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    Chapter 5

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    Chapter 5
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    THE ELIXIR VITÆ.

    As the Syndic crossed the threshold of the scholar's room, he uncovered
    with an air of condescension that, do what he would, was not free from
    uneasiness. He had persuaded himself--he had been all the morning
    persuading himself--that any man might pay a visit to a learned
    scholar--why not? Moreover, that a magistrate in paying such a visit was
    but in the performance of his duty, and might plume himself accordingly
    on the act.

    Yet two things like worms in the bud would gnaw at his peace. The first
    was conscience: if the Syndic did not know he had reason to suspect that
    Basterga bore the Grand Duke's commission, and was in Geneva to further
    his master's ends. The second source of his uneasiness he did not
    acknowledge even to himself, and yet it was the more powerful: it was a
    suspicion--a strong suspicion, though he had met Basterga but
    twice--that in parleying with the scholar he was dealing with a man for
    whom he was no match, puff himself out as he might; and who secretly
    despised him.

    Perhaps the fact that the latter feeling ceased to vex him before he had
    been a minute in the room, was the best testimony to Basterga's tact we
    could desire. Not that the scholar was either effusive or abject. It was
    rather by a frank address which took equality for granted, and by an
    easy assumption that the visit had no importance, that he calmed Messer
    Blondel's nerves and soothed his pride.

    Presently, "If I do not the honour of my poor apartment so pressingly as
    some," he said, "it is out of no lack of respect, Messer Syndic. But
    because, having had much experience of visitors, I know that nothing
    fits them so well as to be left at liberty, nothing irks them so much as
    to be over-pressed. Here now I have some things that are thought to be
    curious, even in Padua, but I do not know whether they will interest
    you."

    "Manuscripts?"

    "Yes, manuscripts and the like. This," Basterga lifted one from the
    table and placed it in his visitor's hands, "is a facsimile, prepared
    with the utmost care, of the 'Codex Vaticanus,' the most ancient
    manuscript of the New Testament. Of interest in Geneva, where by the
    hands of your great printer, Stephens, M. de Beza has done so much to
    advance the knowledge of the sacred text. But you are looking at that
    chart?"

    "Yes. What is it, if it please you?"

    "It is a plan of the ancient city of Aurelia," Basterga replied, "which
    Cæsar, in the first book of his Commentaries places in Switzerland, but
    which, some say, should be rather in Savoy."

    "Indeed, Aurelia?" the Syndic muttered, turning it about. It was a plan
    beautifully and elaborately finished, but, like most of the plans of
    that day, it was without names. "Aurelia?"

    "Yes, Aurelia."

    "But I seem to--is this water?"

    "Yes, a lake," Basterga replied, stooping with a faint smile to the
    plan.

    "And this a river?"

    "Yes."

    "Aurelia? But--I seem to know the line of this wall, and these bastions.
    Why, it is--Messer Basterga," in a tone of surprise, not unmingled with
    anger--"you play with me! it is Geneva!"

    Basterga permitted his smile to become more apparent. "Oh no, Aurelia,"
    he said lightly and almost jocosely. "Aurelia in Savoy, I assure you.
    Whatever it is, however, we have no need to take it to heart, Messer
    Blondel. Believe me, it comes from, and is not on its way to, the Grand
    Duke's library at Turin."

    The Syndic showed his displeasure by putting the map from him.

    "Your taste is rather for other things," Basterga continued, affecting
    to misunderstand the act. "This illuminated manuscript, now, may
    interest you? It is in characters which are probably strange to you?"

    "Is it Hebrew?" the Syndic muttered stiffly, his temper still asserting
    itself.

    "No, it is in the ancient Arabic character; that into which the works of
    Aristotle were translated as far back as the ninth century of our era.
    It is a curious treatise by the Arabic sage, Ibn Jasher, who was the
    teacher of Ibn Zohr, who was the teacher of Averroes. It was carried
    from Spain to Rome about the year 1000 by the learned Pope Sylvester the
    Second, who spoke Arabic and of whose library it formed part."

    "Indeed!" Blondel responded, staring at it. "It must be of great value.
    How came it into your possession, Messer Basterga?"

    Basterga opened his mouth and shut it again. "I do not think I can tell
    you that," he said.

    "It contains, I suppose, many curious things?"

