Fiction: The Great Fire of London (3740 words)
The Diary of Samuel Pepys
1st September 1666
It is almost eleven o’clock as I write these words, with a shaking hand, by the light of a single candle. They surround us. We are trapped. I can see no way out. I do not know if I will finish this account of this terrible night. Nor, if there will be anyone left alive to read it. But write it, I must.
The bells of St Magnus-the-Martyr announced six o’clock in the evening, as I hurried through the church yard. I was late. I quickened my pace and reached the doors, just as the church warden began to close them. He handed me a hymn sheet and showed me to a pew, where I was greeted by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth.
He shook my hand. He looked weary, older than when I last saw him.
“What are your thoughts on these reports of the plague, Mister Pepys? Of the dead rising from their graves?”
“I am sure you are better informed than I, Sir Thomas. I assumed they were stories, designed to scare people away from the plague pits. To stop people stealing from the dead.”
“One would think The Black Death frightening enough,” he said, shivering, despite the warmth of the evening. “Whatever their source, the rumours have certainly caught the imagination of the average man.” He looked around him. “The church is almost empty.”
The rector climbed up to the pulpit and began the service. As the light began to fade, the congregation dwindled further. The church warden lit lamps and candles to ward off the encroaching darkness.
There was a crash.
I looked to the back of the church. A woman stood in the doorway. She began to scream. She held a small bundle in her arms: a boy.
Before I could reach them, the boy fell to the floor. His mother dropped to her knees, beside him. I pushed her aside to examine the child. With horror I saw he was missing an arm. Blood was weeping gently from the wound, together with a strange, stinking, yellow puss. The flow began to ease, and then stopped. The boy was dead.
Sir Thomas was at my side. He pulled the weeping woman towards him, away from the child’s body. She began to hit out, screaming into Sir Thomas’ face. The church warden came to help him.
I stood up. Taking a lantern I went outside. I could see nothing in the twilight. There was a noise. A shuffling sound. I could not locate it’s source. I heard a cry that could have come from a dying, or tormented, beast. Out of the shadows a man came. He moved like a drunkard. I watched as he stumbled into a gravestone. I almost called out, but something stopped me. There was something very wrong about how this man moved: he was not merely drunk. There was a terrible odour. A smell of death, the stench of the plague pits. He came nearer. In his hand he held something. As I watched he brought it to his mouth. In the still of the evening I could hear teeth ripping into flesh, and with horror I realized it was a child’s arm. I gagged, and vomit splashed onto the ground in front of me.
The man-shape turned slowly towards me. It paused for a moment, as though sniffing the air. Pale of face , it looked more dead than alive. Yet, it moved.
A shiver ran through my body. The creature was within ten paces. Now I could see it was not alone. I wanted to run. I was paralysed.
A hand gripped my shoulder. I cried out in terror. I turned. Sir Thomas Bloodworth stood beside me, his face white with shock. Attracted by my cry the creatures advanced towards us: I counted five, no seven. Their white watery eyes bulged horribly in their pale, scarred faces. If they had once been men, there was no humanity left in their gaze now.
Sir Thomas pulled me inside. We slammed the heavy doors shut, and leaned against them. For a moment we simply looked at each other, unable to understand what we had seen. It was Sir Thomas who regained his composure first as the doors began to shake.
“We need to barricade this door,” he said. The church warden bolted the door with a thick piece of oak. I helped Sir Thomas drag a pew over to the doors. We began to construct a rudimentary barrier.
The door continued to shudder. Amongst the pounding on the door we could hear the unnatural, guttural moans of the creatures on the other side.
As we moved the pews, I counted nine of us: the rector, Sir Thomas, the church warden, two women, three children and I. The body of the dead child had been moved to the side of the church and covered by a cloak.
We lifted the last piece of the barrier into place.
“What in Heaven’s name do you think they are Mister Pepys?” Sir Thomas whispered in my ear. An image of the creatures came into my mind, and I shivered. Those creatures had nothing to do with Heaven, of that I was sure.
Before I could formulate a response, the rector, Robert Ivory joined us. He took the arm of the Lord Mayor.
“I think the time of the apocalypse is upon us,” the rector Ivory said. He spoke softly, glancing at the women and children, huddled together on the floor. “We need to gather together and pray.”
