From the way the english talk (their reputation for boasting is hard earned) an inexperienced traveler would imagine that their land contains the finest buildings, the biggest towns, the richest, best-fed, happiest people in the world. My own impressions were very different. One used to the cities of Lombardy, Tuscany and the Veneto cannot but be astonished at the tiny proportions of all settlements in that country as well as their paucity, for the land is almost empty of inhabitants and there are more sheep than people. Only London, epitome Britannia and a noble emporium, can compare with the great cities of the continent; the rest are in mean estate, ruinous for the most part, poor and full of beggars by reason of the decay in trade caused by the late political turmoils. Though some of the buildings of the university are fine enough, Oxford has really only a few streets worth the notice, and you can scarcely walk for more than ten minutes in any direction without finding yourself outside the town and in open fields.
I had the address of a small lodging in the north of the city, on a broad street hard by the town walls, occupied by a foreign merchant who, at one time, had traded with my father. It was a sad sort of house and immediately opposite a site being razed for a new university building. The English made something of a fuss of this edifice, designed by a young and rather arrogant man I later encountered who went on to make a name for himself by rebuilding the cathedral of London after the great fire. This Christopher Wren’s reputation is quite undeserved, as he has no sense of proportion, and little ability to construct a pleasing design. Nonetheless, it was the first building in Oxford executed on modern principles, and aroused great excitement amongst those who knew no better.
Mr. Van Leeman, the merchant, offered me a warm drink but said regretfully that he could not provide more, as he had no room for me. My heart sank still lower, but at least he talked to me awhile, sat me by the fire and permitted me to attend to my toilet so that I could present a less alarming appearance when I ventured back into the world. He also told me something of the country I had come to visit. I was woefully ignorant of the place, except for what I had been told by the English of my acquaintance in Leiden, and knew little more than that twenty years of civil war were at an end. Van Leeman disabused me of any notion that the country was now a haven of peace and tranquillity, however. The king was indeed back, he said, but had so swiftly established a reputation for debauchery he had disgusted all the world. Already the strife which had led his father to war and the executioner’s block was reappearing, and the outlook was gloomy indeed. Scarce a day passed without some rumor of insurrection, plot or rebellion being talked over in the taverns.
Not, he told me reassuringly, that this should concern me. The innocent traveler such as myself would find much of interest in Oxford, which boasted some of the most notable people in the new philosophy in the world. He knew of the Honorable Robert Boyle, the man for whom I had an introduction, and told me that if I wished to make my way into his society then I should go to the coffee shop owned by Mrs. Tillyard in the High Street, where the Chemical Club had held its meetings for several years, and which, moreover, could be relied upon to provide some warming food. Whether it was a help or a hint, I prepared myself and, begging only permission to leave my bags in his care until I had suitable accommodation, walked in the direction he indicated.
At this time, coffee in England was something of a craze, coming into the country with the return of the Jews. That bitter bean had little novelty for me, of course, for I drank it to cleanse my spleen and aid my digestion, but was not prepared to find it so much in fashion that it had produced special buildings where it could be consumed in extraordinary quantities and at the greatest expense. Mrs. Tillyard’s establishment, in particular, was a fine and comfortable place, although having to hand over a penny to enter took me aback. But I felt unable to play the pauper, my father having taught me that the poorer you appear, the poorer you become. I paid with a cheerful countenance, then selected the Library to take my drink, for which I had to pay another two pennies.
The clienteles of coffee houses choose themselves carefully, unlike taverns which cater to all sorts of low folk. In London, for example, there are Anglican houses, and Presbyterian houses, houses where the scribblers of news or poetry gather to exchange lies, and houses where the general tone is set by men of knowledge who can read or pass an hour or so in conversation without being insulted by the ignorant or vomited on by the vulgar. Thus the theorem underlying my presence in this particular building. The partum practicum was rather different—the company of philosophers supposedly in residence did not leap up to welcome me, as I had hoped. In fact there were only four people in the room and, when I bowed at one of them—a weighty man with a red face, inflamed eye and lank, graying hair—he pretended not to have seen me. No one else paid much attention to my entrance either, apart from curious looks at one who was so obviously a man of some fashion.
