Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the medical journey of the next week initially proved to be of great value to my troubled state of mind. I discovered that, in only a brief space of time, the atmosphere of Oxford had settled on me, rendering me as melancholic as most of its inhabitants. There is something about the place; a dampness which is oppressive to the spirits, which bears down most powerfully on the soul. I have for long had a theory about the weather which, if God spares me, I would like to develop one day. I do believe that the wetness and grayness of the climate will forever preclude the English from making much of a stir in the world, unless they abandon their island for more sunny climes. Transport them to the Americas or the Indies, and their character is such that they could rule the world; leave them where they are, and they are doomed to sink in lassitude. I have personal experience of this in the way in which my normally cheerful temperament became dampened by the experience of residing there.
Nonetheless, finding myself astride a horse on what seemed like the first day of spring after a long hard winter, in the open countryside that begins the moment you cross the old, dangerous-looking bridge after the college of St. Mary Magdalen, was a wonderful tonic. Moreover, the wind had finally shifted from the north to the west, removing the ill effects of this most deadening of airs. I must add that the prospect of having nothing to do with Sarah Blundy or the corpse of Robert Grove for a few days also helped.
Lower had organized the expedition well in advance and rushed me off that first morning, pushing the horses hard until we arrived in late afternoon at Aylesbury, in the next county. We put up in an inn, where we rested ourselves until the execution the next morning. I did not attend, taking little pleasure in such spectacles, but Lower did—the girl, he said, made a wretched speech and quite lost the sympathy of the crowd. It had been a complicated case and the town was by no means convinced of her guilt. She had killed a man whom she said had raped her, but the jury judged this a lie because she had fallen pregnant, which cannot occur without the woman taking pleasure in the act. Normally her condition would have spared her the gallows, but she had lost the child and also any defense against the hangman. An unfortunate outcome, which those who believed in her guilt considered divine providence.
Lower assured me his attendance was necessary; a hanging is a detestable sight, but one of his many fascinations was when exactly the moment of death occurs. This related directly to our experiments with the dove in the air pump. Most of those hanged asphyxiate slowly at the end of the rope and it was a matter of some considerable interest to him—and to physick in general—how long it takes for the soul to depart. He was, he assured me, a considerable expert in the matter. For this reason, he positioned himself next to the tree to take notes.
He also got his corpse, once he had tipped the officials and paid a pound to the family. He had it carried to an apothecary of his acquaintance and, after he prayed in his fashion and I in mine, we began work. Some anatomization we performed there—I took the heart while he cracked open the skull and drew some delightful sketches of the brain—then we jointed the rest and placed the portions in several large vats of spirit which the apothecary undertook to deliver to Crosse’s shop. He also wrote a letter to Boyle telling them the vats were on their way and should on no account be opened.
“I don’t know that he will be so very pleased,” he said, once he had washed his hands and we had retired to the inn for food and drink. “But where else could I send them? My college refuses to have corpses on the premises for any length of time, and if I sent it to anyone else they might well practice on it before I returned. Some people have no shame in these matters.”
As for the rest of our trip, there is little point in going into details. The patients came in thick and fast once we had established ourselves in the various inns on our route and I returned ten days later sixty-five shillings the richer. The average fee was four pence, nobody ever paid more than one and sixpence, and when I was paid in kind I had to sell the various geese and ducks and hens at a discount to local traders (we ate one goose, but I could hardly return to Oxford with a farmyard menagerie trailing behind me). All this should give an idea of how many patients I treated.
I will retell the events of one day, because they were of significance. This was in Great Milton, a small settlement to the east of Oxford, to which we had repaired because a distant branch of Boyle’s family owned a property there, assuring us a comfortable bed for the night and a chance of ridding ourselves of the lice which we had acquired over the previous days. We arrived about seven in the morning, and went straight to our separate rooms at the nearby inn, while the innkeeper sent a messenger around the village announcing our presence. We had barely prepared ourselves when the first patient arrived, and by the time he had been dealt with (Lower lanced a boil in his fundament, to which treatment he responded with rare good humor) there was a queue forming at the door.
That morning I extracted four teeth, drained several gallons of blood (fancy notions about therapeutic efficacy get you nowhere in the country; they wanted their blood let and that was what they were determined to have), bound wounds, tasted piss, applied salves and took in seven shillings. A brief pause for lunch and then we were off again; lancing sores, wiping pus, setting joints and taking in eleven shillings and eight pence. Throughout, all of Lower’s grand theories about the new medicine were abandoned. The patients were not interested in the benefits of iatrochemical potions and were disdainful of innovation. So, instead of prescribing careful concoctions of mercury and antimony, we rebalanced humors like the most hidebound of Galenists, and consulted the stars with a fervor worthy of Paracelsus himself. Anything which might work, for we had not the leisure to consider novel approaches, nor the reputation to apply them.
