NOVEL EXTRACT: Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church by Indrek Hargla

Apothecary Melchior And the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church (Apteeker Melchior ja Oleviste mõistatus)
(c) Jüri J Dubov
Translated by Adam Cullen



May 15, late evening


Henning von Clingenstain, former Commendator of the German Order in Gotland, was raging drunk.

In truth, he was raging drunk for already the fifth day straight, and if the local commander had not fed him generously – food was brought out from the Toompea Small Castle kitchen from morning to evening –, then he would have already collapsed from a beer-induced stupor and fallen asleep long ago. Yet Tallinn appeared to be a rich and good-natured town – not like Visby. People here were adept at eating and drinking. It was customary in Tallinn to make merry just as the people in Clingenstain's home town of Warendorf once did, as his memory recalled. And von Spanheim, the local commander, seemed to be this town's king of merrymaking. For five consecutive days and nights, the table had been sagging under the burden of beer, wine and other of the town's best and finest. It would have been a sin to turn it all down, just as it was also actually a sin to guzzle and gorge it all down; however, von Clingenstain had already taken care of that this afternoon and held confession with the Dominican prior. Needless to say, forgiveness had been bestowed for his overeating and excessive drinking. Of course.

Clingenstain now felt, however, that this might indeed be enough: his innards churned, his head buzzed and his thoughts were already far too muddled. Only now did he begin to make sense of what was reality and what was just an intoxicated illusion; now that, after a few blunders, he finally found the side portal in the northern wing of the castle that passed above the moat, straight from one fortress to the other – from the Small Castle of the Order to the Great Castle, or Toompea, as it was also known. Some attendant opened the door for him, and the knight staggered towards his residence. Curses, I am already seeing devils, he thought. A soldier of Christ shouldn't see devils.

He stepped out into the mild May night and strove to fully fill his lungs with the fresh air. The darkly glimmering walls of Toompea resembled shadows of a palace of darkness closing in around him. The jolly songs of the commander's musicians still sounded in the man's ears, and truth be told, the party at the castle was probably still underway. The cobblestones, however, rose up from the ground and struck against his foot. The commendator stumbled and fell. If he wished to reach his dwelling, then he would require assistance.

"Jochen, you son of a whore!" he roared. Where was his page tramping about once again? He should be at his master's side like a loyal dog, not making rounds with wenches.

"Jochen!" he bellowed again. "I am stone drunk and you have climbed up into an attic with some washerwoman. "Jochen, you knave!"

Yet the page did not appear anywhere. Commendator von Clingenstain stood alone in the center of Toompea; only German Order servants tended a fire near the stables on the other side of the moat, the walls of Dome Church dimly looming afar.

"I'll have you skinned tomorrow," vowed von Clingenstain, and he lurched ahead. Pages be damned – he isn't so helpless at all, he can make it on his own. He definitely remembered where he was lodged; it was not far from here – one house built right against the stronghold wall. He can manage it alone.

The commendator did not notice that a lone figure broke away from the dark castle wall and trailed him stealthily as he stumbled towards his residence. He did not notice that the dark form followed him up to the door of the house, carefully keeping to the shadows. He even did not notice that the figure stood beside him when he, after several clumsy attempts, at last managed to unbolt the main door. The dark figure held the door open with its foot after von Clingenstain had made his way in. Clingenstain stood in the spacious entry hall and squinted against the light. Someone, probably Jochen, had lit the candles on the candelabra, and the glaring light wished to blind him at first. The commendator leaned against the fireplace mantle and raised the candelabra from the table. There should be some sort of door here somewhere that leads to the bedroom, if he remembered correctly, and in this room was a bed. He attempted to jerk off his coat, but became entangled and almost fell. If only that slave were here to help him undress.

"Jochen!" he yelled again. "Ahaa, there you are, you lout!"

He glimpsed hazily from the corner of his eye that someone had entered through the front door. It had to be Jochen, of course – who else? –; however, his eyes had not focused very well yet .

