Kneeling on the stony ground, his head bowed in prayer and his hands clasped before him Richard Fitz-Eustace tried with all his will not to release a finger to scratch at the persistent itch beside his nose. It was is if the very devil were tormenting him, even as he knelt outside the chapel and listened to Father William reluctantly reading the Mass of Separation.
“I forbid you to ever enter a church, a monastery, a fair, a mill, a market or an assembly of people.”
How can I live without ever entering a church, thought Richard as his fevered mind translated the Latin words into Norman French. How can I pray to God for forgiveness and for a cure if I am to be denied entry to His house?
“I forbid you to leave your house unless dressed in your recognizable garb and also shod. I forbid you to wash your hands or to launder anything or to drink at any stream or fountain, unless using your own barrel or dipper. I forbid you to touch anything you buy or barter for, until it becomes your own.”
Dear God, prayed Richard silently as his left hand strayed to the side of his face and scratched at the ulcerated skin, give me strength to face this tribulation. Forgive me my sins and restore me to Thy grace and to my health.
“I forbid you to enter any tavern; and if you wish for wine, whether you buy it or it is given to you, have it funnelled into your keg.”
I will live simply and will not ask for wine – only for a spring of clear water where I may pray each day and wash away my sins, if it be Thy will.
“I forbid you to share your house with any woman but your wife.”
I will never touch a woman again, I pledge, if only You will forgive me my sins and cleanse me of this unwholesome disease. She tempted me, Lord. Like the snake tempted the woman, Eve, in the Garden and brought about the downfall of Adam, she has brought me to the devil.
“I command you, if accosted by anyone while travelling on a road, to set yourself down-wind of them before you answer. I forbid you to enter any narrow passage, lest a passer-by bump into you. I forbid you, wherever you go, to touch the rim or the rope of a well without donning your gloves. I forbid you to touch any child or give them anything. I forbid you to drink or eat from any vessel but your own.”
Richard clasped his hands before him once more and though he kept his eyes tightly closed he could still see the redness around the knuckles and feel the incessant itching that plagued him day and night. Itching that tormented him until he wept along with the sores on his body.
The priest touched his shoulder and he was grateful. How long was it since anyone had dared to touch him, even through his clothing? Had she been the last person, he wondered, unable now to erase the image of her dark skinned body from his memory. She had tempted him and he had been weak. Now his punishment was visited upon him. But surely, he thought, God’s mercy was great towards those who had fought alongside King Richard in the Holy War. Surely he could be cured, by the grace of God, through prayer and washing and fasting and repentance. After all hadn’t the Lord Jesus touched the leper and declared him clean? Through prayer, it was possible for him too.
“Will you say goodbye to your family?” asked the priest gently. Richard opened his eyes and looked up at the anxious faces of the women who waited near the chapel door. His mother, Alice, looked aged, he thought, since the day he had kissed her farewell as he went off to the Crusade. She was weighed down by the grief of the burden the Lord had asked her to carry, recently widowed when his father had been killed by the Infidel, she grieved too for his brother Roger, who had also left for the Holy Land, leaving his pregnant wife, Maud, in her care. Beside her stood his elder sister Helen, married to Dutton his father’s steward, and his younger sister Johanna. They had all hoped to be kept safe under his patronage, but his return with this plague meant he was unable to stay to care for them, let alone take them in his arms and comfort them.
His grandmother, widowed and deprived of her eldest son and now one if not two of her grandsons, stood resolute. She was in charge of this family now and, as his fingers touched the pouch at his waist containing the letter she had given him the previous night, he vowed that he would accomplish the task she had set for him.
Richard slowly rose, his knees sore and his legs stiff from his prolonged prayers. He hung the wooden bowl and clapper from the thick leather belt that held the coarse woollen fabric of the dark monkish habit to his itching body, then raised the hood of the black cloak before pulling on the gloves over his reddened, flaking hands. Sadly he approached his family, keeping a distance from them.
“I will pray for you day and night,” said his mother, “and although the priest and laws decree that you should be as dead to me now, I have had my fill of death and I pray that one son at least will be restored to me.”
“Pray hard and fast, mother,” he said. “And I will remember you also in my beseeching, both day and night. I pray that one day your son will return to hold you close and gladden your heart. Meanwhile hold fast to Helen and Johanna and to your faith.”
She thrust a leather purse at him, which jingled with the sound of coinage. She was unafraid of touching him, but Helen took the bag and tossed it to the ground near his feet, restraining their mother from running forward and taking him in her arms.
