Quintessence (Chapters 1-3)
by David Walton
By the time Lord Chelsey’s ship reached the mouth of the Thames, only thirteen men were still alive.
Chelsey stood at the bow of the Western Star, staring mutely at the familiar stretch of English coastline. The coal fire in North Foreland’s octagonal lighthouse tower burned, just as it had when they left, guiding ships into the sheltered estuary. The silted islands were the same, with the same sailboats, dinghies, and barges wending through the maze of sandbanks, carrying trade goods between Essex and Kent. After seeing the great western ocean crashing headlong over the edge of the world, it seemed impossible that these familiar sights should remain. As if nothing had changed.
“Nearly home,” said the first mate, the eighth young man to hold that post since leaving London three years before. He was seventeen years old.
Chelsey didn’t answer. He didn’t insult the boy by promising a joyous reunion with family and friends. They would see London again, but they wouldn’t be permitted to step ashore. It was almost worse than failure, this tantalizing view of home, where life stumbled on in ignorance and peace.
But he hadn’t failed. He had campaigned for years to convince King Henry there were treasures to be found at the Western Edge, and he had been right. The barrels and chests that crammed the ship’s hold should be proof of that, at least. Treasures beyond even his imagining, not just gold and cinnamon and cloves, but precious materials never before seen, animals so strange they could hardly be described, and best of all, the miraculous water. Oh yes, he had been right. At least he would be remembered for that.
Black-headed gulls screamed and dove around them. Through the morning mist, Chelsey spotted the sea walls of the Essex shoreline, only miles from Rochford, where he’d been raised.
He shifted painfully from one leg to the other. It wouldn’t be long for him. He’d witnessed it enough by now to know. Once the elbows and knees stiffened, the wrists and fingers would lock soon after, followed by the jaw, making eating impossible. One by one, they had turned into statues. And the pain–the pain was beyond description.
They sailed on. Marshlands gave way to the endless hamlets and islands and tributaries of the twisting Thames, the river increasingly choked with traffic. At last, they circled the Isle of Dogs and came into sight of London Bridge and the Tower, beyond which sprawled the greatest city in the world.
“Admiral?” It was the first mate. “You’d best come down, sir. It’s a terrible thing.”
Chelsey wondered what could possibly be described as terrible that hadn’t already happened. He followed the mate down into the hold, gritting his teeth as he tried to bend joints that felt as if they might snap. Two other sailors were there already. They had pried open several of the chests and spilled their contents. Where there should have been fistfuls of gold and diamonds and fragrant sacks of spices, there were only rocks and sand.
His mind didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t fair. He had traveled to the ends of the Earth and found the fruit of the garden of paradise. God couldn’t take it away from him, not now.
“Are all of them like this?”
“We don’t know.”
They hurried to obey, and Chelsey joined in the effort. Wood splintered; bent nails screeched free. They found no treasure. Only sand and dirt, rocks and sea water. He ran his fingers through an open crate, furrowing the coarse sand inside. It was not possible. All this distance, and so many dead–it couldn’t be for nothing.
“What happened to it?” he whispered.
No one answered.
He had failed after all. Soon he would die like all the others, and no one would remember his name.
He tried to kick the crate, but his leg cramped, turning the defiant gesture into something weak and pitiful. God would not allow him even that much. Lord Robert Chelsey, Admiral of the Western Seas, collapsed in agony on the stained wooden floor. He had lost everything. Worse, he would never know why.
There was something wrong with the body. There was no smell, for one thing. Stephen Parris had been around enough corpses to know the aroma well. Its limbs were stiff, its joints were locked, and the eyes were shrunken in their sockets–all evidence of death at least a day old–but the skin looked as fresh as if the man had died an hour ago, and the flesh was still firm. As if the body had refused to decay.
Parris felt a thrill in his gut. An anomaly in a corpse meant something new to learn. Perhaps a particular imbalance of the humors caused this effect, or a shock, or an unknown disease. Parris was physic to King Edward VI of England, master of all his profession had to teach, but for all his education and experience, the human body was still a mystery. His best attempts to heal still felt like trying to piece together a broken vase in the dark without knowing what it had looked like in the first place.
Most people in London, even his colleagues, would find the idea of cutting up a dead person shocking. He didn’t care. The only way to find out how the body worked was to look inside.
“Where did you get him?” Parris asked the squat man who had dropped the body on his table like a sack of grain.
“Special, ain’t he?” said the man, whose name was Felbrigg, revealing teeth with more decay than the corpse. “From the Mad Admiral’s boat, that one is.”
“You took this from the Western Star?” Parris was genuinely surprised and took a step back from the table.
