home   |   -   |   A-Z   |  


I had never been in a large metropolis before; Oxford was by far the grandest town I had ever entered. Most of my life had been spent either on country estates where the largest habitation was a village of a few hundred souls, or small market towns, such as Boston or Warwick, with populations of only a few thousand. London (so I am told, although I do not believe anyone knows for certain) contained then some half million people. It sprawled over the landscape like a vast, bleeding pustule on the face of the earth, sickening the land, and poisoning all who lived in it. I was at first fascinated, as I pulled up the leather to peer out of the coach window, but this amazement turned to disgust as I perceived the shocking meanness of life in such a place. I am not (as must be clear by now) much of a bookman, but there is a line in a poem which I was forced to construe by Dr. Grove in my youth, which has stuck with me. I do not recall the poet, but he was obviously a wise and sober man, for he said, I cannot live in the city, for I have not learned to lie. So it always will be; the honesty of the country man is at a disadvantage in the town, where duplicity is prized, and straightforwardness scorned, where all men look after only themselves, and generosity occasions only laughter.

Before I made enquiries for Sir Samuel Morland, I decided I needed as much to collect myself and prepare myself for the interview which lay ahead. So I took my pack and walked across the great thoroughfare which links London with Westminster (although there is so much construction it will soon be completely impossible to discern where one city ends and the other begins) and took myself northward to find a place which sold something to eat and drink. I soon came to a Piazza (as it is called, though square should be good enough for any Englishman) which I am told can stand equal with any in Europe. It did not seem so grand to me; the buildings were ruined by the squalor all around, of women selling vegetables, and dirt and waste trampled underfoot. There were eating houses there, but the prices were such that I removed myself in horror at the audacity of the owners. Round the corner was another street which seemed much calmer, although again I was deceived, for this Drury Lane was accounted one of the most vile and dangerous in the city, full of bawds and cutthroats. All I saw was the theater, shortly to open, and witnessed the actors in the uniforms which won them protection from the law, and mighty ridiculous they looked.

From Covent Garden, I walked to London, diverting only up a squalid alley near St. Pauls Cathedral to leave my possessions in a dingy little tavern I had been told was both cheap and honest. It was so, but unfortunately did not accompany these virtues by being quiet and clean as well. The blankets were crawling with lice, and such evidence as there was indicated that my future bedmates were less than genteel. But I had lice in my hair anyway, so decided there was little point in spending my money on better. Then I began to make enquiries about Sir Samuel Morland. It did not take long to find his address.

It was an old house in an ancient street near Bow Church and, I dont doubt, was one of those burned to the ground a few years later in the fire, for it was an ancient construction of wood and thatch which would have been the more attractive had any care been taken on its upkeep. That, of course, is another problem with city life, as when owners are not the same as inhabitants, then no care is taken of buildings, and they molder and decay, casting a distemper on the streets and becoming a breeding ground for vermin. The lane itself was narrow and dark from the overhanging storys above, and a riot of noise from the traders who plied their wares up and down its length. I looked for the sign of an ox as instructed, but it was so discolored that I walked up and down twice before I realized that the tattered and broken piece of wood above one door had once carried such an image on it.

When the door opened, I was not even asked my business but was invited in with no ceremony at all.

Is your master at home? I asked the man at the door, who was as disgraceful looking a servant as ever I had come across, covered in dirt and dressed in the foulest of clothes.

I have no master, said this creature in surprise.

Forgive me. I must be at the wrong house. I am looking for Sir Samuel Morland.

I am he, he replied, so that it was now my turn to look astonished. Who are you?

My name is ah Grove, I said.

I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Grove.

And I yours, sir. I am sent by my father. We own some marshland in Dorset, and have heard reports of your ingenuity in drainage

I could not even finish my lie, for Morland grabbed me by the hand and pumped it up and down. Excellent, he said, Excellent indeed. And you wish to see my engines, do you not? Use them to drain your land?


