Read Daughters of the Doge Online
Authors: Edward Charles
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
December the 5th 1555 – Speyer, Rhine Valley
We had passed through the great gates of the city and were clattering along the broad high-street between overhanging wooden houses. No doubt the streets were bustling on market days, but today they seemed strangely deserted. Ahead of us we could see the tall cathedral spires that gave the city its name.
‘Gentlemen, we have arrived. Twenty-six years too late to influence matters, but at least we are here.’ Eckhardt winked at me, while the others, whose conversations had not recently been focused upon the Diet of Speyer of 1529, looked at him blankly. But Eckhardt was not going to let the moment pass so easily.
‘Here, gentlemen, twenty-six years ago, was made the most disgraceful decision and pronouncement by the bishops gathered together. Here, also, began the protest against that decision, and the formation of the Protestant movement which has continued to gather pace ever since.’
Thomas and the earl looked at each other and rolled their eyes. It was clear from their expressions that, while they might regard Eckhardt as a reliable guide for this journey, they thought his views on religion were wrong, dangerous and misplaced. ‘A plague on your views, sir.’ Courtenay had risen to his full height in the saddle and had clearly decided to exert his authority.
I looked from one camp to the other. Eckhardt and I had talked about these issues often enough over recent days that he would not expect me to join in open battle against my mentor and the earl, and I decided not to turn the occasion into an argument, for the five of us had to endure each other’s company for some weeks yet, and there was no advantage in souring the atmosphere unnecessarily.
Niccolò came to the rescue. ‘I fear, Your Grace, that your words may be more true than you intended. Look at the doors of the houses!’
The reason for the street’s desertion quickly became clear: a number of the doors had plague marks daubed on them. This was most worrying, for not only would we be at risk of the dreadful disease, but strangers were always treated with suspicion when plague raged. It was mid-afternoon, and we had intended to stop here for the night, but the sight of the daubed doors made discussion unnecessary: we would have to move on.
‘Where is the bridge?’ asked Thomas.
‘There is no bridge,’ Eckhardt scowled. ‘We shall have to take a boat across.’
This was not a prospect we relished, for the Rhine here was still wide and fast-flowing.
‘Then, before we make a final decision, I should like us to review our route,’ said Thomas. ‘For myself, I would prefer to travel south, to Basel, as there are a number of books I wish to purchase there. I had understood that we might take a boat upstream from here to that great city, but in the present conditions that is clearly impossible. Nevertheless, I would welcome a discussion.’ Thomas seemed to have recognized that if he was going to convince the party to take the southern route, then this was his last chance to get our agreement.
As he spoke, we continued to ride down to the riverbank, where, as expected, we found most of the boats pulled high up the bank and away from the water. One large, flat-bottomed ferry remained, however, large enough to take us, our horses and the two carts, and Eckhardt began to bargain with the surly boatman. Not surprisingly, he did not relish the trip at all. It was not, he explained, the crossing that concerned him (every one of us would have to take an oar to make safe passage), but the return journey. Six burly youths were lounging against the wall of a bankside inn, and the game was clear – he would not cross unless we paid his relations to make the return crossing with him. No doubt it was a game they had played many times, and I was inclined to accept the price, exorbitant as it was. Courtenay, however, decided this was the moment to stand his ground.
‘Tell the peasant he is a rogue and we will pay a reasonable price and no more. And tell that rabble against the wall there that unless they come to our assistance immediately, I shall speak to the authorities and have them whipped.’
Although they did not understand his English, the ‘rabble’ clearly understood his attitude and expressed their response with Germanic eloquence, two spitting in the mud before us while another stood and urinated, never taking his eyes from His Grace and clearly ready for a fight.
The matter was resolved for us, however, as a crowd carrying cudgels and billhooks came through the gates of the town and walked boldly towards us; it was clear that at times of plague visitors were distrusted and unwelcome. Immediately, Courtenay’s nerve broke. ‘Come, there’s no time for arguing. Tell him we agree.’
Without delay, he rode his horse straight on to the ferry, waving to the cartmen to whip their horses forward. Within seconds we had become the rabble, and we boarded pell-mell as the mob approached, the band of youths from the inn stepping aboard at the last minute with the measured laziness of experienced boatmen. We pushed off into the current and, as we left the shore, I could not help feeling the whole thing had a rehearsed feel about it, although I would not have wanted to say so in front of the apparently angry crowd.
