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God and the Wedding Dress:
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Date first posted: Apr 2023
Most recent update: Apr 2023
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Let it suffice, at length thy fits And lusts—said He—
Have had their wish and way;
Press not to be
Still thy own foe and mine; for to this day I did delay
And would not see, but chose to wink;
Nay, at the very brink
And edge of all,
When thou would'st fall,
My love twist held thee up, my unseen link.
I know thee well; for I have fram'd
And hate thee not;
Thy spirit too is mine;
I know thy lot,
Extent, and end, for my hand drew the line
If then thou wouldst unto my seat,
'Tis not the applause and feat
Of dust and clay
Leads to that way
But from these follies a resolv'd retreat.
"I cry'd out: Well, I know not what to do, Lord direct me! and the like... and casting my eye on the 91st Psalm, I read to 7th verse exclusive and, after that, included the 10th, as follows:
'I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in Him will I trust. Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under His wings shalt thou trust: His truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day. Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A. thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold, and see the reward of the wicked. Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation. There shall no evil befall they neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling'...
from that moment I resolved that I would stay in the town and, casting myself entirely upon the goodness and protection of the Almighty, would not seek any other shelter whatever. And that, as my times were in His hands, He was as able to keep me in a time of infection as in a time of health, and if He did not think fit to deliver me, still I was in His hands and it was meet He should do with me as seemed good to Him."
The History of the Great Plague in London in the Year
—Daniel Defoe. (7b Pages 15-16, Edition 1920.)
THERE are so many different kinds of historical stories and this author has tried most of them, so it is as well to make clear what has been attempted in this novel. The shell of the tale is true and concerns an incident fairly well known, though perhaps better known a hundred years ago than it is to-day. It has served to illustrate many moral poems and anecdotes, which are now as forgotten as the morality they expressed.
But the details of this episode of country life in the reign of Charles II are sparse and rest largely on legend and conjecture. The characters, too, are shadowy, mere names and labels, most of them.
None of this matters beside the spiritual truth that emerges; in that remote Derbyshire village nearly three hundred years ago, a man did try to serve his God to the best of his belief and at a terrible cost to himself and others. This action was such as to make him a hero in the eyes of the single-minded, a fool in the opinion of those who have the knowledge he could not have possessed.
He believed that he was following divine instructions. From a worldly point of view he was doing things as foolish as they were brave.
Here is good matter for study, a moving, inspiring subject; can there be a more important one than a man's sincere dealings with his God?
The background and the details have been given as much verisimilitude in time and place as the writer could achieve; such history as is introduced would pass muster in the school books, it is hoped. But the main theme is the spiritual adventure of the young man who was convinced he knew the will of God. Some readers may detect echoes of Henry Vaughan in the story; such verses as are quoted are his, as are the very beautiful lines above. The writer felt that Vaughan was the perfect expression in poetry of the spirit that moved the hero of this tale, and the poet was but a few years earlier in date than the priest, so that they share the same contemporary colouring. The letters given in this book are from originals supposed to be genuine, but unfortunately stilted and affected as well as dubious. The writer has ventured to recast them into a more sympathetic and fluid form.
The medical details, in this case so important, are given on medical authority; the principal book consulted being that by Dr. Charles Creighton: Epidemics in Britain. The rest of the material had to be gathered from old guide-books, magazines, and memoirs long since out of print.
"IF they do not know, do not inform them, but it seems incredible that they are in ignorance."
"Sir, I dare assure you that it is so—these people live as isolated an existence as if they resided in Muscovy."
"You speak in pity, Mr. Mompesson? You think them, perhaps, savages?"
"Sir, that they are rude, wild and unlettered, there can be no doubt."
"They have immortal souls, Mr. Mompesson."
"I should have said that, my Lord," replied the young clergyman with a look and an accent steady and quick.
"No, it was I who was impertinent to remind you. See, your son's craft has capsized and you must make him another—"
"—out of the pages of my sermons, my Lord."
Mr. Mompesson took a packet of manuscript from his pocket and deftly fashioned, by folding the paper, a little ship; the two men stood by the banks of a stream that eddied swiftly down a gradual hill, the clear water impeded here and there by glistening stones. Limestone rocks, thickly grown with fine ferns and glossy ivy rose on either side of the dell that was surrounded by trees that almost shut out the distant mountains that rose purple and cloud-veiled behind them.
A child of four years of age sat on the edge of the stream and watched his father fashion his new toy; the first paper ship, water-logged, had foundered in the current.
"I irk you, sir, with my childish occupations," said the young clergyman. "Your Lordship will think that Eyam has gotten an idle pastor."
The Earl regarded the speaker shrewdly.
"I am your friend," he replied quietly, and watched the launching of the paper boat, on which, in a fine careful hand, the words 'Thou hast made the desert blossom as the rose' were clearly visible.
The July day was warm, the hill air sweet with the pure scent of the wild thyme and mint, which showed their blue and purple flowers by the banks of the stream; a soft wind stirred the upper boughs of the crest of trees that overhung the dale; the two men and the child, as if entranced by the summer languor, watched the paper boat taken slowly, with a gallant dignity, down the current.
The Earl, who was the elder by twenty years or more, was a man still in the prime of life, but marked by fatigue, hardship and anxiety. He had known war, exile and poverty; but four years ago he had been living in miserable penury abroad; now he was restored to something more than his ancestral honours and he had been recently appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Derby. With little taste for Court life, the Earl of Devon resided during most of the year at Chatsworth, the antique and noble building that stood amid the dignity of the wide park through which this stream flowed; the Earl was a quiet, careful man, of whom little was known, so earnest had he been to avoid disputes or strivings with his fellows; his attire was plain, he wore his graying hair cut to the shoulders and might have been his own steward as he stood thoughtful among the knee-high flowers and grasses.
William Mompesson, on the other hand, looked above his station; his gray cloth was of the finest make, his bands of delicate lawn, his whole air full of elegance and grace; moreover, he was brilliantly handsome, his patrician and slightly aquiline features shaded by thick auburn curls. Had not his bearing been grave and slightly aloof, he would have appeared no more than what he had hitherto been, chaplain in the household of a great gentleman.
"Why did you enter the Church, Mr. Mompesson?" asked the Earl suddenly.
The dell was full of echoes, and the question, asked in a slightly raised voice, was repeated in hollow tones: "—the Church, Mr. Mompesson?"
"You hear the echoes?" smiled the young clergyman. "How am I to answer so many at once? Surely I did not enter it for preferment—since I am sent into the wilderness."
"That was my thought," said the Earl bluntly. "I should have thought, with your gifts and scholarship, family and friends, you might have hoped for a better cure than Eyam."
"Sir, it was in my patron's gift, he offered it and I took it."
The Earl was not sure whether Mr. Mompesson spoke lightly or in rebuke.
"And your wife, does she take kindly to this rural life?"
"Kate is, as I think, happy."
"Do not then, disturb her, with talk of what is happening in London. She has no friends there?"
"None, my Lord. Her family were at Cockpen, Durham, and her parents are dead. An uncle in York City is all she has."
"There is no chance that she should write to London or receive a letter from there?"
"None, my Lord, indeed."
"Nor her sister?"
"Bessie still less than Kate has any acquaintance at London. Have no fear, my Lord. I shall neither send nor receive anything for a time. Indeed, since I came to the North, I have lost my friends there."
"Very well. And no doubt it is fantastic that a mere letter, save that it came from an infected house... But our wise men can tell us very little of these matters."
"I have studied them. I thought once to be a physician," said Mr. Mompesson unexpectedly. "It is still a foggy science. But for infection, I would not trust a scrap of rag—came it never so many miles."
"Some hold that opinion." The Earl wished to probe into the character and attainments of this attractive man who deeply interested him. "I did not know, Mr. Mompesson, that you followed this modern fashion of chemical experiments and medicine."
"I have done very little, I assure you, sir."
"I rather held you to be a scholar. Sir George Savile told me you were translating Plautus."
"Again," smiled the young clergyman, "I must say—I have done very little."
"You are, sir, over-diffident. I take my leave. Let me welcome you at my house soon. You are lucky, sir, to have your son beside you. Mine is at sea and even now engaged, maybe, with the Dutch."
"I will pray for him, my Lord." Mr. Mompesson bade the little boy rise and salute the Earl, and then stood thoughtful when the boy had gone back to his play, regarding the thick-set figure of the elder man as he walked quickly down the winding path that led to Chatsworth.
In such company the young clergyman was at home; he came from an old Nottingham family of Norman extraction and had received a liberal education. When he had left Peterhouse College, he had obtained, through influence, the post of chaplain to Sir George Savile at Rufford Park and had attended him there or at Thornhill, Yorkshire, and had lived a life of elegance, ease and refinement such as best suited his temperament. His content had been completed by his early marriage to a docile and fair young gentlewoman, Catherine Carr of Cockpen, Durham, who had given him two fine children.
William Mompesson had sometimes accompanied his patron to London and thus had seen something of vice, movement, and novelty of the times, and how men strove both for good and bad, and women clung to their coat skirts impeding them with clamour, or put a staff into their hands and helped them along with noble words.
He remembered little of the Rebellion; he had been a child when the late king was beheaded, but he could recall the hurry, the anxiety, the dread of civil war; the sour clash of opinion on how God was to be served and understood. He recalled, too, the universal joy when the present Charles had returned to his own, and how the prospects for a young royalist student at Cambridge had brightened, and how soon afterwards he had come by his early living, because he was a gentleman bearing arms, well-bred and comely.
Mr. Mompesson much admired Sir George Savile, who was brilliant, witty and wise, and who had taught him to despise the tricks and superstitions of mankind and to disdain the grossness of the self-seekers, the panders, jobbers and wittols who cluttered up all approaches to authority. Sir George had drawn his young chaplain's attention to the delights of Attic philosophy, the exquisite pleasures of music, classical learning, chess and horsemanship.
There were those who said that Sir George was too much of a philosopher to be a good Christian, there were those who taxed him to his face with being an utter disbeliever, but for them he always had the same reply: 'None but a fool is an atheist,' and reminded them of the Holy Bible, where the saying is written: 'The fool hath said in his heart there is no God.'
"Come home, George," said Mr. Mompesson, rousing himself from his reverie and observing that the Earl was now out of sight. "We spend too much time idling, you and I."
The child raised his head and marked with delight the echo that, absorbed in his sport, he had not before observed.
"Sir, we stay," he protested; and cupping his fat hands round his mouth, gave stammering cries to the echoes of the glen.
Mr. Mompesson readily lingered in this sweet solitude that had that elegant luxury (to his mind) to which he was too well used; the dell was as fine as the great music-room at Rufford Park. Only when he came upon the dwellings of his rude flock was the young clergyman offended. He did not wish to return to his own house, the meanness of which vexed him. Kate and Bessie were, moreover, distracted with the feminine business attendant on the approaching wedding and he had no part in that, nor was he much at ease about that marriage.
While his child shouted through the trumpet of his hands, William Mompesson's thoughts returned with pleasure to his old life at Rufford Park and with vexation to his magnificent patron, Sir George Savile. Why had that great gentleman so encouraged and flattered him, laying him, as it were, on silk and feeding him with honey for five years, only at last to say: 'Why, Mr. Mompesson, here is the living of Eyam vacant by the death of Sherland Adams, who was a quarrelsome rogue. And it is yours.'
It would have been to many men a sentence of banishment, for the mountain village was remote and wild, and the people had been much neglected by their late pastor, who, after being suspended by Cromwell, had returned to his charge, a bitter, broken man. But at first William Mompesson had been glad to leave his golden servitude, for he had been discontented with his fastidious sheltered life and eager to exercise his energy and his gifts.
He smiled now as he thought of that flash of enthusiasm. There were no opportunities in Eyam for a man like himself. Though this was the country where his family had lived since the Norman Conquest, he had no knowledge of these hills, this rural life, these people, rude, superstitious, coarse and troublesome, who neither had, nor wished to have, any connection with the outer world. People who had hardly heard of London, whose imaginations went no further than Bakewell, and to whom the Earl of Devonshire in Chatsworth was more important than the King.
'What can I get into their thick heads?' he thought. 'What use is learning, or love of God, or holiness, or wit and enthusiasm here?'
He frowned slightly as he pondered over the part that Sir George had taken in this; had that subtle man thought that his young chaplain was becoming effeminate and pampered? Had he, with that sparkle of delicate malice which sometimes lit his urbane detachment, decided to put William Mompesson to the proof?
'Perhaps he was tired of me; perhaps he recalled that I was his dependent and might be dismissed. And took this way of doing so, courteously.'
The young man's sensitive mind was galled, not only because he detected a hidden rebuke in this banishment to this desolate post, but because he detected failure in himself. He had always believed that he was sincerely religious and that he longed to prove it. Now he knew that he regretted Rufford Park and Thornhill and was depressed—even disgusted—by Eyam.
His chance meeting with the Earl of Devonshire to whom Sir George had warmly recommended him, had stabbed him with regret for the old days when he had enjoyed as of right the company of such men and the luxuries with which they surrounded themselves. True, my Lord had been gracious, but William Mompesson knew that an occasional visit to the great man's establishment would not assuage his longing for the life that he had left.
Other considerations crossed his mind; he was a poor man. His parents, both dead, had been ruined by the civil war and what they had left him had been almost exhausted by the expenses of his education. He had not above forty pounds a year, nor was his wife in better case; the late troubles had left her orphaned and sucked up her family's substance, and she had no near relative beyond Mr. John Beilby, a gentleman possessing a small estate outside York.
And there was little George to educate—'he must go to Cambridge'—and little Bessie to portion—'she must marry a gentleman.' So, on these grounds alone, the young man was well advised to accept the rectorship of Eyam and the stipend of one penny per lot—every thirteenth dish—of ore obtained from the lead mines that, together with the manor of Eyam, had come to Sir George Savile from his great-aunt, the Countess of Pembroke. Nor was this tithe mean; the income varied from three hundred to nearly five hundred pounds a year and more than sufficed for any possible expenditure that could be made in this place.
"It will provide for you, your wife and children," Sir George had said, and William Mompesson resented the money that was the base lure to hold him in this wilderness.
'Am I to die here?' he thought, with a touch of wildness and glanced round at the sloping banks of the little glen, at the crest of trees and at the mountains beyond as if he surveyed prison walls.
He had heard how, in the old days, one parson would stay all his life in one parish—how many years?—he had lived but twenty-six himself, forty more would scarcely see his span out.
Surely the Earl had looked at him shrewdly, wondering what a man of his parts was doing here. Why had he not become a scholar attached to his beloved University, a soldier with the world before him, a curious experimenter in medicine and chemistry? There were livelihoods to be obtained through any of these vocations.
William Mompesson knew why he had taken Holy Orders. It was because he had felt a searing enthusiasm for God.
He knew also why he had accepted the chaplaincy with Sir George Savile. It was because he had been tempted by the insidious, not ignoble, bribes offered by life in a magnificent household where intelligence, taste, fondness for beauty, ease, wit and refinement were gratified to the full.
As he now pondered over his case, he realized as he had never realized before, how that early, sweet and delicate love of God had dwindled and been almost smothered during the five years he had spent in attendance on this splendid and dangerous patron.
'Did I love God, this post would not be hard. Do I not, then, love Him? Am I a hypocrite?'
He looked down at his little son; the child, suddenly tired, had fallen asleep on the crushed beds of mint and parsley; an unspeakable tenderness touched Mr. Mompesson; he stooped and gathered the warm, drowsy face, the soft, dimpled and relaxed limbs to his bosom. Here was flattering, ready love; here was affection easy to understand.
The boy awoke and cried out after his boats; but one was sunk and the other gone far down the stream.
"Will you hear the voice, George?" asked Mr. Mompesson: making a trumpet of his hands he called: "Love God," and the rocks gave back the echo—"'Love God.'"
THE young clergyman's mind was distracted with petty worries that he despised and yet that he could by no means overcome. These clangours of worldly matters overlay his deeper preoccupation with his own soul and his private honour.
He considered himself the guardian of his wife's young sister, Elizabeth, and he was not satisfied that she was making a good match with young John Corbyn; Mr. Mompesson was not pleased with the way his own wife delighted in the worldly aspect of this marriage, nor even with her attitude towards her new life. She had been in Eyam since April and more and more could he guess at the dissatisfaction behind her loyal but alarmed reserve.
Kate had lived as softly as himself at Rufford Park and Thornhill, the friend of Lady Savile, admired, flattered—and now this—a country parson's wife in this wild place. It was no wonder Kate had welcomed with childish pleasure the excitement of her sister's wedding and had made far too much of the money and position of the Corbyns.
'I must speak to Kate,' went constantly through Mr. Mompesson's mind, always followed by, 'but what can I say?'
Then there was the problem of his flock, strange unruly people, secretive, hard to understand, alien to him in everything. Some of the miners in particular were almost savages in the estimation of the cultured scholar. There was one, Sythe Torre, who seemed beyond all discipline and who led his fellows in many disgraceful and indecent pranks; he mocked, almost openly, at the new pastor, though he seemed abashed before his fine wife. And Torre was but one of the odd and difficult characters now in the spiritual charge of Mr. Mompesson; there was Mother Sydall, whom all believed to be a witch, and the herb doctor and the astrologer at The Brass Head in Bakewell—'God help me,' thought Mr. Mompesson, 'but they are no better than pagans. And their rites and customs come from heathen times.'
In his abstraction he stumbled over a stone—this snatched him out of his reverie and at the same moment he heard his name and saw a tall figure coming towards him up the glen.
"Mr. Mompesson, while you were meditating, your little one was falling into the stream." And the speaker put forward the child who, with wet skirt and rosy face, clung to his hand.
The blood rushed into William Mompesson's cheeks; this man was one whom he disliked, and who was one of his griefs and troubles—Thomas Stanley, the dissenting minister who had been appointed to Eyam under the rule of Oliver Cromwell.
"I thank you," he said stiffly, "I was forgetful." He took his son to his side. "The boy was chasing his paper boat, but it has gone."
"Perhaps," replied the Puritan, "his father chased as trivial a toy—or were your deep musings on holy matters?"
"Sir, they were private. And your sour censures, whenever we meet, strain my patience."
"If your patience never has more to bear than my poor rebukes, you are fortunate," replied Mr. Stanley steadily; he fell into step beside the young Rector—who foresaw, with vexation, that he would be forced to listen to another tedious discourse from the man whom he so heartily disliked.
Thomas Stanley was about fifty years of age, healthy and robust, with a deep chest and the slightly bowed legs of a constant horseman; he had been a chaplain to the Parliamentary troops and ridden with them in many campaigns; he was the son of a saddler of Chesterfield and had nothing of what Mr. Mompesson looked for in a gentleman. His coarse, thick grey hair was close-cropped, his blunt, not ill-shaped, features were empurpled and thickened from continuous exposure to the weather; an ugly scar puckered one cheek; his hands were like those of a labourer, and his clumsy homespun black garments were worn and faded, while his stout leather boots were patched and roughly laced with hide thongs over his rudely knit stockings.
Mr. Mompesson could have endured these offences, but he could not tolerate this ignorant fellow's assumption of a sacred office, his defiance of the Church of England and his indifference to breeding and scholarship—and his persistent interference in the parish from which he had been ejected on St. Bartholomew's Day, five years before.
The new Rector was also galled by the fact that Thomas Stanley had been revered and obeyed in Eyam and that the respectability of his character was in notable contrast with that of Sherland Adams, the man whom he had replaced and who, after the Restoration, had replaced him. Mr. Mompesson was bitterly aware that the Nonconformist still visited several of his former parishioners and, for all he, the Rector, knew, held services on the hill-side on the moors.
As they reached the mouth of the glen where it widened into the heath, the road and the village, Mr. Mompesson saw Ann, the maidservant, coming towards them, her grey gown and white apron cool in the sunshine; the child was late and his mother had sent for him; 'careless Kate,' her husband thought tenderly, 'was never careless where the children were concerned.'
He bade the boy run ahead, and when he had seen the woman take charge of him he turned to the sternly disapproving figure at his side.
"Sir, this is not the first time that you have forced your company on me. Let us come to an issue, so that, hereafter, we may leave one another in peace."
"Those are peevish words," replied the Puritan, his deep, steady voice touched with scorn. "To what issue can we come?"
"I bid you look to your ways." Mr. Mompesson flicked at some thistles with his light cane. "Sir, your interference in this parish will not be tolerated. I am very well with Sir George Savile, who is Lord of the Manor, and with my Lord at Chatsworth, who is Lord-Lieutenant—"
"But art thou," interrupted Mr. Stanley, "very well with God?"
"That is between a man and his conscience," retorted Mr. Mompesson curtly.
"Examine well that conscience of thine," said Mr. Stanley. "For many years I held this post—not always abiding here, but going much among the rude and scattered peoples of the north. Tyranny expelled me and I was forced to watch that unworthy man, Sherland Adams, usurp my place—"
"Sir, these complaints are familiar to me," interrupted Mr. Mompesson impatiently.
The Puritan continued unheeding:
"He cared for nothing but his tithes—what he might wring from the mines, and exasperated all with his litigation. You are no better, Mr. Mompesson, with your fopperies and your fine lady wife and the junketing at the Rectory."
"I no longer heed these charges that you bring against me so continuously," replied Mr. Mompesson with warmth. "But since your railings are vexatious, you rude man, I must bid you begone from my parish, Eyam, Foolow, Eyam Woodland, Bretton, Hazelford, my boundaries, the brooks and the river that you know so well."
"You bid me!" smiled the Puritan. "What are you or your patrons, or your boundaries, to me? I perform the will of God."
And he would not be silenced, but ran over his charges against the new Rector, his worldly elegance, the refinements of his household, the Papist ornaments he had introduced into the church, the frivolity of his wife and sister-in-law, who thought nothing of the poor, but who kept themselves for such gentle families as there might be in this Hundred of the High Peak, such as the Corbyns and the Lysons—and what better than neglect and worldliness could be expected from one who had been a courtier to a great lord and who bowed before such a notable malignant as the Earl at Chatsworth? Courtesy at first kept Mr. Mompesson in his place, then an ironic amusement that such bold speech should come from one so. forlorn. For the dissenter was penniless and proscribed; Mr. Mompesson did not know how he contrived to live, though he shrewdly suspected that some of his former parishioners subscribed to support Stanley; and the Rector remembered, with some shame, that the fine stipend that he enjoyed had never been drawn by the dissenter. During the suspension of the manorial rights, the tithe on the product of the lead mines had been abandoned and Stanley had received, for labours that none doubted had been zealous and arduous, a mere pittance. But Mr. Mompesson put that out of his mind and said sternly:
"I respect you for an honest man and I advise you for your own good. You have no business here. I know that you go still from house to house, helping the ignorant people with their business and their letter-writing, and under this colour praying with them."
"I have not denied it."
The Rector struck again at the thistles. "It is against the law. I think, too, that you dare to hold meetings—up in the hills or moors. It is known that last year you would not pay the steeple rate. Nor would you contribute to the Easter offering."
Mr. Stanley replied quietly: "For the first, one shilling and fourpence was demanded, and for the second, five pence. And they took my horse, whose value was over five pounds."
"For your field preachings, I might set the constable on you, yea, have the soldiers from Derby. You mind how those people called Quakers were dispersed last year?"
"Yea, and dragged away by the legs, with their heads on the ground," replied Mr. Stanley, "and taken before a Justice of the Peace, who sent them mittimus to Derby Gaol. There they were kept in a cell where they could not stand upright and their keeper struck them in the face when they prayed to God."
"Such is the law against dissenters," said Mr. Mompesson firmly, "and I have been long-suffering." He turned towards the village, the warm wind lifting the auburn curls from his shoulders, a flush on the handsome face that provoked the Puritan's contempt. "But you, sir, must leave my flock alone. Mr. Sherland Adams was lamentably indifferent to spiritual matters. But I stand for the Church of England."
Mr. Stanley dropped into his easy stride beside the young man and answered: "How deeply art thou mistaken! Both in thy menaces to me and thy confidence in thyself! I shall abate nothing of my ways because of thee. It maybe that thou shalt abate thine because of me. It maybe that God will speak to thee in this place, which is to thee so wild and savage. And then thou wilt leave thy easy living, thy music, ribbons, idols, dancings, perfumes and curlings."
Mr. Mompesson looked curiously over his shoulder at the speaker, "I am not the idler you think me, Mr. Stanley," he smiled, his vexation gone, for he felt that beneath a rude exterior this man was modest, humble and brave. "I have studied, worked and pondered."
"I make nothing of thy learning, Mr. Mompesson, Master of Arts, as thou mayest be. Nor of thy ponderings. Take heed to these people in thy charge. Their souls will not be saved from the Pit by shows of images or lute playings or honey-sweet talk. Look to these wakes, sir, they begin shortly. See if you can control the wild, the wicked and the blasphemous in these days of festival and licence."
"Could you, when you were Pastor here?" demanded Mr. Mompesson.
"Yes," answered the Puritan simply. "But under Mr. Sherland Adams bad customs prevailed again; last year it was like a heathen rioting. And the Rector himself sat in an ale-house, The Miners' Arms, and drank and jested."
At this talk of the coming merrymaking, known in Eyam as St. Helen's Wake, Mr. Mompesson's spirits sank; he did indeed feel unequal to the prospect offered by the outburst of profanity and licence, idleness and buffoonery, that he had been assured characterized this festival of harvest, which remained pagan in almost all its aspects; especially did he dislike this thought, because St. Helen's Wake coincided with Bessie's marriage, another matter before which he felt inadequate.
"You are afraid," said Mr. Stanley, who had been observing him closely. "This charge is too heavy for you, Mr. Mompesson. For you have a conscience."
The village on its pleasant valley was now before them, and the Puritan, giving the other no time to reply, abruptly turned and retraced his steps along the paths, purple with the flush of red heather, that wound towards the dell.
Mr. Mompesson looked back after his sturdy figure and almost envied him, for Thomas Stanley knew the peace of a single mind and a steadfast heart. Almost, not quite, for William Mompesson would not have cared to live, as the dissenter probably lived, in holes in the rocks, in barns, on charity. William Mompesson would not have cared to go roughly clad and to exist without all those pleasures that gilded life for him, nor without Kate and his two children.
THE village of Eyam, which William Mompesson slowly approached on the late afternoon of this warm July day, lay in the south-east part of the Parish of that name and six miles from Bakewell. Two little townships, Foolow and Eyam Woodland, and two hamlets, Bretton and Hazelford, completed the Parish; the whole was confined in the Honour of Peverel of the Peak, and in the Diocese of Lichfield and Coventry.
The Rector faced a wide street, nearly a mile in length, as he approached the Rectory from the dale, built, who knew how long ago, on a tableland of limestone, sandstone and shale, which curved through the valley surrounded by the lofty hills of the Peak. The street, of uncommon width, was guarded at the eastern or Town end by the gate known as the lych-gate; this the villagers took it in turn to watch by at night, more out of regard for ancient custom than through fear of any possible danger. Beyond this gate, which stood open in the daytime, the street widened to the spacious green and Cross, then narrowed again to the Townhead, or western part.
The village took a serpentine course and there branched from this long street, twisted lanes, the Causey or Causeway, the Dale and the Water Lane. In the centre rose the church, almost completely hidden at this season of the year by the foliage of some magnificent linden trees; above these boughs, amber-coloured from the sunlight, only the squat grey tower with the four finials was visible.
The dwellings that lined the street were simple, one-storeyed cottages, some tiled, some thatched, some flush on the wide road, others with stone-walled gardens round them; some detached, in a square of ground, others in a row; such as had space possessed neat ranks of straw-covered beehives, and many had a little pasturage in the rear where a cow was kept.
A capacious inn with a wide entrance for carriages stood on the green. The efforts of a journeyman painter had depicted a glossy and gigantic Bull's Head on the sign. Further on there were two ale-houses of modest pretensions, The Foresters' Arms and The Miners' Arms, while another inn, The Townhead, and two other alehouses, The Rose and Crown and The Royal Oak, furnished the western part of the village. To the open disgust of Mr. Stanley and the secret dismay of Mr. Mompesson, this village of less than three hundred houses and less than five hundred inhabitants had six ale-houses.
Eyam was almost deserted as the Rector walked slowly along the main street, a few old folk and children, with sleeping dogs and yawning cats, sat at their doors, spinning, gossiping or dozing in the sun. The men divided their time between the lead mines situated in the rocks of the Peak and agriculture; most families were self-supporting with their cows, poultry, bees and hay. The mines were very old and paid better every year; a man did not need to work long hours there in order to earn a good income for a labourer or peasant. These mines, besides supporting the Church, paid a tithe to the Lord of the Manor, and the expenses of their own administration by a Barmaster, Steward and yearly court called the Barmoot. The mines themselves belonged to the Parish of Eyam by virtue of a Charter supposed to have been given by King John, which no one, however, had seen.
A new mine, known as the Edgeside vein, had lately been discovered and found to be very rich in ore, and this promised fortune showed in the lively preparations being made this year for the St. Helen's Wake. Mr. Mompesson knew that this meant added riches for himself—some said that his stipend would be raised to something near a thousand pounds a year presently. Kate and Bessie had been very pleased at this talk, but he had felt uneasy. And he felt uneasy now again when he recalled the grim rebukes of Thomas Stanley.
The villagers returned his graceful salutation kindly; if he had not much impressed them as a man of God like Mr. Stanley, they bore with him because he was a handsome, amiable young gentleman, who always spoke to them courteously and who did not much interfere with them.
The Rectory stood back from the road, close to the church and in considerable grounds. Mr. Sherland Adams had let it fall into disrepair, and Mr. Stanley had turned it into a poor-house save for one room in which he lived, so Kate had burst into tears when she had first seen her new dwelling. But Sir George Savile had allowed repairs to be made and sent furniture from Rufford Park, while Kate and her sister had travelled as far as York to buy hangings and mirrors.
Then the Rector had sent to Nottingham for such chattels of his own as his parents had left him and had been stored with a relative, and Kate's uncle, Mr. Beilby, had sent some gifts, so that now, four months after their arrival in Eyam, the Mompessons were set out in a state that rivalled that of the few gentle families in the district, the Corbyns, who were rebuilding the old Manor House, the Lysons of the Hall, near Middleton Dale, and a few others of the better sort, who resided near Eyam. Yet Mr. Mompesson was conscious of a return of that distaste of his new surroundings which he had not yet been able to overcome. Eyam was truly in the wilderness and the Rectory a mean place compared to Rufford Park; he was ashamed to find that he was calculating how soon the profits from the new lead mine might come, and if they would justify him in adding a wing to the house that had been so much too large and fine for Thomas Stanley.
THE two women were in the large panelled room that looked on the rose garden and, through the gate in that, to the orchard where the beehives stood beneath the fruit trees; the sunshine was full on the group in front of the handsome mirror with the tortoise-shell frame and the bands of dark blue glass that had been a present from Lady Halifax.
Catherine Mompesson was seated on a low stool and Elizabeth Carr on a cushion by her side; the young matron wore a gown of pale grey cloth with a falling lace collar and laid seams of green braid, she had sea-green ribbons in her hair, at her bosom and wrists; she was a slight, gay creature, with fine, bright brown ringlets and large hazel eyes, her features childishly small and pretty, her complexion too brilliant to need the velvet patch she had stuck by her delicate chin.
Five years of marriage and the birth of two children had not sobered the Rector's wife into any gravity or heaviness of deportment; at twenty-four years of age, she seemed no older or more serious than the younger sister who sat beside her, wearing a gold coloured gown of a bird's-eye pattern and holding up to the dazzling light a sample of white satin.
Bessie Carr was darker than Kate, an abundance of glossy, chestnut curls hung gracefully from her small head, and charm was given her insignificant features by her animation, sparkle and radiancy of her clear eyes and pure complexion. In the cushioned window seat slept the other Elizabeth, the Rector's little daughter, curled up in her muslins and silks, with the curtains drawn forward to shield her from the sun's bright rays.
William Mompesson paused at the door and smiled tenderly at this peaceful scene. But he recalled the stinging rebukes of the dissenter and inwardly admitted that there was truth in them. The room was handsomely furnished; there were inlaid cabinets, a sideboard with silver flagons, portraits in gilt frames, damask hangings, chairs with velvet cushions, cups and platters, and the two young women in their expensive garments, with patterns of tinsels, satins, buckrams, braids and fringes scattered over their knees and on the floor beside them.
"We are choosing the wedding clothes," smiled Catherine. "And yours, too, my dear—even if you must wear gown and bands, I'll see that they are of the finest quality." He had no heart for a rebuke, though he thought they made too much of this wedding and spent a good deal of time and thought on the preparations for it, rejoicing, besides, with too open a guileless pleasure, on the worldly advantages of the match.
"Where do the patterns come from?" he asked, trying to show a courteous interest in their dainty task.
"From Derby," said Kate. "Mr. Vickers got them for us; they came by the carrier this morning. Mr. Vickers is a clever tailor, for this outlandish place."
"But is not your finery complete?" asked the Rector pleasantly; he took the place beside his tiny daughter in the window seat and looked with a deep affection at the sleeping infant.
"Not complete," cried Elizabeth Carr, who was always ready to chatter. "Most of the dresses are made, but there are household furnishings and ornaments to attend to—you know that John says I am to have new goods in a new house..."
"And there, Mompesson," put in Kate quickly, "is a chance for you to read us a homily, on a new heart too."
"I cannot preach to you, Kate." Mr. Mompesson smiled a little sadly. "Save when you go to church and then, I think, you do not listen."
"Nay, but I do, and think what a fine figure you make in the pulpit..."
"Do not laugh, Kate, for I am like to make but a poor figure in Eyam. These people give no heed to me. To them I am not only a stranger, but almost a foreigner."
The women spoke together.
"They are so barbarous, so wild..."
Mr. Mompesson hushed this pretty clamour. "They are given into my charge. And when this wedding is over, Kate, you must go among them more, and make friends with them, and help them."
"Oh!" Mrs. Mompesson gave her lord a mischievous glance. "I must, indeed! Why, I hardly understand what they say—and they stare at me as if I was a mummer at a fair..."
"And I'm sure," added Bessie eagerly, "I don't know how you expect Kate to remain in this lonely place..."
"Will not you live here?" asked the Rector. "What of the fine new Manor House, Bess?"
"John has promised to take me to Derby and to Buxton. John will not be tied here, as you will be. We shall have a coach, we might even go to London. And we'll carry Kate with us, too, say what you will, dear sir."
"Truly," put in Mrs. Mompesson eagerly. "I hope we do not stay here long, even now in the summer I feel shut in by these mountains—so far away from the rest of the world; and what must it be, for desolation, in the winter..."
"We are not in Muscovy or Cathay," said the Rector gently, "but a few miles and you are in a fine town, Buxton or Sheffield..."
"He protests against himself, dear," smiled Bessie to her sister. "He feels exiled here, too; how different his spirits are from what they were at Rufford Park! Is he not often apart in a melancholy?"
"It is true," agreed Kate tenderly. "Where were you to-day? You had George abroad so long I sent Ann after you, and she found you where I knew you would be, in that solitary glen."
The Rector was impressed by this picture that the two young women, with simple sincerity, gave him of himself. It was true that he had fallen into a pensive, inactive habit, had become slothful and languid, since he had been confronted with the difficulties of his new post. "I must amend my own ways," he admitted, "the task I have weighs on me. I feel that it is one for a better man. One older and of more power. I should do more with these people, who have become very irreligious under Sherland Adams's idle ministry..." He did not add the thought that was in his mind—that there were many in his parish who were God-fearing, but that these were secretly followers of the Rev. Thomas Stanley and heeded him, William Mompesson, not at all.
"Let it go," said Kate easily. "You do your duty and the people are content. I wonder only that Sir George sent you here. Pray, before the winter comes, beg him to send us to another living or take us again to Rufford Park."
"Nay, my Kate, we have been cream fed, cushioned on silk, too long."
The young women laughed and their delicate mockery roused him; he saw, with a sudden painful clarity, the whole pleasant scene as an enchanter's delusion. These two lovely girls, the beautiful infant, the handsome room, the prospect beyond, honey, roses, fruit, all the symbols of ease, of luxury, of rich idleness—what manner of man, of priest was he to be content with this?
He rose and approached the laughing Bessie and the smiling Kate and said to them earnestly and with deep tenderness:
"I am at fault. I should set you a better example. I conjure you, both of you, to give no cause for mockery. I am the Rector, Kate, and you are the Rector's wife. What was suitable for Rufford Park is not suitable here," he glanced at the boxes of patterns, the cuttings of braid and tinsel. "I will have this wedding plain, Bessie. You have no other guardian save your uncle, Mr. Beilby, and he is of my mind. All must be sober, even plain. Besides that, gauds are not fitting our station, we cannot afford them."
"John is well enough for money," pouted Bessie, fingering a length of azure ribbon.
"His father's settlements are not very generous, dear. And whatever he has, your provision does not come from him until you are his wife. I'll have no debts, Bessie. No useless expense. It is my charge to see your little fortune wisely bestowed."
"How serious you are, Mompesson!" protested Kate. "Is this a time for homilies?"
"Alas, if I speak lightly, you give no heed to what I say. I have observed much hustle and coming and going here..."
Kate flushed; she had always been so affectionately dealt with by her husband that the least reproof from him wounded her keenly; lately she had, with the sensitiveness of a young, delicately nurtured woman, resented his absent-mindedness, his fits of melancholy, his long withdrawals to the solitudes of the mountains and the glens, as much as she had resented the uncouthness and isolation of Eyam. "I hope I know a woman's business best," she said warmly. "Bess needs much stuff before she can set up housekeeping. I make what economies I can. But my sister cannot go like a beggar... "
"She need not go, either, like a great gentlewoman," replied Mr. Mompesson. "Indeed, Kate, I want no pomp that is likely to set us above our rank and to rouse malice and unkindness among those to whom we should be an example of humility..."
Kate bit her lip, silenced by this show of authority, but hurt and rebellious; Bessie hung her head and the Rector left the room conscious of having ill played his part, of an uneasiness and uncertainty in himself that ill fitted him to play the mentor to anyone.
He had more serious grounds for concern than the charming, if exasperating frivolity of the two young women; his man, Jonathan Mortin, had met him on his return and told him that, during his absence, Sythe Torre had come to the Rectory, speaking of an urgent matter on which he wished to see the Rector. Urgent it must be, Mr. Mompesson reflected, for the miner to have left his work so early, and he shrank from any contact with this uncouth, almost savage fellow, who had so bad a character even among his coarse fellows. 'I suppose he comes a-begging,' and he told the servant that he would see Torre when he returned, as he had promised to return that evening. 'It is my plain duty,' he told himself; he had another, even more disagreeable. He must go to the Manor House and speak to John Corbyn on a matter that had come to his knowledge—a thing, perhaps, of no importance, and yet perhaps a thing of great moment.
He did not like the Corbyns, a proud, hard family, he thought, which was not diffident about expressing a sense of condescension in marrying their heir to the Rector's portionless sister-in-law. The haughty parents, Mr. Mompesson knew, had been heard to say that the match would never have been made had not John Corbyn met Elizabeth at Rufford Park, where he had gone to pay his devoirs to the new Lord of the Manor. Only the kindness of the Saviles for the bride-to-be had made her acceptable to the Corbyns, and the appointment of William Mompesson to Eyam, which might have seemed so apposite, had rather irritated these local gentlefolk, who would rather have had Sir George's chaplain than the Rector of Eyam in the family.
Of these feelings Mr. Mompesson was well aware, and they did not help to increase his liking for his new position. Nor did he feel altogether easy at trusting the happiness of little Bessie, which was so closely woven with the happiness of his Kate, to John Corbyn, for whom he had little respect. But outwardly it was a fine match and Bessie was deeply in love, so there was nothing for the Rector to do but to make the best of it, and he set out through the summer gold towards the Manor House, which stood a little beyond the village.
The sun was declining and the miners were returning to work in their little fields and gardens before the evening meal; self-absorbed as he was, William Mompesson took no heed of these rude parishioners beyond a casual touch of his beaver; he was thinking, with compassionate love, of the two young women, whose pleasure he had perhaps spoiled by his rebukes. How pleased they would have been had they known that he had met the Earl, how eager to go to Chatsworth, that was even more splendid than Rufford Park.
This reflection brought sharply to his mind what my Lord had said: 'If they do not know, do not tell them.'
For a second Mr. Mompesson could not recall to what this referred; the matter was vague and, compared to the affairs that he had on his mind, unimportant. But it was as well for him to recall the Lord Lieutenant's warning, which was this—the plague that had been so frightful a scourge in the capital last year that the court had removed to Oxford had, after subsiding during the winter, returned, in some slight degree, to London.
Well, he smiled to himself, they were as safe here as if they had been in Cathay, shut a hundred and fifty miles away in this mountain fastness; but if poor, sweet Bess really tried to induce her groom to take her to London, why, then, he must tell her of the Earl's warning; but his smile deepened as he reflected how over-cautious my Lord was in even mentioning this recurrence of the plague in London—why, if it had been in Derby even, there would have been no fear, so cut off from the rest of the world was this little community in the Peak.
And it was with a pang near to regret that Mr. Mompesson recalled that neither he nor his wife had as much as an acquaintance in the capital, for he, when he had visited London with Sir George, had much admired the splendour and eager energy of the life that his patron and his friends led in Whitehall.
The Manor House had long been leased by the Corbyn family, who farmed a large district and owned a lead mine in another part of the Peak; wealthy marriages had increased their importance considerably, and Catherine Mompesson was justified, from a worldly point of view, in rejoicing that her sister had made so good a match as young John Corbyn, only child of Ambrose Corbyn and heir to all his property.
The Rector paused at the gate and looked at what was to be Bessie's house; the stone-masons were working on the new wing and the portion that was being rebuilt was covered with scaffolding poles. It would be some months before the work was completed and meanwhile the young couple were supposed to lodge in the Dower House, a small antique dwelling lower down the valley, so incommodious that it afforded Bessie a fair excuse to travel.
Mr. Mompesson passed through the gardens, now disturbed by the builders, and stood before the old Manor House south door; above this was a circular stone, on which was the crest of the Corbyns cut deeply. A raven on a wreath, perching under a vine, with the date 1560 cut beneath. As the Rector's hand went out to the iron bell-pull, he saw young John Corbyn coming towards him through the orchard at the side of the house, and he turned aside to meet him, coming up with him in the field known as the Manor Yard.
The two young men exchanged greetings and spoke of the wake, for which the Corbyns made extensive preparations. They feasted and entertained their tenants and servants and this year this rejoicing was to be on a large scale, for on the last day of the wake John Corbyn was to marry Bessie Carr. This family had a peculiar connection with the festival, for they held their lease on the condition that they should keep a lamp perpetually burning before the altar of the patroness of the wakes, St. Helen, in the Parish Church.
John Corbyn seemed surprised at this visit from the Rector and, when he had talked rather boastfully about the handsome show his family would make, he fell into a silence that was slightly awkward and left the conversation to the other man.
Bessie's betrothed was a fine young man, tall and well shaped, with thick yellow hair cut square on his forehead, light grey eyes that easily assumed a sullen expression, and good features, slightly thick and coarse. His country clothes were expensive and not free from a hint of foppery in the bunches of ribbons on his shoulders and at his wrist.
"I have to speak to you on a vexatious matter."
John Corbyn at once became hostile; he had never made any disguise of his ill-concealed dislike to the Rector; he protested—what tiresome affair would be brought up now?
"Your conduct in Bakewell," said Mr. Mompesson kindly. "Upon a hint I determined to make inquiries and found that your behaviour has been such as I must take notice of..."
"You put an affront on me!" replied the young man, his sanguine face flushed darkly.
"I am Bessie's guardian," said the Rector, who had expected this anger, "so pray check your wrath and way of thinking. You are not a month off your wedding and you sit in ale houses with mummer's wenches."
"Who told you?" demanded John Corbyn, pausing in his walk and sticking his hands on his hips.
"Those I did not heed. But I rode myself to Bakewell and saw you, three nights ago, though you did not see me, coming in your cups out of The Talbot, with a poor dancing woman on your arm."
"I prepared some actors for the shows up here"; the young man made his excuses with ill will. "Do you expect me to be ever saying my prayers at home?"
"Bessie loves you," said Mr. Mompesson. "If she knew this, all her world would fall into confusion."
"Who is to tell her? Who is to make mischief over a little harmless merriment?"
"Not I, John, not I. Harmless? I do believe it has no great harm, but ill manners breed mischief fast enough."
"This is a time of licence," interrupted the young man shortly. "I am no profane fellow or a scoffer. But I tell you, sir, neither will I live as that snivelling Round-head would have us. I mean Thomas Stanley. This place is quiet for one of my parts. I mean to travel, to get some post with the Lord Lieutenant."
"Jack, I have nothing against your ambitions; the Peak is quiet, too, for Bessie—nor would I be straitlaced. But these levities and debaucheries..."
"When Bessie has me fast," put in John Corbyn, with a sudden smile, "let her hold me if she can—do you doubt that she can? I love her as she loves me. But no more of this preaching, sir. I had my belly full from the dissenter. I marvel that you allow him to lurk about the place. I cannot stir abroad but he is at my bridle, telling me of my foul life. As if a cup of ale and a wench on the knee were damnation."
Mr. Mompesson was offended, for he did not like to be compared to the ranting Puritan whom he disliked, nor to think that Thomas Stanley had taken on himself to rebuke one whose morals and behaviour were in the Rector's charge. John Corbyn saw his vexation and took advantage of it to say:
"Why do you not set the constable on him? Nay, have the soldiers in from Derby, as they did for the Quakers..."
"Some like the man and he does good, too," replied Mr. Mompesson. "He shall not be apprehended on my charge, but we digress..."
"From the sermon that you would read me?" John Corbyn spoke with forced frankness. "Sir, I know it all and you must look upon me as a sensible, religious man, until you have proof that I am a rogue."
"I did not say rogue..."
"No, for you gave up your sword when you put on the gown and bands," said the young man with a wry smile, "therefore you go gently and I must respect you for a clergyman. But were we of a quality as we are of an age, I doubt not that we should come to high words." He turned aside and stared down into the fish-pond, where the big mullet came, gaping with blue-gey mouths, to the stone rim.
'He dislikes me,' thought Mr. Mompesson, 'and it is my fault. I have not handled this carefully.' He was turning away, feeling self-rebuked and grieved, because there would never be, he thought, any real quarrel between Bessie's lord and himself, when the young man called after him in an unpleasant mocking fashion.
"Ask Bessie herself what mischief she has on hand. Is she in debt for finery, does she gamble? She had five pounds from me, and won it from me with kisses. Is that your training, sir?"
Mr. Mompesson was amazed; a sharp denial he checked with difficulty; he saw in the steady, angry grey eyes of John Corbyn that he spoke the truth—he remembered the boxes of patterns, the glistening fopperies that had of late been strewing the Rectory furniture. "Your money shall be returned to you, sir," he said quickly.
"Do you think I would take it?"
"Since you have told me you gave it," replied Mr. Mompesson, with rising colour, "I am at liberty to believe that you would accept its return."
"You had not heard unless you had angered me. I defy you to tell Bessie...?"
"That you betrayed her?" interrupted the Rector bitterly. "You need not fear, sir. I value her peace of mind that rests on my faith in you." He checked himself, this would soon be a quarrel, a scandal, perhaps the ruin of poor Bessie's marriage; he turned away miserably through the thickening gold of the late afternoon and heard John Corbyn laugh behind him as he went.
