The young man had tearstains on his face. Not much surprise there, his pretty wife was dead, thought Mrs Trinity Creavy. He had wrapped her neatly in a nice new linen sheet to do duty as a shroud in spite of the law, and carried her in his arms to bury. Her face was blue and her tongue stuck out slightly. Dead, yes, definitely. But of what? She tried to focus but there was too much booze in the way.
“She was well yesterday,” mumbled the lad, “Perfectly well and she… then she said she had a headache and she felt tired.”
“Oh,” said Mrs Creavy, squinting through the booze. Would this be another fee for her? “Anything else?”
“She said her neck hurt and her armpits and her legs,” blubbered the lad, “But I didn’t think anything of it and then she… she went to bed and I went for a drink with my mates and then… And then when I got back I was boozed up so I had a drink with the Reverend Pendry and then I went to sleep and I thought she was sleeping and I woke up and went to work and came back and she was still in bed, still in the same position and so I knew… and she was. She was dead.”
“Ah,” said Mrs Creavy. That didn’t sound quite right but never mind. When you die your body fights. But the girl was definitely dead now.
The lad laid the body on top of another knight and put his face between his hands and strangled the sounds he was making. He had big raw hands that were hard inside.
“So you came to me,” said Mrs Creavy, nodding wisely, which was a mistake because the dark crypt started swimming. “Good. Cos we both know what, don’t we?”
“It can’t be,”said the lad who wasn’t wearing his waterman’s livery coat of scarlet wool but old clothes, an old woollen doublet going back to the boy King’s reign, shouldn’t wonder. “She was perfectly well.”
“Yes of course, that’s how it goes, innit?” said Mrs Creavy, sighing theatrically, “Fine one minute, headache the next, dead the next. Plague. God’s scourge.”
She had said the word. Now she would see if he took the bait. She was the Searcher of Bodies for St Brides and it was always a steady earner because no matter what, there was always a steady harvest of people taken by the plague. Usually they were children, of course, but every so often you got what you might call a bumper year.
The boy – well, he was probably in his twenties but everyone under the age of 40 looked like a child to Mrs Creavy – leaned against a knight of old, with one stone leg awkwardly folded under him, she always wondered why some of them were like that – and snortled through his fingers. They were in St Bride’s crypt, and apart from a couple of black candles, they were in shadows deeper than the ones outside, which were deep enough on a cloudy autumn night.
“But I can’t… I can’t be…”
“What? You can’t be shut up in your house?”
He ought not to be anywhere. He should have stayed in his house and sent for the St Bride’s plague-searcher, Elias Fold or herself, to come out and inspect her body and he knew it too, so that meant he was up to no good, for all his tears. But then lots of people didn’t do what they should do because they always hoped that it wasn’t plague. So they brought the body out to the churchyard, causing bad airs, and then they usually found that it was plague, but by that time somebody had had time to get out to the shops and buy food and ale so they wouldn’t starve to death. Of course, by that time the bad airs that reeked out of somebody with plague for six weeks before they got sick, by that time the bad airs had given everybody at the shop plague so locking them up for six weeks was a bit hopeless. But what could you do?
“I’ve only been back from the Tiger for a couple of weeks,” he burbled, “I can’t afford it.”
Who could? “What if you give plague to your passengers, eh?” Mrs Creavy didn’t really care: so what if they took plague from him, it was more business for her? She could never catch it again.
“It isn’t plague!”
“Oh. What is it?”
Mrs Creavy gave him a fishy look. “She’s quite solid, ain’t she?” she said, “not hardly what I’d call a skellington, now.” They looked at the dead girl, her body curled in its shroud now the stiffness was gone, not too bad a smell considering, too dark to really see the face though.
The boy straightened up and looked around the crypt in quite a touchingly conspiratorial way. Mrs Creavy thought she had better hurry the business up or they might be there all night. It wasn’t as if it was hard to work out what he wanted.
“Now then,” she said sternly, “this here wife of yours died of plague. She did. Like many another, I might say, round here in the Liberties specially. Died of plague and you none the wiser.”
He was staring straight at her, eyes red. She folded her arms.
“What I should do is mark her dead of plague and bury her quick in the common grave what we dug last Saturday night and send Mr Fold round to paint a red cross on your door and lock you in. Yes?”
