Author's Note: Hopefully not all my original readers have lost patience. What started out as "too busy to write" turned into a period of reworking the climax. As many of you know, the closer you get to the end, the less room there is for a misstep. No spoilers, but I think you'll like what's coming.
Also, I think Clopin's appearance in this chapter may have been subconsciously inspired by some of Sak/CanadianRainwater's art on dA. So I guess you could call this chapter a tribute. I thought about translating all the Italian, but that would get annoying. None of it's crucial. You can look it up, but keep in mind that some of it is just Clopin's Italianate gibberish.
Musical Recommendation: "Breath of Life" by Florence + the Machine. Too bad the reviews for "Snow White and the Huntsman" were so poor. Don't guess I'll be seeing it, but the song rocks. "And the fever began to spread, from my heart down to my legs. . . ."
"I still think a doctor needs an assistant." Collette said.
"We've already settled this," Clopin said. "I won't have you cutting your lovely hair to masquerade as a boy. You'd make a dreadful boy, simply dreadful! And then I would have to look at you that way for months until your hair grew back."
"C'est ridicule! As if I care what I look like to you, or anyone." She sidled up to him and whispered in his ear so close that it tickled, and he could hardly refrain from shrieking. "If you don't let me come, I'll cut my hair anyway, and what will you think of that, mon cher?"
Clopin giggled and adjusted his mask. The long plague doctor's mask with its white beak was more unwieldy than his harlequin disguise, even without the added bother of a cloak. "Really, ma cherie. I did think there was no need for dramatic gestures between us-"
" - you, giving up dramatic gestures?"
"You know what I mean. But really, I won't have you scurrying about and distracting me down there." And risking your life. "Is the pendant easy to see?" He lowered his arm so the chain slid down his arm and hung from his wrist, just beyond the sleeve. The red gem of Margaret's betrothal necklace glittered.
"Oui, repugnant chose,"* Collette said.
"You say this because it was given by our oppressor, or because it's the reason I don't have to take you with me?"
"Ah, well. You can't deny it must have been more than luck, for Simza to dredge it up."
"If somebody threw it in the well, it was only a matter of time before someone would find it, and it's nothing so exceptionelle that you should know the one who discovered it. I suppose you know everyone in the City. Though I was so sick to see it again, I almost think it's cursed. Peut-etre I've spent too much time with you."
"I wouldn't doubt it for a moment. Now lie down and try to look a bit more lifeless, au nom du ciel!"
Collette groaned and rubbed her forehead with her fist, smearing one of her clay "plague spots" and the dark gypsy color beneath, then threw herself back on the cart. Clopin took up the handles and wheeled her up the Rue Chanoinesse, towards the Palace of Justice.
The guards at the iron gate shrank from their approach. Clopin wished he could always inspire such fear in Frollo's men. It was unexpectedly pleasant, turning the tables for once.
"La prego di perdonarmi," he said, rolling his r's in what seemed to him a very Italian way. A lifetime of roving the country and picking up snippets of foreign languages was about to pay off. "I am Dottore Balthasar, da Venezia. I come to Paris to practice the art of healing, and - "
"We can do without the introductions," one of the guards blustered. He stared at the cart. "What are you up to, bringing that here? Looks diseased. You'd better burn it right away."
"Ah, si, signor! But this is just what I come for. I find this body close by. You can see it is gypsy. I do not know where I take such news, but as the Palace close by, I thought Judge Frollo would wish to know."
"Gypsy, you say?"
"Si. And where there is one such, there will be many more. Especially as so many of these wretched people find themselves in the Palace dungeons."
"Is it, eh, you think it's really the plague?"
"The Great Mortality? Hard to say, without to see the symptoms. But these spots, you see?" Clopin threw his arm around the guard and forced him close to the cart. The great armored man writhed and pulled away.
"Yes, yes, I see, very, um, yes, very upsetting."
"I think perhaps it best to look at your prisoners, to see if any are exhibiting the signs. The plague take hold very, very soon, as you say." He snapped his fingers. "One day man strong and healthy, walking around; next day, the boils, the fever, the, eh. . . ." He waved and rolled his hands to indicate food coming up from the stomach.
