Voltaire (1694 – 1778) was a French Enlightenment writer and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and free trade. Voltaire was a prolific writer and produced works in almost every literary form including plays, poetry, novels, essays, historical and scientific works, more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform, despite strict censorship laws and harsh penalties for those who broke them. As a satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize Catholic Church dogma and the French institutions of his day.
Voltaire was one of several Enlightenment figures (along with Montesquieu, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) whose works and ideas influenced important thinkers of both the American and French Revolutions.
Jeannot and Colin is a fine example of his short fiction, and is a moral tale on vanity.
Many persons, worthy of credit, have seen Jeannot and Colin at school in the town of Issoire, in Auvergne, France—a town famous all over the world for its college and its caldrons.
Jeannot was the son of a dealer in mules, of great reputation, and Colin owed his birth to a good substantial farmer in the neighborhood, who cultivated the land with four mules, and who, after he had paid all taxes and duties at the rate of a sol per pound, was not very rich at the year’s end.
Jeannot and Colin were very handsome, considering they were natives of Auvergne. They dearly loved each other. They had many enjoyments in common, and certain little adventures of such a nature as men always recollect with pleasure when they afterwards meet in the world.
Their studies were nearly finished, when a tailor brought Jeannot a velvet suit of three colors, with a waistcoat from Lyons, which was extremely well fancied. With these came a letter addressed to Monsieur de la Jeannotière.
Colin admired the coat, and was not at all jealous; but Jeannot assumed an air of superiority which gave Colin some uneasiness. From that moment Jeannot abandoned his studies; he contem- plated himself in a glass, and despised all mankind.
Soon after a valet de chambre arrived post-haste, and brought a second letter to the Marquis de la Jeannotière. It was an order from his father, who desired the young marquis to repair immediately to Paris. Jeannot got into his chaise, giving his hand to Colin with a smile, which denoted the superiority of a patron. Colin felt his littleness, and wept. Jeannot departed in all the pomp of his glory.
Such readers as take a pleasure in being instructed should be informed that Monsieur Jeannot, the father, had, with great rapidity, acquired an immense fortune by business. You will ask how such great fortunes are made. My answer is, by luck. Monsieur Jeannot had a good person, so had his wife; and she had still some freshness remaining. They went to Paris on account of a law- suit, which ruined them; when fortune, which raises and depresses men at her pleasure, presented them to the wife of an undertaker belonging to one of the hospitals for the army. This undertaker, a man of great talents, might make it his boast that he had buried more soldiers in a year than cannons destroy in ten. Jeannot pleased the wife; the wife of Jeannot interested the undertaker. Jeannot was employed in the undertaker’s business; this introduced him to other business. When our boat runs with wind and stream we have nothing to do but let it sail on. We then make an immense fortune with ease. The poor creatures who from the shore see you pursue your voyage with full sail, stare with astonishment; they cannot conceive to what you owe your success; they envy you instinctively, and write pamphlets against you which you never read.
That is just what happened to Jeannot, the father, who soon became Monsieur de la Jeannotière; and who, having purchased a marquisate in six months’ time, took the young marquis, his son, from school in order to introduce him to the polite world at Paris.
Colin, whose heart was replete with tenderness, wrote a letter of compliments to his old companion, and congratulated him on his good fortune. The little marquis did not reply. Colin was so much affected at this neglect that he was taken ill.
The father and mother immediately consigned the young marquis to the care of a governor. This governor, who was a man of fashion, and who knew nothing, was not able to teach his pupil anything.
The marquis would have had his son learn Latin. This his lady opposed. They then referred the matter to the judgment of an author, who had at that time acquired great reputation by his entertaining writings. This author was invited to dinner. The master of the house immediately addressed him thus:
“Sir, as you understand Latin, and are a man acquainted with the court—”
“I understand Latin! I don’t know one word of it,” answered the wit, “and I think myself the better for being unacquainted with it. It is very evident that a man speaks his own language in greater perfection when he does not divide his application between it and foreign languages. Only consider our ladies; they have a much more agreeable turn of wit than the men; their letters are written with a hundred times the grace of ours. This superiority they owe to nothing else but their not understanding Latin.”
