“What rhyme do you want?” asked the Fabler, as Madame de Sevigne used to call him.
“I want a rhyme to lumiere.”
“Orniere,” answered La Fontaine.
“Ah, but my good friend, one cannot talk of wheel-ruts when celebrating the delights of Vaux,” said Loret.
“Besides, it doesn’t rhyme,” answered Pélisson.
“How! doesn’t rhyme?” cried La Fontaine, in surprise.
“Yes; you have an abominable habit, my friend,- a habit which will ever prevent your becoming a poet of the first order. You rhyme in a slovenly manner.”
“Oh! oh! you think so, do you, Pélisson?”
“Yes, I do, indeed. Remember that a rhyme is never good so long as one can find a better.”
“Then I will never write anything again but in prose,” said La Fontaine, who had taken up Pélisson’s reproach in earnest. “Ah, I often suspected I was nothing but a rascally poet! Yes, ’tis the very truth.”
“Do not say so; your remark is too sweeping, and there is much that is good in your ‘Fables.’”
“And to begin,” continued La Fontaine, following up his idea, “I will go and burn a hundred verses I have just made.”
“Where are your verses?”
“In my head.”
“Well, if they are in your head you cannot burn them.”
“True,” said La Fontaine; “but if I do not burn them-”
“Well, what will happen if you do not burn them?”
“They will remain in my mind, and I shall never forget them.”
“The devil!” cried Loret; “what a dangerous thing! One would go mad with it!”
“The devil, devil, devil!” repeated La Fontaine; “what can I do?”
“I have discovered the way,” said Moliere, who had entered during the last words of the conversation.
“Write them first and burn them afterwards.”
“How simple it is! Well, I should never have discovered that. What a mind that devil Moliere has!” said La Fontaine. Then, striking his forehead, “Oh, thou wilt never be aught but an ass, Jean de la Fontaine!” he added.
“What are you saying there, my friend?” broke in Moliere, approaching the poet, whose aside he had heard.
“I say I shall never be aught but an ass,” answered La Fontaine, with a heavy sigh and swimming eyes. “Yes, my friend,” he added, with increasing grief, “it seems that I rhyme in a slovenly manner.”
“That is wrong.”
“You see! I am a puppy!”
“Who said so?”
“Parbleu! ‘twas Pélisson; did you not, Pélisson?”
Pélisson, again lost in his work, took good care not to answer.
“But if Pélisson said you were a puppy,” cried Moliere, “Pélisson has gravely insulted you.”
“Do you think so?”
“Ah! I advise you, as you are a gentleman, not to leave an insult like that unpunished.”
“Oh!” exclaimed La Fontaine.
“Did you ever fight?”
“Once only, with a lieutenant in the light horse.”
“What wrong had he done you?”
“It seems he was my wife’s lover.”
“Ah! ah!” said Moliere, becoming slightly pale; but as at La Fontaine’s declaration the others had turned round, Moliere kept upon his lips the rallying smile which had so nearly died away, and continued to make La Fontaine speak,- “and what was the result of the duel?”
“The result was, that on the ground my opponent disarmed me, and then made an apology, promising never again to set foot in my house.”
“And you considered yourself satisfied?” said Moliere.
“Not at all! on the contrary, I picked up my sword. ‘I beg your pardon, Monsieur,’ I said; ‘I have not fought you because you were my wife’s lover, but because I was told I ought to fight. Now, since I have never known any peace save since you made her acquaintance, do me the pleasure to continue your visits as heretofore, or, morbleu! let us set to again.’ And so,” continued La Fontaine, “he was compelled to resume his relations with Madame, and I continue to be the happiest of husbands.”
All burst out laughing. Moliere alone passed his hand across his eyes. Why? Perhaps to wipe away a tear, perhaps to smother a sigh. Alas! we know that Moliere was a moralist, but he was not a philosopher. “It is all the same,” he said, returning to the topic of the conversation, “Pélisson has insulted you.”
“Ah, truly! I had already forgotten.”
“And I am going to challenge him on your behalf.”
“Well, you can do so, if you think it indispensable.”
“I do think it indispensable, and I am going-”
“Stay!” exclaimed La Fontaine; “I want your advice.”
“Upon what?- this insult?”
“No; tell me really now whether lumiere does not rhyme with orniere.”
“I should make them rhyme.”
“Ah! I knew you would.”
“And I have made a hundred thousand such rhymes in my time.”
“A hundred thousand!” cried La Fontaine; “four times as many as in ‘La Pucelle,’ which M. Chapelain is meditating. Is it also on this subject that you have composed a hundred thousand verses?”
“Listen to me, you eternally absent-minded creature!” said Moliere.
“It is certain,” continued La Fontaine, “that legume, for instance, rhymes with posthume.”
“In the plural, especially.”
“Yes, especially in the plural, seeing that then it rhymes not with three letters, but with four; as orniere does with lumiere. Put ornieres and lumieres in the plural, my dear Pélisson,” said La Fontaine, clapping his hand on the shoulder of his friend, whose insult he had quite forgotten, “and they will rhyme.”
