Roberto allows only brief glimpses of the years between his return to La Griva and his entrance into Parisian society. From scattered hints we deduce that he stayed home to care for his mother until he was almost twenty, reluctantly arguing with stewards about sowing and harvests. Once his mother had followed her husband to the grave, Roberto discovered he was alien to that world. He must then have entrusted the land to a relative, retaining for himself a substantial income, after which he set off to travel the world.
He had remained in correspondence with some men he met at Casale, whose acquaintance had prompted him to extend his knowledge. I do not know how he arrived at Aix-en-Provence, but certainly he was there, for he recalls gratefully two years spent with a local gentleman versed in every science, possessor of a library rich not only in books but in art objects, antiquities, and embalmed animals. While a guest in Aix, he must have met that master to whom he refers often, with devout respect, as the Canon of Digne and sometimes as le doux pretre. It was with the Canon’s letters of introduction that, at an uncertain date, Roberto finally confronted Paris. Here he immediately got in touch with the Canon’s friends, and was enabled to frequent one of the most distinguished places of the city. He often mentions a cabinet of the brothers Dupuy and recalls how, every afternoon there, his mind opened more and more, stimulated by men of learning. But I find references to other cabinets he visited in those years, boasting rich collections of medals, Turkish knives, agate stones, mathematical rarities, shells from the Indies....
We can tell the sort of circle in which he moved during the happy April (or perhaps May) of his youth by his frequent quotation of teachings that to us seem dissonant. He spent his days learning from the Canon how a world made of atoms could be conceived, just as Epicurus had taught, and yet willed and governed by Divine Providence; but, attracted by that same love for Epicurus, he spent his evenings with friends who called themselves Epicureans and could combine debate about the eternity of the world with the society of beautiful ladies of scant virtue.
He often mentions a band of friends, carefree but still not ignorant at twenty of things that others would be proud of knowing at fifty: Linieres, Chapelle, Dassoucy, a philosopher and poet who went around with a lute slung over his shoulder, Poquelin, who translated Lucretius but dreamed of becoming the author of comedies, and Hercule Savinien, who had fought valiantly at the siege of Arras, composed declarations of love for fantastic lovers, and made a show of affectionate intimacy with young gentlemen, from whom he boasted of having acquired the Italian disease, while at the same time he mocked a comrade in vice “qui se plasoit a 1’amour des masles” and said tauntingly that the man had to be forgiven for his shyness, which led him always to hide behind the backs of his friends.
Feeling welcome in a society of keen wits, Roberto became—if not a sage—a scorner of the insipid, which he found both in gentlemen of the court and in certain enriched bourgeois who ostentatiously displayed empty boxes bound in morocco leather from the Levant with the names of the greatest authors printed in gold on the spine.
In short, Roberto had entered the circle of those honnetes gens who, even if they did not come from the nobility of the blood but, rather, from the noblesse de robe, represented the cream of this world. But he was young, eager for new experiences and, despite both his erudite company and his libertine routs, he did not remain insensitive to the fascination of the aristocracy.
For a long time, as he strolled at evening along rue Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre, he had admired from the outside the Pa-lais Rambouillet, its handsome fagade adorned with cornices and friezes, architraves and pilasters, in a play of red brick, white stone, and dark slate. He looked at the lighted windows, he saw the guests enter, and he imagined the loveliness, already famous, of the inner garden. He pictured the salons of that little court, celebrated in all Paris, established by a woman of taste who considered the other court coarse, subject to the whim of a king incapable of appreciating the refinements of the spirit.
Finally Roberto sensed that as a Cisalpine he would enjoy some credit in the house of a lady born of a Roman mother, from a line more ancient than Rome itself, stemming from a family of Alba Longa. Not by chance, about fifteen years earlier an honored guest in that house, Cavalier Marino, had led the French to the paths of a new poetry destined to make the art of the ancients pale.
Roberto managed to gain admittance to this temple of elegance and intellect, of gentlemen and pre’deuses (as they were then called), sages without pedantry, gallants without libertinism, wits without vulgarity, purists without absurdity. He found himself at his ease in that atmosphere: it seemed to him that he was allowed to breathe the air of the great city and of the court without having to bow to those dictates of prudence inculcated in him at Casale by Senor de Salazar. He was not asked to conform to the will of a potentate, but, rather, to show his distinction. Not to simulate, but to test himself— though always observing the rules of good taste—against persons superior to him. He was not asked to be a courtier but to be bold, to exhibit his skill in good and courteous conversation, and to be able to utter profound thoughts lightly.... He did not feel a servant but a dueller, of whom courage, totally intellectual, was demanded.