If they work, eh? I see your mind perfectly, young man. What if this inventor is a fraud? Best to spy out the land, so to speak, before committing funds. You are tempted, because you know of the ingenuity of the Dutch, and how they have increased the yield of their land an hundredfold, and turned marsh into the richest pasture, but you do not fully believe it. You have heard of the fen drainage, and the use of pumps there, but do not know if they would be appropriate for you. That is the case, is it not? Do not bother to deny it. It is well for you that I am not a suspicious man, and freely show my designs to all who desire to see them. Come, he said cheerfully, grabbing my arm once more and pulling me to a door, come this way.

In some bemusement at this behavior, I was dragged from the small entrance hall into a large room beyond. I guessed it had once been the house of a woolen merchant, and had been used for storing bales. Certainly it was very much larger than the frontage of the house suggested (these merchants always play poor, and hide their wealth from public view) and sweet and fresh from the wide-open doors at the end, which gave in so much light despite the time of year that I was briefly dazzled.

What do you think? Impressive, eh? he said, mistaking the hesitation this caused for astonishment. When I could see clearly again, though, I was indeed astonished, for I had never seen such a collection of bric-a-brac in my life. A dozen desks, and each one overflowing with strange instruments and bottles and casks and tools. Bits of wood and metal were stacked up against the walls, and the floors were covered in shavings and pools of greasy liquid and cuttings of leather. Two or three servants, probably those artisans able to make up engines to his designs, were at work at benches, filing metal and planing wood.

Extraordinary, I replied, as he clearly wanted me to express some approbation.

Look, he said enthusiastically, again removing the obligation to speak. What do you think of this?

We were standing in front of a finely carved oak table, which was empty save for an extraordinary little device, scarcely bigger than a mans hand, of beautifully wrought and engraved brass. On top were eleven small wheels, each one carved with numbers. Below, in the body of the machine, was a long plate which evidently concealed other dials, for small holes cut in the surface revealed yet more numbers.

Beautiful, I said. But what is it?

He laughed in delight at my ignorance. It is a calculating machine, he said proudly, the finest in the world. Not, alas, unique, as some little Frenchman has one, but (he lowered his tone to a confidential whisper) his doesnt work very well. Not like mine.

What do you do with it?

You calculate, of course. The principle is the same as Napiers bones, but far more ingenious. The two sets of wheelwork registers numbers from one to ten thousands, or from halfpennies up, if you wish it for finance. The handle engages this by a series of cogs, so that they turn over in the correct proportion. Clockwise for addition, anti-clockwise for subtraction. My next machine, which is not yet perfected, will be able to calculate square roots and cubes and even perform trigonometry.

Very useful, I said.

Indeed. Every counting-house in the world will shortly have one, if I can find a way of telling them of it. It will make me a rich man, and experimental science will advance in leaps and bounds when it is no longer confined to adepts in mathematical calculation. I sent one some time ago to Dr. Wallis at Oxford, as he is the best man in that business this country has.

You know Dr. Wallis? I asked. I am acquainted with him myself.

Oh yes, although I have not seen him of late. He paused and smiled inwardly to himself. You might say we were by way of being in business together once.

I will send your salutations, if you so wish.

I do not know that he would greatly welcome them. My thanks for the offer, nonetheless. But it is not what you are here for, I know. Come into the garden.

So we left his arithmetical engines, thank heavens, and I followed him out into the open air, where he paused in front of what seemed to be a large barrel with a tall tube coming out of the top. This he regarded with a sad, wistful look on his face, then shook his head heavily and sighed.

Is this what you wished to show me?

No, he said regretfully. This I have reluctantly abandoned.

Why is that? Does it not work?

Far from it. It works too well. It was an attempt to harness the power of gunpowder to the problem of pumping. You see, it is a great problem in mining. The distance below the earth of mines these dayssometimes four hundred feet or moremeans that the effort required to extract water, which means raising it by an equivalent distance, is formidable. Do you know the weight of a tube of water four hundred feet high? Of course not. If you did, you would be astounded at the audacity of man in even thinking of the idea.

