The Alchemist's Tale
A Story by Lea Sheryn
Drawing ever closer, the sound of footsteps marching on the cobblestones in the far distance. Soon the soldiers of the King will turn onto the lane; soon they will start to forcefully pound on the stout wooden door of this poor man’s cottage. It will not be long before they crash through the door. Too soon, they will crowd the cellar. I must prepare and prepare quickly. It is the Inquisition I fear; it comes with the sound of the footsteps marching on the cobblestones in the far distance.
Quickly, quickly I must destroy the work of three long and arduous years. One by one, the flames of the brazier at my feet consume my well-researched notes. The King has lost patience with those who have served only at his will. One by one, eleven of the twelve who have given years of their lives to bring the King what he so desires have disappeared either at the hands of the dreaded Inquisition or have been able to flee to the safety of other shores.
In the year of Our Lord 1595, King Philip II of Spain desires two things and two things only. Firstly, he desires to live forever and secondly, he desires all the gold he can get his hands on to continue his most fearful Inquisition. Twelve Alchemists residing in the Spanish city of Madrid received a Royal Proclamation directing them to accomplish two most desired objectives: to create the elixir of life and to change base metal into gold. All were given three years to accomplish these tasks. Eleven have failed; eleven have disappeared from the Spanish landscape. I, Nemesio de Mena, am the last man standing.
Of the twelve alchemists who received the Royal Proclamation of King Philip II, only eight responded to the hastily called summons to attend the meeting in my basement laboratory. Before I begin to layout the objectives of the proclamation, I make a quick survey of the crowded room. Alfonso De Toro arrogantly leans in the doorway as though in readiness of fleeing at any moment. Having just completed his apprenticeship under his mentor, Jago Pintado, he is full of his own importance and feels himself beneath being a part of the group.
Master Alchemist, Jago Pintado, occupies the most comfortable chair in the room. It is his right since he is not only the elder of the group but also because he mentored each of the others in their own stages of learning the art of alchemy. Twin brothers, Gaspar and Guido de Cordova, whisper together in a corner obviously hatching their own plan of attack while Salvatore Castillejo leans close in an attempt to overhear the siblings’ discussion. Old and wise, Naldo Medina keeps himself to himself. Lastly, Cristo Flores rushes in late, as usual; he sidesteps Alfonso De Toro on his way in and attempts to make it appear as though he was already in the room. The four no-shows are Roderigo Cubero, Hernan Gamino, Clemente de la Pena, and the only Moorish member of the group, Ahmed El-Hasem. No one really expected the Moor to appear, he was never one to mingle with the Spaniards. Of the other three, they all have their own excuses for not attending.
Quickly I step into the center of the room, the unofficial leader of the group. Our objective is two fold: to develop the elixir of life and to turn base metal into gold. The best way to accomplish the objective is to each work on the task we are most skilled at. Alfonso De Toro immediately selected to turn base metal into gold, Salvatore Castillejo, Cristo Flores and Guido de Cordova followed suit leaving the elixir of life to Jago Pintado, Naldo Medina, Gaspar de Cordova and me, Nemesio de Mena.
Each of us toiled day and night for success in our tasks. Each of us was called before the King to demonstrate our accomplishments with creating the much sought after Philosopher’s Stone. It was a fearful day for the one who had to appear before that old relic of a Tyrant King. Arrogant, young Alfonso De Toro was the first to fall into the hands of the Inquisition. The fool of a man tripped as he put on his demonstration with molten mercury. The mixture coated Philip’s white kid boots, dissolving the leather and nearly scorching the Royal Toes. The poor boy went insane on the rack and was a sad sight as he was carted off to the auto de fe. It is my sincere hope that the guards had snapped his neck before consigning him to the flames. At the news of the young man’s death, Gaspar and Guido de Cordova disappeared from the city. Perhaps they made it to England; perhaps they fled into Italy. Who knows? They were never seen again.
The Philosopher’s Stone had long been “The Holy Grail” of the Alchemy World. Long, long before the memory of Jago Pintado, alchemists have sought this mystical objective with no better luck than any of those called upon to do so in the year 1595. Even with our advanced learning, we were no closer to success than at any other time. Still King Phillip must be appeased; he is not a man to cross. Every combination of mercury, sulphur, iron, copper and honey has been tried with no measurement being the correct one.