"I'll cut your ears from your head next time. Where were you roving, dog?"

The dark figure approached the commendator, who with squinted eyes had just managed to form the thought that Jochen should almost be of shorter stature and usually did not wear such a coat; yet this was all he managed to think before the stranger grabbed him abruptly by the chest and thrust him away. Von Clingenstain fell as if struck by a bolt of lightning.

"Thief, burglar!" he sputtered. "How do you dare, you dog – I am a knight of the German Order!"

The stranger kicked him in the chest and the commendator doubled over from the pain. The intruder had gripped a sword from underneath his coat.

Von Clingenstain felt that he was not capable of standing up and was far less capable of fighting; however, the sense of danger and pain had sobered him up instantly. He was almost even able to discern the features of the stranger's face from beneath his hood...

"Who, who... are you?" he demanded.

"Someone, who has prayed that he might take your filthy soul," a dull voice replied.

"Jochen, help!" von Clingenstain attempted to shout, although the cry fell feebly from his throat and could scarcely penetrate into the street through the thick stone walls.

Holding the sword in one hand, the stranger clenched the commendator by the chest and heaved him onto the table. The knight tried to struggle and fight, but he was no match for the intruder.

"What do you want?" he nonetheless finally managed to make audible.

"Only justice," came the reply. The unknown man forced von Clingenstain against the table with one hand and adjusted his grip on the sword with the other. "It must unfold in this very way – with you writhing in the mud and pleading fearfully for help. You will die without making peace with the Lord, and all your sins will come along with you to the grave. It is the road straight to hell, von Clingenstain!"

Death? Is this really my death? the flashed through the commendator's mind. Such a death and in Tallinn, not on the battlefield, not holding a sword in his hand; but here in some burgher's house in Tallinn, absolutely soused and by the sword of a thief.  Holy Mary, it was not supposed to happen this way! Not here and now, I do not deserve this ... His thoughts were sober, but his body unresponsive.

"Who are you?" he asked anew.

Instead of giving a response, the stranger raised something before his eyes. It appeared foggily, yet Clingenstain at last perceived what it was. He also watched as the stranger pushed back the hood from his face. That face... that face... and that object in his hand, that was... It was impossible! He recognized that face, yes, now he recognized it.

Yet Clingenstain's time was up. He realized this clearly; he felt it from his weakness and his helplessness. For an instant, he even saw in his mind's eye the saints glancing down at him from the heavens with pity and indifference. Yes, said the saints' gaze – here and now, Henning von Clingenstain, right here and right now is your fate, and we cannot prevent it.

A strong hand seized Clingenstain by the jaw and forced open his mouth. One more powerful burst of pain shot through the commendator's body as the stranger stuffed the item that had just been held before his eyes into the open cavity.

"This is exactly how it will unfold," said the man. "Not even begging for mercy will do you any good. Until we meet in hell."

He rammed the knight's head against the table, raised his sword with both hands and slashed downwards.

Henning von Clingenstain felt how the sword ground against his neck. He even felt how the strong blow sliced through his spine. It was painful, unbearably painful; however, that pain was insignificant compared with what awaited him ahead.






Rataskaevu Street

Melchior's Pharmacy

May 16, morning


Melchior Wakenstede, apothecary for the town of Tallinn, had just risen from the breakfast table where his dear Keterlyn had stuffed him with freshly baked bread and a generous slice of rich lard, and entered the front room of his living quarters – Tallinn Pharmacy –, where the most ordinary of working days should await him. He would hear about the townspeople's new sicknesses and old pains, he would hear dozens of rumors, sell some medicinal treatments and sweets and just a few flagons of his own fine pharmaceutical spirits. He would see ailments and diseases; he would also see the healthy and the strong, who would step into the pharmacy simply to jabber and hear of news, purchase strong pharmacy spirits and chew on sweet cookies or anise sweets. He would fulfill his duties and be satisfied and happy in doing so, just as he probably still should be on the threshold of his thirty-first year of living, to the blessing of his patron saint and joy of his noble father – may he rest in peace at the right hand of the Virgin Mary.

