Fiction · Literary Wisdom · Short Story · The Prince of the Black Death

The Prince of the Black Death, Part the First

“The world of Hamlet is a world where one has lost one’s way….I believe that we read Hamlet’s speeches with interest chiefly because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed.”

C.S. Lewis

Due to the Plague so lately fallen upon the People of England, so too doth this rever’d Playhouse, long beloved to all in the Community, close in humble Solidarity with the Closing of the Lives by Blackness, no Determination of Opening withal. Set upon this day, 31 October 1596, in the Reign of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I.

So read the plaque of brass nailed upon the doors of the Globe, and so read the man brushing the gentle evening snow off its embossed letters and sides. Every time that he ventured out of his cozy home in Stratford-upon-Avon, it seemed, he had always to halt his journey to look up once again at the harrowing sign of the playhouse, as if with the dawning of each day came an erasing of its truth.

And yet, what was there to suggest it wasn’t true? Last winter had been a good one. Sure, he did not believe that he had yet written anything truly monumental, but there the crowds sat, all round the balconies and across the groundling floor, all having trod through the deepest of snows to see for themselves this reputably great poet—a poet who, after granting a few…tolerable manuscripts to the troupe, had not a care in the world, who lay by the fire and did as he had always wished with his wife and children throughout the winter. In those days, money arrived from a dream of feverish composition. 

But now, he thought, shaking his head mournfully at the snowflakes on his once-polished shoes, money falls not from visions of the ethereal, but from my pockets. 

He turned away from the sign and trod blearily on through Maiden Lane in London. All I know is despair. The butcher’s, where, after the publication of Venus and Adonis, he had purchased a ham for his mother and father, now lay inactive for a grotesquely mysterious duration. The smith’s, where, just before he had married, he’d purchased a set of silverware for his beloved Anne, now lay neglected for what felt like an infinite first Passover. The tailor’s, where, three days preceding his first daughter’s birth, he had bought the infant her first lace dress, now lay in the choking dust of the Black Plague. Choking…death…pain…

All I desire is hope.

He crossed Blackfriars Bridge, standing for a moment to gaze upon the river beneath him, now turned frosted and glaring by the blinding light of the afternoon sun. Now that he thought of it, he had never passed this river in the season of chills. Somehow he had always imagined the Thames as the quintessential liquid evergreen—ever laughing, never daunted. Yet now it frowned and failed. What, could such an ostensibly holy sight as this truly fail to bring life to the ever-pure maiden, the ever-set apart, blessed friar? If this surging river, which seemed to me as the emblem of ceaseless joy, could halt its pursuit in the wink of God, what true hope can my heart truly bear? The chapped-skinned gentleman bore these thoughts with him as he plodded his agonising ascent of Ludgate Hill, and his thoughts’ severities never diminished. By the time he stood across the church at St. Paul’s, he refused to take note. Holborn, the Oxford Road, Hyde Park, London—all faded before him like a dream, into which spell, ever so cruelly decreed by Queen Mab though it was, his weariness could not resist.

He awoke the next morning on the wayside of the Edgehill road, wiping the ice that had wafted upon his pale white face in the middle of the night. Now, instead of the weariness that had defined the previous day, what with its severe economic disappointment and the shock that had not ceased to torment him as a result, a mood bubbling toward ire trickled into his bosom. The adders of his mind pierced him with thoughts of his humble life’s unfairness. With each new sign that stated simply, “Adderbury”, his bitterness would ascend one small increment closer to sheer anger. No one stopped to help him; those who were struggling with the plague were also diagnosed with cottage fever by the law, and even those few who did not struggle could not bring themselves to help a man scowling such as he did. 

At nine o’clock, he’d lost his footing and tumbled onto and below thin ice. He escaped with his life, but that didn’t seem neither pleasant nor of any great importance at the moment.

At eleven-thirty, he had exited the town of Adderbury, only to have a ring—indeed, the selfsame jewelry given him by his wife on last year’s anniversary—stolen from him by scheming highwaymen. He had been napping, but only for a mere five minutes. The Englishman cursed his misfortune, wept accordingly for his wife’s ill-treated tenderness, and kicked a loose stone on the orangish frostbit sand in the road near deserted.

