The Impromptu Tale [ca. 1812]


This is a translation of "Le Conte impromptu," found in volume 2 of Le Petit Savant de société--a "collection extracted from the manuscripts of M. Enfantin, and corrected and expanded by M. de Belair." The second edition may be dated to 1812 by a front endpaper, corroborated by the Journal des arts, des sciences, et de littérature in 1812. For reference: volume 1 and its endpaper, as well as volume 3 and volume 4. An undated fourth edition appears to include all four volumes, each with the same material as the second edition, and the associated documentation suggests dates circa 1810 for the first edition (chez Caillot, quai des Augustins, n°9), 1812 for the second edition (also chez Caillot, rue Pavée-Saint-André, n° 19 - Paris; printed by Doublet), 1814 for the third edition (also chez Caillot - Paris; printed by Egron), and 1818 for the fourth edition (chez Caillot, rue Gît-le-Cœur, n° 4).

Note: The author seems unlikely to be the famous Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin given in this bibliography, because that Prosper Enfantin (although known as "Père") was very young, ca. 1810, and the author appears to have noteworthy experience of Parisian social life. Also, Enfantin is not mentioned in the introductions attributed to Mlle. Monfort, whereas Belair is there and also in several examples of play. Enfantin literally means "childish," and perhaps "M. de Belair le fils" invented Enfantin to distance his authorship with a little joke. A catalog for a 1975 exposition at the BNF titled Le Livre dans La Vie Quotidienne agrees that M. Enfantin cannot be Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin and also asserts that M. de Belair is "pseudonyme pompeux de Louis Legay, auteur d'ouvrages pour la jeunesse" / "a pompous pseudonym for Louis Legay, author of works for young adults"--an assertion corroborated in Legay's entry in the 1827 annual supplement to the Annales Biographique, which credits this text to him. Barbier's 1824 Dictionnaire des ouvrages anonymes et pseudonymes likewise mentions Legay's involvement.


The subject matter of this story must be of a noble kind: whether we introduce fairies or genies, or whether we choose chivalry as the genre. He or she who has the most facility and imagination must take on the main role of storyteller, the better to smooth out the occasions for confusion that result from the story and emerge successfully from the difficulties that must be overcome.

The first storyteller is called the confidant and must start by giving each of the players the name of an object that could figure in a heroic narrative: for example, palace or castle, tower, shore, sea, vessel or ship, minion, minister, captain of the guard, garden, park, forest, city, village, hamlet, valley, mountain, rock, precipice, or dungeon.

Whoever begins the story first must seek to fix everyone's attention with something interesting or extraordinary, in order to be able to catch off guard those who will be named. Here is the way I've seen it play, which can serve as an example.

In a kingdom of Africa, the name of which has been lost through the ignorance of geographers, the king had left as heiress a young princess whose beauty was ravishing; (here the narrator can paint her portrait, and detail the qualities of her heart and her mind) but her mother--who was regent of the kingdom until her daughter's majority and who was ambitious, vain, and flirtatious--in the hope of perpetuating or at least prolonging her authority kept this young princess far away, and caused the public to believe that the princess's reason was lost; but Melidor, one of the handsomest and bravest knights of the court of Philip the Fair, King of France, who had seen the princess before death had taken her father, and who had been touched by her charms, having returned to Africa, and well suspecting that such an admirable princess could not have lost her reason, conceived the project of extricating her from oppression, and delivering her from the captivity in which she was being held. Followed by his squire, he walked towards the tower and ...

Upon naming the tower, the interlocutor who had been given this name began speaking and continued the story. Not feeling strong enough to support it for long, he described the shape and height of the tower, and extricated himself from difficulty, saying that the top of this tower surpassed the height of the tallest trees in the forest.

The forest who, in her turn, was obliged to continue the story, got rid of it, saying that the knight, surprised at the height and shape of this prison, wishing however to enter it, consulted his squire, who was his confidant.

Then the story returned to the one who had begun it, who, as I have observed, must have the talent to imagine and the habit of speaking easily.

That, ladies, is what concerns the running of this game; but there is a further condition which renders it very difficult and produces very pleasant situations.

