Rebecca was just lighting her candle when she noticed the torches bobbing about outside in the street and gradually getting closer. It had been quiet all day, all week really; everybody was too afraid of the plague to venture outside their homes, although they congregated still in the church to pray for deliverance. They could not have done worse if they really wanted to avoid contamination, all those people clustered together were bound to spread the disease.
Rebecca stayed away from church. She knew that would gain her no friends and would arouse suspicion, but she also knew that isolation was the only way to avoid contagion. Everyone was suspicious since this pestilence had crept into their town, even of people they had known all their lives. The one thing nobody could afford to be was different.
She had lived in this house all her life. Her father and mother ran the town cookhouse, cooking the pies people made at home as well as making bread and puddings to sell. The townswomen brought most of their food to the cookhouse, as they had no ovens at home and the ones they did have depended on the stones which encircled the fire getting hot enough to cook. That could take hours, so the only thing they managed at home were vegetable stews which could be simmering for days sometimes.
Rebecca’s father taught her to read and write, which was not something most girls of her class were taught to do. Most men thought it unnecessary; what did a girl need to read for, after all? She was going to marry and have babies and a husband to look after. She would have no time for books. What the townsfolk did not know and were never allowed to know was that Rebecca’s parents wanted her to be able to read the Torah, so she not only learned to read, she learned to read in Hebrew.
When this plague struck, the first people to be blamed were the Jews and Rebecca understood for the first time why her parents taught her never to let anyone else know her origins.
They were a happy family, until both her parents died within a month of each other of the sweating sickness. Rebecca managed to avoid it and she carried on living off the money her father left for her. But she was very young, little more than a child, and she could not manage the cookhouse as she had no idea what she was doing. Her parents had intended to train her, but she was as yet too young to have learned much.
She had been well respected in the town and people sympathised with the poor orphan girl, until the day she fell in love.
He came in search of a meal and a place to sleep for the night, and it was not long before Rebecca was smitten. He was a tall, blonde giant of a man and he was so kind to her. He said he loved her and she had no reason to doubt him. It was about a year after her parents died and she had been so lonely all that time, despite the kindness of the townsfolk. Living alone in their little house, fending for herself, she had been very isolated and she was an easy target for a handsome and charming man. He gave her compliments, told her she was beautiful, told her she was everything he had ever dreamed of. When she gave herself to him, she believed they would be wed and she never stopped to consider just how little she knew about him.
It was too late by the time he revealed himself to be a married man who could never give her his name nor the respectability she craved, the respectability she deserved. Rebecca was already carrying his child when she found that out, and she would never forget the day she told him.
She was full of excitement, could not wait to share her joy with him and as soon as he arrived that day she stepped into his arms and whispered her news to him.
“I have some news,” she said excitedly. “We are going to have a child.”
She felt his body stiffen and he looked down at her in silence for a few moments.
“Are you sure?” He said.
“Yes, I am sure. Are you not pleased?”
It was a moment before he replied and when he did it felt to Rebecca that he had taken his sword and punched a tear in all her dreams, in all her plans for their future.
“Yes, of course,” he finally answered. “But it does make things very awkward.”
Those were not the words she wanted to hear. She would never forget the disappointment when she realised he did not share her joy, that she was now an inconvenience.
“Why should it?” She asked. “Is there some reason we cannot be married?”
He pushed her away then, gently it was true, but still he pushed her away. He had never done that before.
“Yes, Rebecca, there is. I am already married.”
She could not believe it, thought she must be asleep and having some terrible nightmare. Why had he said he loved her?
“Why did you not tell me that?” She demanded, catching back unwelcome tears. “Why did you make love to me, knowing we could never have more? God, you must think me such a whore!”
“No, Rebecca, I do not think that. And you are right; I should not have taken advantage of you. But I will look after you, I promise. We will have our child and I will support you both. I am sorry.”
She should not have allowed him to bed her, not without a marriage ceremony, but she loved him and believed he loved her. Discovering that he was a married man hurt so much she would have taken her own life had it not been for the precious one growing within her.
She had dreamed of a marriage, of being someone’s wife, a respectable woman with a husband and that dream was spoilt now, ruined forever. She blamed him for that, but she also blamed herself for being so weak.
Still he came to her, still she allowed him into her bed like a lovesick fool with no will of her own. But he kept his word, he supported her, at least for a little while until that last day when he left, taking her baby son with him.
That was almost thirty years ago and when the money ran out, she had been forced to cope as best she could. She sold everything she could sell, her mother’s jewellery, her father’s clothes, furniture from the house. All that had kept them going for a few months, but there came the day when she had but one thing left she could sell.