“Well, was I not in the right?” said the lady. “I would have my son prove a notable man, I would have him succeed in the world; and you see that if he were to understand Latin he would be ruined. Pray, are plays and operas performed in Latin ? Do lawyers plead in Latin ? Do men court a mistress in Latin ?”
The marquis, dazzled by these reasons, gave up the point, and it was resolved that the young marquis should not misspend his time in endeavoring to be- come acquainted with Cicero, Horace, and Virgil.
“Then,” said the father, “what shall he learn? For he must know something. Might not one teach him a little geography?”
“Of what use will that be?” answered the governor. When the marquis goes to his estate won’t the postilion know the roads? They certainly will not carry him out of his way. There is no occasion for a quadrant to travel there; and one can go very com- modiously from Paris to Auvergne without knowing what latitude one is in.”
“You are in the right,” replied the father; “but 1 have heard of a science called astronomy, if I am not mistaken.”
“Bless me!” said the governor, “do people regulate their conduct by the influence of the stars in this world? And must the young gentleman perplex himself with the calculation of an eclipse when he finds it ready calculated to his hand in an almanac which, at the same time, shows him the movable feasts, the age of the moon, and also that of all the princesses in Europe?”
The lady agreed perfectly with the governor; the little marquis was transported with joy; the father remained undetermined. “What then is my son to learn?” said he.
“To become amiable,” answered the friend who was consulted, “and if he knows how to please he will know all that need be known. This art he will learn in the company of his mother without either he or she being at any trouble.”
The lady upon hearing this embraced the ignorant flatterer and said: “It is easy to see, sir, that you are the wisest man in the world. My son will be entirely indebted to you for his education. I think, however, it would not be amiss if he were to know something of history.”
“Alas! madam, what is that good for?” answered he; “there certainly is no useful or entertaining history but the history of the day; all ancient histories, as one of our wits has observed, are only fables that men have agreed to admit as true. With regard to modern history it is a mere chaos, a confusion of which it is impossible to make anything. Of what consequence is it to the young marquis, your son, to know that Charlemagne instituted the twelve peers of France and that his successor stammered?”
“Admirably said,” cried the governor; “the genius of young persons is smothered under a heap of useless knowledge; but of all sciences, the most absurd, and that which, in my opinion, is most calculated to stifle genius of every kind, is geometry. The objects about which this ridiculous science is conversant are surfaces, lines, and points that have no existence in nature. By the force of imagination the geometrician makes a hundred thousand curved lines pass between a circle and a right line that touches it, when, in reality, there is not room for a straw to pass there. Geometry, if we consider it in its true light, is a mere jest, and nothing more.”
The marquis and his lady did not well understand the governor’s meaning, yet they were entirely of his opinion.
“A man of quality, like the young marquis,” continued he, “should not rack his brains with useless sciences. If he should ever have occasion for a plan of the lands of his estate he may have them correctly surveyed without studying geometry. If he has a mind to trace the antiquity of his noble family, which leads the inquirer back to the most remote ages, he will send for a Benedictine. It will be the same thing with regard to all other wants. A young man of quality endowed with a happy genius is neither a painter, a musician, an architect, nor a graver; but he makes all these arts flourish by generously encouraging them. It is, doubtless, better to patronize than to practise them. It is enough for the young marquis to have a taste; it is the business of artists to exert themselves for him; and it is in this sense that it is said very justly of people of quality (I mean those who are very rich), that they know all things without having learned anything; for they, in fact, come at last to know how to judge concerning what- ever they order or pay for.”
The ignorant man of fashion then spoke to this purpose:
“You have very justly observed, madam, that the grand end which a man should have in view is to succeed in the world. Can it possibly be said that this success is to be obtained by cultivating the sciences? Did anybody ever so much as think of talking of geometry in good company? Does any one ever inquire of a man of the world what star rises with the sun ? Who inquires at supper whether the long-haired Clodion passed the Rhine?”
“No, doubtless,” cried the marchioness, whom her charms had in some measure initiated into the customs of the polite world; “and my son should not extinguish his genius by the study of all this stuff. But what is he, after all, to learn ? for it is proper that a young person of quality should know how to shine upon an occasion, as my husband observes. I remember to have heard an abbé say that the most delightful of all sciences is something that begins with a B.”
