How John Wilmot Contracted Syphilis
by Molly Tanzer
“All I shall say for myself on this score is this, if I appear to any one like a counterfeit, even for the sake of that chiefly ought I to be construed a true man, [for] who is the counterfeit's example, his original, and that which he employs his industry and pains to imitate and copy? Is it therefore my fault if the cheat by his wits and endeavours makes himself so like me, that consequently I cannot avoid resembling of him?”
-from Dr. Alexander Bendo’s advertisement of services, 1676
“Client for you, m’lord,” said Henry, poking his head around the door, but the servant quickly withdrew as a book flew at his face. The tome hit the door with a thump and fell open on the wooden floor; the pages rustled softly as they settled.
The esteemed Doctor Alexander Bendo swore as he gazed at the volume lying on the ground—he would have to pick it up, and picking it up meant having to bend over, and having to bend over meant first having to stand, and having to stand meant dizziness, and he could deal with the dizziness, but it also meant pain in every single joint, and he was tired of that—very tired.
Today was bad. Sometimes he was pain-free for weeks, once even for a year, give or take a month—but recently he was spending more and more time distracting himself with work or amusements or drink or drugs, or simply lying a-bed due to the frightful aching mass he called his body through force of habit. It was the weakness annoyed him the most, though, even more than the weeping chancres, more than the rash, the mottled hands, the swollen lymph nodes, the frequent impotence. . . but there was nothing for it. Quite literally nothing for it; he believed that now, as nothing, not even mercury, had helped. He was unaware if he had picked up the French disease while in France or from some slut who’d fucked a Frenchman, but it hardly mattered. What mattered was that it wasn’t kidney stones. It certainly wasn’t scrofula.
It was syphilis.
Which was amusing, because syphilis was one of the diseases Dr. Bendo had some reputation for being able to cure.
Which was amusing, because Dr. Bendo had absolutely no ability to cure syphilis, no matter what his advertisements or his patients or his own mouth might proclaim.
“Hey Doc,” called Henry, cautiously opening the door. “She’s gettin antsy, this one. High-steppin sort, satin-and-silk, you know how they are.”
“Get the fuck out,” snapped Dr. Bendo, reaching for his wine glass, only to find it long-drained—he resolved to buy a bigger glass. “I’m not at home to patients—look at me! Surely. . .”
Go down there.
“Surely what, m’lord?”
I’ll cure you if you do.
“Surely. . . ah,” Dr. Bendo sat up, his face as white as almond-milk. “Surely. . .”
Symptom-free. I promise. Just deliver me to her.
“Surely. . .” Henry frowned; he was used to his master’s eccentricities, but absent-mindedness was not usually one of them.
“Surely, Henry, she will wait for such a master of medicine as myself,” said Dr. Bendo, heaving himself to his feet, the momentary disorientation he always felt when getting up dissipating quickly due to his excitement. These dark days, the only relief he got from his malady was through make-believe, play-acting, and thus had the persona of Dr. Bendo, the extraordinarily talented Italian pathologist, physician, and apothecary of London’s Tower Street, come into being in the first place. No one could possibly see the notorious libertine and satirist John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, in the exotic, foreign, and pious Dr. Alexander Bendo. The disguise was absolute. He’d treated noblewomen as Dr. Bendo whom he’d fucked as John Wilmot, and not a one had guessed he was the same man. But after nearly a month the masquerade was wearing thin, and though the initial excitement of playing the mountebank had distracted him most effectively, his symptoms had returned with a vengeance. Dispensing wisdom and medicine had gone from being an amusing diversion to an actual job, and while the honest Dr. Bendo might enjoy an honest day’s labor, John Wilmot certainly did not.
“I’ll go down and tell the bird you’ll be down directly,” said Henry. “Ought to be a tidy packet in it for us. She’s a fine wealthy hag and strumpet.” He chuckled as his master smoothed his robes, brushed his great false beard, and donned the large, bejeweled amulet that had attracted at least as much attention and comment from clients as his cure-all tonics. “Lady S— is known all over town as nothing but a common—”
“Oh, I knowing the lady,” said Dr. Bendo, and that was true, both in the literal and Bibilcal sense. He cleared his throat and winked at Henry. “Did she saying vat the trouble vas?” His favorite part of the Dr. Bendo character was the voice—he knew it veered more toward the German than the Italian way of speaking, but no one seemed to notice.
