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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850)

The Government of the Shrewmouse

From “Droll Stories”

THE GOOD Gargantua decided to give the post of superintending his granaries to the shrewmouse, with the most ample powers—of justice, committimus, missi dominici, clergy, men-at-arms, and all. The shrewmouse promised faithfully to accomplish his task and to do his duty as a loyal beast, on condition that he lived on a heap of grain, which Gargantua thought perfectly fair. The shrewmouse began to caper about in his domain as happy as a king, reconnoitering his immense realms of mustard, principalities of sugar, provinces of ham, duchies of raisins, counties of chitterlings, and baronies of all sorts, scrambling on to the heap of grain, and frisking his tail against everything. To be brief, everywhere was the shrewmouse received with honor by the pots, which kept a respectful silence, except two golden tankards, which knocked against each other like the bells of a church ringing a tocsin, at which he was much pleased, and thanked them, right and left, by a nod of the head, while promenading in the rays of the sun, which were illuminating his domain. Therein so splendidly did the brown color of his hair shine forth, that one would have thought him a northern king in his sable furs. After his twists, turns, jumps, and capers, he munched two grains of corn, sat upon the heap like a king in full court, and fancied himself the most illustrious of shrewmice. At this moment there came from their accustomed holes the gentlemen of the night-prowling court, who scamper with their little feet across the floors, these gentlemen being the rats, mice, and other gnawing, thieving, and crafty animals, of whom the citizens and housewives complain. When they saw the shrewmouse they took fright, and all remained shyly at the threshold of their dens. Among these common people, in spite of the danger, one old infidel of the trotting, nibbling race of mice advanced a little, and, putting his nose in the air, had the courage to stare my lord shrewmouse full in the face, although the latter was proudly squatted upon his rump, with his tail in the air. And he came to the conclusion that he was a devil, from whom nothing but scratches were to be got. From these facts Gargantua, in order that the high authority of his lieutenant might be universally known by all the shrewmice, cats, weasels, martins, field-mice, mice, rats, and other bad characters of the same kidney, had lightly dipped his muzzle, pointed as a larding-pin, in oil of musk, which all shrewmice have since inherited, because this one, in spite of the sage advice of Gargantua, rubbed himself against others of his breed. From this sprang the troubles in Muzaraignia, of which I will give you a good account in an historical book when I get an opportunity.

Then an old mouse, or rat—the rabbis of the Talmud have not yet agreed concerning the species—perceiving by this perfume that this shrewmouse was appointed to guard the grain of Gargantua, and had been sprinkled with virtues. invested with full powers, and armed at all points, was alarmed lest he should no longer be able to live, according to the custom of mice, upon the meats, morsels, crusts, crums, leavings, bits, atoms, and fragments of this Canaan of rats. In this dilemma the good mouse, artful as an old courtier who had lived under two regencies and three kings, resolved to try the mettle of the shrewmouse and devote himself to the salvation of the jaws of his race. This would have been a laudable thing in a man, but it was far more so in a mouse belonging to a tribe who live for themselves alone, barefacedly and shamelessly, and who, in order to gratify themselves, would defile a consecrated wafer, gnaw a priest’s stole without shame, and would drink out of a communion-cup, caring nothing for God. The mouse advanced with many a bow and scrape, and the shrewmouse let him advance rather near—for, to tell the truth, these animals are naturally short-sighted. Then this Curtius of nibblers made his little speech, not in the jargon of common mice, but in the polite language of shrewmice:

“My Lord, I have heard with very great interest of your glorious family, of which I am one of the most devoted slaves. I know the legend of your ancestors, who were thought much of by the ancient Egyptians, who held them in great veneration and worshiped them like other sacred birds. Nevertheless, your fur robe is so royally perfumed, and its color is so splendiferously tanned, that I am doubtful if I recognize you as belonging to this race, since I have never seen any of them so gorgeously attired. However, you have swallowed the grain after the antique fashion. Your proboscis is a proboscis of sapience; you have kicked like a learned shrewmouse; but if you are a true shrewmouse you should have in I know not which part of your ear, I know not what special auditorial channel, which I know not what wonderful door closes I know not how; and I know not with what movements, by your secret commands to give you, I know not why, license not to listen to I know not what things, which would be displeasing to you, on account of the special and peculiar perfection of your faculty of hearing everything—which would often pain you.”

