Saturday 31 January 2009

Madame Boucher

Madame Boucher was a country woman from Brest, who spoke French with a strange accent and sang me to sleep at night with her haunting songs. Her Christian name was Ghislaine, and she was married to a quiet journeyman printer who also worked for my Uncle. She called me her little orpheline, or her pretty lamb, and I still remember her voice singing,

Daik, mab gwen Drouiz; ore;
Daik, petra fel d'idde?
Petra ganinnme d'idde?

"What does it mean?"

"It's a lay from Brittany in our tongue, the language Adam and Eve spoke in paradise. It's like a long lullaby, sung between a Druid and a child, and it teaches an infant her numbers and many other things."

"Aren't you French?"

Madame Boucher kissed my cheeks and studied me with her piercing, dark blue eyes. "Brittany is a beautiful country surrounded by the sea. It is a land that does not forget its past, and I can tell you the names of all my ancestors, back to the kings of Kernev, or of Cornouialle in French. We are not like the Serapians - by which she meant Parisians - we give to the poor and we open our homes to our guests, even to beggars if they ask for aid. Dumann e ty an homm is what we say, my house is everyone's home. But we do not have many books, only our bible, which is all we need. Instead we have our songs, that our fathers sang to us when we were children."

"What's a druid?"

"No one living remembers them, child, they have all disappeared. But we still sing their songs."

"Can you sing it again?"

"Only if you promise to settle down and ask me no more questions, for it is a long one, and I will explain it to you on another night, as far as I understand it."

And this is what I learned to sing, that we sang together, as I wiped away Ghislaine's tears, or until I fell asleep in tears myself, dreaming of wild boar and grim Ankou, of sharp swords and standing stones. Later I learned that four Bretons had been executed that year for resisting a tax collection in Nantes; Ghislaine's father among them.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number one, until I have learned it for today.
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number two, until I have learned it for today.
There are two oxen yoked to a hull; they pull, they will expire, what a wonder to behold!
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number three, until I have learned it for today.
There are three parts to the world: for man and oak, three beginnings and three ends; the three kingdoms of Merlin, three golden fruits, three brilliant flowers, three children who laugh.
There are two oxen yoked to a hull; they pull, they will expire, what a wonder to behold!
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number four, until I have learned it for today.
There are four sharpening stones, the sharpening stones of Merlin, that sharpen swords fast.
There are three parts to the world...
There are two oxen yoked to a hull...
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number five, until I have learned it for today.
There are five zones around the earth: five ages in the expanse of time; a dolmen of five stones upon our sister.
There are four sharpening stones...
There are three parts to the world...
There are two oxen yoked to a hull...
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number six, until I have learned it for today.
There are six grandchildren of wax, brought to life by the power of the moon, you may not know it, but I do. Six herbs in the small pot, a small dwarf to mix the drink, the little finger in his mouth.
There are five zones around the earth...
There are four sharpening stones...
There are three parts to the world...
There are two oxen yoked to a hull...
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number seven, until I have learned it for today.
There are seven suns and seven moons, seven planets and the hen with her chicks; seven elements of the air.
There are six grandchildren of wax...
There are five zones around the earth...
There are four sharpening stones...
There are three parts to the world...
There are two oxen yoked to a hull...
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number eight, until I have learned it for today.
There are eight winds that blow and eight fires with fathers' fire lit in May on the mountains of war. Eight heifers as white as sea foam, grazing grass on the island deep, eight heifers of the Lady White.
There are seven suns and seven moons...
There are six grandchildren of wax...
There are five zones around the earth...
There are four sharpening stones...
There are three parts to the world...
There are two oxen yoked to a hull...
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number nine, until I have learned it for today.
There are nine small white hands on the table by the tower of Lezarmeur and nine moaning mothers.
There are nine korrigan dancing around the fountain in the clear full moon, with flowers in their hair and robes of white wool, There the mother boar and her nine little boars in the gate of their castle their pigsty, snuffling and digging; little one run to the orchard, the old boar shall teach you trick!
There are eight winds that blow...
There are seven suns and seven moons...
There are six grandchildren of wax...
There are five zones around the earth...
There are four sharpening stones...
There are three parts to the world...
There are two oxen yoked to a hull...
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number ten, until I have learned it for today.
Ten enemy ships were seen coming from Nantes: Woe to you and woe to them! The men of Vannes!
There are nine small white hands on the table...
There are eight winds that blow...
There are seven suns and seven moons...
There are six grandchildren of wax...
There are five zones around the earth...
There are four sharpening stones...
There are three parts to the world...
There are two oxen yoked to a hull...
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number eleven, until I have learned it for today.
Eleven armed Belek, from Vannes, with their broken swords;
And their bloodied robes and crutches; of their three cents but eleven is left.
Ten enemy ships were seen coming from Nantes...
There are nine small white hands on the table...
There are eight winds that blow...
There are seven suns and seven moons...
There are six grandchildren of wax...
There are five zones around the earth...
There are four sharpening stones...
There are three parts to the world...
There are two oxen yoked to a hull...
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

My pretty, my white child of the Druid, pretty one, what do you want? Of what shall I sing?
Sing to me the cycle of the number twelve, until I have learned it for today.
There are twelve signs and twelve months, and Sagittarius the next to last lets fly his arrow armed with a dart. The twelve signs are at war. The beautiful black cow with a white star on her face, leaves the forest of mortal remains, feels in her breast the sting of the arrow, and her blood flows as she lows, her head raised: The tornado sounds: fire and thunder, rain and wind, thunder and fire, nothing, nothing, nothing, no cycle remains.
Eleven armed Belek, from Vannes...
Ten enemy ships were seen coming from Nantes...
There are nine small white hands on the table...
There are eight winds that blow...
There are seven suns and seven moons...
There are six grandchildren of wax...
There are five zones around the earth...
There are four sharpening stones...
There are three parts to the world...
There are two oxen yoked to a hull...
There is no cycle for the number one, only the unique need, Ankou the bringer of death, the father of pain, nothing before, nothing more.

Thursday 29 January 2009

Librairie Osbourne

As long as I could remember, I spent every day at Librairie Osbourne, rue Saint-Jacques, situated behind the Sorbonne, under the watchful eye of Madame Bouchard until I could read, and after that I did not need watching, for I was always with a book. My uncle had opened his bookshop after he returned from England to sell English and Dutch books to a public that was beginning to look beyond its shores for its reading. Histories and natural sciences sold well, but it was Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Manley's The New Atalantis, Congreve's The Way of the World and John Gay's The Beggar's Opera that made him money. The building had been an old bourgeois house, and as his business grew he expanded the shop from the former parlour into the sitting room, then into the kitchen and upstairs into the bedrooms, renovating room by room and installing tall bookshelves made of darkly stained oak. By some accident of the original site, every room was at a different level, so one clambered up or stomped down two or three steps to gain the next room. In the center of each room, if space permitted, he placed one or two tables: these were always covered by stacks of books, with more books piled up beneath. I made a home for myself under these tables, in little spaces between the book stacks where I could crawl out of sight, a parallel, hidden library of my own. We were infested by book beetles and silverfish, and I made it my job to squash with a tin spoon as many of these as I could find. Besides books, my uncle also sold pamphlets and notices, maps and almanacs, stationery, ink and sealing wax, and traded in curiosities and small antiques. In the rear of the shop, he had converted a stable to a printing house and bindery, where the compositor, pressmen, beaters and binders worked long days producing new editions. By the time I was eight, it had grown into a fairly prosperous enterprise employing fifty men and women, plus five factors who travelled outside Paris.

We lived on the fourth floor of this industrious building, in five rooms that my uncle had converted to a modest suite following the death of his young wife, after his own bachelor tastes, reached by separate entrance and a long flight of stairs. Uncle Adraste was an astute and meticulous business man, and was very careful in calculating his charges to his customers, so he was often up very early with his ledgers and accompts. After breakfast he would meet with authors or suppliers in a small office to the rear of the bookshop or in a nearby coffeehouse, and then return to look over the coffins of type laid up by the compositor. My uncle believed in universal education, but for me a liberal one not taught by Jesuits or Dominican nuns. Accordingly I spent most of the day in the bookshop reading the Musick of Pythagoras, the Astronomy of Ptolemy, the Arithmetick of Nichomachus, the Geometry of Euclid, the Divinity of Plato, the Logick of Aristotle, and the Mechanicks of Archimedes, first in French, then in English and finally in Latin. For the rest nothing was forbidden and I roamed widely in my reading as I grew high.

