The Original Fables of La Fontaine/The Horoscope

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(Book VIII.—No. 16)

Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.

A father had an only son whom he loved excessively. His devoted affection caused him to be so anxious as to the boy's welfare that he sought to learn from astrologers and fortune-tellers what fate was in store for the son and heir. One of these soothsayers told him that an especial danger lay with lions, from which the youth must be guarded until the age of twenty was reached, but not after. The father, to make sure of this precaution, upon the issue of which depended the life of his loved one, commanded that by no chance should the boy ever be permitted to go beyond the threshold of the house. Ample provision was made for the satisfaction of all the wishes proper to youth in the way of play with his companions, jumping, running, walking, and so forth. As the age approached when the spirits of youth yearn for the chase, he was taught to hold that sport in abhorrence.

But temperament cannot be changed by persuasion and counsel, nor by enlightenment. The young man, eager, ardent, and full of courage, no sooner felt the promptings of his years than he sighed for the forbidden pleasures. The greater the hindrance the stronger the desire. Knowing the reason of his galling restrictions, and viewing day by day in his palatial home the hunting scenes pictured in paint and tapestry on every wall, his excitement became unrestrained.

Once his eye fell upon a pictured lion. "Ah! Monster!" he exclaimed in a transport of indignation. "It is to you that the shade and fetters in which I live are due!" With that he struck the lion's form a heavy blow with his fist. Hidden under the tapestry a great nail offered its cruel point, and upon this his hand was impaled. The wound grew beyond the reach of medical skill, and in the end this life, so guarded and cherished, was lost by means of the very care taken to preserve it.

The same jealous precaution proved fatal to the poet Æschylus. It is said that some fortune-teller menaced him with the fall of a house as his doom, upon which he at once left the town and made his bed in the open fields, far from roofs and beneath the sky. But an eagle flew by overhead carrying in its talons a tortoise, and seeing the bald head of the poet beneath, which it mistook for a stone, the bird let fall its prey in order to break the shell of the tortoise. Thus were the days of poor Æschylus ended.

From these two examples it would seem that this art of fortune-telling, if there be any truth in it, causes one to fall into the very evil one would be in dread of when one consulted it. But I will demonstrate and maintain that the art is false. I do not believe that Nature would have tied her own hands, and ours also, to the extent of marking our fate in the heavens . For our fate depends upon certain combinations of time, place, and people; not upon the combinations of charlatans. A shepherd and a king are born under the same planet: one carries the sceptre; the other the crook. The planet Jupiter willed it so! But what is this planet Jupiter? A body without senses. Whence comes it then that its influence works so differently on these two men? Further, how could its influence, if it had any, penetrate through endless voids to our world?

Do not attach too much importance to the two instances I have related. This beloved son and the good man Æschylus are beside the mark.

Nevertheless, however blind and lying is the fortune-teller's art, it may yet hit home once in a thousand times. That is just a matter of chance.