An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 11


WHAT a different sort of man is the village doctor of the present day from the one we can remember fifty years ago. Of course there are degrees—some able, others incompetent; some skilful, others butchers; some well-read, others with only an elementary smattering of knowledge of the healing art, and of drugs. Now, as then, there are differences and degrees, but they are not so marked now as formerly. The very able men gravitate to the towns, and there can be none utterly incompetent.

Moreover, the times are against great individuality. We in this age are all fashioned much alike; we are made as marbles are said to be made, by picking up in the rough and shaking and shaking and shaking together, till every angle and asperity is rubbed down; and we are turned out as like one another as marbles, differing only in profession, just as marbles differ only in colour.

Formerly exact uniformity in the way of thinking, speaking, dressing, acting, was not insisted upon, and the village doctor was not infrequently an oddity. He affected the oddity—to be a little rough and domineering, he put on an acerbity of manner that belied his real sweetness of temper, assumed a roughness at variance with his real gentleness of heart. Those of us who have lived all our lives in the country must look back with a smile rising to the lips, at the recollection of the village doctors we have met and made acquaintance with.

They could generally tell a good story. They were inveterate gossips—knew all the ins and outs of all the families in every grade of life within their beat, and though they kept professional secrecy, were nothing loth to tell a tale, where not within the line of professional responsibility. And they were such delightful humbugs, also, veiling their ignorance so skilfully, with much explanation in grandiose terms that meant nothing.

I remember an old village doctor who I really believe was absolutely ignorant of all methods and medicines introduced since he walked the hospitals, which was in the first decade of the present century. I have looked through his medical library since his death, I have seen his surgical apparatus, and have taken note of the drugs in his pharmacopœa, and I am quite sure that his medicinal education came to an abrupt stop about the year 1815.

He was a popular doctor, enjoyed a great reputation in his neighbourhood, maintained a large family of unmarriageable daughters, and lived in comfort in a cosy cottage embowered in elms, with its pleasant garden full of old-fashioned flowers.

This old gentleman's method, on being sent for, was at once to take a gloomy view of the case. "My dear fellow," he would say to the patient, "this is a very aggravated malady. I ought to have been sent for before. If you die, it is your own fault. I ought to have been sent for before. A stitch in time saves nine. If now, by a desperate struggle, I pull you through, then it will teach you a lesson in future not to delay sending for me till the time is almost over at which medical assistance can avail. I ought to have been sent for before."

The advantage of such an address was this. If the sick person dropped through his hands, the responsibility was thrown on the sick man and his friends. If, however, he were to recover, then it exalted the skill of the medical practitioner to almost miraculous power.

It was really wonderful how the old fellow imposed on the villagers by this simple dodge. Sometimes, after a funeral, when I have called on the bereaved, I have heard the sobbing widow say: "I shall never, never, cease to reproach myself for my dear husband's death. I feel as if I had been his murderer. I ought to have sent for Dr. Tuddlams before." If, however, instead, I called to congratulate a convalescent, I heard from him: "It is a perfect miracle that I am not dead. The doctor gave me up, but he administered what he said might kill or cure, and he is such a genius—he pulled me through. No one else could have done it, not the best doctor in London, so he told me. He alone knew and used this specific. But it was my fault leaving matters so long—I ought to have sent for him before."

After all, supposing that the country surgeon were able to set a bone and sew up a wound, it was just as well that he did not employ the astounding medicines and follow the desperate practices in force in the medical profession at the end of last century and the beginning of this. Bleeding with lancet and with leeches, cupping, cauterising, blue-pill, et toujours blue-bill, were in vogue. Starving in fever water-gruel administered where now is given extractum carnis, toast and water in place of beef-tea the marvel is that our forefathers did not die off like flies under the treatment.

I remember saying to a yeoman in Essex one day: "What! nine—ten miles from a doctor?" "Well, sir, yes; it is ten. Thank heaven we all in this parish mostly dies natural deaths."

And surely, under the bleeding and salivating and starving régime, the grave had more than her due, and the doctor was the High Priest of Mors Palida, who brought to the grim goddess her victims. An old sexton at Wakefield parish church was also a headstone cutter. He was not very exact in his orthography, but he had the gift of rhyme, and could compose metrical epitaphs, that, indeed, sometimes, like Orlando's verses, either halted, or had too many feet to run on. One day he was sitting chipping out an inscription on a headstone, when the surgeon rode up. The doctor drew rein and looked at the work of the sexton.

