Zadig, by Voltaire

Chapter V.

The Force of Generosity.

The Time now drew near for the Celebration of a grand Festival, which was kept but once in five Years. ’Twas a constant Custom in Babylon at the Expiration of the Term above-mention’d, to distinguish that Citizen from all the Rest, in the most solemn Manner, who had done the most generous Action; and the Grandees and Magi always sat as Judges. The Satrap inform’d them of every praise-worthy Deed that occurr’d within his District. All were put to the Vote, and the King himself pronounc’d the Definitive Sentence. People of all Ranks and Degrees came from the remotest Part of the Kingdom to be present at this Solemnity. The Victor, whoever he was, receiv’d from the King’s own Hand a golden Cup, enrich’d with precious Stones, and upon the Delivery, the King made use of the following Salutation. Receive this Reward of your Generosity, and may the Gods grant me Thousands of such valuable Subjects!

Upon this memorable Day, the King appear’d in all the Pomp imaginable on his Throne of State, surrounded by his Grandees, the Magi, and the Deputies, from all the surrounding Nations, of every Province that attended these public Sports, where Honour was to be acquir’d, not by the Velocity of the best Race–Horse, or by bodily Strength, but by intrinsic Merit. The principal Satrap proclaim’d, with an audible Voice, such Actions as would entitle the Victor to the inestimable Prize; but never mention’d one Word of Zadig’s Greatness of Soul, in returning his invidious Neighbour all his Estate, notwithstanding he would have taken away his Life: That was but a Trifle, and not worth speaking of.

The first that was set up for the Prize, was a Judge, that had occasion’d a Citizen to lose a very considerable Cause, through some Mistake, for which he was no ways responsible, and made him Restitution out of his private Purse.

The next Candidate was a Youth, that tho’ violently in Love with one that he intended shortly to make his Spouse, yet resign’d her to his Friend, who was just expiring at her Feet; and moreover, gave her a Portion at the same Time.

After this appear’d a Soldier, who, in the Hyrcanian War, had done a much more glorious Action than the Lover. A Gang of Hyrcanians having taken his Mistress from him, he fought them bravely, and rescued her out of their Hands: Soon after, he was inform’d, that another Band of the same Party had hurried away his Mother to a Place not far distant; he left his Mistress, all drown’d in Tears, and ran to his Mother’s Assistance: After that Skirmish was over, he returned to his Sweet-heart, and found her just expiring. He would fain have plung’d a Dagger into his Heart that Moment; but his Mother remonstrated to him, that, should he die, she should be entirely helpless, and upon that Account only he had Courage to live a little longer.

The Judges seem’d very much inclin’d to give their Votes for the Soldier; but the King prevented them, by saying, that the Soldier’s Action was praise-worthy enough, and so were those of the rest, but none of them give me any Surprize. What Zadig did Yesterday perfectly struck me with Astonishment. I’ll mention another Instance. I had some few Days ago, as a Testimony of my Resentment, banish’d my Prime–Minister, and Favourite Coreb from the Court. I complain’d of his Conduct in the warmest Terms; and all my Sycophants about me, told me that I was too merciful; and loaded him with the sharpest Invectives. I ask’d Zadig what his Opinion was of Coreb; and he dar’d to give him the best of Characters. I must confess, I have read in our publick Records, indeed, of Instances where Restitution have been generally made, for Injuries committed by Mistake; where a Mistress has been resign’d; and where a Mother has been preferr’d to a Mistress; but I never read of a Courtier, that would speak to the Advantage of a Minister in Disgrace, and against whom the Sovereign was highly incens’d. I’ll give 20,000 Pieces of Gold to every Candidate that has been this Day proclaim’d, but I’ll give the Cup to no one but Zadig.

Sire, said Zadig, ’tis your Majesty alone, that deserves the Cup; ’tis you alone who have done an Action of Generosity, never heard of before; since you, who are King of Kings, wasn’t exasperated against your Slave, when he contradicted you in the Heat of your Passion. Every Body gaz’d with Eyes of Admiration on the King and Zadig. The Judge, who had generously made Restitution for his Error; the Lover, who had married his Mistress to his Friend; the Soldier, who had preferr’d the Welfare of his Mother to that of his Mistress; received the promis’d Donation from the Monarch, and saw their Names register’d in the Book of Fame: But Zadig had the Cup. The King got the universal Character of a good Prince, which he did not long preserve. This joyful Day was solemniz’d with Festivals beyond the Time by Law establish’d. Tragedies were acted there that drew Tears from the Spectators; and Comedies that made them laugh; Entertainments, that the Babylonians were perfect Strangers to: The Commemoration of it is still preserv’d in Asia. Now, said Zadig, I am happy at last; but he was grosly mistaken.

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