He was learning to avoid affectation, to use in every circumstance his ability to conceal art and effort so that what he did or said would seem a spontaneous gift, as he tried to become master of that studied ease of manner that in Spain was called despejo and in Italy sprezzatura.
Accustomed to the spaces of La Griva redolent of lavender, after entering the hotel of Arthenice, Roberto moved among cabinets where the perfume of countless corbeilles wafted always, as in an eternal spring. The few aristocratic houses he had known had consisted of cramped rooms around a central staircase; but at Arthenice’s the stairs had been placed in a corner at the end of the courtyard, so that all the rest was a succession of salons and cabinets, with tall doors and windows, one facing the other; the chambers were not tiresomely red or the color of tanned leather but of various hues, and the Chambre Bleue of the Guest had walls of that color, trimmed in gold and silver.
Arthenice received her friends recumbent in her chamber, among screens and thick tapestries to protect guests from the cold: she could suffer neither the light of the sun nor the heat of braziers. Fire and daylight overheated the blood in her veins and made her swoon. Once she forgot a brazier under her bed and came down with erysipelas. She was like certain flowers that, if their freshness is to be preserved, must neither be always in the light nor always in the shade and require gardeners to create for them a special season. Umbratile, Arthenice received in bed, her legs in a bearskin bag, and she covered her head with so many nightcaps that, as she wittily said, she went deaf at Martinmas and recovered her hearing at Easter.
And yet, even if no longer young, this Hostess was the very portrait of grace, large and well-made, with admirable features. The light in her eyes was beyond description, yet it did not instill improper thoughts: it inspired a love tempered by awe, purifying the hearts it enflamed.
In those rooms, the Hostess conducted, without imposition, debates on friendship and love, but they touched with equal levity on matters of morality, politics, philosophy. Roberto discovered the qualities of the other sex in their most tender expression, worshipping at a distance unapproachable princesses, like the beautiful Mademoiselle Paulet, known as “La Lionne” because of her proud mane, and ladies who could enhance their beauty with a wit that the venerable Academies attributed only to men.
After a few years of this school he was ready to meet the Lady.
He saw her for the first time one evening when she appeared in dark garb, veiled like a modest moon hiding behind clouds of satin. Le bruit, that unique mode which in Parisian society took the place of truth, told him contradictory things about her: that she had suffered a cruel widowhood, at the loss not of a husband but of a lover, and she glorified that loss to reaffirm her dominion over it. Some whispered to Roberto that she concealed her face because she was a splendid Egyptian, come from Morea.
Whatever the truth might have been, at the mere movement of her dress, at the light progress of her footsteps, at the mystery of her hidden face Roberto’s heart was hers. He was illuminated by those radiant shadows, he imagined her a dawn bird of night, he thrilled at the miracle by which light became dark and darkness radiant, ink turned to milk, ebony to ivory. Onyx flashed in her hair, and the delicate fabric that revealed, concealing, the outlines of her face and her body had the same silvery atrament of the stars.
But suddenly, and on that same evening of their first encounter, her veil dropped for an instant from her brow, and he was able to glimpse under that sickle moon the luminous abyss of her eyes. Two loving hearts looking at each other say more things than all the tongues of this Universe could express in a day—Roberto flattered himself, sure that she had looked at him and, in looking, had seen him. And, on returning to his house, he wrote her.
The fire with which you burned me exhales such fine smoke that you cannot deny having been dazzled by it, though you may find blame in those blackening fumes. The sole power of your gaze made me abandon the weapons of pride and leads me to implore you to demand of me my life. How much I myself have fostered your victory, I who began fighting as one who wishes to be defeated, offering to your attack the most vulnerable pan of my body: a heart already weeping tears of blood, proof that you have deprived my house of water to make it prey to the fire whose victim I am, through your so brief regard! He found the letter so splendidly informed by the dictates of the Aristotelian machine of Padre Emanuele, so apt to reveal
to the Lady the nature of the one person capable of such tenderness, that he did not consider it necessary to affix his signature. He did not yet know that the precieuses collected love letters as they did geegaws and bangles, more interested in their conceits than in their author.
