In the time of pestis secunda, Alejandro Canches knew too well the dread that came with a sharp knock, so he tapped gently on the door of William and Emily Cooper. Emily opened it, her eyes red and wet.
She nodded gravely and tucked a stray strand of hair into her white cap. “I have sat with him all night,” she said when she saw the physician on her doorstep. “He struggles, but he holds on. Come in, see for yourself.”
“His resistance is remarkable,” Alejandro said as he entered. William Cooper had long since traversed the threshold over which one passes to reach the death stage of plague, but he was clinging ferociously to the last few bits of his life.
The woman led him by candlelight to the bedside. The cooper’s face was all Alejandro could see; everything else was covered. The sweat that his wife had so dutifully wiped away during the night had accumulated anew in her brief absence, and in the candlelight, the sheen of fever was visible on Cooper’s forehead. The man’s eyes were closed and did not open, even on hearing a voice.
Alejandro covered his nose against the putrid plague smell and put his head to the man’s chest. The heartbeat, though faint, was still surprisingly steady. He palpated the swellings in the man’s neck and armpits with his fingers. Though he was gentle, Cooper moaned in pain.
“Sorry,” Alejandro whispered. “I did not mean to cause you pain.”
First do no harm, he reminded himself. The swellings were firm, but no more so than they had been upon his last examination two days prior. The dark blue coloration seemed virtually the same.
“A fortnight,” the physician said to Emily as he stepped back. “It is beyond my ken. You have done a fine job in caring for him.”
“It cannot be the result of my efforts,” she said. “I do nothing more than wipe the sweat from his brow.”
Alejandro dipped his hands in the bowl of water that Emily had brought and dried them on the towel that hung over her forearm. It had become a practiced ritual between them over the course of William’s illness, only this time she refrained from commenting on his obsession with hand-washing.
“And there is nothing more that can be done. It is in God’s realm now.” He did not add what seemed obvious to him–that Cooper’s fate had belonged to God for some time. “That he has lived so long in this suspended state seems almost an aberration of nature.”
But years of rendering medicine had shown him many such oddities, and he had come–over time–to the conclusion that such aberrations might often be part of the divine scheme. He wondered what Guy de Chauliac might say to that notion and wished, for the thousandth time, for an opportunity to discuss it with his friend and mentor.
As he went to leave, the woman took him by the arm and said, “My husband has said we ought to pay you.”
He had never asked her for money; he knew they had barely enough to get by. “No,” he said, “I will not accept payment. I lack for nothing. But please–tell me one thing. In all the time I have known you both, we have never spoken of why it is that your husband chose to bring you here to live among the Jews, when as Christians, all the rest of Avignon is available to you. I would know the reason.”
She hesitated briefly, as if judging his trustworthiness. Finally she said, “We had to leave our village, a place called Eyam, at the foot of the Peaks. It bordered on one of the king’s favorite hunting reserves.” She wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. “It was a very hard winter;we were cold and hungry.”
Alejandro saw de Chauliac at his door in the desperate winter of 1357 and shuddered without realizing it as the memory of the biting cold and their desperate hunger overtook him. He recalled in his mind the bitter words he had said to the Frenchman that day:
You are not wanted here.
No, de Chauliac had replied, but I am needed. The food he brought from Paris saved their lives.
“The gamekeepers caught my husband hunting,” he now heard Emily Cooper say. “They said he was within the boundaries of the reserve, but he was outside, he swears it! It didn’t matter; the king would have ordered him hanged him anyway.”
Alejandro eyed her curiously. “But–he did not.”
“No. He was robbed of the opportunity. Our son went to rescue Will; they had only put my husband in a pen, not within the irons. One of the guards was drunk, so the boy managed to free him.”
“A brave and worthy son,” he said.
“Aye,” the woman said sadly. “A lost son.” She pulled up the corner of her apron and wiped her eyes again, one after the other, then looked at the physician. “The warder awakened and put an arrow in him as he climbed over the wall behind his father.”
He lowered his gaze respectfully. “I am truly sorry.”
