The Four Swans: A Novel of Cornwall, 1795-1797

The Four Swans: A Novel of Cornwall, 1795-1797

by Winston Graham

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250124937
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/20/2016
Series: Poldark Series , #6
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 61,540
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Winston Graham is the author of more than forty novels, including Cordelia, Marnie, The Walking Stick, Stephanie, and the Poldark Series. His novels have been translated into seventeen languages. Six of his books have been made into films, the most notable being Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The first television adaptation of the Poldark series was enormously successful and the new adaptation is being shown widely around the world. Winston Graham was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 1983 was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). He died in 2003.

Read an Excerpt

The Four Swans


By Winston Graham

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1976 Winston Graham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-12494-4


CHAPTER 1

BOOK ONE


Chapter One


I


Daniel Behenna, physician and surgeon, was forty years old and lived in a square, detached, untidy house in Goodwives Lane, Truro. He was himself square in build and detached in manner, but not at all unkempt, since the citizens of the town and district paid well for the benefit of his modern physical knowledge. He had married early, and then again a second time, but both his wives had died, and he and his two young daughters were now looked after by a Mrs Childs, who lived in. His assistant, Mr Arthur, slept over the stables.

Behenna had been in Truro only five years, having come direct from London where he had not only established a reputation as a practitioner but had written and published a monograph amending Smellie's famous Treatise on Midwifery; and since his arrival he had much impressed the wealthier provincials with his authority and skill.

In particular authority. When men were ill they did not want the pragmatical approach of a Dwight Enys, who used his eyes and saw how often his remedies failed, and therefore was tentative in his decisions. They did not want someone who came in and sat and talked pleasantly and had an unassuming word for the children, even a pat for the dog. They liked the importance, the confidence, the attack of a demi-god, whose voice was already echoing through the house as he mounted the stairs, who had the maids scurrying for water or blankets and the patient's relatives hanging on every word. Behenna was such a man. His very appearance made the heart beat faster, even if, as often happened, it later stopped beating altogether. Failure did not depress him. If one of his patients died it was not the fault of his remedies, it was the fault of the patient.

He dressed well and to the best standards of his profession. When he travelled far – as his mounting reputation more and more obliged him to do – he rode a handsome black horse called Emir and wore buckskin breeches and top boots, with a heavy cloak thrown over a velvet coat with brass buttons, and in the winter thick woollen gloves to keep his hands warm. When in town he used a muff instead of the gloves and carried a gold-banded cane which had a vinaigrette in the head containing herbs to combat infection.

In an evening in early October 1795 he returned from local calls across the river where he had prescribed his heroic treatment for two patients suffering from summer cholera and had drawn three pints of fluid from the stomach of a dropsical corn merchant. It had been a warm month after the bad summer and the deadly winter which had preceded it, and the little town had been drowsing gently in the day's heat. The smells of sewage and decaying refuse had been strong all afternoon, but with evening a breeze had sprung up and the air was sweet again. The tide was full, and the river had crept in and surrounded the clustered town like a sleeping lake.

As he reached his front door Dr Behenna waved away a small group of people who had started up at his coming. In the main the less well-to-do went to the apothecaries of the town, the poor made do with what nostrums they could brew themselves or buy for a penny from a travelling gypsy; but sometimes he helped on odd case without charge – he was not an ungenerous man and it ministered to his ego – so always a few waited about for him, hoping for a moment's consultation on his doorstep. But today he was not in the mood.

As he left his horse to the stable boy and entered the house, Mrs Childs, his housekeeper, came out to greet him. Her hair stood out, and she was wiping her hands on a soiled towel.

'Dr Behenna, sur!' Her voice was a whisper. 'Thur be a gent to see ee. In the parlour. He've been yur some five and twenty minute. I didn't know rightly 'ow long ye'd be gone, but he says to me, he says, "I'll wait." Just like that. "I'll wait." So I put'n in parlour.'

He stared at her while he set down his cloak and bag. She was a slovenly young woman, and he often wondered why he tolerated her. There was only one reason, really.

'What gentleman? Why did you not call Mr Arthur?' He did not lower his voice, and she glanced nervously behind her.

'Mr Warleggan,' she said.

Behenna observed himself in the mildewed mirror, smoothed his hair back, dusted a freckle of powder from his cuff, looked his hands over to see there were no unpleasant stains on them.

'Where is Miss Flotina?'

'Gone music. Miss May be still abed. But Mr Arthur say the fever have remitted.'

'Of course it will have remitted. Well, see that I am not disturbed.'

'Ais, sur.'

Behenna cleared his throat and went into the parlour, a puzzled man.

But there was no mistake. Mr George Warleggan was standing by the window, hands behind back, square shouldered, composed. His hair had been fresh dressed; his clothes were of a London cut. The richest man in town and one of the most influential, there was yet something about his stance, now that he had passed his middle thirties, which was reminiscent of his grandfather, the blacksmith.

'Mr Warleggan. I hope I have not kept you waiting. Had I known ...'

