Chapter 1: Bristol and London
When the Portuguese coast was finally so far behind them that it was out of sight, everyone on board the three-masted Sao Gabriel heaved a sigh of relief. The chances of the agents of the Inquisition reaching them now were remote, and there was no reason to expect anything but trouble-free sailing, with good weather and calm waters, all the way to the English port of Bristol. At last, Diego’s escape from the Inquisition could finally be considered a success, despite the heavy odds against it. For Diego and his daughter Maria, who were just beginning to explore their Jewish background, it seemed like nothing short of a miracle, maybe even signaling divine approval of their journey to reclaim their ancestral heritage.
But several mundane matters still required their attention, not the least of which were the wounds on Diego’s feet. When he was being marched barefoot from his auto da fe in central Coimbra to the stake and pyre on the outskirts of the city, he had suffered many deep cuts. Maria worked hard to change his bandages often and keep his wounds as clean as possible. But it took five long days to reach Bristol, and during that time, Diego’s feet became increasingly inflamed, and pus was now oozing from his wounds.
Maria had been told by her fellow passengers on the Sao Gabriel that Dr. William Ames was the most skilled physician in all of England. So as soon as the ship docked at Bristol, Maria rushed to the nearest livery stable, hired their fastest horse, and got precise directions to the doctor’s house. With her excellent riding skills, she was able to get there in less than twenty minutes, just before sunset.
When Maria first saw the doctor’s opulent residence, it reminded her of the palatial estate she had left behind in Portugal. But when she knocked and the door opened, she was not treated with the deference she was used to in her childhood home. The stern-looking servant in front of her abruptly tried to dismiss her.
“The doctor was in his surgery taking care of very sick patients through most of the night,” he said. “I have strict instructions to make sure he is now able to sleep undisturbed. Come back tomorrow, and we will give you an appointment as soon as we can.”
The stress of her narrow escape from the Inquisition, together with her concern for her father’s deteriorating health, robbed Maria of any semblance of patience.
“Don’t you understand?” she cried. “This is urgent. My father may not live until tomorrow. The doctor must see him now!”
Dr. Ames had not yet gone to sleep. Hearing the commotion at his front door, he looked out of his bedroom window to see what was happening. The angle of the bay window gave him a clear view of the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen.
As she vigorously argued with the ever-increasing number of his servants who had gathered to deal with this unruly visitor, the doctor watched, entranced. Maria’s long, golden hair, so rare in his native Spain, glistened in the beams of the setting sun, almost sparkling as she emphatically shook her head ‘no’, refusing to be refused. The passion in her expression, which intensified every moment that her father’s care was delayed, gave her already lovely features a power that overwhelmed the young physician. He rapidly got dressed, rushed to the front door, and quickly introduced himself.
Maria was too upset to bother responding with a curtsy, or to prevent a faint Portuguese accent from creeping into her otherwise flawless English. “And I am Maria Lopes. My father needs your assistance immediately, and your servants are being less than helpful.”
“This is truly all my fault,” he said to Maria in an apologetic tone. “These people are merely following the instructions I gave them, and I neglected to tell them to make exceptions for life-threatening emergencies. Please give me a short description of your father’s condition so I’ll know what to bring with me, and then we will go directly to see him.”
Maria had been told by more than one person on the Sao Gabriel that William Ames was an outstanding physician. And she could tell from his lodgings that he was enormously successful, befitting his reputation. But until he appeared at his front door and spoke to her with such warmth and concern, she had not suspected that he would be so handsome or so polite.
She was a bit shocked and soon more than a bit embarrassed by her own initial gruff manner. It took her a few flustered seconds to regain her voice. But once she did, she quickly told Dr. Ames about her father’s wounds and where their ship had docked.
The physician had one of his servants summon his carriage and went to pack what he needed into a dark leather bag. No more than a minute later, Maria was in the seat facing him in the finely appointed vehicle. Then the team of horses abruptly took off and they were soon galloping at full speed.
“I apologize for the bumpy ride, but we really have no choice. I told the driver to get us to the docks as quickly as possible. Your father’s life may depend on how soon we reach him.”
Maria tried to maintain a dignified posture as she was tossed around inside the roughly bouncing carriage. “I know you were only being polite when you said ‘how soon we reach him,’ as if I were your medical assistant, but the fact is, I have had some surgical experience. So, if you need an extra pair of hands while treating my father, I’m available to help.”
Ames successfully suppressed a smile at the outlandish thought that anyone as elegant and exquisite as Maria could ever be present, let alone function, in a room full of blood and gore. He was nonetheless keenly interested in gaining her good opinion, so he responded in a serious tone. “That’s very interesting. What kind of surgical experience do you have?”
