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Chapter 9

HALF England was desolate, when October came, and the equinoctial winds
swept over the earth, chilling the ardours of the unhealthy season. The
summer, which was uncommonly hot, had been protracted into the beginning of
this month, when on the eighteenth a sudden change was brought about from
summer temperature to winter frost. Pestilence then made a pause in her
death-dealing career. Gasping, not daring to name our hopes, yet full even
to the brim with intense expectation, we stood, as a ship-wrecked sailor
stands on a barren rock islanded by the ocean, watching a distant vessel,
fancying that now it nears, and then again that it is bearing from sight.
This promise of a renewed lease of life turned rugged natures to melting
tenderness, and by contrast filled the soft with harsh and unnatural
sentiments. When it seemed destined that all were to die, we were reckless
of the how and when--now that the virulence of the disease was mitigated,
and it appeared willing to spare some, each was eager to be among the
elect, and clung to life with dastard tenacity. Instances of desertion
became more frequent; and even murders, which made the hearer sick with
horror, where the fear of contagion had armed those nearest in blood
against each other. But these smaller and separate tragedies were about to
yield to a mightier interest--and, while we were promised calm from
infectious influences, a tempest arose wilder than the winds, a tempest
bred by the passions of man, nourished by his most violent impulses,
unexampled and dire.

A number of people from North America, the relics of that populous
continent, had set sail for the East with mad desire of change, leaving
their native plains for lands not less afflicted than their own. Several
hundreds landed in Ireland, about the first of November, and took
possession of such vacant habitations as they could find; seizing upon the
superabundant food, and the stray cattle. As they exhausted the produce of
one spot, they went on to another. At length they began to interfere with
the inhabitants, and strong in their concentrated numbers, ejected the
natives from their dwellings, and robbed them of their winter store. A few
events of this kind roused the fiery nature of the Irish; and they attacked
the invaders. Some were destroyed; the major part escaped by quick and well
ordered movements; and danger made them careful. Their numbers ably
arranged; the very deaths among them concealed; moving on in good order,
and apparently given up to enjoyment, they excited the envy of the Irish.
The Americans permitted a few to join their band, and presently the
recruits outnumbered the strangers--nor did they join with them, nor
imitate the admirable order which, preserved by the Trans-Atlantic chiefs,
rendered them at once secure and formidable. The Irish followed their track
in disorganized multitudes; each day encreasing; each day becoming more
lawless. The Americans were eager to escape from the spirit they had
roused, and, reaching the eastern shores of the island, embarked for
England. Their incursion would hardly have been felt had they come alone;
but the Irish, collected in unnatural numbers, began to feel the inroads of
famine, and they followed in the wake of the Americans for England also.
The crossing of the sea could not arrest their progress. The harbours of
the desolate sea-ports of the west of Ireland were filled with vessels of
all sizes, from the man of war to the small fishers' boat, which lay
sailorless, and rotting on the lazy deep. The emigrants embarked by
hundreds, and unfurling their sails with rude hands, made strange havoc of
buoy and cordage. Those who modestly betook themselves to the smaller
craft, for the most part achieved their watery journey in safety. Some, in
the true spirit of reckless enterprise, went on board a ship of an hundred
and twenty guns; the vast hull drifted with the tide out of the bay, and
after many hours its crew of landsmen contrived to spread a great part of
her enormous canvass--the wind took it, and while a thousand mistakes of
the helmsman made her present her head now to one point, and now to
another, the vast fields of canvass that formed her sails flapped with a
sound like that of a huge cataract; or such as a sea-like forest may give
forth when buffeted by an equinoctial north-wind. The port-holes were open,
and with every sea, which as she lurched, washed her decks, they received
whole tons of water. The difficulties were increased by a fresh breeze
which began to blow, whistling among the shrowds, dashing the sails this
way and that, and rending them with horrid split, and such whir as may have
visited the dreams of Milton, when he imagined the winnowing of the
arch-fiend's van-like wings, which encreased the uproar of wild chaos.
These sounds were mingled with the roaring of the sea, the splash of the
chafed billows round the vessel's sides, and the gurgling up of the water
in the hold. The crew, many of whom had never seen the sea before, felt
indeed as if heaven and earth came ruining together, as the vessel dipped
her bows in the waves, or rose high upon them. Their yells were drowned in
the clamour of elements, and the thunder rivings of their unwieldy
habitation--they discovered at last that the water gained on them, and
they betook themselves to their pumps; they might as well have laboured to
empty the ocean by bucketfuls. As the sun went down, the gale encreased;
the ship seemed to feel her danger, she was now completely water-logged,
and presented other indications of settling before she went down. The bay
was crowded with vessels, whose crews, for the most part, were observing
the uncouth sportings of this huge unwieldy machine--they saw her
gradually sink; the waters now rising above her lower decks--they could
hardly wink before she had utterly disappeared, nor could the place where
the sea had closed over her be at all discerned. Some few of her crew were
saved, but the greater part clinging to her cordage and masts went down
with her, to rise only when death loosened their hold.