“True,” said the shrewmouse, “the door has just fallen. I hear nothing!”

“Ah, I see,” said the old rogue.

And he made for the pile of corn, from which he commenced to take his store for the winter.

“Do you hear anything?” asked he.

“I hear the pit-a-pat of my heart.”

“Kouick!” cried all the mice; “we shall be able to hoodwink him.”

The shrewmouse, fancying that he had met with a faithful vassal, opened the trap of his musical orifice, and heard the noise of the grain going toward the hole. Then, without having recourse to forfeiture, the justice of commissaries sprang upon the old mouse and squeezed him to death. A glorious death, for this hero died in the thick of the grain, and was canonized as a martyr. The shrewmouse took him by the ears and laid him on the door of the granary, after the fashion of the Ottoman Porte, where my good Panurge was within an ace of being spitted. At the cries of the dying wretch the rats, mice, and others made for their holes in great haste. When the night had fallen they came to the cellar, convoked for the purpose of holding a council to consider public affairs; to which meeting, in virtue of the Papirian and other laws, their lawful wives were admitted. The rats wished to pass before the mice, and serious quarrels about precedence nearly spoiled everything; but a big rat gave his arm to a mouse, and the gaffer rats and gammer mice being paired off in the same way, all were soon seated on their rumps, tails in air, muzzles stretched, whiskers stiff, and their eyes brilliant as those of a falcon. Then commenced a deliberation, which finished up with insults and a confusion worthy of an ecumenical council of holy fathers. One said this, and another said that, and a cat passing by took fright and ran away, hearing those strange noises: “Bou, bou, frou, ou, ou, houic, houic, briff, briffnac, nac, nac, fouix, fouix, trr, trr, trr, trr, za, za, zaaa, brr, brrr, raaa, ra, ra, ra, ra, fouix!” so well blended together in a Babel of sound that a council at the town-hall could not have made a greater hubbub.

During this tempest a little mouse, who was not old enough to enter parliament, thrust through a chink her inquiring snout, the hair on which was as downy as that of all mice, too downy to be caught. As the tumult increased, by degrees her body followed her nose, until she came to the hoop of a cask, against which she so dexterously squatted that she might have been mistaken for a work of art carved in antique bas-relief. Lifting his eyes to heaven to implore a remedy for the misfortunes of the state, an old rat perceived this pretty mouse, so gentle and shapely, and declared that the state might be saved by her. All the muzzles turned to this Lady of Good Help, became silent, and agreed to let her loose upon the shrewmouse, and, in spite of the anger of certain envious mice, she was triumphantly marched round the cellar, where, seeing her walk mincingly, mechanically move her tail, shake her cunning little head, twitch her diaphanous ears, and lick with her little red tongue the hairs just sprouting on her cheeks, the old rats fell in love with her, and wagged their wrinkled, white-whiskered jaws with delight at the sight of her, as formerly the old men of Troy did, admiring the lovely Helen returning from her bath. Then the maiden was conducted to the granary, with instructions to make a conquest of the shrewmouse’s heart, and save the fine red grain, as formerly the fair Hebrew, Esther, did for the chosen people, with the Emperor Ahasuerus, as it is written in the master-book, for Bible comes from the Greek word Biblos, as if to say the only book. The mouse promised to deliver the granaries, for by a lucky chance she was the queen of mice, a fair, plump, pretty little mouse, the most delicate little lady that ever scampered merrily across the floors, scratched between the walls, and gave utterance to little cries of joy at finding nuts, meal, and crums of bread in her path; a true fay, pretty and playful, with an eye clear as crystal, a little head, sleek skin, amorous body, pink feet, and velvet tail—a high-born mouse and polished speaker, with a natural love of bed and idleness—a merry mouse, more cunning than an old doctor of Sorbonne fed on parchment, lively, white-bellied, streaked on the back, with sweetly molded breasts, pearl-white teeth, and of a frank, open nature—in fact, a true king’s morsel.

