The Bricklayer’s Arms is a work of historical fiction cast in the guise of an embittered autobiographical document penned by the hand of Benjamin Jonson, poet, of Westminster, which we may assume to have been destroyed in the fire that engulfed his lodgings in November 1623.
Coloured, no doubt, by its cantankerous author’s flagging fortunes, the document is a spiteful morass of gossip, innuendo and reminiscence from the first fifty years of his life, and is divided into six parts.
Part One, entitled He Who Would Valiant Be, looks first at Jonson’s antecedents and notes the family’s rise under Henry VIII, and subsequent fall under Queen Mary. Having arrived at Jonson’s nativity it then proceeds through his childhood and schooling before arriving at his apprenticeship to his stepfather as a bricklayer. All six parts are interspersed with narratives relating to its author’s circumstances at the time of writing, which deal largely with the arrival of Anne, an estranged illegitimate daughter, unable to comprehend her famous father’s poverty, and Jonson’s own doubts and uncertainties regarding his future. Part One ends with his castigation of George Wither, a rival, whom he mocks in the royal Christmas masquerade, Time Vindicated, in January 1623.
Part Two, His First Avowed Intent, follows Jonson through his recruitment and military service in the Spanish Netherlands, touching also upon his disastrous and fumbling relationships with Anne Lewis, who becomes his wife, and his venal and mercenary sister Ruth. It also introduces Gabriel De Haace, a suave and seemingly flawless renaissance man, who provides Jonson with a link to the powerful Robert Cecil and subsequently causes him to act as an informant against the Catholic underground.
Never far from the surface of the book is Jonson’s well documented feud with the dour Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton. Part Two continues with Jonson’s return to London and finds him struggling first as a bricklayer (again), then as a travelling actor, until finally his literacy and skill as a script-copier enable him to find his own work performed on the stage. The Isle of Dogs is subsequently acted with disastrous results. The Queen is offended and Jonson imprisoned for the first time. Here he encounters Howard, and is ultimately saved by the intervention of Gabriel, who appears to have some influence as a man of affairs.
Part Three, Against All Disaster, commences with Jonson’s release from Marshalsea Prison. His new-found notoriety find him much in demand, but before long he is in trouble again. Imprisoned for murder, he is obliged to plead benefit of clergy to escape execution. This time Gabriel introduces him to Robert Cecil, who by now is single-handedly running the country. Gabriel promises Cecil that Jonson can be of use, and once again secures his freedom, but not before Jonson has allowed himself the indulgence of a rather dubious conversion to Catholicism. Out of prison again Jonson becomes embroiled in The Wars of the Theatres, and Part Three ends with his life in shreds as a result of both this, and a disastrous encounter with his sister.
Part Four, Follow the Master, charts the upturn in Jonson’s fortunes. Taken in at Gabriel’s instigation by Esmé Stuart – the King’s cousin – he finds himself close to the throne of the new King James. We follow his rise, and witness his arrival at court as the King’s own poet.
Part Five, His Strength the More Is, finds Jonson now well ensconced at the court of King James. His new found status as a guest of the King’s cousin, plus his Catholicism, enable him to encounter Robert Catesby and his fellow gunpowder plotters. Accidentally intercepting a message from the Society of Jesus to Henry Howard denouncing the plot, Jonson enables Cecil (now Lord Salisbury) to reap the credit for its discovery. There is a further imprisonment, a great deal of gossip concerning his friends, Sir John Roe and John Donne, and more clashes with Northampton.
In Part Six, To Be a Pilgrim, Jonson and Gabriel attempt to thwart Northampton’s plans to dominate the privy council and embroil James in an alliance with Spain. Salisbury is dead, and James’ grip on the reins is slack. Following her murder, by poison, of Sir Thomas Overbury, Northampton’s niece, has married Robert Carr, the King’s favourite, opening the way for Northampton to manipulate them all. Northampton is disposed of, allowing Carr to be supplanted in James’ affections by the fledgling Duke of Buckingham. Gabriel and Jonson cannot know that matters will only be made worse by this substitution.
Meanwhile, as he writes, Jonson is being threatened by anonymous letters, thanks to the unlicensed circulation of transcripts of his private conversations with the poet William Drummond. Jonson, a braggart at the best of times, has offended everyone. We are left wondering if there is anyone left in the kingdom who would not want to set fire to the man and all his works. Finally, in an effort to secure some kind of immortality, Jonson sells the rights to his memoirs to Robert Cotton, an antiquarian obsessed with the preservation of trivia for future generations. Cotton’s excitement over a tattered copy of a play by Shakespeare on King Edward VIth and the Tudor succession has aroused Jonson’s jealousy. Gabriel, unimpressed by the threat of disclosure offered by this turn of events rides off into the sunset with Jonson’s daughter, leaving the defiant poet alone to face an uncertain future.
Those few facts available to biographers concerning Benjamin Jonson have been blown up out of proportion and enshrined as his myth. More than a few of them are taken from Jonson’s own conversations with Drummond, who had no way of ascertaining their veracity. The Bricklayer’s Arms endeavours to cut these trivial snippets down to size and to take a larger view of the man and his art.
