Authors: Michael Cadnum
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Praise for Michael Cadnum
“Not since the debut of Robert Cormier has such a major talent emerged in adolescent literature.” âThe Horn Book
“A writer who just gets better with every book.” âKirkus Reviews
“Cadnum is a master.” âKirkus Reviews
“A gripping adventure set during the 1849 California gold rush. Complementing the historical insight is an expertly crafted, fast-paced, engrossing adventure story full of fascinating characters. This is historical fiction that boys in particular will find irresistible.” âBooklist, starred review
“This novel is fast paced.â¦ The well-realized settings, which range from remote wildernesses to sprawling cities, create colorful backdrops for Willie's adventure. An enticing read.” âSchool Library Journal
“The prose is lively.â¦ A spirited introduction to the gold rush for older readers.” âKirkus Reviews
Breaking the Fall
Edgar Award Nominee
“Tension hums beneath the surface.â¦ Riveting.” âBooklist
“Eerie, suspense-laden prose powerfully depicts the frustrating, overwhelming and often painful process of traveling from youth toward adulthood.” âPublishers Weekly
An Edgar Award Nominee
“An exquisitely crafted work â¦ of devastating impact.” âThe Horn Book
“Probably the truest portrait of a teenaged alcoholic we've had in young adult fiction.” âThe Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
“Readers â¦ will never forget the experience.” âWilson Library Bulletin
“[Readers] will relate to the teen problems that lead to Peter's substance abuse and the death of his best friend.” âChildren's Book Review Service
“Through the prism of descriptive poetic images, Peter reveals the dark details of his sleepwalking life.â¦ An intriguing novel.” âSchool Library Journal
Daughter of the Wind
“Readers will enjoy the sensation of being swept to another time and place in this thrill-a-minute historical drama.” âPublishers Weekly
“Mesmerizing â¦ This haunting, life-affirming novel further burnishes Cadnum's reputation as an outstanding novelist.” âKirkus Reviews, starred review
“A thought-provoking story full of rich, well-developed characters.” âSchool Library Journal
“A psychologically intense tale of inner struggle in the face of tragedy.” âThe Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
“Cadnum succeeds admirably in capturing the squalor and casual brutality of the times.” âKirkus Reviews
“In this gripping look at family relationships Cadnum finds painful shades of gray for Bonnie to face for the first time; in her will to grasp the manner and timing of her healing is evidence that she is one of Cadnum's most complex and enigmatic characters.” âKirkus Reviews
“Compelling. Adopting the laconic style that gives so much of his writing its tough edge and adult flavor, Cadnum challenges readers with hard questions about the nature of fear and of betrayal.” âPublishers Weekly
In a Dark Wood
Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
“A beautiful evocation of a dangerous age â¦ Readers who lose themselves in medieval Sherwood Forest with Cadnum will have found a treasure.” âSan Francisco Chronicle
“In a Dark Woodis a stunning tour de force, beautifully written, in which Michael Cadnum turns the legend of Robin Hood inside out. Cadnum's shimmering prose is poetry with muscle, capturing both the beauty and brutality of life in Nottinghamshire.In a Dark Woodmay well become that rare thingâan enduring piece of literature.” âRobert Cormier, author ofThe Chocolate War
“[T]his imaginative reexamination of the Robin Hood legend from the point of view of the Sheriff of Nottingham is not only beautifully written but is also thematically rich and peopled with memorable multidimensional characters.” âBooklist
“Cadnum's blend of dry humor, human conflict and historical details proves a winning combination in this refreshing twist on the Robin Hood tale.” âPublishers Weekly, starred review
“A complex, many-layered novel that does not shirk in its description of [the period], and offers an unusually subtle character study and a plot full of surprises.” âThe Horn Book
The King's Arrow
“The King's Arrow is an adventure story full of color and romance, as resonant as a fable, told in clear, clean, swift prose. A wonderful read.” âDean Koontz
Nightsong: The Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice
“Cadnum (Starfall: Phaeton and the Chariot of the Sun) once again breathes life into classic mythological figures.â¦ Skillfully creating a complex, multidimensional portrait of Orpheus (as well as of other members of the supporting cast, including Persephone and Sisyphus), Cadnum brings new meaning to an ancient romance.” âPublishers Weekly
“Another excellent retelling of one of Ovid's mythical tales. This well-written version is a much fuller retelling than that found either in Mary Pope Osborne'sFavorite Greek Mythsor Jacqueline Morley'sGreek Myths. The story is a powerful one, delivered in comprehensible yet elevated language, and is sure to resonate with adolescents and give them fodder for discussion.” âSchool Library Journal
Raven of the Waves
“[A] swashbuckling â¦ adventure set in the eighth century, Cadnum (In a Dark Wood) shows how a clash of cultures profoundly affects two distant enemies: a young Viking warrior and a monk's apprentice.” âPublishers Weekly
“Convey[s] a sense of what life might have been like in a world where danger and mystery lurked in the nearest woods; where cruelty was as casual as it was pervasive; where mercy was real but rare; and where the ability to sing, or jokeâor even just express a coherent thoughtâwas regarded as a rare and valuable quality â¦ Valuable historical insight, but it's definitely not for the squeamish.” âBooklist
“Hard to read because of the gruesome scenes and hard to put down, this book provokes strong emotions and raises many fascinating questions.” âSchool Library Journal
“Deep, dark, and moving, this is a model tale of adolescent uneasiness set amid the roiling emotions of modern life.” âKirkus Review
“Cadnum demonstrates his usual mastery of mood and characterization in this acutely observed portrait.” âBooklist
Ship of Fire
“Brimming with historical detail and ambience, this fact-paced maritime adventure will surely please devotees of the genre.” âSchool Library Journal
Starfall: Phaeton and the Chariot of the Sun
“Cadnum (In a Dark Wood) once again displays his expertise as a storyteller as he refashions sections of Ovid'sMetamorphosesinto a trilogy of enchanting tales. Readers will feel Phaeton's trepidation as he journeys to meet his father for the first time, and they will understand the hero's mixture of excitement and dread as he loses control of the horses. [Cadnum] humanize[es] classical figures and transform[s] lofty language into accessible, lyrical prose; he may well prompt enthusiasts to seek the original source.” âPublishers Weekly
“Cadnum keeps readers on the edge of their seats.” âPublishers Weekly, starred review
“Cadnum stretches the literary boundaries of the YA problem novel. This one should not be missed.” âBooklist, starred review
Zero at the Bone
“Riveting â¦ [an] intense psychological drama.” âPublishers Weekly, starred review
“Much more frightening than a generic horror tale.” âBooklist, starred review
“A painful subject, mercilessly explored.” âKirkus Reviews
Ship of Fire
around the shadow
of your hand
The bear was led into the pit, and the dogs went mad, barking and lunging, straining their tethers.
“This will be the day of our great good fortune, Thomas,” my master William Perrivale cried through the din. “Have you ever seen such a beast?”
I answered with a laugh. “Never, indeed, my lord!”
In truth, I was host to the gravest misgivings.
The bear was indeed a fierce brute, bound about his middle by a coarse hemp rope. The five dogs leaped, shrilling at the smell of him. For all their tumult, they were kept from setting eyes on their prospective opponent by a stained linen screen.
The great bruin sniffed the air, shuffling sideways to the extent of his heavy rope. This was a beast new to London, just arrived by ship from the far seas and deep forests, according to ale-house rumor. My master leaned forward over the partition of our stall and appraised the dark furred giant. He gave a satisfied nod at what he saw.
The Bear Garden was filling with its usual throng, merry noblemen and even merrier poor folk. Bright-eyed gamesmen accepted bets from every purse. A recent act of Parliament had forbade bear-baiting on the Lord's Day, and it was murmured that such sport might be closed down altogetherâsome preachers expressed the opinion that the sport encouraged vice. And so the traditional Thursday fight was all the more popular, and even our Queen Elizabeth was rumored to place a bet by proxy, one or two of the silked-and-plumed noblemen among us wagering royal gold.
“I bet my entire purse,” cried my master, raising his voice to get the attention of one of the Bear Garden employees. “My entire fat purse I bet on the bear's victory.”
“And how much, my lord, would your purse weigh?” said Bob Chute, the veteran gamesman not wanting to accept a wager not easily paid off.
My master had schooled in Magdalen College, Oxford, and had earned a name as one of the best medical men. He was now well established in London as a merciful and worthy doctor who lived by his knowledge of phlegm and spleen. He spent effort and silver on teaching me, reciting with me the wisest medical writings under Heaven, from Hippocrates to his own Latin discourses on medicinal roots.
Further, he swore that he would live up to his loyalty to my deceased father by making me, inch by inch, a gentleman. He hired a sword master from Mantua, the famous Giacomo di Angelo, to teach me the art of the rapier, and a scholar from Paris to teach me the history of kings and emperors of the world.
But my worshipful master William had a weaknessârecurring and overpoweringâfor games of chance. This gambling fever gripped him now as he tossed the leather coin sack in his hand. Bob Chute's smile gleamed with professional avarice.
“I wager my entire purse of new silver,” my master asserted in a tone of care-free certainty. “I bet that the bear will outlast the dogs, and more, that every dog will be flayed or gutted and flung to the penny-public.” This was not the reckless wager it seemed. A sailor friend of my master had predicted the bear's fighting prowess at the Hart and Trumpet the night before.
Bob Chute cocked his head, ignoring the general hubbub. “To be doubled, coin for coin, if the bear dies,” said the gamesman. “Or if the bearward judges the brute beyond recovery.” Bearwards were wily men, and could coax a carcass back to life by blowing pepper into its nose.
“Done!” said my master with a laugh.
My heart sank. We could not afford such a heavy wager if we lost. The entire city of London, it seemed, took freshly painted wherries and other hire-craft across the river on such an afternoon, but our meager purses had forced us into a leaking, badly patched vessel, the boat fighting the strong current and nearly capsizing. One more unlucky afternoon, and we would have to pawn our cloaksâor worse, our swords.
Now the dog handlers soothed and kissed their fighters. Bear-dogs are even more fierce than ban-dogs, animals the law requires be tied or caged. The bear-fighting dog is bred and tutored to his craft, and this was a spirited pack, well muscled and trembling with eagerness.
The restless giant padded back and forth on the hard-packed earth, his rope alternately slack and taut as he paced. It was true that the bear did not look drunk on wine, as fighting cocks often were, or drugged with some sleeping philter, as a bear had been not a fortnight before. That creature had been so piebald and sluggish the crowd had howled the bearwards to shame, and a special display of minstrelsy had been added to calm us, players of string instruments and tambours, with merry dancing.
I had liked that music as well as any bear-fight, or even better. I often accompanied my master on his river-crossings to this district of the Rose Theater and taverns and cockpits, and even trugging shopsâhouses where whores plied their trade, arrayed in finest taffeta and silks. Bear-baiting is lusty sport, but before God I think I prefer a good story and a cup of strong cider.
Now, at a toss of the bearward's cap, the linen screen was whisked away, and the crowd roared as the five dogs gave full vent to their excitement. One particular dog, with livid scars along his flanks, I had seen in victorious battle before. This was the one creature who quietly lowered his body to the earthen floor, wasting little breath on making noise.
The chief bearward held up his hand, poised to signal the release of the fighters. An assistant hurried across the pit, and kicked away a walnut that had rolled from the cheapest seats. Yet another bearward smoothed out the dirt and sawdust, wet from a dogfight that had entertained the crowd before our arrival. The crowd was already hoarse with shouting, but at this delay the outcry was beyond belief, roars and laughter, curses, drunk and sober men alike crying, “Get on with it!”
Still the bearwards delayed, outfitted in one blue stocking and one red like many minstrels and dancers. Perhaps they relished their momentary power over man and beast, and one of them took pains to produce a rake and smooth out some nearly imaginary rough spot in the pit.
I cupped my hands around my mouth and added my voice to the deafening clamor.
The chief bearward's hand swept down in a courtly bow.
In an instant the pack was loose.
William cupped his hand over his eyes, as so often before, and beseeched me, “Thomas, tell me when the bear stands alone.”
I myself preferred to play at bowls, and had won a wager on a bright day or two, when some gamesman had not watered the grass so heavily an honest young man could not pitch a ball true. Bear brawls favored the dogs, which, though small in stature, attacked in gangs. Once attached by their teeth a pack of dogs could bleed a bear, if it took an hour. But it was no sure outcome, either way, and many a day at the Bear Garden concluded with a cart of dead dogs creaking down to the river bank.
Scar-flank, the most seasoned dog, attacked quietly, straight for the bear's hind legs. He locked his jaws deep in the fur, and worried and worked, fighting deep and deeper into the sinews and vessels of the bear's limb. Blood started, the scarred dog's muzzle going dark, his forepaws sodden, an increasing flow of scarlet.