"That may be," the other guard said, "but we don't have orders to hire any doctor. If you'll give us your address, we'll do our own inspection and ask our captain if we want to bring you in."
Clopin shook his head and muttered complicated, sing-song noises that sounded to him like Italian. "Always they say this. I see it many, many times. When all is in order and the medico brought in, is too late. Too late. Is great grief to me. I hate to see all men die, where the medico could safe just one or two." They waited in silence at their impasse. "I tell you this. You bring me for quick inspection, see all prisoners, and I tell you if I need come do careful look again. First inspection is free. No argue with that, eh?"
The guards shifted and shrugged at each other. The larger of the two nodded. "So long as you'd submit to being searched and remain in custody at all times."
"Naturalmente! But I cannot consent to the take off the mask. Is very dangerous, you know."
"And not let us see your face?"
"Ah, mio Dio. They do not realize danger, going down to place where plague is growing, spreading among all men."
"What about us? We'll be down there without masks."
"Oh, if is plague in palazzo, you probably already dead men."
It took time to convince the guards that they did not have to dispose of Collette's "corpse." The dottore had a very special method for minimizing the spread of disease when bodies were burned. Otherwise the contagion would rise with the ash and blow all over the city. He stowed Collette just inside the gates, in the back of the Palace where no one would come into contact with the disease. Then all three walked under the toothed portcullis and into the darkness, where the shadows blinded them until their eyes adjusted.
Clopin was glad that his guides were so taciturn. Most likely they were sobered by the double threat of plague and trouble from their superiors. This allowed Clopin to focus on memorizing the passages as they went, just in case. Whenever they stopped to unlock a new door, he imagined their whole course up to that moment, and if he had time, replayed each move in reverse. The descent was abrupt. Already the air felt cooler, yet damp, making his heavy robes cling to his skin.
The lieutenant at the entrance to the dungeon took more persuading than previous guards, but he relented once Clopin displayed his powders and poultices with much long-winded explanation ("These are the belladonna. You put the teeny, tiny bit on the lips and tongue. Your man slip away in the deep fever, this bring him back. Is shock to system. Too much, of course, and. . . ."). He spread his cloak wide and allowed them to pat his whole body. One of them prepared to take the necklace.
"Mio Dio, I must protest," he said. "Is very important. Special charm, blessed by the Abbe de Fontenay, for to protect against the plague." As a mere pious charm clearly posed no threat, the guards graciously relented.
Then began the tedious, tricky business of stopping at each cell and peering at the haggard occupants. Clopin had not prepared himself for the task. He had focused so much on finding Lord Bertaut, he had not thought-or had avoided thinking-about the other prisoners he would see. Not all were gypsy, thank heaven, but the numbers were far disproportionate. It was better for them, and safer for everyone, that his face was hidden, but seeing them and being unseen increased his guilt. Perhaps he had done wrong, relenting to Collette after the reports came that Lord Bertaut was alive. Was he doing right by saving one, or doing wrong by leaving all the others? Men, women, children barely old enough to be arrested for their supposed crimes, and children too young even to be accused of pick-pocketing slid by his view. These younger ones must have been born here, or else dragged in along with their parents. He realized that he had to move more quickly by these cells, or he would be overwhelmed.
Lighter faces began to predominate, along with eyes that flashed pride. He had reached the prisoners of the recent battle. He took his time here, let his arm swing until Margaret's pendant flashed in the torchlight. It was difficult at times to tell whether he had found his man, or whether he was merely arousing casual interest. Collette had given him some general description of Lord Bertaut, but searching for a muscular man with a light beard was almost as bad as searching for a man wearing red in a group of cardinals, especially as none of the men were shaving their chins in prison. He stopped at the end of another hall and waited for the guards to open the door.
"Well?" one of them asked.
"Ah, come?" Clopin said.
"Will you be coming back?"
"Eh, is this all men in prison?"
"Yes. Well, there's the two captains they took, but they're farther down. Kept separate from everyone else. We're under strict orders to allow no one in. Since they're locked up alone, they couldn't be spreading anything."
