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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. 123-130.


Jean de la Fontaine [1621-1695]

The Fox, the Wolf, and the Horse

A FOX though young, by no means raw,
Had seen a horse — the first he ever saw.
“Ho! neighbor wolf,” said he to one quite green,
“A creature on our meadow I have seen —
          Sleek, grand! I seem to see him yet —
          The finest beast I ever met.”
          ”Is he a stouter one than we?”
          The wolf demanded eagerly.
          ”Some picture of him let me see.”
“If I could paint,” said fox, “I should delight
T’ anticipate your pleasure at the sight;
But come, who knows? perhaps it is a prey
          By fortune offered in our way.”
     They went. The horse, turn’d loose to graze,
     Not liking much their looks or ways,
          Was just about to gallop off.
“Sir,” said the fox, “your humble servants, we
Make bold to ask you what your name may be.”
          The horse, an animal with brains enough,
Replied, “Sirs, you yourselves may read my name;
My shoer round my heel hath writ the same.”
The fox excused himself for want of knowledge:
     “Me, sir, my parents did not educate —
     So poor a hole was their entire estate.
My friend, the wolf, however, taught at college,
124                Could read it were it even Greek.”
          The wolf, to flattery weak,
          Approach’d, to verify the boast;
          For which four teeth he lost.
The high-raised hoof came down with such a blow
As laid him bleeding on the ground full low.
“My brother,” said the fox, “this shows how just
     What once was taught me by a fox of wit —
     Which on thy jaws this animal hath writ —
‘All unknown things the wise mistrust.’ ”

— “Fables.

The Council of the Rats

     OLD Rodilard, a certain cat,
          Such havoc of the rats had made,
     ’Twas difficult to find a rat
          With Nature’s debt unpaid.
     The few that did remain,
          To leave their holes afraid,
     From usual food abstain,
          Not eating half their fill.
          And wonder no one will,
That one, who made on rats his revel,
With rats passed not for cat, but devil.
Now, on a day, this dread rat-eater,
Who had a wife, went out to meet her;
And while he held his caterwauling,
The unkilled rats, their chapter calling,
Discussed the point, in grave debate,
How they might shun impending fate.
125      Their dean, a prudent rat,
Thought best, and better soon than late,
     To bell the fatal cat;
That, when he took his hunting-round,
The rats, well cautioned by the sound,
Might hide in safety underground.
          Indeed, he knew no other means.
               And all the rest
               At once confessed
          Their minds were with the dean’s.
No better plan, they all believed,
Could possibly have been conceived;
No doubt, the thing would work right well,
If any one would hang the bell.
But, one by one, said every rat,
“I’m not so big a fool as that.”
The plan knocked up in this respect,
The council closed without effect.
And many a council I have seen,
Or reverend chapter with its dean,
     That, thus resolving wisely,
     Fell through like this precisely.

          To argue or refute,
               Wise counselors abound;
          The man to execute
               Is harder to be found.

— “Fables.


The Crow and the Fox

     A MASTER crow, perched on a tree one day,
               Was holding in his beak a piece of cheese.
     A master fox, by th’ odor drawn that way,
               Spake unto him in words like these:
          “Good-morning, my Lord Crow!
          How well you look, how handsome you do grow!
               Upon my honor, if your note
               Bears a resemblance to your coat,
You are the phœnix of the dwellers in these woods.”
     At these words does the crow exceedingly rejoice;
     And, to display his beauteous voice,
He opens a wide beak, lets fall his stolen goods.
         The fox seized on’t, and said, “My dear good sir,
         Learn you that every flatterer
    Lives at the expense of him who hears him out.
    This lesson is well worth some cheese, no doubt.”
The crow, ashamed, and much in pain,
Swore, but a little late, they’d not catch him again.


— “Fables.

