Read CHAPTER V. THE PLOT AND ITS PUNISHMENT. of The Sign Of The Red Cross, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

Strange as it may appear, the awful nature of the calamity which had overtaken the great city had by no means the subduing influence upon the spirits of the lawless young roisterers of the streets that might well have been expected.  No doubt there were some amongst these who were sobered by the misfortunes of their fellows, and by the danger in which every person in the town now stood; but it seemed as if the very imminence of the peril and the fearful spread of the contagion exercised upon others a hardening influence, and they became even more lawless and dissolute than before.  “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die,” appeared to be their motto, and they lived up to it only too well.

So whilst the churches were thronged with multitudes of pious or terrified persons, assembled to pray to God for mercy, and to listen to words of godly counsel or admonition; whilst the city authorities were doing everything in their power to check the course of the frightful contagion, and send needful relief to the sufferers, and many devoted men and women were adventuring their lives daily for the sake of others, the taverns were still filled day by day and night by night with idle and dissolute young men, tainted with all the vices of a vicious Court and an unbelieving age ­drinking, and making hideous mockery of the woes of their townsmen, careless even when the gaps amid their own ranks showed that the fell disease was busy amongst all classes and ranks.  Indeed, it was no unheard of thing for a man to fall stricken to the ground in the midst of one of these revels; and although the master of the house would hastily throw him out of the door as if he had staggered forth drunk, yet it would ofttimes be the distemper which had him in its fatal clutches, and the dead cart would remove him upon its next gloomy round.

For now indeed the pestilence was spreading with a fearful rapidity.  The King, taking sudden alarm, after being careless and callous for long, had removed with his Court to Oxford.  The fiat for the shutting up of all infected houses had gone forth, and was being put in practice, greatly increasing the terror of the citizens, albeit many of them recognized in it both wisdom and foresight.  Something plainly had to be done to check the spread of the infection.  And as there was no means of removing the sick from their houses ­there being but two or three pest houses in all London ­even should their friends be prompt to give notice, and permit them to be borne away, the only alternative seemed to be to shut them up within the doors of the house where they lay stricken; and since they might already have infected all within it, condemn these also to share the imprisonment.  It was this that was the hardship, and which caused so many to strive to evade the law by every means in their power.  It drove men mad with fear to think of being shut up in an infected house with a person smitten with the fell disease.  Yet if the houses were not so closed, and guarded by watchmen hired for the purpose, the sick in their delirium would have constantly been getting out and running madly about the streets, as indeed did sometimes happen, infecting every person they met.  Restraint of some sort was needful, and the closing of the houses seemed the only way in which this could be accomplished.

It may be guessed what hard work all this entailed upon such of the better sort of citizens as were willing to give themselves to the business.  James Harmer and his two elder sons, Reuben and Dan, offered themselves to the Lord Mayor to act as examiners or searchers, or in whatever capacity he might wish to employ them.  Dan should by this time have been at sea, but his ship being still in the docks when the plague broke out remained yet unladed.  None from the infected city would purchase merchandise.  The sailing master had himself been smitten down, and Dan, together with quite a number of sailors, was thrown out of employment.

Many of these poor fellows were glad to take service as watchmen of infected houses, or even as bearers and buriers of the dead.  At a time when trade was at a standstill, and men feared alike to buy or to sell, this perilous and lugubrious occupation was all that could be obtained, and so there were always men to be found for the task of watching the houses, though at other times it might have been impossible to get enough.

Orders had been sent round the town that all cases of the distemper were to be reported within a few hours of discovery to the examiner of health, who then had the house shut up, supplied it with a day and a night watchman (whose duty it was to wait on the inmates and bring them all they needed), and had the door marked with the ominous red cross and the motto of which mention has been made before.  Plague nurses were numerous, but too often these were women of the worst character, bent rather upon plunder than desirous of relieving the sufferers.  Grim stories were told of their neglect and rapacity.  Yet amongst them were many devoted and excellent women, and the physicians who bravely faced the terrors of the time and remained at their post when others fled from the peril, deserve all honour and praise; the more so that many amongst these died of the infection, as indeed did numbers of the examiners and searchers who likewise remained at their post to the end.

