I was washing alembics when he came. Often, in the months and years that followed, I wondered how things might have turned out, had I been away from home. My father had been summoned to one of his private patients and I had pleaded to go with him to the great man’s house, for I had never even stepped over the threshold of the mansion in the Strand, but the winter had been severe, we were short of many remedies, and I must stay at home and wash the alembics so that we might spend the evening distilling. I did not like being alone in the house, with the dark afternoon heavy in the sky outside, and chill draughts plucking at the back of my neck like the unforgiving fingers of the dead. The old timbers of the house swayed and creaked and moaned in the wind.
My father entrusted the delicate glass vessels, so costly to replace, to no one but me. His own hands had grown unsteady with age and our maid Joan could shatter an earthenware pitcher on the far side of the room merely by looking at it. So I had heated water over the fire until it was hot to the touch, but bearable, and poured it into the big basin which was used only for the instruments of our profession. From a pot on the windowsill I scooped out half a handful of the grey soap, the consistency of soft cheese, and stirred it into the steaming water.
It was cold in the kitchen, and for a moment I closed my eyes and enjoyed the warmth soothing my hands and the smell of the lavender and rosemary oils I mixed with the soap. Then I lowered the first alembic into the water and wiped it over with a rag, dipping and pouring until the tubes and nozzles were clean. Rinsed free of soap (for no foreign body must contaminate our remedies), it stood draining on the wooden table while I picked up the next one.
The row of four was drying on the table as I lifted the heavy basin across to where my father had contrived a drain to run out through the wall and empty into the street outside. The sudden rush of water sometimes gave passers-by a soaking. It was just as I poured the water away that I heard the running footsteps approaching our door. I glanced around fearfully. Joan was away at the market and my father would not return for an hour or more. There was nowhere to hide. The water pouring out of the house would have given away my presence. And I had lit a candle, the better to see my work, even though it was not yet dark outside. The room was illuminated like a play at one of the indoor playhouses, the candlelight reflected off the glass vessels, gleaming warmly on the dark oak of table and benches, chest and cupboard. I had no time to retreat to the inner parlour.
We do not readily open our doors to strangers, the people of my nation.
I saw a blur as someone ran past the window, then he was pounding on the door and crying out something incoherent.
So I must answer. On such trivial matters may a life turn, to follow a new road – to heaven or hell? Who knows? All I knew at the time was that I did not want to answer, and I wished my father were there.
When I opened the door, the boy blew in on a gust of bitter January air, bringing with him the blood-stench of Smithfield market round the corner and the piteous cries of the beasts awaiting slaughter in the Shambles. I had to lean my shoulder against the door to close it, for it was a poor thing of nailed boards that bellied in the wind like a ship’s sail. All the while I struggled with it, he was doubled up, gasping, his hand pressed against his side.
‘Poison!’ he cried at last.
I looked him up and down. He was flushed with running, a boy about the same age and height as I, but with a breadth in the shoulder that foretold he would grow taller, while I would not.
‘You are not poisoned,’ I said brusquely. ‘You have run too far and overtaxed your strength.’
He shook his head angrily. ‘Not me, you fool! I am sent to fetch Dr Alvarez to the Marshalsea where a prisoner is taken ill. The keeper says it must be poison, for he is one of those taken up for the Romish faith and they will contrive all sorts of remedies against torture and execution, even poison.’
I let him wait, for I did not take kindly to being called a fool.
‘My father is not here,’ I said.
‘Then you must fetch him.’
‘He has gone with Dr Nuñez to attend on Lord Burghley. He is not to be fetched away from the Lord Treasurer to some traitorous prisoner in the Marshalsea.’
He straightened up at last and looked at me somewhat piteously. His face was delicate, almost feminine, white now, and exhausted.
‘Have you run all the way from the Marshalsea?’ I asked curiously, wondering why he should care enough to do so. ‘Do you work at the prison?’
‘No!’ He reddened. There was real anger and pride in his eyes. ‘I am a player, in Master Burbage’s company, the Earl of Leicester’s Men. But the keeper’s sister rents the boarding house where I lodge, and she has been good to me. There was no one else to send.’
