IT WAS JUST after midday on Wednesday, August 21, that Diana received a message from Mister Walsh urgently requesting her presence. She put on a heavy walking dress and high boots for the short journey. She drew on long gloves and pinned a heavy veil to her hat, so not an inch of flesh was exposed. She loaded a cotton swath with penny royal and dabbed every possible gateway with the strong-smelling oil.
Diana knew what lay outside. It wasn't the stifling heat she was guarding against. Some said Philadelphia was the hottest port town in the nation, even hotter and more humid than Savannah. Diana didn't doubt this, but she saw the weather as just a condition no one could change, so there was no sense in complaining. Besides, she noted the most vocal of the complainers seemed to be the rich. They could spend the summer in one of the cool luxury homes along the Schuylkill, or even flee to kinder climes. Diana had to stay. She had a business to run. More importantly, she had many people who depended on her. What would they do if she left? How would they eat? Provide for their families? No, for the working class there could be no escape, no matter how unpleasant or intense the season.
There was one thing about this summer she detested. She knew it was silly and leftover childhood nonsense fear. But it was there just the same.
Mosquitoes disgusted her. The thought of one of them piercing her flesh and sucking her blood almost made her violently ill. It was because of Nate Hatch, and one of his favorite summer jests. In the long, sultry afternoons after a storm, he would sit on the stoop drinking with his friends, slapping at the mosquitoes that prized this weather. He would drink and talk until he became bleary, flushed, and full of that touchy kind of humor that borders quick anger. When he was ready for his little joke, he would hush everyone to silence and demand loudly that they sit quite still. Then he would bare a fat, hairy arm to the buzzing insects. They would alight by the scores. Then he'd suddenly tense, trapping their beaks in his flesh. He'd laugh, waving his arm about like a great prize. Then he would smash all but a few. His arm would run with blood, trickling through the thick black hairs and mingling with the beads of sweat. The others he would let escape. There would be greater laughter as the insects bumped about, stunned from the alcoholic brew they'd sucked in along with his blood.
The first time Diana witnessed this jest, she'd been quite small. He had spied her at some menial task, shushed his companions, and called her over to see. When he began slapping at the beasts and the blood ran, she had screamed and ran to Gramer Fahey, where she was sick all over the floor. The old woman tried to tell her it was just Nate Hatch being a fool. But little Diana was inconsolable. She couldn't get the blood and the mosquitoes and Mister Hatch's mocking laugh from her head. It was a joke he'd terrorized her with ever since that day.
Now that she was the mistress of her own home and business, she saw no reason for torment. When the sultry season came, she ordered the windows covered with muslin doused with penny royal. She even went so far as to use a trick that Gramer Fahey had taught her. The wrigglers that became mosquitoes, the old woman pointed out, lived in standing pools of water. A little oil applied to the water would cover the surface with a thin scum, and the wrigglers would smother. It was a remedy Diana had carried out with a passion. If she spotted the smallest little puddle in the court or her gardens, or if she saw the little wrigglers swimming about in a rain barrel, Diana would run to fetch the oil. And she would gleefully murder every one of them.
Her friends' house was a twitter of servants when she arrived. All was in disorder, with small groups huddled about, whispering and casting dark looks at the staircase. Diana was met by Beth, Mrs. Walsh's personal maid. The woman's eyes were red-rimmed from weeping. She quickly led her up the stairs and tapped softly on Anne's bedroom door, which was flung open with such haste that Diana jumped back, startled. It was Mister Walsh. His face was drawn and gray, bare spots on his face stubbled from a too quick shave. His dress was uncharacteristically disheveled. His eyes were as red as the maid's.
He tried to speak, but his voice came out a croak. He shook his head, and Diana realized he was fearful he would break down if he tried to speak further. He wavered in front of her, struggling, then drew her into an embrace so desperate she could barely breathe. Diana didn't draw back. She let him hold her until he recovered and drew away.
"She's sick," was all he said. In such a trembling voice that Diana needed no other description.
"Three days. But it might as well be weeks for the toll it's taken. I wanted to send for a doctor, but she refused. She . . . Please, Diana . . . She asked for you."
She pushed past him into the room. Anne had aged twenty years. She lay unconscious in her bed, twisting and turning, uttering low moans. Diana touched her, the skin feverish. Anne's eyes opened at the touch. They were glazed and yellow at the edges. Then they sharpened as she recognized her friend. A hand moved toward Diana's slowly, as if it were a painful weight the arm could hardly bear. Fingers touched, then squeezed. She took a breath to speak, but all that issued from her lips was: "Diana ..." Then she was still. Her eyes closed again. So soft was the whisper, and so sudden the stillness, that for a second Diana feared her friend had died and her soul had taken flight.
