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- Tartarin de Tarascon - 2/14 -
belief. All the old sentimental songs, yellowing in ancient cardboard boxes, could be found in Tarascon alive and flourishing. Each family had its own ballad and in the town this was well understood. One knew, for example, that for Bezuquet the chemist it was:-"Thou pale star whom I adore."
For the gunsmith Costecalde:-"Come with me to the forest glade."
For the Town Clark :-"If I was invisible, no one would see me." (a comic song) Two or three times a week people would gather in one house or another and sing, and the remarkable thing is that the songs were always the same. No matter for how long they had been singing them, the people of Tarascon had no desire to change them. They were handed down in families from father to son and nobody dared to interfere with them, they were sacrosanct. They were never even borrowed. It would never occur to the Bezuquets to sing the Costecaldes' song or to the Costecaldes to sing that of the Bezuquets. You might suppose that having known them for some forty years they might sometimes sing them to themselves, but no, everyone stuck to his own.
In the matter of ballads, as in that of hats, Tartarin played a leading role. His superiority over his fellow citizens arose from the fact that he did not have a song of his own, and so he could take part in all of them, only it was extremely difficult to get him to sing at all.
Returning early from some drawing-room success, our hero preferred to immerse himself in his books on hunting or spend the evening at the club rather than join in a sing-song round a Nimes piano, between two Tarascon candles. He felt that musical evenings were a little beneath him.
Sometimes, however, when there was music at Bezuquet the chemists, he would drop in as if by chance, and after much persuasion he would consent to take part in the great duet from "Robert le Diable" with madame Bezuquet the elder.
Anyone who has not heard this has heard nothing. For my part, if I live to be a hundred, I shall always recall the great Tartarin approaching the piano with solemn steps, leaning his elbow upon it, making his grimace and in the greenish light reflected from the chemist's jars, trying to give his homely face the savage and satanic expression of Robert le Diable.
As soon as he had taken up his position, a quiver of expectation ran through the gathering. One felt that something great was about to happen.
After a moment of silence, madame Bezuquet the elder, accompanying herself on the piano, began:
"Robert, thou whom I adore
And in whom I trust,
You see my fear (twice)
Have mercy on yourself
And mercy on me." She added, sotto voce, "Its you now Tartarin."
Then Tartarin, with arm extended, clenched fist and quivering nostrils, said three times in a formidable voice which rolled like a clap of thunder in the entrails of the piano "Non! Non! Non!" Which as a good southerner he pronounced "Nan. Nan. Nan" Upon which madame Bezuquet repeated "Mercy on yourself and on me" "Nan! Nan! Nan!" Bellowed Tartarin even more loudly...and the matter ended there....It was not very long, but it was so well presented, so well acted, so diabolic that a frisson ran round the pharmacy and he was made to repeat his "Nan. Nan. Nan." four or five times.
Afterwards Tartarin wiped his forehead, smiled at the ladies, winked at the men and went off triumphantly to the club, where, with a casual air, he would say " I've just come from the Bezuquets. They had me singing in the duet from Robert le Diable." What is more he believed it.
Chapter 3. It was to the possession of these various talents that Tartarin owed his high standing in the town. There were, however, other ways in which he had made his mark on society.
In Tarascon the army supported Tartarin. The gallant Commandant Bravida (Quartermaster.Ret) said of him "He's a stout fellow" and one may suppose that having kitted out so many stout fellows in his time, he knew what he was talking about
The magistrature supported Tartarin. Two or three times, on a full bench, the aged president Ladevèze had said of him "He's quite a character".
Finally, the people supported Tartarin, his stolid appearance, the heroic reputation he had somehow acquired, the distribution of small sums of money and a few clips round the ear to the youngsters who hung around his doorstep, had made him lord of the neighbourhood and king of the Tarascon market-place. On the quay, on sunday evenings, when Tartarin returned from the hunt, his hat dangling from the end of his gun, the stevedores would nod to him respectfully and eying the arms bulging the sleeves of his tightly buttoned jacket, would murmur to one another," He's strong he is. He's got double muscles." The possession of double muscles is something you hear about only in Tarascon.
