HotFreeBooks.com
The Sign Of The Red Cross
by Evelyn Everett-Green
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Some citizens spoke of victualling their houses as for a siege, and entirely secluding themselves and their families till the plague was overpast—and indeed this was many times done with success, although the plan broke down in other cases—but this was not Harmer's idea. He did indeed advise his wife and daughters to be careful how they adventured themselves abroad, and where they went. He had arranged at the farm near Greenwich for a regular supply of provisions to be brought by water to the stairs hard by the bridge; and since their house was supplied by water from the New River, they were sure of a constant fresh supply. But he had no intention of incarcerating himself or any of his household, and preventing them from being of use to afflicted neighbours, whilst he himself anticipated having to go into many stricken homes and into infected houses. All the restriction he imposed was that any person sallying forth into places where infection might be met should change his raiment before going out, in a small building in the rear of the shop which he was about to fit up for that purpose, and to keep constantly fumigated by the frequent burning of certain perfumes, of oil of sulphur, and of a coarse medicated vinegar which was said to be an excellent disinfectant. On returning home again, the person who had been exposed would doff all outer garments in this little room, would resume his former clothing, and hang up the discarded garments where they would be subjected to this disinfecting fumigation for a number of hours, and would be then safe to wear upon another occasion. He intended burning regularly in his house a fire of pungent wood such as pine or cedar, which was to be constantly fed with such spices and perfumes and disinfectants as the physicians should pronounce most efficacious. Perfect cleanliness he did not need to insist upon, for his wife could not endure a speck of dust upon anything in the house.

A careful diet, regular hours, and freedom from needless fears would, he was assured, do much towards maintaining them all in health, and he concluded his address by kneeling down in the midst of his sons and daughters, and commending them all most fervently to the protection of Heaven, praying for grace to do their duty towards all about them, and for leading and guidance that they ran not into needless peril, but were directed in all things by the Spirit of God.

They had hardly risen from their knees before a knock at the door announced the arrival of a visitor, and Joseph running to answer the summons—since there was now no servant in the house—came back almost immediately ushering in the Master Builder, whose face wore a very troubled look.

"Heaven guard us all! I think my wife will go distraught with the terror of this visitation, if it goes on much longer. What is a man to do for the best? She raves at me sometimes like a maniac for not having taken her away ere the scourge spread as it is doing now. But when I tell her that if she is bent upon it she must e'en go now, she cries out that nothing would induce her to set her foot outside the house. She sits with the curtains and shutters fast closed, and a fire of spices on the hearth, till one is fairly stifled, and will touch nothing that is not well-nigh soaked in vinegar. And each time that Frederick comes in with some fresh tale, she is like to swoon with fear, and every time she vows that it is the pestilence attacking her, and is like to die from sheer fright. What is a man to do with such a wife and such a son?"

"Surely Frederick will cease to repeat tales of horror when he sees they so alarm his mother," said Rachel; but the Master Builder shook his head with an air of more than doubt.

"It seems his delight to torment her with terror; and she appears almost equally eager to hear all, though it almost scares her out of her senses. As for Gertrude, the child is pining like a caged bird shut up in the house and not suffered to stir into the fresh air. I am fair beset to know what to do for them. Nothing will convince Madam but that there be dead carts at every street corner, and that the child will bring home death with her every time she stirs out. Yet Frederick comes to and fro, and she admits him to her presence (though she holds a handkerchief steeped in vinegar to her nose the while), and she gets no harm from him."

"Poor child!" said Rachel, thinking of Gertrude, whom once she had known so well, running to and fro in the house almost like one of her own. "Would that we could do somewhat for her. But I fear me her mother would not suffer her to visit us, especially since poor Janet came home last night from a plague-stricken house."

Reuben's eyes had brightened suddenly at his mother's words, but the gleam died out again, and he remained quite silent whilst the story of Janet's appearance at home was told. The Master Builder listened with interest and sighed at the same time. Perhaps he was contrasting the nature of his neighbour's wife with that of his own. How would Madam have acted had her child come to her in such a plight?

Harmer then told his neighbour the rules he was about to lay down for his own household, all of which the Master Builder, who was a keen practical man, cordially approved. He was himself likely soon to be in a great strait, for most probably he would be appointed in due course to serve as an examiner of health, and would of necessity come into contact with those who had been amongst the sick, even if not with the infected themselves, and how his wife would bear such a thing as that he scarce dared to think. Business, too, was at a standstill, all except the carpentering branch, and that was only busy with coffins. If London became depopulated, there would be nothing doing in the building and furnishing line for long enough. Some prophets declared that the city was doomed to a destruction such as had never been seen by mortal man before. Even as it was the plague seemed like to sweep away a fourth of the inhabitants; and if that were so, what would become of such trades as his for many a year to come? Already the Master Builder spoke of himself as a half-ruined man.

His neighbour did all he could to cheer him, but it was only too true that misfortune appeared imminent. Harmer had always been a careful and cautious man, laying by against a rainy day, and not striving after a rapid increase of wealth. But the Master Builder had worked on different lines. He had enlarged his borders wherever he could see his way to doing so, and although he had a large capital by this time, it was all floating in this and that venture; so that in spite of his appearance of wealth and prosperity, he had often very little ready money. So long as trade was brisk this mattered little, and he turned his capital over in a fashion that was very pleasing to himself. But this sudden and totally unexpected collapse of business came upon him at a time when he could ill afford to meet it. Already he had had to discharge the greater part of his workmen, having nothing for them to do. The expenses which he could not put down drained his resources in a way that bid fair to bring him to bankruptcy, and it was almost impossible to get in outstanding accounts when the rich persons in his debt had fled hither and thither with such speed and haste that often no trace of them could be found, and their houses in town were shut up and absolutely empty.

"As for Frederick, he spends money like water—and his mother encourages him," groaned the unhappy father in confidence to his friend. "Ah me! when I look at your fine sons, and see their conduct at home and abroad, it makes my heart burn with shame. What is it that makes the difference? for I am sure I have denied Frederick no advantage that money could purchase."

"Perhaps it is those advantages which money cannot purchase that he lacks," said James Harmer, gravely—"the prayers of a godly mother, the chastisement of a father who would not spoil the child by sparing the rod. There are things in the upbringing of children, my good friend, of far more value than those which gold will purchase."

The Master Builder gave vent to a sound almost like a groan.

"You are right, Harmer, you are right. I have not done well in this thing. My son is no better than an idle profligate. I say it to my shame, but so it is. Nothing that I say will keep him from his riotous comrades and licentious ways. I have spoken till I am weary of speaking, and all is in vain. And now that this terrible scourge of God has fallen upon the city, instead of turning from their evil courses with fear and loathing, he and such as he are but the more reckless and impious, and turn into a jest even this fearful visitation. They scour the streets as before, and drink themselves drunk night by night. Ah, should the pestilence reach some amongst them, what would be their terrible doom! I cannot bear even to think of it! Yet that is too like to be the end of my wretched boy, my poor, unhappy Frederick!"



CHAPTER V. THE PLOT AND ITS PUNISHMENT.

Strange as it may appear, the awful nature of the calamity which had overtaken the great city had by no means the subduing influence upon the spirits of the lawless young roisterers of the streets that might well have been expected. No doubt there were some amongst these who were sobered by the misfortunes of their fellows, and by the danger in which every person in the town now stood; but it seemed as if the very imminence of the peril and the fearful spread of the contagion exercised upon others a hardening influence, and they became even more lawless and dissolute than before. "Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die," appeared to be their motto, and they lived up to it only too well.

So whilst the churches were thronged with multitudes of pious or terrified persons, assembled to pray to God for mercy, and to listen to words of godly counsel or admonition; whilst the city authorities were doing everything in their power to check the course of the frightful contagion, and send needful relief to the sufferers, and many devoted men and women were adventuring their lives daily for the sake of others, the taverns were still filled day by day and night by night with idle and dissolute young men, tainted with all the vices of a vicious Court and an unbelieving age—drinking, and making hideous mockery of the woes of their townsmen, careless even when the gaps amid their own ranks showed that the fell disease was busy amongst all classes and ranks. Indeed, it was no unheard of thing for a man to fall stricken to the ground in the midst of one of these revels; and although the master of the house would hastily throw him out of the door as if he had staggered forth drunk, yet it would ofttimes be the distemper which had him in its fatal clutches, and the dead cart would remove him upon its next gloomy round.

