AN UNCOMMON THOUGHT

"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

04 April 2018

Surgite.


We had come up to the ordinary in New Fish Street, next door to a pewter-seller; it was a low, lewd, loud place, where even the timbers seemed worm-eaten to the last degree, and I shook as if I were about to enter my tomb. They threw off their cloaks as soon as they entered, and the tapster came forward with his 'Welcome! Welcome! A cloth for the gentlemen!' We were placed upon joint-stools against a long trestle table, so scarred and pitted with age that it seemed to boast cabbalistical scribblings. Then the boy approached us with 'What do you lack?' and 'What is it that you would have brought?' Truly these are the words of the age, far beyond the poets' lines of tin, and yet they will all crumble away into the night of dust. 'What lack you?' he asked again, and at once they called for meat and drink — not your poor pots of ale, known as 'mad dog' or 'lift leg' or 'stride wide', but rich wine mingled with sugar in the new fashion. Nathaniel Cadman called for stewed mutton, and goose, and woodcocks, while all around him these coxcombs took out their tobacco-boxes and spat upon the rushes. What a smoke-filled cave this was; but then, as Paracelsus tells us, what is the material world but solidified smoke?

Then they began to converse, laugh, talk, anything, and with so much loud waggishness and frowardness that it made my head ache; they were already drinking their fill of wine, and now a popinjay opposite to me began to speak.

'You look upon us with owl's eyes, good doctor. I cry you mercy. Have we offended your remote wisdom with our laughter?'

'I am waiting for my meat,' I replied.

'Perhaps this place displeases you? Or its company?'

I could not abide his sauciness. 'No, sir, it is all one. As they say, there is no difference of bloods in a basin.'

'Is that what they say? I will tell you something else they say, good doctor. They say that you constellate and planet, cast nativities and generally prognosticate. That you employ charms and exorcisms and amulets.'

'You grow high in your words,' I replied, trying to keep my good humour. 'Well, the lowest trees have their tops.'

The others had grown silent but now they laughed at this, and the popinjay became angry. 'I thought in the old days,' he said, 'that sorcerers and suchlike were accounted vagabonds.'


The meat was brought smoking to the board, and so I checked my words, which would have been none other than 'May you lead apes in hell!' But then he vomited out his thoughts even as the others fell to their dishes. 'I am not one of your credulous disciples,' he said, 'and you cannot seduce me with any of your spells or characters or anagrams. Would you have me piss through my wedding ring to get my wife with child? I would as soon use a twig cut from an elm as your sixpenny Jacob's staff! Your toys and gambles mean nothing to me.'

I laughed at his absurdity but, as he continued to stare at me, I put down my knife and bread. 'I could easily answer your fond comparisons, no doubt taken from some flibber-jibber knave that feigns tales. But I am not disposed to argue of the matter. Not now. Not in this place.'

But he stayed on the hunt. 'What, do you fear eavesdroppers who stand under a wall or window to hear the secrets of a man's soul? That horse has long bolted, sir, and there are many in this city who condemn your doings —'

'Scornful and malicious people.'

'— and say that you are a renegade who raises the dead, and creates new life.'

I put out my hand, which, as I saw, trembled. What could I answer to such things without great grief of mind, since he had hit upon a truth which he could not understand? Yet I kept my countenance, and smiled upon him. 'You told me you were not credulous, and now you speak of raising the dead. Come, this is child's stuff.'

'This is what the world says, good doctor. Not what I believe. Report has it that you are a bankrupt alchemist, a conjuror who cannot complete his dealings without the secret assistance of you know who.'

I could put him off no longer. 'Foul and slanderous words,' I said, 'which should never have been spoken of me.' He merely laughed at this, and my anger grew higher. 'Shall the folly of idiots, and the malice of the scornful, become the new gospel among all of you here? Shall I be robbed of my honest name and fame by those so far beneath me that I can scarcely see them?'

'They are to be seen.'

'Heard, but not seen. You eagerly listen to their reports, and so I am in hugger-mugger condemned as a companion of the hellhound and a caller of damned spirits.' They were all now so drunken that they scarcely heeded me, except for the coxcomb opposite. 'All my life,' I continued more quietly, 'I have spent in learning. If I seem to you another Faustus, why, so be it.' Then I called for more wine, and asked the knave his name.

'Bartholomew Gray,' he replied, not at all abashed, though he had witnessed the full extent of my wrath and had, as it were, been burnt by my heat.

'Well, Mr Gray, perhaps you have had enough of fables. Would you like now to hold on to wisdom, and to judge truly of things?'

'Go on, good doctor. But eat no more salt, I pray you, for fear of sharpening your anger.'
'Fear not the anger, Mr Gray, if you fear not the truth.'

'In truth I fear nothing, so proceed.'

