The Secrets of Cabalism
There appeared at Spa, in the year 1720, a young gentleman, whose fine figure and good equipage created what is now called a great sensation. He had all the wit and learning of that day; talked to the ladies of the plurality of worlds in the style of a junior Fontenelle, and quoted Montesquieu to the gentlemen. He dropped one day from his pocket an extract from Voiture’s correspondence which furnished half the petit-maitres of Spa with pretty billets during the season. Then he affected great knowledge of state-mysteries: shook his head when Prince Eugene was named; hinted at Queen Anne’s love for her brother, and said something strange about the French lady whose accouchement took place in King James’s palace, and was foster-mother to his heir-apparent. As there is remarkable sympathy between similar characters, the Chevalier Valamour, as he chose to call himself, became very intimate with an obscure watchmaker in the suburbs of Aix-la-Chapelle. If this recluse had been the Emperor Charles V. in his watchmaking frolic, he could not have known more of men and manners. He had also a surprising familiarity with the names of learned physicians, and now and then dropped mystic phrases of cabalistical import. He had a daughter whom he secreted in a corner of his miserable house, and guarded with the most anxious care. Our Chevalier was duly fascinated with her beauty, and took all the pains required in the beginning of the eighteenth century to recommend himself. Not that he fully understood his own meaning, for he had a most religious horror of a woman’s tongue, especially a wife’s. Linnæus himself, whom he partly resembled in genius, was not more unfortunate in a shrewish mother than he had been. His father’s lady had compelled him to sweep his own room, prepare his own breakfast, and perhaps to hem his cambric ruffles. Certainly this woman’s violence of power had contributed to excite and fix his imagination on the idea of a placid beauty as the most perfect. And as he probably did not find one exactly realized in the common world, he read romances, and especially the “Count de Gabalis,” till he conceived something of the kind might be found elsewhere. Ariette was more like the charming creature detained in the palace of silence by the King of the Fishes than any human female he had ever seen. She seemed to have chosen Madame Dacier’s motto, “Silence is the ornament of women;” if indeed she had a choice, which certain mysterious motions of the father’s head rendered doubtful. One thing was remarkable:—he could never prevail on her to shew herself by moonlight, nor to lift her veil when he had spoken to her half an hour. At the expiration of that time she always dropped the light and elegant screen of black silk net which was constantly attached to her fine hair. This, and the marble paleness of Ariette’s countenance, gave something of poetic sanctity to her character, which her profound modesty and secluded mode of life completed. He was often tempted to propose himself to the ancient watchmaker as a son-in-law, but his reverence for him as a man of science was not quite enough to subdue the pride of birth, and some hereditary fears of a wife’s dominion. At length fear and pride gave ground, and the chevalier made a suitable speech in the artist’s study. To his great surprise, the offer was rejected, but with an air more in sorrow than in anger. He repeated it, and was promised a month’s consideration. Before the end of that time, he was informed the watchmaker had suffered an apoplectic stroke, and lay at the point of death. He ran to him—the old man was expiring, and had only strength to put a small ring on his finger before he breathed his last. The room was silent—there was no spectator but himself, and a crowd of alembics, phials, and chemical preparations, lay in one corner. The suspicion he had always entertained that the deceased artist studied alchymy, and had probably discovered the long-sought secret of creating gold, induced our chevalier to search into the heap under which rested a little iron box. He soon perceived that the ring put on his finger by the dying man was contrived to act as a key, and it readily unlocked the coffer. There were in it only a few mysterious calculations, and one on which a horoscope was constructed. Underneath it, in Romaic characters, he decyphered words to this import.
