" 'You have never seen anything like it on the roads. Innumerable men on horseback, wagons, and carts bulging with baggage. I tell you, everyone capable of leaving the city is doing so or plans to do it. The poor meantimes are pitching up tents out on Hampstead Heath. One walks, if one must walk, in the very centre of the roadway to avoid the contagion seeping from dwellings. Those who must move through the poorer parishes cover their faces in herb-stuffed masks contrived like the beaks of great birds. People go through the streets like drunkards, weaving from this side to that so as to avoid passing too close to any other pedestrian. And yet one cannot take the hackney, for the last person inside my have breathed contagion.' He dropped his voice then and looked all around, seeming to enjoy the attention his words were garnering. 'They say you can hear the screams of the dying, locked up all alone in the houses marked with the red crosses. The Great Orbs are all on the move, I tell you: there is talk that the kind plans to remove his court to Oxford. For myself, I saw no reason to tarry. The city is emptying so fast that there is little worthwhile society to be had. One rarely sees a wigg'd gallant or powered lady, for wealth and connection are no shield against Plague.'
The word dropped like an anvil among the tinkling silverware. The bright room dimmed for me as if someone had snuffed every candle all at one. I clutched the platter I carried so that I would not drop it and stood stock-still until I was sure of my balance. I gathered myself and tried to steady my breath. There are many fevers that can cill a man other than the Plague. And George Viccars hadn't been near London in more than a year. So how could he have been touched by the city's pestilence?
Colonel Bradford cleared his throat. 'Come now, Robert! Do not alarm the ladies. The next thing they will be shunning your company for fewar of infection!'
'Do not joke, sir, for on the turnpike north of London, I encountered an angry mob, brandishing hoes and pitchforks, denying entry to their village inn to any who were travelling from London. It was a low place, in any wise, nowhere I would have sought shelter even on the flithiest of nights, so I rode onwards unmolested. But before long, to be a Londoner will not be a credential worth owning to. It will be surprising how many of us will invent rusticated histories for ourselves, mind me well. You'll learn that my chief abode these last years was Wetwang, not Westminster.' "
NOTE: I did a little research on the Great Plague and discovered this site which offers a brief history of how the village of Eyam in Derbyshire was affected by the Plague. This is the setting Geraldine Brooks uses in her novel and some of the characters are based on actual people.