The great bear roared and showed his teeth. Four dogs had him by the haunch and forelimbs, a dog to each extremity, each with an iron fang-hold, hanging on. A fifth fighter, a young, yellow bounder, took the bear's roars as a challenge, and seized the bear's snout with his teeth. The bruin lunged one way and another, shaking his huge head sideways, and up and down, but the dog sank his fangs deeper into the bear's upper snout while his legs flailed round and about like boneless rags.
The great carnivore charged ahead, and at once reached the extremity of the hemp cord. The shock was so severe the rope stump, an ancient piling sunk into the earth, shivered as though it would pull right out of its place. Dust rose. The bear rolled suddenly, and in his tumble, trapped two dogs under his bulk. The two dogs screamed, unable to climb to their feet, and as the bear rose to his haunches he seized a white-and-yellow dog in an encircling embrace.
This hug was so fierce, and so long in duration, that the dog's eyes rolled and his tongue hung from the side of his mouth. With a snap, the pit-dog's backbone broke. His hind legs dangled and the crowd let out a shout as the mortally injured fighter was flung away.
Surely, I thought, we are in luck after all.
The congregated vagrants, merchants, and gentlemen all clamored and exchanged late wagers. It was here, among the gentlemen's stalls, that trugsâwandering prostitutesâoften found clients. Here was where whore-masters set the price and gave directions to the pick-hatchâthe house of venery and sinâdown one alley or another beyond the theaters. But no one had eyes now for anything but the torn ground of the bear pit.
I suspected it was a sin to seek Christ Jesus' help in winning a wager.
But even so, I prayed.
The growling of the dogs had ceased, four torn bodies in the pit. It was difficult to credit that moments before these animals had been fighters.
And yet, stubbornly, locked onto the bear's hind leg, Scar-flank was still very much alive, dragging along behind as the bear struggled to turn around. When no other dog remained alive, the scarred brawler stayed right there, jaws locked around the limb.
“Tell me, William,” said my master, shielding his eyes with his hand. “What news?” No dog at all made a sound now, and even the crowd was more quiet. The heavy, phlegmy cough of the bear was loud.
The bruin was in mortal trouble, his blood saturating the pit. But how could I put this cruel tidings into words?
“You have eyes in your head, Thomas Spyre,” my master insisted. “How goes the battle?”
Scar-flank clung hard.
The evening had turned showery, spits of rain falling from a mottled sky.
We knew it was useless to talk. We were relieved to leave the bear pit and the yelling crowd behind. Maybe, I hoped, this would see the last of William's wagering for a good long while.
My master stepped around stews of human waste in the crooked lanes. Householders were required by law to burn rubbish every few weeks, and the stink of kitchen leavings put to fire, mutton bones, cheese butts, and rank apple cores, did nothing to sweeten the air. The spattering rain dampened the smoldering heaps and made the stink worse.
“Only one little dog,” said my master, in a tone of dismal wonder. “Only one, flea-blistered, unconquerable little pit-scamp.” He sighed and shook his head. “I would not have believed it possible.”
When a dimpled lass stepped before us and lifted her ample skirts my master stopped in his tracks. She was plump and desirable enough, and she held her petticoats up high so we could see the top of her stockings and her bare and very pretty knees.
“A good evening to you, my lords,” said the young woman.
My master gave a polite bow, and returned her greetings with a world-weary air. Even now, though, some of his habitual good cheer was returning. “Madam,” he said, “you see before you two paupers. We are not worth your trouble.”
She hiked her skirts even higher, offering a view of pink thighs. “Surely,” she returned, “my lords have enough coin for a sporting tumble.”
There was the softest whisper behind usâa footstep.
At once William put his hand to his sword. “Quick, Thomas, look around you.”
A wiry male figure darted back from behind me as I spun. I seized him by the padded shoulder of his jerkin, and flung him hard against the tavern wall. The young woman, with a flurry of skirt and lingering scent of rose water, hurried off down the street.
It was a common ployâdistracting a man with a whore's show of leg while the cutpurse darted in, did his work, and ran off.
Now the nipâas street thieves are calledâlet out a whistle even as I trapped him against the wall. Two hulking assistants, older men armed with truncheons, strode from a smoke-choked alley. They showed their teeth in confident yellow smiles, their loose stockings thrust into muddy shoes.
“Gentlemen footpads,” said my master, addressing these two newcomers, “spare yourselves the sweat. See here, my purse is as thin as the Pope's mercy. I have just lost a mighty wager, and Thomas here has a rapier made in Milan.”
I had released the nip and drawn my blade, a shining length of steel. A few Englishmen still sported broadswords, believing the increasingly popular French and Italian weapons to be unmanly, too quick and subtle. Nevertheless, I liked the feel of my rapier, and had practiced until I could make the blade sing.
I cut a figure with my blade now, the point humming, and both hairy-fisted men stopped where they were, their full attention on the gleaming tip. One of them made a motion with his club, warding off my blade clumsily, and I put the point of my sword up to his chin, parting his beard. I held it steady, my arm and wrist strong from hours of swordplay with my teacher.
The truth was I had never so much as pricked a living man. I always practiced sword-work in the customary over-warm pads and mask. Like many other seventeen-year-olds in London, I could play a fighter but knew little about actual killing. Nevertheless, the two tall men took me for a practiced bladesman.
One truncheon fell onto the wet street, and the other was waved weakly, as though in apology.
The lean little nip, the master of the small gang, was crying out merrily, “I know this fine lord!”
“Yes, and I know you.” My master put a hand to his graying beard, his gaze inward in the act of recall. “It's little Bruce Hollings!” he said at last with a laugh.
“Yes, my lord, whose fever you broke with a cup of mustard water,” said the street thief, looking up at my master with admiration and gratitude. “I didn't recognize you after these seven years. You're the best physician in London, with a young gentleman scholar apprentice now, I see.”
“Thomas is the son of a departed friend of mine, a man who penned Greek as you or I would draw breath.”
“Sir, I am honored,” said Bruce Hollings, giving me a fair bow, one leg forward, his rain-dappled hat removed with a flourish from his head.
I gave a half bow of my own, much relieved that on this night I would not see my blade draw blood. I gave a nod to the two roughs, and, with a smooth flourish I had practiced under my sword-tutor's eye, sheathed my sword.
“I thought you were in the stocks as a whipjack, Bruce,” said my master, hunting through his mantle for a coin. He gave me a hopeful nod, but indeed I had only an old penny, one of debased silver from early in our glorious Queen Elizabeth's reign, before she had improved the coinage.
Although my master was of lofty birth, with a small estate in Devon, his family was as poor as they were long-established. He had many patients, both wealthy and impoverished, attending them in his chambers on Leadenhall Street, just inside the city wall. My master believed as the Scriptures teach us, that if we show charity to the least of folk we show it to Our Lord.
“For only a year or so I worked the whipjack's trade,” said Bruce confidingly.
A whipjack is a beggar with a forged license to seek alms. Licensed beggars are usually old mariners, spent by years of service with the Queen's sailing fleet, jaundiced or scurvy-spent, if not reduced to amputated stumps or blind from cannon sparks. My master had a soft heart for sailors, having signed as ship's surgeon on a vessel bound for the Canaries as a young man, a voyage he now recalled as rich with every manner of adventure. When he drank enough beer he would even tell the tale of how he had once seen a mermaid.
“I had to give up whipjacking,” Bruce was recalling. “It took patience and a sort of acting talent you might see at the Rose Theater, or the Globe, but fell beyond me.”
I pressed the old penny into the nip's palm and he offered a wry smile of thanks in return. “Your master once cured the Lord of the Admiralty himself of a deadly ague,” said Bruce Hollings. “Everyone on both banks of the river knows that a greater and kinder master of physic never lived.”
“He is as you say,” I agreed.
I never wearied of hearing my master praised, but I was concerned in this slowly increasing rain. An apprentice depends on his master for coin, and now that my purse was entirely empty we were two of the poorest men in England. We would have to go into debt simply to take a boat back home across the roaring current of the Thames.
“I lost the contents of my purse just now,” my master was saying, “trusting the fighting skill of that storied Russian bear.”
“Alas, good my lord!” said Bruce. “Not that bear everyone was talking about, for the last week?”
“That very animal,” said my master.
“That Muscovite brute of a bear,” said Bruce, “was starved weak in a cage out behind St. Savior's church.”
“Starved?” my master echoed bleakly.
“I wouldn't have bet a thimble of vinegar on the poor beast,” said Bruce. He showed perhaps more than a glimmer of pleasure in being, in this instance, wiser than a well-known master of medicine.
“Forgive me, Thomas,” said my master giving me a sidelong glance.
“We can't take coin,” said Bruce, “from two such unlucky gentlemen on a damp evening. Peter and Jamie here will see you across the river.”
Peter, or perhaps Jamie, flipped the penny back to me, and I was grateful to see it return. It was all the money we had under Heaven, and would have to last us until a sea master staggered into our chambers with scurvy, or brought in one of his sailors half dead with yellow jack.
My master and I perched in a wherry, a river vessel, rowed by Peter and commanded by Jamie, who had teeth like a horse and a strong voice, calling the traditional river man'sway, make way, the sing-song cry I had heard often as I drifted to sleep in my bunk.
Twilight lingered. The river was a void slashed with light, tallow-torches along either bank, and lanterns on the looming bridge not far from us downriver, casting streaking reflections on the brown water. The river was crowded with boats, each craft guided by an expert rower and kept well upriver from the troubled water around the London Bridge.
It was clear from the start that we should have come to some agreement with a more proficient wherry-keeper. Peter and Jamie were friendly enough, now, but knew nothing about the river. Peter rowed all out of rhythm, one oar in the current while the other circled in the air.
“You'll see us drowned!” called Jamie from inside his hood.
Our wherry was drifting quickly downriver toward the arches and high, dark stalls of the bridge. The Thames, high with spring rain, was rumbling through the arches of the ancient structure. The white water seethed and tumbled, our boat turning one way and another in the boiling current.
“You told me you were a rowing man!” Jamie was exclaiming.
Peter was too overworked to retort, his yellow teeth exposed in a grimace of effort.
“Take the oars, Tom,” said my master sharply.
Boats during spring floods often circled in a sudden whirlpool and collided with each other, and river men were famous for the vehemence of their curses. It was evident that Peter was far less skilled, or perhaps more drunk, than he had seemed. And the river, which had been rough enough on our way across earlier in the day, had grown more surly.
I stood in the unsteady craft, and at once nearly fell into the water.
But I knew the nature of rivers.
I had been born in a village in the heart of Dartmoor, among sheep pens and shepherds' songs. When I was a small boy my father had taken me on day-long rambles out to the River Tavy. He had taught me how to pilot a rowboat. Now I steadied our wherry, using the oar as a lever against the mossy groin of the bridge.
I nearly toppled into the Thames as our craft slipped under the bridge, and into the gentle eddies that circulated in the river beyond.
“Well done, Tom,” said my master, putting his hand on my shoulder.
Before my father followed my mother into Heavenly bliss, he penned a letter to the old friend he had known at the long oak tables of the university. As a ten-year-old boy with no more knowledge of the world than a field mouse, I had been carried by a friendly carter as far as the ruined abbey, where the Crown and Vixen shelters guests for a fee. There I met a stranger down from London, wearing a physician's mantle and a city man's sword. I knew him at once from my father's promise,You'll know he's a good man from the first.
Now the rain had stopped, and the evening was warm.
Thankful to be alive, for a few moments of quiet we enjoyed the rising darkness on the river. The current was calmer here, the city a haphazard collection of candlelit windows and half-closed shutters, a scattering of cheerful lamps and embers as the smiths and brewers banked their fires, and through wide-flung shutters we could see wealthy folk lighting tapers to see their way up stairwells, their quaking shadows preceding them. The bank was marbled where slaughterhouses poured fat and blood down their gutters, and the heavy current foamed yellow where a brewery gushed dregs.
Ahead of us a great vessel was afloat in the river.
“Row down to the ship,” my master urged, and Peter, so recently frightened, was a reformed boatman now, making timid but effective strokes with both oars. We coursed out to mid-river, and made our way down to the tall ship.
It was unusual to see a fighting ship so far upstream from the boating yards. With four masts and two castlesâelevated wooden structures for guns and archers fore and aftâthe vessel towered over our river-vessel. The ship's name in gilt letters was hard to make out in the growing dark, but my master knew ships and their masters, having loved them all his life.
“It's theGolden Lion,” my master breathed. “Anchored upriver, closer to the finer houses, so gentlefolk can board her.” Lords and ladies supported Queen Elizabeth's hungry efforts to rebuild her forces with occasional, much-needed patronage. Sometimes a man of noble name purchased a berth for an adventurous sonâor for himself.
Peter and Jamie were both open-mouthed at the sight of the great cable that angled up from the river, and the helmeted head that looked down over the side of the ship, a soldier, judging from his mail shirt and his gloves. Laughter drifted down from the ship, ladies, no doubt being shown the cannon and the swivel-guns, excited by the sight of so much power afloat. And I was open-mouthed, too.
