One evening in January 1788, Prince de Beauvau had invited to dinner a certain number of people in view at the French Court and around Paris. Among others, there were Chamfort, Condorcet, La Harpe, the Duchess de Gramont, a few ladies of wit and literary people, filled with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. They professed some advanced impious ideas and, rather curiously, did their best to destroy the society to which they all owed their privileges…
The meal, washed down with Malvoisie and Constance wines, was extremely lively. At dessert, Chamfort read a few of his libertine stories starring gallant abbots. Then jokes were made about religion, and one guest raised his glass to the non-existence of God and claimed that Homer was stupid. He was applauded.
Soon, the conversation turned to Voltaire and the change he had made in people’s thinking. Someone said that he had set the tone of his century and extended his influence from the Court to the little people… Another agreed that irreligion was full of his followers, and quoted his own hairdresser who, while powdering his hair, had said:
“You see, Sir, although I am only a poor hairdresser, I have no more religion than another…”
This made everyone laugh, and Mr de Beauvau said that superstition and fanaticism would soon be replaced by Philosophy and the Reign of Reason. Although, in his opinion, it would take a lot more time to free people’s minds, and he thought that those present would not live to see this Revolution.
Then, a guest who had not participated in the discussion, spoke:
“Messieurs, be satisfied. You will all see this great and sublime Revolution that you so desire. You know that I am a bit of a prophet. I repeat: you will see it…”
This person, who had just spoken in such a serious tone, was Jacques Cazotte. He was the author of a strange book: Le Diable amoureux, which had caused a stir; but he was taken for a dreamer and some suspected him of belonging to the sect of the Illumines.
All of the table companions turned to him with big smiles on their faces. Chamfort proposed a toast to this good news. Cazotte joined them in their toast, then asked if they knew what would happen after this Revolution, and where they would all be, and what would be the immediate follow-up to it. Condorcet laughed and said that he was willing to listen to him because a philosopher is happy to meet a prophet. Cazotte’s eyes shone. He said:
“You, Monsieur de Condorcet, will die on the stones of a prison cell; you will die from the poison that you will have taken to escape the executioner. From the poison that the “happiness” of those times will force you to always carry on your person…”
All the guests burst out laughing. Condorcet wants to know what the prison cell, the poison and the executioner have to do with Philosophy and the Reign of Reason. Cazotte says:
“It’s very simple. It is in the name of Philosophy, of Humanity, of Liberty and under the Reign of Reason that you will finish like that… Because, at this time, Reason will have its own temples, and the only temples in France, at this time, will be temples of Reason…”
Chamfort laughs and says that he is sure that Cazotte will not be one of the priests in those temples. Cazotte replies that he hopes not;
“But you, Monsieur de Chamfort, who will be one of them, and very dignified about it, you will cut open your veins with twenty-two razor slashes and will die some little time later…”
“You, Monsieur de Vicq d’Azyr, will not open your veins yourself; but, after having had them opened for you, six times in one day, to be sure of succeeding, you will die that night…”
The diners were starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. A few people were still laughing, but rather nervously. Cazotte continued going round the table:
“You, Monsieur de Nicolai, will die on the scaffold… You, too, Monsieur Bailly, on the scaffold.”
Roucher has noticed that all of the people mentioned so far are members of the Academie. He says that he is glad that he is not a member, himself. Cazotte tells him that he, too, will die on the scaffold. Someone wants to know whether it is because they will have been invaded by the Turks or the Tartars. Cazotte says:
“Not at all. I told you: you will then be governed only by Philosophy and Reason. Those who will treat you like that will all be philosophers; they will have in their mouths the phrases that you have been speaking for the last hour, and will repeat all of your maxims…”
Chamfort laughingly wants to know when all of this is supposed to take place. Cazotte answers:
“Six years will not have passed before all that I have said will be accomplished.”
La Harpe wants to know what will happen to him. Cazotte replies:
“You will benefit from a miracle at least as extraordinary as all of these events: at this time, you will be a Christian.”
Chamfort declares himself to be reassured. He proclaims that if they are all to die only when La Harpe becomes a Christian, they are all immortal. The Duchess de Gramont is relieved that the ladies have nothing to fear. Cazotte tells her:
“You will be taken to the scaffold, along with a lot of other ladies, in the executioner’s cart, with your hands tied behind your back.”
The Duchess hopes that she will at least have a carriage draped in black. Cazotte announces that greater ladies than herself will be taken in the cart with their hands tied behind their backs. The Duchess asks if he means the Royal Princesses. Cazotte says that he means even greater ladies.
To be continued.