I placed him now. He was one of those boy players who act the women’s parts until their beards sprout and their voices deepen. His voice was still light and sweet, now that he had regained his breath; he would serve their turn yet awhile. Stepping aside, I picked up my leather satchel from the chest against the wall and began filling it with boxes and phials from the cupboard hanging above. The wind cutting in below the door sliced through my ankles as viciously as though I wore no hose, so I buttoned on my doublet of plain padded fustian and caught up my cloak from a peg in the wall.
The boy stared at me. ‘What are you about?’
‘I will come in my father’s stead.’
‘You’re nothing but a boy!’
‘I have watched and helped my father since childhood,’ I said coldly. ‘I have been his assistant physician at the Hospital of St Bartholomew for two years now.’
‘You! How old are you?’
‘The same as I am. They won’t thank me for fetching a boy to do a physician’s work.’
I shrugged, standing there with my cloak round my shoulders and my satchel dangling from my hand.
‘Do you want my help or not?’
He gave me a troubled look and then sighed. ‘You’d best come.’
When I opened the door it tore itself from my hand and crashed against the wall, setting the bottles in the cupboard jingling together like the bells on a jester’s suit. More fool I, I thought, as I strained to pull it shut again, to set off walking halfway across London to a poisoned prisoner in the Marshalsea, with the winter dusk gathering and more snow on the way. The boy saw how the door strained against me and turned to help. Together we managed to pull it shut, and I locked it with the key I wore on my belt.
‘You lock your houses in Duck Lane?’ His tone held a touch of contempt, understandably, here where the butchery stench filled our lungs and straw stained with blood and animal dung blew about our knees.
‘Some of our medicines are dangerous in the wrong hands. They must be kept safe from curious fingers.’
We turned away and began to make our way towards the river, leaning against the wind, the boy urging me along, though I would not run on the icy streets – frozen mud at first, cobbles slippery as eels when we reached Cheapside.
‘What is your name?’ he asked, as we neared LondonBridge.
‘Christoval Alvarez.’ I did not ask his. We do not become intimate with strangers, we who are known as Strangers ourselves.
‘I am Simon Hetherington,’ he offered, as if wishing to make up for his earlier discourtesy. ‘You are Spanish?’
‘Ah.’ He slid his eyes sideways towards me. ‘A Portingall. I see.’
‘We are the best physicians in London,’ I said, unwisely, stung by his knowing tone. Then I ignored him.
Halfway across the Bridge he stopped suddenly, doubled up again with pain.
‘What ails you?’
‘I must have run too far, too fast. I feel as if someone were stabbing me in the guts with a knife.’
‘Perhaps you are poisoned too,’ I said unkindly. ‘Stop here, where there is a break in the houses. You can lean against the parapet. Where does it hurt?’
He did as he was told and pointed mutely at his right side, about the level of his waist. I took off my gloves and began to massage his side, reaching up under his doublet. After a while I felt the knotted muscles relax and heard him give a sigh of relief. Then I handed him a rolled pellet from my satchel.
‘What is this?’
‘Stitchwort. It will ease the pain, though it is better steeped in hot liquid.’
He eyed it for a moment, then put it in his mouth and swallowed it with a grimace.
‘For all your sharp tongue, you have a kind touch in those fine hands of yours, Christoval.’
I turned aside and hastily pulled on my gloves, then I leaned on the parapet beside him.
‘Most people call me Kit. Christoval is a name for feast days and ceremony.’
We were facing down river, where the Tower rose fearfully on the left, behind the tangled masts and spars of great sea-going ships jostling for anchor room near the legal quays and the Customs House, where I sometimes went on errands for Dr Nuñez or Dr Lopez or my father, who all had an interest in the Portuguese spice trade as well as in medicine. There must have been fifty or sixty ships moored, even at this winter season. One high-pooped merchantman was just setting out on the evening tide, heading towards Gravesend and the open sea. Would she be making for my homeland? Or perhaps for the Low Countries, where our people had relatives living in Antwerp and Amsterdam? On the south side of the river, clustered fishing boats made towards the Deptford shipyards to unload their catch for the royal household at Greenwich. Against the slate sky, the ravening gulls sliced down towards the boats like white scimitars, their wings catching the last of the light from up river, so that they swung from dove grey to silver to white, and as the sun bled down below Westminster the scimitars were encarnadined as if with blood. I shivered. It seemed a bad omen.
