The Pharmacist’s Apprentice
With Archie heading off to London, Lizzie saw an opportunity to follow her own dreams . . .
YOU seem down in the dumps, Archie,” Lizzie said. “What’s troubling you?” Archie looked in the direction of his father’s shop. It was a bay-fronted building on the corner of London Street, and the only pharmacy for miles around.
“Shall I walk you home?” he offered, and they fell into an easy step.
“So, what is the problem?” Lizzie continued after a few minutes.
She had always thought of her childhood friend as tall and handsome, but today Archie slouched and dragged his feet. It didn’t become him.
He gave a deep sigh. “I’ve decided I want to train as a physician.”
It wasn’t a surprise. He’d worked alongside his father most of his life. Medicine was in his bones.
“You’ll be the finest physician there ever was,” she told him. “You have your father’s head for science, and your mother’s caring nature. What more could you wish for?”
“A father who wants me to be happy.”
It was Lizzie’s turn to let out a sigh.
“Archibald Jacob!” she snapped. “I cannot believe what you have just said. You are so lucky to have such wonderful choices. I wish I was in your position!”
Lizzie marched off towards the bridge. Her home was on the other side of the River Loddon, which, strictly speaking, meant she lived in the next village.
But this evening she felt she was living in a different world from the likes of Archibald Jacob.
Archie followed her over the bridge and into Thyme Cottage, where she lived with her mother.
“I’m not lucky,” he said. “I’m never going to be able to be a doctor, because my father won’t hear of it. He wants me to work with him in the pharmacy, and eventually take over the family business.”
“If you think you’re unfortunate because of that, you need looking at by a doctor,” Lizzie told him. “I’d love to work in a pharmacy and learn from your father.”
Lizzie and her mother had been out early that morning collecting elderflowers, and their sweet perfumed smell filled the air. Lizzie stirred the large pan of flower heads which were being boiled to make an elderflower cordial.
“Will you stay and eat with us?” her mother asked when she appeared moments later. She held a handful of carrots in one hand and a bunch of leaves in the other.
“Thank you, Mrs Cosham,” Archie replied, “but I have an important matter to discuss with my father. I was just walking Lizzie home to make sure she was safe.”
Lizzie noticed her mother looking at them both.
Archie touched his cap as he made for the door.
“My father asks if you could make more rosehip syrup. It seems our customers prefer your recipe to the one he makes.”
Margaret Cosham tapped the side of her nose.
“That’ll be our secret ingredient. I’m not going to be sharing it.”
“I’ll be off, then,” Archie said, bowing his head to the ladies. “Send Lizzie with the syrup as soon as it’s ready.”
Lizzie set about her daily chores, but she couldn’t get her conversation with Archie out of her head.
If he did get his wish to become a doctor then he’d have to go away to London to study, and there was no doubt she’d miss him terribly.
As she collected some yellow dandelion heads, she let her mind swing between feeling sad for Archie that his father wasn’t in agreement, and then being cross with him because he was so lucky to have such choices.
“If I’d been born a boy, I wouldn’t complain if my father asked me to work with him. I’d make myself indispensable, and we’d make a good team.”
“But you’re not a boy,” Margaret said, breaking into her thoughts. “Although you are more or less indispensable. And I think we make a good team.”
“I didn’t realise you were listening,” Lizzie replied, turning to face her mother.
“You weren’t aware you were talking to yourself, more like. No good wishing you were someone else, Lizzie; you are what you are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
A few days later, Lizzie saw Archie talking with Albert the blacksmith.
She’d finished her errands for the time being and so sidled up to the forge. Once she’d passed the time of day with Albert, Archie offered to carry her basket as she made her way back to Thyme Cottage.
“I’m sorry about the other day,” Lizzie began. “If you’ve really set your heart on becoming a physician, then you must try to follow your dream. Have you spoken to your father yet?”
“I’m wondering if I’ve got what it takes,” he admitted.
Lizzie halted and looked up at him in surprise.
“The other day,” he explained, “your mother brought in a handful of leaves which I couldn’t identify. Yet you both can tell one plant from another with your eyes closed, just by feeling the leaves or smelling the aroma.”
“You’d learn if you had to. I’m sure that’s part of what a physician has to know.”
“You’ll think me a coward.” Archie frowned. “There never seems to be a good time to talk to my father, and I’m not as brave as you when it comes to standing up to people.”
“Imagine yourself in years to come,” Lizzie replied, “when you’ve qualified as a doctor, and you have to give someone a diagnosis.
“Perhaps that news is a mixture of good and bad, depending on which way you view it, but you have to stress the good points for the sake of the patient.”