“My art informs me you will find this parchment on which your nativity is accurately traced. Ariette is not of my nature, nor have I power to bestow her. What her veil conceals I never knew, nor can I recollect any change in her aspect, though she has dwelt here many years; but I am at no loss to guess her purpose. Sylphs, gnomes, nymphs, and salamanders, are incapable of enjoying eternity, unless by marriage with a Christian. They have then the power of sharing earthly happiness, and their partners, if they chuse, may share with them that intellectual soul which is the spirit of eternal life. Or if they so please, these husbands may content themselves with their society during the short period which the order of their nature permits them to exist in human shape—Ariette is, as I humbly guess, a sylph or spirit of the purest element. For she has no interest in the world’s wealth, no delight in its tumults, no capacity for ardent, jealous, or hostile feelings. She thinks, she acts, and she speaks, by the rule of reason;—but—”
The manuscript broke off, as if a sudden sickness had arrested the writer’s hand. To whom this could be addressed, unless to him, was not to be conjectured, and Valamour went home in great agitation. The very few neighbours who had seen Ariette, celebrated her domestic virtues, her charities, and unimpeachable prudence, during her residence of ten years’ length among them. He could judge for himself of her grace and beauty: what could he risque by marrying her? If the Romaic manuscript was a fable, it could no way harm him—if it stated truths, it increased his chance of happiness. Valamour’s heart was better than his head;—it prevailed, and he married Ariette.
On his marriage-day, the bride’s conduct gave some countenance to the dead cabalist’s assertion. For instead of the grateful tenderness which might have been expected to touch an orphan raised from poverty to a noble rank, Ariette shewed a reserved, calm, and gentle demeanour, which expressed more good-sense than sensibility. Valamour, however, was delighted with his prospect of escaping all the turmoils caused by an impatient spirit, and enjoying perpetual serenity with a wife altogether reasonable. On the third day after their nuptials, the Chevalier conducted her to a carriage without saying a word of its destination, which she never enquired, and the next morning brought them to a charming villa in the midst of a rich Provençal valley. It was late in spring, but few flowers had made their appearance, except in a little recess near the Garonne, where a perfect bower of roses was spread. “These,” said he, “are all the offspring of a sprig planted by my mother, who won in her youth the Crown of Roses given as a trophy of merit by the owner of the Chateau de Salency. You must have heard of that affecting ceremony, and I hold these rose-trees as the best part of my patrimony.” —“There is no reason for it,” she answered coldly:—“these roses are no way conscious of their origin, nor a part of your mother’s merit—if they were, you have no right to it—If, indeed, they had been reared and nursed for you by your grateful peasants, like the roses of M. de Malesherbes, you would have reason to be pleased with them.”—Valamour was piqued at this reply, and obliquely reproached her with a want of that feeling which in such cases is more delightful than reason.—“It is not my fault,” she returned, with the same coldness—“it would be as wise to quarrel with these flowers because they have not the waving branches of the willow, as to be angry with me because I cannot feel like you. And if you are angry, that is no reason why I should be displeased with you, because you do not feel that you are unreasonable.”—Valamour was highly displeased; but after recollecting himself awhile, he began to consider that his anger was useless, and might be absurd. If her supposed father’s words were true, Ariette had no power to understand his feelings unless he could infuse into her that human and tender spirit which her nature had denied her. There was something pleasant to his vanity in believing that this fair creature depended on him, as the cabalist said, ſor the gift of a soul, and for the length of her existence. He returned into her presence, determined to excuse the defects of her imperfect frame, and to remedy them if he could by kindness.
These defects were by no means so easy to endure as he had expected. The eternal level on which an ill-natured fairy condemned her victim to walk for thirty years under an unchanging blue sky, was an Eden compared to the dead calm of Ariette’s temper. And the most provoking part of this calmness was, that it shewed itself most when he was in a rage. If he hunted and returned in all the glee of a successful sportsman, she wanted to know the reason of his delight. If his friends or vassals fêted, or congratulated him, she analyzed their compliments, and could not find them reasonable. If he brought her a bouquet, or a gallant madrigal on her beauty, she laid the one aside as useless, and burned the other when she had read it, “because,” said she, “that is all that can be done with it.” What a mortification for a poet! Valamour actually looked again into the cabalist’s fragment, to read the words which hinted she could not live for ever.
