Chapter 46: La Fontaine as a Negotiator

  1. 45: Jean de la Fontaine’s First Tale
  2. Louise de la Valliere
  3. 47: De Belliere’s Plate & Diamonds

Fouquet pressed La Fontaine’s hand most warmly, saying to him, “My dear poet, write a hundred other tales, not only for the eighty pistoles which each of them will produce you, but still more to enrich our language with a hundred other masterpieces.”

“Oh! oh!” said La Fontaine, with a little air of pride, “you must not suppose that I have brought only this idea and the eighty pistoles to the superintendent.”

“Oh! indeed!” was the general acclamation from all parts of the room; “M. de la Fontaine is in funds to-day.”

“Heaven bless the idea, if it brings me one or two millions,” said Fouquet, gayly.

“Exactly,” replied La Fontaine.

“Quick, quick!” cried the assembly.

“Take care!” said Pélisson in La Fontaine’s ear. “You have had a most brilliant success up to the present moment; do not go too far.”

“Not at all, M. Pélisson; and you, who are a man of taste, will be the first to approve of what I have done.”

“Is it a matter of millions?” said Gourville.

“I have fifteen hundred thousand livres here, M. Gourville,” he replied, striking himself on the chest.

“The deuce take this Gascon from Château-Thierry!” cried Loret.

“It is not the pocket you should touch, but the brain,” said Fouquet.

“Stay a moment, Monsieur the Superintendent!” added La Fontaine; “you are not procureur-général,- you are a poet.”

“True, true!” cried Loret, Conrart, and every person present connected with literature.

“You are, I repeat, a poet and a painter, a sculptor, a friend of the arts and sciences; but acknowledge that you are no lawyer.”

“Oh, I do acknowledge it!” replied M. Fouquet, smiling.

“If you were to be nominated at the Academy, you would refuse, I think.”

“I think I should, with all due deference to the academicians.”

“Very good; if therefore you do not wish to belong to the Academy, why do you allow yourself to form one of the parliament?”

“Oh! oh!” said Pélisson; “we are talking politics.”

“I wish to know,” persisted La Fontaine, “whether the barrister’s gown does or does not become M. Fouquet.”

“There is no question of the gown at all,” retorted Pélisson, annoyed at the laughter of the company.

“On the contrary, the gown is in question,” said Loret.

“Take the gown away from the procureur-général,” said Conrart, “and we have M. Fouquet left us still, of whom we have no reason to complain; but as he is no procureur-général without his gown, we agree with M. de la Fontaine, and pronounce the gown to be nothing but a bugbear.”

”Fugiunt risus leporesque,” said Loret.

“The smiles and the graces,” said some one present.

“That is not the way,” said Pélisson, gravely, “that I translate lepores.”

“How do you translate it?” said La Fontaine.

“Thus: ‘The hares run away as soon as they see M. Fouquet.’”

A burst of laughter, in which the superintendent joined, followed this sally.

“But why hares?” objected Conrart, vexed.

“Because the hare will be the very one who will not be over-pleased to see M. Fouquet retaining the elements of strength which belong to his parliamentary position.”

“Oh! oh!” murmured the poets.

”Quo non ascendam,” said Conrart, “would seem to me impossible with a procureur’s gown.”

“And it seems so to me without that gown,” said the obstinate Pélisson. “What is your opinion, Gourville?”

“I think the gown in question is a very good thing,” replied the latter; “but I equally think that a million and a half is far better than the gown.”

“And I am of Gourville’s opinion,” exclaimed Fouquet, stopping the discussion by the expression of his own opinion, which would necessarily bear down all the others.

“A million and a half!” Pélisson grumbled out. “Now I happen to know an Indian fable-”

“Tell it to me,” said La Fontaine; “I ought to know it too.”

“Tell it, tell it!” said the others.

“There was a tortoise which was as usual well protected by its shell,” said Pélisson. “Whenever its enemies threatened it, it took refuge within its covering. One day some one said to it, ‘You must feel very hot in such a house as that in the summer, and you are altogether prevented from showing off your graces; here is a snake who will give you a million and a half for your shell.”

“Good!” said the superintendent, laughing.