“I see what you mean.” Archie nodded as he took in her wise words. “I will think of Father as my first patient and practise on him. I know I must speak with him, and the sooner, the better.”
Lizzie sat in church trying to concentrate on Reverend Lewis and his sermon.
He was telling the story of Esther, which was one of her favourites. It always made her feel as though anything was possible, although she was only a young woman.
All she had to do was use her good sense and have God in her heart.
After the service, she and her mother spoke with Archie and his father.
“Thank you for the rosehip syrup,” Mr Jacob said. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but when I make it, it’s always too bitter.”
“I used to have that problem, but it was young Lizzie who solved it for me. She’s a clever girl.”
Mr Jacob nodded. “Young Archie’s a bright lad, too. He’s going to be a physician.”
“My,” Margaret said. “I thought he’d follow in your line of business and end up running the shop for you.”
“That’s what his mother and I would have wanted, but it seems he has other ideas. And you can’t stand in their way, can you?”
“No, I don’t suppose you can,” Margaret agreed.
Archie smiled at Lizzie at the end of Church Lane. She was about to set off for Thyme Cottage.
“Thank you,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without your urging.”
“I’m pleased for you, really I am,” Lizzie told him. “But forgive me, I’m envious, too.”
“Envious? I didn’t know you wanted to be a physician, Lizzie.”
“I don’t, but I do want to have something to look forward to. I wish I had something to aim for, to work hard for.
“If you come back in five or fifty years’ time, having qualified, you can be sure I’ll be here helping my mother with the herbs.”
“And what would the village do without you and your mother?” Archie asked. “I won’t be missed, but you certainly would be.”
Walking back to the cottage, she thought about what he’d said, and decided that her life could be worse.
“At least I know I’m loved. I have a roof over my head and food in my stomach.”
By the time she got home she’d begun to think of something, and discussed it with her mother.
“If Archie isn’t going to be Mr Jacob’s apprentice in the pharmacy, then he’s going to need someone else. I could be brave, like Esther in the Bible, and apply for the position.
“I know as much about medicine as anyone in the whole village, except perhaps you and Mr Jacob himself.”
“I dare say that’s true,” Margaret agreed, “but that’s no job for a girl.”
Annoyed, Lizzie wondered if they still had her father’s old clothes. Perhaps if she dressed as a boy she would be taken more seriously!
That evening, when Margaret was checking the hives and Lizzie was fetching water from the well, Archie came down the lane.
“Twice in one day,” Lizzie said with a smile. “What will I do when you’re studying miles away in London?”
“I wanted to thank you for giving me the confidence and courage to speak to my father. I think I’ve found a way to repay you.”
“I’m listening.” Lizzie put down the bucket and gave him her full attention.
“I know you’re a girl, but if you really wanted to be my father’s apprentice, I’d argue your case for you. Although I can’t promise he’d listen.”
Lizzie reached up on tiptoes and kissed Archie on the cheek.
He turned crimson.
“I’ll kiss you properly if he listens to you!”
“I think I’ll ask your cousin Nancy to come and stay,” Margaret announced. “She’s always been a bright lass, and she’s interested in what we do.”
“Why?” Lizzie asked. “You’re not ill, are you, Mother? Am I not working hard enough?”
“I’m fit and well, thank you, and you are a treasure – but I can see there’s a good chance you’ll spread your wings, and it’ll take me years to train Nancy. So I better start now.”
The following day, Lizzie made sure she cleaned herself up before she had to take a cough remedy she’d made to the pharmacy.
She’d always stopped to chat with Mr Jacob, and he knew how interested she was in his work. Often she would ask what
Lizzie tried not to feel jealous; after all, her life could be worse
he was doing, and why.
Today was no exception.
“I’m grinding this up to make a tooth powder,” Mr Jacob explained, leaning over his pestle and mortar.
“Is that a very difficult job?” she asked. “Or is that something someone like me could do?”
“This is the easy bit. The tricky part is measuring out the ingredients.”
“Like I would if I were making pastry?”
“Probably!” Mr Jacob laughed. “I wouldn’t know, as I’m not much of a cook. I leave that to the housekeeper.”
“Well,” Lizzie said. “I can tell you, you definitely need the right quantities when you’re baking or mixing potions. Or, like your rosehip syrup, it might end up sour.”
Mr Jacob chuckled. “Yes, I remember making my smelling salts so strong once that they knocked out my first patient instead of reviving them.”
“You soon get to know the quantities to use,” Lizzie told him with an air of confidence.
Mr Jacob nodded in agreement.
“I’ve been hearing good things about you, Miss Cosham.”
Lizzie stood up tall. No one had ever called her Miss Cosham before, least of all someone as important as the pharmacist.