This event caused many of those who were about to sail, to put foot again
on firm land, ready to encounter any evil rather than to rush into the
yawning jaws of the pitiless ocean. But these were few, in comparison to
the numbers who actually crossed. Many went up as high as Belfast to ensure
a shorter passage, and then journeying south through Scotland, they were
joined by the poorer natives of that country, and all poured with one
consent into England.

Such incursions struck the English with affright, in all those towns where
there was still sufficient population to feel the change. There was room
enough indeed in our hapless country for twice the number of invaders; but
their lawless spirit instigated them to violence; they took a delight in
thrusting the possessors from their houses; in seizing on some mansion of
luxury, where the noble dwellers secluded themselves in fear of the plague;
in forcing these of either sex to become their servants and purveyors;
till, the ruin complete in one place, they removed their locust visitation
to another. When unopposed they spread their ravages wide; in cases of
danger they clustered, and by dint of numbers overthrew their weak and
despairing foes. They came from the east and the north, and directed their
course without apparent motive, but unanimously towards our unhappy
metropolis.

Communication had been to a great degree cut off through the paralyzing
effects of pestilence, so that the van of our invaders had proceeded as far
as Manchester and Derby, before we received notice of their arrival. They
swept the country like a conquering army, burning--laying waste--
murdering. The lower and vagabond English joined with them. Some few of the
Lords Lieutenant who remained, endeavoured to collect the militia--but
the ranks were vacant, panic seized on all, and the opposition that was
made only served to increase the audacity and cruelty of the enemy. They
talked of taking London, conquering England--calling to mind the long
detail of injuries which had for many years been forgotten. Such vaunts
displayed their weakness, rather than their strength--yet still they
might do extreme mischief, which, ending in their destruction, would render
them at last objects of compassion and remorse.

We were now taught how, in the beginning of the world, mankind clothed
their enemies in impossible attributes--and how details proceeding from
mouth to mouth, might, like Virgil's ever-growing Rumour, reach the heavens
with her brow, and clasp Hesperus and Lucifer with her outstretched hands.
Gorgon and Centaur, dragon and iron-hoofed lion, vast sea-monster and
gigantic hydra, were but types of the strange and appalling accounts
brought to London concerning our invaders. Their landing was long unknown,
but having now advanced within an hundred miles of London, the country
people flying before them arrived in successive troops, each exaggerating
the numbers, fury, and cruelty of the assailants. Tumult filled the before
quiet streets--women and children deserted their homes, escaping they
knew not whither--fathers, husbands, and sons, stood trembling, not for
themselves, but for their loved and defenceless relations. As the country
people poured into London, the citizens fled southwards--they climbed the
higher edifices of the town, fancying that they could discern the smoke and
flames the enemy spread around them. As Windsor lay, to a great degree, in
the line of march from the west, I removed my family to London, assigning
the Tower for their sojourn, and joining Adrian, acted as his Lieutenant in
the coming struggle.

We employed only two days in our preparations, and made good use of them.
Artillery and arms were collected; the remnants of such regiments, as could
be brought through many losses into any show of muster, were put under
arms, with that appearance of military discipline which might encourage our
own party, and seem most formidable to the disorganized multitude of our
enemies. Even music was not wanting: banners floated in the air, and the
shrill fife and loud trumpet breathed forth sounds of encouragement and
victory. A practised ear might trace an undue faltering in the step of the
soldiers; but this was not occasioned so much by fear of the adversary, as
by disease, by sorrow, and by fatal prognostications, which often weighed
most potently on the brave, and quelled the manly heart to abject
subjection.

