Michelle Lovric 

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A quack doctor had trundled his wheeled rostrum into the cobbled lane outside the Anchor. The horse was quickly unharnessed and tethered at a small distance. Ingenious levers and pulleys transformed the rig into a small stage under which a knot of spectators assembled: a restive mixture of shopkeepers and labourers. A snowstorm of handbills was distributed by the Zany, and the semi-literate set themselves up reading aloud in pompous tones to those who could not guess at their inventions.

The Zany, got up in an extravagant confection of multi-coloured rags, now hurtled up onto the stage and began to warm the mood of the audience with his capers and jokes. Hearing laughter, more people drew near until at least fifty souls, baying and helpless with mirth, were the Zany’s to do with as he wished.

I felt homesick suddenly: such a sight was to be enjoyed on the Riva degli Schiavoni any day in Venice. This stage even boasted the familiar effigies in wood of Cosima and Dammiano, patron saints of medicine. Nor were the services of such a clown disdained by the most pompous of Venetian quacks. The Zanies were useful to draw the crowds and unlock their ears, all the better to steal a passage to their pockets. Sometimes the arrant silliness of the Zany served to underline the seriousness of his master.

My mind travelled back sixteen years to those nights when I had crept out of San Zaccaria to the Riva degli Schiavoni, pretending to be with my lover, and watched the mountebank doctors at their work. I had not seen such a thing since.

All Zanies have their particular talents, acrobatic, theatrical or musical. This one was a singing Zany and most tunefully he treated us to song as he scattered his creamy largesse of printed handbills advertising the services of the Great, the Unparalleled, the Most Rever’d Dottore Velena, the wonder lately come to London direct from Venice − (Indeed! I smiled) − with his Universal Cure that had lately saved many thousands of Venetians in mortal danger from the Itching Flux. I glanced behind the threadbare velvet curtain to see the said Doctor Velena, whom I had previously thought the horseman, applying his make-up. He was no more Venetian than I was an Englishwoman.

The Zany scampered about warbling: 

See Sirs, See here
A Doctor rare
Who travels much at home,
Here, take his bills,
He cures all Ills,
Past, Present and to come;
The Cramp, the Stitch,
The Squirt, the Itch,
The Gout, the Stone, the Pox;
The Mulligrubs
The Bonny Scrubs
And all Pandora’s Box.
Thousands he’s Dissected
And such cures effected
As none e’er can tell.

When the Zany had finished the last of five such verses, he backed away deferentially, making many respectful bows towards the curtain at the back of the stage, from which the quack now strode forth in a dramatic manner.

Strikingly swarthy in his paint, impressively wigged but quite simply dressed, he stood silent for a moment, glaring at the rabble, and then addressed them in an accent that but crudely pretended at Italian. However, he had a talent for rolling his ‘r’s, which he used to great effect.

Ignoring their rags, stinks and low accents, he began, ‘Most noble and illustrious Signorrrrri and egregious beautiful and virtuous Madonnas, and the rrrrrest of my honoured friends and scrupulous Auditors . . .’

His customers, marinating in this flattery, drew closer, shrugging their shoulders and smiling shyly at one another. ‘May I present myself, Dottore Conte Marchese Paracelsus Theophrastus Velena, lately arrived from the most ancient and stately city of Venice where I was wont to fix my bench in the Face of the great Piazza.’

Full half an hour he intoned. He introduced himself as a friend to the ill and weak. A mere Mortal himself, he said modestly, casting down his eyes, just a man whose tender heart was easily riven in two by the sight of needless suffering.

‘Little children . . .’ he moaned, ‘. . . wasting away. Young women, ripped from their adoring husbands’ arms. How shall I bear it? How shall you bear it when it comes to you, gentle people?’

And from somewhere the quack conjured up a true tear, which he wiped away with a gesture of desperate bravery, before it could smear his paint.

Suddenly he drew himself up to his full height. He gyrated his features into a rictus of righteous indignation and stamped his foot. His boot was apparently tipped with iron, for the noise echoed like a shot. People in the crowd jumped. Women clutched their babies.

Good, good, I thought. A nice touch. Bravo.

