* * *
I did as he said, and spent the entire night in the deepest prayer, for myself and for Sarah, begging God with all my might that he should intervene and stop the madness He had visited on the world. My faith is weak, a disgrace to anyone who has in life been favored as I have. I have been spared riches and fame and power and position, just as His goodness has saved me from poverty and great illness. Whatever dishonor is mine I have brought on myself, and whatever accomplishment is by His grace alone. Despite that, I did not believe enough. I prayed fervently, I used every device I knew to achieve that peaceful sincerity of submission that I had felt but once, when on a horse in dead winter with Sarah behind me. One small part of my soul, at least, knew that I was doing nothing but filling out the hours until the inevitable took place. Again and again I threw myself back into the struggle, getting ever more desperate in my attempts to force my rebellious spirit into calm. But I had spent too long amongst the rationalists and those who told me that the age of miracle was past, and the signs of the divine given to the fathers of the church had been taken from the world, never to come again. I knew it was not the case, and knew that God could and did intervene in men’s affairs still, but I could not accept it with my whole heart. I could not say those simple words, “Thy will be done,” and mean it. I meant, I know, “Thy will be done if it agrees with what I want,” and that is not prayer, nor is it submission.
My prayers failed. And shortly before dawn I lifted up my head and abandoned the attempt, and knew that I was alone. I knew that I would receive no help, and that the one thing I desired most of all would not be given me. I would lose her, and at that moment knew that Sarah was the most precious part of my life, and the most precious thing that would ever be in my life. I accepted my punishment and in the quiet of dawn and despair perhaps then I prayed truly for the first time. All I know is that the darkness lifted from me, and a feeling of the most profound peace came to rest on my soul, and I found myself on my knees once more, thanking God with all my heart for His goodness.
I did not know what would happen, and could not understand how it could possibly be that the inevitable march of man’s cruelty could be thrust aside. But I no longer questioned or doubted. I dressed myself as warmly as possible, took my thickest cloak—for although spring had come it was still frosty at dawn—and joined the throng of people walking down towards the castle to see the execution.
There was only one person to die that day; the judge was as merciful with others as he was vengeful with her, and the affair would be over in only a short time. As I approached the mob gathered round the big tree in the courtyard, the rope already hanging from the thick bough and the ladder in place, my heart sank and the doubt came upon me once again, but with a mighty effort of will I pushed all such thoughts from me. I did not even know why I was there; certainly there was no purpose in it, and I did not wish Sarah to see me. But I knew that it was necessary, somehow, and that her life depended on my presence, although I could not begin to comprehend how.
Lower was also there, with Locke and a few burly fellows, one of whom I recognized as a porter from Christ Church. Strange company, I thought, before it dawned on me what he was proposing. I had not seen him now for several days, but I should have realized he would not readily pass up an opportunity to get more material for his book. He was a kind man but dedicated to his work; the look of grim determination on his face as he paced up and down was not that of someone who anticipated any enjoyment from imminent events, but he was certainly not going to flinch from them.
I avoided him; I had no desire for conversation and I scarcely even noticed another small party, standing to one side, talking loudly and making coarse jokes, which clustered around the Regius professor. Had I paid more attention, I have no doubt I would also have given more significance to the whispered conference between Lower and his associates, to the way they positioned themselves next to the hanging tree, and the look of grim satisfaction on Lower’s face as he surveyed the coming battlefield and the disposition of his forces.
And then Sarah was brought out, in heavy chains and between two large guards, although scarce any were needed, so small and frail and weak did she look. It made my heart break to see her; her eyes were heavy and the blackness of the rings around them was made more visible by the deathly pallor of her face; her beautiful dark hair was uncovered, but seemed beautiful no longer; she had always combed it lovingly, it was her greatest—indeed her only—vanity. Now it was matted and unkempt, and was bundled up coarsely above her neck, so it would not get in the way of the rope.
I merely repeat what Cola has already documented from my lips; she did indeed dismiss the priest in a way which brought loud applause from the crowd, said her own prayers and then made a brief speech which, while she confessed to sins, did not confess to the one sin for which she was about to die. There was no ringing heroism or defiance, or appeal for the crowd’s sympathy, such as would be appropriate for a man in similar circumstances. Her common sense, I am sure, told her that it would be unseemly from her lips, and win her no admiration. Rather, the way to the mob’s heart lay through courage and submission and, as these two greatest of human qualities were in natural conformity to her nature, she won their applause merely by being herself—and to be that in such an extremity is, to my mind, the greatest of achievements.