For a year or so after the Gunpowder Plot, and its grisly climax in the Old Palace Yard, I was much about the court with Roe and Donne. Roe was back in London by the time the plotters were executed, and was amused at my determination to witness the spectacle. “If we push any closer we shall be splashed with gore,” he warned me. “You have developed some unusual tastes in entertainment since I have been away.” I heard him not, for I was paying close attention to Rookwood, and was hoping for some hint of recognition from him. I don’t know why – perhaps I wanted to try to convey to him that I had done his bidding and that with his death, matters between us were now at an end and all could henceforth rest in peace. He did not see me. I do not think he saw anything. He was very pale and prayed constantly under his breath that Jesus should save and keep him. I am sure his request was granted.
Donne came too, but kept his distance. After the quartering was completed, we repaired to The Mermaid and washed the spectacle away with enough sack to float the King’s navy – although from what I had been hearing of James’s revised priorities regarding expenditure, that formerly unparalleled body of men and ships was becoming sadly dilapidated.
“We shall never rule the waves while James is King,” observed Roe, who kept abreast of military matters. “His Majesty instead waives the rules, and we are obliged to make war with peppercorns for powder, arms from before the golden age, and bunions on our ill-shod feet. I blame you poets, for you delight His Majesty too much, and his martial heart is swayed instead to walk in the realms of painted fantasy. You, friend Jonson, have achieved more for the cause of Spain with one masquerade than Phillip achieved with an entire armada. I hope you are truly ashamed.”
“Had I only half a conscience,” I promised him, “I would have taken my rightful place on the scaffold today and perished along with the rest. Where would you hang my quarters Roe?”
“You are grown so large in my absence,” my friend replied, “that I would be obliged to divide you by five. One piece I would hang upon The Devil, one here upon The ‘Maid, and one upon The Tun. One I would sell at an enormous profit to My Lord of Northampton, that he might rub his hands together and intone ‘Jonson’ to it. The last I would take home and feed to the cats. Now that Catherine has moved in and kittened under the bed there is much need of fresh meat in the household.” Catherine was a tiny tabby, much beloved of Roe’s incontinent clowder. She had given birth to eight kittens beneath the great bed on the day of Roe’s return, an event that had moved him to tears of joy. Now, when in his cups, he would spend hours examining the profiles of these bemused new arrivals, in a vain attempt to identify the father. “I fancy this one has a trace of Agamemnon in him,” I recall him musing, holding aloft a wriggling kitten on the palm of his hand.
“That,” I had replied, “is a she, and in a few short weeks she will have more than a trace of Agamemnon in her. She will have first his false and cozening promise, then his seed, and finally the fruit of his terrible wooing, which will blight her young life. Beware Roe, for you do not know what lies in wait.” All the monstrous Toms doted on Catherine, and would guard her jealously from interference. I was reminded of those many folk songs in which seven brothers come to the aid of their one sister, who has been done down by some dastardly rogue who invariably forgets to take precautions against their interference. With this in mind I was tempted to blame Catherine’s brood upon Marius, the ancient cat from the neighbouring tenement whose eyes were set so far apart that it was a wonder to behold, and never failed to reduce Roe to paroxysms of laughter.
“‘Tis no cat,” he would swear. “But rather some monstrous and Godless hybrid. It is at least one-third part horse. Take it before the king. His Majesty is versed in demon lore. He will recognise it for what it truly is.”
This was close to the truth. His Majesty had a deep-rooted fear of witchcraft, demons, and the supernatural, which in its turn drove him to seek out the proven truths of science and to embrace that which could be explained with a fervour most ill suited to kingship. It made him very gullible.
The Christmas season of 1607-1608 springs to mind. That was the last Christmas before Roe’s death, and we spent it together under His Majesty’s roof planning and working upon my Masque of Beauty. At least, I worked on the masque. Roe accompanied me in an ill-defined advisory capacity, which enabled him to enjoy The King’s hospitality without doing a stroke of work to earn it, an arrangement that suited him down to the ground. “His Majesty’s quartermaster in Dublin owes me for thirteen hundredweight of horse fodder,” he said by way of expiation, “which I was obliged to advance to Maclevore’s company from my own slender funds. I shall simply consume the equivalent weight at His Majesty’s table. Fair exchange is no robbery”
That was the season James had become enamoured of the piercing Doctor. Leicester, who was widely travelled, had told The King of a man of science in residence at Penshurst who could cure illness by the insertion of small needles into a man’s flesh at strategic points. The royal curiosity had been aroused.
“Branng thae boonie ta’e t’ cleddie,” he pondered. “Yon’s nae ludie t’ae tha Dee'”
“Not at all sire,” Leicester had been quick to point out. “It is a science, base upon an acquaintance with a man’s humours, and their relationship with the five known elements of earth, water, fire, air and metal. All tangible and scientific, sire, and by no means to be confused with the occult.”
“Biddlecum uppie an’ waigh,” The king commanded, and so it was done.
