“You have your steeple-houses, too,” cried the preacher, “and the bells of your gospel markets are even now a-ringing where your priests and professors are selling their wares. But God dwells not in temples made with hands. Oh, men of Preston, did I not prophesy that fire, and famine, and plagues, and slaughter would come upon ye unless ye came to the light with which Christ hath enlightened all men? And have ye not the plague of the East at your doors already?”
“And who brought it, who brought it?” screamed more than one voice from the crowd. “Who brought the plague to us from the East? Beat him, beat him!” The mob, with many uplifted hands, swayed about the preacher. “Your cities will be laid waste, the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate. And what will ye do, oh men of Preston, in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from far?”
The rabble had rushed past by this time, still hooting and howling at the wild, fiery-eyed enthusiast at their head.
Ralph walked on to the town and speedily discovered the cause of the black cloud which overhung it. An epidemic of an alarming nature had broken out in various quarters, and fears were entertained that it was none other than a great pestilence which had been brought to England from the East.
Indescribably eerie was the look of Preston that Sunday morning. Men and boys were bearing torches through the streets to disinfect them, and it was the smoke from these torches that hung like a cloud above the town. Through the thick yellow atmosphere the shapes of people passing to and fro in the thoroughfares stood out large and black.
Ralph had travelled thus far in the fixed determination of pushing on to London, seeking audience of the King himself, and pleading for an amnesty. But the resolution which had never failed him before began now to waver. Surely there was more than his political offences involved in the long series of disasters that had befallen his household? He reflected that every link in that chain of evil seemed to be coupled to the gyves that hung about his own wrists. Wilson’s life in Wythburn—his death—Sim’s troubles—Rotha’s sorrow—even his father’s fearful end, and the more fearful accident at the funeral—then his mother’s illness, nigh to death—how nigh to death by this time God alone could tell him here—all, all, with this last misery of his own banishment, seemed somehow to centre in himself. Yes, yes, sin and its wages must be in this thing; but what sin, what sin? What was the crime that cast its shadow over his life?
“As the waters run when the flood-gates are up,” said the preacher, “so doth the visitation of God’s love pass away from thee.”
Of what use, then, would be the amnesty of the King? Mockery of mockeries! In a case like this only the Great King Himself could proclaim a pardon. Ralph put his hands over his eyes as the vision came back to him of a riderless horse flying with its dread burden across the fells. No sepulture! It was the old Hebrew curse—the punishment of the unpardonable sin.