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Last Alchemist, The
Freemason: A member of the fraternity called, more fully, Free and Accepted Masons.
Count Giovanni Giacomo Casanova was bored out of his mind. It was March 1769; on doctor's orders the legendary seducer had been trapped for nearly three weeks now inside the Three Dolphins Inn, Aix-en-Provence, recovering from a serious bout of pneumonia.
The visit had begun well enough. He'd promised himself the treat of a spring stay in warm southern France in compensation for having spent an uncomfortable six weeks locked in a jail cell in Barcelona for passing false bills of exchange. After these rigors, he'd anticipated with delight the thought of spending a week or two in the ancient French provincial capital of Aix, near to an old friend, the marquis d'Argens, a philosopher and voluptuary with a similar appetite for women, food, and fine conversation. Casanova was also tantalized by the prospect of attending the city's famous Easter festival, said to be the most saturnalian in France.
The slight discomfort of being given a room next-door to a nosy cardinal was offset by the advantage of the inn's location -- close to Aix's elegant main street, the cours de Mirabeau, with its canopy of shady trees and bustling outdoor cafés. A group of young men interested in sensual pleasures made for affable company at the breakfast table; they listened to Casanova's stories as if to holy writ.
Like him, these were adventurers -- men who lived on chance and imposture -- but they were only small fry; trainees and amateurs gathered in the presence of a master. They hung onCasanova's words because he'd excelled in Europe's riskiest profession. Every substantial town or city swarmed with members of his fraternity. There were no fixed credentials in this business, no certain pitches, no reliable sources of income. The perils were great, the pitfalls many. Adventurers had to live by their wits, charm, and courage, always ready to make a bold advance or a quick retreat. You might find yourself traveling in a magnificent six-horse coach on one day; chained to the oar of a prison galley the next.
At dining tables, gaming houses, salons, and operas Casanova brushed up against scores of half-familiar figures whose newly minted titles were as extravagant as his own -- his preferred title chevalier de Seingalt was an utter invention based on letters picked at random from the alphabet. A good adventurer also needed an attractive professional repertoire and remarkable versatility so that he could offer himself as an entertainer or musician, a painter or an actor, an animal trainer or an expert in fireworks. Many, Casanova included, made claims to special knowledge, touting themselves as astrologers, philosophers, inventors, magicians, or healers. A reliable standby was to present yourself as a foreign soldier, a traveling clergyman, or a government offcial on diplomatic business. Casanova had worked them all.
Despite occasional setbacks, Casanova could think of no freer or more satisfying trade. With most of Europe at peace, borders were delightfully porous; passports were relatively easy to obtain; and a real or forged letter of introduction to some local dignitary would open doors, provided you were equipped with stylish clothes and a good coach. Europe's myriad petty rulers craved novelty and spectacle: all a good adventurer needed was to select the right hook for local conditions. Casanova specialized in sexual charm, magical imposture, and cardsharping, but when necessary he'd turned his hand to organizing lotteries, inspecting mines, and posing as a healer. Since every European ruler, large or small, aspired to imitate France's former Sun King, Louis XIV, and all nobles, however provincial, modeled their dress and manners on those of France, one had only to acquire the language, fashion, and taste of Paris. No one could excel Casanova in dancing the minuet or turning a polished compliment.
At Aix, there was plenty of opportunity to test these skills. Soon after arriving in the city he was invited to dine with d'Argens, who was staying at his brother's château in the countryside. The fare proved splendid. He filled his mouth with Madame d'Argens's exquisite crostata, a huge, crusted meat pie, crammed with little sausages, sweetbreads, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, fatted goose livers, and much else. Holding up his end of the bargain, Casanova shone. He set everyone laughing by frightening a Jesuit who dared to criticize his bawdy conversation. The miserable priest blanched with fear when Casanova declared that the pope, currently under election, was sure to be the hatchet man Cardinal Gagnelli, a Franciscan eager to crush the meddling Society of Jesus. Such anticlerical badinage delighted a young Berliner called Gotzkowski, who quietly promised to introduce Casanova to a livelier set of libertines gathering in town every day for "parties of pleasure."
The Easter carnival also exceeded Casanova's best hopes: its masquerades, dances, and buffooneries were the most frenzied he'd seen, and he'd seen plenty. Venice's carnevale had been one of his formative experiences. Extending for the last week before Lent, it drew revelers from all over the country. Aix proved even better. On 25 March he cheered the procession through the city center, as the Devil, Death, and Deadly Sins, in comic dress, struggled to avoid kneeling to the Creator. Putting on a mask of his own -- no doubt his favorite commedia dell'arte disguise, hook-nosed Pulcinella -- he prowled through the streets in search of giggling masked beauties. A whirl of "assemblies, balls, suppers, and very pretty girls" made him stay into Lent: one could not better the intoxicating mix of sex and religion.
But as so often these days, now that he'd reached the age of forty-four, retribution followed on the heels of his keenest pleasures. As he was riding back into town in an open chaise after a visit to D'Argens, the icy north wind chilled him to the bone ...Last Alchemist, The. Copyright © by Iain McCalman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.