Once all was over, she mounted the ladder after the hangman, and then waited patiently as he fumbled around her with the rope. I do not know why hangings have to be so coarse and crude; the last moments should be more dignified, not this welter of legs and arms up a rickety ladder propped uncertainly against a tree trunk, and to submit without exciting laughter is rare. But the crowd was in no mood for laughter that morning; her youth, her frailty and her calm stilled any ribaldry, and they watched with greater quiet and respect than I have ever seen at such an event.
Then the drums sounded; only two drummers, both boys aged about twelve whom I had seen many times playing in the street; the days when a proper troop would perform the ceremony were gone now, and the magistrate had decided there was no need of soldiers that morning. He did not anticipate any trouble from the crowd, as might have been the case if a popular figure in the town, or a highwayman of standing, or a man with a family, was being hanged. Nor was there. The crowd fell absolutely silent, the drums followed suit, and the hangman—with a movement of the most surprising delicacy—pushed Sarah off the ladder.
“God have mercy.” This was her cry, and the last was lost as the rope pulled tight under her weight, and ended in a strangled sob that brought a sigh of sympathy from the crowd. And then she swung there, her face turning purple, and her limbs twitching and the stench spreading as the telltale stains on her shift showed that the noose was having its usual foul effect.
I will not continue; there can be few who have not seen such a sight, and even now the memory pains me beyond belief, although I recall that I watched it all with the most remarkable calm, despite the sudden and terrifying clap of thunder and darkening of the skies which broke from heaven as she fell. I prayed for her soul, and for my own, once again and lowered my eyes that I should not see the end.
I had reckoned without Lower, and his determination to beat the Regius professor to the body. He had, of course, bribed the hangman in advance; this accounted for the nods and winks that passed between them, and the fact that he was suffered to be so close to the tree; I did not realize he had purchased Sarah’s permission with a promise of treatment for her mother, nor indeed that the mother at that very moment lay breathing her last only a few hundred yards away from the castle. Sarah had only just stopped twitching and convulsing when Lower cried in a loud voice to his little army, “Right, lads,” and surged forward, giving a sign to the hangman who straightaway pulled a large knife from his belt and sliced through the rope.
Sarah’s body fell the three feet to the ground with a heavy thump, accompanied by the first muttering of disapproval from the crowd, and Lower bent down to see if she still breathed. “Dead,” he shouted after a proper examination, so that all might hear, and signed for his comrades to come forward. The porter from Christ Church picked up the body and threw it over his shoulder, and before anyone could react at all, began to head off, almost breaking into a run as the protests from the crowd grew. Two others in his party stood back to head off the Regius professor’s men should they try to intercept, and Lower looked around once before following his prize.
Right across that open patch of land our eyes met, and in mine he can have seen nothing but disgust. He gave a little shrug, then cast his eyes down, and would look at me no more. Then he too turned and ran off, into the rain which was already falling heavily and with appalling ferocity.
I hesitated for only a brief moment before leaving myself, but unlike the crowd, who attempted a pursuit and became blocked in the narrow gateway by all trying to run out at the same moment, I left by the other entrance. For I knew where Lower was going, and did not need to keep him in my sight in order to catch up with him and his gruesome prize.
He must have moved quickly, and knew that the faster he went the better, for the crowd was now in an unforgiving mood. They accepted the hanging as God’s will and the king’s justice, and went to see all the proprieties maintained. What they did not accept—for crowds have a fine sense of right and wrong—was any meanness of behavior. The condemned must die, but must be treated well. Lower had offended victim and town, and I knew it would go hard with him should he be caught.
They did not, however, for he had planned well; I only just caught up with him myself before he slipped in the back of Boyle’s elaboratory and mounted the stairs.
I was still cold with shock at what he had done. I knew all his arguments in advance, had heard them all before and even agreed with most of them, but this I could not countenance. You may say that, considering all I had done and not done, I had long since resigned any right to make judgments. I did so nonetheless and mounted the stairs so that, if I could not ensure justice was done, I could at least maintain appearances.
He had already posted guards on the stairs, lest the crowd realize that he had come here rather than to Christ Church, and was on the verge of bolting the doors so that no one could disturb him in his horrible labor. I, however, managed to burst in by pushing all my weight against the door before the bolts were shot.
“Lower,” I cried when I stopped and briefly took in the hellish scene in front of me. “This must stop.”
