Robert Browne

The Paradise Prophecy

Death is the golden key that opens the palace of eternity.

-John Milton


A Priori

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.

-Paradise Lost, 1667 ed., I:263



Before they met, he knew nothing of the book, or the story surrounding it.

He hadn’t known about its size or the scope of its contents or the blackening skin of its pages or the ornate, nearly perfect penmanship that adorned them. He hadn’t known that it was housed in Prague, in one of the collections of a Holy Roman Emperor, patron of the arts and practicing alchemist. He hadn’t known that a hundred and sixty donkeys had been slaughtered to further its creation.

And he was completely unaware of the seven missing pages.

The pages that would lead to his undoing.

But much to his regret, the poet learned these things and more on a visit to Florence-there in a small villa in Arcetri, where he first met the astronomer, a pale, bearded old man condemned to spend the last years of his life as a prisoner in his own home.

This was long before the evil days, before the darkness amid the blaze of noon. Back when the poet’s life had been truly blessed, when day-to-day living had not only been pleasurable, but was often exhilarating. When he was filled with the freshness of spirit that comes with youth and intellect and an unyielding belief in newly formed ideals.

He’d been quite surprised to receive the old man’s invitation, and after months of arduous travel, taking him from London to Calais, then on to Paris and Nice and Genoa, his first instinct was to send his apologies and return home to England.

But the astronomer not only possessed one of the finest minds known to man, he was, in many ways, a kindred soul. A follower of God, yet free in spirit. A believer in individual choice who abhorred tyranny of any kind, even when it wore prelatical robes.

And when the poet read the message waiting for him at his lodgings in Livorno, he knew it would be foolish to pass up this opportunity to further his education.

So he accepted the invitation and went to Florence.

A choice that would haunt him until his dying day.

The villa was tumbledown and smelled faintly of mildew, two guards standing watch at the front gates.

He was greeted at the door by a timid young maid who looked as if she’d come straight from the convent, here to do penance for some ungodly transgression. She averted her gaze as she introduced herself, and he wondered what sad demon possessed her that would prevent her from looking him in the eye.

“Please be gentle with him,” she said softly as she escorted him down a long hallway past a row of doors. “He hasn’t been well these last few weeks and he tires easily. And be warned. He has his good days and bad, and we never quite know which to expect.”

Her words surprised the poet. He had heard that, despite his age, the astronomer was still in complete control of his faculties. But perhaps the good days this young woman spoke of were filled with enough brilliance to outweigh the bad. The old man’s writings certainly reflected this.

They came to a stop at the end of the hallway and she opened a door, gesturing him into the room beyond. The shades were drawn to block out the afternoon sun, because no sun was needed.

The old man was blind. An affliction, the poet knew, he had suffered only recently.

But his hearing was good, and the moment the door swung open, he turned in their direction and said, “I cannot teach you anything. I can only put you on a course to self-discovery. What you find, and what you do with it, is up to you.”

He sat in a chair by a blazing fireplace, his blank eyes staring out at nothing. The poet stood there in the doorway, a bit confounded, feeling as if he’d walked into the middle of a conversation and not quite knowing how to respond.

Was the old man even speaking to him?

He decided his best course of action was simply to introduce himself, but as he began forming the words, the astronomer cut him off.

“I know who you are. I invited you here, remember?”

“Yes. Yes, of course,” the poet stuttered, feeling as if he’d just been chastised by his own father. “But to be quite frank, I’m not absolutely certain why.”

The old man softened then, waving a hand at him. “Come in, come in. Have a seat. You must be weary after such a long journey.”

This was certainly true. Traveling by horseback was never easy. The poet closed the door behind him, and with the aid of the light from the fire, he found a chair and pulled it close to the old man.

It was at that very moment that the regret began to overcome him. As he sat down, an inexplicable sense of darkness descended upon him, as if the Devil himself were hovering nearby, watching and waiting with great anticipation.

“I’ve read your work,” the astronomer said. “You strike me as a man of sound intellect, with a strong belief in God.”

“I could say the same of you.”

The old man shrugged. “There are those who claim I’ve rejected scripture in favor of science, but even after my arrest and the death of my daughter, my faith in God and nature has remained firm. Whatever the course of our lives, we should receive them as the highest gift from His hand. Don’t you agree?”

The poet nodded. “Of course. But I also believe the greatest liberty God has given us is the freedom to think and speak in whatever manner our conscience may guide us.”

“As do I, my son.”

“Which is why I find your confinement here nothing short of reprehensible.”

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