The Man in the Iron Mask

Author: "Alexandre Dumas, père"  | Date: 1850

Chapter VI: How Jean de la Fontaine

Wrote His First Tale

ALL these intrigues are exhausted; the human mind, so complicated in its exhibitions, has developed itself freely in the three outlines which our recital has afforded. It is not unlikely that in the future we are now preparing, politics and intrigues may still appear; but the springs by which they work will be so carefully concealed that no one will be able to see aught but flowers and paintings,- just as at a theatre, where a Colossus appears upon the scene walking along moved by the small legs and slender arms of a child concealed within the framework.

We now return to St. Mande, where the superintendent was in the habit of receiving his select society of epicureans. For some time past the host had been severely tried. Every one in the house was aware of and felt the minister’s distress. No more magnificent and recklessly improvident reunions! Finance had been the pretext assigned by Fouquet; and never was any pretext, as Gourville wittily said, more fallacious, for there was not the slightest appearance of money.

M. Vatel was most resolutely painstaking in keeping up the reputation of the house, and yet the gardeners who supplied the kitchens complained of a ruinous delay. The agents for the supply of Spanish wines frequently sent drafts which no one honored; fishermen, whom the superintendent engaged on the coast of Normandy, calculated that if they were paid all that was due to them, the amount would enable them to retire comfortably for the rest of their lives; fish, which at a later period was to be the cause of Vatel’s death, did not arrive at all. However, on the ordinary day of reception, Fouquet’s friends flocked in more numerously than ever. Gourville and the Abbe Fouquet talked over money matters,- that is to say, the abbe borrowed a few pistoles from Gourville. Pellisson, seated with his legs crossed, was engaged in finishing the peroration of a speech with which Fouquet was to open the parliament; and this speech was a masterpiece, because Pellisson wrote it for his friend,- that is to say, he inserted everything in it which the latter would most certainly never have taken the trouble to say of his own accord. Presently Loret and La Fontaine would enter from the garden, engaged in a dispute upon the facility of making verses. The painters and musicians, in their turn, also were hovering near the dining-room. As soon as eight o’clock struck, the supper would be announced; for the superintendent never kept any one waiting. It was already half-past seven, and the guests were in good appetite.

As soon as all the guests were assembled, Gourville went straight up to Pellisson, awoke him out of his reverie, and led him into the middle of a room the doors of which he had closed.

"Well," he said, "anything new?"

Pellisson raised his intelligent and gentle face, and said, "I have borrowed twenty-five thousand livres of my aunt, and I have them here in good money."

"Good!" replied Gourville; "we want only one hundred and ninety-five thousand livres for the first payment."

"The payment of what?" asked La Fontaine.

"What! absent-minded as usual? Why, it was you who told us that the small estate at Corbeil was going to be sold by one of M. Fouquet’s creditors; and you, also, who proposed that all his friends should subscribe. More than that, too, it was you who said that you would sell a corner of your house at Chateau-Thierry in order to furnish your own proportion; and now you come and ask, ’The payment of what?’" This remark was received with a general laugh, which made La Fontaine blush. "I beg your pardon," he said, "I had not forgotten it,- oh, no! only-"

"Only you remembered nothing about it," replied Loret.

"That is the truth; and the fact is, he is quite right. There is a great difference between forgetting and not remembering."

"Well, then," added Pellisson, "you bring your mite in the shape of the price of the piece of land you have sold?"

"Sold? no!"

"And have you not sold the field, then?" inquired Gourville, in astonishment, for he knew the poet’s disinterestedness.

"My wife would not let me," replied the latter, at which there were fresh bursts of laughter.

"And yet you went to Chateau-Thierry for that purpose," said some one.

"Certainly I did, and on horseback."

"Poor fellow!"

"I had eight different horses, and I was almost jolted to death."

"You are an excellent fellow! And you rested yourself when you arrived there!"

"Rested! Oh! of course I did, for I had an immense deal of work to do."

"How so?"

"My wife had been flirting with the man to whom I wished to sell the land. The fellow drew back from his bargain, and so I challenged him."