'Which you did not. I have passed the time admiring your skeleton. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.'

His tone was cold; but then it was always cold.

'It was put together in my student days. We dug him up. He was a felon who had come to a bad end. There are always some such in a big city.'

'Not only in a big city.'

'Allow me to offer you refreshment. A cordial or a glass of canary.'

George Warleggan shook his head. 'Your woman, your housekeeper, has already offered.'

'Then pray sit down. I'm at your service.'

George Warleggan accepted a seat and crossed his legs. Without moving his neck his glance wandered round the room. Behenna regretted that the place was not in better order. Books and papers were jumbled on a table, together with jars of Glauber's salts and boxes of Dover's powders. Two empty bottles with worm-eaten corks stood among the medical records on the desk. A girl's frock was flung over a chair-back beside the dangling skeleton. The surgeon frowned: he did not expect his rich patients to call on him, but if they did this appearance could create a bad impression.

They sat in silence for a minute or so. It seemed a very long time.

'I called,' said George, 'on a personal matter.'

Dr Behenna inclined his head.

'Therefore what I have to say must be confidential. I imagine we cannot be overheard?'

'Everything,' said the surgeon, 'everything between doctor and patient is confidential.'

George looked at him drily. 'Quite so. But this must be more so.'

'I don't think I follow your meaning.'

'I mean that only you and I will know of this conversation. If it should come to the ears of a third party I shall know that I have not spoken.'

Behenna drew himself up in his chair, but did not answer. His very strong sense of his own importance was only just contained by his sense of the greater importance of the Warleggans.

'In those circumstances, Dr Behenna, I would not be a good friend.'

The surgeon went to the door and flung it open. The hall was empty. He shut the door again.

'If you wish to speak, Mr Warleggan, you may do so. I can offer you no greater assurance than I have already done.'

George nodded. 'So be it.'

They both sat quiet for a moment.

George said: 'Are you a superstitious man?'

'No, sir. Nature is governed by immutable laws which neither man nor amulet can change. It is the business of the physician to grasp the truth of those laws and apply them to the destruction of disease. All diseases are curable. No man should die before old age.'

'You have two young children?'

'Of twelve and nine.'

'You do not think they are likely to be affected by the bones of a felon hanging in their home day and night?'

'No, sir. If they appeared to be so affected, a strong purging would cure them.'

George nodded again. He put three fingers into his fob pocket and began to turn the money there.

'You attended my wife at the birth of our child. You have been a frequent visitor to our house since. You have, I assume, delivered many women.'

'Many thousands. For two years I was at the Lying-in Hospital at Westminster under Dr Ford. I may claim that my experience is not equalled in Cornwall – and seldom elsewhere. But ... you know this, Mr Warleggan. You knew it when your wife, Mrs Warleggan, was with child and you retained my services. I presume that you have not found those services wanting.'

'No.' George Warleggan thrust out his bottom lip. He looked more than ever like the Emperor Vespasian being judicial on some matter of empire. 'But it was about that that I wished to consult you.'

'I am at your service,' said Behenna again.

'My child, my son Valentine, was an eight-month child. That's correct? Because of the accident of my wife's fall, my son was born prematurely by about a month. Am I right?'

'You are right.'

'But tell me, Dr Behenna, among the thousands of children you have delivered, you must have seen a great many infants prematurely born. Is that so?'

'Yes, a considerable number.'

'Eight month? Seven month? Six month?'

'Eight and seven. I've never seen a child survive at six months.'

'And those born prematurely that did survive, like Valentine. There were distinct and recognizable differences in them at birth? I mean between them and such as come to the full time?'

Behenna dared to allow himself a few seconds to speculate on the trend of his visitor's questioning. 'Differences? Of what nature?'

'I am asking you.'

'There are no differences of any importance, Mr Warleggan. You can set your mind at rest. Your son has suffered no ill-effects whatsoever from being prematurely born.'

'I'm not concerned with differences now.' Asperity had crept into George Warleggan's voice. 'What are the differences at the time?' Behenna had never considered his sentences more carefully. 'Weight chiefly, of course. It is almost unknown for an eight-month child to weigh more than six pounds. Seldom the same loud cry. Nails ...'

'I am told that an eight-month child does not have nails.'

'That's not correct. They are small, and soft instead of hard —'

'I am told the skin of such a child is wrinkled and red.'

'So is that of many at full term.'

'I am told that they do not have hair.'

'Oh, sometimes. But it is rare and very thin.'

A cart clattered down the lane. When it had gone George said:

'The purpose of my questions may by now have become clear to you, Dr Behenna. I have to put to you the final question. Was my son, or was he not, a premature child?'

Daniel Behenna moistened his lips. He was aware that his expression was being closely watched, and he was also aware of the tensions of the other man and what in a less self-possessed person would have been observed as suffering.