“Nasal reconstruction.” Maria then went into a detailed explanation of how a nose that was cut off in a war injury or destroyed by disease could be rebuilt using a flap of skin, fat, and muscle from the patient’s upper arm. The doctor’s smug skepticism was quickly replaced with respect, and even a degree of awe, as she competently described surgical techniques and approaches that he had never considered. He was soon asking her questions, not to challenge anything she said, but to learn from her, just as he would from a more experienced colleague. Maria answered each question completely and professionally, without the least hesitation—except for the last one.
“Senhorita Lopes, how did you learn all of this?”
From her discussions with her fellow passengers on the ship, Maria knew that the doctor was a Spanish New Christian who had come to England to escape the Inquisition. She even knew that his name was originally Guillen Jimenez and that he had anglicized it to William Ames once he arrived in Bristol. But she also knew that Judaism was officially illegal in England, and she was not sure whether she could trust this stranger with her family’s history.
During her many months of keeping one step ahead of the Inquisition’s agents in Portugal, Maria had become a quick and shrewd judge of character. More than once, her life had depended on rapidly assessing who was trustworthy and who was not. Relying on those instincts once again, she decided that even though she had met this man only a few minutes before, he was someone in whom she could confide.
“Dr. Ames . . .”
“Please call me Will. May I call you Maria?”
Maria smiled, despite enduring a big bump from the carriage speeding over some
particularly uneven cobblestones. “Very well, then—Will. The Inquisition was about to burn my father alive at the stake. We saved him by capturing the most wicked Familiar of the Holy Office, performing a few surgeries—including nasal reconstruction—to make him look like my father, and then switching him for my father, so that it was the Familiar who died at quemadero while my father escaped. I assisted the man who performed the nasal reconstruction, and that’s how I learned about it.”
Will sat back in the depths of the plush seat, thinking about this incredible story. He tapped his lips with his index finger as an extremely serious expression slowly appeared on his face. After a few silent moments, he leaned forward close to Maria in the opposite seat.
“Let me try to put all of this together. A highly intelligent woman of uncommon beauty has acquired surgical skills matched by few other people on earth. She has done this in the course of successfully outwitting the most powerful and relentless agency of evil the world has ever known, and thereby saved her father’s life. I have only one more question to ask you. Can you also split the Red Sea, or at least the English Channel?”
For the first time since her father had become ill, Maria was able to relax as she savored the silly compliment. She was now also able to take a closer look at her companion. He was tall and appeared cramped in his carriage seat, sitting at an angle to accommodate his long legs.
Other than that, everything else about him seemed to be quite attractive. His straight black hair was endearingly tousled from the limited combing it had received as he rushed from his bedroom to meet her. His eyes were a mix of green and brown that Maria found intriguing. Will’s short beard and mustache were neatly trimmed, appropriate for his lean, muscular build. And his kind, handsome face that was now so close to hers seemed to Maria to be appropriate for . . . for almost anything.
“I assure you,” Maria said with a twinkle in her blue eyes and a playful tone in her voice, “I am quite an ordinary human.”
Will smiled, “I’m not sure I agree with that. But I certainly agree with your choice to make England your first stop after Portugal. I made the same choice when I escaped from Spain. Will you be staying here long?”
“I believe so. My father had the foresight to establish a residence outside of London years ago, and I’m sure that is where we will go as soon as he is well enough to travel.”
Just then the carriage came to an abrupt halt. They could see through the windows that they had reached the docks. Both of them rushed out of the carriage and aboard the Sao Gabriel to see what could be done to help Diego.
In a manner at once professional and personable, Will introduced himself and quickly put Diego at ease as he carefully unwrapped his bandages. After kneeling to look at each wound more closely, Will stood up and turned to Maria. She was searching the room, looking for something.
“Maria, what are you doing?”
“I’m looking for the bowl I always use to wash my hands before caring for my father’s wounds. Someone seems to have taken it. The surgeon who trained me insisted on handwashing before treating patients. He said he got the idea from a Spanish rabbi who lived about three centuries ago.”
“Yes, that was his name. How do you know about him?”
Will then pulled out a basin, bottle of water, and bar of soap from his medical
bag, and he started washing his own hands. He then offered the other side of the basin, as well as the soap and water, to Maria. “I happen to be an admirer of Maimonides myself. I didn’t know there were so many of us around.”
As they dried their hands on the towels Will had brought along, he leaned close to Maria and spoke softly so only she could hear him. “Maria, you were right to consider this an urgent matter. Your father’s wounds are indeed serious, and I believe he has several abscesses that need to be incised and drained immediately. These procedures can get complicated and I could use a second pair of hands. But what I am about to do could be very painful for your father. Knowing that, do you still think you can help me?”
