Flies in the Cathedral #2: Water.

Lewis Thomas 17 February 2019
Image Credit: Lara Erritt

Cambridge, 1663.

Isiah feels a boot at his heel and a bark in his ear. “Get up, Master Bailey.” He opens his eyes and looks up at the ceiling, turning his head to see Seth standing at the foot of the bed.

“What time is it?”

“About three. St Mary’s Bell went a moment ago-” a pause, as Seth thinks about titles- “Sir.”


Seth looks around the room, his head bent against the beams. He’s tall, and he fills the garret. He puts his hand on the table and shuffles some papers, squinting at them in the moonlight. “Do you have the notes?”

Isiah blinks and props himself up. “The notes… oh, for the-“

“I was told you had notes. I was told to make sure you brought those notes. Do you have them.”

“In the skin. I’ve got Dijksma’s letters, too.” Isiah motions at a small leather folder, which Seth picks up and flicks through before putting it back down. “I’ll bring it down with me. Do you have charcoal?”

Seth nods. “Yes. Charcoal, pen, and ink. Dijksma’ll have some more when we get there.” He walks over to the door and opens it, pausing- “I’ll be waiting outside.”

“See you then.” With that, Seth leaves and Isiah listens to his footsteps as they tramp down the stairs. He gets up off the bed and wipes his eyes, before tottering over to the basin and splashing some water on his face. Then he takes off his nightshirt and dresses, donning a fresh shirt, a waistcoat, and a short woollen tunic. He’s leaving this morning on professional business, travelling as a natural philosopher and engineer, but he doesn’t want to broadcast that with his clothing. Where he’s going, he wants to blend in- to appear indistinguishable from a farmer, a merchant, or any other traveller. When he gets there, his purpose will be clear soon enough; but until then, he’d rather be anonymous.

He takes a canvas bag from the floor and checks the contents- mathematical instruments, a plumb-bob, a small octavo book of tables, a notebook, and an oiled leather sleeve. He lifts the sleeve from the bag and opens it carefully on the floor, checking its cargo for cracks and damage. It’s a thermometer, with a glass tube filled with Quicksilver set on a wooden board inscribed with values. It’s undamaged, so Isiah sets it back in its sleeve and back in
the bag. That done, he takes the folder of papers from the desk and places them in the bag, slipping a few sticks of charcoal into his tunic pocket into the process. Then he leaves his room.

The stairs creak under him as he walks down to the street, passing the rooms of other, wealthier members of the college. A Sizar- a student paid to serve noble students- lies like a dog outside one of the rooms, his eyes flickering open as Isiah passes. “Master Bailey? Where are you-“

“On business. Do me a favour?” “What?”

“A man may come looking for me around midday. He will have papers for me. Tell him I’ve gone out already and to leave them in my room.”

“A man?”

Isiah shrugs and carries on down the stairs. “I can’t explain. Just tell him.” He walks on into the Court, and finds Seth standing out with two horses, both laden down with saddlebags.

“You have everything?” Seth speaks in a low voice, muted by campfires and slumbering bivouacs before a thousand battlefields.

“I do, yes.”

“Good.” Seth motions at a horse. “Mount up. We’ve got a while to go.” He watches as Isiah hauls himself into the saddle, before leaping into his own and wheeling out of the Court at a walk. “Follow me, and keep behind me when we get to the tracks. I don’t want you in the water before you need to be.”

Isiah laughs slightly. “I’ve brought my instruments, you should know.” “Which bag?”

Isiah motions at the left saddlebag, into which he’s slipped the leather sleeves. “In here. Drawing materials, measuring devices, that sort of thing.”

There’s a slight tip of the head and a grunt from Seth, and silence for a while as they ride on out of Cambridge. A few minutes later, Seth pats his coat pocket- “I’ve brought my instrument, as well.”

“A pistol, Master Bailey, a pistol. And a knife.”
Isiah swallows slightly. “Do you have need of them?”

Seth shrugs. “I’d rather have them and not need them than need them and not have them. I don’t know much, but I know that.”

