A blazing star appeared for several weeks before the plague, passing directly over the city and so very near the houses it was plain it imported something peculiar and the apprehensions of the people were greatly increased.
-Journal of the Plague Year
The comet blazed across the heavens, trailing sparkling gas clouds and creating a spectacular show in the early evening sky. The clear weather brought people out into the gardens and lanes, enjoying the soft air and twinkling stars. Children clapped and cried out in wonder but older denizens cast worried glances at the fiery arrow scorching the London sky. Such sights foretold disastrous events and though they exclaimed they soon began to voice fear and consternation. No good would come of it.
Rumor had it that the plague had arisen again in Venice, brought there from the Levant in the late autumn of last year. That graceful floating city was awash with bloated corpses that rose and sank with the tides, its vast wharves a graveyard of ships that entombed putrefying bodies. The great Doge himself was said to have fled the town with all his family. Thick smoke from sulfur fires intended to cleanse the air filled the streets. Infected citizens were locked away in their own houses. Heavy chains drawn across the waterways bore wooden placards warning of death.
These containment measures were doomed to fail; soon tales of roving, murderous bands of- refugees? penitents? began to filter into outlying lands as towns set up special watches and homegrown militias to guard against their advance. The bands only increased in size after each purported attack and the tales grew more fantastic with the passing months. The refugees were insurrectionists, the refugees were mad, the refugees were cannibals and no one could stop them. Ghost ships, manned by nothing living, drifted on the high seas and foundered in harbors, spilling their dead into the briny waters. The plague leapt from Genoa to Marseilles to Le Havre.
The Bonnie Lass, a 300 ton, storm-battered merchant vessel, had sailed to London from the ports of Istanbul carrying more than just dates from Damascus and spices from fabled India. Unaware they had loaded Death onto their ship, the sailors happily anticipated spending their share of the voyage’s earnings, never imagining they could be dead and pitched overboard to a cold, watery grave by the time they reached the storm-tossed English Channel.
Sailing up the Thames and anchoring at Gravesend, most were too weak to board the skiff their shipmates launched under cover of darkness and were left behind, drowning in their own blood and phlegm. Many would rise to a different existence, unlike any they could have imagined. Those who made it off the ship before London port officials boarded and quarantined them all carried Death and more to their unsuspecting families.
Along the docks of Southwark and through Cheapside the plague slithered from taverns to boarding houses to chapels and took its first victims before anyone even knew it was among them. London began to die.
Two weeks later…
“The house was shut up and sealed properly as ordered, sir. All the family save the mistress were down with the sickness,” said Rolf Wence, watchman for the Shoreditch parish.
“And you say you have heard nothing since that first night? Were they well supplied with food beforehand?” asked Thomas Sand, practicing physician and resident of the parish.
“Aye, sir. They were well supplied. I was sure to send them a plague nurse as soon as I made the report. The mistress screeched something fierce when told they were under quarantine but the signs could not be mistaken. Proof of infection was clear. Two of the children had lain ill for near two days.”
“Would that they had lain somewhere other than Shoreditch. Six more families are now infested with it, with possibly more unreported. I have a house with rooms to let two lanes over and prospects are shying away from the area now,” grumbled the physician.
The parish council had dispatched the men to investigate a house shuttered by order of the council nearly two days ago. Neighbors reported since then there had been no communication from the family thus enclosed.
The street along which they walked was filthy with rotted food scraps and the contents of chamber pots tossed from windows above. Half-timbered buildings built precariously tall loomed over the broken cobbles, blocking out the sun in spots. Both men held vinegar-soaked handkerchiefs to their noses and paused frequently as large rats, naked tails twitching, skittered boldly across their path.
Gradually the streets grew wider and the teetering houses gave way to handsome brick manses set in goodly gardens and they soon stood before a house, stoutly locked and boarded from the outside and marked with the usual ruddy cross painted on the door. A willow, forlorn and weeping, hung over the roof, casting the pale brick into gloom. This was a prosperous area, the dwellings belonging to successful merchant and artisan families, many esteemed members of London guilds.
No smoke rose from any of the house’s several chimneys. Though probably a fancy, to the men the dwellings around it seemed to shrink away from the plague house. The street was deserted and eerily silent. A child’s shoe lay in the gutter, left behind by a fleeing family. Ruts from many wagon wheels marked the earth between the cobbles.
The watchman strode up to the door and rapped sharply on the door with his staff. No response. He walked around the side of the house and knocked on the locked shutters. The sound echoed along the silent lane.
Down the street a door opened and a linen-coiffed woman peered out. From another door emerged a man with two wide-eyed children. A portly man, wearing soft, leather boots and sporting a drooping set of mustaches strolled into view. Slowly, a small crowd gathered outside the plague house.
“Has anyone seen any of the family or given them food?” asked the physician.
“No, sirrah. We have not approached them. There was a great commotion the first night but since then we have heard nothing. The plague nurse the watchman sent could not get them to come to the door,” replied the woman in the mob cap.