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Authors: Rebecca Stott

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Throughout these later chapters of
The Alchemist
Elizabeth deftly, assuredly connected Newton to a group of semivisible Cambridge men who had links across Britain and Europe, collapsing the lone-genius-in-isolation myth piece by piece, summoning other figures—mostly hooded and shadowy—onto the historical stage. Some had names, some didn’t, but one had a special significance: Ezekiel Foxcroft, who brought him alchemical manuscripts from London and Ragley Hall.

         

These manuscripts were important. Like Henry More and the Cambridge Platonists, Newton believed that certain ancient philosophers were in possession of all knowledge. This lost knowledge (what was called the
prisca sapientia)
could be dug out of codes and symbols embedded in a number of ancient, secret kabbalistic texts. From his first days at Cambridge, Newton, searching for these truths, pored over virtually the entire literature of the older alchemy in a way that no one had studied and assimilated it before. In this he had guidance. He wrote over 166,000 words on alchemical matters before 1675, one-sixth of his total writings on alchemy.
25
He was taking notes on books which included, for instance, Michael Sendivogius’s
New Chemical Light
(1608), Jean D’Espagnet’s
The Secrets of Hermetic Philosophy
(1638, translated 1650), Michael Maier’s
Symbola Aurea
(1617), George Ripley’s
Opera
(1649), and Basil Valentine’s
Triumphal Chariot of Antimony
(1604).

Trinity was Newton’s kingdom, and in 1664, after he had embarked on this course of powerful reading, he came dangerously close to exile from it. His mother still wanted him back at Woolsthorpe to run the farm; she couldn’t see the point of all this time spent with books. By 1664 Newton had moved into rooms with John Wickins, a fellow student, and the two men would have discussed their future in the college. Newton knew that to escape a Woolsthorpe fate, he would have to be elected a fellow at Trinity—this would give him an income, rooms, food, and libraries,
for life.
To be eligible for a fellowship at Trinity he would first have to win a Trinity scholarship, for only Trinity scholars could compete for the fellowships. But this would not be easy. The system of promotion to scholarships and fellowships at Trinity, as in other colleges, depended upon corrupt systems of patronage. Students from Westminster School in London automatically received at least a third of the Trinity scholarships, and as the scholarship elections took place only every three to four years, Newton had only one chance to compete—in the spring of 1664. If he did not succeed, he would have had to return to Woolsthorpe and give up alchemy and his ripening experiments on light, gravity, and motion, and in mathematics and physics, and become either a farmer or a country clergyman like Humphrey Babington.

In April 1664, Newton’s tutor at Trinity, Benjamin Pulleyn, sent him to Isaac Barrow, who held the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, to be examined for the scholarship. Newton recalls in his memoirs that Barrow chose to test him on Euclid, which he had not read.
26
Instead Newton had been reading René Descartes’s
Geometry,
but he failed to tell the professor this, or to ask to be questioned on the more difficult book. In any case, Barrow would not have believed that any undergraduate could have read Descartes without first reading Euclid. The professor, the story goes, formed “but an indifferent opinion” of the awkwardly reticent undergraduate.

How, then, was it possible that on 28 April, 1664, Newton was elected to a scholarship? Was this election, given Newton’s poor performance in the viva voce examination, due to the intervention of a patron? Richard Westfall suggests that Babington intervened, of course, which is the most likely scenario given that Babington was now one of the eight senior fellows in Trinity who ran the college in conjunction with Isaac Barrow, the master. But in persuading Barrow, Babington almost certainly acted with others. Newton was not isolated. As a trained alchemist, he was one of the elect.

Newton had entered the world of British alchemy at an unusually rich and productive time. In London a further group of alchemists had gathered around the late Prussian educationalist, intelligencer, and philosopher Samuel Hartlib, who had died in 1662 and whose money financed many of the translations of ancient manuscripts. This group included the greatest of England’s alchemists, Eirenaeus Philalethes (otherwise known as George Starkey), Sir Kenelm Digby, Thomas Vaughan, and Robert Boyle.

There were more alchemical books published or translated and reissued between 1650 and 1680 than at any time before or since. Such publications and translations were opening up alchemical secrets that had been buried or hidden for centuries. Across Europe networks of alchemists shaped and reshaped, forming new centres around powerful patrons. Alchemists travelled, carrying manuscripts and memorised secrets across national boundaries, searching out other alchemists.

