The Wise Woman by John Stevenson

From “A Boy in the Country.”

That she knew far more than all the doctors put together was commonly considered, in the territory of her operations, as truth beyond question. Sometimes a man body, with a pain for which he could not account, fearing the inquisition and expense of the qualified practitioner, would make believe to doubt the potency of her medicines, the reality of her cures. But even the discernment of a boy was sufficient to detect the insincerity of his contemptuous talk about “auld wife’s doctorin’,” and to find lurking behind his brave words the strong desire to consult the wise woman. With much show of impatience, and pretence of anger, at the over-persuasion of his womankind, he would give a seemingly reluctant consent to see Mrs. Moloney, “if she should happen to look in.” He knew as well as that he lived that her coming would be by invitation.

Such a one, receiving in the field the message that “Mrs. Moloney’s in,” would probably say, “Hoots, nonsense,” and add that he had his work to look after. But, very soon, he would find that he needed a spade or a hook, a pot of paint, or a bit of rope, from home, and he must needs go home for it himself. He believed in a man’s doing a thing for himself if he wanted it well done; as like as not a messenger would spend half a day in looking for what he wanted, and bring the wrong thing in the end. At home he would make a fine show of searching out-houses and lofts, passing and repassing,  with some noise, the kitchen windows, finally looking in to see if the thing is in the kitchen; and there, of course, quite accidentally, he would see Mrs. Moloney and would not be rude enough to leave without passing the time o’ day. Then the womankind took hold of the case, drew out the man’s story of distress, took notes of the remedy, and saw to it that the medicine was taken according to direction.

“The innards o’ man is tough, and need to be dealt with accordin’,” said Mrs. Moloney, and for man she prescribed a dose which gave him some pain and, usually, cured him. It may be that Nature, provoked by the irritant remedy, got rid of it, and the ailment at once; or it may be that the man body, after the racket in “his innards,” found his ailment, by comparison, easy to live with, and imagined himself cured. In either case, the result was counted as cure to the credit of Mrs. Moloney.

By profession a seller of needles, pins, buttons, and such small wares, she owed her livelihood, in reality, to payment for her medical skill. Not that she took money for her prescription or advice—“Thanks be to God,” she said, “I never took wan penny for curin’ man, woman, or child”; but then, no one ever asked her advice without buying something, and if her charges were just a little more than shop prices, she was entitled to something extra for bringing the shop to the customer. Then she got her meals from grateful and believing patients, and her basket had an uncommercial end, covered with a fair, white cloth, into which the good wife, with some show of doing good by stealth, introduced the useful wreck of a boiled fowl, or a ham-bone with broth possibilities.

She did not meddle with diseases of children, except in cases of measles, for which she prescribed whisky and sulphur, and a diet of sweet milk warm from the cow. Decline, she considered to be due to “a sappin’ o’ the constitution,” and she shared the old-time belief in the noxious effect of night air on consumptives, and would have them warm in curtained four-posters, in rooms into which little light and no fresh air could enter. Beyond a recommendation of port wine, she had no message for healing for these poor sufferers. Her strength lay in the treatment of adults’ ailments which do not necessarily kill. Her list of diseases was a short one. For the numerous forms of hepatic trouble known to the professional, she had one comprehensive title—

Liver Complent,

and for it one remedy, varied only in magnitude of dose. She recognised also as a common ailment—

Stomach Complent,

differentiating under this heading, Andygestion, Waterbrash, and Shuperfluity o’ phlegm on the stomach. She knew, too—

Bowel Complent,
Gineral Wakeness,
Harry Siplars.1

The foundation of her great reputation was, indeed, largely built on her celebrated cure of this last, in the case of Peggy Mulligan. She shall tell of it herself:—

“She come to me, an’ she ses, ‘Mary,’ ses she, ‘can ye cure me, for I’m heart-sick o’ them doctors at the  dispinsary, an’ they’re not doin’ me wan pick o’ good.’ Ses I to her, ses I, ‘What did they give ye?’ ses I. ‘O the dear knows,’ ses she. ‘I haven’t tuk anythin’ they said, for I didn’t believe they would do me no good.’ An’ I had pity on the cratur, for her face was the size o’ a muckle pot, an’ lek nothin’ under the sun. Ses I to her, ses I, ‘I can cure you, my good woman, but ye’ll hev to do what you’re tould,’ ses I, ‘an’ I’ll make no saycret about it,’ ses I—‘it’s cow-dung and flour mixed, an’ ye’ll put it on your face, an’ lave it there for a fortnight,’ ses I, ‘an’ when ye’ll wash it off, ye’ll have no Harry Siplars.’ An’ nether she had.”