“Silent as the grave on that account,” said Henry, shaking his head.
No matter. Dr. Bendo waved Henry away and trotted down the hallway to his consulting room. He had only just taken a seat behind his massive desk—bought from a rival whose fortunes had turned, made to look authentic with important-looking papers, the mounted skeleton of a cat, and his old school-boy Latin and Greek texts—when there came a knock, and then Henry threw the waiting-room door open with a flourish. The man had been a barker at some gypsy revue before being hired to play the role of physician’s assistant, and knew how to make a show of it. Lady S— rustled in after, her entrance no less theatrical. She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, her aged but still-impressive bosom heaving as if she were in the utmost distress.
“My dear Doctor,” she sighed, her red lip trembling. “I—”
“Vait,” he said. “Let my man pouring the vine, and then he vill leave us in privacy.”
“Oh, of course,” said Lady S—, settling herself on the wooden chair, but as soon as the door was shut, she leaned forward to impart her complaint.
“I—I have need of your services,” she said, running her tongue over her lips, but Dr. Bendo ignored this—unlike John Wilmot, the good doctor never accepted cunt over cash as payment. “The circumstances are nothing short of dire, I assure you.”
“Vat are your symptoms?” He certain they would be similar to his own, or a variation thereof. It was beyond the realm of possibility that Lady S— could manage to escape Cupid’s disease forever, not with her habits, too similar to his own.
“Symptoms?” tittered Lady S—. “Me? Symptoms? No no, Doctor, I’m not here on my account. My. . . daughter.”
“Did you bring ze child vith you?”
“She’s staying with me, in Westminster,” said Lady S—. “She’s come to back to England on account of her, ah, difficulties, and given that one of your cure-alls saved the life of my lady’s maid. . .”
“Oh, ja, ja,” said Dr. Bendo, unsure which wench the Lady S— spoke of. He’d assisted many of the better sort of servants along with nobles, merchants, and beggars the past few weeks with medicines, liquid tonics that were just herbs soaked in booze, or bunk pills comprised of chalk, street-filth, and sometimes his own semen—when he could endure the agony required to obtain it. Thus was his surprise greater than anyone’s when his treatments resulted in success. “I am glad to hearing she is much better, ja?”
“Indeed,” said Lady S—. “But my daughter’s complaint is of a much more. . . delicate. . . nature.”
“Her husband—a wealthy Dutchman, we should never have allowed a match with a foreigner, beg pardon, but there it is—well, the brute is considering annulling their marriage, claiming she is barren. I suspect, given it has only been some months since the wedding, that the problem is not so much barrenness as, ah, something else. She was a most religious child and fought to remain unmarried, but the match was too good for us not to induce her to accept him. Now this has occurred, but she will not even discuss the problem with me, her own mother.” Lady S— sniffed.
She broke out a fan. Dr. Bendo wished he had one. Despite all he could do his lodgings were too warm. The summer of 1676 had been unusually hot, and as he watched Lady S— fanning herself he was reminded of how abominably he was sweating under his robes and false beard.
“Do you think ze child will discussing vith a doctor, a strange man?” asked Dr. Bendo, refilling his guest’s wine-glass.
Doesn’t matter. You must get to her. The child is the one I want—not this crone.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Lady S—, sipping her wine.
“I vill suggest to you a plan,” said Dr. Bendo, stroking his beard, but carefully, lest the heat had loosened the glue. “My vife—Mrs. Bendo—would be happy to discussing ze problem vith your child this after-noon. She is out doing ze shopping now, but later I vill have her pay a call. Perhaps she can gleaning from your daughter vat the problem is?”
“You’re a professional, and a miracle-worker,” said Lady S—, tossing a small leather sack on the desk, where it jingled appealingly. “The rest of your fee after? With a bonus if they are reconciled?”
“Ja,” said Dr. Bendo, nodding vigorously. “Tell the girl to expect my vife after the dinner-hour. And tell her to eating nothing that might giving her vind, or cramp. If Mrs. Bendo must examining her, she should be fit.”