But this was also, curiously, a decade in which a very high number of prominent alchemists and intelligencers who promoted the dissemination of alchemical secrets
died
: Samuel Hartlib in 1662, at the age of sixty-two, just after his son-in-law and fellow alchemist, Frederick Clodius, died mysteriously in his thirties in 1661; Sir Kenelm Digby in 1665 at the age of sixty-two; George Starkey (Eirenaeus Philalethes) in 1665, at the age of thirty-seven; Thomas Vaughan (Eugenius Philalethes) in 1666, at the age of forty-four; Nicolas Le Fevre in 1669, at the age of fifty-four. By the end of the 1660s, plague and accident and old age had left many of the major British alchemists dead.

         

Elizabeth’s “The Green Lion” chapter was muddled and labyrinthine in a way that her earlier chapters had not been. I sensed that direct claims had been made and then taken out, leaving behind only questions and inference. The implications worked by juxtaposition: Newton badly wanted to stay in Cambridge. The alternative was almost certain obscurity. He was awarded the scholarship in 1664, but the fellowship still seemed beyond reach. And then the fellows started to die. By 1667, when the elections for the fellowships came up, his chances of election had been significantly increased, but the odds were still against him. There was no avoiding the next question: how far had Newton been prepared to go to secure his future? As far as murder?

Now that I had followed Elizabeth into the beginnings of Newton’s alchemy, the whole root system seemed to rear up out of the soil, like the elder or the mandrake. Somewhere, conjuring dark figures and soil and gardens and poisons from Elizabeth’s words, I heard the sounds of a body falling heavily down a staircase in Trinity and remembered a man who died with a key to a college garden in his hand. Richard Greswold.

Twenty-three

O
ver the next few weeks, the radio reports became more and more alarming. A graph printed on the front page of the
Times
showed that the number of animal experiments was the highest it had been since the 1970s, which was when whoever it was began to count them. The official term, it seemed, for animal experiments was “acts of intervention,” used to describe all forms, from injections to blood taking to vivisection. The animal activists, outraged, changed their tactics, began to increase their “acts of intervention” in response. Clouds darkened over Cambridge.

There was something ancient and pagan about the animal-liberation campaigns. One morning, rising from a deep sleep in which I’d dreamed that my eyes were on fire, I heard a radio report about the desecration of a grave in a village north of Cambridge called Thorney. It sounded more like a story from the Middle Ages or from the early nineteenth century. A grave dug up in the night and a body stolen—snatched. (I always thought that was an odd word to use about the theft of a corpse—snatching a purse, yes, or even a small child, but snatching a heavy, decomposing body?) The body of an old woman called Ruth Webster, buried there only a week earlier, had been dug out of black fen soil and smuggled away in the back of a truck. The police had nothing to go on: the tyre tracks had been mostly washed away by rain; there were no footprints. The early-morning reporters had resorted to interviews with local residents, who all claimed they knew who had done it. The family of the dead woman, they said, ran a rat farm. They bred brown and white rats for laboratory use, rats you could order by the hundreds from a catalogue, the journalist reported urbanely, with no hint of judgement in his voice, though it was easy to tell that he thought it a repellent practice. Rats that had been prebred with cancer cells to save scientists time in the lab.

The radio journalists interviewed Tom Deakin, the owner of the local pub. Thorney was, he said, a small village. Everyone knew everyone else. The Websters, who ran the rat farm, had been effectively isolated from the rest of the village by the campaigners for the last fifteen years. Years ago, they had come down to the pub on a Friday night, but when the phone calls and threats began, he’d just had to ban the whole family. Well, not exactly ban them, just ask them to stay away. Difficult to know what else he could have done. Other neighbours described how they drove a four-wheel drive and kept German shepherds; how the children were never seen out alone and were all homeschooled. Why didn’t they just give up? the journalist asked. Would you? I guess you just keep on going, the neighbour replied. They wouldn’t be bullied. They had enough trouble just staying afloat, having to compete with the big lab-rat-breeding companies.

The presenter, to be balanced, also interviewed a spokesman for the right-to-animal-experimentation group, who worked himself up at the outrage exacted on this community, living in a state of terror. Acts of terrorism, he called them. He even implied that the local police were complicit with the animal campaigners. “They’ve never acted, never found anything,” he said, “not a single clue to lead them to the terrorists. These people have to be stopped,” he insisted. “Enough is enough.”

I turned off the radio when I heard your key in the door. How long did we think we could keep it out? How much more could we keep from each other?

“Are you careful?” I said.

“About what?”

“Not to be followed when you come here?”

“Yes,” you said. “I know what to do. I take care.”