"Halloo!" said he. "Peter Priestley, you've made a blot there," meaning a mis-spelling.

"Have I, doctor?" answered the clerk, "cover it over. I've covered over many blots o' yours." The doctor rode on without another word.

But the village surgeon had not in old days the skilled nurse as his assistant: and it is now a recognized truth that, for the sick, the nurse is more important than the doctor. He sent his medicines, but how could he be sure that they were taken, or taken regularly? The whole system of nursing was as rude as the whole system of drainage. It was all happy-go-lucky. The story is well known of the doctor sending a bottle of mixture to a sick man, with the direction on it, "Before taken to be well shaken"—and finding on his arrival that the attendant had shaken up the patient pretty vigorously before administering the draught.

The following story is perfectly true.

A kind-hearted village doctor, finding that a poor woman he was attending needed nourishing food, got his wife to send her a jelly.

Some time after he went to the cottage, found the ground-floor room untenanted, but heard a trampling, groaning, and struggling going on upstairs. He accordingly ascended to the bedroom, to see a labouring man sitting on the bed, holding up the sick woman's head, whilst another labouring man—her husband—was standing on the bed, one foot on each side of the patient, with a black kitchen kettle in his hand, endeavouring to pour the contents down her mouth. Both men were hot and perspiring freely, and the poor woman was gasping for breath and almost expiring under the treatment.

"Good gracious!" exclaimed the doctor, "what are you about?"

"Please, sir," answered the husband, blowing hard, and wiping his brow with his sleeve, "us've been giving her the medicine you sent down. It got all stiff and hard, so we clapped it into the kettle and gave it a bile, and was pouring it down my wife's throat. I couldn't hold her mouth open myself as well as mind the kettle, so I just called in my mate Thomas, to help and hold her up, and open her mouth for the kettle spout."

The life of the village doctor is a hard one. Never certain of a meal, and never certain of a sound, undisturbed sleep, he has to take his victuals and his rest by snatches, but then he inhales the fresh, pure air, and that maintains him in health. He has to keep his natural weakness and natural impatience under great control. Conceive of a man who has had several broken nights and hard days' work, with a head swimming with weariness, called in to a critical case, that he has to diagnose at once. His faculties are not on the alert, they cannot be, and if he make a mistake, an avalanche of abuse is poured down on him, whereas the fault lies not in himself, but in the circumstances.

Then, again, how vexatious, when tired out and hungry, to be suddenly called away for a drive of many miles—perhaps over the very road he has just returned along—to see a malade imaginaire, some hypocondriacal old maid, who is best dosed with a bread pill, or to attend to some pet child whose only complaint is that it has over-eaten itself, and who is well again by the time the doctor arrives.

Then again, the accounts of the doctor are not very readily paid, often not paid till a new necessity arrives for calling him in again, and not very infrequently are not paid at all. And the surgeon cannot afford to sue for his debt in the County Court, lest he get a bad name as harsh, unfeeling, a "skin-flint."

The patients and their friends have odd fancies. They do not esteem a doctor much unless he "changes the medicine," that is to say. sends a pink one after one that was yellow, and one smelling of nitre after one strong of clove. But again, by a strange caprice they sometimes will have it, when, to humour this vagary, the doctor has "changed the medicine"—that this change is due to a consciousness that he has made a blunder with the yellow bottle of "stuff," and that he is going to try his success with the pink bottle. They become alarmed, think he does not understand the case, and insist on sending for another doctor. Consequently, immense tact, much humouring and adaptability, are requisite in the village doctor, if he is to maintain his reputation, more if he is going to make one. And perhaps no method is better than that of the know-nothing who said, "You should have sent for me before," and so shifted the responsibility from his own shoulders.

What scorn was poured by the doctor on the quack remedies employed by the old women of the parish! And yet, when we look back to the treatment recommended and the potions administered by the faculty in days gone by, I am not sure that the recipes of the old grandams were not the best—at least, they were harmless, and such were not the hackings, cuppings, and bleedings, the calomel, etc., of the faculty. A good many of the village remedies were charms, and charms only, and consequently rubbish.

