Read CHAPTER II.  LONDON’S YOUNG CITIZENS. of The Sign Of The Red Cross, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

The door of the room where mother and daughter sat was flung wide open with scant ceremony, and to the accompaniment of a boisterous laugh.  Into the room swaggered a tall, fine-looking young man of some three-and-twenty summers, dressed in all the extravagance of a lavish and extravagant age.  Upon his head he wore an immense peruke of ringlets, such as had been introduced at Court the previous year, and which was almost universal now with the nobles and gentry, but by no means so amongst the citizens.  The periwig was surmounted by a high-crowned hat adorned with feathers and ribbons, and ribbons floated from his person in such abundance that to unaccustomed eyes the effect was little short of grotesque.  Even the absurd high-heeled shoes were tied with immense bows of ribbon, whilst knees, wrists, throat, and even elbows displayed their bows and streamers.  The young dandy wore the full “petticoat breeches” of the period, with a short doublet, a jaunty cloak hung from the shoulders, and an abundance of costly lace ruffles adorned the neck and wrists of the doublet, he wore at his side a short rapier, and had a trick of laying his hand upon the hilt, as though it would take very little provocation to make him draw it forth upon an adversary.

His step was not altogether so steady as it might have been, as he swaggered into his mother’s presence.  His handsome face was deeply flushed.  He was laughing boisterously; but there was that in his aspect which made his sister turn away with a look of repulsion, though his mother’s glance rested on him with a look of admiring pride that savoured of adoration.  In her fond and foolish eyes he was perfection, and the more he copied the vices and the follies of the gallants about the person of the King, the prouder did his vain and weak mother become of him.

“Ho! ho! ho! such a bit of fun!”

It is impossible to give Frederick Mason’s words verbatim, as he seldom opened his lips without an oath, and inter-larded his talk with coarse jests in English and fragments of ribaldry in vile French, till it would scarce be intelligible to the reader of today.

“Such a prime bit of fun!  Who would have thought that little Dorcas next door would grow up such a marvelous pretty damsel!  By my troth, what a slap she did give me in return for my kiss!”

Gertrude suddenly turned upon her brother with flashing eyes.

“Think shame of yourself, Frederick!  You disgrace your boasted manhood.  How dare you annoy with your coarse gallantry the daughter of our father’s oldest friend, and that too in the open streets!”

“How dare you speak so to your brother, girl?” cried Madam, bristling up like an angry mother hen.  “What call have you to chide him?  Is he answerable to you for his acts?”

Gertrude subsided into silence, for she could not answer back as she would have liked.  It was not for her to argue with her mother; and Madam, having vanquished her daughter, turned upon her son.

“You must have a care how you vex our neighbours, for your father would take it ill an he heard of it.  Nay, I would not myself that you mixed yourself up too much with them.  They are honest good folks enow, but scarce such as are fitting company for us.  What of this girl Dorcas?  Is not she the one who is waiting maid to that mad old witch woman in Allhallowes, Lady Scrope?”

“That may well be.  I saw her come forth from a grim portal hard by Allhallowes the Less.  I knew not who it was, but I gave chase, and ere she put her foot upon the bridge, I had plucked the hood from off her pretty curls, and had kissed her soundly on both cheeks.  And at that she gave me such a cuff as I feel yet, and ran like a fawn, and I after her, till she vanished within the door of our neighbour’s house; and then it came to me that it was Dorcas, grown wondrous pretty since I last took note of her.  If she comes always home at this hour, I’ll waylay my lady again and take toll of her.”

“You had better be careful not to let Reuben get wind of it” said Gertrude, with suppressed anger in her voice.  “If he were to catch you insulting his sister, it is more than a slap or a cuff you would get.”

Frederick burst into a boisterous laugh.

“What! do you think a dirty shopman would dare lay hands upon me?  I’d run him through the body as soon as look at him.  He’d better keep out of reach of my sword arm.  You can tell him so, fair sister, if you have a tendresse for the young counter jumper.”

Gertrude’s sensitive colour flew up, and her brother laughed loud and long, pointing his finger at her, and adding one coarse jest to another; but the mother interposed rather hastily, being uneasy at the turn the talk was taking.

“Hist, children, no more of this!

“I would not that this tale came to your father’s ears, Frederick; it were better to have a care where our neighbours are concerned.  Let the wench alone.  There are many prettier damsels than she, who will not rebuff you in such fashion.”

“Ay, verily, but that is the spice of it all.  When the wench gives you kiss for kiss, it is sweet, but flavourless.  A box on the ear, and a merry chase through the streets afterwards, is a game more to my liking.  I’ll see the little witch again and be even with her, or my name’s not Frederick Mason the Scourer!”

