The Duc de Villars and the famous Tronchin came and joined us. The doctor, a tall fine man, polite, eloquent without being a conversationalist, a learned physician, a man of wit, a favourite pupil of Boerhaeve, without scientific jargon, or charlatanism, or self-sufficiency, enchanted me. His system of medicine was based on regimen, and to make rules he had to be a man of profound science. I have been assured, but can scarcely believe it, that he cured a consumptive patient of a secret disease by means of the milk of an ass, which he had submitted to thirty strong frictions of mercury by four sturdy porters.
As to Villars he also attracted my attention, but in quite a different way to Tronchin. On examining his face and manner I thought I saw before me a woman of seventy dressed as a man, thin and emaciated, but still proud of her looks, and with claims to past beauty. His cheeks and lips were painted, his eyebrows blackened, and his teeth were false; he wore a huge wig, which, exhaled amber, and at his buttonhole was an enormous bunch of flowers, which touched his chin. He affected a gracious manner, and he spoke so softly that it was often impossible to hear what he said. He was excessively polite and affable, and his manners were those of the Regency. His whole appearance was supremely ridiculous. I was told that in his youth he was a lover of the fair sex, but now that he was no longer good for anything he had modestly made himself into a woman, and had four pretty pets in his employ, who took turns in the disgusting duty of warming his old carcase at night.
Villars was governor of Provence, and had his back eaten up with cancer. In the course of nature he should have been buried ten years ago, but Tronchin kept him alive with his regimen and by feeding the wounds on slices of veal. Without this the cancer would have killed him. His life might well be called an artificial one.
I accompanied M. de Voltaire to his bedroom, where he changed his wig and put on another cap, for he always wore one on account of the rheumatism to which he was subject. I saw on the table the Summa of St. Thomas, and among other Italian poets the 'Secchia Rapita' of Tassoni.
"This," said Voltaire, "is the only tragicomic poem which Italy has. Tassoni was a monk, a wit and a genius as well as a poet."
"I will grant his poetical ability but not his learning, for he ridiculed the system of Copernicus, and said that if his theories were followed astronomers would not be able to calculate lunations or eclipses."
"Where does he make that ridiculous remark?"
"In his academical discourses."
"I have not read them, but I will get them."
He took a pen and noted the name down, and said,--
"But Tassoni has criticised Petrarch very ingeniously."
"Yes, but he has dishonoured taste and literature, like Muratori."
"Here he is. You must allow that his learning is immense."
"Est ubi peccat."
Voltaire opened a door, and I saw a hundred great files full of papers.
"That's my correspondence," said he. "You see before you nearly fifty thousand letters, to which I have replied."
"Have you a copy of your answers?"
"Of a good many of them. That's the business of a servant of mine, who has nothing else to do."
"I know plenty of booksellers who would give a good deal to get hold of your answers.
"Yes; but look out for the booksellers when you publish anything, if you have not yet begun; they are greater robbers than Barabbas."
"I shall not have anything to do with these gentlemen till I am an old man."
"Then they will be the scourge of your old age."
Thereupon I quoted a Macaronic verse by Merlin Coccaeus.
"Where's that from?"
"It's a line from a celebrated poem in twenty-four cantos."
"Yes; and, what is more, worthy of being celebrated; but to appreciate it one must understand the Mantuan dialect."
"I could make it out, if you could get me a copy."
"I shall have the honour of presenting you with one to-morrow."
"You will oblige me extremely."
We had to leave his room and spend two hours in the company, talking over all sorts of things.