I hope that this account explains the first two stages of my progress—my coming to England and then to Oxford, and my acquisition of the patient whose treatment was to cause me such grief. The girl herself—what can I say? She was touched by doom; her end was written, and the devil was already reaching out his hand to drag her down. The man of skill can see this, can read a face like an open book and discern what the future holds in store. Sarah Blundy’s face was deep scored already with the evil that had gripped her soul and would shortly destroy her. So I told myself after, and it may be true. But at that time I saw nothing more than a girl as insolent as she was pretty, and as careless of her obligations to her superiors as she was mindful of her duty to her family.
I need now to explain my further progress, which was just as accidental although ultimately more cruel in its effects—the more so because it seemed, for a while, as though fortune had begun to smile on me once more. I had been left with the task of paying off the debts she had so impertinently run up for me at the apothecary’s, and I knew that you annoy apothecaries at your peril if you are concerned with experimental knowledge. Omit to pay, and they are quite likely to refuse you in the future, and not only them but all their fellows for miles around, so closely do they stick together. In the circumstances, that would be the final straw. Even if it was my last penny I could not afford to enter the society of English philosophy as a man of bad credit.
So I asked the way to this Mr. Crosse’s shop, and walked halfway along the High Street once more, opening the wooden door in the shop front and going into the warmth of the interior. It was a handsome place, nicely laid out as all English shops are, with fine cedarwood counters and beautiful brass balances of the most up-to-date variety. Even the aromas of the herbs and spices and drugs welcomed me as I moved strategically across the polished oak floor until I stood with my back against the fine carved mantelpiece and the roaring fire in the grate.
The owner, a portly man in his fifties who looked decidedly at ease with life, was dealing with a customer who seemed in no hurry, leaning nonchalantly on the table, chattering quite idly. The customer was perhaps a year or two older than myself, with a lively, active face and bright, if cynical, eyes below heavy, arching brows. In dress he was in a somber garb that steered between the extremes of puritanical drabness and the extravagance of fashion. It was, in other words, well cut but of a tedious brown.
For all that he had an easy manner, this customer seemed very self-conscious, and I discerned that Mr. Crosse was amusing himself at the man’s expense.
“Keep you warm in winter, as well,” the apothecary was saying with a broad grin.
The customer wrinkled up his face in pain.
“ ‘Course, when spring comes you’ll have to put netting over, in case the birds start nesting in it,” he went on, clutching his sides in merriment.
“Come now, Crosse, that’s enough,” protested the man, then began laughing himself. “Twelve marks it cost…”
This sent Crosse into greater paroxysms of laughter, and soon both of them were leaning over, helpless and in virtual hysteria.
“Twelve marks!” wheezed the apothecary, before collapsing once more.
I even found myself beginning to giggle with amusement, even though I had not the slightest idea what they were talking about. I didn’t even know whether it was considered ill manners in England to interpose oneself into the merriment of others, but the fact was that I didn’t care. The warmth of the shop and the open good humor of these two, as they clung to the counter to avoid slipping onto the floor in their helplessness, made me want to laugh with them, to celebrate the first normal human society I had experienced since my arrival. Instantly I felt restored by it for, as Gomesius says, merriment cures many passions of the mind.
My slight giggling attracted their attention, however, and Mr. Crosse attempted to restore himself to the dignified posture that his trade required. His comrade did likewise and both turned to look at me; a somber silence reigned for a few seconds, then the younger man pointed at me, and both of them lost control once more.
“Twenty marks!” cried the young man, waving in my direction, then banging his fist on the counter. “At least twenty.”
I counted this as being the nearest thing to an introduction that I was likely to receive and, with some wariness, made a polite bow in their direction. I half-suspected some appalling joke at my expense. The English love making fun of foreigners, whose mere existence they regard as an enormous jest.