Both of us were exhausted by the end and even so we had to skulk out the back of the inn to avoid still more patients waiting their turn. The old couple in charge of the house had promised us a hot bath when we introduced ourselves at midday and I was eager to take up the offer—I had not immersed since the previous autumn and felt that not only could my constitution stand it, my morale would be immeasurably lifted. I went first, taking the brandy bottle with me so as to save time, and felt very much better when I emerged. Lower was less carefree about bathing, but the itching in his skin from the lice was such that even he decided to take the risk.
I stretched out in a chair while Lower took his turn in the tub, and was almost asleep when Mrs. Fenton, the servant, told me that there was a message for me. Brought by a servant from the nearby priory.
I groaned. This sort of thing happened all the time; the gentry and families of higher quality would want to avail themselves of the services of a passing physician, but naturally found it beneath them to wait with the rabble. So they would send a message desiring our presence. We attended on them rather than the other way around, and charged heft-ily for the privilege. Lower invariably took most of this trade, he being English and wanting to make connections for the future, and I was happy to allow him that task.
This time, however, he was in the bath and, in any case, the servant said quite pointedly that my services in particular were desired. I was flattered, yet again amazed at the speed with which news travels in the countryside, and quickly fetched my bag. I left a message for Lower that I would return in due course.
“Who is your master?” I asked, wanting to make polite conversation as we walked back up to the main street of the village, then down a smaller road to the left. My teachers had often recommended this course—by careful questioning of servants, it is often possible to reach a full diagnosis even before you see the patient, thus earning a wondrous reputation.
This time the technique was of little use, as the servant, an old but powerfully built man, did not reply at all. Indeed, he said not a single word until we had walked all the way up to a medium-sized house on the outskirts of the village, gone through the large door and I had been shown into what the English call a parlor, a public room for the reception of guests. Here he broke silence, asked me to sit, and disappeared.
And so I did, waiting patiently, until the door opened and I found myself in the presence of Europe’s foremost murderer, if Mr. Wood’s tales were to be believed.
“Good evening, doctor,” John Thurloe said to me in a quiet, melodious voice as he came into the room. “It was kind of you to come.”
Although I could study him properly for the first time, nonetheless I stood by my original assessment. Even knowing his reputation, he still did not at all look like any sort of evil tyrant. He had watery eyes that blinked as if unused to the light, and the meek expression of one who wished desperately to be treated with kindness. If pushed, I would have placed him as a gentle prelate, eking out a quiet but worthy existence in a poor parish, forgotten by his betters.
But Wood’s description had penetrated my mind, and I found myself gaping, almost awestruck.
“You are Dr. Cola, are you not?” he went on as I said nothing. I eventually managed to reply that I was, and ask him what was his trouble.
“Ah, not a problem of the body,” Thurloe said with a faint smile. “More a problem of the soul, you might say.”
I ventured that this was hardly my area of expertise.
“Indeed not. But you may be able to render some assistance. May I be frank with you, doctor?”
I spread my hands as if to say, well, why not?
“Good. You see, I have a guest, who is sorely troubled. I cannot say that he is welcome, but you know how it is with hospitality. He is cut off from the society of his fellow men, and finds my company insufficient. I cannot blame him for this, as I am not an interesting conversationalist. Do you know who I am, by the way?”
“I am told you are Mr. Thurloe, Lord Cromwell’s Secretary of State.”
“That is correct. Anyway, this guest of mine needs information which I cannot provide, and he tells me that you might be able to help.”
He had completely lost me, of course. So I said I would willingly oblige. But surely, I continued, Great Milton was not so very cut off from civilization? Thurloe did not reply directly.
“I understand you knew a gentleman by the name of Robert Grove. A fellow of New College, recently deceased. Is that correct?”
That Thurloe should have heard of this amazed me; but I said that, yes, I did.
“I hear there is a question mark over the matter of his death. Would you care to tell me the circumstances?”
I could see no reason why I should not, so I summarized everything that had taken place, from Lower’s investigations to Sarah Blundy’s conversation with me and the magistrate. Thurloe sat impassively in the chair as I talked, hardly moving at all, an air of the most complete tranquillity upon him; I could barely tell whether he was listening or was even still awake.
“I see,” he said when I had concluded. “So if I understand you correctly, when you left Oxford, the magistrate had questioned this Blundy girl, but no more?”
