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The Sign Of The Red Cross
by Evelyn Everett-Green
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He said very little; he took it very quietly. It seemed to him as though all the life went out of him, and as though hope died within him for ever. But he scarcely showed any outward emotion as he rose and said farewell; and little did he guess how, when he had gone, Gertrude flung herself on the floor in a passion of tears and sobbed till the fountain of her weeping was exhausted.

"I was right! I was right! It was not love; it was only pity! But ah, how terrible it is to put aside all the happiness of one's life! Oh I wonder if I have done wrong! I wonder if I could better have borne it if I had humbled myself to take what he had to offer, without thinking of anything but myself!"

Would he come again? Would he try to see her any more? Would this be the end of everything between them? Gertrude asked herself these questions a thousand times a day; but a week flew by and he had not come. She had not seen a sign of him, nor had any word concerning him reached her from without. There was nothing very unusual in this, certainly; and yet as day after day passed by without bringing him, the girl felt her heart sinking within her, and would have given worlds for the chance of reconsidering her well-considered judgment.

How the days went by she scarcely knew, but the next event in her dream-like life was the sudden bursting into the room of Dorcas, her face flushed, and her eyelids swollen and red with weeping.

Dorcas was a member of Lady Scrope's household, but paid visits from time to time to the other house. Also, as Lady Scrope's house was not shut up, she could go thence to pay a visit home at any time, and she had just come from one such visit now.

Gertrude sprang up at sight of her, asking anxiously:

"Dorcas! Dorcas! what is wrong?"

"Reuben!" cried Dorcas, with a great catch in her breath, and then she fell sobbing again as though her heart would break.

Gertrude stood like one turned to stone, her face growing as white as her kerchief.

"What of Reuben?" she asked, in a voice that she hardly knew for her own. "He is not—dead?"

"Pray Heaven he be not," cried Dorcas through her sobs; and then, with a great effort controlling herself, she told her brief tale.

"I went home at noon today and found them all in sore trouble. Reuben has not been seen or heard of for three days. Mother says she had a fear for several days before that that something was amiss; he looked so wan, and ate so little, and seemed like one out of whom all heart is gone. He would go forth daily to his work, but he came home harassed and tired, and on the last morning she thought him sick; but he said he was well, and promised to come home early. Then she let him go, and no one has seen him since.

"Oh, what can have befallen him? There seems but one thing to believe. They say the sickness is worse now than ever it was. People drop down dead in street and market, and soon there will be none left to bury them. That must have been Reuben's fate. He has dropped down with the infection upon him, and if he be not lying in some pest house—which they say it is death now to enter—he must be lying in one of those awful graves.

"O Reuben! Reuben! we shall never see you again!"



CHAPTER XII. EXCITING DISCOVERIES.

Joseph and Benjamin found themselves exceedingly happy and exceedingly well occupied in their aunt's pleasant cottage. They rose every morning with the lark, and spent an hour in setting everything to rights in the house, and sweeping out every room with scrupulous care, as their mother had taught them to do at home, believing that perfect cleanliness was one of the greatest safeguards against infection. Hot and close though the weather remained, the air out in these open country places seemed delicious to the boys, and the freedom to run out every moment into the open fields was in itself a privilege which could only be appreciated by those who had been long confined within walls.

Sometimes they were alone in the house with their aunt. Sometimes the cottage harboured guests of various degrees—travellers fleeing from the doomed city in terror of the fearful mortality there, or poor unfortunates turned away from their own abodes because they were suspected of having been in contact with the sick, and were refused admittance again. Servant maids were often put in this melancholy plight. They would be sent upon errands by their employers to the bake house or some other place; and perhaps ere they were admitted again they would be closely questioned as to what they had seen or heard. Sometimes having terrible and doleful tales to tell of having seen persons fall down in the agonies of death almost at their feet, terror would seize hold upon the inmates of the house, who would refuse to open the door to one who might by this time be herself infected. And when this was the case, the forlorn creature was forced to wander away, and generally tried to find her way out of the city and into the country beyond. Many such unlucky wights, having no passes, were turned back by the guardians of the road; but some succeeded in evading these men, or else in persuading them, and many such unfortunates had found rest and help and shelter beneath Mary Harmer's charitable roof.

September was now come, but as yet there was no abatement of the pestilence raging in the city. Indeed the accounts coming in of the virulence of the plague seemed worse than ever. Ten thousand deaths were returned in the weekly bill for the first week alone, and those who knew the state of the city were of opinion that not more than two-thirds of the deaths were ever really reported to the authorities. Hitherto the carts had never gone about save by night, and for all that was rumoured by those who loved to make the worst of so terrible a calamity, it was seldom that a corpse lay about in the streets for above a short while, just until notice of its presence there was given to the authorities.

But now it seemed as though nothing could cope with the fearful increase of the mortality. The carts were forced to work by day as well as by night; and so virulent was now the pestilence that the bearers and buriers who had hitherto escaped, or had recovered of the malady and thought themselves safe, died in great numbers. So that there were tales of carts overthrown in the streets by reason of the drivers of them falling dead upon their load, or of driverless horses going of their own accord to the pits with their load.

These terrible tales were reported to Mary Harmer and her nephews by the fugitives who sought refuge with her at this time. And very thankful did the lads feel to be free of the city and its terrors, albeit they never forgot to offer up earnest prayer for their father and mother and all their dear ones who were dwelling in the midst of so much peril. There was no hope of hearing news of them, save by hazard, whilst things were like this; but they trusted that the precautions taken, and hitherto successfully, would avert the pestilence from their dwelling, and for the rest the boys were too well employed to have time for brooding.

When their daily work at home was done, there were always errands of mercy to be performed to neighbours who had had sickness at home, or to the persons encamped in the fields, who were very thankful of any little presents of vegetables or eggs or other necessaries; whilst others of larger means were glad to buy from those who came to sell, and gave good money for the accommodation.

Mary Harmer had a large and productive garden and a large stock of poultry, so that she was able both to sell and to give largely; and the boys thought that working in the garden and looking after the fowls was the best sort of fun possible. They were exceedingly useful to her, and she kept them out of danger without fretting or curbing their eager spirit of usefulness. Of course, no person in those days could act with unselfish charity and not adventure something; but she took all reasonable precautions, and, like her brother, trusted the rest to Providence. And she believed that the boys were safer with her, even though not so closely restrained, than they would have been had they remained in the infected city, where the people now seemed to be dying like stricken sheep.

But the spirit of curiosity and love of adventure were not dead within the hearts of the boys; and although for some weeks they were fully contented in performing the duties set them by their aunt, there were moments when a strong curiosity would come over them for some greater sensation, and this it was which led them to an act of disobedience destined to be fraught with important consequences, as will soon be seen.

Mary Harmer's house was empty again, and she had promised to sit up for a night with a sick woman who lived some two miles off, and who had entreated her to come and see her. This was no case of plague, but fear of the infection had become so strong by this time that the sick were often rather harshly treated, and sometimes almost entirely neglected, by those about them. Mary Harmer had heard that this poor creature had been left alone by her son's wife, who had taken away her children and refused to go near her. Mary knew that her presence there for a while, and her assurances as to the nature of the malady, would be most likely to bring the woman to reason, so she decided to go and remain for one whole night, and she left her own cottage in the charge of the boys, bidding them take care of everything, and expect her back again on the following afternoon.

They were quite happy all that evening, seeing to the poultry, and running races with Fido in the leafy lane. They liked the importance of the charge of the house, although they missed the gentle presence of their aunt. They shut up the house at dark, and prepared their simple supper, and whilst they were eating it, Benjamin said:

"What shall we do tomorrow when we have finished our work?"

"I know what I should like to do," said Joseph promptly.

"What, brother?" asked Benjamin eagerly.

"Marry, what I want to do is to go and see that farm house hard by Clerkenwell which they have turned into a pest house, and where they say they have dozens of plague-stricken people brought in daily. I have never seen a pest house. I would fain know what it looks like. And we might get more news there of the truth of those things that they say about the plague in the city. Ben, what sayest thou?"

Ben's eyes were round with wonder and excitement. The boys had all the careless daring and eager curiosity which belong to boy nature. They were by this time so much habituated to living under conditions of risk and a certain amount of peril, that a little more or a little less did not now seem greatly to matter.

"Would our good aunt approve?" asked the younger boy.

"I trow not," answered Joseph frankly; "women are always timid, and she would say, perchance, that unless duty called us it were foolish to adventure ourselves into danger. But I would fain see this place, Ben, boy. If in time to come we live to be men, and folks ask us of these days of peril and sickness, I should like to have seen all that may be seen of these great things. Our father went many times to the pest houses within the city and came away no worse. Why should thou or I suffer? We have our vinegar bottles and our decoctions, and methinks we know enough now not to run needless risks."

