Zadig, by Voltaire

Chapter XIV.

The Fisherman.

When Zadig had travelled some few Leagues from Arbogad’s Castle, he found himself arriv’d at the Banks of a little River; incessantly deploring, as he went along, his unhappy Fate, and looking upon himself as the very Picture of ill Luck. He perceiv’d at a little Distance a Fisherman, reclin’d on a verdant Bank by the River-side, trembling, scarce able to hold his Net in his Hand, (which he seem’d but little to regard) and with uplift Eyes, imploring Heaven’s Assistance. I am, doubtless, said the poor Fisherman, the most unhappy Wretch that ever liv’d! No Merchant in all Babylon, it is very well known, was ever so noted for selling Cream–Cheeses as myself; and yet I am ruin’d to all Intents and Purposes. No Man of my Profession ever had a handsomer, more compleat Housewife, than my Dame was; but I have been treacherously depriv’d of her. I had still left a poor, pitiful Cottage, but that I saw plunder’d and destroy’d. I am cubb’d up here in a Cell; I have nothing to depend upon but my Fishery, and not one single Fish have I caught. Thou unfortunate Net! I’ll never throw thee into the Water more: Much sooner will I throw myself in. No sooner were the Words out of his Mouth, but he started up, and ran to the River-side, like one that was resolutely bent to plunge in, and get rid of a miserable Life at once. Is it possible, said Zadig? Is there then the Man in Being more wretched than myself? His Benevolence, and good Will to save the poor Man’s Life, was as quick as the Reflection he had just made! He ran to his Assistance; he laid hold of him; and ask’d him, with an Air of Pity and Concern, the Cause of his rash Intention. ’Tis an old saying, that a Person is less unhappy when he sees himself not singular in Misfortune. But if we will credit Zoroaster, this is not from a Principle of Malignity, but the Effect of a fatal Necessity. He was attracted, as it were, to any Person in Distress, as being One in the same unhappy Circumstances. The Transport of a happy Man, would be a Kind of Insult; but two Persons in bad Circumstances, are like two weak Shrubs, which, by propping up each other, are fenc’d against a Storm. Why are you thus cast down, said Zadig to the Fisherman? Never sink Man, under the Weight of your Burden. I can’t help it, said the poor Fisherman; I have not the least Prospect of Redress. I was once, Sir, the tip-top Man of the whole Village of Derlbach, near Babylon, where I liv’d, and with the Help of my Wife, made the best Cream–Cheeses that were ever eaten in the Persian Empire. Her Majesty, the Queen Astarte, and the famous Prime–Minister Zadig were very fond of them. I serv’d the Court with about six Hundred of them, I went the other Day in Hopes of being paid; but before I had well got into the Suburbs of Babylon, I was inform’d, that not only the Queen, but Zadig too had privately left the Court: Whereupon I ran directly to Zadig’s House, tho’ I never sat Eye on the Man in all my Life. There I found the Court–Marshals of the grand Desterham, plundering, by Virtue of his Majesty’s Mandate, all his Effects, in the most loyal Manner. From thence I made the best of my Way to the Queen’s Kitchin; where, applying my self to the Steward of her Household, and his inferior Officers; one of them told me she was dead; another, that she was confin’d in Prison; a third, indeed, said that she had made her Escape by Flight; all in general, however, assur’d me for my Comfort, that my Cheeses would never be paid for. From thence I went, with my Wife in my Hand, to Lord Orcan’s; who was another of my Court–Customers; of whom we begg’d for Shelter and Protection: The Favour, I confess, was readily granted to my Wife; but as for my own Part, I was absolutely rejected. She was fairer, Sir, than the fairest Cheese I ever sold; from whence I date all my Misfortunes; and the red that adorn’d her blushing Cheeks was ten Times more lively than any Tyrian Scarlet. And between you and I, Sir, that was the main Cause of my Wife’s Reception, and my Disgrace. Whereupon I wrote a doleful Letter to my Wife, in all the Agonies of one in the deepest Despair: ’Tis very well, said she, to the Messenger; I have some little Knowledge of the Man; I have heard say no one sells better Cream–Cheeses than he does; desire him, next Time he comes, to bring a small Parcel with him, and let him know, I’ll take care he shall be punctually paid.