I had never come so close to a warship.
“God keep you, sergeant,” called my master, who always knew the proper tone of voice and title in addressing a stranger.
“And you, my lord,” said the soldier, gazing down at us. He wore a flowing red mustache, and held a boarding pike, a tall, gleaming weapon, polished so it reflected torch light. London had been alive with rumors. There was trouble on the wide seas. King Philip of Spain had ordered the detaining and harassment of English merchants in his ports, and tavern whispers told of an even more sinister turn of events.
In this year of Our Lord 1587, Spanish ships cowed the known world. They parted every sea, freighting gold from the New World, sometimes harried by a brave English privateer. The proud Spanish had grown impatient with this nuisance. Tavern reports held that the king of Spain was building an Armada, a navy bigger than any ever seen before.
Fear of this war-fleet woke us long before dawn, dread shadowing our steps. Spain was the richest, and best armed, kingdom in the world. Our smaller ships and more meager navy would be as chaff against this storm.
Brew-house rumor further held that the famous sea captain Sir Francis Drake was storing shot and gunpowder, gathering a force in the southern port of Plymouth, preparing a fighting voyage to destroy the Spanish warships before they could sail north.
“Surely the Spanish,” said my master with an air of hopeful bravado, “have no idea what an English sword can do.”
“Spain's a dog needs whipping,” said the soldier. He shifted his pike and gave a quiet laugh. “And a pricking, too.”
As pleasing as these strong words sounded, they did little to dispel my unease at the thought of our small kingdom locked against Spanish might.
We sat there in the current-rocked wherry as gentlefolk were handed down into river craft and departed theGolden-Lion.
And then, as the darkness became complete and the ship was little more than a vague, darker shape in the night, we saw the bright splashes as her sweeps, the long oars ships use in the absence of wind, turned her bow downriver, and the current took her.
I had long dreamed of sailing with a famous ship's master and winning glory under sail. It was a boyish longing, I knew, and beneath the dignity of a young man destined to practice medicine.
Nevertheless my pulse quickened at the sight.
My master lit the stub of a candle downstairs, where the fragrance of roasting cheese and toasted bread made my stomach growl.
In debt for a month's rent, we had tried to avoid the eye of the tavern's owner, and we succeeded, tiptoeing up the stairs. My master was the perfect example of how a man of name should look, from his quilted doublet, with its high shoulders and tapered profile, down to the fine red riding hose on his legs. I, for my own part, looked much the young gentleman, if I may say so. My hair is copper-red, and damp weather has always caused it to become tangled and knotted, but I am tall enough to look down on many men. To further improve my appearance, my master sent me to a skilled tailor, in those seemingly long-past days when we could afford one.
William and I sat to our supper, a pilchard so old it curled up at either end, the ancient fish giving off a sharp smell. We ate that, and a heel of barley loaf patched with mold, cut evenly down the middle with a knife.
“So that's it,” said my master when we had supped, with a degree of ceremony so we would not feel as poor as we were.
My master had put on a velvet robe, and sported the cap he wore indoors, the one embroidered with golden thread. To see him you'd have thought him as rich as the owner of a counting-house, where foreign coin was weighed and exchanged for the Queen's silver.
“That's it, and here we are,” he said with an air of affable finality. “Hungry and thirsty and surrounded by dark.” He uttered this stark knowledge as though to make light of our condition, and nearly succeeded.
“Many men must have lost good coin,” I ventured, “betting on a cozened bear.” Tocozenwas to cheat, or to make a false appearance. Cozened wine was a mix of dye and water, and cozened beef was bulked out with red sawdust.
My master gave me a sad smile, the shadows of the sputtering candle dancing in the folds of his robe. “You'll make a wise physician someday, Tom,” he said. “To calm the sufferer is often to heal him.”
I had much to learn about medicine, but as always I was grateful for my master's kind encouragement.
“I want to ask you to forgive your foolish master, Tom,” he said. “If it please you. I shall find the inner resolveâI promiseâto cease from wagering.”
He had said this before on such occasions.
I could remember my mother mostly as a smile and a warm touch, a kiss on my forehead. I did possess one clear memoryâvivid and plain as though I were still there in my parents' cottage. One Lady Day she gave me a fragment of honeycomb on a wooden plate, and cautioned me not to eat “the poor, spent bodies of the bees, only the wax and sweetness.”
She died before I had seen four Easters, and in truth I wonder if this deep-dyed memory was a real morning from my life, stored in my soul, or the result of my spirit's handiwork, creating a recollection when there was none. But I do remember her reading from Foxe's well-known book of Protestant martyrs, and believe I hear her voice even now, sometimes, reciting prayers.
I owed my master my learning, and, thanks to his roof and bread, my life. And yet I did wish I could find a way to tell my master that it was time he lived up to his promise to give up wagering. Could he not make the most solemn oath, his right hand on Holy Scripture, the sort no one would break?
“My lord,” I began, “I do believe we must change the way we live.”
“And we shall!” he asserted, slapping the table.
“But in months past we had a choice, my lord,” I continued. “Now, left with only one bad penny, and forced to hide from our landlordâ”
I let my thought complete itself in his mind.
“I shall become a new man,” he said in a tone of finality, even resolve.
“My lord, you must,” I said.
He was not pleased at such honesty from me, for a moment. But his eyes softened at once, and he nodded, gazing into our cold hearth. “Thomas, I will.”
There was a tapping at the door. It was a knock we recognized, and then there followed a continuing, more persistent pounding, which we recognized all the more.
“We are caught,” said my master, with at least a little humor.
Our rooms were over a tavern where aldermen gathered to talk about the sprawl of new, poorly joined buildings on Shoreditch, and the way the farmland of Finsbury Fields was being lost, covered over with the high-peaked houses of rich tanners and ship owners. Scholars took beer in the tavern, too, mathematicians from the lecture halls of Leadenhall, men who could predict the eclipse of a moon centuries from now, or recount one that had darkened Earth many ages in the past.
Ship's carpenters drank their ale here, as well, along with those who called themselves gentlemen. The Lord Mayor himself once took a slice of cheese in the Hart and Trumpet. No one would call it a shame to live above a place where a gentle poet, Sir Philip Sidney, once wrote a sonnet in exchange for a tankard of the house's best wine, the same poet whom my master bled one day, opening a vein in his arm to ease a headache.
“Maybe we're mistaken,” said my master in a whisper. “Perhaps some cook has cut off his finger.” A pie maker had suffered just such an injury the year before, cleaving his left forefinger neatly from his hand. My master had looked on as I bound the wound, to the pie man's grateful satisfaction.
I hurried to the door, trying to believe that a patient must surely be downstairs, and, since the evening was well advanced, half expecting a knife wound or broken jaw, or some other drinking man's injury. This would put silver in our purse, and we could finish our supper with a bubbling pudding orâone of my favoritesâfresh-baked bread smeared with rare marmalade.
To my distress, in stepped the man we both fearedâthe tavern owner and landlord of our chambers, Nicholas Nashe.
“Have no fear, good Nicholas,” said my master lightly. “I'll have your rent by tomorrow's ebb tide, or I'm an ape.”
I kept my mouth well shut, but wondered at my master's bold assertion. He was rightly considered a man of honor, but we had so little food in our cupboard that the mice had abandoned it and taken to nibbling his anatomy books on the shelf.
“There's a gentleman downstairs, my lord,” said Nicholas, in a confidential whisper. “Dressed in a surgeon's mantle like your own, wearing a rapier with a rich agate-stone hilt, upon my faith.”
“Is he ill, good Nicholas, or merely drunk?” my master asked in a tone of gentle exasperation. But it was a tone of relief, tooâNicholas was not demanding money.
Our landlord placed his hands together prayerfully. “He is known as a sometime ship's surgeon.”
“Is he bleeding, or cold-sweating, orâ”
“My lord, he is called Titus Cox, and he has swooned.”
“Heaven protect us, I know the man!” My master was out of his chair. “But good Nicholas, he will not be the first gentleman to fall on the floor of the Hart and Trumpet and need assistance, surely.”
“The last words he spoke, my lord,” said Nicholas, “were âshow me to Doctor Perrivale.'” Nicholas delivered this imitation of another's voice, and a sick man at that, with theatrical skill, sounding in accent and tenor very much the mortally stricken gentleman.
My master strode toward the door, but Nicholas tugged at his sleeve, holding him back.
“He said more, my lord, words that made little sense to my ears,” said Nicholas in a hoarse whisper. “In an effort to understand what the pitiable gentleman was trying to communicate,” he added, “I took the liberty, my lord, of slipping this from his sleeve.”
It was a scroll of vellum, the finest sheepskin, sealed with a crisp scarlet crown of wax, and tied around with a blue ribbon. The sight of the seal stopped my breath. I had seen such bright sealing wax, and pretty ribbon, carried by leather-jerkined men in the street, hurrying on some state business. Court documents bore such seals, commissions to have noble criminals arrested.
Death warrants, handed up to hangmen on the gallows, were marked with such wax, too.
My master hesitated to touch the scroll. London was a tangle of spies and government agents. It was reckless to learn another man's secrets.
He set the document aside, unread, but only after he had studied the seal and peered cautiously into the shadowy shaft of this important document.
We hurried down the stairs.
“Titus Cox is a good master of medicine, although he was never a man to cut a vein,” my master was saying, trying to force a breezy confidence into his words. “He always preferred the leech.”
Nearly any illness responded well to a copious bleeding, measured by the cupful. Most medical masters preferred to sever a vein with a lancet, a sharp blade made for that purpose, but there were those who praised the river leech. My master had trained me in both methods, to answer the needs of every variety of patient.
People needing a tooth pulled or an abscess pricked could see a barber. Such barbers were adept at binding wounds and draining pus, but most men and women with weight in their purses would prefer the attention of a surgeon. Surgeons rarely cut or even set a splint, relying on books and star charts to advise their patients. My master, however, set his hand to every aspect of the medical profession, and studied every drug, including the newly importedtobecka, which some doctors considered a cure-all.
I followed, but at the last moment I paused to work a wrinkle out of my stockings. They had been darned at the knee by my own needle. I worked the stitching around so it didn't show from the front. There was no way of knowing what knight or poet might be drinking here tonight.
The tavern was a cockpit of bright plumage. Every man dressed in tight-fitting stockings and a codpiece, to pad out his God-given manliness. Most of the men in the Hart and Trumpet that night had set aside a plumed cap, either soft and loose, in a manner considered French, or stiff and peaked, in a more English style. Even when a man of the town did not wear such a cap, he kept it nearby, as proof of his good taste.
But the place was subdued just now, a mere pale imitation of its usual liveliness, despite Mrs. Nashe's cheer and expert flatteryâshe was a woman who could nudge a Puritan into a smile.
I caught a glimpse of Jane, Nicholas's dark-haired daughter. She had brought me fresh-baked ale-cakes in recent weeks, and we'd shared a kiss or two when her mother was busy coaxing playwrights and drapers into paying off their accounts. Jane's eyes asked a question I could not answer.
A few gentlemen nodded greetings to my master, and extended the courtesy to me. I nodded in return, but kept what I trusted was a medical-man's solemnity in my bearing. Heads inclined in our direction as we knelt to attend our patient.
The man stretched out in the light from the hearth wore a velvet-lined mantle, and a city man's rich sword. His limbs were rigid and his eyes darting about, an unholy smile twitching his lips. Watery saliva streamed down his cheek. As he tried to extend his hand to greet my master, the arm jerked, and his feet spasmed, making awkward, uncontrolled running motions in the flickering firelight.
“My lord, is it the falling sickness?” asked Nicholas.
The symptoms did resembleepilepsiaâepilepsy. But something about the way the stricken gentleman tried to rise, working hard to sit up, made me murmur a prayer. I had seen examples of epilepsy, attending a cobbler in Eastcheap who fell to the plank floor of his shop from time to time. The seizures were sometimes troubling to see, but they passed with no harm.
Titus tried to speak, but made only a choking sound. His eyes were full of feeling, fear, and recognition. Silently, I asked Heaven to spare my master's old friend.
“It's been a score of years, Titus,” said my master gently, “since we drank wine together.”
The stricken surgeon struggled to shape a word.
“Is it a stroke of God's hand?” the tavern owner was suggesting, the common phrase for a paralyzing fit. But the rigidity and trembling of the surgeon's arms and legs recalled only one evil illness to my mind.
“Or could itâ” the tavern owner was saying, bending close to my ear. “Could it be poison?”
Nicholas's last guess was far from foolish.
There was much whispering about secret harmâpoison, and the bodkin, a long, slender blade, easy to hide up a sleeve, the favorite weapon of both foreign and royal spies. People said that a Portuguese merchant had washed up well gnawed by fish, just downriver from Greenwich, the victim of both poison and stabbing with a slender knife. Portugal had recently been occupied by Spanish men-at-arms, and these days every Portuguese wine-seller was now suspect as a possible spy for King Philip of Spain.