My bow to equals—perfectly executed, with just the right balance between the extended left leg, and the graciously elevated right arm—nonetheless set them off again, so I stood with the impassivity of a stoic as I waited for the storm to pass. And in due course, the gurglings faded, they wiped their eyes, blew their noses and did their best to appear like civilized people.
“I must beg your pardon, sir,” said Mr. Crosse, who was the first to regain the power of speech and the grace to use it civilly. “But my friend here has just decided to become a man of fashion, and has taken to appearing in public with a thatched roof on his head. I was doing my best to assure him that he cuts a very fine figure indeed.” He began heaving with mirth again, and his friend then tore off his wig and threw it on the ground.
“Fresh air at last,” he exclaimed thankfully as he ran his fingers through his thick, long hair. “Dear Lord, it was hot under there.”
At last I was beginning to make sense of it; the wig had arrived in Oxford—several years after it had established itself throughout most of the world as an essential part of elegant masculine dress. I was wearing one myself, having adopted it as a sign, so to speak, of my graduation into the adult world.
I could see, of course, why it caused such amusement, although the understanding was overborne by that sense of superiority felt by a man of parts when he encounters the provincial. When I began wearing my wig myself it took some considerable time to grow used to it; only pressure from my fellows persuaded me to continue. And, of course, looking at it as a Turk or an Indian might were he suddenly transported to our shores, it did seem slightly odd that a man, graced by nature with a full head of hair, should shave much of it off in order to wear somebody else’s. But fashionable attire is not for comfort and, as it was profoundly uncomfortable, we may conclude that the wig was very fashionable.
“I think,’’ I said,’ ‘that you might find it more comfortable if you shortened your own hair; then there would not be so much pressure under the mat.”
“Shorten my own hair? Good heavens, is that how it’s done?”
“I’m afraid so. We must sacrifice for beauty, you know.”
He kicked the wig roughly across the floor. “Then let me be ugly,” he said. “For I will not be seen in public wearing this. If it produces convulsions in Crosse here, think what the students of this town will do to me. I’ll be lucky to escape with my life.”
“They are the very height of fashion elsewhere,” I commented. “Even the Dutch wear them. I think it is a question of timing. In a few months, or maybe a year, you may find that they hoot and throw stones at you if you do not wear one.”
“Bah! Ridiculous,” he said, but nonetheless scooped the wig up off the floor and placed it more safely on the counter.
“I’m sure this gentleman has not come here to discuss fashion,” Crosse said. “Perhaps he even wishes to buy something? It has been known.”
I bowed. “No. I have come to pay for something. I believe you extended credit to a young girl not so long ago.”
“Oh, the Blundy girl. You are the man she mentioned?”
I nodded. “It seems that she spent my money a little freely. I have come to settle her—or rather my—debt.”
Crosse grunted. “You won’t be paid, you know, not in money.”
“So it appears. But it is too late for that now. Besides, I set her mother’s leg, and it was interesting to see whether I could do so; I’d learned a great deal about it in Leiden, but never tried it on a living patient.”
“Leiden?” said the younger man with sudden interest. “Do you know Sylvius?”
“Indeed,” I replied. “I studied anatomy with him; and I have a letter from him with me for a gentleman called Mr. Boyle.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” he asked, and walked to the door at the back of the shop and opened it. I could see a flight of stairs in the corridor beyond.
“Boyle?” he yelled. “Are you up there?”
“No need to shout, you know,” Crosse said. “I can tell you. He isn’t. He went to the coffee house.”
“Oh. No matter. We can go and find him. What’s your name, by the way?”
I introduced myself. He bowed in return, and said—“Richard Lower, at your service. A physician. Almost.”
We bowed once more and, that done with, he clapped me on the shoulders. “Come along. Boyle will like to meet you. We’ve been feeling a little cut off up here recently.”
As we walked the short distance back to Tillyard’s, he explained that the ferment of intellectual life in the town had ceased to bubble as it had in the past, due to the return of the king.
