"The Fever at Osmotherly." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
Osmotherly is a small village in Yorkshire, not far from North Allerton. It had been much neglected, the houses were ill-built, and there had been little attention to the means of cleanliness, so that the place was exceedingly unhealthy, and the people were in the state of dullness and ignorance, that was sure to be the result of possessing a clergyman who unhappily cared neither for their souls nor bodies, and did not even reside among them, but only came over from time to time to read the service in the church.
No wonder that a deadly low fever broke out in this unfortunate place, in the autumn of 1825, and went creeping on from house to house, laying one person low after another, so that the healthy could hardly be found to nurse the sick. Among the families upon whom it fell very heavily was that of an old widow, who had seen better days, but had become nearly destitute, and had for many years past been chiefly supported by an allowance from her brother, who had settled as a merchant in America. This brother had died in the previous year, and his only child, Mary Lovell Pickard, at that time twenty-five years of age, had, after her long nursing of him, been persuaded to cross the Atlantic, and make acquaintance with her English relations.
She had spent many happy months with aunts and cousins in prosperous circumstances, but she was not going to neglect the poor old aunt in the North, and taking advantage of the escort of some friends who were going to Scotland, she travelled with them as far as to Penrith, and then went by coach to North Allerton, and by post-chaise to Osmotherly, where she intended to pay a three weeks' visit at Brush Farm, and be picked up again at Penrith on their return.
Her first letter from this place, written on the 2nd of September, 1825, describes her hostess as "a small, thin old lady, with a pale complexion, and the very brightest black eyes, which sparkle when she speaks with a degree of animation almost amusing in such an old lady. She lives in a comfortable little two-story cottage, of four rooms, which far exceeds anything I ever saw for neatness,"–though it seems to have had a clay floor. "I find," added kind-hearted Mary, "that I could not have come at a better time to do good, or a worse for gaining spirits." She found the poor old lady nearly worn out with the care of two little grandsons, one of whom was dreadfully ill with whooping-cough, but could not be nursed at home, as his younger brother, a baby of a fortnight old, was equally ill with the same complaint, and his father was in great danger with the fever, and had just lost a brother in smallpox. And worse than all, a son of the old lady had been just brought home in a melancholy state, that was almost madness.
Many would have thought only of flying from the fever. Mary Pickard only thought how she could help the sufferers. First she took charge of the sick child, who was soon very fond of her, and took a fancy to call her "Uncle Mady", and she likewise went about among the other poor, teaching them the care of their sick, and giving them every kind of nourishment they needed, aiding them with hand and head, till no wonder they were always declaring, "they never saw such a lady as Miss Pickard". What she gave away among them was never known, probably not even to herself; but it is plain that she must have been at the expense of their medical advice, since her aunt was totally dependent on her, and the daughter's husband had hitherto lived solely by his daily labour, while the rest of the parish was extremely poor, and the destitution caused by sickness was dreadful. She says herself that the "good little doctor" was her only helper, and no doubt she must have called him in, since in those days unions and union doctors were not, and though parish doctors were appointed, they were a benefit only in name to the poor, who depended almost entirely on private charity, where they were within reach of it, or else upon old women, cunning men, and herbalists. She had a hard fight with the village superstitious fancies, and a harder one with the cottagers' habits of uncleanliness; and such was the panic that prevailed, that she could hardly rouse them into exertion to remove the dirt that was probably the cause of the sickness, and certainly much increased it. Whole families seem to have owed their food to her, while their breadwinner was laid by; but there is no record of the details of her general doings; she said in after years, that she should like to write down an account of the curious things that had befallen her at Osmotherly, but she never had time to do so, and we only have her letters written to her American friends at the time, which speak of little but what concerned her relations, and for them the work she did would have seemed in itself sufficient.
Her cousin "Bessy's" husband died of the fever on the 8th of September, and Mary it was who closed his eyes, and the next day stood godmother to the poor little month-old baby, which was christened at its father's funeral, with little hope of its living, for its cough was bringing on fits. Two nights after she says: "I had been up with the little boy the greater part of the night before . . . but, (in the true spirit of Polly Pickard, attempting to do more than anyone would have thought reasonable), I was quite persuaded that, as I was to sit up, it was as well to do all I could; and as poor Bessy had not had a quiet night since her child was born, and was going to sleep alone in her house for the first time since her husband's death, I thought it would do her good, and me no harm, to sit up in her parlour, and take care of the baby in the cradle, that she might have a little sleep, and not feel alone. The dear little baby had been better than for some time during the day, and I doubted not that it would lie in the cradle or on my knee very quietly, except during its coughing fits. Bessy went to bed; but the poor little creature grew worse, and coughed itself into a fit, in which it lay so long, that I thought it dead, and awoke its mother. But its little heart began to beat again, and it seemed to be reviving, though slowly, and I sent her off again. It appeared for some time to be recovering; but all at once it sunk away and died in my arms, so peacefully and sweetly, that I could scarcely be persuaded that it had not fallen into a still slumber, or had another fit. But it was indeed gone; and when I could bring myself to give it up, I arranged its little body for its last home. I don't know when I have had my feelings more excited. It was a lovely little creature, and I have nursed it so much since I have been here, that I found it had become an object of great interest to me: not a day has passed that I have not given three or four hours to it, and it was always so quiet with me, that it seemed almost to know when I took it." As to her own danger in the midst of infection: "Don't fear for me; I don't think I am going to be sick, and it will be for some good purpose if I am."