Adrian led the troops. He was full of care. It was small relief to him that
our discipline should gain us success in such a conflict; while plague
still hovered to equalize the conqueror and the conquered, it was not
victory that he desired, but bloodless peace. As we advanced, we were met
by bands of peasantry, whose almost naked condition, whose despair and
horror, told at once the fierce nature of the coming enemy. The senseless
spirit of conquest and thirst of spoil blinded them, while with insane fury
they deluged the country in ruin. The sight of the military restored hope
to those who fled, and revenge took place of fear. They inspired the
soldiers with the same sentiment. Languor was changed to ardour, the slow
step converted to a speedy pace, while the hollow murmur of the multitude,
inspired by one feeling, and that deadly, filled the air, drowning the
clang of arms and sound of music. Adrian perceived the change, and feared
that it would be difficult to prevent them from wreaking their utmost fury
on the Irish. He rode through the lines, charging the officers to restrain
the troops, exhorting the soldiers, restoring order, and quieting in some
degree the violent agitation that swelled every bosom.

We first came upon a few stragglers of the Irish at St. Albans. They
retreated, and, joining others of their companions, still fell back, till
they reached the main body. Tidings of an armed and regular opposition
recalled them to a sort of order. They made Buckingham their head-quarters,
and scouts were sent out to ascertain our situation. We remained for the
night at Luton. In the morning a simultaneous movement caused us each to
advance. It was early dawn, and the air, impregnated with freshest odour,
seemed in idle mockery to play with our banners, and bore onwards towards
the enemy the music of the bands, the neighings of the horses, and regular
step of the infantry. The first sound of martial instruments that came upon
our undisciplined foe, inspired surprise, not unmingled with dread. It
spoke of other days, of days of concord and order; it was associated with
times when plague was not, and man lived beyond the shadow of imminent
fate. The pause was momentary. Soon we heard their disorderly clamour, the
barbarian shouts, the untimed step of thousands coming on in disarray.
Their troops now came pouring on us from the open country or narrow lanes;
a large extent of unenclosed fields lay between us; we advanced to the
middle of this, and then made a halt: being somewhat on superior ground, we
could discern the space they covered. When their leaders perceived us drawn
out in opposition, they also gave the word to halt, and endeavoured to form
their men into some imitation of military discipline. The first ranks had
muskets; some were mounted, but their arms were such as they had seized
during their advance, their horses those they had taken from the peasantry;
there was no uniformity, and little obedience, but their shouts and wild
gestures showed the untamed spirit that inspired them. Our soldiers
received the word, and advanced to quickest time, but in perfect order:
their uniform dresses, the gleam of their polished arms, their silence, and
looks of sullen hate, were more appalling than the savage clamour of our
innumerous foe. Thus coming nearer and nearer each other, the howls and
shouts of the Irish increased; the English proceeded in obedience to their
officers, until they came near enough to distinguish the faces of their
enemies; the sight inspired them with fury: with one cry, that rent heaven
and was re-echoed by the furthest lines, they rushed on; they disdained the
use of the bullet, but with fixed bayonet dashed among the opposing foe,
while the ranks opening at intervals, the matchmen lighted the cannon,
whose deafening roar and blinding smoke filled up the horror of the scene. I
was beside Adrian; a moment before he had again given the word to halt, and
had remained a few yards distant from us in deep meditation: he was forming
swiftly his plan of action, to prevent the effusion of blood; the noise of
cannon, the sudden rush of the troops, and yell of the foe, startled him:
with flashing eyes he exclaimed, "Not one of these must perish!" and
plunging the rowels into his horse's sides, he dashed between the
conflicting bands. We, his staff, followed him to surround and protect him;
obeying his signal, however, we fell back somewhat. The soldiery perceiving
him, paused in their onset; he did not swerve from the bullets that passed
near him, but rode immediately between the opposing lines. Silence
succeeded to clamour; about fifty men lay on the ground dying or dead.
Adrian raised his sword in act to speak: "By whose command," he cried,
addressing his own troops, "do you advance? Who ordered your attack? Fall
back; these misguided men shall not be slaughtered, while I am your
general. Sheath your weapons; these are your brothers, commit not
fratricide; soon the plague will not leave one for you to glut your revenge
upon: will you be more pitiless than pestilence? As you honour me--as you
worship God, in whose image those also are created--as your children and
friends are dear to you,--shed not a drop of precious human blood."