“But I heard His Majesty is a lover of learning,” I said.
“So he is, when he can tear his attention away from his mistresses. That’s the trouble. Under Cromwell, we eked out our existence here, while all the lucrative places in the state went to butchers and fish sellers. Now the king is back and naturally, all those well-placed enough to take advantage of his generosity have gone to London, leaving a rump of us up here. I’m afraid I shall have to try to make a name for myself there as well, sooner or later.”
“Hence the wig?”
He grimaced. “Yes, I suppose so. One must cut a dash in London to be noticed at all. Wren was back here a few weeks ago—he’s a friend of mine, a fine fellow—decked out like a peacock. He’s planning a trip to France soon and we’ll probably have to shade our eyes just to look at him when he gets back.”
“And Mr. Boyle?” I asked, my heart sinking a little. “He has—ah, decided—to stay in Oxford?”
“Yes, for the time being. But he’s lucky. He’s got so much money he doesn’t have to fish for positions like the rest of us.”
“Oh,” I said, greatly relieved.
Lower gave me a look which indicated that he understood perfectly what had been going through my mind. “His father was one of the richest men in the kingdom and a fervent supporter of the old king, bless his memory, as I suppose we should. Naturally, a lot of it was dispersed, but there’s enough left for Boyle not to have the concerns of ordinary mortals.”
“A fine person to know, if you are inclined to philosophical knowledge, which is his main interest. If you’re not, of course, he won’t pay much attention to you.”
“I have done my best,” I said modestly, “with some experimentation. But I’m afraid that I am only a novice. What I do not know or understand greatly outweighs what I do.”
The answer seemed to please him mightily. “In that case you will be in good company,” he said with a grin. “Add us all together and our ignorance is almost complete. Still, we scratch at the surface. Here we are,” he went on, as he led the way back into the very same coffee house. Mrs. Till-yard again approached, wanting another copper off me, but Lower waved her away. “Fiddlesticks, madam,” he said cheerfully. “You will not charge a friend of mine for entry into this bawdy house.”
Loudly demanding that coffee be brought to us instantly, Lower bounded up the stairs to the room I had previously selected. It was then that I had the horrible thought—What if this Boyle were the unpleasant gentleman who had turned away the girl?
But the man sitting in the corner whom Lower immediately approached could not have been more different. I suppose I should here pause and describe the Honorable Robert Boyle, a man who has had more praise and honor heaped upon him than any philosopher for centuries. The first thing I noticed was his relative youth; his reputation had led me to expect a man certainly over fifty. In fact, he was probably no more than a few years older than myself. Tall, gaunt and obviously with a weak constitution, he had a pale, thin face with a strangely sensual mouth, and sat with a poise and a degree of ease that instantly indicated his noble upbringing. He did not appear so very agreeable; haughty rather, as though he was fully aware of his superiority and expected others to be as well. This, I later learned, was only part of the story, for his pride was matched by his generosity; his haughtiness by his humility; his rank by his piety; and his severity by his charity.
Nonetheless, he was a person to be approached with care for, while Boyle tolerated some truly dreadful creatures because of their merit, he would not put up with charlatans or fools. I count it as one of the greatest honors of my life that I was allowed, for a while, to associate with him on terms of ease. Losing this connection through the malice of others was one of the bitterest blows I have had to endure.
For all his wealth, reputation and birth, he tolerated familiarity from his intimates, of whom Lower, evidently, was one. “Mr. Boyle,” he said as we approached. “Someone from Italy to pay homage at your shrine.”
Boyle looked up with raised eyebrows then permitted himself a brief smile. “Good morning, Lower,” he said dryly. I noticed then and later that Lower constantly misstepped himself in his dealings with Boyle, as he considered himself an equal in matters of science, but was all too conscious of his own inferiority in rank, and so moved from an excessive familiarity to a respect which, although not obsequious, was still far from assured and comfortable.
