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Chapter 7

I DID proceed to Windsor, but not with the intention of remaining there. I
went but to obtain the consent of Idris, and then to return and take my
station beside my unequalled friend; to share his labours, and save him, if
so it must be, at the expence of my life. Yet I dreaded to witness the
anguish which my resolve might excite in Idris. I had vowed to my own heart
never to shadow her countenance even with transient grief, and should I
prove recreant at the hour of greatest need? I had begun my journey with
anxious haste; now I desired to draw it out through the course of days and
months. I longed to avoid the necessity of action; I strove to escape from
thought--vainly--futurity, like a dark image in a phantasmagoria, came
nearer and more near, till it clasped the whole earth in its shadow.

A slight circumstance induced me to alter my usual route, and to return
home by Egham and Bishopgate. I alighted at Perdita's ancient abode, her
cottage; and, sending forward the carriage, determined to walk across the
park to the castle. This spot, dedicated to sweetest recollections, the
deserted house and neglected garden were well adapted to nurse my
melancholy. In our happiest days, Perdita had adorned her cottage with
every aid art might bring, to that which nature had selected to favour. In
the same spirit of exaggeration she had, on the event of her separation
from Raymond, caused it to be entirely neglected. It was now in ruin: the
deer had climbed the broken palings, and reposed among the flowers; grass
grew on the threshold, and the swinging lattice creaking to the wind, gave
signal of utter desertion. The sky was blue above, and the air impregnated
with fragrance by the rare flowers that grew among the weeds. The trees
moved overhead, awakening nature's favourite melody--but the melancholy
appearance of the choaked paths, and weed-grown flower-beds, dimmed even
this gay summer scene. The time when in proud and happy security we
assembled at this cottage, was gone--soon the present hours would join
those past, and shadows of future ones rose dark and menacing from the womb
of time, their cradle and their bier. For the first time in my life I
envied the sleep of the dead, and thought with pleasure of one's bed under
the sod, where grief and fear have no power. I passed through the gap of
the broken paling--I felt, while I disdained, the choaking tears--I
rushed into the depths of the forest. O death and change, rulers of our
life, where are ye, that I may grapple with you! What was there in our
tranquillity, that excited your envy--in our happiness, that ye should
destroy it? We were happy, loving, and beloved; the horn of Amalthea
contained no blessing unshowered upon us, but, alas!

la fortuna
deidad barbara importuna,
oy cadaver y ayer flor,
no permanece jamas![1]

As I wandered on thus ruminating, a number of country people passed me.
They seemed full of careful thought, and a few words of their conversation
that reached me, induced me to approach and make further enquiries. A party
of people flying from London, as was frequent in those days, had come up
the Thames in a boat. No one at Windsor would afford them shelter; so,
going a little further up, they remained all night in a deserted hut near
Bolter's lock. They pursued their way the following morning, leaving one of
their company behind them, sick of the plague. This circumstance once
spread abroad, none dared approach within half a mile of the infected
neighbourhood, and the deserted wretch was left to fight with disease and
death in solitude, as he best might. I was urged by compassion to hasten to
the hut, for the purpose of ascertaining his situation, and administering
to his wants.

As I advanced I met knots of country-people talking earnestly of this
event: distant as they were from the apprehended contagion, fear was
impressed on every countenance. I passed by a group of these terrorists, in
a lane in the direct road to the hut. One of them stopped me, and,
conjecturing that I was ignorant of the circumstance, told me not to go on,
for that an infected person lay but at a short distance.

"I know it," I replied, "and I am going to see in what condition the poor
fellow is."

A murmur of surprise and horror ran through the assembly. I continued:--
"This poor wretch is deserted, dying, succourless; in these unhappy times,
God knows how soon any or all of us may be in like want. I am going to do,
as I would be done by."

"But you will never be able to return to the Castle--Lady Idris--his
children--" in confused speech were the words that struck my ear.

"Do you not know, my friends," I said, "that the Earl himself, now Lord
Protector, visits daily, not only those probably infected by this disease,
but the hospitals and pest houses, going near, and even touching the sick?
yet he was never in better health. You labour under an entire mistake as to
the nature of the plague; but do not fear, I do not ask any of you to
accompany me, nor to believe me, until I return safe and sound from my
patient."

So I left them, and hurried on. I soon arrived at the hut: the door was
ajar. I entered, and one glance assured me that its former inhabitant was
no more--he lay on a heap of straw, cold and stiff; while a pernicious
effluvia filled the room, and various stains and marks served to shew the
virulence of the disorder.

I had never before beheld one killed by pestilence. While every mind was
full of dismay at its effects, a craving for excitement had led us to
peruse De Foe's account, and the masterly delineations of the author of
Arthur Mervyn. The pictures drawn in these books were so vivid, that we
seemed to have experienced the results depicted by them. But cold were the
sensations excited by words, burning though they were, and describing the
death and misery of thousands, compared to what I felt in looking on the
corpse of this unhappy stranger. This indeed was the plague. I raised his
rigid limbs, I marked the distortion of his face, and the stony eyes lost
to perception. As I was thus occupied, chill horror congealed my blood,
making my flesh quiver and my hair to stand on end. Half insanely I spoke
to the dead. So the plague killed you, I muttered. How came this? Was the
coming painful? You look as if the enemy had tortured, before he murdered
you. And now I leapt up precipitately, and escaped from the hut, before
nature could revoke her laws, and inorganic words be breathed in answer
from the lips of the departed.

On returning through the lane, I saw at a distance the same assemblage of
persons which I had left. They hurried away, as soon as they saw me; my
agitated mien added to their fear of coming near one who had entered within
the verge of contagion.

At a distance from facts one draws conclusions which appear infallible,
which yet when put to the test of reality, vanish like unreal dreams. I had
ridiculed the fears of my countrymen, when they related to others; now that
they came home to myself, I paused. The Rubicon, I felt, was passed; and it
behoved me well to reflect what I should do on this hither side of disease
and danger. According to the vulgar superstition, my dress, my person, the
air I breathed, bore in it mortal danger to myself and others. Should I
return to the Castle, to my wife and children, with this taint upon me? Not
surely if I were infected; but I felt certain that I was not--a few hours
would determine the question--I would spend these in the forest, in
reflection on what was to come, and what my future actions were to be. In
the feeling communicated to me by the sight of one struck by the plague, I
forgot the events that had excited me so strongly in London; new and more
painful prospects, by degrees were cleared of the mist which had hitherto
veiled them. The question was no longer whether I should share Adrian's
toils and danger; but in what manner I could, in Windsor and the
neighbourhood, imitate the prudence and zeal which, under his government,
produced order and plenty in London, and how, now pestilence had spread
more widely, I could secure the health of my own family.

I spread the whole earth out as a map before me. On no one spot of its
surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety. In the south, the
disease, virulent and immedicable, had nearly annihilated the race of man;
storm and inundation, poisonous winds and blights, filled up the measure of
suffering. In the north it was worse--the lesser population gradually
declined, and famine and plague kept watch on the survivors, who, helpless
and feeble, were ready to fall an easy prey into their hands.

I contracted my view to England. The overgrown metropolis, the great heart
of mighty Britain, was pulseless. Commerce had ceased. All resort for
ambition or pleasure was cut off--the streets were grass-grown--the
houses empty--the few, that from necessity remained, seemed already
branded with the taint of inevitable pestilence. In the larger
manufacturing towns the same tragedy was acted on a smaller, yet more
disastrous scale. There was no Adrian to superintend and direct, while
whole flocks of the poor were struck and killed. Yet we were not all to die.
No truly, though thinned, the race of man would continue, and the great
plague would, in after years, become matter of history and wonder.
Doubtless this visitation was for extent unexampled--more need that we
should work hard to dispute its progress; ere this men have gone out in
sport, and slain their thousands and tens of thousands; but now man had
become a creature of price; the life of one of them was of more worth than
the so called treasures of kings. Look at his thought-endued countenance,
his graceful limbs, his majestic brow, his wondrous mechanism--the type
and model of this best work of God is not to be cast aside as a broken
vessel--he shall be preserved, and his children and his children's
children carry down the name and form of man to latest time.

Above all I must guard those entrusted by nature and fate to my especial
care. And surely, if among all my fellow-creatures I were to select those
who might stand forth examples of the greatness and goodness of man, I
could choose no other than those allied to me by the most sacred ties. Some
from among the family of man must survive, and these should be among the
survivors; that should be my task--to accomplish it my own life were a
small sacrifice. There then in that castle--in Windsor Castle,
birth-place of Idris and my babes, should be the haven and retreat for the
wrecked bark of human society. Its forest should be our world--its garden
afford us food; within its walls I would establish the shaken throne of
health. I was an outcast and a vagabond, when Adrian gently threw over me
the silver net of love and civilization, and linked me inextricably to
human charities and human excellence. I was one, who, though an aspirant
after good, and an ardent lover of wisdom, was yet unenrolled in any list
of worth, when Idris, the princely born, who was herself the
personification of all that was divine in woman, she who walked the earth
like a poet's dream, as a carved goddess endued with sense, or pictured
saint stepping from the canvas--she, the most worthy, chose me, and gave
me herself--a priceless gift.

During several hours I continued thus to meditate, till hunger and fatigue
brought me back to the passing hour, then marked by long shadows cast from
the descending sun. I had wandered towards Bracknel, far to the west of
Windsor. The feeling of perfect health which I enjoyed, assured me that I
was free from contagion. I remembered that Idris had been kept in ignorance
of my proceedings. She might have heard of my return from London, and my
visit to Bolter's Lock, which, connected with my continued absence, might
tend greatly to alarm her. I returned to Windsor by the Long Walk, and
passing through the town towards the Castle, I found it in a state of
agitation and disturbance.

"It is too late to be ambitious," says Sir Thomas Browne. "We cannot hope
to live so long in our names as some have done in their persons; one face
of Janus holds no proportion to the other." Upon this text many fanatics
arose, who prophesied that the end of time was come. The spirit of
superstition had birth, from the wreck of our hopes, and antics wild and
dangerous were played on the great theatre, while the remaining particle of
futurity dwindled into a point in the eyes of the prognosticators.
Weak-spirited women died of fear as they listened to their denunciations;
men of robust form and seeming strength fell into idiotcy and madness,
racked by the dread of coming eternity. A man of this kind was now pouring
forth his eloquent despair among the inhabitants of Windsor. The scene of
the morning, and my visit to the dead, which had been spread abroad, had
alarmed the country-people, so they had become fit instruments to be played
upon by a maniac.

The poor wretch had lost his young wife and lovely infant by the plague. He
was a mechanic; and, rendered unable to attend to the occupation which
supplied his necessities, famine was added to his other miseries. He left
the chamber which contained his wife and child--wife and child no more,
but "dead earth upon the earth"--wild with hunger, watching and grief,
his diseased fancy made him believe himself sent by heaven to preach the
end of time to the world. He entered the churches, and foretold to the
congregations their speedy removal to the vaults below. He appeared like
the forgotten spirit of the time in the theatres, and bade the spectators
go home and die. He had been seized and confined; he had escaped and
wandered from London among the neighbouring towns, and, with frantic
gestures and thrilling words, he unveiled to each their hidden fears, and
gave voice to the soundless thought they dared not syllable. He stood under
the arcade of the town-hall of Windsor, and from this elevation harangued a
trembling crowd.

"Hear, O ye inhabitants of the earth," he cried, "hear thou, all seeing,
but most pitiless Heaven! hear thou too, O tempest-tossed heart, which
breathes out these words, yet faints beneath their meaning! Death is among
us! The earth is beautiful and flower-bedecked, but she is our grave! The
clouds of heaven weep for us--the pageantry of the stars is but our
funeral torchlight. Grey headed men, ye hoped for yet a few years in your
long-known abode--but the lease is up, you must remove--children, ye
will never reach maturity, even now the small grave is dug for ye--
mothers, clasp them in your arms, one death embraces you!"

Shuddering, he stretched out his hands, his eyes cast up, seemed bursting
from their sockets, while he appeared to follow shapes, to us invisible, in
the yielding air--"There they are," he cried, "the dead! They rise in
their shrouds, and pass in silent procession towards the far land of their
doom--their bloodless lips move not--their shadowy limbs are void of
motion, while still they glide onwards. We come," he exclaimed, springing
forwards, "for what should we wait? Haste, my friends, apparel yourselves
in the court-dress of death. Pestilence will usher you to his presence. Why
thus long? they, the good, the wise, and the beloved, are gone before.
Mothers, kiss you last--husbands, protectors no more, lead on the
partners of your death! Come, O come! while the dear ones are yet in sight,
for soon they will pass away, and we never never shall join them more."

From such ravings as these, he would suddenly become collected, and with
unexaggerated but terrific words, paint the horrors of the time; describe
with minute detail, the effects of the plague on the human frame, and tell
heart-breaking tales of the snapping of dear affinities--the gasping
horror of despair over the death-bed of the last beloved--so that groans
and even shrieks burst from the crowd. One man in particular stood in
front, his eyes fixt on the prophet, his mouth open, his limbs rigid, while
his face changed to various colours, yellow, blue, and green, through
intense fear. The maniac caught his glance, and turned his eye on him--
one has heard of the gaze of the rattle-snake, which allures the trembling
victim till he falls within his jaws. The maniac became composed; his
person rose higher; authority beamed from his countenance. He looked on the
peasant, who began to tremble, while he still gazed; his knees knocked
together; his teeth chattered. He at last fell down in convulsions. "That
man has the plague," said the maniac calmly. A shriek burst from the lips
of the poor wretch; and then sudden motionlessness came over him; it was
manifest to all that he was dead.

Cries of horror filled the place--every one endeavoured to effect his
escape--in a few minutes the market place was cleared--the corpse lay
on the ground; and the maniac, subdued and exhausted, sat beside it,
leaning his gaunt cheek upon his thin hand. Soon some people, deputed by
the magistrates, came to remove the body; the unfortunate being saw a
jailor in each--he fled precipitately, while I passed onwards to the
Castle.

Death, cruel and relentless, had entered these beloved walls. An old
servant, who had nursed Idris in infancy, and who lived with us more on the
footing of a revered relative than a domestic, had gone a few days before
to visit a daughter, married, and settled in the neighbourhood of London.
On the night of her return she sickened of the plague. From the haughty and
unbending nature of the Countess of Windsor, Idris had few tender filial
associations with her. This good woman had stood in the place of a mother,
and her very deficiencies of education and knowledge, by rendering her
humble and defenceless, endeared her to us--she was the especial
favourite of the children. I found my poor girl, there is no exaggeration
in the expression, wild with grief and dread. She hung over the patient in
agony, which was not mitigated when her thoughts wandered towards her
babes, for whom she feared infection. My arrival was like the newly
discovered lamp of a lighthouse to sailors, who are weathering some
dangerous point. She deposited her appalling doubts in my hands; she relied
on my judgment, and was comforted by my participation in her sorrow. Soon
our poor nurse expired; and the anguish of suspense was changed to deep
regret, which though at first more painful, yet yielded with greater
readiness to my consolations. Sleep, the sovereign balm, at length steeped
her tearful eyes in forgetfulness.

She slept; and quiet prevailed in the Castle, whose inhabitants were hushed
to repose. I was awake, and during the long hours of dead night, my busy
thoughts worked in my brain, like ten thousand mill-wheels, rapid, acute,
untameable. All slept--all England slept; and from my window, commanding
a wide prospect of the star-illumined country, I saw the land stretched out
in placid rest. I was awake, alive, while the brother of death possessed my
race. What, if the more potent of these fraternal deities should obtain
dominion over it? The silence of midnight, to speak truly, though
apparently a paradox, rung in my ears. The solitude became intolerable--I
placed my hand on the beating heart of Idris, I bent my head to catch the
sound of her breath, to assure myself that she still existed--for a
moment I doubted whether I should not awake her; so effeminate an horror
ran through my frame.--Great God! would it one day be thus? One day all
extinct, save myself, should I walk the earth alone? Were these warning
voices, whose inarticulate and oracular sense forced belief upon me?

Yet I would not call them
Voices of warning, that announce to us
Only the inevitable. As the sun,
Ere it is risen, sometimes paints its image
In the atmosphere--so often do the spirits
Of great events stride on before the events,
And in to-day already walks to-morrow.[2]

[1] Calderon de la Barca.
[2] Coleridge's Translation of Schiller's Wallenstein.


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