Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 5

SOME disorder had surely crept into the course of the elements, destroying
their benignant influence. The wind, prince of air, raged through his
kingdom, lashing the sea into fury, and subduing the rebel earth into some
sort of obedience.

The God sends down his angry plagues from high,
Famine and pestilence in heaps they die.
Again in vengeance of his wrath he falls
On their great hosts, and breaks their tottering walls;
Arrests their navies on the ocean's plain,
And whelms their strength with mountains of the main.


Their deadly power shook the flourishing countries of the south, and
during winter, even, we, in our northern retreat, began to quake under
their ill effects.

That fable is unjust, which gives the superiority to the sun over the wind.
Who has not seen the lightsome earth, the balmy atmosphere, and basking
nature become dark, cold and ungenial, when the sleeping wind has awoke in
the east? Or, when the dun clouds thickly veil the sky, while exhaustless
stores of rain are poured down, until, the dank earth refusing to imbibe
the superabundant moisture, it lies in pools on the surface; when the torch
of day seems like a meteor, to be quenched; who has not seen the
cloud-stirring north arise, the streaked blue appear, and soon an opening
made in the vapours in the eye of the wind, through which the bright azure
shines? The clouds become thin; an arch is formed for ever rising upwards,
till, the universal cope being unveiled, the sun pours forth its rays,
re-animated and fed by the breeze.

Then mighty art thou, O wind, to be throned above all other vicegerents of
nature's power; whether thou comest destroying from the east, or pregnant
with elementary life from the west; thee the clouds obey; the sun is
subservient to thee; the shoreless ocean is thy slave! Thou sweepest over
the earth, and oaks, the growth of centuries, submit to thy viewless axe;
the snow-drift is scattered on the pinnacles of the Alps, the avalanche
thunders down their vallies. Thou holdest the keys of the frost, and canst
first chain and then set free the streams; under thy gentle governance the
buds and leaves are born, they flourish nursed by thee.

Why dost thou howl thus, O wind? By day and by night for four long months
thy roarings have not ceased--the shores of the sea are strewn with
wrecks, its keel-welcoming surface has become impassable, the earth has
shed her beauty in obedience to thy command; the frail balloon dares no
longer sail on the agitated air; thy ministers, the clouds, deluge the land
with rain; rivers forsake their banks; the wild torrent tears up the
mountain path; plain and wood, and verdant dell are despoiled of their
loveliness; our very cities are wasted by thee. Alas, what will become of
us? It seems as if the giant waves of ocean, and vast arms of the sea, were
about to wrench the deep-rooted island from its centre; and cast it, a ruin
and a wreck, upon the fields of the Atlantic.

What are we, the inhabitants of this globe, least among the many that
people infinite space? Our minds embrace infinity; the visible mechanism of
our being is subject to merest accident. Day by day we are forced to
believe this. He whom a scratch has disorganized, he who disappears from
apparent life under the influence of the hostile agency at work around us,
had the same powers as I--I also am subject to the same laws. In the face
of all this we call ourselves lords of the creation, wielders of the
elements, masters of life and death, and we allege in excuse of this
arrogance, that though the individual is destroyed, man continues for
ever.

Thus, losing our identity, that of which we are chiefly conscious, we glory
in the continuity of our species, and learn to regard death without terror.
But when any whole nation becomes the victim of the destructive powers of
exterior agents, then indeed man shrinks into insignificance, he feels his
tenure of life insecure, his inheritance on earth cut off.

I remember, after having witnessed the destructive effects of a fire, I
could not even behold a small one in a stove, without a sensation of fear.
The mounting flames had curled round the building, as it fell, and was
destroyed. They insinuated themselves into the substances about them, and
the impediments to their progress yielded at their touch. Could we take
integral parts of this power, and not be subject to its operation? Could we
domesticate a cub of this wild beast, and not fear its growth and
maturity?

Thus we began to feel, with regard to many-visaged death let loose on the
chosen districts of our fair habitation, and above all, with regard to the
plague. We feared the coming summer. Nations, bordering on the already
infected countries, began to enter upon serious plans for the better
keeping out of the enemy. We, a commercial people, were obliged to bring
such schemes under consideration; and the question of contagion became
matter of earnest disquisition.

