YESTERDAY morning, as I lay in bed, I heard a violent knocking at my door, which was suddenly opened, or driven in, by a man with whom I have some slight acquaintance, and who appeared to me to be quite beside himself.1
His dress was, to say the least, very homely; his wig, all askew, had not even been combed; he had not had time to mend his black waistcoat; and he had, for that day, omitted the wise precautions with which he was in the habit of concealing the dilapidation of his attire.
Rise, he said; I shall want you all day. I have a thousand purchases to make, and it will be a great convenience to me to have you with me. First of all, we have to go to the Rue Saint Honoré to see a notary, who is commissioned to sell an estate worth five hundred thousand livres. On my way here, I stopped a moment in the Faubourg Saint Germain, where I hired a house at two thousand crowns; I hope to sign the contract to-day.
As soon as, or rather before, I was dressed, my gentleman hurried me downstairs. Let us start, said he, by buying and setting up a coach. As a matter of fact, we bought, not only a coach, butand that in less than an houra hundred thousand francs worth of goods: all this was done with promptitude, because my gentleman haggled about nothing, kept no account, and paid no money. I reflected upon it all; and, when I examined this man, I found in him such an extraordinary mixture of indications of both wealth and poverty, that I knew not what to think. But at last I broke silence, and taking him aside, I said, Sir, who is to pay for all this? Myself, said he. Come to my room, and I will show you immense treasures, and riches envied by the greatest kingsbut not by you, because you will always share with me. I followed him. We climbed up to his fifth story, and by means of a ladder hoisted ourselves to a sixth, which was a closet open to all the winds, and contained nothing but two or three dozen earthenware basins filled with different liquors. I rose very early, he said, and, as I have done every morning for the last twenty-five years, I paid a visit to my work. I saw that the great day had come, the day which would make me the richest man in the whole world. Do you see this ruddy liquor? It possesses at present all the qualities required by philosophers for the transmutation of metals. I have collected those grains which you see, and which are, as their color shows, pure gold, although they are a little deficient in weight. This secret, which Nicholas Flamel discovered, but which Raymond Lully2 and a million others have sought in vain, has been revealed at last to me; and to-day I find myself a happy adept. May God grant that with the treasures which He has committed to me I may do nothing but for His glory!
Transported with anger, I left the room, and descended, or rather threw myself down the stairs, and left this man of boundless wealth in his garret. Farewell, my dear Usbek, I will visit you to-morrow, and, if you wish, we can return to Paris together.
Note 1. In this letter Montesquieu was probably thinking of a physician named Boudin, who imagined that he had rediscovered the secrets of the alchemists. Saint-Simon has an admirable description of this man. [back]
Note 2. Nicholas Flamel, a citizen of Paris (13301418), was regarded as an alchemist by those who envied his great fortune. Raymond Lully, a Spanish savant (12351315), was considered, rightly or wrongly, one of the most famous alchemists. [back]