At two o’clock, he had entered Banbury and stepped upon the remains of a dead man, all the marks of the plague etched grotesquely on his countenance and abdomen. Three men by the river, living only as skeletons, heard the trampling and sprinted as ghosts toward the poor poet. “Curses upon your sorry head!” they howled. “Cannot you, surrounded by the frailties of death, reach over your pride to extend the simplest dignities which deserves this disgracefully slaughtered man? Foul weather beat your hide!” The pilgrim begged his pardon and for his purging as he fled bitterly out of the village, but his prayers were only answered by endless curses and the splashing of the river. The men had been floating the one he had downtrodden to his final peace.

At four-thirty, the man in madness could not bear his anger any longer. He now stood upon that portion of the road overlooking Edgehill. Though that more practical portion begged him to tread faithfully on upon the road, the nagging swirls of feeling drowned his reason and urged him on to the wild green sod, a dismal storm conspiring just above his head.

“O, all you wicked people of England! Cannot you see my plight? Look how sorrowfully you use me! Are you blind? O, most treacherous England”—he waved his sword over his broken doublet—“if ever you loved me true, grant to me this final wish! Let the battle atween my joys and my sorrows reach the eternal armistice—let me find my hope in death!

The dagger he saw before him rusted as the skies poured forth their rainy darts. He lay upon the ground in a faint.

Softness. The perfume of violets and long purples. Cool water trickling down his aching throat. Light.

“My dearest—oh, darling, can you awake once again?”

The wanderer, now cured from his madness, opened his eyes to the radiance of a gentle and pretty lady.

“My dearest Anne.”

As the snowflake falls and trembles to the ground before it melts away, so this most becoming lady now appeared stricken by a living death, her tears and her nightgown adding to her pallor. She had been weeping with her hands and face upon his bosom, but at the music of his voice, she smiled.

“My love.”

Wearily yet firmly the Englishman struggled off the couch. He entwined his arms around the waist of his wife and kissed her. At least it brought a bit more colour to her skin, he thought, and dropped haphazardly again onto the luxurious cushions.

“Poor dearest one,” the angel said. “You must needs be exhausted. I have been waiting for you. Here—will not you have a bit of tea or biscuit?” 

She held his favourite flavour of tea, Melancholy Dane, and warm, though dry and unleavened, “biscuit” on a tray and drew it to her beloved’s mouth, but he turned away. 

“That selfsame biscuit was from the latest funeral,” he said, “so I feel that I should not eat it as a token of our loving marriage. But in any instance, I cannot eat.”

“I know,” she said. “But at least I could dream of nourishing you. I can make you anything I have left.”

“You are too good, fair lady,” he said.

“I truly desire to be my best. Did—?”

“I was able to give my sonnets to the papers, but I’m afraid I do not have enough moneys to pay for all our necessaries.”

Anne sat next to her despairing husband on the sofa, disappointed at his news but completely willing to make amendments as her beloved saw fit. “What must we do?”

The man settled in his gloom as he buried his face in his hands. “I would say we should sell your jewelry, but truly I know your love for those adornments and what honor they bring you, since ladies feel of little value—and are treated with the same—without them.”

“I would sell my gold for you, dearest—anything.”

“No, it is too much to ask of you. You are too lovely for sacrifice.”

“No lady is truly a lady without some measure of willingness to give up her own comforts.”

“That is true.”

The Englishman and his wife stared at the flames beneath their mantel, watching it struggle successfully against the cold. Each stray pale speck of whiteness was no match for a crumb of orange fire. How simple, he thought. If the life of humanity were that kind, I should know no bounds to my thanks.

“My lord?”

“Yes, my sweet?”

Anne leaned her head against the poet’s shoulder and kept her eyes on the flames. Yet somehow her spiritual sight looked above them. “I…I know it’s difficult to write such marvels as you do, and I know the playhouse is closed for heaven knows how long, but do you think you could use this time alone with your thoughts to create another drama?”

He turned to his wife, a bit irritated. “How?”