“With a B, madam? Is it not botany you mean?”
“No, it was not botany he spoke of; the name of the science he mentioned began with a B, and ended with on.”
“Oh, I comprehend you, madam,” said the man of fashion; “it is Blason you mean. It is, indeed, a profound science; but it is no longer in fashion since the people of quality have ceased to cause their arms to be painted upon the doors of their coaches. It was once the most useful thing in the world, in a well regulated state. Besides, this study would be endless. Nowadays there is hardly a barber that has not his coat of arms; and you know that whatever becomes common is but little esteemed.”
In fine, after they had examined the excellencies and defects of all the sciences it was determined that the young marquis should learn to dance.
Nature, which does all, had given him a talent that quickly displayed itself surprisingly; it was that of singing ballads agreeably. The graces of youth, joined to this superior gift, caused him to be looked upon as a young man of the brightest hopes. He was admired by the women; and having his head full of songs he composed some for his mistress. He stole from the song, “Bacchus and Love,” in one ballad; from that of “Night and Day,” in another; from that of “Charms and Alarms,” in a third. But as there were always in his verses some superfluous feet, or not enough, he had them corrected for twenty louis d’or a song; and in the annals of literature he was put upon a level with the La Fares, Chaulieus, Hamiltons, Sarrazins, and Voitures.
The marchioness then looked upon herself as the mother of a wit, and gave a supper to the wits of Paris. The young man’s brain was soon turned; he acquired the art of speaking without knowing his own meaning, and he became perfect in the habit of being good for nothing. When his father found that he was so eloquent he very much regretted that his son had not learned Latin; for he would have bought him a lucrative place among the gentry of the long robe. The mother, who had more elevated sentiments, undertook to procure a regiment for her son; and, in the meantime, courtship was his occupation. Love is sometimes more expensive than a regiment. He was very improvident, whilst his parents exhausted their finances still more by expensive living.
A young widow of fashion, their neighbor, who had but a moderate fortune, had an inclination to secure the great wealth of Monsieur and Madame de la Jeannotière and appropriating it to herself by a marriage with the young marquis. She allured him to visit her; she admitted his addresses; she showed that she was not indifferent to him; she led him on by degrees; she enchanted and captivated him with- out much difficulty. Sometimes she lavished praises upon him, sometimes she gave him advice. She be- came the most intimate friend of both the father and mother.
An elderly lady, who was their neighbor, proposed the match. The parents, dazzled by the glory of such an alliance, accepted the proposal with joy. They gave their only son to their intimate friend.
The young marquis was now on the point of marrying a woman whom he adored, and by whom he was beloved; the friends of the family congratulated them; the marriage articles were just going to be drawn up, whilst wedding clothes were being made for the young couple, and their epithalamium composed.
The young marquis was one day upon his knees before his charming mistress whom love, esteem, and friendship were going to make all his own. In a tender and spirited conversation they enjoyed a fore-taste of their coming happiness; they concerted measures to lead a happy life. When, all on a sudden, a valet de chambre belonging to the old marchioness, arrived in a great fright.
“Here is sad news,” said he. “Officers have re- moved the effects of my master and mistress; the creditors have seized upon all by virtue of an execution; and I am obliged to make the best shift I can to have my wages paid.”
“Let’s see,” said the marquis, “what is this? What can this adventure mean?”
“Go,” said the widow, “go quickly, and punish those villains.”
He runs, he arrives at the house; his father is already in prison; all the servants have fled in different ways, each carrying off whatever he could lay his hands upon. His mother is alone, without assistance, without comfort, drowned in tears. She has nothing left but the remembrance of her for- tune, of her beauty, her faults, and her extravagant living.
After the son had wept a long time with his mother he at length said to her:
“Let us not give ourselves up to despair. This young widow loves me to excess; she is more generous than rich, I can answer for her; I will go and bring her to you.”
He returns to his mistress and finds her in company with a very amiable young officer.
“What, is it you, M. de la Jeannotière,” said she; “what brings you here? Is it proper to forsake your unhappy mother in such a crisis? Go to that poor, unfortunate woman and tell her that I still wish her well. I have occasion for a chambermaid and will give her the preference.”
