From The Memoirs of Josiah Fludd, M.D. Part I


Terry Richard Bazes

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 112 in 2007.

Caleb Pedlar: Paternoster Row, London, 1742

I being then in my nineteenth year and little more than a beggar -- intent, by hook or by crook, to become a chirurgeon and yet utterly without means to feed and clothe my body (much less to learn the merest rudiments of my profession) -- it came about that at length I did find a way both to earn my bread and pursue my studies by undertaking to perform a service -- a wholly necessary and harmless service albeit one from which my more prosperous school-mates turned away with horror and revulsion. So it was that I got my sustenance and was suffered to sit with all the paying scholars -- provided it was in the very backermost row -- and watch whilst our professor probed the deepest mysteries of a fresh cadaver.

Now just exactly how and whence these cadavers were supplied were questions my finical colleagues dared not closely entertain, although in gross they knew the truth and shunned me like a leper. But I cared not a fart for their esteem, so long as I could learn, and the short of it was that I advanced quickly in my studies and was oft besought by my professors for a specimen and consequently was upon ever the most constant look-out for the newly dead.

For this purpose it was my practice to put on the clothes and countenance of a mourner and, thus disguised, to frequent the very meanest of country churches in the hope that there I might chance upon some humble obsequies. If fortune smiled, and some farmer or laundress had departed this life, then I would repair under the cloak of starlight unto the churchyard, still in mourning attire and carrying a fistful of daisies and a Bible, lest I be questioned of my purpose and require a ready pretext. The great secret of the art was to work with utmost haste and efface the smallest evidence of theft. Therefore, by the light of my lantern, I studied the disposition of each rock, each wreath of flowers -- and, thus informed of the state to which the grave must later be restored, now proceeded to violate the soil, but only so much as to permit my shovel to break the very head-piece of the box. This method, once perfected, allowed me -- in a trice -- to draw the carcass out, conceal it in a sack, restore the injured earth, and load my stiffened burden on a waiting dung-cart.

‘Twas in this manner that I contrived to fill my belly, ensure the progress of my studies and the comfort of a flea-bit pallet. But equally I ensured the loathing of my fellows -- and even my professors, though they oft were beholden to my services, recoiled from my presence and did seem more to grudge than praise my nimble learning. Indeed, so contradictory was my position -- as much needed as despised for the performance of my midnight labors, ahead of my fine classmates but in the rear of their esteem (without which my future as a surgeon was foredoomed) -- that I began to fear that I at best would be a physician to the poor, or at worst a wretched leach to oxen, pigs and horses.

Thus, whilst I lay abed one evening in my garret, did I meditate my dismal plight and the wreck of my ambitions, when I heard a sudden knocking on my door. No sooner had I risen up and inquired who it was, than I had drawn the bolt -- and beheld, there before me, a creature whom elsewise I would have taken for a mere cut-purse, had the fellow not been most servile and worn a footman’s livery. He had, he said, been sent to ask the favour of my services, forasmuch as a certain noble earl had need of a handsome, young, female carcass -- for which specimen I would be excellently paid provided it be fresh and that the feet were shapely and unblemished.

One may easily conceive with what astonishment I attended this request. Indeed, I do not wholly recall my stammering response -- save that I would consider on the matter and speak about it more upon the morrow. Nonetheless, I well recall in what state of sleepless perturbation I subsequently tossed upon my pallet. For though I long had regarded my churchyard labors as unavoidable expedients to the growth of science, I could not readily degrade my somber office to the lewd employment of a common bawd. For I doubted not that this earl (of whose profligacy I had heard before) required a female cadaver, not for the furtherance of science, but to indulge a heinous and obscene appetite.

It was, therefore, little wonder that, ere the morning broke, I had all but resolved to decline this vile offer. For to the agonies of conscience I far preferred a future life of penury and scorn. So entirely, in fact, had I dismissed all thought of this proposal, that I would never have enjoyed the blessings of honour and prosperity, had it not been for a single tragic accident.

For upon the following day, whilst seated in a tavern, I chanced to hear a scream, a wild neigh of horses, and a general shout -- purporting that some harlot, some creature who sold her favours to the lowest blackguards, had been mortally trampled by a passing carriage. Someone cried out for a doctor -- and I hastened to attend.

