/ / Language: English / Genre:det_history

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears

We are in Oxford in the 1660s—a time, and place, of great intellectual, scientific, religious and political ferment. Robert Grove, a fellow of New College is found dead in suspicious circumstances. A young woman is accused of his murder. We hear about the events surrounding his death from four witnesses—Marco da Cola, a Venetian Catholic intent on claiming credit for the invention of blood transfusion; Jack Prescott, the son of a supposed traitor to the Royalist cause determined to vindicate his father; John Wallis, chief cryptographer to both Cromwell and Charles II, a mathematician, theologican and inveterate plotter; and Anthony Wood, the famous Oxford antiquary. Each witness tells their version of what happened. Only one reveals the extraordinary truth. An Instance of the Fingerpost is a magnificent tour de force—an utterly compelling historical mystery story with a plot that twists and turns and keeps the reader guessing until the very last page.

Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost

To Ruth

Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae. [1]

—Cicero, De Oratore

A Question of Precedence

There are Idols which we call Idols of the Market. For Men associate by Discourse, and a false and improper Imposition of Words strangely possesses the Understanding, for Words absolutely force the Understanding, and put all Things into Confusion.

—Francis Bacon, Novum Organum Scientarum, Section II, Aphorism VI.

1

Marco da Cola, Gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally, I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, wrongly, amongst my friends. I do not intend to pen a lengthy self-justification, or tell in detail how I was deceived and cheated out of renown which should rightfully be mine. My recital, I believe, will speak for itself. I will leave out much, but nothing of significance. Much of my tour around that country was of interest only to myself, and finds no mention here. Many of those I met, similarly, were of little consequence. Those who in later years did me harm I describe as I knew them then, and I beg any reader to remember that, although I was hardly callow, I was not yet wise in the ways of the world. If my narrative appears simple and foolish, then you must conclude that the young man of so many years past was similarly so. I do not go back to my portrait to add extra layers of tint and varnish to cover my errors or the weakness of my draftsmanship. I will make no accusations, and indulge in no polemic against others; rather, I will say what happened, confident that I need do no more.

* * *

My father, Giovanni da Cola, was a merchant, and for the last years of his life was occupied in the importation of luxury goods into England which, though an unsophisticated country, was nonetheless beginning to rouse itself from the effects of revolution. He had shrewdly recognized from afar that the return of King Charles II meant that vast profits would once again be there for the taking and, stealing a march on more timid traders, he established himself in London to provide the wealthier English with those luxuries which the Puritan zealots had discouraged for so many years. His business prospered—he had a good man in London in Giovanni di Pietro, and also entered into a partnership with an English trader, with whom he split his profit. As he once told me, it was a fair bargain—this John Mansion was sly and dishonest, but possessed unrivaled knowledge of English tastes. More importantly, the English had passed a law to stop goods coming into their ports in foreign boats, and Mansion was a way through this difficulty. As long as my father had di Pietro in place to keep an eye firmly on the accounts, he believed there was little chance of being cheated.

He was long past the time when he took a direct interest in his business, having already converted a portion of his capital into land on Terra Firma to prepare for admission to the Golden Book. Although a merchant himself, he intended his children to be gentlemen, and discouraged me from active participation in his business. I mention this as an indication of his goodness—he had noticed early on that I had little mind for trade, and encouraged me to turn my face against the life he led. He also knew that my sister’s new husband was more fitted for ventures than I.

So, while my father secured the family name and fortune, I—my mother being dead and one sister usefully married—was in Padua to acquire the smatterings of polite knowledge; he was content to have his son a member of our nobility but did not wish to have me as ignorant as they. At this point and of mature years—I was now rising thirty—I was suddenly struck by a burning enthusiasm to become a citizen of the Republic of Learning, as it is called. This sudden passion I can no longer recall, so completely has it left me, but then the fascination of the new experimental philosophy held me under its spell. It was, of course, a matter of the spirit rather than of practical application. I say with Beroaldus, non sum medicus, nec medicinae prorsus expers, in the theory of physick I have taken some pains, not with an intent to practice, but to satisfy myself. I had neither desire nor need to gain a living in such a fashion, although occasionally, I confess with shame, I taunted my poor good father by saying that unless he was kind to me, I would take my revenge by becoming a physician.

I imagine that he knew all along I would do no such thing, and that in reality I was merely captivated by ideas and people which were as exciting as they were dangerous. As a result, he raised no objections when I wrote to him about the reports of one professor who, though nominally charged with lecturing in rhetoric, spent much of his time enlarging upon the latest developments in natural philosophy. This man had traveled widely and maintained that, for all serious students of natural phenomena, the Low Countries and England were no longer to be disdained. After many months in his care, I caught his enthusiasm and, having little to detain me in Padua, requested permission to tour that part of the world. Kind man that he was, my father immediately gave his assent, procured permission for me to leave Venetian territory, and sent a bill of credit to his bankers in Flanders for my use.

I had thought of taking advantage of my position to go by sea, but decided that, if I was to acquire knowledge, then it would be best to see as much as possible and this was better done in a coach than by spending three weeks in a ship drinking with the crew. I must add that I also suffer abominably from seasickness—which weakness I have always been loath to admit, for although Gomesius says such sickness cures sadness of spirit, I have never found it to be the case. Even so, my courage weakened, then evaporated almost entirely, as the journey progressed. The journey to Leiden took only nine weeks, but the sufferings I endured quite took my mind off the sights I was viewing. Once, stuck in the mud halfway through an Alpine pass, the rain coming down in torrents, one horse sick, myself with a fever and a violent-looking soldier as my only companion, I thought that I would rather suffer the worst gale in the Atlantic than such misery.

But it would have been as long to go back as to continue, and I was mindful of the scorn in which I would be held if I returned, shamefaced and weak, to my native town. Shame, I do believe, is the most powerful emotion known to man; most discoveries and journeys of importance have been accomplished because of the ignominy that would be the result if the attempt was abandoned. So, sick for the warmth and comfort of my native land—the English have the word nostalgia for this illness, which they believe is due to the imbalance caused by an unfamiliar environment—I continued on my way, ill-tempered and miserable, until I reached Leiden, where I attended the school of medicine as a gentleman.

So much has been written about this seat of learning, and it has so little to do with my recital, that it suffices to say that I found and profited greatly from two professors of singular ability who lectured on anatomy and bodily economy. I also traveled throughout the Low Countries and fell into good company, much of which was English and from whom I learnt something of the language. I left for the simple reason that my kind good father ordered me so to do and for no other reason. There was some disarray in the London office, a letter told me, and he needed family to intervene—no one else could be trusted. Although I had little practical knowledge of trade, I was glad to be the obedient son, and so discharged my servant, organized my affairs and shipped from Antwerp to investigate. I arrived in London on March 22nd, 1663, with only a few pounds left, the sum I paid to one professor for his teaching having all but exhausted my funds. But I was not concerned, for I thought that all I needed to do was make the short journey from the river to the office maintained by my father’s agent, and all would be well. Fool that I was. I could not find di Pietro, and that wretched man John Mansion would not even receive me. He is now long since dead; I pray for his soul, and hope the good Lord disregards my entreaties on his behalf, knowing as I do that the longer he suffers fiery torment, the more just his punishment will be.

I had to beg a mere servant for information, and this lad told me that my father’s agent had died suddenly some weeks previously. Even worse, Mansion had swiftly moved to take all the fortune and business for his own, and refused to admit that any had belonged to my father. Before lawyers he had produced documents (naturally, forged) to prove this assertion. He had, in other words, entirely defrauded my family of our money—that part of it which was in England, at least.

This boy was, unfortunately, at a loss about how I should proceed. I could lay a complaint before a magistrate, but with no evidence except my own convictions this seemed fruitless. I could also consult a lawyer but, if England and Venice differ in many ways, they are alike in one, which is that lawyers have an insatiable love of money, and that was a commodity I did not possess in sufficient quantity.

It also rapidly became clear that London was not a healthy place. I do not mean the famous plague, which had not yet afflicted the city; I mean that Mansion, that very evening, sent round hired hands to demonstrate that my life would be more secure elsewhere. Fortunately, they did not kill me; indeed, I acquitted myself well in the brawl thanks to the fees my father had paid to my fencing master, and I believe at least one bravo left the field in a worse state than I. But I took the warning nonetheless and decided to stay out of the way until my course was clearer. I will mention little more of this matter except to say that eventually I abandoned the quest for recompense, and my falher decided that the costs involved were not worth the money lost. The matter was reluctantly forgotten for two years, when we heard that one of Mansion’s boats had put into Trieste to sit out a storm. My family moved to have it seized—Venetian justice being as favorable to Venetians as English law is to Englishmen—and the hull and cargo provided some compensation for our losses.

To have had my father’s permission to leave instantly would have raised my spirits immeasurably, for the weather in London was enough to reduce the strongest man to the most wretched despair. The fog, the incessant, debilitating drizzle, and the dull bitter cold as the wind swept through my thin cloak reduced me lo the lowesl slate of despondency.

Only duty to my family forced me to continue rather than going to the docks and begging for a passage back home. Instead of taking this sensible course, however, I wrote to my father informing him of developments and promising to do what I could, but pointed out that until I was rearmed from his coffers there was little I might practically accomplish. I had, I realized, many weeks to fill in before he could respond. And about five pounds to survive on.

The professor under whom I had studied in Leiden had most kindly given me letters to gentlemen with whom he had corresponded, and, these being my only contacts with Englishmen, I decided that my best course would be to throw myself on their mercy. An additional attraction was that neither was in London, so I picked the man who lived in Oxford, that being the closest, and decided to leave as swiftly as possible.

The English seem to have strong suspicion of people moving around, and go out of their way to make travel as difficult as possible. According to the piece of paper pasted up where I waited for the coach, the sixty-mile trip to Oxford would take eighteen hours—God Willing, as it added piously. The Almighty, alas, was not willing that day; rain had made much of the road disappear, so the coachman had to navigate his way through what seemed very like a plowed field. A wheel came off a few hours later, tipping my chest on the ground and damaging the lid and, just outside a mean little town called Thame, one of the horses broke a leg and had to be dispatched. Add to that the frequent stops at almost every inn in southern England (the innkeepers bribe the drivers to halt) and the journey took a total of twenty-five hours, with myself ejected into the courtyard of an inn in the main street of the city of Oxford at seven o’clock in the morning.

2

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, così 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.

3

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.”

“Ah.”

“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.”

“Why supposedly?”

“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.

4

Within a short time I thus established myself in good company and had a vantage point from which to await more money. Eight weeks for the mails to go, another eight to come back, if I was lucky. Add onto that a week or so for the moneys to be arranged, plus some months to sort out my business in London, and I thought I would be in England for half a year at the very least, by which time the weathers would be declining badly. Either I would have to go back home overland, or risk the miserable prospect of a winter sea voyage. Alternatively, I would have to resign myself to another northern winter, and remain until the spring.

But to begin with I was more than content with my position, except where Mrs. Bulstrode, my new landlady, was concerned. Everyone sincerely believed this worthy was an excellent cook, and it was with high hopes—and empty stomach, for I had not eaten properly for two days—that I presented myself at four sharp for what I believed was going to be a fine meal.

If the climate of England was difficult for a Venetian to become used to, then the food was impossible. If quantity were anything to judge by, then I would say that England is indeed the richest country on earth. Even the more modest sort habitually eat meat once a month at least, and the English boast that they have no need of sauces to cover up its stringy texture and unpleasant taste, as the French have to do. Simply roast it and eat it as God intended, they say, firmly believing that ingeniousness in cooking is sinful and that the Heavenly Host themselves tuck into roast beef and ale for their Sunday repast.

Unfortunately, there is frequently little else. Naturally, fresh fruit is often unavailable because of the climate, but the English do not even like preserved fruit, believing it causes the wind, which exhalations they consider a depletion of the body’s vital heat. Nor is there much in the way of green vegetables, for the same reason. Rather, they eat bread or, more frequently, drink their grain as ale, of which their consumption is truly stupendous; even the most delicate of ladies cheerfully downs a quart or two of strong beer during a meal, and infants learn insobriety in the cradle. The trouble for a foreigner like myself was that the beer was strong, and it was considered unmanly (and unwomanly) not to drink it. I mention all this to explain why the meal of boiled brawn and three-quarters of a gallon of beer left me feeling not at all well.

My success in attending my patient after the meal had finished was, therefore, of considerable merit. How exactly I managed to prepare my bag and walk to the miserable cottage, I do not recall. Fortunately, the girl was not there, as I had no desire to renew my acquaintanceship with her, but as far as her mother was concerned it was far from lucky; she was badly in need of care and attention, and the girl’s absence struck me as being hardly an example of the dutiful-ness which the old woman had mentioned.

She had slept—in fact she was still drowsy, her daughter having given her some peasant potion of her own devising which, nonetheless, seemed to have been very effective. But she was in considerable discomfort; pus and corrosive matter had suppurated through my binding and caked dry over the wound, giving off an evil smell which filled me with foreboding.

It was a long and distasteful business to remove the bandage, but it was eventually completed and I decided that I would try exposing the wound to the air, having heard the theory that tight warm binding in such cases might very well aid corruption rather than prevent it. Such a view does go against orthodox practice, I know, and the willingness to allow the vapors to swirl round might be considered rash. All I can say is that experiments conducted since by others have tended to support the technique. I was so absorbed in my task that I failed to hear the door creaking open, or the soft pad of feet as they came up behind me, so that when Sarah Blundy spoke, I jumped up with alarm.

“How is she?”

I turned round to look. Her voice was soft, and her manner more appropriate than before.

“She is not well at all,” I said frankly. “Can you not attend to her more?”

“I have to work,” she said. “Our position is already grave now my mother cannot earn. I asked someone to look in, but it seems they did not.”

I grunted, slightly ashamed of myself for not having thought of this as a reason.

“Will she recover?”

“It is too soon to say. I am drying out the wound, then I will rebind it. I fear she is developing a fever. It may pass, but I am concerned. You must check every half hour for signs of the fever getting worse. And, strange as it may seem, you must keep her warm.”

She nodded, as though she understood, although she could not.

“You see,” I said kindly, “in cases of a fever, one can either reinforce or oppose. Reinforcement brings the malady to a head and purges it, leaving the patient void of the cause. Opposition counters it, and seeks to restore the natural economy of the body. So, with a fever, one can either expose the patient to ice and cold water, or one can wrap her up well. I choose the latter because of her grave weakness—a more strenuous cure could well kill her before taking effect.”

She leaned over and protectively tucked her mother in, then, with a surprising gentleness, stroked the old woman’s hair into place.

“I’d been planning to do that anyhow,” she said.

“And now you’ll have my approval for it.”

“I am fortunate indeed,” she said. She glanced at me, saw the suspicious look in my eye, then smiled. “Forgive me, sir. I mean no insolence. My mother told me how well and generously you acted to her, and we are both deeply grateful for your kindness. I am truly sorry I misspoke. I was frightened for her, and upset about the way I was treated in the coffee house.”

I waved my hand, touched strangely by her submissive tone. “That is quite all right,” I said. “But who was that man?”

“I worked for him once,” she said, still not taking her eyes off her mother, “and was always dutiful and conscientious. I believe I deserved better from him.”

She looked up and smiled at me, a smile of such gentleness that I felt my heart begin to melt. “But it seems that we are spurned by our friends, and saved by strangers. So thank you again, sir.”

“You are more than welcome. As long as you do not expect miracles.”

For a moment we balanced on the brink of a greater intimacy, that strange girl and I; but the moment passed as swiftly as it presented itself. She hesitated before speaking, and it was instantly too late. Instead, we both made an effort to reestablish the correct relations and stood up.

“I will pray for one, even if I do not deserve it,” she said. “Will you come again?”

“Tomorrow, if I can. And if she worsens, come and find me at Mr. Boyle’s. I will be attending him. Now, about payment,” I continued, hurrying on.

I had decided, on my walk down to the cottage that, as there was not the slightest chance of being paid in any case, it would be best to accept the fact with grace. Rather than accept the inevitable, I should turn it into virtue. In other words, I had decided to waive any fee. It made me feel quite proud of myself, especially considering my own impecunious state but, as fortune had smiled on me, I thought it fair to spread my good luck a little further.

Alas, my speech died in my throat before even the end of the first sentence. She immediately looked at me, eyes blazing with contempt.

“Oh yes, your payment. How could I think you would forget about that. We must deal with that urgently, must we not?”

“Indeed,” I said, completely astonished by the speed and completeness of her transformation. “I think that…”

But I got no farther. The girl led me through to the damp and squalid little space at the back of the house which was, evidently, where she—or some other animal, I could not tell—slept. On the damp floor was a pallet, hard sacking stuffed with straw. There were no windows at all, and the little space smelled very distinctly of sour water.

With a gesture of the most brusque contempt, she immediately lay down on the bed, and pulled up her thin skirt.

“Come then, physician,” she jeered. “Take your payment.”

I recoiled visibly, then blushed scarlet with rage as her meaning became clear even to someone as slow-witted as the beer had made me that evening. I became even more confused as I wondered whether my new friends thought this was my interest in the case. More particularly, I was outraged at the way my fine gesture had been trodden in the dirt.

“You disgust me,” I said coldly as the power of speech returned. “How dare you behave like this? I will not remain here to be insulted. Henceforth, you may cater to your mother as you wish. But kindly do not expect me to return to this house and subject myself to your presence. Good night.”

Then I turned round and boldly marched out, even managing—just—to avoid slamming the thin door as I left.

I am more than susceptible to female charms, some might even say overly so, and in my youth I was not averse to taking my pleasures wherever they might arise. But this was not one of those cases. I had treated her mother out of kindness and to have my motives and intentions so abused was intolerable. Even if such was the form of payment I had in mind, it was certainly not the girl’s place to talk to me in that fashion.

Seething with fury, I marched away from her hovel—more convinced than before that the girl was as corrupt and foul as her living accommodation. To the devil with her mother, I thought. What sort of woman could she be, to have spawned such a hellish monstrosity? A scrawny little wretch, I told myself, forgetting I had earlier thought of her as pretty. And even if she were beautiful, what of it? The devil himselí can become beauty, so we are told, to corrupt mankind.

On the other hand, a little voice in the back of my mind was whispering critical words into my ear. So, it said, you will kill the mother to have your revenge on the daughter. Well done, physician; I hope you are proud. But what was I meant to do? Apologize? The good San Rocca might be capable of such charity. But he was a saint.

* * *

Those who have some inkling that my command of the English language by this stage was adequate but by no means sophisticated are no doubt thinking that I am a fraud in recounting my conversations. I admit my English was not good enough to present complex ideas, but then I had no need to. Certainly, in conversations with such as the Blundy girl, I had to do my best in English; although their manner of speaking was usually sufficiently uncomplicated that I could manage perfectly well. With others, the conversation switched as occasion required from Latin and sometimes even French, the English of quality being renowned as linguists of considerable attainment, with a frequent ability in foreign tongues which many other peoples—above all the Germans—could do well to emulate.

Lower, for example, was perfectly at ease in Latin and managed a passable French; Boyle could, in addition, manage Greek and spoke a dainty Italian as well as having a smattering of German. Now I fear Latin is passing out of use, to the detriment of our Republic; for how will men of learning manage when they sacrifice conversation with their equals and have only the ability to talk to their ignorant countrymen?

But then I felt safe in my place, surrounded, as I thought, by gentlemen who brushed aside the prejudices of lesser men. That I was a Roman Catholic occasioned no more than the occasional barbed joke from Lower, whose love of fun sometimes overbalanced into the offensive, and not even that from the pious Boyle, who was as mindful of others’ faith as he was fervent of his own. Even a Mussulman or a Hindoo would have been welcomed at his table, I sometimes think, as long as he was pious and showed an interest in experiment. Such an attitude is rare in England, and this bigotry and suspicion is the most serious flaw in a nation which has many faults. Fortunately, my associations meant that I was sheltered initially from its effects, beyond an occasional insult or stone thrown at me in the street when I began to be known.

I should say that Lower was the first man I considered my friend since my infancy, and I fear I misunderstood the English in this respect. When a Venetian calls a man his friend, he does so after long thought, as to accept such a person is all but to make him a member of the family, owed much loyalty and forbearance. We die for our friends as for our family, and value them as did Dante—noi non potemo aver perfetta vita senza amid—a perfect life needs friends. Such friendships are justly celebrated among the ancients, as Homer lauds the bond between Achilles and Patroclus, or Plutarch the amity of Theseus and Perithoos. But it was rare among the Jews, for in the Old Testament I find few friends, except David and Jonathan, and even here, David’s obligation is not so great that he refrains from killing Jonathan’s son. Like most of my station, I had had childhood companions, but put these by me when the obligations of family descended as an adult, for they are a heavy burden. The English are very different; they have friends at all stages of their lives, and maintain a distinction between the obligations of amity and those of blood. By taking Lower to my heart as I did—for I never encountered anyone so close to me in spirit or in interest—I made the mistake of assuming he did the same with me, and acknowledged the same obligations. But it was not the case. The English can lose their friends.

Then such sad knowledge was unsuspected, and I concentrated on repaying my friends for their kindness and, at the same time, advancing my knowledge through assisting Boyle in his chemical experiments, having long and fruitful conversations at all hours and times with Lower and his associates. Although he was serious of demeanor, Boyle’s elaboratory positively bubbled with good humor except when work was about to take place, for he considered experiment to be the discovery of God’s will, needing to be performed with reverence. When an experiment was to begin, all women were excluded for fear their irrational natures would influence the result, and an air of fervent concentration descended. My task was to take notes on experiments as they happened, to assist in setting up equipment, and to keep accounts, for he spent a fortune on his science. He used—and often broke—specially made glass bottles, and the leather tubes, pumps and lenses he required all consumed huge amounts of money. Then there was the cost of chemicals, many of which had to be brought from London or even Amsterdam. There can be few prepared to spend that much to produce so little in obviously advantageous result.

I must here declare myself as someone who does not for a moment subscribe to the general view that a willingness to perform oneself is detrimental to the dignity of experimental philosophy. There is, after all, a clear distinction between labor carried out for financial reward and that done for the improvement of mankind—to put it another way, Lower as a philosopher was fully my equal even if he fell away when he became the practicing physician. I think ridiculous the practice of certain professors of anatomy, who find it beneath them to pick up the knife themselves, but merely comment while hired hands do the cutting. Sylvius would never have dreamt of sitting on a dais reading from an authority while others cut—when he taught, the knife was in his hand, and the blood spattered his coat. Boyle also did not scruple to perform his own experiments and, on one occasion in my presence, even showed himself willing to anatomize a rat with his very own hands. Nor was he less a gentleman when he had finished. Indeed, in my opinion, his stature was all the greater, for in Boyle wealth, humility and curiosity mingled, and the world is the richer for it.

“Now,” Boyle said when Lower turned up in midafter-noon and we took a break from our work, “it is time for Cola here to earn the pittance I am paying him.”

This alarmed me, as I had been laboring hard for at least two hours and I wondered whether perhaps I was doing something wrong, or Boyle had not noticed my efforts. But rather, he wanted me to sing for my supper, as the phrase goes. I was there not only to learn from him, but also to teach him, such was the marvelous humility of the man.

“Your blood, Cola,” Lower said to relieve my anxiety. “Tell us about your blood. What have you been up to? What experimentations are your conclusions based on? What are your conclusions, in fact?”

“I’m very much afraid I am going to disappoint you,” 1 began hesitantly when I saw they were not to be diverted. “My researches are scarcely advanced. I am mainly interested in the question of what the blood is for. We have known for thirty years that it circulates around the body; your own Harvey showed that. We know that if you drain an animal of its blood, it rapidly dies. The vital spirits in it are the means of communication between the mind and the force of mobility, permitting movement to take place…”

Here Lower wagged his finger. “Ah, you have fallen too much under the influence of Mr. Helmont, sir. There we will be in dispute.”

“You do not accept this?”

“I do not. Not that it matters, at the moment. Please continue.”

I regrouped my forces and rethought my approach. “We believe,” I started, “we believe that it moves heat from the ferment of the heart to the brain, thus providing the warmth we need to live, then vents the excess into the lungs. But is that really the case? As far as I know, no experiments have proven this. The other question is simple—Why do we breathe? We assume that it is to regulate the body heat, to draw in cool air and thus moderate the blood. Again, is that true? Although the tendency to breathe more often when we exercise indicates this, the converse is not true, for I placed a rat in a bucket of ice and stopped its nose, but it died nonetheless.”

Boyle nodded, and Lower looked as though he wanted to put some questions, but as he could see I was concentrating and trying to present my case well, he obligingly refrained from interrupting.

“The other thing that has struck me is the way in which the blood changes consistency. Have you noticed, for example, that it alters color after passing through the lungs?”

“I confess I have not,” Lower replied thoughtfully. “Although of course I am aware that it changes color in a jar. But we know why, surely? The heavier melancholic elements in the blood sink, making the top lighter and the bottom darker.”

“Not so,” I said firmly. “Cover the jar, and the color does not change. And I can find no explanation of how such a separation could occur in the lungs. But when it emerges from the lungs—at least, this is the case in cats—it is very much lighter in color than when it goes in, indicating that some darkness is withdrawn from it.”

“I must cut up a cat and see for myself. A live cat, was it?”

“It was for a while. It may well be that some other noxious elements leave the blood in the lungs, are sucked out by passage through the tissue, as through a sieve, and are then exhaled. The lighter blood is purified substance. We know, after all, that the breath often smells.”

“And did you weigh the two cups of blood to see if they had changed weight?” Boyle asked.

I flushed slightly, as the thought had never even occurred to me. “Clearly this would be a next step,” Boyle said. “It may be, of course, a waste of time, but it might be an avenue to explore. A minor detail, though. Please continue.”

Having made such an elementary omission, I felt unwilling to continue and lay out my more extreme flights of fancy. “If one concentrates on the two hypotheses,” I said, “there is the problem of testing to see which is correct—does the blood shed something in the lungs, or gain something?”

“Or both,” Lower added.

“Or both,” I agreed. “I was thinking of an experiment, but had neither the time nor the equipment in Leiden to pursue my ideas.”

“And that was… ?”

“Well,” I began, a little nervously. “If the purpose of breathing is to expel heat and the noxious byproducts of fermentation, then the air itself is unimportant. So if we placed an animal in a vacuum…”

“Oh, I see,” Boyle said, with a glance at Lower. “You would like to use my vacuum pump.”

In fact, the idea had not occurred to me before I spoke. Curiously, Boyle’s pump was of such fame I had scarcely given it a thought since I’d arrived in Oxford, as I had never dreamt of the possibility of using it myself. The machine was of such sophistication, grandeur and expense that it was known to people of curiosity throughout Europe. Now, of course, such devices are well enough known; then there were perhaps only two in the whole of Christendom, and Boyle’s was the better, so ingenious in design that no one had managed to reproduce it—or the results he attained. Naturally, its use was rationed very carefully. Few were even allowed to see it in operation, let alone employ it, and it was forward of me even to bring the subject up. The last thing I wanted was a refusal; I had set myself the task of ingratiating myself into his confidence, and a rebuff now would have been hurtful.

But, all was well. Boyle thought the matter over a while and then nodded. “And how might you proceed?”

“A mouse or a rat would do,” I said. “Even a bird. Put it in the bell and extract the air. If the purpose of respiration is to vent fumes, then a vacuum will provide more space for the exhalations, and the animal will live more easily. If respiration requires air to be sucked into the blood, then the vacuum might make the animal ill.”

Boyle thought it over and nodded. “Yes,” he said eventually. “A good idea. We can do it now, if you like. Why not, indeed? Come along. The machine is prepared, so we can start immediately.”

He led the way into the next room, in which many of his finest experiments had taken place. The pump, one of the most artistic devices I had seen, stood on the table. For those who do not know it, then I suggest they consult the fine engravings in his opera completa; here I will merely say that it was an elaborate device of brass and leather with a handle connected to a large glass bell and a set of valves through which, propelled by a pair of bellows, the air could be made to pass in one direction, but not the other. By the use of this, Boyle had already demonstrated some marvels, including the disproval of Aristotle’s dictum that nature abhors a vacuum. As he said in a rare moment of jest, nature may not like it, but if pushed will be made to put up with it. A vacuum—an area of space voided entirely of content—can indeed be created and possesses many strange qualities. As I examined the machine carefully, he told me how a ringing bell placed in a glass chamber will stop making sound as the vacuum is created around it; the more perfect the vacuum, the less the sound. He said he had .even constructed an explanation for the occurrence, but declined to inform me of it. I would see for myself with the animal, even if the rest of the experiment did not work.

The bird was a dove, a handsome bird which cooed gently as Boyle took it from its cage and placed it underneath the glass dome. When all was ready, he gave a signal, and the assistant began working the bellows with much grunting and a whooshing sound as air was propelled through the mechanism.

“How long does this take?” I enquired eagerly.

“A few minutes,” Lower replied. “I do believe its song is getting fainter, do you hear?”

I regarded the beast with interest, as it was showing signs of distress. “You are right. But surely it is because the bird itself seems unconcerned with making a noise?”

Hardly had I spoken when the dove, which a few moments ago had been hopping around the dome with curiosity, fluttering against the invisible glass walls which it could feel but was incapable of understanding, fell over, its beak gaping open, its beady eyes popping and its legs flailing around pathetically.

“Good heavens,” I said.

Lower ignored me. “Why don’t we let the air back in, and see what happens then?”

The valves were turned, and with an audible hiss, the vacuum was filled. The bird still lay there, twitching away, although it was clear that it was very much relieved. Within a few moments, it picked itself up, ruffled its feathers and resumed its attempts to fly away to freedom.

“Well,” I said, “so much for one hypothesis.”

Boyle nodded, and gave the assistant a nod to try it again. Here I must note the extraordinary goodness of this fine man, who refused to use the same animal in more than one series of experiments, because of the torture to the creature. Once it had served its turn, and given itself to the pursuit of humane knowledge, he either let it go or, if necessary, killed it.

Until then, I had never thought such an attitude attachable to any experimentalist other than myself, and I rejoiced to find at last someone whose sentiments were similar to my own. Experimentation must take place, this is certain; but sometimes, when I behold the faces of my colleagues as they cut, I think I see too much pleasure on their countenances, and suspect that the agony is prolonged longer than is necessary for mere knowledge. Once in Padua, a vivisection of a dog was interrupted when a female servant, grieved to hear the beast’s piteous cries as it was cut open, strangled it in front of a full audience of students, causing much dismay and protest at the ruining of the spectacle. Of the assembled multitude, I believe that only myself had sympathy for the woman, and was grateful to her; but then I was ashamed of the effeminacy of my concerns which, I think, came from my delight as a child in being read from the life of St. Francis, who loved and reverenced all things in God’s creation.

But Boyle came to the same conclusions, although (typically of the man) did so in a far more rigorous fashion than myself and was, of course, uninfluenced by memories of the Assisi countryside. For, just as he believed that a gentleman should show Christian condescension to the lower orders, according to their merits, so men, the gentlemen of God’s creation, owed similar courtesy to the animals over whom they had dominion. While not scrupling to use men or animals as was his right, he believed firmly that they should not be abused either. In that, good Catholic and fervent Protestant were in accord for once, and I liked Boyle the more for his care.

That afternoon, we used only a single bird. By means of careful study we ascertained that it was scarcely affected when only half of the air was removed, that it began to show signs of distress when two thirds had gone, and was rendered insensible when three quarters had vanished. Conclusion—the presence of air is necessary for life to continue, although, as Lower said, that did not explain what it did. Personally, I believe that as fire needs air to burn, so life, which can be likened to fire, needs it also, although I admit that argument by analogy is of limited use.

It was an appealing little animal, the dove we used to prise these secrets from nature’s grip, and I had my habitual pang of sorrow when we reached the final, necessary round of the experiment. Although we knew what the result would be, the demands of philosophy are implacable and all must be demonstrated beyond contradiction. So it was my voice which reassured the creature for the last time, and my hand which placed it back in the bell, then gave the signal for the assistant to begin pumping once more. I offered a small prayer to gentle St. Francis when it finally collapsed and died, its song finally extinguished. It is God’s will that sometimes the innocent must suffer and die for a greater purpose.

5

This business concluded, Lower suggested I might like to dine with some friends, whom he felt I might profit from meeting. It was kind of him and it seemed that the closeness to Boyle that an afternoon’s experiment entailed had placed him in a good humor. I suspected, however, that there was another side of his character, a darkness which warred with his natural good nature. For a flickering of a moment, while I laid out my thoughts to Boyle, I had felt a slight unease in Lower’s demeanor, although this had never come to the surface. I had also noticed that he had never given his own theories or elaborated his own thoughts; these he kept close to himself.

I did not mind; Boyle was Lower’s most important connection among the few gentlemen of standing who could help establish himself in his career and he was naturally concerned lest that patronage be diverted. But I contented myself with the assurance that I presented him with no challenge, and concluded that I could hardly attract his enmity. Perhaps I should have been more sensitive to his concerns, for it was a matter of character not of circumstance which made him uncomfortable.

My position had made me easy with all ranks of life; I admired and was beholden to Mr. Boyle, but in all other respects I considered him my equal. Lower was unable to feel the same; although all are citizens of the republic of learning, he was often uneasy in such company, for he believed himself at a disadvantage due to a birth which, although respectable, gave him neither fortune nor people. Moreover, he lacked the talents of the courtier and in later years he never rose to any position of distinction in the Royal Society while men of lesser accomplishment took on its great offices. This was galling for a man of his ambition and pride but, for the most part, this inner conflict was hidden, and I am aware that he did as much as his nature allowed to assist me while I was in Oxford. He was a man who liked easily, but then was seized by fear lest his affections be abused and exploited by others of a less trusting disposition than himself. The fact that earning position in England is so formidably hard merely heightened this aspect of his nature. I can say this now, as the passage of years has lessened my hurt and increased my understanding. At that time my comprehension was smaller.

It was as a result of his friendliness and enthusiasm, however, that I was led down the High Street that afternoon in the direction of the castle.

“I didn’t want to mention it in Boyle’s presence,” he said confidingly as we marched briskly along in the cold afternoon air, “but I have high hopes of getting hold of a corpse soon. Boyle disapproves.”

I was surprised by this remark. Even though some of the older physicians didn’t hold with the business at all, and it still caused considerable trouble among churchmen, it was accepted as an essential part of medical studies in Italy. Was it possible that a man like Boyle could disagree?

“Oh, no. He has nothing against anatomizing, but he feels I tend to become undignified about the matter. Which may be true, but there is no other way of getting hold of them without getting permission first.”

“What do you mean? Getting permission? Where does this man find the body in the first place?”

“He is the body.”

“How can you ask permission of a corpse?”

“Oh, he’s not dead,” Lower said airily. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Is he ill?”

“Heavens, no. Prime of life. But they’re to hang him soon. After he’s found guilty. He attacked a gentleman and injured him badly. A simple case it is, too; he was found with the knife in his hand. Will you come to see the hanging? I must confess I shall; it’s not often a student is hanged, alas. Most of them join the church and get livings… I’m sure there’s a witticism in there somewhere, if I phrased it rightly.”

I was beginning to see Boyle’s point of view, but Lower, quite impervious to disapproval when fixed on his work, explained how very difficult it was to get hold of a fresh corpse these days. That had been the one good effect, he said nostalgically, of the civil war. Especially when the king’s army had been quartered in Oxford, there were corpses, two a penny. Never had anatomists had such a plentiful supply. I forbore to point out that he was much too young to know.

“The trouble is, you see, that most people who die are sick in some way.”

“Not if they have the right doctor,” I said, desiring to show myself as witty as he.

“Quite. But it’s very inconvenient. The only time we can see what a properly healthy person looks like is if they are killed in some relatively clean fashion. And the best supply of those comes from the gallows. But that is another one of the university’s monopolies.”

“Pardon?” I said in some surprise.

“Law of the land,” he went on. “The university has a right to the bodies of everyone hanged within twenty miles. The courts are so very lax on crime these days as well. Many an interesting specimen gets off with a flogging, and there’s only about half a dozen hangings a year. And I’m afraid they don’t always make the best use of the corpses they do have. Our Regius professor is scarcely qualified to be a carpenter. Last time… well, let’s not go into that,” he said with a shudder.

We had arrived at the castle, a great gloomy edifice which scarcely seemed capable of defending the town from assault or of providing a refuge for the townspeople. In fact, it had not been used for such a purpose for as long as anyone could remember; and was now the county prison, in which those due to appear at the assizes were held pending their trial—and pending their punishment afterward. It was a dirty, shabby place, and I looked around with distaste as Lower knocked on the door of a little cottage down by the stream, in the shadow of the tower.

Getting in to see his body was surprisingly easy; all he had to do was tip the guardian a penny, and this old hobbling man—a Royalist soldier who had been given the position for his services—led the way, his keys jangling by his side.

If it was gloomy outside, it was even darker inside, although far from grim for the more fortunate of the inmates. The poorer ones, naturally, had the worst of the cells and were forced to eat food which was barely adequate for keeping body and soul together. But, Lower pointed out, as several were to have body and soul forcibly separated in due course anyway, there was little point in spoiling them.

However, the better sort of prisoner could rent a more salubrious cell, send out to a tavern for food and in addition have laundry done when required. He could also receive visitors if, as was the case with Lower, they were prepared to tip heavily for the privilege.

“There you are, then, sirs,” said the warder as he swung open a heavy door leading into what I gathered was a cell for a middle-ranking sort of prisoner.

The man whom Lower hoped to cut into small bits was sitting on a little bed. He looked up in a rather sulky fashion as we entered, then peered curiously, a glimmer of half recognition passing across his face as my friend passed into the thin stream of light that came through the open, barred window.

“Dr. Lower, isn’t it?” he said in a melodious voice.

Lower told me later that he was a lad from a good, but impoverished family; his fall from grace had been something of a shock and his position was not sufficiently elevated to spare him from the gallows. And now the time appointed was drawing near. The English rush from trial to sentence with considerable speed, so that a man condemned on Monday can often be hanged the following morning unless he is lucky. Jack Prestcott could count himself fortunate that he had been arrested a few weeks before the assizes arrived to hear his case; it gave him time to prepare his soul, for Lower told me there was not the slightest chance of an acquittal or a pardon.

“Mr. Prestcott,” Lower said cheerfully. “I hope I find you well?”

Prestcott nodded and said he was as well as could be expected.

“I won’t beat about the bush,” Lower said. “I’ve come to ask something of you.”

Prestcott looked surprised that he should be asked a service in his current condition, but nodded to indicate that Lower should ask away. He put down his book and paid attention.

“You are a young man of considerable learning, and I’m told your tutor spoke very highly of you,” Lower continued. “And you have committed a most heinous crime.”

“If you have found a way of saving me from the noose, then I agree with you,” Prestcott said calmly. “But I fear you have something else in mind. But please continue, doctor. I am interrupting your speech.”

“I trust you have meditated on your sinful conduct, and have seen the justice of the fate which awaits you in due course,” Lower continued in what struck me as being a remarkably pompous fashion. I suppose the effort to hit the right tone made him sound a little discordant.

“Indeed I have,” the youth replied with gravity. “Every day I pray to the Almighty for forgiveness, mindful that I scarcely deserve such a boon.”

“Splendid,” continued Lower, “so if I were to tell you of a way in which you could contribute inestimably to the betterment of all mankind, and do something to cancel out the horrible acts with which your name will be forever associated, you might be interested? Hmm?”

The young man nodded cautiously, and asked what this contribution might be.

Lower explained about the law on the corpses of criminals.

“Now, you see,” he went on, scarcely noticing that Prestcott had turned a little pale, “the Regius professor and his assistant are the most appalling butchers. They will hack and saw and chop, and reduce you to a mangled ruin, and no one will be any the wiser. All that will happen is that you will furnish a rarity show for any spotty undergraduate who cares to come along and watch. Not that many do. Now I—and my friend here, Signor da Cola, of Venice—are dedicated to research of the most delicate kind. By the time we are finished, we will know immeasurably more about the functions of the human body. And there will be no waste, I promise you,” he went on, waving his finger in the air as he got into his stride.

“You see, the trouble with the professor is that, once he stops for lunch, he tends to lose interest. He drinks a good deal, you know,” he confided. “What’s left over gets thrown away or gnawed by rats in the basement. Whereas I will pickle you…”

“I beg your pardon?” Prestcott said weakly.

“Pickle you,” Lower replied enthusiastically. “It is the very latest technique. If we joint you and pop you into a vat of spirits, you will keep for very much longer. So much better than brandy. Then when we have the leisure to dissect a bit, we just fish you out and get to work. Splendid, eh? Nothing will be wasted, I assure you. All that is required is that you give me a letter specifying as your last request that I be allowed to dissect you once you have met your punishment.”

Convinced that this was a request no reasonable man might refuse, Lower leaned back against the wall and beamed with anticipation.

“No,” Prestcott said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said no. Certainly not.”

“But I told you; you’ll be dissected anyway. Wouldn’t you at least want it to be done properly?”

“I don’t want it done at all, thank you. What’s more, I’m convinced it will not be.”

“A pardon, you think?” Lower said with interest. “Oh, I think not. No, I fear you will swing, sir. After all, you nearly killed a man of some importance. Tell me, why did you attack him?”

“I must hasten to remind you, I have not yet been found guilty of any crime, let alone condemned, and I am convinced I will shortly regain my freedom. Should I be wrong then I might entertain your proposal, but even then I doubt whether I will be able to oblige you. My mother would have the gravest objections.”

This, I suppose, was the time for Lower to return to his theme, but his enthusiasm seemed to have waned. Perhaps he thought the young man’s mother would regard being jointed and pickled as bringing still further shame on his name. He nodded regretfully and stood up, thanking the youth for having listened to his request.

Prestcott told him to think nothing of it and, when asked if he needed anything to improve his condition, asked if he could deliver a message to a Dr. Grove, one of his former tutors, asking for the goodness of a visit. He had need of spiritual comfort, he said. Another gallon of wine would be well received also. Lower promised and I offered to deliver the wine, as I felt sorry for the fellow, and I did so as my friend went off to an appointment with a new patient.

“Well, it was worth trying,” he said in a disappointed tone when we met later on and the conversation returned to the topic of reluctant corpses. I noticed that the rebuff had quite dissolved his cheerful mood of earlier in the day.

“What did he mean about his family having shame enough?”

Lower was lost in contemplation, however, and ignored my remark while he dwelt on his failure. “What was that?” he said abruptly when his attention returned. I repeated myself.

“Oh. No more than the truth. His father was a traitor, who fled abroad before he could be held. He would have been executed as well, given the chance.”

“Quite a family.”

“Indeed. It seems that the son takes after the father in more than looks, alas. It is a damnable shame, Cola. I need a brain. Several brains, and I am hindered and obstructed at every turn.” Then, after a long silence, he asked what I thought the chances were of Sarah Blundy’s mother pulling through.

Rather foolishly, I imagined that he wanted a detailed account of the case and the treatment I had provided, so I told him about the nature of the wound, the way I had set the bone and cleaned the flesh, and of the salve I had used.

“Waste of time,” he said loftily. “Tincture of mercury is what you need.”

“You think? Perhaps. But I decided that in this case, considering the aspect of Venus, she stood a much better chance with a more orthodox remedy…”

And then came the first serious indication of the darkness in my friend I have mentioned, for I could not even finish my reply before he exploded with rage, in full public, swinging round to face me, his face darkening.

“Oh, don’t be so stupid,” he shouted. “The aspect of Venus! What magical nonsense is that? Dear God, are we still Egyptians that we should pay attention to such rubbish?”

“But Galen…”

“I don’t give a hoot for Galen. Or Paracelsus. Or any foreign magus with his slobberings and mumblings. These people are the merest frauds. As are you, sir, if you drivel on in such a way. You should not be let loose among the sick.”

“But, Lower.

“ ‘More orthodox remedy,’ “ he said, mimicking my accent cruelly. “I suppose some gibbering priest told you that, and you do as you’re told? Eh? Physick is too important to be left to the dabblings of a rich man’s son like you, who could no more cure a cold than you could a broken leg. Stick to counting your money and your acres, and leave serious matters to people who care for them.”

I was so shocked by this outburst, so unforeseen and so very violent, that I said nothing at all in reply, except that I was doing my best and that no one better qualified had offered their services.

“Oh, get out of my sight,” he said with the most terrible contempt. “I will have none of you. I have no time for quacks and charlatans.”

And he abruptly turned on his heel and marched away, leaving me standing in the street in shock, my face burning red with anger and embarrassment, conscious above all that I had provided cheap entertainment for the mob of shopkeepers all around me.

6

I returned to my room in deep distress to consider what I should do next, and try to understand how I had caused such offence, for I am one of those who naturally assumes the fault lies in himself first of all, and my lack of understanding of English ways had greatly heightened my uncertainty. Even so, I was convinced that Lower’s shocking outburst was excessive, but the temper of the country then cast all opinions in extremes.

So I sat by the little fireplace in my cold room, with the feelings of desperation and loneliness, so recently banished, coming back to plague me once again. Was my acquaintanceship at an end so soon? Certainly in Italy no relation could survive such behavior, and under ordinary circumstances we would now be preparing to duel. I intended to do no such thing, of course, but did briefly consider whether it would be better to leave Oxford, for my association with Boyle might well become intolerable, and then I would be friendless once again. But where could I go? There seemed little point in returning to London, and less in staying where I was. I was fixed in my irresolution when feet on the stairs, and a heavy pounding on the door roused me from my dreary thoughts.

It was Lower. With a grave look on his face, he marched determinedly in and placed two bottles on the table. I regarded him coldly and cautiously, expecting another round of abuse, and determined that he should speak first.

Instead, he ostentatiously sank to his knees, and clasped his hands together.

“Sir,” he said with a gravity which had more than a touch of the theatrical in it, “how can I ask you to forgive me? I have behaved with the manners of a tradesman, or worse. I have been inhospitable, unkind, unjust and grossly ill-mannered. I offer you my humblest apologies on my knees, as you see, and beg for a forgiveness which I do not deserve.”

I was as astonished by his behavior now as I was before, and could find no suitable reply for this contrition, which was every bit as excessive as his violence an hour or so previously.

“You cannot forgive,” he continued with an ostentatious sigh as I remained silent. “I cannot blame you. Then there is no choice. I must kill myself. Please tell my family that my gravestone should read, ‘Richard Lower, physician, and wretch.’ “

Here I burst out laughing, so absurd was his behavior and, seeing that he had cracked my resolve, he grinned back.

“Truly, I am most gigantically sorry,” he said in a more moderate tone. “I don’t know why, but sometimes I become so angry that I cannot stop myself. And my frustrations over these corpses is so very great. If you knew the torments I go through.…Do you accept my apology? Will you drink from the same bottle as me? I will not sleep or shave until you accept, and you don’t want to be responsible for me having a beard down to my ankles, do you?”

I shook my head. “Lower, I do not understand you,” I said frankly. “Or any of your countrymen. So I will assume this is part of your nation’s manner, and that it is my fault for having so little understanding. I will drink with you.”

“Thank heavens for that,” he said. “I thought I had foolishly thrown away a valued friend through my own stupidity. You are goodness indeed to give me a second chance.”

“But please explain. Why did I make you so angry?”

He waved his hand. “You didn’t. It was my misunderstanding, and I was upset over losing Prestcott. Not long ago I had a violent row with someone over astrological prediction. The College of Physicians is wedded to it and this man threatened to keep me out of practice in London because I disdain it in public and advocate the new mineral physick. It is a battle between new knowledge and the dead hand of old. I know you did not mean it like that, but I’m afraid the fight I had is too fresh in my mind. The sound of you, of all people, taking their part was too much to bear, so highly do I value you. Unforgivable, as I say.”

He had a way of turning insult into compliment which I was ill-equipped to handle; we Venetians have a reputation for the elaborate nature of both our courtesies and our insults, but they are so formal there is no chance of misunderstanding even the most opaque remark. Lower, and the English in general, had the unpredictability of the uncivilized; their genius is as uncontrolled as their manners, and can make them great or mad. I doubt that foreigners will ever know them, or truly trust them. But an apology was an apology, and I had rarely received such a handsome one; I shook his hand; we bowed solemnly, and toasted each other to bring the argument to a formal conclusion.

“Why do you want Prestcott so much and so urgently?” “My brains, Cola, my brains,” he said with a loud groan. “I have anatomized and drawn as many as I can lay my hands on, and I will soon be finished. I have devoted years to the task, and it will make my name when it is done. The spinal cord, in particular. Fascinating. But I cannot finish without some more, and unless I can finish I cannot publish my work. And there is a Frenchman who I know is doing much the same work. I will not be beaten by some sniveling papist…”

He paused, and realized he had misspoken again. “Apologies, sir. But so much depends on this, and it is heartbreaking to be denied by such stupidities.”

He opened the second bottle, took a long draft from the open neck and handed it to me. “So there you are. The reasons for my incivility. They combine, I must admit, with an overly wayward temperament. I am choleric by nature.” “So much for the man who rejects traditional medicine.” He grinned. “True enough. I speak metaphorically.” “Did you mean it about the stars? You think it is nonsense?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, I don’t know. I really don’t. Are our bodies a microcosm of all creation? Can we discern movements of the one from studying the other? Probably. It makes perfect sense, I suppose, but no one has ever given me a good and unassailable method for how to do it. All this star-gazing the astronomers do seems very thoughtless stuff, and they will wrap it up so in nostrums and gab-blings. And they will keep on finding more of them with these telescopes of theirs. All very interesting, but they become so enthusiastic they’ve all but forgotten the reason why they’re looking. But do not start me on that. I will lose my temper for the second time in the day. So, can we start again?”

“In what way?”

“Tell me about your patient, that most strange widow Anne Blundy. I will give the matter my full attention, and any suggestions I make will be without the slightest taint of criticism.”

