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

The Prince of the Black Death, Part the Second

“But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 19:14 KJV

Every step up, it seemed, reminded him of some dreadful fancy. At one point in the mounting, his mind drifted to when he had first talked with Anne about his son’s illness, when he had believed that there was no possible manner in which anyone who bore the name of notable power—God Himself, the Queen herself, and the like—could or would help his family, despite his ceaseless integrity and respect for such authorities. Another stair, and he thought of the days when not simply religious, but any sort of belief was living, undeniable, glorious—when nature herself would obey his image-bearer better than she did Adam himself. Surely fate was too cruel to inflict such pain upon a man unprepared! Yes, fortune’s wheel should have ceased its agonising roll when it witnessed his simple wish for and rest in goodness, but heaven help it, for it rolled on! And now he was entrenched in a realm of woe.

But soft!—our gentleman stepped over the threshold of his son’s door, and entered consequently into the stifling chamber. As he sealed the entryway, the air seemed to settle over his head like the sun’s rays penetrated a vast, empty wilderness. The gentleman or lady so circumstanced to dwell in such a spot might at first think of what a wonder it is to be so free, how within the alleged superiority of civilisation and man’s ceaseless, dragging ventures, he could never create a place so pleasant as a sunny field. Ah, yes, here was our gentleman’s intellect quieted, here was a place he could think in without the slightest interruption! What joy like intellectuals feel at the thought of knowing that the mind is free to think, as the detestable degradation of the world torturously chokes out every drop of the life-blood that is called man’s intelligence!

As the great Hand of the universe would have it, nevertheless, humanity eventually disintegrates in the sight of the sun. The sun may feel freeing, but in its essence it snares. Sooner, later—time often loses itself in man’s fancy—a man or lady in an open field will have nowhere to turn, and the bawling eye of Heaven will pour forth on him all his heat, till the poor man cannot help but think only of utter vulnerability—and of death.

And what was our gentleman to think of all this? How felt he the moment he had walked in the room, where a signal sense of inspiration and glory dwelt, and yet, where gloom and misery and stifling seemed at the very center? There is…something here…some little space for my mind to breathe and walk round…but all at once I also feel bare, as if I were standing on the edge of that bridge of the London friar, and a passerby told me to jump…Why, what is this meaning? Is it a pitiful show of helplessness against fate…or is it a glorious revelation of triumph for faith?

“Father?”

The sound of a child burst through the impending madness of his father, though he lay behind a curtain and lingered completely unseen, save for a dim shadow. If our gentleman had been a woman, and witnessed the awful plaintiveness of that cry, he would have gone through utter frailty and wept. Here, however, there was no chance for that, at least in his mind. Yes, it was the most melancholy cry he could ever listen to or dream up, but if his strength could inspire his son to carry on, he would show no sign of weakness, no sign of hurt…

He groaned.

“Father? Is…is that you?”

Wearily the father elapsed onto a chair near a worn wooden desk and placed his hands so as to render them a stand for his head. “Yes…yes, my son, I am your father. Yet there is no need to worry—“

“I…I heard everything you and Mum were saying…down the stair.”

The little boy coughed violently in every pause of his speech, and his voice, though plaintive, was hardly identifiable anymore, both in volume, evenness, and pitch. 

Oh, how our father wished to draw the curtains back to see his son’s final moments!—yet the curtains were not only forbidden by fellow humanity for individual welfare. No, there was something dreadful about them, something that separated him from life, something that shrouded his son in the arms of hell, purgatory, or heaven…he not only should not open them, but he literally could not…

“I…I’m sorry, Father, if that distresses you.”

“No, my son,” his father said, commanding harshly all his faculties to imitate reassurance. “No, you could not help it.” 

“Then…are you distressed about what happened in town?”

“Well, yes—but that is no matter for you to distress yourself about, my son…not in these hours…”

“But I want to help, Father.”

The older man looked up. Is this the selfsame youth who leaped into the Thames whilst I was on business, who attempted to fright any sort of vessel might be sailing with startling prophecies of their doom? Is this the selfsame boy who was not afraid to scare his mother with his mischievous behavior around little ladies and violent behavior around little gentlemen? Is he truly…my son?

“You…you do?”

“Yes.” At this utterance, the gentleman felt that if the boy were able to stand, he would have seen him stare down at his feet, shuffle them, and then clear his throat. “I…I know I’ve not been useful to my family…poor Judith and Susanna never do anything but keep house and frighten themselves because of me…but I think I’ve learned something on this deathbed, and maybe…maybe I could finally…help you.”

“What…what would you like to help with?” The elder gentleman, though proud of this transformation of his eleven-year-old son’s disposition, could not help but hold back with the last bit of his disbelief.

“You wanted to write…a play.”

Our English father almost laughed at the notion. “A play? Well…it would sustain this family, but heaven only knows how I could ever dream up another!” He allowed himself a light chuckle at this statement. “I am creatively expired, my son. Nothing could enable me to find inspiration in this muddy, dreary place.”

“I…I think I am at my happiest here.”

The bewildered poet blew a bit, again in disbelief. “What, happiest here? My dear son…I had the selfsame disposition as you when I was a lad, and I could tell you that little could top those days in gleeful feeling…save for my wedding and births of my children, but even then grown woes began to consume me, and I missed my days of innocence…or at least, utter freedom.”

“I’m not happy with that anymore, Father…I hear you and Mum talking downstairs, worrying about how we shall survive the next year, and I…I don’t…like myself. I should have listened to you…when times were easier. I’m sorry.”

“But…how are you happy in that reflection…in this condition?”

“Do you think…my answer…would help you get an idea for your play?’

“I already informed you, my son…I simply cannot write another.”

The shadow moved, revealing a flimsy arm and hand shape from what had before seemed no more than a frail lump with a heartwrenchingly small head. “I think…I think you can, Father. I love your plays, and…and Mum says that they only better as your…as your ‘canon expands like the petals of a maturing bud’….That’s what Mum said…and I believe it.”

“You do inspire me,” said the former playwright. “I…I know not whether I shall be able to write another play, but if it is your wish to share your story in these hours of horror, I shall take my pen and quill, and write what you say.”

“It is my death-wish,” said the little boy. “And I just know I can help.”

Feeling strangely renewed by his son’s eagerness to aid him in the elder man’s relatively minor distress, he lifted the cover of his oaken desk; revealed a quill, a bottle of ink, and parchment; and sat, with heavy, aching tears in his eyes, facing the shadows of his son.

“I am ready.”

“Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.”

Psalms 127:3 KJV

END OF PART THE SECOND

~Sarah Merly

March 16, 2019

Isaiah 53