This etext was produced by David Widger
MEMOIRS OF JACQUES CASANOVA de SEINGALT 1725-1798 THE ETERNAL QUEST, Volume 3e–WITH VOLTAIRE
THE RARE UNABRIDGED LONDON EDITION OF 1894 TRANSLATED BY ARTHUR MACHEN TO WHICH HAS BEEN ADDED THE CHAPTERS DISCOVERED BY ARTHUR SYMONS.
THE ETERNAL QUEST
M. de Voltaire; My Discussions with That Great Man–Ariosto–The Duc de Villars–The Syndic and the Three Girls–Dispute with Voltaire– Aix-en-Savoie–The Marquis Desarmoises
“M. de Voltaire,” said I, “this is the happiest moment of my life. I have been your pupil for twenty years, and my heart is full of joy to see my master.”
“Honour me with your attendance on my course for twenty years more, and promise me that you will bring me my fees at the end of that time.”
“Certainly, if you promise to wait for me.”
This Voltairean sally made all present laugh, as was to be expected, for those who laugh keep one party in countenance at the other’s expense, and the side which has the laughter is sure to win; this is the rule of good society.
I was not taken by surprise, and waited to have my revenge.
Just then two Englishmen came in and were presented to him.
“These gentlemen are English,” said Voltaire; “I wish I were.”
I thought the compliment false and out of place; for the gentlemen were obliged to reply out of politeness that they wished they had been French, or if they did not care to tell a lie they would be too confused to tell the truth. I believe every man of honour should put his own nation first.
A moment after, Voltaire turned to me again and said that as I was a Venetian I must know Count Algarotti.
“I know him, but not because I am a Venetian, as seven-eights of my dear countrymen are not even aware of his existence.”
“I should have said, as a man of letters.”
“I know him from having spent two months with him at Padua, seven years ago, and what particularly attracted my attention was the admiration he professed for M. de Voltaire.”
“That is flattering for me, but he has no need of admiring anyone.”
“If Algarotti had not begun by admiring others, he would never have made a name for himself. As an admirer of Newton he endeavoured to teach the ladies to discuss the theory of light.”
“Has he succeeded?”
“Not as well as M. de Fontenelle in his “Plurality of Worlds;” however, one may say he has succeeded.”
“True. If you see him at Bologna, tell him I am expecting to hear from him about Russia. He can address my letters to my banker, Bianchi, at Milan, and they will be sent on to me.”
“I will not fail to do so if I see him.”
“I have heard that the Italians do not care for his style.”
“No; all that he writes is full of French idioms. His style is wretched.”
“But do not these French turns increase the beauty of your language?”
“They make it insufferable, as French would be mixed with Italian or German even though it were written by M. de Voltaire.”
“You are right; every language should preserve its purity. Livy has been criticised on this account; his Latin is said to be tainted with patavinity.”
“When I began to learn Latin, the Abbe Lazzarini told me he preferred Livy to Sallust.”
“The Abbe Lazzarini, author of the tragedy, ‘Ulisse il giovine’? You must have been very young; I wish I had known him. But I knew the Abbe Conti well; the same that was Newton’s friend, and whose four tragedies contain the whole of Roman history.”
“I also knew and admired him. I was young, but I congratulated myself on being admitted into the society of these great men. It seems as if it were yesterday, though it is many years ago; and now in your presence my inferiority does not humiliate me. I wish to be the younger son of all humanity.”
“Better so than to be the chief and eldest. May I ask you to what branch of literature you have devoted yourself?”
“To none; but that, perhaps, will come afterwards. In the meantime I read as much as I can, and try to study character on my travels.”
“That is the way to become learned, but the book of humanity is too vast. Reading a history is the easier way.”
“Yes, if history did not lie. One is not sure of the truth of the facts. It is tiring, while the study of the world is amusing. Horace, whom I know by heart, is my guide-book.”
“Algarotti, too, is very fond of Horace. Of course you are fond of poetry?”
“It is my passion.”
“Have you made many sonnets?”
“Ten or twelve I like, and two or three thousand which in all probability I have not read twice.”
“The Italians are mad after sonnets.”
“Yes; if one can call it a madness to desire to put thought into measured harmony. The sonnet is difficult because the thought has to be fitted exactly into the fourteen lines.”
“It is Procrustes’ bed, and that’s the reason you have so few good ones. As for us, we have not one; but that is the fault of our language.”
“And of the French genius, which considers that a thought when extended loses all its force.”
“And you do not think so?”
“Pardon me, it depends on the kind of thought. A witty saying, for example, will not make a sonnet; in French or Italian it belongs to the domain of epigram.”
“What Italian poet do you like best?”
“Ariosto; but I cannot say I love him better than the others, for he is my only love.”
“You know the others, though?”
“I think I have read them all, but all their lights pale before Ariosto’s. Fifteen years ago I read all you have written against him, and I said that you, would retract when you had read his works.”
“I am obliged to you for thinking that I had not read them. As a matter of fact I had done so, but I was young. I knew Italian very imperfectly, and being prejudiced by the learned Italians who adore Tasso I was unfortunate enough to publish a criticism of Ariosto which I thought my own, while it was only the echo of those who had prejudiced me. I adore your Ariosto!”
“Ah! M. de Voltaire, I breathe again. But be good enough to have the work in which you turned this great man into ridicule excommunicated.”
“What use would that be? All my books are excommunicated; but I will give you a good proof of my retractation.”
I was astonished! The great man began to recite the two fine passages from the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth cantos, in which the divine poet speaks of the conversation of Astolpho with St. John and he did it without missing a single life or committing the slightest fault against the laws of prosody. He then pointed out the beauties of the passages with his natural insight and with a great man’s genius. I could not have had anything better from the lips of the most skilled commentators in Italy. I listened to him with the greatest attention, hardly daring to breath, and waiting for him to make a mistake, but I had my trouble for nothing. I turned to the company crying that I was more than astonished, and that all Italy should know what I had seen. “And I, sir,” said the great man, “will let all Europe know of the amends I owe to the greatest genius our continent has produced.”
Greedy of the praise which he deserved so well, Voltaire gave me the next day his translation which Ariosto begins thus:
“Quindi avvien the tra principi a signori.”
At the end of the recitation which gained the applause of all who heard it, although not one of them knew Italian, Madame Denis, his niece, asked me if I thought the passage her uncle had just recited one of the finest the poet had written.
“Yes, but not the finest.”
“It ought to be; for without it Signor Lodovico would not have gained his apotheosis.”
“He has been canonised, then? I was not aware of that.”
At these words the laugh, headed by Voltaire, went for Madame Denis. Everybody laughed except myself, and I continued to look perfectly serious.
Voltaire was vexed at not seeing me laugh like the rest, and asked me the reason.
“Are you thinking,” said he, “of some more than human passage?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“What passage is that?”
“The last thirty-six stanzas of the twenty-third canto, where the poet describes in detail how Roland became mad. Since the world has existed no one has discovered the springs of madness, unless Ariosto himself, who became mad in his old age. These stanzas are terrible, and I am sure they must have made you tremble.”
“Yes, I remember they render love dreadful. I long to read them again.”
“Perhaps the gentleman will be good enough to recite them,” said Madame Denis, with a side-glance at her uncle.
“Willingly,” said I, “if you will have the goodness to listen to me.”
“You have learn them by heart, then, have you?” said Voltaire.
“Yes, it was a pleasure and no trouble. Since I was sixteen, I have read over Ariosto two or three times every year; it is my passion, and the lines naturally become linked in my memory without my having given myself any pains to learn them. I know it all, except his long genealogies and his historical tirades, which fatigue the mind and do not touch the heart. It is only Horace that I know throughout, in spite of the often prosaic style of his epistles, which are certainly far from equalling Boileau’s.”
“Boileau is often too lengthy; I admire Horace, but as for Ariosto, with his forty long cantos, there is too much of him.”
“It is fifty-one cantos, M. de Voltaire.”
The great man was silent, but Madame Denis was equal to the occasion.
“Come, come,” said she, “let us hear the thirty-six stanzas which earned the author the title of divine, and which are to make us tremble.”
I then began, in an assured voice, but not in that monotonous tone adopted by the Italians, with which the French so justly reproach us. The French would be the best reciters if they were not constrained by the rhyme, for they say what they feel better than any other people. They have neither the passionate monotonous tone of my fellow- countrymen, nor the sentimentality of the Germans, nor the fatiguing mannerisms of the English; to every period they give its proper expression, but the recurrence of the same sounds partly spoils their recitation. I recited the fine verses of Ariosto, as if it had been rhythmic prose, animating it by the sound of my voice and the movements of my eyes, and by modulating my intonation according to the sentiments with which I wished to inspire my audience. They saw how hardly I could restrain my tears, and every eye was wet; but when I came to the stanza,
“Poiche allargare il freno al dolor puote, Che resta solo senza altrui rispetto, Giu dagli occhi rigando per le gote
Sparge un fiume de lacrime sul petto,”
my tears coursed down my cheeks to such an extent that everyone began to sob. M. de Voltaire and Madame Denis threw their arms round my neck, but their embraces could not stop me, for Roland, to become mad, had to notice that he was in the same bed in which Angelica had lately been found in the arms of the too fortunate Medor, and I had to reach the next stanza. For my voice of sorrow and wailing I substituted the expression of that terror which arose naturally from the contemplation of his fury, which was in its effects like a tempest, a volcano, or an earthquake.
