Precepteurs ignorans de ce faible univers.
(Ignorant teachers of this weak world.)
Nous etions a table chez un de nos confreres a l’Academie,
Grand Seigneur et homme d’esprit.
(We supped with one of our confreres of the Academy — a great nobleman and wit.)
One evening, at Paris, several months after the date of our last chapter, there was a reunion of some of the most eminent wits of the time, at the house of a personage distinguished alike by noble birth and liberal accomplishments. Nearly all present were of the views that were then the mode. For, as came afterwards a time when nothing was so unpopular as the people, so that was the time when nothing was so vulgar as aristocracy. The airiest fine gentleman and the haughtiest noble prated of equality, and lisped enlightenment.
Among the more remarkable guests were Condorcet, then in the prime of his reputation, the correspondent of the king of Prussia, the intimate of Voltaire, the member of half the academies of Europe — noble by birth, polished in manners, republican in opinions. There, too, was the venerable Malesherbes, “l’amour et les delices de la Nation.” (The idol and delight of the nation (so-called by his historian, Gaillard).) There Jean Silvain Bailly, the accomplished scholar — the aspiring politician. It was one of those petits soupers for which the capital of all social pleasures was so renowned. The conversation, as might be expected, was literary and intellectual, enlivened by graceful pleasantry. Many of the ladies of that ancient and proud noblesse — for the noblesse yet existed, though its hours were already numbered — added to the charm of the society; and theirs were the boldest criticisms, and often the most liberal sentiments.
Vain labour for me — vain labour almost for the grave English language — to do justice to the sparkling paradoxes that flew from lip to lip. The favourite theme was the superiority of the moderns to the ancients. Condorcet on this head was eloquent, and to some, at least, of his audience, most convincing. That Voltaire was greater than Homer few there were disposed to deny. Keen was the ridicule lavished on the dull pedantry which finds everything ancient necessarily sublime.
“Yet,” said the graceful Marquis de — as the champagne danced to his glass, “more ridiculous still is the superstition that finds everything incomprehensible holy! But intelligence circulates, Condorcet; like water, it finds its level. My hairdresser said to me this morning, ‘Though I am but a poor fellow, I believe as little as the finest gentleman!’” “Unquestionably, the great Revolution draws near to its final completion — a pas de geant, as Montesquieu said of his own immortal work.”
Then there rushed from all — wit and noble, courtier and republican — a confused chorus, harmonious only in its anticipation of the brilliant things to which “the great Revolution” was to give birth. Here Condrocet is more eloquent than before.
“Il faut absolument que la Superstition et le Fanatisme fassent place a la Philosophie. (It must necessarily happen that superstition and fanaticism give place to philosophy.) Kings persecute persons, priests opinion. Without kings, men must be safe; and without priests, minds must be free.”
“Ah,” murmured the marquis, “and as ce cher Diderot has so well sung —
‘Et des boyaux du dernier pretre
Serrez le cou du dernier roi.’”
(And throttle the neck of the last king with the string from the bowels of the last priest.)
“And then,” resumed Condorcet — “then commences the Age of Reason! — equality in instruction, equality in institutions, equality in wealth! The great impediments to knowledge are, first, the want of a common language; and next, the short duration of existence. But as to the first, when all men are brothers, why not a universal language? As to the second, the organic perfectibility of the vegetable world is undisputed, is Nature less powerful in the nobler existence of thinking man? The very destruction of the two most active causes of physical deterioration — here, luxurious wealth; there, abject penury — must necessarily prolong the general term of life. (See Condorcet’s posthumous work on the Progress of the Human Mind. — Ed.) The art of medicine will then be honoured in the place of war, which is the art of murder: the noblest study of the acutest minds will be devoted to the discovery and arrest of the causes of disease. Life, I grant, cannot be made eternal; but it may be prolonged almost indefinitely. And as the meaner animal bequeaths its vigour to its offspring, so man shall transmit his improved organisation, mental and physical, to his sons. Oh, yes, to such a consummation does our age approach!”
The venerable Malesherbes sighed. Perhaps he feared the consummation might not come in time for him. The handsome Marquis de — and the ladies, yet handsomer than he, looked conviction and delight.
But two men there were, seated next to each other, who joined not in the general talk: the one a stranger newly arrived in Paris, where his wealth, his person, and his accomplishments, had already made him remarked and courted; the other, an old man, somewhere about seventy — the witty and virtuous, brave, and still light-hearted Cazotte, the author of “Le Diable Amoureux.”
These two conversed familiarly, and apart from the rest, and only by an occasional smile testified their attention to the general conversation.
“Yes,” said the stranger — “yes, we have met before.”
“I thought I could not forget your countenance; yet I task in vain my recollections of the past.”
“I will assist you. Recall the time when, led by curiosity, or perhaps the nobler desire of knowledge, you sought initiation into the mysterious order of Martines de Pasqualis.”