It will therefore be well understood that good Master Harmer and his sons had no light time of it, and ran no small personal risk in their endeavours to serve their fellow citizens in this crisis.  Although the pestilence had not as yet broken out in this part of the town with the virulence that it had shown elsewhere, still there were fresh cases rumoured day by day; and it often appeared that when one case in a street was reported, there had been many others there before of which no notice had been given, and that perhaps half a dozen houses were infected, and must be forthwith shut up.  At first neglectful persons were brought before the Magistrates; but soon these persons became too numerous, and the Magistrates too busy to hear their excuses.  An example was made of one or another, to show that the laws must be kept; but Newgate itself becoming infected by the disease, it was not thought fit to send any malefactor there except for some heinous offence.

Dan joined the force of the constables, and day by day had exciting tales to tell about determined persons who had escaped from infected houses either by tricking or overpowering the watchman.  All sorts of clever shifts were made to enable families where perhaps only one lay sick to escape from the house, leaving the sick person sometimes quite alone, or sometimes in charge of a nurse.  Dan said it was heartrending to hear the cries and lamentations of miserable creatures pleading to be let out, convinced that it was certain death to them to remain shut up with the sick.  Yet, since they might likely be themselves already infected, it was the greater peril and cruelty to let them forth; and he had ghastly tales to tell of the visitation of certain houses, where the watchmen reported that nothing had been asked for for long, and where, when the house was entered by searchers or constables, every person within was found either dead or dying.

The precautions duly observed by the Harmer family had hitherto proved efficacious, and though the father and his sons going about their daily duties came into contact with infected persons frequently, yet, by the use of the disinfectants recommended by the College of Physicians, and by a close and careful attention to their directions, they went unscathed in the midst of much peril, and brought no ill to those at home when they returned thither for needful rest and refreshment.  Janet had had a slight attack of illness, but there were no absolute symptoms of the distemper with it.  Her father was of opinion that it might possibly be a very mild form of the disease, but the doctor called in thought not, and so their house escaped being shut up, and after a prudent interval Janet came down and took her place in the family as before.  Mother and daughters worked together for the relief of the sick poor, making and sending out innumerable dainties in the way of broth, possets, and light puddings, which were gratefully received by poor folks in shut-up houses, who, although fed and cared for at the public expense when not able to provide for themselves, were grateful indeed for these small boons, and felt themselves not quite so forlorn and wretched when receiving tokens of goodwill from even an unknown source.

The harmony, tranquillity, and goodwill that reigned in this household, even in the midst of so much that was terrible, was a great contrast to the anguish, terror, and ceaseless recriminations which made the Masons’ abode a veritable purgatory for its luckless inhabitants.  As the news of the spreading contagion reached her, so did Madam’s terror and horror increase.  As her husband had said long since, she sat in rooms with closed windows and drawn curtains, burned fires large enough to roast an ox, and half poisoned herself with the drugs she daily swallowed, and which she would have forced upon her whole household had they not rebelled against being thus sickened.  As a natural consequence of her folly and ungovernable fears, Madam was never well, and was for ever discovering some new symptom which threw her into an ecstasy of terror.  She would wake in the night screaming out in uncontrollable fear that she had gotten the plague ­that she felt a burning tumour here or there upon her person ­that she was sinking away into a deadly swoon, or that something fatal was befalling her.  By day she would fall into like passions of fear, call out to her daughter to send for every physician whose name she had heard, and upbraid and revile her in the most unmeasured terms if the poor girl ventured to hint that the doctors were beginning to be tired of coming to listen to what always proved imaginary terrors.