When I had finished I received with a sad air the congratulations of the audience. Voltaire cried,
“I always said so; the secret of drawing tears is to weep one’s self, but they must be real tears, and to shed them the heart must be stirred to its depths. I am obliged to you, sir,” he added, embracing me, “and I promise to recite the same stanzas myself to- morrow, and to weep like you.”
He kept his word.
“It is astonishing,” said Madame Denis, “that intolerant Rome should not have condemned the song of Roland.”
“Far from it,” said Voltaire, “Leo X. excommunicated whoever should dare to condemn it. The two great families of Este and Medici interested themselves in the poet’s favour. Without that protection it is probable that the one line on the donation of Rome by Constantine to Silvester, where the poet speaks ‘puzza forte’ would have sufficed to put the whole poem under an interdict.”
“I believe,” said I, “that the line which has excited the most talk is that in which Ariosto throws doubt on the general resurrection. Ariosto,” I added, “in speaking of the hermit who would have hindered Rhodomonte from getting possession of Isabella, widow of Zerbin, paints the African, who wearied of the hermit’s sermons, seizes him and throws him so far that he dashes him against a rock, against which he remains in a dead swoon, so that ‘che al novissimo di forse fia desto’.”
This ‘forse’ which may possibly have only been placed there as a flower of rhetoric or as a word to complete the verse, raised a great uproar, which would doubtless have greatly amused the poet if he had had time!
“It is a pity,” said Madame Denis, “that Ariosto was not more careful in these hyperbolical expressions.”
“Be quiet, niece, they are full of wit. They are all golden grains, which are dispersed throughout the work in the best taste.”
The conversation was then directed towards various topics, and at last we got to the ‘Ecossaise’ we had played at Soleure.
They knew all about it.
M. de Voltaire said that if I liked to play it at his house he would write to M. de Chavigni to send the Lindane, and that he himself would play Montrose. I excused myself by saying that Madame was at Bale and that I should be obliged to go on my journey the next day. At this he exclaimed loudly, aroused the whole company against me, and said at last that he should consider my visit as an insult unless I spared him a week at least of my society.
“Sir,” said I, “I have only come to Geneva to have the honour of seeing you, and now that I have obtained that favour I have nothing more to do.”
“Have you come to speak to me, or for me to speak to you?”
“In a measure, of course, to speak to you, but much more for you to speak to me.”
“Then stay here three days at least; come to dinner every day, and we will have some conversation.”
The invitation was so flattering and pressing that I could not refuse it with a good grace. I therefore accepted, and I then left to go and write.
I had not been back for a quarter of an hour when a syndic of the town, an amiable man, whom I had seen at M. de Voltaire’s, and whose name I shall not mention, came and asked me to give him supper. “I was present,” said he, “at your argument with the great man, and though I did not open my mouth I should much like to have an hour’s talk with you.” By way of reply, I embraced him, begging him to excuse my dressing-gown, and telling him that I should be glad if he would spend the whole night with me.
The worthy man spent two hours with me, without saying a word on the subject of literature, but to please me he had no need to talk of books, for he was a disciple of Epicurus and Socrates, and the evening was spent in telling little stories, in bursts of laughter, and in accounts of the various kinds of pleasure obtainable at Geneva. Before leaving me he asked me to come and sup with him on the following evening, promising that boredom should not be of the party.
“I shall wait for you,” said I.
“Very good, but don’t tell anyone of the party.”
I promised to follow his instructions.
Next morning, young Fox came to see me with the two Englishmen I had seen at M. de Voltaire’s. They proposed a game of quinze, which I accepted, and after losing fifty louis I left off, and we walked about the town till dinner-time.
We found the Duc de Villars at Delices; he had come there to consult Dr. Tronchin, who had kept him alive for the last ten years.
I was silent during the repast, but at dessert, M. de Voltaire, knowing that I had reasons for not liking the Venetian Government, introduced the subject; but I disappointed him, as I maintained that in no country could a man enjoy more perfect liberty than in Venice.
“Yes,” said he, “provided he resigns himself to play the part of a dumb man.”
And seeing that I did not care for the subject, he took me by the arm to his garden, of which, he said, he was the creator. The principal walk led to a pretty running stream.
“‘Tis the Rhone,” said he, “which I send into France.”
“It does not cost you much in carriage, at all events,” said I.
He smiled pleasantly and shewed me the principal street of Geneva, and Mont Blanc which is the highest point of the Alps.
Bringing back the conversation to Italian literature, he began to talk nonsense with much wit and learning, but always concluding with a false judgment. I let him talk on. He spoke of Homer, Dante, and Petrarch, and everybody knows what he thought of these great geniuses, but he did himself wrong in writing what he thought. I contented myself with saying that if these great men did not merit the esteem of those who studied them; it would at all events be a long time before they had to come down from the high place in which the praise of centuries, had placed them.
The Duc de Villars and the famous Tronchin came and joined us. The doctor, a tall fine man, polite, eloquent without being a conversationalist, a learned physician, a man of wit, a favourite pupil of Boerhaeve, without scientific jargon, or charlatanism, or self-sufficiency, enchanted me. His system of medicine was based on regimen, and to make rules he had to be a man of profound science. I have been assured, but can scarcely believe it, that he cured a consumptive patient of a secret disease by means of the milk of an ass, which he had submitted to thirty strong frictions of mercury by four sturdy porters.
As to Villars he also attracted my attention, but in quite a different way to Tronchin. On examining his face and manner I thought I saw before me a woman of seventy dressed as a man, thin and emaciated, but still proud of her looks, and with claims to past beauty. His cheeks and lips were painted, his eyebrows blackened, and his teeth were false; he wore a huge wig, which, exhaled amber, and at his buttonhole was an enormous bunch of flowers, which touched his chin. He affected a gracious manner, and he spoke so softly that it was often impossible to hear what he said. He was excessively polite and affable, and his manners were those of the Regency. His whole appearance was supremely ridiculous. I was told that in his youth he was a lover of the fair sex, but now that he was no longer good for anything he had modestly made himself into a woman, and had four pretty pets in his employ, who took turns in the disgusting duty of warming his old carcase at night.
Villars was governor of Provence, and had his back eaten up with cancer. In the course of nature he should have been buried ten years ago, but Tronchin kept him alive with his regimen and by feeding the wounds on slices of veal. Without this the cancer would have killed him. His life might well be called an artificial one.
I accompanied M. de Voltaire to his bedroom, where he changed his wig and put on another cap, for he always wore one on account of the rheumatism to which he was subject. I saw on the table the Summa of St. Thomas, and among other Italian poets the ‘Secchia Rapita’ of Tassoni.
“This,” said Voltaire, “is the only tragicomic poem which Italy has. Tassoni was a monk, a wit and a genius as well as a poet.”
“I will grant his poetical ability but not his learning, for he ridiculed the system of Copernicus, and said that if his theories were followed astronomers would not be able to calculate lunations or eclipses.”
“Where does he make that ridiculous remark?”
“In his academical discourses.”
“I have not read them, but I will get them.”
He took a pen and noted the name down, and said,–
“But Tassoni has criticised Petrarch very ingeniously.”
“Yes, but he has dishonoured taste and literature, like Muratori.”
“Here he is. You must allow that his learning is immense.”
“Est ubi peccat.”
Voltaire opened a door, and I saw a hundred great files full of papers.
“That’s my correspondence,” said he. “You see before you nearly fifty thousand letters, to which I have replied.”
“Have you a copy of your answers?”
“Of a good many of them. That’s the business of a servant of mine, who has nothing else to do.”
“I know plenty of booksellers who would give a good deal to get hold of your answers.
“Yes; but look out for the booksellers when you publish anything, if you have not yet begun; they are greater robbers than Barabbas.”
“I shall not have anything to do with these gentlemen till I am an old man.”
“Then they will be the scourge of your old age.”
Thereupon I quoted a Macaronic verse by Merlin Coccaeus.
“Where’s that from?”
“It’s a line from a celebrated poem in twenty-four cantos.”
“Yes; and, what is more, worthy of being celebrated; but to appreciate it one must understand the Mantuan dialect.”
“I could make it out, if you could get me a copy.”
“I shall have the honour of presenting you with one to-morrow.”
“You will oblige me extremely.”
We had to leave his room and spend two hours in the company, talking over all sorts of things. Voltaire displayed all the resources of his brilliant and fertile wit, and charmed everyone in spite of his sarcastic observations which did not even spare those present, but he had an inimitable manner of lancing a sarcasm without wounding a person’s feelings. When the great man accompanied his witticisms with a graceful smile he could always get a laugh.