For now indeed the pestilence was spreading with a fearful rapidity. The King, taking sudden alarm, after being careless and callous for long, had removed with his Court to Oxford. The fiat for the shutting up of all infected houses had gone forth, and was being put in practice, greatly increasing the terror of the citizens, albeit many of them recognized in it both wisdom and foresight. Something plainly had to be done to check the spread of the infection. And as there was no means of removing the sick from their houses—there being but two or three pest houses in all London—even should their friends be prompt to give notice, and permit them to be borne away, the only alternative seemed to be to shut them up within the doors of the house where they lay stricken; and since they might already have infected all within it, condemn these also to share the imprisonment. It was this that was the hardship, and which caused so many to strive to evade the law by every means in their power. It drove men mad with fear to think of being shut up in an infected house with a person smitten with the fell disease. Yet if the houses were not so closed, and guarded by watchmen hired for the purpose, the sick in their delirium would have constantly been getting out and running madly about the streets, as indeed did sometimes happen, infecting every person they met. Restraint of some sort was needful, and the closing of the houses seemed the only way in which this could be accomplished.

It may be guessed what hard work all this entailed upon such of the better sort of citizens as were willing to give themselves to the business. James Harmer and his two elder sons, Reuben and Dan, offered themselves to the Lord Mayor to act as examiners or searchers, or in whatever capacity he might wish to employ them. Dan should by this time have been at sea, but his ship being still in the docks when the plague broke out remained yet unladed. None from the infected city would purchase merchandise. The sailing master had himself been smitten down, and Dan, together with quite a number of sailors, was thrown out of employment.

Many of these poor fellows were glad to take service as watchmen of infected houses, or even as bearers and buriers of the dead. At a time when trade was at a standstill, and men feared alike to buy or to sell, this perilous and lugubrious occupation was all that could be obtained, and so there were always men to be found for the task of watching the houses, though at other times it might have been impossible to get enough.

Orders had been sent round the town that all cases of the distemper were to be reported within a few hours of discovery to the examiner of health, who then had the house shut up, supplied it with a day and a night watchman (whose duty it was to wait on the inmates and bring them all they needed), and had the door marked with the ominous red cross and the motto of which mention has been made before. Plague nurses were numerous, but too often these were women of the worst character, bent rather upon plunder than desirous of relieving the sufferers. Grim stories were told of their neglect and rapacity. Yet amongst them were many devoted and excellent women, and the physicians who bravely faced the terrors of the time and remained at their post when others fled from the peril, deserve all honour and praise; the more so that many amongst these died of the infection, as indeed did numbers of the examiners and searchers who likewise remained at their post to the end.

It will therefore be well understood that good Master Harmer and his sons had no light time of it, and ran no small personal risk in their endeavours to serve their fellow citizens in this crisis. Although the pestilence had not as yet broken out in this part of the town with the virulence that it had shown elsewhere, still there were fresh cases rumoured day by day; and it often appeared that when one case in a street was reported, there had been many others there before of which no notice had been given, and that perhaps half a dozen houses were infected, and must be forthwith shut up. At first neglectful persons were brought before the Magistrates; but soon these persons became too numerous, and the Magistrates too busy to hear their excuses. An example was made of one or another, to show that the laws must be kept; but Newgate itself becoming infected by the disease, it was not thought fit to send any malefactor there except for some heinous offence.

Dan joined the force of the constables, and day by day had exciting tales to tell about determined persons who had escaped from infected houses either by tricking or overpowering the watchman. All sorts of clever shifts were made to enable families where perhaps only one lay sick to escape from the house, leaving the sick person sometimes quite alone, or sometimes in charge of a nurse. Dan said it was heartrending to hear the cries and lamentations of miserable creatures pleading to be let out, convinced that it was certain death to them to remain shut up with the sick. Yet, since they might likely be themselves already infected, it was the greater peril and cruelty to let them forth; and he had ghastly tales to tell of the visitation of certain houses, where the watchmen reported that nothing had been asked for for long, and where, when the house was entered by searchers or constables, every person within was found either dead or dying.

The precautions duly observed by the Harmer family had hitherto proved efficacious, and though the father and his sons going about their daily duties came into contact with infected persons frequently, yet, by the use of the disinfectants recommended by the College of Physicians, and by a close and careful attention to their directions, they went unscathed in the midst of much peril, and brought no ill to those at home when they returned thither for needful rest and refreshment. Janet had had a slight attack of illness, but there were no absolute symptoms of the distemper with it. Her father was of opinion that it might possibly be a very mild form of the disease, but the doctor called in thought not, and so their house escaped being shut up, and after a prudent interval Janet came down and took her place in the family as before. Mother and daughters worked together for the relief of the sick poor, making and sending out innumerable dainties in the way of broth, possets, and light puddings, which were gratefully received by poor folks in shut-up houses, who, although fed and cared for at the public expense when not able to provide for themselves, were grateful indeed for these small boons, and felt themselves not quite so forlorn and wretched when receiving tokens of goodwill from even an unknown source.

The harmony, tranquillity, and goodwill that reigned in this household, even in the midst of so much that was terrible, was a great contrast to the anguish, terror, and ceaseless recriminations which made the Masons' abode a veritable purgatory for its luckless inhabitants. As the news of the spreading contagion reached her, so did Madam's terror and horror increase. As her husband had said long since, she sat in rooms with closed windows and drawn curtains, burned fires large enough to roast an ox, and half poisoned herself with the drugs she daily swallowed, and which she would have forced upon her whole household had they not rebelled against being thus sickened. As a natural consequence of her folly and ungovernable fears, Madam was never well, and was for ever discovering some new symptom which threw her into an ecstasy of terror. She would wake in the night screaming out in uncontrollable fear that she had gotten the plague—that she felt a burning tumour here or there upon her person—that she was sinking away into a deadly swoon, or that something fatal was befalling her. By day she would fall into like passions of fear, call out to her daughter to send for every physician whose name she had heard, and upbraid and revile her in the most unmeasured terms if the poor girl ventured to hint that the doctors were beginning to be tired of coming to listen to what always proved imaginary terrors.

The only times when husband or daughter enjoyed any peace was when Frederick chose to make his appearance at home. On these occasions his mother would summon him to her presence, although in mortal fear lest he should bring infection with him, and make him tell her all the most frightful stories which he had picked up about the awful spread of the disease, about the iniquities and abominations practised by nurses and buriers, of which last there was plenty of gossip (although probably much was set down in malice and much exaggerated) and all the prognostications of superstitious or profane persons as to the course the pestilence was going to take. Eagerly did she listen to all of these stories, which Frederick took care should be very well spiced, as it was at once his amusement to frighten his mother and spite his sister; for Gertrude in private implored him not to continue to alarm their mother with his frightful tales, and also begged him for his own sake to relinquish his evil habits of intemperance, which at such a time as this might lead to fatal results.

The good-for-nothing youth only mocked at her, and derided his father when he gave him the same warning. He had become perfectly unmanageable and reckless, and nothing that he heard or saw about him produced any impression. Although taverns and ale houses were closely watched, and ordered to close at nine o'clock, and the gatherings of idle and profligate youths of whatever condition of life sternly reprobated and forbidden by the authorities, yet these worthies found means of evading or defying the regulations, and their revels continued as before, so that Frederick was seldom thoroughly sober, and more reckless and careless even than of old. In vain his father strove to bring him to a better mind; in vain he warned him of the peril of his ways and the danger to his health of such constant excesses. Frederick only laughed insolently; whereupon the Master Builder, who had but just come from his neighbour's house, and was struck afresh with the contrast presented by the two homes, asked him if he knew how Reuben Harmer was passing his time, and made a few bitter comparisons between his son and those of his neighbour.