“Hem!” cried Pélisson.
“Moliere says so, and Moliere is a judge of it; he declares he has himself made a hundred thousand verses.”
“Come,” said Moliere, laughing, “he is off now.”
“It is like rivage, which rhymes admirably with herbage; I would take my oath of it.”
“But-” said Moliere.
“I tell you all this,” continued La Fontaine, “because you are preparing an entertainment for Vaux, are you not?”
“Yes,- ‘Les Facheux.’”
“Ah, yes,- ‘Les Facheux’; yes, I recollect. Well, I was thinking a prologue would admirably suit your entertainment.”
“Doubtless it would suit capitally.”
“Ah! you are of my opinion?”
“So much so, that I asked you to write this prologue.”
“You asked me to write it?”
“Yes, you; and on your refusal begged you to ask Pélisson, who is engaged upon it at this moment.”
“Ah! that is what Pélisson is doing, then? I’ faith, my dear Moliere, you speak with very good sense sometimes.”
“When you call me absent-minded. It is a wretched defect. I will cure myself of it, and I am going to write your prologue for you.”
“But seeing that Pélisson is about it-”
“Ah, true! Double rascal that I am! Loret was indeed right in saying I was a puppy.”
“It was not Loret who said so, my friend.”
“Well, then, whoever said so, ’tis the same to me! And so your entertainment is called ‘Les Facheux’? Well, can you not make heureux rhyme with facheux?”
“If obliged, yes.”
“And even with capricieux.”
“Oh, no, no!”
“It would be hazardous, and yet why so?”
“There is too great a difference in the cadences.”
“I was fancying,” said La Fontaine, leaving Moliere for Loret,- “I was fancying-”
“What were you fancying?” said Loret, in the middle of a sentence. “Make haste!”
“You are writing the prologue to ‘Les Facheux,’ are you not?”
“No, mordieu! it is Pélisson.”
“Ah, Pélisson!” cried La Fontaine, going over to him. “I was fancying,” he continued, “that the nymph of Vaux-”
“Ah, beautiful!” cried Loret. “The nymph of Vaux! Thank you, La Fontaine; you have just given me the two concluding verses of my paper,-
Et l’on vit la nymphe de Vaux
Donner le prix a leurs travaux.”
“Good! That is something like a rhyme,” said Pélisson. “If you could rhyme like that, La Fontaine-”
“But it seems I do rhyme like that, since Loret says it is I who gave him the two lines he has just read.”
“Well, if you can rhyme so well, La Fontaine,” said Pélisson, “tell me now in what way you would begin my prologue?”
“I should say for instance, O nymphe- qui- After qui I should place a verb in the second person plural of the present indicative, and should go on thus: cette grotte profonde.”
“But the verb, the verb?” asked Pélisson.
”Pour venir admirer le plus grand roi du monde,” continued La Fontaine.
“But the verb, the verb?” obstinately insisted Pélisson. “This second person plural of the present indicative?”
“Well, then; quittez,-
O nymphe qui quittez cette grotte profonde
Pour venir admirer le plus grand roi du monde.”
“You would put qui quittez, would you?”
“Ah, my dear fellow,” exclaimed La Fontaine, “you are a shocking pedant!”
“Without counting,” said Moliere, “that in the second verse venir admirer is very weak, my dear La Fontaine.”
“Then you see clearly that I am nothing but a poor creature,- a puppy, as you said.”
“I never said so.”
“Then, as Loret said.”
“And it was not Loret, either; it was Pélisson.”
“Well, Pélisson was right a hundred times over. But what annoys me more than anything, my dear Moliere, is that I fear we shall not have our Epicurean dresses.”
“You expected yours, then, for the fête?”
“Yes, for the fête, and then for after the fête. My housekeeper told me that my own is rather faded.”
“The devil! your housekeeper is right,- rather more than faded!”
“Ah, you see,” resumed La Fontaine; “the fact is, I left it on the floor in my room, and my cat-”
“Well, your cat-”
“She kittened upon it, which has rather altered its color.”
Moliere burst out laughing; Pélisson and Loret followed his example.
At this juncture the Bishop of Vannes appeared, with a roll of plans and parchments under his arm. As if the angel of death had chilled all gay and sprightly fancies, as if that wail form had scared away the Graces to whom Xenocrates sacrificed, silence immediately reigned through the study, and every one resumed his self-possession and his pen.
Aramis distributed the notes of invitation, and thanked them in the name of M. Fouquet. “The superintendent,” he said, “being kept to his room by business, could not come to see them, but begged them to send him some of the fruits of their day’s work, to enable him to forget the fatigue of his labor in the night.”
