Read CHAPTER III.  DRAWING NEARER. of The Sign Of The Red Cross, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

“Brother Reuben, I cannot think what can be the reason, but my Lady Scrope has bidden me beg of thee to give her speech upon the morrow.  All this day she has been in a mighty pleasant humour:  she gave me this silken neckerchief when I left today, and bid me bring my brother with me on the morrow ­and she means thee, Reuben.”

“What can be the meaning of that?” asked Rachel Harmer, with a look of curiosity.  “Doth she often speak to thee of thy kindred, child?”

“If the whim be on her, and she has naught else to amuse her, she will bid me tell of the life at home, and of our neighbours and friends,” answered Dorcas.  “But never has she spoke as she did today.  Nor can I guess why she would have speech with Reuben.”

“I can guess shrewdly at that,” said the young man.  “It so befell this morning that I found a party of roisterers at her door, who were marking it with a red cross, as though it were a plague-stricken house ­as the Magistrates talk of marking them now if the distemper spreads much further and wider.  The bold lady had herself put these fellows to the rout by pouring pitch upon them from a window above; but I stopped to rebuke the foremost of them myself, and to erase their handiwork from the door.  I did not know that I was either seen or known; but methinks my Lady Scrope has eyes in the back of her head, as the saying goes.”

“You may well say that!” cried Dorcas, with a laugh and a shrug.  “Never was there such a woman for knowing everything and everybody.  But she spoke not to me of any roisterers.  Would I had been there to see her pouring her filthy compound over them!  She always has it ready.  How she must have rejoiced to find a use for it at last!”

“It is an evil and a scurvy jest at such a time to mock at the peril which is at our very doors, and which naught but the mercy of God can avert from us,” said the master of the house, very gravely.

Then, looking round upon his assembled household, he added in the same very serious way, “I have been this day into the heart of the city.  I have spoken with many of the authorities there.  The Lord Mayor and the Magistrates are in great anxiety, and I fear me there can be no longer any doubt that the distemper is spreading fearfully.  It has not yet appeared within the city nor upon the other side of the river; but in the western parishes it is spreading every way, and they say that all who are able are fleeing away from their houses.  Perchance for those who can do so this may be the safest thing to do.  But soon they will not be permitted to leave, unless they have a bill of health from the Lord Mayor, as in the country beyond the honest folks are taking alarm, and are crying out that we are like to spread the plague all over the kingdom.”

“I, too, have heard sad tales of the mortality,” said Dinah, raising her calm voice and speaking very seriously.  “I met a good physician, under whom I often laboured amongst the sick, and he tells me that there be poor stricken wretches from whom all the world flee in terror the moment it appears they have the distemper upon them.  Many have died already untended and uncared for, whilst others have in the madness of the fever and pain burst out of the rooms in which they have been shut up, and have run up and down the streets, spreading terror in their path, till they have dropped down dead or dying, to be carried to graveyard or pest house as the case may be.  But who can tell how many other victims such a miserable creature may not have infected first?”

“Ay, that is the terror of it,” said Harmer.  “All are saying that nurses must be found to care for the sick, and many are very resolved that the houses where the distemper is found should be straitly shut up and guarded by watchmen, that none go forth.  It is a hard thing for the whole to be thus shut in with the infected; but as men truly say, how shall the whole city escape if something be not done to restrain the people from passing to and fro, and spreading the distemper everywhere?”

“I have thought,” said Dinah, very quietly, “that it may be given to me to offer myself as a nurse for these poor persons.  I have passed unscathed through many perils before now.  Once I verily believe I was with one who died even of this distemper, albeit the physician called it the spotted fever, which frights men less than the name of plague.  There be many herbs and simples and decoctions which men say are of great value in keeping the infection at bay.  And even were it not so, we must not be thinking only at such times of saving our own lives.  There be some that must be ready to risk even life, if they may serve their brethren.  The good physicians are prepared to do this, to say nothing of the Magistrates and those who have the management of this great city at such a time.  And it seems to me that women must always be ready to tend the sick even in times of peril.  I seem to hear a call that bids me offer myself for this work; but none else shall suffer through me.  If I go, I return hither no more.  I shall live amongst the sick until this judgment be overpast, or until I myself be called hence, as may well be.”

