Jean De La Fontaine

1621 - 1695 / Champagne / France

The Three Gossips' Wager

AS o'er their wine one day, three gossips sat,
Discoursing various pranks in pleasant chat,
Each had a loving friend, and two of these
Most clearly managed matters at their ease.

SAID one, a princely husband I have got.
A better in the world there's surely not;
With him I can adjust as humour fits,
No need to rise at early dawn, like cits,
To prove to him that two and three make four,
Or ask his leave to ope or shut the door.

UPON my word, replied another fair,
If he were mine, I openly declare,
To judge from what so pleasantly you say,
I'd make a present of him new-year's day.
For pleasure never gives me full delight,
Unless a little pain the bliss invite.
No doubt your husband moves as he is led;
Thank heav'n a different mortal claims my bed;
To take him in, great nicety we need;
But howsoe'er, at times I can succeed;
The satisfaction doubly then is felt:--
In fond emotion bosoms freely melt.
With neither of you, husband or gallant,
Would I exchange, though these so much you vaunt.

ON this, the third with candour interfer'd;
She thought that oft the god of love appear'd,
Good husbands playfully to fret and vex,
Sometimes to rally couples: then perplex;
But warmer as the conversation grew,
She, anxious that each disputant might view
Herself victorious, (or believe it so,)
Exclaim'd, if either of you wish to show
Who's in the right, with argument have done,
And let us practise some new scheme of fun,
To dupe our husbands; she who don't succeed
Shall pay a forfeit; all replied, "Agreed."
But then, continued she, we ought to take
An oath, that we will full discov'ry make,
To one another of the various facts,
Without disguising even trifling acts.
And then, good upright Macae shall decide;
Thus things arrang'd, the ladies homeward plied.

SHE, 'mong the three, who felt the most constraint
Ador'd a youth, contemporaries paint,
Well made and handsome, but with beardless chin,
Which led the pair a project to begin;
For yet no opportunity they'd found,
T' enjoy their wishes, save by stealth around;
Most ardently she sought to be at ease,
And 'twas agreed the lucky thought to seize
That like a chambermaid he should be dress'd,
And then proceed to execute the jest,
Attend upon the wily, wedded pair,
And offer services with modest air
And downcast eyes; the husband on her leer'd,
And in her favour prepossess'd appear'd,
In hopes one day, to find those pleasing charms
Resign'd in secret to his longing arms.
Such pretty cheeks and sparkling eyes he thought,
Had ne'er till then his roving fancy caught;
The girl was hir'd, but seemingly with pain,
Since PRUDENCE ultimately might complain,
That (maid and master both so very young)
'Twould not be wonderful if things went wrong.

AT first the husband inattention show'd,
And scarcely on the maid a look bestow'd;
But presently he chang'd his conduct quite,
And presents gave, with promises not slight;
At length the servant feign'd to lend an ear,
And anxious seem'd obliging to appear.

THE trap our cunning lovers having laid,
One eve this message brought the smiling maid;
My lady, sir, is ill, and rest requires,
To sleep alone to-night she much desires.
To grant the master's wish the girl was led,
And they together hurried off to bed.

THE husband 'tween the sheets himself had plac'd;
The nymph was in her petticoat, unlac'd;
When suddenly appear'd the wily wife,
And promis'd harmony was turn'd to strife.
Are these your freaks, cried she with mark'd surprise;
Your usual dish it seems then don't suffice;
You want, indeed, to have some nicer fare?
A little sooner, by the saints I swear,
You'd me a pretty trick, 'tis clear, have shown,
And doubtless, then, tit bits to keep been prone.
This, howsoe'er, to get you're not design'd,
So elsewhere you may try what you can find.
And as to you, miss Prettyface, you jade,
Good heav'ns! to think a paltry servant maid
Should rival me? I'll beat you black and blue!
The bread I eat, indeed, must be for you?
But I know better, and indeed am clear,
Not one around will fancy I appear
So void of charms, so faded, wither'd, lost,
That I should out of doors at once be tost;
But I will manage matters:--I design
This girl no other bed shall have than mine;
Then who so bold to touch her there will dare?
Come, Miss, let's to my room at once repair;
Away--your things to-morrow you can seek;
If scandal 'twould spread around, I'd wreak
My vengeance instantly, and turn you out;
But I am lenient, and desire no rout;
Perhaps your ruin may be sav'd by care;
So night and day your company I'll share;
No more my bosom then will feel dismay,
For I shall see that you no frolicks play.