A tailor fitting my new jerkin a few months before, when we had silver pennies to rub together, had murmured to me that a man heard murmuring in Spanishâor was it Portuguese?âon Fleet Street had been hustled into an oxcart by heavily armed men. No one had seen him since.
“A Spanish spy could look as tall and well favored as you, young sir,” said Ned the tailor, removing his spectacles and giving my face a measuring look. “If I may say so. And be evil through to his very soul.”
Now my master had Nicholas send a tavern-boy to the Admiralty, with the message that one of the Queen's men was stricken. “Be quick!” my master added. The boy vanished into the dark street.
Nicholas had been pleased that a gentleman physician, tenant of the tavern, could attend to the crisis so quickly. But now he began to urge, in a hushed voice, that we hurry the sick man upstairs. “With speed, if it please you. Men do not drink and sup with a sick man lying before them.”
That was true enough. Gentlemen, with brightly colored stockings and plumed caps, were entering the tavern, laughing as they stepped inside, only to be silenced by the sight of Titus stretched before them.
“What is your diagnosis, Thomas?” asked my master as we carried our patient up the stairs.
“Adder's venom?” I suggested. It was true that the snake's poison could be milked and kept in a vial. Our landlord remained downstairs, where we could hear his voice through the floorboards, lifted in a convincing show of good cheer.
My master stretched a blanket over the shivering surgeon in our chamber. “Such venom is a possibility, in truth,” said William. “Although it's unlikely.”
My master knew well what was wrong with our sufferer, and so did I, but he was testing my judgment.
I bent over our patient. His tongue and gums showed no lesions, but I knew the disease had passed far beyond that stage. Any examination of the gentleman's male member, and every other body part, would show no pustule, dry or wetâthe malady was by many years too far advanced for that.
I said, “I fear this is no such easy complaint as poison.”
We stepped to the sideboard, where, in richer days, a pitcher of wine always used to be kept. I said, in a low voice, “My lord, he is a very sick man.”
“Do I need to pay an astrologer for his future, Thomas?” asked my master, with a bite to his voice.
“My lord, your fellow doctor suffers from the pox.”
The subject of the pox was a painful one for both my master and myself.
That winter, a few days after Twelfth Night, with my master attending a noble woman in Windsor, I had removed a splinter from a shipwright's eye. As a medical man I was green, having nothing of my master's experience. But the shipwright, a West Country man like myself, begged me to pluck the wood from his eye, and I took up the challenge.
It was the first time I had ever used tweezers for such a delicate operation. The offending object was a stubborn little prick of spruce, and painful.
I had been so relieved to have the operation doneâthe shipwright's thanks still ringing in my ears, his silver in the purse at my beltâthat I took a wherry across the river. I wanted to taste some of the south bank's stronger beer, and wanted to dance to some of the minstrels.
To my own surprise, I turned a corner, entered a door, and stumbled right into a stewâa brothel. Once in, I kept on, into the entryway, led in by a mix of curiosity and ignorance. And perhaps a dash of lust.
Finding myself eye-to-eye with the white-bearded man in the short entry hall, I heard his phlegmy laugh, and his greeting: “Go on, young sir, and have a cup of beer with honest women.”
It was a simple room, with a broad plank table, a large fireplace, and sweet-smelling rushes scattered on the floor, new hay and field flowers among them. With the smoke of seasoned wood and the perfume of hops in the air, it smelled like any clean inn along the road. Four women sat at the table, looking like prim servants, waiting for the master of the house to inspect them and pay their weekly allowanceâbut their clothes were undone about their tops. Even though I struggled not to gape and stare, I could not help myself.
When I heard a familiar voice demanding,Let me past, whore-monger, I turned to see my master, red-faced and ordering me to leave the place at once. I have never felt such gratitude and such shame at once.
“And will Titus recover?” my master asked now.
“If indeed he has the poxâand I have no doubt he doesâ” I could not complete my painful diagnosis, respectful of my master's feelings.
“Will he live?” William insisted in a tone of sad exasperation.
“No, my lord,” I was forced to say. “God forgive us all, he will be as we see him now, but grow worse, over hours or perhaps days. He will surely die.”
“So it is always with the pox, Thomas,” said my master. He was quiet for a moment, unable to continue out of sorrow for his old friend. “And Titus was a good Christian scholar, and knew Ovid by heart, and Sallust by the verse as well as any man. Ten or twenty years ago he galloped with a whore, or even some honest poxy womanâand he caught this curse.”
It was called theFrench welcome, and I knew by my training that it killed as many, over time, as the plague. “My lord,” I said now, my voice hoarse with feeling, “I neither touched nor spoke to any of the women in the trugging shop.” This was not the first time I had made such a protest since my embarrassing rescue.
“If I hadn't passed by, in a hurry to try my luck,” said William, “you'd confront the same ultimate illness as my poor friend. It must have been God's grace that let me see a familiar red-haired young man, big as any farmer, walking into the Wildrose Inn.”
I nodded in red-faced agreement.
I was grateful for my escape from this evil. And yet, I wondered, why was such a dangerous sin so quick to stir desire? Shouldn't a merciful Heaven have created women less beautiful, more unlikely to warm the blood? Because certainly when I closed my eyes at night I still saw the women around the broad, unpainted plank table.
Besides, a certain spirit stirred in me. I wanted to hear my master explain a certain mysteryâhow a man could be wise on the question of pox, and on many other matters of man and God, and still lose his wealth down to the last bad penny betting on a bear notorious for its feebleness.
I was ready, with the question on my lips.
But loud steps crashed up the stairwell before I could speak. Nicholas, our landlord, burst into our room without the courtesy of a knock, wide-eyed.
“Soldiers!” he said breathlessly. “By Jesus, armed men are coming, good doctors, wearing helmets and carrying pikes.” He let us consider this news, and added, “The tavern-boy has come back terrified, saying they are marching from the Tower itselfâon their way here.”
While not strictly yet a doctor, I was sometimes addressed as one, as an additional courtesy, and the title did not displease me.
But I was startled by this news, and so was my master, judging by his shocked silence.
Nicholas knotted his hands together, breathless with anxiety. “Could your patient be aspy?” He said the word with special emphasis, dropping his voice to a whip-lash whisper.
“This sick gentleman is a doctor,” said my master in response. “He is in need of our medicine and your prayers. As you are in need of a cup of strong wine to strengthen your nerves.”
“Oh, let me have my boys carry your sick gentleman friend out the back way, my lord,” said Nicholas, “down into the alley, if it please you. He could prove to be an officer attempting to run off, a naval secret in his heart, before poison lay him down stiffâin my tavern!”
The sound of marching boots echoed down in the street, approaching closer, stride by stride. My master stretched himself to his full height, his mouth set in a determined lineâbut he had gone pale.
“I will not abandon my patient to the rats behind your kitchen,” responded my master. “Bring us some wine, too.”
“You could be arrested,” said Nicholas, steadying his breath with effort. “For failing to resurrect him, or for preventing him from dying, both. Or either. Forgive me, but the Hart and Trumpet is mentioned at Court as a place where a scholar can order Canary wine in Latin, and be understood.”
Nicholas was a fretful soul, but in his way he was no fool. Everyone knew that there was only one rack left in all of England. Torture was rarely used to force confession from outlaws in our Queen's frequently merciful reign. That one rack, made for stretching joint from joint, causing pain beyond imagining, was kept in the Tower, just a few minutes' march away.
We could not be put into chains simply for treating a man in disfavor with the Star Chamber, that deliberative body at the heart of our Queen's government. The cheerful beer-banter and laughter in the tavern downstairs fell silent, and the sound of heavy feet resounded from below.
“Nicholas,” said my master, “you are the most white-livered man I have ever known.”
Our landlord straightened his back and set his mouth. “I, my lord, am not the one with a document of state hidden in my robe.”
But before my master could respond, and better hide the scroll he had accepted from our landlord, heavy feet thundered up the stairs.
The door was flung open, and a helmeted pikeman thrust his head into the room. The crested, highly polished helmet gleamed in the light from our lamp. He gave us a measuring look. Then he stepped back, and had a quiet word with a shadowy figure.
A man in a long, sea-dark cape stepped into the room.
Any Londoner would have recognized him.
All of us had seen Howard of Effingham, the Lord Admiral of the Queen's navy, as he arrived for one of his audiences with the Queen, plumed and silked in the bow of a royal barge. One of the most powerful men in England, he was renowned as a man who liked his starched collar and Flemish linen as well as any man, but who could plot a ship's course and trim a sail, too.
His cape was dripping with the rain that must have begun falling again in the street, and his high, flare-topped boots were beaded with wet. The plume on his cap was bright copper red, a long, sweeping feather that showed no ill effect from the evening damp. He kept one hand on the pommel of the rapier at his hip, and gave my master a correct bow in return to my master's own flourish-and-leg, a courtly act of homage.
“I know you by reputation, Doctor Perrivale,” said the Lord Admiral. “You saved my predecessor's life when his own wife had given him up for dead, and it pleases me to meet you at last.”
“Bring us a pitcher of your best Rhine wine, Nicholas,” said my master, bowing his thanks to Lord Howard for this compliment. “And quick-red coals for our hearth.”
Nicholas scuttled sideways, bowing and looking up through his eyebrows, his shadow lurching and following him out of the room. A pikeman at the door shut the barrier fast, and I heard the pike-butt strike the floor as the guard positioned himself at the top of the stairs.
Lord Howard approached the sickbed. He stood there, not moving or making a sound, while a spatter of rain crossed our roof.
At last he gave a long sigh. “Can he hear us?”
“The sick can hear, my lord,” said my master, “within their sleep.”
Lord Howard sighed again, and turned to study the rows of books on the shelf, volumes of the ancient medical authority Galen in Latin, and anatomies from Padua and Veronaâdiagrams of wombs and spleens.
“Who is this young man?” asked Lord Howard.
“Thomas Spyre, my lord, my most worthy assistant.”
“But is he worthy of trust?” asked the Lord Admiral meaningfully.
“As I am myself, my lord,” said my master.
Lord Howard sat down in our best chair. We all kept our silence as Nicholas and his wife, in a dazzling white apron still creased where it had been folded and stored against some great occasion, made a show of arriving with a silver pitcher and green-glass cups, none of them chipped. Mrs. Nashe set a taper candle in the middle of the table, and cocked her eyes at each of us in turn as she poured the drink.
A lad brought a brazier of coals, placed them with tongs in our dormant hearth, and thrust kindling into the fireplace. When the landlord departed from us again we inhabited a chamber as fit as any in Londonâexcept for the sound of Titus Cox's shallow, rattled breathing from the sickbed.
I remained standing, as was proper, holding the chair courteously as my master sat down at the table in our second-best chair, the one twice mended with glue. William extended the beribboned scroll, and Lord Howard accepted it with no evidence of relief at recovering this state document.
“Master Titus was sick, shivering at our meeting this morning,” said Lord Howard. “He told me it was a fever that came and went, as such cold-sweats will, and that he would be fit enough to sail with the fleet.”
“Drake's fleet, my lord?” asked my master.
Lord Howard tilted his head to eye me in the candlelight. He was a ruddy-faced man, with gray salting his beard, and a white, heavily starched collar.
My master said, “If it please you, my lord, speak before young Thomas as you would any honest subject of our gracious Queen.”
“Will Titus recover?” asked Lord Howard.
“If my lord will forgive me,” said my master, “he is beyond my power, or even the command of prayer.”
Lord Howard broke the seal on the document. The scroll fell open, exposing black lines of writing. “As you will have guessed, this is a commission naming our friend Titus to act as surgeon to Sir Francis Drake and his fleet.”
My master paused in the act of pouring the wine. “We took it to be a secret of state, my lord,” said my master. “I had no dream of what it was.”
Lord Howard smiled for the first time, taking a drink from a glass cup. “It is a secret, believed in by many but known as a fact by few. Drake will sail within the week, to raid the Spanish port of Cadiz, and sack every ship.”
Cadiz was a celebrated harbor, where the richest ships in the world found shelter. A grizzled sea scholar had once explained to me that the ancients, the Phoenicians and the Romans, had moored there in ages past. The words thrilled me. I put a hand on the back of my master's chair, and I could feel him tense with excitement, too, a shiver running through his body.
“Can this be true?” breathed William. In years past Drake had bled the Spanish treasure fleets, and set ports in the Indies alight. In his legendary ship theGolden Hindhe had sailed around the world. But never had this great sea captain, the most famous Englishman alive, accepted such a daring command.
As I stood there in the dancing hearth light I would have given my life for the chance to sail on such a voyage.
“It's true, before God,” said Lord Howard in a matter-of-fact tone, but unable to completely hide his own thrill.