All faces were grave and full of awe.  Yet perhaps none who knew Dinah were overmuch surprised at her words.  Her life had been lived amongst the sick for many years.  She had never shrunk from danger, or had spared herself when the need was pressing.  Her sister Rachel, although the tears stood in her eyes, said nothing to dissuade her.

Nor indeed was there much time for discussion then, for the Master Builder looked in at that moment with a face full of concern.  He brought the news that fresh revelations were being hourly made as to the terrible rapidity with which the plague was spreading in the parishes without the walls; and he added that even the gay and giddy Court had been at last alarmed, and that the King had been heard to say he should quit Whitehall and retire with his Court and his minions to Oxford in the course of a week or a fortnight, unless matters became speedily much better.

“Ay, that is ever the way,” said Harmer, sternly.  “The reckless monarch and his licentious Court draw down upon the city the wrath of God in judgment of their wickedness, and those who have provoked the judgment flee from the peril, leaving the poor of the city to perish like sheep.”

“Well, well, well; fine folks like change, and it is easy for them to go elsewhere.  I would do the same, perchance, were I so placed,” said the Master Builder; “but we men of business must stick to our work as long as it sticks to us.

“What about your mistress, Lady Scrope, Dorcas?  Has she said aught of leaving London?  She is one who could easily fly.  Not but what I trust the distemper will be kept well out of the city by the care taken.”

“She has spoken no word of any such thing,” answered Dorcas.  “She reads and hears all that is spoken about the plague, and makes my blood run cold by the stories she tells of it in other lands, and during other outbreaks which she can remember.  Methinks sometimes the very hair on my head is standing up in the affright her words bring me.  But she only laughs and mocks, and calls me a little poltroon.  I trow that she would never fly; it would not be like her.”

“Men and women do many things unlike themselves in stress of particular and deadly peril,” said the Master Builder.  “Lady Scrope would do well to consider leaving whilst the city has so good a bill of health; it may be less easy by-and-by, should the distemper spread.”

“Thou canst speak to her of this thing, Reuben, when thou dost see her on the morrow,” observed his father.  “Perchance she has not considered the peril of being detained if she puts off flight too long.”

Reuben said he would name the matter to the lady; and when Dorcas set forth upon the morrow for her daily walk, her brother accompanied her, and told her in confidence what he had not told to his family ­how Frederick Mason had been served by the irate old lady, and what a sorry spectacle he had presented afterwards.

Dorcas laughed heartily at the story.  She had no love for Frederick, and she told her brother that she suspected he had been the half-tipsy gallant who had striven to kiss her in the streets, and had partially succeeded.  This put Reuben into a great wrath, and he promised whenever he could do so to come and escort his sister home from the house in Allhallowes.  True, the distance was but very short, yet the lane to the bridge head was lonely and narrow, and Frederick was known for a most ill-conditioned young man.

Lady Scrope received Reuben in a demi-toilet of a peculiar kind, and a very strange and wizened object did she appear.  She thanked him for the rebuke she had heard him administer to the roisterer, enjoyed a hearty laugh over his wretched appearance, and then proceeded to indulge her insatiable taste for gossip by demanding of him all the city news, and what all the world there was talking about.

“Since this plague bogey has got into men’s minds I see nobody and hear nothing,” she said.  “All the fools be flying the place like so many silly sheep; or, if they come to sit awhile, their talk is all of pills and decoctions, refuses and ointments.  Bah! they will buy the drugs of every foolish quack who goes about the streets selling plague cures, and then fly off the next day, thinking that they will be the next victim.  Bah! the folly of the men!  How glad I am that I am a woman.”

