“He is the man who knows everything, and never dies.” -Voltaire
Isabella Cooper, age 15
I first learned of the mysterious Count of St. Germain, while neglecting my Latin studies in favor of eavesdropping. I stopped fanning myself with my straw bonnet, attention piqued, and glanced around the courtyard. Voices drifted from the terrace overhead, as the acoustics of the Mughal architecture tended to allow, yet there was a muted quality about them. I needed to be closer if I was to catch more than passing phrases.
Would I be considered less of a busybody if I insisted my interest was purely scholarly? I certainly wouldn’t have looked anything else as I climbed the ivy-coated latticework, but this was the time in the afternoon in which I was often left unsupervised by my tutors. God bless the growing popularity of afternoon tea.
“Truly, Mary, I simply cannot fathom this obsession of his.”
I’d suspected that my father was entertaining some visiting dignitary in the space he’d fashioned as a parlor, a pleasant lounge that had endured a peculiar transmutation as Victoria’s England fused with relics of the Mughal Empire, and so I found myself initially disappointed to realize it was but a conversation between my parents. By now, I’d scaled high enough to peek through the banister and into the parlor, where my father – England’s appointed commissioner – paced about with his long legs and his paunchy belly.
“I suppose he must be curious.” My mother sat in her favorite chair, the only one broad enough to not be swallowed by her voluminous skirts. “As are you, Henry, dear. But it’s a curious notion, that St. Germain might have prophesied the rise of the Bonapartes amidst the collapse of the French monarchy. Could there be any truth to it?”
“Poppycock.” My father waved his calabash pipe, as if to emphasize his utter dismissal. “The man would have to be damn well over a century upon this earth. Yet I’ve seen him myself and he can be no older than fifty. Louis Napoleon intends to disregard all logic and base his entire investigation out of the Hôtel de Ville, as if the people of France don’t have better use of a municipality building. Foolish man, to be drawn in by the occult.”
I found the accusation ironic, considering my father was a Freemason. He’d never said as much, but he’d been involved in the recent construction of Lahore’s Masonic temple, and I’d snooped his office enough times to figure out his association for myself. The man was a lifelong enigma, in and out of an endless stream of private meetings with renowned visitors who always seemed more intimate with my father than myself.
“Then we can only wonder who this man truly is,” mused my mother, though I recognized the coy smile upon her face. “Interesting that much the same was said of the original St. Germain.”
My father nursed the long stem of his pipe before answering. “If that was even his true moniker,” he said through a breath of smoke. “If Louis Napoleon is to be believed, he came from the Transylvanian Rákóczis.”
The turmoil of the Rákóczis was familiar to me, though it took me a moment to recall the decades of uprisings from my lessons. So consumed in thought was I that, for a moment, I disassociated myself almost entirely from how high I’d climbed. My fingers tightened their grip.
“Such a name was too dangerous to use after surrendering to the Austrians,” my mother said. “It’s no wonder he fashioned himself a new identity.”
“One with which he claimed to be a scholar and alchemist.” My father gave an incredulous laugh. “Did you know they called him the Immortal Count? He’d convinced Louis XV well enough to fund his laboratory at Château de Chambord, the charlatan, but it’s a poor excuse to invent fantastical tales.”
I suppressed my own chortle. This was what I’d climbed the terrace for – superstition and legends?
“Even if there was any credibility to be had, Louis Napoleon chases ghosts; the Count of St. Germain – as history knows him – died in 1784.”
My mother’s expression was smug behind her teacup. “So they say.”
My grip on the iron latticework had become sweaty as I listened, and as luck would have it, the toe of my foot slipped the very instant I wiped a palm against my skirts. I secured my footing, but my squelched outcry had both of my parents wheeling their heads towards the balcony.
It was my mother who rushed to hoist me over the rail, though I had plenty of secure footholds and a choice angle from which to propel myself.
“My bricky girl, you’ll break your neck someday!” she scolded through pursed lips. “Whatever is wrong with the stairs?”
Nothing, of course, except that one couldn’t eavesdrop from there.
