At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 11

The Advent of Spring and its Effects — We visit Mosaïde

Up till springtime my tutor and myself led a regular and secluded life. All the mornings we were at work shut up in the gallery, and came back here after dinner as if to the theatre. Not as M. Jérôme Coignard used to say, to give ourselves in the manner of gentlemen and valets a paltry spectacle, but to listen to the sublime, if contradictory, dialogues of the ancient authors.

In this way the reading and translating of the Panopolitan advanced quickly. I hardly contributed to it. Such kind of work was above my knowledge and I had enough to do to learn the figure that the Greek letters make on papyrus. Sometimes I assisted my tutor by consulting the authors who could enlighten him in his researches, and foremost Olympiodorus and Plotinus, with whom since then I have remained familiar. The small services I was able to render him increased considerably my self-esteem.

After a long sharp winter I was on the way to become a learned person, when the spring broke in suddenly with her gallant equipage of light, tender green and singing birds; the perfume of the lilacs coming into the library windows caused me vague reveries, out of which my tutor called me by saying:

“Jacquot Tournebroche, please climb up that ladder and tell me if that rascal Manéthon does not mention a god Imhotep, who by his contradictions tortures one like a devil.”

And my good master filled his nose with tobacco and looked quite content.

On another occasion he said:

“My boy, it is remarkable how great an influence our garments have on our moral state. Since my neckband has become spotted with different sauces I have dropped upon it I feel a less honest man. Now that you are dressed like a marquis, Tournebroche, does not the desire tickle you to assist at the toilet of an opera girl, and to put a roll of spurious gold pieces on a faro-table — in one word, do you not feel yourself to be a man of quality? Do not take what I say amiss, and remember that it is sufficient to give a coward a busby to make him hasten to become a soldier and be knocked on the head in the king’s service. Tournebroche, our sentiments are composed of a thousand things we cannot detect for their smallness, and the destiny of our immortal soul depends sometimes on a puff too light to bend a blade of grass. We are the toy of the winds. But pass me, if you please, ‘The Rudiments of Vossius,’ the red edges of which I see stand out under your left arm.”

On this same day, after dinner at three o’clock, M. d’Asterac led us, my teacher and myself, to walk in the park. He conducted us to the west, where Rueil and Mont Valérien are visible. It was the deepest and most desolate part. Ivy and grass, cropped by the rabbits, covered the paths, now and then obstructed by large trunks of dead trees. The marble statues on both sides of the way smiled, unconscious of their ruin. A nymph, with her broken hand near her mouth, made a sign to a shepherd to remain silent. A young faun, his head fallen to the ground, still tried to put his flute to his lips. And all these divine beings seemed to teach us to despise the injuries inflicted by time and fortune. We followed the banks of a canal where the rainwater nourished the tree frogs. Round a circus rose sloping basins where pigeons went to drink. Arrived there we went by a narrow pathway driven through a coppice.

“Walk with care,” said M. d’Asterac. “This pathway is somewhat dangerous, as it is lined by mandrakes which at night-time sing at the foot of the trees. They hide in the earth. Take care not to put your feet on them; you will get love sickness or thirst after wealth, and would be lost, because the passions inspired by mandrakes are unhappy.”

I asked how it was possible to avoid the invisible danger. M. d’Asterac replied that one could escape it by means of intuitive divination, and in no other way.

“Besides,” he added, “this pathway is fatal.”

It went on in a direct line to a brick pavilion, hidden under ivy, which no doubt had served in time gone by as a guard house. There the park came to an end close to the monotonous marshes of the Seine.

“You see this pavilion,” said M. d’Asterac; “in it lives the most learned of men. Therein Mosaïde, one hundred and twenty years old, penetrates, with majestic self-will, the mysteries of nature. He has left Imbonatus and Bartoloni far behind. I wanted to honour myself, gentlemen, by keeping under my roof the greatest cabalist since Enoch, son of Cain. Religious scruples have prevented Mosaïde taking his place at my table, which he supposes to be a Christian’s, by which he does me too much honour. You cannot conceive the violence of hate, of this sage, of everything Christian. I had the greatest difficulty to make him dwell in the pavilion, where he lives alone with his niece, Jahel. Gentlemen, you shall not wait longer before becoming acquainted with Mosaïde and I will at once present both of you to this divine man.”

And having thus spoken, M. d’Asterac pushed us inside the pavilion, where between MSS. strewn all round was seated in a large arm-chair an old man with piercing eyes, a hooked nose, and a couple of thin streams of white beard growing from a receding chin; a velvet cap, formed like an imperial crown, covered his bald skull, and his body, of an inhuman emaciation, was wrapped up in an old gown of yellow silk, resplendent but dirty.

Right piercing looks were turned on us, but he gave no sign that he noticed our arrival. His face had an expression of painful stubbornness, and he slowly rolled between his rigid fingers the reed which served him for writing.