‘You see here no boastful, upstart, bum-beeping apothecary,’ he thundered
. ‘No rumbling quack, no piss-prophet, no greedy physician rambling tamely among you with some mouldy tales out of Boccaccio and discoursing of my exotic travels. Not I.

‘No no no no no. Neverrrrrr!’

To a man, the crowd hastily shook their heads, banishing such a possibility.

Such despicable men went about the country, he told us, robbing honest citizens not just of their wealth but their corporeal health, prescribing the same deceitful cure for every illness, and inventing illnesses to suit their wares, active not in the Hippocratic arts but in the crass pursuit of the hard-earned pittances of foolish people.

‘Behold at last an honest man!’ he cried, pointing to his modest garb. ‘Too honest to be rich! You will not hear me talking of the Moon-Palls or the Strong-Fives nor the Hockogrocles, nor the Marthambles, all spurious maladies genesised for his own profit by that arrant quack Doctor Tufts who has recently passed through this fair town, spreading misery! Nor even the Dogmatical Incurables of Nathanial Merry, so named because of his rejoicing in his profits earned at the cost of a dozen young lives! How often have I been called – too late, alas, and so futilely to the victims of the hoax quacksters, such as the notorious Doctor Trigg of Tower Wharf, Spawner of the dreaded Golden Vatican Pills! And, though it pains me to say so, of mine own countrymen, no better are the so-called Dottore Salvador Winter and his deadly Elixir Vitae, and Giovanni Francesco Borri, with his false Sovereign Julep! Doctors? No! Thieves? Yes. These men would steal the eyes out of your head and come back for the eyelashes.’

There
is the competition destroyed, I thought. Well done.

Dottore Velena described himself as a mere Enthusiast in Physic, a scholar who had stumbled on a great benediction while engaged only in the search for knowledge – what this benediction was, well, he humbly asked our patience, but he would return to that subject shortly.

This was his genius, not to mention his wares at all, until he had built up a pitch of fervour for them.  In the meantime he spoke with great passion of his many and esoteric studies, interlarding each sentence with Latin phrases of a faintly familiar yet not quite comprehensible provenance: this, I soon realised, was because they were nonsense, a mere concoction of learned sounds without substance. And into each sentence he inserted a morsel of Pseudo-Physics or Chemistry, drawing down upon us the Science of a thousand years, and the secrets of a dozen great but extinct cultures.

I lost concentration for a while, amused myself looking on the rapt faces of the crowd. When I re-entered his sphere, he was rolling on about how, as a learned Antiquary, he had recovered out of some Ruin of Asia the formula for a certain precious balm, which not only kept the ancient races immortal but also beautified them beyond belief. He recounted how the members of the College of Physicians had embraced him and wept for joy when presented with the results of his life’s work.

Men and women in the audience nodded sagely at his mentions of the great Dr Chamberlen, the inventor of the Anodyne Necklace that had lately saved upwards of twelve thousand London children from dying of their teeth. And they smiled approvingly at his casual mention of ‘just a mere few’ of his esteemed patients, not solicited by him but who had sought him out, despite his begging to be left to his scholarly retirement.

‘But my Lord Hathaway would have none of it when I told him I sought just a simple life, away from court!’ the quack cried. ‘Nor Prince Eugene of Russia, who begged for my help, and whom I had not the heart to turn away when I beheld his suffering, knowing that in my possession I held the instant cure to the painful malady that ravaged his entire family on account of their over-indulgence in the Venus Sports. Only when I had seen them all sound and well did I leave the court at Saint Petersburg and make my way to Paris where the Queen herself did await me, all other surgeons having forsaken her as a Case Beyond Hope. And when I left her again blooming in health, and freshly with child, I returned to my native Venice (here he allowed his eyes to show the rheum of nostalgia, and wiped away another tear) where the Doge, growing blind, required my services to remove the cataracts on his eyes. It is he who awarded me the title I so rarely use, for motives of modesty, but in this case I shall share it with you: High Venetian Physic
ian Empirickal.’

There was a smattering of applause at this. Dottore Velena bowed deeply.

‘And what,’ he asked us, rising up pridefully, ‘has led to the conferment of such honours?’