Since the pestilence arrived in the town she had kept herself and her son locked inside the house. She knew more about cleanliness and contagion than these people did; it was part of her religion, of her culture, and their mixing together as normal was just plain stupid.
Rebecca tried to convince them of that, but they were men so believed they knew best. All she could do was keep herself and her son safe, but she listened from her open window to the mutterings of the panicking townsfolk. She saw the old herbalist woman being dragged from her little house by an angry mob; she heard them accuse her of bringing the plague through witchcraft and she almost cried out in anguish. She heard again the old woman’s screams each night in her dreams, heard her begging for help, and all she could do was to cover her ears and pray she was now at peace.
She dared show no support for her or they would turn on her. She wished more than anything there was something she could have done. They hanged the old woman, a harmless old maid who had spent her life using her skills to heal.
Ever since she was a little girl she had known the herbalist. Her mother would take Rebecca with her to see her, whether she needed her skills or not. She was a friend; she helped them all through ailments and illnesses, even sat with the dying and gave more comfort than any judgemental priest ever did. But to some of these ignorant people, the fact that she nursed the victims of the plague but did not catch it herself meant she must either have caused it or be protected by the Devil. And why did she not cure it? She cured most other things, so her failure to cure the pestilence was further proof that she had brought it.
Rebecca was fond of the woman and as she heard her screams, she shivered in fear. If they could turn on her so easily, she who had helped and healed them, what hope would there be for Rebecca if they learned of her true origins? And now it seemed they had turned on her, but for an entirely different reason.
The noise of the crowd grew louder, until her son came down from his attic room just as she was going to the window to look out. He put his hand on her waist and guided her away.
“They are coming for us, Mother,” he said quietly. “Grab as many of your things as you can and we will escape into the back alley.”
Rebecca’s hand went to her chest in shock. She had always been on good terms with the townsfolk but now she heard the words ‘sin’ and ‘harlot’ being shouted from outside and realised why they were heading her way.
“We should never have let her among us!” One man was yelling. “That’s what it is. She is not even branded for her sins to warn others. We let her stay here, treated her and her bastard as though they were decent folk and now the Almighty is punishing us.”
“She never did us no harm, William,” came another voice.
“That is what we thought, until now. Now the Lord has decided He has given us enough time to do the right thing. Once she be gone, the pestilence will go with ‘er. You mark my words.”
“What we going to do with ‘er?”
“Burn the house with her in it, that’s what!”
Rebecca fought back tears as she gathered a few warm cloaks and followed Simon to the back of the house. They fled together down the alleyway to where a cart stood, already hitched up to a horse, as though God had put it there specially to save them.
They tossed their belongings into the back and climbed up into the seat; Simon took the reins and they took off away from the little street in the front of the house. They could still hear the mob, still hear the shouting and saw through the back windows the torches inside the house.
“Whose cart is this?” She asked Simon.
“I bought it off a pedlar last week, along with the horse. After they hanged old Molly I had a suspicion they might come after us next.”
“Why did you say nothing to me?”
“There was no need, not until now. I have had the cart ready since this afternoon, when I heard them all at the inn, talking about what else they should do to get rid of the sickness, even regretting they had hanged Molly because obviously she was not the cause. Damned ignorant is what it is.”
Simon was born in this town. This had been his home since before his father left them to fend for themselves, the woman he had said he loved and her unborn child. Not that he knew about Simon; Rebecca did not know about him then and she thanked God for it. She would have been tempted to tell him had she known. She had no reason not to; she could not know he would take her eldest son and never return.
Simon never got to meet his brother and Rebecca never told him he had one.
Now the town had panicked and decided it was her sinful lifestyle and their own complacence and acceptance of that lifestyle which was causing the wrath of God. There was no turning an angry mob back from its course so now they must flee and leave everything they had ever known.
The fact that she stayed away from church would have fuelled their conviction. They likely believed she was too seeped in sin to set foot inside, that God would have stricken her dead had she tried to enter His house. They would choose to forget that she had been a regular there until the plague came.
She recognised the men who came to destroy them; all had made use of her services at one time or another, either when their wives were with child or had refused them. They cared little for God’s wrath then, did they?
Now Rebecca clung to Simon’s arm and was thankful for her tall, handsome son. He smiled down at her and she was glad she had never kept her profession from him. She had thought about it, seriously thought about it, but she was afraid that when he found out for himself he would be ashamed of her. It was a small town and someone would be bound to tell him.
So she explained to him that there was nothing else for her to do to feed them both when his father abandoned them and he accepted that, seemed to understand, even though it affected his own life.
