History of the Plague in England

§ 7

Daniel Defoe

IT PLEASED GOD that I was still spared, and very hearty and sound in health, but very impatient of being pent up within doors without air, as I had been for fourteen days or thereabouts. And I could not restrain myself, but I would go and carry a letter for my brother to the posthouse; then it was, indeed, that I observed a profound silence in the streets. When I came to the posthouse, as I went to put in my letter, I saw a man stand in one corner of the yard, and talking to another at a window; and a third had opened a door belonging to the office. In the middle of the yard lay a small leather purse, with two keys hanging at it, with money in it; but nobody would meddle with it. I asked how long it had lain there. The man at the window said it had lain almost an hour, but they had not meddled with it, because they did not know but the person who dropped it might come back to look for it. I had no such need of money, nor was the sum so big that I had any inclination to meddle with it or to get the money at the hazard it might be attended with: so I seemed to go away, when the man who had opened the door said he would take it up, but so that, if the right owner came for it, he should be sure to have it. So he went in and fetched a pail of water, and set it down hard by the purse, then went again and fetched some gunpowder, and cast a good deal of powder upon the purse, and then made a train from that which he had thrown loose upon the purse (the train reached about two yards); after this he goes in a third time, and fetches out a pair of tongs red hot, and which he had prepared, I suppose, on purpose; and first setting fire to the train of powder, that singed the purse, and also smoked the air sufficiently. But he was not content with that, but he then takes up the purse with the tongs, holding it so long till the tongs burnt through the purse, and then he shook the money out into the pail of water: so he carried it in. The money, as I remember, was about thirteen shillings, and some smooth groats and brass farthings.

Much about the same time, I walked out into the fields towards Bow; for I had a great mind to see how things were managed in the river and among the ships; and, as I had some concern in shipping, I had a notion that it had been one of the best ways of securing one’s self from the infection to have retired into a ship. And, musing how to satisfy my curiosity in that point, I turned away over the fields, from Bow to Bromley, and down to Blackwall, to the stairs that are there for landing, or taking water.

Here I saw a poor man walking on the bank, or “sea wall” as they call it, by himself. I walked awhile also about, seeing the houses all shut up. At last I fell into some talk, at a distance, with this poor man. First I asked how people did thereabouts. “Alas, sir!” says he, “almost desolate, all dead or sick; here are very few families in this part, or in that village,” pointing at Poplar, “where half of them are not dead already, and the rest sick.” Then he, pointing to one house, “They are all dead,” said he, “and the house stands open: nobody dares go into it. A poor thief,” says he, “ventured in to steal something; but he paid dear for his theft, for he was carried to the churchyard too, last night.” Then he pointed to several other houses. “There,” says he, “they are all dead, the man and his wife and five children. There,” says he, “they are shut up; you see a watchman at the door:” and so of other houses. “Why,” says I, “what do you here all alone?”—“Why,” says he, “I am a poor desolate man: it hath pleased God I am not yet visited, though my family is, and one of my children dead.”—“How do you mean, then,” said I, “that you are not visited?”—“Why,” says he, “that is my house,” pointing to a very little low boarded house, “and there my poor wife and two children live,” said he, “if they may be said to live; for my wife and one of the children are visited; but I do not come at them.” And with that word I saw the tears run very plentifully down his face; and so they did down mine too, I assure you.

“But,” said I, “why do you not come at them? How can you abandon your own flesh and blood?”—“O sir!” says he, “the Lord forbid! I do not abandon them, I work for them as much as I am able; and, blessed be the Lord! I keep them from want.” And with that I observed he lifted up his eyes to heaven with a countenance that presently told me I had happened on a man that was no hypocrite, but a serious, religious, good man; and his ejaculation was an expression of thankfulness, that, in such a condition as he was in, he should be able to say his family did not want. “Well,” says I, “honest man, that is a great mercy, as things go now with the poor. But how do you live, then, and how are you kept from the dreadful calamity that is now upon us all?”—“Why, sir,” says he, “I am a waterman, and there is my boat,” says he, “and the boat serves me for a house; I work in it in the day, and I sleep in it in the night: and what I get I lay it down upon that stone,” says he, showing me a broad stone on the other side of the street, a good way from his house; “and then,” says he, “I halloo and call to them till I make them hear, and they come and fetch it.”

