At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 15

In the Library with M. Jerome Coignard — A Conversation on Morals — Taken to M. d’Asterac’s Study — Salamanders again — The Solar Powder — A Visit and its Consequences.

The thought of Catherine occupied my mind all the week following that vexatious adventure. Her image glittered on the leaves of the folios over which I bent in the library, close to my dear tutor; so much so that Plotinus, Olympiodorus, Fabricius, Vossius spoke of nothing else to me than a tiny damsel in a lace chemise. These visions rendered me lazy. But, indulgent to others, as to himself, M. Jerome Coignard had a kind smile for my trouble and distraction.

“Jacques Tournebroche,” he said to me, one day, “are you not struck by the variations in morals during the course of the centuries? The books in this admirable Asteracian collection witness to the uncertainties of mankind on this subject. If I reflect upon it, my son, it is to put into your mind that solid and salutary idea that no good morals are to be found outside religion, and that the maxims of the philosophers, who pretend to institute a natural morality, are nothing but whims and babblings of foolish trash. The rationality of good morals is not to be found in nature, which in itself is indifferent, ignorant of good or evil. It is in the divine word, which is not to be trespassed against without after regret. The laws of humanity are based on utility, and that can only be an apparent and illusory utility, for nobody knows naturally what is useful to mankind, nor what is really appropriate to them. And we must not forget that our habits contain a good moiety of articles which are of prejudice alone. Upheld by the menace of chastisement, human laws may be eluded by cunning and dissimulation. Every man capable of reflection stands above them. Really they are nothing but booby traps.

“It is not the same thing, my boy, with laws divine. They are indefeasible, unavoidable and lasting. Their absurdity is in appearance only, and hides an inconceivable wisdom. If they wound our reason, it is because they are superior to it, and agree with the true issues of mankind, and not with the visible ends. It is useful to observe them when one has the good luck to know them. Yet I find no difficulty in confessing that the observance of those laws, contained in the Decalogue and in the commandments of the Church, is difficult at most times, even impossible without grace, and that sometimes has to be waited for, because it is a duty to hope. And therefore we are all miserable sinners.

“And that is where the dispositions of the Christian religion must be admired, which founds salvation principally on repentance. It must not be overlooked, my boy, that the greatest saints are penitents, and, as repentance is proportioned to the sin, it is in the greatest sinners that the material is found for the greatest saints. I could illustrate this doctrine with scores of admirable examples. But I have said enough to make you feel that the raw material of sanctity is concupiscence, incontinencies, all impurities of flesh and mind. After having collected the raw material nothing signifies but to fashion it according it theologic art and to model, so to say, a figure of penitence, which is a matter of a few years, a few days, sometimes of a single moment only, as is to be seen in the case of a perfect contrition. Jacques Tournebroche, if you listen well to my sayings, you will not consume yourself in miserable cares to become an honest man in a worldly sense, and you’ll exclusively study to satisfy divine justice.”

I could not help feeling the elevated wisdom enshrined in the maxims of my dear, good tutor; I was only afraid that these morals, should they be exercised without discrimination, would carry man to a disorderly life. I unfolded my doubts to M. Jerome Coignard, who reassured me in the following terms:

“Jacobus Tournebroche, you do not take note of what I have just expressly told you, to wit, that what you call disorder is only such in the opinion of laymen and judges in law — ordinary and ecclesiastical — and in its bearing on human laws, which are arbitrary and transitory, and, in a word, to follow these laws is the act of a silly soul. A sensible man does not pride himself on acting according to the rules in force at the Châtelet and at the gaol.

“He is uneasy about his salvation, and does not think himself dishonoured by going to heaven by indirect ways as followed by the greatest saints. If the blessed Pélagie had not followed the same profession by which Jeannette, the hurdy-gurdy player you know, earned her living, under the portico of the Church of Saint Benoît le Bétourné, that saint would not have been compelled to do full and copious penitence; and it is extremely probable that, after having lived in indifferent and banal chastity, she would not, at this very moment speak of her, be playing the psaltery before the tabernacle where the Holy of Holies reposes in his glory. Do you call disorder, so fine a regulation of a predestinated life? Certainly not! Leave such mean ways of speech to the Superintendent of Police, who after his death will hardly find the smallest place behind the unfortunates whom now he carries ignominiously to the spittel. Beyond the loss of the soul and eternal damnation there can be no other disorders, crimes or evils whatsoever in this perishable world, where one and all is to be ruled and adjusted with regard to a divine world. Confess, Tournebroche, my boy, that acts the most reprehensible in the opinion of men can lead to a good end, and do not try to reconcile the justice of men with the justice of God, which alone is just, not in our sense but with finality. And now, my boy, you’ll greatly oblige me by looking into Vossius for the signification of five or six rather obscure words which the Panopolitan employs, and wherewith one has to do battle in the darkness of that insidious manner which astonished even the willing heart of Ajax, as reported by Homer, prince of poets and historians. These ancient alchemists had a tough style. Manilius, may it not displease M. d’Asterac, writes on the same subjects with more elegance.”

