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"The Black and the White" by Voltaire

The following is the complete text of Voltaire's "The Black and the White." To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

Visit these other works by Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet)
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Dialogues: The Chinese Catechism
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Dialogues: The Japanese Catechism
Dialogues: Liberty
The Good Brahmin
Grecian Metamorphoses and Mysteries of the Egyptians
Jeannot and Colin
Memnon, the Philosopher

Of Bacchus
Of Idolatry
Of Miracles
Of Oracles
Of the Egyptian Rites
Of the Greek Sibyls
Of Zaleucus
Plato's Dream
The Study of Nature
The Travels of Scarmentado
The Two Comforters
The World As It Goes

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"The Black and the White" by Voltaire



The adventure of the youthful Rustan is generally known throughout the whole province of Candahar. He was the only son of a Mirza of that country. The title of Mirza there is much the same as that of Marquis among us, or that of Baron among the Germans. The mirza, his father, had a handsome fortune. Young Rustan was to be married to a mirzasse, or young lady of his own rank. The two families earnestly desired their union. Rustan was to become the comfort of his parents, to make his wife happy, and to live blest in her possession.

But he had unfortunately seen the princess of Cachemire at the fair of Kaboul, which is the most considerable fair in the world, and much more frequented than those of Bassora and Astracan. The occasion that brought the old prince of Cachemire to the fair with his daughter was as follows:

He had lost the two most precious curiosities of his treasury; one of them was a diamond as thick as a man's thumb, upon which the figure of his daughter was engraved by an art which was then possessed by the Indians, and has since been lost; the other was a javelin, which went of itself wherever its owner thought proper to send it. This is nothing very extraordinary among us, but it was thought so at Cachemire.

A fakir belonging to his highness stole these two curiosities; he carried them to the princess:

"Keep these two curiosities with the utmost care; your destiny depends upon them;" said he, and then departed.

The Duke of Cachemire, in despair, resolved to visit the fair of Kaboul, in order to see whether there might not, among the merchants who go thither from all quarters of the world, be some one possessed of his diamond and his weapon. The princess carried his diamond well fastened to her girdle; but the javelin, which she could not so easily hide, she had carefully locked up at Cachemire, in a large chest.

Rustan and she saw each other at Kaboul. They loved one another with all the sincerity of persons of their age, and all the tenderness of affection natural to those of their country. The princess gave Rustan her diamond as a pledge of her love, and he promised at his departure to go incognito to Cachemire, in order to pay her a visit.

The young mirza had two favorites, who served him as secretaries, grooms, stewards, and valets de chambre. The name of one was Topaz; he was handsome, well-shaped, fair as a Circassian beauty, as mild and ready to serve as an Armenian, and as wise as a Gueber. The name of the other was Ebene; he was a very beautiful negro, more active and industrious than Topaz, and one that thought nothing difficult. The young mirza communicated his intention of traveling to these. Topaz endeavored to dissuade him from it, with the circumspect zeal of a servant who was unwilling to offend him. He represented to him the great danger to which he exposed himself. He asked him how he could leave two families in despair? how he could pierce the hearts of his parents? He shook the resolution of Rustan; but Ebene confirmed it anew, and obviated all his objections.

The young man was not furnished with money to defray the charge of so long a voyage. The prudent Topaz would not have lent him any; Ebene supplied him. He with great address stole his master's diamond, made a false one exactly like it which he put in its place, and pledged the true one to an Armenian for several thousand rupees.

As soon as the marquis possessed these rupees, all things were in readiness for his departure. An elephant was loaded with his baggage. His attendants mounted on horseback.

Topaz said to his master: "I have taken the liberty to expostulate with you upon your enterprise, but after expostulating it is my duty to obey. I am devoted to you, I love you, I will follow you to the extremity of the earth; but let us by the way consult the oracle that is but two parasongs distant from here."

Rustan consented. The answer returned by the oracle, was:

"If you go to the east you will be at the west."

Rustan could not guess the meaning of this answer. Topaz maintained that it boded no good. Ebene, always complaisant to his master, persuaded him that it was highly favorable.

