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From The World’s Wit and Humor, Volume X, French —  Rutebœuf to Balzac; The Review of Reviews Company; New York; 1906; pp. 254-280.


Honoré de Balzac [1821-1881]

The Suffix “Rama”

THE boarders, including those who dined at Mme. Vauquer’s table, but did not live in the house, now began to drop in one by one, and exchanged greetings. They also exchanged a great many of those verbal nothings that pass, among a certain class of Parisians, for the tokens of a humorous spirit — observations of which stupidity is the backbone, and whose effect depends on a gesture or a freak in pronunciation. This kind of jargon is always changing. There is always a conventional principle in the prevailing form of jest, and this principle seldom lasts a month. It may refer to an occurrence in political life, or a case in the police courts, or a street song, or the gag of a comedian — anything will serve to keep going this game of wit that consists in playing at battledore and shuttlecock with the words and ideas that happen to be in the air. At the date of which we write, the diorama, in which optical illusion was carried a stage further than in the panorama, had just been invented, and the studios of Paris had accordingly set the fashion of talking of everything in terms of rama. The fashion, or the infection, had been brought to the Vauquer establishment by a young painter who dined there.

“Well, M. Poiret,” said the lively official from the museum, “how is your healthorama?” Then, without waiting for Poiret’s reply, “Ladies,” he said to Mme. Couture and Victorine, “you look sad.”

“Are we going to dine?” cried Horace Bianchon, a medical 255 student, and friend of Rastignac; “my little stomach is gradually sinking down to my heels.”

“It’s a rare old frizzorama!” said Vautrin. “Now, then, Father Goriot, move round a bit —  Ye gods! your feet stop up the mouth of the stove.”

“Illustrious M. Vautrin,” said Bianchon, “why to you say frizzorama? It is a mistake; you should say freezorama.

“No!” interposed the museum official. “It is frizzorama; according to the rule you should say: my feet are frizzen.”

“Ha, ha!”

“Here is his excellency the Marquis of Rastignac, Doctor of Right-About!” cried Bianchon, seizing Eugène by the neck, as if to strangle him. “Hi there! Help! Help!”

Mlle. Michonneau entered quietly, bowed to the company without speaking, and went and sat beside the other three women.

“That old bat always makes me shiver,” said Bianchon to Vautrin, indicating Mlle. Michonneau. “I have studied Gall’s system, and I find she has the bumps of Judas.”

“Did you know Judas?” asked Vautrin.

“Who hasn’t known him?” answered Bianchon. “Upon my word, that white-faced old maid affects me like one of those long worms which will gnaw their way through the length of a beam if you give them time enough!”

“That is it,” said the man of forty, drawing a comb through his whiskers —

“And Rose, she has lived the life of a rose,
     One morning, and no more.”

“Ha-ha! here is a rare old souporama,” said Poiret, as Christophe entered with the tureen, looking very respectful.


“Excuse me, sir,” said Mme. Vauquer, “it is cabbage soup.”

All the young men burst into laughter.

“Done, Poiret!”

“Poiret is done!”

“Mark two points to Mama Vauquer,” said Vautrin.

“Did anybody notice the fog this morning?” said the official.

“It was, indeed,” said Bianchon, “a frantic and unparalleled fog, doleful, melancholy green fog, a broken-winded fog, a Goriot fog.”

“A Goriorama, said the painter; “for you could see nothing in it.”

“Hi! Lord Goriot, they’re talking about you!”

Father Goriot was seated at the lower end of the table, near the door through which the servant brought the food. He raised his head, and at the same moment sniffed at a piece of bread which he lifted from beside his dinner napkin — an old trick, acquired in his business, which sometimes reasserted itself.

“Well?” cried Mme. Vauquer snappishly, in a voice that rose above the clatter of spoons and plates and the babble of voices, “Isn’t the bread good enough for you?”

“On the contrary, it is made from Étampes flour — flour of the best quality.“

“How do you know that?” asked Eugène.

“By the whiteness, by the taste.

“By the taste of the nose, since you have to smell it,” said Mme. Vauquer. “You are getting so economical, that by and by you may find out a way of living on the vapors from the kitchen.”


“Be sure you patent the invention,” said the official from the museum. “You will make a fortune out of it.”

“Nonsense; he only does it to make us believe that he was a vermicelli-maker,” said the painter.

“Then your nose is a corn-tester!” exclaimed the man from the museum.

“Corn what?” asked Bianchon.









Those replies came rattling like musketry from every part of the room. They provoked the more laughter because poor Father Goriot stared at his companions with the puzzled look of a man who is trying to make out the meaning of some-thing said to him in a foreign language.

“Corn —” he said to Vautrin, who sat beside him.

“Corny feet, old boy!” answered Vautrin, bringing his hand down on Father Goriot’s head so heavily that he drove his hat down over his eyes.

— “Father Goriot.