He hesitated, and measured out his next words carefully. “It does seem, however, that Drake will sail without a surgeon.”
Barely aware what I was doingâacting on an impulseâI bent to my master's ear.
I was amazed at what I was bold enough to suggest.
William turned to look at me, his gray eyes gazing up into mine in wonderment. And then he smiled, looking at once years more youthful.
He turned back to the Lord of the Admiralty. “I myself sailed as a young ship's surgeon, my lord, on theGillyflower, out of Plymouth. This no doubt was why good Titus sought me out.”
Lord Howard made no sound, his long golden plume making a graceful arc in the glow from the fireplace.
My master continued, “My lord, Sir Francis Drake can sail, his health and that of his crew well attended by two medical men.”
I straightened, proud of the sound of this.
Lord Howard drained his green-glass cup. He said nothing further.
“My lord,” continued my master, “our gracious Queen has no more loyal subjects than the two of us.”
“The men I appoint,” said Lord Howard at last, his manner softening, “will be required to take an oath.”
“We are yours to command,” said my master.
Lord Howard's eyes, bright with firelight, looked hard into mine.
An oath, a contract sworn before God, was an agreement no man would knowingly violate. I hesitated, uncertain in my soul what I was about to undertake.
“My lord,” I said, my voice as steady as my master's, “I am your servant.”
“If you accept this charge,” said the Lord Admiral, leaning forward and lowering his voice, “you will be surgeon and surgeon's mate on theElizabeth Bonaventure, Drake's flagship.”
My heart leaped.
“And you will be something even more important, in my view.” The Lord Admiral spoke in a steel whisper. “Some say Drake is the sunlit seaman, that he can do no wrong. Others say he is sinfully ambitious, that he will sail halfway across an ocean, risking men and ships, for a button of gold to further round out his already ample money bag. It is whispered that of the treasure he brings back to the Exchequer, as much as one-fifth or even one-third disappears into his own strong box.”
He looked from one of us to the other.
“If you swear this oath,” he continued, “you serve as doctors to a war-fleet. And you will, in addition, be my eyes and earsâsecretly reporting, after all is done, to me.”
I silently prayed that God, through his Son Jesus Christ, might fulfill my life-long dream of adventure.
“You will be intelligencers,” the Lord Admiral was saying. He leaned forward, into the candlelight, to make his meaning clear. “You will be Admiralty spies.”
The single sail on our boat was swollen with the wind, and her prow cut the dawn-gilded river.
Our pinnace, a ten-ton scout-boat, was fast. She carried us down the River Thames, out of London, and past Greenwich, where the officers of the Admiralty met to plan for naval glory, and the dry dock where the storied ship theGolden Hindwas kept in state.
The three slender masts of this famous vessel, in which Sir Francis had sailed around the globe a few years before, were barely visible in the early light as our pinnace made short work of passing the early river traffic. The high waters of the evening before had receded with the low tide, and the night's rain showers had fled before a strong wind out of the west.
I had never seen my master look so happy, his satchel of medical supplies stowed safely in a stout chest. “I was up this early every morning on theGillyflower,” he was saying, the breeze in his hair. My master was habitually a late-riser these days, waking early only if an emergency called him forth. “I stood on the deck and watched the dawn. I saw a mermaid one day in the sea swells, a bowshot from the shipâdid I ever tell you?”
Three dozen times, I could have responded. But moved by affection for my master, I offered truthfully, “I never tire of hearing of your voyage.”
“She was like a beautiful woman,” he said dreamily. “But her skin wasâ”
An oysterman, squat in his floppy hat, called out a deep-voicedhalloofrom his homely boat, not in greeting but to encourage us in sailing so fast.
“I am filled with delight, Tom,” said my master, “that you'll see for yourself what full sails and clear sky do for a town-weary spirit.”
We had sworn a solemn oath of loyalty to both Her Majesty and to the Lord Admiral himself. We had vowed to watch and learn, as only a doctor and his assistant can, the nature of our famous charge, the admiral of the war-fleet, Drake himself. I knew in one corner of my mind that this sacred promise could violate that trust a patient should have in his physician. If Drake fell ill and in his fever babbled confessions, we were bound to betray him.
I had wondered, too, at our great urgency, hurried into a pinnace before the night was out with only the clothes on our backs. A hasty message was sent in the darkest hour of night to Martin Frizer, a doctor with chambers near Moorgate, and the round-cheeked physician, cowled and armed with a silver-hilted sword, arrived breathless at the summons. One glance at the ready-to-depart Lord Admiral, and an earnest plea from my master, and Martin Frizer promised to preserve the life of our patient Titus Cox “as God gives me the power.”
I had not been able to bid farewell to dark-haired Jane, or give the chambers that had been my home anything more than a hurried backward glance. All was haste, a solitary rat darting across Fenchurch Street as pikemen escorted us through the night-stunned city toward a wherry that hurried us toward the Admiralty docks. My master had explained that Drake and the Lord Admiral were working fast to complete the fleet and sail before the Queen, who was more changeable than weather, could withdraw her permission for the voyage.
I gave none of this a thought now as our pinnace took on speed, her ropes taut, the cheerful seaman at the helm calling out that if we kept this pace we'd catch theGolden Lionon her course for Plymouth. Mudhens along the river bank scurried awkwardly, and a chalk white horse watched us pass, our wake stirring the reeds.
We were the sole gentle passengers on this ship, but there was a crew and a cargo, bales of straw packed into the hold, and small wooden kegs, each marked with a red daub I recognized as the Admiralty's insignia. These barrels were ranked in tight rows, and held tightly in place by the straw. There were so many of these kegs that the hatch could not be closed, and bits of straw spun off into the wind. I would have taken the containers to be rare wines, knowing that sailors enjoyed their drink whether land-bound or at sea, except that the barrels were double-lashed with new black iron hoops, thick and sturdy.
My master took a cup of morning wine with the vessel's captain, a short-legged mariner with a well-trimmed beard. I asked a young man spreading a thick canvas over the hatch, protecting the kegs from the rising spray, what the nature of our cargo might be.
He laughed. “Such a cargo as could carry us well, sir, and carry us far, all the way into the sky.” He extended his explanation by adding, “Such cargo as could turn us into carrion, sir.”
At that moment the canvas flapped, a great, breathy thunder, caught by a sudden wind. The captain gave a great cry, and the canvas would have taken off across the river if I had not reached for it, fumbled, and held on.
I kept a grip on the edge, and stretched the canvas tight while a seaman tied it into place.
“Well done, sir,” said the young man. He leaned close to me. “Our hold is stuffed with gunpowder,” he said. “Black as hearth dust and packed tight in kegs, for the culverins and serpentines of the fleet.”
I nodded, as though I quite naturally understood such mattersâwhich in part I did. Culverins were cannon of great girth, made for lobbing shot high and far. Serpentines were long-barreled guns. I had seenâand heardâgunnery practice in London just outside Bishopsgate, the bronze and iron pieces primed and fired with volumes of blue smoke, and I had dreamed of firing such a gun myself some day.
But this was real gunpowder, not the stuff of my imaginings, and it was packed under our feet. “It's safely stored, I see,” I offered with the air of a man who cares nothing for his own safety.
“Nothing in the nature of gunpowder is safe, sir,” said my new friend with a laugh. “I've seen a cask of new-mixed fine-grain blow up as soon as sunlight hit it. No, sir, you'd be wise to pray the straw doesn't heat up in the hold, and blast us to Gravesend.”
It was true that decaying straw, like manure in a pile, can ferment and grow warm. But I doubted that this clean straw could flicker into flame. My skepticism was confirmed by the twinkle in my new friend's eye.
“I'll work hard to surmount my fear,” I said in the dry tone I had heard my master use on men of heavy wit.
My new friend laughed again. “I'm called Jack Flagg,” he said. “I've signed on aboard theElizabeth Bonaventureas a gunner's mate.” He was my age, with a youthfully wispy beard, like mine, both of us trying to compete with the full sets of well-trimmed whiskers sported by the older men around us. He was liberally freckled, on both his face and his hands, and his eyes were sharp blue. Bruises marred his lively features, especially around his left eye, and his lower lip was swollen. His knuckles were scuffed, his right hand puffy, and I wondered if this injury had caused him trouble, grappling with the canvas.
I introduced myself, and wanted to add: and I have cured fevers and picked a splinter from a gunner's eye.
Jack squared the long, tasseled cap he wore more squarely on his head and said, “We have both corn powder, coarse-grained, and serpentine powder, fine as sifted flour, but a gentleman like yourself is safe enough. It's the gunners who risk their lives, sir, not a scholarly surgeon's mate, such as yourself.”
I had noticed that kind-hearted seamen in the tavern often took an attitude toward me that was both respectful and patronizing. Respectful because I was the son of a gentleman, and assistant to a gentle doctor, and because I could read both Latin and English. But patronizing because they had sailed before the wind, ice-daggers glittering in the rigging, while I had been studying learned treatises on the varieties of vomit.
Jack went on, “I was sent to the arsenal to collect this shipment of powder, and make sure it didn't get wet.”
I envied this young man, still unable to sprout a full beard and yet entrusted with such an important duty.
“I would have disembarked last night,” he added, “but I had my wits knocked out of my head by a giant and three of his mates outside the Red Rose Inn.” He lowered his voice and confided, “I cannot drink wine or beer without swelling up in a fighting mood.”
This explained the bruises, where someone's right fist had found its target. And it further impressed me. This was a youth of spirit, already a man of the world. To further dampen my pride, I had stowed my rapier in a large chest, near the sea bag that held spare stockings and my cloak. Jack Flagg sported a seaman's dirkâa short, all-purpose knife in a leather sheath at his hip.
“But no doubt you have had many medical adventures,” said Jack warmly, perhaps recognizing that his personal accounts had put me in his shadow. “You've certainly stuffed wounds with gun-wadding in your time, and sawn off limbs by the dozen.”
I looked aft, to make certain I was out of earshot of my master, and lied. “I've cut off more legs than I can count.”
“Have you then?” said Jack, his eyes wide with respect.
“Of course,” I added, and as I spoke I reached out to a strand of rigging, fine-woven rope, to steady myself against the bucking of our vessel. It was not strictly an untruth. I had cut off none.
A voice called out from the helm, a husky bawl, “Hands off the sheets, sir,” someone directed me, “lest you spoil her trim.” Or words to that effectâthe accent was strange to my ear and the sailing terms all but foreign.
Jack clapped a hand on the rail.
“Keep your balance,” he said, with every show of kindness, “like this.”
With spray in my eyes, I suffered the indignity of being shown how to hang on to a rail.
The two days we spent sailing from the mouth of the Thames along the coast westward to Plymouth were celebrated by the crew of our pinnace as a speedy voyage, and well favored by the wind. Before noon on the first day we passed theGolden Lioncutting a pretty wake but slower than our vessel. Her sailors called out greetings.
For me it was a time spent seasick, so much so that I found a place in the prow, and let the wind refresh my spirits. My master, too, looked pale as pudding, and he said this was to be expected until “like old sailors we goat-foot around the deck.”
He was rightâI was feeling hale and seaman-like by the time we reached Plymouth.
The harbor was crowded with ships' boats and barges, packet boats for carrying messages, and carracks for delivering freight. The warships themselves were packed close, robust, brightly painted vessels, each ship a towering web of rigging, sails tight-furled. Rumor was that privateers raked the coast, legalized pirates of several nations. Merchants and fishermen alike had hurried into harbor, grateful for the protection of the Queen's fighting ships.
I tried to spy our flagshipâand our famous admiralâbut could make out little in the crowd of shipping. I had seen Drake himself once or twice before, from a great distance. His river-boat had been pointed out to me, a long, low vessel painted red and gold, with silk pennants fluttering, carrying the famous red-whiskered mariner to Parliament, where he served. I had remarked to myself more than once that we were alike in the coloring of our hair, an unusual carrot-bright hue, and that we both hailed from the same West Country moorlands.
Our pinnace, propelled by oars, threaded through the crowd of ships' tenders and shallops, vessels used to carry messages from shore to ship. The harbor was at first glance haphazard, frigates nearly tangling with warships. But soon a brisk pattern emerged, and by the time we glided toward the inner harbor what had seemed chaos now looked like a well-ordered hive, ships' provisions lined along the distant wharf, barrels being lowered into lightersâsupply boatsâand the sing-song of orders being called out in every anchored hull we passed.
We approached a vessel painted a dazzling black and white, the scent of fresh paint in the air. TheElizabeth Bonaventurewas a big ship. She had proud castles fore and aft, but her appearance was sleek, her newly pitched rigging hanging dark and stiff in the gray afternoon. Her masts were festooned with flags and pennons, none of them stirringâexcept one.
This flag toyed with the wind, emblazoned with a red-winged dragon, its talons wrapped around the globe.
It was the crest of Sir Francis Drake.
