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Chapter 18 The Plague
In the first week of the New Year the miraculous weather showed no sign of breaking. The sun from rising to setting shone temperately in a clear sky, the nights were little less warm than May, and even the old folk cast the blankets from them and opened the doors of their press-beds; the peat-stacks and the fuel-stacks were scarcely touched, and the fires smouldered only for cooking; the burns were shrunken to summer size, and the spawning fish could not pass the shallows of Rood. But a change had come over the mind of the parish. Men no longer called down blessings on the fine open winter, for such weather seemed in defiance of nature, and an uneasy anticipation of portents weighed on their spirits. The sun did not warm, the unclouded skies did not cheer, the hard roads did not invite to movement. A curious languor fell upon Woodilee.

It seemed as if the same apprehension were felt by the natural world. The cattle and sheep, in spite of the good pasture, grew thinner than in the rigours of winter. The packman’s pony turned away from the rich bite by the roadside. Though the air was cool and tonic, beast and man sweated with the smallest exertion. David, tramping the high moors, found that he was more weary after five miles than after twenty in the summer heats. The deer from Melanudrigill had none of their winter boldness, and indeed all wild animals had become shyer of the presence of man than the oldest inhabitant remembered. But all were aware and restless; there were more worm-casts on the turf than in spring, and migrant birds, which usually tarried long in the sheltered glen, now passed high in air for the south. David saw many a drove as he opened his window in the morning. Even the fieldfares, which Amos Ritchie used to snare in the Mirehope fields, did not come within sight of his bird-lime. . . . A brooding strangeness had come into the air, and apathy silenced the very tykes in the village street. Neighbours rarely gathered at Lucky Weir’s for a mutchkin, though it was thirsty weather; men seemed to be afraid lest what they saw in another’s eye might give substance to their own fears.

Peter Pennecuik, sitting on the stone by the smithy door and mopping a wet forehead, watched Amos drop his tools heavily as he returned from a job at Reiverslaw.

“What mak’ ye o’ the weather?” he asked.

Amos straightened his back.

“I dinna like it. The gillyflowers in my yaird are ettlin’ to bloom. My grannie had a verse o’ auld Thomas the Rhymer — what was it? —

“A Yule wi’out snaws,
A Januar’ wi’ haws,
Bring the deid thraws.”

“There’s a judgment preparin’,” said Peter, “but whatna kind o’ judgment I daurna guess. Certes, it’s no canny.”

“I’ve heard o’ nane ailin’, but there’s seeckness comin’. I can smell it in the air, and the brute beasts can smell it, for they’re sweir to come near Woodilee. There’s no a tod or a maukin on a’ the Hill o’ Deer. D’ye no find a queer savour in the countryside, Peter? There’s wind enough to shake the saughs, but the warld smells like the inside o’ a press-bed when the door’s steekit. Oh for a snell, dirlin’ blast! There’s something rotten and stawsome and unearthly about the blue lift and the saft air. It’s like withered floo’ers on a midden. . . . If there’s nae seeckness yet, there’s seeckness on the road. I maun awa’ in and see to Ailie, for this morn she was complaining o’ a sair heid.”

Two days later the child of a cotter at Mirehope returned from school in the manse kitchen, and to his mother’s amazement beat his head against the door. He fell asleep on the wedder’s skin beside the fire, and when he was wakened for his supper his cheeks were flaming and he seemed to have difficulty with his speech. He was put with the rest into the box which was the children’s bed, and all night filled it with his cries, so that the others sought peace on the floor. In the morning his face and throat were swollen, his eyes were sightless, and he struggled terribly for breath. Before noon he was dead.

In this way came the plague to Woodilee.