I was still chary of taking such a risk and so hesitated until Lower sighed and made an elaborate preparation to go back down on his knees.

“All right,” I said, holding up my hands and trying to stop myself laughing once more. “I surrender.”

“Thank heavens,” he said. “For I’m sure I will be rheumatic when I’m old. Now, if I’m right, I believe you said the wound was not knitting?”

“No. And it will turn putrid very rapidly.”

“You’ve tried exposing it to the air, rather than keeping it bandaged?”

“Yes. It is making no difference.”

“Fever?”

“Surprisingly not, but it must come.”

“Eating?”

“Nothing, unless her daughter has managed to feed her some gruel.”

“Piss?”

“Thin, with a lemony aroma and astringent taste.”

“Hmm. Not good. You’re quite right. Not good.”

“She will die. I want to save her. Or at least I did. I find the daughter intolerable.”

Lower ignored the last remark. “Any sign of gangrene?”

I told him no, but that there was again every likelihood it might appear.

“D’ye think she would be interested in advancing… ?”

“No,” I said firmly.

“What about the daughter? If I offered her a pound for the remains?”

“You have met the girl, I believe.”

Lower nodded, and sighed heavily. “I tell you, Cola, if I should die tomorrow, you have my full permission to anatomize me. Why it causes such upset I do not know. After all, they’re buried eventually, aren’t they? What does it matter how many pieces they’re in, as long as they die with the blessings of religion? Do they think the good Lord is incapable of reassembling them in time for the Second Coming?”

I replied that it was the same in Venice; for whatever reason, people did not like the idea of being cut up, whether they were dead or alive.

“What do you intend to do with the woman?” he asked. “Wait till she dies?”

It was then that I had an idea and instantly decided to share it. Such was my trusting nature that it never occurred to me not to do so.

“Hand me that bottle again,” I said, “and I’ll tell you what I’d like to do, if I were only able.”

He did so at once, and I briefly considered the momentous step I was about to take. I was hardly in an equable frame of mind; my distress at the bruising I had received, and the relief at his apology were so great that my judgment was unbalanced. I do believe I would never have drawn him into my confidence had his loyalty and friendship been unquestioned; now it had been placed in doubt, the wish to please him and demonstrate my seriousness swept all before it.

“Please forgive the clumsy way I express this,” I said when he was leaning back on my truckle bed as comfortably as was possible. “The idea came to me only when we were watching that dove in the vacuum pump. It is about the blood, you see. What if, by accident, there is not enough blood to carry the nutrient? Could a loss of blood mean that there is insufficient to vent the excess heat from the heart?

Might that not be a cause of fever? Also, I have wondered for some years whether the blood gets old with the rest of the body. Like a canal with stagnant water in it, where everything starts to die, because the passageway becomes clogged,”

“Certainly, if you lose blood, you die.”

“But why? Not from starvation, nor from excess heat, either. No, sir. It is the draining or occlusion of the life spirit present in the blood that causes death. The blood itself, I am convinced, is merely the carrier for this spirit. And it is the decay of that spirit which causes old age. That, at least, is my theory, and it is one where the traditional knowledge you disdain, and the experimental knowledge you applaud, are in perfect agreement.”

“At which point, we connect your theoretical preliminary with the practicalities of your case, is that not so? Tell me how you would proceed.”

“If you think about it simply it is very straightforward. If we are hungry, we eat. If we are cold, we approach heat. If our humors are unbalanced, we add or create some more to re-create equilibrium.”

“If you believe that nonsense.”

“If you do,” I said. “If you do not, and you believe in the elemental theories, then you rebalance the body by strengthening the weaker of the three elements. That is the essence of all medicine, old and new—to restore equilibrium. Now, in this case, taking away more blood by leeching or scarifying the patient would only make matters worse. If her life spirit is diminished, reducing it still further cannot help her. This is Sylvius’s theory, and I believe he is correct. Logically, instead of taking blood away, the only answer should be…”

“To add some more,” Lower said quickly, leaning forward in his seat with sudden eagerness as he finally grasped what I was talking about.

I nodded enthusiastically. “That’s it,” I said. “That’s it exactly. And not just more, but young blood, fresh, new and unclogged, with the vitality of youth in its essence. Maybe that would allow an old person to repair a wound. Who knows, Lower,” I said excitedly, “it might be the elixir of life itself. It is thought, after all, that merely getting a child to share a bed can benefit the health of an elderly person. Just think what their blood might do.”

Lower leaned back in his chair and took a deep draft of ale as he thought about what I had said. His lips moved as he held a silent conversation with himself, going over in his mind all the possibilities. “You have fallen under the influence of Monsieur Descartes, have you not?” he asked eventually.

“Why do you say that?”

“You have constructed a theory, and that leads you to recommend a practice. You have no evidence that it would work. And, if I may say so, your theory is confused. You argue by analogy—using a humoral metaphor you do not actually believe in—to conclude that supplying an absence is a solution. That is, adding vital spirit, the existence of which is conjectural.”

“Though not disputed even by yourself.”

“No. That is true.”

“Do you dispute my theory, though?”

“No.”

“And is there any way of finding out whether I am correct except by testing it against result? That is surely the basis of experimental philosophy?”

“That is Monsieur Descartes’s basis,” he said, “if I understand him correctly. To frame a hypothesis, then amass evidence to see if it is correct. The alternative, proposed by my Lord Bacon, is to amass evidence, and then to frame an explanation which takes into account all that is known.”

In retrospect, looking back over the conversation which I noted diligently in the book which was with me on my travels and which I now reread for the first time in many years, I see many things which were obscured from my understanding then. The English detestation of foreigners leads very swiftly to a wish to ignore any advance which stems from what they consider faulty methods, and allows this proudest of people to claim all discoveries as their own. A discovery based on faulty premises is no discovery—all foreigners influenced by Descartes employ faulty premises, and therefore… Hypotheses non fingo. No hypotheses here—is that not the trumpet blast of Mr. Newton as he assails Leibniz as a thief for having the same ideas as himself? But at that time I merely thought my friend was using argument as a means of furthering our knowledge.

“I believe your summary of Monsieur Descartes does him scant justice,” I said. “But no matter. Tell me how you would you proceed.”

“I would begin by transfusing blood between animals—young and old of the same type, then between different types. I would transfuse water into an animal’s veins, to see whether the same response was elicited. Then, I would compare all the results to see what exactly the effects of transfusing blood are. Finally, when I could proceed with certainty, I would make the attempt on Mrs. Blundy.”

“Who by then would have been dead for a year or more.”

Lower grinned. “Your unerring eye has spotted the weakness of the method.”

“Are you suggesting I should not do this?”

“No. It would be fascinating. I merely doubt whether it is well founded. And I am certain that it would cause scandal. Which makes it a dangerous business to discuss publicly.”

“Let me put it another way. Will you help me?”

“Naturally I should be delighted. I was merely discussing the issues that are raised. How would you proceed?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I thought that maybe a bull might serve. As strong as an ox, you know. But good reasons rule that out. The blood has a tendency to congeal. So it would be imperative to transport it immediately from one creature into the other without delay. And we could hardly bring an ox in. Besides, the blood transports the animal spirit, and I would be loath to infuse the bestiality of an ox into a person. That would be an offense against God, who has set us higher than the animals.”

“Your own, then?”

“No, because I would need to attend to the experiment.”

“There is no problem. We can easily find someone. The best person,” he continued, “would be the daughter. She would be willing, for her mother’s sake. And I’m sure we could impress on her the need for silence.”

I had forgotten about the daughter. Lower saw my face fall, and asked me what was the matter. “She was so insufferably offensive last time I visited the house I vowed never to set foot there again.”

“Pride, sir, pride.”

“Perhaps. But you must understand that I cannot give way. She would have to come to me on her knees before I would reconsider.”

“Leave that for a moment. Assuming you could do this experiment—just assuming—how much blood would you need?”

I shook my head. “Fifteen ounces, maybe? Perhaps twenty. A person can lose that much without too many ill effects. Maybe more at a later stage. What I don’t know is how to effect the transportation. It struck me that the blood would have to leave the one body and enter the other in the same place—vein to vein, artery to artery. I would recommend slitting the jugular, except that it’s fearfully difficult to stop it up again. I don’t want to save the mother and have the daughter bleed to death. So maybe one of the major vessels in the arm. A band to make it swell up. That’s the easy part. It is the transference which concerns me.”

Lower got up and wandered around the room, rummaging around in his pockets.

“Have you heard of injections?” he asked eventually.

I shook my head.

“Ah,” he said. “A splendid idea, which we have been working on.”

“We?”

“Myself, Dr. Willis and my friend Wren. Similar in some ways to your idea. What we do, you see, is take a sharp instrument and push it into a vein, then squeeze liquids straight into the blood, avoiding the stomach entirely.”

I frowned. “Extraordinary. What happens?”

He paused. “We have had mixed results,” he confessed. “The first time it worked marvelously. We injected an eighth-cup of red wine straight into a dog. Not enough to make it even tipsy, usually, but by this method it turned rolling drunk.’’ He grinned at the thought. “We had a terrible time controlling it. It jumped off the table and ran around, then fell over after bumping into a cupboard of plates. We could barely control ourselves. Even Boyle cracked a smile. The important thing is that it seems a little liquor injected has much more of an effect than when taken through the stomach. So we took a mangy old beast next time and injected sal ammoniack.”

“And?”

“It died, and in some considerable pain. When we opened it up, the corrosion to its heart was considerable. We tried injecting milk the next time to see if we could bypass the need to eat. But it curdled in the veins, unfortunately.”

“Died again?”

He nodded. “We must have overdone the amount. We’ll cut it back next time.”

“I would be fascinated if you would allow me to attend.”

“A pleasure. My point is that we could use the same idea for transferring your blood. You don’t want the blood exposed to the air, because it might congeal. So you take a pigeon quill, which can be made very thin and sharp. Put a hole in the end and insert it into Sarah’s vein. Join it to a long silver tube, which has a narrow diameter, with another quill in the mother’s vein. Wait for the blood to flow, then stop the flow in the mother’s vein above the slit. Join the two together, and count. I’m afraid we’d have to guess about how much comes out. If we let the blood flow into a bowl for a few seconds, we’ll have some idea of how fast it is going.”

I nodded enthusiastically. “Wonderful,” I said. “I’d been thinking about cupping. This is much neater.”

He grinned, and held out his hand. “By God, Mr. Cola, I’m glad you’re here. You’re a man after my own heart, truly you are. In the meantime, which of us is going to see Grove for poor Prestcott?”

7

I have always acknowledged my debt to Lower on the mechanics of transfusion. Without his ingenuity, I doubt that the operation could have been made to work. The fact remains, however, that the first suggestion of the idea and the reasoning for it came from myself, and I later carried out the experiment. Until then, Lower’s thoughts had revolved solely around the problem of injecting physick into the blood, and he had never for a moment considered the possibility, or potential, of transferring blood itself.

This is a matter for a later part of my narrative, however, and I must stick to my story as it happened. At that moment, my main concern was to offer my services to visit Dr. Grove on behalf of Prestcott, because I still believed that the more members of that society I knew, the better it would be for me. Dr. Grove, certainly, was unlikely to be of much use, and Lower told me he was heartily glad of my offer to go as it spared him a meeting with a man he considered very tiresome. He was an avowed and vociferous opponent of the new learning, and only a fortnight before had delivered a stinging sermon in St. Mary’s attacking experimental knowledge as contradictory to God’s word, undermining of authority and flawed in both intention and execution.

“Are there many of his opinion in the town?” I asked.

“Dear heavens, yes. There are physicians who fear for their prerogatives, priests frightened of being usurped, and whole hordes of the ignorant who simply dislike anything new. We are on dangerous ground. This is why we must tread carefully with Widow Blundy.”

I nodded; it was the same in Italy, I told him.

“In that case you will be prepared for Grove,” he replied with a grin. “Talk to him. He will keep you on your toes. He is no fool—even though he is wrong and, frankly, somewhat tedious.”

St. Mary College of Winchester in Oxford, vulgarly called New College, is a large, shabby building that stands in the east of the town hard up against the walls and the tennis courts. It is very wealthy but has a reputation for being one of the most backward of places. When I arrived, it seemed almost deserted, and there was no indication of where the object of my journey might be. So I asked the one person I saw, and he informed me that Dr. Grove had been ill for some days and was not encouraging visitors. I explained that, while I would normally be willing to leave him in peace, I could not in all conscience do so. Accordingly this man, a short, dark little fellow who introduced himself with a stiff little bow as one Thomas Ken, showed me to the staircase.

The thick oak door of Dr. Grove’s room—the English are prodigal with fine wood in this way—was firmly closed, and I knocked, expecting no reply. I did, however, hear a slight scuffling and so knocked again. I thought that I heard a voice; I could not make out what it was saying, but it seemed reasonable to assume that it was inviting me in.

“Go away,” the voice said with irritation as I entered the room. “Are you deaf?”

“I do beg your pardon, sir,” I replied, then paused in surprise. The man I had come to visit was the same person I had seen a few days previously rejecting Sarah Blundy’s request for help. I stared uncertainly at him, and he looked back at me, clearly also remembering that he had seen me before.

“As I say,” I continued when I recovered my poise. “I apologize. But I couldn’t hear very well.”

“Let me repeat myself, then, for the third time. I was telling you to go away. I am feeling much too poorly.”

He was an oldish man, in his early fifties and possibly more. Broad-shouldered, he nonetheless had that air of decline that sooner or later is sent by the Almighty to touch the shoulder of even the most robust of his creatures, reminding them of their subjection to His laws.

But, a re decedo. “I am very sorry to hear you are ill,” I said, standing my ground in the doorway. “Would I be right in thinking your eye is causing you distress?”

Anyone could have made this statement, for the doctor’s left eye was red and rheumy, inflamed by much irritated rubbing. Quite apart from my reason for being there, the sight aroused my interest.

“Of course it is my eye,” he replied curtly, “I am suffering the torments of hell from it.”

I advanced a step or two into the room, so that I could see more clearly and establish myself more firmly in his presence. “A severe irritation, sir, producing gumminess and inflammation. I hope you are receiving proper attention. Although I don’t think it looks so serious.”

“Serious?” he cried incredulously. “Not serious? I’m in agony. And I have a great deal of work to do. Are you a doctor? I don’t need one. I have the very best treatment available.”

I introduced myself. “Naturally, I hesitate to contradict a physician, sir, but it doesn’t look that way to me. I can see from here that there is a coalescence of a brown putridity around the eyelid, which requires medicine.”

“That is the medicine, idiot,” he said. “I mixed the ingredients myself.”

“What ingredients were they?”

“Dried dog excrement,” he said.

“What?”

“I had it from my doctor, Bate. The king’s physician, you know, and a man of good family. It is an infallible cure, tested through the ages. A pedigree dog, as well. It belongs to the warden.”

“Dog excrement?”

“Yes. You dry it in the sun, then powder it and blow it into the eyes. It is a sure remedy for all forms of eye complaint.”

To my mind this explained why his eyes were giving him so much trouble. There are, of course, innumerable old remedies in use and some are, no doubt, as efficacious as anything a physician could prescribe—not that this is necessarily saying much. I have no doubt that the mineral physick that so enthused Lower will eventually supplant them all. I had some idea of the sort of prattle that accompanied the recommendation. The natural attraction of like and like; the powdered excrement setting up an affinity with the noxiousness and sucking it out. Or not, as the case may be.

“Far be it from me to question, sir, but are you quite sure it is working?” I asked.

“Surely that means you are questioning it?”

“No,” I said cautiously. “In certain cases, it may be effective—I do not know. How long has your eye been troubling you?”

“About ten days.”

“And how long have you been treating it in this way?”

“About a week.”

“And in that time, has your eye become better or worse?”

“It has not improved,” he conceded. “But it may be that without the treatment it would have got worse.”

“And it may also be that with another treatment it would have become better,” I said. “Now, if I gave you another treatment, and your eye improved, that would demonstrate…”

“That would demonstrate that my original treatment has at last begun to be effective and that your treatment was of no significance.”

“You want your eye to recover as fast as possible. If you apply a treatment and within a reasonable time there has been no improvement, then one may conclude that, within that time, the treatment does not work. Whether it works next week, the week after or in three years’ time does not matter.”

Dr. Grove opened his mouth to dispute this line of argument, then suffered another twinge of pain in his eye, which he began once more to rub furiously.

I saw an opportunity both of ingratiating myself and perhaps even of gaining a fee to bolster my resources. So I asked for some water and straightaway began to bathe the foul mess out of the eye entirely, thinking that this alone would probably effect an almost miraculous cure. By the time I had finished, his tortured eye was open once more and, although he was still in some discomfort, he expressed his joy at how much better he felt already. Even more satisfyingly, he attributed it solely to the potion I had applied.

“Now for the next stage,” Grove said stoutly as he rolled up his sleeve. “I think five ounces would do, don’t you think?”

I disagreed, although I refrained from telling him that I was far from convinced that bleeding ever did anyone much good, as I was afraid of losing his confidence. So instead I suggested the harmony of his body would be better restored by a light vomit after eating—especially as he looked like a man who could easily miss a meal or two with no ill effects.

The treatment concluded, he asked me to share a glass of wine with him, which invitation I declined, having already drunk far too much recently. Instead, I explained my visit to him, thinking that if he did not bring up the incident in the coffee house, I would not do so either. Initially, I had been critical of his behavior; now I knew the girl better, I was more understanding.

“It is about a young man whom I encountered yesterday,” I said. “A Mr. Prestcott.”

Dr. Grove frowned at the very mention of Mr. Prestcott and asked how I had met him, considering that he was locked in the castle.

“It was through my dear friend Dr. Lower,” I said, “who had a… message to deliver to him.”

“Wants his corpse, does he?” Grove asked. “I swear when I become sick I feel inclined to go back to my family in Northampton, in case Lower turns up at my bedside with an acquisitive glint in his eye. What did Prestcott say?”

I told him that Prestcott had refused outright to countenance the idea, and Grove nodded. “Good for him. Sound boy, although it was easy to see that he’d come to a bad end. Very wayward.”

“At the moment,” I replied gravely, “he seems very contrite and in need of spiritual comfort. He wants you to visit him, to offer him the solace of religion.”

Grove looked as pleased as he was surprised. “The ability of the noose to make even the worst of sinners embrace God’s mercy should never be underestimated,” he said with satisfaction. “I will go this evening.”

I liked him for that. He was brusque and certainly of very definite opinions, yet he was also kindly, I sensed, and loved nothing better than for people to disagree with him. Lower told me later that, whatever his failings, Grove never took offense at opinions honestly held, even though he was determined to combat them as much as possible. It meant that, while he was difficult to like, some came to love him.

“He was most anxious to speak to you as soon as possible,” I said. “But I would recommend you wait for a day or so. The wind is from the north, and it is known that is bad for an ailment of the eyes.”

“We shall see,” he said. “But I must go soon. I was loath to do so unless he called for me himself, and I am gratified he now has. My thanks, sir.”

“Do you know,” I asked as I peered into his eye once more, “what the story of his crime was? From the few details I have heard it seems quite peculiar.”

Grove nodded. “Very peculiar,” he agreed. “But I am afraid he was fated to act thus, because of his family. His father was wayward as well. Made an unfortunate match.”

“He disliked his wife?” I asked.

Grove frowned. “Worse than that. He married for love. A charming woman, so I am told, but against the wishes of both families, who never forgave him. It was typical of the man, I’m afraid.”

I shook my head here. Coming from a merchant family myself, I was well aware of the importance of not allowing sentiment to cloud one’s judgment in marital affairs. As my father had once remarked, if God had meant us to marry for love, why had He created mistresses? Not that he indulged overmuch in this direction himself, for he and my mother were devoted to each other.

“He enlisted on the side of the king when the war broke out, fought with valor and lost everything. But he still continued faithful and plotted against the Commonwealth. Alas, he loved plotting more than he loved his monarch, for he betrayed his king to Cromwell, and almost with disastrous effects. A more evil deed has not been seen since Judas Is-cariot sold Our Lord.”

He nodded sagely at his tale. For my part, I found it all very interesting, but still did not understand how Prestcott came to be in prison.

“That is very simple,” Grove said. “He is of a violent and unstable disposition; perhaps it is a case of the sins of the fathers being handed down. He became an unruly, ungovernable child and took to bad ways with a vengeance once he was free of family control. He assaulted and nearly murdered the guardian who has looked after him with kindness since his father’s disgrace, and there is also a complaint from an uncle that he ransacked that man’s money chest on a recent visit. It happens—we hanged an undergraduate for highway robbery last year, Prestcott this year and, I’m afraid, these will not be the last. ‘The land is full of bloody crimes, and the city is full of violence.’ “ He paused for me to recognize the quotation, but I shrugged helplessly.

“Ezekiel, 7:23,” he said reprovingly. “It is a consequence of the turmoil we have been through. Now, sir. I feel unable to insult you by offering you money for your kindness, but perhaps a meal in college would be an adequate recompense? We do fine food, better wine and I can promise excellent company.”

I smiled wanly, and said I would be delighted.

“Splendid,” he said. “I am so glad. Five o’clock?”

This was agreed, and I made my farewells to him with as many thanks as I could muster.

The way he waved it aside suggested that he believed I was singularly honored by the invitation. “Tell me, before you leave,” he said as I opened the door. “How is the girl’s mother?”

I stopped in surprise at the way he brought the matter up. “She is not well,” I replied. “In fact, I believe she will die.”

He nodded grimly in a fashion I could not decipher. “I see,” he said. “God’s will be done.”

And then I was dismissed. I went back to inform Mrs. Bulstrode I would not be dining, then fulfilled my last obligation and took the gallon of wine to Prestcott in his jail cell.

8

Dinner at new college came as something of a shock. As my hosts were all gentlemen of education, and many of them in holy orders, I imagined that I would be passing a pleasant time in agreeable surroundings. Instead, the meal was served in a vast and drafty hall, through which the wind swept as though we were at sea in mid-gale; Grove was well wrapped up for the occasion and went into considerable detail to inform me of the layers of undergarments he was wont to don before venturing forth. Had he forewarned me, I would have done likewise. Even so, I would have been cold. While the English are used to icy conditions, I am used to the soft air and balmy weather of the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, even the lowliest tavern did not possess a bitterness like that hall, which ate through your clothes and flesh and made your very bones ache with the pain of it.

Even that would have been endurable had food, wine or company been a compensation. These colleges have the monastic custom of eating in common, with the exception of the wealthier members who pay to have food sent up to their chambers. On a raised platform sit the senior Fellows, and in the rest of the hall are the others. As the food is scarcely fit for animals, I suppose it is not surprising that they behave like beasts. They eat off wooden platters, and in the middle of the tables are vast wooden bowls into which they toss the bones, when they do not throw them at one another. I ended up with food splattered over me from Fellows talking with their mouths full, spraying each other with bits of gristle and half-masticated bread.

The wine was scarcely palatable, so I could not even drink myself into oblivion. Instead, I had to listen to the conversation, which was not at all about matters of scholarly interest. I began to realize that, having initially fallen in with Mr. Boyle and Dr. Lower, I had gained an unduly favorable impression, both of Oxford and the English. Far from being concerned about the latest advances of knowledge, the assembly was instead entirely taken up with who was going to gain which preferment, and what the dean of this had said to the rector of that. There was one other guest apart from myself, evidently a gentleman of some standing, and the obsequiousness of their behavior to him was such that I assumed he was a patron of the college in some form. He, however, said little, and I was placed too far away to draw him into conversation.

For my part, I excited little interest and I confess my pride was wounded by it. I had anticipated that someone like myself, fresh from Leiden and Padua, would have rapidly become the center of attention. Far from it. Saying that I did not live in the town and had no position in the church was like confessing to the pox. When it became clear I was a Catholic two members left the hall, and at least one other declined to sit near me. I hated to admit it, since I had become partial to the English by then, but in nearly all respects they were no better than their fellows in Padua or Venice and, apart from the differences in religion and language, could have been exchanged for any group of gossiping Italian priests without anyone really noticing.’ But if few paid me much attention, only one was offensive and my reception was neglectful more than hurtful. It was a great shame, however, that the frostiness came from a gentleman whom I was ready to admire without reservation, for Dr. John Wallîs was someone I would dearly have liked to count in my society. I knew of him and admired him for his skill in mathematics, which placed him amongst the first rank in Europe, and I had imagined that a man who was the correspondent of Mersenne, who had crossed mathematical swords with Fermat and Pascal, would have been a man of the broadest civilization. Alas, this was not the case. Dr. Grove introduced us, and was shamed by the way that Wallis refused even normal civility to me. Rather, he stared at me with pale, cold eyes that reminded me of a reptile, declined to respond to my bow, then turned his back on me.

This was as we were sitting down to eat, and Grove became excessively cheerful and pugnacious in his conversation to cover up the embarrassment his colleague had caused.

“Now, sir,” he said, “you must defend yourself. It is not often that we have an advocate of the new learning amongst us. If you are intimate with Lower, I suppose you must be so.”

I replied that I hardly saw myself as an advocate, and certainly not a worthy one.

“It is true, though, that you seek to cast off the knowledge of the ancients, and replace it with your own?”

I said I respected all opinions of worth.

“Aristotle?” he said in a challenging way. “Hippocrates? Galen?”

I said that these were all great men, but could be proven to have been wrong in many particulars. He snorted at my reply.

“What advances? All that you novelists have done is to find out new reasons for ancient practice, and show how a few trifles work in ways other than was supposed.”

“Not so, sir. Not so,” I said. “Think of the barometer, the telescope.”

He waved his hand in scorn. “And the people who use them all come to entirely different conclusions. What discoveries has the telescope made? Such toys will never be a substitute for reason, the play of the mind upon imponderables.”

“But the advances of philosophy, I am convinced, will achieve wonders.”

“I have yet to see a sign of it.”

“You will,” I replied warmly. “I doubt not that posterity will verify many things that are now only rumors. In some age it may be that a voyage to the moon will not be more strange than one to the Americas for us. To speak with someone in the Indies may be as usual as a literary correspondence is now. After all, to talk after death could only have been thought a fiction before the invention of letters, and to sail true by the guide of a mineral would have seemed absurd to the ancients, who knew nothing of the magnet.”

“That is a most extraordinary flourish,” Grove replied tartly. “Yet I find the rhetoric defective in the suiting of the antitheses and the antipodes. For you are wrong, sir. The ancients did know of the magnet. Diodorus Siculus knew it plainly, as any gentleman should be aware. All we have discovered is a new use for the stone. This is what I mean. All knowledge is to be found in ancient texts, if you know how to read them aright. And that is true in alchemy as in phys-ick.”

“I disagree,” I said, thinking I was holding my own quite well. “For example, take cramps of the stomach. What is the usual remedy for those?”

“Arsenic,’’ said another further up the table who was listening. “A few grains in water as a vomit. I took it myself last September.”

“Did it work?”

“I know the pains grew worse first. I must say, I am inclined to believe that letting a little blood was more effective. But its qualities as a purgative are undoubted. I have never passed so many stools so quickly.”

“My master in Padua did some experiments and concluded that the belief in arsenic was a foolish error. The idea came from a book of remedies translated from Arabic and then into Latin by Deusingius. However, the translator made a mistake; the book recommended what it called darsini for the pains, and this was translated as arsenic. But arsenic in Arabic is zarnich.”

“So what should we be taking?”

“Cinnamon, apparently. Now sir, do you defend a long tradition when it can be shown to rest merely on a translator’s error?”

Here this other threw his head back and laughed, sending a shower of half-chewed food in an elegant parabola across the table. “You have justified only the existence of a sound knowledge of classical languages, sir,” he said. “No more.

And use this as an excuse to cast away thousands of years of learning so you may replace them with your own feeble scrabblings.”

“I am all too well aware of the feebleness of my scrabblings,” I replied, still the most civil person there. “But I do not substitute; merely examine before I accept an hypothesis. Did not Aristotle himself say that our ideas must conform to our experience of things as they are?”

I fear I was becoming reddened with anger by this stage, as I was conscious that he was little interested in a discussion in which reason played a part; while Grove was amiable in his argument, this one was unpleasant in tone and in manner.

“And then?”

“What do you mean?”

“And after you have put Aristotle to your proof? And, no doubt, found him wanting. Then what? Will you submit the monarchy to your investigations? The church, perhaps? Will you presume to put Our Savior Himself to your proofs? There lies the danger, sir. Your quest leads to atheism, as it must unless science is held firmly in the hands of those who wish to strengthen the word of God, rather than challenge it.”

He stopped here and looked around to gather support from his colleagues. I was pleased to see that they did not look on with complete enthusiasm, although many were nodding with agreement.

“ ‘Shall the clay say to Him that fashioneth it, What mak-est Thou?”‘ Grove murmured mildly, half to himself.

But his half-spoken quotation roused the young man who had shown me the way to Grove’s room that morning. “Isaiah, 45:9,” he said. “ ‘The price of wisdom is above rubies,’ “ he added quietly, being obviously too young and junior to enter into the contest, but reluctant to let the older man speak unchecked. I had noticed that he had tried to take part in the conversation on several occasions, but each time he opened his mouth, Grove had interrupted and carried on as if he wasn’t there.

“Job, 28:18,” Grove snapped back, irritated by the presumption. “ ‘He that increased! knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

“Ecclesiastes, 1:18,” Thomas Ken countered, also showing signs of becoming heated. I discerned that there was some private squabble here, which had nothing to do with me or experiment. “ ‘Scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge.”

“Proverbs, 1:22. ‘Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it hath perverted thee.”

The final sally defeated poor Ken, who knew that he could not remember the source of the quotation, and his face grew red under the public humiliation as he desperately tried to think of a response.

“Isaiah, 47:10,” Grove said in triumph when Ken’s failure was obvious to all.

Ken threw down his knife with a clatter and, hands shaking, stood up to leave the table. I feared that they might come to blows but, in fact, it was all theater. “Romans, 8:13,” he said. With icy slowness, he withdrew from the table and marched out of the hall, his footsteps echoing as he went. I believe I was the only person who heard this last comment, and to me it meant nothing. I always found the tendency of Protestants to bandy quotations from the Bible a trifle ridiculous, even blasphemous. Anyway, Grove certainly did not hear, but instead looked pleased with himself for having carried the field.

As nobody else wanted to break the silence, I decided (as a foreigner, and knowing little of what was going on) to try to cover over the affair. “I am not a theologian or a priest,” I said, trying to return the argument to rational grounds, “but I have studied the medical arts in my way. And I know that in many cases physick is as likely to kill as to cure. I think it is my duty to find out as much as I can and help my patients the better. It is not impious, I hope, so to do.”

“Why would I take your word when it differs from the great masters of the past? What is your authority compared to theirs?”

“Small indeed, and I reverence them as do you. Did not Dante call Aristotle il maestro di color qui sanno? But that is not what I am asking. I ask you to decide on the result of experiment.”

“Ah, experiment,” Grove said with glee. “Do you hold with the Copernican notion that the earth goes round the sun?”

“I do, of course.”

“And you have performed those experiments yourself? You have made the observations, repeated the calculations, and established by your own labors that it is so?”

“No; I know little of mathematics, alas.”

“So you believe it is true, but you do not know? You take Copernicus’s word for it?”

“Yes. And that of those experts who accept his conclusions.”

“Pardon me for saying so, but it appears to me that you are just as bound to authority and tradition as a man who subscribes to Aristotle or Ptolemy. After all your protestations your science is also a matter of faith, not in any way distinguishable from the old learning you so despise.”

“I judge by results,” I said pleasantly, for he was clearly enjoying himself, and it seemed churlish to spoil his entertainment. “And by the fact that the experimental method has produced good results.”

“This experiment of yours, it is the core of the new medicine, for example?”

I nodded.

“But how do you reconcile it with the notions of Hippocrates which you physicians seem to think are so important?”

“I do not need to,” I said. “I see no conflict.”

“Surely you must?” Grove said in surprise. “For you have to substitute proven treatments for others which might be better, but might well be worse. Rather than trying first and foremost to cure your patients, you experiment on them to see what result is obtained. You use patients to gain your knowledge, not to make them better, and that is a sin. Bar-tolomeus de Chaimis says so in his Interrogatorium sive con-fessionale, and he has been seconded by the best authorities ever since.”

“Clever argument, but untrue,” I said. “Experiment is there to improve treatment for all patients.”

“But if I come to you with an illness, I do not care for all patients. It matters not to me if others are cured when I die proving a treatment does not work. I want to be healthy, yet you say your wish for knowledge is greater than my need for health.”

“I say nothing of the sort. There are many experiments which can be carried out without endangering the patient.”

“But you are still setting aside Hippocrates. You are deciding to use treatments not knowing whether they will work or not, and that breaks your word.”

“Think, sir, of a patient for whom there is no remedy. That person will die. In that case, an experiment which gives the chance of health is better than none at all.”

“Not so. Because you might well be hastening death. That is not only against the oath, it is against God’s law. And the law of men, if it be murder.”

“You are saying that no improvement in medicine is permissible? We have what we have been given by our forebears and can hope for nothing more?”

“I am saying that by your own admission the experimental method is corrupt.”

It was hard, but still I remembered my manners. “Perhaps. But I treated you today and you show much improvement. You may dispute the source, but not, in this case, the result.”

Grove laughed and clapped his hands together with pleasure and I saw that he was really only amusing himself, seeing how far I could be provoked. “That is true, sir, very true. My eye is much better, and I am grateful to the new philosophy for that. And I will trust you on the dangers of any substance you dislike, and avoid them entirely. But,” he said with a sigh as he confirmed that his wine glass was empty, “our meal is over, and with it our discussion. A pity. We must talk more on this during your stay in our university. Who knows? I might even persuade you of the error of your ways.”

“Or I you?”

“I doubt it. No one has ever succeeded before. But I would be happy to hear you try.”

Then everybody stood while a young scholar read out thanks to the Lord for the food (or maybe it was for having survived it) and we all shuffled out. Grove accompanied me across the courtyard to see me out, pausing briefly at the entrance to his stair to pick up a bottle which had been left there. “Splendid,” he said as he clutched it to his breast. “Warmth on a cold night.”

I thanked him for his hospitality. “I am sorry if I annoyed either you or your colleague, Dr. Wallis. I did not intend it.”

Grove waved his hand. “You certainly did not annoy me, and I wouldn’t worry about Wallis. He is an irascible fellow. I don’t think he liked you very much, but do not concern yourself—he doesn’t like anyone. However, he is not a bad man; he has offered to visit Prestcott for me, as you say I should spare my eyes, which is kind of him. Now, here we are, Mr. Cola,” he said. “Goodnight to you.”

He bowed, then turned rapidly round and marched off to his room and his bottle. I stood watching him for a moment, surprised by the sudden dismissal, so unlike the lengthy formalities of Venice; but then there is nothing like a north wind in March for curtailing civilities.

9

It was not until the next morning that I realized a catastrophe was in the making; the earlier part of the day was spent commiserating with Lower on the loss of his corpse.

He took it in good part; as he said, his chances of getting his hands on Prestcott’s body had been small, so it gave him a little satisfaction to know that the university wouldn’t be getting it either. Besides, he’d quite liked the lad, although he, and most of the members of the town, did think that the way he had maltreated Dr. Wallis was quite unseemly.

To explain briefly—and this succinct account was the result of piecing together innumerable accounts until I understood what had happened—the escape of Jack Prestcott from the king’s justice was partly my doing. I had delivered the message about the lad wanting a visitor, and Dr. Wallis, the very man who had been so rude to me at dinner, had gone in Grove’s place because of my medical advice. It was a kind act, both to Grove and to Prestcott, and I felt ashamed for deriving some small amusement from the result.

Wallis had asked that the prisoner be unshackled so that he might have more ease in prayer, and was left alone with him. About an hour later, still swaddled in his thick black gown and heavy winter hat, he had emerged so distressed at the imminent loss of a fine young life that he had scarcely been able to speak, merely tipping the jailer two pence and asking that Prestcott be allowed an undisturbed night’s sleep. Reshackling could wait until the morning.

The jailer, who would undoubtedly lose his place as a result, had obeyed and it was not until after five the next morning that the cell was opened. Whereupon it was discovered that the person on the little cot was not Prestcott, but a bound and gagged Dr. Wallis who had, so he related, been overpowered by the young criminal, tied up and stripped of his cloak and hat. It had been Prestcott who had left the previous evening and who had won, as a result, nearly ten hours’ start on any pursuers.

This intelligence caused a wonderful sensation; the population at large of course enjoyed the majesty of the law to be made ridiculous but was aggrieved at the loss of a hanging. On balance, admiration for the audacity outweighed the disappointment; the hue and cry set off to find him, but I suspect that most were not wholly displeased when they came back empty-handed.

Having appointed myself Grove’s physician, I was naturally dispatched by Lower to examine his eye once more so that I could pick up gossip on the matter. However, the thick oak door leading to his room was firmly shut and locked, and this time there was no reply when I beat on it with my stick.

“Do you know where Dr. Grove is?” I asked of a serving woman.

“In his room.”

“There is no answer.”

“He must be still asleep.”

I pointed out that it was nearly ten o’clock. Did not Fellows have to rise in order to attend chapel? Was it not unusual for him to be still asleep?

She was a surly and unhelpful woman, so I appealed to Mr. Ken, whom I saw walking around the other side of the quadrangle. He looked concerned, because he said it was Grove’s particular pleasure to take the roll at chapel, and persecute latecomers. Perhaps his illness… ?

“It was only an inflamed eye,” I said. “He was well enough to dine last night.”

“What medicine did you give him? Perhaps that accounts for it?”

I did not like the suggestion that I might be responsible for making him ill, if he was so. But I hardly felt like admitting that my cure—which I had used as an example of the superiority of experimental medicine the previous evening—was merely water and eau de cologne.

“I hardly think so. But it concerns me; is there any way in which we can open this door?”

Mr. Ken talked to the servant and while they went in search of another key, I stood outside the door, and pounded again to see whether Grove could be roused.

I was still pounding when Ken reappeared with a key.

“Of course, it will be of no use if his own is in the lock, you know,” he said as he knelt down and peered through the keyhole. “And he will be very angry indeed if he returns to find us here.”

Ken, I noted, looked alarmed at this prospect.

“Perhaps you want to retire?” I suggested.

“No, no,” he said uncertainly. “We have no love for each other, as you may have noticed, but in all Christian charity I could not abandon him if he were ill.”

“You have heard about Professor Wallis?”

Mr. Ken suppressed a twitch of very unzealous merriment just in time to maintain his somber countenance. “I have indeed, and it shocks me that a man of the church should be treated in such a shameful fashion.”

Then the door was open, and all thought of Dr. Wallis was banished from our thoughts.

That Dr. Grove was corpus sine pectore was indisputable, and it was apparent that he had died in considerable pain. He was lying on his back in the middle of the floor, face creased up, mouth open, with dried saliva dribbling out of one side. He had vomited and emptied his guts in his last moments, so there was an insufferable stink in the room. His hands were clenched so they more resembled claws than human hands, with one arm outstretched along the floor, and the other at his neck, almost as though he had tried to extinguish himself. The chamber itself was in total disarray; books lying on the floor, papers scattered about, so that it looked as if he had flailed around violently in his last moments. Or, as Lower later pointed out, maybe he was just untidy.

Fortunately, dead bodies do not trouble me greatly, although the shock of seeing this one and the horrible circumstances of its arrangement distressed me. But the sight terrified Mr. Ken. I half-thought he almost made the sign of the cross, and only stopped himself in time to preserve propriety.

“Dear Lord protect us in our time of sorrows,” he said with a shaking voice as he saw the outstretched body. “You,” he said to the servant, “run and fetch the warden quickly. Mr. Cola, what has happened here?”

“I am at a loss to say,” I replied. “The obvious explanation would be a seizure, but the clenched hands and expression of the face would not indicate that. It looks as though he was in some great pain; perhaps the state of the room is a result of that.”

We looked quietly at the poor man’s corpse until the sound of steps on the wooden stairs roused us. Warden Woodward was a small, alert-looking man who maintained a great degree of self-possession when he saw what was within the room. He had a small mustache and beard in the old Royalist manner but, I was told, was in fact a Parliament man, who had hung onto his position not because he was a great scholar—the college paid little attention to that—but because he was a marvelous man with the money. As one fellow remarked, he could make a dead pig yield up a perpetual profit, and for that the college respected him.

“Maybe we should have a more definite opinion before we proceed,” he said after he heard Ken and myself explain what we had found. “Mary,” he went on, addressing the servant who was still standing in the background, ears flapping, “go and find Dr. Bate in the High Street, if you please. Tell him it is urgent, and that I would be grateful for his immediate attendance.”

I almost opened my mouth to speak here, but again said nothing. To be passed over so rapidly did not please me, but there was little I could do about it. My only hope was that, my services not required and this a college matter, I would not be expelled from a most interesting situation. Lower, for one, would find it hard to forgive me if I returned without the story complete in all particulars.

“It seems clear to me,” the warden said in a definite tone of voice that brooked no contradiction as we waited, “that the unfortunate man had a seizure. I can think of little else to be said. We must of course wait for confirmation, but I have no doubt it will be forthcoming.”

Mr. Ken, one of those obsequious prelates who made a point of agreeing with anyone more powerful than he, nodded fervently. Both of them, in fact, seemed excessively eager to reach this conclusion, but it was mainly because of my sense of pique, I think, that I ventured my own opinion.

“Might I suggest,” I said tentatively, “that the particulars of this business be examined more thoroughly before such a conclusion is adopted?”

Both looked at me with reluctance as I spoke. “For example, what ailments had the man complained of in the past? Did he, perhaps, drink too much the previous evening? Had he taken some physical exertion which strained his heart?”

“What are you suggesting?” Woodward said, turning round, stony-faced, to confront me. I noticed that Ken turned pale at my words as well.

“Nothing at all.”

“You are a malicious man,” he replied, taking me entirely by surprise. “Such an allegation is entirely without foundation. For you to bring it up at a time like this is monstrous.”

“I know of no allegations, nor am I bringing them up,” I said, completely astonished, yet again, by the unpredictability of the English. “Please assure yourself of my entire innocence on that. I simply wondered…”

“It is obvious even to me,” Woodward continued vehemently, “that this was merely a seizure. And, what is more, it is a college matter, sir. We thank you for raising the alarm, but do not wish to trespass further on your time.”

Which statement was obviously a dismissal, and a somewhat offensive one. I took my leave with more politeness than they.

10

I had almost finished my tale, my fellows in the coffee house enthralled by the account. It was, after all, about the most exciting occurrence to have happened in the town since the siege and, as everybody involved was known to my audience, doubly interesting for that. Lower immediately started wondering whether he might offer to examine the body himself.

We were trying to persuade him that the chances of being allowed to anatomize Dr. Grove were slight, and he was protesting that such an idea had never crossed his mind, when he looked up behind me, and a faint smile flickered across his face.

“Well, well,” he said. “What can we do for you, child?”

I looked around, and saw Sarah Blundy standing behind me, pale and tired. Behind her, the woman Tillyard was coming into the room, scolding her for her impertinence. She took hold of her arm, but Sarah threw it off angrily.

It was clear she had come to see me, and so I looked at her coldly, as she deserved, and waited to hear what it was. I knew already—Lower, I was sure, had talked to her, and stated the price of her mother’s life. Either she made amends for her behavior, or her mother died. It was, I think, a small fee.

She dipped her eyes in an attempt to be modest—such eyes she had, I thought, very much against my will—and said in a low, quiet voice—“Mr. Cola. I would like to offer you my apologies.”

Still I said nothing, but continued to look frostily at her.

“My mother is dying, I think. Please…”

It was Dr. Grove who saved the old woman’s life, then. If it hadn’t been for the memory of his behavior in exactly the same setting a few days back, I would have turned away and made Tillyard throw her out as she deserved. But I wasn’t going to give way so easily this time.

“Do you think for a moment I should lift a finger to help her? After the impudence you have showered on me?”

She shook her head humbly, her long dark hair cascading around her shoulders. “No,” she said almost inaudibly.

“So why come?” I said doggedly.

“Because she needs you, and I know you are too good a man to abandon her because of my fault.”

Praise indeed, I thought sarcastically as I made her wait in anguish and suffering a few more moments. Then, as I saw Boyle coolly appraising me, I sighed heavily and stood up. “Very well, then,” I said. “She is a good woman and I will come for her sake. Having a daughter like you must be suffering enough for her.”

I left the table, scowled at Lower’s look of smug self-satisfaction. We walked across the town barely exchanging a word. Try as I might, I could not but feel pleased, and not because of having won a cheap victory. No; my pleasure was due solely to the fact that I could now conduct my experiment, and perhaps even save a life.

I had not been in the cottage more than a few moments before any further thoughts about the daughter dissipated entirely. The old woman was pale and restless, tossing and turning in her bed in delirium. She was also fearfully weak, and had a fever. At least the wound had not turned gangrenous, which had been my worst fear. But it was not mending either—skin, flesh and bone were not knitting, even though, by this time, there should have been very distinct signs that natural healing was taking effect. The splints still held the bone in place, but this was useless if her frail and weakened body would not look after itself. I could not make it do so, if it refused to act in its own interest.

I sat back and stroked my chin, my brow furrowed as I tried to come up with some other, more conventional treatment, some drug or some salve, which might help the old woman. But my mind was a blank. I want it understood that I tried to think of all possibilities which would obviate the need for my experiment—I did not rush into the attempt recklessly. Lower was right in saying the project should first be essayed on an animal. But there was no time, and no alternative that either I, or Lower when I asked, could suggest.

And the girl knew, as well as I did myself, how limited were my resources. She squatted down on her haunches in front of the fire, cupped her chin in her hands and gazed calmly and intently at me, for the first time a look of grave sympathy on her at my evident dismay.

“Her chances of recovery were not good, even before you came,” she said softly. “Because of your kindness and skill she has lasted longer than I thought possible. I am grateful to you for that, and my mother has long been prepared for her death. Do not reproach yourself, sir. You cannot defeat God’s will.”

I looked at her carefully as she spoke, wondering whether there was some sarcasm or condescension in her voice, so used was I to rudeness from her. But there was none—she was speaking only with gentleness. Strange, I thought; her mother is dying, and she is comforting the physician.

“But how do we know what God’s will is? You may be sure of it, but I was not brought up so. Maybe I am supposed to think of something that will aid her.”

“If so, then you will do so,” she answered simply.

I agonized with myself, hardly daring to say, even to a girl like this who could not possibly even begin to understand what I was proposing.

“Tell me,” she said, almost as though she could see my indecision and hesitation.

“For a long time I have been pondering a form of treatment,” I began. “I do not know if it would work. It might very well kill her more quickly than an executioner’s blade. If I tried it I could be your mother’s savior, or her killer.”

“Not her Savior,” the girl said seriously. “She has no need of another. But you could not be her killer either. No one who tries to help could be anything but her benefactor, whatever the outcome. It is the wish to help which is important, surely.”

“The older you become, the more difficult it is to heal a wound,” I said, wishing I had made this point to Grove the previous evening, and surprised at the wisdom of her remark. “Something a child would shrug off in a matter of days may be enough to kill an old person. The flesh becomes tired, it loses its resilience, and it eventually dies, freeing the spirit which abides within.”

The girl, still squatting, looked impassively at me as I spoke, neither shifting restlessly, nor showing signs of incomprehension. So I continued.

“Or it may be that the blood grows old by constantly coursing through the veins, until it loses its natural strength, and becomes less effective in conveying the nutrients for the heart to ferment the vital spirits.”

The child nodded at this, as though I had said nothing that surprised her; whereas in fact, I had advanced some of the latest discoveries and, for good measure added an outlandish interpretation that would already have had my elders shaking their heads in dismay.

“Do you understand me, child?”

“Of course,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“It surprises you that I say the blood circulates through the body, no doubt?”

“That could only surprise a physician,” she said. “Any farmer knows it.”

“How do you mean?”

“If you bleed a pig, you cut the main vein in its neck. The pig bleeds to death and produces soft white meat. How else could all the blood come out of one slit unless it was all connected? And it moves of its own accord, almost as though it is being pumped, so must go round and round. That is all obvious, isn’t it?”

I blinked, and stared at her. It had taken practitioners of the medical art the better part of two thousand years to make this astounding discovery, and there was this girl saying she knew it all along. A few days ago, I would have been furious at her impudence. Now I merely wondered what else she—and the country folk she mentioned—might know if only people troubled to ask them.

“Ah. Yes. Very well observed,” I said, thrown off my path as I struggled to remember what I’d been talking about. I looked at her seriously and took a deep breath. “Anyway, what I propose is to give your mother fresh, new blood, to give her the restorative power of a woman very much younger than she. It has never been done before, never even thought of, as far as I know. It is dangerous, and would be scandalous if it were publicly known. And I do strongly consider that it is the only chance your mother has of continuing in this life.”

The poor girl looked stunned at what I had said, and I could see a look of strained apprehension on her face.

“Well?”

“You are the physician, sir. It is in your hands.”

I took a deep breath, realizing that I had half-hoped the girl would start to abuse me again, accusing me of flouting the Law of God or some such and thus relieve me of the burden I had so cavalierly taken on. But I was not to escape my fate so simply. I had staked my good character, my expertise, on what I had said, and there was no going back.

“I will have to leave you and your mother alone for a while and go and consult Lower, whose assistance I will require. I will be back as soon as possible.”

I quit the hovel, and left Sarah Blundy kneeling by her mother’s bed, stroking the old lady’s hair and singing a song in a low, soft voice. A comforting and gentle sound, I thought as I left; my own mother had sung to me thus when I was ill, and stroked my hair in the same way. It had reassured me in my illness, and I offered up a prayer that it did the same for the old woman.