She taught him to read and write herself, as she had been taught by her own father. She could not afford to send him to school and even if she could, the whole town knew about his mother and knew he was illegitimate. His life would have been hell and even now, he had reached his late twenties with no bride.
There was a young maid who was fond of him and he of her. Serena was the daughter of the dressmaker and she and Simon were building a relationship, but what Rebecca feared had come to pass. Her father had learned of their plans and stopped her from seeing Simon. He did not want his daughter married to the bastard son of a prostitute.
Rebecca could hardly blame him. It would have diminished the girl in the eyes of the world to be the wife of her son; people would have scorned her, even believed her to be no better. Simon was hurt though; Rebecca could tell he was hurt but he laid no blame at her feet. He accepted that it was the way life was and he made no protest because he loved Serena and wanted the best for her.
Serena’s father betrothed her to the butcher straight away although she did not want to marry him. She loved Simon and she protested loudly, said she would never consent to marry elsewhere. Her father kept a close watch on her to be sure she did not run away with Simon, locked her in the house and said she would not be released until the wedding day.
But the plague had come instead and Serena’s father was the first to die.
Rebecca always planned to leave this town one day, to take Simon and start a new life where no one would know about them, but she had thought it would be on her own terms, not like this.
They drove all night, although the mob did not follow. From remarks they heard shouted out as they drove away, it was obvious they thought the pair had perished in the fire and so much the better.
Simon wanted to be sure they were safe before they stopped, and now they came to a large estate which appeared to be deserted but for a few grazing horses. They released the carthorse to join them and made their way to the house, found the main doors unlocked and crept stealthily inside.
It was not very big as some estates were, but the house was massive and it was deserted. Simon insisted on going first, wanting to protect his mother with his sword, the only thing he found time to grab before they fled. The sword was left behind by his father when he abandoned her, when Rebecca expected him to return for it, but he never did.
“I think our enemy,” Rebecca told her son, “if enemy there is, will not be tackled with a sword.”
He turned and smiled at her from his great height, his blue eyes worried.
“You think the pestilence might be here?” He asked.
“I think it very likely there are corpses inside this house.”
“You might be right, Mother, but it seems a good place for us to hide from the mob should they have realised we escaped them. If there be dead here, they will do us no harm if we do not go near. I am far more concerned that there might be living people who will think we come to rob the place.”
But there were no living people. In one of the bedchambers they found a dead man, his fingers and toes black, his expensive velvet tunic covered in stiff and stinking vomit and blood drying on his lips. His mouth was open wide, as though he had cried out for help in his last moments, as though he spent those last moments in agony.
Simon drew the cover over his head, holding it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger and causing Rebecca to cry out a warning not to get too close to the dead man.
In the private chapel they found a woman, equally well dressed as the man and equally as dead and black. Between her stiff and blackened fingers she clutched a prayer book and a crucifix, a heavy rosary much as nuns used. The smell of rotting flesh was unbearable, the massive icons offensive to Rebecca’s eyes.
Simon went upstairs and took a blanket from one of the empty chambers to cover the woman, promising his mother they would go no closer.
They climbed to the top floor where a house like this one would be bound to have a nursery. Rebecca clutched Simon’s arm, a flutter of fear making her heart race, the eerie silence making that fear even sharper.
“I am afraid of what we will find, Simon,” she said. “Supposing there are dead children.”
Simon turned his warm smile on her, patted the hand that clutched his arm.
“Then we will cover them and leave them in peace,” he answered.
But there were no dead children, thank the Lord. There were only empty rooms, no nurses, no children, and some very old toys; it seemed this noble pair had no children as this nursery had obviously not been used in many years.
It was the ideal place. There were bars at the windows to stop any small ones from falling out, there were locks for the doors and comfortable beds, there for the nursery nurses. One even had a feather mattress, so that must have been for the head nurse. Best of all, they could see from the attic windows for miles, so would have plenty of warning if anyone felt inclined to continue the hunt for Rebecca and her son.
They stayed for four weeks and during that time they saw no one. It was as though the rest of the world had vanished, some force had swept through the land and taken everyone, but either forgot about Rebecca or decided she was not good enough. She did wonder about that, wondered if perhaps Jehovah had taken all the other people and left only her and Simon, either because of what she was or who she was, she was unsure.
It was an irrational idea and she tried to shake it away.
They used the kitchens and the attic floor, nowhere else. They were afraid of contamination and they felt dishonest to even be in this stranger’s house. There was some salted meat left in the pantry which was still edible and a lot of vegetables, soft but still fit to make into a stew.
