Read Death of an Alchemist Online

Authors: Mary Lawrence

Death of an Alchemist (3 page)

Perhaps there had been too little heat, or perhaps contamination had prevented the growth of crystals. She simply could not get the material to sublimate. Several times she opened the vessel and found either a slimy residue or nothing at all. She had adjusted the heat, tried different retorts, obtained her base material from a different source. All to no avail. And this last attempt had resulted in a noxious smell of rotten eggs, to which John was now reacting.
“If we moved for no other reason than to escape the possibility of contracting the sweating sickness, then we should do it.”
“John, there is no proof that living near the river makes us more susceptible.”
“Except I have heard that it has taken three on Bermondsey Street in the last week.”
“Unless you know by your own eyes, then do not trust a rumor.”
“Usually there is a hint of truth in these stories.” John ladled a cup of steaming rainwater from the top of a furnace and sprinkled in mint and dried orange rind. He prepared a second cup for Bianca. “If I should pay no mind to hearsay, then why are you intent on making a palliative for the disease?”
Bianca accepted the cup and blew on it before taking a sip. “Because it is that time of year. And Meddybemps has asked me to work on one.”
“Ha! So you see he must have had inquiries.” John arched an eyebrow at Bianca. “And so you chide me for giving an ear to chatter on the street.”
“Meddybemps sees more than you do pent up at Boisvert's forge all day. He moves from market to market and covers more ground in a day than either of us do in a week.”
John finished his tea and set the cup on the table crowded with bowls of ground minerals and minced herbs. He wondered how much of Bianca's medicinals he inadvertently ingested since their dinner plates and bowls sat on the same table as her ingredients. Organization was not Bianca's strong point.
“I need to be on my way,” he announced, “before my clothes become saturated with stink. Boisvert will have something to say about the smell. He never fails to remind me that we Anglais are an uncivil, malodorous lot.”
John cleared a space on the bench to put on his shoes. Pulling one on, he looked around for its mate. It couldn't be far. It could not walk on its own. Besides, he never removed one, then walked around before taking the other off. “Have you seen my shoe?”
Bianca gazed at the interior of their rent. The rush was in need of replacing with fresh, sweet-smelling reed. Broken crockery piled in a corner and a disarray of pans and spilled ingredients covered the board. A calcinatory furnace awkwardly sat in the center of the room, consuming a large portion of floor space. She had recently vented its belching smoke outside—but not very effectively. Apart from herbs dangling from the rafters, her room looked discouragingly like her father's room of alchemy. Perhaps his fixation had now become hers.
“Bianca, have you seen my shoe?”
Bianca startled from this disconcerting realization. “Shoe?” she repeated, as if remembering what one was. Bianca thought a moment. She brushed her tangle of wavy hair away from her eyes. Next to the calcinating furnace she found its remnants.
“What did you do?” exclaimed John, staring at what used to be his left shoe. Only the heel remained.
“I needed some leather to wrap around the juncture of my alembic. It was releasing volatiles.”
“So you sliced up my shoe?”
“I can stitch it back together.”
“Nay, I don't believe you can.” John snatched away the pitiful remnant and strip of burned leather.
“Am I interrupting?” said Meddybemps, ducking under the door lintel and parting the curtain of hanging herbs. The dried stems often caught on his cap and pulled it off.
“Not soon enough,” grumbled John. He pushed past the streetseller, who noted his single bare foot. Meddybemps looked at Bianca, puzzled.
“Shall I tell him he is wearing only one shoe?”
“He's well aware.” Bianca finished her cup of tea.
Meddybemps caught a whiff of the unpleasant remainder of a failed concoction. He considered mentioning the odor, then thought she probably knew. Likely it was the source of John's irritability. Cautiously, he took a few more steps into the room, worried the smell might make him retch.
“I've sold a number of your dried poultices and balms for the itch of fleas and rash. The heat suits insects and oily plants. No one needs expectorants for phlegmatic illness right now.” Meddybemps deposited a sack of coins in Bianca's palm.
“I'd better put this in a safe place,” said Bianca.
Meddybemps glanced around, wondering where that might be. The appearance of her room always gave him the impression of danger. He never knew whether a fire in her furnace might flare out of control and burn the place down, or whether he would show up one day to find Bianca and John dead from inhaling so much smoke.
But Bianca was a gifted chemiste and her burgeoning reputation had benefited him well. He sold her balms and medicines at market and they split the profit. In fact, her medicinals sold better than his talismans and trinkets. He didn't mind because he was becoming known for carrying her remedies and people sought him out. If he could convince a fretful wife to part with another penny to buy an amulet for added assurance, then all the better.
Meddybemps removed his red cap and smoothed back his thinning hair. “So what, pray tell, is John in a tiff about now?”