There was another oracle at Kaboul; they went to it. The oracle of Kaboul made answer in these words:

"If you possess, you will cease to possess; if you are conqueror, you will not conquer, if you are Rustan, you will cease to be so."

This oracle seemed still more unintelligible than the former.

"Take care of yourself," said Topaz.

"Fear nothing," said Ebene; and this minister, as may well be imagined, was always thought in the right by his master, whose passions and hopes he encouraged. Having left Kaboul, they passed through a vast forest. They seated themselves upon the grass in order to take a repast, and left their horses grazing. The attendants were preparing to unload the elephant which carried the dinner, the table, cloth, plates, etc., when, all on a sudden, Topaz and Ebene were perceived by the little caravan to be missing. They were called, the forest resounded with the names of Topaz and Ebene; the lackeys seek them on every side, and fill the forest with their cries; they return without having seen anything, and without having received any answer.

"We have," said they to Rustan, "found nothing but a vulture that fought with an eagle, and stripped it of all its feathers."

The mention of this combat excited the curiosity of Rustan; he went on foot to the place; he perceived neither vulture nor eagle; but he saw his elephant, which was still loaded with baggage, attacked by a huge rhinoceros: one struck with its horn, the other with its proboscis. The rhinoceros desisted upon seeing Rustan; his elephant was brought back, but his horses were not to be found.

"Strange things happen in forests to travelers," cried Rustan.

The servants were in great consternation, and the master in despair from having at once lost his horse, his dear negro, and the wise Topaz, for whom he still entertained a friendship, though always differing from him in opinion.

The hope of being soon at the feet of the beautiful princess still consoled the mirza, who, journeying on, now met with a huge streaked ass, which a vigorous two-handed country clown beat with an oaken cudgel. The asses of this sort are extremely beautiful, very scarce, and beyond comparison swift in running. The ass resented the repeated blows of the clown by kicks which might have rooted up an oak. The young mirza, as was reasonable, took upon him the defence of the ass, which was a charming creature. The clown betook himself to flight, crying to the ass, "You shall pay for this."

The ass thanked her deliverer in her own language, and approaching him, permitted his caresses and caressed him in her turn. After dinner, Rustan mounted her, and took the road to Cachemire with his servants, who followed him, some on foot and some upon the elephant. Scarce had he mounted his ass, when that animal turned toward Kaboul, instead of proceeding to Cachemire. It was to no purpose for her master to turn the bridle, to kick, to press the sides of the beast with his knees, to spur, to slacken the bridle, to pull toward him, to whip both on the right and the left. The obstinate animal persisted in running toward Kaboul.

Rustan in despair fretted and raved, when he met with a dealer in camels, who said to him:

"Master, you have there a very malicious beast, that carries you where you do not choose to go. If you will give it to me, I will give you the choice of four of my camels."

Rustan thanked providence for having thrown so good a bargain in the way. "Topaz was very much in the wrong," said he, "to tell me that my journey would prove unprosperous."

He mounts the handsome camel, the others follow; he rejoins his caravan and fancies himself on the road to happiness.

Scarce had he journeyed four parasongs, when he was stopped by a deep, broad, and impetuous torrent, which rolled over huge rocks white with foam. The two banks were frightful precipices which dazzled the sight and made the blood run cold. To pass was impracticable; to go to the right or to the left was impossible.

"I am beginning to be afraid," said Rustan, "that Topaz was in the right in blaming my journey, and that I was in the wrong in undertaking it. If he were still here he might give me good advice. If I had Ebene with me, he would comfort me and find expedients; but everything fails me." This perplexity was increased by the consternation of his attendants. The night was dark, and they passed it in lamentations. At last fatigue and dejection made the amorous traveler fall asleep. He awoke at day-break, and saw, spanning the torrent, a beautiful marble bridge which reached from shore to shore.

Nothing was heard but exclamations, cries of astonishment and joy. Is it possible? Is this a dream? What a prodigy is this! What an enchantment! Shall we venture to pass? The whole company kneeled, rose up, went to the bridge, kissed the ground, looked up to heaven, stretched out their hands, set their feet on it with trembling, went to and fro, fell into ecstasies; and Rustan said:

"At last heaven favors me. Topaz did not know what he was saying. The oracles were favorable to me. Ebene was in the right, but why is he not here?"

