A piece of cheese and some bread
This is what you contemplate as you travel to Mortlake for supper with Dr. Dee: the Grand Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, the second such conjunction since the birth of Christ; and the shift from the watery trigon of Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces to the trigon of fire: Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius.
You also remember the comet. And the new star in Cassiopeia. And the earthquake. You shudder even now when you recall the cacophony of bells tolling all over London as the city was shaken.
You feel shaken still.
You embraced the new religion without reservation when Henry was king and yet you survived Mary’s reign. You survived, and now what? You don’t doubt that this world is falling away. You have some hope for the world yet to come, but how to live now? In most respects, life goes on as it always has.
You’ve brought a piece of cheese and some bread to eat while you travel. To the best of your knowledge, Dee is without a patron at the moment. No point in arriving hungry.
A bowl of broth
You sit next to Mr. Clerkson, and John Davies takes the seat to your left. William Pole and Adrian Gilbert are at the end of the bench. Across from you, a few Cambridge men. You ask Clerkson about the fellow in the antiquated collar. It turns out that he’s an emissary from Poland who’s taken an interest in Dee’s work.
Mathematicians, natural philosophers, explorers: These are the men who will guide England through the tribulations ahead and into the world that’s to come.
And then there’s Kelley, of course, already half-drunk and glowering. He might wear a cowl, but you know about his clipped ears—that he was convicted of coining isn’t even the worst that you’ve heard of him. You don’t doubt that he’s a scoundrel, but neither do you doubt that the Book of Nature is corrupted, its pages rotten, its sentences infested with lacunae. Maybe such a text requires just such an interpreter. You think of the cornerstone rejected by the builders in Scripture, and then you wonder if this is blasphemy. You almost cross yourself. Your hand shakes a little as you return it to your lap.
Dee’s place is still empty, as is the seat to his right.
Then he appears. And then he steps back to usher Francis Walsingham into the room.
The presence of the queen’s secretary is a sign of Dee’s stature. To dine with Walsingham is an honor for all present. But now you know that anything you say might make its way back to her majesty—unless Walsingham decides to keep it to himself, which is undoubtedly worse. You see your fellows make the same calculation.
Except for Kelley, who is too far in his cups for courtly stratagems.
And except for Dee, who says what he must; he can’t help it, bless the man.
Finally, there’s food.
Servants—it’s impossible to gauge how many, because they’re all identical—place a wooden bowl of broth at each seat. You dip your spoon and stir. Not a scrap of meat, which is exactly what you expected, but still … You suppress a sigh. It’s the conversation you’ve come for, not the meal.
Pastries filled with beef marrow
A lone servant enters the room carrying a tray that seems too heavy for a single hand. As he stops behind you, you hear a subtle tick, tick, tick. He places a pie before you, and then he moves on.
The ticking subsides.
You look closely at the pastry and see that its crust has been traced with two circles, a pentagram, and three heptagons.
Sounds of amusement run around the table. You break the crust with your knife and dig in. What you inside find far surpasses your expectations. Maybe Dee has a new patron after all?
Salat of ground acorns, sawdust, and grass, soaked in milk and blood
What could Dee be thinking? If this is a joke, it’s a poor one.
You’ve heard stories, of course, of what the people are eating. Famines are hardly secret. Meat has been meager in your own household, and you’d guess that at least a few of the men gathered here have known hunger. But no one speaks openly of these things.
You wonder if this dish might be treason.
You cast a careful glance at Walsingham. The queen’s secretary is eating with relish.
Still, you push this foulness around the trencher without tasting a bite.
Eel seethed in red wine
The servants have entered the room so quickly that you didn’t notice their arrival. You felt a rush of wind, and then, there it is, at the center of the table: an eel of monstrous size, swallowing its own tail.
The servants retreat to the edges of the room, and Dee stands.
“Gentlemen,” he says. “You know why I have gathered you all here. Philosophers and explorers: These are the men who will lead us into the next age, the age heralded by the shift from the watery trigon to the trigon of fire.”
Dee raises a hand and speaks a single word in a strange language.
The eel is wreathed in flame.
You gasp and pull away, as does everyone else gathered around the table.