“Well, what next?” said La Fontaine, much more interested in the apologue than in its moral.

“The tortoise sold his shell, and remained naked and defenceless. A vulture happened to see him, and being hungry broke the tortoise’s back with a blow of his beak and devoured it. The moral is that M. Fouquet should take very good care to keep his gown.”

La Fontaine understood the moral seriously. “You forget Aeschylus,” he said to his adversary.

“What do you mean?”

“Aeschylus was bald-headed; and a vulture-your vulture probably-who was a great lover of tortoises mistook at a distance his head for a block of stone, and let a tortoise which was shrunk up in his shell fall upon it.”

“Yes, yes, La Fontaine is right,” resumed Fouquet, who had become very thoughtful. “Whenever a vulture wishes to devour a tortoise, he well knows how to break his shell; and but too happy is that tortoise to which a snake pays a million and a half for his envelope. If any one were to bring me a generous-hearted snake like the one in your fable, Pélisson, I would give him my shell.”

”Rara avis in terris!” cried Conrart.

“And like a black swan, is he not?” added La Fontaine; “well, then, the bird in question, black and very rare, is already found.”

“Do you mean to say that you have found a purchaser for my post of procureur-général?” exclaimed Fouquet.

“I have, Monsieur.”

“But the superintendent has never said that he wished to sell,” resumed Pélisson.

“I beg your pardon,” said Conrart; “you yourself spoke about it-”

“Yes, I am a witness to that,” said Gourville.

“He seems very tenacious about his brilliant idea,” said Fouquet, laughing. “Well, La Fontaine, who is the purchaser?”

“A perfect black bird, a counsellor belonging to the parliament, an excellent fellow.”

“What is his name?”


“Vanel!” exclaimed Fouquet,- “Vanel, the husband of-”

“Precisely,- her husband; yes, Monsieur.”

“Poor fellow!” said Fouquet, with an expression of great interest; “he wishes to be procureur-général?”

“He wishes to be everything that you have been, Monsieur,” said Gourville, “and to do everything that you have done.”

“It is very agreeable; tell us all about it, La Fontaine.”

“It is very simple. I see him occasionally; and a short time ago I met him walking about on the Place de la Bastille, at the very moment when I was about to take the small carriage to come down here to St. Mandé.”

“He must have been watching his wife,” interrupted Loret.

“Oh, no!” said La Fontaine; “he is far from being jealous. He accosted me, embraced me, and took me to the inn called L’Image-Saint-Fiacre, and told me all about his troubles.”

“He has his troubles, then?”

“Yes; his wife wants to make him ambitious.”

“Well, and he told you-”

“That some one had spoken to him about a post in parliament; that M. Fouquet’s name had been mentioned; that ever since, Madame Vanel dreams of nothing else but being called Madame the Procureuse-Generale, and that she is dying of it every night she is not dreaming of it.”

“The deuce!”

“Poor woman!” said Fouquet.

“Wait a moment! Conrart is always telling me that I do not know how to conduct matters of business; you will see how I manage this one.”

“Well, go on!”

“‘I suppose you know’ said I to Vanel, ‘that the value of a post such as that which M. Fouquet holds is by no means trifling.’ ‘How much do you imagine it to be?’ he said. ‘M. Fouquet, I know, has refused seventeen hundred thousand livres.’ ‘My wife,’ replied Vanel, ‘had estimated it at about fourteen hundred thousand.’ ‘Ready money?’ I asked. ‘Yes; she has sold some property of hers in Guienne, and has received the purchase-money.’”

“That’s a pretty sum to touch all at once,” said the Abbé Fouquet, who had not hitherto said a word.

“Poor Madame Vanel!” murmured Fouquet.

Pélisson shrugged his shoulders. “A fiend!” he said in a low voice to Fouquet.

“That may be; it would be delightful to make use of this fiend’s money to repair the injury which an angel has done herself for me.”

Pélisson looked with a surprised air at Fouquet, whose thoughts were from that moment fixed upon a fresh object.

“Well!” inquired La Fontaine, “what about my negotiation?”

“Admirable, my dear poet!”

“Yes,” said Gourville; “but there are some persons who are anxious to have the steed who have not money enough to pay for the bridle.”

