In the year 1483, the same year in which Luther was born, Doctor Coctier sat in his laboratory at Paris, and carried on a philosophical discussion with a chemical expert who was passing through the city.
The laboratory was in the same building as his observatory, in the Marais quarter of the town, a site occupied to-day by the Place des Vosges. Not far away is the Bastille, the magnificent Hotel de Saint-Pol, and the brilliant Des Tournelles, the residence of the Kings before the Louvre was built. Here Louis XI had given his private physician, chancellor, and doctor of all the sciences, Coctier, a house which lay in a labyrinth-like park called the Garden of Daedalus. The doctor was speaking, and the expert listened: “Yes, Plato in his Timaeus calls gold one of the densest and finest substances which filters through stone. There is a metal derived from gold which is black, and that is iron. But a substance more akin to gold is copper, which is composed of shining congealed fluids, and one of whose minor constituents is green earth. Now I ask, ‘Why cannot copper be freed from this last, and refined to gold?’”
“Yes,” answered the expert, “it can, if one uses atramentum or the philosopher’s stone.”
“What is that?”
“Atramentum is copperas.”
“Ventre-saint-gris! that is Plato’s iron! Now I see! Who taught you that?”
“I learnt it from the greatest living magician in Wittenberg. His name is Dr. Faustus, and he has studied magic in Krakau.”
“He is alive, then! Tell me! Tell me!”
“This man, according to many witnesses, has done miracles like Christ; he has undertaken to restore the lost comedies of Plautus and Terence; his mind can soar on eagle’s wings and discover secrets of the heights and depths.”
“Has he also found the elixir of life?”
“Yes, since gold can be resolved into its elements.”
“If gold can be resolved, then it has constituents. What are they?”
“Gold can be easily dissolved in oil of vitriol, salts of ammonia, and saltpetre.”
“What do you say?”
The Doctor jumped up; the stove had heated the room and made him uncomfortable.
“Let us go for a little walk,” he said; “but I must first make a note of what you say, for, when I wish to remember something important, the devil makes confusion in my head. These, then, are means of dissolving gold–oil of vitriol, salts of ammonia, and saltpetre!”
The expert, whose name was Balthasar, now first noticed that he had given his information without obtaining a receipt or any equivalent for it, and, since he was not one of the unselfish kind, he threw out a feeler.
“How is our gracious King?”
The question revealed his secret and his wish, and put Doctor Coctier on his guard. “Ah,” he said to himself, “you have your eye on the King with your elixir of life.” And then he added aloud, “He is quite well.”
“Oh! I had heard the opposite!”
“Then they have lied.”
Then there was silence in the room, and the two men tried to read each other’s thoughts. It was so terribly still that they felt their hatred germinate, and had already begun a fight to the death. Doctor Coctier’s thoughts ran as follows: “You come with an elixir to lengthen the life of the monster who is our King; you wish thereby to make your own fortune and to bring trouble on me; and you know that he who has the King’s life in his hands, has the power.”
Quick as lightning he had taken his resolve, coolly and cruelly, as the custom of the time was. He resumed the conversation, and said, “Now you must see my ‘Daedalus’ or labyrinth. Since the time of the Minotaur, there has been none like it.”
The labyrinth was a thicket threaded by secret passages, bordered by hornbeam-hedges, four ells high, and so dense that one did not notice the thin iron balustrade which ran along them. Artistically contrived and impenetrable, the labyrinth meandered in every direction. It seemed to be endlessly long, and was so arranged that its perspectives deceived the eye. It also contained secret doors and underground passages, and a visitor soon grew aware that it had not been constructed as a joke, but in deadly earnest. Only the King and Doctor Coctier possessed the key to this puzzle.
When the two men had walked for a good time, admired statues and watched fountains play, Balthasar wished to sit upon a bench, whether it was that he was tired or suspected some mischief.
But the Doctor prevented him: “No, not on that seat,” he said. They continued their walk. But now the Doctor quickened his steps, and, after a while, his guest felt again weary and confused in his head from the perpetual turning round. Therefore he threw himself on the first seat which he saw, and drew a deep breath.
“You run the life out of me, Doctor,” he said.
“No, you are not so short-lived,” answered the Doctor; “I see a long line of life on your forehead, and the bar between your eyes shows that you were born under the planet Jupiter. Besides, you possess the elixir of life, and can prolong your existence as much as you like, can’t you?”
The expert noticed a cruel smile on the Doctor’s face, and, feeling himself in danger, tried to spring up, but the arms of the chair had closed around him, and he was held fast. The next moment Doctor Coctier seemed to be seeking for something in the sand with his left foot, and, when he had found it, he pressed with all his weight on the invisible object.
“Farewell, young man,” he said; “loquacious, conceited young man, who wanted to lord it over Doctor Coctier. Now I will settle the King for you.”
The seat disappeared in the earth with the expert. It was an oubliette–a pit with a trap-door, which drew the veil of oblivion over the man who had vanished.