Madame Firmiani’s Reputations

THERE are not more idioms in the French language to-day than there are kinds of men in France. And so the various interpretations which these different kinds give to the same incident are at once curious and diverting. And you may 258 take the Parisian to generalize the proposition. Let us suppose, now, that you had asked one of those men whom one calls precise to offer an opinion of Mme. Firmiani. Without hesitation he would furnish you with the following inventory. “A handsome house in the Rue du Bac, richly furnished drawing-rooms, beautiful pictures, an income of a hundred thousand, and a husband who formerly served under the Government.” After these remarks your precise friend, who is generally stout and dressed in black, smiles with self-satisfaction, sticks out his lower lip, and nods his head, as much as to say, “Fine people; no one can say anything against them.” Ask him no further. He and the like of him estimate all things by figures, income, or real estate.

But let us suppose that you had met some idler, and had asked him the same question. “Mme. Firmiani,” he will reply; “oh, yes, I attend her Wednesday receptions. Charming house.” So Mme. Firmiani has here become metamorphosed into a house. And house here means not an architectural combination of stones; it is another idiom, and an untranslatable one, but frequently used by idlers.

But at this point your idler, generally sallow, but with a pleasant smile, a dispenser of airy trifles and of wit not his own, bends toward you and whispers in your ear. “I have never seen M. Firmiani. He fills his social position by managing his Italian estate, but his wife is French, and spends her money like a Parisian. Her tea is delicious. There are only a few houses in Paris like hers, where the visitor is at once amused and well fed. But she is very careful as to whom she receives; one meets only the best people there.” Here the idler accentuates his remarks by gravely taking a pinch of snuff, seeming to add, “I go there, 259 But don’t expect me to introduce you.” To the idler Mme. Firmiani keeps a tavern without a sign.

“What in the world attracts you to Mme. Firmiani’s? The court is not duller. Of what use is your intelligence to you if it does not, at least, keep you away from such houses as hers, where one hears nothing but rubbish?” It is an egotist whom you have questioned now; one of those individuals who would like to keep the universe under lock and key. They cannot forgive happiness, but only vices, failures, and infirmities. Aristocrats by inclination, they become democratic in order to find inferiors among their equals.

“Mme. Firmiani? She is one of those adorable women who seem to excuse Nature for her bungling work in making the ugly ones. She is simply delicious. I should like to be king simply to — (Here three words are whispered in your ear). Shall I introduce you?” The young collegian who answers thus is notorious for his impudence toward men and his timidity with women.

“Mme. Firmiani?” exclaims another, waving his stick. “I don’t mind saying what I think of her. She’s between thirty and thirty-five, rather faded, though fine eyes. Poor figure, thin contralto voice, well dressed, a touch or two of rouge, and charming manners; in a word, the remnants of a pretty woman still worth while falling in love with.” This comes from a conceited friend, who has just eaten a good breakfast, and is about to take a canter. He no longer weighs his words, for at such moments conceit is pitiless.

A lover of the arts will tell you that Mme. Firmiani has a magnificent picture-gallery which you should see. To him she is merely a collection of painted canvases.

A woman. “Mme. Firmiani? I wish you wouldn’t go there.” This phrase is infinitely rich in possible inferences. 260 “Mme. Firmiani! A dangerous woman! A siren! She dresses well, has good taste, keeps other women nervous.” This answer comes from a nagging woman.

An attaché. “Mme. Firmiani? She’s from Antwerp, isn’t she? She was handsome when I saw here in Rome ten years ago.” Attachés have a mania for talking in Talleyrand fashion. Their wit is so delicate that their ideas are intangible. They are like billiard-players who miss cleverly. Generally they speak little; when they do, it is of Spain, Vienna, Italy, St. Petersburg. The names of countries are to them what springs are to a piece of mechanism. Touch them, and they go off like alarm-clocks.

“Doesn’t this Mme. Firmiani see a great deal of the Faubourg Saint-Germain?” asks one who wishes to appear to know all about the best society, who sticks a de to every name from Dupin to Lafayette, and thereby dishonors it.

“Mme. Firmiani, sir? I don’t know her.” This gentleman is a duke who recognizes no woman unless she has been presented at court. His own title dates from Napoleon.

“Mme. Firmiani? Isn’t she a retired opera-singer?” This is the idiot, who must know all about everything, and will rather lie than hold his tongue.

Two old ladies. The first (wrinkled face, peaked nose, harsh voice). “Who was this Mme. Firmiani?”

The second (little red face like a pomegranate, soft voice). “A Cadignan, my dear, niece of the old prince of that name, and hence a cousin of the Duke of Maufrigneuse.”

Mme. Firmiani is a Cadignan. She may lack virtue, fortune, youth; she is a Cadingan for all that, and to be a Cadignan is to be like a prejudice — flourishing forever.