We had our trade clients: authors and playwrights like M. Biancolelli and M. Thomassin, whose work my uncle issued every few years; the occasional poet, and the scholars at the Sorbonne with their ponderous and convoluted ideas on the orgins of music or the history of the German Nations. They brought manuscripts and paper for the presses, their debts and their doughty wives demanding payment, their jealousies and suspicions of plaigiarism, which my uncle would smooth over with coffee and chocolate, and a thousand little compliments. We had our book buyers, the regulars and the curious, the dwellers who came in the morning and had to be swept out at night, amateur scholars with hobby-horses to ride, women with chores they wished to avoid, idle clergy and insolvent merchants. From my hidden vantage, I kept my eyes on known book thieves, like the Marquess of Tofino, whose voluminous skirts were lined with hidden pockets, or the Lieutenant Villiers who cut pages from books with a pocketknife. But in general I paid the customer as much attention as I did the clouds in the sky: they drifted above me busy with matters of their own.

For I was occupied that year with my own thoughts of the brilliant stage, of my new friend Marie-Thérèse, and with my father's playing cards, that I kept in the same mouse hole where I stashed favorite books and found baubles, that dark corner in the angle behind two cabinets. I studied his cards for months, for each picture was a window on a world as fascinating as the Comedie Italienne.

Tuesday 27 January 2009


"I took the Elementa Geometriae from the shelf," my uncle continued, "because I was convinced my eye had not fallen there by chance. It was indeed the English translation by John Dee, mathematical scholar, astrologist and traveller, chemist, crystal-gazer, and reputed summoner of spirits by White Magic, who enjoyed the patronage of Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, and who practiced alchemy in Bohemia under the patronage of Emperor Rudolph II. And inside the cover was the same crest that you're looking at, Yolande, the Palatine lions and blue-and-white lozenge of the Heidelberg Library.

"I held in my hands a book that should not be in France and that had disappeared even from public view in England, after Dee lost Queen Elizabeth's favour and James came to power. Your father looked at me with eyebrows raised in amusement, and said, 'Do you think mathematics will help me?'

" 'Dee believed the universe to be divided into three spheres: the natural, the celestial and the super-celestial. He thought number and proportion to be of practical use to the navigator, architect, and musician because it reflects the secret organization of these three spheres. Look, here he writes, 'By number, a way is had, to the searching out and understanding of every thyng, hable to be knowen.'

"Your father took the book from me, and read thoughtfully. He said, 'I have tried to divine some numerical pattern in the way the cards are dealt, and remember each card played in order to hazard the chance of my card appearing next in the deal, but I still lose.'

" 'Dee was thought to call up angelic assistance in his understanding of number. But he wasn't the only one to think of mathematics as magical. Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, and Henry Agrippa all thought along similar platonic lines.'

" 'Wasn't Bruno burned as a heretic? I think I have one of his books here, Let me see.'

"Your father replaced Euclid and quickly found Ars Memoriae, Theses De Magia, and Agrippa's De occulta philosophia libri tres. They all bore the same crest on their inside covers. Somehow the most dangerous books of the Reformation, books that had been expunged from libraries from Rome to Krakow, books that had been shredded or burned in witch hunts and auto da fe, had escaped and made their way into your grandfather's possession. But your father said, 'It's no use, I think it all a hopeless jumble of incoherent nonsense. My father wasted his life pouring over books like this, it made his mind feeble. He always ranted about incantations and elixirs of immortality and forbidden knowledge. If he had learned anything he would be alive today, n'est-ce pas? Or he would have left a pile of alchemical gold. At least his books are worth something.'

" 'They are worth more together than piecemeal.'

" 'I know. But however grand a fool he was, I still honour the old man. I've tried not to sell anything important, or become a wastrel. But my library is open to you because you have promised to help me, and I cannot continue to lose like this or it will soon all be gone.'

We sat down to a simple meal at a table set up in the corner of the library, overlooking his garden, served by a single boy and a housewoman, then took out the cards you have there, Yolande, and he began to teach me how the game was played."

My uncle had always spoken to me as if I were an adult, even in my infancy. Perhaps he did not know how to speak to a child, or perhaps he was already talking to himself. But I was growing tired of all the history, and my head began to nod, so my uncle lifted me from the floor and took me to my bed. He tried to pry my father's cards from my fingers but I clutched the pack to my breast and rolled onto them, falling into a deep sleep, dreaming of staircases, playing card people, mazes of books, and men burning at the stake.

Hôtel Lambert

"I called on your father that week. In Paris he leased the house that had belonged to the architect Louis Le Vau on Ile Saint Louis, that was later incorporated into Hôtel Lambert by the family Le Haye, with whom his father had been friendly. When the hôtel was first built, the President of the Chambre des Comptes, Nicolas Lambert, invited both Le Brun and Le Sueur to do some mural decorating. Over the course of five years each man laboured to outdo the other. Of course the furniture was from Gobelins. It was not fashionable, and your father was looking for another residence to the west, but it was ample for his needs as a single man in Paris, and to live under Le Brun's magnificent painting, Phaeton and Ganymede, must have been worth the hundreds of livres he paid to live there. I entered from the Quai Anjou and came upon a small courtyard. The chamberlain led me to an outdoor stairway that ascended a few steps before splitting to the right and the left. The right hand staircase narrowed, then opened on a sunlight space, three times the width of the stair itself. At the top of the staircase we arrived at an oval vestibule through which I passed into a magnificent, long hall that extended the corps de logis and offered a breathtaking view of the enclosed gardens on the right and at the curved end, of the river itself and the Passerelle de Constantine. Your father greeted me there, and showed me the famous gallery. The theme of this magnificent room was the Labours of Hercules, displayed in the enormous ceiling murals and the bronze and gold stucco relief. There are few rooms like it anywhere in Paris, and I said as much to your father. He dismissed the praise politely saying that while it was lovely in the summer, it was uninhabitable after October on account of the draught. He then lead me through the Cabinet de l'Amour and Cabinet des Muses, named after their paintings on those subjects, then we returned to the ground floor library, beneath the long gallery. However magnificent the decorations, however ingenious the art of the elder Patel, Jan Asselyn, Romanelli, Le Brun and Le Sueur, or any of the other hands that had created such a monument to taste, they were as froth and foam to the importance of the work collected in those shelves. I could scarce believe my eyes. Your father had been bringing me the dregs.

"There are men who claim to know a man from the company he keeps, and woman who can read one's fortune from the lines in one's palm. However I think there is no better guide to a stranger's ancestry, education, present thought and current interests, to his imagination and fancy, his practical concerns and petty fears, than a catalogue of his books. Your grandfather was not like other aristocratic collectors, who satisfied themselves with a deluxe editions of Augustine's Civitate Dei, or the Works of Cervantes, or other commonplace books that turn up again and again in the marketplace. His books were rare and first editions of Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Cellarius, Kepler, Apianus, Vesalius, Euclid, Leibniz, Napier...," my uncle tapped his forefinger against his temple as he recalled to memory the books he saw. "But more revealing than the books themselves, was the care in which they had been arranged, and the care the son had shown in preserving that order when the library was moved to Paris. The arrangement is everything, for a thinking man allows his thoughts to fly merely by scanning the titles of the authors he has read. There is a mathematical structure in the natural world that can be revealed or obscured by arranging Curiositez de la Mer des Indes, with its rich illustrations of the most bizarre creatures to swim the seas, in proximity to Elementa Geometriae, and a curiosity in the development of ideas discovered by keeping his incunabula together.

Sunday 25 January 2009

Harmony & Concord

This was a design of my invention from many years ago that turned up in a drawer. You may find a larger version on my glintingly new flickr page.

Ada Lovelace Day Pledge

Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s first computer programmers, and one of the first people to see computers as more than just a machine for doing sums. She wrote programmes for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computing machine, despite the fact that it was never built.

Suw Charman-Anderson pledged to write a blog on a woman in technology on March 24, but only if 1000 others agreed to do so also. To date there have been 1,244 pledges. I have joined intending to write about Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, French mathematician, physicist, and author.

