This novel is dedicated to the memory of
Elizabeth Hancock’s six children,
Alice, Ann, Elizabeth, Will, John and Owner,
all lost to the plague in the month of
Atishoo! Atishoo! We all fall down.
‘I may truly say our Town has become
a Golgotha, a Place of Skulls…’
Rev. Mompesson, 1666, in a letter to his uncle
Monday 3rd September, 1665
Reverent Mompesson’s mind would not let him sleep. Over and over he tumbled in his bed, his sheets twisted and knotted, his blankets thrown to the floor. In his tortured mind he saw the boy’s eyes, bloodshot and riddled with torment.
‘It hurts so much,’ the boy sobbed. He clutched for the hem of Mompesson’s robe. ‘Help me!’
But Mompesson, only seventeen himself, did not know how to. He knew nothing of doctoring; his job simply to help the nuns to stretcher the injured to the shelter of the convent.
And to bury the rest.
Attempting to stem the flow of blood, he dropped to his knees and pressed his hands to the boy’s torn belly. But the enemy’s sword had cut too deeply, and it seeped between his fingers.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Mompesson choked back. ‘I don’t know how to.’
Oddly, or so it seemed to him, the sun still lit up the sky, and the wind still played in the trees. It was so – normal, so ordinary. When, not far from here, a mother watched the door for her son’s return; this son here, with his belly ripped open. A son who, not so long ago, played in the street with sticks and hoops, now just food for the crows.
Mompesson’s eyes hunted the woods for help but, wherever he looked, all he saw were blood-drenched men curled up in the dirt. There were hundreds of them. Hundreds! He swallowed, determined not to throw up. The stink was horrific, the sweet, iron-rich smell of blood. To see so much horror shocked him. Stunned him. To know it even existed.
‘Help them, Lord,’ he beseeched. ‘HELP THEM!’
On the very top of the hill, overlooking the woods, a cannon opened up. It was as if a volcano had erupted, Mompesson’s world suddenly a jumbled inferno of screeching cannon balls and screeching men. A tree was hit, the trunk exploding, sending splinters of wood hurtling over him. Now it was his turn to tumble to the dirt. He curled up in a ball, his knees pressed to his cheeks. Tremors jolted his body and booms of thunder ricocheted off his skull. Over and over and over…
In his sleep, Mompesson too tumbled over and over, his skin drenched, his feet tangled up in the sheets.
He felt urgent fingers pulling on him and, in a whirl of terror, he shot up in his bed.
Monday 28th August, 1665
George Viccars did not know he was carrying the plague back to his village. Hungry and in need of sleep, he willed the elderly horse to walk faster, but the twenty-two year old half-breed, a birthday gift from his brother, was hungry and tired too.
It had taken the young tailor almost seven days to travel back to Derbyshire from London and now, with the sun hovering over the green-carpeted hills, he was just a mile from Eyam, the village where he lived. The man flapped at a bee and lazily tapped the nag’s rump with his whip. Why was it, he mused, trotting over the River Derwent, that the last mile always felt the longest.
He had been sent to the city markets to buy fabric for the dressmaker he worked for. His master, Alexander, was not the most forgiving of men but, mercifully, the trip had been a success, and in the back of the juddering cart there now sat a box full of the finest woven cloth.
The tailor was most thankful to be away from the smelly, overcrowded streets of London. It was, he thought, the most horrid of towns, full of rats, pickpockets and swindlers. He sniffed, the soft, sweet smell of the bellflowers in the hedgerow filling his nostrils. So much better than the stink rising up from London’s gutters.
Valley after valley, the cart rolled on and, soon, Viccars felt as if his eyes would overflow with grassy knolls, crooked walls and noble-looking elm trees. It was terribly hot too, only the crows and the odd fluffy cloud braving the cornflower-blue sky. But, at last, the horse plodded over the crest of Riley Top Hill and there lay the village of Eyam. A church, a pub, a well and over a hundred dwellings, most of them hidden under grey-slated roofs. To the west there was a windmill and, to the south, Cucklet Delph, a craggy lump of rock towering over the tops of the trees.