To be more precise, it was done to me, for having persuaded the King to allow this leechey charlatan access to his household, it was then deemed necessary for the wretch to find a sick man upon whom to practise. One who while undoubtedly exhibiting external evidence of encroaching floridity was, besides, of sufficiently humble birth to allow for the necessary compromise of dignity involved. I found my self confronted by a conspiracy of Leicester, his quack Doctor, and a number of those highborn wastrels who delight in nothing so much as another man’s discomfiture.
When this battery of gallants suggested to His Majesty that as a child of the muse I would be particularly responsive to the piercing Doctor’s methods of practice, James was delighted. That part of him that was eager to catalogue and define the unfathomable leaped at such a worthy plan, while that less salubrious part that sought recognition as a poet, and was jealous of my fame, rejoiced at the prospect of my discomfiture.
Doctor Celias Culvert was the name of the great man of science. I was introduced to him at an informal meeting one afternoon in the Pont room at Whitehall. Present were Leicester, Bacon, The King, Harington – who could scent mischief from afar, like the puss moth does its mate and was drawn thither inexorably – the Doctor and myself. I was grateful that so few had been selected for the entertainment. Christmas was nearly upon us, and green boughs of holly, ivy, and mistletoe decked the halls. I remember distinctly the aroma of spiced bread baking in the kitchens nearby, and a distant and gratuitously seasonal choir rehearsing for The Prince of Wales’ carol service further marked the occasion. “Dear Lord Jesus,” I remember muttering to myself when Leicester brought in Doctor Culvert. “You who was pierced hand and foot, guard and protect me from such misuse as this charlatan may offer me.” Jesus did not answer. The King said:
“Blaw thae mickle speenies. D’ye heftie?” Leicester nodded emphatically.
“Most certainly Your Majesty,” he assured the eager King, who was displaying something akin to womanly enthusiasm for the event. “The Doctor will reveal his apparatus in due course. First he will deliver a brief dissertation on the manner of his art. It is most diverting.”
“Not as diverting I warrant,” observed Harington irreverently,” as sticking needles into Benjamin Jonson shall prove. Master Culvert, may we all try our hand at this physic?”
“My Lord,” pleaded the Doctor. “I am sure you will appreciate the gravitas due to a man of the medicinal sciences. I seek to expand my art through demonstration, that mankind may benefit from the knowledge thereof. The practice itself has taken many years of my life to perfect, and the piercing of a man’s skin is not something to undertake lightly, neither is it a matter for undue levity.”
“There are many who would disagree,” pointed out Harington. “Master Jonson himself has notably pierced men’s skin on occasion, although many are content in this more liberal age simply to thrash and to flay.” Bacon smirked at this sally. He was curious to observe the phenomenon, but would never publicly subscribe to any new science that he had not dreamed up himself.”
“Perhaps My Lord of Northampton should have been present,” he observed. “He is a man with a keen eye for experimentation. I am sure he would enjoy the procedure immensely.” Only James and the Doctor were blind to the irony in this statement. I found myself in the strange position of being in agreement with Bacon, for there was no doubt in my mind that the prospect of Jonson’s naked flesh being probed by metal needles would have caused Northampton nothing but joy.
“Keen ye gae’n ye manny?” inquired James.
“Alas, sire,” explained Leicester. “His Lordship is engaged in matters of state and could not attend.”
“You backstabbing lurgey,” I said to myself in outrage. “You asked him too!” Aloud I preserved a veneer of detachment. “Perhaps it is for the best I said. “The good Doctor, after all, is not some kind of performing ape that all might come to watch juggling with cups.” Leicester began to list his protege’s illustrious credentials to James, explaining about his many and varied travels, and services performed for this Doge or that Sultan, Caliph, or Mahjar. Harington, unchastened by the Doctor’s implied rebuke, took advantage of the King’s distraction to inflict further wry witticisms upon Bacon and myself. “In truth it is a shame Northampton were not available for the Doctor to practice upon,” he observed. “T’would be a sight worth seeing, for he has no flesh to pierce. The needle would buckle upon his bones before the outer layer was even scratched.”
“There is a race of men native to the Guinea coast,” Bacon enlarged, “who have external skeletons, not unlike some beetles, whereby their skin is a hard, horny crustica. Within there is merely a viscous fluid which is both nauseous to smell, and disagreeable to touch, for it burns the flesh. This is only to be expected, of course, for it is this fluid that digests their food. Harington was enchanted.
“So these creatures, you say, are simply man-shaped husks filled with mucous?” he demanded. “Have they no mouths or ears, or other orifices? How is this liquid retained?
“There is a kind of internal force at the very centre of each creature,” Bacon lectured, “which draws the fluid inwards. Thus they do not drain away their life’s essence while, for instance, making water or vomiting.”
“This internal force can discern between the two?” queried Harington, who did not believe Bacon, and was determined to entrap him in a lie. “Between, vomit and piss and the miraculous essence-fluid so crucial to their existence?”
“No doubt,” Bacon tried to drop the subject. “Are there no ladies invited to witness his demonstration?”