This was perhaps unfortunate, for Frederick, like most men of his type, was both vain and spiteful. The mention of the Harmers put him instantly in mind of his grudge against Reuben and his suddenly-aroused admiration for rosy-cheeked Dorcas, both of which matters had been put out of his head by recent events. He had discovered also that Reuben generally accompanied his sister home from Lady Scrope's house in the evening, so that it had not been safe to pursue his attempted gallantries towards the maid. But as he heard his father's strictures upon his conduct, coupled with laudations of his old rival Reuben, a gleam of malice shone in his eyes, and he at once made up his mind to contrive and carry out a project which had been vaguely floating in his brain for some time, and which might be the more easily arranged now that the town was in a state of confusion and distress, and the streets were often so empty and deserted.

In that age of vicious licence, it seemed nothing but an excellent joke to Frederick and his boon companions to waylay a pretty city maiden returning to her home from her daily duties. Frederick meant no harm to the girl; but he had been piqued by the way in which his compliments and kisses had been received, and above all he was desirous to do a despite to Reuben, whose rebukes still rankled in his heart, though he had quickly forgotten his good offices on the occasion of his escapade before Lady Scrope's door. Moreover, he owed that notable old woman a grudge likewise, and thought he could pay off scores all round by making away with pretty Dorcas, at any rate for a while. So he and his comrades laid their plans with what they thought great skill, resolved that they should be carried out upon the first favourable opportunity.

For a while Dorcas had been rather nervous of leaving the house in Allhallowes unless Reuben was waiting for her. But as she had seen no more of the gallant who had accosted her, and as it was said on all hands that these had left London in hundreds, she had taken courage of late, and had bidden her brother not incommode himself on her account, if it were difficult for him to be her escort home.

Of late he had oftentimes been kept away by pressure of other duties. Sometimes Dan had come in his stead. Sometimes she had walked back alone and unmolested. Persons avoided each other in the streets now, and hurried by with averted glances. Although upon her homeward route, which was but short, she had as yet no infected houses to pass, she always hastened along half afraid to look about her. But her father's good counsel and his daily prayers for his household so helped her to keep up heart, that she had not yet been frightened from her occupation, although her mistress always declared on parting in the evening that she never expected to see her back in the morning.

"If the plague does not get you, some coward terror will. Never mind; I can do without you, child. I never looked for you to have kept so long at your post. All the rest have fled long since."

Which was true indeed, only Dorcas and the old couple who lived in the house still continuing their duties. Fear of the pestilence had driven away the other servants, and they had sought safety on the other side of the water, where it was still believed infection would not spread.

"I will come back in the morning. My father bids us all do our duty, and sets us the example, madam," said Dorcas, as she prepared to take her departure.

It was a dark evening for the time of year; heavy thunderclouds were hanging low in the sky and obscuring the light. The air was oppressive, and seemed charged with noxious vapours. Part of this was due to the cloud of smoke wafted along from one of the great fires kept burning with the object of dispelling infection. But Dorcas shivered as she stepped out into the empty street, and looked this way and that, hoping to see one of her brothers. But nobody was in sight and she had just descended the steps and was turning towards her home when out from a neighbouring porch there swaggered a very fine young gallant, who made an instant rush towards her, with words of welcome and endearment on his lips.

In a moment Dorcas recognized him not only as the gallant who had addressed her once before, but also as Frederick Mason, her brothers' old playfellow, of whom such evil things were spoken now by all their neighbours on the bridge.

Uttering a little cry of terror, the girl darted back, turned, and commenced running like a hunted hare in the opposite direction, careless where she went or what she did provided she only escaped from the address and advances of her pursuer. But fleet as were her own steps, those in pursuit seemed fleeter. She heard her tormentor coming after her, calling her by name and entreating for a hearing. She knew that he was gaining upon her and must soon catch her up. She was in a lonely street where not a single passerby seemed to be stirring. She looked wildly round for some way of escape, and just at that moment saw a man come round a corner and fit a key into the door of one of the houses.

Without pausing to think, Dorcas made a rush towards him, and so soon as the door was opened she dashed within the house, and fled up the staircase—fled she knew not whither—uttering breathless, frightened cries, whilst all the time she knew that her pursuer was close behind, and heard his voice mingled with angry cries of remonstrance from the man they had left below.

Suddenly a door close to Dorcas opened, and a new terror was revealed to her horror-stricken gaze. A gaunt, tall figure, wrapped in a long white garment that looked like grave clothes, sprang out into the stairway with a shriek that was like nothing human. Dorcas sank, almost fainting with terror, to the ground; but the spectre—for such it seemed to her—paid no heed to her, but sprang upon her pursuer, who had at that moment come up, and the next moment had his arms wound about him in a bearlike embrace, whilst all the time he was laughing an awful laugh. Then lifting the unfortunate young man off his feet with a strength that was almost superhuman, he bore him rapidly down the stairs and rushed out with him into the street.

All this happened in so brief a moment of time that Dorcas had not even time to regain her feet, or to utter the scream of terror which came to her lips. But as she found breath to utter her cry, another door opened and a scared face looked out, whilst a woman's voice asked in lamentable accents:

"What do you here, maiden? What has happened to bring any person into this shut-up house? Child, child, how didst thou obtain entrance here? The plague is in this house, and we are straitly shut up!"

Before Dorcas could answer for fright and the confusion of her faculties, a pale-faced watchman came hurrying up the stairs.

"Where is the maid?" he asked, and then seeing Dorcas he grasped her by the wrist and cried, "Unless you wish to be shut up for a month, come away instantly. This is a stricken house. What possessed you to seek shelter here? Better anything than that.

"As for your son, mistress, he is fled forth into the street; I could not hinder him. We are undone if the constable comes. But if we can get him back again ere that, all may be well. I will let you forth to lead him hither if he will listen to your voice."

From the room whence the sick man had appeared a frightened face looked forth, and a half-tipsy old crone whimpered out:

"The fault was none of mine. I had but just dropped asleep for a moment. But when a man has the strength of ten what can one poor old woman do?"

Without paying any heed to this creature, the watchman and the mother of the plague-stricken man, together with Dorcas, who hurriedly told her tale as they moved, ran down the dark staircase and out into the street. There, a little way off, was the tall spectre-like figure, still hugging in bearlike embrace the hapless Frederick, and dancing the while a most weird and fantastic dance, chanting some awful words which none could rightly catch, but the burden of which was, "The dance of death! the dance of death! None who dances here with me will dance with any other!"

"For Heaven's sake release him from that embrace!" cried the mother, who knew that her son was smitten to death. "If all be true that the maid hath said, he is not fit to die, and that embrace is a deadly one!—O my son, my son! come back, come back!

"Mercy on us, here is the watch! We are undone!"

Indeed the trampling of many hasty feet announced the arrival of a number of persons upon the scene. It seemed like enough to be the constables or the watch; but the moment the newcomers appeared round the corner, Dorcas, uttering a little shriek of joy and relief, threw herself upon the foremost man, who was in fact none other than Reuben himself—Reuben, followed closely by his brother Dan, and they by several young roisterers, the boon companions of Frederick.

It had chanced that almost as soon as Dorcas had run from Lady Scrope's door, hotly pursued by Frederick, her brothers had come up to fetch her thence. It was also part of that worthy's plan that they should hear she had been carried off, though not by himself. His half-tipsy comrades, therefore, who had come to see the sport, immediately informed the young men that the maid had been pursued by a Scourer in such and such a direction; and so quickly had the brothers pursued the flying footsteps of the pair—guided by the footmarks in the dusty and untrodden streets—that they had come upon this strange and ghastly scene almost at its commencement, and in a moment their practised eyes took in what had happened.

The open door marked with the ominous red cross, the troubled face of the watchman, the ghastly apparition of the delirious plague-stricken man, the horror depicted in the face of the mother—all this told a tale of its own. Scenes of a like kind were now growing common enough in the city; but this was more terrible to the young men from the fact that the face of the unhappy and half-fainting Frederick was known to them and that they understood the awful peril into which this adventure had thrown him. They knew the strength of delirious patients, and the peril of contagion in their touch. To attempt to loosen that bearlike clasp might be death to any who attempted it.