Now you see, my conception was to get a sealed container above earth filled with air which descended into the water below ground, with another linked tube coming up into the open.

I nodded, although he had largely lost me already. In the container, you explode a small measure of gunpowder, which causes a great rise in tension within. This rushes down the one tube, and forces the water up the other. Repeated often enough, you would get a constant flow of water upward.

Sounds splendid.

It does. Unfortunately, I have not yet thought of a way of ensuring explosions of the right quality and consistency. Either the tube bursts, which is dangerous, or you get a single plume of water fifty feet high which then stops. I have a patent on the idea, so I am in no danger of being overtaken by rivals, but unless I figure out the solution a very good idea may well be wasted. I have considered using heated water, because water turned into vapors demands a much larger spacesome two thousand times, did you realize that?and acquires irresistible strength in the process. Now, if some way could be made to force the vapor down the tube, or into some pumping mechanism, then the strength required to lift the water would be there.

And the problem?

The problem is making the hot vapors go in the direction required, rather than in any other.

I understood scarce a word, but his animation and enthusiasm were such that I could imagine no way of shutting off the flow of words from his mouth. Besides, my willingness to listen seemed to endear me to him, and thus rendered him more likely to give me the information I required. So I plied him with questions, and affected the gravest of interest in all those matters which normally would have excited nothing hut my contempt.

So you do not have a pump which works, is that what you are telling me? I asked eventually.

Pumps? Of course. Pumps aplenty. All sorts of pumps. Chain pumps and suction pumps and cylinder pumps. I do not yet have an efficient pump, an elegant pump, which will perform its allotted task with simplicity and grace.

So what about these fens? What is used there?

Oh, that, he said almost scornfully. That is a different matter entirely. Of little interest at all in matter of technique. He glanced at me, and remembered, again, why I was there. But, of course, all the better an investment for that, as it requires no novelty. The problem is a simple one, you see, and simple problems should best have simple solutions. Do you not agree?

I agreed.

Many areas of fenland, he said, lie beneath the level of the sea, and properly should actually be underneath the sea, very much as the greater part of the Low Countries should be, because, if not, they would have to change their name.

He chuckled at his little joke awhile, and I joined in politely. You know this, of course. Now, it is easy enough to prevent more water from entering by building dikes; the Hollanders have been doing this for centuries, so it cannot be very difficult. The problem is to evacuate the water that is already there. How is this to be done?

I confessed my ignorance, which pleased him.

Rivers are the simplest; you cut a new river, and the water flows away. Pipes are another. Wooden pipes underground which collect the water and allow it to flow off. The problem with that is that it is both expensive and slow. What is more, the land around (you remember) is higher, as is the sea. So where is this water to go?

I shook my head again. Nowhere, he said with vehemence. It cannot go anywhere, for water will not flow uphill. Everyone knows that. This is why much of the fenland has not been completely drained. With my pumps, you see, the problem can be overcome and in the contest between mans wishes and natures desires, nature can be made to yield a victory. For water will indeed flow uphill, and be carried off, leaving the land useful.

Excellent, I said. And very profitable.

Oh, indeed. Those gentlemen who have formed a company for the drainage of their lands will become prosperous indeed. And I hope to turn a profit myself, for I have some land there, in Harland Wyte. Sir? Are you all right?

I felt almost as though I had been struck a heavy blow in my stomach, for the mention of Harland Wyte, my family land, the heart of my fathers entire estate, was so unexpected that it left me breathless, and I fear must almost have given myself away by the way I turned pale and gulped for air.

Forgive me, Sir Samuel, I said, I am prone to this momentary light-headedness. It will pass. I smiled reassuringly, and pretended to be recovered. Harland Wyte, you say? I do not know it. Have you owned it long?

He smirked cunningly. Only a few years. It was a great bargain, for it was going cheap and I saw its value better than those selling it.

Im sure you did. Who was the seller?

But he brushed my question aside and would not be drawn, preferring to expand on his cleverness than on his turpitude. Now I will complete the drainage, then sell it on, and pocket a handsome profit. His Grace the Duke of Bedford has already agreed to purchase it, since he already owns most of the land all around.