My father sat nonplussed in the armchair by the giant globe, his fingers tapping the top of the pipe bowl as the embers within reignited. He finally acknowledged me when I’d approached with a straightened blouse and dusted- off skirt.
“I’d hoped to raise a lady, not a thrill- seeking hooligan, Miss Isabella Cooper,” he said. “Your assignments must be completed if you can afford the effort of such frivolous endeavors.”
“I did not assume the Count of St. Germain to be a frivolous matter if you bothered to discuss him,” I countered. “Why do you criticize the use of the Hôtel de Ville? Important records are kept there. Where else should Louis Napoleon start his investigation?”
I expected my father to be displeased, but he gave a lighthearted chuckle as he puffed his pipe. “Perhaps Louis Napoleon ought to commission you to his investigation – if you attacked it with all the ardor you possess, he might yet conclude that there is no support to this precarious ‘Immortal Count’ business. In the meantime, perhaps some additional lessons will help occupy that clever mind of yours.”
I wanted to continue – at last, I’d shoehorned into adult discourse! – but my mother ushered me from the parlor with a stiff warning and a command to take my studies to the library until she fetched me at a later hour. I obeyed.
As I waited, however, I consulted our books about the fates of the Rákóczi heirs, where I was most intrigued to discover that Louis XV’s father had gifted the Rákóczis some estates, the rents of which went directly to the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. A generous gift, and a curious coincidence considering the friendship between St. Germain and Louis XV, though I was certain I did not yet fully understand its significance. I did wonder in passing, however, if Louis Napoleon had known of this exchange before basing his investigative commission there.
Travels from Constantinople to London via express trains
September, 1870 – January, 1871
Isabella Cooper, age 17
I did not consider the Count of St. Germain much further until some years later, during my family’s long journey from India to our native England. Our trip included an extended stay with kin in France, and though our arrival in Paris was uneventful, there was an unmistakable air of unrest about the streets.
We learned that during our travels, the Hôtel de Ville had been seized by protesters of the Franco-Prussian war, and since liberated again by soldiers through the underground tunnels. During our stay – safely outside of Paris at my cousins’ chateau – the riots began, and the Hôtel de Ville was burned so thoroughly that the fire swallowed it from the inside, leaving nothing behind but a stone husk.
I cannot explain the reason, but the loss of France’s extant records from the revolution did not seem as important to me as the fate of Louis Napoleon’s investigations about St. Germain. The name infected my memory, and I wondered what those investigations had discovered, if anything, or if they’d been lost forever.
My parents spoke no more of St. Germain these days, and my favorite cousin, Felicity, had never heard of him. She took to the intrigue, however, with all the fervor of a true gossip, and it was by her recommendation that we explore the library at University of Paris. With such ample resources for theology and humanities available there, I thought it a magnificent idea.
My father was less keen upon it, initially mistaking my request as interest in attending. The University of Paris had more artistic focus than he cared for, and now that Girton College’s doors had opened to women, he’d expected me to carry on his legacy through Cambridge. The assurance of research placated him, though I was careful to keep mum regarding my true goal.
Felicity and I began with Voltaire’s works, who I understood had been outspoken on the topic of St. Germain. When I returned to the elderly librarian for further reading, his bushy white mustache bristled at the mention of the count.
“You’re not the first to inquire after such a particular subject in recent years, Mademoiselles,” he said, beckoning us towards another wing in the archives. “Many have sought answers, but the count remains a man of mystery. Here we are.”
The spry gentleman paused his brisk stride to extend his arm and retrieve a book from the shelf before. He continued onward to another wing to collect a second and a third, and from these I learned St. Germain wasn’t just an alchemist, but a savant who excelled at everything he did. He was a musician, composer, and a master painter. He was a great man of learning, believed to speak as many as ten languages, and an extensive traveler who recounted historical events throughout the ages as if he’d witnessed them.
His talents carried over to diplomacy, where his charisma aided his efforts to set Catherine II upon the Russian throne, as well as his attempt to thwart an assassination against Sweden’s Gustavus III. The more references I found pertaining to such things, the more I realized just how well connected the count truly was, having been sought amongst the highest of courts and social gatherings throughout Europe and beyond. Perhaps for that reason, Louis XV sanctioned him to commence peace talks on behalf of France during the Seven Years’ War.