Benjamin was almost as eager and curious as his brother. The spirit of adventure soon gets into the hearts of boys and runs riot there. Before they went to bed they had fully decided to make the excursion; and they rose earlier next morning so as to get all their work done while it was yet scarce light, so that they might start for their destination before the heat of the day came on.

It was pleasant walking through the dewy fields, and hard indeed was it to imagine that death and misery lurked anywhere in the neighbourhood of what was so smiling and gay. The boys knew what paths to take, nor was the distance very great. Benjamin on his former visit to his aunt had spent a day with the good people at this very farm house. Now, alas, all had been swept away, and the place had been taken possession of for the time being by the authorities, to be used as a supplementary pest house, where the homeless sick could be temporarily housed. Generally it was but for a few hours or a couple of days that such shelter was needed. The great common grave, barely a quarter of a mile away, received day by day the great majority of the unfortunate ones who were brought in.

In all London proper there were only two pest houses used at this time, one on some fields beyond Old Street, and the other in Westminster; but as the virulence of the distemper increased, and the suburbs became so terribly infected, and such numbers of persons fleeing this way and that would fall stricken by the wayside, it became necessary to find places of some sort where they could be received, and the authorities began to take possession of empty houses—generally farmsteads standing in a convenient but isolated position—and to use them for this melancholy purpose. It could not be expected that even the most charitable would receive plague-stricken wayfarers into their own families, nor would such a thing be right. Yet they could not remain by the wayside to die and infect the air. So they were removed by the bearers appointed to that gruesome work to these smaller pest houses, and only too often from thence to the pit in the course of a few hours.

"How pretty it all looks!" said Benjamin, as they approached the place. "See, Joseph, those are the great elm trees where the rooks build, and which I used to climb. When they cut the hay, I came often and rolled about in it and played with the boys from the farm. To think that they should all be dead and gone! Alack! what strange times these be! It seems sometimes as though it were all a dream!"

"I would it were!" said Joseph, sobered by the thought of their near approach to the habitation of death. "Ben, wouldst thou rather turn back and see no more? We have at least seen the outside of a pest house. Shall that suffice us?"

"Nay, if we have come so far, let us go further," answered Benjamin. "We have seen naught but the tiled roof and the green garden. Come this way. There is a little gate by which we may gain entrance to a side door. Perchance they will turn us back if we seek to enter at the front."

The farm house looked peaceful enough nestling beneath its sheltering row of tall elms, in the midst of its wild garden, now a mass of autumnal bloom. But as they neared the house the boys heard dismal sounds issuing thence—the groans of sufferers beneath the hands of the physicians, who were often driven to use what seemed cruel measures to cause the tumours to break—the only chance of recovery for the patient—the shriek of some maddened or delirious patient, or the unintelligible murmur and babble from a multitude of sick. Moreover, they inhaled the pungent fumes of the burning drugs and vinegar which alone made it possible to breathe the atmosphere tainted by so much pestilential sickness. The boys held their own bottles of vinegar to their noses as they stole towards the house, feeling a mingling of strong repulsion and strong curiosity as they approached the dismal stronghold of disease.

Although men were in these days becoming almost reckless, and those who actually nursed and tended the sick were naturally less cautious and less particular than others, yet it is probable that the daring boys might have been turned back had they approached the house by the ordinary entrance, for they certainly could not profess to have business there. As it was, however, thanks to Benjamin's knowledge of the place, not a creature observed their quiet approach through the orchard and along a tangled garden path. This path brought them to a door, which stood wide open in this sultry weather, in order to let a free current of air pass through the house, and they inhaled more strongly still the aromatic perfumes, which were not yet strong enough entirely to overcome that other noisome odour which was one of the most fatal means of spreading infection from plague-stricken patients.

"We can get into the great kitchen by this door," whispered Benjamin. "I trow they will use it for the sick; it is the biggest room in all the house. Yonder is the door. Shall I open it?"

Joseph gave a sign of assent, but bid his brother not speak needlessly, and keep his handkerchief to his mouth and nose. They had both steeped their handkerchiefs in vinegar, and could inhale nothing save that pungent scent.

Burning with curiosity, yet half afraid of their own temerity, the boys stole through a half-open door into a great room lined with beds. The sound of moans, groans, shrieks, and prayers drowned all the noise their own entry might have made, and they stood in the shadow looking round them, quite unnoticed in the general confusion of that busy home of death.

There were perhaps a score or more of sufferers in the great room, and two nurses moving about amongst them, quickly and in none too tender a fashion. A doctor was also there with a young man, his assistant; and at some bedsides he paused, whilst at others he gave a shake of the head, and went by without a word. Indeed it seemed to the boys as though almost a quarter of the patients were dead men, they lay so still and rigid, and the purple patches upon the white skin stood out with such terrible distinctness.

A man suddenly put in his head from the open door at the other end and asked of anybody who could answer him:

"Room for any more here?"

And the doctor's assistant, looking round, replied:

"Room for four, if you will send and have these taken away."

Almost immediately there came in two men, who bore away four corpses from the place, and in five minutes more the beds were full again, and the nurses were calculating how soon it would be possible to receive more, some now here being obviously in a dying state. The bearers reported that the outer barn was full as well as all the house; but those without invariably died, whilst a portion of those brought in recovered.

Joseph and Benjamin had seen enough for their own curiosity. It was a more terrible sight than they had anticipated, and they felt a great longing to get out of this stricken den into the purer air without. Joseph had laid a hand on his brother's arm to draw him away, when he was alarmed by seeing his brother's eyes fixed upon the far corner of the room with such an extraordinary expression of amaze and horror, that for a moment he feared he must have been suddenly stricken by the plague and was going off into the awful delirium he had heard described.

A poignant fear and remorse seized him, lest he had been the means of bringing his brother into this peril and having caused his attack, if indeed it were one, and he pulled him harder by the arm to get him away. But with a strange choked cry Benjamin broke from him, and running across the room he flung himself upon his knees by the side of a bed, crying in a lamentable voice:

"Reuben—Reuben—Reuben!"

It was Joseph's turn now to gaze in horror and dismay. Could that be Reuben—that cadaverous, death-like creature, with the livid look of a plague patient, lying like one in a trance which can only end in the awakening of death? Was Benjamin dreaming? or was it really their brother? But how could he by any possibility be here, so far away from home, so utterly beyond the limits of his own district?

The doctor had approached Benjamin and had pulled him back from the bedside quickly, though not unkindly.

"What are you doing here, child?" he said. "Have we not enough upon our hands without having sound persons mad enough to seek to add to the numbers of the sick? Is he a relation of yours?

"Well, well, well, he will be looked after here better than you can do it. Your brother? Well, he has been four days here, and is one of those I have hope for. The tumours have discharged. He is suffering now from weakness and fever; but he might get well, especially if we could move him out of this pestilential air. Go home, children, and tell your friends that if they have a place to take him to he will not infect them now, and will have a better chance. But you must not linger here. It may be death to you; though it is true enough that many come seeking their friends who go away and take no hurt. No one can say who is safe and who is not. But get you gone, get you gone. Your brother shall be well looked to, I say. We have none so many who recover that we can afford to let those slip back for whom there is a chance!"

He had pushed the boys by this time into the garden, and was speaking to them there. He was a kind man, if blunt, and habit had not bred indifference in him to the sufferings of those about him. He told the boys that one of the strangest features about the plague patients was the rapid recovery they often made when once the poison was discharged by the breaking of the swellings, and the rapidity with which the infection ceased when these broken tumours had healed. Reuben's case had seemed desperate enough when he was brought in, but now he was in a fair way of recovery. If he could be taken to better air, he would probably be a sound man quickly. Even as he was, he might well recover.

The boys looked at each other and said with one voice that they thought they knew of a house where he would be received, and got leave to remove him in a cart at any time. The doctor then hurried back to his work, whilst the brothers looked each other in the face, and Benjamin said gravely:

"Methinks it must have been put into our hearts to go. Aunt Mary will forgive the temerity when she hears of the special Providence."

Their aunt was at no great distance off, as Benjamin knew. Instead of going home, they found their way to a brook. Pulling off their clothes, they proceeded to drag them over the sweet-scented meadow grass. Then they plunged into the brook, and enjoyed a delightful paddle and bath in the clear cool water. After rolling themselves in the hot grass, and having a fine romp there with Fido, they donned their garments, and felt indeed as though they had got rid of all germs of infection and disease.

After this they made their way towards the cottage where their aunt had been staying, and met her just sallying forth to return home.

Without any hesitation or delay Joseph told the tale of their hardihood and disobedience, and the strange discovery to which it had led them; and although their aunt trembled and looked pale with terror at the thought of how they had exposed themselves, she did not stop to chide them, but was full of anxiety for the immediate release of Reuben from his pestilential prison, and eager to have him to nurse in her own house, if she could do this without risk to the younger boys.

