English Hope by Malcolm Johnson
Short Story Semi-Finalist, LISP 2nd Quarter 2020
English Hope by Malcolm Johnson,
The City was quiet, its life suppressed by a darkening September evening. The only sounds were the barking of a dog, the soft footfall of a traveller and the wheels of a solitary cart clattering over the cobbles.
The old church of Great All Hallows stood silent and unlit on Thames Street, seemingly deserted. A grating metallic sound announced otherwise as the iron ring of its door was seen to turn and a man came out. He pushed the door shut behind him and slipped a great key into the lock to snap it shut. This man wore the black clothes, square collar and skull cap of a vicar and in his right hand, he held a bible. His hair was cropped short and his face was pale, the skin stretched perhaps a little too tight over the cheek bones. He paused on the steps of his church, his eyes darting left and right before he gathered up his robes and descended down into the street, where he turned left and then walked briskly towards his destination.
Johann Greissing was a citizen of Hamburg come to London to minister to the German community. That was some years before the present plague, which had now engulfed the entire City, fanned so it seemed by a dry hot summer.
London’s face was now strangely altered. As the months passed by, some citizens had become raving and distracted, imagining themselves to see demons and flying witches.
When the plague took the vicar of Great All Hallows, the bishop had asked this German divine to take up his office. The flight of the bell ringer, choir and servers was no discouragement to the new vicar, and he had never once relented from his English vows sworn hastily at Dean’s Court. He kept his church open, ringing the church bells himself and ministering to the sick come wind or weather.
Now he was hurrying to meet his friend, Heinrich Becher who was, like Johann a native of Hamburg, but more recently arrived in London to ply his trade as a physician. Herr Becher would have returned to Hamburg, but the plague had struck too fast and too furiously. There was no ship that would take him home.
Johann turned into the Steelyard, a place of warehouses and wharves on the north bank of the river. There he beheld his friend standing by a wall, with a lantern on the street beside him.
Heinrich wore the waxed overcoat and thick felt gloves of a plague doctor. He carried a long stout cane in one hand to keep a distance from his patients, and his doctor’s mask in the other. This monstrosity of leather had glass eye openings and a long beak shaped nose, stuffed with herbs. Their arrangement was simple and permitted by the City authorities. Heinrich treated and advised, whilst Johann added a little faith to the medicine.
On this evening, they had received an urgent message from one of Johann’s parishioners, a cloth merchant by the name of Gottfried Liebnitz who lived nearby. The man was a rich boor, disliked by both of them but he had lost all of his family to the plague save for his little daughter, Elizabeth. Now he was ill and he had asked for help.
Heinrich’s hair was light blond and his untamed locks shone faintly in the light of his lantern. Johann spoke first in his Hamburg dialect, which guttural tongue held a little comfort for these strangers in a strange land.
“You should go Roundhead like me, Master Physician, it will save you from the fleas.”
“God strike England and its fleas,” came the curt reply. “Although I do believe that those little devils have no taste for my blood.”
“Well, shall we to our business?” asked Johann.
Heinrich looked down at his mask.
“You know, that fat pig, Liebnitz once told me I had only come to London having failed as a doctor at home. Now he begs me to attend him. Truly the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse have raised me up above other men.”
“We do not mention those gentlemen in Germany,” came the quiet reply.
There was a moment of silence, and a little rain began to fall.
Heinrich donned his mask and in a moment, he became a terrifying sight out of some hellish masque ball. He picked up his lantern and together they set off back into Thames Street, where turning left they walked west. From here on, only Johann could speak.
“They say it was Dutch cotton that brought the plague to London. However, one of my parishioners is a Fleming and he says that French alchemists concocted the disease to use as a weapon of war.”
Heinrich gave a vigorous shake of his head. As they passed one house, that had once been a tavern, they saw that a large poster, poorly printed had been pasted up on its walls. They paused and Johann read out the first words, affecting the accent of London’s common folk.
“An Excellent Electuary against the Plague, to be drunk at the Green Dragon Cheapside at sixpence a pint.”
He gave a chuckle.
“Piss pot science, I believe, is the correct medical term.”
A wrinkle of smile showed in the eyes of his friend and they walked on
Most of the houses and shops in the street were boarded up and some had wooden slats nailed against the doors. In places there was grass growing on the thoroughfare. They came to the place where Thames Street met the smaller Puddle Dock Hill, which ran north. A cart approached them pulled by a bay horse, and led by a man, his face muffled by a scarf. The load was covered with white flax sheeting and the carter had done his work well, tying the sheet down tightly all around its ends so as to let nothing slip free.
The cart went by, and both men saw clearly the shapes beneath it. Johann quickly sought out a dried bunch of posies from his pocket and put it to his nose, but it was too late to stem the smell of death.
Their journey now took them left into Shoemaker Row, and then right into Greed Lane. There was the sound of bells from St Paul’s.
“Probably a funeral, for one rich enough to afford it,” said Johann.
The house of Gottfried Leibnitz was easy to find as it was built of expensive red brick and quite out of character with its wattle, daub and timber neighbours. On the door, someone had painted in red some ragged words of English.
“Lord have Mercy on us”
Heinrich stepped up to the door, and gave it a few sharp knocks with his stick. There was no answer from within, and so he grasped the ring of the door. It turned easily and he pulled the door open. The two men entered but all was silent. They were standing in a large room, with a hearth before them in which the fire had long since burnt out. A large oak dining table lay bare before them.
Then they heard it. A sound like a course of water falling gently over stone steps. It was a girl sobbing, and the sound came from upstairs. They climbed a set of creaking stairs and found what must have been the master bedroom, where they stopped.
There in his bed under a linen coverlet, lay Gottfried Leibnitz. He was wearing his nightshirt, and his eyes were closed. Someone had carefully placed his hands across one another, set his head straight on the pillows and smoothed down the coverlet but there was nothing to disguise the ghastly red and black spots that now covered his face, or his grotesquely swollen neck.
Heinrich entered the room and as he did so, a shriek went up from the corner where a little girl was cowering, terrified at this bird like wonder flown into her home. Johann stepped quickly around his friend, and crouched down in front of the little girl, close enough for her to see his face and hear his gentle voice.
“We have come to take you to a safe place, Liesl,” he said. He stretched out a hand. “Will you come with us?”
Tentatively the girl stretched out her little hand, and grasped his. The vicar lifted her up and carried out her out of that place back into the street, with Heinrich close behind him.
The doctor took off his mask, so he could speak.
“You are a brave man, Herr Greissing.”
Liesl was now asleep on Johann’s shoulder, and so he spoke his words softly.
“Like you, these English fleas have no taste for me.”
Heinrich covered a sneeze with the crook of his elbow and put his mask back on. They began to walk slowly back down Greed Street.
Johann stopped once more and turned to his friend.
“We should never be afraid to carry Hope with us.”