Emily nodded her acknowledgment of his sympathy and returned to her husband’s side. She wiped his brow with the wet corner of her apron, then sat down on a chair at the bedside. A hard and distant look came over her–an expression Alejandro had never seen her wear before. She cast one last look in his direction, and the physician felt an unspoken accusation.
For a few moments, he considered giving the cooper’s wife some of his own gold, but he did not wish to embarrass her. It was best simply to depart.
“My lord,” the page said, bowing deeply to the king.
“Ah, Chaucer. Always so prompt. I trust your lord Lionel can spare you for a moment.”
As if there could be any question of it. “Yes, sire. He and Lady Elizabeth are taking some air.”
“Good. ’Tis a fine day for air. My own scribe is occupied at the moment with other matters, and I have need of some transcription.”
Meaning, Chaucer knew, that the scribe had taken a bit too much of the drink again and could not be trusted for accuracy. He had corrected many of the man’s mistakes of late; most might have been considered amusing had they not involved affairs of state.
“Of course, sire,” the young man answered. “I shall be honored.”
King Edward III gestured toward a corner of the chamber. “You will find what you need there, in the secretary.”
As Geoffrey Chaucer gathered pen and parchment from the marble-topped desk, the king added, “I trust that you will keep this correspondence in strictest confidence. My son speaks very highly of your discretion. Now, please–these are letters critical to our welfare–record my words precisely.”
He cleared his throat and began to speak. “Your Holiness,” he began. A long and flowery greeting followed; Chaucer silently mouthed it in unison with the king, for he had written it many times.
And then the king got to the heart of the matter:
We are pleased to announce that our beloved daughter Isabella has agreed–of course, pending your approval–to accept a proposal of marriage from the Baron Enguerrand de Coucy. We ask your permission to call the banns for their nuptials at the earliest possible date.
Chaucer nearly dropped the pen. He fumbled to regain it and had to examine the page to see if there were any accidental markings. He saw none, so he scribbled furiously to catch up.
At the same time, I wish to ask a great personal favor of you. I have a child, a daughter, born of a woman who once served my cherished queen. I wish to acknowledge her as my own progeny and to accept her into my household as a princess of England. I confess my sins and humbly ask your intercession with God in heaven that I may be forgiven, not only for my depraved act of adultery but as well for my failure to embrace this daughter properly before now. Surely this is a sin as grievous as that which resulted in her conception.
The king paused, as if he were considering what to say next. He looked at the young page and said, “What say you, Chaucer–you are clever with words. Do I convey a proper sentiment, not too bold, but not too humble?”
Chaucer could barely speak. “Regarding the princess Isabella and the Baron de Coucy . . . you speak your intent plainly, yet you allow the pontiff room to make you sweat a bit. Very wise.”
The monarch smiled. “I thought so myself.”
“But may I be so brazen as to ask, sire, is the child you refer to the lady Kate?”
The king eyed him with some suspicion. “You may, and my answer is yes.”
“Oh, then, undoubtedly, sire, your sentiments are proper. Heartfelt, but yet not too honeyed. You make your request respectfully, but you do not grovel before the pope, which in view of your personal majesty would of course be inna–”
“Thank you, Chaucer.” The king cleared his throat and continued.
I wish for this daughter to be wed also. She is once married but is now a widow, so we need not burden you with concerns over an annulment. Her fecundity has already been demonstrated. In view of this and other valuable qualities she possesses, we are currently discussing a suitable arrangement with a prominent French family allied to de Coucy. As always, we remember that such arrangements are made pending your approval and blessing. My queen, despite her knowledge of my sin, has graciously agreed that this is the proper course.
There was more; Chaucer scribbled, trying hard not to let the shock of the news distract him. It was only with the greatest of effort that he contained himself. At last, the disquiet was unmasked! For weeks the atmosphere at Windsor Castle had been strained and stiff, and Chaucer had begun to wonder if a life of service to the royals was a wise choice. On occasion, the king and queen, normally an affectionate pair, had even been seen behaving in a most belligerent manner toward each other. There was much speculation among the servants and attendants that the queen had discovered the liaison between the king and his most recent mistress, her lady Alice, and was wreaking her havoc on both, just as she had brought misery to the lady who had been Kate’s mother. But everyone thought surely she must know already–the king had made no great effort to conceal his admiration for the younger woman. All were agreed–it must be something more.
