Read CHAPTER XIV.  BRIGHTER DAYS. of The Sign Of The Red Cross, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on

“The plague is abating! the plague is abating!  The bills were lower by two thousand last week!  They say the city is like to go mad with joy.  I would fain go and see what is happening there.  Prithee, good aunt, let me e’en do so much.  I shall take no hurt.  Methinks, having escaped all peril heretofore, I may be accounted safe now.”

This was Joseph’s eager petition as he rushed homewards after a stroll in the direction of the town one evening early in October.  There had been rumours of an improvement in the health of the city for perhaps ten days now, notwithstanding the fearful mortality during the greater part of September.  Therefore were the weekly bills most eagerly looked for, and when it was ascertained that the mortality had diminished by two thousand (when, from the number of sick, it might well have risen by that same amount), it did indeed seem as though the worst were over; and great was the joy which Joseph’s news brought to those within the walls of that cottage home.

Yet Mary Harmer was wise and cautious in the answer she gave to the eager boy.

“Wait yet one week longer, Joseph; for we may not presume upon God’s goodness and mercy, and adventure ourselves without cause into danger.  The city has been fearfully ravaged of late.  The very air seems to have been poisoned and tainted, and there are streets and lanes which, they say, it is even now death to enter.  Therefore wait yet another week, and then we will consider what is safe to be done.  Right glad should I be for news of your father and mother; but we have been patient this long while, and we will be patient still.”

“Our good aunt is wise,” said Reuben, who looked wonderfully better for his stay in fresh country air, albeit still rather gaunt and pale.  “It is like that this good news itself may lead men to be somewhat reckless in their joy and confidence.  We will not move till we have another report.  Perchance our father may be able to let us know ere long of his welfare and that of the rest at home.”

All through the week that followed encouraging and cheering reports of the abatement of the plague were heard by those living on the outskirts of the stricken city; and when the next week’s bill showed a further enormous decrease in the death rate, Mary Harmer permitted Joseph to pay a visit home, his return being eagerly waited for in the cottage.  He came just as the early twilight was drawing in, and his face was bright and joyous.

“It is like another city,” he cried.  “I had not thought there could be so many left as I saw in the streets today.  And they went about shaking each other by the hand, and smiling, and even laughing aloud in their joy.  And if they saw a shut-up house, and none looking forth from the windows, some one would stand and shout aloud till those within looked out, and then he would tell them the good news that the plague was abating; and at that sound many poor creatures would fall a-weeping, and praise the Lord that He had left even a remnant.”

“Poor creatures!” said Mary Harmer with commiseration; “it has been a dismal year for thousands upon thousands!”

“Ay, verily.  I cannot think that London will ever be full again,” said the boy.  “There be whole streets with scarce an inhabitant left, and we know that multitudes of those who fled died of the pestilence on the road and in other places.  But today there was no memory for the misery of the past, only joy that the scourge was abating.  It is not that many do not still fall ill of the distemper, but that they recover now, where once they would have died.  And whereas three weeks back they died in a day or two days, now even if so be as they do die, it takes the poison eight or ten days to kill them.  The physicians say that that is because the malignity of the distemper is abating, wherefore men scarce fear it now, and come freely abroad, not in despair, as they did when it was so virulent a scourge, but because they fear it so much less than before.”

“And our parents and those at home?” asked Reuben eagerly.

“All well, though something weary and worn; but it is wondrous how they have borne up all through.  Father says that he will come hither to see us all the first moment he can.  His duties are like to have a speedy end; and he is longing for a sight of Reuben’s face, and of something better than closed houses and the wan faces of the sick or the mourners.”

“Poor brother James!” said Mary softly; “I would that he and his would leave the city behind for a while, and remain under my roof to recover their strength and health.  It must have been a sorely trying time.  Think you that they could leave the house together?  For we would make shift to receive them all, an they could come.”