The Peasant’s Choice of Punishments

ONCE on a time, as hist’ry’s page relates,
A lord, possessed of many large estates,
Was angry with a poor and humble clod,
Who tilled his grounds and feared his very nod.
127 Th’ offense (as often happens) was but small,
But on him, vowed the peer, his rage should fall.
Said he, “A halter, rascal, you deserve;
You’ll never from the gallows-turnpike swerve.
Or, soon or late, you swinging will be found;
Who, born for hanging, ever yet was drowned?
Howe’er you’ll smile to hear my lenient voice;
Observe, three punishments await your choice;
Take which you will. The first is, you shall eat,
Of strongest garlic, thirty heads complete;
No drink you’ll have between, nor sleep, nor rest;
You know a breach of promise I detest.
Or, on your shoulders further I propose,
To give you, with a cudgel, thirty blows.
Or, if more pleasing, that you truly pay
The sum of thirty pounds without delay.”

The peasant ’gan to turn things in his mind.
Said he, “to take the heads I’m not inclined;
No drink, you say, between — that makes it worse;
To eat the garlic thus, would prove a curse.
Nor can I suffer on my tender back,
That, with a cudgel, thirty blows you thwack.”
Still harder thirty pounds to pay appeared.
Uncertain how to act, he hanging feared.
The noble peer he begged, upon his knees,
His penitence to hear, and sentence ease.
But mercy dwelled not with the angry lord.
“Is this,” he cried, “the answer? Bring a cord.”
The peasant, trembling lest his life was sought.
The garlic chose, which presently was brought.
128 Upon a dish my lord the number told;
Clod no way liked the garlic to behold.
With piteous mien the garlic head he took,
Then on it num’rous ways was led to look,
And, grumbling much, began to spit and eat,
Just like a cat with mustard on her meat;
To touch it with his tongue he durst not do.
He knew not how to act or what pursue.
The peer, delighted at the man’s distress,
The garlic made him bite, and chew, and press,
Then gulp it down as if delicious fare.
The first he passed; the second made him swear;
The third he found was every whit as sad.
He wished the devil had it, ’twas so bad.
In short, when at the twelfth our wight arrived,
He thought his mouth and throat of skin deprived.
Said he, “Some drink I earnestly entreat!”
“What, Greg’ry,” cried my lord, “dost feel a heat?
In thy repasts dost love to wet thy jaws?
Well! well! I won’t object; thou know’st my laws.
Much good may’t do thee. Here, some wine, some wine!
Yet recollect, to drink, since you design,
That afterward, my friend, you’ll have to choose
The thirty blows, or thirty pounds to lose.”
“But,” cried the peasant, “I sincerely pray
Your lordship’s goodness, that the garlic may
Be taken in the account, for as to pelf,
Where can an humble lab’rer, like myself,
Expect the sum of thirty pounds to seize?”
“Then,” said the peer, “be cudgeled if you please.
Take thirty thwacks; for naught the garlic goes.”
To moisten well his throat, and ease his woes.
129 The peasant drank a copious draft of wine,
And then to bear the cudgel would resign.

A single blow he patiently endured;
The second, howsoe’er, his patience cured;
The third was more severe, and each was worse.
The punishment he now began to curse.
Two lusty wights, with cudgels thrashed his back,
And regularly gave him thwack and thwack.
He cried, he roared, for grace he begged his lord,
Who marked each blow, and would no ease accord;
But carefully observed, from time to time,
That lenity he always thought sublime;
His gravity preserved; considered too
The blows received and what continued due.

At length, when Greg’ry twenty strokes had got,
He piteously exclaimed, “If more’s my lot
I never shall survive! Oh! pray forgive,
If you desire, my lord, that I should live.”
“Then down with thirty pounds,” replied the peer.
“Since you the blows so much pretend to fear,
I’m sorry for you; but if all the gold
Be not prepared, your godfather, I’m told,
Can lend a part. Yet, since so far you’ve been,
To flinch the rest you surely won’t be seen.”

The wretched peasant to his lordship flew,
And trembling, cried, “’Tis up! The number view!”
A scrutiny was made, which nothing gained;
No choice but pay the money now remained.
130 This grieved him much, and o’er the fellow’s face,
The dewy drops were seen to flow apace.
All useless proved. The full demand he sent,
With which the peer expressed himself content.
Unlucky he whoe’er his lord offends!
To golden ore, howe’er, the proud man bends.

’Twas vain that Gregory a pardon prayed.
For trivial faults the peasant dearly paid:
His throat inflamed — his tender back well beat —
His money gone — and all to make complete,
Without the least deduction for the pain,
The blows and garlic gave the trembling swain.

— “Tales.


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