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About the Author
Edward Bewley has traveled widely both in the present and in the foreign lands of history. Of those last he most recently found himself in Restoration London from which the current tale is culled.
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The Italian Potion
By Edward Bewley
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2010 Edward Bewley
All rights reserved.
Monsieur Eustace Vouet
A hackney dropped me at the door of Lady Villiers' house in Pall Mall and I gave the insolent scoundrel sixpence for his trouble. A girl opened upon my knock.
'Mr Delaney, if you please,' I demanded shortly, the coarseness of the impudent fellow's tongue still stinging my wounded vanity.
'You're to go through, Mr Wyld, sir,' the girl told me. 'The gentlemen are in the long gallery.' She took my cloak and led me along a passage to the gallery door which was half-open.
'Ah, Mr Wyld.' Delaney was pacing agitatedly at the threshold. 'We are almost ready.'
The gallery was curtained against night though the evening was still light and candles from holders on the panelled walls sparkled like stars in the consequent gloom. As my eyes adjusted I spied half-a-dozen virtuosi gathered there, standing about a plain table upon which some instruments and glassware had been placed ready. Close by, in a hearth, a furnace was glowing ruddily and Delaney's assistant was at hand, I could see, to man the bellows. Of the virtuosi I recognized Mr Hooke from the back by his unkempt mane of hair; beside him were My Lords Brouncker and Moray. Mr Hill was there and Mr Southwell too. All were engaged in conversation with a gentleman whom I did not recognize, a figure of medium height and carefully dressed. The group turned as Delaney and I approached.
'Mr Wyld,' Delaney introduced us, 'this is Monsieur Vouet. He is recently out of Paris.'
I bowed and the foreigner reciprocated.
'Monsieur Vouet brings us news of the mathematical arts,' Lord Brouncker interjected, knowing my disposition in this regard.
'Indeed, My Lord. I shall be pleased to learn what progress has been made in Paris.'
'All in good time, Mr Wyld, all in good time,' Delaney cautioned impatiently. 'I'm sure your geometry can wait a while longer. Tonight we will, I believe, witness a wonder that few have been privileged to see. Monsieur Vouet has acquired a quantity of the powder of transmutation and he has agreed to demonstrate its powers of projection for us. We await but one further guest and then we can begin.'
As if these words were a cue, we all heard a gentle rustling of silks. Turning, I found a veiled figure approaching from the doorway.
'My Lady.' Delaney greeted the figure with great delicacy. 'I think you know all the gentlemen here with the exception of our guest, Monsieur Vouet.' The Frenchman bowed extravagantly while we nodded discreetly. I was, however, more than a little surprised. The veil concealed, as surely all but Mr Vouet recognized, a visage belonging to none other than My Lady Castlemaine, subject of a thousand whispered rumours each day at Whitehall. Why was she here? Was her presence at the King's bidding or at his expense?
Delaney was not about to essay an explanation. I divined that we were being invited to treat her presence as at once unexceptional and clandestine. 'Now, Monsieur Vouet,' he cried with barely suppressed excitement, 'shall we begin?'
Vouet nodded. From his pocket he took a small box, the size of a snuff-holder, and placed it upon the table round which we had gathered once more. Then, carefully, he removed the lid and showed us, one by one, the contents. When my turn came I saw a small quantity of powder, hardly enough to fill half a needle-woman's thimble. It was, as I perceived, a deep red in colour and of the texture of velvet. So this was the powder of which the alchemists made so much. It looked innocuous enough.
While we took our turns to examine the box, Delaney was busy with the final arrangements for the demonstration. His assistant had made ready a crucible into which his master now began to arrange several small ingots of that basest of metals, lead. Meticulously, as was his fashion, he weighed the crucible charged with the ingots on a balance. No doubt he had already measured the weight empty.
'Two pounds,' he announced with satisfaction. 'Two pounds of lead. Will the powder have the power for that amount, Monsieur Vouet?'
'The provenance of the powder is incontestable and of the finest quality. I have two hundred grains. That will be more than sufficient, I believe, Mr Delaney.'
'So be it.' And Delaney beckoned his assistant to place the crucible into the furnace. We watched as the crucible disappeared from sight and continued to observe as the man began to apply himself to the bellows, raising a glow from the charcoal and filling the room with its drying heat and acrid stench.