I also learned that the count was not without his enemies; amid accusations of charlatans and disgrace, contemporaries such as Voltaire made great sport of him. The librarian was indeed correct about previous inquiries, but Louis Napoleon was not the first high- ranking official to possess such infatuation on the count’s origins, nor was he the only one to fail in his investigation. Hard pursuit of St. Germain had a peculiar tendency to end in the disappearance of the evidence, or the count himself.
Isabella Cooper, age 28
Despite my mother’s warnings, I never did, in fact, break my neck climbing anyone’s latticework. I did have a riding accident in ‘77 in which I tragically crushed my favorite topper, which was about as difficult to restore as my fractured hip.
Unable to walk for the better part of two years, I was afforded ample time to make additional studies into my burgeoning interest of theosophical studies, and much to my father’s chagrin, St. Germain remained at the core of my obsession. By following a rabbit hole of tertiary accounts from various correspondences – letters, diaries, and other sources not often published in book collections – I’d uncovered his associations with a myriad of esoteric societies that had spawned the Immortal Count moniker. I wondered if he had discovered some great secret through his alchemy.
The more my father criticized, the more determined I was to prove that spiritualism and intellectualism were not required to be mutually exclusive. From my research, St. Germain was precisely the worldly, well-educated, mysterious type that my father would have met privately during his appointment as commissioner.
I was still coming to understand the philosophical angles of alchemy when I first met Alfred John Oakley, a man who shared my practical interest in fringe sciences, though he sought his degrees in mathematics and physics at Pembroke. He had particular theories regarding time travel, a topic he only introduced in conversation when he felt quite certain I wouldn’t mock him. But why should I, when both our interests demanded a certain level of faith?
I crossed paths with him often in the Cambridge libraries, drawn to his warm disposition so that we began to meet more deliberately. John was a tall, lanky fellow that always seemed a bit disheveled, as if his studies possessed slightly more priority than strict adherence to presentation. Though my entry to the nearby Girton College was inevitable, it was also made exciting by our friendship. Felicity had long since grown bored with St. Germain, but John found threads in connection to his own interests and raised stimulating thoughts for my consideration.
“It was a Pythagorean who first posed that the brain was the seat of intelligence,” he told me during one of our many conversations about the Immortal Count. “Hippocrates agreed; there’s no discernable reason for humans to age once maturity is reached, and living indefinitely should not be long unknown from the scientific community, barring interference of injury or infection, of course. Perhaps your count discovered a universal medicine of sorts.”
This was how we grew close. I could speak with John for hours about St. Germain, and he never once scoffed at even the more fantastical parts of the legends.
“I’m only rather jealous that he possesses your attention so thoroughly,” he said to me once, after I’d spent the better part of the afternoon detailing the count’s tendencies to disappear after having outlived a particular era.
The comment surprised me, and I looked up from my scattered papers expecting John to be staring at my flushing cheeks. Yet he’d turned away, one hand akimbo, with the other pressed thoughtfully against his jaw as he considered the charts he’d pinned to a board. His sleeves were rolled up and his shirttails had bunched out from between his pants and waistcoat. His hair – a bit long for what was deemed fashionable – was rather mussed from too many swipes of his hand, and the beginnings of a beard shadowed his cheeks. Unaware of my gaze, he leaned an ink-smudged arm against the board and scribbled a note upon one of his papers.
I daresay I’m going to marry him one of these days.
Isabella Cooper-Oakley, age 30
John burst through the door to our apartment in London, breathless and sweaty, as if he’d sprinted the whole way to inform me, “Your St. Germain – he’s in Milan!”
I rested my book into my lap and tilted my head. “How do you figure?”
“He was seen at a Freemasons’ meeting there – reportedly the same man Louis Napoleon found in Paris years ago, though he answers to Francesco Giovanini.”
My hand was shaking as I wrote him, introducing myself as a student of theosophy. His reply was swifter than I expected, with a much- welcomed invitation to visit. John and I boarded a train to Italy the following week.