My first venture into English society seemed a failure, and I resolved not to waste too much time on it. The one thing which detained me was the newspaper, a journal printed in London and then distributed around the country, a most novel idea. It was surprisingly frank about affairs, containing reports not only of domestic matters but also detailed accounts of events in foreign places which interested me greatly. I was later informed, however, that they were milk and water productions in comparison to a few years previously, when the passion of faction brought forth a whole host of such organs. For the king, against the king, for Parliament, for the army, for or against this or that. Cromwell, and then the returned King Charles, did their best to restore some form of order, rightly surmising that such stuff merely lulls people into thinking that they understand matters of state. And a more foolish notion can scarcely be imagined, it being obvious that the reader is only informed of what the writer wishes him to know, and is thus seduced into believing almost anything. Such liberties do nothing but convert the grubby hacksters who produce these tracts into men of influence, so that they strut around as though they were gentlemen of quality. Anyone who has ever met one of these English journalists (so called, I believe, because they are paid by the day, like any common ditch-digger) will know just how ridiculous that is.
Nonetheless I read for above half an hour, intrigued by a report on the war in Crete, until a patter of feet up the stairs and the opening of the door disturbed my concentration. A brief glance disclosed a woman of, I suppose, about nineteen or twenty years of age, of average height but unnaturally slim of build—none of the plumpness that endows true Beauty. Indeed, my medical self half-wondered whether she might have a tendency to consumption and might benefit from a pipe of tobacco every evening. Her hair was dark and had only natural curls in it, her clothes were drab (though well cared for) and, while she was pretty enough in the face, there was nothing obviously exceptional about her. Even so, she was one of those people whom you look at, turn away from, then somehow find yourself looking at once more. Partly it was her eyes, which were unnaturally big and dark. But it was more her deportment, because it was so unfitting, which made me take notice. For that underfed girl had the bearing of a queen, and moved with an elegance which my father had spent a small fortune on dancing masters trying to instill in my youngest sister.
I watched with little interest as she walked steadily up to the red-eyed gentleman on the other side of the room, and with only half an ear heard her address him as “doctor,” then pause and stand there. He looked up at her with an air of alarm as she began to talk. I missed most of it—the distance, my English and her softness of voice all conspiring to snatch the meaning away—but I assumed from the few fragments I did hear that she was asking for his help as a physician. Unusual, of course, that someone of her servile state should think of coming to a physician, but I knew little of the country. Perhaps it was accepted practice here.
The request met with no favor, and this displeased me. By all means put the girl in her proper place; this is natural. Any man of breeding might well feel obliged to do so if addressed in an inappropriate manner. However, there was something in the man’s expression—anger, disdain or something akin—which aroused my contempt. As Tully tells us, a gentleman should issue such a reproof with regret, not with a pleasure which demeans the speaker more than it corrects the offender.
“What?” he said, gazing around the room in a way which suggested he hoped no one would see. “Go away, girl, at once.”
She again spoke in a low voice so that I did not catch her words.
“There is nothing I can do for your mother. You know that. Now, please. Leave me alone.”
The girl raised her voice slightly. “But sir, you must help. Don’t think I am asking…” Then, seeing he was adamant, the girl’s shoulders slumped with the weight of her failure, and she made for the door.
Why I got up, followed her down the stairs and approached her on the street outside, I do not know. Perhaps, like Rinaldo or Tancred, I entertained some foolish notion of chivalry. Perhaps, because the world had been bearing so oppressively on me in the past few days, I had sympathy for the way it was treating her. Perhaps I was feeling cold and tired, and so sunk down by my troubles that even approaching such as she became acceptable. I do not know; but before she had gone too far, I approached her and coughed politely.
She swung round, fury in her face. “Leave me alone,” she snapped, very violently.
I must have reacted as though she had slapped me; I know I bit my lower lip and said, “Oh!” in surprise at her response. “I do beg your pardon, madam,” I added in my best English.
At home, I would have behaved differently—courteously, but with the familiarity that establishes who is the superior. In English, of course, such subtleties were beyond me; all I knew was how to address ladies of quality, and so that was the way J talked to her. Rather than appear a semi-educated fool (the English assume that the only reasons for not understanding their language are either stupidity or willful stubbornness) I decided that I had best match my gestures to my language, as though I actually intended such politesse. Accordingly, I gave the appropriate bow as I spoke.
It was not my intention, but it rather took the wind out of her sails, to use a nautical expression beloved of my dear father. Her anger faded on finding itself met with gentility rather than rebuke, and she looked at me curiously instead, a little wrinkle of confusion playing most attractively over the bridge of her nose.
Having started in this vein, I resolved to continue. “You must forgive me for approaching you in this fashion, but I could not help overhearing that you have need of physick. Is that correct?”
“You are a doctor?”