Thus people of every class were busy in circulating so much and such various information about Mme. Firmiani, 261 that it would be an idle task to reproduce it all. Let it suffice to say that any one interested in knowing her real character, yet unable to come into personal contact with her, would have had equally sound reasons for believing her to be dull or witty, virtuous or depraved, sensitive or thick-skinned, beautiful or ugly. In other words, there were as many Mme. Firmianis as social strata or religious sects.

— “Madame Firmiani.

Useful Stuttering

THE stutter which for years the old miser had assumed when it suited him, together with the deafness he sometimes complained of in rainy weather was thought in Saumur to be a natural defect. Perhaps it may be as well to give the history of this impediment to the speech and hearing of M. Grandet. No one in Anjou heard better, or could pronounce more crisply the French language (with an Angevin accent) than the wily old cooper. Some years earlier, in spite of his shrewdness, he had been taken in by an Israelite, who in the course of the discussion held his hand behind his ear to catch sounds, and mangled his meaning so thoroughly in trying to utter his words that Grandet fell a victim to his humanity and was compelled to prompt the wily Jew with the words and ideas he seemed to seek himself to complete the arguments of the said Jew, to say what that cursed Jew ought to have said for himself; in short, to be the Jew instead of being Grandet. When the cooper came out of this curious encounter he had concluded the only bargain of which in the course of a long commercial 262 life he ever had occasion to complain. But if he lost at the time pecuniarily, he gained morally a valuable lesson; later, he gathered its fruits. Indeed, the good man ended by blessing that Jew for having taught him the art of irritating his commercial antagonist and leading him to forget his own thoughts in his impatience to suggest those over which his tormentor was stuttering. No affair had ever needed the assistance of deafness, impediments of speech, and all the incomprehensible circumlocutions with which Grandet enveloped his ideas, as much as the affair now in hand. In the first place, he did not mean to shoulder the responsibility of his own scheme. In the next, he was determined to remain master of the conversation and leave his real intentions in doubt.

“M-m-monsier de B-B-Bonfons, you-ou said th-th-that b-b-bankruptcy c-c-could, in some c-c-cases, b-be p-p-prevented b-b-by ——”

“By the courts of commerce themselves. It is done constantly,” said de Bonfons, bestriding Grandet’s meaning, or thinking he guessed it, and kindly wishing to help him out with it. “Listen!”

“Y-yes,” said Grandet humbly, with the mischievous expression of a boy who is inwardly laughing at his teacher while he pays him the greatest attention.

“When a man is respected and important, as, for example, your late brother ——

“M-my b-b-brother, yes.”

—— is threatened with insolvency ——”

“They c-c-call it in-ins-s-solvency?”

“Yes; when his failure is imminent, the court of commerce to which he is amenable — please follow me attentively — has the power, by a decree, to appoint a receiver. Liquidation, 263 you understand, is not the same as failure. When a man fails, he is dishonored; but when he merely liquidates, he remains an honest man.”

“T-t-that’s very d-d-different, if it d-doesn’t c-c-cost m-m-more.”

“But a liquidation can be managed without having recourse to the courts at all. For,” said the magistrate, sniffing a pinch of snuff, “don’t you know how failure are declared?”

“N-n-no, I n-n-never t-t-thought,” answered Grandet.

“In the first place,” resumed the magistrate, “by filing the schedule in the record office of the court, which the merchant may do himself, or his representative for him, with a power of attorney duly certified. In the second place, the failure may be declared under compulsion from the creditors. Now if the merchant does not file his schedule, and if no creditor appears before the courts to obtain a decree of insolvency against the merchant, what happens?”

“W-w-what h-h-happens?”

“Why, the family of the deceased, his representatives, his heirs, or the merchant himself, if he is not dead, or his friends, if he is only hiding, liquidate his business. Perhaps you would like to liquidate your brother’s affairs.”

“Ah! Grandet,” said the notary, “that would be he right thing to do. There is honor down here in the provinces. If you save your name — for it is your name — you will be a man ——”

“A noble man!” cried the magistrate, interrupting his uncle.

“Certainly,” answered the old man, “my b-b-brother’s name was G-G-Grandet, like m-m-mine. Th-that’s c-c-certain; I d-d-don’t d-d-deny it. And th-th-this l-l-liquidation 264 might be, in m-m-many ways, v-v-very advan-t-t-tageous t-t-to the interests of m-m-my n-n-nephew, whom I l-l-love. But I must consider. I don’t k-k-know the t-t-tricks of P-P-Paris. I b-b-belong to Sau-m-mur, d-d-don’t you see? M-m-my vines, my d-d-drains — in short, I’ve my own b-b-business. I never g-g-give b-b-bills. What are b-b-bills? I t-t-take a good m-m-many, but I have never s-s-signed one. I d-d-don’t understand such things. I have h-h-heard say that b-b-bills c-c-can be b-b-bought up.”