'For the past thirty years continually,' I began, 'in diverse manners, and in various countries, with great pain, care and cost, I have sought to come by the best knowledge that anyone might attain in this world. I found at length that no man living was able to teach me those truths I desired and longed for, and so I concluded with myself that it was only in books and histories I might find the light for which I searched. I do not cast figures and conjure, as you so fondly imagine, but rather build upon the wisdom I have gained in all these years — ' I broke off for the moment, and drank more wine. 'But if this is to be a true chronicle, I must begin at the beginning.'

'That is the white to aim at,' he said. 'The tabula rasa.'

'My parents were honest and of no little esteem among their neighbours, my father being agent to the estate of my lord Gravenar. I was the last of my mother's children and, since the others were much more advanced in years, I stayed pretty close to myself (as they say) and played in the fields next to our ancient house in east Acton. There is no telling the wonderful diversity of children's natures, the spirit itself being combined from so many contrary influences, but I myself was of a shy disposition and haughty mind: I played alone always, shunning fellows as I would shun flies, and when my father began to teach me I fell naturally into the company of old books. I learned my Latin and my Greek even before my tenth year, and had no little delight in reciting from memory the verses of Ovid or the sentences of Tully as I roamed among the lanes and hedges of our parish. I would preach Eliot's Dictionary to the sheep and Lily's Grammar to the cows, and then run back to study Erasmus and Virgil at my own little table. Of course I shared my bed and my chamber with my two brothers (now both under the earth), but my parents understood my solitary disposition and gave me a chest, with lock and key, where I kept not only my apparel but also my texts. I had also a box of papers in my own writing, for my father had instructed me in the secretary hand, and there I concealed many verses and lessons of my own composition.

'I rose at five in the morning, my father calling out to me "Surgite! Surgite!" while I washed my face and hands very quickly. All of the household prayed together, and then he took me into his own chamber where I practised upon the lute: my father's care was always to increase my skill in music, and by daily exercise I grew more bold in singing and in playing upon instruments. At seven we came into the hall, where the table was already laden with meat and bread and ale (in those days called the angel's food) for our breakfast; after the meal was concluded I began my lessons in grammar, verse extempore, construction, translation and suchlike. Horace and Terence were my playfellows, though even then I had a true interest in the history of my own country, and from these early years I was the scholar and never the gamester.

'But soon enough it was time to rise into another sphere, and I was in November anno 1542 sent by my father to the university of Cambridge, there to begin with logic and so to proceed in the learning of good arts and sciences. I was then somewhat above fifteen years old, as being born anno 1527 July 13 —'

'Your birth,' Bartholomew Gray said very suddenly, 'is out of its place, and should have come at the beginning of your discourse. Ordering, as well as inventing, is true argument of a fine wit. Surely so premature a scholar should know that?'

I ignored the coxcomb, and continued with my theme. 'For the most part of these years I was so vehemently bent to studies that I inviolably kept this order — only to sleep four hours every night, to allow for meat and drink two hours every day, and of the other eighteen hours all (except the time of divine service) to be spent in my studies and learning. I had begun there with logic, and so I read Aristotle his De sophisticis elenchis and his Topic as well as his Analytica Prioria and Analytica Posteriora; but my thirst for knowledge was so great that I soon found myself bent towards other learning as towards a glorious light that could never be extinguished, no, nor even dimmed. I cared nothing at all for the lewd pastimes of my college fellows and found no comfort in banqueting and whoring, in dicing and in carding, in dancing and in bear-baiting, in bowling and in shooting, and other suchlike trifles of the town. Yet though I had nothing to do with dice or with primero, I did have a chess-board with a little bag of leather for my men: these I would advance from square to square, reminding myself of my own history up to that time. I knew then, as I picked up my ivory pieces and stroked them a little with my forefinger, that monarchs and bishops would be as nothing to one who could predict their movements.

'After seven years I had attained my Master of Arts and, presently leaving the university, I went to London in order to follow my studies philosophical and mathematical. I had heard by report of a poor studious gentleman, by name Ferdinand Griffen, who had for many years past been buried deep in his rare studies and who (it was said by those knowing my own course of learning) would teach me the use of the astrolabe and the astronomer's staff as a proper continuance of my exploits in geometry and arithmetic. He lived in a rambling tenement in the Bishop of London's rents, in a court near the waterside just by St Andrew's Hill —

'I know it,' he said. 'By the glassworks on Addle Hill.'

'A little westward from there.' I refreshed myself by taking some more wine.

