At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 10

I see Catherine with Friar Ange and reflect — The Liking of Nymphs for Satyrs — An Alarm of Fire — M. d’Asterac in his Laboratory.

When I came out of the cookshop, the night was black. At the corner of the Rue des Ecrivains I heard a fat and deep voice singing:

“Si ton honneur elle est perdue La bell’, c’est tu l’as bien voulu.”

And soon I could see on the other side, whence the voice sounded, Friar Ange, with wallet dangling on his shoulder, holding Catherine the lacemaker round the waist, walking in the shadow with a wavering and triumphal step, spouting the gutter water under his sandals in a magnificent spirit of mire which seemed to celebrate his drunken glory, as the basins of Versailles make their fountains play in honour of the king. I put myself out of the way against the post in the corner of a house door, so as not to be seen by them, which was a needless precaution as they were too much occupied with one another. With her head lying on the monk’s shoulder, Catherine laughed. A moonray trembled on her moist lips and in her eyes, like the water sparkles in a fountain; and I went my way, with my soul irritated and my heart oppressed, thinking on the provoking waist of that fine girl pressed by the arm of a dirty Capuchin.

“Is it possible,” I said to myself, “that such a pretty thing could be in such ugly hands? And if Catherine despises me need she render her despisal more cruel by the liking she has for that naughty Friar Ange?”

This preference appeared singular to me and I conceived as much surprise as disgust at it. But I was not the disciple of M. Jérôme Coignard for nothing. This incomparable teacher had formed my mind to meditate. I recalled to myself the satyrs one can see in gardens carrying off nymphs, and reflected that if Catherine was made like a nymph, those satyrs, at least as they are represented to us, are as horrible as yonder Capuchin. And I concluded that I ought not to be so very much astonished by what I had just seen. My vexation, however, was not dissipated by my reason, doubtless because it had not its source there. These meditations got me along through the shadows of the night and the mud of the thaw to the road of Saint Germain, where I met M. Jérôme Coignard, who was returning home to the Cross of the Sablons after having supped in town.

“My boy,” he said, “I have conversed of Zosimus and the gnostics at the table of a very learned ecclesiastic, quite another Peiresc. The wine was coarse and the fare but middling, but nectar and ambrosia floated through the discourse.”

Then my dear tutor spoke of the Panopolitan with an inconceivable eloquence. Alas! I listened badly, thinking of that drop of moonlight which had this very night fallen on the lips of Catherine the lacemaker.

At last he came to a stop and I asked on what foundation the Greeks had established the liking of the nymphs for satyrs. My teacher was so widely learned that he was always ready to reply to all questions. He told me:

“That liking is based on a natural sympathy. It is lively but not so ardent as the liking of the satyrs for the nymphs, with which it corresponds. The poets have observed this distinction very well. Concerning it I’ll narrate you a singular adventure I have read in a MS. belonging to the library of the Bishop of Séez. It was (I still have it before my eyes) a collection in folio, written in a good hand of last century. This is the singular fact reported in it. A Norman gentleman and his wife took part in a public entertainment, disguised, he as a satyr, she as a nymph. By Ovid it is known with what ardour the satyrs pursue the nymphs; that gentleman had read the ‘Metamorphoses.’ He entered so well into the spirit of his disguise that nine months after, his wife presented him with a baby whose forehead was horned and whose feet were those of a buck. It is not known what became of the father beyond that he had the common end of all creatures, to wit, that he died, and that beside that capriped he left another younger child, a Christian one and of human form. This younger son went to law claiming that his brother should not get a part of the deceased father’s inheritance for the reason that he did not belong to the species redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. The Parliament of Normandy, sitting at Rouen, gave a verdict in his favour, which was duly recorded.”

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This gentleman had read his Metamorphoses

I asked my teacher if it was possible that a disguise could have such an effect on nature and if the shape of the child could follow that of a garment. M. Jérôme Coignard advised me not to believe it.

“Jacques Tournebroche, my son,” he said, “remember always that a good mind repels all that is contrary to reason, except in matters of faith, wherein it is convenient to believe implicitly. Thank God! I have never erred about the dogmas of our very holy religion, and I trust to find myself in the same disposition in the article of death.”

Conversing in this manner we arrived at the castle. The roof seemed in a red glow in the dark. Out of one in dark shadows. We heard the roaring of the fire, like fiery rain under the dense smoke wherewith the sky was veiled. We both believed the flames to be devouring the building. My good tutor tore his hair and moaned:

“My Zosimus, my papyrus, my Greek MSS.! Help! Help! my Zosimus!”

Running up the great lane over puddles of water reflecting the glare of the fire, we crossed the park buried in dark shadows. We heard the roaring of the fire, which filled the sombre staircase. Two at a time we ran up the steps, stopping now and again to listen whence came that appalling noise.

It appeared to us to come from a corridor on the third floor where we had never been. In that direction we fumbled our way, and seeing through the slits of a door the red brightness, we knocked with all our might on the panel. It opened at once.