She looked at Mister Walsh, who seemed as if he were about to rush headlong from the room, screaming wildly for help. And so, with a confidence she did not feel, she rose from the bed and began issuing a stream of orders. ". . .Go to the apothecary on Seventh Street . . . I'll need the bark . . . only the freshest will do . . . laudanum . . . the same . . . tell the cook . . . the very best broth ... I want it hearty . . . and fruit . . . again, fresh . . . boiled to a soup and chilled…"
Soon staff and Mister Walsh were running about to do her bidding. She turned back to Anne to start thinking what she really needed to do. First, it was plain Mister Walsh was not happy with this arrangement. He wanted a doctor. And he wanted him now! Specifically, he wanted Dr. Alexander, to whom he paid thirty dollars a year insurance to treat his family. Diana knew the man to be a disciple of Dr. Rush, a confirmed believer in massive bleeding and purging. Anne and Diana had talked about Michael Walsh's faith in modern science and medicine. It was a faith both felt unjustified, especially Diana. She had witnessed more people killed or injured by doctors' cures than made whole. Anne had made her promise if she ever really fell ill, to dissuade "dear Michael from summoning a powder wig who will lay me in an early grave with his remedies."
The trouble was, although Diana knew much about country medicine, and had been forced to depend solely on her knowledge most of her life for the good of her family and friends, she felt herself far from expert. The great problem she had right now was if she tried to call in someone with more expertise, Mister Walsh would overrule her. Dr. Alexander would come, with his purges and his emetics and plasters so hot, the skin would blister and scar.
At this moment it was Diana, or . . . Ah, but you're here, Diana Shannon. And you must act. So, displaying a confidence that she didn't feel, she set about her task. She had the maids haul in a tub and fill it with icy water. She undressed Anne herself and helped lift her into the bath. There was only a sigh from her friend and she remained unconscious. Diana had Beth bring in pans of hot water, and she washed Anne's hair and dried it tenderly.
She had the sheets and bedding changed and the mattress turned. They lifted Anne from the bath, dried her and placed her on the bed. Diana sent for spirits and rubbed Anne's poor, frail body. Almost immediately the fever broke and the chills and sweats set in. Diana had her wrapped tightly in a sheet. When her supplies came, she had a soothing tea made up with a camomile base, which she dribbled through Anne's parted lips. She also sent for Madeira and mixed in a little laudanum. This she coaxed Mister Walsh into drinking. A preventative, she said. Actually she just wanted him out of her way.
As the hours progressed, she got some broth down her friend. Then the cold fruit soup to ease her constricted bowels. And water. So much water Anne groaned with the effort. But in time the padding she had placed beneath her was soiled and changed and soiled again. Diana stayed all night and most of the morning. By the time the midday sun pressed through the open windows, Anne's eyes were open. And she was weakly alert.
In the parlor, Mister Walsh thanked Diana profusely, calling it a miracle. She told him flatly not to talk nonsense. Anne was strong, she said. She would heal herself.
Diana left directions for her treatment. The fever would return, she was sure of that; but in theory it should be milder. And if treated properly, should finally disappear.
"It's the way of the flux," she said. "It has to run its course before it can be coaxed out." She gave stern orders she was to be sent for if Anne's condition took a turn for the worse.
A weary Diana dragged herself back the few blocks to Elm Court. Nothing was changed outside. The air was still stifling. The dust still billowed up from cartwheels. The mosquitoes buzzed about in clouds thicker and blacker than that dust. People sat on their porches, or on the curbs in front of their shops, hardly moving in the intense heat. Halfheartedly brushing away insects that fed on them. Panting like dogs. But, after many weeks of drought, this was all quite normal.
What was making her uneasy? There was nothing remarkable about Anne's flux. Midwives and barbers and healers were always kept busy this time of year. Although she'd heard this summer was more severe than most. What was so different? So ominous?
When she reached her court, she realized what it was. A bell was tolling. For a funeral. Were there more funeral bells ringing of late, or was it her imagination?
* * * *
Diana was exhausted. All she wanted was to float away the filth from the streets in a hot bath, then fall into her bed to sleep. But the uneasy feeling persisted. She called her staff together.
