"Make this house your home, you three good women. I am not a good woman myself, but I know the kind when I see them. They are rare, but all the more valued for that. Come, I say; you will not find a better place!"
Dorcas clasped her hands in rapture and looked from one to the other. The fear of the distemper was small in comparison with the pleasure of the thought of seeing her sister and aunt and friend at intervals, now that she was so completely shut up in this lonely house, and that the servants had all fled never to return.
It was just such an eccentric and capricious whim as was eminently characteristic of Lady Scrope. She had had nothing but her own whims to guide her through life, and she indulged them at her pleasure. She had taken a fancy to Dinah from the first moment. She knew all about the family of her young companion, from having listened to Dorcas's chatter when in the mood. Keenly interested in the spread of the plague, which had driven away all her fashionable friends, she was eager for news about it, and the more ghastly the tales that were told, the more did she seem to revel in them. To have news first hand from those who actually tended the sick seemed to her a capital plan; and Dinah recognized at once the advantage of having admittance for herself and the two girls to this solitary and commodious house, where rest and refreshment could be readily obtained, and where their coming and going would not be likely to be observed or to hurt any one.
"If your ladyship really means it—" she began.
"My ladyship generally does mean what she says—as Dorcas will tell you if you ask her," was the rather short, sharp reply. "Say no more, say no more; I hate chitter-chatter and shilly-shally. The thing's settled, and there's an end of it. Go your ways, go your ways; I'm none too ill for Dorcas to look to, now that the little fool is assured that I haven't got the plague. But you may have brought it here yourself, so you are bound in duty to come back and look after us the first moment you can. Go along with you all, and bring me word what London is doing, and what the streets are like. They say there be courts down in the worst parts of the town where not a living person remains, and where there be none left to give notice of the deaths. You go and bring me word about all that.
"A fine thing truly for our grand city! The living soon will not be enough to bury the dead! Go! go! go! I shall wait and watch for your return. None will interfere with anything that goes on in my house. You can come and go at will. Dorcas will give you a key. I will trust you. You have a face to be trusted."
"It is quite true—nobody ever dares interfere with her," said Dorcas, as she led the way downstairs. "They think she is a witch; and truly, methinks she is the strangest woman that ever drew breath! But I shall love her for what she has said and done today. I pray you be not long in coming again. None can want you much more sorely than I do!"
CHAPTER VIII. IN THE DOOMED CITY.
The clocks in the church steeples were chiming the hour of ten as Dinah and her two companions started forth a second time upon their errand of mercy and charity. It was an hour at which in ordinary times all the city should be alive, the streets filled with passersby, wagons lumbering along with heavy freights, fine folks in their coaches or on horseback picking their way from place to place, and shopmen or their apprentices crying their wares from open doorways.
Now the streets were almost empty. The shops were almost all shut up. Here and there an open bake house was to be seen, orders having been issued that these places were to remain available for the public, come what might; and women or trembling servant maids were to be seen going to and fro with their loads of bread or dough for baking.
But each person looked askance at the other. Neighbours were afraid to pause to exchange greetings, and hurried away from all contact with one another; and children breaking away from their mothers' sides were speedily called back, and chidden for their temerity.
Some of the churches stood wide open, and persons were seen to hurry in, lock themselves for a few minutes into separate pews, and pour out their souls in supplication. Often the sound of lamentation and weeping was heard to issue from these buildings. At certain hours of the day such of the clergy as were not scared away through fear of infection, or who were not otherwise occupied amongst the sick, would come in and address the persons gathered there, or read the daily office of prayer; but although at first these services had been well attended—people flocking to the churches as though to take sanctuary there—the widely-increased mortality and the fearful spread of the distemper had caused a panic throughout the city. The magistrates had issued warnings against the assembling of persons together in the same building, and the congregations were themselves so wasted and decimated by death and disease that each week saw fewer and fewer able to attend.
From every steeple in the city the bells tolled ceaselessly for the dead. But it was already whispered that soon they would toll no more, for the deaths were becoming past all count, and there might likely enough be soon no one left to toll.
At one open place through which Dinah led her companions, a tall man, strangely habited, and with a great mass of untrimmed hair and beard, was addressing a wild harangue to a ring of breathless listeners. In vivid and graphic words he was summing up the wickedness and perversity of the city, and telling how that the wrath of God had descended upon it, and that He would no longer stay His hand. The day of mercy had gone by; the day of vengeance had come—the day of reckoning and of punishment. The innocent must now perish with the guilty, and he warned each one of his hearers to prepare to meet his Judge.
The man was gazing up overhead with eyes that seemed ready to start from their sockets. Every face in the crowd grew pale with horror. The man seemed rooted to the spot with a ghastly terror. They followed the direction of his gaze, but could see nothing save the quivering sunshine above them.
Suddenly one in the crowd gave a shriek which those who heard it never forgot, and fell to the ground like one dead.
With a wild, terrible laugh the preacher gathered up his long gown and fled onwards, and the crowd scattered helter skelter, terrified and desperate. None seemed to have a thought for the miserable man smitten down before their very eyes. All took care to avoid approaching him in their hasty flight. He lay with his face upturned to the steely, pitiless summer sky. A woman coming furtively along with a market basket upon her arm suddenly set up a dolorous cry at sight of him, and setting down her basket ran towards him, the tears streaming down her face.
"Why, it is none other than good John Harwood and his wife Elizabeth!" cried Janet, making a forward step. "Oh, poor creatures, poor creatures! Good aunt, prithee let us do what we can for their relief. I knew not the man, his face was so changed, but I know him now. They are very honest, good folks, and have worked for us ere now. They live hard by, if so be they have not changed their lodgings. Can we do nothing to help them?"
"We will do what we can," said Dinah. "Remember, my children, all that I have bidden you do when approaching a stricken person. Be not rash, neither be over-much affrighted. The Lord has preserved me, and methinks He will preserve you, too."
With that she stepped forward and laid a hand upon the shoulder of the poor woman, who was weeping copiously over her husband, and calling him by every name she could think of, though he lay rigid with half-open eyes and heeded her not.
"Good friend," said Dinah, in her quiet, commanding fashion, "it is of no avail thus to weep and cry. We must get your goodman within doors, and tend him there. See, there is a man with a handcart over yonder. Go call him, and bid him come to our help. We must not let your goodman lie out here in the streets in this hot sunshine."
"God bless you! God bless you!" cried the poor distracted woman, unspeakably thankful for any help at a time when neighbours and friends were wont alike to flee in terror from any stricken person. "But alas and woe is me! Tell me, is this the plague?"
"I fear so," answered Dinah, who had bent over the smitten man; "but go quickly and do as I have said. There be some amongst the sick who recover. Lose not heart at the outset, but trust in God, and do all that thou art bidden."
The woman ran quickly, and the man, who was indeed one of those forlorn creatures who, for a livelihood, were even willing to scour the streets and remove from thence those that were stricken down by death as they went their way amongst their fellows, came with her at her request, and lifting her husband into his cart, wheeled him away towards a poor alley where lay her home.
As she turned into it she looked at the three women who followed, and said:
"God have mercy upon us! I would not have you adventure yourselves here. There be but three houses in all the street where the distemper has not come, and of those, mine, which was one, must now be shut up. Lord have mercy upon us indeed, else we be all dead men!"
Dinah paused for a brief moment, and looked at her young charges.
"My children," she said, "needs must that I go where the need is so great. But bethink you a moment if ye have strength and wish to follow. I know not what sad and terrible sights we may have to encounter. Think ye that ye can bear them? Have ye the strength to go forward? If not, I would have you go back ere you have reached the contamination."
Janet looked at Gertrude, and Gertrude looked at Janet; but though there was great seriousness and awe in their faces, there was no fear. Gertrude had gone through so much already within the walls of her home that she had no fear greater than that of remaining in helpless idleness there, alone with her own thoughts and memories. As for Janet, she had much of the nature of her aunt—much of that eager, intense sympathy and compassion for the sick and suffering which has induced women in all ages to go forth in times of dire need, and risk their lives for their stricken and afflicted brethren.
So after one glance of mutual comprehension and sympathy, they both answered in one breath:
"No, we will not turn back. We will go with you. Where the need is sorest, there would we be, too."
"God bless you! God bless you for angels of mercy!" sobbed the poor woman, who heard their words, and knowing both Dinah and Janet, understood something of the situation, "for we be perishing like sheep here in this place, shut away from all, and with never a nurse to come nigh us. There be some rough fellows placed outside the houses to see that none go in or out, and perchance they do their best to find nurses; but at such a time as this it is small wonder if ofttimes none are to be found. And some they have brought are worse than none. The Lord protect us from the tender mercies of such!"
