It happened one evening. Claude had just retired after the evening office to his canonical cell in the cloister of Notre Dame. Beyond a few glass phials pushed away into a corner and containing some powder which looked suspiciously like an explosive, the cell had nothing noteworthy or mysterious about it. Here and there were some inscriptions on the walls, but they consisted purely of learned axioms or pious extracts from worthy authors. The Archdeacon had just seated himself at a huge oak chest covered with manuscripts, and lighted by a three-armed brass lamp. He leaned his elbow on an open tome: Honorius of Autuns De prædestinatione et libero arbitrio,1 while he musingly turned over the leaves of a printed folio he had just brought over, the sole production of the printing-press which stood in his cell. His reverie was broken by a knock at the door.
It was, in fact, the Kings physician, a man of some fifty years, the hardness of whose expression was somewhat mitigated by a look of great cunning. He was accompanied by another man. Both wore long, slate-gray, squirrel-lined robes, fastened from top to bottom and belted round the middle, and caps of the same stuff and colour. Their hands disappeared in their sleeves, their feet under their robes, and their eyes under their caps.
God save me, messire! said the Archdeacon, as he admitted them; I was far from expecting so flattering a visit at this late hour. And while he spoke thus courteously, he glanced suspiciously and shrewdly from the physician to his companion.
It is never too late to pay a visit to so eminent a scholar as Dom Claude Frollo of Tirechappe, replied Doctor Coictier, whose Burgundian accent let his sentences trail along with all the majestic effect of a long-trained robe.
The physician and the Archdeacon them embarked upon one of those congratulatory prologues with which, at that period, it was customary to usher in every conversation between scholars, which did not prevent them most cordially detesting one another. For the rest, it is just the same to-day; the mouth of every scholar who compliments another is a vessel full of honeyed gall.
The felicitations addressed by Claude to Jacques Coictier alluded chiefly to the numerous material advantages the worthy physician had succeeded in extracting, in the course of his much-envied career, from each illness of the Kinga surer and more profitable kind of alchemy than the pursuit of the philosophers stone.
How fares it with your superb mansion in the Rue Saint-Andry des Arcs? It is in very truth a Louvre! And I am much taken by the apricot-tree sculptured on the door, with the pleasant play of words inscribed beneath it, A LABRI-COTIER.
Oho! Have you not your revenues from the jail, and the Provostship of the Palais de Justice, and the rents from all the houses, workshops, booths, and market-stalls within the circuit of Paris? That is surely an excellent milch cow.
The compliments which Dom Claude thus addressed to Jacques Coictier were uttered in that tone of veiled, bitter, sardonic raillery, with that grievous, yet cruel, smile of a superior and unfortunate man, who seeks a moments distraction in playing on the gross vanity of the vulgarly prosperous man. The other was quite unconscious of it.
These words, uttered in a tone of surprise and reproach, recalled the Archdeacons attention to the strangers presence, though, to tell the truth, he had never, from the moment he crossed the threshold, quite turned away from this unknown guest. Indeed, it required the thousand reasons Claude had for humouring the all-powerful physician of Louis XI to make him consent to receive him thus accompanied. Therefore, his expression was none of the friendliest when Jacques Coictier said to him:
Monsieur is a scholar? asked the Archdeacon, fixing Coictiers companion with a penetrating eye. But from under the brows of the stranger he met a glance not less keen or less suspicious than his own.
He was, so far as one could judge by the feeble rays of the lamp, a man of about sixty, of middle height, and apparently ailing and broken. His face, although the features were sufficiently commonplace, had something commanding and severe; his eye glittered under the deep arch of his brow like a beacon-light far down a cavern; and under the cap, pulled down almost to his nose, one divined instinctively the broad forehead of a genius.
Reverend sir, said he in grave tones, your fame has reached me, and I was desirous of consulting you. I am but a poor gentleman from the provinces who takes the shoes off his feet before entering the presence of the learned. I must acquaint you with my name: they call me Compère2 Tourangeau.
Singular name for a gentleman, thought the Archdeacon. Nevertheless, he felt himself in the presence of something powerful and commanding. The instinct of his high intelligence led him to suspect one no less high beneath the fur-trimmed cap of Compère Tourangeau; and as he scrutinized that quiet figure, the sneering smile that twitched round the corners of his morose mouth as he talked to Coictier faded slowly away, like the sunset glow from an evening sky.