Locke was there already to assist, as well as a barber to attend on the more mechanical aspects of the dissection.
Sarah had already been stripped naked and that beautiful body which I had held so often lay on the table as the barber roughly washed it down and prepared it for the knife. That she was dead no one could doubt for a moment; her poor broken body was as drained as a corpse is, and only the thick red weal around the neck, and strangled expression of anguish on her face, destroying all beauty, showed all too well what had become of her.
“Don’t be absurd, Wood,” he said wearily. “She’s dead. The soul has gone. I can do nothing to hurt her further. You know that as well as I. I know you were fond of her, but it is too late for that.”
He looked at me kindly, and patted me on the back. “Look, my friend,” he said. “You will not like this. I don’t blame you, it takes a strong stomach. You should not stay here to watch. Take my advice and go away, old fellow. It will be better. Believe me.”
I was too mad to listen, but angrily flung off his kindly touch and retreated, daring him to act in the bestial way he intended in my eyesight, thinking, perhaps foolishly, that my presence would make him see the evil he did, and desist.
He looked at me for several moments, uncertain about how to proceed, until Locke coughed in the background.
“We have little time, you know,” he said. “The magistrate gave us an hour only, and time is going. Quite apart from what will happen if the crowd finds out where we are. Make up your mind.”
With difficulty, Lower did, and turned away from me, and back to the table, signing for all others to leave the room. I sank down on my knees, begging the Lord, anyone, to do something and stop this nightmare. Even though it had served no purpose the night before, I went over all my prayers and my promises. Oh Lord God incarnate for our sins, have mercy on this poor innocent, if not on me.
Then Lower picked up his knife, and placed it on her breast. “Ready?” he asked.
Locke nodded, and with a swift, sure movement he began to make his incision. I shut my eyes.
“Locke,” I heard him call through my darkness, suddenly angry, “what on earth do you think you’re doing? Let go of my hand. Is everyone gone mad here?”
“Stop a moment.”
And Locke, whom I had never liked, pulled the knife away from the body, and bent over the corpse. Then, with a puzzled look on his face, he repeated the movement, so that his cheek rested on her mouth.
I could scarcely restrain my tears at those few simple words, which said so much. Lower gave his own explanations later; how she must have been cut down too early in his efforts to get hold of the corpse first, and how, rather than life itself, merely the appearance of it had been extinguished. How the fall had merely strangled and brought temporary oblivion only. I know all this; he told me his reasons time and again, but I knew differently, and never bothered to contradict him. He believed one thing; I knew another. I knew that I had witnessed the greatest miracle of history. I had seen resurrection; for the spirit of God moved in that room, and the soft wings of the dove that attended her conception returned to beat on Sarah’s soul. It is not given to man, and certainly not to physicians, to restore life when it is extinguished. Lower would argue this proves she was never dead, but he had pronounced her so himself and he had studied the question more carefully than anyone. People say the age of miracles is past, and I believed that myself. But it is not so; they do occur, only we are getting better at explaining them away.
“So what do we do now?” I heard Lower say, a tone of the greatest bafflement and surprise in his voice. “Should we kill her, do you think?”
“She is meant to be dead. Not to kill her would merely postpone the inevitable, and ensure I lost her.”
I could not believe my ears. Surely, after witnessing such a marvel, my friend could not be serious? He could not go against the manifest will of God and commit murder? I wanted to stand up and remonstrate with him, but found that I could not. I could not stand, I could not open my mouth; all I could do was sit there and listen, for I think the Lord had still more purpose that day as well; He wanted Lower to redeem himself as well, if only he would take the opportunity.
“I’d hit her on the head,” he said, “except that would damage the brain.” And he stood awhile in thought before scratching his chin nervously. “I’ll have to cut her throat,” he went on. “It’s the only solution.”
And again he picked up his knife, and again he hesitated, before quietly laying it down again. “I can’t do this,” he said. “Locke, advise me. What should I do?”
“I seem to remember,” Locke said, “that we physicians are meant protect life, and are never meant to kill. Is that not the case?”
“But legally,” Lower replied, “she is already dead. I am merely doing properly what should already have been done.”
“Are you a hangman then?”
“She was condemned to die.”
“You know very well she was.”
“I remember,” Locke said, “that she was sentenced to be hanged by the neck. She has been so. There was no mention of her being hanged by the neck until dead. I admit this is normally understood and stated, but as it was not in this case, it cannot be counted a necessary part of the punishment.”
