The syndic had told me that the three young ladies belonged to respectable families, but were not rich. I puzzled my head to think of some useful present I might make them without offending them, and at last I hit on a plan of the most ridiculous nature, as the reader will see. I went to a jeweller and told him to make me three golden balls, each of two ounces in weight.
At noon I went to M. de Voltaire's. He was not to be seen, but Madame Denis consoled me for his absence. She had wit, learning without pretension, taste, and a great hatred for the King of Prussia, whom she called a villain. She asked about my beautiful housekeeper, and congratulated me on having married her to a respectable man. Although I feel now that she was quite right, I was far from thinking so then; the impression was too fresh on my mind. Madame Denis begged me to tell her how I had escaped from The Leads, but as the story was rather a long one I promised to satisfy her another time.
M. de Voltaire did not dine with us; he appeared, however, at five o'clock, holding a letter in his hand.
"Do you know," said he, "the Marquis Albergati Capacelli, senator of Bologna, and Count Paradisi?"
"I do not know Paradisi, but I know Albergati by sight and by reputation; he is not a senator, but one of the Forty, who at Bologna are Fifty."
"Dear me! That seems rather a riddle!"
"Do you know him?"
"No, but he has sent me Goldoni's 'Theatre,' the translation of my Tancred, and some Bologna sausages, and he says he will come and see me."
"He will not come; he is not such a fool."
"How a fool? Would there be anything foolish in coming to see me?"
"Certainly not, as far as you are concerned; but very much so far his own sake."
"Would you mind telling me why?"
"He knows what he would lose; for he enjoys the idea you seem to have of him, and if he came you would see his nothingness, and good-bye to the illusion. He is a worthy man with six thousand sequins a year, and a craze for the theatre. He is a good actor enough, and has written several comedies in prose, but they are fit neither for the study nor the stage."
"You certainly give him a coat which does not make him look any bigger."
"I assure you it is not quite small enough."
"But tell me how he can belong to the Forty and the Fifty?"
"Just as at Bale noon is at eleven."
"I understand; just as your Council of Ten is composed of seventeen members."
"Exactly; but the cursed Forty of Bologna are men of another kind."
"Because they are not subject to the fisc, and are thus enabled to commit whatever crimes they like with perfect impunity; all they have got to do is to live outside the state borders on their revenues."
"That is a blessing, and not a curse; but let me return to our subject. I suppose the Marquis Albergati is a man of letters?"
"He writes well enough, but he is fond of the sound of his own voice, his style is prolix, and I don't think he has much brains."
"He is an actor, I think you said?"
"Yes, and a very good one, above all, when he plays the lover's part in one of his own plays."
"Is he a handsome man?"
"Yes, on the stage, but not elsewhere; his face lacks expression."
"But his plays give satisfaction?"
"Not to persons who understand play writing; they would be hissed if they were intelligible."
"And what do you think of Goldoni?"
"I have the highest opinion of him. Goldoni is the Italian Moliere."
"Why does he call himself poet to the Duke of Parma?"
"No doubt to prove that a wit as well as a fool has his weak points; in all probability the duke knows nothing about it. He also calls himself a barrister, though he is such only in his own imagination. Goldoni is a good play writer, and nothing more. Everybody in Venice knows me for his friend, and I can therefore speak of him with authority. He does not shine in society, and in spite of the fine satire of his works he is a man of an extremely gentle disposition."
"So I have been told.