Chapter XII The pilgrim examines alchemy

Thereupon, Mr. Ubiquitous remarked: “Now come along, for I shall take you to a place where you will find the highest peak of human ingenuity, and show you an occupation so delightful that anyone who has once turned to it is never again willing to abandon it as long as he lives, because of the charm and delight which it affords his mind.” I begged him not to delay in showing me. Thereupon he led me down into some cellars where I saw several rows of fireplaces, small ovens, kettles, and glass instruments, all shining brightly. Men tending the fires were gathering and piling on brushwood and blowing into it, or again extinguishing it, filling and pouring something from one glass into another. “Who are these folk, and what are they doing?” I asked. “They are the most ingenious of philosophers,” my interperter answered, “effecting instantly what the celestial sun with its heat can effect in the bowels of the earth only after a considerable number of years: they transform various metals into their highest category, namely, gold.” — “But for what purpose,” I asked, “since iron and other metals are of more frequent use than gold?” — “What a dunce you are!” he exclaimed, “don’t you know that gold is the most precious of metals, and that he who has gold need fear no poverty?”

Lapis philosophi­cus*

2 “Besides, that which has the potency to change metals into gold possesses other most astounding properties: for instance, it can preserve human health to the end of life, and ward off death for two or three hundred years. In fact, if men knew how to use it, they could make themselves immortal. For this stone is nothing less than the seed of life, the kernel and the quintessence of the universe, from which all animals, plants, metals, and the very elements derive their being.” I was affrighted, hearing such astounding news, and asked: “Are these people, then, immortal?” — “Not all are so fortunate as to discover the stone,” he answered, “and those who find it do not alwasys know how to use it effectively.” — “If I had the stone,” I remarked, “I would take care to use it in such a way as to keep death away, and would procure plenty of gold for myself and others. But where is the stone to be found?” — “It is prepared here,” he answered. “In these small kettles?” I exclaimed. “Yes.”

The mishaps of the alchemists

3 Full of curiosity, I walked about scrutinizing everything to learn what and how the thing was done; but I observed that not all fared equally. The fire of one was not hot enough: his mixture did not reach the boiling point. Another had too intense a fire, and his glass retorts cracked and something puffed out. As he explained it, the nitrogen had escaped; and he wept. Another, while pouring the liquid, spilled it or mixed it wrongly. Another burned his eyes out, and was thus unable to supervise the calcination and the fixation: or bleared his sight with smoke to such an extent that before he cleared his eyes the nitrogen escaped. Some died of asphyxiation from the smoke. But for the greatest part they did not have enough coal in their bags and were obliged to run about to borrow it elsewhere, while in the meantime their concoction cooled off and was utterly ruined. This was of very frequent, in fact of almost constant, occurrence. Although they did not tolerate anyone among themselves save such as possessed full bags, yet these seemed to have a way of drying up very rapidly, and soon grew empty: they were obliged either to suspend their operations or to run away to borrow.

4 After watching them, I said: “I see a good many here toil vain; but perceive none who succeeds in getting the stone. I also see that these people boil and burn both their gold and their lives, and often squander and burn both; but where are those with the heaps of gold and immortality?” — “Naturally, they do not reveal themselves to you,” my interpreter answered, “nor would I advise them so to do. Such a priceless thing must be kept secret. For if one of the rulers learned of such a man, he would immediately demand his surrender and the poor fellow would become no better than a prisoner for life; consequently, them must keep themselves in hiding.”

5 Then I observed some of the scorched ones gather together, and turning my ear toward them, I heard them discuss the causes of their failures. One blamed the philosophers for their too involved description of the art; another lamented the brittleness of the glass implements; a third complained of an untimely and inauspicious aspect of the planets; a fourth was disgruntled with the earthly impurities of the mercury; a fifth complained of lack of capital. In short, there were so many causes of failure that I saw that they were at a loss to know how to mend their art. Thus when they left one after another, I left also.