Many years ago I remember great astonishment was caused in the more cultured portion of the congregation in our village church, by a man standing up after the blessing had been pronounced, and bawling out:

"This here is to give notice as how Sally Jago of —— parish has fits terrible bad, and as how her can't be cured unless her wear a silver ring made out o' saxpences or vourpences or dreepenny bits as come out o' seven parishes. This here is to give notice as how I be gwin' to ax for a collection at the door in behalf o' Sally Jago as to help to make thickey there ring."

In a parish I know well, but which I will not further particularize, the parish clerk draws, or did till lately, a revenue for the cure of children with fits. This was what he did; I am not quite sure that he does not do it still. He takes the child up the church tower and holds it out at each of the angle pinnacles, and pronounces certain words, what they are I have not learned. For which he receives a honorarium.

Now these are mere charms and are perfectly useless; they are superstitious usages, that should not be encouraged or even sanctioned. But it is quite another matter with the herbal remedies. Many of these are really useful, and a great deal more safe to take than the strong metallic poisons administered by the faculty. What an amount of mercury, in the form of blue pill, has been given to the generation now passing away! Was not grey powder much the same? Are doctors not still somewhat prone to administer calomel?

I have no doubt that many of the herbs collected and used by the old women were really effective and curative agents.

One of the plants on which greatest faith is placed is the elder. We still make elder-flower water as a cosmetic, and elder-berry wine as a febrifuge.

Old John Evelyn says, "If the medicinal prospectus of the leaves, bark, berries, etc., were thoroughly known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not find a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness or wound."

The borage was used for cheering depressed spirits, and we take it now in the cool tankard, with wine and lemon and sugar, not perhaps knowing why. But Bacon says that thus mixed "it will make a sovereign drink for melancholy persons."

My own experience confirms this. Good cider cup or champagne cup is sovereign against low spirits; this is due, of course, to the borage.

Where herbs are used, there is probably something valuable in their properties. The experience of many generations has gone to prove it. A workman who suffered greatly from abscesses cured himself entirely by the use of the roots of the teasel which he asked the writer of this book to be allowed to dig up in his orchard. But it is quite other with the little insects that infest the teasel head, and which are eaten to cure intermittent fevers, or enclosed in a goose quill, sealed up and worn round the neck as a preservative against ague.

A real charm is where the words are used without the medicine, and what good it can do is merely the effect on the imagination. That words alone may sometimes cure, the following story will show.

A poor woman came to the parson of the parish with the request—"Please, pass'n! my ou'd sow be took cruel bad. I wish now you'd be so good as to come and say a prayer over her."

"A prayer! Goodness preserve us! I cannot come and pray over a pig—a pig, my dear Sally—that is not possible."

"Her be cruel bad, groaning and won't eat her meat. If her dies, pass'n—whativer shall we do i' the winter wi'out bacon sides, and ham. Oh dear! Do y' now, pass'n, come and say a prayer over my ou'd sow."

"I really—really must not degrade my sacred office. Sally! indeed I must not."

"Oh, pass'n! do y' now!" and the good creature began to sob.

The parson was a tender-hearted man, and tears were too much for him. He agreed to go to the cottage, see the pig, and do what he could.

Accordingly, he visited the patient, which lay groaning in the stye.

The woman gazed wistfully at the pastor, and waited for the prayer. Then the clergyman raised his right hand, pointed with one finger at the sow and said solemnly: "If thou livest, O pig! then thou livest. If thou diest, O pig! then thou diest."

Singularly enough the sow was better that same evening and ate a little wash. She was well and had recovered her appetite wholly next day.

Now it happened, some months after this that the rector fell very ill, with a quinsy that nearly choked him. He could not swallow, he could hardly breathe. His life was in imminent danger.

Sally was a visitor every day at the rectory, and was urgent to see the sick man. She was refused, but pressed so vehemently, that finally she was suffered—just to see him, but she was warned not to speak to him or expect him to speak, as he was unable to utter a word.

She was conducted to the sick-room, and the door thrown open. There she beheld her pastor lying in bed, groaning, almost in extremis.

Raising her hand, she pointed at him with one finger and said: "If thou livest, O pass'n! then thou livest! If thou diest, O pass'n! then thou diest!"

The effect on the sick man was—an explosion of laughter that burst the quinsy, and his recovery.