Book of Emblems

Photograph by Celeste Romero Cano

"Evidement, some of those books that the Church feared so much were not destroyed. I asked your father if he possessed any other inscribed with this crest. He couldn't say for sure, but welcomed me to come to the estate and look for myself. But now I have got ahead of myself, because the reason he brought me the Iconologia was that it corresponded with his playing cards."

My uncle produced a pack of worn cards that must have been kept near the book on his shelf. It was a large pack of seventy-eight cards, their reverse face covered in the same blue and white lozenged pattern that appeared in the Palatine crest, opposite the lions. The faces were illustrated with strange emblematic figures, some annotated with numbers. I clutched them, trying to imagine them in the hands of my father.

"I rarely saw him without that pack of cards, and he would often take them out and shuffle them while talking about other matters. They kept his hands as busy as his thoughts. I never saw another pack like them, but he said he they were played just as one played tarocchi, which is now all the rage across the world. He showed me that the images on his cards has been copied, albeit crudely, from the figures in the Iconologia. Look, here you see, this is the highest card, the Fool, and in Ripa you find Pazzia, Folly, the man in a long black garment lauging at the sky and riding a hobby-horse with a whirligig in one hand. And here you see, the next card, The World, an image of Pan, that goat-faced, sun-burnt devil who signifies the universe, whose horns are the sun and the moon."

The book was filled with mysterious images, many more than appeared on the deck of cards. Blindness of the Mind, Dignity, Avarice, Ingenuity, A Haughty Beggar, Exile, Poetical Fury, Scandal, Love of Country and Love of Virtue, Quarreling, Prudence, Temperance and Theft, Youth and Death were all illustrated with figures of extraordinary aspect, dressed and undressed like gods, accompanied or pursued by a bestiary of creatures, and a panoply of stage props in their hands: jagged thunderbolts, balances and squares, flaming brands and quivers of arrows, birds and wreaths, miniature suns and stars. It was an illustrated catalogue of ideas, passions, desires, sins and virtues, personified in a population of tiny men and women. My heart leaped, because they made concrete all the confused and vaporous feelings that churned in my own breast, portraits of those pangs of guilt and jealousy, happy joy and desperation that were my daily companions. And I wondered how my father could ever have surrendered a book as magical and powerful as this. I gripped the pack of cards in my hands. These were mine by right. He had left me nothing else. I took the book and laid it on the floor before my Uncle's chair, and spread the cards around it, studying the miniature universe that opened before me as my uncle continued his tale.

"Yolande, your father told me he had been given these cards by a foreigner with whom he played every month, and who taught him the rules of the game. There are seventy-eight cards, every one different, with twenty-one atouts and four suits of fourteen cards. You see there is le roi, la dame, le cavalier, and le valet. The highest card is called the excuse, the fool. The atouts and the excuse are worth four and a half points, so are the kings; the queens three and half, the knights two and a half, the knaves one and a half and all the other numbered cards worth half a point each. Eighteen cards are dealt to each player and six to the centre of the table, face down. These six cards are called le chien. I'll show you if you give me the cards, Yolande."

"I want to hear about my father," I said, refusing the return the cards.

Uncle Adraste sighed and sat back in his armchair. He watched me lay out the cards in patterns on the floor for a while, then continued.

"Your father wanted me to help him interpret the meaning of the cards with the help of that book. He thought that the cards were dealt in an order that held some significance and that he lost to his opponent because he was unable to grasp it. I said that if the cards were shuffled randomly, there was unlikely to be any significance in how they appeared. 'And yet,' your father said to me, 'the man studies his cards as if he were reading a book, with a smile of understanding on his face, and he wins game after game. I have played cards since I was a boy, and I am not a fool who believes Fortune smiles upon any man over another for so long. I have observed a losing man will play with care and attention: it is the winning man who is most in peril because he comes to believe he cannot lose. But my opponent does not gloat or boast. He plays his cards with . . . curiosity. And never loses.'

"I asked your father if the man was not a cheat. He said, 'Even if I thought so, I would not say so to his face, and he has gone to great pains to allay any suspicion. You see, he has given me his own cards to study. We play with no other pack. I can find nothing wrong with them, or anything in his rules that would favour one player above another.'

" 'And who is this man you cannot beat?'

"Your father looked at his feet and brushed his coat with his hand. 'I beg you not ask me that. He is noble. He is foreign. And he has done me a boon in the past, obliging me only to keep our acquaintance from public knowledge, and to meet him every month for our game.'

" 'How strange!'

" 'That is not the only curious thing about him. He is no stranger in any of the salons, welcome wherever he goes, very gracious in his manner and very witty in his observations. Yet no one knows the first thing about him, and his name never arises in society. The man is an enigma, a cipher, and I cannot afford to lose to such a man forever. I have observed you these past months, Sir, and I should say there is no scholar in Paris who knows his books as well as you do. I pray you help me discover the secret language this man reads in the random arrangement of these emblems. My resources, such as they are, are at your disposal, Sir.'

"Your father spoke so courteously and with such passion, I would never think of refusing his request however odd it might seem. But I am ashamed to say my thoughts were on that library of your grandfather's, and the books with the crest of the Palatine Library." Indeed my uncle looked as if he were admitting to a grievous and shameful vice, and he shook his head slowly. "I am no scholar, but as you know, Yolande, books are doors to the souls of men, windows to their profoundest thoughts, carriages that transport us to other lands and distant ages. I can no more resist a book than a gambler can resist a wager or an ivrogne his bottle. Wise men say knowledge is a dangerous thing. That is just. But a life without books, that is unthinkable!"


I must keep my poor father, and you, waiting, while my attentions are occupied by that most troublesome pest, the house-guest, made all the more annoying by the fact that they are the dearest of friends whom I have much missed, and yet I grudge them the time I lose in telling my tale, ungracious hostess that I am! Well, at least I shall seize the opportunity to enjoy an intemperate week's end, and to carpet the floor in wine corks, in celebration of the New Year of the Ox, and to distract my thoughts from my Georgian table reduced to impatient shavings from Osprey's penknife.

Wednesday 21 January 2009


"One day your father brought me the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa. I had sold many editions of this book, always at a good price, because it is filled with expensive illustrations. Now I may still have that book. Let me think."

My uncle kept in his apartment a bookcase that reflected his bookshop in miniature, where some of his most expensive editions and his favorite titles were shelved. Whenever he said, "Let me think" he would invariable stop whatever he was doing, stand in front of that bookcase and trace his finger along the leather and calfskin spines. He did this so commonly I had the impression he shelved his memories there, that these particular books described his entire intellect, and that they were as much a part of his person as his wig, his spectacles or his clothes. In a moment he returned to where I was waiting with a thick, dusty volume in red leather.

"This was my father's book?"

"I would say it belonged to your grandfather, but yes, it passed into your father's possession after he died."

I slid my hands over the leather. It was worn down to the boards from much handling and stained with ink. Inside the cover, an ex libris pasted to the marbling showed the head of a unicorn over a twisted wreath or torce of silk. Underneath were the words "Fallaces sunt rerum species." A rose petal, browned with age and flattened as thin as a tissue, fell out into my lap. I studied the tracery of tiny veins in its transparent skin.

"What does it mean?"

"It is from Seneca. The appearances of things are deceptive. It was your family motto."

I put the rose petal back in its place, marked by a stain on the paper. The next page was engraved with a crest.

"Now that is what makes this book so interesting. Do you see the shield quartered with the crowned lyons rampant in the corners? Those are the Palatinate lions, the arms of Frederick V, the Winter King. This particular volume came from the Bibliotheca Palatina, the Library of Heidelberg sacked by the Catholic League when von Tilly invaded Bohemia at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. All hermetic and cabalistic books were destroyed: the rest were transported over the Alps and presented to Pope Gregory XV."

"What's hermetic? I don't understand kaba, kaba..."

"Only God knows how a seed becomes a tree, or why gold never dulls with age, or why night air makes a person ill. Every material in the world: stone, air, water, flesh, blood, fire; they all contain secrets sealed within them on the day of creation by the angels. For centuries men have tried to unlock those secrets. The little we have learned is called hermetic knowledge, and the spells that summon forth their true appearance is called the cabala by some. But the Church considers these things to be evil magic and forbids them."

Saturday 17 January 2009


This lovely image came last week on a postcard advertising a sale at the Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, California.


