Tartarin of Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet

I. The Garden Round the Giant Trees.

MY first visit to Tartarin of Tarascon has remained a
never-to-be-forgotten date in my life; although quite ten or a dozen
years ago, I remember it better than yesterday.

At that time the intrepid Tartarin lived in the third house on the left
as the town begins, on the Avignon road. A pretty little villa in
the local style, with a front garden and a balcony behind, the walls
glaringly white and the venetians very green; and always about the
doorsteps a brood of little Savoyard shoe-blackguards playing hopscotch,
or dozing in the broad sunshine with their heads pillowed on their
boxes.

Outwardly the dwelling had no remarkable features, and none would ever
believe it the abode of a hero; but when you stepped inside, ye gods and
little fishes! what a change! From turret to foundation-stone–I mean,
from cellar to garret,–the whole building wore a heroic front; even so
the garden!

O that garden of Tartarin’s! there’s not its match in Europe! Not a
native tree was there–not one flower of France; nothing hut exotic
plants, gum-trees, gourds, cotton-woods, cocoa and cacao, mangoes,
bananas, palms, a baobab, nopals, cacti, Barbary figs–well, you would
believe yourself in the very midst of Central Africa, ten thousand
leagues away. It is but fair to say that these were none of full growth;
indeed, the cocoa-palms were no bigger than beet root and the baobab
(arbos gigantea–“giant tree,” you know) was easily enough circumscribed
by a window-pot; but, notwithstanding this, it was rather a sensation
for Tarascon, and the townsfolk who were admitted on Sundays to the
honour of contemplating Tartarin’s baobab, went home chokeful of
admiration.

Try to conceive my own emotion, which I was bound to feel on that day of
days when I crossed through this marvellous garden, and that was capped
when I was ushered into the hero’s sanctum.

His study, one of the lions–I should say, lions’ dens–of the town, was
at the end of the garden, its glass door opening right on to the baobab.

You are to picture a capacious apartment adorned with firearms and steel
blades from top to bottom: all the weapons of all the countries in the
wide world–carbines, rifles, blunderbusses, Corsican, Catalan, and
dagger knives, Malay kreeses, revolvers with spring-bayonets, Carib and
flint arrows, knuckle-dusters, life-preservers, Hottentot clubs, Mexican
lassoes–now, can you expect me to name the rest? Upon the whole fell a
fierce sunlight, which made the blades and the brass butt-plate of the
muskets gleam as if all the more to set your flesh creeping. Still,
the beholder was soothed a little by the tame air of order and tidiness
reigning over the arsenal. Everything was in place, brushed, dusted,
labelled, as in a museum; from point to point the eye descried some
obliging little card reading:

—————————————–
I Poisoned Arrows! I
I Do Not Touch! I
—————————————–

Or,

—————————————–
I Loaded! I
I Take care, please! I
—————————————–

If it had not been for these cautions I never should have dared venture
in.

In the middle of the room was an occasional table, on which stood
a decanter of rum, a siphon of soda-water, a Turkish tobacco-pouch,
“Captain Cook’s Voyages,” the Indian tales of Fenimore Cooper and
Gustave Aimard, stories of hunting the bear, eagle, elephant, and so
on. Lastly, beside the table sat a man of between forty and forty-five,
short, stout, thick-set, ruddy, with flaming eyes and a strong stubbly
beard; he wore flannel tights, and was in his shirt sleeves; one hand
held a book, and the other brandished a very large pipe with an iron
bowl-cap. Whilst reading heaven only knows what startling adventure of
scalp-hunters, he pouted out his lower lip in a terrifying way, which
gave the honest phiz of the man living placidly on his means the same
impression of kindly ferocity which abounded throughout the house.

This man was Tartarin himself–the Tartarin of Tarascon, the great,
dreadnought, incomparable Tartarin of Tarascon.

II. A general glance bestowed upon the good town of Tarascon, and a
particular one on “the cap-poppers.”

AT the time I am telling of, Tartarin of Tarascon had not become the
present-day Tartarin, the great one so popular in the whole South of
France: but yet he was even then the cock of the walk at Tarascon.