The narrow court into which they now turned was cool in comparison with the sunny street; but there was nothing refreshing in the coolness, for fumes of every sort exhaled from the houses, and at the far end there burned a fire of resinous pine logs, the smoke from which, when it rolled down the court, was almost choking.
"They say it will check the spread of the distemper to the streets beyond," said the woman, "but methinks it does as much harm as good. If the Lord help us not, we be all dead men. The cart took away a score or more of corpses last night. Pray Heaven it take not away my poor husband tonight!"
The bearer of the handcart stopped at the door indicated by the woman, and lifted the stricken man in his arms. It was one of the very few doors all down that street which did not bear the ominous red cross.
As Gertrude looked up and down the court her heart sank within her for pity. The houses were closed. Watchers lounged at the doors, drinking and smoking and jesting together, being by this time recklessly and brutally hardened to their office. They knew not from day to day when their own turn might come; but this knowledge seemed to have an evil rather than a sobering effect upon them.
The better sort of watchmen were employed, as a rule, to keep the better sort of houses. When these crowded courts and alleys were attacked, the authorities had to send whom they could rather than whom they would. Indefatigable and courageously as they worked, the magnitude of the calamity was such that it taxed their resources to the utmost; and had it not been for the bountiful supplies of money sent in by charitable people, from the king downwards, for the relief of the city in this time of dire need, thousands must have perished from actual want, as well as those who fell victims to the plague itself. Yet do as these brave and devoted men could, the sufferings of the poor at this time were terrible.
As the sound of voices was heard in the street below, windows were thrown up, and heads protruded with more or less of caution. From one of the windows thus thrown up there issued a lamentable wailing, and a woman with a white, wild face cried out in tones of passionate entreaty:
"Help! help! help! good people. Ah, if that be a nurse, let her come hither. There be five dying and two dead in the house, and none but me to tend them, and methinks I am stricken to the death!"
"Janet," said Dinah, with a searching glance at her niece, "methinks I must needs answer that cry. Go with this good woman, and do what thou canst for her husband. Thou dost know what is best to be done. I will come to thee anon; but thou wilt not fear to be thus left? There is but one sick in this house. The need is sorer elsewhere."
"Go, I will do my best. At least I can make a poultice, and see that he is put to bed. I have medicaments in my bag. I would not hinder thee. Sure there is work for all in this terrible place!"
"And this is only one of many scattered throughout the city!" breathed Gertrude softly, her heart swelling within her.
Ever since she had halted before this house she had been aware of the sound of plaintive weeping and wailing proceeding from the adjoining tenement; and as Dinah moved away towards the door opposite, she asked Elizabeth Harwood what the sound meant, and if there was trouble in the next house.
"Trouble?—trouble and death everywhere!" was the answer. "The man was taken away in the cart yesternight. God alone knows who is alive in the house now. There be seven little children there with their mother, but which of them be living and which dead by now no one knows. I have heard nothing of the woman's voice these many hours. Pray Heaven she be not dead—and the little helpless children all alone with the dead corpse!"
"Oh, surely that could not be!" cried Gertrude. "Surely the watchman would go to them! Oh, that must not be! I will go and speak with him. He would not leave them to perish so!"
The woman shook her head, and hurried up the stairs whither her husband had been carried. Her heart was too full of her own anxious misery to have room for more than a passing sympathy for the needs and troubles of others.
But Gertrude could not rest. She neither followed Janet into this house nor her aunt across the street. She went to the door of the next house, upon which the red cross had been painted; and seeing her so stand before it, a man detached himself from a group hard by and asked her business, since the house was closed.
"I am a nurse," answered Gertrude, boldly. "I have come to nurse the sick. Let me into this house, I pray, for I hear the need is very sore."
"Sore enough, mistress," answered the man, fumbling with his key, for of course there was admittance to plague nurses and doctors into infected houses; "but if you take my advice, you'll not venture within the door. The dead cart has had four from it these last two days. Like enough by this time they are all dead. They have asked for nothing these past ten hours—not since the cart came last night."
With a shudder of pity and horror, but without any personal shrinking, Gertrude signed to the man to open the door, which he proceeded to do in a leisurely manner. Then she stepped across the threshold, the door was closed behind her, and she heard the key turn in the lock.
Truly her work had now begun. She was incarcerated in a plague-stricken house, and this time by her own will.
For the first few seconds she stood still in the dark entry, unable to see her way before her; but soon her eyes grew used to the dim light, and she saw that there was a door on one side of the passage and a steep flight of stairs leading upwards, and it was from some upper portion of the house from which the sound of crying proceeded.
Just glancing into the lower room, which she found quite empty, and which was unexpectedly clean, she mounted the rickety staircase, the wailing sound growing more distinct every step she took. The house was a very tiny one even for these small tenements, and there were only two little rooms upon the upper floor. It was from one of these that the crying was proceeding, but Gertrude could not be sure which.
With a beating heart she opened the first door, and saw a sight which went to her heart. Upon a narrow bed lay two little forms wrapped in the same sheet, rigidly still, waiting their last transit to the common grave. Except for the two dead children the room was empty, and Gertrude, softly closing the door, and breathing a silent prayer, she scarce knew whether for herself, for the living, or for the dead, she opened the other, and came upon a scene, the pathos and inexpressible sadness of which made a lasting impression upon her, which even after events did not efface from her memory.
There was a bed in this room too, and upon it lay the emaciated form of a woman; asleep, as the girl first thought—dead, as she afterwards quickly discovered. By her side there nestled a little child, hardly more than an infant, wailing pitifully with that plaintive, persistent cry which had attracted her attention at the outset. Three children, varying in age from four to eight, sat huddled on the floor in a corner, their tear-stained faces all turned in wondering expectancy upon the newcomer. Stretched upon the floor beside the bed was another child, so still that Gertrude felt from the first that it, too, was dead, and when she lifted up the little form, she saw the dreaded death tokens upon the waxen skin.
With a prayer in her heart for grace and strength and guidance, Gertrude laid the dead child beside its dead mother—for she saw that the woman was cold and stiff in death; and then she gathered the living children round her, and taking the infant in her arms, she led them all down into the lower room, and quickly kindled the fire that was laid ready in the grate.
She found nothing of any sort in the house, and the children were crying for food; but the watchman quickly provided what was needful, being, perhaps, a little ashamed of the condition in which this household had been found.
Gertrude tended and fed and comforted the little ones, her heart overflowing with sympathy. They clung about her and fondled her as children will do those who have come to them in their hour of dire necessity; and as their hunger became appeased, and they grew confident of the kindness of their new friend, they told their pathetic tale with the unconscious graphic force of childhood.
There had been a large household only a few days before. Father, mother, two grownup sons, and one or two daughters—evidently by a former marriage. The big brothers had gone away—probably to act as bearers or watchmen—and the little ones knew nothing of them. One of the sisters had been in service, but came home suddenly, complaining of illness, sat down in a chair, and died almost before they realized she was ill. They had kept that death a secret, had obtained a certificate of some other ailment than the distemper, and for a week all had gone on quietly, when suddenly three became ill together.
Numbers of houses were shut up all round them. Theirs was reported and closed. For a few days there had been hope. Then the father sickened, and all the grownup persons had died almost together, save the mother, and had been taken away the night before last.
What had happened since was dim and confused to the children. Their mother had seemed like one stunned—had hardly noticed them, or attended to their wants. Then two of them had been taken away into the other room. They had heard their mother weeping aloud for a while, but she would not let them in to her. By and by she had come back to them, and had taken the baby in her arms and lain down upon the bed. She had never moved after that—not even when little Harry had called to her, and had lain crying and moaning on the floor. The children thought she was asleep, and by and by Harry had gone to sleep too. They had slept together on the floor, huddled together in helpless misery and confusion of mind, until awakened by the ceaseless wailing of the baby, which never roused their mother. They were too much bewildered and weakened to make any attempt to call for help, and were just waiting for what would happen, when Gertrude had come amongst them like an angel of mercy.
Her tears fell fast as the story was told, but the children had shed all theirs. They were comforted now, feeling as though something good had happened, and they crept about her and clung round her, begging her not to leave them.
Nor had she any wish to do so. It seemed to her as though this must surely be her place for the present—amongst these helpless little ones to whom Providence had sent her in the hour of their extreme necessity.
The baby was sleeping in her arms. She looked down into its tiny face, and wondered if it would be possible that its life could be saved. For a whole night it had lain at its dead mother's side. Could it have escaped the contagion? The three older children appeared well, and even grew merry as the hours wore slowly away.
From time to time Gertrude looked out into the street, but there was nothing to be seen save the men on guard; and only from time to time was the silence broken by the cry of some delirious patient, or a shriek for mercy from some half-demented woman driven frantic by the terrors by which she was surrounded.
When afternoon came, she prepared more food for the children, and partook of it with them, and wondered how and where she should spend the night. The infant in her arms had grown strangely still and quiet. It could not be roused, and breathed slowly and heavily.