“She has also been condemned to burn,” Lower said. “And the hanging was merely a way of sparing her pain. Are you telling me we should now hand her over to the pyre and let her burn alive?”
Then his attention was brought to Sarah herself, who issued a soft, low moan as she lay all unattended while they conducted their dispute.
“Bring me a bandage,” he said, the physician once more. “And let me bind up this cut I made in her.”
For the next five minutes or so, he worked steadily on the wound, fortunately only small, before he and Locke used all their strength to raise her up into a sitting position, resting her back against their shoulders, and swinging her legs down off the table. Finally, while Locke instructed her on deep breathing, so that her head might steady itself, Lower fetched a cloak, and with the utmost gentleness, covered her up.
A living, sitting woman is more difficult to contemplate killing than a corpse flat out on a table and, by the time the movement was finished, Lower’s attitude had entirely changed. His natural kindness, kept at bay on many occasions by his ambition, swept all before it and, whatever he thought he should do, he began to treat the girl as his patient almost without being aware of it. And he was always ferocious in the defense of those whom he considered to be under his protection.
“But what do we do now?” he said, and all of us in that room were aware that while this had been continuing, the noise from the street outside had insensibly grown, so that now there was the roar of a substantial number of people outside. Locke poked his head out of the window.
“It is the crowd. I told you they wouldn’t like this,” he said. “Just as well it is raining so hard, it keeps most of them away.” He peered up into the sky. “Have you ever seen rain like this before?”
Another groan from Sarah, who bent her head down and was violently sick, heaving and retching, distracted their attention once again. Lower brought some spirits, and patted her on the head as he forced her to drink some, although it only made her retch the more.
“If you tell them this, they will only say it was a sign of disfavor at what you intended. They will take her away and put her on the pyre, then stand guard to make sure you get nowhere near.”
“Are you saying we shouldn’t hand her over?”
Through all this, I had said not a word, but merely stood in the corner and watched. Now I found my voice was given back to me. I could make a difference in this balance, for it was clear that all must agree to whatever action was taken.
“You must not,” I said. “She has done no wrong. She is entirely innocent. I know it. If you hand her over, you will not only abandon a patient, you will abandon an innocent whom God has favored.”
“And you are sure of this?” Locke said, turning and apparently noticing me for the first time.
“I am. 1 tried to tell the court, but was hooted down.”
“1 will not ask you how you know,” he said softly, and his penetrating look made me realize, for the first and only time, how it was that he subsequently achieved such a place in the world. For he saw more than other people, and guessed more still. I was grateful to him for his silence, and have been ever since.
“Very well,” he continued. “The only problem is that we may take her place on the gallows. I am a generous man, I think, but even I have limits to what I will do for a patient.”
Lower, meanwhile, had been pacing up and down in the greatest agitation, occasionally sneaking a glimpse out of the window, then looking in turn at Sarah, then Locke, then me. When Locke and I had finished our exchange, he spoke—“Sarah?” he said softly, and repeated it until she lifted up her head and looked at him. Her eyes were bloodshot and ill, for the little vessels within them had ruptured, and gave her the air of a very devil, and the whiteness of her complexion made this seem even more frightening.
“Can you hear me? Can you speak?”
After a long pause, she nodded.
“You must answer me a question,” he said, coming and kneeling on one knee before her, so that she could see him clear. “Whatever you have said in the past, you must say the truth now. For our lives and souls depend on it, as well as yours. Did you kill Dr. Grove?”
Even though I knew the truth, I did not know the answer she would give. And she did not give one for some time, but eventually she shook her head.
“Your confession was false?”
A little nod.
“You swear this by all you hold dear?”
Lower stood up, and heaved a heavy sigh. “Mr. Wood,” he said. “Take this girl upstairs to Boyle’s chamber. He will be indignant if he discovers, so try not to make a mess. Dress her as best you can, and cut off her hair.”
I stared uncomprehending, and Lower frowned. “Now, Mr. Wood, if you please. You must never query a physician while he is trying to save a life.”
And I led Sarah out by the hand, hearing Lower murmur—in the next room, Locke. It is a long shot, but it may serve.”
Although there seemed little wrong with her, Sarah was still unable to speak or do anything except sit, staring into space as I followed my instructions. It is hard cutting off hair without a scissor, and the result would have done no credit to a woman of fashion. That, however, was not Lower’s intention, whatever else he had in mind, and within a short while I had done as I was told, then tried my best to clear up the mess.
