he had heard already.
He raised his eyes, and sat horrified, terrified before the pretty, round and rosy face of Sonia, seated directly in front of him, beneath the hood of the landau, which also sheltered a tall young man, wrapped in shawls and rugs, of whom nothing could be seen but a forehead of livid paleness and a few thin meshes of hair, golden like the rim of his near-sighted spectacles. A third person, whom Tartarin knew but too well, accompanied them — Manilof, the incendiary of the Winter Palace.
Sonia, Manilof, what a mouse-trap!
This was the moment when they meant to accomplish their threat, on that Brünig pass, so craggy, so surrounded with abysses. And the hero, by one of those flashes of horror which reveal the depths of danger, beheld himself stretched on the rocks of a ravine, or swinging from the topmost branches of an oak. Fly! yes, but where, how? The vehicles had started in file at the sound of a trumpet, a crowd of little ragamuffins were clambering at the doors with bunches of edelweiss. Tartarin, maddened, had a mind to begin the attack by cleaving the head of the Cossack beside him with his alpenstock; then, on reflection, he felt it was more prudent to refrain. Evidently, these people would not attempt their scheme till farther on, in regions uninhabited, and before that, there might come means of getting out. Besides, their intentions no longer seemed to him quite so malevolent. Sonia smiled gently upon him from her pretty turquoise eyes, the pale young man looked pleasantly at him, and Manilof, visibly milder, moved obligingly aside and helped him to put his bag between them. Had they discovered their mistake by reading on the register of the Rigi-Kulm the illustrious name of Tartarin?.. He wished to make sure, and, familiarly, good-humouredly, he began:—
“Enchanted with this meeting, beautiful young lady . . . only, permit me to introduce myself . . . you are ignorant with whom you have to do, vé! whereas, I am perfectly aware who you are.”
“Hush!” said the little Sonia, still smiling, but pointing with her gloved finger to the seat beside the driver, where sat the tenor with his sleeve-buttons, and another young Russian, sheltering themselves under the same umbrella, and laughing and talking in Italian.
Between the police and the Nihilists, Tartarin did not hesitate.
“Do you know that man, au mouain?“ he said in a low voice, putting his head quite close to Sonia’s fresh cheeks, and seeing himself in her clear eyes, which suddenly turned hard and savage as she answered “yes,” with a snap of their lids.
The hero shuddered, but as one shudders at the theatre, with that delightful creeping of the epidermis which takes you when the action becomes Corsican, and you settle yourself in your seat to see and to listen more attentively. Personally out of the affair, delivered from the mortal terrors which had haunted him all night and prevented him from swallowing his usual Swiss coffee, honey, and butter, he breathed with free lungs, thought life good, and this little Russian irresistibly pleasing in her travelling hat, her jersey close to the throat, tight to the arms, and moulding her slender figure of perfect elegance. And such a child! Child in the candour of her laugh, in the down upon her cheeks, in the pretty grace with which she spread her shawl upon the knees of her poor brother. “Are you comfortable?..” “You are not cold?” How could any one suppose that little hand, so delicate beneath its chamois glove, had had the physical force and the moral courage to kill a man?
Nor did the others of the party seem ferocious: all had the same ingenuous laugh, rather constrained and sad on the drawn lips of the poor invalid, and noisy in Manilof, who, very young behind his bushy beard, gave way to explosions of mirth like a schoolboy in his holidays, bursts of a gayety that was really exuberant.
The third companion, whom they called Boli-bine, and who talked on the box with the tenor, amused himself much and was constantly turning back to translate to his friends the Italian’s adventures, his successes at the Petersburg Opera, his bonnes fortunes, the sleeve-buttons the ladies had subscribed to present to him on his departure, extraordinary buttons, with, three notes of music engraved thereon, la do ré (l’adoré), which professional pun, repeated in the landau, caused such delight, the tenor himself swelling up with pride and twirling his moustache with so silly and conquering a look at Sonia, that Tartarin began to ask himself whether, after all, they were not mere tourists, and he a genuine tenor.
Meantime the carriages, going at a good pace, rolled over bridges, skirted little lakes and flowery meads, and fine vineyards running with water and deserted; for it was Sunday, and all the peasants whom they met wore their gala costumes, the women with long braids of hair hanging down their backs and silver chainlets. They began at last to mount the road in zigzags among forests of oak and beech; little by little the marvellous horizon displayed itself on the left; at each turn of the zigzag, rivers, valleys with their spires pointing upward came into view, and far away in the distance, the hoary head of the Finsteraarhorn, whitening beneath an invisible sun.