"Harry looked just like that before he went to sleep," said the eldest of the children, coming and peeping into the small waxen face; and Gertrude gave a little involuntary shiver as she thought of the four still forms lying sleeping upstairs, and wondered whether this would make a fifth for the bearers to carry forth at night.
Just as the dusk began to fall, there came the sound of a slight parley without. Then the key turned in the house door, and the next minute, to Gertrude's unspeakable relief, Dinah entered the room.
"My poor child, did you think I was never coming to you?"
"I did not know if you could," answered Gertrude. "Oh, tell me, what must I do for all these little ones—and for the baby? Is he dying too? It is so long since he has moved. I am afraid to look at him lest I disturb him, but—but—"
Dinah bent over the little form, and lifted it gently from Gertrude's arms.
"Poor little lamb, its troubles are all over," she said, after a few moments. "The little ones often go like that—quite peacefully and quietly. It has not suffered at all. It has been a gentle and merciful release. You need not weep for it, my child."
"I think my tears are for the living rather than for the dead," answered Gertrude, with brimming eyes. "There are but three left out of seven living yesterday, and what is to become of them?"
"We must report their case to the authorities. There are numbers of poor children left thus orphaned, and it is hard to know what will become of them. I will send at once to my brother-in-law, and report the matter to him. He will know what it were best to do. Meantime I shall remain here with you. Janet is busy next door. Her patient is mending, and none besides in the house is sick. But oh, the things I have seen and heard this day! There is not one living now in the house to which I went first, and I have seen ten men and women die since I saw you last.
"God alone knows how it is to end. It seems as though His hand were outstretched, and as though the whole city were doomed!"
CHAPTER IX. JOSEPH'S PLAN.
"Ben, boy, I am sick to death of sitting at home doing naught, and seeing naught of all the sights that be abroad, and of which men are for ever speaking. What boots it to be alive, if one is buried or shut up as we are? Art thou afraid to come forth? or shall I go alone?"
"Where wilt thou go, brother?" asked Ben, looking up from a bit of wood carving upon which he was engrossed, with an eager light in his eyes. Perhaps these two young lads had felt the calamity which had befallen the city more than any one else in the house; for whilst the father, mother, sisters, and two elder sons were all hard at work doing all in their power for the relief of the sick, the younger lads were kept at home, to be as far as possible out of harm's way, and they had felt the confinement and idleness as most irksome. Their mother employed them about the house when she could, but it was not much she could find for them to do. To be sure there was some amusement to be found in watching the life on the river; for though traffic was suspended, many whole families were living on board vessels moored on the river, and hoped by this device to keep the plague away from them. Yet the time hung very heavy on their hands, and the stories of the increasing ravages of the plague could not but depress them, seeming as they did to lengthen out indefinitely the time of their captivity.
Three of the sisters were practically living away from the house (of which more anon), and the loneliness of the silent house was becoming unbearable. To lads used to an active life and plenty of exercise, the distemper itself seemed a less evil than this close confinement between four walls. The bridge houses did not even possess yards or strips of garden, and without venturing out into the streets—which had for some weeks been forbidden by their father—the boys could not stir beyond the walls of their home.
August had now come, a close, steaming, sultry August, and the plague was raging with a virulence that threatened to destroy the whole city. The Bills of Mortality week by week were appalling in magnitude; and yet those who knew best the condition of the lower courts and alleys were well aware that no possible record could be kept of those crowded localities, where whole households and families, even whole streets, were swept away in the course of a few days, and where there were sometimes none left to give warning and notice that there were dead to be borne away. So the registered deaths could only show a certain proportionate accuracy; for even the dead carts could keep no reckoning of the numbers they bore to the common grave, and the bearers themselves were too often stricken down in the performance of their ghastly duties, and shot by their comrades into the pit amongst those whom they had carried forth an hour before.
It was small wonder that the father had forbidden his younger sons to adventure themselves in the streets, where the pestilence seemed to hang in the very air. But the magnitude of the peril was beginning to rob even the most cautious persons of any confidence in their methods, for it seemed as if those working hardest amongst the sick and dead were quite as much preserved from peril as those who shunned their neighbours and never came abroad unless dire necessity compelled them. Indeed, despite many deaths of individuals, it began to be noted that the magistrates, aldermen, examiners of health, and nurses of the plague-stricken sickened and died less, in proportion, than almost any other class. And of the physicians who remained at their posts to tend the sick, not many died, although some few here and there were stricken, and of these a certain proportion succumbed. But, as a whole, the workers who toiled with a good heart and gentle spirit amongst the sick (not just for daily bread or love of gain) fared better in the prevailing mortality than many others who held themselves aloof and lived in deadly fear of the pestilence. Wherefore it was not strange that at the last a sort of recklessness was bred amongst the citizens, and they kept themselves less close now when things were in so terrible a pass than they had done when the deaths were fewer and the conditions less fatal.
James Harmer had always been one of those who had put his confidence more in the providence of God than in any merely human precautions, and although he had always insisted upon prudence and care, he had steadily discouraged in his household any of that feeling of panic or of despair which he believed had been a strong factor in the spread of the distemper in its earlier stages. He also agreed in part with Lady Scrope's views regarding the water supply of the city—the old wells and the contaminated river water. He let nothing be drunk in his house save what was supplied from the New River, and he impressed the same advice upon all his neighbours.
But to return to the boys and their weariness of the shut-up life of the house. The heat had grown intolerable, their pining after fresh air and liberty was become too strong for resistance. Benjamin's eyes glowed at the very thought of escape from the region of streets and shut-up houses, and he drank in the sense of his brother's words eagerly.
"Hark ye," cried Joseph, in a rapid undertone, for they did not wish their mother to overhear them, she being by many degrees more fearful than their father, as was but natural, "why should we stay pent up here day after day and week after week, when even the girls be permitted abroad, and go into the very heart of the peril? We cannot be nurses to the sick, I know right well; neither can we help to search houses, or do such like things, as the elder ones. But why do we tarry at home eating our hearts out, when the whole world is before us, and there be such wondrous things to see?
"Listen, Ben. I have a plan. Let us but once get free of this house, and be our own masters, and we will wander about London as we will, and see those things of which all men be speaking. I long to look into one of those yawning pits where they shoot the dead, and to see the grass growing in the city, and to hear some of those strange preachers who go about prophesying in the streets. I long for liberty and freedom. I would sooner die of the plague at last than fret my heart out shut up here. And we may be smitten as well at home as abroad, as even father says himself."
"Why, so we may; and methinks more are smitten so than those who go forth and breathe the air without!" cried Benjamin. "Our aunt lives amongst the dying, but she is not smitten; and the girls are ever in peril, but they live on, whilst others are taken. But will our father let us go forth? For I would not like to go unless he bid us."
"Nay, nor I," answered Joseph quickly, for reverence for their father was a strong sentiment in all James Harmer's sons and daughters; "we will strive to win his consent and blessing to our going forth; but we need not say all that we purpose doing when we are free. For, indeed, it may well be that we shall meet with many hindrances. They say that the roads leading away from the city are all closely watched, that no infected person is able to pass, and that many sound ones are turned back lest they bring the infection with them."
"Then how shall we get out?" asked Benjamin; but Joseph nodded his head wisely, and said he had a plan.
Before, however, he could further enlighten his brother they heard their father's footfall on the stair, and he came in looking weary and sad, as it was inevitable that he should, coming as he did into personal contact with so much misery, sickness, and death.
There was always refreshment ready for the workers at any hour of the day when they should come in to seek it. The boys rushed off to get him such things as their mother had ready, and whilst he partook of the wholesome and appetising meal prepared for him, Joseph burst out with his pent-up weariness of the shut-up life, his longing to be free of the house and the city, and his earnest desire that his father would permit him and Benjamin to go forth and shift for themselves in the country until the terrible visitation was past.
The father listened with a grave face. He too began to have a great fear that the whole city was doomed to be swept away, and although upheld in his resolve to do his duty, so long as he was able, by his strong and fervent faith in the goodness and mercy of God, he was disposed to the opinion that all who remained would in turn be carried off victims to the fearful pestilence. Had he known from the beginning how terrible it would become in time, he sometimes said to himself, he would at least have made shift to send his family away; but now that they were engrossed in works of piety and charity, he could not feel it right to bid them cease their labours of love, nor did he feel any temptation to quit his own post. Yet this made him the more ready to listen to the eager petition of his boys, and to consider the project which had formed itself in the quick brain of Joseph.
"Father, I have thought of it so much these past days. We are sound in health. Thou couldst get us the papers without which men say none can pass the watch upon the roads. With them we can sally forth, with a small provision of money and food, and make our way either by boat to the farm at Greenwich where the other 'prentice boys live, and where there would be a welcome for us always, or else northward to our aunt beyond Islington, who will be hungering for news of us, and who will be rejoiced, I am very sure, to give us a welcome and to hear of the welfare of all, even though we come to her from the land of the shadow of death."