Nothing. The candle light carved planes of his strong-jawed young face so that he looked like a particularly noble saint from the old days when the churches had been full of them, St George maybe. Another tear rolled down and he wiped it off with the back of his hand. He was big too. Not that tall, but wide. Definitely a waterman and apprenticed from a boy too, by someone that could feed him well, the big thick-fingered hands told you that. Oh he must cause flutters if he took a party of women across to the bearbaiting, no doubt about that. But she hadn’t felt flutters for years now, and didn’t plan to.
“So,” she said, “which bit of what I should be doing, do ye want me to leave out? Eh?”
The young face hardened and he swallowed. “Bury her as a plague death but don’t call Mr Fold.”
“Hmm. Can I do that? I’m not sure?”
He fished in his crotch and pulled out a silver shilling. Now that was more like it. “Oh,” she said tonelessly, “I’m sure I can’t do such a thing.”
Another shilling joined the first. And then another. Well it wasn’t lack of money that was behind his not wanting to be locked up.”
He read her mind, looked at the stone floor with the Latin carvings in it. “I’m scared, Mrs Creavy,” he said awkwardly, “I’m scared to be in the house, even with Reverend Pendry there… In case she… she walks.”
Mrs Creavy nodded. Well they did, sometimes. Plague came on you so suddenly, often times you was puzzled to know you was dead and went awalking about trying to talk to people. Any kind of sudden death could do that, mind.
“You want me to bury her as a plague death in the common grave but not tell anyone.”
He nodded. A sixpence joined the three bright shillings winking at her from his horny palm.
Seconds later they had disappeared under her stays. A small bottle of aqua vitae came from the same place and she took a good nip, re-establishing the blurred edges of the world. She even offered him some because of the generous sixpence but he shook his head.
“You can’t come to the plague grave,”she warned him, “You got to go away. What’s her name?”
“Mary. Mary Smith.”
In a pig’s eye, she thought. She had seen him before at church, quite regular he was, but she had never been interested in his name. Truth to tell, she often didn’t come to church when the plague was hot, she was too busy. His name definitely was not Smith, though she could not think what it was now.
There were plenty of Smiths around the Liberties, hardly any of them the true name. What did it matter, anyway?
She found the tally stick for women stuck in her belt and marked another death, for the priest to put in the register. There were six other tally sticks in her house for this week alone. Normally there were twenty deaths a week from plague in a crowded London parish like St Bride’s, mostly children. You could tell next year was going to be a good one – it was autumn and getting colder and the numbers like that? By next summer, if she lived that long, she would have enough money for a nice little house to be a pension for her. She had picked one out already. Of course, booze was expensive.
“Off you go, Mr Smith,” she said to him. He paused and then he did a stupid thing, if it really was plague. He started for the stairs but then he stopped, turned, went and embraced the corpse of his wife, holding her head delicately as if she could still feel, and kissed the mouth. He whispered words that sounded like “sorry, sorry” and tucked something under the shroud. Then he finally stumbled up the stairs, blindly like someone with smallpox.
Mrs Creavy sighed, went over and had a fish for what he had left and pulled it out. At first she thought it was just a rough pebble but when she brought it closer to the candle, she laughed. Young men were so romantic and daft: it was a good thing she had put a stop to that.
“Daniel!” she shouted up the stair, “We’ve got another one.”
Daniel her son came shambling down the stairs. She smiled to see him – he always looked so puzzled, bless him, and he was usually puzzled. She knew she could never marry him off because what he was showed too clearly in the big broad brow and the unlined features. He wasn’t one of them chinese-looking ones, with slitty eyes and a big tongue, they were simple from the start. No Daniel was simple now but he hadn’t been once. In the old days he would have gone into a monastery as a lay brother but now what could you do with him if you didn’t have a lord?
Daniel came over and squinted at the woman, wrapped in her shroud. He stroked her hair.
“Pretty,” he said sadly. “She’s pretty.”
Mrs Creavy hadn’t seen it, what with the blue and the sticking out tongue, but maybe. Perhaps she was pretty. He stroked her face too.
Daniel often got upset, especially with the girls and she didn’t want any of that.