I congratulate you on your good fortune, I said, giving up the line of enquiry and trying another approach. Tell me, sir, how you know Dr. Wallis? I ask as he has tutored me on occasion. Does he consult you on his experimentations and mathematics?

Good heavens, no, Morland replied with sudden modesty. Although I am a mathematician myself I freely admit that he is my superior in all respects. Our connection was very much more worldly, for we both at one stage were employed by John Thurloe. Of course, I was a secret supporter of His Majestys cause, whereas Dr. Wallis was a great man for Cromwell in those days.

You surprise me, I said. He seems a loyal subject now. Besides, what services could a priest and mathematician provide for someone like Thurloe?

Many and varied, Morland said with a smile at my innocence. Dr. Wallis was the finest maker and breaker of codes in the land. He was never beaten, I think; never yielded to a stronger in cryptographical technique. For years Thurloe used his services; bundles of letters in code would be sent to him in Oxford, and the translations would come back on the next coach. Remarkable. We almost felt like telling the kings men that they really should not waste their time putting letters into code at all, for if we captured them, Wallis could always read them. If he is your tutor, you should ask to see some; Im sure he has them still, although he naturally does not advertise such records of his past activities.

And you knew Thurloe as well? That must have been extraordinary.

He was flattered by the compliment, and this goaded him to try and impress me the more. Indeed. I was almost his right-hand man for three years.

You are a family connection of his?

Oh, dear me no. I was sent as an envoy to Savoy to plead on behalf of the persecuted Protestants. I was there for several years, and kept my eye on exiles there as well. So I was useful, and became trusted and was offered the post when I returned. Which I kept until I fled when discovered passing intelligence to His Majesty.

His Majesty is lucky in his servants, then, I said, despising the man suddenly for his self-satisfaction.

Not all of them, by any means. For every loyal man like myself, there was another who would have sold him for a bag of sovereigns. I unmasked the worst of them by making sure that some of the documents Wallis produced were seen by the king.

I was so close, I knew it. If I could only keep calm so that his suspicions were not aroused, I knew I could tease unheard-of treasures from him.

You hint that Dr. Wallis and yourself are no longer on good terms. Is it because of what happened in those days?

He shrugged. It no longer matters. It is all past now.

Tell me, I said, insisting, and I knew the moment the words were out of my mouth that I had pushed too far. Mor-lands eyes narrowed, and the air of eccentric good humor drained out of him like sour wine from a bottle.

Perhaps you have acquired more interests at Oxford than in your studies, young man, he said quietly. I would advise you to go back to your Dorset estate, and concern yourself with that, if indeed any such estate exists. It is a dangerous business for any man to occupy himself with matters that are none of his affair.

He took me by the elbow and tried to guide me to the front door. I shook my arm free scornfully, and turned to confront him. No, I said, confident that he would be no match for me, and that I could shake the information out of him if I so wished. I wish to know

The sentence went uncompleted. Morland clapped his hands, and instantly a door opened, and a rough-looking man came into the room, a dagger thrust obtrusively in his belt. He said nothing, but stood awaiting orders.

I do not know whether I could have defeated such a man; it is possible, but it was just as possible that I would not. He had the air of the old soldier about him, and was certainly far more experienced in swordplay than I was myself.

You must excuse my conduct, Sir Samuel, I said, controlling myself as best I could. But your stories are fascinating. It is true I have heard many tales at Oxford, and they interest me greatly, as they must all young men. You must forgive the enthusiasm and curiosity of youth.

My words did not conciliate him. His suspicion, once aroused, could not be laid to rest. In his years of deceit and duplicity he had no doubt learned the value of silence, and he was not to be tempted into taking any risk. Show this gentleman out, he said to the servant. Then he bowed to me politely, and withdrew. I was back on the noisy street outside a few moments later, cursing myself for my stupidity.

* * * | An Instance of the Fingerpost | * * *