Reuben looked about him, still holding his sister in his arms as though to keep her away from the peril; and Dan, who had taken one step forward towards the sheeted spectre, paused and muttered between his teeth:

"The hound! he has but got his deserts!"

"True," said Reuben, for he was certain now that it had been Frederick who was Dorcas's pursuer; "yet we must not leave him thus. He will be strangled or choked by the pestilential smell if we cannot get him away. Take Dorcas, Dan. Let me see if I can do aught with him."

But even as Reuben spoke, and Dorcas clung closer than ever to him in fear that he was about to adventure himself into greater peril, the delirious man suddenly flung Frederick from him, so that he fell upon the pavement almost as one dead; and then, with a hideous shriek that rang in their ears for long, fled back to the house as rapidly as he had left it, and fell down dead a few moments later upon the bed from which he had so lately risen.

That fact they learned only the next day. For the moment it was enough that the patient was safely within doors again, and that the watchman could make fast the door. The roisterers had fled at the first sight of the plague-stricken man with their hapless leader in his embrace, and now the darkening street contained only the prostrate figure on the pavement, the two brothers, and the white-faced Dorcas, who felt like to die of fear and horror.

As chance or Providence would have it, up at that very moment came the Master Builder himself, and seeing his son in such a plight, shook his head gravely, thinking him drunk in the gutter. But Reuben went up and told all the tale, as far as he knew or guessed it, and Dorcas having confirmed the same more by gestures than words, the unhappy father smote his brow, and cried in a voice of lamentation:

"Alas that I should have such a son! O unhappy, miserable youth! what will be thy doom now?"

At this cry Frederick moved, and got slowly upon his feet. He had been stunned by the violence of his fall, and for the first moment believed himself drunk, and caught at his father's arm for support.

"Have a care, sir," said Reuben, in a low voice; "he may be infected already by the contact."

But the Master Builder only uttered a deep sigh like a groan, as he answered, "I fear me he is infected by a distemper worse then the plague. I thank you, lads, for your kindly thoughts towards him and towards me, but I must e'en take this business into mine own hands. Get you away, and take your sister with you. It is not well for maids to be abroad in a city where such things can happen. Lord, indeed have mercy upon us!"



CHAPTER VI. NEIGHBOURS IN NEED.

Gertrude Mason sat in the topmost attic of the house, leaning out at the open window, and drinking in, as it were, great draughts of fresh air, as she watched the lights beginning to sparkle from either side of the river, and the darkening volume of water slipping silently beneath.

This attic was Gertrude's haven of refuge at this dread season, when almost every other window in the house was shuttered and close-curtained; when she was kept like a prisoner within the walls of the house, and half smothered and suffocated by the fumes of the fires which her mother insisted on burning, let the weather be ever so hot, as a preventive against the terrible infection which was spreading with fearful rapidity throughout all London.

But Madam Mason's feet never climbed these steep ladder-like stairs up to this eyrie, which all her life had been dear to Gertrude. In her childhood it had been her playroom. As she grew older, she had gradually gathered about her in this place numbers of childish and girlish treasures. Her father bestowed gifts upon her at various times. She had clever fingers of her own, and specimens of her needlework and her painting adorned the walls. At such times as the fastidious mistress of the house condemned various articles of furniture as too antiquated for her taste, Gertrude would get them secretly conveyed up here; so that her lofty bower was neither bare nor cheerless, but, on the contrary, rather crowded with furniture and knick-knacks of all sorts. She kept her possessions scrupulously clean, lavishing upon them much tender care, and much of that active service in manual labour which she found no scope for elsewhere. Her happiest hours were spent up in this lonely attic, far removed from the sound of her mother's plaints or her brother's ribald and too often profane jesting. Here she kept her books, her lute, and her songbirds; and the key of her retreat hung always at her girdle, and was placed at night beneath her pillow.

This evening she had been hastily dismissed from her father's presence, he having come in with agitated face, and bidden her instantly take herself away whilst he spoke with her mother. She had obeyed at once, without pausing to ask the questions which trembled on her lips. That something of ill had befallen she could not doubt; but at least her father was safe, and she must wait with what patience she could for the explanation of her sudden dismissal.

She knew from her brother's reports that already infected houses were shut up, and none permitted to go forth. But so straitly had she herself been of late imprisoned within doors, that she felt it would make but little difference were she to hear that a watchman guarded the door, and that the fatal red cross had been painted upon it.

"Our neighbours are not fearful as we are. They go to and fro in the streets. They seek to do what they can for the relief of the sick. My father daily speaks of their courage and faith. Why may not I do likewise? I would fain tend the sick, even though my life should be the forfeit. We can but live once and die once. Far sooner would I spend a short life of usefulness to my fellow men, than linger out a long and worthless existence in the pursuit of idle pleasures. It does not bring happiness. Ah! how little pleasure does it bring!"

Gertrude spoke half aloud and with some bitterness, albeit she strove to be patient with the foibles of her mother, and to think kindly of her, her many faults notwithstanding. But the terror of these days was taking with her a very different form from what it did with Madam Mason. It was inflaming within her a great desire to be up and doing in this stricken city, where the fell disease was walking to and fro and striking down its victims by hundreds and thousands. Other women, in all lands and of all shades of belief, had been found to come forward at seasons of like peril, and devote themselves fearlessly to the care of the sick. Why might not she make one of this band? What though it should cost her her life? Life was not so precious a thing to her that she should set all else aside to preserve it!

She was awakened from her fit of musing by an unwonted sound—a hollow tapping, tapping, tapping, which seemed to come from a corner of the attic where the shadows gathered most dun and dark. The girl drew in her head from the window with a startled expression on her face, and was then more than ever aware of the strange sound which caused a slight thrill to run through her frame.

What could it be? There was no other room in their house from which the sound could proceed. She was not devoid of the superstitious feelings of the age, and had heard before of ghostly tappings that were said to be a harbinger of coming death or misfortune.

Tap! tap! tap! The sound continued with a ceaseless regularity, and then came other strange sounds of wrenching and tearing. These were perhaps not quite so ghostly, but equally alarming. What could it be? Who and what could be behind that wall? Gertrude had heard stories of ghastly robberies, committed during these past days in plague-stricken houses, which were entered by worthless vagabonds, when all within were dead or helpless, and from which vantage ground they had gained access into other houses, and had sometimes brought the dread infection with them.

Gertrude was by nature courageous, and she had always made it a point of duty not to add to her mother's alarms by permitting herself to fall a victim to nervous terrors. Frightened though she undoubtedly was, therefore, she did not follow the impulse of her fear and run below to summon her father, who was, she suspected, bent on some serious work of his own; but she stood very still and quiet, pressing her hands over her beating heart, resolved if possible to discover the mystery for herself before giving any alarm.

All at once the sounds grew louder; something seemed to give way, and she saw a hand, a man's hand, pushed through some small aperture. At that she uttered a little cry.

"Who is there?" she cried, in a shaking voice; and immediately the hand was withdrawn, whilst a familiar and most reassuring voice made answer:

"Is anybody there? I beg ten thousand pardons. I had thought the attic would be hare and empty."

"Reuben!" cried Gertrude, springing forward towards the small aperture in the wall. "Oh, what is it? Is it indeed thou? And what art thou doing to the wall?"

"Gertrude! is that thy voice indeed? Nay, now, this is a good hap. Sweet Mistress Gertrude, have I thy permission to open once again betwixt thy home and mine that door which as children thy brother and we did contrive, but which was presently sealed up, though not over-strongly?"

"Ah, the door!" cried Gertrude, coming forward to the place and feeling with her hands at the laths and woodwork; "I had forgot, but it comes to me again. Yes, truly there was a rude door once. Oh, open it quickly! I will get thee a light and hold it. Dost thou know, Reuben, what has befallen to make my father look as he did but now? I trow it is something evil. My heart is heavy within me."