    "Curious?" Basterga replied impulsively, "I should say so! Why, it was
    in that volume I found----" And there in apparent confusion he broke
    off. He laughed awkwardly, and then, "Well, you know," he resumed, "we
    students find many things interest us which would fail to touch the man
    of affairs". As if he wished to change the subject, he took the
    manuscript from the Syndic's hand and threw it carelessly on the table.

    Messer Blondel thought the carelessness overdone, and, his interest
    aroused, he followed the manuscript, he scarcely knew why, with his
    eyes. "I think I have heard the name of Averroes?" he said. "Was he not
    a physician?"

    "He was many things," Basterga answered negligently. "As a physician he
    was, I believe, rather visionary than practical. I have his _Colliget_,
    his most famous work in that line, but for my part, in the case of an
    ordinary disease, I would rather trust myself," with a shrug of
    contempt, "to the Grand Duke's physician."

    "But in the case of an extraordinary disease?" the Syndic asked
    shrewdly.

    Basterga frowned. "I meant in any disease," he said. "Did I say
    extraordinary?"

    "Yes," Messer Blondel answered stoutly. The frown had not escaped him.
    "But I take it, you are something of a physician yourself?"

    "I have studied in the school of Fallopius, the chirurgeon of Padua,"
    the scholar answered coldly. "But I am a scholar, Messer Blondel, not a
    physician, much less a practitioner of the ancillary art, which I take
    to be but a base and mechanical handicraft."

    "Yet, chemistry--you pursue that?" the other rejoined with a glance at
    the farther table and its load of strange-looking phials and retorts.

    "As an amusement," Basterga replied with a gesture of haughty
    deprecation. "A parergon, if you please. I take it, a man may dip into
    the mystical writings of Paracelsus without prejudice to his Latinity;
    and into the cabalistic lore of the school of Cordova without losing his
    taste for the pure oratory of the immortal Cicero. Virgil himself, if
    we may believe Helinandus, gave the weight of his great name to such
    sports. And Cornelius Agrippa, my learned forerunner in Geneva----"

    "Went something farther than that!" the Syndic struck in with a meaning
    nod, twice repeated. "It was whispered, and more than whispered--I had
    it from my father--that he raised the devil here, Messer Blondel; the
    very same that at Louvain strangled one of Agrippa's scholars who broke
    in on him before he could sink through the floor."

    Basterga's face took on an expression of supreme scorn. "Idle tales!" he
    said. "Fit only for women! Surely you do not believe them, Messer
    Blondel?"

    "I?"

    "Yes, you, Messer Syndic."

    "But this, at any rate, you'll not deny," Blondel retorted eagerly,
    "that he discovered the Philosopher's Stone?"

    "And lived poor, and died no richer?" Basterga rejoined in a tone of
    increasing scorn.

    "Well, for the matter of that," the Syndic answered more slowly, "that
    may be explained."

    "How?"

    "They say, and you must have heard it, that the gold he made in that way
    turned in three days to egg-shells and parings of horn."

    "Yet having it three days," Basterga asked with a sneer, "might he not
    buy all he wanted?"

    "Well, I can only say that my father, who saw him more than once in the
    street, always told me--and I do not know any one who should have known
    better----"

    "Pshaw, Messer Blondel, you amaze me!" the scholar struck in, rising
    from his seat and adopting a tone at once contemptuous and dictatorial.
    "Do you not know," he continued, "that the Philosopher's Stone was and
    is but a figure of speech, which stands as some say for the perfect
    element in nature, or as others say for the vital principle--that
    vivifying power which evades and ever must evade the search of men? Do
    you not know that the sages whose speculations took that direction were
    endangered by accusations of witchcraft; and that it was to evade these
    and to give their researches such an aspect as would command the
    confidence of the vulgar, that they gave out that they were seeking
    either the Philosopher's Stone, which would make all men rich, or the
    Elixir Vitæ, which would confer immortality. Believe me, they were
    themselves no slaves to these expressions; nor were the initiated among
    their followers. But as time went on, tyros, tempted by sounds, and
    caught by theories of transmutation, began to interpret them literally,
    and, straying aside, spent their lives in the vain pursuit of wealth or
    youth. Poor fools!"

    Messer Blondel stared. Had Basterga, assailing him from a different
    side, broached the precise story to which, in the case of Agrippa or
    Albertus Magnus, the Syndic was prepared to give credence, he had
    certainly received the overture with suspicion if not with contempt. He
    had certainly been very far from staking good florins upon it. But when
    the experimenter in the midst of the apparatus of science, and
    surrounded by things which imposed on the vulgar, denied their value,
    and laughed at the legends of wealth and strength obtained by their
    means--this fact of itself went very far towards convincing him that
    Basterga had made a discovery and was keeping it back.

