Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  A Great Hero

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

François Coppée (1842–1908)

A Great Hero

From “Tales in Prose”

ACHILLE MEURTRIER’S fierce look and tall stature seemed to accord with his name. A big, strapping fellow he was, of about forty; not too broad in chest or shoulder, but apparently the more formidable through wearing wide-brimmed felt hats, ample short coats, large plaid trousers, and neckties of sanguine scarlet under rolling collars. A full beard, long hair, and his hairy hands, of which he was proud, completed the impression.

Meurtrier’s chief boast, although he was otherwise the best and most lovable of good fellows, was to play off an athletic constitution; to possess the biceps of a pugilist, and, in his own words, not to know his own strength. Even in the exercise of his pacific clerical occupation he never made a gesture without the purpose of convincing the spectators of his immense vigor. If he had to take a half-empty pasteboard box from its case he advanced toward the shelf with the heavy step of a street porter, grasped the box manfully with a firm hand, and carried it with a stiff arm as far as the next table, with a shrugging of shoulders and a frown not unworthy of Milo of Crotona. So far did he carry this method that he never appeared to lift the lightest objects but with the greatest exertion; and one day, when he held a basket of old papers in his right hand, I saw him lift the other arm as if to counterpoise the enormous weight.

Meurtrier’s conversations were not of a character to lessen the admiration with which he inspired me.

“What a Sunday, my boy! There is positively no fatigue that can get the better of me. Think of it: yesterday with the regatta at Joinville-le-Pont; at six o’clock in the morning the meeting at Bercy, at The Mariners, for the crew of the Marsouin: the sun is up; a glass of white wine, and we jump into our rowing-suits, seize an oar, and give way, one—two, one—two, as far as Joinville; then overboard for a swim before breakfast—strip to swimming-drawers, a jump overboard, and look out for squalls! After my bath I have the appetite of a tiger!”…

The evenings of my astonishing companion were not less adventurous than his Sundays. Collar-and-elbow wrestling in a tent, under the red light of torches, between him, the simple amateur, and Du Bois, the very man of iron; rat-hunts near the mouths of sewers, with dogs as fierce as tigers; bloody nocturnal encounters, in the most dangerous quarters, with ruffians and nose-eaters—such were the more insignificant episodes of his nightly career. Nor do I dare to relate other adventures of a more intimate character, from which, as the writers of an earlier day would have said in their noble style, the least timorous of pens would recoil in horror….

One evening in July, I was slowly walking from Vaugirard through one of those depressing suburban streets with houses of varying height on either side … when I came to a sudden stop, attracted by the sight, near an open ground-floor window, of a dear old lady, in black gown and widow’s weeds, leaning back in an easy-chair covered with green Utrecht velvet, and sitting quietly with her hands folded in her lap. Every object near her was old and simple, and seemed to have been cared for and kept, less through a wise economy than on account of hallowed memories, since her honeymoon with the gentleman of high complexion, in frock coat and flowered waistcoat, whose oval crayon portrait adorned the wall. The light of two lamps on the mantel-shelf outlined clearly every detail of the antiquated furniture, from the clock supported by a fish of artificial painted marble to the old-fashioned piano, on which the old lady might, years and years ago, have played the airs of Romagnesi.

I felt sure that it was a loved and only daughter, remaining unmarried through affection for her mother, who watched so piously over the last years of the widow. She it was, assuredly, who had established her dear mother there so tenderly, who had put the stool under her feet, and had moved near her the inlaid table with the tray and the two cups. At every moment I expected the door to open, to see that sweet, gentle girl come through it, carrying the evening coffee. Like the widow, whom she would resemble very closely, she would be dressed in black.

Intent upon the contemplation of so sympathetic a scene, and attracted by that humble poem of reality, I remained standing at some steps from the window, secure of not being noticed in the twilit street, when I saw the door open. Oh the threshold appeared—how far he was from my thoughts at that moment—my friend Meurtrier himself, the formidable hero of tilts on the river and frays in obscure localities! That terrible, hairy hand of his held a tiny silver coffee-pot, and between his legs was trotting a poodle which greatly embarrassed his steps.

“Mama,” said the giant, in a tone of unspeakable tenderness, “here is your coffee. I am sure you will like it to-night. The water boiled well, and I poured it drop by drop.”

“Thank you,” said the old lady, rolling her easy-chair a little nearer to the table, “thank you, my little Achille! Many a time did your dear father say that never could my equal for making coffee be found—the dear, good man was so kind and indulgent—but I begin to believe that you are even better at it than I.”

At that moment, and while Meurtrier was pouring out the coffee with the delicate caution of a young girl, the poodle, whom no doubt the sight of the uncovered sugar excited, placed his forepaws on his mistress’s lap.

“Down, Medor!” she cried with kindly severity. “Was there ever such a troublesome animal! Look here, sir; you know very well that your master always gives you the last of his cup. By the way,” added the widow, looking at her son, “you have taken the poor little fellow out, haven’t you?”

“Certainly, mama!” he replied in a tone that was almost childlike. “I have just been to the creamery for your morning milk, and I put the leash and collar on Medor and took him with me.”

“And have all his little wants been attended to?”

“You may be at ease about him. He doesn’t want for anything.”

Feeling reassured on this important point of canine hygiene, the good lady drank her coffee, sitting between her son and her dog, both of whom looked at her with inexpressible tenderness.

There was evidently no need to hear more. I had stumbled upon this peaceful family life—upright, pure, and devoted—which my friend Meurtrier concealed under his visionary gasconades. But so droll at once and touching was the sight which chance had led me to, that I could not resist the temptation of watching a few minutes longer….

The next morning, when I arrived at the office, I asked Meurtrier how he had spent the evening before. Instantly, and without any hesitation, he improvised an account of a sharp encounter at two o’clock in the morning on some boulevard, in which, having put his thumb through his key-ring, he had, at one blow of his fist, knocked down a rowdy of the worst kind. I listened with an ironical smile, trying to put him out of countenance; but, when I remembered how admirable a virtue his absurdity concealed, I slapped him heartily on the back, saying with conviction:

“Meurtrier, you are a great hero!”