At The Studio you were not escaping from the campaign of intimidation; it simply did not exist. We didn’t talk about it. It was a kind of agreement. At least we didn’t talk about it until Emmanuel Scorsa was attacked. Then there was a cloud in the air between us for days, much more than your preoccupation with the young Italian in the hospital. Something was lying heavily on you. You wanted to tell me something, let go of something. I waited, knowing it was just a matter of time.

“There was a girl,” you said finally, as we left the Fort St. George pub one night and you walked me back across the bridge to your car. It was almost midnight; the night was cold and the stars sharp. No cloud cover. There were satellites moving alongside the stars, in their orbits. Cameras trained on us from up there, I thought, cameras trained on everything.

“What girl?”

“After you left for France, I met a girl.”

“What kind of girl?”

“She was a student at King’s. A postgrad.”

“Not a girl then, a woman.”

“OK, if you like. I met a
woman
.” You smiled. “It was just a flirtation at first.” The gold around the centre of your iris had all but disappeared.

“Ha,” I said. “I know about your flirtations. Did you sleep with her?”

“Yes.”

“Poor woman. How long did it take you to make her fall in love with you? Did you tell her you’d leave Sarah?”

“She did the running. I tried not to, Lydia. I couldn’t. Not after you left. Everything was empty. Colourless. Thin.”

“How long did you hold out after I left before you let yourself be ‘consoled’?”

“Fuck it. Stop it. Lydia. Stop being sarcastic. This is important. I know. I know what you think of me. Just cut it out for a minute and listen.”

“Keep your voice down,” I said. A dustbin lid crashed somewhere. A cat scavenging. We had reached your car, parked on Pretoria Road. You sat on a wall. I could have gone. Could have just walked away. But I was curious. I hesitated, and then I sat down beside you.

“I was trying to be ‘good,’” you said, your voice almost a whisper. “I decided after we stopped seeing each other that, well, I would just throw myself into my work. No more affairs. I hadn’t the heart for them. Life had become more serious. I met her in the library. She was twenty-three—so yes, OK, a woman—but there was something fragile about her. Rather boyish. I liked her company. She made me laugh and she sent me poetry. I felt responsible. I knew I’d encouraged it even though I’d promised myself I wouldn’t. It was more than a flirtation, but it didn’t last very long. A summer. Two summers ago. April through to September 2000.”

“Between the two solstices,” I said. “How very romantic. Sorry, sorry. I will stop being sarcastic. I’m listening. Why do I need to know this?”

“Well, it turns out she was an infiltrator. She’s a member of NABED. One of the most senior in Cambridge. They’re very secretive, so she wouldn’t have known more than a handful of the others. Perhaps none. They have cells. She was a cell. She was just the particular cell they chose to get at me.”

“Blackmail?”

“Yes, but that’s only half of it.”

“Sarah. Did she get to know?”

“Yes. Sarah got to know. There were pictures, sent to her at work. She picked them up from her pigeonhole at Caius, opened them in front of the porters, pulling them out of a brown envelope while there were students walking by. No note. Nothing. Just the word NABED printed across the back of the pictures. The police had to check for prints. That was humiliating. Whoever took the pictures made sure you couldn’t see Lily’s face. So she couldn’t be identified. Very clever. No prints on the envelope either.”

“They must have taken a lot of pictures to be able to choose ones in which you couldn’t see her face.” His limbs; her limbs. All tangled up. No faces, just limbs. Sweat around his brow. Pictures taken from a concealed camera in her room.

“Yes, they must.” You were embarrassed. Perhaps even ashamed.

“But you must have been able to give them an address? You knew where she lived.”

“Yes, she had a flat, the ground-floor flat in a house on Mawson Road. The police went there. It was empty, nothing but a pile of blank paper on the floor. There had been a Lily Ridler living there, but she’d not left a forwarding address, the landlord said. She’d paid her rent by cash every month, so there was no way of tracing her through her bank details. There was no Lily Ridler on the college register. No one fitting her description among the postgrads at King’s—so the police gave up. It was just a case of revenge, they said. Driven by jealousy. Such things happened all the time. They refused to see any connection with any animal-rights group, and NABED meant nothing to anyone then. It’s their new name—the name they called themselves when they started the direct-strike action.”

“Christ,” I said. “Poor Sarah.” I was grateful it wasn’t me. What would I have done if I’d been sent pictures of you in bed with Lily Ridler? Pictures? Once I’d seen them I wouldn’t have been able to get them out of my head.

“Why are you telling me? Why the confession?”

“Because she’s still around.”

“Lily Ridler?”

“Yes, or whatever her name was. Imagine making love for a whole summer to someone who hates and despises you. Someone who wants to harm you. She
must
have wanted to kill me, every time she took me into her bed. It would have been like sleeping with a monster—Hitler even.”

