Read CHAPTER VIII of Andrew Golding A Tale of the Great Plague, free online book, by Anne E. Keeling, on ReadCentral.com.

HOW A STRANGE MESSENGER BROUGHT US NEWS OF ANDREW.

And now we had a time of unceasing disquiet. It was soon noised abroad that the heir to the Grange was missing, and his house and lands left masterless; and there presently appeared first one and then another of the Goldings, far-off kinsmen of Andrew; these persons came to the house to examine it, and talked much with the Standfasts; also they tried to find out what my sister and I knew of Andrew’s doings; some of them went to York to talk with Aunt Golding’s lawyer; and it was not hard to see that they would have been glad to get certain news of Andrew’s death. This made their coming hateful to us; but the house not being our own, we could not shut them out. We did what we could to get news of Andrew; but there was small comfort in the scanty intelligence we could glean, since it all pointed to his having indeed gone up to London, and having preached woe and judgment on his way thither.

And had it not been that we sometimes got comfortable letters from Mr. Truelocke, telling of his quiet untroubled life in the Dale country, I had now been unhappy enough; for we were ever hearing tales of the evil handling of all kinds of Dissenters; even young maidens and little children being pelted, whipped, and chained for the crime of being of Quaker parentage and belief, while hundreds of Nonconformists of that sort and other sorts were thrown into prison and left there. I suppose it was the mad doings of the Fifth Monarchy men, as folks called them, which stirred up such a persecuting spirit; so at least said the people of our village, who now began to come about us again, with some show of former kindness; but they proved very Job’s comforters to us, by reason of the frightful stories they loved to retail.

There was one good soul whom I loved well to see, who yet gave me many a heart-quake; it was a Mrs. Ashford, wife to a small farmer near us; a lad of hers had sailed with my Harry, and thus she would often come to talk over the hopes and fears we had in common, and to exchange with me whatever scraps of sea-news we could pick up. So one day, as we sat talking,

‘It may be,’ says she, ’we shall see things as terrible here in England, as any that can befall our darlings at sea;’ and I asking what she meant, she told me she had learnt from certain poor seamen that the Plague was assuredly on its way to us, having been creeping nearer and nearer for a year and a half.

‘A Dutch ship from Argier in Africa,’ says she, ’brought it first to Amsterdam, where it grows more and more; and ’tis certain, in another Dutch ship, a great one, all hands died of the Plague, the ship driving ashore and being found full of dead corpses, to the great horror and destruction of the people there; which makes our people tremble, because of our nearness to Holland and our traffic with it.’

‘I heard something of this,’ I said, ’last summer, but it seemed an idle tale only, that died away of itself.’

‘It is no idle tale,’ answered she; ’see you not, sweet lady, the infection itself died away somewhat in the cold winter; but now that spring comes on so fast, the sickness and people’s fears of it revive together. You will see.’

Well, this news was frightful to me for Harry’s sake. I began to tremble lest perchance the Good Hope should be visited like that Dutch ship; but I did not breathe such a fear to Mrs. Ashford. And as the spring drew on, and war with the Dutch was in every mouth, we had a new terror; for now if our sailors came safe home, they could scarce escape being impressed for the king’s service; so we knew not what to wish for.

The spring being more than ordinarily hot, doubled the apprehensions of the Plague; and some time in April, as I think, news came down that it had broken out indeed in London. ’Twas said it came in a bale of silk, brought from some infected city, and the fear of it increased mightily; and we, remembering Andrew’s strange vision, were not less in terror than our neighbours.

About that time I was busy one morning in the front garden, when a gentleman in black came in at the gate, and was making up to the hall door, when, espying me, he stopped, beckoning with his hand, and seeming to want speech with me. He was muffled in a cloak, and his hat pulled over his brows, so I could not tell who he was; yet I went to meet him, and when I was near enough,

I think, madam, says he, in an odd husky voice, you have a kinsman who took his way up to town some weeks ago? I bring news of him; on which I begged he would come in and tell it to my sister also; but he said,

’There is much sickness in town; I am newly come from it; it were more prudent for me to speak with you here;’ on which I ran and fetched Althea out; and the man said, ’I do not pretend, madam, that my news is good news. Your kinsman demeaned himself strangely on his coming up, denouncing wrath and woe against the poor citizens, speaking much evil of both Court and City; I am told his civillest name for one was Sodom, and for the other Gomorrah.’

Here Althea said scornfully, if all tales were true, those names were fit enough; and the stranger replied, that might be, but civil speech was best.

‘People took your kinsman’s preachings very unkindly,’ he continued; ’the more so when the Plague he prophesied of began to show itself; then he was called a sorcerer; and to make a long story short, he was taken up for a pestilent mad Quaker, and clapt into gaol. I looked on him there; and in gaol he lies still, and may lie for me.’

With that he plucked his cloak away from his face, and, lifting his hat, made us a deep, mocking bow, and we saw it was Ralph Lacy; but such a ghastly change I never saw on any man. His face was livid, his eyes, deep sunk in his head, glared like coals of fire; and when he began to laugh, his look was altogether devilish.

‘You did not know me, pretty one,’ he said to Althea, ’did you? When I had seen Golding laid in gaol, I swore none but I should bring you the joyful news; and I can tell you he is worse lodged than even his great prophet, Fox himself, at whose lodging in Lancaster Castle I looked this year with great pleasure very smoky, and wet, and foul it is.’

‘Wretch!’ said Althea; ’do you exult over the sufferings of harmless, peaceable men?’