We waited for about ten minutes. Delaney paced restlessly once more while Monsieur Vouet appeared sanguine, confident. The other virtuosi whispered quietly but I waited in silence beside My Lady. Once or twice I surreptitiously examined what I could discern of the face beneath the veil but her expression was guarded. I sensed her gaze, however, falling on me for a few moments before moving on. I took care to avoid those eyes. There was, I well knew, danger as well as beauty beneath that veil.
The heat from the furnace was causing me to begin to perspire uncomfortably by the time Delaney, having examined the crucible several times already, pronounced himself satisfied. Carefully his man withdrew the container which now held a shining lake of molten metal. He bore it to the table about which we had gathered once more and lowered it gently on to a prepared clay slab.
'Monsieur Vouet, if you please?'
The Frenchman passed the small box containing the powder to Delaney, who lost no time in tipping its contents into the crucible, on top of the molten lead. It rested there awhile before the particles gently melted and coalesced then dissolved within the metal. In a minute it was gone. I watched, determined to miss nothing even though my eyes were beginning to ache in the heavy atmosphere of the room.
For minutes there was no change. Then gradually an extraordinary texture, like the skeleton of a leaf or patterning from the hoar-frost, emerged first from the centre of the silver puddle and then extended itself purposefully across the liquid surface towards the edges of the clay container. I can only describe this growth as organic, as if a living creature that had taken up home within the metal was revealing its presence to us. Imperceptibly this texturing – as I but poorly describe it – crept ever outwards until it had colonized the surface completely. Only then did I realize that the silver of the lead had taken on a reddish golden hue.
We watched, transfixed. The colour appeared to deepen and then lightened again until it matched the colour found in an early evening sky, close to the horizon and the setting sun. Then, more extraordinary still, the organic tendrils that had covered the surface faded and were gone. The metal lived no more.
Now we all began to mutter, each to another, impatient to know if the transmutation had taken place, and by what agency. Delaney would not be hurried. 'We must wait yet longer,' he insisted. 'The work is incomplete.' How he could tell, I know not. And so we waited, restlessly, for a further quarter hour by Delaney's new pendulum clock; in truth it seemed much longer.
At last Delaney signalled to his man, who lifted the crucible and carried it beyond the hearth where he plunged the whole deep into a barrel of water. There was a violent hissing and the man's head was momentarily enveloped in a rising cloud of steam. When the surface of the water was no longer agitated, he reached in and plucked out the ingot of metal – the clay crucible had shattered in the vat – and carried it back to the table where we waited.
'My Lady, gentlemen,' Delaney could not hide his excitement. 'If I am not mistaken we have indeed witnessed one of the great miracles of nature and art. Now we must put it to the test.' Then, with a sharp instrument he had put by, he carefully shaved two pieces of metal from the ingot and placed one into a glass vessel, the other beside him on the table.
His assistant handed him a thick glass bottle from which Delaney poured a quantity of fuming, rancid-smelling fluid into the vessel containing the fragment of metal. He gently agitated the vessel while we watched. So far as I could see nothing happened. Meanwhile his assistant had heated a cauldron of water and Delaney used this to warm the mixture. The smell grew more rancid but other than that, nothing.
'Excellent,' Delaney exclaimed, pleased.
There was another small piece of metal – a portion of silver as Delaney now told us – about the size of an elderberry, lying ready upon the table. Delaney took up this slug of metal and dropped it into the same vessel with the shaving. Immediately the liquid frothed and within seconds the silver had disappeared. Yet still the shaving from the ingot remained inert at the bottom of the vessel. It was untouched.
'So,' he muttered. 'The aqua fortis is yet of excellent quality. It has entirely consumed the silver, and still not one particle of the other has been taken. By this we may conclude that our lead has now a nobility greater than that of silver.
'Only aqua regis has the capacity to touch true gold,' he added, by way of explanation for My Lady. 'Now we must try that too.'
Delaney's assistant had already brought another glass vessel and into this Delaney placed the second shaving of metal from the ingot. Meanwhile his assistant fetched another thick bottle the contents of which smelled, if such a thing were possible, even more malodorous than the first. As before, Delaney slowly decanted a portion of this fuming liquid into the vessel containing the shaving of metal. This time there was an immediate sign of activity; bubbles formed gently upon the metal before rising lazily to the surface and slowly the fragment dissolved, tingeing the whole a delicate pale green.