"Ay, I know," answered Reuben; "I will tell thee anon, sweet mistress, if thou wilt let me into thy presence."

"Nay, call me not mistress," said Gertrude, with a little accent of reproach in her voice. "Have we not played as brother and sister together, and do not times like this draw closer the bonds of friendship? Thou canst not know how lonesome and dreary my life has been of late. I pine for a voice from the world without. Thou wilt indeed be welcome, good Reuben."

Gertrude was busying herself with the tedious preparations for obtaining a light, and being skilful by long practice, she soon had a lamp burning in the room; and in a few minutes more, by the diligent use of hammer and chisel, Reuben forced open the little rough door which long ago had been contrived between the boys of the two households, and which had not been done away with altogether, although it had been securely fastened up by the orders of Madam Mason when she found her son Frederick taking too great advantage of this extra means of egress from the house, though she had other motives than the one alleged for the checking of the great intimacy which was growing up between her children and those of her neighbour.

The door once opened, Reuben quickly stood within the attic, and looked around him with wondering and admiring eyes.

"Nay, but it is a very bower of beauty!" he cried, and then he came forward almost timidly and took Gertrude by the hand, looking down at her with eyes that spoke eloquently.

"Is this thy nest, thou pretty songbird?" he said. "Had I known, I should scarce have dared to invade it so boldly."

Gertrude clung to him with an involuntary appeal for protection that stirred all the manhood within him.

"Ah, Reuben, tell me what it all means!" she cried, "for methinks that something terrible has happened."

Still holding the little trembling hand in his, Reuben told her of the peril her brother had been in. He spoke not of Dorcas, not desiring to pain her more than need be, but he had to say that her brother was, in a half-drunken state, pursuing some maiden in idle sport, and that, having been so exposed to contagion, there was great fear now for him and for his life.

Gertrude listened with pale lips and dilating eyes; her quick apprehension filled up more of the details than Reuben desired.

"It was Dorcas he was pursuing," she cried, recoiling and putting up her hands to her face; "I know it! I know it! O wretched boy! why does he cover us with shame like this? I marvel that thou canst look kindly upon me, Reuben. Am I not his most unhappy sister?"

"Thou art the sweetest, purest maiden my eyes ever beheld," answered Reuben, his words seeming to leap from his lips against his own will. Then commanding himself, he added more quietly, "But he is like to be punished for his sins, and it may be the lesson learned will be of use to him all his life. It will be a marvel if he escapes the distemper, having been so exposed, and that whilst inflamed by drink, which, so far as I may judge, enfeebles the tissues, and causes a man to fall a victim far quicker than if he had been sober, and a temperate liver."

"My poor brother!" cried Gertrude, beneath her breath. "Oh, what has my father done with him? What will become of him?"

"Your father brought him hither at once—not within the house, but into one of his old offices where in past times his goods were wont to be stored. He has now gone to consult with your mother whether or not the poor lad should be admitted within the house or not. If your mother will not have him here, he will remain for a while where he is; and if he falls sick, he will be removed to the pest house."

"Oh no! no! no!" cried Gertrude vehemently, "not whilst he has a sister to nurse him—a roof, however humble, to shelter him. Let him not die amongst strangers! I fear not the infection. I will go to him this minute. Already I have thought it were better to die of the plague, doing one's duty towards the sick and suffering, than to keep shut up away from all. They shall not take him away to die amidst those scenes of horror of which one has heard. Even my mother will be brave, methinks, for Frederick's sake. I trow she will open her doors to him."

"That is what your father thinks. It may be that even now he is bringing him within. But, sweet mistress, if Frederick comes here, it may well be that in another week this house will be straitly shut up, with the red cross upon the door, and the watchman before the portal day and night. That is why I have come hither at once, to open the little door between our houses; for I cannot bear the thought of knowing naught that befalls you for a whole long month. And since, though my work takes me daily into what men call the peril of infection, I am sound and bring no hurt to others, I am not afraid that I shall bring hurt to thee. I could not bear to have no tidings of how it fared with thee. Thou wilt not chide me for making this provision. It came into my head so soon as I knew that peril of infection was like to come within these walls. We must not let thee be shut quite away from us. We may be able to give thee help, and in times of peril neighbours must play a neighbourly part."

The tears stood in Gertrude's eyes. She was thinking of the unkindly fashion in which her mother had spoken of late years of these neighbours, and contrasting with that the way in which they were now coming forward to claim the neighbour's right to help in time of threatened trouble. The tears were very near her eyes as she made answer:

"O Reuben, how good thou art! But if our house be infected, how can it be possible for thee to come and go? Would it not be a wrong against those who lay down these laws for the preservation of the city?"

Then Reuben explained to her that, though the magistrates and aldermen were forced to draw up a strict code for the ordering of houses where infection was, these same personages themselves, together with doctors, examiners, and searchers of houses, had perforce to go from place to place; yet by using all needful and wise precautions, both for themselves and others, they had reasonable hope of doing nothing to spread the contagion. Reuben, as a searcher under his father, had again and again been in infected houses, and brought face to face with persons dying of the malady; yet so far he had escaped, and by adopting the wise precautions ordered at the outset by their father, no case of illness had appeared so far amongst them. If every person who could be of use excluded himself from all chance of contagion, there would be none to order the affairs of the unhappy city, or to carry relief to the sufferers. There must be perforce some amongst them who were ready to run the risk in order to assist the sufferers, and they of the household of James Harmer were all of one mind in this.

"We do naught that is rash. We have herbs and drugs and all those things which the doctors think to be of use; and thou shalt have a supply of all such anon—if indeed thy mother be not already amply provided. But I cannot bear for thee to be straitly shut up; I must be able to see how it goes with thee. And should it be that thou wert thyself a victim, thou shalt not lack the best nursing that all London can give."

She looked up at him with fearless eyes.

"Do men ever recover when once attacked by the plague?"

"Yes, many do—though nothing like the number who die. Amongst our nurses and bearers of the dead are numbers who have had the distemper and have survived it. They go by the name of the 'safe people.' Yet some have been known to take it again, though I think these cases are rare."

"If Frederick takes it, will he be like to live?" asked Gertrude; and Reuben was silent.

Both knew that the unhappy young man had long been given to drunkenness and debauchery, and that his constitution was undermined by his excesses. The girl pressed her hands together and was silent; but after a few moments' pause she looked up at Reuben, and said, "You have given me courage by this visit. Come again soon. I must to my mother now. I must ask her what I can do to help her and my unhappy brother."

"Take this paper and this packet before you go," said Reuben. "The one contains directions for the better lodging and tending of the sick. The other contains prepared herbs which are useful as preventives—tormentil, valerian, zedoary, angelica, and so forth; but I take it that pure vinegar is as good an antidote to infection as anything one can find. Keep some always about you. Let your kerchief be always steeped in it. Then be of a cheerful courage, and take food regularly, and in sufficient quantities. All these things help to keep the body in health; and though the most healthy may fall victims, yet methinks that it is those who are underfed or weakened by disease or dissipation upon whom the malady fastens with most virulent strength. I will come anon and learn what is betiding. Farewell for the nonce, sweet mistress, and may God be with you."

Greatly cheered and strengthened by this unexpected interview, Gertrude descended to the lower part of the house in search of her mother, and found her, with her face tied up in a cloth soaked in vinegar, bending over the unhappy Frederick, who lay with a face as white as death upon a couch in one of the lower rooms.

To her credit be it said, the motherhood in the Master Builder's wife had triumphed over her natural terror at the thought of the infection. When her husband had brought her the news that Frederick was in one of the old shop buildings, awaiting her permission (after what had occurred) to enter the house; when she knew that should he sicken of the plague he would be taken away to the pest house to be tended there, and as she believed assuredly to die, she burst into wild weeping, and declared that she would risk everything sooner than that should happen. So it had been speedily arranged that the unhappy youth should be provided with a vinegar and herb bath and a complete change of raiment out there in the disused shop, and that then he should come into the house, his mother being willing to take the risk rather than banish him from home.

