by Bryon L. Havranek
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
II. A Most Extraordinary Declaration
After the revelation, the two men sat in silence for some time, the only sound that of the crackling fire in the grate. The dancing flames seemed to thrust them both into a scintillating fantasy where time itself raced forward while remaining frozen in place, an illusory contradiction which questioned the very nature of reality. Glasses were drained and then refilled by the busy servant, and it was only after taking another hearty drink that the doctor shook himself from the uncanny atmosphere and turned to address his patient.
“I say, this has to be the most extraordinary declaration that I have ever been witness to,” said Mather, feeling the warming effects of the liquor and for once at peace with his world. “I have heard of others claiming to be all sorts of famous personages, but not a one has chosen such an, ah, obscure identity for himself.”
The man claiming to be Voltaire tilted back his head and laughed, the weight of sorrow lifting from him for a moment. “So I am not quite so famous as, say, Caesar or Alexander? I admit it wholeheartedly. But come now, obscure? Really, my good doctor.”
“Well, obscure in the sense of the commonality, which is where the majority of my patients originate from. But, after having talked with you, I can tell that you are a highly educated man, who no doubt would have read some of the works of past years, and this is no doubt where you developed your fixation for the French author. Yet why Voltaire, if I may ask?”
Voltaire stared into the fire for a moment before responding. “To answer that, I can only say that I am who I say that I am, and to deny this would be the true delusion. But I do assure you that I am indeed who I claim to be. Of evidence I have little to offer, at least for the moment, but by the end of my tale you shall see for yourself and be the judge on the veracity of my claims.”
He steepled his fingers beneath his nose and glanced aside at the doctor. “It may seem incredible that I am still alive after all of these years, and looking no older than I did in my early thirties at that. The answer to this mystery lies in my researches into the natural sciences, and a chance encounter I made while in exile in this country. This led in due time to a discovery, or confirmation rather, of certain experiments made by the late Sir Isaac Newton, concerning the very nature of matter itself.
“Alas, as I learned, there are some secrets that should remain hidden from the prying curiosity of man, and if I could have known then what I do now, I would have left them well enough alone. But I have paid a most terrible price for my error in judgment.”
“How so?” asked Dr. Mather, intrigued. “Surely science is meant to serve man? All of the great discoveries of the past have made our lives all the more comfortable and stable. How can a discovery that resulted in your alleged longevity be considered terrible? Think of what we could do with such a process if it were true!”
“Spoken like a learned man who has not personally experienced such a thing.” Voltaire looked up at a painting that hung over the mantle and frowned. It portrayed a beautiful woman dressed in late 18th-century fashion, dark hair cascading over her breasts in a rush of descending midnight. Intelligent eyes looked out from the composition, regarding the world with mischievous delight.
After a moment, Voltaire closed his eyes and bowed his head beneath the weight of unthinkable grief, the single tear rolling down his cheek providing more testament to his feelings of sorrow than would have a thousand uttered cries.
Dr. Mather cleared his throat and reached into his coat pocket, pulling out his cigarette case. He offered it to Voltaire, who took a cigarette and then struck a match. Both inhaled the fragrant Turkish tobacco and settled more comfortably into their chairs. “It grieves me to see you suffering from such heartache,” said the doctor after a time. He gestured up at the canvas with his cigarette in a casual manner. “If I may ask, who is she?”
Voltaire swallowed his sadness and took a sip from his glass. “Her name was Marie Louise Mignot, and she was the light of my life in my declining years. I had that painting commissioned during my stay at my chateau at Ferney, so that I could always look upon her radiant face no matter where my travels might take me. It is all that I have left of her, aside from the memories and, but for this damnable curse under which I live, I would have gladly joined her in death long ago. But my release at last approaches, and for that blessing I am truly thankful.”
“But, my good man, you must explain yourself! You keep hinting at this sinister discovery of yours, and I for one would like to know all of the details that you are willing to impart. I assure you that everything you say to me will be held in the strictest confidentiality.”
“Very well, I shall begin now.” Voltaire took a deep drag from his cigarette and exhaled, blowing out a large smoke ring which hovered before him like an ominous cloud. “This entire tragedy began with my adoption of an alias to use for my writings and discourses.
