The church bell stopped tolling two days ago. Mother thought it meant that the distemper had left us, and would plague our city no more. Father thought that the churches had become overwhelmed, and we would be left to rot in vast pits sunk into rotten ground. Father was right – even now, I can hear the cries of the infected drifting through my window. Abandon hope, indeed.
Two of the houses in our street have been shut up, their inhabitants dying or dead. Three houses in our street lie empty; two because their owners fled into the country when the sickness approached our parish, and one because the entire family perished. Should ours be next?
My sister fears the cries for help that go unanswered and begs me to close the casement, but I cannot bear the stuffiness of our house. Our two maidservants and my brother have caught the distemper, and lie in their sickbeds. The whole house smells of the preservatives my Father bought from a gentlemen physician in Whitecross Street, and I cannot bear their stench.
Yet I may not stir out of doors as we have been shut in to prevent the sickness spreading. My brother begged us to remove him to the attic, along with the maidservants, and none are allowed near them save the nurse. My brother remains thoughtful even in his illness.
Father brings me a preservative and begs me to take it. Yet I cannot see what this poultice can do in the face of God’s wrath. He tells me that it came highly recommended by the physician, a new arrival from the city of Naples. I asked if it came also at a high price. He reminds me of the sickness within our house, but I believe that if it is God’s will that I be spared, then spared I shall be.
Mother asks that I visit the watchman outside our door, placed there to prevent our escape. We have heard rumours of other houses being shut up to contain the sickness. Yet the selfish inhabitants have fled under cover of darkness, even with the distemper upon them.
We none of us wish to die, or sicken, but Mother refuses to leave her son. “We will leave when he does,” she says. “Aye,” adds my father, “either on foot or in the dead-cart.” Mother asks me to give an errand to the watchman; our supplies of bread run low, and we shall need more.
I run down the stairs and knock three times on the door. After the scraping of bolts, the door is pushed ajar, and the watchman peers inside. He asks if I require the dead-cart, and smiles when I shake my head. The watchman knows my brother and wishes him well. I ask if I may step outside for air while I relate my errand, and the watchman hesitates but a brief moment before allowing that I may do so.
I step into the street and take in the sight. This thoroughfare should be thronged with people, and children should play between the feet of the crowds, but only hunched figures, their faces shrouded with cloths, venture along our street today. The watchman sees my distress, and engages me in idle conversation, asking after my sister while entertaining me with snippets of gossip from the alehouse, now lying quiet as the distemper grips our parish. Time passes and Mother calls down the stairs. Life returns to me, removing my momentary escape, and I give the watchman the message from Mother. He asks me to return inside the house before he leaves for the market. I turn and look at the door.
A cross, a foot high at least, is daubed upon the door in red paint. I cry out at the reminder of our plight. The watchman ushers me inside and bolts the door behind me. I sit on the bottom step of the stairs, and I allow a sob to escape my throat.
Father shouts down to me. My brother’s sores have broken, and his fever wanes. He is weak but awake. I run up the stairs, calling his name.
May God have such mercy on us all.
Inspired by Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. If you enjoyed this story, why not sign up below to receive a free collection of Gothic-tinged short stories? Or buy me a coffee to show your appreciation?