We trudged on over the Bridge and under the rotting heads that decorated the spikes over the Great Stone Gateway. When we had first arrived in London, four years before, I refused to pass that fearsome place alone. I used to dream repeatedly that one of the heads toppled off and fell on me. I would wake screaming, sweating with fear, until my father held me and crooned me into quietness. Now I never looked up, but I will not say that I was unaware of them.
A short way along Bankside, near the church of St George, we came to the Marshalsea, a towering grey wall surrounding it, crowned with iron thorns, blackened with London’s sooty smoke, and somehow greasy, oozing a foul stench and dirt of its own, like some diseased and rotting body past hope of any cure. Hell in Epitome, it was called. I had never been inside, but Simon knocked confidently on a low-browed door in a kind of lodge bulging out from one of the corner towers like a carbuncle. He exchanged a few words with someone inside, and we were beckoned in.
It had been growing darker outside, but across the barren yard and within the arch of the prison doorway itself the darkness felt tangible, like a bag over the head, pressing against my face and robbing my lungs of air. I stopped. My palms were sweating. My feet refused to move forward over that fearful threshold. There was a stench of urine and faeces and rot and mould and sickness and despair. Outside, the prison had loomed up as a silent presence in this area of gaiety and entertainment. For all around were the noisy brothels and alehouses and bear-gardens, the shouts at the cock-fighting and laughter at the playhouses, while the Marshalsea stood frozen in its formidable silence. Once inside the thick walls, however, we could hear the real voice of the Marshalsea.
Simon tugged impatiently at my elbow as the keeper (for I supposed that was what he was) emerged from his cubbyhole, and I stumbled inside. The narrow corridors along which we hurried boomed with a continuous moaning, like the wind over the stormy sea when our ship was crossing the Bay of Biscay. From behind the thick stone walls and the implacable oaken doors, the cries and prayers lost all meaning, blending together in that terrible wail of human misery. It is our calling to minister to all who need us, even the poor and impotent, but I would have been glad, at that moment, to have fled almost anywhere else, except back to Portugal.
The keeper led the way with a rusty candle-lamp and at length began to ascend some stone stairs, so dipped at the centre that they showed the footsteps of centuries. Simon hurried to keep up, while I trailed reluctantly behind. After two flights of stairs, the corridor opened out, the doors were more widely spaced, and there were torches burning in sconces on the wall. This must be where the better class of prisoner was kept, those who could afford a room to themselves, furnished in some comfort, and who could send out for meals and wine. I should have realised. Simon would not have been sent running all the way across London, and beyond the city wall to Smithfield, for the sake of some poor wretched creature in the common crowded cells below.
At the end of the corridor a door stood wide, allowing light to spill out, overwhelming with its abundance the keeper’s poor lantern. He blew out the candle and ushered us into the room. It was only then that he looked me full in the face. At the same time the man in the bed, struggling up from his pillows, glared from the keeper to Simon, then fixed on me a look of scorn.
‘You were sent to fetch a physician, boy. Who is this?’
I ignored him and set down my satchel and gloves on a table strewn with the remains of a meal: a fine pewter plate smeared with rich gravy, a pile of oyster shells, a half-eaten bowl of some sticky pudding, from which cream dribbled on to the table, turning yellow as mustard as it soured. There were two nearly empty wine flagons of thick green glass, the kind in which only the finest quality of wine is sold. One drinking glass. And an untouched leather flask of small ale. I turned my back to the men, so that they could not see how my hands shook as I unfastened the buckles of my satchel. At least the door of the cell was left open, else I do not think I could have drawn breath.
‘This is a boy, not a physician.’
