London, summer of 1543
It was not the plague. The neighbor had been wrong.
The physician wiped his lancet on the bedding and returned the instrument to a leather wallet, folding the hide along familiar creases worn from use. He had bled the man, cutting the median cubital vein in his right arm to entice the bloodworms and hasten their attachment. Now they wallowed in a shallow dish, their thirst sated.
Given the condition in which he'd found the fellow, he doubted the leeches would be of benefit. But the physician suffered from a plague of convention. He rarely strayed from accepted protocol.
The effort was futile. The man died anyway.
Moments before, the victim's delirium, his tortured struggle, filled the room with life. Now life was diminished to the buzz of lowly flies settling on eyes that no longer blinked.
In his desire to help, the doctor had concentrated solely on his patient. He was alone with his medical satchel and his wits. Children's voices, a door slamming, the shrill whistle of a vendorâ the world he had left behindânow demanded his attention, as if shaking him from a dream.
His duty unfinished, he went to the door and found the neighbor waiting outside, turning his worn cap between grubby fingers.
“Summon the coroner,” said the physician. He spat a wad of masticated angelica root into the road. The herb left his mouth tingling with warmth, but he no longer needed its protection. Retreating inside, he closed the door with a definitive click.
He leaned against the flimsy slats of wood, ignoring the titters of meddlesome neighbors trying to peek through the chamber's high window. Let them gawk, thought the doctor. They shall see an old man supine on sodden linens, his body withered from age. An individual no longer seeking his nightly rest, but, unwillingly, committed to the eternal one.
With the emotional charge of need over, the physician saw the rent in all its sad detail. It was almost completely empty of furniture and possessions, but for one wooden bowl and cup on a table. A moldering loaf of bread and a candle lay nearby. The walls showed lines of cracks and missing chunks of plaster; a dirt floor made the room dank and cheerless. Underfoot, the rushes reeked of mildew and cat urine.
The effect was a tedious room, void of color and stimulation. No spark of life warmed the austere interior. How might anyone endure living in circumstances so dismal? As the physician pondered, a sound, most like a raven, issued from a corner. He spied movement in its shadowy recess and moved closer for a better look.
What had first escaped his notice now caught his eye like the last rose of October. A tree branch rested in the corner, and sidestepping along its length was a magnificent macaw. Its breast was a brilliant red, the wings a rainbow of scarlet, yellow, verdant green and wodebroun blue. Where had this pauper acquired such a creature? He was penniless, yet he possessed this exotical bird.
The doctor went to the macaw, which was extending its line of tether to pluck a walnut from a small dish. The bird maneuvered the nut with its talon and cracked it with an intimidating beak. A black tongue separated the meat from the shell, working the seed toward its mouth. Having accomplished this, the bird turned its headâand a pale eyeâupon him.
Intrigued, the physician studied the bird's behavior. The fowl bobbed and squawked as if to entertain. When its clattering grew tiresome, the doctor returned to a stool next to the corpse and sat.
Neighbors speculated loudly outside the rent, prompting him to reflect upon his findings. Was this the sweating sickness making an unwelcome return? Murmurings of sudden deaths spread as noxiously as the disease itself. Fevers and headaches, the unexpected onset, the inability to catch air, all were hallmarks of
But he had seen other maladies with similar symptoms. Even a few souls dying of fever, which the physician knew was not unique to the sweat, set tongues to wagging. Perhaps fear contributed to the spread of diseaseâthe distress producing a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Merry at supper, dead before dawn. He had seen it happen.
Sweating sickness was aptly named. The afflicted suffered a great perspiration and stinking, their faces and bodies flushed. The humours were unbalanced from too much blood, causing a mantling of the skin. Heads ached. Victims went mad as their hearts became passionate with rapid beat. The heat of fever caused an unquenchable thirst, and perspiration bounced on their skin like beads of oil on a hot griddle. If the sufferers were submerged in a bath of water, the doctor wondered, would it cool them like rain on a scorching summer day? But he never had the chance to try such a treatment. By the time he arrived, the end was too near.
However, the physician was not certain
patient had died of the dread disease. The man had suffered from delirium and fever but had not exhibited a tightening of the chest. His body flushed, yet there was something more. Blood seeped from the man's eyes and nose. Had the man's putrid humours sought escape by any means possible?
In his hurry to attach the bloodworms, he had not bothered to check the contents of the chamber pot. He now searched for the jordan and found it on the opposite side of the bed.
Swirling the murky urine, the doctor sniffed. Nothing extraordinary. There was neither vomit nor tarry stool. Since death had occurred, he declined a taste. He set the pot under the bed, leaving it for the landlord to dump, and returned to the bedside.
The practitioner thought about his findings. Bleeding the man had not served. By what other means might such foul humours be relieved?
With a sudden stir, the door flew open. It smacked against the wall, startling the physician from his contemplation. The parrot flapped its wings, excited. In stepped a creature amid a shower of plaster. He wore a mask with a prominent beak rivaling that of the macaw. But this creature was a coroner, an exotical bird in his own right. His long bistre robe reached the floor and the doctor imagined how disagreeably stifling such garb must feel on this warm August day.
Loath to remove the mask stuffed full of rue and bergamot, the coroner blinked behind his protection. He brushed the dust off his shoulders with a gloved hand, ignoring the powder settling on his cap.
“It is not the plague,” said the physician. “You may remove your mask.”
“I shall be the judge of that,” remarked the coroner, his voice sounding tinny within. He turned his head this way and that, attempting to evaluate his surroundings, the mask being an obvious hindrance.
“There are no buboes marring his skin,” said the doctor. He reached over and lifted a wrist, showing the coroner the dead man's hand. “No black discoloration of the digits.”
