The Barbers: A Tale Most Curious and Rare
It is London 1663 and science flourishes in a mini-Renaissance. Celia Barber shares her father’s shop; he barbers, and she heals during a time when women are not allowed to practice medicine.
As an apprenticed barber, Celia longs to visit the Royal Society or Surgeon’s hall to see a dissection. She befriends a viscount who sneaks her into the Royal Society, where she sees and experiment and meets Robert Hooke, the great scientist of the day. Celia’s sister works as a domestic in Whitehall Palace, who finds and ancient coin. Will it lead to hidden treasure?
Life in London is harsh. People sicken and die easily. As a healer, Celia sees tragedy. She cannot save all who come to her. Hardest of all, will she be able to save her brothers?
London, January 1663
After nine o’clock in the morning, daylight finally peeped its dreary head above London. Clouds and coal smoke wisped low to obscure church steeples and house rooftops. Men pulled carts piled with goods, their ironclad wheels making an unholy din against the icy cobblestones. People clogged the lanes, their chatter loud as they competed with the ringing cartwheels.
Wrapped snug in a heavy cloak and hood, and a woolen scarf slung around her neck, Celia Barber and her half-sister, Priscilla, slogged along City lanes filled with snow and ice. As they met clusters of passersby, Celia gazed into their faces to see if she would recognize her mother. When a bairn of three years, her mam had cast her to the streets–shoved her out the door and locked it tight. Dressed only in a nightshift, barefoot and hungry, Celia remembered pounding on the panel until her hands bled.
Like a dark specter, her frightened screams still echoed across the years. Almost every night she dreamed of it, felt the searing terror when lost amidst so many skirts, breeches, and shoes as folk trod along the muck filled lane. Even today, years later, she’d awaken with a sob in her throat.
Suddenly, Celia bumped against her half-sister.
“Ach!” Priscilla cried. “Do keep thyself upright.”
She and her sister worked their way to Whitehall Palace, and to a high lady there. She was ill with a fevered finger, and must be tended to at once. Why Priscilla’s aristocratic employer hadn’t called for a palace physician, Celia could not reckon. If they found her, a low person and a woman, doing surgery on a high person instead of barbering, they’d have her head.
Men of physic who tended the king and his ilk were an arrogant lot. She’d be safer to stay within at Papa’s shop whilst he practiced barbery and she tended to the sick.
Her foot scraped through a pile of rotten giblets, and she slipped. With a yelp, she straightened and continued to trudge through lanes that were quite horrid. The last two winters had been green wherein it never got too cold, but this year told quite another tale. Ice floated in the River Thames.
They rounded a corner to a lane that stank to high heaven. Rubbish and muck steamed in the kennel whilst pigs and curs fought over fouled meat. Windows opened and shouts came from above. They warned, “Gardy loo,” before piss and shit rained onto the street. The dogs yelped and pigs squealed as they shot away from the streaming stench.
Frozen to the bone, Celia wished they had coin to travel by hackney coach, but at least most houses along the lanes provided cover where their eaves jutted overhead. It prevented them from being thoroughly doused. Only small splashes of the muck dirtied their skirts.
“`Tis frosty out here, ain’t it?” Priscilla huffed as she skimmed along the outside of the eaves nearest the kennel. “Me foot’s awash with piss. I could do with an extra coin for a coach. We’d be cleaner upon arrival to me lady’s.”
“My very thought,” Celia remarked and leapt over something she’d rather not take time to identify. She adjusted the surgery box straps slung over her shoulder. “I’ve enough to go by water, but the wherrimen are hog high against the ice floating in the river. They’re afraid their boats will be torn to pieces, and all drown.” She clicked her tongue. “`Tis a shame they’re so filled with choler.”
“You could give them a potion to cool their heat,” Priscilla suggested with a grin. “Then we could take a boat to Whitehall Stairs. I vow it would be better than this.”
“We’re almost out of City with not too far to go. Let us walk faster. `Tis cold as Lucifer’s toe, today.”
After many slips and slides along the lanes, Celia and her half-sister gained the grounds of Whitehall Palace. These days, after untold plots to kill the king, guards along the path stood vigilant. They clapped stern eyes on all who made their way toward the entrance, whilst others questioned unknown folk who wandered about the palace. One stared very strong at Celia’s chirurgery box, but he let her pass. She and her sister walked brisk into the palace, then came to a quick halt. Compared to outside’s heavy glooms, Whitehall seemed very dark.