Only now, and without a word, he produced a single blue glass bottle from a cavern in his breeches. He fondled the little bottle as tenderly as if it were a kitten, allowing a moment’s silence for all eyes to fall on the affectioned object.

‘This Physic,’ he cried, now holding it up so it caught the light and glistened like a sliver of the ocean, ‘does cure all the diseases that God ever entailed upon the race of Adam.

‘Behold this tiny bottle, so fragile, so delicate. Yet it contains inside it a moiety of that greatness that the whole Universe could not afford to purchase, were it to offer the just sum. This miraculous Elixir contains not just the purest distilled gold, but all the very heart of a Mandrake, the liver of an African Phoenix and the Tongue of a Nile Mermaid, Anise, Mastich, Ginger, Cardamoms, Cinnamon, Zedoary, Manna, Senna, Mirabolams, Scordium,  Bayberries, Catmint, Balsam of Peru . . .’

The list of ingredients ran on and on, interrupted by explanations of the processes used to fuse them together. These included the contracted and pulled rays of the sun, boiling over a cedarwood fire, and the blessing of a noble Cardinal.

Breathlessly, he assured us: ‘And lastly this golden juice is divested of any Crudities by a true separation of the pure from the impure, and impregnated with Beams of Dawn Light and tartaragraphated through an Alembic of Crystalline Transfluency.’

There were moments when the audience seemed to be losing the thread, starting to shuffle or eat apples. When this happened, a curious thing occurred, which I had never seen before, even in Venice. The back wall of the rostrum was perforated with a number of small doors. At somnolent intervals, one of these little doors would pop open, to reveal the grinning head of the Zany, who waved a cautionary finger at the crowd and then disappeared behind the door he had slammed shut loudly. His timing was immaculate: He was clearly adept at earning his snack in the profits. At the clack of the shutter, everyone dozing in the audience would wake up, smile, and address their full attention to the quack again.

The pharmaceutic part of his discourse completed, the quack suddenly fixed his eye on a tripe-woman, glaring at her sternly, ‘Yes, YOU!’ he thundered
. ‘You know only too well of the lapsus of which I speak.’

All eyes fell on the fainting tripe-woman, who could only weep and moan, ‘Yes sir, you have discovered me. How was I to know what pocky kind of present he had brought for me in his breeches? I beg your kindness, Oh Sir, do help me.’

‘PRRRRESENTLY,’ thundered the quack, holding the medicine away from her outreached hand, rendering it infinitely more valuable in the eyes of all watching.

The question was, would he allow the poor tripe-woman to perish before he finished his speech? How soon would he relieve her misery by allowing her to purchase the bottle of salvation?

Some time, it seemed, for now the quack had reached the very climax of his speech, in which he described the ongoing symptoms of the disease which at present showed but feeble signs among them.

‘Those who suffer from the light cough, or the mild itch,’ he warned, ‘are already in the grip of the Scurbattical Humour which even now sucks on their vitals and enfeebles them. These distempers are but the first steps to a Worse Fate.’

The audience drooped visibly, running solicitous hands over various parts of their bodies. The tripe-woman was by this time lying on the ground, her legs twitching.

At this moment, the quack uttered a sharp whistle, and the Zany gambolled on to the stage, holding a miniature theatre with shabby red curtains.

‘Behold!’ announced the quack. ‘Avert your eyes, if you are female, juvenile or delicate. For I am about to show you your Futurrrrre!’

The Zany held the little theatre up so all might behold it, and with a grand flourish the quack flung open the curtains.

A deep groan coursed through the audience. Several men staggered where they stood. Women, none of whom had averted their eyes, were openly weeping, and two pickpockets working the crowd froze with their hands in the breeches of their victims.

For revealed on the tiny stage was a most appalling waxwork, showing a man and a woman, naked, and in the final stages of a foul disease that had empurpled their skin, caused their hair to drop out, and reduced their fingers and toes to bloodied stumps. Their faces were scarred with striated tissue and worst of all, where the eye should detect the organs of generation were mere blackened holes, from which small waxen worms were seen to emerge.