11

I found Lower hard at work dissecting a brain; such work—later given to the world as his Tractatus de corde—occupied him greatly during his days, and he had prepared many fine sketches of its anatomy. He was not pleased when I burst in to demand his assistance and again I saw him in bad humor.

“Can’t it wait, Cola?” he asked.

“I don’t think it can. Not for long, at least. And in return, I can offer you one of the most enjoyable of experiments.”

“I do not experiment for enjoyment,” he said curtly.

I studied his face, bent over the table as it was, with one of his dark locks of hair hanging over his eye. There was a set about the mouth and cheeks that made me concerned that one of the moods of passing blackness was upon him.

“It is also a charity, and I beg you not to turn me away, for I need help and you are the only person steady and wise enough to give it. Do not be angry, for I promise to repay your kindness tenfold later. I have examined Widow Blundy and there is little time.”

The obsequiousness of my manner disarmed him, for he grimaced and, with a show of reluctance, put down his knife and turned toward me.

“She is as bad as the girl’s face indicated?”

“She is. She will die very soon, unless something is done. We must try the experiment. She must be given blood. I have examined the almanac; the sun is in Capricorn, which is good for matters of the blood. Tomorrow will be too late. I know you are doubtful of such details, but I am disinclined to take risks.”

He growled at me angrily as my manner made it clear that I would brook no refusal and not leave him in peace.

“I am not convinced this is a sound idea.”

“But she will die otherwise.”

“It is probable she will die in any case.”

“So what is there to lose?”

“In your case, nothing. In my case, the risk is more substantial; my career and my family depend on my making my way in London.”

“I don’t see the problem.”

He wiped his thin knife on his apron and washed his hands. “Listen, Cola,” he said, turning to face me when he had finished, “You have been here long enough to know of the opposition we face. Think of the way that idiot Grove assailed you at New College last night on exactly this question of experimental treatment. He has a point, you know, loath as I am to admit it. And there are many worse in a position to do me harm if I give them the slightest chance. If I take part in this operation, the patient dies and it becomes known, then my reputation as a physician will be damaged before my career has even begun.”

“You have doubts about the experiment I am proposing?” I asked, trying another approach.

“I have the very gravest doubts about it, and you should have as well. It is a pretty theory, but the chances of the patient surviving the application of it seem small indeed. I must admit,” he said reluctantly, making me sure I would win, “it would be fascinating to try.”

“So if there was no fear of it becoming generally known…?”

“Then I would be delighted to assist.”

“We can swear the daughter to silence.”

“True. But you must also swear that you too will say nothing. Even when you are back in Venice, if you published a letter saying what had taken place, you would land me in the most serious difficulty unless it was all done properly.”

I clapped him on the back. “Have no concerns,” I said, “for I am not a publishing man. I give my word that I will not say anything unless you give me express permission.”

Lower scratched his nose as he thought this over, then, grim-faced at the risk he was taking, he nodded his agreement. “Well, then,” he said. “Let us be about it.”

* * *

That is how it happened. Even now I like to think that he had no occult motive in insisting on this arrangement. He was prompted by the simplest self-interest and I think it was only later that, swayed by the siren words of his friends in the Royal Society, he came to prefer fame to honor, and advancement to friendship. Then he exploited my honesty and trust most basely, using my silence for his own ends.

At the time, however, I was overjoyed and grateful to him for taking such a risk on my behalf.

To be frank, I would have preferred to have conducted my experiment in better surroundings, and with more witnesses present to note what we were doing. But such an option did not exist—Mrs. Blundy could not be moved and, quite apart from Lower’s fears, finding other qualified persons to participate would have taken too much time. So Lower and I alone walked, seriously and silently, back to the little hovel, where we once more found the sick woman and her daughter.

“My dear child,” said Lower in his most friendly and reassuring fashion, “do you understand fully what my colleague has proposed? You understand the dangers, both to yourself and to your mother? We may be linking your souls and your lives together, and if it fails for one, it may be catastrophic for the other.”

She nodded. “We are already linked as closely as mother and daughter can be. I told her but don’t know how much she understood. I’m sure she would refuse, because she has always accounted her own life of little value, but you must ignore that.”

Lower grunted. “And you, Cola? You wish to proceed?”

“No,” I said, doubtful now the moment had arrived. “But I think we must.”

Lower then examined the patient and looked grave. “I certainly cannot fault your diagnosis. She is very ill indeed. Very well, then, let us begin. Sarah, roll up your sleeve, and come and sit here.”

He gestured to the little stool beside the bed, and when she was sat, I began wrapping a ribbon round her arm. Lower got to work uncovering the thin scrawny arm of the mother, and wrapped another ribbon—a red one this time; it has stuck in my mind—around her upper arm.

Then he took out his silver tube and two quills, and blew through them to make sure there were no blockages. “Ready?” he asked. We both nodded grimly. With a neat and experienced movement, he slipped a sharp knife into the girl’s vein and inserted one quill into it, with the end pointing against the flow so that the natural movement diverted the blood out into the air; then he slipped a cup under it and began to collect the liquid. It poured in a ruby red rush into the bowl, faster than either of us had anticipated.

He counted slowly. “This can hold half a gill,” he said. “I will just see how long it takes to fill, and then we can guess more or less how much we are taking.”

It filled swiftly, so much so that it overflowed and the blood began to splash on the floor. “One and an eighth minutes,” Lower called loudly. “Quickly, Cola. The tube.”

I handed it to him as Sarah’s lifeblood began splashing on the floor, and I inserted the other quill into the mother’s vein, the other way around this time so that the new blood would flow in the same direction as her own and not set up turbulence. Then, and with surprising gentleness, as the girl’s blood began to flow copiously out of the silver tube, Lower moved her over, and connected the tube to the quill protruding out of the mother’s arm.

He peered intently at the join. “It seems to be working,” he said, barely managing to keep the surprise out of his voice. “And I can see no sign of coagulation. How long do you calculate we should wait?”

“For eighteen ounces?” I did the calculations as swiftly as I could while Lower counted. “Ah, about ten minutes,” I said. “Make it twelve to be sure.”

Then silence fell, as Lower counted intently to himself, and the girl bit her lip and looked worried. She was very brave, I will say that—not a sound of complaint or worry came from her throughout the entire proceeding. For my part, I was in a state of anxiety, wondering what the result would be. There were no effects either way to start off with.

“…Fifty-nine, sixty…,” Lower said eventually. “That’ll do. Out we come,” and he pulled the tube out and put it on the floor, expertly putting his finger over the mother’s vein and pulling out the quill. I did the same for the girl and then we both busied ourselves in bandaging their arms to stop the bleeding.

“Finished,” he said with satisfaction. “How do you feel, my girl?”

She shook her head, and breathed deeply once or twice. “A bit dizzy, I think,” she said faintly. “But all right.”

“Good. Now you sit down quietly.” Then he turned his attention to the mother. “No change there,” he said. “What do you think?”

I shook my head. “Not better, not worse. But of course, it may take time for the youthful blood to have its effect.”

“Whatever that effect might be,” Lower murmured. “Normally in a case like this one would recommend a strong emetic, but I hardly think that would be wise at the moment. I think the only thing to do, my dear sir, is to sit and wait. And hope and pray. Your treatment will either work, or it will not. And that’s an end of it. It’s too late to change our minds now.”

“Look at the girl,” I said, pointing out how she had begun yawning mightily; she was also pale about the face, and complained of feeling lightheaded.

“That’s just the blood loss. We have tapped her spirit, and so she is obviously reduced. Lie down, my girl, beside your mother, and sleep awhile.”

“I must not. I have to look after her.”

“Don’t you worry about that. Cola here will want to watch her progress, and I will send someone I know after, so we can be informed of any developments. So get yourself into bed with her, and don’t worry. What a day, Cola! What a day. First Dr. Grove, then this. I am quite fatigued by the excitement of it all.”

“What?” Sarah said. “What about Dr. Grove?”

“Hmm? Oh, you know him, don’t you? I’d forgotten. He’s dead, you know. Cola here found him in his room this morning.”

The girl’s composure, apparently untouched by the blood loss and even by the thought of her mother dying, was affected for the first time by this news. She turned even paler than she already was, and we noticed, to our great astonishment, that she shook her head sadly, then curled up on the bed and buried her face in her hands. Very affecting and surprising, but I noticed that, for all her distress, she did not ask what had happened.

Lower and I exchanged glances, and quietly decided that there was nothing we could do—the tapping of her blood had weakened her, and the starvation of her womb had let slip the humors held in it, causing the body to react with all the symptoms of hysteria.

My friend was splendid, revealing a kindness and skill which his flippant exterior did not suggest, and which made the darkness of his occasional rage all the more perplexing to me. Having assured ourselves that there was enough food and heating, and acquired warm bed clothing for our patient, there was little else to do. We wished her well, and left. I came back a few hours later to see what progress had been made. Both mother and daughter were asleep, and I must say that the mother looked the more at peace.

12

By the time I joined Lower that evening at Mother Jean’s—a woman who ran a cookhouse not far from the High Street and offered edible food for only a small amount of money—he seemed in a far better mood than he had been earlier.

“And how is your patient?” he cried from his table as I walked into the small, crowded room, full of students and the more impecunious of Fellows.

“Largely unchanged,” I said, as he pushed an undergraduate aside to make room for me. “She is still asleep, but her breathing is easier and her complexion more sanguine.”

“So it should be, considering,” he replied. “But we must talk of this later. May I introduce you to a good friend of mine? A fellow physician and experimentalist? Mr. da Cola, I present you to Mr. John Locke.”

A man of about my age with a thin face, supercilious expression and long nose raised his head from his platter for a second, muttered something and then descended back into the food.

“A brilliant conversationalist, as you see,” Lower continued. “How he can eat so much and remain so thin is one of the great mysteries of creation. When he dies he has promised me his body so I can find out. Now, then. Food. I hope you like pig’s head. Tuppence, with as much cabbage as you can eat. Beer a ha’penny. There is not much left, so you’d better shout the good mother over.”

“How is it prepared?” I asked eagerly, for I was starving. I had quite forgotten to eat in the excitement of the day, and the prospect of a nice head, roasted with apples and liqueur, and perhaps with a few shrimp as well, made me salivate with anticipation.

“Boiled,’’ he said. “In vinegar. How else?”

I sighed. “How else, indeed? Very well.”

Lower called the woman over, ordered on my behalf, and presented me with a tankard of beer from his jug.

“Come, Lower, tell me what is the matter. You have a look of great amusement on your face.”

He raised his finger to his lips. “Hush,” he said. “It is a great secret. I hope you are not doing anything tonight.”

“What would I be doing?”

“Excellent. I wish to repay you for your consideration in allowing me to assist you this afternoon. We have work to do. I have received a commission.”

“What sort of commission?”

“Look in my bag.”

I did as I was told. “A bottle of brandy,” I said. “Good. It is my favorite drink. After wine, of course.”

“You would like some?”

“Most decidedly. It will wash the taste of boiled pig’s brains out of my mouth.”

“That it would. Look at it carefully.”

“It is half empty.”

“Very observant. Now look at the bottom.”

I did as I was told. “Sediment,” I said.

“Yes. But there is sediment in wine, not in brandy. And this has a granular appearance. What is it?”

“I’ve no idea. What does it matter?”

“It came from Dr. Grove’s room.”

I frowned. “What were you doing there?”

“I was asked to attend. Mr. Woodward, who is a distant relation of Boyle—everyone is a distant relation of Boyle, as you will discover—asked his advice, and he declined to assist on the grounds that this was not an area in which he could claim competence. So he asked me to go in his stead. Naturally, I was delighted. Woodward is an important man.”

I shook my head. It was already clear what was going to happen. Poor Grove, I thought. He never had time to escape to Northampton. “I thought he’d called in someone else. Bate, wasn’t it?”

Lower flipped his fingers contemptuously. “Old Grandfather Bate? He won’t even leave his bed if he thinks Mars is in the ascendant, and his only treatment is leeching and burning herbs. It would take his entire training even to see poor old Grove was dead. No; Woodward is no fool. He wants the opinion of someone who knows what he’s talking about.”

“And your opinion is… ?”

“That’s the clever bit,” he said craftily. “I examined the body briefly and decided further investigation was required. Which I will do this evening, in the warden’s kitchen. I thought you would like to be there. Locke wants to come as well and if Woodward provides some wine, we should have a most instructive time.”

“It would be a great pleasure,” I said. “Although are you sure I would be allowed? Warden Woodward did not seem a very welcoming man, when we met.”

Lower waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “You did meet him in distressing circumstances.”

“He was offensive,” I said, “ in accusing me of giving countenance to slanderous tales.”

“Really? Which ones?”

“I don’t know. All I did was ask whether the poor man might have undertaken some physical activity. Woodward turned dark with anger and accused me of malice.”

Lower rubbed his chin, a faint smile of understanding on his face. “Well, well,” he said. “Maybe it was true, then.”

“What?”

“There was a little scandal,” this man Locke said, for he had finished his food now and was prepared to give his attention to other things. “Nothing too serious, but someone put it around that Grove was fornicating with his servant. Personally, I thought it unlikely, given the source of the story was Wood.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Locke shrugged, as though unwilling to continue. Lower, however, would have none of this decorum.

“The servant in question was Sarah Blundy.”

“I must say that Grove always struck me as an upright man, well able to resist the wiles of someone like her,” Locke said. “And, as I say the tale originated with that ridiculous man Wood, so naturally I discounted it.”

“Who is Wood?”

“Anthony Wood. Or Anthony à Wood, as he likes to style himself, as he has delusions of quality. Have you not met him? Don’t worry; you will. He will seek you out, and suck you dry. An antiquary of the most burrowing sort.”

“Not so,” said Lower. “I insist on justice. In that field he is a man of excellent abilities.”

“Maybe so. But he is a pernicious gossip, and a melancholic little bundle of envy; everybody is less deserving, and succeeds only through connection. I’m sure he believes Jesus only got his job through family influence.”

Lower cackled at the blasphemy, and I surreptitiously crossed myself.

“Now, Locke, you are upsetting our papist friend,” Lower said with a grin. “The point is that Wood lives a monastic life with his books and manuscripts and rather took up with the girl in some way. She worked for his mother as a servant, and poor Wood felt greatly deceived by her.”

Locke smiled. “Only Wood, you see, would have been at all surprised by such things,” he said. “But he did find the girl a position with Grove and then constructed these notions about them. As he is malicious, he started spreading this around the town, with the result that Grove was forced to dismiss the girl to guard his good name.”

Lower poked him in the arm. “Hush, my friend,” he said. “For here is the man himself. You know how sensitive he is to being talked about.”

“Oh, Lord,” said Locke. “I can’t take it. Not with food. I must apologize, Mr. Cole.”

“Cola.”

“Mr. Cola. I hope to see you later, perhaps. Good evening, gentlemen.”

He rose, bowed swiftly and headed for the door at an uncivil speed, bowing to an absurdly scruffy man shambling toward us.

“Mr. Wood, sir,” cried Lower civilly, “do sit down with us, and meet my friend Mr. Cola, of Venice.”

Wood was already about to do so in any case, without being asked, and squeezed in alongside me, so that the smell of his unwashed clothes became quite impossible to ignore.

“Good evening sir, good evening, Lower.”

I could see why Locke had been in such a hurry. Not only did the man smell, not only was he bereft of any elegance, even wearing his spectacles in public, as though he had forgotten he was no longer in a library, but his presence instantly cast a pall of gloom over what had previously been a jolly table.

“I understand you are an historian, sir,” I said, trying to make polite conversation once more.

“Yes.”

“That must be very interesting. Are you of the university?”

“No.”

Another long silence, broken eventually by Lower pushing back his chair and standing up. “I have to prepare,” he said, quite ignoring my panicked looks of entreaty that I should not be left alone with Mr. Wood. “If you would join me at Mr. Stahl’s in Turl Street in half an hour or so…”

And with a quiet twitch of amusement which indicated he knew full well the trick he was playing on me, Lower walked off, leaving me with only Mr. Wood for company. He, I noticed, did not order any food; rather he collected the plates of the others and scoured them for bits of fat and gristle, sucking the bones with a horrible noise. He must, I thought, be very poor indeed.

“I suppose they have told you snide stories about me,” he said, then waved his hand as I rushed to deny it. “You needn’t bother,” he went on. “I know what they say.”

“It doesn’t seem to concern you much,” I said cautiously.

“Of course it does. Does not every man wish to be held in high regard by his fellows?”

“I have heard many worse things said of others.”

Wood grunted, and attended to Lower’s plate; as the method of cooking had completely killed my appetite, I passed him my own, which was still laden with food.

“Kind of you,” he said. “Very kind.”

“You may consider Lower a false friend,” I said, “but I may say that he spoke very highly of your skills in the historical way. Which tempts me to ask what it is that you do.”

He grunted once more, and I was afraid that the nourishment might render him too talkative. “You are the Venetian physician I have heard of?” he said by way of reply.

“Venetian, but not a real physician,” I said.

“Papist?”

“Yes,” I said cautiously, but he did not appear about to launch into offensive denunciations.

“You think heretics should burn, then?”

“Pardon?” I said in some surprise at the gaucheness of his conversation.

“If someone is tempted out of the fold of the true church—your own or any other—do you think he should burn?”

“Not necessarily,” I said, trying to marshal an argument at short notice. It seemed best to try to keep him on generalities, rather than prying into my private affairs. I detest gossip of all sorts. “He may deserve to lose his life, if you follow the argument of Aquinas, who asked why the counterfeiters of coin should be killed, but not counterfeiters of faith. But that is rare now, I think, whatever you Protestants may hear.”

“I meant burn in hell.”

“Oh.”

“If I am baptized by a heretic priest, are the sins of Adam remitted?” he said thoughtfully. “If I am married by one, are my children bastards? Cyprian said the quality of the sacrament existed ex opere operantis, I think, so that a heretic baptism would be no baptism at all.”

“But Pope Stephen countered that, and said it existed ex opere operato, through the merit of the action, not the standing of the actor,” I said. “So you would be in no great danger if it was done on both sides by men of good intent.”

He sniffed and wiped his mouth.

“Why do you ask?”

“You believe in mortal sin, you papists,” he continued absently. “A gloomy doctrine, I think.”

“Less so than your predestination. I believe God can forgive anything, even mortal sin, if he chooses. You say men gain or lose their immortal souls before they are even born and God cannot change it. What sort of poor thing is that for a God?”

He grunted yet again at this, and seem disinclined to engage any further, which struck me as odd considering that he had begun the dispute in the first place.

“Do you have a desire to become a Catholic, perhaps?” I asked, wondering if his sally had been prompted by something other than awkwardness and unfamiliarity with decent conversation. “Is this why you ask? I think you will have to find someone more learned than myself for that. I am a poor churchman.”

Wood laughed, and I sensed that I had finally chiseled him out of his morbid introspection—a fine triumph, I think, for there is nothing more persistent than a Protestant in a state of melancholy. “You are indeed, sir. Did I not see you going into a heretic church with Mr. Lower only last Sunday?”

“I went to a service with him at St. Mary’s, that is true. But I did not take communion. Although I must say I would have had no trouble doing so.”

“You astonish me. How can that be?”

“The Corinthians saw no harm in eating meat offered in sacrifice to pagan idols, as they knew the gods not to exist,” I said. “And however mistaken they were on other questions, I am in agreement with them on that. The act is harmless, it is willful false belief which is heresy.”

“If we are presented with the truth, and refuse to accept the evidence of our eyes and ears?”

“Obviously a sin, surely?”

“Even if it goes against all accepted opinion?”

“Believing in Christ went against all accepted opinion once. Discerning the truth, however, is not so easy. Which is why we must not be too hasty to reject beliefs hallowed by tradition, even though we may criticize in private.”

Wood grunted. “That sounds Jesuitical to me. You would have no objection to my attending a service in one of your churches?”

“I would welcome you. Not that I have any right either to welcome or exclude.”

“You are very easygoing, I must say. But how do you know that the Anglican church is heretical?”

“For the reasons I give. And because it has been condemned as such by the pope.”

“Oh, I see. So if a proposition was plainly heretical, but had not been condemned? Would I—or you—have liberty to countenance it?”

“I suppose it would depend on the proposition,” I said, desperately seeking some way out of the conversation, which had suddenly swung back to despondency again. But he was a tenacious man, and did so obviously want company, poor soul, that I could not be cruel. “If you like, I will give you an example. Several years ago, I came across a history of heretical movements in the early church. You know, of course, of the Phrygian Montanus, and his assertion that new prophets in every generation would add to the words of Our Lord.”

“Condemned by Hippolytus.”

“But supported by Tertullian, and commented on favorably by Epiphanius. And not my point, for this history I mentioned talked of a woman follower of Montanus called Prisca, and her sayings have never been condemned, as far as I am aware, as almost no one knows of them.”

“And what did she say?”

“That redemption is a perpetual process, and in each generation the Messiah would be reborn, would be betrayed, would die, and be resurrected, until mankind turns away from evil, and sins no more. And, I may say, very much more of the same sort of thing.”

“A doctrine which has passed from the sight of man, you say,” Wood replied, strangely more interested in my example than in anything else I had said since I handed him my food. “Not surprisingly. It is surely just an unsubtle version of Origen, who held that Christ is crucified again each time we sin. It is a metaphor taken literally.”

“My point is, that despite the fact that no formal condemnation has ever been made, there can be no doubt that Catholics are obliged to reject it, as they are obliged to reject any heathen religion. Doctrine and liturgy are laid down quite clearly, and we must assume that what is not permitted is by definition excluded.”

Wood grunted. “You never rebel against what you are told to believe?”

“Frequently,” I said cheerfully. “But not on doctrine. There is no need to do so, since it is plainly correct in all particulars. Your Mr. Boyle believes that when science and religion are in conflict, then there is a mistake in the science. That is little different from saying that when the individual mind and the church are at odds, it is the duty of the individual to learn wherein lies his error.”

I could see that Wood was getting far more interested in this conversation than I was, and that he was on the brink of suggesting that we go somewhere to drink and continue our most fascinating discourse. I could think of nothing I wanted less, and so before I was put in the position of having to rebuff him, I stood up hastily.

“You must forgive me, Mr. Wood, but I have a appointment with Lower. I am late already.”

His face fell with disappointment, and I felt sorry for the fellow. It is hard to mean so well, and try so hard, and be kept at arm’s length nonetheless. I would have been more congenial had I the time, despite my distaste for his scholarly earnestness and blockish discourse. But, fortunately, I did not have to lie to avoid him—more important matters really did await. I left him sitting there finishing my dinner, all alone, and the only silent person in a room full of merriment and good company.

* * *

This man Peter Stahl whom lower wished to consult was a German, and known to be something of a magician, having a fine knowledge of alchemy. When in drink he could talk fascinatingly about the philosopher’s stone, eternal life and how to turn base elements into gold. For myself, I always think that talk is very fine, but not as good as demonstration, and Stahl, for all his claims and obscure phrases, never conferred eternal life on even a spider. As he was not noticeably rich, I assume that he never succeeded in turning anything into gold either. However, as he once said, the simple fact that something has not been done, is no proof that it cannot be; he would accept that such things were impossible only when convinced that matter was immutably imprinted with unique form. All the evidence so far, he said, suggested that it was possible to change base materials into primary elements. If you could change acqua fortis into salt—a simple enough proposition—by what reason did someone like myself scoff at the proposition that, given the right method, it was possible to turn stone into gold? Similarly, all medicine aimed at fending off illness and age and decay; some medicines even worked. Could I then swear—and give reasons for my belief—that there was no ultimate potion which might fend off illness forever? After all, the best minds of antiquity believed it, and there was even Biblical testimony. Did not Adam live for 930 years and Seth 912 years and Methuselah 969 years, as Genesis said?

Lower had warned me that he was a difficult character and that only Boyle could keep him under control. His abilities were matched by equal vices, as he was a sodomite of the most flagrant variety, who delighted in disgusting those who conversed with him. He was in his forties at this period, and showed the signs of decrepitude that vice brings in its train, with heavy lines around a tight mouth full of foully decayed teeth, and a hunched-over deportment indicating the suspicion and distaste in which he held all the world. He was one of those who considered everybody to be his inferior, no matter what their station, attainments or quality. No monarch was as adept as he at ruling kingdoms, no bishop as well versed in theology, no lawyer as subtle at preparing a case. Oddly, the one area where his arrogance did not rule was the one where it might have been justifiable, which was in his skill at chemical experimentation.

The other curiosity about him was that, although he treated everybody with scorn, he gave tirelessly of his time and effort once his curiosity was engaged. Human beings he could not deal with, but set him a problem and he would work to exhaustion. Although he should have aroused little but disgust, I nonetheless developed a cautious regard for the man.

It was hard to persuade him to assist, even though he knew that Lower was an intimate of Boyle, who was at that time paying his wages. As we explained the situation, he sprawled in a chair and looked contemptuously at us.

“So? He is dead,” he said in his thick accented Latin, which he pronounced with the old-fashioned weighting and value, quite discredited amongst the cognoscenti of Italy, although the English and others (I understand) still become passionately heated on the subject. “Does it matter what happened precisely?”

“Of course,” Lower replied.

“Why?”

“Because it is always important to establish the truth.”

“And you think that can be done, do you?”

“Yes.”

Stahl snorted. “Then you are more optimistic than I am.”

“What do you spend your time doing, then?” I asked.

“I amuse my masters,” he replied in a disagreeable tone. “They want to find out what happens if you mix verdigris with oil of niter, so I mix it for them. What happens if you heat it, so I heat it.”

“And then try to work out why it happens.”

He waved his hand airily. “Pfaf. No. We try to work out how it happens. Not why.”

“There is a difference?”

“Of course. A dangerous difference. The gap between how and why troubles me greatly, as it should you. It is a difference that will bring the world down on our heads.” He blew his nose and looked at me with distaste. “Look,” he continued, “I am a busy man. You have come here with a problem. It must be a problem of chemistry, otherwise you wouldn’t have demeaned yourself by asking me a favor. Correct?”

“I have a very high opinion of your abilities,” Lower protested. “I’ve given you evidence enough of that, surely. I have been paying you for lessons for long enough.”

“Yes, yes. But I haven’t been overburdened by social calls. Not that I mind, as I have better things to do than talk.

So if you want a favor of me, tell me what it is, then go away.”

Lower seemed quite used to this performance. I probably would have walked out by this stage, but he very placidly took the brandy bottle out of his satchel, and put it on the table. Stahl peered at it closely—I could see that he was short-sighted, and probably could have done with a pair of spectacles.

“So? What’s this?”

“It’s a bottle of brandy, with a strange slurry at the bottom, which you can see as well as I can, despite your pretense of being blind. We want to know what it is.”

“Aha. Was Dr. Grove killed by Spirits or by spirits? That’s the problem, is it? Is their wine the poison of dragons and the cruel venom of asps?”

Lower sighed. “Deuteronomy 32:33,” he responded. “Just so.” And then stood patiently as Stahl went through an elaborate display of apparent thought.

“So, how do we test this substance, even though it is corrupted by the liquid?” The German thought some more. “Why don’t you offer that tease of a servant of yours a glass of this brandy one evening, eh? Solve two problems in one go?”

Lower said he didn’t think this was a very good idea. It would, after all, be hard to repeat the experiment even if it were successful. “Now, will you help us, or not?”

Stahl grinned, showing a range of blackened, yellowing stumps that passed for teeth and which might well have accounted for his ugly temper. “Of course,” he said. “This is a fascinating problem. We need a series of tests that can be repeated, and be sufficiently numerous so that it will identify this sediment. But first I have to extract this sediment in a usable form.” He pointed at the bottle. “I suggest you go away and come back in a few days. I will not be rushed.”

“Perhaps we might start, though?”

Stahl sighed, then shrugged and stood up. “Oh, very well. If it will rid me of your company.” He went over to a shelf and selected a flexible tube with a piece of thin glass on the end, and inserted this into the open end of the bottle, which he placed on the table. Then, crouching down, he sucked on the other end of the tubing, and stood back as the liquid ran swiftly into a receptacle which he had placed underneath.

“An interesting and useful exercise,” he observed. “Common enough, of course, but fascinating nonetheless. As long as the second part of the tube is longer than the first, the liquid will continue to flow out, because the liquid falling downward weighs more than the liquid being required to flow upward. If it didn’t, a vacuum would form in the tube, which is impossible to sustain. Now, the really interesting question is, what happens if…”

“You don’t want to suck all the sediment out as well, do you?” Lower interrupted anxiously as the level of brandy fell toward the bottom of the bottle.

“I saw it, I saw it.” And Stahl quickly whipped the glass tube out.

“And now?”

“And now I remove the sediment, which must be washed and dried. This will take time, and there is no reason at all for you to be here.”

“Just tell us what you plan.”

“Simple enough. This is a mixture of brandy and sediment. I shall heat it gently to evaporate the liquid, then wash it in fresh rainwater, allow it to settle once more, again decant the liquid off and wash and dry it a second time. It should be fairly pure by then. Three days, if you please. Not a moment earlier, and if you do turn up before then, I won’t talk to you.”

* * *

And so I followed lower back to new college, and the warden’s lodgings, a large pile which occupied much of the western wall of the quadrangle. We were taken by the servant into the room in which Warden Woodward received guests, and found Locke already there, stretched out in conversation by the fire, as easy as if he owned the place. There was, I thought, something about the man which could always inveigle his way into the good graces of the powerful. How it was I do not know; he was neither easy of manner nor particularly good company, and yet the assiduity of his attention to those he considered worthy of him was so great that it was irresistible. And, of course, he carefully crafted his reputation for being a man of the utmost brilliance, so that these people ended up patronizing him and feeling grateful for it. In later years he went on to write books which pass for philosophy, although a cursory reading suggests that they do little but carry his bent for flattery onto the metaphysical plane, justifying why those who patronize him should have all power in their hands. I did not like Mr. Locke.

His ease and self-assurance in the presence of Warden Woodward contrasted with the manner of my friend Lower, who fell into despondency when required to produce the mixture of deference and politeness required for dealing with those greater than he. Poor man; he desperately wanted favor, but had not the ability to pretend, and his awkwardness was all too frequently viewed as rudeness. Within five minutes the fact that Lower had been asked to examine Grove’s body with Locke there merely to observe had been all but forgotten; all the conversation passed between the lengthy philosopher and the warden, while Lower sat uncomfortably by the side, his humor sinking as he listened in awkward silence.

For myself, I was gladly quiet, as I did not wish to incur Woodward’s displeasure again, and it was Locke—to give him credit—who rescued me.

“Mr. Cola here was dismayed at your censure of him earlier in the day, Warden,” he said. “You must remember he is a stranger in our society and knows nothing of our affairs. Whatever he said was perfectly innocent, you know.”

Woodward nodded, and looked at me. “Please accept my apologies, sir,” he said. “But I was distraught and did not mind my words as I should have done. But I had received a complaint the previous evening, and misconstrued your meaning.”

“What sort of complaint?”

“Dr. Grove was being considered for a living and was likely to be given the place, but a complaint was lodged only yesterday evening which alleged he was of a lewd way of life, and should not be appointed.”

“This was the Blundy girl, was it not?” Locke asked in a wordly, disinterested fashion.

“How do you know that?”

Locke shrugged. “Common knowledge in the taverns, sir. Not that that fact makes it true, of course. Might I ask where this complaint came from?”

“It came from within the Fellowship,” Woodward said.

“And more particularly?”

“More particularly it is a college matter alone.”

“Did your complainant give any evidence for the accusation?”

“He said that the girl in question was in Dr. Grove’s room yesterday evening, and he had seen her go in. He complained lest others see her and bring its reputation into question.”

“And was that true?”

“I had planned to ask Dr. Grove this morning.”

“So, she was there last night, and Grove was dead this morning,” Locke said. “Well, well…”

“Are you suggesting she extinguished his life?”

“Heavens, no,” Locke replied. “But extreme physical exertion, you know, may in certain circumstances bring on a seizure, as Mr. Cola here so innocently pointed out this morning. That is by far the most likely explanation. If so, then a careful examination will certainly help us. And anything more sinister seems unlikely, as Mr. Lower says the girl seemed genuinely upset when she was informed of Grove’s death.”

The warden grunted. “Thank you for the information. Perhaps we had better proceed? I have had his body placed in the library. Where do you want to examine it?”

“We need a large table,” Lower said gruffly. “The kitchen would be best, if there are no servants around.”

Woodward went off to dismiss the kitchen staff, and we went into the next room to examine the body. When the house was deserted, we carried him across the hallway and into the domestic offices. Fortunately Grove had already been laid out and washed, so we were not delayed by that less than agreeable business.

“I suppose we’d better begin, don’t you think?” Lower asked, clearing the dinner plates off the kitchen table. We took off Grove’s clothes and, in the state in which God had created him, lifted him up. Then Lower got his saws, sharpened his knife and rolled up his sleeves. Woodward decided that he did not want to observe, and so left us to it. “I’ll get my pen if you would be so good as to shave his head,” Lower said.

Which I willingly did, paying a visit to the closet where one of the servants kept his toiletries and fetching a razor.

“A barber as well as a surgeon,” Lower said as he drew the head—for his own interest only, I suspected. Then he put down the paper, stood back and thought for a moment. When fully prepared, he picked up knife, hammer and saw and we all paused a moment in the prayers appropriate for those about to violate and enter God’s finest work.

“Skin isn’t blackened, I note,” Locke said conversationally when the moment of piety was over and Lower began carving his way through the layers of yellow fat to the rib cage. “Are you going to try the heart test?”

Lower nodded. “It will be a useful experiment. I’m not convinced by the argument that the heart of a poisoning victim cannot be consumed by fire, but we should see.” A slight ripping sound as the layers were finally severed. “I do hate cutting up fat people.”

He paused awhile as he opened up the midriff and held open the thick heavy flaps of fat by nailing each corner to the kitchen table.

“The trouble is,” he continued once this was done and he had a clear view inside, “the book I consulted did not specify whether you were meant to dry the heart out first. But you see Locke’s point about the lack of blackening on the skin, do you, Cola? A sign against poisoning. On the other hand, it is livid in patches. You see? On the back and thighs? Maybe that counts. I think we must call it inconclusive. Did he throw up before he died?”

“Very much so. Why?”

“A pity. But I’ll have his stomach, just in case. Pass that bottle, will you?”

And he decanted in a very expert fashion a slimy, bloody, stinking froth from the stomach into a bottle. “Open the window, will you, Cola?” he said. “We don’t want to make the warden’s lodging uninhabitable.”

“People poisoned commonly do vomit,” I said, recalling a case in which my teacher in Padua had been allowed to poison a criminal to see the effect. The poor unfortunate had died rather unhappily; but as he had been due to have his limbs cut off and his entrails burned before him while he was still alive, he remained until the end pathetically grateful to my master for his consideration. “But I believe they rarely manage to expel all of the stomach’s contents.”

Conversation ceased at this point as Lower busied himself transferring stomach, spleen, kidney and liver to his glass bottles, passing comment on all of them as he held each individual organ up for me to see before popping it into its bottle.

“The cawl is yellower than usual,” he said brightly, as the work slowly restored him to good humor. “Stomach and intestines are an odd brownish color on the exterior. The lungs have black spots on them. Liver and spleen much discolored and the liver looks—what would you say?”

I peered inside at the odd-shaped organ. “I don’t know. It rather looks as though it had been boiled to me.”

Lower chuckled. “So it does. So it does. Now, the bile; very fluid. Runs all over the place and a sort of dirty yellow color. Most abnormal. Duodenum inflamed and excoriated but with no traces of natural decay. Same applies to stomach.”

Then I saw him eyeing the corpse reflectively, as he wiped his bloody hands on his apron.

“No more,” I said firmly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I do not know you well, sir, but already I recognize that look. If you are thinking of opening his skull and removing his brain, then I must beg you to desist. We are, after all, trying to establish the cause of his death; it would be quite illegitimate to go chopping bits off to perform dissections on them.”

“And he will be on public view before the funeral, remember,” Locke added. “It would be hard to disguise the fact that you had cut his skull in two. It will be bad enough making sure no one sees that his head has been shaved.”

Lower clearly considered disputing this, but eventually shrugged. “Keepers of my conscience,” he said. “Very well, although medical knowledge may well suffer for your moral stand.”

“Not permanently, I feel sure. Besides, we should be putting him back together again.”

And so we set to work, stuffing his cavities with strips of linen to present a good appearance, sewing him up, then bandaging the wounds in case any fluids should emerge to stain his funeral garb.

“Never looked better, in my opinion,” Lower said when Grove was finally dressed in his best and placed comfortably on a chair in the corner, with the bottles containing his organs lined up on the floor. Lower, I saw, was determined to have those at least. “Now, the final test.”

He took the man’s heart, put it in a small earthenware dish on top of the stove and poured a quarter pint of brandy over it. Then he took a splinter of wood and lit it at the stove and thrust it into the bowl.

“A bit like plum pudding, really,” he said tastelessly as the brandy exploded into flames. We stood around and watched, as the liquid burned, and then eventually spluttered out, leaving an exceptionally unpleasant odor in the air.

“What do you think?”

I examined Dr. Grove’s heart with care, then shrugged. “A bit charred over the surface membrane,” I said. “But no one could say that it had been consumed, even partly.”

“My conclusions as well,” Lower said with satisfaction. “The first real evidence in favor of poisoning. That’s interesting.”

“Has anybody ever tried this test on someone who has indubitably not died of poisoning?’’ I asked.

Lower shook his head. “Not that I know of. Next time I have a corpse I’ll give it a try. Now, you see, had young Prestcott not been so selfish we could have had a comparison.” He glanced around the kitchen. “I suppose we had better clear up a bit; otherwise the servants will bolt when they come in tomorrow morning.”

He set to work himself with a cloth and water; Locke, I noted, did not assist.

“There,” he said after many minutes’ silence in which I had tidied, he had washed and Locke had puffed on his pipe.

“If you would call the warden, we can put Grove back. But before we do, what is our opinion?”

“The man is dead,” Locke said dryly.

“How?”

“I do not think there is enough evidence to say.”

“Sticking your neck out as usual. Cola?”

“I am disinclined on the evidence so far to think his death anything but natural.”

“And you, Lower?” Locke asked.

“I would suggest that we reserve judgment until such time as further evidence is forthcoming.”

With a careful warning that we were not to inform anyone of the evening’s activity, lest too much scandal be excited, Warden Woodward thanked us for our help after we had presented our puny conclusions. The relief on his face—for Lower had not told him about Stahl and he clearly thought the matter was now closed—was self-evident.

13

It is the custom of the English to bury their dead with as much speed as they hang them. Under normal circumstances, Dr. Grove would have been interred in the cloister of New College already, but the warden had used some pretext to delay the ceremony for a full two days. Lower used the time granted him to urge Stahl to speed, while I was left at liberty due to Mr. Boyle’s absence in London, which town had a greater attraction for him since his beloved sister moved there.

Most of the day I used up in attending to my patient and my experiment, and the moment I arrived, I saw with joy that both were progressing well. Mrs. Blundy was not only awake and alert, she had even eaten a little thin soup. Her fever was gone, her piss had a healthy bitterness and, even more extraordinarily, there were the first signs of improvement in her wound. Little enough, to be sure, but for the first time I saw that her condition had not deteriorated.

I was delighted, and beamed at her with all the triumphant affection a physician can have for an obedient patient. “My dear woman,” I said when I had finished my examination, applied some more salve and sat down on the rickety stool, “I do believe we may yet snatch you from the jaws of death. How do you feel?”

“A little better, thank you, praise be to God,” she said. “Not ready to go back to work yet, I fear. It is a great concern to me. Dr. Lower and yourself have been more than generous, but we cannot survive without my earning money.”

“Your daughter does not earn enough?”

“Not to keep us out of debt, no. She has trouble with her work, for she has a reputation for being fiery and disobedient. It is so unfair; a better girl no mother ever had.”

“She is sometimes more outspoken than a girl in her position has a right to be.”

“No, sir. She is more outspoken than a girl in her position is allowed to be.”

There was a sudden defiance in her weak voice as she said this, although what exactly she meant was not immediately clear to me.

“Is there a difference?” I asked.

“Sarah was brought up in a society of the most perfect equality between men and women; she finds it hard to accept that there are things forbidden her.”

It was difficult to resist a smirk, but I remembered she was my patient, and so humored her; besides, I had undertaken my travels to learn, and even though this was far from being useful experience, I was broad-minded enough then to tolerate it.

“I am sure a good husband would teach her all she needs to know on that subject,” I said. “If one can be found for her.”

“It will be difficult to find anyone she would accept.”

This time I did laugh out loud. “I think she should take anyone willing to have her, should she not? She has little enough to offer in return.”

“Only herself, but that is much. I think sometimes we did not do right by her,” she replied. “It has not ended as we expected. Now she is all on her own, and her parents are a burden rather than a support.”

“Your husband is alive, then?”

“No, sir. But the calumnies that were heaped on him bear down on her as well. I see from your face that you have heard of him.”

“Very little, and I have learned never to believe what I hear when it is bad.”

“In that case you are a rare man,” she said gravely. “Ned was the most loving of husbands and the best of fathers who devoted his life to winning justice in a cruel world. But he is dead, and I will soon be so as well.”

“She has no resources whatsoever? No people apart from yourself?”

“None. Ned’s family was from Lincolnshire, mine from Kent. All my people are dead, and his were dispersed when the fens were drained and they were thrown off their lands without a penny. So Sarah is quite without connections. What prospects she had were taken by slander, and she has spent the small sums she saved for her dowry on me in my illnesses. The only thing she will have from me when I die is her freedom.”

“She’ll manage,” I said cheerfully. “She is young and healthy, and in any case, you do me a great disservice. I am, after all, doing my very best to keep you alive. With some success, I must say.”

“You must be very pleased that your treatment worked. It is strange how much I wish to live.”

“I am pleased to gratify you. I think that we may have stumbled on a remedy of unparalleled importance. It was a shame that Sarah was all that we had available. If we’d had a bit more time, we might have been able to recruit a blacksmith. Just think, if we had given you the blood of a really strong man, you might be up and about by now. But I’m afraid the spirit contained in a woman’s blood will not allow your leg to mend as rapidly. Perhaps in a week or so we could repeat the treatment…”

She smiled, and said that she would submit to whatever I thought necessary. And so I left, in a high state of good humor and self-regard.

I met Sarah herself, trudging through the muddy slush of the lane outside, carrying more sticks and logs for the fire. Even she I greeted with good cheer and, to my surprise, she responded warmly.

“Your mother is doing well,” I told her. “I am delighted with her.”

She smiled easily, the first time I had seen such an expression on her face. “God has smiled on us through you, doctor,” she replied. “I am very grateful.”

“Think nothing of it,” I replied, warmed by the response. “It was fascinating. Besides, she is not fully cured yet, you know. She is still weak; weaker than she herself knows. And I think further treatment might be useful. You must make sure she does nothing that might endanger that. I suspect you will find it difficult.”

“I will indeed. She is much used to activity.”

Although the thaw was beginning, and the country was slowly emerging from the long dark of winter, it was still ferociously cold when the wind got up, and I shivered in the gusts of bitter air. “I must talk to you about these matters,” I said. “Is there anywhere we could go?”

She told me there was a drinking house around the corner which had a fire and I should go there. For herself, she would build up the fire and ensure her mother was comfortable, then join me.

The place she indicated was not at all like the spacious, elegant coffee house kept by the Tillyards, nor even like the grand inns that had grown up to service the coaches; rather it was a place for the mob, and had only the fire to commend it. It was owned by an old woman who sold the ale she brewed to local customers who would come in to warm themselves. There was no one there but myself, and it was obvious it was not a room ever graced by the presence of gentlemen; I was regarded with a curiosity which was not friendly when I opened the door and walked in. Nonetheless I sat myself by the fire and waited.

Sarah arrived a few minutes later and greeted the crone with familiarity—she was welcomed while I was not. “She was an army woman,” she said.

This, apparently, was meant to be explanation enough; and I asked no more.

“How are you?” I enquired, as I was anxious to note the effect of the procedure on the donor of the blood as well as the recipient.

“I am tired,” she said. “But that is more than made up for by seeing my mother improve.”

“She is also concerned about you,” I replied. “That is not good for her. You must present a cheerful countenance.”

“I do as I can,” she said. “Although sometimes that is not easy. Your generosity, and Dr. Lower’s, have been a great boon in recent days.”

“Do you have employment?”

“Some. I am working again for the Wood family most days, and in the evenings there is occasionally some work at a glove maker’s. I stitch well, although it is hard sewing leather.”

“Why were you so upset about Dr. Grove?”

Instantly I could see the caution come over her face, and I feared was about to be subjected to another one of her outbursts. So I held up my hand to prevent it.

“Please do not think me malicious. I ask for a good reason. I must tell you that there is some cause for concern about his death, and it has been said that you were seen in the college that same evening.”

She still looked stonily at me, so I continued, half wondering why I was taking such trouble. “It may well be that someone else will ask you the same questions.”

“What do you mean about concern?”

“I mean that there is a small possibility that he died of poison.”

Her faced turned pale as I spoke, and she looked down in thought for a few seconds before staring blankly into my eyes. “Is that so?”

“As I understand it, he had discharged you from his employ recently?”

“True. And for no good reason.”

“And you resented it?”

“Very much. Of course. Who would not? I had worked hard and well for him, and never for a moment deserved any reproach.”

“And you approached him in the coffee house? Why?”

“I thought he would have had a good enough heart to help my mother. I wanted to borrow money from him.” She looked at me angrily, daring me either to pity or criticize.

“And he turned you away.”

“You saw that for yourself.”

“Did you go to his room the night he died?”

“Does someone say I did?”

“Yes.”

“Who says this?”

“I don’t know. Answer the question, please. It is important. Where were you?”

“That is none of your concern.”

We had reached an impasse, I could see. If I kept on pressing, she would walk out, and yet she was very far from satisfying my curiosity. And what possible reason could she have for not being frank? Nothing was so important that it was worth encouraging suspicion in any form, and she must have known by now that I meant her well. I tried one last time, but again she blocked my enquiry.

“Was there any truth in these stories?”

“I know of no stories. Tell me, doctor. Is someone saying Dr. Grove was murdered?”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. There is no reason to think so at the moment and he is to be buried this evening. Once that has taken place, the matter will be closed. Certainly the warden genuinely believes, I think, that there is nothing suspicious about the occurrence at all.”

“And you? What do you believe?”

I shrugged again. “I have heard of many men of Grove’s age and appetites dying suddenly of a fit, and apart from that it is of little concern to me. My main concern is your mother, and the treatment I have given her. Has she passed any stools?” She shook her head. “Make sure you collect them if she does,” I continued. “They will be of great importance to me. Do not let her up, and make sure she does not wash. Above all, keep her warm. And if her condition changes at all, let me know instantly.”

14

The funeral service for grove was a solemn and dignified affair which began shortly after darkness had fallen. All through the day, I imagined, the preparations were made—the college gardener excavated a space in the cloister next to the chapel, the choir of boys practiced, and Woodward prepared the eulogy. I decided to attend once Lower told me he thought there would be no objection; Grove was, after all, one of the few people I had known in the town. But I insisted on his coming as well; there are few things more distressing than being in a religious ceremony and not knowing what to do next.

He grumbled about it, but eventually agreed. The regime in New College, I gathered, was not greatly to his liking. When it began—the chapel full, the attendant priests in vestments—I could see why, from his point of view. “You will have to explain,” I said in a whisper during a lull in the proceedings, “what the difference between your church and mine is. I must say I can discern very little.”

Lower scowled. “There is none here. Why they are not open and pronounce their obedience to the whore of Babylon—apologies, Cola—I do not know. They all want to, the scoundrels.”

There were, I guessed, about half a dozen or more of Lower’s persuasion, and not all were as well behaved as he. Thomas Ken, the man who had disputed with Grove over dinner, sat ostentatiously through the whole service and talked loudly during the requiem. Dr. Wallis, who had been so rude to me, sat cross-armed and with the disapproving quietude of the professional cleric. A few more even laughed at the most solemn moments, earning them ill-tempered looks from others. If the ceremony concluded without degenerating into an open fight, I thought at one stage, then we would be fortunate.

Somehow, though, it came to an end without scandal, and I thought that I could almost feel the relief in the air as Woodward pronounced the final blessing and led the way, white stick in hand, out of the chapel and around the cloister to the open grave. The body was moved over the gaping hole and held up by four of the Fellows; Woodward was preparing the final prayer when there was a scuffling from the back.

I looked at Lower—both of us were sure that tempers had finally boiled over and Grove’s last moments above the earth were to be tarnished by doctrinal dispute. A few of the fellows were scandalized and turned round with angry looks; a murmur ran through the congregation as their numbers were forced aside to let through a portly man with gray whiskers, a thick cloak and a look of acute embarrassment.

“What is this about?” Woodward said, turning away from the grave to face the interloper.

“This burial must stop,” the man said.

I nudged Lower and whispered in his ear. “Who’s that? What’s going on?” Lower dragged his attention away and whispered, “Sir John Fulgrove. Magistrate,” then bade me keep silent.

“You have no authority in this place,” Woodward continued.

“In matters of violence, I do.”

“There has been no violence.”

“Perhaps not. But I am obligated by my position to satisfy myself. I have received an official notice that murder may have been done, and I am bound to investigate. You know that as well as I do, Warden.”

A loud murmur went up once the word murder was mentioned. Woodward stood stock still in front of the grave, as though protecting the body from the magistrate. In fact, he was protecting his college.

“There is no question of murder. I am quite satisfied.”

The magistrate was uncomfortable, but determined to stand his ground. “You know that once a complaint is received, then it must be properly investigated. The fact that this death occurred inside the college is of no importance. Your privileges do not extend that far. You cannot exclude me on such a matter, nor can you dispute my writ. I order that this funeral cease until I am satisfied.”