They were to the full as eager as she, and promised in everything to obey her—even to the sleeping and living in an outhouse for a few days, if only she would save Reuben from that horrible pest house. None knew better than Mary Harmer, who was a notable nurse herself, how much might now depend upon pure air, nourishing food, and quiet; and how could her nephew receive much individual care when cooped up amongst scores, if not hundreds, of desperate cases?

Mary was so much beloved by all around, that she quickly found a farmer willing to lend a cart even for the purpose of removing a sick person from the pest house, if he bore the honoured name of Harmer. She would not permit any person to accompany the cart, but drove it herself, and sent the boys home to prepare the airiest chamber and make all such preparations as they could think of beforehand; and to remove their own bedding into the outhouse, till she was assured that they were in no peril from the presence of their brother indoors.

Eagerly the boys worked at these tasks, and everything was in beautiful order when the cart drove up. One of the attendants from the pest house had come with it, and he carried Reuben up to the bed made ready for him, and drove the cart away, promising to disinfect it thoroughly, and return it to the owner ere nightfall.

It was little the eager boys saw of their aunt that day. She was engrossed by Reuben the whole time. She said he was terribly weak, and that he had not yet got back the use of his faculties. He lay in a sort of trance or stupor, and did not know where he was or what was happening. It came from weakness, and would pass away as he got back his strength. The doctor had assured her that the plague symptoms had spent themselves, and that he was free from the contagion.

The boys slept in the shed that night tranquilly enough, and in the morning their aunt came to them with a grave and sorrowful face.

"Is he worse?" asked Benjamin starting up.

"Not worse, I hope, yet not better. He has some trouble on his mind, and I fear that if we cannot ease him of that he will die," and her tears ran over, for Reuben was dear to her as a nephew, and she knew what store her brother set by his eldest son.

"Trouble! what trouble? Are any dead at home?" cried the boys anxiously. "Can he speak? has he talked to you? Tell us all!"

"He has not talked with his senses awake, but he has spoken words which have told me much. Death is not the trouble. He has not said one word to make me fear that our loved ones have been taken. The trouble is his own. It is a trouble of the heart. It concerns one whose name is Gertrude. Is not that the name of Master Mason's daughter?"

"Why, yes, to be sure. She has joined with the rest—with Janet and Rebecca—to care for the orphan children whom none know what to do with, there are such numbers of them. Reuben always thought a great deal of Mistress Gertrude—and she of him. What of that?"

"Does she think much of him?" asked Mary eagerly. "I feared she had flouted his love!"

"Nay, she worships the ground he treads on!" cried Joseph, who had a very sharp pair of eyes of his own, and a great liking for sweet-spoken Gertrude himself. "It was madam, her mother, who flouted Reuben. Gertrude is of different stuff. Why, whenever she was with us she would get me in a corner and talk of nothing but him. I thought they would but wait for the plague to be overpast to wed each other!"

Mary stood with her hands locked together, thinking deeply.

"Joseph," she said, "if it were a matter of saving Reuben's life, think you that Mistress Gertrude would come hither to my house and help me to nurse him back to health?"

Joseph's eyes flashed with eager excitement.

"I am certain sure she would!" he answered.

"Ah, but how to let her know!" cried Mary, pressing her hands together in perplexity. "Alas for days like these! How shall any one get a letter safely delivered to her in time? It may be that if we tarry the fever will have swept him off. It is fever of the mind rather than the body, and it is hard to minister to the mind diseased, without the one healing medicine."

"Hold! I have a plan," cried Joseph, whose wits were sharpened by the pressing nature of the business in hand; "listen, and I will expound it. Tomorrow morning I will sally forth with a barrow laden with eggs, vegetables, and fruit; and I will enter the city as one of the country folks for the market, with whom none interfere at the barriers. I will e'en sell my goods to whoever will buy them, and at the bottom of the barrow thou shalt put one of thy cotton gowns and market aprons, Aunt Mary. Then will I go to Mistress Gertrude and tell her all. I shall learn of the welfare of those at home, and will come back with her at my side. The watch will but take her for a market woman, and we shall both pass unchecked and unhindered. By noon tomorrow Gertrude shall be here!

"Nay, hinder me not, good aunt. We must all adventure ourselves somewhat in this dire distress and peril. Sure, if Providence kept me safe in yon pest house yesterday, I need not fear to return to the city upon an errand of mercy such as may save my brother's life!"



CHAPTER XIII. HAPPY MEETINGS.

"Reuben found! Reuben alive! O Joseph, Joseph, Joseph!" and Dorcas burst into tears of joy and relief, and sobbed aloud upon her brother's neck.

Joseph had brought his news straight to Dorcas, knowing that she at least would be certainly found within Lady Scrope's house. He was secretly afraid to go home first, lest the fatal red cross upon the door should tell its tale of woe, or lest the whole house itself should be shut up and desolate, like the majority of the houses he had passed in the forlorn city that morning. He felt, however, an almost superstitious confidence that Lady Scrope's house would defy the infection. He was decidedly of the opinion that that redoubtable dame was a witch, and that she had charms which kept the plague at bay. He therefore first sought out the sister with whom he felt certain he could obtain speech; and she had drawn him into a little parlour hard by the street door, in great astonishment at seeing him there, and fearful at first (as folks had grown to be of late) that he was the bearer of evil tidings.

The joy and relief were therefore so great that she could not restrain her tears, and between laughing, crying, and repeating in astonished snatches the words of explanation which fell from Joseph's lips, she made such an unwonted commotion in the ordinarily silent house, that soon the tap of a stick could have been heard by ears less preoccupied coming down the stairs and along the passage, and the door was pushed open to admit the little upright figure of the mistress of the house.

"Hoity toity! art thou bereft of thy senses, child? What in fortune's name means all this?

"Boy, who art thou? and what dost thou here? A brother, forsooth! Come with some news, perchance? Well, well, well; how goes it in the city? Are any left alive? They say at the rate we are going now, it will take but a month more to destroy the city even as Sodom was destroyed!"

"O madam," cried Dorcas dashing away her tears, and turning an eager face towards the witch-like old woman, who in her silk gown, hooped and looped up, her fine lace cap and mittens, and her ebony stick with its ivory head, looked the impersonation of a fairy godmother, "this is my brother Joseph, and he comes with welcome tidings. My brother Reuben is not dead, albeit he has in truth been smitten by the plague. Joseph found him yesterday in the pest house just beyond Clerkenwell; and he is in a fair way to recover, if his mind can but be set at rest.

"Oh what news this will be for our parents!—for the girls!—for Gertrude! Oh how we have mourned and wept together; and now we shall rejoice with full hearts!"

"Has Mistress Gertrude mourned for him too?" asked Joseph eagerly. "Marry that is good hearing, for I have wondered all this while whether I should obtain the grace from her for which I have come."

"And what is that, young man?" asked Lady Scrope, tapping her cane upon the ground as much as to say that in her own house she was not going to take a secondary place, and that conversation was to be addressed to her. Joseph turned to her at once and answered:

"Verily, good madam, my aunt has sent me hither to fetch Mistress Gertrude forthwith to his side. She says that he calls ceaselessly upon her, and that unless he can see her beside him he may yet die of the disappointment and trouble, albeit the plague is stayed in his case, and it is but the fever of weakness that is upon him. She thinks it will not hurt her to come, if so be that it is as we hope, and that she has in her heart for him the same love as he has for her."

"Oh, she has! she has!" cried Dorcas, fired with sudden illumination of mind about many things that perplexed her before. "Her heart is just breaking for him!

"Prithee, good madam, let me go and call her. They say that she is of little use in the house now, being weak and weeping, and too sad at heart to work as heretofore. They can well spare her on such an errand, and methinks it will save her life as well as his. Let me but go and tell her the news."

"Go, child, go. Lovers be the biggest fools in all this world of fools! And if the women be the bigger fools, 'tis but because they were meant to be fitting companions for the men!

"Go to, child!—bring her here, and let us see what she says to this mad errand of this mad boy.

"And you, young sir, whilst your sister is gone, tell me all you saw and heard in the pest house! Marry, I like your spirit in going thither! It is the one place I long to see myself; only I am too old to go gadding hither and thither after fine sights!"

Joseph was quite willing to indulge the old lady's morbid curiosity as to the sights he had seen yesterday and today, as he had journeyed back into the city in the guise of a market lad. The things were terrible enough to satisfy even Lady Scrope, who seemed to rejoice in an uncanny fashion over the awful devastation going on all round.

"I'm not a saint myself," she said with unwonted gravity, "and I never set up for one, but many has been the time when I have warned those about me that God would not stand aside for ever looking on at these abominations. The means were ready to His hand, and He has taken them and used them as a scourge. And He will scourge this wicked city yet again, if men will not amend their evil practices."