Once her eyes adjusted, Celia noted the same hangers-on whenever she came here. These fellows drifted from pillar to post. They smoked long-stemmed pipes, leaned against wall hangings, and watched the comings and goings of the place.
Priscilla threw off her hood. “Art thou ready? We must to my dowager lady very soon, now, or she’ll think me quite the sluggard.” She walked down a narrow passageway, and Celia quickly followed.
“If my lady is annoyed, she’ll pick a hole in me coat until I’m left to rags,” Priscilla flung over her shoulder.
“She can’t be that bad,” Celia remarked, but she could not remember too much of the high person. It had been a while since she’d seen the lady, and with so many patients every day, Celia shook away thoughts of them. To do otherwise put her into a dither of ailments and cures. She must keep her brains clear and focused.
“Aye, she’s that bad. Every day, she puts me in great molestations of mind until I don’t know which way I’m going, front or back.” Still walking fast, she wrenched her neck to gaze at Celia. “It quite exhausts me, it does. Sometimes, I think it would be better to go a’ begging through the world.”
Accustomed to Priscilla and her gale-force temperament, Celia did not respond. She reckoned Priscilla would do very fine on stage, but she did not speak of it. Of a reticent spirit, Celia preferred to keep much to herself. It was safer.
Without warning, a vision of a bairn sobbing in the rubbish filled lane engulfed her. Celia burned with fear, the cold that bit into her heart, and the foul smells of the kennel. People walked by her without acknowledgement, their skirts or cloaks brushing her cold legs. A man’s belted rapier pricked her backside.
Celia remembered with clarity when Papa had found her. He had cooed and comforted her, taken her to safety. In later times, he confessed Celia did have the look of her mother, with sharp blue eyes and almost black hair, but Lettice had the aura of burning hate, whilst Celia radiated kindness.
One day, Celia would find her true mam and confront her over the matter, but after all these years, her whereabouts remained elusive. Papa said the horrid trout was most likely dead.
Priscilla still blathered away as if nothing were amiss and trod down a passageway that curved to the left. Celia settled the surgery box more comfortably and ran to catch up. Whitehall was such a squiggle puzzle, she’d be lost in a thrice.
“Hold on,” she cried. “You’re going too fast.”
Priscilla paused, but did not turn around. She tapped her foot with impatience. “Hurry it along, if you please. Me lady will be cross, and there’s no telling what she’ll do. I could be murdered afore the day is complete.”
After they climbed up and down stairways, sped along a myriad of passageways, through curtained alcoves, and hallways with many doors, Priscilla stopped at a green one. As with many apartments in the palace, a large painting hung over the lintel, this one of a dog and his master. The bottom of the painting identified in script who lodged within: 2nd Viscount Deeping, Dowager Viscountess Deeping, and Mister Benedict Porter.
Priscilla took a deep breath and turned the latch. She whispered, “Art thou ready?”
Celia nodded. They entered the lodgings, its chambers dungeon quiet. The grey outside permeated inside, and of a sudden, Celia felt chilled. A clock ticked somewhere, giving the rooms a hollow feel. Rats scurried in the wattle and daub. Above the hearth that held only embers, a lit candle sat sturdy in a silver candlestick.
“Wait here while I go to her,” Priscilla said. She walked into another chamber and closed the door.
Celia let the straps slip from her shoulder and put down the heavy medical box. When she first filled it whilst apprenticing under her father, Celia thought it a pretty piece to carry into old age. It did not take long to learn it became quite heavy after a small while.
She noted a large, gilt mirror upon a wall and walked to it. She scrutinized her stance, and wondered if her shoulders would go lopsided after many years of carrying the box.
Celia picked up the candle and went to the window. Its panes were heavily frosted with elfin designs. She pushed aside the lace curtain to closer see the swirls and curls, then raised the flame. In the dim light of the chamber, the candlelight wavered in the frosty glass.
Since December, it had been shivery cold. Ponds froze most robust, and tempted the foolhardy with that Holland sport the king had brought from exile. Fitted upon the feet, they called the devices skates. One day, Celia watched people as they tried to glide on the uneven ice, and fought the urge to join them.
Puddles and ditches had refuse in them, making the ice uneven. She knew the result of skating fast upon it since several young men had come to her with broken limbs and evil looking cuts to be mended.
She tipped the flame closer to the glass and noted how ice turned to water. Drops ran down to catch on the wintry designs. Where the flame burned, a clear circle formed on the glass. Soon, the clearness became U-shaped. She touched the glass. Warm.