“Now then, I never knew you for a superstitious man,” Felbrigg said. “He’s in good shape, just what you pay me for. Heavy as an ox, too.”
The Western Star had returned to London three days before with only thirteen sailors still alive on a ship littered with corpses. Quite mad, Lord Chelsey seemed to think he had brought an immense treasure back from the fabled Island of Columbus, but the chests were filled with dirt and stones. He also claimed to have found a survivor from the Santa Maria on the island, still alive and young sixty years after his ship had plummeted over the edge of the world. But whatever they had found out there, it wasn’t the fountain of youth. Less than a day after they arrived, Chelsey and his sailors were all dead.
“They haven’t moved the bodies?”
Felbrigg laughed. “Nobody goes near it.”
“They let it sit at anchor with corpses aboard? The harbormaster can’t be pleased. I’d think Chelsey’s widow would have it scoured from top to bottom by now.”
“Lady Chelsey don’t own it no more. Title’s passed to Christopher Sinclair.”
“Sinclair? I don’t know him.”
“An alchemist. The very devil, so they say. I hear he swindled Lady Chelsey out of the price of the boat by telling her stories of demons living in the hold that would turn an African pale. And no mistake, he’s a scary one. A scar straight down across his mouth, and eyes as orange as an India tiger.”
“I know the type. Counterfeiters and frauds.”
“Maybe so. But I wouldn’t want to catch his eye.”
Parris shook his head. “The only way those swindlers make gold from base metals is by mixing silver and copper together until it they get the color and weight close enough to pass it off as currency. If he’s a serious practitioner, why have I never heard of him?”
“He lived abroad for a time.”
“I should say so. Probably left the last place with a sword at his back.”
“Some say Abyssinia, some Cathay, some the Holy Land. For certain he has a Mussulman servant with a curved sword and eyes that never blink.”
“If so much is true, I’m amazed you had the mettle to rob his boat.”
Felbrigg looked wounded. “I’m no widow to be cowed by superstitious prattle.”
“Did anyone see you?”
“Not a soul, I swear it.”
A sudden rustling from outside made them both jump. Silently, Felbrigg crept to the window and shifted the curtain.
“Just a bird.”
“A bloody great crow, that’s all.”
Satisfied, Parris picked up his knife. Good as his intentions were, he had no desire to be discovered while cutting up a corpse. It was the worst sort of devilry, from most people’s point of view. Witchcraft. Satan worship. A means to call up the spawn of hell to make young men infertile and murder babies in the womb. No, they wouldn’t understand at all.
Felbrigg fished in his cloak and pulled out a chunk of bread and a flask, showing no inclination to leave. Parris didn’t mind. He was already trusting Felbrigg with his life, and it was good to have the company. The rest of the house was empty. Joan and Catherine were at a ball in the country for the Earl of Leichester’s birthday celebration, and would be gone all weekend, thank heaven.
He turned the knife over in his hand, lowered it to the corpse’s throat, and cut a deep slash from neck to groin. The body looked so fresh that he almost expected blood to spurt, but nothing but a thin fluid welled up from the cut. He drove an iron bar into the gap, wrenched until he heard a snap, and pulled aside the cracked breastbone.
It was all wrong inside. A fine grit permeated the flesh, trapped in the lining of the organs. The heart and lungs and liver and stomach were all in their right places, but the texture felt dry and rough. What could have happened to this man?
Dozens of candles flickered in stands that Parris had drawn up all around the table, giving it the look of an altar with a ghoulish sacrifice. Outside the windows, all was dark. He began removing the organs one by one and setting them on the table, making notes of size and color and weight in his book. With so little decay, he could clearly see the difference between the veins and the arteries. He traced them with his fingers, from their origin in the heart and liver toward the extremities, where the blood was consumed by the rest of the body. He consulted ancient diagrams from Hippocrates and Galen to identify the smaller features.
There was a Belgian, Andreus Vesalius, who claimed that Galen was wrong, that the veins did not originate from the liver, but from the heart, just like the arteries. Saying Galen was wrong about anatomy was akin to saying the Pope was wrong about religion, but of course many people in England said that, too, these days. It was a new world. Parris lifted the lungs out of the way, and could see that Vesalius was right. Never before had he managed so clean and clear a view. He traced a major vein down toward the pelvis.
“Look at this,” Parris said, mostly to himself, but Felbrigg got up to see, wiping his beard and scattering crumbs into the dead man’s abdominal cavity. “The intestines are encrusted with white.” Parris touched a loop with his finger, and then tasted it. “Salt.”
“What was he doing, drinking sea water?” Felbrigg said.
“Only if he was a fool.”