“Heave hard there,” a voice sang out, “or she'll crush us all flat.”
Hovering over the ship, and high above our pinnace, a wooden crane lowered a large crate. The load shuddered downward, shadow swaying. Through the slats of the crate, rows of cannon balls gave off a dull, leaden gleam.
“Saker balls,” said Jack Flagg at my side. I recognized the pleasant smile he gave me, an expert showing off his special knowledge. “The saker uses smaller shot than most guns, although the falconets aboard this ship will fire the smallest shot of all, the size of pigeons' eggs.”
My heart quickened.
I had, in years past, played at war with my friends among the pig-troughs and millponds, flailing away with a wooden sword. Now I doubted the wisdom of entrusting my life to such a fighting vessel. I gazed upward, my ears alive with the sounds of orders, quick-barked commands, and the rhythmic songs of men heaving, and heaving again.
A high-pitched metal whistling rose and fell, a sweet but plaintive signal which I recognized from my own dock-side wanderings as a boatswain's call. I thrilled at this sour music, even as I hesitated, unsure how to clamber up the ladder of knotted rope that had been flung down to us.
“Come along, Tom,” called my master eagerly, already up and over the wale of the ship high above.
I climbed upward, laboring, using the webbed cordage as a foothold, hand over hand. I slipped twice, and Jack Flagg reached back to help me.
My friend would have said something welcoming, or perhaps cheerfully challengingâhis eyes were alight with friendship. But a ferocious voice demanded that if he did not stow every keg of powder in the magazine by dark he'd be “flayed alive and rolled in salt.”
The gray-haired master gunner gave a wry smile, the corners of his mouth turned down, as though to soften his speech, but he made an unmistakable gesture: hurry! Jack vanished back into the pinnace at once, and soon the kegs were handed up and carried across by a chain of men, into the ship's hold.
It was all so strange to my eyes and ears, and so ripe with dangerâfrom the powder kegs to the pikes carried by the soldiersâthat I was afraid to make a move, sure that I would be impaled on some dirk or grappling hook. The gray-cloaked soldiers handed firearms down into the hold carefully. They were harquebussesâportable weapons made to be held against the shoulder, and discharged into an enemy.
As I watched, a load of shot, blue-black and round, broke free from a crate and struck a long, slim-barreled gun on the main deck with a resounding report. The stoutly built gunner let forth a bellow, and men scampered after the rolling shot, seizing the offending balls as they made their way heavily across the deck. The master gunner knelt beside the long-barreled gun and examined it carefully. He ran his finger along the seam where, at some point in the past, smiths had joined the two halves of this formidable weapon.
A dark-haired gentleman with a well-trimmed beard separated from a group of seamen. He took a coin-sized object from an inner pocket and held it in the flat of his hand, adjusting his stance to catch the sunlight. He returned the miniature sun-dial to his pocket and made his way toward us, eyeing us as he came, a smile of greeting fixed upon his face, his eyes alight with inquiry.
“I am Sam Foxcroft, the ship's master,” he announced himself simply. “I'm just in receipt of word from the Admiralty regarding our newly appointed medical men.”
William swept his cap from his head and gave a handsome demonstration of a courteous bow, and I was quick to follow his example. The ship's captain and William exchanged appropriate pleasantries, but I was aware of the captain's glance, weighing and testing us.
Captain Foxcroft was dressed much like my master, in a blue wool cloak and doublet, and high boots. “I am advised that our worthy naval surgeon Titus Cox is in need of our prayers.”
“I have emptied many a cup of sack-wine with my good friend Titus,” said my master. “In our university days we were rivals for a certain lady's affections,” he added. “A lady of qualityâshe presented me with a hart-bone manicure set, I am sorry to report, but to Titus she gave a pomander filled with cloves.”
Captain Foxcroft smiled at this. The clove was a spice celebrating loveâit was used to flavor wine and to sweeten the air. “An old friend of Titus will be most welcome,” said the ship's master, sparing me not another glance but explaining to William where the surgeon's quarters could be found, and adding, “We have two hundred and fifty men aboard a ship that can be worked by a score or less.”
“We sail with a battalion!” said William.
Captain Foxcroft nodded, but he was already turning away, calling out orders in tart naval language.
Admiral Drake would not captain the ship himself, my master explained as we entered the shadowy interior of the vesselâthose duties would be discharged by Samuel Foxcroft. The admiral would be free to contemplate military matters, and stay out of sight, no doubt with a chart and compass.
The interior of our ship was like the inside of a great wooden house, with many stories of pegged oak floors, ladders leading from one level to the other. Great cannon lined the gun deck, but wood-joints creaked all around, just like any city dwelling of timber. At times I could not stand upright below-decksâthe ceilings were low and crossed with heavy wooden beams. But most of the sailors were short men, and scrambled easily through the badly illuminated living and storage places.
Our berth was a little chamber beneath the ship's aft castle, with shelves of medical supplies ordered some weeks past by Titus Cox. The surgeon's cabin was very small, but most dwelling rooms in London were little larger, a small room being easier to heat and keep tidy.
The ship's below-decks may have resembled a house, but they did not smell like one. Sulfur had been burned to fumigate rats out of the hold, and vinegar had been employed to cleanse the ballastâthe stones in the ship's hold that kept her steady in the waves. And through the odor of new paint rose the permeating perfume of the salt sea.
My master examined his own bone saws before he hung them on hooks provided for just such items, the broad-toothed tools for large limbs, and the glittering whipsaw, the sort a chair maker might useâor a surgeon cutting a hand at the wrist. Titus's supplies included clay containers of spearmint syrup and others of dried mace, useful against lung diseases, and aqua vitaeâdistilled spiritsâuseful against pain. There was even a jug of opium-wine, my master noted approvingly. But he chuckled sadly when he took down an earthenware container and slipped off its wax-cloth lid.
A glistening, dark gray worm, as large as my fist, slowly felt its way along the mouth of the jug.
“Titus,” said my master, “would never sail without his leeches.”
Somewhere above there was a muffled crash. The ship shivered almost imperceptibly. A cry rose, an involuntary, wordless wail of pain.
From the hatchway came the scuffling, stumbling procession of feet as someone was helped, half-dragged, half-carried, down the steps.
“Doctors, by your leave,” said a sailor, stiff with good manners. “If you please, sirs, a seaman has squashed his finger.”
I always braced myself before I took in the sight of an injury, and I became quietly apprehensive now at the sounds as they approachedâstifled cries of agony. His fellows were reassuring him, “The two doctors will see you right, Davy.”
My master and I cleared a space on the pinewood table in our cramped cabin.
A young man, suntanned and bearded, gritted his teeth against the pain, blood flowing from a finger crushed flat. His fellows supported him, their weathered faces lined with concern. “Davy Wyott here suffered a great accident,” said a seaman formally, as though describing an event many weeks past. “A heavy barrel of beer, if it please you, sirs, fell down upon his hand.”
“I was helping to lower it into the hold,” said Davy, pale under his sun-browned complexion, “and the poxy rope slipped.”
My master shook his head sympathetically, and bid the gathered seamen a good dayâthere was no room for so many concerned faces in our tiny cabin. When we were alone with our patient, William made a low, airy whistle. “You managed to splinter the bone, Davy.”
The seaman laughed, through his pain, at his own bad judgment. “I thought I could carry the beer, but it carried me, all the way down, with only my hand between it and the planking.” He chattered anxiously, adding, with a frightened laugh, “I've seen a sailing man die of a mangled finger before.”
“So have we all,” said my master. “We've watched injuries like this sour and poison many a strong young man.”
“Before their time!” howled Davy.
“But we'll keep you in the world of the living, yet,” said my master kindly. “Hold the injury still,” said my master to me, moving the oil lamp closer to the bloody sight. The middle digit of Davy Wyott's left hand was flattened, blood bubbling.
To his patient my master said, “A quick blow with a keen edge, Davy, and you'll die an old and toothless mariner, many winters from now.” To me he added, “A cup of spirits of wine, if you please, Thomas, for our brave patient. And the chopper from the hook.”
The cleaver, he meant.
The blade gleaming on the wall.
“Is there no way,” quailed our patient, “to save the poor, mashed thing?”
My master gave a gentle smile. “My dear Davy, it's only one wee finger.”
The patient drank down the amber-colored aqua vitae, a good quantity. I gave him a second serving, and he drank that straight down, too. “Merciful doctors, you are,” he gasped earnestly when he had quaffed the spirits, “both of you.”
I did my best to look kind and wise, but I never did like amputations. I had never performed one, nor did I want toâI had a particular horror of the sudden violence such operations demanded. My master spoke to me, partly in Latin to disguise our consultation, “Thesinistral ossa metacarpaliaas a whole is sound, Tom.” The hand, he meant, was uninjured, except for the crushed finger.
“Bene, bene,” I said, trying to sound breezy and unconcerned. Davy nodded at the sound of Latin wordsâmedical novices had been known to utter Latin-sounding nonsense to impress and reassure patients.
“Ordinarily,” my master continued in slow-cadenced, calming Latin, “an operation would be carried out under the sky, where there is more space and light.”
I was ready to agree that it would be hard to envision a more cramped setting. In clear, gentle English, my master instructed Davy to pray, and the patient echoed the words, his voice ragged.
“Almighty and merciful God,” my master intoned, “extend your goodness to us, your servants, who are grieved and in great need of your love.” It was the prayer my master always used at such times, and Davy followed along, his words slurring as the distilled spirits dulled his tongue.
At the final phrase, “with Thee in life everlasting,” my master lifted the chopper.
“No, please, wait!” cried our patient, jerking his hand, my strength not enough to steady him.
“Fetch the mallet, Tom, if you will,” directed my master in a whisper.
Where it was necessary, a blow to the head would render a patient unconscious. Doctors provided themselves with a wooden mallet for just this purpose, and I had used it on a few patients beforeâthe task required a judicious touch in order to stun but not to permanently injure. I retrieved this hammer from the place where it was suspended on the wall, and Davy began to beg, “No, don't batter my skull, worthy doctors, please leave my head whole.”
Distracted by the mere sight of the mallet in my hands, Davy was not watching the cleaver.
I never had to use the hammer. Davy screamed, half in pain and half in wonderment, at the suddenness of the chopper's blow. The poor wreck of a finger, no bigger than a chicken bone, fell with a chime into the basin.
After this vivid adventure in medicine, I was surprised to see that we were still snugly in port, having voyaged nowhere.
I glanced around for a glimpse of our famous admiral. Everywhere I saw shipboard bustle, but no sign of the legendary Drake.
I had never seen any city except London, and had expected Plymouth to be a sleepy port, with peaked roofs in a row. But even from the wharf it was plain that this was a town with taverns of the rougher sort, dung heaps up and down the meandering streets, lean cats scrambling out of the way of staggering sailors.
TheGolden Lionhad arrived at last, nosing her way toward the wharf, and every seaman and officer knew that this was a night to drink and sport, because at the next ebb tide the fleet might take us to sea.
“Are you hungry, Thomas?” asked my master as I followed him. He surveyed the crowded, muddy by-ways of this port, wondering aloud which doubtful, smoky lane promised the best food. A dust-colored torn cat observed me from a coil of hemp rope, but when I reached to scratch his head the cat hissed.
We had left Davy Wyott at peace with the world because of the drink he had swallowed, a ship's boy in attendance, spirit-flask nearby. I was very hungry, and thirsty, too. But when I saw two seamen wrestling each other in a puddle, surrounded by cheering crewmates, I asked my master's leave. I hurried back to the ship, into our cabin for my sword, and my master's blade, too.
“Only a seaman dare sup or drink in Plymouth,” said Jack with a wink, sitting on the deck of the ship. He was pulling on his boots, and had put on a new cap, with a red feather. Such feathers are pretty, but dyed. A golden fighting cock's plumeâa color ordained by natureâangled from my own hat.
“A gentleman like you,” said Jack with a laugh, “even with a sword, will be a fawn among lions, if you'll forgive me.”
I offered Jack our protection in return, with what I thought was a manly laugh. “So if you find yourself in rough company, we can save your skin.”
“A rapier is not a cleaver, by God,” said Jack. “Or a surgeon's mallet, either.”
I had noticed glances of interest and, I thought, respect from our shipmates. Talk of our capable treatment of Davy Wyott's injury had evidently spread.
My master and I found an inn called the Mitre and Parrot.
We dined there on mutton, hearty slices of it, hot and served on slabs of brown bread. We drank a thick, sweet beer, and were soon content.
We sat with our feet before the fire, and my master told me in detail of the mermaid again. It was a story I had come to love, if only for the mood that came over my master when he spun the tale. Sometimes calledmeermaidsormerewives, these sea-sirens showed themselves as a special favor to men of character. To see one was a sign of great good luck, and to hear one speak a rare wonder.
“She had long, streaming tresses,” he reminisced, as often before, “and dazzling green skin.”