The address given to us was in an affluent piazza near the Montanelli Public Gardens, where John and I strolled once we’d rested. With the completion of the new train tunnels, the city had become far more vibrant than I remembered as a girl.
Signore Giovanini matched every description I’d uncovered of St. Germain, from his dark hair and brown complexion, to the simple yet stylish manner of dress that implied old money. He was a man of medium height and build who appeared to be in his late forties, by the sprinkling of silver about his temples. There was nothing remarkable about his features other than a face full of genius brought about by the intelligence behind his gentle eyes. There were great secrets behind those eyes, I was certain of it.
He greeted John as if they had attended the same Masonic meetings all their lives; God, what I wouldn’t have given for the bonds of fraternity. When he regarded me, however, my jealousy subsided, as if the entire universe behind those eyes shifted towards me. He granted me a warm smile, and there was a flicker there, as if I were a most pleasant surprise.
“I was so pleased to receive your letter, Mrs. Cooper-Oakley,” he said in an accent that was molasses-thick and just as slow. “May we speak in Italian or French? Spanish, perhaps? Forgive me, but English has never been my strongest tongue.”
“Good god, Signore,” said John quite suddenly, still in English, as he stared at the room of antiquity beyond. “You have the makings of a museum in here!”
The fascination upon his face was understandable, but I gave him a deliberate nudge and whispered “En français, mon amour.”
Giovanini seemed charmed as he stepped aside to allow us in, and gestured towards a sitting area brimming with curios. “Do have a closer look, if it pleases you. These items rarely enjoy such admiration.”
He excused himself then to fetch tea for us, and the instant he was gone, I let my eyes roam the space. There was so much to take in that it was difficult to focus upon any one thing.
Assorted cultural items lined the display cabinets like a parade of folklore through the ages: handscrolls and ceramics from the Orient, African headdresses and beaded necklaces, Celtic flagons, carved wooden figures from Polynesia, Islamic ivory, delicate painted fans, and European puzzle boxes. The texts sitting upon the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves did not appear contemporary, many without discernible labeling upon their spines, and some with rigid binding and metallic latches. Portraits of nobles in courtly dress had been mounted between the shelving and cabinets upon the walls, so masterfully painted that the jewels looked authentic.
John was so eager for a closer look that he nearly knocked over a violin from its pedestal, and as I rushed to straighten the sheet music, I caught a glance into the space beyond the sitting room. A laboratory had been fashioned there, and shelving units stacked with an array of scientific devices ranging from astronomical to mathematical to chemical. Above the workstation was an old map of Nova Scotia’s coastline, and blueprints to a complex series of underground tunnels. Just as I considered the romantic notion of buried treasure, I noticed the model of a steamship, though I couldn’t make out the name from where I stood. My eyes were drawn further back, where a massive star chart upon the far wall was marked with notations, and I marveled instead at the sizable telescope mounted at the windowsill.
Everything within these rooms was exactly what I thought should have been present when the Count of St. Germain’s death had been officiated in 1784, not the Spartan husk that had been reported devoid of any personal keepsakes.
Giovanini returned with tea, and regarded John – still nose-to-nose with his collection – with a pleased smile. John wasn’t paying attention, having moved farther in towards the laboratory, and I was primed to summon him when Giovanini said, “It’s quite alright,” as he set a tray with a teapot and two cups upon a serving table. “There is no museum to which these items will ever belong, and they have precious few admirers. He will join us when he sees fit, I am certain.”
I frowned at the two cups Giovanini filled with tea, which he set deliberately near the chairs intended for John and I; there was no third cup upon the service. “Will you not have any, Monsieur?”
“No, no, my dear, this is for you to enjoy. My needs are quite simple, and I prefer simple mineral water.”
“Do you mean to say you don’t drink tea? Whyever would you keep it, then?”
“Because, Mrs. Cooper-Oakley,” Giovanini said. “I knew you were coming.”
“Isabella, please,” I insisted. I glanced once more at John, but his back was to us, focused upon some trinket from the shelves. I followed Giovanini’s cue by taking my seat in a leather armchair, the cup and saucer resting in my lap.