With the eyes of the college, and a good part of the university, upon him, Woodward swayed to and fro as he considered how best to respond to this open challenge. He was not, ordinarily, a man to hesitate for a moment but on this occasion he took his time.

“I will not cede to your authority, sir,” he said eventually. “I do not accept you have any right to enter this place without my consent, nor to interfere with college business. I am satisfied there is no cause for your presence, and that I could in law order you out.”

The audience looked pleased at this statement, and Sir John bridled with indignation. Having thus satisfied the proprieties and made sure he conceded no ground on matters of principle, Woodward submitted, after a fashion. “Yet perhaps you have testimony of which I do not know. If violence has been done, it is the duty of the college to know the truth. I will hear what you have to say and postpone the interment until I have done so. If I find your complaint to be without justification, it will continue, whether you agree or not.”

There was a murmur of appreciation at what Lower later told me was a masterly defensive retreat from an untenable position and, while it continued, Woodward ordered the body to be taken back to the chapel. Then he escorted the magistrate out of the cloisters and to his lodgings.

“Well, well,” Lower said softly as the two men vanished through the narrow archway which led to the main quadrangle beyond. “I wonder who is behind this.”

“What do you mean?”

“A magistrate can only act if someone complains to him that a crime has been committed. Then he must investigate to see whether the complaint is justified. So, who went to see him? It cannot have been Woodward, and who else had an interest? As far as I know the man had no family.”

I shivered. “We are not going to find out standing here,” I pointed out.

“You are right. How about a bottle in my rooms at Christ Church? Then we can see if we can figure it out?”

* * *

We made little progress; despite much talk and more wine, the question of who went to see the magistrate was as unresolved when we awoke the next morning as it was when we left New College. The only thing I learned was that the Canary wine the English prefer leaves a wicked remembrance the next morning.

I slept with Lower, being too shaky to return to my own bed by the end of the conversation—which soon left the topic of Grove and ranged widely over the whole field of curiosity. In particular he returned again to the idea of spirit, and whether it was susceptible to investigation—a notion which was of importance for the theory underlying my blood transfusion.

“I suppose,” he said reflectively, “we may posit the existence of your life spirit in the blood from the existence of ghosts, for what are they but the spirit released from the body? And I cannot bring myself to doubt these manifestations, for I have myself seen one.”

“Really? When?” I replied.

“Only a few months ago,” he said. “I was in this very room, and heard a noise outside the door. I opened it up, as I was expecting a visitor, and there was this young man. Very curiously dressed, in velvet, with long, fair hair, and carrying a silken rope. I said hello, and he turned and looked at me. He didn’t reply, but smiled sadly, then walked down the stairs. I didn’t think much of it, but went back inside. My guest arrived a minute or so later. I asked him whether he had seen the strange youth—he could hardly have failed to do so—but he said no, there had been no one on the stairs at all. Later, the dean told me that a young man had killed himself in 1560. He’d left his room on my staircase, walked to a cellar on the other side of the college, and hanged himself with a silken rope.”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm, indeed. I merely point out that this is one of the rare occasions when the best theories of science and practical observation coincide very well. It is why I do not dismiss your a priori notions out of hand. Although I do not rule out the possibility that another explanation might account for Widow Blundy’s improvement.”

“To dismiss an explanation you have in favor of one you do not have seems foolish,” I said. “But I must point out that you are assuming that the spirit which maintains life is the same as that which survives it.”

He sighed. “I suppose I am. Although even Boyle has not yet thought up an experiment to discover what that spirit is, assuming it has some physical existence.”

“It would get him into a great deal of trouble with the theologians,” I said. “And he seems concerned to maintain the best relations with them.”

“Sooner or later that will come,” my friend replied. “Unless we scientists are to confine ourselves solely to material things, and what would be the point of that? But you are right; Boyle is unlikely to take such a risk. I cannot but think it a fault in him. But then your Mr. Galileo has shown the risks of annoying men of the church. What do you think of him?”

Of course, Lower had heard of this celebrated case, and it was much discussed at Padua when I was there, for Galileo had been in the pay of Venice until tempted away to the court of Florence by Medici pomp; he made many enemies thereby, which stood him in no good stead when he came into trouble for saying the earth went round the sun. Even though his fall had occurred almost before I was born, it had frightened many of the curious, and made them think carefully before they spoke. But it annoyed me that Lower should refer to it, for I knew what his opinion would be and that he would twist the facts to attack my church.

“I have the highest respect for him, of course,” I said, “and the episode grieves me. I am a man of science, and count myself a true son of the church. I believe firmly with Mr. Boyle that science can never contradict true religion, and that if they seem at variance, then that is due to our faulty understanding of one or the other. God gave us the Bible and he gave us nature to show his creation; it is absurd to think he might contradict himself. It is man who fails.”

“Someone is wrong in this case, then,” Lower said.

“Clearly,” I replied, “and no one seriously believes the pope’s advisors were anything but misguided. But Signor Galileo was at fault as well, possibly more than they. He was a difficult and arrogant man and erred greatly in neglecting to show how his ideas were in conformity with doctrine. In truth I do not believe there was any contradiction. There was a failure to understand, and that had the direst consequences.”

“Not the intolerance of your church, then?”

“I think not, and would say it is proved that the Catholic church is more open to science than the Protestant. Every significant man of science yet has been raised in the Catholic church. Think of Copernicus, Vesalius, Torricelli, Pascal, Descartes…”

“Our Mr. Harvey was a good Anglican,” Lower objected, a little stiffly, I thought.

“He was. But he had to come to Padua for his training, and there formulated his ideas.”

Lower grunted, and raised his glass in salute at my reply. “You’ll make cardinal yet,” he said. “A judicious and political response. You believe science is obliged to prove itself?”

“I do. Otherwise it sets itself up as an equal to religion, not its servant, and the consequences of that are too awful to contemplate.”

“You are beginning to sound like Dr. Grove.”

“No,” I replied after a moment’s thought. “He thought us frauds and doubted the usefulness of experiment. I fear its power and ambition, and concern myself lest its power should make men arrogant.”

I could have grown angry at his remarks, but I felt disinclined to argue and Lower himself was not really trying to provoke. “Anyway,” he continued, “with men like Grove in our church, who are we to condemn? They have less power to cause trouble than your cardinals, but they would do so if they could.” He waved his hand to dismiss a topic he had tired of. “Tell me, how is your patient? Is she truly living up to the theories you have heaped upon her shoulders?”

I smiled contentedly. “She is bearing them marvelously well,” I said. “There are very distinct signs of improvement in her, and she tells me she feels better than she has since she fell.”

“In that case, I drink to Monsieur Descartes,” Lower said, raising his glass, “and to his disciple, the eminent Dr. da Cola.”

“Thank you,” I said. “And I must say that I suspect you of having more regard for his notions than you say.”

Lower raised his finger to his lips. “Shh!” he said. “I have read him with interest and profit. But I would as soon own to being a papist as a Cartesian.”

An odd way of finishing a conversation, but that was how it ended; without even a yawn Lower rolled over—taking the one thin blanket with him and leaving me shivering—and fell fast asleep. I thought aimlessly for some time, and did not even notice when I similarly succumbed to the embrace of Lethe.

* * *

Neither of us had woken when the messenger came from Stahl to say that his preparations were complete and if we wished to attend on him at our earliest convenience we could witness his experiment. I cannot say that I felt up to a meeting with the irascible German in my drugged and shaky state, but Lower reluctantly concluded that it was our duty to do our best.

“God knows I don’t feel like it,” he said as he washed his mouth out and straightened his clothes before attacking a piece of bread and a glass of wine for his breakfast. “But if this has become a magistrate’s matter, then we will need to present our findings properly. Not that he is likely to pay us much attention.”

“Why not?” I asked with some curiosity. “In Venice physicians are regularly called to give their opinion.”

“In England as well. ‘Your honor, in my opinion this man is dead. The presence of a knife in his back indicates an unnatural death.’ As long as it is kept simple, there is no problem. Shall we go?” He stuffed more bread in his coat pocket and held open the door. “I’m sure you do not really want to miss it.”

Much to my surprise, Stahl seemed almost happy to see us when we dragged ourselves up his stairs and walked into his cramped and smelly lodging off Turl Street a quarter of an hour later. The prospect of demonstrating his ingenuity and skill to an appreciative audience was too much to resist, although he did his best to be churlish. Everything was ready—candles, bowls, bottles of various liquids, six little piles of powder—the stuff which he had extracted from the bottle—and chemicals Lower had purchased and sent round to him.

“Now, I hope you’re going to behave yourself, and not waste my time prattling.” He glared at us while Lower assured him that we would observe as quietly as possible—a statement which neither he nor Stahl believed for a moment.

The preliminaries done, Stahl settled down to work. As an example of chemical technique, it was fascinating to watch; and while he talked, I found my distaste slipping away in admiration at his ingenuity and methodical approach. The problem, he said, waving at the piles of powder, was perfectly simple. How do we determine what this sediment drawn from the brandy bottle is? We can look at it, but that demonstrates nothing, as many substances are white and can be reduced to powder. We can weigh it, but considering the amount of impurities present, that would prove little. We can taste it, and compare the taste to other things, but that operation—quite apart from the fact that it might be dangerous—would help little unless it had a unique and recognizable taste. From mere visual evidence we cannot say more than that the sediment is a whitish powder.

So, he said, warming to his theme, we must test it a little further—if, for example, we dissolved it in a little sal am-moniack, the mixture might respond in several ways—it might change color, or it might give off heat, or it might effervesce. The powder might dissolve, or float, or sink, still solid, to the bottom of the liquid. If we repeated the experiment with another substance, and it reacted in a similar fashion, could we then say that the two were the same?

I was about to reply in the affirmative, when he waved his finger at us. No, he said. Of course not. If they reacted differently, then indeed we might conclude that the two substances were not identical. But if they reacted in the same fashion, all we could say was that they were two substances which, when mixed with sal ammoniack, responded in the same way.

He paused while we digested this, then resumed once more. Now, you are thinking, he said, how can we possibly ascertain what this material is? And the answer is simple—we cannot. I told you this last week. Whatever you may think there can be no certainty. We can only say that accumulated evidence indicates the strong likelihood that it is such and such a substance.

I had not yet had much experience of law courts in England, but I knew that, if someone like Stahl went into a Venetian trial and spoke like that, the side he was supporting might as well abandon all hope.

“So, how do we do this?” he was asking rhetorically, waving his finger in the air. “We repeat the experimentation again and again and if, after every repeated experiment, the two substances match in their reaction, then we can conclude that the chances of their not being the same shrink to the point where to maintain they are different is unreasonable. Are you with me?”

I nodded. Lower didn’t bother.

“Good,” he said. “Now, I have in the last few days performed my experiments on a dozen or more substances, and have reached my conclusions. I am prepared here only to demonstrate them—1 have not the time to go through the whole process with you. I have here glasses containing five different substances, and we will add our powder one by one to all five, then begin the process of comparison. Now, the first is a little spirit of sal ammoniack,”—he poured a small amount of powder in as he spoke—“the second contains lixivium of tartar, then spirit of vitriol, spirit of salt and lastly, syrup of violets. I also have here a piece of hot iron. I hope you see the logic of this, Dr. Lower?”

Lower nodded.

“Perhaps, then, you would explain to our friend, here?”

Lower sighed. “This isn’t a lesson, you know.”

“I like people to understand the experimental method. Too many doctors do not; they merely prescribe potions without the slightest reason to think they might work.”

Lower groaned, then gave way. “What he is doing,” he said, “is subjecting the powders to all variants of matter. As you know, the essential principles of natural things are salt and earth, which are passive, and water, spirit and oil, which are active. The combination of ingredients he has chosen consequently covers all of these, and should provide an overall picture of every variety of matter. He is also testing heat, which is quite illogical of him, as he does not believe that fire is a natural element.”

Stahl grinned. “No, I do not. The idea that all matter contains a quantity of fire which can be released on heating I find unlikely. However, this is quite enough chatter. If your friend has got that into his pretty little head, we might begin.”

He peered at us closely to see he had our attention, then rubbed his hands together and picked up the first bowl, holding it to the light so we could see clearly.

“The sal ammoniack first of all. You see it has produced particles of a pale sediment with no other apparent movement. Hmm?”

He handed it over for our inspection and we agreed that the other substance he was showing us produced the same result.

“Now, lixivium of tartar. A white cloud in the middle of the liquid, suspended equidistantly between the surface and the bottom.”

Again, the other substance behaved in the same fashion.

“Vitriol. A precipitation producing hard crystals forming on the side of the glass. A matching result again.”

“Salt.” He paused and examined the bowl carefully. “A slight creamy precipitation, but so slight you might miss it entirely.

“Violets. How pretty. A tincture of pale green. Most attractive. Two of them, in fact, as my chosen substance has produced the same result. I hope you are beginning to be convinced.”

He grunted at us in a satisfied fashion, then picked up a pinch of each powder and threw them separately onto the red-hot iron. We watched as they hissed, and gave off thick white fumes. Stahl sniffed at them, then grunted again. “No flame in either case. Slight smell of—what would you say?—garlic.”

He poured some water on the iron to cool it down, then casually tossed it out of the window, so it could lie on the ground and not poison us. “And there we are. We needn’t waste any more time. We have now run a total of six separate tests, and in each case the material you brought me in the brandy bottle reacts in the same way as this substance here. As an experimentalist of chemistry, gentlemen, I offer you my opinion that the material in the bottle is indeed unlikely not to be the same.”

“Yes, yes,” said Lower, finally losing patience. “But what is this other substance of yours?”

“Ah,” said Stahl. “The crucial point. My apologies for my little piece of drama. It is called white arsenic. Formerly used as a face powder by the more foolish and vanitous of women, and quite deadly in large quantities. I can prove that as well, for I did one other test.

“I have notes on all this, by the way,” he said, as he opened up two paper packages. “Two cats,” he said, picking the creatures up by the tails. “One white, one black. Both perfectly healthy last night when I caught them. I fed one two grains of the powder from the bottle, and the other the same amount of arsenic, both dissolved in a little milk. Both beasts are, as you see, quite dead.

“You’d better take both of them,” Stahl continued. “As you appear to have been delving into Dr. Grove’s intestines, you may want to have a look at theirs as well. You never know.”

We thanked him profusely for his kindness and Lower, gripping a tail in each hand, wandered off to the laboratory to anatomize the beasts.

“And what is your opinion of that?” he asked as we strolled along the High Street in the direction of Christ Church once more. Having established that the substance in the bottle was indeed arsenic—or, to be correct, that it consistently behaved like arsenic and never behaved unlike arsenic, so that it could reasonably be said to be arsenic-like—and, moreover, that a cat, when fed the substance, died in a manner very similar to the way that a cat fed with arsenic died, we were but one step away from an alarming conclusion.

“Fascinating,” I said. “Ingenious, and thoroughly satisfying in both method and execution. But I must reserve my final opinion until we have seen inside those cats. The syllogism you obviously have in mind is as yet incomplete.”

“Arsenic in the bottle, and Grove dead. But did arsenic kill Grove? You are quite right. But you suspect as well as I what conclusions the cats’ intestines will indicate.”

I nodded.

“We have everything to suggest Grove was murdered except for the one necessary factor.”

“Which is?” I asked as we trailed through the unfinished and unworthy entrance to the college and walked through the vast but equally unfinished quadrangle.

“We don’t have a reason, and that is the most important thing. It is Stahl’s problem with the why and the how, if you like. There is no point working out how it was done if we cannot say why. Fact of crime, and motive for committing it, are all that is needed—the rest is unimportant detail. Cui prodest scelus, is fecit. He who profits by villainy, has perpetrated it.”

“Ovid?”

“Seneca.”

“I believe,” I said a little impatiently, “that you are trying to say something.”

“I am. Just as Stahl can work out how chemicals mix with each other but has no idea why, so it is with us. We now know how Grove died, but we do not know why. Who might possibly have wanted to take so much trouble to kill him?”

“Causa latet, vis est notissima,” I quoted back, and was pleased for once to have foxed him.

“ ‘The cause is hidden…’? Suetonius?”

“ ‘But the effect is clear.’ Ovid again. You should know that one. We have at least established fact—if the cats are as we suspect. The rest is not in our field.”

He nodded. “Considering your method of reasoning about your blood, I find that strange. You have completely reversed yourself. In one case, you had a hypothesis and saw no need for prior evidence. In this case, you have the evidence and see no need for a hypothesis.”

“I could just as easily say that you have done the same. Besides, I do not dismiss the need for explanation. I merely say that it is not our job to formulate it.”

“That is true,” he conceded, “and maybe my discontent is vanity. But I feel that unless our philosophy can also answer the important questions as well, it is unlikely to change much. Both why and how. If science confines itself to how, then I doubt it will ever be taken seriously. Do you wish to attend the cats?”

I shook my head. “I would love to. But I should go and see my patient.”

“Very well. Perhaps you will join me at Boyle’s when you have finished? And this evening I have a great treat. We must not allow ourselves to become overburdened by experiment. Diversion is also necessary, I think. By the way, I wish to ask you something.”

“And that is?”

“Periodically, I make a circuit of the countryside; Boyle mentioned it when you arrived, if you remember. As I can’t practice in the town, I have to go outside to earn a little money, and I am very short at the moment. It is a Christian charity, and quite profitable, which is a fine combination. I set up a room on market days, hang out a sign and wait for the pennies to roll in. I was going to leave tomorrow. There is to be a hanging out Aylesbury way, and I want to bid for the corpse. Would you like to come? There will be more than enough work for both of us. You can rent a horse for a week, see the country. Can you pull teeth?”

I bridled at the idea. “Certainly not,” I said.

“No? It’s easy. I’ll be taking some pliers, and you can practice if you wish.”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean that I am not a barber. Forgive me for saying so, but I risk my father’s wrath in acting the doctor, and there are depths to which I will not sink.”

For once Lower was not offended. “You’re not going to be much use, then,” he said cheerfully. “Listen, I am going to towns of a few hundred souls at most. Villagers come from miles around, and they want full treatment. They want to be bled, purged, lanced, have their piles rubbed and their teeth out. This isn’t Venice, where you can send them to the barbershop next door. You’ll be the only properly trained person they will see for another year, unless some wandering charlatan passes through. So if you come with me, you leave your dignity behind, as I will. No one will see, and I promise not to tell your father. They want a tooth out, you reach for the pliers. You’ll enjoy it; you’ll never have such appreciative patients again.”

“What about my patient? I really don’t want to come back to find her dead.”

Lower frowned. “I hadn’t thought of that. But she doesn’t need any attention, does she? I mean, you can’t do much except wait and see whether she lives. And if you gave her more treatment that would spoil the experiment.”

“That’s true.”

“I could ask Locke to look in on her. I noticed you didn’t take to him much, but he’s a fine fellow really, and a good physician. We’ll only be away five or six days.”

I was doubtful, and did not want someone like Locke informed of my work, although as I knew Lower had a high regard for the man I refrained from saying so. “Let me think about it,” I said. “And I’ll tell you this evening.”

“Fine. Now, these cats await me. And then I suppose we ought to see the magistrate to tell him what we have discovered. Not, I suspect, that he will be very interested.”

* * *

Thus, three hours later, we knocked on the door of the magistrate’s house in Holywell to inform him that, as far as the opinion of two doctors was concerned, Dr. Robert Grove had died of arsenic poisoning. The stomachs and entrails of the cats were quite definite on this point; there was absolutely no difference between them and, in addition, the excoriation closely matched that which we had noted in Grove’s own. The conclusion was inescapable by any theoretical approach, whether it be that of Monsieur Descartes or Lord Bacon.

Sir John Fulgrove saw us after only a very short delay; we were ushered into the room he used as his study and as an impromptu courtroom for deciding minor matters. He seemed a worried man, which was no great surprise. Someone like Woodward could make life very unpleasant for any lay official, even a magistrate, who incurred his wrath. Investigating a death was tantamount to alleging murder; Sir John now had to come up with a convincing case to lay before the coroner’s court; and for that he needed someone to accuse.

When we told him of our investigations and conclusions, he leaned forward in his chair straining to understand what we were saying. I felt quite sorry for him; the matter was, after all, exceptionally delicate. To his credit, he questioned us closely both as to our methods and the logic of our conclusions, and made us explain several times the more complicated procedures until he understood them properly.

“It is your belief, then, that Dr. Grove died as a result of drinking arsenic dissolved in the bottle of brandy. Is that the case?”

Lower—who did all of the talking—nodded. “It is.”

“Yet you will not speculate as to how the arsenic came to be in the bottle? Could he have put it there himself?”

“Doubtful. He had been warned only that evening of its dangers, and said he would never use it again. As for the bottle, Mr. Cola here might be able to assist on that point.”

So I explained how I had seen Grove pick up the bottle at the foot of the stairs as he escorted me to the gate. I added, however, that I was not certain it was the same bottle, and naturally I did not know whether the poison was already in it.

“Yet is this poison used medicinally? You were treating him, Mr. Cole?”

“Cola.”

Lower explained how it was sometimes used, but never in such quantities, and I said how I had done little more than wash away the medicine he was using, so that the eye might heal itself.

“You were treating him, you dined with him that evening, and you were probably the last person to see him before he died?”

I agreed evenly that this might well be the case. The magistrate grunted. “This arsenic,” he continued. “What is it, exactly?”

“It is a powder,” Lower said. “Derived from a mineral composed of sulphur and caustic salts. It is both expensive and often quite difficult to find. It comes from silver mines in Germany. Or it can be made by subliming orpiment with salts. In other words…”

“Thank you,” the magistrate said, holding up his hands to fend off one of Lower’s lectures. “Thank you. What I mean is, where is it obtained? Do apothecaries sell it, for example? Is it part of the materia medica of physicians?”

“Oh, I see. On the whole, I think, physicians do not keep it about them. It is used only rarely, and as I say, it is expensive. Ordinarily they would apply to an apothecary when it was needed.”

“Thank you, indeed.” The magistrate’s brow furrowed in thought as he considered what we had just told him. “I do not see how your information, valuable though it might be, could possibly be of use should this ever come to a trial. I understand its value, of course, but I doubt that a jury would. You know, Lower, what these men are like, often enough. If a case depended on such flimsy stuff, they would be certain to acquit whomever we charged.”

Lower looked displeased, but admitted that Sir John was correct.

“Tell me, Mister Cole…”

“Cola.”

“Cola. You are Italian, I believe?”

I said I was.

“A doctor yourself?”

I replied that I had studied physic but was not qualified, and had no intention of practicing for a living. My father, I continued, did not want…

“You are familiar with arsenic, then?”

I did not for one moment suspect where this line of questioning was leading, and I answered cheerfully enough that I was indeed.

“And you admit you were possibly the last person to see Dr. Grove alive?”

“Possibly.”

“So—please forgive me for speculating—so if, for example, you put the poison in yourself, and gave it to him when you arrived for dinner, there would be no one to query your account?”

“Sir John, surely you are forgetting something?” Lower said mildly. “Which is unless you can advance a reason for a deed, you cannot attribute it. And logic rules out the existence of that reason. Mr. Cola has only been in Oxford, only in this country, in fact, for a few weeks. He had only met Grove once before that night. And, I must say, I am willing to vouch absolutely for his good character as, I am sure, would the Honorable Robert Boyle, were he here.”

This reminded the man of the absurdity of his line of questioning, I am glad to say, although it did not restore him to my esteem. “My apologies, sir. I did not mean to cause offense. But it is my duty to investigate, and naturally, I must ask questions of those near the events.”

“That is quite understandable. No apologies are needed, I assure you,” I replied with little sincerity of spirit. His remarks had alarmed me considerably, so much so that I came close to pointing out the fault in his logic—which was that I was not necessarily the last person to have seen Grove alive, for someone had seen Sarah Blundy, it appeared, going into his room after I had left him at the gate.

I was aware, however, that if an Italian and a papist would have been the ideal candidate for a murderer, then the daughter of a sectary, of loose morals and a fiery temper, would have been an adequate replacement. I had no desire to extricate myself from suspicion by pointing an accusing finger at her. She was, I thought, capable of such a thing, but apart from gossip, there was little to suggest any involvement. I felt quite justified in remaining silent until that situation changed.

Eventually, the magistrate gave up trying to say more, and levered himself out of his chair. “You must excuse me. I have to see the coroner and alert him. Then interview some other people, as well as placating Warden Woodward. Perhaps, Dr. Lower, you would be kind enough to tell him what you told me? I would be happier were he convinced I was not acting out of malice toward the university.”

Lower nodded, reluctantly, and went off to discharge his obligation, leaving me free to do as I pleased for the rest of the day.

* * *

I was mindful that, despite such excitements as the death of Dr. Grove, it was merely a distraction from my proper business, which was above all to see to my family affairs. Although I have dwelt little on it in this narrative, I had been hard at work, and Mr. Boyle had kindly done even more for me. The news, however, was dispiriting and I had little or nothing to show for my labors. Boyle had, as he promised, consulted a lawyer friend of his in London, and he had advised that I would be wasting my time in pursuing the matter. Without concrete proof of my father’s ownership of half the business, there was no chance of persuading a court to grant title to half the property. I was best advised to write off whatever assets had been lost, rather than using up more capital in a hopeless quest.

So I immediately wrote to my father and told him that, unless he had some relevant documents in Venice, it seemed the money was lost forever, and that I might as well return home. The letters written, sealed and dispatched in the king’s post (I did not care if they were read by the government, so decided against the extra expense of sending them privately), I returned to Mr. Crosse’s shop to pass the time in conversation, and prepare a bag of medicines in case I should decide to accompany Lower, although I was already minded not to do so.

“I don’t want to go. But if you could have them ready for tomorrow morning, just in case…”

Crosse took my list and opened his ledger at the page listing my previous purchases. “I will look them out for you,” he said. “There is nothing particularly rare or valuable, so it is no great labor for me.”

He looked up at me curiously for an instant, as though he was about to say something, then thought better of it and consulted the ledger once again.

“Do not concern yourself about payment,” I said. “I’m sure Lower, or even Mr. Boyle, will vouch for my credit.” “Of course. Of course. There is no question of that.” “Something else concerns you? Pray tell me.” He thought some more, and busied himself arranging vials of liquid on the counter for a few seconds before making up his mind. “I was talking to Lower earlier,” he began. “About his experiments over Dr. Grove’s death.”

“Ah, yes,” I said, thinking that he wanted more gossip from those in a position to offer interesting tittle-tattle. “A fascinating man, that Mr. Stahl, if a little difficult.” “Are his conclusions sound, do you think?” “I can see no fault in his method,” I replied, “and his reputation speaks for itself. Why do you ask?” “Arsenic, then? That is what caused his death?” “I can see no reason to doubt it at all. Do you disagree?” “No. Not at all. But I was wondering, Mr. Cola…” Here he hesitated once more. “Come on, man, out with it,” I cried cheerfully. “Something is clouding your spirit. Tell me what it is.”

He was about to speak, then changed his mind and shook his head. “Oh, it’s nothing,” he replied. “Nothing of any consequence. I was simply wondering where the arsenic might have come from. I would hate to think it came from my shop.”

“I doubt we will ever know,” I replied. “Besides, it is the job of the magistrate to find out what he can, so I am told, and no one would blame you, in any case. I would not worry yourself about it.” He nodded. “You are right. Quite right.” Then the door swung open and Lower, accompanied, I was sad to see, by Locke, swept into the shop. Both were dressed up in their finest coats, and Lower was again daring to wear his wig. I bowed to both of them.

“I have not seen two finer gentlemen since I left Paris,” I said.

Lower grinned and bowed back, an awkward movement as he was still unsure enough to hold his wig in place with his hand as he did so.

“The play, Mr. Cola, the play!”

“What play?”

“The one I told you about. Or did I forget? The entertainment I promised. Are you ready? Are you not excited? The whole town will be there. Come along. It starts in an hour, and unless we hurry, we won’t get the best seats.”

His good humor and air of urgency swept all other matters from my mind instantly, and without so much as a further thought about Mr. Crosse and his air of vague concern, I bade him good afternoon, and accompanied my friend out into the street.

* * *

Going to a play in England, for any person of sensibility who has been exposed to the refinements of Italian and French theater, is something of a shock and more than anything else reminds one how very recently this race of islanders has emerged from barbarism.

It is not so much their behavior, although the vulgar in the audience were perpetually noisy, and, it must be said, some of the better-born were far from quiet. This was due to the wild enthusiasm that the troupe of players generated. It was only a few years since such events had been allowed once more, and the joy of having some novelty to witness had sent the entire town into a frenzy. The very students, it seemed, had been selling their books and blankets to buy tickets, which were outrageously expensive.

Nor was the production so dreadful, although it was fearfully rustic, reminiscent more of Carnival burlesque than the theater proper. Rather, it is the type of play which the English admire that reveals what a crude and violent people they really are. It was written by a man who had lived not far from Oxford, who, alas, had clearly neither traveled nor studied the best authors, for he had no technique, no sense of plot and certainly no decorum.

Thus, the unities which Aristotle rightly taught us ensure that a play remains coherent were jettisoned almost from the first scene. Far from taking place in one location, it began in a castle (I think), then moved to some moor, then to a battlefield or two, and ended up with the author seeing if he could place a scene in every town in the country. He compounded his error by jettisoning the unity of time—between one scene and another, a minute, an hour, a month or (as far as I could see) fifteen years could pass, without the audience being informed. Also missing was the unity of subject, as the main plot was forgotten for long periods and subsidiary tales taken up, rather as though the author had taken pages from half a dozen plays, tossed them into the air, then stitched them together in whatever order they fell to earth.

The language was worse; some I missed as the actors had no sense of declamation, but instead talked as though they were in a room of friends or in a tavern. Of course, the true actor’s way, standing still, facing the audience and seducing them with the power of beautiful rhetoric, was scarcely appropriate, as there was little beauty to deliver. Instead what they had on offer was language of breathtaking foulness. At one scene in particular, where the son of some nobleman pretends to be mad and frolics on an open heath in the rain, then meets the king who has also gone mad and has put flowers in his hair (believe me, I am not joking), I quite expected the ladies to be hustled out by protective husbands. Instead, they sat there with all signs of enjoyment, and the only thing which caused a frisson of shock was the presence of actresses on stage, which no one had seen before.

Finally there was the violence. God only knows how many were killed; in my opinion it quite explains why the English are notoriously so violent, for how could they be otherwise, when such disgusting events are presented as entertainment? For example, a nobleman has his eyes put out, on the stage, in full view of the audience, and in a fashion which leaves nothing to the imagination. What possible purpose could be served by this gross and unnecessary coarseness except to insult and shock?

In fact, the only real interest in the proceedings—which dragged on so long that the final scenes were played out in blessed darkness—was that it presented me with a panoramic view of local society, as virtually no one was able to resist the temptation to dabble their fingers in the muck that was on offer. Mr. Wood the gossip was there, as were Warden Woodward and the severe, cold Dr. Wallis. Thomas Ken was there, as were Crosse, Locke, Stahl and many others I had seen in Mother Jean’s.

And there were many more, not even mentioning the students, whom I had never seen but who were well known to my friend. During one of the frequent interruptions in the proceedings, for example, I saw a thin, haggard man try to talk to Dr. Wallis. That gentleman looked angry and embarrassed, then turned abruptly away.

“Oho,” said Lower, watching with interest. “How times do change.”

I begged an explanation.

“Hmm? Oh, I suppose you don’t know,” he said, his eyes still riveted on the scene being played out before him. “How could you? Tell me, what do you think of that little man? Do you think it is possible to read character from physiognomy?”

“I believe so,” I said. “If it is not, then a large number of face painters are wasting their time and telling us lies.”

“Interpret away, then. We can experiment to see the usefulness of the doctrine. Or the level of your skill.”

“Well,” I said, carefully studying the man once more as he walked humbly back to his place and without complaint took his seat. “I am no artist and am not trained in the matter, but he is a man in his late forties, with the air of one born to serve and obey. Not a man who has ever held authority or power. Not favored by fortune, although not poor. A gentleman, but of a lowly sort.”

“A good start,” Lower commented. “Continue.”

“Not a man used to imposing himself. With none of the manner or standing of one who might cut a dash in the world. Rather the opposite—his demeanor suggests someone who will always be overlooked and ignored.”

“Aha. Any more?”

“One of nature’s supplicants,” I said, warming to my theme now. “You can see from the way he approached, and the way he suffered his rebuff. Clearly, he is accustomed to such treatment.”

Lower nodded. “Excellent,” he said. “A truly useful experiment.”

“Was I correct?”

“Let us say it was an interesting set of observations. Ah. The play is beginning again. Splendid.”

I groaned inwardly—he was right, and the players were coming on once more, fortunately for the denouement. I could have done better myself—rather than a morally pleasing resolution, the king and his daughter die just at the moment that any reasonable playwright would see that they must live for there to be any moral instruction in the play at all. But, of course, by then everyone else is dead as well and the stage a virtual charnel house, so I suppose they just decided to follow suit, for want of anyone to talk to.

I emerged rather dazed, not having seen so much blood since we anatomized Dr. Grove. Fortunately, Lower suggested an inn immediately afterward. As I needed a stiff drink to recover, I did not even demur when Locke and Wood decided to join us—not my idea of ideal company, but after such a performance I would have taken a drink with Calvin himself, had it been necessary.

By the time we’d walked across town and settled down in the Fleur-de-Lys, Lower had told Locke of my comments about the man’s demeanor, which produced nothing more than a sneering smile.

“If I’m wrong, you should tell me how,” I said a little heatedly, not liking at all to be used for sport in this fashion. “Who was this man?”

“Go on, Wood. You are the repository of all human gossip. You tell him.”

Clearly pleased to be included in our company and relishing his moment of attention, Wood took a sip of his drink, and called over to the serving hatch for a pipe to be brought. Lower added his call for one as well, but I declined. Not that I object to a little tobacco in the evening, especially when my bowels are tight, but sometimes pipes which have been overused by the general clientele of taverns do have a taste of sour spittle. Most do not mind, I know, but I find it unpleasant and only smoke from my own.

“Well,” Wood began in his pedantic fashion when he was refilled with ale and safely alight, “this little man who is so much one of life’s failures, so much a natural servant, so much a supplicant, is in fact John Thurloe.”

He stopped here for dramatic effect, rather as though I should be impressed. I asked him a bit more sharply than was strictly necessary who, exactly, was John Thurloe?

“Never heard of him?’’ he said with an air of amazement. “Many in Venice have. And almost everywhere else in Europe. For near ten years that man murdered, stole, bribed and tortured his way across this land and others. He once—and not so very long ago—held the fate of kingdoms in his hand, and played with monarchs and statesmen as though they were mere puppets.”

He paused again, and finally realized that he wasn’t being clear. “He was Cromwell’s Secretary of State,” he explained, as though talking to a child. Truly, the man irritated me. “His spy master. Responsible for keeping the Commonwealth secure and Cromwell alive, a task he accomplished with great success, for Cromwell died in his bed. While John Thurloe was there, no assassin ever got close. He had spies everywhere—if ever there was a conspiracy by the king’s men, John Thurloe knew about it before they did themselves. He even planned some of their plots himself, I am told, just for the pleasure of destroying them. As long as he had Cromwell’s confidence, there were no controls on what he could do at all. None at all. It was Thurloe, they say, who lured Jack Prestcott’s father into betraying the king.”

“That little man?” I said in astonishment. “But if that’s true, what is he doing walking around and going to plays? Surely any sensible government would have hanged him as quickly as possible.”

Wood shrugged, unwilling to admit to not knowing something. “A mystery of state. But he lives quietly, a few miles from here. By all accounts he sees no one, and has made his peace with the government. Naturally, all those who swarmed around him when he had power no longer even remember his name.”

“Including John Wallis, evidently.”

“Ah, yes,” Wood said, his eyes twinkling, “including him. Dr. Wallis is a man with an instinct for power. He can smell it. I am sure the first inkling a man of state has of his downfall is when John Wallis stops paying court.”

Everybody likes tales of dark and obscure happenings, and I was no different. Wood’s tale of Thurloe gave an insight into the kingdom. Either the returned king was so secure that he could allow such people their freedom without fear, or he was so weak he could not bring them to justice. It would have been different in Venice—Thurloe would long ago have been devoured by the Adriatic fishes.

“And this man Wallis? He intrigues me…”

But I found out no more, as a young man I recognized as the magistrate’s servant came to our table and stood there stiffly until Lower put him out of his misery by asking him his business.

“I am looking for Mr. Cola and Dr. Lower, sir.”

We acknowledged ourselves. “And what do you want?”

“Sir John requires your immediate presence at his house in Holy well.”

“Now?” asked Lower. “Both of us? It is past nine, and we have not even eaten.”

“I believe it cannot wait. It is a matter of the utmost urgency,” the lad replied.

“Never keep a man waiting if he has the power to hang you,” Locke said encouragingly. “You’d better go.”

* * *

The house on Holywell seemed warm and inviting as we arrived and waited in the hallway before being ushered in to the interview room once more. The fire blazed in the open hearth, and I warmed myself before it, conscious again of how cold the country was in winter, and how underheated were my own lodgings. I was also, I realized, formidably hungry.

The magistrate was decidedly stiffer than he had been only that morning. Once the formalities were over, he led us into the little room, and sat us both down.

“You work very late, Sir John,” Lower said amiably.

“Not through choice, doctor,” he replied. “But this is a matter which cannot wait.”

“It must be serious, then.”

“It is indeed. It concerns Mr. Crosse. He came to see me this afternoon and I wish to check his credentials as he is not a gentleman, although, no doubt, eminently trustworthy in all respects.”

“Examine away, then. What about old Crosse? He is as good a man as I know, and gives false weight only rarely, and then only to customers he does not know.”

“He brought his ledger of sales from his shop,” the magistrate said, “which shows quite clearly that a substantial quantity of arsenic was bought four months ago by Sarah Blundy, a serving girl of this town.”

“I see.”

“Blundy was discharged by Grove for ill-behavior on that same day,” the magistrate continued. “She comes from a violent family.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Lower said, “but have you asked the girl? Perhaps she has a perfectly straightforward explanation?”

“I have. After I talked to Mr. Crosse, I went straight there. She said she bought the powder on Dr. Grove’s instructions.”

“Which may be true. It would be difficult to contradict.”

“It may be so. I intend to see if Dr. Grove kept a ledger. The cost of the powder was near a shilling, and an item that expensive might well have been noted. You can vouch for Crosse? He is of good character, and unlikely to bear false witness out of malice?”

“Oh, no. In that respect he is utterly trustworthy. If he says the girl bought arsenic, then the girl bought arsenic,” Lower said.

“Did you accuse the girl directly?”

“No,” Sir John replied. “It is too early for that.”

“You think it a possibility?”

“Maybe so. Might I ask why neither of you mentioned to me the report that she had been seen entering Dr. Grove’s room that night?”

“It is not my job to report tittle-tattle,” Lower said sternly. “Nor yours to repeat it, sir.”

“It is not that,” Sir John replied. “Warden Woodward told me, and brought Mr. Ken to repeat his accusation.”

“Ken?’’ I asked. “Are you sure he was telling the truth?”

“I have no reason to doubt him. I am aware he and Dr. Grove were at odds, but I cannot believe he would lie on such an important matter.”

“And what did the girl say?”

“She denied it, of course. But she also would not say where she was.”

I remembered that she would not tell me either, and my heart filled with foreboding for the first time. Even the most terrible immorality, after all, would be worthwhile owning if it diverted suspicions such as these. So what could the girl have been doing, assuming, that is, she was not lying to cover her guilt?

“In which case it will be her word against Ken’s,” Lower said.

“His word will naturally carry the more weight,” the magistrate pointed out. “And, from the gossip I have heard, it seems the girl had a reason, however perverted, for such a deed. Do I understand that you are treating the mother, Mr. Cole?”

I nodded.

“I recommend that this cease instantly. You should have as little contact with her as possible.”

“You are making an assumption about her culpability,” I said, alarmed at the turn the conversation was talcing.

“I believe I can see the beginnings of a case. But culpability is not my task, I am glad to say.”

“The mother still needs a doctor,” I said. I did not add that my experiment required constant attention as well.

“I’m sure some other physician will do. I cannot prohibit you, but I beg you to think of the awkwardness. The subject of Dr. Grove will undoubtedly be raised should you encounter the girl—if she is responsible she is bound to want to know how the investigation is progressing, and whether you suspect what was done. You would then be placed in the position either of dissimulating, which is undignified, or giving away information which might cause her to flee.”

I could see the sense of that, at least. “But if I suddenly stop attending, that might arouse her suspicions also.”

“In that case,” Lower said cheerfully, “you will have to come with me on my tour. It will get you out of the way, and the girl will not suspect your absence.”

“As long as you come back. Mr. Lower, will you stand surety for your friend? Ensure his return to Oxford?”

Lower agreed readily, and by the time we left the house, the matter had been settled between them without my being consulted in any way. The next day, it seemed, I would leave on tour, and Lower would persuade Locke to attend to my patient and take whatever notes were required on her condition. This inevitably meant telling him what we had done, which made me uneasy, but there was no alternative. He went off to find his friend, and I returned, heavy at heart and alarmed by the turn of events, to my lodgings.

15

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?”

I nodded.

“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?”

“Which matter?”

“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.”

“Meaning?”

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.

* * *

Myattempt to keep quiet, however, led to a sad deterioration in my relations with Lower, as my absence with what he assumed was a valuable and lucrative client led him once more into jealous despondency. I have met people who would turn so to some degree but I have never met anyone like Lower, whose humor would change on the instant, without warning or good reason.

Twice now he had lashed out and vented his temper on me and I had endured it out of friendship; the third time was worst and the last. Like all the English, he drank prodigious amounts, and had thus occupied himself in my absence, so was violent in mood when I returned. When I entered the house, he was sitting by the fire, clutching himself as though to keep warm, and staring blackly at me. When he spoke he spat his words as though I was his worst enemy.

“Where in God’s name have you been?”

Tempted though I was to recount everything, I replied that I had been to see a patient, who had summoned me.

“You have reneged on our agreement, that I was to have such patients.”

“We had no agreement,” I said, astounded. “Although I am happy for you to have them. But you were bathing.”

“I would have dried myself.”

“And the patient would have been no use to you.”

“That is for me to decide.”

“Then decide now. It was John Thurloe, and as far as I could see, he is in perfect health.”

Lower snorted derisively. “You don’t even lie well. Dear God, how I am sick of your company, with your foreign ways and mincing speech. When do you go back home? I shall be glad to see the back of you.”

“Lower, what is the matter?”

“Don’t pretend you are concerned about me. The only thing you are interested in is yourself. I have shown you real friendship; took you in when you arrived, introduced you to the best people, shared my ideas with you, and see how you repay me.”

“And I am grateful,” I said, beginning to grow angry now. “Truly grateful. And have done my best to earn what I have been given. Have I not also shared my ideas with you?”

“Your ideas!” he said with total contempt. “Those aren’t ideas. Those are fancies, idle nonsense with no foundations, dreamed up merely to amuse yourself.”

“That is completely unfair. You know it. I have done nothing at all to earn your anger.”

But my protests were of no use at all. As with the last time, what I said was of no importance; when the storm burst it had to blow itself out and I could do no more to calm it than a tree caught in a tempest. This time, however, I grew angry and resentful and, rather than seeking to mollify him, I felt more keenly his unfairness and fought against his rage.

I will not repeat what was said, except to say that it was too much. Lower grew angrier and I, still unable to fathom the cause, became equally heated. All I know is that this time I was set on resisting him, and this determination drove him to more extravagant fits of fury. I was, he said, a thief, a charlatan, a fop, a papist, a liar, untrustworthy and deceitful. Like all foreigners I preferred the knife in the back to the way of honesty. I was planning to set up in London as a physician, he said, and my strenuous insistence that I fully intended to leave England as swiftly as possible only made him more furious.

Under any other circumstances, honor would have demanded that I call him out, and I suggested this, earning myself more sneers. Eventually I withdrew, exhausted and hungry, for we did not stop to eat while we battled. I went to bed deeply saddened, for I had liked him, and realized now that friendship was forever impossible. His society had brought me advantage, that is certainly true; but the cost I was forced to pay was too great. I was certain that my father, when he received my letters, would give me permission to leave and I decided that perhaps it would be best to anticipate that grant. I was, however, determined to complete the experiment I had undertaken with Mrs. Blundy; if the woman survived and I could demonstrate its efficacy, then at least I would reap something more than bitterness from the sojourn.

16

The following morning lower was, of course, all contrition and apology, but this time it was of no use. Our friendship was breached beyond repair—Fides unde abut, eo nunquam redit, as Publius Syrus put it. Now that I had determined to leave, I was less inclined to make the accommodations that such a reconciliation required and, though I accepted his apologies in form, I could not do so in my heart.

I believe he realized this, and our journey back to Oxford was full of silence and uncomfortable conversation. I missed our ease greatly, but could do nothing to retrieve our comradeship; Lower, I think, felt ashamed of himself, for he knew that he had acted unpardonably. As a result, he showed me constant little kindnesses to win his way back into my favor and fell into melancholy when his efforts went unrewarded.

One thing, though, I was obliged in honor to do, for even though I had given my word to Prestcott, I considered my obligation to Lower the greater. I knew little of the law, but I knew that I had to inform him of what had transpired at Mr. Thurloe’s house, as it would have been improper for him to hear it from the magistrate or tavern gossip. He listened gravely as I recounted the tale.

“And you didn’t tell me? Do you realize what you’ve done?”

“What?”

“You have made yourself as guilty as them. You may hang now, if Prestcott is ever caught. Did that never occur to you?”

“No. But what was I to do?”

He thought. “I don’t know. But if the magistrate decides he wants Prestcott, and he has fled, then you will be in trouble. Do you believe him?”

“I can’t imagine why not. He had nothing to gain. It is not as if I would have discovered him had he not summoned me. Besides, there is Dr. Grove’s ring. Sarah Blundy will have to explain how she came by that.”

“You are sure it is his?”

“No. But if it is, someone will be able to identify it. What do you think?”

Lower considered. “I think,” he said after a while, “that if the ring is his, and if some way can be found for Prestcott to say his testimony, then it will hang the girl.”

“Do you believe she is guilty?”

“I would be happier to have seen her in his room, pouring arsenic into the bottle. Or to hear it from her own lips. As Mr. Stahl tells us, there is no such thing as certainty, but I am coining to think it probable she was responsible.”

Both of us hesitated then, as we realized at the same moment that we were slipping back into intimacy, and instantly an awkwardness intervened. At that moment, my mind was made up, for I realized I could never talk to him with ease, lest he explode once more. Lower knew well what was going through my mind, and fell glumly silent as the horse clopped along the muddy road. I am sure he felt he could do no more—he had apologized for his past words, and could see no need to excuse those he had not yet spoken.

* * *

I have already mentioned that my opinion of the theater in England was not high, the tale tedious, the acting dreadful, the declamation poor. Not so with the courts, which supplied all the pomp and drama that the theater lacked, being also better produced and more convincingly expressed. The spectacle of an assize is not to be matched anywhere on the continent; not even the French, who love the grandiose, have such an awful display in their justice. The essence of the grandeur lies in the fact that justice is mobile; while small crimes are dealt with by magistrates, more important cases are dealt with by the king’s representatives sent out from London at regular intervals. These patrol the country in circuit, and their arrival is attended by much circumstance. The mayor awaits the procession at the borders of the town, the local landowners send carriages to drive behind, and the people line the streets as the carriages wend their way to the courthouse, where convoluted proclamations are read out which give the judges authority to hang as many lawbreakers as they please.

Perhaps I ought to explain here the way the English deal with such matters, their method being as singular as many other proceedings in that country. One would have thought that a learned judge would have been sufficient as it is everywhere else, but this is not the case. For, having appointed such a person, they give all his power to a group of twelve men, chosen at random and utterly ignorant of all law. What is more, they are inordinately proud of this most bizarre system and hold this jury in awe as the bedrock of their liberties. These men listen to the arguments in court and vote about the verdict. The case is normally presented by the person who brings the prosecution or, in the case of murder, by family or by a magistrate who acts on behalf of the king. In this case, Grove having no family, the magistrate was bound to prepare the suit at the public expense.

The preparations for the assizes are many and the cost considerable, which is why the High Street was all but clogged with people when we returned. I was fascinated by the spectacle, but it merely put Lower into an ill humor. It was late in the day, neither of us had eaten and we were in two minds whether to stop for nourishment or to proceed straight to Sir John Fulgrove’s house in Holywell. We decided on the latter, not least because I was also anxious about Mrs. Blundy—whatever her daughter had done, she was still my patient and my hope of fame. And I was anxious to be free of Lower’s company.

Sir John saw me promptly—an aspect of the English law I greatly admire. I have had little to do with our Venetian magistrates, but I know that they believe the grandeur of the law is served by making everything as inconvenient as possible. He also listened to my story with interest, though little gratitude. His demeanor, indeed, had changed greatly in the period I had been away, and he demonstrated none of that agreeable condescension which I had received before.

“It was your duty to report this matter immediately to those in authority,” he said. “Thurloe is a traitor and should have been hanged years ago. And you now tell me he is harboring fugitives? Why, the man thinks he is above the law entirely.”

“From what I hear,” I said quietly, “he is.”

Sir John scowled. “It is intolerable that this should continue. He is in open rebellion against the king’s government, and yet it does nothing.”

“I do not wish to defend him,” I said, “as if half of what I have heard is true then he should be hanged forthwith. But in this case, I do not think he believes Mr. Prestcott truly guilty of the crimes of which he is accused. And by keeping him close by, he has surely done a service, if the man has important testimony about Dr. Grove.”

The magistrate grunted.

“Do you think this tale unimportant?” I asked.

“No, of course not.”

“The girl is going to stand trial?”

“She is. She will answer the case on the last day of the assizes.”

