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:
Do Not Touch!
Take care, please!
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.