“Sleeping with you, Mr. Brown, is, I imagine, a very long way from sleeping with Hitler. And Sarah? What happened with Sarah?”

“We went back to marriage counselling. I was sorry. Very sorry. It was easier this time. She could see I was sorry for what had happened. I lost a lot of weight. Had to go on medication.”

“She took you back again?”

“Yes, she did.”

She didn’t know how to do anything else. Other women were always your instruments of torture. You confessed flamboyantly now and again, holding your breath. Would she leave this time? Would this be
it
? But it never was. Was this a love story? I wondered. Was this your love story? Cruel and dark.

“Cameron, why do I need to know this? I don’t see the point.”

“Because she’s a friend of yours.”

“I don’t know anyone called Lily Ridler.”

“But you know someone called Will Burroughs.”

“Yes and…?”

“Same person.” You had turned to look straight at me now, to study my reaction.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, standing up. “You want me to believe that Will is the woman who seduced you…Will Burroughs? A member of NABED? How ridiculous. Someone’s made a mistake.”

“Where is she?”

“I’ve no idea. She went away a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t seen or heard from her since. How do you know that I know her?”

“Did she say where she was going?”

“No. She didn’t.” My voice betrayed my sense of violation.
How do you know that I know Will?

“Look. There’s no point in blaming me for this. I’ve only just found out too. I thought Lily had long gone. The police came to see me this morning—they think she’s got something to do with the attack on Scorsa. I’m not supposed to tell you. I’m telling you because—well, because you’re my lover and because that puts you in danger. How do you think I bloody feel? Finding out that Lily—Will—has been in and out of my mother’s house without my knowledge for over a year, that she’s been making friends with you. She’s clever. She’s capable of anything.”

“This is more than ridiculous. It’s just not possible that Will Burroughs and Lily Ridler are the same person. I’ve never heard anything less likely. Will is a Ph.D. student at King’s, working on Thoreau.”

“Lydia. Stop. In the end it doesn’t matter what you think. Has she got a key? Does she know about you and me?”

“Yes, Will has a key. No, she doesn’t know about you and me. Or at least I’ve never told her.”

“That’s something. And there’s no immediate danger to you, though I’ll send a locksmith round to change the locks tomorrow. I had a phone call from the police. She was seen up in Leeds and Bradford earlier today. It’s only a matter of hours before they bring her in. I’ve kept you out of it as best I can. Pulled some strings.”

“My interest’s in the dangerous edge of things,” I said. “‘The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist.’”

“Robert Browning,” you said, as if to prove my point. “‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology.’ Let me drive you back to The Studio. It’s so cold.”

“I’d rather walk,” I said and walked away, without kissing you good night.

“You can’t blame me, for Christ’s sake,” you called after me. “If she’s dangerous, that’s not my fault.”

Infiltrator. You’d called her an infiltrator. Permeating. Pores. Under your skin. Behind enemy lines. Where were the enemy lines? I could think of nothing coherent then in the cold night air. Just that word
—infiltrator
—and Will Burroughs’s new name, Lily Ridler, following me as I walked fast, wanting to get home, trying to erase those pictures from my head: you in that room, you with her…lips, skin. Her in that room with me. Ridler, riddled, riddling. Riddled with…I thought of plague. But we were all infiltrators now, weren’t we, I thought, especially where we loved, seeping into each other’s lives, insinuating, stealing secrets to empower us, to give us a little strength, though we loved, though, yes, we would also love—beyond everything. We may have boarded up all the gates to the city but the plague was inside the walls now; there was nothing but smoke and silence and the tolling of bells.

         

I got lost in the University Library today.
Got
lost? Must it always be a passive act? Let me rephrase myself. I lost myself up on the fifth floor of the South Wing looking for a reprint of an alchemical work by Agrippa von Nettesheim called
Three Books of Occult Philosophy.
It’s a strange part of the building. It seems to have an atmosphere all of its own. Rows of books stretch from one long, windowless wall to a wall full of windows looking across Cambridge towards King’s and Trinity. But somewhere in the middle, the rows begin to twist back on themselves, so that in order to reach some of the catalogue numbers you have to take several turns into darkness. And in the middle there’s no light, except from the electric switch on a timer, which you have to turn on before you go in there. Inevitably, I forgot which way I had come; then the light clicked off. For a moment I knew someone was behind me, watching me.

I made a note to ask you about hallucinating presences. There must be some physiological explanation, I thought, some reason for this sensation I live with now of being perpetually watched. Cameron will know, I thought. But then I remembered that I can’t ask you.
Because you’re the one doing the watching.

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