Melchior Wakenstede was born in the city of Lübeck, from which his father had relocated to Tallinn more than twenty years ago, coming to this new land where all was just being built; to a land that not long ago was won over from the grip of pagans and had been consecrated to the Virgin Mary. Melchior even remembered from his boyhood the stories of those old warriors that had entered his father's pharmacy from time to time and bought ointments for their aching joints. These tales spoke of how they had battled against the local pagans when their forces had surrounded Tallinn. This all seemed quite unbelievable now, because many of their so-called pagans' grandchildren visited his pharmacy every single day. Even his beloved wife Keterlyn was of the same lineage, descended from the peoples that had lived here since ancient times, and no matter that they did not bake bread or brew beer as it was done in Thuringia or Westphalia: these people now went to church each Sunday, just as all proper Christians.

Melchior Wakenstede regarded Tallinn as his hometown, as he could barely remember Lübeck. He was the sole apothecary in the town, just as his father had been. Melchior loved Tallinn. He had grown up here and vowed to treat the populace with his medications, to help all that suffered and ease their afflictions. He was called a chef of medicines, but he was actually somewhat more than that. Melchior was equal to merchants in status, on par with members of the clergy or city officials in education and was a respected man in the town who was highly regarded by town councilmen, nobles and knights alike.

He moved now on this fine spring morning from the kitchen into the pharmacy, thrust the front door wide open and let in the fresh sea air. His house was small; however, it was the only that his father had been able to purchase. On the first floor in the entry hall of the building was the pharmacy, comparable to a merchant's shop, and to the rear of this were his personal living quarters. A small passage led from here to the kitchen, which his father had rebuilt into what was often dubbed a 'witch's kitchen'. Around the fireplace stood levered presses and burners: this was where Melchior boiled and brewed his potions. On the second floor were storage rooms filled with wooden crates, where he held dried medicinal herbs. In the pharmacy was a large table and shelves along the walls bearing extracts, oils, and mixtures in glass vessels, as well as mortar and pestles. Since each apothecary must be slightly mysterious and display his countenance to the townspeople, Melchior had hung some sort of smaller stuffed crocodile from the ceiling near his table. The item had cost ten marks and, as the cunning-eyed merchant assured him, was supposed to be a genuine Egyptian crocodile. The townspeople seemed to believe this, in any case.

Melchior was a light-skinned man of shorter stature, rather thin with an angular build and a slight stagger to his step. His sparse pale hair held close to his head, even when he grew out his locks and cut them to below his ears. His gray, somewhat dim eyes were always able to appear cheerful and full of laughter. Melchior loved to laugh loudly at others' jokes, and his laugh was child-like and trusting. To many, it seemed that he was constantly cheerful and in good spirits – an apothecary can't exactly be dour and dismissive –, yet some had also viewed those moments in which it seemed as if some grim shadow flashed across his shy face. These were the moments Melchior believed that no one was watching him, and a bottomless agony could then spark in his eyes – an almost insane depth, a difficult and painful fear. Yet Melchior would then drive away these feelings and was once again the cheery Tallinn apothecary – a friend to all and a trustworthy aide.

It was still early and the city had just awoken. Melchior sat and reviewed his notes of those, who should come to request medications today. Here were his bottles and mortars, his mixtures and dried remedies; here was his world, from which he could never escape, would he have ever wanted to do so. Melchior unbound a small pouch of dried garlic chips and removed a vessel of hard spirits from a shelf, placing them before him. Today, this would become throat medicine for the baker's wife, although burnt wheat brings in much better income when mixed with herbs and poured forth, for example, for his good friend Court Vogt Wentzel Dorn to counter a stomachache.

Just as Melchior dropped the garlic chips into the mortar, however, the sound of bright music reached his ear. He peered out onto the street from the open door and saw that Kilian Rechpergerin – a boarder at Mertin Tweffell's, the owner of the neighboring house across Rataskaevu Street – had come out of the building, sat on the edge of the well and begun to play his lute.

