The two men clothed in black
The personage who entered wore a black gown and a gloomy mien. The first point which struck the eye of our Jehan (who, as the reader will readily surmise, had ensconced himself in his nook in such a manner as to enable him to see and hear everything at his good pleasure) was the perfect sadness of the garments and the visage of this new-corner. There was, nevertheless, some sweetness diffused over that face, but it was the sweetness of a cat or a judge, an affected, treacherous sweetness. He was very gray and wrinkled, and not far from his sixtieth year, his eyes blinked, his eyebrows were white, his lip pendulous, and his hands large. When Jehan saw that it was only this, that is to say, no doubt a physician or a magistrate, and that this man had a nose very far from his mouth, a sign of stupidity, he nestled down in his hole, in despair at being obliged to pass an indefinite time in such an uncomfortable attitude, and in such bad company.
The archdeacon, in the meantime, had not even risen to receive this personage. He had made the latter a sign to seat himself on a stool near the door, and, after several moments of a silence which appeared to be a continuation of a preceding meditation, he said to him in a rather patronizing way, “Good day, Master Jacques.”
“Greeting, master,” replied the man in black.
There was in the two ways in which “Master Jacques” was pronounced on the one hand, and the “master” by preeminence on the other, the difference between monseigneur and monsieur, between domine and domne. It was evidently the meeting of a teacher and a disciple.
“Well!” resumed the archdeacon, after a fresh silence which Master Jacques took good care not to disturb, “how are you succeeding?”
“Alas! master,” said the other, with a sad smile, “I am still seeking the stone. Plenty of ashes. But not a spark of gold.”
Dom Claude made a gesture of impatience. “I am not talking to you of that, Master Jacques Charmolue, but of the trial of your magician. Is it not Marc Cenaine that you call him? the butler of the Court of Accounts? Does he confess his witchcraft? Have you been successful with the torture?”
“Alas! no,” replied Master Jacques, still with his sad smile; “we have not that consolation. That man is a stone. We might have him boiled in the Marché aux Pourceaux, before he would say anything. Nevertheless, we are sparing nothing for the sake of getting at the truth; he is already thoroughly dislocated, we are applying all the herbs of Saint John’s day; as saith the old comedian Plautus,—
’Advorsum stimulos, láminas, crucesque, compedesque, Nerros, catenas, carceres, numellas, pedicas, boias.’
Nothing answers; that man is terrible. I am at my wit’s end over him.”
“You have found nothing new in his house?”
“I’ faith, yes,” said Master Jacques, fumbling in his pouch; “this parchment. There are words in it which we cannot comprehend. The criminal advocate, Monsieur Philippe Lheulier, nevertheless, knows a little Hebrew, which he learned in that matter of the Jews of the Rue Kantersten, at Brussels.”
So saying, Master Jacques unrolled a parchment. “Give it here,” said the archdeacon. And casting his eyes upon this writing: “Pure magic, Master Jacques!” he exclaimed. “‘Emen-Hétan!’ ’Tis the cry of the vampires when they arrive at the witches’ sabbath. Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso! ’Tis the command which chains the devil in hell. Hax, pax, max! that refers to medicine. A formula against the bite of mad dogs. Master Jacques! you are procurator to the king in the Ecclesiastical Courts: this parchment is abominable.”
“We will put the man to the torture once more. Here again,” added Master Jacques, fumbling afresh in his pouch, “is something that we have found at Marc Cenaine’s house.”
It was a vessel belonging to the same family as those which covered Dom Claude’s furnace.
“Ah!” said the archdeacon, “a crucible for alchemy.”
“I will confess to you,” continued Master Jacques, with his timid and awkward smile, “that I have tried it over the furnace, but I have succeeded no better than with my own.”
The archdeacon began an examination of the vessel. “What has he engraved on his crucible? Och! och! the word which expels fleas! That Marc Cenaine is an ignoramus! I verily believe that you will never make gold with this! ’Tis good to set in your bedroom in summer and that is all!”
“Since we are talking about errors,” said the king’s procurator, “I have just been studying the figures on the portal below before ascending hither; is your reverence quite sure that the opening of the work of physics is there portrayed on the side towards the Hôtel-Dieu, and that among the seven nude figures which stand at the feet of Notre-Dame, that which has wings on his heels is Mercurius?”
“Yes,” replied the priest; “’tis Augustin Nypho who writes it, that Italian doctor who had a bearded demon who acquainted him with all things. However, we will descend, and I will explain it to you with the text before us.”
“Thanks, master,” said Charmolue, bowing to the earth. “By the way, I was on the point of forgetting. When doth it please you that I shall apprehend the little sorceress?”
“That gypsy girl you know, who comes every day to dance on the church square, in spite of the official’s prohibition! She hath a demoniac goat with horns of the devil, which reads, which writes, which knows mathematics like Picatrix, and which would suffice to hang all Bohemia. The prosecution is all ready; ’twill soon be finished, I assure you! A pretty creature, on my soul, that dancer! The handsomest black eyes! Two Egyptian carbuncles! When shall we begin?”
The archdeacon was excessively pale.
“I will tell you that hereafter,” he stammered, in a voice that was barely articulate; then he resumed with an effort, “Busy yourself with Marc Cenaine.”