M. d’Asterac, who opened the door, stood quietly before us. His long black figure seemed to be enveloped in flaming air. He asked quietly on what pressing business we were looking for him at so late an hour. There was no conflagration but a terrible fire, burning in a big furnace with reflectors, which as I have since learned are called athanors. The whole of the rather large room was full of glass bottles with long necks twined round glass tubes of a duck-beak shape, retorts, resembling chubby cheeks out of which came noses like trumpets, crucibles, cupels, matrasses, cucurbits and vases of all forms.

My dear old tutor wiping his face shining like live coals said:

“Oh, sir, we were afraid that the castle was alight like straw. Thank God, the library is not burning. But are you practising the spagyric art, sir?”

“I do not want to conceal from you,” said M. d’Asterac, “that I have made great progress in it, but withal I have not found the theorem capable of rendering my work perfect. At the moment you knocked at the door I was picking up the Spirit of the World, and the Flower of Heaven, which are the veritable Fountains of Youth. Have you some understanding of alchemy, Monsieur Coignard?”

The abbé replied that he had got some notions of it from certain books, but that he considered the practice of it to be pernicious and contrary to religion. M. d’Asterac smiled and said:

“You are too knowing a man, M. Coignard, not to be acquainted with the Flying Eagle, the Bird of Hermes, the Fowl of Hermogenes, the Head of a Raven, the Green Lion and the Phoenix.”

“I have been told,” said my good master, “that by these names are distinguished the philosopher’s stone in its different states. But I have doubts about the possibility of a transmutation of metals.”

With the greatest confidence M. d’Asterac replied:

“Nothing is easier, my dear sir, than to bring your uncertainty to an end.”

He opened an old rickety chest standing in the wall and took out of it a copper coin, bearing the effigy of the late king, and called our attention to a round stain crossing the coin from side to side.

“That,” he said, “is the effect of the stone, which has transmuted the copper into silver, but that’s only a trifle.”

He went back to the chest and took out of it a sapphire the size of an egg, an opal of marvellous dimensions and a handful of perfect fine emeralds.

“Here are some of my doings,” he said, “which are proof enough that the spagyric art is not the dream of an empty brain.”

At the bottom of the small wooden bowl lay five or six little diamonds, of which M. d’Asterac made no mention. My tutor asked him if they also were of his make, and, the alchemist having acknowledged it:

“Sir,” said the abbé, “I should counsel you to show the curious those diamonds prior to the other stones by way of caution. If you let them look first at the sapphire, opal and the emeralds, you run the risk of a persecution for sorcery, because everyone will say that the devil alone was capable of producing such stones. Just as the devil alone could lead an easy life in the midst of these furnaces, where one has to breathe flames. As far as I am concerned, having stayed a single quarter of an hour, I am already half baked.”

Letting us out, with a friendly smile M. d’Asterac spoke as follows:

“Well knowing what to think of the devil and the Other, I willingly consent to speak of them with persons who believe in them. The devil and the Other are, as it were, characters; one may speak of them just as of Achilles and Thersites. Be assured, gentlemen, if the devil is like what he is said to be, he does not live in so subtle an element as fire. It is wholly wrong to place so villainous a beast in the sun. But as I had the honour to say, Master Tournebroche, to the Capuchin so dear to your mother, I reckon that the Christians slander Satan and his demons. That in some unknown world there may exist beings still worse than man is possible, but hardly conceivable. Certainly, if such exist, they inhabit regions deprived of light, and if they are burning, it would be in ice, which, as a fact, causes the same smarting pain, and not in illustrious flames among the fiery daughters of the stars. They suffer because they are wicked, and wickedness is an evil; but they can only suffer from chilblains. With regard to your Satan, gentlemen, who is a horror for your theologians, I do not consider him to be despicable, if I judge him by all you say of him, and, should he peradventure exist, I would think him to be, not a nasty beast, but a little Sylph, or at least a Gnome, and a metallurgist a trifle mocking but very intelligent.”

My tutor stopped his ears with his fingers and took to flight so as not to hear anything more.

“What impiety, Tournebroche, my boy,” he exclaimed, when we reached the staircase. “What blasphemies! Have you felt all the odium in the maxims of that philosopher? He pushes atheism to a joyous frenzy, which makes me wonder. But this indeed renders him almost innocent, for being apart from all belief, he cannot tear up the Holy Church like those who remain attached to her by some half-severed, still bleeding limb. Such, my son, are the Lutherans and the Calvinists, who mortify the Church till a separation occurs. On the contrary, atheists damn themselves alone, and one may dine with them without committing a sin. That’s to say, that we need not have any scruple about living with M. d’Asterac, who believes neither in God nor devil. But did you see, Tournebroche, my boy, the handful of little diamonds at the bottom of the wooden bowl? — the number of which apparently he did not know, and which seemed to be of pure water. I have my doubts about the opal and the sapphires, but those diamonds looked genuine.” When we reached our chambers we wished each other a very good-night.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:53