In the weeks and months that followed he received no sign of reply. The Lady meanwhile had abandoned first her black garb, then the veil, and finally appeared to him in all the whiteness of her skin, not moorish, in her blond locks, in the triumph of her pupils, no longer elusive, windows of Aurora.
But now that his gaze could freely meet hers, he learned how to intercept her looks while they were directed at others; he basked in the music of words not addressed to him. He could not live save in her light, but he was condemned to remain in the penumbra of another body absorbing her rays.
One evening he caught her name, hearing someone call her Lilia; it was certainly the precious name of a precieuse, and he knew well that such names are given in jest: the marquise herself had been called Arthenice as an anagram of her real name, Catherine—but it was said that the masters of that ars combinatona, Racan and Malherbe, had also excogitated Era-cinthe and Carinthee. And still he felt that Lilia and no other name could be given to his Lady, lily-like in her scented whiteness.
From that moment on the Lady was for him Lilia, and it was to Lilia that he dedicated amorous verses, which he then promptly destroyed, fearing they were an inadequate tribute: Ah sweetest Lilia / hardly had I plucked a flower when I lost it! / Do you scorn to see me? / / pursue you and you flee / / speak to you and you are mute.... But he didn’t speak to her, save with his gaze full of querulous love, for the more one loves, the more one tends to rancor, shivering with cold fire, aroused by sickly health, the soul uplifted like a leaden feather, swept away by love’s dear effects without affection; and he went on writing letters that he sent unsigned to the Lady, and verses for Lilia, which he jealously kept for himself, to reread them every day.
Writing (but not sending) Lilia, Lilia, where art thou? Where dost thou hide;1 j Lilia, splendor of Heaven, an instant in thy presence j and I was wounded, as thou didst vanish, he multiplied her presence. Following her at night as she returned to her house with her maid (Through the darkest forests / along the darkest streets, /1 shall enjoy following, though in vain / the fleeting prints of thy airy foot...), he discovered where she lived. He lay in wait near that house at the hour of her daytime stroll, and he fell in behind her when she came out. After some months he could repeat by heart the day and the hour she changed the style of her hair (poetizing on those beloved bonds of the soul that encircled the snowy brow like lascivious serpents), and he remembered that magic April when she first essayed a little cape the color of wild broom, which gave her the prim gait of a solar bird as she walked in the first breezes of spring.
Sometimes, after following her like a spy, he retraced his steps in a great hurry, running around a palace and slowing only at the corner where, as if by chance, he would find her facing him; then he would pass her with a timid bow. She would smile at him discreetly, surprised by this unexpected encounter, and would give him a brief sign, as propriety demanded. He would stand in the middle of the street, a pillar of salt spattered by water as the carriages passed, exhausted after that battle of love.
Over the course of many months Roberto contrived to produce five of these victories; he suffered over each as if it were the first and the last, and he convinced himself that frequent as they had been, they could not have occurred at random, and perhaps it was not he but she who had assisted chance.
Pilgrim of this elusive holy land, ever mutable lover, he wanted to be the wind that stirred her hair, the matutinal water that kissed her body, the gown that fondled her at night, the book that charmed her during the day, the glove that warmed her hand, the mirror that could admire her in every pose.... Once he learned that she had been given a squirrel, and he dreamed of being the curious little animal that, at her caresses, thrust its innocent muzzle between the virgin breasts, while its tail teased her cheek.
He was troubled by the audacity to which his doting drove him, he translated impudence and remorse into restless verses, then told himself that a man of honor may love madly but not foolishly. It was only by giving evidence of wit in the Chambre Bleue that his destiny as a lover would be decided. A novice to those amiable rites, he yet understood that a pre-cieuse is won only with words. He listened then to the talk in the salons, where gentlemen engaged in a kind of tournament, but he did not feel ready.
It was his familiarity with the learned men of the Dupuy cabinet that suggested to him how the principles of the new learning, though they were still unknown in society, could become similes of the emotions of the heart. And it was the meeting with Monsieur d’lgby that inspired the speech that was to lead to his ruin.
Monsieur d’Igby—at least that was what he was called in Paris—was an Englishman Roberto had met at the Dupuys’, then found again one evening in a salon.
