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Authors: Rebecca Stott

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“No. When they did the postmortem they checked for that. Her heart was sound. Yes, she could have fallen in, but then why didn’t she climb back out again? The water is deep there, but she could swim.”

“Were there…could there have been…suspicious circumstances?”

“Yes, but not the kind you think. She had no shoes on.”

“What do you mean?”

“The answer’s in there somewhere, I’m sure.” She nodded towards the table and the pile of printed papers—Elizabeth’s book. I stood then, rising to the knowledge she was indicating. I walked down the stairs towards her, into her words.

“In the manuscript? The answer’s in the manuscript? You’ve read it? Don’t be cryptic, for Christ’s sake. If you know something, why didn’t you speak to the police?”

“No one wanted to speak to me. And I didn’t want to speak to them. I had no proof; they would have laughed at me.”

“How well do you know the manuscript?”

“Well…” She hesitated, then decided to trust me, if only a little. “Elizabeth employed me as a research assistant, not as a cleaner, for most of this year, until July. I checked references for her. I followed up on things. I was in and out of the University Library anyway working on my thesis; it was easy.”

“What happened in July?”

“We fell out.”

“Why?”

“Because her friend Dilys Kite turned her head. She was here sometimes for several days at a time, or Elizabeth went out to her house in Prickwillow. I thought she was losing it. They were always in cahoots. She seemed crazy to me—obsessed.”

“Elizabeth was always obsessed.”

“Yes, but she’d always been rational. She’d stopped being rational. A few months before she died, she’d become obsessed with this ‘Mr. F.,’ a friend of Newton’s, mentioned in one of his manuscripts, and these deaths—”

“Friend?”

“Well, as far as Newton ever had friends. In June she’d asked me to look for this Mr. F., told me to go through all the Fs in the list of seventeenth-century Cambridge graduates, to make a short list of all the people who fitted the right dates. Then she told me to stop. She said she wanted to do it herself. So I never knew his name, and when she found him in that list—and she did—she wouldn’t tell me. She told me he was a fellow at King’s, a mathematician, about ten years older than Newton and one of the Cambridge alchemists. Then she asked me to give her back all my research notes, everything, every scrap. I told her she was barmy. Well, she fucking was. She even rang an exorcist in July.”

“An exorcist? Why? Elizabeth wouldn’t have done that. She wouldn’t—”

“She did. Of course she didn’t believe in all that crap. That’s why we fell out. I told her she needed a psychiatrist, not an exorcist. Dilys had turned her bloody head.”

“Where did she get an exorcist from?”

“Tommy Logan. He’s a friend of Dilys’s. Get this—he’s also the manager of the Texaco garage on the A10.”

“And?”

“I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t here.”

She picked up the pile of papers, holes punched and threaded through with a silver ribbon, and thrust it at me, so that as she jerked it from the table the stone paperweight fell to the floor and lodged on its side in the crack between the floorboards.

“You haven’t finished it yet, have you?” she asked me.

“No, I’ve only dipped into it. I wanted to read some books about alchemy first.”

“I didn’t think you had. Just read it. Then ask me…if you need to.”

With that she left. Threw the dustpan into the armchair, scattering soot, dust, and wood bark everywhere, and walked out. A pool of reflected light that had gathered in the shape of a large silvered octagon high on the wall quivered and stilled. I watched it settle back into its diamonded shards and then begin to move slowly across the wall, inch by inch.

         

She came back later that day, let herself into the house and then just stood there in the big room with her hands thrust deep into her jeans pockets. I was sitting in the old armchair looking out the window, the manuscript open on the floor beside me, Pepys on my lap, half asleep.

“Lydia. Look, I’m sorry,” she began. “It all went wrong. I didn’t mean to be like that.”

“It’s fine. You miss her, that’s all. It doesn’t matter.” I smiled at her. “I’m glad you’ve come back.”

“Lydia, I don’t think you should be here. I’ve been trying to say that since you arrived.”

“Where?”

“In Cambridge. In The Studio.”

“Because…?”

“Because there are things you don’t know about.”

“I know. There’s lots of things I don’t know about. That’s why I’m here. Look, it’s just a job, Will. I’m enjoying it. And I want to finish the book, for Elizabeth’s sake.”

“Can’t you work at your friend’s house?”

“At Kit’s? But I need all Elizabeth’s books and papers.”

“You could take them with you.” She was very winning. Like a child.


Why
shouldn’t I be here?”

“I can’t say why. There are several reasons.”

“No, I can’t move now. How come it’s OK for you to be here?”

“Oh, I’m safe enough.”