“Of course,” said Lady S—. “And thank you.”
“Thank you,” said Dr. Bendo.
“Just what the fuck is going on?”
John Wilmot threw his beard on the bed where it lay like an enormous sleeping weasel. Next came the amulet and the robe, but he retained his gloves despite the warmth. He couldn’t stand the sight of his hands during an outbreak.
You’re getting weaker, pretty Johnny.
“I fucking know that!” Wilmot poured himself another tipple of wine, but his hands were trembling and he spilled more than he managed to get in the cup. He slurped the pool of wine off the table and then chugged the contents of the glass. “But why not just cure me? We’ve had good times, just like I promised, just like you wanted. I’m not even thirty, for Christ’s sake, and now—what—you’re just up and leaving me for some slut?”
She’s not a slut.
“Then what the fuck do you want with her?”
I suppose I should’ve said, she’s not yet a slut.
“You’re a bastard,” said Wilmot, now drinking directly from the bottle. It was soon empty and he threw it out the window, giving a hoarse chuckle as it smashed on the side of the neighboring building, raining glass down upon the floppy, pock-marked bosom of an unfortunate whore who lounged in the alleyway. “Never get tired of it, do you?”
Why should I?
“I hate you.”
Then why so loath to be rid of me? Shouldn’t you be shimmying into your stays, Mrs. Bendo?
“Maybe I won’t go.”
Spite me at the cost of your own health?
“Cure me first, then I’ll go, if it’s so fucking important to you.”
Silence. Wilmot shouted down the stairs for another bottle of wine, only to have Henry shout up at him that they were out, did he have coin to buy more? Slamming the door, Wilmot threw himself down on the bed but then regretted it. The abused lesions on his back sent thrills of nauseating pain throughout his body. He wiped away an involuntary tear with the sleeve of his linen undershirt only to knock a newer chancre on his arm with his rather prominent nose. An acidic mix of bile and wine rose in his throat as the agony gripped him, but he managed to at least vomit on the floor instead of on his sheets. He sighed as he rested, his heartbeat wild and painful.
You don’t have syphilis, you know.
You’ve had it before, yes. You managed to kick it with your natural vitality. As for right now, you’re clean of it.
“Then. . .”
When did we meet, Johnny?
“When—I must’ve been twelve. . .
Oh, yes. That little caper. But I meant more our first meeting of bodies and wills, dear Johnny. When did I take up residence?
“It must’ve been. . . over seven years, I’d say?”
And when did you first see the lesions?
Wilmot was silent, cottoning on.
I—I didn’t want you to find out like this.
Usually, Wilmot’s constant companion sounded self-assured and thoughtful—It was self-assured and thoughtful, by Its very nature, but It sounded unhappy and almost petulant now. Wilmot sighed. He should’ve known, should’ve guessed, but the touch-and-go nature of the malady had made him dismiss the possibility of any sort of causality. For years It had been his best friend and worst enemy, his in-house editor for poems and satires; his frequent muse and more frequent distracter, the voice that said yes when reason said no, It’s suggestions always hilarious but not to everyone, thus getting him kicked out of court and into trouble with the law on a number of occasions—and It was a veritable bloodhound when it came to sniffing out ladies of quality with an inclination to spread or suck. He had once called It his guardian demon, and It had liked the title so much It had adopted it permanently, referring to Itself as such at every available opportunity.
Do you know what a disease is?
“Strumpet’s revenge,” said Wilmot.
When your body plays host to tiny creatures with motives of their own, it can make you sick.
“That’s stupid,” said Wilmot. “That’s not true.”
“What the devil are you trying to say?”
I’ve tried, dear Johnny, to correct what I’ve done to you, living here with you, in this body, but. . . well, it’s gotten out of hand. It’s been a time since you’ve had a spell of decent health, hasn’t it? I’ve got to go. I’d like to see my pretty protégé well again.
It made no sense, but Wilmot was the first to admit that he was not a thoroughly sensible man after the better part of a decade living with a spirit-creature who talked to him in a voice only he could hear. “Why this girl?” he asked.
We met her once. She’s pretty. And innocent. It will be fun.
“And I’ll be. . .”
Like I was never here. The chancres will heal, the pain in your joints will ease. . .