“Do not expect idle words from Mosaïde,” said M. d’Asterac to us. “For a long time this sage does not communicate with anyone but the genii and myself. His discourses are sublime. As he will never converse with you, gentlemen, I’ll endeavour to give you in a few words an idea of his merits. First he has penetrated into the spiritual sense of the books of Moses, after that into the value of the Hebrew characters, which depends on the order of the letters of the alphabet. This order has been thrown into confusion from the eleventh letter forward. Mosaïde has re-established it, which Atrabis, Philo, Avicenne, Raymond Lully, P. de la Mirandola, Reuchlin, Henry More and Robert Flydd have been unable to do. Mosaïde knows the number of the gold which corresponds to Jehovah in the world of spirits, and you must agree, gentlemen, that that is of infinite consequence.”

My dear tutor took his snuff-box in hand, presented it civilly to us, took a pinch himself and said:

“Do you not believe, M. d’Asterac, that this sort of knowledge is the very kind to bring one to the devil at the end of this transient life?

“After all, this sire Mosaïde plainly errs in his interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. When our Lord expired on the cross for the salvation of mankind the synagogue felt a bandage slip over her eyes, she staggered like a drunken woman and the crown fell from her head. Since then the interpretation of the Old Testament is confined to the Catholic Church, to which in spite of my many iniquities I belong.”

At these words Mosaïde, like a goat god, smiled in a hideous manner, and said to my dear tutor, in a slow and musty voice sounding as from far away:

“The Masorah has not confided to thee her secrets and the Mischna has not revealed to thee her mysteries.”

“Mosaïde,” continued M. d’Asterac, “not only interprets the books of Moses but also that of Enoch, which is much more important, and which has been rejected by the Christians, who were unable to understand it; like the cock of the Arabian fable, who disdained the pearl fallen in his grain. That book of Enoch, M. Abbé Coignard, is the more precious because therein are to be seen the first talks the daughters of man had with the Sylphs. You must understand that those angels which as Enoch shows us had love connection with women were Sylphs and Salamanders.”

“I will so understand, sir,” replied my good master, “not wishing to gainsay you. But from what has been conserved of the book of Enoch, which is clearly apocryphal, I suspect those angels to have been not Sylphs but simply Phoenician merchants.”

“And on what do you found,” asked M. d’Asterac, “so singular an opinion?”

“I found it, sir, on what is said in that very book that the angels taught the women how to use bracelets and necklaces, to paint the eyebrows and to employ all sorts of dyes. It is further said in the same book, that the angels taught the daughters of men the peculiar qualities of roots and trees, enchantments, and the art of observing the stars. Truly, sir, have not those angels the appearance of Syrians or Sidonians gone ashore on some half-deserted coast and unpacking in the shadow of rocks their trumpery wares to tempt the girls of the savage tribes? These traffickers gave them copper necklaces, armlets and medicines in exchange for amber, frankincense and furs. And they astonished these beautiful but ignorant creatures by speaking to them of the stars with a knowledge acquired by seafaring. That’s clear, I think, and I should like to know in what M. Mosaïde could contradict me.”

Mosaïde kept mute and M. d’Asterac, smiling again, said:

“M. Coignard, you do not reason so badly, ignorant as you still are of gnosticism and the Cabala. And what you say makes me think that there may have been some metallurgistic and gold-working Gnomes among the Sylphs who joined themselves in love with the daughters of men. The Gnomes, and that is a fact, occupied themselves willingly with the goldsmith’s art, and it is probable that those ingenious demons forged the bracelets you believe to have been of Phoenician manufacture.

“But I warn you, you’ll be at some disadvantage, sir, to compete with Mosaïde in the knowledge of human antiquities. He has rediscovered monuments which were believed to have been lost; among others, the column of Seth and the oracles of Sambéthé the daughter of Noah and the most ancient of the sybils.”

“Oh!” exclaimed my tutor as he stamped on the powdery floor so that a cloud of dust whirled up. “Oh! what dreams! It is too much, you make fun of me! And M. Mosaïde cannot have so much foolery in his head, under his large bonnet, resembling the crown of Charlemagne; that column of Seth is a ridiculous invention of that shallow Flavius Josephus, an absurd story by which nobody has been imposed upon before you. And the predictions of Sambéthé, Noah’s daughter, I am really curious to know them; and M. Mosaïde, who seems to be pretty sparing of his words, would oblige by uttering a few by words of mouth, because it is not possible for him, I am quite pleased to recognise it, to pronounce them by the more secret voice in which the ancient sybils habitually gave their mysterious responses.”

Mosaïde, who seemed to hear nothing, said suddenly:

“Noah’s daughter has spoken; Sambéthé has said: ‘The vain man who laughs and mocks will not hear the voice which goes forth from the seventh tabernacle, the infidel walketh miserably to his ruin.’”

After this oracular pronouncement all three of us took leave of Mosaïde.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54