There was Mrs. Leclerc, the head seamstress, high-strung and nervous, but sound, in Diana's judgment. The burly, aged Mister Park was her driver, loader, and general handyman, along with his two not too quick, but strong and willing sons. There was real strength in her housekeeper, Miss Graham, a rangy, middle-aged spinster who took no nonsense from anyone, especially James Emmett.
Finally, there was her cook, Mrs. Kenrick, a tubby, salty little widow of a ship's carpenter.
"What is the trouble, missus? Is it your friend, the dear Mrs. Walsh? Is she still unwell?" This from Miss Graham.
"She's doing better, thank you," Diana said. "And it's not about her. And I'm not sure if there's trouble or not. . . ." Her voice trailed off, uncertain. Her people looked at one another, worried. They'd never seen Diana uncertain.
"It's probably nothing," Diana said. "I'm being a child and letting my imagination go spooking in the forest. But . . . when I was returning home, I heard funeral bells ..."
" 'Twas only Paul Read. The old man who owned the Drunken Squab down Water Street way," said Mister Park, a man who knew his tavern keepers. "Died of the flux, I believe. No one will miss him, I suspect. He was a surly sort. And mean-spirited. He'd only buy a round when we threatened to take our business elsewhere." He gave a brisk nod at this, as if it was only to be expected that such a man was the special mark for the Reaper.
"But haven't there been more funerals of late?" Diana asked.
"No, missus, I don't believe it so," said her housekeeper. "Four or five a day at most, I should think. No more than usual. Especially in this heat. Which, as any thinking person knows, is nearly as hard on the old as a harsh winter." Miss Graham sniffed at Mister Park. She was of the opinion he lacked this natural talent. Although not as much as his sons.
So it wasn't the funeral bells. Still, with no letup in sight for the drought, Diana decided it was time to take a few extra precautions she'd had in mind for some weeks now. She explained what she wanted done and her reasons for it, so as not to unduly alarm her staff. The longer the drought, she said, the higher the market prices. She wanted to be prepared for as long a spell of harsh weather as possible. Also, Mrs. Walsh's illness reminded her of how many afflictions could strike the unwary during especially hot summers. Even so, the shopping list she laid out had them all raising startled eyebrows. There were so many supplies required that several trips would be needed.
The water level was falling in the well, she noted, so she also set Mister Park the task of deepening it. This was to be done immediately. She also wanted a good supply of those medicinals her garden didn't provide. If there was flux about to trouble her staff, she wanted to be prepared. She was too tired to hear them all out after she was done. She left them at the kitchen table, rattling on about their tasks and what assistance would be required from one another.
Her room was upstairs and overlooking the garden. An ancient elm shaded the room, so that even in the stillness it felt remarkably cool. All she wanted was sleep. The bath would wait. She stripped off her clothing, doused a soft cloth with scented spirits and dabbed herself all over. It brought instant relief. Coolness. She even imagined a touch of a chill. She pulled down the covers and crawled into bed, pulled a sheet over herself and fell into a deep sleep.
She awoke with a start just before dawn. Her heart was hammering as if she had just had a bad dream. Her throat was sore and raspy. Her limbs were aching and heavy, her skin dry and hot. She wanted badly to get up for a glass of water, but for some reason she found it impossible to move. For a moment she was frightened. Her senses seemed to be warning her. But of what? Was there something just beyond the door? She struggled to get up again. But then a great feeling of lethargy overtook her. Almost against her will, she was swept back to sleep.
But this time she dreamed constantly. Snatches of dreams, each one oddly troubling. Bits of innocuous conversation. But all of them loaded with peril just beneath the surface. Once she thought Miss Graham was trying to awaken her. Diana protested. But the woman kept tugging at her. Trying to tell her something. Something urgent.
"Is it Mrs. Walsh?" Diana thought she asked. But Miss Graham shook her head. Mumbled to her. Mumble. Mumble. Tug some more. Then the tugging became the sheet being pulled back around her and tucked in.
"What is it, Miss Graham?"
"Yellow fever," she said. At least that's what she thought she said.
"No it's not," Diana said, matter-of-factly. "Just a chill. A summer chill. Let me sleep."
"Yellow fever," Miss Graham said once again.
Would the woman never stop! Then a cold cloth was draped over her eyes and everything was comforting darkness again. The last thing she heard was the buzzing mosquitoes outside her window. The buzz grew louder and louder, until she could hear no more. The next time she awoke, there was a heavy thundering outside. The crack of lightning. The sound of a heavy downpour. She opened her eyes briefly. The curtains were closed, but she could hear the rain battering against the sill. The sill. The one that needed caulking. She must get up to see. Call Mister Park if it wanted fixing.
