When such is the state of matters in busy, stirring districts, among shrewd artisans, and when our great seat of learning smells as it does smell under the noses of the professors, it is needless to say that the “black fever” found every household in the little village prepared to contribute to its support, and met with hardly an obstacle on its devastating path.
To comment on Master Salter’s qualifications for the post of sanitary inspector would be to insult the reader’s understanding. Of course he owned several of the picturesque little cottages where the refuse had to be pitched out at the back, and the slops chucked out in front, and where the general arrangements for health, comfort, and decency were such as one must forbear to speak of, since, on such matters, our ears—Heaven help us!—have all that delicacy which seems denied to our noses.
If the causes of the calamity were little understood, portents were plentifully noted. The previous winter had been mild. A thunderbolt fell in the autumn. There was a blight on the gooseberries, and Master Salter had a calf with two heads. As to the painter, a screech-owl had been heard to cry from his chimney-top, not three weeks before his death.
There was a pause of a day or so after Master Linseed died, and then victims fell thick and fast. Children playing happily with their mimic boats on the open drain that ran lazily under the noontide sun, by the footpath of the main street, were coffined for their hasty burial before the sun had next reached his meridian. The tears were hardly dry in their parents’ eyes before these also were closed in their last sleep. The very aged seemed to linger on, but strong men sickened and died; and at the end of the week more than one woman was left sitting by an empty hearth, a worn-out creature whom Death seemed only to have forgotten to take away.
At first there was a reckless disregard of infection among the neighbors. But, after one or two of these family desolations, this was succeeded by a panic, and even the noble charity which the poor commonly show to each other’s troubles failed, and no one could be got to nurse the sick or bury the dead.