"Ay, verily do ye!" exclaimed the father, whose phrase Joseph had picked up and quoted. "Heaven send that my poor sister be yet numbered among the living. I know not whether the fell disease has wrought havoc beyond the limits of the city in that direction; but at the first it raged more fiercely north and west than with us, and God alone knows who are taken and who are left!"
"Then, father, may we go?" asked Benjamin, eagerly.
The father looked from one boy to the other with the glance of one who thinks he may be looking his last upon some loved face. Men had begun to grow used to the thought that when they left their homes in the morning they might return to them no more, or that they might return to find that one or more of their dear ones had been struck down and carried off in the course of a few hours. So terrible was the malignity of the disease, that often death supervened after a few hours, although others would linger—often in terrible suffering—for many days before death (or much more rarely, recovery) relieved them of their pain. This good man knew that if he let the lads go, he might never see them again. He or they might be victims before they met, and might see each other's face no more upon earth.
Yet he did not oppose the boys' plan. He knew how bad for them was this shut-up life, and how the very sense of fret and compulsory inactivity might predispose them to the contagion. If they could once get beyond the limits of the city, they might be far safer than they could be here. It would be a relief to have them gone—to think of them as living in safety in the fresh air of the country. Moreover, it pleased him to think of sending a message of loving assurance to his favourite sister, who dwelt in the open country beyond the hamlet of Islington. He felt assured that if she still lived she would have a warm welcome for his boys; and if the lads were well provided with money and wholesome food, they had wits enough to take care of themselves for a while, until they had found some asylum. In all the surrounding villages, as he well knew, were only too many empty houses and cottages. He knew that there was risk; but there was risk everywhere, and he felt sympathy with the lads for their eager desire to get free of their prison.
The mother felt more fear, but she never interfered with the decisions of her husband. Her tears fell as she packed up in very small compass a few articles of clothing and some provisions for the lads. Their father furnished them with money, the bulk of which was sewn up in their clothing, and with those health passes which were so needful for those leaving the infected city.
The summer's night was really the best time in which to commence a journey. The heat of the streets by day was intolerable, the danger of encountering infected persons was greater, whilst although it was at night that the dead carts went about, these could be easily avoided, as the warning bell and mournful cry gave ample notice of their approach.
Last thing of all, after the boys had partaken of an ample supper, and had shed a few natural tears at the thought that it might be the last meal ever eaten beneath the roof of the old home, the father knelt down and commended them solemnly to the care of Him in whose hands alone lay the issues of life and death. Then he blessed the boys individually, charged them to take every reasonable care, and finally escorted them down to the door, which he carefully opened, and after ascertaining that the road was quite clear, he walked with them as far as the end of the bridge, and dismissed them on their way with another blessing.
Much sobered by the scenes through which they had passed, yet not a little elated by the quick and successful issue to their demand, the boys looked each other in the face by the light of the great yellow moon, and nipped each other by the hand to make sure it was not all a dream.
How strange the sleeping city looked beneath that pale white light! The boys had hardly ever been abroad after nightfall, and never during this sad strange time, when even by day all was so different from what they had been used to see. Now it did indeed look like a city of the dead, for not even an idle roisterer, or a drunkard stumbling homewards with uncertain gait, was to be seen. The watchmen, sleeping or trying to sleep within the porches or upon the doorsteps of certain houses, were the only living beings to be seen; and even they were few and far between in this locality, for almost every house was shut up and empty, the inhabitants of many having fled before the distemper became so bad, and others having all died off, leaving the houses utterly vacant.
"Let us go and see the house where Janet and Rebecca and Mistress Gertrude dwell," said Benjamin, as they watched their father's figure vanish in the distance, and felt themselves quite alone in the world; "perchance one of them may be waking, and may look forth from the window if we throw up a pebble. I would fain say a farewell word to them ere we go forth, for who knows whether we may see them again?"
"Ay, verily, we may be dead or else they," said Joseph, but in the tone of one who has grown used to the thought. "This way then; the house lies hard by, next door to my Lady Scrope's. Who would have thought that that cross old madwoman would have turned so kindly disposed towards the poor and sick as she hath done?"
There were many amongst her former friends and acquaintances who would have asked that question, had they been there to ask it. Lady Scrope had never been credited with charitable feelings; and yet it was her doing that a large house, her own property, next door to the small one she chose to inhabit, had been made over to the magistrates and authorities of the city at this time, for the housing of orphaned children whose parents had perished of the plague, and who were thrown upon the charity of strangers, or upon those entrusted with the care of the city at this crisis.
True, the house was standing empty and desolate. Its tenants had fled, taking their goods with them. All that was left of plenishing belonged to Lady Scrope. Pallets were easily provided by the officers of health, and the place was speedily filled with little children, who were tenderly cared for by Gertrude, Janet, and Rebecca (who had joined her sister in this labour of love), all three having given themselves up to this work, and finding their hands too full to desire other occupation abroad.
Joseph and Benjamin had of course heard all about this, and knew exactly where to find the house. It was marked with the red cross, for, as was inevitable, many of the little inmates were carried off by the fell disease after admission, and the numbers were constantly thinning and being replaced by fresh ones. But hitherto the nurses themselves had been spared, and toiled on unremittingly at their self-chosen work.
There was no watchman at the door as the boys stole up, but they had scarcely been there ten seconds before a window was thrown up, and Janet's voice was heard exclaiming, "Andrew, art thou yet returned?"
"There is nobody here, sister," answered Joseph, "save Ben and me. We are come to say farewell, for we are going forth this night from the city, to seek safety with our aunt in Islington. Can we do aught for you ere we go?"
"Alas, it is the dead cart of which we have need tonight," answered Janet. "We sent the watchman for physic, but it is needed no longer. The little ones are dead already—three of them, and only one ill this morning.
"Ah, brothers, glad am I to hear ye be going. God send you safety and health; and forget not to pray for us in the city when ye are far away. May He soon see fit to remove His chastening hand! It is hard to see the little ones suffer."
Janet's voice was quiet and calm, but Benjamin burst into tears at the sound of her words, and at the thought of the little dead children; but she leaned out and said kindly:
"Nay, nay, weep not, Ben, boy; let us think that they are taken in mercy from the evil to come. But linger not here, dear brothers. Who knows that contagion may not dwell in the very air? Go forth with what speed you may.
"Ah, there is the bell! The cart is on its way! And here comes good Andrew back. Now he will do all that we need. Fare you well, brothers. Rebecca is sleeping tonight, and I would not wake her. I will give her your farewell love tomorrow."
She waved them away, and they withdrew; but a species of fascination kept them hanging round the spot. Moreover, they feared to meet the death cart in that narrow thoroughfare, and the porch of the church of Allhallowes the Less was in close proximity. The iron gate was open, and they were quickly able to hide themselves in the porch, from whence by peeping out they could see all that passed.
Nearer and nearer came the sound of the rumbling wheels and the bell, and now the cry, "Bring forth your dead! bring forth your dead!" was clearly to be heard through the still air. Round the corner came the strange conveyance, drawn by two weary-looking horses; and at some signal from the inmates it drew up at the door of the house in front of which the boys had been standing a minute before.
The watchman brought out three little shrouded forms. They were laid upon the top of the awful pile, and the cart with its heavy load rumbled away, the bell no longer ringing, because there was no room for more upon that journey.
The boys stood with hands closely locked together, for although they had heard of these things before, they had never seen the sight. Their bedroom at home looked out upon the river, and the dead cart only went about at night. They trembled at the thought which came to them, that had they been numbered amongst the dead during this terrible visitation they too had been carried in that fashion to their last resting place.
"Come, Ben, let us be going," said Joseph, recovering himself first; "we need not linger in the city if we like it not. There may be strange things to see in all truth; but if we have no stomach for them, why let us make our way northward with all speed. We can leave all this behind us by daybreak an we will."
Taking hands, and feeling their courage return as they walked on, the brothers passed along the silent streets. Sometimes a window would be opened from above, and a doleful voice would cry aloud in grief or anguish of mind, or some command would be shouted to the watchman beneath, or there would be a piercing cry for the dead cart as it rumbled by. The boys at last grew used to the sound of the bell and the wheels. Go where they would they could not avoid hearing one or another as the men went about their dismal errand. It seemed less terrible after a time than it had done at first, and the bold spirit within them came back.