“Still, madam,” said Reuben, taking his cue, “there be many noble ladies who think it well to remove themselves for a time from this infected city.  Not that for the time being the city itself is infected, and we hope to keep it free ­”

“Then men are worse fools than I take them for,” was the sharp retort.  “Keep the plague out of the city!  Bah! what nonsense will they talk next!  Is it not written in the very heavens that the city is to be destroyed?  Heed not their idle prognostications.  I tell you, young man, that the plague is already amongst us, even though men know it not.  In a few more weeks half the houses in the very city itself will be shut up, and grass will be growing in the streets.  We may be thankful if there are enough living to bury the dead.  Keep it out of the city, forsooth!  Let them do it if they can; I know better!”

Dorcas paled and shrank, fully convinced that her redoubtable mistress possessed a familiar spirit who revealed to her the things that were coming; but Reuben fancied that the old lady was but guessing, and he saw no reason to be afraid at her words.  Saying such things would not bring them to pass.

“Then, madam,” he answered, “if such be the case, would it not be well to consider whether you do not remove yourself ere these things comne to pass?  Pardon me if I seem to take it upon mnyself to advise you, but I was charged by my father, who is like to be appointed for a time one of the examiners of health whom the Mayor and Magistrates think it well to institute at this time, that soon it may not be so easy to get away from the city as it is now; wherefore it behoves the sound whilst they are yet sound to bethink them whether or not they will take themselves away elsewhere.  Also my mother wished me to ask the question of your ladyship, forasmuch as she would like to know whether my sister in such case would be required to accompany you.”

Lady Scrope nodded her head several times, an odd light of mockery gleaming in her keen black eyes.

“Tell your worthy father, good youth, that I thank him for his good counsel; but also tell him that nothing will drive me from this place ­not even though I be the only one left alive in the city.  Here I was born, and here I mean to die; and whether death comes by the plague or by some other messenger what care I?  I tell thee, lad, I am far safer here than gadding about the country.  Here I can shut myself up at pleasure from all the world.  Abroad, I am at the muercy of any plague-stricken vagabond who comes to ask an alms.  Let all sensible folks stay at home and shut themselves up, and let the fools go gadding here, there, and all over.  As for Dorcas, let her come and go as long as she safely may; but if your good mother would keep her at home, then let her abide there, and return to me when the peril is overpast.  I like the wench, and if she likes to abide altogether with me she may do so.  Let her mother choose.”

Dorcas, however, had no wish to live in that lonely house altogether, and for the present there was no reason why she should not go backwards and forwards to her father’s abode.  Her parents were grateful to Lady Scrope for her offer, but for the present there was no reason for making any change.

The weather during these bright days of May had been cool and fresh, and in spite of all evil auguries, sanguine persons had tried hard to believe and to make others believe that the peril of a visitation of the plague had been somewhat overrated.  Yet the choked thoroughfares leading out of London gave the lie to these suppositions, and for many weeks the bridge was a sight in itself, crowded with carriages and waggons all filled with the richer folks and their goods, hastening to the pleasant regions of Surrey to forget their fears and escape the pestilential atmosphere of the city.

Then towards the end of the month a great heat set in, and at once, as it were, the infection broke out in a hundred different and unsuspected places, not only without but within the city walls.  How the distemper had so spread none then dared to guess.  It seemed everywhere at once, none knew why or how.  Doubtless it was in innumerable instances the tainted condition of the wells from which the bulk of the people still drew their water; but men did not think of these things long ago.  They looked each other in the face in fear and terror, none knowing but that his neighbour in the street might be carrying about with him the seeds of the dread distemper.

It now behoved all careful citizens to bethink them well what they would do, with the fearful foe knocking as it were at their very doors, and the matter was brought home right early to the Harmer household, by a thing that befell them at the very outset of the access of hot weather which told so fatally upon the city almost imumediately afterwards.

Rachel Harmer was awakened from sleep one night by the sound of something rattling upon the bed-chamber floor, as though it had fallen from the open casement, and as she came to her waking senses, she heard a voice without calling in urgent accents: 

“Mother! mother! mother!”