The coroner crossed the room, his wool robe sweeping the floor and dragging clumps of rush behind him. He approached the body, pushed the mask against his face, and studied the corpse at close quarters, running his eyes along its entire length. He appeared something of a perversion, his long bird beak grazing the body as though sniffing it. Satisfied by the absence of swellings, the coroner removed his gloves and tucked them under his robe; however, the mask remained on his face. Apparently he had an aversion to the smell of anything except his combination of herbs.
“In your opinion,” said the coroner, “of what did the man die?”
“I cannot say. I have considered the sweat, but his symptoms were not typical.”
“Was there a fever and a great stinking?”
“He had a fever, aye, but I cannot say his sweat was putrid.” The doctor shook his head. “Obviously the man had not the means to sweeten his skin with scented unguents. A natural odor accompanies all men of his age. But nay, it was not the expected nidorous smell of the sweat.”
The coroner stared from behind his rigid white faÃ§ade. The physician saw only brown eyes peering back at him. As to what opinion the official had formed, he remained ignorant. The macaw squawked, drawing the coroner's notice.
“What is that extraordinary creature?”
“I believe they are called macaws. I once saw one at market.”
Fascinated, the coroner walked over to the bird. Immediately, the creature began to bob its head and flutter its wings.
“What is it doing?”
“I do not know, sir. Perhaps it thinks you are a kindred spirit.”
The coroner hesitated, considering the bird and the physician's comment. After a moment he strode back to the corpse and addressed the doctor.
“I shall pronounce him dead of fever,” he announced, waving his hand in dismissal. “Do not speak of the sweat. To do so might cause undue alarm. It may very well be
but until an epidemic confirms my suspicions, I will not venture an opinion.”
The coroner turned away, intending to leave, so the physician refrained from engaging him in a discussion of his findings. He reminded himself that men of authority were more concerned with signing documents and arranging the removal of bodies than with discussing academics. He had just conceded it was better to leave such men to matters of administration when a glum voice spoke from the door.
“I come for the body.” A shadow fell across the floor as a collector stood in the entry, blocking the sunlight. Dirt and sweat coated his jerkin and his face, the grime an indication of his business. He held a pail of red paint in one hand and a brush in the other.
“Ah,” said the coroner, motioning him inside. “I admire expeditious handling of one's office.” He turned to the physician. “What was the name of the deceased? I shall fill out the register later.”
Weary, the doctor stood and moved the stool away from the bed. “I do not recall the victim's name. Perhaps someone outside might know.”
The coroner dipped his head in a cursory bow and strode toward the door, his gait so smooth and purposeful he seemed to float over the floor, save for the reeds gathering along his hem. Before sidling past the collector, he lifted his robe, dislodging the clump of rushes. “It is not the plague,” he said, loud enough for the loitering crowd to overhear. “You will not need to mark this door with paint.”
The bearer ducked his head under a low ceiling beam and lumbered into the rent. Looking about, he set the pot of paint against a wall. He straightened, his brawn seeming to fill the space, making it even smaller.
Standing aside, the physician watched the collector remove the blankets and place them in a pile next to the paint. They would be burned later. A black tiger cat emerged from under the bed to sniff the discarded wool. It lingered over the heap of blankets, opening its mouth to run the smells over its tongue. Satisfied, it slipped out of sight again.
There was no joy in carting off the dead. The bearer's expression mirrored his dull acceptance of duty. Men such as he were doomed to a short life. The risks of their chore ensured it. They slept in shacks in the graveyards, comingling with sextons and gravediggers. Feared for the possible infections they might carry, they lived lonely lives, shunned by the very people who depended on them.
“If you would shroud the body,” said the physician.
The collector undertook the directive without comment. He balanced the body on its side, holding one end of the sheet against the chest, and began to roll, swaddling the deceased.
Distracted, the physician watched the bundle take on the appearance of a cocoon. He was frustrated over his inability to diagnose the disease, and the coroner's lack of concern further drained and aggravated him. He was envisioning a good night's sleep when a man cleared his throat at the door. “What is it?” he called, looking over.
“Did the coroner say what got him? He said it wasn't the Black Death,” said the neighbor hugging the doorjamb, keeping his distance. “Was it the sweat?”
“It is not certain. I would not tell others that it is the disease. It may not be.”
“I heard of another stricken suddenly on Distaff Lane. Took ill after his dinner prayer and was gone before the curfew bells tolled. 'Tis a cruel malady with no mercy.”
“This man may not have died of sweating sickness,” repeated the physician.
“Then what is it he died of?”
“I have seen much,” said the physician, turning to face him, “but I cannot say I have seen symptoms such as these.”
The neighbor's voice rose in distress. “Like whats?”
The doctor gathered his instruments, placing them carefully in his satchel. Engaging this philistine in a discussion of medical findings would be ludicrous. “It is you who summoned me. What first gave you pause?”
“I know Walter as well as my wife's face. He was an old man, but not so old that he didn't have more time in him. He had his habits, and every morning as the cock crew he toted his water urns to the conduits. This morning I did not see him. I came knocking. When he did not answer I grew worried and forced open the door. He was as you found him, sir, delirious and raging with fever. He must have broken his nose from thrashing. A lot of blood.”
“Has he family?”
“None I know. He never spoke of any. He was a lonely man with just his cat and bird for companionship.”
The feline had been circling the side table and jumped up to sniff the dish of leeches. It gingerly pawed one of the swollen
. Spurred by its slight movement, the cat snatched it out of the dish and bit it in half.
“Have you a need for a cat? Perhaps for mice?” asked the physician, watching it chew. The cat ignored the remaining leeches in the bowl.
“Nay, sir, me wife thinks them evil. Just let it fend for itself; it seems a good hunter.”
The bearer finished winding the man in the bedsheet and tucked in the ends. “I am done here, sir. If you could take the feet?”