Miss Graham was asleep in a chair near the bed. What was she doing here? Why wasn't she in her own room? Then Diana realized it was the middle of the day. But which day? She knew she had been asleep for . . . well, a long time. Since she came back from Anne's house. She wondered how her friend was. On the table next to her bed, she saw a cup of tea. Was it for her? Of course it was. She touched the cup. Cold. But she was so thirsty, she didn't care. She lifted the cup to her lips and sniffed. Lemon tea. That's good. And something else. Brandy. Better. She drank it down, and was surprised there was no resistance from her sore throat. Then she realized her throat was fine now. In fact, she felt well all over. Except for this confounded sleepy feeling she couldn't shake.
She thought about waking Miss Graham. But the woman seemed so tired, poor dear. No, let her sleep. And in just one minute, I'll get up myself. Come on, woman!
You have a business to oversee. Get up and get about it. Yes. But just a small nap first. And then I'll . . .
* * * *
She didn't come fully awake again until Monday. It was August 26. Diana's diagnosis had been correct. She had only suffered a severe case of the summer chill. The storm was no dream. It had rained heavily for two days, but the drought had instantly seized the city in its hot grip again.
The incident involving Miss Graham had also been no dream. Her housekeeper had come to awaken her with urgent news. But then she had found her mistress desperately ill, and had nursed her and coaxed her back to sleep.
But what was the news, Miss Graham? What was so urgent? Farrell sick? James Emmett in trouble? A ship in port with goods at bargain prices?
"No, missus. It was in the papers. Everyone's dying! Yellow fever, missus. Yellow fever."
It began with chills, a desperate headache, and a rapidly climbing temperature. The bowels and bladder refused to work and so the chamber pot remained empty. This condition lasted several days, then the patient usually made a rapid recovery. In other words, yellow fever began as no more than a mild case of the summer flux.
Herbalists and wandering quacks did a brisk business in purgatives, restorers and tonics. But they were soon overwhelmed by what followed. The fever came back full force. The patient began vomiting black blood from internal hemorrhages. The skin turned bright yellow. Then came the typhoid state: stupor, deep depression, dry brown tongue, incontinence, a pulse rapid but weak, a sudden and frightening wasting. The stink of the sickroom was overpowering. Then the body turned a purplish hue. Death came within twelve hours. One symptom the doctors noted accompanying the disease was tiny, angry eruptions on the skin. They were usually inflamed, sore, and they itched. They looked like small bites, and no one could account for their presence.
* * * *
Diana's imagination hadn't regressed to childhood. She had heard more funeral bells than usual. On Thursday twelve had died. Thirteen on Friday. Saturday seventeen. Miss Graham wasn't sure about Sunday. Besides the weekend storm, the city had been put into a panic by the plague.
The storm had turned the dusty streets into a sea of mud. Despite this, hundreds of people had fled the fever. Entire wagonloads of personal belongings were left stranded in the muck as the well-off or unattached poured out of Philadelphia. As the weeks went on, the flood grew to even greater proportions. Employees and servants were abandoned without funds or means of getting any. And even if they had the money, there was little to buy. The market stalls were empty. Rotted fruit, vegetables, and animal carcasses were left lying in the gutters. Water was getting scarcer by the hour, since the countryside had also panicked and no water carts dared to cross the Schuylkill.
Meanwhile, the death toll was growing. Even as she and Miss Graham spoke, Diana could hear the church bells ringing. As soon as one stopped, presumably as the dead were lowered into their grave, another bell took up the mournful tolling. Miss Graham said people had become so fearful, the city fathers were considering banning the bells. As if that would hold back death itself. She said when coffins passed, people were slamming their doors and windows to shut out the plague.
"What else are they doing?" Diana asked.
Old public health laws were dusted off and put into action. Houses were ordered thoroughly cleaned and whitewashed, gutters flushed with precious water, sidewalks and streets scoured. The scavengers had been ordered to make daily pickups of garbage to reduce the number of breeding spots for the fever. Bonfires were also being lit. Tobacco and gunpowder burned on every street corner. Diana thought all this made good sense. Clean the city. Purge the air.
There was a sudden rolling crash, as if the storm had come back with three or four times the fury. All over her household, Diana heard shrieks of alarm. But she knew it wasn't thunder. It was a terrible sound she knew too well. For a moment she had an almost uncontrollable urge to flee to the safety of her root cellar. But this wasn't Cherry Valley. There was no threat of war or Indians.
