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The Fortune-Tellers

(Recueil 2, Livre 7, Fable 16)



It's often from chance opinion takes its rise,

And into reputation multiplies.

This prologue finds pat applications

In men of all this world's vocations;

For fashion, prejudice, and party strife,

Conspire to crowd poor justice out of life.

What can you do to counteract

This reckless, rushing cataract?

"Twill have its course for good or bad,

As it, indeed, has always had.

A dame in Paris played the Pythoness

With much of custom, and, of course, success.

Was any trifle lost, or did

Some maid a husband wish,

Or wife of husband to be rid,

Or either sex for fortune fish,

Resort was had to her with gold,

To get the hidden future told.

Her art was made of various tricks,

Wherein the dame contrived to mix,

With much assurance, learned terms.

Now, chance, of course, sometimes confirms;

And just as often as it did,

The news was anything but hid.

In short, though, as to ninety nine per cent,

The lady knew not what her answers meant,

Borne up by ever-babbling Fame,

An oracle she soon became.

A garret was this woman's home,

Till she had gained of gold a sum

That raised the station of her spouse

Bought him an office and a house.

As she could then no longer bear it,

Another tenanted the garret.

To her came up the city crowd,

Wives, maidens, servants, gentry proud,

To ask their fortunes, as before;

A Sibyl's cave was on her garret floor:

Such custom had its former mistress drawn

It lasted even when herself was gone.

It sorely taxed the present mistress' wits

To satisfy the throngs of teasing cits.

"I tell your fortunes! joke, indeed!

Why, gentlemen, I cannot read!

What can you, ladies, learn from me,

Who never learned my A, B, C?"

Avaunt with reasons! tell she must,

Predict as if she understood,

And lay aside more precious dust

Than two the ablest lawyers could.

The stuff that garnished out her room

Four crippled chairs, a broken broom

Helped mightily to raise her merits,

Full proof of intercourse with spirits!

Had she predicted ever so truly,

On floor with carpet covered duly,

Her word had been a mockery made.

The fashion set on the garret.

Doubt that? none bold enough to dare it!

The other woman lost her trade.

All shopmen know the force of signs,

And so, indeed, do some divines.

In palaces, a robe awry

Has sometimes set the wearer high;

And crowds his teaching will pursue

Who draws the greatest listening crew.

Ask, if you please, the reason why.

Jean de La Fontaine

Book 7, Fable 16



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