It was quiet up here in the attics. The normal sounds of life going on outside on the estate had ceased before they arrived, but still Rebecca was afraid to come out of her hiding place and face what was left of the world.
They were after her, all the local people who had lost loved ones to the plague, all the villagers and townsfolk who believed what the priests told them, that it was punishment for sin. Unbelievable that people she had known all her life had tried to kill her and her innocent son, tried to burn them alive in their desperation to find some atonement, some reason God had chosen to afflict them with this horrendous pestilence.
It was the Day of Judgement, the apocalypse, and the ignorant believed it was up to them to deliver that judgement if they wanted salvation for themselves.
In the small town of Rochfield they believed they had been singled out for the black sickness because they allowed Rebecca to live amongst them, to live in peace with her son. They had allowed her to ply her trade and take their coin, often even with the consent of their wives if they were not inclined to do their marital duty. It happened; it happened a lot and Rebecca blamed the church for that. They were the ones who taught that coupling was sinful, even between a man and his wife. They planted the idea in the minds of the women until they were afraid to enjoy what was a natural function of the human body, the sharing of love with their lawful spouses.
Rebecca hated the church, but then she would. She was not only a prostitute with skills for which men paid, she was also Jewish. Which would be the greatest sin in the eyes of the so called Christians among whom she lived? They did not know, of course not; she was not stupid enough to let any of them know her origins and her parents had taught her from an early age that the only way for a member of their culture and race to stay safe was to deny that culture. Rebecca even went to the church daily, even took communion to keep her secret.
She felt no shame for that. She knew it was just another ritual the bishops had dreamed up to maintain their power, to keep the populace under control and buying indulgences to reduce their time in Purgatory. No such place was ever mentioned in the scriptures, not even in the Gospels, but the church liked to keep people ignorant of that by keeping their Bibles in Latin so that only they could understand and interpret whichever way suited them.
Keeping her secret was not difficult; she was dark, like most of her race, but the ignorant Christian folk in the town had some odd belief that if a Jew were to set foot inside a church, they would be struck down. There was a Jewish goldsmith who lived quietly with his family and never went to church. People had decided it was not because it was against their beliefs but because they could not, it would be impossible. Rebecca knew better, but she made no mention of the fact and remained above suspicion because of it.
Simon got his blonde hair from his father. She sometimes wondered if he ever gave a thought to how she would manage, but what difference did it make to him? She was a Jew, after all, not someone who should have the same consideration as a Christian woman. That was the mistake she made, telling him she was a Jewess. She would never have told him had she not believed he loved her; she would never have bedded him had she not believed that. She was deceived by his lies, that the only reason he could not marry her was because he already had a wife, a wife whom he did not love.
He took her son, her firstborn child, and she never saw him again. She wondered what he had done with him, whether he was a father to him, but for what other reason did he take him? Rebecca realised after he had gone that she had no idea how to reach him. She knew his name, but that was all she knew, not where he lived or his position in life.
She looked for his return, hoping he would bring her child back to her, but it never happened and it took her sometime to connect his departure with her revealing her origins to him. She never expected him to be one of those anti sematic men who used the Jewish population for their goldsmiths, but resented them all for being financially astute.
Oh, they made some excuse about the Jewish elders being the ones who ordered the Crucifixion, but they did not really believe that. No doubt he thought Rebecca could find some way to make money, and she had, but not the way she would ever have wanted.
He never knew about Simon. She learned she was with child after he left and she was thankful then that she had never had a chance to tell his father about him, or no doubt she would have lost this son too.
But that was many years ago and now Rebecca was too old to make her living on her back. She had managed to save some of the money she made over the years and entrusted it to a Jewish goldsmith in Colchester. When the plague struck, she wondered if that goldsmith and her money had survived, so she took the risk of going there and withdrawing it all, while she still had the chance and she was glad she had. She carried it with her when they fled Rochfield; it was the first thing she grabbed.
Now the food stores in the pantries downstairs were almost depleted and it had not rained for days, so the rain barrels were half empty, leaving them with very little water.
The time had come to leave, take two of those beautiful horses and move on, agree on a tale to tell the locals and hope to find somewhere free of the pestilence.
She looked from the attic window to see for miles around and all she could see were four legged creatures. The village attached to the estate was deserted, the farmland held not a single plough horse or oxon; there was no one.
But now they must move on. They needed to get as far away from Rochfield as possible if they were to start a new life where no one knew them or knew of them. Simon was waving at her from the yard below and he was leading two beautiful horses, both tacked up and ready to go, to take them to safety, please God.
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