At these words, all settled to work. La Fontaine placed himself at a table, and set his rapid pen running over the vellum; Pélisson made a fair copy of his prologue; Moliere gave fifty fresh verses, with which his visit to Percerin had inspired him; Loret, his article on the marvellous fetes he predicted; and Aramis, laden with booty like the king of the bees,- that great black drone, decked with purple and gold,- re-entered his apartment, silent and busy. But before departing, “Remember, gentlemen,” said he, “we all leave tomorrow evening.”
“In that case I must give notice at home,” said Moliere.
“Yes; poor Moliere!” said Loret, smiling,- “he loves his home.”
“‘He loves,’ yes,” replied Moliere, with his sad, sweet smile. “‘He loves,’- that does not mean, they love him.”
“As for me,” said La Fontaine, “they love me at Château Thierry, I am very sure.”
Aramis here re-entered, after a brief disappearance. “Will any one go with me?” he asked. “I am going by way of Paris, after having passed a quarter of an hour with M. Fouquet. I offer my carriage.”
“Good!” said Moliere. “I accept it; I am in a hurry.”
“I shall dine here,” said Loret. “M. de Gourville has promised me some crawfish,-
Il m’a promis des ecrevisses-
Find a rhyme for that, La Fontaine.”
Aramis went out laughing, as only he could laugh, and Moliere followed him. They were at the bottom of the stairs, when La Fontaine opened the door and shouted out,-
“Moyennant que tu l’ecrevisses,
Il t’a promis des ecrevisses.”
The shouts of laughter reached the ears of Fouquet at the moment Aramis opened the door of the study. As to Moliere, he had undertaken to order the horses, while Aramis went to exchange a parting word with the superintendent. “Oh, how they are laughing there!” said Fouquet, with a sigh.
“And do you not laugh, Monseigneur?”
“I laugh no longer now, M. d’Herblay. The fête is approaching; money is departing.”
“Have I not told you that was my business?”
“Yes; you promised me millions.”
“You shall have them the day after the King’s entree into Vaux.”
Fouquet looked closely at Aramis, and passed his icy hand across his moistened brow. Aramis perceived that the superintendent either doubted him, or felt that he was powerless to obtain the money. How could Fouquet suppose that a poor bishop, ex-abbé, ex-musketeer, could procure it?
“Why doubt me?” said Aramis.
Fouquet smiled and shook his head.
“Man of little faith!” added the bishop.
“My dear M. d’Herblay,” answered Fouquet, “if I fall-”
“Well, if you ‘fall’-”
“I shall at least fall from such a height that I shall shatter myself in falling.” Then giving himself a shake, as though to escape from himself, “Whence come you,” said he, “my friend?”
“From Paris,- from Percerin.”
“And what have you been doing at Percerin’s,- for I suppose you attach no great importance to our poets’ dresses?”
“No; I went to prepare a surprise.”
“Yes; which you are to give to the King.”
“And will it cost much?”
“Oh, a hundred pistoles you will give Lebrun!”
“A painting? Ah, all the better! And what is this painting to represent?”
“I will tell you. Then at the same time, whatever you may say of it, I went to see the dresses for our poets.”
“Bah! and they will be rich and elegant?”
“Splendid! There will be few great monseigneurs with dresses so good. People will see the difference between the courtiers of wealth and those of friendship.”
“Ever generous and graceful, dear prelate!”
“In your school.”
Fouquet grasped his hand. “And where are you going?” he said.
“I am off to Paris, when you shall have given me a certain letter.”
“M. de Lyonne.”
“And what do you want with Lyonne?”
“I wish to make him sign a lettre de cachet.”
“Lettre de cachet! Do you desire to put somebody in the Bastille?”
“On the contrary,- to let somebody out.”
“A poor devil,- a youth, a lad who has been imprisoned these ten years, for two Latin verses he made against the Jesuits.”
“‘Two Latin verses!’ and for ‘two Latin verses’ the miserable being has been in prison for ten years?”
“And has committed no other crime?”
“Beyond this, he is as innocent as you or I.”
“On your word?”
“On my honor!”
“And his name is-”
“Oh, that is too cruel! You knew this, and you never told me!”
“‘Twas only yesterday his mother applied to me, Monseigneur.”
“And the woman is poor?”
“In the deepest misery.”
“Oh, God!” said Fouquet, “thou dost sometimes bear with such injustice on earth that I understand why there are wretches who doubt thy existence! Stay, M. d’Herblay!” and Fouquet, taking his pen, wrote a few rapid lines to his colleague Lyonne.
Aramis took the letter, and made ready to go.
“Wait!” said Fouquet. He opened his drawer, and took out ten government notes which were there, each for a thousand livres. “Stay!” he said. “Set the son at liberty, and give this to the mother; but, above all, tell her not-”
“That she is ten thousand livres richer than I. She would say I am but a poor superintendent! Go; and I hope that God will bless those who are mindful of his poor!”
“So also do I hope,” replied Aramis, kissing Fouquet’s hand. And he went out quickly, carrying off the letter for Lyonne and the notes for Seldon’s mother, and taking up Moliere, who was beginning to lose patience.
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