Alas, Clemente de la Pena was so confident in his final achievement, he drank the elixir of life himself and was found dead on the floor in his laboratory. Foolishly, his headstrong seventeen year old daughter, Elvira, decided to take on the task herself by following her father’s last recipe. Oh, the poor girl, I think to myself, as I consider her fate. She couldn’t fool the King and was confined to the flames. Ever present in the crowds at the auto de fe, I couldn’t bare her screams and, turning away, decided to never attend another.
One by one, we all met with failure. Salvatore Castillejo and Roderigo Cubero disappeared in the dead of night. Although gossip abounded amongst the remaining alchemists that they had been taken by the Inquisition, they were never seen at the dreaded auto de fe. Some stated that they died on the rack while others concluded they had escaped to England. Jago Pintado died of old age; he was well into his 80s when the task was begun; Naldo Medina committed suicide in the knowledge of his own failure. Cristo Flores was last known in Paris; Hernan Gamino was said to be on his way to the New World.
Ahmed El-Hasem and I continued to work toward our goals. Neither of us spoke to one another but remained diligent. The Moor was confident in his ability to turn base metals into gold while I dabbled with the elixir of life. Both of us were determined to accomplish what had never been accomplished before. Still we failed in every attempt. Soon the call would come to stand before King Phillip; soon our fate would be declared.
The Moor received his call before I did. Ahmed El-Hasem was unprepared and he knew it. It had been three long and wasteful years. Both of us had to face our day of reckoning. The year was 1598, the ruthless King was reaching the end of his life and desperate to cling to it as long as he could. His patience, which had lasted this long, was surely on the point of running out.
Ahmed El-Hasem met his fate in the alley behind his home. Strangled and beaten, he was left for dead by the henchmen of the King as he attempted to flee. In the dark of night, it had been impossible for him to hide himself with his white turban, suit of clothes and the turquoise cape he habitually wore. If only he had been able to make it to Morocco, I mused. He was a fine alchemist and surely the best of all of us. It was a shame to lose such a brilliant mind.
Of the twelve alchemists who received the Proclamation of the King, I, Nemesio de Mena, am the only one left. Doubling my efforts in my experimentation of the elixir of life, I work day and night for success. Once I accomplish the first task, the King will insist I complete the second as well. Diligently I work from my copious notes. Some nights, the candlelight plays tricks with my eyes. I see my old friend, Jago, in his comfortable chair. There is Alfonso leaning in the doorway and Gaspar and Guido in secret conversation in the corner. They were contemporaries; they are all gone. Still, I work on into the night.
Mother is dead. My mistake. I thought I had discovered the solution. The rat was alive, so were the cat and dog. Poor old mother; she was old, frail and most of the time wandering in her mind. If the elixir of life had worked on the rat, the cat and the dog, it should have worked on mother. Yet she breathed her last several hours after she drank the potion. By the time I returned to the basement, the cat and the rat were also dead; the dog in the last throes of life. Not only am I a failure at alchemy, I am a murderer.
Quickly, I must work quickly! All my papers have been consigned to the brazier. My laboratory is in ruins. Taking a club, I had smashed every contraption until there was nothing left but mangled metals and bits of glass. Lastly I tip over the brazier. The flames will consume the cottage as quickly as the auto de fe consumes the men and women condemned to a fiery death. With one last look, I slip through the hidden door behind the high cabinet and melt into the darkness of the alley. My long black hooded cloak swirls out behind me as I turn the corner and disappear into the night. The last sounds I hear are the approaching footsteps on the cobblestones. The burning cottage should keep them busy for quite some time.
In the year of Our Lord 1601, I, Nemesio de Mena, remain in hiding in the manor house of Lord Penbangarth in Cornwall, England. My escape from Spain had not been an easy one but I had help from those who worked anonymously in such instances. I cannot say I am entirely safe since Queen Bess still sits on the throne and she is not kind to Catholics, particularly the Spanish sort. There are those, like Lord Penbangarth, who are willing to hide us in their homes.
No longer do I practice alchemy; I am now an apothecary. It is my task in life to create medicines for those who suffer from gout, dropsy and rheumatics. It is not an exciting life but it is a safe one, at least as far as being safe is concerned. How far I have come from those days when the King’s demands were uppermost in my mind and the thought of failure meant the loss of life.
To the relief of many, King Phillip II of Spain died in the year of Our Lord 1598. He never achieved his desire to live forever but the dreaded Inquisition lives on. Greed drove him to seek the ability to turn base metals into gold and vanity caused him to seek the elixir of life. Instead, he died as many men and women died before him: old and feeble. As will I when my time comes.