Suffice it to say that I did all within my power to save the piteous wretch. Indeed, so conscious was she of my efforts that her dying wish was for a way to compensate my kindness. But the short of the matter is that when I considered that her immortal soul had fled and left behind the carcass of a whore who, when alive, had not priced herself above a shilling -- and when I considered furthermore how wrong it was to waste within the earth what elsewise might be put to better purpose, then I could not choose but see that frugality was rightly deemed a virtue.

I did not fail to attend the somber service and throw my bunch of daisies in the grave. A few sad strumpets, who had paid both the coffin-maker and the sexton, huddled next me to pay their last respects. But no sooner did the sexton start to shovel in the dirt, than they ceased their fond farewells and made off to do their business in the streets. Then I, too, departed -- but only for so long as to hasten to my lodgings and leave word that if a footman chanced to ask for me, he should wait for my return.

By nightfall, when I set about my work, it was raining. Gratefully, this inclemency of weather favoured the expedition of my efforts: for not a single hackney passed to retard the steady progress of my digging. Indeed, so quickly did I work, that I had broke into the box, bagged my quarry, replaced the soil, and rode off in my cart, ere I bethought myself to see whether the feet of the poor creature would answer the intent of my commission.

It is difficult to convey what misery of panic this sudden thought occasioned: for at once I saw that all my hopes of preferment (which till now I barely allowed myself to entertain) might have come to nought had the poor dead girl’s feet been unshapely or bruised and therefore failed to fulfill the exacting requirements of my employer. At once I stopped my cart along the road-side and had already contriv’d to untie the sack and, by my lantern’s light, commenced to unlace the creature’s boots, when I heard the sound of nearby footsteps. To my earlier panic, then, was superadded the fresh horror of discovery and when I saw, from out the darksome mist, that the footsteps were those of a mere old rag-man -- the vile embodiment of all the beggarly misery from which I had arisen and which now did seem to come betwixt me and my prize -- I do shamefully confess I itched to strike him with my shovel. But happily such unworthiness was but a moment’s sinful thought and this old man passed by me quite unharmed. Indeed, I thanked God for my deliverance as I watched him turn the corner. One may readily conceive with what frenzied and suspenseful eagerness I now again hastened to unlace the slattern’s boots -- and with what sudden access of relief and joy I at last removed them: for never had I seen such slender perfection of the digits ----- or a more finely shaped metatarsus.

It wanted yet several hours before daybreak (still the cold rain fell and the sky was black as pitch) when I arrived back at my lodgings with my quarry. The harridan from whom I let my garret must have heeded my instructions, for awaiting me before that row of squalid houses were a coach and four -- and my last night’s visitor shivering in the coach-box against the cold and rain. This fellow -- this Simkyn Potter, as I learned hereafter he was named -- gan now, as soon as he took note of my arrival, to vent his spleen against my tardiness and the enormity of his discomforts and assayed to pay me at once for my choice specimen and be gone. But I would have none of it, for I would not be cheated of my chance to wait upon and be of service to a rich and noble earl. Therefore I told this surly coachman that by the means of certain medicaments I could forestall the wonted stiffening of the dead, give both colour and fragrance to the flesh, which would please his lord more fully than would stiff and foul meat. In fine, I played the doctor and warned him that he gravely risked his lord’s displeasure, which so frighted him that now again, as he had been the night before, he was all servility and smiles -- and agreed that I myself should bring my trophy to his lord.

It is little wonder that now, with this Potter at the reins, I did not hesitate to exchange my dung-cart for the sumptous elegance of a covered carriage -- and that as I and my precious sack coached it through the labyrinth of the sleeping city, I felt the giddy drunkenness of hope. For already I guessed that upon this one event depended all my future honours, and that at last I should win the laurels that had so long eluded me. Indeed, my heart was full and much did I thank God and marvel at the mysteries of Providence.

It ever being my practice to anoint a specimen with herbs and sweeten it with cloves, now whilst I rode did I reach into my sack and with some difficulty perform the melancholy office of embalment. Wherefore, when at length we wheel’d into his Lordship’s fore-court, I was content that I had done my duty and could not therefore fail to please.