Next minute Gertrude and Dorcas came running in together, and Gertrude almost flung herself into Joseph's arms in her eager gratitude to him for his news, and her desire to hear everything he could tell her.

Such a clamour of voices then arose as fairly drowned any remark that Lady Scrope tried from time to time to throw in. Her old face took a suddenly softened look as she watched the little scene, and heard the words that passed amongst the young people. Presently she went tapping away on her high-heeled shoes, and was absent for some ten or fifteen minutes. When she came back she held in her hands a small iron-bound box, which seemed to be very heavy for its size.

"Well," she asked in her clear, sharp tones, "and what is going to be done next?"

"O madam, I am going to him. I can do naught else," answered Gertrude, whose face was like an April morning, all smiles and tears blended together. "I cannot let him lie wanting me and wearying for me."

"Humph! I thought you had shown yourself a girl of spirit, and had sent him about his business when he came a-wooing, eh?"

"O madam, I did so. I thought that duty bid me; but I have repented so bitterly since! They say that 'twas since then he fell into the melancholy which was like to make him fall ill of the distemper. Oh, if he were to die, I should feel his blood on my head. I should never hold it up again. I cannot let anything keep me from him now. I must go to him in my poverty and tell him all. He must be the judge!"

Lady Scrope uttered a little snort, although her face bore no unkindly look.

"Child, child, thou art a veritable woman! I had thought better things of thee, but thou art just like the rest. Thou wilt gladly lie down in the dust, so as the one man shall trample upon thee, whilst thou dost adore him the more for it. Go to! go to! Maids and lovers be all alike. Fools every one of them! But for all that I like thee. I have an old woman's fancy for thee. And since in these days none may reckon on seeing the face of a departing friend again, I give now into thine hands the wedding gift I have had in mine eyes for thee.

"Nay, thank me not; and open it not save at the bedside of thy betrothed husband—if thou art fool enough to betroth thyself to one who as like as not will die of the plague before the week is out.

"And now off with you both. If you tarry too long, the watch will not believe you to be honest market folks, and will hinder your flight. Good luck go with you; and when ye be come to the city again—if ever that day arrive—come hither and tell me all the tale of your folly and love. Although a wise woman myself, I have a wondrous love of hearing tales of how other folks make havoc of their lives by their folly."

Gertrude took the box, which amazed her by its weight, and suggested ideas of value quite out of keeping with what she had any reason to expect from one so little known to her as Lady Scrope. She thanked the donor with shy gratitude, and pressed the withered hand to her fresh young lips. Lady Scrope, a little moved despite her cynical fashion of talking, gave her several affectionate kisses; and then the other girls came in to see the last of their companion, and to charge her with many messages of love for Reuben.

Joseph during this interval darted round to his father's house, to exchange a kiss with his mother and tell her the good news. It was indeed a happy day for the parents to hear that the son whom they had given up for lost was living, and likely, under Gertrude's care, to do well. They had not dared to murmur or repine. It seemed to them little short of a miracle that death had spared to them all their children through this fearful season. When they believed one had at last been taken, they had learned the strength and courage to say, "God's will be done." Yet it was happiness inexpressible to know that he was not only living, but in the safe retreat of Mary Harmer's cottage, and under her tender and skilful care.

So used were they now to the thought of those they loved caring for the sick, that they had almost ceased to fear contagion so encountered. It appeared equally busy amongst those who fled from it. They did not even chide Joseph for the reckless curiosity which had led the boys to adventure themselves without cause in the fashion that had led to such notable results.

When Joseph returned to Lady Scrope's, it was to find Gertrude arrayed in the clothes provided for her, and looking, save for her dainty prettiness, quite like a country girl come in with marketable wares. Such things of her own as she needed for her sojourn, together with Lady Scrope's precious box, were put into the barrow beneath the empty basket and sacks. Then with many affectionate farewells the pair started forth, and talking eagerly all the while, took their way through the solitary grass-grown streets, away through Cripplegate, and out towards the pleasanter regions beyond the walls.

Joseph sought to engross his companion in talk, so that she might not see or heed too much the dismal aspect of all around them. He himself had seen a considerable difference in the city between the time he and Benjamin had left it and today. In places it almost seemed as though no living soul now remained; and he observed that foot passengers in the streets went about more recklessly than before, with a set and desperate expression of countenance, as though they had made up their minds to the worst, and cared little whether their fate overtook them today or a week hence.

Gertrude's thoughts, however, were so much with Reuben, that she heeded but little of what she saw around her. She spoke of him incessantly, and begged again and again to hear the story of how he had been found. Her cheek flushed a delicate rose tint each time she heard how he had called for her ceaselessly in his delirium. That showed her, if nothing else could convince her of it, how true and disinterested his love was; that it was for herself he had always wooed her, and not for any hope of the fortune she had at one time looked to receive from her father as her marriage dowry.

When they had passed the last of the houses, and stood in the sunny meadows, with the blue sky above them and the songs of birds in their ears, Gertrude heaved a great sigh of relief, and her eyes filled with tears.

"O beautiful trees and fields!" she cried; "it seems as though nothing of danger and death could overshadow the dwellers in such fair places."

"So Benjamin and I thought," said Joseph gravely; "but, alas, the plague has been busy here, too. See, there is a cluster of houses down there, and but three of them are now inhabited. The pestilence came and smote right and left, and in some houses not one was left alive. Still death seems not so terrible here amid these smiling fields as it does when men are pent together in streets and lanes. And the dead at first could be buried in their own gardens by their friends, if they could not take them to the churchyards, which soon refused to receive them. Many were thus saved from the horror of the plague pit, which they so greatly dreaded. But I know not whether it is a wise kindness so to bury them; for there were hamlets, I am told, where the plague raged fearfully, and where the living could scarce bury the dead."

Gertrude sighed; death and trouble did indeed seem everywhere. But even her sorrow for others could not mar her happiness in the prospect of seeing Reuben once again; and as they neared the place, and Joseph pointed out the twisted chimneys and thatched roof peeping through the sheltering trees and shrubs, the girl could not restrain her eager footsteps, and flew on in advance of her companion, who was retarded by his barrow.

The next minute she was eagerly kissing Benjamin (who, together with Fido, had run out at the sound of her footsteps), and shedding tears of joy at the news that Reuben was no worse, that there were now no symptoms of the plague about him, but that he was perilously weak, and needed above all things that his mind should be set at rest.

At the sound of voices Mary Harmer came softly downstairs from the sick man's side, and divining in a moment who the stranger was, took her into a warm, motherly embrace, and thanked her again and again for coming so promptly.

"Nay, it is I must thank thee for letting me come," answered Gertrude between smiles and tears. "And now, may I not go to him? I would not lose a moment. I am hungry for the sight of his living face. Prithee, let me go!"

"So thou shalt, my child, in all good speed; but just at this moment he sleeps, and thou must refresh thyself after thy long, hot walk, that thou mayest be better able to tend him. I will not keep thee from him, be sure, when the time comes that thou mayest go to him."

Joseph at that moment came up with the barrow, and Gertrude found that it was pleasant and refreshing to let Mary Harmer bathe her face and hands and array her in her own garments. And then she sat down to a pleasant meal of fresh country provisions, which tasted so different from anything she had eaten these many long weeks.

The boys, who as a precautionary measure were keeping away from the house itself until it should be quite certain that their brother was free from infection, took their meal on the grass plot outside, and enjoyed it mightily.

The whole scene was so different from anything upon which Gertrude's eyes had rested for long, that tears would rise unbidden in them, though they were tears of happiness and gratitude. The dog Fido took to her at once, and showed her many intelligent attentions, and was so useful altogether in fetching and carrying that his cleverness and docility were a constant source of amusement and wonder to all, and gave endless delight to the boys, who spent all their spare time in training him.

Then just when the afternoon shadows were beginning to lengthen, and the light to grow golden with the mellow September glow, Gertrude was softly summoned to the pleasant upper chamber, which smelt sweetly of lavender, rose leaves, and wild thyme, where beside the open casement lay Reuben, in a snow-white bed, his face sadly wasted and white, and his eyes closed as if in the lassitude of utter weakness.

Mary gave Gertrude a smile, and motioned her to go up to him, which she did very softly and with a beating heart. He did not appear to note her footfall; but when she stood beside him, and gently spoke his name, his eyes flashed open in a moment, and fixed themselves upon her face, their expression growing each moment more clear and comprehending.

"Gertrude!" he breathed in a voice whose weakness told a tale of its own, and he moved his hand as though he would fain ascertain by the sense of touch whether or not this was a dream.

She saw the movement, and took his hand between her own, kneeling down beside the bed and covering it with kisses and tears.

That seemed to tell him all, without the medium of words. He asked no question, he only lay gazing at her with a deep contentment in his eyes. He probably knew not either where he was, or how any of these strange things came to pass. She was with him; she was his very own. Of that there could be no manner of doubt. And that being so, what did anything else matter? He lay gazing at her perfectly contented, till he fell asleep holding her hand in his.