I bowed. “Marco da Cola of Venice.” It was a lie, of course, but I was sure I was at least as able as the sort of charlatan or quack she would normally have engaged. “And you?”
“Sarah Blundy is my name. I suppose you are too grand to treat an old woman with a broken leg, for fear of lowering yourself in the eyes of your fellows?”
She was, indeed, a difficult person to help. “A surgeon would be better and more appropriate,” I agreed. “However, I have trained in the anatomical arts at the universities of Padua and Leiden, and I have no fellows here, so they are unlikely to think any the worse of me for playing the tradesman.”
She looked at me, then shook her head. “I’m afraid that you must have overheard wrongly, although I thank you for your offer. I cannot pay you anything, as I have no money.”
I waved my hand airily and—for the second time that day—indicated that money was of no concern to me.’ ‘I offer my services, nonetheless,” I continued. “We can discuss that payment at a later stage, if you wish.”
“No doubt,” she said in a way which again left me perplexed. Then she looked at me in the open and frank way which the English can adopt, and shrugged.
“Perhaps we could go and see the patient?” I suggested. “And you could tell me what happened to her as we go?”
I was as keen as young men are to engage the attention of a pretty girl, whatever her station, but I won little reward for my efforts. Although she was not nearly as well dressed as I, her limbs showing through the thin cloth of her dress, her head only as covered as decorum dictated, she seemed not at all cold, and scarcely appeared even to notice the wind which cut through me like a knife through butter. She walked fast as well, and even though she was a good two inches shorter than myself, I had to hurry to keep up. And her replies were brief and monosyllabic, which I put down to concern and preoccupation with her mother’s health.
We walked back to Mr. Van Leeman’s to collect my instruments and I also hastily consulted Barbette on surgery, not wishing to have to refer to a book of instruction in mid-operation, as this does not reassure the patient. The girl’s mother had, it appeared, fallen heavily the previous evening and had lain alone all night. I asked why she had not called out to some neighbors or passersby, as I assumed that the poor woman would scarcely have been living in splendid seclusion, but this received no useful response.
“Who was that man you were talking to?” I asked.
I got no answer to that either.
So, adopting a coldness that I thought appropriate, I walked by her side down a mean street called Butcher’s Row, past the stinking carcasses of animals hung on hooks or laid out over rough tables outside so that the rain could wash the blood into the gutters, then continued into an even worse row of low dwellings that lay alongside one of the rivulets that run around and about the castle. It was utterly filthy down there, the streams clogged and unkempt, with all manner of refuse poking through the thick ice. In Venice, of course, we have the flow of the sea which every day purges the city’s waterways. The rivers in England are left to block themselves up, without anyone thinking that a little care might sweeten the waters.
Of the miserable huts down in that part of the town, Sarah Blundy and her mother lived in one of the worst—small, with the casements boarded with planks of wood rather than paned with glass, the roof full of holes blocked with cloth, and the doorway thin and mean. Inside, however, everything was spotlessly clean, though damp; a sign that even in such reduced circumstances, some pride in life can continue to flicker. The little hearth and the floorboards were scrubbed, the two rickety stools were similarly looked after, and the bed, although rough, had been polished. Apart from that, the room had no furniture beyond those few pots and platters which even the lowest must have. One thing did astonish me—a shelf of at least half-a-dozen books made me realize that, at some stage at least, some man had inhabited these quarters.
“Well,” I said in the cheerful way my master in Padua had employed as a means of inspiring confidence, “where is the invalid, then?”
She pointed to the bed which I had thought empty. Huddled under the thin covering was a little broken bird of a woman, so small it was difficult to imagine she was anything but a child. I approached and gently pulled down the covers.
“Good morning, madam,” I said. “I’m told you’ve had an accident. Let us have a look at you, then.”
Even I realized instantly that it was a serious injury. The end of the shattered bone had pushed through the parchment-like skin and protruded, broken and bloody, into the open air. And if that wasn’t bad enough, some bungling fool had evidently tried to force it back into place, tearing more flesh, then simply wrapped a piece of dirty cloth around the wound, so that the threads had stuck to the bone as the blood had matted and congealed.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” I cried in exasperation, fortunately in Italian. “What idiot has done this?”
“She did it herself,” the girl said quietly when I repeated this last in English. “She was all on her own, and did what she could.”
It looked very bad indeed. Even with a robust young man, the inevitable weakness from such a wound would have been serious. Then there was the possibility of rot setting in and the chance that some of the threads would create an irritation in the flesh. I shivered at the thought, then realized that the room was bitterly cold.