He spoke with outstretched hand and winning voice, and then turning to our
invaders, with a severe brow, he commanded them to lay down their arms: "Do
you think," he said, "that because we are wasted by plague, you can
overcome us; the plague is also among you, and when ye are vanquished by
famine and disease, the ghosts of those you have murdered will arise to bid
you not hope in death. Lay down your arms, barbarous and cruel men--men
whose hands are stained with the blood of the innocent, whose souls are
weighed down by the orphan's cry! We shall conquer, for the right is on our
side; already your cheeks are pale--the weapons fall from your nerveless
grasp. Lay down your arms, fellow men! brethren! Pardon, succour, and
brotherly love await your repentance. You are dear to us, because you wear
the frail shape of humanity; each one among you will find a friend and
host among these forces. Shall man be the enemy of man, while plague, the
foe to all, even now is above us, triumphing in our butchery, more cruel
than her own?"

Each army paused. On our side the soldiers grasped their arms firmly, and
looked with stern glances on the foe. These had not thrown down their
weapons, more from fear than the spirit of contest; they looked at each
other, each wishing to follow some example given him,--but they had no
leader. Adrian threw himself from his horse, and approaching one of those
just slain: "He was a man," he cried, "and he is dead. O quickly bind up
the wounds of the fallen--let not one die; let not one more soul escape
through your merciless gashes, to relate before the throne of God the tale
of fratricide; bind up their wounds--restore them to their friends. Cast
away the hearts of tigers that burn in your breasts; throw down those tools
of cruelty and hate; in this pause of exterminating destiny, let each man
be brother, guardian, and stay to the other. Away with those blood-stained
arms, and hasten some of you to bind up these wounds."

As he spoke, he knelt on the ground, and raised in his arms a man from
whose side the warm tide of life gushed--the poor wretch gasped--so
still had either host become, that his moans were distinctly heard, and
every heart, late fiercely bent on universal massacre, now beat anxiously
in hope and fear for the fate of this one man. Adrian tore off his military
scarf and bound it round the sufferer--it was too late--the man heaved
a deep sigh, his head fell back, his limbs lost their sustaining power.--
"He is dead!" said Adrian, as the corpse fell from his arms on the ground,
and he bowed his head in sorrow and awe. The fate of the world seemed bound
up in the death of this single man. On either side the bands threw down
their arms, even the veterans wept, and our party held out their hands to
their foes, while a gush of love and deepest amity filled every heart. The
two forces mingling, unarmed and hand in hand, talking only how each might
assist the other, the adversaries conjoined; each repenting, the one side
their former cruelties, the other their late violence, they obeyed the
orders of the General to proceed towards London.

Adrian was obliged to exert his utmost prudence, first to allay the
discord, and then to provide for the multitude of the invaders. They were
marched to various parts of the southern counties, quartered in deserted
villages,--a part were sent back to their own island, while the season of
winter so far revived our energy, that the passes of the country were
defended, and any increase of numbers prohibited.

On this occasion Adrian and Idris met after a separation of nearly a year.
Adrian had been occupied in fulfilling a laborious and painful task. He had
been familiar with every species of human misery, and had for ever found
his powers inadequate, his aid of small avail. Yet the purpose of his soul,
his energy and ardent resolution, prevented any re-action of sorrow. He
seemed born anew, and virtue, more potent than Medean alchemy, endued him
with health and strength. Idris hardly recognized the fragile being, whose
form had seemed to bend even to the summer breeze, in the energetic man,
whose very excess of sensibility rendered him more capable of fulfilling
his station of pilot in storm-tossed England.

It was not thus with Idris. She was uncomplaining; but the very soul of
fear had taken its seat in her heart. She had grown thin and pale, her eyes
filled with involuntary tears, her voice was broken and low. She tried to
throw a veil over the change which she knew her brother must observe in
her, but the effort was ineffectual; and when alone with him, with a burst
of irrepressible grief she gave vent to her apprehensions and sorrow. She
described in vivid terms the ceaseless care that with still renewing hunger
ate into her soul; she compared this gnawing of sleepless expectation of
evil, to the vulture that fed on the heart of Prometheus; under the
influence of this eternal excitement, and of the interminable struggles she
endured to combat and conceal it, she felt, she said, as if all the wheels
and springs of the animal machine worked at double rate, and were fast
consuming themselves. Sleep was not sleep, for her waking thoughts, bridled
by some remains of reason, and by the sight of her children happy and in
health, were then transformed to wild dreams, all her terrors were
realized, all her fears received their dread fulfilment. To this state
there was no hope, no alleviation, unless the grave should quickly receive
its destined prey, and she be permitted to die, before she experienced a
thousand living deaths in the loss of those she loved. Fearing to give me
pain, she hid as best she could the excess of her wretchedness, but meeting
thus her brother after a long absence, she could not restrain the
expression of her woe, but with all the vividness of imagination with which
misery is always replete, she poured out the emotions of her heart to her
beloved and sympathizing Adrian.

