Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Louise Lamprey

Cockatrice Eggs

How Tomaso the Physician and Basil the Scribe Held the Keys of Empire

B ROTHER BASIL and Tomaso of Padua sat in the glass-house crypt, with an oaken chest heavily bound with iron between them. It had been brought in, and the ropes about it loosened, by sweating varlets who looked with awe at the crucibles, retorts, mortars, braziers, furnaces, beakers and other paraphernalia of what they believed to be alchemy. They had not agreed about the contents of that coffer. Samkin held that it was too heavy to be anything but gold. Hob maintained that if these wise men could make gold there was no point in sending them a chest full. Tom Dowgate ended the argument by inquiring which of them had ever handled gold enough to judge its weight, and reminding them of the weight of a millstone when tugged up hill.

It was gold, however. When doors were bolted and windows shuttered the two philosophers remained silent for a few moments, Tomaso stroking his white beard, Brother Basil fingering his rosary. Then the Paduan reached forward and tilted back the lid. Under a layer of parchment, leather and tow scraps used for packing, the bezants lay snug and orderly beneath, shining significantly in the light of the bronze lamp. There was coin enough in that chest to turn the scale, perhaps, in the next war in Christendom,—so the Chancellor had said when he saw it go.

Brother Basil weighed one of the bright new-minted pieces on his finger-end, thoughtfully.

"I wonder what this bit of metal will do in England," he mused. "Strange—that a thing so easily destroyed should have such power over the hearts of men."

"It is like a Devil," said the unperturbed physician. "He does not come inside a man's heart unless he is invited. Gold as you will employ it means the upbuilding of those crafts that make men—not serfs. We shall make our treasure instead of hiring troopers to steal it, if your schools prosper."

Brother Basil sighed. "I hope so. It is hard to see pages of priceless wisdom, scribed and illumined by loving and patient labor, scattered to the winds in the sack of a town. It made my soul ache to hear the monks of Ireland speak of the past. I believe that the King means to protect the Irish Abbeys, but this is a hard age for a peacemaker."

"The Plantagenets were never scantly supplied with brains," observed Tomaso dryly. "I think, myself, that the King will use the sword only to enforce the law, and that the robber barons are going to have a sad time of it henceforth. Perhaps Henry is more in tune with the age than you think. Frederick Barbarossa is coming to grips with the Lombard cities, and it will be mailed knight against Commune this time. Meanwhile, let us get to work."

The gold was unpacked and hidden safely in the hollow of the wall behind the turning stone. When the younger men arrived the chest was carried up the narrow stair and refilled with various precious or fragile things which it was well to have out of the way. The furnaces were set alight and the working day began.

A fairy spell seemed to possess the fires and the crucibles. Brother Basil, working at a medallion of enamel, gave a delighted exclamation as he held up the finished work. The red roses of Saint Dorothea were like elfin blossoms.

"The saint herself might have come from Alexandria to help us," he said.

Guy, who never spared trouble, had been finishing a chalice begun before his recent journey to the south. Even the critical eye of the Abbot found no flaw in its beauty. The little group of artists had worked free from the Oriental stiffness and unreality of their first models. Their designs were conventional, but the working out was like the quaintly formal primness of wild flowers in garlands. The traditional shape might be much the same, but there was a living freshness and grace, a richness of color and strength of line, which were an improvement on the model.

Alan, who seldom talked of an idea until he had tried it out, betook himself to a corner and began doing odd things with his blowpipe. The others went to work on a reliquary, and paid no attention to him until their work was well under way. Then there was a chorus of admiration. The sheet of glass just ready for the annealing was of the true heavenly azure that Brother Basil had tried in vain to get.

"You kept the rule, I hope?" inquired the monk with some anxiety. "We cannot lose that glass now that we have it."

Alan shifted from one foot to the other. "It wasn't my rule,—that is, not all of it," he answered bluntly. "I read a part on this torn page here, and it seemed to me that I might work out the rest by this," he showed a chalked formula on the wall. "I tried it, and it came right."

Tomaso caught up the scrap of parchment. "What?" he said sharply. "Where did this come from?"

It was a piece that had been used for the packing of the gold. Parchment was not cheap, and all the bits had been swept into a basket. Although covered with writing, they could be scraped clean and used again. The Paduan bent over the rubbish and picked out fragment after fragment, comparing them with keen interest.

"No harm is done," he said as he met Alan's troubled gaze, "there may be something else worth keeping here. At any rate you shall make more blue glass. Keep the formula safe and secret."