‘Harmless and peaceable, quotha?’ said he; ’it was one of these peaceable creatures flung me into the dust like a worm; but the worm turns, you know. I took much pains to requite that kindness, and now I cry quits with Master Andrew.’

‘Your wickedness shall return on your own head! I pray God it may!’ cries Althea, trembling with indignation.

‘Past praying for, madam,’ said the reckless wretch, ’for I have the Plague upon me. I stayed too long up in town, out of love to your friend and mine. I shall be a dead corpse to-morrow; and why should not you have the sickness as well as I?’

With that he came towards her, as if to embrace her, when we both shrieked aloud, and turned to fly; and Matthew Standfast, coming suddenly between us with a spade uplifted in his hand, bade the miserable man keep his distance, and asked what he wanted. On which Lacy said wildly,

’A grave, man I want nothing but a grave, and any ditch will furnish me that,’ with which he went away.

Matthew, good man, was troubled when we told him Lacy’s words.

‘If the wretched fellow have the sickness indeed,’ he said, ’he might die in a ditch for all his own people care;’ and that same night he went to Lacy Manor, inquiring after its master.

It proved that, on leaving the Grange, the man went straight home, and up-stairs to bed, saying he was weary, and must not be disturbed for an hour or two; and there he now lay dead. None of the servants had guessed what ailed him, and they were taken with such a fear they would not stay to see him buried, but fled, and laid that charge on poor, good Mr. Stokes, who discharged it with true Christian courage; after which the Manor was shut up for many a day, till the next heir’s covetousness got the better of his fears. This matter caused great terror; but the Plague spread no further in our parish, and so the people forgot it somewhat after a time.

But Althea could not forget Lacys words about Andrew, nor could I persuade her they were false tales spoken in pure despite; she brooded over them, remembering all the tales we had heard of good mens sufferings in poisonous infected dungeons; and at last she said to me,

’I wish Lacy had but said in what prison he saw our Andrew; however, it was in London, Lucy? sure he said London?’

‘Ay,’ said I, ’that’s what he said, if you can pin any faith on the raving talk of a plague-stricken man.’

‘He spoke truth,’ said she; ’I am too sure of it. Now there will not be so many gaols in London town, Lucy, but I can find out where Andrew lies; and if I cannot have him out, I can supply his wants at least.’

‘Althea, Althea, you do not dream of going up?’ I cried; ’it were sinful madness! By all accounts the sickness increases there from day to day; the poor people die like flies.’

‘I care not,’ says she; and I found her immoveably set on taking this journey speedily. She was getting together all the money she could, and her jewels too, intending to turn them into money if needful; and she was packing some clothes in very small compass, so as to carry them herself as she journeyed.

‘It is not likely,’ she said, ’that I shall find companions on such a journey. I must learn to be my own servant.’

But I had soon resolved that one companion she should have, and that should be myself; so, after a few more vain efforts to shake her resolution, I acquainted her with mine; and with incredible trouble I got her to agree to it, for I said at last that the roads were as free to me as to her; if she so disliked my company as she said, she might take the right side of the way and I would take the left. ’But where thou goest,’ said I, ‘there will I go, Althea.’

‘Take heed,’ she replied instantly, ’that it be not “Where thou diest I will die, and there will I be buried."’

‘So let it be,’ I said, ’if it is Heaven’s will; but you go not up alone;’ upon which she yielded, saying she had not thought I had so much sturdiness.

I cannot deny I thought it a mad expedition, though I dreamed not of the straits into which we have since been driven. But I had prayed again and again for guidance, and always it grew clearer to me that I must cleave to my sister. So I made haste to get ready for our wild journey; and after Althea’s example, I sewed certain moneys and jewels into the clothes I wore, and put a competent sum in my purse. Then came the telling the Standfasts of our intent. They opposed it at first with all their might, and no wonder; then, their anxiety about Andrew making them yield a little, Matthew took his stand on this, that we must have some protector.

‘A man-servant you have at least, or you do not stir,’ quoth he.

‘But you cannot be spared from this place,’ we urged; ’and who else is there faithful and bold enough for such a service?’

‘Leave me alone for that,’ said he.

And the evening before our departure he brought to us a strange attendant indeed, but one who proved most trusty. It was a poor fellow of the village, who had once been in service at Lacy Manor; but the young Squire hated him, and got him turned away in disgrace, after which no man would employ him, and he fell into great wretchedness. But Andrew came across him, and not only relieved his distress, for he was almost dead for hunger, but put him in a way of living on his own land. So, partly for love of Andrew, and partly from true conviction, poor Will Simpson, so he was called, turned to the Quaker way of thinking. I do not know if he was acknowledged as a proved Friend, he had some odd notions of his own. But he showed himself a peaceable, industrious fellow, and he loved Andrew as a dog might love a kind master that had saved it from drowning. Indeed there was something very dog-like about honest Will. Without having any piercing wit, he had a strange sagacity at the service of those he loved; and his dull heavy face sometimes showed a great warmth of affection, making it seem almost noble. When Matthew told him wherefore he was wanted, he was all on fire to go. He left his hut, and work, and woodman’s garb, Matthew having got him a plain serving-man’s suit, in which he looked still a little uncouth; and thus he came eagerly to us and begged to be taken with us. Then with no escort but this poor fellow, who, however, knew the road well, and was strong and sturdy, we set forth on our way up to London, bidding adieu to none in West Fazeby, as the Standfasts had advised. I believe it was supposed in the village that we were gone to Mr. Truelocke.