M. de Voltaire.
I choose that a story should be founded on probability, and not always resemble a dream. I desire to find nothing in it trivial or extravagant; and I desire above all, that under the apperance of fable there many apear some latent truth, obvious to the discerning eye, though it escape the observation of the vulgar. — Voltaire.
An old man, who is forever pitying the present times, and extolling the past, was saying to me: “Friend, France is not so rich as it was under Henry the IVth.”
“Because the lands are not so well cultivated; because hands are wanting for the cultivation; and because the day-laborer having raised the price of his work, many land owners let their inheritances he fallow.”
“Whence comes this scarcity of hands?”
“From this, that whoever finds in himself anything of a spirit of industry, takes up the trades of embroiderer, chaser, watchmaker, silk weaver, attorney, or divine. It is also because the revocation of the Edict of Nantes has left a great void in the kingdom; because nuns and beggars of all kinds have greatly multiplied; because the people in general avoid as much as possible the hard labor of cultivation, for which we are born by God’s destination, and which we have rendered ignominious by our own opinions; so very wise are we!
“Another cause of our poverty lies in our new wants. We pay our neighbors four millions of livres on one article, and five or six upon another, such, for example, as a stinking powder for stuffing up our noses brought from America. Our coffee, tea, chocolate, cochineal, indigo, spices, cost us above sixty millions a year. All these were unknown to us in the reign of Henry the IVth, except the spices, of which, however, the consumption was not so great as it is now. We burn a hundred times more wax-lights than were burnt then; and get more than the half of the wax from foreign countries, because we neglect our own hives. We see a hundred times more diamonds in the ears, round the necks, and on the hands of our city ladies of Paris, and other great towns, than were worn by all the ladies of Henry the IVth’s court, the Queen included. Almost all the superfluities are necessarily paid for with ready specie.
“Observe especially that we pay to foreigners above fifteen millions of annuities on the Hôtel-de-Ville; and that Henry the IVth, on his accession, having found two millions of debt in all on this imaginary Hôtel, very wisely paid off a part, to ease the state of this burden.
“Consider that our civil wars were the occasion of the treasures of Mexico being poured into the kingdom, when Don Philip el Discreto took it into his head to buy France, and that since that time, our foreign wars have eased us of a good half of our money.
“These are partly the causes of our poverty; a poverty which we hide under varnished ceilings, or with the help of our dealers in fashion. We are poor with taste. There are some officers of revenue, there are contractors or jobbers, there are merchants, very rich; their children, their sons-in-law, are also very rich, but the nation in general is unfortunately not so.”
This old man’s discourse, well or ill grounded, made a deep impression on me; for the curate of my parish, who had always had a friendship for me, had taught me a little of geometry and of history: and I begin to reflect a little, which is very rare in my province. I do not know whether he was right or not in every thing, but being very poor, I could very easily believe that I had a great many companions of my misery.
I very readily make known to the universe that I have a landed estate which would yield me forty crowns a year, were it not for the tax laid on it.