My uncle Adraste was a thinking man and a reader. He lived for his books, those he published and those he sold, and only believed a thing once he had read it somewhere. He was not a story teller and the tale he began came with many long pauses and silent reflections.

"I heard of your father before I met him," my uncle Adraste told me, "or at least, of his father's vast library of occult and hermetic books, which turned up in the shops when the son, your father, had a gambling debt to pay. De verbo mirifico Lyons edition, De harmonia mundi, John Dee's Monas hieroglyphica." My uncle tapped his finger on his temple as he recited the titles of books, as he always did. "Your grandfather's ex libris was currency in the trade, because these were books that always found a ready buyer. The first time I met your father, he came to me with Pico della Mirandola's Apologia. He was a young man, dressed like a courtier, and was in a hurry to make the transaction. I asked him if he had read the book he was trading for several gold louis. 'Never. It's all in latin and I don't have patience for the ravings of jesuits and monks,' he said. I told him, 'Mirandola believed that man was created by God outside the chain of being, the only creature able to approach the angels through the exercise of his intellect, or descend to the animals. ' 'Well it's animals for me today, because my intellect is wanting exercise, and I have a card game waiting.' your father replied. He was a very handsome man, and you have his eyes, always looking around for something of interest."

"And then?"

Again my uncle paused, as if reluctant to continue. "I told him I would pay him better than he was getting elsewhere if he brought his books to me."


"He turned up often after that, always with a book for sale in hand. Many of them were indeed the ravings of jesuits and monks, memoirs and dull sermons that my competitors had probably declined to buy, but I always paid him something for them and over the first year of our association he came to see me a dozen times or more. He was ever bright and witty, with a light manner that dispelled gloom and care around him. His happy disposition made him welcome in all the salons, among those of the houses of Orleans, Conde and Conti and others who displayed arms of pure descent over their portals, as well as those of their enemies: the Madame de Maintenon, the Count of Toulouse and the children of the King who had acquired their privileges more recently. These rivals for His Majesty's attention were locked in a deadly competition for power and affected an ironic insouciance at court, but he was different, genuine, unaffected and always ready to laugh at himself. He never dressed in anything but the fashion of the season, in expensive silk coats with full-dress'd skirts and buttonholes worked in silver thread, and unstitched cuffs. He was always on the way from one gathering to another, carrying messages between the two court factions.

"Though he was often in a hurry, there were days when he didn't mind idling away an afternoon in the shop. On those occasions I would happily converse with him about the books he brought me, or show him the latest pamphlets by Daniel Defoe or a drama on stage in London. He spoke English and German very well for a French noble, and I soon discovered his ignorance of literature was a pretense, or perhaps simply the fashionable attitude of the time, and that he had an inquisitive and quick mind. He was always interested in the habits and customs of foreigners, in the workings of clocks and mechanical devices, and took a boyish delight in the same curious and bizarre objects that you like to play with in the shop: dried plants, stuffed birds and animals, shells and corals, strange weapons and musical instruments, artificialia, mirabilia, and naturalia, miniatures, ostrich eggs, dragon bones, boars tusks, aegyptian mummies, fish embedded in stone, manuscripts with hieroglyphs, armillary spheres and astrolabes, ivory polyhedra, and automata. I often think that if the loss of your parents had not endowed such a solemn expression to your pretty face, you would be the very image of your father: you share the same taste for the rare and grotesque."

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Who was my Father?

I have prevaricated for several days, for I do not know how to continue my tale without first retreating to describe how I came under the care of my uncle and what befell my parents. Yet the order of those events is so confused in my own mind, owing to my extreme youth when they occurred, I find myself surrounded by doubt and hesitation. If I were to tell my parents story as I later assembled it, I would need assume a knowledge of the designs and ambitions of men and societies that I would not gain until much later in life (nay, that perhaps I have never gained), and here present a distraction of supporting characters and set-pieces. These had little direct relationship to me, except that they robbed me of my parentage. Like an urn that had been smashed into countless pieces, scattered and buried, I uncovered that story in fragments, through chance encounters later in life and by my own research when I was of an age to undertake them. Therefore I trust you will forgive me if I proceed to tell their tale as I learned it myself, and to take my time over it, and in recompense accept the briefest scenario I can make of their circumstances.

My uncle, Adraste Osbourne, had journeyed to Paris as a young man and apprenticed as a printer and binder in the reputable house of Louis Coignard, in rue Saint-Jacques at l’Aigle d’Or. During his four year apprenticeship he undertook for M. Coignard numerous visits to London and Amsterdam, returning with Jansenist manuscripts smuggled among other foreign literary works. While in England he petitioned at Montagu House in Bloomsbury and obtained the financial support of John, Duke of Montagu, fellow of the Royal Society and Grand Master of the Premier Grand Loge of England, (whose marriage to the Lady Mary Churchill, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, provided a healthy income in addition to his wealthy father's allowance) permitting the establishment of a bookshop in Paris in rue Saint-Jacques. He was a creature of the Enlightenment, as much devoted to Science and Reason as he was fascinated by their dark progenitors, alchemy and mysticism. But his true love was the theatre. A substantial part of the profits he earned as bookmerchant (and these were not insubstantial, for he happily printed both official and pirated editions of every title he sold) went into la Comédie-Italienne when it returned to the Hôtel de Bourgogne, rue Mauconseil, in 1716. He married and was quickly widowed when his young wife died of smallpox. His younger sister, my mother, arrived in Paris in distress and six months pregnant in 1722. My father, whom she had married secretly in London, was a gentilhomme de France, but had disappeared as so many gentilhommes are wont to do. A midwife was found but she would guarantee only my survival. Thus I became my uncle's ward from the moment of my birth, and he added his wife's name to mine.

"Who was my father?"

Uncle Adraste shifted and pretended to continue reading for a moment, but I saw his eyes were not moving over the page. He licked a stained finger and turned down the corner of his page. "Pardon me, child. Did you ask me a question?" he said.

"Who was my father?"

"Ah." Still he did not look at me, but studied the crystal glass on his reading table. "Your father."

"Yes, did you know him?" I stamped my foot.

"Of course, of course." At last he put down his book and turned to look at me. "Why do you want to know, child?"

Perhaps my mouth fell open. I wanted to know because everyone had fathers of their own with occupations, and houses, and ancestors, and names. Solid fathers with whiskers and odd smells and rumpled waistcoats and leather boots and tobacco. Fathers they could cling to when they cried, or yell at when they were frustrated. Fathers who gave them ribbons and candied fruit on holidays, and took them for walks in the park or picnics in the countryside. I had only a silent emptiness that nibbled at my heart and gobbled up my guts, that filled me with something that was not sadness or anger but in between the two, burning coldly at the pit of my stomach. I wanted to be able to tell my friends my father was the King of Siam and had placed me in Uncle's care out of the way of court assassins, that he was the Captain of the Guards and was leading his troops on the battlefields in Poland, or that he was a poet who had fallen afoul of the Royal Censors and now wasted in the Bastille. I wanted something, which I thought a father might provide me, and if not a father, at least the knowledge of one.

After a long pause, my uncle said, "He was a very intelligent man."

"Was he an actor too?"

"No, no, he was not a very good actor. It might have gone better for him if he were."

"What happened to him?"

Uncle Adraste stared out the window, so I rose from where I was sitting with my puppets and stood in front of him. For a long time he would not look at me, and I tried to discover the reason by peering deep into his eyes. I scowled. "What happened to him?" I repeated.

"I have been thinking on that question since long before you were born, child."

Sunday 11 January 2009

Rat Catcher

Just as Madame Riccoboni was about to leave the house, I heard my Uncle Adraste's voice call her name. She stopped at the door and looked back with a frown. M. and Mme. Biancolelli and my Uncle Adraste hurried over, and bowed. My uncle was introduced and pleaded his suit, but all I could hear of their conversation was Madame Riccoboni's reply, for she had a voice made to carry in theatre halls.

"Well, Sir, where is this niece of yours?"

My heart stopped in my mouth. We were still in the upper box, and Marie-Thérèse, who had not let go of my hand, seized me and pulled me to the stair, collecting her sister in her arms again. We pounded down those steps and ran to where the adults stood by the door. Marie-Thérèse made a very pretty curtsey; I did my best to copy her. Everyone's eye was on us, both onstage and off, and I saw my Uncle's eyebrows fly up when he saw the state I was in, still covered in blood and dirt and cobwebs.