THE young Rector felt weary with that nervous, restless fatigue which comes from a dissatisfied mind and ill-adjusted labours; he had been quiet during supper and the young women had cheerfully rallied him on his humour. Now he sat alone in his little library or study, awaiting with distaste the arrival of the uncouth miner, Sythe Torre.
'I am in the wrong place,' he thought gloomily. 'I am fitted for none of these things—neither to manage my own wife and her sister nor to control John Corbyn nor to overcome Thomas Stanley nor to understand and help my savage parishioners—what use can I be to this man Torre? A bold ruffian, what does he want of me? What am I? A fine gentleman? A recluse? Why am I thus cloudy and languishing?'
He looked round the room still unfamiliar to him and mean, compared to the painted chamber he had enjoyed for nearly five years at Rufford Park, though Kate's care had done much to make it handsome. A tapestry that was the gift of Sir George Savile hung against the long wall opposite the window; worked in indigo blue and deep green worsted, it represented Moses raising the Brazen Serpent. In front of this was a fine Chinese cabinet on a gilt stand, and lining the short walls, save for the door, cases of books; Mr. Mompesson had a valuable collection of classical authors and some modern treatises; he himself had beeswaxed the shining tooled calf and sepia-inscribed vellum covers, and it gave him pleasure to see the purple, green, and scarlet silk ties hanging below the spines.
Before the window, curtained in a saffron yellow damask, stood the writing-table where the Rector sat, and in the corner was a brass bracket clock, while either side of the window was a small portrait by a Dutch painter: one of Mr. Mompesson's father, painted on his visit to the Brownist Colony at Leyden, the other of his wife, a pale young woman holding an African pink.
Mr. Mompesson's desk was handsomely finished, the standish, hour-glass, and candlesticks were in silver, the Bible and Prayer Book were lavishly bound and mounted with the same gleaming metal.
The reading-lamp, of sparkling crystal and silver-gilt, set close to his hand, was neatly trimmed; quills, packets of paper, tapers, sticks of wax and binding cords for packages, all lay in readiness for the Rector's sermons or his correspondence.
His deep chair with arms was deeply cushioned with saffron velvet heavily fringed, and on the cloth that hung over the back were worked in Kate's fine stitching the Mompesson arms, argent, a lion rampant, sable, charged on the shoulder with a mullet of the field: with the curious crest of a bouget, or Crusader's desert water-carrier, with a string assure, tasselled of the first. Above, in uneven letters was the motto that Kate had found difficult to embroider: 'Mon juge est Dieu seulement.'
Mr. Mompesson had taken considerable pains to make the room that he had found bare and forbidding into some likeness of the luxurious chamber that he had occupied at Rufford Park. But though he had succeeded in impressing his parishioners—far more than he wished—with his gentility and his wealth, the apartment remained, to him, mean and even distasteful.
William Mompesson tried to compose his thoughts; he was deeply vexed with himself that they should be so agitated. He had no reason to be disturbed or forlorn; he reminded himself of his bountiful blessings—his youth, his health, his easy life, his wife, and children, his opportunities for usefulness, the many pleasures he had, from his books, Seneca, Plautus, Lucian, to his beehives and his apple trees.
But content cannot be hastily summoned, nor serenity be put on by making a resolution to be serene.
The young Rector was deeply troubled; he could neither adjust his affairs with man nor, and this was the deeper grief, with God. He had from his early youth accepted Christianity as taught by the Church of England, he was absolutely loyal to the religious teachings that he had imbibed with such enthusiasm.
William Mompesson, sensitive and conscientious, was not the man to enter the ministry for a piece of bread or to accept with grateful facility the mere symbols of a religion. As a Christian priest he knew that he must accept the tremendous fact of God, and God's holy Angels, and the Devil and his loathsome demons, and allow these to guide both his spiritual and his material life.
He had the temperament of a mystic, but worldly matters had impinged upon his secret communings, which had in his youth approached ecstasy, with his Maker. Indolence, worldly ease, even doubt, had crept in like the little foxes that eat the vine. The elegant conversation of Sir George Savile, his wide intelligence, and gently mocking wisdom that were not, for all his protestations, wholly subservient to Christian doctrines, had done something to disturb his chaplain's faith.
Then had come the sharp, poignant, bitter-sweet love of the flesh for Catherine and the joys of his union with her, the birth of his children, and his own studies in the classics, which had engaged him so deeply. He had felt blotted and corrupted by these sensual pleasures.
All these things seemed to put clouds between him and God. The priest began to fear his own mind and his own power of reasoning; he dreaded to feel that through the intellect the Devil tempted men of his temperament. He feared his own easiness and indolence, which at times approached sloth; he winced before his own love and liking for the activities of his life. He knew that he should look upon all these as vain joy, vain grief, vain care, and have all his soul fixed on eternity.
But this attitude of mind and soul was not easy to attain. William Mompesson feared, too, his own inner arrogance, which he could by no means subdue and which made him sense himself to be the superior of these rude, gross people, over whom he had been set, and that he was put apart from them. Indeed, when, as in this moment of solitude in his study, he looked into his own heart, he saw mirrored there nothing but fears, uncertainties, and doubts.
There were specious arguments he might have employed, such as: 'Go thy way, thou hast done no wrong': 'Live pleasantly, dream deeply, and let all else slide': or 'Who has complained about thee? Thou art fortunate, a worthy man in a safe place.'
Such fallacious comforts could not soothe him, nor could he derive contentment from dwelling on his felicity. He knew that his present discomforts in Eyam were but temporary, and with the aid of Sir George Savile and the Earl of Devonshire he might easily, say in a year or two, be sent to some other cure. He might contrive, even, to go to London and become chaplain again in a great house, where the lucky world's gorgeous mask and glittering store would be spread before him, his Kate, and his children.
There he might have, for the asking or the intriguing, all the latest modes of pride and lust.
Yet this hope did not allure him, though ambition stirred in him often enough. It was indeed as distasteful as the rude solitude of his mountain fastness. Every prospect that rose before him seemed equally abhorrent. He would not be here among this coarse peasantry whom he did not understand or like, he would not be amidst the temptations of the glitter of the great cities, he wished to resist the snare that came from the gilded idleness in a vain, glorious lord's mansion.
What, then, did he want?—he would neither be recluse nor man of the world nor nobleman's servant nor plodding citizen nor industrious scholar. Something of all these qualities there was in his nature.
But above them all was this desire to be at one with his God.
He laid his hands out on the desk and looked at them, ashamed of their delicate make. Womanish hands they appeared in the yellow light of the carefully trimmed lamp, too fine for the uses of anything but indolence.
"Lord," he said out loud, "what is Thy will with me?"
But these were words only, and he felt that they did not go upwards to the all-triumphant splendour, for he was vexed because of little troubles—the five pounds that Bessie had borrowed from John Corbyn, Kate's absorption in the approaching wedding festivities, the coming wake that would provoke a licence he would not be able to restrain.
Then the problem of Thomas Stanley, a man whom he respected yet did not like, whom he was protecting, half-willingly, against the Law, whom perhaps he should deliver to the Law, for the man was a heretic, an outcast from and a derider of the Church.
Mr. Mompesson's troubled reverie approached anguish, and prayer broke from his lips that God would relieve the weight about his heart. And then, when the door opened slowly, he was startled at his own seriousness and wondered why this discord had brought him, for no good reason, to so low a state.
It was Jonathan Mortin who entered, his confidential body servant, who had been with him at Rufford Park, and who had very willingly come to Eyam with his master, since that was near his native place, Bakewell.
Jonathan Mortin was a well-trained, quiet man, who had effaced his own personality, as a servant in a great gentleman's house. Mr. Mompesson liked him without being familiar with him, and trusted him without having ever probed into his character.
Ann Trickett, who was Kate's woman, and helped her with the children, had also come from Rufford Park, Buxton was her birthplace, but there were Tricketts in Eyam. It was not the least of William Mompesson's comforts that these two staid and faithful servants had followed him into the strange place and freed him from the necessity of employing the villagers, who to him were like foreigners, for anything save the roughest work.
"It is Sythe Torre, sir," said Mortin; "he declares that you promised to see him."
"It is true," said the Rector, collecting his idle shames swiftly. "Bid him come up."
When the servant had withdrawn, the young man clenched his hands on the desk, and his eyes and brows narrowed into a frown of self-contempt.
'Why do I dread to see this fellow? Why am I so unequal to this that is but a small part of my task?' He turned in his chair so that he faced the door, and putting out that fair right hand, the delicacy of which he had himself despised, on the silver-bound Bible, composed himself for the interview.
He had not the least inkling of what this man would want of him, but he experienced an unpleasant sensation when the miner slowly and sullenly entered the library, for he remembered the bad character the man had, and he was oppressed by his physical stature.
Sythe Torre was accounted in Eyam a giant; he was well over six feet and of enormous proportions. His massive sloping shoulders, short thick neck, small head with the flat back, were characteristics of strength that Mr. Mompesson had seen in antique statues. The Derbyshire miner, indeed, much resembled a bust in the possession of Sir George Savile, which purported to represent the Emperor Maximus. Here were the same blunt, brutal features, the compact dark curls, the heavy jaw outlined by a crisp beard, the deep-set eyes, and the retreating forehead.
The miner was in the prime of life, Mr. Mompesson judged him to have no more than thirty years? His strength and industry earned him good money in the lead mines, but he was not very frequently occupied there, he preferred the upper air. Besides farming his own small piece of land on the outskirts of the village, he took long holidays from his toil when he travelled about the Peak district, wrestling, throwing the javelin, fighting with the quarter-staff, and exhibiting other feats of strength at local fairs.
The Rector had heard ugly stories of the giant, who was reported to be cruel, ruthless, and blasphemous, but his crude stone dwelling, largely built with his own hands, sheltered a silent wife and sickly son, to whom he was reported to be obstinately attached.
Without speaking and taking no notice of the Rector's suggestion to him that he sat, the giant stood, glancing with his small sly eyes around the room, noticing the tapestry, the furniture, the books, with childish curiosity.
He had made, Mr. Mompesson noted, some attempts to compose his dress for this interview. His coarse and soiled shirt was caught together with a ribbon at the neck, his grey-green coat had been brushed and a pair of clean white woollen stockings drawn up over his worn, patched breeches.
The Rector controlled his impatience and waited for this strange member of his strange flock to speak. He wondered if the fellow had come to ask for work, perhaps he was unemployed as a result of some quarrel at the mines—but when Sythe Torre spoke, he showed at once that he had come on spiritual matters.
Looking at the Rector and thrusting his thick finger into the coarse ribbon at his neck, he said:
"Would a murderer be damned, sir, save he make repentance?"
This was no problem to the Rector, who answered directly:
"Every sinner would be damned unless he made repentance, unless he believed."
"Ay," said Sythe Torre, with a deep sigh, "ay. That's what Mr. Thomas Stanley told me, and he's a holy man."
"Do you go to him?" asked Mr. Mompesson quietly. "Are you in his charge? Do you term yourself a dissenter?"
The giant shifted uneasily from foot to foot; he appeared awkward, bewildered, and yet desperately earnest about some vital matter, his dialect was thick and offensive to the ear of the gentleman who listened to him so gravely.
"I don't know these fine terms, sir," he said sullenly. "I come to you about a plain matter. Mr. Stanley's a man of God, too, isn't he? Well, I asked him. He said—damned and lost, burned for ever."
"No one can tell you otherwise," replied Mr. Mompesson sternly. "None but a madman would think it possible to sin and escape punishment. What is this talk of murder? How does it concern you, Sythe Torre?"
"That's not my business to be telling you, nor your business to ask, sir," replied the man, servile and yet hostile too. "I thought it was a point you could make clear to me."
"I have made it clear to you," replied the Rector. "I could enlighten you on other matters, would you come to church. I do not think I have seen you there since my ministry began. I hear you indulge a black self-will, that your lusts disorder into crime."
"I don't understand the church," replied Sythe Torre, looking on the ground. "I don't understand half the things you say. Mr. Stanley told me..."
"When you speak to me," replied Mr. Mompesson coolly, "you must leave Mr. Stanley out of your speech. He is a dissenting minister. If he preaches or tries to instruct any of you, it is against the law. He might be laid in Derby gaol for that."
"Ay, ay, so he said," replied the giant, unmoved. "But I wanted to come to the matter of the murder, sir. There was one man that murdered another, and it was not discovered. And he didn't repent. Is his soul damned?"
"To all Eternity," replied Mr. Mompesson. "Poor man! Have not these awful truths been impressed upon you yet?"
"Who's to tell me they be truths?" asked the huge fellow obstinately. "That's what you say and that's what Mr. Stanley said, and I went to The Brass Head in Bakewell..."
Mr. Mompesson interrupted sternly.
"You must not come here to talk such blasphemous nonsense! These astrologers and witches are but quacks and charlatans, telling lies and performing tricks for money. There is no shorter cut to Heaven than by repentance."
"Ay, ay," replied the giant unexpectedly, "but, sir," and his small eyes were earnest, "the magician told me, too, that there'd be a judgment for it, and maybe not only on the murder, but on the place where he lived. He said that God sent judgment like thunder and lightning and earthquake."
"There was Sodom and Gomorrah," replied Mr. Mompesson with a slight smile, "but these are deep matters to argue with you. If you know one who has a crime upon his conscience, bid him confess, give up his body to the law and his soul to the Church so that he may be saved from eternal damnation."
Sythe Torre stroked his small beard with his coarse hand and looked doubtfully on the ground.
"The murder might have been in a fight, and the one that killed the other might have had the right of it," he argued, "and it might have happened down the lead mines when no one was looking or prying."
"I will not hear these tales save you give them to me as a sincere confession. I suppose you speak of your own case, Sythe Torre?"
"Nay, nay," protested the giant quickly, "I talk of a friend."
"Be that as it may," said the Rector, rising, "I cannot hear these half-confessions nor pass judgment upon problematical cases. Learn, poor wretch, that sin must be punished in this world and in the next, and that the Lord will send judgment on those who offend Him."
"Til think on it," muttered the miner, shuffling uneasily towards the door, pulling again at the ribbon that bound his dirty shirt at the neck. "But there's many who'd rather risk damnation in the next world than be hanged in this. Who knows," he added, with a simplicity that robbed his words of offence, "if God really tells you and Mr. Stanley how things be? There's none comes back either from Heaven or Hell to tell us what the places be like. There's ghosts and spirits enough, but what do they do but gibber nonsense?"
"I cannot help you," replied the Rector, "until you speak to me more frankly. I entreat you to come to church, I entreat you to suffer me to give you some instruction."
"I'd rather go to Mr. Stanley for that," replied the giant. "He's a brave man and means what he says." The Rector flushed slightly; these sincere words seemed a reflection upon his own courage and his own good faith.
"I warned you about Mr. Stanley," he said swiftly. "If your mind is burdened either by your own secret or by that of another person, I can only entreat you to relieve it by a full confession."
"That's as may be," said the giant, with his hand on the door. Then looking up quickly, he added: "There's something you should know about young Esquire John Corbyn."
"There's nothing I should know of Mr. Corbyn from you, Sythe Torre," replied the Rector haughtily, "he is about to marry my sister-in-law."
"For that reason I should tell you, sir," said the miner confidentially, thrusting his thick neck forward and speaking in a hoarse whisper. Before Mr. Mompesson could stay him he added quickly:
"The young master was drunk down at Bakewell, at The Derbyshire Arms, and all the miners was about him and I was there. So was the mummers coming up to St. Helen's Wake. They'd got a wrestler with them and I tried a fall with him..."
"Sythe Torre," put in the Rector, "this has naught to do with me."
"But it has! Esquire Corbyn had one of them wenches—Nell, they called her—on his knee, and after all had been boosing together a little, she suggested he should marry her. And he had another glass or two and said 'yes.' And then the Common Prayer Book was brought out, and one of us took on a sad air and read the whole ceremony. And they said their parts, like a couple do in church. And so it was done, sir. And the young Esquire was roaring drunk."
"You saw this yourself, Sythe Torre?" asked the Rector.
"Yes, sir, or I'd not have spoken of it. Your lady has been kind to my poor wife," he added sheepishly. "It's a long while since we saw a fine lady here."
The Rector again interrupted.
"It was a jest, the jest of a drunken man," he said. "You must forget it."
"No one will forget it," replied the giant, with his disarming air of simplicity, "for many thought that the young master would have done in earnest what did in jest. He kept the wench with him all night—his wedding night, he called it—and we made a music beneath the windows. I wonder you have not heard of this, sir," he added, looking half-apprehensively at Mr. Mompesson.
"Something I heard, but not this. If you have, as you say, some respect for my wife and her sister, Sythe Torre, you will not repeat this tale in Eyam."
"I'll only tell it to you," replied Torre, "but there's many saw it besides myself."
"But it was not this," said Mr. Mompesson, with an effort, "that you came to see me about, but some trouble of your own."
"No more of that, now," replied the giant, opening the door and clumsily taking his leave. "I'll let you know, sir, when I have more to tell you on that matter."
When he found himself alone again, Mr. Mompesson went to the window, pulled the curtains sharply aside and flung wide the casement. He felt unnerved, slightly confused with anger, and was glad of the cool, fresh mountain air upon his face. The halting, incoherent talk of Sythe Torre's own troubles the Rector had completely forgotten; he did not recall the look of questioning agony in the man's small brutal eyes, as he had appealed to him for his ghostly advice on such terrible matters as crime and punishment, death and damnation.
No, William Mompesson was thinking of the insult that had been put upon Kate's sister, thinking of the foul behaviour of John Corbyn, of the obscenity of the marriage with the mummer's wench, of what must have taken place in that inn parlour with the loose women and the swilling peasants, and Betty's Jack reeling in the midst of these vagabonds and pimps with their bawdy tricks.
It did not occur to him to doubt the tale, because it coincided so exactly with other reports he had heard of young Corbyn's riotous behaviour.
This was no husband for Betty. Yet Mr. Mompesson knew, even as that thought came to his mind, that he would never be able to break the match off now. The girl's heart was deeply engaged. Kate would support her, too. She would say, if he were able to tell this story to her, that it was only a jest, a young man's drunken frolic, something that no one would think very much of a few days after it had happened.
And Mr. Mompesson knew that that view would be the one taken by most people. If he were to appeal to the Earl, to Sir George Savile, they would at the utmost give but a few words of cool rebuke to the young man and tell him to take his wife and be true to her and to forget his wayside doxy.
William Mompesson, too, remembered his cloth. He could not, like another gentleman, defend his honour or that of his womenkind with the sword. Jack Corbyn had already mocked at him because of that. And if he were to go to him again, speak to him sternly, he would be termed a ranting parson and mocked at. Then he recalled with an unpleasant pang the five pounds that Betty had borrowed from her lover, and that he had spoken of so keenly.
With a sigh the Rector sank down on the cushioned window-seat. There was a strong west wind blowing and the stars were thick like a gilded mist in the dark blue heavens. The lamp flame fluttered in the glass globe, and the loose papers on the table stirred as the breeze passed round the room.
Mr. Mompesson took no heed of these light sounds, so absorbed was he in his reverie, nor did he hear a soft footfall behind him, and he started when a hand was laid on his and a laughing voice said:
"Sir, are you not coming down into the parlour?"
The Rector turned to look into the smiling face of Betty Carr.
She sat down beside him at once and took his slim hand in hers and added gaily:
"But I'd rather you stayed here for a while, for I have something to say to you. Yes, a little confession to make."
'Confession!' the word hung oddly in the Rector's mind. He smiled at Betty, not speaking, and she said anxiously:
"You look tired, sir. Kate thought you were displeased with us to-day when you found us with the patterns of the wedding clothes, but that was not so, was it?"
"No, no, why should I be displeased? But what was it you wanted to confess, Betty?"
"To show you something, sir. Indeed, I would not confess if I did not want your help. I thought I could do this for myself, but it seems I cannot. Women, sir, are strangely handicapped."
Betty, with the light restlessness of youth, was on her feet again and tugging at her brother-in-law's hand.
"Must I come with you now, Bess? I am tired—with idleness, I confess, but still—tired."
She drew the Rector gently from his study. He was not in the mood for childish games, but had not the heart to rebuke her when she was in post for pleasures.
As they passed down the shallow stairs he saw Kate leaning over the upper banisters and so knew that the two young women were in a conspiracy against him. No doubt all their design was some frivolous matter, but it irked him that they should so intrigue against his peace; they knew not how they disturbed his ease of mind and tranquillity of soul with their fond pranks.
He wished that his Kate, at least, had a steadier mind, and rather that they had not the company of poor Bessie, who seemed to have come between him and his wife, drawing her back into childish ways from that graver demeanour which he preferred.
Yes, it seemed to William Mompesson as he followed Bessie out of the house into the sweet-smelling garden and the cool mountain air, that the deep affection between himself and his wife had been thinned and distracted since they had been at Eyam.
"Bessie, dear child," he said, "where would you take me? I have been idle too long, indeed there is some work I must do if only it is to prepare my sermon for Sunday."
"There are too many Sundays and too many sermons in your life," replied Bessie, lightly. "Think rather of the Fair that is coming."
"St. Helen's Wake?" smiled the Rector sadly. "Ay, there are fairs enough in the Peak, but even that must be a serious matter to me, child, for I have six couples to marry besides yourself and John Corbyn. Think of the homilies I must compose."
He felt her small, warm fingers squeeze closely into his palm.
"I am very happy," she sighed, with a bright simplicity that smote him into poignant remembrance of Sythe Torre's tale of the mock wedding at Bakewell. "But come, you must see my secret and I must make my confession."
The eager girl was leading him to the stables; the Rector was almost painfully conscious of the still beauty of the scene that overran his heart. There was a perfume of lavender and thyme enriching the thin air, the haze of stars had a hard, clear sparkle; the dark shapes of the orchard boughs and the white shapes of the beehives could be but dimly seen, though there was not a trace of mist. The square tower of the church showed beyond the boughs of the linden trees and the warm light of the Rectory windows cast squares of pale gold on the grass.
The Rector drew an excitement from this peaceful scene, expectancy seemed to him to be in the crystal-clear air. He wondered how men could walk with heads on the earth with these wonders around them, speaking the name of God with so much ease on their lips, and thinking of nothing save their own petty trifles.
Bessie led him to the stables.
"Why do you want me to go abroad?" he asked.
She pulled her hand from his, unlatched the stable door and showed him a new-comer standing at the manger—a stout gray horse, not very handsome, but healthy and well kept, who turned on them a large, soft eye.
"That is Merriman," explained Bessie in a low, eager voice. "I bought him for seven pounds—five of them I had to borrow from John. Do you think that was an unmaidenly thing to do? I did not dare to come to you, for we have cost you so much, but the first pin money that John gives to me, I will return him those five gold pieces."
"Why did you want to buy a horse, Bessie? You have your own mount and Kate has hers, and if you require another..."
Bessie put her fingers first on her lips and then on those of the Rector.
"It is Mr. Thomas Stanley's horse," came in an excited whisper. "You know it was taken from him and sold, because he would not pay the tithe and other money they said was due from him."
The Rector, in amazement, interrupted.
"What do you know of Mr. Thomas Stanley and his adventures, then?"
"Oh, I have met him," replied the girl, "and so has Kate. When we go abroad in the dells, as we have done, you know, often enough, and you have been in your study or at church. He is not very civil, indeed, he rebukes us for many things, for our fine clothes and our playings. But he is kind and steadfast, too, and I think that what he says is just."
More than amazement held William Mompesson silent. He had to suffer the pang of guessing that these two young women had accepted from the errant dissenter advice and even rebukes that they had refused to take from him. Was it possible that Thomas Stanley did possess a spiritual power totally denied him, the Rector of Eyam?
He spoke against Bessie's light chatter that yet was serious enough, though given in the tones of a chirruping bird.
"I cannot understand how you could have met this man! It is against the Law that he lurks here! What do you mean, you and Kate, making the acquaintance of this dissenter?"
"We were sorry for him," said the girl, caressing the patient horse. "Do you know how he lives? He has nothing! All he had when he was Rector here he gave back again to the people, he did not save a penny. And now he lives in a little hut that he has built for himself on the moor. He does what service he can for these poor people and they in return give him his bread. His horse was very necessary to him—Merriman is a queer name for a Puritan horse, is it not, sir?" Bessie laughed, despite her own gravity. "But such the beast was called and he would not change it. And he used to go abroad with it, to visit friends and people whom he would succour. But that he cannot do now."
"Hush, Bessie! What is all this?" The Rector firmly closed the stable door and led his sister-in-law away towards the orchard. "Why should your head be full of these things? You know the law against dissenters. I have been very tolerant with this Thomas Stanley. Perhaps, he is not so harmless—do not let pity obscure your judgment. Did he ask you to buy this horse for him? You should have come to me with that tale."
"No, he did not," said Bessie firmly. "We heard about it and wondered to ourselves how he existed without the horse. And we knew the men who had it, and I got Mortin to buy it for me."
The Rector exclaimed sadly: "You went to Jonathan Mortin instead of to me?"
"He is kind and faithful, and I knew that you would have forbidden us. But now that the horse has been bought I want your advice as to how to give it to Thomas Stanley. Neither Kate nor I can lead it about until we meet the preacher and I do not like to send Mortin on this errand. So I thought you could arrange it."
Even in the midst of his discomposure, William Mompesson could hardly forbear laughing.
"You are a child, Bess, indeed, and I were foolish and unkind were I to try to thwart your charity, though it is wild and wasteful. I shall see that the gray horse is returned to Thomas Stanley. Perhaps I am sorry that I did not think of this myself."
"Why should you?" said Bessie, at once loving and affectionate. "You have so much on your mind. Kate says you are really a great man and have wonderful thoughts when you sit alone in your study."
"Poor Kate over-praises me," sighed the Rector, profoundly touched by this ingenuous tribute. "I am so far from being a great man, Bessie, that I cannot even learn to manage my own small affairs. When I am pensive, dear child, it is not because I dwell on any fault of thine or Kate's, but because of my own demerits, and maybe because of a lethargy I misname peace."
He drew the girl's arm through his so that her hand rested on the cuff of his fine grey-cloth coat, and they paced together through the short grass of the orchard and between the beehives and beneath the twisted boughs where the small green apples showed dimly in the starlight.
"Bessie," continued the Rector, in a warm, hurried tone, "thou hast a true, kind heart, and I value thy happiness above that of any other creature, save Kate and my little ones. Nay, all are equal in my eyes. Now, hearken! This marriage of thine! Is it wholly to thy liking? Thy Jack is truly all thou wouldst have him?" The girl fetched a doting sigh.
"I love him," she stated, a little wondering at the severity of his tone, "and have done so since I first met him. He is my dear treasure."
"Hast though thought upon his qualities," said the Rector earnestly. "Whether he is all that you would have in a man—true, and loyal, and brave, and pious?"
"He seems these things to me." Then unexpectedly, with a mature gravity, Bessie added: "What will it help me to con all this over now? If he has more vices than virtues, how will it help me to know it? I am bound to him, I shall soon be his wife. I love him with a love that does, I think, lead up to God."
William Mompesson was silent. He felt that indeed there was no more to be said, and that even if Bessie's marriage with Jack Corbyn was likely to bring her pain, it must go forward. It might be that the incident at Bakewell was no more than a jest such as any lusty young man might indulge in when in his cups, and not what Sythe Torre had said, and that it would not seem to anyone save the most fastidious the blasphemy and the treachery that it seemed to William Mompesson. Good corn or fruitless weeds, if ever Bessie was to have harvest she must garner it now.
At last he said:
"The money must be returned to Jack. I will give it to you to-morrow. You and Kate shall go and give it to him. Does he know for what you wanted it?"
"I did not tell him. I think he does not like Mr. Stanley. I believe he would even have him sent to gaol. There are some things that Jack does not understand. Perhaps," added Bessie Carr humbly, "I may teach him."
"Indeed, Bessie, thou mayest teach him much by the mild art of love. And now go in, dear, and tell Kate, who I doubt not is waiting impatiently, that all is well and that grey Merriman shall be returned to Thomas Stanley."
She kissed him for that, reaching up and touching his cheek with her cool lips. In that instant she seemed to him as young and innocent as the other little Bessie, his infant daughter.
He watched her shadow among the shadows, hastening towards the dark house.
Well, Kate would be pleased. He had made the two young women happy, and their action had been one of the sweetest charity. Yet he knew that humanly speaking he had made a fool of himself. The story would be all over the parish, nay, all over the Peak. Thomas Stanley would, perhaps, refuse to accept the gift. And even if he did not, it meant that he, William Mompesson, was aiding a law-breaker. It was but one more small tangle to be adjusted, one more small knot to be untied.
Mr. Mompesson turned towards the Rectory.
And Sythe Torre and his appeal for help? His clumsy half-confession came back to the Rector's mind. He, too, had spoken of Thomas Stanley and of his advice. The man seemed to seduce everyone to listen to him.
As the Rector crossed his threshold he decided: 'This fellow, be he saint or charlatan, must leave my parish. Two of us cannot hold the same post.'
And he wondered uneasily if it were true, as the dissenter had declared it was, that when Thomas Stanley had been Rector here the place had been more quiet, more law-abiding. Whether the disturbances and scandals that had begun to show their ugly heads during the rule of Mr. Sherland Adams had really increased during the few months that he, William Mompesson, had been at Eyam?
He did not go to bed at once, but passed into his little closet that was next to the library and lit his lamp and looked about him. He had arranged this room as a laboratory, but his equipment was modest, as he had neither means nor time to pursue deeply the study of chemistry. This science, which was but a new name for the old toil of the alchemists, had spread through the whole of England and had been greatly fostered by the examples of the King and his uncle, Prince Rupert, who were both noted chemists and spent many hours daily in their well-fitted laboratories.
Sir George Savile, like almost every other elegant gentleman of the time, had been interested in the newfangled matters and at Rufford Park William Mompesson had learnt almost all he knew of chemicals and of medicines.
Here he had a still and alembic, some jars and bottles of various drugs and compounds, syrups and unguents with which, if need arose, he dosed his parishioners and family, a small furnace, now unlit, some bellows and retorts, and some shelves on which stood books dealing with the subject that William Mompesson found so entrancing.
He had soon discovered when he arrived at Eyam that he would have to be both very frank and very secret as to his experiments. His medicines and healing plasters must be made openly and candidly explained; his more difficult investigations must be kept from the knowledge of all save the taciturn Jonathan Mortin. For the inhabitants of this place were wrapped in gross superstitions that would have been laughed at at Rufford Park. William Mompesson had marked with astonishment the survival of pagan customs that must have been handed down from parent to child since the Roman occupation of the Peak.
Indeed, he was forced to admit to himself that Christianity had here been merely superimposed upon paganism, a palimpsest. And added to all these superstitions and traditions of paganism, was a rich store of legends that had gathered during the succeeding ages.
Therefore the Rector knew that were it to be bruited abroad that he did anything more than prepare simple medicines in his laboratory, he would be considered an astrologer, or wizard, no better than old Mother Sydall who gathered her herbs upon the moor when the moon was beneficent, or than those wandering quacks and charlatans who set up business under the sign of The Brass Head of Friar Bacon in Derby, Bakewell, or Buxton, and to whom all the credulous folk of the district flocked to hear their fortunes told, buy love charms, and be mulcted of their savings.
Such gross quackery was extremely odious to the Rector, the more so as he saw that it affected all classes. He even suspected that Kate and Bessie had sometimes purchased copies of Kelly's Almanac or Poor Robin's Book of Prophecies, though he hoped they had not gone so far as to visit the astrologer who had lately hung out his sign opposite the church in Bakewell and whom Torre had mentioned.
Now he looked round his own small laboratory with a regret for this strong interest that had to be forgone. His own ignorance seemed to hamper him like strong bonds round hands and feet.
In the company of intelligent, eager men, who had gathered in the handsome rooms at Rufford Park, he had heard so many amazing projects propounded, so many potential discoveries discussed. He would have liked to give his life to this science, at present so cloudy, but which he felt contained so many possible benefits for mankind. And he wondered why God did not disclose his wonders sooner and more easily and thus tune disordered man by knowledge into harmony.
Mr. Mompesson sat down on the rude wooden chair by the cold furnace. The ceiling was painted as a cloudy sky and some few dispersed stars, and the light of the lamp flickered oddly on these false fires. Paper rolls of rich tobacco were on a shelf and long, smooth clay pipes, the gift of Sir George Savile, but never touched by Mr. Mompesson.
He thought: 'This idleness must cease to-day. To-morrow at least I shall have to begin my task. I shall lock up this room and not be tempted to these experiments that are but toys. I will put aside my books, save my Bible and Holy Living and Dying. There are many matters that somehow I must adjust, I must get in touch with these people. I must see that Thomas Stanley leaves the district. I must speak again to Jack Corbyn. I must help Sythe Torre in his trouble. I must see St. Helen's Wake past without too much riot and blasphemy. How I am parcelled out! Every hour shows some lack. I will cast off grossness.'
But these resolutions did not serve to calm his spirit. He was restless and went to the window and pulled aside the green drugget and stared from the painted stars to those that sparkled in the purple heavens between the curled clouds, seemingly formed of pale blue vapour, that floated like little puffs of smoke amid the dark hills.
'Why am I not happy in this place?' thought the Rector. 'Should I now really prefer to be in the city where God is everywhere invisible or dim? Should I care to be wandering in the streets amidst the pimps and knaves, the catchpoles, where jaded lust searches for a mate, and all is noise and lashing whips, the shouts of chairmen, the wheels of hackneys, the scolding and bawdy songs, and the complaints of the tired lackeys? I am worthless indeed, if I lament that I am exiled here.'
The Rector remained musing at the open window until it was later than he thought, and then went upstairs to his bedchamber where his Kate lay, next to the room in which were Ann and the two children.
William Mompesson did not disturb his wife, but gently moved aside the bed-curtains, which were of white wool worked to a design of foxgloves and acorns by her own hand, and glanced down at her as she lay lightly asleep on the large, frilled pillow.
The night-lamp in the hearth gave a soft glow to the room and filled it with wide shadows from the large pieces of furniture that had been part of Kate's dowry, and that she kept so finely polished that the room smelt faintly of wax as well as of the brown bay leaves and grey lavender flowers that were packed among the hidden clothes and linen in the presses.
Kate looked young, pretty, and exempt from common frailty; she was flushed with sleep; her hair was bound by a rainbow-coloured ribbon through which the long curls escaped on to her throat and plump, white shoulder showing above the dropped lawn of the bed-gown. Her husband tenderly raised the slipping quilt so that she was covered; her breath came quickly, her upper lip, slightly raised, showed the small teeth pressed on the lower; the small muslin bags of dried violets under the pillow gave out a faint, dusty, sweet perfume.
William Mompesson let the curtains fall together and went softly from the room.
"If there are sorrows laid up for me, let her be spared."
THE villagers celebrated the last day of St. Helen's Wake on the green of Eyam. The moon was full and the evening very warm, even excessively so for this mountainous district. The doors and windows of all the cottages stood open and most of the entrances were wreathed with flowers slung from poles on which fluttered flags, or attached by hooks to the lintels. Ferns, ox-eyed daisies, pansies, wild mint, and thyme, arum lilies and parsley plucked from the hedgerows and the fields mingled with the treasures of the cottage gardens—gillyflowers, roses, amaryllis, wallflowers, and stocks.
The flags were made of scraps of coloured silk, tiffany, and cloth, some were very old and tattered. All the little houses had horn-lanterns hung in front, some had torches made of pine-knots, which sent a smoky flame into the evening air.
On the green itself booths had been erected for the trading of sweetmeats, gingerbread, ribbons, toys and chapbooks.
The entrances to all the inns stood wide open and bright light blazed from their long, low windows; these had been decorated with bunches of ash that had been brought from the hills and with streamers of gilded paper.
The travelling mummers had erected a stage in front of The Bull Inn as the yard was not large enough to accommodate the spectators, and on the platform in front of the dark curtains, stuck with spangled stars and moon, the gibbering clown ran to and fro waving his bladder-skin and horse-tail.
On another booth nearer the lych-gate, for once unguarded, Sythe Torre, supported by a large crowd of ribald miners, was challenging a professional wrestler.
Here and there, surrounded by groups of their friends, the newly married brides danced upon the green, their wreaths twined with ribbon confining their flowing hair.
Stoups of ale passed from hand to hand and the potboys were continually running to and from the inn with fresh supplies of liquor. The elder men sat on the ground or on benches smoking pipes and urging on the antics of the youngers. An orchestra of marrow bones, cleavers, and kitchen pans made a persistent din added to by the shrill trumpets blown by the mummers from the two corners of their platform.
Nearly a thousand people were assembled in the wide village streets, for friends and relatives of the villagers had come from all over the Peak District to join in the revelry.
The Rector moved among the merry-makers and was received with a casual recognition and a perfunctory respect. He had not been successful in drawing many of either his own parishioners or their visitors into the church. Morning after morning he had preached to benches empty save for the members of his own household. His efforts to repress gross disorder during the wake, though ably seconded by the village constable, a stern and able man suspected of being a dissenter, had not been popular or fruitful.
Mr. Mompesson tried now to join in the merriment of his parishioners, to tell himself that their plays and pastimes were innocent and even necessary, but he could neither enjoy himself nor sympathize much with the enjoyment of others; these whirling dancers, these blowsed faces, these raucous shouts and coarse jests, the steady cacophony of the local musicians, all disgusted him, made his head ache, and even, as the night continued, his senses reel.
This last night of St. Helen's Wake seemed to whirl round him like a tawdry phantasmagoria, and the scene on which the moon poured down her cold bluish light became as unreal as hideous.
All Mr. Mompesson's delicate senses as he made his way, trying to speak a courteous word here and give a pleasant smile there, were assailed at once. There were smells of sweat, of drink, of frying food, the odour of the acrid smoke of the torches, of the rancid oil in the lamps in front of the booths, there was the clatter of coarse voices, the shrill of tin trumpets, the shriek of unrestrained laughter, while sight was bewildered with the whirling shapes of so many scrambling, leaping, pushing figures in gaudy finery hung with strips of ribbon, stuck with broken feathers, with coloured belts and draggled skirts.
The sweet short grass of the village green had been worn away under foot, and though the space was wide open to the unclouded mountain air, yet the atmosphere seemed tainted. The long poles of mountain ash festooned with flowers, the garlands above the door were withered and hanging in lank, rotting wreaths.
The coarse scene was misted to Mr. Mompesson's eyes by the fumes of tobacco, smoke from the open fires and the knot torches.
Games were in progress in one part of the green to which he made his way; large tubs of water had been supplied and in these youths were diving for apples. Some of the games in which the villagers liked to indulge were so barbarous that Mr. Mompesson had forbidden them. He knew this had caused muttering against him; in particular, the people regretted their favourite cruel pastime of goose-riding.
The yelling apple-divers, who were half-drunk, took no notice of the Rector, who turned away and passed a bridal party seated on the grass drinking ale and eating love cakes. He noted with a slight wince their pagan custom of passing the bottle or glass according to the course of the sun. The thing itself was a foolish trifle, but everything he saw convinced him that these people were pagans, and not true Christians, although the grey church had stood so long in their midst.
Earlier that day he had taken a walk that was a favourite of his leisure, to Wett-Withins, where stood a strange temple or circle of sixteen oblong sand-stones placed in an upright position and surrounded by a deep ridge of earth. The use and antiquity of these stones could only be guessed, but Mr. Mompesson had a scholarly interest in such antiquities and knew that they were very old indeed and probably represented the remains of some heathen temple, in which hideous sacrifices had taken place with mysterious and accurst rites of shameful slaughter.
Near to this ruined temple were several mighty barrows; the Rector had been told that some years since one of these had been opened and found to contain ashes, bones, arrow-heads of flint, a little charcoal and urns of exceeding beauty, which had however been smashed in the hopes that they contained coins.
These uncouth and dreadful symbols of paganism came into his mind as he watched St. Helen's Wake, and he asked himself if these were not the true descendants of those people who had watched their bloody priests slit the throats of their victims on the sacrificial stone. Even now, if they were allowed to, they would have their blood feasts, of animals if not of human beings.
As the night grew on the revellers became with every hour more drunk, more obscene, more noisy and ferocious.
By midnight almost the only sober man was Samuel Ealott, the village constable, a man on whom the Rector placed great reliance, although he probably was a secret follower of Thomas Stanley.
Ealott, lean and vigorous, now strode from group to group, using his bludgeon on those who defied his authority, threatening the scolds with the cucking-stool, the cheating mountebanks with the pillory or Derby gaol, and dragging, with the assistance of the pot-boys, the drunkards from off the green into the porches of the inns, in order to save them from being kicked to death by the merry-makers.
'I can do no good here,' thought William Mompesson. 'What have I to say to them, if they should listen?'
He made his way through the pressing throng, the confusing shadows and spurts of light, towards the church and the Rectory.
It was with a sinking of the heart that he observed by the flare of the lamps in front of the mountebanks' booth the stalwart and comely figure of Jack Corbyn. The young gentleman, though sober compared to his fellows, was red-faced, sweating and shouting.
The long, fair love-lock that hung over his brow was tied up with a tawdry pink ribbon that he had bought at the fair. His lace cravat hung unknotted and there was dust and wine-stains on his elegant, peach-coloured coat.
As he represented the family that had been for years the most powerful in the neighbourhood, he received the respect and attention that had been denied the Rector. He was popular, too, for he was a good sportsman, a fine athlete and open-handed with his money. Now he continually put his hand in his pocket and flung silver pieces among the crowd whom he entertained with his jests, mocks and snatches of bawdy song.
Some of his party were urging him on to try a fall with Sythe Torre who had defeated his rival and stood panting and triumphant, his arms folded over his chest, in front of the little ragged booth where the mutton-fat candles flared in their horn cups.
It was but a week to John Corbyn's wedding and the Rector was deeply offended by his present demeanour. But he was offended by almost everything that John Corbyn did and he had resolved to endure the pranks of this man whom Bessie loved. But then it was galling to see the bridegroom who was loved standing there to make a show for fools, and Mr. Mompesson was half-minded to step up to him and tell Jack to be gone. But he knew that to do so would be only to provoke a party against himself, for all were in favour of their young lord, and he, William Mompesson, had no hold over them whatsoever, either through his own personality or as representative of the Church.
So he stood apart, in the shade beyond the flare of the lamps and torches, with his hand at his chin and looked with a thoughtful melancholy at the wild scene.
The mummers put on a little miming show and young Corbyn applauded it, called for more wine and drank again and made some jest that was applauded with loud laughter, while he played with the question whether or no he should try to wrestle with Sythe Torre.
'He'll have his ribs cracked and his neck broken if he does,' thought the Rector. And he decided that if the young fool was dared into accepting the challenge he would step in to interfere.
But the idea left the young man's fuddled brain soon enough, and he turned his attention to a woman who appeared on the stage and who recited in a sweet voice some crudely indecent doggerel. The lines did not lack a spice of coarse wit, and the charm and innocent air of the young actress held her half-circle of audience enthralled.
The Rector, stepping a little nearer, regarded her closely, for he supposed that she was the heroine of the mock-marriage ceremony at Bakewell. And though to him, with his high fastidiousness and nice narrow preciseness, she was a creature utterly lost, smirched and degraded, yet he acknowledged her bright seductive comeliness.
She was no older than Bessie Carr and her life, which the Rector thought must be utterly foul, had left no trace upon her. Her face was smooth, her limbs were rounded, the lustre of her comely youth showed even through the coarse paint upon her cheeks and eyelids and lips. Her pale yellow hair, crisply curled, was half-hidden by a gilt cardboard crown; a chemise of pale-blue silk fell loosely open and left her almost naked to the waist where a belt of black satin held up trailing skirts of stained and tattered rose tiffany.
So young was she, so charming, and her air so naturally innocent and ingenuous, that she reminded the Rector, with an indescribable pang, of Bessie and even of Kate. It was as if she recited her ugly lines and made her ugly gestures without knowing what they meant.
When she had finished she stepped from the platform and went round the crowd collecting money in a shell. When she came to John Corbyn he put his arm her waist and gave her a smacking kiss, first on one cheek and then on the other, and taking a piece of money from his pocket put it, amid the drunken applause from the crowd, not into the shell that she carried, but into her open bosom. The froward girl resisted only sufficiently to give a relish to the scene, and struggled languidly, half-naked, leering up at the youth while the cardboard crown slipped over her heavy eyes.
At this exasperating sight the Rector became past all prudent and dignified consideration. He tried to push aside two men standing in front of him and to move out of the shadow into the circle of light in front of the booths. But there was another who was quicker than he, one whom hitherto he had not noticed, but who must have been close beside him in the dark hurly-burly of the fair.
This was Thomas Stanley, who, in his rough patched country clothes with no sign of his calling about his robust, thick-set person, suddenly forced his way to the front and demanded silence in a loud voice.
At the same instant, and with no heed of anyone, he put his thick-set hand on Jack Corbyn's chest and pushed him from the girl with such considerable force that the young man staggered into the arms of those behind him and the girl, cursing, fell down in front of the mummers' booths.
"Leave thy trull," commanded the dissenter coolly, "and go home, John Corbyn, and cleanse thyself for thy wedding day. Hang thy head and groan for thy sins."
William Mompesson stepped forward instantly and the two clergymen stood side by side in the glare of the lamps from the rude platform. The Rector had thought that the half-drunken crowd would turn upon the dissenter and maltreat him and that it would be necessary for him, the Rector, to intervene in order to avoid dangerous and disgraceful consequences to Mr. Stanley's bold intervention.
But he was, as he soon discovered to his chagrin, mistaken. At the first sight of Thomas Stanley the crowd seemed awed and John Corbyn sobered, while two of the strolling players dragged the screaming girl between the dingy curtains, the spectators fell back so that the landlord of The Bull, the constable and the potboys were soon able to clear them away. Some, to the Rector's amazement, even muttered excuses and pulled at their forelocks; during the time that he had been in authority Thomas Stanley must have made himself feared if not beloved. As for himself, the Rector of Eyam, few took any heed, least of all the man whom he had sprung forward to protect. The dissenter looked with grim satisfaction on the scattered merry-makers and remarked dryly:
"Here is enough ungodliness, blasphemy, and wantonness to draw down a judgment as severe as that predicted by last year's comet."
"When you were Rector here were you able to restrain this licence?" asked Mr. Mompesson.
"Such scenes as these were not witnessed under my ministry," replied Mr. Stanley. And he gave but a casual attention to his successor; his eyes, gleaming in the weather-beaten face with the intensity of his feeling, were turned towards the young esquire who, with a sick look, was leaning against one of the supports of the booths chewing a nugget of tobacco. He was dishevelled, soiled and degraded from his gentility.
"I have marked you, John Corbyn, since you were brought to me as a little, wilful child," said Mr. Stanley, "and I see no mending of your ways, no patching up of your errors."
And he continued to preach at the young man in the conventional language of clerical reproof. The Rector was amazed to see that Esquire Corbyn did not seem to resent these reprimands, and though Mr. Mompesson was glad to see these signs of grace in his future brother-in-law, he thought that the Puritan had ranted long enough and his sympathies began to veer towards the man who was, after all, of his own Church and his own class, young, and shamed publicly.