“Look, I’m staying put until spring at the latest. I’ll probably be gone by March. That’s only a few months. Then I’ll be off. And you’re right. It’s time I finished this manuscript and started writing. I wanted to read as many of the biographies as I could before I started Elizabeth’s manuscript, so that I could see where she was taking a different line, and I needed to know more about the history of alchemy. But I’ve mostly finished that now. If you’ve got good reasons for thinking there’s a risk, then tell me; otherwise, let’s just go on as we were. I’m not going to give this up because you say there’s something strange going on that you won’t—or can’t—talk about.”

“No, you’re right,” she said. “Forget I said anything. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow.” She disappeared into the hall.

“Did you mean it?” I called out after her.

“Mean what?”

“That Elizabeth’s death has something to do with what she was writing.”

There was a pause. She closed the front door and came back into the room.

“I shouldn’t have said anything. It was stupid. Look, I’ve been a bit stressed lately, for reasons of my own. Probably a bit paranoid. You mustn’t listen to me.”

“But you
do
think so, don’t you?”

“You’ve no idea how it was towards the end—before I went away in July. She was already half mad. She’d discovered these suspicious deaths in Trinity in the 1660s and she thought Newton might have been connected in some way. Read the book and make up your own mind. Maybe she did just
…lose
it.”

“No, she didn’t just lose it,” I said. “She’s not the type. She was out there in the rain and slipped. Or waded in to reach something in the water and lost her footing. Her coat might have got tangled up on something…it doesn’t take long to drown.”

“Yes, and anyway she’s not coming back. So there’s no
point
in wondering…is there?” She was mocking me, my rational explanations. Sarcasm.
There’s no point.

I didn’t say, but I might and probably should have done. I didn’t say: Look, I want to know too. I want to know why she died. I want there to be some reason for her death other than a chance slipping of a foot on a wet riverbank in the middle of the night. I didn’t say: There’s so much that doesn’t make sense. What if it wasn’t accidental; what if it wasn’t suicide? But, no, I wasn’t going to get drawn into conspiracy theories or superstition or hauntings. Someone had to keep some perspective. And yes, if you had asked me then, if you had said, “Do you know why my mother died?” I would probably have said that yes, I did think Elizabeth Vogelsang had lost it. That’s what it looked like to me. She’d lost it because…? Well, because she was searching for something she couldn’t find. And it drove her mad.

I watched Will’s hunched figure slump through the garden in the rain, towards the riverbank. She never left by the street gate, always the river path. I didn’t think anything of it then.

Seven

I
sat at the long oak table the following morning, with the pages of
The Alchemist
laid out in front of me, feeling Elizabeth at my back. A tortoiseshell butterfly beat away at the apex of the triangular roof as shards of watery light passed across the white walls above, twisting infinitely slowly, aggregating and disaggregating like amoebas or hydras under microscopic illumination, coming in and out of focus as the sun brightened or dulled. I’d never seen light circuses like this in any other house. No wonder Elizabeth had never hung curtains here.

I remembered standing on the shore of a Scottish loch once at night, watching the aurora borealis pulse in the northern sky. Behind the mountains, thin stubs of rainbows undulated red and green, like ripples of water. I heard the sky vibrate, crackle, like a whispering way up above the sound of Peter’s voice explaining about particles driven into the earth’s magnetic field by solar winds charged up and streaming down towards the magnetic poles. Or at least I heard, but Peter and his friend Simon didn’t. Now, why is that? If I could hear the aurora, why couldn’t they when they were standing only a few feet away? What was it about the sound that was so particular?

I sat for perhaps ten minutes before I lifted the stone paperweight holding down the sheaves of paper—slate grey with a lightning bolt of white quartz through it—in order to try out some of Elizabeth’s sentences on my tongue. The words conjured her. The dark began to gather outside. It was like lifting the latch and walking into an empty house without an invitation.

Play the word-association game and throw in
alchemy.
Most people, even clever people, will say
gold
first of all, then follow up with phrases like
philosopher’s stone
or
elixir of life.
Most people have this idea that alchemists were all medieval wizards trying to find the philosopher’s stone, a mythical powder that would turn base metals to gold, and that they had some kind of clandestine brotherhood with secret handshakes. But there were important reasons for the secrecy. Alchemists knew that the precious knowledge and formulas the ancients had carved out over hundreds of years, in Babylon, Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt, could only be passed among people who knew what they were doing, the initiated—people who spoke the secret language. Men like Nicolas Flamel, Paracelsus, John Dee, Agrippa, and Agricola. And they believed in the ritual of discovery, thought that every generation coming to these sacred questions had to seek these things out for themselves, as Hermes Trismegistus insisted. The knowledge was dangerous, and its potency would be lost if it were not kept hidden and concentrated. It had to be forever rediscovered.

