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It had been a very dry autumn, and the periodical rains had been long delayed, so that the minister had been able to do much for the houses he had bought, called the Pottery. There had been but just rain enough to reveal the advantage of the wall he had built to compel the water to keep the wider street. Thoroughly dry and healthy it was impossible to make them, at least in the time; but it is one thing to have the water all about the place you stand on, and another to be up to the knees in it. Not at that point only, however, but at every spot where the water could enter freely, he had done what he could provisionally for the defense of his poor colony--for alas! how much among the well-to-do, in town or city, are the poor like colonists only!--and he had great hopes of the result. Stone and brick and cement he had used freely, and one or two of the people about began to have a glimmering idea of the use of money after a gospel fashion--that is, for thorough work where and because it was needed. The curate was full of admiration and sympathy. But the whole thing gave great dissatisfaction to others not a few. For, as the currents of inundation would be somewhat altered in direction and increased in force by his obstructions, it became necessary for several others also to add to the defenses of their property, and this of course was felt to be a grievance. Their personal inconveniences were like the shilling that hides the moon, and, in the resentment they occasioned, blinded their hearts to the seriousness of the evils from which their merely temporary annoyance was the deliverance of their neighbors. A fancy of prescriptive right in their own comforts outweighed all the long and heavy sufferings of the others. Why should not their neighbors continue miserable, when they had been miserable all their lives hitherto? Those who, on the contrary, had been comfortable all their lives, and liked it so much, ought to continue comfortable--even at their expense. Why not let well alone? Or if people would be so unreasonable as to want to be comfortable too, when nobody cared a straw about them, let them make themselves comfortable without annoying those superior beings who had been comfortable all the time!--Persons who, consciously or unconsciously, reason thus, would do well to read with a little attention the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, wherein it seems recognized that a man's having been used to a thing may be just the reason, not for the continuance, but for the alteration of his condition. In the present case the person who most found himself aggrieved, was the dishonest butcher. A piece of brick wall which the minister had built in contact with the wall of his yard, would indubitably cause such a rise in the water at the descent into the area of his cellar, that, in order to its protection in a moderate flood--in a great one the cellar was always filled--the addition to its defense of two or three more rows of bricks would be required, carrying a correspondent diminution of air and light. It is one of the punishments overtaking those who wrong their neighbors, that not only do they feel more keenly than others any injury done to themselves, but they take many things for injuries that do not belong to the category. It was but a matter of a few shillings at the most, but the man who did not scruple to charge the less careful of his customers for undelivered ounces, gathering to pounds and pounds of meat, resented bitterly the necessity of the outlay. He knew, or ought to have known, that he had but to acquaint the minister with the fact, to have the thing set right at once; but the minister had found him out, and he therefore much preferred the possession of his grievance to its removal. To his friends he regretted that a minister of the gospel should be so corrupted by the mammon of unrighteousness as to use it against members of his own church: that, he said, was not the way to make friends with it. But on the pretense of a Christian spirit, he avoided showing Mr. Drake any sign of his resentment; for the face of his neighbors shames a man whose heart condemns him but shames him not. He restricted himself to grumbling, and brooded to counterplot the mischiefs of the minister. What right had he to injure him for the sake of the poor? Was it not written in the Bible: Thou shall not favor the poor man in his cause? Was it not written also: For every man shall bear his own burden? That was common sense! He did his share in supporting the poor that were church-members, but was he to suffer for improvements on Drake's property for the sake of a pack of roughs! Let him be charitable at his own cost! etc., etc. Self is prolific in argument.
It suited Mr. Drake well, notwithstanding his church republican theories, against which, in the abstract, I could ill object, seeing the whole current of Bible teaching is toward the God-inspired ideal commonwealth--it suited a man like Mr. Drake well, I say, to be an autocrat, and was a most happy thing for his tenants, for certainly no other system of government than a wise autocracy will serve in regard to the dwellings of the poor. And already, I repeat, he had effected not a little. Several new cottages had been built, and one incorrigible old one pulled down. But it had dawned upon him that, however desirable it might be on a dry hill-side, on such a foundation as this a cottage was the worst form of human dwelling that could be built. For when the whole soil was in time of rain like a full sponge, every room upon it was little better than a hollow in a cloud, and the right thing must be to reduce contact with the soil as much as possible. One high house, therefore, with many stories, and stone feet to stand upon, must be the proper kind of building for such a situation. He must lift the first house from the water, and set as many more houses as convenient upon it.