"Have you brought us a wild animal, Sir?"

Before I could think of anything to say, Marie-Thérèse said, "Rats."

Mme. Riccoboni started as if she had been bitten by one. Marie-Thérèse waited a moment while she handed her sister to her mother and looked at each person intently before continuing. "Il teatro è pieno di ratti. Rats as big as, as asino, donkey. A hundred ratti. Yolande save me and Caterina, when we asleep. Eu, bite bite bite, and Yolande, she like this and like that." Whereupon Marie-Thérèse mimed an epic battle with an unseen horde of attackers in which she demonstrated how I was bitten on the head but not before despatching the enemies while swinging a phantom weapon, all the while providing a voluble commentary in rapid Italian. Our eyes were fixed on this miniature cavalier thrusting and parrying and spinning about like a whirlwind. Mme Biancolelli gave a little cry of fear and clutched Caterine to her breast when the wound was suffered, for Marie-Thérèse rolled her eyes up in mock pain. By the end of the performance Marie-Thérèse's face was streaked with tears, and she was panting heavily from her exertions. Mme. Riccoboni frowned. Mme. Biancolelli moved to my side and put her hand on my shoulder. Marie-Thérèse took my hand in hers.

"Those merdoso rats ate a hole through my leather pouch!" came a voice from the actors on stage.

"They attack us while we put on our makeup."

"They shit in our costumes!"

Mme. Riccoboni looked at the company with distaste, then turned her eyes on me. "Have you anything to say?"

"My only wish is to stay with Marie-Thérèse and learn Italian, Madame."

Mme. Riccoboni gave a shrug and a sigh that expressed an equal measure of futility and disgust. "Signor Biancolelli, your daughter's associations are your own business. The theatre is no place for children, but your daughter shows promise if she doesn't become ridiculous, or kill someone before she debuts. She may remain, but kindly keep her out of my sight. And Monsieur Osbourne, I will discuss your request with my husband, but pray clean up your niece before she comes into my theatre again." Madame Riccoboni swept out the door into a waiting carriage.

Monsieur Biancolelli picked me off my feet and spun me around. "Welcome to the Théâtre Italien, Princess Yolande Rat-Catcher."

Friday 9 January 2009

Madame Riccoboni

During the spectacle, from which my eyes never moved, Marie-Thérèse stood next to me and watched, or sometimes left me to fuss with her sister, but always returned to my side. When the Sylphide flew into the air with an unhappy creditor in tow, I stared at Marie Therese with my mouth open. She nodded, and pointed out the thin ropes that carried them both soaring and dipping into the air. I thought Eraste was a bit silly and plump, for I recognized M. Riccoboni under his pink makeup. But I was convinced the Sylphide was truly in love with him, for her eyes never left his face even when another player moved to the center of the stage to perform. She was not the Sylphide I had seen earlier, and I searched in vain among the dancers in the final scene for that lovely figure. I looked also for M. Biancolelli, but his wide eyes and round face were nowhere to be seen. Arlequin and the Gnomide seemed more like a quarrelling couple than a pair of lovers, and she delivered the lines about strangling the pretty little man with such pleasure, and seemed disappointed when Arlequin stopped resisting and took her hand in the end.

At some point toward the end of the performance, Marie-Thérèse's hand had slipped into mine, or else unthinking I seized hers. But they were clasped together by the end of the vaudeville, and we did not release each other until the players returned to the stage and Madame Riccoboni, who had watched the entire production from a chair placed in the middle of the parterre below us, stood up and began to address them.

"Messieurs Biancolelli and Romagnesi, are you there, or have you abandoned your production already?"

Marie-Thérèse's father and another man hurried on stage and gave a polite bow to the woman.

"You have grown dull with age. Or you have lapsed into a second childhood that has softened your sensuality into coarseness. Antoine-Francois!"

Monsieur Riccoboni stepped forward, his cap in his hand. "Yes, Maman?"

"Are you playing a Lover or a Pantaloon? Don't cringe, where is your delicacy? And your rhymes are atrocious, where is the scenario? Someone bring that to me."

M. Biancolelli leapt off the stage and approached Mme. Riccoboni with a face like a hound. She took the sheaf of papers without looking at him, for she was already addressing other members of the company. "Maria! Wipe that stupid expression from your face, girl. You are in the title role. I advise you to start acting like a lead player and stop staring at my son like a dancer in the corps."

"But Madame, la Sylphide is in love with Eraste..."

"Idiot! La Sylphide is what every man will be coming here to see, but she won't keep any culones in seats if she is an infatuated donnicciola. I advise you start acting for them if you want to remain with this company. Vicentini!"

The Prosecutor bowed with an old fashioned flourish.

"Caro amico, can you help Antoine-Francois with his verses? He struggles so much more than his father did. And don't think I can't hear you chortling in the back, Monsieur Bissoni. Have you this month's accounts ready? How much is this farce going to cost us?"

One of the creditors, still dressed in his wide collar and black gown, held up four fingers. Apparently the answer was satisfactory to Mme. Riccoboni because she returned to her chair and sat down. M. Biancolelli opened a door and the house flooded with light. Mme. Riccoboni studied the scenario. The cast shuffled and murmered, waiting to be dismissed. Marie-Thérèse waved to her father who shook his head at her: not now!

"Well, M. Biancolelli, you are no Marivaux and barely hold a light to Corneille, but I suppose it will have to do. The divertisment went on a little long, didn't it?"

"We can shorten it, Madame."

"Do so. I have bad news for you. I'm afraid your Sylphide will have a competitor."

M. Riccoboni looked nervously at Maria, who was still shaking after her lashing from his mother.

"Fagan and Panard have been saying they propose a production of their own, a parody, called The Supposed Sylph, in Foire Saint-Laurent. So you are on your own now. Luigi and I have retired, and you cannot count on us to rescue you every time you fall on your faces. What will become of this troupe, I just cannot imagine." And Madame Riccoboni sighed a long, theatrical sigh not unlike those that the Sylphide had been making over Eraste on stage earlier, then turned her back and left.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

The Performance

Would that I remember all that was said during that first performance I watched. There were verses and songs, musical interludes and flashes of light, moments of touching sweetness and ridiculous turns that delighted. For now all I can do is render the briefest outline, which is no more than the players would have been given, for they filled in the details with their own impromptu and mime.

La Sylphide

Setting: Eraste's Apartment

A Sylphide and a Gnomide enter at the same time. The first places a basket of flowers upon a table, the second a basket of truffles. They ask each other what they have come to do in this place, for each thinks the other a rival, but the Sylphide reveals her tender feelings for Eraste, and the Gnomide avows her passion for Arlequin. The Sylphide tells how when she was at the Tuilleries walking with two of her friends, she was enchanted by the good graces of Eraste. But she suspects that he has set his heart on one of her companions.


You do injury to your charms! As for myself I have lost my lover's favour and the sparkle of my charms no longer dazzle him; it was in a dark cave where we first met and where he thrilled me with his grace that would charm even the most insensible. But Eraste comes here with his valet, let us remove ourselves so we might listen to them.

Eraste sees the baskets as he enters; he asks Arlequin who sent them and Arlequin replies he knows not. Eraste uncovers the first to find it filled with flowers.


It would have been better had they been full of money, that would be a marvelous help in reconciling your miserable affairs.

Arlequin sees the second basket filled with truffles and the name of Arlequin beneath, and he is at a loss to know who sent this present hither. After having thought for a moment he adds,

These flowers are no doubt sent by Clarice, your future bride."


Speak not of Clarice.


Can you have forgotten that your fortune depends on this marriage? That it is all that stands between us and our creditors? That you are only rich in appearance? Your uncle is in truth at the mercy of a half dozen doctors, but as these gentlemen are never of the same opinion they cannot agree on a remedy. Without it the illness cannot worsen and your uncle may yet live to a ripe old age.

Eraste tells him that a violent passion has seized his soul and nothing can release it, for he has seen the most adorable person in the world at the Tuilleries; Arlequin counters all his arguments, while the Sylph who is present and invisible threatens him with a beating, as Arlequin believes it is his master who is addressing him, making for a very comic play. The Gnome, also invisible, gives Arlequin little slaps, that he thinks comes from his Master. Two creditor arrive, Eraste receives them with ill humour, and threatens to take them to the courts, but as they withdraw, the Sylphide and the Gnomide, still invisible, gives each a purse that contains their payment. One of them, having counted his money and finding four louis surplus, returns to Eraste, asking him to forgive his keenness.