There are so many different kinds of alchemists and alchemy, across so many cultures and beliefs, it’s almost impossible to say precisely what alchemy was, or is, in any absolute sense. Alchemists, like our scientists today, were trying to uncover nature’s secrets, her patterns and processes, trying to work out how the five elements—earth, fire, water, space, air—transmuted into and out of each other under various astrological conditions to make up all forms of matter. They believed that everything, even those things that
seemed
inert, was actually teeming with spirits and that therefore everything could be raised or provoked into fuller form. They believed that all matter was on the move, moving into and out of everything else, waxing into or waning away from fullness so that lead fell short of gold, just as mortal man fell short of immortality. Under a certain pattern of stars and through fire, any matter (like lead) or spirit (like the human soul) might be “healed” or “killed” or “perfected” or “transmuted” into a greater state. A blooming would take place. It had a rare beauty, this secret hybrid art made up of magic, chemistry, philosophy, hermetic thought, sacred geometry, and cosmology, a beauty in that passion to make things bloom into a fuller being. It made me think of transubstantiation—the wine into blood, the burning bush, Lazarus raised from the dead.

         

The first words after the title page of
The Alchemist
were not Elizabeth’s. She had set an epigraph on the front page, like an inscription carved over the entrance porch. It was a quotation from Richard Westfall’s definitive Newton biography
Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton,
published in 1980; I found the quotation marked up in Elizabeth’s copy in a footnote on page 21 of Westfall’s book in her library. She’d drawn a pencil ring round it. It may have been only a footnote, but it sat there in the foundations of Westfall’s book like a talisman to ward off bad spirits. A disclaimer. A statement of incredulity.

All the Newton scholars knew that the great man practised alchemy—there was no getting round that. Like hundreds before him, Newton believed that the riddles of the universe were to be found in certain secret papers and traditions handed down by the initiated in an unbroken chain from the time of the great hermetic revelations in ancient Alexandria and China. Richard Westfall—his friends called him Sam—honest and meticulous, confessed in that footnote that he was embarrassed and confounded by Newton’s alchemy. He had to say this somewhere in his book, get it off his chest, though he’d written all the way through to page 21 before he did so:

Since I shall devote quite a few pages to Newton’s alchemical interests, I feel the need to make a personal declaration…I am not myself an alchemist, nor do I believe in its premises. My modes of thought are so removed from those of alchemy that I am constantly uneasy in writing on the subject, feeling that I have not fully penetrated an alien world of thought. Nevertheless, I have undertaken to write a biography of Newton, and my personal preferences cannot make more than a million words he wrote in the study of alchemy disappear. It is not inconceivable to most historians that twentieth-century criteria of rationality may not have prevailed in every age. Whether we like it or not, we have to conclude that anyone who devoted much of his time for nearly thirty years to alchemical study must have taken it very seriously—especially if he was Newton.

“My personal preferences cannot make more than a million words he wrote in the study of alchemy disappear.” In those words Westfall admitted to wishing that he
could
make those million words disappear; if he could he would excise all that hocus-pocus from the collected works of the English hero of the Enlightenment. A million words.

In putting a floodlight on Westfall’s scepticism, drawn out of the shadows of his footnotes, Elizabeth was declaring her own position. She would go where angels and sceptical biographers had previously feared to tread; she would look where they had not wanted to look, at Newton the alchemist—not the scientist who dabbled in dark arts but the man who practised them. Elizabeth Vogelsang would not avert her eyes from Newton the magus.

Then without further comment—for her book worked by a kind of bizarre juxtaposition; she’d put things together as an alchemist would and let them do their own work, make their own chemistry—Elizabeth plunged straight into her first chapter, “Glass Works.” The phrase evoked Venice and optical instruments and sand and fragility, stained glass, blues and reds and golds. It made me think of rainbow reflections from Victorian chandeliers.

You would have liked the colour and light of her writing, the ease of her sentences.
The Alchemist
would not have grieved you as you feared it would. You looked for Elizabeth in Wallace Stevens and found a glimpse of her there. You might have looked in
The Alchemist
too, where you would have found her among the opulent materiality and detail of her goddamned seventeenth century.

Your mother’s book began with the journey of a consignment of glassware from Venice to Cambridge across the Fens, destined for Stourbridge Fair.