“A thirsty man will do foolish things sometimes.”
Parris was thoughtful. “Maybe he did drink salt water. Maybe that’s why the body is so preserved.”
He lifted out the stomach, which was distended. The man had eaten a full meal before dying. Maybe what he ate would give a clue to his condition.
Parris slit the stomach and peeled it open, the grit that covered everything sticking to his hands. He stared at the contents, astonished.
“What is it?” Felbrigg asked.
In answer, Parris turned the stomach over, pouring a pile of pebbles and sand out onto the table.
Felbrigg laughed. “Maybe he thought he could turn stones into bread–and sea water into wine!” This put him into such convulsions of laughter that he choked and coughed for several minutes.
Parris ignored him. What had happened on that boat? This was not the body of a man who hadn’t eaten for days; he was fit and well-nourished. What had motivated him to eat rocks and drink sea water? Was it suicide? Or had they all gone mad?
The sound of carriage wheels and the trot of a horse on packed earth interrupted his thoughts. Parris saw the fear in Felbrigg’s eyes and knew it was reflected in his own. The body could be hidden, perhaps, but the table was streaked with gore, and gobbets of gray tissue stained the sheet he had spread out on the floor. His clothes were sticky and his hands and knife fouled with dead flesh. King Edward had brought many religious reforms in his young reign, but he would not take Parris’s side on this. It was criminal desecration, if not sorcery. Men had been burned for less.
Parris started blowing out candles, hoping at least to darken the room, but he was too late. There were footsteps on the stairs. The door swung open.
But it wasn’t the sheriff, as he had feared. It was his wife.
Joan didn’t scream at the sight. To his knowledge she had never screamed, nor fainted, nor cried, not for any reason. Her eyes swept the room, taking in the scene, the body, the knife in his hands. For a moment, they stood frozen, staring at each other. Then her eyes blazed.
“Get out,” she said, her voice brimming with fury. At first, Felbrigg didn’t move, not realizing she was talking to him. “Get out of my house!”
“If you can bring any more like this one, I’ll pay you double,” Parris whispered.
Felbrigg nodded. He hurried past Joan, bowing apologies, and ran down the stairs.
“How is it you’re traveling home at this hour?” said Parris. “Is the celebration over? Where’s Catherine?”
Another figure appeared in the doorway behind Joan, but it wasn’t his daughter. It was a man, dressed in a scarlet cloak hung rakishly off one shoulder, velvet hose, and a Spanish doublet with froths of lace erupting from the sleeves. Parris scowled. It was Francis Vaughan, a first cousin on his mother’s side, and it was not a face he wanted to see. Vaughan’s education had been funded by Parris’s father, but he had long since abandoned any career, preferring the life of a professional courtier. He was a flatterer, a gossip-monger, living off the king’s generosity and an occasional blackmail. His eyes swept the room, excitedly taking in the spectacle of the corpse and Parris still holding the knife.
“What are you doing here?” Parris said. The only time he ever saw his cousin was when Vaughan was short of cash and asking for another “loan” which he would never repay.
“Your wife and daughter needed to return home in a hurry,” Vaughan said. “I was good enough to escort them.” He rubbed his hands together. “Cousin? Are you in trouble?”
“Not if you leave now and keep your mouth shut.”
“I’m not sure I can do that. Discovering the king’s own physic involved in . . . well. It’s big news. I think the king would want to know.”
Parris knew what Vaughan was after, and he didn’t want to haggle. He pulled a purse out of a drawer and tossed it to him. Vaughan caught it out of the air and peered inside. He grinned and disappeared back down the stairs.
Joan glared at Parris, at the room, at the body. “Clean it up,” she hissed. “And for love of your life and mine, don’t miss anything.” The stairs thundered with her retreat.
But Parris had no intention of stopping. Not now, not when he was learning so much. He could deal with Vaughan. He’d have to give him more money, but Vaughan came by every few weeks or so asking for money anyway. He wasn’t ambitious enough to cause him real problems.
There were risks, yes. People were ever ready to attack and destroy what they didn’t understand, and young King Edward, devout as he was, would conclude the worst if he found out. But how would that ever change if no one was willing to try? He had a responsibility. Few doctors were as experienced as he was, few as well-read or well-connected with colleagues on the Continent. He’d even communicated with a few Mussulman doctors from Istanbul and Africa, barbarian heathen who, even so, had an extraordinary understanding of the human body.
And that was the key–communication. Alchemists claimed to have vast knowledge, but it was hard to tell for sure, since they spent most of their time hiding what they knew or recording it in arcane ciphers. As a result, alchemical tomes were inscrutable puzzles that always hinted at knowledge without actually revealing it. Parris believed those with knowledge should publish it freely, so that others could make it grow.
