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Beneath the Gold
The sharp sound of breaking glass penetrated through the room.
“Take cover!” Magnus bellowed, as frantic men dodged for safety behind their bubbling cauldrons and shelves stacked with peculiar mixtures.
Shards of thin glass flew from the still as it broke due to the the bubbling pressure inside. Once the boiling subsided and the rest of the broken container collapsed on the floor, a small man stepped out from behind the mess.
“Sorry, Sir Magnus,” he muttered, hopping over steaming patches on the floor.
“Clean it up, and continue if you wish,” Magnus sighed, stepping out from behind a cauldron.
The rest of the men promptly returned to their ardent chemical work. Dozens of people crowded into Magnus’s laboratory, labouring over concoctions of copper, tin, sulphur, lead, and many other elements. Though each man produced unique and odd mixtures in their large pots of elements, occasionally leading to explosions, they were all in search of two things: gold and the elixir of life.
A steaming furnace burned in the back of the room for heating materials in the long process of stirring, heating, pouring, and distilling in an attempt to mimic the formation of gold in the Earth. All the glass stills, flasks, and twisted glass beakers were used for the melting of supposedly enchanted rocks in the search of the elixir of life— the legendary potion to give humans immortality.
Magnus surveyed the alchemists at work, who voluntarily came to his laboratory every day in search for riches and eternal life. He let them come, but did not encourage it. Magnus was old, and had little to do in his laboratory himself. It amused him to have new, zealous men work with him, conjuring up exotic substances. Everything from animal bones to liquid mercury was melted and blended with long wooden pestles over the heat of the flames. Most men neither measured nor followed any manuscript. They took disordered samples of the many bottles of substances which Magnus collected and stirred until the mixture was too thick to be moved or until it frothed ferociously and threatened to overflow.
“I made this combination for you to test, Sir,” a confident man approaching Magnus said, carrying a vial of green sticky liquid.
“Excellent!” Magnus affirmed, taking the vial and holding it up into the light of the fires in the furnace. The liquid oozed down the side of the bottle, shining as yellow and orange light danced on its surface.
“I shall soon let you know if this is the elixir,” Magnus assured, “But don’t expect much.” He was inspired by the mixtures that were produced, but his experience and old age held him back from the fervent speculations that so captivated him in youth.
The man scratched his beard and continued on with his experiments, deciding to take the accepted risk in continuing. Magnus placed the vial on his timber shelf along with many other results the men produced. He would test them all, record their properties, and let the men know if he found the elixir of life. Some alchemists claimed to have found the philosopher’s stone, which they melted down and alleged to produce the elixir of life, which Magnus would also test. And the gold— there were endless rocks and brilliant, gleaming liquids to go through!
“Excuse me, Sir Magnus,” a timid voice spoke from behind the large man.
Magnus turned around to see a young boy staring at him intently.
“Have you created gold yet? Or the elixir?” the boy asked eagerly.
“No, not yet!” Magnus laughed, and led the boy aside so the other men would not hear him.
“I wanted to help you in your quest,” the adolescent announced. His green eyes gleamed with confidence, though his voice betrayed a mystified reverence toward Magnus and his work.
Magnus opened his mouth impulsively, and then closed it again. He was troubled by the lad’s request. It would certainly be beneficial for him to have another experimenter, but Magnus secretly called his laboratory a ‘madman’s cellar.’ He did not want a young boy working in the steam and clamour with sometimes quite perilous experiments.
“You want to find gold and the elixir of life,” Magnus muttered, placing a bottle on bronze scales and examining the weight against a block of iron.
“Yes,” the boy affirmed, “It’s what everyone wants to do now.”
Magnus could not help himself; he would not hold his tongue. “It is impossible to create gold and the elixir of life,” he revealed, making sure the fervent alchemists could not hear.
The boy frowned, “Flamel and Elias did it,” he stated.
Magnus shook his head. “It’s a lie,” he whispered, “There is no way for us to make gold, let alone a mixture to make one immortal. If it exists, you will not find it here.”
The boy’s mouth dropped open. “Then why are you doing all of this?” he demanded.
Magnus sighed and looked around his vast laboratory that was chalked with new equipment created for the search of riches. These alchemists never questioned the validity of their work and although Magnus initially urged them that the work was useless, popular belief took hold of the men.
“Science, dear boy. Although these men will labour for their own benefit in search of hopeless riches, this laboratory has been and always will be for the purpose of scientific discoveries. I have told each one of them that their case is hopeless, but they pursue and pursue in their endless journey.”
“Why would you let these alchemists practice their work here?” the boy questioned, bearing a more relaxed tone with the now not-so-mystical Magnus.
“They do not understand how much they are helping me. We have created substances beyond my imagination and equipment that will be of tremendous use. One day I will find cures for ailments or perhaps new materials for building greater machines. We achieve more here with the lust for a false wonder than the long process for a more earthly cure,” Magnus explained, “Do not look for riches here— a shovel will do much more good than striving over cauldrons. The other men won’t take a word of good advice, but you, young lad, would do well to follow it.”
The adolescent bit his lip, seeming worried and perplexed. He took one last look around the clamouring cellar, gave Magnus a quick nod, and dashed for the exit.
Magnus smiled, the wrinkles in his face becoming more pronounced. The old and desperate always trick themselves to believe in unattainable treasures, he mused, watching the men. He picked up a sample of a rock— probably amber— that one man produced in the early hours of the day. Firelight gleamed on its jagged surfaces, illuminating the rock to look like gold. All the things Magnus could do with these newly conjured substances! But was it wrong to let the men continue with such false hope?
No, Magnus did not think so. If the world failed to listen, the world failed to advance. Even if it was dipped in molten gold, the pursuit of knowledge was the core of everything that was done. All he had to do was chip at the gold patiently, and a new store of riches would lie before him.