"Very good; and you fought?"

"It seems not."

"You know nothing about it, I suppose?"

"No; my wife and her relations interfered in the matter. I was kept a quarter of an hour with my sword in my hand; but I was not wounded."

"And the adversary?"

"Neither was the adversary, for he never came on to the field."

"Capital!" cried his friends, from all sides; "you must have been terribly angry."

"Exceedingly so; I had caught cold. I returned home, and then my wife began to quarrel with me."

"In real earnest?"

"Yes, in real earnest; she threw a loaf of bread at my head, a large loaf."

"And what did you do?"

"Oh! I upset the table over her and her guests; and then I got upon my horse again, and here I am."

Every one had great difficulty in keeping his countenance at the relation of this tragic comedy; and when the laughter had somewhat ceased, one of the guests present said to him, "Is that all you have brought us back?"

"Oh, no! I have an excellent idea in my head."

"What is it?"

"Have you noticed that there is a good deal of sportive, jesting poetry written in France?"

"Yes, of course," replied every one.

"And," pursued La Fontaine, "only a very small portion of it is printed."

"The laws are strict, you know."

"That may be; but a rare article is a dear article, and that is the reason why I have written a small poem extremely licentious."

"Oh, oh, dear poet!"

"Extremely obscene."

"Oh! oh!"

"Extremely cynical."

"Oh, the devil!"

"Yes," continued the poet, with cold indifference; "I have introduced in it the greatest freedom of language I could possibly employ."

Peals of laughter again broke forth, while the poet was thus announcing the quality of his wares. "And," he continued, "I have tried to exceed everything that Boccaccio, Aretino and other masters of their craft have written in the same style."

"Good God!" cried Pellisson, "it will be condemned!"

"Do you think so?" said La Fontaine, simply. "I assure you, I did not do it on my own account so much as on M. Fouquet’s."

This wonderful conclusion raised the mirth of all present to a climax.

"And I have sold the first edition of this little book for eight hundred livres," exclaimed La Fontaine, rubbing his hands together. "Serious and religious books sell at about half that rate."

"It would have been better," said Gourville, laughing, "to have written two religious books instead!"

"It would have been too long, and not amusing enough," replied La Fontaine, tranquilly. "My eight hundred livres are in this little bag; I offer them as my contribution."

As he said this, he placed his offering in the hands of their treasurer. It was then Loret’s turn, who gave a hundred and fifty livres. The others stripped themselves in the same way; and the total sum in the purse amounted to forty thousand livres. Never did more generous coins rattle in the divine balances in which charity weighs good hearts and good intentions against the counterfeit coin of devout hypocrites.

The money was still being counted over when the superintendent noiselessly entered the room. He had heard everything. This man, who had possessed so many millions, who had exhausted all pleasures and all honors, this generous heart, this inexhaustible brain,- Fouquet, who had, like two burning crucibles, devoured the material and moral substance of the first kingdom in the world, crossed the threshold with his eyes filled with tears, and passed his white and slender fingers through the gold and silver. "Poor offering," he said, in a tone tender and filled with emotion, "you will disappear in the smallest corner of my empty purse; but you have filled to overflowing that which nothing can ever exhaust,- my heart. Thank you, my friends,- thank you!" And as he could not embrace everyone present,- all were weeping a little, philosophers though they were,- he embraced La Fontaine, saying to him, "Poor fellow! so you have on my account been beaten by your wife and damned by your confessor?"

"Oh, it is a mere nothing!" replied the poet. "If your creditors will only wait a couple of years, I shall have written a hundred other tales, which at two editions each will pay off the debt."


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Chicago: Alexandre Dumas père, "Chapter VI: How Jean De La Fontaine," The Man in the Iron Mask Original Sources, accessed December 10, 2023,

MLA: Dumas, Alexandre, père. "Chapter VI: How Jean De La Fontaine." The Man in the Iron Mask, Original Sources. 10 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Dumas, A, 'Chapter VI: How Jean De La Fontaine' in The Man in the Iron Mask. Original Sources, retrieved 10 December 2023, from