“The Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, a notorious boor with unfortunate ties to the Crown, criticized my decision in using a pen name, going so far as to accuse me of being too ashamed of my work to associate my real name with it. I became rather angry at such an accusation and retorted in public that whereas I would be remembered and respected by my name, he himself would bring nothing but disrepute upon his own. A scandal resulted that saw me hurled into the Bastille, where I was to remain indefinitely.
“But I was not without connections myself, and knowing that I was beaten, I suggested to the Court that I be exiled to the British Isles until the matter had blown over. This appeal was readily accepted, and I departed the country under a cloud.”
Voltaire smiled grimly. “Alas, rank and privilege ever seem to take precedent over common sense and the laws of decency. Such a fact certainly rolled the dice of Fate in my case. It was during my sojourn in England that I made the acquaintance of Sir Isaac Newton, shortly before his death.
“Sharing a fascination for the natural sciences, we became friends at once and enjoyed more than a few discussions before he grew too frail to continue; and shortly thereafter he passed away. It was at the funeral that I was approached by his niece, the beautiful Catherine Conduitt. She had inherited many of her uncle’s papers and was considering the possibility of publishing them at a future date.
“But the documents revealed her late uncle’s secret passion for alchemy, which naturally worried her greatly. After all, how might Newton’s posthumous reputation be affected should word get out that he was a practitioner of the black arts? I advised her that discretion was the better course of action, and we concurred that Newton’s secret experiments should remain buried for all time. And that, I thought, was the end of the matter. But how wrong I was to be proven.”
“Newton, you say?” murmured Dr. Mather pleasantly. He was on to his third glass by now and feeling most generous in spirit. “So the old boy was a dabbler in alchemy, eh? Incredible, but not really surprising. From what I have read of the man, his mind never rested, and he was always prying into hidden things. But I agree that you and Madame Conduitt took the wisest course of action. Pity. I’d have liked to look through those documents at some point.”
“Your wish has already granted, my good doctor, as you will soon learn. But to continue. A decade after we met, Mademoiselle Conduitt died and, in her will, she entrusted me with those very papers. No doubt she had judged that since I was in on the secret I would make a most able guardian of them. My curiosity was aroused, so I read through the entire collection of documents and found that the experiments recorded by Newton sounded plausible enough, so I decided to test the waters, so to speak, and put some of the simpler processes to the question.
“The results were quite remarkable, reaffirming the brilliance of the mind that had discovered them. There were dozens of procedures recorded, the work of a lifetime of study, but the most outlandish concerned Newton’s alleged discovery of the Elixir of Life.” Voltaire tossed the butt of his cigarette into the fire and shifted his weight in his chair. “Are you at all familiar with the Elixir, sir?”
Dr. Mather’s brow furrowed as he thought on the matter. “Only slightly, I’m afraid. The Elixir and the more famous Philosophers’ Stone were the primary goals of the practicing alchemist, am I right? Whereas the latter could turn base metals into gold, the former was supposed to grant immortality. But beyond that I am in ignorance.”
“Very good, doctor,” Voltaire replied, eyebrows lifting in surprise. “I am impressed. You are a very fount of knowledge, it seems. So there I was with a reputed formula concerning the creation of this famous Elixir but, to my surprise, it had never been tested. Why hadn’t Newton tried out this particular recipe, you silently ask? Because there was a catch to the process.
“According to the papers, the experiment’s very efficacy hinged upon the mixing of the proper compounds at a set date and time, when a certain stellar conjunction was to occur. Alas for poor Newton, said event had already taken place during his childhood and would not come again within his lifetime but, despite the inability to complete the formula, he seemed certain that it would work.
“I was excited beyond words! An untested Newtonian formula, in my very hands! Nothing to do then but to try it out and see for myself whether it worked or not. If it did, what then could be the possibilities? Imagine what men could do if they no longer had to fear death and so were able to continue with their work indefinitely! Promising careers would no longer be cut short, and wisdom undreamed of could be accumulated to the benefit of the entire human race. The ability to realize man’s oldest dream lay within my grasp, for I now had a way of thwarting death itself!”
Copyright © 2019 by Bryon L. Havranek