“On what charge?”

“Petty treason.”

“What is that?”

“Grove was her master; it matters not that she was discharged, because it was as her master that he was killed. That is treason, because a master is as a father to his children, or the king to his people. It is the worst of all crimes; far more serious than murder. And carries a far harsher punishment. When she is found guilty, she will burn.”

“You are in no doubt about her guilt?”

“None. My investigations have uncovered a character so foul, so sordid, that it is a wonder she was not unmasked before.”

“Has she confessed?”

“Not she. She denies it all.”

“And what will you do with my information?”

“I intend,” he said, “to take some soldiers and ride straight out to Milton. Where I will clap both Mr. Prestcott and his protector in irons and drag them both back to jail. We will see if Mr. Thurloe can evade the law this time. You must excuse me. I am in a hurry.”

* * *

That alarming duty done, i returned to the high street to be told that Mr. Boyle had fallen ill at his sister’s house in London and intended to stay there for a few days yet. Then I went to Tillyard’s, to fill my stomach and catch up on the news. Locke was there, and seemed mightily glad to see me; I was not so content to see him.

“Next time you have a patient, Mr. Cola,” he said once I was settled, “pray keep her to yourself. I have had the devil of a run with her. She has deteriorated since you left.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. Why, exactly?”

He shrugged. “I have no idea at all. But she is weakened a little. It began the day that daughter of hers was arrested.”

He willingly told me all the details, as he had been attending the woman when it occurred. It appeared that the bailiff had come for Sarah at her house, and had shackled her and dragged her away in full view of the mother. Sarah had not gone quietly; she had screamed and scratched and bitten until she was forced to the floor and bound; even then she continued screaming and had to be gagged as well. The mother had attempted to rise from her bed and it had required Locke’s full strength to force her back.

“All the time the poor woman screamed that her daughter had not done anything, and they should leave her alone. I must say, when I saw the girl’s performance I could quite believe that she had killed someone. I’ve never seen such a transformation in a human being before. All quiet and gentle one moment, the next a screaming, raging monster. Quite a horrible performance. And the strength she had! Do you know, it took three full-grown men to pin her down while the chains were put on?”

I grunted. “Her mother?”

“She curled up on the bed and began to cry, of course, and afterward became weak and fretful.” He paused and looked at me frankly. “I did what I could but it had no effect; please accept my assurances on that.”

“I will have to go and see her,” I said. “This is something which has concerned me ever since I heard of the arrest. I greatly fear the mother’s condition is bound to get worse, unless we do something drastic.”

“Why is that?”

“The transfusion, Mr. Locke. The transfusion. Think of it. I didn’t know for sure, but I wondered whether the state of the girl might affect that of the mother, now their spirits are so intermingled in her body. Sarah, no doubt, can withstand the effects; her mother is so much older and weaker, I have no doubt this is what has caused her decline.”

Locke leaned back in his chair, his eyebrows raised in what seemed like supercilious disdain but which I now believed was his habitual appearance when deep in thought. “Fascinating,” he said eventually. “This experiment of yours has all sorts of consequences. So what do you intend?”

I shook my head sorrowfully. “I do not know. I have no ideas at all. You must excuse me. I should go and see her immediately.”

And so I did, the visit confirming the very worst of my fears. The woman was indeed weaker, whatever progress her wound had made had stopped and the stench of sickness hung in the dank little room. I could have wept to see the sight. But she was conscious, and had not yet deteriorated too far. Close questioning discovered that she had not eaten now in near two days; the girl Lower had hired to watch over her had abandoned her post when Sarah was taken, refusing to stay in the house of a murderess. Naturally, she did not refund the money.

It seemed to me that part of the trouble was that the woman was hungry; she needed to eat well and regularly to have any chance at all, so the first thing I did was march straight to a cook house and demand some bread and broth for her. This I fed to her myself, spoonful by spoonful, before I examined and redressed the wound. It was not as bad as I feared. Locke had done a decent job in that respect, at least.

But she still should not have been that ill. Hunger and the dismay of seeing her daughter taken no doubt made her despondent, but I was sure—indeed my entire theory depended on it—of a communication between her and the daughterly blood now commingled in her veins. And if being cast into a rat-infested prison could have this effect, then clearly worse was to come.

“I beg you, kind doctor,” she said when I had finished, “how is my Sarah, do you know?”

I shook my head. “I have only just returned from the country, and know less than you do. All I have heard is that she is to go on trial. Have you not had any messages?”

“No. I cannot go there, and she cannot come here. And there is no one who will take a message for me. I hesitate to impose on your goodness…”

My heart sank. I knew what she was going to say, and I dreaded the request.

“…but you know her a little. You know she could not do anything like this. She has never harmed anyone in her entire life, quite the opposite in fact; she is known—even Mr. Boyle knows her—for her willingness and ability to heal. I know you cannot do anything for her but would you go and see her, tell her that I am well and she is not to worry on my behalf?”

I desperately wanted to refuse, to say that I wished to have nothing further to do with the girl. But I could not bring myself to say the harsh words; it would have weakened the poor woman still further and, if my theory was correct, then the more content the girl, the greater the mother’s chances as well. So I agreed to the request. I would visit the jail, assuming I was allowed in, and would convey the message.

* * *

I hope I have led a good life, and that the Lord recognizes my efforts to conform to his laws so that I am spared the miseries of eternal torment, for if Hell is half as diabolical as the cells of an English jail on the day before an assize, it is a terrible place indeed. The small forecourt in front of the castle was far more crowded than on the previous occasion I visited it, alive with the bustle of men and women come to succor prisoners, or drawn merely by the possibility of watching new ones arrive. The unfortunate wretches are brought in from far and wide when the judges come to town, that they may stand their turn and hear their fate. The jail, virtually empty last time I was there, was now bursting, the stench of human bodies overwhelming and the noise of the sick, the cold and the desperate deeply affecting. However much many of the creatures deserved to be so lodged, I could not but feel sorry for them, and even had a momentary burst of panic that I might be confused for a prisoner and refused permission to leave again once my task was done.

Men and women are separated, of course, and the poorer sort make do in two large rooms. There is no furniture of any type except straw pallets for them to lie on, and the sounds of the heavy iron chains clanking as the prisoners tossed and turned in a futile attempt to find comfort sang loudly in the background as I picked my way through the mass of bodies. It was bitterly cold, as the room was near the waterline of the old moat, and centuries of damp clung to the walls. The only light came from a few windows, so high up that only a bird could have reached them. It occurred to me that it was just as well the assizes met soon, otherwise an underfed, underclothed girl like Sarah Blundy would die of jail fever long before the hangman had his turn.

It took some time to find her, for she was leaning against the clammy wall, arms around her legs and her head bowed down so that only her long brown hair could be seen. She was singing softly to herself, a mournful sound in that dreadful place, the plaintive lament of a caged bird, singing in memory of its freedom. When I greeted her it was some moments before she lifted her head up. Oddly, I was most saddened and alarmed to see how her normal demeanor had vanished. Instead of the insolent haughtiness, she was quiet and passive, as though as deprived of the air she needed as the dove in Boyle’s pump. She didn’t even reply when I asked her how she did—merely shrugged her shoulders and hugged herself as if to try and keep warm.

“I’m sorry I have brought you nothing,” I said. “Had I known, I would have got some blankets and food.”

“That is kind,” she replied. “As to the food, you need not bother—the university has a charitable fund and Mrs. Wood, my employer, has kindly offered to bring me meals every day. But I would welcome some warm clothes. How is my mother?”

I scratched my head. “That is the main reason why I have come. She asked me to tell you must not worry about her. To which I can only add my own exhortations. Your concern does her no good, and may do her harm.”

She looked at me steadily, seeing straight through my words to the concern on my face. “She is not well, is she?” she said flatly. “Tell me the truth, doctor.”

“No,” I replied frankly, “she is not as good as I had hoped. I am concerned for her.” To my horror, she buried her head in her hands once more and I saw her body shaking, and heard her sobbing in sheer misery.

“Come, now,” I said. “It is not as bad as that. She has had a setback, that is all. She is still alive, she still has myself and Lower and now Mr. Locke as well, all desperate to make her better. You must not concern yourself. It is not at all kind to those who are trying so hard for her.”

Eventually, after more such encouragement, I talked her round and she lifted up her head, eyes red with crying, and wiped her nose on her bare arm.

“I came to reassure you,” I said, “not to make you fret the more. You look to yourself and your trial; that is quite enough to keep you busy. Leave your mother to us. In your current circumstances, there is nothing you can do anyway.”

“And afterward?”

“After what?”

“After I am hanged.”

“There, now, that is jumping ahead a little!” I cried with very much more cheer than I felt. “You do not have the noose around your neck yet.” I did not tell her that her fate might well be much worse than a mere hanging.

“Everyone has already decided,” she said quietly. “The magistrate told me when he asked me to confess. The jurors are bound to find me guilty, and the judge is bound to hang me. Who would believe someone like me when I cannot prove my innocence? And what will become of my mother then? How will she live? Who will look after her? We have no family, no means of support at all.”

“When she recovers,” I said heavily, “she will undoubtedly find some suitable employment.”

“The wife of a fanatic and the mother of a murderer? Who would give her work? And you know as well as I do that she will be unable to work for many weeks.”

I could not say that this was a false problem, as the chances were high that she would be dead within a week. And, God forgive me, I could think of no other comfort to give.

“Mr. Cola, sir, I must ask you a question. How much does Dr. Lower pay?”

I took a moment before I understood what she was talking about. “You mean…?”

“I understand he buys bodies,” she said, frighteningly calm now. “How much does he pay? Because I am willing for him to have mine if he will undertake to look after my mother. Please do not look so uncomfortable. It is the only thing I have left to sell, and I will not be needing it,” she concluded simply.

“I—I—I do not know. It depends on the condition of—ah…”

“Will you ask him for me? I am thought to have sold my body while alive, so it will hardly be a scandal if I sell it again when I am dead.”

Even Lower, I think, would have had trouble with such a conversation; I found it quite beyond my powers. Could I say that, after the pyre, even Lower would not want what remained? I stammered that I would mention it to him, but was desperately keen to change the subject.

“You must not abandon hope,” I said. “Are you planning what you will say?”

“How can I?” she asked. “I barely know what I am charged with; I cannot know who is to give evidence against me. I have no one on my side, unless someone like yourself, doctor, will attest to my good character.”

A fraction of a second’s hesitation was enough for her. “There you are,” she said softly. “You see? Who is to help me?”

She looked intently at me as she waited my reply. I did not want to respond; it had not been my intention of coming, but somehow I could not resist her. “I do not know,” I said eventually. “I would have liked to, but I cannot explain Dr. Grove’s ring.”

“What ring?”

“The one stolen from his body, and discovered by Jack Prestcott. He told me all about it.”

The moment my answer registered I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that my suspicions were true, and that the magistrate had done his job well. She had murdered Grove. She turned pale when the import of my words hit home. She could have explained almost everything else in one way or another, but she could find no answer to this charge.

“Well, Sarah?” I said when she kept silent.

“It seems there is no escape for me, then. I think it time you went away.” It was a resigned, pathetic statement, very much the words of one who realized her deeds were finally proved beyond doubt.

“Are you not going to answer? You will have to answer the court if you do not answer me. So how do you defend yourself against the charge that you killed Grove for revenge, and stole from his body as it lay on the floor?”

The whirlwind which hit me then was one of the greatest shocks in my life. Suddenly transformed from submission, the true features of the girl were suddenly revealed as, snarling with hatred and frustration, she lunged at me, tearing at my face with her nails, eyes wild with madness. Fortunately the chains around her wrist and ankle restrained her, or I swear she would have had my eyes out. As it was I fell backward onto a foul-smelling old woman who instantly reached inside my coat for my purse. I cried out in alarm, and within a few seconds a jailer came in to rescue me, kicking the prisoners, and clubbing Sarah to calm her down. She fell back onto the pallet, screaming and crying harder than I have ever heard any person cry before.

I stared appalled at the monster before me, then collected myself enough to assure the anxious jailer that I was unhurt, apart from a scratch down my cheek, and stood at a safe distance, gulping the foul air to get my breath back.

“If I ever had any doubts about you,” I said, “they are gone now. For your mother’s sake I will speak to Lower. But do not expect anything further from me.”

And I left, so glad to escape the hellish place and the demons within it, that I went straight to the nearest tavern to recover myself. My hands were still shaking half an hour later.

* * *

Although my mind was now at rest about the girl’s guilt, I cannot say that I was contented in any other way. On the contrary; to be in the presence of such evil is profoundly disturbing, and the manifestation I had witnessed was not forgotten so easily. When I left the tavern, I was much in need of company, to have my mind taken off the sights and the sounds I had encountered. Had my relations with Lower been easier, his natural manner would have restored me. But I had no desire to see him and did not do so until I remembered the girl’s request; for my patient’s sake, and because I had given her my word, I felt obliged to deliver the message, however futile it might be.

Lower, however, was not to be found in any of his usual haunts, nor was he in his rooms at Christ Church. I asked, and eventually someone told me that he had seen him with Locke and the mathematician Christopher Wren an hour or so previously. As Wren still maintained rooms at Wadham, I should perhaps try there.

I was keen to meet this young man in any case, as I had heard much about him during my stay, and so I went there, asking at the gate where he was and whether he had company. He was with friends, I was told, and had asked not to be disturbed. Porters always say this, of course, so I ignored the advice and walked swiftly up the stairs to the gatehouse room where Wren lived, knocked and went in.

The shock upon entering was considerable. Wren, a short, neat man with flowing locks and a not unpleasing countenance, looked annoyed as I walked into the room and stopped, staring, at the sight which I beheld. Locke had a kind of smirk on his face, like a child caught in some prank, glad to have his naughtiness known to the world. My friend, my very good friend, Richard Lower, at least had the goodness to be discountenanced and embarrassed to have his deceit so exposed that there was no possibility of any doubt about what was taking place.

For on a wide deal table in the middle of the room, a dog was strapped, whining piteously, and rolling its eyes in distress as it struggled to free itself. Next to it was another, more resigned to the torture it was being forced to endure. A long thin tube ran from the neck of one to that of the other, and blood from the incisions made in the necks of each had splattered onto Locke’s apron and onto the floor.

They were transfusing blood. Repeating my experiment in secret. Concealing their deeds from me, the person who had best right to be informed of what they were doing. I could not believe I had been so betrayed.

Lower recovered first. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said without even having the courtesy to present me to Wren. “I must absent myself for a while.”

He took off his apron, and threw it onto the floor, then asked me to accompany him into the garden. I dragged my eyes from the scene that so assaulted my spirits, and followed angrily down the stairs.

We walked around the gardens, criss-crossing the box hedges and patches of grass at random for several moments while I kept silent, waiting for him to explain himself.

“Not my fault, Cola,” he said after a very long while had passed. “Please accept my apologies. It was unforgivable of me to behave in such a way.”

The shock had still not passed, and I could find no words.

“Locke, you see, told Wren of the experiment we—you—had devised for Mrs. Blundy, and he was so excited that he insisted on repeating it. It detracts not a whit from your own achievement, you know. We merely plod along in your footsteps, emulating the master.”

He grinned sheepishly, and turned to see how his apology was being received. I was resolved to remain cold.

“The barest courtesy demanded that you inform me, even if you could not bring yourself to invite my attendance.”

A grimace replaced the smile. “True,” he said. “And I am properly sorry for it. I did look for you, but didn’t know where you were. And Wren wants to go back to London this afternoon, you see…”

“So you betray one friend to accommodate another,” I interrupted coldly.

This justified comment disconcerted him considerably, and he pretended to become angry. “What betrayal? Once an idea is conceived, it does not remain the property of the person who imagined it first. We do not deny your achievement, nor did we plan to keep it a secret from you. You were not there; that is all there is to the matter. I did not know that Wren was so keen to try it out until I encountered him this morning.”

His tone was so insistent that I felt my doubts ebbing away. I so very much wanted to believe him, and to think of him as my friend still, that I could not hold on to my conviction that I was betrayed. But then I remembered the look of shocked exposure on his face as I walked into that room, a more sure confession of guilt than anything I had seen on the face of Sarah Blundy.

“We do not intend to publish this to the world without your knowledge and permission,” he continued when he saw he had still not breached my defenses. “And you must admit, it is a better way of doing it. If we—you—make an account of your discovery in a fashion which admits the transfusion was first attempted on a woman, you will be dismissed as reckless and dangerous. If, however, you preface it with accounts of transfusion between dogs, then the disapprobation will be greatly lessened.”

“And that is what you were doing?”

“Of course it was,” he said, encouraged by the soothing of my anger. “I have told you of my fears if this becomes generally known too quickly. It has to be done in this fashion, and the sooner the better. I am sorry—truly sorry—that you were not there. Please accept my most humble apologies. And, on their behalf, I offer those of Locke and Wren as well, as they never intended any discourtesy.”

He bowed low and, as he had no hat on, swept off his wig as he did so. My face cracked with a faint smile at the absurdity, but I was determined this time not to give way because of such a device.

“Come now,” he said, discouraged by my reaction. “Do you forgive me?”

I nodded. “Very well,” I said flatly, although it was one of the biggest lies I have ever told. But I still needed his good offices and had no alternative, beggar in friendship as I now was, to maintaining at least the appearance of cordiality. “Let us talk no more on this matter, otherwise we will quarrel once again.”

“Where were you, anyway?” he asked. “We really did look.”

“With Mrs. Blundy, who is sick and getting sicker. And with her daughter.”

“In the castle?”

I nodded. “I did not wish to go, but the mother begged me. And it reassured me greatly. If ever a soul was capable of murder, it is that girl. I have no doubts, even though I suspect she will deny the deed, and I would be easier still if she confessed to it freely. But it seems clear to me now that she asked Grove for money to aid her mother that morning in Tillyard’s and was rejected. So she took it anyway, murdering him and stealing from his room. It is dreadful that duty to a parent can be so corrupted and twisted.”

Lower nodded. “She told you this?”

“Not she,” I said. “She will not admit anything. But she does want to do one good deed still, perhaps out of remorse, because I can think of no other reason for it.”

Quickly, I told Lower of the offer of her corpse, in return for his agreeing to treat and care for the mother. Lower looked surprised, and—I hate to say it—positively eager that he should benefit in this fashion.

“How does the mother?”

“I doubt you will find her a lengthy burden on your pocket,” I said. “That is something else I need to talk to you about. She is failing, and if the girl dies, I believe that the extinction of the spirit in one will have fatal results on the other.”

He looked thoughtful as I told him of my fears, and of the only remedy I believed might salvage the situation. “She must have more blood, Lower,” I said. “And from a different person, one strong enough and healthy enough to counteract the girl’s spirit. Quickly, as well. If Sarah is tried tomorrow, she will die the day after. There is little time.”

“You are convinced of this?”

“Totally. She has already declined along with the girl’s spirits, the signs are obvious to see. There can be no other cause that I can imagine.”

He grunted. “You mean you want to do it today.”

“Yes. For her sake, and for that of our friendship, I would beg a final assistance from you.”

We walked around the garden again in a similitude of friendship as he pondered my reasoning.

“You might be right,” he said at last. “Unless there is something we do not know.”

“If we do not know it, we cannot take account of it,” I pointed out.

Another grunt, then he took one of those deep breaths which indicated he had taken a decision. “Very well,” he said. “This evening. I will bring one of the gardeners from the college who can be relied on to keep quiet.”

“Why not this afternoon?”

“Because I want to see the girl. If I am to have her, I will need a properly signed and witnessed letter to that effect. It will take time, and must be done before the trial begins. You know she will burn?”

“The magistrate told me.”

“The chances of her being much use are small, unless I can persuade Sir John to intervene with the judge.” He bowed. “But don’t worry. We’ll get it done in time. Meet me at the Angel after dinner. Then we’ll take care of the mother.”

* * *

I passed the rest of the day in correspondence and melancholy. Now I had decided to leave as soon as my obligations permitted, I was anxious to depart as swiftly as possible. Only Widow Blundy kept me there, as I had already seen what happened when I did not attend her myself. I took no joy in Sarah Blundy’s fate, had little optimism about her mother and my confidence in my friend was at an end. I wanted to accept his assurances about his fidelity, and indeed I had done so; but the seeds of doubt were sown, and had disturbed my soul.

I am not prideful, but I am jealous of my honor and fidelity. And Lower had placed both of those in jeopardy by acceding to Wren’s request above my right. Even though he owned to the fault, it did not erase the hurt he had caused me, and completed the distrust which his violent temper had already generated.

I was, in other words, in a gray humor by the time Lower marched into the Angel trailing behind him a cadaverous and sickly looking wretch whom he introduced as one of the undergardeners at his college. For a shilling he would give his blood to Mrs. Blundy.

“But he’s no good!” I cried. “Look at him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in worse health than Mrs. Blundy. It would be better to transfer her blood into him. I wanted someone strong and full of vitality.”

“He’s enormously strong. Aren’t you?” he said, addressing the man for the first time. This latter, noticing Lower had turned in his direction, gave a gap-toothed smile, and whinnied like a horse.

“His great virtue,” Lower said as the man drank a quart pot of ale eagerly, “is that he is deaf and dumb. Dr. Wallis tried to teach him to speak, but to no avail. He can’t write either. It means, you see, that his discretion is assured. Which, you must admit, is important. That family is held in enough disapprobation already and if it became commonly known that the mother was being kept alive by such means I wouldn’t be surprised if she was burned along with the daughter. Here, fellow. Have another.”

He signaled for another quart, which was soon set in front of the poor wretch. “Best if he has a little,” he said. “I don’t want him running away when he sees what we intend.”

I was not happy, although I saw the justice of the point. But it says something about how my attitude had changed that I distrusted the motive behind the use of someone who could not testify to what had occurred.

“Did you visit the jail?”

He rolled his eyes. “Lord, yes,” he said. “And what a day I have had.”

“Had she changed her mind?”

“Not at all. We wrote out a suitable letter—did you know she could read and write as well as you and I? I was astonished—and had it witnessed. That was no trouble. It was the magistrate.”

“He opposed the idea? Why?”

“Because I could not persuade him that he was under any obligation to the girl. A damnable nuisance, if I may say so.”

“So that’s it? No body?”

He looked despairingly at me. “Even if I got her, I’d have to give her over to the pyre when I was finished. The magistrate would only allow me temporary possession. But even that would have been better than nothing. I’m going back to him later to see if there is some way of persuading him.”

He glanced at the gardener, who was now well into the third quart of ale. “Oh, come on. Let’s get on with it before he’s insensible. Do you know,” he said as we pulled the wretch up, “I am getting heartily sick of this family? The sooner they are both dead, the better. Oh, damnation! Oh, Cola, I am sorry.”

Both his explanation and his apology were justified. For the half-wit must have been drinking even before Lower brought him in, and the three quarts he drank while we talked were too much. With a foolish smile on his face turning to a look of alarm, he slid to the floor, then vomited on Lower’s shoes. Lower jumped out of the way and looked at the sight with distaste, then kicked the wretch to confirm his insensibility.

“What do we do now?”

“I’m not going to use him,” I said. “We’d have to carry him there ourselves. It’s difficult enough with someone who is cooperative.”

“He seemed sober enough when we left the college.”

I shook my head sadly. “This is your fault, Lower. You knew how important this was, and you have failed me.”

“I have apologized.”

“That serves me nothing. We’ll have to postpone the treatment until tomorrow. And hope she survives that long. The delay may kill her.”

“I think your treatment will accomplish that in any case,” he said coldly.

“I did not hear you saying that before.”

“You never asked.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but gave up. What was the point? For reasons I could not fathom, almost everything we said to each other was taken as a slight or an insult. As he would not explain his behavior, and I could truly find no fault in my own, there was nothing I could do.

“I will not argue with you,” I said. “You have undertaken to supply me with some blood, and I hold you to that promise. Then our association can end, as you clearly wish. Will you bring him tomorrow, after the trial?”

He bowed stiffly, and he promised he would not fail me again. Once the trial was over, I should go to Mrs. Blundy’s cottage and await him. He would come with the gardener, and we would perform the treatment. There was enough time.

17

At one o’clock the following afternoon, the trial of Sarah Blundy for the murder of Dr. Robert Grove began in the assize court of Oxford. The crowd was eager; not only did the trial promise much scandalous entertainment, the previous day had seen not a single hanging verdict, and ended not with the judge wearing a black cap, but being presented with the traditional pair of white gloves to show that his hands were clean of blood. But such mercy was considered dangerous, for the awful majesty of the law needs sacrifice. One maiden session (as they are called) was merciful, two in a row would seem weak. What was more, Wood, an assiduous attender of trials who spoke to me briefly before the pushing of the crowd separated us, told me that the judge realized this—someone, that day, would hang. We both knew, I think, who it would be.

There was a murmur of anticipation as Sarah, terribly pale, was led before the court, to stand facing the crowd and listen to the sonorous charges against her. That she, Sarah Blundy, not having the fear of God before her eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil, in the fifteenth year of our sovereign Lord the King, at New College in the City of Oxford, did make an assault upon the Reverend Robert Grove, fellow of that place and formerly her master, feloniously, willfully and traitorously. And the said Sarah Blundy did feloniously, willfully, traitorously and out of malice, did place arsenic in a bottle and cause the said Robert Grove to drink it, of which poisoning the said Robert Grove died. So that the said Sarah Blundy in manner and form aforesaid, feloniously, willfully, traitorously and of malice aforethought, didst kill and murder, against the peace of our sovereign Lord, his crown and dignity.

Mutterings of approval, which caused the judge to look up with warning in his eye, erupted from the mob as they heard this accusation read; it took some time for order to be restored—not that there is ever very much in an English court. Then the judge, who did not strike me as very fearsome in aspect, turned to Sarah and asked her to plead.

She did not reply, but stood with head bowed.

“Come, girl,” the judge said, “You must plead, you know. Guilty or not guilty, it is all the same to me. But you must say something, or it will go ill with you.”

Still she said nothing, and an expectant hush fell on the audience, as they looked at her standing there, head bowed to hide her terror and shame. I felt a wave of sympathy for her, for who would not be silenced by facing, all alone, the formidable power of justice?

“I’ll tell you what,” the judge said, a look of concern on his face that the proceedings were about to be disrupted. “We’ll run through the charges and the evidence against you. See if that’ll make up your mind about your chances of escaping justice. How about that? Sir? Are you ready?”

The prosecutor, a cheerful soul retained by the magistrate to do such business, bounded to his feet and bowed obsequiously. “Your lordship’s reputation for kindness is well deserved,” he said, and the mob burst into applause to echo the sentiment.

The man next to me, squeezed against me so tightly I could feel every breath he took, turned to me and whispered in my ear that this was no more than the truth; by rights, the law is most harsh on those who flout its authority by refusing to plead, shackling them with weights until either they give in, or die from the pressure upon their chests. Nobody liked this proceeding, but it is the only solution for recalcitrance. By giving the girl a second chance, so to speak, the judge was indeed exceptionally merciful. My neighbor—evidently a regular at trials—said he had never heard of such kindness before.

The prosecutor then began to explain his case—he said that, although he was not the victim of the crime, in matters of murder the victim could obviously not appear for himself; hence his presence. It was not an onerous task, for it was simple enough to see who had committed this foul deed.

In his opinion, he said, the jury would have no trouble at all in bringing in the right verdict. For it was obvious to all—and the town knew well enough already, without having to remind them of it—that Sarah Blundy was a whore of intemperate and violent parentage. So far was she from knowing her correct place, so badly trained, and so unknowing of all morality and decency, that the idea of murder did not shock her in the slightest, such are the monsters produced when parents turn their face from God, and the country from its rightful king.

The judge—clearly not a cruel man, and scrupulously fair—interrupted to thank the prosecutor and wondered if he might proceed. Fine speechifying could take place at the end, if they got that far.

“Certainly, certainly. Now, as to her being a whore; it is well attested that she had seduced poor Dr. Grove and lured him into her power. We have a witness to this, one Mary Fullerton” (here a young girl in the audience smiled broadly and preened herself) “who will swear that one day she delivered some food to Dr. Grove’s room and he, mistaking her for Blundy, grabbed her and started fondling her in a lascivious fashion as though she was well used to it.”

Sarah looked up at this point and stared sullenly at Mary Fullerton, whose smile disappeared when she felt the gaze upon her.

“Secondly, we have testimony that Dr. Grove, when these accusations were made known, discharged the girl from her employ, so that he might take himself away from temptation and return to a virtuous life. And that she most bitterly resented this.

“Thirdly, we have the testimony of Mr. Crosse, an apothecary, that on the same day as she was discharged Sarah Blundy bought arsenic from his shop. She has said Dr. Grove asked her to do so, but no one has found any record of such an expenditure in Dr. Grove’s papers.

“Fourthly, we have the testimony of Signor Marco da Cola, an Italian gentleman of impeccable integrity, who will tell you that he warned of the dangers of this powder, and heard Dr. Grove say that he would never use it again—a few hours before he died of it.”

All eyes, including Sarah’s, were on me at this point, and I looked down to avoid the sadness in her eyes. It was true, every word of it; but I wished fervently at that moment that it was not.

“Next, we have the testimony of Mr. Thomas Ken, a divine, that the girl was seen in New College that very evening, and it will be shown that, although she denies this, she refuses absolutely to say where she was, nor has anyone else come forward to say where she was.”

“Finally, we have proof of an unimpeachable nature, for we have a witness, Mr. John Prestcott, a young gentleman at the university, who will testify that she confessed to him that very evening of her deed, and showed him a ring which she had ripped from the corpse. A ring which has been identified as Dr. Grove’s own signet ring.”

The whole room, it seemed, sucked in its breath at this point, as all knew that the testimony of a gentleman on such a matter was unlikely to be gainsaid. Sarah knew it too; for her head sank lower on her chest at the words, and her shoulders slumped in what seemed like the abandonment of all hope.

“Sir,” the lawyer resumed, “the considerations against the accused of motive, character and station are as strong as the particular evidence. This is why I have no doubt that, whatever the girl pleads—indeed, whether she pleads or not—the outcome will be the same.”

The prosecutor beamed around him to acknowledge the applause from the room, waved his hand in a stately fashion, then sat down. The judge waited until some silence had returned and then turned his attention to Sarah.

“Well, child? What have you to say? You know, I believe, the consequences of what you may utter.”

Sarah looked very much as though she might collapse and, though I had little sympathy for her any more, I did feel that it would have been a kindness to have given her a seat.

“Come on, girl,” someone cried from the audience. “Speak up. Struck dumb, are you?”

“Silence,” thundered the judge. “Well?”

Sarah lifted her head, and I could see properly for the first time what a sad state she was in. Her eyes were red from crying, her face pale, her hair lank and dirty from the jail. A large bruise on her cheek had turned blue from the beating the jailer had given her when she assaulted me. Her mouth trembled as she tried to speak.

“What? What?’’ the judge said, leaning forward and cupping his hand to his ear. “You’ll have to speak louder than that, you know.”

“Guilty,” she whispered, then slid to the floor in a faint as the audience erupted into catcalls and whistles of disappointment at being denied their fun. I tried to walk over to her, but was prevented from moving by the press of bodies.

“Silence,” the judge shouted out. “All of you. Be quiet.”

Eventually, they once more calmed down, and the judge looked around him. “The girl has pleaded guilty,” he announced. “Which is a great blessing, as we can now proceed quickly. Members of the jury, any disagreement from you?”

The jury members all shook their heads somberly.

“Does anyone else have anything to say here?”

There was a rustle from the crowd as all turned to see if anyone would speak. Then I saw that Wood had stood up, red-faced with embarrassment at his temerity, and at the catcalls which greeted him.

“Quiet, now,” said the judge. “Let us not rush. Please sir, say your piece.”

Poor Wood; he was no advocate, and had none of the assurance of even a man like Lower, let alone someone like Locke. And yet he was the only person who stood up for the girl, and tried to say something in her favor. It was doomed to fail, even Demosthenes himself could scarcely have succeeded in the task, and I am sure Wood proceeded from generosity of spirit, rather than true faith in his cause. And he did the girl no good at all, for he was so overcome by the sudden light of public attention that he froze into incoherence, and did little more than stand there, babbling in a half-voice that hardly anyone could hear. The crowd put a stop to it; the booing began at the back, then whistling, until even the greatest orator could not have been heard. It was Locke, I think, who ended the misery, and with surprising gentleness, pulled him down. I could see the look of abject failure and dejection on the poor man’s face, and grieved for his shame as much as I rejoiced that the moment was over.

“Thank you for your eloquence,” said the judge, playing shamelessly to the crowd and unable to resist piling on further humiliation. “And I will take your words into account.”

Then he pulled out the black felt cap and put it on his head; as he did so, there was an expectant rustling from the crowd, whose mood had changed from sympathy to the greatest malice. “Hang her,” cried one voice from the back.

“Quiet,” said the judge, but it was too late. Thus encouraged, more of the crowd joined in, then more, and within seconds, the whole room was full of the sound of that lust for blood which comes over soldiers in battle, or huntsmen as they near their quarry. “Hang her, kill her”; again and again in a rhythmic chanting, with much stamping of feet and whistling. It took the judge several minutes before he successfully restored order.

“I will have no more of this,” he said sternly. “Now, is she recovered? Can she hear me?’’ he asked the court clerk, who had given up his seat that she might be placed on it.

“I believe so, my lord,” the clerk said, even though he was bodily holding her upright and had slapped her several times to bring her round.

“Good. Sarah Blundy, listen to me carefully now. You have committed a most horrendous crime, and the sentence the law insists upon for a woman who murders so treasonably is unavoidable. You will be taken to a pyre and burned.”

He paused to look around at the courtroom to see how this went down. It was not well received; necessary though it seemed to be, the English did not derive much satisfaction from the pyre, and a subdued mood settled over the room.

“However,” the judge continued, “as you have pleaded guilty, and spared the court a great deal of trouble, we intend to be merciful. You will be given the grace of being hanged before your body is consumed, to lessen the suffering you will have to endure. That is your sentence, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

He stood up and dismissed the court, grateful for having had such a short and satisfactory afternoon. The audience sighed as though it was waking from an exciting dream, shook itself and began to leave while two bailiffs carried the now insensible Sarah out of the room and back to the castle. The whole trial had lasted less than an hour.

18

My mood of despondency increased markedly when I saw Mrs. Blundy a few hours later, for the battle was being waged and lost as I watched.

“I’m so sorry, doctor.” Her voice was fainter even than before, almost a whimper, so sharply did the pain cut into her. But she was brave, and did her best not to let it show, lest it be taken as a criticism of my efforts.

“It is I who should apologize,” I said, once I had examined her and realized how bad it all was. “You should never have been left alone for so long.”

“How is Sarah?” she asked, and it was the question I was dreading. I had decided in advance to avoid telling her the truth that not only had she been found guilty, but that she had admitted the deed as well.

“She is well,” I said. “As well as can be expected.”

“And when is the trial?”

I breathed a sigh of relief at that; she had lost her sense of time and had forgotten what day it was; it made my task a good deal easier.

“Soon,” I said. “I am sure that it will go well. Concentrate on your own troubles; that is the best help you can give her, because she must be free of distractions if she is to keep her wits about her.”

She was content with that, at least, and I felt for the first time in my life that sometimes it is better to lie than to tell the truth. Like all people, I suppose, I had had it beaten into me from an early age that respect for the truth was the most basic attribute of the gentleman; but it is not correct. Sometimes it is our duty to lie, whatever the consequences for ourselves. My falsehood contented her; truth would have made her last hours the purest anguish. I am proud that I spared her.

As no one else was around, I had to do everything myself; I simply hoped as I worked that Lower would come soon, so we could perform the task ahead of us. He was already late, and I was concerned. Grim and miserable work it is, cleaning and wiping and feeding, knowing that it is all for show, to give comfort while the inevitable beckons. The daughter’s spirit, a stronger force in all ways, was dragging the mother down with her. Her face was livid, she had pains in her joints, as well as acute gripes in the guts; she trembled, and flushed hot and cold rapidly.

When I had finished, a shivering fit came over her, and she curled up in the bed, her teeth chattering, even though I had built a fire and it was, for the first time, almost warm in the room.

What was I to do? I tried to leave to search for Lower and remind him of his obligations, but this produced the first real movement in her since I had arrived. She grabbed my wrist in a surprisingly strong grip, and refused to let go.

“Please don’t go,” she whispered through the shivers, “I’m frightened. I don’t want to die alone.”

I didn’t have the heart to leave, although I had no enthusiasm for staying, and my presence would make not one jot of difference without Lower there. However good my experiment, whatever hope it held for the future, he and the daughter had ruined it, and she was now going to bear the responsibility for one more life.

And so I stayed, fighting back the thought, growing now into certainty, that Lower was going to fail me when his aid was most needed. I built up the fire once more, burning more wood in a night than the Blundys had used in the previous six months, and sat wrapped in my cloak on the floor, as she slowly drifted in and out of a delirium.

And what madness she talked when she was sensible, about her husband and her daughter. Reminiscence, blasphemy, piety and lies were all mixed together so I could scarcely tell one from the other. I tried not to listen, and did my best to avoid condemning her words, for I knew that at times like these the devils which attend all of us in our lives see their chance, and speak with our mouths, uttering words we would never own to were we in full control of ourselves. This is why we give the last rites, to cleanse the soul of those demons so that it leaves the body pure, and this is why the Protestant religion is so cruel, that it denies man that final kindness.

And I still could not understand mother or daughter, as such sweetness and perversity I had never met in combination before or since. Nor could I understand it still when, exhausted by her ravings, first the old woman, and then myself, fell asleep in the hot, airless room. I dreamed of my friend, and occasionally in the night a sound or noise disturbed me, and I awoke thinking that he had come. But each time I realized it was only an owl, or some animal, or the cracking of a log as it burst in the fire.

* * *

Itwas still dark when I awoke; I guessed about six, certainly not later. The fire had all but gone out, and the room was chilly once more. I rekindled it as best I could and the exercise helped loosen my joints, which were stiff from sleep. Only then did I examine my patient. She seemed little changed, perhaps even slightly better, but I knew she was in no state to withstand any new strain.

Even though my trust for him had diminished, I wished Lower was there to help and advise. But even I could no longer disguise the fact that he had failed me—I was on my own, and had little time to act. I don’t know how long I stood there in indecision, hoping that my one alternative would not prove necessary. I hesitated too long; my mind cannot have been working properly, because I stared blankly at my patient until I was brought back by a distant murmur of sound coming from the outside. I shook myself into action when I realized what it was. The sound of voices, massed voices, growing in volume.

Even before I flung open the door to make certain, I knew the sound came from the castle. The crowd was assembling, and I saw the first thin fingers of dawn in the sky. There was not long, and I had no choices left, nor could I delay a second longer.

I prepared my instruments before I woke Mrs. Blundy up, laying out the quills and the ribbons and the long silver tube, so that I could manipulate them with one hand. I stripped off my coat, and rolled up my sleeve, and positioned the stool in the best position.

Then I woke her. “Now, madam,” I said, “we must proceed. Can you hear me?”

She stared at the ceiling, then nodded. “I hear you, doctor, and I am in your hands. Is your friend come? I cannot see him.”

“We must proceed without him. It will make no difference. You must have blood, and soon; it matters not where it comes from. Now, give me your arm.”

It was very much more difficult than the first time; her emaciated state made it fiendishly hard to find a suitable vessel, and I wasted time probing, then withdrawing the quill some half dozen times before I was satisfied. She bore it patiently, as though hardly aware of what was going on, and impervious to the sharp pain I inflicted on her in my haste. Then I prepared myself, cutting into my flesh and jabbing the quill in as quickly as possible while her blood dribbled down her arm.

When the flow of blood from my arm was free and easy, I moved into a better position, then picked up the silver tube and inserted it into the end. The blood swiftly ran through and spurted out in a hot red jet, splashing over the bedclothes as I maneuvered the tube to bring it into line with the quill in her arm.

Then it was done, the conjunction was made and when I saw there were no obstructions I started counting. Ten minutes, I thought, as I managed a smile at the old woman. “Nearly done,” I said. “You’ll be fine now.”

She did not smile back, so I counted, feeling the blood pulsing out of me and myself growing dizzy as I struggled to keep still. In the background the noise from the castle was slowly growing in intensity as the seconds passed. After I had counted near ten minutes, an enormous roar erupted, then died away to complete silence as I pulled the quills out of our arms and bound up the wounds to staunch the flow of blood. It was difficult; in my case I had incised into a large vessel, and I lost more blood before I could close the wound with a bandage. Still the blood soaked through and created a wide stain before I was sure I succeeded.

Then I was finished and all I could do was over. I took a deep breath to steady my spinning head while I packed the instruments away in the bag, hoping only that I was in time. Then the noise from the castle began again, and I turned round to look at my patient. There was a bluish tinge on her lips, I saw, and as the drums rolled in the distance, I picked up her hand and saw that the fingers had discolored as well. The drums picked up in intensity as she began to shake, and cry out in the most excruciating pain and gulp desperately for breath. Then, as the roar of the crowd mounted and became almost deafening, she arched her back and cried out in a strong, clear voice, clear of all sound of agony—“Sarah! My God! Have mercy upon me.”

Then silence. The noise from the castle stopped, the rattling, choking sound from the woman’s thin throat ceased and I knew I was holding the hand of a corpse. Only a sudden monstrous clap of thunder outside and the noise of heavy rain suddenly beginning to pound on the roof now kept me company.

I was too late. The ripping of the daughter’s spirit from her body had been too powerful and violent for such a weakened body to resist; it had torn the life out of the mother through its departure. There was not enough time for my blood to give her the strength she needed. My indecision, and Lower’s failure, had made all my efforts worthless.

I do not know how long I sat there, holding her hand, hoping that I had made a mistake and that she had simply fallen into a fit. I was vaguely aware of more tumult from the castle, but paid it little attention. Then I closed her eyes, and combed her hair, and arranged the mean bedclothes as best I could. Finally, though she was not of my religion and might well have scorned me for my efforts, I knelt by the bed to pray for the souls of them both. I believe I was praying for myself as well.

* * *

I suppose I left that miserable place for the last time about an hour later. I was in no mood to reprimand Lower; instead, I felt a ferocious and overwhelming hunger mingling with my despair, so I went to a tavern to eat for the first time in more than a day. Dimly, as I sat there lost in my misery and thoughts, I listened to the conversation going on all around me; festive and cheerful, and so completely at odds with my spirits that I felt more a stranger than ever before.

At that moment, I hated the English for their heresy, the way they turned a hanging into a festival, timed for market day to profit the traders. I loathed their bigotry and certainty of their own correctness; I hated Lower for his temper and the way he had scorned and betrayed and abandoned me. And I decided, then and there, that I would leave forthwith this terrible little town and this grim, cruel country. There was nothing more for me to do. I had my patient, and she was dead. I had my task from my father but that was futile. I had my friends, but they, it was now clear, were hardly friends of mine. So it was time to be gone.

The resolution made me feel better. I could pack and leave within the day, if need be, but first I realized I would have to inform someone of Mrs. Blundy’s death. I did not know what, exactly, was to be done with her body but I was resolved she would not be buried as a pauper. I would ask Lower to perform me this one last service, to take some of my money and see that she was interred with proper solemnity.

The decision brought me back to myself, or maybe it was the food and drink that did it. I picked up my head and noticed, for the first time, all that was going on around me. And realized they were talking of the hanging.

I could not make out exactly what had happened, but it was clear some scandal had attended the event; so, when I saw Mr. Wood in a far corner, I asked him how he was, and whether he knew what had happened.

We had met only a few times in the past, and it was no doubt impolite of me to approach him, but I was desperate to know, and Wood was more than keen to tell me the story.

His eyes bright with the pleasure of scandal, and with a most inappropriate air of suppressed excitement, he asked me to sit by him so that he might tell me in full.

“It is done?” I asked.

I thought maybe he had been drinking, early though it was, for he laughed immoderately at my question. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Done it is. She has died.”

“I am sorry for you,” I said. “Did she not work for your family? It must have been distressing.”

He nodded. “It was. Especially for my poor mother. But justice must be served, and it has been.” He laughed again, and I felt like striking him for his heartlessness.

“Did she die well? Please tell me,” I asked. “I am upset, because the girl’s mother has just died as well, and I attended her in her last moments.”

Oddly, this upset him a great deal, far more than the hanging of his own servant. “That is very sad indeed,” he said quietly, sober all of a sudden. “I knew her, and found her both interesting and gentle.”

“Please,” I repeated, “tell me what happened.”

So Wood began. However much embroidered already, it was a dreadful tale, which reflected badly on all concerned, except for Sarah Blundy herself who, alone, had behaved with dignity and correctness. Everyone else, in Wood’s account, disgraced themselves.

He said he had assembled at the castle forecourt just after four to be sure of a good vantage point. He was not the first by any means, and had he delayed even another half hour, he would have missed most of what occurred. Long before the ceremony began, the courtyard was crowded with a sober, somber crowd, all facing the tree which already had the rope dangling from a strong branch, and a ladder propped up against it. A few dozen yards away, the jail officials kept watchers away from the pyre which was to consume the girl’s body after she was dead. Some people took logs for mementoes, others to warm themselves at home, and on several occasions in the past a punishment had been postponed because too much wood had been taken to permit the body’s consumption.

Then, exactly as the first light dawned, a little door opened, and Sarah Blundy, heavily chained and shivering in a thin cotton shift, her hair pulled back, was brought out. The crowd, he said, grew very quiet at the sight, for she was a pretty girl, and it was hard to believe anyone of her delicate appearance could possibly deserve such a punishment.

Then Lower pushed himself forward and muttered a few words to the hangman, and bowed ceremoniously to the girl as she was led forward.

“Did she say anything?” I asked. “Did she admit her guilt once more?” Strangely, it was important to me at that moment to hear that she was truly guilty. Her admission in the courtroom had reassured me greatly, for it was the final information I required—no one confesses to a crime of that magnitude unless they are certainly guilty, for to do so is to abandon hope of life. It is no less than suicide, the greatest of sins.

“I do not think so,” he said. “But I couldn’t hear it all. She spoke very softly, and even though I was close by, I missed much of it. But she owned herself one of the worst sinners in the world, and said that she prayed for forgiveness, even though she knew she did not deserve it. It was a short speech, and was very well received. Then a minister offered to pray with her, and she turned him down, saying she needed no prayers from him. He is one of the new men put in by the king, and very far from the views of Sarah and her sort. That, of course, caused more of a stir. Some of the crowd looked displeased, but a fair number—mainly the rougher folk—approved of her courage.”

This, he told me, was nothing too much out of the ordinary. It was the task of the church to impose itself at such moments and it was naturally open to the condemned—who had little to lose, after all—to make a last gesture of defiance, if they felt so inclined. Sarah prayed alone, on her knees in the mud and with a quietness and decorum that elicited a sympathetic murmur from the crowd. Then she stood up, and nodded to the hangman. Her hands were bound, and she was helped up the ladder until her neck was level with the rope.

There the hangman stopped her, and began tying the noose.

She moved her head to make herself as comfortable as possible, and then all was ready. She had refused to have her head bound or covered in any way, and the crowd fell silent as they saw her eyes close and her lips move so the name of God would be the last sound to pass her lips. The drummers began their roll, and at the end, the hangman leaned forward, and simply pushed her off the ladder.

Then the thunderstorm started, and within minutes all was awash with muddy water, the torrents so heavy it was hard even to see what was going on.

Wood paused here to take another drink. “I hate hangings,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “I go and see them, of course, but I do hate them. I don’t know anybody who thinks otherwise, or could do once they have seen one. The way the face contorts and the tongue protrudes is so hideous that you understand why normally they insist on the head being covered. And the smell as well, and the way the arms and legs twist and jerk.” He shuddered. “Let me talk of that no more. For it didn’t last long, and when it was done Lower staked his claim. Did you know he’d bought the body, and come to some sort of arrangement with the judge so that he might have it, and not the professor?”

I nodded. I thought he must have done so.

“It was done in the worst possible way, because the university had heard and the Regius professor thought his prerogatives were being infringed. So he came along as well, to claim his right. There was a brawl in the mud. Can you believe it? Two proctors fighting for the body, held off by half a dozen friends of Lower, who got Locke to help him pick it up and carry it out of the yard. I don’t think many knew exactly what was going on, but those who realized were furious and began throwing stones. There was very nearly a riot, and would have been had not the rain persuaded many to leave.”

I think this was the last straw for my friendship with Lower. I know what he would say, that a body is a body, but there was a callousness about his action which distressed me greatly. I believe it was because he had abandoned me in order to advance his own career, that given a choice between assisting me in treating the mother, and gaining the daughter for dissection, he had chosen the latter. He would now have his book on the brain, I thought grimly. Much may it profit him.

“So Lower has his way?”

“Not exactly. He took the body to Boyle’s and is virtually under siege there. The proctors complained to the magistrate and said that if they can’t have the corpse, no one should have it. So the magistrate has now changed his mind, and is demanding it back. Lower, so far, has refused to give it up.”

“Why?”

“I suppose because he is doing as much work on the corpse as he can in the time allowed.”

“And what about Mr. Boyle?”

“Fortunately, he is in London. He would be appalled to be involuntarily dragged into such an affair.” He stood up. “I am going home. If you will excuse me…”

I wrapped myself up as well as I could and braved the rainfall to walk along the High Street to the apothecary’s. I found Mr. Crosse along with the boy he employed to mix ingredients guarding the door, firmly making sure that no one entered unless Lower gave permission. Including myself. I could not believe it when he held his hand against my chest and shook his head. “I’m truly sorry, Mr. Cola,” he said. “But Lower is adamant. Neither you, nor any of these other gentlemen here, are to be allowed to interrupt him while he is working.”

“That is absurd,” I cried. “What is going on?”