Sensing the long trip was almost over, the horse lifted his nose and began to trot down the hill to the village.
Viccars loved Eyam. It was such a pretty, cosy sort of village, cut off from the rest of England by the rolling Derbyshire hills. It was summer now, but in winter when the snow fell, filling the valley and enveloping the bubbling brooks, there was no going anywhere, not even to Matlock or Buxton, the closest towns. But he liked it that way. Here, everybody knew everybody. Here, he felt safe. No rats in the streets, no pickpockets and – he smiled thinly – hardly any swindlers. It was, he decided, a village in a glass bubble. The sort God would shake to watch it snow.
Trotting up Church Street and by the village pond, he nodded to Andrew Marshal, a scruffy-looking fellow, a clucking cockerel nestled in his hands. Then he spotted Emmott, a pretty girl he’d had his eye on for months, sitting on a wall. He waved shyly to her and she winked back at him. He swallowed and felt his chest tighten. He’d yet to master the tricky art of wooing women.
Blushing, he turned to watch a portly man rolling a beer barrel down the street. It was Crispin Butler, the landlord of the Miner’s Arms. ‘Afternoon, Innkeeper,’ George called as he rumbled by.
The man glanced up and grinned. ‘Now then, Mr. Viccars. Wonderful to see you back. How was London?’
‘Hot and dirty. I’m a thirsty man.’
With a gleeful snort, Crispin slapped the barrel of beer. ‘Then I’ll be seeing you tonight.’
‘I’ll be there when the doors open,’ the tailor called back cheerily.
The cart trundled on up the dusty street, by the rectory and the steepled church. He passed by Isaac Buxton’s bakery, wetting his lips to the smell of the pastry, and then a butcher’s shop, pigs dangling in the window, finally stopping by a small, red-bricked cottage. It was the property of Alexander, his master, but Viccars rented a tiny bedroom in the back, over the scullery.
With a long sigh, the tailor stood up and stretched. He spotted there was dirt on his cuff and, with a scowl, he brushed it off. He’d always been a very prim and proper sort of fellow who kept his boots well-polished and the rim of his bonnet free of dust. But, now, after a week of travelling, his linen shirt and mulberry-brown tunic were crumpled and dirty.
There was a sudden screech and he looked up to see two boys playing in the garden. They saw him too and, with excited howls, they sprinted over.
‘Hello, Mr. Viccars,’ they hollered, skidding to a halt by the cart.
With a grin, George clambered down and ruffled the tallest boy’s curls. ‘Hello Jonathan.’ Then he dropped to a knee and pinched the smaller boy’s dirty cheek; it was so dirty, it looked as if it’d been drawn on in black chalk. ‘Honestly, Edward, you little tinker, did you sleep in the flower bed?’
The boys giggled. They were Alexander’s stepsons. Jonathan, the eldest, was twelve. A tall, thoughtful boy who enjoyed books and playing chess with his stepfather. Edward, his brother, was only four. Playful, cheeky and always up to no good, he mostly seemed to enjoy rolling in the mud and trying to urinate on his grandmother’s cat. The tailor, in spite of his tidy ways, had a soft spot for the unruly child.
The door to the cottage swung open and Mary, the boys’ mother, stepped out. Viccars saw she had on a yellow apron over her dress and was holding a bowl and a dripping wooden spoon. ‘Welcome home, George,’ she called, ambling up the path. ‘How was the trip?’
Viccars stood up respectfully. ‘Very successful, Miss.’ He waved a hand at the box in the back of the cart. ‘Over thirty yards of cloth for seventeen bob. Most of it woven in Canterbury. Velvet, silk and linen. New too. Well, most of it. Your husband will be most happy.’
