After dinner, finding myself alone with M. Haller, I asked him who this young man was. He told me he was his daughter's tutor.
"A tutor like that and so pretty a pupil might easily become lovers."
"Yes, please God."
This Socratic reply made me see how misplaced my remark had been, and I felt some confusion. Finding a book to my hand I opened it to restore my composure.
It was an octavo volume of his works, and I read in it:
"Utrum memoria post mortem dubito."
"You do not think, then," said I, "that the memory is an essential part of the soul?"
"How is that question to be answered?" M. de Haller replied, cautiously, as he had his reasons for being considered orthodox.
During dinner I asked if M. de Voltaire came often to see him. By way of reply he repeated these lines of the poet:--
"Vetabo qui Cereris sacrum vulgarit arcanum sub usdem sit trabibus."
I spent three days with this celebrated man, but I thought myself obliged to refrain from asking his opinion on any religious questions, although I had a great desire to do so, as it would have pleased me to have had his opinion on that delicate subject; but I believe that in matters of that kind M. Haller judged only by his heart. I told him, however, that I should consider a visit to Voltaire as a great event, and he said I was right. He added, without the slightest bitterness,
"M. de Voltaire is a man who ought to be known, although, in spite of the laws of nature, many persons have found him greater at a distance than close at hand."
M. de Haller kept a good and abundant though plain table; he only drank water. At dessert only he allowed himself a small glass of liqueur drowned in an enormous glass of water. He talked a great deal of Boerhaave, whose favourite pupil he had been. He said that after Hypocrates, Boerhaave was the greatest doctor and the greatest chemist that had ever existed.
"How is it," said I, "that he did not attain mature age?"
"Because there is no cure for death. Boerhaave was born a doctor, as Homer was born a poet; otherwise he would have succumbed at the age of fourteen to a malignant ulcer which had resisted all the best treatment of the day. He cured it himself by rubbing it constantly with salt dissolved in his own urine."
"I have been told that he possessed the philosopher's stone."
"Yes, but I don't believe it."
"Do you think it possible?"
"I have been working for the last thirty years to convince myself of its impossibility; I have not yet done so, but I am sure that no one who does not believe in the possibility of the great work can be a good chemist."
When I left him he begged me to write and tell him what I thought of the great Voltaire, and in, this way our French correspondence began. I possess twenty-two letters from this justly celebrated man; and the last word written six months before, his too, early death. The longer I live the more interest I take in my papers. They are the treasure which attaches me to life and makes death more hateful still.
I had been reading at Berne Rousseau's "Heloise," and I asked M. Haller's opinion of it. He told me that he had once read part of it to oblige a friend, and from this part he could judge of the whole. "It is the worst of all romances, because it is the most eloquently expressed. You will see the country of Vaud, but don't expect to see the originals of the brilliant portraits which Jean Jacques painted. He seems to have thought that lying was allowable in a romance, but he has abused the privilege. Petrarch, was a learned man, and told no lies in speaking of his love for Laura, whom he loved as every man loves the woman with whom he is taken; and if Laura had not contented her illustrious lover, he would not have celebrated her."
Thus Haller spoke to me of Petrarch, mentioning Rousseau with aversion. He disliked his very eloquence, as he said it owed all its merits to antithesis and paradox. Haller was a learned man of the first class, but his knowledge was not employed for the purpose of ostentation, nor in private life, nor when he was in the company of people who did not care for science.