He paused, no doubt seeing her again in his mind. “She looked right at me, Tom, as sure as I'm a Christian. She parted her lips and she spoke.” He shook his head. “By the time I called to the boatswainâa good fellow, but slow-footedâshe was gone.”
It was my part, now, to ask the question I always did at this point in the tale. “What did she say to you, my lord?”
He gave a thoughtful laugh.
My master's mind was a quilt, skepticism and critical reason stitched neatly within seemly faith and prayer. He had taught me that the representations of eyeballs and hearts in the expensively printed books were “fanciful, no more like real organs than a puppet is like a man.” The only way to learn, he had taught me, was to question. At the same time, he often surveyed the star charts before an important operation, believing that a retrograde Saturn or unlucky moon could slow a patient's recovery.
When men at a nearby tavern table rattled a dice cup and called out, “Who'll share a wager?” my master gave me a pained smile and shook his head.
“We are new men, now, aren't we, Tom?”
When we agreed that we could eat no moreâand not, with any wisdom, drink any more beerâwe stepped out into the street. It was dark, except for a few pitch lamps, and we made our way down toward the harbor.
“The mermaid said my name that morning,” said my master, continuing his tale much later, now that we were free of the tavern's din. This part of the story had great meaning for him, and he did not like to speak of it lightly. “She spoke my Christian name.William. Very clearly pronounced.”
“It was a powerful omen,” I said, as I always did.
Usually, the story having been told, my master entered into a happy discourse on such omens, and praised astrologers at the expense of mere magiciansâmen and women who read the future with the help of the mottles on a sheep's liver. Astrologers read the stars, and were quite respectableâevery royal court had at least one.
But this night my master did not expand on the stars and their mysterious powers. He took my arm and said, “Listen!”
As we entered the domain of catsâthe entire parish having an acrid, feline scent to itâwe heard the grunt and gasping of a fight, booted feet striking a body.
A familiar voice cried out for help.
My master strode forward, calling out, “Enough work for one night, gentlemen rufflersâleave off.”
Arufflerwas a vagabond, a humorous, wryly mocking term. My master approached four figures. Two of the men were armed with clubsâknobby, ugly lengths of woodâand two more looked on. They were jeering, plumed fellows, rapiers at their hips.
The squirming, injured figure at their feet stirred, gasping for breath. He looked up at us in the dim light.
At once I put my hand to my hilt.
The victim of these brutes was none other than my friend Jack Flagg. Red blood flowed hard from a gash in his nose, and Jack's eyes met mine. He parted his lips to beg our helpâor to warn us away.
The street-brawlers drew their rapiers, each with a flourish I had to admire. I regretted in that instant that fencing tutors, and zeal for the art of swordplay, were common throughout our kingdom. Every ale house had its one-eyed sword master, wise in the ways of cold steel, and happy to impart ability to any student with a purse.
My master had his sword in hand, and he made a good show of knowing how the thing should be held. But the bone saw and the chopper were my master's true weapons, and he could no more cut a true circle in the air with his weapon than take wing across the star-splashed sky.
My master certainly looked capable, however. There in the darkness, the puddles gilded with the light from pitch lamps and candles, William engaged the attention of the shorter and slighter of the two swordsman, while I took my fighting stance against a tall, heavily built man with high boots.
Teachers are common enoughâbut good teachers are treasures. Giacomo di Angelo had told me that if I followed his lessons, drilled into me by months of sweat, I need fear no man.
My opponent was evidently used to the cut-and-thrust school of sword-work, dashing my blade aside, lunging for my upper thighs and groin, where even an inaccurate attack could be painful and crippling. This brutal attack surprised meâbefore now all my supposed enemies had been fellow students, careful to avoid causing injury.
If you would strike fast, my teacher used to tell me, you must strike straight. I thrust at my opponent's right knee, desperate to disable him, but he blocked my lunge with ease. I knocked my enemy's blade down and away, kicking at it with my boot. He nearly dropped it, and I closed on him, striking him hard on the temple with the hilt-end of my weapon.
The muscular swordsman collapsed, sprawling, puddle-water quaking around him. I knelt briefly, to make sure he was still breathing, and then I rose and strode hard into the man attacking my master. I kicked this stout street-fighter hard, right in his padded breeches. He howled, and turned and closed upon me at once, scissoring one leg through mine, trying to drive me into the wet street. We teetered, and fell, and as we struck the wet street a loud snap echoed from the surrounding eaves and chimneys.
We both leaped immediately to our feet. I knelt and plucked a sword-half from the ground. To my surpriseâperhaps out of some dim, misguided sense of honorâI found myself handing this length of broken rapier back to my sweating opponent.
“Ah, you're a true penny,” he panted, sarcastically. “Break a man's sword and expect him to smith it new.”
I made a bow, ready to recommence our struggle.
To my surpriseâand reliefâhe laughed. He struck me on the shoulderâhard, but with an unmistakable air of good-natured retirement. He and his fellow townsmen dragged their friend from the puddle, and vanished up a side street.
“You're a pair of fighting doctors, by Jesus,” Jack addressed us shakily as I helped him out of the mud. “I am beyond thankful to see you.”
“You fought with your face, by all appearances,” I said, sorry to see my friend so badly battered. My master was quick in dabbing at the bridge of Jack's bleeding face with a linen kerchief.
“There's a woman in the tale,” said Jack with an air of jaunty regret. “She wanted silver, and I had been led to believe that her interest in me was true love. I protested, and with no further ado she called her brothers or her father, and a gang of pirates. They would have killed me.” He sniffed. “I cannot drink and keep from fighting.”
But then Jack fell silent.
A man in a padded doublet and jerkin that made him look massive strode down upon us through the dim lamplight, splashing puddles with his boots. He was a constable, outfitted just like the lawmen of London. He sported a high-peaked, broad-brimmed hat and stout dark gloves that stretched nearly all the way to each elbow. Instead of a sword he carried a mace, a spiked knob on the end of a short staff, a symbol of the law's authorityâand a potentially deadly weapon.
“Gentlemen,” he called after us, “save your fighting humors for the Spanish.”
I woke in theElizabeth Bonaventure.
The vessel was a noisy, exciting place at such a time. Feet pounded along the deck over our heads, commands were called outâ“Quick, there!” “Heave with a will”âand other shouted orders I found more mysterious than Dutch. My master was pulling on his boots, and swallowing a cup of wine, his usual breakfast.
He wished me a good morning, with a heartiness I had rarely seen in him before, and hurried out of our cramped cabin. His boots resounded on the companionwayâthe steps from one deck to anotherâas he ascended into daylight.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the polished metal disk my master and I used as a looking glass. My red hair waselfedâtangled into the knots and curls folk say is the work of fairy-like creatures in the night. I did what I could with my appearance, knowing all the while that seasoned fighting men would be observing me that day, judging whether I would be a capable shipmate or not.
A trumpet sang out.
I thrilled. The tune was a traditional call, something I had only dreamed of hearing, a signal to all the ships in the fleet.To sea, to sea.
I felt the scrape of the boat, and the welcoming greetings, as the harbor pilot arrived. I climbed on deck, blinking in the sunlight, as Captain Foxcroft gave out commands in an even voice, and a mate sang them out in turn. A chant accompanied much of the work as the ship turned, alive in the water, and we began to make our way.
“Isn't it a sight to bring joy, Tom?” said William.
It was indeed. Sails followed us, theGolden Lion, with the rest of our fleet in her wake. William Borough, the vice-admiral, sailed on our sister warship, a man with a reputation for clever navigation and stubborn quarrels. Captain Foxcroft gazed back at the warship in our wake. Harbor collisions were common in every port, and tides sometimes shifted shoals that troubled the progress of vessels.
But we were safely away.
A crisp wind blew, and every man with a rope to knot or a gun to secure was hard at workâthe swells were strong enough to loosen anything that was not fastened tightly. Spray lashed the air, and the masts and rigging groaned under the press of canvas.
We were a trim fleet, but smaller than I would have expected: several warships, seven or eight merchant ships recently outfitted with guns, and a scattering of smaller vessels. Ale-drinking mariners had expressed the opinion in my hearing that as many as forty Spanish ships might crowd the harbor of Cadiz, with war galleys and armed galleons primed to defend them. Our own ship was fortified by a whiskery set of soldiers, who even now polished their breastplates and began to be seasick. It would not be a short journey. The Atlantic port of Cadiz was over one thousand English miles from home. We would skirt the western shores of France, and the coast of Portugal, as we sailed south, all the way to Spanish waters.
The wind continued fresh. We soon began to leave theGolden Lionand the rest of the fleet far behind.
We were a crowded ship, but every man had a task. The seamen in their plain gray slopsâa mariner's ill-fitting garmentsâcontrasted with the brightly colored jerkins of the sergeants, and the plumes of a few gentlemen who had evidently joined the force.
I kept a sharp eye on the quarterdeck where Captain Foxcroft was directing the crew. Surely soon, I thought, the famous sea-knight would make his appearance.
But as yet I caught no glimpse of Admiral Drake.
To my surprise, Davy Wyott called an energetic greeting. He waved a heavily bandaged hand from a yard arm above, where he worked with his fellow sailors. I had heard that mariners were as tough as boxwood, and now I began to believe it.
I gave a wave in return, and found Jack Flagg leaning into the spray, setting his feet with a practiced air against the liveliness of our ship. I staggered, unbalanced, and would have fallen if he had not held out a strong, callused hand. I would have asked my experienced new friend how such a small navy might weigh in against the best Spanish ships, but I was afraid of exposing some new ignorance in myself.
Jack's nose was scored across the ridge with a cut that might well leave a lasting scar, and one eye was swollen. “They teach young doctors how to use a sword,” said Jack, for the benefit of his mates.
Jack's master was a thick-set man called Ross Bagot, the gray-haired gunner I had seen the day before. “The rapier,” scoffed the master with a friendly dismissiveness. “It's a pretty but trifling weapon.”
My pride stirred, but I kept my silence.
“Let's show Tom here what our guns can do,” Jack implored his master.
His gunner responded by turning down his mouth, an upside-down smile that indicated a decided negative. But at the same time the veteran's eye twinkled. He cast his gaze upward, eyed the empty blue sky, and made his way aft to the place where Captain Foxcroft and my own master William were in conference, each gentleman eating a slice of white bread.
It was easy to mark the progress of the conversation that followed, the gray-haired gunner seeking permission, the captain considering. William joined in with excited pleasure, gesturing toward the guns on the main deck.
Most of our ship's cannon were arrayed on the gun deck below, the gunports closed tight against the heaving of the sea. A few of the more slender, pretty weapons gleamed on the main deck, however, and Jack Flagg was giving one of these cast-bronze guns a possessive wipe with a fine white rag.
At last the captain gave a nod of assent.
We were well out to sea, the fleet trailing far behind, England already a receding shadow of land. The morning sun was warm, but in the shadow of mast and sail the air was bitterly cold.
I stayed beside my master, both of us just out of the way of the gunners. “Something about the whiff of gunpowder,” William was saying, “has always set my pulse beating fast. How about you, Tomâdon't you love a great noise?”
I had seen the bombards fired on feast days, and reveled in the amounts of smoke the cannon made. In truth, I had always considered myself a young man who loved the reports of such war engines, along with drums and the minstrel's pipe.
But this morning I felt the slightest fever of anxiety, some ill-humor quickening in me, and making me wish for calm and quiet. I didn't want to dampen my master's boyish joy in anticipating the gunfire, however. “Nothing, sir, pleases me so much as a deafening noise,” I joked, my feet planted wide against the restless sea.
The long, narrow gun I had observed the day beforeâthe one that had nearly been damaged in an accidentâglinted brighter than ever in the sunlight. The master gunner fed the round opening at the end of the barrel with a carefully measured amount of blue-black powder.
Jack used a long wooden rod to tamp this powder into place, and then forced a wad of cloth after it, running the rod in and out. A small shot, no bigger than a quail's egg, was set into the mouth. So closely did this ball fit the circumference of the barrel that careful effort was required to force it all the way down. The master gunner himself tapped the rod home to satisfy himself that the gun was well charged.
“The worst thing in a gun is windage,” my master explained to me knowingly. “That's the space between the ball and the inside of the gun. Too much windage and the shot flies feebly.”
“If the gentleman would be pleased,” said Ross, giving my master a nod. He indicated a smoking wick, held by one of the mates, a smoldering, glowing stub of knotted fiber the man blew on to keep alive.
“It would please me,” said William, “if Tom here would be allowed the honor.”
Ross Bagot looked at me with a ponderous dignity, a glimmer of good humor in his eyes. “Are you sure this young gentleman,” asked the master gunner, “is equal to the task?”
“Anything I could do,” said William, “young Thomas here could do with the same steady hand.”
The master gunner smiled.
I hesitated, like anyone of good sense, before such a momentous act. But I did not stay my hand for more than a heartbeat or two. I accepted the glowing wick, and heard the gunner's instructions even as I braced myself for what I knew would be a very loud report.