But Joan didn’t understand any of this. All she cared about his profession was that it brought the king’s favor, particularly if it might lead to a good marriage for Catherine. And by “good”, she meant someone rich, with lands and prospects and a title. Someone who could raise their family a little bit higher. She was constantly pestering him to ask the king or the Duke of Northumberland for help in this regard, which was ludicrous. He was the king’s physic, the third son of a minor lord who had only inherited any land at all because his older two brothers had died. His contact with His Majesty was limited to poultices and bloodletting, not begging for the son of an earl for his only daughter.
He continued cutting and cataloging, amazed at how easily he could separate the organs and see their connections. Nearly finished, a thought occurred to him: what if instead of being consumed by the flesh, the blood transported some essential mineral to it through the arteries, and then returned to the heart through the veins? Or instead of a mineral, perhaps it was heat the blood brought, since it began a hot red in the heart and returned to it blue as ice. He would write a letter to Vesalius.
When he was finished, he wrapped what was left of the body in a canvas bag and began to sew it shut. In the morning, his manservant would take it to a pauper’s grave, where no one would ask any questions, and bury it. As he sewed, unwanted images flashed through his mind. A blood-soaked sheet. A young hand grasped tightly in his. A brow beaded with sweat. A dark mound of earth.
He must not think on it. Peter’s death was not his fault. There was no way he could have known.
His conscience mocked him. He was physic to the King of England! A master of the healing arts! And yet he couldn’t preserve the life of his own son, the one life more precious to him than any other?
No. He must not think on it.
Parris gritted his teeth and kept the bone needle moving up and down, up and down. Why had God given him this calling, and yet not given him enough knowledge to truly heal? There were answers to be found in the body; he knew there were, but they were too slow in coming. Too slow by far.
Christopher Sinclair needed money, and he needed it fast. Once Lady Chelsey discovered he couldn’t really pay her what he’d promised, he would lose the Western Star and his chance along with it. He made a modest living thrilling the rich with exotic stories of foreign lands, and he could always sell off trinkets from his journeys if business was slow, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
He stood motionless on the ship in the cabin that used to be Lord Chelsey’s, listening to the brackish water of the Thames slapping softly against the ship. Outside, the night was black. The only illumination came from a brazier on the weathered table, over which a clear liquid slowly came to a boil. Sinclair’s back and legs ached from standing, but he had long ago realized he could ignore any pain or discomfort that didn’t suit his purposes.
He refused to consider the possibility of failure. All those years of wandering through Africa and Asia, all of the dead ends and wild goose chases after clues buried in ancient texts: it all led him to this moment and the Western Star. She had traveled further, explored more ocean, seen more wonders than any other ship in the world. Only the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria might have seen as much, but they had sailed off the Western Edge before their mariners could return to tell the tale. If man could truly unlock the secrets of the universe, transform base metals to gold and conquer death, then the answers would be found in the places this ship had been.
The liquid began to bubble violently. It was the “sea water” that had been discovered in barrels on the ship, though no one besides him had bothered to test the claim. It smelled and tasted of salt, true, but it wasn’t like any sea water Sinclair had ever seen. For instance, it burned as well as any lamp oil when soaked into a wick. No saltwater could do that. Which made it a substance beyond his knowledge, and there was no substance from England to Cathay that was beyond the knowledge of Christopher Sinclair. This was something new.
It bubbled in a retort with a long spout that led to a coiled glass tube. After the liquid boiled into vapor, it would condense in the tube and then drip into a trough as a liquid again. Through this process, it would leave its impurities behind in the flask and reappear again purer than before.
Distillation was the heart of what he loved about alchemy: this slow, silent ritual, ripe with philosophical musings, in which a gross material vanished into its spiritual form and returned again, better than before. This was true religion. The subtle spirit liberated from gross matter. He could stand motionless for hours, performing occasional repetitive motions with his hands, alone with his thoughts.
But not tonight. He paced, unable to concentrate. The cost of this ship was more gold than he had ever owned in his life, never mind the thousands of crowns it would take to make her seaworthy again, hire a crew, and provision her for a journey of months. He would have to do something drastic. Something desperate.
Because he would sail on this ship no matter what it cost. No more searching vainly through ancient books. He’d wasted years of his life pouring over the tomes of alchemical symbols and codes in which so much knowledge seemed to be buried, but his reading had just led to deeper and deeper mysteries. He refused to be consumed by them anymore. Obviously, none of their authors had discovered the secret of immortality. They were all dead.
