At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 6

Arrival at the Castle of M. d’Asterac and Interview with the Cabalist.

On the following day at an early hour we walked, my tutor and I, on the St Germain road. The snow which covered the earth under the russet light of the sky, rendered the atmosphere dull and heavy. The road was deserted. We walked in wide furrows between the walls of orchards, tottering fences and low houses, the windows of which looked suspiciously on us. And, after having left behind two or three tumbledown huts built of clay and straw, we saw in the middle of a disconsolate heath the Cross of the Sablons. At fifty paces farther commenced a very large park, closed in by a ruined wall, wherein was the little door, and on it the knocker representing a horrible-looking figure with a finger in her mouth. We recognised it easily as the one the philosopher had described, and used the knocker.

After some rather considerable time, an old servant opened it and made us a sign to follow him across the untidy park. Statues of nymphs, who must have seen the boyhood of the late king, secreted under tree ivy their gloominess and mutilations. At the end of an alley, the sloughs of which were covered with snow, stood a castle of stone and brick, as morose as the one of Madrid, which, oddly covered by a high slate roof, looked like the castle of the Sleeping Beauty in the wood.

Following the silent valet, M. Coignard whispered to me:

“I confess, my son, that this lodging has no smiling appearance. It shows the ruggedness wherein the customs of Frenchmen were still immured in the time of King Henry IV., and it drives the soul to gloom and nearly to melancholy by the state of forlornness in which unhappily it has been left. How much sweeter it would be to climb the enchanted hillocks of Tusculum with the hope of hearing Cicero discourse of virtue, under the firs and pines of his villa so dear to the philosopher! And have you not observed, my boy, that all along yonder road neither taverns nor hostels are to be met with, and that it would be necessary to cross the bridge and go up the hill to the Bergères to get a drink of fresh wine? There is thereabout a hostel of the Red Horse, where, if I remember well, Madame de St Ernest took me once to dinner in the company of her monkey and her lover. You can’t imagine, Tournebroche, how excellent the victuals are there. The Red Horse is as well known for its morning dinners as for the abundance of horses and carriages which it has on hire. I convinced myself of it when I followed to the stables a certain wench who seemed to be rather pretty. But she was not; it would be a truer saying to call her ugly. But I illuminated her with the colours of my longings. Such is the condition of men when left to themselves; they err wretchedly. We are all abused by empty images; we go in chase of dreams and embrace shadows. In God alone is truth and stability.”

Meanwhile we ascended, behind the old servant, the disjointed flight of steps.

“Alas!” said my tutor, “I begin to regret your father’s cookshop, where we ate such good morsels while explaining Quintilian.”

After having scaled the first flight of large stone stairs, we were introduced into a saloon, where M. d’Asterac was occupied with writing near a big fire, in the midst of Egyptian coffins of human form raised against the walls, their lids painted with sacred figures and golden faces with long glossy eyes.

Politely M. d’Asterac invited us to be seated and said:

“Gentlemen, I expected you. And as you have both kindly consented to do me the favour of staying with me, I beg of you to consider this house as your own. You’ll be occupied in translating Greek texts I have brought back with me from Egypt. I have no doubt you will do your best to accomplish this task when you know that it is connected with the work I have undertaken, to discover the lost science by which man will be re-established in his original power over the elements. I have no intention of raising the veil of nature and showing you Isis in her dazzling nudity; but I will entrust you with the object of my studies without fear that you’ll betray the mystery, because I have confidence in your integrity and also in the power I have to guess and to forestall all that may be attempted against me and to dispose for my vengeance of secret and terrible forces. From the defaults of a fidelity, of which I do not doubt; my power, gentlemen, assures me of your silence.

“Know then that man came out of Jehovah’s hands with that perfect knowledge he has since lost. He was very powerful and very wise when he was created, that’s to be seen in the books of Moses. But it’s necessary to understand them. Before all it is clear that Jehovah is not God, but a grand Demon, because he has created this world. The idea of a God both perfect and creative is but a reverie of a barbarity worthy of a Welshman or a Saxon. As little polished as one’s mind may be one cannot admit that a perfect being tags anything to his own perfection, be it a hazelnut. That’s common sense; God has no understanding, as he is endless how could he understand? He does not create, because he ignores time and space, which are conditions indispensable to all constructions. Moses was too good a philosopher to teach that the world was created by God. He took Jehovah for what he really is — for a powerful Demon, or if he is to be called anything, for the Demiurgos.

“It follows that Jehovah, creating man, gave him knowledge of the visible and the invisible world. The fall of Adam and Eve, which I’ll explain to you another day, had not fully destroyed that knowledge of the first man and the first woman, who passed their teachings on to their children. Those teachings, on which the domination of nature relies, have been consigned to the book of Enoch. The Egyptian priests have kept the tradition which they fixed with mysterious signs on the walls of the temples and the coffins of the dead. Moses, brought up in the sanctuary of Memphis, was one of the initiated. His books, numbering five, perhaps six, contain like very precious archives the treasures of divine knowledge. You’ll discover there the most beautiful secrets if you have cleared them of the interpolations which dishonour them; one scorns the literal and coarse sense, to attach oneself to the most subtle. I have penetrated to the largest part, as it will appear to you also later on. Meanwhile, the truth, kept like virgins in the temples of Egypt, passed to the wizards of Alexandria, who enriched them still more and crowned them with all the pure gold bequeathed to Greece by Pythagoras and his disciples, with whom the forces of the air conversed familiarly. Wherefore, gentlemen, it is convenient to explore the books of the Hebrews, the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians and those treatises of the Greeks which are called Gnostic precisely because they possessed knowledge. I reserve for myself, as is quite equitable, the most arduous part of this extensive work. I apply myself to decipher those hieroglyphics which the Egyptians used to inscribe in the temples of their gods and on the graves of their priests. Having brought over from Egypt a great number of those inscriptions, I fathom their sense by means of a key I was able to discover with Clement of Alexandria.

