Elfin by Owen Traylor


Owen Traylor

Her elfin face peered up at him through the gloom, her eyes pleading.

“I’m so thirsty,” she whispered hoarsely.

Edward Gotto stopped beside her and looked down at her tiny body, curled up on a mattress. He knew he should remain indifferent to her suffering. His job was to inspect the sanitation in London’s hospitals, as part of the General Board of Health Survey which the government had appointed him to conduct. It was outside his terms of reference to become involved in medical matters, let alone the cases of individual patients. But somehow her countenance caught his attention and drew him to her in a way he could not explain, then or later.

“I’m so thirsty,” she repeated, “I need water.”

Edward looked again at her sunken, staring eyes, and the bluish, shriveled skin around her neck. He knew all too well from his many visits to hospitals and other institutions in London and around the country the tell-tale signs of cholera. In all likelihood, this diminutive woman with the elfin face would be dead within hours.

“I don’t want to die,” said the woman, holding out a limp hand in his direction, “so help me, please.”

Edward was about to reach out and take the woman’s hand when a voice beside him made him pause.

“Now, Mister Gotto, we really must be getting along.” The voice belonged to Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, a medical member of the General Board of Health who was accompanying Edward on his tour of the London Fever Hospital.

“But can we not at least offer this poor lady some water?” asked Edward.

“To what end, my good man?” asked Dr. Smith in reply. “She will be in God’s hands soon enough.”

“Not yet,” replied the elfin face. “Just give me water, and not from that polluted pump in the basement.”

Edward glanced up at Dr. Smith, who looked mildly offended. He had been a leading light of the campaign to relocate the hospital in Islington when the Great Northern Railway acquired its previous abode to build King’s Cross railway station. He was also a renowned advocate for sanitary improvement, and as such an ally of Edward in his efforts to improve both water supply and sewage disposal. Edward imagined he would not take kindly to aspersions cast on the quality of drinking water in his own hospital.

“My good lady, I can assure you that the pump-water in this hospital is of the best quality,” retorted the good doctor.

“No, Doctor Smith, it is not; no water-pump in London is safe as long as raw sewage is poured into the River Thames. The water spreads diseases like the one I’m dying from. Please give me some water that has been boiled.”

Smith looked taken aback, both by the criticism itself and the eloquence of the dying wretch lying before him, apparently helpless.

“My good lady, it is proven that diseases are the result of bad air, the miasma we call it, and cannot be transmitted by water or air.”

Edward was no medical man and had refused to become involved in the argument of contagion versus miasma that had raged for decades. He believed in clean drinking water, as did Smith, and that was the basis for his next intervention:

“Let us at least grant the lady her wish, Doctor Smith. If you will allow me …”

“Very well,” interrupted Smith, with a dismissive shake of his head. “Nurse, please boil some water and give it to this lady.”

“Lots of it, please,” added the diminutive patient softly. “I need intravenous treatment with a saline solution. That’s the obvious treatment for cholera.”

Edward and the Doctor exchanged puzzled looks. Smith turned to address the lady.“What you say interests me, Madam. You seem to be to be familiar with the theories of Sir William Burke O’Shaughnessy and the experiments of Doctor Thomas Latta during the cholera epidemic of …”

She interrupted him: “Of course I know about O’Shaughnessy and Latta, which is why I want you to treat me intravenously with a saline solution, using distilled water.”

Edward looked quizzically at Smith, hoping for an explanation Smith nodded in understanding.

“The lady is correct, in so far as Latta’s intravenous treatment with a saline solution saved many lives back in 1832. Cholera causes enormous dehydration and loss of body salts. O’Shaughnessy suggested replacing them intravenously in order to reduce morbidity, and Latta proved him right.”

“So why are we not providing that treatment to all those who have contracted cholera in the current epidemic?” asked Edward. As an engineer, he believed in employing the best solution to a problem, irrespective of cost.

Smith shrugged. “The treatment seems to have fallen into disuse over the past twenty years.”