Delaney was ecstatic. 'Monsieur Vouet,' he declared. 'You have been as good as your word. I salute you sir.' The Frenchman beamed and bowed in acknowledgement of the compliment.
Putting the glass vessels aside, Delaney addressed us all. 'I have arranged one final test. Without there is a goldsmith of excellent repute. He knows not what has passed here. I will now ask him to join us and try the metal. If anyone can judge its metalline properties, 'tis he.'
This said he went to the door and called out a name. Moments later an honestly dressed artisan appeared in the doorway. In his hand was a leather bag which I guessed contained his tools. Delaney ushered Beauchamp, for that was his name, towards the table about which we were gathered and waved to his assistant to clear room for the man to work. Then he offered him the irregularly shaped ingot of metal.
'Take your time and do what you must. I wish to know if this is true gold or some counterfeit.'
The smith took from his bag a black cloth which he laid across the table. He placed the ingot at its centre. Then he arranged the implements he required. As I watched he hacked a piece from the ingot and began to work it, gently, with a tiny mallet. Slowly he beat and flattened the fragment of metal into a fine foil. Eventually he had beaten it so fine that the light of a candle could pass. The light that emerged, as I could see, was the green of a spring meadow.
Beauchamp folded the foil he had beaten and placed it into a small crucible. He added more from the ingot and then he took the container to Delaney's furnace. By this time most of the virtuosi had drifted away and I saw that Monsieur Vouet was taking up with My Lord Brouncker once more. Guessing they were to discuss the mathematical arts, I was on the point of joining them when I found My Lady approaching me.
'Mr Wyld,' she said pushing aside her veil. "Tis a long time since we have seen your face at court. Have we lost your favour?'
'My Lady,' I replied hastily, 'you do me an injustice if you believe that possible. 'Tis but want of opportunity that has forced my absence. I have been detained elsewhere these last days.'
'Then I hope your detention will soon be at an end.'
'If you please, I have business this very Saturday that will bring me to court.'
My Lady smiled mischievously. 'Then I will be certain to carry news of your visit to the Duchess's chamber when I return,' she assured me, her eye fixing mine.
I felt a little colour in my cheeks, knowing that she referred to one who served the Duchess of York. 'You are very kind, My Lady,' I replied clumsily.
Her head bowed imperceptibly. 'I beg you remember, Mr Wyld, that you have other friends at court. Perhaps you will put time aside for them too?'
'My Lady, I am ever your servant.'
My interlocutor was on the point of replying when Delaney chose to interrupt our brief intimacy. Whatever riposte she had intended was quickly sheathed as she greeted our host.
"Tis a strange magic you have wrought this evening, Mr Delaney,' she told him. 'I'll warrant I have never seen its like.'
'I believe it to be no magic, My Lady, but a process as natural as the growth of a tree,' he replied.
'Then you cultivate strange trees in your orchard. Have you others to show us?'
'This evening is dedicated to Monsieur Vouet and his powder,' he replied. 'If you desire at another time to learn more of these arts I will gladly be your servant.' He glanced over his shoulder and then beckoned us. 'But Beauchamp is ready. Let us hear of his trials.'
In a few moments we had gathered around the smith and awaited his verdict. He brought it in swiftly.
'Mr Delaney, sir. This is as pure a gold as I have worked. If you feared you had been cheated, fear no longer.'
'Thank you, Mr Beauchamp,' Delaney replied, clapping his hands with delight. 'Thank you indeed.' And with that he showed the artisan to the gallery door and called a girl to take him to the kitchen where meat and ale was waiting.
'So,' he exclaimed, returning to the circle of virtuosi at the table. 'Beauchamp swears to the nobility of the metal which, until it was tinged by Monsieur Vouet's powder, was none but lead.'
'Are there not other tests?' asked My Lord Brouncker, ever the sceptic.
'An adept steeped in the arts might ask further questions,' replied Delaney. 'For myself I am satisfied. But perhaps I will inquire of Mr Starkey, if he is not in debtors' prison again. He has greater skill than I in these matters.'
After a few moments more of such talk My Lady departed our company to join Lady Villiers. When she had left the gallery, Mr Delaney cautioned us not to speak in vulgar company of what we had seen. 'Men not versed in our philosophy will take it to be the work of spirits, or worse,' he warned.