“Master Jonson will be required to undress I believe,” Harington explained. “A sight that I am sure could only cause distress to any woman of gentle birth. Surely, if this internal force draws the liquid inward, they would not need the husk without to retain it, for the inner power would draw it together. The external skeleton strikes me as an encumbrance.”
“God’s works are many and varied,” Bacon made a rare deference to the skill of his creator in an effort to dissuade Harington from labouring the point further. Harington would not be dissuaded.
“One could argue,” he mused, “that the man-shaped vessel would preserve the outward form of the creature, but surely God’s design would have been the more wondrous had he instead imparted a greater elasticity to the fluid enabling the creature to change its shape and form at will?”
“Do you question the work of God?” inquired Leicester, who had finished talking to James and was ready to allow the Doctor to proceed.
“By no means my Lord,” replied Harington. To me, in an undertone, her added: “only the works of Francis Bacon.”
“Gentlemen,” Leicester called us to order and made a sweeping proprietorial gesture towards the Doctor. “My learned friend will explain his art to you, and then we may proceed to a chamber I have had prepared to conduct the demonstration.
The Doctor, for all his pretensions to an understanding of the dynamics of metabolism, was an unimpressive figure. He was short and balding and bore a paunch upon him that could not be overlooked by even the least critical eye. His heavily receding hairline stretched in an arc around the back of his crown, from ear to ear, and was the starting point for a lank fall of greying strands which fell to below his shoulders. His face, although smooth, had a corpsey pallor to it, which did not hint at an affinity with daylight. If he had travelled to the hot plains of the Indus and beyond, I mused, then it must have been in a sealed box, for he had the look about him of a troglodyte.
The mouth was pinched and peevish, like a man who has never had enough. It sat comfortably enough in the round face, but inspired one rather to punch it than to listen to its pearls of wisdom. When he was content that he had the full attention of his audience – for Harington had allowed himself to become further distracted by a group of ladies playing croquet on the lawn below, and Bacon was wearing his customary expression of bored disdain – he commenced his lecture.
“Your Majesty…Gentlemen,” he ventured. “You have done me the honour of attending me here, for which I thank you. I hope, in return to provide you with an insight into the true functions of the human body, and to demonstrate how, by the deft stimulation of its moods and humours it may be induced to heal itself, and to restore to a proper balance its flow of vital energies. Gentlemen, you will be aware of the five chief bodily colleges and of their intimate relationship to the tempers and moods that govern us?”
“I am aware of no such thing,” Harington assured him emphatically. “Doubtless Francis here has an inkling. Do, pray go on.” The Doctor chose to interpret this ambivalence as sincerity and continued.
“Men of science are now aware that there are five main gatherings of physical energies within the body. Each energy being different from the other, and each emanating from its own source, or college as we call them. These energies function independently of the soul, which is beyond their governance, but are able to exert a physical influence upon the mortal frame, which in its turn may have harmful effects on both the mind and the body. Gentlemen, we call these energies ichia, and they are fostered and fermented within their separate colleges and sent coursing through the body on a network of lines which with my knowledge and art I am able to track and influence.” He paused, clearly to allow someone to comment. Bacon and I exuded separate airs of boredom. Faced with the prospect of an unintelligible King James, or an irreverent Harington, Leicester leapt to the Doctor’s assistance.
“To what purpose would you so intervene? he prompted. “Please, Doctor. Reveal to His Majesty the secret of the acute points and their influence over the ichia.” He bowed towards the King, who was unconsciously levering a large bogey from his right nostril with a grimy index finger. James was so engrossed with the Doctor’s lecture that he seemed to have set aside all thoughts of kingliness, a trait he succumbed to all too often for his minister’s liking.
“Gey ye t’wang t’ae the noddle?” he asked. The Doctor managed to overlook this question and elected to respond instead to Leicester’s prompting.
“By either piercing the flesh at the acute points,” he told us, “or applying certain elements thereto, one is able to speed up and increase the flow of the relevant ichium, which in its turn will increase the influence of its particular college and thus increase that house’s influence over the body’s tempers. Do you begin to understand gentlemen?” Bacon nodded as if to say it was too obvious for words. James picked at some dried custard in his beard and once again, it was down to Leicester to interrupt Harington, who was about to pronounce himself baffled.
“It is clear to me, Doctor,” he said. “But first it will be necessary for these gentlemen to understand the relationship between the colleges, the humours they govern, and the actions of the five elements in conjunction with these centres. Tell them of the colleges.”
“That would help,” agreed Harington. “I do profess myself confounded. Would it not be better merely to start sticking iron rods into our good poet here? I am sure a practical demonstration would go a long way towards clarifying the issue.”
“My Lord,” the Doctor beseeched him. “Wait but a while. Sir Robert is right. He, of course, has had the benefit of observing my work before. I was pleased to relieve his sister, Mary, of a great melancholy that has afflicted her since the early death of her daughter, a service I was pleased to offer in return for His Lordship’s great kindness, and the trust he was good enough to place in me.”
“This is true,” Leicester interjected. “Why scarcely had he begun before Mary pronounced herself restored to great spirits and leaped from her bed in a manner most out of keeping with her recent morbidity. Since then she has made a lengthy pilgrimage into Wales, and we receive letters pronouncing her resolved to her lot, and happy in the cradle of God’s will.”