It would have been well for Valamour, however, if all his wit had been as little regarded. But certain persons at Aix-la-Chapelle had paid more attention to his jeux-d’esprit, and some rumours of the sagacious guesses he had made on political matters found their way to Versailles. The consequence was, a domiciliary visit to search for treasonous papers; seals of office were put on the doors of his villa, and a mandate was presented to him, requiring his attendance at the Secretary of State’s bureau under an Exempt’s escort. He never doubted the willing attendance of his wife, and was confounded at her refusal. “There can be no use in my stay with you in prison,” she said, “therefore you ought not to be so unreasonable as to require it.”—“What, madam! you feel no necessity to prove your duty and attachment to me?”—“None at all, monsieur, unless you can prove that I have failed in either. I should only add to your distresses in Paris, and you to mine—I may be as well employed here, and shall stay, where I am.”—“There wanted only this to convince me the cabalist spoke truth,” said the angry husband, and departed alone, satisfied that she neither had a soul, nor ever could have one: and he comforted himself again by remembering her term was short.
Our Chevalier was accused of having asserted, that the celebrated prisoner in the Iron Mask was the last-born twin-brother of Louis XIV. and his impertinent conjecture was punished by a confiscation of his estate and a decree of banishment. Permission, however, was granted him to sell the furniture and heir-looms of his patrimonial villa, and to visit it for ten days without official superintendence. He returned to the Provençal valley in extreme ill-humour; and much as he had been chagrined by his wife’s coldness, he was glad to find some one forced to listen to his tale of grievances. She heard the sentence of exile and deprivation with admirable fortitude, but her husband would have been more pleased if she had raved at his enemies and deplored her ill-fortune. He wanted a pretext to scold and lament, and was angry that she seemed wiser than himself. He walked out to his favourite recess in the valley, and found the sacred rosebushes torn up by the roots, the gates of his gardens broken, and all the outrages of petty and vulgar malice committed by the peasantry, now no longer his vassals.—“And why,” said Ariette, who walked by his side, “are you heart-struck by this?—Of what use to you were these men’s acts of false servility, and what harm is there in their open hatred? Let them shew it as often as they will by such acts—they are only ills because you think them such—Feel them no longer, and you disappoint your enemies. They have had more trouble in pulling up these paltry thickets of roses than you had reason to value them.”—“But my mother!—was it nothing to see a memorial of her goodness?—I need it, madam, I assure you, to prevent me from growing ferocious.”—“Very well, chevalier! and if you had no better reason for your goodness than the sight of a few rosebuds growing where your mother’s died twenty years ago, your ferocity will be more honest and more natural.”
Valamour’s fury rose beyond his power of self-command, and he uttered all the bitter upbraidings his wit could devise; for anger and despair are oftener witty than love. They lasted half an hour without provoking a single retort from Ariette; but as her watch, on which she looked with vexatious calmness, indicated the thirtieth minute, she dropped her veil, and turned to leave him. This act recalled to his mind the custom she had religiously observed before her marriage—he had never held her in passionate discourse so long after, and it cooled his emotion by reminding him of the strange circumstances connected with her character. While he hesitated and thought of snatching off the mysterious veil, she retired in silence, sighing deeply.—“How intolerable is all this meekness!” said poor Valamour to himself—“If she would be angry sometimes, I could be angry myself at my ease.”
At the supper-hour he found her sitting alone near a table, dressed with the graceful order of happier times. They were to depart to-morrow; and this parlour—this hearth which his childhood had endeared to him, the portrait of his father, the grave of both his parents seen in the soft moonlight, recalled all that was kind and good in Valamour’s temper. Ariette lifted up her veil, and seated herself at the head of the table, lighted only by the beams of the summer-moon. It touched her countenance with singular beauty, not rendered less affecting to her husband’s eye by novelty, for this was the first time she had ever permitted herself to be seen by him in the moon’s light.— “To-night,” she began, breaking a long silence, “is the anniversary of our marriage, and the seventeenth since—but it is not yet time to speak of that.—You were displeased with me for paying but little attention to the rose-trees you respected—I planted another during your absence at Paris, and these are its first productions—perhaps they will not displease you, for they must die to-night.” And smiling sorrowfully, but with great sweetness, she placed on the centre of the table a basket of white roses, and retired.—Valamour was surprised and touched by her last words, and still more when, by drawing out a branch of the flowers, he discovered a large quantity of gold coin and several jewels beneath them. A leaf of ivory in a corner of the basket offered itself next to his notice, but the words pencilled on it made him forget every other part of the gift.
