‘Now, blessed be God, all our fears are over for none have died of the plague since the eleventh of October and the pest-houses have long been empty.’
So spoke the Reverend. The congregation listened, relieved but not happy.
William Mompasson had endured his own suffering – his wife was buried within the stone circle. His family left as soon as the first man died. It seemed a lifetime, but was only a year.
Catherine Mompasson had been one of the last to succumb, the Reverend remaining at her bedside, door closed.
Had the Reverend been right, to keep the village together? Only eighty remained of the three hundred and fifty people who had been alive when the bundle of cloths arrived. But, the plague had stopped at Eyam. It travelled no further north. Sheffield, and the surrounding towns and villages were safe.
Thanks, he believed, to him.
It was something they had achieved together, under his leadership, but death had touched each and every one of the survivors, shivering in prayer, standing outside the heavy grey walls of the church.
That was another of Mompesson’s edicts; they should never gather in large groups indoors. That would invite the disease in. Outside was safe
Just a look at the many mounds littering the ground outside gave lie to that.
Anna Morten moved away before the others. She had work to do, and already the sun was sinking. She glanced back to where her own family lay, together for ever. Apart from George.
Her husband was dead, her three sons and two daughters also lay in the earth. Just George remained. George, whose grave stood to the end of the Morten line.
Little George, her most precious and most fragile. It was ironic that he should be the one to survive.
Anna hurried home, her house on the outskirts of the village, a much-needed refuge against the November cold. She passed the house of Viccars, and like the others who had avoided death, spat twice as she passed the door. He had started it all, and his own death offered little recompense.
She hurried on, and turned right on to the Hawkshill. Her house was just ahead, the last in the village, and she could see the stones marking the village boundary as she got closer.
George would need her. It was close to dinner, and she had left some stew on the fire. He would be hungry, the bread he had eaten earlier not enough to keep an active young boy going for long.
Anna passed the Torre house, where all five had succumbed within the month of October the previous year. Little Syth first, who played with George so often.
She recalled like it was yesterday the girl sneezing, remembered grabbing George and dragging him inside. It was a wise move. The girl had been dead within a week.
She pushed the heavy door inwards and called: ‘George, George, I’m home.’ She heard him reply and moved into the second room, where he still slept and played even though there was now enough room upstairs for him.
‘It’s cold, darling,’ she laughed, tightening his woollen jacket, and hugging him to her. But really, with the fire burning, the house was warm, despite the wind breezing in from the high Peaks.
Leaving her son, she headed back to the main room, fetching bowls and stirring the stew. It would be their last meal in the house. Anna had decided a month ago, when the rest of the family died, that she and George would leave as soon as the plague was over.
Too many bad memories remained.
Like many of the others, she had thought of taking off in the night, just leaving Eyam behind to Mompasson and his posturing. It would have been easy enough, being so close to the edge of the village. They could have slipped out over-night, and been in the city within a day.
But she had stayed. Just as the rest of the village had done. She had listened to his preaching, and stayed.
She smiled at her son, as they ate her stew. And he looked back, grinning too. His blue eyes radiated love. ‘You’re growing into such a big, handsome boy,’ she told him, and he nodded, too consumed by his meal to answer in words.
Anna reflected on her decision. It had been the right choice, she had no doubt about it. When Francis had succumbed, she had known that the others would follow.
She had seen him trying to hide the sniffles, but when the lump appeared under his armpit, they both knew. Her husband had descended quickly into fever, and death. Within a fortnight the rest had gone, except for herself, and George. Maybe if she had taken the others then, at the beginning, more than just her youngest would still be with her.
But she had not, and paid the penalty.
She looked again at George. He had recovered so quickly. For the youngest, and the one who was always sickly, no one would believe that he had been close to death. But Anna had known that he was really the strongest of the family with an inner strength his little limbs so effectively hid.
Her plan had been thought through carefully. Despite her grief, and worry, she knew that her George would need to be hidden away. He would have to be kept clear of the disease, and if he did catch it from his brothers or sisters, then she would take him and leave the village. Nobody else could know that.
The city would have people who could help. Surgeons and healers, priests and doctors. Anna was not wealthy, but nor where they the poorest family in the village.
It had been such a simple step to get the extra money. When at night the visitors came and left their food and clothing for the people of Eyam, they always took away a little less payment than they expected.
Anna had foresight, and with the vinegar well so close, she just offered to collect payment from the other villagers and leave it in the well. She felt no guilt for taking a secret commission before the outsiders came with their overpriced goods.
They wouldn’t complain, even after Anna had taken her cut, they still got plenty. And, with the village quarantined, and rumours – many of them true – circulating, they certainly had no plans to pass through the stone circle and talk to Mompasson.
No, they just grabbed the coins from the vinegar, trusting that the alkaline had done its job in killing any vestiges of the plague, and moved on.
With the family money, and that she had earned in recent months, Anna was now ready and able to pay for whatever help she needed should it come to pass that George fell ill again.
Back when Francis and the others were infected, she had known there was only one place where her angel could be completely safe from others. And that was in the ground.
It was easy. Old Howe the gravedigger was sure that he would catch the disease eventually. The villagers claimed he must have some kind of deal with God, because he had more contact with the dead and dying than anybody.
She just told him, tearfully, to dig one extra hole. For her George, and she would bury him herself, at night, in private, such was her grief.
Old Howe had been only too happy to agree. He still got his pennies, and it was one body he wouldn’t have to touch, just cover the following morning. She’d filled the wooden box with a few stones, and George remained at home, safe and secret.
Anna collected the bowls, and moved the stew from the fire. There would be enough for tomorrow if they needed it. Then she remembered; they wouldn’t. She was determined that now George and she could leave, they would do so as soon as possible.
Just before dawn was best. Before the fields filled and the sounds of the celebrating villagers disturbed his dreams.
‘We won’t take much, George,’ she told him. ‘And you can travel in the wagon – you can reach Sheffield like a King.’
He liked that idea, and smiled at her once more. Anna moved to him, and ruffled his fair hair. ‘Bed now, we’ve got a long journey tomorrow. And an early start.’
She told him that they would travel light, and buy toys and clothes when they arrived.
It was time to leave Eyam behind, and start again. Just her, and her little George.
She tucked him into his bed, snuggled warm beneath his blanket. They smiled at each other, mother and son, and by the time her goodnight kiss was over his eyes were already closed.
She knew it would not be long before the steady, rhythmic breathing told her he was asleep.
Anna collected what they would need. Put it in the wagon, along with an extra blanket to cover him just in case they met somebody from the village. After all, it might not just be her who had plans now they were free to go.
She crept back into his room, and sat by the bed, gently stroking his hands and staring lovingly into his gentle, pale face.
For a moment, she saw his eyes open, and a smile break his lips. ‘Tomorrow, George, it will be so exciting.’ His eyes closed once more, but still she sat at his bedside. Anna trembled slowly in anticipation.
They were on the road before day break. George wrapped in his blanket, but so excited Anna thought he would leap out of the wagon, and be seen from the houses behind.
Anna pushed them beyond the stones, and onto the road. Within minutes the twisting lane lost the village to them, and she relaxed.
They walked all morning and stopped by a stream to drink and eat bread.
They walked through the afternoon, until the wagon became too heavy to push any further and they found a barn as the short day turned into night.
Anna knew that by tomorrow, she would be in Sheffield with her son, and would seek out an inn to spend the night then soon, a home and a job. George would find friends once more, and his laughter would continue to light her days.
Even the weather was supporting their venture. The wind had dropped and the cold was muffled by heavy, but inactive, clouds. They snuggled amongst the hay and warmth of the sheltered animals and, hugged together, slept.
Once more before dawn, Anna was on the road, her son wrapped in the wagon. The spires of the city were in sight now, and both just wanted to arrive. They finished the last of the bread before pushing on to the final, hilly mile.
Anna had forgotten what bustle was like. The city shouted at her and her boy. Even when Eyam was full, it was nothing like this and for the past year it had been a ghost village, the residents either dead, or too scared to do much beyond stay in their homes.
But Sheffield sang. It was exciting and frightening in equal measures. She knew that George felt the same, could sense his quickened breathing.
Ahead was the Cathedral, its spires and towers like a beacon to her. The crowds were heavier now, but she was getting used to the noise. She could tell that George, too, knew their journey was nearly over. Soon he could leave the wagon, run and jump around the square.
It was as she stood in front of the spire, the square opened around her, looking up in awe, that the child ran into her. She was aware of the movement, felt the bump and saw another boy chasing her accoster. She saw the boy stop, his face lighting up in laughter, then freezing. She felt the other one hit her, then bounce away before crashing into the wagon.
She heard it topple.
And she saw the faces of the crowds as they saw her baby, her George, tumble out. His face and arms deathly white. The fuzz of death already on his beautiful body, and the lumps from the deadly disease visible on his neck. The disease that had killed him, quicker than she could believe, just a week ago.
‘Get away from him,’ she screamed at the gawping masses. They were keen to do so, and backed off, still staring at the body of the young boy and the screaming, sobbing woman.
But not before they felt the moisture of her cough cover their faces.
By Alan Peters