In the Height of my Misfortunes, I determin’d to seek Redress in a Court of Equity: I had but six Ounces of Gold left: Two whereof went for a Fee to my Counsellor; two to my Lawyer, who took my Cause in Hand, and the other two to the Judge’s Clerk. Notwithstanding what I had done, my Cause was not so much as commenc’d; and I had already disburs’d more Money than all my Cheeses and my Wife with them were worth. I return’d therefore to my Native Habitation, with a full Resolution to sell it for the Ransom of my Wife.

My little Cot, with the Appurtenances, were worth about threescore Ounces of Gold: But as the Purchasers found I was necessitous, and drove to my last Shifts; the first whom I apply’d to, offer’d me thirty Ounces; the second, twenty; and the third, but ten: Just as I had come to Terms of Accommodation with one of them, the Prince of Hyrcania came to Babylon, and swept all before him. My little Cottage, with all its Furniture, was first plunder’d of all that was valuable, and at last reduc’d to Ashes.

Having thus lost my Money, my Wife, and my House, I withdrew to this Desart, where you see me. I have since endeavour’d to get my Bread by Fishing; but the Fish, as well as all Mankind, desert me. I scarce catch one in a Day; I am half starv’d; and had it not been for your unexpected Benevolence and Generosity, I had been at the Bottom of the River before this.

This long Detail of Particulars, however, was not deliver’d without several Interruptions; for, said Zadig, with Abundance of Warmth and Confusion, Have you never heard, Sir, of what is become of the Queen Astarte? No Sir, not I, said the disconsolate Fisherman; but this I know, to my Sorrow, that neither the Queen, nor Zadig, ever paid me the least Consideration in the World for my Cream Cheeses; that my dear Spouse is taken from me; and that I am drove to the very Brink of Despair. I am verily persuaded, said Zadig, that you will not lose all your Money. I have heard much talk of that same Zadig; they say he is very honest, and that if ever he returns to Babylon, as ’tis to be hop’d he will, he’ll discharge his Debts with Interest, like a Man of Honour. But, as for your Wife, who appears to me, to be no better than a Wag-tail, never take the Trouble, if you’ll take my Advice, to hunt after her any more. Be rul’d, and make the best of your Way to Babylon. I shall be there before you, as I shall ride, and you will be on Foot. Make your Applications to the illustrious Cador; tell him you met his Friend upon the Road; and stay there still I come. Observe my Orders, and ’tis very probable it may turn out to your Advantage.

O puissant Orosmades, continu’d he, you have made me, ’tis true, an Instrument of Comfort to this poor Man; but what Friend will you raise for me, to alleviate my Sorrows? Having utter’d this short Expostulation, he gave the distrest Fisherman one full Moiety of all the Money he brought with him out of Arabia. The Fisherman, thunder-struck, and transported with Joy at so unexpected a Benefaction, kiss’d the Feet of Cador’s Friend, and cried out, sure you are a Messenger of Heaven, sent down to be my Saviour!

In the mean Time, Zadig every now and then ask’d him Questions, and wept as he ask’d them. What! Sir, said the Fisherman, can you, who are so bountiful a Benefactor, be in Distress yourself? Alas! said he, Friend, I am a hundred Times more unhappy than thou art. But pray, Sir, said the good Man, how can it possibly be, that he, who is so lavish of his Favours, should be overwhelm’d with greater Misfortunes than the Man he so generously relieves? Your greatest Uneasiness, said he, arose from the Narrowness of your Circumstances; but mine proceeds from an internal, and much deeper Cause. Pray, Sir, said the Fisherman, has Orcan robb’d you of your Wife? This Interrogatory put Zadig in a Moment upon a Retrospection of all his past Adventures. He recollected the whole Series of his Misfortunes; commencing from that of the Eunuch and the Huntsman, to his Arrival at the Free-booter’s Castle. Alas! said he, to the Fisherman, Orcan, ’tis true, deserves severely to be punish’d: But for the Generality, we find, such worthless Barbarians are the Favourites of Fortune. Be that, however, as it will, go as I bade you, to my Friend Cador, and wait there till I come. They took their Leave; the Fisherman blessing his propitious Stars, and Zadig cursing, every Step he went, the Hour he was born.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25