“I was most pleased to receive your letter,” Giovanini said to me. “You’re a student of theosophy? Whatever attracted you to such a subject?”
Intrigue glittered behind his dark eyes. “How curious.” Giovanini leaned back into his chair, his gaze thoughtful as his forefinger tapped against his clean shaven cheek. “Such a tricky subject, isn’t it? Its very definition is so often confused, yet no matter where or when or how it’s presented, the core of alchemy has remained consistent. Transmutation. Evolution, if you will. May it be spiritual or intellectual, it follows the same principles. Did you know, Isabella, that the term was used with so broad a stroke during eighteenth century Europe that it referred to both medieval alchemy as well as emerging chemists?”
“It was quite a metamorphic time,” I said with a nod. “Alchemy in particular was at an unusual crossroads between mysticism and reason.” I paused before adding, “But I’m confident few would know as well as you.”
Giovanini smiled, but I wasn’t certain he’d take my bait. “Everything is connected,” he agreed with a nod of his chin. “It’s a chief principle of alchemy. Yes, I can understand your fascination, indeed. We succeed, we fail, we improve, and do it all again, don’t we? We ourselves are the Holy Grail, and the Garden of Eden is still within us to rediscover. A new Atlantis, if you will.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The lost city of Atlantis,” he clarified, and he sat up to drag a globe upon an iron filigree pedestal between us. He spun it slowly, his eyes searching. “There are those who believe it was the original site of Eden, but – ah, right here.” He tapped at the Mediterranean Sea. “It was actually on the island of Santorini, just off the shores of Crete, though natural disasters have long since destroyed evidence of it. Pity.”
I suppressed a laugh. “But Atlantis was merely an allegory.” I hesitated. “Wasn’t it?”
“No more than any other variant of heaven you’ll find throughout the cultures of the world. What do you remember reading about Atlantis? Regarding the city itself, and not the cautionary aspects of the tale.”
I took a moment to recall Plato’s works. “I’ve only the impression that it was a city of great might and achievement.”
“Your impression is correct. They were not the only ones, either. Worldwide, ancient civilizations possessed great power and higher learning. What the Greeks later recalled as gods were sophisticated beings who had mastered universal truths in mathematics and physics.”
“If they were so advanced, how could they fail?”
“It is what we do, Isabella,” Giovanini said, his hands open as he shrugged. “The aforementioned cycle we endure is constant, and sometimes quite long, but humanity has seen more enlightened days and will do so again. Would you dismiss it if I told you that the ancients had the ability to construct monolithic structures capable of withstanding earthquakes? Or that flying contraptions were conceived long before Sir Cayley or da Vinci? That medical treatments once achieved the sophistication to halt death?”
I was mid-sip of the last of my tea when Giovanini’s words sparked a memory of something John had said to me once – a bit about St. Germain having found a type of universal medicine. I set the teacup back upon its saucer, afraid that the shaking in my hand might bring misfortune to the fine porcelain.
“Do you mean the philosopher’s stone?”
My question came out almost as a whisper, one to which I half- expected to be laughed off, but Giovanini replied in all sincerity without a breath of hesitation.
“The secrets of the ancients may be scattered to the winds, but they are still there for those who seek them. In time, they will emerge.”
At the mention of ancient secrets, my spine straightened and I leaned closer, searching the depths of those knowing eyes for some affirmation, some semblance of acknowledgement of my inkling. “Why not now?”
He gave a nonchalant shrug as he looked briefly away. “It is not always so simple, despite its fundamental simplicity. There are those who were shunned as heretics or burned as witches. You cannot force wisdom upon the unreceptive. The enlightened may influence those around them, disseminating ideas and nurturing them, but humanity must evolve on a grander scale before those ideas can be brought to fruition. But fear you not, my dear Isabella.” His eyes returned to mine. “The teacher always comes when the student is ready.”
“I say,” said John, and his voice shattered my trance so thoroughly that I was surprised to see him standing aside the globe to which we had both leaned towards during our discourse. “This is all rather cozy, isn’t it?” I had forgotten he was here at all, and he had a furrow about his brow that suggested he’d sensed as much.