“Be at ease,” said Charmolue with a smile; “I’ll buckle him down again for you on the leather bed when I get home. But ’tis a devil of a man; he wearies even Pierrat Torterue himself, who hath hands larger than my own. As that good Plautus saith,—
’Nudus vinctus, centum pondo, es quando pendes per pedes.’
The torture of the wheel and axle! ’Tis the most effectual! He shall taste it!”
Dom Claude seemed absorbed in gloomy abstraction. He turned to Charmolue,—
“Master Pierrat— Master Jacques, I mean, busy yourself with Marc Cenaine.”
“Yes, yes, Dom Claude. Poor man! he will have suffered like Mummol. What an idea to go to the witches’ sabbath! a butler of the Court of Accounts, who ought to know Charlemagne’s text; Stryga vel masea!— In the matter of the little girl,— Smelarda, as they call her,— I will await your orders. Ah! as we pass through the portal, you will explain to me also the meaning of the gardener painted in relief, which one sees as one enters the church. Is it not the Sower? Hé! master, of what are you thinking, pray?”
Dom Claude, buried in his own thoughts, no longer listened to him. Charmolue, following the direction of his glance, perceived that it was fixed mechanically on the great spider’s web which draped the window. At that moment, a bewildered fly which was seeking the March sun, flung itself through the net and became entangled there. On the agitation of his web, the enormous spider made an abrupt move from his central cell, then with one bound, rushed upon the fly, which he folded together with his fore antennæ, while his hideous proboscis dug into the victim’s bead. “Poor fly!” said the king’s procurator in the ecclesiastical court; and he raised his hand to save it. The archdeacon, as though roused with a start, withheld his arm with convulsive violence.
“Master Jacques,” he cried, “let fate take its course!” The procurator wheeled round in affright; it seemed to him that pincers of iron had clutched his arm. The priest’s eye was staring, wild, flaming, and remained riveted on the horrible little group of the spider and the fly.
“Oh, yes!” continued the priest, in a voice which seemed to proceed from the depths of his being, “behold here a symbol of all. She flies, she is joyous, she is just born; she seeks the spring, the open air, liberty: oh, yes! but let her come in contact with the fatal network, and the spider issues from it, the hideous spider! Poor dancer! poor, predestined fly! Let things take their course, Master Jacques, ’tis fate! Alas! Claude, thou art the spider! Claude, thou art the fly also! Thou wert flying towards learning, light, the sun. Thou hadst no other care than to reach the open air, the full daylight of eternal truth; but in precipitating thyself towards the dazzling window which opens upon the other world,— upon the world of brightness, intelligence, and science— blind fly! senseless, learned man! thou hast not perceived that subtle spider’s web, stretched by destiny betwixt the light and thee— thou hast flung thyself headlong into it, and now thou art struggling with head broken and mangled wings between the iron antennæ of fate! Master Jacques! Master Jacques! let the spider work its will!”
“I assure you,” said Charmolue, who was gazing at him without comprehending him, “that I will not touch it. But release my arm, master, for pity’s sake! You have a hand like a pair of pincers.”
The archdeacon did not hear him. “Oh, madman!” he went on, without removing his gaze from the window. “And even couldst thou have broken through that formidable web, with thy gnat’s wings, thou believest that thou couldst have reached the light? Alas! that pane of glass which is further on, that transparent obstacle, that wall of crystal, harder than brass, which separates all philosophies from the truth, how wouldst thou have overcome it? Oh, vanity of science! how many wise men come flying from afar, to dash their heads against thee! How many systems vainly fling themselves buzzing against that eternal pane!”
He became silent. These last ideas, which had gradually led him back from himself to science, appeared to have calmed him. Jacques Charmolue recalled him wholly to a sense of reality by addressing to him this question: “Come, now, master, when will you come to aid me in making gold? I am impatient to succeed.”
The archdeacon shook his head, with a bitter smile. “Master Jacques read Michel Psellus’ ’Dialogus de Energia et Operatione Daemonum_.’ What we are doing is not wholly innocent.”
“Speak lower, master! I have my suspicions of it,” said Jacques Charmolue. “But one must practise a bit of hermetic science when one is only procurator of the king in the ecclesiastical court, at thirty crowns tournois a year. Only speak low.”
At that moment the sound of jaws in the act of mastication, which proceeded from beneath the furnace, struck Charmolue’s uneasy ear.
“What’s that?” he inquired.
It was the scholar, who, ill at ease, and greatly bored in his hiding-place, had succeeded in discovering there a stale crust and a triangle of mouldy cheese, and had set to devouring the whole without ceremony, by way of consolation and breakfast. As he was very hungry, he made a great deal of noise, and he accented each mouthful strongly, which startled and alarmed the procurator.
“’Tis a cat of mine,” said the archdeacon, quickly, “who is regaling herself under there with a mouse,”
This explanation satisfied Charmolue.
“In fact, master,” he replied, with a respectful smile, “all great philosophers have their familiar animal. You know what Servius saith: ’Nullus enim locus sine genio est,— for there is no place that hath not its spirit.’”
But Dom Claude, who stood in terror of some new freak on the part of Jehan, reminded his worthy disciple that they had some figures on the façade to study together, and the two quitted the cell, to the accompaniment of a great “ouf!” from the scholar, who began to seriously fear that his knee would acquire the imprint of his chin.