The old Prague legend of a barber-alchemist opens the story of a ring made of Moldavite, the only semi-precious stone of extra-terrestrial origin. This leads us on to the mid-life crisis of Eva, a teacher living in England, and back to her cultural heritage in Prague, Czech Republic. What is the connection between the barber-alchemist and a teacher caught up in corporate lunacy.
What is a life? When does it start, when does it end? Does it end? And is it lived in the events, or in the meaning that we find and make, after the events? The life that I now call mine started in a particular time and particular place, incongruously as if in a dream, but one that soon turned into a nightmare. In 1619 Prince Frederick the Protestant Elector Palatine ascended to the throne of Bohemia. He traveled there from Heidelberg with his beloved wife Princess Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James I of England. Within less than a year, Frederick and Elizabeth, the Winter King and Queen, were defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain. This marked the reinstatement of the Catholic Habsburgs as rulers of the Czech lands, and of the lineage of the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick and Elizabeth, stripped of their rank and property, fled to a life of hardship and deprivation in the Netherlands. Of their thirteen children, their eldest son was tragically drowned in a boating accident. A daughter, also called Elizabeth, became an abbess and was known as La Grecque on account of her erudition in ancient languages. She corresponded over many years with the French philosopher Descartes. Sophia, another of Frederick and Elizabeth’s daughters, grew up to be the mother of King George I of England. Thus Frederick and Elizabeth of Bohemia became a crucial link between the houses of Stuart and Hanover.
Among the entourage on their arrival in Prague there was an alchemist and scholar by the name of Adam Wood, who soon afterwards rented lodgings in the house of a barber in the Old Town. The barber, whose father had been a barber and his father before him, was a married man with two young daughters of marriageable age. He had been disenchanted with his life for some time. He could still remember the smile that had lit up his father’s face when a regular customer had come in and sat down in their shop. His father had prepared the soap with an intentness of expression that had imprinted itself on the barber’s memory, not least because he came to envy the contentment it betrayed. The young barber concealed his envy, both to his father and to himself, behind a facade of indifference and contempt. As he unwillingly followed in his father’s footsteps, he acquired the habit of mentally absenting himself from the exercise of his profession, a process which alas only made him feel even more trapped.
Like many before and after him, the disenchanted barber imagined he saw the enchantment he sought in the glamour of another man’s life. He took to scrutinizing the movements of his new lodger, Adam Wood. A fascination developed. Through careful observation and secret pursuit of his lodger on his daily journey from the Old Town to the alchemy workshop in the Prague Castle precincts, the barber discovered that Adam Wood was working with gemstones. He was enthralled. What could be more exciting and thrilling, he thought, than to be a traveling scholar and alchemist? To be free to pursue the deepest mysteries of life without encumbrances such as razors, soap, wives and marriageable daughters? He started, stealthily at first, following a few steps behind, to pursue Wood as he went about his business. And so the barber got into the habit of following Wood on his morning walk through the Old Town, across the Old Town Bridge and up the steep hill to the Castle and Golden Lane where the alchemists gathered and worked. Surreptitiously he would peep in at the window of the workshop where Adam Wood conducted his experiments, or find some pretext to pass the doorway whenever anyone entered or left. After some weeks of this, he grew bolder, in time acquiring a disguise with a hood to cover his face. When deliveries of work materials were made, he occasionally managed to sneak into the workshop in Golden Lane a couple of times and look around at the mortars, pestles, copper cauldrons and other paraphernalia of this mysterious profession. One day, before he had even realized it, he found himself darting back out of the workshop with a green gemstone like a dark emerald clutched in his moist palm. He stopped short, for only a few weeks previously he would have believed himself incapable of such a blatant act of theft. Had he been of a mind to do so, he would have heeded this act of self-forgetting as a warning that he was treading on perilous, illicit ground. Instead, the theft of the stone became the turning point in a rapid and irrevocable downward spiral.