There are days in all men's work which are remembered while memory endures—hours when the inspiration of a new thought is like a song of gladness, and the mind forgets the drag of past failure. The little group in the Abbey glass-house and the adjoining rooms where the goldsmiths worked, were possessed by this mood of delight. The chalice that Guy had finished, the deep azure glass and the reliquary represented more real achievement than they had to show for any day in the past six months. There was just the difference that separates the perfect from the not quite perfect. Their dreams were coming true.

The young men walked over the fields to supper at the Abbey farm, as usual, and Dame Cicely, as usual, stood in the door to greet them.

"How goes the work, lads?" she asked, and then caught Alan by the shoulder, crying, "No need to answer. I know by the face on thee. What hast been doing to make it shine so?"

"Only finished a piece o' work, mother," said Padraig with a grin. "It takes some men a long time to do that. If they would bide just this side of a masterpiece they'd save 'emselves trouble. But they will spend all their force on the last step."

"Aye," said Alan, "better leap clean over the Strid while you're about it."

And for once Padraig had no more to say.

Oddly enough Brother Basil also thought of the Strid that night—the deep and dangerous whirlpool in the grim North Country had haunted him ever since he saw it. He and Tomaso came back, after dark, to the crypt, and spread out the torn manuscripts by the light of two flambeaux in the wall. None of the pages were whole, and the script was in Latin, Arabic, Greek and Italian, and not all in the same handwriting. Both believed that in searching the heap for secrets of their arts they had stumbled on something danger- ous.

"I believe I know where these came from," Tomaso said, when they had patched together three or four pages. "They are part of the scripts of Archiater of Byzantium, who was taken for a wizard in Goslar ten years ago. I thought that all his books were burned. There was talk enough about it."

"But what are these prescriptions?" asked the monk, puzzled.

"You would know by this time," said the Paduan grimly, "if that flame-crested imp of yours, Padraig, had been the one to experiment. By following the directions on this bit of vellum he might have blown us all into the other world. Luckily only three of these formulae are of that nature. The others are quite safe for your young disciples to play with. But these we will keep to ourselves." He laid a stained brownish piece of sheepskin apart from the others and two smaller ones beside it. "These are directions for the manufacture of aqua regia, Spanish gold, and something which Archiater called Apples of Sodom. Of a certainty they are fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, those apples."

Brother Basil had lost color. This really was a trifle too near necromancy to be pleasant. Spanish gold was a Saracen invention, said to be made of most unholy materials, and he had heard of a wizard being carried bodily off on the wind after dealing in the others.

"We will carry on our experiments," Tomaso continued, "in the cellars of my tower, if you please. The young ones will be only too glad to be rid of us. If any one meddled here we should risk all we have done and the lives of our pupils. If we make any blunders working by ourselves—well—I sometimes think that I have lived a long time already."

The disciples were too well trained to ask any questions, but they were somewhat mystified by the proceedings which ensued. An underground chamber straitly walled in with masonry was fitted up, and the smells that clung to the garments of Brother Basil when he emerged were more like brimstone than anything else. Tomaso was never seen at all. Meanwhile the newly discovered formulae for glass and enamel work had been turned over to the workers in the glass-house, with permission to buy whatever material was needed. Padraig and Guy went to London, and came back with precious packets of rare gums, dyes, minerals, oils and salts, not to be found or made at the Abbey.

Meanwhile the monk and the physician worked with absorbed intentness at their crucibles and stills. There was a slight explosion one evening, and a country lout of the neigh- borhood told of it. Next day a neighboring farmer ventured to ask Padraig what was going on in the ruined tower.

"Why," said Padraig soberly, "we are raising a brood of hobgoblins for the King. Did ye not know?"

The making of sulphuric acid, nitric acid and their compounds would have been risky business in any age, with the primitive apparatus that the two investigators had. They were furthermore made cautious by the fact that they did not know what might happen if they made the least error. It was midnight after a long and nerve-racking day when they became satisfied that they had the secrets of at least three perilous mixtures in the hollow of their hands.

"I think the King would give seven such chests as the one he sent, if he knew what we know," said Brother Basil musingly.

"He has the value of that chest already, in the rose window and the great window, the monstrance, the chalice and the cups," Tomaso answered, his sense of money values undimmed. "They are as good in their way as Limoges itself can do."

"I wish that we had tidings from London," said the monk thoughtfully. "If Lombardy loses in this war the Emperor will not stop there. He has said that he will obey no Pope on earth, only Saint Peter and the others in heaven. He is neither to hold nor to bind, that man."

"Henry does not want to fight—that is certain," said Tomaso. "He desires only to keep for his children what he has already—Anjou, Normandy, Aquitaine; and most of all England. It would take a greater than the Conqueror to rob the Plantagenets of this kingdom."

"What do you think will happen in Lombardy?" asked the other.