As he spoke, I heard glass breaking. Sir Thomas looked at me. We ran towards the sound. Past the tower, at the back of the chancel we saw a window, with shards of stained glass at the base of it. A shape climbed through the aperture. Sir Thomas grabbed a long pole which leaned against an oak wardrobe. He held it like a spear, and advanced towards the intruder.
“Sir Thomas!” I shouted, as the man stood up. “I think he is human.”
The man bore none of the characteristics of the creatures I had seen earlier. He moved fluidly and had colour in his face. He wore the clothes of a night watchman, although these were torn and stained, with blood and other substances, I could not identify. He bent down and retrieved a mace, from the floor: the evil spikes dripped gruesome matter onto the stone floor.
“Help me,” he said. He turned back to window and took a swipe at a white arm as it clawed through the window. The mace crushed it against the wall of the church. Undeterred, the creature continued to advance. It was missing half its face, and had but one milky eye. Its teeth were visible through a hole in its cheek. I could smell its putrid breath from where I stood riveted to the ground.
The watchman swung the club, smashing the head into a sticky mess.
The creature was not alone. Two or three others were behind, clawing and biting its body. I could not tell if they were feeding on it, or tearing it apart to get to us.
Sir Thomas ran to the watchman’s side, jabbing at one of the creatures with his staff as the watchman swung his mace at another. I searched for a weapon, but in the pale lamp light, I could see nothing other than a walking cane. An idea came to me. I opened the wardrobe, and pulled from it some robes. I ripped them into shreds and began wrapping them around the end of the cane. I blew out the flame from a lamp and poured the oil onto the cloth.
The church warden arrived. He began to push the heavy wardrobe towards the window. Sir Thomas stood back, now weapon-less. His staff was stuck, protruding from the eye socket of a monster climbing through the window. The watchman swung his club at it’s head and it fell back. The pole clattered to the floor. Sir Thomas grabbed it and returned to the side of the watchman.
I took another lantern from the wall. I advanced towards the window and called to the others to move.
I lit the end of my makeshift torch, and threw the lantern through the window. Oil spilled over the creatures. I thrust the torch at them, driving it into their evil faces. My stomach turned at the abhorrent smell of cooking, rancid, meat, as their heads burned.
“Enough Mister Pepys!” Sir Thomas pushed me away from the window The watchman and the warden pushed the wardrobe to block the window.
We leaned against the wardrobe, exhausted, panting hard. It continued to move, as it was battered by the creatures behind it, but it held its position.
“Thomas Farynor,” the church warden said, offering his hand to the Watchman. “Welcome to our church.”
“Sorry about the visitors.” the watchman said, between breaths. “London is full of them. The Black Death has become something new, something worse: the dead have risen from the plague pits, thousands of them. And they are coming for the living.”
“May God help us all,” I said. “The rector is right. The End of Days has come.”
A scream, from the other side of the church, brought us to our feet. We arrived to see the rector Ivory holding his cross before him, the women and children sheltering behind him. The barricade was intact. It took me a few moments to work out what was wrong. The Rector Ivory was looking over to the side of the church where the covered body of the dead boy lay. The cloak – or rather what was beneath the cloak – moved.
The warden, Farynor, took the pole from the hands of Sir Thomas. He walked slowly over to the body, accompanied by the watchman. Sir Thomas and I moved closer, blocking the view from the rector, the women and children.
A stride away from the body, Farynor used his pole to flick the cloak off the body. The body was small, bloody and broken. It twitched. At first I assumed it was a vile trick of nature, like a hen that continues to move after its head is cut off. But to my horror the child – what had been a child – opened its eyes. Using its one remaining arm it raised itself up.
The watchman lifted his mace, the cruel spikes still glistening with brain matter. There was an ear-piercing scream. One of the women pushed past me. Still screaming she grabbed hold of the watchman’s arm. Farynor grabbed the woman and pulled her away. The child-thing lurched towards the watchman. Its teeth closed around his leg. His grip loosened on the mace but he did not let go. With a cry he raised the mace high and swung it down onto the head. I looked away, but too late. The skull split in two and the watchman was splattered in red and grey matter. I heard the thud of the mace as it hit the floor.
The woman fainted. Farynor lifted her onto his broad shoulders and carried her back to the rector Ivory. The watchman pulled the clock back over the corpse. He picked up his mace and limped away from the group. Sir Thomas and I followed.