Eraste is astonished and while he turns to Arlequin to ask the meaning of this, a Sargeant and Prosecutor arrive. The Prosecutor represents Oronte and has come to remind Eraste of his promise to marry his daughter Clarice; the Sargeant delivers a summons to Arlequin from the cabaret keeper of Pigstown. Eraste and Arlequin make excuses while the fiends of justice threaten them. The Gnomide gives the Sargeant a blow that lays him flat on the boards, and the Sylphide carries the Procurator into the air. The spectacle astonished Eraste but Arlequin is less surprised for he sees nothing out of the ordinary than a Procurator who steals into thin air and a Sargeant gone to the devil.

The Gnomide plays a few more tricks on Arlequin who is terrorised, and Eraste continues to be astonished at everything he sees. The Sylphide sighs invisibly and converses with Eraste, now realizing she is a spirit. The Sylph assures Eraste that she loves him.


You love me? Can the spirits love? They don't have a body.


Your question makes me keenly aware of your own. Yes, Monsieur, they can love and with much delicacy, for their love is separate from their base senses; for their flame is pure and subsists only of themselves, undiminished or augmented by disgust or desire.


I am surprised that knowing what goes on in my heart you confess your feelings toward me, for you must know it is filled with the most violent passion a lover can suffer.


I am one of the three ladies whom you saw in the Tuilleries, and one of them you loved.


What! Those charming ladies are Sylphs? Can it be possible?

The Sylphide begs him not do as the common man and doubt what he does not understand. Eraste begs her to show herself.


I yield and make myself victim to your obstinance. Go to the Tuilleries where you shall see me with my companions. Do not speak to me, but return here to learn your fate and mine.

Eraste obeys and exits. The Sylphide remains and says Eraste will find there only two Sylphides, her friends, and thereby she will learn his feelings without committing her own.

Arlequin returns to the apartment of his master, but not finding him there, he declares he will go and keep the Sargeant company. The Gnomide arises and calls Arlequin who shakes with fear, seeing no one with him; the Gnomide reassures him and confesses her affections, telling him she is a dweller of the earth, a Gnomide, who, taken by his charms has left her home to make him the happiest of all mortals. She tells him she possesses great treasures that she wants to share them with him, after which the Gnomide leaves him with the assurance that she will take a corporal form and offer herself to his eyes presently.


Find a pretty one and above all do not forget your treasures, because without them I shall have nothing to do with you.

Eraste returns from the Tuilleries in despair because he did not see there the object of his adoration. Convinced of his love, the Sylphide makes herself visible and appears before his eyes. Eraste is transported with joy, recognizes her and assures her of his affection. Arlequin thinks the Sylphide very pretty but believe the Gnomide to be lovelier still, and begs her to appear in her colors of lily and rose. The Gnomide makes herself appear.


What do I see? Why, it's a mole! Away with you, sweetheart, you can't hope to gain me in that shape.


How sad I must strangle such a pretty little man, for it is our custom to strangle those who do not return our love.

This threat causes Arlequin to yield and he asks for the treasures that she promised. A vase filled with immense wealth appears from out of the ground. Arlequin no longer resists and observes he is not the first beauty to be seduced by wealth.

SYLPHIDE (to Eraste)

I do not promise any treasure but only sweetness worth all the gifts of the Gnomide. Come, Eraste, I shall transport you to the palace where you shall rule over me.

The Gnomide sinks into the abyss with Arlequin. The stage changes and we see the palace of the Sylph that seems to float in the sky. It is filled with Sylphs and Sylphides, who dance a divertisment that ends with a vaudeville.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Dear Reader

I have been scribbling every morning now for a week, for a readership of exactly three, by my best estimation.  If there be any other silent readers lurking out there, please leave me a note. It is a wonderful encouragement to write for others, for with only one exception I have never kept a diary or journal more than a couple of days spread out over years and decades. How time has flown! But knowing you are awaiting my next installment gets me out of my warm bed in the morning and into a writing humour. You have helped me to recover memories that threaten to fade into the paper white nothingness of old age, and revisit loved ones lost long ago. How I miss them! 
But we have a long way to travel yet, so I beg your patience and understanding. We are barely into chapter three in my outline, for I have yet to write the first two and have made no mention yet of the Librairie Osbourne, Uncle Adraste's bookshop, his tales as a book smuggler, forger and mason, or the story of my poor parents. 
I will be grateful if you would guide me as I discourse: 'a little more like this, less of that nonsense please!' for each day's trifle is freshly mix'd and unedited, and I would rather prepare it to your tastes than subject you to my compulsive logorrhea. If with your kind help I succeed in patching together a coherent account of my past, I will subject the whole to a careful wringing out and refitting, so that you do not have to read it in so backward a fashion.
I find my memory is faulty: Monsieur and Madame Riccoboni retired in 1729 and travelled to Italy with their son (the son being the M. Riccoboni in my tale), though wife and son returned to the Paris stage in 1732. Therefore they could not have directed the first performance of La Sylphide, written by M. Biancolelli, as I am about to relate. It may be that my first visit to the Theatre Italien was in 1729, but did not make an impression on me until I saw a performance in 1730. If my recollection unclouds I may rewrite here and there, but perhaps the past is a shifting landscape seen through a rippled glass best left to historians to argue over.
It is a treat to have you along for the journey. 

A Poem for HBA

Because you asked,

Le sylphe.

Je suis un sylphe, une ombre, un rien, un rêve,
Hôte de l'air, esprit mystérieux,
Léger parfum que le zéphyr enlève,
Anneau vivant qui joint l'homme et les dieux.

Du mon corps pur les rayons diaphanes
Flottent mêlés à la vapeur du soir.
Mais je me cache aux regards des profanes,
Et l'âme seule, en songe, peut me voir.

Rasant du lac la mappe étincelante,
D'un vol léger j'effleure les roseaux,
Et, balancé sur mon aile brillante,
J'aime à me voir dans le cristal des eaux.

Dans vos jardins quelquefois je voltige,
Et, m'enivrant de suaves odeurs,
Sans que mon poids fasse incliner leur tige,
Je me suspends au calices des fleurs.

Dans mes foyers j'entre avec confiance,
Et, récréant son œil clos à demi,
J'aime à verser des songes d'innocence
Sur le front pur d'un enfant endormi.

Lorsque sur vous la nuit jette son voile,
Je glisse aux cieux comme un long filet d'or,
Et les mortels disent: "C'est une étoile
Qui d'un ami nous présage la mort."
Alexandre Dumas, père.

If I had time for it, I would attempt a translation in verse, but for meaning you can refer to this poorly realized Victorian rendering - it sets my teeth on edge but there you are, it was all I could find in a hurry.

A vague, mysterious spirit of the air,—
A shadow and a dream,—a Sylph am I,—
A light perfume, away the zephyrs bear,— 
A living link between the earth and sky. 

Of this pure form the soft, transparent rays 
Attemper, as they float, the mists of eve; 
But e'er I shun the gross, material gaze :
The soul alone can me in dreams perceive.

The summer lake still smoother, as I brush 
Its shining surface with my viewless wing, 
I love to balance on the tallest rush,
And see my own sweet image as I swing.

At times I flutter in your early bowers,
Where dewy bines their luscious odour shed,
And set my momentary foot on flowers,
That bloom the more, but never bend the head.

Your hearths I haunt, and there in slumber steep 
The child, that nods at noon upon the knee, 
And gild his wonted hour of rosy sleep 
With smiling visions, innocent as he. 

The night return'd, a thread of glimpsy gold, 
A running spark, I glitter and ascend,
And mortals cry: "a shooting-star behold,
"The mournful presage of a dying friend!"

The Theatre Box

When we crawled back into the woodshop, music could be heard on stage. Marie-Thérèse collected her sleeping sister and followed me through the wings back to the house. I found it easy to pick our path through that maze of wonders, for each bizarre creation had left so deep an impression on me no adventure would erase it. When I did hesitate before the choice of two paths, Marie-Thérèse would indicate the correct direction with a nod. She had said nothing since the tower. Was she resentful of my false courage and transparent bravado now on realizing that the danger was imaginary? Was she disgusted by my blood-soaked and filthy appearance? Or was she ashamed of her own fear? I wanted to turn and study her face, to hold her hand and answer her questions but I was still playing the role I had accepted and found I could not take off my mask.  And she did not ask me anything, but followed silently in my footsteps.

