Marshall Howe was the only person out on the dirt track through the village, as the sun began to rise over the limestone hills. People would be out in the fields, but he was the only one in the town. He wandered, drifting and then correcting his course, again and again. He had survived. He had survived and become invulnerable. He had as good as experienced Death, and through that Death had conquered Death. But what was a Conqueror of Death who could not spare others? Who left others to pay his mortal debt?
The Immortal One, who had buried the mortal, and then buried his own wife and buried his own children, took another swig of ale, and he sang, because why the fuck not.
“Come, Jack, let’s drink a pot of ale!
And I shall tell thee such a tale
Will make thine ears to ring!
Da da da da da da da da!
Da da da da da da da da!
That once I saw my king!
The rector, William Mompesson, was next along the frosty track, stepping around the frozen puddles, with bubbles trapped under the surface.
“Good morning, Mr Howe!” He said, cheerfully.
“You’re not usually up this early.”
“It’s none of your business when I get up.”
And the rector kept walking.
“All princes (be they ne’er so wise)
Da da da da with others’ eyes!
Da da da da da da!
Da da da da da interest,
In time to feather well their nest,
Providing for their fall!”
Mompesson was with the King, and his Popish wife and his Popish church services.
Next up was Thomas Stanley, the rector who’d stood up to the King and rejected his Popish new church services.
“Have you seen the Reverend?”
“What, the other Reverend?”
“Yes, the other Reverend.”
“No. I mean Yes. He went that way.”
And Thomas Stanley went off in the direction Howe was pointing.
Stanley was with Parliament, and their Christmas-banning, king-killing fanatics.
And both of them had locked the whole fucking town in to infect each other and die, swollen and oozing, and for him to hastily smother them in earth.
But it was over now, and Howe, victorious over Death, kept singing.
“I marvel, Dick, that having been,
So long abroad and having seen
Where merits scarce appear,
For bashful merit only dwells
In villages and camps and cells,
Alas, it dwells not here!”
Stanley caught up with Mompesson outside the church, where he was struggling with a stiff keyhole.
“Mompesson.” the former rector nodded bluntly to his successor.
“Stanley.” The rector nodded bluntly back.
“Are you opening the Church?”
“Well, since the plague has left us, it’s safe again.”
The door creaked open, and the church was filled with the morning sun. Mompesson strode across the worn, Medieval flagstones. And then back again. And then again East and then West. Stanley lurked in the doorway.
Bess Hancock stumbled down the rocky path from Riley, on the hillside, off towards Hathersage. She tripped, on a protruding tree root, rolled across the frosty ground, stood up, and kept going. That was all she remembered how to do.
She got to the track through the village and her pace very consciously quickened. Stiff and brisk. She passed Marshall Howe, leaning on the wall in front of the King’s Head, with his head hanging over his knees.
Howe looked up, and Bess Hancock didn’t look back. But she slowed, and reentered her drifting, stumbling trance. They all knew about Bess Hancock, and that one week that she spent dragging body after stinking, death-infested body out into the field behind her house on the edge of the moors. And somehow, because God either favoured her or hated her, she was still here.
When she was well out of sight, Howe stood up, unsteadily, and looked around as if working out where he was. And he stopped in the middle of the street, blank as three children ran past him, and then he walked on, westwards.
Mompesson eventually collapsed onto a pew at the front of the church, right below the pulpit. Stanley took a few paces in. Mompesson lifted his head, and turned it towards him.
“Do you think what we did was right?” The rector said, suddenly. “Do you think we were right to convince the village to seal themselves off like that?”
“They did right to stick to it.”
“But were we right consigning them to that? 260 of them died.”
How many would have died if it had reached Sheffield, or Chesterfield, or Derby, or Nottingham? It was right. It wasn’t easy, but it was right.”
“But these were good people. You said so yourself. None of them deserved this.”
“You do not understand the mind of God, William. I don’t either.”
Stanley sat down on another pew, some distance away, silent.
On the village green, people were opening windows and doors, and embracing, with embraces that, for the first time in over a year, did not threaten to transmit agonising and hideous death.
In the church, Mompesson spoke again, to himself.
“He divideth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smiteth through the proud. By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent.”
And Stanley continued, lines from Job that each had read again and again for the last year.
“Lo, these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand?”
The Immortal Marshall Howe staggered into Cucklet Delf. He sat down among the rocks and the grass. And, in another part of the clearing, The Immortal Bess Hancock did the same.