Then I sat down beside her, and took her hand. There were no words I could say that would have answered my need, so I said none. But I squeezed lightly, and eventually felt the very slightest of squeezes back. It was enough; I broke down in the most complete of sobs, bending my head down across her breast while she sat there immobile.
“Did you really think I would leave you?” she said in a voice so soft and weak I could barely hear her.
“I could hardly hope for anything better. I know I did not deserve as much.”
“Who am I?”
It was the most glorious moment of my life. Everything before built to that question, everything after, the years of life which I have had since and still hope to have, are the merest coda to it. For the first and the last time, I had no doubts and had no need of thought or calculation. I did not need to consider, or assess evidence, nor yet to use any of the skills of interpretation needed for lesser matters; all I had to do was state the manifest truth without fear, and in perfect confidence. Some things, indeed, are so obvious that examination is redundant and logic contemptible. The truth was there to be believed, the most perfect gift because so undeserved. I knew. That was all.
“You are my Savior, the living God, born of the spirit, persecuted, insulted and abused, known to the Magi, who died for our sins and is resurrected as happened before and will happen again in every generation of man.”
Anyone who heard me would have thought me mad, and in that sentence I stepped forever out of the full society of my fellow men and into a peace of my own.
“Tell no one of this,” she said softly.
“And I am afraid. I cannot bear to lose you,” I added, ashamed of my own selfishness.
Sarah seemed scarcely to pay any attention, but eventually leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead. “You should not be afraid, and should never be afraid. You are my love, my dove, my dearest and I am your friend. I will not forsake you nor ever neglect you.”
They were the last words she spoke to me, the last I ever heard from her lips, and I sat by her side, holding her hand and staring in awe at her until a noise from below roused me once more. Then I rose from the bed where she sat, staring blankly across the room, and went back down to Lower. Sarah now seemed completely unaware of my existence.
The carnage in that room downstairs was truly diabolical, and even I, who knew the truth, was appalled by it. How much greater must Cola’s shock have been when he forced his way in, and saw what he thought to be Sarah’s body. For Lower had taken the corpse he had acquired in Aylesbury, and roughly hacked it into unrecognizable fragments, so brutalizing the head that it was scarcely recognizable as human. He himself was covered in blood from a dog Locke had slaughtered to complete the illusion, and the stench of the alcohol in the room was unbearable, even though the window was wide open to allow the winds into the room.
“Well, Wood?” he said, turning to me with a grim expression. Locke, I saw, had resumed his languid, absent pose, and was standing idly by at the door. “Will anybody spot our imposition, do you think?” And with a knife, he levered an eyeball out of the skull on the table, so that it hung by a thread from its socket.
“I have cut her hair, but the experience has so affected her she is hardly capable of moving, I think. What do you suggest we do with her now?”
“Boyle’s servant has some clothes in the cupboard next the chamber,” he said. “At least, he normally keeps them there. I think we must borrow them. Dress her up, and get her out of the building so no one will recognize her. Meantime, keep her upstairs and quiet. No one must see her, or even suspect there is anyone there.”
Again I mounted the stairs, found the clothes and began the lengthy process of getting Sarah into them. She spoke not a word during the whole operation, and when I was finished I left her and went out by Mr. Crosse’s back door and followed a little lane down to Merton Street and my house.
First, however, I called into the Feathers, as I needed a few moments to steady my nerves and collect my thoughts. And was approached by Cola, looking tired and worn out himself, who wanted news of the execution. I told him the entire truth except for the one detail of importance and he, poor man, took it as confirmation of his theory about blood transfusion, that the death of the spirit in the donor must inevitably cause the death of the recipient as well. I could not, for obvious reasons, illuminate him on this point, and demonstrate that his theory had a fatal evidential flaw.
He also told me of the death of the mother, which grieved me greatly, for it was yet another burden for Sarah to bear. But I forced myself to put it aside as Cola went to remonstrate with Lower, and I went myself to my house to discover my mother in the kitchen. She had been greatly affected by Sarah’s fall, and had taken to sitting quietly by the fire when she was not praying for the girl. This morning, as I arrived—for despite everything it was still scarcely eight—she sat all alone in the chair no one else was allowed to occupy, and I saw to my astonishment that she had been crying when no one was there to see her. But she pretended not to do so, and I pretended not to notice, as I had no wish to humiliate her. Even then, I think, I wondered how something of normal life could continue despite the wonders I had just witnessed, and could not understand how no one had noticed anything, except myself.