“Money, that’s why,” interjected the lady. “Saline solution using distilled water given intravenously is expensive. I’ve tried to interest the medical establishment in Latta’s work ever since his death in 1833. But I have found nothing but deaf ears.”

Smith leaned forward and peered at the elfin face.“Have I met you somewhere before?”

“Yes, you have,” came the reply, “in your rooms at this hospital’s former location in Battle Bridge. It must have been ten years ago when you were the physician there.”

“Ah yes, I seem to remember. Indeed, I was grateful to you at the time for reminding me about O’Shaughnessy’s research and Latta’s work.”

“Grateful perhaps, but deaf nonetheless,” replied the lady. “Well, now is your chance to remedy that blemish on your otherwise commendable efforts to improve public health.”

Her face took on a mischievous, taunting appearance. Edward wondered how Smith would react to this verbal assault, but before he could respond the nurse appeared at his side, accompanied by two assistants. Between them, they carried several large jugs, which Edward assumed contained the saline solution, a large metal enema syringe, and a flexible injecting tube.

“Now, listen carefully,” began the lady, pointing her finger at the syringe, “my late husband always stressed the importance of avoiding the injection of air, so you must ensure there is no air in the syringe. Furthermore, the vein you choose should be treated with much delicacy so as to avoid phlebitis.”

The senior nurse looked at Smith for guidance. He simply nodded his acquiescence, and the nurse began the treatment as the lady instructed.

“Well, the lady is in good hands, we should leave the nurses to do their work,” said Smith, leading Edward away by the elbow. The two left the ward and continued their tour of the hospital.


Several hours later, the two men returned to the ward to find the lady sitting up and drinking from a mug, the nurse standing at her side.

“Well, you appear to have recovered, my good lady,” said Smith, in a tone that suggested no especial pleasure at the turn of events.

The lady nodded, her elfin face now blooming in healthy color.

“Would I be right in addressing you as Mrs. Latta?” asked Smith.

The lady nodded again.

“Why on earth did you not introduce yourself as such when you called on me all those years ago? I would have been honored to meet the widow of such a pioneer.”

She smiled. “A pioneer, indeed, as evidenced by the records of The Lancet. But he was a pioneer whose discoveries were left to languish by the medical profession of the time. I had no wish to personalize my modest and ultimately fruitless campaign to bring them to the attention of a new generation of doctors such as yourself.”

“Well, by sheer chance you have managed it now. Both Mister Gotto and I have witnessed your remarkable recovery, and I shall be writing to The Lancet to testify to that effect.”

She shook her head. “You’re wrong,” she said, causing Smith to raise his eyebrows in surprise. “Chance played no part in this event,” she continued. “I knew that the only way to convince you would be to demonstrate my recovery from cholera. And I knew from an announcement in The Times that Mister Gotto’s inspection tour would bring him to this hospital today. All I had to do was position myself appropriately and attract his attention; and yours too if you chose to accompany him, which I assumed you would.”

“B-but my good lady,” said Smith, “it was surely chance that you contracted cholera at this auspicious time?”

Edward and Smith gazed intently at the tiny figure, hanging on her every word.

“No, Doctor Smith, it was not chance at all. Contracting cholera is as simple as imbibing water from a water pump in the impoverished quarters of London.”

“With all due respect, my good lady,” blurted Smith, “if you are referring to the theory of so-called contagion, then I must beg to differ in the strongest terms. Cholera, like all diseases, results from the miasma, caused in this case by rotting material on the banks of the Thames.”

She gave him a searching stare.

“Then I see, my good man, that my quest to convince you is far from complete. I will bid you and Mister Gotto good day, and I look forward to our next encounter.”

And with that, Mrs. Latta rose from her bed and walked confidently out of the ward, down the corridor and out into the London air.

About the Author

Owen Traylor is a former British diplomat who served in Japan, Germany, Turkey and Israel. Since his retirement in 2008 he has taught international relations at undergraduate level, with stints as ‘diplomat in residence’ at both Earlham College in Indiana, USA, and the University of Kent in the UK. He began writing fictional short stories as a pastime in 2012, and thus far has had six published in online magazines. He is currently living in Tokyo, Japan.