They wended their way northward, avoiding the narrower thoroughfares and keeping to the broader streets. Even these were often very narrow and ill smelling, so that the brothers had recourse to their vinegar bottle or swallowed a spoonful of Venice treacle before venturing down. Once they were forced to turn aside out of their way to avoid a heap of corpses that had been brought out from a narrow alley to wait for the cart. They had heard of such things before, but to see them was tenfold more terrible. Yet the spirit of adventure took possession of them as they passed along, and they were less afraid even of the most terrible things than they had been of lesser ones at starting.
In passing near to the little church of St. Margaret's, Lothbury, they were attracted by the sound of a voice crying out as if in excitement or fear. Being filled with curiosity in spite of their fears, they turned in the direction of the sound, and came upon a man clutching hard at the railings of the little churchyard, which like all others in that part was now filled to overflowing, and closed for burials, the dead being taken to the great pits dug in various places. Night though it was, there was a small crowd of persons gathered round the railings, all peering in with eager faces, whilst the voice of the man at the corner kept calling out:
"See! see! there she goes! She stands there by yon tall tombstone waving her arms over her head! Now she is wringing her hands, and weeping again.
"O my wife, my wife! do you not know me? I am here, Margaret, I am here! Weep not for the children who are dead; weep for unhappy me, who am left alive. Ay, it is for the living that men should weep and howl. The dead are at peace—their troubles are over; but our agony is yet to come.
"Margaret! Margaret! look at me! pity me!
"Ah, she will not hear! She turns away! See, she is gliding hither and thither seeking the graves of her children—
"Margaret! I could not help it. They would not let them lie beside thee! They took them away in the cart. I would have sprung in after them, but they held me back.
"Ah, woe is me! woe is me! There is no place for me either among the living or the dead. All turn from me alike!"
The tears rolled down the poor man's face, his voice was choked with sobs. He still continued to point and to cry out, and to address some imaginary being whom he declared was wandering amongst the tombs. The boys pressed near to look, for some in the crowd suddenly made exclamations as though they had caught a glimpse of the phantom; but look as they would the brothers saw nothing, and Joseph asked of an elderly man in the little crowd what it all meant.
"Methinks it means only that yon poor fellow has lost his reason," he answered, shaking his head. "His wife was one of the first to die when the distemper broke out; and men called it only a fever, though some said she had the tokens on her. She was buried here. And it is but a week since the last of his children was taken—six in two weeks; and he has escaped out of his house, and wanders about the streets, and comes here every night, saying that he sees his dead wife, and that she is looking for her children, and cannot find them because they are lying in the plague pit. He is distraught, poor fellow; but many men gather night by night to hear him.
"For my part, I will come no more. Men are best at home in their own houses; and you lads had best go home as fast as you can. It is no place and no hour for boys to be abroad."
Joseph and Benjamin said a civil goodnight to the man, and taking hands bent their steps northward once again. They were now close to the open Moor Fields; and although there was still another region of houses to be passed upon the other side, they felt that when once they had passed the gate and the walls they should have left the worst of the peril behind them.
CHAPTER X. WITHOUT THE WALLS.
Only one trifling incident befell the boys before they found themselves without the city gate. They were proceeding down Coleman Street towards Moor Gate, where they knew they should have to show their pass, and perhaps have some slight trouble in getting through, and were rehearsing such things as they had decided to tell the guard at the gate, when the sound of a dismal howling smote upon their ears, and they paused to look about them, for the street was very still, and almost every house seemed deserted and empty.
The sound came again, and Joseph remarked:
"'Tis some poor dog who perchance has lost master and home. There be only too many such in the city they say. They throw them by scores into the river to be rid of them; but I have heard father say that it is an ill thing to do, and likely to spread the contagion instead of checking it. Alive, the poor beasts do no ill; but their carcasses poison both the water and the air. Beshrew me, but he makes a doleful wailing!"
Going on cautiously through the darkness, for the moon was veiled behind some clouds, the brothers presently saw, lying just outside a shut-up house, a long still form wrapped in a winding sheet, put out ready for one of the many carts that passed up the street on the way to the great pits in Bunhill and Finsbury Fields. Whether the corpse was that of a man or a woman the boys could not tell. They made a circuit round it to avoid passing near.
But beside the still figure squatted a little dog of the turnspit variety, and he was awakening the echoes of the quiet street by his lugubrious howls.
Both the brothers were fond of animals, and particularly of dogs, and they paused after having passed by, and tried to get the creature to come to them; but though he paused for a moment in his wailing, and even wagged his tail as though in gratitude for the kind words spoken, he would not leave his post beside the corpse, and the boys had perforce to go on their way.
"The dumb brute could teach a lesson in charity to many a human being," remarked Joseph, gravely; "he will not leave his dead master, and they too often flee away even from the living. Poor creature, how mournful are his cries! I would that we could comfort him."
At the gate they were stopped and questioned. They told a straightforward and truthful tale; their pass was examined and found correct; and their father's name being widely known and respected for his untiring labours in the city at this time, the boys were treated civilly enough and wished God speed and a safe return. They were the more quickly dismissed that the sound of wheels rumbling up to the gate made itself heard, and the guard darted hastily away into his shelter.
"These plague carts will be the death of us, passing continually all the night through with their load," he said. "Best be gone before it comes through, lads. It carries death in its train."
The boys were glad enough to make off, and found themselves for the time being free of houses in the pleasant open Moor Fields, which were familiar to them as the favourite gathering place of shopmen and apprentices on all high days and holidays. The moon shone down brightly again, although near her setting now; but before long the dawn would begin to lighten in the east, and the boys cared no whit for the semi-darkness of a summer's night.
Behind them still came the rumble of wheels, and they drew aside to let the cart pass with its dreadful cargo. Behind it ran a small black object, and Benjamin exclaimed:
"It is the little dog! O brother, let us follow and see what becomes of him!"
The strange curiosity to see the burying place, which tempted only too many to their death in those perilous days, was upon Joseph at that moment. He desired greatly to see one of those plague pits, and to watch the emptying of the cart at its mouth. Forgetting their father's warnings, the brothers ran quickly after the cart, which was easily kept in view, and soon saw it halt and turn round at a spot where they could discern the outline of a great mound of earth, and the black yawning mouth of what they knew must be the pit.
Half terrified, half fascinated, they gripped each other by the hand and crept step by step nearer. They took care to keep to the windward of the pit, and were getting very near to it when the air was rent by another of the doleful cries which they had heard before, but which sounded so strange and mournful here that they stopped short in terror at the noise. It seemed even to affect the nerves of the bearers, for one of them exclaimed:
"It is that cur again, who has left the marks of his teeth in my hand. If I could but get near him with my cudgel, he should never howl again."
"I thought we had rid ourselves of the brute, but he must have followed us. A plague upon his doleful voice! They say that it bodes ill to hear a dog's howl at night. Perchance he will leap down into the pit after his master. We will take good care he comes not forth again if he does that."
With these words the rough fellows turned to the cart, which was now at the edge of the pit, and finished the rude burial which was all that could in those days be given to the dead. Every now and then one of the men would aim a heavy stone at the poor dog, who sat on the edge of the pit howling dismally. The creature, however, was never hit, for he kept a respectful distance from his enemies.
Their work done, the men got into the cart and drove away, without having noticed the two boys crouching beside the pile of soil in the shadow. The dog began running backwards and forwards along the edge of the pit, which being only lately dug was still deep, though filling up very fast in these terrible days of drought and heat.
The boys rose up and called to him kindly. He did not notice them at first, but finally came, and looked up in their faces with appealing eyes, as though he begged of them to give him back his master.
"Touch him not, Ben," said Joseph to his brother, who would have taken the dog into his embrace, "he has been in a plague stricken house. Let us coax him to yon pool, and wash him there; and then, if he will go with us, we will take him and welcome. It may be he will be a safeguard from danger; and it would be sorrowful indeed to leave him here."
The dog was divided in mind between watching the pit's mouth and going with the kindly-spoken boys, who coaxed and called to him; but at last it seemed as though the loneliness of the place, and the natural instinct of the canine mind to follow something human, prevailed over the other instinct of watching for the return of his master from this strange resting place. Perhaps the journey in the cart and the promiscuous burial had confused the poor beast's mind as to whether indeed his master lay there at all. With many wistful glances backwards, he still followed the boys; and when they paused at length beside a spring of fresh water, he needed little urging to jump in and refresh himself with a bath, emerging thence in better spirits and ravenously hungry, as they quickly found when they opened their wallet and partook of a part of the excellent provisions packed up for them by their mother.
The young travellers were by this time both tired and sleepy, and finding near by a soft mossy bank, they lay down and were quickly asleep, whilst the dog curled himself up contentedly at their feet and slept also.