“Well, friend,” says I, “but how can you get money as a waterman? Does anybody go by water these times?”—“Yes, sir,” says he, “in the way I am employed there does. Do you see there,” says he, “five ships lie at anchor?” pointing down the river a good way below the town; “and do you see,” says he, “eight or ten ships lie at the chain there, and at anchor yonder?” pointing above the town. “All those ships have families on board, of their merchants and owners, and such like, who have locked themselves up and live on board, close shut in, for fear of the infection; and I tend on them to fetch things for them, carry letters, and do what is absolutely necessary, that they may not be obliged to come on shore. And every night I fasten my boat on board one of the ship’s boats, and there I sleep by myself, and, blessed be God! I am preserved hitherto.”

“Well,” said I, “friend, but will they let you come on board after you have been on shore here, when this has been such a terrible place, and so infected as it is?”

“Why, as to that,” said he, “I very seldom go up the ship side, but deliver what I bring to their boat, or lie by the side, and they hoist it on board: if I did, I think they are in no danger from me, for I never go into any house on shore, or touch anybody, no, not of my own family; but I fetch provisions for them.”

“Nay,” says I, “but that may be worse; for you must have those provisions of somebody or other; and since all this part of the town is so infected, it is dangerous so much as to speak with anybody; for the village,” said I, “is, as it were, the beginning of London, though it be at some distance from it.”

“That is true,” added he; “but you do not understand me right. I do not buy provisions for them here. I row up to Greenwich, and buy fresh meat there, and sometimes I row down the river to Woolwich, and buy there; then I go to single farmhouses on the Kentish side, where I am known, and buy fowls and eggs and butter, and bring to the ships as they direct me, sometimes one, sometimes the other. I seldom come on shore here, and I came only now to call my wife, and hear how my little family do, and give them a little money which I received last night.”

“Poor man!” said I. “And how much hast thou gotten for them?”

“I have gotten four shillings,” said he, “which is a great sum, as things go now with poor men; but they have given me a bag of bread too, and a salt fish, and some flesh: so all helps out.”

“Well,” said I, “and have you given it them yet?”

“No,” said he, “but I have called; and my wife has answered that she cannot come out yet, but in half an hour she hopes to come, and I am waiting for her. Poor woman!” says he, “she is brought sadly down; she has had a swelling, and it is broke, and I hope she will recover, but I fear the child will die. But it is the Lord!”—Here he stopped, and wept very much.

“Well, honest friend,” said I, “thou hast a sure comforter, if thou hast brought thyself to be resigned to the will of God: he is dealing with us all in judgment.”

“O sir!” says he, “it is infinite mercy if any of us are spared; and who am I to repine!”

“Say’st thou so?” said I; “and how much less is my faith than thine!” And here my heart smote me, suggesting how much better this poor man’s foundation was, on which he stayed in the danger, than mine: that he had nowhere to fly; that he had a family to bind him to attendance, which I had not; and mine was mere presumption, his a true dependence and a courage resting on God; and yet that he used all possible caution for his safety.

I turned a little away from the man while these thoughts engaged me; for, indeed, I could no more refrain from tears than he.

At length, after some further talk, the poor woman opened the door, and called, “Robert, Robert!” He answered, and bid her stay a few moments and he would come: so he ran down the common stairs to his boat, and fetched up a sack in which was the provisions he had brought from the ships; and when he returned he hallooed again; then he went to the great stone which he showed me, and emptied the sack, and laid all out, everything by themselves, and then retired; and his wife came with a little boy to fetch them away; and he called, and said, such a captain had sent such a thing, and such a captain such a thing, and at the end adds, “God has sent it all: give thanks to him.” When the poor woman had taken up all, she was so weak she could not carry it at once in, though the weight was not much, neither: so she left the biscuit, which was in a little bag, and left a little boy to watch it till she came again.

“Well, but,” says I to him, “did you leave her the four shillings too, which you said was your week’s pay?”

“Yes, yes,” says he; “you shall hear her own it.” So he called again, “Rachel, Rachel!” which it seems was her name, “did you take up the money?”—“Yes,” said she. “How much was it?” said he. “Four shillings and a groat,” said she. “Well, well,” says he, “the Lord keep you all;” and so he turned to go away.

As I could not refrain from contributing tears to this man’s story, so neither could I refrain my charity for his assistance; so I called him. “Hark thee, friend,” said I, “come hither, for I believe thou art in health, that I may venture thee:” so I pulled out my hand, which was in my pocket before. “Here,” says I, “go and call thy Rachel once more, and give her a little more comfort from me. God will never forsake a family that trusts in him as thou dost.” So I gave him four other shillings, and bid him go lay them on the stone, and call his wife.