Soon the road became gloomy, the aspect savage. On one side, heavy shadows, a chaos of trees, twisted and gnarled on a steep slope, down which foamed a torrent noisily; to right, an enormous rock overhanging the road and bristling with branches that sprouted from its fissures.
They laughed no more in the landau; but they all admired, raising their heads and trying to see the summit of this tunnel of granite.
“The forests of Atlas!.. I seem to see them again . . . ” said Tartarin, gravely, and then, as the remark passed unnoticed, he added: “Without the lion’s roar, however.”
“You have heard it, monsieur?” asked Sonia.
Heard the lion, he!.. Then, with an indulgent smile: “I am Tartarin of Tarascon, mademoiselle . . . ”
And just see what such barbarians are! He might have said, “My name is Dupont;” it would have been exactly the same thing to them. They were ignorant of the name of Tartarin!
Nevertheless, he was not angry, and he answered the young lady, who wished to know if the lion’s roar had frightened him: “No, mademoiselle . . . My camel trembled between my legs, but I looked to my priming as tranquilly as before a herd of cows . . . At a distance their cry is much the same, like this, té!“
To give Sonia an exact impression of the thing, he bellowed in his most sonorous voice a formidable “Meuh . . . ” which swelled, spread, echoed and reechoed against the rock. The horses reared; in all the carriages the travellers sprang up alarmed, looking round for the accident, the cause of such an uproar; but recognizing the Alpinist, whose head and overwhelming accoutrements could be seen in the uncovered half of the landau, they asked themselves once more: “Who is that animal?”
He, very calm, continued to give details: when to attack the beast, where to strike him, how to despatch him, and about the diamond sight he affixed to his carbines to enable him to aim correctly in the darkness. The young girl listened to him, leaning forward with a little panting of the nostrils, in deep attention.
“They say that Bombonnel still hunts; do you know him?” asked the brother.
“Yes,” replied Tartarin, without enthusiasm . . . “He is not a clumsy fellow, but we have better than he.”
A word to the wise! Then in a melancholy tone, ”Pas mouain, they give us strong emotions, these hunts of the great carnivora. When we have them no longer life seems empty; we do not know how to fill it.”
Here Manilof, who understood French without speaking it, and seemed to be listening to Tartarin very intently, his peasant forehead slashed with the wrinkle of a great scar, said a few words, laughing, to his friends.
“Manilof says we are all of the same brotherhood,” explained Sonia to Tartarin . . . “We hunt, like you, the great wild beasts.”
“Té! yes, pardi . . . wolves, white bears . . . ”
“Yes, wolves, white bears, and other noxious animals . . . ”
And the laughing began again, noisy, interminable, but in a sharp, ferocious key this time, laughs that showed their teeth and reminded Tartarin in what sad and singular company he was travelling.
Suddenly the carriages stopped. The road became steeper and made at this spot a long circuit to reach the top of the Brünig pass, which could also be reached on foot in twenty minutes less time through a noble forest of birches. In spite of the rain in the morning, making the earth sodden and slippery, the tourists nearly all left the carriages and started, single file, along the narrow path called a schlittage.
From Tartarin’s landau, the last in line, all the men got out; but Sonia, thinking the path too muddy, settled herself back in the carriage, and as the Alpinist was getting out with the rest, a little delayed by his equipments, she said to him in a low voice: “Stay! keep me company . . . ” in such a coaxing way! The poor man, quite overcome, began immediately to forge a romance, as delightful as it was improbable, which made his old heart beat and throb.
He was quickly undeceived when he saw the young girl leaning anxiously forward to watch Bolibine and the Italian, who were talking eagerly together at the opening of the path, Manilof and Boris having already gone forward. The so-called tenor hesitated. An instinct seemed to warn him not to risk himself alone in company with those three men. He decided at last to go on, and Sonia looked at him as he mounted the path, all the while stroking her cheek with a bouquet of purple cyclamen, those mountain violets, the leaf of which is lined with the same fresh colour as the flowers.
The landau proceeded slowly. The driver got down to walk in front with other comrades, and the convoy of more than fifteen empty vehicles, drawn nearer together by the steepness of the road, rolled silently along. Tartarin, greatly agitated, and foreboding something sinister, dared not look at his companion, so much did he fear that a word or a look might compel him to be an actor in the drama he felt impending. But Sonia was paying no attention to him; her eyes were rather fixed, and she did not cease caressing the down of her skin mechanically with the flowers.