Less than three lustra had passed since the Due de Bou-quinquant had shown that an Englishman could have le ro-man en teste and be prone to well-bred madness. Informed that there was in France a queen beautiful and haughty, to the dream of winning her he devoted his life, until he died of it. Living for a long time on a ship, he erected an altar to his beloved. When it was learned that d’lgby, actually as Bouquin-quant’s envoy, had fought a privateering war against Spain, the universe of the precieuses found him fascinating.
In the Dupuys’ circle the English were not popular: they were identified with characters like Robertus a Fluctibus, Med-icinae Doctor, Eques Auratus et Armiger Oxoniensis, against whom various pamphlets had been written, deprecating his excessive faith in the occult operations of nature. But in that same circle they welcomed an eccentric churchman like Monsieur Gaffarel, who, when it came to believing in unheard-of curiosities, was the equal of any Briton. D’lgby, on the other hand, had proved capable of discussing with great erudition the necessity of the Void—in a group of natural philosophers who were horrified by anyone suffering from horror vacui.
If anything, his prestige suffered a blow among some gentlewomen to whom he had recommended a beauty cream of his own invention; it caused one lady blisters, and others murmured that his beloved wife, Venetia, had actually died, a few years earlier, victim of a viper wine he had concocted. But these were certainly calumnies of the envious, piqued by the fame of other remedies of his, including one for kidney stone, derived from a liquid of cow dung and hares slaughtered by hounds. Talk that could not win much acclaim in circles where, for conversation with the ladies, words were carefully avoided if they contained even a syllable that might, however vaguely, sound obscene.
D’lgby, in a salon one evening, quoted some verses of a poet from his country:
Ifthey be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’other doe. And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth rome,
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
And growes erect, as that comes home. Such wilt thou be to mee, who must
Like th’other foot, obliquely runne;
Thy firmnes drawes my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begunne. Roberto listened, his eyes fixed on Lilia, who had her back to him, and he decided that through all eternity he would be for Lilia the other foot of the compass, and that he would learn English in order to read other works by this poet, who so well interpreted his tremors. In those days no one in Paris would have wanted to learn so barbarous a language, but accompanying d’lgby back to his inn, Roberto realized that the foreigner had difficulty expressing himself in good Italian despite his travels on the Peninsula, and felt humiliated at not having sufficient mastery of a tongue essential to every educated man. They determined to frequent each other and to make each reciprocally fluent in the other’s native language.
Thus a firm friendship was born between Roberto and this man, who proved to be rich in medical and naturalist knowledge.
D’lgby had had a dreadful childhood. His father, involved in the Gunpowder Plot, had been executed. Through an uncommon coincidence, or perhaps the consequence of impenetrable emotions, d’lgby had devoted his life to the study of another powder. He had traveled much, first for eight years in Spain, then for three in Italy where, another coincidence, he had known Roberto’s Carmelite tutor.
D’lgby was also, evidence of his corsair past, a good swordsman, and a few days later he was to amuse himself fencing with Roberto. That day there was also a musketeer with them, who began by challenging an ensign of the company of cadets: it was all in fun, and the fencers were very careful, but at a certain point the musketeer essayed a prime with too much vigor, forcing his opponent to react with a beat, and so he was wounded in the arm, a very ugly wound.
Immediately d’lgby, with one of his garters, bound the arm to keep the veins closed, but in a few days’ time the wound threatened to turn gangrenous, and the surgeon said the arm would have to be cut off.
At this point d’lgby offered his services, warning them, however, that they might consider him a meddler, though he asked all to trust him. The musketeer, who did not know where to turn, replied with a Spanish proverb: “Hagase el mi-lagro, y hagalo Mahoma.”
D’lgby then asked him for something stained with the blood from the wound, and the musketeer gave him a piece of the cloth that had protected his arm until that day. D’lgby had them bring him a basin of water, and into it he poured a vitriol powder, which quickly dissolved. Then he put the cloth in the basin. Suddenly the musketeer, who had been distracted in the meanwhile, gave a start, clutched his wounded arm, and said that the burning had ceased, and he was actually feeling a cool sensation on the wound.
“Good,” d’lgby said. “Now you have only to keep the wound clean, bathing it every day in salt water, so that it may receive the correct influence. And I will expose this basin, during the day at the window, and at night at the corner of the hearth, so that it will remain at a moderate temperature.”