Its coming was realized in an instant, for the sinister weather had prepared the people for calamity. Before the dark the rumour of the breaking out of the pest was in the uttermost sheilings. With it went the word that Peter Pennecuik had sickened, and that another child at Mirehope and one of the Chasehope ewe-milkers were down with it. . . . Next day the place was a beleaguered city. Johnnie Dow, the packman, hearing the news at Cauldshaw, diverted his round to Kirk Aller, though thirty pounds Scots were owing to him in Woodilee. The roads were blocked as if Montrose’s kerns commanded them. As it was winter-time there was little work on hand, and even that little was not done. A Sabbath hush fell on the glen, people shut their doors and sat within at their prayers, and that best seeding-ground for plague, a lively terror, was amply prepared.

Peter Pennecuik died in eight hours. There was no heart in the man, and in sickness his command of pious phrases fell away from him, and he passed out of life in a whimpering misery. It was not an edifying death-bed for one who had been a notable professor. But very soon Peter was forgotten — for he was an old man and ripe for his end — as the young and strong were, one by one, struck down. Amos Ritchie’s wife, Ailie, followed — the less to be wondered at, for she had always been frail. But when Jess Morison at Chasehope~foot, dark-browed, high-coloured, and not yet twenty, swooned as she drew water at the well, and died in delirium before evening, fear in the parish became panic. The young herd at Windyways, the trimmest lad in the glen, and the miller’s man, who looked as gnarled as an oak and as strong as a mill-wheel, followed. But the tragedy was the children. Two of them were struck down for each grown-up person, and perished with the speed of plucked flowers. . . . It was another kind of peril from that which old folk remembered in the year ‘10, for no pox attended it nor any of the usual sores. The ordinary first symptom was a blinding headache and a high fever; then came a swelling of the throat and glands and a quick delirium. But in many cases there was no outward swelling; the mischief seemed to descend straightway to the lungs and produce a severe haemorrhage. In such cases there was no final delirium; the patient died with clear mind and little bodily pain in an extreme languor. The first type commonly seized the young and full-bodied; children and old folk followed, as a rule, the second course. But both were fatal: in a week out of fifty-nine smitten, fifty-nine were dead.

There was no doctor to be had in all the countryside. The leech at Kirk Aller, sent for by David, refused to come within a mile of Woodilee, and the old women, the usual medical authorities of the village, had nothing but senseless concoctions and — in secret — more senseless charms. Presently even these were forgotten, and the place lay in a stupor of fear under a visitation from Heaven. Cottages which the pest had entered were, by popular consent, shut to the world, so that they became a hot-bed of infection for the other inmates. A man who had sickness in his dwelling dare not show his face in the street except under cover of night. There was no neighbourly assistance asked or given. The members of a stricken family had to conduct their life in a dreadful isolation, till they too sickened; there were shuttered dwellings where life was slowly blotted out, and the village only learned that the end had come for all by the fact that the chimney ceased to smoke. . . . At first an attempt was made to bury the dead decently, the remaining members of a household undertaking the task, but the spread of the pestilence soon made this impossible. The dead were laid in byre and stable beside the startled beasts, sometimes by the poorer households in the kailyard, and David more than once found a staring, unshrouded corpse in the nettles of the manse loan. There were cottages where all the inmates were dead and unburied, with a lean cat mewing round the barred doors. . . . And all the while the soft blue weather continued, and the wind came balmy from the hills over those silent fields of death.

At first the stupor of Woodilee was shot with an awful apprehension of divine wrath, and the people sought to propitiate their Maker by humbling themselves before Him, and — even the least devout — by constant prayer and the reading of Scripture. But this mood did not long survive. The fury of the blast which smote them drove all religion out of their minds, and left them stark and numb with mortal fear. To begin with, David was welcomed in the house of death, he was summoned in haste, his coming was watched for; even if his ministrations did no good to the unconscious sufferers, they seemed to comfort the others. But presently he found himself an unregarded intruder. Whenever he knew of a case he hastened to it, but the panic-stricken eyes of the living looked at him as blindly as the glazing eyes of the dying. His prayers even to himself seemed idle; at any rate they fell upon dulled ears. What contact could he establish with the sick in the delirium or languor of death, and with those who waited on the same fate with the wild despair of beasts in a trap? What use to point to God when God overshadowed them as a merciless tormentor? And all the while he was in a fever of anxiety. More than one of the dead were among those whom he had remarked in the Wood. Men and women were hastening to judgment with their sins heavy on them — sins unrepented and for ever unrepentable. He, their minister, had to stand feebly by and see souls descending into damnation.