“Does it come as a surprise to learn that she was charged with the willful murder of Dr. Grove two days ago? And is now in prison awaiting the assizes?”
“It would astonish me,” I replied. “I did not know the English law worked so swiftly.”
“Do you believe the girl is guilty?”
What a question. One which I had asked myself on many occasions during my journey.
“I do not know. That is a matter for law, not reason.”
He smiled at this, as though I had made some cutting remark. Lower told me later that he had been for many years a lawyer, before the rebellion had swept him into office.
“In reason, then. Tell me what you think.”
“The hypothesis is that Sarah Blundy killed Dr. Grove. What evidence is there? There is a motive, in that he discharged her from his employ, although many servants are discharged and fortunately few take such revenge. She acquired arsenic on the day she was discharged. She was in New College on the evening of Dr. Grove’s death and was reluctant to own it. Certainly, the evidence supports the hypothesis proposed.”
“Your method has a weakness, though. You do not mention all the evidence. Only that which supports the hypothesis. As I understand it, other facts support an alternative, which is that you could have killed him, as you were the last person to see him alive, and also had access to the poison had you wanted to kill him.”
“I could have, but I know I did not, and I had no reason to do so. Any more than Dr. Wallis had, or Lower or Boyle.”
He accepted this point—although why I was telling him I did not know—and nodded. “So it is the combination of different qualities of facts which you believe important. And you conclude that she is indeed guilty.”
“No,” I replied. “I am very reluctant to do so.”
Thurloe affected to look surprised. “But surely that goes against the scientific method? You must accept it, until you have an alternative hypothesis.”
“I accept it as a possibility, but would be reluctant to act on it unless it was more secure.”
He stood up slowly, in the way the old are forced to do by the stiffness of their joints. “Please help yourself to a glass of wine, doctor. I will return to discuss this matter further in a short while.”
I revised my estimate of him as I poured myself a glass. An order is an order, however mildly it is given—Thurloe, I decided, was gentle because he had never needed to be other. It never occurred to me to say that Lower was expecting me, that I was hungry, or that I saw no reason to kick my heels waiting on his pleasure. I stayed where I was, for half an hour or more, until he returned.
With him, when he finally came back, was Jack Prestcott, his jail cell and shackles now a mere memory, grinning with embarrassment as he followed Thurloe into the room.
“Ah,” he said brightly, as I stared at him in outright astonishment, for he was the very last person I ever expected to see again, let alone in such circumstances. “The Italian anatomist. How do, good doctor?”
Thurloe smiled sadly at both of us, then bowed. “I will leave you both to a discussion,” he said. “Please do not hesitate to call me if required.”
And he left the room, leaving me to gape idiotically. Prest-cott, a burlier man than I remembered and certainly more cheerful than he had been on our last meeting, rubbed his hands, poured himself a glass of ale from a jug on the sideboard and sat down in front of me, scrutinizing my face to see if there were any danger signals.
“You are surprised to see me. Good. I’m glad to hear it. You must admit, this is a pretty good hiding place, don’t you think? Who’d think of looking for me here, eh?”
He certainly seemed to be in good spirits, very much like someone who had not a care in the world, rather than a man faced with the prospect of imminent hanging. And what, I wondered, was he doing in the house of a man like Thurloe?
“Simple enough,” he said. “My father and he were acquainted, after a fashion. I threw myself on his mercy. We outcasts must stick together, you know.”
“So what do you want? You are taking a risk announcing your presence to me, are you not?”
“We shall see. Thurloe told me what you said, but would you mind going through the matter again?”
“About Dr. Grove. He was good to me, and the only person in Oxford I had an affection for. I was sorely grieved when I heard what had happened.”
“Considering how ill you would have used him had he visited you the evening of your escape, I find that difficult to credit.”
“Oh, that,” he said contemptuously. “I didn’t hurt Wallis by tying him up, and I wouldn’t have hurt old Grove. But what is a man to do? Die on the scaffold to avoid being uncivil? I had to escape and this was my only opportunity. What would you have done?”
“I would not have attacked someone to start with,” I replied.
He brushed the point aside. “Now think a minute. Thurloe tells me that the magistrate hovered ominously around you for a moment. What if he had clapped you in irons—as he might have done, you know, for a papist would be a popular choice. What would you do? Sit tight and hope the jury was sensible? Or decide they are likely to be a bunch of drunken good-for-nothings who would hang you for the pleasure of it? I may be a fugitive, but at least I am alive. Except that Grove’s death concerns me, and I would help if it were possible, for he was kind to me once and I revere his memory. So tell me, what has been going on?”
