The Town of Tombarel - William J. Locke - ebook

The Town of Tombarel ebook

William J. Locke



This is a late set of long stories that are read at the pace of a narrator who is in no hurry. Similarly, Locke does not tell his story to the great storyteller, an English artist named Charles Fontenay, who lives for health in the south of France in Cannes, often tells his usual storyteller, whose stories he reports, Monsieur Alcide Tombarelle, mayor of Creel Mountain City, to speed up or stop being distracted.

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My acquaintance with Monsieur Alcide Tombarel was formed in a very pleasant way; for Bacchus at his most innocent and most charming brought us together.

No one who lives in any part of wine-growing France can despise the little wines of the country–the little wines, like the children of the soil, that pine away and die if transplanted far from their own district, that laugh out their butterfly life for a season or two, and then perish from premature old age. In the south especially they are part and parcel of the sunshine of the midday meal. Now, such a wine, pale gold, full, with a faint perfume of hyacinth and a touch of the flavour of flint to give it character, did I drink at the table of my friend, General Duhamel, who has a villa of the modern stucco world in the Mont Boron quarter of Nice, super-imposed on a cellar of Paradise. He was good enough to give me the address of the vine-grower; for thus do the wise buy their little wines of the country–not in commonplace bottles from pettifogging wine merchants, but in casks filled from generous tuns in the vineyards themselves.

“If you go to Creille, a little town away back in the mountains”–he waved an indicating hand–“and ask for Monsieur Tombarel, and mention my name, no doubt he’ll let you have some.”

You see, there is a certain amount of polite ceremonial in the matter. You don’t buy wine in the offhand way in which you buy ducks. The most grizzled and stringy-necked old peasant with an acre of vines offers, and demands at the same time, what for a better term one might call the courtesy of the grape. An old inhabitant of the Azure Coast, I was familiar with the observances. Wherefore I thanked my host gratefully–for one doesn’t give away one’s pet vineyard to all and sundry–and a few days afterwards I journeyed through many devious and precipitous paths through the mountains to the tiny little town of Creille which stood perched, or rather piled somewhat ridiculously, on the top of a hill set sentinel-wise in the wild sweep of a gorge.

From declivitous desolation I found myself suddenly pulled up in a gay little cobble-stoned square. On the left was l’Hôtel du Commerce, with a rusty, moth-eaten, sun-eaten, time-eaten car standing before the closed doors. There were a few funny little shops with women sitting on the thresholds. Across the way, two or three vague, swarthy, shirt-sleeved men sat at little tables outside the Café Pogomas. To this apparently quivering centre of the life of Creille did I, leaving my car, address my inquiring footsteps. I approached the swarthy men who were drinking the greyest of grey wine from demi-setiers–tiny, squat tumblers holding about a gill–and raised my hat.

“Pardon, Messieurs”–they responded courteously–“can you direct me to the house of Monsieur Tombarel?”

One of them began, when another interrupted him:

“Tiens. Here is Marius.”

“The patron,” the first explained.

And there issued from the interior of the café, the landlord, Marius Pogomas himself. He was a heavy-browed, powerfully built man, with an extraordinarily deep furrow running horizontally across his forehead. The closely cut hair on his bullet head seemed scarcely more of a crop than that on his two or three days’ unshaven fat cheeks. His glance was kind, yet singularly commanding. He wore a fairly clean white suit and espadrilles–rope-soled, canvas shoes–and a coarse blue shirt destitute of collar.

“Monsieur...?” he questioned.

I repeated my inquiry.

“Ah,” said he, “Monsieur le Maire.”

Thus I learned that Monsieur Tombarel was Mayor of Creille. I explained that it was not in his official quality of Mayor, but as a private viticulteur that I desired to visit Monsieur Tombarel.

“You wish to buy wine, Monsieur?”

“Of course,” said I.

He gave me to understand, with a flicker of fingers to lips, that I had come to the right market. But, he added, with a warning hand and a deepening of his furrow, Monsieur le Maire was very jealous of his wine, and wouldn’t sell it to the first comer. He seemed quite sorry for me, a foreigner, for though I speak French as well as most people, I can’t help looking an uncompromising Englishman. I explained that I had an appointment with him, arranged by telegram, and that I bore the introduction of General Duhamel.

