The air crackled. Sparks of intellect flitted back and forth, flared up and died.
A little group had gathered near the fireplace in the ballroom of the Palazzo Bottaro, the salon when it came to intellectual debate among the polite society and the starving intelligentsia of Venice.
The natural sciences were just beginning to come into their own. Or so it might be thought. Because something quite different crackled between the group of six, standing a little to the side next to the baroque opulence of the fireplace, heating their limbs as well as their arguments on this chilly and damp Venetian night. It was just after Christmas and the year 1712 drew to a close.
“It’s just one more thing to discover. Put it under the microscope and you’ll see.” A big man with an ill-fitting allonge wig nodded his head emphatically. The wig slipped back on his head, and he gripped it with a practiced hand to keep it from falling off. A quick tuck and it was back in place.
Alexander Martell watched this procedure with fascination. He had done so all evening. Every time, he thought now the wig would slip and tumble into the fire. But it didn’t. Every time, the man recovered it just in time without breaking his verbal stride.
“Yes, the microscope will reveal the last secrets on this earth. It can show you a flea the size of a lion.” The big man shifted closer to the fire.
Next to Alexander, Leola Amato giggled. “I’d like to see that giant flea,” she whispered. “I bet, he plugged it out of the sheepskin on his head.”
Alexander pressed his lips together not to giggle himself. He glanced at Leola’s father who was also his master. Corradeo Amato, tall and thin, stood next to the speaker. His aquiline features showed impatience. They all had been forced to listen to this man, a foreigner from England no less, holding forth on the possibility of discovering everything worth knowing about the world with the help of a lens.
Leola raised one hand and wiggled her fingers. Alexander caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and without looking, he gripped her wrist and pulled her hand down again. She mewed, only loud enough for him to hear. It wouldn’t do to play tricks on this eminent guest, the rising star of the English circle of natural philosophers, who had them all yawning.
As soon as Alexander let go of her hand, Leola raised it again. Alexander’s attention was on the slipping wig, and he noticed it too late. A quick wiggle of her fingers, an almost imperceptible glow only visible to the trained eye, and the wig started to smoke. The wisp of smoke grew into a plume. Then flames licked up.
Corradeo Amato raised his hand, and the flames died as quickly as they had sprung up. He turned his eyes to Alexander and stared at him accusingly. Alexander lowered his eyes. Suppressed laughter from the other members of the group turned into polite coughs.
The big man sniffed suspiciously, but before he could comment on the biting smell, their hostess joined them. He bowed politely when she approached. The woman bit her lip, visibly troubled to keep herself from laughing.
Her guest straightened up and shoved his wig back into place. “Your Ladyship, would you be willing to arbitrate? We can’t agree on the best means to do away with this superstitious belief in magic. There are some among us,” and here he looked straight at the aquiline nose, “who believe there will always be things that can’t be explained with simple logic.”
“Maybe you should talk to His Eminence, the cardinal, about what can be explained with logic. I feel, he might be more competent to talk about these matters than I am.” The Countess Marea Bottaro gave him an encouraging smile.
The English gentleman first frowned, then pursed his lips, then decided to courageously forge ahead. “But you must have an opinion on the matter, surely. You do have a fine mind for—” He broke off.
“For a woman?” the countess asked sweetly. “Or for an aristocrat?” Then she took mercy on her guest. “There, I see His Eminence wants rescuing from the attentions of Lady Imbriale and her daughters. Maybe this would be a good time to ask his opinion.”
The big man with the charred wig was versed enough in polite society to understand the hint and hurried off to bore the eminent man in scarlet.
“I thought he’d never stop,” burst out Dantae Fratangelo, a small, rotund man with bushy brows which almost obscured his eyes. He stood next to the countess and looked up at her. “I was itching to give him something to think about but somebody beat me to it.” He grinned.
“Yes, I’ve seen.” Marea wrinkled her nose. “And smelled.” She gave Leola a quick glance. “Maybe we should give him a real demonstration and let him explain it with logic.”