He kept up a notable establishment and an excellent table, a rare circumstance with his poetic brothers, who are rarely favourites of Plutus as he was. He was then sixty years old, and had a hundred and twenty thousand francs a year. It has been said maliciously that this great man enriched himself by cheating his publishers; whereas the fact was that he fared no better than any other author, and instead of duping them was often their dupe. The Cramers must be excepted, whose fortune he made. Voltaire had other ways of making money than by his pen; and as he was greedy of fame, he often gave his works away on the sole condition that they were to be printed and published. During the short time I was with him, I was a witness of such a generous action; he made a present to his bookseller of the “Princess of Babylon,” a charming story which he had written in three days.
My epicurean syndic was exact to his appointment, and took me to a house at a little distance where he introduced me to three young ladies, who, without being precisely beautiful, were certainly ravishing. Two of them were sisters. I had an easy and pleasant welcome, and from their intellectual appearance and gay manners I anticipated a delightful evening, and I was not disappointed. The half hour before supper was passed in conversation, decent but without restraint, and during supper, from the hints the syndic gave me, I guessed what would happen after dessert.
It was a hot evening, and on the pretext of cooling ourselves, we undressed so as to be almost in a state of nature. What an orgy we had! I am sorry I am obliged to draw a veil over the most exciting details. In the midst of our licentious gaiety, whilst we were heated by love, champagne, and a discourse of an exciting nature, I proposed to recite Grecourt’s ‘Y Gyec’. When I had finished the voluptuous poem, worthy of an abbe’s pen, I saw that the eyes of the three beauties were all aflame, and said,–
“Ladies, if you like, I will shew you all three, one after the other, why the sentence, ‘Gaudeant bene nati’, was uttered”; and without waiting for their reply, I succeeded in making them happy. The syndic was radiant, he was pleased at having given me a present entirely to my taste; and I fancied that the entertainment was not displeasing to the three Graces, who were kept low by the Sybarite, as his powers were almost limited to desires. The girls lavished their thanks on me, while I endeavoured to assure them of my gratitude; but they leapt for joy when they heard the syndic asking me to come next day.
As he was taking me back to my inn I told him how great a pleasure he had given me, and he said he had brought up the three jewels himself.
“You,” he added, “are the only man besides myself they know. You shall see them again, but I beg you will take care not to leave anything behind you, for in this town of prejudices that would be a great misfortune for them and for me.”
“You are always moderate in your enjoyment, then?” I said to him.
“Unfortunately, that is no merit as far as I am concerned. I was born for the service of love, and Venus has punished me for worshipping her when I was too young.”
After a good night’s sleep I awoke in an active mood, and began to write a letter to Voltaire in blank verse, which cost me four times the pains that rhymed verses would have done. I sent it to him with the poem of Theophile Falengue, but I made a mistake in doing so, as I might have known he would not care for it; one cannot appreciate what one does not understand. I then went to Mr. Fox, where I found the two Englishmen who offered me my revenge. I lost a hundred Louis, and was glad to see them set out for Lausanne.
The syndic had told me that the three young ladies belonged to respectable families, but were not rich. I puzzled my head to think of some useful present I might make them without offending them, and at last I hit on a plan of the most ridiculous nature, as the reader will see. I went to a jeweller and told him to make me three golden balls, each of two ounces in weight.
At noon I went to M. de Voltaire’s. He was not to be seen, but Madame Denis consoled me for his absence. She had wit, learning without pretension, taste, and a great hatred for the King of Prussia, whom she called a villain. She asked about my beautiful housekeeper, and congratulated me on having married her to a respectable man. Although I feel now that she was quite right, I was far from thinking so then; the impression was too fresh on my mind. Madame Denis begged me to tell her how I had escaped from The Leads, but as the story was rather a long one I promised to satisfy her another time.
M. de Voltaire did not dine with us; he appeared, however, at five o’clock, holding a letter in his hand.
“Do you know,” said he, “the Marquis Albergati Capacelli, senator of Bologna, and Count Paradisi?”
“I do not know Paradisi, but I know Albergati by sight and by reputation; he is not a senator, but one of the Forty, who at Bologna are Fifty.”
“Dear me! That seems rather a riddle!”
“Do you know him?”
“No, but he has sent me Goldoni’s ‘Theatre,’ the translation of my Tancred, and some Bologna sausages, and he says he will come and see me.”
“He will not come; he is not such a fool.”
“How a fool? Would there be anything foolish in coming to see me?”
“Certainly not, as far as you are concerned; but very much so far his own sake.”
“Would you mind telling me why?”
“He knows what he would lose; for he enjoys the idea you seem to have of him, and if he came you would see his nothingness, and good-bye to the illusion. He is a worthy man with six thousand sequins a year, and a craze for the theatre. He is a good actor enough, and has written several comedies in prose, but they are fit neither for the study nor the stage.”
“You certainly give him a coat which does not make him look any bigger.”
“I assure you it is not quite small enough.”
“But tell me how he can belong to the Forty and the Fifty?”
“Just as at Bale noon is at eleven.”
“I understand; just as your Council of Ten is composed of seventeen members.”
“Exactly; but the cursed Forty of Bologna are men of another kind.”
“Because they are not subject to the fisc, and are thus enabled to commit whatever crimes they like with perfect impunity; all they have got to do is to live outside the state borders on their revenues.”
“That is a blessing, and not a curse; but let me return to our subject. I suppose the Marquis Albergati is a man of letters?”
“He writes well enough, but he is fond of the sound of his own voice, his style is prolix, and I don’t think he has much brains.”
“He is an actor, I think you said?”
“Yes, and a very good one, above all, when he plays the lover’s part in one of his own plays.”
“Is he a handsome man?”
“Yes, on the stage, but not elsewhere; his face lacks expression.”
“But his plays give satisfaction?”
“Not to persons who understand play writing; they would be hissed if they were intelligible.”
“And what do you think of Goldoni?”
“I have the highest opinion of him. Goldoni is the Italian Moliere.”
“Why does he call himself poet to the Duke of Parma?”
“No doubt to prove that a wit as well as a fool has his weak points; in all probability the duke knows nothing about it. He also calls himself a barrister, though he is such only in his own imagination. Goldoni is a good play writer, and nothing more. Everybody in Venice knows me for his friend, and I can therefore speak of him with authority. He does not shine in society, and in spite of the fine satire of his works he is a man of an extremely gentle disposition.”
“So I have been told. He is poor, and wants to leave Venice. The managers of the theatres where they play his pieces will not like that.”
“People talked about getting him a pension, but the project has been relegated to the Greek Kalends, as they said that if he had a pension he would write no more.”
“Cumae refused to give a pension to Homer, for fear that all the blind men would ask for a pension.”
We spent a pleasant day, and he thanked me heartily for the copy of the Macaronicon, which he promised to read. He introduced me to a Jesuit he had in his household, who was called Adam, and he added, after telling me his name, “not the first Adam.” I was told afterwards that Voltaire used to play backgammon with him, and when he lost he would throw the dice and the box at his head. If Jesuits were treated like that all the world over, perhaps we should have none but inoffensive Jesuits at last, but that happy time is still far off.
I had scarcely got to my inn in the evening when I received my three golden balls, and as soon as the syndic came we set off to renew our voluptuous orgy. On the way he talked about modesty, and said,–
“That feeling which prevents our shewing those parts which we have been taught to cover from our childhood, may often proceed from virtue, but is weaker than the force of education, as it cannot resist an attack when the attacking party knows what he is about. I think the easiest way to vanquish modesty is to ignore its presence, to turn it into ridicule, to carry it by storm. Victory is certain. The hardihood of the assailer subdues the assailed, who usually only wishes to be conquered, and nearly always thanks you for your victory.
“Clement of Alexandria, a learned man and a philosopher, has remarked that the modesty which appears so deeply rooted in women’s hearts really goes no farther than the clothes they wear, and that when these are plucked off no trace of it remains.”
We found the three girls lightly clad and sitting on a large sopha, and we sat down opposite to them. Pleasant talk and a thousand amorous kisses occupied the half hour just before supper, and our combat did not begin till we had eaten a delicious repast, washed down with plenty of champagne.
We were sure of not being interrupted by the maid and we put ourselves at our ease, whilst our caresses became more lively and ardent. The syndic, like a careful man, drew a packet of fine French letters from his pocket, and delivered a long eulogium on this admirable preservative from an accident which might give rise to a terrible and fruitless repentance. The ladies knew them, and seemed to have no objection to the precaution; they laughed heartily to see the shape these articles took when they were blown out. But after they had amused themselves thus for some time, I said,
“My dear girls, I care more for your honour than your beauty; but do not think I am going to shut myself in a piece of dead skin to prove that I am alive. Here,” I added, drawing out the three golden balls, “is a surer and less disagreeable way of securing you from any unpleasant consequences. After fifteen years’ experience I can assure you that with these golden balls you can give and take without running the least risk. For the future you will have no need of those humiliating sheaths. Trust in me and accept this little present from a Venetian who adores you.”
