Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

The Early History of Bath.

Bladud was the eldest son of a British King (whose name I perfectly remember, but do not choose to write) temp. Solomon — who does not appear to have known Bladud, however. Bladud was, therefore, Prince of Wales. He was more than that: he was a leper — had it very bad, and the Court physician, Sir William Gull, frequently remarked that the Prince’s death was merely a question of time. When a man gets to that stage of leprosy he does not care much for society, particularly if no one will have anything to do with him. So Bladud bade a final adieu to the world, and settled in Liverpool. But not agreeing with the climate, he folded his tent into the shape of an Arab, as Longfellow says, and silently stole away to the southward, bringing up in Gloucestershire.

Here Bladud hired himself out to a farmer named Smith, as a swineherd. But Fate, as he expressed it in the vernacular, was “ferninst him.” Leprosy is a contagious disease, within certain degrees of consanguinity, and by riding his pigs afield he communicated it to them; so that in a few weeks, barring the fact that they were hogs, they were no better off than he. Mr. Smith was an irritable old gentleman, so choleric he made his bondsmen tremble — though he was now abroad upon his own recognizances. Dreading his wrath, Bladud quitted his employ, without giving the usual week’s notice, but so far conforming to custom in other respects as to take his master’s pigs along with him.

We find him next at a place called Swainswick — or Swineswig — a mile or two to the north-east of Bath, which, as yet, had no existence, its site being occupied by a smooth level reach of white sand, or a stormy pool of black water, travellers of the time disagree which. At Swainswick Bladud found his level; throwing aside all such nonsense as kingly ambition, and the amenities of civilized society — utterly ignoring the deceitful pleasures of common sense — he contented his simple soul with composing bouts rimés for Lady Miller, at Batheaston Villa; that one upon a buttered muffin, falsely ascribed by Walpole to the Duchess of Northumberland, was really constructed by Bladud.

A brief glance at the local history of the period cannot but prove instructive. Ralph Allen was then residing at Sham Castle, where Pope accused him of doing good like a thief in the night and blushing to find it unpopular. Fielding was painfully evolving “Tom Jones” from an inner consciousness that might have been improved by soap and any water but that of Bath. Bishop Warburton had just shot the Count Du Barré in a duel with Lord Chesterfield; and Beau Nash was disputing with Dr. Johnson, at the Pelican Inn, Walcot, upon a question of lexicographical etiquette. It is necessary to learn these things in order the better to appreciate the interest of what follows.

During all this time Bladud never permitted his mind to permanently desert his calling; he found family matters a congenial study, and he thought of his swine a good deal, off and on. One day while baiting them amongst the hills, he observed a cloud of steam ascending from the valley below. Having always believed steam a modern invention, this ancient was surprised, and when his measly charge set up a wild squeal, rushing down a steep place into the aspiring vapour, his astonishment ripened into dismay. As soon as he conveniently could Bladud followed, and there he heard the saw — I mean he saw the herd wallowing and floundering multitudinously in a hot spring, and punctuating the silence of nature with grunts of quiet satisfaction, as the leprosy left them and clave to the waters — to which it cleaves yet. It is not probable the pigs went in there for a medicinal purpose; how could they know? Any butcher will tell you that a pig, after being assassinated, is invariably boiled to loosen the hair. By long usage the custom of getting into hot water has become a habit which the living pig inherits from the dead pork. (See Herbert Spencer on “Heredity.”)

Now Bladud (who is said to have studied at Athens, as most Britons of his time did) was a rigid disciple of Bishop Butler; and Butler’s line of argument is this: Because a rose-bush blossoms this year, a lamppost will blossom next year. By this ingenious logic he proves the immortality of the human soul, which is good of him; but in so doing he proves, also, the immortality of the souls of snakes, mosquitos, and everything else, which is less commendable. Reasoning by analogy, Bladud was convinced that if these waters would cure a pig, they would cure a prince: and without waiting to see how they had cured the bacon, he waded in.

When asked the next day by Sir William Waller if he intended trying the waters again, and if he retained his fondness for that style of bathing, he replied, “Not any, thank you; I am quite cured!” Sir William at once noised abroad the story of the wonderful healing, and when it reached the king’s ears, that potentate sent for Bladud to “come home at once and succeed to the throne, just the same as if he had a skin”— which Bladud did. Some time afterwards he thought to outdo Dædalus and Icarus, by flying from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He outdid them handsomely; he fell a good deal harder than they did, and broke his precious neck.

Previously to his melancholy end he built the City of Bath, to commemorate his remarkable cure. He endowed the Corporation with ten millions sterling, every penny of the interest of which is annually devoted to the publication of guide-books to Bath, to lure the unwary invalid to his doom. From motives of mercy the Corporation have now set up a contrivance for secretly extracting the mineral properties of the fluid before it is ladled out, but formerly a great number of strangers found a watery grave.

If King Bladud was generous to Bath, Bath has been grateful in return. One statue of him adorns the principal street, and another graces the swimming pond, both speaking likenesses. The one represents him as he was before he divided his leprosy with the pigs; the other shows him as he appeared after breaking his neck.

Writing in 1631, Dr. Jordan says: “The baths are bear-gardens, where both sexes bathe promiscuously, while the passers-by pelt them with dead dogs, cats, and pigs; and even human creatures are hurled over the rails into the water.” It is not so bad as that now, but lodgings are still held at rates which might be advantageously tempered to the shorn.

I append the result of a chemical analysis I caused to be made of these incomparable Waters, that the fame of their virtues may no longer rest upon the inadequate basis of their observed effects.

One hundred parts of the water contain:

Brandate of Sodium 9.50 parts.
Sulphuretted Hydrogen 3.50 ”
Citrate of Magnesia 15.00 ”
Calves’-foot Jelly 10.00 ”
Protocarbonate of Brass 11.00 ”
Nitric Acid 7.50 ”
Devonshire Cream 6.00 ”
Treaclate of Soap 2.00 ”
Robur 3.50 ”
Superheated Mustard 11.50 ”
Frogs 20.45 ”
Traces of Guano, Leprosy, Picallilly, and Scotch Whiskey .05 ”

Temperature of the four baths, 117 degrees each — or 468 altogether.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31