Never do I remember feeling more frightened than when these facts came to my knowledge, for, added to the possible terrors of the position, was my constitutional fear of the disease which I have already described. On my way homewards I met a friend who told me that one of the children was dead, the malady, which was of an awful type, having done its work very swiftly.
Like a first flake from a snow-cloud, like a first leaf falling in autumn from among the myriads on some great tree, so did this little life sink from our number into the silence of the grave. Ah! how many were to follow? There is a record, I believe, but I cannot give it. In Dunchester alone, with its population of about 50,000, I know that we had over 5000 deaths, and Dunchester was a focus from which the pestilence spread through the kingdom, destroying and destroying and destroying with a fury that has not been equalled since the days of the Black Death.
But all this was still to come, for the plague did not get a grip at once. An iron system of isolation was put in force, and every possible means was adopted by the town authorities, who, for the most part, were anti-vaccinationists, to suppress the facts, a task in which they were assisted by the officials of the Local Government Board, who had their instructions on the point. As might have been expected, the party in power did not wish the political position to be complicated by an outcry for the passing of a new smallpox law, so few returns were published, and as little information as possible was given to the papers.
For a while there was a lull; the subject of smallpox was taboo, and nobody heard much about it beyond vague and indefinite rumours. Indeed, most of us were busy with the question of the hour—the eternal question of beer, its purity and the method of its sale. For my part, I made few inquiries; like the ostrich of fable I hid my head in the sands of political excitement, hoping that the arrows of pestilence would pass us by.
And yet, although I breathed no word of my fears to a living soul, in my heart I was terribly afraid.
THE SHADOW OF PESTILENCE
Very soon it became evident that the fight in Dunchester would be severe, for the electorate, which for so many years had been my patient servant, showed signs of rebelling against me and the principles I preached. Whether the voters were moved by a desire for change, whether they honestly disagreed with me, or whether a secret fear of the smallpox was the cause of it, I do not know, but it is certain that a large proportion of them began to look upon me and my views with distrust.
At any other time this would not have caused me great distress; indeed defeat itself would have had consolations, but now, when I appeared to be on the verge of real political distinction, the mere thought of failure struck me with dismay. To avoid it, I worked as I had not worked for years. Meetings were held nightly, leaflets were distributed by the ton, and every house in the city was industriously visited by my canvassers, who were divided into bands and officers like a regiment.