Maria looked slightly exasperated. “That’s why I washed my hands.”
“I know. But when you first offered to help, I’m not sure you were aware of how much pain I might be putting your father through. Some of it could be severe. Are you sure you are prepared for that?”
“Good, but let’s limit your assistance to where it is absolutely necessary. I don’t want to distress you needlessly while we are working on your papai.”
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll—”
“Maria, you just assured me that you are an ordinary human. So let’s try to limit your responsibilities to those expected from an ordinary person.”
Without waiting for any more discussion, Will laid out all his instruments, drains, and fresh bandages on a white cloth. He then explained to Maria what each instrument was for, and that it would be her job to hand him the instrument he asked for without his needing to turn his attention away from the surgical field.
“Things can change, quickly and seriously, during these types of procedures, so I want my eyes focused only on where I’m working, and nowhere else. Your work will allow me to do that.”
“I want to help in any way I can.”
“Excellent. Now all you’ll have to look at are the instruments and my outstretched hand. Please don’t look at your father’s face or feet. That won’t be necessary, and it could only make things worse—upsetting you or your father for no good reason.”
Maria was not eager to agree to this restriction, but Will had given her little choice.
“All right, I’ll do as you say.”
Before starting the operation, Will offered some laudanum to Diego, telling him it would lessen the pain. With an arrogance typical of a Portuguese aristocrat, a pride Will had expected, Diego refused.
The young doctor simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “Senhor Lopes, if in the course of your treatment you change your mind, please let me know.” Without further discussion, he then began to operate.
Periodically during the wound cleaning, as Will scraped out the dusky dead and infected tissues down to the raw, ruddy bed of remaining healthy tissue, Diego would let out a short cry of pain. Every time he did so, Maria winced as she imagined how her father must be suffering. And each time she heard that cry, it became increasingly more difficult for her to hold back her tears.
But she performed her assigned tasks perfectly, for which Will was enormously grateful. His procedures were going better and faster than they would have without her help. Every once in a while he involuntarily paused and stole a glance at her. When he did—and saw her focusing on the tasks at hand despite her distress over her father’s pain—he could not help but admire her courage and determination.
Draining the last abscess was technically challenging, and Will was so absorbed in his work that he hadn’t said anything for quite a while. Maria was getting increasingly worried about her father’s condition, and she turned to see if there was a problem with the surgery. She did so just in time to see a large glob of malodorous pus emerge from the incision Will had made in her father’s lower leg.
Maria had been under tremendous pressure for the past several weeks while planning and carrying out her father’s escape. She had hardly eaten or slept during all that time. She had had no chance to rest or recover since then because she had to attend to her father’s steadily worsening wounds during the five-day passage to Bristol. Then, over the last hour, she had shuddered and suffered through every one of her father’s painful cries. All of this left her completely drained, physically and emotionally.
And now she had turned to see Will draw out the repulsive, purulent material from her father’s last abscess.
Maria was right when she told Will that she was just an ordinary human. So she did what any ordinary person would do under these circumstances—she fell to the floor in a dead faint.
Maria’s fainting spell seamlessly turned into a much-needed deep and lengthy sleep. When she awoke, she was in a large, comfortable canopied bed. Bright spring sunlight streamed through floor-to-ceiling bay windows. She felt fine and well-rested. The only problem was that she had no idea where she was or how she had gotten there.
“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty.”
Maria raised her head to see where those friendly words were coming from. A smiling, heavy-set woman in a white apron approached and sat down on the side of the bed.
“How are you feeling, Senhorita Lopes?”
“Very well, actually. But where am I? And who are you?”
“My name is Catherine, and I’m the matron in charge of the doctor’s domestic
servants. You are in his home—actually in his bed.”
“What?” Maria sat up quickly, holding the bedclothes to her chest. The nightgown
she wore slipped off one shoulder.
“I was assigned to be at your service day and night, as long as you stay here.
I’ve been with you from the moment you arrived, to make sure no one bothered you and to be available to bring you anything you want. Would you like to be served breakfast now?”
“Actually, I’d like to get dressed. This nightgown is rather ill-fitting and scratchy.”
Catherine laughed a deep, hearty laugh. “That makes sense since it is mine. I was afraid the wool might chafe, but I knew it was warm, and I did not want you to catch cold. We simply did not have a chance to go through all your luggage when you first arrived—you were in such a state—so I lent you mine.”
“What sort of state?”
“You were carried in by the doctor’s men, completely unconscious, and Dr. Ames said we should make you as comfortable as we could, as quickly as possible. The doctor’s bedroom was the closest one, and that’s how you ended up here, in my nightgown, with me at your side.”
