The Physician's Tale (The Plague Tales)

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9780440236320: The Physician's Tale (The Plague Tales)
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Sweeping us from plague-ravaged Europe to the terrifying near future, acclaimed author Ann Benson brings two eras brilliantly to life. The Physician’s Tale is a spellbinding saga of two healers separated by six centuries, both facing terror and trials, bound together by history, science, and destiny.

In the near future, in the hills of the American Northeast, a group of men, women, and children band together for survival against nature and human enemies, huddling in the only corner of the world they know. Among these people is Janie Crowe, a physician whose son is her greatest hope and deepest secret. Etched into Janie’s memory is the ancient journal of a Jewish man of medicine–a man who fought for survival in his own age of plague.

In Europe, in the age of the Black Death, Alejandro Canches must hide his identity–and break his oath as a physician for the sake of his and his loved ones’ lives. As France and England are locked in war, and disease lays waste to both, Alejandro’s daughter Kate is caught in the clutches of King Edward of England. Betrayed by a patient, hunted by the king, Alejandro makes a desperate journey to Windsor itself, where a clever scribe named Geoffrey Chaucer has hatched a fantastic plan for Kate’s escape....

As the story of Alejandro and his family builds to a gripping climax, and as Janie’s life is racked by trials and the dawning of a new age, The Physician’s Tale brings together a rich cast of friends and lovers, traitors and healers. Unraveling mysteries of science, history, and the human heart, Ann Benson has created a stunning chronicle of courage in the face of darkness–in a work of vibrant storytelling and unrelenting suspense.

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About the Author:

Ann Benson lives in Connecticut with her husband and is the mother of two grown daughters. She is also the author of the acclaimed novels The Plague Tales, The Burning Road, and Thief of Souls.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
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 pal...

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