She took up her quarters with the poor bereaved mother, and was able to be a great comfort to her, by long talks at night, when all was still, showing her the way to the only true comfort, of which the poor, ill-taught young woman had hitherto known little. At the week's end, however, poor Bessy sickened of the worst form of typhus; and the next day the favourite little Jamie fell ill also. The villagers thought the house doomed, and Mary saw not a creature but the doctor, day after day. The illness lasted eleven days, during which Mary never left her night or day, except to run back to her grandmother's for a change of clothes; for the sufferer did not like to be touched by any other person, and it was best that as few should be exposed to the infection as possible. "Her senses never forsook her for a moment, nor her deep sense of gratitude to God for the mercies which He had bestowed on her amid all her sufferings. It seemed to her that His immediate Providence had sent me to them just at this time; and her expressions of affection and thankfulness were indeed most delightful to me." She died on the 30th of September; and Mary returned to the care of the little Jamie, who was still extremely ill. The elder boy was seven years old, and able to understand the desolateness of his home, and, as he sat by the fire, kept on repeating at intervals the entreaty, "Cousin Mary, you will let me live with you, won't you?" Poor little fellow! he did not long need an earthly home; he, too, fell ill, and, after a most patiently borne sickness, watched constantly by this loving friend, died on the 30th of October.
Still, Mary's nursing was not ended. On the 2nd of November, she wrote: "There are very many cases of the fever in the village, and as I am almost the only person in it who is not afraid of infection, I still have full employment in assisting the poor sufferers. My cousin's little niece is still very ill. I have indeed been wonderfully preserved and strengthened. Heaven save me from presumption, but I cannot help feeling that I could not have lived through all that I have, unless God had protected me!"
By the end of the month, however, the fever had abated sufficiently for Mary to comply with the earnest entreaties of her friends, and come to them at Penrith; but it was a cruel parting with poor little Jamie, who had grown so fond of her, that his screams of agony at her departure long echoed in her ears. The welcome and quiet she enjoyed among her friends made the stay with them "like the rest of the Sabbath to the weary labourer", though she was very weak and weary, and needed much rest and care. But before December was at an end, came a letter from the doctor, telling her the poor old aunt herself was at the point of death, with the same malignant fever. Vainly did Mary's friends assure her that the danger of returning into the infected air was far greater than even all she had gone through before, in her present weakened state. She knew it was her duty to go, and took leave of them "with many solemn thoughts, though hid by cheerful looks", and feeling as if it was for ever that she parted with them.
After an eight hours' solitary journey, she arrived, and had the pleasure of the most ecstatic greeting from poor little Jamie. "He ran round me, jumped up in my lap, stroked and kissed my face, as if he could not trust to the evidence of one sense, and at last burst out a-crying, 'Uncle Mady won't go away again! Uncle Mady live with Jamie every day, won't you, Uncle Mady?'"
Again she had to be sole nurse and servant in the sick house, "acting in a fourfold capacity ", as she called it. She put up a little bed in a corner of her aunt's room, and devoted herself to her. It was less lonely than before; for the doctor had brought his sister to keep house for him, and Mary was able to see much of her. Moreover, the old aunt began to recover from the time of her arrival; and her American heart was rejoiced by the snow–"it looked so homeish, and so much like your happy home the last time I saw it, that I have been enjoying the sight highly".
But the cold and wet, at last, broke down her strength. One night, when alone, such a dreadful cramp seized her, that she fell on the floor, and for a considerable time could neither move nor make anyone hear. For many days after, she lay on her bed, in a state of extreme weakness, from which she could hardly be recovered, but with unfailing brightness. It was always remarked, that, "her worst days were her gayest ones"; and at length she recovered, and left the place where she had been for so many months truly a ministering angel. She returned to that home in America which had, during her toils, seemed to her, "like the dreams one has of heaven, in the twilight hours, between sleeping and waking". There she became a happy wife and mother, and continued to send remittances to the old aunt, as long as they were needed; but she lost sight of little Jamie, and had no further intercourse with him. He, however, did not forget her, and, early in 1849, sent a long affectionate letter to her, dwelling gratefully on all she had done for his dying parents and himself. But, alas! the letter came too late. Mary–now the widowed Mrs. Ware–had long been sinking under a fatal malady, so endured, that "her sick chamber was always the happiest room in the house", and had died on a lovely April day, in which she looked up and said, with a smile, "What a beautiful day to go home! "
Surely, if it be a glorious deed to save life at the risk of our own, Mary Lovell Pickard, standing alone among the dead and dying, in her cheerful resolution and strong trust, deserves honour as much as any hero who braved death in battle or in wreck.
Miss Pickard's noble action, and another similar one suggested a beautiful sketch by Miss Martineau, entitled "The Sickness and Health of the People of Bleaburn , in Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12 of Household Words.
Let us add to this a parallel from Saint Remi Bosrecourt, near Dieppe, where, in 1824, there was a terrible attack of typhus, extremely infectious. It broke out in a house where there were eleven persons: and such were its ravages, that, at last, only the father remained with four little children all ill; and such was the general alarm, that no one would go near the cottage. All the nurses whom the authorities of the village endeavoured to employ, replied that they would not run after death. At last, a lady, Mademoiselle Celestine Détrimont, offered herself; and when the fearful risk was set before her, she answered, "In the service of God and the poor there is no fear of death". To the cottage then she went. One more child died, and she herself prepared it for burial, placing the coffin in the courtyard, where alone anyone dared to come. The other three and the father were saved by her care; and this is said to have been only one instance in a whole life of self-devotion and charity.
This chapter has been put on-line as part of the
BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
This chapter is dedicated by Jessie Hudgins:
"With a little love and a little work... for my grandchildren."