It could be thought that in the Parisian Lodge of the United Friends, alchemist zeal was stronger than elsewhere. Duchanteau barely buried, another worker on the Great Work sets tongues wagging Rue de la Sourdiere and even very far beyond… His name is Etienne Claviere and he is born in Geneva in 1735. He is a banker by profession but is a revolutionary banker, which is extremely rare. In this end of the XVIIIth Century, the Geneva middle-class no longer wants to put up with the haughty authority of their patricians. Along with a lot of other bankers as well as industrialists, Claviere constitutes Clubs and Committees of Public Safety which substitute themselves for the authorities. Nearly ten years before the Storming of the Bastille in France… The insurgents stockpile kegs of powder in Saint Peter’s Cathedral and threaten to blow up the city, if the French and Bernois Coalition does not retreat. But under the pressure of numbers, the valliant bourgeois of Geneva have to resolve to deliver up the keys to their City, and Claviere condemns himself to voluntary exile in England. His prestige is so great that he obtains a sum of fifty thousand pounds from the London Cabinet which is supposed to allow him to build the “New Geneva” in Ireland. In his exile, he maintains an active correspondence with Marat, Mirabeau, who by the way holds him to be his master, and the brothers of the Lodge of the United Friends, of which he is one of the benefactors.
When the Swiss Necker returns to power, Claviere asks to settle in France and obtains this. He attaches himself to the Party of the Girondins, occupies a subaltern post in the Finance Ministry, very happy to now be able to meet as much as he likes with his friends the Philaletes. This seems to be an epoch where good financiers are rare: less than a year later he is to be found at the head of his Ministry, very busy galloping behind an inflation which each day is gathering speed.
Is it at this epoch that he comes up with an idea even more bizarre and much crueller than that of Brother Duchanteau? One evening in 1792, he can be seen slipping through the low door of 37 rue de la Sourdiere. Once in the little room on the second floor, he greets, with bent index, the five dignitaries from the Lodge who are waiting for him, and pulls a grimoire from his riding-coat. When he opens it before these very carefully chosen men, they see that it is a manuscript and is probably very old…
Gravely, Claviere begins:
“To obtain the result, should we dare to use the means? Brothers! The Revolution is betrayed from within, beseiged from without, gold is flying away in a paper fog!… I believe that I have the power to surely fill the coffers again!”
Claviere bows his head and adds:
“But at what price!…”
He draws the book to him and begins to read. Or rather, he comments, page after page, the teaching contained in this ageless book. And what he says firstly provokes stupor and then horror in those who are listening to him. To begin with, they learn that Claviere is a most distinguished alchemist who has already performed alchemy in numerous European laboratories. That during his later voyages he had found a thousand-year-old parchment which delivers a transmutation procedure just as singular as that of Duchanteau, with horror added to it. Claviere explains:
“First of all we have to get hold of a young girl and a young boy, both virgins, then we have to obtain from them the conception of a child, necessarily a boy, who has to be born under the influence of a particular constellation… This child has to be prepared… by baths of ashes and sand and by rubbing him for a long time with elixir. Then the child must be placed… alive… if we want to succeed, in a glass recipient, itself contained in a crucible in the form of a pelican.”
One of the brothers interrupts:
“Why a pelican?”
The Minister-Mage explains with deliberation:
“The calcination of the child must be followed by repeated distillations that this form allows because the finest part will rise through the neck and will be brought back through the beak into the open chest!… This is how we shall obtain the absolute philosophical matter, at the same time an elixir of long life and the powder of projection for the transmutation of metals into gold.”
When Claviere had finished his explanation, there was a great silence in the room. He says:
“There you are. I’m sure of the result!”
One of his scandalised guests then asks:
“But what would gold acquired at this price cost?…”
Claviere will not have time to put his answer into figures. A few days later he resigns so as to involve himself more closely with the popular effervescence. He organizes the day of 20 June 1792, in the course of which the populace invades the Tuileries and forces Louis XVI to put on a Phrygian bonnet. And, one year to the day after the lugubrious meeting Rue de la Sourdiere, Claviere, after having ardently fought Danton, Marat and Robespierre, is decreed in Accusation with all of the other Girondins. Brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal on 5 September, he is firstly imprisoned in the Temple. When he learns of his death sentence, he declaims these lines from Orphelin de la Chine, that Voltaire had adapted to illustrate the superiority of spiritual forces over brute instinct:
The trembling criminals are dragged to their execution
The generous mortals dispose of their fate.
The criminals? Did Claviere therefore have time to engage in his deadly experiments? Doubtless we shall never know. But that a Swiss Finance Minister, an admirer of Gilles de Rais, had appealed to his alchemist brothers for help in saving France’s finances, is an extraordinary moment in French History all the same!
To be continued.