That was the beginning of a steady if rather a slow recovery. It was only natural indeed that Reuben should be long in regaining strength. He had been through months of fatigue and arduous wearing toil, and the marvel was that when the distemper attacked him in his weakness and depression he had strength enough to throw it off. As Mary Harmer said, it seemed sometimes as though those who went fearlessly amongst the plague stricken became gradually inoculated with the poison, and were thus able to rid themselves of it when it did attack them. Reuben at least had soon thrown off his attack, and the state of weakness into which he had fallen was less the result of the plague than of his long and arduous labours before.

How he ever came to be in the pest house of Clerkenwell he never could altogether explain. He remembered that business had called him out in a northwesterly direction; and he had a dim recollection of feeling a sick longing for a sight of the country once more, and of bending his steps further than he need, whilst he fancied he had entertained some notion of paying a visit to his aunt, and making sure that his brothers had safely reached her abode. That was probably the reason why he had come so far away from home. He had been feeling miserably restless and wretched ever since Gertrude had refused him, and upon that day he had an overpowering sense of illness and weariness upon him, too. But he did not remember feeling any alarm, or any premonition of coming sickness. He had grown so used to escaping when others were stricken down all round, that the sense of uncertainty which haunted all men at the commencement of the outbreak had almost left him now. It could only be supposed that the fever of the pestilence had come upon him, and that he had dropped by the wayside, as so many did, and had been carried into the farm house by some compassionate person, or by one of the bearers whose duty it was to keep the highways clear of such objects of public peril. But he knew nothing of his own condition, and had had no real gleam of consciousness, until he opened his eyes in his aunt's house to find Gertrude bending over him.

There was no shadow between them now. Gertrude's surrender was as complete as Lady Scrope had foreseen. She used now to laugh with Reuben over the sayings of that redoubtable old dame, and wonder what she would think of them could she see them now. The box she had entrusted to Gertrude had been given into Mary Harmer's care for the present, till Reuben should be strong enough to enjoy the excitement of opening it. But upon the first day that saw him down in the little parlour, lying upon the couch that had been made ready to receive him, Joseph eagerly clamoured to have the box brought down and opened; and his wish being seconded by all, Mary Harmer quickly produced it, and it was set upon a little table at the side of the couch.

"Have you the key?" asked Reuben of Gertrude, and she produced it from her neck, round which it had been hanging all this while by a silken cord.

"It felt almost like a love token," she said with a little blush, "for she told me I was not to open it save at the side of my betrothed husband!"

Now, amid breathless silence, she fitted the key into the lock and raised the lid. That disclosed a layer of soft packing, which, when removed, left the contents exposed to view.

"Oh!" cried Joseph and Benjamin in tones of such wonder that Fido must needs rear himself upon his hind legs to get a peep, too; but he was soon satisfied, for he saw nothing very interesting in the yellow contents of the wooden box, which neither smelt nice nor were good for food. But the lovers looked across at each other in speechless amazement.

For the box was filled to the brim with neatly piled heaps of golden guineas—the first guineas ever struck in this country; so called from the fact that they were made of Guinea gold brought from Africa by one of the trading companies, and first coined in the year 1662. And a quick calculation, based upon the counting of one of these upright heaps, showed that the box contained five hundred of these golden coins, which as yet were only just coming into general circulation.

"Oh," cried Gertrude in amaze, "what can she have done it for? And they call Lady Scrope a miser!"

"Misers often have strange fancies; and Lady Scrope has always been one of the strangest and most unaccountable of her sex," said Reuben. "I cannot explain it one whit. It is of a piece with much of her inscrutable life. All we can do is to give her our gratitude for her munificence. She has neither kith nor kin to wrong by her strange liberality to thee, sweet Gertrude; nor can I marvel that she should have come to love thee so well. Sweet heart, this money will purchase the house upon the bridge which thy father tells us he is forced to sell. I had thought that I would buy it of him for our future home. But thou hast the first claim. At least, now the place is safe. What is mine is thine, and what is thine is mine, and we will together make the purchase, and give him a home with us beneath the old roof.

"Will that make you happy, dear heart? Methinks it will please Lady Scrope that her golden hoard should help in such an act of filial love!"

And Gertrude could only weep tears of pure happiness on her lover's shoulder, and marvel how it was that such untold joy had come to her in the midst of the very shadow of death.



CHAPTER XIV. BRIGHTER DAYS.

"The plague is abating! the plague is abating! The bills were lower by two thousand last week! They say the city is like to go mad with joy. I would fain go and see what is happening there. Prithee, good aunt, let me e'en do so much. I shall take no hurt. Methinks, having escaped all peril heretofore, I may be accounted safe now."

This was Joseph's eager petition as he rushed homewards after a stroll in the direction of the town one evening early in October. There had been rumours of an improvement in the health of the city for perhaps ten days now, notwithstanding the fearful mortality during the greater part of September. Therefore were the weekly bills most eagerly looked for, and when it was ascertained that the mortality had diminished by two thousand (when, from the number of sick, it might well have risen by that same amount), it did indeed seem as though the worst were over; and great was the joy which Joseph's news brought to those within the walls of that cottage home.

Yet Mary Harmer was wise and cautious in the answer she gave to the eager boy.

"Wait yet one week longer, Joseph; for we may not presume upon God's goodness and mercy, and adventure ourselves without cause into danger. The city has been fearfully ravaged of late. The very air seems to have been poisoned and tainted, and there are streets and lanes which, they say, it is even now death to enter. Therefore wait yet another week, and then we will consider what is safe to be done. Right glad should I be for news of your father and mother; but we have been patient this long while, and we will be patient still."

"Our good aunt is wise," said Reuben, who looked wonderfully better for his stay in fresh country air, albeit still rather gaunt and pale. "It is like that this good news itself may lead men to be somewhat reckless in their joy and confidence. We will not move till we have another report. Perchance our father may be able to let us know ere long of his welfare and that of the rest at home."

All through the week that followed encouraging and cheering reports of the abatement of the plague were heard by those living on the outskirts of the stricken city; and when the next week's bill showed a further enormous decrease in the death rate, Mary Harmer permitted Joseph to pay a visit home, his return being eagerly waited for in the cottage. He came just as the early twilight was drawing in, and his face was bright and joyous.

"It is like another city," he cried. "I had not thought there could be so many left as I saw in the streets today. And they went about shaking each other by the hand, and smiling, and even laughing aloud in their joy. And if they saw a shut-up house, and none looking forth from the windows, some one would stand and shout aloud till those within looked out, and then he would tell them the good news that the plague was abating; and at that sound many poor creatures would fall a-weeping, and praise the Lord that He had left even a remnant."

"Poor creatures!" said Mary Harmer with commiseration; "it has been a dismal year for thousands upon thousands!"

"Ay, verily. I cannot think that London will ever be full again," said the boy. "There be whole streets with scarce an inhabitant left, and we know that multitudes of those who fled died of the pestilence on the road and in other places. But today there was no memory for the misery of the past, only joy that the scourge was abating. It is not that many do not still fall ill of the distemper, but that they recover now, where once they would have died. And whereas three weeks back they died in a day or two days, now even if so be as they do die, it takes the poison eight or ten days to kill them. The physicians say that that is because the malignity of the distemper is abating, wherefore men scarce fear it now, and come freely abroad, not in despair, as they did when it was so virulent a scourge, but because they fear it so much less than before."

"And our parents and those at home?" asked Reuben eagerly.

"All well, though something weary and worn; but it is wondrous how they have borne up all through. Father says that he will come hither to see us all the first moment he can. His duties are like to have a speedy end; and he is longing for a sight of Reuben's face, and of something better than closed houses and the wan faces of the sick or the mourners."

"Poor brother James!" said Mary softly; "I would that he and his would leave the city behind for a while, and remain under my roof to recover their strength and health. It must have been a sorely trying time. Think you that they could leave the house together? For we would make shift to receive them all, an they could come."

This was a most delightful idea to all the party. The hospitable cottage had plenty of rooms, although many of these were but attics beneath the thatched roof, none too light or commodious. In summer they might have been too warm and stuffy to be agreeable sleeping places, but in the cooler autumn they would be good enough for hardy young folks brought up simply and plainly.

Joseph and Benjamin at once dashed all over the place, making plans for the housing of the whole party. It would be the finest end to a melancholy period, being all together here in this homelike place.

Everything was duly arranged in the hopes of winning the father's consent to the scheme. Mary Harmer hunted up stores of bedding and linen, the latter of her own weaving, and every day they waited impatiently for the appearing of James Harmer, who, however, was unaccountably long in making his appearance.

He came at last, but it was with a sorrowful face and a bowed look which told at once a story of trouble, and made the whole party stand silent, after the first eager chorus of welcome, certain that he was the bearer of bad news.