Hardly had my tutor said these last words when a shadow arose between him and myself. It was that of M. d’Asterac, or rather it was M. d’Asterac himself, thin and black like a shadow.

It may be that he had not heard that talk, maybe he disdained it, for certainly he did not show any kind of resentment. On the contrary, he congratulated M. Jerome Coignard on his zeal and knowledge, and further said that he relied on his enlightenment for the achievement of the greatest work that man had ever attempted. And turning to me he said:

“Be so good as to come for a moment to my study, where I intend to make known to you a secret of consequence.”

I went with him to the same room where he had first received us, my tutor and myself, on the day we entered his service. I found there, exactly as on that occasion, ranged along the walls, the ancient Egyptians with golden faces. A glass globe of the size of a pumpkin stood on a table. M. d’Asterac sank on a sofa, and signed to me to take a seat near him, and having twice or thrice passed a hand covered with jewels and amulets across his forehead said:

“My son, I do not wish to injure you by believing that, after our conversation on the Isle of Swans, you still doubt of the existence of Sylphs and Salamanders, who are as real as men and perhaps more so, if one measures reality by the duration of the appearances by which it is displayed, their existence being very much longer than ours. Salamanders range from century to century in unalterable youth; some of them have seen Noah, Moses and Pythagoras. The wealth of their recollections and the freshness of their memory render their conversation attractive to the utmost. It has been pretended that they gain immortality in the arms of men, and that the hope of never dying led them into the beds of the philosophers, But those are fables unfit to seduce a reflecting mind. All union of sexes, far from ensuring immortality to lovers, is a sign of death, and we could not know love were we to live indefinitely. It could not be otherwise with the Salamanders, who look in the arms of the wise for nothing else but for one single kind of immortality — that is, of the race. It is also the only one which can be reasonably expected. And, much as I promise myself to prolong human life in a notable manner — that is, to extend it over at least five or six centuries — I have never flattered myself to assure it perpetuity. It would be insane to want to go against the established rules of nature, Therefore, my son, reject as a vain fable the idea of immortality to be sucked in with a kiss. It is to the shame of more than one of the cabalists to have ever conceived such an idea. But for all that it is quite evident that Salamanders are inclined to man’s love. You’ll soon experience it yourself. I have sufficiently prepared you for a visit from them, and as, since the night of your initiation, you have not had any impure intercourse with a woman you will obtain the reward of your continency.”

My natural candidness suffered by receiving praise which I had merited against my own will, and I wished to confess to M. d’Asterac my guilty thoughts. But he did not give me time to do so, and continued with vivacity:

“Nothing now remains for me, my son, but to give you the key which opens the empire of the genii. That is what I am going to do at once.”

Rising he put a hand on the globe which covered one half of the table.

“This globe,” he said, “is full of a solar powder which escapes being visible to you by its own purity. It is much too delicate to be seen by means of the coarse senses of men. So comes it, my son, that the finest parts of the universe are concealed from our sight and reveal themselves only to the learned, provided with apparatus proper for this discovery. The rivers and the aerial landscapes, for example, remain invisible, even as their aspect is a thousand times richer and more variegated than the most beautiful terrestrial landscape.

“Know, then, that in this bowl is a solar powder superlatively proper to exalt the fire we have within us. The effect of this exaltation is imminent. It consists of a subtlety of the senses allowing us to see and touch the aerial figures floating around us. As soon as you have broken the seal which locks the aperture of this globe, and inhaled the escaping solar powder, you will in this room discover one or more creatures resembling women by the system of curved outlines forming their bodies, but much more beautiful than was ever any woman, and who are in fact Salamanders. No doubt the one I saw last year in your father’s cookshop will be the first one to appear here to you, as she has a liking for you, and I strongly counsel you to hasten to comply with her wishes. And now make yourself easy in that arm-chair, open the globe, and gently inhale the contents. Very soon you will see all I have announced to you realised, point by point. I leave you. Good-bye.”