When the boys awoke the sun was up, although it was still early morning. They were bewildered for a few moments to know where they were, but memory quickly returned to them, and with it a sense of exhilaration at being no longer cooped up within the walls of a house, but out in the open country, with the world before them and the plague-stricken city behind. Even the presence of the dog, who proved to be a handsome and intelligent member of his race, black and tan in colour, with appealing eyes and a quick comprehension of what was spoken to him, added greatly to the pleasure of the lads. They gave their new companion the name of Fido, as a tribute to his affection for his dead master; but they were very well pleased that he did not carry his fidelity to the pass of remaining behind by the great pit when they started forth to pursue their way to their aunt's house beyond Islington.
Fido ran backwards and forwards for a while whining and looking pathetically sorrowful; but after the boys had coaxed and caressed him, and had explained many times over that his master could not possibly come back, he seemed to resign himself to the inevitable, and trotted at their heels with drooping tail, but with gratitude in his eyes whenever they paused to caress him or give him a kind word.
And they were glad enough of his company along the road, for from time to time they met groups of very rough-looking men prowling about as though in search of plunder. Some of these fellows eyed the wallets carried by the boys with covetous glances; but on such occasions Fido invariably placed himself in front of his young masters, and with flashing eyes and bristling back plainly intimated that he was there to protect them, whilst the gleaming rows of shining teeth which he displayed when he curled up his lips in a threatening snarl seemed to convince all parties that it was better not to provoke him to anger.
The more open parts of the region without the walls looked very strange to the boys as they journeyed onwards. Numbers of tents were to be seen dotted about Finsbury and Moor Fields and whole families were living there in the hope of escaping contagion. Country people from regions about came daily with their produce to supply the needs of these nomads; and it was curious to see the precautions taken on both sides to avoid personal contact. The villagers would deposit their goods upon large stones set up for the purpose; and after they had retired to a little distance, some persons from the tents or scattered houses would come and take the produce, depositing payment for it in a jar of vinegar set there to receive it. After it had thus lain a short time, the vendor would come and take it thence; but some were so cautious that they would not place it in purse or pocket till they had passed it through the fire of a little brazier which they had with them.
Nor was it to be wondered at that the country folks were thus cautious, for the contagion had spread throughout all the surrounding districts, and every village had its tale of woe to tell. At first the people had been kind and compassionate enough in welcoming and harbouring apparently sound persons fleeing from the city of destruction; but when again and again it happened that the wayfarer died that same night of the plague in the house which had received him, and infected many of those who had showed him kindness, so that sometimes a whole family was swept away in two or three days, it was no wonder that they were afraid of offering hospitality to wayfarers, and preferred that these persons should encamp at a distance from them, though they were willing to supply them with the necessaries of life at reasonable charges. It must be spoken to the credit of the country people at this time, that they did not raise the price of provisions, as might have been expected, seeing the risk they ran in taking them to the city. There was no scarcity and hardly any advance in price throughout the dismal time of visitation. This was doubtless due, in part, to the wise and able measures taken by the magistrates and city corporations; but it also redounds to the credit of the villagers, that they did not strive to enrich themselves through the misfortunes of their neighbours.
The boys were glad to purchase fruit and milk for a light breakfast; and their fresh open faces and tender years seemed to give them favour wherever they went. They were not shunned, as some travellers found themselves at this time, but were admitted to several farm houses on their way, and regaled plentifully, whilst they told their tale to a circle of breathless listeners.
Sometimes they were stopped upon the way by the men told off to watch the roads, and turn back any coming from the city who had not the proper pass of health. But the boys, being duly provided with this, were always suffered to proceed after some parley. They began, however, to understand how difficult a thing it had now become to escape from the infected city; and several times they saw travellers turned back because their passes were dated a few days back, and the guard declared it impossible to know what infection they had encountered since.
Very sad indeed were these poor creatures at being, as it were, sent back to their death. For it began to be rumoured all about the city that not a living creature would escape who remained there. It was said that God's judgments had gone forth, and that the whole place would be given over to destruction, even as Sodom, and that none who remained in it would be left alive.
This sort of talk made the brothers very anxious and sorrowful, but, as Joseph sought to remind his brother, the people who said these things had nothing better to go by than the prognostications of old women or quacks and astrologers, whom their father had taught them to disbelieve. He had always taught them that God alone knew the future and the thing that He would do, and that it was folly and presumption on the part of man to seek to penetrate His counsels, and venture to prophesy things which He had not revealed. So they plucked up heart, these two youthful wayfarers, firmly believing that God would take care of their father and all those who were working in the cause of mercy and charity in the great city, and that they could leave the issues of these things in His hands.
Since the day was very hot, and they were somewhat weary with their long walk and short night, they lay down at noontide in a little wood, not more than three miles from their aunt's house in Islington, and there they slept again, with Fido at their feet, until the sun was far in the west, and they were ready to finish their journey in the cool freshness of the evening.
They had come by no means the nearest way, but had fetched a wide circuit, so as to avoid, as far as possible, all regions of outlying houses. Time was no particular object to them, so that they reached their destination by nightfall; and now they were quite in the open country, and delighting in the pure air and the rural sights and sounds.
Yet even here all was not so happy and smiling as appeared from the face of nature. The corn was standing ripe for the sickle, but in too many districts there were not hands enough to reap it. One beautiful field of wheat which the brothers passed was shedding the golden grain from the ripened ears, and flocks of birds were gathering it up. When they passed the farmstead they saw the reason for this. Not a sign of life was there about the place. No cattle lowed, no dog barked; and an old crone who sat by the wayside with a bundle of ripe ears in her lap shook her head as she saw the wondering faces of the boys, and said:
"All dead and gone! all dead and gone! Alive one day—dead the next! The plague carried them off, every one of them, harvest hands and all. They say it was the men who came to cut the corn that brought it. But who can tell? They got yon field in"—pointing to one where the golden stubble was to be seen short and compact—"but half were dead ere ever it was down; and then the sickness fell upon the house, and of those who did not fly not one remains. Lord have mercy upon us! We be all dead men if He come not to our aid. Who knows whose turn may come next?"
Truly the shadow of death seemed everywhere. But the boys were so used to dismal tales of wholesale devastation that one more or less did not seem greatly to matter. Perhaps the contrast was the more sharp out here between the smiling landscape and the silent, shut-up house; but the chief fear which beset them was lest their kind aunt should have been taken by death, in which case they scarcely knew what would become of themselves.
They hastened their steps as they entered the familiar lane where nestled the thatched cottage in which their aunt had her abode. Mary Harmer was their father's youngest and favourite sister. Once she had made one of the home party on the bridge; but that was long before the boys could remember. That was in the lifetime of their grandparents, and before the old people resigned their business to the able hands of their son James, and came into the country to live.
The grandfather of Joseph and Benjamin had built this cottage, and he and his wife had lived in it from that time till the day of their death. Their daughter Mary remained still in the pretty, commodious place—if indeed she had not died during the time of the visitation. The children all loved their Aunt Mary, and esteemed a visit to her house as one of the greatest of privileges.
Benjamin, who was rather delicate, had once passed six months together here, and was called by Mary Harmer "her boy." He grew excited as he marked every familiar turn in the shady lane; and when at last the thatched roof of the rose-covered cottage came in sight, he uttered a shout of excitement and ran hastily forward.
The diamond lattice panes were shining with their accustomed cleanliness. There was no sign of neglect about the bright little house. The door stood open to the sunshine and the breeze; and at the sound of Benjamin's cry, a figure in a neat cotton gown and large apron appeared suddenly in the doorway, whilst a familiar voice exclaimed: "Now God be praised! it is my own boy. Two of them! Thank Heaven for so much as this!" and running down the garden path, Mary Harmer folded both the lads in her arms, tears coursing down her cheeks the while.
"God bless them! God bless them! How I have longed for news of you all! What news from home bring you, dear lads? I tremble almost to ask, but be it what it may, two of you are alive and well; and in times like these we must needs learn to say, 'Thy will be done!'"
"We are all alive, we are all well!" cried Joseph, hastening to relieve the worst of his aunt's fears. "Some say ours is almost the only house in London where there be not one dead. I scarce know if that be true. One or two of us have been sick, and some say that Janet and Dan have both had a touch of the distemper; but they soon were sound again. They all go about amongst the sick. Father has been one of the examiners all the time through; and though they only appoint them for a month, he will not give up his office. He says that so long as he and his family are preserved, so long will he strive to do his duty towards his fellow men. There be many like him—our good Lord Mayor for one; and my Lord Craven, who will not fly, as almost all the great ones have done, but stays to help to govern the city wisely, and to see that the alms are distributed aright to the poor at this season.
"But there was naught for us to do. We were too young to be bearers or searchers, and boys cannot tend the sick. So we grew weary past bearing of the shut-up house, and yestereve our father gave us leave to sally forth and seek news of thee, good aunt. And oh, we are right glad to find ourselves out of the city and safe with thee!"