"Oh, ah, but this is very important. They could have caught the disease on their way down, and spread to guards who watch them."
"Catch it just walking past the others?"
"Is very, how do you say, catching."
The guards began to argue, with two for sending the doctor away until they had spoken to Captain Malbert, and two for a slight breach in protocol, if it would save them all from an epidemic. At last, the two on the doctor's side gave their word to take the blame for any trouble. These two led the way through three locked doors, the first two of wood, the last of iron.
"The ages of man!" Clopin exclaimed.
"The last are of silver and gold, I suppose?"
The guards stared at him. Clopin sighed with impatience at their ignorance. "Do no one read Aristotle in this God-forsaken country?"*
The hall they entered was lit by a single torch. Clopin tried to pretend that he didn't recognize the hideous smells. He stuffed a few more herbs into the beak of his mask. He hadn't expected the disguise to come in so handy.
The first captain must have been the Englishman. He was slight and dark-haired. He barely acknowledged them from his cot in the shadows. The second man fit Collette's description. He was broad, and must have been a giant in full armor, with a light beard that would be gold in sunlight, but looked red in the dim torchlight.
"This man look very, very bad," Clopin said, and wished he sounded more convincing. The Frenchman looked much heartier than his compatriot in the next cell. He even rose and approached the bars.
"What's this all about?" he asked in the hoarse voice of a thirsty man.
"Plague inspection," one of the guards snapped.
Clopin raised a finger to his beak and allowed Margaret's pendant to swing out of his sleeve.
"What's that?" Bertaut asked. He was so close, Clopin could hear the change in his breathing. "Where'd you get that?"
"This interests you? Perhaps you like to inspect it?"
"Don't let him touch anything," said a guard.
"Prego, signor, I believe I know what is safe to do with victim of the plague. Is holy, this pendant. No plague touch it."
Bertaut was examining the back of the pendant. His lips moved as though he were reading silently. "Mon Dieu." His voice quaked.
"Ahime, the fever must be very bad. I see this man already begin to have the hallucinate. I must enter and do full inspection. No, no charge, gratuito, si, si." He walked Bertaut to the back of the cell, so the guards would be safer from the contagion. He began muttering to himself in gibberish, but tossing in some French with a heavy Italian accent. "Mi sio della morte Margaret's ralizie digare you recognize?"
"Margaret? You know my daughter?" Bertaut's voice cracked.
"Si, signor. Vizi her jewel."
"This? This doesn't belong to my daughter."
"Que?" Clopin froze. "No, no, mistake, eh, perhapzi?"
"It is not my daughter's."
"But, ah, per iglio how recogniza it?" He looked as busy as he could, rummaging through his pouch of herbs.
"It belongs to another woman. A woman I once knew. Never mind. When you come back, I'll tell you. Not with them standing there."
Bertaut was talking too much, looking too intense and coherent. Clopin turned to the guards again. "Very bad. The fever is very bad. He talk molto crazy. Very sick. Probably die next day or two. You see." He turned to Bertaut and wished the man could read the message from his eyes. All he could do was emphasize the words. "To die."
Bertaut stared back, then dropped his shoulders and lowered himself to the floor. Clopin patted his shoulder, then slid his hand down Bertaut's arm and slipped him a pot of the pink clay they had used to form Collette's boils. "Non abbia tentennamenti, signor." He called to the guards. "You tell your Captain, this Bad-ber"-(his translation of Malbert's name)-"that I come back tomorrow for corpse. Will not be long. Bring good herbs for clean out prison."
"Think you ought to take him right away?"
"You idiot," another guard said. "He says it's a day, we'll wait a day. See if this plague really takes hold. . . ."
Clopin felt Bertaut clutch his hand.
"The pendant," Bertaut rasped. "You said it's holy? Leave it with me. For protection. Please."
Clopin had once seen a tree come down on a man who was too frightened to move from its path. He now saw again the same wild fear in Bertaut's face. He dropped the pendant in Bertaut's hands, cupped to receive the necklace like a benediction.
"Dio ti benedica."
**The ages of man is actually a concept from Hesiod, although Aristotle might have alluded to it. I suspect Clopin is just name-dropping to sound educated.