“Of course,” said the magistrate. “Bills can be bought in the market, less so much per cent. Don’t you understand?”

Grandet made an ear-trumpet of his hand, and the magistrate repeated his words.

“Well, then,” replied the old man, “there’s s-s-something to be g-g-got out of it? I kn-know n-nothing at my age about such th-th-things. I l-l-live here and l-l-look after the v-v-vines. The vines g-g-grow, and it’s the w-w-wine that p-p-pays. L-l-look after the v-v-vintage, t-t-that’s my r-r-rule. My c-c-chief interests are at Froidfont. I c-c-can’t l-l-leave my h-h-house to m-m-muddle myself with a d-d-devilish b-b-business I kn-know n-n-nothing about. You say I ought to l-l-liquidate my b-b-brother’s af-f-faires, to p-p-prevent the f-f-failure. I c-c-can’t be in two p-p-places at once, unless I were a little b-b-bird, and ——”

“I understand,” cried the notary. “Well, my old friend, you have friends, old friends, capable of devoting themselves to your interests.”

“All right!” thought Grandet; “make haste and come to the point!”

“Suppose one of them went to Paris and saw your brother Guillaume’s chief creditor, and said to him ——”


“One m-m-moment,” interrupted the good man; “said wh-wh-what? Something l-l-like th-this: ‘Grandet of Saumur this, Grandet of Saumur that. He l-l-loves his b-b-brother, he loves his n-nephew — Grandet is a g-g-good uncle; he m-m-means well. He has sold his v-v-vintage. D-d-don’t declare a f-f-failure; c-c-call a meeting; l-l-liquidate; and then G-G-Grandet will see what he c-c-can do. B-b-better liquidate than l-let the l-l-law st-st-stick its n-n-nose in.’ Eh, isn’t it so?”

“Exactly so,” said the magistrate.

“B-because, don’t you see, M-m-monsieur de B-Bonfons, a man must l-l-look b-b-before he l-leaps. If you c-c-can’t, you c-c-can’t. M-m-must know all about the m-m-matter, all the resources and the debts, if you d-d-don’t want to be r-r-ruined. Eh, isn’t it so?”

“Certainly,” said the magistrate; “I’m of opinion that in a few months the debts might be bought up for a certain sum, and then paid in full by an agreement. Ha! Ha! you can coax a dog a long way if you show him a bit of lard. If there has been no declaration of failure, and you hold a lien on the debts, you come out of the business as white as the driven snow.”

“Sn-n-now,” said Grandet, putting his hand to his ear, “wh-wh-what about s-now?”

“But,” cried the magistrate, “do pray attend to what I am saying.”

“I am at-t-tending.”

“A bill is merchandise — an article of barter which rises and falls in price. This is a deduction from Jeremy Bentham’s theory about usury. That writer has proved that the prejudice which condemned usurers to reprobation was mere folly.”


“When?” ejaculated the good man.

“Allowing that money, according to Bentham, is an article of merchandise,” resumed the magistrate; “allowing also that it is notorious that the commercial bill bearing this or that signature is liable to the fluctuation of all commercial values, rises or falls in the market, is dear at one moment, and is worth nothing at another, the courts decide — ah! how stupid I am, I beg your pardon. I am inclined to think you could buy up your brother’s debts for twenty-five per cent.”

“D-d-did you c-c-call him Je-Je-eremy B-Ben——?”

“Bentham, an Englishman.”

“That’s a Jeremy who might save us a lot of lamentations in business,” said the notary, laughing.

“Those Englishmen s-sometimes t-t-talk sense,” said Grandet. “So, ac-c-cording to Ben-Bentham, if my b-b-brother’s n-notes are worth n-n-nothing; is Je-je —  I’m c-c-correct, am I not? That seems c-c-clear to my m-m-mind — the c-c-creditors would be — no, would not be; I understand.”

“Let me explain it all,” said the magistrate. “Legally, if you acquire a title to all the debts of the Maison Grandet, your brother or his heirs will owe nothing to any one. Very good.”

Very g-good,” repeated Grandet.

“In equity, if your brother’s bils are negotiated — negotiated, do you clearly understand the term? — negotiated in the market at a reduction of so much per cent in value,and if one of your friends happening to be present should buy them in, the creditors having sold them of their own free-will without constraint, the estate of the late Grandet is honorably released.”

“That’s t-true; b-b-business is b-business,” said the cooper. 267 “B-b-but st-still, you know, it is d-d-difficult. I h-have no m-money and n-no t-t-time.”

“Yes, but you need not undertake it. I ma quite ready to go to Paris; you may pay my expenses, they will only be a trifle. I will see the creditors, and talk with them, and get an extension of time, and everything can be arranged if you add something ot the assets so as to buy up all title to the debts.”

“We-we’ll see about th-that. I c-c-can’t and I w-w-won’t b-b-bind myself without —.  He who c-c-can’t, can’t; don’t you see?”