It's that when the narrator strives to make the story interesting and suspenseful he is obliged to point a finger at one of the players, who must at once supply a word, which he must seem to be looking for; yet the word given to him must be completely opposite to that which might suit the situation; otherwise, the person who pronounced it is required to give a pledge.

Here is what will happen. The confidant resumed the story in these terms:

The knight, resolved to enter the prison where he believed, with reason, that the princess was detained, said to his squire: I have no hope, my dear Tobalde, of possessing such an illustrious princess, destined to ascend the throne; but I want to have the merit of delivering her: the duty of chivalry obliges me to do so, and more than anything, my heart leads me to serve her with all my ... (he looked at one of the players, who--without being mistaken as to the rules of the game--rather than giving him the word courage, which would have suited him, gave him repose. He continued without being disconcerted) My repose and my indifference are displayed before the eyes of the courtiers of her ambitious mother, but in secret with all my zeal and all my courage, I will begin, while you guard our palfreys, to climb this oak whose branches extend to the top of this odious prison, and when I let myself ... (he looked at one of the women playing, who whispered to him fall) fall, he resumed, gently on the battlements, I will introduce myself into the interior; there, covered with my armor, I will draw my ... (here having looked for a word, sword was whispered to him, and the obliging lady who had served him so well gave him a pledge) and I will go through all the detours of this dreadful monument of tyranny, and if I find the object of my wishes and of my enterprise, at once I will turn her ... (he looked again at a lady who whispered the back; he only paused a moment, and continued thus) to make her understand to follow me; that my body will serve her as a bulwark, and that with the support of my arm she will go out across her fallen guards; and afterwards, my dear Tobalde, we will take her to the shore.

The shore began speaking, and having soon sent him back to the sea, he found himself at the border, where he finished his tale, happily extricating himself from all obstacles and restoring his princess to her father's throne.

You will be able, I believe, ladies, to judge by this example how much this game can both become interesting and be made to give pledges, and that supposing that it did not give any, it would have by itself a particular attraction which would bring it back as an exercise pleasant for the mind, satisfying for those who have the skill to succeed in it and to hand off the narrative to each other without distorting it by lengths foreign to the subject.

Source Text

Le Conte impromptu

Le sujet de ce conte doit être du genre noble, soit qu'on y introduise des fées ou des génies, soit qu'on choisisse le genre de la chevalerie. Celui ou celle qui a le plus de facilité et d'imagination doit se charger du principal rôle de conteur, pour mieux préparer les occasions de quiproquo qui résultent du conte, et se tirer avec succès des difficultés qu'il aura à vaincre.

Le premier conteur s'appelle confident, et doit commencer par donner à chacun des joueurs le nom d'un objet qui puisse figurer dans un récit héroïque ; comme, par exemple, palais ou château, tour, rivage, mer, vaisseau ou navire, favori, ministre, capitaine de la garde, jardin, parc, forêt, ville, village, hameau, vallon, montagne, rocher, précipe, cachot.

Celui qui le premier commence le récit, doit chercher à fixer l'attention par quelque chose d'intéressant ou d'extraordinaire, afin de pouvoir prendre au dépourvu ceux ou celles qu'il nommera. Voici la manière dont je l'ai vu jouer, qui peut servir d'exemple.

Dans un royaume de l'Afrique, dont le nom est perdu par l'ignorance des géographes, le roit avoit laissé pour héritière une jeune princesse dont la beauté étoit ravissante ; (là, le narrateur peut faire son portrait, et détailler les qualités de son cœur et de son esprit) mais sa mère, qui étoit régente du royaume jusqu'à sa majorité, et qui étoit ambitieuse, vaine et coquette, dans l'espoir de perpétuer ou du moins de prolonger son autorité, tenoit cette jeune princesse éloignée d'elle, et faisoit croire, dans le public, que sa raison étoit aliénée ; mais Mélidor, l'un des plus beaux et des plus braves chevaliers de la cour de Philippe-le-Bel, roi de France, qui avoit vu la princesse avant que la mort lui eût ravi son père, et qui avoit été touché de ses charmes, étant revenu en Afrique, et se doutant bien qu'une aussi admirable princesse ne pouvoit avoir perdu la raison, conçut le projet de la tirer de l'oppression, et de la délivrer de la captivité où on la retenoit. Suivi de son écuyer, il s'achemina vers la tour, et

Lorsqu'il eût nommé la tour, l'interlocuteur qui avoit reçu ce nom, prit la parole, et continua le récit. Ne se sentant pas de force à le soutenir long-temps, il décrivit la forme et la hauteur de la tour, et se tira de peine, en disant que le faîte de cette tour surpassoit la hauteur des plus grands arbres de la forêt.

