This "The Sign of the Red Cross: A Tale of Old London" was written by Evelyn Everett-Green in English language.
The Sign of the Red
Cross: A Tale of Old
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Title: The Sign Of The Red Cross
Author: Evelyn Everett-Green
Release Date: October 23, 2004
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SIGN OF THE RED CROSS***
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THE SIGN OF THE RED CROSS:
A Tale of Old London
A WARNING WHISPER.
LONDON'S YOUNG CITIZENS.
JAMES HARMER'S RESOLVE.
THE PLOT AND ITS PUNISHMENT.
NEIGHBOURS IN NEED.
SISTERS OF MERCY.
IN THE DOOMED CITY.
WITHOUT THE WALLS.
LOVE IN DIFFICULTIES.
A CHRISTMAS WEDDING.
A FLAMING CITY.
SCENES OF TERROR.
WHAT BEFELL DINAH.
JUST IN TIME.
THE FLAMES STAYED.
CHAPTER I. A WARNING WHISPER.
"I don't believe a word of it!" cried the Master Builder, with some
heat of manner. "It is just an old scare, the like of which I have
heard a hundred times ere now. Some poor wretch dies of the
sweating sickness, or, at worst, of the spotted fever, and in a
moment all men's mouths are full of the plague! I don't believe a
word of it!"
"Heaven send you may be right, good friend," quoth Rachel
Harmer, as she sat beside her spinning wheel, and spoke to the
accompaniment of its pleasant hum. "And yet, methinks, the vice
and profligacy of this great city, and the lewdness and wanton
wickedness of the Court, are enough to draw down upon us the
judgments of Almighty God. The sin and the shame of it must be
rising up before Him day and night."
The Master Builder moved a little uneasily in his seat. For his
own part he thought no great harm of the roistering, gaming, and
gallantries of the Court dandies. He knew that the times were very
good for him. Fine ladies were for ever sending for him to alter
some house or some room. Gay young husbands, or those who
thought of becoming husbands, were seldom content nowadays
without pulling their house about their ears, and rebuilding it after
some new-fangled fashion copied from France. Or if the structure
were let alone, the plenishings must be totally changed; and
Master Charles Mason, albeit a builder by trade, and going
generally amongst his acquaintances and friends by the name of
Master Builder, had of late years taken to a number of kindred
avocations in the matter of house plenishings, and so forth. This
had brought him no small profit, as well as intimate relations with
many a fine household and with many grand folks. Money had
flowed apace into his pocket of late. His wife had begun to go
about so fine that it was well for her the old sumptuary laws had
fallen into practical disuse. His son was an idle young dog, chiefly
known to the neighbourhood as being the main leader of a
notorious band of Scourers, of which more anon, and many
amongst his former friends and associates shook their heads, and
declared that Charles Mason was growing so puffed up by wealth
that he would scarce vouchsafe a nod to an old acquaintance in
the street, unless he were smart and prosperous looking.
The Master Builder had a house upon Old London Bridge. Once
he had carried on his business there, but latterly he had grown too
fine for that. To the disgust of his more simple-minded neighbours,
he had taken some large premises in Cheapside, where he
displayed many fine stuffs for upholstering and drapery, where the
new-fashioned Indian carpets were displayed to view, and fine
gilded furniture from France, which a little later on became the
rage all through the country. His own house was now nothing
more than a dwelling place for himself and his family; even his
apprentices and workmen were lodged elsewhere. The
neighbours, used to simpler ways, shook their heads, and
prophesied that the end of so much pride would be disaster and
ruin. But year after year went by, and the Master Builder grew
richer and richer, and could afford to laugh at the prognostications
of those about him, of which he was very well aware.
He was perhaps somewhat puffed up by his success. He was
certainly proud of the position he had made. He liked to see his
wife sweep along the streets in her fine robes of Indian silk, which
seemed to set a great gulf between her and her neighbours. He
allowed his son to copy the fopperies of the Court gallants, and
even to pick up the silly French phrases which made the language
at Court a mongrel mixture of bad English and vile French. All
these things pleased him well, although he himself went about clad
in much the same fashion as his neighbours, save that the
materials of his clothing were finer, and his frills more white and
crisp; and it was in his favour that his friendship with his old friend
James Harmer had never waned, although he knew that this
honest tradesman by no means approved his methods.
Perhaps in his heart of hearts he preferred the comfortable
living room of his neighbour to the grandeur insisted upon by his
wife at home. At any rate, he found his way three or four evenings
in the week to Harmer's fireside, and exchanged with him the
news of the day, or retailed the current gossip of the city.
Harmer was by trade a gold and silver lace maker. He carried
on his business in the roomy bridge house which he occupied,
which was many stories high, and contained a great number of
rooms. He housed in it a large family, several apprentices, two
shopmen, and his wife's sister, Dinah Morse, at such times as the
latter was not out nursing the sick, which was her avocation in life.
