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Author: Jean de La Fontaine - 1668

Translated into English
  by Frederick Colin Tilney - 1913

Original title (French):
Les Animaux malades de la peste

Country of origin: France

Translations

English - aligned


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The Animals Sick of the Plague

Jean de La Fontaine / Frederick Colin Tilney

One of those dread evils which spread terror far and wide, and
which Heaven, in its anger, ordains for the punishment of wickedness
upon earth—a plague in fact; and so dire a one as to make rich in one
day that grim ferryman who takes a coin from all who cross the river
Acheron to the land of the dead—such a plague was once waging war
against the animals. All were attacked, although all did not die. So
hopeless was the case that not one of them attempted to sustain their
sinking lives. Even the sight of food did not rouse them. Wolves and
foxes no longer turned eager and calculating eyes upon their gentle and
guileless prey. The turtle-doves went no more in cooing pairs, but were
content to avoid each other. Love and the joy that comes of love were
both at an end.

At length the lion called a council of all the beasts and addressed them
in these words: "My dear friends, it seems to me that it is for our sins
that Heaven has permitted this misfortune to fall upon us. Would it not
be well if the most blameworthy among us allowed himself to be offered
as a sacrifice to appease the celestial wrath? By so doing he might
secure our recovery. History tells us that this course is usually
pursued in such cases as ours. Let us look into our consciences without
self-deception or condoning. For my own part, I freely admit that in
order to satisfy my gluttony I have devoured an appalling number of
sheep; and yet what had they done to me to deserve such a fate? Nothing
that could be called an offence. Sometimes, indeed, I have gone so far
as to eat the shepherd too! On the whole, I think I had better render
myself for this act of sacrifice; that is, if we agree that it is a
thing necessary to the general good. And yet I think it would be only
fair that every one should declare his sins as well as I; for I could
wish that, in justice, it were the most culpable that should perish."

"Sire," said the fox, "you are really too yielding for a king, and your
scruples show too much delicacy of feeling. Eating sheep indeed! What of
that?—a foolish and rascally tribe! Is that a crime? No! a hundred
times no! On the contrary your noble jaws did but do them great honour.
As for the shepherd, it may be fairly said that all the harm he got he
merited, since he was one of those who fancy they have dominion over the
animal kingdom." Thus spake the fox and every other flatterer in the
assembly applauded him. Nor did any seek to inquire deeply into the
least pardonable offences of the tiger, the bear, and the other mighty
ones. All those of an aggressive nature, right down to the simple
watch-dog, were something like saints in their own opinions.

When the ass stood forth in his turn he struck a different note: nothing
of fangs and talons and blood. "I remember," he said, "that once in
passing a field belonging to a monastery I was urged by hunger, by
opportunity, by the tenderness of the grass, and perhaps by the evil one
egging me on, to enter and crop just a taste, about as much as the
length of my tongue. I know that I did wrong, having really no right
there."

At these words all the assembly turned upon him. The wolf took upon
himself to make a speech proving without doubt that the ass was an
accursed wretch, a mangy brute, who certainly ought to be told off for
sacrifice, since through his wickedness all their misfortunes had come
about. His peccadillo was judged to be a hanging matter. "What! eat the
grass belonging to another? How abominable a crime! Nothing but death
could expiate such an outrage!" And forthwith they proved as much to the
poor ass.

Accordingly as your power is great or small, the judgments of a court
will whiten or blacken your reputation.