He threw out his arms. That was a different matter altogether. General Duhamel. He was of the country. An old Chasseur Alpin. “I who speak to you, Marius Pogomas, served under him when he was simple captain. I’ll have you shown the way at once,” said he.

He turned towards the interior of the café and bawled out something in the unintelligible Franco-Italian Provençal patois of the mountains, and presently an indiscriminate sort of boy of thirteen or so appeared. The infant, said Pogomas, would guide me to the house of Monsieur Tombarel.

He led me through the tortuous main street of an amazing mediæval town, smelling cold and sour. Once the rows of houses on each side with their narrow stone staircases yawning on the pavement were broken by an open space. On three sides of it ran fifteenth-century arcading, and a low building with an eighteenth-century façade, pediment and all–the Mairie–nearly filled up the fourth. In the middle was an agreeably carved well-head surmounted by wrought iron. The main occupation of the inhabitants here and in the streets seemed to be to sit about and think.

Fifty yards farther on brought us to waste land by the mountain-side. My boy conductor bade me turn to the right, for a quarter of a kilometre off was the vineyard of Monsieur le Maire. But, curious as to the view, I walked straight on and found myself standing on a tongue of rock projecting far out into the wild semi-circular valley and commanding an unfathomable abyss. All around for miles were the rolling slopes either thick with pines or terraced out bleakly for vine and olive, with here and there a red roof showing, and, in the far distance, the crumbling yellow of another little craggy town. But, on the sheer sides of this monstrous wedge whereon I stood, no vegetation could grow. Compared with it the Tarpeian Rock was a gentle hillock. I seemed to stand poised in the centre of the world. The small boy drew a half-consumed cigarette from his breeches pocket and, lighting it, smoked in patient leisure during my foolish contemplation.

In an untidy rustic garden in front of a long, two-storied, pink-washed dwelling, I met one of the surprises of my life. Instead of a kindly peasant proprietor, I saw a most courteous gentleman. It was obvious that he had attired himself in ceremonious raiment, in order to greet with dignity the friend of General Duhamel. But, no matter how he might have been dressed, the man of the world betrayed himself by his smile and by the manner of his outstretched hand.

He wore a hat, a Provençal hat, a soft, black felt hat with a prodigiously high crown and a prodigious brim. Beneath it a mean little clean-shaven face would have been lost. To set it off a full beard was essential. And the full beard did Monsieur Tombarel wear–a white moustache with the ends curling upwards in a suggestion of truculence, and a white, stiff beard trimmed to a point. Below the back of the brim swept a majestic white mane. His black jacket was buttoned at the throat. Such was the poet Mistral of my imaginings. Necessity compelled a wide black silk cravat tied in a floppy bow.

After preliminary courtesies he conducted me to a large shed behind the house, in whose vast coolness were ranged many formidable hogsheads of wine. A smiling, coarse-aproned man with rolled-up sleeves brought a tray with a myriad little tumblers. The hogsheads were tapped. For the next half-hour the glasses were filled with wines red and rosy and golden. The afternoon sun crept in and set them all aflame.

“Monsieur Fontenay,” said my host–for what else could I call him?–when I had made my choice, “I am rejoiced to see you can discriminate between the lavish bounty of the gods and their more subtle gifts.”

He whispered a word to the cellarer, bowed me out, and led me to the ragged garden where were set a table and chairs beneath a sprawling cedar.

“I will now ask you to do me the pleasure of drinking with me a glass of wine, of which, alas, I have only a few bottles left.”

Did I not say that Bacchus at his simplest and most delightful brought us together?

Then of course, painter-wise, I fell in love with the picturesque old gentleman, and begged him to sit to me for his portrait. I explained, so that he should not think himself at the mercy of an amateur:

“I am a member of the Royal Academy which, in England, you know, more or less corresponds with the Institut–the Académie des Beaux-Arts.”

He smiled. “Of course. Your President, for the first time in your history, is a distinguished architect.”

I gasped. How many well-fed Britons in any sumptuous dining-saloon could tell you off-hand the name of the President of the Royal Academy? And here, in this neglected corner of the world, was a fantastically attired, Mistral-looking old vine-grower who knew all about it.

