Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  Interview with a Caged Lion

The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Alphonse Daudet (1840–1897)

Interview with a Caged Lion

From “Tartarin of Tarascon”

ONE evening, at the gunsmith Costecalde’s, Tartarin of Tarascon was demonstrating the handling of the needle-gun, then in all its novelty. Suddenly the door opens, and a cap-hunter rushes wildly into the shop, exclaiming, “A lion, a lion!” General consternation, tumult, and jostling ensues. Tartarin flourishes a bayonet; Costecalde runs to shut the door. The cap-hunter is surrounded, questioned, and pressed. This is what they learn: Mitaine’s menagerie had come for a few days to Tarascon, and had established itself in the market square, with a collection of snakes, seals, crocodiles, and a magnificent Atlas lion.

An Atlas lion at Tarascon! Never, within the memory of the oldest inhabitant, had such a thing been heard of. How proudly, too, our brave cap-hunters looked at each other! What radiance on their manly countenances! And in every corner of Costecalde’s shop what hearty handshakings, silently exchanged! The emotion was so great, so unforeseen, that no one found a word to say. Not even Tartarin. Pale and trembling, the needle-gun still in his hands, he stood thinking before the counter. An Atlas lion there, close at hand, only a few steps off! A lion—that is to say, the most fierce and formidable beast in the world, the king of animals, the game of his dreams, the first actor, as it were, of that ideal company which played such fine dramas in his imagination.

A lion, ye gods! And from Atlas too! It was more than the great Tartarin could endure. All at once a rush of blood mantled his countenance. His eyes shot fire. With a convulsive movement he threw the needle-gun on his shoulder, and turning toward the valorous commandant, Bravida, former captain of the wardrobe, he roared at him, in a voice of thunder, “Let’s go and see about this!”

“But, I say, what about that needle-gun of mine you are carrying off?” timidly ventured the prudent Costecalde.

But Tartarin had already turned the corner, followed by all the cap-hunters proudly marching in step with him.

When they reached the menagerie there were already many spectators. Tarascon—heroic race!—too long deprived of dangerous spectacles, had rushed upon the Mitaine booth, and carried it by assault. And stout Mme. Mitaine was well pleased. In Kabyle costume—her arms bare to the elbow, iron bracelets on her ankles, a whip in one hand, and in the other a live plucked chicken—the illustrious lady was doing the honors of the booth.

The entrance of Tartarin with a gun on his shoulder evoked apprehension.

All those bold Tarasconians who were walking tranquilly before the cages without arms, without distrust, or even any idea of danger, had a feeling of terror, natural enough, on seeing their great Tartarin enter the place with his formidable engine of war. There was, then, something to fear, since he, this hero— In the twinkling of an eye all the space before the cages was deserted. The children cried with fear, and the ladies looked toward the door. The apothecary, Bézuquet, scampered off, saying he was going for his gun.

Gradually, though, Tartarin’s attitude restored their courage. Calmly, with head erect, the intrepid Tarasconian slowly made the tour of the booth, passed by the seal’s basin without stopping, looked with a contemptuous eye on the long chest, full of bran, where a boa-constrictor was digesting a raw chicken, and finally planted himself before the lion’s cage.

A terrible and solemn interview—the lion of Tarascon and the lion of Atlas face to face! On one side Tartarin, erect, a leg forward, his two arms leaning on his rifle; on the other the lion, a gigantic lion, at full length on the straw, with blinking eye, a stupid look, and his enormous yellow-wigged muzzle reposing on his fore-paws: both cool and self-possessed. Strange to say, whether because the needle-gun annoyed him, or because he scented an enemy of his race, the lion, who till then had looked on the Tarasconians with an air of sovereign contempt, gaping in their faces, suddenly made an angry movement. First he sniffed, gave a low growl, spread his claws, and stretched out his paws; then he rose, tossed his head, shook his mane, and, opening a pair of immense jaws, bellowed furiously at Tartarin.

A cry of terror was the answer. All Tarascon, crazed with fear, rushed toward the doors—women, children, porters, cap-hunters, even the valorous commandant, Bravida, himself. Only Tartarin of Tarascon did not budge. There he stood, firm and resolute, before the cage, with lightning in his eye, making that terrible face with which all the town was familiar. After a time, when the cap-hunters, somewhat reassured by Tartarin’s inflexibility and by the solidity of the bars, again approached their chief, they heard him mutter, while gazing fixedly at the lion, “This—yes, this is hunting indeed!”