I have said that the doctor turned up his nose at the village dame who used herbs and charms; he did not relish, either, the intervention of the Lady Bountiful, whether the squire's or parson's wife, one or other of whom invariably kept a store closet full of medicines—black draught for adults, dill-water for babies, Friar's balsam for wounds, salts and senna leaves, ipecacuanha for coughs, brown paper slabs with tallow for tightness of the chest, castor oil for stomach-ache, and Gregory's powder for feverishness.

My grandmother had such a doctor's shop, with shelves laden with bottles.

Whenever I was out of sorts, it was always pronounced to be "stomach," whereupon a great quart bottle of castor oil was produced, also a leaden or pewter spoon with hollow stem, and a lid that moved on hinges, and closed the spoon. Into this a sufficiency of castor oil was poured, then my grandmother applied her thumb to the end of the hollow handle, and this effectually retained the objectionable oil in the spoon, till this article of torture had been rammed between my teeth and was lodged on my tongue. Thereupon the thumb was removed, and the oil shot down my throat. I have that spoon now.

A servant girl was invited to a dance, and obtained leave from her mistress to go. She, however, returned somewhat early. Whereupon her mistress asked, "Why, Mary! you are back very quickly!"

"Yes, ma'm," answered the domestic with flaming cheek, "a young man came up to me as soon as I arrived and axed if my programme was full—and I—I haven't eat nothink since midday. I warn't going to stay there and be insulted."

I suppose my grandmother considered that after every great Christian festival or domestic conviviality my programme was overfull, for the leaden spoon and the quart bottle of castor oil invariably appeared on the scene upon the morrow.

On escaping from infancy with its concomitants the bottle and spoon, I fell under a greater horror still, blue pill and senna tea. My father believed in blue pill, and also believed that a cupful of senna tea after it removed any noxious effects the calomel might be supposed to leave. What a cramping, pain-giving abomination that senna tea was! As I write, the taste of it comes upon my tongue. What another world we live in, that of podophyllin pills coated with silver or sugar! How little can children of this age conceive the sufferings of their parents when they were blooming youths and maidens!

Of course, country people have got odd notions of their internal construction. A farmer's wife in Essex told me once that whenever she was troubled in her lungs she took a dose of small shot from her husband's flask. I was horror-struck. She explained: "You see, sir, my lungs ain't properly attached, and in windy weather they blows about. You know how you've got the curtain at the church door weighted with shot—that's to keep it down. Well, I takes them shot on the same principle, to keep my lungs down."

Having, at one time, a small stuffed crocodile in my room, varnished, and lodged on my mantel-shelf, I was visited by an old woman of the humblest class, about some parish pay that had been cut down by the hard-hearted guardians, when her eye rested on the crocodile, and after considering it for some time, she broke forth with, "I reckon you got thickey (that) out o' somebody's insides."

"Most assuredly not," I answered, considerably taken aback at the unexpected question. Then I added, "What in the name of Wonder makes you think so?"

"Becos," she replied, "sure enough, there's one in me, as worrits me—awful! And I wish your honnor'd go to the Board of Gardjins and take thickey baste along wi' you and show it to them gardjins, and tell 'em I've got one just the same rampaging inside o' me, and get 'em to give me another loaf, and tack on a sixpence to my pay. I'd like to keep a pig, your honnor; only how can I, when I've got a baste like that in my vitals as consumes more nor half o' what I have to eat. There ain't no offals for a porker. Can't be, nohow."

A friend of mine, a gentleman of some education, and one I should have supposed superior to such crude notions, assured me solemnly that he was acquainted with the following case:—An old dame, in a Devonshire country parish, drank some water in which was the spawn of a triton. The stomach of the good lady proved to be an excellent hatching-place, and the spawn resolved into newt, which lived very comfortably in its snug, if somewhat gloomy, abode.

When the triton was hungry, it was wont to run about its prison like a squirrel in its revolving cage, only, of course, in this case, the cage did not revolve. This made the old woman so uneasy, that she was hardly able to endure it. The triton evinced the utmost repugnance to the smell of fried fish, proximus ardet Ucalegon, and it was impossible for the old woman to remain in the house where fish was being prepared for the table, as the excitement and resentment of her tenant became intolerable. My informant assured me that the old lady had applied to several doctors for relief, and had obtained none; at last she heard of a wise man, or herbalist, at Bideford, and she visited him. He recommended her to place herself under treatment by him, and to begin by starving her triton.