“And it is done?”
“After a fashion,” I replied. “Mother, I must ask you something in all seriousness. What would you have done to help her, had it been in your power?”
“Anything,” she said firmly. “You know that. Anything.”
“If she had escaped, would you have assisted her, even though it meant breaking the law yourself? Not given her up?”
“Of course,” she said. “The law is nothing when it is wrong, and deserves to be disregarded.”
I looked at her, for the words sounded strange on her lips, until I realized it was something I had once heard Sarah say herself.
“Would you help her now?”
“She is beyond my help, I think.”
She said nothing, so I continued, my words blurting out once I had gone too far to retract. “She died and is alive again. She is in Mr. Boyle’s apartment. She is still alive, Mother, and no one knows of it. Nor will they ever, unless you say something, as we have all decided to try and help her away.”
This time even my presence did not provide enough incentive to spare her dignity, and she rocked back and forth in her chair, clutching her hands together and muttering “Thank God, thanks to God, all praise to God,” with the tears welling up in her eyes and rolling down her cheeks until I took her by the hand and got her attention once more. “She needs hiding until we can get her out of the town. Do I have your permission to bring her here? If I hide her in my study, you will not betray her?”
Of course she gave her absolute promise, and I knew it was better than any I might make, so I kissed her on the cheek, and told her I would be back after nightfall. I last saw her bustling about the kitchen, dragging out vegetables and our last winter ham for a celebratory feast when Sarah should come again.
It continued a strange day, that one, for after all the frenzied activity of the first few hours, all of us—Lower, Locke and myself—found ourselves with time on our hands, and little to do until night came. Lower realized that the events at least had made up his mind about journeying to London, for his reputation amongst the townsfolk would never be the same again, such was the disapproval of his supposed activities. He now had no choice but to risk all and begin the long task of establishing himself elsewhere. The remains of the girl he had bought in Aylesbury were taken off to the castle and burned on the pyre—Lower’s humor returned sufficiently for him to remark that she had been pickled in so much alcohol it would be fortunate if she did not blow up the entire building—and I had been given money by Cola to ensure the decent burial of Mrs. Blundy.
Organizing the burial was a simple, if painful, process; there were plenty of people who were now prepared to do something, so great was the revulsion felt for the fate of the girl, that they were happy to make some amends by treating the mother as well as possible, especially as they were to be paid for their kindness. I had the priest at St. Thomas’s undertake to perform the rites, and set them for that evening, and he also sent his men round to collect the body and prepare it. It was not either the priest or the church the woman would have chosen for herself, but I had no clear idea who should do it, and as asking anybody but an established minister would create untold difficulties, I decided it was best to avoid unnecessary complications. The service was set for eight o’clock that evening and, as I left, the priest was already shouting at the sexton, telling him to dig a grave in the poorer, more neglected part of the churchyard so that a more valuable plot, such as is occupied by gentlemen, was not used by accident.
I had entirely put out of my mind the unwelcome task of telling Sarah what had occurred. It would have to be done, of course, and I knew I would have to do it, but I simply postponed it as long as possible. Lower had already been told by Cola, and looked greatly upset by the news.
“I cannot understand it,” he said. “She was not well, and was very weak, but when 1 saw her she was not dying. When did she die?”
“I do not know. Mr. Cola told me of it. He was with her, I think.”
Lower’s face darkened. “That man,” he said. “I’m sure he killed her.”
“Lower! That is a terrible thing to say.”
“I don’t mean deliberately. But his grasp of theory is better than his practice.” He sighed heavily, and looked mightily concerned. “I feel bad about this, Wood. I really do. I should have attended the woman myself. You know Cola planned to give her more blood?”
“He did. I could not stop him, of course, as she was his patient, but I refused to have anything to do with it.”
“It was the wrong treatment?”
“Not necessarily. But we had a falling out, and I did not wish to be associated with him. I told you that Wallis said he has in the past stolen other men’s ideas.”
“Many times,” I said. “So?”
“So?” Lower repeated, greatly affronted. “Is there anything worse?”
“He might have been a scheming Jesuit, here in secret to rekindle civil strife and subvert the kingdom,” I suggested. “That might be accounted worse.”
“Not by me.”