Although fast, the river here was wide and smooth. The boat was carefully designed for its task, and the skill of the boatmen clearly honed by generations on the river. We skimmed diagonally across, slipping downstream as we did so, although only by some two hundred yards. How they planned to return was not immediately clear, but as we approached the opposite bank I could see that stout poles had been driven in upstream, trailing long ropes. The intention was clearer now: we would pull in to the bank further downriver than we had left the other bank, but by attaching the ropes and pulling on them, the boatmen could skim the empty craft back upriver in the shallows until it reached a higher point, where passengers wanting to travel in the opposite direction were already waiting.
The scheme was clever and would work as long as the press of the flood was not so strong that we missed the lower mark, where the ropes were tied off.
Skilled as the boatmen were, the flood was very strong, and as we approached the bank I could see that Thomas, like me, was judging the angle and measuring our progress against the end of the longest rope, which trailed in the water some twenty feet from the bank. As we swept past, Thomas leaned heavily over the side of the boat and grasped the knotted rope-end for all he was worth.
His judgement was accurate and his strength sufficient, but against the momentum of a loaded boat his weight was insignificant, and with horror we saw him swiftly dragged over the side. The boat swung on and Thomas, now upstream from us, clung desperately to the rope. The boatmen pulled us safely on to a sandbank, but it was clear that Thomas’s strength was failing him and, worse, that the bow-wave his shoulders were making against the press of the river was preventing him from breathing. He was beginning to drown. There was a coil of thin rope lying beside me and, almost unthinking, I tied two turns around a stanchion and, yelling to Niccolò to hold the knot firmly, jumped over the side and ran waist-deep out along the sand spit into the edge of the torrent.
‘Thomas, let go; I am below you!’ I cried, and somehow he heard me.
His arms flew upward as he let go and, released from the suffocating bow-wave, he sucked in one huge gulp of air. It was a matter of seconds before he reached me and I grabbed him savagely, taking the rope around his chest as I did so and clinging on to the roughness of his jerkin for dear life. We swung crazily into the bank and I felt my knees grate on the sharp gravel. Strong arms pulled us on to the sandspit and we lay, coughing, exhausted and frozen, as the icy water drained from us.
Thomas rolled over and looked at Eckhardt, who was staring down at him uncertainly. There was blood running down the doctor’s face where the rope had grazed his forehead, and his hands were cut from gripping tightly on to his lifeline. He coughed, and brown river-water dribbled down his cheek. ‘I presume, then, we shall not be going by way of Basel?’
Somehow the question did not seem to require an answer. The rest of us burst into relieved laughter.
We had dry clothes in the carts and, without shyness, stripped naked on the river bank and donned them, in front of the queue of prospective return passengers, who clearly viewed our manner of arrival as a worrying advertisement for their own journey in the opposite direction.
We were tired but relieved when, late that evening, we arrived at the inn in Rhinehouse. Over a large and well-earned dinner, accompanied by more of the local wine than was perhaps sensible, we reviewed the route ahead.
Our next major resting point was revealed – we planned to travel through Pforzheim before turning east, away from the river, and reaching the university city of Tübingen in time for Christmas. We would need the rest, for, as Niccolò and Eckhardt both now implied, the road we had travelled thus far was the easy part: the worst was still to come.
Christmas 1555 – University of Tübingen, Würtemberg
‘Fröhliche Weinacht überall!’
Professor of Medicine Leonhard Fuchs raised his glass and we wished each other a happy Christmas. His kindness and generosity knew no bounds. I had always believed foreign countries to be uniformly remote, their people unapproachable; yet our experience on this journey had proved that view to be quite wrong, and nowhere more so than in this ancient seat of learning.
Herr Professor Dr Fuchs (as it said on his door) had not only greeted us kindly and given us access to the university buildings and library, but, hearing that we were planning to break our journey and rest over Christmas, had insisted that the whole party join him at his home, hidden away in the boundaries of the university precinct.What made it doubly pleasurable was the fact that this generosity had not formally been addressed to ‘the earl and his party’, as a mere diplomatic gesture amongst politically minded men, but instead to ‘Dr Thomas Marwood and his party’. It was an invitation from one man of learning to another.