“And Vanel would draw back from his offer if he were to be taken at his word,” continued the Abbé Fouquet.

“I do not believe it,” said La Fontaine.

“What do you know about it?”

“Why, you have not yet heard the dénouement of my story.”

“If there is a dénouement, why do you beat about the bush so much?”

”Semper ad adventum. Is that correct?” said Fouquet, with the air of a nobleman who condescends to barbarisms. The Latinists clapped their hands.

“My dénouement,” cried La Fontaine, “is that Vanel, that determined black bird, knowing that I was coming to St. Mandé, implored me to bring him with me, and, if possible, to present him to M. Fouquet.”

“So that-”

“So that he is here; I left him in that part of the grounds called Bel-Air. Well, M. Fouquet, what is your reply?”

“Well, it is not fitting that the husband of Madame Vanel should catch cold on my grounds. Send for him, La Fontaine, since you know where he is.”

“I will go myself.”

“And I will accompany you,” said the Abbé Fouquet; “I can carry the money-bags.”

“No jesting,” said Fouquet, seriously; “let the business be a serious one if it is to be one at all. But, first of all, let us be hospitable. Make my apologies, La Fontaine, to that gentleman, and tell him that I am distressed to have kept him waiting, but that I was not aware he was there.”

La Fontaine set off at once, fortunately accompanied by Gourville; for absorbed in his own calculations, the poet would have mistaken the route, and was hurrying as fast as he could towards the village of St. Maur.

Within a quarter of an hour afterwards M. Vanel was introduced into the superintendent’s cabinet, the description and details of which have already been given at the beginning of this history. When Fouquet saw him enter, he called Pélisson, and whispered a few words in his ear: “Do not lose a word of what I am going to say. Let all the silver and gold plate, together with the jewels of every description, be packed up in the carriage. You will take the black horses; the jeweller will accompany you; and you will postpone the supper until Madame de Belliere’s arrival.”

“Will it be necessary to notify Madame de Belliere?” said Pélisson.

“No, that will be useless; I will do that.”

“Very well.”

“Go my friend!”

Pélisson set off, not quite clear as to his friend’s meaning or intention, but confident, like every true friend, in the judgment of the man he was blindly obeying. It is that which constitutes the strength of such men; distrust is awakened only by inferior natures.

Vanel bowed low to the superintendent, and was about to begin a speech.

“Be seated, Monsieur!” said Fouquet, politely. “I am told that you wish to purchase a post I hold. How much can you give me for it?”

“It is for you, Monseigneur, to fix the price. I know that offers of purchase have already been made to you for it.”

“Madame Vanel, I have been told, values it at fourteen hundred thousand livres.”

“That is all we have.”

“Can you give me the money immediately?”

“I have not the money with me,” said Vanel, frightened almost by the unpretending simplicity, amounting to greatness, of the man; for he had expected disputes and difficulties, and opposition of every kind.

“When will you be able to have it?”

“Whenever you please, Monseigneur”; and he began to be afraid that Fouquet was trifling with him.

“If it were not for the trouble you would have in returning to Paris, I would say at once; but we will arrange that the payment and the signature shall take place at six o’clock to-morrow morning.”

“Very good,” said Vanel, as cold as ice, and feeling quite bewildered.

“Adieu, M. Vanel! Present my humblest respects to Madame Vanel,” said Fouquet, as he rose; upon which Vanel, who felt the blood rushing up to his head, for he was quite confounded by his success, said seriously to the superintendent, “Will you give me your word, Monseigneur, upon this affair?”

Fouquet turned round his head, saying, “Pardieu! and you, Monsieur?”

Vanel hesitated, trembled all over, and at last finished by hesitatingly holding out his hand. Fouquet opened and nobly extended his own. This loyal hand lay for a moment in Vanel’s moist, hypocritical palm; and he pressed it in his own, in order the better to convince himself. The superintendent gently disengaged his hand, as he again said, “Adieu.” Vanel then ran hastily to the door, hurried along the vestibules, and fled.

  1. 45: Jean de la Fontaine’s First Tale
  2. Louise de la Valliere
  3. 47: De Belliere’s Plate & Diamonds