It takes its name from the Tarasque, the monster that was slain by St. Martha after it had defied the best dragon-killers of antiquity. The Tarasque was the daughter of Bohemoth and Leviathan and found its way into Provence by the same strange processes that brought so many other notable figures to the valley of the Rhone. It lived in a cavern under the surface of the river near where King Rene’s castle stands to-day and came out periodically to dine upon the young and beautiful maidens of the neighborhood.
This sort of thing had been going on for years when St. Martha came northward. She listened to the plaints of the fleeing townsfolk, ignored their warnings, and continued on her way to the village to see this beast for herself.
The dragon waddled forward, shooting flames from its nostrils and bellowing so that the moan of the mistral in the olive-trees was silenced. But the frail girl of Judea held her ground undaunted and raised her hand.
The Tarasque, never before known to show any consideration toward a lady, showed great surprise and died. It lay over on its back with its feet in the air, and it took seventeen men and four teams of horses, working day and night, six days to drag the carcass out of Tarasoon’s main street.
The valley of the Rhone is filled with these legends of dragons and strange serpents. Some students of folk-lore have advanced the theory that at one time a number of sea-monsters, last survivors of some forgotten geological epoch, got into the river long enough to give foundation to the innumerable stories. It seems likely that there really was some basis, aside from pure imagination, for their wide-spread circulation.
Dragon-fighting was a highly developed art during the early Middle Ages. It might have been brought to unbelievable perfection had the supply of dragons held out. But one by one they succumbed to the unlicensed huntsmen who roamed the desert wilds in search of them. To-day they are as extinct as the buffalo, and that in spite of the crude weapons with which they were fought.
Only one case has been reported to us of a chevalier who really trained to fight a dragon and fought it with some degree of intelligence. Mark Twain’s legend of the knight who killed one with a fire-extinguisher probably is exaggerated. The only authentic story of brains as a noticeable element in dragon-baiting has been preserved in Provence, where all such things happened.
The knight Boson, distantly related to Boson I, one of the kings of Provence before that kingdom united with upper Burgundy to form the kingdom of Arles, was a Knight Templar with offices on the island of Rhodes.
On that same island dwelt a dragon that caused the knights considerable trouble and anxiety. This dragon was one of the last of his tribe. He was a survivor of the Paleozoic period when all animals that amounted to any-thing were dragons or large fish. A surprising longevity had brought him to the day when puny little creatures called men were disputing with him his right to live on the island where he had hoped to live out the few centuries still remaining to him. Not since he had opened his eyes to the comfortable jungles of Old India, more than a thou-sand years ago, had he ever seen the like. Here was he, a dragon of the very highest Hindu caste, a dragon whose brothers and sisters were distinguished fossils in the great museum of Arles, forced to worry about his lease on a dingy cave in a second-rate island. It was unspeakable.
It must be said for him that he did not venture out to harm any one. The Templars lost about one man a day on his account, but that was really no fault of his. The knights had a habit of starting ouster suits, backed by sword and lance, and he had no option but to fight eviction.
The upshot of it was that the grand master of the knights forbade them to interfere with the dragon.
The chevalier Boson was a good and obedient knight, but the order came at a time when he found it difficult to understand. He had just thought out a scheme for disposing of it, and the grand master’s ruling interfered with his plans.
Probably he would have submitted to discipline without a murmur, but that very night the dragon came out in search of food and withered a whole vineyard with his scorching breath. The next day Boson obtained a leave of absence and embarked for Provence.
In the Camargue near Aigues-Mortes he set up his dragon-fighting gymnasium and drill-ground and collected there a quantity of the best swords and dragon-lances manufactured by the Dragon Fighters’ Equipment Company of Toledo. His next step was to obtain a suitable horse.
He did not fall into the error, so commonly committed by his predecessors in the business of dragon-extermination, of seeking a horse with a pedigree. He turned a deaf ear to all horse-traders who sought to sell him a blooded Arabian steed, and picked out a Provencal farm-horse of a scrub breed. As soon as the horse-traders saw that they went their way scoffing.
Boson smiled at insult and went on with his preliminary arrangements.
He first taught the horse to stand intense heat. He began by stabling the animal in the shade, then in the sun, and then out of the wind in a tent of nearly transparent oiled silk. His next step in the training process was to stand braziers of charcoal in the stall and finally to build fires under the horse. So efficient was this training that within a very few weeks the mount resembled a salamander in everything but shape.
Boson then built an artificial dragon, inch for inch and angle for angle, the same in size and appearance as the dragon that ruled on Rhodes. It has been said upon good authority that this was the finest artificial dragon ever built, including the famous monster destroyed some years ago by fire in Tarascon. It had an independent motion in all parts, could wiggle its tail and roll its eyes and bellow loud enough to be heard in Africa, and, by a special spring device, could be made to rise up on its hind legs and strike vigorously with its front claws.
The fire did not bother the horse. Taken from his hot stable and unblanketed, the poor beast would stand shivering in the blazing summer sun, eager to warm himself by getting into motion. The terrifying dragon was a sight to which he speedily became accustomed.
A week of tilting, during which the artificial dragon per-formed all the tricks that the three men inside him could devise, sufficed to complete Boson’s training. He then willed the dragon to the city of Marseille for carnival purposes, wrapped his horse in a fur overcoat, and sailed away quietly to Rhodes.
The result was what might have been expected. He landed on the dragon’s side of the island and wasted no time on preliminaries. The dragon awakened to discover a man and a horse at the entrance of his cave, awaiting combat.
Then developed a contingency that the wily Boson had foreseen. The dragon, being a high-caste Hindu dragon of prehistoric lineage, could not come into contact with any animal of lower caste without instantly losing some two thousand years of merit.
One look at the angular steed of Boson convinced him that this animal lacked about all the caste that an animal could lack. So the dragon met his problem by retreating. The shivering horse and the ardent Boson kept close to the pursuit, driving the flame-throwing monster over the rocks to the edge of the sea.
Then, with his dragon-lance couched, Boson spurred for-ward to the final charge. . . .
The grand master excommunicated Boson for disobedience as he had threatened, but later repented and took him back . . . it seemed so unlikely that he should ever fall from grace under similar circumstances again. And indeed he did not. He never fought another dragon.