Let us return to what everyone in Paris will call only l’affaire des poisons, from now on. In December 1677, following a denunciation which names Louis de Vanens, a “dangerous alchemist” suspected of “so perfectly making gold and silver that he had been able to amass more than one million, eight hundred thousand pounds in one year”, the Paris police arrest a gang which forges money and makes poisons, under cover of alchemy. The principal members of this association of evildoers are Vanens himself, his valet Jean Barthominat, known as Lachaboissiere, the banker Pierre Cadelan and Count de Bachimont. All say that they belong to a “cabal” whose chief, Marc-Antoine Galaup de Chasteuil, has succeeded in conserving anonymity, being designated by the mysterious pseudonym of “the Unknown Man”. The personalities of Vanens and Chasteuil merit that we take a closer look at them.
Coming from the little Provencal nobility, Vanens had firstly served in the Army and in the Navy before being captured by Barbary pirates and reduced to slavery in Algiers. This is at least what he recounts in Marseille, where he reappears after a while, and where he makes Chasteuil’s acquaintance. But Chasteuil is of a completely different calibre. The son of a magistrate, and himself a Doctor in Law, he enters the Order of Malta in 1644, and covers himself in glory by combating the Barbary pirates, which wins him the Gold Cross of Saint-Jean-de-Jerusalem. An adventurer without scrupules, but not without panache, he serves Conde during the Fronde, then goes back to chasing pirates in the Mediterranean, before being taken prisoner by them and carried off to Algiers, where his mother has him released from their gaols, against payment of a ransom. Shortly before his capture, he had drawn attention to himself by participating, in 1659, in a sedition directed against the First President of the Provence Parliament, a sedition sanctioned by a death sentence; he had only escaped decapitation by a hurried flight to Malta…
It is therefore upon his return from his Algiers captivity that Chasteuil makes the acquaintance of Vanens. It could be thought that he had calmed down by then, since he had worn the robes of Prior of the Carmelites of Marseille. This however is not the case. One night, without knowing that he is being watched by a pilgrim hidden in the convent predicator’s pulpit, he buries the cadaver of a young girl in the chapel. He has just strangled her in his cell. The unfortunate girl had made the mistake of becoming pregnant by him. Immediately arrested and condemned to death, he is led to the gallows. But at the moment when the executioner is preparing to put the cord around his neck, a group of gangsters, led by his friend Vanens, attacks the gibbet and snatches him from death. He will never be heard of again outside the Cabal circle, and then only under the name of “the Unknown Man”.
This last peripeteia of his adventurous life has of course tightened his ties with Vanens, to whom he has taught the secrets of alchemy, and those of much more dangerous preparations… Having left Provence for Paris, Vanens is then associated with a Count de Bachimont whose wife, a cousin of Superintendant Fouquet, had, in the past, been accused of nothing less than having poisoned her first husband, her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law. Further, the Countess has the daughter of a Lyon chemist as her chambermaid. This chemist knows all about “succession powders”, and can procure all the products necessary for their manufacture, for his daughter’s masters.
The lieutenant general de police, Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie’s investigation rapidly uncovers numerous murders of talkative gang members or of cumbersome witnesses, as well as the multiple relations of the gang with all the female poisoners of the Parisian slums, which would be largely enough to send all of these lovely people to the stake. But what is worrying the lieutenant general de police, is the enormity of the sums of money that have passed through the hands of the banker Cadelan, on behalf of Vanens, and that no-one, neither Louvois, nor Colbert, nor, of course, La Reynie, seriously thinks to attribute to the miraculous alchemical recipes of “the Unknown Man”. So? So an hypothesis begins to seep from this skein of crimes, an hypothesis which takes us back two years, to the 12 June 1675.
On this day, Duke Charles-Emmanuel II de Savoie succumbs in Turino “from a continuous double tertiary fever with redoublings”. One week beforehand, bathed in perspiration, he had to change his shirt while returning from hunting. Shortly afterward, he is taken with vomitting and violent stomach pains, symptoms which irresistably evoke arsenic poisoning. The disappearance of this sovereign, reputed for his good health and his robustness, has surprised everyone, starting with Madame de Sevigne who observes to her daughter:
“Aren’t you very astonished by this death of the Duke de Savoie, so prompt and so little expected, at forty years old?”
It is in fact so astonishing, that no-one really believes that the death is natural, especially as his widow, married it is true against her wishes, does not display very great sadness, and straight away consoles herself in the arms of her lover, an attractive Marquis de Saint-Maurice, whom she immediately makes her Extraordinary Ambassador to Paris. Had the shirt, donned by the Duke, been previously “prepared” with arsenic? This is even more easily believable, when it is found that the said shirt has conveniently disappeared. Who are the guilty parties, and who has employed them? On this second point, the mystery remains total. La Reynie has his suspicions about the first.
At this time, Vanens, Bachimont and a few other members of the Cabal, including an Irish gentleman with the nickname of Sainte-Colombe, just happen to be in Piemont, where the inevitable Chasteuil resides. Between “the Unknown Man” and his faithful helpers, it seems that there might be a few tensions. In any case, four days before the Duke’s death, Vanens and the others leave Turino in a hurry. Mission accomplished, we could be tempted to think.
To be continued.