1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 02
Phillip was then led past the brick furnaces with their circular openings on the top into which alembic were placed to a work bench where there were a range of different sized pestles and mortars. Jakob tapped on the shoulder of the journeyman working there. “Wilhelm, this is Phillip Gribbleflotz. He’ll be helping you.” He turned to Phillip. “Wilhelm will look after you. Just do whatever he tells you to do, and don’t worry. There’s not a lot that can go wrong with a mortar and pestle.”
The moment Jakob left Wilhelm Neuffer put Phillip to work grinding up green vitriol. It was work Phillip had done before; although he’d usually ground dried herbs and seeds rather than minerals, so he didn’t need a lot of instruction or supervision. After a few minutes watching to check Phillip knew what he was supposed to be doing, Wilhelm returned his attention to his own pestle and mortar.
Several days later
As the new boy Phillip was starting at the bottom. It was his job at the end of each day to sweep the laboratory and clean out the furnace. The ashes had to be collected in metal buckets and dumped into a stone pit in the yard and dampened down with water until they were safe enough to leave. Then he had to bring in kindling to set the fires in the furnace ready for the next day. All of this was done under the watchful eye of Wilhelm. At the beginning of each day, while Wilhelm got the fire started, it was his job to ensure the wood baskets were full and haul in the buckets of water that some of the jobs performed in the laboratory required. It was hard work, not helped by the fact that he had to put in a full day grinding green vitriol as well.
A combination of a hot and windless summer’s day and the heat radiating from the furnace meant that it was stiflingly hot in the laboratory. Phillip dragged his shirtsleeve across his sweaty forehead and glanced across to his supervisor. At least Wilhelm looked just as hot and bothered as Phillip. Unfortunately, he didn’t look like he was slowing down, so Phillip shook out his tiring right arm to relieve the muscles and got back to grinding.
They weren’t the only ones feeling the effects of a long day in the hot laboratory. One apprentice in particular was suffering more than everyone else. Martin Brenner was a fourth year apprentice, and as such he should have known better than to let himself dehydrate while watching over the retort furnace where temperatures ranged from barely hot enough to distill aqua vitae at one end to hot enough to decompose green vitriol at the other. He had a headache coming on, and he was losing his ability to concentrate. Because of this he missed the first signs that the outlet from an alembic hood was clogging up on one of the retorts being used to make Oil of Vitriol.
Several minutes later Martin felt an urge to go to the toilet, and after a quick, superficial glance at the retorts, he hurried off. The close proximity of the casks of small beer to the door leading to the outhouse reminded him that he hadn’t had anything to drink since noon, so he quickly filled a mug and gulped it down before heading for the privy.
Naturally, nobody bothered to check up on the work of a fourth year apprentice when they were only supervising distillations, so while he was gone no one noticed that the alembic’s outlet had become completely clogged.
The moment the outlet clogged up the pressure in the alembic had started to grow. By the time Martin returned a few minutes later and started walking around the fire checking that condensate was flowing from all of the alembics the pressure in the clogged alembic was climbing rapidly. The situation might have been saved if the clogged alembic hadn’t been the last one he checked. By the time he got to it the pressure inside had reached critical levels.
The small beer Martin had gulped down had been too little too late, and consumed too quickly to alleviate his dehydration, so his thought processes weren’t as good as they could have been. Instead of shouting out a warning and waiting for Herr Reihing, he tried to deal with the blocked alembic himself. He grabbed a couple of pads made from rags to protect his hands and reached for the alembic. The slight twisting action he applied as he tried to lift it rubbed the alembic against the firebrick circle in which it sat, creating a scratch in glass vessel. It wasn’t much of a scratch, but it was too much for the now critically stressed vessel and it exploded in a spray of glass and a cloud of superheated sulphuric acid vapor. The acid cloud quickly enveloped Martin, condensing on his skin. As he inhaled to scream at the pain he dragged the blisteringly hot vapors into his lungs.
Nobody in the laboratory could miss the explosion of the alembic. Phillip all but dropped what he was doing, but managed to hold onto the pestle he was holding long enough to bump it onto the bench he’d been working at to stare in horror what had happened. It would have been bad enough if the exploding alembic had contained aqua vitae, as the apprentice would probably have caught fire, but what he was witnessing suggested something much worse.
A man splashed with burning alcohol might try to beat out the fire. He might also drop to the ground and writhe about as he struggled to put out the flames. Either way, one thing you could be sure of was that he wouldn’t be quiet about it. This apprentice hadn’t uttered a sound.
A hand grabbed Phillip by the shoulder. “Come on, I’ll need your help,” Wilhelm said as he dragged Phillip towards an apprentice who was screaming about his face burning.
“Take your hands away from your face, Bernhard,” Wilhelm said as he tried to pull the apprentice’s hands away from his face. “Shit!” Wilhelm muttered. “Gribbleflotz, we need water to wash away the acid.”
Phillip was sufficiently over his shock by now that he was able to string a couple of thoughts together. Acid, given that he’d spent the last few days grinding green vitriol meant Oil of Vitriol, a particularly corrosive acid, especially in the concentrations it was likely to be straight from the distillation retort. From the few times his stepfather and stepbrothers had suffered acid splatters he knew they needed to dilute, and if possible wash the acid off as quickly as possible. He glanced around, hoping to locate one or other of the buckets he’d brought in during the course of the day, but there was none close. What he did see close by though, was the barrels of stale beer. Beer was mostly water, so surely that would be good enough. “The beer barrels,” he said, tugging at Wilhelm’s hand.
Wilhelm’s eyes lit up. “Yes, beer. That’ll neutralize the acid. Good thinking, Gribbleflotz.” Wilhelm dragged Bernhard towards the barrels. The moment he reached then he opened the tap on one of them and thrust Bernhard’s face under the flow of stale beer. “Herr Reihing’s going to need my help with Martin,” Wilhelm said as he grabbed Phillip’s hands and set them to holding Bernhard’s face under the flowing beer. “Make sure you flush the Oil of Vitriol from his eyes.”
Phillip swallowed at the idea of being responsible for the older apprentice, but Wilhelm was already hurrying towards the now still body of the apprentice who’d been at the center of the explosion. Phillip stayed with Bernhard, washing his eyes and face with stale beer until a woman arrived to take over the task.
The dining hall was filled with quiet conversation that evening. The death of Martin Brenner was all most wanted to talk about. Those that had been there were being interrogated by those that had missed it. Many of them were embellishing their roles, and then there were those like Phillip, who’d been close enough to see what the acid vapor had done to Martin and would rather forget what they’d seen.
Phillip was doing his best to appear just another interested bystander, eager to hear about the heroics of others, when a shadow was cast over the table.
“You Phillip Gribbleflotz?” Bernhard Bimmel asked.
There was a collective inhaling of breath, which confused Phillip. He recognized the large youth as the person he’d helped in the laboratory. “Yes. How are you feeling?”