The man on the bed would have been handsome, had he not been sticky with fever and spattered with vomit. Perhaps in his thirties, with heavy rings on his fingers and the look of good living, even self-indulgence, in the smooth cheeks above the neatly trimmed beard. He had thrown aside his doublet and shoes, but otherwise was fully dressed. On the floor beside the bed was a basin of vomit, not much, thin and yellowish. I smelled it.
‘Lie back,’ I said, ‘and open your mouth.’
He was so surprised that he obeyed. I leaned forward, sniffed his breath and examined his tongue, then I untied the strings of his shirt and laid my ear against his chest. The rhythm of his heart was steady, showing no sign of distress, but there was a sheen of sweat on his skin. I was sweating myself, for there was a great fire heaped up on the hearth. How the poor fellows in the cellars would have welcomed a tenth of those coals! But in this private cell the heat was oppressive. I laid my cloak and doublet on a chair and rolled up my sleeves.
‘When were these oysters purchased?’ I pointed to the shells.
Nobody answered. I glowered at the keeper.
‘Do you want this man to die on your hands? When?’
‘Yesterday,’ he mumbled. ‘Or the day before. I cannot call to mind.’
‘And where were they kept?’
‘Here, in Master Poley’s room. Anywhere else and some thieving wretch would have made off with them.’
Master Poley, I noted. Indeed, not a common prisoner.
‘I need one of you to hold the basin for me.’
The keeper backed away. ‘I have my duties. Simon will help you.’
Simon opened his mouth, but the keeper was gone. I could hear his footsteps hurrying away down the corridor and wondered how I would find my way out of this hellish maze. Dear God, what if we should be trapped here?
‘Hold the basin ready,’ I said. ‘I’m preparing a vomitive.’
Simon looked as if he might be sick himself, but held the basin out at arm’s length, his face turned away.
‘Not like that! Lower down. Kneel by the side of the bed.’
The sick man watched me warily as I pounded the herbs for the vomitive in the small mortar I carry with me. It is best that the oils in the herbs be freshly released, not made up in advance. I warmed the last dribble from one of the wine flasks and poured it on to the herbs, then added some strong vinegar from a phial I carried, and oil of olives. The scent, bitter but cleansing, filled my nostrils, driving away the sickroom stench. I tipped the warm mixture into the wine glass and sat down on the bed, on the opposite side from Simon, and slid my arm under the man’s shoulders, lifting him into a sitting position.
‘Now, you must drink this, and in a few minutes you will vomit the contents of your stomach. You will not like it, but it is the quickest cure.’
He sniffed the liquid and his mouth curled in distaste.
‘What is it? How do I know you are not another poisoner?
I shrugged. ‘You will have to trust me.’
There was eupatorium cannabium in the mixture, root and bark of sambucus nigra (which are violently emetic and purgative), and root of viola tricolor, salvia officinalis to soothe his throat after the acid of his stomach was voided, and the calming matricaria recutita and mentha piperita. There were other, more precious things, but we do not give away the secrets of our healing potions.
‘There has been no poisoner here but yourself and that fool of a keeper,’ I said. ‘Oysters, kept for days in this heat! Are you mad? And over-indulgence in rich food and wine! You have no one to blame but yourself, Master Poley, whoever you may be.’
He gave me a searching look that I did not like, then he did as he was told and drank the mixture.
The next half hour was not pleasant. After he had vomited three times, I gave him an enema. ‘In the case of food poisoning,’ I could hear my father’s voice saying, ‘it is best to purge the gut from above and below. It will leave the patient weak, but it is the quickest cure. Keep him warm, and nothing but spring water and dry bread for three days.’
Through all this, Simon was grimly silent, assisting me, but with his mouth pursed up as if he had chewed on bitter aloes. Neither he nor the patient referred again to my youth.
At last Poley lay back, exhausted and pale. I bathed his face and hands, and gave my instructions about his diet. There was no need to tell him to keep warm, although the raging fire had died back a little. Simon took a step towards the door, but I shook my head.
‘We will stay a little longer.’ I turned to the man. ‘How do you feel yourself now?’
‘The fierce pain has gone,’ he said.