So he went up to John Corbyn and put his hand through his arm, saying:
"Let's get away from this, here's enough of it. Soon everyone will be drunk and lying senseless on the green. Let's leave them to it."
The young man looked at him, smiling a little sadly, and remarked irrelevantly:
"There's the sleeping sickness in Derby. I heard from one who came from Bakewell; the grass grows in some of the streets."
"Alas!" replied the Rector. "Is there not always sickness somewhere? If it be not the pox or the Gallicus morbus, it is scurvy or measles. But we are safe in this fastness. Come, Jack, let us away."
"Tender my regards to Bessie and say nothing of my behaviour to-night," begged the young man earnestly, with a more chastened look than William Mompesson had seen him use before. "I'll home to the Manor House; see me to-morrow when I am in better trim." He added: "I chew this tobacco against the infection, they say there is nothing like that and cloths soaked in vinegar."
As he lurched away, Mr. Stanley, who had not moved from his post beside the mummers' booth, remarked with satisfaction:
"See how his mind runs—on punishment for his sins. Sickness cannot come within fifty miles of his doors, but he is afraid of it."
"It is not fifty miles from here to Derby," replied the Rector with a little smile. "But I have never been afraid of sickness. How should a man live if he were, it being so frequent among us?"
The Puritan was now moving away through the subdued revellers towards the western part of the village where the stream ran across the road not far from the lych-gate and was crossed by two rude foot-bridges.
Mr. Mompesson followed him and with a selfish pleasure said:
"My sister-in-law, Elizabeth Carr, bought the gray horse that you forfeited for non-payment of your fines. She wishes it to be returned to you and I have agreed to her request. Will you tell me of some place where I may deliver the beast?"
The Rector was gratified by seeing the Nonconformist at last moved in a human and personal fashion. He paused, pulled off his broad-brimmed hat, put his hand to his brow, looked on the ground and then at the Rector, who regarded him with a faint; smile in his eyes.
"My gray horse, Merriman?" he asked at last. "The young gentlewoman bought it for me?"
"For you indeed. I did not know you had an acquaintance with my wife?"
"I have met them sometimes when they have been abroad in the dells, and spoken a word in peace. I had not thought of this. Now, shall I take it or not?" The sturdy man looked upwards to the stars, as if he sought an answer from on high.
The Rector instantly rebuked himself for finding this ridiculous. How did he know whether or not this other human being had a means of communicating with his God?
"I will take the animal," said Thomas Stanley simply. "If you will send your man with him to the head of Middleton Dell to-morrow at noon I shall be there to receive him. I know one who will stable him for me, yes, and feed him too."
"Both that one and I," said the Rector, with a deepening of his smile, "are breaking the law in aiding you. But my advice, nay, I might call it my command to you, is to use this horse to leave my parish. Get, if you can, a licence to preach. Do not use it here."
"Thou hast said! Thou hast said!" replied the dissenter casually. And then added: "I thank you for your good offices. Perhaps some day I can repay the young gentlewoman's kindness."
He crossed the bridge and, going towards the unguarded lych-gate, was soon lost in the shadows that were thick beyond the circle of lamplight and torchlight on the green.
'He, not I, should be in charge of these people. They fear, obey and respect him, but me they count as nothing. Surely they do not like me nor do I love them.'
And the young Rector, as he turned towards the green, wondered how it was that God had chosen as his instrument the heretic and not himself, the loyal son of Holy Church. Unless he were to be false to his vows, a traitor to his holy profession, the Rector must believe that Thomas Stanley was mistaken at least in his belief, if not wholly misled and blinded by the Devil. How then was it possible for him to be an upright, godly man as he so manifestly was, one who despised all earthly things and lived only for spiritual matters? The Rector could not resolve this problem. He walked sadly across the village green, the desecrated fair ground. Fatigue had fallen upon the revellers and the sudden appearance of the Puritan and the withdrawal of the young esquire had damped their spirits.
The mummers had put out their lamps in front of their booths, the wrestling was over and Sythe Torre, inert from heavy drinking, lay asleep on a bundle of sacks beside the painted pillars of the gaudy little stage. Other drunkards, men and women, lay here and there in their soiled and torn holiday clothes, wreaths of crushed flowers hanging over their brows, paper, cardboard and tinsel crowns beneath their tousled heads.
Weeping children were being led away by tired mothers; a languid fight between three gipsy men was going on outside The Bull, the constable and the landlord were separating them with the blows of a tipstaff and a cudgel. The torches had flared out, most of the candles set in the windows had guttered away, the moonlight lay pure and clear over this scene of disorder.
There was a faint sound of running water audible now that the tumult of the fair had subsided. This came from those underground streams known as the wallows, which passed under the village to fall down the mountain-side waterbreaks into the neighbouring dells. The northern heights that shut in the village were crowned with darkness and showed purple-black against the silver pallor of the sky.
The Rector made his way across the grass strewn with platters, papers of sweetmeats, dropped garters and favours. Dogs were nosing about to pick up what they could of the broken meats and bones.
Very few took any heed of the Rector, only here and there a toper raised himself upon his elbow and muttered: "God save you, sir!" and pulling at his forelock, sank back to snore.
Mr. William Mompesson was glad to be free from these sights and the stenches, glad to be near the great lindens of the churchyard. It was past their flowering time, but a faint perfume seemed to come from their large leaves, and the starlight gave a dignified, serene beauty to the commonplace outline of the old church that was now but a vast shadow on the spangled sky.
The young man, always responsive to peace and loveliness, felt soothed and uplifted. He would have liked to put his hand into the cool water, to splash it over his face to wash away the sour remembrances of the tawdry night.
He looked towards the Manor House, which he could see on the slopes beyond the village. There was a light in one of the upper windows; he hoped that Jack Corbyn was there, praying perhaps, composing himself for sleep. And the Rector put up his own prayer—that light-hearted, kind Bessie, so ignorant and simple, who had never known anything except childish happiness, and dissolute young Jack Corbyn, who was, nevertheless, no doubt a humane, brave and generous man, should be happy together in their marriage.
As Mr. Mompesson approached the Rectory, he was surprised to find that there was a light also in one of his rooms—in Kate's chamber. This was a late hour for his wife to be sitting up, and it was with a little prick of alarm that he entered his quiet house and went up to Kate's fine room.
Was one of the children ill, or Kate herself indisposed? Or had Betty proved wilful because she had been denied her wish to go to the fair on the green?
But his alarm was allayed as soon as he opened his door. His wife was smiling; she was seated on the bed-step by the round table with the embroidered top. On this stood two candles that had given the light he had seen as he came round the churchyard wall.
"My dearest dear, you should be in bed. I went abroad to see what they were doing at the wake, but I made but a poor business of it."
"Yes, I suppose it is very late," replied the young woman placidly, "but I had not noticed how the time went, I had such happy thoughts."
He stood beside her, looking down at her tenderly and deeply moved. How sweet and fair she was and all the atmosphere she had about her, how refreshing to the spirit it was to come into her presence and into this pleasant chamber after the rude sights and sounds he had been mingling with on the green.
Kate rose and rested against his bosom; her hair and her pale gray linen bed-gown, which was tied with cherry ribbons, smelt of the dried violet flowers that she kept under her pillow and in her wardrobe. The air of the whole room was full of the mingled clean, sharp smell of the odours of lavender, bergamot, bay and cinnamon.
For Kate kept a little cupboard of aromatics beside her bed and the door was open and the stoppers out of some of the bottles, and Ann Trickett had come to her that evening complaining of a cold on the chest.
"See how untidy I am," she said, comfortable in her husband's arms. "I did not even shut up my little cabinet, I was thinking so much of how happy I am with you."
"Be sincere with yourself and with me. Are you not happy merely because you feel you ought to be happy? For that is my trouble, Kate. I count my blessings morning and evening and still I have to say to myself I am not grateful to my God as I should be. Is it so with you, sweet Kate?"
"Perhaps you have read my mind a little," she confessed with a sigh. "Yet it is true I am very happy with you and the children and Bessie. And even with Ann and Jonathan Mortin—yes, with everyone."
"But you are a little lonely here, Kate? You don't like these people! You find this solitary place dreary to your pleasant spirit?"
"It is true, Mompesson, that I have longed for the town or for Rufford Park. Oh, I don't know! Yes, perhaps there is a melancholy on my spirits. But it is true what I told you just now, I am happy." And her clear eyes looked at him with valiant defiance. "We should be ungrateful people if we were not happy, shouldn't we, Mompesson? Besides," she added, with a sophistry that made her husband laugh despite his grave intention, "we can ask Sir George to move us soon."
"We should not do that, dear Kate. We should take the path that lies to the hand, we should try to help these rude people. The dissenter, Thomas Stanley, endeavours to do so."
"He is a holy man," interrupted Kate thoughtfully, fingering the fine ribbons at her husband's throat.
"A holy man! Yes!" William Mompesson was serious. "That means that you do not think that I am one."
"You are but twenty-six years old," she laughed up into his face. "I don't want you to be so holy yet."
"There have been saints and martyrs younger than I," replied the Rector. "My failure is not due to my lack of years. And now, Kate, why do you sit up so late? Have you something to say to me?" for he knew that that was her custom, when she had some little matter on her heart, to wait for him and tell him before they went to bed. She had done this before, when he had been busy in his laboratory or his study, and sometimes had not come upstairs until the dawn had paled the stars.
"Yes, I have something to tell you. Bessie had her little confession the other night, and now I've mine. Now you must not be angry, William, but I have disobeyed you. You know," she went on with such an eager, pretty breathlessness that he had no heart to check her, much less to chide her, "that I am worldly and foolish"
"Well, what is it, Kate? Out with this dreadful secret."
"Well, you know you told me we were not to spend too much on Bessie's marriage—either of thought or time or money. But I am afraid we have spent far more of all than will please you. But I wished everything to be fine for Bessie. And, after all, she will have a good estate, and if we have exceeded our means she can pay us back."
"I am sorry she borrowed the five pounds from John," he interrupted. "She must take that to him."
"Why, William, that is foolishness. In but a matter of days she will be Mistress John Corbyn and have her own settlement. You know how they have been generous."
"Well, Kate, do not run on so, but tell me what this little secret is."
She raised her brilliant eyes appealingly and her delicate fingers continued to play with the ribbons beneath her fine lawn band.
"It is the wedding dress. We could not be content with a country tailor—we sent for it from London."
"Why, Kate, that's very extravagant. George Vickers is an excellent tailor and gets fine cloth from Derby, ay, and good silk too."
"But this is satin, fine white satin," said Kate coaxingly. "It is laced with silver and a design of lilies. And the petticoat is of silver tissue."
"And what is the cost of all this to be, sweetheart?" He put her from him into the tapestry chair with arms. He was weary, in no mood to be angry with her frivolity yet feeling a lack of comfort in coming home to this—his Kate's absorption with worldly gear, after a day that had been empty and in a way humiliating.
She chattered on about the gown. George Vickers, who was the tailor and lived between the barber and the cobbler in the group of houses beyond Eyam Church, had long had, it seemed, a box of patterns, of fine French and Italian brocades and silks that he procured, when need arose, from an English merchant whose warehouse was on St. Paul's Wharf in London. It had been some years since Mr. Vickers had had any need to call upon his London supply, though he had in the past made fine gowns of these brocades for Madame Corbyn and for the wives of some of the other gentry in the Peak. For though he lived modestly in the small village, Vickers had a reputation for fine work and care and diligence.
The story that Catherine Mompesson told now was that of a visit paid to this tailor by herself and Bessie some months ago.
"Before we knew that the expenses would be so high," pleaded Kate. And there they had chosen the thick white French satin and all the trimmings that were to make the wedding gown for Bessie.
When they learned of the Rector's disapproval of so many extravagances for this village wedding, they would, although half-heartedly, have cancelled the order. But Vickers said that it was too late and the stuff was already on the road. It had lain for a while at Derby and only two days before had it been forwarded, by the carrier's cart to Eyam. Kate, feeling very discreet, had told Mr. Vickers to leave the box unopened until the wake was over.
She and Bessie could have it sent up to the house and fitted and altered in peace—"for Ann Trickett, you know, and the kitchen woman, and even Jonathan Mortin and all had been so distracted by the Fair."
"You have not, then, seen the dress?" said William Mompesson, trying to feign an interest in this piece of extravagant finery and wondering in his mind how much it would cost and feeling that his resources would be strained to pay for it, for as poor Bess was nearly dowerless, he could by no means bring himself to accept money from Corbyn for her wedding attire.
"Oh, I don't know how much it will cost, dear. You think of nothing else but that, and I suppose you are right. But I'm sure Lady Halifax would give it to us as a present."
"Kate, I could not think that she should be asked for so much. She has given us more than I care about as it is. This furnishing of the Rectory causes something of a scandal here in this poor rough place."
Kate tossed her pretty head.
"We'll leave that," she said, with a touch of sharpness, "for it's a matter on which we differ."
Then, instantly repenting, she added: "Wait until you see it. Mr. Vickers has made a drawing of what it is to be when it is completed."
"It is made up then?" asked the Rector indifferently.
"Yes, it was made up in London by the London tailors and has only to be fitted to Bess and some of the trimmings put on here. Why, you foolish man, there would not be time to make it up now. Bessie's wedding is but a week off."
William Mompesson kissed his wife's brow.
"Then I will leave you now to your sleep and go to mine, and in the morning you must send for this gown and I will see it on Bess."
"You are not angry then?"
She clung to him and embraced him, giving him hard, cool kisses that expressed her pleasure at his acquiescence in her folly, as no doubt he considered it, and her appeal for a complete forgiveness.
The Rector soothed his wife and returned her kisses, persuaded her to go to bed and so left her for his own closet.
More and more this marriage that the women made so much of weighed upon his spirit. He would be glad when it was over and all the junketings vanished. What a to-do there was in a household that should have been so quiet, the hiring of extra women, the baking already of cakes and sweetmeats and the making of preserves and comfits. The house would be full of guests, and already Kate had complained that her room was not large enough for the wedding feast.
Ambition and vanity, no less, though prettily disguised.
THE Rector fell asleep from weariness and sank into deep dreams. He did not remember them when he woke suddenly with a start. In his sleep a thought had come to his disordered mind that caused him to sit up, wide awake, in bed—between a nightmare and reality.
London! The wedding dress had come from London! The Lord-Lieutenant had warned him to have nothing to do with any goods that came from the capital.
Why? The plague, despite the severity of the last winter, had come creeping in again. There were various rumours, exaggerated perhaps, or false, but the Earl had warned him to have nothing to do with anything that came from London.
The Rector slept no more that night. With early sunlight he was dressed and left the Rectory.
The day was bright and clear, the linden trees showed gold against the cloudless blue; it was already hot; everything was dry and gilded.
The young man's heart was heavy because of his errand. He could not really credit that there could be much danger in a parcel that had come from so far and been so long on the road, and though he had studied medicine he knew little about contagion. He had heard an old Turkish story that the plague had been brought into Constantinople in the jacket of a janizary, and this last outbreak in London was said by some to have been brought by Dutch prisoners of war, who in their turn had caught it from cargoes brought into Amsterdam from the East.
And this illness in Derby! What was that? One heard so many tales and knew not what to believe. When he was a child, William Mompesson had heard his father talk of the many illnesses that were rife during the Civil War and in particular of that horrid outbreak of the sweating sickness which had ruined the troops of my Lord Essex outside Oxford and infected the whole city.
He remembered, too, with scorn for his own superstition, the comet of last year, the words of Sythe Torre about a judgment sent by God for undiscovered crime, and Thomas Stanley's words last night about punishment for licence and blasphemy.
Well, this doom might be evaded by the exercise of a little common sense, he told himself grimly as he passed the low churchyard wall. The box had not yet been opened, it must be taken out to one of the moors beyond the town and there burned and the reason given. And Bessie and Kate would be in tears; there would be a gloom over the wedding. Some gown must be found for the disappointed girl: no doubt there were many that were suitable in the wardrobe that she and Kate had been getting together with so much busy chatter.
With these thoughts, the Rector passed rapidly round the church and was surprised to find his way barred by a group of noisy young miners who had not been to bed that night and who were celebrating the end of the wake by coarse pastimes.
In their midst was a young cow that one of them was leading by a straw halter. When the Rector, pausing, asked sternly why they had the animal so near the churchyard, Sythe Torre, who dominated his fellows by the power given to him by his gigantic stature, grinned:
"They did more than have it in the churchyard, sir. It was taken in the church!"
"This is more than a drunken jest! It is hideous blasphemy!" cried the Rector, deeply outraged. "Away with you! Take the beast to where it belongs, and I shall devise some penance."
He spoke with more authority than he had used before, and the men were cowed, all except Sythe Torre, who stood leaning against the churchyard gate, his arms folded on his bare chest, his ragged shirt hanging in tatters on his gleaming shoulders.
"A penance, sir!" he jeered in hoarse, sulky tones. "Now what penance would you set on me? The other night I asked you about a penance and you had no word of comfort. Well, sir, if there's no penance for a crime, what is there for taking a cow into a church?"
The scene had become ludicrous; without further speech, the Rector moved away. He heard the miners whistling and laughing among themselves as they drove the cow down the village street. This was behaviour that he must take notice of... he thought: 'Thomas Stanley would not have endured this.'
And then into his tired mind slipped the remembrance of the grey horse, Merriman, and that he must tell Mortin to take it to the head of the glen. But his immediate errand was with George Vickers.
He paused outside the small thatched house from which hung the sign of a large pair of shears. On one side was the striped pole and brass basin of Henry Sentem, the barber-surgeon of the village, and on the other a wooden statue of Saint Crispin that marked the residence of the shoemaker and cobbler, James Frogatt.
The Rector knocked at the door vigorously with his ivory-headed cane, and a night-capped head was soon thrust out at the upper window. The slim figure, handsome face, auburn curls and elegant clothes of William Mompesson formed in the eyes of the villagers a picture of an elegant gentleman as complete as that represented by Sir George Savile, who once or twice had visited his Manor, or my Lord at Chatsworth. They were still not used to considering him as the Rector, that term being reserved in the hearts of almost all of them for Thomas Stanley.
So Vickers blinked stupidly for a while, not recognizing in the young man looking up at him, William Mompesson. When he did, he excused himself hastily and protested he would come down as soon as he could get his breeches on.
"It's the wedding dress that my wife and sister-in-law had from London," explained the Rector, looking up. He was hatless, and the pure chill morning air was blowing the hair backwards from his face. He had dressed carelessly and there was an air of disorder about his person and his manner that was most uncommon, for usually he was, at least outwardly, serene.
"Oh, you're in a hurry for it, sir," cried Vickers, plucking off his nightcap as a mark of respect for the fine gentleman standing below. "Well, it shall be sent up at once."
"Nay, nay! That it must not be. It must be taken out and burnt in the fields. I will make full compensation. Pray, do not open the box!"
"But it was opened last night, sir. We thought that the clothes would be getting damp, and so my man had them out and hung them in front of the fire in the kitchen. The box was on the road longer than usual, sir—as far as I understand, a matter of six or seven weeks." Then the core of the Rector's words drifting into his bewildered brain, the tailor exclaimed: "Burnt, sir! Did you say they must be burnt!"
"Do not shout from the window, come down to the door. Let me into your parlour and I will speak to you quietly."
The Rector's senses became alert; he realized that he must not cause any alarm or panic in Eyam. The awful word 'plague' must not be mentioned. After all, there might be nothing in this fear of his... the Lord-Lieutenant's warning might have been merely a matter of precaution. He certainly must not upset these simple people.
When George Vickers, hurriedly clothed and agape and agitated, had admitted him to the tiny house, the Rector said:
"I must trust you with a secret. It is something that might be important and might be of no matter. First of all understand that I will pay you the full value of these garments from London. I have been told by the Lord-Lieutenant that we should have no goods from the capital, the plague has broken out again."
"Lord have mercy upon us!" muttered the tailor with sagging chops.
"I hope," said the Rector gravely, "that He will indeed have mercy upon us. But we must take all human means for our safety. Put the clothes back in the box and you and I will take them out on to the moor and there burn them with fire or possibly bury them."
He consulted in his own mind which was the better method, and then remembered that he had heard something about infected ground.
"The wedding dress is worth twenty pounds, fine braid trimmings all cut and made with whalebone and buckram," bewailed the tailor.
"Twenty pounds!" Even through his preoccupation the thought of Kate's extravagance went through him with a pang, but the Rector said: "I will pay that money. Pack up the gown." And then recalling that he should not ask another to do a dangerous thing that he might do himself, he said: "No, stay here. I will return it to the box."
"Young Fulwood will do that," protested the distracted tailor. "But, sir, who ever heard of an illness coming in a box of clothes? And is the plague again in London? Did the comet bring it? And is there likely to be a judgment on the Peak?"
"I can answer none of those questions. Let us about our business before the whole village is astir. Mark you, I am trusting you as an honest, brave man to stand by me in this."
The little tailor was flattered, though still deeply disturbed. He opened the door into an inner room and there, carefully spread over a wooden horse, was the wedding gown from London. In the bright sunshine that came through the little back window athwart the flowers in the garden, the silk showed with a pearl-like lustre, the silver braids and ribbons gleamed brightly.
"Harry," shouted the tailor, calling his apprentice. "Harry! Harry! Come here, there's work for you And quiet about it, lad."
There was no answer. The tailor ran to the little staircase that twisted out of the closet into the sleeping-room above occupied by the apprentice.
"He's still asleep. He was always a lazy loon," he cried, as he scrambled indignantly up the stairs.
William Mompesson stood alone, looking at the wedding dress and thinking tenderly and with regret of Bessie's disappointment and Kate's chagrin. Perhaps he was acting foolishly, perhaps there was no danger at all. Maybe, even, his Kate would misunderstand him and think he had had the dress destroyed from malice or anger at her extravagance. Indeed, a gloom would be put over the whole wedding; it might be that John Corbyn would take the women's part and deride him for being so cautious. There would be twenty pounds good money gone, too—the price had seemed to him excessive. And then there would be the carriage from London... and no doubt the thing was finely cut and fitted and finished. He admitted himself that it was a handsome garment and that Bessie would look charming in it. She was fond of fine clothes, and he was sorry that this lustrous dress must be taken up and burnt as if it were a foul rag.
Mr. Mompesson heard a cry from the tailor; sharp and querulous, it broke through his musing.
He went to the foot of the stairs and called up: "What's to do?"
"Young Fulwood is taken ill! Come up and see, sir! Maybe he could do with some of your medicine."
William Mompesson instantly mounted the twisting, steep stairs that spread fan-like from the centre post.
Vickers had drawn the curtains from the small casement; the little room was in full morning sunlight. It was poorly but neatly furnished. On the truckle-bed and covered by a patchwork quilt lay the young man William Mompesson knew as Fulwood, the tailor's apprentice. He was pale, breathing heavily, his eyes glazed and half-open, his mouth pulled awry, and sweat thick upon his forehead.
"This may be nothing," whispered the priest, keenly eyeing the sick man. "I will go to the Rectory and fetch some physic. Was he abroad last night in the revels? Did he overheat himself with food or drink?"
The youth did not seem able to reply, or indeed to know that anyone was in the room. But the tailor, in great agitation, said that his apprentice had not been abroad late. He had been to the wake earlier in the day, but had come home before sunset, unpacked the dress, arranged it before the fire, and then worked a while at some of the wedding finery. Then he had gone up to his bed at about ten o'clock.
"I have not seen him since, nay, nor heard one groan."
Mr. Mompesson approached the sick youth's bed.
"How is it with you?" he asked. "What do you feel?"
At this Fulwood roused himself a little and fetched a moan and muttered he had vomited much during the night. He felt that he had had a swelling in his throat and a weight in his head. After being further interrogated by the Rector he admitted, in a low, broken voice, that his senses were confused and that he could remember very little. And then he seemed to lapse into a sleep.
"Sir, what be this?" entreated the tailor, clinging to Mr. Mompesson's coat, and flinching from the bed. "Is it the sweating sickness, or the 'French Evil'?"
"We are in the hands of God. You have no surgeon or physician in this place?"
"No, sir, none—save Mr. Walbeoffe who lives up at Chatsworth when the Earl is in residence. The barber will do bleeding and purging. Should I get him brandy, sir. I have some in the house?"
"Nay, better give him water. Put a ewer of water by his side. We still have to burn the dress."
"Do you think, sir," whimpered the terrified tailor as he followed, stumbling, William Mompesson down the crooked stairs, "do you think this could have come in the wedding dress—the plague from London?"
The Rector answered:
"Whether it be the plague or not, it will make no difference to our proceedings."
He took the gown off the wooden rails on which it hung. It was soft, rich and heavy in his hands and his quick fancy saw it—not filled out with the round and rosy limbs of Elizabeth Carr, but by the gleaming bones of a skeleton.
Quietly he folded the rich gown back into the box in which it had come from London.
He observed that the tailor stood aside while the box was being packed; he was already infected, if not with the plague, with fear. But when the Rector had finished his task, returned the wrappings to their place and knotted the cords, he said quietly to the tailor:
"You must help me with this, it is too large for one man to carry and I do not want to involve others. You have already had the garment in the house and it can do you no further harm. Besides, it is shut away again in the box and it will be safe enough until it is opened."
"How do we know that, sir?" asked the tailor, reasonably enough, as the Rector was forced to admit. "It may have infected dozens from London to Derby."
"Did you not know," asked the Rector sadly, "that there was the plague in London? Could you not employ more discretion?"
The man replied uneasily that he had had tales of this and that, even of the sickness in Derby, but nothing had ever come to Eyam. The air was too pure, the place too isolated. Besides, what were these invisible elements that could be enclosed in a box of garments and remain vital for so many weeks?
William Mompesson could not answer this question himself. All he could say, was:
"It has been proved that infection can travel in this manner. Yet do not be unduly alarmed. It may be that the lad has some other sickness. Take the box with me and we will carry it up to the moors. Make haste, for I would not attract attention, and it is early yet."
Still deeply troubled, but obeying his superior without hesitation, George Vickers ran upstairs, completed his attire, peeped nervously in at the invalid, who he reported was now in a placid state and seemed asleep. He came down again to the parlour where William Mompesson stood thoughtfully by the London box.
The two men took it up between them and carried it up the village street away from the green, the stream and the lych-gate.
Some of the revellers were still abroad, most of the miners had taken a holiday to-day, although the wake was over. Women were sweeping doorsteps and shaking clothes out of windows; there was much litter about.
And the Rector, before there was a chance of being observed, turned behind the cottages and, taking a roundabout way through the rocky dells, came out on the wide moor.
He had taken the precaution to bring a flint and tinder from the tailor's shop and thought that he would burn the wedding dress on the old heathen altar, not only because of his inner fantasy to sacrifice this evil thing to evil gods, but because he feared in this dry weather to set the heath alight.
The tailor approached this spot, marked by the two long barrows, one of which had been broken open, with some trepidation. He declared that around this place, which was considered by the inhabitants of Eyam as accursed, Gabriel's hounds had been heard to howl.
The Rector asked sadly—what gross superstition was this?
But the man replied stubbornly that the Hounds of the Archangel Gabriel ran across the moor howling when any disaster or the death of a notable person was about to take place. And he added that these infernal dogs were inhabited by the souls of unchristened children.
"It is the wind and the loneliness that create such a fancy," said William Mompesson. He looked at the gray, upright stones and the flat stones in the centre. The spot was awe-inspiring, even to the educated, and had he not already resolved that it would be blasphemous for him to doubt the existence of devils and angels? Perhaps this simple, ignorant man beside him was in the right of it, perhaps hell-hounds did caper across the lonely moor?
Well started on his subject now, the fearful Vickers was full of stories of prognostications of death; trying to remember if he had lately observed any that might foretell his own end.
"That mound," he said, "is considered the grave of an evil man. You can see the pile of stones on it, sir. You know in ancient times they used to cast stones on the graves of wicked men as often as they passed them. And a great urn was found there, too, and it was hoped that it was full of gold."
"Let that be," said the Rector, placing the box on the large plain stone in the midst of the upright monoliths. "There is nothing but ashes in these urns, and no gold. Come, strike the flint and steel and light the tinder."
"It goes to my heart to do so," lamented the tailor, as the Rector unstrapped the box and cast the wedding dress out. "It is the most beautiful piece of work that I ever cast eyes on. And Lyons satin, worth a guinea a yard." He looked cautiously round him, and added in a whisper: "Here they come to gather May dew, which makes weak children strong. And now I think of it," he said, scratching his ear, "I believe that it is the plague and that young Fulwood will not recover. For I saw a white cricket not a fortnight ago, and bees sitting on a dead branch."
Seeing that it was impossible to obtain any service from the distracted man, Mr. William Mompesson struck the flint and steel himself, and when the flame sprang up set light to a piece of paper and cast it down on what should have been Bessie Carr's wedding dress.
There was a slow wind blowing that shook the tall, fine grasses and added to the Rector's sensitive imagination, to the intense loneliness of the desolate scene.
Tree-covered hills enclosed the wide moor all round, the close-growing heather had lost its vivid bloom and was now the colour of dried blood amid the clusters of orange-stemmed ferns and the mossy patches set with harebells.
The Rector wondered how long it was since the flames had burnt up on the sacrificial stone. The dry, crisp muslins and buckrams of the trimmings and stiffenings soon caught fire and, fanned by the uneasy wind that seemed to come from the clenched fist of God, Mompesson thought, the flames crept down the length of white satin, over the silver flounces and braidings.
"It is money burning," cried the tailor, brought out of his fit of musing by the destruction of the beautiful dress. "Twenty pounds' or more worth of good money! And who knows if it is only for a whim or a fantasy?"
"It is a necessary precaution," replied William Mompesson.
The sight was to him curious and even horrible; the flames, pale in the sunlight, waved here and there in the delicate breeze; there were fine spirals of smoke against the grey upright monoliths.
William Mompesson resolved to try to pray. He told the tailor to return home, to wash his hands and face in vinegar and to burn some cinnamon, if he had it, before his door and before the chamber of the sick boy. And he added that he would, on his return, go to the Rectory and fetch some physic or have it sent to Vickers's cottage. But above all, he bade the tailor keep his counsel and not let anyone know that there was a chance that the plague had come to Eyam.
The man was not sorry to return to his familiar places; he was ill at ease on the lonely heath amidst the stones that formed the heathen temple dedicated to who knew what hideous devils. Nor was he greatly reassured by the grave, preoccupied manner of the Rector.
So he turned and went quickly towards the village, looking now and then over his shoulder as if he indeed feared that Gabriel's Hounds might be upon his track. But there was no sound to mar the sweetness of the bright morning, save that faint rustle of the breeze in the leaves of the mountain ash, a few pale clouds curled up in the blue heights and cast slowly-moving shadows over the heath.
And William Mompesson tried to pray. He raised his eyes and clasped his hands as the wind stirred his hair. He tried to reach his God, to find out what was required of him, to get into mystical communication with his Maker. And he prayed, too, that the plague might not come to Eyam and that those he loved might be spared from this and other scourges.
But he was not satisfied with his prayers; for even while he cast his eyes upward and pressed his hands upon his breast, he had been too conscious of the material things about him, of the flaming wedding dress upon the sacrificial stone, of the light and shade across the blowing grass, of the wind that went past his ears with a delicate sound, of the hills that ringed him in, of the great emptiness that encompassed him.
The wedding dress flared out. There was nothing left on the stone but a few charred fragments and some strips of whalebone and twisted wires.
William Mompesson turned these over with his cane and waited until the last spark had died down, then stamped them into the ground with his feet. It was curious to see ashes and charred fragments on this stone: so perhaps it had looked a thousand years ago after a bloody sacrifice had been offered to a pagan god.
He returned at once to the village, going quietly by the back of the church. It was reassuring to see the familiar gold of the linden trees, the familiar gray of the church tower and those stones that marked the last resting-place of the peaceful dead. It was reassuring to see the Rectory and Ann Trickett hanging out clothes under the orchard trees, and the beehives in the rows beneath the glistening green apples on the bough, and the dog barking in the sun.
Why, perhaps this had all been a bother about nothing!
But he remembered the sick boy...
Calling Jonathan Mortin, he told him to take the gray horse, Merriman, to the Middleton Glen by twelve o'clock and to give it to the dissenter.
"You and I infringe the law in this, Mortin," he said, "but I suppose it will not grieve you. It was Mistress Elizabeth's wish and her money, too, and where she has been charitable we must not be harsh."
Mortin replied that he was very willing to do this errand, for he thought the dissenter a brave man and one who did much good.
"More good, perhaps, than I do," smiled the Rector sadly. "He knows these people, he has been among them nearly twenty years and I but a few months."
Then he went upstairs to his laboratory and glanced up at the stars, painted on the cloudy skies on the ceiling and then addressed himself to the task of preparing the physic for the tailor's apprentice.
He had several books on the plague in his medical library, but he knew by heart some of the recipes. A decoction of rue leaves was considered a sovereign remedy, and there was 'Lady Kent's Powder'; the use of spices and pomanders was much admired. He had some of these in his drawer and he took them out and began to make up a packet. Then, pausing in the middle of his task, he went to the closet and took out a large bottle of vinegar and some cloths and washed and dried his hands. He had heard of people who had passed through an epidemic unscathed because they always kept themselves soaked in vinegar, even bandaging cloths wet with the acid round their heads.
Sir George Savile had given him, some time ago, a tract issued by the College of Physicians that was full of directions and prescriptions of what to do in case of various illnesses. He recalled that one precaution was to burn fires in the streets, but there was a difference of opinion as to whether these should be wood or coal fires; he found the pamphlet on his shelf.
Earnestly intent on his task, William Mompesson read through the tract until he came to that portion of it which dealt with the plague. There were many prescriptions and all of them old, being mostly those of that noted physician, Signor de Vigo, who had died a hundred and twenty years before.
First, read the tract, in time of infection from this disease, it was best to have something to smell at, not sweet but sharp—a physic box, a pouncet box, and a pomander were all good. There were also plague waters that were considered most efficacious. Tobacco was good.
And Mr. Mompesson remembered that Jack Corbyn had been chewing a plug of tobacco at St. Helen's Wake last night... Mention was here, too, of Goddard's drops.
Mr. Mompesson remembered hearing his father speak of this physician, for he had attended General Cromwell in the Irish and Scottish campaigns and was afterwards Master of a College at Oxford. Sir George Savile had told his chaplain that the secret of this famous drop had been sold to Charles II for a large sum, more than five thousand pounds. But Sir George, laughing, had added that this was but a roguery, for there was nothing in the recipe but a volatile spirit of raw silk rectified with oil of cinnamon and that the whole thing was no better than ordinary spirits of hartshorn.
'Well, I have none of these things,' thought William Mompesson, 'but I have oil of cinnamon and some spices and hartshorn and I will take these round to the poor lad.'
He began to be interested in the matter for its own sake, for he had spent too much time when he had been in Rufford Park in making his own experiments and following those of the Empirics and the Paracelsists or Chemical Physicians, and during his brief visit to London he had gone to St. Thomas's Hospital and attended a demonstration given by the great anatomist, Dr. Wharton.
He also knew of the lectures and experiments that had been made by the Royal Society and their meetings at Gresham College. But now with all these scraps of wisdom he was but in a bewilderment and had to fall back on the simple remedies that were used in most households for all diseases.
So he made up a case of his oils and drops and put in a pomander and left the house to go to the tailor's cottage.
Kate and Bessie were watching from a window and saw him go out and called at him, and he waved up at them cheerfully. They wondered where he had been and asked him why he had not come to breakfast. He said that a parishioner was not well and required his attendance, and they were content with that, for he spent quite a portion of his time visiting the sick, though so far he had undertaken this duty without much satisfaction to himself or others.
When he went to the tailor's house he found that man much composed; he believed that young Fulwood's illness was but slight after all, for he was lying placidly and showed no signs of delirium. So Mr. Mompesson gave him the medicine, told him to use the pomander and to burn cinnamon in the room, and to wash his hands frequently with vinegar and to sprinkle it on the door sill. If the young man showed fever, it would be better to purge and bleed him.
"And for that you must get the barber-surgeon, and mind that he, too, washes his hands in vinegar and makes himself a pomander."
"Still I lament the wedding dress," confessed the tailor. "What will Mistress Bessie be married in now, sir?"
This reminded Mr. Mompesson that he had not yet told the two young women of the misfortune that had overtaken their finery. They would be angry with him, though he had better cause to be angry with them for their carelessness in sending for goods from London.
He turned away, thoughtful, and as he went through the churchyard he remembered the ridiculous incident of Sythe Torre and the cow in the church. How all these fantasies impinged both on sober, practical truth and on spiritual communion with God...
It occurred to him that he should have advice and support at this moment. If the plague was really in Eyam there were certain steps to be taken—a pest-house must be erected on the green, so that those who sickened might be kept apart from the others. Perhaps it would be well for Bessie to be married sooner and to leave the place, it would be but a question of hastening the ceremony on a few days, and although poor Kate's cooking and housewifery arts might be disturbed, what were those matters compared to safety from the plague?
So he thought that the best place for him to go to would be to the old Manor Hall and there to speak to Mr. Corbyn, who would be Bessie's father-in-law.
When he reached this place he found that the old man was already abroad, having gone to Bakewell on a matter of business about his tithes from the mine. But Jack was there, sitting idly in the parlour with his hands in the pockets of his rose-pink plush coat and his feet stretched out before him, a clay pipe hanging out of the corner of his pale mouth, and his yellow lovelock falling forlornly over his sullen eyes.
William Mompesson, who had been so pleased with the behaviour of the youth under the reproaches of Mr. Thomas Stanley last night, was disappointed to see him in this indolent guise. He should surely have already been in attendance on Bessie...
But Jack got to his feet with a good enough grace and excused himself for his idleness by saying that he felt sick, that he had dismal qualms in the stomach and an ache in his head.
"It is your potations of last night, Jack," said Mr. Mompesson, "the price all revellers must pay for their merriment. But, sir, I have something important to say to you that will shake you out of this lassitude."
The young man turned quickly, there was an eager look over his face.
"Is it about Bessie?"
"In a manner, yes. I want you to advance your wedding. I want you to be married to-morrow. You must take her away at once, to that house of your friend's outside York city, where you were planning to go till the Dower House was ready."
"But why? That will ruin everything! What about the feast and entertainment? My mother and father and your wife..."
"Yes," interrupted the Rector, "I know all about these preparations, but something has happened. A box of clothes has come to George Vickers, the tailor. It is possible it is infected."
"With the plague?" exclaimed young Corbyn at once.
"I do not know. There is no reason why we should fear it, and yet it might be. Young Fulwood, who works for him, is sick, and I took the clothes out and burnt them on the big stone on the wide moor."
"The plague in Eyam," muttered Jack. He sat down flatly in the window seat and cast his glance on the floor; his dissolute face was livid.
"You see, you must help me, by setting an example to the others. I have told no one else."
William Mompesson proceeded to detail his visit to Vickers, the illness of the apprentice and how he had taken the infected clothes up to the moor and burnt them.
"Why do you come to me about it?" demanded Jack Corbyn heavily.
"I came to see your father, really, John, but as he is away, why then, I must speak to you. I must have all those who are in authority in Eyam on my side. It may be that we shall have to face an outbreak of plague here."
"Surely you take matters too heavily," replied the young man. "It may be but an ordinary sickness."
"So one must hope. Yet, Jack, you have not answered me as to whether you will marry Elizabeth at once and take her away to that house in Yorkshire where you propose to live for a while."
"It will mean the altering of plans," said the young man, "and mean the unsettling of many people, and a great disappointment to poor Bessie herself, yes, and your Kate, too."
The Rector had no answer to this protest, which was moderately voiced, and therefore more effective. Indeed, Mr. Mompesson felt himself, now that he was in these tranquil surroundings in the old Manor, that perhaps he had made too much of a trifle. And at that moment his most poignant regret was for the disappointment of the two young women whose finery had been burnt on the sacrificial stone on the moor.
He seemed to see the whole thing also as something slightly ridiculous, as if had cut a foolish figure in his over-anxiety; he stood silent, a little downcast.
Again young Corbyn began probing him as to what the clothes were and who had been foolish enough to send for dresses from London. And finally came at the truth, saying:
"I suppose it was Bessie herself, who would not be content but must have the best of everything."
"Well, it was Bessie—and Kate," admitted the Rector. "But we must not say too much about that, Jack, we do not wish to humiliate them."
"Did they do it in defiance of your orders?" asked the young man, frowning and plucking with unsteady fingers at his soft cheek.
"I cannot say that, I do not seek to give them orders. I try to keep a check upon their extravagance."
"Ay, she's extravagant enough, Bessie. Perhaps that's what the five pounds went on," interrupted the young man. "The proud thing! And you thought me foppish!"
"I must return that five pounds to you as soon as I can obtain it," said the Rector sternly. "I do not think it becoming in you that you should mention it so often. And Bessie did not require the money for clothes, but for an act of charity."
"And who is to be charged for these London gowns that have been burnt?" demanded the young esquire, frowning more deeply.
"That will be at my charge," replied the Rector, and he thought, with a pang, of how heavy the expense was—twenty pounds or more—to compensate Vickers and the London men.
"Well, what do you want me to do?" Jack Corbyn stood squarely in the window place, his hands folded on his chest. He seemed alert now and to have thrown off the fumes of last night's revelry.
The Rector thought: 'Surely in him I shall find a staunch friend, a valuable ally.'
"I've told you what I want you to do, Jack, it's to marry Bessie. But perhaps that was unnecessary. We'll see if we have the plague in Eyam."
"Well," said the young man, "supposing we do? We're high in the mountains here and the air's fresh, the people healthy! Why should it get a hold on us? There's sickness everywhere; I told you, the grass grows in some of the streets in Derby."
"Remember that," said William Mompesson quickly, "if you feel inclined to blame Bessie or Kate. The plague might have been brought here in a dozen different ways."
He would have liked to add: 'The strolling mummers could have brought it,' but thought this would be too unkind a cut at the young man's behaviour the night before.
"Certainly," he admitted, "I feel more reassured now than I did a few hours ago, when I stood by that poor lad's bedside. It may be, as you say, nothing. But these are my plans. If it should prove to be the plague, you, who have been nowhere near this sick boy and therefore cannot carry any infection, should go up to Chatsworth and tell my Lord, and he will make arrangements, possibly to send his surgeon here and certainly to keep his people from visiting the place."
"What, you would cut us off? You would keep people from coming here?"
"Ay, and others from going out," replied Mr. Mompesson. "We have no right to spread the infection abroad. And this will be your part, Jack. You will go to my Lord and explain these things to him, offer to keep your own people quiet."
"Ay, I'll do that," replied young Corbyn, who was grave enough. "I'll ride over to Chatsworth this morning, and when I return you shall let me know how your patient progresses."
At this moment, Mistress Corbyn, the young esquire's mother, entered the room and Jack put his finger on his lips hastily as a sign that she was not to be told the ill news. So the Rector passed some idle compliment with her and went his way.
But as he picked a path through the poles, barrows, blocks of stone and slabs on which the wet cement lay that filled the courtyard, he glanced back and he saw mother and son in the window seat in what seemed close and agitated conversation.
'Perhaps,' thought the Rector, trying to make excuses for Bessie's betrothed, 'he is telling her that he must ride unexpectedly to Chatsworth. But that should be a light matter and not one for such close converse. Is it possible that he has, after all, taken her into his confidence?'
Mr. Mompesson hoped this was not so, for Mistress Corbyn, though a good housewife and a pleasant woman, was not one of much wit, control, or learning and would be likely not only to send the bad news all over the place, but to make panic of it, with strange, fantastic tales.
Still, the Rector had to put this out of his mind. He had his own task before him, and it was not a pleasant one; uneasily it clouded upon him like a mist.
He found his Kate in the still-room, where the air was heavy with mingled sickly perfumes from small bottles of essences and flavourings from which she was concocting her syrups and comfits for the wedding feast.
She smiled up at him happily; it was not often she was employed in these hosewifery arts, for though the Rectory was finely run, that was owing to the care of Ann Trickett. Kate herself was too much given to be idle and to spending her time at her music and her embroidery. But now, under the excitement of her sister's marriage, she had taken an interest in these things, and though, as her husband tenderly guessed, it was not with very skilful fingers that she was making her concoctions, still she put loving goodwill into her task.
He broached his dismal subject briskly, for he had no courage with which to beat around the bush.
"Kate, I find that there is sickness in the tailor's house and I have destroyed Bessie's wedding gown."
Kate had seldom heard her husband speak so sharply and she was both amazed and alarmed... As he went on, hurriedly, and in stern tones with his tale of the infected dress, she gave little heed to what he was saying. She was convinced that his action had been intended as a punishment for her frivolity, and when he came to a pause and took her hand, and said earnestly:
"You understand, do you not, Kate?" she returned, her lips quivering, and her eyes flashing through tears: "No, I do not, Mompesson! I do not understand at all! Or rather, perhaps I understand too well, and to the contrary of what you have said. You are angry with me because of my extravagance. But I tell you that Lady Halifax would have paid for the dress, or Bessie, when she had her pin-money."
He tried to hush her, but she was too hurt and angry and went on protesting and railing, while she sat down in the little kitchen chair in front of the still where the perfumes lay in their bottles and dishes, and began to weep, the dark, tumbled curls falling over her fingers as she pressed her face into her hands.
"It's no use, Mompesson, I was never intended to be a clergyman's wife or to live mewed up in a place like this! I can't endure it, indeed I can't! And you know you anger everyone with your prim ways."
"Prim?" The Rector could not forbear echoing the laugh, sad and bitter enough. "Why, Thomas Stanley railed at me because I was not prim enough."
"I'm not clever with words," protested Kate, pulling her kerchief out of her bosom and dabbing her eyes, "and I want to be a dutiful wife to you, Mompesson. But I don't know what it is about you, since you have come to Eyam. But at Rufford Park we were so happy."
"Ay, at Rufford Park," he said, interrupting harshly, "because we were both cradled in silk and too much at ease. But I can tell you, Kate, why I do not please you so much, nay, nor others either. It is because I am a man divided. I am half your husband and lover and a man of the world, half a man of God, unresolved, undecided."
Kate sighed. She was a sweet-tempered woman and her anger was soon spent, always.
"Perhaps my heart is hard," she murmured, "and set in vanities. And I, too, have behaved ill, doubtless. But if you had but let this wedding go by, Mompesson, if you had but let us enjoy ourselves, then indeed I should have been patient and put aside all worldly gear."
But he interrupted again impatiently:
"Kate, don't you understand? I'm not talking of the wedding festivities or of anything of that kind! You might have done as you would, and I should have paid the bills. But this dress is infected. Fulwood, the tailor's apprentice is ill."
"How can it be from that?" she asked incredulously. "The plague's in London. I blame myself, I did not tell you, I did not want to disturb you and I thought there was no possible connection between us, and the capital. We knew no one there. Who would have thought," he added with heavy emphasis, "that from a place, though we have no acquaintance, danger would come in a box of finery?"
"I don't believe it has, Mompesson," said Kate, comfortably. "The lad overdrank at the festival, or has the sleeping sickness, or perhaps the pox. And all our brave clothes lost for that!" Then, with a pathetic feminine curiosity that touched her husband's heart, she asked wistfully: "Tell me, what was the gown like, Mompesson? You know, I never saw it."