When Roberto attributed the sudden improvement to some other cause, d’lgby, with a knowing smile, took the cloth and held it at the fire, and immediately the musketeer resumed his groans, until the cloth was again soaked in the solution.
The musketeer’s wound healed in a week.
I believe that, in a time when disinfection was perfunctory, the mere fact of washing the wound daily was itself sufficient cause of healing, but Roberto cannot be reproached if he spent the next days questioning his friend about that treatment, which moreover reminded him of the Carmelite’s feat he had witnessed as a child. Except that the Carmelite had applied the powder to the weapon that had caused the harm.
“True!” d’lgby replied. “The dispute about the unguentum armarium, the weapon salve, has been going on for a long time, and the great Paracelsus was the first to speak of it. Many use a thick grease, and insist that it acts best on the weapon. But, as you can understand, a weapon that has wounded and a cloth that has bound the wound are the same thing, because the powder must be applied where there are traces of the blood. Many, seeing the weapon treated in order to alleviate the effects of the blow, think of some magical operation, whereas my Powder of Sympathy derives from the operations of nature!”
“Why is it called Powder of Sympathy?”
“Again, the name itself could be misleading. Many have spoken of a conformity or sympathy that connects things among themselves. Agrippa says that to excite the power of a star, you must recur to things similar to it, which therefore receive its influence. And he uses the word sympathy to define this mutual attraction. As with pitch, with sulphur, and with oil you prepare wood to receive the flame, thus employing things that conform to the operation of the star, a particular benefit is reflected on the matter properly arranged through the soul of the world. To influence the sun you must act on gold, which is solar by nature, and on those plants that follow the sun, or that fold their leaves and droop at sunset, reopening them at sunrise, like the lotus, the peony, the celandine. But these are old wives’ tales, an analogy of this sort is not enough to explain the operations of nature.”
D’lgby shared his secret with Roberto. The orb or, rather, the sphere of air is full of light, and light is a material and corporeal substance; a notion Roberto accepted willingly, because in the Dupuys’ he had heard that light also was merely a very fine powder of atoms.
“It is obvious that light,” d’lgby said, “issuing incessantly from the sun and shooting off in all directions along straight lines, when it encounters some obstacle in its path, an opposition of solid and opaque bodies, is deflected ad angulos aequales, following another route until it deviates at another angle upon encountering another solid body, and so it continues until it is extinct. As in the royal game of tennis, where a ball driven against a wall rebounds from it to strike the wall opposite and often makes a complete circuit, returning to the point from which it set out. Now what happens when light strikes a body? Its rays rebound, detaching some atomies, some tiny particles, as a ball might carry with it pieces of the fresh plaster from the wall. And as these atomies are formed by the four Elements, the light with its heat incorporates the viscous parts and carries them far off. The proof lies in the fact that if you attempt to dry a wet cloth at a fire, you will see that the rays which the cloth reflects carry with them a kind of watery mist. These vagrant atomies are like riders on winged chargers that go through space until the sun, setting, withdraws its Pegasuses and leaves the riders without a mount. And then they fall again in a mass towards the earth, whence they came. But such phenomena occur not only with reference to light but also, for example, with wind, which is nothing but a great river of similar atomies attracted by the solid terrestrial bodies....”
“And smoke,” Roberto suggested.
“Of course. In London they obtain fire from the coal of the earth brought from Scotland, which contains a great deal of very sharp volatile salt; this salt, transported by smoke, is dispersed into the air, defacing walls, beds, and all light-colored furnishings. When you keep a room closed for some months, afterwards you will find a black dust that covers everything, as you find a white dust in mills and in bakers’ shops. And in spring all flowers seem stained with grease.”
“But how is it possible that so many corpuscles are scattered in the air, while the body that emanates them betrays no diminishment?”
