Montesquieu

Rhedi to Usbek in ***


Yesterday mor­ning I was in bed when I heard a furious kno­cking at my door, which was sud­denly ope­ned, or bro­ken open, by a man with whom I had had some asso­cia­tion, and who appea­red to me all a-dither.

His dress was much more than modest ; his wig was on croo­ked and had not even been com­bed ; he had not had time to have his black dou­blet repai­red ; and for that day he had neglec­ted the wise pre­cau­tions he usually took to dis­guise the dila­pi­da­ted state of his out­fit.

Get up, he said, I need you all day today. I have a thou­sand errands to run, and I would be most plea­sed if it were with you. First of all we must go to the Rue Saint Honoré to speak with a notary who is hand­ling the sale of a pro­perty for five hun­dred thou­sand livres1 : I want him to give me the pre­fe­rence. On my way here I stop­ped a minute at the Faubourg Saint Germain where I lea­sed a house for two thou­sand écus, and I hope the contract will be signed today.

As soon as I was dres­sed, or nearly so, my man rushed me downs­tairs : Let us first go buy a car­riage, and get it equip­ped right away. Indeed we bought not only a car­riage, but also a hun­dred thou­sand francs worth of mer­chan­dise, in less than an hour ; all this was done expe­di­tiously, because my man did not hag­gle over any­thing, and never coun­ted : moreo­ver, he did not trans­fer any funds. I was musing on all this, and when I exa­mi­ned this man, I found him to be a sin­gu­lar mix­ture of wealth and poverty, so I did not know what to believe. But finally I broke my silence, and dra­wing him aside, I said : Monsieur, who will pay for all this ? I shall, he said, come to my room : I will show you immense trea­su­res, and riches envied by the grea­test monarchs. But not by you : you will always share them with me. I fol­low him : we climb to his fifth floor, and with a lad­der hoist our­sel­ves to a sixth, which was a small room open to the four winds in which there was nothing but two or three dozen clay basins filled with various liquors. I got up early this mor­ning, he said, and what I did first was what I have been doing for twenty-five years, which is to go check on my great work.2 I saw that the great day had come that was to make me richer than any man on earth. Do you see this red liquor ? It now pos­ses­ses all the qua­li­ties which the phi­lo­so­phers require to achieve the trans­mu­ta­tion of metals. From it I have obtai­ned these grains which you see, who are true gold by their color, although a lit­tle imper­fect in terms of their weight. That secret which Nicolas Flamel3 found, but which Raymond Lulle4 and a mil­lion others fore­ver sought, has come down to me, and I am today a suc­cess­ful adept.5 May hea­ven make me use such trea­su­res as it has com­mu­ni­ca­ted to me only for its glory !

I left the room, and went down or rather threw myself down the stair­way, beside myself with rage, and left that weal­thy man in his hovel. Adieu, my dear Usbek, I shall come see you tomor­row, and if you wish we will return to Paris toge­ther.

Paris this last day of the moon of Rhegeb 1713

At the time, an annual income of 40,000 livres corresponds to the level of aristocratic life ; it is therefore a considerable sum, beyond a bourgeois income which might run from 5,000 to 20,000 livres ; this person considers himself very rich indeed.

The word œuvre or “great work” has a precise meaning in alchemy, which is the philosopher’s stone, or the secret of transforming base metals into precious ones.

Flamel (died in 1418), a famous alchemist said to have grown rich through his discoveries.

Raymond Lulle (1235-1316), Catalan mystic and heretic, author of an Ars magna.

From adeptus (he who has acquired), the word “is used specifically for those who believe they have achieved the great work” (Académie, 1718).