A remedy! exclaimed the Archdeacon, shaking his head. He seemed to consider for a moment, and then resumed: Compère Tourangeausince that is your nameturn your head. You will find my answer written on the wall.
Doctor Jacques Coictier had listened to his companions question with a vexation which Dom Claudes answer only served to increase. He now leaned over to Tourangeau and whispered, too low for the Archdeacons ear: Did I not warn you that he was a crack-brained fool? You were set upon seeing him.
Just as you please, answered Coictier dryly. You are very quick in your decision, Dom Claude, and Hippocrates apparently presents no more difficulties to you than a nut to a monkey. Medicine a dream! I doubt if the apothecaries and doctors, were they here, could refrain from stoning you. So you deny the influence of philters on the blood, of unguents on the flesh? You deny the existence of that eternal pharmacy of flowers and metals which we call the World, created expressly for the benefit of that eternal invalid we call Man!
Then, I presume it is not true, Coictier went on with rising hear, that gout is an internal eruption; that a shotwound may be healed by the outward application of a roasted mouse; that young blood, injected in suitable quantities, will restore youth to aged veins; it is not true that two and two make four, and that emprosthotonos follows upon opisthotonos?
Pasque Dieu! resumed Tourangeau, after a short silence; you put me in a very embarrassing position, Maître Claude. I looked to obtaining two opinions from you, one as to my health, the other as to my star.
No! cried the Archdeacon, grasping Tourangeaus arm, while a gleam of enthusiasm flashed in his sunken eye; no, I do not deny science. I have not crawled so long on my belly with my nails dug in the earth through all the innumerable windings of that dark mine, without perceiving in the far distanceat the end of the dim passagea light, a flame, a something; the reflection, no doubt, from that dazzling central laboratory in which the patient and the wise have come upon God.
Listen, Messire Jacques. I speak in all good faith. I am not physician to the King, and his Majesty did not give me a Labyrinth in which to observe the constellations. Nay, be not angry, but listen to what I say: what truths have you extracted from the studyI will not say of medicine, which is too foolish a matterbut from astrology? Explain to me the virtues of the vertical boustrophedon,3 or the treasures contained in the numeral ziruph, and in those of the numeral zephirod.
Errors, Messire Jacques! None of your formulas have anything definite to show, whereas alchemy has its actual discoveries. Can you contest such results as these, for instanceice, buried underground for two thousand years, is converted into rock crystal; lead is the progenitor of all metals (for gold is not a metal, gold is light); lead requires but four periods of two hundred years each to pass successively from the condition of lead to that of red arsenic, from red arsenic to tin, from tin to silver. Are these facts, or are they not? But to believe in the clavicula, in the mystic significance of the junction of two lines, in the stars, is as ridiculous as to believe, like the inhabitants of Cathay, that the oriole changes into a mole, and grains of wheat into crap-like fish.
The impetuous Archdeacon would not let him finish. And II have studied medicine, astrology, and hermetics. Here alone is truth (and as he spoke he took up one of those phials of glass of which mention has been made), here alone is light! Hippocratesa dream;Urania a dream; Hermesa phantasm. Gold is the sun; to make gold is to be God. There is the one and only science. I have sounded medicine and astrology to their depthsnull, I tell younull and void! The human bodydarkness! the starsdarkness!
He sank into his chair with a compelling and inspired gesture. Tourangeau observed him in silence; Coictier forced a disdainful laugh, shrugging his shoulders imperceptibly while he repeated under his breath, Madman.
No, the Archdeacon went on, as if in answer to his own thoughts, I am still crawling, still bruising my face and my Knees against the stones of the subterranean path. Fitful glimpses I catch, but nothing clear. I cannot readI am but conning the alphabet.