He had therefore already so far prepared for the building of such a house as should lift a good many families far above all deluge; that is, he had dug the foundation, and deep, to get at the more solid ground. In this he had been precipitate, as not unfrequently in his life; for while he was yet meditating whether he should not lay the foundation altogether solid, of the unporous stone of the neighborhood, the rains began, and there was the great hole, to stand all the winter full of water, in the middle of the cottages!
The weather cleared again, but after a St. Martin's summer unusually prolonged, the rain came down in terrible earnest. Day after day, the clouds condensed, grew water, and poured like a squeezed sponge. A wet November indeed it was--wet overhead--wet underfoot--wet all round! and the rivers rose rapidly.
When the Lythe rose beyond a certain point, it overflowed into a hollow, hardly a valley, and thereby a portion of it descended almost straight to Glaston. Hence it came that in a flood the town was invaded both by the rise of the river from below, and by this current from above, on its way to rejoin the main body of it, and the streets were soon turned into canals. The currents of the slowly swelling river and of its temporary branch then met in Pine street, and formed not a very rapid, but a heavy run at ebb tide; for Glaston, though at some distance from the mouth of the river, measuring by its course, was not far from the sea, which was visible across the green flats, a silvery line on the horizon. Landward, beyond the flats, high ground rose on all sides, and hence it was that the floods came down so deep upon Glaston.
On a certain Saturday it rained all the morning heavily, but toward the afternoon cleared a little, so that many hoped the climax had been reached, while the more experienced looked for worse. After sunset the clouds gathered thicker than before, and the rain of the day was as nothing to the torrent descending with a steady clash all night. When the slow, dull morning came Glaston stood in the middle of a brown lake, into which water was rushing from the sky in straight, continuous lines. The prospect was discomposing. Some, too confident in the apparent change, had omitted needful precautions, in most parts none were now possible, and in many more none would have been of use. Most cellars were full, and the water was rising on the ground-floors. It was a very different affair from a flood in a mountainous country, but serious enough, though without immediate danger to life. Many a person that morning stepped out of bed up to the knee in muddy water.
With the first of the dawn the curate stood peering from the window of his dressing-room, through the water that coursed down the pane, to discover the state of the country; for the window looked inland from the skirt of the town. All was gray mist, brown water, and sheeting rain. The only things clear were that not a soul would be at church that morning, and that, though he could do nothing to divide them the bread needful for their souls, he might do something for some of their bodies. It was a happy thing it was Sunday, for, having laid in their stock of bread the day before, people were not so dependent on the bakers, half whose ovens must now be full of water. But most of the kitchens must be flooded, he reasoned, the fire-wood soaking, and the coal in some cellars inaccessible. The very lucifer-matches in many houses would be as useless as the tinderbox of a shipwrecked sailor. And if the rain were to cease at once the water would yet keep rising for many hours. He turned from the window, took his bath in homoeopathic preparation, and then went to wake his wife.
She was one of those blessed women who always open their eyes smiling. She owed very little of her power of sympathy to personal suffering; the perfection of her health might have made one who was too anxious for her spiritual growth even a little regretful. Her husband therefore had seldom to think of sparing her when any thing had to be done. She could lose a night's sleep without the smallest injury, and stand fatigue better than most men; and in the requirements of the present necessity there would be mingled a large element of adventure, almost of frolic, full of delight to a vigorous organization.
"What a good time of it the angels of wind and flame must have!" said the curate to himself as he went to wake her. "What a delight to be embodied as a wind, or a flame, or a rushing sea!--Come, Helen, my help! Glaston wants you," he said softly in her ear.
She started up.
"What is it, Thomas?" she said, holding her eyes wider open than was needful, to show him she was capable.
"Nothing to frighten you, darling," he answered, "but plenty to be done. The river is out, and the people are all asleep. Most of them will have to wait for their breakfast, I fear. We shall have no prayers this morning."
"But plenty of divine service," rejoined Helen, with a smile for what her aunt called one of his whims, as she got up and seized some of her garments.
"Take time for your bath, dear," said her husband.
"There will be time for that afterward," she replied. "What shall I do first?"
"Wake the servants, and tell them to light the kitchen fire, and make all the tea and coffee they can. But tell them to make it good. We shall get more of every thing as soon as it is light. I'll go and bring the boat. I had it drawn up and moored in the ruins ready to float yesterday. I wish I hadn't put on my shirt though: I shall have to swim for it, I fear."
"I shall have one aired before you come back," said Helen.
"Aired!" returned her husband: "you had better say watered. In five minutes neither of us will have a dry stitch on. I'll take it off again, and be content with my blue jersey."
He hurried out into the rain. Happily there was no wind.