Crosse shrugged. “I believe that Mr. Lower has agreed to hand the body back to the hangman, so that it can be burned as ordered. Until that gentleman comes, he sees no reason why he should not conduct such investigations as he sees fit. He has little enough time, hence his insistence on not being disturbed. I’m sure he would be glad of your participation under ordinary circumstances.” He added that he was saddened by what he had heard of our argument, and counted himself still my friend. It was kindly done.

And so, like any common citizen, I had to stand and wait for Lower’s pleasure, although Crosse at least did me the favor of allowing me to wait indoors, rather than having to stamp my feet outside, until the hangman arrived to claim his booty.

Then Lower came down, looking tired and worn, his hands and apron still bloody from his labors. The sight of him inside the building caused a small tremor to run through the crowd.

“Are you prepared to submit to the magistrate’s orders?” the hangman asked.

Lower nodded, then caught the hangman by the sleeve as he was preparing to take his assistants upstairs.

“I have taken the liberty of ordering a box for the body,” he said. “It would not do for her to be carried out as she now is. It will be here shortly, and it would be best to wait.”

The hangman assured him that he had seen many gruesome sights in his time, and this would not bother him. “I was thinking of the crowd,” Lower said as he disappeared up the stairs. He followed, and, as there was no one to stop me, I followed Lower.

One glance, and the hangman changed his mind; indeed, he turned ashen white at the sight. For Lower had abandoned the delicate workmanship which normally characterized his dissections. In his haste to take the organs he wanted for his work, he had quartered the body, and ripped it open with savagery; removed the head, and sawn it open to take the brain, tearing off the face in his haste, and then tossed the pieces on an oilcloth on the floor. Those fine, beautiful eyes, which had so captivated me the first time I saw her, had been torn from their sockets; tendons and muscles hung from the arms as though savaged by a wild beast. Bloody knives and saws lay all around, along with the piles of the long, dark, lustrous hair which he had hacked off to attack the skull. There was blood everywhere, and the stink of blood filled the room. A large bucketful which he had drained from her stood in another corner, next to glass jars full of his trophies. And the smell was indescribable. In a corner, in a small pile, was the cotton shift she had worn, stained and soiled from her last ordeal.

“Dear God,” the hangman exclaimed, looking at Lower with horror, “I should take this out and show it to the crowd.

Then you would join her on the pyre, which is no more than you deserve.”

Lower shrugged with exhaustion and unconcern. “It is for the common good,” he said. “I feel no need to apologize, to you or anyone else. It is you, and that ignorant magistrate, who should apologize. Not me. If I had had more time…”

I stood in the corner and felt the tears welling up in me, so tired and sad to see all my hopes and faith shattered. I could not believe that this man whom I had called my friend could act in such a callous way to me, show such a side of himself that previously had been so well hidden. I have no sentimental notions about the body once the soul has departed; I believe it is fitting and honorable to use them for the purposes of science. But it must be done with humility, in honor of something which was made in God’s image. To advance himself, Lower had descended to the level of a butcher.

“Well,” he said, looking at me for the first time. “What are you doing here?”

“The mother is dead,” I said.

“I am grieved to hear it.”

“So you should be, as it was your doing. Where were you last night? Why did you not come?”

“It would not have done any good.”

“It would have,” I said, “if she’d enough spirit to dilute the daughter’s. She died the moment her child was hanged.”

“Nonsense. Pure, unscientific superstitious nonsense,” he said, rattled by my willingness to confront him with what he had done. “I know it is.”

“You do not. It is the only explanation. You are responsible for her death and I cannot forgive you.”

“Then do not,” he said brusquely. “Hold to your explanation, and to my responsibility if you wish. But do not trouble me at the moment.”

“I demand to know your reasons.”

“Go away,’’ he said. “I will give you no reasons, and no explanations. You are no longer welcome here, sir. Go away, I say. Mr. Crosse. Will you escort this foreign gentleman out?”

* * *

The exchange went on a little longer than this, but in essence those were the last words he ever spoke to me. Since then, I have heard nothing from him at all, and so I still am unable to explain why his friendliness turned to malice and his generosity to the most extreme cruelty. Was the prize so great? Was his feeling of disgust with his deeds turned on me so that he could avoid owning his own fault? But one thing I soon became certain of. His failure to help me with Mrs. Blundy was deliberate. He wanted my experiment to fail, because I could not then claim success.

I am fairly certain now that he already knew what he was going to do. Perhaps he had already started writing that communication which, a year later, appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society. An account of the Transfusion of the Blood by Richard Lower, detailing his experiments on dogs conducted with Wren, and followed up with another which described transfusion between two individuals. So generous he was in acknowledging Wren’s help. So open in admitting his debt to Locke. Such a gentleman.

But not a word about myself, and I am sure now that Lower had already determined that I would have no acknowledgment. All he had said in the past about others beating him to recognition, about foreigners and his distaste for all of them came back to me and I realized that anyone less naïve than myself would have been on his guard long before.

But I am still shocked by how far he was prepared to go to steal my fame, for, in order to make sure my claims were not entertained, he spread wicked stories about me among his friends, saying I was a charlatan, a thief and worse. He had narrowly, it was believed, stopped me from stealing his idea, rather than the other way around, and only good fortune exposed my duplicity at the last moment.

I left Oxford that same day, traveled to London and, after a week, took ship on an English merchantman headed for Antwerp, then found another to take me to Livorno. I was back in my home by June. I have never left my country again, and have long since abandoned philosophy for the more respectable activities of the gentleman; it pains me to return, even in memory, to those dark, sad days.

One last thing I did before I left, however. I could not ask Lower, so I went to see Wood, who was still willing to receive me. He told me that Sarah’s remains had burned that same afternoon, as I was packing my bags, and that all was finally over. There was no one but himself and the hangman at the pyre, and it had burned ferociously. It grieved him to attend, but he felt he had owed her that last attendance.

I gave him a pound, and asked him to see to Mrs. Blundy’s funeral, so that she might avoid a pauper’s grave.

He agreed to take care of it for me. I do not know whether he kept his word.

The Great Trust

Ideas of the Cavern are the Ideas of every Man in particular; we every one of us have our peculiar Den, which refracts and corrupts the Light of Nature, because of the differences of Impressions as they happen in a Mind prejudiced or prepossessed.

—Francis Bacon, Novum Organum Scientarum, Section II, Aphorism V.

1

It is something of a surprise, and even an embarrassment, to have scarce remembered faces and facts summoned from the gloom of antiquity like so many ghosts. This has been my experience while perusing the manuscript written by that strange little Venetian, Marco da Cola, lately sent to me by Richard Lower. I never imagined he had such a formidable, if selective, memory. Perhaps he took notes as he went along, expecting to entertain his countrymen on his return. Such travelers’ memoirs are popular enough here; it is possible the same is true in Venice, although I am told the inhabitants are a narrow-minded people, convinced nothing is worthwhile if it lies more than ten leagues from their city. As I say, the manuscript was a surprise; its arrival as much as its contents, for I had not heard from Lower for some time. We were somewhat in company, he and I, when we were both making our way in London; but then our paths diverged. I married well, to a woman who brought me a good addition to my estate, and began to associate with men of the very highest rank. Whereas Lower somehow missed, failing to endear himself to those most able to do him good. I do not know why this was. He did, certainly, have an irritability about him which never sits well in a doctor, and was perhaps too mindful of his philosophy and not enough of his pocket to make a mark in the world. But my loyalty and forbearance mean that at least he still numbers the Prestcott family among his few patients.

I gather that he has already sent Cola’s words to Wallis, old and blind though he now is, and daily expects to hear his opinion. I can imagine what that will be—Wallis trium-phans, or a variation thereof. It is only to set the matter aright that I bother to put down a true version of events. It will be a disjointed account, as I am often interrupted by business, but I will do my best.

I should start by saying that I quite liked Cola; he cut an ungainly figure, but pictured himself a gallant and made something of an entertainment during his brief stay in Oxford by the gaudiness of his clothes and the air of perfume that he left behind him. He was constantly pirouetting and bowing and paying bizarre compliments, quite unlike the majority of Venetians, who I understand normally pride themselves on their gravity and look askance at English exuberance. His dispute with Lower I do not pretend to understand; how men could come to blows over such trivialities escapes me. There is, surely, something undignified in two gentlemen fighting over the right to be seen the more artisanal—Lower has never mentioned anything of the matter to me and I cannot judge whether or no he has anything to be ashamed of. That acrimonious and foolish business aside, however, the Venetian had much to commend him, and it was unfortunate I did not encounter him in easier circumstances. I wish I could talk to him now, for there is much to ask. Above all, I do not understand why—it is the most glaring of his omissions—he never mentions in his memoir that he had known my father. It is strange, for we talked much of him on the occasions we met, and Cola spoke of him warmly.

Thus my opinion of the Venetian, from what I knew of him. I suspect that Dr. Wallis will paint a different portrait. I never quite understood why that worthy divine so took against the man, but I am fairly certain that he had no real reason to do so. Wallis had some strange obsessions and, of course, a profound dislike of all papists, but often would be just plain wrong—this was one of those occasions.

It is generally known that, until Mr. Newton eclipsed him, Dr. Wallis was considered the finest mathematician this country has ever produced, and this reputation has obscured his occult activities for the government and the malice of his character. Frankly, I have never been entirely certain what either of them do that is so wonderful—I can add up and subtract to get the estate accounts in order, and I can place a bet on a horse and calculate my winnings, and I cannot see why anybody should need to know more. Someone once tried to explain Mr. Newton’s notions, but they made little sense. Something about proving that things fall. As I had taken a bad drop from my horse only the previous day, I replied that I had all the proof I needed on my backside. As for why, it was obvious that things fall because God has made them heavy.

However clever he was in matters such as these, though, Wallis was no judge of character, and made fearful mistakes; Cola, I think, was one of them. Because the poor man was a papist and desperately trying to ingratiate himself, Wallis assumed there was some sinister motive behind it all. Personally, I take people as I find them, and Cola never did me any harm. And as for being a papist, that is not my concern; if he chooses to burn in Hell there is nothing I can do to save him.

Despite his amiability, though, it was clear to me at least that Cola was a fool in many respects, an example of the difference between learning and wisdom. I have a theory that too much learning unbalances the mind. So much effort goes into squeezing in knowledge that there isn’t enough room left over for common sense. Lower, for example, was a desperately clever man but got nowhere; whereas I, with no education to speak of, have great position, am a Justice of the Peace and also a Member of Parliament. I live in this vast house, built especially for me, and am surrounded by servants, some of whom even do my bidding. A fine achievement, I submit, for someone who was born, through no personal fault, with less than nothing and who once narrowly escaped Sarah Blundy’s fate.

That young woman, you see, was a harlot and witch, despite the prettiness and the strangeness of manner which so captivated Cola. Now, in my mature years and having come closer to God, I am astonished at my carelessness in placing my soul in peril by consorting with her. However, as I am a just man, I must state the absolute truth—whatever her other crimes and however much she had to die, Sarah Blundy did not kill Dr. Robert Grove. I know this for a fact, for I also know who did kill him. Had Cola been more mindful of the Bible, he would have realized that the proof lay in those notebooks he carried to jot down the words of others. He reports that at the dinner in New College, Grove had a dispute with Thomas Ken, who stormed out, muttering the words “Romans, 8:13.” Cola remembered the reference, wrote it down and entirely missed its significance; indeed, he missed the significance of the whole occasion, failing even to understand why he was invited in the first place. For what is this passage? Unlike him, I took the trouble to find out, and it confirmed the belief I have held all these years—“For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.” My friend Thomas was convinced Grove did indeed live for fleshly pleasure, and a few hours later he died. Had I not known better, I would have called that a remarkable prophecy.

I accept readily that Thomas was tormented beyond endurance before he acted, for I knew well Grove’s qualities and defects. I had suffered much from his barbs as a child myself, when he had taught me as part of his duties in Sir William Compton’s household and, although I knew him well enough to see the good that lay therein (once I was large enough not to be beaten by him, for he was formidably strong in his arms) I knew how hurtful his wit could be. Thomas—poor, slow, honest Thomas—was too easy a target for his sallies. So much and so mercilessly did he taunt my friend I might even claim that Grove brought his fate upon himself.

And myself? I have to relate my journeys, not one, but several, all undertaken at the same time in my quest for prosperity and (dare I say it) salvation. Some of what I will say is public knowledge already. Some is known only to myself and will cause great consternation amongst the atheists and the scoffers. I doubt not that what I say will be scorned by the erudite, who will laugh at my presentation and ignore the truth that lies within. That is their concern, for the truth I will tell, whether they like it or not.

2

It is my desire to set out clearly my account of events, and not bother with the sillinesses indulged in by so-called authors trying to earn spurious fame. God forbid that I should ever suffer the shame of publishing a book for money, or of having one of my family so demean themselves. How can one tell who might read it? No worthy book has ever been written for gain, I think; occasionally I am forced to listen to someone reading to while away time in the evening and, on the whole, I find it all quite absurd. All those elaborate conceits and hidden meanings. Say what you mean to say, then be silent, is my motto, and books would be better—and a lot shorter—if more people listened to my advice. There is more wisdom in a decent volume on husbandry or fishing than in the most cunning of these philosophers. If I had my way, I’d mount them all on a horse at dawn, and make them gallop through the countryside for an hour. That might blow some of the nonsense out of their fuddled minds. So I will explain myself simply and directly, and I have no shame in saying that my narrative will reflect my character. I was at Oxford intended for the law; and I was intended for the law because, though the eldest and only son of my family, I was going to have to earn my living, so low had we sunk in misfortune. The Prestcotts were a very old family but had suffered considerably during the wars. My father, Sir James Prestcott, had joined the king when that noble gentleman raised his standard at Nottingham in 1642, and he fought courageously throughout the Civil War. The expense was enormous, as he maintained a whole troop of horse at his own charge, and he was shortly reduced to mortgaging his land to raise money, confident that this was a wise investment for the future. No one, in those early days, seriously considered that the fighting would end in anything other than triumph. But my father, and many others, reckoned without the king’s rigidity and the growing influence of the fanatics in Parliament. The war went on, the country suffered, and my father got poorer.

Disaster occurred when Lincolnshire—where much of the family property was—fell wholly into the hands of the Roundheads; my mother was briefly imprisoned, and much of our revenue confiscated. Even this did not shake my father’s resolution, but when the king was captured in 1647, he realized that the cause was lost and so made such peace as he could with the new rulers of the land. In his opinion Charles I had thrown away his kingdom through his folly and mistakes, and no more could be done. Father was reduced to virtual poverty, but at least retired from the fray rich in honor, content to resume his life.

Until the execution. I was only seven on that terrible winter’s day in 1649, and yet I recall the news of it still. I think every man alive then can remember exactly what they were doing when they heard that the king had been beheaded in front of a cheering mob. There is now nothing which more brings home to me the passage of the years than to meet a grown man who does not recall, as his strongest memory, the horror that the news produced. Never in the history of the universe had such a crime been committed, and I remember vividly how the sky turned dark and the earth rocked as the anger of heaven was loosed on the land. It rained for days afterward, the sky itself weeping for the sinfulness of mankind.

Like everyone else, my father had not believed it would happen. He was wrong. He always had too good an opinion of his fellows—perhaps that was his downfall. Murder, perhaps—such things happen. But a trial? To execute in the name of justice the man who was its very fount? To lead God’s anointed onto a scaffold like a criminal? Such blasphemous, sacrilegious mockery had not been seen since Christ himself suffered on the Cross. England had sunk low—never in their worst nightmares did anyone suspect it could sink so very far down into the sulphur. My father gave his loyalty entire to the young Charles II at that very moment and vowed to dedicate his life to achieving his restoration.

This was shortly before my father’s first exile, and before I was sent away from my family for instruction. I was called formally to his room, and went with some trepidation as I assumed that I must have misbehaved, since he was not a man who gave himself much to his children, being too occupied with more important matters. But he greeted me kindly and even permitted me to sit, then told me of what had happened in the world.

“I will have to leave the country for a while, to mend our fortunes,” he said. “And your mother has decided that you will go to my friend, Sir William Compton, and receive instruction from tutors while she returns to her own people.

“You must remember one thing, Jack. God made this country a monarchy, and if we stray from that, we stray from His will. To serve the king, the new king, is to serve your country and God in equal part. To give your life for that is nothing, to give your fortune less still. But never give your honor, for that is not yours to give. It is like your place in the world, a gift from the Lord which I hold in trust for you, and which you must guard for your children.”

Though I was seven at the time, he had never talked to me with such seriousness before, and I adopted such gravity as a childish face can manage, and swore that he would have cause to be proud of me. I managed not to cry as well, although I remember the effort most strongly. That was strange; I had seen little of him or of my mother in my life, and yet I thought of his imminent departure with great despondency. Three days later, both he and I left our house, never to return as its owners. Perhaps those guardian angels we are told watch over us knew this, and played melancholy music and saddened my listening soul.

For the next eight years, there was little for my father to do. The great cause was lost, and he was in any case too poor to participate. Such was his distress that he was forced to leave the country and seek his living fighting as a soldier, as did so many other Royalist gentlemen. He went first to the Netherlands, then served Venice, fighting on Crete against the Turks in the long, miserable siege of Candia. But when he came back to England in 1657 he immediately became a central member of that group of patriots, later known as the Sealed Knot, which worked incessantly to bring Charles back from exile. He endangered his life, but did so joyfully. They might take his life, he said, but even his worst enemy would acknowledge him to be an upright, honest man.

Alas, my good father was wrong, for he was later accused of the most base treachery, which malevolent lie he never shook off. He never knew who accused him, or even what the charges were, so could not defend himself and refute the allegations. Eventually he left England once more, forced out of his own country by the malicious hiss of the gossip mongers, and died of grief before his name was cleared. I once saw a horse on my estate, a handsome, grand beast, driven to distraction by the incessant viciousness of flies which buzzed all around it. It ran to escape its tormentors, not knowing where they were; when it flicked its tail to drive one off, ten more came to replace it. It ran across an open meadow, fell and broke its leg, and I watched the saddened stablehand dispatch it for its own good. So are the great and noble destroyed by the petty and mean.

I was just eighteen when my father died in his lonely exile and it marked me for life. The day I received the letter that told me he had been buried in a pauper’s grave, I broke down in sorrow before a violent anger gripped my soul. A pauper’s grave! Dear Heaven, even now the very words make a coldness seep through my body. That this courageous soldier, this best of Englishmen, should end in such a way, shunned by his friends, abandoned by a family which would not even pay for his funeral, treated with contempt by those for whom he had sacrificed everything, was more than I could bear. I did what I could eventually—I never found where he had been buried, and could do nothing for his body, but I built him the finest memorial in the whole county in my church, and I take everyone who comes to see it and meditate on his fate.

It cost me a considerable fortune, but I do not begrudge one penny of the expense.

While I knew my family had been greatly reduced, I was not yet aware of how much we had suffered, for I understood that, on my twenty-first birthday, I would obtain full title to the estates which had been supposedly protected from the government by an assortment of legal devices. I knew of course that these lands would come burdened with so much debt that it would take me years to reestablish myself as a person of moment in the county, but this was a task I relished. I was even prepared to endure several years at the bar, if necessary, to accumulate those riches which lawyers find so easy to come by. At least my father’s name would be perpetuated. The ending of a man’s life is but death, and that comes to us all in the fullness of time, and we know we have the blessing that our name and honor continue. But the demise of an estate is true extinction, for a family without land is nothing.

Youth is simple, and assumes that all will be well; part of the estate of manhood consists in learning that God’s Providence is not so easily understood. The consequences of my father’s fall did not appear to me until I left the seclusion of a home where, although I was not happy, I was at least protected from the buffeting of the outside world. Then I was sent to Trinity College, Oxford, for, although my father had been a man of Cambridge, my uncle (who had charge of me when I left Sir William’s house) decided I would not be welcome there. The decision spared me no grief, as I was as rejected and despised for my parentage in the one university as I would have been in the other. I had no friends as none could resist cruelty, and I could not tolerate insult. Nor was I able to mix with my own, for although enrolled as a gentleman-commoner, my sniveling, mean uncle allowed me scarce enough money to live as a servitor. Moreover, he allowed me no freedom; alone of my rank, my small money was given over entire to my tutor and I had to beg even for that; I was subjected to the discipline of a commoner and could not leave town without permission; I was even forced to attend lessons, although gentlemen are exempt from instruction.

I believe that many men see my manner now and consider me a rustic, yet I am far from such; those years taught me to hide my desires and my hatreds. I learned swiftly that I would have to endure several years of humiliation and solitude, and that there was little 1 could do to alter that. It is not my way to rage uselessly against a situation I cannot change. But I noted those who were heartless, and promised myself that, in due course, they would regret their coarseness. Many of them have done so.

I do not even know that I greatly missed the temptations of society, in any case. My attentions have always been focused on my own people, and my childhood prepared me little for more promiscuous intercourse. Such reputation as I had was of a surly, ill-tempered fellow, and the more this grew, the more I was left in a solitude which was broken only by my forays among the townsfolk. I became an adept at disguise, leaving my gown behind me and walking the streets like a citizen with such confidence that I was never once challenged by the proctors for improper dress.

But even these excursions were limited, for once I shrugged off my gown, I also shrugged off my credit and had to pay ready money for my pleasures. Fortunately, the urge for diversion came on me only infrequently. For the most part, I engaged my mind with my studies and consoled myself by conducting such investigations as I could into greater matters. I was gravely disappointed in my expectation that I would soon learn enough to proceed with the getting of money, however, for in all the time I was at the university 1 learned nothing of the law whatsoever, and was somewhat derided by my fellows for having any such expectation. Jurisprudence there was aplenty; I was swamped in canon law and the principles of Aquinas and Aristotle; 1 came to have a nodding acquaintance with the Justinianic code, and acquired something of the art of disputation. But 1 looked in vain for instruction on how to launch a suit in Chancery, to contest a will or query the provisions of an executor.

And while my legal education proceeded, I also decided that I would take the more direct revenge that my father had not been able to exact, for not only did his soul demand it, I considered it by far the quickest way of solving my family’s material problems—once persuaded of the innocence of the father, I was certain His Majesty would recompense the son. Initially, I thought the task would be easy—before he fled, my father’s judgment was that Cromwell’s Secretary of State, John Thurloe, had seeded the calumnies against him to spread dissent in the royalist ranks, and I never doubted that he was correct. It had all the hallmarks of that dark and sinister man, who ever preferred a knife in the back to an upright, honorable combat. But I was too young to do much and, besides, I assumed that sooner or later Thurloe would be tried, and the truth known. Again, youth is naïve, and faith is blind.

For Thurloe was not brought to trial, did not have to flee the country, had not one penny of his ill-gotten gains taken from him. The comparison between the fruits of treachery and the reward for loyalty was stark indeed. On the day near the end of 1662 that I heard it confirmed there would be no trial, I realized that any revenge would have to come from my own hands. Cromwell’s evil genius might escape the law, I thought, but he would not escape justice. I would show all the world that some people, in this debased and corrupted country, still knew the meaning of honor. With the purity of youth it is possible to think in such noble and simple terms. It is a clarity that experience strips from us, and we are all poorer for the loss.

3

From that day I date the beginnings of the campaign that totally occupied me for the next nine months and which ended in the most complete vindication. I had virtually no assistance; instead I criss-crossed the country, seeking out the evidence I required until I finally understood what had happened and was in a position to act. I was abused and humiliated by those who did not believe me, or else had good reason to deflect me from my task. And yet I continued, buoyed by my duty and by the love of the best father a man could ever have. I witnessed the depths of turpitude in those who seek power and understood that, once the principle of birth is undermined, the disinterest that alone can assure good government is fatally compromised. If anyone can achieve power, then all will try, and government becomes a mere battle in which principle is sacrificed for interest. The lowest will impose themselves, for the best will shun the gutter. All I managed was to achieve a small victory in a war which was already lost.

Such thoughts were far beyond me in those days, as I walked the streets, sat in lesson and prayer, and lay awake at night in bed, listening to the snoring and snuffling of the other three students who shared the same room with my tutor. One resolution alone stayed in my mind; that I would, in due course, take John Thurloe by the scruff of the neck and slit his throat. But I felt strongly that more than mere vengeance was needed; perhaps those lessons in the law had seeped into me, or perhaps I had imbibed my father’s high sense of principle without realizing it. What would he have done? What would he have wanted? This was my ever-present concern. To strike without proof would be false revenge, for I was sure he would not have wanted his only son to be hanged like a common criminal, bringing further stain onto the family. Thurloe was too powerful still for a direct assault. I would need to circle round him, like a huntsman stalking a wily deer, before I could inflict the fatal, final blow.

To set my thoughts in order, I regularly talked over my problems with Thomas Ken. He was one of my few friends—perhaps even my only friend—at the time, and I trusted him absolutely. He could be tedious company, but each of us needed the other and supplied a lack. We knew one another through a family connection, before he was sent to Winchester and thence to New College for a career in the church. His father had been a lawyer consulted on many occasions by my own father when he set himself to oppose those rapacious interlopers who had swept down from London to drain the fens before the war. My father wished both to protect his own interests and also the rights of those families who had grazed the land since time immemorial. But it was hard work, for the bloodsucking thieves who wished to steal other men’s land acted under the umbrella of the law. My father knew that the only thing that can oppose a lawyer was another lawyer and so this Henry Ken advised him on many occasions, always honestly and effectively. The diligence of one, and the skill of the other, combined with the unstinting resistance of the farmers and graziers whose livelihoods were threatened, meant that progress in the draining was slow, the expenses bigger, and the profits much smaller than expected.

And so Thomas and I had a natural amity, for it is known that the loyalty and gratitude of Lincolnshire men, once forged, can never be broken. It must be said, however, that we made an odd pair. He was of a severe and clerical disposition, rarely drinking, always praying and constantly looking out for souls to save. He made a religion of forgiveness and, though now a firm Anglican who maintains he was ever so, I know that in those days he inclined to dissent. Naturally, that made him suspect then, where hatred was mistaken for fortitude, and smallness of mind was a sign of loyalty. I confess with some shame now that I took great delight in causing him to become discountenanced, since the more he prayed, the more I laughed, and the more he studied, the more bottles I opened to make him blush. In truth, Thomas would have loved to wine and wench, just as I had to struggle hard to keep out feelings of pious dread which, in the dead of night, would creep upon me. And occasionally, in a sudden burst of anger, or a flash of cruelty in his words, the careful observer could see that his kindness and gentle nature were not natural gifts from God, but were wrenched in a hard-fought battle with a darkness deep in his soul. As I say, it was Grove’s misfortune to torment him so much that, one night, the battle was temporarily lost.

For all that, I always found Thomas patient and understanding, and we were useful to one another in the way that people of opposite character can sometimes be. I would give advice about his theological ditherings—soundly, I may say, as he is now a bishop. And he would listen with enormous patience when I would describe, for the fiftieth time, how I would take John Thurloe and slit his throat.

I could hear him let out his breath as he prepared to argue with me again. “I must remind you that forgiveness is one of the gifts of God, and that charity is strength, not weakness,” he said.

“Piffle,” I said. “I do not intend to forgive anybody, nor do I feel in the slightest bit charitable. The only reason he is still alive is because I do not have the proof I need to avoid a charge of murder.” Then I went on to tell him the entire story again.

“The trouble is,” I concluded, “I don’t know what to do. What do you think?”

“You want my considered opinion?”

“Of course.”

“Accept the will of God, get on with your studies and become a lawyer.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant, how do I find this proof? If you are a friend, please put aside your nit-picking theology for a while and help.”

“I know what you meant. You want me to give you bad advice, that can only imperil your soul.”

“Exactly. That’s just what I want.”

Thomas sighed. “And supposing you find your evidence? What then? Will you go ahead and commit murder?”

“That depends on the evidence. But, ideally, yes. I will kill Thurloe, as he killed my father.”

“No one killed your father.”

“You know what I mean.”

“You maintain that your father was betrayed and falsely disgraced. Justice was not done. Would it not be better to right that wrong by making sure it was, this time?”

“You know as well as I do how much it costs to prosecute someone. How am I meant to pay for it?”

“I merely mention it as a possibility. Will you give me your word that, if it is possible, then you will do it rather than taking matters into your own hands?”

“If it is possible, which I doubt, then I will.”

“Good,” he said with relief. “In that case we can begin to plan your campaign. Unless, of course, you have one already. Tell me, Jack, I have never asked, since your countenance always discourages such questions. But in what was your father’s treachery supposed to consist?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It sounds foolish, but I have never been able to discover. My guardian, Sir William Compton, has not spoken to me since; my uncle refuses even to mention my father’s name; my mother shakes her head in sorrow and will not answer even the most direct questions.”

Thomas’s eyes narrowed at my blunt statement. “You have your criminal, but do not yet know with any precision what the crime was? That is an unusual position for a man of law to find himself in, is it not?”

“Perhaps. But these are unusual times. I assume my father was innocent. Do you deny that I must do so? And that, in religion as in law, I have no choice in this matter? Quite apart from the fact that I know my father was quite incapable of acting in so base a fashion.”

“I grant it is a necessary starting point.”

“And you grant also that John Thurloe, as Secretary of State, was responsible for all that pertained to the destruction of anyone who challenged Cromwell’s position?”

“Yes.”

“Then Thurloe must be guilty,” I concluded simply.

“So why do you need proof, if your legal logic is so fine?”

“Because we live in distempered times, when the law has become the cat’s paw of the powerful, who tangle it in rules so that they may escape punishment. That is why. And because my father’s character has been so abused that it is impossible to make people see what is obvious.”

Thomas grunted at this, for he knew nothing of the law and believed it to have something to do with justice. As I had once done myself, until I studied it.

“If I am to triumph at law,” I continued, “I must establish that my father’s character was such that he could not have betrayed anyone. At present he is cast as the betrayer; I must discover who put this story about and for what purpose. Only then will a law court listen.”

“And how do you intend to do this? Who could tell you?”

“Not many people, and most of those will be found at court. Already a problem, as I cannot possibly afford to go there.”

Thomas, dear soul that he was, nodded in sympathy. “It would be a pleasure if you would let me assist you.”

“Don’t be absurd,” I said. “Why, you are even poorer than I am. God knows I’m grateful, but I’m afraid my requirements far exceed your resources.”

He shook his head, and scratched his chin in the way he always did before launching into a confidence.

“My dear friend, please don’t concern yourself. My prospects are good and getting better. The parish of Easton Parva is coming up in the gift of my Lord Maynard in nine months’ time. He has asked the warden and thirteen senior Fellows to recommend a candidate, and the warden has already hinted that he thinks I would be more than suitable, as long as I can make clear my full adherence to doctrine. It will be a struggle, but I will grit my teeth, and then eighty pounds a year will be mine. If, that is, I can fight off Dr. Grove.”

“Who?” I asked in astonishment.

“Dr. Robert Grove. Do you know him?”

“Very well. And I still have some tender spots to prove it. He was the curate at Sir William Compton’s when I was sent to that family. He acted as my tutor for many years. Such as I know, he put there. What has he got to do with this?”

“He is now back in his place as a Fellow of New College, and he wants my living,” Thomas explained, “even though he has no claim to preferment except that he has not received any. Frankly, I am very much better suited. A parish needs a young and sound minister. Grove is an old fool who only gets excited when he thinks about the wrongs done to him in the past.”

I laughed. “I would hate to be between Dr. Grove and something he wants.”

“I have no great objection to him,” Thomas said, as though I needed to be reassured on this point. “I would be happy for him to be pastured out to a comfortable living, if there were two of them. But there is one only, so what can I do? I need that living more than he. Jack, can I tell you a secret?”

“I will not stop you.”

“I wish to marry.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s it, is it? And how much has the lady?”

“Seventy-five a year, and a manor in Derbyshire.”

“Very nice,” I said. “But you need a living to persuade the father. I see the problem.”

“Not only that,” he said in some obvious distress. “I am obviously not allowed to marry as long as 1 am a Fellow of the college, and I cannot cease being a Fellow until I have a living. What is worse,” he concluded ruefully, “I like the girl.”

“How unfortunate. Who is she?”

“The daughter of my aunt’s cousin. A woolen draper in Bromwich. A soundly based man in all respects. And the girl is obedient, meek, hard-working and plump.”

“Everything a wife should be. With her teeth as well, I hope.”

“Most of them, yes. Nor has she had smallpox. We would do well, I feel, and her father has not dissuaded me. But he has made it clear that he would not countenance the alliance if I cannot match her portion. Which means a living and, as I have no other connections, one that comes from New College or through its influence. And Easton Parva is the only one likely to come vacant in the next three years.”

“I see,” I said. “These are serious times. Have you been on campaign?”

“As much as possible. I have talked to all the Fellows, and find myself well received. In fact, many have given me to understand I have their support. I am confident of the outcome. And the fact that the gold men will advance me funds now indicates my confidence is not ill-placed.”

“And the decision is taken when?”

“Next March or April.”

“Then I suggest you start living in the chapel, just in case. Recite the Thirty-Nine Articles in your sleep. Praise the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king every time you take a drink of wine. Let not a breath of dissent escape your lips.”

He sighed. “It will be hard, my friend. I can only do it for the good of the country and the church.”

I applauded his sense of duty. Do not think me selfish, but I was very keen for Thomas to win his place or, at least, to be the favored candidate for as long as possible. If it was noised that he would not get the living, the moneylenders would shut their coffers with a snap, and that would spell disaster for me as well as for him.

“I wish you the very best of good luck, then,” I said. “And I counsel you once more to be cautious. You are prone to saying what you think, and there can be no more dangerous habit in one wanting preferment in the Church.”

Thomas nodded, and reached inside his pocket. “Here, my good friend. Take this.”

It was a purse, containing three pounds. How can I put this? I was overcome, as much with gratitude for his generosity as I was by disappointment over his limited means. Ten times that much would have been a start; thirty times could have been spent with ease. And yet, sweet man that he was, he gave me all he had and risked his own future in the gift. You see how much I owed him? Remember this; it is important. I take my debts as seriously as my injuries.

“I cannot thank you enough. Not only for the money, but because you are the only person who believes in me.”

Thomas courteously shrugged it aside. “I wish I could do more. Let us turn to business now. Who might you approach to tell you about what happened to your father?”

“There is only a handful who might know something. Sir John Russell was one, Edward Villiers another. And there was Lord Mordaunt, who did so well from helping the king back onto his throne that he gained a barony and a lucrative sinecure at Windsor as part of his reward. Then, of course, there is whatever I might one day persuade Sir William Compton to tell me.”

“Windsor is not far from here,” Thomas pointed out. “Scarcely a day’s journey, and only a couple if you walk. If Lord Mordaunt is to be found there, then it would be the most economical place to start.”

“What if he will not see me?”

“You can only ask. I recommend that you do not write in advance. It is discourteous, but avoids the possibility that he might be forewarned of your arrival. Go and see him. Then we can decide what to do next.”

We. As I say, underneath that clerical exterior, there was a man yearning for the sort of excitement that a little bit of bread and wine could never provide.

4

Well and good; but before I went, I made the acquaintanceship of the Blundys, mother and daughter, who play such a large role in Cola’s story. In doing so, I set in train events which gained me the most terrible enemy, whom it demanded all my ingenuity and strength to defeat.

I do not know who will read this scribbling of mine; possibly no one except Lower, but I realize that in these pages I will be recording some acts in which I can take little pride. Some I feel no need to apologize for; some cannot be rectified now; some can at least be explained. My dealings with Sarah Blundy were due to my innocence and youthful, trusting nature—by no other means could she have entrapped me, and come close to destroying me entirely. For this I must blame my early upbringing. Before the age of six I was raised for a while by a great-aunt on my mother’s side; a pleasant lady, but very much the country woman, forever brewing and planting and serving physick to the entire area. She had a marvelous book, vellum-bound and gray with ages of fingering, handed down from her own grandmother, of herbal receipts which she would make herself and dispense to all and sundry, highborn or low. She was a powerful believer in magic, and despised those modern preachers (such she called them, for she was born when the great Elizabeth was still thought beautiful) who scorned what she believed to be self-evident. Crumpled bits of paper, and cloud reading and divination by key and Bible were part of my upbringing.

Despite the prelates, I must say I have yet to find any man who really disbelieves in spirits, or doubts that they have the most profound influence on our lives. Any man who has lain awake at night has heard the ghosts of the air as they pass by, all men have been tempted by evil, and many have been saved by good inhabitants of that ethereal space which surrounds this world and joins us to Heaven. Even by their own standards, the sour-faced prelates are wrong, for they hold fast to Scripture, and that states clearly that such creatures exist. Does not St. Paul talk of a voluntary worshipping of angels? (Colossians 2:18.) What do they think Christ drove into the Gadarene swine?

Naturally, it is hard to tell angels from evil spirits, for the latter are adept at disguise, and often beguile men (and more frequently women) into believing they are other than they truly are. The greatest caution is required when making contact with such beings, for we put ourselves in their hands, by creating a debt of obligation to them, and just as a lord or master remembers his debts, so do these creatures, good or evil. By going to old Blundy I took risks that, in the maturity of age’s wisdom, I would now shun. Then I was too carefree and too impatient to be cautious.

Old Blundy was a washerwoman, and by reputation a cunning woman, some said even a witch. This I doubt; I smelled no whiff of sulphur in her presence. I had once encountered what was supposed to be a real witch, who was burned nearby in 1654, and a smelly old hag she was. I now believe this poor woman was probably innocent of the charges which brought her to the stake; the devil is too cunning to make his servants so easily identifiable. He makes them young, and beautiful and alluring, so gracious they might never be detected by the eye of man. Like Sarah Blundy, in fact.

Nonetheless, the mother was a strange old crone, Cola’s description of her is wildly off the mark. Of course, she was not at her best when he encountered her, but I never saw any sign of that sympathetic understanding of which he speaks, nor of gentleness and kindness. And constantly asking questions. It was simple enough what I wanted, I told her eventually. Who betrayed my father? Could she help or not?

It all depended, she said. Did I have suspicions? It made a difference to what she did. And to what she would not do.

I asked her to explain. She said that really difficult problems involved conjuring up particularly powerful spirits; it could be done, but it was dangerous. Although I said I would take the risk, she said she did not mean spiritual dangers; she was afraid of being arrested and charged with necromancy. After all, she did not know who I was. How did she know whether I was sent by a magistrate to trap her?

I protested my innocence, but she would not be moved, and repeated instead her question. Did I or did I not know the identity of my target? Even vaguely? I said I did not.

“In that case we cannot roll names in water. We will have to gaze instead.”

“A crystal ball?” I sneered, for I had heard of such baubles, and was on my guard to avoid being duped.

“No,” she replied seriously. “That is just nonsense used by charlatans. There is no virtue in balls of glass. A bowl of water will suffice just as well. Do you want to go ahead?”

I nodded tersely. She shuffled off to get a saucer of water from the well outside, and I put my money on the table, feeling the skin of my palms beginning to prick with sweat.

She did not bother with any of the mummery that some practitioners adopt—no darkened rooms, no incantations or burning herbs. Just put the bowl on the table, asked me to sit in front of it, and close my eyes. I heard her pour the water in, and heard her pray to Peter and Paul—papist words which sounded strange from her lips.

“Now, young man,” she hissed in my ear when she had finished, “open your eyes and gaze at the truth. Be forthright and be fearless, as the chance may not come again. Look into the bowl and see.”

Sweating profusely, I slowly opened my eyes and bent forward, staring intently at the still and placid water on the tabletop. It shimmered slightly, as though some movement had disturbed it, but there was none; then I saw it grow darker and change in its texture, rather as though it was a curtain or hanging of cloth. And I began to see something emerging from behind this cloth. It was a young man with fair hair, whom I had never seen before in my life though he seemed familiar somehow. He was there only for an instant, and then passed from view. But it was enough; his features were embedded in my mind forever.

Then the curtain shimmered again and another figure came into view. An old man, this time, gray with age and worry, bent over from the years and so sad it made your heart break to see it. I couldn’t see the face clearly; there was a hand over it, almost as though the apparition was rubbing its face in utter despair. I held my breath, desperate to see more. And bit by bit I did; the hand slowly came away, and I saw that the despairing old man was my father.

I cried out in anguish at the sight, then swept the bowl from the table in rage, making it spin across the room and shatter against the damp wall. Then I jumped up, spat an insult at the old woman and ran out of that disgusting hovel as fast as I could go.

It took another three days, and the careful ministrations of Thomas and the bottle, before I was myself again.

* * *

I hope I will not be considered credulous if I say that this strange encounter was the last time I saw my father; I am convinced that his soul was there, and that the disturbance I caused played a great part in the events that came after. I do not remember him well; after the age of about six I met him only a few times as the war meant I was sent first to live with the great-aunt I have mentioned, then to the household of Sir William Compton in Warwickshire, where I spent those years under the tutelage of Dr. Grove.

My father tried to come and assure himself of my progress, although his duties ensured that this was rare. On one occasion only did I spend more than a day in his company, and that was shortly before he was forced into his second and last exile. He was everything a child could hope for in a father; stern, disciplined and wholly conscious of the obligations which exist between a man and his heir. He taught me little directly; but I knew that if I could be half the subject he was, then the king (should he ever return) would count me as one of his best and most faithful servants.

He was not one of these effeminate apologies for gentry whom we see strutting and mincing their way through the court these days. He eschewed fine clothes (although he was fine looking when he chose) and was disdainful of books. Nor was he a great conversationalist, idling away his hours in talk when practical things were to be done. A soldier, in short, and no man was ever grander in leading a charge. He was lost in the welter of backstabbing and conspiracy that the courtier must master; too honest to dissimulate, too frank ever to win favor. It marked him out, and if it was a fatal flaw, I cannot consider he was diminished by it. His fidelity to his wife was as pure as a poet could imagine, and his courage a byword in the army. He was at his happiest at Harland House, our main seat in Lincolnshire, and when he left it he was as grieved as if his wife had died. And rightly so, for the land at Harland Wyte had been in our family for generations; it was our family, you might say, and he knew and loved every square inch of it.

The sight of his soul in such distress rekindled my enthusiasm for my task, as it was clear it was tormented by the injustice he still suffered. So, when I had sufficiently recovered my strength, I concocted a story about the illness of an aunt from whom I had expectations to gain my tutor’s permission to leave town, and set off one bright morning for Windsor. I coached as far as Reading, as the university has no monopoly on the route and prices are affordable, and then walked the remaining fifteen miles. I slept in a field, as it was still just warm enough and I did not wish to spend unnecessarily, but breakfasted in a tavern in the town, so I could brush myself down and wipe my face and present a reasonably proper appearance. I also learned from the keeper that Lord Mordaunt—whom I discovered was bitterly detested in the town for his lack of extravagance—was indeed in residence as warden of the castle, having returned only three days before from Tunbridge Wells.

There was no point in dallying; having come so far, it would have been foolish indeed to hesitate. As Thomas had said, a refusal was the worst I could suffer. So I marched boldly to the castle, then spent the next three hours sitting in an anteroom while my request for an audience was conveyed through an army of lackeys.

I was grateful for my breakfast, as it was well past dinnertime before I received any response. In the interval I marched up and down, awaiting the condescension of the mighty, vowing that I would never behave in such a way to those seeking my patronage when my fortune turned. A promise, I must say, I broke the moment I had the opportunity to do so, as by then I understood the purpose of all this attending—it establishes the proper boundaries, creates a due deference amongst those seeking favors and (most practically) discourages all but the most serious. And eventually my reward came when a servant, more cordial now than before, opened the door with ceremony, bowed and said that Lord Mordaunt would grant me an interview. If I would come this way…

I had hoped that simple curiosity, at least, would prompt just such a response and was glad that my guess had proven correct. It was not often, I imagine, that anyone had the presumption to present himself on the noble gentleman’s doorstep in such a fashion.

I knew little of the man whom I had traveled to see, except that all expected him to become a figure of great consequence in the government, a Secretary of State at the very least, and soon to improve his barony to a full earldom because of his favor with Lord Clarendon, the Lord Chancellor and the most powerful man in the land. He was a brave plotter on the king’s behalf, a man of great fortune from one of the highest families in the land, with a notably virtuous wife and the sort of good looks that makes any man a place. His devotion to the king’s service was all the more remarkable since his family had kept out of the struggle as much as possible, and were masters at not committing themselves and emerging with their fortunes intact. Mordaunt himself was said to be cautious in advice, but bold when needful, and disinclined to faction and petty squabbling. This was the surface appearance of the man, at least. His only weakness was impatience and an abrupt way of dealing with those he considered incompetent—but that was a great flaw, for there were many such at court, and even more who wished ill on any friend of Clarendon.

I approached through a series of rooms until eventually I was led into his presence—a grand and, in my mind, unnecessarily pompous proceeding. At least the final room was small and commodious enough, a bureau stacked with piles of paper and shelves of books. I made my bow and waited for him to address me first.

“I gather you are the son of Sir James Prestcott, is that correct?”

I nodded. Lord Mordaunt was a man of medium height, with a well-formed face spoiled only by a nose disproportionately small. His figure was fine, especially in the legs, his movements gracious and, however grand the ceremony of introduction, he cast that aside the moment that the interview began, and engaged in the most amiable conversation which gave the lie to rumors of his pride and haughtiness. I came away admiring the man for his sagacity; he seemed a worthy comrade in arms for my father, and I believed that each had been equally honored by the trust and love of the other. The contrast with a man like Thurloe could not be greater, I thought—the one tall, fair and open, like a Roman of old in bearing and manner, the other certainly wizened and twisted, operating in the dark, never doing anything in the open, always using the instruments of deceit.

“An unusual approach, verging on the discourteous,” he commented severely. “I imagine you must have a good reason.”

“The very best, my lord,” I said. “I greatly regret troubling you, but I have no one else to turn to. You alone can help me, if you will. I can offer nothing in return, but my needs are small. I want a little of your time; that is all.”

“You cannot be so foolish as to expect preferment. I could not help you in that regard.”

“I came to talk to people who knew my father. To clear his honor of stain.”

He considered this remark fully, digesting all the implications it contained, before he replied, gently but cautiously. “That is commendable in a son, and understandable in a child whose fortune depends on it. But I think you will have an uphill struggle.”

In the past, my tendency when faced with such remarks was to erupt into a burning rage, during which I would voice all manner of angry ripostes; as a youth I returned home with many a black eye and bloody nose. But I knew such behavior would not help here—I wanted help, and that could only be obtained through politeness and deference. So I choked back my anger, and maintained a serene countenance.

“It is a struggle I must undertake. I believe my father was innocent of all wrong, but I do not even know what he was accused of doing. It is my right to know, and my duty to repudiate the accusations.”

“Your family, surely…”

“They know little, and tell less. Forgive me for interrupting, sir. But I need to know at first hand what transpired. As you were one of the key figures in His Majesty’s great trust, and are reputed for your fairness, I thought to approach you first of all.”

A little delicate flattery often oils the wheels of converse, I find; even when it is recognized for what it is, such comments show a recognition of indebtedness. The only requirement is that the compliments be not too coarse, and do not jar on the ear too loudly.

“Do you think my father was guilty?”

Mordaunt considered the question, still with a faint air of surprise on his face that the discussion was taking place at all. He made me wait a long time so that the kindness he did me was fully appreciated before he sat down, then indicated he would permit me to sit also.

“Do I think your father was guilty?’’ he repeated thoughtfully. “I’m afraid I do, young man. I tried hard to believe in his innocence. Such belief was earned by a brave comrade, even though we rarely saw eye to eye. You see, I never had any direct indication myself that he was a traitor. Do you understand how we operated then? Did he tell you?”

I told him that I was working more or less in the dark; I had rarely encountered my father once I had come to an age at which such matters were understandable to me, and then he had been as discreet with his family as, I am convinced, he had been with everyone else. There was always the possibility that the soldiers would come for us, and he wanted us to know as little as possible for our sake and his own.

Mordaunt nodded, and thought awhile. “You must understand,” he said quietly, “that I—very reluctantly—concluded that your father was indeed a traitor.” I moved to protest here, but he held up his hand to quieten me. “Please. Hear me out. That does not mean that I would not be happy to be proven wrong. He always struck me as a good man, and it shocked me to think that was a sham. It is said that the face mirrors a man’s soul, and that we can read there whatever is written on his heart. Not with him. With your father, I read wrongly. So if you can prove this was not the case, then I will be in your debt.”

I thanked him for his openness—the first time, indeed, I had come across such an even devotion to justice. I thought to myself that if I could persuade this man, then I would have a case; he would not judge unfairly.

“Now,” he went on. “How exactly do you plan to proceed?”

I do not remember exactly what I said, but I fear that it was of a touching naïveté. Something about finding the true traitor and forcing him to confess. I added that I was already certain John Thurloe was the man behind it all, and that I intended to kill him when I had the evidence. However I phrased it, my remarks brought a small sigh from Mordaunt.

“And how do you intend to avoid hanging yourself?”

“I suppose I must discredit the evidence against my father.”

“Which evidence are you talking about?”

I bowed my head as the depths of my ignorance forced my confession. “I do not know.”

Lord Mordaunt looked at me carefully awhile, although whether it was with pity or contempt I could not make out. “Perhaps,” he said after a while, “it might help you if I told you something of those days, and what I know of the events. I do not speak because I believe you are correct, but you do have a right to know what was said.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said simply, and my gratitude to him then was whole and unfeigned.

“You are too young to remember much, and were certainly too young to understand,” he began, “but until the very last moment His Majesty’s cause in this country seemed doomed to extinction. A few people continued to fight against Cromwell’s tyranny, but only because they thought it right to do so, not because there was any anticipation of success. The number of people sick of despotism increased year by year, but they were too cowed to act without a lead. The task of giving that lead was taken on by a handful of loyal subjects, of whom one was your father. They were given the name of the Sealed Knot, because they bound each to the other so tightly through their love of each other and their king.

