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The Squirrel and the Crow

by  michwo

Posted: Saturday, October 8, 2016
Word Count: 1288
Summary: The idea for this story sort of originated with a La Fontaine fable, "The squirrel and the fox" referring to disgraced 17th century finance minister, Fouquet, and his successor in that post, Colbert. But the playwright Corneille was a friend of Fouquet's and Corneille is one word in French for a crow.

                                                                 The Squirrel and the Crow

I have often been tempted of late to put out my eyes.  The world that I look upon now is no longer the fine and luxurious world of Vaux-le-Vicomte but the view afforded to me by the narrow window of my prison cell in Pignerol, the snow-covered peaks of the Alps.  What was my crime to deserve this?
Sometimes in dreams it is as though I am standing at the gates of Vaux looking through the ironwork at the ornamental gardens of Le Nôtre and their fountains and beyond them the imposing façade of the house itself with the central dome flanked by steeply sloping roofs and stone steps leading to the chateau’s main entrance.  But the gates are locked and barred to me and I am a stranger there.  The bed I once slept in so comfortably, oblivious then to the scarlet of the bedclothes and pillows and curtains drawn back at its foot and sides, is now the flagrant, blatant colour of sin and shame and hell.  Hercules leaning on his club on the far lawn runs amok, the poisoned shirt of Nessus on his back.
And yet I live.  Three of the judges at my trial who vociferously clamoured for my death for the crimes of embezzlement and high treason are now dead themselves.  Last June even God Himself saw fit to spare my life.   The tower in which I was incarcerated then was struck by lightning and set on fire.  Fortunately I had sought shelter from the worst of the storm in an ample recess in my cell that kept me well away from falling beams and debris.  My gaoler, Saint-Mars, then placed me in the temporary custody of his steward, Damorezan, while an architect and mason were summoned from Paris to reconstruct the shattered tower.  The re-building took over a year.
It was during my obligatory sojourn with Damorezan and his family that something small but wonderful happened.  The house I was in was near a wood.  It was autumn.  Local children came there to pick mushrooms.  I sometimes watched them as they did so.  They spoke to each other now and again in the Italian of Piedmont.  On this particular day I heard distinctly one of them exclaim:  Guardate lo scoiattolo!  Guardate il corvo!  Look at the squirrel!  Look at the crow!  The squirrel was scurrying at speed up a vertical tree trunk no doubt preparing its bed for the winter and I instinctively remembered my Fouquet family motto:  Quo non ascendam.  To what will I not ascend.  The crow was nervously shuffling from left to right, opening and closing its wings, on the same topmost branch as the squirrel.  ‘Corvo’ in Italian.  ‘Corneille’ in French.  And suddenly I was transported to a time before my trial when life was good.
The high point of my happiness at Vaux was not the ill-starred feast of 1661 but two years before that when Pierre Corneille read to us and I was privileged to witness the play that I had more or less commissioned which effectively marked his return to the stage after a seven-year absence, “Oedipus”.  Not the Oedipus of Seneca and Sophocles admittedly.  The death of Jocasta and Oedipus blinding himself happened offstage and the love between Theseus and Dircé was what really counted.  Love was always important for Pierre.  He was fifty-three then and still had an eye for the ladies, for Mademoiselle du Parc in particular.  I think Madame de Sévigné, a widow who had lost her philandering husband eight years previously and was only in her early thirties even then, in 1659, who idolized Pierre from a distance, was jealous.  What did he choose to read to us when he came to Vaux that year?  He had spent his theatrical exile in translating the Imitatio Christi into French verse, encouraged in this endeavour by our regent, Anne of Austria.  Another reason for it, which may well have been made up to amuse an audience, was that one of his lesser known plays had offended Chancellor Séguier, the chief judge at my subsequent trial strangely enough, who had asked him to go to confession at the Nazareth convent in Paris of which Séguier was the founder.  His penance had been not three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, but to translate all four books of “The Imitation of Christ”.
For the first time in 1659 volume I of this labour of love had been printed in Rouen by L. Maurry for Robert Ballard, official publisher of the King’s Music and Pierre had brought a copy with him to our reading room in Vaux.  The “Imitation” starts in Book I, chapter 1 with a quote from John’s Gospel – John 8:12 – which Corneille had paraphrased as:

Happy the road to which my voice invites.
Darkness my disciples overtakes not
And, in my footsteps, each day will bring what
Gives to human hearts a life-giving light…
It continues – these words now for me are indelible – with a memorable section on vanity:
Vanity it is to pile wealth on wealth,
Vanity to seek honours for oneself,
Vanity to choose a sovereign good
In sensual pleasures and carnal love,
Vanity to want to lengthen our days
Not taking trouble to improve our ways,
To like a long life neglecting a right,
To live for today without future thought,
Setting more store by a brief bauble bright
Than the eternity we were once taught…
Who made you?  God made me.  Why did God make you?  God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.  Why, even Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, renowned in Paris for his pulpit oratory, for all his youthful eloquence, could preach no better sermon in the chapel of the Louvre itself.
And, talking of the Louvre, I nearly went there in November of that year, but only got as far as the Petit Bourbon Theatre behind it where, in the company of all the stars then of our literary firmament including Gilles Ménage, that long-time friend of the blue stockings Catherine de Vivonne and Madame de Lafayette, we attended the first performance of “The Affected Ladies”.  How we laughed at Monsieur Molière’s delightful farce!  And even the witty habitués of the blue room at the Hôtel de Rambouillet had to admit that the play found its mark…
And now I am back once again in my cell with my view of the Alps.  Louvois, the minister of war and home affairs, now has the ear of the king in Versailles, built to belittle the conspicuous consumption I was foolish enough to exhibit with Vaux, and has seen fit to refuse me the works of Saints Augustine and Jerome in Latin, but not those of that subtle theologian Saint Bonaventure.  In addition my request for a dictionary of rhymes in French has been granted as has my request for writing paper.  Perhaps I will do for Bonaventure what my friend Pierre Corneille did for Thomas à Kempis and translate his Itinerarium mentis ad Deum or “Journey of the Mind to God” into solid French verse.  I shall at least expend my very best efforts on this project.  Thank God I no longer like Oedipus entertain the wish to pluck out my eyes.  The character in Corneille’s play who, at the end of Act Five, reports this tragic reaction of his master to a moral dilemma is called Dymas.  Replace the Greek i with an ordinary one and what do you get?  You get Dimas.  Dimas was the good thief on the cross who accepted that his punishment was just.