The Devils of Loudun Page 13

The baby came at last. Through the closed shutters, through the heavy quilts and curtains, by which it had been hoped to stifle every sound, the screaming of the young mother, muffled but perfectly distinct, gave notice of the blessed event to all M. Trincant’s eagerly expectant neighbours. Within an hour the news was all over town and by the following morning a scurrilous “Ode to the Public Prosecutor’s Bastard Granddaughter” had been pinned to the doors of the law-court. Some Protestant hand was suspected; for M. Trincant was exceedingly orthodox and had taken every opportunity to thwart and harass his heretical fellow citizens.

Meanwhile, with a self-sacrificing generosity, which stands out all the more conspicuously because of the prevailing moral squalor, Marthe le Pelletier had publicly assumed the baby’s maternity. It was she who had sinned, she who had been forced to hide her shame. Philippe was merely the benefactress who had given her a place of refuge. Nobody, of course, believed a word of it; but the gesture was admired. When the infant was a week old, Marthe placed it with the young peasant woman who had agreed to serve as its foster mother. The act was done conspicuously, so that all the world could see. Still unconvinced, the Protestants went on talking. To silence their ribald scepticism, the Public Prosecutor resorted to a peculiarly odious legal stratagem. He had Marthe le Pelletier arrested in the open street and brought before a magistrate. There, under oath and in the presence of witnesses, she was required to sign an act, whereby she officially recognized the child as hers and accepted the responsibility for its future maintenance. Because she loved her friend, Marthe signed. One copy of the act was filed in the record office, the other M. Trincant triumphantly pocketed. Duly attested, the lie was now legally true. For minds trained in the law, legal truth is the same thing as truth without qualification. To everyone else, as the Public Prosecutor discovered to his chagrin, the equivalence seems very far from evident. Even after he had read the act aloud, even after they had seen the signature with their own eyes, touched the official seal with their own fingers, his friends only smiled politely and talked about something else, while his enemies laughed aloud and made offensive remarks. Such was the malignity of the Protestants, that one of their ministers publicly maintained that perjury is a graver sin than fornication, and that the liar who forswears himself in order to conceal a scandal is more deserving of hell-fire than the person by whose lewdness the scandal was originally caused.

A long and eventful century separated the middle age of Dr. Samuel Garth from the youth of William Shakespeare. In government, in social and economic organization, in physics and mathematics, in philosophy and the arts, there had been revolutionary changes. But there was at least one institution that remained, at the end of this period, exactly what it had been at the beginning—the drug-store. In the apothecary’s shop described by Romeo,

a tortoise hung,

An alligator stuff’d, and other skins

Of ill-shap’d fishes, and about the shelves

A beggarly account of empty boxes,

Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds.

In his Dispensary Garth paints an almost identical picture.

Here mummies lay, most reverently stale,

And there the tortoise hung her coat of mail;

Not far from some large shark’s devouring head

The flying fish their finny pinions spread.

Aloft in rows large poppy heads were strung

And, near, a scaly alligator hung;

In this place drugs in musty heaps decay’d,

In that dried bladders and drawn teeth were laid.

This temple of science, which is at the same time a magician’s laboratory and a side-show at a country fair, is a most expressive symbol of that strange agglomeration of incongruities, the seventeenth-century mind. For the age of Descartes and Newton was also the age of Fludd and Sir Kenelm Digby; the age of logarithms and analytical geometry was no less the age of the weapon salve, the Sympathetic Powder, the theory of Signatures. Robert Boyle, who wrote The Sceptical Chemist and was one of the founders of the Royal Society, left a volume of recipes for home remedies. Culled from an oak at the full moon, mistletoe berries dried, powdered and mixed with black cherry water will cure epilepsy. For apoplectic fits, one must take mastic (the resin exuded by lentisk bushes on the island of Chios), extract the essential oil by distillation in a copper alembic and blow two or three drops, through a quill, into one of the patient’s nostrils, “and after a while into the other.” The scientific spirit was already vigorously alive. But no less vigorously alive was the spirit of the medicine man and the witch.

M. Adam’s pharmacy in the rue des Marchands was of the middle rank, neither beggarly nor grandiose, but solidly provincial. Too modest for mummies or a rhinoceros horn, it could yet boast of several West Indian turtles, the foetus of a whale and an eight-foot crocodile. And the stock was plentiful and varied. On the shelves were all the herbs of the Galenists’ repertory, all the new-fangled chemicals of the followers of Valentine and Paracelsus. Rhubarb and aloes were there in plenty; but so was calomel or, as M. Adam preferred to call it, Draco mitigatus, the mitigated Dragon. There was colocynth, if you liked a vegetable liver pill; but there was also Tartar emetic and metallic antimony, if you were ready to venture on a more modern treatment. And if you had had the misfortune to be lucky in love with the wrong kind of nymph or swain, you could take your choice between Arbor vitae and Hydrargyrum cum Creta, between Sarsaparilla and an inunction of Blue Ointment. With all these, as well as with dried vipers, horses’ hoofs and human bones, M. Adam could supply his customers out of stock. The more costly specifics—powdered sapphires, for example, or pearls—had to be specially ordered and paid for in advance.

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