“Your father will like it ill if it comes to his ears,” remarked Madam, with a touch of uneasiness; “and for my part, the less we have to do with our neighbours the better.  They are no fit associates for us.”

“Say that we are no fit associates for them,” murmured Gertrude, beneath her breath.

Her heart was swelling with sorrow and anger.  In her eyes there was no young man in all London town to be compared with Reuben Harmer.  From the day when in childhood they had playfully plighted their troth, she had never ceased to regard him as the one man in the world most worthy of love and reverence, and she knew that he had never ceased to look upon her with the same feelings.

Latterly they had had but scant opportunities of meeting.  Madam threw every possible obstacle in the way of her daughter’s entering the doors of that house, and kept her own closed against those of her former friends whom she now chose to regard as her inferiors.  Madam had never been liked.  She had always held her head high, and shown that she thought herself too good for the place she occupied.  Her house had never been popular.  No neighbours had ever been in the habit of running in and out to exchange bits of news with her, or ask for the loan of some recipe or household convenience.  It had not been difficult to seclude herself in her gradually increasing dignities, and only her daughter had keenly felt the difference when she had intimated that she wished the intimacy between her family and that of the Harmers to cease.

Frederick had long since taken to himself other associates of a more congenial kind.  The Master Builder went to and fro as before, permitting his wife full indulgence of her fads and fancies, but resolved to exercise his own individual liberty, and quite unconscious of the blow that was being inflicted upon his daughter, who was naturally tied by her mother’s commands, and forced to abide by her regulations.

Madam had been quick to see that if she did not take care Reuben Harmer would shortly aspire to the hand of her daughter, and she was not sure but that her husband would be weak enough to let the foolish girl please herself in the matter, and throw away what chance she had of marrying out of the city, and rising a step in life.

Madam pinned her main hopes of a social rise for herself in the marriages of her children.  She fondly believed that Frederick, with his good looks and his wealth, could take his pick even amongst high-born ladies, and not all the good-natured ridicule of her husband served to weaken this conviction.  She was not a great admirer of her daughter’s charms, but she knew that the girl was admired, and had been noticed more than once by the fine ladies who had come to look at her furniture and hangings.  She had a plan of her own for getting Gertrude into the train of some fine Court dame, and once secured in such a position, her fair face and ample dowry might do the rest.  If her son and daughter were well married, she would have two houses where she could make a home for herself more to her liking.  No end of ambitious dreams were constantly floating in her shallow brain, and as all these were more or less bound up with the future of her son and daughter, it was natural that she should desire to put down with a strong hand the smallest indication of a love affair between Gertrude and Reuben.  She had even persuaded her husband that Gertrude ought to make a good marriage; and as he was able to give her an ample dowry, and was proud of her good looks, he himself was of opinion that she might do something rather brilliant, even if she did not realize her mother’s fond dreams.

All this was very well known to poor Gertrude by this time, and it was seldom now that she did more than catch a passing glimpse of Reuben, or exchange a few hasty words with him in the street.  The young man was proud, and knew that he was looked down upon by the Master Builder and his wife.  This made him very reticent of showing his feelings, and reduced Gertrude often to the lowest ebb of depression.

So the coarse jests of her brother were a keen pain to her, and she presently rose and left the room in great resentment, followed by a mocking laugh from the ill-conditioned young man.

Having lost one victim, that amiable youth next turned his attention to his mother, and began to torment her with the same zest as he had displayed in the baiting of his sister.

“All the town is talking of the plague,” he remarked, in would-be solemn tones.  “They say that in St. Giles’ and St. Andrew’s parishes they are burying them by the dozen every day;” and as his mother uttered a little scream, and shrank away even from him, he went on in the same tone, “All the fine folks from that end of the town are thinking of moving into the country.  The witches and wizards are declaring openly in the streets that the whole city is to be destroyed.  Some folks say that soon the Lord Mayor and the Magistrates will have all the infected houses shut up straitly, so that none may go in or come forth when it is known that the distemper has appeared there.  The door will be marked with a red cross, and the words ‘Lord, have mercy upon us!’ writ large above it.  So, good mother, when I come home one day with the marks of the distemper upon me, the whole house will be closed, and none will be able to go forth to escape it.  So we shall all perish together, as a loving family should do.”

The blasphemies and ribald jokes with which this good-for-nothing young man adorned his speech made it sound tenfold more hideous than I can do.  Even his mother shrank away from him, in terror and amaze at his levity, and cried aloud in her fear so that instantly the door opened, and her husband entered to know what was amiss.