Rising in some alarm, she went to the window which projected over the lower stories of the house, as was usual at that time, and on putting out her head she beheld a female figure standing in the roadway below.  When the moonlight fell upon the upturned face, she saw it was that of her daughter Janet, who was in the service of Lady Howe, and was her waiting maid, living in her house not far from Whitehall, and earning good wages in that gay household.

In no little alarm at seeing her daughter out alone in the street at night, she spoke her name and bid her wait at the door till she could let her in, which she would do immediately; but Janet instantly replied: 

“Nay, mother, come not to the door; come to the little window at the corner, where I can speak quietly till I have told you all.  Open not the door till you have heard my lamentable tale.  I know not even now that I am right to come hither at all.”

In great fear and anxiety the mother cast a loose wrapper about her, and descended quickly to the little storeroom close against the shop, where there was a tiny window which opened direct upon the street.  At this window, but a few paces away, she found her daughter awaiting her, and by the light of the rush candle that she carried she saw that the girl’s face was deadly white.

“Child, child, what ails thee?  Come in and tell me all.  Thou must not stand out there.  I will open the door and fetch thee in.”

“No, mother, no ­not till thou hast heard my tale,” pleaded Janet; “for the sake of the rest thou must be cautious.  Mother, I have been with one who died of the plague at noon today!”

“Mercy on us, child!  How came that about?”

“It was my fellow servant and bed fellow,” answered Janet.  “We were like sisters together, and if ever I ailed aught she tended me as fondly as thou couldst thyself, mother.  Today, when we rose, she complained of headache and a feeling of illness; but we went down and took our breakfast below with the rest.  At least I took mine as usual, though she did but toy with her food.  Then all of a sudden she put her hand to her side and turned ghastly white, and fell off her chair.  A scullery wench set up a cry, ‘The plague! the plague!’ and forthwith they all fled this way and that ­all save me, who could not leave her thus.  I made her swallow some hot cordial which I think they call alexiteric water, and which is said to be very beneficial in cases of the distemper; and she was able to crawl upstairs after a while to her bed once more, where I put her.  I knew not for some hours what was passing in the house, though I heard a great commotion there, and presently there stole in a mincing physician who attends my lady, holding a handkerchief steeped in vinegar to his nose, and smelling like an apothecary’s shop.  He looked at poor Patience, who lay in a stupor, heeding none, and he directed me to uncover her neck for him to see if she had the tokens upon her.  There had been none when I put her to bed again, so that I had hoped it was but a colic or some such affection; but, alas, when I looked at his direction, there were the black swellings plainly to be seen.  Forthwith he fled with indecent haste, and only stopped to say he would send a nurse and such remedies as should be needful.”

“O my child! and thou wast with her all the time! ­thou didst even touch and handle her?”

“Mother, I could not leave her alone to die.  And hardly had the doctor gone than the fever came upon her, and it was all I could do to keep her from rushing out of the room in her pain.  But it lasted only a brief while ­for the poison must have gotten a sore hold on her ­and just after noon she fell back in mine arms and died.

“O mother, I see her face now ­so livid and terrible to look upon!  O mother, mother, shall I too look like that when my turn comes to die?”

“Hush, hush, my child!  God is very merciful.  It may be His good pleasure to spare thee.  Thy aunt doth go to and fro amongst the smitten ones, and she is yet in her wonted health.  But ere I call thy father and ask counsel what we are to do, tell me the rest of thy tale.  Who came to thy relief? and how camest thou hither so late?”

