‘What are you trying to prove, Ephraim?’ Jacob took another bite of his fishcake.
‘That Truth is the Way.’
‘That will carry you through,’ the old uncle airily dismissed the subject. ‘How is little Frieda? And the pretty Mrs Epstein.’
Ephraim told him about the baby due in autumn, and then plunged into his turmoil. ‘I can’t be a physician. But I cannot stay on as a silenced teacher.’
‘The Jews don’t like you because of your Jesus. And the Christians don’t like you because of your truth.’ Jacob laughed gently. ‘Do you ever think of keeping quiet?’
But we know by now that Ephraim cannot keep from acting on his truths. In Chapter 29, Professor Epstein, medical practice is impossible for the still-grieving physician. He has lasted one successful year as a teacher of Hebrew and scripture at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. Because of his outspokenness he now must invent himself once again… but as what, where?
‘How can I trust myself? How can I know who may die at these hands.’
‘Ephraim,’ Helena murmured, trying to banish his thought with soothing.
‘I am cursed, cursed. God has punished me. I cannot heal, I kill.’
‘It was not you! It was Mr Maxwell’s mistake.’
‘But my hand wrote the scrip!’ Ephraim roared as stood up, making the chair fall over, and he left the room.
In Chapter 28, God Forsaken, Ephraim shakily emerges from grief over the death of his four-year-old son. Instead of quinine, the chemist had accidentally used morphine in medicine for the ill child. Ephraim blames himself. He descends into black depression. Of course I had to recreate his mental breakdown using my imagination. In his own words Ephraim Epstein says, ‘It [his son’s death] came near to breaking my heart and ending my life. I could not practise medicine any more.’ This abstinence was to last nine years. Meanwhile he has to find a way to support his wife and remaining child, baby Frieda.
Ephraim bent and kissed his son on the cheek, in tenderness, and to check his temperature. The quinine would soon provoke the sweat. ‘I will sit by him,’ Ephraim said to Helena. ‘You go and sleep. Everything will be all right now.’
Early birdsong woke Ephraim. Good, the child had slept through. But the sweat should have begun. He reached for the boy — and died. At that moment his heart and soul evaporated. His beautiful son, his William, lay with his eyes staring wide open, his face fixed in death.
In Chapter 27, The Darkness, Ephraim and Helena’s first child dies aged four. Investigation reveals that the death was caused by the misfilling of Ephraim’s own prescription. Instead of quinine, widely used at the time to reduce fever, the chemist had used morphine. Ephraim blames himself and withdraws into grief, hardly mourning the death of their second child, of convulsions, in the same year.
When fact is perfect for fiction… this highly romantic episode was no more than family lore when I began writing the novel of Dr Epstein’s life. Then California cousin CB sent me wonderful evidence of truth.
‘As to the wooing there is a bit of romance. In an album at the house of some relatives in St. Petersburg, the young merchant saw a photograph of Miss Sarah. In a twinkling of an eye he fell in love, and expressed an ardent with to see the fair original. Correspondence followed… with the result above stated.’ The New York Times December 24, 1874.
In Chapter 26, Perjured, determined daughter Sadie defeats her father. Ephraim overrides his resistance to her marriage — but at what cost?
Feisty writing women have a date with Ephraim… I’ll be reading from The Extraordinary Dr Epstein, a chapter included in the anthology Notes on a Page launched Saturday 3 December, 2 – 4 pm at Richmond Library in west London. He’s alongside short stories, memoir, lyrics, poetry… tea & cake too!
Notes on a Page is published collaboratively by Palewell Press and Dark Mourne Press http://www.palewellpress.co.uk/Palewell-Publications.html http://www.darkmournepress.com/
For many men the birth of a son is a great thing, and for Ephraim perhaps especially so when William was born to Helena in 1874. He knew what it was to be the first born son of his parents, the longed for male. This joy in a son was bred in his bones and could not be denied. Equally undeniable was consideration of circumcision. He himself was circumcised, of course, by a mohel at the bris at eight days of age, as all Jewish boys were. Ephraim’s personal life, his profession and his Jewish-Christian faith constellated in a crisis.
