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[Illustration: FRANÇOIS COPPÉE.]


Ten Tales


François Coppée

_Translated by WALTER LEARNED, with fifty pen-and-ink drawings
by ALBERT E. STERNER, and an introduction by BRANDER MATTHEWS_


Copyright, 1890, by HARPER & BROTHERS.

_All rights reserved._













The _conte_ is a form of fiction in which the French have always
delighted and in which they have always excelled, from the days of the
_jongleurs_ and the _trouvères_, past the periods of La Fontaine and
Voltaire, down to the present. The _conte_ is a tale, something more
than a sketch, it may be, and something less than a short story. In
verse it is at times but a mere rhymed anecdote, or it may attain almost
to the direct swiftness of a ballad. The _Canterbury Tales_ are
_contes_, most of them, if not all; and so are some of the _Tales of a
Wayside Inn_. The free-and-easy tales of Prior were written in imitation
of the French _conte en vers_; and that, likewise, was the model of more
than one of the lively narrative poems of Mr. Austin Dobson.

No one has succeeded more abundantly in the _conte en vers_ than M.
Coppée. Where was there ever anything better of its kind than _L'Enfant
de la Balle?_--that gentle portrait of the Infant Phenomenon, framed in
a chain of occasional gibes at the sordid ways of theatrical managers
and at their hostility towards poetic plays. Where is there anything of
a more simple pathos than _L'Épave?_--that story of a sailor's son whom
the widowed mother strives vainly to keep from the cruel waves that
killed his father. (It is worthy of a parenthesis that although the ship
M. Coppée loves best is that which sails the blue shield of the City of
Paris, he knows the sea also, and he depicts sailors with affectionate
fidelity.) But whether at the sea-side by chance, or more often in the
streets of the city, the poet seeks out for the subject of his story
some incident of daily occurrence made significant by his
interpretation; he chooses some character common-place enough, but made
firmer by conflict with evil and by victory over self. Those whom he
puts into his poems are still the humble, the forgotten, the neglected,
the unknown; and it is the feelings and the struggles of these that he
tells us, with no maudlin sentimentality, and with no dead set at our
sensibilities. The sub-title Mrs. Stowe gave to _Uncle Tom's Cabin_
would serve to cover most of M. Coppée's _contes_ either in prose or
verse; they are nearly all pictures of _life among the lowly_. But there
is no forcing of the note in his painting of poverty and labor; there is
no harsh juxtaposition of the blacks and the whites. The tone is always
manly and wholesome.

_La Marchande de Journaux_ and the other little masterpieces of
story-telling in verse are unfortunately untranslatable, as are all
poems but a lyric or two, now and then, by a happy accident. A
translated poem is a boiled strawberry, as some one once put it
brutally. But the tales which M. Coppée has written in prose--a true
poet's prose, nervous, vigorous, flexible, and firm--these can be
Englished by taking thought and time and pains, without which a
translation is always a betrayal. Ten of these tales have been rendered
into English by Mr. Learned; and the ten chosen for translation are
among the best of the two score and more of M. Coppée's _contes en
prose_. These ten tales are fairly representative of his range and
variety. Compare, for example, the passion in "The Foster Sister," pure,
burning and fatal, with the Black Forest _naïveté_ of "The Sabots of
Little Wolff." Contrast the touching pathos of "The Substitute,"
poignant in his magnificent self-sacrifice, by which the man who has
conquered his shameful past goes back willingly to the horrible life he
has fled from that he may save from a like degradation and from an
inevitable moral decay the one friend he has in the world, all unworthy
as this friend is--contrast this with the story of the gigantic deeds
"My Friend Meurtrier" boasts about unceasingly, not knowing that he has
been discovered in his little round of daily domestic duties, making the
coffee of his good old mother and taking her poodle out for a walk.

Among these ten there are tales of all sorts, from the tragic adventure
of "An Accident" to the pendent portraits of the "Two Clowns," cutting
in its sarcasm, but not bitter--from "The Captain's Vices," which
suggests at once George Eliot's _Silas Marner_ and Mr. Austin Dobson's
_Tale of Polypheme_, to the sombre revery of the poet "At Table," a
sudden and searching light cast on the labor and misery which underlies
the luxury of our complex modern existence. Like "At Table," "A Dramatic
Funeral" is a picture more than it is a story; it is a marvellous
reproduction of the factitious emotion of the good-natured stage folk,
who are prone to overact even their own griefs and joys. "A Dramatic
Funeral" seems to me always as though it might be a painting of M. Jean
Beraud, that most Parisian of artists, just as certain stories of M. Guy
de Maupassant inevitably suggest the bold freedom of M. Forain's
sketches in black-and-white.

