Excerpt from An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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An Instance of the Fingerpost

by Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost
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  • First Published:
    Mar 1998, 691 pages
    Mar 1999, 735 pages

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I imagine that he knew all along I would do no such thing, and that in reality I was merely captivated by ideas and people which were as exciting as they were dangerous. As a result, he raised no objections when I wrote to him about the reports of one professor who, though nominally charged with lecturing in rhetoric, spent much of his time enlarging upon the latest developments in natural philosophy. This man had traveled widely and maintained that, for all serious students of natural phenomena, the Low Countries and England were no longer to be disdained. After many months in his care, I caught his enthusiasm and, having little to detain me in Padua, requested permission to tour that part of the world. Kind man that he was, my father immediately gave his assent, procured permission for me to leave Venetian territory, and sent a bill of credit to his bankers in Flanders for my use.

I had thought of taking advantage of my position to go by sea, but decided that, if I was to acquire knowledge, then it would be best to see as much as possible and this was better done in a coach than by spending three weeks in a ship drinking with the crew. I must add that I also suffer abominably from seasickness--which weakness I have always been loath to admit, for although Gomesius says such sickness cures sadness of spirit, I have never found it to be the case. Even so, my courage weakened, then evaporated almost entirely, as the journey progressed. The journey to Leiden took only nine weeks, but the sufferings I endured quite took my mind off the sights I was viewing. Once, stuck in the mud halfway through an Alpine pass, the rain coming down in torrents, one horse sick, myself with a fever and a violent-looking soldier as my only companion, I thought that I would rather suffer the worst gale in the Atlantic than such misery.

But it would have been as long to go back as to continue, and I was mindful of the scorn in which I would be held if I returned, shamefaced and weak. to my native town. Shame, I do believe, is the most powerful emotion known to man; most discoveries and journeys of importance have been accomplished because of the ignominy that would be the result if the attempt was abandoned. So, sick for the warmth and comfort of my native land--the English have the word nostalgia for this illness, which they believe is due to the imbalance caused by an unfamiliar environment--I continued on my way, ill-tempered and miserable, until I reached Leiden, where I attended the school of medicine as a gentleman.

So much has been written about this seat of learning, and it has so little to do with my recital, that it suffices to say that I found and profited greatly from two professors of singular ability who lectured on anatomy and bodily economy. I also traveled throughout the Low Countries and fell into good company, much of which was English and from whom I learnt something of the language. I left for the simple reason that my kind good father ordered me so to do and for no other reason. There was some disarray in the London office, a letter told me, and he needed family to intervene: no one else could be trusted. Although I had little practical knowledge of trade, I was glad to be the obedient son, and so discharged my servant, organized my affairs and shipped from Antwerp to investigate. I arrived in London on March 22nd, 1663, with only a few pounds left, the sum I paid to one professor for his teaching having all but exhausted my funds. But I was not concerned, for I thought that all I needed to do was make the short journey from the river to the office maintained by my father's agent, and all would be well. Fool that I was. I could not find di Pietro, and that wretched man John Manston would not even receive me. He is now long since dead; I pray for his soul, and hope the good Lord disregards my entreaties on his behalf, knowing as I do that the longer he suffers fiery torment, the more just his punishment will be.

Copyright © Iain Pears. All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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