Mary grunted, her lips hinting at a smile. Alexander was her second husband and they’d only been man and wife for a few months, but George suspected she already knew her husband and his prickly moods all too well. ‘Alexander’s over at Chatsworth. It seems Lady Cavendish is planning a birthday party and is in need of seven new gowns.’
‘Seven!’ Viccars frowned. A big job for any dressmaker. ‘Then I must go and help him,’ he muttered, hastily untying the horse from a tree.
‘No, no. Don’t be silly.’
‘But my master...’
‘Alexander will expect you to rest. You must be tired and hungry.’ She smiled warmly. ‘You don’t want to miss supper. Turnip stew. You must sit by me.’
‘Yes, yes, I, er – I will.’ The tailor smiled coyly back and nodded his thanks. His collar suddenly felt awfully tight. Mary was much older than him, but she was still very pretty and her hefty bosom often drew his eye. ‘I will find a fresh shirt to put on,’ he told her with a telling gulp.
She smiled and turned to the boys. ‘Jonathan, help Mr. Viccars to carry in the cloth. Edward, y’ tinker, you can help too.’ She ruffled the smaller boy’s curls and chuckled. ‘It will keep you away from Grandmother’s cat.’
After unhooking the cart and rewarding the horse with a handful of carrots and a bale of hay, Viccars and the two boys lugged the box up the path and in through the front door. There they towed it over to the scullery and set it on the floor. With Jonathan and Edward looking on, the tailor gently lifted the lid.
A rancid stench instantly wafted up from the box. With a scowl, the tailor rubbed the cloth with the tips of his fingers. It felt a little wet. Travelling through Oxford on the way back from London, there had been a sudden shower, but he remembered he had thrown a rug over the box to protect it. With a shrug, he gently lifted up the cloth and began to unfold it. He did not want it to rot and upset Alexander.
‘It’s a bit damp,’ he told the whispering boys, ‘but if we open it up and lay it flat on the floor it will soon dry.’
Jonathan nodded soberly but his brother just giggled and attempted to crawl under the fabric.
Viccars looked on reprovingly. ‘Edward! Up y’ get, lad. We don’t…’
But he was interrupted by a sudden call from the kitchen. ‘Supper boys!’
‘Off you trot, then,’ Viccars told them, thankful he did not have to tell Edward off further. He never enjoyed reprimanding his master’s stepsons.
Yelling and shoving, they scampered off up the corridor. With a chuckle, George watched them go. Soon he hoped to have children of his own; two boys – or even three. But first he needed to find a wife. His mind drifted to Emmott, the girl he’d seen in the street. He vowed, when he saw her in church this Sunday, he’d pluck up the nerve to sit by her and perhaps even to say hello.
George unfolded the last layer of the cloth, carpeting all but three feet of the scullery floor. Then, using a tinderbox, he lit a fire in the grate and threw two logs onto it. That will do the job, he thought, scratching at a sudden itch on his cheek. He stood up and yawned. Then he went to put on a fresh shirt and to enjoy the company of Mary and a bowl of her excellent turnip stew.
Monday 7th September, 1665
George Viccars was dying.
He’d begun to feel unwell seven days ago, just three days after returning from London. A sudden fever had befallen him, sweeping over his body, sending him staggering to his bed.
A day later, cramps had set in, clawing at his stomach, making him vomit blood and cry like a colic baby. Finally, his neck had swollen up, big seeping lumps the size of ripe plums erupting up from his skin.
Yesterday, a doctor from Fulwood had visited him. But, on seeing the puss-filled lumps and blood-splattered pillows, the coward had fled from the room with a whimper, and had not returned.
Now Viccars just lay there on his sodden blankets, drifting in and out of sleep, his mind so dulled, he hardly knew where he was. Every so often, Jonathan and Edward’s agony-laden sobs echoed through the cottage, pulling him from his stupor and filling him with sorrow.
His dying thoughts were of the two little boys.