Sunday, 2 November 2008

The Barber-Alchemist

A chapter from my novel Prague Equinox by Meira Eliot

The great forward movements of the Renaissance all derive their vigour from looking backwards.” Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno.


What is a life? When does it start, when does it end? Does it end? And is it lived in the events, or in the meaning that we find, and make, after the events? The life that I now call mine started at a particular time and in a particular place, incongruously as if in a dream, but one that soon turned into a nightmare. In 1619 Prince Frederick the Protestant Elector Palatine ascended to the throne of Bohemia. He traveled there from Heidelberg with his beloved wife Princess Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James I of England. Within less than a year, Frederick and Elizabeth, the Winter King and Queen, were to be defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain. This marked the reinstatement of the Catholic Habsburgs as rulers of the Czech lands, and of the lineage of the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick and Elizabeth, stripped of their rank and property, fled to a life of hardship and deprivation in the Netherlands. Of their thirteen children, their eldest son was tragically drowned in a boating accident. A daughter, also called Elizabeth, became an abbess and was known as “La Grecque” on account of her erudition in ancient languages. She corresponded over many years with the French philosopher Descartes, who admired her intellect. Sophia, another of Frederick and Elizabeth’s daughters, grew up to be the mother of King George I of England. Thus Frederick and Elizabeth of Bohemia became a crucial link between the houses of Stuart and Hannover.

Among the entourage on their arrival in Prague was an alchemist and scholar by the name of Adam Wood, who soon afterwards rented lodgings in the house of a barber in the Old Town. The barber, whose father had been a barber and his father before him, was a married man with two young daughters of marriageable age. He had been disenchanted with his life for some time. He could still remember the smile that had lit up his father’s face when a regular customer had come in and sat down in their shop. His father had prepared the soap with an intentness of expression that had imprinted itself on the barber’s memory, not least because he came to envy the contentment it betrayed. The young barber concealed his envy, both to his father and to himself, behind a fa├žade of indifference and contempt. As he unwillingly followed in his father’s footsteps, he acquired the habit of mentally absenting himself from the exercise of his profession, a process which alas only made him feel even more trapped.


Like many before and after him, the disenchanted barber imagined he saw the enchantment he sought in the glamour of another man’s life. He took to scrutinizing the movements of his new lodger, Adam Wood. A fascination developed. Through careful observation and secret pursuit of his lodger on his daily journey from the Old Town to the alchemy workshop in the Prague Castle precincts, the barber discovered that Adam Wood was working with gemstones. He was enthralled. What could be more exciting and thrilling, he thought, than to be a traveling scholar and alchemist? To be free to pursue the deepest mysteries of life without encumbrances such as razors, soap, wives and marriageable daughters? He started, stealthily at first, following a few steps behind, to pursue Wood as he went about his business. And so the barber got into the habit of following Wood on his morning walk through the Old Town, across the Old Town Bridge and up the steep hill to the Castle and Golden Lane where the alchemists gathered and worked. Surreptitiously he would peep in at the window of the workshop where Adam Wood conducted his experiments, or find some pretext to pass the doorway whenever anyone entered or left. After some weeks of this, he grew bolder, in time acquiring a disguise with a hood to cover his face. When deliveries of work materials were made, he occasionally managed to sneak into the workshop in Golden Lane a couple of times and look around at the mortars, pestles, copper cauldrons and other paraphernalia of this mysterious profession. One day, before he had even realized it, he found himself darting back out of the workshop with a green gemstone coloured like a dark emerald clutched in his moist palm. He stopped short, for only a few weeks previously he would have believed himself incapable of such a blatant act of theft. Had he been of a mind to do so, he would have heeded this act of self-forgetting as a warning that he was treading on perilous, illicit ground. Instead, the theft of the stone became the turning-point in a rapid and irrevocable downward spiral.

The barber’s wife was somewhat alarmed one day on returning from her market errands to discover a sign on the shop door saying that they were closed. Finding her husband gone she went thoughtfully into the kitchen to prepare a soup that would remain warm all day on the stove. When her husband returned some hours later he was irritable and morose and ate his soup like an automaton, staring in front of him, his thoughts on magical gold and the famed stone of the philosophers.

However, some days later, Adam Wood announced that he had found lodgings closer to Golden Lane, on the other side of the river in the Lesser Town. This came as a shocking blow to the barber, for by this time his fascination with the other man’s life had grown into a gnawing obsession. He was even less his own man now than he had been as a reluctant barber. Adam Wood paid his rent, packed up his things and left. Not long after this, he returned to England, having had to sell a number of his most valuable books to pay for his passage.