The young man was probably barely seventeen, however to Melchior's understanding, he had studied choral arts in already several foreign cities and arrived in Tallinn at the behest of his father, because the old merchant Tweffell happened to be a relative of the Nuremburg Rechpergerin family. Kilian had lived since last summer as a boarder in the house of the Great Guild alderman. The boy passed around town singing at parties and could quite often be seen near the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, where lately not a single meal passed without Kilian present to sing his own playful verses. Kilian was accustomed to introducing himself as Schulfreund, for such was how journeymen musicians that roamed to far-off lands to study the art of music were titled at the Nuremburg Guild of Meistersingers. Melchior had to admit he did indeed enjoy Kilian's music – it bore a sense of the spirit of warm southern lands, a melodic lilt and techniques unknown to Tallinn musicians. The young man's voice was clear and pure, resounding and warm. Which, of course, has not been left unnoticed by many a young Tallinn damsel, Melchior mused, and furrowed his brow.

Melchior continued concocting the cough mixture and saw the door of the neighboring house had opened and Gerdrud, the young wife of master merchant Tweffell, stepped out into the open. It appeared to the apothecary that the young singer had awaited this very moment. Melchior grasped his mortar and positioned himself slightly closer to the open door. Curiosity is regularly the vice of all pharmacists.

The young mistress Gerdrud, who might have been only a year or two older than Kilian but was forty years or more younger than her husband, carried a market basket under her arm and nodded pleasantly in greeting to the musician. The young man, however, jumped from the edge of the well to stand straight and bow.

"Good morning, merchant's mistress," he shouted cheerfully. "A fine spring morning to you! Can you see what a beautiful, blessed day has been given to us? It would be a downright sin if it were not greeted with a splendid melody."

The mistress stopped and replied briskly: "Good morning, Kilian Rechpergerin. But this day is only beautiful to those who are able to pass it by with song and music. It is exactly the same as all other days for honest townsfolk: filled with work and bustle."

Kilian played a swift, incredibly complex melody and shouted in reply: "Oh, but do you, mistress Gerdrud, then really believe that song and play are merely born of the Lord's grace, and that one does not have to do work and see toil in their name?"

"All is born of the Lord's grace," said the young woman. "I can sing also, but no one will complete my work and my doings. The day is given to some for playing tunes, and to others it is for earning their daily bread."

"Old Uncle Mertin is wealthy enough by now that his young bride should not have to hustle around day by day in the manner of a washerwoman. You even have Ludke and the old maid in the house..." said Kilian cleverly, yet Gerdrud cut him off in a somewhat irritated tone.

"Stop your prattling, Kilian Rechpergerin. It is not for you to say how the Alderman should arrange his household affairs: you are merely our boarder."

"A boarder has eyes as well. I certainly see already how things are in Tallinn, and how they are for us in Nuremburg: how my great uncle's nephew burdens his fine young bride and demands of her work and chores for which three servant girls would be necessary, and for the employment of which the old churl should have sufficient funds indeed."

Insolent lad, thought Melchior while eavesdropping on the exchange below the window. Insolent, but he dares speak the truth. No one might have accused Great Guild Alderman Tweffell of excessive spending, nor of revelry. His young wife – in addition to the fact that she was a joy to the old man's eye in his elder days – unquestionably did more housekeeping work than the mistress of any other wealthy merchant in this town. The servant Ludke and the old maid were the only domestics employed in his house.

Gerdrud now exclaimed even more heatedly: "Silence yourself, Kilian! Cease your mindless talk at once. If Ludke could hear you right now, he would tell sire Mertin straight away."

Kilian stepped closer towards the young woman, cocked his head and asked in a sly tone: "But you will not say anything, mistress Gerdrud?"

Gerdrud faltered. "I... I must go. I am in a hurry," she said.

However, Kilian paid this no attention.