In Chapter 25, Doctor and Family Man, at last Ephraim has contentment, crowned by the birth of a son. But this raises issues. As his great granddaughter I can only assume that Ephraim was circumcised. I have dared to imagine that he had a dilemma over this issue for his own son. This is backed by factual circumstantial evidence: his published letter-battle with a southern physician in the professional Medical and Surgical Reporter in 1874, exactly the year of son William’s birth. The exchange escalated to the point of Ephraim’s fiery outrage on the whole issue of Jewish ‘superiority’. In his own words: ‘The singular perseverance of the Jews in health is a mean fiction…’
His conflict shows: he both defends and attacks Judaism. In medical circles at the time circumcision was thought to be good for health. But Ephraim believed it had become a religious political issue; the choice he made could be seen as taking sides. About his boy? My imagination has Ephraim decide against. And gives Helena very little say.
… Sadie’s smile flooded Ephraim with relief. His daughter would after all give her blessing to him marrying her best friend. She could forgive this new wound on top of the years of fatherlessness. And then she dropped her bombshell.
‘For myself, I shall be going to Charleston as soon as it can be arranged.’
‘Charleston? South Carolina? Why? Cincinnati is a fine place. And you two are like sisters.’
‘It is time that I cease to be a burden on you.’ She gave him a stern look, ‘Papa, please be understanding. I want to give you and Helena the peace of your engagement.’ He was unsure, and let her know he was displeased. But he had to let her go. After all she was a grown woman of twenty-four. What’s more, she had granted him his heart’s desire: his dear, dear Helena.
The challenging child of Ephraim’s first marriage moves to the sophisticated east coast city. How will she fare once out of her father’s influence? Beautiful and secretive, she returns to be bridesmaid to Helena at the wedding on 29 April 1873. Ephraim’s happiness is complete: ‘my bride is a secret garden, a walled garden, a private spring…’ Chapters 24 & 25. It won’t be long before Sadie has a half-brother.
‘My dear Helena, having come to know you through your friendship with my daughter, I have grown to see you in another light. Could you think ever to become my wife?’
She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it. His heart sank. ‘I was afraid of that. I am an old man, old enough to be your father. Please, let us forget –‘
‘No!’ she cried out. ‘It’s the surprise. I need time. And Sadie…’
‘Time, yes. Of course I cannot court you like the young men, but,’ he dared to touch her, one gentle touch to the back of her hand, ‘I can be ardent.’ She studied his face. ‘You do not forbid me to hope?’ She shook her head.
It was ridiculous. For the first time in his life Ephraim was a romantic in love.
In Chapter 24, Ephraim in Love, Dr Epstein courts Helena Greyer, half his age and his daughter’s best friend. Will Helena’s father, Dr Greyer, give permission? As important, will Sadie accept Helena as her father’s wife?
Ephraim hesitated. He was aware that he was a focus of female speculation. Yes, the time was ripe. But though he had met some fine, educated women in Cincinnati, none had spoken to his heart. And he had wondered how his daughter would feel.
‘I was wondering — you don’t mind my saying?’ Sadie continued after a nod of his head encouraged her, ‘I was thinking you could make Miss Pettifer happy.’
‘Out of the question,’ Ephraim said abruptly. Good heavens, what a thought. The woman was nearly forty. He had felt his daughter flinch at the vehemence of his denial, so he pretended to consider. ‘I have never thought of her that way.’
It is 1870 and Ephraim himself is forty-one. In Chapter 23, Sadie, he is enjoying an established family, community and professional life. But daughter Sarah — who insists on calling herself Sadie, her new American name — reveals she has a will equal to his own.
Suddenly among the faces and figures of passengers descending from the train, Ephraim pushed through the crowd to embrace his daughter, thrilled at how she had grown into full and beautiful womanhood. His Sarah was small and gracefully built, her hair swept up in a mop of curls framing her forehead, long locks at the nape. A frivolous hat perched atop her coiffure to match her full-skirted maroon travelling costume.
‘Papa! You look just the same,’ she pulled back to take in his top hat, waistcoat, trim dark beard. ‘Not like a cowboy at all!’
At last Ephraim and his only child reunite. At last he can have a family life, a thriving medical practice, a home in a bustling, civilised city. As Chapter 22, Home Sweet Home, continues… will Sarah prove the doting docile daughter he imagines? Or will she take after her difficult, stubborn mother?