The carriage stopped before a massive portal. It was, even now, the dead of night and raining. As I quitted my carriage, a mastiff gan sniffing at my sack and a hunch-back’d old gentlemen looked down from a nearby window. But of his Lordship I saw nothing, tho’ from a distant recess of this august pile I did hear a shrill and fearsome howl.

No sooner did this howling cease that, from out the doorway next me, this old hump-back came hobbling at full speed and, with a vigour astonishing for one so aged and deformed, thrust me aside and seiz’d upon my sack. For such impertinence I fairly itched to damn his soul to hell. But forbearing to offend an elder (who seemed, moreover, at his master’s bidding), I doff’d my hat and proffer’d him my aid.

At this old gentleman’s instruction, then, I dragged my heavy sack into the kitchen, wherein I did first unbag and then unshoe my quarry -- so that, in a trice, this poor dead harlot lay outstretch’d next the chimney-fire upon a wooden table.

How now did I reproach myself that, against my better judgment, I had allowed events to come to such a pass! For much did I grieve to think that this poor departed creature should soon become the object of unhallowed pleasures which, however much I endeavoured to comprehend, yet I could not choose but shudder to imagine. Thus did I lament whilst this old gentleman -- this Meister Frobin, as I heard him later call’d -- hover’d o’er my specimen and made a thorough study of the feet.

One may well, then, conceive my absolute astonishment when this ancient fellow, having close survey’d the feet, now with feeble slowness sawed them off --- and placed them both together in a silver charger. Indeed, only now did I suspect that all this while I had entirely mistook the ultimate intent of my commission.

There was, however, little time for speculation. For suddenly, once again, I did hear that self-same piteous howling -- and by the grave demeanour of my elderly companion I could not doubt it was a summons from his lord. Eager as I was to be of service, I did not hesitate to lift up this heavy charger for this impotent old man -- although whilst now I followed him up marble stairs and through halls of haughty portraits, I could have wish’d myself in more suitable attire than my muddied breeches and out-of-fashion’d waistcoat.

For presently I both saw and heard his Lordship, outstretch’d and howling in his bedchamber. However, it was the cutlery, the bandages, the waxed thread and suture needles ranged upon the table next his bedside which most engaged my startled notice. Indeed, some dark rumours I had heard of certain over-fond enthusiasts of vivisection who had tried upon frogs and Guinea fowls to duplicate those experiments of grafting which had long proved so miraculous in botany. But never, in my most outlandish dreams, had I imagined that such audacious trials would be made upon the human frame -- nor that I myself should assist at so delicate a surgery.

Directly that I put the silver charger and its melancholy freight down upon the table, this old barber-surgeon plucked up these hapless feet and gan liberally to smear black unguent upon each yet bleeding mass of raw skin and musculage, veins, nerves and arteries -- and, most particularly, upon the severed cord of the Achilles tendon and those stumps of the tibia and fibula where they had been cleanly cut just above the astragalus. His Lordship, all this while lying upon his bed in his night-cloathes and jackboots, did manfully steel himself to his ordeal by guzzling down a pint of Holland’s gin.

It was at this juncture that I had, for the very first time, the most signal honour of rendering service to his Lordship. For now this old Prussian hump-back, this Meister Frobin, fairly ordered me to pull off his Lordship’s boots. To be sure, I much disliked this old man’s habit of peremptory command. Nonetheless, I was not slow to grasp that all my fond hopes of preferment depended on this one small chance to please. Therefore I did not fail to bow -- and, by his Lordship’s leave, straitway began to tug upon his boots.

What, then, was my shock and affrighted consternation when, on a sudden, his Lordship gan with pitiable terror to shriek and clutch onto his boots as if, for dear life, he would never let them go! Indeed, so loud was his howling and so extreme his horror of surrendering his boots, that immediately I desisted and humbly begged his pardon. But no sooner had I stopp’d, that at once he implored, nay, commanded me to begin again, so that for some moments I was in a sad perplexity how best to win his favour.

This old surgeon, however, would not suffer a delay: but, whilst sharpening his saw, now thundered his command a second time. There was somewhat in his eyes that would not admit of contradiction. The harlot’s feet, I well remember, lay oozing on the silver as I hastened to obey. For the short of the matter is that I again approached his Lordship and indeed pulled off his boots and thereby learned the obscene and scandalous secret: that beneath his boots he had -- not feet-- but green and loathsome claws.

(to be continued)