“We are very grateful,” said the elder of the two sisters, “but how are these pretty balls used?”
“The ball has to be at the rear of the temple of love, whilst the amorous couple are performing the sacrifice. The antipathy communicated to the metal by its being soaked for a certain time in an alkaline solution prevents impregnation.”
“But,” said the cousin, “one must take great care that the ball is not shaken out by the motion before the end of the sacrifice.”
“You needn’t be afraid of that if you place yourself in a proper position.”
“Let us see how it’s done,” said the syndic, holding a candle for me to put the ball in place.
The charming cousin had gone too far to turn back; she had to submit to the operation. I placed the ball in such a position that it could not fall out before I was in; however, it fell out towards the end, just as we were separating. The victim perceived that I had taken her in. However, she said nothing, picked up the ball, and challenged the two sisters to submit to the pleasant experiment, to which they lent themselves with the greatest interest; while the syndic, who had no faith in the virtues of the metal, contented himself with looking on. After half an hour’s rest I began again, without balls, assuring them that I would be careful, and I kept my word, without depriving them of the pleasure in the slightest degree.
When it was time to part, these girls, who had formerly been scantily provided for, threw their arms round my neck, overwhelmed me with caresses, and declared how much they owed me. The syndic told them that I was going in two days, and suggested that they should make me stay a day longer in Geneva, and I made this sacrifice joyfully. The worthy syndic had an engagement on the following day, and I sorely needed a holiday myself. He took me back to my inn, thanking me almost as heartily as his charming nymphs.
After having enjoyed a calm and refreshing sleep ten hours, I felt myself able to enjoy the delightful society of M. de Voltaire. I went to his house, but I was disappointed in my hopes, as it pleased the great man to be in a fault-finding and sarcastic mood the whole day. He knew I had to leave on the morrow.
He began by thanking me at table for my present of Merlin Coccaeus.
“You certainly gave it me with good intentions,” said he, “but I owe you no thanks for praising it so highly, as you made me lose four hours in reading nonsense.”
I felt my hair stand on end, but I mastered my emotions, and told him quietly enough that one day, perhaps, he would find himself obliged to praise the poem more highly than I had done. I quoted several instances of the insufficiency of a first perusal.
“That’s true,” said he; “but as for your Merlin, I will read him no more. I have put him beside Chapelain’s ‘Pucelle’.”
“Which pleases all the critics, in spite of its bad versification, for it is a good poem, and Chapelain was a real poet though he wrote bad verses. I cannot overlook his genius.”
My freedom must have shocked him, and I might have guessed it when he told me he had put the ‘Macaronicon’ beside the ‘Pucelle’. I knew that there was a poem of the same title in circulation, which passed for Voltaire’s; but I also knew that he disavowed it, and I thought that would make him conceal the vexation my explanation must have caused him. It was not so, however; he contradicted me sharply, and I closed with him.
“Chapelain,” said I, “has the merit of having rendered his subject-matter pleasant, without pandering to the tastes of his readers by saying things shocking to modesty and piety. So thinks my master Crebillon:”
“Crebillon! You cite a weighty authority. But how is my friend Crebillon your master, may I ask?”
“He taught me to speak French in less than two years, and as a mark of my gratitude I translated his Radamiste into Italian Alexandrines. I am the first Italian who has dared to use this metre in our language.”
“The first? I beg your pardon, as that honour belongs to my friend Pierre Jacques Martelli.”
“I am sorry to be obliged to tell you that you are making a mistake.”
“Why, I have his works, printed at Bologna, in my room!”
“I don’t deny that, I am only talking about the metre used by Martelli. What you are thinking of must be verses of fourteen syllables; without alternative masculine and feminine rhymes. However, I confess that he thinks he has imitated the French Alexandrines, and his preface made me explode with laughter. Did you read it?”
“Read it? I always read prefaces, and Martelli proves there that his verses have the same effect in Italian as our Alexandrine verses have in French.”
“Exactly, that’s what’s so amusing. The worthy man is quite mistaken, and I only ask you to listen to what I have to say on the subject. Your masculine verse has only twelve poetic syllables, and the feminine thirteen. All Martelli’s lines have fourteen syllables, except those that finish with a long vowel, which at the end of a line always counts as two syllables. You will observe that the first hemistitch in Martelli always consists of seven syllables, while in French it only has six. Your friend Pierre Jacques was either stone deaf or very hard of hearing.”
“Then you have followed our theory of versification rigorously.”
“Just so, in spite of the difficulty, as nearly all our words end with a short syllable.”
“What reception has been accorded to your innovation?”
“It has not been found pleasing, because nobody knows how to recite my verses; but I hope to triumph when I deliver them myself before our literary clubs.”
“Do you remember any of your version of the Radamiste?”
“I remember it all.”
“You have a wonderful memory; I should be glad to hear it.”
I began to recite the same scene that I had recited to Crebillon ten years before, and I thought M. de Voltaire listened with pleasure.
“It doesn’t strike one as at all harsh,” said he.
This was the highest praise he would give me. In his turn the great man recited a passage from Tancred which had not as yet been published, and which was afterwards considered, and rightly, as a masterpiece.
We should have got on very well if we had kept to that, but on my quoting a line of Horace to praise one of his pieces, he said that Horace was a great master who had given precepts which would never be out of date. Thereupon I answered that he himself had violated one of them, but that he had violated it grandly.
“Which is that?”
“You do not write, ‘Contentus paucis lectoribus’.”
“If Horace had had to combat the hydra-headed monster of superstition, he would have written as I have written–for all the world.”
“It seems to me that you might spare yourself the trouble of combating what you will never destroy.”
“That which I cannot finish others will, and I shall always have the glory of being the first in the field.”
“Very good; but supposing you succeed in destroying superstition, what are you going to put in its place?”
“I like that. If I deliver the race of man from a wild beast which is devouring it, am I to be asked what I intend to put in its place?”
“It does not devour it; on the contrary, it is necessary to its existence.”
“Necessary to its existence! That is a horrible blasphemy, the falsity of which will be seen in the future. I love the human race; I would fain see men like myself, free and happy, and superstition and freedom cannot go together. Where do you find an enslaved and yet a happy people?”
“You wish, then, to see the people sovereign?”
“God forbid! There must be a sovereign to govern the masses.”
“In that case you must have superstition, for without it the masses will never obey a mere man decked with the name of monarch.”
“I will have no monarch; the word expresses despotism, which I hate as I do slavery.”
“What do you mean, then? If you wish to put the government in the hands of one man, such a man, I maintain, will be a monarch.”
“I would have a sovereign ruler of a free people, of which he is the chief by an agreement which binds them both, which would prevent him from becoming a tyrant.”
“Addison will tell you that such a sovereign is a sheer impossibility. I agree with Hobbes, of two evils choose the least. A nation without superstition would be a nation of philosophers, and philosophers would never obey. The people will only be happy when they are crushed and down-trodden, and bound in chains.”
“This is horrible; and you are of the people yourself. If you have read my works you must have seen how I shew that superstition is the enemy of kings.”
“Read your works? I have read and re-read them, especially in places where I have differed from you. Your ruling passion is the love of humanity. ‘Est ubi peccas’. This blinds you. Love humanity, but love it as it is. It is not fit to receive the blessings you would lavish on it, and which would only make it more wretched and perverse. Leave men their devouring monster, it is dear to them. I have never laughed so heartily as at Don Quixote assailed by the galley-slaves whom his generosity had set free.”
“I am sorry that you have such a bad opinion of your fellow- creatures. And by the way, tell me whether there is freedom in Venice.”
“As much as can be expected under an aristocracy. Our liberty is not so great as that which the English enjoy, but we are content.”
“Even under The Leads?”
“My imprisonment was certainly despotic; but as I had knowingly abused my liberty I am satisfied that the Government was within its rights in shutting me up without the usual formalities.”
“All the same, you made your escape.”
“I used my rights as they had used theirs.”
“Very good! But as far as I can see, no one in Venice is really free.”
“That may be; but you must agree that the essence of freedom consists in thinking you have it.”
“I shall not agree to that so easily. You and I see liberty from very different points of view. The aristocrats, the members of the Government even, are not free at Venice; for example, they cannot travel without permission.”
“True, but that is a restriction of their own making to preserve their power. Would you say that a Bernese is not free, because he is subject to the sumptuary laws, which he himself had made.”
“Well, well, I wish the people made the laws everywhere.”
After this lively answer, he abruptly asked me what part I came from.
“From Roche,” said I. “I should have been very sorry to leave Switzerland without seeing the famous Haller. In my travels I render homage to my learned contemporaries, and you come the last and best.”
“You must have liked Haller.”
“I spent three of the happiest days of my life with him.”
“I congratulate you. He is a great man and worthy of all honour.”
“I think as you do, and I am glad to hear you doing him justice; I am sorry he was not so just towards you.”
“Well, you see we may be both of us mistaken.”
At this reply, the quickness of which constituted its chief merit, everybody present began to laugh and applaud.