This was a most delightful idea to all the party.  The hospitable cottage had plenty of rooms, although many of these were but attics beneath the thatched roof, none too light or commodious.  In summer they might have been too warm and stuffy to be agreeable sleeping places, but in the cooler autumn they would be good enough for hardy young folks brought up simply and plainly.

Joseph and Benjamin at once dashed all over the place, making plans for the housing of the whole party.  It would be the finest end to a melancholy period, being all together here in this homelike place.

Everything was duly arranged in the hopes of winning the father’s consent to the scheme.  Mary Harmer hunted up stores of bedding and linen, the latter of her own weaving, and every day they waited impatiently for the appearing of James Harmer, who, however, was unaccountably long in making his appearance.

He came at last, but it was with a sorrowful face and a bowed look which told at once a story of trouble, and made the whole party stand silent, after the first eager chorus of welcome, certain that he was the bearer of bad news.

“My poor boy Dan!” he said in a choked voice, and sat himself heavily down upon the chair beside the hearth.

“Dan!” cried Reuben, and the word was echoed by all the brothers in tones of varying surprise and dismay.  “You do not mean that he is dead!”

“Taken to the plague pit a week ago.  Just when all the world is rejoicing in the thought that the distemper is abating.  Dr. Hooker spoke truly when he said that the confidence of the people was like to be a greater peril than the disease itself.  For those who are sick now come openly abroad into the streets, no longer afraid for themselves or others, and thus it has come about that no man knows whether he is safe, and my poor boy has been taken.”

Sad indeed were the faces of all, and the two little boys were dissolved in tears, as their father told how poor Dan had fallen sick, and had succumbed on the fourth day to the poison.

“Dr. Hooker said that he was worn out with his unceasing labours, else he would not have died,” said the sorrowful father.  “He had treated many worse cases even when things were worse, and brought them round.  But Dan was worn out with all he had been doing for the past months.  He fell an easy prey; and he did not suffer much, thank God.  He lay mostly in a torpor, much as Reuben did, as I hear, but slowly sank away.  His poor mother!  She had begun to think that she was to have all her children about her yet.  But in truth we must not repine, having so many left to us, when they say there is scarce a family in all the town that has not lost its two, three, or four at best!”

It almost seemed a more sorrowful thing to lose Dan just when things were beginning to look brighter, than it would have done when the distemper was at its height.  But as the good man said, gratitude for so many spared ought to outweigh any repining for those taken.  After the first tears were shed, he gently checked in those about him the inclination to mourn, saying that God knew best, and had dealt very lovingly and bountifully with them; and that they must trust His goodness and mercy all through, and believe that He had judged mercifully and tenderly in taking their brother from them.

The sight of Reuben alive and well did much to assuage the father’s grief; for there had been a time when he had not thought to look upon the face of his firstborn in this life.  He was also greatly pleased to learn that he had another daughter in the person of gentle Gertrude, and he gladly undertook the negotiation of the purchase of his neighbour’s house, so that he should not know who the purchaser was until the right moment came.

Mary Harmer’s proposal to take in the whole family for a spell of fresh air and rest was gratefully accepted by the tired father.

“I trow it would be the greatest boon for all of us, and may likely save us from some peril,” he said, “for, as I say, men seem to be gone mad with joy that the malignity of the plague is so greatly abating, and that the houses are no longer closed.  For my own part, I would they were closed yet a little longer; but the impatience of the people would not now permit it, and they having shown themselves in the main docile and obedient these many months, must be considered now that the worst of the peril is past.  When the plague was at its worst last month, there was of necessity some relaxation of stringent measures, because there were times when neither watchmen nor nurses could be found, and common humanity forbade us to close houses when the inhabitants could not get tendance in the prescribed way.  Moreover, a sort of desperation was bred in men’s minds, and the fear was the less because that every man thought his own turn would assuredly come ere long.  So that when of a sudden the bills began to decrease, it seemed unreasonable to be more strict than we had been just before.  Moreover, it was found harder to restrain the people in their joy than in their sorrow; and so we must hope for the best, and trust that the lessened malignity of the disease will keep down the mortality.  For that there will continue to be many sick for weeks to come we cannot doubt.  As for myself, knowing and fearing all I do, nothing would more please and comfort me than to bring my wife and girls hither to this safe spot.  I had not dared to think you could take such a party, Mary; but since you have already made provision for us, why, the sooner we all get forth from the city, the better will it please me.”