Mason and Harmer had been boys together, had inherited
these two houses on the bridge from their respective fathers, and
had both prospered in the world. But Harmer was only a
moderately affluent man, having many sons and daughters to
provide for; whereas Mason had but one of each, and had more
than one string to his bow in the matter of money getting.
In the living room of Harmer's house were assembled that
February evening six persons. It was just growing dusk, but the
dancing firelight gave a pleasant illumination. Harmer and Mason
were seated on opposite sides of the hearth in straight-backed
wooden armchairs, and both were smoking. Rachel sat at her
wheel, with her sister Dinah near to her; and in the background
hovered two fine-looking young men, the two eldest sons of the
household--Reuben, his father's right-hand man in business
matters now; and Dan, who had the air and appearance of a sailor
ashore, as, indeed, was the case with him.
It was something which Dinah Morse had said that had evoked
the rather fierce disclaimer from the Master Builder, with the
rejoinder by Rachel as to the laxity of the times; and now it was
Dinah's voice which again took up the word.
"Whether it be God's judgment upon the city, or whether it be
due to the carelessness of man, I know not," answered Dinah
quietly; "I only say that the Bill of Mortality just published is higher
than it has been this long while, and that two in the Parish of St.
Giles have died of the plague."
"Well, St. Giles' is far enough away from us," said the Master
Builder. "If the Magistrates do their duty, there is no fear that it will
spread our way. There were deaths over yonder of the plague last
November, and it seems as though they had not yet stamped out
the germs of it. But a little firmness and sense will do that. We
have nothing to fear. So long as the cases are duly reported, we
shall soon be rid of the pest."
Dinah pressed her lips rather closely together. She had that fine
resolute cast of countenance which often characterizes those who
are constantly to be found at the bedside of the sick. Her dress
was very plain, and she wore a neckerchief of soft, white Indian
muslin about her throat, instead of the starched yellow one which
was almost universal amongst the women citizens of the day. Her
hands were large and white and capable looking. Her only
ornament was a chatelaine of many chains, to which were
suspended the multifarious articles which a nurse has in constant
requisition. In figure she was tall and stately, and in the street
strangers often paused to give her a backward glance. She was
greatly in request amongst the sick of the better class, though she
was often to be found beside the sick poor, who could give her
nothing but thanks for her skilled tendance of them.
"Ay, truly, so long as the cases are duly reported," she repeated
slowly. "But do you think, sir, that that is ever done where means
may be found to avoid it?"
The Master Builder looked a little startled at the question.
"Surely all good folks would wish to do what was right by their
neighbours. They would not harbour a case of plague, and not
make it known in the right quarter."
"You think not, perhaps. Had you seen as much of the sick as I
have, you would know that men so fear and dread the distemper,
as they most often call it, that they will blind their eyes to it to the
very last, and do everything in their power to make it out as
something other than what they fear. I have seen enough of the
ways of folks with sickness to be very sure that all who have
friends to protect the fearful secret, will do so if it be possible. It is
when a poor stranger dies of a sudden that it becomes known that
the plague has found another victim. Why are there double the
number of deaths in this week's bill, if more than are set down as
such be not the distemper?"
All the faces in the room looked very grave at that, for in truth it
was a most disquieting thought. The sailor came a few steps
nearer the fire, and remarked:
"It has all come from those hounds of Dutchmen! Right glad am
I that we are to go to war with them at last, whether the cause be
righteous or not. They have gotten the plague all over their land. I
saw men drop down in the streets and die of it when I was last in
port there. They send it to us in their merchandise."
"My wife will die of terror if she hears but a whisper of the
distemper being anigh us," remarked the Master Builder, with a
sigh and a look of uneasiness. "But men are always scaring us
with tales of its coming and, after all, there is but a death here and
one there, such as any great city may look to have."
At that moment the door was thrown open, and a pretty young
damsel, wearing a crimson cloak and hood, stepped lightly in.
"O father, mother, do but come and look!" she cried, with the air
of coaxing assurance which bespoke a favoured child. "Such a
strange star in the sky! Men in the streets are all looking and
pointing; and some say that it is no star, but a comet, and that it
predicts some dreadful thing which is coming upon this land. Do
come and look at it! There is a clear sky tonight, and one can see
it well. And I heard that it has been seen by some before this,
when at night the rain clouds have been swept away by the wind.
Do come to the window above the river and look! One can see it
fine from there."
This sudden announcement, falling just upon the talk of
pestilence and peril, caused a certain flutter and sensation
through the room. All the persons there rose to their feet and
followed the rosy-cheeked maiden out upon the staircase, and to
a window from which the great river could be seen flowing
beneath. A large expanse of sky could also be commanded from
here, and as the inside of the house was almost dark, it was easy
to obtain an excellent view of the strange appearance which was
attracting so much attention in the streets.
