Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Rica to ——
FIVE or six months ago I happened to be in a coffee-house, where I observed a gentleman well enough dressed who had the ear of the company; he spoke of the pleasure which life in Paris gave him, and lamented that the state of his affairs obliged him to pine away in the country. “I have,” said he, “fifteen thousand livres of income from the land, and I should think myself a happier man if I had a quarter of that property in money and in portable effects. In vain I put the screw on my tenants, and burden them with the expenses of lawsuits: it only makes them less solvable; I can never manage to see a hundred pistoles at a time. If my debts amounted to ten thousand francs, all my lands would be seized, and I would be brought to the workhouse.”  1
  I left without having paid much attention to all this talk; but, finding myself yesterday in that quarter, I entered the same house, and there saw a solemn man, with a long, pale face, who, in the midst of five or six chatterers, seemed sad and thoughtful, until he suddenly burst into the conversation, and said, in a loud voice, “Yes, gentlemen, I am ruined; I have nothing to live on, for I have at present at home two hundred thousand livres in bank notes, 1 and a hundred thousand crowns in money; my situation is frightful; I thought myself rich, and here I am a beggar; if I had only a small estate to which I could retire, I would be sure at least of a livelihood, but I have not as much land as would fill this hat.”  2
  I happened to turn my head to the other side, and saw another man grimacing like one possessed. “Who can be trusted now?” cried he. “There is a traitor, whom I thought so much my friend, that I lent him my money; and he has paid it back! What abominable treachery! Whatever he may do now, in my opinion he will always be disgraced.” 2  3
  Quite near him was a very ill-dressed man, who, raising his eyes to heaven, said, “God bless the schemes of our ministers! May stocks rise to two thousand livres, and may I see all the lackeys of Paris richer than their masters!” I had the curiosity to ask what he was. “He is a very poor man,” they said, “with a very poor profession: he is a genealogist, and he hopes that his art will become profitable if fortunes continue to be made, and that all the nouveaux RICHES will have need of him to improve their names, polish up their ancestors, and adorn their coaches; he imagines that he is about to make as many people of quality as he wants to, and he trembles with joy at the thought of an increased practice.”  4
  Lastly, I saw a pale, thin man come in, whom I recognized for a Quidnunc before he had got seated; he was not one of those who are sure of victory in face of every reverse, and always predict triumphs and trophies; he was, on the contrary, a weak-kneed brother, whose news was always doleful. “Things have taken a very bad turn for us in Spain,” he said; “we have no cavalry on the frontier, and it is feared that Prince Pio, who has a large force, will fleece the whole of Languedoc.” Opposite me there sat a philosopher in shabby clothes, who held the Quidnunc in contempt, and shrugged his shoulders in proportion as the other grew loud. I approached him, and he whispered to me, “You see how this fop has plagued us for an hour with his fears for Languedoc; and I, who detected yesterday evening a spot in the sun, which, if it increases, may throw nature generally into a state of stagnation—I have not said a word about it.”

  PARIS, the 17th of the moon of Rhamazan, 1719.
Note 1. The paper of the Bank having become worthless, the holders of bills had to pay their value in cash into the Treasury. [back]
Note 2. The depreciated paper retained in law its nominal value, so that a debtor could ruin his creditor by paying him in bank bills. [back]
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