"I saw but little of it myself, my dearest dear. It was hung upon a horse in front of the fire, which had gone out by the time I saw it. They say it was damp and Fulwood put it there to air. Oh, it was fair enough, curled and puffed and braided. A lustrous piece of work."
"And lovely would Bess have looked in it," lamented Kate, beginning to weep again.
"Peace, child," replied her husband. "If thou had'st put Bess in that wondrous gown thou mightest have put her in her gorgeous winding sheet."
"Well," said Kate, with deep sighs, "I must even find her something else, and the time is short enough."
"Kate, I want the time to be shorter still. I have been to the old Manor this morning and asked Jack Corbyn to marry Bess to-morrow. I'll have everything in readiness and then he can take her away to Yorkshire. If we are to have the plague in Eyam it is better that all who can be safe."
"The plague? And Bess to be married on a day's notice? I'll believe no such thing! I'll have no such thing! Where's Mistress Corbyn? I'll go down and see her."
"She is with her son. But leave this matter with me, Kate, there are things in which women should not meddle."
"Ay, meddle's the word for us," sobbed Kate, weeping again. "And yet you must do what you will and we must call it Divine providence!"
"Perhaps it was," said the Rector. "Perhaps God did direct me to destroy the wedding gown and save all my flock."
"Then I suppose it was the Devil," asked Kate, innocently, "who inspired me to send for the stuff from London?"
The Rector had no answer for this; his faith was not to be argued out on these lines of feminine logic.
"We'll argue no more, Kate. I have done what I have done and you know my desires. Go now to Bess and tell her the news." And he added mildly: quoting from St. John: "'If ye love me take my commandments.' Remember, that, Kate, as I must try to remember it, and do not dote upon this world's fancies that loves but the silly snares of shallow pleasure and all such vanities."
She did not answer him, but with downcast head left the room, not having stayed to put aside her comfits, syrups, and essences. He smiled at this disorder, thinking how characteristic it was of Kate to show enthusiasm and then leave her task half-done. Yet he must blame himself for her distraction, for he feared that he had saddened her as she had not been saddened in her life before. It was difficult, as he knew, for him to realize how the women had counted upon this wedding and all its attendant pleasures.
MRS. MOMPESSON, Elizabeth and Ann Trickett, the serving-woman, went down the afternoon of that day to the old Manor House to consult with Mistress Corbyn as to the change in the plans for the wedding.
Bessie had felt the disappointment perhaps less keenly than her sister, for all her thoughts were on becoming united to her darling Jack, and after the first pang was quickly past she was willing enough to marry her lover immediately and to leave Eyam with him if so willed and as originally planned. Though she declared that, if there were the least danger, she would stay with her sister.
The news of young Fulwood was reassuring and the Rector nursed some hope that he would be made a fool of and the illness proved not to have been the plague. The lad lay in something between a sleep and a swoon and seemed not to suffer. Fumigants were burned before his bedroom door and in front of that of the tailor's house.
It was impossible to prevent the story of the box of clothes coming from London from getting abroad, but George Vickers, the tailor, with a touching loyalty towards the Rector, gave out that the case had contained nothing but patterns. And he went up to young Fulwood's bed and ordered him to give the same tale when he recovered. But the young man did not seem to hear him, so sunk was he in his flaccid trance. The day was very hot and people, sick and sorry after the revels, moved slowly about their business.
The two young women, going on foot from the Rectory to the old Manor, discussed this illness of young Fulwood, for indeed they could not get anything else in their thoughts. And what amazed them both was, not so much that one of the villagers had fallen sick, but that the Rector should take the matter so seriously.
"It is those books he is always reading," pouted Kate; "you know when he was at Rufford Park what a time he spent in his laboratory and perusing the tracts of old physicians. And who knows what it has put into his head."
"William is very wise," said Bess, "and probably knows far better than we do. And now that the dress is burnt—and really, Kate I do not mind so much—expect we are all free from danger. And even if poor young Fulwood has the plague, and even if he should die of it, what is there for the rest of us to grieve over? And as for the wedding, do not agitate yourself so much, dear Kate. We will hear what Mistress Corbyn has to say."
When the ladies reached the old Manor they were surprised and even alarmed to find that in the early afternoon Jack Corbyn had ridden away, not saying where he was going, and had been followed immediately afterwards by Mistress Corbyn, who had gone riding pillion behind a manservant. Several of the other servants were under orders to follow them; no explanation had been given to those that remained, save that instructions would arrive in a day or so.
Good breeding saved Mrs. Mompesson and Bess from showing their dismay. They stood among the blocks of masonry and watched the workmen moving leisurely in the golden sunlight, planing wood, mixing mortar, chipping stones to embellish the rebuilding of the Manor.
Then, followed by Ann Trickett, they moved aside and crossed the Hall yard and paused by the fish-pond where William Mompesson had talked to Jack Corbyn.
Then Bessie said faintly:
"Why should he go away, hurriedly, like that, and the wedding but a week off?"
"It's worse than that," whispered Kate. "Mompesson told him this morning that he would like to have it in twenty-four hours."
Fear, like a quickly moving shadow, fell over the spirits of the two young women, even the bright sunshine about them seemed chilled.
"He will have sent a message to the Rectory," said Kate, pressing her sister's hand. "Mompesson asked him to go to Chatsworth. These stupid servants have misunderstood. Jack has gone there, of course."
"But his mother? Why should his mother go? And his father has not returned. Did they send a messenger warning him to keep away?"
"Fie, Bess, we should not think of such things."
In silence the two young women left the Manor garden and returned to the Rectory. There was no message there from the young esquire.
William Mompesson could not believe this news. He thought, as Kate thought, that there must have been some mistake, and he himself went down to the old Manor and sharply examined the servants. But the story was always the same. And so, in suspense and anxiety, three days went by, like a lull before the approach of storm shadows.
Kate bravely continued her preparations for the festival and Bess allowed her sister to alter one of her gowns into the semblance of a wedding garment, trimming the pale silk foundation with gold and silver lace, fashioning a deep falling collar for the shoulders; while Mompesson went over himself to Chatsworth and waited upon my Lord. And then he discovered that none of the Corbyns had been there, but there was news of them travelling towards Yorkshire to the house of that friend where Jack should have spent the first week of his married life.
These things were by no means to be concealed in a small village. A sadness fell over the little place, which had been so full of high spirits during St. Helen's Wake.
When the Sunday came there were a large number in the church and a different reverence paid to the Rector's brief sermon, which he spoke on a text appropriate to such a mountainous district:
'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my strength.'
That sweet Sunday afternoon he had to officiate at the burial of an infant that he had but lately christened, in the churchyard under the golden linden trees, and an unusually large crowd gathered and they were very quiet. Mr. William Mompesson supposed that they were pitying him and his Kate and Bessie, who seemed to have been forsaken but a few days before her wedding, and scorning the false lover who had seemed to show a blackness of heart.
He could not believe this, but thought that some message had gone astray and that Jack Corbyn would return. It was possible that he had gone to fetch physics and doctors from Derby, but though the Rector tried to keep this in his mind as a probability, he knew it was fantastic. Jack Corbyn could have helped in more immediate ways, and there were doctors and physic enough nearer than Derby, at Bakewell, for example, or Buxton.
Neither this matter nor that of the plague was spoken about at the Rectory.
When the funeral service was over, William Mompesson went towards the tailor's house. He had visited the young man twice every day, since he had fallen sick, and never seen any change in him, save one evening when he seemed in a mild delirium and had talked foolishly about his work, making a movement of his hands as if snipping with the scissors or stitching with the needle.
It was a peerless evening; gold and blue and tranquil, the spendthrift sun scattered largesse everywhere. Despite his grave cares and wonder, the Rector felt his spirits lifted into some divine contentment that was beyond his immediate circumstance.
When he entered the little shop, he found George Vickers, as he had bid him do, smoking, for it was well known that tobacco helped to keep contagion away, and with the bowl of spices smouldering in the window so that the low room was full of bluish smoke.
"He is better this afternoon, sir—the lad," said the tailor cheerfully, "and I think, after all, I shall not send for his parents. He was sitting up and speaking cheerfully before noon, soon after your visit."
The Rector stood silent, but his slender fingers gripped closely on the silver-bound Prayer Book that he held and his whole spirit seemed to be stilled into an ecstasy of thanksgiving. This dark shadow, then, was to pass away. And what a lesson it would have taught him! There would be no more repining, no more idleness, no more nice disdain of these rude people among whom he had been sent.
"You give me," he breathed at last, "very good news. I will see the boy and join with him in thanksgiving."
And he went quickly up the small, winding stairs to the apprentice's bedroom. The pure golden light came in at the low-set window beneath the slanting ceiling and fell over the young man who lay half-stripped upon his truckle bed, the patchwork quilt twisted under him.
'Doubtless he is asleep.'
The Rector approached. But young Fulwood was too still, his face too clay-coloured for sleep; there were patches on his neck, his mouth was dragged.
The Rector felt his joyous relief vanish like sunshine before a storm-cloud, his soul, like the tempest-smitten landscape, was suddenly dark and bleak; the boy was dead and in an agony.
Mompesson took first the coverlet and the blanket between his fingers and pulled them down. Then he opened the shirt the young man wore; the young body that had been so lately firm and fresh was livid, and on the thighs and legs and on the chest showed large blains, puffing up the skin, a sure 'token' of the plague.
Without a change in his face, save a light twitching of his brow and lips, the Rector performed those offices that he had performed so often before, when he had attended the poor tenants of Sir George Savile's estates. He closed the dim, staring eyes, he crossed the hands over the breast, he composed the drawn up limbs, marking the loathsome disfigurements the while and then he drew the sheet over the corpse and prayed beside it; the sun was hot on him and the body stank.
Then he rose and, looking at the outline beneath the coarse sheet, he murmured: "But go thou thy way till the end be, for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot, at the end of the days."
Then the priest went downstairs and said to George Vickers, who was seated comfortably by the door taking his rest on the Lord's Day:
"It is the plague. The youth is dead, and on him are the spots that the physicians term the buboes."
"The plague!" whispered the tailor. "Then I am a dead man, too, sir!"
"It does not follow," replied the Rector firmly. "Thou art no more a dead man than I am or any other in this place. Now take heed to thy ways, Vickers, obey me, and we may yet stay the disease to this one case. I will go up to my laboratory and see what I have there in the way of fumigants and medicine that might be preventive. And I will come back here and put this lad in the coffin myself."
"Nay, sir, I shall help you," said Vickers coolly, losing his fear now the test had arrived. "I have no more fear than you."
"You may help me if you will. There should be a coffin ready, there was one made for old Riley, of the Dale, who was to be buried on Tuesday. Go to the carpenter and ask for that."
"To get it I must tell him the whole story, sir."
"We cannot keep the story secret, but must put all on their mettle to behave bravely. If you treat them as brave men you will make them so."
William Mompesson shut himself in his laboratory that sunny afternoon, and when Kate tapped on the door he told her he would take no supper, that he had urgent business afoot.
He studied the medical tracts that he had once again, and looked over his stores of physic. Then he made up a compound to serve as a powerful fumigant and set it in a brazier and burned it at the door of his laboratory so that the fumes went all over the house.
When the family supper was over he came down and read the prayers as usual. And when they were over he asked his household to remain; there was his wife and Bessie, the two little children, Ann Trickett, Jonathan Mortin and three other servants, a maid, a gardener, a groom.
To them the Rector told the story of how the plague had come to Eyam, that no one was to blame for it, and there might be no ill consequences if precautions were taken.
"For," said he, "just as these things come in a mysterious way, so in a mysterious way they may be prevented. Nay, I use the word mysterious, but so it is not. It is only our ignorance, which is clouded and blinded and may not understand these things."
And he told them how he was going down himself that evening to put the young man in his coffin. He must be buried that night.
"George Vickers, the tailor, who is a brave man, and the sexton will carry the coffin the short distance to the churchyard, and there must be no one present save myself, and it is my duty to be there. God," added the Rector, with a firmer note in his voice, "protects those who do their duty."
This speech was received in dutiful silence. The only sign of alarm that he had observed, for he was watching them closely, was the quick looks that all the women had given the two children, who were kneeling on their little cushions in front of the other worshippers, Kate supporting the little girl and Ann Trickett keeping the restless boy in his place.
When all but Kate and Bess had gone, Ann Trickett taking the two children away to their beds, Mrs. Mompesson broke out:
"This is a horrible thing! You run a grave risk and I should like to come with you. I am not afraid of dead bodies, nor of the plague."
"I well believe this, Kate, that you are afraid of nothing, but you must obey me without question. I stand in no danger." And to comfort her he added: "I know a good, nay, a certain preventive for the plague."
Then Bessie, who had been standing silent, half leaning against one of the heavy dining chairs, said:
"But what of Jack? Is there no word from him? And why did he leave me?"
These questions had been in the hearts if not on the lips of all of them for the last four days, but the Rector could not answer them now.
"Surely you will hear from him soon, Bessie. He could not have left you willingly. Something must have gone astray."
"No," said Elizabeth Carr, with a bitter little smile, which wiped all the youth from her face and made her seem older than her married sister, "you may stop your preparations for the wedding, Kate, and you, sir, may announce in the church that it will not take place. For even if Jack should return now, save he had a very good explanation, I would not have this wedding go forward."
"Hush, hush, Bess," said Kate, taking hold of her and clasping her tight, "you must not speak thus. And we must think of it neither; remember only that the plague has come to Eyam and that we must stand by our posts and see how we can help."
But that night, when Mr. Mompesson had gone to the tailor's shop and was helping George Vickers to put the body of an apprentice into the coffin that had been made for another, a horseman came to Eyam and riding to the Rectory delivered a package to Bessie. It was from Madam Corbyn and sent from a house in Yorkshire.
It said that the Corbyns had been called away by the sudden illness of a relative, an old uncle from whom they had great expectations, the very man who was to have lent his house to Bessie and Jack. Although the wedding had been so near 'it behoved them,' the good lady wrote, 'to go at once.' And lo and behold! they had come into the house when the old man had recovered and Jack himself had been taken ill. Now, this illness was but a slight thing and Bessie was by no means to be disturbed. Still less was she to think of trying to come and nurse him. The worst was over, but Jack was still weak and was not likely to leave his bed for several days yet. Therefore, Madam Corbyn begged the postponement of the wedding. In a short while further news would be sent, and in a short while more Jack would return to claim his beloved.
This letter arrived on the sixth day after the departure of Jack Corbyn from the old Manor House, and when Kate Mompesson questioned the messenger, after he had been refreshed in the Rectory, she found that the place he had come from was no more than a good day's riding.
"So," said Bessie sharply, "allowing that it took Jack a day to get there, and this man a day to return with his letter, that allows four days for him to fall into a bad illness, to recover, and to lie languid."
Kate questioned the messenger as to the state of his young master. But the fellow was a stranger, one from the Yorkshire household, and seemed wary in his replies. And the women thought that he had been told what to say. He could only assure the ladies that young Esquire Corbyn had been ill and abed. But he added that he did not think the illness was of much gravity, since he had seen him at his chamber window, fully clothed, and playing with some pigeons on the sill.
When the man had gone, the sisters turned into each other's arms.
"Oh, Kate! Oh, Bessie! What are we to think?"
Not until this moment did Bessie Carr realize how strong her hope had been that there might be some credible explanation for her lover's behaviour, since she had loved him so utterly. All her heart had been set upon her approaching marriage and the long vista of happiness behind it. She could not believe that all had been a deception; she could not believe it now.
With trembling hands she took Madam Corbyn's letter and read it over and over again.
Then she was for setting out at once and taking the twelve hours' ride to the Yorkshire house, but Kate restrained her, telling her that it was not in womanly dignity nor maidenly honour to do such a thing. But poor Bessie was impatient and declared that nothing mattered but her love for Jack and she would go.
And into the middle of this agonized scene the Rector returned, not breaking in upon the women who were closeted in Kate's chamber, but they heard his steps go past as he went straight into his laboratory, only on his way calling out to Ann Trickett to bring him ewers of fresh water and clean cloths.
He had attended the funeral of young Fulwood, he had helped put the body in the coffin and had noted that it was already putrid and the stench had been such as to overcome the perfumes from the fumigations and from the burnt vinegar.
So, on the seventh day of September the first victim of the plague in Eyam was buried. And within a week George Vickers was dead, and the woman who came in to do his work, and the children of the cobbler who lived next door—two little girls.
The Rector watched by the death-beds of all of them and helped put them into their coffins and carry them to the churchyard.
Then the terrible alarm died down, for it seemed as if the disease was stayed. For fifteen days passed, then Edward Cooper died. Then there was a month and more until October the twenty-eighth, when Jonathan Cooper, his brother, died, and the plague had spread into six other families, of which twenty-five had died; two named Halksworth, six Thorpes, six Sydalls, four Bands, four Torres and three Ragges.
So, from the death of young Fulwood until the end of October, twenty-nine had perished.
Now, up to this time, none had known with perfect certainty, save the Rector, that this disease was the plague, for some had had no tokens upon them at all and others were very young children or very old people, such as might have been supposed to die naturally. But though the villagers had become fearful over so many deaths, the word 'plague' had not gone round Eyam, and the household of the Rector was loyal and none breathed a word.
But by November some travelling from Derbyshire heard the tale of this illness, and the symptoms described, and said roundly that it was the plague and had gone away again immediately. And when the doctor from Chatsworth had been asked to his face what this disease was, he admitted that it was the plague.
Yet, even as this terror came to the inhabitants of Eyam there was some relief, for there were but three deaths during November, and with December came a sharp frost that seemed to stay the infection.
Though there was so much desolation in the little place, so many families being in mourning, still the villagers' spirits soon recovered, because there was no more than the usual amount of illness during December and the plague tokens were not found upon any that died during that month. And everywhere the villagers manifested joy to think they had been saved from the terrible scourge with the loss of only thirty-one persons who, young and old, lay buried in the churchyard close together under the linden trees.
It seemed that the height of the malignant destruction had passed and that they might now consider themselves safe, and Mr. Mompesson and his wife believed that their anxiety and their toil were now at an end with the melancholy clouds and whistling winds of winter.
The sharp frosts, the severe snowstorms fell like a purification on the mountain village and passes; the Rector, the sexton, the constable and two men sent from Chatsworth by my Lord went down to the barracks or pest-house that had been built upon the green and took out all the bedding and materials used for the sick people and burned them between the falls of snow that blotted out the hills.
Mr. Mompesson had observed that those who lived in the better, western part of the village beyond the stream that divided Eyam and the lych-gate had not been visited by the infection at all, and he wondered if the stream had not served to check the disease, acting as a barrier to the infection.
These months had passed for him very quickly, for he had been concentrated on his labours, on much watching and praying, but that had not prevented him from giving a sharp attention to the affairs of Elizabeth. She had refused to allow him to interfere between herself and Jack Corbyn. Letters came from Yorkshire, but always the young man, though in no danger and on the mend, was languid and could not travel and the marriage had been postponed until the spring.
Mr. Mompesson noticed that all the work on the old Manor was suspended, the servants had been withdrawn, the house was shut up and the man who farmed the land knew nothing of the doings of the Squire and his son.
'It is well,' said the Rector to himself in deep anger, 'that if he be that manner of man who would forsake his bride because of fear of a disease, that Bessie is free from him.'
This was but a hollow consolation, for he had seen how the girl, though brave and silent, pined. And it was hardly to be endured to watch the women putting away quietly all the preparations for the wedding festivities and locking apart the clothes and giving to the poor the cakes, the jellies and the comfits.
But William Mompesson thought: 'When the plague is over, I shall deal with Jack Corbyn.'
THE Peak district was still covered with thick snow, the frosts were heavy at night and lay white in all pockets and hollows on the moorlands. But the streams were relieved from the ice and began to flow freely through the stiff mosses and dead grasses; here and there was a celandine or the bright blades of a strong lusty weed. The firs showed pale tips at the ends of their blue-black winter boughs, and on the thorn-trees and larches in the dells was a faint bloom of bud. The plague was over and spring returning to the mountains.
Elizabeth Carr went on foot alone across the heath beyond Middleton Dale. The air was still sharp and the bright sky colourless above the snow-streaked hills. The girl kept her woollen hood pulled over her face and her mantle wrapped tightly across her bosom. Light was receding from the air and an arrow-shaped flight of birds above her head was speeding homewards.
As she entered the dell, so different now from what it appeared in its summer splendour, with the bare trees and limestone rocks and sandstone hollows showing, and the broken flags and tarnished weeds of last year, she paused and looked round her apprehensively.
She felt as she looked—small, lonely and helpless in the wide majestic landscape.
And when a man, who had been seated on one of the boulders near a grove of ash at the top of the dell, moved forward, so that his figure was outlined against the sky, she gave a little sob of alarm. But it was instantly checked as she saw that the tall elegant figure in the gray coat was her brother-in-law. She waited proudly defiant as he came down the side of the dell.
"Elizabeth, you have been out alone? Did I not ask you always to go attended? This place is wild, the inhabitants savage. Besides,' he added sadly, "I think I know your errand."
Elizabeth began to excuse herself nervously as they walked slowly by reason of the uneven ground and the breaking rills of water between the smooth boulders through the dell.
"I have not been far, only a little way across the heath. And I am by now so familiar with the place. The people may be savage, but they are honest, too. I do not think anyone would hurt me. I often pass the miners going to and from their work and they salute me courteously."
"Still, I would not have you go, Bessie. I believe you go with Kate's connivance, but you are too loyal to tell me that."
She did not answer, and with increased pity and tenderness he continued.
"I wish that you and Kate understood how much I sympathized with you and how little desire I have to be hard with you. But, Bessie, where you go is to old Mother Sydall, is it not? The wise woman, as they call her, who lives in a hut on the moor."
"I went there last autumn," said Bessie, in a low voice, "to get some amulets against the plague. We all had one—Kate, myself, the children, and Ann Trickett."
"I knew as much," replied the Rector. "I took them from Kate and the children once, but I suppose you fetched others?"
"How little you trust me, Bessie! Did you not think that I could have given you something that would have been as useful to you? Must you believe in these silly practices?"
The girl stood her ground.
"If one must believe in demons and angels, why not in witches?" she asked. "This is a good old woman, and may not God use her as an instrument?"
"God bids us use our wits," replied the Rector. "And I do not like these arguments, Bessie. These old women are ignorant, if well-meaning, and do more harm than good. But why do you visit her now? The plague, God be praised, has left Eyam."
Bessie did not answer and her brother-in-law continued to press her, gently but with authority. When they had almost reached the end of the glen, the girl stopped and looked earnestly up at the Rector.
She had changed since the days of her bright lustre when she had been preparing for her wedding. William Mompesson knew that Bessie was brave and also that she suffered much from her private grief at the absence of her lover and from the public plague for which, for all her brother-in-law could say, she held herself responsible. As both the tailor and his assistant were dead and there were no others that knew precisely the story of the box of clothes, save Jack Corbyn who had not returned to Eyam, the Rector had kept it quiet and not mentioned to anyone what he believed to be the truth, that the plague had come in the box of clothes from London.
But he knew if he had expressed his opinion not only would Bessie and Kate have been scorned for their disobedience and vanity, but the two young women would hardly have been able to endure their remorse. Therefore he had spread it about, and even told his wife and sister-in-law, that he thought the plague had come with some of the people who visited St. Helen's Wake, been brought from Derby, perhaps by the mummers, perhaps by one of the quacks or strolling traders.
But Kate could never forget that he had told her the plague had come in the clothes, though he had tried to efface that impression, saying that he was mistaken, for he could not endure that these two innocent creatures should have the deaths of thirty-one people at their count, though in his heart he believed that they had been the one and only cause of the arrival of the infection in the mountain village.
He thought that Bessie was going to speak of this matter now and try, as she had tried before, to clear herself before her own conscience by finding out from him his real opinion of the source of the infection in Eyam.
But instead she said:
"Sir, I have been obedient to you in everything; you have the ordering of my actions, the handling of my poor fortune, I live in your house and am subservient to you, but some liberty I must have."
"Why, Bess, I hope that thou hast all the liberty that thou need'st?"
"I must have this," added the girl anxiously, "to go abroad a little, even to visit this old woman if I will."
"But what do you visit her for, Bessie? Two or three times in the last month I have asked for you and Kate has been forced to tell me that you were on this heath, and I have had to come and meet you."
"You need not fear for me," she said earnestly, "I think I am protected."
He was a little abashed because her faith was greater than his own, for he was by no means confident where Bessie or Kate were concerned, he knew the miners were rough, savage people, and in particular he dreaded Sythe Torre, who had once, not so many months ago, made a half-confession to him of being a murderer and whose lewd and cruel disposition was well known. Suppose he was straying on the heath when Bessie made her piteous errand? And if he only frightened the girl? Why, it was not to be thought of...
So the Rector said:
"Bessie, we have had a sad winter but the spring comes now. See, even the poor wayside herbs lift up their heads and grow green again? And I am assured that Jack Corbyn will return and we shall have our wedding after all, with a deeper rejoicing that the scourge has come and gone."
"Will Jack return?" asked Bessie eagerly, putting back the loose dark hair that the wind blew inside her hood from her face. "Will he?"
"He writes to you, doesn't he, Bess? And they are the letters of a lover?"
"Ay, but there are always excuses—his father has lost much money and therefore they cannot reside at the Manor, he has been sick and his mother has been sick, the uncle with whom they live is whimsical and will have him close. Oh! sir, I greatly fear I have lost his love."
"It is true that he is but a cold lover," said the Rector, taking Bessie's hand through his arm as they went on their way towards the village, "and it would be better if you could put him out of your heart. But if that may not be... Bessie, before we come to the first cottages, tell me this—I would rather ask these questions in the open air than in the Rectory. I have not spoken of this matter, even to Kate, but I ask you now—do you go to the old woman to buy love philtres and charms?"
She did not answer but he saw her delicate face harden, her lips quiver, and he knew it was useless to question further that frail obstinacy. No doubt she had been near to Hell these last months since her broken wedding, and he would not for that have her slip into folly. So he argued with her tenderly, yet with a touch of authority, telling her that she might cause great mischief by dabbling in drugs and charms, of the virtues and strengths of which she knew nothing. Not by magic would love be forced. If her lover had for any reason forsaken her, nothing could bring him back save her own loyalty and constancy. And in the end the Rector gave the advice, knowing well how useless it was, that Jack Corbyn was hardly worth the wearying for and that one so sweet and fair and gently bred as herself would find in time a better mate.
Bessie did not answer, neither did she weep William Mompesson had noticed before that her tears did not come as easily as Kate's; she had a curious inner strength of character.
She thanked him for his care and withdrew her hand from his arm and they walked side by side and suddenly estranged down the winding village street, through the larger houses at the western end, from which many of the inhabitants had fled last autumn and where they had now all returned, through the lych-gate, where the villagers stood on duty ready for the night watch, and so past the green and The Bull, the churchyard with the bare linden trees and the Rectory.
William Mompesson found his wife in the parlour that looked upon the gray, bare orchard. She was giving her elder child a lesson out of a horn-book, but when her husband came in she sent the boy away.
The Rector stood leaning against the tapestried walls close to her and spoke to her, reluctantly, about Bessie and her visits to old Mother Sydall... No harm in the thing, but it was a folly, and yet it should not be countenanced. Not only was it ill for herself, but in the effects it might have on the villagers to whom it might give but an odious example.
"They are sunk enough in crafts and superstitions and I know not what black ignorance, already," said the Rector.
Catherine stopped him, saying almost in the words that Bessie had used:
"But you teach us to believe in angels and devils, how are we to know what is true and what is not, Mompesson? If we are not to believe in the baying of Gabriel's Hounds, how are we to believe in guardian angels?"
"Woman," he answered sadly, "you must not argue with me on these points. Both as your husband and as your priest, I must be your guide. I tell you, you and I and Bessie are but one dusty story, these follies will live after us as an ill example. See that Bessie goes no more upon the moors. I have no time to spend following her or meeting her in the dells, covering up her foolishness."
"I cannot control Bessie," smiled Kate quietly, "her heart has been almost broken since John Corbyn went away, since we had the plague in Eyam. What do you think life has been for her, or for me? We have done what we could to help."
"You have done very nobly," replied the Rector, "I have no reproofs to make there. And well do I know your grief and disappointment. But, Kate, how is it that this has not brought us all nearer together, instead of sending us, as I think, farther apart?"
"There has been the cloud of death upon the village and upon this house," replied his wife, and her pretty lips trembled piteously.
"That is over, Kate, and we should lift up our hearts But something is wrong, and I think the fault must be mine. I feel it in my parishioners, too. This trouble has not brought us nearer, though I have worked hard for them and they seemed grateful I think it is because I cannot discern where the hand of God moves."
"That may well be a mystery," said Kate bitterly. "Why should God send death in that wedding dress?"
"Kate, I have not said He did, I do not know from whence the plague came."
"You said so, once, though you've tried to take it back. Why should God send death in the wedding dress, to kill those innocent people?"
"We do not know, Kate. You must not question His wisdom. Let be."
Catherine Mompesson raised her tired eyes and looked at her husband with deep love, but it was the love that gazes across a gulf. They had been separated, if not estranged, during the tribulations of the winter, Bessie's distress and the public calamity; and though she had stood by his side and worked with him, still in some things they had been divided. And she could not, any more than he, put a name to this division.
He looked now at his own features in the tortoiseshell mirror, as if he expected to see a great change there. But the trouble that had marked the sensitive delicacy of Kate's and Bessie's features had not marred his own comeliness. The face that looked back at him did not seem to his own consideration that of a priest, though it was sad, grave and serene. The features were too worldly handsome, the expression too aloof; there was too much cool pride in the brow, too much haughty self-containment in the set of the lips. Sloth was on his spirit and lethargy on his lips.
'What are we?' he thought, staring into the mirror, 'but God's truce with dust?'
And it was in his mind then to write to Sir George Savile and tell him that he was not fitted to have the cure of souls, that he would return to some humbler post—not the gilded idleness of chaplain in the great man's house, but some small cure where he might work under some holy man and not be what he was not fitted to be—his own master.
But even as the thought came into his mind it was checked by another, and a worldly one. He had no means to support Kate and Bessie and his children, if he had a meaner living than Eyam. He had already deprived them of worldly pleasures and comforts by bringing them to this solitary place. Should he, for the sake of his own spiritual peace, condemn them to more hardships?
He put his hand into the thick chestnut curls that hung damp on his brow (for he still, as he went constantly among the sick, kept his forehead bathed with vinegar), and turned and made a movement to his Kate as if he would invite her into his arms. But she did not look up and he stood mute and sated, his eyes gazing at her delicate face, the long throat, the pure lips now only faintly coloured, the large dark eyes shadowed beneath.
Then he made an effort to overcome his spirits and said:
"Kate, I saw the flowers and the mosses and the herbs springing green to-day. Spring is coming, even in this isolated place, even on the mountain."
"Ah, yes," she said, "the spring! But I do not think anything will be the same again."
Bessie Carr sat in her sweet self-privacy, handling her lover's letters. About once a month a messenger came from Yorkshire with a missive from Jack Corbyn for her. There was not much in these short epistles, but they were sufficient for her love and loyalty to feed upon. Through all her cloudy doubts and fears she clung to these few lines, reading them often, carrying them, sewn into a silk cover, placing them under her pillow at night.
She wrote to him, but out of delicacy no more frequently than he wrote to her, and always over her letters she said the charm that had been taught her by Mother Sydall and then held them over a pan of smouldering fumigants so that there might be no danger that the plague or any other illness would touch her lover.
He spoke now of returning, he thought his affairs were something settled, that work might begin again upon the Manor Hall, and that they might be married about Eastertide.
Her lover's desertion and the illness that she still blamed herself for having brought into the village had much changed Bessie. She was no longer laughing, frivolous and careless, but grave, attentive to her duties, dressed soberly and often sitting alone with a book of devotion or walking in the outskirts of the village, where the waters headlong and loose fell over the boulders, or on the heath and moors by the ancient altar, where her wedding gown had been burned last September.
This evening she went on her knees by her simple bed and gave thanks to God for removing the plague from Eyam, and then, something soothed but still restless, she thought she would do as she so often did—go abroad and walk through the village streets enquiring at the houses where there were still people recovering from illness, or old folk, or little children, if she could be of any service to them. These errands completed, she would walk around by the Hall yard and the old Manor and look at the house, where she had hoped to live as mistress, where perhaps she might yet live happily with John Corbyn. Even her brother-in-law could have no objection to this amount of liberty.
So she went downstairs and passed the parlour, where was Kate with Ann Trickett and the children, and the study where the Rector was enclosed, and came out by the churchyard walls and the bare linden trees, made her way round the village and back again to the Manor Hall.
She passed inside the gates and went to the fishpond and looked about her. No one slept in the half-demolished partly rebuilt house, though some servant came in the daytime to set all in order. The snow was now quite gone from the valleys and the low-lying places and remained only in patches on the hills. The air was still sharp and the new moon was like a chip of crystal hanging above the high chimney-pots of the ancient house.
And as Bessie, a small figure in her modest cloak and hood, gazed at Jack Corbyn's home, she saw lights in one of the upper rooms. The sight of this gave her an unutterable pang that another should have the right to be there and she not at all. Then a wild hope sprang up as she saw a large shadow pass in front of the light. She went round to the stable and found a horse there, newly rubbed down, feeding from the manger, while his harness hung from its place. Only one thought and one action were then possible for Bessie Carr. She ran round to the front door of the house and knocked at the door.
It was Jack Corbyn who opened to her and his greeting was such as she most dearly hoped for.
"Bess!" he cried. "My dearest dear!" And took her in his arms and drew her inside the house.
They clung together for a moment, kissing and speaking incoherently.
"How did you know I was here?"
"Why did you not tell me you were coming? What chance brought you? Are you alone?"
Till they both laughed.
"We perplex one another with questions," he laughed. "They have lit me a fire in the large parlour, come in there and I will talk to you."
The fire was burning brightly on the wide hearth beneath the overmantel carved with the arms of the Corbyns, the crowned birds and the motto.
Jack drew Bessie down on the old oak settle and told her she had not changed a whit for all her waiting and her misfortune and the horror of the plague. And that was true enough while he said the words, for joy had sent a lovely flush over the girl's face, given a sparkle to her eyes, and a lustre to her whole person so that she was radiant.
How could she have doubted him? All her suspicions were gone like cobwebs swept away by a strong, impatient hand.
He explained himself, gaily and easily, putting the blame on his parents, on his old uncle, on the loss of money, on this and that, till by the time that he was finished talking, Bessie was persuaded that she had no grief at all, that she was foolish to have even given a thought to this long postponement of her wedding day.
"Everything shall be as it was. My uncle is dead and I have come into four thousand pounds. We will continue with rebuilding the old Hall and I dare say the masons can have it ready by Easter."
He ran on in a headstrong, boasting style that was, however, to Bessie all that was just and proper. She sat, leaning forward and gazing at him with delight, taking in every detail of his handsome person. Whatever illness he had suffered, it had left no mark upon him; his rounded features were full and comely, his yellow hair was glossy and curling on his heavy shoulders, he had his ribbons and his lovelock and his finely appointed riding attire.
He took a purse of money out of his pocket and showed it to Bessie, the gold glittering through the silver meshes of the silk.
"You knitted that for me, Bessie, do you remember? And now it's filled with my old uncle's gold and we'll make merry on it."
Remorse overcame the young girl, even in her delight. She said:
"Jack, nothing will ever be the same as it was. It has been horrible here. You know, thirty-one people have died, and I can't help thinking it was the plague that came in my wedding dress!"
The young man laughed loudly.
"Why, that's an old wives' tale. The plague doesn't come like that! The physicians will tell you that one infected person must bring it. It cannot come in a box of clothes!" And he guffawed as if at a good joke. And although Bessie was not wholly reassured, she could not help being pleased and felt her spirits rise at his buoyant good-humour and easy self-confidence.
Then he asked her about the progress of the disease and how many deaths there had been in the last month? When she said 'none' he laughed again and said what were thirty-one people after all? As many often died in the winter, of some wasting sickness or chills, or the pox, or the fever. And when he put the matter like that it was not such a grave thing after all, and that shut up here in Eyam they had made too much of the disaster.
He would have kept her with him all the evening, he said he had been starved of her too long, and he wanted her to sit beside him on the settle and gaze into the flames with him and make plans and pictures for their future.
But Bessie said no, she must return to the Rectory and let them know that he had returned. If the wedding was really to be at Easter, there were many preparations to be made.
"Though never again, Jack, shall I have such extravagance and vanity."
So the two young people walked under the rising moon the short distance from the old Manor Hall to the Rectory. And there Jack Corbyn's reception was such as greatly to satisfy his vanity. For Kate was nearly as excited and pleased to see him as Bessie had been, and if the Rector had any reproaches to make he kept them to himself and gave the young man a kindly welcome.
They all sat down to supper together and Ann Trickett brought out some of the home-made wine, the silver fruit basket and the fine white cloth from Holland that Lady Savile had given Kate when she had been a bride. While Bessie ran up to her little room and, taking off her plain winter clothes that she had paid so little attention to for some time now, put on a dress of saffron yellow silk with a long, deep collar of falling lace.
They all laughed and talked round the Rectory table. And the children were brought in before they went to bed, and Jack Corbyn wanted to give them a gold-piece each from the blue knitted silk purse, but the Rector interfered and said they were too young to know the value of money.
Ann Trickett took them to their beds and the two young men and the two young women sat in the pleasant firelight talking of the future.
And as they ran over the events that had occurred since they had last met, talking of this person and that who were common acquaintances, the name of Thomas Stanley came uppermost, and the Rector mentioned that he had not seen him since the outbreak of the plague. He added that he was truly pleased about this, because the man had interfered with his parishioners; though no doubt well-meaning, the dissenter was far too presumptuous and censorious.
Jack Corbyn looked up quickly at this name; the Rector knew that he was thinking of the night of St. Helen's Wake when Thomas Stanley had rebuked him so sternly. It was not out of forgetfulness or awkwardness that the Rector had brought in the dissenter's name, but deliberately, because he wanted the young man to remember that evening. However smooth his outward demeanour, he was not wholly pleased with young Corbyn, nor wholly satisfied with his conduct. He hoped that he had not returned lightly, merely to hurt Bessie again, and he intended to have a stern conversation with him when he should get him alone.
But Jack gave his host a straight and rather curious look as he said:
"Of course, sir, you haven't seen Stanley. This meddling and canting Nonconformist dog has been in Derby Gaol for the last two months. I think he only came out a few days ago."
"I'm sorry for that," said the Rector, "I did my best to keep him from punishment, but he would contravene the law. Who informed against him? Who had him arrested?"
"How do I know. He was caught preaching. I wonder you haven't heard of it!"
"We have been much shut in upon ourselves," replied Mr. Mompesson, "holding little communication with the outside world."
"I am sorry," said Kate. The two women had been downcast at the news of the Nonconformist's arrest, and Bessie said: "Do you know what happened to his gray horse, Merriman?"
"No. I was surprised to hear he had a horse, for he had to sell it to pay his tithe last year."
"How did you know he had a horse, Jack?" asked Bessie.
The young man lifted his brows as if he was surprised at the seriousness of her tone and said:
"I don't know. Someone told me. I suppose the horse has been sold again."
The Rector turned the conversation. He was more sorry than he would have believed possible that the dissenter had been imprisoned.
He felt mysteriously humiliated. Why should a man go to prison for his honest convictions? When Thomas Stanley had been Rector at Eyam he had done his duty admirably. He had brought more people to the church, he had ensured a higher standard of conduct, he had made the name of God more feared than either his successor, Mr. Sherland Adams, or William Mompesson had been able to do.
And thought the Rector uneasily: 'It is but another turn of the wheel. The Church might be disestablished again and the Nonconformists in power as they were under the Lord Protector and I be in Derby Gaol and Thomas Stanley here, comfortable in this very room.' Then he remembered with an increase of his uneasiness that Thomas Stanley had never made himself comfortable in the Rectory with pretty women and gay young men, with wine and fine napery and silver, but had lived like a recluse in one room, giving up the rest to the poor or as a hospital.
The next day was a break of early sunshine that gave a most unexpected warmth and radiance, and Bessie, seeing from her window John approach the Rectory, went running down to meet him and they stood talking together, leaning against the churchyard wall.
She pointed out to him the thirty-one green mounds that marked the victims of the late sickness in Eyam, and asked him to pray for their souls.
She was too happy now to feel saddened even by this tragedy, and she had quite persuaded herself that the dress had not been the cause of the plague's coming to Eyam, so the two young people leant on the low wall and looked at the graves with a certain tenderness, seeming to bless, by their very happiness, those who lay beneath.
The sunshine was on the green mounds, and the winter-bitten grass seemed to take on freshness from the warmth of its rays, and the lindens above were sprinkled with golden buds.
"How horrible," exclaimed Jack passionately, "to die on a day like this!"
"But most of them," said Bessie, "were old."
They looked pensively at those thirty-one graves over which the linden boughs cast but a thin tracery in the pale sunshine. Some of them had rude headstones.
The sudden transmission from sorrow to joy had made the girl's mood exalted; she thought that she could see the thirty-one souls like thin white shapes hovering in the bright air. She pressed her lover's hands as they lay, strong and comely in repose, on the top of the churchyard wall, placing her fingers over them with a movement that was almost convulsive.
"I have had a strange winter, John. I have really been very lonely."
"Why, you've had Kate," he said uneasily, "and her babies, and Ann Trickett and Mr. Mompesson," for he always spoke in formal tones of the Rector.
"Yes, and I have had much to do besides, going about among the sick. But I have been lonely too. I have missed Mr. Stanley. I am very sorry that he has been in prison; I hope he has not been ill."
And she added, with what seemed to her lover a strange irrelevancy: "I hope he has his gray horse, Merriman, again."
"He is a rogue who should be sent to the pillory and returned to prison," said John sternly.
This was so painful to Bessie that she turned her head away and pretended she had not heard. Then she went along the wall and through the gate where the dead rested on their last journey into the churchyard and stood among those graves and plucked a few snowdrops that stood in the hollows between the swelling turfs.
The sun was quite warm and there was a sickly sweet, very faint perfume, like that of almonds, in the air.
Bessie returned to her lover, who remained leaning on the churchyard wall, and gave him the snowdrops to put into his bosom, to keep, even after they were withered, in remembrance of their coming together again.
Then they went to the old Manor House where the servants, having had warning of the young master's return, had come from their cottages on the estate and were putting things to rights, taking the covers off the furniture and rolling and hanging up the tapestries, returning the pictures to their places in the still habitable rooms.
Bessie walked through the chambers with a pretty, housewifely air, leaning on her lover's arm and laughingly, yet wisely, choosing where this and that should go.
Mrs. Sheldon, who was the gardener's wife, and who lived with her husband in the cottage beyond the hall yard, acted as housekeeper and was pleased and proud to show the charming young lady, who was to be her future mistress, the closets, the store-rooms, and those new apartments that were almost completed.
"I never saw the old Manor so properly before," laughed Bess. "When your mother was here I was a little afraid of her, John. Besides, the house was so full of people, there was no opportunity. Oh, it is a spacious and lovely dwelling."
And the lovers said together:
"How happy we are going to be here!"
When Jack Corbyn took Bessie back to the Rectory, the Rector called him into the study and there spoke to him about his strange disappearance last September and all the evil talk it had given rise to, and poor Bessie's distress during that terrible winter when the plague had been in Eyam.
The young man made his excuses in a frank, and as the Rector thought, engaging fashion.
"In truth, sir," he admitted, "it was largely my mother's fear that kept me away. That time you visited us and asked me to go up to see my Lord, she saw some agitation in my manner and soon had out of me what the truth of the matter was." Here the Rector remembered how he had seen mother and son, when he looked back at the window, seeming in close and distressed converse.
"That was weak, Jack! You should not have given a woman such a secret, least of all a mother."
"I know, sir. But she had it out of me, and she was frightened, said that I was to take her away to my uncle in Yorkshire, to join my father who was there on business relative to my marriage and his tithe, as you know."
"I know, Jack, I know. Well, what further excuse have you?"
"Well, I had to escort her there. And once we were there, it was true the old man was very ill and that I caught his complaint, and she was terrified it was the plague. You know she was in Exeter during the war and saw the soldiers dying there, and she has ever had a terror of this disease in her mind. And then we heard that the plague had really come to Eyam and that the tailor's apprentice was dead, and other rumours and gossip. Things were much exaggerated, sir; it was at one time said that a hundred had died."
The Rector smiled sadly.
"Yet your duty was to Bessie, too, as well as to your mother. Bessie might have been one of that rumoured hundred."
"I know, sir, yet I used to pray to God for her, and I thought somehow that she'd be protected. Besides, she was in your good care and that of Kate's. What could I do for her? I wrote often."
"I think she found your letters cold."
"I am a poor writer," said Jack, "but I have come to make amends. I assure you that Bessie will be happy with me, sir. And I have this little money now from my uncle and we shall finish building the old Manor Hall. Everything must be as it was to have been."
"We can hope so, Jack, we can hope so. I must accept your excuses, which certainly seem manly enough. If Bessie is happy, there is no more to be said."
And he added, with a certain pride: "There will be no more plague in Eyam, I have taken every precaution. All the infected bedding and furniture from the pest-houses have been burnt. And such vessels as we cannot burn have been purified in running water or vinegar. There can hardly be a safer place in Derbyshire than this little village now."
Then Jack Corbyn asked if it were true that the infection had come in poor Bessie's wedding gown. "For she has that on her mind, I think, sir, and I should like to reassure her."
"I have told her that I am not certain, and you may tell her the same," replied William Mompesson. "Let us forget that matter. Who knows what is behind it? Of those thirty-one who died, some were already doomed by age, or frail infancy, or other diseases. Let us leave the question of the wedding dress."
And he added his excuse, which he had given before to the women, that it might be the infection had come in to Eyam through the mummers. And he thought when he said these words, that the young man looked aside. Then he asked him abruptly if he had seen any more of these poor wretches—the drollers?
And the young esquire answered: No, he had seen nothing of them. He believed they had travelled southwards, for they went to the larger towns during the winter.
Leaving his books, the Rector wandered on the heath, which was now pale and bright with the sunshine of early spring. The snow had disappeared from everywhere save on the highest, most rugged peaks, where it lay in the crevices so bright in the sunshine that its crystals seemed themselves to give off light.
In this weather, still chill, William Mompesson left the dales—his favourite haunts in the summer—and preferred the moorlands. He often went, where he was straying now, to the circle of grey monoliths and the sacrificial stone, where he had burnt the wedding dress. The spot seemed to him hallowed, sanctified by all the prayers that he had put up there during his visit, by his own passionate endeavours to please his God and save his flock, when he had made that poor sacrifice of the finery. He had never been called upon to pay for it, for Vickers was dead and had left neither kith nor kin.
But he counted that twenty pounds as lost out of his fortune, to be appropriated when the chance should come for some godly work.
As he stood there now, with the light breeze lifting the hair from his forehead, his thoughts went far. He no longer regarded with horror or disgust those pagans who had once worshipped in this lonely place; rather he felt a kinship with them, feeling that they, after their manner, had been reaching out after God even as he was reaching, and the words formed on his lips: 'They should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being.'
And he thought how unreal was this fair shell of things—the mountains, the heaths, the coloured sky, the grey stones, the dips that formed the valleys beyond, the rocks of lime and sandstone, the first budding trees. And what were all these? Naught, save that in them he might descry the symbols of better things!