An ardent admirer of the author of the stories in _The Odd Number_ has
protested to me that M. Coppée is not an etcher like M. de Maupassant,
but rather a painter in water-colors. And why not? Thus might we call M.
Alphonse Daudet an artist in pastels, so adroitly does he suggest the
very bloom of color. No doubt M. Coppée's _contes_ have not the
sharpness of M. de Maupassant's, nor the brilliancy of M. Daudet's--but
what of it? They have qualities of their own; they have sympathy,
poetry, and a power of suggesting pictures not exceeded, I think, by
those of either M. de Maupassant or M. Daudet. M. Coppée's street views
in Paris, his interiors, his impressionist sketches of life under the
shadows of Notre Dame, are convincingly successful. They are intensely
to be enjoyed by those of us who take the same keen delight in the
varied phases of life in New York. They are not, to my mind, really
rivalled either by those of M. de Maupassant, who is a Norman by birth
and a nomad by choice, or by those of M. Daudet, who is a native of
Provence, although now for thirty years a resident of Paris. M. Coppée
is a Parisian from his youth up, and even in prose he is a poet; perhaps
this is why his pictures of Paris are unsurpassable in their felicity
and in their verity.

It may be fancy, but I seem to see also a finer morality in M. Coppée's
work than in M. de Maupassant's or in M. Daudet's or in that of almost
any other of the Parisian story-tellers of to-day. In his tales we
breathe a purer moral atmosphere, more wholesome and more bracing. It is
not that M. Coppée probably thinks of ethics rather than æsthetics; in
this respect his attitude is undoubtedly that of the others; there is no
sermon in his song--or at least none for those who will not seek it for
themselves; there is never a hint of a preachment. But for all that I
have found in his work a trace of the tonic morality which inheres in
Molière, for example, also a Parisian by birth, and also in Rabelais,
despite his disguising grossness. This finer morality comes possibly
from a wider and a deeper survey of the universe; and it is as different
as possible from the morality which is externally applied and which
always punishes the villain in the fifth act.

It is of good augury for our own letters that the best French fiction of
to-day is getting itself translated in the United States, and that the
liking for it is growing apace. Fiction is more consciously an art in
France than anywhere else--perhaps partly because the French are now
foremost in nearly all forms of artistic endeavor. In the short story
especially, in the tale, in the _conte_, their supremacy is
incontestable; and their skill is shown and their æsthetic instinct
exemplified partly in the sense of form, in the constructive method,
which underlies the best short stories, however trifling these may
appear to be, and partly in the rigorous suppression of non-essentials,
due in a measure, it may be, to the example of Mérimee. That is an
example we in America may study to advantage; and from the men who are
writing fiction in France we may gain much. From the British fiction of
this last quarter of the nineteenth century little can be learned by any
one--less by us Americans in whom the English tradition is still
dominant. When we look to France for an exemplar we may find a model of
value, but when we copy an Englishman we are but echoing our own faults.
"The truth is," said Mr. Lowell in his memorable essay _On a Certain
Condescension in Foreigners_--"the truth is that we are worth nothing
except so far as we have disinfected ourselves of Anglicism."



[Illustration: THE CAPTAIN'S VICES]


It is of no importance, the name of the little provincial city where
Captain Mercadier--twenty-six years of service, twenty-two campaigns,
and three wounds--installed himself when he was retired on a pension.

It was quite like all those other little villages which solicit without
obtaining it a branch of the railway; just as if it were not the sole
dissipation of the natives to go every day, at the same hour, to the
Place de la Fontaine to see the diligence come in at full gallop, with
its gay cracking of the whips and clang of bells.

It was a place of three thousand inhabitants--ambitiously denominated
souls in the statistical tables--and was exceedingly proud of its title
of chief city of the canton. It had ramparts planted with trees, a
pretty river with good fishing, a church of the charming epoch of the
flamboyant Gothic, disgraced by a frightful station of the cross,
brought directly from the quarter of Saint Sulpice.

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