And then the flames die and before you know it, there’s a servant behind you—tick, tick, tick—reaching past you with a knife and then there’s a fat slab of eel on every plate.
Then a rush of air that disturbs the tapestries, and the servants are gone again.
Dee talks while you eat.
“There have been six such conjunctions since Creation. The first was during the life of the prophet Enoch. The second came before the flood. Moses received the Ten Commandments after the third, and the ten tribes were sent out of Israel at the fourth.”
The eel, it’s good. Very good. You can’t remember the last time you tasted saffron.
“The fifth heralded the birth of Christ. Charlemagne ruled during the sixth.”
“I trust that no one gathered here will be surprised when I say what the seventh conjunction portends: nothing less than the end of this decayed and decaying world, and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.”
There’s bread to soak up the red wine and fat, and you don’t leave a drop.
A lead ingot in a glass goblet
Wooden plates and pewter mugs are replaced with glass goblets. You fail to suppress a look of surprise. Who would have thought that Dee possessed vessels so fine? You resolve to inquire about Dee’s current patron. Perhaps, whoever he is, he’s looking for someone with your particular talents?
The servants, previously so quick, have slowed to an almost impossible pace. They move in unison, and each gesture is accompanied by a series of soft clicks. A hand hovers over your glass, and you have time to notice, at the joint of each knuckle, a faint seam.
Then there’s a gentle clink, and the hand is gone.
Their pavane at an end, the servants rush from the room. Once more, the tapestries rustle.
There is a lead ingot in your glass.
You turn to Dee.
Everyone turns to Dee.
Dee waves his hand, and the lead ingots are gone. The fine glasses are now filled with canary. Lead turned to gold! You laugh. Others laugh. Some gasp.
Dee raises his goblet. You raise yours, admiring how the pale wine glows yellow in the candlelight.
“To a New World Order!”
“To a New World Order!” You add your voice to the chorus. You drink, and, once more, you find yourself amazed. This is the best wine you’ve ever tasted. There are exclamations of satisfaction all around the table, and servants appear to refill guests’ glasses—this time with pitchers. Voices are louder now, and merrier.
You regard your goblet again, admiring not just its contents but also its material. The glass catches and bends the light. It reflects the faces of your companions and makes them strange. What a marvel!
You notice that Kelley isn’t drinking. Another marvel! When he looks at his master, his eyes are full of loathing.
You assume that his own alchemical exercises aren’t progressing nearly so well.
There’s more of that excellent canary, and the conversation grows lively. One of the Cambridge men asks if we might yet find Paradise to the West. Pole, who has invested heavily in the colonies, says no. “That country isn’t pure so much as wild. And its people are savage, not innocent. You won’t find Eden there.”
“But, still … Perhaps one of those savage tribes still speaks the language of Adam?”
Dee interrupts his own discussion with the Polish courtier to reply. “No one will find that language spoken by men anywhere in this world. But Kelley and I—”
A brief fanfare interrupts Dee. What now?
Four servants appear, carrying a vast subtlety. It’s a crystalline sphere, made, you assume, of sugar, but you’ve never seen anything like it.
When the servants reach the head of the table, they step away from each other, slowly releasing—tick, tick, tick—the globe until they aren’t touching it at all. You hold your breath as it floats behind Dee’s head, and then a pair of brass wings springs from each servant’s back. There’s a fierce buzzing sound as they rise into the air, guiding the subtlety upwards and toward the center of the room with slight motions of their hands.
Then the servants descend, but the sugar sphere hovers above the center of the table.
You breathe again, because you must.
Dee speaks. “I have not, of course, been alone in my search for the philosopher’s stone. But I have learned that the desire to turn base matter to gold is, itself, a base desire.”
You look at Kelley. Everyone looks at Kelley.
Kelley is glaring at his lap.
Dee continues. “I have learned that the philosopher’s stone, when subjected to more exalted processes, can yield still greater riches. Tonight, gentlemen, I give you the angelic stone.”
With that, the subtlety hovering above you shatters and leaves behind … a taste, the memory of a taste.
“Green apricots!” Gilbert shouts.
“No, it’s orange pudding!”
You breathe in through your mouth, and you know that it’s none of those. You taste something you haven’t tasted since you left your nurse’s side.
You’d forgotten what it was like, to be new.