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Sandgate Ward, Allhallows Parish, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
The rat knew, as soon as it woke up, that it was in port. The sharp tang of ocean air had been replaced by the enticing aroma of the town middens. The roll of the ship in response to the long sea swells had been superseded by the gentler but less predictable movements of a ship at anchor on the River Tyne. It was time to head into town for food and sex.
A few days later, lulled into complacency by a recent feast, it fell victim to a large tomcat. The cat, in turn, was startled into flight by the collapse of an inebriated keelman, just emerged from a nearby tavern, on the ground nearby.
This came too late to save the rat, however. As its corpse cooled, its cargo of fleas hopped off and searched about for a new, warm host, eventually choosing the inert body of the drunk. . . .
Wall Knoll Tower Ward, Allhallows Parish
Ralph Tailor stopped for a moment to watch half a dozen children at play. In this Year of Our Lord 1636, he was twenty-five years old; it seemed only yesterday that he had been a child himself.
His attention was drawn away from them by John Hunter and Hugh Ridley, waving to him from their perch on the town wall. Looking about, he spotted the nearest stairs up to the parapet. He clambered up them and then sat with his back to the river, alongside John and Hugh, in one of the crenellations. They had chosen a spot that was directly opposite Thomas Holmes' upper-story window on the other side of The Key. This was the street running parallel to and just within the Tyneside wall, from Sandhill in the west to Sand Gate in the east, and Holmes' home was close to the latter. Holmes' window was within a stone's throw of Sand Gate.
Holmes thus lived in Wall Knoll Tower Ward, as far southeast of Allhallows Church as one could go and remain within the city walls, It was one of the twenty-four wards of the city, each ward being entrusted with the defense of one of the towers or gates should the Scots invade.
Of course, as Thomas Holmes' dreadful illness evidenced, the invader that the people of Newcastle were most worried about now was not the Scots, but the plague, and it had no trouble surmounting the walls.
Ralph carefully placed his writing board on top of the parapet and set out his pen and ink within easy reach, where they wouldn't roll off, either. It was fortunate that this part of the wall, at least, was in good repair. It wouldn't do to give the children below cause to sing, "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall."
Ralph placed a sheet of parchment on the board, and weighed it down so it wouldn't be carried off by the wind.
"Thomas Holmes!" Ralph shouted. "Can you hear me?" After a few minutes, a face appeared in the window.
"Here. Do I know you? What do you want? I am too sick to talk for long."
"I am Ralph Tailor, scrivener. I am here to take your last will and testament, if it please you. Your cousin Hugh Ridley fetched me, and he and your kinsman-by-marriage, John Hunter, are here as witnesses."
"Ah, that is good."
Ralph wrote down the date, and then added this preface: On the day and year abovesaid, Thomas Holmes of Newcastle, a yeoman certified with the plague of pestilence, being of perfect remembrance, nuncupatively declares by word of mouth his will and testament, in the said words following, or words to that effect.
He squinted at Holmes. "Do you own any land, Holmes?"
"Land? What would I do with land? I am a keelman."
"I asked because an oral will cannot convey land. What bequests do you wish to make?"
"You want me to go on a quest? I am no Knight of the Round Table."
"Not 'quest. I said 'be-quest'; that is, what do you wish to give and to whom?"
"Well, now. There're my keel boats. I have a four-chauldron one, and a half of a five."
"You mean the second boat carries two and a half chauldrons of coal?"
"I think he means he has a one-half interest in a five-chauldron boat," said Hunter.
"What did you say, John? "
Hunter repeated himself.
"Yes, that's right, and the half-share should go to my cousin and servant Hugh. That is, if he should live so long."
"You mean Hugh Ridley?" asked Ralph. It was not unheard of in Newcastle for a man to have two cousins with the same name.
"Yes, that cousin," Holmes confirmed.
Ralph wrote, I give and bequeath unto my cousin and servant Hugh Ridley my half part in a coal boat. "Next?"