“Go and light a fire immediately. She must be kept warm,” I said.
She stood there, unmoving.
“Can’t you hear me? Do as I say.”
“We don’t have anything to burn,” she said.
What could I do? It was hardly fitting or dignified, but sometimes the task of the physician goes beyond merely tending to physical ailment. With some impatience, I pulled a few pence from my pocket. “Go and buy some wood, then,” I said.
She looked at the pennies I had thrust into her palm, and, without so much as a word of thanks, silently went out of the room into the alleyway beyond.
“Now then, madam,” I said, turning back to the old lady, “we will soon have you nice and warm. That is most important. First we have to clean this leg of yours.”
And so I set to work; fortunately the girl came back quickly with wood and some embers to light a fire, so that I soon had hot water. I thought that if I could clean it up fast enough, if I could reset the broken bone without causing her so much discomfort that she died, if she didn’t develop a fever or some distemper in the wound, if she was kept warm and well fed, she might live. But there were many dangers; any one of them could kill her.
Once I began she seemed alert enough, which was a good start, although considering the pain I was giving her, a corpse would have become aware of its surroundings. She told me that she had slipped on a patch of ice and fallen badly, but apart from that she was initially as uncommunicative as her daughter, although with more excuse.
Perhaps the more thoughtful, and those who were more proud, might have walked away the moment that the girl confessed she had no money; perhaps I could have left when it became clear there was no heating; certainly I should have refused outright even to have contemplated the provision of any sort of medicines to the woman. It is not for oneself, of course; there is the reputation of the profession to be considered in these matters. But in all conscience, I could not bring myself to act as I should have done. Sometimes being a Gentleman and Physician do not always coexist easily.
Also, although I had studied the proper way of cleansing wounds and setting bones, I had never had the opportunity to do so in practice. It was very much more difficult than the lectures had made it seem and I fear that I caused the old lady considerable suffering. But eventually the bone was set and the leg bound, and I dispatched the girl with more of my scarce pennies to buy materials for a salve. While she was gone, I cut some lengths of wood and bound them to the leg to try and ensure that, were she lucky enough to survive, the shattered bone would knit correctly.
By this stage I was in no good humor. What was I doing here, in this provincial, unfriendly, miserable little town, surrounded by strangers, such a long way away from everything I knew and everyone who cared for me? More to the point, what was going to happen when, as was bound to occur very shortly, I found myself without money to pay for lodging or food?
Bound up in my own despair, I completely ignored my patient, feeling I had done more than enough for her already, and found myself examining the little shelf of books; not out of interest, but merely as a way of turning my back on her so that I could avoid looking at the poor creature who was rapidly becoming the symbol of my misfortunes. This sentiment was compounded by the fact that I feared that all my efforts and expense were going to prove a waste—even though I was young and inexperienced, I already knew death when I stared it in the face, smelt its breath and touched the sweat it produced on the skin.
“You are unhappy, sir,” the old lady said in a frail voice from her bed. “I’m afraid that I am a great trouble to you.”
“No, no. Not at all,” I said with the flatness of deliberate insincerity.
“It is kind of you to say so. But we both know that we cannot pay you money for your help, as you deserve. And I saw from the look in your face that you are not a rich man yourself at the moment, despite your dress. Where do you come from? You are not from around here.”
Within a few minutes, I found myself perched on one of the rickety stools by the bedstead, pouring out my heart about my father, my lack of money, my reception in London, my hopes and fears for the future. There was something about her that encouraged such confidences, almost as though I were talking to my old mother, not to some poor, dying, heretical Englishwoman.
Throughout she nodded patiently and spoke to me with such wisdom that I felt comforted. It pleased God to send us trials, just as He did with Job. Our duty is to bear them quietly, use the skills He has given us to overcome them, and never to abandon our faith that His design was good and necessary. More practically, she told me I must certainly visit Mr. Boyle; he was known as a good Christian gentleman.
I suppose I should have scorned this combination of puritanical piety and impertinent advice. But I could see that, in her way, she was trying to make amends. She could offer no money, and no service. What she could give was understanding, and in the coin that she had, she paid freely.
“I shall soon be dead, shall I not?” she asked after she had listened to my woes for a good long while and I had exhausted the topic of my hardship.