The pretty mouse did not beat long about the bush, and from the first moment that she trotted before the shrewmouse, she had enslaved him forever by her coquetries, affectations, friskings, provocations, little refusals, piercing glances, wiles of a maiden who desires yet dares not, amorous oglings, little caresses, preparatory tricks, pride of a mouse who knows her value, laughings, squeakings, triflings, and other endearments, feminine, treacherous, and captivating ways, all traps which are abundantly used by the females of all nations. When, after many wrigglings, smacks in the face, nose-lickings, gallantries of amorous shrewmice, frowns, sighs, serenades, tit-bits, suppers and dinners on the pile of corn, and other attentions, the superintendent overcame the scruples of his beautiful mistress, he became the slave of this incestuous and illicit love, and the mouse, leading her lord by the snout, became queen of everything, nibbled his cheese, ate the sweets, and foraged everywhere. This the shrewmouse permitted the empress of his heart, although he was ill at ease, having broken his oath made to Gargantua, and betrayed the confidence placed in him.

Pursuing her advantage with the pertinacity of a woman, one night that they were joking together, the mouse remembered the dear old fellow her father, and desiring that he should make his meals off the grain, she threatened to leave her lover cold and lonely in his domain if he did not allow her to indulge her filial piety. In the twinkling of a mouse’s eye he had granted letters patent, sealed with a green seal, with tags of crimson silk, to his wench’s father, so that the Gargantuan palace was open to him at all hours, and he went at liberty to see his good virtuous daughter, kiss her on the forehead, and eat his fill—but always in a corner.

Then there arrived a venerable old rat, weighing about twenty-five ounces, with a white tail, marching like the president of a court of justice, wagging his head, and followed by fifteen or twenty nephews, all with teeth sharp as saws, who demonstrated to the shrewmouse by little speeches and questions of all kinds that they, his relations, would soon be loyally attached to him, and would help him to count the things committed to his charge, arrange and ticket them, in order that when Gargantua came to visit them he would find everything in perfect order. There was an air of truth about these promises. The poor shrewmouse was, however, in spite of this speech, troubled by ideas from on high, and serious pricking of his shrewmousian conscience. Seeing that he turned up his nose at everything, went about slowly and with a careworn face, one morning the mouse, who was pregnant by him, conceived the idea of calming his doubts and easing his mind by a Sorbonnical consultation, and sent for the doctors of the tribe. During the day she introduced to him one, Master Evegault, who had just stepped out of a cheese where he lived in perfect abstinence, an old confessor of high degree, a merry fellow of good appearance, with a fine black skin, firm as a rock, and slightly tonsured on the head by the pat of a cat’s claw. He was a grave rat, with a monastical paunch, having much studied scientific authorities by nibbling at their work in parchments, papers, books, and volumes of which certain fragments had remained upon his gray beard. In honor of, and great reverence for his great virtue and wisdom and his modest life, he was accompanied by a black troop of black rats, all bringing with them pretty little mice, their sweethearts, for, not having adopted the canons of the council of Chesil, it was lawful for them to have respectable women for concubines. These beneficed rats being arranged in two lines, you might have fancied them a procession of the university authorities going to Lendit. And they all began to sniff the victuals.