To study this world was but to travel in clouds, and all that was but allegories, to help us search to find what was beyond this show.
As William Mompesson thus stood silent beside the monoliths, he saw someone coming up over the heath and he knew it at once to be Thomas Stanley. And he feit an odd stir of pleasure. His roving ecstasy was checked and he thought on worldly matters; about this man's unmerited imprisonment and how glad he would be to see him, almost as if it were a friend he welcomed. Yet the dissenter had been to him more as an enemy.
Thomas Stanley came briskly to the spot where the Rector stood, and held out his hand.
His once florid face was sallow and seamed, his clothes, even more than formerly, used and stained, though carefully cleaned and mended. He had a wallet at his side and carried a staff.
"I am sorry," said Mr. Mompesson frankly, "about your misfortune. I hope you do not think that I had any hand in your imprisonment."
"I know you did not," replied the dissenter. "It was young Jack Corbyn who set the constables upon me."
"Jack Corbyn!" Mr. Mompesson turned aside. He wished it had not been so. Yet he had no right to blame the young man, even if he had acted over-zealously.
"I do not regret the trial I had in Derby Gaol, and I was able to be of some service to my fellow-prisoners. Therefore, grieve not for my misfortune, I never thought much of the body's bliss and I have always lived roughly. But I had one pain, and that was that you might think I had forsaken you when the plague broke out, for even in Derby we heard of that. There was unwonted cleanliness and fumigation in the gaol, for they said the plague had come to the country and even the mountains."
"It is over," said Mompesson. "I believe that if you had been able, you would have come. I thought you had not heard. We lived much enclosed." And he added with a sigh of relief, profound and deep, "It is over, God be praised."
"Why should we praise Him for that?" asked the Puritan sombrely. "Who knows His will? Why should we praise Him that more are left in tribulation? Are not those who died happier?"
"But these are rude, savage people," replied Mr. Mompesson, "by no means fit for Heaven. They have not repented, they do not even understand the meaning of the word. I had much ado, with those who died, to bring them to a sense of their danger. Besides, humanly speaking, I had my loved ones to think of—two young women, two children. It is human love that dim's one's spiritual sight."
"I think Heaven seems to you as far away, William Mompesson, as it does to your rude flock."
"I see," smiled the Rector, "that you still think my heart hard, bound up and asleep. You still consider me a worldly man. Perhaps I was, I admit as much. But I have had my lesson this winter. I do not think so much of gauze, stars, pearls, rainbows as once I did."
Then, with a smile, as it were at a tangent: "Have you still Merriman, the gray horse?"
The Puritan replied that he had, that a friend had kept the animal for him, while he had been in prison, and it was safe now at a neighbouring farm where it was resting.
"For since I came out a fortnight ago I have ridden him hard and far. But this afternoon, in this clean, white day, I was minded to walk across the heath."
"Do not come to Eyam," warned the Rector. "Jack Corbyn has returned to the Manor and has begun again preparations for his marriage with Bessie Carr, my sister-in-law."
"I should care little for that," answered the dissenter indifferently, "if I were needed in Eyam. But I was there two days ago and visited some of my old flock, although you knew nothing of it," he added with a simplicity that made his words void of offence.
The Rector warned him, though kindly:
"Take care how you go about these busy restless ways administering in secret. It is still against the law and thou may'st yet visit prison again."
"I know it well," replied the dissenter. He snatched off his ragged hat and let the clear breeze blow against his thick gray locks and rugged brow. "What is that to me? I am in the hands of God."
These words savoured much of the cant that the Puritans were accused of using, yet to the Rector they were sincere.
The two men parted. William Mompesson was comforted by the meeting and watched with a kindly glance the sturdy figure of the dissenter disappearing across the lonely moor.
Where did he live, the outcast? In holes and crannies like the fox or the rabbit, or in a stable or barn of some lonely farm-house, fed by charity, he and the gray horse Merriman? And Mr. Mompesson's heart softened with tenderness for little Bessie who in her gayest, most frivolous season, had thought of the wandering preacher and his horse.
He turned towards the village, and as the low wind blew the springing grasses around his feet, he felt an unutterable loneliness that was hardly dispersed when he beheld the light that was just lit in the Rectory window before him.
Jack Corbyn was expected at supper that evening, but he did not come.
"He has gone, perhaps," said Kate, when it was hopeless to expect him any longer, "to meet his mother. He said that she, and possibly his father, would be returning this week."
"But it was not to have been to-day," said the Rector, who was puzzled, for he had sent Jonathan Mortin over to the old Manor House to ask after the young squire, and the servants had told him that he had gone abroad early in the afternoon. Was it possible that the young man was setting some foolish trick upon them again? That he was really so false and unstable that he would a second time forsake Bessie?
The Rector could not believe it, but quieting the women as well as he could, for they, though laughing, confessed to some fears as to what had happened to Jack Corbyn, he went himself to the old Manor House, where the workmen had begun again to labour on the new buildings.
He received the same tale as that which had been given to Jonathan Mortin. The young man had been seen in the early afternoon and had seemed in high spirits, even gay. He had gone out, he had taken his horse, and they believed he was riding to Chatsworth to wait upon my Lord.
The Rector found some discrepancy among these statements. The housekeeper thought he had returned, the men-servants thought he had not. As he had with him no body-servant, it might be just possible that he was shut in his chamber, having gone up there without anyone's having seen him; and upon investigation his horse was found in the stable.
"This is a household in much disorder," said the Rector displeased. "Your master may come and go and you know not his whereabouts! I'll go upstairs myself and see if he be in his chamber."
So he took a small lamp from the housekeeper and went up the fine, wide, shallow stairs of the old Manor Hall. Though his mood was distracted, he found pleasure in the handsome dwelling that seemed so spacious and noble after the mean quarters of the Rectory.
He was ashamed at once of this reflection and felt a pang of anguish at the knowledge, how ever-present with him, even now after he had been much purged of vanity during the last winter, was the love of worldly splendour and beauty.
The housekeeper had told him that young Mr. Corbyn's room was that on the right when he came to the stair-head, so he knocked there, holding the lamp in his hand. And when there was no answer, opened the door.
The room was in darkness and he cried out: "Jack! Jack!" holding his lamp up.
Was it possible that the young man was ill? He had been unwell when in Yorkshire, and he might have had a recurrence of his sickness. But there was no one on the bed; the curtains were drawn back, the pillows untouched—his belt, his boots, his feathered hat, his purse and gloves, his shirt and socks were flung on the floor, and these were soiled with dust and mud. While flung over another chair was his coat of pale gold-coloured cloth laced with silver.
'This was what he was going to wear to-night,' thought the Rector. 'He was changing his clothes when something disturbed him. He had put off one suit and not completely attired himself in another. Where is he, then?'
As he thought this, the Rector moved round the bed and there, stretched on the floor, he saw Jack Corbyn, clad in his gold-coloured breeches and the fine shirt that was open at the neck. The cravat and the black ribbon used to tie it were undone. His eyes were half-closed, the whites alone showing, his mouth was open and from the corners blood was bubbling.
The Rector set the lamp upon the table and went on one knee beside the young man, thinking of murder, and wondering who could have got in and slain young Corbyn.
His greatest terror was absent from his mind at this moment, and he pulled open the shirt to put his hand on the fallen man's heart. As he did so he saw the black plague spots on the broad, arched white bosom.
The Rector got to his feet and recoiled as if a blow had been struck him between the eyes. All his senses were stunned at the realization of what had happened. The plague! Bessie's bridegroom dead of the plague! He had fled from it months before, been safe in an untainted spot, and then, when the contagious disease was over, he had returned. And he was the first victim of a new epidemic.
It was over a month since anyone had died of the plague in Eyam, and the Rector for a moment did not think even of Bessie's tragedy, but only of the horror of the failure of his own precautions.
The black death was, then, still in the village! Or was it possible that young Corbyn had brought it with him? He had been home about a week—the Rector made a rapid calculation. He had died very quickly, yet there had been others who had been snatched away as suddenly—laughing in the morning and dead, with the foul froth on their lips, in the evening.
He tried to remember the young man's demeanour yesterday; he had been a little languid, he had said that it was hot, yet it was only early April in the mountains, and the Rector had noticed nothing but a pleasant mildness in the air. Three days ago he had noticed him with Bessie under the bare linden trees, leaning over the churchyard wall, looking at those thirty-one graves. And he remembered seeing Bessie go round by the lych-gate and pluck the snowdrops and hand them to her lover.
There was no infection possible there. No one living near the churchyard had had the plague.
William Mompesson put his hand to his brow and a wordless prayer left him, a soundless appeal to his God.
Then, leaning against the tapestry that Bessie had seen hung with such pleasure but a few days before, the young Rector tried to reconstruct what had happened.
The young man had come in, not having been noticed by his servants, and gone upstairs to change his riding-clothes for those he intended to wear to the Rectory and suddenly, even as he had been changing his shirt, must have been smitten and fallen down without the power to give a cry. The infection must have been virulent, and he so young and strong... Rector heard himself saying aloud: "And so afraid..."
Well, here was the end truly, now, of Bessie's marriage.
The young man took the lamp and crossed the disordered bedchamber.
He was thinking rapidly, his whole nature seethed up to meet this crisis. There was no time for agitation or lament, little for sorrow. The servants, the housekeeper, and two others, had gathered at the foot of the stairs, apprehensive of something unusual, even dreadful, for the Rector had been some time in their master's bedroom and there had been silence, for he had had the fortitude not to cry out.
Standing at the top of the stairs, holding his lamp, William Mompesson said: "Your master has died of a sudden sickness."
He thought of saying, No doubt it is a recurrence of the attacks he had in Yorkshire, but he did not dare to lie, so he added: "It is the plague. Get out rags and vinegar and such spices as you have and burn them at the foot of the stairs."
The servants drew back with a little shudder, as if they had been struck, one by one. The women put their aprons to their faces, the men looked sullen. There were others in the door now and the words went from one to another: "The plague! The master, dead upstairs."
The Rector stood among them and gave his lamp into the hands of one of the stable-men.
"Thirty-one people have died of the plague in this village, but you have been spared. You have no need to think that you are doomed now. I must write to the young esquire's parents."
And he thought to himself: 'They will not return.' Aloud he said: "And as he has no near relatives here, I will order his coffin."
"And who's to put him into it, sir?" asked the man who held the lamp that cast a yellow light over his sickly face.
"I have done that work myself, so far," replied Mr. Mompesson, "save in those cases where the relatives wished to do it. Let none go to your master's room. I will return when I have wrought some fumigants, and wrap your master in his shroud. Get out a sheet and some candles and all the spices you have in the house."
"Oh, sir," sobbed the pallid housekeeper, "the poor young mistress!"
"Yes," said the Rector gravely, "pray for her." And like a dart in his mind was the thought that Bessie's wedding dress had slain her bridegroom.
He met her as he was returning; in her eagerness she had come from the Rectory, hoping to meet her lover and her brother-in-law on the way. Over her silvery gown she had put a dark mantle, and her small face was pale in the hood.
"Bessie," he said, taking her hand, "happiness is not for you, but courage may be. None can spare you this suffering, child."
"Happiness not for me! Suffering!" she repeated. "Jack is ill?"
"Jack is dead, I have seen him just now. He has died of the plague, Bessie. There is no time for lamentation."
He caught her strongly as she cried out and seemed about to fall, and he added:
"Bess, this is death to the common eye, but the soul that was in thy Jack is now in eternity."
That night Catherine Mompesson watched by Bessie, who fell into a gentle wildness and with the mounting heat in her blood spoke crazily of her wedding dress, of the decked church, the marriage morning.
Ann Trickett kept the two children in the far part of the house, and the Rector spent the night in the old Manor Hall; Jonathan Mortin had volunteered to help him in the preparation of the body of Jack Corbyn for the grave.
The young man was folded with sprigs of bay and rue and sorrel and rosemary into one of his mother's finest sheets, and as there had been many coffins made of late in the village, there was one in readiness that had been waiting for five weeks or more for the next victim of the plague; this was brought down to the old Manor Hall and the young man placed in it. And before they were able to nail him in, his flesh was putrefying so that for all the fumigants the stench was almost insupportable.
So on the next day he was buried in the churchyard near to those thirty-one graves that he and Bessie had been looking at four days before.
The Rector read the burial service over him and afterwards went into the church to pray.
On the afternoon of that day Bessie fell into a deep sleep and when she woke was composed and quiet, yet seemed to her anxious sister to be a different person from the girl who had fallen down when her brother-in-law met her with the news of her lover's death.
From her window she could see the grave, the fresh overturned sods. In burying him they had disturbed the snowdrops she had plucked to put in his bosom. But nothing had changed; there seemed no more flowerets in the grass, no more buds on the trees, it was still early spring, the season not advanced one jot. Yet to Bessie and Kate it seemed that it had been in another existence that they had helped to lay the supper table, putting in its place the great salt-cellar and standing out the wineglasses and the flagons and laying the napkins for the coming of Jack Corbyn to supper.
Bessie had no thought save for her own infinite loss, though she said:
"Kate, you must not think I shall hinder you with groans and sighs. I have nothing to do now but wait until I join him in Heaven, but meanwhile I must work and be of some service. Give me something to do, if it is only in the kitchen."
So Kate found her little tasks here and there. There were always many duties to perform in the Rectory where there were two children and the house was old and rambling.
But Kate had other fears, though she did not voice them. She felt Bessie's tragedy to the core of her heart, though for herself she had not much liked Jack and she had even been sorry that he had returned into her sister's life, for she thought that if he had stayed away poor Bess would have recovered herself at last and found herself a better mate. And Kate nourished this hope even now. Bessie was very young and her grief would die, and she would find another husband.
But Kate's fear and grief was for the return of the plague. It had never been so near the Rectory as the old Manor House. She thought of her two children and her husband, even of kind Ann Trickett and good Jonathan Mortin, who had gone to the old Manor House to put the body into its coffin. They had believed themselves safe and here it was again. And the horror of the young man's death clung to her like a cloud over her spirits and a veil over her eyes.
Her husband had given her some brief particulars of how Jack must have gone upstairs and even while he was changing his clothes fallen down without a chance to make a Will, to say a word, to have his soul shriven, to say farewell. Oh, it was horrible!
And Kate wished they had not buried him where his grave could be seen from the window. But it had chanced that that corner of the churchyard was where the other plague victims had been put. And the feeling was to put them all together and afterwards to raise some memorial to them. There was talk of taking the great ancient cross that stood the other side of the church and placing it there. But for Jack Corbyn there would, of course, be a fine altar tomb. Perhaps his parents would plant another yew tree; there was one already in the churchyard at the other side of the porch.
But Kate knew that this fear of the graves was folly, perhaps wickedness. Neither she nor Bessie, nay, nor even her two children, should shrink from these evidences of mortality, but keep the graves before their eyes and remember their own slight tenure of years and how soon their dust would be dispersed, too.
Kate prayed often, but into her prayers came little creeping doubts that distracted her from thoughts of Heaven.
And three days after the death of Jack Corbyn two of the servants in the old Manor House were taken ill and four days after that, two more. And within a week there were twenty in Eyam sick of the plague. Nor did the strengthening sunshine, for the spring was early and brilliant, seem to help them.
William Mompesson sent to Chatsworth for supplies of medicines and fumigants and went among the sick, but soon there were so many ill that he could not minister to them all and some had to die without Christian consolation.
And so the quick tragedy of Jack Corbyn's death was soon forgotten in the fierce onslaught of the return of the plague to Eyam.
WILLIAM MOMPESSON had withdrawn into the dell nearest the village, where he might find some solitude for meditation and yet be near at hand, should his services be of a sudden required, as was very likely during the plague.
In May, only three had died of the plague, and hope had revived again in Eyam, and there had been a relaxation of the strict rules that the doctor, Mr. Walbeoffe, from Chatsworth, had laid down, and Mr. Mompesson in his reports to my Lord-Lieutenant had been able to write cheerfully of the future.
But it was now June and as uncommonly warm as the winter had been uncommonly severe, and the plague had returned with exceptional malignancy; since the death of young Fulwood, the tailor's apprentice, seventy-four people had died of the plague or of an illness presumed to be plague; and terrible as that scourge had been, it was as nothing to the desolation that afflicted Eyam now.
Three weeks of June had gone and in that period of time thirty had died and ten more were ill.
The wealthier inhabitants of the village, those who dwelt about the lych-gate on the western side beyond the stream had, many of them, left the district, and all the strangers, such as the masons who had been employed upon repairing the old Manor Hall, had gone, as well as several of the miners who were not natives of Eyam, but had come to lodge there for the convenience of their work. Nor had Mr. Corbyn, the esquire, returned to look upon the grave of his only son, while there had been no word or sign from some of the other considerable families who lived a short distance from Eyam, nor had William Mompesson sent for them.
The situation was fast becoming such as taxed all his resources, almost overcame his courage. There was scarcely labour enough to carry the dead to the churchyard. Unassisted, the Rector had to read the funeral services at the rate of one a day, comfort the sick and dying, hold services, and preach in the church that now was always full.
As he sat beside the stream down which George, his little son, had once sent the paper boats folded from sheets of his sermon, his thoughts flew desperately wide. He felt like the general in a besieged city with a scant garrison, few means of defence and a low stock of provisions. But worse than the terror of his position was the sense of the clouds above, weighty and dull, as if he were put away and divorced from the will of God and indeed knew not what his Maker would have him do. Nor could he conceive why the plague that had left the whole country-side free, or shown itself but a little in a city like Derby, should have broken out in this solitary spot.
And he remembered what Sythe Torre had said, about God's judgment, and foolish—yes, surely they were foolish—incidents like the driving of the cow into the church before St. Helen's Wake came into his perturbed mind.
He was so absorbed in his sad meditation that he did not notice that Merriman, the dissenter's iron-gray horse, was tethered to an ash tree not far away, for the colour of the beast was easily lost in that of the shadows. So it was with a start that he became aware of Thomas Stanley approaching him; he hardened himself against the Puritan and made a motion of his hand to hold him off, saying:
"Do not approach me, I may carry the disease of the plague."
"You know well enough," replied Thomas Stanley, with a dour smile, "that I have been in Eyam as much as you have and have probably been infected."
"I'll not endure it," said Mompesson, whose state of fatigue, strained patience, and apprehension was not such as could endure the persistency of this grim man. "I shall be compelled to warn the constable that you must be arrested, if you persist in interfering with my ministrations."
Thomas Stanley seemed to take no offence at this rebuke, indeed he looked kindly, almost with compassion, at the worn features of the Rector, whose attire was not so precise and nice as usual, whose linen bands were ruffled, whose black cravat was untied.
"I have a proposition to make to you, Mr. Mompesson. These people are mine, I know them, their natures, their stories, their families far better than you can, for I was years in the place that you now hold. You have been here scarce a twelve-month and are still a stranger. Take away your wife, your sister, your children to some safe spot—Sir George Savile will house you at Rufford Park or find you another cure. Leave Eyam to me. You know, sir," he added simply, "that you can trust me with these poor people in their affliction."
The Rector smiled in his turn.
"Do you think that I would fly my post, leaving it to you?"
"It was done commonly in London," replied the dissenter. "Many Church of England clergy went into the sweet air and left the Nonconformists to do their work."
Mompesson shook his head.
"You are a brave man, though obstinate, and fanatic, Mr. Stanley. And even if I were minded to accept your offer it would not be tolerated. Were you to come forward openly in Eyam, you would be re-arrested."
"I think not, there are not many who are eager to come to Eyam now, and if I were doing good work for the souls and bodies of these poor people, I think I should be allowed to pursue my task of making the living waters flow even through dry dust."
The Rector rose abruptly.
"You must leave me and leave this talk, and take yourself away, Mr. Stanley, for this plague is beyond all computation horrible. Every day another falls of the disease; so many fast and foul decays unsettle the mind."
"It is a strange thing," remarked the Puritan reflectively, "that it should return. They say you know something of medicine, sir. Have you studied what this plague may be and how it may pass from one to another?"
The intense interest of this question and his burning eagerness to discuss it with someone cool and intelligent, for there were none such now in Eyam, caused Mr. Mompesson to answer, regardless of their former controversy:
"I have indeed studied. I do little else in what leisure I have. Since young Fulwood died, I have been investigating the matter. I sent then into Bakewell and to my Lord's physician for such books as might be had, and I have the tracts published by the Royal College of Physicians. I do not even know what this plague is. Is it the black death that came so often before to England? Is it the African fever bred in Ethiopia or Egypt, of which Pliny speaks? Does it, as he asserts, travel always from south to north?"
"It is more important to know," observed the dissenter shrewdly, "not what it is, but how it spreads."
"I can get no certainty on that point," replied Mompesson. "There is one ancient author who mentions a feather-bed that proved mortal and had been carried from one infected family to another. There is a tale that bandages of one who had died of the plague were put between the wainscot and the wall of a house in Paris and many months afterwards the person who took them out immediately died. I have heard tales, too, that in Holland the plague was carried from one village to another in clothes."
"It is supposed that it travels in goods of a loose texture which hold imprisoned the seed of the infection," said the Puritan. "All declare that in this epidemic it came to London by some ships from Cyprus, or the Levant, through Amsterdam and Rotterdam. I have heard, too, that it was brought in some woollen goods from Holland to London last December twelve-month. And is it not true what I have heard whispered in Eyam, that it came through a box of clothes or patterns sent to Vickers, the tailor?"
"I believe that to be true, then the severity and frost of the winter seemed to kill the plague. Surely it is to do with the heat, the infection must have been lurking in something that lay frozen up during the winter and was released again with the sun. But what it was I cannot think, for everything I could lay hands on that had to do with the infected person I burnt."
"You made good use of fumigants, too," said the dissenter. "The place smelt like a spice box."
"Yet it was not sufficient and I blame myself. I am the only educated man in this place—-the Corbyns and the country gentry scarcely come here, and their minds are so little on these things. And I have studied medicine, yet I could not prevent this."
"It was not God's will that you should do so," remarked the Puritan sadly. And the conventional words had a double-edged meaning to Mompesson's mind.
"It must be God's will that we should suffer so," he agreed. "Tell me why this foul horror should be sent and I placed here to face it, all unfitted and unwilling as I am?"
"I cannot interpret God's mind to you," said Thomas Stanley, "I can only assure you that it is God's will that the plague is in Eyam and His will that you face it. And if, humanly speaking, there is nothing you can do, then you must stay among your people—since you obstinately refuse my relief—and comfort them as best you may."
"Has it to do with the weather?" The Rector frowned and put his weary hand over his wrinkled brow. "I have heard that pestilences come with earthquakes, droughts, excessive rains, or pestiferous winds. Yet there was nothing here, save the extreme cold of the winter, and the heat now—it is something excessive for June in the mountains."
"I have read," said Mr. Stanley, "that three hundred years ago or more, when the black death went through Europe, the foundations of the earth were shaken from China to the Atlantic, and we may suppose that it is the baleful influence of the atmosphere that brings the pest. Sometimes it comes, they say, in a thick stinking mist; at one time this lay right over Italy and it was of such deadly nature that thousands fell down and expired in agony."
"But what is this contagion," asked Mr. Mompesson, "something invisible? That is what I cannot understand—what is it that leaps from one to another? It is certain there is no law about it, it is utterly unreasonable. A woman who died four days ago had a child five months old, who lay in the same bed with her, but it has escaped the disorder. And there is another ancient woman, upwards of seventy years old, who had it, but has recovered. Her two little grandchildren, who were in the same house with her, received the infection and died."
"It is not for us to probe these mysteries," replied the Puritan, "but to do the task assigned to us."
"It is my task, not yours," replied the Rector, with a sigh. "I thank you for your offer, Mr. Stanley. I admire your bravery, but you must leave me alone at my post."
"You undertake to do more than it is in the capacity of one man to perform," said the Puritan in a note of warning. "Do you think that you, hampered as you are by your love for your wife, your sister, your two children, by your care and affection for your servants, can administer to all these people? What will you do if the plague becomes worse?"
"God help me! It can hardly be worse," exclaimed the Rector mournfully.
"It well may be. A hundred thousand, they say, died in the last year in London. You had about six hundred persons under your care and so far only a hundred have died. Supposing all of them are sick, supposing they fall round you quicker than you can count? Who is to bury them, who is to keep some order among them, who is to administer to their souls? You have not even a doctor, you have no skilled help!"
The Rector was for a moment tempted to take into an alliance this courageous and intelligent man, who seemed more full of the fear of God than he was himself, who was not tortured by his own sensitiveness, his doubts and conflicts. But it was against his principles to have dealings with any who did not belong to the Church of England. So, making very few words about the matter, he declined the help of the Nonconformist and once more begged him to be out of the district that was now so terribly infected, and to leave him to do as best he could in Eyam.
And he thought it his duty to add a warning, that he had defied the law for the sake of his kindly feeling for the dissenter long enough and could do so no more.
And that if Mr. Stanley was found in Eyam it would be his, the Rector's, duty to tell the constable to take him to Bakewell and so to the gaol in Derby.
The dissenter did not reply, save by a curt inclination of his head, and turning away loosed Merriman from the ash tree and led him along the glen in the direction of Chatsworth.
William Mompesson felt that he had done his duty both in declining the help of the dissenter and in threatening him with prison. Yet it was with regret that he watched the shabby, stalwart figure disappearing behind the tree-grown rocks and boulders; he, Mompesson, not Thomas Stanley, had been broken by the rebuke.
When he returned to the Rectory, Jonathan Mortin, without a word, showed him a paper on which was written the names of three more families infected since that forenoon with the plague.
William Mompesson said nothing. He washed his hands with vinegar, put another pomander in his pocket, took up his box of chemical antidotes and went out into the village street.
It is always difficult to become accustomed to a great calamity, terror weighs intermittently on the spirit and always has the aspect of an evil dream. So the young Rector, coming out of his pleasant home and skirting the churchyard wall and pausing for a moment under the golden fragrance of the linden trees, could hardly believe that this dreadful horror had befallen him.
He looked at the graves; the last were roughly made, the sexton and the two miners who had given up their work to help him had cut the turfs hurriedly and hastily put them into place. There were many now who had no headstones nor were there any wreaths of spring flowers about their resting places.
Three more families infected... Death set all out of joint, even the tranquil summer day.
He walked slowly down the street, there were few people in sight. He reflected again and anxiously upon the fact that those upon the western side behind the stream seemed to be free from the infection, and he wondered if it was the running water that stayed the plague.
If he had but a little more knowledge! Was there any wise man anywhere who could inform him of what to do? But he consoled himself a little by remembering that in the capital, where the most skilled physicians in the country had gathered together in conclave, and where public-spirited men had worked diligently at every possible expedient, still the scourge had not been stayed until the great city was desolate.
He began to turn over in his mind what they had done there. He remembered some tales coming through to Rufford Park of Sir George Savile sending a handsome subscription to the Lord Mayor's Fund for the relief of the victims, and how arrangements had been made to take food into the stricken districts, and how nurses had been employed by the City Fathers to go to those families where there was none left well enough to nurse the others.
Mr. Mompesson remembered, too, some of the tales about these nurses. How they robbed the sick, sometimes pulling from under them the very sheets that should have served them for a shroud, and he thought that if he could find some such cool and hardened creatures in Eyam, it would help him in his task.
At the first house that he visited a little girl was ill. She lay on two pillows on the floor in an upper room where all the windows were closed and the air was thick and sweet. The plague spots had already appeared on her breast, and her mother, kneeling beside her, was giving vent to piercing lamentations.
William Mompesson was already well used to the progress of this disease. It varied little in its manifestations; it began with shivering, hot and cold fits, headaches, sickness, then delirium; then the appearance of the fatal tokens, the plague spots on the breast and thighs that meant immediate death. At best the illness never took more than three days; sometimes it was sudden, as in the case of Jack Corbyn. A man or woman would fall down at his or her work, a child at his play, and be dead before they could be carried to the pest-house.
In this case, as in others, the Rector found a painful difficulty in removing the patient from her home. The mother protested and wailed, the father stood by, sullen and inactive. And he had to send for Jonathan Mortin to help him carry the child to the little plague-house on the green.
When they reached this, the Rector left the child to be cared for by the two women who worked there—one was the district midwife, the other a woman who was supposed to have much skill in nursing. Both had already had the infection last October and were supposed to be immune.
There were four sick people in the pest-house, and these, seeing the Rector, made a clamour to him to speak to them, for they had been but recently smitten. Indeed, so rapid was the plague in its progress that those in the pest-house were either lively or dead.
The Rector could not stay long, for he remembered two other infected families that he had to visit, but he went up to the bed of one man to whom he had given a dose of Peruvian bark that had been sent him by Sir George Savile with a letter that it had been used with great effect in Spain and Belgium, and that in the recent plague in Holland had not failed in a single case in Delft. It was supposed to keep down the fermentation of the blood and thus lower the fever and the paroxysm of delirium.
But this man, who had had the new and costly remedy—two pounds was charged for as much as would make twenty doses at The Black Spotted Eagle in the Old Bailey, or at Mr. John Crooks, Booksellers, at the sign of The Ship in St. Paul's Churchyard—appeared no better. He complained of headache and want of sleep and said he had axes and hammers and fireworks in his head that he could not bear.
The Rector gave him a quieting potion and turned to the other patients, two of whom in their delirium had fallen off their truckle beds and lay on the floor, the women being unable to lift them. And indeed Mr. Mompesson could see that labour spent on them would be wasted, for they were plainly marked for death. He still felt surprised by this calamity, which seemed too gross for relief. He winced before the horror that lay in ambush for his soul.
He went on his way through the village, resolving with deep distress, that he would not try the Peruvian bark again, for it might be well enough in an ague or a seizure, but it was clearly useless in the plague. And as he considered how unreliable these medicines were, he could not blame the poor people who kept charms in their bosom or tied round their wrist and who, despite all he could say, crept out at night to visit old Mother Sydall upon the moor, or who sent in whenever it was possible to do so to The Brass Head at Bakewell to buy amulets and potions.
At the next house he visited, a young man had been stricken. He was a miner and had fallen down on returning from his work. His wife was in the apathy of despair. She declared that she had expected this, since she had seen the white cricket only four days ago, while the death watch had ticked for three successive nights.
Mr. Mompesson saw that the young man was too far gone to think of moving him to the pest-house, so he sat beside him and read the service for the dying, although the patient, ranting in his delirium, took no heed.
And then he went his way to the third family, and here an old woman was ill, lying on the floor in a paroxysm, while her widow daughter and three children stood staring at her in curiosity and dismay. Before he could do anything to relieve this patient, a boy came running up and told the Rector that there was another man ill in the house by the stream that divided the village.
When William Mompesson, now feeling faint, sick, and weary himself, reached with a lagging step this house, Jonathan Mortin walking behind him with the medicine-box and the Prayer Book, he found that it was Ealott, the constable of the village, who had been smitten, a strong man who had weathered many sicknesses, including the sweating and the pox.
This fellow sat on his chair by his hearth and was shivering, yet complained of burning heat. He had his senses, though his speech was thick and his eyesight double, but what concerned the Rector most was that by his chair stood Thomas Stanley, in his coarse country clothes, which brought a scent of the heather in the air sullied by sickness.
"Good evening, sir," said the dissenter. "You see that the man whom you spoke of as likely to arrest me is my friend and sent for me. He has been unwell for two days, but did not like to speak of it. I was on my way to see him when I met you but now."
The constable himself spoke and the Rector stood silent, gazing at his livid face, his dragged mouth, his heavy eyes.
"Sir, I meant no disloyalty nor disrespect to you nor to the Church. Mr. Stanley was my pastor for years, and I wearied after him as did others."
The dying man coughed and turned his head aside, and the dissenter gave him a glass of plain water, which he sipped slowly; his lips were strained and had a bluish look, his deep chest heaved painfully; he began to fall into a delirium, but through his broken words the Rector understood his deep desire that Mr. Thomas Stanley and the Rector of Eyam should work together at this time of distress.
"Do you not think," demanded the dissenter, looking straight at Mr. Mompesson, "that God speaks through this poor man's mouth? The very man whom you would have made the instrument of my punishment? If you will not give me back my ancient post here, at least permit that I remain and help you in your task."
The Rector was silent, debating in himself, but as the neighbours came in to remove the constable to the pest-house on the green, he felt a strong conflict within himself.
Easy to obey God, if one knew His commands! Had He spoken through the mouth of the village constable who in a few hours would be dead?
"Let thy faith," urged the dissenter, "take a practical turn, friend. Thou canst not do this work unaided; there is more even than we can contrive to accomplish together."
"I accept your help," replied the Rector quietly. "While the plague endures, at least, let us bury ancient controversies and plan together, you and I, how we may meet this trial. First," he added, "you must come to the Rectory. You can no longer live in the woods and fields, a fugitive from the law."
"I will come with you gladly, and we will stand together, shoulder to shoulder. There is no situation so terrible that there is not some wise and worthy way of meeting it. Even now, as I did in Derby gaol, I feel God in every breath that passes and every beam that falls."
That night three more cases of the plague were reported in Eyam, and the Rector and the Puritan sat together in the laboratory making their plans; the first suggestion came from Thomas Stanley.
"You must send away your wife, her sister, and the two children. This sacrifice is not required of you. Have you friends or relations anywhere near?"
The Rector thought of the uncle in Yorkshire, Mr. Beilby, who would very gladly receive Kate, Bessie, and the children.
"Let the woman who has been so faithful—Ann Trickett—go with them."
"It might be," smiled the Rector, "that I should never see any of them again."
"I do not disguise that you, as well as myself and perhaps everyone in this village, are doomed. It is because of the great danger that I advise you to send these women and children away."
"It shall be done, they shall go within two days. Though it is difficult now to get carriages and horses, since none who can avoid it come to Eyam, still there is a coach and there are horses at the old Manor Hall, and I think the Corbyns would not begrudge me the use of them."
"When you have sent away your dear ones," continued the dissenter, "we must make our plans like good generals. The pest-hut on the green must be enlarged and more women employed to serve there." "If such can be found."
"Such can be. They will obey me," replied Mr. Stanley. "Then such houses as have been deeply affected, where all the family has died, must be shut up and fires burnt in the streets as they were in London. Some physicians say that coal-fires are better, and some prefer wood. But as here we have no coal and but little wood, we must use what we can get. And such rags, furniture, and mattresses from infected houses as we have will serve to feed the flames. All these people must be put upon strict rules. Brandy and strong waters must be forbidden, for those who drink them catch the plague the sooner. We must engage more stout fellows to dig graves, and if death continues at this rate, we must dig a pit in the churchyard and put them all in as they did in London and even in Derby. We must have a cart and a horse and warning bell, and we must have one who goes about and writes 'God have mercy upon us' on such houses as have the disease that the others may take heed."
Mr. Stanley made these statements with an authority and a decision that showed he had been long thinking out the case, and the Rector looked at him with admiration. But he added quietly:
"There is one thing, friend, that you have not thought of, and that is that no one, when I have sent my family away, must leave this place, lest we spread the infection over the whole of Derbyshire."
"Do you think that we can induce these people to remain where they are? Many have fled already, too many."
"None of the gentry are left in the district," admitted the Rector. "But there are still something near five hundred people in the village and the surrounding farms, and I propose to tell them that they must stay where they are. I believe they will obey me, even though they know that they might save their lives by flying." The dissenter's eyes flashed encouragement. Such a scheme, heroically bold, appealed to his stern nature. He had the temperament of a martyr, self-sacrifice delighted him.
"Perhaps together we can do it," he remarked thoughtfully. "I have some influence, as you have seen, with these people. We might put a cordon round the village and the outlying farms, beyond which they must not go. Though we were all to die here, it would be a triumph."
"There are provisions and medicines to be thought of," said the Rector. "How are we to obtain those?"
"We must, somehow, get a message to Chatsworth. One might go who was healthy and properly fumigated, and we might arrange that on some stone, say the well above Middleton Dell, or that heathen altar, provisions were placed in return for money. The coins could be placed in running water, or vinegar. My Lord's physician might come and give us directions across the stream. All that could be contrived without delay or difficulty. For such as have business or trade in other parts of the district, they must be told to delay all such matters until the plague be stayed."
"A regiment of soldiers," remarked the Rector, "could not keep these people in, there are so many ways of leaving Eyam—by the moors or the dells or the mountain paths."
"No," replied the dissenter, "we shall not employ a regiment of soldiers, but the fear of God."
A considerable comfort had come over the Rector's spirit since he had entered into a friendship and an alliance with Thomas Stanley. He felt, in a strange way, set aside from mean doubts and querulous fears and protected, and though the meaning and continuance of this scourge was a mystery to him, still his own part therein seemed now clear. It was with a courage that he had not shown for several days that he went into Kate's bedroom; since his late great fatigue he had slept in his closet and Kate had taken the two children to sleep with her; she was still proud with life and love.
The hired woman had gone to her people and there was only Ann Trickett to help with the house, and the shadow seemed to thicken on the dulled home, even when the sun shone.
Mr. Mompesson thought: 'How this cloud has come between us! It is almost as if we were divorced.' And as he had felt so often a gloomy mist between himself and his God, so he felt, and had indeed felt for some time since, a darkness between himself and his wife.
Since the first outbreak of the plague and the flight of Jack Corbyn his pleasant family life had been disturbed; since the death of Jack Corbyn poor Bess, a widow, as it were, before she was a bride, had been completely broken; all was jangled.
The Rector was amazed now to think that he should ever have complained about the dullness of Eyam or drawn contrast between the life here and the comfort, nay, the splendour he had enjoyed at Rufford Park. He was smitten because of his own ingratitude. He tried to put all these private feelings at the back of his mind, and standing beside his wife he told her that Thomas Stanley had come to live at the Rectory and to help with the onslaught of the plague. She answered quietly that she was glad, for she thought the dissenter was a good, brave and able man.
"Bessie likes him, too," added Kate, looking at her sleeping babes, so peaceful in their little cots of wickerwork, with the coverlets and curtains she had made herself. And she asked if Mr. Stanley, who seemed to her an experienced person, knew of any fresh treatment for the plague.
The Rector turned aside, he did not like to meet the hope that had been lit in her eyes and that he knew he was bound to quench.
"No, dear heart, Mr. Thomas Stanley knows no more than I do. At least, I do not think he has studied the matter so deeply. He has experimented with the same drugs and medical antidotes, the same fumigants. He suggests that we light fires in the streets as long as we have materials. But while we lack wood for coffins, I do not like to use it for this purpose. He suggests, also, that we should add another hut to the plague-house on the green, get some more women to work there. There are those, who have had the plague slightly or come from houses where it has been and have not been infected, who might be willing."
"I will go among them to-morrow," said Kate, "and ask them."
"No, Kate, you will go nowhere in Eyam to-morrow," said the Rector firmly. And he told her of the plans he had made with the dissenter to send her, Bessie, Ann Trickett and the children away to Mr. Beilby, in York City; he bade her make everything ready, to fold up and pack the children's wardrobe, putting a fumigant between the garments, to provide each with a pomander and a bottle of spirit and a bottle of water and to write a letter to her uncle.
"I shall write one, too, Kate. There is not time to advise him of our plans, but I am sure that our little ones will receive a welcome. For what they may cost him, I will be responsible. George is old enough to have some schooling now and your uncle might look out for a learned man in York who could do this for us."
The Rector spoke of this matter to please and distract Kate, but he saw at once that this little subterfuge was useless, for she was not listening.
"Oh, I'm a selfish, hard-hearted woman!" she exclaimed. "I should be so thankful to see my children so safe from danger, yet I can do nothing but grieve."
"Indeed, Kate," said William Mompesson tenderly, "we can none of us do anything but grieve at this moment of dreadful affliction. Yet you may take comfort and retire from this cold, rude place with a good heart, knowing that nothing but our duties divide us, Kate, and our affections keep us close together. I shall write to you often. Neither malice nor neglect must come between us! Kate, don't cry! York is not so far away."
"I am not going to York. You waste your words. I made my vows to you—'until death do us part'—do you remember that, Mompesson? Well, it is not death yet. The children shall go, and Bessie and Ann Trickett, but I shall remain."
He saw her lips tremble, her bosom swell, her eyes become moist. Never, even when she had been younger and more beautiful than she was now, had she seemed so lovely to him. His whole spirit felt refreshed as a fountain that is dry and receives a fresh gush from the ground; the cloud between them cracked and showed vital gold.
"Would you stay with me, Kate?" he asked; then putting a stern restraint on his emotion, he hurried on to tell her of the great danger she would be in, and of how neither he nor Thomas Stanley thought there was any hope of the abatement of the plague, nor could they see any means to stay it. And he repeated to her the resolve they had made—that all should be begged to stay in Eyam, "save only those, like yourself, my heart's delight, who come from houses not yet infected and who wish to go at once. Any mother or old person or child may leave, and I will give them all help."
She made a sign for him to cease.
"The children go to-morrow with Bessie and Ann Trickett. Say no more, my place is here, and you know it. Do you think I am such an easy, light creature that I could leave you now? Were our vows mere stage and show? Do you think fear could eclipse my heart?" She rose and put her small hands on his shoulders; her tired eyes searched his face.
"You may be ill yourself, you look already worn. I know you suffer. I am so glad you have the help of this good man, Mr. Stanley. I can help, too, though I am young and inexperienced and little. I can nurse and go among the women, and when I am free from my own children, I can look after those of others."
He put his arms round her, unable to speak, and for a space they clung together, hardly able to believe that this terror had overtaken them in their harmlessness, when all life lay before them, a fair, fresh field.
But she would not be moved; he could not force her away against her will. And he did not know even if he was in the right in trying to move her.
"To be away from you," she whispered, while he held her close, "is to be dead alive. I should be like a body without its soul. I should be blind and deaf and dumb! Mompesson, it cannot be! I am no spruce wanton to fade when sorrow comes. He who binds and loosens death will help me to be strong."
"But can you endure to part with the children?"
She did not answer, but kissed him wildly, and he was quite spent with love and pity and wished for the ease of sleep, safe from passion, corruption and fear.
William Mompesson put the case to his colleague, and Thomas Stanley agreed that Kate's place, if she so chose, was in the Rectory by her husband's side. But there was no question but that Bessie and the children must go. He himself, being a resolute man of action, made the arrangements within a few hours.
He went to the old Manor Hall and engaged the servant in charge there to lend the carriage and horses in this matter of emergency. He spoke to Ann Trickett and to Bessie and both readily agreed to take the children to York. Ann made no comment; Bessie said she perceived a divided loyalty, but she would go with the children and try to be a mother to them. All was a mystery to her; she was glad to have a plain duty to perform.
Then Mr. Stanley went to the Rector's study and wrote out fairly a placard to affix to the churchyard porch. And this, which he got the Rector to sign, stated that the two children, the sister-in-law and the maidservant of William Mompesson were leaving the next day for York City, because of the plague, and if there were any other young children or young mothers into whose houses the sickness had not yet come, they were invited to leave the village themselves or to send their babes away, and all help would be given them in the hire of horses or waggons and the provision of lodging for them in some distant farms, if they had no friends of their own.
But for the rest of the inhabitants, all those into whose homes the plague had already come, and all who were not young, having children, or being with child, were required to come to the church that evening, as the Rector had to speak to them on the matter of the scourge that had afflicted Eyam.
Such of the villagers as could read had spelt out the placard by midday and told it to the others, so that there was a fairly large crowd to see William Mompesson's children depart.
Contrary to the Rector's expectations, none seemed willing to send their children away. The mothers would not part with them and feared the dangers that might be beyond their native village more than they feared the plague. He had noticed before how isolated these people were from the outer world, and how they dreaded and disliked anyone, even from Bakewell, as a foreigner. They were extremely jealous of their descent and the entire village consisted of perhaps no more than six or seven families who constantly inter-married; therefore, even at this crisis, they were loth to trust their children to strangers. And the only women that were willing, and even these were somewhat reluctant to send their children away, were those in whose homes the plague had already been; and these the Rector would not allow to depart.
But such of them as were not at work in the mines or fields—and every day there were less and less of these through sickness and the apprehension of sickness—had gathered round the low churchyard wall under the golden linden trees and watched the carriage from the old Manor Hall and Ann Trickett, in her best gown and hood and scarf, and Bessie in a black mourning dress with white bands, and the two children come out of the Rectory and enter the carriage that was driven by Corbyn's old coachman.
There was not very much baggage, for there was but little accommodation for it—only the children's toys, puppets and animals, made of cloth and wool, were put into the carriage with the children as were their wicker cradles, their bedding and their baskets of clothes.
Little George in his blue tiffany suit was excited by the novelty of a long drive and by the tales his mother had told him of the splendours of York and the treatment he would have from his uncle, who would surely give him a fair entertainment. But little Bessie cried at leaving her father and mother and had to be lifted into the carriage with her rosy fists in her eyes; she was pale and pretty as a primrose; a heavy pomander hung from her neck.
The curious, sullen villagers watched the sisters cling together, Bessie and Kate, with their sunk cheeks pressing close. Ann Trickett seemed cheerful, as if she too enjoyed the prospect of an escape from this place that was always dull and now plague-stricken.
William Mompesson spoke as cheerful words as he could find and kissed the travellers gravely and with a passionate sincerity. Bessie put the letters to Mr. Beilby in her bosom and Ann Trickett had the responsibility of the money that would be required for the journey. So, in little commonplaces and exclamations and running to and fro, the departure took place.
As soon as the little party started, Kate ran to an upper window to stare at the carriage, but it was soon out of sight. She came down the stairs again and without a word either to her husband or to those gathered about the gate, crossed the churchyard where the graves now lay so thickly. In the corner known as the plague spot, she entered the church and went up to the belfry by the stairs the ringers used on Sunday and that she had never trodden before.
She had been very quick and had apprised none of her intentions so that she was not followed. Her husband had soon discovered what she would be at and pityingly bade the people leave her alone; she was light of foot and agile and not likely to come to mischief.
Kate Mompesson went up the stairway, until she came to the top part of the tower where the four bells hung, the first, third, and fourth being inscribed with the mottoes: 'Jesus be our speed,' and the dates severally of '1590,' '1618,' '1628,' while the second had the date '1618' and was inscribed: 'God save this church.'
The belfry was large, there was room for ten bells, though Eyam had never been able to afford more than these four that gave out rich and deep-toned peals when rung by the six men and boys employed as ringers.
Kate took no heed of these bells, but moved to the small lancet-shaped window and there gazed over the village, across the little houses, the old lych-gate, the stream at the western end and at the rude highway that wound over the heath beyond.
The coach went slowly over the uneven ground, the stout horse struggling in the shafts, the coachman driving carefully.
Kate impressed every detail on her mind—the long whip, the curling thong, the boot behind from which the luggage hung clumsily, Bessie leaning from the window and waving to the villagers, and now George's red-gold head and now that of his sister, Bessie, showing. To her failing eyes the carriage grew smaller and smaller, until it was no larger than the picture in the initial letter in her old Prayer Book.
And then she gave a loud cry that was lost in the boughs of the linden trees, and beat her head against the stone wall, for she was sure that she would never see them again. Angels might be with them, but she would not. Her life seemed purposeless; she felt wasted as a glass of water poured on the sand.
Two more cases of the plague were reported that evening; Thomas Stanley visited one of these and William Mompesson the other, before they attended the meeting that had been called in the church.