'I came to him on midsummer's day in the year 1549, and found him working among his globes and vessels with the nimbleness of an apprentice. He greeted me with bright words, having expected my coming after several learned letters had passed between us, and pretty soon he displayed to me certain rare and exquisitely made instruments upon which (as he told me) he had bestowed all his life and fortune — among which was one strong quadrant of five-foot diameter, an excellent radius astronomicus which had its staff and cross very curiously divided in equal parts, a fair astrolabe and a great globe of metal. So it was that Ferdinand Griffen became my good master and with him I began my astronomical observations in earnest, all the time working with those very fine and very apt instruments which he taught me how to use carefully and circumspectly. We began observations, many to the hour and minute, of the heavenly influences and operations actual in this elemental portion of the world —'

At which point I broke off, fearing to say too much to one who was not practised in these arts, and in my confusion drank my fill of wine before continuing along another path. 'We were so close to the waterside that we would take our quadrant from his rambling lodgings down Water Lane to Blackfriars Stairs where, among the barges and the herring buses, we called out "Westward! Westward!" until one of the passing watermen noticed us. The wherry took us by the open fields beside Lambeth Marsh where, with the quadrant established upon firm earth, we would make various observations of the sun's progress. Sometimes, coming or going, we were close to falling into the Thames over head and ears with the cumbersomeness of the quadrant, but we always escaped on to dry ground. What instrument of the sun could be deluged with water? No, it could not be. There were sly citizens who were accustomed to call us sorcerers or magicians for all this measuring but it was all one to Ferdinand Griffen, and since that time I have taken my lesson from him in despising and condemning the ignorant multitude. On many other matters he also proved my good master, or should I say magus, with books, pamphlets, discourses, inventions and conclusions upon grave arts. You asked me if I raised the dead; no, I raise new life…' Again I broke off, fearing that I had fallen into too deep a vein, but Bartholomew Gray did nothing but pick at his teeth and call for more wine. 'Then,' I added, 'I went beyond the seas to speak and confer with some learned men.'

'Magicians,' he replied, now quite lost and wandering in his drink. 'Sorcerers.'

'They had nothing to do with what is vulgarly called magic.' I took more wine to consume the fire within me. 'Mine are wonderful sciences, greatly aiding our dim sight for the better view of God's power and goodness. I am by profession a scholar, sir, and not some magician or mountebank. Whose opinion was it but my own that the court sought for, relating to the great comet of 1577, after the judgement of certain so-called astronomers had unduly bred great fear and doubt? And who was it that prepared for our trades and voyages to Cathay and Muscovy with true charts and tables for our navigators? And who was it again that gave Euclid's propositions to the mechanics of this realm, from which they have derived inestimable benefit? I alone have achieved all these things. Is it the work of a mountebank?'

'Lord,' he said, drunken to the highest degree. 'I understand not one word of this.'

'But I understand. I have spent these last fifty years for good learning's sake — what a race have I run, so much done and so much suffered, for the attaining of wisdom! Do you recall that time when a certain image of wax, with a great pin stuck in the breast of it, was found in Lincoln's Inn field?' He seemed to shake his head, but I was now launched upon a tide of words. 'It was said then by malicious backbiters to be an image of my own making, and that I endeavoured by enchantment to destroy Queen Mary. All spiteful falsehoods, all brain-sick perjuries, and yet for many weeks I remained prisoner in the Tower while all the doors of my lodgings in London were sealed up and I was close to being overwhelmed by the circumstances of my grief, loss and discredit. Well well, I said to myself then, my unkind countrymen, my unnatural countrymen, my unthankful countrymen, I know you now and I know what I must do. In recent years they have said that I impoverish the earth, that I rob the man in the moon, and any such stuff as can be hurled upon me. But do you know what is worse still? That I must take a purse from one such as Nathaniel Cadman here, and provide mere shows and gewgaws.' I paused for a moment, but no one else had heard my complaint. 'So, Mr Gray. Now you know of the very great injuries, damages and indignities I have sustained. I ask you not to increase them.'

He seemed a little abashed, yet he drank some more wine and then with a high-pitched but not unpleasing voice began to sing out a verse from 'Fortune My Foe':

'The moon's my constant mistress,
And the lowly owl my morrow,
The flaming drake and night-crow make
Me music to my sorrow.'

'It is a fitting tune,' I said, 'to accompany me on my way. For now I must rise and leave you gentlemen — ' I looked across the board, where they lolled in various stages of drunkenness. 'I am tired now after my spectacle.'

'I sat amazed,' one of their number said, looking down into his cup, 'when the spheres came down amidst the brightness. And all revolved. It was well done. It was very well done.'

'I wish you good night,' I said again. 'I must return to my own proper sphere.' I bowed to Nathaniel Cadman, who could not raise his head from the table and sat like some poor shrunken thing. 'I wish all of you good night.'

I came out into New Fish Street, when a boy walked forward with a lantern. But I waved him away. It was a clear night, and the fixed stars were all I needed to light my path to Clerkenwell.

Peter Ackroyd, from The House of Doctor Dee

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