That the plague was not what is commonly called contagious, like the
scarlet fever, or extinct small-pox, was proved. It was called an epidemic.
But the grand question was still unsettled of how this epidemic was
generated and increased. If infection depended upon the air, the air was
subject to infection. As for instance, a typhus fever has been brought by
ships to one sea-port town; yet the very people who brought it there, were
incapable of communicating it in a town more fortunately situated. But how
are we to judge of airs, and pronounce--in such a city plague will die
unproductive; in such another, nature has provided for it a plentiful
harvest? In the same way, individuals may escape ninety-nine times, and
receive the death-blow at the hundredth; because bodies are sometimes in a
state to reject the infection of malady, and at others, thirsty to imbibe
it. These reflections made our legislators pause, before they could decide
on the laws to be put in force. The evil was so wide-spreading, so violent
and immedicable, that no care, no prevention could be judged superfluous,
which even added a chance to our escape.

These were questions of prudence; there was no immediate necessity for an
earnest caution. England was still secure. France, Germany, Italy and
Spain, were interposed, walls yet without a breach, between us and the
plague. Our vessels truly were the sport of winds and waves, even as
Gulliver was the toy of the Brobdignagians; but we on our stable abode
could not be hurt in life or limb by these eruptions of nature. We could
not fear--we did not. Yet a feeling of awe, a breathless sentiment of
wonder, a painful sense of the degradation of humanity, was introduced into
every heart. Nature, our mother, and our friend, had turned on us a brow of
menace. She shewed us plainly, that, though she permitted us to assign her
laws and subdue her apparent powers, yet, if she put forth but a finger, we
must quake. She could take our globe, fringed with mountains, girded by the
atmosphere, containing the condition of our being, and all that man's mind
could invent or his force achieve; she could take the ball in her hand, and
cast it into space, where life would be drunk up, and man and all his
efforts for ever annihilated.

These speculations were rife among us; yet not the less we proceeded in our
daily occupations, and our plans, whose accomplishment demanded the lapse
of many years. No voice was heard telling us to hold! When foreign
distresses came to be felt by us through the channels of commerce, we set
ourselves to apply remedies. Subscriptions were made for the emigrants, and
merchants bankrupt by the failure of trade. The English spirit awoke to its
full activity, and, as it had ever done, set itself to resist the evil, and
to stand in the breach which diseased nature had suffered chaos and death
to make in the bounds and banks which had hitherto kept them out.

At the commencement of summer, we began to feel, that the mischief which
had taken place in distant countries was greater than we had at first
suspected. Quito was destroyed by an earthquake. Mexico laid waste by the
united effects of storm, pestilence and famine. Crowds of emigrants
inundated the west of Europe; and our island had become the refuge of
thousands. In the mean time Ryland had been chosen Protector. He had sought
this office with eagerness, under the idea of turning his whole forces to
the suppression of the privileged orders of our community. His measures
were thwarted, and his schemes interrupted by this new state of things.
Many of the foreigners were utterly destitute; and their increasing numbers
at length forbade a recourse to the usual modes of relief. Trade was
stopped by the failure of the interchange of cargoes usual between us, and
America, India, Egypt and Greece. A sudden break was made in the routine of
our lives. In vain our Protector and his partizans sought to conceal this
truth; in vain, day after day, he appointed a period for the discussion of
the new laws concerning hereditary rank and privilege; in vain he
endeavoured to represent the evil as partial and temporary. These disasters
came home to so many bosoms, and, through the various channels of commerce,
were carried so entirely into every class and division of the community,
that of necessity they became the first question in the state, the chief
subjects to which we must turn our attention.

Can it be true, each asked the other with wonder and dismay, that whole
countries are laid waste, whole nations annihilated, by these disorders in
nature? The vast cities of America, the fertile plains of Hindostan, the
crowded abodes of the Chinese, are menaced with utter ruin. Where late the
busy multitudes assembled for pleasure or profit, now only the sound of
wailing and misery is heard. The air is empoisoned, and each human being
inhales death, even while in youth and health, their hopes are in the
flower. We called to mind the plague of 1348, when it was calculated that a
third of mankind had been destroyed. As yet western Europe was uninfected;
would it always be so?