With tears stinging his swollen eyes Richard turned away from the women. The sight of his mother clinging to her daughter like a feeble invalid hurt him more than anything else he had had to endure since his return. Adjusting the hood so that no portion of his face was visible, he bowed his head as the priest crumbled earth at his feet and gave him his blessings. Then he set out – not to the leper house of St Giles as he had promised his mother – but northwards, to cross the river into the newly named county of Lancashire. His destination, to the north, skirting the huge marshlands of Martin Mere to the west, was the township of Cliderhou where he would seek out his grandmother’s cousin, Robert de Lacy.
The mud squelched beneath the unaccustomed shoes that were already rubbing a new sore on the back of his left heel as Richard headed north. The chill wind of the ensuing autumn made him shiver as he walked. In Palestine the sun had been so fierce overhead that, sweltering in his chainmail harness, he had longed for the cold westerly winds of his northern homeland. But now he longed for the warmth and shelter of his family house – a house denied to him – as he trudged down towards the river crossing.
He’d resolved not to look back, but the drifting aroma of a distant fire caught his nostrils and he turned for one last look at Halton Castle. Near the chapel a plume of smoke rose, and Richard wondered for a moment what Father William was burning, until he suddenly realised that the fire consisted of all his own clothes and possessions – being consumed by the cleansing flames so that the affliction could be passed on to no-one. On the path that led from the chapel to the main keep his younger sister was helping their grandmother home. Even in the distance he could see that she was leaning heavily on Johanna with every step, and he realised that she was no longer young and he wondered what would happen to them all with no man to protect them.
Beyond the village he saw a string of ponies, laden with salt in panniers coming down the road behind him. They would catch up with him in a little while, he thought – meantime he must go on. The journey would take several days and he had no idea how he would eat and where he would sleep along the way. He could only put his trust in God.
It seemed only moments later that Richard, trudging on and bearing his discomfort as penance for his sins, heard the steady beat of hooves as the ponies came up behind him.
“Get out of my way! You filthy wretch!” Richard stopped and turned to see who was the recipient of the drover’s wrath. “You! Get off the road!” The drover, whom Richard vaguely recognised, waved a stick in his direction. “Get back! Keep away!”
As the drover passed him, the man crouched down on the far side of one of the ponies, causing it to push nearer to Richard and stamp on his foot as it went by, adding to the pain and misery already caused by the chafing of his shoe.
Richard sank down in pain onto the damp grass bank beside the road and watched as the swishing tails of the ponies diminished into the distance and the drover turned to shake the stick at him once more.
“Unpalatable cur,” he muttered as he watched them go. “I remember the time, not that long past, when you would have scraped and bowed in my presence. You mangy upstart!” he called after him. But his voice was lost to the beat of the hooves and the jangling of the bells on the reins as the snorting ponies trotted on towards the ford with their precious loads. And as he watched them go Richard recalled something that the woman had said when he was telling her of his home.
“England is a rich county. You have plenty water; plenty salt.”
He could smell the salt on the air now as he approached the tidal waters of the Mersey with some trepidation. It wasn’t the first time he had crossed here, but it was the first time he had been compelled to make the journey on foot. On horseback the ford across the river held no fears, but knowing how many had drowned making the perilous crossing his father had, some years before, employed a ferryman who, for a few coins, would row travellers across to the far side. But Richard knew that the man would refuse to row a leper like himself across the water. His only way ahead was to wade across to the other bank.
As he approached he saw that the tide was already rising. Glancing up at the sky he also noted that it would be growing dark soon which would add to the danger, but he was determined to cross tonight rather than wait for tomorrow’s low water. He continued, slipping a little on the stones that littered the track and wishing that he had had the foresight to equip himself with a knife so that he could have cut a strong tree branch to use as a stick to support his descent. He glanced around for a loose branch that might serve that purpose, but the trees were thinning as he neared the river and he continued to slip gracelessly as he went down.
The sun was already low on the horizon when he reached the water, but not wanting to wait, Richard sat on a smooth rock and gently eased off the shoes that rubbed his feet. As he stepped in, the shocking cold of the water made him give an involuntary gasp and faint clouds of blood swirled and were dispersed by the tidal pull that dragged at his aching legs. The saltwater stung at his wounds and the pebbles struck sharply at the soles of his already painful feet, but as he held up his long cloak around his thighs and waded further into the Mersey, the cold began to numb his feet and lower legs and provided some relief. He waded into the deepest part of the channel as the sun sank to his left, over the sea, creating a swirl of orange and yellow low in the sky. He couldn’t help but pause and stare at God’s wondrous creation until the sucking of the tide almost tipped him off balance and he staggered a little as he faced the far bank, the image of the sinking sun now flashing a black spot in the middle of his vision. Hitching the rough cloth of the leper’s garb even higher he tried to feel beneath his numbed feet for a smooth path and raised his prayers to ask that he should not fail by drowning so soon into his mission.
© Elizabeth Ashworth 2010