Two weeks later, the first person was dead. They said it was a merchant travelling from London. It happens that they often stay in Chelmsford, since it's on the trading route to Colchester. This one never made it to his destination.
The panic wasn't immediately apparent. We've had the odd case of smallpox in the town before, but they never amounted to anything. At those times, our parish usually whisked the affected person out of their house and into the makeshift pest house at Tainterfield. Most survived, but we didn't see them much afterwards as the poor things were so deeply pitted and their health so ruined that they didn't venture out.
We all knew the story about the girl, recently engaged, who was stricken with the pox. Her fiancé took one look at her afterward and immediately broke off the engagement. Such was the power of the disease to ruin the lives of those left living.
I heard this when I was seven or eight so I didn't take much notice except for feeling a faint murmur of sympathy in my heart. Then it was quickly forgotten, as one does when unencumbered by thought of how one looks and how others react to it. It was something that had happened to someone else, and at the time I was too busy enjoying my life to worry much about it.
But when the second one, then a third and a fourth died, something changed in the air. You could almost smell it, like a thunderstorm rolling in long and low across the fields. A tangible whiff of fear.
My mother said nothing directly about it to my sister and I, but one day, after we had walked through the town on an errand, she told us we would need to stay closer to home for a while. And that night when I crept downstairs to the kitchen to get a cup of water I heard her talking softly but urgently to my father.
All I caught was the sentence “...happens if we get sick” and some muffled reassurance from my father. Still, it was enough to worry me slightly. Not enough to stop me from going outside or talking with people in the street, mind you. I was a sociable creature, unlike my sister Anna, who shied away from human contact.
Our family wasn't rich but it was well respected. My father was a blacksmith and had a forge out the back of our cottage. Work was plentiful since Chelmsford was a busy market town and my father was well-liked by everyone. He said I got my sociable nature from him. In fact we were like two peas in a pod with our smooth dark hair, green eyes and translucent skin.
My mother and younger sister were both fair haired, with pinkish skin and blue eyes. I loved both my parents but I adored my father. Mother always seemed too busy to bother much with me, and her quick temper sometimes wounded me. I was too often apt to hold a grudge, and this unfortunately flavoured my vision of her.
I would say nothing but build up her wrong-doings against me until they towered like a stone wall into the sky, and I noticed small evidences of love towards 13 year old Anna that I didn't receive. A larger helping of pudding. An extra long hug before we went to bed. Like a medicine man I measured and counted her actions each day that said to me I was either loved or not at all.
With my father it was a different story. I was his first-born and supposed to be a boy. Thomas John Graham, that was the name they'd picked out. But it became apparent as I thrust my way from between my mother’s thighs, that I wasn't to receive that name, and my mother had cried,
“Oh Lord have mercy!” So as they hadn't picked an alternative, Mercy became my name.
Little did I know in the days to come I would be begging for all the mercy He could give me.