We found the watchman back by the wardrobe. He had rolled up his trousers and was examining the wound. It was already yellow around the edges, and it oozed a foul-smelling pus. The watchman looked up at us, fear in his eyes.
“Don’t let me become one of them,” he said. “Use this,” he gestured to the mace, beside him. “You will need to smash my head.”
Sir Thomas picked up the mace. He wrinkled his nose, as he examined the putrid substance that coated the spikes.
“That, I can not do,” he said, his voice unsteady. He put the mace down, and touched the watchman on his shoulder.
“My friend,” I said, looking the watchman in the eye. “It seems you have to be dead before this plague takes hold and transforms you into,” I looked away, unable to look into his terrified face. “Into whatever they are. You are not dead yet. We have need of you.”
Footsteps approached. Mr Farynor joined us.
“I need to speak to you, Sir Thomas. I must go to my family. I need to know they are safe. And if they are not,” he looked away from the watchman. “If they are not, I need to give them peace.”
Sir Thomas looked at the warden. “You are the Kings baker, are you not? Thomas Farynor of Pudding Lane?”
“Yes, Sir Thomas. It is but three hundred strides from here.”
“Mr Watchman? How do you rate our chances of reaching Mr Farynor’s bakery?” The watchman looked at Sir Thomas as if he had lost his head.
“Not good, Sir Thomas. I barely made it in here. The church will be surrounded by now. If there were another way out, perhaps they could be distracted.”
“And these creatures, they are all over London, you say?” The Watchman nodded. “We can’t hope to kill them all with a mace on the head.” Sir Thomas, patted the watchman on the shoulder. “But I have another idea. I will not pretend that you will survive this. But I think there is a way you can serve your City and your fellow man. Come with me.”
We followed Sir Thomas back to the small group. The rector Ivory was continuing to comfort the dead child’s mother, who let out a whimper when she saw the watchman approach carrying his mace.
“Rector,” Sir Thomas gestured for him to join us. “This Church has a subterranean passage that leads into it’s crypt, does it not?” The rector nodded. “And where does it lead?”
“Into the crypt in St Margaret’s Church, New Fish Street, Sir Thomas.”
“Just round the corner from your bakery, isn’t it Mr Farynor?”
“Fifty or sixty strides, Sir Thomas.”
“Good. Then I have an idea.” As he told us his plan, I wondered if he knew how desperate it sounded and how unlikely it was to succeed. Seeing no alternative, I kept my silence.
A short while later we were ready. Sir Thomas now wielded the mace. Thomas Farynor (the churchwarden and baker) had emptied all the oil from the lamps. We had soaked more rags and tied them to the staff and my cane. The rector Ivory had armed himself with a large iron cross. The watchman had no weapon.
We made our way down the stone steps into the icy chill of the crypt. We all looked around nervously at the sarcophagi, half expecting them to open to reveal more of those creatures. Reaching the end of the crypt we halted before a large metal gate, which blocked our progress. The rector chose a rusty looking key from a large ring, hanging from his belt. At first I feared it would not turn, but eventually the gate swung open with a screech.
Each of us took turns to shake the hands of the watchman (apart from the dead child’s mother). The gate swung closed and the rector used the key again to lock it. As we began our walk down the narrow passage it struck me: I did not even know the name of the man on the other side of the gate.
I do not know how long we walked. Dank water dripped upon our heads. Rats scurried around our feet. I could hear them squeal and occasionally I could feel a body crunch underfoot. Finally, our path was blocked by a gate identical to the last. This time the rector left it unlocked, and open. We feared what might be awaiting us in the church above.
The church was quiet. Our footsteps echoed loudly, as we crept through the nave. Mr Farynor and I went ahead, with our torches throwing light into the recesses.
Mr Farynor helped the rector Ivory pull the doors open. Outside, there were few stars in the sky. In the distance we could hear shouting, and the occasional scream. But of the unnatural sounds of the creatures there was no sign.
We crept through the church yard, holding our torches before us. Thomas Farynor led the way, out onto the narrow street. Sir Thomas was at the rear, and the rector Ivory and I protected the women and children on either side.
The bakery was in sight when they came for us. Three creatures lumbered out of the shadows. Two of them may have once been women, but I could not be sure. Their appearance was as unbearable as their stench.