“Happier still,” confided Harington,” to be as far away from this mountebank as possible. I saw Mary before she left, and she had a face on her as long as a celliola. ‘Tis Essex she pines for. Not her daughter.”
“The cure was simply effected,” the Doctor was earnestly addressing us. “For she was in the thrall of that great college, the brain, whose ichium is sorrow, and which is influenced by the element of metal. By simply stimulating those ichia necessary to counterbalance her great grief I was able to restore the balance of her humour.”
“Whet ye d’wet yon croupie?” asked The King. Again, Leicester came to the Doctor’s assistance.
“A pertinent question, Your Majesty,” he observed. “Tell us, Doctor. Which ichia came to my sister’s aid?”
“The surfeit of sorrow,” replied that eminent man, “was further inflamed by an excess of the ichium that carries the powerful emotions from the college of the heart. Some choose to call this love.” He gave me a reproachful look. “Love is an unscientific term, too often misunderstood, and misleading in its implications. Our poets speak often of this humour, extolling its supposed virtue, but in an unbalanced body it can only do harm. We men of science choose to eschew the term love, and rather refer to this particular ichium as the Aquilat.”
“Good, good,” broke in Harington. “Such a practice should be encouraged, the better to curb those men of verse who are prone to rhyming ‘love’ with ‘dove’ so incessantly. I never understood the reasoning behind this. Why should those filthy airborne vermin that infest the city and bombard honest citizens with their incorrigible voiding, be associated with so high a human emotion?” This was addressed to me.
“I never once used that rhyme,” I assured him. “My experience of the dove, in all its myriad forms has been similar to your own. My estimable colleague, Master Daniel, is the man you need to question concerning the relationship between the dove and Eros.”
“I do not recall any single work of Daniel’s in which he makes such a rhyme,” Leicester objected.
“Then you have the better of me My Lord,” I replied. “For I do not recall any single work of Daniel’s at all.” Harington was delighted with this and I could almost hear the clockwork apparatus in his brain whirring and clicking as he struggled to remember the witticism, the better to produce it as his own at a later date. Leicester, whose sister you will remember set great store in Daniel, begged the Doctor to continue.
“If My Lord would be so kind as to assist me with my chart,” Culvert asked him, “I shall attempt to clarify matters further. If you please…?” Leicester eagerly helped him to unroll a great sheet of linen that was strapped to the side of his instrument case. The sheet had wooden dowels at the top and bottom, and when Leicester held it aloft it unravelled to reveal a full length human figure covered all over with a complicated tracery of thin coloured lines, and a deal of tiny numbers. Harington leaned close to scrutinise this image.
“It bears an uncanny resemblance to those maps employed by Sir Robert Dudley in the Netherlands,” he pointed out. “I have seen them. They are so complex that no man can interpret them, and it is alleged that they were directly responsible for the loss of half a regiment of foot in a bog near Arnhem, and that Grave was recaptured by the Spanish because the reinforcements mistakenly marched on one of their own garrison forts at Heebooge instead.” From somewhere behind the chart Leicester’s voice cut in.
“Please Sir John,” he insisted. “Let us continue with the matter at hand. I am sure Dudley’s campaigns are of little interest to His Majesty. Is the chart straight Doctor?”
“Thank you My Lord.” The Doctor took up a small stick, made of some curious shiny wood that I had not seen before, and began to lecture again. “The colleges,” he commenced. “There are five, Your Majesty, and they are located in the brain, the groin, the bowels, the lungs and the heart. Each governs its own humour. The brain is the seat of sorrow. The groin is the seat of anger, the bowels of fear, the lungs control the emotions of joy, and the heart,” here he paused and looked at me sternly again, “is the source of the Aquilat. These different coloured lines,” here he poked the chart in a number of places, “show the precise route of the various ichium in their passage through the body. The numbers indicate the locations of the acute points. If the body is to be devoid of foul distempers, which can in turn lead to physical deterioration, it is essential that each college produce its ichia at the same rate. Only then will the moods of the individual be balanced. ”
“G’roon, g’roon tha tidd’le pickie,” The King observed. “Yeer scoonie wa’ bie ichie boonie cooed.”
“That is so Your Majesty,” Leicester agreed from behind the chart. “In the case of my sister, the Doctor offset the surfeit of sorrow by stimulating the ichium emanating from the lungs and the groin – increasing the flow of both joy and anger.”
“Yes indeed Your Majesty,” the Doctor eagerly agreed. “For these are both powerful outward-bound emotions. It was necessary to be careful, but I am confident that in the end a satisfactory balance was restored.”
“Why are there so many numbers?” asked Harington peering with some show of feeling at the group of small figures clustered around the painted figure’s genitalia. “Do you mean to tell me that you insert needles here?”
“That,” replied the Doctor, “is entirely dependent upon the diagnosis. If one wishes to counterbalance, say, the ichia issuing from the lungs – if for instance a man suffers from an excess of joy, and possesses too mercurial a spirit – one would select those points upon the path of the counterbalancing ichium nearest to the offending college.” He traced a path along a black line running perpendicularly in the region of the lungs. “These points here would be selected, to immediately inflict sorrow upon the subject.”