When he had finished the affair, the Doctor sought to leave the labyrinth, but could not find the way at once, for he was deep in thought, and kept on repeating the formula for the elixir which he had just learnt, to impress it on his mind, in case the recipe should be lost–“oil of vitriol, salts of ammonia, saltpetre.” Suddenly he found himself in a round space where many paths converged, and to his great astonishment saw a body lying on the ground. It looked like that of a large brown watchdog, but limp and lifeless.
“It is not the first who has been caught in this crab-pot,” he thought, and came nearer. But as the brown mass moved, he saw that it was a man with torn clothes and a shabby fur cap.
It was the King–Louis XI in the last year of his life.
“Sire, in the name of all the saints, what is the matter with you?” exclaimed the Doctor.
“Wretch!” answered the King, “why do you construct such traps that one cannot find the way out of them?”
Now it was Louis himself who, in his youth, had constructed the maze, but the Doctor could not venture to tell him so. Therefore he spoke soothingly.
“Sire, you are ill. Why do you not remain in Tours? How have you come here?”
“I cannot sleep, and I cannot eat. The last few days I have passed in Vincennes, in Saint-Pol, in the Louvre, but I find peace nowhere. At last I came here, in order to be safe in the place which only you and I know; I came yesterday morning, and would have stayed longer, but I was hungry, and when I wanted to get out, I could not find the way. I have been here, freezing, last night. Take me away; I am ill; feel my pulse, and see whether it is not the quartan ague.” The Doctor tried to feel his pulse, but did so with difficulty for it was hardly beating at all; but he dared not tell the King so.
“Your pulse is regular and strong, sire; let us get home!”
“I will eat at your house; you only can prepare food properly; all the rest spoil it with their everlasting condiments; they spice all my dishes, and the spices are bad. Jacob, help me to get away from here–help me. Did you see the star last night? Is there anything new in the sky? There is certain a comet approaching. I feel it before it comes.”
“No, sire; no comet is approaching….”
“Do you answer impertinently? Then you believe I am sick–perhaps incurably.”
“No, sire, you are healthier than ever; but follow me–I will make you a bed, and prepare you a meal.”
The King rose and followed the Doctor. The latter, however, wished the monarch to go before him but the King mistrusted his only last friend, who certainly did not love him, and would have gladly seen him dead.
“Beware of the seats, sire,” he cried. “Do not go too near to the hedge; keep in the middle of the path.”
“Your seats themselves should…. Forgive me my sins.” He crossed himself.
When they came out of the labyrinth, the King fell in a rage at the recollection of what he had suffered, and, instead of being grateful towards his rescuer, he burst into abuse: “How could you let me go astray in your garden, and let me sleep on the bare ground in the open air? You are an ass.” They entered the laboratory, where it was warm, and the King, who was observant, noticed at once the recipe which the Doctor had left there.
“What are you doing behind my back? What recipe have you been writing? Is it poison or medicine? Oil of vitriol is poison, salts of ammonia are only for dysentery, saltpetre produces scurvy. For whom have you made this mixture?”
“It is for the gardener’s cow, which has calved,” answered the Doctor, who certainly did not wish to prolong the tyrant’s life.
The King laid down on a sofa. “Jacob,” he said, “you must not go away; I will not eat, but I will sleep, and you must sit here by me. I have had to sleep for eight nights. But put out the fire; it hurts my eyes. Don’t let down the blinds; I want to see the sun; otherwise I cannot sleep.”
He seemed to fall asleep, but it was only a momentary nap. Then he grew wide awake again, and sat up in bed.
“Why do you keep starlings in your garden, Jacob?”
“I have no starlings,” answered the Doctor impatiently, “but if you have heard them whistling, sire, they must be there with your permission.”
“Don’t you hear them, then?”
“No! but what are they singing?”
“Yes, you know! After the shameful treaty of Peronne, when I had to yield to Charles of Burgundy, the Parisians taught their starlings to cry ‘Peronne!’ Do you know what they are saying now?”
The Doctor lost patience, for he had heard these old stories thousands of times: “They are not saying ‘Guienne,’ are they?” he asked.
There was an ugly reference to fratricide in the question, for the King was suspected of having murdered his brother, the Duke of Guienne. He started from the sofa in a pugnacious attitude. “What! You believe in this fable? But I have never committed murder, though I would certainly like to murder you….”
“Better leave it alone!” answered the Doctor cynically; “you know what the starshave said–eight days after my death, follows yours.”
The King had an attack of cramp, for he believed this fable, which Coctier had invented to protect his own life. But when he recovered consciousness, he continued to wander in his talk.
“They also say that I murdered my father, but that is a lie. He starved himself to death for fear of being poisoned.”
“Of being poisoned by you! You are a fine fellow! But your hour will soon come.”