But then the gray-haired gunner gripped my arm.
He hissed into my ear, “Stand straight!”
Feet shuffled as an air of respectful quietâeven nervous fearâswept the men. I stood as squarely and calmly as I could, my eyes searching for the cause of this sudden alarm.
A gentleman in a scarlet doublet gazed down at us from the quarterdeck.
He surveyed us for a long moment.
He wore a closely trimmed red beard, and sported yellow kid gloves on his hands, a gold-knobbed sword at his hip. Many of the men had seized their caps from the deck and thrust them onto their heads, a show of respect. Every one of us recognized Admiral Drake, and I sensed that each of us felt caught in the midst of some unready act.
Captain Foxcroft hurried up the steps to the side of his lord. We could all see his greeting, and hear, in our respectful hush, the word of explanation. “The surgeon's mate, getting a whiff of gun smoke, Admiral, if it please you.”
The Admiral Drake looked right into my eyes. Perhaps he remarked to himself the similarity in our coloring, both of us with the same red hair. He gave me a smile. This pleased me greatly, and I stood as straight as any man on deck. Then he took us all in with another glance before he spoke in a quiet voice.
I caught the sound of Admiral Drake's words, his accent like the folk of my home town near the River Tavy. “Yes, Captain Foxcroft,” he said, “give the men a taste of black powder.”
“Touch it into the hole, there, in the breech of the gun,” whispered the master gunner with fresh excitement. “Now, young sir, if it please you. Right in there,” he added fervently, pointing with a gnarled, big-knuckled forefinger.
Not me, I wanted to protest.
Just thenâwith the storied sea-knight looking on, and every other crew member on the ship casting their eyes my way with envy and anticipationâI could not move.
William leaned toward me. “Come on, Tomâit's as easy as kiss-the-duchess,” he said with a wink.
I hesitated, blowing nervously on the glowing wick. Jack Flagg smiled and rolled his eyes. I was grateful for the good humor of his mock-scowl: hurry!
I stepped forward, wasting not a further moment, and I thrust the glowing wick into the touch hole.
I held my breath.
I thrust the wick in farther, all the way in, my knuckles on the cold gold-brown bronze of the gun.
The next moment, I was lying flat on the wooden deck.
In my surprise, I did not know why I was there. High above me loomed the mainmast, a sail billowing with the breeze, rigging taut and black against blue sky. I puzzled out what must have happened.
A sick fear gripped me.
I was coughing by then, the thick stink of sweet-acrid sulfur in my nostrils. I tried to lift my head but I could not control the sinews of my neck and arms. Even my eyes were failing me, stinging with the smoke. Jack was kneeling beside me, and seamen gazed down at me, their features creased with concern.
I was nearly deaf, too, even as I struggled onto one elbow, and worked myself to my feet, Jack helping me. I read the words on his lips, but even then took a shaky moment to comprehend.
A gun had burst.Thegun, the one I had fired.
I understood this all now.
I put my hands to my head, reassured to feel my skull in one piece. Jack was beseeching me to tell him if I was hurt badly. I could not answer, upright on my weak, unsteady legs. Like a drunkard far gone in wine I pieced together what I would say, some weak jest, as soon as I could move my lips.
I groped across the deck through metal fragments that my hands and booted feet struck and knocked aside, bits of what looked like a bronze bell shattered and strewn about the planks. I did not know fully what I sought, or what person. I felt my way through the thick, parting smoke, and fell to my knees beside the stretched form of my master.
I seized his hand and rubbed it, to work life into his pulse, as I had seen done by William himself in reviving a patient suffering a swoon. I tugged at his arm, and spoke, my voice muffled and strange in my own ears.
I implored him to speak to me.
Hands stretched out, other men coming to my aid, but I did not have a glance for them, or a thought. I bent down over my master hearing my own, foreign-sounding voice like a sound from many fathoms down, calling for him to look at me. I begged him to turn his eyes and look into mine. I put my hands on his chest, and on the pulse points of his neck, but my senses were too unsteady to be trusted, a ringing sound in my ears.
My master's unseeing eyes were unmoving, his limbs slack where he sprawled on the deck. His pupils were fixed and wide. A fragment of dark bronze was fixed in the center of his forehead, a ragged star shape of metal, a fine trickle of blood threading down, across his temple, to the wooden planks.
Ross Bagot put a hand out to me. I was beginning to be able to make out sounds as Captain Foxcroft joined him, his steps causing subtle vibrations in the deck. The captain addressed me solicitously, words I still could not hear clearly. The smoke had been driven clear by the wind now, and I wondered which of these men to send for medicines, vinegar to splash on my master's face, spirits of wine to awaken his tongue.
I caught the eye of a ship's boy, a wide-eyed lad with hair the color of straw. My voice was heavy, my words sluggish, as I directed the lad. “Bring me the doctor's satchel from the shelf.”
The boy stared. The captain murmured something to the child, and he scampered off. I leaned over my master and slapped his cheeks. I told him we'd see him right, and very soon, too, imitating the manner and speech William himself had employed during similar crises.
The ship's boy hurried back with my master's satchel, and I found the lancet and bleeding cup within. I would open a vein and drain a cup of bloodâa sure remedy for a host of emergencies.
Like many fighting ships, our vessel had a man of God on board, a straw-haired man with a wispy yellow beard, with no ornament to show that he was a cleric. With every show of prayerfulness this man knelt beside me. I was grateful at the sound of Our Father, in straight-forward prayer-book English. Christ Jesus would aid my master's recovery.
I was confused, too. More than confusedâthe prayer awakened me to a feeling of inexpressible uncertainty. The chaplain offered a prayer for “our departed shipmate,” and I felt an unsteady surge of anger.
My master was not dead, I wanted to protest, and it was unseemly in the extreme to pretend that he was. I put out a hand to silence the chaplain, and Jack Flagg put his arm around me, despite my protest, saying, “Come away, Tom.”
The chaplain and my friend the gunner's mate were both misguided. My master could look to me for good judgment. I would open a vein, release the dark humors that had captured my master's senses, and he would be sitting up and asking for a cup of rhenish wine in no time at all.
“On deck there,” sounded a clear, commanding voice that cut through the ringing in my ears.
The captain, the gunner, and all the present ship's company on the main deck straightened immediately.
Admiral Drake leaned over the quarterdeck rail and gave the order, “Take the surgeon's mate into my cabin.”
Firm hands seized my arms.
“And Captain Foxcroft,” the admiral added crisply, “look to the ship.”
I sat in an oak-paneled cabin.
Pewter flagons perched on a shelf, held in place by a restraining rail against the movement of the ship. Rolled-up charts peeked out of leather sleeves, sepia coastlines marked with dark brown writing. A compass was fastened to the tabletop, set within a box and kept steady by gimbals, brass pivots that secured the compasss against the motion of the swells.
A ship's boy brought a pitcher and poured cider into one of the flagons, a large drinking vessel with a hinged lid, and set it before me.
“Admiral Drake sends his best compliments,” said the lad, my hearing improving with each heartbeat, “and begs you await him with good cheer.”
Despite my numb senses, the fact that I was about to have an interview with the great sea fighter made me apprehensive. Was I going to be blamed for the accident with the gun, and its consequence? William would be very angry with me, when he recovered.
The lad left me alone with my disordered fears. I would be accused of some felony, and spend the voyage in chains, my future among rats. I made no move to drink, although I kept my hand on the flagon to keep it from skittering off the table.
I stood at once as Admiral Drake entered the cabin.
His cheeks were ruddy, flecks of spray even now soaking into his brightly colored doublet. He unfastened the rapier from his waist, and set the weapon on the floor. He motioned for me to sit, but I would not.
He poured cider from a silver pitcher and drank.
“He's dead,” said Admiral Drake.
My ears were still ringing somewhat, but I could make out his speech, and indeed the subtle sounds of the ship all round, clearly enough. The admiral's words, however, carried no meaning that I wished to take in.
The admiral continued, “We'll have the prayer book service for burial at sea this evening, at the set of sun. It is a pity. He was a good doctor, and an honest man by every account, but now he's gone to God.”
I kept my mind a perfect blank.
“You understand me, don't you?” said the admiral in a gentle but probing voice.
“I need to go to him,” I heard myself manage to say.
“Your master is killed,” he said, “as you must know. The gun burst into pieces. It's rare but not unheard of. A fragment smote him, and you will not serve him anymore.”
His accent was very much that of the Dartmoor neighbors of my boyhood.Yew-er mauster iss killt.
“I know far more about medicine,” I said, forgetting every courtesy, “than any of this ship's company.” I was immediately ashamed of myself for speaking so bluntly to this great man, and I silenced myself.
“It delights me to hear it,” said the admiral. “But your master is with Jesus.”
Each heartbeat hammered this tidings into me. I looked away. I closed my eyes and opened them again, perhaps hoping that this ship's cabin, the vessel, would prove a mere nightmare.
“Then,” I rasped, “I must go back to England.”
“How?” he asked.
“In one of the ship's boats,” I said. “A pinnace, perhaps.”
He gave a gentle laugh. “Thomas, you will voyage with us.”
“But with no master to serveâ” I faltered.
I wept, then, wordless, a breaking of my soul that left me baying like a beast for a long while.
When I could speak again, I heard the admiral's gentle command, “Take a sip of good cider, Thomas. And sit down.”
I did sit, and the admiral joined me, pouring himself another serving of golden brown cider. I could not keep from noticing that he handled both the pitcher and the flagon a little clumsily, using his gloved right hand sparingly.
“Sir, I will go home,” I insisted, taking a swallow of this strong, warming drink.
“And leave my ship without a surgeon, Thomas?”
“I am no surgeon, my Lord Admiral.” Despite my great grief I was clear-headed enough to employ proper courtesy.
“If I say you are a surgeon,” said Admiral Drake, “then you are one.”
“I know too little of green bile,” I protested, “or the dangers of excess phlegm, or the right quantity of aniseed for curing feverâif that is what it's for.”
“A surgeon bleeds the feverish,” said the admiral, “cuts off the blasted limb that offends the body's health, and gives strength to the uneasy soul.” He leaned forward. “We are two red-haired men with accents much alike, and I'll wager you, too, have a preference for cider over beer.”
“I like beer as well as ciderâ” But I recognized the truth in what the admiral was asserting. Our cider is a bracing fermented drink, and West Country apples are renowned.
“Your family must have lived near mine, Thomas.”
“I was a boy in Moreton.”
“Not a day's walk from Tavistock,” said the admiral, “where my family fished the river and milked the cows for many a year.”
“I know,” I said truthfully, “that every hamlet of Dartmoor is proud to be associated with your fame.”
“We're two fellows who waded the River Tavy,” said the famous knight with a brisk good cheer. “And I'll not see you turn into a coward over the death of your good master.”
Coward or not, I wanted to respond, my own honor did not matter to me.
“Do you think your master is the last man you'll see dead within the fortnight, Thomas Spyre?” continued Admiral Drake. “We're voyaging to singe the beard of the king of Spain, right into the harbor of Cadiz. There we'll burn everything we can set spark to, and you'll see Spanish blood. It will run down the decks. You'll win glory and perhaps a fewrealsof Papist gold. And you'll be surgeon of this ship, or I'll set a knotted lash to your back.”
“If my patients die, my lord,” I persisted woodenly, “if they sink away and lose their lives under my care, sir, the fault is yours.”
To my great puzzlementâand perhaps my reliefâthe admiral laughed. “Thomas, surgeons do little to save a man's life. What a doctor knows about the ways of breath and bone could be written on the side of a thimble. Our Lord Jesus cures us, or takes us, as he chooses. You'll be as sound a doctor as any under the sky, or I'm a goose.”
To my further surprise I found myself wryly smiling through my tears, understanding at least a part of the admiral's ironic view of my profession. “Because you have such a low opinion of medicine, you know I'm equal to the challenge.”
“I'll have the sailmaker stitch you a scholar's hat,” he replied, “a floppy one, the sort philosophers wear when they dispute the weight of the moon's shadow.”
I could not keep myself from laughing, despite my grief. “My Lord Admiral, dressing me like a learned gentleman will not make me one.”
“It will,” said Admiral Drake, “if I say it does.”
He spoke with such a spirit of self-assurance that I was dazzledâand very nearly convinced.
“Can you set a splint?” he asked with a smile.
“I have done it, sir.”
“And cauterize a wound?” he continued, his bright, steady eyes on mine.
Many doctors advised searing an injury, especially gunshot wounds, with a hot iron. My master had taught me that cauterizing did more harm than good. “My lord, if you desire it.”
“Tell me, Thomasâhow old are you?”
I recalled then my vow to the Admiralty in London, swearing that I would spy on this great Englishman. Such a promise could not be lightly broken. It would be an advantage to my mission to stay on as surgeon.