“Where’s my father? How is he?”
“He’s in the guest suite, just down the hall. Dr. Ames said nothing to us about his condition, so I don’t know what to tell you about that. The doctor is seeing patients now in his surgery in the other wing of the house. Would you like me to fetch him, so you can ask him that question directly?”
Maria smiled in silence for a moment before answering. “I think, as I said before, I’d like to get dressed in my usual clothes first—certainly before I speak to the doctor in his bedroom.”
Catherine’s easy, hearty laugh rang out again. “Very sensible, Senhorita Lopes. Very sensible indeed.”
After Catherine helped Maria wash up and get into her clothes, she provided her with some cakes and fresh milk, and then went to get Dr. Ames. While she did so, Maria walked around the large room and examined its details. It was bright and airy, thanks to the six bay windows on three of its walls. The workmanship of the wooden wall panels, as well as the window frames, doors, and closets, was all exquisite.
Maria let her fingertips glide over some of the more intricate engraved designs along one wall but abruptly stopped when she came to a small bookshelf. The books were all in Hebrew, a language she never had the chance to study because of the restrictions of the Inquisition. Maria was an accomplished linguist, and to touch a book—but only able to wonder what wisdom or mysteries it might contain because of a language barrier—was terribly frustrating for her. This was one more injury inflicted by the Holy Office, and at this moment, she found it particularly painful.
Then she reconsidered and looked with a different perspective at these tomes with their strangely elegant letters. To display such books openly in her hometown back in Coimbra, Portugal, was to invite imprisonment or worse from the Inquisition. Will’s freedom to do so here in Bristol was a wonderful reminder that she was now in a much better place. Focusing on this aspect of the Hebrew library, a treasure that she was now at least able to touch, helped ease her pain and frustration. And she finally started to smile.
Hearing a knock at the door, Maria turned. “Yes?”
Will entered the room. “Good morning, Maria. How are you feeling? Are you sure you are well enough to stand?”
“I’m feeling fine, thank you. I’m just concerned about my father.”
“I think he is doing better than before, but he is not yet out of danger. Let’s discuss all his medical details after we both sit down.” He held out a hand to indicate two large, plush chairs near the window where Maria stood.
“I don’t know about you,” Will said teasingly, “but I’ve had a rough night, and I’d much rather sit than stand right now. Long surgical procedures followed by sleeping in the wrong bed tend to leave me pretty exhausted.”
Maria blushed. “I’m responsible for that, and I apologize.”
“No need to. And please don’t be concerned about the coming days. We are making up the extra chamber next to the guest suite, and it will be ready for you by this afternoon. You will be right near your father and can visit him and assist in his care as much as you wish. That is”—Will offered a smile—“as long as you promise not to faint again.”
“I promise. Those were pretty exceptional circumstances I confronted last night. I’m sure that won’t happen again.”
“I believe you, but just to make sure you don’t test your limits too much, I’ve told Catherine she is responsible for you as long as you are under my roof. If you ever collapse again, she will be dismissed.”
Maria was shocked. “I hope you didn’t really say that. You aren’t that severe an employer, are you?”
Will grimaced. “I’d like to consider myself a serious—not a severe—employer. And I must confess I did say exactly that.”
“I will not stay here a moment longer if Catherine remains under such a horrible threat. You must rescind it immediately.”
Will was not used to being given orders. But he was so taken with Maria that obeying her did not bother him at all.
“Your wish is my command, Senhorita Lopes.”
Maria could not keep from smiling. She liked the sound of that.
“Now please tell me more about my father’s condition.”
“I believe he no longer has any abscesses, which is good. But he still has a high fever, which is worrisome. I will personally clean his wounds and change his bandages every six hours. I believe that, with the good Lord’s help, your father has a reasonable chance for a complete recovery. And until I am sure he is well enough to travel, both of you are invited to stay here as my guests. Until then, I and my servants will be at your service. We will do everything we can to make you comfortable—and please, don’t hesitate to ask for anything. As long as you are here, I want you to consider my home to be your home.”
Maria’s eyes welled up with tears of gratitude. “Thank you, Will. May I see my father now?”
Will escorted her out of the room and down the hall. When they reached Diego’s room, Will opened the door and asked her to follow him inside. Maria slowly walked to one side of her father’s bed as Will went to the other.
Diego was asleep. Will watched as Maria gently stroked her father’s hair and brushed her hand along the sides of his face. Will had seen many devoted family members caring for their loved ones, but none with the tenderness and delicacy that Maria displayed. The extraordinary love for her father that shone so clearly in her eyes struck Will as the most beautiful thing about Maria. And at that moment he decided he would move heaven and earth to make this remarkable woman his wife.