No more was said of literature, and I became a silent actor till M. de Voltaire retired, when I approached Madame Denis, and asked her if she had any commands for me at Rome. I went home well pleased at having compelled the giant of intellect to listen to reason, as I then thought foolishly enough; but there was a rankling feeling left in my heart against him which made me, ten years later, criticise all he had written.
I am sorry now for having done so, though on reading my censures over again I find that in many places I was right. I should have done better, however, to have kept silence, to have respected his genius, and to have suspected my own opinions. I should have considered that if it had not been for those quips and cranks which made me hate him on the third day, I should have thought him wholly sublime. This thought alone should have silenced me, but an angry man always thinks himself right. Posterity on reading my attack will rank me among the Zoyluses, and the humble apology I now make to the great man’s shades may not be read.
If we meet in the halls of Pluto, the more peccant parts of our mortal nature purged away, all will be made up; he will receive my heartfelt apologies, and he will be my friend, I his sincere admirer.
I spent part of the night and the whole of the following day in writing down my conversations with Voltaire, and they amounted nearly to a volume, of which I have only given a mere abridgment. Towards the evening my Epicurean syndic called on me, and we went to sup with the three nymphs, and for five hours we indulged in every species of wantonness, in which I had a somewhat fertile imagination. On leaving I promised to call on them again on my return from Rome, and I kept my word. I set out the next day, after dining with the syndic, who accompanied me as far as Anneci, where I spent the night. Next day I dined at Aix, with the intention of lying at Chamberi, but my destiny ordered otherwise.
Aix is a villainous hole where the mineral waters attract people of fashion towards the end of the summer–a circumstance of which I was then ignorant. I dined hastily, wishing to set out immediately for Chamberi, when in the middle of my repast a crowd of fashionable people burst into the room. I looked at them without stirring, replying with an inclination of the head to the bows which some of them made me. I soon discovered from their conversation that they had all come to take the waters. A gentleman of a fine presence came up to me and asked if I were going to Turin; I answered that my way was to Marseilles.
Their dinner was served, and everybody sat down. Among them I noticed several pleasant-looking ladies, with gentlemen who were either their husbands or their lovers. I concluded that I might find some amusement with them, as they all spoke French with that easy tone of good society which is so attractive, and I felt that I should be inclined to stay without much pressing, for that day at all events.
I finished my dinner before the company had come to the end of their first course, and as my coach could not go for another hour I went up to a pretty woman, and complimented her on the good the waters of Aix seemed to have done her, for her appetite made all who looked at her feel hungry.
“I challenge you to prove that you are speaking the truth,” said she, with a smile. I sat down next to her, and she gave me a nice piece of the roast which I ate as if I had been fasting.
While I was talking with the lady, and eating the morsels she gave me, I heard a voice saying that I was in the abbe’s place, and another voice replying that the abbe had been gone for half an hour.
“Why has he gone?” asked a third, “he said he was going to stay here for another week.” At this there was some whispering, but the departure of an abbe had nothing interesting in it for me, and I continued eating and talking. I told Le Duc, who was standing behind my chair, to get me some champagne. I offered the lady some, she accepted, and everyone began to call for champagne. Seeing my neighbour’s spirits rising, I proceeded to make love to her, and asked her if she were always as ready to defy those who paid their court to her.
“So many of them,” she answered, “are not worthy the trouble.”
She was pretty and quick-witted, and I took a fancy to her, and wished for some pretext on which I could put off my departure, and chance came to my aid.
“The place next to you was conveniently empty,” said a lady to my neighbour who was drinking with me.
“Very conveniently, for my neighbour wearied me.”
“Had he no appetite?” said I.
“Gamesters only have an appetite for money.”
“Usually, but your power is extraordinary; for I have never made two dinners on one day before now.”
“Only out of pride; as I am sure you will eat no supper.”
“Let us make a bet on it.”
“We will; we will bet the supper.”
All the guests began to clap, and my fair neighbour blushed with pleasure. I ordered Le Duc to tell my coachman that I should not be going till the next day.
“It is my business,” said the lady, “to order the supper.”
“Yes, you are right; for he who pays, orders. My part will be to oppose you to the knife, and if I eat as much as you I shall be the winner.”
At the end of dinner, the individual who had addressed me before called for cards, and made a small bank of faro. He put down twenty- five Piedmontese pistoles, and some silver money to amuse the ladies –altogether it amounted nearly to forty louis. I remained a spectator during the first deal, and convinced myself that the banker played very well.
Whilst he was getting ready for the second deal, the lady asked me why I did not play. I whispered to her that she had made me lose my appetite for money. She repaid this compliment with a charming smile.
After this declaration, feeling myself entitled to play, I put down forty louis, and lost them in two deals. I got up, and on the banker saying very politely that he was sorry for my loss, I replied that it was a mere nothing, but that I always made it a rule never to risk a sum of money larger than the bank. Somebody then asked me if I knew a certain Abbe Gilbert.
“I knew a man of that name,” said I, “at Paris; he came from Lyons, and owes me a pair of ears, which I mean to cut off his head when I meet him.”
My questioner made no reply to this, and everybody remained silent, as if nothing had been said. From this I concluded that the abbe aforesaid must be the same whose place I had occupied at dinner. He had doubtless seen me on my arrival and had taken himself off. This abbe was a rascal who had visited me at Little Poland, to whom I had entrusted a ring which had cost me five thousand florins in Holland; next day the scoundrel had disappeared.
When everybody had left the table, I asked Le Duc if I were well lodged.
“No,” said he; “would you like to see your room?”
He took me to a large room, a hundred paces from the inn, whose sole furniture consisted of its four walls, all the other rooms being occupied. I complained vainly to the inn-keeper, who said,
“It’s all I can offer you, but I will have a good bed, a table, and chairs taken there.”
I had to content myself with it, as there was no choice.
“You will sleep in my room,” said I to Le Duc, “take care to provide yourself with a bed, and bring my baggage in.”
“What do you think of Gilbert, sir?” said my Spaniard; “I only recognized him just as he was going, and I had a lively desire to take him by the back of his neck.”
“You would have done well to have satisfied that desire.”
“I will, when I see him again.”
As I was leaving my big room, I was accosted politely by a man who said he was glad to be my neighbour, and offered to take me to the fountain if I were going there. I accepted his offer. He was a tall fair man, about fifty years old; he must once have been handsome, but his excessive politeness should have made me suspect him; however, I wanted somebody to talk to, and to give me the various pieces of information I required. On the way he informed me of the condition of the people I had seen, and I learnt that none of them had come to Aix for the sake of the waters.
“I am the only one,” said he, “who takes them out of necessity. I am consumptive; I get thinner every day, and if the waters don’t do me any good I shall not last much longer.”
So all the others have only come here for amusement’s sake?”
“And to game, sir, for they are all professional gamesters.”
“Are they French?”
“They are all from Piedmont or Savoy; I am the only Frenchman here.”
“What part of France do you come from?”
“From Lorraine; my father, who is eighty years old, is the Marquis Desarmoises. He only keeps on living to spite me, for as I married against his wishes he has disinherited me. However, as I am his only son, I shall inherit his property after his death, in spite of him. My house is at Lyons, but I never go there, as I have the misfortune to be in love with my eldest daughter, and my wife watches us so closely as to make my courtship hopeless.”
“That is very fine; otherwise, I suppose, your daughter would take pity on her amorous papa?”
“I daresay, for she is very fond of me, and has an excellent heart.”
My Adventures at Aix–My Second M. M.–Madame Zeroli
This man, who, though he did not know me, put the utmost confidence in me, so far from thinking he was horrifying me by the confession of such wickedness, probably considered he was doing me a great honour. While I listened to him I reflected that though depraved he might have his good points, and that his weakness might have a pitiable if not a pardonable side. However, wishing to know more of him, I said,–
“In spite of your father’s sternness, you live very well.”
“On the contrary, I live very ill. I enjoy a pension from the Government, which I surrender to my wife, and as for me I make a livelihood on my travels. I play black gammon and most other games perfectly. I win more often than I lose, and I live on my winnings.”
“But is what you have told me about your daughter known to the visitors here?”
“Everybody knows it; why should I hide it? I am a man of honour and injure no one; and, besides, my sword is sharp.”
“Quite so; but would you tell me whether you allow your daughter to have a lover?”
“I should have no objection, but my wife is religious.”
“Is your daughter pretty?”
“Very; if you are going to Lyons, you can go and see her; I will give you a letter of introduction for her.” “Thank you, but I am going to Italy. Can you tell me the name of the gentleman who kept the bank?”
“That is the famous Parcalier, Marquis de Prie since the death of his father, whom you may have known as ambassador at Venice. The gentleman who asked you if you knew the Abbe Gilbert is the Chevalier Zeroli, husband of the lady you are to sup with. The rest are counts, marquises, and barons of the usual kind, some from Piedmont and some from Savoy. Two or three are merchants’ sons, and the ladies are all their friends or relations. They are all professional gamblers and sharp-witted. When a stranger comes here they know how to get over him, and if he plays it is all up with him, for they go together like pickpockets at a fair. They think they have got you, so take care of yourself.”
