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The Plague Tales Excerpt Page 2
Ann Benson
Delacorte Press, 474 pages
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        The onlookers quickly rearranged themselves behind Alejandro's imaginary wall and soon settled down in quiet anticipation. Alejandro approached the King, who with Queen Phillippa stood well back of the line in the center of the courtyard.
        "Your Majesty, I regret this inconvenience. We will have the men settled in just a few minutes and the guards will disperse the crowd if it is your pleasure."
        "In truth, Dr. Hernandez, I would have a word with both men when they are at last in place. And I would not deny the crowd their pleasure. They are as eager as I am for outside news. It is quite impossible for me to rule my kingdom without knowing what is happening in it."
        Alejandro knew he should have anticipated this obvious possibility, but he had not, and had no response prepared. Now he would have to rush things to please the King. "Your Majesty," the physician said, making up his explanation as he went along. "It will be some time before they are ready to see you. They must be properly secured; their belongings must be dealt with. I implore you to be patient." But Edward, already nearly as tired of his own confinement as his impetuous daughter was of hers, glared at Alejandro with a distinctly hostile look, and spoke in a restrained voice.
        "Very well," he said, "I shall return to my private apartments now. But within the hour, I shall expect your summons for my interview with our 'guests'. They had best be prepared for my arrival. Good evening, Physician."
        Though he smarted from the King's rebuke, Alejandro brushed it off and returned to the gate. There was too much to be done to allow the chastisement to affect him. One hour! he thought; Not nearly enough time. He ran back to the gate and opened the small window in the portcullis. Matthews and Reed stood outside, looking like huge birds with their beak-like herbal masks. Alejandro instructed them to remove the masks, and they did so, tossing them aside; one landed just outside the short fence which enclosed the horse's holding area. Matthews' curious horse lowered his head to the ground and gave the item an inquisitive sniff, then picked it up in his teeth. Deciding that it was not to his liking, he dropped it and moved away to nudge the other horse in a brief but playful interchange.
        Alejandro thought little of the incident, being too preoccupied with the goings-on inside the door to make much of it. He used the end of the same flagpole that had marked their path as a means of passing out two hoods made of coarse cloth, with which he bade them cover their heads.
        The returning soldier and his charge looked both comical and bizarre in their strange costumes; they would have been mistaken for participants in some ancient heathen ritual, or perhaps a circus farce were it not for the observers' knowledge of their mission. Matthews walked through the open gate with swift determination, but the tailor was fearful and hesitant, and looked around in near-panic as he made his way to the chapel. His prior visits to Windsor had elicited a more elegant and stately reception, and he was keenly embarrassed to pass his patroness in this disheveled state.
        Emboldened by her parent's departure, Isabella jumped up and down, clapping like an eager child, at the sight of her tailor. "Welcome, Monsieur Reed, and well done, Matthews! I shall reward you both handsomely for your bravery!"
        After Isabella's declaration, the crowd felt freed to engage in their own display of approval, and a resounding cheer went up into the otherwise calm twilight, revels of welcome that would have seemed suitable for a returning war hero and a rescued hostage. Matthews gloried in his momentary celebrity, waving his hand in acknowledgment of the appreciation and bowing like a courtier. He strode cockily into the chapel with the meek and confused tailor following him, and disappeared from the crowd's view.

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        The chattering throng quickly dispersed, but Alejandro remained behind to speak with the travelers. He stood some distance from one of the barred windows, and called out to Matthews.
        "My congratulations on your successful mission and safe return, Matthews," he said. There is fresh clothing and a supply of bread and ale in the cupboard. I have tried to anticipate your every need in advance, so that you will be comfortable during your forced confinement."
        Despite that fact that he faced two weeks of confinement with the dour-looking tailor, Matthews remained in good spirits. He joked, "You seem to have forgotten the willing maid, Doctor."
        "Of course, how stupid of me," Alejandro apologized, appreciating the man's good humor. "For now you will have to be content with Monsieur Reed."
        Matthews snickered and shrugged in the direction of the tailor, who was sitting on his bed, staring at the floor in a state of bewilderment over the situation in which he suddenly found himself.
        "Perhaps later," the soldier said. "Right now he is still getting accustomed to his new home. And I myself am nearly spent from this day's rough journey, so I shall retire soon to my sumptuous bed," and he gestured toward the straw mat, "regrettably alone."
        "I must ask you to remain awake for a short while longer, for the King himself would speak with you."
        Matthews shrugged again, and commented, "I suppose I can keep my wits about me for a little bit yet, but Master Reed may not be in any state to pay his respects tonight."
        The King appeared almost immediately after Alejandro's summons. Though he was eager to hear what passed in the outside world, the stories Matthews told were not encouraging. "Deserted cottages are everywhere," Matthews told him. "Fields of grain stand unharvested and will surely rot, Sire, if they remain unattended. But the population is so diminished I fear there are no able men to do the work."
        Matthews then related what he saw during his brief wait for the tailor to pack his materials and belongings. "There is a plain nearby where it is said that hundreds are interred; indeed, the field looked as if it were freshly plowed, such was the extent of its coverage with new graves. The abbey has only two priests remaining, and there is little business transacted there, God's or otherwise. The dead meet their Maker unconfessed for lack of priests to hear them, and those who survive stay inside their houses, fearing the contagion."
        Standing nearby, Alejandro observed the exchange between the King and his soldier. As the report progressed, and the severity of England's plight outside the safety of Windsor became clear, he saw a look of great distress and sadness spread over Edward's face; he said nothing, for there was little he could say after such news.
        Matthews politely kept his silence for a few minutes, waiting for his sovereign to speak. When no comment came from the pensive monarch, Matthews requested permission to speak again. The King grunted his distracted approval.
        "Surely, Sire," said the soldier from his cage, "this is the end of the world as we have known it."
                                * * *

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Copyright © 1997 by Ann Benson. All rights reserved.
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