And he disappeared in a manner which was strangely sudden. I remained alone before that glass globe, hesitating to unlock it, afraid lest some stupefying exhalation should escape from it. I thought that perhaps M. d’Asterac had put in it, as an artifice, some of those vapours which benumb those who inhale them and make them dream of Salamanders. I was still not enough of a philosopher to be desirous of becoming happy by such means. Possibly, I said to myself, such vapours predispose to madness; and finally I became defiant enough to think of going to the library to ask advice of M. Jerome Coignard. But I soon became aware that such would be a needless trouble; as soon as I began to speak to him of solar powder and aerial genii he would start: “Jacques Tournebroche, remember, my boy, that you must never put faith in absurdities, but bring home to your reason all matters except those of our holy religion. Stuff and nonsense all these globes and powders, with all the other follies of the cabala and the spagyric art.”

I imagined I could hear him talk like that in the interval between two pinches of snuff, and I really did not know what to reply to such a Christian speech. On the other hand, I thought in advance how puzzled I should be to reply to M. d’Asterac when he inquired of me after news of the Salamander. What could I say? How was I to avow my reserve and my abstention without betraying my defiance and fear? And after all, without being aware of it, I was curious to try the adventure. I am not credulous. On the contrary I am marvellously inclined to doubt, and by this inclination to brave common-sense, as well as evidence and everything else. Of the strangest things that may be told me, I say to myself, “Why not?” This “Why not?” wronged my natural intelligence in sight of that globe. This “Why not?” pushed me towards credulity, and it may be interesting to remark, on this occasion, to believe in nothing means to believe in everything, and that the mind is not to be kept too free and too vacant, for fear that commodities of extravagant form and weight should enter by a loophole, commodities of a kind which could not find room in minds reasonably and tolerably well furnished with belief. And while, with my hand on the wax seal, I remembered what my mother had narrated to me of the magic bottle, my “Why not?” whispered to me that perhaps, after all, aerial fairies may be visible through the dust of the sun. But as soon as this idea, having entered into my mind, began to become easy therein, I found it to be odd, absurd and grotesque. Ideas, when they impose themselves, very soon become impudent. But few are apt to be better than pleasant passers-by; and, decidedly, this very one had somehow an air of madness. During the time I asked myself, “Shall I open it?” “Shall I not?” the seal, which I had held continuously between my pressing fingers, broke suddenly in my hand, and the flagon was open.

I waited, I observed, I saw nothing, I felt nothing. And I was disappointed, so much the hope of stepping out of nature is prone and ready to glide into our souls! Nothing! Not even a vague or confused illusion, an uncertain image! What I had foreseen occurred. What a deception! I felt somewhat vexed. Reclined in my arm-chair I vowed to myself, before all the black-haired Egyptians surrounding me, to close my soul better in the future to the lies of the cabalists; and once more recognised my dear teacher’s wisdom and resolved, like him, to be guided by reason in all matters not connected with faith, Christian and Catholic. Expecting the visit of a lady Salamander, what silliness! Is it possible that Salamanders exist? But what is known about it, and “Why not?”

Since noon the air was heavy, now it became stifling. Rendered torpid by long days of quietness and seclusion, I felt a weight on my forehead and eyes. The approach of a thunderstorm lay heavy on me. I let my arms hang down, and, with head thrown back, and eyes closed, I glided into a doze full of golden Egyptians and lustful shadows. In this uncertain state the sense of love alone was alive in my body, like a fire in the night. How long it had lasted I could not say, when I was awakened by a sound of light steps and the rustling of a dress. I opened my eyes and gave a great shout.

A marvellous creature stood before me, clad in black satin, a lace veil on her head — a dark woman with blue eyes, of resolute features in a juvenile and pure skin, round cheeks and the mouth animated as by an invisible kiss. The short skirt let little feet be seen, dancing, jolly, spirited feet. She held herself upright, but was round, somewhat thick-set, in her voluptuous perfection. Under the black velvet ribbon round her throat a little square of her bosom was visible, brown, but dazzling. She looked on me with an air of curiosity. I have said already how sleep had rendered me amorous. I rose quickly, and stepped forward.

“Excuse me,” she said, “I am looking for M. d’Asterac.”

