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- Tartarin de Tarascon - 10/14 -
African merchants who came to the fair at Beaucaire, claim to have met, in the heart of the desert, a white man whose description corresponds with his and who was heading for Timbuctoo. May God preserve our Tartarin!"
When he read this, Tartarin blushed and trembled. All Tarascon rose before his eyes. The club. The hat hunters. The green armchair at Costecalde's shop: and soaring above, like the extended wings of an eagle, the formidable moustache of the brave Commandant Bravida. Then to see himself squatting slothfully on his mat, while he was believed to be engaged in slaying lions, filled him with shame. Suddenly he leaped to his feet. "To the lions!...To the lions!" He cried, and hurrying to the dusty corner where lay idle his bivouac tent, his medicine chest, his preserved foods and his weapons, he dragged them into the middle of the courtyard. Tartarin-Sancho had just perished, only Tartarin-Quixote was left.
There was just time enough to inspect his equipment, to don his arms and accoutrements, to put on his big boots, to write a few lines to prince Gregory, confiding Baia to his care, to slip into an envelope some banknotes, wet with tears, and the intrepid Tarasconais was in a stage-coach, rolling down the road to Blidah, leaving the stupefied negress in his house, gazing at the turban, the slippers and all the muslim rig-out of Sidi Tart'ri, hanging discarded on the wall.
Chapter 24. It was an ancient, old-fashioned stage-coach, upholstered in the old way in heavy blue cloth, very faded, and with enormous pom- poms, which after a few hours on the road dug uncomfortably into one's back. Tartarin had an inside seat, where he installed himself as best he could, and where, instead of the musky scent of the great cats, he could savour the ripe perfume of the coach, compounded of a thousand odours of men, women, horses, leather, food and damp straw.
The other passengers on the coach were a mixed lot. A Trappist monk, some Jewish merchants, two Cocottes, returning to their unit, the third Hussars, and a photographer from Orleansville.
No matter how charming and varied the company, Tartarin did not feel like chatting and remained silent, his arm hooked into the arm-strap and his weaponry between his knees....His hurried departure, the dark eyes of Baia, the dangerous chase on which he was about to engage, these thoughts troubled his mind, and also there was something about this venerable stage-coach, now domiciled in Africa, which recalled to him vaguely the Tarascon of his youth. Trips to the country. Dinners by the banks of the Rhône, a host of memories.
Little by little it grew dark. The guard lit the lanterns. The old coach swayed and squeaked on its worn springs. The horses trotted, the bells on their harness jingling, and from time to time there sounded the clash of ironmongery from Tartarin's arms chest on the top of the coach.
Sleepily Tartarin contemplated his fellow passengers as they danced before his eyes, shaken by the jolting of the coach, then his eyes closed and he heard no more, except vaguely, the rumble of the axles and the groaning of the coach sides....
Suddenly an ancient female voice, rough, hoarse and cracked, called the Tarasconais by name: "Monsieur Tartarin!... Monsieur Tartarin!" "Who is calling me?" "It is I, Monsieur Tartarin, don't you recognise me?...I am the stage-coach which once ran...it is now twenty years ago...the service from Tarascon to Nimes....How many times have I carried you and your friends when you went hat shooting over by Joncquières or Bellegarde...I didn't recognise you at first because of your bonnet and the amount of weight you have put on, but as soon as you began to snore, you old rascal, I knew you right away." "Bon!...Bon!" Replied Tartarin, somewhat vexed, but then softening , he added: "But now, my poor old lady, what are you doing here?" "Ah! My dear M. Tartarin, I did not come here of my own free will I can promise you. Once the railway reached Beaucaire no one could find a use for me so I was shipped off to Africa...and I am not the only one, nearly all the stage-coaches in France have been deported like me; we were found too old fashioned and now here we all are, leading a life of slavery." Here the old coach gave a long sigh, then she went on: "I can't tell you monsieur Tartarin how much I miss my lovely Tarascon. These were good times for me, the time of my youth. You should have seen me leaving in the morning, freshly washed and polished, with new varnish on my wheels, my lamps shining like suns and my tarpaulin newly dressed with oil. How grand it was when the postillion cracked his whip and sang out, 'Lagadigadeou, la Tarasque, la Tarasque' and the guard, with his ticket-punch slung on its bandolier and his braided cap tipped over one ear, chucked his little yapping dog onto the tarpaulin of the coach-roof and scrambled up himself crying `Let's go!...Let's go!` Then my four horses would start off with a jingle of bells, barking and fanfares. Windows would open and all Tarascon would watch with pride the stage-coach setting off along the king's highway.
What a fine road it was, Monsieur Tartarin, wide and well kept, with its kilometre markers, its heaps of roadmender's stones at regular intervals, and to right and left vinyards and pretty groves of olive trees. Then inns every few yards, post-houses every five minutes...and my travellers! What fine folk!... Mayors and curés going to Nimes to see their Prefect or Bishop, honest workmen, students on holiday, peasants in embroidered smocks, all freshly shaved that morning, and up on top, all of you hat shooters, who were always in such good form and who sang so well to the stars as we returned home in the evening.