Scarce had the company got beyond the torrent, when the bridge sunk into the water with a prodigious noise.

"So much the better, so much the better," cried Rustan. "Praised be God, blessed be heaven; it would not have me return to my country, where I should be nothing more than a gentleman. The intention of heaven is, that I should wed her I love. I shall become prince of Cachemire; thus in possessing my mistress I shall cease to possess my little marquisate at Candahar. 'I shall be Rustan, and I shall not be Rustan,' because I shall have become a great prince: thus is a great part of the oracle clearly explained in my favor. The rest will be explained in the same manner. I am very happy. But why is not Ebene with me? I regret him a thousand times more than Topaz."

He proceeded a few parasongs farther with the greatest alacrity imaginable; but, at the close of day, a chain of mountains more rugged than a counterscarp, and higher than the tower of Babel would have been had it been finished, stopped the passage of the caravan, which was again seized with dread.

All the company cried out: "It is the will of God that we perish here! he broke the bridge merely to take from us all hopes of returning; he raised the mountain for no other reason than to deprive us of all means of advancing. Oh, Rustan! oh, unhappy marquis! we shall never see Cachemire; we shall never return to the land of Candahar."

The most poignant anguish, the most insupportable dejection, succeeded in the soul of Rustan, to the immoderate joy which he had felt, to the hopes with which he had intoxicated himself. He was no longer disposed to interpret the prophecies in his favor.

"Oh, heavens! oh, God of my fathers!" said he, "must I then lose my friend Topaz!"

As he pronounced these words, fetching deep sighs and shedding tears in the midst of his disconsolate followers, the base of the mountain opened, a long gallery appeared to the dazzled eyes in a vault lighted with a hundred thousand torches. Rustan immediately begins to exult, and his people to throw themselves upon their knees and to fall upon their backs in astonishment, and cry out, "A miracle! a miracle! Rustan is the favorite of Witsnow, the well-beloved of Brahma. He will become the master of mankind."

Rustan believed it; he was quite beside himself; he was raised above himself.

"Alas, Ebene," said he, "my dear Ebene, where are you? Why are you not witness of all these wonders? How did I lose you? Beauteous princess of Cachemire, when shall I again behold your charms!"

He advances with his attendants, his elephants, and his camels, under the hollow of the mountain; at the end of which he enters into a meadow enameled with flowers and encompassed with rivulets. At the extremity of the meadows are walks of trees to the end of which the eye cannot reach, and at the end of these alleys is a river, on the sides of which are a thousand pleasure houses with delicious gardens. He everywhere hears concerts of vocal and instrumental music; he sees dances; he makes haste to go upon one of the bridges of the river; he asks the first man he meets what fine country that is?

He whom he addressed himself to answered:

"You are in the province of Cachemire; you see the inhabitants immersed in joy and pleasure. We celebrate the marriage of our beauteous princess, who is going to be married to the lord Barbabou, to whom her father promised her. May God perpetuate their felicity!"

At these words Rustan fainted away, and the Cachemirian lord thought he was troubled with the falling sickness. He caused him to be carried to his house, where he remained a long time insensible. He sent in search of the two most able physicians in that part of the country. They felt the patient's pulse, who having somewhat recovered his spirits, sobbed, rolled his eyes, and cried from time to time, "Topaz, Topaz, you were entirely in the right!"

One of the two physicians said to the Cachemirian lord:

"I perceive, by this young man's accent, that he is from Candahar, and that the air of this country is hurtful to him. He must be sent home. I perceive by his eyes that he has lost his senses. Entrust me with him, I will carry him back to his own country, and cure him."

The other physician maintained that grief was his only disorder; and that it was proper to carry him to the wedding of the princess, and make him dance. Whilst they were in consultation, the patient recovered his health. The two physicians were dismissed, and Rustan remained along with his host.

"My lord," said he, "I ask your pardon for having been so free as to faint in your presence. I know it to be a breach of politeness. I entreat you to accept of my elephant, as an acknowledgment of the kindness you have shown me."