When the ceremony of seating them all was complete, the old cardinal of the rats lifted up his voice, and in a good rat-Latin oration pointed out to the guardian of the grain that no one but God was superior to him; and that to God alone he owed obedience. And he entertained him with many fine phrases, stuffed with evangelical quotations, to disturb the principal and fog his flock—in fact, fine arguments interlarded with much sound sense. The discourse finished with a peroration full of high-sounding words in honor of shrewmice, among whom his hearer was the most illustrious and best beneath the sun. The oration considerably bewildered the keeper of the granaries.

This good gentleman’s head was thoroughly turned, and he installed this fine-speaking rat and his tribe in his manor, where, night and day, his praises and little songs in his honor were sung, not forgetting his lady, whose little paw was kissed and little tail was sniffed at by them all. Finally the mistress, knowing that certain young rats were still fasting, determined to finish her work. Then she kissed her lord tenderly, loading him with love, and performing those little endearing antics of which one alone was sufficient to send a beast to perdition; and said to the shrewmouse that he wasted the precious time due to their love by traveling about, that he was always going here or there, and that she never had her proper share of him; that when she wanted his society he was either on the leads or chasing the cats, and that she wished him always to be ready to her hand like a lance, and kind as a bird. Then in her great grief she tore out a gray hair, declaring herself, weepingly, to be the most wretched little mouse in the world. The shrewmouse pointed out to her that she was mistress of everything, and wished to resist, but after the lady had shed a torrent of tears he implored a truce and considered her request. Then instantly drying her tears, and giving him her paw to kiss, she advised him to arm some soldiers, trusty and tried rats, old warriors, who would go the rounds and keep watch. Everything was thus wisely arranged. The shrewmouse had the rest of the day to dance, play, and amuse himself, listen to the roundelays and ballads which the poets composed in his honor, play the lute and the mandolin, make acrostics, eat, drink, and be merry.

One day, his mistress having just risen from her confinement, after having given birth to the sweetest little mouse-sorex or sorex-mouse, I know not what name was given to this mongrel fruit of love, whom you may be sure the gentleman of the long robe would manage to legitimatize, a grand feast was given in the granaries, to which no court festival or gala can be compared, not even that of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In every corner mice were making merry. Everywhere there were dancers, concerts, banquets, sarabands, music, joyous songs, and epithalamia. The rats had broken open the pots, uncovered the jars, lapped the gallipots, and unpacked the stores. The mustard was strewn over the place, the hams were mangled and the corn scattered. Everything was rolling, tumbling, and falling about the floor, and the little rats dabbled in puddles of green sauce, and mice navigated oceans of sweetmeats, and the old folks carried off the pasties. There were mice astride on salt tongues. Fieldmice were swimming in the pots, and the most cunning of them were carrying the corn into their private holes, profiting by the confusion to make ample provision for themselves. No one passed the quince confection of Orleans without saluting it with one nibble, and oftener with two. It was like a Roman carnival. In short, any one with a sharp ear might have heard the frizzling frying-pans, the cries and clamors of the kitchens, the crackling of the furnaces, the noise of turnspits, the creaking of baskets, the haste of the confectioners, the click of the meat-jacks, and the noise of the little feet scampering thick as hail over the floor. It was a bustling wedding-feast, where people come and go, footmen, stablemen, cooks, musicians, buffoons, where everyone pays compliments and makes a noise. In short, so great was the delight that they all kept up a general wagging of the head to celebrate this eventful night.

Suddenly there was heard the awful footfall of Gargantua, who was ascending the stairs of his house to visit the granaries, and made the planks, the beams, and everything else tremble. Certain old rats asked each other what this lordly footstep might mean with which they were unacquainted, and some of them decamped. And they did well, for the lord and master entered suddenly. Perceiving the confusion these gentlemen had made, seeing his preserves eaten, his mustard unpacked, and everything dirtied and scratched about, he put his feet upon these lively vermin without giving them time to squeak, and thus spoiled their best clothes, satins, pearls, velvets, and rubbish, and upset the feast.