ON this the trembling girl, o'ercome with fears;
Held down her head and seem'd to hide her tears;
Pick'd up her clothes and quickly stole away,
As if afraid her mistress more might say;
And hop'd to act the maid while Sol gave light,
But play at ease the fond gallant at night;
At once she fill'd two places in the house,
And thought in both the husband she should chouse,
Who bless'd his stars that he'd escap'd so well,
And sneak'd alone to rest within his cell,
While our gay, am'rous pair advantage took,
To play at will, and ev'ry solace hook,
Convinc'd most thoroughly, once lovers kiss'd,
That OPPORTUNITY should n'er be miss'd.
Here ends the trick our wily gossip play'd;
But now let's see the plot another laid.

THE second dame, whose husband was so meek,
That only from her lips the truth he'd seek,
When seated with him 'neath a pear tree's shade,
Contriv'd at ease and her arrangement made.
The story I shall presently relate;
The butler, strong, well dress'd, and full of prate:
Who often made the other servants trot,
Stood near when madam hit upon her plot,
To whom she said, I wish the fruit to taste;
On which the man prepar'd with ev'ry haste,
To climb the tree, and off the produce shook;
But while above, the fellow gave a look
Upon the ground below, and feign'd he saw
The spouse and wife--do more than kiss and paw:
The servant rubb'd his eyes, as if in doubt,
And cried: why truly, sir, if you're so stout,
That you must revel 'mid your lady's charms,
Pray elsewhere take her to your longing arms,
Where you at ease may frolick hours or days,
Without my witnessing your loving ways;
Indeed, I'm quite surprised at what I spy
In publick, 'neath a tree such pranks to try!
And, if you don't a servant's presence heed,
With decency howe'er you should proceed.
What, still go on? for shame, I say, for shame!
Pray wait till by and by; you're much to blame;
Besides, the nights are long enough you'll find;
Heav'n genial joys for privacy design'd;
And why this place, when you've nice chambers got?
What, cried the lady, says this noisy sot?
He surely dreams; Where can he learn these tales?
Come down; let's see what 'tis the fellow ails.
Down William came. How? said the master, how?
Are we at play?


Not now, sir, no, not now.


Why, when then, friend?


While I was in the tree,
Alive, sir, flay me, if I did not see
You on the verdant lawn my lady lay,
And kiss, and toy, and other frolicks play.


'Twere surely better if thou held'st thy tongue,
Or thou'lt a beating get before 'tis long.


No, no, my dear, he's mad, and I design
The fellow in a madhouse to confine.

Is't folly, pray, to see what we behold?


What hast thou seen?


What I've already told:--
My master and yourself at Cupid's game,
Or else the tree 's enchanted I proclaim.


ENCHANTED! nonsense; such a sight to see!


To know the truth myself, I'll climb the tree,
Then you the fact will quickly from me learn;
We may believe what we ourselves discern.

SOON as the master they above descried,
And that below our pair he sharply eyed,
The butler took the lady in his arms,
And grew at once familiar with her charms;
At sight of this the husband gave a yell:
Made haste to reach the ground, and nearly fell;
Such liberties he wish'd at once to stop,
Since what he'd seen had nearly made him drop.
How! how!--cried he:--what, e'en before my sight?
What can you mean? said she without affright.


DAR'ST thou to ask again?


AND why not, pray?


FINE, pretty doings!--Presently you'll say;
That what I've seen 'tis folly to believe.


Too much is this:--such accusations grieve.


Thou did'st most clearly suffer his embrace.

I? WHY, you dream!


This seems a curious case.
MY reason's flown'! or have I lost my eyes?


CAN you suppose my character I prize
So very little, that these pranks I'd play
Before your face, when I might ev'ry day
Find minutes to divert myself at will,
And (if lik'd such frolicks) take my fill?


I KNOW not what to think nor what to do;
P'rhaps this same tree can tricks at will pursue;
Let's see again; aloft he went once more,
And William acted as he'd done before;
But now the husband saw the playful squeeze;
Without emotion, and returned at ease.
To find the cause, said he, no longer try,
The tree's enchanted, we may well rely.

SINCE, that's the fact, replied the cunning jade;
To burn it, quickly William seek fort aid;
The tree accurst no longer shall remain;
Her will the servant wish'd not to restrain,
But soon some workmen brought, who felled the tree;
And wondered what the fault our fair could see.
Down hew it, cried the lady, that's your task;
More concerns you not; folly 'tis to ask.