"My poor boy Dan!" he said in a choked voice, and sat himself heavily down upon the chair beside the hearth.

"Dan!" cried Reuben, and the word was echoed by all the brothers in tones of varying surprise and dismay. "You do not mean that he is dead!"

"Taken to the plague pit a week ago. Just when all the world is rejoicing in the thought that the distemper is abating. Dr. Hooker spoke truly when he said that the confidence of the people was like to be a greater peril than the disease itself. For those who are sick now come openly abroad into the streets, no longer afraid for themselves or others, and thus it has come about that no man knows whether he is safe, and my poor boy has been taken."

Sad indeed were the faces of all, and the two little boys were dissolved in tears, as their father told how poor Dan had fallen sick, and had succumbed on the fourth day to the poison.

"Dr. Hooker said that he was worn out with his unceasing labours, else he would not have died," said the sorrowful father. "He had treated many worse cases even when things were worse, and brought them round. But Dan was worn out with all he had been doing for the past months. He fell an easy prey; and he did not suffer much, thank God. He lay mostly in a torpor, much as Reuben did, as I hear, but slowly sank away. His poor mother! She had begun to think that she was to have all her children about her yet. But in truth we must not repine, having so many left to us, when they say there is scarce a family in all the town that has not lost its two, three, or four at best!"

It almost seemed a more sorrowful thing to lose Dan just when things were beginning to look brighter, than it would have done when the distemper was at its height. But as the good man said, gratitude for so many spared ought to outweigh any repining for those taken. After the first tears were shed, he gently checked in those about him the inclination to mourn, saying that God knew best, and had dealt very lovingly and bountifully with them; and that they must trust His goodness and mercy all through, and believe that He had judged mercifully and tenderly in taking their brother from them.

The sight of Reuben alive and well did much to assuage the father's grief; for there had been a time when he had not thought to look upon the face of his firstborn in this life. He was also greatly pleased to learn that he had another daughter in the person of gentle Gertrude, and he gladly undertook the negotiation of the purchase of his neighbour's house, so that he should not know who the purchaser was until the right moment came.

Mary Harmer's proposal to take in the whole family for a spell of fresh air and rest was gratefully accepted by the tired father.

"I trow it would be the greatest boon for all of us, and may likely save us from some peril," he said, "for, as I say, men seem to be gone mad with joy that the malignity of the plague is so greatly abating, and that the houses are no longer closed. For my own part, I would they were closed yet a little longer; but the impatience of the people would not now permit it, and they having shown themselves in the main docile and obedient these many months, must be considered now that the worst of the peril is past. When the plague was at its worst last month, there was of necessity some relaxation of stringent measures, because there were times when neither watchmen nor nurses could be found, and common humanity forbade us to close houses when the inhabitants could not get tendance in the prescribed way. Moreover, a sort of desperation was bred in men's minds, and the fear was the less because that every man thought his own turn would assuredly come ere long. So that when of a sudden the bills began to decrease, it seemed unreasonable to be more strict than we had been just before. Moreover, it was found harder to restrain the people in their joy than in their sorrow; and so we must hope for the best, and trust that the lessened malignity of the disease will keep down the mortality. For that there will continue to be many sick for weeks to come we cannot doubt. As for myself, knowing and fearing all I do, nothing would more please and comfort me than to bring my wife and girls hither to this safe spot. I had not dared to think you could take such a party, Mary; but since you have already made provision for us, why, the sooner we all get forth from the city, the better will it please me."

Great was the joy in the cottage occasioned by this answer. Sorrow for the loss of poor Dan was almost forgotten in joyful preparation. Dan had not been much at home for many years, only coming and going as his ship chanced to put into port in the river or not. Therefore his loss was not felt as that of Reuben would have been. It seemed a sad and grievous thing, after having escaped so many perils, to come to his death at last; but so many families had suffered such infinitely greater loss, that repining and mourning seemed almost wrong. And the thought of seeing all the home faces once more was altogether too delightful to admit of much admixture of grief.

"I wonder if Dorcas will come," said Gertrude, as they hung about the door awaiting the arrival which was expected every minute.

Three days had now passed since James Harmer's first visit, and he was to bring his wife and daughters in the afternoon, and stay the night himself, returning on the morrow to transact some necessary business, but spending much of his time with his family in this pleasant spot.

Gertrude had offered to leave, if there were not room for her; but in truth she scarce knew where to go, since of her father she had heard very little of late, and knew not how long his house would be his own.

No one, however, would hear of such a thing as that she should leave them. She was already like a sister to the boys, and had in old days been as one to the girls. Moreover, as Mary Harmer sometimes said, why should not she and Reuben be quietly married out here before they returned to the city, and then they could go back to their own house when all the negotiations had been completed and her father's mind relieved of its load of care?

"Why should Dorcas not come?" asked Mary quickly. "My brother spoke of bringing all."

"I was wondering if Lady Scrope would be willing to spare her," was the reply. "She is fond of Dorcas in her way, and is used to her. She might not be willing she should go, and she is very determined when her mind is made up."

"Yet I think she has a kind heart in spite of all her odd ways," said Mary Harmer; "I scarce think she would keep the girl pining there alone. But we shall see. My wonder would rather be if Janet and Rebecca could get free from the other house where the children are kept."

"Father said that that house was to be emptied soon. The Lord Mayor is making many wise regulations for the support of those left destitute by the plague. Large sums of money kept flowing in all the while the scourge lasted. The king sent large contributions, and other wealthy men followed his example. There be many widows left alone and desolate, and these are to have a sum of money and certain orphan children to care for. All that will be settled speedily; for who knows when my Lady Scrope's house may not be wanted by the tenant who ran away in such hot haste months ago? It will need purifying, too, and directions will shortly be issued, I take it, for the right purification of infected houses.

"My sisters will soon get their burdens off their hands. It is time they had a change; they were looking worn and tired even before I left the city."

"They are coming! they are coming! They are just here!" shouted Joseph and Benjamin in one breath, coming rushing down from a vantage post up to which they had climbed in one of the great elm trees. "They must all be there—every one of them! It is like a caravan along the road; but I know it is they, for we saw father leading a horse, and mother was riding it—with such a lot of bags and bundles!"

The next minute the caravan hove in sight through the windings of the lane, and three minutes later there was such a confusion of welcomes going on that nothing intelligible could be said on either side; nor was it until the whole party was assembled round the table in Mary Harmer's pleasant kitchen, ready to do justice to the good cheer provided, that any kind of conversation could be attempted.

The sisters felt like prisoners released. They laughed and cried as they danced about the garden in the twilight, stooping down to lay their faces against the cool, wet grass, and drinking in the scented air as though it were something to be tasted by palate and tongue.

"It is so beautiful! it is so wonderful!" they kept exclaiming one to the other, and the quaint, rambling cottage, with its bare floor, and simple, homely comforts, seemed every whit as charming.

Dorcas was there, as well as Janet and Rebecca; and the three sisters, together with Gertrude, were to share a pair of attics with a door of communication between them.

They were delighted with everything. They kept laughing and kissing each other for sheer joy of heart; and although a sigh, and a murmur of "Poor Dan! if only he could be here!" would break at intervals from one or another, yet in the intense joy of this meeting, and in the sense of escape from the city in which they had been so long imprisoned, all but thankfulness and delight must needs be forgotten, and it was a ring of wonderfully happy faces that shone on Mary Harmer at the supper board that night.

"This is indeed a kindly welcome, sister," said Rachel, as she sat at her husband's right hand, looking round upon the dear faces she had scarce dared hope to see thus reunited for so many weary weeks; "I could have desired nothing better for all of us. Thou canst scarcely know how it does feel to be free once more, to be able to go where one will, without vinegar cloths to one's face, and to feel that the air is a thing to breathe with healing and delight, instead of to be feared lest there be death in its kiss! Ah me! I think God does not let us know how terrible a thing is till His chastening hand is removed. We go on from day to day, and He gives us strength for each day as it comes; but had we known at the beginning what lay before us, methinks our souls would have well nigh fainted within us. And yet here we are—all but one—safe and sound at the other side!"

"I truly never thought to see such fearful sights, and to come through such a terrible time of trial," said Dinah very gravely. She was one of the party included in Mary Harmer's hospitable invitation, and looked indeed more in need of the rest and change than any of the others. Her brother had had some ado to get her to quit her duties as nurse to the sick even yet, but it was not difficult now to get tendance for them, and she felt so greatly the need of rest that she had been persuaded at last.

"Many and many are the times when I have been left the only living being in a house—once, so far as I could tell, the only living thing in a whole street! None may know, save those who have been through it, the awful loneliness of being so shut in, with nothing near but dead bodies. And yet the Lord has brought me through, and only one of our number has been taken."