She had a fine professional manner, and she knew how to set at ease the anxious patient. The concerned man body, wishful to appear unconcerned, she took at his own valuation; appearing more interested in a bit of chat or gossip of the country than in particulars of pains and aches. And while she talked with him of crops and kine, and the good and ill-doings of men’s sons, the wife would urge John to tell Mrs. Moloney about that bit of pain of his and how he could not sleep for it o’ nights. Then the wise woman would mention something which the good wife “might” get for the good man—it would cure him in no time, but—turning to the man,—“‘deed, an’ there’s not much the matter with ye. It’s yerself that’s gettin’ younger lookin’ every year—shows the good care the mistress takes o’ ye.” And the gratified creature would retire, proud to think that he had acted so well the part of the unconcerned, and filled with respect for Mrs. Moloney as a woman of “great sinse and onderstandin’.”

Of new-fangled diseases she had a perfect horror, speaking of them more in anger than in sorrow, as of things which never should have been introduced. Even the New Ralgy she declined to entertain, dismissing the mention of it, contemptuously, in the formula, “New Ralgy or Ould Ralgy, I’ll have nothing to do with it.” To it, however, as Tic Doloro,2 she gave a qualified recognition, allowing its right to existence, but condemning it as outlandish, and a gentry’s ailment, which the gentry should keep to themselves. And while she did not refuse to treat it (with “Lodelum” in “sperrits,” hot milk, and a black stocking tied round the jaws), the patient was made to feel a certain degree of culpability in touching a thing with which she should not have meddled, and that Mrs. Moloney had reason for feeling displeased.

Very different was her attitude to one suffering from Gineral Wakeness. This was her pet diagnosis, and one much craved by overworked and ailing farmers’ wives, for it meant for them justification of rest, and indulgence in food and drink which they would have been afraid or ashamed to ask or take, unfortified by an authoritative command. No man ever suffered from Gineral Wakeness—it was a woman’s trouble, and never failed to draw from Mrs. Moloney a flood of understanding sympathy, which was to the despairing one like cool water on the hot and thirsty ground, making hope and health revive ere yet medicament had been prescribed. Seated before the patient, she would sway slowly back and forward, gently patting the while the afflicted’s hand, and listening, with rapt attention, to the longest and dreariest tale of woe.

The Patient.—O, but it’s the weary woman I am, waitin’ and hopin’ that you would come roun’. ‘Deed,  and if it hadn’t been for the hope o’ seein’ ye I would have give up altogether.

Mrs. M.—Puir dear; tell me all aboot it.

The Patient.—It’s a cough and a wakeness and a drappin’-down feelin’, as if my legs were goin’ from under me; and I could no more lift that girdle o’ bread there than I could fly—not if ye were to pay me a thousand pound.

Mrs. M.—I know, dear; if it were writ out I cudn’t see it plainer.

The Patient.—And when I get up in the mornin’, I declare to ye, I have to sit on the edge o’ the bed for five minutes before puttin’ fut to groun’, and if I didn’t take a sup of cold water I couldn’t put on my clothes.

Mrs. M.—That’s it, dear; that’s just the way it goes.

The Patient.—And as for breakfast, I declare to ye, ye couldn’t see what I ate.

Mrs. M.—That’s a sure sign, a sure sign.

The Patient.—And all through the day it’s just the same thing. I’m just in a state of collops the whole time. Niver a moment’s aise the day through, especially in the afternoon. It’s just hingin’ on I am; that’s what it raly is.

After an hour of alternating symptomatic description and sympathetic response, interrupted only by the making and drinking of tea, the wise woman is prepared to utter, and the patient to hear, the words of healing.

“Now, dearie, listen to me, that’s a good woman. It’s Gineral Wakeness that ails ye. I knew it the minute I set fut inside the dure. Ses I to myself, ses I, ‘There’s Gineral Wakeness writ on the mistress’s face; it’s prented on her face like a book,’ ses I, ‘before ever she says a word to me.’ Now listen, dearie, and do what I  tell ye. Ye’ll get a bottle o’ sherry wine, and ye’ll take a bate-up egg in milk every day, with a sup o’ sherry in it, at eleven o’clock. And ye’ll fill that pot there with dandelion leaves and roots, and a handful o’ mint on the top o’ it, and ye’ll put as much water on it as’ll cover it, and ye’ll let it sit at the side o’ the fire all day until all the vartue is out o’ it. And ye’ll take a tablespoonful o’ it three times a day, immajintly before your meals. And every day, whin it comes to three o’clock, ye’ll go to your bed and lie down for an hour, and when ye get up ye’ll take a cup o’ tay. Do that now, an’ ye’ll not know yerself whin I come back.”