“He wants us to move. He says it is too stifling here and too close to the Thames.”
“I agree it
warm in here. And, well, the smell . . .”
“I just finished a process; I had a fire going.” Bianca nodded toward the furnace and its dying embers. “John worries the sweat has returned and he believes the sickness occurs more frequently near water.”
“He may be right. There is a growing demand for a remedy or preventative for the disease.”
“Have you heard of the sweat's return?”
“I have, but I know how you dislike rumors.” Meddybemps sat on her bench and his eyes started to burn, probably from a caustic ingredient on the table. He stood and moved closer to the open door.
“So have you seen evidence of an outbreak?”
“A few instances have sprung up. The disease seems to appear during the warming days of summer. Odd thing, that.”
Bianca turned a retort upside down, emptying a bluish powder on the floor.
“Any progress creating the next miracle?” Meddybemps's errant eye quivered with anticipation. His eyes never moved in a coordinated effort. This was a disconcerting if not alarming quirk to those used to meeting a focused gaze.
“Phht. I am stalled. I cannot sublimate this dross. Volatiles escape the junctures.”
“Flummoxed by flux?” Meddybemps's eye skipped with delight.
“For cert. Nothing I try is of any use. I am at a loss.”
“Perhaps I might offer a suggestion. Why not seek the advice of an alchemist?”
Bianca bristled at the thought. “I can find my own answers.” In her mind, asking an alchemist was tantamount to asking a Frenchman to explain the meaning of life. One was sure to hear lots of flowery language amounting to nothing of purpose.
Meddybemps held up his hand, hoping to prevent her from launching into a well-practiced rant. “Spare your breath, my prodigy. I've heard your arguments before. I am speaking of an alchemist I know who is as old as the earth and keeps his quackery to a minimum. He is a kindly yet irascible puffer, practiced and often willing to share his techniques with those he deems worthy. Of course, no alchemist fully divulges all his secrets.”
“How do you know him?”
“My dear, one cannot live as long as I have and tread these streets through every ward without hearing or seeing something of what goes on behind closed doors.” Meddybemps helped himself to a fig, being careful to wipe it on his thin linen shirt first. “I can tell you where to find Ferris Stannum. I'm sure you can charm some answers out of him.”
Bianca had no difficulty finding the alchemist off Ivy Lane. She simply followed her nose past the smell of freshly baked bread to an aroma far less comforting. All alchemists were secretive, and that extended to where they worked their science. No puffer ever hung a sign announcing his vocation; to do so was inviting mischief. An alchemist's goal was to project gold. What thief could ignore such a lure? Even destitute puffers kept stores of silver or crystals of value for their projections.
The odor beckoned. Bianca followed it past wood-frame buildings with upper stories leaning over the street, threatening to topple onto the road below. A lack of sunlight cast the neighborhood into a shadowed assembly, unable to cheer anyone strolling down the lane and certainly incapable of lifting the hearts of the unfortunate few who lived there.
On this day, Mrs. Tenbrook spied her tenant rattling open his door and caught him before he could close it in her face. She hunted him like a ferret after a rat. She hounded his every step, dispensed threats, and cast a disparaging eye on the ruined interior of his quarters—her property.
“You owe me more than four months' rent. I've not the patience to wait a day longer. A woman's got to eat and pay her way if she has no one to do it for her. I've a mind to call the ward and have ye thrown in debtors' prison.”
“Goodwife Tenbrook, save your wind for another battle. I have made a great discovery. Better you give me a little more time because once I reap boundless rewards, I shall repay you tenfold.”
“Spoken like the charlatan ye are. By troth I never should have allowed ye here if I'd known. The smells I can barely abide, the excuses every month. It is only this talisman that has prevented the entire place from burning to the ground.” The landlady held up a cross with a center stone as red as her face and waggled it.
“Mrs. Tenbrook,” said the alchemist, procuring his journal and displaying it proudly. “I will be sending my work for validation, and once it is found solid, neither you nor I shall ever have reason for unkind words again. I do not forget those who have given me their trust.”
“Trust? Ha! Ye mistake my tolerance for favor. I assure you that is not my intent.”
Bianca arrived in time to hear every word. She hovered, unnoticed, just outside the door. Indeed, this was a room of alchemy. Whether it was Ferris Stannum's room, she was not sure. Always curious to know a person's particular circumstance before they should know hers, she was careful to avoid their notice.
“Leave me, woman,” said the alchemist, his temper flaring. “I've matters to attend. You are wasting my time. I swear you shall have your money soon enough.”