He got up and walked to the window. The light showed up the bloodstains on his cuff. 'On many physical questions, Mr Warleggan, it's not easy to return a definite yes or no. In this matter you must first give me leave to remember. I am sure you will understand that your son is now – what? – eighteen, twenty months old. Since I delivered Mrs Warleggan I have attended many women in parturition. Let me see, what day did you call me in?'

'On the thirteenth of February of last year. My wife fell on the stairs at Trenwith. It was a Thursday evening about six o'clock. I sent a man for you at once and you came about midnight.'

'Ah, yes, I remember. It was the week I treated Lady Hawkins for broken costae which she had sustained in the hunting field, and when I heard of your wife her accident I hoped she had not been a-horse; for such a fall —'

'So you came,' George said.

' ... I came. I attended on your wife throughout the night and into the next day. I believe the child presented itself that following evening.'

'At a quarter after eight Valentine was born.'

Yes ... Well, I can only tell you on first recollection, Mr Warleggan, that there was nothing that appeared as strange in the circumstances of your son's birth. It did not, of course, occur to me to wonder, to speculate, or to observe closely. Why should it? I didn't suppose there would ever come a time when it would be necessary to pronounce one way or the other on such a matter. On the mere matter of a month. In view of your wife's unfortunate fall I was happy to be able to deliver her of a live and healthy boy. Have you asked your midwife?'

George too got up. 'You must remember the child you delivered. Did it have fully-formed nails?'

'I believe so, but I cannot tell if —'

'And hair?'

'A little dark hair.'

'And was the skin wrinkled? I saw it within the hour and I remember only a slight wrinkling.'

Behenna sighed. 'Mr Warleggan, you are one of my wealthiest clients, and I have no wish to offend you. But may I be entirely frank?'

'That's what I have just asked you to be.'

'Well, may I suggest, in all deference, that you return home and think no more of this matter. Your reasons for this enquiry I'll not venture to ask. But if you expect to receive from me at this date – or indeed from any other person – a plain statement that your son was or was not a full-term child, you are asking, sir, for the impossible. Nature is not so to be categorized. The normal is only the norm – on which there are wide variations.'

'So you will not tell me.'

'I cannot tell you. Had you asked me at the time I should have ventured a firmer opinion, that is all. Naturalia non sunt turpia, as the saying is.'

George picked up his stick and prodded at the carpet. 'Dr Enys is back, I understand, and will soon be riding his rounds.'

Behenna stiffened. 'He is still ill and will shortly marry his heiress.'

'Some people think well of him.'

'That is their concern, not mine, Mr Warleggan. For my part I have only contempt for the majority of his practices, which show a weakness of disposition and a lack of conviction. A man without a lucid and well-proven medical system is a man without hope.'

'Just so. Just so. I have always heard, of course, that medical men do not speak well of their rivals.'

Nor perhaps bankers of their rivals, Behenna thought.

'Well ...' George got up. 'I'll wish you good day, Behenna.'

The surgeon said: 'I trust that Mrs Warleggan and Master Valentine continue in good health.'

'Thank you, yes.'

'It's time almost that I called to see them. Perhaps early next week.'

There was a moment's pause, during which it seemed possible that George was considering whether to say, 'Pray do not call again.'

Behenna added: 'I have tried not to speculate, Mr Warleggan, on your reason for enquiring into the matter you have raised with me. But I would not be human if I did not appreciate how important my answer might be to you. Therefore, sir, appreciate how difficult that answer is. I could not, and indeed assuredly would not, make a statement which, for all I know, might be considered to impugn the honour of a noble and virtuous woman – that's to say, I could not and would not without a certainty in my mind which I emphatically do not possess. Did I possess it, I would feel it my duty to tell you. I do not possess it. That is all.'

George regarded him with cold eyes. His whole expression was one of distaste and dislike – which might have conveyed his opinion of the surgeon or only what he felt of a necessity which forced him to betray so much to a stranger.

'You will remember how this conversation began, Dr Behenna.'

'I am pledged to secrecy.'

'Pray see that you keep it.' He went to the door. 'My family is well, but you may call if you wish.'


After he had gone Behenna went through into the kitchen. 'Nellie, this house is a disgrace! You idle away your time gossiping and dreaming and observing the traffic. The parlour is not fit to receive a distinguished patient! See, have that frock taken away! And the shoes. Have a care for your position here!'

He went on rebuking in his strong, resonant voice for three or four minutes. She stood observing him patiently from under her hearthrug of brown hair, waiting for the storm to pass, sensing that he needed to restore his authority after having it briefly encroached on. It was rare for him ever to have it encroached on, for even when he visited his richest patients they were in distress and seeking his help. So he pronounced, and they waited on his words. He had never attended on George Warleggan himself, since the man enjoyed abnormally good health. But today, as always when meeting him, he had had to defer. It did not please him; it had made him sweat; and he took it out on Nellie Childs.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Four Swans by Winston Graham. Copyright © 1976 Winston Graham. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Four Swans: A Novel of Cornwall 1795-1797 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Poldark saga continues...it's a great read!
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Loved each book more than the last.
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Couldn't put it down
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I could not stop
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