The only times when husband or daughter enjoyed any peace was when Frederick chose to make his appearance at home.  On these occasions his mother would summon him to her presence, although in mortal fear lest he should bring infection with him, and make him tell her all the most frightful stories which he had picked up about the awful spread of the disease, about the iniquities and abominations practised by nurses and buriers, of which last there was plenty of gossip (although probably much was set down in malice and much exaggerated) and all the prognostications of superstitious or profane persons as to the course the pestilence was going to take.  Eagerly did she listen to all of these stories, which Frederick took care should be very well spiced, as it was at once his amusement to frighten his mother and spite his sister; for Gertrude in private implored him not to continue to alarm their mother with his frightful tales, and also begged him for his own sake to relinquish his evil habits of intemperance, which at such a time as this might lead to fatal results.

The good-for-nothing youth only mocked at her, and derided his father when he gave him the same warning.  He had become perfectly unmanageable and reckless, and nothing that he heard or saw about him produced any impression.  Although taverns and ale houses were closely watched, and ordered to close at nine o’clock, and the gatherings of idle and profligate youths of whatever condition of life sternly reprobated and forbidden by the authorities, yet these worthies found means of evading or defying the regulations, and their revels continued as before, so that Frederick was seldom thoroughly sober, and more reckless and careless even than of old.  In vain his father strove to bring him to a better mind; in vain he warned him of the peril of his ways and the danger to his health of such constant excesses.  Frederick only laughed insolently; whereupon the Master Builder, who had but just come from his neighbour’s house, and was struck afresh with the contrast presented by the two homes, asked him if he knew how Reuben Harmer was passing his time, and made a few bitter comparisons between his son and those of his neighbour.

This was perhaps unfortunate, for Frederick, like most men of his type, was both vain and spiteful.  The mention of the Harmers put him instantly in mind of his grudge against Reuben and his suddenly-aroused admiration for rosy-cheeked Dorcas, both of which matters had been put out of his head by recent events.  He had discovered also that Reuben generally accompanied his sister home from Lady Scrope’s house in the evening, so that it had not been safe to pursue his attempted gallantries towards the maid.  But as he heard his father’s strictures upon his conduct, coupled with laudations of his old rival Reuben, a gleam of malice shone in his eyes, and he at once made up his mind to contrive and carry out a project which had been vaguely floating in his brain for some time, and which might be the more easily arranged now that the town was in a state of confusion and distress, and the streets were often so empty and deserted.

In that age of vicious licence, it seemed nothing but an excellent joke to Frederick and his boon companions to waylay a pretty city maiden returning to her home from her daily duties.  Frederick meant no harm to the girl; but he had been piqued by the way in which his compliments and kisses had been received, and above all he was desirous to do a despite to Reuben, whose rebukes still rankled in his heart, though he had quickly forgotten his good offices on the occasion of his escapade before Lady Scrope’s door.  Moreover, he owed that notable old woman a grudge likewise, and thought he could pay off scores all round by making away with pretty Dorcas, at any rate for a while.  So he and his comrades laid their plans with what they thought great skill, resolved that they should be carried out upon the first favourable opportunity.

For a while Dorcas had been rather nervous of leaving the house in Allhallowes unless Reuben was waiting for her.  But as she had seen no more of the gallant who had accosted her, and as it was said on all hands that these had left London in hundreds, she had taken courage of late, and had bidden her brother not incommode himself on her account, if it were difficult for him to be her escort home.

Of late he had oftentimes been kept away by pressure of other duties.  Sometimes Dan had come in his stead.  Sometimes she had walked back alone and unmolested.  Persons avoided each other in the streets now, and hurried by with averted glances.  Although upon her homeward route, which was but short, she had as yet no infected houses to pass, she always hastened along half afraid to look about her.  But her father’s good counsel and his daily prayers for his household so helped her to keep up heart, that she had not yet been frightened from her occupation, although her mistress always declared on parting in the evening that she never expected to see her back in the morning.

“If the plague does not get you, some coward terror will.  Never mind; I can do without you, child.  I never looked for you to have kept so long at your post.  All the rest have fled long since.”

Which was true indeed, only Dorcas and the old couple who lived in the house still continuing their duties.  Fear of the pestilence had driven away the other servants, and they had sought safety on the other side of the water, where it was still believed infection would not spread.