(It is so recorded of Cazotte. Of Martines de Pasqualis little is known; even the country to which he belonged is matter of conjecture. Equally so the rites, ceremonies, and nature of the cabalistic order he established. St. Martin was a disciple of the school, and that, at least, is in its favour; for in spite of his mysticism, no man more beneficent, generous, pure, and virtuous than St. Martin adorned the last century. Above all, no man more distinguished himself from the herd of sceptical philosophers by the gallantry and fervour with which he combated materialism, and vindicated the necessity of faith amidst a chaos of unbelief. It may also be observed, that Cazotte, whatever else he learned of the brotherhood of Martines, learned nothing that diminished the excellence of his life and the sincerity of his religion. At once gentle and brave, he never ceased to oppose the excesses of the Revolution. To the last, unlike the Liberals of his time, he was a devout and sincere Christian. Before his execution, he demanded a pen and paper to write these words: “Ma femme, mes enfans, ne me pleurez pas; ne m’oubliez pas, mais souvenez-vous surtout de ne jamais offenser Dieu.” (“My wife, my children, weep not for me; forget me not, but remember above everything never to offend God.)— Ed.)
“Ah, is it possible! You are one of that theurgic brotherhood?”
“Nay, I attended their ceremonies but to see how vainly they sought to revive the ancient marvels of the cabala.”
“Such studies please you? I have shaken off the influence they once had on my own imagination.”
“You have not shaken it off,” returned the stranger, bravely; “it is on you still — on you at this hour; it beats in your heart; it kindles in your reason; it will speak in your tongue!”
And then, with a yet lower voice, the stranger continued to address him, to remind him of certain ceremonies and doctrines — to explain and enforce them by references to the actual experience and history of his listener, which Cazotte thrilled to find so familiar to a stranger.
Gradually the old man’s pleasing and benevolent countenance grew overcast, and he turned, from time to time, searching, curious, uneasy glances towards his companion.
The charming Duchesse de G— archly pointed out to the lively guests the abstracted air and clouded brow of the poet; and Condorcet, who liked no one else to be remarked, when he himself was present, said to Cazotte, “Well, and what do YOU predict of the Revolution — how, at least, will it affect us?”
At that question Cazotte started; his cheeks grew pale, large drops stood on his forehead; his lips writhed; his gay companions gazed on him in surprise.
“Speak!” whispered the stranger, laying his hand gently upon the arm of the old wit.
At that word Cazotte’s face grew locked and rigid, his eyes dwelt vacantly on space, and in a low, hollow voice, he thus answered
(The following prophecy (not unfamiliar, perhaps, to some of my readers), with some slight variations, and at greater length, in the text of the authority I am about to cite, is to be found in La Harpe’s posthumous works. The MS. is said to exist still in La Harpe’s handwriting, and the story is given on M. Petitot’s authority, volume i. page 62. It is not for me to enquire if there be doubts of its foundation on fact. — Ed.) —
“You ask how it will affect yourselves — you, its most learned, and its least selfish agents. I will answer: you, Marquis de Condorcet, will die in prison, but not by the hand of the executioner. In the peaceful happiness of that day, the philosopher will carry about with him not the elixir but the poison.”
“My poor Cazotte,” said Condorcet, with his gentle smile, “what have prisons, executioners, and poison to do with an age of liberty and brotherhood?”
“It is in the names of Liberty and Brotherhood that the prisons will reek, and the headsman be glutted.”
“You are thinking of priestcraft, not philosophy, Cazotte,” said Champfort.
(Champfort, one of those men of letters who, though misled by the first fair show of the Revolution, refused to follow the baser men of action into its horrible excesses, lived to express the murderous philanthropy of its agents by the best bon mot of the time. Seeing written on the walls, “Fraternite ou la Mort,” he observed that the sentiment should be translated thus, “Sois mon frere, ou je te tue.” (“Be my brother, or I kill thee.”)) “And what of me?”
“You will open your own veins to escape the fraternity of Cain. Be comforted; the last drops will not follow the razor. For you, venerable Malesherbes; for you, Aimar Nicolai; for you, learned Bailly — I see them dress the scaffold! And all the while, O great philosophers, your murderers will have no word but philosophy on their lips!”
The hush was complete and universal when the pupil of Voltaire — the prince of the academic sceptics, hot La Harpe — cried with a sarcastic laugh, “Do not flatter me, O prophet, by exemption from the fate of my companions. Shall I have no part to play in this drama of your fantasies.”
At this question, Cazotte’s countenance lost its unnatural expression of awe and sternness; the sardonic humour most common to it came back and played in his brightening eyes.
“Yes, La Harpe, the most wonderful part of all! YOU will become — a Christian!”
This was too much for the audience that a moment before seemed grave and thoughtful, and they burst into an immoderate fit of laughter, while Cazotte, as if exhausted by his predictions, sank back in his chair, and breathed hard and heavily.
“Nay,” said Madame de G— “you who have predicted such grave things concerning us, must prophesy something also about yourself.”
A convulsive tremor shook the involuntary prophet — it passed, and left his countenance elevated by an expression of resignation and calm. “Madame,” said he, after a long pause, “during the siege of Jerusalem, we are told by its historian that a man, for seven successive days, went round the ramparts, exclaiming, ‘Woe to thee, Jerusalem — woe to myself!’”
“Well, Cazotte, well?”
“And on the seventh day, while he thus spoke, a stone from the machines of the Romans dashed him into atoms!”
With these words, Cazotte rose; and the guests, awed in spite of themselves, shortly afterwards broke up and retired.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51