    The vital principle, the essential element, the final good, these were
    fine phrases, though they had a pagan ring. But men, the Syndic argued,
    did not spend money, and read much and live laborious days, merely to
    coin phrases. Men did not surround themselves with costly apparatus only
    to prove a theory that had no practical value. "He has discovered
    something," Blondel concluded in his mind, "if it be not the
    Philosopher's Stone or the Elixir of Life. I am sure he has discovered
    something." And with eyes grown sharp and greedy, the magistrate raked
    the room.

    The scholar stood thoughtful where he had paused, and did not seem to
    notice him.

    "Then do you mean," Blondel resumed after a while, "that all your work
    there"--he indicated by a nod the chemical half of the room--"has been
    thrown away?"

    "Well----"

    "Not quite, I think?" the Syndic said, his small eyes twinkling. "Eh,
    Messer Basterga, not quite? Now be candid."

    "Well, I would not say," Basterga answered coldly, and as it seemed
    unwillingly, "that I have not derived something from the researches with
    which I have amused my leisure. But nothing of value to the general."

    "Yet something of value to yourself," Blondel said, his head on one
    side.

    Basterga frowned, then shrugged his shoulders. "Well, yes," he said at
    length, "as it happens, I have. But a thing of no use to any one else,
    for the simple reason----"

    "That you have only enough for yourself!"

    The scholar looked astonished and a little offended.

    "I do not know how you learned that," he said curtly, "but you are
    right. I had no intention of telling you as much, but, as you have
    guessed that, I do not mind adding that it is a remedy for a disease
    which the most learned physicians do not pretend to cure."

    "A remedy?"

    "Yes, vital and certain."

    "And you discovered it?"

    "No, I did not discover it," Basterga replied modestly. "But the story
    is so long that I will ask you to excuse me."

    "I shall not excuse you if you do not favour me with it," the Syndic
    answered eagerly. As he leaned forward there was a light in his eyes
    that had not been in them a few minutes before. His hand, too, shook as
    he moved it from the arm of his chair to his knee. "Nay, but, I pray
    you, indulge me," he continued, in a tone anxious and almost submissive.
    "I shall not betray your secrets. I am no philosopher, and no physician,
    and, had I the will, I could make no use of your confidence."

    "That is true," Basterga replied. "And, after all, the matter is simple.
    I do not know why I should refuse to oblige you. I have said that I did
    not discover this remedy. That is so. But it happened that in trying, by
    way of amusement, certain precipitations, I obtained not that which I
    sought--nor had I expected," he continued, smiling, "to obtain that, for
    it was the Elixir of Life, which, as I have told you, does not
    exist--but a substance new in my experience, and which seemed to me to
    possess some peculiar properties. I tested it in all the ways known to
    me, but without benefit or enlightenment; and in the end I was about to
    cast it aside, when I chanced on a passage in the manuscript of Ibn
    Jasher--the same, in fact, that I showed you a few minutes ago."

    "And you found?" The Syndic's attitude as he leaned forward, with parted
    lips and a hand on each knee, betrayed an interest so abnormal that it
    was odd that Basterga did not notice it.

    Instead, "I found that he had made," the scholar replied quietly, "as
    far back as the tenth century the same experiment which I had just
    completed. And with the same result."

    "He obtained the substance?"

    Basterga nodded.

    "And discovered? What?" Blondel asked eagerly. "Its use?"

    "A certain use," the other replied cautiously. "Or, rather, it was not
    he, but an associate, called by him the Physician of Aleppo, who
    discovered it. This man was the pupil of the learned Rhazes, and the
    tutor of the equally learned Avicenna, the link, in fact, between them;
    but his name, for some reason, perhaps because he mixed with his
    practice a greater degree of mysticism than was approved by the Arabian
    schools of the next generation, has not come down to us. This man
    identified the product which had defied Ibn Jasher's tests with a
    substance even then considered by most to be fabulous, or to be
    extracted only from the horn of the unicorn if that animal existed. That
    it had some of the properties of the fabled substance, he proceeded to
    prove to the satisfaction of Ibn Jasher by curing of a certain incurable
    disease five persons."

    "No more than five?"

    "No."

    "Why?"

    "The substance was exhausted."

    Blondel gasped. "Why did he not make more?" he cried. His voice was
    querulous, almost savage.