Let us show whence arose this sovereignty.

In the first place you must know that everybody is shooting mad in these
parts, from the greatest to the least. The chase is the local craze, and
so it has ever been since the mythological times when the Tarasque, as
the county dragon was called, flourished himself and his tail in the
town marshes, and entertained shooting parties got up against him. So
you see the passion has lasted a goodish bit.

It follows that, every Sunday morning, Tarascon flies to arms, lets
loose the dogs of the hunt, and rushes out of its walls, with game-bag
slung and fowling-piece on the shoulder, together with a hurly-burly of
hounds, cracking of whips, and blowing of whistles and hunting-horns.
It’s splendid to see! Unfortunately, there’s a lack of game, an absolute
dearth.

Stupid as the brute creation is, you can readily understand that, in
time, it learnt some distrust.

For five leagues around about Tarascon, forms, lairs, and burrows are
empty, and nesting-places abandoned. You’ll not find a single quail or
blackbird, one little leveret, or the tiniest tit. And yet the pretty
hillocks are mightily tempting, sweet smelling as they are of myrtle,
lavender, and rosemary; and the fine muscatels plumped out with
sweetness even unto bursting, as they spread along the banks of the
Rhone, are deucedly tempting too. True, true; but Tarascon lies behind
all this, and Tarascon is down in the black books of the world of fur
and feather. The very birds of passage have ticked it off on their
guide-books, and when the wild ducks, coming down towards the Camargue
in long triangles, spy the town steeples from afar, the outermost flyers
squawk out loudly:

“Look out! there’s Tarascon! give Tarascon the go-by, duckies!”

And the flocks take a swerve.

In short, as far as game goes, there’s not a specimen left in the land
save one old rogue of a hare, escaped by miracle from the massacres, who
is stubbornly determined to stick to it all his life! He is very well
known at Tarascon, and a name has been given him. “Rapid” is what
they call him. It is known that he has his form on M. Bompard’s
grounds–which, by the way, has doubled, ay, tripled, the value of the
property–but nobody has yet managed to lay him low. At present, only
two or three inveterate fellows worry themselves about him. The rest
have given him up as a bad job, and old Rapid has long ago passed
into the legendary world, although your Tarasconer is very slightly
superstitious naturally, and would eat cock-robins on toast, or the
swallow, which is Our Lady’s own bird, for that matter, if he could find
any.

“But that won’t do!” you will say. Inasmuch as game is so scarce, what
can the sportsmen do every Sunday?

What can they do?

Why, goodness gracious! they go out into the real country two or
three leagues from town. They gather in knots of five or six, recline
tranquilly in the shade of some well, old wall, or olive tree, extract
from their game-bags a good-sized piece of boiled beef, raw onions, a
sausage, and anchovies, and commence a next to endless snack, washed
down with one of those nice Rhone wines, which sets a toper laughing and
singing. After that, when thoroughly braced up, they rise, whistle the
dogs to heel, set the guns on half cock, and go “on the shoot”–another
way of saying that every man plucks off his cap, “shies” it up with all
his might, and pops it on the fly with No. 5, 6, or 2 shot, according to
what he is loaded for.

The man who lodges most shot in his cap is hailed as king of the hunt,
and stalks back triumphantly at dusk into Tarascon, with his riddled
cap on the end of his gun-barrel, amid any quantity of dog-barks and
horn-blasts.

It is needless to say that cap-selling is a fine business in the town.
There are even some hatters who sell hunting-caps ready shot, torn, and
perforated for the bad shots; but the only buyer known is the chemist
Bezuquet. This is dishonourable!

As a marksman at caps, Tartarin of Tarascon never had his match.

Every Sunday morning out he would march in a new cap, and back he would
strut every Sunday evening with a mere thing of shreds. The loft of
Baobab Villa was full of these glorious trophies. Hence all Tarascon
acknowledged him as master; and as Tartarin thoroughly understood
hunting, and had read all the handbooks of all possible kinds of venery,
from cap-popping to Burmese tiger-shooting, the sportsmen constituted
him their great cynegetical judge, and took him for referee and
arbitrator in all their differences.