In the evening we returned to the inn, and found all the company playing, and my companion proceeded to play with a Count de Scarnafisch.
The Chevalier Zeroli offered to play faro with me for forty sequins, and I had just lost that sum when supper was served. My loss had not affected my spirits, and the lady finding me at once hungry and gay paid the bet with a good grace. At supper I surprised her in certain side-glances, which warned me that she was going to try to dupe me; I felt myself safe as far as love was concerned, but I had reason to dread fortune, always the friend of those who keep a bank at faro, especially as I had already lost. I should have done well to go, but I had not the strength; all I could do was to promise myself that I would be extremely prudent. Having large sums in paper money and plenty of gold, it was not difficult for me to be careful.
Just after supper the Marquis de Prie made a bank of about three hundred sequins. His staking this paltry sum shewed me that I had much to lose and little to win, as it was evident that he would have made a bank of a thousand sequins if he had had them. I put down fifty Portuguese crowns, and said that as soon as I had lost them I should go to bed. In the middle of the third deal I broke the bank.
“I am good for another two hundred louis,” said the marquis.
“I should be glad to continue playing,” I replied, “if I had not to go at day-break”; and I thereupon left the room.
Just as I was going to bed, Desarmoises came and asked me to lend him twelve louis. I had expected some such request, and I counted them out to him. He embraced me gratefully, and told me that Madame Zeroli had sworn to make me stay on at least for another day. I smiled and called Le Duc, and asked him if my coachman knew that I was starting early; he replied that he would be at the door by five o’clock.
“Very good,” said Desarmoises, “but I will wager that you will not go for all that.”
He went out and I went to bed, laughing at his prophecy.
At five o’clock next morning the coachman came to tell me that one of the horses was ill and could not travel. I saw that Desarmoises had had an inkling of some plot, but I only laughed. I sent the man roughly about his business, and told Le Duc to get me post-horses at the inn. The inn-keeper came and told me that there were no horses, and that it would take all the morning to find some, as the Marquis de Prie, who was leaving at one o’clock in the morning, had emptied his stables. I answered that in that case I would dine at Aix, but that I counted on his getting me horses by two o’clock in the afternoon.
I left the room and went to the stable, where I found the coachman weeping over one of his horses stretched out on the straw. I thought it was really an accident, and consoled the poor devil, paying him as if he had done his work, and telling him I should not want him any more. I then went towards the fountain, but the reader will be astonished by a meeting of the most romantic character, but which is yet the strict truth.
At a few paces from the fountain I saw two nuns coming from it. They were veiled, but I concluded from their appearance that one was young and the other old. There was nothing astonishing in such a sight, but their habit attracted my attention, for it was the same as that worn by my dear M—- M—-, whom I had seen for the last time on July 24th, 1755, five years before. The look of them was enough, not to make me believe that the young nun was M—- M—-, but to excite my curiosity. They were walking towards the country, so I turned to cut them off that I might see them face to face and be seen of them. What was my emotion when I saw the young nun, who, walking in front, and lifting her veil, disclosed the veritable face of M—- M—-. I could not doubt that it was she, and I began to walk beside her; but she lowered her veil, and turned to avoid me.
The reasons she might have for such a course passed in a moment through my mind, and I followed her at a distance, and when she had gone about five hundred paces I saw her enter a lonely house of poor appearance that was enough for me. I returned to the fountain to see what I could learn about the nun.
On my way there I lost myself in a maze of conjectures.
“The too charming and hapless M—- M—-,” said I to myself, “must have left her convent, desperate–nay, mad; for why does she still wear the habit of her order? Perhaps, though, she has got a dispensation to come here for the waters; that must be the reason why she has a nun with her, and why she has not left off her habit. At all events the journey must have been undertaken under false pretences. Has she abandoned herself to some fatal passion, of which the result has been pregnancy? She is doubtless perplexed, and must have been pleased to see me. I will not deceive her expectations; I will do all in my power to convince her that I am worthy of her.”
Lost in thought I did not notice I had arrived at the fountain, round which stood the whole host of gamesters. They all crowded round me, and said how charmed they were to see me still there. I asked the Chevalier Zeroli after his wife, and he told me she was still abed, and that it would be a good thing if I would go and make her get up. I was just going when the doctor of the place accosted me, saying, that the waters of the Aix would increase my good health. Full of the one idea, I asked him directly if he were the doctor in attendance on a pretty nun I had seen.
“She takes the waters,” he replied, “but she does not speak to anyone.”
“Where does she come from?”
“Nobody knows; she lives in a peasant’s house.”
I left the doctor, and instead of going towards the inn, where the hussy Zeroli was doubtless waiting for me, I made my way towards the peasant’s house, which already seemed to me the temple of the most blissful deities, determined to obtain the information I required as prudently as might be. But as if love had favoured my vows, when I was within a hundred paces of the cottage I saw the peasant woman coming out to meet me.
“Sir,” said she, accosting me, “the young nun begs you to return this evening at nine o’clock; the lay-sister will be asleep then, and she will be able to speak freely to you.”
There could be no more doubt. My heart leapt with joy. I gave the country-woman a louis, and promised to be at the house at nine exactly.
With the certainty of seeing my dear M—- M—- again I returned to the inn, and on ascertaining which was Madame Zeroli’s room I entered without ceremony, and told her that her husband had sent me to make her get up.
“I thought you were gone?”
“I am going at two.”
I found her still more enticing in bed than at table. I helped her to put on her stays, and the sight of her charms inflamed my ardour, but I experienced more resistance than I had anticipated. I sat down at the foot of the bed, and told her how fervently I loved her, and how unhappy I was at not being able to give her marks of my love before I left.
“But,” said she, laughing, “you have only got to stay.”
“Give me some hope, and I will stay till to-morrow.”
“You are in too much of a hurry, take things more quietly.”
I contented myself with the few favours she granted me, pretending as usual only to yield to violence, when I was obliged to restrain myself on the appearance of her husband, who took the precaution of making a noise before he carne in. As soon as she saw him, she said, without the slightest perturbation, “I have persuaded the gentleman to stay tell the day after to-morrow.”
“I am all the more pleased to hear it, my dear,” said the chevalier, “as I owe him his revenge.”
With these words he took up a pack of cards, which came as readily to his hands as if they had been placed there on purpose, and seating himself beside his wife, whom he made into the table, he began to deal.
I could not draw back, and as my thoughts were distracted I kept on losing till they came to tell me dinner was ready.
“I have no time to dress,” said the lady, “so I will have my dinner in bed, if you gentlemen will keep me company.”
How could I refuse? The husband went out to order the dinner, and feeling myself authorized by the loss of twenty Louis, I told the hussy that if she would not give me a plain promise to make me happy that afternoon I should go away when I had had my dinner.
“Breakfast with me to-morrow morning. We shall be alone.”
After receiving from her certain earnests of her promise, I promised to stay on.
We dined by her bedside, and I told Le Duc that I should not be going till the afternoon of the next day, which made the husband and wife radiant. When we had done, the lady said she would like to get up; and I went out, promising to return and play piquet with her. I proceeded to reline my purse, and I met Desarmoises, who said,
“I have found out the secret; they gave her coachman two Louis to substitute a sick horse for his own.”
“It’s a matter of give and take,” said I; “I am in love with the chevalier’s wife, and I am putting off my departure till I have got all I want out of her.”
“I am afraid you will have to pay pretty dearly for your pleasure. However, I will do what I can for your interests.”
I thanked him smilingly, and returned to the lady, whom I left at eight o’clock under pretext of a violent headache, after having lost ten louis to her. I reminded her of her promise for next morning at nine o’clock, and I left her in the midst of the company.
It was a fine moonlight night as I walked towards the peasant’s house, where I was to see my dear M—- M—- once more. I was impatient to see what the visit, on which the rest of my life might depend, would bring forth.
I had taken the precaution to provide myself with a pair of pistols, and my sword hung at my side, for I was not wholly devoid of suspicion in this place, where there were so many adventurers; but at twenty paces from the cottage I saw the woman coming towards me. She told me that the nun could not come down, so I must be content to enter through the window, by means of a ladder which she had placed there for the purpose. I drew near, and not seeing any light I should not have easily decided on going up, if I had not heard the voice I thought I knew so well, saying, “Fear nothing; come.” Besides, the window was not very high up, and there could not be much danger of a trap. I ascended, and thought for certain that I held my dear M—- M—- in my arms, as I covered her face with my ardent kisses.
“Why,” said I, in Venetian, “have you not a light? I hope you are going to inform me of an event which seems wonderful to me; quick, dearest, satisfy my impatience.”
The reader will guess my surprise when he learns that on hearing her voice close to me I found that she was not M—- M—-. She told me that she did not understand Venetian, and that I did not require a light to tell her what M. de Coudert had decided on doing to save her from her peril.
“You surprise me; I do not know M. de Coudert. What! Are you not a Venetian? Are you not the nun I saw this morning?”