A great deal more, now that it was revealed! Chaucer recorded the other small matters that the king presented to the pope, though he could barely pay attention. When he was done, he handed the scroll to King Edward, who quickly read it through, then scribbled his signature.
The monarch held open his palm. “Wax,” he said.
The young man hurried to the secretary, fumbled around until he found the wax, and came back. The king folded the parchment in thirds and used a candle to melt the red wax onto it, then affixed his seal. He allowed a moment for cooling, then picked up the message and gave it an exaggerated kiss.
“For luck!” he said. “Let’s hope for the best this time, eh, Master Chaucer?”
“Indeed, sire. One always does.” He bowed his way out of the room, then ran off.
The young woman who was the subject of the king’s request had nearly heaved out her innards on the channel crossing when the soldiers of the king brought her from France, seven years before. Chaucer, himself also only seventeen at the time and newly ransomed from the French, had watched her with pity as the boat tossed in the waves of the cold sea. She wore chains of a common criminal on her legs, and it pained him to see the blood that dripped down her ankles and over her shoes. No one had offered her any sort of comfort, though she was mightily in need of it. He would have gone to her himself, had he not understood that this journey was part of her punishment.
Punishment for what, he had wondered at the time; she was brave and intelligent, a great beauty, and she had lived her life with far more grace than seemed possible under the circumstances. At seventeen, Katherine Karle was already a widow, and barely healed from the strain of a difficult birth–could the gods be more heartless?
Indeed they can, he thought. She had not seen her son since the day he was born. Moreover, he considered the words he had just written on behalf of the king.
Specifically, the Baron de Coucy has asked that the alliance between our families be cemented further by a union between his cousin the Baron de Benoit and an “Englishwoman of prominence,” by which I take to mean a member of our near family. What nearer kin than my own child? You know, Holiness, of the difficulties we have had in arranging a truly suitable marriage for our spirited Isabella; I will spare you a recounting of her delicacies herein, as I am sure they have reached your ears on other lips. I am loath to allow the match between Isabella and de Coucy to be damaged by a failure regarding his cousin, for whom he seems to hold an uncannily deep affection.
De Coucy’s cousin Benoit was a sniveling, hairy coward who overcame his many shortcomings with beastly rages when things did not go his way. That the king should settle the wondrous Kate upon him seemed an entirely unholy thing. But he has run short of grown daughters, Chaucer realized. He has to conjure up another one somehow, to seal the arrangement for Isabella. The queen was all dried up; Alice Perrer’s children by the king were mere babies. Joanna was long dead, carried off in the first visitation of plague, in the year of 1348, after the Battle of Crécy.
Hope for the best, indeed! The spoiled and insolent Isabella was thirty and three, a princess, and yet after five attempts at a match, she remained a spinster; it was unnatural.
But not nearly as unnatural, Chaucer thought, as the events that were about to befall her half sister.
Emily Cooper pulled the linens off the straw on her husband’s pallet and bundled them into a ball, then threw them into the hearth as the physician had instructed her to do. One blanket she kept; she would need it for herself. They’d come for the cooper’s corpse not an hour before, in their hawkish beaks and dark hoods.
“Don’t be thinking those things will protect you,” she told the men as they carted her dead husband out the door. She followed them out to the street, the better to continue her warnings. “I’ve seen many a muler go down to the pest, and they fairly wrapped themselves in shrouds to keep it at bay!”
The hooded drovers did not respond, for neither understood English. Finally, when the cart was once again covered with the cloth that shielded the dead from the horrified eyes of the living, one of them shuffled back to her and said, in the detested French she barely understood, “C’est votre mari qui est morte, non?”
“Eh?” she said, wishing he would speak to her in English.
“Widow,” the man said, having found one word.
“Yes.” She nodded.
“Allez à la palace toute de suite,” he said. “Il sera un pension pour vous.”
He inclined his head slightly, then turned and mounted the driver’s seat.