He then related to him all his adventure, taking particular care to conceal from him the occasion of his journey.

"But, in the name of Witsnow and Brahma," said he to him, "tell me who is this happy Barbabou, who is to marry the princess of Cachemire? Why has her father chosen him for his son-in-law, and why has the princess accepted of him for an husband?"

"Sir," answered the Cachemirian, "the princess has by no means accepted of Barbabou. She is, on the contrary, in tears, whilst the whole province joyfully celebrates her marriage. She has shut herself up in a tower of her palace. She does not choose to see any of the rejoicings made upon the occasion."

Rustan, at hearing this, perceived himself revived. The bloom of his complexion, which grief had caused to fade, appeared again upon his countenance.

"Tell me, I entreat you," continued he, "why the prince of Cachemire is obstinately bent upon giving his daughter to lord Barbabou whom she does not love?"

"This is the fact," answered the Cachemirian. "Do you know that our august prince lost a large diamond and a javelin which he considered as of great value?"

"Ah! I very well know that," said Rustan.

"Know then," said his host, "that our prince, being in despair at not having heard of his two precious curiosities, after having caused them to be sought for all over the world, promised his daughter to whoever should bring him either the one or the other. A lord Barbabou came who had the diamond, and he is to marry the princess to-morrow."

Rustan turned pale, stammered out a compliment, took leave of his host, and galloped upon his dromedary to the capital city, where the ceremony was to be performed. He arrives at the palace of the prince, he tells him he has something of importance to communicate to him, he demands an audience. He is told that the prince is taken up with the preparations for the wedding.

"It is for that very reason," said he, "that I am desirous of speaking to him." Such is his importunity, that he is at last admitted.

"Prince," said he, "may God crown all your days with glory and magnificence! Your son-in-law is a knave."

"What! a knave! how dare you speak in such terms? Is that a proper way of speaking to a duke of Cachemire of a son-in-law of whom he has made choice?"

"Yes, he is a knave," continued Rustan; "and to prove it to your highness, I have brought you back your diamond."

The duke, surprised at what he heard, compared the two diamonds; and as he was no judge of precious stones, he could not determine which was the true one.

"Here are two diamonds," said he, "and I have but one daughter, I am in a strange perplexity."

He sent for Barbabou, and asked him if he had not imposed upon him, Barbabou swore he had bought his diamond from an Armenian: the other did not tell him who he had his from; but he proposed an expedient, which was that he should engage his rival in single combat.

"It is not enough for your son-in-law to give a diamond," said he, "he should also give proofs of valor. Do not you think it just that he who kills his rival should marry the princess?"

"Undoubtedly," answered the prince. "It will be a fine sight for the court. Fight directly. The conqueror shall take the arms of the conquered according to the customs of Cachemire, and he shall marry my daughter."

The two pretenders to the hand of the princess go down into the court. Upon the stairs there was a jay and a raven. The raven cried, "Fight, fight." The jay cried, "Don't fight."

This made the prince laugh; the two rivals scarce took any notice of it. They begin the combat. All the courtiers made a circle round them. The princess, who kept herself constantly shut up in her tower, did not choose to behold this sight. She never dreamt that her lover was at Cachemire, and she hated Barbabou to such a degree, that she could not bear the sight of him. The combat had the happiest result imaginable. Barbabou was killed outright; and this greatly rejoiced the people, because he was ugly and Rustan was very handsome. The favor of the public is almost always determined by this circumstance.

The conqueror put on the coat of mail, scarf, and the casque of the conquered, and came, followed by the whole court, to present himself under the windows of his mistress. The multitude cried aloud: "Beautiful princess, come and see your handsome lover, who has killed his ugly rival." These words were re-echoed by her women. The princess unluckily looked out of the window, and seeing the armor of a man she hated, she ran like one frantic to her strong box and took out the fatal javelin, which flew to pierce Rustan, notwithstanding his cuirass. He cried out loudly, and at this cry the princess thought she again knew the voice of her unhappy lover.