Drops of liquid dribbled slowly along the coiled tube, stretched, and dropped into the trough. It was the oldest tool of the alchemist, this purifying of baser substances. Distill wine, and you produced alcohol, which could invigorate the human body and prevent meat from rotting. Distill vitriol, and you made it strong enough to dissolve just about anything. But what if you could purify the right essence, and keep purifying, and purifying, and purifying some more, until you found the very purest, most fundamental substance of the universe? Could not that substance be used to transmute any base substance to its purer form? Lead to gold? Death to life?
The substance had many names: the aqua vitae, the elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone, the aether of the heavens, the fifth essence. Quintessence. Sinclair knew it must exist. He had spent his life trying to find it. Aristotle said it was found in the moon and the stars; the medieval alchemists said it came from distillations of the three elemental ingredients: salt, sulphur, and mercury.
Before Lord Chelsey and his sailors died, Sinclair had spoken with each of them. They were in obvious pain and fading quickly, but he didn’t dismiss their words as raving, the way most people did. Sinclair had seen more of the world than most, and he had heard sailor’s tales before. These men were telling the truth, or what they thought was the truth. And where better to find quintessence than at the horizon of the world, where the heavens curved down to meet the earth?
From somewhere on the ship, a thud sounded, and then a louder clattering sound. It was still before dawn. There would be few people on the docks at this time, and certainly no one was expected aboard the Western Star.
Sinclair stepped quietly out of the captain’s cabin, through the officers’ cabins, and out onto the main deck. The sky was growing lighter, but the fog was thick. He stood in the shadow of the mast with his cloak drawn close about him, all but invisible in the gloom. He liked being unseen. He liked to watch people go about their business, unaware of his presence. It gave him power.
There it was–a dim shape heaving itself over the rail. The moon made his features plain: a stubby working-class man with a coarse face and thick beard, well-muscled but not strong enough for a smith. An ironmonger, perhaps, or an armourer. Maybe just a brute who made a living staving in heads. Sinclair didn’t know what he was doing here, but he could guess. Last night, a corpse had disappeared from its place on the forecastle. A thief, then. Back to steal something from his ship again.
It was not technically Sinclair’s ship yet, not by law, but it would be soon. He was the only one who saw its value, the only one not turned aside by foolish tales of haunting. Dead men there were in abundance, but no ghosts. Sinclair had never believed in ghosts.
The trespasser lit a tallow candle and snuck toward the forecastle. Sinclair followed him, a soundless phantom.
His quarry reached the ladder. Sinclair, a step behind him, snatched the candle from his hand. The man spun, and Sinclair thrust both the candle and his dagger into his face, forcing him back against the wall and eliciting a shout of surprise and fear.
Sinclair was no fighter, and this man probably had twice his strength, so he spoke fast and in lordly tones, trying to maintain the advantages of surprise and fear.
“What’s your name? Answer me!”
The man’s eyes were wide, but he stammered, “Felbrigg.”
“What is your business on my boat?”
“Your boat, my lord? I thought it belonged to–”
“Never mind what you thought. Account for your trespass.”
“Just a little treasure hunting. A man’s got to put bread in his poor children’s hungry mouths.”
“Is that why you took a body yesterday? To feed your children?”
Felbrigg gaped and stammered all the more. “I never–”
“Don’t lie to me.” Sinclair pressed the edge of his dagger against Felbrigg’s lips. “This smells of devil worship. You brought it to a witch, no doubt. You seek a potion for love, or wealth, or to sire a son.”
“Nothing like that! I swear it!”
“I promise you, the Lord Protector shall hear of this.”
“No, my lord, I beg of you.”
“You’ll burn, I guarantee it. You and all your wicked cabal.”
“It’s for a man–a physic. He likes to . . . I don’t know what he does with them. He pays me to get them. That’s all I know.”
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know his name. He meets me in darkness; I give him the body, and he–”
Sinclair turned the point of the dagger and pressed it hard into Felbrigg’s throat, drawing blood. “There are many corpses on this boat already. I don’t suppose one more will cause much comment.”
Felbrigg gasped and sputtered. “Parris. Parris, as God is my witness, but he’s no devil worshipper. He’s a physic. He cuts ’em open to see how they work.”
Sinclair raised his eyebrows. “Stephen Parris?”
“That’s him. Nice as you please. A real gentleman.”
“Stephen Parris, who holds the king’s life in his hands?”
“I told you, didn’t I?” Felbrigg twisted his body, trying to work his neck away from the blade.
Sinclair thought fast. A rich man with something to hide could solve all his problems. Parris had more than enough money to refit the Western Star and supply it for a voyage.
He released Felbrigg. “It’s Parris I want. I’ll keep your name out of it. But if I find out he’s been warned . . .”