The mother's eyes filled with tears, but her heart was too thankful for those spared her to let her grief be loud. One after another those round the table spoke of the things they had seen and heard; but presently the talk drifted to brighter themes. Gertrude asked eagerly of her father, and where he was and what he was doing; and Mary Harmer asked if he would not come and join them, if her house could be made to hold another inmate.

"He is well in health, but looks aged and harassed," was the answer of the father. "He has had sad losses. Half-finished houses have been thrown back on his hands through the death of those who had commenced them; he has been robbed of his stores of costly merchandise; and poor Frederick's debts have mounted up to a great sum. Now that people are flocking back into the city, and business is reviving once more, he will have to meet his creditors, and can only do this by the sale of his house. I saw him yesterday, and told him I had heard of a purchaser already; whereat he was right glad, fearing that he might be long in selling, since men might fear to come back to the city, and whilst there were so many hundreds of houses left empty. If he can once get rid of his load of debt, he can strive to begin business again in a modest way. But, to be sure, it will be long before any houses will need to be built; the puzzle will be how to fill those that are left empty. I fear me he will find things hard for a while. But if he has a home with you, my children, and if we all give what help we can, I doubt not that little by little he may recover a part of what he has lost. He will be wise not to try so many different callings. If he had not had so many ventures afloat in these troubled times, he would not now have lost his all."

"That was poor mother's wish," said Gertrude softly; "she wanted to be rich quickly for Frederick's sake. I used to hear father tell her that the risk was too great; but she did not seem able to understand aright. I do not think it was father's own wish."

"That is what I always said," answered James Harmer heartily; "and I trow things will be greatly better now, if once trade makes a start again. As for us, we have lost a summer's trade, but, beyond that, all has been well with us. We have had the fewer outgoings, and so soon as the gentry and the Court come back again we shall be as busy as ever. The plague has done us little harm, for we had no great ventures afloat to miscarry, and had money laid by against any time of necessity."

That evening, before the party retired to rest, the father gathered his children and all the household about him, and offered a fervent thanksgiving for their preservation during this time of peril. After that they all separated to their own rooms, and the girls sat long together ere they sought their couches, talking, as girls will talk, of all that had happened to them, and of the coming marriage of Gertrude and their brother, over which they heartily rejoiced.

"I must e'en let Lady Scrope know when it is to be," said Dorcas, "if I can make shift to do so. I trow she would like to be there. She has taken a wondrous liking to thee, Gertrude, and she says she has a fine opinion of Reuben, too. I know not quite what she has heard of him, but so it is."

"I was fearful lest she should not be willing to spare thee, Dorcas," said Gertrude with a caress, "but here thou art with the rest."

"Yes, she was wondrous good to us," said Janet eagerly, "else I scarce know how we could have come, for there were six children left in the house, and no homes yet found for them to go to. They were the sickly ones whom we feared to part with, and father said they would strive to get places for them in the country. When we heard what our kind aunt wished, we saw not how we could leave the little ones; but Lady Scrope, she up and chid us well for silly, puling fools, who thought the world could not wag without our help. And then she sent out and got two nice, comfortable, honest widow women to live in the house with the children. And one of them had a neat-fingered daughter, who had been in good service till the plague sent her family into the country and she was packed off home. Her she took for her maid, and sent Dorcas off with us. Sure, never was a sharper tongue and a kinder heart in one body together! I had never thought to like Lady Scrope one-tenth part as well as I do."

Those were happy days that followed. It was pure delight to the sisters to wander about the green fields and lanes, watching the play of light and shadow there, hearing the songs of the birds, and seeing the gorgeous pageantry of autumn clothing the trees with all manner of wondrous tints and hues. Reuben knew the neighbourhood by that time, and was their companion in their rambles; and happy were the hours thus spent, only less happy than the meetings round the glowing hearth or hospitable table later on, when the news of the day would be told and retold.

James Harmer went frequently into the city to see after certain things, and to ascertain that his own and his neighbour's houses were safe. What he saw and heard there day by day made him increasingly glad that big family had found so safe a retreat; for there was still some considerable peril to the dwellers in the city, owing, more than anything, to the utter carelessness of the people now that the immediate scare was removed.

The same men who had shrunk away from all contact with even sound persons six weeks ago, would now actually visit and hold converse with those who had the disease upon them. Persons afflicted with tumours that were still active and therefore infectious would walk openly about the streets, none seeming to object to their presence even in crowded thoroughfares. It seemed as though joy at the abatement of the pestilence had wrought a sort of madness in the brains and hearts of the people. So long as the death rate decreased, and the cases were no longer so fatal in character, there seemed no way of making the citizens observe proper precautions, and, as many averred, the malady increased and spread, although not in nearly so fatal a form, as it never need have done but for the recklessness of the multitudes.

One very sorrowful case was brought home to the Harmers, because it happened to some worthy neighbours of their own who had lived opposite to them for many a year.

When first the alarm was given that the plague had entered within the city walls, this man had hastily decided to quit London with his wife and family and seek an asylum in the country, and had earnestly urged the Harmers to do the same. For many months nothing had been heard of them; but with the first abatement of the malady the father had appeared, and had asked advice from Harmer as to how soon he might bring home his family, who were all sound and well. His friend advised him to wait another month at least; but he laughed such counsel to scorn, and just before the Harmers themselves started for Islington, their friends had settled themselves in their old house opposite.

Ten days later Harmer heard with great dismay that three of the children had taken the plague and had died. By the end of the week there was not one of the family alive save the unhappy man himself, and he went about like one distraught, so that his reason or his life seemed like to pay the forfeit.

It was no wonder, in the hearing of such stories as these—of which there were many—that Mary Harmer rejoiced to have her brother's household safely housed and out of danger, and that she earnestly begged them to remain with her at least until the merry Christmastide should be overpast.



CHAPTER XV. A CHRISTMAS WEDDING.

"I never thought to see daughter of mine wedded from the house of a neighbour," said the Master Builder (whose title yet clung to him, albeit there was something of mockery in the sound), heaving a sigh as he looked into the happy face of his child. "But a homeless man must needs do the best he can; and our good friends have won the right to play the part of kinsfolk towards us both."

"Indeed—indeed they have, dear father," answered Gertrude; "thou canst not think how happy I have been here in this sweet cottage, nor what a home it has been to us all these weeks. I shall be almost loth to leave it on the morrow—at least I should be, were it not for the great happiness coming into my life. But the home to which Reuben will take me must be even dearer than this. And thou wilt come with us, sweet father, and make us happy by thy presence!"

"Ay, child, if thou wilt have the homeless old man who has managed his affairs so ill as to have to start life afresh when he should be thinking of resigning his work into other hands, and passing his old age in peace and—"

But Gertrude stopped him with a kiss.

"Thou art not old, father; and I trow before thou art, a peaceful and prosperous old age will be in store for thee. Whilst Reuben and I live, nothing shall lack to thee that filial love can bestow. O dearest father! methinks there are bright and happy days before us yet."

"I trust so—I trust so, my child, for thee especially. For thou dost deserve them. Thou hast been a good daughter, and wilt make a good wife."

"My heart misgives me sometimes that I was not always so tender a daughter to poor mother as I fain would have been. May God pardon me in whatever way I may have erred!"

"The error was more hers than thine," answered the father with a sigh; "and mine too, inasmuch as I checked her not early, as I perchance might have done. She would have wed thee with some needy and perhaps evil-living gallant, who would have taken thee for thy fortune. Thou hast done far better to choose such an honest, godly youth as Reuben. He will make thee an excellent husband."

"Ah, will he not!" said Gertrude, her face alight with tender love. "Poor mother did not understand what she was doing in striving to banish him from the house. But methinks, in the land of spirits all these things are seen aright; and that if it is permitted to the dead to know aught of what passes in the land they have left behind, she will be rejoicing with us today."

"Heaven send it may be so! My poor wife," and the father heaved a great sigh of mixed feelings, "it is well she has not lived to see this end to her schemings to be rich. At least she is spared the knowledge of her husband's ruin."

"Nay, call it not that, dear father. Master Harmer says that things are beginning to look up again after the terrible visitation, and surely your affairs will look up likewise."

"In a measure, yes," he answered. "I have at least sold the old house for a better sum than I expected; and the purchaser has bought all the rich furniture, save such things as I would not sell for the sake of your poor mother. These I shall move shortly to your home, my child. My good friend says that it is hard by his house, so the journey will not be a difficult one."

"No, father," answered Gertrude, with glowing cheeks. "And who has bought the old Bridge house?"

"Nay, I have not even had the heart to ask. My good friend has carried out the business for me from first to last. He has been the truest friend man ever had. I have had naught to do but to sign the papers and receive the purchase money. No doubt the pang of seeing others living there will pass in time, but just now I care not even to think of it."

Gertrude's face was still glowing a rosy red, but she turned the conversation at once.