"Twenty shillings should go to my sister Ann Wilson, and the like to my brother William."
Ralph wrote down these bequests. "What else?" There was no answer. "Holmes, are you still there?" Ralph cried.
"I don't see him," said Hunter. "And all I can hear are the seagulls winging it between here and the Tyne. Ridley, go out to the house, see if he needs your help."
Ridley shuddered. "I dare not."
"If he doesn't return, is the will complete?" Hunter asked Ralph.
Ralph shook his head. "It doesn't sound like he covered everything. What about the residue of his estate? And even if he has covered everything, for the will to be valid, he must hear it read back to him, and acknowledge it by word or gesture."
Ralph fretted. Was it his duty as a scrivener to enter? Doctor Henryson, the town physician, had told Ralph that one might visit a plague-burdened house for as long as half an hour without contracting the dread disease—but only if one did so without fear. Fear would undo the body's natural resistance to the infection.
Ralph reminded himself of the words of the Twenty-Third Psalm: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. He could keep repeating those words. . . .
"Holmes! What of your wife? What of your daughters?" asked Hunter. "You've not provided for them, yet."
Or would Psalm Ninety-One be more efficacious? Ralph wondered. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
"Who gets the four-chauldron boat?" demanded Ridley.
Ralph frowned at him. "Both of you, use your ears not your mouths." They waited in silence, hoping that Holmes would speak again.
At last he did.
"Bide," said Holmes in a weak quavery voice. "Bide a moment." They waited, and at last he added, "I was overthrown, but I am better now. . . . Let me think . . . Twenty shillings for Jane, that's a Thompson now, and twenty for little Elizabeth." Ralph dutifully recorded this.
"And what's left for Ann."
Ralph wrote, And all the rest of my worldly goods, and other possessions moveable and unmoveable, such as remain after my debts and funeral expenses are paid and discharged, I give and bequeath onto my wife Anne Holmes.
"Is Anne to be your executor?" asked Ralph.
Ralph added, . . . whom I appoint Executor of this my will. He paused, conscious of the solemnity of the occasion and announced, "I will now read the will back to you, and you must confirm it."
After hearing it all, Holmes declared, "Yes, that is my will. Bless you."
Ralph wrote Witnesses hereof at the foot of the instrument. "Sign here!" he instructed Ridley and Hunter. Ridley just put down his mark, besides which Ralph added, Hugh Ridley, his Mark. Hunter demonstrated greater educational attainment, signing his full name in a firm if unadorned script.
Then Ralph signed. His signature was a marvel to behold. His "R" began with a confident stroke from right to left. It curliqued, descended to form the spine of the letter, rose through two G-clefs, and then ambled to the right to complete the character. The rest of his signature marched below the first stroke, with the "T" of "Tailor" being, in its own way, just as complex as the "R".
The signature was not merely functional, it was advertising; it proclaimed, this is the hand of a professional, a scrivener.
Ralph had come a long way for the orphan son of a Durham tanner.
St. Nicholas Parish
Robert Henryson, town physician for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was standing outside the church of Saint Nicholas, waiting for services to begin. The church was named after the fourth-century bishop of Myra, in Lycia, who became a patron saint of sailors. Indeed, a wavy pattern was cut into the first step of the church, in imitation of the waves of the sea.
Henryson looked up at the church's most distinctive feature, its steeple. It rose sixty-four yards above a square tower and had thirteen pinnacles and eight bells. The lantern suspended near the top of the spire was a beacon for navigation on the River Tyne. While it was the coal trade with London, Scotland, and the Low Countries that made Newcastle rich, many other goods were loaded or unloaded at its quays: salt from the pans of Shields, glass from the glasshouses east of Sandgate, grain from East Anglia, timber from Scandinavia and the Baltic.
A larger-than-usual crowd was gathered here. Rumors of plague had a way of encouraging attendance at services, at least until the number of cases rose to the point that men feared sitting in the pews next to their fellow man more than displeasing the Lord by their absence.