“I suppose. I never need either, myself.”

Seth turns in the saddle and glares back at Isiah. “You’re a fellow of a College, Master Bailey. I am not. That speaks for a lot, and it especially speaks for this.” He motions at his coat again, and looks around- “We’re out of town. Time to hurry, I think. Dijksma wants us soon.” He digs his heels into his horse’s flanks and spurs it into a trot, leaving Isiah to follow in his wake.

“Where are you from originally?” Isiah draws level with Seth, still trying to make conversation.

“Around here. Grew up in the Fens.” “Where?”
“Village up near Bastondike- gone, now. “And you left then?”

Seth shakes his head. “No. Left when the war began- joined with Cromwell’s men.” Isiah pauses slightly, then carries on- “So you fought for Parliament?”
A nod. “I fought for my good old cause. I obviously didn’t fight hard enough.” “How did you end up doing this?”

“I was a cavalryman with Cromwell, then I became mixed up with Sir Richard- Richard Onslow. He involved himself with some adventure in the Fens when the King returned, and needed a man to keep an eye on his investments up here- guide engineers, keep them safe… grease palms, from time to time. All part of his dream of driving back the sea. He chose me. ‘You know the place, Sergeant Barrow. You can be my man there.’ I needed the money” He pauses and tuts, coughing slightly before continuing- “and I knew the place. Might as well shape Sir Richard’s investment.” Another pause. “And for you, Master Bailey? Why am I fetching you?”

Isiah sizes Seth up and couches his words. “I’m a fellow of St John’s, but I’m also an engineer. A Natural Philosopher. Have you heard of Meinheer Huygens?”
“What do you think.”
That’ll be a no, then. “He is a natural philosopher in the Hague, and we write to each other. We share interests in the motion of air, and in that motion as it acts upon physical bodies- I wrote to him at Midsummer describing a new means by which one could, with adequate preparation, create a vacu-“

Seth’s mind has been ticking away as Isiah talks, and then he cuts the Natural Philosopher off in mid-sentence. “You make pumps.”

“Yes, I make pumps.”

“And your Huygens fellow knows Dijksma, and told him that ‘I know just the man to help with your project.’”

“Yes, he-“

“That answers it, then.” They ride on, silence reigning for a mile and more. Then Seth picks up the conversation again. “I saw one of your ‘Natural Philosopher’’s chambers once- when my regiment was in Oxford. Guarded it. The man was a Papist.” He turns around in his saddle and gives a slight smile- “I don’t like Papists.”

Isiah looks at the smile and shivers slightly. He has spent his life in grammar schools and libraries, moving from studentship to fellowship in the same college. He keeps the Anglican Faith, and mutters in chapel out of little conviction. He’s not sure if Seth is any different in his own level of conviction, but the man has an edge. His clothing is unadorned. No colour, no fashion, and no sign of being concerned with either. He wears no hat, and instead of the longer hair or wigs sported by most, he has a simple crop, taken close to the skull with shears. But those aren’t the things which chill Isaih’s blood- they lie on Seth’s feet and face.

Seth’s boots are too fine for those of a simple soldier. They’re old, that much is true, but they’ve been made with care and made to last. The leather is thick and supple, and designed to keep out anything a man could throw at them. Seth’s foot is inclined slightly in the stirrup, and Isiah can make out fresh hobnails driven in well. They’re officer’s boots, meant for heavy use and grinding out ideas in blood and mud.

Then there’s Seth’s face. Beneath the crop, a lined forehead squats over eyes which flicker and bore into the landscape, watery blue reflecting on watery blue. Then, on Seth’s cheek, there’re two livid scars seared into the flesh, one on each cheek. A brand.


Seditious Libeller. A man who told the world what he thought about the King and was burnt as a result, expelled from the mainstream by his scars and views. It may have been before the Protectorate, it may have been after, but Isiah knows that is immaterial- whenever it happened, and whatever it was for, Seth is an exile up in his homeland. And
now he’s helping men he seems capable of hating drain it all. There’s more to Seth than meets the eye, and Isiah knows he’s a fanatic of some kind.