Wilmot sat up, unsure how he felt about all this—the prospect of health was tempting, but the notion of being without his guardian demon felt oddly frightening after so long, like taking a place of one’s own after years of living with a friend.
Don’t be an idiot.
In the end It got its way, as It always did, and Wilmot staggered to his feet, shouted for Henry, and with the aid of his manservant donned shift, stays—loose, his back was too sore to tighten the corset much—then a bustle, the stomacher, petticoats, over-dress, and wig. Over the course of an hour he transformed into a handsome woman slightly past her prime, the esteemed Mrs. Bendo. He wore no makeup—Mrs. Bendo did not paint her face like a harlot, being a good woman and wife—and, only slightly behind schedule, the disguised Earl of Rochester descended from his rooms on high pattens into the coach that bore an advertisement draped from the windows for Dr. Bendo’s Cure-All Tonics.
As he rode to Lady S—’s manse Wilmot chuckled to himself, considering the prospect of a life without pain. He would never again become Mrs. Bendo out of necessity—only design. The disguise started as a lark, a tool for the occasional cheap thrill, soothing when the sores bubbled up on his cock, rendering him more or less impotent, or at the very least disinclined toward any sort of friction on that area. One of Dr. Bendo’s many claims was the ability to read fortunes in birth-marks, but some ladies—often the more virginal, tempting ones—were too shy to reveal a mole or other private imperfections to an older male. They would, however, show such blemishes to a matronly woman, and the wide skirts disguised the occasional limp, itchy cockstands he managed while running his gloved hands over the skin of unblemished, youthful skin.
Wilmot was no stranger to dressing in women’s clothes—he rather liked it, actually. All of his acquaintances learned sooner or later to expect semi-regular visits from odd persons, male or female, who would later be revealed as the Earl of Rochester after he’d had a laugh at his friends’ expense. The latest incarnation of a long-standing tradition, Mrs. Bendo was truly his crowning accomplishment; no act other than his usual rakish persona had gotten him into so many private chambers, and never so easily. Picking his way out of the carriage and up to the door of Lady S—’s fashionable residence he knocked and greeted the flunky who answered the door.
“Is my lady’s daughter in?” asked Mrs. Bendo—her accent was lighter than her husband’s, but pronounced enough when whispered to mask Wilmot’s tenor. “I vas summoned by Lady S— to see about—”
“She’s waiting in her chambers,” called Lady S—, padding into the foyer. “Mrs. Bendo. I presume? How very good of you to come.”
* * *
“Yes?” The voice from behind the door was high, feminine, and musical.
“Mrs. De Groot?” Wilmot pitched his voice slightly higher. “Mrs. Bendo to see you, my chicken.”
“Oh,” came the response, and the door opened, revealing pure beauty.
Wilmot caught his breath—the pale, lovely creature who looked at him out of mournful blue eyes the color of a summer sky was nothing short of magnificent, a jewel, and Wilmot realized he had indeed seen her before. It was only a year ago, her first court appearance, he had noticed her then and desired her greatly, but just like himself he’d gotten drunk and forgotten about her until months later, only to be informed that she had been snapped up by a Dutch merchant, wedded and bedded and beyond his reach, living in Rotterdam.
Wilmot stepped into the room and shut the door behind him, almost salivating. In the coach It had told him It must leave his body through fluid of some sort, and given the hearty stirring in his breeches, Wilmot knew exactly how he’d best like to bestow his gift upon this girl. He’d never be able to fuck her—such a prospect was impossible if he wanted to avoid dancing the Tyburn jig—but perhaps he could find a privy and rub out a “tonic” that would serve his purpose nicely. It would be worth the pain for all the pleasures to come after.
“Mrs. De Groot?” asked Mrs. Bendo. “I am coming for you, my lady.”
How true that would be, he thought to himself, delighted.
“My mother said you’d call,” said Mrs. De Groot, her shell-pink lips forming the words as if they were pearls and flowers instead of the sort of common speech one might hear anywhere in the street. “I hope your journey was not too hot?”
“Ja, ja, not too hot,” said Mrs. Bendo, seating herself where Mrs. De Groot indicated.