La forêt qui, à son tour, étoit obligée de continuer le récit, s'en débarrassa, en disant que le chevalier, surpris de la hauteur et de la forme de cette prison, voulant cependant s'y introduire, consulta son écuyer, qui étoit son confident.

Alors, le récit retourna à celui qui l'avoit commencé, qui, comme je l'ai observé, doit avoir le talent d'imaginer et l'habitude de parler avec facilité.

Voilà, Mesdames, ce qui concerne la marche de ce jeu ; mais il y a une condition ultérieure qui le rend très-difficile, et produit des situations très-plaisantes.

C'est lorsque le narrateur s'attache à rendre son récit intéressant, et à suspendre l'attention ; d'être obligé d'indiquer du doigt un des joueurs, qui doit à l'instant lui fournir un mot, qu'il doit avoir l'air de chercher ; et il faut que le mot qu'on lui donne soit tout-à-fait opposé à celui qui lui pourroit convenir ; sans quoi, celui qui l'a prononcé est tenu de donner un gage.

Voici donc ce qui arriva. Le confident reprit son récit en ces termes :

Le chevalier, résolu d'entrer dans la prison où il croyoit, avec raison, que la princesse étoit retenue, dit à son écuyer : Je n'ai pas l'espoir, mon cher Tobalde, de posséder une princesse aussi illustre, et destinée à monter sur le trône ; mais je veux avoir le mérite de la délivrer : le devoir de la chevalerie m'y oblige, et plus que tout, mon cœur me porte à la servir de tout mon ... (il regarda un des joueurs, qui, sans se tromper à la règle du jeu, en lui donnant le mot courage, qui lui eût convenu, lui donna repos. Il continua sans se déconcerter) Mon repos et mon indifférence apparens aux yeux des courtisans de son ambitieuse mère, mais en secret de tout mon zèle et de tout mon courage, je vais commencer, tandis que tu garderas nos palefrois, à monter sur ce chêne dont les branches s'étendent sur le sommet de cette odieuse prison, et quand je me laisserai ... (il regarda une jes joueuses qui lui souffla tomber) tomber, reprit-il, doucement sur les crénaux, d'où je m'introduirai dans l'intérieur ; là, couvert de mon armure, je tirerai mon ... (ici ayant regardé, on lui souffla épée, et l'obligeante dame qui l'avoit si bien servi, donna un gage) et je parcourrai tous les détours de cet affreux monument de la tyrannie, et si je trouve l'objet de mes vœux et de mon entreprise, aussitôt je lui tournerai ... (il regarda encore une dame qui lui souffla le dos ; il ne s'arrêta qu'un moment, et continua ainsi) pour lui fair comprendre de me suivre ; que mon corps lui servira de rempart, et qu'à travers ses gardes terrassés ; et après, mon cher Tobalde, nous la conduirons vers le rivage.

Le rivage prit la parole, et l'ayant bientôt renvoyé à la mer, il se trouva au bord, et acheva son conte, en se tirant heureusement de tous les obstacles qu'il surmonta, et rétablit sa princesse sur le trône de son père.

Vous pourrez, je crois, Mesdames, juger par cet exemple combien ce jeu peut à-la-fois devenir intéressant et faire donner des gages, et qu'en supposant qu'il n'enfit pas donner, il auroit par lui-même un attrait particulier qui y ramèneroit comme un exercice agréable pour l'esprit, et satisfaisant pour ceux qui ont l'addresse d'y réussir, et de se renvoyer la narration sans la dénaturer pas des longueurs étrangères au sujet.

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