The Devil's Surgeon Part 2
The Nativity of The Virgin Mary - Year of Our Lord 1493
A Stranger Arrives
When we knew the Pestilence was amongst us, the priest bolted fast the doors to church and fled to the sanctuary of the Priest House from where he gave notice that religious services were suspended and feast days were not to be celebrated until such time as the Lord saw fit to raise the dark evil he had cast upon the town. When we complained the priest told us to pray in our own homes for a miracle.
When the miracle arrived it was not to his liking.
Elias Cope, priest appointed to the market town of Gorham, was not in good spirits. He had been roused from a warm bed in the early hours of the morning by Thomas Goode the night watchman. The priest’s round, fleshy face was still florid with wine from the previous evening and his narrow slit-like eyes were blurred by sleep. Thomas, who had been instructed by the priest to inform him of any strange comings or goings before telling anyone else, especially the Warden, had come to let him know there was a stranger at the town gates who refused to go away. The news did nothing to improve the priest’s humour.
‘I pay you for information. Do you expect me to do your job for you as well? Must I risk breathing in the tainted air because fools like you cannot do their job? Did you not tell him of our situation,’ the priest growled.
‘Of course father, but he still refuses to go. He says it is all the more reason for him to stay.’
‘Then it seems I must deal with the matter myself.’ He dressed hurriedly, took up his staff, and stepped out into the darkness behind the watchman who held a blazing torch aloft to light their way through the pitch black streets.
The watchman, being light-framed and used to the narrow streets and alleyways at night, moved quickly and knew the places to walk to avoid the mud and filth that filled many of the streets and he knew the streets that had been touched by the plague and were therefore also to be avoided. The priest’s more rotund body could move nowhere near as fast or as nimble, nor was he as knowledgeable. Several times he called out to the watchman to slow down, fearful of losing him, and several times he cursed as he felt his feet sliding through something soft and unpleasant beneath his feet. When at last they reached the town gates his mood had worsened.
‘Well then,’ he snapped. ‘Show me this cretinous fool who wants to fling himself into a plague pit.’
The watchkeeper opened a small portal in the gate and the priest stepped forward and peered through. A few metres away, in the pool of light thrown by the flickering torches mounted on either side of gate, a figure was sitting on the bank by the side of the road. He wore a long coat of thick green serge, splashed and muddied at the hem and fastened with brass buttons. Stout boots, also caked in dried mud, covered his calves. He wore no hat, allowing his hair, dark and lank, to tumble down onto the raised collar of his coat. His only possession seemed to be a small canvas satchel slung carelessly over one shoulder. A traveller, the priest decided, with few belongings and little wealth. No means either, he noted, of making a living. No journeyman’s tools, no trader’s mules. A man in search of charity then. The priest tapped the gate with his staff.
‘Open up,’ he said to the watchman. ‘I shall send this beggar on his way.’
The watchman lifted the bar from the gate and the priest stepped through. If the stranger had seen him he gave no acknowledgement of having done so, not even when the priest was standing directly over him.
‘Did you not hear the watchman? There is plague here. Be off with you.’
The stranger glanced up, revealing emerald green eyes, sharp and alert. The type of eyes, the priest noted, that missed nothing and for a brief moment felt himself under examination. When the stranger spoke it was with the accent of a foreigner he could not place.
‘The plague you say? Well then, all the more reason for me to stay,’ he said.
The priest, impatient to return to the warmth of his bed, advanced a step closer, slowly brandishing his staff. ‘We have no time for beggars and vagrants I say. Now go before I strike you.’
The stranger remained unmoved. ‘Strike if you must,’ he said. ‘But strike well for I have done my share of soldiering and your blow may be your last.’
The priest’s eyes widened. “You dare threaten a priest,’ he said, voice raised in anger. He lifted his staff high, intent on cracking the stranger’s skull but before he could do so the stranger rose in a single fluid movement and with an outstretched hand grabbed the priest’s raised arm and twisted it such that the priest was thrown to the ground.
Ignoring the holy man’s cries of pain, the stranger called out to the watchman at the gate. ‘Go tell your masters there is an apothecary at their door and if they have plague in this town they have need of my services.’
‘An apothecary?’ the priest scoffed, still lying where he fell. ‘We have no need of your potions and magic. God will save us if it is his will.’
‘And if it is not his will?’ the apothecary said and began walking towards the town gates without waiting for a reply. ‘Stick to your preaching, priest and I shall stick to healing the sick,’ he called over his shoulder.