Reading from THE FIRST VIAL


Katherine entered under the swaying sign of the “Hag’s Head”. Although the small ale room was filled with noisy patrons, her arrival caused but little stir. They raked her over with bright or bleary eyes without a break in conversation, then ignored her entirely. She was surprised to see so many people. She had thought the village to be deserted.

“Nay,” said the innkeeper, leering hugely and patting his grubby apron. “Trade is good. The pestilence time is a good one.” He winked at her. “It carries off the rabble. Thins ‘em out as ye’d thin out yer geese at Allhallowtide. Mind you…” He leaned closer and put a finger alongside his bulbous nose. “No credit here. No debts. Pay fer yer drinks as ye drink ‘em and yer bed afore ye sleeps in it. No one’ll be cheatin’ me out of me dues complainin’ their head aches and their arm pricks so as to be sent straight off without payin’. Nah, there’ll be none ‘o that in my alehouse.”

Katherine blinked at this long discourse, took out her purse and paid for a meal and a bed for the night.

“Wise, you is,” the innkeeper smirked. “Payin’ fer just the one night. Niver know when you’ll git too off.” He sucked his teeth over the payment then howled to someone she could not see to get her supper.

While she ate, Katherine feigned disinterest but kept her ears opened to the conversations around her. At one table sat a very grave looking fellow dressed all in black. He spoke in somber tones of the influence of the stars and the conjunction of certain planets which must necessarily bring sickness and distempers and consequently, the plague. All that sat around him nodded vigorously, for was not the plague among them even now? And they begged him to tell what would become of them and should they stay or go.

Another group discussed the various remedies, potions and preservatives offered by all sorts of conjurers and witches, dispensing “sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air”, “the only true plague water,” “the royal antidote against all kinds of infection.” They spoke of eminent Dutch or Italian physicians newly arrived from across the sea and having choice secrets to prevent the infection and cure any who had the plague upon them.

“Aye,” said one, “Dr. Benwick is said to direct persons how to prevent them being touched by any contagious distemper whatsoever. And to direct the poor for free.” His fellows grunted and one querulous voice broke in.

“Nay, he’s as subtle as the devil. He makes a great many fine speeches, examines their health and the constitution of their bodies and tells them many good things for them to do. But none of those things is of any great moment and no cure. Then, at the end, he says he has a preparation which if they take a certain quantity of every morning, they should never have the plague even though they lived in a house where people were infected. When I complained of the cost of the preparation and that his bills promised help for the poor for nothing, he replied that his advice was free but not his physic!”

THE FIRST VIAL, medieval novel of knights, feasts and plague


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