Have You Met My Aunt? A Biography of Witnesses Compiled by Her Niece – Part Four
I said I would provide a close and reasonable source for each step in my story. I confess, I have ignored several slightly more distant voices in waiting for this one. I am glad I did. This very kind, generous person was good enough to make many things clear to me that might otherwise have been left forever in the dark.It was an honour to shake his hand, and an honour to listen to his account of my aunt.
My name is Marcus Simon Carter, and I am, by profession, a doctor. For occupation I have, for over thirty years now, made it my business to travel amongst the inns and public places of our area, dispensing medical advice and support wherever it is needed.
I think of myself as something like a monk. I have no permanent dwelling place, and when I arrive at a new inn, the patrons are usually very happy to contribute to my bed and board. I eat rather well for a man who has never had more than a few pounds in his pocket. I make it a policy never to accept money as payment. I wish very much to be a good man, and I think I am not strong enough to resist the temptation of favouring those patients who can pay, unless I distance myself entirely from the concept of reward. I have in the past been strengthened in this resolve by the fact that the public knowledge of it has saved me from bandits on several occasions, especially in the dark old days.
I am paid in food and a resting place, and also in news and stories, whenever anyone has anything to tell. My stocks are usually replenished for free when I pass by a doctors’ surgery. I am well known enough for that.
Inevitably, the people I see are those who have no other recourse. Those with a home and a job seek a doctor’s waiting room or even – oh luxury! – call someone out to them. I see those souls who cannot go home, or who have no home or who, perhaps, will never reach home. I do what I can. I am in the business of cures, but I am just as often called upon to administer nothing more than morphine. I lose people often who ought to be saved.
I have one other form of payment. When, as often happens, I am presented with a patient who tender nursing could save, or who, suffering from exhaustion, requires the services of a good bed and three hearty meals a day for as long as it takes, I extract a promise of this from the innkeeper. A local youth is summoned to play nurse, and all fees are waived until the patient is restored. If I am refused in this particular request, I strike the inn from my list forever, and I make it known everywhere I visit that it was a place in which someone died for want of a simple kindness.
I have been forced to take this step only three times. The second time was in response to the treatment received by the woman I later discovered to be your aunt.
I was staying at a tiny inn in Frampton Cotterell, not six miles from here, in fact. explained who I was, and produced my references, but I was told that there was no-one present who required my services. I was offered bed and board anyway, of course, and as I sat down to my meal that night I began to hear dark murmurings from the few other guests of what they called the monster in the stable.
I leaned across, and made it known that I had a hearty appetite for a story of monsters. The woman at the next table looked at me.
“You’re a stranger here, I think?” I agreed with her. “There is a monster, sir, but not a one for a casual bedtime tale.”
I had a sense then that I was being joked with. It was a queer sensation, because I knew they weren’t sincere, and yet something in their distaste was absolutely so.
“Still,” the woman went on, and I liked her less and less with each word, “We know well enough what to do with a monster round here. This one won’t last out the night.”
That was enough for me. While I had no reason to be here particularly for the ‘monster’ I was at least resolved to be against this monstrous tale-teller. I said goodnight and slipped out, around the back of the inn and into the stables.
In the first three, I found horses, of course – travellers’ horses, all sinewey and suspicious – but in the fourth stable I found a young woman. She had made a bed of sorts for herself from some none-too-clean hay. She was sleeping soundly enough, with a thick coat over her, and it was clear from even a cursory glance that she was very, very sick.
I approached her softly, but her fever, or my footsteps, woke her and she started up. She hoisted herself up onto her elbows although it was clearly an effort, and asked me who I was. I announced myself in the same way I always do, as a doctor and a friend. She was alarmed, but there was something unusual in her state. I have met women who have been so abused at the hands of men that they instinctively fear them, and I have met people who have been so utterly cast out from the world that they see all hands as weapons, and fear them. Her alarm was new to me. I think the fever made it more pronounced, but she was afraid of something beyond my understanding. I decided to speak more, and hoped to calm her.