Between three and four daily, at Costecalde the gunsmith’s, a stout
stern pipe-smoker might be seen in a green leather-covered arm-chair in
the centre of the shop crammed with cap-poppers, they all on foot and
wrangling. This was Tartarin of Tarascon delivering judgement–Nimrod
plus Solomon.

III. “Naw, naw, naw!” The general glance protracted upon the good town.

AFTER the craze for sporting, the lusty Tarascon race cherishes one
love: ballad-singing. There’s no believing what a quantity of ballads
is used up in that little region. All the sentimental stuff turning into
sere and yellow leaves in the oldest portfolios, are to be found in full
pristine lustre in Tarascon. Ay, the entire collection. Every family has
its own pet, as is known to the town.

For instance, it is an established fact that this is the chemist
Bezuquet’s family’s:

“Thou art the fair star that I adore!”

The gunmaker Costecalde’s family’s:

“Would’st thou come to the land Where the log-cabins rise?”

The official registrar’s family’s:

“If I wore a coat of invisible green, Do you think for a moment
I could be seen?”

And so on for the whole of Tarascon. Two or three times a week there
were parties where they were sung. The singularity was their being
always the same, and that the honest Tarasconers had never had an
inclination to change them during the long, long time they had been
harping on them. They were handed down from father to son in the
families, without anybody improving on them or bowdlerising them:
they were sacred. Never did it occur to Costecalde’s mind to sing
the Bezuquets’, or the Bezuquets to try Costecalde’s. And yet you may
believe that they ought to know by heart what they had been singing for
two-score years! But, nay! everybody stuck to his own,and they were all
contented.

In ballad-singing, as in cap-popping, Tartarin was still the foremost.
His superiority over his fellow-townsmen consisted in his not having
any one song of his own, but in knowing the lot, the whole, mind you!
But–there’s a but–it was the devil’s own work to get him to sing them.

Surfeited early in life with his drawing-room successes, our hero
preferred by far burying himself in his hunting story-books, or spending
the evening at the club, to making a personal exhibition before a Nimes
piano between a pair of home-made candles. These musical parades seemed
beneath him. Nevertheless, at whiles, when there was a harmonic party at
Bezuquet’s, he would drop into the chemist’s shop, as if by chance,
and, after a deal of pressure, consent to do the grand duo in Robert
le Diable with old Madame Bezuquet. Whoso never heard that never heard
anything! For my part, even if I lived a hundred years, I should always
see the mighty Tartarin solemnly stepping up to the piano, setting
his arms akimbo, working up his tragic mien, and, beneath the green
reflection from the show-bottles in the window, trying to give his
pleasant visage the fierce and satanic expression of Robert the Devil.
Hardly would he fall into position before the whole audience would be
shuddering with the foreboding that something uncommon was at
hand. After a hush, old Madame Bezuquet would commence to her own
accompaniment:

“Robert, my love is thine!
To thee I my faith did plight,
Thou seest my affright,–
Mercy for thine own sake,
And mercy for mine!”

In an undertone she would add: “Now, then, Tartarin!” Whereupon Tartarin
of Tarascon, with crooked arms, clenched fists, and quivering nostrils,
would roar three times in a formidable voice, rolling like a thunderclap
in the bowels of the instrument:

“No! no! no!” which, like the thorough southerner he was, he pronounced
nasally as “Naw! naw! naw!” Then would old Madame Bezuquet again sing:

“Mercy for thine own sake,
And mercy for mine!”

“Naw! naw! naw!” bellowed Tartarin at his loudest, and there the gem
ended.

Not long, you see; but it was so handsomely voiced forth, so clearly
gesticulated, and so diabolical, that a tremor of terror overran the
chemist’s shop, and the “Naw! naw! naw!” would be encored several times
running.

Upon this Tartarin would sponge his brow, smile on the ladies, wink to
the sterner sex, and withdraw upon his triumph to go remark at the club
with a trifling, offhand air:

“I have just come from the Bezuquets’, where I was forced to sing ’em
the duo from Robert le Diable.”

The cream of the joke was that he really believed it!