However,in spite of his numerous talents, double muscles, popular favour and the so precious esteem of the gallant Commandant Bravida (Quartermaster.Ret) Tartarin was not happy. This small-town life weighed him down, stifled him. The great man of Tarascon was bored with Tarascon. The fact is that for an heroic nature such as his, for a daring and adventurous spirit which dreamt of battles, explorations, big game hunting, desert sands, hurricanes and typhoons, to go every Sunday hat shooting and for the rest of the time dispense justice at Costecalde the gunsmith's was...well...hardly satisfying. It was enough indeed to send one into a decline.
In vain, in order to widen his horizon and forget for a while the club and the market square, did he surround himself with African plants; in vain did he pile up a collection of weapons; in vain did he pore over tales of daring-do trying to escape by the power of his imagination from the pitiless grip of reality. Alas all that he did to satisfy his lust for adventure seemed only to increase it. The sight of his weapons kept him in a perpetual state of furious agitation. His rifles, his arrows and his spears rang out war-cries. In the branches of the baobab the wind whispered enticingly of great voyages.
How often on these heavy summer afternoons, when he was alone, reading amongst his weaponry, did Tartarin jump to his feet and throwing down his book rush to the wall to arm himself, then, quite forgetting that he was in his own house at Tarascon, cry, brandishing a gun or a spear, "Let them all come"!!...Them?...What them? Tartarin did not quite know himself,"Them" was everything that attacked, that bit, that clawed. "Them" was the Indian brave dancing round the stake to which his wretched prisoner was tied. It was the grizzly bear, shuffling and swaying, licking bloodstained lips. The Toureg of the desert, the Malay pirate, the Corsican bandit. In a word it was "Them!"
Alas it was fruitless for the fearless Tartarin to challenge them...they never appeared; but though it seemed unlikely that they would come to Tarascon, Tartarin was always ready for them, particularly in the evenings when he went to the club.
Chapter 4. The knight of the temple preparing for a sortie against the Saracen. The Chinese warrior equipping himself for battle. The Comanchee brave taking to the warpath were as nothing compared to Tartarin de Tarascon arming himself to go to the club at nine o'clock on a dark evening, an hour after the bugle had blown the retreat. He was cleared for action as the sailors say.
On his left hand he had a metal knuckleduster. In his right he carried a sword-stick. In his left pocket there was a cosh and in his right a revolver. Stuck into his waistband was a knife. Before setting out, in the privacy of his den, he carried out a few exercises. He made a pass at the wall with his sword-stick, drew his revolver, flexed his muscles and then taking his identity papers he crossed the garden...steadily...unhurriedly... à l'Anglais. That is the mark of true courage.
At the end of the garden he opened the heavy iron gate. He opened it brusquely, violently, so that it banged against the wall. If "They" had been behind it, it would have made a fine mess of them. Unfortunately they were not behind it.
Having opened the gate Tartarin went out, cast a quick look right and left, closed the gate swiftly and double locked it. Then he set off.
On the Avignon road there was not so much as a cat. Doors were shut and curtains drawn across windows. Here and there a street light blinked in the mist rising from the Rhône.
Superb and calm Tartarin de Tarascon strode through the night, his heels striking the road with measured tread and the metal tip of his cane raising sparks from the paving-stones. On boulevards, roads or lanes he was always careful to walk in the middle of the causeway, an excellent precaution which allows one to see approaching danger and moreover to avoid things which at night, in the streets of Tarascon, sometimes fall from windows. Seeing this prudence you should not entertain the notion that Tartarin was afraid. No! He was just being cautious.
The clearest evidence that Tartarin was unafraid is that he went to the club not by the short way but by the longest and darkest way, through a tangle of mean little streets, at the end of which one glimpsed the sinister gleam of the Rhone. He almost hoped that at a bend in one of these alleys "They" would come rushing from the shadows to attack him from behind. They would have had a hot reception I can promise you; but sadly Tartarin was never fated to encounter any danger...not even a dog...not even a drunk... Nothing.
Sometimes however there was an alarm. The sound of footsteps...Muffled voices. Tartarin comes to a halt, peering into the shadows, sniffing the air, straining his ears. The steps draw nearer, the voices more distinct...there can be no doubt..."They" are here. With heaving breast and eyes ablaze Tartarin is gathering himself like a jaguar and preparing to leap on his foes, when suddenly out of the gloom a good Tarasconais voice calls "Look! There's Tartarin! Hulloa there Tartarin!" Malediction! It is Bezuquet the chemist and his family who have been singing their ballad at the Costecaldes. "Bon soir, bon soir" growls Tartarin, furious at his mistake, and shouldering his cane he disappears angrily into the night.
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