She pulled from his cold glance. “I…I don’t know. I just thought that—well, I know that plays are the great love of your life, and I want to see you happy again. And then maybe—just maybe—we could go back to comfortable life more quickly after this plague storms through.”

“I have thought of that.” The man placed his arm round the shoulders of his wife and pointed. “Do you see how quickly each innocent fall of snow is consumed by the invincible flame?”

“I do.”

“That is the manner in which my mind now functions, Anne. Every attempt I make to think of an idea, every time I feel as if I have a message that I must share with my fellow men, a devil eats the idea for his meals and rages out in drunken laughter over it. For Heaven’s sake, even if I do have a potentially rewarding spark of my imagination, I cannot know how to put it into words, or I simply think myself ill-fitted to do it. I am desperate, my dear Anne. I know not if I am able to continue my playwriting. Surely my sonnets receive much praise by men and are the only means by which this family subsists, yet I feel they are rather too lacking in difficulty. It does not only have a rigid meter, but rhyming requirements and a definite conclusion. Are fourteen lines, dear Anne, too much to ask of a poet? To that conclusion I laugh. All writing requires severe concentration, but a play is more infinite in its intricacy—and therefore more infinite in its range of quality.”

After his soliloquy, the man turned aside to his pale wife and, teary-eyed, kissed her again. “Doubt never, my dear Anne, the worth of the love you have so generously granted me. Truly…truly such love is all that can sustain me at this moment—or at any moment in my life, for that manner.”

Silence settled over them once more as the fire waned and then vanished. It was too cold, too horrid a time for any fire to burn as long as it is customarily wonted to burn. Nature herself seemed to scorn the idea that any family should have any spot of warmth while their neighbors were slowly descending from wonders to worms. When her husband kissed her, Anne flushed, then rekindled the fire. She returned to the sofa after the fire was restored.

“Oh, dearest one…how I wish I could comfort you! But I’m afraid my news will only increase your weariness.”

“Is there anything that truly could do so?” The man embraced his shuddering wife. “Yet do tell me, my love. I can bear anything that troubles you.”

It may seem from this scene that this desolate husband lay completely unaware of what ill fortune his wife was about to relate, but in his heart, he had dreaded it for months. It pained him to come home, not only because he could not bear as much money as he would like with him, in order to satisfy his family’s longings for peace, but because he now had to confront directly the swirl of gloom that had compelled all the civilisation along his path home to cease for what seemed to be forever.

“Our son…our dear only son…is perishing quickly…” She lifted her teary eyes to her husband and continued: “He…he has no hope of living through till tomorrow.”

Anne wept as tenderly as one could expect any such grieving mother to grieve, lying her head on her husband’s bosom as if through this her gesture, she might flee from her troubles and find a tangible rest. 

Yes, it had been coming—and now the end is here. Yet how—oh, the despicable “how”—can I bear it?

When a man cannot stand, he falls. So, too, did this noble husband. Strong though he was, the suffering was much too close for his soul not to jump and shudder at the burning. He fell on his knees near the hearth.

“Oh, God above, if You can truly hear and heed my prayers, please think on them with Your holy favour. I doubt whether I have earned one of Your most noble ears, but I have a son—my only son—who no longer can take breath. If You are good, if You were not weary as I am, I know that You would take this cup from us, but why do you tease our lips with sucking poison? I cannot understand—I cannot—I cannot!”

The agonizing man shouted this last cry for help half bitterly, half with the sheerest melancholy. By this time, his wife had dried her tears, or at least had gathered her spirits enough to kiss her husband and say, 

“He wanted to see you.”

The man stood instantly yet feebly up. Mortified that he had not immediately trod up the stair to visit his son, that instead he had raged against a circumstance in front of which he was utterly helpless and vain, he nodded to his wife. 

“If I can provide my child with any fatherly affection in his last hours, I will do it, even if it prove that I am mad and empty and…desperate to show and to find love…”

His voice trailed off, in full accordance with the smoke and ashes that now were the entire remains of the fire that had once been in the hearth. The moon rose beyond the window. 

What of my boy?