“There is diminishment perhaps, as you are aware when you cause water to evaporate, but with solid bodies we are not aware of it, as we are unaware with musk or other fragrant substances. Any body, however small, can always be divided into smaller parts, thanks to which our English dogs, guided by their sense of smell, are able to follow the track of an animal. Does the fox perhaps, at the end of his race, seem smaller to us? Now, it is precisely thanks to such corpuscles that the phenomenon of attraction occurs, which some celebrate as Action at a Distance, which is not distant and therefore not magic but takes place through the constant intercourse of atomies. And so it is with attraction by suction, such as that of water or wine through a syphon, or the attraction of the magnet on iron, or attraction by filtration, as when you put a strip of cotton in a vessel filled with water, allowing a good length of the strip to hang outside the vessel, and you see the water rise beyond the rim and drip on the ground. And the last attraction is that which takes place through fire, which attracts the surrounding air with all the corpuscles whirling in it, as the water of a river carries along the soil of its bed. And since air is wet and fire is dry, they become attached one to the other. So then, to occupy the space of what is carried away by the fire, more air must come from the vicinity, otherwise a void would be created.” “Then you deny the Void?”
“Not at all. I say that as soon as it is encountered, nature tries to fill it with atomies, in a battle to conquer its every region. If this were not the case, my Powder of Sympathy could not act, whereas, on the contrary, experience has shown you that it does. Fire with its action provokes a constant af-fluxion of air, and the divine Hippocrates cleansed an entire province of the plague by having great bonfires set everywhere. Always in time of plague, cats and pigeons are killed and other hot animals, which constantly transpire spirits, so that air will fill the place of the spirits liberated in the course of that evaporation, causing the plague atomies to attach themselves to the feathers and fur of those animals, as the bread taken from an oven attracts to itself the foam of barrels and as wine spoils if you put bread on the top of the barrel. As, for that matter, when you expose to the air a pound of salt with calcinated and duly fired tartar, which will produce ten pounds of good oil of tartar. The physician of Pope Urban VIII told me the story of a Roman nun who, after too many fasts and prayers, had so heated her body that her bones all dried up. That internal heat, indeed, attracted air that was incorporated in the bones as it does in the salt of tartar, and the air emerged at the point that controls the discharge of the serosity, hence through the bladder, so the poor saint released more than two hundred pounds of urine in twenty-four hours, a miracle that all accepted as proof of her sanctity.”
“But if everything attracts everything, then for what reason do elements and bodies remain separate without the collision of any force with another?”
“Good question. Bodies that have equal weight are more easily joined, and thus oil joins more easily with oil than with water, so we must conclude that what keeps atomies of the same nature firmly together is their rarity or density, as the philosophers you frequent could also easily tell you.”
“And so they have told me, proving it with various kinds of salt, which, however you grind or coagulate them, always resume their natural form, and common salt is always found in cubes with squared facets, and soda niter in columns with six facets, and ammoniacal salt in hexagons, six-pointed, like snow.”
“And the salt of urine forms pentagons, and thus Mr. Da-vidson explains the form of each of the eighty stones found in the bladder of Monsieur Pelletier. But if bodies of analogous form mingle with more affinity, it is logical that they should attract one another with greater strength. Hence if you burn your hand, you will obtain relief of your suffering by holding it for a bit in front of the fire.”
“My tutor once, when a peasant was bitten by a viper, held the head of the viper to the wound...”
“Of course. The venom, which was seeping towards the heart, returned to its chief source, where there was a greater quantity of it. If in time of plague you carry a jar of toad powder, or perhaps a live toad or spider, or even some arsenic, that poisonous substance will attract the infection of the air. And dried onions ferment in the larder when those of the garden begin to grow.”
“And this explains also birthmarks, when the mother craves something and ...”
“Here I would proceed with greater caution. Sometimes analogous phenomena may have different causes, and a man of science must not lend credence to old superstitions. But to return to my powder. What happened when, for a few days, I subjected the cloth stained with our friend’s blood to the action of the Powder? First of all, the sun and the moon, from a great distance, attracted the spirits of the blood found on the bandage, thanks to the heat of the room, and the spirits of vitriol with the blood could not avoid following the same path. On the other hand, the wound continued to expel a great abundance of hot and igneous spirits, thus attracting the circumambient air. This air attracted more air and this attracted still more, until the spirits of the blood and the vitriol, dispersed at a great distance, were finally conjoined with that air, which carried with it other atomies of the same blood. Thus the atomies of the blood coming from the cloth met those coming from the wound, expelling the air as a useless encumbrance, and they were attracted to their prime seat, the wound, and, united to them, the spirits of the vitriol penetrated the flesh.”
“But could you not have applied the vitriol directly to the wound?”