“So,” she said at length, “so you know who we are, I and my friends . . . Well, what do you think of us? What do Frenchmen think of us?”
The hero turned pale, then red. He was desirous of not offending by rash or imprudent words such vindictive beings; on the other hand, how consort with murderers? He got out of it by a metaphor:—
“Différemment, mademoiselle, you were telling me just now that we belonged to the same brotherhood, hunters of hydras and monsters, despots and carnivora . . . It is therefore to a companion of St. Hubert that I now make answer . . . My sentiment is that, even against wild beasts we should use loyal weapons . . . Our Jules Gérard, a famous lion-slayer, employed explosive balls. I myself have never given in to that, I do not use them . . . When I hunted the lion or the panther I planted myself before the beast, face to face, with a good double-barrelled carbine, and pan! pan! a ball in each eye.”
“In each eye!..” repeated Sonia.
“Never did I miss my aim.”
He affirmed it and he believed it.
The young girl looked at him with naïve admiration, thinking aloud:—
“That must certainly be the surest way.”
A sudden rending of the branches and the underbrush, and the thicket parted above them, so quickly and in so feline a way that Tartarin, his head now full of hunting adventures, might have thought himself still on the watch in the Zaccar. But Manilof sprang from the slope, noiselessly, and close to the carriage. His small, cunning eyes were shining in a face that was flayed by the briers; his beard and his long lank hair were streaming with water from the branches. Breathless, holding with his coarse, hairy hands to the doorway, he spoke in Russian to Sonia, who turned instantly to Tartarin and said in a curt voice:—
“Your rope . . . quick . . . ”
“My . . . my rope?..” stammered the hero.
“Quick, quick . . . you shall have it again in half an hour.”
Offering no other explanation, she helped him with her little gloved hands to divest himself of his famous rope made in Avignon. Manilof took the coil, grunting with joy; in two bounds he sprang, with the elasticity of a wild-cat, into the thicket and disappeared.
“What has happened? What are they going to do?.. He looked ferocious . . . ” murmured Tartaric not daring to utter his whole thought.
Ferocious, Manilof! Ah! how plain it was he did not know him. No human being was ever better, gentler, more compassionate; and to show Tartarin a trait of that exceptionally kind nature, Sonia, with her clear, blue glance, told him how her friend, having executed a dangerous mandate of the Revolutionary Committee and jumped into the sledge which awaited him for escape, had threatened the driver to get out, cost what it might, if he persisted in whipping the horse whose fleetness alone could save him.
Tartarin thought the act worthy of antiquity. Then, having reflected on all the human lives sacrificed by that same Manilof, as conscienceless as an earthquake or a volcano in eruption, who yet would not let others hurt an animal in his presence, he questioned the young girl with an ingenuous air:—
“Were there many killed by the explosion at the Winter Palace?”
“Too many,” replied Sonia, sadly; “and the only one that ought to have died escaped.”
She remained silent, as if displeased, looking so pretty, her head lowered, with her long auburn eyelashes sweeping her pale rose cheeks. Tartarin, angry with himself for having pained her, was caught once more by that charm of youth and freshness which the strange little creature shed around her.
“So, monsieur, the war that we are making seems to you unjust, inhuman?” She said it quite close to him in a caress, as it were, of her breath and her eye; the hero felt himself weakening . . .
“You do not see that all means are good and legitimate to deliver a people who groan and suffocate?..”
“No doubt, no doubt . . . ”
The young girl, growing more insistent as Tartarin weakened, went on:—
“You spoke just now of a void to be filled; does it not seem to you more noble, more interesting to risk your life for a great cause than to risk it in slaying lions or scaling glaciers?”
“The fact is,” said Tartarin, intoxicated, losing his head and mad with an irresistible desire to take and kiss that ardent, persuasive little hand which she laid upon his arm, as she had done once before, up there, on the Rigi when he put on her shoe. Finally, unable to resist, and seizing the little gloved hand between both his own —
“Listen, Sonia,” he said, in a good hearty voice, paternal and familiar . . . “Listen, Sonia . . . ”
A sudden stop of the landau interrupted him. They had reached the summit of the Brünig; travellers and drivers were getting into their carriages to catch up lost time and reach, at a gallop, the next village where the convoy was to breakfast and relay. The three Russians took their places, but that of the Italian tenor remained unoccupied.