“That’s very true.”

“I’m all p-p-put ab-b-bout by what you’ve t-t-told me. This is the f-first t-t-time in my life I have b-been obliged to th-th-think.”

— “Eugénie Grandet.

A Slight Misunderstanding

LOUIS XI had given the abbey of Turpenay to a gentleman who, enjoying the revenue, had called himself M. de Turpenay. It happened that the king being at Plessis-les-Tours, the real abbot, who was a monk, came and presented himself before the king, and presented a petition, remonstrating with him that, canonically and monastically, he was entitled to the abbey, and that the usurping gentleman wronged him of his right, and therefore he called upon his Majesty to have justice done to him. Nodding his peruke, the king promised to render him contented. This monk, importunate as are all hooded animals, came often at the end of the king’s meals, who, bored with the holy water of the 268 convent, called friend Tristan and said to him, “Old fellow, there is here a Turpenay who annoys me; rid the world of him for me.”

Tristan, taking a frock for a monk, or a monk for a frock, came to this gentleman, whom all the court called M. de Turpenay, and, having accosted him, managed to lead him on one side, then, taking him by the button-hole, gave him to understand that the king desired he should die. He tried to resist, supplicating and supplicating to escape, but in no way could he obtain a hearing. He was delicately strangled between the head and the shoulders, so that he expired; and, three hours afterward, Tristan told the king that he was despatched. It happened five days later, which is the space in which souls come back again, that the monk came into the room where the king was, and when he saw him he was much astonished. Tristan was present; the king called him, and whispered into his ear:

“You have not done what I told you to.”

“Saving your Majesty, I have done it. Turpenay is dead.”

“Eh? I meant this monk.”

“I understood the gentleman!”

“What, it is done, then?”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

“Very well, then” — turning toward the monk — “come here, monk.” The monk appraoched. The king said to him, “Kneel down.” The poor monk began to shiver in his shoes. But the king said to him, “Thank God that He has not willed that you should be executed as I had ordered. He who took your estates has been instead. God has done you justice. Go and pray to God for me, and don’t stir out of your convent.”

This proves the good-heartedness of Louis XI. He might 269 very well have hanged the monk, the cause of the error. As for the aforesaid gentleman, it was given out that he had died in the king’s service.

— “Droll Stories.


WHEN Queen Catherine was princess royal, to make herself welcome to the king, her father-in-law, who at that time was very ill indeed, she presented him from time to time with Italian pictures, knowing that he liked them much, being a friend of Sire Raphael d’Urbino and of the Sires Primaticcio and Leonardo da Vinci, to whom he sent large sums of money. She obtained from her family a precious picture, painted by a Venetian named Titian (painter to the Emperor Charles, and in very high favor), in which there were portraits of Adam and Eve at the moment, when God left them to wander about the terrestrial paradise. They were painted in full height, in the costume of the period, in which it is difficult to make a mistake, because they were attired in their ignorance, and caparisoned with the divine grace which enveloped them — a difficult thing to execute on account of the color, but one in which the said Sire Titian excelled. The picture was put into the room of the poor king, who was then ill with the disease of which he eventually died. It had a great success at he Court of France, where every one wished to see it; but no one was able to until after the king’s death, since at his desire it was allowed to remain in his room as long as he lived.

One day Catherine took with her to the king’s room her son Francis and little Margy, who began to talk at random, 270 as children will. Now here, now there, these children had heard this picture of Adam and Eve spoken about, and had tormented their mother to take them to see it. Since the two little ones sometimes amused the old king, the princess royal complied with their request.

“You wished to see Adam and Eve, who were our first parents; there they are,” said she.

Then she left them in great astonishment before Titian’s picture, and seated herself by the bedside of the king, who delighted to watch the children.

“Which of the two is Adam?” said Francis, nudging his sister Margaret’s elbow.”

“You silly,” replied she, “they would have to be dressed for one to know that!”

— “Droll Stories.