“My lad,” said the officer, “you are well shaped. Enlist in my company; you may depend on good usage.”
The marquis, thunderstruck, and with a heart enraged, went in quest of his old governor, made him acquainted with his misfortune and asked his advice. The governor proposed that he should become a tutor, like himself.
“Alas!” said the marquis, “I know nothing; you have taught me nothing, and you are the first cause of my misfortunes.” He sobbed when he spoke thus.
“Write romances,” said a wit who was present; “it is an admirable resource at Paris.”
The young man in greater despair than ever ran to his mother’s confessor. This confessor was a Theatin of great reputation who directed the con- sciences only of women of the first rank. As soon as he saw Jeannot he ran up to him:
“My God, Mr. Marquis,” said he, “where is your coach? How is the good lady your mother?”
The poor unfortunate young man gave him an account of what had befallen his family. In proportion as he explained himself the Theatin assumed an air more grave, more indifferent, and more defiant.
“My son,” said he, “it is the will of God that you should be reduced to this condition; riches serve only to corrupt the heart. God, in his great mercy, has then reduced your mother to beggary?”
“Yes, sir,” answered the marquis.
“So much the better,” said the confessor, “her election is the more certain.”
“But father,” said the marquis, “is there in the meantime no hopes of some assistance in this world ?”
“Farewell, my son,” said the confessor; “a court lady is waiting for me.”
The marquis was almost ready to faint. He met with much the same treatment from all; and acquired more knowledge of the world in half a day than he had previously learned in all the rest of his life.
Being quite overwhelmed with despair, he saw an old-fashioned chaise advance which resembled an open wagon with leather curtains; it was followed by four enormous carts which were loaded. In the chaise there was a young man dressed in the rustic manner, whose fresh countenance was replete with sweetness and gayety. His wife, a little woman of a brown complexion and an agreeable figure, though somewhat stout, sat close by him. As the carriage did not move on like the chaise of a petit-maitre, the traveller had sufficient time to contemplate the marquis, who was motionless and immersed in sorrow.
“Good God!” cried he, “I think that is Jeannot.” Upon hearing this name the marquis lifts up his eyes, the carriage stops, and Colin cries out, ” ‘Tis Jeannot, ’tis Jeannot himself.”
The little fat bumpkin gave but one spring from the chaise and ran to embrace his old companion. Jeannot recollected his friend Colin, while his eyes were blinded with tears of shame.
“You have abandoned me,” said Colin; “but though you are a great man I will love you forever.”
Jeannot, confused and affected, related to him, with emotion, a great part of his history.
“Come to the inn where I lodge and tell me the rest of it,” said Colin; “embrace my wife here and let us go and dine together.” They then went on foot, followed by their baggage.
“What is all this train,” said Jeannot; “is it yours ?”
“Yes,” answered Colin, “it all belongs to me and to my wife. We have just come in from the country. I am now at the head of a large manufactory of tin and copper. I have married the daughter of a mer- chant well provided with all things necessary for the great as well as the little. We work a great deal; God blesses us; we have not changed our condition; we are happy; we will assist our friend Jeannot. Be no longer a marquis ; all the grandeur in the world is not to be compared to a good friend. You shall re- turn with me to the country. I will teach you the trade; it is not very difficult; I will make you my partner, and we will live merrily in the remote cor- ner where we were born.”
Jeannot, quite transported, felt emotions of grief and joy, tenderness and shame; and he said within himself: “My fashionable friends have betrayed me, and Colin, whom I despised, is the only one who comes to relieve me.” What instruction does not this narrative afford!
Colin’s goodness of heart caused the seeds of a virtuous disposition, which the world had not quite stifled in Jeannot, to revive. He was sensible that he could not forsake his father and mother.
“We will take care of your mother,” said Colin ;”and as to the good man your father, who is now in jail, his creditors seeing he has nothing will com- promise matters for a trifle. I know something of business and will take the whole affair upon myself.”
Colin found means to procure the father’s release. Jeannot returned to the country with his relatives, who resumed their former way of life. He married a sister of Colin, and she being of the same temper with her brother, made him completely happy.
Jeannot the father, Jeannotte the mother, and Jeannot the son, were thus convinced that happiness is not the result of vanity.