Two demons at their pleasure share our being—
The cause of Reason from her homestead fleeing;
No heart but on their altars kindles flames.
If you demand their purposes and names,
The one is Love, the other is Ambition.
Of far the greater share this takes possession,
For even into love it enters,
Which I might prove; but now my story centres
On a shepherd clothed with lofty powers:
The tale belongs to older times than ours.
A king observed a flock, wide spread
On the plains, most admirably fed,
Overpaying largely, as returned the years,
Their shepherd’s care, by harvests for his shears.
Such pleasure in this man the monarch took,—
“You meritest,” said he, “to wield a crook
Over higher flock than this; and my esteem
Over men now makes you judge supreme.”
Behold our shepherd, scales in hand,
Although a hermit and a wolf or two,
Besides his flock and dogs, were all he knew!
Well stocked with sense, all else on demand
Would come of course, and did, we understand.
His neighbour hermit came to him to say,
“Am I awake? Is this no dream, I pray?
You favourite! you great! Beware of kings,
Their favours are but slippery things,
Dear-bought; to mount the heights to which they call
Is but to court a more illustrious fall.
You little know to what this lure beguiles.
My friend, I say, Beware!” The other smiles.
The hermit adds, “See how
The court has marred your wisdom even now!
That purblind traveller I seem to see,
Who, having lost his whip, by strange mistake,
Took for a better one a snake;
But, while he thanked his stars, brimful of glee,
Outcried a passenger, “God shield your breast!
Why, man, for life, throw down that treacherous pest,
That snake!”—”It is my whip.”—”A snake, I say:
What selfish end could prompt my warning, pray?
Think you to keep your prize?”—”And why not?
My whip was worn; I have found another new:
This counsel grave from envy springs in you.”—
The stubborn wight would not believe a jot,
Till warm and lithe the serpent grew,
And, striking with his venom, slew
The man almost on the spot.
And as to you, I dare predict
That something worse will soon afflict.”
“Indeed? What worse than death, prophetic hermit?”
“Perhaps, the compound heartache I may term it.”
And never was there truer prophecy.
Full many a courtier pest, by many a lie
Contrived, and many a cruel slander,
To make the king suspect the judge awry
In both ability and candour.
Cabals were raised, and dark conspiracies,
Of men that felt aggrieved by his decrees.
“With wealth of ours he has a palace built,”
Said they. The king, astonished at his guilt,
His ill-got riches asked to see.
He found but mediocrity,
Bespeaking strictest honesty.
So much for his magnificence.
Anon, his plunder was a hoard immense
Of precious stones that filled an iron box
All fast secured by half a score of locks.
Himself the coffer oped, and sad surprise
Befell those manufacturers of lies.
The opened lid disclosed no other matters
Than, first, a shepherd’s suit in tatters,
And then a cap and jacket, pipe and crook,
And scrip, mayhap with pebbles from the brook.
“O treasure sweet,” said he, “that never drew
The viper brood of envy’s lies on you!
I take you back, and leave this palace splendid,
As some roused sleeper does a dream that’s ended.
Forgive me, sire, this exclamation.
In mounting up, my fall I had foreseen,
Yet loved the height too well; for who has been,
Of mortal race, devoid of all ambition?”
The Shepherd and the King – Jean de La Fontaine Fables – Book 10