Persian Letters/Letter 130

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Persian Letters by Montesquieu, translated by John Davidson
Letter 130

Letter 130[edit]

Rica to * * *

In this letter I shall tell you of a certain tribe called the Quidnuncs, who assemble in a splendid garden1, where they are always indolently busy. They are utterly useless to the state, and half a century of their talk has no more effect than would be produced by a silence of the same length; yet they imagine themselves of consequence, because they converse about magnificent projects and discuss great interests.

The basis of their conversation is a frivolous and ridiculous curiosity: there is no cabinet, however mysterious, whose secrets they do not pretend to fathom; they will not admit that they are ignorant of anything; they know how many wives our august Sultan has, and how many children he begets every year; and, although they go to no expense for spies, they are informed of the measures he is taking to humble the Emperor of Turkey and the Great Mogul.

Hardly have they exhausted the present when they plunge into the future, and stealing a march on Providence, anticipate it in all its dealings with men. They take a general in hand, and after having praised him for a thousand follies which he has not committed, they prepare for him a thousand others which also will never come to pass.

They make armies fly like cranes, and overturn walls like a house of cards; they have bridges on all the rivers, secret paths in all the mountains, immense arsenals in burning deserts; they lack nothing but common sense.

A man with whom I lodged received a letter for a Quidnunc, which, as it seemed to me remarkable, I kept. Here it is:

"Sir,--I am seldom mistaken in my surmises on the affairs of the day. On the 1st of January 1711, I foretold that the Emperor Joseph would die in the course of a year: it is true that, as he was then quite well, I conceived that I would be derided, if I explained my meaning too clearly; which caused me to employ terms somewhat enigmatic; but rational people understood me well enough. On the 17th of April, in the same year, he died of the small-pox.

"As soon as war was declared between the Emperor and the Turks, I went through every corner of the Tuileries in search of our gentlemen: and having gathered them together near the basin, I prophesied to them that Belgrade would be besieged and taken. I was fortunate enough to have my prophecy fulfilled. It is true that towards the middle of the siege, I wagered a hundred pistoles that it would be taken on the 18th of August;2 it was not taken till the day after: how tantalising to lose by so little!

"When I saw the Spanish fleet disembark in Sardinia, I judged that it would conquer it: I said so, and it proved true. Puffed up with this success, I added that the victorious fleet would land at Final, in order to conquer the Milanese. As this opinion encountered much opposition, I determined to support it nobly: I wagered fifty pistoles, and lost again; for that devil of an Alberoni, violating the treaty, sent his fleet to Sicily, and deceived at one and the same time two great politicians, the Duke of Savoy and myself.

"All this, sir, has disconcerted me so much, that I have resolved to continue prophesying, but never to bet. At the Tuileries formerly the practice of betting was quite unknown, and the late Count L.3 would hardly permit it; but, since a crowd of petits-maîtres have got in among us, we don't know where we are. Hardly have we opened our mouths to report a piece of news, when one of these youngsters offers to bet against it.

"The other day, as I was opening my manuscript, and fixing my spectacles on my nose, one of those swaggering blades, catching promptly at the pause between my first and second words, said to me, 'I bet you a hundred pistoles that it's not.' I behaved as if I had not heard this piece of extravagance; and, resuming in a louder voice, I said, 'the Marshal of * * *, having learned . . .' 'That is false,' cried he. 'Yours news is always extravagant; there is an absence of common sense in all that.'

"I beg you, sir, to favour me with the loan of thirty pistoles; for I confess that these bets have almost ruined me. Herewith I send you copies of two letters which I have written to the minister. I am," &c.

Letters of a Quidnunc to the Minister

"My Lord,--I am the most loyal subject the king ever had. It was I who constrained one of my friends to undertake a scheme I had formed of a book, proving that Louis the Great was the greatest of all the princes who have deserved that title. I have been engaged for a long time on another work, which will increase the glory of our nation still further, if your highness will grant me a privilege:4 my design is to prove that, since the beginning of the monarchy, the French have never been beaten, and that what historians have hitherto written of our defeats is the merest invention. I am obliged to correct them on many occasions; and I flatter myself that I shine above all as a critic. I am, my lord," &c.

"My Lord,--As we have lost the Count of L.,5 we beg you to have the goodness to allow us to elect a president. Confusion reigns at all our meetings; and state affairs are not so thoroughly discussed as before: our young folks live without the slightest regard for their elders, and without any discipline among themselves: it is exactly like the council of Rehoboam, where the young overbore the old. We point out to them in vain that we were in peaceable possession of the Tuileries twenty years before they were born: I believe they will at last drive us out; and that, being forced to quit these quarters, where we have so often called up the shades of the French heroes, we will have to hold our meetings in the king's garden or in some more out-of-the-way place. I am . . ."

Paris, the 7th of the second moon of Gemmadi, 1719.