"The League of Lombard cities will fight to the death," said Tomaso quietly. "The Communes are fighting for their lives, and cornered wolves are fierce. Neither Sicily nor France is on Frederick's side, although they may be, if he wins. If he can get Henry the Lion of Saxony to fight under his banner, it may turn the scale."

"And Henry the Lion married our Henry's daughter Matilda," said Brother Basil. Tomaso nodded.

"Without Saxony," the Paduan added, "I know that not more than two thousand men will follow Barbarossa into Italy, and not more than half are mailed knights. The Lombard army is more or less light cavalry and infantry. Here in this cellar we have such weapons as no King has dreamed of—blazing leaping serpents, metal-devouring and poison-breathing spirits, pomegranates full of the seeds of destruction. These—in the hands of the Communes—"

"Would turn Christendom into the kingdom of Satan," said Brother Basil as the physician paused. "If we were to give the secret to Henry's clerks, or even if we ourselves handled the work in London Tower, how long would it be before treachery or thievery carried it overseas? Are we to spread ruin over the world?"

"I thought you would see it as I did," said Tomaso smiling.

The ground vibrated to the tread of hoofs, and a horn sounded outside the window.

"That is Ranulph," said Tomaso. "I thought he might come to-night. He will have news."

As Ranulph came up the path, travel-dusty and weary, lights twinkled out in the Abbey and the Abbey Farm.

"The Emperor has lost," said the troubadour. "There was a battle at Legnano, and the German knights scattered the Italian cavalry at the first onset, but when they met the infantry massed about the Carocchio they broke. The Emperor was wounded and fled. Without Henry of Saxony the battle was lost before it began. They say that there will be a treaty at Venice. The Communes have won."

"Come here, my son," said Tomaso, turning back into the tower. "We have found an armory of new and deadly weapons. You have heard of Archiater's apples? We can make them. Shall we give the Plantagenets to eat of the Tree of Knowledge?"

Ranulph's eyes darkened and narrowed. His quick mind leaped forward to the consequences of such a revelation.

"No," he answered. "Too much evil ambition lives among Normans. It might be safe with the King—and maybe with Richard, for he loves chivalry and knightly honor—but John loves nothing but his own will. Let us have peace in Christendom while we can."

"Shall we burn the parchment then?" asked Brother Basil.

"Nay—keep it in cipher. Let a few trusted men know the key."

"We will trust our lads," Brother Basil said. "Let us ask them."

Alan and Padraig, Wilfrid, Guy, and David, came up the path. Brother Basil explained the discovery. They had already heard the news of the Lombard victory from Giovanni, who had ridden with the troubadour and stopped at the Abbey Farm.

"What shall we do with these mysteries?" Tomaso asked, holding out one of the deadly little grenades. "You must remember that some one else may find out the secret without our help. It is true that the man who did would risk being burned for a wizard in some places; still, there is little that men will not dare in the search for knowledge."

"Let them find it out then," spoke Padraig in sudden heat. "We have had enough of war in our time. Let us kill this cockatrice in the egg."

"These would pay some debts,"—Alan's hard young North- country face grew stern. He was thinking of tales which Angelo had told him in his boyhood.

"God can pay debts without money," said Brother Basil gently.

"We are not ready," Guy averred. "We need time to train men and to let the land breathe. After that it may be safe to use the secret—not now."

"That cat's best in a sack," David commented shrewdly.

"Padraig is right," said Wilfrid. "We have had enough of war in our time. We will keep this monster prisoned."

They came to an agreement. Padraig was to make copies in cipher of the formulae. After ten years, or on his deathbed should he die within that time, each might give the master-words and the rules to some comrade who could be trusted. They were all to swear never to use their knowledge for gain, or ambition, or vanity, but for the good of their craft, the glory of God and the honor of the land.

"Before we destroy that which we have made," said Brother Basil, "we will show you in part what it can do."

Metals dissolved like wet salt. Wood and leather were bitten through as by gnawing rats. A fire was kindled on the old tower, and a cone-like swarm of giant wasps of fire went spluttering and boiling up into the darkness. The apples of Sodom were planted under a troublesome ledge of rock, and reduced it to rubble.

"And there goes what would seat the King of England on the throne of the Caesars," quoth Tomaso. The last wavering flare was dying into the night, and he stood with Ranulph and Padraig on the top of the tower, under the stars.


'And there goes what would seat the King of England on the throne of the Caesars,' quoth Tomaso

"He might have sat there before, if he had chosen," mused Ranulph. Padraig was silent. Matteo had fallen beside the Carocchio, and his heart was sad.

Tomaso laid a hand on Ranulph's shoulder.

"An empire is a forest of slow nurture, beloved of my soul," he said gently, "and it does—not—grow—by—conflagrations."