Pension, she understood. And palace.
The widow wasted no time in doing as he advised, for when she counted the coins remaining in her husband’s purse, she found it was a dismayingly small number. She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and headed out of the ghetto toward the pope’s majestic abode, in search of mercy.
Avignon’s narrow streets put her to mind of London; she’d been there once with her husband to visit his sister, who’d married a manservant to one of the king’s distant cousins and now cooked in a fine house. The recollection brought a stab of jealousy, for the sister lived her life on stone floors, not the hard-packed dirt of Eyam. Still, Eyam was home, and she missed it keenly.
“Pension,” she said to the guard who stood at the gate of the papal palace. The tall white towers of the ornate castle loomed up behind the guard, making him look terribly small in his red mantle. The man grunted and pointed her to the right. She pulled her shawl tighter and began to walk around the palace perimeter. White gravel crunched under her steps; the sound distracted her, until it was overshadowed by the clop-clop of hooves on cobblestones. She looked up to see a party of couriers riding into the palace courtyard, under the banner of King Edward.
She tucked herself into a shadow and watched for a few moments, then realized the silliness of it and stepped back into the warmth of the sun. As if after all these years they should waste their time looking for her! They were a comely group, all decked out in their armor on fine strong horses, and she began to think with longing of England, of the familiarity of the people and the ease with which she could understand them.
No one there would know her as the wife of a poacher–she would be just another invisible old woman in need of alms, completely unworthy of notice. Her heart began to ache with homesickness. The passage across la Manche was dear and dangerous, but there was nothing for her in Avignon, or in all of France, for that matter. She had no relatives, and her only possible ally was the Jew physician, himself also a fugitive from English justice–
A terrible thought entered her mind as the English party paraded past in all their splendor: How much might they pay for a few choice words about him?
Certainly it would be enough for passage and a new start.
No, she chided herself, it would be an unholy betrayal of a good man.
But was he, after all, good? Her husband had died, despite the physician’s attentions. He was hiding a child, a little boy with blond hair and blue eyes, whose mother was some sort of English noblewoman, even perhaps royal. It was her duty, she decided, to report him. She was still an Englishwoman. And her survival was at stake. She picked up the pace of her steps and followed the traveling party. Just before she reached them, she crossed herself and whispered a prayer for forgiveness.
Alejandro heard the midnight knock through a dream; he was crashing through dark woods with vague ogres in pursuit–an all-too-common occurrence–when the banging brought him abruptly to his mind’s surface. He opened his eyes but saw nothing through the darkness.
He had heard nothing from the cooper’s wife in several days and wondered immediately if the man’s time had finally come. He rose from the narrow bed and wiped his hand over his beard. He tucked his long dark hair behind his ears and set his feet on the hard-packed floor of the room he shared with the boy Guillaume, who in the innocence of childhood had slept soundly through the knock. His knees ached, if only for the briefest time–a harbinger, he feared, of what was to come as he aged.
But he would accept it all with gratitude and offered up a quick prayer that he would live long enough to experience every misery that age could inflict, if only he could see once again the girl he called daughter. Girl indeed! By now she was a young woman. He allowed himself a few seconds of missing this young woman who had, in the agony of bereavement, given life to this child seven years before. She was as precious to him as any daughter who might have sprung from his own loins–of which there were, sadly, none.
The deep ache in his heart made that ache which he felt in his knees seem trivial. He chided himself, for if missing a person could evoke proximity, the young woman would now be in his household where she truly belonged, not among those whose blood she happened to share, through some monumental error on the part of God.
Forgive me, he prayed. I mean no disrespect in pointing out Your oversights. “But why is it,” he said in his quietest voice, “that such knocks as these come only in the unholiest of hours, when one cannot help but imagine some foul demon on the other side of the planks?”
The ill-defined dread he felt was all imagination; beyond the door would be a small, tired Englishwoman. He ducked through a low passageway, and before he could stand fully, the knock came again.
He stood slowly and stared at the door. The firm pounding he heard could not have been made by the frail fist of a sorrowful old woman but by someone with much more strength of hand. And, judging by the rapidity and force, a good deal more urgency.