The thought drove him frantic, but it alone gave him power to continue in his fruitless duties, for in this trial he found the flesh very weak. It was not that he feared death, even death by plague, but that a horror of Woodilee had fallen on his spirit. His shrinking from the Wood, his hatred of the sins of the Wood, his quarrel with the Session, the distrust in which he was held by many of his congregation, the episode of the pricker and Bessie Todd’s death — all combined to make the place reek for him of ugliness and decay. The pest seemed merely to add rotting carcasses to rotting souls. . . . Then the pity of it would overcome him, when he thought of children whom he had taught and honest folk who had been kind to him, now cold in death. He was helpless to cure either body or spirit. He had no leechcraft — what would it have availed if he had, for he remembered the Edinburgh doctor by his father’s bed? — and his spiritual ministrations were as idle as wind. . . . Above all, he felt himself a prisoner shut into a noisome cage from which there was no escape. None dare leave or enter Woodilee. One afternoon, in a mood of despair, he climbed the Hill of Deer for a glimpse of the outer world. There lay Calidon on its windy braes, but Calidon was now as distant for him as the moon. There lay the hills in whose spacious wildernesses no pest lurked, for there were no unclean mortals to harbour it, and beyond them was the world where men might live in daylight and honour. As he looked down on Woodilee a haze seemed to lie over it. Was it the effluvia of the plague, a miasma which walled it round more impenetrably than stone walls and iron shutters? . . . He struggled to conquer his shrinking. “Faithless servant,” he told himself, “faithless even over a few things! David Sempill, you rebel against the Lord’s will not because of the sufferings of your poor folk, but because of your own pitiable discomfort. Think shame, man, to be such a whingeing bairn. “For he had realized that the root of his trouble was that he was severed from Katrine.

But that evening Katrine came to him.

While he sat for a little in his study before starting on his melancholy visits, he heard Isobel’s voice below high-pitched in excitement. Then he heard another voice which took him down the stairs three steps at a time. The girl, booted as he had seen her in the mist on the eve of Hallowmass, stood in the light of Isobel’s candle, one gloved hand raised in protest and with an embarrassed smile at her lips and eyes. To David it seemed the first smile that he had seen for an eternity.

“Awa’ hame wi’ ye, my leddy,” Isobel cried. “Ye canna come here, for the pest’s in ilka bite we eat and sowp we drink and breath we draw. Awa’ wi’ ye, an’ keep your mouth tight steekit till ye’re ower the Hill o’ Deer. Oh, haste ye, or ye’ll be smitten like the lave, and ye’re ower young and bonny to dee.”

“Katrine, Katrine,” David exclaimed in agony. “What madness brought you here? Have you not heard that half the parish is sick or dead? There is poison in the very air. Oh, my dear, come not near me. Wrap a fold of your cloak over your mouth and never slacken rein till you are back in Calidon.”

The girl drew off her gloves. Her eyes were on Isobel.

“I am his promised wife,” she said. “Where should I be if not by his side?”

The news left Isobel staring. “His promised wife,” she stammered. “Heard ye ever the like — the manse o’ Woodilee to seek a mistress from Calidon! . . . But the mair reason why ye suld tak’ tent. There’s nae place for a bonny doo like yersel’ in this stricken parish — ye canna help ithers and ye may get your ain death. Awa’ hame, my braw leddy, for the minister has eneuch to trouble him without concern for his joe.”