From her vantage point, Bianca could see the old man trembling with rage. He looked as old as Methuselah and seemed not to have trimmed his beard in about as long. It nearly touched his knees. Perhaps if he were less stooped his whiskers might just reach his stomach. Bianca wondered how he had managed to avoid catching the monstrosity on fire. Perhaps he was as expert as Meddybemps said.
“Thunder on, old man. But I shall not cease pestering ye until I have every last coin. And I shall have it. Do not doubt.” For her part, Mrs. Tenbrook looked equally distressed. A shower of spittle rained from her mouth and the midday heat did not favor her complexion. The two adversaries flushed like currants near to bursting.
“By your standards, half of England would be in debtors' prison.”
A sudden piercing squawk followed by a scream startled Bianca. She had never heard such a noise. The screech was somewhat human in quality and alarmingly strange. She peeked around the door.
“Leave off my bird!” said the alchemist, rushing to stand between the woman and a crimson-colored parrot. “Trouble me all you want, but give my poor creature its peace. You have no reason to bother it.”
“It bit me, ye fool!” said the landlady, holding her finger. A trickle of blood coursed down the crooked appendage. “If you do not get rid of it, I'll wring its neck and have it for dinner.” She raised a hand to strike the bird, but the alchemist seized her wrist.
“Fie, ye vulgar old man!” she shouted, delivering an elbow to his ribs. “Remove your filthy self from my person! And silence that confounded bird!” She found a jar and cocked her arm to hurl it at the flapping parrot but was stopped by Bianca's shout.
The alchemist and landlady started. Mrs. Tenbrook squinted at Bianca standing inside the door. She lowered her arm. “And who might you be?”
Bianca dipped in a brief curtsy. “My name is Bianca Goddard. I am looking for Ferris Stannum.”
Mrs. Tenbrook raked her eyes over Bianca and, once she'd sufficiently conveyed her disapproval at being interrupted, pointed her chin toward the alchemist. “You've found 'im. Lucky ye came today.” She set the jar on the table with a thud. “Because he may not be here tomorrow.”
Ferris Stannum massaged his sore ribs. “It will take you longer than a day to find a ward who will even care. They've no interest in a mewling landlady.” He dug into his pocket for a treat to feed his parrot.
“Mock me not, old man,” said Mrs. Tenbrook. She stormed past, shouldering Bianca aside, and stomped up the stairs to her quarters. A door creaked open, then slammed, rattling the walls of Stannum's rent.
Indifferent to his landlady's threat, the alchemist lavished attention on his bird. In soothing tones, he reassured the parrot until it calmed. He leaned toward the bird and it rubbed its head on his cheek. A moment passed before the old man turned to face her.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“You do not. I create salves and medicinals in Southwark.”
“Did you say your name was Goddard?” A look of suspicion clouded his face. “It is a name of shady reputation.” He took a step in her direction and looked into her eyes. “Are you related to Albern Goddard?”
Bianca hesitated admitting it. However, it was better to be honest than mimic her father's example by lying. “I am his daughter.”
“You resemble him.”
“Only in appearance,” said Bianca, defensively.
Ferris Stannum did not respond. He stroked his parrot and fed it another sweetmeat. “Tell me, what brings Albern Goddard's daughter to my room of alchemy?”
“I have been told you are one of the finest alchemists in London.”
Stannum snorted. “You are mistaken.”
Puzzled, Bianca looked around at the obvious accoutrements of the noble art.
“I am
finest alchemist in all of
A black tiger cat appeared from behind a congelating furnace and brushed against Ferris Stannum's calves. It stretched, reaching its front paws up the old man's leg, snagging his hose. Ferris Stannum patted its head.
“Are you here on behalf of your father?”
“My father and I have not spoken in a while. Meddybemps, a streetseller, my streetseller and friend,” she added, “told me of your accomplishments. He suggested I seek your help.”
“Help? What can an old man offer a young woman?”
“As I said, I make physickes and medicinals. I combine what I know of herbs with methods used in alchemy.”
Ferris Stannum picked up the cat and scratched behind its ears. “To whose philosophy do you ascribe? Galen or Paracelsus?”
“There is some truth to both. However, I am less inclined to Galen's philosophy.”
“Why?” asked Stannum.
“Because it reflects my father's belief in alchemy, and I have seen nothing come from his following Galen's principles.” Bianca sensed she had gotten Stannum's ear, so she continued. “Supposedly creation is composed of varying proportions of the four elements—air, water, earth, and fire. If one succeeds in altering the balance of a particular substance, then one shall succeed in projecting the philosopher's stone. Which, in a word, is perfection, is it not? By that argument, if people are composed of four humours mimicking the four elements, what happens if we alter
balance?” Bianca paused for effect. “They become ill, and illness is not perfection.”
“However, illness is a natural process that brings man to his ultimate perfection.”