And the remark broke the tension which had been building up all day, and all of a sudden both Lower and I found ourselves collapsing in gales of laughter, roaring until the tears rolled down our cheeks, gripping each other tightly as our bodies shook with the most strange merriment. We ended on the floor, Lower flat on his back, still heaving, I with my head between my knees as the laughter made my head spin and my jaw ache. I loved Lower dearly then, and knew that, whatever our differences and whatever gruffness of character he might have, I would always love him, for he was a truly good man.
When we recovered and wiped the tears from our eyes, it was Lower who brought up the topic of what to do with Sarah. No laughing matter, that.
“She must obviously leave Oxford immediately,” I said. “She cannot stay in my chamber forever and even with her hair cut, she is easily recognizable. But where she should go, and what she should do, I am at a loss to suggest.”
“How much ready money do you have?”
“About four pounds,” I said. “Much of which is the money due to you and Cola for her mother’s treatment.”
He waved that aside. “Another patient defaults. Not the first, and not the last, I’ll be bound. For my part I have two pounds, and in a fortnight I am due my annuity from my family. Out of that, I can afford another two.”
“If you make it up to four, I will repay you the difference when my own quarterly comes in.”
He nodded. “Ten pounds then. Not a lot, even for a girl of her condition. I wonder…”
“You know my younger brother is a Quaker?”
He said it quite naturally, and without evident shame, although I knew it was a topic he touched on with only the greatest reluctance. Indeed, there were many who knew him well who were entirely unaware that Lower even had a brother, so greatly did he fear being damaged by the association. I met this man once, and did not dislike him. Just as his face was like Lower’s without the same expression, so his character was like that of his brother without the merriment and easy laughter, for laughter, I am told, is forbidden among them as a sin.
“He is in business with a group of like-minded people who wish to go to places where they will not come under attack; the countries of Massachusetts and suchlike. I could write to him, and ask him to get Sarah Blundy sent there. She could leave as a servant, or as someone’s relative, and would then have to make her own way when she arrives.”
“It is a harsh punishment for one who has done no wrong.”
“Few who go there of their own volition have done anything wrong. Yet they go nonetheless. She will be in good company, and will find more people there of her like than she will ever do here.”
After all that had happened, the thought of her leaving, of never seeing her again, tore at my heart and I know that I argued against the plan for selfish reasons. But Lower was right; if she stayed in England, then sooner or later she would be discovered. Someone—an old comrade of her father, or a traveling man from Oxford, or an old student—would see her and recognize her. Her life would be in the balance every day and so would ours be. I had no idea what, technically, the law said about what we had done, but I knew that few judges looked kindly on anyone who presumed to interfere with their prerogatives. She had been condemned to death, and was alive. All of Locke’s cleverness in argument would have a hard time explaining that one away.
And so we agreed; or at least, we agreed that it should be put to Sarah, as the scheme was impossible if she would not give her consent. Lower undertook to suggest the plan, as it was his idea and he would have to do all the arranging with the dissidents. I took myself back to St. Thomas’s to ensure that the preparations for the funeral were going well and fully expected that I would be the only person there at the service itself.
Sarah was not content because she did not wish to leave her mother, and it was only Lower informing her that the woman was dead which brought her to sense. All her own trials she had borne with fortitude; the loss of this woman brought out all her weakness. I will say no more, except that Lower was not the best of people to deliver comfort. He was kind and desired the best for all; but he did have a tendency to become gruff and unsympathetic when confronted with a misery he could do nothing to alleviate. I have little doubt that his tone—matter-of-fact to the point of being brutal—only made matters worse.
Sarah insisted on coming to the funeral, even though Lower remonstrated with her forcefully about the foolishness of such a desire, but she insisted and was quite impossible to divert. The fact that my mother backed her up, and said she would bring the girl to the church whatever Dr. Richard Lower said, decided the matter.
I was distressed when all three of them arrived, Lower looking anxious, my mother grim and Sarah blank, as though some vitality had left her body, never to return. They had done their best to disguise her appearance and had dressed her as a boy, covering her head with a cap pulled down low in front of her eyes, but I was terrified that at any moment the priest would look up from his book, and stare goggle-eyed before rushing off to call the watch. But he did nothing of the sort; merely droned through the service faster than was seemly, refusing to make the slightest effort for the soul of a woman who was not a lady, not a rich parishioner, nor indeed anyone who should attract the condescension of someone as grand as he. I felt, I must say, like slapping him, and telling him to do his job properly, so ashamed I was. With priests like that, no wonder so many people turn elsewhere. When he was over, he snapped the book shut, nodded at us, held out his hand for his fee, then stalked off. He would not, he said, finish the rest of the ceremony at the graveside as the woman was all but a heathen. He had done his legal requirement, and he would do no more.
