CH. IX. -- An extraordinary companion at supper; and an account of their conversation.

 

I REMARKED in the coffee-room a sort of an old monk, habited in coarse grey cloth, at supper quite alone in a corner. I went and sat opposite to him out of curiosity; we exchanged a civil bow, and he shewed himself to be quite as well bred as I was, notwithstanding my lay education. My commons were brought me, and I fell to with a very catholic appetite. While I was eating, my tongue was mute, but my eyes glanced by snatches towards this singular character, and always caught his at the same employment. Liking better to stare than be stared at, I addressed my speech to him thus: Pray, father, have we ever by any chance met anywhere but here? You peer at me as if you scarcely knew whether I was an acquaintance or a stranger. He answered gravely: If I look at you with fixed attention, it is only to admire the prodigious variety of adventures which are chronicled in the features of your face. It should seem, said I in a joking tone, as if your reverence was something of a physiognomist. Far more deeply imbued in science than a mere physiognomist, answered the monk, I found prophecies on my observations which have never been belied by the event. My skill in palmistry is no less, and I will set my oracles against the surest of antiquity, after comparing the inspection of the hand with that of the face.

Though this old man had all the appearance of profound wisdom, his talk was so like that of a madman, that I could not help laughing at him out-right. So far from being offended at my want of manners, he smiled at it, and went on to the following effect, after running his eye round the coffee-room, to be assured that there were no listeners: I am not surprised at finding you so prejudiced against two sciences which pass at this time of day for mere frivolity; the long and painful study they require disheartens the learned, who turn their backs upon them, and then swear that they are fables out of disgust at having missed their attainment. For my part, I am not to be frightened by the darkness which envelopes them, any more than by the difficulties which are perpetual stumbling-blocks in the pursuit of chemical discoveries, and in the marvellous art of transmuting baser metals into gold.

But I do flatter myself, pursued he, looking steadfastly at me, that I am addressing a young gentleman of good sense, to whom my systems will not appear altogether in the light of idle dreams. A sample of my skill will dispose you better than the most subtle arguments to pass a favourable judgment on my pretensions. After talking in this manner he drew from his pocket a phial full of a lively-looking red liquor, on which he expatiated thus: Here is an elixir which I have distilled this morning from the juices of certain plants; for I have employed almost my whole life, like Democritus, in finding out the properties of simples and minerals. You shall make trial of its virtue. The wine we are drinking with our supper is very bad; henceforth it will become excellent. At the same time he put two drops of his elixir into my bottle, which made my wine more delicious than the choicest vintages of Spain.

The marvellous strikes the imagination; and when once that faculty is enlisted, judgment is turned adrift. Delighted with so glorious a secret, and persuaded that he must have out-devilled the devil before he could have got at it, I cried out in a paroxysm of admiration: O reverend father! prythee forgive your servant if he took you at first for an old blockhead. I now abjure my error. There is no need to look further to be assured that it depends only on your own will to turn an iron bar into a wedge of gold in the twinkling of an eye. How happy should I be were I master of that admirable science! Heaven preserve you from ever acquiring it, interrupted the old man with a deep sigh. You know not, my son, what a fatal possession you covet. Instead of envying, rather pity me, for having taken such infinite pains to be made unhappy. I am always disturbed in mind. I fear a discovery; and then perpetual imprisonment would be the reward of all my labours. In this apprehension, I lead a vagabond life, sometimes disguised as a priest or monk, sometimes as a gentle man or a peasant. Where is the benefit of knowing how to manufacture gold on such terms? Are not the goods of this world downright misery to those who cannot enjoy them in tranquillity?

What you say appears to me very sensible, said I to the philosopher. There is nothing like living at one's ease. You have rid me of all hankering after the philosopher's stone. I will rest satisfied with learning from you my future destiny. With all my heart, my good lad, answered he. I have already made my remarks upon your features; now let me see your hand. I gave it him with a confidence which will do my penetration but little credit in the esteem of some readers. He examined it very attentively, and then pronounced, as in a rapture of inspiration: Ah! what transitions from pain to pleasure, and from pleasure to pain! What a whimsical alternation of good and evil chances! But you have already experienced the largest share of your allotted reverses. You have but few more tides of misfortune to stem, and then a great lord will contrive for you an eligible fate, which shall not be subject to change.

After having assured me that I might depend on his prediction, he bade me farewell and went out of the inn, leaving me in deep meditation on the things I had just heard. There could be no doubt of the Marquis de Marialva being the great lord in question; and consequently nothing appeared more within the verge of possibility than the accomplishment of the oracle. But though there had not been the slightest likelihood, that would have been no hindrance to giving the impostor monk unbounded credit, since his elixir had transmuted my sour incredulity into the most tractable digestion of his falsehoods. That nothing might be wanting on my side to play into the hands of my foreboded luck, I determined to attach myself more closely to the marquis than I had ever done to any of my masters. Having taken this resolution, I went home in unusually high spirits; never did foolish woman descend in better humour from the garret of another foolish woman who had told her fortune.

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