“My name is Marcus Simon Carter,” I said. “I am a doctor, and I travel between the inns and public places offering what help I can where it is needed. I don’t require payment.”
Her panic didn’t abate, so I continued to speak.
“I come from a long way away,” I said, and bizarrely the words were no sooner out of my lips than she relaxed. She let herself gently down onto the floor again, and almost smiled. I finished my patter, and because it seemed to help, I emphasized by status as a stranger in these parts, and as one who would soon be leaving them again. Finally, she seemed calm enough to allow me to help her.
She had a high fever – at some points over the course of the night she slipped fully into delirium – and her wrecked body was also suffering from exhaustion. I lifted her as gently as I could and laid my own coat under her, then gave her something to regulate her temperature. She was badly dehydrated, so I left her there and returned to the inn. I asked for a bed for the sick woman, and some water. Both requests were refused.
“If you don’t do these things,” I said, “she’ll die. She is very weak already, and a night in the cold will finish her. Now, if you have a scrap of humanity in you, you’ll set a fire blazing in the warmest room in the house, and help me carry her into it.”
I have seldom seen such a hard face as that which stood before me then, and I saw it echoed on every single patron. The most I could get from any of them was that they had allowed her the use of the stable, and that this was somehow more than she rightly deserved. Eventually, they consented to my use of a few blankets and some water.
I hurried back out to find her slightly better. Her temperature had dropped a little, and she was able to keep down most of the water I gave her. Even so, after the first hour, her temperature soared again, and the congestion on her lungs meant I was amazed to find her able to breathe at all. I encouraged her to sit, but the effort was beyond her, so in the end I sat behind her, supporting her weight with my body and keeping her stable with my legs, and encouraging her to drink while she could.
I sometimes feel that my job is as much that of a priest as it is that of a doctor. Lost, dying people want to talk to someone, and although I can’t offer them God, I can offer them an ear. It became clear to me early on in that night that she wouldn’t see the morning. I encouraged her to talk. I knew that if she fell asleep, it was unlikely she would wake, but I also wanted her to be less alone, if only for a few hours at the end. She didn’t make a great deal of sense. She told me she had done what she could. That refrain she repeated over and over again, through both her lucid moments and her delirious ones. She had done what she could, and tried to make amends. She also, and this was hardest for me, I think, did her best to be hospitable. She asked me about myself, and made pleasant conversation, even teased me a little.
Apart from that, she spoke in snatches about things that made very little sense to me. I wrote down a sample the next day, in case it might be important. I have it somewhere… here.
“Cinnamon for the sauce… they don’t remember… sir, thank you, a little more water? I never told them about the cinnamon. It doesn’t matter now, I know, but I wonder… would it… I did what I could… I tried to make amends… sir, whatever happens, you mustn’t tell them I was sorry. Promise? Don’t tell them I was sorry, or it’s…”
That’s all I kept, I’m afraid. Thirty years is a long time.
I think it was the sight of the sun coming up through the rafters that finally ended things for her. It felt to me as if she couldn’t bear to face it, and wanted a way more final than sleep to avoid having to do so. She made time for one more thing, though, and for just a few moments she was perfectly lucid, though still coughing. She thanked me for my kindness and my medicine, and then she gave me a folded piece of paper filled with cramped, economical writing.
“My reputation won’t matter much to anyone now, I suppose,” she said. “But just in case, don’t read this until you are a very long way away, on your travels. I thought I could be strong enough to let everyone think… but it’s all right. One person, from such a very long way away. It can’t make a difference now.”
After that, she lapsed back into nonsense, and before the sky was bright she was gone. I… I kept the paper, of course, and I kept her secret. Here. I don’t suppose it counts as a betrayal so long afterwards.
I said I would keep myself out of this story, but I don’t mind telling you that even after Marcus gave me that document it was a while before I could stop crying for long enough to read it. When I did, I was very glad that I’d waited to find my strength before trying it