“It is very simple,” he said, with a smile. “I am interested in all those things. In my youth I went from here, where I was born, to Paris to study art. I tried painting, sculpture, architecture. I was good for nothing. I drifted into land-surveying which I detested. At last, after many years, I found that God had decreed it my vocation to come back here and plant my cabbages or my vines. You behold another Cincinnatus. But the unconquered country–the land of Art–is always the country of my dreams.... For my portrait, if my old Provençal head–ma tête de vieux Provençal–can interest you, I am at your entire disposition.”

If what I set out to tell you had not essentially to do with Pogomas, the landlord of the café, I could talk about Monsieur Tombarel, the baffled artist, all day long. But all the foregoing is merely to explain, in a reasonable manner, how I gained admission to the innermost secrets of the God-and-man-forgotten little town of Creille.

I painted Monsieur Tombarel’s portrait, and it was my privilege to win his friendship.

Now we come to the point of the story.

Creille, like every other town, wished to erect a war monument. It took a long time after the war was over for the necessary money to dribble in. The Mayor put his foot down on rubbish. Better nothing than a cheap monstrosity which would make the town ridiculous in the eyes of the world. And the inhabitants of Creille, realizing that the eyes of the world were upon them, submitted meekly to the Mayor.

At last a patriotic sculptor of the Midi, whose aunt had come from Creille–so integral and potent is the Family in French psychology–undertook the work for a modest fee, and presented a design to the Conseil Municipal. My friend Tombarel was good enough to show me the maquette or model in clay, and ask my confidential advice. I walked round it as it stood on the long walnut table of the council room of the Mairie, and bestowed on it my enthusiastic admiration. It was new, strong, exciting. On the indication of a rock above the plinth stood, at the end of a leap, a Chasseur Alpin with his trumpet to his lips, sounding the charge, while at the foot of the rock sagged the dead body of a comrade, the trumpet drooping from his hand. But there was something diabolical in the nervous strength of the living man, the very dare-devil spirit of the diables bleus, the proud name of the Alpine regiments to which all the dead of Creille had belonged.

“It is magnificent,” said I. “And where are you going to put it?”

“We are divided,” said the Mayor, with a sigh. “There are politics even here. The Radicals choose the new Place Georges Clemenceau, and the Republicans, with whom I am in sympathy, the venerable old Place de la Mairie, outside these windows.”

“Hm!” said I. In either spot the vivid young god of battle would be out of place. Then I had an inspiration.

“Mon cher ami,” I cried, with a thrill, “there is only one site in Creille for the trumpeter. On the very end of the Pointe de l’Abîme. Imagine it!”

He sent his great hat scudding along the polished table.

“Mon Dieu! To say that no one ever thought of it!”

He wrung my hand, he hugged my shoulder. The artist in him imagined it, and tears stood in his eyes. They would have the trumpeter midway between heaven and earth, ready, when France was in danger, to awaken the echoes of the mountains and summon again to arms the descendants of those that had died. Perhaps he was a bit flamboyant, my friend Tombarel, and went somewhat beyond the original psychology of my idea. But that was all to the good, for, a week or so later, he wrote me to the effect that the Conseil Municipal had sunk their political differences and unanimously voted for the Pointe de l’Abîme. Pogomas, an anti-clerical ironist, but otherwise the salt of the earth, had even gone so far as to declare that Creille would be the only place in the world where there would be a trumpeter always prepared to acknowledge the Last Trump.

Some months afterwards I received an invitation to be present at the unveiling of the memorial. In the interim, though I had not visited Creille, I had seen something of Monsieur Tombarel, who now and then drove in to Cannes in a recently acquired little 5-h.p. yellow car, in which he gave the impression of a majestic Noah navigating a child’s model of the Ark. In cold weather he always wore an ample black cloak, fastened at the neck by great metal cockle-shell clasps. After his third appearance on the Croisette, they gave him the red ribbon of the Legion of Honour. They couldn’t help it. Whether he really came to Cannes on business errands as he declared, or for the purpose of entering his old unconquered kingdom–my studio–and breathing again its captivating atmosphere of turpentine and paint and artistic effort, and talking with some one who knew the difference between a groin and a volute, I am not prepared to say. At any rate, I enjoyed the visits vastly, regarding the old man’s friendship as a peculiar privilege. Incidentally I was kept posted as to the progress of the memorial.

It was a day in early June, a dry day of intense blue and gold, the air clear almost to pain, so that mountains and valleys held no mystery. On turning the bend of the gorge some miles away, I caught sight of the white figure of the draped statue commanding the mighty amphitheatre. Its startling impressiveness exceeded my imagination, and caught my breath.

