Despite a heavy workload, I found time this evening to work on Day 29's challenge - Blue Powder. The very open ended nature of the title led me off in a rather curious direction...
I sat in the window of the bistro and watched the early morning mist rising off the Seine.
I left my Ipad on the blue and white checked tablecloth in front of me and admired the view as a flotilla of tiny boats pottered up the river, their bows pushing against the fog as if it were a tangible thing. Ever since I had found this place, I had spent my mornings here soaking up the Parisian atmosphere. The coffee they served was thick and black and possessed a slightly acrid taste that I found perfectly balanced their delightful pastries.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a voice to my right.
I looked up to see a middle-aged man with dark hair and a cream blazer taking his seat on the table adjacent to me.
“Paris in the morning,” he said, with a somewhat wistful smile, “There is just something magical about it, don’t you agree?”
“I love it,” I admitted.
“Ah, you’re English,” he said, “Based upon your accent, I would guess from somewhere near Wolverhampton?“
“Spot on, actually,” I said, feeling slightly nonplussed. I liked to believe that all traces of my childhood accent had long since been cleansed from my voice by my many years of moving around the UK. “And you?”
“Me? Oh, I’m from all over,” he said, beckoning the waitress over and ordering ‘his usual’ before turning back to face me. “Truth is, I’ve moved around so much that I don’t really feel like anywhere is my home these days.”
“I guess I know how that is.”
“So what brings you to Paris?”
“I’m here working.”
“Ah, such a shame to have to spend one’s time working in such a beautiful city…”
“Well I’m doing some freelance work; installing a network for a company. It’s going to take a couple of weeks so I get to hang out and enjoy Paris quite a bit.”
“Wonderful,” he said with a beaming smile, “Personally, I never can resist coming back to Paris.”
“You don’t live here, then?”
“Once, long ago, I did” he said, again smiling “But now, I am just a tourist.”
“Oh yes. I admire the wonderful history that the whole place is steeped in. Everywhere in Paris has history; why, even this humble bistro has its own little footnote.”
“Oh?” I replied, feeling genuinely curious. I always found old cities amazing in that respect; to be able to walk streets that had been walked for centuries before me, to see places that had been unchanged for centuries.
“Have you ever heard,” said the man, leaning in towards me almost conspiratorially, “of the Count of St. Germain?”
The name rang a vague bell but it tinkled away so quietly in the recesses of my brain that I couldn’t dredge up any details.
“Rings a bell, but I can’t quite place it.”
“Do you have time for me to tell you his story?”
Technically, I knew I didn’t have time; I had a meeting in a couple of hours and I’d need to get back to my hotel and pick up a few things before then. But, for some reason, I found myself saying “Sure, I’ve got time.”
The man smiled broadly.
“That’s marvellous. I was beginning to worry that the art of listening had rather gone the way of the dodo.”
“So who was this Count of St. Germain?”
“Well, two hundred and fifty years or so ago, he was very much the celebrity in European high society. An accomplished musician and courtier, an alchemist and an adventurer; this was his very favourite bistro in all of Paris.”
I looked around at the plain furnishings and found it hard to believe that, two hundred and fifty years ago, this was a place favoured by the elite.
“Right here,” said the man, his eyes twinkling. “And it was here in this very bistro that he told a tale that would eventually give rise to a legend. It was right in this very part of the room that he revealed to two of his closest companions that he was immortal.”
I laughed. “And did they believe him?”
“Well, of course, not at first. At first they thought, like you do now, that he was a charlatan or perhaps mad. But he told them a story of how, as a boy, he had been an assistant to a great alchemist in the times of Ancient Egypt and that this alchemist had, after communing with the Egyptian god Thoth, developed an elixir capable of extending the life of a man indefinitely.”
The waitress brought over his coffee and a croque-monsieur and he stopped to thank her in what was, to my ears at least, flawless French before turning back to me. Despite myself, I found myself drawn into his story as his voice and manner were incredibly charismatic.
“The alchemist intended to present the elixir to the Pharaoh but the Count, or whatever his name was then, stole the elixir in the dead of night. One pinch of this blue powder was said to be enough to preserve a man’s life for fifty years but the boy knew nothing of this and he ate mouthfuls of the powder, despite the way it tasted foul and burnt his lips and tongue. Delirious and in pain, he wandered way into the desert for weeks but the elixir had changed him irreparably; even without water or food he lived on. And as the weeks became years, and the years became decades, he realised that he was aging so slowly that it was as if the rest of the world were turning a hundred times faster for everyone else.”