“I will come back in the morning.  My father bids us all do our duty, and sets us the example, madam,” said Dorcas, as she prepared to take her departure.

It was a dark evening for the time of year; heavy thunderclouds were hanging low in the sky and obscuring the light.  The air was oppressive, and seemed charged with noxious vapours.  Part of this was due to the cloud of smoke wafted along from one of the great fires kept burning with the object of dispelling infection.  But Dorcas shivered as she stepped out into the empty street, and looked this way and that, hoping to see one of her brothers.  But nobody was in sight and she had just descended the steps and was turning towards her home when out from a neighbouring porch there swaggered a very fine young gallant, who made an instant rush towards her, with words of welcome and endearment on his lips.

In a moment Dorcas recognized him not only as the gallant who had addressed her once before, but also as Frederick Mason, her brothers’ old playfellow, of whom such evil things were spoken now by all their neighbours on the bridge.

Uttering a little cry of terror, the girl darted back, turned, and commenced running like a hunted hare in the opposite direction, careless where she went or what she did provided she only escaped from the address and advances of her pursuer.  But fleet as were her own steps, those in pursuit seemed fleeter.  She heard her tormentor coming after her, calling her by name and entreating for a hearing.  She knew that he was gaining upon her and must soon catch her up.  She was in a lonely street where not a single passerby seemed to be stirring.  She looked wildly round for some way of escape, and just at that moment saw a man come round a corner and fit a key into the door of one of the houses.

Without pausing to think, Dorcas made a rush towards him, and so soon as the door was opened she dashed within the house, and fled up the staircase ­fled she knew not whither ­uttering breathless, frightened cries, whilst all the time she knew that her pursuer was close behind, and heard his voice mingled with angry cries of remonstrance from the man they had left below.

Suddenly a door close to Dorcas opened, and a new terror was revealed to her horror-stricken gaze.  A gaunt, tall figure, wrapped in a long white garment that looked like grave clothes, sprang out into the stairway with a shriek that was like nothing human.  Dorcas sank, almost fainting with terror, to the ground; but the spectre ­for such it seemed to her ­paid no heed to her, but sprang upon her pursuer, who had at that moment come up, and the next moment had his arms wound about him in a bearlike embrace, whilst all the time he was laughing an awful laugh.  Then lifting the unfortunate young man off his feet with a strength that was almost superhuman, he bore him rapidly down the stairs and rushed out with him into the street.

All this happened in so brief a moment of time that Dorcas had not even time to regain her feet, or to utter the scream of terror which came to her lips.  But as she found breath to utter her cry, another door opened and a scared face looked out, whilst a woman’s voice asked in lamentable accents: 

“What do you here, maiden?  What has happened to bring any person into this shut-up house?  Child, child, how didst thou obtain entrance here?  The plague is in this house, and we are straitly shut up!”

Before Dorcas could answer for fright and the confusion of her faculties, a pale-faced watchman came hurrying up the stairs.

“Where is the maid?” he asked, and then seeing Dorcas he grasped her by the wrist and cried, “Unless you wish to be shut up for a month, come away instantly.  This is a stricken house.  What possessed you to seek shelter here?  Better anything than that.

“As for your son, mistress, he is fled forth into the street; I could not hinder him.  We are undone if the constable comes.  But if we can get him back again ere that, all may be well.  I will let you forth to lead him hither if he will listen to your voice.”

From the room whence the sick man had appeared a frightened face looked forth, and a half-tipsy old crone whimpered out: 

“The fault was none of mine.  I had but just dropped asleep for a moment.  But when a man has the strength of ten what can one poor old woman do?”

Without paying any heed to this creature, the watchman and the mother of the plague-stricken man, together with Dorcas, who hurriedly told her tale as they moved, ran down the dark staircase and out into the street.  There, a little way off, was the tall spectre-like figure, still hugging in bearlike embrace the hapless Frederick, and dancing the while a most weird and fantastic dance, chanting some awful words which none could rightly catch, but the burden of which was, “The dance of death! the dance of death!  None who dances here with me will dance with any other!”

