The beginning of my novel The Night Man Cometh is set during one of the most horrific times in human history, the time of the Black Plague. Even if the novel wasn't a horror story, setting it during that period would make at least a segment of it such. This isn’t a particularly pleasant subject, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating one…
There have been three major outbreaks of bubonic plague. The first, the Plague of Justinian, was the first documented outbreak occurring in the 6th and 7th centuries. In the 13th century, the more famous pandemic, which we call the Black Death, raged, killing 60% of Europe’s and the British Isles’ populations. The last outbreak occurred in the 1890’s and swept through China and India.
The Black Plague was believed to have been brought from China via the Silk Road. Also named the “Great Pestilence” or the “Great Plague”, contemporaries referred to it as the “Great Mortality.” It occurred at the end of the 13th century, during what would later be called the “Little Ice Age.”
Physicians in that time had only vague ideas of how to treat the disease; they also had little information on how to shield themselves or anyone else from its contagion. In order to protect himself as he treated patients, a physician wore a long gown of either leather or canvas, as well as leggings, gloves, boots, and hat, all coated with wax, with herbs and dried flowers embedded in it. A mask covered his face and was held in place by leather straps. It was shaped like a bird’s beak and hence, the title “beak doctor” came into being. The eyes of the mask were covered with glass lenses and the beak itself was filled with dried flowers and aromatic herbs, the idea being that their scent would displace the evil “miasma” of the plague.
The “Doctor of Plague” or “Beak Doctor” also carried long wooden dowels which were used to point out areas on the body needing treatment and also perform other tasks without touching the patient, such as taking the pulse. (The sketch at the right is a copy of "The Beak Doctor of Rome" done in 1656 by Paul Furst.)
The Black Death was truly a devastating time for humanity and one can only hope it is never visited upon us again. There are, however, at least a dozen reported cases of plague in the US every year, concentrated in the Southwest. In 2009, there were 6 cases in New Mexico. On May 14, 2011, a man in New Mexico had the dubious distinction to be the first person infected this year. Around the world, there are approximately 2000-3000 cases reported each year.
In my novel, The Night Man Cometh, after a meeting with the local beak doctor, Damian la Croix, heir of the Marquis la Croix of Limousin, France, elects to voluntarily become a vampire rather than face death by the Plague. In doing so, he becomes the last man to bear the title Marquis la Croix, and from then on is known as Chevalier du Morte, the Night Man, and begins his solitary walk through the corridors of Time.
The Night Man Cometh is a bit graphic in spots, but one can’t write about the plague and be poetic. It was a harsh and terrible time and I, for one, am grateful for the advances and knowledge medicine has made in the interim.
There was a creaking of the gate as one of the guards swung it open. While he’d been distracted by the wagon and his own thoughts, the beak-doctor left the chateau.
Damien waited until the physician was outside before he waylaid him. “Docteur le sangsue, tell me, how is she? How is my Antoinette?”
Desperate, begging the man not to say exactly what he said.
“I’m sorry, Your Lordship.” His voice was muffled through his protective mask.
Damien wished he’d remove it. He wanted to see the man’s face as he spoke. So he could tell if he was lying. He won’t take off the mask. ’Tis his protection. His armor against death.
“’Tis a fast-moving case, faster than most.” His sigh was irritated, more at being inconvenienced by Damien stopping him from leaving than holding any regret or sympathy.
Damien’s resentment flared. He sounds as if he truly doesn’t care. The Vicomte’s your patron. You owe him your best skill.
“I doubt she’ll last another day.” It was said flatly with no concern for his feelings. Without another word, the doctor turned and walked away. Damien kept pace with him, though far enough from the robed figure they didn’t touch. “You shouldn’t have come here. By leaving the safety of your own estate you place yourself in danger.”
Safety? Hah! How can that stupid man call my home safe when eight of our serfs already show the first signs? Damien wanted to backhand the fool. Pick him up and heave him into one of the pits where his many patients now lay waiting consignment to purifying fire. If one’s home’s so safe, how did Antoinette and her mother, who rarely left its confines, become ill in the first place?
He watched the sangsue remove his plague-protectors—that ludicrous mask with the long, beak of a nose making him resemble a marsh crane—while his narrow, cassock-like robe added the final, bizarre likeness to some kind of Hell-escaped demon. He pulled the covering with its crystal-shielded eye sockets from his head, the hand holding it falling to his side.
So he believes he’s safe at this distance? Fool, he wanted to shout. You’re no more protected than the rest of us. Do you think wearing some wax and leather and sniffing camphor and vinegar will protect you? Doctors die of the same things as their patients. All the time.
Didn’t the churchyard have a special section for the illustrious medical men who’d succumbed while treating others? Though now, of course, there were no new graves. There was no room; the cemetery yard of Village de la Croix was filled, the holy soil itself contaminated. Thus, the dead, whether noble or common, Marquis or serf, were now taken to a pit on the edge of town and burned, relinquished to purifying fire. And when that one was filled with too many ashes, another was dug, and when that one filled, another…
What’s the use? He said none of it. Just nodded numbly, bowed to the physician, and stumbled back to his own horse, grazing a few feet away. Will arguing save Antoinette? If that were so, he’d have been her salvation and his own the moment the first soul was stricken.
Wind made the doctor’s stiff robe sway. It rattled as it billowed, the overpowering fragrances of mint, camphor, roses, and sweet shrub floated toward Damien. Like the covering holding the corpses in the wagon, the coat was fashioned of wax-painted on leather, as were his leggings and gloves. The mask, elongated and pointed as a birds-beak, tied by a strap going around the doctor’s head. The pointed end was filled with herbs and spices, sun-dried flower petals and other aromatic substances whose strong scents were carried by straws inserted into the nostrils, perfumes filling the physician’s lungs instead of the pestilence’s deadly smell.
Caching the reins, Damien swung into the saddle and left the doctor standing there, clutching his mask.
He tried not to think as the horse broke into a canter before being kicked into a head-long gallop. Didn’t want to think, but memories of Antoinette, of what had already happened, and what might have been, crowded his mind…
The Night Man Cometh is available from Class Act Books: http://www.classactbooks.com/The-Night-Man-Cometh-by-Tony-Paul-de-Vissage-PDF_p_302.html