“Yes, well, you take her up to Old Simon and Sir John, and get on with the others too, you hear?”
Gently as if he too thought she could still feel, Daniel took the wrapped body on his shoulder and went upstairs with her easily, followed by Mrs Creavy a little wobbly from the drink.
She could see a tall thin man with carrotty hair there, already waiting, holding a small corpse. Another one.
“I’ll be with you in a minute, sir,” she said, adding the sir in respect to his shiny boots. The man’s face was bent into shadow, crying probably. They almost always cried, specially for the younger ones. It was a boy, not very old, quite skinny, wrapped in a sheet not a shroud. Probably not plague with that one, probably a fever or the squits.
Mrs Creavy wondered when it was she had stopped feeling a lump in her throat, especially for the little ones, the children. Babies were pretty much slugs in linen, adults just part of the day’s work, but children? When did she stop feeling sad about children?
She picked up one of the candles by the crypt entrance to light her way, though Daniel didn’t need it. He never missed a step even in the upper churchyard. They were going to the lower churchyard, the new one for the overspill.
Through the gate, over to the left where there was a long deep pit ready dug, hard against the new wall. They covered it over in daytime of course, no point making it obvious. The smell of death was thick around them but she was used to it, though the plague did something evil to your innards that made you rot quicker. Sometimes before you were even dead.
Old Simon the gravedigger was there, along of Young Simon, his grandson, a thoughtful lad of twelve years. There was a neat row of bodies waiting, all simply wrapped in the statutory woollen shroud or sometimes just in bedsheets if the family couldn’t afford shroud money or had no time to buy one. And old Sir John Gosport was there, the Papist priest from Queen Mary’s reign, so the girl not called Mary Smith, she would at least get a bit of a send off. Sir John sometimes sang the Dies Irae for the dead, after they had been buried under a thin layer of earth ready for the next lot. Mrs Creavy couldn’t get used to the modern way of calling priests “father” – she was too set in her ways. You called them Sir John because they were important, got the spirit to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, they did, no matter what they said about it now. Got the spirit to turn plain well-water into Holy Water too, against ghosts and ghouls and demons. Old Nan, the cleaner, always said that St Bride’s Well was already holy but Mrs Creavy didn’t think so. It was just water, wasn’t it? When once Sir John had said his Latin over it, then the water was holy. The spirit stuck too. Just because Sir John was old and a little wandered in his wits, didn’t mean he had lost the spirit, no indeed.
Daniel put the body down on the end of the row as gently as if she was only sleeping and covered the face with the top folds of the shroud so it was decent. He sighed as he did it, said something peculiar. “Good bye, Betty,” he mumbled, “See you later.” Why did he do that?
But it was pointless to ask him: he couldn’t tell her why he did things.
“Right, mum?” he asked.
“You help Old Simon,” she told him, “Come along back later, I’ve got another customer.”
“Yes, mum.” He smiled at the old man and picked up the shovel. “See how quick, Old Simon!”
“Yes, you’re quick, Dan my boy. You’re quick.”
Sir John had already started chanting the Latin, holding a small book but not looking at it. It was Papist but who cared what kind of service plague victims got, the thing was to get them in the ground quickly and make sure they stayed there with some kind of prayers, that was all.
Oh oh, Daniel had stopped digging, turned to her with a frown on his face. She knew what was coming next and sighed.
“Plague won’t get me, will it?”
She sighed. He always asked at some point in the night and it was sad to tell him. Because he had been a bright little boy before, full of questions and funny little tales.
“No Dan, see, we’ve both had it. Remember? A long time ago when you was little?” He had been born when the new Queen came in and the plague had been hot a few years later, she had lost count of when exactly. “First your dad got it and he died. Then your big sister got it and she died. We were all locked up in the house, remember?”
He frowned uncertainly, he didn’t remember. Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t.
“And then I got it and I got the buboes and they burst so I got better.” Unconsciously she put her hand to the side of her neck where the biggest one had been, nearly choked her, it did. There was a flat scar the size of a baby’s hand. “And you got it too and you got buboes and they burst and so you got better, Dan, isn’t that lucky?”
Now he put his hand to his neck and found the scars there. He smiled sunnily. “Oh yes. That’s when the Lady told me it would be all right.”