“Hapless one! I have made a mistake. I am the nun you saw this morning, but I am French. In the name of God keep my counsel and begone, for I have nothing to say to you! Whisper, for if the lay- sister woke up I should be undone.”
“Do not be afraid of my discretion. What deceived me was your exact likeness to a nun of your order who will be always dear to me: and if you had not allowed me to see your features I should not have followed you. Forgive the tenderness I shewed towards you, though you must think me very audacious.”
“You astonished me very much, but you did not offend me. I wish I were the nun in whom you are interested. I am on the brink of a fearful precipice.”
“If ten louis are any good to you, it will be an honour for me to give you them.”
“Thank you, I have no need of money. Allow me to give you back the louis you sent me this morning.”
“The louis was for the country-woman. You increase my surprise; pray tell me what is the misfortune under which you labour, for which money can do nothing.”
“Perhaps God has sent you to my aid. Maybe you will give me good advice. Listen to what I am about to tell you.”
“I am at your service, and I will listen with the greatest attention. Let us sit down.”
“I am afraid there is neither seat nor bed.”
“Say on, then; we will remain standing.”
“I come from Grenoble. I was made to take the veil at Chamberi. Two years after my profession, M. de Coudert found means to see me. I received him in the convent garden, the walls of which he scaled, and at last I was so unfortunate as to become pregnant. The idea of giving birth to a child at the convent was too dreadful–I should have languished till I died in a terrible dungeon–and M. de Coudert thought of a plan for taking me out of the convent. A doctor whom he gained over with a large sum of money declared that I should die unless I came here to take the waters, which he declared were the only cure for my illness. A princess whom M. de Coudert knew was partly admitted to the secret, and she obtained the leave of absence for three months from the Bishop of Chamberi, and the abbess consented to my going.
“I thus hoped to be delivered before the expiration of the three months; but I have assuredly made a mistake, for the time draws to an end and I feel no signs of a speedy delivery. I am obliged to return to the convent, and yet I cannot do so. The lay-sister who is with me is a perfect shrew. She has orders not to let me speak to anybody, and never to let my face be seen. She it was who made me turn when she saw you following us. I lifted my veil for you to see that I was she of whom I thought you were in search, and happily the lay-sister did not notice me. She wants me to return with her to the convent in three days, as she thinks I have an incurable dropsy. She does not allow me to speak to the doctor, whom I might, perhaps, have gained over by telling him the truth. I am only twenty-one, and yet I long for death.”
“Do not weep so, dear sister, and tell me how you expect to be delivered here without the lay-sister being aware of it?”
“The worthy woman with whom I am staying is an angel of goodness. I have confided in her, and she promised me that when I felt the pangs coming on she would give that malicious woman a sporific, and thus we should be freed from all fears of her. By virtue of the drug she now sleeps soundly in the room under this garret.”
“Why was I not let in by the door?”
“To prevent the woman’s brother seeing you; he is a rude boor.”
“What made you think that I had anything to do with M. de Coudert?”
“Ten or twelve days ago, I wrote to him and told him of my dreadful position. I painted my situation with such lively colours that I thought he must do all in his power to help me. As the wretched cling to every straw, I thought, when I saw you following me, that you were the deliverer he had sent.”
“Are you sure he got your letter?”
“The woman posted it at Anneci.”
“You should write to the princess.”
“I dare not.”
“I will see her myself, and I will see M. de Coudert. In fine, I will move heaven and earth, I will even go to the bishop, to obtain an extension of your leave; for it is out of the question for you to return to the convent in your present situation. You must decide, for I can do nothing without your consent. Will you trust in me? If so, I will bring you a man’s clothes to-morrow and take you to Italy with me, and while I live I swear I will care for you.”
For reply, I only heard long-drawn sobs, which distressed me beyond words, for I felt acutely the situation of this poor creature whom Heaven had made to be a mother, and whom the cruelty of her parents had condemned to be a useless nun.
Not knowing what else to say, I took her hand and promised to return the next day and hear her decision, for it was absolutely necessary that she should decide on some plan. I went away by the ladder, and gave a second louis to the worthy woman, telling her that I should be with her on the morrow at the same hour, but that I should like to be able to enter by the door. I begged her to give the lay-sister a stronger dose of opium, so that there should be no fear of her awaking while I talked with the young nun.
I went to bed glad at heart that I had been wrong in thinking that the nun was M—- M—-. Nevertheless the great likeness between them made me wish to see her nearer at hand, and I was sure that she would not refuse me the privilege of looking at her the next day. I smiled at the thought of the ardent kisses I had given her, but I felt that I could not leave her to her fate. I was glad to find that I did not need any sensual motive to urge me to a good deed, for as soon as I found that it was not M—- M—- who had received those tender kisses I felt ashamed of having given them. I had not even given her a friendly kiss when I left her.
In the morning Desarmoises came and told me that all the company, not seeing me at supper, had been puzzling itself to find out what had become of me. Madame Zeroli had spoken enthusiastically about me, and had taken the jests of the two other ladies in good part, boasting that she could keep me at Aix as long as she remained there herself. The fact was that I was not amorous but curious where she was concerned, and I should have been sorry to have left the place without obtaining complete possession of her, for once at all events.
I kept my appointment, and entered her room at nine o’clock exactly. I found her dressed, and on my reproaching her she said that it should be of no consequence to me whether she were dressed or undressed. I was angry, and I took my chocolate without so much as speaking to her. When I had finished she offered me my revenge at piquet, but I thanked her and begged to be excused, telling her that in the humour in which she had put me I should prove the better player, and that I did not care to win ladies’ money. So saying I rose to leave the room.
“At least be kind enough to take me to the fountain.”
“I think not. If you take me for a freshman, you make a mistake, and I don’t care to give the impression that I am pleased when I am displeased. You can get whomsoever you please to take you to the fountain, but as for me I must beg to be excused. Farewell, madam.”
With these words I went out, paying no attention to her efforts to recall me.
I found the inn-keeper, and told him that I must leave at three o’clock without a fail. The lady, who was at her window, could hear me. I went straight to the fountain where the chevalier asked me what had become of his wife, and I answered that I had left her in her room in perfect health. In half an hour we saw her coming with a stranger, who was welcomed by a certain M. de St. Maurice. Madame Zeroli left him, and tacked herself on to me, as if there had been nothing the matter. I could not repulse her without the most troublesome consequences, but I was very cold. After complaining of my conduct she said that she had only been trying me, that if I really loved her I should put off my departure, and that I should breakfast with her at eight o’clock the next day. I answered coolly that I would think it over. I was serious all dinner-time, and said once or twice that I must go at three o’clock, but as I wanted to find some pretext for staying on account of the nun, I let myself be persuaded into making a bank at faro.
I staked all the gold I had, and I saw every face light up as I put down about four hundred louis in gold, and about six hundred francs in silver. “Gentlemen,” said I, “I shall rise at eight o’clock precisely.” The stranger said, with a smile, that possibly the bank might not live so long, but I pretended not to understand him. It was just three o’clock. I begged Desarmoises to be my croupier, and I began to deal with due deliberation to eighteen or twenty punters, all professional gamblers. I took a new pack at every deal.
By five o’clock I had lost money. We heard carriage wheels, and they said it was three Englishmen from Geneva, who were changing horses to go on to Chamberi. A moment after they came in, and I bowed. It was Mr. Fox and his two friends, who had played quinze with me. My croupier gave them cards, which they received gladly, and went ten louis, playing on two and three cards, going paroli, seven and the ‘va’, as well as the ‘quinze’, so that my bank was in danger of breaking. However, I kept up my face, and even encouraged them to play, for, God being neutral, the chances were in my favour. So it happened, and at the third deal I had cleared the Englishmen out, and their carriage was ready.
While I was shuffling a fresh pack of cards, the youngest of them drew out of his pocket-book a paper which he spewed to his two companions. It was a bill of exchange. “Will you stake the value of this bill on a card, without knowing its value?” said he.
“Yes,” I replied, “if you will tell me upon whom it is drawn, and provided that it does not exceed the value of the bank.”
After a rapid glance at the pile of gold before me, he said, “The bill is not for so large a sum as your bank, and it is payable at sight by Zappata, of Turin.”
I agreed, he cut, and put his money on an ace, the two friends going half shares. I drew and drew and drew, but no ace appeared. I had only a dozen cards left.
“Sir,” said I, calmly to the punter, “you can draw back if you like.”
“No, go on.”
Four cards more, and still no ace; I had only eight cards left.
“My lord,” said I, “it’s two to one that I do not hold the ace, I repeat you can draw back.”
“No, no, you are too generous, go on.”
I continued dealing, and won; I put the bill of exchange in my pocket without looking at it. The Englishmen shook me by the hand and went off laughing. I was enjoying the effect this bold stroke had made on the company, when young Fox came in and with a roar of laughter begged me to lend him fifty Louis. I counted them out with the greatest pleasure, and he paid me them back in London three years later.