We arrived backstage, but a woman I had not seen before shooed us away. Marie-Thérèse whispered, "There's a better place to watch." I followed her again as she led me down an unfamiliar corridor and up a new flight of narrow stairs, but this one better lit and papered. We came into an empty box that overlooked the parterre and offered a wonderful view of the stage. The benches were low, but by pulling them right up the box railing we could just peer over, and remain unseen ourselves.

I could scarcely believe my eyes. The drab stage I had stood upon not more than an hour ago had transformed into a brilliant palace, lit by the fire of a hundred thousand burning diamonds. A grand room with a barreled ceiling supported by massive pilasters caught the last rays of the setting sun.  Behind it an enormous colonnade retreated an unfathomable distance, and beyond the last columns, impossibly, a shimmering blue sea spread out to the horizon! The room was illuminated by three massive chandeliers, their cut crystal panes glinting like the eyes of angels, and hung at such a height it made me giddy to think of the poor soul who would need months swaying atop a ladder just to light them all. In the centre of the room stood a banquet table covered in a lavish brocade threaded with gold and silver, and decorated by three golden obelisks. I had never in all my life imagined such opulence and wealth, so concentrated in one place, in such harmony and perfect arrangement. Between the pilasters and the barrel vault were corbels and brackets of white marble lined with gold; each pilaster contained a niche into which a classical sculpture had been placed, each one different: Diana and Apollo draped with strings of fruit and laurel leaves, and others I did not recognize; ridiculously high-backed overstuffed chairs upholstered in velvet and silver lace; in the foreground near a doorway to the right of the stage an arrangement of swords, shields and helmets.

It was so brilliant tears started up in my eyes, and I rubbed them away with my grubby fingers. The music of viols and hautboys and horns transported me out of the box where I was a little girl in a dirty dress and into that scene so completely, I thought I was dreaming. The world that I knew, my uncle, the bookshop, the streets of Paris, Marie-Thérèse and M. Biancolelli, all vanished from memory as I inhabited that palatial scene. All time and all space were concentrated in that brilliant place, and I had never lived in any other.

Two women entered the room from opposite sides, and my heart leaped: one was costumed like the Sylph I had earlier met. Before I could address her, I realised she was not the same, but just as lovely and ethereal. Both carried an elaborate basket: one tall and filled with peonies and roses and the other flat and filled with truffles. They approached the table at the same time and then started on discovering the other, circled each other warily, then gently laid their offerings on the banquet table. I watched them so intently I felt I could reach out and touch them, but they did not notice my presence.

Monday 5 January 2009


Something was being tested by Marie-Thérèse. Whether it was my rationalism or my courage or my obedience to the whims of a spoiled daughter and a new friend I could not say. She had commanded me from the moment we met, and I now felt she had invented this test to secure her authority over me, and that if I passed or failed, I would be forever enchained to her caprices. At the same time I wanted to please her, because I already loved the haughty way she shook her black hair and the stern command in her pretty eye. And I did not want her to withdraw from my reach all the secrets of her enchanting world out of displeasure, so I knew fear had already put me in her power. No matter what horrors lay beyond those doors, I was suddenly more afraid of the enticing desire to place myself in the power of another, to acquiesce and abase myself. I remembered what M. Biancolelli had once said when he was at dinner with us, "at the Comedie Italienne we are chosen by our roles." Marie-Thérèse was offering me a role, a mask to wear in return for the pleasure of sharing her father and the theater with her. These thoughts came to me one after another in an instant, my heart pounding in my throat, yet I did not know what to do.

"Do as I say, presto!"

"Do you know what is beyond this door?"

"Si! Yes!" Still looking at me with curiosity.

"I however do not, and I like to be well armed in strange places." I searched about and found a long bolt that had fallen out of the crumbling stone wall. In my small hands it would serve as a poor weapon, but it was at least something to hold out in front of me. I concentrated on keeping it steady because once I decided on a course of action, I had started to quake violently. To hide my fear, without any further delay I pushed open the door a crack and slipped in, alone.

The room beyond the wooden door was a small, dark antechamber to a sunlit room beyond. There was a pile of rags in one corner and a strong, cold breeze that caused some motion within it. I moved toward the sunlight, my back to the wall, never taking my eyes from the stirring shape. I could hear Marie-Thérèse's voice calling my name, but I was now seized by such a paroxysm of fear that I could barely open my mouth. I watched in horror as the ragged shape in the corner began to struggle violently and then rise. From under a rotting shroud a dark malevolent eye watched me balefully, filled with hatred and spite. I ran the last few steps into the sunlight, which streamed in through two ogival windows. A great raucous screech pursued me and as I turned I saw an enormous black form bear down, its bony talons raised to seize my face. I struck out in terror with the iron bolt and fell senseless to the ground, as the creature flew past me on terrible wings and disappeared out the window with a caw.

"Yolande, Yolande, di cosa si tratta? Aiuto!"

When I came to myself, I found there was blood on my hands and face. I got to my feet unsteadily and hobbled to the pile in the corner. It was a crow's nest, filled with animal bones and coins, bits of colored string and metal buttons. "Stay where you are!" I cried to Marie-Thérèse, "do not come in!" I could hear the sound of her sobbing on the other side of the door. I poked at the crow's treasure and uncovered a large bird skull and a bit of mirror that I used to inspect myself as I wiped my face and hands with my dress. I found no scratches, but had struck my scalp when I fell and was bleeding from the crown. My hair was hopelessly tangled and clotted with blood, but my hands had stopped shaking. We were in the Tower of Jean-sans-peur, the same ancient pillar around which the hôtel de Bourgogne was propped, that I had seen from street. The windows gave a prospect of Rue Mauconseil and Rue Françoise with their milling crowds and a distant view of les Halles and l'Isle de France beyond.

"Oh, Yolande, I am afraid, Don't leave me alone!"

I returned to the door and pulled it open. Marie-Thérèse was clutching herself and quivering. I did not put my arms around her or comfort her. I looked down on her and said, "You have nothing to fear." She looked at my bloodstained dress, my wild hair, and my hands blackened with dirt, and recoiled. I pointed to the pile of bones in the corner, which she could now plainly see through the open door. Her expression changed from fear to surprise and horror. She looked at me then, and I wondered if she was about to throw her arms around me or back away. I said, "There was never anything to fear," then pushed past her on the stairway and descended. She followed me without a sound.

Sunday 4 January 2009

Combat Cards for Sale

Link to Hamlet's story on the sale of Combat Cards, with the "Ghastly Grin" in the illustration, discovered right after I had explained how I believed ghosts to be the external manifestations of a disturbed or irrational mind!

The Stair

Though I was only eight, I had grown up among adults and listened to the conversation of enlightened men, so I had already formed a definite opinion about such matters as ghosts and fantômes. I did not believe a ghost was the supernatural apparition of a dead person, or the spiritual remains of a human being attached to the place of his death. I did not believe a white ghost indicated joy and success or that a black one augured ill fortune and maleficence. Even less did I think them sent by the devil to lure and trick us into perfidy. I believed such inexplicable occurrences to be the external manifestation of an internal terror in those who perceive it, evidence of a disordered and irrational mind. I had heard my uncle say so and I felt this explanation satisfied my own experience, which often dwelt on morbid scenes. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by stories of fantastical and supernatural coincidence and listened to them with a particular thrill. But I had never been visited by any disembodied spirit and secretly wanted to experience the frisson and test my reason before it. So when Marie-Thérèse asked if I believed in fantasmas, I nodded and asked, "Have you seen one?"

We were alone on stage, in an ancient, dark hall decorated with writhing airborne figures that rose about the proscenium and grinned out of the darkness. The adults had gone backstage to prepare for rehearsals, and the only sounds were the cries of infant Catherine and our own voices echoing in vast space around us. Marie-Therese did not answer but smiled and said, "Venga con me!" then led me into the wings.