Dottore Velena closed the curtains with a weighty sigh. He seemed to have lost all his former vigour and proceeded in a weak voice: ‘All my life I have slaved to counteract the mischiefs that are bred in our blood. Now I am old’ – here the Zany plucked at a grey curl of his wig – ‘
and I am weary from my travails’ − here he sagged to a stool that the Zany placed beneath him, and he continued in a rasping whisper, ‘and I shall no more make this curative of mine, despite the entreaties and earnest prayers of several Lords, Earls, Dukes and Honourable Personages. What you see here are the last drops I shall ever produce on this earth.’ He winked back a tear. ‘Of course I shall continue with their manufacture in Heaven.’

The silence of the crowd was palpable. The audience strained on his every breath.

‘Because I value the living soul of every creature on this earth, I have examined my conscience and found it commands me to sell this Infallible Preparation at so small a price as one shilling, even though I rob my own pocket in so doing and condemn myself to a lingering death in abject poverrrty.’

Now the Zany stepped forth with a very small tray of bottles. The crowd surged forward, demanding their share of the precious dwindling stock. While butchers loaded their aprons, housewives their baskets, the quack held himself aloof from the sordid commerce at his side, and continued with a soothing litany, never desisting from his recital of curable symptoms until the last customer had departed with the bottle snatched from the small tray that the Zany repeatedly replenished from a trunk behind the stage. His gambols had lessened: his harlequin tunic was weighed down with coin. Sometimes he teased the crowd, pretending to find the trunk empty, but they soon set up such a howl that he contrived to find some more bottles secreted in a back corner of it.

All through the sales Dottore Velena was murmuring, ‘If you deign to buy this humble preparation, then I can personally guarantee that it shall save you from the Shrinking of the Sinews, the Scurvy, the Rupture, the Consumption, the Falling-Sickness, Wens on the Neck, Agues of all kinds, the Tertian, Quartan and Quotidian, Retired and Shrunken Nerves, Excrementitious Blood, Colt Evil, Scabs in the Head, Catarrhs, the Humid Flux, Gouty pains, Hare-Lips, Dwindling of the Guts, Green or Canker’d Wounds, Polipus up the Nose, Disruption of the Fundament, Swimmings in the Head, Stoppage of the Spleen, Looseness of the Teeth, Nocturnal Inquietudes, Vertiginous Vapours, Perdition of the Huckle-bone and Dolour of the Os Sacrum, not to mention Hydiocephalus Dissenteries, Odontalgick or Podagrical Inflammations, Palpitations of the Pericardium, the Hen-Pox, the Hog-Pox, the Whore’s Pox, and the entire Legion of Lethiferous Distempers.’

He uttered these words with a mechanical perfection, and while he intoned them his eyes were busy counting the number of bottles being dealt out by his Zany.

‘Drink but sparingly of this little bottle, it serves best when you allow but fifty or sixty drops (more or less as you please) and they are to be taken in a glass of Spring Water, Beer, Ale, Mum or Canary. It works just as well without sugar and a drrram of Brrrandy may make it more palatable too, of course. It may be taken by sea and land, in any season too.’

Even as the last few customers were reaching out for their bottles, Doctor Velena was
still chanting his instructions. ‘Don’t forget, ’tis most excellent in coffee and chocolate too, and will perfume both beverages with the most fragrant spirit of goodness. It will wipe off (abstersively) those tenacious conglomerated sedimental Sordes that adhere to the Oesophagus and Viscera, and annihilate all Nosotrophical symptoms. It removes all Webs, Pearls, Spots, Sparks, Clouds and Films from the Eyes . . .’

Just before the last customer could be satisfied, he made a little motion of his head and the Zany made one final trip to the cupboard, returning with an empty tray and a tragical expression. The final unsatisfied customer departed, weeping and bemoaning his fate, and the quack and the Zany quickly closed up their little stage with curtains and retired behind it.

Bravo
! I thought to myself
. An almost faultless performance.

I had rarely seen better, even in Venice.

But they lacked one thing, and in this lack I thought I might help them, and at the same time help myself.

I walked back to my lodgings, pausing only to buy some white chalk powder, an apron, and a simple grey dress that, I was assured, had only been worn twice, and that by a woman of quality.       

 

Extract from The Remedy copyright © Michelle Lovric, 2005

 



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