Everyone was curious to know the value of the bill of exchange, but I was not polite enough to satisfy their curiosity. It was for eight thousand Piedmontese francs, as I saw as soon as I was alone. The Englishmen had brought me good luck, for when they had gone fortune declared for the bank. I rose at eight o’clock, some ladies having won a few louis, all the others were dried up. I had won more than a thousand louis, and I gave twenty-five to Desarmoises, who jumped for joy. I locked up my money, put my pistols in my pocket, and set out towards the meeting-place.
The worthy peasant woman brought me in by the door, telling me that everybody was asleep, and that she had not found it necessary to renew the lay-sister’s dose, as she was still asleep.
I was terrified. I went upstairs, and by the light of a single candle I saw the wretched, veiled figure of the nun, extended upon a sack which the peasant woman had placed along the wall instead of a sofa. The candle which lighted this dreary place was fixed in a bottle.
“What have you decided on doing?” said I.
“I have decided on nothing, for an unforeseen incident has confounded us. The lay-sister has been asleep for eighteen hours.”
“She will die of convulsions or of an apoplectic fit to-night if you do not call a doctor, who may possibly restore her to life with a dose of castor oil.”
“We have thought of that, but we did not dare to take that step for fear of consequences; for whether he restores her or not, he will say that we have poisoned her.”
“I pity you, upon my soul! Indeed, I believe that it is too late, and that a doctor could do nothing. One must obey the laws of prudence and let her die. The mischief is done, and I see no remedy.”
“At any rate, we ought to think of her soul and send for a priest.”
“A priest would do her no good, as she is in a perfect lethargy; her soul is safe enough. Besides, an ignorant priest would find out too much, and would tell the whole story either through malice or stupidity. It will be time to call a priest when she has ceased to breathe. You must tell him that she died very suddenly; you must weep a great deal, and give him a fee, and he will think only of calming your grief, and nothing about the sudden death.”
“Then we must let her die?”
“We must leave her to nature.”
“If she dies I will send a messenger to the abbess, who will dispatch another lay-sister.”
“Yes, and that will give you another ten days. During that time you may be delivered, and you will confess that every cloud has a silver lining. Do not grieve so, but let us endeavour to submit to the will of God. Send for the country-woman, for I must give her some hints as to her conduct in this delicate matter, on which the honour and life of all three may depend. For instance, if it were discovered that I had come here, I might be taken for the poisoner.”
The woman came, and I shewed her how necessary it was for her to be prudent and discreet. She understood me perfectly, perceived her own dangerous position, and promised that she would not send for the priest till she was certain of the sister’s death. I then made her accept ten louis in case of need.
Seeing herself made rich by my liberality, she kissed my hands, knelt down, and bursting into tears promised to follow my advice carefully. When she had left us, the nun began to weep bitterly, accusing herself of the murder of the lay-sister, and thinking that she saw hell opening beneath her feet. I sought in vain to calm her; her grief increased, and at last she fell in a dead faint on the sack. I was extremely distressed, and not knowing what to do I called to the woman to bring some vinegar, as I had no essences about me. All at once I remembered the famous hellebore, which had served me so well with Madame and, taking the little box, I held it to her nostrils. It took effect just as the woman brought the vinegar. “Rub her temples,” said I. She took off her cap, and the blackness of her hair was the only thing that convinced me it was not my fair Venetian. The hellebore having brought her to her senses, she opened her large black eyes, and from that moment I fell madly in love with her. The peasant woman, seeing that she was herself again and out of danger, went away, and taking her between my arms I covered her with fiery kisses, in spite of her continuous sneezes.
“Please let me put on my veil again,” said she, “or else I shall be excommunicated.”
I laughed at her fears, and continued to lavish my burning kisses on her face.
“I see you do not believe me, but I assure you that the abbess threatened me with excommunication if I let myself be seen by a man.”
“Fear these bolts no longer, dear, they cannot hurt you.”
But she sneezed more violently than ever, and fearing lest her efforts might bring on her delivery I called the woman again, and left the nun in her care, promising to return at the same hour on the next day.
It would not have been like me to leave this interesting creature in her distress, but my devotion to her cause had no merit, since I was madly in love with this new M—- M—- with black eyes; and love always makes men selfish, since all the sacrifices they make for the beloved object are always ultimately referable to their own desires.
I had determined, then, to do all in my power for her, and certainly not to allow her to return to the convent in the state she was in. I concluded that to save her would be an action pleasing to God, since God alone could have made her so like my beloved, and God had willed that I should win a good deal of money, and had made me find the Zeroli, who would serve as a shield to my actions and baffle the curiosity of spies. The philosophers and the mystics may perhaps laugh at me, but what do I care? I have always delighted in referring all the actions of my life to God, and yet people have charged me with Atheism!
Next morning I did not forget the Zeroli, and I went to her room at eight and found her asleep. Her maid begged me to go in quietly for fear of awakening her, and then left me and shut the door. I knew my part, for I remembered how, twenty years before, a Venetian lady, whose sleep I had foolishly respected, had laughed at me and sent me about my business. I therefore knew what to do; and having gently uncovered her, I gave myself up to those delicate preliminary delights which sweeten the final pleasure. The Zeroli wisely continued to sleep; but at last, conquered by passion, she seconded my caresses with greater ardour than my own, and she was obliged to laugh at her stratagem. She told me that her husband had gone to Geneva to buy a repeating watch, and that he would not return till next day, and that she could spend the night with me.
“Why the night, dearest, while we have the day before us? The night is for slumber, and in the day one enjoys double bliss, since the light allows all the senses to be satisfied at once. If you do not expect anybody, I will pass the whole morning with you.”
“Very good; nobody will interrupt us.”
I was soon in her arms, and for four hours we gave ourselves up to every kind of pleasure, cheating each other the better to succeed, and laughing with delight each time we convinced each other of our love. After the last assault she asked me, in return for her kindness, to spend three more days at Aix.
“I promise you,” I said, “to stay here as long as you continue giving me such marks of your love as you have given me this morning.”
“Let us get up, then, and go to dinner.”
“In company, dearest? Look at your eyes.”
“All the better. People will guess what has happened, and the two countesses will burst with envy. I want everybody to know that it is for me alone that you are remaining at Aix.”
“I am not worth the trouble, my angel, but so be it; I will gladly oblige you, even though I lose all my money in the next three days.”
“I should be in despair if you lost; but if you abstain from punting you will not lose, though you may let yourself be robbed.”
“You may be sure that I know what I am about, and that I shall only allow ladies to rob me. You have had some money out of me yourself.”
“Yes, but not nearly so much as the countesses, and I am sorry you allowed them to impose on you, as they no doubt put it down to your being in love with them.”
“They are quite wrong, poor dears, for neither would have kept me here a day.”
“I am delighted to hear it. But let me tell you what the Marquis of St. Maurice was saying about you yesterday.”
“Say on. I hope he did not allow himself any offensive remarks.”
“No; he only said that you should never have offered the Englishman to be off at eight cards, as you had as much chance as he, and if he had won he might have thought that you knew the card was there.”
“Very good, but tell the marquis that a gentleman is incapable of such a thought, and besides I knew the character of the young nobleman, and I was almost sure he would not accept my offer.”
When we appeared in the dining-room we were received with applause. The fair Zeroli had the air of regarding me as her property, and I affected an extremely modest manner. No one dared to ask me to make a bank after dinner; the purses were too empty, and they contented themselves with trente-quarante, which lasted the whole day, and which cost me a score of louis.
I stole away as usual towards evening, and after having ordered Le Duc not to leave my room for a moment during my stay at Aix, I went towards the cottage where the unfortunate nun was no doubt expecting me anxiously. Soon, in spite of the darkness, I thought I made out somebody following me. I stopped short, and some persons passed me. In two or three minutes I went on again, and I saw the same people, whom I could not have caught up if they had not slackened their pace. It might all be accidental, but I wanted to be sure about it. I left the road without losing my reckoning, feeling quite sure of finding my way when I ceased to be followed; but I soon felt sure that my steps were dogged, as I saw the same shadowy figures at a little distance off. I doubled my speed, hid behind a tree, and as soon as I saw the spies fired a pistol in the air. I looked round shortly after, saw no one, and went on my way.
I went upstairs and found the nun in bed, with two candles on the table.
“Are you ill?”
“I was ill for a time, but praised be God! I am now quite well, having given birth to a fine boy at two o’clock this morning.”
“Where is the child?”
“Alas! I did but kiss him once, and my good hostess carried him away I know not where. The Holy Virgin heard my prayers, for my pains, though sharp, were soon over, and a quarter of an hour after my delivery I was still sneezing. Tell me whether you are a man or an angel, for I fear lest I sin in adoring you.”
“This is good news indeed. And how about the lay-sister?”
She still breathes, but we have no hope that she will recover. Her face is terribly distorted. We have sinned exceedingly, and God will punish me for it.”
“No, dearest, God will forgive you, for the Most Holy judges by the heart, and in your heart you had no evil thoughts. Adore Divine Providence, which doeth all things well.”