Lower, I think, was even more furious than I at this callousness, although I like to believe the man would have been more considerate had he known that a member of the woman’s family was present. But he did not, so made no effort, and the result was one of the most painful events I have ever witnessed. And for Sarah, it must have been many times more anguishing. I did my best to comfort her.
“She will be sent on her way by her daughter, who loved her, and her friends, who tried to help her,” I said. “That is far better, and more appropriate. She would not have liked to be intoned over at the graveside by a man like that in any case.”
So Lower and I picked up the bier ourselves, and carried it out of the church stumbling across the yard in the dark with only one taper to guide us. A more different occasion than the one which attended the burial of Dr. Grove could not be imagined, but we were, at least, all at one now the minister was gone.
It fell to me to make the speech, for Lower did not know her well, and Sarah seemed unable to speak. I had no idea what was appropriate, but simply spoke the first thoughts that came into my head. I said that I had known her only in the last few years, that we were not of the same faith, she and I, and could not be further apart in matters of politics. Yet I honored her as a good woman, and a courageous one, who did right as she saw it, and was also a seeker after the truths she wished to know. I would not say she was the most obedient of wives, for she would have scorned to be described in such a way. Yet she was the greatest support for her husband, and both loved and helped him in all the ways he wanted and expected. She fought herself for what he also believed and brought up a daughter who was courageous, true, gentle and good, better than anyone could conceive. In this best of fashions she honored her Creator, and was blessed for it. I believed she had no faith in the afterlife, for she distrusted anything that came from the mouths of priests. Yet I knew she was wrong, and that she would be welcomed into God’s embrace.
It was an inarticulate mish-mash, that speech of mine, delivered rather to give such comfort as I could to Sarah, than to paint a true portrait of the dead woman. Yet I believed it all then, and believe it still. I know it is inconceivable that a woman like her, of her religion and her opinions, of her status and her deeds, could ever be accounted worthy or noble or virtuous in any form. But she was all of these, and I do not trouble any more about reconciling my beliefs with those of other men.
When I had done, there was an awkward pause before my mother led Sarah up to the body, and pulled back the cloth so that the face was exposed. It was raining heavily, and inexpressibly miserable as little spots of mud were thrown up by the rain, spattering on the dead woman as she lay there on the damp, cold ground. Sarah knelt down, and we all stood back while she muttered a prayer of her own; she finished by leaning over and kissing her mother’s forehead, then gently tidied away a wisp of hair that had come loose from the old woman’s best bonnet.
She stood up once more. Lower tugged me by the arm and together we lowered the corpse into the ground as gently and decorously as we could manage before Sarah performed her final duty as a daughter and scattered the earth over the grave opening. We all followed suit, and finally Lower and I wielded the shovels ourselves, filling up that hole as swiftly as we could. When it was all completed, and we were all thoroughly drenched and muddy and cold, we simply turned and walked away. There was nothing else to be done, except attend once more to the living.
Lower, as usual, had been busier and more effective than I. He had taken it upon himself to borrow Boyle’s coach—reasoning correctly that the vehicle of such a man would not be stopped or even examined by the watch, however late it was to be found on the road—and hired two horses to pull it. He proposed to take Sarah himself to Reading, sufficiently far from Oxford to be safe, especially as relations between the two towns were bad enough to ensure that there was, at present, little communication between them. There he would lodge Sarah with associates of his brother, a family of dissenters whom he could guarantee would guard her secret, or what little they were to be told of it. When his brother returned and passed through the town on his way back to Dorset, he would be informed of events and would certainly take the girl under his wing, putting her on the first ship available taking dissenters away from England. So it was agreed by all of us.
I cannot bring myself to write of my final parting from her, my final look at her face, and will not do so.
Sarah left ten days later in the company of his brother, made her way under his guidance to Plymouth and there took passage.
It was the last anyone ever heard of her. She never arrived in America and it was assumed she had fallen overboard. But the boat was becalmed at the time and was in any case so crowded it was difficult to imagine anyone coming to grief without being noticed. Yet she simply disappeared one day in full sunlight and without any sound, as though she had been taken up bodily into the heavens.