She ran down stairs, with her hair disheveled, and death in her eyes as well as her heart. Rustan had already fallen, all bloody, into the arms of his attendants. She sees him. Oh, moment! oh, sight! oh, discovery of inexpressible grief, tenderness and horror! She throws herself upon him, and embraces him.

"You receive," said she, "the first and last kisses of your mistress and your murderer."

She pulls the dart from the wound, plunges it in her heart, and dies upon the body of the lover whom she adores. The father, terrified, in despair, and ready to die like his daughter, tries in vain to bring her to life. She was no more. He curses the fatal dart, breaks it to pieces, throws away the two fatal diamonds; and whilst he prepared the funeral of his daughter instead of her marriage, he caused Rustan, who weltered in his blood and had still some remains of life, to be carried to his palace.

He was put into bed. The first objects he saw on each side of his deathbed were Topaz and Ebene. This surprise made him in some degree recover his strength.

"Cruel men," said he, "why did you abandon me? Perhaps the princess would still be alive if you had been with the unhappy Rustan."

"I have not forsaken you a moment," said Topaz.

"I have always been with you," said Ebene.

"Ah! what do you say? why do you insult me in my last moments?" answered Rustan, with a languishing voice.

"You may believe me," said Topaz. "You know I never approved of this fatal journey, the dreadful consequences of which I foresaw. I was the eagle that fought with the vulture and stripped it of its feathers; I was the elephant that carried away the baggage, in order to force you to return to your own country; I was the streaked ass that carried you, whether you would or no, to your father; it was I that made your horses go astray; it was I that caused the torrent that prevented your passage; it was I that raised the mountain which stopped up a road so fatal to you; I was the physician that advised you to return to your own country; I was the jay that cried to you not to fight."

"And I," said Ebene, "was the vulture that he stripped of his feathers, the rhinoceros who gave him a hundred strokes with the horn, the clown that beat the streaked ass, the merchant who made you a present of camels to hasten you to your destruction; I dug the cavern that you crossed, I am the physician that encouraged you to walk, the raven that cried out to you to combat."

"Alas!" said Topaz, "remember the oracles: 'If you go to the east you will be at the west.'"

"Yes," said Ebene, "here the dead are buried with their faces turned to the west. The oracle was plain enough, though you did not understand it. You possessed, and you did not possess; for though you had the diamond, it was a false one, and you did not know it. You are conqueror, and you die; you are Rustan, and you cease to be so: all has been accomplished."

Whilst he spoke thus, four white wings covered the body of Topaz, and four black ones that of Ebene.

"What do I see?" cried Rustan.

Topaz and Ebene answered together: "You see your two geniuses."

"Good gentlemen," cried the unhappy Rustan, "how came you to meddle; and what occasion had a poor man for two geniuses?"

"It is a law," answered Topaz; "every man has too geniuses. Plato was the first man who said so, and others have repeated it after him. You see that nothing can be more true. I who now speak to you, am your good genius. I was charged to watch over you to the last moment of your life. Of this task I have faithfully acquitted myself."

"But," said the dying man, "if your business was to serve me, I am of a nature much superior to yours. And then how can you have the assurance to say you are my good genius, since you have suffered me to be deceived in everything I have undertaken, and since you suffer both my mistress and me to die miserably?"

"Alas!" said Topaz, "it was your destiny."

"If destiny does all," answered the dying man, "what is a genius good for? And you, Ebene, with your four black wings, you are, doubtless, my evil genius."

"You have hit it," answered Ebene.

"Then I suppose you were the evil genius of my princess likewise," said Rustan.

"No," replied Ebene, "she had an evil genius of her own, and I seconded him perfectly."

"Ah! cursed Ebene," said Rustan, "if you are so malicious, you don't belong to the same master with Topaz: you have been formed by two different principles, one of which is by nature good, the other evil."

"That does not follow," said Ebene, "this is a very knotty point."

"It is not possible," answered the dying man, "that a benevolent being could create so destructive a genius."

"Possible or not possible," replied the genius, "the thing is just as I say."

"Alas!" said Topaz, "my poor unfortunate friend, don't you see that that rogue is so malicious as to encourage you to dispute, in order to inflame your blood and hasten your death?"