Sir Thomas moved quickly, and clubbed one of the creatures in its head. It fell into the arms of another. Staggering briefly, it flung the inert corpse to one side and rounded on Sir Thomas. The rector swung the cross, embedding it in the skull, with a sickening sound. Mr Farynor kept the the other at bay with his torch, until Sir Thomas swung his mace into its face.
There were others coming toward us now. We ran to the the bakery. Thomas Farynor hammered the door.
“Open quickly, in the name of all that’s Holy!” The door was opened by a timid girl: a maid.
“Oh Mr Farynor, sir, thank Heaven you’re safe,” she said. Sir Thomas and I remained outside, pushing the women, children and the rector inside. Sir Thomas gestured me in. I threw my torch at the head of the nearest creature and threw myself through the doorway. I turned to see Sir Thomas swing the mace, before entering. The blow glanced off the creatures head.
“Close the door!” Mr Farynor shouted at the maid, as Sir Thomas ran past. She stood in the door way, frozen in terror. The creature lurched forward and pulled her towards it’s horrid face. The maid’s scream turned into a gurgle as it sunk it’s teeth into her throat. Sir Thomas pushed the two writhing bodies out of the door, and followed them. I heard two thuds. Sir Thomas returned, blood spattered and grim-faced. He bolted the door shut.
Mr Farynor sent for his workman, an earnest young man, covered in flour. Sir Thomas spoke to him in hushed tones, before giving him a note, hastily written on paper ripped from my journal. The workman left “the back way” (climbing through the second floor window into the neighbours house), with the heavy mace for protection.
As I write this I can hear them outside: their strange guttural moans, and the noise as they hammer the doors, and the windows.
I am thinking about the poor Watchman, left alone in the other church. And of the task that awaits him.
The bells of St Margaret’s are ringing out, now. They are answered by others, all across London. The signal: the city is ready to fight. Sir Thomas’ plan is a bold one, but I fear I will not live to finish this tale.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys
5th September 1666
The fire has been raging for days, but it begins to wane now.
Thomas Farynor set a good fire in his ovens and the fire spread quickly. London is a crowded place: one house leans against another (which is how we were able to escape “the back way”, into the neighbours house). The only thing Londoners fear more than fire is the plague.
The watchmen of London worked day and night to round up and lead as many of the plague creatures into buildings before they were burnt to the ground. Our Watchman played his part. When the church bells rang all over London, he opened the doors of St Magnus-the-martyr. As many as eighty creatures entered the church, before the church took fire.
It was the second church to be burnt to the ground, St Margaret’s being the first.
Sir Thomas visited me on the second day. He stood with me and looked with pride at as building after building succumbed to fire.
“It will take more than a woman to piss that out,” he said, patting me on the back.
Sir Thomas and I were summoned by the King, today.
“My advisers can not tell me how the plague changed or what it has done to the brains of the dead,” he said, stroking his moustache.
“It seems, however, that whatever it was it has been contained to London. I have ordered that all victims, or suspected victims, of the plague have their heads crushed before burning.” We nodded our agreement.
“I am concerned that should news of this outbreak spread it could trigger unrest. It is just six years since I returned to the Throne. I can not – and will not – allow this country to return to civil war.
“I therefore command you Mr Pepys to write another version of what happened that night. Sir Thomas will tell you what must be written.”
My King has commanded, and I must act.
But can I bring myself to destroy the truth of what happened that night?
Notes on the “official version” of the Great Fire of London.
The fire was started at Thomas Farynor’s (also spelt Farriner) bakery somewhere between midnight and two in the morning on 2nd September 1666. The family escaped by climbing from an upstairs window into a neighbour’s house. The maid died in the fire, because she was too scared to attempt the climb.
Thomas Farynor, a former Church Warden, was buried in the middle aisle of St Magnus-the-Martyr (in a temporary structure ) in 1670. The church was rebuilt between 1671 and 1687 under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren.
Sir Thomas Bloodworth, the Lord Mayor of London, was blamed for the spread of the fire as he refused to demolish houses to halt the blaze. He was said to have remarked “Pshh! A woman might piss it out!”
St Margaret’s Church was the first church to burn. It was not rebuilt but a monument stands on the site, commemorating the Fire.
The Rector Robert Ivory remained rector of St Magnus-the-Martyr until his death in 1710
The fire destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, St Paul’s Cathedral and many other public buildings.
Samuel Pepys, his diaries and his account of the Great Fire of London, are renowned throughout the world.
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