“I don’t think he’d understand. Although I agree with some of his arguments. There is an explanation for everything. We just have to find it,” said Corradeo Amato, raised a glass of red wine to his lips and drank.
“I don’t quite see why we have to. Some things just are. And they always have been. No explanation required.”
“Well, that’s where we differ. Men’s minds are made to seek explanations.”
The countess narrowed her eyes ever so slightly. “Ah, and of course, I don’t understand men’s minds. How could I, not being one?”
Before he could stop himself, Alexander reached for her hand. Arguments between these two always ended with him getting caught in the middle. Marea raised her hand to straighten the lace on the edge of her sleeves and Alexander’s gesture went unheeded. He crossed his hands behind his back.
“Your Ladyship, you know my opinion on the matter. Some things just don’t mix. The female mind is not stable enough to control the forces. They are too dangerous. You are undoubtedly a very learned lady, exceptional in many ways, but there are natural limits.”
“So I should devote myself to more womanly pursuits? Needlework, perhaps? Instead of the serious study of our art?”
“I commend your perseverance, Your Ladyship.” Corradeo bowed. “But yes, I think that would be more becoming.”
Alexander moved closer to Marea. Even without touching her, he felt her tension. If somebody didn’t break this argument off, sparks might fly. Literally. But it wasn’t his station to intervene.
It was Leola who spoke up. To Alexander’s astonishment, she took Marea’s side.
“I can’t see why a woman shouldn’t be able to control the forces. I know I could.” Her young face was set in rigid determination, and her blue eyes blazed. She had argued this point in vain for the last five years. Her father would never agree to teach her. He would also never name the real reason why he thought, women were incapable of controlling the power. There was no need. Everybody present knew why, including his daughter. And nobody would mention the reason in his presence.
Fratangelo made an attempt at smoothing the ruffled feathers. “I hear, you finally rediscovered the secret to turning stone into gold. Not that you would need the gold.”
Corradeo shifted his attention from Marea to him. “Well, it wasn’t much of a feat.”
Alexander raised an eyebrow. It had taken Corradeo only the last five months and plenty of cursing to turn one tiny pebble into a nugget of gold.
“Turning one solid substance into another is quite basic.” Corradeo lifted the glass of wine to his lips again.
Marea’s hand flickered up to her throat. “On this, we do agree.”
Corradeo took a sip and swallowed. His face went rigid. He scrutinized the contents of his glass. The formerly red wine had lost all color. He stared at Marea then bowed his head. “It’s not solid. But if you can do it in reverse, the secret would be highly prized by the wine merchants of Venice. And His Eminence.” He bowed to the man in scarlet who happened to look his way.
Fratangelo applauded. “That point goes to Her Ladyship.” He rubbed his hands together. “Turning stone into gold or wine into water are nice tricks. But these things have been done before. What we need is something new, something nobody has achieved yet.”
“Do you have a suggestion?” Marea asked.
Fratangelo thought for a moment. “As it seems we have a solution to the problem of transmutation, there is but one question unanswered.”
“And it will stay unanswered,” Corradeo said with determination in his voice.
Leola’s eyes sparkled. “Eternal life. That would truly be a feat. Whoever can achieve it would be the king amongst magicians.”
Her father gave her a stern look. “It has never been achieved. And for the simple reason that it can’t be done. Turning matter into a different state, heating up air enough to ignite,” here he glared at Alexander again, “even studying the human body and healing it is one thing, yes. But meddling with the will of God, no. It can’t be done and shouldn’t be attempted.”
“Many have attempted it and died over this ambition,” Fratangelo said, wiggling his head. “And yet. Who amongst us hasn’t thought about it? Toyed with the idea?”
Who would want it, Alexander thought. To live forever, to see your family and your children die? He wouldn’t take it if it were offered. He looked at Marea. She was staring at the flames licking around the logs in the fireplace. A little smile curled her lips.
Two candelabra shed light onto a scarred worktable at one end of a vaulted room. Several torches flickered in black iron braces, trying hard to dispel the gloom. At the other end, a heavy oak door stood open to let some air into the cavernous and windowless room.