I said to her:

“Madam, there is no M. d’Asterac. There is you and I. I expected you. You are a Salamander. I have opened the crystal flagon. You have come. You are mine.”

“You are my Salamander”

I took her in my arms and covered with kisses all places my lips could find uncovered by her dress.

She tore herself away and said:

“You are mad.”

“That is quite natural,” I replied. “Who in my place could remain sane?”

She lowered her eyes, blushed, and smiled. I fell at her feet.

“As M. d’Asterac is not here,” she said, “I had better retire.”

“Remain!” I cried, and bolted the door.

“Do you know if he will soon be back?”

“No, madam! He will not return for a long time. He left me alone with the Salamanders. But I want one only, and that one is you.”

I lifted her in my arms, carried her to the sofa, fell down on it with her, and smothered her with kisses. I was out of my senses. She screamed, I did not hear her; she pushed me back with outstretched hands; her fingernails scratched me all over, and her vain defence only excited my frenzy. I pressed, enlaced her, she fell back worn out. Her mollified body gave way, she closed her eyes and soon, in my triumph, her beautiful arms, reconciled, pressed me on her bosom.

Released, alas! from that delicious embrace, we looked at one another with surprise. Occupied to get up again decently she put her dress in order and remained silent.

“I love you,” I said. “What is your name?”

I did not think her to be a Salamander, and to say the truth never did think so.

“My name is Jahel,” she said.

“What! you’re the niece of Mosaïde?”

“Yes; but keep quiet. If he should know —”

“What would he do?”

“Oh! nothing to me — nothing. But to you the worst. He dislikes Christians.”

“And you?”

“Oh! I? I dislike the Jews.”

“Jahel, do you love me a little?”

“It seems to me, sir, that after what we have just now said to one another, your question is an offence.”

“True, mademoiselle, but I try to obtain forgiveness for a vivacity, an ardour, which did not take the leisure to consult your sentiments.”

“Oh! monsieur, do not make yourself out to be more guilty than you really are. All your violence, and all your passion, would not have served you at all, had I not found you lovable. When I saw you sleeping in that arm-chair, I liked your looks, waited for your awakening — the rest you know.”

As reply I gave her a kiss, she gave it me back, what a kiss! I fancied fresh-gathered strawberries melting in my mouth. My desire revived and passionately I pressed her on my heart.

“This time,” she said, “be less hasty, and do not think only of yourself. You must not be selfish in love. Young men do not sufficiently know that. But we teach them.”

And we immersed ourselves in an unfathomable depth of deliciousness.

After that the divine Jahel asked of me:

“Have you a comb? I look like a witch.”

“Jahel,” I answered, “I have no comb. I had expected a Salamander. I adore you.”

“Adore me, dearest, but remain secret. You do not know Mosaïde.”

“What, Jahel. Is he still so terrible as that, at the age of one hundred and thirty years, of which he has lived sixty-five inside a pyramid?”

“I see, my friend, that stories of my uncle have been told you and that you were simple enough to believe them. Nobody knows his age; I myself am ignorant of it, but I have always known him as an old man. I know only that he is robust and of uncommon strength. He has been a banker at Lisbon, where he killed a Christian he surprised in the arms of my Aunt Myriam. He took to flight, and carried me with him. Since then he loves me with the tenderness of a mother. He tells me things that are told to little children only, and he cries when he sees me asleep.”

“Do you live with him?”

“Yes, in the keeper’s lodge, at the other end of the park.”

“I know; you reach it by the lane where mandrakes are to be found. How is it that I did not meet you before? By what sinister destiny, living so near you, have I lived without seeing you? But what do I say, lived? Is it to live without knowing you? Are you shut up in yonder lodge?”

“It is true I am somewhat of a recluse, and cannot go for walks as I wish, to the shops, to theatres. Mosaïde’s tenderness does not leave me any liberty. He guards me jealously, and, besides six small gold cups he brought with him from Lisbon, he loves but me on earth. As he is much more attached to me than he was to my Aunt Myriam, he would kill you, dear, with a better heart than he killed the Portuguese. I warn you so, to impress the necessity of discretion on you, and because it is not a consideration which could stop a brave gentleman. Are you of a good family, my friend?”

“Alas! no; my father applies himself to a mechanic art, and has a sort of trade.”

“And he is not of any of the professions? Does not belong to the banking world? No? It is a pity. Well. you’re to be loved for yourself. But speak the truth. Is M. d’Asterac to be back shortly?”