The medical treatment the two men employed was the same; it was the best that they knew of after studying so earnestly such books and such knowledge as was available to them. When the fever was declared they gave some soothing medicine such as the plague-waters of Matthias, though they no longer used bark after the Rector's unfortunate experience. Various elixirs that Mompesson compounded in his laboratory were also administered. Then, when the plague spots appeared, these were dressed with ointment, and if the patient lived long enough, they were cut and cleansed and bandaged with further anointings.
To break the tumours they sometimes used the prescription of the College of Physicians, which was: 'Take a great onion, hollow it, put in a fig, rue cut small, and a dram of Venice treacle; put it, close stopped, in a wet paper and roast it in the embers. Apply hot to the tumour. Make three or four, one after another; let one he three hours.'
But they had to omit the fig from the prescription as these fruits were not to be obtained in Eyam.
Tobacco was much used and the supply in the village was running short, for such as could obtain it chewed or smoked it continually, for Mr. Mompesson heard that none in London who kept tobacco shops had the plague and that the school at Eton had been spared, because every schoolboy, however young, had smoked a pipe.
They also used some of the recipes recommended by the Paracelsists or Chemical Physicians, though they seemed to Mr. Stanley altogether too mystical. A remedy that had been taught to the people by Mother Sydall was much used secretly. It was made by roasting a dead toad over a vessel of yellow wax and smearing the fat on the sores.
But, despite all this care, precaution, skill and quackery, very few of the patients recovered, though some lingered as many as twelve days and a number to five or six days. But the clergyman knew that many remedies were resorted to besides those that they themselves sanctioned. Not alone Mother Sydall, the witch, but other so-called wise men and women, herbalists and hermits, who dwelt upon the moors, were consulted and many strange and horrible concoctions were brought in secret to the sick beds. There were also many crude operations performed, such as cutting the carbuncles too soon, so that the patients died under the agony. Or making gashes in the sound flesh for the infection to escape, so that many limped about wounded with green or cankered wounds.
The church was full, the door being set wide so that those who could not obtain admission might stand in the outer air and hear the Rector's speech.
He gave first a brief discourse on the text: 'But go thou thy way to the end, for thou shalt rest and stand in thy lot at the end of the day,' that was often in his mind.
Mr. Mompesson spoke to his people of how brief and, as it were worthless, was the longest and most splendid life. He declared that it was but a little play before eternity and given to us as a time to prepare for Heaven, and that those who had the most crosses and afflictions in this life were likely to get the highest rewards, when His bright face should beam upon the righteous.
And he spoke of the Judgment Day, when the heavens would be rolled up, and night and day end with one loud blast that would rend the deeps. When all the dead would arise at a second birth, crowding with those who should be living, to the bar of Judgment—fire would rush from the north to the east and sweep up south and west; stars and elements would be confounded and blotted out, and God's thunders would play over chaos. And nothing would matter in the fateful day but cleanliness from sin.
So he spoke to them of the worthless vanity of all the lusts of this earth, and how it behoved them to do God's will, and to thank Him for any crosses He might send.
And so he came to the main matter of his discourse, which was the desolation of Eyam. There was no need for him to describe the ravages to them, for they had seen it for themselves. Some of those who were there had been sick and recovered, some had lost relatives and friends, others had left sufferers from the scourge at home or in the pest-house, a few yards from them lay the graves of those who died from the plague.
Therefore Mr. Mompesson said nothing of the scourge, but he reminded them that they were all in God's hands, and that nothing they could do could save those who were marked and that those who were protected could walk immune among the fiercest contagion.
"It may be that you or I, or my wife or your wife, will be the next. But we must go on and do our part, each of us."
So, in view of the judgment visited upon them, he exhorted them to be industrious and sober and Godfearing, to have no wallowing in impure thoughts and scurrilous conceits, for the day might be at hand when every idle word should be accounted for, and how desperate then should be the condition of those who, instead of grace and life, had thought only of sin and death! And in this moment of terror to leave piety and sobriety would be an inexcusable desertion. But those who would conduct themselves soberly might remember that a door would be opened for them in Heaven.
Mr. Mompesson here paused and looked round the faces of his congregation. There had been a hush among them while he spoke, and their countenances, some brutal, some simple, some comely and some vile, had been tense in expression. As they crowded together in the chancel and aisles, they stood pressed round the ancient stone font, lead lined, where most of them had been christened, and leaned into that aperture in the north aisle through which, legend said, the confession of sins was whispered in ancient times; the common people, and this was an unheard-of thing, were even in the pews of the gentry, which had long since been empty.
All the one-time ornaments of the church had been removed by the Puritans, many by the zealous hands of Thomas Stanley himself, but there still remained the grotesque figure of a Talbot, or dog, on one of the wooden cross-beams, the crest of the arms of the Earls of Shrewsbury, formerly Lords of the Manor of Eyam and patrons of the village. While in one of the windows a few fragments of coloured glass had been suffered, through disdain, to remain, and the July sunlight falling on these cast blurs of gold, blue and red on the tense, anxious faces below.
Mr. Mompesson, in his black gown and white bands, stood silent with his fine fingers on the edge of the pulpit, as if speech had suddenly failed him, and looked down on the stout figure of the dissenter, who stood below him, against the pulpit.
Mr. Mompesson felt he had obtained an added strength from this man's presence, and the fact that Thomas Stanley was by his side had served to overawe and impress the villagers, who seemed to listen to him with a deeper respect than ever before.
He felt suddenly weary, fatigue, like a great wave, swept over and drenched his spirit. There was much more he had to say, indeed he had not come to the crucial part of his argument, but he stammered and could not put his words together. And then stepping, almost stumbling, down from the pulpit, he touched the dissenter on the shoulder and said:
"You speak to them."
'If this is blasphemy,' he thought, 'surely God will forgive me.' He remembered thankfully that Heaven had permitted Thomas Stanley for many years to preach in that pulpit.
With only a slight inclination of his head as acknowledgment, the dissenter at once mounted the humble pulpit. His sunken, wrinkled, yet still keen eyes flashed at once to the three letters, 'I.H.S.,' on one of the beams before him. Though he was no scholar he knew the three Latin words they stood for: 'Jesus Hominum Salvator'—and they had often been his encouragement and his inspiration.
He spoke briefly with none of the emotion and flowery, if faltering, phrases that William Mompesson used.
"I have been asked by the present Rector of Eyam to help him in this affliction, and we have decided to remain together in the village and do what we can for those who suffer both in soul and body. And we have decided to ask you all to remain enclosed here, dying like true soldiers at your post, sooner than carry the disease far afield.
"We have asked you to be soldiers, and we are prepared ourselves to be generals. We have thought out our plan, for the nursing of the sick, the tending of the sound, the burial of the dead.
"A messenger went to-day to my Lord at Chatsworth, and he will send supplies, both of food, medicines and such other things as may be needed. We shall ask for voluntary workers, some to serve in the pest-house, some to bury the dead. And, as there is no longer sufficient wood for coffins and no labourers to make them, from henceforth the dead will be buried in their shrouds only. And until happier times, there will be no headstones, but all will be placed in a pit in the churchyard so that one burial service may be said over several.
"And so we shall await God's judgment."
A shudder passed through the congregation; one heard again some of the women begin to weep, bowing their heads on those near them. Another one near the door fell down and cried out and was passed from one hand to another into the open air.
The scene began to flicker before William Mompesson's tired eyes. He saw the broad beams of golden sunlight coming through the open doorway, the breath of fresh air mingling with the fetid breath of the people, their sweating odours, and the sickly and acrid fumes of the vinegar and spices they used. He saw those squares of colour from the glass and wondered idly why Thomas Stanley had not removed that as he had removed every other beautiful object from the church.
The young man despised himself for the faintness that was upon him, he remembered that he had eaten very little food that day. The scene of the morning was impressed on his vision and seemed more real than that which surrounded him—the carriage going away with the children, Bessie and Ann Trickett, and Kate running from him and hastening up to the belfry to get a last look at her children; when she had returned she had said to him: "I am sure I shall never see them again." And he had tried to argue her out of such uncomfortable thoughts, but with little feeling in his words.
He tried to see her now, she was seated somewhere in that press, too faint to stand, on a rush chair by a pillar. His soul revolted against the task put upon him—his Kate even now breathing in the infection.
Why had he been sent here? Why had this sacrifice been asked of him? He wanted to go, to leave this accursed place, these people whom he had never liked and who demanded of him now his life's blood and that of his beloved.
He heard the harsh voice of the dissenter droning on overhead, talking, instructing the people, for though he had put the case to them briefly enough, he must now expand and embroider it with many texts and allusions of moralizing. And the gaping, sweating villagers stood listening, as intent and overawed as if an angel spoke to them.
When at last Thomas Stanley left the pulpit, the people stirred and sighed and groaned and began to talk among themselves, and so streamed out into the sunlight and stood among the graves discussing the matter.
Thomas Stanley spoke to none of them, but went to the Cross that was so old that it was supposed to have been cut in heathen times and the Christian carvings now on it placed there at a later date. Such as they were, they were of Popish origin, and Thomas Stanley had at one time thought of defacing them. But he had decided to let them be, arguing that they had been placed there by a pious hand; but he had been severe on those whom he had found creeping out at night to kneel in prayer before these figures that represented the Virgin and Child.
On the arms of the Cross were spirits blowing trumpets and others holding crosses and books. On the side were knots, and whatever any Rector, Nonconformist or Church of England, might say or do, the villagers regarded this Cross with as much awe as indeed, in secret, they regarded the gray stones that seemed to be of a like ancestry upon the moors.
William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley took their position against the shaft, and here it was Stanley who spoke again.
Raising his bony hand he cried out gravely:
"Let those who are willing to abide by what we have decided and to promise to remain in the village within a distance that we shall mark out, come forward, give his or her name and swear to observe this pact, which I take to be made with God Almighty Himself."
There was silence for a moment and Mompesson, with his tired eyes glancing over these rude people, some of whom he knew to be savage, cruel and vicious, thought: 'Why should they thus doom themselves to save strangers?'
Then one or two of the better sort began to argue together and put forward as a spokesman the carpenter, who was supported by Sythe Torre; this man, towering above his fellows, seemed to be in better spirits than any there. The carpenter, coming forward cap in hand, asked the two clergymen if they could answer for it that the plague was carried by one person to another?
"For it seems," said he humbly, "that nothing is certain about the pest. And that even you learned gentlemen..."
"Not learned," protested Mompesson faintly under his breath; but Thomas Stanley made no demur.
"You learned gentlemen," continued the carpenter, fearful at the sound of his own voice before so many people, "do not know much of the nature of this plague, nor even how it came to Eyam, though there is talk of a box of clothes..." He paused, then picked up his words again: "What I mean, reverend sirs, is—if we were to stay here, making the promise that is required of us, could we be assured that we spared others and kept the plague here instead of spreading it over maybe the whole of the Peak?"
"Can you answer them, Mr. Stanley?" asked Mr. Mompesson. "For myself, though I have studied the matter, I have to confess to a great ignorance."
"My ignorance is great too," said the dissenter, but with relish. "But this I am certain of, and you can judge it for yourself—that the disease is passed from one to another, and if we all remain enclosed here and refuse to go abroad and have any trade or truck with the outside world, then surely, even though we all die at our posts, we shall prevent it from spreading in Derbyshire. Though if it slay us all it can but slay five or six hundred souls, yet if it get spread through the Peak it may slay as many thousands. And leaping on its course may waste the north."
"That is enough, sir," said the carpenter without a pause, "and I for my part am prepared to make this pact."
"And I! And I!" came the voices of his fellows behind him. They pushed up through the docks and nettles that had grown round the ancient shaft and one by one they made their promise and took their oath. Those who had left their families at home gave the promise for them also.
Mr. Stanley seemed to accept this ready sacrifice as a matter of course, but William Mompesson was profoundly moved.
Before the meeting was over, three of those who were there fell down with the plague and were carried to the pest-house, upon which many began shouting hymns in a light-hearted manner.
'THIS is worse than death,' thought Catherine Mompesson, 'for death means that something ends.' And she straightened her aching back and with a hand coarsened from much bathing with rough soap and water and vinegar, put back the tousled hair from her eyes.
The day was so hot, and it seemed noisome, too, so that she half-believed what her husband declared was a whimsy, that the contagion was in the air and did not pass from person to person.
She leant, hand to head, against the mullions of the kitchen window; she was overborne with toil, for since Bessie and Ann Trickett went away, she had had all the household work to do herself with but little assistance, for such women as did not have their own families to tend were employed in the pest-house or in nursing those who were threatened by sickness. Sythe Torre's wife came in now and then to help Kate, but for the rest she did all herself, save for the drawing of water, a task that one of the men performed for her when he could.
She did more, too, than her own housework. Her husband had shown her how to help in preparing the medical remedies he used. She must cut up, too, even those fine linen sheets that had been given her by Lady Savile into strips for bandages. She made soups and jellies that were sent to the poor and these she distributed herself as far as her strength was able.
The whole of her life thus had an unnatural cast, all the sweet ordered simplicity had gone. Again and again she wondered if this was a punishment for her ingratitude in complaining when first she came to the loneliness of Eyam.
This evening she felt the desolation of her household—her children, Ann Trickett and Bessie all gone, and her husband as good as gone, for she saw but little of him. And every time that she did see him she looked at him in terror for fear she would see the marks of the plague on his face. But she knew that he considered himself immune, even as he considered her protected.
But this horror she would not express and hugged to herself a wild hope that a man of God, doing godly work, might be spared. Yet the hope was indeed but wild and alternated with fits of despair so that her soul was in a continual torment. There was no longer the pleasant routine, the elegance of music, of song, the fine conversation that had once continued for hours in the Rectory. All that Catherine Mompesson could do was to have food ready when her husband and Thomas Stanley were able to eat it. And food was scarce too, and much of it looked on with suspicion, for there were many different and firm convictions as to how the infection went. Some thought it was in meat, and others blamed overripe fruit, and the Rector himself declared that a spare diet was good.
So Kate kept soups, bread, honey and milk, for neither of the men would touch wine or spirits, ready on her buffet.
She gazed out into the orchard—the apples were ripe among the curling grey leaves, the August sun was in a thick haze of gold above the beehives, the grass grew knee-high round the red wall that divided the orchard from the garden, there was a heavy, sickly sweetness in the air.
Kate felt drowsy, even her anguish numbed—she wished only for repose. The yearning for her children had become an obsession with her. Sometimes, when she was alone in this empty, despoiled house, she had been able to forget them for hours together, but now their images were ever-present to her mind. She had not yet had a letter from York, indeed it was too soon for her to have received news from that city. But every day when the messenger went to the stone where letters for Eyam would be placed, she waited eagerly at the door of the Rectory in the foolish hope that somehow Bessie might have sent a word of their progress.
The Lord-Lieutenant had sent his commendation and admiration of the action of Mr. Mompesson and had taken upon himself to give the dissenter, Thomas Stanley, leave to remain in the village and help during the plague. The Earl had also undertaken to supply the village with what it required in the way of medicines, goods and foods. These were taken at night and left on the stones on the heath that were supposed to be a heathen altar, or on the well at the head of Middleton Dell.
Those who had private purchases to make left their orders and their money, both well soaked in vinegar, on the stone. In this way, too, letters were exchanged.
My Lord's physician came once again to the stream that ran out of the grounds of Chatsworth into the dale near the village, and with the running water between him and Mr. Mompesson or Mr. Stanley, as the case might be, gave advice and directions. Yet these, as poor Kate knew, amounted to very little, for her husband had as much knowledge as the wise physician at Chatsworth. Though now and then some remedy that had been tried in London or Derby was given by the physician in the hopes that it might prove efficacious in Eyam.
But Kate, like many another in the village, relied also upon spells and charms. She carried round her neck on cords beneath her gown a charm that had been given her by old Mother Sydall; and before she rose in the morning and before she went to bed she repeated an incantation that had been taught her by the old woman. But nothing could cast out fear; waking and dreaming, Catherine Mompesson was a haunted woman.
She roused herself from her apathy and fatigue and left the window, looking round the kitchen, which was so different now from what it had been under the reign of Ann Trickett. There was much that was awry, for Catherine had little skill in housewifery arts; she did not like to see the disorder, but she had not the strength to remedy it. She had never been in her life before so coarsely dressed—her gown was of drugget, draggled at the bottom from going in and out of the house into the yard and throwing water and bending down to clean. Her hands were coarse, her face drawn, it was long since she had bathed, perfumed and curled her hair, which had been her great pride.
All her limbs ached, and when she sat down it was small relief; even when stretched in bed she had little repose from her great fatigue.
Slowly she went up the shallow stairway; through the windows that gave on to the garden beams of thick yellow sunshine fell and in them the motes danced merrily. Bent from her weariness, with one hand supporting herself against the wainscot of the panelled wall, she went along the corridor to the room the children had used and looked at the empty place where their cots had been and at the cupboard where they had kept their toys and at the press where their clothes had hung.
She knew this room so well, every inch of it, every detail of it, everything that had been in it was a personal matter to her. She had not known till they had gone away how the children had involved themselves with every fibre of her life.
Kate shut the door resolutely, blaming herself for being a coward because her children were safe and she could not rejoice at it. She had to remind herself of that—They are safe! they are happy! they will even forget me! They will not pine, they are too young. She went then into her own room, which was much neglected. She had almost come to the end of her sheets, and pillows and bolster-cases, so much bandaging was required, for the bandages must not be used twice however carefully washed, but burnt in the fires that were kept glowing in the streets.
The young woman thought dully: 'They must ask my Lord for more linen.'
It was but a short time ago that she would have been distressed to part with her store of fine sheets, so many worked by her fine hand. But this loss no longer concerned her. She opened her press in her tired, fumbling way and took out nightgowns, chemises, petticoats and cambrics. Bent wearily in a chair she began to pull the seams apart and to slit them in strips, using the scissors that hung at her waist. When the strips were made she rolled them, dividing the end, and tied them in little bundles.
This was the hour that Catherine Mompesson put aside for meditation and under her husband's instructions tried to put herself into communication with God. She did not find this easy, her mind was too distracted with worldly affairs and worldly terrors. God seemed to her an impenetrable mystery; she could not fathom His Will, she dared not question it. Yet her belief was simple and profound. She had not a sceptical nor a challenging spirit; she was convinced of the reality of Heaven and Hell; she believed that the stars lit the angels and that God had His throne beyond the sun, that the world was a land of darkness and blind eyes, that a painted veil was drawn over the glorious moon of God.
But how to feel that this belief was a living, comforting thing, how to trust herself to God's mercy when He had shown so little?
She thought of the dead whom she had seen die in Eyam, she who had never looked upon death before. Those who with cries and groans and rolling eyes and hideous sweats had died in the pest-house, pallid children, the ashy-cheeked babes whom she had seen in the cottages! Why did God permit this slaughter?
Thomas Stanley had spoken of a judgment on the village, but though Catherine Mompesson did not dare to murmur at the words, she thought that a judgment on these poor souls was like checking a wilful child at its play.
'Should I make a judgment on Bessie and George for some little thing they did amiss in their innocence and ignorance?'
Foul men, the dissenter said, had driven the angels away from Eyam, and Catherine believed that he referred to the villagers' return to the church. Between him and the Rector was always this cleavage of religious belief, although they agreed not to speak of it in the present hour of distress.
Here again Catherine was bemused and bewildered. Both her husband and the dissenter seemed to her holy men, she knew them brave and admirable, perhaps saintly. And each claimed to be in communion with God, yet they regarded one another as lost, disobedient, if not damned.
"It is not for your feminine intellect," the Rector had told her tenderly, "to consider such things,"
He had told her to resign herself meekly and he reminded her, as he always reminded his congregation now, that the greater crosses borne on the earth the brighter the crowns to be won in Heaven. Yet all this was a thin consolation to Kate Mompesson.
She wanted her worldly life, she wanted her husband, to sleep with, to eat with, to talk with, to walk with. She wanted her children about her, and the merry gossiping housewifely life, and fine dresses and good food and music. Why, she had not touched the virginal since the plague began. She wanted these things and she had lost them, and the consolation of a promised paradise seemed dim and far away.
Kate tried to pray. She bent her weary knees and put her tired, trembling hands before her worn face and thus in the darkness tried to smooth out her disordered life, her restless sorrows, into a sacred calm.
When she rose she was a little consoled. Her weariness had passed into a gloss of tranquillity.
How lonely and empty the old house seemed! When would the Rector and Mr. Stanley return? She had set their food, she had covered the fire so that it would be easy to heat the soup.
Kate moved slowly from the bedroom, down the corridor and down the shallow stairs, and then she heard two familiar voices that caused the blood to rush into her cheeks—Ann and Bessie! She could hardly believe this to be the dear truth; her step was lighter and her pace quicker than it had been for many days as she hastened into the parlour.
And there stood Bessie and Ann, with their trunks before them. Outside, beyond the garden gate, she could see the Corbyns's carriage and the old coachman moving away.
"Oh, Bess!" she said. "Oh, Bess!"
And could say no more, but lay and wept passionately on her sister's shoulder. Bessie could not speak either; she sobbed too and the two girls sat in the window place holding one another tightly, while Ann, who was composed and even smiling, gave the story.
"Did you think, mistress, that we had forsaken you? We would not say that we meant to return, for then we feared we should not be let out of the village, and the children required minding."
"Oh, the children, the children!" said Kate. "You should not have left them, Bessie. Are they happy, are they well?"
"Why, of course, dear heart, they are well and happy."
And again Ann Trickett took up the story.
"They are well enough, and happy enough, I warrant, mistress. Why, Mr. Beilby is delighted to have them, they are just like two treasures to him. And he has a good woman who looks after his house, and two willing maids, and the little ones have a fine room and a cupboard full of toys. And there's not one case of the plague in York."
"Oh, you should have stayed. Have you heard what's happened here? Was it decided before you went away? I've forgotten," smiled Kate, trying to dry her tears. "But we are shut in, you know, none is allowed out."
"I know that," said Ann Trickett, "they told us as much at Bakewell. They said those that went into Eyam now must stay there. But we came back to our places. I am sorry, mistress," she added, "that you should have thought otherwise of me. And of your own sister!"
Now Kate Mompesson was roused to a sense of the danger that Bessie ran. Her selfish pleasure at seeing her sister vanished into fear.
"Bess, you should not have come back," she said in deep distress. "The plague is terrible. People die every day, yes, every day more. Mr. Stanley and Mr. Mompesson are ever on their feet, going from one to another. It may be here any moment, nobody knows how the contagion goes. Oh, Bess, I should have been happier if you had stayed in York."
"Have you forgotten my condition?" replied Bessie Carr. "Don't you understand, Kate, that since Jack died all life's vain to me? I truly hate to be staying here below. My one pleasure is that I might be of some service to you. There must be something I can do."
"I'll warrant there's plenty I can do," said Ann Trickett, taking off her hood and cloak and flinging them over her arm.
"Yes," smiled Kate, "I've not done too well in the house for myself. I've been so tired, not able to sleep, and no woman can be obtained."
"I'll soon have things to rights, mistress. I suppose Jonathan Mortin is still here—doesn't he help you?"
"Oh, he brings in the water and washes down the floors in the kitchen and closets. But there are many things to do, queer things we never thought of before. So much to fumigate and the bandages to make. And I help put up the medicines. Bess, it is terrible. You know they are burying the dead in sheets now, and there's not enough of those because they want them for bandages for the sick."
"Have they made the headstone for Jack?" asked Bess wearily. Her pleasure at returning home and seeing Kate again had soon died out, her face was fatigued, like her sister she looked ten years more than her age. Both these young women seemed benumbed by a long frost of sorrow.
But Ann left the room and went into the kitchen, which was her own peculiar region, and they could hear her moving about, and the clatter of pots and pans, the snap of wood as she kindled a fresh fire.
"It's so hot," sighed Kate, "so hot."
"Yes, that's strange," said Bess, "up here in the mountains. It seems hotter than it was down in the valley. Is the infection in the air, do you think, Kate?"
"I don't know, dear, no one seems to know! Mompesson is always reading his learned books, and Mr. Stanley has his head full of conceits, but between them they cannot come to the truth of the matter. Oh, Bess, all I know is that people die and die in pain and in agonies. So foul, too. The stench, the tremors, the vomiting and the sweat."
"Let us try to forget it," begged Bess, drawing her sister up to her bosom. "Poor Kate! Bathe your face and your hands and comb your hair and we will have a little music."
"Music! I have not played for many a day now! How does one dare? The death bell was ever tolling, and now it ceases to toll it is worse still, for one knows that funerals come too quick and the bell-ringers have other things to do."
"Never mind, Kate, Ann Trickett will get the meals to-night."
"We have no meals now, Bess, but just put the food aside for Mompesson and Mr. Stanley when they come in."
"Never mind, never mind, remember that the children are safe, there is some hope there. But as for me, I have my glance above."
"Hast thou truly, Bess? I would that I could. Art thou resigned to die and join thy Jack in Paradise?"
"I am resigned."
She drew her sister to the virginal; it was an old-fashioned instrument that had belonged to the girl's grandmother, but was still sweet and pure in tone.
But Kate did not play, her soiled fingers rested languidly on the yellow keys.
"Bessie, do you think that it is our fault, that it is a judgment?"
"What have we done that there should be a judgment on us?" asked the younger sister wildly.
"I don't know. We played with fire, perhaps! Spurned good advice. We never thought this could happen, never realized how our souls could ache. Do you remember all the glorious deceptions we had, like gilded mists before our eyes—false joys, fantastic flights. How we gave our fond humours their wings, all our plays, toys, conceits?"
"I remember well enough," said Bessie Carr, "the days at Rufford Park and Jack's visits and the games we had"; she stared in front of her. "But what evil was there in that?"
"I don't know, Bessie, that there was evil in it. But our eyes were not turned to Heaven as they should have been. We were enjoying ourselves on earth instead of making haste to be away. And now—there are the dead all around us! You know, when I go upstairs at night, I seem to meet a dead man on every tread. And he reminds me how I, even like my toys and games, must fain vanish away.
"I remember when we first came here and I was gathering some early flowers in Middleton Dell, and Mr. Stanley met me, and told me that my garland would be dead in the morning. But if I wished for one that would not fade, I must think of good deeds and Heaven. And I laughed at him then when he told me that my pleasures were but a sugared dose of wormwood."
"Play some music, Kate," said Bessie, "play some music. Do not think so sadly. We must pine for home—which is with God—you and I. My loss, so far at least, is greater than thine. Play a little melody, Kate."
At this appeal the elder sister obeyed, and the thin tinkling notes fell in the sweet, thick, golden air. The sun was setting now and low level rays fell through the wide parlour windows.
"Let us think," said Bessie, when Kate dropped her worn hands on the lap of her drugget gown, "that we sleep, you and I, and that when we wake we shall be happy. And remember, dear, humanly speaking, that the little ones are safe."
There was a step on the threshold, and the Rector stood there, astonished.
And yet in his inner heart he had thought of this. The girl had gone so quietly that he could not believe that she had gone for ever. He knew her true heart, she was another like his Kate, staunch and loyal, and grief had purged her from her childish follies and affectations.
So there was not need for much explanation between them. The Rector bade her stand away from him, until he had been to his closet and fumigated his clothes and washed his hands in vinegar.
"For I have been in three infected houses this afternoon," he said. "I am glad for Kate's sake you have returned, dear Bess."
"Ann Trickett is here, too, Mompesson," smiled the younger sister. "We must all stay together."
"Jonathan Mortin will be glad to see her. He goes about with me now, carrying the medicine chest. I think," added the Rector, with enthusiasm, "that God's blessing is on this house, for none of us has been affected, and I feel as well as ever I did in my life. And though Kate is a little tired, that is from doing the housework, not from any illness."
"Yes, indeed, and now that Bessie is here, I am tired no more."
Mrs. Mompesson felt inspired by her husband's words. Perhaps God spoke through him, and they were really protected, and she dared to bring her thoughts from Heaven, which to her was but a dim though golden place, and to cast them again on her children and on her future, when they might all be together. Surely when the plague was over, she and Mompesson would have done their duty by Eyam and they might go away to some other cure that might be in the gift of Sir George Savile, or even stay in Rufford Park again, when they should be purged of all infection.
So there was more happiness in the Rectory that evening than there had been for some time. And when Mr. Stanley came in, they sat down at a meal prepared by Ann Trickett quickly and deftly, and there was a certain peace upon them.
Yet there was a torment in the Rector's heart, too, though he spoke cheerfully, for he realized in his state of happiness how he still clung to worldly things. What pleasure he got from Kate and Bess and the thought of his children and the little tales the younger girl told of the children's behaviour upon the road, and of the warm and generous welcome given them by Mr. Beilby, and of the kind messages he had sent!
He thought to himself: 'How my poor short hour, my few wretched sands and crumbs of life revolt and flinch at the thought of dispersing. Nay, though there's a heavenly crown offered above, still I must grovel here in poor joys.'
He turned his tired eyes to the side cupboard on which stood a large hour-glass and watched, as if fascinated, the sands running through. And his faith wavered and almost sank as he thought of the death scattered abroad, and how any minute there might be a knock at the door and he be summoned to yet another who was stricken.
He heard Bessie's sweet, tired voice say: "Mr. Beilby had heard that to make an incision in the leg or arm was efficacious, for the infection would run out through the wound." She added that many who lived in York and had occasion to go to Derby, where there was the plague, had tried this and had not been struck.
"Did you do it?" asked the Rector.
"No, I hadn't the courage to make the wound. Besides," she smiled, and all could read her thought, which was that she would take no precaution against the plague that had slain Jack Corbyn.
But Kate took her up eagerly. She besought her husband and Mr. Stanley to make such an incision in their legs or arms and to keep it open daily.
The dissenter refused this cowardly precaution as he termed it, but Mr. Mompesson said he would oblige his wife's restless hope.
Words would not suffice Kate Mompesson, but she must see the wound made and bind it up herself. So after supper, there being no further call upon him, the Rector went with his wife into the study.
William Mompesson sank down in the great chair with arms; it was a long time since he had had any leisure to spend in his library and the room had become unfamiliar to him. His head was giddy and waves of fatigue swept over his limbs. His head was rested against the uncertain lettering of Kate's embroidering of his motto, his eyes were turned unseeingly towards the tapestry that with so much pride and pleasure he had garnished the walls with little more than a year ago. He could recall through all his weariness those petty discontents—how ashamed he was of them now, when he had first come to the Rectory and found it so mean compared to Rufford Park.
Kate was looking at him with pity touched with terror. He was too tired to do more than smile at her, and tried to raise his hand reassuringly.
"Go into the laboratory, Kate, and bring me the little knife by the marble slab where I keep the medicines, and some of the yellow ointment and the bandage. See, child, this is all to please you. If you wish, I will not do it."
Her face seemed to recede, as objects lose their true perspective, when one who is in a fever gazes at them. The figures on the tapestry loomed terrific and their meaning suddenly became plain to him. He had never before noticed the subject of that tapestry, save in a most superficial manner.
It represented the plague, Moses with the brazen serpent, and the writhing bodies of the victims in the foreground, looking vivid in the blue and green tints of the threads.
A little sultry breeze eddied the tapestry so that the bodies seemed to fill out and move towards the Rector. He put his hand across his eyes, raised his head, and, pressing his hands on the arms of the chair, got to his feet. And then as he turned he saw the motto on the back of the chair that Kate had worked, and that, too, had its meaning: 'For God only.'
'Give me strength,' he prayed. 'Oh, God, how can I do Thy will unless Thou givest me strength? I feel as if all the flies of Hell were buzzing in my head!'
But he forced a smile for Kate's sake when she returned with her knife, ointment, and bandage. A lamp was kept always burning in the library, it was but small and gave a pin-point glow, which helped to create the fantasies that tormented William Mompesson.
Kate now lit the larger lamp and put it at the edge of the table. Her husband rolled down his long stocking and put his leg across another chair on a cushion Kate provided, she all the while frowning and anxious.
"Child," he said forcing, though sick and spent, an air of courage, "this is but a whimsy, let us leave it. It will only cause you distress." Then, trying to smile, he added: "Wound yourself, dear Kate, your life is the more precious."
She shook her head, then hesitated.
"Perhaps I will, but now we must think of you. Take the knife, and I will look another way, but be ready with the ointment and the bandage."
The Rector took the knife and indifferently gashed his leg. The pain was small and sharp; he watched the bright blood drop on the bandage placed ready, then staunched the wound with the wads of cotton that Kate handed him. He saw the pity and distress in her face as she watched the blood flow, and yet a certain eagerness and hope, too. How she believed in this cure!
Thick yellow ointment was smeared over the wound and it was bound up and the stocking drawn over it.
Then William Mompesson caught his wife by the waist and drew her down to the arm of his chair and rested his tired head on her shoulder and bosom.
"When shall we have peace, Kate, peace and rest? Must men have either toys or care? Have we no hopes in any place? Kate, somewhere we have a home! But we get nowhere. It seems so far away that we have forgotten the direction."
"Do not try to shake my faith, dearest dear," she said, caressing his damp locks, "for I have little enough. All is so cloudy and dark."
"Kate! Kate!" He held her close. "You must not say such things! How can we solve these rare and intricate questions? We must have faith, we must believe in the justice of God's dealing with us. Oh, my wife, my darling! I, too, am stung with fear at my own frailty! Comfort me!"
"What comfort have I?" she said, and tears of weariness stained her cheeks. "All I can say is, happy are the dead who are asleep below. Mompesson, every day I see more graves from my window or rather see that one large grave increase. Mompesson, they say the plague has gone to the outlying parts now."
"Not outside the cordon?" he asked anxiously, sitting up. "Thou hast heard no case of that, Kate?" he said, clasping his hand.
"Nay, none! But those who left the village to build themselves huts upon the heath—they say the plague is there. I heard the family at Riley had sickened. William, I heard this—when I was tending a sick child to-day, a woman came in who lived in a farm near to Riley, at least near enough for her to see, for the stream divides them, and she said there was something wrong. She had seen mistress Riley digging."
"Not a grave, Kate?"
"I don't know. All is in a fog. Come, does your leg still hurt?"
"I had forgotten it. But you, Kate, we must try this on you, too. It is possible there may be some hope. Bare your arm and look another way. I have the courage for this if you have. Think of our babes, Kate."
"The pain is nothing," she said simply, "but I do not like the blood."
She turned up her rough drugget sleeve and the plain undersleeve of linen, and he took the knife and after wiping it made a gash in her forearm. As she turned, she smiled at his pallor, for it struck him to the heart to have wounded her. He helped her to bandage up the arm and drew down the sleeve again. And they did begin to feel a certain comfort; supposing there was efficacy in this cure, they might yet be saved for happiness...
They clung together with sad caresses, taking much comfort in their mutual love. And he reminded her, gazing over her bent head at the tapestry where Moses held up the brazen serpent:
"Though we are but wandering clods, Kate, there is One above Who keeps track of our step, and even in the masks and shadows through which we move, I see, sometimes, the hand that beckons to the sacred way. Remember He is with us in all things, although He is invisible."
The dawn was hot and yellow, the first colourless light had soon faded and there were storms in the air.
Kate looked into the little room where Bessie slept. The girl was sunk in a swoon of fatigue, there were large shadows under her eyes, her hair was uncombed on her brow, her shift untied at her neck.
Catherine closed the door carefully and then went to the closet where her husband slept, and found him too sunk in an unconsciousness deeper than sweet peaceful sleep. Carefully she lifted the coverlet and turned down the cotton stocking that he wore. There was the bandage still in place and a stain of dried blood on it. She puzzled if the wound was still open, surely as long as it were and an issue came from it there was good hope that by that means the infection would leave the body.
The gash on her own arm had died and closed; she wondered if she should open it again or if she should accept this omen of ill-fortune.
Then she closed her husband's door. Let them sleep, they had toiled excessively. But for herself, all repose seemed to have left her. She had dressed herself in her plainest gown and put on a hood and cloak of light material. Now she went into the kitchen; Ann Trickett was not yet abroad, but all was in order.
She put together some parcels of food, bread, apples, honey, cakes, and folded them in a linen napkin in her basket. She never touched linen now, but thought how poor their store was becoming. She went lightly upstairs to the laboratory and took two pots of ointment such as her husband and Thomas Stanley used for anointing the plague spots, and a roll of bandage and a bottle of plague water, two pomanders and a packet of cinnamon. Then she turned to leave the house.
But she was not unobserved; the dissenter was already abroad. He seemed to have an iron strength, since she had hardly seen him rest. She drew back, startled, and tried to put her basket behind her. But he perceived it and understood her errand.
"I wanted to let my husband and Bessie sleep," she stammered.
"Why should you not sleep, Mistress Mompesson? You have toiled as hard as they."
"I could not catch at sleep," she replied. "I'm going abroad on my errand. Pray do not stay me, sir."
"Why should I stay you?" he answered quietly. "Go where God directs you, Catherine Mompesson. But where do you go?"
"Keep my counsel," asked the young woman gravely. cc I am going up to the Riley farm, I believe they are stricken there. No one will go."
"I will go," said Thomas Stanley. "I was there a few days back and all were well."
"And I heard a horrible story, sir—that Elizabeth Riley was seen digging a grave. Perhaps they're dying about her—and she is alone. Indeed I am going."
"I would come with you at once," said the dissenter, "but I have promised to go into the village to watch by two who are dying—it is the boy who used to serve at The Bull Inn, and his sister."
"Yes, yes, you must go, that is your duty plain before you," said Catherine hurriedly. "I may be wrong, I may find that these families are well. But they live so far away and nobody has seen them recently in the village."
"I will come up presently, perhaps in two hours. If you stay there I will help you, if I meet you on the way coming back you must give me their news. There are other farms that we should visit besides those at Riley."
The two stepped out into the air, still thick and sweet and golden. It was towards the end of August and the leaves were dry and yellow on the linden trees and the grass was fading in the churchyard, the weeds were brown and broken round the great Cross.
The dissenter told Mrs. Mompesson that yesterday a man had come with a load of wood from Bubnell, and that the villagers had turned him back, refusing to allow him to pass through the village, though the fellow, who was in fine robust health, laughed at them and said he was not fearful of the plague.
"It is most admirable the spirit that has got into them," declared the dissenter with enthusiasm. "They refused to let this fellow endanger himself and so he turned back. And it must be now six weeks since any stranger came within the boundaries of our affliction."
Then they parted by the churchyard wall, and Kate, who felt a little strength with the brightening of the day and with the zeal of her errand, left the Nonconformist and turned eastwards towards Riley, where lived the families who were known by the common name of Riley from the place where they lived, and also of Talbot and Hancock.
The farms where these families lived were about a quarter of a mile eastward of Eyam on the slope of a hill where the heather and the harebells had now withered, the first to a faint brownish-coloured foliage, the second altogether away. The low wind that stirred the withered grasses around Catherine Mompesson's path gave her a sense of desolation, yet one of exaltation.
As she mounted above the village, she felt lifted from her usual petty cares, for so she tried to term everything that was worldly, even her affection for her children. Curling clouds, still tinged with the rosy hues of the sunrise, for it was early, were high overhead. And looking up at them she felt that invisible and dim, yet surely, there was the presence of God and that He was blessing her errand. And there was a pleasant stop to all her busy sorrows.
The air was pure and fresh, different, surely, from what it was down in the village. She paused more than once to put down her basket and run her fingers through the stream that leaped through the heather and mosses on the hill-side.
When she came in sight of the two farms that lay a little distance one from the other, she noticed at once that no smoke rose from the chimneys. Even on such a hot day as this at least one fire in each house would be kept alight for cooking and the heating of water. Nor could Catherine see any signs of life nor hear any sound—a barking dog, a crowing cock, the cry of a child.
The Talbots were blacksmiths and had a smithy joining the small plot of land they farmed, for close by passed the upland road from Manchester to Sheffield. Catherine Mompesson knew these people—a man, his wife, three sons, three daughters, all at home save the eldest son, who had found employment in Bakewell.
They were fine, comely children, more lively and full of grace than the villagers. Catherine had often admired them when they came down to Eyam to the church or to the festivals. She had seen them garlanded with flowers proceeding to St. Helen's Wake last year. They had been warned like all the other families, who occupied outlying farms, to remain in their high and airy situation; Catherine remembered this and still hoped that they might have escaped the contagion.
A little orchard lay at the back of Riley and this was fenced about. When Catherine Mompesson came there, she paused at the latch gate and set down her basket, for it was heavy for her frail and now almost exhausted strength, and putting her hand cupped round her lips she called out, halloing, asking who was there.
There was no answer.
The ripened apples had fallen into the long, dry grass, and as she stared, hushing her own voice and listening in vain for a reply, she saw in the further part of the orchard, where there had been an open patch for beehives, that these had been removed and the ground disturbed. She gazed at the rough outline of seven crude graves.
Catherine Mompesson went through the orchard. This was the most terrible tragedy of the scourge; these people must have been buried—one by one—each by the hands of the survivors. And who had buried the last? She counted the graves again—seven! Father, mother, two sons, three daughters.
The Hancocks, then! Had the plague touched them?
She went into the farm kitchen and placed her basket—the contents were useless now—on the table. There was a mattress on the floor, an overturned chair, on the table some bowls and cooking utensils, a heap of neglected ashes lay on the hearth: there was a spent lamp, some torn, stained linen, a heavy putrid smell.
She went upstairs, thinking perhaps there might be someone there, even though all the family were accounted for. Her mind was not functioning clearly, she fumbled at the door latches. She moved, wasting time, from one room to another, calling under her breath. But the house was empty.
Kate left it, mechanically picking her basket up again and passing through the front garden where a few flowers bowed their heads before the lonely chill winds, for the heat seemed to have left the air in this solitary place, or else it was Catherine's spirit that made all around her seem cold.
She passed to the next cottage, that was that of the Hancocks. It was a small cottage, and on the patch of ground beside it Catherine saw more hummocks, close together, cut out of the withered heath.
Catherine tried to count them, but her senses failed. She leaned against the fence, the basket fell out of her hand and the contents were scattered on the ground.
Then she saw that something was moving in the door of the cottage—a woman—Ann Hancock. Catherine knew her by sight. Ann had a towel in her hand that dragged on the ground, her attitude was one of great fatigue. Against the cottage wall leaned a spade, stained with earth.
When the large, lone woman saw Catherine Mompesson, she greeted her without surprise, rather with a little nod, as at something expected.
"I have buried them all, Alice, Ann, William, Oner, my husband."
"You buried them!"
"Yes," answered the woman, showing the twist of towel in her hand. "I did not dare to touch them, but I put this about their necks and drew them out and made shallow graves for them. I had one with me to dig for all but the last, and that I had to make myself. I went on my knees, praying for help, but none came."
"The Talbots," Catherine said, "they are dead, too? I heard talk of this in the village and came up. But why did you not send for help?"
"Were we not asked to keep the infection to ourselves?" replied the woman with a wild sullenness. "And who had I to send? They sickened, one after another. One day two died, the next three, and so there's none left of either the Talbots or the Hancocks but myself."
Catherine saw she was distracted, out of her wits, for she spoke desperately yet with what seemed lack of feeling; she pointed her finger across to the distant height of Stony Middleton, divided from Riley by two narrow dells. And she said that she had made signals to the inhabitants of the houses there, but they had taken no heed, though she believed they had watched her digging the graves for her husband and children, ay, digging, till her arms ached and dragged in the sockets.
Catherine Mompesson could no longer stand. She went into the dirty cottage and sat down on a wooden chair with wings. She put her face into her hand; she could neither weep nor lament. These people were strangers to her, but their sufferings were as her own. The bleak woman, her hands hanging hopelessly, came into the little house.
"My husband would have come, Mr. Stanley would have come," whispered Kate.
"Thomas Stanley was here," replied Ann Hancock, "but that was before anyone sickened. He has a great deal to do and many to comfort, we could not expect him to return. Their blood was thickened by corruption. They had a stench even while they lived."
"And they had no one to pray for them, and no one to read the burial service?" asked Kate; she asked if there was a Prayer Book in the house, and the woman answered: "Yes."
Kate rose; she felt her body light, as if she floated.
"Come out with me and I shall read the service over their graves. And afterwards, when the pest is past, they may be enclosed and stones put up."
She felt a little strength ebb into her veins as she spoke these words. There was help in action. She added:
"I shall stay and assist you to put the two cottages in order and to burn the bedding. That is what we do in the village, you know. And I have brought some fumigants. Then you must drink some plague water, and I have a pomander."
The woman shook her head; the greasy gray hair hung over her yellow face.
"What shall I do with these cares? I have buried my husband and my children, I have seen my neighbour and his children die and be buried, all in the course of a few weeks. What have I to do with remedies?"
Ann Hancock sank down by her ash-strewn hearth and her hands fell in her lap. She was a woman who had been robust and comely, but now she looked like a crone of eighty winters; there was dried blood and filth on her hands and a noisome smell came from her draggled clothes.
"What will you do?" asked Kate.
The woman said she would go to Sheffield, where she had a son who was bound apprentice; she seemed to take some small relish out of the thought that this son would come back and erect some memorial to his family.
"Bring me the Prayer Book," said Kate. "Though my husband or Mr. Stanley will come and read the service over your dead, yet I think God will accept this from a woman, first."
She suggested this because she thought that the clergyman might be delayed; there were limits to what the two men could do, since they were employed almost day and night in the village.
The woman looked at her visitor strangely, and then she seemed to take a little comfort too, while a few soiled tears stained her eyes. She went to a shelf littered with platters and cups and brought down a Prayer Book that had been a treasured possession, it was bound in green leather and clasped with silver roses.
Kate asked for some pure water, and when Mrs. Hancock came with a stoup from the well, Kate put some of the vinegar she had brought with her into it and the two washed their hands and bathed their faces.
Then the woman began to shake with sobs, as the water dripped over her flesh sullied with blood and dust; she had been like one quenched in grief, but now under the influence of this human companionship she began to realize her sorrows. She told her story of how they had died, at intervals of two, three or four days. At first all the Talbots had gone and then her own family. She said her husband and sons had gone to the neighbours and helped them to make graves in the orchard, and then died themselves; then she and Ann had buried Alice between them, and then when Ann had died, there had only been the mother left to dig the grave for her; shallow graves they were; a strong wind might blow the rude sods away.
Catherine took the Prayer Book and the woman went with her into the open. First they went to the graves by the smithy, and there Catherine Mompesson read the burial service over those seven hummocks. And the woman said 'Amen.' Kate had no mutinous thoughts. 'Away with life and mirth,' she thought, 'this preludes my end. Why should I block with delays the way between me and Heaven?'
Then they returned to the other graves; a cloud was over the sun and a wind stirred their garments; close together on the patch of ground by the Hancocks' cottage the rude mounds were set together and again the Rector's wife read the burial service—'in full and joyous hope of a glorious Resurrection.'
Then she gave the Prayer Book to the woman and all she had in the basket and told her to remain where she was, lest she carry the plague somewhere else; she was by no means to go to Sheffield, but live at Riley, until she died or the infection was over.
"Brighten your devotions," said Kate, "with thought of those who wait for you above."
The woman seemed discontented and stupid; she muttered about her only surviving son and her wish to go to find him.
"No," said Catherine sternly, "we must obey Mr. Mompesson. You must stay at your post as the others stay at theirs. I shall send help to you, Mr. Stanley will be here as soon as may be, and he must comfort you as God's mouthpiece. Why do you sigh over this filth and stench? Think of Heaven."
