I want to leave Prague, said the Doctor, staring up at him through the thick rims of his spectacles. Can you help me?
Well, I think so, said René, after a moment’s pause. When were you thinking of leaving?
What are you taking with you?
What I can carry.
René looked around him at the spacious office, lined with books and alchemical equipment. Have you gold? He asked.
Some, replied the Doctor, warily. My house has not been pillaged, yet. He emphasised the final word, and René felt embarrassed. Not for me, you understand, he said, but you’ll need it wherever you are going. Do you have family?
Not as such.
Well then, accept my friendship.
Is it bad?
No, it is not bad. God has spared you that.
René breathed somewhat more deeply.
But if you wish to preserve your life, you would do well to take care when visiting certain parts of the town, especially now.
René nodded, enthusiastically.
And, added the Doctor, quickly, change your profession. A soldier lives with death, it is not amenable to a long life.
Yes, I am quitting the army, said René. I have a new purpose. Can I tell you, Doctor? An angel appeared to me in a dream and told me the treasure I sought lay in numbers and words. Can you imagine?
It sounds to me as though you are being encouraged towards a life of scholarship.
Yes, and you? What life will you start now?
The Doctor was polishing his glasses with a handkerchief. He looked up, briefly, and caught René’s eye. One of hiding, he said.
When are you leaving? Asked René. The light filtering down into the workshop from the street was already tinged a fantastic orange from the twilight. Tonight?
Yes, replied the Doctor, but I will need some help leaving the city.
I will accompany you to the gates, said René, and you should wear my clothes.
Alright, agreed the Doctor.
René was already pulling off his jacket. In the pocket is my commission from the Emperor, he said, it should get you through the lines.
You don’t need it?
Why would a scholar need a commission?
The Doctor smiled, good, he said.
René shuffled his feet awkwardly, the Doctor’s black coat hanging over his arm, while the latter busied himself in the room above packing his scrip. In a surprisingly short time, he presented himself again to René, who found himself leaving the house ahead of him, newly clad in black, the Doctor looking undersized in his elaborate uniform, pacing behind.
Smoke was rising through the sky from every corner of the city, and René saw that the orange twilight was augmented with real flame. At the gate, he was concerned that the Doctor would show fear, but instead he strode ahead, imperiously past the guards, and was ignored.
Where will you go? Asked René.
Amsterdam, came the reply.
It’s a long way, he said, uncertainly.
Perhaps I will steal a horse.
Ah, very well. Doctor, he said, reaching suddenly into his pantaloons, take this too. It was a small, delicately engraved pistol from Hungary. I have no use for it. I hope you will have none either, but it’s a long way to Amsterdam, he repeated, lamely.
Thank you, said the Doctor, embracing him to his own surprise. Good luck with your future career, M. Descartes. Farewell.
And he had disappeared into the blackness of the night. Turning back to the city, René strode back in nervously, acutely aware that he was now in civilian clothes. Hoping for the safety of his digs, he hurried back the way he had come. The Doctor’s house was already smoking, and a mob, egged on by standing soldiers, was feeding the books to an ad hoc bonfire. René, in spite of the heat, shivered.