“I could not come before.  I dared not go forth by day, lest I bore about the seeds of the distemper.  The nurse came at three o’clock, and finding her patient already dead, wrapped her in a sheet, and said that a coffin would be sent at dark, and that the bearers would fetch her for burying when the cart came round, and that when I heard the bell ring I must call to them from the window and let them in.  I asked why the porter should not do that, but she told me that already every person in the house had fled.  My lady had fallen into an awful fright on hearing that one of her servants was smitten, and before any knowledge could have been received of it by the authorities, she had applied for and obtained a clean bill for herself and her household, and every one of them had fled.  The house was empty, save for me and the poor dead girl; and I was bidden to stay till her corpse was removed, for the nurse said she was wanted in a dozen places at once, and that she had too much to do with the sick to attend upon the dead.”

“And thou wert willing to wait?”

“I could not leave her alone.  Besides, I feared to walk the streets till night.  The nurse bid me not linger after the body was taken, for no man knows when the houses will be shut up, so that none can go forth who have been with an infected person.  But it is not so done yet, and I was free.  But I dared not come home amongst you all to bring, perhaps, death with me.  I waited in the house till the men and the cart came, and they brought a coffin and took poor Patience away.  They told me then that soon there would be no more coffins, and that they would have to bury without them.”

Janet paused and shuddered strongly.

“O mother, mother, mother!” she wailed, “what shall I do?  What will become of me?  Shall I have to die in the streets, or to go to the pest house?  Oh, why do such terrible things befall us?”

The mother was weeping now, but the next moment she felt the touch of her husband’s hand upon her shoulder, and his voice said in its quiet and authoritative way: 

“What means all this coil and to do?  Why does the child speak thus?  Tell me all; I must hear the tale.

“Janet, my girl, never ask the why and the wherefore of any of the Lord’s just judgments.  It is for us to bow our heads in repentance and submission, trusting that He will never try us above what we are able to bear.”

Comforted by the sound of her father’s voice, Janet repeated her tale to him in much the same words as before, the father listening in thoughtful silence, without comment or question; till at the conclusion of the tale he said to his wife: 

“Go upstairs and bring down with thee my heavy riding cloak which hangs in the press;” and when she had obeyed him, he added, “Now go up to thy room, and shut thyself in till I call thee thence.”

Implicit obedience to her husband was one of Rachel’s characteristics.  Although she longed to know what was to be done, she asked no questions, but retired upstairs and fell on her knees in prayer.  The master of the house went to a great cask of vinegar which stood in the corner, and after pretty well saturating the heavy cloak in that pungent liquid, he unbarred the door, and beckoning to his daughter to approach, threw about her the heavy mantle and bid mer follow him.

He led her through the house and up to a large spare guest chamber, rather away from the other sleeping chambers of the house, and he quickly brought to her there a bath and hot water, and certain herbs specially prepared ­wormwood, woodsorrel, angelica, and so forth.  He bid her wash herself all over in the herb bath, wrapping all her clothing first in the cloak, which she was to put outside the door.  Then she was to go to bed, whilst all her clothing was burnt by his own hands; and after that she must submit to remain shut up in that room, seeing nobody but himself, until such time should have gone by as should prove whether or not she had become infected by the distemper.

Janet wept for joy at being thus received beneath her father’s roof, having heard so many fearsome tales of persons being turned out of doors even by their nearest and dearest, were it but suspected that they might carry about with them the seeds of the dreaded distemper.  But the worthy lace maker was a godly man, and brave with the courage that comes of a lively faith.  He had learned all that could be told of the nature of the distemper; and after he had burnt all his daughter’s clothing with his own hands, and had assured himself that she felt sound and well, and had also fumigated his own house thoroughly, he felt that he had done all in his power against the infection, and that the rest must be left in the hands of Providence.

The mother hovered anxiously about, but came not near her husband till permitted by him.  She did not enter the room where her daughter now lay comfortably in a soft bed, but she prepared some good food for her, which was carried in by the father later on, and promised her that by the morning she should have clothing to put on, and that she should have every care and comfort during the days of her captivity.

Janet thanked God from the very bottom of her heart that night for having given to her such good and kindly parents, and earnestly besought that she might be spared, not only for her own unworthy sake, but for their sakes who had risked so much rather than that she should be an outcast from home at such a time of peril and horror.