In 2012, in Carmunnock, Scotland, Hugh and Fiona Wallace were renovating their 16th century farmhouse. Preserved in a mahogany box, the following diary was discovered buried in the walls; the book is printed as found.
The relentless glare of the August sun threatened to fry the timber houses lining London’s streets. Stephen and I took to Finsbury Fields in the early evening for the walls of our house were seeped with heat.
The pungent decomposing stench of horses, dogs, and cats fouled the evening air already thick as a canopy. The carcasses littering the fields made it most necessary to limit the wanderings of the twins—not an easy task! At two and a half they moved as fast as the wind.
Stephen and I discussed returning to Melton Mowbray before harvest’s end. A huge influx of immigrants from France and other parts of Europe had made the conditions in London unbearable. Shoreditch had grown noisesome and overpopulated. Rats fed on the dunghills of rubbish clogging the gutters: entrails, putrefied blood, excrement and urine all swam together in the midden-heaped lanes.
The Thames was the main dumping ground for refuse and also the city’s primary source of water. Pollution portends pestilence, and so I was urgently concerned for the health of the twins. Stephen grudgingly agreed it was time to give up his peripatetic ways. Like a once beauteous face disfigured by pox, London had out-worn its charms.
“There’s a plum role for me in Will’s new play. Please—you understand,” Stephen said beseechingly. “As soon as it’s over, we’ll be off. I promise.”
“No, we must make haste. Think of the children.”
“You go ahead, then. I’ll join you later.”
“Your brother’s bound to be more gracious if you are with me.”
“Then you’ll have to wait.”
My mind was too dazed to argue with him. Sweat poured down my back as I chased the pink-cheeked twins through the bracken. They made a game out of everything, for they hadn’t a care in the world. I, on the other hand, was full of suffering thoughts. Pushing them away, I gathered the girls up into my arms.
Within a fortnight our parish bell tolled so often it was impossible to keep count of the dead: the plague had come to London. I told Stephen that I was leaving with or without him. I asked him to take Morag with him for the day while I packed and prepared for our departure. Sarah’s eyes, large and questioning, studied me as I pried loose the money I had sewn under our mattress.
Warders yelled out condemnations as they painted a red cross and inscribed “Lord Have Mercy Upon us” on Alice Baines’s door, incarcerating her in her house: confinement of the living dead.
All day I was drunk with fear. My uneasy state coupled with the heat of the rooms made me bristle with irritability. “Stop it!” I snapped at Sarah as she banged a pot with a wooden spoon. Testing my patience she kept up her banging until I ripped the spoon from her hand. Her wails were mixed with the ominous cries of the corpse bearer—Hell had come to London.