“Yes, my lord. I understand.” Felbrigg felt his neck and backed away.
Sinclair tossed a gold half sovereign to the deck, where Felbrigg picked it up. “I suggest you leave London.”
“Right away, my lord. You won’t see me again.”
After Felbrigg had gone, Sinclair walked his ship again, making sure everything was as it should be. His past explorations had revealed several remarkable items, and he was afraid trespassers would find and steal them. Besides Felbrigg, he’d never seen anyone else on the ship, but he was constantly feeling like someone was standing right behind him. Many times, he’d seen movement out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned, nothing was there. Perhaps it was simply the creepiness of being on board ship with sixty corpses.
He thought of Stephen Parris: intelligent, well-educated, and apparently interested in discovering truth. Perhaps he would prove useful in ways other than his money. Sinclair had no qualms about manipulating someone for a necessary purpose. His aims were higher than the benefit of just one man. The cause was just, greater than any in history. Parris would thank him eventually. If he survived.
Sinclair chuckled at this small irony and blew out the candle, leaving the ship wrapped in gray fog. He returned to the captain’s cabin, following the light from the brazier.
The distillation was complete. All of the liquid had boiled up into the tube, leaving a dull white sludge behind. Sinclair tipped the condensation trough, pouring the newly purified liquid into another flask. He turned it, letting the light of the fire refract through it. Curious.
He turned his back on the brazier, which was the only source of illumination save for a faint shimmer of moonlight in the fog outside. In the darkest corner of the cabin, he hunched his body over the flask and studied it in the blackness. The liquid glowed faintly, a clear white light that illuminated his hands and face. His heart beat faster. Several of Chelsey’s men had said the very water on the island could heal injury and disease. Could it be that he had found it already? That Lord Chelsey had brought quintessence home with him on this very ship?
Tentatively at first, then with growing confidence, Sinclair lifted the flask to his lips and drank.
Parris tiptoed downstairs, expecting his wife and daughter to be long asleep. It was almost dawn. Instead, he found Catherine sitting erect by the window in her dressing gown, every angle of her face and arms accentuating her delicate beauty. He hadn’t seen much of her lately. When had she grown from a grubby, romping child into this fragile flower? He remembered her rolling on the floor in this very room, wrestling with a puppy.
He was tempted to walk right past, but he steeled himself to approach her. He couldn’t go on forever not speaking to his daughter. His only child now, though the admission still made his throat feel tight. He reached her chair and stood behind it, looking with her out the window at the brightening sky.
“Good morning, Father.”
“And to you, daughter. Why up so early?”
“Lady Hungate says a girl must always rise to greet the dawn. She says it is slothful to stay abed.” Her tone was light, but Parris noticed the bitter edge.
“And what is Lady Hungate to you?”
“Oh, she’s a great woman, as you well know. Her son is heir to a barony. If I am to make a good match, I must behave as a lady, must I not?”
Parris walked around the chair to face her and saw that her eyes were red. “What happened? Why are you home so soon?”
“Mother was tired.”
This was nonsense. Joan never tired of opportunities to pair Catherine up with promising young men. Parris felt the familiar panic rising in his stomach, as it had every time he’d tried to speak with Catherine in the last year.
“Did you enjoy the ball?” he tried.
She laughed in the false manner of society women, as if he’d just uttered a witticism. “Everyone enjoys a ball,” she said. “How could I not enjoy it?”
There was something wrong. “What happened, Catherine?”
She looked at him frankly, and for a moment he thought she might confide in him. Then she looked away. “There was a splendid masque. Music and dancing. And that magician, Christopher Sinclair.”
Sinclair again. “A magician?”
“Oh yes. Haven’t you heard of him? He’s a dashing gentleman, and confounds us all with the most amazing tricks. Do you know he turned a walking stick into a snake and then back into a stick again, like Moses? I was so terrified!”
She didn’t look at all terrified; she looked relieved to have changed the subject. She was such an innocent. Too naïve to be thrown to the rapacious wolves that filled a royal court, greedy for power and wealth and all too willing to use a trusting young girl. The way Felbrigg had described him, Parris had imagined Sinclair as an ugly man, a dwarf perhaps, his face mutilated. It seemed he was just another fancy courtier, with a repertoire of flattery and legerdemain to amaze an impressionable young girl. Parris prayed God would keep his daughter out of the path of fortune-hunters. He couldn’t bear to see Catherine swept away by such a man.
He found he was clenching his fists so tightly he left fingernail marks in his skin. Not trusting himself to speak again, he left with a murmured good night. She was like that porcelain brought from Cathay along the silk road: rare and precious, but easily broken, and once broken, irreplaceable. It made him angry to think of anyone hurting her, but that was fine. Anger was a safe emotion. Better anger than the grief he could sense like a deep well underneath, calling him to drown.