At this name and question a terrible doubt came in my mind. I suspected the enchanting Jahel to have been sent by the cabalist to play the part of a Salamander with me. I went so far as to excuse her in my mind of being the nymph of that old fool. To obtain an immediate explanation I bluntly and coarsely asked her if she was in the habit of acting the Salamander in the castle.

“I don’t understand you,” she replied, looking at me with eyes full of innocent surprise. “You speak like M. d’Asterac himself, and I could believe you to be attacked by his mania also, if I had not proved that you do not share the aversion to women that he has. He cannot stand any female, and it is a real annoyance to me to see and speak with him. Nevertheless I was looking for him when I found you.”

The pleasure of being reassured made me again smother her with kisses.

She managed to let me see that she had black stockings which, over the knees, were held up by garters ornamented with diamond buckles and that sight brought back my mind to ideas pleasant to her. Besides she entreated me on the welcome subject with much ability and fervour, and I was aware that she became excited over the game at the very moment I began to get fatigued from it, However I did my best, and was fortunate enough to spare the beautiful girl a disgrace which she did not deserve in the least. It seemed to me that she was not discontented with me. She rose, very quietly, and said:

“Do you really not know if M. d’Asterac will soon be back? I confess to you that I came to ask him for a small amount of that pension he owes to my uncle, a trifle only. I very badly want it just now.”

I took my purse out and handed her, with due excuses, the three crowns it contained. It was all that remained of the too rare liberalities of the cabalist who, professing to dislike money, unluckily forgot to pay me my salary.

I asked Mademoiselle Jahel if I should not have the pleasure of seeing her again.

“You will,” she replied.

And we agreed that she should ascend at night-time to my room whenever she could escape from the lodge, where she was pretty nearly a prisoner.

“Take care to remember,” I told her, “that my room is the fourth on the right of the corridor and Abbé Coignard’s the fifth. The others give access to the lofts, where two or three scullions lodge, and hundreds of rats.”

She assured me that she would be very careful not to make a mistake, and would scratch on my door and not on any other.

“Besides,” she continued, “your Abbé Coignard seems to be a very good man, and I am pretty sure that we have in no way to be afraid of him. I looked at him, through a peephole, on the day he came with you to visit my uncle! I thought him amiable, though I could not hear what he said. Principally his nose I thought to be really ingenious and capable. A man with such a nose ought to be full of expedients and I very much wish to become acquainted with him. One can but better one’s mind by having intercourse with people of high spirit. I am only sorry that my uncle was not pleased with his words and scoffing humour. Mosaïde hates him, and of his capacity for hate no Christian can form an idea.”

“Mademoiselle,” I replied, “Monsieur l’Abbé Jérôme Coignard is a very learned man, and he has in addition philosophy and kindness. He knows the world, and you are quite right in believing him to be a good counsellor. I regulate myself fully after his advice. But, tell me, did you see me also, on yonder day, at the lodge, through the peephole you spoke of?”

“I saw you,” she said to me, “and I will not hide from you that I was pleased. But I must return to my uncle. Good-bye.”

The same evening, after supper, M. d’Asterac did not fail to ask me for news of the Salamander. His curiosity troubled me somewhat. My answer was that the meeting had surpassed all my expectations, but that I thought it my duty to confine myself to a discretion due to such kind of adventures.

“That discretion, my son,” he said, “is not of so much use in your case as you represent. Salamanders do not want their amours to be kept secret, they are not ashamed of them. One of those nymphs who loves me does not know of a sweeter pastime than to engrave my initials enlaced with hers on the bark of trees, as you can see for yourself by examining the stems of five or six Scotch firs, the exquisite tops of which you can see from yonder windows. But have you not, my son, learned that that kind of amour, truly sublime, far from leaving any fatigue behind, lends to the heart a new vigour? I am sure that after what passed today you’ll employ your night in translating at least sixty pages of Zosimus the Panopolitan.”

I confessed that on the contrary I felt very sleepy, which he explained by reason of the astonishment produced by such a first meeting. And so the great man remained convinced that I had had intercourse with a Salamander. I felt some scruples at deceiving him, but I was compelled to do it and, besides, he deceived himself to such a degree that it was hardly possible to add anything to his illusions. So I ascended peacefully to my room, went to bed, and blew the candle out at the end of the most glorious day of my life.

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