“You have often asked me why I refused before our marriage to be seen by you in the moon’s light. A follower of the Cabalist’s Red Cross would tell you that souls are aptest to be communicated in her presence, therefore I declined the hazard then—and since our marriage you have not seemed disposed to give me any part of yours. —A veil must cover the remainder of my few days, for you have not wished to prolong them: but though I cannot give you life, I leave you the means of living nobly till your term is ended.”
Valamour made but one step to his wife’s apartment, and found it vacant. He was, as all perplexed men are, extremely angry that he had not foreseen this event. Then he wondered at his own ill-temper and impatience; and though he had almost begun to hate his wife, was heartily chagrined at her sudden and final departure; for with all her provoking calmness, she had been a convenient and patient subject of complaints and murmurs, when it suited him, as it sometimes suits every man, to find a passage for his spleen. In a few hours, all that was beautiful and uncommon in Ariette came thronging on his fancy: the last words of her letter began to alarm him, and he looked at his horoscope once more. By long and anxious references to the astrological books of her reputed father, he had discovered signs and combinations which informed him that his line of life was threatened on the day that deprived him of his wife. Our chevalier became dull, dejected, and sickened as if he had eaten of the Obi-poison. In two or three months he was pronounced in a confirmed decline, and the best physicians attended him in vain. One of great eminence at Aix-la-Chapelle offered his services, and came with due ceremony into the sick man’s room. When alone with him, he said, “If you were a common hypochondriac, Valamour, I would force you to laugh by compounding certain medicines in your presence, and inducing those grave men, your other physicians, to taste them. But I shall try plain truth. Who am I?”
“Erasmus Haller, a most learned and benevolent practitioner—the friend of sick and dying men.”
“I am also, or I was, the friend of your dead father-in-law, and have some interest in the French court, which I have used to obtain a revocation of your sentence. This is my first medicine—my next is, to translate your horoscope truly. He who drew it was a sufficient cabalist, for he knew human nature wants no help from other elements. He saw you had been made afraid of ordinary women by a fierce stepmother, and tempted to look for extraordinary ones by old romances. So he devised this scheme of your nativity to ensure a good husband for his daughter. He told you, if she was a sylph or spirit, she had but a short term of certain life, and he thought,—how true and beautiful was that thought!—that you could not fail to treat her gently while you remembered she might die in another moment. Who could be harsh or unjust to another, if that remembrance was always present, as it ought, to all of us?—He thought her quiet character would suit yours, and perhaps be animated by it, as he chose to hint in a poetic way, which gave you, no doubt, much comfort and encouragement. At least, like a wise father, he ensured your care of her by knitting your line of life with hers. Come, forgive the cabalism, and be content with a mere woman, composed, as all the sex are, of both sylph and salamander. If she refused to go with you to Paris, it was because she could serve you better by coming to beg my help, and by selling her jewels to buy the court’s pardon. And now she comes to beg, not to buy, yours.”
Ariette came in covered with her veil, and stood at a timid distance, though beckoned forwards.
“Do you not see,” said the good physician, “the moon is waning, and this is the moment when a gentle soul may be communicated!”
“I give her mine fully and for ever,” said her husband, “if she drops that mysterious and cabalistic veil.”
“Ah!” she replied, “be prepared to see me with a different face—I wore it only when I felt my aspect changing to one which might displease you.”—and after a little pause she threw off her veil, and discovered eyes full of laughing brightness, and cheeks which betrayed, notwithstanding the tears that still glistened on them, a few dimples ready to express some merry malice.
“Be a shrew sometimes, but a tender-hearted woman always!” said Valamour, throwing the horoscope into the fire; and Ariette, who never wore the veil again except when his peevishness required her silence, preserved no other secret of cabalism.