The scourge has come upon us. In the shite-strewn streets the ragged preachers howl of damnation, and preach sermons from the Second Book, I shall hold forth mine hand, and I shall smite thee and thy people with pestilence, and thou shalt perish from the earth. More lie dead than the living can bury. The fat white maggot feasts and the bold and busy rat scurries in the gutters. All is filth – all is filth and blood and foetid summer rainwater.
The common people, as they weep, and suffer, and burn, and die, and cry to Christ Jesus that they, their wives, their children, might be spared, know it as The Mortality. Or the Black Death.
And in normal circumstances I would be all for it.
There is great profit to be made in a plague year, Lord knows. Sickness loosens the purse-strings even as it loosens the bowel. They may curse me, in the winter, for a damn’ Welsh trickster, a picker of the poor man’s pocket – but come the summer, come the plague, aye, it is thank-you, Mr Jones, help me, Mr Jones, god save you, Mr Jones.
Each in his turn comes to me, in the end. Perhaps a wife has fever. Perhaps a baby shivers and is purulent. And I take my penny and I furnish my remedy.
And then I am gone. The bargain is concluded. The outcome is not my business; it is God’s alone.
The summer of Our Lord thirteen forty-six – that is, three summers since – was a summer of rich harvest indeed for Jones the Apothecary. The shadow of a fever fell upon our town of Leeds (and shadows are always at their darkest in the summer). I was a busy man.
I knew not whither came the fever. Some said it was from the putrid river-water wherein the wool-men rinsed their fleeces. Some said a witch had made urine in a pail of cow-milk, curdling it into poison. Some blamed the French. I knew not; cared not, neither. God’s business. Not mine.
Nay, my business was the curing of the pestilence, and into this I flung my energies.
Many in my trade, I know, consider foreignness a great advertisement. The fellow Murphy who plies his quackery on Briggate affects the Moorish name Al-hazar and dyes his beard black with acorns and iron. Others boast that their potions are potent with spices from Persia, roots from Cathay, fruits from Ethiopia. As though foreignness were itself a great healing power.
Nay, I said to this (and thus made my name and fortune). Would God bury the means of our deliverance in such distant soil? Would the merciful Almighty hold his mercy so far out of the reach of his Chosen People (and their neighbours, the English)?
Nay, I said. Deliverance, I said, shall come from within.
For the fever in its first day, when the sufferer shivers like a wind-shaken sapling, my prescription was for the shit of a baby to be slathered upon his feet, his throat, and his wrists. Certain learned words in Latin were then spoken.
For the second day, when the sufferer is doubled up with vomiting, I advised that a poultice of shit, for preference that of a holy man, leavened with a baby’s water and spiced with good (English) mustard, be applied to his joints and belly.
When, on the third day, the sufferer complains that God’s own blessed daylight causes him pain in his eyes, it is clear that the evil is far advanced, and that now the apothecary must strike at the very heart of the affliction. His eyes must be bound with hot plasters – soaked in whatever shit is to hand. And the poultices aforementioned must be applied to his joints and belly. And the shit of a baby must be slathered upon his feet, his throat and his wrists.
Latin ought to be spoken throughout, but this is by far the least important aspect of the cure. The common people enjoy theatre, even at the sickbed; the Latin provides it.
Many times, by these simple expedients, I cured a man, a woman or a child of the fever.
At other times, the man – or woman, or child – was beyond my simple science.
He is dead, he is dead!, his kinfolk would wail.
And I would say that this was God’s business, and not mine. Was I to challenge God’s will?
Oftentimes they would lament that he was not only dead but also most horribly beshit. But by then I was gone, a penny in my pocket.
I had thought, this summer, when the great pestilence came, that it would be the same. And indeed at first it was: the people were greatly afeared, and begged for me to minister to them. And again, I applied my learning and skill, and again, a great many were saved.
But more, this time, were not. The panic grew. Summer passed, and yet the pestilence raged. Customers gathered in great numbers at my door – many fell dead before I could treat them. My purse grew fat.
And then –
There was a child. O! that poor child – O! that damnéd, accurséd child!
It was a boy child, perhaps five years old. It was known, this child, by all in the lanes about Mill Hill, known, and loved, for it was, I was given to believe, a child of great kindness, grace, and soft-heartedness.
The plague struck it down in September, Our Lord’s year thirteen forty-nine. Its father summoned me, for he had heard my name spoken in the streets. He was a wealthy man, this father – a merchant. He, too, had a good name in the city: a good and Christian-hearted man, it was said.
I saw him weep, this merchant, at the bedside of his feverish, white-faced child. He bid me do my all.
From that day, I gave my life over to the merchant’s boy. The poultices, the plasters, the other necessary applications.
Of the required ingredients there was no shortage in the city streets. As I have said, sickness loosens the bowels. What was more, the plague had run wild among the nightsoil men; with no-one left to cart off the town’s middens, they grew into great mounds, steaming and repugnant. At the Calls, I heard, a drunkard fell into one, and was suffocated. The people spoke bitterly of the stench – but here were easy pickings for Jones the apothecary.
Through four nights I slaved at the child’s bedside. If I could heal the rich man’s boy, I thought, then I might ask whatever reward I pleased – aye, if the boy lived, my fame would surely spread – the name of Jones might be acclaimed throughout the land!
The boy began to weaken. I redoubled my effort – for what else was there to do?
Others said nay, Jones, leave the poor boy be – let God’s will be done.
But I said no. No – this day I shall match myself against God. This day, His will shall not be done; on this day, in this town, death shall have no dominion –
The boy grew weaker yet. I barred the doors of his sick-room. Alone, sweltering, sleepless, I tried everything I could. Everything I knew. Everything I could think of.
And when the townspeople saw the boy’s lifeless body – and what, in my desperation, I had done to it –
They are gathered, again, at my door, in a great multitude. This time they do not seek my aid, do not plead for me to minister to their sickness. Quite the contrary.
I watched them, earlier, through a window, as they gathered in a mob at the midden behind my own poor house. It is a foul, flyblown thing, a swamp more than a heap (for my own bowels have lately not been wholesome). They gathered with shovels and barrows. They took a great quantity.
And now they beat upon my door. I hear one hoarsely roar a Latin verse: inquinamento ex intra. Defilement comes from within.
When they enter – as they surely shall, bearing bucketfuls, shovelfuls – I will not have the strength to resist them. I am prey to a shivering I cannot control. It is not, I fear, fear. The weak light from the window hurts my eyes. The soft parts beneath my armpits are hot and tender.
A taste, they will say, of my own remedies. A mouthful of my own medicine.
I will repent, and pray for God’s mercy. If he be merciful, as some say, he will see to it that the plague kills me quickly.