History of the Plague in England

§ 10

Daniel Defoe

HERE they went to sleep; but the joiner, a grave and sober man, and not pleased with their lying at this loose rate the first night, could not sleep, and resolved, after trying it to no purpose, that he would get out, and, taking the gun in his hand, stand sentinel, and guard his companions. So, with the gun in his hand, he walked to and again before the barn; for that stood in the field near the road, but within the hedge. He had not been long upon the scout, but he heard a noise of people coming on as if it had been a great number; and they came on, as he thought, directly towards the barn. He did not presently awake his companions, but in a few minutes more, their noise growing louder and louder, the biscuit baker called to him and asked him what was the matter, and quickly started out too. The other being the lame sailmaker, and most weary, lay still in the tent.

As they expected, so the people whom they had heard came on directly to the barn, when one of our travelers challenged, like soldiers upon the guard, with, “Who comes there?” The people did not answer immediately; but one of them speaking to another that was behind them, “Alas, alas! we are all disappointed,” says he; “here are some people before us; the barn is taken up.”

They all stopped upon that, as under some surprise; and it seems there were about thirteen of them in all, and some women among them. They consulted together what they should do; and by their discourse, our travelers soon found they were poor distressed people too, like themselves, seeking shelter and safety; and besides, our travelers had no need to be afraid of their coming up to disturb them, for as soon as they heard the words, “Who comes there?” they could hear the women say, as if frighted, “Do not go near them; how do you know but they may have the plague?” And when one of the men said, “Let us but speak to them,” the women said, “No, don’t, by any means; we have escaped thus far by the goodness of God; do not let us run into danger now, we beseech you.”

Our travelers found by this that they were a good sober sort of people, and flying for their lives as they were; and as they were encouraged by it, so John said to the joiner, his comrade, “Let us encourage them too, as much as we can.” So he called to them. “Hark ye, good people,” says the joiner; “we find by your talk that you are flying from the same dreadful enemy as we are. Do not be afraid of us; we are only three poor men of us. If you are free from the distemper, you shall not be hurt by us. We are not in the barn, but in a little tent here on the outside, and we will remove for you; we can set up our tent again immediately anywhere else.” And upon this a parley began between the joiner, whose name was Richard, and one of their men, whose said name was Ford.

Ford. And do you assure us that you are all sound men?

Rich. Nay, we are concerned to tell you of it, that you may not be uneasy, or think yourselves in danger; but you see we do not desire you should put yourselves into any danger, and therefore I tell you that we have not made use of the barn; so we will remove from it, that you may be safe and we also.

Ford. That is very kind and charitable; but if we have reason to be satisfied that you are sound, and free from the visitation, why should we make you remove, now you are settled in your lodging, and, it may be, are laid down to rest? We will go into the barn, if you please, to rest ourselves awhile, and we need not disturb you.

Rich. Well, but you are more than we are. I hope you will assure us that you are all of you sound too, for the danger is as great from you to us as from us to you.

Ford. Blessed be God that some do escape, though it be but few! What may be our portion still, we know not, but hitherto we are preserved.

Rich. What part of the town do you come from? Was the plague come to the places where you lived?

Ford. Ay, ay, in a most frightful and terrible manner, or else we had not fled away as we do; but we believe there will be very few left alive behind us.

Rich. What part do you come from?

Ford. We are most of us from Cripplegate Parish; only two or three of Clerkenwell Parish, but on the hither side.

Rich. How, then, was it that you came away no sooner?

Ford. We have been away some time, and kept together as well as we could at the hither end of Islington, where we got leave to lie in an old uninhabited house, and had some bedding and conveniences of our own, that we brought with us; but the plague is come up into Islington too, and a house next door to our poor dwelling was infected and shut up, and we are come away in a fright.

Rich. And what way are you going?

Ford. As our lot shall cast us, we know not whither; but God will guide those that look up to him.

They parleyed no further at that time, but came all up to the barn, and with some difficulty got into it. There was nothing but hay in the barn, but it was almost full of that, and they accommodated themselves as well as they could, and went to rest; but our travelers observed that before they went to sleep, an ancient man, who, it seems, was the father of one of the women, went to prayer with all the company, recommending themselves to the blessing and protection of Providence before they went to sleep.

It was soon day at that time of the year; and as Richard the joiner had kept guard the first part of the night, so John the soldier relieved him, and he had the post in the morning. And they began to be acquainted with one another. It seems, when they left Islington, they intended to have gone north away to Highgate, but were stopped at Holloway, and there they would not let them pass; so they crossed over the fields and hills to the eastward, and came out at the Boarded River, and so, avoiding the towns, they left Hornsey on the left hand, and Newington on the right hand, and came into the great road about Stamford Hill on that side, as the three travelers had done on the other side. And now they had thoughts of going over the river in the marshes, and make forwards to Epping Forest, where they hoped they should get leave to rest. It seems they were not poor, at least not so poor as to be in want: at least, they had enough to subsist them moderately for two or three months, when, as they said, they were in hopes the cold weather would check the infection, or at least the violence of it would have spent itself, and would abate, if it were only for want of people left alive to be infected.

This was much the fate of our three travelers, only that they seemed to be the better furnished for traveling, and had it in their view to go farther off; for, as to the first, they did not propose to go farther than one day’s journey, that so they might have intelligence every two or three days how things were at London.

But here our travelers found themselves under an unexpected inconvenience, namely, that of their horse; for, by means of the horse to carry their baggage, they were obliged to keep in the road, whereas the people of this other band went over the fields or roads, path or no path, way or no way, as they pleased. Neither had they any occasion to pass through any town, or come near any town, other than to buy such things as they wanted for their necessary subsistence; and in that, indeed, they were put to much difficulty, of which in its place.

But our three travelers were obliged to keep the road, or else they must commit spoil, and do the country a great deal of damage in breaking down fences and gates to go over inclosed fields, which they were loath to do if they could help it.

Our three travelers, however, had a great mind to join themselves to this company, and take their lot with them; and, after some discourse, they laid aside their first design, which looked northward, and resolved to follow the other into Essex. So in the morning they took up their tent and loaded their horse, and away they traveled all together.

They had some difficulty in passing the ferry at the riverside, the ferryman being afraid of them; but, after some parley at a distance, the ferryman was content to bring his boat to a place distant from the usual ferry, and leave it there for them to take it. So, putting themselves over, he directed them to leave the boat, and he, having another boat, said he would fetch it again; which it seems, however, he did not do for above eight days.

Here, giving the ferryman money beforehand, they had a supply of victuals and drink, which he brought and left in the boat for them, but not without, as I said, having received the money beforehand. But now our travelers were at a great loss and difficulty how to get the horse over, the boat being small, and not fit for it, and at last could not do it without unloading the baggage and making him swim over.

From the river they traveled towards the forest; but when they came to Walthamstow, the people of that town denied to admit them, as was the case everywhere; the constables and their watchmen kept them off at a distance, and parleyed with them. They gave the same account of themselves as before; but these gave no credit to what they said, giving it for a reason, that two or three companies had already come that way and made the like pretenses, but that they had given several people the distemper in the towns where they had passed, and had been afterwards so hardly used by the country, though with justice too, as they had deserved, that about Brentwood or that way, several of them perished in the fields, whether of the plague, or of mere want and distress, they could not tell.

This was a good reason, indeed, why the people of Walthamstow should be very cautious, and why they should resolve not to entertain anybody that they were not well satisfied of; but as Richard the joiner, and one of the other men who parleyed with them, told them, it was no reason why they should block up the roads and refuse to let the people pass through the town, and who asked nothing of them but to go through the street; that, if their people were afraid of them, they might go into their houses and shut their doors: they would neither show them civility nor incivility, but go on about their business.

The constables and attendants, not to be persuaded by reason, continued obstinate, and would hearken to nothing: so the two men that talked with them went back to their fellows to consult what was to be done. It was very discouraging in the whole, and they knew not what to do for a good while; but at last John, the soldier and biscuit baker, considering awhile, “Come,” says he, “leave the rest of the parley to me.” He had not appeared yet: so he sets the joiner, Richard, to work to cut some poles out of the trees, and shape them as like guns as he could; and in a little time he had five or six fair muskets, which at a distance would not be known; and about the part where the lock of a gun is, he caused them to wrap cloth and rags, such as they had, as soldiers do in wet weather to preserve the locks of their pieces from rust; the rest was discolored with clay or mud, such as they could get; and all this while the rest of them sat under the trees by his direction, in two or three bodies, where they made fires at a good distance from one another.

While this was doing, he advanced himself, and two or three with him, and set up their tent in the lane, within sight of the barrier which the townsmen had made, and set a sentinel just by it with the real gun, the only one they had, and who walked to and fro with the gun on his shoulder, so as that the people of the town might see them; also he tied the horse to a gate in the hedge just by, and got some dry sticks together and kindled a fire on the other side of the tent, so that the people of the town could see the fire and the smoke, but could not see what they were doing at it.

After the country people had looked upon them very earnestly a great while, and by all that they could see could not but suppose that they were a great many in company, they began to be uneasy, not for their going away, but for staying where they were; and above all, perceiving they had horses and arms (for they had seen one horse and one gun at the tent, and they had seen others of them walk about the field on the inside of the hedge by the side of the lane with their muskets, as they took them to be, shouldered),—I say, upon such a sight as this, you may be assured they were alarmed and terribly frightened; and it seems they went to a justice of the peace to know what they should do. What the justice advised them to, I know not; but towards the evening they called from the barrier, as above, to the sentinel at the tent.

“What do you want?” says John.

“Why, what do you intend to do?” says the constable.

“To do?” says John; “what would you have us to do?”

Const. Why don’t you begone? What do you stay there for?

John. Why do you stop us on the King’s highway, and pretend to refuse us leave to go on our way?

Const. We are not bound to tell you the reason, though we did let you know it was because of the plague.

John. We told you we were all sound, and free from the plague, which we were not bound to have satisfied you of, and yet you pretend to stop us on the highway.

Const. We have a right to stop it up, and our own safety obliges us to it; besides, this is not the King’s highway, it is a way upon sufferance. You see here is a gate, and if we do let people pass here, we make them pay toll.

John. We have a right to seek our own safety as well as you; and you may see we are flying for our lives, and it is very unchristian and unjust in you to stop us.

Const. You may go back from whence you came, we do not hinder you from that.

John. No, it is a stronger enemy than you that keeps us from doing that, or else we should not have come hither.

Const. Well, you may go any other way, then.

John. No, no. I suppose you see we are able to send you going, and all the people of your parish, and come through your town when we will; but, since you have stopped us here, we are content. You see we have encamped here, and here we will live. We hope you will furnish us with victuals.

Const. We furnish you! What mean you by that?

John. Why, you would not have us starve, would you? If you stop us here, you must keep us.

Const. You will be ill kept at our maintenance.

John. If you stint us, we shall make ourselves the better allowance.

Const. Why, you will not pretend to quarter upon us by force, will you?

John. We have offered no violence to you yet, why do you seem to oblige us to it? I am an old soldier, and cannot starve; and, if you think that we shall be obliged to go back for want of provisions, you are mistaken.

Const. Since you threaten us, we shall take care to be strong enough for you. I have orders to raise the county upon you.

John. It is you that threaten, not we; and, since you are for mischief, you cannot blame us if we do not give you time for it. We shall begin our march in a few minutes.

Const. What is it you demand of us?

John. At first we desired nothing of you but leave to go through the town. We should have offered no injury to any of you, neither would you have had any injury or loss by us. We are not thieves, but poor people in distress, and flying from the dreadful plague in London, which devours thousands every week. We wonder how you can be so unmerciful.

Const. Self-preservation obliges us.

John. What! To shut up your compassion, in a case of such distress as this?

Const. Well, if you will pass over the fields on your left hand, and behind that part of the town, I will endeavor to have gates opened for you.

John. Our horsemen cannot pass with our baggage that way. It does not lead into the road that we want to go, and why should you force us out of the road? Besides, you have kept us here all day without any provisions but such as we brought with us. I think you ought to send us some provisions for our relief.

Const. If you will go another way, we will send you some provisions.

John. That is the way to have all the towns in the county stop up the ways against us.

Const. If they all furnish you with food, what will you be the worse? I see you have tents: you want no lodging.

John. Well, what quantity of provisions will you send us?

Const. How many are you?

John. Nay, we do not ask enough for all our company. We are in three companies. If you will send us bread for twenty men and about six or seven women for three days, and show us the way over the field you speak of, we desire not to put your people into any fear for us. We will go out of our way to oblige you, though we are as free from infection as you are.

Const. And will you assure us that your other people shall offer us no new disturbance?

John. No, no; you may depend on it.

Const. You must oblige yourself, too, that none of your people shall come a step nearer than where the provisions we send you shall be set down.

John. I answer for it, we will not.

Here he called to one of his men, and bade him order Captain Richard and his people to march the lower way on the side of the marshes, and meet them in the forest; which was all a sham, for they had no Captain Richard or any such company.

Accordingly, they sent to the place twenty loaves of bread and three or four large pieces of good beef, and opened some gates, through which they passed; but none of them had courage so much as to look out to see them go, and as it was evening, if they had looked, they could not have seen them so as to know how few they were.

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