Glass Works

One morning in the early spring of 1664, glassmaker Sr. Allesio Alvise Morelli received a letter, delivered by horse to his glasshouse in Murano, a small island off the coast of Venice, a cream-coloured envelope bearing the thick red seal of John Greene, Glass Seller of London. The envelope contained a large order of glassware, some of it destined, Morelli knew, for one of the largest trade fairs in Europe, Stourbridge Fair at Cambridge.
1

Morelli could no longer take his English clients for granted. The English king, Charles II, on his restoration to the throne only four years before, had granted a royal charter to the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers, allowing them to put tight controls on the importation of glassware from Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries. Now that the war was over, the king and his dangerous ally, George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham, were determined to forge a new glassmaking industry in England to rival that of the rest of the world. Buckingham was building glasshouses at Vauxhall in London. Orders for Venetian glass were already in decline, but, the other Murano glassmakers bragged, Buckingham’s English glass would never rival the fluted, twisted, engraved
cristallo
glasses and flutes of Venice because Murano glassmakers had alchemical secrets, skills learned over hundreds of years. The English hadn’t the materials, the knowledge, or the climate.
2
At least not yet.

But now the Duke of Buckingham, who virtually controlled the monopoly on English glass production, was
buying
Venetian glassmakers and glassmaking secrets. His agents, they said, were everywhere along the Venetian coast and islands, offering money, making deals to bring Italian glassmakers to London. It wasn’t the first time Venetian glassmakers had betrayed their secrets. Fifty years before, the glassmaking priest and alchemist Antonio Neri had been enticed into the Antwerp house of the Portuguese nobleman Emanuel Zimines and persuaded to write out his spagyrical secrets in a book published in Florence in 1612 called
The Art of Glass.
Persuaded? Some say he was tortured. Now the English Royal Society had paid the physician Christopher Merrett to translate Neri’s book into English because the English glassmakers needed the ancient alchemical secrets. No Muranese glassmakers, Morelli intoned, should ever have been allowed to leave the island. The Venetian civic council had been too weak. Just as Daedalus died for trying to carry away the secrets of his labyrinth, so, they said, Neri had paid with his life in an alleyway in Pisa in 1614. He was only thirty-eight. He would practise alchemy no more. The Venetian brotherhood had seen to that.
3

But despite the ban on the importation of glass to England, Greene, a member of the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers, was still ordering Venetian glass in large consignments like this. Morelli knew this meant only one thing: Venetian glass was still far superior to the glass Buckingham’s men were making and Greene was prepared to take the risk of importation as long as he could get away with it. The glass seller had drawn page after page of designs and sizes, specifying width of bowls, size of stem, even the thickness of the glass. Morelli’s eyes glanced briefly down the order—drinking glasses, claret glasses for French wine, sack glasses for Spanish wine, small beakers for brandy, goblets, a new design for a beaker with a flaring lip, forty dozen goblets, 286 dozen beer glasses—5,400 items in all, including a number of specialist items such as mirror plates, strings of beads, and prisms. This order would easily fill one of Morelli’s three ships.

Morelli did not like the change in the Englishman’s tone in this letter—an edge of threat and a new sense of power that membership of the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers had given him, as well as his insinuations, his underhanded way of implying that unless the quality improved he would buy his glasses elsewhere. This time Greene wanted Morelli’s ship to sail to King’s Lynn, not into London, for, he said, he wanted to meet the consignment there and oversee its unpacking onto canal barges that would carry the chests down the fenland waterways and into Cambridge for the fair at the end of August. The glass would be safer travelling on water than on the road, Greene wrote, even if it did increase the length and time of the journey. It would also be cheaper. Morelli thought for a moment. That would mean shipping by July. They had only May and June to complete the order.
4

During May, when the sun was high and hot in the sky, Morelli’s men unloaded hundreds of barrels of quartz pebbles that had been sailed down the River Po to the coast from the beds of the River Ticino, and then sailed around the coast to Murano’s port. Here they roasted the quartz in furnaces and when the pebbles were cooled, pulverised them, grinding them to a pure white powder called silica, which they stored in sacks at the back of the glasshouse. Now the master glassmakers mixed up the batch, stirring into the white powder secret amounts of soda imported from Syria and Egypt, which would lower the melting temperature of the silica. The soda, which the Syrians made from seaweed ash, or
allume catino,
Morelli knew, was much superior to the soda the glassmakers used in the Low Countries or in England. Another secret. It was good but was never pure enough, Morelli complained, insisting that his men refine it even further by distilling it. Glass made from this mixture alone would be a pale blue-green, unless the colour was bled out of it. Only manganese would do this, expensive manganese brought from Piedmont and stored in the locked buildings in the yard. Without manganese there could be no colourlessness or transparency.
5

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