O, yes, it would--Countrymen, fear not! In the still uncultivated wilds
of America, what wonder that among its other giant destroyers, Plague
should be numbered! It is of old a native of the East, sister of the
tornado, the earthquake, and the simoon. Child of the sun, and nursling of
the tropics, it would expire in these climes. It drinks the dark blood of
the inhabitant of the south, but it never feasts on the pale-faced Celt. If
perchance some stricken Asiatic come among us, plague dies with him,
uncommunicated and innoxious. Let us weep for our brethren, though we can
never experience their reverse. Let us lament over and assist the children
of the garden of the earth. Late we envied their abodes, their spicy
groves, fertile plains, and abundant loveliness. But in this mortal life
extremes are always matched; the thorn grows with the rose, the poison tree
and the cinnamon mingle their boughs. Persia, with its cloth of gold,
marble halls, and infinite wealth, is now a tomb. The tent of the Arab is
fallen in the sands, and his horse spurns the ground unbridled and
unsaddled. The voice of lamentation fills the valley of Cashmere; its dells
and woods, its cool fountains, and gardens of roses, are polluted by the
dead; in Circassia and Georgia the spirit of beauty weeps over the ruin of
its favourite temple--the form of woman.

Our own distresses, though they were occasioned by the fictitious
reciprocity of commerce, encreased in due proportion. Bankers, merchants,
and manufacturers, whose trade depended on exports and interchange of
wealth, became bankrupt. Such things, when they happen singly, affect only
the immediate parties; but the prosperity of the nation was now shaken by
frequent and extensive losses. Families, bred in opulence and luxury, were
reduced to beggary. The very state of peace in which we gloried was
injurious; there were no means of employing the idle, or of sending any
overplus of population out of the country. Even the source of colonies was
dried up, for in New Holland, Van Diemen's Land, and the Cape of Good Hope,
plague raged. O, for some medicinal vial to purge unwholesome nature, and
bring back the earth to its accustomed health!

Ryland was a man of strong intellects and quick and sound decision in the
usual course of things, but he stood aghast at the multitude of evils that
gathered round us. Must he tax the landed interest to assist our commercial
population? To do this, he must gain the favour of the chief land-holders,
the nobility of the country; and these were his vowed enemies--he must
conciliate them by abandoning his favourite scheme of equalization; he must
confirm them in their manorial rights; he must sell his cherished plans for
the permanent good of his country, for temporary relief. He must aim no
more at the dear object of his ambition; throwing his arms aside, he must
for present ends give up the ultimate object of his endeavours. He came to
Windsor to consult with us. Every day added to his difficulties; the
arrival of fresh vessels with emigrants, the total cessation of commerce,
the starving multitude that thronged around the palace of the Protectorate,
were circumstances not to be tampered with. The blow was struck; the
aristocracy obtained all they wished, and they subscribed to a
twelvemonths' bill, which levied twenty per cent on all the rent-rolls of
the country. Calm was now restored to the metropolis, and to the populous
cities, before driven to desperation; and we returned to the consideration
of distant calamities, wondering if the future would bring any alleviation
to their excess. It was August; so there could be small hope of relief
during the heats. On the contrary, the disease gained virulence, while
starvation did its accustomed work. Thousands died unlamented; for beside
the yet warm corpse the mourner was stretched, made mute by death.

On the eighteenth of this month news arrived in London that the plague was
in France and Italy. These tidings were at first whispered about town; but
no one dared express aloud the soul-quailing intelligence. When any one met
a friend in the street, he only cried as he hurried on, "You know!"--
while the other, with an ejaculation of fear and horror, would answer,--
"What will become of us?" At length it was mentioned in the newspapers. The
paragraph was inserted in an obscure part: "We regret to state that there
can be no longer a doubt of the plague having been introduced at Leghorn,
Genoa, and Marseilles." No word of comment followed; each reader made his
own fearful one. We were as a man who hears that his house is burning, and
yet hurries through the streets, borne along by a lurking hope of a
mistake, till he turns the corner, and sees his sheltering roof enveloped
in a flame. Before it had been a rumour; but now in words uneraseable, in
definite and undeniable print, the knowledge went forth. Its obscurity of
situation rendered it the more conspicuous: the diminutive letters grew
gigantic to the bewildered eye of fear: they seemed graven with a pen of
iron, impressed by fire, woven in the clouds, stamped on the very front of
the universe.