He doesn’t really want to find out which.

Isiah tells himself to laugh. “Well, lucky I’m not a Papist!” Seth still gives him the smile, before stalking his eyes back to his front. It’s a smile that speaks violence, and a gaze that implies disbelief.

“Good. We’re almost at the water.”

They ride on, and the road slowly runs out. Clouds hang over the fens, and mist is rising from the waters which Isiah sees stretching around the road. They’re on a causeway, and it’s running out. “Where are we going?”

Seth gets up in his saddle and points- “you see that Church?”
Isiah strains at the mist, and makes out a steeple poking up through the murk- “Yes?”

“Dijksma’s up there. Not long now.” Isiah breathes a sight of relief. A few more minutes, and he’ll be back with scientists, talking about angles, pressures, and weights. Trying to advance the boundaries of the natural world. Isiah’s never met Dijksma, but he likes the Dutch- and if Dijksma’s anything like Huygens, he’ll be an excellent colleague, if only briefly. They ride on across the causeway, and the sounds of men working start to filter through. Then, sharp and clear, words rings through the morning air.

“Kut! Stomme klootzak!” The words ring through the mist, and a crash follows.

“Follow me.” Seth spurs his horse on, and Isiah follows in his wake. They ride on for a minute or so, and then come off the causeway onto a small raised level, spotted with wooden platforms and centred on a shaft- the Isiah saw earlier is over on a second level, connected to the first one by another causeway. By its door, an old man and a boy sit, watching Isiah and Seth as they cross the causeway. A caretaker and his assistant, Isiah thinks. The shouting continues, and Isiah looks around for the noise.

He sees the source, and his jaw drops.

A naked man is screaming abuse in Dutch at a man wearing a tunic, with an earthenware jug lying in pieces next to the man in the tunic, who’s pressed up against a beam. “Wat dacht je dat er zou gaan gebeuren? Huh? Wat? Kut!”

The man in the tunic is making excuses and trying to duck away from the naked man- “Het snauwde! Hij was niet op een-“ another blow lands, and he manages to hide behind the beam.
As he watches the two men fight, Isiah thanks God that he can’t speak Dutch. Seth looks at the scene for a moment, before barking- “Master Dijksma! This is not what Sir Richard is paying you for!”

Hearing Seth, the naked man turns around and covers his modesty. “Master Barrow! You will… yes. If you could”- he turns to the second Dutchman- “ga en zoek een touw!”- back to Seth- “if you could just give me a moment. Please. I need to put my bree-“

Seth gets off his horse. “Go and put your clothes on. Master Bailey is here.” He watches Dijksma jog over the causeway to a tent set up against the Church wall, and turns to Isiah- “He’s not as bad as he looks. Something must have happened.”

The second Dutchman has returned with a rope, and has tossed it over a beam set up over the shaft. He’s lowering it in, and is now hauling on it with all his might and shouting into the shaft- “je zou verdomme kunnen helpen!”

Isiah hears something in return, muffled within the shaft. Judging by the tone, it’s profanity. He’s glad he never learnt Dutch. He walks over to the shaft and peers in, to see a third Dutchman at the bottom of the shaft, standing on the remains of a wooden platform and trying to haul himself up the rope. The Dutchman looks up at Isiah and over at his colleague, talking again in Dutch- “De Engelsman?”

The Dutchman looks again at Isiah. “Hij is een magere klootzak…” “Ja.”

By now the Dutchman’s been hauled out of the shaft and stands at the top, patting himself down. He looks at Isiah, nods, and stalks off towards the Church. Isiah is increasingly convinced that he’s surrounded by madmen. Then a shout comes from the Church- “Master Bailey! My apologies- we must talk, now.” Dijksma’s walking over, fully clothed, with his eyes alight at the thought of making progress. “Please, come over here.” He motions at a wooden table by the shaft, which Isiah goes over to and starts laying out his plans.