He retreated to his bedchamber, hoping for an hour of sleep before dawn. But Joan, too, was awake.
She sat rigid in a chair by their bed, knitting. The needles clashed in her lap like tiny swords, giving shape to a pair of hose that hung down below them.
“Haven’t you slept?” Parris said.
“I confirmed Vesalius,” he told her, knowing she didn’t care, but unable to help himself. “He corrected Galen, if you can believe it. A lot of people won’t be happy about that.”
“It’s my happiness you ought to be concerned about.” Her needles kept flashing.
Parris knew she was angry about the body. He gripped the back of his neck and massaged it. “How can I heal the body if I don’t know how it works?” It was an old argument, raised more out of habit than any hope she would be moved by it.
“We agreed that you would stop bringing . . . the dead . . . into my house.”
“It won’t bring him back, Stephen.”
Parris retreated to the hearth. “I know that. Ten times over, I know it.” He didn’t want to have this conversation. He picked up the poker and gripped it in both hands as if he would bend it in half.
It always came back to Peter. Before his death, things had made sense. The future had been clear: Catherine would marry into a good family; Peter would inherit land and wealth and carry on the family name. Parris and Joan had been fond of each other, and their goals–Parris’s to be London’s preeminent physic and Joan’s to establish their family in London society–had been well-matched.
Then Peter died, and everything turned upside-down. Joan, sensing her family’s stability slipping away, had thrown herself into finding a match for Catherine, as if to pull them back on solid ground again. To Parris, it had the opposite effect: he no longer cared what people thought. His reputation as a physic was worthless if he couldn’t truly heal. He retreated into his studies, pursuing more and more radical methods in his thirst for understanding.
Joan didn’t understand this, but she didn’t know the whole truth, either. It was too horrible to tell her–to tell anyone. Only Parris knew, and it ate away at his soul. He had killed his own son.
Day after day, while Peter grew sicker, Parris had given him capsules filled with elemental mercury. Mercury was widely used, a long-accepted treatment for a wide variety of diseases. The ancients had praised its medicinal powers. He had learned its uses at Cambridge. Every physic of his acquaintance had prescribed it at some point in their careers.
But the week after Peter’s death, a letter had come from a physic in Florence named Vecchio. Vecchio had performed experimental studies on the effects of mercury on healthy individuals. The results were sweating, racing heartbeat, muscular weakness, the skin peeling off in layers, the loss of hair, teeth, and nails. All of Peter’s symptoms. It was a poison, and Parris had given it to his own son through sheer, unforgiveable ignorance.
Joan still hadn’t looked up from her knitting.
“What are you making?” he asked, to shift the conversation into safer territory.
“Hose for Catherine. What does it look like?”
Knitting was a strange new craft, but Joan had found someone to teach her how to do it. It allowed woolen hose to fit a woman’s leg more neatly, and Joan was wild to have Catherine fitted out in the latest styles.
“No one will see them anyway, under her gown,” he said.
She paused, dropping her hands in her lap. “What nonsense you talk. Her ankles will be visible.”
“To whom will they be visible?”
“She’s a young lady, Stephen. She needs to be out in society, finding a man to marry, raising a family.”
He stared at the poker in his hands. No topic of conversation was simple anymore. “She’s only sixteen.”
“Old enough.” The venom in Joan’s voice made him look up.
“Why did you come home? What happened?”
“She has a young man. At least, she fancies she does. The oldest son of Baron Hungate.”
“And? You’re always angling to find her a good match.”
“Thomas Hungate is too good. And he’s not courting her openly. I found them alone in the courtyard garden.”
Parris felt a slow burn begin in his chest. “Doing what?”
“Nothing but sweet words, so far as I could see. But there’s no chance he means to marry her. This is your fault. If you would take a hand in her future, she wouldn’t be so vulnerable. She needs you.”
“What she needs is to stay home.”
“She’s not a boy. She can’t make her own way. She needs a man who will provide for her, and the older she gets, the harder that will be. You need to be involved in her life.”
Joan continued to look at her clashing needles instead of at him, which somehow annoyed him even more than her chiding. He felt his voice getting louder. “I won’t parade my little girl through a ballroom like a horse at auction.”
“I’m not asking you to. Talk to your peers. Arrange a match with a good man, one who will take care of her.”
“I will not. She’s too young.”
“She means nothing to you, then.”
“She means everything to me.”
“Only as a shadow of what you’ve lost.”