Great was the joy in the cottage occasioned by this answer.  Sorrow for the loss of poor Dan was almost forgotten in joyful preparation.  Dan had not been much at home for many years, only coming and going as his ship chanced to put into port in the river or not.  Therefore his loss was not felt as that of Reuben would have been.  It seemed a sad and grievous thing, after having escaped so many perils, to come to his death at last; but so many families had suffered such infinitely greater loss, that repining and mourning seemed almost wrong.  And the thought of seeing all the home faces once more was altogether too delightful to admit of much admixture of grief.

“I wonder if Dorcas will come,” said Gertrude, as they hung about the door awaiting the arrival which was expected every minute.

Three days had now passed since James Harmer’s first visit, and he was to bring his wife and daughters in the afternoon, and stay the night himself, returning on the morrow to transact some necessary business, but spending much of his time with his family in this pleasant spot.

Gertrude had offered to leave, if there were not room for her; but in truth she scarce knew where to go, since of her father she had heard very little of late, and knew not how long his house would be his own.

No one, however, would hear of such a thing as that she should leave them.  She was already like a sister to the boys, and had in old days been as one to the girls.  Moreover, as Mary Harmer sometimes said, why should not she and Reuben be quietly married out here before they returned to the city, and then they could go back to their own house when all the negotiations had been completed and her father’s mind relieved of its load of care?

“Why should Dorcas not come?” asked Mary quickly.  “My brother spoke of bringing all.”

“I was wondering if Lady Scrope would be willing to spare her,” was the reply.  “She is fond of Dorcas in her way, and is used to her.  She might not be willing she should go, and she is very determined when her mind is made up.”

“Yet I think she has a kind heart in spite of all her odd ways,” said Mary Harmer; “I scarce think she would keep the girl pining there alone.  But we shall see.  My wonder would rather be if Janet and Rebecca could get free from the other house where the children are kept.”

“Father said that that house was to be emptied soon.  The Lord Mayor is making many wise regulations for the support of those left destitute by the plague.  Large sums of money kept flowing in all the while the scourge lasted.  The king sent large contributions, and other wealthy men followed his example.  There be many widows left alone and desolate, and these are to have a sum of money and certain orphan children to care for.  All that will be settled speedily; for who knows when my Lady Scrope’s house may not be wanted by the tenant who ran away in such hot haste months ago?  It will need purifying, too, and directions will shortly be issued, I take it, for the right purification of infected houses.

“My sisters will soon get their burdens off their hands.  It is time they had a change; they were looking worn and tired even before I left the city.”

“They are coming! they are coming!  They are just here!” shouted Joseph and Benjamin in one breath, coming rushing down from a vantage post up to which they had climbed in one of the great elm trees.  “They must all be there ­every one of them!  It is like a caravan along the road; but I know it is they, for we saw father leading a horse, and mother was riding it ­with such a lot of bags and bundles!”

The next minute the caravan hove in sight through the windings of the lane, and three minutes later there was such a confusion of welcomes going on that nothing intelligible could be said on either side; nor was it until the whole party was assembled round the table in Mary Harmer’s pleasant kitchen, ready to do justice to the good cheer provided, that any kind of conversation could be attempted.

The sisters felt like prisoners released.  They laughed and cried as they danced about the garden in the twilight, stooping down to lay their faces against the cool, wet grass, and drinking in the scented air as though it were something to be tasted by palate and tongue.

“It is so beautiful! it is so wonderful!” they kept exclaiming one to the other, and the quaint, rambling cottage, with its bare floor, and simple, homely comforts, seemed every whit as charming.