The Government of the Shrewmouse

THE good Gargantua decided to give the post of superintending his granaries to the shrewmouse, with the most ample powers — of justice, committimus, missi dominici, clergy, men-at-arms, and all. The shrewmouse promised faithfully to accomplish his task and to do his duty as a loyal beast, on condition that he lived on a heap of grain, which Gargantua thought perfectly fair. The shrewmouse began to caper about in his domain as happy as a king, reconnoitering his immense realms of mustard, principalities of sugar, provinces of ham, duchies of raisins, counties of chitterlings, and baronies of all sorts, scrambling on to the heap of grain, and frisking his tail against everything. To be brief, everywhere, was the shrewmouse 271 received with honor by the pots, which kept a respectful silence, except two golden tankards, which knocked against each other like the bells of a church ringing a tocsin, at which he was much pleased, and thanked them, right and left, by a nod of the head, while promenading in the rays of the sun, which were illuminating his domain. Therein so splendidly did the brown color of his hair shine forth, that one would have thought him a northern king in his sable furs. After his twists, turns, jumps, and capers, he munched two grains of corn, sat upon the heap like a king in full court, and fancied himself the most illustrious of shrewmice. At this moment there came from their accustomed holes the gentlemen of the night-prowling court, who scamper with their little feet across the floors, these gentlemen being the rats, mice, and other gnawing, thieving, and crafty animals, of whom the citizens and housewives complain. When they saw the shrewmouse they took fright, and all remained shyly at the threshold of their dens. Among these common people, in spite of the danger, one old infidel of the trotting, nibbling race of mice advanced a little, and, putting his nose in the air, had the courage to stare my lord shrewmouse full in the face, although the latter was proudly squatted upon his rump, with his tail in the air. And he came to the conclusion that he was a devil, from whom nothing but scratches were to be got. From these facts Gargantua, in order that the high authority of his lieutenant might be universally known by all the shrewmice, cats, weasels, martins, field-mice, mice, rats, and other bad characters of the same kidney, had lightly dipped his muzzle, pointed as a larding-pin, in oil of musk, which all shrewmice have since inherited, because this one, in spite of the sage advice of Gargantua, rubbed himself against others of his breed. From this sprang the troubles 272 in Muzaraignia, of which I will give you a good account in an historical book when I get an opportunity.

Then an old mouse, or rat — the rabbis of the Talmud have not yet agreed concerning the species — perceiving by this perfume that this shrewmouse was appointed to guard the grain of Gargantua, and had been sprinkled with virtues, invested with full powers, and armed at all points, was alarmed lest he should no longer be able to live, according to the custom of mice, upon the meats, morsels, crusts, crums, leavings, bits, atoms, and fragments of this Canaan of rats. In this dilemma the good mouse, artful as an old courtier who had lived under two regencies and three kings, resolved to try the mettle of the shrewmouse and devote himself to the salvation of the jaws of his race. This would have been a laudable thing in a man, but it was far more so in a mouse belonging to a tribe who live for themselves alone, barefacedly and shamelessly, and who, in order to gratify themselves, would defile a consecrated wafer, gnaw a priest’s stole without shame, and would drink out of a communion-cup, caring nothing for God. The mouse advanced with many a bow and scrape, and the shrewmouse let him advance rather near — for, to tell the truth, these animals are naturally short-sighted. Then this Curtius of nibblers made his little speech, not in the jargon of common mice, but in the polite language of shrewmice:

“My Lord, I have heard with very great interest of your glorious family, of which I am one of the most devoted slaves. I know the legend of your ancestors, who were thought much of by the ancient Egyptians, who held them in great veneration and worshiped them like other sacred birds. Nevertheless, your fur robe is so royally perfumed, and its color is so splendiferously tanned, that I am doubtful 273 if I recognize you as belonging to this race, since I have never seen any of them so gorgeously attired. However, you have swallowed the grain after the antique fashion. Your proboscis is a proboscis of sapience; you have kicked like a learned shrewmouse; but if you are a true shrewmouse you should have in I know not which part of your ear, I know not what special auditorial channel, which I know not what wonderful door closes I know not how; and I know not with what movements, by your secret commands to give you, I know not why, license not to listen to I know not what things, which would be displeasing to you, on account of the special and peculiar perfection of your faculty of hearing everything — which would often pain you.”

“True,” said the shrewmouse, “the door has just fallen. I hear nothing!”

“Ah, I see,” said the old rogue.

And he made for the pile of corn, from which he commenced to take his store for the winter.

“Do you hear anything?” asked he.

“I hear the pit-a-pat of my heart.”

“Kouick!” cried all the mice; “we shall be able to hoodwink him.”

The shrewmouse, fancying that he had met with a faithful vassal, opened the trap of his musical orifice, and heard the noise of the grain going toward the hole. Then, without having recourse to forfeiture, the justice of commissaries sprang upon the old mouse and squeezed him to death. A glorious death, for this hero died in the thick of the grain, and was canonized as a martyr. The shrewmouse took him by the ears and laid him on the door of the granary, after the fashion of the Ottoman Porte, where my good Panurge was within an ace of being spitted. At the cries of the dying 274 wretch the rats, mice, and others made for their holes in great haste. When the night had fallen they came to the cellar, convoked for the purpose of holding a council to consider public affairs; to which meeting, in virtue of the Papirian and other laws, their lawful wives were admitted. The rats wished to pass before the mice, and serious quarrels about precedence nearly spoiled everything; but a big rat gave his arm to a mouse, and the gaffer rats and gammer mice being paired off in the same way, all were soon seated on their rumps, tails in air, muzzles stretched, whiskers stiff, and their eyes brilliant as those of a falcon. Then commenced a deliberation, which finished up with insults and a confusion worthy of an ecumenical council of holy fathers. One said this, and another said that, and a cat passing by took fright and ran away, hearing those strange noises: “Bou, bou, frou, ou, ou, houic, houic, briff, briffnac, nac, nac, fouix, fouix, trr, trr, trr, trr, za, za, zaaa, brr, brrr, raaa, ra, ra, ra, ra, fouix!” so well blended together in a Babel of sound that a council at the town-hall could not have made a greater hubbub.

