“The English Pupil” begins outside the town of Uppsala, Sweden, on a very cold late December afternoon in 1777. Carl Linnaeus, the famous naturalist, who is now seventy years old and dying, is riding in a horse-drawn sleigh. He orders his coachman to take him to his country estate, Hammarby, which lies beyond city limits. The coachman agrees only reluctantly, since he has been told by his employers not to take the sleigh outside of the city.
Linnaeus watches the landscape go by and thinks of Lappland, which he had explored when he was in his mid-twenties, learning about the natural world, which had amazed him with its beauty.
Linnaeus has suffered a series of strokes and now his once-famous memory has almost gone. He tends to forget what he is doing and where he is, he cannot remember the names of plants and animals or of places and people. His legs, one arm, his bladder and part of his face are paralyzed. He can barely speak.
When they arrive at Hammarby, Pehr, the coachman, lifts Linnaeus up and carries him into the house. Then he unhitches the horses from the sleigh and shoves the sleigh into the house, near the fireplace. He lifts Linnaeus back into the sleigh and begins to light a fire. Then after Linnaeus gestures toward his tobacco and pipe, Pehr lights the pipe and places it in Linnaeus’s mouth. Linnaeus is happy to be at Hammarby; no one but Pehr knows where he is.
Linnaeus remembers his favorite dog, Pompey, who is now dead, and the names of some of his students, those whom he had taught at the university in Uppsala as well as private students who had come to Hammarby. They were of many nationalities, including an Englishman, who, Linnaeus thinks, is “still around.” He remembers taking the students out to the botanical gardens in the city and keeping them there for twelve or thirteen hours at a stretch.
Pehr interrupts his thoughts, saying that his family will be looking for him. Linnaeus knows this is true and reflects that his family always wants something from him. His wife, Sara Lisa, always told him there was not enough money, and she was worried about their son, Carl Junior, who is lazy, and their three daughters, who need new clothes.
Linnaeus thinks back to his achievements in creating a system for the naming of plants. He had named almost everything, and he had become famous.
A man and a woman arrive at the house. Linnaeus thinks the woman must be his daughter Sophia, and the man may be her husband, although he has no memory of a wedding. The man then introduces himself as Rotheram, one of his pupils. Then Linnaeus’s mind seems to wander, and he wonders whether the man is another student, maybe Lofling, or Christopher Ternström, or Hasselquist or Falck.
Sophia says they have been looking everywhere for him, and the young man raises him gently to a sitting position. Linnaeus’s mind wanders, and he thinks back to the exploits of several of his pupils, when they and he were young. He imagines the young man is Christopher Ternström, who had sailed to the East Indies and eventually died of a tropical fever on an island off Cambodia. Then he imagines he is Fredrik Hasselquist, who had traveled widely gathering plants and animals and keeping a precise diary, and who had died when he was thirty. He remembers other students also, who had managed to return alive from their travels. He remembers a pupil named Rolander and wonders whether that is the man who is with him now. Rolander had lost his mind in Surinam and had come home with insects and seeds which he claimed to be pearls and which had been mistakenly washed away by the gardener. Linnaeus thinks he is still alive and living in Denmark on charity.
Sophia asks him why he did not come back, and the man asks Pehr how long Linnaeus has been weeping. Linnaeus wonders whether the man is Lofling, who had tutored his son, Carl Junior. Lofling had traveled widely and made a name for himself as a naturalist before dying of fever in Spain.
As Sophia asks her father if he is happy and strokes his hands, he remembers more of his “apostles,” as he calls them, students who had traveled the world as an extension of himself: “extra eyes and hands and feet, observing, gathering, naming.” He remembers Pehr Forskal, who traveled to Egypt and made a fine collection of new plants in Cairo; he died of plague in Arabia. He remembers Falck, too, who had traveled to St. Petersburg and beyond. Lonely and depressed in Kazan, he had shot himself.
Outside, it has begun to rain, and the man whom Linnaeus thinks of as Rotheram says they must leave now because the rain is ruining the track.
Linnaeus again remembers the student with a similar name—Rolander, who carried on his research even though on his way to Surinam he had been struck down with dysentery. Linnaeus remembers Kahler and Hasselquist and Pehr Kalm. He remembers the principles on which his system of naming was based and which he had passed on to his pupils. His apostles, he thinks, “had taken wing like swallows, but they had failed to return.” He had a theory about swallows, that in the winter, they lived below the ice in lakes, waiting for spring. He had argued with a colleague over this theory, and he relishes the fact that he triumphed over all those who had opposed his work.
Linnaeus sees in his mind a group of men on the left of the fire. He thinks they are the students he has previously thought of, but there is another man there as well, whose name was Carl Thunberg. Thunberg had traveled to Japan, where he learned about Japanese flora on the island of Deshima. Thunberg was the pupil who kept in touch with Linnaeus most regularly, sending letters and herbarium specimens home and scrupulously following Linnaeus’s methods. Linnaeus listens as the men standing around him relate some of their stories. Thunberg describes the Japanese people and their gardens; Hasselquist tells him of Palestine; Lofling describes the tropics, and Forskal describes Alexandria. Falck and Kahler also make remarks. Linnaeus silently conjures up some memories of his own. Sophia tells him that they must leave now. Linnaeus sees his apostles holding leaves, twigs, and blossoms, all named by them on his advice. They are excitedly exchanging them among themselves. But he notices that Sophia and the English pupil do not notice the men. They are helping Pehr, the coachman, push the sleigh back outside, where a light rain is turning the snow to slush. Pehr douses the fire. The group of pupils looks displeased, and Linnaeus sees them holding the plants he had named for them. Two sleighs make their way home from the estate. The first is Sophia’s borrowed sleigh. In the second, the English pupil joins Linnaeus. In Linnaeus’s mind’s eye, he sees a third sleigh following them, containing the apostles. Linnaeus looks up at Rotheram and tries to express his grief over those whom death has taken from him, and the anxiety and care that are his present lot. Rotheram tells him to rest; they will be home soon.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Andrea Barrett, Published by Gale Group, 2006