“They accomplished nothing, except to keep hope alive in men’s hearts. Certainly they were active; scarcely a month went by without some scheme or another—a rising here, an assassination there. If these had come to fruition, Cromwell would have been dead a dozen times long before he died in his bed. But nothing of substance took place, and Cromwell’s army was always there, a vast block against anyone who wanted change. Unless that army could be defeated, the road to the Restoration would be forever closed, and you do not defeat the most effective army in the world with hope and pinpricks.”

I suppose I must have frowned at his criticism of these heroic, lonely men and their struggle, and he noticed it and smiled regretfully. “I do not disparage,” he said softly, “I state the truth. If you are serious you need all the information, good and bad.”

“I apologize. You are right, of course.”

“The Sealed Knot had no money, because the king had no money. Gold can buy loyalty, but loyalty, on its own, cannot buy weapons. The French and the Spanish kept His Majesty on a shoestring, allowing him enough to live in his exile, but not giving enough to do anything. But we were ever hopeful, and I was entrusted with the task of organizing the king’s men in England so they might act should our circumstances change. I should have been unknown to Thur-loe’s office, as I’d been too young to fight in the war and passed those years in Savoy for my education instead. Nonetheless, who I was became known very swiftly—I was betrayed, and could only have been betrayed by a member of the Knot, who knew what I was doing. Thurloe’s men swept me up, along with many of my associates, at the very moment when they knew we had incriminating documents on us.”

“Excuse me,” I said, foolishly risking a second interruption, even though I could see the first had displeased him. “But when was this?”

“In 1658,” he said. “I will not bother you with the details, but my friends, and chiefly my beloved wife, beggared themselves in bribes and so confused the panel of judges who examined me that I was released, and escaped before they realized the size of their error. No such good fortune was with the others. They were tortured and hanged. More importantly, it meant all my efforts in the king’s cause were in vain—the new organization I had labored to construct was destroyed before it even began its work.”

He paused, and courteously requested a servant to bring me some cakes and wine, then asked me whether I had heard this story before. I had not, and told him so. I felt like telling him also that I found it thrilling to hear such details of danger and bravado, and that I wished I had been older, that I could have met the dangers with him. I am glad I did not; he would have found the remarks childish, as indeed they were. Instead I concentrated on the gravity of the events he was describing, and asked a few questions about his suspicions.

“I had none. I thought merely I was cursed with the greatest ill fortune. It never occurred to me then that my peril might have been deliberately caused. In any case my meditations on the matter were swept away a few months later, when we heard the glorious news that Cromwell was dead. You remember that, I’m sure?”

I smiled. “Oh, indeed. Who could not? I think it was the happiest day of my life, and I was full of hope for the country.”

Mordaunt nodded. “As were we all. It was a gift from God, and we felt at last that Providence was with us. Our spirits rose immediately, and all energies were rekindled, even though his son Richard was declared Protector in Cromwell’s stead. And from that hope a new plan emerged, without it even being commanded, a way at least to rattle the regime. There was to be a rising in several parts of the country at once, by forces too big to be ignored. The Commonwealth army would have to split to deal with them and that, it was hoped, would open the way for a swift landing in Kent by the king’s forces and a rapid march on London.

“Would it have succeeded? Possibly not, but I do know that every man involved did the best he could. Arms that had been stockpiled for years against such a day were brought out of hiding; men of all sorts declared in secret their readiness to march. Great and small mortgaged their land and melted their plate to provide us with money. The sense of excitement and anticipation was so great even the most dubious were swept up in the enthusiasm and thought that, at last, the hour of deliverance had come.

“And again, we were betrayed. Suddenly, everywhere that men were to rise, troops appeared. They knew as if by magic where arms were stored, and where money was hidden. They knew who had been appointed officers, and who had the plans and lists of the forces. The entire venture, which had taken the better part of a year to bring to fruition, was dashed to the ground and trampled on in less than a week. Only one part of the country reacted swiftly enough; Sir George Booth in Cheshire brought out his troops and did his duty. But he was all alone, and had to face the onslaught of the entire army, led by a general second only to Cromwell himself. It was a massacre; as complete in its destruction as its ruth-lessness.”

There was a silence in the room as he finished speaking, and I sat there transfixed by his tale. Truly, I had not imagined anything so shocking. The failure of Sir George’s rising I knew about, of course, but I never dreamed that his collapse had been caused by treachery. Nor did I suspect this was the crime of which my father was accused. Had he been responsible, then I would have hanged him myself. But I had not yet heard anything to suggest that he was guilty.

“We did not rush to accuse anyone,” Mordaunt continued when I put this to him. “And your father led the campaign to uncover the man responsible. His indignation and outrage were terrifying to behold. And yet it appeared this was duplicity; eventually we received documents from within the government which indicated without a shadow of doubt that the traitor was your father. When he was confronted with the evidence in early 1660, he fled abroad.”

“The matter was never resolved, then?” I said. “He did not have the chance of rebutting the charges properly.”

“He would have had every chance, had he stayed in England,” Mordaunt replied, frowning at the hint of skepticism in my voice. “But the documents, I think, were unanswerable. There was letter after letter in a cipher only he used; notes of meetings with high officials in the government in which conversations were recorded, and containing information he alone could have possessed. Notes of payment…”

“No!” I all but shouted. “That I will not believe. You tell me, you dare to say, that my father sold his friends for money?”

“I tell you what is there, plain to see,” Mordaunt said severely, and I knew that I had overstepped the bounds of propriety. His favor now hung on the thinnest of threads, and I made haste to apologize for my incivility.

“But the main accusation against him came from the government? You believed that?”

“Government papers, but not from the government. John Thurloe was not the only person to have spies.”

“It never occurred to you the papers might have come to you deliberately? To point the finger of accusation at the wrong person and sow dissent?”

“Of course it did,” he said tartly, and I could see that I was beginning to weary him. “We were extremely cautious. And if you do not believe me, you should also go and see other associates of his, and they will tell you honestly what they know as well.”

“I will do so. Where would I find these people?”

Lord Mordaunt looked at me disapprovingly. “You do need help. London, boy. Or rather, considering the time of year, Tunbridge Wells. Where they are jockeying for position like everyone else.”

“And can I come and see you again?”

“No. What is more, I do not want it known that you have been here. I suggest that you conduct yourself with discretion and be careful with whom you talk; this is still a delicate matter, which men remember with bitterness. I do not wish it known that I have helped you in picking at old wounds best forgotten. It is only because of my memory of what I thought your father was, that I have even talked to you today. And I want something in return.”

“Anything in my power.”

“I believe your father was guilty of a monstrous crime. If you find any evidence suggesting I am wrong, you will tell me of it instantly, and I will do everything in my power to help.”

I nodded.

“And if you agree that my conclusions were correct, you will tell me of that as well. Then I can rest peacefully. I am haunted by the possibility that a good man may have been unjustly accused. If you can be persuaded of his guilt, then I will accept it. If not…”

“What?”

“Then a good man has suffered, and a guilty one has gone free. That is an evil, which must be corrected.”

5

The journey to Tunbridge wells took me four days as I skirted round London rather than go through it, and I did not begrudge a moment of the time even though I was keen to make swift progress. The nights were still warm, and the solitude filled my heart with a tranquillity that I had scarcely known before. I thought a great deal of what Mor-daunt had said, and realized that I had made progress—I knew what my father was accused of doing, and I knew how the accusations were put abroad. Forged papers, coming from within Thurloe’s office; finding them would now be part of my quest. More than this, however, I knew that a traitor, well-placed and well-informed, had indeed existed; if it was not my father, the number of people it might be was small—only a handful of trusted men could have betrayed the rising of 1659 so very comprehensively. I had seen his face in old Blundy’s saucer of water; now I had to discover his name. I knew how it was done and why; with good fortune I would also discover who.

I could have fallen into company, as many people were on the move, but I shunned all attempts to draw me into companionship, sleeping alone in woods at night wrapped in my blanket and buying such food as I wanted in the villages and small towns I passed through. That solitary mood passed only when I came to the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells itself, and noted the bustle of coaches and carriages, the neverending trails of wagons taking produce in to keep the courtiers supplied with their needs, the growing numbers of itinerant peddlers, musicians and servants, heading there in the hope of squeezing some money for themselves by selling their wares. In the last two days I did have a companion despite myself, as a young whore called Kitty attached herself to me, offering her services in exchange for protection. She was coming from London and had been attacked the day before, and did not want the experience repeated. She had been lucky that first time, as no visible damage was done beyond some bruises, but she was frightened. Had she lost her tooth, or broken a nose, her earnings would have suffered badly, and she had no other trade to fall back on.

I agreed to protect her because the creature had a strange fascination; for a country boy like myself, such a phantasm of city corruption had never come into view before. She was not what the lurid tales had led me to expect; indeed she was very much more correct than many fine ladies I met in later life and, I suspect, no less virtuous. She was about the same age as me, a soldier’s bastard abandoned by the mother for fear of chastisement. How she’d been brought up I do not know, but she was wiser and more cunning for it. She had no notion of honesty whatsoever, and all her morality lay in her obligations—help her and hers and she would owe. Hurt, and she would hurt back. That was her entire moral universe and what it lacked in Christianity, it more than made up in practicality. It was at least a code she could keep to, simple as it was.

I should say that I did not partake of what she had to offer the night before we arrived in Tunbridge Wells; fear of the clap and a heaviness of mind about what I was to do the next day took away my appetites; but we fed, talked and later fell asleep under the same blanket and, though she made fun of me, I think she was quite happy that it was so. We parted on good terms outside the town, with me hanging back for fear of being seen in her company.

Like my father, I have never been a man for courts or courtly ways; indeed, I have always avoided the taint of corruption that goes along with such association. Although I am no Puritan, there is a level of decency which a gentleman should maintain, and the court in those days had quickly abandoned any pretense at the sturdy values which make any country fit to live in. Tunbridge Wells shocked me beyond measure. I was quite prepared (for rumors were spreading thick and fast by then) to find the ladies of the court unmasked in public and even sporting wigs and perfume and makeup; I was appalled to discover that the Horseguards were wearing them as well.

But such things hardly concerned me; I was not there to cut a dash, to duel, to lacerate with razor-sharp wit or to worm my way into a position. Nor did I have the resources to do so. To gain a post worth £50 a year, a friend of mine had to lay out near £750 in bribes, all borrowed at interest, and consequently must defraud the government of more than £200 per year to live decently and pay his debts. I scarcely had enough to buy the post of His Majesty’s ratcatcher, let alone one worthy of my standing in society. And, given the fact that I was my father’s son, all the money in the world would not have won me even that lowly post.

I could not stay in town when I arrived as it was too expensive; the place knew its vogue would not last long and the court would soon turn its fickle attention elsewhere. It was an ugly little settlement with no attractions but the waters, which were a la mode that year. All the fops and fools were there, prattling on about how much better they felt for drinking the foul-tasting muck when all the time they jostled to be close to men of influence. Around them, the tradesmen gathered like flies trying to suck what money they could from their purses. I do not know which side was worse—both made me sick at the stomach. Prices were outrageous but, even so, all the rooms were let easily to courtiers willing to pay handsomely to be near His Majesty; many were even in tents on the common nearby. In my brief time there, I never even came within eyeshot of the king. I was too ashamed of my dress to go to a levee, and too concerned of an insult should my name become known. I had a task to accomplish, and did not want my life cut short by some fop’s sword. If publicly insulted, I would have to call and I was wise enough to know that I would almost certainly lose.

So, avoiding all the fashionable resorts and those who populated them, I confined myself to the lesser taverns on the outskirts of the town, where the footmen and lackeys would come once their duties were done, to gamble and drink and swap tales of the high and mighty. I saw my traveling companion the once, but she was too obliging to acknowledge me publicly, although she did give me an insolent wink as she passed on the arm of a grand gentleman, who was not ashamed to display his lechery in public.

From the servants I learned very quickly that I had wasted my trip as far as talking to my guardian Sir William Compton was concerned, for he was not there. His advancement had been utterly blasted by a dispute with Lord Chancellor Clarendon over hunting rights in Wychwood Forest, which they both claimed, and as long as Clarendon held the strings of government, Compton could whistle for preferment. He knew this well, it seemed, so had decided to save his money and stay on his estate, not even bothering to come to court.

Two others of the magic circle were indeed present, however—but I soon learned that although Edward Villiers and Sir John Russell had been staunch comrades in adversity, the blessings of success had divided them more than Thurloe’s schemes had ever managed. Villiers was in my Lord Clarendon’s party, into which he was drawn by Lord Mordaunt, while Sir John, a member of the Duke of Bedford’s great family, had attached himself to the opposition, whose only unity came from a detestation of Clarendon. Such is power, that good men, loyal, generous and courageous in the field, squabble like infants when they become courtiers.

Nonetheless, I had two people whom I could approach and I felt that the evening passed gathering gossip in the tavern had been well spent. I was tempted to approach Villiers, as he most clearly had the ear of men in power, but after some consideration I decided to start with easier meat and so set off the next morning to pay my respects to Sir John Russell. I wish I had not done so. I would prefer to pass over this incident in silence, as it reflects badly on one born a gentleman, but I am in the mood to tell everything, “warts and all,” as Cromwell said. Sir John refused to talk to me. Would that this were all; but he rebuffed me in a way calculated to humiliate, even though I had never done him or his any wrong. It was some months before I discovered why my name caused him to act in such a way.

What happened was this—I arrived at seven in the morning, and entered the lower part of Russell’s inn, asking the landlord to send his manservant so that I might request an audience. Not correct form, I know, but anyone who has ever waited on a court on the move knows that formality is at a discount. All around me were a few dozen or more people, some waiting on favors, some merely eating before going out to attend the audiences of others. The room was abuzz with lesser courtiers trying to take their first step on the long and slippery ladder to preferment and office. I was such a person myself, in a way, and so like them I sat patiently and waited. In this lonely position—for no one is more lonely than a supplicant in a roomful of supplicants—I sat for half an hour, waiting a response. Then an hour, then another half hour. At past ten, two men came down the stairs and advanced on me. The chatter in the room stopped—everyone assumed that I had successfully negotiated the first stage of my suit and wanted to watch the occasion from a mixture of curiosity and envy.

The room was perfectly quiet, so everyone heard the message delivered—indeed, the servant spoke in a sufficiently loud voice to make sure of this.

“You are Jack Presteott?”

I nodded, and began to rise.

“The son of James Presteott, the murderer and traitor?”

I could feel my stomach contracting as I sat down again, winded by the shock, and knowing that there was more to come and nothing I could do to avoid the blow.

“Sir John Russell presents his compliments and asks me to tell you that the son of a dog is a dog. He has instructed me to ask you respectfully to take your traitorous presence away from this building, and never have the insolence to approach him again. If you do so, he will have you thrashed. Leave this place, or be thrown into the gutter, as your foul father should have been.”

There was total silence. I could feel thirty pairs of eyes boring through me as I gripped my hat and stumbled for the door, aware of nothing at all, just some fleeting impressions.

A sorrowful, almost sympathetic look on the face of the first servant, and the hardness of the other, who rejoiced in humbling me. The look of malicious triumph in some supplicants, the eager interest of others as they thought how they would tell and retell this tale over the next few weeks. And the blood, pounding in my head as the rage and hatred poured into my soul, and feeling as though the force within my skull would split it open. I was sensible of nothing else by the time I reached the door, and do not even recall how I got back to the anonymous misery of my cot above the stables in the tavern.

How long I lay there I am not sure, but it must have been some considerable time—I assume (I was sharing the place with half a dozen others) that there must have been some coming and going, to which I was entirely insensible. All I know is that when I recovered my senses, my beard had grown to a stubble, my limbs were weak and I had to shave before I could show my face to the world once more. The water from the well was freezing cold, but I presented a reasonably civilized appearance when I went down to the inn across the courtyard. I had half forgotten what had transpired, but it came back to me in a flash when I walked through the door. Dead silence, followed by a snicker. I walked up to ask for some beer, and the man beside me turned his back, in the cruel way that comes so naturally to the coarse—although considering the example they had been set by their betters, perhaps it was not so surprising.

* * *

It is hard to relive such humiliations, and even now I find my hand shakes as I dip my pen in the ink and write these words down. So many years have passed, with such grace and goodness in them, yet that moment still cuts deep and the anger returns. I have been told that the heart of a gentleman is the more open to such wounds than those of ordinary people because his honor is the greater, and it may be so. I would have continued had it been likely to serve any purpose, but I knew that the incident had ruined my expedition; there was no way now that I could approach Edward Villiers with any hope of a polite reception, and I would not expose myself to another rebuff. There was no alternative but to leave as swiftly as possible, although I was determined that, before I did so, I would gaze on the face of Sir John Russell, to see whether it matched the vision I had seen in Mrs. Blundy’s saucer of water. Mordaunt’s visage had not, of which I was heartily glad, and I already knew that Villiers was also different. I confess I hoped that Sir John, who had already done enough to earn my lifelong enmity, would compound his sin and make my quest more simple.

Alas, it was not to be; I spent many hours lurking outside the inn, and (as quietly as possible, so as not to be recognized) outside the fashionable gatherings, listening with gloom to the sounds of revelry within, getting myself soaked to the skin by the first rains of autumn as I stood, doggedly and patiently. Eventually I was rewarded, after a fashion. I had tipped a stall-keeper to point out Sir John when he emerged, and as I was almost giving up hope, he nudged me in my ribs and hissed in my ear—“ ‘Ere he is, in all his finery.”

I looked, half-expecting to see an almost familiar face coming down the steps. “Where?” I said.

“There. That’s him,” said the trader, pointing out a roly-poly, fat man with a pink face and a straggly, old-fashioned mustache. I watched with the greatest disappointment as this creature (who looked neither deceitful nor familiar) got into a waiting coach. He was not the man that the Blundy woman had shown me.

“Go on then,” said the man, “go and present your letter.”

“My what?” I said, having forgotten entirely that this was my supposed reason for wanting to know who he was. “Oh, that. Later, maybe.”

“Nervous, eh? I know. But let me tell you, young sir, you’ll not get anywhere with this bunch unless you go ahead with your plans.”

I decided to take this unsought, but probably good, advice by packing my bags and leaving the town. It did not contain what I was looking for.

6

It is mid-afternoon and I am told (you note how it is these days—I am told) that we are setting off for my country seat in the morning; I have little time to continue my narrative. I have already had my head shaved for that damn fool wig, the tailor has been to see me, all is busy with activity. So many things there are to prepare and to get ready, and I care nothing for any of them. These tedious little details are hardly germane to my story, but I notice this tendency in me; it comes more frequently now. My dotage, I suppose it is; I find that I can remember what happened all those years ago more easily than I recall what I was doing the day before yesterday.

To return to my story, I arrived back in Oxford with a deep resentment in my heart and an ever greater determination to defeat my hidden enemies. I had been away more than two weeks, and in that time the town had filled with students and was no longer the quiet, rustic place it is much of the year. Fortunately, this also meant that all those whose help I needed were now in residence. One was Thomas, of course, whose logic-chopping skills, honed in the theological and logical arts which he taught with surprising skill to students, were vital—he could whip through a pile and tease out a meaning faster than anyone I knew. The other was an odd little fellow he brought to see me one day. His name was Anthony Wood.

“Here,” Thomas said, presenting Wood to me in his room, “is the answer to all of your problems. Mr. Wood is a great scholar and keen to help you in your search.”

Cola describes him briefly and it is one of the few occasions when I can find only small fault with his penmanship; I have never met a more ridiculous creature than Anthony Wood. He was a deal older than myself, perhaps thirty or thereabouts, and already had the bowed back and sunken cheeks of the bookworm. His clothes were monstrous—so old and patched it was hard to see how out of fashion they were—his stockings were darned, and he had the habit of throwing his head back and whinnying like a horse when he was amused. An unpleasant, grating sound which made all in his company suddenly grave, lest they say something witty and be rewarded with his laughter. This, combined with the general inelegance of his movements—all jerks and twitches, so that he could barely sit still for more than a few seconds—began to irritate me the moment I set eyes on him, and it was hard indeed for me to keep my patience.

But Thomas said he would be useful, so I forbore to make fun of him. Unfortunately, the connection, once begun, proved hard to break. Like all scholars, Wood is poor and constantly in search of patronage—they all seem to think that others should pay for their diversion. He has never had any from me, but has never despaired either. He still comes to pay court, in the hope that a coin might slip from my pocket into his ink-stained hands, and never ceases to remind me of the services he rendered all those years ago. He was here a few days back, in fact, which is why he is so fresh in my memory, but said nothing of consequence. He is writing a book, but what is there in that? He has been writing the same one since ever I knew him, and it seems no nearer its conclusion. And he is one of those wiry little men who never seem to age at all, beyond stooping a little more, and acquiring a few more lines on his face. When he comes into a room, it is as though half my life has not happened, and is only a dream. It is only my own aches that remind me.

“Mr. Wood is a great friend of mine,” Thomas explained when he saw the look of disgust on my face as I regarded the fellow. “We play music together every week. He is a monstrous student of history and over the last few years has accumulated a great deal of information about the wars.”

“Fascinating,” I said dryly. “But I fail to see how he can help.”

Wood now spoke, in that high-pitched, fluting voice of his—such precise, mincing enunciation, as neat as a notebook, and scarcely more interesting.

“I have had the honor of encountering many people,” he said, “distinguished in war and in public affairs. I have a substantial knowledge of this country’s tragic course, which I would be happy to place at your disposal to establish what became of your father.”

I swear, he talked like that all the while, all his sentences as perfectly formed as he was grotesque himself. I was not sure what to make of this offer but Thomas told me I must certainly accept, as Mr. Wood was already known for the niceness of his judgment and the voluminous nature of his knowledge. If I needed to know anything about any event or any personality, then I must certainly ask Wood first of all—it would save me a great deal of time.

“Very well,” I said. “But I wish to make it clear that you will tell no one of my search. There are many people who would be my enemies if they knew what I am doing. I wish to take them by stealth.”

Wood agreed reluctantly, and I told him that I would lay all the facts and information before him in due course, so that he might supplement my findings with information of his own. Then Thomas considerately bundled him out of the room, and I gave my friend a wry and reproachful look.

“Thomas, I know I am in need of all the help I can get…”

“You are wrong, my friend. Mr. Wood’s knowledge may be crucial to you one day. Do not dismiss him because of his appearance. I have also thought of another useful person for you.”

I groaned. “Who might this be, then?”

“Dr. John Wallis.”

“Who?”

“He is the Savilian Professor of Geometry, and was deep in the confidence of the Commonwealth by virtue of his skill with codes. Many a secret letter ot the King’s did he reveal to Thurloe’s office, so they say.”

“Should have been hanged, then…”

“And now he performs the same service for His Majesty’s government, it is rumored. Lord Mordaunt told you the documents incriminating your father used a cipher—if so, then Dr. Wallis might know something of the matter. If you can persuade him to help…”

I nodded. Perhaps for once one of Thomas’s ideas was going to be useful.

* * *

Before either Mr. Wood or Dr. Wallis could do much to help me, I had an opportunity to repay some of my debt to Thomas by rescuing him from one of the most absurd pieces of ill-judgment. The circumstances were highly amusing, if a little worrying. Everyone knew that Old Tidmarsh the Quaker held some grotesque conventicle in his little house down by the river. Illegal, of course, and considering the trouble such lunatics had already caused, they should have been crushed mercilessly. But no; every now and then a few were locked up, then they were let out again, free to resume their loathsome ways. In fact, they seemed to take pride in it, and blasphemously likened their own sufferings to those of Our Lord Himself. Some (I heard) even claimed to be the Lord in their arrogance, and ran around, shaking their heads and pretending to cure people. The world was full of such madmen in those days. Imprisonment is not the way to deal with such people; half measures merely feed their pride. Leave ‘em alone or hang ‘em, in my opinion. Or better still, pack them off to the Americas, and let them starve.

Anyway, I was walking down by the castle a few evenings later when I heard a lot of noise and the sound of running feet. For once, it seemed the magistrate had decided to do something. There were sectaries everywhere, jumping out of windows, running this way and that, like ants bestirred in their nest. Never let these people tell you, incidentally, that they sit still and sing psalms when arrested. They are as frightened as anyone.

I stood and watched the sport with merriment until I saw, with great surprise, my friend Thomas all but falling out of the window of Tidmarsh’s house, and running up an alleyway.

Instantly, as any friend would, I gave chase. Of all the stupid people, I thought, he was perhaps the stupidest. Here he was, risking his future by indulging his ridiculous piety at the very moment when absolute and total conformity was required.

He was no sportsman, and I caught up with him without any trouble. He almost fainted, poor soul, when I grabbed him by the shoulder and brought him to a halt.

“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?”

“Jack!” he said with the most profound relief. “Thank God. I thought it was the watch.”

“And so it should be. You must be mad.”

“No. I…”

The explanation for his absurdity was cut short, however, for two men of the watch now hove into view. We were in an alley, and running would not get us out of trouble. “Keep quiet, lean on my shoulder and leave it to me,” I whispered as they approached.

“Good evening, sirs,” I cried, slurring my words like one very much drunker than I was.

“And what are you two doing?”

“Ah,” I said. “Missed the curfew again, have we?”

“Students, are you? Colleges, please?” He peered at Thomas, whose impression of being drunk was sadly lacking. Had he just a little experience of inebriation he might have done better.

“Where have you been for the last two hours?”

“In the tavern with me,” I said.

“I don’t believe you.”

“How dare you doubt my word?” I replied stoutly. “Where do you think we were?”

“Attending an illegal assembly.”

“You must be joking,” I said with a fine demonstration of merriment at the absurdity of the idea. “Do I look like a fanatic? We may be drunk, but it is not with the word of God, I’m glad to say.”

“I meant him.” He pointed at an ever-paler Thomas.

“Him?’’ I cried. “Oh, dear me no. Ecstasy has been his tonight, but very far from divine. I’m sure the lady concerned would vouch for his devotion, though. Don’t let the clerical air fool you.”

Thomas blushed at my words, and fortunately this was interpreted as shame.

“I, for my part, have been playing cards, with some considerable success.”

“Really.”

“Yes. And I am in a splendid mood; I wish to share my good fortune with all the world. Here, sir. Have this shilling and drink my health.”

He took the coin, looked at it for a fraction of a second, and then greed overcame duty. “And if you are chasing Quakers,” I continued happily once it was tucked away in his pocket, “I saw two gloomy types running up the street over there not three minutes ago.”

He looked at me and grinned, showing his gaping gums. “Thank you, young sir. But the curfew is on. If you’re still here when I get back…”

“Have no fear. Now run quickly, or you will miss them.”

I breathed an enormous sigh of relief as they ran off, then turned to Thomas, who showed distinct signs of being sick.

“That’s a shilling you owe me,” I said. “Now, let’s get out of here.”

We walked back in silence to New College; I needed to talk to him but could not possibly do so in my own lodging, crammed in as I was with my tutor—who, I imagined, was already in bed. Thomas, however, being now a senior member of a wealthy college, had the freedom to come and go without bothering about the curfews which plagued my life. Small and poky though his room was, he did not have to share it with his students—a luxurious innovation which caused much comment when introduced.

“You must be out of your mind, my friend,” I said vehemently when the door was closed. “What on earth were you doing? Indulge your sentiments in private if you must; but to advertise them and risk jail when you are trying to secure yourself a living and a wife is madness.”

“I was not…”

“No, of course not. You just happened to be amongst that band of Quakers not knowing who they were, and climbed out of the window and ran away for the exercise.”

“No,” he said, “I was there deliberately. But for a good reason.”

“No reason is good enough for that.”

“I went to talk to someone. Win their confidence.”

“Why?”

“Because I fear I may not get my parish after all.”

“You certainly won’t if you behave like this.”

“Will you listen to me?” he pleaded. “Grove is pressing his case and is winning over several members of the fellowship whom I assumed were on my side. And now he is talking to the warden.”

“What can he say?”

“Simple. That he is old and a bachelor, while I will undoubtedly marry and have a family. His needs, in contrast, are simple, and he will hand over a third of the annual revenue from the living to the college.”

“Can he do that?”

“If he gets it, he can do whatever he wants; it’s his money. He is calculating that it is better to have two thirds of eighty pounds a year than none of it. And Woodward is very mindful of college funds.”

“And you can’t match the offer?”

“Of course I can’t,” he said with bitterness. “I wish to marry. The girl’s father is only just willing to support the match if I have the full amount. What would your reaction be if I went along and said I’d given a third away?”

“Find another wife,” I suggested.

“Jack, I like her. She is a good match, and that living is mine.”

“I see your problem. But not what it has to do with climbing out of windows.”

“Grove is unsuitable to be in charge of a flock. He will bring scandal onto the church, and drag its good name in the dirt. I know this well, but as long as he was kept away from a living it was not my affair.”

“I’m still not following you.”

“He is a lecher. I’m sure of it. He engages in illicit concourse with that servant of his, to the shame of the college and the church. It is a disgrace. If his perfidy is proven, then the college will not risk its reputation by giving him a parish. I was trying to discover the truth.”

“At a meeting of Quakers?” I said incredulously. The story was getting worse and worse.

“This servant attends sometimes, and is said to be important to them, in fact,” he said. “She has a great reputation amongst them for reasons I do not understand. I thought if I attended, I could win her confidence…”

I’m afraid that here I burst out laughing. “Oh, Thomas, my dear friend. Only you could try and seduce a girl on your knees.”

He blushed scarlet. “I was not trying to do anything of the sort.”

“No, of course not. Who is this creature, anyway?”

“A girl called Blundy. Sarah Blundy.”

“I know her,” I said. “I thought she was quite a good girl.”

“That merely demonstrates the limits of your observation. The father was shot for mutiny or something, the mother is a witch, and the girl lived in a hellish society, giving herself freely to anyone who wanted her from the age of ten. I’ve heard of these people and the sort of things they got up to. I tell you, I shudder even at the thought of talking to her.”

“I’m sure having you chant psalms and pray for deliverance would do wonders in winning her over,” I said. “Are you sure of this? I have met the girl, and the mother. For a witch’s daughter she is very pretty, and for a devilish slut unusually civil.”

“I make no mistake.”

“Did you talk to her?”

“I had no chance. They are very peculiar, these meetings. We all sat around in a circle, with this Blundy girl in the center.”

“And?”

“And nothing. It seemed as though all were waiting for her to say something, but she just sat there. This went on for about an hour. Then we heard shouting from outside, and everyone ran in panic.”

“I see. Even if this belief of yours is true, you are hardly going to get her to tell you,” I said. “Why should she? It obviously doesn’t bother her and she must need the money. Why should she risk her position to do you a favor?”

“I believe she must secretly despise him. I thought that if I gave her a promise that there would be no consequences, she would see her duty.”

“I think a few coins might sway her better. Thomas, are you sure this is not a mistake? Dr. Grove was my tutor, you remember, and I detected no sign of lustfulness about him in all of four years.”

I am persuaded that Thomas was convinced of the selflessness of his actions. He genuinely wished the parishioners of Easton Parva to have the very best minister possible and was certain that he was that person. Naturally, he wanted the stipend, and the wife and dowry that went with it, but that merely to make him a better servant of his flock. He was motivated by righteousness, not greed. That was why matters fell out so badly in the end. Simple selfishness causes less harm than desperate virtue.

For my part, I freely confess the selfishness of my own actions. I needed a supply of money, and for that I needed Thomas to have some. Besides, he was my only friend at the time, and I felt beholden to him. For my sake as much as his, I decided that he needed the sort of assistance only I could provide.

“Listen, my friend, go back to your studies, and abandon this meddling because you are not at all suited to it. I will deal with the Blundy girl for you and will soon have her singing like a canary.”

“And how will you do that?”

“I will not tell you. But if you pray for the forgiveness of my sins, then you will be working hard in the next few weeks.”

As usual, he looked shocked at my irreverence, which was just as I hoped. It was so easy to upset him in that way. Laughing happily, I left him to sleep, went back to my college, climbed over the wall undetected and crept softly into the room of my snoring tutor.

7

I went to see John Wallis, mathematician and man of God, as Thomas had urged; at this stage I knew little of that grand divine except that he was not well liked, although this I put down to the fact that he had been foisted on Oxford by Cromwell. Much of his unpopularity was due to the fact that, at the general purge of Puritans when the king came back, Wallis had not only kept his position but had even received signs of official favor. Many of those who had suffered for the king and had not been so rewarded resented this bitterly.

Rather presumptuously, I visited him at his home, for he was a rich man and kept rooms in his college, a substantial house in Merton Street and also, I gathered, a place in London. His manservant assumed I was a student wanting instruction and it was only with some difficulty that I gained an audience.

Wallis saw me immediately, for which favor I was impressed; lesser lights in the university had, in the past, kept me waiting for hours for no reason. Consequently, I went into his presence with some rising hope in my heart.

I suppose everybody has in their mind now an idea of what these people look like. The cleric, rosy-cheeked from too much high living; the natural philosopher, absent-minded, a little unkempt with the buttons of his tunic done up in the wrong order and his wig all askew. If there are such people, then the Reverend Dr. John Wallis was not one of them, for he was a man who, I believe, never missed or forgot anything in his entire life. He was one of the coldest, most frightening people I ever encountered. He sat perfectly still and watched me as I came in, indicating only by a slight nod of the head that I should sit down. Now I think more about it, there is something about quietude which is very eloquent. Thurloe, for example, sat very still as well, but the contrast could not have been greater. It may sound strange for me of all people to say it, but Thurloe’s stillness had a humility about it. Wallis had the immobility of a serpent as it eyes its prey.

“Well, sir?’’ he said in an icily soft voice after a while. I noticed that he had a slight lisp, which made the impression of the serpent even stronger. “You want to see me, not the other way around.”

“I have come to ask you a favor, sir. On a personal matter.”

“I hope you don’t want instruction.”

“Oh, Lord no.”

“Do not blaspheme in my presence.”

“My apologies, sir. But I’m not certain how to start. I was told you might be able to help.”

“By whom?”

“By Mr. Ken, an MA of this university and…”

“I am aware of Mr. Ken,” Wallis said. “A dissenting priest, is he not?”

“He is trying desperately to be obedient.”

“I wish him well. He no doubt realizes we cannot afford less than total compliance in these days.”

“Yes, sir.” I noticed that “we.” It was only a short while, after all, since Wallis had been a dissenting priest himself, and done handsomely out of it.

Wallis still sat impassively, helping me not at all.

“My father was Sir James Prestcott…”

“I have heard of him.”

“In which case you also know that he was accused of dreadful deeds, which I know he did not commit. I am convinced that his fall was a plot organized by John Thurloe to hide the identity of a real traitor, and I intend to prove it.”

Again, Wallis made no move, either of encouragement or disapproval; rather he sat there, staring at me with his unblinking eyes until I felt a hot flush of foolishness come over me, and I began to sweat and stammer in my embarrassment.

“How do you intend to prove it?” he said after a while.

“Somebody must know the truth,” I said. “I had hoped, that as you were connected with Mr. Thurloe’s office…”

Here Wallis held up his hand. “Say no more, sir. You have an overblown notion of my importance, I think. I deciphered letters for the Commonwealth when I could not avoid doing so, and when I was sure my natural loyalty to His Majesty’s cause would not in any way be compromised.”

“Of course,” I muttered, almost admiring the smooth way the blatant lie dripped from his thin lips. “So my information was wrong, and you cannot help me?”

“I did not say that,” he continued. “I know little, but perhaps can find out much, if I wish. What papers do you have of your father’s from that period?”

“None,” I said. “And I do not think my mother has any either. Why do you want them?”

“No box? No books? No letters? You must find out where he was at all times. For if it was said he was in London, communicating with Thurloe, and in fact you can prove he was elsewhere, then your cause is advanced greatly. Did you not think of such a thing?”

I hung my head like a recalcitrant schoolboy, and confessed I had not. Wallis continued to press me, asking me the most absurd questions about particular books, although I do not recall the details. My way was the more direct one of confrontation, not nit-picking through letters and documents. Perhaps, I thought, Mr. Wood’s skills would turn out to be useful after all.

Dr. Wallis nodded in satisfaction. “Write to your people, and find out what they have. Bring it all to me, and I will examine it. Then perhaps I will be able to connect it with things I know.”

“That is kind of you.”

He shook his head. “It is not. If there is a traitor at court it is best to know of it. But rest assured, Mr. Prestcott, I will not help you unless you can provide proof that you are correct.”

* * *

In my mind time was pressing, and my task daily bore in on me, the memory of my father urging me to action. So I began to prepare my travels, and from then on voyaged almost without a break for the next few months, until all was resolved. I was on the move through one of the worst winters I can recall and out again into spring, driven by my duty and my desire for the truth. I traveled on my own, with little more than my cloak and a pack, walking for the most part, trudging up road and tracks, skirting the huge puddles that swamp all byways at that time of year, finding rest where I could in villages and towns or under trees and hedges when there was no alternative. It was a time of the greatest anxiety and fear; until the last I often doubted I could be successful and was concerned that my many enemies would prove impossible to defeat. And yet, I also remember that time fondly, although that is perhaps merely the rosy glow that age always puts on the memory of youth.

Before I set out, I had to honor my promise to help Thomas. Coming across Sarah Blundy was easy, although engaging her in conversation was more difficult. She would leave her lodging at six in the morning to go to the Woods’ in Merton Street, where she worked as a servant every day except Monday, which was devoted to Dr. Grove. Here she stayed until seven in the evening. She was given four hours off every Sunday, and one day every six weeks to herself. Most particularly, on Wednesdays she went to do the marketing for the family at Gloucester Green, a wasteland on the outskirts of town where farmers were allowed to sell their produce. She would buy whatever the family needed and (as Mrs. Wood was a notorious miser) had to carry it back herself as she was not given the money for a hired hand.

This, I decided, would be my best opportunity. I followed her at a discreet distance to the market, waited while she made her purchases, then made sure I encountered her at the very moment she was struggling past with two enormously heavy baskets of goods.

“Miss Blundy, is it not?” I said with a look of pleasure on my face. “You don’t remember me, no doubt. I had the good fortune to consult your mother some months ago.”

She tossed the hair out of her face and looked at me quizzically, then nodded slowly. “That’s right,” she said eventually. “You did. I trust you found the money well spent.”

“It was very helpful, thank you. Most helpful. I’m afraid I did not behave as well as I should have done. I was very concerned and upset at the time, and this no doubt came through in my lapse of manners.”

“That’s right,” she said. “It did.”

“Please,” I said. “Let me make some small amends. Allow me to carry your baskets. They are far too heavy for you.”

Without any pretense of protest, she instantly handed over both of them. “That is kind,” she said with a sigh of relief. “It is the part of the week I like the least. As long as I am not taking you out of your way.”

“Not at all.”

“How do you know where we are going?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said hastily to cover my mistake. “I have nothing at all to do, and I would willingly carry these all the way up Heddington Hill for the pleasure of your company.”

She tossed her head back and laughed. “Then you certainly don’t have much to do. Fortunately I will not impose on your good offices so much. I am heading only for Merton Street.”

They were formidably heavy, and I half-resented the girl for being so willing to hand them both over. One would have been more than sufficient. What was worse, she looked at me with scarcely concealed amusement as I struggled with what she carried as a matter of course.

“Are you treated well there?” I asked as we walked—I panting along, and she walking with a light and easy step.

“Mrs. Wood is a good mistress,” she replied. “I have nothing to complain about. Why? Were you about to offer me a position?”

“Oh, no. I cannot afford a servant.”

“You are a student, is that right?”

I nodded. Considering that my gown was flapping in the sharp wind, and my cap in constant danger of being blown into the gutter, it was not a greatly perceptive remark.

“You aim at the church?”

I laughed. “Dear me, no.”

“Do you disapprove of the church? Am I talking to a secret Catholic, perhaps?”

I flushed with anger at the remark, but remembered in time that I was not passing the morning for my own amusement.

“Far from it,” I said. “Sinner I may be, but not to that extent. My nonconformity comes from a different direction entirely. Although in action I am blameless.”

“I congratulate you.”

I heaved a sigh. “I do not congratulate myself. There is a group of God-fearing people I would like to associate with, but they wouldn’t even consider accepting me. And I cannot say that I blame them.”

“And who is that?”

“I had best not say,” I said.

“At least you could risk telling me why you are so unwelcome.”

“Someone like me?” I said. “Who would have such a person, so steeped in every monstrosity? I know it, I sincerely repent it, but I cannot erase what I have been.”

“I always thought that many groups of people welcomed sinners. There hardly seems much point in only welcoming the pure. They are already saved.”

“That’s the idea they put about, of course,” I said with a great show of bitterness. “In truth they turn from the people who really need them.”

“They told you this?”

“They didn’t need to. I certainly would not accept someone like myself. And if they did I have no doubt they would constantly fear I would disrupt them.”

“Has your life been so wicked? It is difficult to imagine, as you can be little older than myself.”

“You were no doubt brought up in a righteous and pious family, though,” I pointed out. “I, unfortunately, did not have such good fortune.”

“It is true I was blessed in my parents,” she said. “But you can be certain that any group which would turn you away would not be worth belonging to. Come, sir. Tell me whom you have in mind. I might be able to find out something for you. Ask whether you would be welcome, if you are too timid to approach them yourself.”

I looked at her with gratitude and delight. “Would you? I hardly dare ask. It is a man called Tidmarsh. I have heard he is a saintly preacher, and that he has gathered around him the few people left in Oxford who are not corrupted.”

She stopped and stared at me. “But he is a Quaker,” she said quietly. “Are you aware of what you are doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“God’s people they may be, but He is giving them sore trials. If you become associated with them, you will lose whatever protection your birth gives you. You will be jailed, and beaten, and spat on in the street. You may even have to give your life. Even if you are spared, your friends and family will shun you and you will be held in contempt by the world.”

“You will not help me.”

“You must be certain you know what you are doing.”

“Are you one?”

A momentary suspicion passed across her face, then she shook her head. “No,” she said. “I am not. I was not brought up to invite troubles. I think that as prideful as gaudy dress.”

I shook my head at the remark. “I do not pretend to understand you. But I am sorely in need of help.”

“Find it elsewhere,” she said. “If God commands it, you must obey. But make sure you know what He wants first. You are a young gentleman, with all the advantages that brings. Don’t throw them away on a whim. Think and pray hard first. Theirs is not the only route to salvation.”

We had been walking awhile down St. Aldates, then along Merton Street, and had paused outside the door of her mistress’s house while she delivered this last injunction. I imagine she was merely trying to shield herself, but even so, her advice struck me as wise. If I had been some impetuous youth on the brink of making a grave mistake, she would have given me pause for thought.

I walked away slightly discomfited, which now I understand. I was deceiving her, and she gave kindness in return. It made me very confused, until I later learned how much greater her trickery was than mine.

8

Itwas not difficult to contrive several chance meetings with her in the few weeks that followed, and I slowly won her friendship. I told her that I had decided to take her advice but my soul was still tormented. All the sermons in the world could not reconcile me to the established church. I had learned that her father had been an extremist of the worst sort, so busy advocating the murder of property owners and the establishment of a republic that he had no time for Christ. Accordingly, I had to modify my approach.

“When I think of the hopes that existed in the world only a few years ago,” I said, “it makes me grieve. What were common aspirations are now cast out and despised, and the world is given over to greed and selfishness.”

She stared at me solemnly as though I had uttered a profound truth and nodded. We were walking down St. Giles, I having managed to meet her as she was coming back from a cookshop with the Woods’ dinner that evening. It smelled delicious, hot and tasty, and the odors made the juices turn in my stomach. I could see that she also was hungry.

“What do you do after you have delivered this?”

“Then I am finished for the day,” she said. It was already dark, and cold in the air.

“Come with me. Let us eat together. I can see you are as hungry as I am, and you would do me a favor to keep me company.”

She shook her head. “That is kind, Jack. But you should not be seen with me. Neither of our reputations will be improved by it.”

“What is your reputation? I know nothing of it. I see only a pretty woman with an empty stomach. But if it concerns you, we can go to a place I know where the clientele make both of us seem like saints.”

“And how do you know such places?”

“I told you I was a sinner.”

She smiled. “I cannot afford it.”

I waved my hand. “We can discuss that at a later stage, once your stomach is filled.”

Still she hesitated. I leaned over the bowl of food she was carrying and sniffed deeply. “Ah, the smell of that gravy, running over the lumps of meat,” I said longingly. “Can’t you just imagine a plate of it before you, with a fresh, crusty loaf and a tankard? A plate piled high, the steam rising into the air, the juices…”

“Stop!” she cried, laughing out loud. “All right. I’ll come, if only you’ll stop talking about food.”

“Good,” I said. “So deliver your meal, and come with me.”

We went to a small place on the very outskirts of the town, past Magdalen College and over the river. No one from the university, not even students, ever ate there, it being too far away in distance, and too low in reputation. The food was execrable as well; Mother Roberts was as bad a cook as she was disgusting a person, and the food was like the woman—larded with fat and giving off a foul smell. Sarah looked uneasy in the little room where she served up the gruel, but ate with the appetite of one who rarely gets enough. The main virtue of Mother Roberts was that the ale she served was strong and cheap, and I regret the passing of those days. Now that men of business make beer and are trying to stop women selling the ale they brew, I believe the great days of this country are over.

The best quality of the brew was that by the time Sarah had drunk a quart of it, she’d become talkative, and susceptible to my questions. As much as I remember it, I set the conversation down here. On my prompting, she told me that she not only worked for the Wood family, but had also found work with Dr. Grove. She did little for him, except clean his room, prepare his fire and a bath once every quarter—for he was fastidiously clean about his person—and he paid generously. The only trouble, she said, was his desire to bring her within the Established Church.

I said that this Grove must be something of a hypocrite to speak so, as he had a reputation for being a hidden papist. If I thought this would draw her out, I was wrong, for she frowned and shook her head fervently. If he was such, she said, she had never seen the slightest sign of it, neither in his room nor in his manner.

“And he works you hard?”

On the contrary, she insisted. He had treated her with the utmost kindness at all times, even though she had seen him be extremely unpleasant with others. Her main concern was that he would get a living out in the country soon. He had told her only a few days before it was a near certainty.

This upset me mightily; I already knew Grove to be blameless in his adherence—in fact he was probably more in conformity with the church than Thomas himself—and it seemed unlikely that my friend’s suspicions about his morals had any substance. Nor could the girl be persuaded to denounce him falsely for money. She had an honest air to her.

“He surely can’t have much skill at running a parish,” I said. “No doubt because he has been in the university for so long. Otherwise he would be wary of having a pretty young woman to clean his rooms. There is bound to be talk.”

“There is nothing to talk about, so why should anyone trouble?”

“I do not know, but lack of substance has never dissuaded a gossip yet, I think. Tell me about this reputation of yours that I should be so wary of,” I said, thinking that if I could prove Grove was willingly taking a sectary to his bosom, this might do just as well. So she told me a little about her father’s career in the wars, and described what to my ears seemed as black a monster as ever lived, a mutineer, atheist and rabble-rouser. Even through her description I perceived that the only thing to be said in his favor was his evident courage. She did not even know where he was buried, as he was too foul even to be allowed a consecrated grave. We shared that misfortune, at least.

She was already casting her spell over me, I think, for I found myself strangely drawn to her despite a freedom about her talk which should have been a warning. We had a strange amount in common; she worked for Grove, I had been in his charge. Both of our fathers had evil reputations, and although that of my own was unjustified, I knew what it was to be cursed in this fashion. And unlike many sectaries, she did not have the burning eyes and humorless demeanor of the fanatic. Nor was she ugly like most of them, their souls drawn to Jesus because no mortal man wants their bodies. She ate with surprising and natural delicacy, and when in drink she behaved well. I had talked little with women in my life, as they were either too protected or too low for proper conversation, and my experience with the whore outside Tunbridge Wells and the way she had laughed at me had begun to rankle.

I was beginning to want her as we left the table, and naturally thought that her willingness to dine alone with me in such a place, and her open conversation, meant she was equally inclined to me. I knew of people such as her, in any case, and had heard tales of their laxity. I was all the more keen because she was of no use—there was no truth in Thomas’s thoughts about Grove, and she would tell no tales. Fool that I was to think in such a fashion, for her trap was about to shut its jaws as it had done, no doubt, many times before. I thought I was being charming and seductive, favoring her with my condescension; instead she was exploiting my youth and trusting nature, leading me into that sin she fully intended to use for her own devilish ends.

It was well past eight when we left, and already dark, so I told her we had best travel back across Christ Church meadow to avoid the patrols. “I was caught a few weeks back by the curfew,” I said. “I cannot afford to be caught again. Come with me; you will be safer.”

She accepted without demur, and we cut past the botanical gardens and into the meadow, at which point I slipped my arm around her waist. She stiffened slightly, but did not protest. When we were in the middle of the field, and I was certain there was no one close by, I stopped, took her in my arms and tried to kiss her. Instantly she began struggling, so I squeezed her tightly to show that, while some resistance was to be expected, she should not overact her part. But she kept on struggling and averting her face, then started hitting me with the flat of her hands, pulling at my hair and making me lose patience. I tripped her up and pushed her to the ground. Still she struggled so, perfectly furious at her behavior, I was forced to slap her.

“How dare you?” I exclaimed indignantly once the struggling had momentarily stopped. “A meal isn’t a high enough price for you? You expect something for nothing? What do you think you are? Do you plan to pay me back some other way?”

She started struggling again, so I pinned her to the cold, damp ground, pulled up her thin skirt and prepared myself. I was hot in blood by now, as her refusal had both angered and excited me, and I gave no quarter. I may have hurt her, I do not know, but if I did it was her own fault. When I had finished I was content, and she was subdued. She rolled away from me and made no more protest, lying on the cold grass.