“T’would sorrow him more were you to prick him here,” said Harington, motioning to the base of the figure’s scrotum. “I begin to understand. Why, though, are there divers points at a great distance from any of the colleges? What need to prick a man in the foot, for instance? Why, too, are some of those remoter points marked with letters rather than numbers?”
“Firstly,” the Doctor replied, you err. Stimulation of the pudendal points would rather influence anger than sorrow – depending, of course, upon which lines were employed. But anger has its seat in the loins. Perhaps by igniting a man’s anger, we might distract him from his sorrow. That is possible, and in an instance where the lungs were producing a weak ichium I might be obliged to resort to such a course.” Having at last succeeded in capturing Harington’s interest the Doctor swelled visibly with self-importance, “The science is a deft one. We must first gauge the amount of stimulation required before we decide how close to the unbalanced college to apply our treatment. As for those points marked in letters, they are drains. Not all, you will observe, are located at the extremities. By inserting needles therein we can simply allow the excess ichia to drain from the body into the air around.”
“Gawbie wee!” The King was aghast. “Flawtie foolie steekies roon mie gang b’lie? Kang brawdie smeck mie lumples. Dinnit t’wie?”
“That is why we wear small protective masks in the vicinity of treatment Your Majesty,” Leicester lowered the chart to offer The King reassurance. “But do not fear. The ichium, once released does not linger. It lasts no longer than a cry of laughter, or of pain.”
“There will be plenty of both before long,” Harington clapped me on the shoulder. “Good Doctor. How will you treat my dear friend Ben?”
“That,” replied Doctor Culvert, “is a matter for my diagnosis.”
Together we made our way to a small bedchamber overlooking the Palace Stairs that offered a fine view across the water to the Lambeth Marsh. It was a clear bright day, but cold, and a generous fire had been prepared to ease our discomfort. Bacon was busy telling The King about a similar science that he had heard of in the Southern Americas, where small pyres were set to burn upon strategic points of the body, doubtless to stimulate those same ichium with which the present treatment was concerned. He was curious, he informed James, to gauge the similarities between these doctrines, but was by no means mystified by the Doctor’s performance. These ichium were well known. “Why only last week,” I heard him say, “I was able to improve the performance of one of my stag hounds by applying heat to its groin. The beast had hitherto been docile, but I was able to instil it with an aggressiveness more suited to its calling.”
“I had thought that the beasts of the field were denied all human emotions,” Harington mused. “How did you manage to ensure that the animal’s anger was directed against the stag, and not at its handlers?”
“As a man of letters,” replied Bacon darkly, “you could not be expected to comprehend matters of science.” I had half a mind to point out that Sir Walter Raleigh was a man of both but comprehended neither, but mentioning Raleigh’s name in the royal presence was never a good idea and I was aware that I already had enough to contend with that day.
Once installed in the chamber, the Doctor opened his case to deploy his instruments. “Be so good as to undress, sir,” he told me, “and lie on the bed. I shall examine you, and gauge the ichia with my fingers.” This was the moment I had been dreading. The prospect of revealing my nether regions in the presence of Sir John Harington was not one that appealed to me overmuch. While the burns upon my face had faded with time, until they were blended into the contours of my cheeks and chin and were not too conspicuous, those upon my private parts had remained vivid. Denied the effects of wind and weather, my milk-white groin was still mottled with great blotches of angry red, and my prick resembled an angry little rooster. On more than one occasion, I had been obliged to talk long and hard to a punquette before she would take the thing on board, for it looked at times almost leprous.
“I am sure there is no need to bare my all,” I pleaded. “Indeed I am not entirely certain what it is you hope to cure me of, for I feel most uncommonly well today, and am beset by no complaints, either physical or spiritual, that would warrant too intimate an examination. Surely if I simply bare my chest that will suffice?”
“Come,” said Harington. “Have we gathered hither at such great pains to be thwarted by your unlikely modesty? I have heard it said by many – not least by Goodyere’s menials – that Benjamin Jonson is as swift to toss off his britches, as he is to toss off a stanza. Strip sir. Strip for your King.”
“I have heard much the same,” agreed Leicester. “Besides which you are known to be prone to great bursts of anger when thwarted, of an excess of joy when sated, of sorrow when drunk, of passion when aroused and of fear when confronted by geese. I am entirely certain that you are the least well-balanced individual in all the realm. Strip off your clothes man, and let the Doctor do his work.”
I looked at The King. He was adopting a regal expression, looking down his nose and nodding thoughtfully. “Strep ye fuulie,” he ordered. “Shaw tha toolie t’ae m’brie.”
So what else could I do?
“Great barbs and feathers!” gasped Harington when I stood before them, naked and absurd. “I know that cock! I lost twenty pounds on that sorry piece last Thursday on the Bankside. It was pitted against a great hulk of a bird from Norfolk, which I swear was a turkey in disguise. The scrawny little thing didn’t last a minute, but fled in circles round the ring clucking in terror. Where, Master poet, child of Clio and most blessed man of letters, did you find such a weapon?” A great chorus of like ribaldry followed this.
