‘She’s on fire!’
The doctor took his hand from the little girl’s damp forehead, his eyes grave. ‘It is certain she has the small pox.’
The child’s mother, standing near with shabby dignity, gave a single choking sob.
The doctor sensed movement in the dark recesses of the room. ‘May I examine the others?’ His voice was soft.
Doleful-eyed, the little flock trooped out of the shadows to stand in solemn parade, the youngest in his sister’s arms. Five children under the age of seven, the second already stolen.
He took his time, examining pulses, inspecting tongues, touching foreheads. He was late for his next visit and there would be no shilling at the end of this one. But he needed to discover how far this wildfire had spread. When he straightened up his face told the story.
‘The baby may be spared,’ he whispered. ‘Put him to the breast every hour. But the others…’ His voice cracked, ‘… the fever has them all.’
‘What can I do?’ The mother’s words fell like pennies into the abyss.
He shook his head. ‘Keep them cool. Damp their skin when they burn. And pray for mercy.’
But as he rode away, his own prayers were bigger. ‘Open thou mine eyes to behold the truths of thy world. Grant to thy servant wisdom. Reveal to me thy secrets and let there be a cure.’
‘And take care that you eat well. That little fellow you’re carrying deserves a good start.’
The doctor whistled as he started packing up his equipment. Confirming a pregnancy was one of the few opportunities his job provided him to deliver good news. He looked up to see his patient shuffling from foot to foot in the doorway.
‘Is there something else, Betsy?’
‘Yes doctor. Would you take a look at my hand? My Frank said I have to ask you about it. You know how he fusses.’
‘Of course. Come over here by the window… Ah yes. You have the cow pox. No doubt about it. Has your herd been affected of late?’
‘Yes sir. There was a right outbreak two weeks ago. I told my Frank that’s what it was, but he wouldn’t have it. Still, it’s a blessing really, with the babe on the way.’
‘How’s that, Betsy?’ He glanced at the clock. Catherine would be serving supper very soon.
‘Won’t be getting the small pox, will I?’
‘Won’t you, indeed?’ he chuckled.
‘Well everyone knows that, doctor. Anyway, here’s my shilling. Thank you.’
He scarcely noticed her cheerful leave-taking, or the clink of the coin on the table. He stood looking out of the window which overlooked the little village graveyard. The imperfections of the glass distorted the headstones like tears in his eyes. There were too many tiny graves, each one a silent monument to a fragile light extinguished. So many lost to the small pox. So many babes like the one now biding its time in Betsy’s belly.
There must be an answer. Could this be the answer?
‘How are you feeling, James?’ The question was framed in a casual manner, but the doctor had more anxiety than usual for the well-being of this patient.
‘Why, I’m well thank you doctor.’
‘Let me have a look at that scratch I gave you in May. No new pustules there?’
‘No. doctor. Once those first ones went, it’s been fine.’
‘And no fever, no chills? No headache or backache?’
‘Sir, I am working with my father as usual today.’
‘Then you have escaped the small pox. I gave you the cow pox in May, and you are untouched by the small pox I exposed you to last week.’ His voice was quivering with excitement. ‘James, you are a remarkable boy. Many people will benefit from what you have done.’
‘Doctor Jenner, I trust you. You told me all would be well, and all is well,’ the boy replied, puzzled at the agitation on the doctor’s face.
‘And I thank God to have been right.’ He spoke softly, almost as if he had forgotten the boy was there. Deep inside, a spark of hope was kindling. Was this really the answer? Could it really be so simple? Dared he believe?
The next step was audacious. He must start an outbreak. Infect people deliberately. The fluid from a cowpox pustule scratched into the skin. It might become an epidemic. It just might work.
Sometimes one must fight fire with fire.
Based on the true story of Edward Jenner, whose invention of vaciolation with cowpox resulted ultimately in the eradication of smallpox from the entire world.
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