Celia knew frost was water made solid, but why did the spot clear so quick? Where did the water go? Into the airs? Did heat make water into a vapor? Other than the droplets, steam did not puff to show it went away, and she wrinkled her nose. Moving the candle from the glass, she wondered if frost would soon creep over the clear spot.
Questions as thus had always swirled around her brains, but no one seemed to know the answers.
The latch rattled and Priscilla stood in the doorway. Light shone and low voices drifted into the chamber. Priscilla motioned with her head. “You may come in, now.”
Celia nodded, picked up her chirurgery box, and took a deep breath. It was time to cure a sick person.
Inside the room, her sister dipped into a curtsey. “My lord,” she addressed a young man, very handsome and noble, then turned to the patient who sat propped against feather sacks. Blankets were piled up to her chin. With the curtains pushed aside, the bed seemed quite naked.
Priscilla said, “My lady, the barber has come to heal you.”
With a shy smile, Celia curtsied to my lord, then faced the high lady.
Lady Robina Porter, Dowager Viscountess Deeping moaned. “You wouldn’t be here if our palace physician was available. Since we are now proper high persons for the whole world to see, I couldn’t bear it if our new friends knew of this.” She shot a stern look at my lord. “You will say nothing of this, do you understand?”
Lord Deeping grimaced. “As you wish, Madam.”
Celia inwardly sighed. Sometimes, she hated this business.
Swaddled in feather-tick coverlets, the Dowager looked hale and hearty, very comfortable, too. But her lips were pulled down in a stiff frown, her eyes dulled with pain. She lifted a bandaged hand almost hidden with heavy lace. “I shall die soon.” She raised her head and cried out, “Don’t think I won’t.”
Her turbaned head fell against the feather-sacks, and she closed her eyes.
Priscilla curtsied. “Me sister’s been here before, and cured you of the fenny ague, didn’t she?”
The lady wailed most woeful.
“She and me father are the best barbers in City and its Liberties,” Priscilla persisted. “She’ll fix you, I’m sure of it. Make you right as rain in no time at all.” She turned pleading eyes to Celia and stepped back.
Celia curtsied. “What can I do for thee, me lady? Where dost thou ail?”
My lady raised her bandaged hand. “`Tis here I ail. I shall be with me husband right soon now, who stands at Heaven’s gate a’ waiting for me.”
My lord cleared his throat, and Celia turned to him. Very nicely put together, his Turkey gown of heavy blue brocade gave him the airs of gentle chivalry. His long hair was dark. He wore a Vandyke beard and mustachio. He smiled, and his amber eyes brightened, very pretty.
She curtsied. “Aye, my Lord?”
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Talbot Porter, 2nd Viscount Deeping, at your service, and you might be?”
“I am Mistress Celia Barber, my lord.”
“Ah, Celia, what a lovely name. You may call me Deeping.” He waggled his brows. “I think we shall be best friends very soon, now.”
His mother gasped. “You will not allow such a low person to call you thus. With your dear departed father, you are now Viscount and must be addressed as such. Gel, you will speak to his lordship as is proper, and nothing less.”
Celia bowed her head and curtsied most respectfully. “As you wish, me lady.” She stepped closer to the bed and asked, “What might be the problem?”
My lady thrust her bandaged hand under Celia’s nose. “I’ve a felon on me finger, and I’m in great pain. Will you take me finger off?” She sniffed. “I shouldn’t like that in the least.”
“Let’s see it, shall we?”
Celia opened her chirurgery box, removed the rivet spectacles, and placed them on the bridge of her nose. Squeezing them so they wouldn’t fall off, she stepped to the bed. “Bring me your hand, please, me lady, and I shall remove the bindings.” She unwrapped fabric from the hand to reveal a swollen and purple fingertip. Celia clapped her eyes upon the unhappy finger, and noted the flesh around the nail puffed and angry, the skin stretched tight. She touched it, and my lady mewed most piteously. The flesh around the nail was fever hot.
She placed the lady’s hand gently on the bed. “You’ve a protuberance of the finger, my lady, caused by much turmoil of the brains. When we lance it, your brains will also find calm.”
Celia regarded Priscilla. “I’ll need a pitcher of hot water, please.” Turning back to the poor, sad person, she added, “We’ll soak your finger in hot, salty water. It’ll remove the choler, which is under the influence of Mercury. Once done, we shall drain the evil until all is right again, then anoint it with a balm of woody nightshade.”
My lady sent a suffering gaze to her son. “Afore we begin, give me a dish of high spirits to calm me turmoiled brains.”