"And thou art getting together a little business again, father, on the Southwark side of the river?"

"Yes; that again is by the advice of our good neighbour. He showed me that I could no longer afford the large buildings in the Chepe. He heard of these small premises going a-begging for a purchaser, all connected with them having perished in the plague. The small sum left to me of the purchase money of the house, after my debts were paid, sufficed to buy them; and now I have two steady workmen in my employ, instead of the scores I once had. But God be thanked, we have never been idle all these weeks. And it may be that by-and-by, as confidence returns, I may get something of a business together again."

"Thou hast been purifying and disinfecting houses, they say, for the wealthy ones of the city?"

"Ay; that was our good friend's thought. The Lord Mayor and authorities issued general directions for this work; and Harmer suggested to me that I should print handbills offering to undertake the purging of any house entrusted to me for a fixed fee. This I did, and have had my hands full ever since. All the fine folks are crowding back now that the cold weather has come, but no one cares to venture within his house till it has been purified by the burning of aromatic drugs and spices. The rich care not what they spend, so that they are sure they are free from danger. As for the poor, they do but burn tar or pitch or sulphur; and methinks these do just as well, save that the odour which hangs about is not so grateful to the senses. Yes, it was a happy thought of good James Harmer, and has put money in my pocket enough to enable me to undertake small building matters without borrowing. But I trow it will be long ere any building is wanted in and about the city. There are too many empty houses left there for that."

"Shall I see a wondrous change there when I go back, father?"

"A change, but a wondrous small one compared to what one would suppose," answered the father. "All men are amazed to see how quickly the streets have filled, and how little of change there is to note in the outward aspect of things. I had thought that half the houses would be left empty; but I think there be not more than one-eighth without inhabitants, and these are filling up apace. To be sure, in the once crowded lanes and alleys there are far fewer people than before; but it is wonderful to see how small the change is; and life goes on just as of old. It is as if the calamity was already half forgot!"

"Nay but, father, I trust it is not forgotten, and that men's consciences are stirred, and that they have taken to heart the warning of God's just anger."

The Master Builder slightly shook his head.

"I fear not, child, I fear not. I hear the same oaths and blasphemies, the same ribald jests and ungodly talk, as of old. They say the Court, which has lately returned to Whitehall, is as gay and wanton as ever. In face of the terror of death, men did resolve to amend their ways; but I fear me, that terror being past, they do but make a mock of it, and return, like the sow in Scripture, to their wallowing in the mire."

Gertrude looked gravely sorrowful for a moment; but, on the eve of her wedding day, she could not be sorrowful long. She and her father were enjoying a talk together before she sought her couch. He had been unable to come earlier to see her, business matters having detained him in town. For the past two months he had been at work with his task of purifying and setting in order the houses of the better-class people, for their return thither after the plague; and though he had sent many affectionate messages to his daughter, this was the first time for several weeks that they had met. It could not but rankle in the father's heart that, for the time being, he had no home to offer to his child. He had been staying with his good friend James Harmer all this while, who had left his wife and family at Islington to regain their full health and strength, while he spent his time between the Bridge house and the cottage. His business required his presence at home during a part of the week, since his shopmen and apprentices had already returned; but he would not permit his family to do so just yet, deeming it better for them to remain with his sister, and to enjoy with her a period of rest and refreshment which could never be theirs in the busy life of home.

A happy Christmas had thus been spent; and now it was the eve of Gertrude's wedding day, which was the one following Christmas Day. The Master Builder had spent the festival with his friends, and on the morrow would accompany his daughter and her husband to their home in the city, the Harmer family returning to their house at the same time, and bringing Mary with them on a visit after all her hospitality to them.

By nine o'clock the next morning, the quiet little wedding party was approaching the church, when to their surprise they beheld a fine coach, drawn by four horses, drawing up at the gate of the churchyard; and before Dorcas had more than time to exclaim, "Why, it is my Lady Scrope herself!" they saw that diminutive but remarkable old dame alighting from it, and walking nimbly up the path towards the porch.

"I never dreamed she would really come, albeit I did let her know the day according to promise—or rather to her command," said her handmaiden, hurrying after her as if by instinct. The little figure in its sables and strangely-fashioned velvet bonnet turned at the sound of the quick footfall; and there stood the old lady scanning the whole party with her bead-like eyes, and giving little nods to this one and the other in response to their respectful reverences.

"A pretty pair! a pretty pair!" was her comment upon the bridal couple, who walked together, and who certainly looked very handsome and happy. Reuben had regained strength and colour, though his face was thinner and finer in outline than it had been before his illness; and Gertrude had always been something of a beauty, and had greatly improved in looks during these weeks of happiness.

"Well, well, well! I am always sorry for folks who are tying burdens round their own necks; but some can do it with a better grace than others.

"Now, child," and she turned to Gertrude, and rapped her cane upon the ground, "don't make a fool of yourself or your husband! Don't begin by thinking him the best man in the world; else he may turn out all too soon to be the worst. Don't let him trample upon you. Hold your own with him.

"Pooh! I might as well spare my words. Poor fools, they are all alike at starting. They only learn to sing to another tune when experience has taken them in hand for a while. Well, well, well! 'tis a pretty sight after all. I'll say no more. Give me your arm, good Master Harmer, and let me have a good view of the tying of this knot, so that there shall be no slipping out of it later."

James Harmer, with a bow which he made as courtly as he knew how, offered his arm to the curious, little, old lady; and strange it was to see her small, richly-clad, upright figure amongst the simple group before the altar that day. Many there were who wondered what had brought her, and amongst the party themselves none could answer the question. It appeared to be one of those freaks for which, in old days, Lady Scrope had made herself famous throughout London, and the habit of which had not been overcome, although the opportunities were growing smaller with advancing years.

She insisted on accompanying the party back to Mary Harmer's cottage. A simple collation was awaiting them before they travelled back to the city. Lady Scrope looked with the greatest interest and curiosity at the cottage; received the inquiring advances of Fido very graciously; made the boys tell her all the history of his attaching himself to them; and finally made herself the most entertaining and agreeable guest at the board, although the sharpness of her speech and the acid favour of some of her remarks bred a little uneasiness in some of her auditors.

Nevertheless the time passed pleasantly enough; and when the hands of the clock pointed to the hour of eleven, the lady rose to her feet and remarked incisively:

"My coach will be here immediately, if the varlets play me not false. The bride, bridegroom, and the bride's father shall drive with me. I mean to see the maiden's house before I return to mine own."

A glowing colour was in Gertrude's face. Now she began to have a clearer idea why Lady Scrope was there. Reuben had been to her once, and had asked her approval of their plan to expend the bulk of the dowry she had, with such eccentric and unaccountable generosity, bestowed upon the bride, upon the purchase of the house which had been for many generations in the family of her father, and which she loved well from old associations.

Reuben was going to set up in business for himself now. He had long been contemplating this step, since his father's trade was increasing steadily. They would now be partners, Reuben taking one branch of the industry, and leaving his father the other. With the changes in fashions, changes in the manufacture of Court luxuries became necessary. Reuben would advance with the times, his father would remain where he was before. It was a plan which had been carefully considered by both father and son for long, and would have been earlier carried out had it not been for the disastrous stoppage of all trade during the visitation of the plague.

Now, however, London seemed as gay as ever. Orders were pouring in. It was wonderful how little the gaps in the ranks seemed to be heeded. It was scarcely, even amongst the upper classes, that persons troubled to wear the deep mourning for departed friends which, under ordinary circumstances, they would have done. The great wish of all appeared to be to forget the awful visitation as fast as possible, and to drown the memory of it in feasting and revelry. And this spirit, however little to the liking of a godly man like James Harmer, was nevertheless good for his trade.

Lady Scrope being in the secret of the surprise in store for the Master Builder, was anxious to amuse herself by being witness to his enlightenment; and it certainly seemed as though she had full right thus to amuse herself, if it were her desire. Reuben had some savings of his own; but the purchase of the house, had it been made by him alone, would have seriously crippled his ability to carry out his further plans of business. Thus it was really Lady Scrope's golden guineas which had paved the way for the young people, and no one could grudge her the enjoyment of seeing them arrive at their new home.

The Master Builder had had some dealings of late with her ladyship; for on hearing what he was employed to do for so many of her friends, she summoned him to fumigate both of her houses when she had got rid of all her temporary inmates; and she followed him about, watching what he did, and amusing herself with making him relate all the gossip he had picked up relative to her acquaintances into whose houses he had been admitted: how many amongst them had had the plague, how many had died, and all the other details that her insatiable curiosity could glean from him.

And now the bridal couple, together with the bride's father, were being driven in state through the widest thoroughfares of the city in the hired chariot of Lady Scrope, she chatting all the while, and pointing out this thing and that as they went, openly lamenting that so little remained to remind them of the plague, and prophesying that London had not done with calamity yet.

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