IV. “They!”

CHIEFLY to the account of these diverse talents did Tartarin owe his
lofty position in the town of Tarascon. Talking of captivating, though,
this deuce of a fellow knew how to ensnare everybody. Why, the army,
at Tarascon, was for Tartarin. The brave commandant, Bravida, honorary
captain retired–in the Military Clothing Factory Department–called him
a game fellow; and you may well admit that the warrior knew all about
game fellows, he played such a capital knife and fork on game of all
kinds.

So was the legislature on Tartarin’s side. Two or three times, in open
court, the old chief judge, Ladevese, had said, in alluding to him:

“He is a character!”

Lastly, the masses were for Tartarin. He had become the swell bruiser,
the aristocratic pugilist, the crack bully of the local Corinthians
for the Tarasconers, from his build, bearing, style–that aspect of a
guard’s-trumpeter’s charger which fears no noise; his reputation as a
hero coming from nobody knew whence or for what, and some scramblings
for coppers and a few kicks to the little ragamuffins basking at his
doorway.

Along the waterside, when Tartarin came home from hunting on Sunday
evenings, with his cap on the muzzle of his gun, and his fustian
shooting-jacket belted in tightly, the sturdy river-lightermen would
respectfully bob, and blinking towards the huge biceps swelling out his
arms, would mutter among one another in admiration:

“Now, there’s a powerful chap if you like! he has double-muscles!”

“Double muscles!” why, you never heard of such a thing outside of
Tarascon!

For all this, with all his numberless parts, double-muscles, the
popular favour, and the so precious esteem of brave Commandant Bravida,
ex-captain (in the Army Clothing Factory), Tartarin was not happy: this
life in a petty town weighed upon him and suffocated him.

The great man of Tarascon was bored in Tarascon.

The fact is, for a heroic temperament like his, a wild adventurous
spirit which dreamt of nothing but battles, races across the pampas,
mighty battues, desert sands, blizzards and typhoons, it was not enough
to go out every Sunday to pop at a cap, and the rest of the time to
ladle out casting-votes at the gunmaker’s. Poor dear great man! If this
existence were only prolonged, there would be sufficient tedium in it to
kill him with consumption.

In vain did he surround himself with baobabs and other African trees,
to widen his horizon, and some little to forget his club and the
market-place; in vain did he pile weapon upon weapon, and Malay kreese
upon Malay kreese; in vain did he cram with romances, endeavouring like
the immortal Don Quixote to wrench himself by the vigour of his fancy
out of the talons of pitiless reality. Alas! all that he did to appease
his thirst for deeds of daring only helped to augment it. The sight of
all the murderous implements kept him in a perpetual stew of wrath and
exaltation. His revolvers, repeating rifles, and ducking-guns shouted
“Battle! battle!” out of their mouths. Through the twigs of his baobab,
the tempest of great voyages and journeys soughed and blew bad advice.
To finish him came Gustave Aimard, Mayne Reid, and Fenimore Cooper.

Oh, how many times did Tartarin with a howl spring up on the sultry
summer afternoons, when he was reading alone amidst his blades, points,
and edges; how many times did he dash down his book and rush to the wall
to unhook a deadly arm! The poor man forgot he was at home in Tarascon,
in his underclothes, and with a handkerchief round his head. He would
translate his readings into action, and, goading himself with his own
voice, shout out whilst swinging a battle-axe or tomahawk:

“Now, only let ’em come!”

“Them”? who were they?

Tartarin did not himself any too clearly understand. “They” was all
that should be attacked and fought with, all that bites, claws, scalps,
whoops, and yells–the Sioux Indians dancing around the war-stake to
which the unfortunate pale-face prisoner is lashed. The grizzly of the
Rocky Mountains, who wobbles on his hind legs, and licks himself with a
tongue full of blood. The Touareg, too, in the desert, the Malay pirate,
the brigand of the Abruzzi–in short, “they” was warfare, travel,
adventure, and glory.

But, alas!! it was to no avail that the fearless Tarasconer called for
and defied them; never did they come. Odsboddikins! what would they have
come to do in Tarascon?

Nevertheless Tartarin always expected to run up against them,
particularly some evening in going to the club.