He tiptoed the rest of the way to the door and positioned himself to one side. “Never stand directly in the center of a door,” Eduardo Hernandez had once told him. “A decent sword well thrust can come right through the boards. Imagine,” the old soldier warned, “what a fine sword in the hands of a master might do to your gut. Even you with all your skills will be helpless.”
But who else would come with dawn still hours hence? Strangers rarely traveled through this quarter of the city during daylight, let alone at night. He peered with one squinted eye through a crack along the edge of the door, hoping for a glimpse of the caller, but it was impossible to see anything in the darkness.
“Who knocks?” he said finally.
“I seek the physician Canches” came the reply.
Had they found him? His heart threatened to thump out of his chest. “One moment,” he said. The words came out far more timidly than he would have liked. He cleared his throat, then added, “I’ll see if he can be awakened.”
He barely heard the grunted response on the other side of the door; he rushed into the bedroom and shook the boy urgently.
“Guillaume,” he whispered. “Guillaume! You must wake up!”
The boy rubbed his eyes as he came awake. “But why, Grand-père–”
“Ask no questions now.” His own voice sounded sharp, even to himself, and he tried to soften it. “Just make ready as I have showed you before–we may need to leave quickly.”
As if he had not understood, the boy said, “But, Grand-père, where are we–”
“Shhh! Now hurry.”
“Yes, Grand-père.” He threw off his coverlet and stood up, wavering sleepily as he rose.
Alejandro steadied him. “Good boy,” he said. “Now listen carefully. Watch from right here.” He pointed to a spot just inside the room. “If I make the signal we have practiced, you must run out the back door and go to Rachel’s house. She will take care of you until I can come to get you.”
On one of the many occasions when they had practiced for this dreaded event, Guillaume had tearfully asked, “What if you do not come to get me?” Alejandro had not answered. He had never considered the possibility that he might not be able to do so.
The boy nodded solemnly. Alejandro gave him a reassuring touch on the cheek and slunk back to the door. He took in a long breath before turning the wood latch.
The door was not shoved inward on the turning of the latch, which would certainly have been the case if King Edward’s men were on the other side. When the creak of the hinges stopped, the physician saw a youngish man with a familiar crest emblazoned on the front of his red mantle. He slowly let out the breath he had been holding.
“You are de Chauliac’s man.”
He received a nod in return.
“I am Canches.”
The soldier looked relieved to hear that. “My master says you must come to the palace.” He held out a sealed scroll. “I am not to return without you.”
On taking the scroll from the soldier’s hand, Alejandro said, “He might have requested my presence at a more reasonable hour.”
As the physician read what was written, the soldier said, “You are to come immediately. My master says you are to bring the boy with you.”
Alejandro stepped back as he considered the contents of the message. He and de Chauliac had discussed and planned for an urgent situation through secret letters over the years, but now that a crisis seemed to be upon him, he felt ill-prepared. “How much time is there?” he asked quietly.
“He only said immediately.”
After a few seconds’ pause, Alejandro took the man by the arm and drew him inside. “I must see to two matters before we leave,” he said.
“But already I have horses waiting at the end of the street,” the soldier protested.
“Bring them here and through the house,” the physician whispered. “There is a narrow alley behind us where no one will see.”
The soldier looked surprised but dutifully turned and went back down the dark street. Alejandro left the door slightly ajar for his return. Then he went to the hearth and put the scroll into the embers. He fanned it with his hand for a few seconds until the parchment caught fire. He watched the wax seal melt as the flames consumed the message, written in de Chauliac’s own hand. He said to the small pile of ash, “Thank you, my dear, dear friend.”
“Father, wake up. We must leave immediately.”
On the best of days, Avram Canches took a very long time to awaken fully. On this night there would be no such luxury.
“Wake up!” Alejandro said as he shook him.
“What . . .” the old man said.
Alejandro helped his father to a sitting position. “I must take you to Rachel.”
On hearing this, the father’s face filled with fear. “Truly?” he said. “Yes, truly. And immediately.”