Dorcas was there, as well as Janet and Rebecca; and the three sisters, together with Gertrude, were to share a pair of attics with a door of communication between them.

They were delighted with everything.  They kept laughing and kissing each other for sheer joy of heart; and although a sigh, and a murmur of “Poor Dan! if only he could be here!” would break at intervals from one or another, yet in the intense joy of this meeting, and in the sense of escape from the city in which they had been so long imprisoned, all but thankfulness and delight must needs be forgotten, and it was a ring of wonderfully happy faces that shone on Mary Harmer at the supper board that night.

“This is indeed a kindly welcome, sister,” said Rachel, as she sat at her husband’s right hand, looking round upon the dear faces she had scarce dared hope to see thus reunited for so many weary weeks; “I could have desired nothing better for all of us.  Thou canst scarcely know how it does feel to be free once more, to be able to go where one will, without vinegar cloths to one’s face, and to feel that the air is a thing to breathe with healing and delight, instead of to be feared lest there be death in its kiss!  Ah me!  I think God does not let us know how terrible a thing is till His chastening hand is removed.  We go on from day to day, and He gives us strength for each day as it comes; but had we known at the beginning what lay before us, methinks our souls would have well nigh fainted within us.  And yet here we are ­all but one ­safe and sound at the other side!”

“I truly never thought to see such fearful sights, and to come through such a terrible time of trial,” said Dinah very gravely.  She was one of the party included in Mary Harmer’s hospitable invitation, and looked indeed more in need of the rest and change than any of the others.  Her brother had had some ado to get her to quit her duties as nurse to the sick even yet, but it was not difficult now to get tendance for them, and she felt so greatly the need of rest that she had been persuaded at last.

“Many and many are the times when I have been left the only living being in a house ­once, so far as I could tell, the only living thing in a whole street!  None may know, save those who have been through it, the awful loneliness of being so shut in, with nothing near but dead bodies.  And yet the Lord has brought me through, and only one of our number has been taken.”

The mother’s eyes filled with tears, but her heart was too thankful for those spared her to let her grief be loud.  One after another those round the table spoke of the things they had seen and heard; but presently the talk drifted to brighter themes.  Gertrude asked eagerly of her father, and where he was and what he was doing; and Mary Harmer asked if he would not come and join them, if her house could be made to hold another inmate.

“He is well in health, but looks aged and harassed,” was the answer of the father.  “He has had sad losses.  Half-finished houses have been thrown back on his hands through the death of those who had commenced them; he has been robbed of his stores of costly merchandise; and poor Frederick’s debts have mounted up to a great sum.  Now that people are flocking back into the city, and business is reviving once more, he will have to meet his creditors, and can only do this by the sale of his house.  I saw him yesterday, and told him I had heard of a purchaser already; whereat he was right glad, fearing that he might be long in selling, since men might fear to come back to the city, and whilst there were so many hundreds of houses left empty.  If he can once get rid of his load of debt, he can strive to begin business again in a modest way.  But, to be sure, it will be long before any houses will need to be built; the puzzle will be how to fill those that are left empty.  I fear me he will find things hard for a while.  But if he has a home with you, my children, and if we all give what help we can, I doubt not that little by little he may recover a part of what he has lost.  He will be wise not to try so many different callings.  If he had not had so many ventures afloat in these troubled times, he would not now have lost his all.”

“That was poor mother’s wish,” said Gertrude softly; “she wanted to be rich quickly for Frederick’s sake.  I used to hear father tell her that the risk was too great; but she did not seem able to understand aright.  I do not think it was father’s own wish.”

“That is what I always said,” answered James Harmer heartily; “and I trow things will be greatly better now, if once trade makes a start again.  As for us, we have lost a summer’s trade, but, beyond that, all has been well with us.  We have had the fewer outgoings, and so soon as the gentry and the Court come back again we shall be as busy as ever.  The plague has done us little harm, for we had no great ventures afloat to miscarry, and had money laid by against any time of necessity.”