During this tempest a little mouse, who was not old enough to enter parliament, thrust through a chink her inquiring snout, the hair on which was as downy as that of all mice, too downy to be caught. As the tumult increased, by degrees her body followed her nose, until she came to the hoop of a cask, against which she so dexterously squatted that she might have been mistaken for a work of art carved in antique bas-relief. Lifting his eyes to heaven to implore a remedy for the misfortunes of the state, an old rat perceived this pretty mouse, so gentle and shapely, and declared that the state might be saved by her. All the muzzles turned to this Lady of Good Help, became silent, and greed to let her loose upon 275 the shrewmouse, and, in spite of the anger of certain envious mice, she was triumphantly marched round the cellar, where, seeing her walk mincingly, mechanically move her tail, shake her cunning little head, twitch her diaphanous ears, and lick with her little red tongue the hairs just sprouting on her cheeks, the old rats fell in love with her, and wagged their wrinkled, white-whiskered jaws with delight at the sight of her, as formerly the old men of Troy did, admiring the lovely Helen returning from her bath. Then the maiden was conducted to the granary, with instructions to make a conquest of the shrewmouse’s heart, and save the fine red grain, as formerly the fair Hebrew, Esther, did for the chosen people, with the Emperor Ahasuerus, as it is written in the master-book, for Bible comes from the Greek word Biblos, as if to say the only book. The mouse promised to deliver the granaries, for by a lucky chance she was the queen of mice, a fair, plump, pretty little mouse, the most delicate little lady that ever scampered merrily across the floors, scratched between the walls, and gave utterance to little cries of joy at finding nuts, meal, and crums of bread in her path; a true fay, pretty and playful, with an eye clear as crystal, a little head, sleek skin, amorous body, pink feet, and velvet tail — a high-born mouse and polished speaker, with a natural love of bed and idleness — a merry mouse, more cunning than an old doctor of Sorbonne fed on parchment, lively, white-bellied, streaked on the back, with sweetly molded breasts, pearl-white teeth, and of a frank, open nature — in fact, a true king’s morsel.

The pretty mouse did not beat long abut the bush, and from the first moment that she trotted before the shrewmouse, she had enslaved him forever by her coquetries, affectations, friskings, provocations, little refusals, piercing 275 glances, wiles of a maiden who desires yet dares not, amorous oglings, little caresses, preparatory tricks, pride of a mouse who knows her value, laughings, squeakings, triflings, and other endearments, feminine, treacherous, and captivating ways, all traps which are abundantly used by the females of all nations. When, after many wrigglings, smacks in the face, nose-lickings, gallantries of amorous shrewmice, frowns, sighs, serenades, tit-bits, suppers and dinners on the pile of corn, and other attentions, the superintendent overcame the scruples of his beautiful mistress, he became the slave of this incestuous and illicit love, and the mouse, leading her lord by the snout, became queen of everything, nibbled his cheese, ate the sweets, and foraged everywhere. This the shrewmouse permitted the empress of his heart, although he was ill at ease, having broken his oath made to Gargantua, and betrayed the confidence placed in him.

Pursuing her advantage with the pertinacity of a woman, one night they were joking together, the mouse remembered the dear old fellow her father, and desiring that he should make his meals off the grain, she threatened to leave her lover cold and lonely in his domain if he did not allow her to indulge her filial piety. In the twinkling of a mouse’s eye he had granted letters patent, sealed with a green seal, with tags of crimson silk, to his wench’s father, so that the Gargantuan palace was open to him at all ours, and he went at liberty to see his good virtuous daughter, kiss her on the forehead, and eat his fill — but always in a corner.

Then there arrived a venerable old rat, weighing about twenty-five ounces, with a white tail, marching like the president of a court of justice, wagging his head, and followed by fifteen or twenty nephews, all with teeth sharp as saws, 277 who demonstrated to the shrewmouse by little speeches and questions of all kinds that they, his relations, would soon be loyally attached to him, and would help him to count the things committed to his charge, arrange and ticket them, in order that when Gargantua came to visit them he would find everything in perfect order. There was an air of truth about these promises. The poor shrewmouse was, however, in spite of this speech, troubled by ideas from on high, and serious pricking of his shrewmousian conscience. Seeing that he turned up his nose at everything, went about slowly and with a careworn face, one morning the mouse, who was pregnant by him, conceived the idea of calming his doubts and easing his mind by a Sorbonnical consultation, and sent for the doctors of the tribe. During the day she introduced to him one, Master Evegault, who had just stepped out of a cheese where he lived in perfect abstinence, an old confessor of high degree, a merry fellow of good appearance, with a fine black skin, firm as a rock, and slightly tonsured on the head by the pat of a cat’s claw. He was a grave rat, with a monastical paunch, having much studied scientific authorities by nibbling at their work in parchments, papers, books, and volumes of which certain fragments had remained upon his gray beard. In honor of, and great reverence for his great virtue and wisdom and his modest life, he was accompanied by a black troop of black rats, all bringing with them pretty little mice, their sweethearts, for, not having adopted the canons of the council of Chesil, it was lawful for them to have respectable women for concubines. These beneficed rats being arranged in two lines, you might have fancied them a procession of the university authorities going to Lendit. And they all began to sniff the victuals.