This had been quickly done, under the direction of good James Harmer, who as one of the examiners of health was well qualified to give counsel in the matter. He also told his neighbour that should the young man be attacked by the plague, he would strive if possible to gain for him the services of his sister-in-law, Dinah Morse, who was one of the most tender and skilful nurses now working amongst the sick. She was always busy; but so fell was the action of the plague poison, that her patients died daily, despite her utmost care, and she was constantly moving from house to house, sometimes leaving none alive behind her in a whole domicile. A certain number recovered, and these she made shift to visit daily for a while; but her main work lay amongst the dying, whose friends too often left them in terror so soon as the fatal marks appeared which bespoke them sickening of the terrible distemper.

The Master Builder received this promise with gratitude, having heard gruesome stories of the evil practices of many of those who called themselves plague nurses, but who really sought their own gain, and often left the patient alone and untended in his agony, whilst they coolly ransacked the house from which the other inmates had often contrived to flee before it was shut up.

Frederick, utterly unnerved and overcome by the horror of the thing which had befallen him, looked already almost like one stricken to death. His mother was striving to get him to swallow some of the medicines which were considered as valuable antidotes, and to sip at a cup of so-called plague water—a rather costly preparation much in vogue amongst the wealthier citizens at that time. But the nausea of the horrible smell of the plague patient was still upon him, sickening him to the refusal of all medicine or food, and to Gertrude's eyes he looked as though he might well be smitten already.

Her father was the only person who had eyes to notice her approach, and he strode forward and took her by the hands as though to keep her away.

"Child, thou must not come here. Thy brother has been in a terrible danger—half strangled by a creature raving in the delirium of the distemper. It may be death to approach him even now. I would have had thy mother keep away. Come not thou near to him. Let us not increase the peril which besets us."

Gertrude stood quite still, neither resisting her father, nor yet yielding to the pressure which would have forced her from the room.

"Dear sir," she said, with dutiful reverence, "I must fain submit to thee in this thing. Yet I prithee keep me not from my brother in the hour of his extremity. Methinks that a more terrible thing than the plague itself is the cruel fear which it inspires, whereby families are rent asunder, and the sick are neglected and deserted in the hour of their utmost need. If indeed Frederick should fall a victim, this house will be straitly shut up; and if it be true what men say, the infection will spread through it, do what we will to keep it away. Then what can it matter whether the risk be a little more or less? Is it not better that I should be with my mother and my brother, than that I should seek my own safety by shutting myself up apart from all, a readier prey to grief and terror? Methinks I should the sooner fall ill thus shut away from all. Prithee let me take my place beside Frederick, and relieve my mother when she be weary; so do I think it will be best for me and her."

The father's face quivered with emotion as he took his daughter in his arms and kissed her tenderly.

"Thou shalt do as thou wilt, my sweet child," he said. "These indeed are fearful days, and it may be that happier are they who let their heart be ruled by love instead of by fear. Fear has become a cruel thing, from what men tell us. Thou shalt do thy desire. Yet methinks thy brother has scarce deserved this grace at thy hands."

"Let us not think of that," said Gertrude, with a look of pain in her eyes; "let us only think of his peril, and of the terrible retribution which may fall upon him. God grant that he may find repentance and peace at the last!"

"Amen!" said the Master Builder, with some solemnity, thinking of the fashion in which his son's time had been spent of late, and of the very escapade which had brought this evil upon him.

All that night mother and sister watched beside the bed of the unhappy young man, who moaned and tossed, and too often broke into blasphemous railings at the fate which had overtaken him. He gave himself up for lost from the first, and having no hope or real belief as regards the future life, was full of darkness and bitterness of heart. He would not so much as listen when Gertrude would have spoken to him of the Saviour's love for sinners, but answered with mocking and profane words which made her heart die within her.

Towards morning he fell into a restless sleep, from which he wakened in a high fever, not knowing any of those about him. The father coming in, went towards him with a strange look in his eyes, and after bending over him a few seconds, turned a haggard face towards his wife and daughter, saying:

"May the Lord have mercy upon us! he has the tokens upon him!"

Instantly the mother uttered a scream of lamentation, and fell half senseless into her husband's arms; whilst Gertrude stood suddenly up with a white face and said:

"Let me take word to our neighbours next door. Master Harmer is an examiner. We must needs report it to him; and they will tell us what we must do, and give us help if any can."

"Ay, that they will," answered the Master Builder, with some emotion in his voice. "Go, girl, and report that the distemper has broken out in the house, and that we submit ourselves to the orders of the authorities for all such as be infected."

Gertrude sped upstairs. She preferred that method of transit to the one by the street door. But she had no need to go further than her attic; for upon opening the door she saw two figures in the room, and instantly recognized Reuben and his sister Janet. The latter came forward with outstretched hands, and would have taken Gertrude into her embrace, but that she drew back and said in a voice of warning:

"Take heed, Janet; touch me not. I have passed the night by the bedside of my brother, and he is stricken with the plague!"

"So soon?" quoth Reuben, quickly; whilst Janet would not be denied her embrace, saying softly:

"I have no longer a fear of that distemper myself, for I have been with it erstwhile, and my aunt Dinah tells me that I have had a very mild attack of the same ill, and that I am not like to take it again."

"If indeed Frederick is smitten, we must take precautions to close the house," said Reuben. "Is there aught you would wish to do ere giving the notice to my father?"

"Nay, I was on my way to him," said Gertrude, speaking with the calmness of one upon whom the expected blow has at last fallen. "Let what must be done be done quickly. Can we have a nurse? for methinks Frederick must needs have tendance more skilled than any we can give him. But let it not be one of those women"—Gertrude paused and shuddered, as though she knew not how to finish her sentence.

"Trust me to do all for you that lies in my power," answered Reuben, in a voice of emotion; "and never feel shut up altogether from the world; even when the outer door be locked and guarded by a watchman. I have already hung a bell within our house, and the cord is tied here upon this nail. In any time of need you have but to ring it, and be sure that the summons will be speedily answered."

A mist rose before Gertrude's eyes and a lump in her throat. She pressed Janet's hand, and said to Reuben in a husky voice:

"I have no words today. Some day I will find how to thank you for all this goodness at such a time."

Before many hours had passed Dinah Morse was installed beside the sick man. Strong perfumes were burnt in and about his room, and the terrible tumours which bespoke the poison in his blood were treated skilfully by poultices and medicaments, applied by one who thoroughly understood the nature of the disease and the course it ran.

But from the first it was apparent to a trained eye that the young man was doomed. There was too much poison in his blood before, and his constitution was undermined by his reckless and dissolute life. All that was possible was done to relieve the sufferings and abate the fever of the patient. One of the best and most devoted of the doctors who remained courageously at his post during this terrible time was called in. But he shook his head over the patient, and bid his parents make up their minds for the worst.

"You have the best nurse in all London," said Dr. Hooker. "If skill and care could save him, he would be saved. But I fear me the poison has spread all over. Be cautious how you approach him, for he breathes forth death to those who are not inoculated. I would I could do more for you, but our skill avails little before this dread scourge."

And so, with looks and words of friendly compassion and goodwill, the doctor took his departure; and before nightfall Frederick was called to his last account.

Just as the hour of midnight tolled, a sound of wheels was heard in the street below, a bell rang, and a lugubrious voice called out:

"Bring forth your dead! bring forth your dead!"

Directed by Reuben, who was on the alert, the bearers themselves entered the house and removed the body, wrapped in its linen swathings, but without a coffin, for by this time there was not such a thing to be had for love or money; nor could the carts have contained their loads had each corpse been coffined.

Gertrude alone, from an upper window, saw the body of her brother laid decently and reverently, under Reuben's direction, in the ominous-looking vehicle. For the mother of the dead youth was weeping her heart out in her husband's arms, and was not allowed to know at what hour nor in what manner her son's body was conveyed away.