Helen waked the servants. Before they appeared she had the fire lighted, and as many utensils as it would accommodate set upon it with water. When Wingfold returned, he found her in the midst of her household, busily preparing every kind of eatable and drinkable they could lay hands upon.
He had brought his boat to the church yard and moored it between two headstones: they would have their breakfast first, for there was no saying when they might get any lunch, and food is work. Besides, there was little to be gained by rousing people out of their good sleep: there was no danger yet.
"It is a great comfort," said the curate, as he drank his coffee, "to see how Drake goes in heart and soul for his tenants. He is pompous--a little, and something of a fine gentleman, but what is that beside his great truth! That work of his is the simplest act of Christianity of a public kind I have ever seen!"
"But is there not a great change on him since he had his money?" said Helen. "He seems to me so much humbler in his carriage and simpler in his manners than before."
"It is quite true," replied her husband. "It is mortifying to think," he went on after a little pause, "how many of our clergy, from mere beggarly pride, holding their rank superior--as better accredited servants of the Carpenter of Nazareth, I suppose--would look down on that man as a hedge-parson. The world they court looked down upon themselves from a yet greater height once, and may come to do so again. Perhaps the sooner the better, for then they will know which to choose. Now they serve Mammon and think they serve God."
"It is not quite so bad as that, surely!" said Helen.
"If it is not worldly pride, what is it? I do not think it is spiritual pride. Few get on far enough to be much in danger of that worst of all vices. It must then be church-pride, and that is the worst form of worldly pride, for it is a carrying into the kingdom of Heaven of the habits and judgments of the kingdom of Satan. I am wrong! such things can not be imported into the kingdom of Heaven: they can only be imported into the Church, which is bad enough. Helen, the churchman's pride is a thing to turn a saint sick with disgust, so utterly is it at discord with the lovely human harmony he imagines himself the minister of. He is the Pharisee, it may be the good Pharisee, of the kingdom of Heaven; but if the proud churchman be in the kingdom at all, it must be as one of the least in it. I don't believe one in ten who is guilty of this pride is aware of the sin of it. Only the other evening I heard a worthy canon say, it may have been more in joke than appeared, that he would have all dissenters burned. Now the canon would not hang one of them--but he does look down on them all with contempt. Such miserable paltry weaknesses and wickednesses, for in a servant of the Kingdom the feeling which suggests such a speech is wicked, are the moth holes in the garments of the Church, the teredo in its piles, the dry rot in its floors, the scaling and crumbling of its buttresses. They do more to ruin what such men call the Church, even in outward respects, than any of the rude attacks of those whom they thus despise. He who, in the name of Christ, pushes his neighbor from him, is a schismatic, and that of the worst and only dangerous type! But we had better be going. It's of no use telling you to take your waterproof; you'd only be giving it to the first poor woman we picked up."
"I may as well have the good of it till then," said Helen, and ran to fetch it, while the curate went to bring his boat to the house.
When he opened the door, there was no longer a spot of earth or of sky to be seen--only water, and the gray sponge filling the upper air, through which coursed multitudinous perpendicular runnels of water. Clad in a pair of old trowsers and a jersey, he went wading, and where the ground dipped, swimming, to the western gate of the churchyard. In a few minutes he was at the kitchen window, holding the boat in a long painter, for the water, although quite up to the rectory walls, was not yet deep enough there to float the boat with any body in it. The servants handed him out the great cans they used at school-teas, full of hot coffee, and baskets of bread, and he placed them in the boat, covering them with a tarpaulin. Then Helen appeared at the door, in her waterproof, with a great fur-cloak--to throw over him, she said, when she took the oars, for she meant to have her share of the fun: it was so seldom there was any going on a Sunday!--How she would have shocked her aunt, and better women than she!
"To-day," said the curate, "we shall praise God with the mirth of the good old hundredth psalm, and not with the fear of the more modern version."
As he spoke he bent to his oars, and through a narrow lane the boat soon shot into Pine-street--now a wide canal, banked with houses dreary and dead, save where, from an upper window, peeped out here and there a sleepy, dismayed countenance. In silence, except for the sounds of the oars, and the dull rush of water everywhere, they slipped along.
"This is fun!" said Helen, where she sat and steered.
"Very quiet fun as yet," answered the curate. "But it will get faster by and by."
As often as he saw any one at a window, he called out that tea and coffee would be wanted for many a poor creature's breakfast. But here they were all big houses, and he rowed swiftly past them, for his business lay, not where there were servants and well-stocked larders, but where there were mothers and children and old people, and little but water besides. Nor had they left Pine street by many houses before they came where help was right welcome. Down the first turning a miserable cottage stood three feet deep in the water. Out jumped the curate with the painter in his hand, and opened the door.