Now it is a different story...God knows the sort of people I carry. A load of miscreants from goodness knows where, who infest me with vermin. Negroes, Bedouins, rascals and adventurers from every country, colonists who stink me out with their pipes, and all of them talking a language which even our Heavenly Father couldn't understand....And then you see how they treat me. Never brushed. Never washed. They grudge me the grease for my axles, and instead of the fine big, quiet horses which I used to have, they give me little Arab horses which have the devil in them, fighting, biting, dancing about and running like goats, breaking my shafts with kicks. Aie!...Aie! They are at it again now....And the roads! It's still all right here, because we are near Government House, but out there, nothing! No road of any sort. One goes as best one can over hill and dale through dwarf palms and mastic trees. Not a single fixed stop. One pulls up at wherever the guard fancies, sometimes at one farm, sometimes at another. Sometimes this rogue takes me on a detour of two leagues just so that he can go and drink with a friend. After that it's `Whip up postillion, we must make up for lost time.` The sun burns. The dust chokes...Whip!...Whip! We crash. We tip over. More whip. We swim across rivers, we are cold, soaked and half drowned...Whip!...Whip!...Whip! Then in the evening, dripping wet... that's good for me at my age... I have to bed down in the yard of some caravan halt, exposed to all the winds. At night jackals and hyenas come to sniff at my lockers and creatures which fear the dawn hide in my compartments. That's the life I lead, monsieur Tartarin, and I shall lead until the day when, scorched by sun and rotted by humid nights, I shall fall at some corner of this beastly road, where Arabs will boil their cous-cous on the remains of my old carcase."
"Blidah!...Blidah!" Shouted the guard, opening the coach door.
Chapter 25. Indistinctly,through the steamed up windows, Tartarin could see the pretty square of a neatly laid out little township, surrounded by arcades and planted with orange trees, in the centre of which a group of soldiers was drilling in the thin, pink haze of early morning. The cafés were taking down their shutters, in one corner a vegetable market was under way. It was charming, but in no way did it suggest lions. "To the south, further to the south." Murmured Tartarin, settling back in his corner.
At that moment the coach door was opened, letting in a gust of fresh air, which bore on its wings, amongst the scent of orange blossom, a very small gentleman in a brown overcoat. Neat, elderly, thin and wrinkled, with a face no bigger than a fist, a silk cravat five fingers high, a leather brief-case and an umbrella. The perfect image of a village notary. On seeing Tartarin's weaponry, the little gentleman, who was seated opposite him, looked very surprised, and began to stare at our hero.
The horses were changed and the coach set off...the little gentleman continued to stare. At length Tartarin became offended and staring in his turn at the little gentleman he asked "Do you find this surprising?"
"Not at all, but it does rather get in the way." Was the reply, and the fact is that with his tent, his revolver, his two rifles and their covers, not to mention his natural corpulence, Tartarin de Tarascon did take up quite a lot of space.
This reply from the little gentleman annoyed Tartarin, "Do you suppose that I would go after lions with an umbrella?" Asked the great man proudly. The little gentleman looked at his umbrella, smiled and and asked calmly, "You monsieur are...?" "Tartarin de Tarascon, lion hunter." And in pronouncing these words the brave Tartarin shook the tassel of his chechia as if it were a mane.
In the coach there was a startled response. The Trappist crossed himself, the Cocottes uttered little squeaks of excitement and the photographer edged closer to the lion killer, thinking that he might be a good subject for a picture. The little gentleman was not in the least disturbed. "Have you killed many lions, Monsieur Tartarin?" He asked quietly. Tartarin adopted a lofty air, "Yes many of them. More than you have hairs on your head." And all the passengers laughed at the sight of the three or four yellow hairs which sprouted from the little gentleman's scalp.
The photographer then spoke up, "A terrible profession yours, Monsieur Tartarin, you must have moments of danger sometimes like that brave M.Bombonnel." "Ah!... yes... M. Bombonnel, the man who hunts panthers." Said Tartarin, with some disdain. "Do you know him?" Asked the little gentleman. "Ti!...Pardi!...To be sure I know him, we have hunted together more than twenty times." "You hunt panthers also M. Tartarin?" "Occasionally, as a pastime." Said Tartarin casually, and raising his head with a heroic gesture which went straight to the hearts of the two Cocottes, he added "They cannot be compared to lions." "One could say," Hazarded the photographer, "That a panther is no more than a large pussy-cat." "Quite right." Said Tartarin, who was not reluctant to lower the reputation of this M.Bombonnel, particularly in front of the ladies.
At this moment the coach stopped. The guard came to open the door and he addressed the little old man, "This is where you want to get off Monsieur." He said very respectfully.
The little gentleman got up to leave, but before he closed the door he said "Would you permit me to give you a word of advice M.Tartarin?" "What is that Monsieur?" "Go back quickly to Tarascon, M.Tartarin, you are wasting your time here...There are a few panthers left in Algeria, but, fi donc! They are too small a quarry for you...as for lions, they are finished. There are no more in Algeria, my friend Chassaing has just killed the last one."
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