    "The experiment," Basterga answered, "of which it was the product was
    costly."

    Blondel's face turned purple. "Costly?" he cried. "Costly? When the
    lives of men hung in the balance."

    "True," Basterga replied with a smile; "but I was about to say that,
    costly as it was, it was not its price which hindered the production of
    a further supply. The reason was more simple. He could not extract it."

    "Could not? But he had made it once?"

    "Precisely."

    "Then why could he not make it again?" the Syndic asked. He was
    genuinely, honestly angry. It was strange how much he took the matter to
    heart.

    "He could not," Basterga answered. "He repeated the process again and
    again, but the peculiar product, which at the first trial had resulted
    from the precipitation, was not obtained."

    "There was something lacking!"

    "There was something lacking," Basterga answered. "But what that was
    which was lacking, or how it had entered into the alembic in the first
    instance, could not be discovered. The sage tried the experiment under
    all known conditions, and particularly when the moon was in the same
    quarter and when the sun was in the same house. He tried it, indeed,
    thrice on the corresponding day of the year, but--the product did not
    issue."

    "How do you account for that?"

    "Probably, in the first instance, an impurity in one of the drugs
    introduced a foreign substance into the alembic. That chance never
    occurred again, as far as I can learn, until, amusing myself with the
    same precipitation, I--I, Cæsar Basterga of Padua," the scholar
    continued, not boastfully but in a tone thoughtful and almost absent,
    "in the last year of the last century, hit at length upon the same
    result."

    The Syndic leaned forward; his hands gripped his knees more tightly.
    "And you," he said, "can repeat it?"

    Basterga shook his head sorrowfully. "No," he said, "I cannot. Not that
    I have myself essayed the experiment more than thrice. I could not
    afford it. But a correspondent, M. de Laurens, of Paris, physician to
    the King, has, at the expense of a wealthy patient, spent more than
    fifteen thousand florins in essays. Alas, without result."

    The big man spoke with his eyes on the floor. Had he turned them on the
    Syndic he must have seen that he was greatly agitated. Beads of moisture
    stood on his brow, his face was red, he swallowed often and with
    difficulty. At length, with an effort at composure, "Possibly your
    product--is not, after all, the same as Ibn Jasher's?" he said.

    "I tested it in the same way," Basterga answered quietly.

    "What? By curing persons of that disease?"

    "Yes," Basterga rejoined. "And I would to Heaven," he continued, with
    the first spirt of feeling which he had allowed to escape him, "that I
    had held my hand after the first proof. Instead, I must needs try it
    again and again, and again."

    "For nothing?"

    Basterga shrugged his shoulders. "No," he said, "not for nothing." By a
    gesture he indicated the objects about him. "I am not a poor man now,
    Messer Blondel. Not for nothing, but too cheaply. And so often that I
    have now remaining but one portion of that substance which all the
    science of Padua cannot renew. One portion, only, alas!" he repeated
    with regret.

    "Enough to cure one person?" the Syndic exclaimed.

    "Yes."

    "And the disease?" Blondel rose as he spoke. "The disease?" he repeated.
    He extended his trembling arms to the other. No longer, even if he
    wished it, could Basterga feign himself blind to the agitation which
    shook, which almost convulsed, the Syndic's meagre frame. "The disease?
    Is it not that which men call the Scholar's? Is it not that? But I know
    it is."

    Basterga with something of astonishment in his face inclined his head.

    "And I have that disease! I!" the Syndic cried, standing before him a
    piteous figure. He raised his hands above his head in a gesture which
    challenged the compassion of gods and men. "I! In two years----" His
    voice failed, he could not go on.

    "Believe me, Messer Blondel," Basterga answered after a long and
    sorrowful pause, "I am grieved. Deeply grieved," he continued in a tone
    of feeling, "to hear this. Do the physicians give no hope?"

    "Sons of the Horse-Leech!" the Syndic cried, a new passion shaking him
    in its turn. "They give me two years! Two years! And it may be less.
    Less!" he cried, raising his voice. "I, who go to and fro here and
    there, like other men with no mark upon me! I, who walk the streets in
    sunshine and rain like other men! Yet, for them the sky is bright, and
    they have years to live. For me, one more summer, and--night! Two more
    years at the most--and night! And I, but fifty-eight!"

    The big man looked at him with eyes of compassion. "It may be," he said,
    after a pause, "that the physicians are wrong, Messer Blondel. I have
    known such a case."