“That gentleman got into one of the first carriages,” said Boris to the driver, who asked about him; then, addressing Tartarin, whose uneasiness was visible:—
“We must ask him for your rope; he chose to keep it with him.”
Thereupon, fresh laughter in the landau, and the resumption for poor Tartarin of horrid perplexity, not knowing what to think or believe in presence of the good-humour and ingenuous countenances of the suspected assassins. Sonia, while wrapping up her invalid in cloaks and plaids, for the air on the summit was all the keener from the rapidity with which the carriages were now driven, related in Russian her conversation with Tartarin, uttering his pan! pan! with a pretty intonation which her companions repeated after her, two of them admiring the hero, while Manilof shook his head incredulously.
This was on the market-place of a large village, at an old tavern with a worm-eaten wooden balcony, and a sign hanging to a rusty iron bracket. The file of vehicles stopped, and while the horses were being unharnessed the hungry tourists jumped hurriedly down and rushed into a room on the lower floor, painted green and smelling of mildew, where the table was laid for twenty guests. Sixty had arrived, and for five minutes nothing could be heard but a frightful tumult, cries, and a vehement altercation between the Rices and the Prunes around the compote-dishes, to the great alarm of the tavern-keeper, who lost his head (as if daily, at the same hour, the same post-carriages did not pass) and bustled about his servants, also seized with chronic bewilderment — excellent method of serving only half the dishes called for by the carte, and of giving change in a way that made the white sous of Switzerland count for fifty centimes. “Suppose we dine in the carriage,” said Sonia, I annoyed by such confusion; and as no one had time to pay attention to them the young men themselves did the waiting. Manilof returned with a cold leg of mutton, Bolibine with a long loaf of bread and sausages; but the best forager was Tartarin. Certainly the opportunity to get away from his companions in the bustle of relay ing was a fine one; he might at least have assured himself that the Italian had reappeared; but he never once thought of it, being solely preoccupied with Sonia’s breakfast, and in showing Manilof and the others how a Tarasconese can manage matters.
When he stepped down the portico of the hotel, gravely, with fixed eyes, bearing in his robust hands a large tray laden with plates, napkins, assorted food, and Swiss champagne in its gilt-necked bottles, Sonia clapped her hands, and congratulated him.
“How did you manage it?” she said.
“I don’t know . . . somehow, té!.. We are all like that in Tarascon.”
Oh! those happy minutes! That pleasant breakfast opposite to Sonia, almost on his knees, the village market-place, like the scene of an operetta, with clumps of green trees, beneath which sparkled the gold ornaments and the muslin sleeves of the Swiss girls, walking about, two and two, like dolls!
How good the bread tasted! what savoury sausages! The heavens themselves took part in the scene, and were soft, veiled, clement; it rained, of course, but so gently, the drops so rare, though just enough to temper the Swiss champagne, always dangerous to Southern heads.
Under the veranda of the hotel, a Tyrolian quartette, two giants and two female dwarfs in resplendent and heavy rags, looking as if they had escaped from the failure of a theatre at a fair, were mingling their throat notes: “aou . . . aou . . . ” with the clinking of plates and glasses. They were ugly, stupid, motionless, straining the cords of their skinny necks. Tartarin thought them delightful, and gave them a handful of sous, to the great amazement of the villagers who surrounded the unhorsed landau.
“Vife la Vranze!” quavered a voice in the crowd, from which issued a tall old man, clothed in a singular blue coat with silver buttons, the skirts of which swept the ground; on his head was a gigantic shako, in form like a bucket of sauerkraut, and so weighted by its enormous plume that the old man was forced to balance himself with his arms as he walked, like an acrobat.
“Old soldier . . . Charles X . . . ”
Tartarin, fresh from Bompard’s revelations, began to laugh, and said in a low voice with a wink of his eye:—
“Up to that, old fellow . . . ” But even so, he gave him a white sou and poured him out a bumper, which the old man accepted, laughing, and winking himself, though without knowing why. Then, dislodging from a corner of his mouth an enormous china pipe, he raised his glass and drank “to the company,” which confirmed Tartarin in his opinion that here was a colleague of Bompard.
No matter! one toast deserved another. So, standing up in the carriage, his glass held high, his voice strong, Tartarin brought tears to his eyes by drinking, first: To France, my country!.. next to hospitable Switzerland, which he was happy to honour publicly and thank for the generous welcome she affords to the vanquished, to the exiled of all lands. Then, lowering his voice and inclining his glass to the companions of his journey, he wished them a quick return to their country, restoration to their family, safe friends, honourable careers, and an end to all dissensions; for, he said, it is impossible to spend one’s life in eating each other up.