“Oh, John! Here-” I got to my feet at once, reaching for his tea though it had long gone cold. John wasn’t interested in tea, however, and as I set it aside with some dejection, it occurred to me how threatening our deep conversation must have appeared to my husband. Sitting face-to-face with the man I’d researched for years put my obsession in an entirely different light.
Giovanini must have felt the misstep as well, as he also got to his feet. “Ah, Mr. Cooper-Oakley, I was hoping you’d join us. I understand you’re a physicist?”
“And a mathematician,” I added, ever grateful for Giovanini’s silver tongue. “John, do tell him about your theories about space and time.”
John cleared his throat; I’d embarrassed him a little, but Giovanini seemed pleased. There was a curious gleam in his eyes as he glanced from John to me, and back again.
“Well of course, my good man. I should be enthralled to hear your theories. In fact, I have something that may be of interest to you.”
Giovanini led my husband across the room to the laboratory beyond, and though John initially shot me a sour glare for mentioning time travel, it had been surface deep. I lingered back and observed the pair chat about relativity and the perception of time. John’s eyes were bright behind his spectacles as Giovanini showed him a particular device he’d brought down from the shelves of his laboratory.
I could not quite determine the purpose of it, aside from vague astronomical implications. It was fairly small, comprised of a base and a series of rotating brass cylinders and extended arms, all of which could have fit within the palm of my hand. Several gemstones had been fitted upon the extending arms to represent celestial bodies.
“My astrolabe timepiece,” Giovanini offered, passing the device to John, who accepted it with both hands.
“You believe time travel is possible?” John asked, visibly stunned.
“It’s quite possible, yes. The ambition to journey freely through time struck me some years ago, and so I fashioned this as a meager attempt. It doesn’t work in practice, I’m afraid.”
“But you truly believed enough to build it.”
“I was driven by altruistic grandeur at the time. Alchemy is a miraculous transformation in all its forms, but it cannot be forced or cheated.” Once again, Giovanini looked between the pair of us with a smile. “But my, what wondrous things one might discover.”
John turned the device over in his hands, mulling over every centimeter of its construction. I knew him to have a handful of associates who enjoyed bantering the topic of time travel about, but this was the first practical attempt he’d seen for his own eyes, and he appeared changed to me during this conversation – quiet and distant, and lost in his thoughts.
“Why do you suppose it doesn’t work?” he asked at length.
Giovanini’s mouth screwed up in consideration before he spoke. “Likely, the design is incomplete. Perhaps an astrarium is a more appropriate platform from which to start.”
“Of course,” John agreed, considering the device thoughtfully. “You need to establish fixed points in time – coordinates, if you will. The constellations must be supported with additional plotting points within a triangulated destination – but whatever are these gemstones for? And what kind of stone is this one here? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
He pointed to a sizable gemstone in the center of the astrolabe, dark like ebony, but translucent and multidimensional. It reminded me of the northern lights in the far reaches of Norway, gleaming with gradients of every color, like oil seeping upon black water. Utterly beautiful, yet I had no name for it even as I drew closer.
“It looks like alexandrite,” I offered, though my answer hardly satisfied. No stone had ever appeared so exquisite in any memory I could recall.
With an open palm, Giovanini gestured to the celestial map upon the wall, alongside several gem charts. “Gemstones have corresponded to particular celestial bodies since ancient days, as well as to points in time. They are the bridge needed between math and physics.”
“Another alchemic combination?” I asked ironically, and Giovanini turned his gaze to me.
“Everything is connected,” he reminded me with a knowing smile.
As a shy, awkward kid, M.K. Beutymhill adored Victorian charm, fairy tales, and RPG’s, none of which she ever outgrew. A stubborn independent streak introduced contact sports to this cocktail while surviving Charm City (balance is good, amirite, my ladythugs and gentledudes?). This juxtaposition between the whimsical and the visceral is present in her tales, where fantasy and science often collide into a blend of steampunk, gaslamp fantasy, or speculative historical fiction.