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

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695)

The Peasant’s Choice of Punishment

From “Tales”

ONCE on a time, as hist’ry’s page relates,

A lord, possessed of many large estates,

Was angry with a poor and humble clod,

Who tilled his grounds and feared his very nod.

Th’ offense (as often happens) was but small,

But on him, vowed the peer, his rage should fall.

Said he, “A halter, rascal, you deserve;

You’ll never from the gallows-turnpike swerve.

Or, soon or late, you swinging will be found;

Who, born for hanging, ever yet was drowned?

Howe’er you’ll smile to hear my lenient voice;

Observe, three punishments await your choice;

Take which you will. The first is, you shall eat,

Of strongest garlic, thirty heads complete;

No drink you’ll have between, nor sleep, nor rest;

You know a breach of promise I detest.

Or, on your shoulders further I propose,

To give you, with a cudgel, thirty blows.

Or, if more pleasing, that you truly pay

The sum of thirty pounds without delay.”

The peasant ’gan to turn things in his mind.

Said he, “To take the heads I’m not inclined;

No drink, you say, between—that makes it worse;

To eat the garlic thus, would prove a curse.

Nor can I suffer on my tender back,

That, with a cudgel, thirty blows you thwack.”

Still harder thirty pounds to pay appeared.

Uncertain how to act, he hanging feared.

The noble peer he begged, upon his knees,

His penitence to hear, and sentence ease.

But mercy dwelled not with the angry lord.

“Is this,” he cried, “the answer? Bring a cord.”

The peasant, trembling lest his life was sought,

The garlic chose, which presently was brought.

Upon a dish my lord the number told;

Clod no way liked the garlic to behold.

With piteous mien the garlic head he took,

Then on it num’rous ways was led to look,

And, grumbling much, began to spit and eat,

Just like a cat with mustard on her meat;

To touch it with his tongue he durst not do.

He knew not how to act or what pursue.

The peer, delighted at the man’s distress,

The garlic made him bite, and chew, and press,

Then gulp it down as if delicious fare.

The first he passed; the second made him swear;

The third he found was every whit as sad.

He wished the devil had it, ’twas so bad.

In short, when at the twelfth our wight arrived,

He thought his mouth and throat of skin deprived.

Said he, “Some drink I earnestly entreat!”

“What, Greg’ry,” cried my lord, “dost feel a heat?

In thy repasts dost love to wet thy jaws?

Well! well! I won’t object; thou know’st my laws.

Much good may’t do thee. Here, some wine, some wine!

Yet recollect, to drink, since you design,

That afterward, my friend, you’ll have to choose

The thirty blows, or thirty pounds to lose.”

“But,” cried the peasant, “I sincerely pray

Your lordship’s goodness, that the garlic may

Be taken in the account, for as to pelf,

Where can an humble lab’rer, like myself,

Expect the sum of thirty pounds to seize?”

“Then,” said the peer, “be cudgeled if you please.

Take thirty thwacks; for naught the garlic goes.”

To moisten well his throat, and ease his woes,

The peasant drank a copious draft of wine,

And then to bear the cudgel would resign.

A single blow he patiently endured;

The second, howsoe’er, his patience cured;

The third was more severe, and each was worse.

The punishment he now began to curse.

Two lusty wights, with cudgels thrashed his back,

And regularly gave him thwack and thwack.

He cried, he roared, for grace he begged his lord,

Who marked each blow, and would no ease accord;

But carefully observed, from time to time,

That lenity he always thought sublime;

His gravity preserved; considered too

The blows received and what continued due.

At length, when Greg’ry twenty strokes had got,

He piteously exclaimed, “If more’s my lot

I never shall survive! Oh! pray forgive,

If you desire, my lord, that I should live.”

“Then down with thirty pounds,” replied the peer.

“Since you the blows so much pretend to fear,

I’m sorry for you; but if all the gold

Be not prepared, your godfather, I’m told,

Can lend a part. Yet, since so far you’ve been,

To flinch the rest you surely won’t be seen.”

The wretched peasant to his lordship flew,

And trembling, cried, “’Tis up! The number view!”

A scrutiny was made, which nothing gained;

No choice but pay the money now remained.

This grieved him much, and o’er the fellow’s face,

The dewy drops were seen to flow apace.

All useless proved. The full demand he sent,

With which the peer expressed himself content.

Unlucky he whoe’er his lord offends!

To golden ore, howe’er, the proud man bends.

’Twas vain that Gregorgy a pardon prayed.

For trivial faults the peasant dearly paid:

His throat inflamed—his tender back well beat—

His money gone—and all to make complete,

Without the least deduction for the pain,

The blows and garlic gave the trembling swain.