In this two-part fragment of Eagle’s backstory, the attorney makes the acquaintance of local doctor, Marshall Stables. Marshall’s sexuality disquiets Eagle but he has enough to contend with in the shape of Phil, the doctor’s lunatic lodger.
The next few days saw their share of drudgery. Ensconced in the office, I fagged about methodically to master the details of every letter book, day book and account book, every ledger and box of deeds. Thus did I learn the details of all our clients since 1749, memorising what they’d brought to the practice. I learned the sitting times of the principal courts, and the names of Counsel who resided locally. The administrative system that prevailed I also mastered, familiarising myself with Abraham’s accounting, and his dealings with our London agents, Messrs Farrer and Davies of Barnards Inn. In addition I checked stocks of parchment and paper, stamps, wafers, and quills, the method of ordering via the Stamp Office at York.
The pains I took were on my own account. I expected no gratitude from my partner, who was a very mean fellow in all respects. He had shown his true character the night of his mother’s seizure, and had scarce spoken to me since. Not that he had grounds for resentment, for as Tom had predicted the woman made an instant recovery the moment her pills had arrived. But that I now found myself in the Balmes’ bad books was indisputable, and perhaps this was inevitable. For in truth Abraham had not desired a partner, resenting what was forced upon him through age and debility. Add to this an intrinsic distrust of strangers, a trait shared by his mother, and you’ll understand why my struggle for acceptance was hopeless from the start. But although it had made me uneasy, I refused to be vexed or fretted by this turn of events. After all, I had a contract binding in law entitling me to a growing share of the profits. I resolved to work hard over the coming years, seeking a higher footing in the legal world. I would not be denied what my talents may achieve, or what destiny had in store. The worst that could befall me in the meantime – a notice to quit the house – was a prospect to be welcomed rather than dreaded. I had already an offer of alternative roof, and under normal circumstances would be certain to accept. But I say normal, and what transpired that day could not be termed thus.
The offer had come from the doctor who supplied Mrs Balme’s medicine. His name was Marshall Stables, an uncommonly fine gent two years older than me, whom I met while strolling on the Green. Apropos its name, there was much greenery around even in January – pinfold grazing land on all sides, swathes of grass beside the graveyard, green lichen too, not to be outdone by pervasive grit-stone walls. A pleasing prospect but a busy one, for this was the heart of the village where all streets converged. The church also stood here, a dark squatting structure with battered gilded clock; two inns likewise – the shabby-genteel Black Bull, which I hadn’t yet visited, and the Old King’s Arms of ill repute where the stocks sat grimly outside, a warning to passers-by that ale and religion on the Sabbath didn’t mix. Here in addition were the homes of tradesmen whose shops and houses were huddled together in jerry-built gloom. The doctor’s house was here too, forming, along with its surgery, one of a pair of fine capital messuages opposite the church.
It was a cold clear Sunday, and this tall, slender man was taking the air dressed in three-cornered hat, a fine blue coat with gilt buttons, nankeen breeches and buff cashmere waistcoat. Although his face was stately and reserved, he had warm grey eyes which elicited instant regard. He turned out to be a very affable good-natured man, a very good sort indeed. He was most cordial to me. ‘Good morrow to you Mister Eagle!’ he declared, espying me as he crossed the street.
I was a surprised he should know my name. ‘Your servant sir,’ I replied, doffing my hat and making him a bow.
He halted to let a carriage pass, then drew near. He spoke elegantly and genteelly. ‘Excuse my presumption, but your serving wench described you perfectly. I am Doctor Stables, apothecary and surgeon here. A fine morning is it not?’ he said, gesturing skywards with his silver-headed cane. ‘At long last that confounded wind has dropped. I was beginning to hear it moan in my sleep.’
When I told him that I liked the wind, he called me a contrary fellow, and wagered that I’d not feel the same in ten years’ time when my joints were beset by aches. And on the subject of which, how was Mother Balme keeping? He had asked the question in a faintly mocking way, and with a glint in his worldly eye.
