I could not for too long delay my promise to Violet Bathurst to cut out her Cancer.
Though I shied from the task, I knew that I had to discover in me some will to do it, before the Thing spread. For the thought of Violet dying alone in her dark chamber was a very sorrowful one. I do hold and believe that the deaths of those who have taken irrepressible pleasure in their moment-to-moment existence – in a world where many people seem sunk in a physical and spiritual twilight, or half-life – are to be especially mourned.
The Nurse I wanted to help with the Cutting was one Mrs McKinley, a bonny and kind Irishwoman, whose Catholic family had fled to England after the Protestant Settlements in Ireland in 1641. Mrs McKinley, now in her fifties and grown a little stout, had the gentlest, surest hands I have ever beheld in all my work with Nurses. More than this, her voice is of a great sweetness of tone and this, I have often observed, brings comfort to the Patient.
It also offers to me an accompaniment of amusement as I work, for that, in her Donegal accent, she addresses me not as Sir Robert, but as ‘Sir Rabbit’, and no matter how many times she says this, it always brings a smile to my lips and thus, though my fingers may be in a tangle of flesh and gore, I am afforded enough Lightness of Heart to be able to carry on.
To buy Opium for Violet, I first had to visit my most favoured Apothecary, Mr Dunn, in Norwich, a member of the Worshipful Society of the Art and Mystery of Apothecaries.
Of this designation the King had observed that the word ‘mystery’ appeared to him to be ‘an inconvenient noun’, which should not belong there.
‘One does not wish there to be any mystery in the matter,’ he pointed out. ‘One wishes, on the contrary, that the Apothecary’s knowledge be proven, or at least theoretical, as opposed to hypothetical, let alone mired in the Unknown. Is this not so, Merivel?’
I agreed that it was. The King then announced that he would be interested to talk to Mr Dunn and to inspect his premises. We thus travelled to Norwich together in the King’s coach, and by the time we got there a great press of people, recognizing the King’s Livery on his coachmen, had surrounded us.
I descended first and savoured the disappointment on the faces of the Crowd when they saw me (a mere Sir Rabbit) and not their Sovereign. But then I offered up my hand, and the King took it and descended in elegant style, notwithstanding the little limp that the obstinate Sore on his left leg has given him, and a great cry of rejoicing went up from the people assembled, and they reached out to try to touch the King, and a woman passed him her baby to hold in his arms.
I could see Mr Dunn, standing at the door of his Apothecary’s Shoppe. I had not been able to give him any warning about the King’s arrival, and when Dunn caught sight of his Sovereign, his body began to jerk in spasms of incredulity. He took off his Spectacles and put them on again, fearing his eyes were deceiving him. Then, suddenly bethinking himself of how he appeared, he cavorted into his Shoppe to remove his Wig and replace it with a better one.
Some time passed before we could make our way inside the Shoppe. Still holding the baby, the King embarked upon numerous conversations with the Crowd, enquiring after the Wool Trade in Norfolk and the Herring Fleets, and hearing how, in all honesty, the times were not very good ‘for that people go short of money, Sir, after the hard winter storms, when the Fleets could not put out’ and when ‘many sheep had their breath frozen in their gullets by the ice and snow’.
I saw that the King listened attentively to these tales of dead sheep and unfished herrings, but offered no remedy. All he could find to say was: ‘You must hold on. You people of Norfolk are stubborn and true. We are in May weather now. Better days are coming. You must hold on.’
When he said this, one man, a poor Fisherman, barged his way through the press of citizens to show the King his naked ribcage, which was so scantily clad with flesh, it could only put me in mind of Pearce’s body just before he died. The man beat upon his ribs with his fists and cried out: ‘I’m a beggar in Norwich now, Sir! Look at me! I had a Herring Boat at Yarmouth, but it was lost in the January tides and all my livelihood with it. And I have five children. Tell me how I am to “hold on”!’
At this the King passed the baby back to its mother and turned to me, snapped his fingers and said: ‘Coins, Merivel! Give this poor Fellow a shilling or a half-crown immediately.’ Then, as I scrabbled in my pockets for my Purse, he said to the Fisherman, ‘Sudden loss is part of Life, as I, who lost my Father so cruelly, know well. And all we can do is to bear it. But here . . . here is kind Sir Robert Merivel, who will furnish you with a shilling or two, and tonight you and your family will eat your fill.’
Hands reached out to me – not only the filthy hand of the Fisherman-Beggar – and in less than one minute I was obliged to part with every bit of money that I had, for in a Crowd you cannot give to one and ignore the rest. The reaching out to me for coins only ended when I turned my purse inside out, to show that I had not one penny more to give. Nobody thanked me. And when at last we were able to turn and walk into Mr Dunn’s premises, the King did not seem to have absorbed the fact that now I had no Means with which to buy the Opium I needed for Violet’s Cutting. All he said was: ‘I do not like it when I am face to face with Poverty and Want.’
Suspended from the ceiling in Mr Dunn’s Shoppe is a strange variety of Stuffed Creatures: an Alligator, a Turtle, an Eel and a brace of Toads.
When you enter here, the slight stench from these Exhibits, which have hung there for a goodly time, might incline you to turn and walk out again, and I saw the King’s nostrils dilate, and he produced from his sleeve a handkerchief scented with Lavender Water and held it to his nose awhile.
Then the scientific curiosity, which impelled him to start his own Laboratory at Whitehall and to give a Royal Charter to the Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge by Experiment, led him to forget any bodily inconvenience. He began to pick his careful way around Dunn’s dark emporium, noting what the jars and galley pots and gourds contained, and setting aside his handkerchief to sniff at them. Then he suddenly turned to the Apothecary and asked: ‘Where did you acquire your knowledge, Dunn? Was it properly come by?’
Adjusting his wig, Dunn stammered out that he had been apprenticed to an Apothecary as a boy of sixteen and, being ‘both curious and reckless’, had tried very many types of Physick on himself, ‘to see what they would do to me . . .’
‘How interesting,’ said the King. ‘Curiosity and recklessness may both be fine attributes in a man. I have often thought it.’
‘Well, and in this way, Your Majesty,’ said Dunn, stammering no more, ‘when the Physicians prescribe, I can sometimes make a Correction, for that I have kept a Notebook of everything I tried, with all the quantities and manifestations of symptoms, and special notice of all the False Cures.’
‘Sir Robert knows’, said Dunn, ‘the quantity of Mountebanks in this country! They will sell anything, Sir, call it “a Beautiful and Efficacious Vomit”, say, and sell no matter what for a shilling and sixpence. It might be Rat Poison. It might nearly kill you. But some Physicians, they scarcely know what preparation does what to what, so then the Apothecary’s knowledge, if it can, must be the Corrective to a False Cure.’