The girl walked to David’s side and put her hand in his arm.

“You will not forbid me,” she said, and her face was still smiling. “I do not fear the plague, and I do not think it will harm me, for it smites those who live in foul hovels, and I am always about the hills. But I do fear this loneliness. I have not seen you for two weeks, David, and I have been imagining terrible things. I have come to help you, for I have known the pest before — many times in France, and in Oxford too. I know what precautions to take, for I have heard wise men discuss them, but you in Woodilee, from all I hear, are no better than frightened bairns.”

“But your aunt — Mistress Saintserf —”

“Aunt Grizel knows of my coming. She has given me this pomander of spices.” She touched a trinket which hung from her neck by a gold chain.

David struggled to salve his conscience by energy in dissuasion, and though his heart cried for her presence, it was torn, too, by fear for her safety. He commanded, pled, expostulated, but she only turned a smiling face. She sat down before the peat fire and stretched out her feet to the hot ashes.

“You will not drive me away, David,” she said. “Would you forbid me from a work of necessity and mercy — and you a minister?”

In the end he gave up the task, for here was a resolution stiffer than his own, and his strongest arguments faltered when he saw her smile, which was like sunlight in a world of darkness and grim faces. He found himself telling her how the plague had begun, and of the nature of its course — the lack of leeches and medicines, the dearth of helpers, the households perishing silently indoors. She listened calmly, and did not blanch even at the tale of the shuttered cottages and the unburied dead.

“A pretty mess your folk have made of it,” she said. “You have turned Woodilee into a lazar-house, and given the pest a rare breeding-ground. Never mind your spiritual consolations, David. Let the miserable bodies come before the souls. You say you have no leech to cure the sick, and that maybe is as well, for I never yet heard of leech that could master the plague. But if you cannot cure, you may prevent its spread. Our first task is to safeguard those who are not yet smitten. If you shut up a cottage where there is one sick man, you condemn every member to death. That must be stopped without delay — and for God’s sake let us bury the dead — bury or burn.”

“Burn?” he cried out aghast.

“Burn,” she nodded. “Fire is the best purifier.”

“But we shall rouse the place to madness.”

“Better that than death. But we want helpers — bold men who fear neither the pest nor an angry people.”

He shook his head. “There are none such in Woodilee. The bones of all are turned to water.”

“Then we must stiffen them. . . . There is the one whom we now call Mark Riddel. It was he who told me of your trouble, for he was at Calidon yesterday on his way back from Annandale. There is the black-avised man, too, at Reiverslaw. . . . Are there none more?”

The girl’s briskness was rousing David’s mind from its torpor.

“Amos Ritchie, maybe.”

“That gives us three — four with yourself — and four resolved men can do wonders. Others will fall in once the drum is beaten. Rouse yourself, David, and be as eager to save bodies as you ever were to save souls. And do not forget to pray for a change in this lamentable weather. A ringing frost would do more to stay the pest than all the leeches in Scotland . . . .”

She departed as suddenly as she had come. “I dare not come by day,” she told him, “for if Woodilee heard of a stranger its panic would be worse. We have to do with terrified bairns. But I will be here at the same hour to-morrow night, and by that time you must have gathered your helpers.”

David did not return from his visitations till the small hours, but he brought back the first piece of good news. One of the hinds at the Mains, after lying for two days in delirium, was now quit of the fever and in a wholesome sweat — sleeping, too, a natural sleep. It was the first case of a possible recovery, and he was aware how much a single life saved would do to quiet the broken nerves of the parish. Also Katrine’s advent had lifted him out of the slough of despond in which he had been sunk for weeks. She had spurred him to action, and shown him a duty which he had been too blind to see. He fiercely repressed the anxiety with which the mere thought of her presence in that tainted place filled him. He dare not forbid the exercise of courage in another — even in one who was dearer to him than life.

Next morning he went to Reiverslaw, but got no comfort. Andrew Shillingl............
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