The patient accordingly remained in the place for three days without tasting food, enduring all the while the utmost discomfort from the exacting and resentful newt.

On the third day the uncertificated practitioner tied an earthworm to a thread and let it down the patient's throat. The triton rose to the bait, bit, and was whisked out of the woman's mouth. When she was sufficiently recovered, the herbalist showed her, in effect, a horrible monster, which he professed to have fished out of her inside. This creature was forthwith put in spirits and exhibited in a phial in the practitioner's window. There my informant had seen it—and the woman had told him her tale.

The story is well known of Dr. Abernethy and the lady who had swallowed a spider, which she said gave her great internal inconvenience. The doctor bade her open her mouth, he caught a fly, put it into her mouth, and then snapped his hand and pretended to have captured the spider which had come up her throat after the fly. The North Devon quack had played some such trick with the old woman, but with the improvement, that he had utilized the days whilst she was fasting in looking out for a live newt in a pond, and he deluded her into believing that this was the identical beast that had troubled her, and which he had so dexterously extracted.

I believe there are few parishes in England in which similar tales are not told. I remember seeing a huge oriental centipede exhibited in a herbalist's window in a large town in Yorkshire, as having been an inmate of the stomach of a human being.

I have heard the same story as that told me in Devon, repeated in Sussex with this variation, that instead of an earthworm tempting the newt from its retreat, a roast leg of mutton was exhibited at the mouth of the patient. A friend of mine was warned by an old woman in Staffordshire not to eat cress from a brook, on the ground that an acquaintance of hers had once thus swallowed toad-spawn which had been hatched within her.

"Look, sir, at that 'ere boy!" said an urchin to me one day;" he's gotten a live frog in his innerds, and if you bide still you can hear it quack."

"Nonsense," retorted the lad in question. "What you hear is conscience speakin'. That there chap ain't got no conscience at all. Put your ear to his stomick, and you won't hear nothin'."

The late Mr. Frank Buckland had so often heard the assertion that frogs and toads lived inside human beings, that he actually once tried the experiment on himself. He let a live frog hop down his throat. He felt no after inconvenience.

He tells a story in his Curiosities of Natural History which he received from a Lancashire man, and which agrees in some particulars with that I had from Devonshire. "There lived a man whose appetite was enormous. He was always eating, and yet could never get fat; he was the thinnest and most miserable of creatures to look at. He always declared that he had something alive in his stomach; and a kind friend, learned in doctoring, confirmed his opinion, and prescribed a most ingenious plan to dislodge the enemy, a big triton, who had taken up his quarters in the man's stomach. He was ordered to eat nothing but salt food and to drink no water; and when he had continued this treatment as long as he could bear it, he was to go and lie down near a weir of the river, where the water was running over, 'with his mouth open.' The man did as he was told, and open-mouthed and expectant placed himself by the side of the weir.

"The lizard inside, tormented by the salt food, and parched for want of water, heard the sound of the running stream, and came scampering up the man's throat, and jumping out of his mouth, ran down to the water to drink. The sudden appearance of the brute so terrified the weakened patient that he fainted away, still with his mouth open. In the meantime the lizard had drunk his full, and was coming back to return down the man's throat into his stomach; he had nearly succeeded in so doing when the patient awoke, and seizing his enemy by the tail, killed him on the spot." And Frank Buckland remarks thereupon, "I consider this story to be one of the finest strings of impossibilities ever recorded." But such stories are told to this day, and believed in implicitly.

What imagination will do I can show from my own experience. When a boy, in the Pyrenees, I once drank from a spring, and saw to my horror, when I had already swallowed a mouthful, that the water was alive with small leeches. I had a bad time of it for two or three days. I firmly believed I had leeches alive and sucking my blood inside me; I felt them. I became languid. I believed they would drain my blood away. Happily, my father heard what was the matter with me, and explained to me the corrosive nature of the gastric fluid, and assured me that nothing living and of the nature of a leech could resist it. "My dear boy," said he, "from personal observation of your proceedings at meal-time, I am convinced you could digest a pair of boots, and no leeches could stand a moment against the force of your vigorous gastric fluid." I believed him, and forgot all about my imaginary malady.