It certainly was no star that was glowing thus with a red and
sullen-looking flame. Neither shape nor position in the heavens
accorded with that of any star of magnitude.
"It was certainly," so said Reuben Harmer, who had some
knowledge of the heavenly bodies, "no star, but one of those
travelling meteors or comets which are seen from time to time, and
which from remote ages have been declared to foretell calamity to
the lands over which they appear to travel."
The Harmer family were godly people of somewhat Puritanic
leaning, yet they were by no means entirely free from the
superstition of their times, nor would Rachel have called it
superstition to regard this manifestation as a warning from God.
Why should He not send some such messenger before He
proceeded to take vengeance upon an ungodly city? Was not
even guilty Sodom warned of its approaching doom?
All faces then were grave, but that of the Master Builder wore a
look of fear as well.
"I must to my wife," he said. "If she sees this comet, she will be
vastly put about. I must to her side to reassure her. Pray Heaven
that no calamity be near to us!"
"Amen!" replied Harmer, gravely; and then the Master Builder
retreated down the staircase, whilst from a room below a cheerful
voice was heard announcing that supper was ready.
The party therefore all moved downstairs towards the kitchen,
where all the meals were taken in company with the apprentices,
shopmen, and serving wenches.
Dorcas, the maiden who had brought news of the comet,
slipped her. hand within Reuben's arm, and asked him in a
"Thinkest thou, Reuben, that it betides evil to the city?"
"Nay, I know not what to think," he answered. "It is a strange
thing, and men often say it betides ill; but I have no knowledge of
mine own. I never saw the like before."
"They spoke of it at my Lady Scrope's today," said Dorcas. "I
was behind her chair, with her fan and essence bottles, and the
lap dogs, when in comes one and another of the old beaux who
beguile their leisure with my lady's sharp speeches; and they
spoke of this thing, and she laughed them to scorn, and called
them fools for listening to old wives' fables. It is her way thus to
revile all who come anigh her. She said she had lived through a
score of such scares, and would snap her fingers at all the comets
of the heavens at once. Sometimes it makes me tremble to hear
her talk; but methinks she loveth to raise a shudder in the hearts of
those who hear her. She is a strange being. Sometimes I almost
fear to go to and fro there, albeit she treats me well, and seldom
speaks harshly to me. But men say she is above a hundred years
old, and she leads so strange a life in her lonely house. Fancy
being there alone of a night, with only that deaf old man and his
aged wife within doors! It would scare me to death. But she will
not let one other of her servants abide there with her!"
"Ay, it is her whimsie. Women folks are given to such,"
answered Reuben, tolerantly. "She is a strange creature, albeit I
doubt not that men make her out stranger than she is. Well, well,
the comet at least will do us no hurt of itself; and if it be God's way
of warning us of peril to come, we need not fear it, but only set
ourselves to be ready for what He may send us."
Below stairs there was a comfortable meal spread upon the
table, simple and homely, but sufficient for the appetites of all. The
three rosy-faced apprentices, of whom a son of the house made
one, formed a link at table between the family and the shopmen
and serving wenches. All sat down together, and Rebecca, the
daughter who lived at home, served up the hot broth and
puddings. The eldest daughter was a serving maid in the
household of my Lady Howe, and was seldom able to get home
for more than a few hours occasionally, even when that
fashionable dame was in London. Dorcas spent each night under
the shelter of her father's roof, and went daily to the quaint old
house close beside Allhallowes the Less, where lived the eccentric
Lady Scrope, her mistress, of whom mention has been made. The
youngest son was also from home, being apprenticed to a
carpenter in the service of the Master Builder next door, and he
lived, as was usual, in the house of his employer. Thus four out of
Harmer's seven children lived always at home, and Dan the sailor
was with them whenever his ship put into the river after a voyage.
No talk of either comet or plague was permitted at table; indeed
the meal was generally eaten in something approaching to silence.
Sometimes the master of the house would address a question to
one of the family, or suppress by a glance the giggling of the lads
at the lower end of the table. Joseph's presence there rather
encouraged hilarity, for he was a merry urchin, and stood not in
the same awe of his father as did his comrades. Kindness was the
law of the house, but it was the kindness of thorough discipline.
Neither the master nor the mistress believed in the liberty that
brings licence in its train.
Life went very quietly, smoothly, and monotonously within the
walls of that busy house. Trade was brisk just now. The fashion
lately introduced amongst fine ladies of having whole dresses of
gold or silver lace, brought more orders for the lace maker than he
well knew how to accomplish in the time. He and his son and his
apprentices were hard at work from morning to night; and glad
enough was the master of the daily-increasing daylight, which
enabled him and those who were glad to earn larger wages to
work extra hours each day.
Being thus busy at home, he went less than was his wont
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