“I could have, as I had the wounded man before me. But what if he had been at some distance? Consider further: if I had applied the vitriol directly to the wound, its corrosive strength would have increased the irritation, whereas transported by the air, it releases only its gentle and balmy component, capable of arresting the blood. It is used also in collyria for the eyes.”
Roberto listened intently, as in the future he would make good use of that advice, which certainly explains the worsening of his condition.
“On the other hand,” d’lgby added, “you must surely not use normal vitriol, as was formerly the practice, doing more harm than good. For myself I procure a vitriol from Cyprus, and first calcine it in the sun: calcination removes the superfluous moisture, as if reducing it to a concentrated broth; and further, the calcination makes the spirits of this substance suitable for transportation by the air. Finally I add some gum tragacanth, which closes the wound more rapidly.”
I have dwelt on what Roberto learned from d’lgby because this discovery was to mark his fate.
It must also be said, to the shame of our friend, that he was fascinated by this revelation not because of any interest in natural science, but only—again and always—through love. In other words, that description of a universe crowded with spirits that unite according to their affinity seemed to him an allegory of falling in love, and he took to frequenting private libraries to seek everything he could find on the weapon salve, which at that time was a great deal, and it would be even more in the years that followed. Advised by Monsieur Gaffarel (in whispers, so the other habitues of the Dupuys, who gave scant credence to these things, could not overhear), he read the ats Magnesia of Kircher, the Tractatus de magnetica vulnerum curatione of Goclenius, the work of Fracastoro, the Discursus de unguento armario of Fludd, and the Hopolochrisma spongus of Foster. He became learned in order to translate his learning into poetry and to be able one day to shine, eloquent messenger of the universal sympathy, in the same forum where the eloquence of others humiliated him.
For many months (the duration of his stubborn research, in which time he did not advance a single step along the path of conquest), Roberto practiced a sort of principle of double —indeed, multiple—truth, an idea that in Paris many considered at once foolhardy and prudent. During the day he discussed the possible eternity of matter, and at night he wore out his eyes on the little treatises that promised him—albeit in terms of natural philosophy—occult miracles.
In great enterprises we must seek not so much to create opportunities as to take advantage of those that are offered us. One evening at Arthenice’s, after a heated debate on Astree, the Hostess urged her guests to consider what love and friendship have in common. Roberto then took the floor, observing that the principle of love, whether between friends or between lovers, was not unlike the action of the Powder of Sympathy. At the first sign of interest, he repeated the stories of d’lgby, excluding only that of the urinating sainted nun, then he began discoursing on the theme, ignoring friendship and speaking only of love.
“Love obeys the same laws as the wind, and the winds are always influenced by the places from which they come. If they come from gardens of flowers or simples, they may have the scent of jasmine or of mint or of rosemary, and so they make sailors yearn to reach the land that sends so many promises. Not dissimilar are the amorous spirits that intoxicate the nostrils of the enamoured heart” (and we must forgive Roberto this unfortunate trope). “The loved heart is a lute, which causes the strings of another lute to sound in unison, as the ringing of bells acts on the surface of streams, especially at night, when in the absence of other sound the water generates the same movement that has been generated in the air. What happens to the loving heart is not unlike what happens to tartar, which generates the perfume of roses when it has been allowed to dissolve in the darkness of a cellar during the season of roses, for the air, filled with rose atoms changing into water by the attraction of the salt of tartar, perfumes the tartar. Nor does the beloved’s cruelty avail. A barrel of wine, when the vineyards are in flower, ferments and sends to the surface its white flower, which remains there until the flowers of the vines fall. But the loving heart, more obstinate than wine, when it is bedecked at the flowering of the beloved heart, cultivates its blossom even when the source has dried up.”
He seemed to catch a glance of tenderness from Lilia, and he continued: “Loving is like taking a moon bath. The rays coming from the moon are those of the sun reflected down to us. Concentrating the sun’s rays in a mirror, you strengthen the calefactory force. Concentrating the moon’s rays with a silver basin, you will see that its concave bottom reflects the refreshing rays through the gathering of dew they contain. It seems senseless to wash in an empty basin: and yet you find your hands moist, and it is an infallible remedy for warts.”
“Monsieur de la Grive,” someone said, “love is hardly a cure for warts!”
