True Tales from an austere kingdom (2)
I was feeling considerably under the weather and decided to pay a visit to the door of Dr Frobisher, my personal physician.
Alas, I arrived there to find a long queue of the common sort waiting outside of his door. When I inquired of his housekeeper, I was told that he had taken to offering his services for free for one hour per week, and that I should come back at noon when the crowd would have acerbated and he would be free to see me.
“This is a new thing,” I said to Dr Frobisher when I finally got to see him. “Free care to the poor. Is this good works for a church charity?” One reads regularly of the charitable duties of our class, but rare encounter it in real life.
Frobisher laughed. “It’s hardly charity,” he said, “in fact the word for it is Science.”
“Science?” I said. It seemed an unlikely word for a medical man to use.
“Yes, scientific research. The hospital pays me to experiment, try out their new pills and potions. I have to keep a count of which of my patients took what medicine, and keep a count of the numbers of living and dead. It’s all quite Scientific and Precise.”
There was, of course, a considerable death rate at this austere time, with many of the lower sort dying of nutritional exposure, due to the lack of access to food and other bodily needs. Anything that science could to do to address this problem would only be welcomed by anyone with a Christian soul, though this did nothing to remove my temper at having had to wait in line behind an army of the unemployed.
After giving me a thorough examination, Frobisher reassured me that he could find nothing wrong, and that any ill I felt was just due to the stress. “It’s quite common,” he said, “indeed there’s not a gentleman I know that isn’t stressed at the moment, you can’t so much walk down the street without being mobbed by beggars and job-seekers.”
Indeed, Frobisher was proved prophetic, as when we left his offices for lunch at my club we were harassed by a beggar woman. “You look like a respectable gentleman,” she said to Frobisher, “take my child, I can no longer afford his upkeep. You could raise him as a gentleman, sir.” She proffered up a small urchin, barely two years of age, all bone bar a thin strip of skin. Frobisher ran from the woman with a speed I hadn’t expected in him, lest, as he put it, he should “catch her dire essence.”
“These wretched people,” Frobisher said, gesturing at the crowd around us, “all they do is pester you, beg, ask for work. Why if I get asked for employment by another beggar today I swear I shall slice him in two.” He gripped the handle of his sword, as if to be ready for the offence to occur at any moment.
Luckily the streets in the immediate vicinity of my club are thrice daily cleared of beggars and other debris, by a force of former soldiers, meaning that our walk ended in peace and we climbed the steps of the establishment in good mood.
Frobisher was greeted at the club by calls of of “Why it’s Jesus. Turn my water into wine,” or “I have been inflicted by the gout, cure me Jesus,” and similar remarks.
The reason for said banter is thus. Frobisher had found another means of making New Money. The relief charities, besieged by those claiming alms, had taken measures to lower the vast numbers of disabled, sick and injured claiming support. Doctors such as Frobisher were hired to assess all claimants, and paid a bonus for each claimant they proved fit enough to work. Frobisher had been nicknamed Jesus after telling a man who had lost both legs in the French wars that he was fit to work, as he could easily walk again “Given the right equipment.”
That the man owned no such equipment, indeed that no such equipment existed anywhere on god’s earth, made no difference, for if Frobisher were able to conceive of such a machine, it was reasonable to require the claimant to acquire one, or even invent one, and cease pestering the parish authorities for charity he did not need.
A few weeks later I ventured to my club one morning to find the place filled with the delirium that comes only from the finest piece of scandal. There was a mini war as people charged towards me to be first to break the news, the battle being won, fittingly enough, by General Cathcart.
“Have you heard the news, Wilson?” he asked, his face illuminated beacon-red by the twin fuels of delight and early morning port. “Frobisher’s been arrested.”
“Frobisher! Arrested? For what?”
The General pulled his most gruesome face in order to appropriately impart the news. “Murder! Frobisher has killed several hundred of his own patients. In cold blood.”
I shuddered. As one of Frobisher’s patients I imagined how closely I myself had escaped death. Indeed, I thought to myself, how long did these murders take? perhaps I was still at risk. A slow-working poison?
Further inquiry reassured me, however. It turned out that the pills Frobisher was dispensing to the lower order on behalf of the hospital were not experimental medicine, rather they were pure poison. Hundreds, nay thousands, of the workless lay dead at his hand.
It is said, behind the walls at my club at least, that the hospital was tired of being inundated by thousands of the lower sort, with their nutritional exposure and diverse diseases, which they picked up and transmitted as quickly and casually as we might pass port around a table at dinner.
Behind the walls of my club, many other things were said. For instance, that Frobisher knew nothing of the poison and was merely a dupe for the hospital authorities. Or even, that Frobisher and the hospital were to be congratulated for their good work, that the deaths of a few thousand of the lower sort were needed to return the economy to full employment and return the kingdom to its normal, flourishing state. For who can doubt that the period of austere grimness was caused by over-population, too many people for the work available.
I will not repeat who uttered these words, nor who agreed with them, only that it was a clear majority opinion.