When the ceremony of seating them all was complete, 278 the old cardinal of the rats lifted up his voice, and in a good rat-Latin oration pointed out to the guardian of the grain that no one but God was superior to him; and that to God alone he owed obedience. And he entertained him with many fine phrases, stuffed with evangelical quotations, to disturb the principal and fog his flock — in fact, fine arguments interlarded with much sound sense. The discourse finished with a peroration full of high-sounding words in honor of shrewmice, among whom his hearer was the most illustrious and best beneath the sun. The oration considerably bewildered the keeper of the granaries.

This good gentleman’s head was thoroughly turned, and he installed this fine-speaking rat and this tribe in his manor, where, night and day, his praises and little songs in his honor were sung, not forgetting his lady, whose little paw was kissed and little tail was sniffed at by them all. Finally the mistress, knowing that certain young rats were still fasting, determined to finish her work. Then she kissed her lord tenderly, loading him with love, and performing those little endearing antics of which one alone was sufficient to send a beast to perdition; and said to the shrewmouse that he wasted the precious time due to their love by traveling about, that he was always going here or there, and that she never had her proper share of him; that when she wanted his society he was either on the leads or chasing the cats, and that she wished him always to be ready to hand like a lance, and kind as a bird. Then in her great grief she tore out a gray hair, declaring herself, weepingly, to be the most wretched little mouse in the world. The shrewmouse pointed out to her that she was mistress of everything, and wished to resist, but after the lady had shed a torrent of tears he implored a truce and considered her 279 request. Then instantly drying her tears, and giving him her paw to kiss, she advised him to arm some soldiers, trusty and tried rats, old warriors, who would go the rounds and keep watch. Everything was thus wisely arranged. The shrewmouse had the rest of the day to dance, play, and amuse himself, listen to the roundelays and ballads which the poets composed in his honor, play the lute and the mandolin, make acrostics, eat, drink, and be merry.

One day after his mistress having just risen from her confinement, after having given birth to the sweetest little mouse-sorex, or sorex-mouse, I know not what name was given to this mongrel fruit of love, whom you may be sure the gentleman of the long robe would manage to legitimise, a grand feast was given in the granaries, to which no court festival or gala can be compared, not even that of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In every corner mice were making merry. Everywhere there were dancers, concerts, banquets, sarabands, music, joyous songs, and epithalamia. The rats had broken open the pots, uncovered the jars, lapped the gallipots, and unpacked the stores. The mustard was strewn over the place, the hams were mangled and the corn scattered. Everything was rolling, tumbling, and falling about the floor, and the little rats dabbled in puddles of green sauce, and mice navigated oceans of sweetmeats, and the old folks carried off the pasties. There were mice astride on salt tongues. Fieldmice were swimming in the pots, and the most cunning of them were carrying the corn into their private holes, profiting by the confusion to make ample provision for themselves. No one passed the quince confection of Orleans without saluting it with one nibble, and oftener with two. It was like a Roman carnival. In short, any one with a sharp ear might have heard the frizzling frying-pans, the cries and 280 clamors of the kitchen, the crackling of the furnaces, the noise of turnspits, the creaking of baskets, the haste of the confectioners, the click of the meat-jacks, and the noise of the little feet scampering thick as hail over the floor. It was a bustling wedding-feast, where people come and go, footmen, stablemen, cooks, musicians, buffoons, where every one pays compliments and makes a noise. In short, so great was the delight that they all kept up a general wagging of the head to celebrate this eventful night.

Suddenly there was heard the awful footfall of Gargantua, who was ascending the stairs of his house to visit the granaries, and made the planks, the beams, and everything else tremble. Certain old rats asked each other what this lordly footstep might mean with which they were unacquainted, and some of them decamped. And they did well, for the lord and master entered suddenly. Perceiving the confusion these gentlemen had made, seeing his preserves eaten, his mustard unpacked, and everything dirtied and scratched about, he put his feet upon these lively vermin without given them time to squeak, and thus spoiled their best clothes, satins, pearls, velvets, and rubbish, and upset the feast.

— “Droll Stories.


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