My master in Padua had always warned about such questions—not least because one might be wrong. He always believed that the patient has no right to confront the physician in such a way; if one is right and the patient does die, it merely makes them morose for the last few days of their life. Rather than composing themselves for their imminent ascent into the Presence of God (an event to be desired rather than regretted, one might think) most people complain bitterly at having this divine goodness thrust upon them. On top of this, they do tend to believe their physicians. In moments of frankness, I confess that I do not know why this is the case; nonetheless, it seems that if a physician tells them they will die, many dutifully oblige, even though there may be little wrong with them.
“We will all die in due course, madam,” I said gravely, in the vain hope that this might satisfy her.
However, she was not the sort of person who could be fobbed off. She had asked the question calmly and was plainly able to tell truth from the opposite.
“But some sooner than others,” she replied with a little smile. “And my turn is near, is it not?”
‘ ‘I really cannot say. It may be that no corruption will set in, and you will recover. But, in truth, I fear that you are very weak.” I could not actually say to her—Yes, you will die, and very soon. But the sense was clear enough.
She nodded placidly. “I thought so,” she said. “And I rejoice in God’s will. I am a burden to my Sarah.”
Come I’oro nel foco, cos`i la fede nel dolor s’affina. I hardly felt like defending the daughter, but muttered that I was sure she performed her obligations with a happy heart.
“Yes,” she said. “She is too dutiful.” She was a woman who spoke with a decorum far beyond her station and education. I know that it is not impossible for rude surroundings and coarseness of upbringing to bring forth gentleness, but experience teaches us that it is rare. Just as refinement of thought naturally requires refinement of circumstance, so brutality and squalor in life beget the same in the soul. Yet this old woman, although surrounded by the meanest of states, talked with a sympathy and understanding I have often failed to meet with in the very best of people. It made me take an unwonted interest in her as a patient. Subtly, and without even becoming aware of it, I moved from seeing her as a hopeless case—I may not be able to cheat Death, I found myself thinking grimly, but at least I will make him work for his prize.
Then the girl returned with the little packet of medicines that I had demanded. Staring at me, as though challenging me to criticize, she said that I had not given her enough—but Mr. Crosse the apothecary had allowed her to have two pence credit, when she had promised I would settle the account. I was speechless with indignation at this, because the girl seemed to be rebuking me for some failure on my part. But what could I do about it? The money was spent, the patient was waiting, and it was beneath me to enter an argument.
Maintaining an outward show of imperturbability, I took my portable pestle and mortar and began to grind up the ingredients; some mastick for sticking, a grain of sal ammoniack, two of frankincense, a dram of white vitriol and two grains of niter and verdigris both. Once these were pounded into a smooth paste, I then added the linseed oil, drop by drop, until the mixture had reached the right degree.
“Where is the powder of worms?” I asked, searching in the bag for the final ingredients. “Did they not have any?”
“Yes,” she said. “At least I imagine so. But it is no use, you know, so I decided not to buy it. It saved some money for you.”
This was too much. To be treated with insolence was one thing and quite common with daughters, but to be questioned and doubted in one’s area of skill was quite another.
“I told you I needed it. It is a crucial ingredient. Are you a physician, girl? Have you trained at the best schools in medicine? Do physicians come to you asking for advice?” I asked with a superior sneer in my voice.
“Yes, they do,” she replied calmly.
I snorted. “I don’t know whether it is worse to be dealing with a fool or a liar,” I said angrily.
“Nor do I. All I know is that I am neither. Putting worm powder on a wound is tantamount to making sure my mother loses her leg and dies.”
“Are you Galen then? Paracelsus? Perhaps Hippocrates himself?” I stormed. “How dare you question the authority of your betters? This is a salve that has been in use for centuries.”
“Even though it is useless?”
While this was going on I had been applying the salve to her mother’s wound, then rebandaging it. I was doubtful about whether it would work, incomplete as it was, but would have to do until I could make it up properly. Once finished, I stood up to my full height, and, of course, bumped my head against the low ceiling. The girl suppressed a giggle, which made me the more angry.
“Let me tell you one thing,” I said with barely suppressed fury. “I have treated your mother to the best of my ability, even though I was not obliged to. I will come back later to give her a sleeping draft and to air the wound. This I do knowing that I will receive nothing in return but your contempt, although I cannot see that I have deserved it or that you have any right to speak to me in such a fashion.”
She curtseyed. “Thank you, kind sir. And as for payment, I’m sure you will be satisfied. You said we can deal with that later, and I’ve no doubt we will.”
With that I walked out of the house and back into the street, shaking my head and wondering what den of lunatics I had tumbled into so carelessly.