“I bring you greetings from Dr. Sylvius of Leiden, sir,” I said, “He suggested that, as I was to come to England, you might permit me to make your acquaintance.”
I always feel that introductions are one of the most difficult of areas of etiquette. Naturally, they exist, and will always continue. How else could a total stranger be accepted except under the patronage of a gentleman who can vouch for his character? In most circles, however, the mere existence of a letter is enough; if they are read, it is generally after the introductions have been performed. I hoped that a letter from Sylvius, a physician as famous in medicine as was Boyle in chemistry, would ensure me a welcome. But I was also aware that divisions ran deep, and that my religion might well cause me to be rejected. England had only recently been in the grip of fanatical sectarians, and I knew their influence was far from dissipated—my colleagues in the coach to Oxford overnight had informed me with glee of the new persecutory laws against us that the Parliament had forced the king to adopt.
Boyle not only took the letter and began to read it, but also commented on its contents as he progressed, making me ever more nervous as he did so. It was, I saw, rather a long missive; Sylvius and I had not always seen eye to eye, and I greatly feared that much of the letter would be uncomplimentary.
And so it seemed as Boyle read. “Hmm,” he said. “Listen to this, Lower. Sylvius says your friend here is impetuous, argumentative and much given to querying authority. Impertinent, and a positive gadfly in his interests.”
I made to defend myself, but Lower gestured for me to be quiet. “Family of gentlemen merchants in Venice, eh?” Boyle went on. “Papist, I suppose?”
My heart sank.
“A veritable fiend for blood,” Boyle went on, ignoring me totally. “Constantly fiddling with buckets of it. But a good man with a knife, it seems, and a fine draftsman. Hmm.”
I resented Sylvius for his statements. To call my experimentation fiddling made me hot with indignation. I had begun methodically and proceeded in what I thought was a rational manner. It was, after all, hardly my fault that my father’s summons made me leave Leiden before I had come to any conclusions of substance.
Since it is of some moment to my story, I should make it clear that my interest in blood was no newfound fancy, but by this stage had preoccupied me for some time. I can scarcely recall when the fascination began. I remember once listening to some tedious Galenist lecturing on blood in Padua and the very next day being lent a copy of Harvey’s magnificent work on circulation. It was so clear, so simple, and so obviously true that it took my breath away. I have not had an experience like it since. However, even I could see that it was incomplete—Harvey demonstrated that the blood starts in the heart, circulates around the body, then returns whence it came. He did not establish why it does this, and without that science is a poor thing indeed; nor did he proffer any therapeutic gain from his observations. Perhaps impertinently, but certainly with reverence, I had dedicated many months in Padua and nearly all my time in Leiden to exploring this subject and I would have already achieved some notable experiments had I not obeyed my father’s desires and come to England.
“Good,” Boyle said eventually, folding the letter carefully and putting it in his pocket. “You are welcome, sir, more than welcome. Above all to Mr. Lower, I imagine, as his insatiable lust for entrails seems to be matched only by your own.”
Lower grinned at me and offered the saucer of coffee which had been growing cold as Boyle read. It seemed that I had been put to the test and found adequate. The relief I felt was almost overwhelming.
“I must say,” Boyle went on pouring quantities of sugar in his coffee, “that I am all the more pleased to welcome you because of your behavior.”
“My what?” I asked.
“Your offer of assistance to the Blundy girl—remember her, Lower?—was charitable and Christian,” he said. “If a little unwise.”
I was astounded by this comment, so convinced had I been that no one had paid me the slightest attention. I had entirely misjudged the degree to which the slightest breath of anything can exert fascination in such a little town.
“But who is this girl whom you both know?” I asked. “She seemed a very poor creature and hardly the type who would ordinarily come to your attention. Or have years of republicanism leveled ranks to such an extent?”