I left the car at the entrance to the Place Georges Clemenceau, as I had done on the occasion of my first visit. But, for the first time, I beheld the square as a centre of excited life. A policeman, astounding revelation of the potentiality of Creille, waved me to a glittering park of cars. Flags, flying and draped, flaunted all over the place. Tables set before the Hôtel du Commerce, and on the terrace of the Café Pogomas, were thronged with thirsty holiday-makers. Small blue masses, sections of different regiments of Chasseurs Alpins, each with draped colours, and another blue mass, a Chasseur band with glittering trumpets, formed a close and clear background. The Creille Municipal Band, perspiring but determined, sweltered, with their weird instruments, on the sunny side of the square. In the middle were grouped an official yet motley throng, the Municipal Councillors and the Mayors of neighbouring villages, the latter gleaming iridescent in the tricolour sash girt around their portly waists. Some were in the sacred black which their grandfathers before them had worn at funerals; others, perhaps the Radicals deplored by Tombarel, in the broad straw-hatted ease of their Sunday suits. In front stood some elegant gentlemen, one of whom, as I learned later, was the Sous-Préfet, and another a smiling Bishop (recognizable by the ring on his plump finger) in a cassock adorned with a string of decorations; another, a General dazzling all over with medals and crosses and gold lace.

The last, evidently my immediate predecessor, was being greeted ceremoniously by Tombarel, tricolour-sashed, patriarchally magnificent, sweeping his wonderful hat, and bowing as only those who preserve the tradition of courtly days know how to bow.

I approached, in my old Major’s khaki, with its string of perfectly dud ribbons, which, though uncomfortably tight, I thought, with a vague idea of international politeness, I might justifiably wear. Tombarel received me as if I had been a Field-Marshal, and presented me to the notables. Everyone was exceedingly pleasant. I shook hands all round with the Municipal Council, all friends of mine, for, during my painting of the Mayor, was I not free of Creille? Besides, was I not responsible for this selection which any imbecile could have made, of the site for their Trumpeter? Marius Pogomas, the adjoint or Deputy-Mayor, nearly broke my hand in fervent welcome. Had he not run somewhat to fat in his late fifties, he could any day have taken his place as the strong man at a fair. I was struck by the fact, however, that unlike the others, he did not smile as he greeted me. The curious line across his forehead seemed to have grown deeper, and his dark eyes were hard and intense. He wore some kind of grey alpaca and his collarless shirt was open at the neck.

I was introduced to the stranger Mayors and the quintessence of garlic.

The procession was formed. First the trumpeters of the Chasseurs Alpins, then the detachments, then the Municipal Band, then Monsieur le Maire and the General and other notables, and the rest of the population behind. At a short word of command, up went the trumpets, gyrating dizzyingly in the air, to be caught with swaggering perfection, and within a second’s infinitesimal fraction, to be applied to lips and sound the march.

We progressed through the warm, cobble-paved streets, all gaily flagged, through the mouldering old Place de la Mairie, to the open ground before the mighty wedge of cliff. Then we halted, and the non-military of us broke our ranks. The Municipal Band had their few minutes of glorious life wheezing out the “Madelon.” Perspiring Municipal Councillors, with tricolour favours, showed us to our places on the platform at the base of the tongue on the tip of which, jutting out into immensity, stood the draped statue. I noticed that the two sides of the triangular spit were protected by a business-like iron rail.

Soon the population crowded round, leaving but a little space between the platform and the statue guarded by a sergeant of the Chasseurs Alpins. I noticed that nearly all the women were in black. The June afternoon sun blazed pitilessly. On the opposite side of the immense gorge, Heaven knows how far away in the clear, dry light, I saw a red-shirted man toiling on a little terraced yellow patch of vines.

There were the usual orations from Sous-Préfet, Bishop, General, Mayor.... Many of the black-robed women wept bitterly.

Then came the moment for the adjoint, Marius Pogomas, to read the death-roll of the heroes whose names were inscribed in letters of gold on the plinth of the monument.

He began, in a silence as hurtful to the senses as the unmitigated clarity of the light. The commonplace stout official became an impersonal Angel of Doom. He began:

“Abadie–Joseph Marie: mort sur le champ d’honneur, 1917.”

“Angelotti–Ferdinand: mort de ses blessures, 1916....”

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