‘She is tolerably well I presume. I would no doubt have heard otherwise by now.’
‘To be sure,’ replied Marshall smiling. ‘She would have had the roof down with her protracted wailings.’ We laughed heartily at this, drawing out the first buds of friendship. ‘My house is just here,’ he said, pointing again with his cane. ‘I was on my way thither. May I tempt you with a glass? I make the offer purely for medicinal purposes, to keep the cold out.’
‘Of course,’ I said knowingly.
‘Come,’ he said, taking my arm, ‘I’ll sing all the heartier in Church for having imbibed a tipple. It’ll make old Grimdike’s sermon bearable too. The fool spouts his endless poppycock Sunday after Sunday. It’s about time somebody took a pistol and put us all out of our misery.’ I liked his droll irreverence. Life in Horseford, I thought, might be tolerable after all.
‘Do you live alone?’ I asked, as we walked up the short neat path bordered by wrought iron rails.
‘No, I have a lodger. But he’s harmless enough, keeps himself to himself most times.’ He opened the door into a narrow hallway. ‘It’s this way,’ he said, ‘please excuse the smells.’ He led me past two rooms which together served as waiting room, surgery and dispensary. A disordered fusion of medicinal aromas filled me with dread, a sensation worsened when I glimpsed his surgical instruments lying on a table. It was the bone saw that worked on me keenest; I fair felt its teeth rasping at my spine.
We came presently to his back parlour, a cold, shuttered room thinly furnished with sofa, table and cane-backed chairs. On the shelves were numerous books, many, I presumed, of a medical nature. ‘My apologies,’ he said, seeing me shiver as he drew back the shutters. ‘I rarely light a fire in the forenoon, not even in the coldest season. Along with the house, it’s a habit I inherited from my late father, and old habits die the hardest. Do be seated,’ he said, opening a small cupboard. ‘I trust that brandy will suit?’ I gave him a decided nod. ‘It’s the finest French,’ he added, pouring us each a generous measure. ‘It comes highly recommended from my supplier in Leeds. You must tell me what you think of it.’
He handed me the glass but that’s as far as I got. I had scarce put it to my lips when it flew across the room to shatter in a dozen pieces. I was able to watch its progress in the fraction of a second before the cause of the smash, a wild-eyed creature scarce human in form, leapt at my face with uncommonly long nails. Not content with scratching me and tearing the ribbon from my hair, my assailant bared his teeth and sunk them into my neck. It was about to take another bite when Marshall coshed it with the brandy bottle. There was a low guttural moan as the creature’s eyes rolled and it fell unconscious.
‘My dear fellow!’ exclaimed Marshall, hurrying to my aid. ‘Whatever must you think of me? Here, let me assist you to the sofa.’
‘What was that?’ I stammered, when he’d got me thither and laid me down.
‘Shush now, all in good time. Drink this,’ he said, giving me another glass, which this time I did get to taste.
‘I think you owe me an explanation,’ I said, for harmless enough this lodger certainly wasn’t and his bite was worse than his bark.
‘All in good time,’ he said again, feeling my brow and taking my pulse as he weighed up the size of my hurts. ‘First I must get you something for those cuts.’
‘Then how apt that I’m here and not elsewhere,’ I said. ‘But is it not customary for a man to visit his doctor when he is ill, not be injured when he gets there?’ We caught one another’s eye and laughed, I in spite of the pain.
‘Forsooth I have never known it otherwise – until today,’ he replied, still chortling as he turned away. He quitted the room for his dispensary, leaving me to ponder the mystery of the body on the floor – male, I now believed, and naked too, except for a pair of dirty breeches several sizes too small. It seemed incongruous that a creature so wild only moments ago could now lie perfectly still. I’d been about to study it more closely when Marshall returned with a small green gallipot. ‘This’ll sting,’ he said in a fatherly tone, ‘but it’ll suit the purpose admirably. I’d go so far as to swear by it.’