"Will they fling him, with never a prayer, into some great pit such as I have heard spoken of?" asked Gertrude of Dinah, who stood beside her at the window, fearful lest she should be overwhelmed by the horror of it all.

She now drew her gently and tenderly back into the room, whilst the cart rumbled away upon its mournful errand, and smoothing the tresses of the girl, and drawing her to rest upon a couch hard by, she answered:

"Think not of that, dear child. For what does it matter what befalls the frail mortal body? With whatsoever burial we may be buried now, we shall rise again at the last day in glory and immortality! That is what we must think of in these sorrowful times. We must lift our hearts above the things of this world, and let our conversation and citizenship be in heaven."

Then the tears gushed out from Gertrude's eyes, and she wept freely and fully the healing tears of youth.



CHAPTER VII. SISTERS OF MERCY.

"Father, dear father, prithee let me go!"

"What, my child? Have I not lost all but thee? Am I to send thee forth to thy death in this terrible city, stricken by the hand of God?"

Into Gertrude's face there crept a wonderful light and brightness. Her eyes shone with the intensity of her feeling.

"Father," she said, "it is even because I hold the city to be smitten by God that I ask thy permission to go forth to minister to the sick and stricken ones. It seems to me as though in my heart a voice had spoken, saying, 'Go, and I will be with thee.' Father, listen, I pray thee. I heard that voice first, methought, upon the terrible night when they came and took Frederick away. When mother was next laid low, and as I watched beside her, and watched likewise how Dinah soothed and comforted and assuaged her anguish of mind and body, the voice in my heart grew ever louder and louder. Whilst she lived, I knew my place was beside her; but it has pleased God to take her away. No tie binds me here now. If I stay, I shall but eat out my heart in fruitless longing, shut into these walls, and by no means permitted to sally forth. From a plague-stricken house I may only go to those smitten with the distemper. Father, let me go! prithee let me go! Dinah will take me; she will let me be with her. Ask her; she will tell thee."

As the girl made her appeal to her father, the grave-faced, gentle woman who had remained with this household for nigh fourteen days stood quietly by. Dinah Morse had not quitted the house since the day upon which the hapless Frederick had been stricken down by the fell disease. For hardly had his remains been borne from the house before the mother fell violently ill of a wasting fever. At first there were no special indications of the plague in her malady; but after a week's time these suddenly developed themselves. From the first she had declared herself smitten by the distemper, and whether this conviction helped to develop the germs of the malady none could say. But be that as it might, the dreaded tokens appeared upon her body at last, and within three days from that time she lay dead.

All that the kindness of friends and neighbours could avail had been done. The Harmer family, in particular, had showed so much attention and sympathy in this trying time, that Gertrude was often overcome with shame as she recalled in what uncivil fashion they had been treated by her mother of late years, and how they were now returning good for evil, just at a time when so many men were finding themselves forsaken even by their nearest and dearest in the hour of their affliction.

The whole experience through which she had passed had made a deep and lasting impression upon Gertrude. She had already watched two of the beings nearest and dearest to her fall victims to the dire disease which was raging in the city and laying low its thousands daily. It seemed to her that there was but one thing to be done now by those whose circumstances permitted it, and that was to go forth amid the sick and smitten ones, and do what lay within human power to mitigate their sufferings, and to afford them the solace and comfort of feeling that they were not altogether shut off from the love and sympathy of their fellow men.

"Father," she urged, as she saw that her parent still hesitated, "what would have become of us without Dinah? What should we have done had no help come to us in our hour of need? Think of the hundreds and thousands about us longing for some such tendance and love as she brought hither to us! What would have become of us had no kind neighbours befriended us? And are we not bidden to do unto others as we would have them do unto us in like case?"

"But the risk, my child, the risk!" he urged. "Am I to lose my last and only stay and solace?"

"Mother died in this house, which is now doubly infected. I was with her and with Frederick both, and yet I am sound and whole, and thou also. Why should we so greatly fear, when no man can say who will be smitten and who will escape? Methinks, perchance, those who seek to do their duty to the living, as our good neighbours and the city aldermen and magistrates and doctors are doing, will be specially protected of God. Father, let me go! Truly I feel that I have been bidden. Here I should fret myself ill in fruitless longing. Let me go forth with Dinah. Let me obey the call which methinks God has sent me. Truly I think I shall be the safest so. And who can say in these days, take what precaution he will, that he may not already have upon him the dreaded tokens? If we must die, let us at least die doing good to our fellow men. Did not our Lord say to those who visited the sick in their necessity, 'Ye have done it unto me'?"

"Child," said the Master Builder, in a much-moved voice, "it shall be as you desire. Go; and may the blessing of God go with you. I will offer myself for any post, as searcher or examiner, which may be open, if indeed I may go forth from this house ere the twenty-eight days be expired. If Dinah will take you, and if the Harmers will let you both sally forth from the house, I will not keep you back. It may be indeed that God has called you; and if so, may He keep and bless you both."

Father and daughter embraced each other tenderly.

In those times the shadow of death was so very apparent that no one knew from day to day what might befall him ere the morrow. Strong men, leaving their homes apparently in their usual health, would sink down in the streets an hour afterwards, and perhaps die before the very eyes of the passersby, none of whom would be found willing so much as to approach the sufferer with a kind word. Men would hasten by with vinegar-steeped cloths held closely over their faces; and later on some bearer with a cart or barrow would be sent to carry away the corpse and fling it into the nearest pit, of which there was now an ever-increasing number in the various parishes.

It will well be understood that in such days as these the need for nurses for the sick was terribly great. The majority of those so-called nurses were women of the lowest class, whose motive was personal gain, not a loving desire to mitigate the sufferings of the stricken.

Whether all the dismal tales told by the miserable beings shut up in their houses, and left to the mercy of watchmen and nurses, were true may be well open to doubt. Many poor creatures became half demented by terror, and scarcely knew what they said. But enough was from time to time substantiated to prove how very terrible were the scenes which sometimes went on within these sealed abodes; and more than once some careless watchman or thieving and neglectful nurse had been whipped through the streets for misdemeanours brought home to them by the authorities.

But now things were growing too pressing for individual cases to attract much attention. Do as men would to cope with the evil, the spread of the fell disease was something terrible to witness. Up till quite recently, the cases in the southern and eastern parishes and within the city walls had been few as compared with those in the north and west; but now the scourge seemed to have fallen upon the city itself, and the resources of the authorities were taxed to the uttermost.

The Harmer family welcomed back Dinah with joy; but when they heard of Gertrude's resolve, they looked grave and awed. Then Janet stepped forward suddenly, and addressing her father, said:

"Dear father, what Gertrude has desired for herself is nothing less than what I myself have often wished. Let me go forth also to tend the sick. If our neighbour can dare to let his only child do this thing, surely thou wilt spare me. Every day brings terrible tales of the woe and the pressing need of hundreds and thousands around us. Let me go, too. I am like to be safer than many, seeing that I may already have been touched by the distemper, though I knew it not."

The example of his neighbour was not without effect upon the worthy citizen. Moreover, it seemed to him that those who went about their daily duties, and shrank not from contact with the sick when it was needful, fared better than many who shut themselves up at home, and feared to look forth even from their windows. As an examiner of health he was frequently brought into contact with the sick, and his son even oftener, and yet both kept their health wonderfully. True, there were many amongst those who filled these perilous offices who did fall victims, but not more in proportion than others who shunned all contact with peril. Steady nerves and a stout heart seemed as good preventives as any antidote; and the physicians who laboured ceaselessly and devotedly amongst the stricken ones seemed seldom to suffer. Moreover, after all these weeks of terror, the minds of persons of all degrees were growing used to the sense of uncertainty and peril, and Janet's request aroused no very strenuous opposition from any member of her family.

"She shall please herself," said her father, after some discussion on the subject. "God has been very merciful to us so far. We will put our trust in Him during all this time. If the girl has had a call, let her do her duty, and He will he with her."

That night the three devoted women slept beneath the roof of the bridge house. Upon the morrow they sallied forth to their strange task, but were told by the master of the house that they might return thither at any time they chose, provided they took the prescribed precautions with regard to their clothing before they entered.