Again I went through the story. Prestcott proved a more appreciative audience, twisting about in his chair, getting up to refill his glass, punctuating my remarks with loud exclamations of approval or dissent. Eventually, I concluded my tale for the second time.
“And now, Mr. Prestcott,” I said sternly, “you must tell me what this is about.”
“What it is about,” he said, “is that I now understand a good deal more than I did a few moments ago. The question is, what am I to do about it?”
“I cannot advise you until I know what you mean.”
Prestcott took a deep sigh, then looked me straight in the eye. “You know the Blundy girl was his strumpet?”
I said I had heard the story, but added that the girl did not admit it.
“Of course not. But it’s true. I know because we went together briefly last year before I knew what she was. Then she moved onto Grove, and seduced him, poor old man, into her clutches. It was simply done; he had an eye for prettiness, and she can be very compliant when she puts her mind to it. She was furious when he dismissed her. I came across her just afterward, and believe me, I have never seen such a terrifying countenance in my life. She looked like a devil, and was snarling and spitting like an animal. He would pay for it, she said. And pay dearly.”
He shrugged. “I thought it just womanly excess at the time. Anyway, shortly after I had my regrettable experience and ended up in jail, so I lost contact with the outside world. Until I escaped. When I walked out of the castle, I had not a clue what to do next. I had no money, no proper clothes, nothing. And I thought I’d better hide lest the alarm was raised. So I went to the Blundys’ cottage. I had been there before, and knew it.”
He had slipped quietly up the muddy alleyway to Sarah’s door, and peered through the window. It was quite dark inside, and he assumed that no one was there. He rummaged around to see if there was any food he could take, and was eating a crust of bread when Sarah returned.
“She had an exhilaration which frightened me,” he confessed. “She was surprised to see me, of course, but when I told her I wouldn’t hurt her and didn’t intend to stay long, she relaxed. She had a small bag with her and, as I thought it might have some more food in it, I took it from her.”
“She let you have it?”
“Not exactly. I had to force it from her.”
“And I take it there was no food there?”
“No. There was money. And a ring. Grove’s signet ring,” he said, then paused to rummage in his pocket. He took out a small packet of crumpled paper, which he unwrapped carefully. Inside was a ring with a carved blue stone in the center.
“I remember it well,” he continued once I had taken it to examine. “I’ve seen it on his finger on innumerable occasions. As he never took it off, I was curious how Sarah Blundy came by it. She refused to answer, so I beat her until she snarled that it was none of my business and in any case, Grove wouldn’t need it any more.”
“She said that? ‘Grove wouldn’t need it any more?”
“Yes,” Prestcott said. “I had other things on my mind so didn’t pay that much attention at the time. Now, of course, it all seems quite important. The question is, what to do? I can hardly offer my testimony, as the magistrate will thank me kindly, then hang me as well. So I was wondering if you would take this ring and my story. Once you have gone back and spoken to Sir John Fulgrove I will be long gone, with luck.”
I thought hard, clutching the ring in my hand, and astonished by how much I did not want to believe what I was hearing. “You give me your word that what you are telling me is true?”
“Absolutely,” he replied promptly and frankly.
“I would have more sympathy if you were not also of a violent disposition yourself.”
“I am not,” he said, coloring slightly and raising his voice. “And I resent the remark. Everything I have done was to protect my own and my family’s name. There is no similarity between my case, which is an affair of honor, and hers, which is lust and theft. Sarah Blundy will do this again, believe me, doctor. She acknowledges no laws and no restraints. You do not know her, or her sort, as I do.”
“She is wild,” I admitted. “But I have also seen her polite and dutiful.”
“When she wishes,” he said dismissively. “But she is entirely without a sense of duty to her betters. That you must have discovered for yourself.”
I nodded. It was certainly true. And I thought once more of my hypothesis. I wanted further evidence of unimpeachable veracity, and now I believed I had it. Prestcott had little to gain in coming forward; indeed he potentially had much to lose. It was difficult not to believe him, and he spoke with such an intensity that it was hard to imagine he was not telling me the truth.
“I will talk to the magistrate,” I suggested. “I would not say where you are, but merely recount the story. He is a trustworthy man, I think, and keen to conclude this matter swiftly. Many in the university resent his interference, and your witness would be of great use to him. It may be that he will look kindly on you. You must take Mr. Thurloe’s advice on this, of course, but I would advise against precipitate flight.”
Prestcott considered this. “Maybe. But you must promise me that you will be careful. I am terribly afraid. If someone like Lower knows where I am, he will give me up. He is obliged to do so.”
I promised him this with great reluctance and, if I did not keep my word for reasons I will explain, at least I can say that it did Prestcott no harm.