“Excellent,” said Mrs. De Groot. “But it is very warm. Please tell me if you require a drink or a fan, or. . .”
“Are you nervous?” asked Mrs. Bendo, noticing that the young woman toyed with a fan herself, her hands twisting around it as they sat together.
“Why would I be nervous?” asked Mrs. De Groot, though she looked away as she said it, her voice trembling.
“Your husband is vanting an annulment,” said Mrs. Bendo. “Your mother is saying so to my husband. He is claiming you are barren, Mrs. De Groot. But sometimes it can taking several months before child is coming, ja? Any reasonable man is knowing.”
“My husband is not a reasonable man,” said Mrs. De Groot, fanning herself. “I cannot imagine anything is wrong beyond he simply doesn’t. . . doesn’t like me. He married me for my beauty, but any Christian knows beauty is hardly the foundation for a solid marriage. We are. . . incompatible.”
“Oh?” All of Mrs. Bendo’s patients agreed that her chief virtue was her ability to listen; her kindly manners and warm smile loosened the stiffest of tongues. Wilmot, for his part, loved gossip, and could read a face as easily as a book, in or out of character, and he saw a slight melting of the ice that sheathed Mrs. De Groot. Likely the girl’s mother was not the listening ear she needed—buthe could be that ear.
“He likes to drink,” said Mrs. De Groot. “And. . . and he eats to excess. He was very fat in the stomach when we married and has only grown. He entertains no notion of temperance.”
“I have hearing the Dutch are professing much virtue in the chapel, but exhibit little in the home,” said Mrs. Bendo wisely.
“That’s just it,” said Mrs. De Groot, warming perceptibly, her cheeks glowing with pleasure. “My mother. . . my mother thinks little of my desire for peace, and clean living, and prayer. . . and my husband thinks less of it. I am so very alone, and. . . oh, Mrs. Bendo, can I trust you to keep secrets?”
“Ja, ja, of course,” said Mrs. Bendo, patting Mrs. De Groot’s knee with her gloved hand. “Unless it is some symptom, not even my husband shall hearing it.”
“It’s just that. . . my husband is no Papist, or course, but he might as well be the very Pope himself for all he cares about simplicity and virtue! I—I’ve been sneaking out to go to church at night, when he has drunk himself silly and cannot hear.”
“Drunk himself silly?” Mrs. Bendo frowned. “Surely, not more than a few months into matrimony, your husband should be vanting to keeping sober, for the marriage bed, ja?”
Mrs. De Groot blushed and Wilmot had to work hard to keep his countenance—the pretty red shade of her cheeks and the mention of marital pleasures had animated a usually flaccid part of his body. He felt It stirring in his mind, pleased. Soon, thought Wilmot.
“I. . . I cannot. . .” whispered Mrs. De Groot. “Please, I. . .”
“Ja?” Mrs. Bendo leaned forward, intrigued.
“I lied to you,” said Mrs. De Groot, her eyes welling. “When I said he didn’t like me. He. . . he is furious with me, I should have said. He wants. . . oh, Mrs. Bendo! We have not done as married people do, not yet. I asked him to wait for my courses to begin, for when we were wed, I had not yet gotten my first sign of them,” she wiped away a tear with a delicate finger. “My mother pushed the match on me when Mr. De Groot proposed.”
“Have you achieved menarche now?” Mrs. Bendo coughed and cleared her throat—Wilmot realized he had dropped his accent at this surprising piece of information.
“No,” came the answer. “That’s the trouble.”
Wilmot froze. He had been accused many times of being a seducer of innocents, not without cause, but even he shied away from assaulting a child. He looked at her again, noticing then how very thin and young she was, how her eyes were so very large in her face, like an infant’s, how her stomacher showed no indication it was flattening a bosom beneath it. He felt cold, and suddenly horrified by the notion of passing his invisible visitor on to this girl.
Don’t be an idiot. And don’t worry about what she’s said. She’ll never achieve menarche. She’s as ripe as she’ll ever be.
“What?” asked Mrs. De Groot, confused.
She’s the perfect decoy, Johnny, think of it! A beautiful girl, her body will never be marred by a pregnancy! No need to worry about contraception, can’t you see it? She is an ideal host! What times we’ll have! With you, if you like, as soon as you’re well, as soon as I—
Wilmot felt nauseous. He shook his head, the curls of his wig bouncing, and Mrs. De Groot looked at her companion with surprise.