She expertly passed through the machinery and properties that had accrued over fifteen years of performances. Bizarre suits of armor, masks and strange hats suggested characters that had been brought to life under the stage lights still slept in the wings awaiting their return to the spectator's applause, but now watched us warily. We slipped between stacked flats painted with a necromancer's cave, a roiling ocean, the flames of hell, a mystagogue's library. Banners and flags for countries and duchies that may never have existed outside the imagination hung limp and faded above us, punctuated with fantastically intricate horns and cornets, viols with massive fretboards and bellies like lutes, all suspended in the air, left there by a vanished band of aerial players. We came upon a smashed clavichord whose wiry guts lay tangled and threatening, splintered by some accident perhaps or by the composer whose ethereal compositions were lampooned by a rude hack pounding on its keys. I wanted to ask, but Marie-Thérèse moved so quickly and insistently, clinging to the enormous baby in her arms with alarming strength, maneuvering through narrow spaces like a possessed creature, that I could not take my eyes from her for more than an instant. 

I wish I could here inventory everything we found: baskets of brocade; crates of stucco angels, their pink faces chipped and blackened; an impossibly elaborate mantlepiece carved with a twisted, interlocking design; collars and ruffs; a full-sized stuffed donkey with horrible bared teeth and gleaming patches of black, leathery skin where his dirty hair had been rubbed away; a gilt cage with a mute parrot; a brass door knocker as large as any door I had seen and a hideous bestial face gripping an iron ring in its teeth; a giant scalloped chariot that could have belonged to Aphrodite, complete with reined porpoises. We made so many changes of directions and sudden turns that I could never have found my way back to the stage and I began to worry that Marie-Thérèse did not really know where she was going. But at last we emerged from that grotesque forest and arrived at a little woodworker's shop where a lamp burned over a long bench against the wall and the floor was carpeted in soft shavings. Marie-Thérèse placed her sister in a cradle that rocked in the corner and covered her with a dirty quilt. The baby fell asleep instantly.

"Good, now I show you a thing..."

The walls of the shop were covered in wide planks but under the bench was a gap where the planks did not reach the floor. Marie Therese, whose dress was now covered in cobwebs and woodshavings, went on her knees and crawled into the black space. I hesitated, but her disembodied arm reappeared and gestured at me impatiently.

On the other side of the wall was what used to be a stone doorway, and a short passage that opened onto a narrow circular stairway that continued down into inky blackness and upward toward a cold light. Marie-Thérèse put her hand on a railing carved directly into the stone wall and smoothed by centuries of use and began to climb.

"Where are we going?"

"Our secret. We go up."

"Are there ghosts?"

"Shh. Don't say that word here. I show you."

We climbed around and around, the stairs lit by narrow slits in the stone wall; every fourth one gave out on blue sky and supplied all the light we needed to see our way, otherwise we might have broken our necks. By the time I thought I should be counting steps, or windows, we came to a wooden door on iron hinges. "You go first," Marie-Thérèse said, looking at me with interest.

Saturday 3 January 2009



M. Biancolelli gave a squeal of delight, spun around on the spot and fell to his knees, arms extended like a prince in a tale by Lafontaine toward a little girl about my age and dressed in a dainty frock. She ran over and threw herself in his arms, burying her head into his embrace, like one who had been separated from her father for years. Uncle Adraste reached down and took my hand in his. 

After what seemed an age, M. Biancolelli held his daughter at arms length and bounced her up and down until her limbs flopped like a doll. "This is my puppet-daughter Marie-Thérèse, who was made for me by the Seamstress-Queen of Modena. Every night I have to remove her stuffing or she will not sleep, but asks me endless questions all night long: 'When will you take me to the theatre, papa? When can I meet the Principessa Yolande? When will we go to Venezia and dine on profiteroles?' I told that woman to stuff her with sugar and dough, but instead I was given a great big sack of cotton-head questions."

"Is she really a princess?"

"No more questions! One more and I shall expire!"

Marie-Thérèse laughed and whispered in her father's ear. His eyes opened wide, as wide and round as I have ever seen on a person's face. Then he stiffened and gave a lurch, and with a whistle of expelled air, collapsed onto the floor like a depleted wineskin. Marie-Thérèse clapped her hands in delight and made a tiny pirouette, pleased to be part of the performance. Then she came to me and kissed me on both cheeks. "I ask him if we can play together." She spoke French with difficulty but had a sweet breath and deep, black eyes.

"Haven't you struck him dead, then?" I said, for M. Biancolelli had not moved an inch.

A woman with a baby in her arms appeared from backstage. "Get up, get up, you fool, Madame Riccoboni is on her way."

M. Biancolelli rose to his feet in so strange a manner, seemingly without bending his limbs, and then with a grand flourish and bow swept an imaginary hat before him and declared, "You have even the power to raise the dead, Your Majesty, that the saints would be jealous. As the Seamstress-Queen commands, so poor Dominique must obey, even from beyond the grave."

"Enough with your heretical nonsense, and in front of the children! You should be ashamed."

Marie-Thérèse giggled and whispered "Maman is just pretending to be cross." Indeed a smile had crept across Madame Biancolelli's face and she gave her baby a kiss to hide it from her husband. "You had better get changed or that woman will send you straight back to whatever grave you dragged yourself from."

Uncle Adraste bowed and offered his hand, into which Madame Biancolelli placed her own, but before he could kiss it, she had turned to me. "Do not be too hard on our Marie-Thérèse, all she hears at home is Italian because her father has never bothered to learn proper French. You'll have to find somewhere else to play, though, because we must set up for rehearsals. Marie-Thérèse, will you look after Catherine?" Mme. Biancolelli put the tiny child in her daughters arms and led my uncle and M. Biancolelli backstage.

"Do you believe in ghosts?" Marie-Thérèse asked me, getting a better grip on the baby, who squirmed in her arms. 

Friday 2 January 2009

La Sylphide

"Monsieur Riccoboni, this is my niece, Yolande Geoffrion, the only child of my poor cousine, Adèle de Castelnau-Jonville."

"I have met the father, if I am not mistaken?"

"Perhaps. He was very fond of the theater when he could tear himself away from his cards." My uncle lowered his voice, and refused to look at me as he said the last few words, though I was staring at him in surprise. I had never heard him talk about my father before.

"It is nothing to be ashamed of in this age, when one hardly counts as nobility if one does not owe at least a half million louis," Mr. Riccoboni said with a smile. "He was a brilliant player, I remember."

"My brother-in-law played écarte and piquet brilliantly enough to ruin himself."

"It was not the cards but the man he played against that ruined him," said Monsieur Biancolelli. The others nodded.

I tugged on Monsieur Biancolelli's hair and he lifted me off his shoulders, setting me down gently on the boards. "Principessa Yolande says she saw a Sylph."

"Really, where?"

I pointed to where the motes still danced in the sunlight. "Over there by the curtain. She was wearing a green dress."

"Giannetti hasn't come in to rehearse today, has she?"

"Not yet, neither has Margarite."

"What's a siph?"

Monsieur Riccoboni furrowed his thick brows. He had a doughy face and eyes that reflected wetly. "I think I shall look in on the loge d'acteurs. Mother is directing rehearsals this afternoon and she was in a sour mood this morning when I left their apartment." His anxious face disappeared behind the heavy curtain.

The two musicians, having finished tuning their hautbois and flutes, began to rehearse. A tall, skinny man in ragged clothing dragged a ladder out of the gloom of the house, untied a cleat and lowered the chandelier on a rope, then went over to replace the burnt stubs with wax candles from a basket. Someone closed a door and the low sound of traffic and crowds on rue Mauconseil faded away. A haunting melody arose from the oboe and echoed in the vast space, as if coming from very far away.

"What's a silf?"

"A sylph is a fairy made of air who likes to play cruel tricks on little girls."

M. Biancolelli laughed. "Your uncle is in love with a sylph so you must not believe him, Yolande. They are bellissimo spirits with bodies of light and vapour. The clouds over Paris at sunset are painted by the wings of sylphs, and they appear to handsome young men of romantic inclination."

"Nonsense, they are the condensation of splenetic humours from peevish women that are left on earth when their souls ascend to heaven. Even Mr. Pope says so."

"No Adraste! It is you who is splenetic. Reading bad English satire makes you so. Your sylph is a delightful girl, but you must learn to be more light-hearted when you call on her. But dolcemente, they are coming."