During the utterance of this toast Soma’s brother smiled, cold and sarcastic behind his blue spectacles; Manilof, his neck pushed forth, his swollen eyebrows emphasizing his wrinkle, seemed to be asking himself if that “big barrel” would soon be done with his gabble, while Bolibine, perched on the box, was twisting his comical yellow face, wrinkled as a Barbary ape, till he looked like one of those villanous little monkeys squatting on the shoulders of the Alpinist.
The young girl alone listened to him very seriously, striving to comprehend such a singular type of man. Did he think all that he said? Had he done all that he related? Was he a madman, a comedian, or simply a gabbler, as Manilof in his quality of man of action insisted, giving to the word a most contemptuous signification.
The answer was given at once. His toast ended, Tartarin had just sat down when a sudden shot, a second, then a third, fired close to the tavern, brought him again to his feet, ears straining and nostrils scenting powder.
“Who fired?.. where is it?.. what is happening?..”
In his inventive noddle a whole drama was already defiling; attack on the convoy by armed bands; opportunity given him to defend the honour and life of that charming young lady. But no! the discharges only came from the Stand, where the youths of the village practise at a mark every Sunday. As the horses were not yet harnessed, Tartarin, as if carelessly, proposed to go and look at them. He had his idea, and Sonia had hers in accepting the proposal. Guided by the old soldier of Charles X. wobbling under his shako, they crossed the market-place, opening the ranks of the crowd, who followed them with curiosity.
Beneath its thatched roof and its square uprights of pine wood the Stand resembled one of our own pistol-galleries at a fair, with this difference, that the amateurs brought their own weapons, breech-loading muskets of the oldest pattern, which they managed, however, with some adroitness. Tar-tarin, his arms crossed, observed the shots, criticised them aloud, gave his advice, but did not fire himself. The Russians watched him, making signs to each other.
“Pan!.. pan!..” sneered Bolibine, making the gesture of taking aim and mimicking Tartarin’s accent. Tartarin turned round very red, and swelling with anger.
“Parfaitemain, young man . . . Pan!.. pan!.. and as often as you like.”
The time to load an old double-barrelled carbine which must have served several generations of chamois hunters, and — pan!.. pan!.. T is done. Both balls are in the bull’s -eye. Hurrahs of admiration burst forth on all sides. Sonia triumphed. Bolibine laughed no more.
“But that is nothing, that!” said Tartarin; “you shall see . . . ”
The Stand did not suffice him; he looked about for another target, and the crowd recoiled alarmed from this strange Alpinist, thick-set, savage-looking and carbine in hand, when they heard him propose to the old guard of Charles X. to break his pipe between his teeth at fifty paces. The old fellow howled in terror and plunged into the crowd, his trembling plume remaining visible above their serried heads. None the less, Tartarin felt that he must put it somewhere, that ball. ”Té! pardi! as we did at Tarascon!..” And the former cap-hunter pitched his headgear high into the air with all the strength of his double muscles, shot it on the fly, and pierced it. “Bravo!” cried Sonia, sticking into the small hole made by the ball the bouquet of cyclamen with which she had stroked her cheek.
With that charming trophy in his cap Tartarin returned to the landau. The trumpet sounded, the convoy started, the horses went rapidly down to Brienz along that marvellous corniche road, blasted in the side of the rock, separated from an abyss of over a thousand feet by single stones a couple of yards apart. But Tartarin was no longer conscious of danger; no longer did he look at the scenery — that Meyringen valley, seen through a light veil of mist, with its river in straight lines, the lake, the villages massing themselves in the distance, and that whole horizon of mountains, of glaciers, blending at times with the clouds, displaced by the turns of the road, lost apparently, and then returning, like the shifting scenes of a stage.
Softened by tender thoughts, the hero admired the sweet child before him, reflecting that glory is only a semi-happiness, that ’tis sad to grow old all alone in your greatness, like Moses, and that this fragile flower of the North transplanted into the little garden at Tarascon would brighten its monotony, and be sweeter to see and breathe than that everlasting baobab, arbos gigantea, diminutively confined in the mignonette pot. With her childlike eyes, and her broad brow, thoughtful and self-willed, Sonia looked at him, and she, too, dreamed — but who knows what the young girls dream of?
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07