“These are honourable scars,” I lied defensively. “I earned them when we stormed Breda. I was singed by wildfire in the service of the Crown. Do not mock an old soldier that suffered in the line of duty.”
“I have inflicted such scars on toads in the course of my studies,” observed Bacon. “Likewise the application of quicklime to a goat’s belly produces such marks. You were a bricklayer, Jonson. Are you sure these marks stem from military service?”
“Aye, and not some misplaced tumble on a building site?” Harington demanded. “To lay with a woman in builder’s-lime would be sure to roast your chicken for you.” I cursed Bacon inwardly for his interference. What business had he smearing quicklime on goats anyway? I asked him this in an effort to divert Harington, who took great delight in Bacon’s bizarre experiments.
“My aim was to establish a means by which an animals flesh could be cooked while the beast yet lived,” he explained with some diffidence. “Quicklime was but one of the methods employed.”
“Why man, why?” Harington demanded. “What possible benefits could be accrued by such a discovery? Forgive my ignorance Francis, but this is incredible.”
“The idea was,” Bacon explained patiently,” to find a method of victualling armies in the field without recourse to great herds of livestock. The cooked flesh was to be carved from the living animal, which would then regenerate the missing tissue, and thus be able to provide a constant supply of meat, while also being alive still to yield its milk.”
“Were you successful?” asked Leicester. “Such a discovery would be of immeasurable benefit to mankind.”
“Alas,” Bacon replied. “In all instances the beasts perished. Quicklime was the least successful of the attempts, for it merely scorches the surface and leaves nothing cooked beneath.”
“Gentlemen, Your Majesty. Please,” the Doctor interrupted. “I am ready to make my diagnosis. Master Jonson, I am sure that your wounds were honourably won, and I am anxious to examine them for traces of that brooding negativity which, left untended, can prevent a wound from healing fully for years. It is easily possible that some of your imbalance stems from a lingering distress caused by this searing. If you will permit me, I am sure I can be of help.” Resigned, I lay down upon the bed.
“Do as you will,” I told him sourly. “But please, warm your hands at the fireside first.”
The diagnosis proved painless, although humiliating. The Doctor pressed and poked me all over with his pointy little fingers. Several times, he stood for minutes at an end with a digit pressed gently upon some particular point. After a great deal of this, accompanied by frequent small sighs and noddings of the head, he stepped back and addressed his audience again. “Your Majesty,” he said. “I am ready to proceed.”
“What have you discovered?” asked Leicester eagerly.
“It is clear from the pulse of the ichia that Master Jonson is consumed by a great and vital anger,” explained the Doctor. “This does indeed stem from the late injuries to his groin, for it is the college that is governed by fire, which has in this instance been applied with a degree of ferocity such as I have not experienced before.”
“What do you mean by that?” demanded Harington. “What has fire to do with the groin – unless a man be in the presence of Lady Guildford?”
“Heck ye stammet, Mon. D’ye peck the leedie saw,” The King objected.
“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” Harington grovelled. “I meant no ungallantry. I am merely intrigued by the good Doctor’s discoveries.”
“As was alluded to earlier,” the Doctor pointed out to the unruly knight, “the science is based upon a knowledge and understanding of the influences of the five elements upon the ruling colleges. The brain reacts to metal, the heart to water, the lungs to air, the bowels to earth, and the groin to fire. Too close a presence to its empathetic element can stimulate a college with disastrous results. Hence the strength of the ichium emanating from Master Jonson’s groin. This, the college of anger, has been seared by its own element, fire, to a degree of intimacy unprecedented. My prognosis is that should the matter be left untreated, this poet will be consumed with rage before long.”
“Now I understand,” enthused Harrington. “That explains why most soldiers, with their iron caps, are so miserable, and why sailors, in the presence of so much water, will swive anything that moves.” He turned to Bacon. “You see, Francis? It is all down to the ichium. Were your goats moved to anger when you scorched them so?” Bacon did not deign to reply.
“It does not explain,” I pointed out, “why so many martyrs went to the flames with blissful smiles upon their faces.” I did not intend to allow the Doctor to have things all his own way. “Nor why Janie Mindle shrieked with rage when she was tested on the ducking-stool at Reading for witchcraft.”
“You see,” said Leicester. “His anger is consuming his power’s of reason. Here, Your Majesty, is a clear case for treatment of a most urgent nature. I beg of you, Ben, let the Doctor proceed.”
“Mah na’, mah na'”, said James. “D’weel ye greet ye speenie. Cloopit tae tha durns wi’ speedles.”
And so the Doctor did.