‘What is it?’ I hissed, as he applied it to my clawed face, wanting to swear in a different sense and feeling no one could blame me; even the Pope, I concluded, was likely to shout Fuck! at top of his voice.
‘Yellow Basilicum ointment,’ he said, delicately dabbing my cheeks and neck. ‘You’ll be sore for a day or two but there’s no permanent harm done. Your good looks will stay intact.’ He tweaked my chin and looked me in the eye uncommonly fondly. As if to discipline himself, he turned to glance at the prostrate figure. ‘I suppose I ought to do something for him too,’ he said resignedly. ‘His skull’s so thick, I doubt I’ve done him much harm. All the same, it’s my duty to check. I’m really quite fond of the wretch.’
‘But who is he?’ I insisted.
The good doctor sighed. ‘I suppose I owe you an explanation. Very well. His name’s Philip …’
‘Philip?’ I interrupted. ‘That’s most enlightening!’
‘You didn’t let me finish,’ said Marshall curtly. He went on to explain how, following discussions with both the parish and the local magistrate, no lesser person than Sir Walter Stanhope, it was agreed that Philip – or Phil as he called him – should be boarded with someone experienced in dealing with distempered persons. ‘It’s a most satisfactory arrangement all round,’ Marshall concluded with a smile. ‘The parish has a dangerous lunatic taken off its hands, I get a generous stipend for my pains, and the chance to further my experiments, and poor Phil here is saved from a fate worse than death – in short, confinement in the madhouse at York.’
‘Rather you than me,’ I said, feeling my face throb. ‘Do you not fear for your safety?’
‘In truth, I do not. The poor soul treats me with a motherly gentleness, rather as an ape might treat one of its babes. Strange that he should attack you, though. After all, you’re not the first visitor to the house. He usually keeps well away in perfect quiet. He must sense something wicked in you, John, something that agitates his innards.’
A trifle offended, I reminded him that Phil had not been labelled ‘dangerous’ for nothing, and what had happened to me was reminder of what he was capable of.
‘Touche,’ said Marshall. ‘I was forgetting you were a legal man. Your sort can spot a flaw in any argument.’ He smiled afresh with his neat-cut sensuous mouth. ‘Now, let me have another look at those wounds,’ he said, sitting down beside me and lifting my chin. He was looking at me again with that disquieting fondness. I sensed a knowing awkwardness in my eyes, but saw none in his, only that stare, affectionate still but with something else – I durst not think what – lurking behind. ‘Should life with the Balmes ever become untenable,’ he said, ‘there would always be room for you here.’ Our eyes were linked by a thread neither of us could, nor perhaps wanted to break. I allowed him to stroke my cheek, feeling his slender fingers play about my jaw. Part of me was curious, for I had always been the same – I had wanted to do as well as dare. In starlit ruins as a boy I had called upon ghosts to haunt me. I had drunk spirits at an early age, lifted my first petticoat before I turned twelve. But my tastes, premature as they were, had all been orthodox, so when his practised fingers began to stray I knew it was time to stop.
‘No,’ I said, staying his hand. ‘I can’t.’
‘Not ever?’ he said with heavy breath.
‘No, not ever. And I think I should leave now.’
‘Think or know?’ he said, drawing away.
‘All right then, know,’ I said.
‘As you wish. The door is in the same place as when you came in.’
We parted amicably a few minutes later, but I was anxious to be rid of the place. It was a poor beginning to a friendship I’d craved. And I had gone away without unburdening myself, as I’d sorely wished to do. Unbutton myself I had almost done, but that was another matter. I had felt instinctively a trust in Marshall, though what would become of us now? What could have possessed me – yes possessed was the word? It seemed crassly inadequate to think so, but I hadn’t been myself. Or had I? Perhaps I wasn’t being honest. I had been in the grip of something that I’d struggled to control, something which, truth be known, I’d half wanted. It was there after all, then, that other side of me whose existence I had long denied. And however much I might gainsay it, claim the fair sex as my natural choice, deep down I could not be sure that my tastes didn’t run both ways. There was only one remedy for such a thought – work.
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