Joseph spoke on, because Mary Harmer was weeping so plenteously with joy and gratitude that she had no words in which to answer him. She had not dared to hope that she should see again any of the dear faces of her kinsfolk. True, the distemper was yet raging fiercely, and none could say when the end would come; but it was much to know that they had lived in safety through these many weeks. It seemed to the pious woman as though God had given her a sort of pledge of His special mercy to her and hers, and that He would not now fail them.
She led the boys into her pretty, cheerful cottage, and set them down to the table, where she quickly had a plentiful meal set before them. Fido's pathetic story was told, and he was caressed and fed in a fashion that altogether won his heart. He made them all laugh at his method of showing gratitude; for he walked up to the fire before which a bit of meat was cooking, and plainly intimated his desire to be allowed to turn the spit if they would give him the needful convenience. This being done by the handy Benjamin, he set to his task with the greatest readiness, and the boys quite forgot all their sorrowful thoughts in the entertainment of watching Fido turn the spit.
Long did they sit at table, eating with the healthy appetite of growing lads, and answering their aunt's minute questions as to the welfare of every member of the household. Greatly was she interested in the home for desolate children provided by Lady Scrope, and ordered by her nieces and Gertrude. She told the boys that her house had often been used to shelter homeless and destitute persons, whom charity forbade her to send away. Just now she was alone; but even then she was not idle, for all round in the open fields and woods persons of all conditions were living encamped, and some of these had hardly the necessaries of life. Out of her own modest abundance, Mary Harmer supplied food and clothing to numbers of poor creatures, who might otherwise be in danger of perishing; and she bid the boys be ready to help her in her labour of love, because she had ofttimes more to do than one pair of hands could accomplish, and her little serving girl had run off in alarm the very first time she opened her door to a poor sick lady with an infant in her arms, who had escaped from the city only to die out in the country. It was not the plague that carried her off, but lung disease of long standing, and the infant did not survive its mother many days.
"But it frightened Sally away, poor child, just as if it had been the sickness; and I have since heard that she was taken with it a month ago in her own home, and that every one there died within three days. These be terrible times! But we know they are sent by God, and that He will help us through them; and surely, I think, it cannot be His will that we turn a deaf ear to the plaints of the afflicted, and think of naught but our own safety. I have work and enough to do, and will find you enough to fill your hands, boys. It was a happy thought indeed which sent you two hither to me."
CHAPTER XI. LOVE IN DIFFICULTIES.
"It means that I am a ruined man, my poor girl!"
"Ruined! O father, how can that be? Methought you were a man of much substance. Mother always said so."
Gertrude looked anxiously into the careworn face of her father, which had greatly changed during the past weeks. He paid her occasional visits in her self-chosen home, being one of those who had ceased to fear contagion, and went about almost without precaution, from sheer indifference to the long-continued peril. He had been a changed man ever since the melancholy deaths of his son and his wife; but today a darker cloud than any she had seen there before rested upon his brow, and the daughter was anxious to learn the reason of it. This it was which had wrung from the Master Builder the foregoing confession.
"Your poor mother was partly right, and partly wrong. I might have been a rich man, I might be a rich man even now—terrible as is the state of trade in this stricken city—had it not been that she would have me adventure beyond my means in her haste to see me wealthy before my fellows. And the end of it is that I stand here today a ruined man!"
Gertrude held in her arms a little child, over whom she bent from time to time to assure herself that it slept. Her face had grown pale and thin during her long confinement between the walls of this house; yet it was a happier and more contented face than it had been wont to be in the days when she lived in luxurious idleness at her mother's side. She looked many years older than she had done then, but there was a beauty and sweet serenity about her appearance now which had not been visible in the days of old.
"What has happened during this sad time to ruin you, dear father?" asked Gertrude gently, guessing that it would ease his heart to talk of his troubles. "Is it the sudden stoppage of all trade?"
"That has been serious enough. It would have done much harm had that been the only thing, but there be many, many other causes. Thou art too young and unversed in the ways of business to understand all; but I was not content to grow rich in the course of business alone. I had ventures of all sorts afloat—on sea and on land; and through the death of patrons, through the sudden stoppage of all trade, numbers and numbers of these have come to no good. My money is lost; my loans cannot be recovered. Men are dead or fled to whom I looked for payment. Half-finished houses are thrown back on my hands, since half London is empty. And poor Frederick's debts are like the sands upon the seashore. I cannot meet them, but I cannot let others suffer for his imprudence and folly. The old house on the bridge will have to go. I must needs sell it so soon as a purchaser can be found. It may be I shall have to hand it over to one of Frederick's creditors bodily. I had thought to end my days there in peace, with my children's children round me. But the Almighty is dealing very bitterly with me. Wife and son are taken away, and now the old home must follow!"
Gertrude, who knew his great love for the house in which he had been born, well understood what a fearful wrench this would be, and her heart overflowed with compassion.
"O father! must it be so? Is there no way else? Methought you had stores of costly goods laid by in your warehouses. Surely the sale of those things would save you from this last step!"
The Master Builder smiled a little bitterly.
"Truly is it said that wealth takes to itself wings in days of adversity. I myself thought as you do, child—at least in part; and today I visited my warehouses, to look over my goods and see what there were to fetch when men will dare to buy things which have lain within the walls of this doomed city all these months. I had the keys of the place. I myself locked them up when the plague forced me to close my warehouse and dismiss my men. I saw all made sure, as I thought, with my own eyes. But what think you I found there today?"
"O father! what?" asked Gertrude, and yet she divined the answer all too well; for she had heard stories of robbery and daring wickedness even during this season of judgment and punishment which prepared her for the worst.
"That the whole place had been plundered; that there was nothing left of any price whatever. Thieves have broken in during this time of panic, and have despoiled me of the value of thousands of pounds. Whilst my mind has been full of other matters, my worldly wealth has been swept away. I stand here before you a ruined man. And like enough the very miscreants who have used this time of public calamity for plunder and lawlessness may be lying by this time in the common grave. But that will not give my property back to me."
"Alas, father, these are indeed evil days! But has no watch been kept upon the streets that such acts can be done by the evil disposed? Is all property in the city at the mercy of the violent and wicked?"
"Only too much has vanished that same way, as I have heard from many. Some owners are themselves gone where they will need their valuables no more, and others were careful to remove all they had to their own houses, or they themselves lived over their goods and could guard them by their presence. That is where my error lay. I gave your mother her will in this. She liked not the shop beneath, and I stored my goods elsewhere. Poor woman, she is dead and gone; we will speak no hard things of her weaknesses and follies. But had she lived to see this day, she had grievously lamented her resolve to have naught about her to remind her of buying and selling."
"Ah, poor mother! I often think it was the happiest thing for her to be taken ere these fearful things came to pass. The terror would well nigh have driven her distracted. Methinks she would have died of sheer fright. But, father, is all lost past recovery? Can none of the watch or of the constables tell you aught, or help you to recover aught?"
"Ah, child, in these days of death, who is to know so much as where to carry one's questions? Watchmen and constables have died and changed a score of times in the past two months. The magistrates do their best to keep order in the city, but who can fight against the odds of such a time as this? The very men employed as watchmen may be the thieves themselves. They have to take the services of almost any who offer. It is no time to pick and choose. I carried my story to the Lord Mayor himself, and he gave me sympathy and pity; but to look for the robbers is a hopeless task. It is most like that the plague pits have received them ere now. The mortality in the lower parts of the city is more fearful than it has ever been, and it seems as though the summer heats would never end. Belike I shall be taken next, and then it will matter little that my fortune has taken unto itself wings."
Gertrude came and bent over him with a soft caress.
"Say not so, dear father. God has preserved us all this while. Let us not distrust His love and goodness now."
"It might be the greater mercy," answered the Master Builder in a depressed voice. "I am too old to start life again with nothing but my broken credit for capital. As for you, child, your future is assured. I could leave you happy in that thought. You would want for nothing."
Gertrude raised her eyes wonderingly to her father's face. She had laid the sleeping child in its cot, and had taken a place at her father's feet.
"What mean you, father?" she asked. "I have only you in the wide world now. If you were to die, I should be both orphaned and destitute. What mean you by speaking of my future thus? Whom have I in the wide world besides yourself?"
The father passed his hand over her curly hair, and answered with a sigh and a smile:
"Surely, child, thou dost know by this time that the heart of Reuben Harmer is all thine own. He worships the very ground on which thou dost tread. His father and I have spoken of it. Fortune has dealt more kindly with our neighbours than with me. Good James Harmer has laid by money, while I have adventured it rashly in the hope of large returns. This calamity has but checked his work for these months; when the scourge is past, he will reopen business once more, and will find himself but little the poorer. He is a wiser man than I have been; and his wife and sons have all been helpful to him. The love of Reuben Harmer is my assurance for thy future welfare. Thou wilt never want so long as they have a roof over their heads.
"Nay, now what ails thee, child? Why dost thou spring up and look at me like that?"
