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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by John William Cunliffe (1865–1946)

By Pierre Mille (1864–1941)

M. PIERRE MILLE has so often expressed his admiration for Kipling and acknowledged his indebtedness to him that he would probably take as a compliment his popular tag of “a French Kipling,” though it is far from an adequate description of his qualities. One cannot imagine Rudyard Kipling as a Frenchman, and it may be premised at once that Pierre Mille is something more (and less) than his first inspiration and model. Nowadays he writes sometimes like Kipling, and sometimes like Anatole France; into the gulf between these two one could drop most of the living writers of prose who are worth reading.

Born at Choisy-le-Roi, young Mille plunged into journalism and was sent by the Journal des Débats as its correspondent to the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. His dispatches, and some articles he wrote for the Revue des Deux Mondes, attracted attention, and formed the basis for his first book, ‘De Thessalie en Crète’ (1898). He had already made his journalistic début in the French colonies at Madagascar in 1896, and he afterwards visited Senegal and the Congo. His descriptive sketch, ‘Au Congo Beige’ (1899) was “crowned” by the Academy, and was followed by two other books on the Congo question, which was already exciting a great deal of public interest. But it was not till 1905 that he established his reputation as a story-teller in the volume, ‘Sur la Vaste Terre.’ The very title seems to smack of Kipling, whose name figures at the head of one of the stories, and whose influence is plainly discernible in others. The hero of the book, Barnavaux, is first cousin to Terence Mulvaney; an outline of ‘Barnavaux, Général’ will be enough to make the relationship clear. The story is told by Barnavaux, a marine serving in Madagascar, to a friend of higher social station (apparently a war correspondent) in the interval of some military operations. Barnavaux and his comrade, Razowski, were the sole garrison of the outpost of Vouhilène, and Razo fell ill from homesickness and reading the books of the Protestant missionary Stewart—the doctor called it tropical anæmia. Sister Ludine, of the Catholic dispensary, tried to cheer him up and save his soul, but he said he was a free-thinker and would die like a man. Rakoutoumangue, the old chief whom Barnavaux had supplanted, came on a pretext to spy out the land, and found as “Commander of the garrison, chief of staff, colonel, captain, lieutenant, artillery, cavalry, infantry—Barnavaux. The rest of the garrison—in hospital.” A few days later, the insurgents were heard attacking Stewart in his school. Barnavaux took his rifle to go to the rescue. Razo tried to get up, but could not lift his head from the pillow. Then Sister Ludine took up Razo’s rifle, and said to Barnavaux, “I am coming with you”—the idea that the poor little children would be burnt to death in the school filled her with horror and turned her head. “But I could not see Sister Ludine transformed into a heroic warrior—it would be ridiculous,” recounted Barnavaux, who may now be allowed to tell his own story:

  • “‘Do not dishonor your cap,’ I said to her. ‘People don’t bear arms in that costume. What we need is the prestige of the uniform. The outpost defended by a woman—it is the best way to show that all is lost.’
  • “‘Do you think so? Well, it won’t take long.’
  • “She undid Razo’s bundle, took out a pair of trousers and a tunic, and ran without another word into the kitchen, which was a little hut at the other end of the terrace.
  • “Three minutes later she came back dressed as a marine—yes, a marine in full uniform, which did not embarrass her in the least—she was so excited. Her little old woman’s body made her look like a child, except for her face, which was haggard, wrinkled, shriveled—but all shining with enthusiasm. Razo choked with emotion and I did not think of laughing or of protesting—I had tears in my eyes. I said:
  • “‘Sister Ludine, you are out of your mind. Sister Ludine, I love you with all my heart. By all the powers, go and crack their heads.’
  • “At that moment I could have destroyed an army of a hundred thousand men all alone. Everything seemed to me cheerful, touching, easy, and sublime. It was not air I had in my lungs, but a kind of clear flame that ran hot in my blood. I was mad, I was happy, I was beyond myself. I wished to break out into exclamations, into songs, into all kinds of foolishness for my own pleasure—for a joke. I am telling you exactly how I felt.
  • “Things were pressing. Five or six houses were already on fire. Three or four corpses already stained the reddened soil. The insurgents were blazing away their ammunition, perhaps to show that they had plenty of it. Their yells, from afar, sounded like a litany in church—rising, swelling, falling, beginning again. The door of the school was shut, and Stewart was firing through a loophole; this solitary sound from the defense, thin and, as it were, trembling, froze me to the soul. It was five o’clock, and the setting sun cast long rays across the rice fields, which separated the outpost from the village. A rice field is a river in which there is mud instead of water, and green shoots above the mud. You can only cross it by the dikes.
  • “I said to Sister Ludine:
  • “‘We must produce a grandiose and unexpected effect. You are the second division of the army. Go down behind the outpost, turn to the right, and cross the rice field by the third dike. Don’t weaken your formation by delay on the march; you might lose stragglers! Once you are on the dike, the enemy will see you; then fire. By all the saints of Paradise, don’t trouble to aim, but fire all the cartridges in the magazine, recharge, and begin again. Your business is to make plenty of noise—that’s all.’
  • “The sister laughed heartily.
  • “‘That’s what I’m here for,’ she said. ‘But how do you do it?’
  • “She held out her Lebel rifle with the look of a nigger who has received a money order and does not know what to do with it.
  • “‘Ah, just so,’ I replied.
  • “I showed her the mechanism of the dear little thing. She understood it at once.
  • “‘Comme ça, et puis comme ça, et puis comme ça? C’est bon. Au revoir.’
  • “And she was going off when I recalled her with a shout:
  • “‘I’ve forgotten to tell you the direction in which you’re to march.’
  • “‘Holy Virgin!’ she answered. ‘It’s the school. You’ve no need to tell me that.’
  • “I never saw more conscientious work. She marched, fired all the balls from the magazine, made a few steps, stopped to recharge, began again—and did in every way just as I did, for I was advancing on my dike like a veritable Napoleon at the Bridge of Arcole.
  • “It is over a mile from the outpost of Vouhilène to the village; but we had opened fire all the same. The brutes who were attacking the school turned round in astonishment. They all believed—because they had been told so—that there was only one Frenchman on his feet at Vouhilène, and that he would not be mad enough to leave the outpost. My insolence impressed them, and the parallel demonstration of Sister Ludine was a surprise. The insurgents of Emyrne were poor devils who were dying of hunger; what gave them courage was the assurance that no one in the village would offer resistance—neither the guard of the outpost nor the inhabitants. But here was the garrison making a sortie.”
  • The fever-stricken Razo completed the rout of the insurgents by letting off, from the top of the outpost, the fireworks intended for the 14th of July; and Rakoutoumangue, who had instigated the attack, when he saw the rebels giving way, came and helped to slaughter them. They tried to take refuge in the school, and the missionary, after imploring them to go away, killed one by throwing a block of granite on his head. His consternation at having “killed a man” recalls a similar incident in Kipling, though the circumstances are entirely different. “Well,” said Sister Ludine, “I can take an oath that I have not killed anybody.” “And it was absolutely true,” Barnavaux comments. “If anyone can boast to-day that she never hurt a hair of her neighbor’s head, it is that old saint—which proves the importance of moral strength, as the newspapers say.”

    In the upshot, the part played by Stewart and Sister Ludine in crushing the insurrection was suppressed in the official report, and most of the credit given to Rakoutoumangue, who was in consequence restored by the French Government to his position as chief. Barnavaux was promoted to corporal. His interlocutor remarked, that he no longer wore the stripes:

  • “He blew away a cloud of smoke and replied: ‘The air of big cities is not good for me. Three months after the victory, I was recalled to Tananarivo, and there I was reduced to the ranks for unbecoming conduct. But that is another story.’”
  • ‘Barnavaux et Quelques Femmes’ (1908) continues the exploits of the soldier-hero in Madagascar, in the Sahara, on the Congo, in Tonkin; and the last story is dedicated “To Rudyard Kipling, who wrote ‘The Finest Story in the World.’” But apparently the author tired of this vein (though the public did not), and the stories that followed were turned in another direction. ‘Caillou et Tili’ (1911) is an attempt to explain to adults the point of view of a little boy and a little girl. This difficult task is accomplished with much delicacy and subtlety, and with many profound observations of childish nature, of which the following may serve as examples:

  • “Never tell stories before children of things that have happened to them; if they are inclined to vanity and affectation, you will make little mimics of them; if they are proud, delicate, and sensitive of soul, you will wound their susceptibilities. For in spite of all your efforts you will never tell the story as they have felt it; you are too different from them, and you will not do them justice. So they will think that you are making fun of their vexations and anxieties, that you do not take seriously their personality—and there is no human being more solitary and therefore more proud than a child—or the universe they are constructing in mosaic—by sensations added one to the other—luminous fragments of things, precious gems they are perpetually amassing….
  • “Never quote children’s sayings in their presence; if you yield to this inclination, they will quickly come to stringing phrases together at random, in the hope of exciting surprise and admiration.”
  • These are perhaps counsels of perfection, but if parents would give heed to them, they would save their friends some unhappy hours and their children real suffering. Caillou and Tili are, of course, French children, and much that occurs to them would be strange to American youngsters; but there is no doubt of the insight and skill with which the author has revealed some of the secrets of the nursery, of universal interest and significance.

    In ‘Louise et Barnavaux’ (1912), Mille returned to the hero who had first won him fame, and had not ceased to be popular. In this volume we see Barnavaux attempting to settle down; he does not go so far as marriage, but he enters into a union libre with a respectable working girl, Louise, whose character is drawn with charming sympathy. The result is disastrous for Barnavaux; after making all kinds of good resolutions, he is sent to prison for four days because he has obtained leave to attend the funeral of his son, whose paternity he had not officially acknowledged. Barnavaux gives up Louise, and returns to his old habits and adventures.

    Mille’s next book, ‘Paraboles et Diversions’ (1913), is again different from his previous work. The ‘Paraboles’ are fresh versions of Scripture story, somewhat in the manner of Anatole France, but without his biting and malicious irony. Mille’s humor is more gentle and sympathetic, and though readers brought up in the traditions of English Protestantism may find the atmosphere irreverent, the Latin peoples, accustomed to treating sacred personages with a certain affectionate familiarity, will see no cause of offense. The story of Creation is told so as to give more play for the part of Satan, who is identified with the first critic; Noah yields half of his honors to Deucalion; the birth and childhood of Jesus are treated with a delicate humor which has, rightly regarded, no touch of mockery. The legends of Œdipus and Don Juan are dealt with in the same spirit—the latter from the point of view taken by Bernard Shaw in ‘Man and Superman.’ The next division of the volume, ‘Quelques Bêtes et Gens,’ again reminds one of Anatole France, though the latter was, of course, not the first to enforce the warning against anthropomorphism by reminding us that the lower animals have a different point of view. It was an old Greek who said, “If the oxen made a god, they would make him in the likeness of an ox,” and Mille’s ‘Diary of a Fat Ox’ is conceived in a delicious spirit of humorous gravity which is wholly original:

  • “I am the Fat Ox. There is no more magnificent title. There is none more assured. I despise the other sovereigns. To what does William II., Emperor of Germany, owe his throne? To the fact that Frederic II., the only great man of the family, had no more children that I have. He reigns by virtue of the chances of a collateral succession. And the president of the Republic? He presides by virtue of the chances of a contested election. And for all the others, it is the same thing: inheritance, chance, lottery. But I—I have been weighed! And I weighed more than all the other oxen. I am the ox of oxen; no one can deny it. I have been elected by science and truth. Science and truth march with me—nothing can stop them; I shall go, with them, to the slaughter-house.
  • “For I know that I shall go to the slaughter-house. That is what constitutes the superiority of oxen over man; we know how we shall die and what end our death will serve; to feed men. But what end is served by men who die? None at all. That is why they are accompanied to the tomb with melancholy hymns, black costumes, ugly withered flowers, and priests who are hidden in carts made like catafalques. My priests were fragrant with wine, like Silenus. They were clad in white, purple, and amaranth. Bacchantes accompanied them. Delirious trumpets sounded on my way. Men dressed like beasts danced before the beast I am. And they will slay me like a god.”
  • The Fat Ox then tells of his birth and early education:

  • “I was taught to ruminate. It is a real science. You must ruminate stretched on the ground, slowly, gently, with the lower teeth, and think only of ruminating. When you know how to ruminate, you know the foundation of things, you are happy, nothing can distress you. The moment comes when I shall die; but I am ruminating. That is why bulls are mad. They pass their time in running about, they attack terriers who ought to be respected, they ruminate ill. So they stay lean; they will never be fat oxen. I cannot conceive why they exist.
  • “Every fortnight I was weighed in a great machine, and each weighing was a triumph. I became huge, fat, powerful, placid, and pacific like the earth, and of a white color lightly tinged with rose, like a plum blossom. When I was put to the plough, I accepted this gymnastic exercise without complaint, knowing that it would make my flesh firmer. I was rewarded by my victory at the Agricultural Show, where the Prefect himself paid homage to me.
  • “I understood, from the speech of this high official, why I had lived. My existence and embonpoint glorified the Republic. Never, under the Empire, was there an ox like me; for oxen could not grow becomingly fat under the régime of tyranny. The Radical-Socialist Deputy made it known, in a very long address, that the protection he had always accorded to the ward in which I was born was not unconnected with the brilliance of my hide and the richness of my flanks. Then the trumpets played the Marseillaise, the Clairons de Sidi-Brahim, and the Internationale. Tired out, I sank to rest in my own dung. They put a crown of roses on my head, and I concluded that I had done all that was expected of me….
  • “Now I know that I shall die. It matters little—I have lived my life. My name will resound for the last time in a dark corridor, acclaimed by vigorous and sanguinary young men armed with heavy axes of steel. But even my corpse will be glorious. The butcher who bought me will decorate it for the last time with paper roses, after removing my hide. And the nations will defile before my gigantic body before it is cut in pieces. This is the lot of gods and of kings.”
  • The next story, ‘Jimmy and Wilkie,’ has a larger element of pathos. The heroes are two coal-mine ponies who are brought to the upper air because of a strike; their sensations on seeing the light of day, the meadows, the flowers, the birds, are described with the subtlest sympathy. The other stories and sketches are lighter in tone and of less permanent and universal appeal. Most of them hit off little peculiarities of French life, such as the anglers on the banks of the Seine, who are a perennial source of wonder to American visitors. The story of the restoration of the Mona Lisa to the Louvre is at the expense of the experts, as the ‘Courte Conversation avec un Grand Peintre’ is at the expense of the latest fads in art, the “Great Painter” being no other than the donkey who with his tail painted a picture which was exhibited in one of the Paris salons, and was much admired—until its origin was made known. American readers will be interested in the story of the theoretical anarchist, Paul-Louis Durand, who was a passenger on the “Titanic”:

  • “When Paul-Louis saw they were getting out the lifeboats, he made haste. A young officer, correct and cool, in full uniform—it is worth while to dress well for death, it gives courage and generosity, the soul adjusts itself to the body—took him by the collar of his ulster, and said sharply:
  • “‘What are you doing?’
  • “‘You see for yourself,’ said Paul-Louis. ‘I am going to get into the boat.’
  • “‘Women and children first,’ answered the officer. ‘Besides, I may tell you that there will only be room for them. There are not enough lifeboats.’
  • “Durand’s principles obliged him to consider his own life as more precious than those of all the rest of the world. He tried to free himself, and felt a revolver pressed against his temple. He was an intellectual; he had time to experience something like respect for this man who showed a determination equal to that of the enemies of society. Yet he protested:
  • “‘What have the women and children to do with me—and with you? This is no time for politeness.’
  • “‘It’s not politeness,’ said the officer. ‘I suppose—well, I suppose it is because children—children are the future—and women the possibility of replacing us. But—go to hell, sir. I’ve no time to talk.’
  • “As Paul-Louis Durand was asking himself with some astonishment if in reality there are sometimes interests which exceed those of the individual, the great ship dipped her nose into the dark water like a swan looking for a fish. But she did not raise her head again—ever. And while a fierce lamentation arose from the vessel, swelling and falling like a hymn, Paul-Louis, losing his balance, was thrown into the sea. It was so cold that he said to himself that he could not swim long. But as he had heard of the terrible suction made by a sinking ship, he made efforts to get away. In the cruel darkness that oppressed his eyes like some material, viscous substance, he suddenly felt something solid under his hand. It was a raft, which yielded beneath his feet; but this enabled him to climb on it. It was large and solid. He scrambled to the middle and stood up.
  • “He was saved! But at that instant a mysterious, inexorable, overwhelming fear increased the shuddering of his miserable flesh. He was alone—all alone in the midst of the sea! He could not stay alone; he was more afraid, alone on this wreckage, than a moment before on the steamer among fifteen hundred men facing death with him. The iceberg drifted near, and in its sickly light he saw a man, sustained by a life-belt in the water a few feet away. He called to him:
  • “‘Here! Here! Do this with your hands!’
  • “He made the movements of swimming, and almost in a frenzy, on all fours, helped the shipwrecked man to climb on the raft. Others came, and soon there were thirty of them. They were not acquaintances, and yet they were glad to recognize one another. They touched each other gently as if the feeling of comradeship gave them I know not what desperate hope.
  • “Suddenly there was a change. Someone said:
  • “‘We can’t take anyone else. The raft is going down.’
  • “Yet from the depths of the darkness they saw other unfortunates coming and crying for help.
  • “‘There is no more room,’ Paul-Louis shouted with the rest. ‘There is no more room—keep off. This raft is ours. If you come on board, you will sink us.’
  • “Of these exiles, thrown back to death, some said with resignation:
  • “‘God help you! Good-by!’
  • “But others tried to climb up. Then instinctively there was a guard, watchmen, leaders, who repulsed them without pity.
  • “‘It’s ours, this raft. We want to live.’
  • “And thus Paul-Louis Durand, anarchist and individualist, learned the meaning of patriotism.”
  • It will be seen that M. Mille has decided opinions. He has not the detachment of Anatole France, to whom he ironically dedicated one of his earlier stories (‘L’Aveugle’) on the duty of military service. On the other hand, it would be no less a mistake to describe him as an imperialist, if by that we understand an imperialist after the fashion of Mr. Rudyard Kipling. He has too much irony for that, sees too much of both sides—that of the subjected people as well as that of the white man who is assuming a self-imposed burden. He has not Kipling’s sublime confidence in himself and in the divine mission of his race. His is a subtler essence, less powerful, no doubt, but possessing its own delicate charm.

    Pierre Mille had a well-established reputation in France for some years before he was known beyond the French reading public. The translations of his work into English have not followed exactly the chronological succession of their composition and original publication, in which they are reviewed above. ‘Two Little Parisians’ (‘Caillou and Tili’) appeared in 1913, ‘Barnavaux’ (‘Sur la Vaste Terre’) in 1915, ‘Under the Tricolor’ (‘Barnavaux et Quelques Femmes’) in 1915, and ‘Louise and Barnavaux’ in 1916, all excellently translated by Bérangère Drillien and published in charming editions by John Lane. ‘Joffre Chaps and Some Others,’ 1915, gives both touching and humorous stories of the poilu, of whose idiosyncracies M. Mille is as sympathetic an interpreter as Mr. Kipling is of the peculiarities of Tommy Atkins.