The main business of the evening was over, but we continued to discuss natural philosophy for most of an hour during which I found an opportunity to speak with Monsieur Vouet of Paris. Then My Lord Brouncker proposed we adjourn for supper. Delaney demurred, claiming he had further matters to discuss with Monsieur Vouet while he had the opportunity and My Lord Moray insisted he had business in Whitehall. So it was that Mr Hooke, Mr Hill, Mr Southwell and I agreed to make up a party to Will's by Covent Garden where I promised we would find some wits.
It being decided that we would convene again a week hence to hear what Mr Starkey's verdict would be, Lord Brouncker called his coach and we departed. My promise for our further entertainment was met in all parts for there were wits aplenty in the coffee house where we ate heartily on mutton in good company. I must confess, however, that our own Mr Hooke is quite as ingenious as any of the wits with whom we railled and makes of the new philosophy a true art.
So the evening ended. My Lord undertook to deliver Mr Hooke to his lodgings in the City and I strolled from Bow Street, entering the piazza of Covent Garden by the south and thence to my own door in the northern arcade, rapier at hand. In the event no one disturbed my passage. On the way I pondered somewhat upon the matter of the transmutation that we had all witnessed that evening and rather more upon My Lady Castlemaine. Had she some use for me, I wondered? If so, I would need to tread with care.CHAPTER 2
A Death in Southwark
I have made my residence in Covent Garden these past eighteen months, that being the interval since I returned to London having concluded some affairs in the country beyond Calais. I took the place on the advice of my neighbour Mr May. Nowadays Mr May styles himself an architect but during the late troubles he acted as an intelligencer for the King and thereby secured himself considerable preferment. Mr Lely, the limner, makes his paintings from another dwelling close by while some of the wits who spend their days in Will's reside hereabouts too.
There is much to commend the fairness and proportion of these dwellings that give on to the piazza at Covent Garden, the latter being the Italianate conceit of the Duke of Bedford's late designer Mr Inigo Jones. The main misfortune is that the he made his piazza a place for public commerce. In consequence there is an infernal clutter by day of stallholders peddling their wares and a superfluity of riff-raff about the piazza by night. A straight back, gentleman's cloth and a well polished pommel are sufficient to keep all but the most truculent of these at bay. Those unfortunate few soon find the edge of a blade to be their reward.
Excerpted from The Italian Potion by Edward Bewley. Copyright © 2010 Edward Bewley. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 - Monsieur Eustace Vouet,
CHAPTER 2 - A Death in Southwark,
CHAPTER 3 - The King's Physician Conducts an Autopsy,
CHAPTER 4 - Mr Wyld Makes Some Unexpected Discoveries,
CHAPTER 5 - The Chambers of Whitehall,
CHAPTER 6 - Lady Castlemaine's Table,
CHAPTER 7 - A Cipher is Decoded,
CHAPTER 8 - Mr Starkey's Elaboratory,
CHAPTER 9 - A Pox House in Leather Lane,
CHAPTER 10 - The Questor Unmasked,
CHAPTER 11 - Miss Hamilton is Distressed,
CHAPTER 12 - Villainy in Covent Garden,
CHAPTER 13 - An Alchemical Circle Revealed,
CHAPTER 14 - By Sedan to St James's Park,
CHAPTER 15 - A Rendezvous with Lord Illminster,
CHAPTER 16 - From Drury Lane to Whitehall,
CHAPTER 17 - A Saraband with Miss Hamilton, a Corant with Lady Castlemaine,
CHAPTER 18 - Colonel Hamilton Gives His Blessing,
CHAPTER 19 - The Death of an Alchemist,
CHAPTER 20 - Lady Villiers' Correspondence,
CHAPTER 21 - An Assassin Strikes,
CHAPTER 22 - Mr Hooke's Counsel,
CHAPTER 23 - A Trap is Laid,
CHAPTER 24 - Lady Hinchbrooke's Confession,
CHAPTER 25 - The King Hears Mr Wyld,
CHAPTER 26 - Lord Illminster's Residence,
CHAPTER 27 - A Funeral in Aldreth,
CHAPTER 28 - Mr Delaney is Contrite,
CHAPTER 29 - An Alchemical Tryst,
CHAPTER 30 - Mr Wyld Seeks a Commission,