Frederick looked a little uneasy then, for he still held his father in a wholesome awe; but the mother made no complaint of her son, but only said she had been affrighted by hearing that there were more deaths from the plague than she had thought would ever be the case after all the care the Magistrates had taken, and was it true that the Lord Mayor had spoken of shutting up the houses, and so causing the sound ones to become diseased and to perish with the stricken ones?

The Master Builder answered gravely enough; for he had himself but just come in from hearing that the weekly Bills of Mortality were terribly high, and that the deaths in certain of the western parishes had been beyond all reckoning since the last years when the plague had visited the city.  True, there were not many put down as having died of the plague; but it was known how much was done to get other diseases set down in the bills, so that there was not much comfort to be got out of that.

The Master Builder thought that the houses would not be shut up unless things became much worse.  The matter had been spoken of, as he himself had heard; but the people were much against it, and it would be a measure most difficult to enforce, and would tend to make men conceal from the authorities any case of distemper which appeared amongst them.  But he said it was true enough that persons of high degree were beginning to move into the country, at least from the western part of the town; but that all felt very sure the distemper would speedily be checked, and would not come within the city walls at all, nor extend eastward beyond its boundaries.

Madam breathed a little more freely on hearing this, but made an eager suggestion to her husband that they should go away if the distemper began to spread.

But the Master Builder shook his head impatiently.

“A fine thing to run away from a chance ill, and court a certain ruin!  How do you think business will thrive if all the men run away from their shops like affrighted sheep?  No, no; it is often safest to stay at home with closed doors than to run helter skelter to strange places where one knows not who may have been last.  Keep indoors with your perfumes and spices, and keep the wench close with you.  That is the best way of outwitting the enemy.  Besides, it has come nowhere near us yet.”

Madam had certainly no mind to be ruined, nor was she one who loved change or the discomforts of travel.  So she thought on the whole her husband’s advice was good.  It would be much more comfortable to stay here with closed doors, surrounded by the luxuries of home.

Now as Frederick sat with outstretched legs in one of the easiest chairs in the room, and heard his father speak of these things, a thought came into his head which tickled his fancy so vastly that throughout the evening he kept bursting into smothered laughter, so much so that his sister threw him many suspicious glances, and divined that he had some evil purpose in his head.

The May light lasted long in the sky; but as it failed Frederick went out, as was his wont, and for many hours he spent his time with a number of kindred spirits in a neighbouring tavern, quaffing large potations, and dicing and gaming after the fashion of the Court gallants.

The bulk of the young roisterers thus assembled belonged to one of those bands of Scourers of which Frederick claimed to be the head.  They were the worthy successors to the “Roaring Boys” or Bonaventors of past centuries, and their favourite pastime was, after spending the night in revelry and play, to start forth towards dawn and scour the streets, upsetting the baskets or carts of the early market folks bringing their wares into the town, scattering the merchandise in the gutter, kissing the women, cuffing the men, wrenching off knockers from house doors, and getting up fights with the watch or with some rival band of Scourers which resulted in broken heads and sometimes in actual bloodshed.

The Magistrates treated these misdemeanours with wonderful tolerance when the culprits were from time to time brought before them, and the nuisance went on practically unchecked ­the people being used to wild and dissolute ways and much brawling ­and looking on it as one of the necessary ills of life.

But upon this bright May morning, before the streets began to awaken, even before the market folks were astir, Frederick led forth his band intent upon a new sort of mischief.  Some of the number carried pots of red paint in their hands, and others pots of white paint.

Up and down the empty streets paraded these worthies, pausing here and there at the door of some citizen that presented a tempting surface.  One of their number would paint upon it the ominous red cross, whilst another who had skill enough (for writing was not the accomplishment of every citizen even then) would add in staring white letters the legend, “Lord, have mercy upon us!”

It was a brutal jest at such a time, when the dread visitor had actually appeared as it were in their midst, and all sober men were in fear of what might betide, and of the methods already spoken of for the suppression of the distemper.  But it was its very wickedness which gave it its charm in the opinion of the perpetrators, and as they went from street to street, Frederick suddenly exclaimed: 

“Ha! we are close to Allhallowes.  Let us adorn the door of the old madwoman, Lady Scrope.  They say she lives quite alone, and that her servants come in the morning and leave at night.  Sure they will none of them have courage to pass the threshold when that sign adorns it, and the old hag will have to come forth herself to seek them.  An excellent joke!  I will watch the house, and give her a kiss as she comes forth.”

Whereupon the whole crew burst into shouts of drunken laughter, and made a rush to the door, which stood flush in a grim-looking wall just beneath the shadow of the church of Allhallowes the Less.