I have not words to express the poor man’s thankfulness; neither could he express it himself but by tears running down his face. He called his wife, and told her God had moved the heart of a stranger, upon hearing their condition, to give them all that money; and a great deal more such as that he said to her. The woman, too, made signs of the like thankfulness, as well to Heaven as to me, and joyfully picked it up; and I parted with no money all that year that I thought better bestowed.

I then asked the poor man if the distemper had not reached to Greenwich. He said it had not till about a fortnight before; but that then he feared it had, but that it was only at that end of the town which lay south towards Deptford Bridge; that he went only to a butcher’s shop and a grocer’s, where he generally bought such things as they sent him for, but was very careful.

I asked him then how it came to pass that those people who had so shut themselves up in the ships had not laid in sufficient stores of all things necessary. He said some of them had; but, on the other hand, some did not come on board till they were frightened into it, and till it was too dangerous for them to go to the proper people to lay in quantities of things; and that he waited on two ships, which he showed me, that had laid in little or nothing but biscuit bread and ship beer, and that he had bought everything else almost for them. I asked him if there were any more ships that had separated themselves as those had done. He told me yes; all the way up from the point, right against Greenwich, to within the shores of Limehouse and Redriff, all the ships that could have room rid two and two in the middle of the stream, and that some of them had several families on board. I asked him if the distemper had not reached them. He said he believed it had not, except two or three ships, whose people had not been so watchful as to keep the seamen from going on shore as others had been; and he said it was a very fine sight to see how the ships lay up the Pool.

When he said he was going over to Greenwich as soon as the tide began to come in, I asked if he would let me go with him, and bring me back, for that I had a great mind to see how the ships were ranged, as he had told me. He told me if I would assure him, on the word of a Christian and of an honest man, that I had not the distemper, he would. I assured him that I had not; that it had pleased God to preserve me; that I lived in Whitechapel, but was too impatient of being so long within doors, and that I had ventured out so far for the refreshment of a little air, but that none in my house had so much as been touched with it.

“Well, sir,” says he, “as your charity has been moved to pity me and my poor family, sure you cannot have so little pity left as to put yourself into my boat if you were not sound in health, which would be nothing less than killing me, and ruining my whole family.” The poor man troubled me so much when he spoke of his family with such a sensible concern and in such an affectionate manner, that I could not satisfy myself at first to go at all. I told him I would lay aside my curiosity rather than make him uneasy, though I was sure, and very thankful for it, that I had no more distemper upon me than the freshest man in the world. Well, he would not have me put it off neither, but, to let me see how confident he was that I was just to him, he now importuned me to go: so, when the tide came up to his boat, I went in, and he carried me to Greenwich. While he bought the things which he had in charge to buy, I walked up to the top of the hill, under which the town stands, and on the east side of the town, to get a prospect of the river; but it was a surprising sight to see the number of ships which lay in rows, two and two, and in some places two or three such lines in the breadth of the river, and this not only up to the town, between the houses which we call Ratcliff and Redriff, which they name the Pool, but even down the whole river, as far as the head of Long Reach, which is as far as the hills give us leave to see it.

I cannot guess at the number of ships, but I think there must have been several hundreds of sail; and I could not but applaud the contrivance, for ten thousand people and more who attended ship affairs were certainly sheltered here from the violence of the contagion, and lived very safe and very easy.

I returned to my own dwelling very well satisfied with my day’s journey, and particularly with the poor man; also I rejoiced to see that such little sanctuaries were provided for so many families on board in a time of such desolation. I observed, also, that, as the violence of the plague had increased, so the ships which had families on board removed and went farther off, till, as I was told, some went quite away to sea, and put into such harbors and safe roads on the north coast as they could best come at.

But it was also true, that all the people who thus left the land, and lived on board the ships, were not entirely safe from the infection; for many died, and were thrown overboard into the river, some in coffins, and some, as I heard, without coffins, whose bodies were seen sometimes to drive up and down with the tide in the river.

But I believe I may venture to say, that, in those ships which were thus infected, it either happened where the people had recourse to them too late, and did not fly to the ship till they had staid too long on shore, and had the distemper upon them, though perhaps they might not perceive it (and so the distemper did not come to them on board the ships, but they really carried it with them), or it was in these ships where the poor waterman said they had not had time to furnish themselves with provisions, but were obliged to send often on shore to buy what they had occasion for, or suffered boats to come to them from the shore; and so the distemper was brought insensibly among them.

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