The English, whether travellers or residents, came pouring in one great
revulsive stream, back on their own country; and with them crowds of
Italians and Spaniards. Our little island was filled even to bursting. At
first an unusual quantity of specie made its appearance with the emigrants;
but these people had no means of receiving back into their hands what they
spent among us. With the advance of summer, and the increase of the
distemper, rents were unpaid, and their remittances failed them. It was
impossible to see these crowds of wretched, perishing creatures, late
nurslings of luxury, and not stretch out a hand to save them. As at the
conclusion of the eighteenth century, the English unlocked their hospitable
store, for the relief of those driven from their homes by political
revolution; so now they were not backward in affording aid to the victims
of a more wide-spreading calamity. We had many foreign friends whom we
eagerly sought out, and relieved from dreadful penury. Our Castle became an
asylum for the unhappy. A little population occupied its halls. The revenue
of its possessor, which had always found a mode of expenditure congenial to
his generous nature, was now attended to more parsimoniously, that it might
embrace a wider portion of utility. It was not however money, except
partially, but the necessaries of life, that became scarce. It was
difficult to find an immediate remedy. The usual one of imports was
entirely cut off. In this emergency, to feed the very people to whom we had
given refuge, we were obliged to yield to the plough and the mattock our
pleasure-grounds and parks. Live stock diminished sensibly in the country,
from the effects of the great demand in the market. Even the poor deer, our
antlered proteges, were obliged to fall for the sake of worthier
pensioners. The labour necessary to bring the lands to this sort of
culture, employed and fed the offcasts of the diminished manufactories.

Adrian did not rest only with the exertions he could make with regard to
his own possessions. He addressed himself to the wealthy of the land; he
made proposals in parliament little adapted to please the rich; but his
earnest pleadings and benevolent eloquence were irresistible. To give up
their pleasure-grounds to the agriculturist, to diminish sensibly the
number of horses kept for the purposes of luxury throughout the country,
were means obvious, but unpleasing. Yet, to the honour of the English be it
recorded, that, although natural disinclination made them delay awhile, yet
when the misery of their fellow-creatures became glaring, an enthusiastic
generosity inspired their decrees. The most luxurious were often the first
to part with their indulgencies. As is common in communities, a fashion was
set. The high-born ladies of the country would have deemed themselves
disgraced if they had now enjoyed, what they before called a necessary, the
ease of a carriage. Chairs, as in olden time, and Indian palanquins were
introduced for the infirm; but else it was nothing singular to see females
of rank going on foot to places of fashionable resort. It was more common,
for all who possessed landed property to secede to their estates, attended
by whole troops of the indigent, to cut down their woods to erect temporary
dwellings, and to portion out their parks, parterres and flower-gardens, to
necessitous families. Many of these, of high rank in their own countries,
now, with hoe in hand, turned up the soil. It was found necessary at last
to check the spirit of sacrifice, and to remind those whose generosity
proceeded to lavish waste, that, until the present state of things became
permanent, of which there was no likelihood, it was wrong to carry change
so far as to make a reaction difficult. Experience demonstrated that in a
year or two pestilence would cease; it were well that in the mean time we
should not have destroyed our fine breeds of horses, or have utterly
changed the face of the ornamented portion of the country.

It may be imagined that things were in a bad state indeed, before this
spirit of benevolence could have struck such deep roots. The infection had
now spread in the southern provinces of France. But that country had so
many resources in the way of agriculture, that the rush of population from
one part of it to another, and its increase through foreign emigration, was
less felt than with us. The panic struck appeared of more injury, than
disease and its natural concomitants.

Winter was hailed, a general and never-failing physician. The embrowning
woods, and swollen rivers, the evening mists, and morning frosts, were
welcomed with gratitude. The effects of purifying cold were immediately
felt; and the lists of mortality abroad were curtailed each week. Many of
our visitors left us: those whose homes were far in the south, fled
delightedly from our northern winter, and sought their native land, secure
of plenty even after their fearful visitation. We breathed again. What the
coming summer would bring, we knew not; but the present months were our
own, and our hopes of a cessation of pestilence were high.

[1] Elton's translation of Hesiod's Works.

Sorry, no summary available yet.