Then she put her hood over her head again, for the air was rank and stifling, and went down from the hill-side, marvelling now and then at the steadiness of her own step; the landscape seemed slipping round her in a mist of rainbow colours.
She saw many other evidences of mortality besides the graves at Riley. It was clear that many of those living in the outlying farms and many of those who had fled from the village and built themselves huts upon the moors had perished, for there were graves and rude stones, set here and there among the ferns and heather.
These uncultivated graves filled Catherine's heart with hushed whisperings of pity. As long as her strength lasted, she stopped at each of them and said a prayer and some sentences of the burial service. And she tried to keep in mind their situation so that the Rector or Mr. Stanley, for she had forgotten that he was not qualified to be what she had called him to Ann Hancock, God's mouthpiece, might come up here and bless them. She wondered if God, in His mercy, would remember that these poor unshriven souls had been unable to show their penitence or to obtain anyone to intercede for them, and if He would deal tenderly with their sins and redeem their bones from among the poor highway herbs and lonely grasses.
When William Mompesson heard that the pestilence had reached Riley he took his horse and went up immediately to that lonely place.
But the wife of John Hancock had gone; despite Catherine's command, she had departed to Sheffield. The people from Stony Dell told him they had seen her go by on the high road without either bundle or staff.
Now the Rector feared greatly that this woman, escaping from the desolation at Riley, would spread the plague, for she was the only one so far who had disobeyed his commands not to pass the boundaries that ringed the doomed village.
But this case showed the mercy of God or the whimsy of the scourge, for the woman found her son in Sheffield, as it was afterwards discovered, but did not take the contagion with her, nor any sickness.
As it was beyond the villagers' power to disinter the bodies of the Talbots and Hancocks from their shallow graves, a fence was put round them and some stones dragged to mark the place, and it was left to happier times to place some memorial there.
But the Rector, sitting in the desolate cottage, wrote out in his beautiful handwriting the names of the members of the two families and the date, month and year, when they had died; the actual days he knew not.
Then he and Mr. Stanley visited the graves that Kate had told them of on the wide moor and consecrated them and said a prayer over each, not knowing for whom they prayed, lad or maid, or one old and weary.
Now the plague in Eyam was at its height. The heat was intense and seemed to increase from day to day. The stream that ran across the western end of the village was almost dried up, the leaves of the trees seemed to rattle with a metallic sound on the parched boughs, there was not a blade of green in the churchyard, where the ground had not been disturbed to bury the dead and the sods overturned, there was no growing thing. The whole soil seemed poisoned. Flowers shrivelled in the cottage gardens and the few crops were parched in the fields and there were few to gather them in.
The villagers lived on the provisions placed on the stones in the dell at the head of the glen that the Lord-Lieutenant sent regularly. And there being so many infected that there was scarcely a family free, it seemed to William Mompesson that it was an ill thing to crowd them into the church. So gathering them together at the great antique Cross by the yew tree, the only green thing in the churchyard, and that dark as midnight, he told them that he would preach to them in the open air, in the dell called Cucklett, where there was an elevated stone on the slope at one side that might serve as his pulpit.
And before he dismissed them after that advice, he gave them some commendation of their behaviour, for none that he knew had disobeyed him, save the poor distracted woman from Riley; but for himself he had little help, he felt sadly loose and stray as if borne before a giddy blast.
As he descended from the steps beneath the Cross, he called out to Sythe Torre, who was standing amidst the crowd, and said to him:
"I hear, Torre, that you have taken upon yourself the task of disposing of the dead. It is one for which you are well fitted, may you take this as a penance for those sins that you once almost confessed to me."
The giant laughed, heaving his huge shoulders. He boasted:
"I am not afraid of the plague, master. I put a rag round their necks and drag them out without touching them. And I get what's in the cottage often enough for my pains, and enough napkins to set me up in linen for life, and my wife and son as well."
"Look to your own wife and son," warned the Rector, "and do not perform this task in a spirit of boasting and profanity, lest thou be punished instead of blessed for it. Ay, I think thou hast slipt, almost to Hell."
But Sythe Torre blasphemed, rolling the tobacco in his mouth. He was convinced that he would escape the contagion; he was indifferent to the fate of his neighbours; he had a queer belief that his wife and his son, whom he loved, were immune. As he strode away through the haggard crowd, many frightened and baleful looks followed him. It was certainly a strange thing that not only had Sythe Torre escaped the infection, but he seemed in rude health. He never came to church, he did not join in the public prayers or lamentations, he drank heavily, spending such time as he was not employed in disposing of the dead in sitting in the parlours of the now almost empty taverns and drinking ale and brandy that none dare refuse him though he had not the money to pay.
But in goods he was becoming a rich man, for he did not hesitate to take the property from an infected cottage from which all others had fled. He stripped the bodies of their clothes, if they had died, when they were attired. He took these to his house and piled them up in the cupboard, for he scoffed at any idea that contagion might lie in the garments.
The villagers began to regard him with a superstitious awe; they felt that he was in league with the devil, the personification of the plague itself, and there were tales of his meetings with the evil one on the moors.
The Rector returned to his study and pulling a sheet of paper wearily before him began to write; trying, with trembling hand and eyes dim with fatigue, to keep a register of the dead. It was impossible to do this regularly in the church, the deaths were too frequent, and moreover when one or more died in some beyond the village, the death was not reported, as in the case of the Talbots and Hancocks who had perished, all but one, at Riley, and whose fate would not have been known save for the visit of Kate.
There were names of the victims to be written down, their ages, their occupations, and, as far as possible, the days on which they died. These facts were not always known to William Mompesson, but they could usually be supplied by Thomas Stanley who, during his ministry, had taken a keen interest in and scrupulously kept all details relating to his parishioners.
The Rector trimmed the lamp and strove to free himself from the hallucinations that came from fatigue and anxiety. The room seemed full of swarming figures, now appearing in varying shades of gray, now in the white light of stars or moon. Sometimes he thought these fantasies were sent by the Devil to trouble him and deflect him from his duty, at other times that they were heavenly wings sent to console him and thrust his thoughts upwards.
He tried to concentrate on his task, which was to copy into the register some fresh particulars given him by the dissenter.
The plague had surely reached its height, it could scarcely be imagined that it could become more frightful. Whenever the Rector went abroad, his ears were assailed by a steady wailing issuing from the desolate houses, and those few who went abroad had a peculiar horror of expected doom stamped upon their pinched features. The place was isolated, too; no traveller passed through the streets, no stranger visited it, there was hardly a cottage that did not house at the same time the living and the dead. The pest-house was always full and it was impossible to venture abroad without seeing Sythe Torre, or one of the miners whom he had elected to assist him, drawing forth some still-warm body by a cord of napkin passed round the neck and placing it hastily in a shallow grave, stamping the earth over it impatiently; for the villagers had it rooted in their mind that the infection lay in the putrid bodies and that the sooner these were got out of sight, the better for the survivors.
At first the Rector had remonstrated bitterly against this indecency, but in vain, and now the state of misery was such that he could not hope to contend with it; neither he nor Thomas Stanley nor the few men who had remained staunch and level-headed about them could possibly bury the numerous dead with religious rites.
The villagers were by now familiar with the progress of the disease, and when they beheld the victim sinking into the final stage, the signal would be given and a shallow hole dug in the nearest spot—in a garden or field, sometimes by the roadside. The Rector knew that in some cases the still palpitating bodies had been thrust into pits dug in the kitchens of the houses or at their back doors.
Until the month of July each family had buried its own dead, but now that had become impossible, for in some families there was no survivor and that was more work than ever for Sythe Torre.
As the Rector made his register, trying to keep his figures neat and legible, his weary thoughts dwelt with a fascination upon the gigantic figure of the dissolute miner. Only shortly before he had seen him in the streets, half-drunk, shouting out a bawdy song, while he dragged along an old man by cords round his feet. When he had seen the Rector, he had cried out that he had pinners and napkins sufficient to kindle his pipe with while he lived, alluding to the hoard of clothing he had gathered during his fearful occupation.
The Rector wondered if indeed this fearful man was sent from God or the Devil. How he obtained his strength, which seemed superhuman, and his daring courage that was hardly to be understood.
'For even I, who may boast to be upheld by God, and even Thomas Stanley, who is undoubtedly a holy man, has not the daring of this brute. Shall he watch while I drouse?'
He continued his list for a while, putting down the names of the Talbots and Hancocks in the register, the Sydalls after that, the family who were supposed to be descendants of the old witch who dwelt on the moors—a father, son and four daughters, all of whom had died in the space of twenty-five days. They had given the infection to the lover of one of the girls, a youth named Rowland, who had resided in the Middleton Dale and caught the infection on coming to visit Demmot Sydall. The Rector had also to add the names of some victims of the families who had fled early in the onslaught of the plague to Cussy Dell and there dwelt in huts. Though they lived so far apart from the village, the pestilence had sought them out, and when Thomas Stanley had last visited them, he had to report that there were four dead.
Mr. Mompesson had also to record the death of a young woman who had come, unknown to her husband and neighbours, from Coburn to Eyam to visit her mother, and who had died the second day after her arrival in Eyam.
There were also the names of some families who dwelt in Shepherd's Flat, a little west of the village; one, a relation of Jonathan Mortin, by the name of Samuel, had lost his wife and child. Another family dwelling at Shepherd's Flat had also all died, and this Samuel Mortin was the only human being left on the moor where, obeying the injunctions of Thomas Stanley, he lived lonely, his only companions being a greyhound, four cows and a cock. The dog fed his master by bringing in some of the game which now overran the moors and fields.
It was many weeks now since the villagers had attended to their usual occupations, the harvest had withered in the fields, threshing barns were silent, cattle lowed in the meadows where the hay had not been cut. There were only a few stout women, like Margaret Blackwell, who had the strength or energy to milk the cows.
The Rector made his register as complete as he could and on a rough map that Thomas Stanley, who knew the district so much better than he, had drawn, he marked, as far as his knowledge went, all the various graves, so that when the time came he might consecrate them, or at least read a prayer above them. But he did not think that God meant him to do this service, for he believed that he, as well as the entire village, was doomed, and it was not intended in this Upas vale that any should remain alive.
He rested his head upon his hands and did not note that the wick of his lamp was sinking into the socket.
How scorching the summer was! He had set the window open, but the air came in tipped with heat. Surely it was most unnatural that there should be this sultry heavy weather so high in the mountains. Day by day purple clouds that seemed flame-edged hung over the peaks of the encircling hills and heavy vapours rested on Sir William, the highest mountain of the district, so that the noble summit was seldom visible. Now the stars were hidden in a cloudy murk and the wind that blew the study curtains bellying out into the room was as hot as if it blew off flame.
"I saw them move, I heard them howl. Oh, check their fury..."
There was a scratch at the door and the Rector started, trying to compose himself: 'Surely I have a darting conscience, full of stabs and fears.'
It was Catherine. Without a word she came to his desk, looking so shadowy, so different from her usual self. Yes, shadowy was the word to use, she seemed so drained of life, that for a moment, drawing herself from the confusion of his inner thoughts he hardly knew her for his dear wife.
She rolled up her sleeve and with a pallid smile showed him the wound on her arm. It had now quite healed. This meant, in her opinion, failure; the infection, should she take it, would be lodged in her body and not allowed to issue forth.
She asked him how the wound in his leg went and he rolled down the stocking and took off the bandage and showed her. His wound had not healed, indeed, it had throbbed and had given him much pain and, when he with an end of the linen took off the ointment on it, a yellow liquid issued from the open sore.
Catherine gave a sob of joy.
"See! It is the infection that comes out," she cried, and her face was flushed into a likeness of her own former loveliness. "Oh, sir," she cried. "Oh, Mompesson, you are saved! It is as if you had the plague and it has run through you, as they say it did with Sythe Torre and Margaret Blackwell."
He could not daunt her joy, but he had little belief in this remedy, though he did look with a certain curiosity at the issue from his leg. Was it possible that this was the deadly pest, in this way leaving him unscathed? He had a secret and intense horror of dying of this disease, of this pain; he had seen the people scream aloud with the agony of the hard tumours that no fomentation would break on breast and thigh and groin, and the filthiness of it filled him with dread.
Nor did he wish to die like some he had seen, running mad in the streets and dropping into the dust, blaspheming and shrieking.
So he felt what he confessed to himself was an ignoble relief that he might be spared the plague, even though he was ready to dedicate his life to God.
But Kate's joy was unfeigned and unsullied by selfishness. She forgot her own fatigue and apprehension in thinking her beloved husband safe. She drew him to the window and pointed out that though the night was thick and black, yet in the rift of clouds were troops of stars.
"I believe now," she said, "I believe! I believe in God and His miracles and in His mercy and justice, too. Yes, even though I have lived through this plague."
"Do you believe in God, Kate, only because you think I have been spared the pestilence?"
"No, it is not that."
And he believed her, so simply and earnestly she spoke, even as she said she believed in God.
"It has come to me lately when I have been with Bess and Ann Trickett, making bandages, scrubbing floors, preparing jellies and soups, and doing all in a haze of horror. When I have seen children die, and the women fall down in agony, and Sythe Torre dragging the dead through the streets. Even through this, somehow, there was a light like a pin-point—to-night, for instance—see the clouds, as I said, so thick, and yet the stars. I cannot use the words as you do, Mompesson, but I tell you I feel, behind it all, the hand and love of God."
Her resignation, her piety, shamed him. He had loved her deeply, but he had thought her shallow compared to himself, as he knew her ignorant compared to himself; she had no manner of learning, she could not join in any argument or dispute or give any reason for this or that, but in the moment of her great suffering and trouble she had found her faith.
"It is weak of me to rejoice that you should be spared, or I either," she said. "We should care for nothing save to wait for the sound of the trumpet that will summon us from the dust. But I am glad that we should live together for a little longer, Mompesson—only this morning I had no hope."
"I confess I had little myself," He put his arm round her and she rested her head upon his shoulder. "This morning when I was preaching to them in the Dell, and saw those forlorn and scarred faces all gazing up at me, I almost lost heart and courage. I thought: 'What can I say to these? How can I induce them to believe in God, in His justice, or His mercy?' Yet when I told them how the great Victor fought for us, a sigh went among them like a wind going among the thistles, and I believe that they were a little comforted."
"They must be comforted, they must believe," whispered Kate Mompesson, "otherwise it is to die. Tell me. I saw you making up the registers as I came in—how many have died?"
"Of adults—two hundred," he replied firmly. "Of children—fifty. But there are many whose deaths have not been reported and who have been buried suddenly and secretly."
"Well," said Kate, stirring against him on a sigh, "our children our safe—they must nearly have forgotten us by now. Let us make up the fairy tale, Mompesson, let us think that the plagues have gone, that it is the clean winter and that we have purified the village and have the children back again and everything is as it was, and Bessie has found a new sweetheart."
He kissed her damp forehead.
"We must not amuse ourselves with sickly trifles, Kate, but set ourselves to what we have in hand."
"I wish," said Kate Mompesson, "we could get a breath of fresh air. Everything seems stale and infected, or is it my fancy. The flowers seem all withered this year, early. I could find nothing in the fields when I went abroad for half an hour to-day. Mompesson, do you think the infection could be in the flowers? Janet Parnley was picking the flowers on her father's grave to make a garland of remembrance, when she fell down and died in a few hours."
THOMAS STANLEY, riding the gray horse, Merriman, made his rounds. His duty was every third day to visit the boundaries that had been placed by agreement with himself, the Rector and the villagers round Eyam.
This invisible cordon was marked by spots well known to all inhabitants. It was about half a mile beyond the village; stone hillocks and tracts of moor outlined it and at several places, such as the well or rivulet to the northward, the cliff between Stony Middleton and Eyam, an ancient barrow, before which was a hollow filled with small stones, was selected for provisions to be placed upon, letters and money and other articles to be exchanged.
The Lord-Lieutenant, his steward, the physician resident at Chatsworth and one or two other of the gentry of the neighbourhood carefully and scrupulously fulfilled the promises they had made to the Rector when he had first agreed to persuade the villagers to remain enclosed with their own pestilence.
While several of the wealthier families who had lived either in or near the village, and who now dwelt in the houses of relatives at a good distance or in huts that they had made for themselves in the hills or on the moors, out of a shame-faced charity, left anonymous gifts on these stones for those whom they had forsaken.
Thomas Stanley made a methodical inspection of these places, filling his pack-bag with bottles of vinegar, rolls of bandages, packets of cinnamons and mixed spices, bottles of plague-water, letters, syrups and prescriptions. He carefully read the private messages and took from his pouch the little pockets of labelled money that had been given him. They had all first been washed in vinegar or laid in the running water of one of the streams that ran through the moors.
There was one letter that gave him great pleasure. He could tell by the superscription that it came from Mr. Beilby in York, who had the Rector's children in his charge and had been sent to one Arthur Newlyn at Bakewell, who had taken this means of sending it into Eyam. The dissenter's rugged face softened, he even smiled as he put the letter into his bag, thinking of the pleasure it would afford Kate Mompesson.
He was most regular in his actions; he did not pause to meditate or speculate on this or that, but mounted his gray horse and went on across the moor towards the well where he might expect to find the messages and provisions from Chatsworth.
Mr. Stanley could not doubt, with the contrast of this cool breeze in his face, that the air in the village was infected, and when he came to a certain point where he could look down upon it and even count the graves that marked the neglected fields about it, he thought that he saw a kind of visible miasma hovering over the village like a noisome vapour. He shaded his eyes, trying to be certain if this were a fact or his excited fancy, and his mind was divided, his thoughts partly being that this was the contagion itself borne on the winds and hovering in this one spot, and partly that this was the visible wrath of God, the angry breath from His nostrils congealing in the air.
These thoughts were confusing and difficult to pursue; the dissenter had to fall back upon blind faith. He was not unhappy; a man who had no love, no responsibilities, and no hates, but whose mind dwelt ever beyond the judgment day when he should enjoy such a bliss as he could not imagine, he was not greatly disturbed by the scenes of horror that had shaken William Mompesson. He had seen war and endured prison, and the pest-house and the corpses and even the cries and screams of the afflicted did not greatly move him.
But as he went along on the plodding gray horse, he began to sing in a voice that was sweet and musical:
"Yet I have known thy slightest things, A feather or a shell, A stick or rod, which some chance brings, The best of us excel. Yea, I have known these shreds outlast A fair compacted strain, And, for one twenty we have passed, Almost outlive our name. Thus Thou hast placed in man outside Death to the common eye; That Heaven within him might abide, And close eternity. A silent tear can pierce thy throne, When loud joys want a-wing, And sweeter air stream from a groan Than any arted string. Thus, Lord, I see my gain is great, My loss but small to it; Yet something more I must entreat, And only thou canst do it. Oh, let me like him know my end, And be as glad to find it, That what so e'er thou shalt commend, Still let thy servant mind it."
Thomas Stanley, having relieved and cheered his soul with this hymn, turned his horse's head towards the slope that led down into the village.
The sun was approaching the west and his keen eyes, trained like a countryman's to close observation of details and to recognizing objects at a distance, discerned how the little shadows were sloping from the scattered graves that were now thick round Eyam. He believed there were many more there than the numbers William Mompesson had put on the registers, and the energetic Puritan resolved that to-morrow, if he might be spared for long enough from the village, he would make his rounds and try to discover to whom all these heaps of earth belonged.
As he remained thus, his horse reigned in at pause, a shrill long cry made him turn, and he saw some yards away a girl in a ragged dress, with her hands to her lips, trying to attract his attention.
The dissenter guessed at once her errand. She belonged, doubtless, to one of the scattered families who had retreated to the hills or the moors from the plague, and who now, as he knew, had been visited by the pestilence. His aid was probably required—to say a prayer over a dying person, or over some shallow grave beneath the disturbed heath.
So he turned his horse's head and rode across the moorland path towards the girl. As soon as he was near enough to discern her clearly, he checked his progress and gazed at her with a suspicious eye, for she was no one whom he knew. His constant travels during many years over this district, his intense interest in his parishioners and his retentive memory made it impossible for him to forget any of his flock.
This girl was in tattered garments, not the clothes worn by the village maidens, but had once been looped with gaudy braids and cords that now hung dirty and torn from the ragged folds of purple cloth.
Her form was voluptuous and she did not scruple to show it, making no attempt to lace tightly the soiled chemise across her full bosom or to protect her plump shoulders from the August sun by means of the thin cloak of red silk that hung by tassels from her throat. Her head was bare and her hair hung in close crisp ringlets and curls over a saucy, daring face, pretty in a coarse way, though now marked by neglect and that emphatic reckless defiance that keeps fear at bay.
"The old mother," she said, in an accent that was not that of Derbyshire, "is ill. It is the pest, I doubt not. She told me to fetch you or Mr. Mompesson; I came out and saw you from a distance and hallo'ed to you."
"I will come," said the dissenter at once. "But who are you?"
She answered sullenly:
"I came with the mummers who were playing at St. Helen's Wake last year."
"And why did you not depart with them?" asked Thomas Stanley.
He proceeded slowly along the moorland path that had been so little used this summer that the heath and fern had almost overgrown it. And she walked at his side, cutting a path with a strong hand through the yellowing ferns and clumps of tough, dried heather that dragged at her skirts.
She answered readily; she seemed glad, he thought, to have someone to whom to speak.
"I left the troop to follow Esquire Corbyn here. He made me promises, you know—there's some say I should be his wife."
"These are no times to be talking of old sins," said the dissenter, ready with his rebuke, "but of present repentances."
"But I talk of neither sin nor repentance, sir. It's not for myself I've asked your services. I say I came up here to seek Squire Corbyn. He sent his man for me, too. He wanted me to stay with him and comfort him. He was always afraid of the pestilence, that's why he left Eyam the first time. But when it grew near his wedding day he told me to be off, and so I went to Bakewell. But the troop of drollers had gone, so I wandered about, doing some farm work and helping the sick."
"I have not met you before," remarked Mr. Stanley shrewdly. "Where have you been hiding?"
"I kept out of the way, and out of that of the other rector, too. And then I went to live with old Mother Sydall, who is reputed a witch, and we did well enough."
Mr. Thomas Stanley was silent; he blamed himself for neglect. Mother Sydall's hut had been unvisited, he knew, by either himself or William Mompesson, because they knew the woman to be evil. They thought they could not have their way with her and had left her alone, having other matters on their hands. But now the zealous man thought: 'It is that very wretched creature whom I should have visited. There were two lost souls there, but may be it is not too late for their salvation.'
And he said with a grim smile:
"Mother Sydall has been selling charms and potions to those who are afraid of the pestilence, and no doubt making a good thing out of it. And yet when she is ill herself, she sends for me and wants to make her peace with God."
The girl shrugged her gleaming bare shoulders.
"The old woman's grown sickly," she grinned. "She's pining and wasted. So she begins to think of her immortal soul and the close fires of Hell. And I have my fancies too, master, out here on the moor. I was peering in the Cussy Dell and saw Sythe Torre there, dragging a dead man along by a napkin around the neck. And when he saw me he cried and said he had nodded at Old Nick looking at him from a tree."
"You are bold and ignorant," replied Thomas Stanley. "If you will repent, I will pray for you. Remember that no stained or withered creature shall come near the eternal, living well."
The girl gave him a furtive, half-frightened look. She said:
"I do not perceive the hand of God in this. Rather does it encourage the blasphemers. If there be a God, I think he has given his faith and given his fire into the Devil's hands."
To which the dissenter answered calmly:
"Solomon has said of a fair and foolish woman—she is like a jewel of gold in a swine's mouth."
And the mummer seemed pleased at this, for the grim dissenter had unconsciously named her fair and her beauty had been all her trade. She smiled in high spirits, plucking a piece of heather and using it as a brush to send the buzzing flies from her face.
And he asked her had she not more fear of the pestilence when she dwelt in the very house with it? And she replied that she had no fear of anything save Jack Corbyn's ghost, for she had met that upon the moor often enough, sitting by a high pond and whistling into the empty air, or coming forward to their old trysting place.
The dissenter harshly bade her cease such lewd talk. He had suspected that the young man had had this way-side mistress long upon his hands, and believed that she as well as the pest had been a reason for his sudden leaving of Eyam, and he was indignant for the sake of Bessie Carr who was grieving so profoundly for her dead lover, who had even dedicated herself to death for his sake. She had refused to take any precautions against the pestilence and valued her life, as Thomas Stanley knew, not a whit.
They had now come in sight of the substantial hut, sheltered by a grove of ash trees, on the moor where Mother Sydall dwelt. The hut had been built in what the local folks called a daubin, perhaps a generation ago.
It was one of the pleasanter customs of the place that when a young couple not blessed with worldly goods were about to marry, all their neighbours and friends should gather together and build them a hut, each one contributing his handful of clay, his brick or his stone. With so many eager workers the new home was usually finished in a day. It would then be furnished by homemade furniture, provided by the same helpers, food and drink carried in, and a rude festival held in the new home, wine and salt being spilled over the threshold and many curious rites, which Thomas Stanley bitterly suspected to be of pagan origin, being performed.
The couple for whom this cottage had been thus built upon their bridal day had long since left the neighbourhood, the man being called away to his father, who lived in Sheffield. Whether they were alive or dead, they had never been heard of since, and it was nearly twenty years now since Mother Sydall, who formerly had dwelt in a cavern in the rocks, had moved into this neglected dwelling.
Among those whom she favoured with her blessings, and those who feared her curses, she had found eager helpers to patch up and restore the hut; it stood there stoutly in the warm light of the setting sun, a patch of cultivated ground set at the back, steps cut in the heathy ground to the stream that ran at the side of the slope, a dog tied to its post at the door, and a curl of smoke rising from the one chimney. Mother Sydall's cottage was familiar enough to Thomas Stanley, but there was one strange detail in the scene that caused him to strain his eyes and sharply question the girl.
An elegant, dappled, purplish roan horse, splendidly trapped in polished leather plated with gleaming silver, was fastened by the bridle to one of the ash trees.
"The old witch has a visitor," said Thomas Stanley, pointing with his whip towards the handsome animal.
The girl affected a complete ignorance. She said that the old woman had been alone and in deadly pain when she had left her to seek help.
The dissenter smiled sourly.
"There is no mystery about the case, one of the neighbouring gentlefolk, who should from his education know better, has come to consult the old witch for a love potion or a preventive against the pest. Do I not know that these impious fools come for miles to indulge gross and studied filthiness in this desolate place!"
But the girl said shrewdly:
"How is it he stays, sir? When he put his head in the hut and saw the old woman dying—for dying she is, I dare swear—would he not have gone again at once?"
Thomas Stanley did not reply. He jogged up his horse and he, too, dismounted by the group of ash trees, whose leaves made a melancholy whispering in the evening breeze, and fastened the humble, roughly accoutred Merriman near the elegant horse.
The girl had already run ahead to the cottage door and Mr. Stanley, with his long stride, was soon beside her. Together they stood in the entrance, for the door was open.
The cottage consisted of one large room, a portion of which was screened off by blankets hanging from a rod. At the back a small door led into a penthouse where the witch kept her peculiar secrets. One end of the room was occupied by a large open fire-place on which, despite the August heat, a few embers were burning and over them on a tripod was suspended an iron pot. There were some rude pieces of furniture in the room, some female garments hanging from hooks and underneath the windows several shelves on which were jars, bottles, and boxes. Dried birds were pinned against the wall, a skull dangled by a pack-thread from one of the beams in the ceiling. A large bouquet of herbs stuck in a cracked, yellow pot gave a certain astringent freshness to the air.
All this, however, served as but a background for the human beings within the hovel.
The old woman lay on a blanket dragged over some heather and bracken, a shawl was pinned over a rough linen sheet, her head was tied in a kerchief. Her eyes were turned in her head, she was struggling for breath, and her crooked hands were clutching at the patched coverlet that lay over her crooked limbs.
By her side on one knee was a handsome young man who, with an earnestness that showed he was deeply absorbed in his task, was offering a bowl of water to the old woman by gently tipping it towards her dry lips and lolling tongue.
The appearance and actions of this stranger were both so unexpected by the clergyman and the mummer girl that they stood for a minute staring, wrapped in their own amazement.
The strange gentleman was no more than a youth, of remarkably good looks and finely dressed in dark-blue cloth braided with silver; and embroidered baldric passed over his shoulders, which supported a costly sword. Long, thick and glossy curls, such as were worn only by the nobility, fell over his shoulders and either side his face. The lace at his wrist was, as he held the cup, touching the old woman's dirty garments and wizened breast.
As he heard the steps in the doorway he turned and glanced coolly at the two newcomers.
"The old woman is dying," he said. "I found her on the floor, and made her as comfortable as I could."
"How did you come to be tending her, sir?" asked the dissenter, putting down his hat and whip on the table, already loaded with a strange assortment of ugly, filthy objects.
"I was passing across the moor," replied the young gentleman. He was now supporting Mother Sydall with one arm, while with the other he was tilting the water that she lapped languidly into her withered mouth. "I heard her cries. I know the place well and who dwelt here, when I came in I found her writhing. She was in great pain. I have seen the marks on her breast," he added indifferently. "It is the pest."
"Certainly it is the pest," said Mr. Stanley. "This young woman came to fetch me. I must say a prayer. Stand aside, sir, and give me place."
But the young man did not immediately obey. When he had given the woman a drink, he wiped her lips and arranged the coverlet and the heath bracken and heather under her head, and then rose to his feet, wiping his hand on the napkin he took from his pocket.
"The plague spreads," he remarked gravely.
The girl went to the side of the old woman's bed; Mother Sydall was now unconscious, though breathing.
The dissenter knelt down and began to pray, while the stranger watched him curiously.
When he had finished his prayer, Thomas Stanley rose and the young gentleman was still there by the table, observing the scene from his dark, almond-shaped eyes; he had a charming face, brown, smooth and manly.
The dissenter was, most unworthily, nettled by this display of cool courage on the part of a man whose type and class he much disliked. He said sharply:
"You have no business here, sir. You will catch the pest yourself and you will carry it into other places. It has been our constant endeavour to remain enclosed against the world."
The young man answered:
"For myself I take no count, for I was not born fearful. For others—I ride to Buxton to-night, where the plague is already and where I stay with a family who has had it and therefore is, I think, safe. From there I am on my way to London, where God knows, there's plague enough. And so, abroad."
He picked up his feathered hat and tasselled gauntlets that he had laid upon the chair beside the door and added with a slight smile:
"You make much ado about keeping the plague in your village, sir. I have heard the tale and admired it. Those who do what they think right should be respected. But, sir, the plague is already all over Derbyshire, and if you had let some of these poor people remove themselves, they had had a better chance.
"We have kept the plague, sir," replied Thomas Stanley sternly, "from spreading all over the Peak district."
"Say you so?" asked the young man. "Well, it is in Buxton, and Bakewell, and Derby, but truly there is no spot where it rages so sorely as Eyam. And now it will be impossible for any of the villagers to leave the place. I have heard of one who tried and was stoned back. You have given Eyam a cursed name, sir—you and the Rector."
"You venture to talk to me as if you thought that I and William Mompesson were mistaken?" asked Mr. Stanley, flushing dully.
"I think you are mistaken. The villagers should have been dispersed last autumn."
"How so, sir? How so?"
"I believe by November only a few had died of the plague, and through the winter there were scant losses of life. It was with the heat the infection returned—cannot you, sir, draw the moral?"
"There is none to draw," replied the dissenter. "Sir, you speak with frivolity and lewdness, as if you doubted the judgment of God."
"I doubt the wisdom of men," replied the young man. "The infection was in the churchyard and stayed only by the frost of this severe winter, and it broke out with the heat, and once you began to bury your dead without coffins you were doomed."
"That is a wickedness," said the dissenter angrily. He was stung both in his spiritual and in his worldly pride, to an extent that he forgot that he had, according to his own conceit, been in communication with God on his knees in prayer but a few moments before; he laid down the law severely in the tones of a master checking a froward pupil.
"That is a whimsy, a conceit and a folly. It is well known that as soon as a person is dead and in the grave and the earth so ever lightly laid over it, there is no more contagion. And as for the frost sealing up the infection—that, young sir, is but an idle tale. And I have known cases of the plague, when the summer was unusually cold and again in a time of ceaseless rain. Indeed, sir," said he, warming into his subject, "I think the plague be more frequent, when the air is full of black mist and damp, with no dewdrops at night but a vaporous smoke. I have read all these things in a broadsheet called The Red Cloth, which gives many details of former plagues."
And so he would have run on, for he prided himself on his knowledge of this matter and also on the heroic measures that he and the Rector had taken in Eyam, and it galled him to hear both despised by this young cavalier, who continued to look at him with a touch of radiant scorn, as if he were but an ignorant quack or babbler of a charlatan's wares in the market-place.
But the young man interrupted and told him that this talk was wasted—"for I have been abroad, in ships, and in great cities, and heard much, especially from French physicians about the plague and the way it is treated. And I am assured that the plague increases by means of the uncoffined bodies tumbled together in pits."
Thomas Stanley, his face flushing, his features working with rage, asked scornfully:
"Perhaps, sir, you can tell me—since your knowledge is so wide—some remedies against this plague? We should be glad of them in our desolate village. Though everything," he added with heavy sarcasm, "that wise men have advised has been tried—from blood-letting to the wearing of cakes of arsenic in the armpit."
The stranger smiled sadly.
"I have heard of even more fantastic remedies than those. When I was in Venice they were making medicines from Oriental pearl. But look to the old woman—I think she passes. She is more in need of your prayers than I am of your arguments."
With that the young man turned from the humble threshold of the hovel out upon the open moor, and the sun, just then sinking behind the purple peaks of the distant hills, gave his tine figure and authoritative profile an edging of light.
Neither the girl, who had listened agog to the conversation between the young cavalier and the dissenter, nor Thomas Stanley himself took any heed of the old woman. Both of them had more than a touch of professional callousness, both of them had been already at many death-beds; there was nothing to be done to soothe the last moments of those who died of the plague and who usually were unconscious for some time before they drew their last breaths.
Instead, these two ill-assorted companions stared at the young man, and both were touched with superstitious awe.
The place was so lonely, the apparition of this radiant, splendidly dressed cavalier so unexpected. There was something so free, disdainful and bold in his demeanour that the thought came to them that perhaps he was not mortal but some devil sent in this worldly guise to deceive and mock them for their efforts.
Stimulated by the thought that he was really in the presence of an emissary of evil, the Puritan stepped forward out of the hut and demanded, as the young man sprang into the saddle and turned his horse across the moor:
"Who, sir, are you?"
The cavalier laughed; he seemed to read the other's thoughts, for he said:
"Not the Devil, but William Cavendish."
"I wish you, sir, a better heart and less froward disposition," sneered the dissenter, and turned back into the hovel where the girl was drawing a sheet over the dead, distorted face of Mother Sydall; she then rose to take a spade from a corner of the room.
"We kept that here," she said, "that whoever stayed the longer should use it on the other."
"I will dig the grave," replied the Puritan.
He took the spade and went out into the twilight, for with the disappearance of the sun behind the mountains the air had become grey in colour, the shadows were thickening in the hollows, and the neighbouring woods; the cavalier, riding rapidly, was now almost out of sight.
As his spade cut the turf a few yards from the cottage, Thomas Stanley thought upon the young man's words, spoken with such an indifferent assurance.
'He must be the son of the Lord-Lieutenant, who has lately been abroad at the wars, and travelling. He is supposed to be a reckless blade, a ruffling wanton.'
The Puritan knew that it was likely enough that Lord William would inform against him. The young man perhaps had not his father's toleration, and as he passed through Buxton he might tell the Constable and the law officers to be on the outlook for the dissenter when the plague should have abated in Eyam and it would be safe to approach that desolate spot.
Thomas Stanley hoped that it might be so, for he longed to die a martyr's death. Yet the fact that he had so far been immune from the plague swelled him with pride, for he thought he was being reserved for some more dreadful fate, and that should ensure even a brighter reward.
The girl came out of the cottage with rosemary in her arms. She complained that a short while ago it had been possible to buy a bunch for a few pence, now twelve shillings was charged for an armful in Bakewell; but they had grown some in old Mother Sydall's garden, though it had been difficult, the plants not doing well in that soil.
She gave some to the dissenter and he crushed the flowers up and put them in his ears and in his mouth so that the girl, throwing back her head with a coarse laugh, said that he looked like a boar's head ready for the Christmas festival.
Then they went into the cottage together, and finding a napkin put it round the old woman's feet and drew her out towards her grave and buried her there, touching neither the body nor the garments.
Thomas Stanley having a desire to get back to Eyam and deliver his letter to Mrs. Mompesson, the grave was but shallow and portions of the old woman's drugget skirt showed through the turf and the thinly sprinkled earth, so that they cut bracken and heather and piled it over.
The dissenter did not lose this chance of moralizing. He pointed out to the young woman, who said her name—an outlandish one to Thomas Stanley's ears—was Janot, though some called her Nell, how the old woman with her false arts and devilish predictions had come to die as readily as any poor Christian, her spells and her amulets and her waters and plasters and potions not having saved her at all.
"And what shall save me?" said the girl suddenly, as if a sense of her forlorn situation had overcome her with a force she could not withstand.
She sat down upon the sill of the forlorn cottage's open door and, putting her elbows on her knees, hid her face in her hands and tears glittered in her eyes.
Mr. Stanley asked her how she had lived hitherto, and she said that there was a family not far distant who still farmed a bit of ground and who had sent the two of them, the old woman and herself, vegetables and now and then a little flour and some eggs. But when they knew the old woman was dead of plague, it was likely they would be afraid to come near the place.
The dissenter, leaning on his spade, for he was fatigued and sweating, sternly told her to leave her blubbering and to come down to Eyam and help in the pest-house with the other women "and so make a repentance for your past life, which is nothing but sin sugared and candied over with folly."
"It is certain death to go into the village," murmured the girl, looking at him askance.
"It is perilous," he agreed. He put the spade inside the hovel and wiped his brow. "But I give you this chance as a penance, as William Mompesson gave it to Sythe Torre, who is a self-confessed murderer, having killed a man in the mines once—from jealousy." He added, looking harshly on the girl: "Dost thou fear death? Is any plague worse than sin, or any pain more foul than a lewd life? Come, make up thy bundle and come down to the village with me."
Janot laughed at this rebuke. She turned to some of the shelves in the hovel and took down a pot of fennel and rue and tied this with what remained of the rosemary into a bouquet and put it in the bosom of her tattered skirt.
"Do you think I'm really afraid? I have often been down to Eyam since the plague began, to stick flowers on Jack Corbyn's grave. Yes," she added with a sigh, "his was the only one that had festoons and garlands on it, though they were but of heath and ivy."
"Your courage should be put to better use," said Thomas Stanley. "Leave this fond humour. Take thy bundle, say I, and follow me down to the village." Shadows now filled the lonely hut, in which the presence of death seemed still to hover. The heather couch, stirred by the last struggles of the dead, remained in the corner with the patched coverlet awry, and on the floor was the glass of water that the cavalier had offered to the dying woman.
The Puritan cast a shrewd glance round the accumulated rubbish. He wondered if possibly among all these potions and essences there might be something that would be useful in combating the pestilence. But he decided that all was unhallowed and best left alone.
So again urging the girl to haste he went outside and unfastened the gray horse from the ash and turned Merriman's head towards the village, indifferent as to whether or not the girl followed him. She might, if she would, remain behind in the hut; there were many who dwelt alone on the moors.
She came after him and walked beside the horse's head, her bundle on her back and a comb, coral bright, stuck in her tangled locks.
"Make thy garlands," said Thomas Stanley, a shadow on his face as he passed out of the high moor into the dale, "where neither wind nor rain nor time shall wither them."
And then he asked the girl if she could sing, and she said: "Yes," she had been used to singing in the mumming plays in which she had acted.
"I fear you know none but bawdy songs," said the Puritan. "Raise thy voice in this, if thou canst."
"Up, O my soul! and bless the Lord, Oh, God, my God, how great, how very great art Thou! Honour and majesty have their abode with Thee and crown Thy brow! The beams of Thy bright chambers Thou dost lay in the deep waters which no eye can find, The clouds Thy chariots are, and Thy pathway the wings of the swift wind. When Thou dost hide Thy face, Thy face which keeps all things in being, They consume and mourn; when Thou withdraw'st their breath their vigour sleeps And they to dust return."
CATHERINE MOMPESSON'S joy at receiving the letter that brought news of her children in York was so poignant that it seemed entirely to consume her spirit, and she almost fainted where she stood, the first time that she had shown sign of collapse since the plague began.
Then when she and her husband and Bessie and Ann Trickett were all gathered together for the evening and had read the letter and commented upon it with loving excitement, she took it from them all and went up to her chamber.
And when William Mompesson followed her, he found her kneeling by her bed in an attitude of prayer.
He was touched to the heart at this proof, as he thought it, of her dutiful resignation. But he was mistaken, for when she saw him on the threshold she turned, not rising from her prayers, and her prayer was not to God but to him.
"Let us leave the village now," she said, in hurried tones. "Let us go away. If we dare not go to York for fear of the infection, let us go and live in a cavern in the hills as so many others do. We shall find food up there, there are still those who will supply us. You have no longer the contagion, I am sure, because of that issue in your leg. Why! I feel so well, so happy, it cannot be that I am going to sicken."
"Why, Kate," asked the Rector mournfully, "what weakness is this? To retreat now, when the fight is nearly won!"
"Death has won the fight here," she said, still upon her knees. "Do not they die daily? How many have I seen to-day, lamenting and falling in the streets? Soon there will be not one left, the churchyard can contain no more, they are digging a pit outside the wall—I saw them from my window. We must both die if we remain. There are the children, dear, how shall they live without us? They will have no home, no money, no means of life."
"For that," replied the Rector, cheerfully, trying to raise her from her knees and control his own emotion, "I have made provision. Sir George Savile would look after our little ones, and your uncle, Beilby, too. They are in God's hands."
"God's hands!" she said wildly, allowing him to raise her to her feet. "I suppose we are all in God's hands! And what is He doing to us—consuming us utterly."
She cast herself on his bosom and clung to him tightly.
"I am young, Mompesson, I have not had my share of life. I want my children, your children, other children, too. Is it all to be cut short and for no good? We can do nothing here!"
"Indeed we do much. Would you leave Thomas Stanley to face it all alone?"
"He is sufficient," she answered quietly. "They heed him more than they do you, they know him better. He has a rougher way. I think, Mompesson, he believes more steadfastly than you do. It seems as if he can see the goodness of God behind all this horror, and I cannot. Can you? Once I could. I found faith. Now it is gone again. I want to live. You cannot stay here."
"I do! I can! I must!" said the Rector. "I am His soldier, I cannot leave my post. Take even poor little Bessie, even Ann Trickett, who is an ignorant woman, take them. Should we forsake them?"
"Bessie urged me to go," sobbed Kate, limp in her husband's arms as if all her strength had left her. "So did Ann Trickett. They said we should live for the children, and they would stay here and look after Jonathan Mortin and Thomas Stanley. Bessie has no stake in life, her heart's in Jack's grave. All her brave, glad hopes are gone."
"She's had little to regret, Jack Corbyn was but a scoundrel," said Mompesson. "Stanley told me how just now he met a girl, a player's girl, who was his paramour. But leave Jack and leave Bess—think of ourselves, Kate, think of what is due to our own dignity and honour. Take your hands from my neck, it is not fair that you should thus entreat me."
But she clung the tighter, pleading quickly, incoherently for life, for a chance, for the future
"We cannot fly from God," whispered the Rector, ashy-lipped. "Were we to leave Eyam, He could set the Black Death behind us, to clutch us when He bade it."
The room was only lit by the small, beamy flame of one candle hastily and carelessly lit, so that shadows encroached on them on all sides.
And Mompesson, raising his desperate eyes, saw on the other side of the bed, once so trim and now so indifferently draped, a large dusty mirror set between the windows, in which he could see his wife and himself clinging together, her head still upon his bosom. They were so disordered in their dress, so wild in their movements, her face was hid with such an excess of despair and his own visible countenance so gaunt and lined that he thought that he did not look upon himself and his Kate, but upon two lost souls, and the faint radiance of the candle reflected in the mirror seemed but a mourning light upon the dead.
Kate raised her face pearled with tears and continued her entreaties in a thick whisper.
But he was staunch. He had offered her a chance of leaving the desolate village once before; now it was too late. She would carry the infection wherever she went.
"Kate, my dearest dear," he said, "through these sick hands and high agonies your faith will break into life and death itself will die. Your good deeds shall be as music at midnight to you."
Kate lay asleep, her passion washed away by tears.
Before she slept she had seemed resigned and even joyful when, to console her, the Rector had brought up the question of the issue in his leg and showed her that the wound was still open with the thick yellow fluid flowing from it, while that she had made on her own arm had closed.
She had folded her hands upon her breast and fallen into the deep slumber of exhaustion; he had remained by her; no other had a greater claim on him and he would watch by her that night. Too many nights they had been separate. He dared to hope that the time might come when he could have her in his arms again and they could lie cheek to cheek, heart to heart, between the curtains of her embroidering, as they had lain in those days when they had first been wed, that seemed now, in retrospect, the very ecstasy of happiness.
With the dawn she woke and seemed revived and said no more about leaving Eyam. She got up and bathed her face in the ewer of water, which Ann Trickett kept always in the bedchamber, and asked the Rector if they might walk in the fields before they broke their fast.
"I have not been away from the village for some time," she urged, and he tenderly granted her request.
They left the house together, none seeing them; Thomas Stanley was perhaps already abroad, Bess and Ann Trickett asleep. Jonathan Mortin would be working too; no one had had much sleep in the Rectory for many months now.
Mr. Mompesson understood his wife's wish without her expressing it. They turned abruptly away from the village and the graves, the pest-house and the cottages marked with the red and yellow cross, and turned towards the fields on the western side of Eyam.
Even here the air seemed heavy and infected as if a miasma lay over the whole place. Nor could they entirely escape the dreadful sights to which they could never become accustomed, for as they turned through the dead heather and bracken they saw the gigantic figure of Sythe Torre dragging a yellow female corpse, unclothed, by the napkin round the neck and singing a lewd song.
He was half-drunk and his tangled hair, with a kerchief tied round his head, ragged shirt that exposed his hairy chest, the fanatic glitter of his small eyes, gave him a dreadful appearance.
Perceiving the Rector with his young wife hanging faintly on his arm, he shouted out his usual blasphemy—that he had seen Old Nick grinning in Cussy Dell.
William Mompesson paused and sternly asked who it was that was being dragged out for burial. And Sythe Torre replied with an oath and a grin that it was the last of a family who dwelt just outside the western end of the village and who had hitherto buried one another in their own garden. But that being full he was forced to take this one to the heath.
"But I am well paid for my labour," he added, "for I have all that is in the cottage, and that includes as fine a set of pewter plates as ever I saw."
"When I die," asked Kate wildly, "will they do that to me?"
"My dearest dear," cried the Rector, deeply shocked, "take such thoughts from your mind! Let us go away! Yes, even though I neglect everyone else, let us go from the village and walk where the air is sweeter."
She smiled up at him.
"But the air is so sweet, it smells to me of almonds, of lilies, hyacinths, harebells."
These words struck a dismal chill into the Rector's bosom. He thought that she was flagging, that her weight hung heavier on his arm. She still murmured that she wished to walk further and further away, but he turned her back and led her, her protests growing fainter, to the Rectory.