He sipped at his coffee.
“And as the decades turned to centuries he began to appreciate the folly of his actions. He could not stay in one place or he would be burned as a witch; he could not love, for anything he loved would eventually die before his eyes. What he had originally thought would be a blessing turned out to be a curse, and so he wandered the world and sought refuge in learning. He became a virtuoso musician, he became a playwright, he became a lothario and a magician and, eventually, he became himself an alchemist so that he could unravel the mysteries of that which had given him this endless life.”
The man sighed.
“But it was no use. While he could create a substance that appeared similar, the blue powder that the Count created was far less potent. It could keep a man young for twenty years but its power was finite, it was nothing more than a poor facsimile. And so, as the centuries became millennia he sought death. But death would not come to him. He threw himself from a ship into the sea but found that he could not drown. And, while he could feel pain, he would eventually heal from even the most grievous of wounds. One time he even allowed himself to be burnt at the stake, only to awaken the next morning as if nothing had happened to him. There was no escape. And so he accepted his fate and found amusement in moving constantly, in finding new people even if the places themselves seemed old to him.”
“That is a cool story,” I said, “but I still don’t understand how he convinced them he was immortal?”
“Oh, he allowed them to sample the elixir he had himself created. While twenty years to him was as a drop to the ocean, to them it was a tremendous bounty.”
“But surely it can’t have worked?”
"Do you know what the average lifespan of a man in the 18th century was?”
I shrugged. “Fifty?”
“The average man in the 18th century died at thirty five.”
“And yet, one of his companions in the bistro that night, Prince Charles of Hesse Kassel would go on to live to the ripe old age of ninety one.”
“A coincidence, surely?”
“Perhaps,” nodded the man, “but it was Prince Charles who also supposedly buried the Count when he died in 1784. There are those who believe that Prince Charles enabled the Count to move onso that his youthfulness would not be detected. And there, it would seem that the story of the Count ends.”
“It is a great story,” I said with a smile. “And you tell it well.”
He held his hands up in mock protest “It is far too early in the morning to tell the story well; but I hope that it was at least something interesting to know about this place.”
I looked again at the bistro, wondering how much of the story was true and whether the mysterious Count had indeed sat close to where I was now having my breakfast all those centuries ago. I was interrupted from my thoughts by my phone ringing and fished it from my pocket to see that my boss was calling.
“Sorry,” I said to the man, “duty calls.”
“Of course,” he said, “In fact, I must shortly be off. But, it was a pleasure.”
I smiled and stood up so that I could walk to the other side of the room and take the call in private. Then spent a few minutes half listening as my boss prattled on about how he wanted to make sure that people couldn’t use the internet on the work network and I studied the engravings that hung on the wall. They were mainly French figures that I’d never heard of but I stopped at the fifth one and found myself staring.
“Are you listening to me?” said my boss.
“Got to call you back.” I said and thumbed the red button to end the call.
The engraving showed a dark haired man dressed in decorative coat and waistcoat; a tiny plaque at the bottom was inscribed with Count Saint Germain. There was, however, no mistaking the fact that the man in the engraving was the very same as the one I had just sat next to.
I spun round but the table where the man had been sitting was empty.
A flash of thoughts ran through my head. This had to be some kind of practical joke, was my first thought. Whatever was the French equivalent of Candid Camera and as soon as I reacted, a host was going to come in and poke fun at me. But that didn’t seem possible; no one could have foreseen that I would choose to go to the other side of the room.
“The man that was sitting here,” I asked the waitress, “do you know him?”
“He comes here on and off for many years,” shrugged the waitress.
I felt suddenly dizzy and sat back down at my seat. Clearly just a coincidence, I told myself, just a silly coincidence. But, as I picked up my Ipad I noticed that two things were tucked beneath it.
The first was a short note. It read: Thank you for sparing the time to listen to my story. Sharing it is one of the few pleasures that I have left so please accept this as a token of my esteem. C.S.G.
The second was a small glass vial containing blue powder.
No more than a pinch.