Read CHAPTER XII.  EXCITING DISCOVERIES. of The Sign Of The Red Cross, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

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!”