Old man, it would require more years than yet remain to you to undertake this journey across the world of mystery. Your head is very gray! One emerges from the cave with white hair, but one must enter it with black. Science knows very well how to furrow and wither up the face of man without assistance; she has no need that age should bring to her faces that are already wrinkled. Nevertheless, if you are possessed by the desire to put yourself under tutelage at your age, and to decipher the awful alphabet of Wisdom, well and good, come to me, I will do what I can. I will not bid you, poor graybeard, go visit the sepulchral chambers of the Pyramids, of which the ancient Herodotus speaks, nor the brick tower of Babylon, nor the vast marble sanctuary of the Indian Temple of Eklinga. I have not seen, any more than you have, the Chaldean walls built in accordance with the sacred formula of Sikra, nor the Temple of Solomon which was destroyed, nor the stone doors of the sepulchres of the Kings, of Israel which are broken in pieces. Such fragments of the Book of Hermes as we have here will suffice us. I will explain to you the statue of Saint-Christopher, the symbol of the Sower, and that of the two angels in the door of the Sainte-Chapelle, of whom one has his hand in a stone vessel, and the other in a cloud.
Here Jacques Coictier, who had been quite confounded by the Archdeacons tempestuous flow of eloquence, recovered his composure and struck in with the triumphant tone of one scholar setting another right:
It is you who are in error, returned the Archdeacon with dignity; Dædalus is the foundation; Orpheus is the wall; Hermes is the edificethe whole structure. Come whenever it please you, he continued, turning to Tourangeau. I will show you the particles of gold left in the bottom of Nicolas Flamels crucible which you can compare with the gold of Guillaume de Paris. I will instruct you in the secret virtues of the Greek word peristera. But before all things, you shall read, one after another, the letters of the marble alphabet, the pages of the granite book. We will go from the doorway of Bishop Guillaume and of Saint-Jean le Rond to the Sainte-Chapelle, then to the house of Nicolas Flamel in the Rue Marivault, to his tomb in the cemetery of the Holy Innocents, to his two hospices in the Rue de Montmorency. You shall read the hieroglyphics with which the four great iron bars in the porch of the Hospice of Saint-Gervais are covered. Together we will spell out the façades of Saint-Côme, of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Ardents, Saint-Martin, Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie
Here is one, replied the Archdeacon; and opening the window of his cell, he pointed to the mighty Cathedral of Notre Dame, the black silhouette of its two towers, its stone sides, and its huge roof sharply outlined against the starry sky, and looking like an enormous two-headed sphinx crouching in the midst of the city.
For some moments the Archdeacon contemplated the gigantic edifice in silence; then, sighing deeply, he pointed with his right hand to the printed book lying open on his table, and with his left to Notre Dame, and casting a mournful glance from the book to the church:
Coictier, who had bent eagerly over the book, could not repress an exclamation of disappointment. Hé! but what is there so alarming in this? Glossa in Epistolas Pauli, Norimbergæ, Antonius Koburger, 1474. That is not new. It is a book of Petrus Lombardus, the Magister Sententiarum. Do you mean because it is printed?
You have said it, returned Claude, who stood apparently absorbed in profound meditation, with his finger on the folio which had issued from the famous printing-press of Nuremberg. Presently he uttered these dark words: Woe! woe! the small brings down the great; a tooth triumphs over a whole mass! The Nile rat destroys the crocodile, the sword-fish destroys the whale, the book will destroy the edifice!
Maître, said Compère Tourangeau, as he took leave of the Archdeacon, I have a great regard for scholars and great spirits, and I hold you in peculiar esteem. Come tomorrow to the Palais des Tournelles, and ask for the Abbot of Saint-Martin of Tours.
The Archdeacon returned to his cell dumfounded, comprehending at last who the personage calling himself Compère Tourangeau really was: for he called to mind this passage in the Charter of Saint-Martin of Tours: Abbas, beati Martini, scilicet Rex Franciæ, est canonicus de consuetudine et habet parvam præbendam quam habet sanctus, Venantius, et debet sedere in sede thesaurii.4
It is asserted that from that time onward the Archdeacon conferred frequently with Louis XI, whenever his Majesty came to Paris, and that the Kings regard for Dom Claude put Oliver le Daim and Jacques Coictier quite in the shade, the latter of whom, as was his custom, rated the King soundly in consequence.
Note 3. Writing from right to left and back again from left to right without breaking off the lines. [back]
Note 4. The Abbot of Saint-Martin, that is to say the King of France, is canon, according to custom, and has the small benefice which Saint-Venantis had, and shall sit in the seat of the treasurer. [back]