With neither apology nor explanation to his family the barber packed a small bundle before dawn some days later and left his home, his wife and his daughters, in fevered pursuit of his own dream of the enchanted life. He half believed that it was they who had been holding him back from his true destiny - a conviction which conveniently allowed him to conclude that they deserved to be left behind. For some days he took the gemstone around a series of assayers, at first in Prague and then in Krumlov in southern Bohemia, in an attempt to find out what the green stone was and what an alchemist would want with it. As he travelled, sometimes in the rain in open carts, he would turn the stone over in his hands, frowning, as if waiting for it to speak to him. Its apparent unwillingness to give up its secret burned into him like an affront. Sometimes, as he stood in the workshop or emporium of one of the assayers, he fancied he saw a brief flash of interest (or was it avarice?) move across the other man's gaze, to be replaced with a look of guardedness or feigned unknowledge, perhaps accompanied by the apparently casual offer of a lowish price. But money was not on the barber's mind. He wanted only to know.

Over the months that followed, the more doggedly and single-mindedly the barber pursued his phantom life of enchantment, the more resolutely it eluded him. To someone else, it would by now have become apparent that the deepest mysteries of life do not take kindly to acts of pursuit. But the barber had the green stone in his pocket. By now he had convinced himself that it was his stone. That was all that mattered to him now. The knowledge that went with the stone was his whole focus. He neglected his body, eating and sleeping poorly and irregularly, working only sporadically and itinerantly to cover his travel costs and meagre diet. His exposure to a damp and rainy autumn season, spent travelling around Bohemia, had left him with a persistent wheeze. The quiet, unassuming, but persistent lament of his ailing body grew by a series of imperceptible stages into an angry rage of intermittent fevers, accompanied by a barking, hacking cough. Yet still his only thoughts were of the stone. Being an unlettered man he was unable to interest any of the alchemists in Prague or Krumlov in letting him work with them. Resentment fuelled his frustration, and his debilitating fevers, still more. Autumn passed into a mercifully mild winter, thus enabling him somehow to survive as he continued to cling to his hopes of unlocking the key to the knowledge he was certain he held in the emerald-coloured stone. All he managed to ascertain was that it was a piece of Moldavite, a mineral gemstone found almost exclusively in the Bohemian basin.

The following spring arrived with a shock of forgotten joy and hope that only made him feel all the more the dislocation of his self-imposed exile. The warmth dried up his cough, but he was still short of breath and his joints ached with rheumatism. One hot summer’s day, standing on the Old Town Square, the barber found himself alone and destitute in a glaring sun that seemed in itself a reproach, surrounded by the evidence of thriving livelihoods and the bustle of thriving families. Looking up, he wondered to himself what on earth he had been about. For the first time in years he stilled himself and looked around him. Then it hit him. Running rather than walking past the astrological clock on the Old Town Square as it chimed the hour, the barber wound his way down Charles Street to his shop and his home on Lilli Street. He found the shop boarded up. The baker across the street did not recognize him when he asked what had become of his family.
“Sad thing,” he had replied. “The barber just went off one day without a word. His wife was found dead a few days later. Poisoned herself, so they say.”
“And the girls?” the barber asked hoarsely, scarcely above a whisper.
“Last we saw of them, they were arm in arm with that madam from the brothel near the Bridge. She’s always on the lookout for good-looking girls. Rumour has it they’re with her now.” The baker turned his head thoughtfully towards his shop.
“Who would have thought it? " he went on, "They always seemed such a decent family. Of course, the barber couldn’t light a candle to his father before him. Now there was a barber! You’d go in there and he had a way of making you feel like a prince. And you could talk to him about anything at all, you just knew you could trust him, as if ……..”

But the barber was not listening any more. Taking the stone out of the secret pocket he had sewn into his robes as a precaution against thieves he examined once more the fruits of his own theft and saw at last that he had squandered all this time trying to unlock a door that he had not yet earned the right to open. Going round to the back of the building he had once worked and lived in, he pulled off one of the boards blocking a window, took the stone out of his pocket and, remembering the loose brick inside the chimney wall of the kitchen fireplace, hid it there, as if performing a burial or act of piety. There was only the half-formed thought in his mind that he must part with it, give it up. He looked around, missing the sight of his wife wiping her hands on her apron, or stirring the soup or stew she had made for that day. Replacing the brick inside the chimney and climbing back out of the window, the barber walked away from his old life for the second time.

He was only too aware now that a dark shadow had fallen over his soul and that there were heavy debts to be repaid, if not in this life, then in some life to come. It was perhaps inevitable that in his next life he should be born a woman. For what has fallen must rise, what has been suppressed must erupt and burst forth, and what has dominated and overruled must be tamed and brought to heel. He knew, in the parlance of an age still to come, that there would be hell to pay. Where he lived out the rest of his days is not clear. But to this day his ghost still haunts the area around Charles and Lilli Streets in the Old Town of Prague. For there are worlds and worlds - and worlds between worlds. If you fall asleep there, he may come to visit you in the night, as he once came to me, looking for the life, and the wisdom, that he threw away when he went to live someone else’s.