In his confused state, Avram Canches said, “Have you killed someone again, boy?”
“No,” Alejandro said gently. “Not of late.” He turned away and called for Guillaume. The child appeared in the room within seconds. He was fully dressed and carried a small satchel in his hand.
Alejandro would have smiled, had there been time for such a show of pride. But instead he simply nodded his approval and said, “Grand-grand-père’s things . . .” He pointed to a leather case in one corner of the room.
The boy hastened to gather up the old man’s belongings. The case was heavy and the child had to struggle, but he did what was required. Alejandro took hold of his father, nearly carrying him. Within seconds, the three were heading out a rear door, into the darkness of the small street that led to Rachel’s home just a few doors away. Behind them, the physician heard the sound of hooves stepping into the house and the protesting snorts of the confused horses.
Alejandro did not bother to knock on Rachel’s door; such formalities were not necessary with the widow who had been more of a mother to Guillaume than the physician had any right to expect. The boy ran in and out of her house at will, as if it were his own home. On the night of their arrival in Avignon seven years earlier, she had taken Guillaume out of Alejandro’s arms and, without so much as one question, put the fair-haired baby to her breast. The milk that would have gone to her own darker child still flowed; she had lost both that child and her husband to plague only days before. Since then, Alejandro’s generosity had kept food on her table, but Guillaume’s need for her had been far more nourishing.
As she came into the kitchen she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders. Her feet were bare below the white nightdress, and her long dark hair hung loose around her shoulders. For a few precious seconds, he stared at her.
His father was right. She was a beautiful woman.
But urgency reclaimed his attention. “We must go,” he said to her.
Rachel nodded sadly; she needed no additional explanation. With a look of terrible unhappiness, she reached out to Alejandro’s father. “Come, Avram,” she said softly. “I will take you to the bed.”
She supported Alejandro’s ancient father with great tenderness as he walked unsteadily beside her. Guillaume followed with the bag of possessions. It took a moment for her to settle Avram comfortably into her own bed. Alejandro heard her reassure the old man that she would arrange for his own familiar bed to be brought over on the morrow and that she would sleep by the hearth tonight. He heard the soft rustling as she arranged the covers over Avram. Alejandro looked into the room and saw the heartbreaking confusion on his father’s face.
Rachel came out of the room. Alejandro took her by the arm and pulled her aside.
For a few moments their eyes were locked together; neither one said a word. They had been thrown together by fate and had passed more than seven years in a strange sort of intimacy, as comfortable as that which passed between many husbands and wives, perhaps more so. Yet Alejandro had not allowed himself to slip too close to her, for fear that he might one day be forced to leave.
Now that day had come.
“I–I cannot thank you properly. You have been like a daughter to my father.”
He saw the sad accusation on her face. But not a daughter-in-law.
“I will return as soon as I can.” He took hold of her hand and pressed a bag of coins into it. “As long as my father lives, you shall never want, if it is within my power to see you comfortable.”
She looked away; he knew her heart was breaking.
“Please,” she whispered, “can we not go with you?”
A moment passed; she added, “For your father’s sake.”
“No,” Alejandro said gently.
Her expression turned bitter. “You had best say your good-byes to him, then. God may take him at any moment.”
Alejandro said nothing. He left her and went to his father again. He sat down on the straw and tucked the blanket up around the old man’s neck.
“I will return as soon as I can, Father.”
The response was barely audible. “God willing.”
“Yes. Rachel will care for you while we are gone.”
Avram looked into his son’s eyes. He managed the faintest smile. “She is a good woman. She would make a good wife. You should think about this before it is too late. By the time you come back, you may be so old that she will no longer want you.”
The gentle humor of his father’s chiding was bittersweet; both of them knew that his return was far from assured.
Alejandro patted his father’s hand and said, “You have always given me good advice.”
“You have never taken it.”
It was true; he had studied medicine against his parents’ wishes, far away from their native Spain, and–to his father’s complete horror–had never married.
“Well, there is time yet,” he said with a smile.
Alejandro leaned over and placed a kiss on his father’s forehead. As he rose up to leave, the old man turned away.
From the Hardcover edition.