Red Eve by H. Rider Haggard

“‘Twixt earthquake and plague Murgh the Helper is helping very well,” said Grey Dick grimly, and Hugh only groaned in answer.

Such was the beginning of the awful plague which travelled from the East to Venice and all Europe and afterward became known by the name of the Black Death. Day by day the number of its victims increased; the hundreds of yesterday were the thousands of the morrow. Soon the graveyards were full, the plague pits, long and deep, were full, and the dead were taken out to sea by shiploads and there cast into the ocean. At length even this could not be done, since none were forthcoming who would dare the task. For it became known that those who did so themselves would surely die.

So where folk fell, there they lay. In the houses were many of them; they cumbered and poisoned the streets and the very churches. Even the animals sickened and perished, until that great city was turned into an open tomb. The reek of it tainted the air for miles around, so that even those who passed it in ships far out to sea turned faint and presently themselves sickened and died. But ere they died they bore on the fatal gift to other lands.

Moreover, starvation fell upon the place. Though the houses were full of riches, these would scarce suffice to buy bread for those who remained alive. The Doge and some of his Council passed laws to lighten the misery of the people, but soon few heeded these laws which none were left to enforce. The vagabonds and evil-minded men who began by robbing the deserted houses of jewels, money and plate, ended by searching them for food and casting aside their treasures as worthless dross. It was even said that some of them did worse things, things not to be named, since in its extremities nature knows no shame. Only if bread and meat were scarce, wine remained in plenty. In the midst of death men—yes, and women—who perhaps had deserted their wives, their husbands or their children, fearing to take the evil from them, made the nights horrible by their drunken blasphemies and revellings, as sailors sometimes do upon a sinking ship. Knowing that they must die, they wished to die merry.

Sir Geoffrey Carleon lived a long while after the burial of his wife. When he passed away at last, ten days or so later, it was painlessly of the mortification of his broken limb, not of the pest, which went by him as though it knew that he was already doomed.

All this time Hugh, Grey Dick, and David Day nursed him without ceasing. Indeed with the exception of a woman so ancient and shrivelled that nothing seemed able to harm her any more, no one else was left in the great palazzo, for all the rest of the household had perished or fled away. This woman, who was the grandmother of one of the servants, now dead of the plague, cooked their food. Of such provision fortunately there was much laid up in the storerooms for use in the winter, since Lady Carleon had been a good and provident housewife.

So those three did not starve, although Sir Geoffrey would touch little of the salted stuff. He existed on a few fruits when they could get them, and after these were gone, on wine mingled with water.

At length came the end. For two days he had lain senseless. One night, however, David, who was watching in his chamber, crept into the room where Hugh slept hard by and told them that Sir Geoffrey was awake and calling them. They rose and went to him. By the light of the moon which shone in at the open window, that same window through which Lady Carleon had looked toward England ere she passed away, they saw him lying quietly, a happy smile upon his face.

“Friends,” he said in a weak voice, “by the mercy of God, I go out of this hell to heaven, or so I think. But, if indeed this be not the end of the world, I hope that you who have lived so long will continue to live, and I have sent for you to bless you and to thank you both. In yonder case are certain papers that have to do with the King’s business. I pray you deliver them to his Grace if you can and with them my homage and my thanks for the trust that he has reposed in me. Tell him what I have not written in the letters”—and here he smiled faintly—”that I think that few of his creditors in Venice will trouble him at present, though afterward their heirs, if they have left any, may do so. Say, too, to the Doge, who, I believe, still lives, that I send him my good wishes and respects. Also that I grieve that I have not been able to hand him my letters of recall in person, since the King who summons me sends none.

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Categories: Haggard, H. Rider