“There,” I told her. “So what was that noise about? It cannot have been a surprise to someone like you. Or did you think I wanted to feed you for your conversation? Come now, if I had wanted talk I would have gone out with one of my fellows, not a serving girl whose company has to be hidden.”

I shook her playfully, in good humor again. “Don’t make such a fuss. Here’s an extra tuppence. Don’t take it amiss. You’re not some virgin who has lost something of value.”

Then the harpy rolled over and slapped me, full in the face, then scrabbled at my face with her claws and pulled at my hair so hard some of it even came out in her hand. I have never been treated in such a fashion in my life, and the shock took my breath away. She had to be taught a lesson, of course, and I did so, although with little pleasure. I have never liked beating people, not even servants, however deserving. It is one of my greatest weaknesses, and I fear it leads them to hold me in less respect than they ought.

“There,’’ I said when she was crouching on the grass, her head in her hands. “Next time, I won’t want any of this nonsense.” I had to bend down and talk into her ear to make sure she would hear me. I noticed she was not crying. “You will treat me with proper respect in future. Now, to show there are no hard feelings, take this money, and let’s forget all about it.”

As she didn’t want to get up, I left her to show I wasn’t susceptible to such wheedling behavior. The evening had not been as useful as I had imagined, in that the problem of Dr. Grove was not yet solved, but it had had an agreeable ending. I even noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that she had a strange expression, almost a smile, I thought, on her face as I turned to go. That smile stuck in my mind for a long while afterward.

9

I would have left the matter there, had not a dream that very same night disturbed me greatly. I was climbing a staircase and there was a large oak door at the top, which was firmly closed. It frightened me but I summoned all my strength and pushed it open. It should have been the bedroom, but instead I found myself in a gloomy and humid cellar.

The sight inside was a fearful one; my father was lying on a bed, as naked as Noah, and covered in blood. Sarah Blundy, dressed all in white and wearing that same smile, stood over him, knife in hand. As I entered, she turned placidly toward me. “Thus dies a man of honor,” she said in a whisper.

I shook my head, and pointed accusingly at her. “You have murdered him,” I said.

“Oh no.” And she nodded at me. I looked down, and in my hand was the bloody dagger she had been holding herself only a moment before. I tried to let it go, but it would not leave my hand. “You see? You are forever stained now,” she said.

That was the end of the dream, or, if there was more, I cannot recall it. I woke up frightened, and it took some effort to rid my spirit of the pall that it cast over me, which was strange considering that I had never before paid much attention to such phantasms and, indeed, had always laughed at those who placed such store by them.

I asked Thomas what he thought when I encountered him and we went for a drink in a tavern, and he, of course, treated the matter with gravity, as he did everything. Their meaning, he informed me, depended on my constitution. What was the dream exactly?

Naturally, I left out the background to it; he was exceptionally condemnatory of fornication, and I did not wish to dispute with him over trifles.

“Tell me, do you tend to a dominance of the choleric humor?” he asked when I had done.

“No,” I said. “Melancholia, rather.”

“I take it you don’t know much about dreams?”

I admitted the fact.

“You should study them,” he said. “Personally, I find them superstitious nonsense, but there is no doubt that the vulgar believe all sorts of stuff can be read from them. One day, such foolishness may be condemned; certainly no reputable priest should pay any attention to such drivel. However, that age has not yet come, so we must beware.

“You see,” he said warming to his theme and shifting his thin backside in his seat in the way he did when he was settling down for a long discourse, “dreams come from various sources all acting in conjunction. Generally there is a dominant source, and it is that which we must isolate to identify the true nature of the apparition. One source is vapors rising from the stomach to the brain, causing it to overheat; such an occurrence happens when you have overindulged in food or drink. Did you do that before the dreams?”

“Far from it,” I told him, thinking back to my meal at Mother Roberts’s.

“The next is an imbalance of your humoral constitution, but as you tell me that melancholia is dominant in you, we must rule that out as well; this is obviously a dream in which the choleric exerts its influence, the choler tending to produce black dreams, because of its color.

“So that leaves the spiritual influence; a vision, in other words, either inspired by angels as a warning, or by the devil as a torment and temptation. Either way, the dream does not look well; the girl is strongly associated with the death of a man, a father. A dream of murder is a terrible sign; it foretells hardship and imprisonment. Tell me again, what else was there?”

“The knife, the girl, the bed, my father.”

“Again, the knife bodes ill. Was it bright and sharp?”

“Must have been.”

“A knife indicates that many people of ill will are ranged against you.”

“I know that already.”

“It also foretells that if you have a lawsuit pending, you are likely to lose it.”

“The bed?” I asked, becoming more and more miserable at the prospect he was laying out before me.

“Beds, of course, are about your marriage prospects. And for it to be occupied by the corpse of your father again does not signify well at all. As long as he is there, you will not marry; his body prevents it.”

“Which means that no woman of quality would touch the son of a traitor like myself,” I exclaimed. “Again, I hardly need a divine messenger to tell me that.”

Thomas looked forward into his tankard. “And then there is the girl,” he said, “whose presence puzzles me. Because the dream says plain that she is your misfortune and your judge. And that cannot be. Why, you scarcely know her, and I can see no possibility that your current difficulties can be laid at her door. Can you explain this to me?”

Even though I knew more than I could comfortably tell Thomas, I could not explain it. I can do so now, for I have pondered long and hard on the matter. It is clear to me that my initial visitation to Widow Blundy created an imbalance amongst the spirits, a dependency in which I was embroiled, and that by taking my pleasure with the daughter I allowed myself foolishly to fall into a trap. That I was prompted by the urgings of a devil and was seduced into her power is now equally obvious.

The message of the dream was in fact simple, had I only the wit to understand. For it showed clearly that the girl’s entrapment was aimed at deflecting me from my quest, with the result that failing to clear my father’s name would be a form of murder. Once I understood that, I was fortified, and encouraged in my resolve.

Of course, such insight did not come instantly, for I have never claimed to be a cunning thinker in such matters. I learned, as all men must, by experience and from the application of common sense, so that ultimately only one explanation is left which answers all. At that time, my only thought was that the girl might lay some piddling complaint against me to the proctors of the university, who took a poor view of students consorting with the town’s whores, and that the investigation might force me to remain in town. A defense was needed and attack is the best form of it.

When I left Thomas and walked up Carfax, I came on an exceedingly ingenious solution; in brief, I tipped Mary Ful-lerton, a vegetable girl in the market and one of the most dishonest and scurrilous wretches I knew, to confirm the story by telling how she had gone one day to deliver some fruit to Dr. Grove and been mistaken for Sarah. The moment she got in the room (I instructed her to say), Grove had come up behind her and started fondling her breasts. When she protested (here she claimed to be a virtuous girl, which certainly was not the case), Grove said “What, girl? You do not want what you were so eager to have yesterday?’’ Better still, I sought out Wood and told him a story about Dr. Grove and his rutting ways with his servant. It was guaranteed that, within a day or so, the story would spread and soon get back to the Fellows of New College, such was Wood’s ability as a gossip.

So let the slut complain if she will, I thought. No one will believe her and she will do nothing but bring scandal and shame on her own head. Looking back now, I am less sanguine. My cunning did not deliver the living into Thomas’s hands and, though it might have fended off Sarah Blundy’s worldly revenge, it enraged her to ever greater heights of malice.

* * *

I knew nothing of that when I left Oxford a few days later—a blessed release, for I always detested the town, and have not revisited it for more than ten years now—and believed rather that I had enjoyed the girl, protected myself and helped my friend at one and the same time. Such contentment did not last long after I crossed the border into Warwickshire and made my way to my mother, although again I ignored the first sign that anything was amiss. I spent money on a carriage to Warwick, planned to walk the last fifteen miles to save money, and set off in good heart, pausing after an hour or so for some water and a bite of bread. It was a lonely spot on the road, and 1 sat down on a grassy verge to rest. After a while, I heard a rustling in the bushes and got up to investigate; I had scarcely walked four paces into the undergrowth than, with a hellish squalling, a polecat sprang up and scratched my hand, causing a deep gash which bled profusely.

I started back in alarm and fright and tripped over a root, but the animal did not press home its advantage. It vanished immediately as though into thin air and, had it not been for the blood dripping from my hand, I would have sworn I’d imagined it. I told myself, of course, that it was my own fault, that I had probably got too near its brood and paid the price. Only later did it occur to me that, in my many years’ acquaintance with that part of the world, I had never heard anyone mention such creatures living there.

Later, of course, I knew better the origins of the beast but then I merely blamed myself, bound up my hand and got on with the journey, arriving after three days’ travel at my mother’s people. Our destitution had left her no choice but to throw herself on their charity and they had taken her back, but not as family ought. My mother had disobliged them mightily by marrying as she pleased, and they did not let her forget for an instant that, in their opinion, her sorrow was punishment for her disobedience.

Accordingly, they made her live little better than a servant. True, she was allowed to eat at the main table—they maintained the old custom, now almost forgotten, of eating with the entire household—but they always made sure she sat at the end and subjected her to almost daily insult. They were the very model of what have since come to be known as Trimmers—they would have got on well with Dr. Wallis, had they ever met. Under Cromwell, the family sang their psalms and praised the Lord. Under Charles they bought the family curate his vestments and read the Book of Common Prayer every evening. The only thing beneath them, I think, was popery, for they were the most fervent haters of Rome and constantly on the lookout for the malign touch of priestcraft.

I always loved the house, but I believe it has been remodeled now, reconstructed along modern lines by one of Sir Christopher’s innumerable imitators. Now the rooms are regular and well-proportioned and the light no doubt floods in through the modern sashes, the chimneys draw properly and the drafts are kept to a minimum. For my part I regret this enthusiastic conformity to whatever men of fashion in Europe tell us is elegant. There is something false about all that symmetry. It used to be that a gentleman’s house was the history of his family, and you could see in its lines when they had been in funds and expansive, or when times were hard. Those curling chimney stacks, and corridors and eaves stacked one next to the other, provided the comfort of a sweet disorder. One would have thought, after Cromwell’s attempts to impose uniformity on us all through his armies, that no more was needed. But I am out of harmony with the times, as usual. The old houses are being destroyed one by one, and replaced by gimcrack structures which will probably last no longer than the grasping, arrogant new families who construct them. Built so fast, they can be swept away as quickly, along with all the people they contain.

“How do you stand for such humiliation, madam?” I asked my mother when I visited her in her room one evening. I had been there for some weeks and could stand the mean piety, the arrogant self-importance of these people no more. “To have to endure their superiority every day would try the patience of a saint. Not to mention their insufferable reproaches, and pained kindnesses.”

She shrugged as she looked up from her embroidery. It was her habit to pass time in this way in the evening, making cloths which, she would tell me, would be mine once I had found a wife and an income. “You should not be unfair to them,” she said. “They are more than generous to me. They were under no obligation, after all.”

“Your own brother?” I cried. “Of course he is under an obligation. As your husband would have been had the positions been reversed.”

She did not answer for a while, and concentrated on her labor while I stared once more into the big log fire. “You are wrong, Jack,” she said eventually. “Your father behaved very badly toward my brother.”

“I am sure it was all my uncle’s fault,” I said.

“No. You know how I revered your father, but he could be hot-tempered and rash. This was one of those occasions. He was entirely at fault, but refused either to admit it or make amends.”

“I cannot credit it,” I said.

“You do not know what I am talking about,” she said, still patient. “I will give you a small example. During the war, before your father left to fight abroad, the king sent round collectors to levy an impost on all the great families. The demands on my brother were harsh and unfair. Naturally, he wrote to my husband, asking him to intercede and get the amount reduced. He wrote back a very offensive letter, saying that with so many people giving their lives, he did not intend to help my brother avoid giving his silver. It would have been a small enough service to do for his family. And when Parliament in turn made its levy, my brother had to sell a large parcel of land, he was now so impoverished. He never forgave your father.”

“I would have arrived with a troop of horse to take the money myself,” I said. “The needs of the king’s cause outweighed all others. Had more people seen that, Parliament would have been defeated.”

“The king was fighting to preserve the law, not merely to keep himself on the throne. What point was there in success if everything he was battling for was destroyed thereby? Without the families of the realm, the king was nothing; preserving our fortune and our influence did as much for his cause as fighting for him.”

“How convenient,” I scoffed.

“Yes,” she said. “And when this king returned, your uncle was there to take up his position as magistrate and reestablish order. Without my brother, who would have controlled this part of the world, made sure our people welcomed the king back? Your father was penniless and without influence.”

“I would rather have a penniless hero for a father than a rich coward,” I said.

“Unfortunately you now claim descent from a penniless traitor, and live on the kindness of the rich coward.”

“He was no traitor. You, of all people, cannot believe that.”

“All I know is that he brought ruin on his family, and made his wife a beggar.”

“The king gave him life and honor. What else could he do?”

“Spare me your childishness,” she snapped. “War is not a tale of chivalry. The king took more than he gave. He was a fool and your father was a greater fool for sustaining him. For years I had to juggle with creditors, bribe soldiers and sell our lands, just so he could be the man of honor. I watched our funds dwindle to nothing so he could cut a figure as an equal with noblemen on ten times the income. I watched him reject a settlement with Parliament because the man sent to negotiate with him was not a gentleman. That particular show of honor cost us dear, believe me. And when we were reduced to penury, I had to come with nothing but the clothes on my back to throw myself on my brother’s mercy. He took me in, fed me and housed me while your father dissipated what remained of our fortune. He pays for your education so you can live, and he has promised to set you up in London when you are ready. In return, he gets nothing from you but contempt and childish remarks. You compare his honor with your father’s. Tell me, Jack, where is the honor in a pauper’s grave?”

I sat back, stunned by her vehemence and grievously disappointed. My poor father, betrayed even by the one person who owed him all obedience. My uncle had even managed to subvert her. I did not blame her; how could a woman resist such pressures, when they were constantly applied? It was my uncle I blamed, using my father’s absence to blacken him to the person who should have defended his name to the last.

“You talk as though you are going to say he was a traitor after all,” I said eventually, when my head had stopped spinning. “I cannot believe that.”

“I do not know,” she said. “And so I try to believe the best. In the year or so before he fled I hardly saw him; I do not know what he was doing.”

“You do not care who betrayed him? It does not disturb you that John Thurloe is free though guilty, while your own husband lies dead through betrayal? You do not want revenge for this?”

“No, I do not; it is done and cannot be changed.”

“You must tell me what you know, however little it is. When did you last see him?”

She stared long at the fire that was fading in the grate and letting the cold wrap itself around our bodies; it was always an icy house, and even in the summer you needed a heavy coat if you went out of the main rooms. Now winter was coming in, the leaves falling and the winds beginning to blow, the chill was taking over the house once more.

It took some urging before she answered my questions about papers and letters and documents which might show what took place, for Wallis’s request was still in my mind and I wished to oblige him if I could. Several times she refused, changing the subject and trying to divert me into other matters, but each time I insisted. Eventually she gave way, realizing it would be easier than to resist. But her unwillingness was obvious and I never entirely forgave her for it. I told her that I had above all to know everything possible about what had happened around January of 1660, just before my father fled, and when the plot against him was reaching its climax. Where was he? What had he done or said? Had she even seen him in that period?

She said she had; indeed, it was the last time she had ever seen him. “I received a message through a trusted friend that your father needed me,” she began. “Then he came here unannounced and at night. He had no dealings with your uncle and spent only one night here, then left again.”

“How was he?”

“Very grave, and preoccupied, but in good spirits.”

“And he had a troop with him?”

She shook her head. “Just one man.”

“Which man?”

She waved my question aside. “He stayed the night as I say, but didn’t sleep; just fed himself and his comrade, then came to talk to me. He was very secretive, making sure that no one heard, and making me promise not to reveal a word to my brother. And before you ask, I have not done so.”

I knew at the bottom of my heart that I was on the verge of receiving a message of unparalleled importance, that my father had meant me to hear this, otherwise he would have sworn my mother to complete silence. “Go on,” I said.

“He talked to me very intently. He said he had discovered the worst treason imaginable, which had shocked him so greatly he had initially refused to believe the evidence of his own eyes. But now he was convinced, and he was going to act.”

I all but cried out in frustration at this. “What treason? What act? What discoveries?”

My mother shook her head. “He said it was too much to confide in a woman. You must understand that he never told me any secrets, or gave me any confidences at all. You should be surprised he said so much, not that he said so little.”

“And that was all?”

“He said he would uncover and destroy men of the greatest evil; it was dangerous, but he was confident of success. Then he pointed to the man who had been sitting in the corner all the while.”

“His name, madam? What was his name?” At least, I thought, I might have something. But again she shook her head. She did not know.

“He may have been called Ned; I do not know. I think I had met him before, before the war. Your father told me that, ultimately, only your own people were to be trusted, and that this man was such a person. If anything should not take place as planned, then this man would come and give me a packet, which contained everything he knew. I was to guard it well, and use it only when I was sure it was safe to do so.”

“And what else?”

“Nothing,” she said simply. “Shortly after they left, and I never saw him again. I received a message from Deal a few weeks later saying he was having to leave the country for a short while, but would be back. He never did come back, as you know.”

“And this man? This Ned?”

She shook her head.”He never came, and I never received any package.”

* * *

However disappointing it was that my mother had nothing to help Dr. Wallis, the information she gave me was an unexpected bonus. I had not expected her to have such knowledge, and had applied to her only as an afterthought. Sad though it is for a son to acknowledge, I found it increasingly hard to maintain my civility with her, so much was she being drawn back to her own family, which had only ever approved of my father while he possessed a good estate.

No; my purpose in going into Warwickshire was quite different, for I wanted to consult the papers concerning my Lincolnshire estate, so that I might know when I could expect to take possession. I knew that the matter had been complicated; my father had told me so on many occasions. By the time the fighting became serious and his confidence in the king began to slacken, he was aware that far more than his own life was at risk, and that the entire family might well be destroyed. Consequently, he drew up a settlement designed to protect it.

In brief, and following the latest practice in the country, he devised the real estate on a trust, for the use of himself and, on his death, of myself. A will drawn up at the same time made my uncle his executor and Sir William Compton my guardian, charged with the proper disposal of both the personal and real estate. It sounds complicated, but nowadays any man of property will understand it all perfectly well, it has become such an ordinary means of protecting a family from danger. Back then, however, such complexities were all but unheard of—there is nothing like civil strife to make men ingenious and lawyers rich.

I could not ask to see the papers, as they were in the keeping of my uncle and it was scarcely likely he would agree to the demand. Nor did I want to warn him of my interest, lest he take steps to destroy them, or alter anything in his own favor. I had no intention of allowing my uncle to cheat me, an activity which came as second nature to him.

So that night, when I was sure everyone was asleep, I made my search. My uncle’s study, where he conducted the estate business and held meetings with his agents, was unchanged from the days when he used to summon me to give me lectures about God-fearing good conduct, and I crept quietly in, remembering without even thinking about it that the door had a squeak that could easily rouse the entire household. Holding up my candle, I could make out the stout oak table where the accounts were laid every Michaelmas, and the iron-banded chests in which the vouchers and accounts were kept.

“Formidably difficult, are they not? Do not worry, when they are your responsibility you will understand them. Just remember the golden rules of property—never trust your managers, and never bear too hard on your tenants. You will lose in the end.” Thus I remember my father talking to me, I suppose when I was five, maybe less. I’d come into his own office at Harland House because the door was open, even though I knew it was forbidden. My father was alone with reams of paper all around, the sand shaker by his elbow, the wax heated for affixing the seals to the documents, the candle smoking in the wind. I half expected to be beaten, but instead he looked up and smiled at me, then gathered me onto his lap and showed me the papers. When he had more time, he would begin my education, he said, for a gentleman had much to learn if he was to prosper.

That day never came, and the thought made my eyes smart with tears as I remembered that room at my own home, the home I might have lost forever and which I had not even seen for more than a decade. Even so, the smell of it came back to me, strong and sure, a mixture of leather and oil, and I stood for some time in sadness before coming to and remembering my task, and the urgency of getting on with it.

My uncle used to keep the keys to the strongbox in the sword cupboard, and it was here that I immediately looked when I recovered myself. Fortunately, his habits had not changed and the big iron key was in the usual place. Opening the box took no time at all, and then I sat down at the big desk, positioned the candle, and began to go through the documents which I took out, one by one.

1 was there for several hours before the candle failed. It was tiresome work, for most of the bundles were of no interest, and were discarded the moment they were opened. But eventually, I found the details of the settlement. I also found twenty pounds which, after some hesitation, I took. Not that 1 wanted to rely on such tainted money, but I reasoned that by rights it was mine in any case, so I should have no qualms about using it.

Words cannot express the full horror of what I discovered, for the documents provided a complete and dispassionate outline of the most despicable and complete fraud. I will put it simply, for no amount of ornamentation will increase the effect—my entire estate was sold by Sir William Compton, the man appointed to guard my interest, to my uncle, the man supposedly entrusted with maintaining the integrity of the land. This foul piece of trickery had been accomplished the moment my poor father was laid into his pauper’s grave, for the final deed of sale was signed and dated not two months after his death.

I had, in short, been utterly, and entirely, dispossessed.

I had never liked my uncle, and had always detested his conceit and his arrogant ways. But I had never suspected he might be capable of such a monstrous betrayal. For him to take advantage of his family’s disarray and turn it to his own profit; to make use of my father’s death and my minority to pursue such a grubby scheme; to coerce my own mother into connivance with the destruction of her son’s interest—all this was far worse than I could ever have imagined. He assumed that my age and lack of funds would prevent me from fighting back. I determined, then and there, that he would shortly learn how very wrong he was.

What I could not understand were the actions of Sir William Compton, my guardian and a man who had always treated me with the greatest of kindness. If he, too, had conspired against me then I was truly alone; but despite the clear evidence I could not believe that a man of whom my father always spoke in the highest terms, to whom, indeed, he was prepared to consign his heir, could have acted with duplicity. A bluff, hearty man, the very backbone of the nation in robust honesty, described even by Cromwell himself as that “godly cavalier,” he must also have been duped to act in this fashion. If I could find out how, then again my cause would advance. I knew I would soon have to question him as well, but recoiled from the task until I could present him with more evidence. For I had been dispatched from his house of Compton Wynyates the moment my father fled—I did not know what reception I would receive, and, I admit, was afraid of his scorn.

I knew, as I closed the casket and locked it, then slipped quietly back to my room, that my task had grown enormously in complexity, and that I was now more alone than I ever dreamed. For I was betrayed in one way or another by everyone, even those closest to me, and had no resources but my own determination. Every step I took, it seemed, my labors grew greater and more difficult, for now I not only had to find the man who betrayed my father, I also had to confound those who so swiftly moved to profit from his disgrace.

It had not yet occurred to me that the two quests might be one and the same, nor even that, in comparison to the other struggle that was about to burst upon me in full flood, these problems were almost trivial.

I soon received some indication of what lay ahead for, about two hours before dawn, I slept. I wish I had not; I should have left the house immediately and been on my way, had I done so I would have avoided the most fearsome experience of a night that was already harrowing. I do not know how long I was asleep, but it was still dark when a voice awoke me. I drew the bed curtain back and saw, in the casement of the window, the clear figure of a woman leaning in, as though standing outside, though it was on the second floor. Although I could not make out the face, the flowing dark hair instantly confirmed my suspicions. It was the Blundy girl. “Boy,” she hissed, time and again, “you will fail. I will ensure it.” Then, with a sigh more like wind than breath, she vanished.

I sat, shivering with cold, for an hour or more until I had convinced myself that what had occurred was no more than the fever of a disordered and tired mind. I told myself that the dream was nothing, just as the earlier one had been nothing. I reminded myself of all the worthy priests who had said that to pay credence to such imaginings was presumptuous. But they were wrong; while I have no doubt that many so-called prophets who interpret their dreams as divine messages are ignorant and hare-brained, mistaking vapors for angels and humors for the Lord, some dreams are indeed spirituous in origin. And not all come from God. As I tried to lie back in the bed and sleep once more, the wind rattling against the window kept me awake and I remembered that I had not opened it before I went to bed. Yet there it was, opened and fixed open, although not by my hand.

I changed my plan when I went down the next morning and left as swiftly as was decent. I said no farewells to my mother, and certainly none to my uncle. I could not bear the sight of them, and was afraid I might let slip some remark and reveal that I had uncovered their plot.

10

I will not describe my turbulent emotions as I made my way to the border which divides the counties of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire; that my soul burned with the desire for revenge must be obvious, and I do not feel the need to put down on paper what any man in my position must have experienced. It is my task to describe what I did, not what I felt on the matter—the transience of emotions makes them a sorry waste of time. In the history of man, it is glorious action which provides all matter of significance, and all lessons for posterity. Do we need to know how Augustus felt when he heard the news that Actium had extended his dominion over the entire globe? Would it magnify the glory of Cato to have a record of his sentiments as the knife plunged into his breast? Emotions are but the tricks of the devil, sent to tempt us into doubt and hesitation, and obscure the deeds committed, whether good or ill. No man of sense, I think, will ever pay them much attention, for they are a distraction, a surrender to womanish sentiment that should be concealed from the world if they cannot be suppressed in the heart. It is our task to overcome the passions, not digress on their intensity.

So I will say merely I was troubled that as fast as I made progress in one sphere, I was assaulted in the other. The more I stalked John Triurloe, the more demons stalked me, for I had not shaken off the concern generated by the succession of dreams and visitations, and my brain was so befuddled that their obvious cause was hidden. Instead, I fruitlessly pondered this disharmony as I trudged southward through the heartland of the wars, taking in, almost every mile, the continued record of destruction that had been meted out to the land. So many buildings, so many fine dwellings were still in disarray, their owners, like my own father, no longer having the money to rebuild. Manor houses burned out or dismantled for their stone, fields still abandoned and overgrown with weeds, for the tenants will not work without a firm hand to keep them in their place. I stopped in Southam in the midst of a fit of that melancholy which has always plagued me, and spent some money on a bleed in the hope that I might be rebalanced and fortified. Then, weakened by the experience, I spent more money on a bed for the night.

It was providential that I did, for I heard at the table that a great magus had passed through that same day, wise in healing and all matters of the spirit. The man who told me—who joked but was frightened within—said he was an Irishman, who had a guardian angel that extended protection over him, that he might never come to harm. He was one of the adepti, who could cure merely by passing his hands over the afflicted spot, and was in constant converse with spirits of all forms, which he could see as ordinary men see each other.

I heard, also, that this man was heading south, intending to make his way to London, for he was intent on offering his services to the king himself. This venture, I understand, came to nothing; his ability to cure by touch (and it was a real skill; I saw it myself, and many others attested to it) was considered presumptuous, for he said he could cure scrofula by this means, knowing full well that this is the prerogative of kings, and has been since time immemorial. Being Irish as well, he was naturally seen as subversive, and was constrained to leave London after only a short stay.

So, the next morning I set off, confident that my youthful legs, and early start, would soon allow me to catch up with this Valentine Greatorex and consult him about my problems. At least I knew I would not have to beg, since the money from my uncle’s chest was still in my belt, and I could afford, for once, whatever was asked of me.

I caught up with him within a few hours at a village just on the Oxfordshire side of the border; he was staying at an inn and once I learned this I hired a room myself, then sent up word of my desire for an interview. I was summoned immediately.

I went to the meeting with some trepidation for, although I might have met a wizard before, I had never encountered an Irishman. I knew, of course, that they were terrible people, wild and disobedient, with a monstrous cruelty. The stories of the massacres they perpetrated on poor Protestants in late years were still fresh in my mind, and the way they continued to battle despite the chastisement meted out to them by Cromwell at Drogheda and other places proved that they were scarcely human in their bloody viciousness. I do believe that the only time Cromwell enjoyed the full and unrestrained support of the English was when he set out to subdue these murderous creatures.

Mr. Greatorex, however, satisfied neither my notion of what a wizard nor of what an Irishman should be like. I imagined him old, stooped, flame-haired and with wild, staring eyes. He was in fact scarcely a dozen years senior to myself, with a gentlemanly bearing, neat and precise movements and a solemnity of expression that would have done credit to a bishop. Until he spoke, he could have passed for a prosperous trader in any small town in the country.

His voice, however, was extraordinary, and I had never heard the like before, although I now know that the softness of expression and musicality of tone is characteristic of these people, who use words of honey to disguise their natures. As he plied me with questions, his words swept gently over me and I relaxed until I was aware of nothing in the room at all except his voice, and the gentleness of expression in his eyes. I understood, I think, how a rabbit must feel when it is frozen by the look of the snake, and how Eve must have felt also, willing to do anything at all to please the serpent, and earn more words of comfort from it.

Who was I? Where had I come from? How had I heard of him? About what did I wish to consult him? All these were necessary questions, and similar to the ones Widow Blundy had put to me to assure herself I was not sent to trap her. I answered fully until we came to my encounter with Sarah Blundy. Then Greatorex leaned forward in his chair.

“Let me tell you, sir,” he said softly, “that it is a very great mistake to tell me lies. I do not take kindly to being deceived. I am not interested in how badly you behaved, although I can see you abused this girl shamefully.”

“I did nothing of the sort,” I protested. “She was willing; she must have been so, and put on the pretense afterwards in order to extract more money from me.”

“Which you did not give her.”

“I was generous enough.”

“And now you fear you are cursed. Tell me your dreams.”

I told him, and about the polecat. He listened quietly as I recounted each piece of evidence.

“It did not occur to you that the daughter of the cunning woman might be able to encompass such attacks?” I said it had not, but the moment he suggested the idea that Sarah Blundy was responsible, I realized that it was obvious and knew also that my inability to see was itself part of the enchantment she had laid on me.

“And have you spoken to her since?” Greatorex continued. “It may offend your dignity, but often the surest way of dealing with such matters is to make amends. If she accepts your apology, she must then remove any curse she has placed on you.”

“And if she does not?”

“Then other measures will be required. But it is the best first step.”

“I believe you are frightened of her. You do not think you can contend with her.”

“I know nothing of the matter. If she truly has such power, then it would indeed be difficult. I see no shame in admitting it. Darkness is strong. But I have contested such people before, and, I think, have had as many victories as defeats. Now, tell me. What does she have of yours?”

I told him I did not understand the question but when he explained, I described the way she had scratched at my face with her nails and pulled some of my hair from my head. I had hardly spoken before he walked across to me. Before I could react in any way, he drew out a knife and grabbed me by the hair, dragging the knife across the back of my hand in one swift movement. Then he simply tore a lock from my head.

I jumped up cursing him with all my strength and inventiveness, the magic of his voice gone in an instant from my mind. Greatorex, however, merely resumed his seat as though nothing of importance had passed, and sat waiting for me to control myself.

“My apologies,” he said when I had calmed. “But I needed blood and hair in the same circumstances in which she took it. The more painful the taking, the more powerful the relic. I believe that may be why such power is attributed to the relics of saints, and why the remains of martyrs who died in great agony are considered the most potent.”

I clutched my head with my bloody hand and glared at him. “Papist nonsense,” I growled. “What now?”

“Now? Now you go away for a few hours. To be certain that you are indeed bewitched, rather than merely believing so, and to discover what are the forces ranged against you, I need to cast your horoscope. It is the surest, indeed it is the only, way of penetrating the darkness. If only the courts would make more use of people like myself, then the process of the law would be that much the surer. But in this foolish age, it is frowned on. So much the worse for the age.”

“I was told no witch has ever been caught by the law. Do you believe that?”

“Some have no doubt been punished by accident. But can the law apprehend such people if they do not wish it? No. I cannot credit it.”

“So these women who have burned of late? They were falsely accused?”

“For the most part. Not deliberately, I am sure. There is too much evidence of the devil’s presence among us for their existence to be gainsaid. Any sensible man must conclude that the powers of evil have been trying to seduce Christian women, taking advantage of the troubles that have so stirred the souls of men. Once authority is broken, Satan sees his chance. Besides, the only sensible argument against witchcraft is that women do not have souls, and therefore have nothing to trade with the devil. But this is flatly contradicted by all authority.”

“Nothing can be done, you think? Such people cannot be stopped?”

“Not by you lawyers.”

“How do you know I am a lawyer?”

He smiled, but ignored the question. “The whole of existence is a contest between light and dark. All the battles that are important for mankind have been waged without most people even knowing they were taking place. God has given special powers to his servants on earth, the magi, white witches, adepti, call them what you will. They are men of secret knowledge charged with contending with Satan from generation to generation.”

“You mean alchemists, people like that?”

He looked scornful. “Once, maybe, I meant such people. But their skill and power is waning. They seek now to explain what is, not to explore its power. Alchemy is now a mechanical trade, full of brews and potions which will be able to explain how things are made, but loses sight of the greater questions, of what they are for.”

“You are an alchemist?”

He shook his head. “No. I am an astrologer and, if you will, a necromancer. I have studied the enemy, and I know his powers. My skills are limited, but I know what I can do. If I can help you, I will. If not, I will tell you so.”

He stood up. “Now, you must give me the information I require, then leave me in peace for a few hours. I need the exact time of your birth, and the place of it. I need the time and place of your conjunction with this girl, and the times of your dreams and encounters with the animals.”

I gave him all that he required, and he dismissed me to walk around the village, which I was quite happy to do, for I knew it had been the scene of one of the battles of the war, in which my father had played a distinguished and noble role by advising the king so well that the day ended with the capture of all the enemy’s cannon and the death of much of his force. Had the king kept my father close to him, rather than relying on the advice of better-born but less experienced men, the result might have been different. But the king came increasingly to rely on cowardly pen-pushers like Clarendon, who wanted merely to surrender, not to fight.

It is low-lying, lush land around the northern part of Oxfordshire, fine countryside for crop and cavalry, and its richness could be seen even when all was dead, the fields brown and still and the trees stripped of their leaves for winter. The hills give some concealment to troops, but do not greatly impede their movement, and the woods are small in scale and easily skirted. I walked out of the village and up the river, imagining in my mind how the two armies had slowly edged their way upstream, the king on one side, General Waller and the rebels on the other, watching each other like cocks in a ring for a slip which would give the slightest advantage. It was my father who gave the advice which turned the day, encouraging the king to move the van forward, and advance the rear at a slower pace, opening up a gap in the middle which he knew a man like Waller would not be able to resist. Sure enough, Waller sent a good portion of his horse and all his cannon over the little bridge at Cro-predy, and they were still in disarray from breaking ranks to cross when the good Earl of Cleveland, warned of the tactic, fell upon them and cut them to ribbons.

It must have been a wonderful sight to have beheld; to have seen the cavalry, so far from their current perfumed dissolution, charging in perfect order, their sabers glistening in the sun, for I remember my father saying that it had been a warm, cloudless day of midsummer.

“Tell me,” I asked of a laborer who passed me by, giving me the downcast look of sullen suspicion which all villagers adopt with foreigners. “Where is the tree the king dined under the day of the battle?”

He scowled at me, and made to sidle past me, but I grabbed him by the arm and insisted. He nodded in the direction of a small lane. “There is an oak tree in the field at the end of that track,” he said. “That is where the tyrant ate.”

I struck him, full in the face, for his impudence. “Mind your tongue,” I warned him. “You will not talk like that in my presence.”

He shrugged, as if my reproof was of no importance to him at all. “I speak the truth,” he said, “as is my duty and right.”

“You have no rights and your sole duty is to obey,” I replied incredulously. “The king was fighting to save us all.”

“And on that day all my crops were trampled, my son killed and my house ransacked by his troops. What cause do I have to love him?”

I moved to hit him again, but he guessed my intention and shrank back like a dog that has been beaten too often, and so I waved the miserable creature to be out of my sight. But he had spoiled my mood; my plan of standing where the king had stood, so I could breathe in the atmosphere of the time, seemed less appealing now, and after a moment’s hesitation, I turned back to the inn in the hope that Greatorex had finished his task.

He had not, and he made me wait a good hour before he came down the stairs bearing the sheets of paper which, supposedly, bore all my past and future on them in his little squiggles. His attitude and mood had changed, no doubt to frighten me and thus put up his fee; whereas before he had been relaxed and, I think, treated my tale with less than complete seriousness, now he had a heavy frown, and an air of the greatest concern.

I had never troubled before, and have troubled little since, with astrology. I care not to know what the future brings for, by and large, I already know. I have my place and in the fullness of time, tomorrow or thirty years hence, I shall die, as God wills. Astrology is of use only to those who do not know their position, or what it will be; its popularity is a mark of a people in distress and a society in torment. No doubt that is why such people as Greatorex were so much in demand during the troubles, for then a man could be a grandee one moment and less than nothing the next. I have no doubt that if the leveling principle prevails amongst us, and more men claim advancement merely for merit, then the fortunetellers will profit the more. Certainly, that was why I needed him then, and why I dismissed such people when I needed them no longer. No man who truly accepts the will of God can attend to astrology, 1 now think, for whatever happens is the goodness of Providence; if we accept that, we should not want to know more.

“Well?” I asked when he had composed his papers before me. “What is the answer?”

“It is disconcerting and worrying,” he said, with a theatrical sigh. “And I hardly know what to make of it. We live in the strangest of times, and the heavens themselves bear witness to great prodigies. I myself know this; there is a great teacher, far greater than I can ever be, who might explain it to me if I can find him; I have traveled from Ireland for that express purpose, but so far with little success.”

“Times are hard indeed,” I said dryly. “But what about my chart?”

“It disturbs me greatly,” he said, peering at me as though I was newly introduced to him, “and I scarcely know how to advise you. It seems you were born for a great purpose.”

Perhaps this is the currency of all soothsayers, I do not know, but I felt that he was saying the truth, and I felt that it was so; what greater purpose was there, after all, than the one I had taken on myself? Greatorex’s confirmation of it bolstered my strength greatly.

“You were born on the day the battle of Edgehill was fought,” he continued, “a strange and frightening day; the skies were in disarray, and portents abounded.”

I did not point out that you hardly needed to be an adept to see that.

“And you were born not greatly distant from the battle,” he continued. “Which means your chart was affected by the events which went on around you. You know, of course, that the chart of the querent intersects with that of the country in which he is born?”

I nodded.

“So, you were born a Scorpio, with your ascendant in Libra. Now, as far as the question you pose is concerned, you asked it at exactly two o’clock, and it was for that time that I prepared the horoscope. The best sign of witchcraft is if the lord of the twelfth house be in the sixth, or if one planet be lord of the ascendant and the twelfth, which may happen when the proper ascendant may be intercepted, then it may be witchcraft. If the converse applies, however, and the lord of the ascendant be in the twelfth or sixth, then it shows that the querent occasioned his problems by his own willfulness.”

I sighed heavily, beginning to regret having placed myself in the hands of a canting magician. Evidently Greatorex perceived my disdain.

“Do not dismiss this, sir,” he said. “You think this is magic, yet it is not. It is the purest of science, the only way man has to penetrate the secrets of the soul and of time itself. Everything is performed through the finest of calculations, and if it is the case that the lowest is joined to the highest, as all Christians must believe, then it is obvious that the study of the one must reveal the truth of the other. Did not the Lord say, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs’? Genesis 1:14. That is all astrology is; reading the signs that God in his providence has given us to guide our way if we will only take notice of them. Simple in theory, though hard in practice.”

“I do not for a moment doubt the truth of it,” I said. “But the details weary me. It is the answers that give me greatest concern. Am I bewitched or not?”

“You must let me answer in full, for a partial answer is no response at all. It is the conjunction of your birth chart with the transitional chart which is of the greatest concern to me; for they are strangely at odds. Indeed, I have never seen the like before.”

“So?”

“The transitional chart indicates clearly that some form of enchantment is present, for Venus, which rules your twelfth house, is most firmly in the sixth.”

“So the answer is yes.”

“Please; be patient. Your birth chart also places the ascendant in the twelfth, which indicates that you are inclined to be the author of your own misfortunes. The opposition of Jupiter and Venus makes you prone to magnify your problems without justification, and the conjunction of the moon in the ninth house and in Pisces means you are liable to fantastical notions that lead you into rash acts.

“Which indicates the need for caution in this matter, and the most cautious move you can make is to acknowledge your fault. For you are at fault, and her anger has the force of justice behind it, whatever she might be. The easiest solution is not to fight it, but to ask forgiveness.”

“And if she refuses?”

“She will not if your contrition is genuine. I will make it the more plain. The indicator of the enchantment is in exact opposition to the conjunction of your troubles caused by Mars in the second house.”

“And what does that mean?”

“That means the two aspects of your life are one and the same. Your fear of bewitchment and what you tell me of your other troubles are intimately connected, so much so that the one is the other.”

I stared at him in astonishment, for he had said the same of my chart as Thomas had said of my dream. “But how can that possibly be? She never knew my father, nor could she possibly have known him. Surely her power is not such that she can intervene in affairs of that importance.”

He shook his head. “I state the situation, I cannot offer an explanation. But I do urge you to take my advice. This girl—this witch as you call her—is more powerful than any I have ever encountered.”

“More than you.”

“Far more than me,” he said solemnly. “And I am not ashamed to admit it. I would no more go against her than I would jump off the tallest cliff. And nor should you, for any victories will be illusory, and defeat will be total. Any counter-magic I can offer is unlikely to be of use, even if it has a temporary effect.”

“Give it to me anyway, so I know what to do.”

He thought for a moment, as if doubting my sudden enthusiasm. “Do you give me your solemn word that you will take my advice and approach the girl first?”

“Of course, whatever you say,” I said hastily. “What is the spell? Give it to me.”

“You have to do it yourself.” He handed me a phial containing the hair and the blood he had so violently taken from me. “This is silver, which is the moon’s metal. It contains a simulacrum of what she has of you. You must either get your own back from her and destroy it, to remove the object of her spells, or failing that, you must take this phial and fill it with her urine or her blood. Bury it when the moon is waning; as long as it is undiscovered, she will have no power over you.”

I took the phial and put it carefully in my bag. “Thank you, sir. I am grateful. Now, what do I owe?”

“I am not finished. There is a matter far more grave.”

“I think I have heard enough, thank you. I have my potion, and want no more of you.”

“Listen, my friend, you are rash and foolish, and you do not listen well to those wiser than yourself. Please do so now, as a great deal is at stake.”

“Oh, very well. Tell me.”

“I repeat again, that the girl who is the focus of your attention is no ordinary witch, if she is one at all. You asked earlier whether I was afraid to contest witches, and the answer is no; generally speaking I am not. But in this case I am indeed very frightened. Do not engage with this creature, I beg you. And there is one other thing as well.”

“And what is that?”

“Others might take your fortune and livelihood, even your life. But your greatest enemy is yourself, for only you have the power to destroy your own soul. Tread carefully. Some people are fated from the moment of their birth, but I hold that nothing is absolutely preordained, and we can choose a different path if we will. I tell you what may be, not what must be.”

“Now you are talking nonsense, to frighten me and get more money.”

“Listen to me,” he said, leaning forward and staring at me intently, using all his powers to bend me to his will. “The conjunction of your birth is strange and frightening, and you should beware. I have seen it only once before. I do not wish to see it again.”

“And that was?”

“In a book I was allowed to see only once. It belonged to Placidus de Tito, and he had it by descent from Julius Maternus himself, the greatest magus of them all, perhaps. In it, there were many horoscopes, drawn from many periods.

It had the birth charts of Augustus and Constantine, of Augustine and many, many popes. There were soldiers and churchmen and politicians and doctors and saints. But only one did I see which was like yours and you must take warning from it, if you can and if you will. I tell you again that if you do not heed my warnings, then far more than your life is at risk.”

“And whose horoscope was it?”

He looked at me gravely, as though afraid to speak. “It belonged to Iscariot,” he said softly.

* * *

I am quite prepared to admit that I left that man shaken to the depths of my soul, terrified at what he told me and perfectly under his spell. I will even say that it took some considerable time before I recovered my balance, and was able to dismiss most of what he said as a tissue of nonsensical babblings. I give him full credit for his skill, for he had mixed a little knowledge with a great deal of impudence to forge a weapon of great power, able to command him large sums of money from the credulous. After a while, I was even able to laugh at the way he had imposed himself upon me, for I had quite believed him; he had sensed my fear and concern, and had exploited my worries to enrich himself.

How he did this, how all these people act, is clear after a little thought; his questioning taught him all he needed to know, and he then wrapped up in his magical words what I had already said, mixing it in with the sort of common advice my mother might well have given me. Add all this to obscure references to occult texts, and you have the perfect fraud—it is easy to succumb, and requires great effort of character to resist.

But resist I did, although I considered that there were a few nuggets among the dross I had received. To begin with, the very idea of begging that girl’s pardon disgusted me, but wiser counsels prevailed as I lurched my way back to Oxford. What was my purpose, after all, but to remove the stain on my family and recover what was mine? If this girl was in some way bound up in that, then the sooner her malign influence was removed the better. I had, in fact, little faith in the man’s magic; he had told me little that was remarkable, and much which was clearly wrong. I might have to resort to his spells, but I had little confidence in them and decided that, painful though it might be, an approach to the girl was the most likely, and the most direct, way of removing the problem.

Nonetheless, I decided first to discuss my investigations with Thomas and went to see him immediately on my return to see how his campaign was faring. I did not get around to my own problems for some time, so deep was he in misery. I learned then that my stratagem for helping him had not been as effective as I had desired, for Dr. Grove had dismissed Sarah Blundy when the rumors about his morals began to spread, and his action was seen as a sign of resolute sacrifice rather than an admission of guilt.

“Already they are saying that he is likely to get the living,” Thomas said gloomily. “Of the thirteen senior Fellows, five have already offered their support to him, and some of those 1 counted on do not look me in the eye anymore. Jack, how could this have happened? You know what he is like, more than most people. I asked the warden for reassurance only this morning, but he was stiff and unfriendly to me.”

“It is the changing times,” I said. “Remember, many of Grove’s old friends are in positions of influence close to the government. Even Warden Woodward must beware of displeasing the powerful at such a time. He was put in by Parliament and must give regular signs of conformity himself, lest he be put out again by the king.

“But don’t despair,” I said heartily, for his long face and heavy sighs were beginning to grate upon me, “the battle is not yet lost. You have a few weeks yet. You must keep cheerful, as there is nothing people like less than seeing reproach in a face at every meal. It will harden their hearts against you even more.”

Another heavy sigh greeted these words of wisdom. “You are right, of course,” he said. “I will do my best to look as though poverty was nothing to me, and seeing the lesser man win gave me the greatest of pleasure.”

“Exactly. Just what you must do.”

“So distract me,” he said. “Tell me your progress. I trust you paid my respects to your mother?”

“I did indeed,” I replied, even though I had forgotten, “and although I was not best pleased to see her, I learned much of interest from the trip. I have discovered, for example, that my own guardian, Sir William Compton, was persuaded to connive with my uncle to defraud me.”

I said it with as much levity as I could manage, although bitterness gripped my heart as I explained the situation to him. Typically, he chose to search for a kindly explanation.

“Perhaps he thought it for the best? If, as you say, the estate was indebted, there was a risk you would be thrown into a debtors’ prison the moment you reached your majority, then it was surely a kindness on his part.”

I shook my head vehemently. “There is more to it, I know it,” I said. “Why was he was so willing to believe that my father, his best friend, was guilty of such a crime? What had he been told? Who had told him?”

“Perhaps you should ask him.”

“I intend to do just that, when I am ready. But first I have some other matters to attend to.”

* * *

I found Sarah Blundy late that evening after a long wait; I had thought of going to her abode, but decided that I could not face mother and daughter together, and so stood at the end of the alley for upward of an hour before she emerged.

I do not mind admitting that my heart was beating fast as I approached, and that the wait had put me in a foul temper. “Miss Blundy,” I said as I walked up behind her.

She spun round quickly and took a few steps backward, her eyes instantly blazing with the most vicious hatred. “Keep away from me,” she spat, her mouth curled up in an ugly snarl.

“I must talk with you.”

“I have nothing to say to you, nor you to me. Now leave me in peace.”

“I cannot. I must talk to you. Please, I beg you, hear me out.”

She shook her head and made to turn away and continue her journey. Much as I hated to do so, I ran round in front of her to block her path, and assumed the most supplicatory of expressions.

“Miss Blundy, I beseech you. Listen to me.”

Perhaps my expression was more convincing than I thought, for she stopped and, assuming a look of defiance—mingled, I was glad to see, with some fear—waited.

“Well? I am listening. Speak, then leave me in peace.”

I took a deep breath before 1 could bring myself to utter the words. “I have come to beg your pardon.”

“What?”

“I have come to beg your pardon,” I repeated. “I apologize.”

Still she said nothing.

“Do you accept my apology?”

“Should I do so?”

“You must. I insist upon it.”

“And if I refuse?”

“You will not refuse. You cannot refuse.”

“I can easily do so.”

“Why?” I cried. “How dare you talk to me in this way? I have come here as a gentleman, though I had no need to do so, and abased myself to acknowledge my fault, and yet you dare to refuse me?”

“You may have been born a gentleman; that is your misfortune. But your actions are those of one far lower than any man I have ever known. You violated me, although I gave you no cause to do so. You then spread foul and malicious rumors about me, so I am dismissed from my place, and jeered at in the streets, and called whore. You have taken my good name, and all you offer in return is your apology, said with no meaning and less sincerity. If you felt it in your soul, I could accept easily, but you do not.”

“How do you know?”

“I see your soul,” she said, her voice suddenly dropping to a whisper which chilled my blood. “I know what it is and what is its shape. 1 can feel it hiss in the night and taste its coldness in the day. I hear it burning, and I touch its hate.”

Did I, or anyone else, need a franker confession? The calm way she confessed to her power frightened me mightily, and I did my best to summon the contrition she wanted. But she was right on one score—I felt little; her devils made her see true.

“You are making me suffer,” I said in desperation. “It must stop.”

“Whatever you suffer is less than you deserve until you have a change of heart.”

She smiled, and my breath caught in my throat as I saw the look on her face, for it confirmed everything I ha