London, 4 November 1672
She leaves her house on Portsmouth Street carrying a wood box with a smooth ivory handle and tarnished brass fittings. It is late afternoon in early November. The street is deserted and cold, and the sunless ground has sprouted scaly patches of hoarfrost; with each step her pattens crack the thin ice to sink into the mud beneath. At the top of Birch Lane she hoists the box to gain a firmer hold it is heavy, and she is slight and the constant dull ache behind her eyes becomes a throbbing pain. She has learnt, to her dismay, that the least occurrence can precipitate a headache: a sudden movement, a sound, even a sight as innocent as a bird's wings fluttering at the periphery of her vision. She considers setting the box down, unhitching its scarred metal latches, and searching its neatly arranged collection of bottles and vials until she finds the one that she desires. It is late, however, and she is in a hurry. She continues walking. The small streets she passes through are little traveled; she encounters only a few others who, like herself, appear anxious to reach their destination. Hers is an alley near Covent Garden, and the dilapidated attic room of a house that was once grand. As she crosses Middlebury Street, her breath appears as puffs of white vapor that linger long after she has gone.
When she reaches the Strand she stops, confronted by a street teeming with people, horses, sheep, and snorting, mud-caked pigs rooting in the gutter. The autumn evening is brief and precious, a time for gathering the last necessaries before going home, and the shops and street vendors are briskly busy. The air is blue with coal smoke, rich with the aromas of roasted meat and onions. Underneath is the ever-present odor of the sewer, a narrow, open gutter in the center of the road, where the pigs scavenge. The morning's storm washed away some of the sewage, but the gutters of London are never completely clean. In between the gnawed bones and bits of offal are orphaned puddles of rainwater that shine like mirrors, reflecting nothing but overcast sky.
She pushes back the hood of her cloak; long locks of unruly dark hair break free. In the crush of scurrying people, the limpid brightness of the paned shop windows, the copper lanterns haloed against the darkening firmament, she senses a feeling of contentment tantalizingly within reach. All Hallows' Eve has just passed. This is her favorite season, or once was. In the chilled gray hour before the November night descends she has always felt a kind of magic. When she was younger she imagined that this feeling was love, or the possibility of love. Now she recognizes it for what it truly is: longing and emptiness.
"Mrs. Devlin." A voice rises above the street noise. "Mrs. Devlin? Is that you?"
"Yes," she replies, recognizing the short, ruddy-faced woman in a cotton bonnet and a thick apron, who pushes through the crowd to reach her. She remembers that the woman is a goodwife to a Navy secretary, remembers that she lives with her husband in St. Giles near the sign of the Ax and Anvil, remembers that the woman's mother had suffered an apoplexy and then a fever. It takes her a moment longer to remember the woman's name. "Mrs. Underhill," she finally says, nodding.
"We never properly thanked you, Mrs. Devlin," Mrs. Underhill says as her flushed face gets even rosier, "seeing as we couldn't pay you."
"Do not trouble yourself. You owe me nothing."
"You're very kind," the goodwife says with a small curtsy and bob of her head. "I tell everyone how good your physick is. My mother's last days were more easy because of you."
She remembers Mrs. Underhill's mother. By the time she was summoned, the elderly woman was as frail as a sparrow, unable to speak, and barely able to move. More than a year has passed, but she suddenly recalls holding the woman's emaciated body as if it were only moments ago. "I'm sorry I could not save her."
"She'd lived a long life, Mrs. Devlin. She was in God's hands, not yours." Mrs. Underhill's words carry a gentle admonishment.
"Of course," she says, closing her eyes for a moment. The pain in her head has grown stronger.
"Are you all right?" Mrs. Underhill asks.
She looks into the goodwife's eyes. They are clear, green, ageless. She briefly considers telling her about the headaches and the sleeplessness. Mrs. Underhill would understand.
"I'm fine," she says.
"That's a funny one, isn't it?" Mrs. Underhill smiles, relieved to be unburdened of the thought that a physician could take ill. "Me asking after a doctor's health. And you with a whole case full of physick," she adds, looking at the wood box. "I suppose you of anyone would know what medicines to take." She peers across the Strand at one of the street vendors. "Pardon my hurry, but I should be on my way. The master must have his oyster supper every Friday."
They take their leave of each other. As she departs the Strand for Covent Garden, a wintry, soot-filled wind strikes her face. The sky is darker now, and the sense of tranquility she momentarily felt has disappeared, as if it never existed. Inside her head, a bouquet of sharp metal flowers takes root and blossoms. The headache is here to stay, for hours, perhaps days. The medicine case bumps hard against her leg. Many times she has thought of purchasing a smaller, lighter one, but she has not done it. She would never admit it, but she believes that the box itself has healing power. She is aware that this is a superstition with no basis in fact; indeed, she has ample evidence to the contrary. The boy she is on her way to see, a seventeen-year-old apprentice stricken with smallpox, will most likely die before the night is over. For days she has followed Dr. Sydenham's protocol, providing cool, moist medicines where others prescribe hot and dry. The physician's radical new method seems to offer a slightly improved chance of a cure, but she knows that only a miracle will save her patient now, and she has long since stopped believing in miracles. The most she can do is ease the boy's suffering. Ease suffering. So she was instructed, but it hardly seems enough. Just once, she would like to place her hand on a fevered cheek and feel it cool, to cradle an infant dying of dysentery and stop its fatal convulsions, to administer medicines that cure rather than placate disease. To heal with her hands, her knowledge, and her empathy. Even a small miracle, she believes, would redeem her.
When she looks up from her ruminations she sees that night has fallen. A coach has stopped at the end of the lane. The bald coachman pulls on the reins, his back still arched, as if he has just brought the horses to a halt. She slows her pace. Something about the coach bothers her, though there's no precise reason for her concern; it's only a common hackney. The door creaks open and a man steps down to the street. He's dressed like a person of quality, but his stance and beefy body are more suited to a tavern brawler. His gaze is so direct it feels both intimate and threatening, as if he knows her and has a personal grievance with her. She is certain she has never seen him before.
She's close enough that he hardly needs to raise his voice when he speaks. "Mrs. Hannah Devlin, daughter of Dr. Briscoe?" he demands. His voice is hard, without finesse, and her first impression is confirmed: he's a brute in expensive clothes. She braces herself, her right hand dipping toward her skirt pocket and the knife concealed there, a weapon she wields with more than ordinary skill. Before her fingers reach the knife she is seized from behind. The ruffian's accomplice wraps his thick arms around her waist and lifts her off the ground so effortlessly that she doesn't have time to think about the strangeness of it all. The first man grabs the medicine case from her and shoves it inside the coach, while the other immediately hoists Hannah through the door after it. She lands on the hard seat facing the back, knocked out of breath. Even if she was able to speak, being confronted with the person who calmly sits across from her would have shocked her into momentary silence.
"Mrs. Devlin," he says. It's both a greeting and a chastisement.
She regards him warily. Lord Arlington, secretary of state, is the king's most trusted minister and the most powerful man in England, after the king. His periwig has more gray in it than she remembers, but his self-important air and the black bandage across his nose, which covers a scar won fighting for Charles I, are the same as ever.
"You carry your father's medicine cabinet," he comments dryly. "How sweet."
Arlington was once a friend of her father's, but that was years ago, before they became enemies. He raps his gold-tipped walking stick on the ceiling and the coach lurches forward.
"Where are you taking me?" Hannah asks.
"To Newgate," he replies, settling back. "You're under arrest."
Copyright © 2009 by Christi Phillips