“Did I offend?” she asked, lip trembling.
“No,” said Mrs. Bendo, standing. “No, I—I—”
Don’t be a fool!
“I won’t!” cried Mrs. Bendo.
“Won’t what?” asked Mrs. De Groot, alarmed. “Mrs. Bendo, I’m sorry, I—oh!”
Mrs. Bendo had collapsed, shaking, twitching as she lay on the floor, froth on her lips. Mrs. De Groot knelt beside the older woman, horrified, ready to call for a servant, call for Mrs. Bendo’s husband, the doctor—but then she noticed the woman’s clothing, the long sleeves, the high neckline, the gloves. Convinced that the doctor’s wife had fainted from the heat Mrs. De Groot poured a glass of wine and dribbled a little into the woman’s slack mouth.
“You must be so warm,” said the girl, as Wilmot managed to swallow. “I’m going to take off your gloves, at least. We must cool you down.”
Wilmot tried to say no, tried to forbid it, but he was too weak, the pain was too potent. It was angry, and It could make Its presence known at such times, raging inside him as he lay there on the floor, prodding him, demanding he do something, anything, to get It out of him and into her, punishing Wilmot with pain, terrible agony, but Wilmot would not. He opened his eyes and saw Mrs. De Groot looking down at him in some distress as she tugged at his glove, and it came away, revealing palms covered in a warty red and white rash, putrid in places, the cracks weeping just as he wept to see her horror.
“Poor woman,” said Mrs. De Groot, distressed. “You’re ill.”
Wilmot nodded, realizing his disguise was still successful—he had to get out of there, despite the anguish in his bones and muscles.
“Is it serious?” asked Mrs. De Groot.
Wilmot nodded again, ignoring Its demands. He would go, he would leave this girl untouched, a mercy she would never know.
“My. . . my husband has left me a great deal of pocket-money for this journey,” said Mrs. De Groot. “If you are in want, please. . .”
“No,” whispered Mrs. Bendo. “No, I—”
“Then I will do what I can in other ways,” said Mrs. De Groot. “I—I shall pray for you, Mrs. Bendo.”
And then she kissed his oozing, rotten hand.
He heard laughter, Its laughter, and felt palpably better in that instant—a rushing feeling and then clear-headedness, emptiness. Startled, he looked up, to see Mrs. De Groot looking alarmed.
“No!” he cried, scrambling to his feet more easily than he had in years.
“I. . . I fear I’m feeling strange, all of a sudden,” said Mrs. De Groot, pressing a hand to her temple. “I. . . think this interview would best be conducted on a cooler day. Is that quite all right?”
“Come back,” he said, pleading, though not with her.
“You may, if you wish,” she said.
There was no other answer.
Wilmot nodded; there was nothing for it. He left as he had come, down the stairs, out into the street without collecting his fee, into the coach that waited for him, Henry chatting with the driver, curious to see his ersatz mistress so defeated.
“Not go well, Mrs. Bendo?” Henry asked, leering at him as they drove away.
“I’m done with all of this,” said Wilmot, tearing off his wig. “We’re closing up shop.”
Upon returning home he burned all the clothing he’d used as Dr. Bendo and wife, and dressed once again as John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, noting as he did so that the lesions on his arms and groin were already shrinking, the guilty rash on his hands nearly healed.
“Back to court,” he told Henry, when the servant looked at him, surprised. “I’m going home.”
The next day, all patients who came for treatment were instead greeted by the sight of furniture being carted away, rooms cleaned, the servants doing so taciturn and unhelpful. All were directed to the note tacked to the door:
Mourn ye the death of Doctor Alexander Bendo, who yesterday was spirited away by a wicked necromancer, offended by the good Doctor’s ability to cheat him of the many deaths the sorcerer attempted by means of his black magics.
It was lonely without It in his mind, teasing him, correcting his grammar when he wrote, encouraging him against his better judgment to drink or gamble or whore, but he was so long established in those habits, grammar included, that he was certainly capable of such without Its influence, especially feeling so goddamn healthy as he did. He laughed, drinking deeply—he was out with friends who had missed him during his stint as Dr. Bendo, and the crowded tavern in which they made merry was noisy and smoky, just the sort of entertainment he had missed during his illness.