    "They are, they shall be wrong!" Blondel replied. "For you will give me
    your remedy! It was God led me here to-day, it was God put it in your
    heart to tell me this. You will give me your remedy and I shall live!
    You will, will you not? Man, you can pity!" And joining his hands he
    made as if he would kneel at the other's feet. "You can pity, and you
    will?"

    "Alas, alas," Basterga replied, much and strongly moved. "I cannot."

    "Cannot?"

    "Cannot."

    The Syndic glared at him. "Why?" he cried, "Why not? If I give you----"

    "If you were to give me the half of your fortune," Basterga answered
    solemnly, "it were useless! I myself have the first symptoms of the
    disease."

    "You?"

    "Yes, I."

    The Syndic fell back in his chair. A groan broke from him that bore
    witness at once to the bitterness of his soul and the finality of the
    argument. He seemed in a moment shrunk to half his size. In a moment
    disease and the shadow of death clouded his features; his cheeks were
    leaden; his eyes, without light or understanding, conveyed no meaning to
    his brain. "You, too!" he muttered mechanically. "You, too!"

    "Yes," Basterga replied in a sorrowful voice. "I, too. No wonder I feel
    for you. I have not known it long, nor has it proceeded far in my case.
    I have even hopes, at least there are times when I have hopes, that the
    physicians may be mistaken."

    Blondel's small eyes bulged suddenly larger. "In that event?" he cried
    hoarsely. "In that event surely----"

    "Even in that event I cannot aid you," the big man answered, spreading
    out his hands. "I am pledged by the most solemn oath to retain the one
    portion I have for the use of the Grand Duke, my patron. And apart from
    that oath, the benefits I have received at his hand are such as to give
    him a claim second only to my necessity. A claim, Messer Blondel,
    which--I say it sorrowfully--I dare not set aside for any private
    feeling or private gain."

    Blondel rose violently, his hands clawing the air. "And I must die?" he
    cried, his voice thick with rage. "I must die because he _may_ be ill?
    Because--because----" He stopped, struggling with himself, unable, it
    seemed, to articulate. By-and-by it became apparent that the pause had
    another origin, for when he spoke he had conquered his passion. "Pardon
    me," he said, still hoarsely, but in a different tone--the tone of one
    who saw that violence could not help him. "I was forgetting myself.
    Life--life is sweet to all, Messer Basterga, and we cannot lightly see
    it pass from us. To have life within sight, to know it within this room,
    perhaps within reach----"

    "Not quite that," Basterga murmured, his eyes wandering to the steel
    casket, chained to the wall beside the hearth. "Still, I understand;
    and, believe me," he added in a tone of sympathy, "I feel for you,
    Messer Blondel. I feel deeply for you."

    "Feel?" the Syndic muttered. For an instant his eyes gleamed savagely,
    the veins of his temples swelled. "Feel!"

    "But what can I do?"

    Blondel could have answered, but to what advantage? What could words
    profit him, seeing that it was a life for a life, and that, as all that
    a man hath he will give for his life, so there is nothing another hath
    that he will take for it. Argument was useless; prayer, in view of the
    other's confession, beside the mark. The magistrate saw this, and made
    an effort to resume his dignity. "We will talk another day," he
    murmured, pressing his hand to his brow, "another day!" And he turned to
    the door. "You will not mention what I have said to you, Messer
    Basterga?"

    "Not a syllable," his host answered, as he followed him out. The
    abruptness of the departure did not surprise him. "Believe me, I feel
    for you, Messer Blondel."

    The Syndic acknowledged the phrase by a gesture not without pathos, and,
    passing out, stumbled blindly down the narrow stairs. Basterga attended
    him with respect to the outer door, and there they parted in silence.
    The magistrate, his shoulders bowed, walked slowly to the left, where,
    turning into the town through the inner gate, the Porte Tertasse, he
    disappeared. The big man waited a while, sunning himself on the steps,
    his face towards the ramparts.

    "He will come back, oh, yes, he will come back," he purred, smiling all
    over his large face. "For I, Cæsar Basterga, have a brain. And 'tis
    better a brain than thews and sinews, gold or lands, seeing that it has
    all these at command when I need them. The fish is hooked. It will be
    strange if I do not land him before the year is out. But the bribe to
    his physician--it was a happy thought: a happy thought of this brain of
    Cæsar Basterga, graduate of Padua, _viri valde periti, doctissimique_!"
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