"Get you gone," said the melancholy Rustan, "I am not much better satisfied with you than with him. He at least acknowledges that it was his intention to hurt me; and you, who pretended to defend me, have done me no service at all."

"I am very sorry for it," said the good genius.

"And I too," said the dying man; "there is something at the bottom of all this which I cannot comprehend."

"Nor I neither," said the good genius.

"I shall know the truth of the matter in a moment," said Rustan. "We shall see that," said Topaz.

The whole scene then vanished. Rustan again found himself in the house of his father, which he had not quitted, and in his bed, where he had slept an hour.

He awakes in astonishment, perspiring all over, and quite wild. He rubs himself, he calls, he rings the bell. His valet de chambre, Topaz, runs in, in his nightcap, and yawning.

"Am I dead or alive?" cried out Rustan, "shall the beauteous princess of Cachemire escape?

"Does your lordship rave?" answered Topaz, coldly.

"Ah!" cried Rustan, "what then is become of this barbarous Ebene, with his four black wings! It is he that makes me die by so cruel a death."

"My lord," answered Topaz, "I left him snoring up stairs. Would you have me bid him come down?"

"The villain," said Rustan, "has persecuted me for six months together. It was he who carried me to the fatal fair of Kaboul; it is he that cheated me of the diamond which the princess presented me; he is the sole cause of my journey, of the death of my princess, and of the wound with a javelin, of which I die in the flower of my age."

"Take heart," said Topaz, "you were never at Kaboul; there is no princess of Cachemire; her father never had any children but two boys, who are now at college; you never had a diamond; the princess cannot be dead, because she never was born; and you are in perfect health."

"What! is it not then true that you attended me whilst dying, and in the bed of the prince of Cachemire? Did you not acknowledge to me, that, in order to preserve me from so many dangers, you were an eagle, an elephant, a streaked ass, a physician, and a jay?"

"My lord, you have dreamt all this," answered Topaz; "our ideas are no more of our own creating whilst we are asleep than whilst we are awake. God has thought proper that this train of ideas should pass in your head, most probably to convey some instruction to you, of which you may make a good use."

"You make a jest of me," replied Rustan, "how long have I slept?"

"My lord," said Topaz, "you have not yet slept an hour."

"Cursed reasoner," returned Rustan, "how is it possible that I could be in the space of an hour at the fair of Kaboul six months ago; that I could have returned from thence, have traveled to Cachemire, and that Barbabou, the princess, and I, should have died?"

"My lord," said Topaz, "nothing can be more easy and more common; and you might have traveled around the world, and have met with a great many more adventures in much less time. Is it not true that you can, in an hour's time, read the abridgment of the Persian history, written by Zoroaster? yet this abridgment contains eight hundred thousand years. All these events pass before your eyes one after another, in an hour's time. Now you must acknowledge, that it is as easy to Brahma to confine them to the space of an hour, as to extend them to the space of eight hundred thousand years. It is exactly the same thing. Imagine to yourself that time turns upon a wheel whose diameter is infinite. Under this vast wheel is a numerous multitude of wheels one within another. That in the centre is imperceptible, and goes round an infinite number of times, whilst the great wheel performs but one revolution. It is evident that all the events which have happened from the beginning of the world, to its end, might have happened in much less time than the hundred thousandth part of a second; and one may even go so far as to assert that the thing is so."

"I cannot comprehend all this," said Rustan.

"If you want information," said Topaz, "I have a parrot that will easily explain it to you. He was born some time before the deluge; he has been in the ark; he has seen a great deal; yet he is but a year and a half old. He will relate to you his history, which is extremely interesting."

"Go fetch your parrot," said Rustan, "it will amuse me till I again find myself disposed to sleep."

"It is with my sister," said Topaz: "I will go and fetch it. It will please you; its memory is faithful, it relates in a simple manner, without endeavoring to show wit at every turn."

"So much the better," said Rustan, "I like that manner of telling stories."

The parrot being brought to him, spoke in this manner:

N.B. Mademoiselle Catherine Vade could never find the history of the parrot in the commonplace-book of her late cousin Anthony Vade, author of that tale. This is a great misfortune, considering what age that parrot lived in.

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