“Granny Grainger said if you hadn’t given her your special herbal tea, she’d be coughing in her grave. And Jane Smith said you sat with her all night and cured her child’s colic.
“Archie, too, has been singing your praises, saying you’re quick to learn, cheerful, and that you’d be good with the customers.”
“I always do my best, sir,” Lizzie said. “I’ve brought you my new cough remedy to try.”
“I’ll have some of that!” Mrs Potts, the farmer’s wife, said immediately from the other side of the counter. “Jimmy’s been coughing all night, and nothing’s worked so far. I’d trust anything Lizzie or her mother makes.”
“If your mother can spare you,” Mr Jacob said, “you can be my apprentice for one day, and we’ll see how we get on.”
“Oh, thank you, sir! I won’t let you down.”
Lizzie skipped back to Thyme Cottage, confident she’d get her mother’s approval for her one-day trial at her dream job.
The following Monday morning, Lizzie arrived early and fetched the jars of powders that Mr Jacob asked for.
She was so keen to impress that she tried to carry them all at once, and would have dropped the lot had Mr Jacob not come to her rescue.
“One at a time will be good enough,” he told her. “Just relax and be yourself. Remember I’ve known you since you were born.”
Wilma, the shop girl, let out a scream. Mr Jacob ran into the shop, followed closely by Lizzie.
Wilma had gone as pale as the talcum powder. She pointed a shaking hand at the large earthenware jar that held the leeches.
“Didn’t you put the lid on properly?” Mr Jacob snapped, looking not at Wilma but at Lizzie.
“I thought I did. I used the metal clip like you showed me.”
“Well, collect them up and put them back in the pot, and then we’ll try something else. Something you might be better suited to.”
Lizzie’s cheeks burned as she carefully scooped up the leeches. She detested the blood-sucking creatures, but she wasn’t going to show her dislike to anyone. Besides, she understood what a valuable job they did.
Finally, Mr Jacob suggested she follow his written instructions to make some lavender water.
Lizzie did her best, but his handwriting was awful, and so she used her initiative and improvised.
It smelled and tasted good enough to her, but the pharmacist wasn’t pleased and sent her home.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Lizzie said from the doorway. “I couldn’t read your writing, so I used my own recipe. I realise now I should have checked with you first. I’ve learned my lesson.” Mr Jacob nodded. “Apology accepted. Initiative is good, and your recipe is acceptable, but with medicines we need to be exact. You’ll know that next time.”
“So there will be a next time?” Lizzie asked hopefully. “I’ve loved it here.”
“That’s good to know. But I also promised the vicar’s son he, too, could have a day’s trial.”
Lizzie’s heart sank.
Archie had been away in London sorting out lodgings and buying books in order to begin his studies. He looked quite the gentleman as he walked over the hump-backed bridge and into the cottage garden.
“I come bearing good news,” he announced.
Margaret sat him down with a cup of verbena tea.
“When I was in the city, I heard about a woman called Philomena Deacon.”
“You’ve only been away two days, and already you’ve found a new friend to confide in,” Lizzie said sadly.
She knew she was still cross with herself for making so many mistakes at the pharmacy. She also knew she shouldn’t take it out on Archie.
“I didn’t say I’d met her. But I’d like to, because she’s the first woman to qualify as a pharmacist. And if she can do it, so can you.”
“But I messed up, and now your father’s got Reverend Lewis’s son.”
“Father says Gerald Lewis can sing like a lark, but is as lazy as the church cat. He could tell you were a hard worker, and he liked your lavender water, even if you didn’t follow his recipe.
“Plus, Wilma confessed that she was the one who accidentally let the leeches out. He’s willing to give you a second chance, if your mother is in agreement.”
Both Lizzie and Archie turned to look at Margaret Cosham, who was stirring apple peelings in a pot.
“I’ll not stand in your way, love,” Margaret told her daughter. “But don’t give away our secret recipes.
“And make sure you tell all the customers it was you who mixed them for him. Don’t let him take the credit.”
“In that case,” Archie said, “I have strict instructions that you are both to come up to the pharmacy with me now, and you’re to bring a bottle of your best elderberry wine – which he’ll buy from you in order to celebrate.”
Margaret took her pan from the fire and went to the larder for the wine.
“I think you owe me a kiss,” Archie said with a smile.
He reached out, put his hands on Lizzie’s slim waist and pulled her into his arms.
“And when you come back as our village doctor,” Margaret interrupted, brandishing a bottle of wine, “I trust you’ll send all your patients to see Lizzie, the newly qualified pharmacist.”
“That’s all part of the plan,” Archie replied. “Now, let’s take that wine and not keep my father waiting any longer. He’ll be delighted to hear the good news that he’s got himself a new apprentice.” ■