The sun was blazing hotly down on the streets as they opened the door to go forth. Sultry weather had now set in, no rain fell through the long, scorching days, and the heat was a terrible factor in the spread of the epidemic. Dinah, who had been nigh upon fourteen days shut up in one house, looked about her with grave, watchful eyes. Already she saw a great difference in the look of the bridge. Four houses were marked with the ominous red cross; and the tide of traffic, bearing the stream of persons out from the stricken city, had almost ceased. Bills of health were difficult to obtain now. The country villages round were loth to receive inmates of London. All roads were watched, and many hapless stragglers sent back again who had thought to escape from the city of destruction. Myriads had already left, and others were still flying—they could make shift to escape. But the continuous stream had ceased to cross the bridge. Foot passengers were few, and all walked in the middle of the road, avoiding contact with one another. Many kept a handkerchief or cloth pressed to their faces. Strangers eyed each other askance, none knowing that the other might not be already sickening of the disease. Between the stones of the streets blades of grass were beginning to grow up. Dinah pointed to these tokens and gave a little sigh.

Just before they turned off from the bridge a flying figure was seen approaching, and Janet exclaimed quickly:

"Why, it is Dorcas!"

Since her fright of a fortnight back, Dorcas had remained an inmate of Lady Scrope's house by her own desire. Although she knew that poor Frederick would annoy her no more, she had come to have a horror of the very streets themselves. She had never forgotten the apparition of that white-robed figure, clad in what seemed like its death shroud; and as Lady Scrope was by no means ill pleased to keep her young maiden by night as well as by day, her father was glad that she should be saved the risk even of the short walk to and fro each day.

But here she was, flying homewards as though there were wings to her feet; and she would almost have passed them in her haste, had not Janet laid hold of her arm and spoken her name aloud. Then she gave a little cry of relief and happiness, and turning upon her aunt, she cried:

"Ah, how glad I am to see thee! I was praying thou mightst still be at home. Lady Scrope has been suddenly seized by some malady, I know not what. Everyone in the house but the old deaf man and his wife has fled. Three servants left before, afraid of passing to and fro. The rest only waited for the first alarm to seize whatever they could lay hands upon and fly. I could not stop them. I did what I could, but methinks they would have rifled the house had it not been that the mistress, ill as she was, rose from her bed and chased them forth. They feared her more than ever when they thought she had the plague upon her. And now I have come forth for help; for I am alone with her in the house, and I know not which way to turn.

"Ah, good aunt, come back with me, I prithee. I am at my wit's end with the fear of it all."

Without a moment's delay the party turned towards the house in Allhallowes, and speedily found themselves at the grim-looking portal, which Dorcas opened with her key. The house felt cool and fresh after the glare of the hot streets. Although by no means a stately edifice outside, it was roomy and commodious within, and the broad oak staircase was richly carpeted—a thing in those days quite unusual save in very magnificent houses. Doors stood open, and there were traces of confusion in some of the rooms; but Dorcas was already hurrying her companions up the stairs, and the silence of the house was broken by the sound of a shrill voice demanding in imperious tones who were coming and what was their business.

"Fear not, mistress, it is I!" cried Dorcas, springing forward in advance of the others.

She disappeared within an open door, and her companions heard the sharp tones of the answering voice saying:

"Tush, child! who talks of fear? It is only fools who fear! Dost think I am scared by this bogey talk of plague? A colic, child—a colic; that is all I ail. I have always suffered thus in hot weather all my life. Plague, forsooth! I could wish I had had it, that I might have given it as a parting benediction to those knaves and hussies who thought to rob me when I lay a-dying, as many a woman has been robbed before! I only hope they may sicken of pure fright, as has happened to many a fool before now! Ha! ha! ha! how they did run! They thought I was tied by the leg for once. But I had them—I had them! I warrant me they did not take the worth of a sixpence from my house!"

The chuckling laugh which followed bespoke a keen sense of enjoyment. Certainly this high-spirited old lady was not much like the ordinary plague patient. Dinah knocked lightly at the door, and entered, the two girls following her out of sheer curiosity.

"Heyday! and who are these?" cried Lady Scrope.

That redoubtable old dame was sitting up in bed, her great frilled nightcap tied beneath her chin, her hawk's eyes full of life and fire, although her face was very pinched and blue, and there were lines about her brow and lips which told the experienced eyes of the sick nurse that she was suffering considerable pain.

Dinah explained their sudden appearance, and asked if they could be of any service. The old lady gazed at them all in turn, and her face relaxed as she broke into rather a grim laugh.

"Plague nurses, by all the powers! Certes, this is very pretty company! If all that is said be true, ye be the worst harpies of all. I had better have my own minions to rob me than be left to your tender mercies. Three of you, too! Verily, 'wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together,'" and the patient laughed again, as though tickled at her own grim pleasantry.

Dorcas would have expostulated and explained and apologized, but her mistress cut her short with a sharp tap of her fan.

"Little fool, hold thy peace! as though I didn't know an honest face when I see it!

"Come, good people, look me well over, and you'll soon see I have none of the tokens. It is but a colic, such as I am well used to at this season of the year; but in these days let a body's finger but ache, and all the world runs helter skelter this way and that, calling out, 'The plague! the plague!' The plague, forsooth! as though I had not lived through a score of such scares of plague. If men would but listen to me, there need never be any more plagues in London. But the fools will not hear wisdom."

"What is your remedy, madam?" asked Dinah, who saw very clearly that the old lady had gauged her symptoms aright; and although she had alarmed her attendants by a partial collapse an hour before, was mending now, and had no symptom of the distemper upon her.

"My remedy is too simple for fools. Fill up every well in London—which is just a poison trap—and drink only New River water, and make every house draw its supply from thence, and we shall soon cease to hear of the plague! That's my remedy; but when I tell men so, they gibe and jeer and call me fool for my pains. Fools every one of them! If it would only please Providence to burn their city about their ears and fill up all the old wells with the rubbish, you would soon see an end of these scares of plague. Tush! if men will drink rank poison they deserve to have the plague—that is all I have to say to them."

Such an idea as this was certainly far in advance of the times, and it was small wonder that Lady Scrope found no serious listeners when she propounded her scheme. Dinah did not profess to have an opinion on such a wide question. Her duties were with the sick. Others must seek for the cause of the outbreak. That was not the province of women.

Something in her way of moving about and performing her little offices pleased the fancy of the capricious old woman, as did also the aspect of the two girls, who were assisting Dorcas to set the room to rights after the confusion of the morning, when the mistress had suddenly been taken with a violent colic, which had turned her blue and rigid, and had convinced her household that she was taken for death, and that by a seizure of the prevailing malady.

She asked Dinah of herself and her plans, and nodded her head with approval as she heard that the two girls were to attend the sick likewise under her care.

"Good girls, brave girls—I like to see courage in old and young alike. If I were young myself, I vow I would go with you. It's a fine set of experiences you will have.

"Young woman, I like you. I shall want to hear of you and your work. Listen to me. This house is my own. I have no one with me here save the child Dorcas, and I don't think she is of the stuff that would be afraid; and I take good care of her, so that she is in no peril. Come back hither to me whenever you can. This house shall be open to you. You can come hither for rest and food. It is better than to go to and fro where there be so many young folks as in the place you come from. Bring the girls with you, too. They be good, brave maidens, and deserve a place of rest. I have victualled my house well. I have enough and to spare. I like to hear the news, and none can know more in these days than a plague nurse.

"Come, children, what say you to this? Go to and fro amongst the sick; but come home hither and tell me all you have done. What say you? Against rules for persons to pass from infected houses into clean ones? Bah! in times like these what can men hope to do by their rules and regulations? Plague nurses and plague doctors are under no rules. They must needs go hither and thither wherever they are called. If I fear not for myself, you need not fear for me. I shall never die of the plague; I have had my fortune told me too many times to fear that! I shall never die in my bed—that they all agree to tell me. Have no fears for me; I have none for myself.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse