In what will be surely the first of too many posts consisting of excerpts from Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, I would like to introduce you to an unnamed man who is an example to all of us in showing that social distancing does not mean the lack of love, but its presence.
Defoe’s protagonist, who is based more or less on his uncle who lived through the 1665 plague (Defoe himself was 6) is sort of trying to practice self-quarantine but he stinks at it: he keeps getting curious and going out and just kinda checking things out and talking to people. Here, he’s gone as far as the bank of the Thames near Blackwall, a three mile walk from his home near where the Aldgate East tube stop is now.
Here I saw a poor man walking on the bank, or sea-wall, as they call it, by himself. I walked a while also about, seeing the houses all shut up. At last I fell into some talk, at a distance, with this poor man; first I asked him how people did thereabouts. ‘Alas, sir!’ says he, ‘almost desolate; all dead or sick. Here are very few families in this part, or in that village’ (pointing at Poplar), ‘where half of them are not dead already, and the rest sick.’ Then he pointing to one house, ‘There they are all dead’, said he, ‘and the house stands open; nobody dares go into it. A poor thief’, says he, ‘ventured in to steal something, but he paid dear for his theft, for he was carried to the churchyard too last night.’ Then he pointed to several other houses. ‘There’, says he, ‘they are all dead, the man and his wife, and five children. There’, says he, ‘they are shut up; you see a watchman at the door’; and so of other houses. ‘Why,’ says I, ‘what do you here all alone?’ ‘Why,’ says he, ‘I am a poor, desolate man; it has pleased God I am not yet visited, though my family is, and one of my children dead.’ ‘How do you mean, then,’ said I, ‘that you are not visited?’ ‘Why,’ says he, ‘that’s my house’ (pointing to a very little, low-boarded house), ‘and there my poor wife and two children live,’ said he, ‘if they may be said to live, for my wife and one of the children are visited, but I do not come at them.’ And with that word I saw the tears run very plentifully down his face; and so they did down mine too, I assure you.
‘But,’ said I, ‘why do you not come at them? How can you abandon your own flesh and blood?’ ‘Oh, sir,’ says he, ‘the Lord forbid! I do not abandon them; I work for them as much as I am able; and, blessed be the Lord, I keep them from want’; and with that I observed he lifted up his eyes to heaven, with a countenance that presently told me I had happened on a man that was no hypocrite, but a serious, religious, good man, and his ejaculation was an expression of thankfulness that, in such a condition as he was in, he should be able to say his family did not want. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘honest man, that is a great mercy as things go now with the poor. But how do you live, then, and how are you kept from the dreadful calamity that is now upon us all?’ ‘Why, sir,’ says he, ‘I am a waterman, and there’s my boat,’ says he, ‘and the boat serves me for a house. I work in it in the day, and I sleep in it in the night; and what I get I lay down upon that stone,’ says he, showing me a broad stone on the other side of the street, a good way from his house; ‘and then,’ says he, ‘I halloo, and call to them till I make them hear; and they come and fetch it.’
‘Well, friend,’ says I, ‘but how can you get any money as a waterman? Does any body go by water these times?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ says he, ‘in the way I am employed there does. Do you see there,’ says he, ‘five ships lie at anchor’ (pointing down the river a good way below the town), ‘and do you see’, says he, ‘eight or ten ships lie at the chain there, and at anchor yonder?’ (pointing above the town). ‘All those ships have families on board, of their merchants and owners, and such-like, who have locked themselves up and live on board, close shut in, for fear of the infection; and I tend on them to fetch things for them, carry letters, and do what is absolutely necessary, that they may not be obliged to come on shore; and every night I fasten my boat on board one of the ship’s boats, and there I sleep by myself, and, blessed be God, I am preserved hitherto.’
‘Well,’ said I, ‘friend, but will they let you come on board after you have been on shore here, when this is such a terrible place, and so infected as it is?’
‘Why, as to that,’ said he, ‘I very seldom go up the ship-side, but deliver what I bring to their boat, or lie by the side, and they hoist it on board. If I did, I think they are in no danger from me, for I never go into any house on shore, or touch anybody, no, not of my own family; but I fetch provisions for them.’
‘Nay,’ says I, ‘but that may be worse, for you must have those provisions of somebody or other; and since all this part of the town is so infected, it is dangerous so much as to speak with anybody, for the village’, said I, ‘is, as it were, the beginning of London, though it be at some distance from it.’
‘That is true,’ added he; ‘but you do not understand me right; I do not buy provisions for them here. I row up to Greenwich and buy fresh meat there, and sometimes I row down the river to Woolwich and buy there; then I go to single farm-houses on the Kentish side, where I am known, and buy fowls and eggs and butter, and bring to the ships, as they direct me, sometimes one, sometimes the other. I seldom come on shore here, and I came now only to call on my wife and hear how my family do, and give them a little money, which I received last night.’
‘Poor man!’ said I; ‘and how much hast thou gotten for them?’
‘I have gotten four shillings,’ said he, ‘which is a great sum, as things go now with poor men; but they have given me a bag of bread too, and a salt fish and some flesh; so all helps out.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘and have you given it them yet?’
‘No,’ said he; ‘but I have called, and my wife has answered that she cannot come out yet, but in half-an-hour she hopes to come, and I am waiting for her. Poor woman!’ says he, ‘she is brought sadly down. She has a swelling, and it is broke, and I hope she will recover; but I fear the child will die, but it is the Lord—’
Here he stopped, and wept very much.
‘Well, honest friend,’ said I, ‘thou hast a sure Comforter, if thou hast brought thyself to be resigned to the will of God; He is dealing with us all in judgement.’
‘Oh, sir!’ says he, ‘it is infinite mercy if any of us are spared, and who am I to repine!’
‘Sayest thou so?’ said I, ‘and how much less is my faith than thine?’ And here my heart smote me, suggesting how much better this poor man’s foundation was on which he stayed in the danger than mine; that he had nowhere to fly; that he had a family to bind him to attendance, which I had not; and mine was mere presumption, his a true dependence and a courage resting on God; and yet that he used all possible caution for his safety.
I turned a little way from the man while these thoughts engaged me, for, indeed, I could no more refrain from tears than he.
At length, after some further talk, the poor woman opened the door and called, ‘Robert, Robert’. He answered, and bid her stay a few moments and he would come; so he ran down the common stairs to his boat and fetched up a sack, in which was the provisions he had brought from the ships; and when he returned he hallooed again. Then he went to the great stone which he showed me and emptied the sack, and laid all out, everything by themselves, and then retired; and his wife came with a little boy to fetch them away, and called and said such a captain had sent such a thing, and such a captain such a thing, and at the end adds, ‘God has sent it all; give thanks to Him.’ When the poor woman had taken up all, she was so weak she could not carry it at once in, though the weight was not much neither; so she left the biscuit, which was in a little bag, and left a little boy to watch it till she came again.
‘Well, but’, says I to him, ‘did you leave her the four shillings too, which you said was your week’s pay?’
‘Yes, yes,’ says he; ‘you shall hear her own it.’ So he calls again, ‘Rachel, Rachel,’ which it seems was her name, ‘did you take up the money?’ ‘Yes,’ said she. ‘How much was it?’ said he. ‘Four shillings and a groat,’ said she. ‘Well, well,’ says he, ‘the Lord keep you all’; and so he turned to go away.
As I could not refrain contributing tears to this man’s story, so neither could I refrain my charity for his assistance. So I called him, ‘Hark thee, friend,’ said I, ‘come hither, for I believe thou art in health, that I may venture thee’; so I pulled out my hand, which was in my pocket before, ‘Here,’ says I, ‘go and call thy Rachel once more, and give her a little more comfort from me. God will never forsake a family that trust in Him as thou dost.’ So I gave him four other shillings, and bid him go lay them on the stone and call his wife.
I have not words to express the poor man’s thankfulness, neither could he express it himself but by tears running down his face. He called his wife, and told her God had moved the heart of a stranger, upon hearing their condition, to give them all that money, and a great deal more such as that he said to her. The woman, too, made signs of the like thankfulness, as well to Heaven as to me, and joyfully picked it up; and I parted with no money all that year that I thought better bestowed.