She rushed out of the house, Miss Graham in her wake, and sprinted across the cobbled court street to the entrance. As she reached the corner, she saw the uniforms. It was a squad of soldiers, hauling a cannon. They would march in unison for ten or twenty yards, fire the cannon into the sky, reload, march on, stop, fire another volley. With each volley, windows shattered and old brickwork rattled loose and showered to the ground. Up and down the street people were shouting and screaming. The heavy scent of gunpowder was laden with the sickly, overpowering smell of tobacco from a roaring bonfire down the street.
A voice came from a few feet away. Diana turned to see a man sitting astride his horse. A gentleman. From his dress, he had just returned from a long journey. He was bewildered, asking what was going on. Before Diana could answer, shutters flew open overhead. She looked up to see a wild figure. A middle-aged man in his nightdress, his hair standing straight up on his head.
"Is that you, Mister Niven?" he shouted.
The man on the horse said he was.
"Why in God's name have you come back?" the man screamed. "It's the plague! Flee, man, flee!"
Without a word, Mister Niven swung his horse about and fled. At the corner he had to pull up fast, his horse pawing air and wheeling to the side. Another kick and the horse squeezed frantically past a hearse bearing a load of fever victims, and then was gone.
The coach was black. The driver in rags. A starveling no doubt, so hungry that he was willing to dare a nightmare to ease the one he was living. As the coach approached the soldiers, a young officer shouted for the driver to stop. The coach came on. The officer shouted again. Still it came on. Closer. The squad wavered. Now the officer was shouting at his men. But the coach still came, creaking forward with its fearful burden. The squad broke and ran. The officer stood there helpless beside the cannon. The coach passed. After a moment the officer walked away. There was nothing else to be done.
Diana turned back into the court. She would put her household in order and then see about Anne.
* * * *
The Walsh house was barred and shuttered. No one answered to the bell. Diana knocked next door. She spoke to a woman through shuttered windows. The woman didn't know anything. She thought Anne had died. Down the street, another conversation through barred windows. No, Anne had recovered, this person said. It was Mister Walsh who had died. Still another said both were well and had fled the city, taking all their servants. This made more sense, but not fully. If they had left, either Anne or Michael would have stopped to see her. Diana went home again, sure, at least, both were alive.
* * * *
Once again Diana called her staff together. The atmosphere was entirely different. No easy, but respectful jollity, or casual sniping at one another. And they were all dressed in their best clothes. Bathed. Coiffed. In Mister Park's case a few lonely strands of gray hair were slicked to his bare skull with water. Their faces were frightened. Eyes bruised from lack of sleep. All were silent. Waiting for what she would say.
Diana was surprised when she had learned that almost her entire household was intact. Few had bolted the city. At first she thought it was out of loyalty to her. This was only partly the case. As she looked at them, she realized they had no place else to go. No gardened farmhouse in the country. No summer place by a cool stream. No faraway relations with provisions to share beyond the immediate family. Now they fully expected Diana to issue final orders, then close up the house and go. Mrs. Leclerc sobbed softly, was patted to stillness by Miss Graham.
Diana asked if her orders had been carried out, the pre-visions bought and stored, the well deepened, the medicines stocked. Yes, all this had been done, Miss Graham assured her.
"I am schooled in keeping accounts, madam," Mrs. Leclerc said, voice rasping from crying, her skin an unhealthy pallor beneath its lovely light chocolate hue. "To which address should I post them?"
Diana pretended surprise. "Why, nowhere," she said. "I'm not going anywhere."
There was instant relief all around the table. A chorus of stage-whispered "I told you so's." Diana waited until they were quiet again, Miss Graham sweeping the small gathering with hot eyes that said she doubted least of all.
"I didn't flee the Indians in Cherry Valley," Diana said. "Nor the soldiers. None of them drove me out. I stayed. I prospered. And everyone with me prospered as well." She paused for effect. "If the Indians couldn't roust me," she said, "I'll be damned if I'll be put to flight by the fever. At least you die with your hair on."
There were only four people in the room besides herself. But the shouts and cheers of joy sounded like a crowd coming to its feet at Mister Ricketts's circus. Diana had a bottle and glasses brought in, and they sat about the table, talking and joking like old tavern chums.
Diana joined in, laughing and jesting. But it was a sham. Not everyone had prospered at Cherry Valley. Far from it. She looked about the table and wondered how many faces would still be there when it was all over. And wasn't even that thought selfish on the face of it? Foolishly so. When it was over, would she even be here to see?
NEXT: The Never-Ending Battle