“For Heaven’s sake release him from that embrace!” cried the mother, who knew that her son was smitten to death.  “If all be true that the maid hath said, he is not fit to die, and that embrace is a deadly one! ­O my son, my son! come back, come back!

“Mercy on us, here is the watch!  We are undone!”

Indeed the trampling of many hasty feet announced the arrival of a number of persons upon the scene.  It seemed like enough to be the constables or the watch; but the moment the newcomers appeared round the corner, Dorcas, uttering a little shriek of joy and relief, threw herself upon the foremost man, who was in fact none other than Reuben himself ­Reuben, followed closely by his brother Dan, and they by several young roisterers, the boon companions of Frederick.

It had chanced that almost as soon as Dorcas had run from Lady Scrope’s door, hotly pursued by Frederick, her brothers had come up to fetch her thence.  It was also part of that worthy’s plan that they should hear she had been carried off, though not by himself.  His half-tipsy comrades, therefore, who had come to see the sport, immediately informed the young men that the maid had been pursued by a Scourer in such and such a direction; and so quickly had the brothers pursued the flying footsteps of the pair ­guided by the footmarks in the dusty and untrodden streets ­that they had come upon this strange and ghastly scene almost at its commencement, and in a moment their practised eyes took in what had happened.

The open door marked with the ominous red cross, the troubled face of the watchman, the ghastly apparition of the delirious plague-stricken man, the horror depicted in the face of the mother ­all this told a tale of its own.  Scenes of a like kind were now growing common enough in the city; but this was more terrible to the young men from the fact that the face of the unhappy and half-fainting Frederick was known to them and that they understood the awful peril into which this adventure had thrown him.  They knew the strength of delirious patients, and the peril of contagion in their touch.  To attempt to loosen that bearlike clasp might be death to any who attempted it.

Reuben looked about him, still holding his sister in his arms as though to keep her away from the peril; and Dan, who had taken one step forward towards the sheeted spectre, paused and muttered between his teeth: 

“The hound! he has but got his deserts!”

“True,” said Reuben, for he was certain now that it had been Frederick who was Dorcas’s pursuer; “yet we must not leave him thus.  He will be strangled or choked by the pestilential smell if we cannot get him away.  Take Dorcas, Dan.  Let me see if I can do aught with him.”

But even as Reuben spoke, and Dorcas clung closer than ever to him in fear that he was about to adventure himself into greater peril, the delirious man suddenly flung Frederick from him, so that he fell upon the pavement almost as one dead; and then, with a hideous shriek that rang in their ears for long, fled back to the house as rapidly as he had left it, and fell down dead a few moments later upon the bed from which he had so lately risen.

That fact they learned only the next day.  For the moment it was enough that the patient was safely within doors again, and that the watchman could make fast the door.  The roisterers had fled at the first sight of the plague-stricken man with their hapless leader in his embrace, and now the darkening street contained only the prostrate figure on the pavement, the two brothers, and the white-faced Dorcas, who felt like to die of fear and horror.

As chance or Providence would have it, up at that very moment came the Master Builder himself, and seeing his son in such a plight, shook his head gravely, thinking him drunk in the gutter.  But Reuben went up and told all the tale, as far as he knew or guessed it, and Dorcas having confirmed the same more by gestures than words, the unhappy father smote his brow, and cried in a voice of lamentation: 

“Alas that I should have such a son!  O unhappy, miserable youth! what will be thy doom now?”

At this cry Frederick moved, and got slowly upon his feet.  He had been stunned by the violence of his fall, and for the first moment believed himself drunk, and caught at his father’s arm for support.

“Have a care, sir,” said Reuben, in a low voice; “he may be infected already by the contact.”

But the Master Builder only uttered a deep sigh like a groan, as he answered, “I fear me he is infected by a distemper worse then the plague.  I thank you, lads, for your kindly thoughts towards him and towards me, but I must e’en take this business into mine own hands.  Get you away, and take your sister with you.  It is not well for maids to be abroad in a city where such things can happen.  Lord, indeed have mercy upon us!”