Lower laughed. “Fortunately not. People like the Blundy girl are not normally members of our society, I’m pleased to say. She’s pretty enough, but I would be reluctant to be known to consort with her. We know her as she has a certain notoriety—her father Ned was a great subversive and radical, while she supposedly has some knowledge of natural remedies. Boyle here consulted her over some herbal simples. It is a pet project of his, to provide the poor with medicines fitting their rank.”
“Many have attested to her skill in curing, so Boyle thought he would do her the honor of incorporating some of her better recipes into his work. But she refused to help, and pretended she had no ability at all. I imagine she wanted payment, which Boyle properly refused to countenance for a work of benevolence.”
At least that explained the girl’s comment which I had dismissed as a lie. “Why is it unwise to associate with her, though?”
“Her society will do you little credit,” Boyle said. “She has a reputation for lewdness. But I particularly meant that she will not prove a lucrative client.”
“I have discovered that already,” I replied, and told him of the way she had spent my money.
Boyle looked mildly shocked by the tale. “Not the way to grow rich,” he observed dryly.
“What is the supply of physicians here? Do you think I could gain some clients?”
Lower grimaced and explained that the trouble with Oxford was that there were far too many doctors already. Which was why, when he had finished a project he was undertaking, and Christ Church ejected him from his place, he would be forced to go to London. “There are at least six,” he said.
“And any number of quacks, surgeons and apothecaries. All for a town of ten thousand inhabitants. And you would be at some risk if you did not obtain a university license to practice. Did you qualify at Padua?”
I told him that I had not, having no plans to practice even had my father not considered it demeaning to take a degree. Only necessity made me think of earning money by medicine now. I suppose I phrased it wrongly, for while Boyle understood my predicament, Lower took my innocent remark to indicate a disdain for his own calling.
“I’m sure sinking so low will not taint you permanently,” he said stiffly.
“On the contrary,” I said swiftly, to repair the accidental slight. “The opportunity is more than welcome, and quite makes up for the unfortunate circumstances in which I find myself. And if I have the opportunity to associate myself with gentlemen such as yourself and Mr. Boyle, I will be more than fortunate.”
He was soothed by this remark, and gradually resumed his earlier nonchalance; nonetheless, I had seen briefly beneath the surface, and had a glimpse of a nature which, for all its easygoing charm, was both proud and prickly. The signs vanished as quickly as they had appeared, however, and I over-congratulated myself on my success in winning him over.
To explain myself clearly, I briefly laid out my current position, and a precise question from Boyle induced me to say that I would soon be totally out of funds. Hence my desire to minister to the sick. He grimaced and asked why, precisely, I was in England in the first place?
I told him that filial obligation demanded that I try to reestablish my father’s position in law. And for that I suspected I would need a lawyer.
“And for that you need money, for which you need an income. Absque argento omnia rara,” Lower said. “Hmm. Mr. Boyle? Do you have any ideas, sir?”
“For the time being, I would be happy to offer you some occupation in my elaboratory,” said this kind gentleman. “I feel almost ashamed to offer, as it is far below what a man of your position should do. I’m sure Lower here could find you somewhere to stay at his old lodgings and perhaps, the next time he does a circuit in the countryside, he could take you along. What do you think, Lower? You always say you’re overworked.”
Lower nodded, although I detected no great enthusiasm on his part. “I should be delighted with both the help and the company. I was planning a tour in a week or so, and if Mr. Cola wished to come…”
Boyle nodded as though all was decided. “Excellent. Then we can tackle your London problem. I will write to a lawyer I know and see what he can recommend.”
I thanked him enthusiastically for his great kindness and generosity. It obviously pleased him, although he affected that it was a mere nothing. My gratitude was entirely genuine; from being poor, friendless and miserable, I had acquired the patronage of one of the most distinguished philosophers of Europe. It even crossed my mind that part of this was due to Sarah Blundy, whose appearance that morning,.and my reaction, had swung Boyle into thinking more favorably of me than could otherwise have been the case.