"But maybe you will hear just one tune?" he asked. "Or even better – if you just said that you are able to sing as well... Does such a spring morning then not bring a melody to your mouth? Let us rather do it in this way – I will play the lute and you will sing."

The girl shook her head. "As if I would start crooning right in the center of the town! That won't happen at all! I really must go."

Yet Kilian insisted. "But just one song; allow me to sing to you."

"No, Kilian. No. Not one song."

"Do you then really not want to hear one or another of the Nuremberg Meistersingers' best melodies? I know several of them. Just now, I recall one song about an old tanner that wed a woman fifty years younger than he and became the laughingstock of the entire town, and then..."

Gerdrud gave a muffled cry and blurted: "Silence, Kilian, and please do not start shaming me in the center of town: I'll rush away this very instant."

"Hey, wait up! Maybe some other song? How about an old song of the Minnesingers? All of our Meistersingers study olden songs of the Minnesingers. Should I sing to you of how Tannhäuser or Konrad von Würzburg yearned for their darling lovers? Do you wish me to?"

"No, Kilian. No. Good-bye. I have things to do in the town and do not wish to converse with you any longer." Gerdrud determinately slung the market basket under her arm and desired to head off. Nevertheless, Kilian did not abandon his pursuit; he flicked his fingers across the lute and exclaimed in a low tone:

"Or maybe some Tallinn song instead, mistress Gerdrud? Yet those are so doleful that they do not suit together with a fine spring. Oh, but I can still recall one happier song! Maybe you would like this chant about jolly seamen?"

And without waiting for a reply, Kilian began to sing:


I've seventeen brothers and seventeen vessels

I've seventeen harbors all full of fine wenches

My brothers dread neither death nor heaven...


Gerdrud promptly shrieked, and even Melchior winced from indignation. The young woman rushed towards Kilian and covered his mouth with her petite hand.

"Absolutely do not sing that song in Tallinn if you do wish not for them to chase you out of here!" she shouted, stunned. "Are you insane? The Victual Brothers have done us so much harm, those raiders and murderers of the sea... Whoever sings their songs in Tallinn must be outright mad."

Kilian slowly removed Gerdrud's hand from his mouth and asked so softly that Melchior could barely hear: "Yet maybe I actually am outright mad?"

"Be what you may, but you must not sing such songs in the town of Tallinn if you do not wish to be stoned to death," said the girl resolutely.

"Fair enough, but then tell me what sort of song you would like to hear on this morn?"

"Not a single one, I must rush off. Not a single song of the Meistersingers, nor of the Minnesingers, not of spring, nor of the sea – none at all. I... I really must hurry. Go your own way now as well."

Kilian smiled dejectedly. "Your life might become empty and sorrowful as such, without song. Such a life has no joy, nor solace – merely things to tend to and work to be done, worries and toil. Good-bye then, mistress Gerdrud, until tonight. I also have matters to attend to at the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads. To where were you on your way, perhaps we are heading on same path?"

"I? Only right here to the pharmacy, and then to the harbor and the market."

"To the pharmacy?" Kilian inquired. "Is Ludke himself unable to bring salves and medicines to his master?"

"Sire Mertin sent Ludke away somewhere already last evening and I have not seen him yet ... Good bye, Kilian. I am going now."

Gerdrud now turned away determinedly. Kilian laughed, waved to her and began to stride along Rataskaevu Street towards the Long Hill Gate. Melchior trailed the boy with his gaze and shook his head sadly. It isn't right. It isn't right that an old merchant takes so young a wife, and it is not right that another young, handsome boarder lives under their same roof. Nevertheless, Melchior moved quickly away from the window and placed himself behind the counter.

Mistress Gerdrud required from the pharmacy a bone salve for her husband's sick joints today. Melchior readied the ointment according to the town doctor's recipe, yet he was quite certain that it would not make the old guild alderman's bones and joints a great deal healthier.

Gerdrud was still lightly flushed when she stepped into the pharmacy and greeted Melchior.