“The Rabbi Mosaïde, who lives in retirement with me, works on the re-establishment of the true sense of the Pentateuch. He is an old man very well versed in magic, who has lived seventeen years shut up in the crypt of the Great Pyramid, where he read the books of Toth. Concerning yourselves, gentlemen, I intend to employ your knowledge, in reading the Alexandrian MSS. which I have collected myself in great numbers. There you’ll find, no doubt, some marvellous secrets, and I do not doubt that with the help of these three sources of light-the Egyptian, the Hebrew and the Greek — I’ll soon acquire the means I still want, to command absolutely nature, visible as well as invisible. Believe me I shall know how to reward your services by making you in some way participators of my power.

“I do not speak to you of a more vulgar means to recognise them. At the point I have reached in my philosophical labours, money is for me but a trifle.”

Arrived at this part of M. d’Asterac’s discourse my good tutor interrupted by saying:

“Sir, I’ll not conceal from you that this very money, which seems to be a trifle to you, is for myself a smarting anxiety, because I have experienced that it is not easy to earn some and remain an honest man or even otherwise. Therefore I should be thankful for the assurance you would kindly give on that subject.”

M. d’Asterac, with a movement which seemed to remove an invisible object, gave M. Jerome Coignard the wished-for assurance; for myself, curious as I was of all I saw, I did not wish for anything better than to enter into a new life.

At his master’s call, the old servant who had opened the door to us appeared in the study.

“Gentlemen,” said our host, “I give you your liberty till dinner at noon. Meanwhile I should be very much obliged to you for ascending to the rooms I have had prepared for you, and let me know that there is nothing wanting for your comfort. Criton will conduct you.”

Having assured himself that we were following him, silent Criton went out and began to ascend the stairs. He went up to the roof timbers, then, having taken some steps down a long passage, he indicated to us two very clean rooms where fires sparkled. I could never have believed that a castle as shattered on the outside, the front of which showed nothing but cracked walls and dark windows, was as habitable in some of its inner parts. My first care was to know where I was. Our rooms looked on the fields, the view from them embraced the marshy slopes of the Seine, extending up to the Calvary of Mont Valérien. Eyeing our furniture, I could see, laid out on my bed, a grey coat, breeches to match and a sword. On the carpet were buckle shoes neatly coupled, the heels joined and the points separated just as if they had of themselves the sentiment of a fine deportment.

I augured favourably of the liberality of our master, To do him honour, I dressed very carefully and spread abundantly on my hair the powder a box full of which I found on a small table. And very welcome were the laced shirt and white stockings I discovered in one of the drawers of the chest.

Having put on shirt, stockings, breeches, vest and coat, I walked up and down my room with hat under the arm, hand on the guard of my sword, thinking all the time on the looking-glass, and regretting that Catherine, the lace-maker, could not see me in such finery.

In this way I was occupied for a little while, when M. Jerome Coignard came into my room with a new neckband and very respectable clerical garb.

“Tournebroche,” he exclaimed, “is it you, my boy? Never forget that you owe these fine clothes to the knowledge I have given you. They fit a humanist like yourself, as who says humanities says also elegance. But look on me and say if I have a good mien. In this dress I consider myself to be a very honest man. This M. d’Asterac seems to be tolerably magnificent. It’s a pity he’s mad. Wise he is in one way, as he calls his valet Criton, which means judge. And it’s very true that our valets are the witnesses of all our actions. When Lord Verulam, Chancellor of England, whose philosophy I esteem but little, entered the great hall to be tried, his lackeys, who were clad with an opulence by which the copiousness of the Chancellor’s household could be judged, rose to render him due honour. Lord Verulam said to them: ‘Sit down, your rising is my falling.’ As a fact, those knaves, by their extravagance, had pushed him to ruin and compelled him to do things for which he was indicted as a peculator. Tournebroche, my boy, always remember this misfortune of Lord Verulam, Chancellor of England and author of the ‘Novum Organum.’ But to return to that Sire d’Asterac, in whose service we are; it is a great pity that he is a sorcerer and given to cursed science. You know, my boy, I pride myself on my delicacy in matters of faith I find it hard to serve a cabalist who turns our Holy Scriptures upside down under the pretext to understand them better that way. However, if he is, as his name and speech indicate, a Gascon nobleman, we have nothing to be afraid of. A Gascon may make a contract with the devil and you may be sure that the devil will be done.”

The dinner bell interrupted our conversation.

But while descending the stairs, my kind tutor said: “Tournebroche, my boy, remember, during the whole meal, to follow all my movements, to enable you to imitate them. Having dined at the third table of the Bishop of Seez, I know how to do it. It’s a difficult art. It’s harder to dine than to speak like a gentleman.”

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