Mrs Creavy said nothing to that, she never did. If he believed he had seen Our Lady come to help him, that was fine by her. It was just a pity Our Lady hadn’t saved a bit more of his wits from the fever, that was all.
“Yes Dan, and you were. You’ve never been sick since.”
He smiled again. It broke her heart, that smile. To see such a gentle sweet smile on a grown man’s face.
“She was nice, the Lady,” he said. He bent to straighten the young woman where she waited in line for the last time. The shroud fell down from her face and he put it back respectfully.
“Look mum, see. She’s got them too.”
The movement of the shroud had shown the woman’s neck. Mrs Creavy paused and then brought a candle closer. It was true. The woman did have the shiny puckered scar that showed where a bubo had burst and healed. Well. So it could not be plague that killed her, notwithstanding she was dead. Mrs Creavy had never heard of anyone ever getting plague twice.
“Yes,” she said to Dan, “You’re a clever boy, now go help Old Simon with that fat one.”
Old Simon was having trouble with a man’s big body and so Dan went and picked up the legs so Old Simon didn’t have all the weight on the slings as he dropped him down into the pit.
Mrs Creavy looked again at the woman’s neck. There were more marks lower down. Deep dark bruises that went round her throat.
Oddly Mrs Creavy felt as if she had been struck in the chest. It wasn’t the first time, mind, by a long way, and she wished she had spotted it earlier because she could have got a lot more out of the young man for it. It was just that she had felt sorry for him.
Still. She might see him again. She covered the marks, covered the face, knotted the shroud so it wouldn’t come loose. She straightened and walked carefully because of the booze, up the churchyard and into the upper one, the older one, half full of little tumbledown shacks built of cast off pieces of wood. The tall thin man had gone but left the small corpse lying on the ground wrapped in his sheet. Sometimes they did that too though not often. There was no label on him to tell who he was so she supposed he was just one of the urchins who died like flies when the weather got cold and the gentleman had brought him along as a kindness. Dan would get to him when he came back from helping with the plague pit.
She went into the most respectable little house, nearest the church, quite comfortable now. Searchers were supposed to live in the churchyard during bad plague times so they didn’t infect the living.The beggars were not supposed to be there, but there wasn’t a lot she could do about them and sometimes they got plague or something else and died and she could carefully burn out their shacks.
At least she didn’t pay rent, which was a real mercy in this part of London where a shared bed in prison cost a penny a night. She unlocked the door and went in. She had a chimney and she had a little bed for herself near it and a kind of strong ledge with blankets on it for Dan. Sometimes she had a pig or a goat that lived under Dan’s ledge but not now because the pig had met his Maker in October when the pig-killer had come round and was now in barrels and bacon hanging in the chimney and sausages in links draped from the rafters, some hog’s cheese in the larder and a good liversausage needing eating too. She was proud of her huswifery and proud of her house. The roof was good reed thatch from the reed beds round Paris Garden and the walls double wattle with good London clay mixed with bull’s blood smeared on the outside. It was warm and snug and better than many had and one day she would have an actual house, a proper one with a front door that went into a hall with a plate cupboard in it and a parlour and a kitchen at the back and a room each upstairs for her and Daniel.
She latched the door after her and waited to be sure no one had followed her. Then she put the black candle she still had in the holder on the little table and brought out the thing she had taken from the dead girl, whatever her name was.
It glistened white in the golden light from the candle and she had to hold it near and turn it round several times to be sure she was not mistaking herself. She wished she hadn’t drunk so much bad aqua vitae too. It was a shining thing, a beauty. A pearl it was, a pearl the size of her thumbnail and pure white. A pearl like the ones you saw dangling on the Queen who had a passion for them, a pearl you could make into something else like a boat or a part of a unicorn and wear as a strange cunning jewel. Not her, of course, some great Court lady or lord. It was a pearl worth a fortune, a pearl that could buy her house for her, and that romantical fool had been willing to bury it with his woman, where its beauty would slowly die and rot.
And how had he got it, eh? That was the question. Where had he got it and why did he want to bury it with his wife? She thought hard about where to keep it and decided it must go in her moneybelt under her stays. You needed to keep pearls warm or they died too.