“Hush!… I remember every thing now. My father was a noodle who let France be overrun by the English, and when the Maid of Orleans saved him, gave her up to the English. I hate my father who was false to my mother with Agnes Sorel, and had his legitimate children brought up by his paramour. When he left the kingdom to itself, I and the nobles took it in hand. That you call ‘revolt,’ but I have never stirred up a revolt! That is a lie.”
“Listen!” the Doctor broke in; “if you wish to confess, send for your father confessor.”
“I am not confessing to you; I am defending myself.”
“Who is accusing you, then? Your own bad conscience.”
“I have no bad conscience, but I am accused unjustly.”
“Who is accusing you? The starling?”
“My wife and children accuse me, and don’t wish to see me.”
“No; if you have sent them to Amboise, they cannot see you, and, as a matter of fact, they do not wish to.”
“To think that I, the son of King Charles VII, must hear this sort of thing from a quack doctor! I have always liked people of low rank; Olivier the barber was my friend.”
“And the executioner Tristan was your godfather.”
“He was provost-marshal, you dog!”
“The tailor became a herald.”
“And the quack doctor a chancellor! Put that to my account and praise me, ingrate! for having protected you from the nobles, and for only having regard to merit.”
“That is certainly a redeeming feature.”
Just then a man appeared in the doorway with his cap in his hand.
“Who is there?” cried the King. “Is it a murderer?”
“No, it is only the gardener,” the man answered.
“Ha! ha! gardener!–your cow has calved, hasn’t she?”
“I possess no cow, sire, nor have I ever had one.”
The King was beside himself, and flew at Coctier’s throat.
“You have lied to me, scoundrel; it is not medicine you were preparing, but poison.”
The gardener disappeared. “If I wished to do what I should,” said Coctier, “I would treat you like Charles the Bold did when you cheated him.”
“What did he do? What do people say that he did?”
“People say that he beat you with a stick.”
The King was ashamed, went to bed again, and hid his face in the pillow. The Doctor considered this a favourable moment for preferring a long-denied request.
“Will you now liberate the Milanese?” he asked.
“But he cannot sit any more in his iron cage!”
“Then let him stand!”
“Don’t you know that when one has to die, one good deed atones for a thousand crimes?”
“I will not die!”
“Yes, sire, you will die soon.”
“No, before me.”
“That is also a lie of yours.”
“All have lied to you, liar. And your four thousand victims whom you have had executed….”
“They were not victims; they were criminals.”
“Those four thousand slaughtered will witness it the judgment seat against you.”
“Lengthen my life; then I will reform myself.”
“Liberate the Milanese.”
“Then go to perdition–and quickly. Your pulse is so feeble that your hours are numbered.”
The King jumped up, fell on his knees before the physician, and prayed, “Lengthen my life.”
“No! I should like to abbreviate it, were you not the anointed of the Lord. You ought to have rat-poison.”
“Mercy! I confess that I have acted from bad motives; that I have only thought of myself; that I have never loved the people, but used them in order to put down the nobles; I grant that I made agreements and treaties with the deliberate purpose of breaking them; that I … Yes, I am a poor sinful man, and my name will be forgotten; all that I have done will be obliterated….”
A stranger now appeared in the open door. It was a young man in the garb of the Minorites.
“Murderer!” screamed the King, and sprang up.
“No,” answered the monk, “I am he whom you called Vincent of Paula.”
“My deliverer! say a word–a single word of comfort.”
“Sire,” answered Vincent, “I have heard your confession, and will give you absolution in virtue of my office.”
“Very well. Your motives were not pure, as you yourself confess, but your work will not perish, for He who guides the destinies of men and nations uses all and each for His purposes. Not long ago it was a pure virgin who saved France; now it is not quite so blameless a man. But your work, sire, was in its result of greater importance than that of the Maid, for you have completed what the Roman Caesar began. The hundred-year war with England is over, the Armagnacs and Burgundians quarrel no more, the Jacquerie war has ceased, and the peasants have returned to their ploughs. You have united eleven provinces, France has become one land, one people, and will now take the place of Rome, which will disappear and be forgotten for centuries, perhaps some day to rise again. France will guide the destinies of Europe, and be great among the crowned heads, so long as it does not aim at empire like the Rome of the Caesars, for then it will be all over with it. Thank God that you have been able to be of service, though in ignorance of the will and purposes of your Lord, when you thought you were only going your own way!”
“Montjoie Saint Denis!” exclaimed the King. “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.”
“But not here,” broke in the Doctor, who was tired of the whole business. “Travel back to Tours, take the priest with you, and leave me in peace!”
The King returned to Plessis-les-Tours, where he ended his days after severe sufferings. He did not obtain peace, but he did obtain death.
“Now the rod is thrown into the fire,” said Doctor Coctier, “let it burn; the children have grown up, and can look after themselves. Executioners also have their uses, as Tristan L’Ermite and his master Louis XI know. Peace be with them.”