The pox cut a wide swath through Chelmsford that spring. It wasn't picky about who it chose to infect and whole families were decimated. There was such a dread of contracting the disease that brothers refused to attend the funerals of sisters and sisters refused to visit brothers who were showing even the faintest symptoms.
We were a town that lived in fear of each other. For my family, there had been a devastating blow. My father became infected through caring for me and was moved immediately to the Pest House to spare my mother and sister whilst I was recovering. He never came out again, except to be buried in the cemetery with all the other unfortunate victims. In the end Old Charlie had to dig a mass grave because he couldn’t keep up with the mounting toll of the dead.
That was a few months ago now, and every day I wished it had been me. Some nights, the bad nights, I prayed for Death to come calling again with a passion that frightened me. For my life was no longer worth living. I had become a creature to be pitied, avoided or stared at. Oh, and they did stare and remark. I too was an unfortunate victim, just one still living.
It was not an uncommon thing to be scarred by the pox at that time and perhaps I took it more to heart than most. But every time I caught sight of my face in a window or mirror I would remember exactly why they stared.
With the death of my father, we struggled to make ends meet. Many an evening my mother cried in the kitchen as she cut up the last of the bread or served my sister and I an apple each for dinner. We had some help from the parish, but not enough to feed the three of us.
One day she told me she was putting an advertisement in the Chelmsford Chronicle to offer up my services as a housemaid. I was flabbergasted.
“Mercy, be grateful that you've had the pox,” she said. “There's many a girl who can't be employed at this time because people think she may bring it into their homes”.
One scant advantage of contracting the pox and surviving was that forever after you were immune to the disease, but this knowledge did little to comfort me.
“That's all very well", I replied, “But there are those who won't be glad to be reminded of it every time they see my face”.
I shrunk at the thought and pulled my grey woollen shawl closer round my head. The days were cooler now, summer was over and it was a relief to have some kind of covering to protect myself from the prying eyes. Not that I ventured out much anymore. Town was no longer a pleasurable diversion but a place I shrank from.
My mother wasn't to be swayed. She was desperate for money and it was only a matter of time before I was ousted from my house into someone else’s to become a maid or a kitchen hand. Until now my chores had been to collect the eggs, drawn fresh water from the well and a little light mending in the evening if mother had too much to do. I knew nothing of the duties a substantial household might require.
And then there was how I now looked. At night I tortured myself with thoughts of my new employers and how they would view me. I had become a much altered girl. One that brooded sullenly on her appearance and who shrunk at the slightest sideways glance.
I felt myself a monster and most of the time I acted like one. I preferred darkened rooms, hooded cloaks and walking alone. Mirrors became an enemy that I would sidle up to and try and befriend, but even just a tiny slivered glimpse of the angry red pits scattered across my cheeks and forehead was enough to sink my heart like a stone. 'It', though it had left me alive, had marred my face, and 'it' was never going to go away.