Five for the symbols at your door. They were:
Fire. To draw off the excess of ichium from my raging groin, the Doctor inserted two large steel needles under the nails of my big toes, and two under those of my thumbs. We all donned cotton masks, lest Jonson’s rage unleashed should contaminate those eminent men who had gathered to watch. The needles were not inserted too deeply, lest they stimulate the bowel too much, and unleash the ichia of fear – or indeed something worse. They hurt. I found that even as the rage drained from my extremities, it was fortified by new reserves that welled up inside me at the monstrous usage I was receiving. The Doctor was perplexed, for even as my rage increased, so that ichium that sprang from my heart – the Aquilat you will recall – became depleted as my hatred for everyone in the room grew and grew. He was obliged to insert needles, little more than fine wires, around my heart on those lines governed by the lungs, in an effort to instil the flagging college with emotions of joy to counteract the hate. Simultaneously he endeavoured to stimulate both fear and sorrow in the region of my groin, to assist in the depletion of my rage. Normally, he informed us, he would have employed the Aquilat in this region, but this was at so low an ebb that it could not be brought into play.
Earth. Because I feared the sting of each fresh needle, especially those that were thrust into that area known in women as ‘Biffin’s Bridge’, I was informed that the bowel ichium was grown into a raging torrent, and that this too would require draining. This necessitated further needles to my extremities, but they were smaller and less painful, as by all accounts fear is an emotion more easily controlled than rage. By this point, my reserves of joy were running as low as those of the Aquilat, and some stimulation was required in the vicinity of my lungs, in an effort to boost the college housed therein. This was not a notable success, for I found my right nipple so pierced with slivers of metal that both fear and anger required further controlling. More drains were applied, and the Doctor tried desperately to direct sorrow into their vicinities, as there was little else to play with. It was Harington who suggested that he set both fear and anger against each other in an effort to neutralise this raging turmoil, and thus I found more needles in my inner thighs, emphasising the bowel ichium, and more in the region of my belly, which was as close as he could get to my bowel without rolling me over – an option denied him by virtue of the wealth of needles protruding from my chest. Because I was running to fat over the bowel region, or so he said, the needles had to go in deep to reach the ichium. How I managed to avoid emptying those same guilty bowels of all last night’s supper when these needles went in I cannot now recall.
Metal. The Doctor decided that although the ichium of sorrow, that stemmed from the brain, was running at a normal level, the draining thereof might assist the recovery of joy, which was fighting a losing battle against both hate and fear, which two ichia seemed to have reserves enough to battle each other and still influence the rest of the colleges. To speed up this particular process he went to the draining points closest to the college, and I found needles in the lobes of my ears and the bridge of my nose. This, apparently, was too successful, as there was not an ounce of sorrow anywhere in my body that day. Only rage and hate, which very soon conquered my fear and began rapidly to consume my whole body. The Doctor then reasoned that a four-pronged attack by all the other ichia would be the best way of subduing my rage. Removing the drains that were spilling off both sorrow and fear, he inserted needles at the relevant points to inflame all the ichium except rage, which needed no artificial encouragement. At this point, the Aquilat reached a point that he judged to be critically low.
Water. Just as the pent up rage emanating from my groin had been initially caused by its ruling element fire, so he adjudged my Aquilat needed likewise to be encouraged by the introduction of its own controlling substance. Water was sent for, and I was repeatedly doused, an action which caused the piercings to smart further, and my rage to increase. The Aquilat, although apparently improved by these drenchings, failed to satisfy the Doctor, who then ordered me to drink as much as I could, and more. Leicester assisted me in this, and I found myself being force fed cup after cup, for all the world like one of Sophie’s geese. This further discomfort, together with Leicester’s whispered promise that he would see me well rewarded for my co-operation, allowed my rage to subside a little, but sorrow still outweighed the Aquilat, and I found myself unable yet to rejoice. To further assist in the multi-directional attack, earth was procured from a vase in the hallway and rubbed into those parts of my lower belly that were not already obstructed by needles. The earth reacted adversely to the water, and kept running off, so a constant supply had to be fetched in by an unenthusiastic Bacon.
Air. It was Harington who provided salvation. The Doctor ordered the windows open, and bade all spare hands to waft air over me with any flat objects that came to hand. The King joined in gleefully with this request, employing Harington’s wide brimmed hat with an expert hand. Harington took over from Leicester in feeding me with water, and Leicester busied himself trickling both water and earth over the four quarters of my body at the Doctor’s direction. The Doctor, meanwhile, was scurrying hither and thither round the bed like a mad thing, prodding me in various places to gauge the effects of the treatment. Harington, kneeling by my head holding the cup, pointed out in a whisper that unless I took control of my temper soon, and at the very least pretended to be cured of my raging furies, not only would I be filled full with more spikes than the blessed Saint Sebastian, but in all probability I would be obliged to eat the earth, the better to assist my struggling bowel. “Furthermore,” he added, “we are only moments away from the Doctor’s decision to fight fire with fire, which I do not doubt he will reason is the best way to allow the vehemence to burn itself out. Give up the fight, Benjamin. Own to your cure, the better to rise up from your bed and walk.”
There was wisdom in his words. Pierced all through with steel, blown by the wind’s of the deftly wielded hat, soaked through with cold water, and smeared all over with the soggy earth I summoned up all my inner reserves and quelled that tempest of fiery anger that threatened to engulf me.
“Lord preserve me,” I told the Doctor through clenched teeth. “My anger abates, and I am cured.”