"Mistress Gerdrud, our dear neighbor!" exclaimed the apothecary. "What a pleasure it is to see you in such a good mood on this lovely morning."

"You are also always in such a good mood that I outright pity the fact I happen across here as rarely as I do," said the young woman meekly.

"Well then come and stop by more often – it does even a young, healthy person no harm to gulp down some more spirited remedy," Melchior advised. "Ah yes, your bone salve. Here it is, good and ready; and just as always, it should be smeared on the aching bones with one prayer in addition, said to the Virgin Mary – then it will aid the very best. Or at least it will ease the troubles of old age. I indeed expected Ludke instead of you... "

"Sire Mertin sent him somewhere on matters, already yesterday. I have not seen him since then," Gerdrud replied.

"And your husband?" Melchior queried.

"He rushed off already at dawn to the harbor for trading. Thank you for the ointment."

"Rushed?" Melchior pronounced thoughtfully. "You know, I am not an actual physician, of course; however, even I know a thing or two about illnesses. And 'rushing' is no longer proper at sire Mertin's age, this I say for certain. A calm, quiet life, fatty foods, not fasting too zealously during Lent – yes? –, proper bloodletting and applying ointment to aching areas once in a while, and furthermore taking hot baths – there is no other treatment than that to recommend."

He furtively eyed Gerdrud's face while he spoke. The girl was not yet twenty years of age. She had light-colored hair and blue eyes. From beneath her hennin, Gerdrud's youthful face appeared innocent and invoked compassion. Did she shroud with that carefree expression all those troubles that a young girl must encounter when her husband is fifty years older and ill?

"He has prayers said in his name at St. Nicholas' Church and pays for the sacraments," the girl said, and sighed. Not generously by any means, as I have heard, Melchior mused, however nodded ardently.

The girl fell silent. Gerdrud watched Melchior with growing seriousness and asked abruptly: "But tell me, sire Melchior: will all this likely be of no aid? His pains do not wish to subside in the least."

"My dear neighbor woman, just as time has been given to one, so it too will pass, and maybe just a bit of prolongation can be gained through treatment, prayer and bloodletting. If blood is let properly and his aching bones and joints are rubbed, then sire Mertin's health will certainly not be in the shadow of death as yet; I told him this myself. He might live for more than ten years further."

"Does your star chart say so?"

"My star chart?" asked Melchior. He leaned down and removed a folded star chart from beneath the counter. The object was the work of masters in Bruges and had once been handed down to him by his father. The method for reading a star chart was one secret of the apothecaries' guild. The astrologers of royal courts read star charts in one way and apothecaries another, if they knew the patient's name and month of birth.

"No, not a star chart," he pronounced slowly. "That was said according to intuition and experience. Your husband's joints are ill and his bones ache, but his life force is still strong. A star chart tells me when is the very best day to let blood, and as I can see here, that would be..."

His fingers glided quickly across the star chart's symbols and he murmured: "We must look for the location of Sagittarius to counter sire Tweffell's hip pains, his legs are here in Capricorn and his ailing knees are Aquarius... and as we see now that the moon is in Capricorn the evening after tomorrow, then I would say it would benefit your husband to let blood at the barber's two days from now in the morning, and after that he should treat himself with ointment at once: then his leg pain should certainly give way."

"I will pass the word along to him. A thousand thanks to you, apothecary Melchior, and farewell!" Gerdrud sighed once more and turned to exit.

Melchior nodded to her. "Yes, yes... it is an old science taught to us by Saliceto Wilhelmus and Cremona Gerardus, and all of those other famed healers of times past. Surely advise your beloved husband to let blood appropriately, and you will definitely see, dear neighbor, that he will excellently remain in good health."

"By the Lord's grace," mumbled Gerdrud, then left. Melchior held his gaze on her thoughtfully as she departed.

"Poor girl!" sounded a woman's voice suddenly from behind Melchior. The apothecary had not even heard his precious wife Keterlyn as she entered the pharmacy.

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