Dijksma makes small talk- “How is Cambridge?”
“Good, although there’s a fear of plague in the town.”
“There always is, there always is. Do you know what I am trying to do here?” Isiah nods- “I think so? Master Huygens said you were trying to drain the Fen?”
“That’s it. Trying, but not succeeding. What I am doing here”- he motions at the shaft- “Is building a pumping house. We pump, and water is diverted from the Fen into a canal. That canal flows to land we set aside for water, and thus we drain the fen.”

“And this pumping house is a test?”

“Exactly. I drain this part, and then if it works we move on to the rest of the area. Sir Richard has said he will give me two months from now. I have had a month and a half already.”

Isiah looks at the havoc of the site and the look in Dijksma’s eyes. “You don’t think you’ll make it in time, do you?”

Dijksma shakes his head. “No. I build a pump, the water returns within the hour. I call for men to dig a culvert, they either do not come or build one so poorly that it collapses the next day. The water does not yield, and the people do not wish it to. So what have you brought me?”

Isiah taps his drawings- “A new design of pump I have been working on. It has worked well in my experiments, and I could scale it up for your-“

Dijksma’s been running calculations in his head as he scans the plan. “When could you make it for me?”

“I could… I could have it in two weeks, I think. If Sir Richard gave me money and men.”

“You can ask him. Master Barrow!” Dijksma calls over to Seth, who has been sitting on the bank of the first island, smoking his pipe. Seth stalks over, and Isiah is struck again by the scars on his cheeks.


Dijksma motions at the plans- “I think… I think we have our solution. We have failed to drain so far because my plan for a large pump- the plan which works well when I have men and time- is not possible under these conditions you have me work under. But Master Bailey’s pump would help us. It is smaller, you see. We would divide the Fen into a grid, like so”- he takes charcoal and scribbles on a sheet of paper- “and place one pump in each grid square. They would flow into a culvert, and drain it well. I need you to assist Master Bailey in every way you can. Show him where to place the pumps, get men to install them, etcetera.”

Seth scans the papers and nods. “What would this do, exactly?”

“If we expanded it, it might drain the Fen entirely. It would make this land as… as… as farmland. It would become part of the rest of England.”
Isiah looks at Dijksma and catches a glimmer of joy in the man’s eyes- he wants to bring his civilisation to this world. His reason; his charts, his tables, and his vision of the cosmos. He wants to make the Fen and England one nation. And he wants to accomplish that with Isiah’s pumps.

He looks at Seth. His eyes are unknowable. Seth looks at Isiah, and then at Dijksma. “I’ll see what I can do…” A pause, and then a shrug of the shoulders and a new note in the voice- “you know that there are people here who do not want you to succeed. I know that the men you had dig the culvert did not entirely turn themselves to the task. But I shall see what I can do.”

Dijksma pats Seth on the back and goes back to his notes. “Thank you. Master Bailey, if you wish, I will show you the works?”

Isiah nods- he’s come this far, so might as well spend some time looking at the pumping site. He turns to Seth- “When should we leave?”

“The middle of the afternoon, if you wish to be back in Cambridge this evening.” “I do.”

“Then I shall let you know. We must be prompt, though- you don’t want to be on the Fen roads when the night is drawing in. Things happen.”

Isiah shudders slightly. “Thank you. Please, tell me when you wish to leave.” “I shall.”

Isiah goes with Dijksma to the shaft, and the two men set to work as engineers. They talk of pumps, of pressures, and of the latest developments in Natural Philosophy.

Then, a few minutes later, Isiah pauses and looks over to the Church. Seth is in conversation with the boy and the old man, occasionally pointing over to the Pump works. He has not noticed Isiah watching. He points, then turns back to the boy and crouches, his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Isiah can almost put words in Seth’s mouth- Look you. Go and tell them what you saw. And tell them what I told you. Seth gets up, pats the boy’s shoulder and watches as the boy stalks off across the Fen, disappearing into the mist on paths only he knows.

With that, Isiah turns back to helping in the attempts of a madman to drain the world. A world where fanatics and outcasts have carved a home in the water.
A world where scarred men without pasts stalk the causeways.
A world of water, reeds, and mist. The Fens.