“No, certainly not,” Roberto resumed, by now beyond arresting, “but I have given examples that come from base things to remind you that love, too, depends on the powder of corpuscles alone. Which is a way of saying that love obeys the same laws that govern both sublunary and celestial bodies, save that, of these laws it is the most noble manifestation. Love is born of sight, for it is at first sight that love is kindled: what is love, then, if not an access of the light reflected by the body beheld? Beholding it, my body is penetrated by the best element of the beloved body, the aerial, which through the me-atus of the eyes arrives directly at the heart. And therefore to love at first sight is to drink the spirits of the beloved’s heart. The great Architect of nature, when He composed our body, set internal spirits in it, like sentinels, so that they could report their discoveries to their general, namely, the imagination, which is the master of the corporeal family. And if it is struck by some object, the result is the same as when we hear viols playing, and we carry their melody in our memory and continue to hear it even in sleep. Our imagination constructs a simulacrum of the object, which delights the lover, if it does not lacerate him because it is, in fact, no more than a simulacrum. From this it follows that when a man is surprised by the sight of the lovable person, he changes color, flushes or pales according to whether those ministers, the internal spirits, proceed rapidly or slowly towards the object, to return thence to the imagination. These spirits do not travel only to the brain, but also straight to the heart along the great conduit that carries from it to the brain the vital spirits that there become animal spirits; and along this conduit the imagination also transmits to the heart some of the atomies it has received from the external object, and these atomies produce the ebullience of the vital spirits that sometimes expands the heart and sometimes brings it to syncope.”
“You tell us, sir, that love proceeds like a physical movement, not differently from the way wine flowers; but you do not tell us why love, unlike other phenomena of matter, is an elective virtue, which chooses. For what reason, then, does love make us slaves of one creature and not of another?”
“This is the very reason why I compared the qualities of love with the principle of the Powder of Sympathy, namely that atomies which are equal and of the same form attract equal atomies! If I were to dust the weapon that wounded Pylades with that powder, I would not heal the wound of Orestes. Thus love unites only two beings who in some way already possess the same nature, unites a noble spirit to a spirit equally noble, and a vulgar spirit to one equally vulgar—as it happens that villeins also love, as do shepherdesses, and we are so instructed by the admirable story of Monsieur d’Urfe. Love reveals a harmony between two creatures that was ordained since the beginning of time, as Destiny had always decided that Pyramus and Thisbe would be united in a single mulberry tree.
“What of unhappy love?”
“I do not believe there is truly an unhappy love. There are only loves that have not yet arrived at perfect fruition, if for some reason the beloved has not received the message coming to her from the eyes of the lover. And yet the lover knows to such a degree which similarity of nature has been revealed to him that, because of this knowledge, he is able to wait, even all his life. He knows that the revelation to both, and their conjunction, can take place even after death, when, the atomies of the two bodies having evaporated as they dissolve in the earth, the lovers will be united in some heaven. And perhaps, as a wounded man, even unaware that someone is scattering the Powder on the weapon that struck him, enjoys a new health, so countless loving hearts may enjoy a sudden relief of the spirit, unaware that their happiness is the work of the beloved heart, which in its turn has become loving and has thus set in motion the unification of the twin atomies.”
I must say that all this complex allegory held only up to a certain point, and perhaps the Aristotelian Machine of Padre Emanuele would have demonstrated its instability. But that evening everyone became convinced of the kinship between the Powder, which heals a sickness, and love, which can heal but more often causes sickness.
The story of this speech on the Powder of Sympathy and the Sympathy of Love spread through all of Paris, for some months and perhaps longer, with results that we will narrate in due course.
And Lilia, at the end of the speech, smiled again at Roberto. It was a smile of congratulation, or at most of admiration, but nothing is more natural than to believe that one is loved. Roberto interpreted the smile as an acknowledgment of all the letters he had sent. Too accustomed to the torments of absence, he abandoned the gathering, content with that victory. It was an error, and we will see why later. From then on, to be sure, he dared speak to Lilia, but the replies he received were always contradictory. Sometimes she would murmur, “Just as we said a few days ago.” Sometimes, on the contrary, she murmured, “And yet you said something quite different.” Other times, leaving, she would promise, “But we will talk of it later. Keep your word.”
Roberto could not decide if she was absently attributing to him the words and deeds of another, or if she was coyly provoking him.
What later befell him drove him to compose those few episodes into a far more disturbing story.