OUR second gossip thus obtained success;
But now the third: we'll see if she had less:
To female friends she often visits paid,
And various pastimes there had daily play'd;
A leering lover who was weary grown,
Desired ONE night she'd meet him quite alone.
TWO, if you will, replied the smiling fair;
A trifle 'tis you ask, and I'll repair
Where'er you wish, and we'll recline at ease;
My husband I can manage, if I please,
While thus engag'd.--The parties soon agreed;
But still the lady for her wits had need,
Since her dear man from home but rarely went,
No pardons sought at Rome, but was content
With what he nearer got, while his sweet wife
More fondness mark'd for gratifying life,
And ever anxious, warmest zeal to show,
Was always wishing distant scenes to know;
As pilgrim oft she'd trod a foreign road,
But now desir'd those ancient ways t'explode;
A plan more rare and difficult she sought,
And round her toe our wily dame bethought,
To tie a pack-thread, fasten'd to the door,
Which open'd to the street: then feign'd to snore
Beside her husband, Harry Berlinguier,
(So, usually, they nam'd her wedded dear.)

HOWE'ER, so cunningly with him she dealt,
That Harry turn'd, and soon the pack-thread felt,
Which rais'd distrust, and led him to suspect
Some bad design the thread was meant t'effect.

A LITTLE time, as if asleep, he lay
Considering how to act, or what to say;
Then rose, (his spouse believing not awake,)
And softly treading, lest the room should shake;
The pack-thread follow'd to the outer door,
And thence concluded (what he might deplore,)
That his dear partner from her faith would stray,
And some gallant that night design'd to play
The lover's part and draw the secret clue,
When she would rise, and with him freaks pursue,
While he (good husband!) quietly in bed
Might sleep, not dreaming that his wife had fled.

FOR otherwise, what use such pains to take?
A visit cuckoldom, perhaps, might make;
An honour that he'd willingly decline;
On which he studied how to countermine;
And like a sentinel mov'd to and fro',
To watch if any one would thither go
To pull the string, that he could see with ease,
And then he'd instantly the culprit seize.

THE, reader will perceive, we may suppose,
Besides the entrance which the husband chose,
On t'other side a door, where our gallant
Could enter readily, as he might want,
And there the spark a chambermaid let in:--
Oft servants prone are found a bribe to win.

WHILE Berlinguier thus watch'd around and round;
The friends with one another pleasures found;
But heav'n alone knows how nor what they were:--
No fact transpir'd save all was free from care;
So well the servant kept the careful watch,
That not a chance was given the pair to catch:

THE spark at dawn the lady left alone,
And ere the husband came the bird was flown;
Then Harry, weary, took his place again,
Complaining, that he'd felt such racking pain,
And dreading, lest alarms her breast should seize,
Within another room he'd sought for ease.

Two days had pass'd, when madam thought once more,
To set the thread, as she had done before;
He left the bed, pretending he was sick,
Resumed his post; again the lover came,
And, with my lady, play'd the former game.

THE scheme so well succeeded, that the pair
Thrice wish'd to try the wily pack-thread snare;
The husband with the cholic mov'd away,
His place the bold gallant resum'd till day.

AT length their ardour 'gan, it seems, to cool,
And Harry, they no longer tried to fool;
'Twas time to seek the myst'ry of the plot,
Since, to three acts, the comedy was got.

AT midnight, when the spark had left the bed;
A servant, by his orders, drew the thread;
On whom the husband, without fear, laid hold,
And with him enter'd like a soldier bold,
Not then supposing he'd a valet seiz'd;
Well tim'd it prov'd, howe'er;--the lady pleas'd
Her voice to raise, on hearing what was said,
And through the house confusion quickly spread.

THE valet now before them bent the knee,
And openly declar'd, he came to see
The chambermaid, whom he was wont to greet,
And by the thread to rouse when time to meet:

ARE these your knavish tricks, replied the dame,
With eyes upon her maid that darted flame;
When I by chance observ'd about your toe,
A thread one night, I then resolv'd to know
Your scheme in full, and round my own I tied
A clue, on which I thoroughly relied,
To catch this gay gallant, that you pretend
Your husband will become, I apprehend.

Be that as 'twill, to-night from hence you go.
My dear, said Berlinguier, I'd fain say no;
Let things remain until to-morrow, pray
And then my lady presently gave way.
A fortune Harry on the girl bestow'd;
The like our valet to his master ow'd;
To church the happy couple smiling went:--
They'd known each other long, and were content.

THUS ended then, the third and last amour;
The trio hasten'd Macae to implore,
To say which gain'd the bet, who soon replied:--
I find it, friends, not easy to decide.

THE case hangs up, and there will long remain;
'Tis often thus when justice we'd obtain.
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