On the bed, over the edge of which the water was lapping, sat a sickly young woman in her night-dress, holding her baby to her bosom. She stared for a moment with big eyes, then looked down, and said nothing; but a rose-tinge mounted from her heart to her pale cheek.
"Good morning, Martha!" said the curate cheerily. "Rather damp--ain't it? Where's your husband?"
"Away looking for work, sir," answered Martha, in a hopeless tone.
"Then he won't miss you. Come along. Give me the baby."
"I can't come like this, sir. I ain't got no clothes on."
"Take them with you. You can't put them on: they're all wet. Mrs. Wingfold is in the boat: she'll see to every thing you want. The door's hardly wide enough to let the boat through, or I'd pull it close up to the bed for you to get in."
"Come along," he repeated. "I won't look at you. Or wait--I'll take the baby, and come back for you. Then you won't get so wet."
He took the baby from her arms, and turned to the door.
"It ain't you as I mind, sir," said Martha, getting into the water at once and following him, "--no more'n my own people; but all the town'll be at the windows by this time."
"Never mind; we'll see to you," he returned.
In half a minute more, with the help of the windowsill, she was in the boat, the fur-cloak wrapped about her and the baby, drinking the first cup of the hot coffee.
"We must take her home at once," said the curate.
"You said we should have fun!" said Helen, the tears rushing into her eyes.
She had left the tiller, and, while the mother drank her coffee, was patting the baby under the cloak. But she had to betake herself to the tiller again, for the curate was not rowing straight.
When they reached the rectory, the servants might all have been grandmothers from the way they received the woman and her child.
"Give them a warm bath together," said Helen, "as quickly as possible.--And stay, let me out, Thomas--I must go and get Martha some clothes. I shan't be a minute."
The next time they returned, Wingfold, looking into the kitchen, could hardly believe the sweet face he saw by the fire, so refined in its comforted sadness, could be that of Martha. He thought whether the fine linen, clean and white, may not help the righteousness even of the saints a little.
Their next take was a boat-load of children and an old grandmother. Most of the houses had a higher story, and they took only those who had no refuge. Many more, however, drank of their coffee and ate of their bread. The whole of the morning they spent thus, calling, on their passages, wherever they thought they could get help or find accommodation. By noon a score of boats were out rendering similar assistance. The water was higher than it had been for many years, and was still rising. Faber had laid hands upon an old tub of a salmon-coble, and was the first out after the curate. But there was no fun in the poor doctor's boat. Once the curate's and his met in the middle of Pine street--both as full of people as they could carry. Wingfold and Helen greeted Faber frankly and kindly. He returned their greeting with solemn courtesy, rowing heavily past.
By lunch-time, Helen had her house almost full, and did not want to go again: there was so much to be done! But her husband persuaded her to give him one hour more: the servants were doing so well! he said. She yielded. He rowed her to the church, taking up the sexton and his boy on their way. There the crypts and vaults were full of water. Old wood-carvings and bits of ancient coffins were floating about in them. But the floor of the church was above the water: he landed Helen dry in the porch, and led her to the organ-loft. Now the organ was one of great power; seldom indeed, large as the church was, did they venture its full force: he requested her to pull out every stop, and send the voice of the church, in full blast, into every corner of Glaston. He would come back for her in half an hour and take her home. He desired the sexton to leave all the doors open, and remember that the instrument would want every breath of wind he and his boy could raise.
He had just laid hold of his oars, when out of the porch rushed a roar of harmony that seemed to seize his boat and blow it away upon its mission like a feather--for in the delight of the music the curate never felt the arms that urged it swiftly along. After him it came pursuing, and wafted him mightily on. Over the brown waters it went rolling, a grand billow of innumerable involving and involved waves. He thought of the spirit of God that moved on the face of the primeval waters, and out of a chaos wrought a cosmos. "Would," he said to himself, "that ever from the church door went forth such a spirit of harmony and healing of peace and life! But the church's foes are they of her own household, who with the axes and hammers of pride and exclusiveness and vulgar priestliness, break the carved work of her numberless chapels, yea, build doorless screens from floor to roof, dividing nave and choir and chancel and transepts and aisles into sections numberless, and, with the evil dust they raise, darken for ages the windows of her clerestory!"
The curate was thinking of no party, but of individual spirit. Of the priestliness I have encountered, I can not determine whether the worse belonged to the Church of England or a certain body of Dissenters.
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