Frederick had the paint pot in his hand, and he traced a fine red cross upon the door, all the while making his ribald jests upon the old woman within, he and his companions alike, far too drunk with wine and unholy mirth to have eyes or ears for what was happening close beside them.  They did not hear the sound of an opening window just above them.  They did not see a nightcapped head poked forth, the great frilled cap surrounding a small, wizened, but keenly-courageous face, in which the eyes were glittering like points of fire.

None of them saw this.  None of them heeded, and the head was for a moment silently withdrawn.  Then it was again cautiously protruded, and the next minute there descended on the head of Frederick a black hot mass of tar and bitumen.  It scalded his face, it blinded his eyes.  It choked and almost poisoned him by its vaporous pungency.  It matted itself in his voluminous periwig, and plastered it down to his shoulders; it clotted his lace frills, and ran in filthy rivulets down his smart clothes.  In a word, it rendered him in a moment a disgusting and helpless object, unable to see or hear, almost unable to breathe, and quite unable to rid himself of the sticky, loathsome mass in which he had suddenly become encased.

Then from the window above came a shrill, jeering cry: 

“To your task, bold Scourers ­to your task!  Scour your own fine friend and comrade.  Scour him well, for he will need it.  Scour him from head to foot.  A pest upon you, young villains!  I would every citizen in London would serve you the same!”

Then the window above was banged to.  The mob of roisterers fled helter skelter, laughing and jeering.  Not one amongst them offered to assist their wretched leader.  They left him alone in his sorry plight to get out of it as best he might.  They had not the smallest consideration for one even of their own number overtaken by misfortune.  Roaring with laughter at the frightful picture he presented, they dispersed to their own homes, and the wretched Frederick was left alone in the street to do the best he could with his black, unsavoury plaster.

He strove in vain to clear his vision, and to remove the peruke, which clung to him like a second skin.  He was in a horrible fright lest he should be seen and recognized in this ignominious plight; and although he felt sure his comrades would spread the story of his discomfiture all over the town, he did not wish to be seen by the watch, or by any law-abiding citizens who knew him.

But how to get home was a puzzle, blind and half suffocated as he was; and he scarce knew whether anger or relief came uppermost to his mind when he felt his arm taken, and a voice that he knew said in his ear: 

“For shame, Frederick!  It is a disgrace to London the way you and your comrades go on.  And now of all times to jest when the foe is at our doors.  Shame upon you!  The old dame has given you no more than your due.  But come with me, and I will get you home ere the town be awake; and have a care how you offend again like this, for the Magistrates will not suffer jests of such a kind at such a time.  Know you not that it is almost enough to frighten a timid serving wench into the distemper to see such signs upon the doors?  And if it break out in the midst of us, who can say where it will end?”

It was Reuben Harmer who spoke, as Frederick very well knew.  The young men had been boys together, and as Reuben was two years the elder, he assumed a tone in speaking which Frederick now keenly resented.  But it was no time to repel an overture of help, and he sullenly forced himself to accept Reuben’s good offices.  The great clotted periwig was with some difficulty got off, and then it was possible to remove the worst of the tar from face and eyes.  Frederick at last could see clearly and breathe freely, but presented so lamentable an object that he only longed to get safe home to the shelter of his father’s house.

The costly periwig of curls had perforce to be left in the gutter, hopelessly ruined, and Frederick, who had given more money for it than he could well afford, shook his fist at the house which contained the redoubtable old woman who had thus fooled and bested him.

“You Scourers will find that you can play your meddlesome games too often,” remarked Reuben sternly, his eyes upon the red cross and the half-completed words above.  “I would that all the city were of the same spirit as Lady Scrope.  She always keeps a quantity of hot pitch or tar beside her bed, with a lamp burning beneath it, in case of attacks from robbers.  You may thank your stars that it descended not boiling hot upon your head.  Had she been so minded to punish you, she would have done so fearlessly.  You may be thankful it was no worse.”

Frederick sullenly picked up his hat, which he had laid aside while painting the door, and which had thus escaped injury, pulled it as far over his face as it would go, and turned abruptly away from Reuben.

“I’ll be revenged on the old hag yet!” he muttered between his teeth.  “I’ve got a double debt to pay to this house now.  I’ll not forget it either.”

He turned abruptly away and scuttled home by the narrowest alleys he could find, whilst Reuben went about looking for the red crosses, and giving timely notice to the master of the house, that they might be erased, as quietly and quickly as possible.

Accident had led Reuben early abroad that day, but he made use of his time to undo as far as he was able the mischievous jesting of Frederick’s band of Scourers.