I laid my hand on his brow.
‘You are cooler, but I think it was not fever. Too much heat in a chamber can be as dangerous as too much cold.’
‘You are as gentle as a maid, young physician. What is your name?’
‘Christoval Alvarez. I am assistant to my father, Dr Baltasar Alvarez.’
‘He has a good reputation.’
I gave him a little small ale to drink, and left more beside the bed. ‘Nothing to eat until tomorrow, and then only dry bread,’ I reminded him, ‘or I will not speak of the consequences.’ My father might advise spring water, but spring water is not easily come by in London. I remembered the sweet well water of my childhood home, and the springs that rose in the hills. In London, small ale is safer than water, and weak enough even for a sick man.
I was leaning over him one last time, lifting his eyelid to check that his eyes looked clear and healthy, when he startled me by giving me a jovial punch on the chest. I leapt back, nearly overturning the table.
‘You’re a fine physician, boy. I could eat an ox now!’
I glared at him, bundled my things into my satchel carelessly and grabbed my cloak and doublet. And left the room, in such haste that I forgot to ask for my fee.
‘I hope you know the way out of this place,’ I said breathlessly. The blow had been extraordinarily hard for a sick man.
Simon looked relieved to be out of that chamber with its smell of vomit. ‘Never fear, I know the way. But it will be difficult down below, where there are no torches. Scrivens has taken the lantern with him.’
He led the way, which was easy enough at first, back along the corridor and down the first flight of stairs, where a glimmer of light from above partly lit the way. Then came the turn in the stair and the plunge into the darkness below. I remembered how worn and uneven the stones were. A false step and we would fall headlong down the whole flight. As if he felt my fear, Simon gripped me by the arm and began to guide me down, his other hand braced against the wall.
‘Who was that man?’ I asked in a whisper, though I knew not why I whispered. I could feel him shrug in the dark, we were pressed so close together.
‘I don’t know.’ He whispered too, as though fearful of being overheard. It made us oddly intimate in the dark.
‘Not a Catholic priest, I think.’
‘No.’ He gave a faint snort of laughter. ‘Too fond of the good things in life!’
That was not what I had meant. I have known Catholic priests in my homeland who lived and dressed and dined like princes, aye, and had their women, too, and their bastards, as brazen as if they answered to no God.
‘His eyes,’ I said. ‘The way he looked at us. That was no priest.’
‘One more step,’ he said, ‘and we are at the bottom of the stair. Then to the right.’
We reached the keeper’s lodge at last. Remembering my fee, I asked him for it, for it was he who had sent for my father. He blustered that I should have had the fee from Master Poley, but Simon spoke for me and with reluctance he handed it over.
Outside the grim fortress I drew a deep breath. The cold London fog, tainted with the smoke of many fires and the sewer scent of the river, seemed pure after the smell of human misery that filled the Marshalsea. I realised that all the while we had been inside the prison, my heart had been struggling like a pigeon trapped in a chimney. Only now did it steady and slow.
It had grown nearly dark while we were inside, but there was still cock-fighting nearby, for I could hear the shriek of a wounded bird, suddenly cut short as its neck was wrung. As we walked back towards the Bridge we passed the lighted windows of taverns. Inside, firelight gleamed on pewter tankards and flushed faces. And the Winchester geese were open for business, hanging out of their windows in their scanty clothes, calling to us to come in for a good time. I wondered how they could endure the cold, but then, I suppose, they would wonder how I endured my trade.
‘You did well,’ I said, ‘helping me. It’s not pleasant, if you are not used to it.’
We were passing a flaring torch set up outside one of the better taverns, so that I caught his smile as he turned to me.
‘I was wrong to doubt you, Kit. You know your business. I’m sorry I spoke as I did.’
By way of answer, I punched him on the shoulder in friendly fashion and said I must hurry home before the gates of the City were closed for the night. ‘Do you live near here?’
He jerked his head towards a nearby alley.
‘Down there. It is better than it looks.’
‘Better than Duck Lane?’
He laughed and raised his hand in farewell.
I never expected to see him again.