As Mrs. Moloney’s list of legitimate and proper country diseases was a short one, so was her pharmacopœia a small book. Besides such common remedies as Epsom salts, senna, ginger, and powdered rhubarb, it took account of—

Lodelum which is Laudanum,
Hickery pickery Hiera picra,
Gum Go Whackem Gum guaiacum,
Assy Fettidy Asafoetida,

as chemist’s stuff fit for her practice, and of various herbs (pronounced yarbs), alterative or curative, such as dandelion, camomile, peppermint, and apple-balm. As she said herself, she made no “saycret” of many of her remedies, but she was wise enough to carry and dispense certain agents; for, to the benefit of the wise woman, these free gifts constituted a claim for the liberal purchase of small wares, and the use of one of these gave a certain cachet to an ailment which, with a prescription of hot milk and pepper, or of ginger tea, would have been sufficiently commonplace. These  secret remedies were kept in little bottles, each of which had its own sewed compartment in a large linen pocket hanging at the mistress’s waist, between the gown and the uppermost petticoat. A certain solemnity attached to their production—three, four, or five being invariably drawn and set out on the table, even when, as in most cases, the contents of one only was needed. Mrs. Moloney would contemplate the range, attentively and silently, for a few minutes; lifting one after another, wrinkling her brows the while, and, finally, selecting and uncorking one, while she requested “a clane bottle and a good cork.” The selected drug was generally a crystal; the bottle, by request, was half-filled with hot water, in which, through vigorous shaking, the crystal rapidly disappeared. Handing the bottle to the patient, the instruction would be given to take a tablespoonful immediately after eating. Silly young folks, who had no need of the good woman’s services, were known to say that Mrs. Moloney knew perfectly well what she was going to use, that the consideration was simulated, and that the oft-used crystal was common washing-soda and nothing else. But these flighty children took care not to say such things in the hearing of their mothers, who had been treated for Gineral Wakeness.

Doubtless the prescriptions of Mrs. Moloney lacked precision on the quantitative side. A cure of rheumatism was threepence-worth of “Hickery Pickery in a naggin o’ the best sperrits.” To be well shaken and taken by the teaspoonful, alternative mornings, on a fasting stomach. “Sixpence worth o’ Gum Go Wackem,” also made up in the “best sperrits,” was a remedy supposed to acquire special potency from a prodigious  amount of shaking. “Show me how ye’ll shake it,” the medicine-woman would say, and when the patient made a great show of half-a-minute’s shaking, she—it was oftenest she—would be surprised to hear that that was no shaking, and an exhibition of what was good and sufficient shaking would be made by Mrs. Moloney. In the case of her sovran remedy for sore eyes, to be used very sparingly—a pennorth o’ Red Perspitherate,3 in a tablespoonful of fresh butter—the quantity for an application was always indicated in special and dramatic fashion. She asked, “And how much will ye be puttin’ in your eye, now?—jist show me.” The patient, desiring to avoid a mean or niggardly use of the remedy, would probably indicate on the finger a lump as large as an eye of liberal measurements could be supposed to accommodate. Then the good woman would lean back and sigh. A pin would be withdrawn from some part of her clothing, and held between the thumb and finger so that only the head appeared.

“Do ye see that pin-head?”

The afflicted nods in acquiescence.

“Do ye see that pin-head? Now take a good look at it.”

Again the sore-eyed indicates accurate observation.

“Well, not a pick more nor that, if ye want to keep your eyesight.”

Other quantitative directions were given in “fulls”—“the full o’ yer fist,” “the full o’ an egg-cup,” even “the full o’ yer mooth.” Or, by sizes of objects, as, “the size o’ a pay,” “the size o’ a marble.” Or by coin areas, “what’ll lie on a sixpence,” or on a shilling, or on a penny. Or by money values, as in the Hickery  Pickery prescription. Fists, peas, marbles vary considerably in size, and in the case of money-values a change of chemist might mean a considerable variation in quantity; but, with the possible exception of “Lodelum,” prescribed in drops, the quantities of the good woman’s remedies bore variation to a considerable extent without serious difference in result. That “the best sperrits” were so frequently the medium for “exhibition” of her remedies may account for the great popularity with adults which these remedies enjoyed. These were the days when hospitality was not hospitality without “sperrits” free from medicinal addition, and, late in the afternoon, Mrs. Moloney was accustomed to accept graciously “the full o’ an egg-cup,” qualified by the addition of sugar and hot water. Once, while sipping her punch, she asked that a little should be given to me as a treat, and when the pungent spirit, in the unaccustomed throat, produced a cough, she promptly diagnosed “a wake chist.”