Authors: Ann Turnbull
The boys were in a courtyard, kicking a ball around. Their shouts bounced off the high wooden walls of the surrounding houses.
Sam stopped the ball with his foot, and kicked it. His friends yelled. The ball slammed against someone's door.
“Shut that racket!” screamed a voice.
A woman glared at them from an upstairs window. They ignored her at first, then moved away.
Sam wiped sweat from his forehead. The sun beat down and there was no breeze. âPlague weather', his master called it.
“A woman died of plague in our alley,” said John Jenks, picking up the ball. He was red-faced from the heat. “Stepped out of her house and fell down dead. Everyone ran a mile!”
The boys laughed. The plague! One minute you were well, the next, dead as a doornail. It made a great game. Sam rolled his eyes, shouted, “Aargh!” and dropped like a stone.
His friends ran out into Watling Street, shrieking and pretending to be afraid. As Sam dived after them, he spotted some of the French boys from Cheapside.
“Get the frogs!” he shouted.
There were three French boys. Sam and his friends often scrapped with them, jeering at their funny clothes and strange frog language.
At once a fight began. Two of the French boys gave as good as they got. The third was slight and clever-looking, but not tough. He also had a limp.
Sam's master was a shoemaker and Sam had sometimes seen this boy in the shop. He needed special shoes.
“Gammy-leg frog â hop back to France!” Sam shouted.
The boy turned and faced him. “I was born in London, stupid,” he said.
There was a superior air about him that annoyed Sam.
“You're a frog! Hop along, frog â you can't even walk properly!”
Sam gave him a shove. The boy stumbled and fell sprawling in a pile of horse muck. Sam and his friends hooted with laughter as their victim struggled to get up, then tried furiously to wipe the mess from his sleeves and breeches.
Sam knew he was in the wrong, but
he didn't care. He didn't like the French boy, anyway.
As the fight rolled on, a brewer's cart appeared, forcing a path through the crowded street. The two groups scattered, and the French boys disappeared.
Sam knew he'd be expected back at his master's shop. He ran off towards Friday Street.
* * *
The dog, Budge, was sunning himself on the shoemaker's doorstep. He saw Sam and got up to be fussed. His tail thumped
Sam's leg. He was a small, scruffy mongrel with a bitten ear.
“Come on, Budge,” said Sam. “Dinner.” He felt hungry.
There was a smell of cooking inside. Alice, their maid, was stirring stew in a large pot that hung over the fire and talking to William Kemp, Sam's master.
“Five hundred across London dead of plague last week! And it's taken hold in this parish now.”
Sam knew she must have been to Cheapside and seen the latest Bill of Mortality â the list of the dead that was put up once a week.
“Hallo, Sam!” she said. “Give those scraps to Budge, will you?”
As soon as Sam put Budge's meat down for him the dog began gobbling eagerly, his nose pushing against Sam's hand. Behind him, Sam heard his master say, “That's bad news. We'll have to pinch and scrape to get by. Most of my best customers have left the city already.”
Sam stood up. “Will we leave, Master?”
William Kemp laughed. “I wish we could! But I'm old. I've no family, and no one to go to outside London. You're my only family, Sam.”
Master Kemp had taken Sam from
the orphanage two years ago, when Sam was about seven, to work as a servant and perhaps, when he was older, to become his apprentice. Sam remembered how happy he had been to leave the orphanage. Master Kemp was kind to him, and Alice fed him well and looked after them both. Of course, William Kemp beat Sam when he was lazy or at fault, but he didn't starve or overwork him the way some masters did. Sam had always wanted a family. Now he had Master Kemp and Alice â and Budge.
Alice cut hunks of bread and ladled stew into bowls. “My mother says she wishes I was home. She's afraid for me.”
Alice's mother lived across the river, at Southwark.
“You won't leave us, will you?” asked Sam in alarm.
“Of course not, silly!” Alice ruffled his hair. “I like earning my own living here. Besides, there are four younger ones back home to feed and clothe, so my money helps.” She smiled â a small, tight smile.
“We'll get through this together,” William Kemp assured them both. “I've lived through times of plague before. It'll come to an end when the cold weather arrives, and we'll all survive, God willing.”
The next day Sam was running an errand in Cheapside when the town crier appeared and began ringing a bell.
“â¦all cats and dogs,” Sam heard as he drew closer. “Carts will be sent around the streets. Drivers will be paid a bounty of two pennies for every corpse brought in. All cats and dogs to be killed! Diseased animals carry the plague as they run about the cityâ¦”
Budge isn't diseased!
He has a few fleas, but don't we all? And he doesn't run about â wellâ¦ not much. He guards the shop, and he sits in the sun. And I love him. They can't kill Budge!
He ran home to tell his master and Alice.
“Don't worry. We'll keep him in,” said William Kemp. “They don't have the right to search people's houses.”
But Budge didn't want to be kept in. The doorstep was his favourite place. He liked to sit there and watch all the life of the busy street. Inside, he barked and whined and scrabbled at the door.
A few days later a cart came down
the street and they heard the squeals of animals cornered and clubbed to death. The men joked as they tossed the corpses into their cart.
“Ugh! That's horrible!” exclaimed Alice. “Come away from the window, Sam.”
“Tuppence a corpse â you can't blame them,” said William Kemp.
But they don't have to enjoy it
, Sam thought.
It was impossible to ignore the danger now, with Budge hidden indoors, and news that the King and all his people had moved out of London to Hampton Court to escape the pestilence.
“There's a man in Bread Street selling medicine,” said Alice. “He says it'll keep you safe from plague. People were queuing up to buy it.”
“What's in it?” asked William Kemp.
“Some secret remedy from the East, he says.”
“Rubbish!” scoffed Master Kemp.
But later that day he sent Alice to buy a bottle of it, just in case.
He drank some himself and gave a spoonful to Sam. The cloudy green liquid tasted disgusting. It made Sam feel sick. But Master Kemp said they should all take some every day.