For Gertrude's usually tranquil face was ablaze now with all manner of conflicting emotions. She seemed for a moment almost too agitated to speak, and when she could command herself there were traces of great emotion in her voice.
"Father, father!" she cried, "how can you thus shame me? You must know with what unmerited scorn and contumely Reuben was treated by poor mother when it was we who were rich and they who were (in her belief, at least) poor. She would scarce let him cross the threshold of our house. I have tingled with shame at the way in which she spoke of and to him. Frederick openly insulted him at pleasure. Every slight was heaped upon him; and he was once told to his very face that he might look elsewhere for a wife, for that my fortune was to win me the hand of some needy Court gallant. Yes, father, I heard with my own ears those very words spoken—save that the term 'needy' was added in mine own heart. Oh, I could have shrunk into the earth with shame. And after all this, after all these insults and aspersions heaped upon him in the day of our prosperity—am I to be made over to him penniless and needy, without a shilling of dowry? Am I to be thrown upon his generosity in my hour of poverty, when I was denied to him in my day of supposed wealth?
"Father, father! I cannot, I will not permit it. I can work for my own bread if needs must be. But I will not owe it to the generosity of Reuben Harmer, after all that has passed. I should be humbled to the very dust!"
The Master Builder looked at his daughter in amaze. He had never seen Gertrude quite so moved before.
"Why, child," he exclaimed in astonishment. "I always thought that thou hadst a liking for the youth!"
Then at that word Gertrude burst suddenly into tears and cried:
"I love him as mine own soul, and I am not ashamed to own it. But that is the very reason why I will have none of him now. I will not be thrown upon his generosity like a bundle of damaged goods. Let him seek a wife who can bring him a modest fortune with her, and who has never been scornfully denied to him before. O father! can you not see that I can never consent to be his now?
"O mother, mother! why did you do me this ill?"
The father felt that the situation had got beyond him. Never much versed in the ways of women, he was fairly puzzled by his daughter's strange method of taking his confidence. He knew, of course, of the tactics of his wife, which he had deplored at the time, though he had been unable to bring her to a better frame of mind; but since the young people liked each other, and since madam was in her grave, it seemed absurd to let a shadow stand between them and their happiness. Perhaps if left to herself Gertrude would reach that conclusion of her own accord, and the Master Builder rose to go without pressing the matter further.
Gertrude, left alone, was weeping silently and bitterly beside the child's cot, when she was aware of a little short laugh almost at her elbow, and a familiar voice said in sharp accents:
"Good child! I like a woman with a spirit of her own. Go on as you have begun, and don't let him think he is to have it all his own way. Lovers are all very well, but husbands soon show their wives how cheap they hold them when they have won them all too cheap. Throw him aside in scorn! Let him not think or see that you care a snap of the fingers for him. That will rivet the fetters all the faster; and when you have got him like a tame bear at the end of a chain—why then you can make up your mind at leisure what you will end by doing."
Gertrude sprang up suddenly, and faced Lady Scrope with flushed cheeks and glowing eyes.
The little witch-like woman with her black-handled stick and her mobcap was no unfrequent visitor to this shut-up house. There was a communication between the two dwellings by means of a door in the cellars, and all this while curiosity, or some better motive, had prompted the eccentric old woman to come to and fro between her own luxurious house and this, paying visits to the devoted girls, and by turns terrifying and charming the children. Gertrude had been interested from the first by the piquant individuality of the old aristocrat, and was a decided favourite with her. It was plain now that she had been listening to the conversation between father and daughter, a thing so characteristic of her curiosity and even of her benevolence that Gertrude hardly so much as resented it. Nevertheless, having a spirit of her own, and being by no means prepared to be dictated to in these matters, some hot words escaped her lips almost before she knew, and were answered by Lady Scrope by an amused peal of her witch-like laughter.
"Tut! tut! tut! Hoity toity! but she is in a temper, is she, my lady? Well a good thing too. Your saints are insipid unless they can call up a spice of the devil on occasion! Oh, don't you be afraid of me, child. I've known all about you and young Harmer this long time. I agree with your late mother, that you could do better; but with all the world topsy turvy as it is now, we must take what we can get; and that young man is estimable without doubt, and a bit of a hero in his way. I don't blame you for loving him. It's the way with maids, and will be to the end of time, I take it. All I say is, don't throw yourself away too fast. Show a proper pride. Keep him dangling and fearing, rather than hoping too much. Show him that he can't have you just for the asking. Why, child, I have kept a dozen fools hanging round me for a twelvemonth together sometimes; but I only married when I was tired of the game, and when I knew I had made sure of a captive who would not rebel. I swore in church to obey poor Scrope; but, bless you, he obeyed me like a lamb to the last day of his life—and was all the better for it."
Lady Scrope's reminiscences and bits of worldly wisdom were not much more to Gertrude's taste than her father's had been. It was not pride, but a sense of humiliation and shame, which kept her from facing the thought of marriage with Reuben now that she was poor, when she had been scornfully denied to him when she was thought to be a well-dowered maiden. The idea of keeping him dangling after her in suspense was about the last that would ever have entered her head. Her feeling was one of profound humiliation and unworthiness. Her mother's bitter words could never be forgotten by her; and after what her father had told her of his ruined state, it appeared to her simply impossible that she should let Reuben take possession of her and her future when she could bring nothing in return.
But she could not speak of these things to Lady Scrope; and finding her favourite irresponsive and reserved, the dame shrugged her shoulders and passed on to another room, where the children were soon heard to utter shrieks and gasps of mingled delight and terror at the stories she told them, which stories invariably fascinated them to an extraordinary degree, yet left them with a sense of undefined horror that was half delightful, half terrible.
They all thought that she was a witch, and that she could spirit any of them away to fairy land. But since she brought sweetmeats in her capacious pockets, and had an endless fund of stories at her disposal, her visits were always welcomed, and she had certainly shown herself capable of a most unsuspected benevolence at this crisis, in presenting this house to the authorities for such a purpose, and in contributing considerably to the maintenance of the desolate little inmates.
She liked to hear their dismal stories almost as well as they liked to hear hers. She made a point of visiting every fresh batch of children, after they had been duly fumigated and disinfected, and she seemed to take a horrible and unnatural delight in the ghastly details of desolation and death which were revealed in the artless narratives of the children.
She was one of those who, knowing much of the fearful corruption of the times, were fond of prognosticating this judgment as a sweeping away of the dregs of the earth; although she still maintained that had the water supply been purer and differently arranged, the judgment of Heaven would have had to seek another medium.
For three or four days Gertrude lived in a state of feverish expectancy and subdued excitement. She had fancied from her father's tone in speaking that there had been some talk of a betrothal between him and his neighbour, and that Reuben might take her consent for granted. The idea made her restless and unhappy. She wished the ordeal of refusing him over. She believed she was right in taking this step; but it was a hard one, and she was sometimes afraid of her own courage. The more she thought of the matter the more she convinced herself that Reuben's love was one of compassion rather than true affection. He had almost ceased his attentions in her mother's lifetime, and had been very reserved in his intercourse of late. Doubtless if he heard of her father's ruin, generosity would make him strive to do all that he could for her in her changed circumstances. It would be like him then to step forward and avow himself ready to marry her. But it was out of the question for her to consent. She wished the matter settled and done with; she wished the irrevocable words spoken.
And yet when at dusk one evening Reuben suddenly stood before her, she felt her heart beating to suffocation, and wished that she had any reasonable excuse for fleeing from him.
His visits to the house were not frequent; he was too busy to make them so. But from time to time he brought orphaned children to the home of shelter, or took away from it some of those for whom other homes had been found with their kinsfolk in other places. Tonight he had brought in three little destitute orphans; but having given them over into the care of his sisters, he went in search of Gertrude, who was with the youngest of the children in a separate room, and, having sung them all to sleep, was sitting in the window thinking her own thoughts.
She knew what was coming when she saw Reuben's face, and braced herself to meet it. Reuben was very quiet and self-restrained—so self-restrained that she thought she read in his manner an indication that her suspicion was correct, and that it was pity rather than love which prompted his proposal of marriage.
As a matter of fact Reuben was more in love with Gertrude now than he had ever been in his life before; but he had come to look upon her as a being so far above him in every respect that he sometimes marvelled at himself for ever hoping to win her. The fact that her father was just now a ruined man seemed to him as nothing. At a time like this the presence or absence of this world's goods appeared absolutely trivial. Reuben believed that the Master Builder would retrieve his fortune in better times without difficulty, and regarded this temporary reverse as absolutely insignificant. Therefore he had no clue to Gertrude's motive in her rejection of him, and accepted it almost in silence, feeling that it was what he always ought to have looked for, and marvelling at his temerity in seeking the hand of one who was to him more angel than woman.