Parris bit back a retort and swung the poker in a short arc through the air. For the last year, conversations with Joan had been a maze, every path leading to the same dead end. And perhaps there was some truth to it. Catherine was hurting, too, but his own pain had prevented him from getting too close to her. If she had been a boy, he could have included her in his work, taught her a physic’s profession. As a girl, the best thing he could do was to keep her safe.
Even his work caring for the king was frustrating. The king–a boy only slightly older than Catherine–was dying, and there was nothing he could do about it. Edward could no longer disguise his bloody cough, and the disease had wasted deep grooves in his cheeks. Parris and his other physics bled him daily and gave him soothing draughts, but it made little difference. The consumption was eating him alive. It was only a matter of time.
Parris could diagnose ailments, provide relief from pain and discomfort, sometimes even slow the course of a disease, but cure it? Only rarely, and in such situations it was never clear that the cure was the result of anything he had done, or simply the favor of God. If he were a barber-surgeon, then at least he might cut out the offending part, but inflicting that kind of pain on another human being was more than he could stomach. Besides, surgeons killed their patients as often as they helped them, if not from the procedure itself, then from the fevers that inevitably followed.
And what about the soul? Did it really exist? Of course it must–the Bible was clear on that subject–but if so, where was it? Could it be measured and cut open? Was it located in the heart, or the liver, or the inscrutable gray matter of the brain? When the body died, how did the soul get out? Did it blow away like a gas, or glide through some other, unknown dimension?
He had tried to find out. When any of his patients died, he prepared experiments to detect their soul’s passing. He weighed their bodies as precisely as possible before and after death. He filled the air with flour dust and watched for any unexpected movement of the air. He devised instruments to detect sudden changes of temperature. Nothing worked. And the fact that he couldn’t measure the soul made it difficult for him to believe that it existed at all. To believe that the boy he had loved lived on.
In London, caught up as it was in the politics of religion, such questions were dangerous. Questions of doctrine were questions of state, and many a theologian had gone to the block for asking the wrong ones. More than once, his colleagues had cautioned him to choose a safer field of inquiry.
He realized Joan was looking at him. “The questions won’t go away,” he said.
She sighed. “There are questions that don’t have answers.”
“I won’t accept that.”
Finally, the needles stopped moving, and she set the hose aside. As she did so, a slim object slipped out from between the folds and clattered on the floor. She reached for it, but Parris was quicker, and swept it up before she could. It was a rosary.
“What is this?”
“You know what it is.”
He thumbed the beads. “This is Mariology. Popish superstition.”
She stood and faced him down. “That was my grandmother’s, and her grandmother’s before that. Our families have been praying to the Virgin for generations, and you think now just because some king decides–”
“It’s not about the king, Joan. It’s the Scriptures. They never speak of Mary as anything but a simple woman.”
“You don’t pray to Mary anymore?”
“Of course not.”
She dropped her voice until he could scarcely hear her. “And our son? Do you pray for our son?”
Parris stood rooted in front of her, wanting to take her hands in his, but knowing she would reject the gesture. “Peter is dead,” he said, the words tearing a piece out of his heart even now. “If he’s with the Lord, he doesn’t need our prayers. If he isn’t, there’s nothing our prayers can do for him.”
She cried out and slapped his face. He caught her wrists and held them. “Death is a great evil,” he said. “Don’t you see? We need to fight it. To hold it at bay, even conquer it, if we can. How can I fight it unless I study it?”
“I can’t live in constant dread that my husband will be locked in the Tower.” She pulled her hands away and crossed them over her chest.
“It’s important work. It has to be done. And precious few have the knowledge or skill to do it.”
“Is it more important than your wife? Or your daughter?”
Parris knew this was the point in the conversation when he was supposed to break. When he consoled her that she was more important than anything, when he made empty promises he had no intention of keeping. But this time, he felt so very tired of the charade. “Yes,” he said. “It is more important.”
She drew in her breath, and he knew a line had been crossed in their marriage, maybe one he could never step back over.
Her eyes were cold. “Not in the house. If I find a body in my house again, I’ll go to my sister’s and never come back.”
Parris wondered if she could actually do it. She loved London, loved the society, and finding a noble match for Catherine was her only goal in life. How could she do that from Derbyshire? Nevertheless, he bowed his acquiescence. He was exhausted, but the prospect of climbing into bed while she stared down at him with reproachful eyes and clacking needles was too unpleasant. When his manservant, Henshawe, tapped at the door, he was only too happy to leave the room.
“What is it?” Parris said, shutting the door behind him.
“A messenger, sir. He says he brings a gift from a man named Christopher Sinclair.”
That’s it! To read the rest, look for the novel from Tor Books!