And when she crossed the threshold, she stumbled and fell on her knees, and Ann Trickett came forward, crying, and they lifted her up between them and took her to her room.
"It is nothing," cried William Mompesson in his agony, "it is nothing! It is fatigue."
But as soon as Kate Mompesson was returned to the bed from which she had so lately risen, she seemed to fall into an unconsciousness that caused Ann Trickett to cry out that she had heard the white cricket last night.
And although the Rector hushed her sternly, there was despair in his look.
Bessie, too, came running in and stood by her sister, staring down into her face. Kate roused herself after a while and in a drowsy voice bade them all keep away from her, for she thought she had the plague. With a smile she added:
"I have been much wasted of late, almost as if in a consumption, and I do not think I shall resist the illness long."
Mompesson, groaning with anguish, charged her not to speak such words of ill-omen.
"Go," said Bessie, "and get some cordials, Mompesson. There are those already beating at the door, but Thomas Stanley will attend to them. Go, I say!"
The Rector left the room and stood for a while, not able to collect his wits, in his study. And when he passed into the laboratory he was again at a loss and stood there, stammering to himself half a prayer and half a protest.
When he raised his eyes, he saw his own face reflected in the mirror between the windows, and it seemed to him it was a skull from which rusty hair hung, bitten by the infection of the grave.
Twice he made up a cordial, but his hand shook so much that it was spilled all over the table. Then he took a pot of ointment and a roll of bandage. He had done this so often that the action came to him without his having any need of thought. And in a few minutes he was back in her chamber, yet he felt that he had travelled a long way through the dark, windy wastes of eternity, for that she had the plague and would die of it he made no doubt.
Before that day ended, the marks of the pestilence appeared on her bosom, beginning as a purple stain and swelling to hard, dark tumours.
She had by now fallen into a delirium and spoke at random about her children, her soul, and her terror lest that was lost for all her care. Then she seemed to recognize Ann Trickett and begged her pardon, if she had ever used unkindness to her, and stretched out her hand for Bessie, but could not find her though she stood close, so that they knew that Kate's sight must be failing.
Bessie and Ann Trickett between them heaved her up in bed, William Mompesson being incapable of touching her. Thomas Stanley gave her sweating antidotes such as they usually employed in the early stages of the plague; he had difficulty in making her drink them. This seemed but to inflame her more, to heat her blood and to distemper her head, which put upon her many incoherences.
William Mompesson was greatly troubled with this; he could no longer hope to save her body, but he must do his utmost for the salvation of her soul. So he cried out to the delirious woman:
"Kate, by whom and on what account do you expect salvation, and what assurances have you of the certainty thereof?"
Though in other things as she had talked at random, yet to these religious questions she gave a rational answer, saying: "One drop of my Saviour's blood to save my soul!" and cried out often, "God—God—God."
Thomas Stanley then offered her some more cordials and she shook her head, intimating that she could not take them, but her senses seemed to have a little returned.
And when her husband conjured her to take these drinks in the name of her children, she said: "For their dear sakes, I will attempt it." And she with difficulty lifted up her head and swallowed the drink.
"You are to understand," said Bessie, crying, "that while she has any strength left, she will embrace any opportunity of testifying to her affection for the children." While her senses remained to her, Kate again whispered to her husband that he should leave her for fear of contagion. But he smiled; and said: "How can I leave you in your sickness who have been so tender and nursed me in your health? Blessed be God, if he enables me to be helpful and consoling to you."
But on these words she shook her head upon the pillow and said: "What can console me?"
Her husband said hastily, for he feared she was disturbed by worldly matters:
"Think of God! God!"
And she repeated in a hollow voice:
Her illness endured but two days. At the end of the second day she fell into a sleep and her husband slept, too, on a mattress beside her bed; Bessie and Ann Trickett took it in turns to watch by Kate. And Thomas Stanley, coming and going on his various errands, performed the usual routine in the sick chamber of one who is dying of the pest—burning spices at the door, sprinkling vinegar upon the floor and upon the curtains, tying bunches of rue, fennel and rosemary above the bed, and renewing them as they faded.
It was Ann Trickett's watch, when Kate Mompesson woke and whispered that she would like her husband to pray with her. She seemed in her senses now and smiled faintly. Therefore Ann Trickett went round the bed and woke the Rector, who stumbled to his feet and cried: "My dearest wife, how do you do?"
She could not answer, but Ann Tricket said:
"Sir, she is looking when the good hour shall come."
William Mompesson turned about and took the Common Prayer Book from the side table and read the prayers. She made the responses—"Hark, as perfectly as if she were in health," said Ann, who was on her knees at the end of the bed.
When the prayers for the sick were ended, she still had not stirred, but she was breathing. Then her husband fetched The Whole Duty of Man and read some prayers from that treasured volume.
When these were ended, still the sick woman was silent and pulling aside the disordered curtains, he stared down into her face, and asked:
"My dear, dost thou understand? Dost thou mind what I say?"
She answered: "Yes!" after struggling with the weakness of her lips.
It was the last word she spoke.
Ann Trickett pulled him back by the shoulders, and Bessie coming in with a bowl of water stayed herself on the threshold with a little cry, and the water spilled over her feet.
For Kate was dead—a figure of corruption lay mute in the tumbled bed that once had been so nice and elegant.
Catherine Mompesson was buried. They had found a space for her under the yew tree, but there was none who had the leisure to make her a tomb.
"That shall come afterwards," said William Mompesson.
He sat in his study writing a letter to his children of farewell, for he knew himself to be a doomed man and that he could by no means escape the pestilence. Yet his language was formal and stiff, that of a schoolman; though the anguish he felt bubbled up within him, yet he repressed it even in this hour of poignant grief into the language of decorum.
'To my dear children, George and Elizabeth Mompesson, these present with my blessing.
'This brings you the doleful news of your dear mother's death, the greatest loss that ever befell you. I am not only deprived of a kind and loving comfort, but you are also bereaved of the most indulgent of mothers that ever dear children had.
'But we must comfort ourselves in God, with this consideration—that the loss is only ours, and that what is our sorrows is her gain. The consideration of her joys, which I do assure myself are unutterable, should refresh our drooping spirits.'
William Mompesson tried to compose himself, to brush away the dreadful hallucinations that crowded upon himself, to persuade himself that the figures were not springing from the tapestry behind him—the brazen serpent raised in the brawny arms of Moses with the flowing beard, the writhing victims on the ground—these seemed to press about him as he wrote. He mastered his nerves, his hand traced the formal words that covered his perplexed anguish.
'Joys unutterable,' his Kate was enjoying Paradise... He tried to impress upon himself what those words really meant, but he could only remember how he and Ann Trickett had prepared her for the grave, how quickly she had corrupted, and how her thin white features stood in a peak through the shrouds... How they had pressed rosemary and fennel upon her, but had not been able to stay the stench of decay. The once sweet, loved flesh had soon been in tatters on the small bones.
The Rector could only remember how he, Ann Trickett, and Jonathan Mortin had carried her into the churchyard between them, for no one would come near the Rectory, each being absorbed in his own woe. Nor would Mr. Mompesson have allowed her to be touched by a strange hand.
When they had laid her on the parched grass beside the open grave that he and Jonathan Mortin had dug the night before, he had stumbled up the belfry steps and rung one of the great bells himself, that she might not pass wholly unhonoured.
He pushed these thoughts out of his mind and tried not to see, as if in a hazy vision, the look of the sods falling on the sheet that he had wrapped about her. He had found this one piece of fair linen at the bottom of the press—Ann Trickett had told him that she had kept it there, lest he should die—and now it had been used for herself.
Were these things the truth, perceived in a horrible kind of half-light? Was what he wrote on the fair paper lies—'My dear hearts, your blessed mother lived a most holy life and made a most comfortable and happy end and is now invested with a crown of righteousness.'
Poor Kate! Poor little Kate! Were these brilliant sayings true of her? He remembered all her little faults, her frivolities, her shallowness, her laughter, and her vanity. He wrote:
'Let me recommend to you her piety and devotion, which were according to the exact principles of the Church of England. In the next place, I can assure you she was composed of modesty and humility, her discourse was ever grave and meek, yet pleasant withal, a vaunting, immodest word was never heard to come from her mouth.
'Again, I can set out in her two other virtues—charity and frugality. She never valued anything she had, when the necessities of a poor neighbour required it.'
That was true, for Kate was always generous and charitable; his quill continued to scratch the paper.
'She never liked tattling women, and abhorred the custom of going from house to house and wastefully spending precious time. She was ever busy in useful work, yet though prudent she was affable and kind.'
The Rector could no longer continue this formal panegyric; he could remember nothing but Kate's love. And he wrote:
'I do believe, my dear hearts, upon sufficient grounds, that she was the kindest wife in the world. I speak from my soul, for she loved me ten times better than herself. For she not only resisted my entreaties that she should fly to you, dear children, from this place of death, but some days before it pleased God to visit my house, she perceived a green matter to come from the issue of my leg, which she fancied a symptom that the infection had found vent that way—when she assured herself that I was passed the malignancy of the disorder. Whereat she rejoiced exceedingly, not considering her own danger thereby.
'I think, however, that she was mistaken in the nature of the discharge she saw. Certainly, it was the salve that made it look so green, but her rejoicing on that account was a strong testimony of her love for me. For I am clear that she cared not, if I were safe, though her own dear self was in ever so much pain and jeopardy.'
He paused, took a sip from the cordial in the glass by his side, and continued writing, trying to put on the paper to his children some account of the death of Kate. But the words seemed stiff and cold.
He folded the letter and sealed it—Thomas Stanley would see that it was taken and placed on one of the stones on the boundary ring and sent to Mr. Beilby in York.
He sat with his face propped in his hands, the candle guttering unheeded beside him.
He remembered the days at Rufford Park, the gables, the square tower of Sir George Savile's mansion swam before his mind, and he hardly believed that life had been his; he had not valued his happiness when he had had it, like most poor wretched men ever grumbling and complaining, but not seeing what misery was before them.
His heart pinched in what was an acute physical pain when he recalled Kate seated at her music in her brocade gown, gay and lovely, sparkling with happiness; his children in their little wicker cots, Bess so gallant from her happiness with Jack Corbyn.
To distract himself from these intolerable remembrances, he pulled another sheet of paper towards him and wrote to his patron, the Lord of Rufford Park.
'Honoured and Dear Sir,
'This is the saddest news that ever my pen could write, the Destroying Angel having taken up his quarters within my habitation, my dearest wife has gone to her eternal rest and is invested with a crown of righteousness, having made a happy end. Indeed, had she loved herself as well as me, she had fled from the pit of destruction with the sweet babes and might have prolonged her days.
'But she was resolved to die a martyr to my distress. A crown of righteousness, joys unutterable...'
He groaned, the quill dropped from his stiff fingers, and he leaned back in his chair. He felt a heaviness and a giddiness that surely presaged the end; he could not doubt that he was doomed. He had lived among corruption and breathed infection for months now; he was withered, even his grief lacked passion; he remembered his duty to that kind friend, Sir George Savile and his lady, and added some formal lines, tracing the words with an effort:
'Sir, this paper is to bid you a hearty farewell for ever, and to bring you my humble thanks for all your noble favours. And I hope you will believe a dying man, I have as much love as honour for you.
'But, dear sir, let your dying chaplain recommend this truth to you and your family, that no happiness or solid comfort can be found in this vale of tears like living a pious life. Pray, ever remember this rule—never do anything upon which you dare not first ask the blessing of God upon the success thereof.
'Sir, I made bold in my will with your name as executor, and I hope you will not take it ill. I have joined two others with you who will take from you the trouble; your favourable aspect will, I know, be a great comfort to my distressed orphans.'
His will! He leant back in the chair again, putting his hand over his forehead. Yes, he had made that and locked it away in his cabinet. Thomas Stanley knew where it was and Ann Trickett. But he was confused by distress—perhaps they might all die and his will never be found.
But he crushed these displeasing thoughts that 'bit,' as he said to himself, 'like the flies of Hell in my distracted brain,' and continued his letter, bending low over the paper, steadying his right hand with his left hand.
'Sir, I thank God I am contented to shake hands with all the world, and have many comfortable assurances that God will accept me through His Son. I find the goodness of God greater than ever I thought or imagined, and I wish from my soul that it were not so much abused or condemned. I desire, Sir, that you will be pleased to make choice of a humble pious man to succeed me in my parsonage. Could I see your face before my departure hence, I would inform you in what manner I think he may live comfortable among his people, which would be some satisfaction to me before I die.'
"Yes, that is true," said the Rector, "I do have many comfortable assurances that God Himself will accept me. I will believe, I will! What does all this suffering mean but a little waiting in the ante-chamber that leads us to eternal life?"
He looked round the shadows that fluttered in the light cast by the lengthening candle flame. He saw the threatening figures in the tapestry, which seemed to loom larger. The casement slipped the catch and blew wide, a gust of foul air came in from the infected churchyard.
As the Rector turned in his chair he saw his motto worked by Kate's impatient fingers in the tapestry: 'For God Alone.' And it seemed to him he could hear a rustling and a hissing about him and he felt like crumbled dust blown upon by evil spirits.
To fortify himself he took the quill again and wrote:
'Dear Sir, I beg the prayers of all about you that I may not be daunted by the powers of Hell, and that I may when dying be graced with pity and with tears. I beg that when you are praying for fatherless orphans, you will remember my two pretty babes.
'Pardon the rude style of this paper and believe me that I am, dear sir, your humble and obedient servant,
That letter sealed and placed with the other, he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. A great weakness was upon him and the air seemed full of voices as if he was called in this direction and that.
"What am I," he muttered, "but a quickening mass of clay?"
Even an attempt to reason with God's dealings was a presumption, even to make an inner cry of anguish against the fate that had robbed him of his wife, that had put this task upon him—even that was a sin. 'I must go on, I must be patient, I must do His will. And perhaps afterwards my God will give me a sunshine after tempest—a drop of bright essence after so much foul mud.' The Rector scarcely noticed Ann Trickett and Bessie going about the house on their several duties. They seemed to him but flat shapes without substance or colour. He answered their questions kindly and ate the food they put before him. Sometimes he roused himself to bid them both leave the Rectory, for he and Thomas Stanley could shift for themselves, and surely he was a doomed man. He felt a grave indisposition upon him and believed he hastened his death with every breath he sucked in. Once he spoke to Bessie with great tenderness.
"Thou hast done enough, child, and mayst now think of purer air. Go up into one of the cottages in the mountains and live there until the infection is over/' But his thoughts soon went even from Bessie, and he did not hear her answer. But as through many mists he saw her smiling and guessed at her denial. Bessie, like himself, was consecrate. But no symptoms of the plague appeared on any of the inhabitants of the Rectory and the Rector went about his duty, though expecting every time he bared his bosom to see the spots that were the mark of death placed there.
Five days after his wife's death he made up the register again.
There had only been three days—the sixth, the twenty-sixth, and the last day of August—in which no one had died, while the whole number who perished in the other twenty-eight days was seventy-eight. The number of people in the village on the first of that month had been under two hundred.
"There are now," said Thomas Stanley, as he helped the Rector fill up the register, "few left to die. Our tasks grow lighter, sir, there are not so many now to visit. The houses eastwards and to the middle of the village are nearly all empty."
"Ay," replied William Mompesson, "and those at the west, and they are but few I think, have shut themselves in and will let none cross the stream. How many do you consider are left?"
Thomas Stanley, who was the more active of the two and the one who went more frequently abroad and knew the desolation that reigned in the farms, the outlying huts and hovels, made out that the souls under their joint care were then under one hundred persons.
If the plague did not abate, but continued at this rate of mortality, everyone in the village would be extinct by the first or second week in October.
Thomas Stanley calculated that there would be ten or a dozen corpses left unburied—the last survivors having no choice but to fall and corrupt in the street or on the threshold of their homes. With an iron fortitude that caused William Mompesson to shudder, he made his plans that he now put before the Rector.
For, as he said drily, the plague might increase instead of decreasing, and if it occurred at a higher rate than hitherto, all might be extinct in another fortnight or three weeks. Therefore they should prepare a paper, giving the state of affairs clearly, and enclose it with a copy of their Wills and the register in as stout a parchment case as they could and have it ready to set upon one of the boundary stones when they saw the final catastrophe occurring.
"And we must leave directions," added the dissenter, "that my Lord, at Chatsworth, shall send hardy people, preferably those who have had the plague, down into the village to bury the remaining dead, to burn the furniture and linen in the pest-house, and to send another clergyman here to consecrate such graves as still be forlorn."
"Yes, we will do that," replied the Rector, steadying himself. "And I will leave instructions on my wife's grave of the tomb that I desire set above it, and the inscription. A square, solid tomb with at the corners four stone pillars and thus I would have the inscription."
He drew a piece of paper under his hand, on which he had written in a clear writing and elegant Latin:
'Catherine, wife of William Mompesson, Rector of this church, daughter of Ralph Carr, Esquire, late of Cockden, in the County of Durham, was buried on the twenty-fifth day of August, Sixteen Sixty-six.'
"It is well enough," said the dissenter. "Why concern yourself about such matters now?"
Taking no heed of this interruption, the Rector continued, smiling to himself slowly and sadly: "I would have an hour-glass cut between two extended wings—she died so young—and underneath on a tablet 'Cave,' and nearer the base the words: 'Nescitas horam,' while at the other end shall be a skull with the words: 'Mors mihi lucrum.' Why do I linger here?"
"These are but trifles and frivolities," rebuked the Puritan. "There are still nearly a hundred souls in our charge, and all of them are in distress, wailing with pain or mortal anguish. As I passed by Sythe Torre's hut this morning, I heard rude lamentations issuing, and when I entered the place, I found that his wife, Joan, had died and the son whom he greatly cherished. So I believe that hard heart has been struck at last. He told me, with many horrible blasphemies, that his wife had often entreated him not to bring the goods from the infected cottages into his place. But he would, and had hoarded them there. And I consoled him for that, for it was like enough the woman and boy had died in any case."
"But he seems immune," said the Rector, with a look of horror, "as if the Devil indeed did protect him."
"Maybe he does. Satan has a certain power," admitted Thomas Stanley grimly. "I have been myself twice to the spot that Sythe Torre has told me of and where he says he has seen the Enemy of Man grinning from an ivyed rock. But I saw nothing. Yet if I did, I believe I could force the foul fiend to give an account of himself." He spoke with such emphasis that the Rector was moved even out of his own bemusement to look at him shrewdly and say:
"You are a strong man yourself, Thomas Stanley."
"I have been through war and prison and other pestilence than this. I have had my blind and desperate fits, I have been through my heap of dark days. But it seems that God has made a truce with this dust that I am."
"Thou art assured of salvation?" asked the Rector, folding up the register of dead. "Tell me, before once more we go about this work that seems so useless, thou art assured of Paradise?"
The two men looked at each other steadily across the golden morning light that filled the study where they stood. For William Mompesson had risen with his question and the dissenter had never been seated.
"Dost thou doubt?" asked the Puritan steadily.
"I did not speak of myself, but of thee," replied William Mompesson." Methinks thou hast no great gladness or radiancy about thee as a man who expects to be soon in eternal glory, but rather a doggedness as one who does a duty out of a native courage and obstinacy."
A smile softened Thomas Stanley's coarse features.
"Did He not beckon out my brutish soul, even from the grave and womb of darkness? Dost thou think the link between Him and me could be broken now? Though I go my way in silence, I am not asleep. What is it to be, what shall it be to you that this pestilence has a little abridged our life? View thy forerunners, William Mompesson, are they not all humble dust, crushed beneath the foot or left to the winds? Do not all things teach us to die, point out the way we must go? Do not birds, beasts, trees, flowers, herbs in the fields, take their leave and die? Have they not one large language—Death? What is to turn mist to beams, damps to day but the glory of the Spirit?"
"The link! The link!" cried William Mompesson. "Ay, that's it—the link 'twixt God and me. Sometimes a dead sleep is upon me, I shrink and pine, I cannot feel that I am next to Him. Is it enough to pay one's debts, to face death and do one's duty?
"Surely," replied the Puritan, "it is not enough. But thou dost more. Thou hast thy moments of prayer. Thou hast no vices or sins, Mompesson, to soil and haunt thy door. Thou canst be cured—and speedily. Thou mayest yet feed among the lilies."
The Rector did not answer. He stood with downcast eyes leaning heavily on the back of the chair on which his arms were embroidered by Kate's impatient fingers. And the Puritan added:
"And not only they, but ourselves also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit. Even we ourselves groan within ourselves waiting for the adoption—to wit, the redemption of our bodies."
September continued in sultry heat, and William Mompesson kept under his hand his Will:
'Inasmuch as a great calamity has befallen this town or village of Eyam, and death has already visited my dwelling, as all are in daily expectation of death, and as I humbly consider myself on the verge of eternity, I therefore while in sound mind do give and bequeath as hereafter noted my worldly effects...'
The gates of the churchyard were now closed against the dead; even those who had money could not purchase a shroud, much less a coffin. Those whom Sythe Torre did not draw with a napkin round the neck were taken out on an old door or chair to serve as bier.
Nearly forty people died during September. This death toll was not as high as the dissenter had expected, and they came into October with still more than fifty souls under their charge.
Nor had the seeds of the disease ripened within the Rector. He said he had cast off the indisposition that had seized him soon after the death of his wife, and seemed despite all his privations and fatigues to be restored to a perfect health. Nor was Thomas Stanley touched.
No one broke the solemn injunctions laid upon them by the two clergymen to attempt to leave the village. Apart from their habit of obedience and any generous resolve they might have made to stay the infection spreading over the district, they well knew they would be beaten back, if they tried to pass the boundary into a neighbouring village; for a woman who had tried thus to escape and who had been found in a field about a mile or two beyond the boundary, had been stoned by a farmer and his children and forced, bruised and exhausted, to return.
Nor did the Lord-Lieutenant send any help beyond encouraging letters and such provisions and medicines as were left upon the stones. He wrote in terms of warm admiration of the work done by William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley, and rewarded their efforts, as he put it, by informing them that save one or two scattered instances that had been promptly dealt with, the plague was concentrated in Eyam and had not spread to the neighbouring places or towns, and the outbreaks that there had been in Buxton and Derby had been quelled. Indeed, the whole neighbourhood was healthy, except this village of desolation, which seemed to have been offered up as a sacrifice or scapegoat in order that Derbyshire might escape the pest.
When the Rector read this letter, he was in the field at the back of the church, and the autumn landscape was gold and bronze and honey-coloured about him, and the sky was purple overhead and the air infected with a sickly, faint, yet luscious smell, as if the last autumn flowers that straggled in the hedgerows were tainted by the corruption of the soil.
He folded up the letter, which had been brought him by Sythe Torre, and thrust it in his bosom, and a dull spasm of revolt shook his frame. 'Why was I elected to do this work? I did not like these people, I did not belong to them, I have lost my Kate and all my happiness.'
He wished that the plague would move more swiftly and by death end this expectation of death. If but two a day died, another month would see them all at peace.
William Mompesson longed to burst the bonds of his own fatigued flesh and prove for himself the reality of Heaven and reunion with Catherine. He had glorified his love for her, so that now in his memory it surpassed that of lovers or husband and wife and became a mystical passion.
And so did the desolation about him, and his fatigue, and the constant sight of suffering and death, and the stern fortitude of Thomas Stanley exalt and support him, that he scarcely noted when Bessie died.
She had looked, he knew, for days pale and sad, but he could hardly remember when she had looked otherwise. And when he missed her from the supper table and Ann Trickett said she was a-bed, he had risen up almost mechanically and gone to his laboratory and opened the new stock of cordials and physics sent by the Earl and taken out what was needful for the early stages of the plague and gone to Bessie's room.
She had refused everything, though with sweetness. For months she had been slowly detaching herself from life and now she welcomed, with ecstasy, release. She had a secret to tell him before she went. That was something that startled him, even apart as he was from worldly things.
Bessie Carr, before she died, told her brother-in-law that Janot or Nell, the mummers' girl, who had been the paramour of Jack Corbyn, was living in the deserted old Hall.
"And I used to take her food every day, for she dare not come out, as the villagers think she is a witch and a wanton and would probably stone or drown her. You know, since the old woman, Mother Sydall, died, Janot has nowhere to go. So she crept out there. And once when I went, because it had been Jack's home and was going to be mine, I found her."
William Mompesson moistened the girl's dry lips.
"I know what you would ask me, dear heart—that I should continue to protect this wretched creature."
"Yes, she is truly repentant. She is prepared to die. But do not let it be like a dog's death, without comfort."
That night Bessie Carr died herself, and Ann Trickett swathed her in all that was left to them of linen—two petticoats ripped open and joined down the middle, and Jonathan Mortin and the two clergymen carried her out, and though the churchyard was closed, they took her in at night and laid her beside her sister, close in one grave.
"We must believe," said William Mompesson, "that God loves us. We must believe that He will respect our courage and our dignity. We must believe that in His infinite goodness He sent the plague into Eyam in a wedding gown."
When he had said these words to himself, the Rector leant forward, and dating his letter 'November the twentieth, sixteen sixty-six,' he wrote to John Beilby, Esquire, the uncle of his wife, who had in charge the two children.
'I suppose this letter will seem to you no less than a miracle. That my habitation is inter vivos.
'I have got these lines transcribed by a friend, being loth to affright you with a letter from my hand.
'You are sensible of my state, the loss of the kindest wife in the world, whose life was amiable and end most comfortable. Had I been as thankful as my condition did deserve, I might have had my dearest dear in my bosom. Now farewell all happy days, and God grant that I may repent my sad ingratitude.
'The condition of this place has been so sad that I persuade myself it did exceed all history and example. The town has become a Golgotha, the place of a skull, and had there not been a small remnant left we had been as Sodom and Gomorrah. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations, my nose never smelled such horrid smells, and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles. There have been seventy-six families visited within my parish, out of which two hundred and fifty-nine people died. Now, blessed be God, all our fears are over, for none have died since the eleventh of October and the pest-houses have long been empty.
'I intend, God willing, to spend this week seeing all woollen clothes fumed and purified for the satisfaction and safety of the country. There have been such burning of goods that the like, I think, was never known.
'For my part, I have scarcely apparel to shelter my body, having wasted more than I needed merely for example. During this dreadful visitation I have not had the least symptom of disease nor have I ever had better health. My man had the distemper and upon the appearance of the tumours I gave him some chemical antidotes which operated and after the rising broke he was very well. My maid continues in health, which was a blessing, for had she failed, I should have been ill-set to wash and have gotten my provisions.
'I know I have your prayers, and I conclude that the prayers of good people have rescued me from the jaws of death. Certainly I had been in the dust, had not violence been conquered by holy omnipotence.
'I have largely tasted of the goodness of the Creator, and the grim looks of death never yet affrighted me. I always had a firm faith that my babes would do well, which made me willing to shake hands with the unkind and froward world. Yet I shall esteem it a mercy, if I am frustrated in the hopes I had of a translation to a better place.
'And God grant that with patience I may await for my change and that I may make a right use of His mercy. As the one has been tart, so the other has been sweet and comfortable.
'I perceive by a letter from Mistress Newby your concern for my welfare. I make no question that I have your unfailing love and affection. I assure you that during my troubles you have had a great deal of room in my thoughts. Be pleased, dear sir, to accept this as a sign of my kind respect for you and all my dear relations.
'I can assure you that a line from your hand will be welcome to your sorrowful and affectionate nephew,
He concluded the letter and sealed it, placing it in another envelope addressed to the Lord-Lieutenant with the desire that it might be fumigated again at Chatsworth and copied by a safe hand, that of my Lord's secretary, Mr. Newton. For he did not wish to send direct to the house where his children sheltered any letter from the infected town.
Then he rose and glanced round the bare room. The tapestry was gone, and the chair embroidered by Kate's hand, and the carpet on the floor, and the Persian drapery on the side table.
As he said, he had wasted more than he needed for the sake of an example. All these treasures had been burnt on the village common, together with the poor rags used by the patients in the pest-house and the simple hangings and rude bedclothes of the villagers.
Mr. Mompesson was even a little cold, for he had tossed into the flames most of the woollen suits that he had worn during the preceding winter, it being his rooted conviction that the germs lurked longest in woollen material. And he had left but one cloth cloak, and that an old one that he had kept at the back of the press and that was not, therefore, he thought, tainted.
He left the room with his letter and gave it to Ann Trickett, who was putting out food on a tray.
"Take this up to the stone, Ann," he said, "for Jonathan Mortin must come with me. We try to finish the burning this week."
The manservant joined him; he was yellow and bent, his face marked with purple scars, for he had, by a miracle as all exclaimed, recovered from the plague, and with, his recovery, regained much of his strength. Always a silent man, he now seldom spoke at all, and the Rector would have thought that he had lost touch with God save that he was always assiduous at morning and evening prayer, and always came when a service was held in the Cucklett Dell, kneeling throughout, not sitting as some did, through apathy or languor, on the stones.
The Rector thought that these outdoor services might now cease. The weather was becoming colder, there were frosts at night and the fallen leaves lay thick on the winter-bitten ground.
Fumigants had been burnt in the church and William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley agreed it might be used again. There were now, counting those who straggled in from the hovels they had built themselves on the moors and in the rocks, about thirty people to attend these services.
The Rector and Jonathan Mortin, carrying between them a pile of napkins, cloths and the hangings from Kate's bed, which the Rector had spared to the last, proceeded through the winter afternoon to the common.
The bonfire was lit; a straggle of flame rose against a murk of smoke that obscured the infected houses whose black windows and open doors showed their emptiness.
Janot was helping two other women to pile some fragments of wood from the pest-house on the heap of charred furniture and hangings.
William Mompesson took from his servant Kate's bed curtains worked with her design of foxes and acorns and laid them by the bonfire.
THEN the Lord-Lieutenant learned from the letters left upon the boundary stones that the plague had ceased in Eyam, and that a month had passed without there being any sign of it either in the village or on the surrounding farms, he came with his servants, secretary, and physician to visit the place to see who might be surviving and to offer his help to Thomas Stanley and William Mompesson with whom he had kept in such close touch during all the time of the desolation. For my Lord had refused all entreaties from his family to leave Chatsworth and had remained at his post, using great diligence and skill in procuring even the most outlandish demands of the two clergymen and their flock in the way of medicines and antidotes, so that on some occasions ingredients worth many pounds had been sought for from afar and left on the stones without price.
Shortly before his visit to the village, the Earl had been wandering in a gloomy mood in the large grounds of Chatsworth, which then were covered with a light fall of early snow.
He had been musing by the banks of a small rivulet, which the frost was not yet strong enough to lock up, and he had seen stranded among the submerged pebbles and smooth stones a piece of paper folded like a child's paper boat, and he had recalled at once how he and William Mompesson had stood talking together, before the plague was even thought of in Derbyshire, while the little boy had made these boats from sheets of his father's sermon and had sent them floating down the stream.
So he went on one knee and caught the piece of paper up from between the stones. On it was written some incoherent words in an ink that had been washed but not become illegible: 'The year of the plague, sixteen hundred and sixty-six:'
'There's not a wind can stir, Or beam pass by, But straight I think, though far, Thy hand is nigh.
'Unto Him that loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood and has made us kings and priests unto God and His Father. To Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Amen. Amen.'
The Earl had this poor paper in his pouch as he rode through the stricken village.
Everything was changed in Eyam, even to the superficial glance of the outward eye. The houses, having lacked for some while any repair, were most of them dilapidated. Doors hung askew, window-frames empty, the roofs were broken, the chimneys fallen. Grass, now winter-parched and dying, choked the wide streets, and lank lush weeds, still kept fresh by the running water, hampered the stream that divided the western from the eastern end. There was no guard at the old lych-gate where for so many generations the villagers had taken turn to watch.
"How many left alive did Mr. Mompesson say?" the Earl gravely asked his companion, Mr. Walbeoffe, the physician, and he answered: "He said thirty persons. And of those, my Lord, I believe some half live in the outlying farms."
"There is no smoke from any of the chimneys," said my Lord, "although the winds are surly."
It was a grey and frost-bitten day; dark curling clouds eclipsed the winter sun when the little cavalcade reached the common that had been the scene of St. Helen's Wake. The melancholy sky overhung bare trees, trampled and defaced grass, a heap of fallen masonry where the pest-house had once stood and a great space of burnt ground and ashes, from the centre of which rose a column of smoke steadily into the still air from a small bonfire.
Round this moved a group of dull figures that my Lord, reining his ambling horse in softly, looked at with amazement, for he knew none of them.
These people had their heads bound with rags, brown in colour from repeated dippings in vinegar, but not foul. Indeed, my Lord observed as he approached that these people, though but scarecrow wretches in their general outline, were wondrous clean, their hands being discoloured and sodden from scrubbing, their faces chapped, cheeks close-shaven, their hair cropped.
They wore coarse country clothes and sprigs of herbs were thrust into their nostrils. Two of them smoked short clay pipes.
As they moved about their work, which was the burning of garments and pieces of furniture, which they broke first with mallets and hammers, they sang, to a rude native melody, a hymn. Their voices, though harsh, were sure and full of zeal.
"Leave, leave thy gadding thoughts, Who pores And spies Still out of doors, Decries Within them naught. The skin and shell of things Though fair Are not Thy wish, nor pray'r, But got By mere despair Of wings. To rack old elements Or dust And say Sure here He must Needs stay Is not the way Nor just."
"Search well another world; who studies this Travels in clouds, seeks manna where none is."
Hearing the horses, these haggard people stared up, stayed their singing and one lean wretch cried:
"What, hast thou brought us more stuff to burn? Soon there will not be a napkin or a wollen coat in the whole of the Peak."
"Mr. Mompesson!" cried my Lord, deeply shocked. "Mr. Thomas Stanley! Who is here? I entreat you to come forward!"
He now perceived in the fore-front of the miserable group three men and a woman, the latter defaced by what seemed a leprosy over her countenance. There was nothing in raiment or looks to distinguish them, and it was a moment or two before my Lord knew these ragged men to be Mr. William Mompesson, Mr. Thomas Stanley, and Jonathan Mortin, the servant.
The dissenter was the least changed; his countenance, which had formerly been rude and gross, was purified in colour and sharpened in outline. His clothes hung slackly on a gaunt frame. He looked an old man of perhaps seventy years, but there was still vigour in his glance and in his movements, as after a brief salutation he continued to pile the clothes and stick them with the metal-pronged fork on the bonfire.
Jonathan Mortin was heavily scarred across the face with dry scabs of the pox. His head was tied in a woollen scarf and he sang continually to himself.
William Mompesson, without his clerical attire, his elegant, auburn curls, his look of melancholy composure, was the most changed of the three; his eyes, so bloodshot and hollowed as to have lost all their original beauty, had a glance that the Earl could not understand. It seemed quizzical, almost as if he smiled; he wore a rude garment like a smock, of a greenish colour, cotton stockings, and cobbled shoes.
He came forward, as if not much surprised, and said:
"I had not expected your Lordship so soon. Yet I do not think you run any danger, for the place is now clear of the plague."
"I am ashamed to talk of danger, when you are present, Mr. Mompesson. How many are left?"
He glanced up the ruined street, where the windows and doors were blank in the grey afternoon.
"We count fifteen souls here," replied the Rector, pointing to the gaunt, tattered-looking villains who were helping him. "We thought to have done with this work, but to-day there came in another cartload of furniture and clothes from a farm where they had the plague. So we are burning it. But I think this is the last of our fires."
"How have you borne this?" said my Lord, dismounting and giving the reins to his servant. "How have you endured to stay here? What, sir, is your formula for this courage?"
To which William Mompesson replied that they should "seek the Lord, if haply they might steal after Him and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being."
"There must," said my Lord painfully, "have been many mists and shadows between you and this truth, Mr. Mompesson. And it is hard to understand why it should have been obeyed and why so many should have died terribly."
And he looked at the Puritan who, leaning on his fork, asked with a grim smile:
"Sir, do you come to take me to Derby jail?"
"Thy zeal," replied my Lord, "has earned my charity. Go in peace, Mr. Thomas Stanley."
The dissenter did not thank him, but smiled more deeply and returned to his work, as one who had no concern with this world.
The Earl stood silent, afraid, for he felt a deep gulf between himself and these people, though he had been communicating with them intimately for so long; to him they were like strangers, stern angels clothed in the coarse habiliments of men, or supernatural creatures like those supposed to haunt the lonely moors; he knew that he had no longer anything in common with them. They were monstrous in their virtue.
Nor had they anything to say to him; nothing of what might have been expected—relief at seeing members of the outside world again, joy at feeling that the plague had gone at last, anxious enquiry after their friends or their fortunes abroad.
After the few words of greeting, spoken with quiet courtesy, they went about their work, scrupulously piling together and burning every particle of infected clothing and furniture. And my Lord almost felt foolish as he stood there with the physician muttering what sounded, in the face of this, but quackeries, by his side, and his servants staring like men ashamed.
When the task was finished, William Mompesson gathered his helpers together, altogether they were but sixteen in number and only three were women, and read them a few prayers, and gave them a short address.
"But to-day," he said, "we will not go to Cucklett Dell, for I think it is too cold for these services under the skies. So next Sunday we will meet again in the church."
Then he raised his hand and bade them be of good courage, since God had spared them to the last, when He had taken so many others. But they were not on that account to make any valuation of their lives, but rather to hold them cheap, and he added:
"Watch ye, therefore, for ye know not when the Master of the house cometh, at even or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning."
Then, as they were turning away, he added:
"I give you this comfort. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous."
Then when the helpers were gone to their ruined homes, Mr. Mompesson asked my Lord and his attendants if they would come to the Rectory. There was something to offer them in the way of repose and refreshment, he said, though but little.
"But you have kept us bountifully supplied, sir. We have never really wanted. And I have sacrificed willingly much of my household goods, more than was necessary, to encourage the others. So you must not despise, if you find my dwelling very strict."
They all turned towards the Rectory, but my Lord did not like to look to right and left because of the empty cottages, the dead nettles and thistles growing by the thresholds and the rude mounds that told that the owners were buried near where they had lived.
The woman followed them and my Lord asked who she was. Mr. Mompesson replied: "She is one, Janot, who was a strolling player and returned here after one she loved. She helped me in the Rectory after Kate and Bessie died, and without her I do not think I could have succeeded. She escaped the infection, but took a gross complaint in the face which I have cured. The other is Jonathan Mortin, my man—I believe your Lordship met him before. And so with Thomas Stanley we made up our little household."
They passed the church and the Earl glanced up at the tower against a curdle of iron-grey clouds, and at the bare linden trees, a still tracery in that cold air. He could scarcely repress a groan as he saw how close-packed the graves were, as he observed that great mound which hid the pit close by the low wall.
"I have tried to keep the register complete," said the Rector, "but it has been difficult. There were but the two of us to go the rounds of our parish boundary."
As they entered the Rectory, my Lord noticed that it was indeed stripped, and the physician exclaimed against the extravagance of burning or destroying everything, even tapestries and chairs.
"Ay," said Mompesson with a smile, "I did have a certain tapestry that showed Moses and the brazen serpent, which I valued somewhat. It was given me by Sir George Savile. But as I said, I did this to encourage others to bring out their treasures, which were more to them than mine were to me. This, however, I kept," he said. And he picked up a Prayer Book bound with silver that lay on the table inside the door. "It belonged to Kate. Is it not strange that some chance should make these shreds of skin and scraps of metal outlast the pestilence, excel the fair, the young, the lovely?"
Janot had turned aside to mend the fire that burned on the wide hearth and to put over the long table a square of fresh linen. The air, scarcely warmed by the flames on the hearth of the Rectory, was sweet and pungent from aromatics that burnt continuously.
The Rector bade Janot bring what they had. Wine and brandy were gone, but there were some home-made cordials. Janot had proved a good housewife; she could make bread, and they had not yet come to the end of their preserves.
When the girl had left the room, and the men were seated round the blaze, the Rector said: "She has given all she has, like Mary Magdalen, to God—her comeliness. She will never more earn her wage as she earned it before."
Jonathan Mortin had left the gentlemen to help in the kitchen.
"He now hardly speaks," said the Rector. "I believe his faith is pure and steady."
Again my Lord felt and more powerfully than before—indeed so forcibly that he was minded to get up and escape from an atmosphere that was stifling—that these people were not human, but mere spectres of humanity, ghosts, phantoms, or wraiths. And he said hastily that he must not pause to eat or drink, not that he meant any slight on their hospitality, but that he was too overwhelmed by the sense of their heroism and suffering to put them to any pain on his account; rising, he asked the two clergymen what they would do now?
Mr. Mompesson made a motion of his hand, which had once been so white, elegant, and well-cared for and which was now scarred, swollen, and red, towards the dissenter, who answered, as if out of an abstraction, that he would go his ways again and travel round Derbyshire and minister to his flock till he died or was jailed.
"And I hope soon," he added, "my gazing soul will spy some shadows of eternity."
Then Mr. Mompesson spoke. He said that he was willing to stay in the village if Sir George Savile wished, but the task was now for a stouter man. He said that one required a great deal of energy to encourage such of the villagers as had fled back to their homes, to induce them to bring willing helpers with them to rebuild the village, to take up life again.
"But for me," he ended, "I think I have done my work here. Each night when I lie down in my bed, it is like a curtained grave, and sleep lies on me like ashes. Yet I know," he added sternly, "that God does shine and move beyond that misty shroud."
He glanced at my Lord and added strangely:
"How long dost thou think it is till day, sir?"
"What day do you mean, Mr. Mompesson?"
"I think of that day when all shall arise, when the Day Star shall spring."
My Lord knew that the stricken man thought of his wife, and he said:
"Have you arranged for the tomb of Mrs. Mompesson? I have had commands from Sir George Savile to see that all is fair set above her grave and no cost counted."
Upon this the Rector became eager in his manner and went upstairs with a lighter step than he had used yet, and came down with a bundle of papers in his hand and pointed out with great zeal to my Lord the plans he had made for the tomb and the motto he had written out.
He expressed his hope that all his successors in the Rectory would keep a yew tree planted near her grave and never move the old Cross from which he and Thomas Stanley had preached in the early days of the desolation.
"I have, sir," he said with enthusiasm, "one pearl—her memory—left me. And though her body is now in truth a ruined piece that the winds and rains beat through and stain, though she has taken to that senseless sleep the wages of her sin, though Time, sir, so it seems as I see him, is old and slow, with wings dull and sickly, yet the day will come when she shall rise, and I, too, from the dust and stones. And not only me but they who also have the first-fruits of the spirit. Even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption—to wit, the redemption of our bodies."
"Amen, my Lord. "Amen," said the physician. And the dissenter stood apart, smiling.
Then Jonathan Mortin and Janot, having tidied their garments and washed their hands yet again (the girl having put ointment on her scarred face and drawn her linen hood discreetly over it), brought in cordials that my Lord and his physician and his secretary all drank, looking the while out of the uncurtained windows at the bare orchard and the empty hives, and the grey, purple vista beyond with the dark curdle of clouds.
"The day is dark and murk," smiled the Rector, taking the glass of cordial from my Lord's hand. "We come upon a dark Egyptian damp. My thoughts, believe me, sir, they challenge the brightest day. Sweet downy thoughts, soft lily-shades they are, fresh spicy mornings, eternal beams. These visions keep me company."
He then, in a quiet formal tone, asked my Lord if he would come upstairs to the laboratory, where all was purged with aromatics, and see the register that had been kept carefully as might be?
And when my Lord and physician and secretary followed him up the staircase, Mr. Mompesson spoke but one sentence more of his state. And that was:
"May we not think, my Lord, that we are not all stone and earth, but shine a little and have by those weak rays some glimpse of where we come from? We see Heaven over our heads, do we not, and know from whence we come? But now, no more. Let us complete what we have set our hands to."
Then he began to talk of his business, and when my Lord reached the laboratory, he found not only the register but other ledgers set out very plain, in which William Mompesson had entered all the goods he had received—both from my Lord and other sources—such as had been paid for and such as had been given as gifts and loans. He had also written notes of the progress of the disease, the various ways in which it attacked the various people. He had put down the names of families, their heirs and heiresses, and what property there might be to be divided in the future among various claimants.
The Earl bade his secretary note all this, and the physician was very curious, too, to hear these accounts of the pestilence and the various forms it had taken.
As they stood there thus debating the desolation of Eyam, the heavy clouds outside the window disbanded and scattered, and a few beams fell into the laboratory, glittering on the glass jars, retorts, crucibles, and giving a lustre to the pots of ointments.
My Lord chanced to glance up and he saw the Rector's face clear in that pale though steady beam, and for the third time he had the impression that he was in the presence of someone unearthly, so drained of all sensuality was that haggard countenance from which so wild a zeal did those deep-set eyes gleam. Yet Mr. Mompesson spoke very quietly, and said that if another might take his charge, say in a year's time, he would retire to a hut in Rufford Park that he made no doubt Sir George Savile would lend him, and there spend some time in peace. And if he was spared, seek later on, another chaplaincy. As for his children, his friends would see to them.
With that my Lord left the Rectory, promising to send some of his servants to help in the village, and some of his woodmen, masons, and tenants to look after the crops and fencing and rebuilding of the houses. He also promised to use all his influence to persuade those who had fled from the village to return, and to engage the interest of larger families, such as the Corbyns, in coming again to their homes.
So they took leave of the Rector and of the Nonconformist, who said that he was soon going again on his travels as he had no longer any work to do in Eyam, since most of those who had followed him in that village were now dead. Jonathan Mortin, it was understood, would always stay with his master, while the girl Janot would find some place as a serving-maid, if any one would take one from the infected village even now. If not, she too would return to solitude and build herself a hovel on the moors or in the rocks.
My Lord was silent for a while, only answering his secretary, who pointed out to him the cottage where the tailor, George Vickers, had lived and that would surely, he said, be ever after known as the 'plague cottage,' for there the plague had come into the village, as was now well ascertained on the Rector's own admission, in the wedding dress for Bessie Carr.
When they were clear of the village, the physician spoke his mind and he said:
"That man sacrificed all those wretches to a mistaken idea. Had he let them all scatter at the first sign of the plague, they had not spread it but saved their own lives. If they had not kept together, there had been little danger. The infection was sealed up in the graves as Lord William said."
The Earl did not reply. Here was a conundrum he was by no means disposed to answer; he left it to God, who had sent the plague to Eyam in a wedding dress.
In the Rectory the visit of my Lord was soon forgotten; when the midday meal was eaten and cleared away, they gathered for a service of praise, and Janot, who had once been a fair musician, played on Kate's spinet an accompaniment to the hymn that the three men sang.
"King of comforts, King of life, Thou hast cheer'd me; And when fears and doubts were rife, Thou hast clear'd me. Not a nook in all my breast But Thou fill'st it, Not a thought that breaks my rest But Thou kill'st it. Therefore with my utmost strength I will praise Thee. And as Thou giv'st line and length I will raise Thee. Not a minute in the year But I'll mind Thee, My seal and bracelet here, I will bind Thee. If then, dread Lord, When to Thy board Thy wretch comes begging, He has a flow'r Or to his pow'r Some poor off'ring. When Thou hast made Thy beggar glad, And fill'd his bosom, Let him, though poor, Strew at Thy door That one poor blossom."
O rosa campi! O lilium convallium! quo modo nunc facta es pabulum aprorum!
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