That evening, before the party retired to rest, the father gathered his children and all the household about him, and offered a fervent thanksgiving for their preservation during this time of peril.  After that they all separated to their own rooms, and the girls sat long together ere they sought their couches, talking, as girls will talk, of all that had happened to them, and of the coming marriage of Gertrude and their brother, over which they heartily rejoiced.

“I must e’en let Lady Scrope know when it is to be,” said Dorcas, “if I can make shift to do so.  I trow she would like to be there.  She has taken a wondrous liking to thee, Gertrude, and she says she has a fine opinion of Reuben, too.  I know not quite what she has heard of him, but so it is.”

“I was fearful lest she should not be willing to spare thee, Dorcas,” said Gertrude with a caress, “but here thou art with the rest.”

“Yes, she was wondrous good to us,” said Janet eagerly, “else I scarce know how we could have come, for there were six children left in the house, and no homes yet found for them to go to.  They were the sickly ones whom we feared to part with, and father said they would strive to get places for them in the country.  When we heard what our kind aunt wished, we saw not how we could leave the little ones; but Lady Scrope, she up and chid us well for silly, puling fools, who thought the world could not wag without our help.  And then she sent out and got two nice, comfortable, honest widow women to live in the house with the children.  And one of them had a neat-fingered daughter, who had been in good service till the plague sent her family into the country and she was packed off home.  Her she took for her maid, and sent Dorcas off with us.  Sure, never was a sharper tongue and a kinder heart in one body together!  I had never thought to like Lady Scrope one-tenth part as well as I do.”

Those were happy days that followed.  It was pure delight to the sisters to wander about the green fields and lanes, watching the play of light and shadow there, hearing the songs of the birds, and seeing the gorgeous pageantry of autumn clothing the trees with all manner of wondrous tints and hues.  Reuben knew the neighbourhood by that time, and was their companion in their rambles; and happy were the hours thus spent, only less happy than the meetings round the glowing hearth or hospitable table later on, when the news of the day would be told and retold.

James Harmer went frequently into the city to see after certain things, and to ascertain that his own and his neighbour’s houses were safe.  What he saw and heard there day by day made him increasingly glad that big family had found so safe a retreat; for there was still some considerable peril to the dwellers in the city, owing, more than anything, to the utter carelessness of the people now that the immediate scare was removed.

The same men who had shrunk away from all contact with even sound persons six weeks ago, would now actually visit and hold converse with those who had the disease upon them.  Persons afflicted with tumours that were still active and therefore infectious would walk openly about the streets, none seeming to object to their presence even in crowded thoroughfares.  It seemed as though joy at the abatement of the pestilence had wrought a sort of madness in the brains and hearts of the people.  So long as the death rate decreased, and the cases were no longer so fatal in character, there seemed no way of making the citizens observe proper precautions, and, as many averred, the malady increased and spread, although not in nearly so fatal a form, as it never need have done but for the recklessness of the multitudes.

One very sorrowful case was brought home to the Harmers, because it happened to some worthy neighbours of their own who had lived opposite to them for many a year.

When first the alarm was given that the plague had entered within the city walls, this man had hastily decided to quit London with his wife and family and seek an asylum in the country, and had earnestly urged the Harmers to do the same.  For many months nothing had been heard of them; but with the first abatement of the malady the father had appeared, and had asked advice from Harmer as to how soon he might bring home his family, who were all sound and well.  His friend advised him to wait another month at least; but he laughed such counsel to scorn, and just before the Harmers themselves started for Islington, their friends had settled themselves in their old house opposite.

Ten days later Harmer heard with great dismay that three of the children had taken the plague and had died.  By the end of the week there was not one of the family alive save the unhappy man himself, and he went about like one distraught, so that his reason or his life seemed like to pay the forfeit.

It was no wonder, in the hearing of such stories as these ­of which there were many ­that Mary Harmer rejoiced to have her brother’s household safely housed and out of danger, and that she earnestly begged them to remain with her at least until the merry Christmastide should be overpast.