“Meaning death?” Bianca shook her head. “Perhaps some might believe that is true. But I believe perfection in man is health, not death.”
“But some argue that human perfection can only be achieved by dying,” said Stannum, dabbing the corners of his eyes with a rag.
“Galen believes a physician must restore the balance of humours by applying proper medicines. I do believe illness is the result of an imbalance. But a human body is more than four arbitrarily assigned humours. It is bone and flesh and heart and lungs. Separate organs that must work together. Galen has no explanation for how the humours become unbalanced, only that they do. I believe there are forces that cause an imbalance and the imbalance can occur differently in each person. However, certain illnesses occur with similar symptoms. Ultimately, I want to learn why.”
“Your ambitions are honorable.” Ferris Stannum stuffed the cloth into his pocket. “Why bother with medicines if you seek answers in physiology?”
“What woman can enter that dark brotherhood and not be burned as a heretic?”
The old man set his cat on the floor so Bianca could not see him smile. The girl had certainly inherited the contrived arguments of her father.
“I want to change those forces of illness with my medicine.” Bianca was not sure she had sufficiently explained herself. “I learned about plants from my mother. Granted, much is old-world knowledge, but it is in her blood. She is not always successful. In fact, much of her advice is folly. But she makes do with the plants she collects from the banks of the Thames. Plants have a secret language, and I seek to learn all that I can about them.”
“But why use alchemy to concoct your medicinals?” asked Ferris Stannum.
“I use its methods to distill and purify my tinctures. I've found the purged extracts stronger and more effective.”
“So you rely solely on plants.”
“Nay, I have used cinnabar and salt. A few other minerals.”
“And do you believe poisons can be made pure?” It was a basic question, but one that revealed much about an alchemist's belief system. Some alchemists believed that poisons could be separated into three primordial parts—mercury, sulfur, and salt. The residue that remained was worthless. But the newly acquired beneficial constituents could be purified and recombined to create a more powerful medicine, free from its previous toxic quality.
“I believe impurities can be removed and a tincture made stronger. But poison shall always remain so. Poisons cannot be undone. Their nature cannot be altered.”
Bianca knew Stannum was testing her, but she refused to argue with an alchemist about alchemy. Instead, she remained firm in her beliefs, her knowledge based on observation.
“Then you do not subscribe to every idea Paracelsus has put forth.”
“I do not. Poisons cannot be made harmless. But I've observed they can sometimes ameliorate a malady, if they are given in small doses. But their dosage must be carefully controlled.”
Ferris Stannum knew her father's reputation and did not care to learn more about the unscrupulous character, but he was still a fount of knowledge. Stannum puzzled over why Bianca rejected his help. Perhaps it was, in part, due to a difference in opinion. Though Stannum carried a low opinion of the man, he
interested in the ignoble alchemist's line of investigation. He wondered if Albern Goddard, like most alchemists, believed the stone could be wrought only from minerals. So he asked.
“My father believes the stone can be made from anything. Vegetable, animal, mineral—familiar ingredients. Worthless to some, yet precious to others. Vile but beautiful,” answered Bianca.
The old alchemist smiled at Albern Goddard's flawed premise. Stannum had invested years in his art and he thought of himself as having reached the pinnacle of his craft. His success was proof that his intentions were pure and his heart was honorable. Indeed, more honorable than that of any other alchemist in the realm. He straightened a little. He alone was worthy.
Ferris Stannum took a breath of this rarified air and considered the young woman standing before him. She was perceptive and thoughtful, if not a bit strange—what young woman bothers to think about Galen's theory? His own daughter would never do that.
“Tell me, Bianca Goddard,” said Stannum, watching her intently. “What is it you wish to learn from me?”
Bianca explained her failed attempts. “The precipitate remains moist. It will not crystallize. Sometimes it may never collect at all.”
“You must sublime through violent heat wherein your child will cling to the top of the alembic waiting to be made spiritual through heat both moist and temperate. It is not a process for an impatient young heart, for the spirit takes forty days to be reborn. And in those forty days, it is like a child in a womb. You must attend to it, without distraction, keeping the heat steady. If you falter, all is lost. But I have methods to accomplish this and in less time.”
“Will you show me?”
Ferris Stannum's reticence softened. Bianca's humble quest was not a threat and, in fact, endeared her to him. His altruism bloomed and he did not mind dispensing some of his knowledge to this earnest young woman. He would not live forever—but he could.
Bianca and Ferris Stannum sat next to a congelating furnace waiting for the charcoal to glow orange. She had learned much from the experienced alchemist in a short time. She had observed his setups and technique, committing the details to memory. At one point, they had stopped to sip aqua vitae, as he called it (more like burning water, thought Bianca), distilled from tan-gleberries.

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