At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 1

Why I recount the singular Occurrences of my Life

I intend to give an account of some odd occurrences in my life. Some have been exquisite, some queer Recollecting them, I am myself in doubt if I have not dreamed them. I have known a Gascon cabalist, of whom I could not say that he was wise, because he perished miserably, but he delivered sublime discourses to me, on a certain night on the Isle of Swans, speeches [Footnote: The original manuscript, written in a fine hand, of the eighteenth century, bears the sub-heading “Vie et Opinions de M. l’Abbé Jérôme Coignard” [The Editor].] I was happy enough to keep in my memory, and careful enough to put into writing. Those speeches referred to magic and to occult sciences, with which people were very much infatuated in my days.

Everyone speaks of naught else but Rosicrucian mysteries.[Footnote: This writing dates from the second half of the eighteenth century [The Editor]]. Besides I do not myself expect to gain great honour by these revelations. Some will say that everything is of my own invention, and that it is not the true doctrine, others that I only said what one had already known. I own that I am not very learned in cabalistic lore, my master having perished at the beginning of my initiation. But, little as I have learned of his craft, it makes me vehemently suspect that all of it is illusion, deception and vanity.

I think it quite sufficient to repudiate magic with all my strength, because it is contrary to religion. But still I believe myself to be obliged to explain concerning one point of this false science, so that none may judge me to be more ignorant than I really am. I know that cabalists generally think that Sylphs, Salamanders, Elves, Gnomes and Gnomides are born with a soul perishable like their bodies and that they acquire immortality by intercourse with the magicians. [Footnote: This opinion is especially supported in a little book of the Abbé Montfaucon de Villars, “Le Comte de Gabalis au Entretiens sur les sciences secrètes et mystérieuses suivant les principes des anciens mages ou sages cabbalistes,” of which several editions are extant. I only mention the one published at Amsterdam (Jacques Le Jeune, 1700, 18mo, with engravings), which contains a second part not included in the original edition [The Editor]] On the contrary my cabalist taught me that eternal life does not fall to the lot of any creature, earthly or aerial. I follow his sentiment without presuming myself to judge it.

He was in the habit of saying that the Elves kill those who reveal their mysteries, and he attributes the death of M. l’Abbé Coignard, who was murdered on the Lyons road, to the vengeance of those spirits. But I know very well that this much lamented death had a more natural cause. I shall speak freely of the air and fire spirits. One has to run some risk in life and that with Elves is an extremely small one.

I have zealously gathered the words of my good teacher M. l’Abbé Jérôme Coignard, who perished as I have said. He was a man full of knowledge and godliness. Could his soul have been less troubled he would have been the equal in virtue of M. l’Abbé Rollin, whom he far surpassed in extent of knowledge and penetration of intellect.

He had at least the advantage over M. Rollin that he had not fallen into Jansenism during the agitation of a troubled life, because the soundness of his mind was not to be shaken by the violence of reckless doctrines, and before Him I can attest to the purity of his faith. He had a wide knowledge of the world, obtained by the frequentation of all sorts of companies. This experience would have served him well with the Roman histories he, like M. Rollin, would doubtless have composed should he have had time and leisure, and if his life could have been better matched to his genius. What I shall relate of this excellent man will be the ornament of these memoirs. And like Aulus Gellius, who culled the most beautiful sayings of the philosophers into his “Attic Nights,” and him who put the best fables of the Greeks into the “Metamorphoses,” I will do a bee’s work and gather exquisite honey. But I do not flatter myself to be the rival of those two great authors, because I draw all my wealth from my own life’s recollections and not from an abundance of reading. What I furnish out of my own stock is good faith. Whenever some curious person shall read my memoirs he will easily recognise that a candid soul alone could express itself in language so plain and unaffected. Where and with whomsoever I have lived I have always been considered to be entirely artless. These writings cannot but confirm it after my death.

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