Alexander blew out the candle that he had used to light the ones in the candelabra. He would never understand why his master preferred this dark, crypt-like room to one of the many light and airy ones further up in the palazzo. It was not as if Corradeo had to hide. He was an eminent alchemist. Everybody in Venice knew it. But as far back as Alexander could remember, Corradeo had preferred this dark room.
“Move the light closer,” Corradeo Amato said without looking up. His eyes were firmly fixed on the entrails of a cat lying on the table before him. The cat’s two heads were turned in opposite directions. One head looked up at Corradeo, the other, smaller one, stared at Alexander.
Alexander moved one of the candelabra closer to the carcass. He avoided the dead cat’s eyes. Corradeo had heard of this creature a few weeks earlier, but it had taken him a while to obtain it. Now, he was searching for an explanation for the unnatural occurrence of two heads before adding it to his collection of specimens. Other oddities already lined the walls of the room. They stood in row upon row on wooden shelves, neatly lined up in their glass containers. Maybe these specimens were what Corradeo wanted to hide from view.
Alexander let his eyes wander across the room. They strayed to one shelf in particular but before his eyes had focused on it, he forced them back to look at the cat. He was Corradeo’s apprentice and such squeamishness would not do. Everything was permissible in the search for knowledge, or so Corradeo maintained. And after all, it was only a cat.
Corradeo laid his bloody scalpel aside and raised his head. “Why would a cat have two heads?” he asked, staring in front of him. Alexander shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He immediately had Corradeo’s attention. His master stared at him as if he, the apprentice, would have the answer but refused to tell him.
“About last night.” Corradeo snapped and pushed his chair back.
Its legs scraped on the flagstones as well as on Alexander’s nerves.
“It will not do.” Corradeo started to pace, hands clasped behind his back.
Alexander knew from experience that this was not a good sign. His master wasn’t just frustrated with his lack of progress, something else was bothering him. Corradeo had been out of sorts all morning. Was he still angry about Leola’s little trick? Alexander remembered the smoking wig and quickly looked at his feet to hide his smile.
“Do you think that was funny?” Corradeo had stopped pacing and was glaring at him. “Answer me, boy.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be irreverent,” Alexander mumbled.
Corradeo snorted then turned on his heel to resume his pacing. “These forces are not to be treated lightly, boy.”
Alexander gritted his teeth. At twenty he was hardly a boy and Corradeo knew it.
“It’s enough that that … that woman makes a mockery of them. She doesn’t know what she’s dealing with.”
Nor do I, Alexander thought. “What’s the harm in it?” He knew, he shouldn’t have asked. Keeping quiet until Corradeo’s anger simmered down always proved to be the best strategy, but he wanted to know. He wanted Corradeo to talk about what had happened all these years ago. He wanted to hear it from him.
Corradeo shot around. “What’s the harm in it?” he bellowed. Then he took a deep breath and smoothed down the front of his embroidered waistcoat. He continued in a calmer voice. “Women should never meddle with these forces. They can’t control them. They are led astray too easily.”
Alexander had heard this argument many times before, so had Leola when she begged her father to teach her. But Corradeo never divulged more.
“I’m not a woman,” Alexander said quietly to remind his master of his duty. A duty he had so far ignored. He looked straight into Corradeo’s eyes.
Corradeo stared back. “No, you’re not. You’re an impatient boy who doesn’t take the natural philosophies as seriously as he should.” Then he relented a little and shook his head. “Setting the wig on fire. I didn’t know you could do it.”
Alexander lowered his eyes. He could do it but not as easily as Leola. And more to the point, he hadn’t done it. But giving Leola up wasn’t an option. In this case, he’d have to admit to having taught her what little tricks he had gleaned from Corradeo.
Corradeo walked up to the table and studied the remains of the cat. He extended one finger and poked the bloody mess. “Maybe it’s time to teach you something other than stripping the flesh off bones to prepare specimens. If only to prevent you from using the slivers of knowledge you seem to possess.” He wiped his finger on his waistcoat. “A little knowledge is by far the most dangerous. I don’t want history to repeat itself.”