He tried not to worry about Mrs. De Groot. He’d been doing so earlier when his friends came for him. Finding him inebriated and monstrously grumpy, they’d hauled him out into a coach, demanding he cheer up. They’d done a good job at it, though their timing could not account for his tolerance. Wilmot was just entering high spirits as they were falling down drunk, and, leaving his companions face-down in their own drool on the ale-house table he sidled over to where Henry caroused with some of the other servants.
“Do you see that strumpet?” asked Wilmot, elbowing Henry to get his attention, using his flagon of beer to indicate the pretty dark-eyed girl serving meat and drink to the many customers.
“I am going to fuck that strumpet,” said Wilmot, draining his mug and tossing it to the ground, feeling as virile as he had as a boy at Oxford, or while abducting and making violent love to the woman he’d make his wife when he was only nineteen, or countless other lusty incidents involving boys and girls, men and women, whores and virtuous girls, and once, just once, a sheep.
A fortnight later, Wilmot untangled his limbs from the gently snoring, angelically beautiful pageboy he’d plied with wine and then deflowered after meeting him at Whitehall. In the dark room he rose to use the chamberpot, but, fiddling with his breeches, he touched a painful bump on his cock. Startled, he forgot his need to piss entirely and lit a candle. After his watering eyes adjusted to the sudden light, he saw a telltale lesion in the process of forming.
“Have you come back?” he whispered into the darkness. “My guardian demon? Are you there? Have you come home?”
There was no answer. Only a silent, throbbing ache.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
When I write historical fantasy, I often I find myself most inspired by real history. "How John Wilmot Contracted Syphilis" actually grew out of an abandoned novel project. While researching John Wilmot's early life, I ended up reading onward (because he was such a fascinating individual!) and learned about the history that informs this story--that he once disguised himself as a mountebank, and treated people as "Dr. Bendo," and also furthered the disguise by pretending to be Dr. Bendo's wife, "Mrs. Bendo," in order to make his young female clients more comfortable. I have a weakness for charlatans, quackery, and patent medicine, so, for me, such a dirty and ridiculous farce fairly begged to be incorporated into a story!
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
When I write, I get to do all sorts of fun things--create characters, give them life within their worlds, and, with historical fiction, I get to mess with the historical record, which is always fun! Also, with historical fantasy, sometimes I can (like with this story) highlight something unusual about a famous historical person, but it's also fun to take someone, be they real or imagined, who would have existed on the margins of history, and give them life.
What it comes down to is that I know what pleasure reading good fiction gives me--that's why I so enjoy my work with Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed--and I hope to give that same pleasure to others!
What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?
I would say mostly the same sorts of things that are important to any story--strong characters, good worldbuilding, a plot that starts and remains interesting, and attention to detail. That the attention to detail is often (but of course not always) research-based presents a different set of challenges for the author. I remember a friend once chided me because I'd written something set in Victorian England that referenced a "can" instead of a "tin"--those little details are super-important. Lack of attention to those things can jar readers familiar with the period in which one is writing, the same as getting cultural details wrong when writing outside one's direct experience.
What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
There's so many! How can I pick? Reading stories that aren't those you get in history books! Hearing from people on those aforementioned margins! With historical fantasy, adding in ghosts and monsters and demons and whatever writers can dream up! Clothes! Adventures! "Watching" people deal with the unique challenges associated with their era! Different styles of speech! Swords! Bizarre firearms! Battles! Salons and armories and boudoirs and battlefields and privies and castles and forests and firepits and weapons. . . I need to stop. Everything!
When you read something that really captures the "feel" of an era, it's totally delicious reading. . . at least for me.
What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?
Read whatever you can about the era in which you wish to write! Research is crucial, and can consist of any and everything. If you don't love something enough to learn about it, it's possible you don't love it enough to write (well) about it. Read books written during the era, and read modern-day historians who write about the period, too. Find online dictionaries of slang. Anything! It should be fun! Also remember. . . there's nothing worse than bad pastiche. I say this having done it!