Her present visit to London tended to augment her state of inquietude, by
shewing in its utmost extent the ravages occasioned by pestilence. It
hardly preserved the appearance of an inhabited city; grass sprung up thick
in the streets; the squares were weed-grown, the houses were shut up, while
silence and loneliness characterized the busiest parts of the town. Yet in
the midst of desolation Adrian had preserved order; and each one continued
to live according to law and custom--human institutions thus surviving as
it were divine ones, and while the decree of population was abrogated,
property continued sacred. It was a melancholy reflection; and in spite of
the diminution of evil produced, it struck on the heart as a wretched
mockery. All idea of resort for pleasure, of theatres and festivals had
passed away. "Next summer," said Adrian as we parted on our return to
Windsor, "will decide the fate of the human race. I shall not pause in
my exertions until that time; but, if plague revives with the coming year,
all contest with her must cease, and our only occupation be the choice of
a grave."

I must not forget one incident that occurred during this visit to London.
The visits of Merrival to Windsor, before frequent, had suddenly ceased. At
this time where but a hair's line separated the living from the dead, I
feared that our friend had become a victim to the all-embracing evil. On
this occasion I went, dreading the worst, to his dwelling, to see if I
could be of any service to those of his family who might have survived. The
house was deserted, and had been one of those assigned to the invading
strangers quartered in London. I saw his astronomical instruments put to
strange uses, his globes defaced, his papers covered with abstruse
calculations destroyed. The neighbours could tell me little, till I lighted
on a poor woman who acted as nurse in these perilous times. She told me
that all the family were dead, except Merrival himself, who had gone mad--
mad, she called it, yet on questioning her further, it appeared that he was
possessed only by the delirium of excessive grief. This old man, tottering
on the edge of the grave, and prolonging his prospect through millions of
calculated years,--this visionary who had not seen starvation in the
wasted forms of his wife and children, or plague in the horrible sights and
sounds that surrounded him--this astronomer, apparently dead on earth,
and living only in the motion of the spheres--loved his family with
unapparent but intense affection. Through long habit they had become a part
of himself; his want of worldly knowledge, his absence of mind and infant
guilelessness, made him utterly dependent on them. It was not till one of
them died that he perceived their danger; one by one they were carried off
by pestilence; and his wife, his helpmate and supporter, more necessary to
him than his own limbs and frame, which had hardly been taught the lesson
of self-preservation, the kind companion whose voice always spoke peace to
him, closed her eyes in death. The old man felt the system of universal
nature which he had so long studied and adored, slide from under him, and
he stood among the dead, and lifted his voice in curses.--No wonder that
the attendant should interpret as phrensy the harrowing maledictions of the
grief-struck old man.

I had commenced my search late in the day, a November day, that closed in
early with pattering rain and melancholy wind. As I turned from the door, I
saw Merrival, or rather the shadow of Merrival, attenuated and wild, pass
me, and sit on the steps of his home. The breeze scattered the grey locks
on his temples, the rain drenched his uncovered head, he sat hiding his
face in his withered hands. I pressed his shoulder to awaken his attention,
but he did not alter his position. "Merrival," I said, "it is long since we
have seen you--you must return to Windsor with me--Lady Idris desires
to see you, you will not refuse her request--come home with me."

He replied in a hollow voice, "Why deceive a helpless old man, why talk
hypocritically to one half crazed? Windsor is not my home; my true home I
have found; the home that the Creator has prepared for me."

His accent of bitter scorn thrilled me--"Do not tempt me to speak," he
continued, "my words would scare you--in an universe of cowards I dare
think--among the church-yard tombs--among the victims of His merciless
tyranny I dare reproach the Supreme Evil. How can he punish me? Let him
bare his arm and transfix me with lightning--this is also one of his
attributes"--and the old man laughed.

He rose, and I followed him through the rain to a neighbouring church-yard
--he threw himself on the wet earth. "Here they are," he cried, "beautiful
creatures--breathing, speaking, loving creatures. She who by day and
night cherished the age-worn lover of her youth--they, parts of my flesh,
my children--here they are: call them, scream their names through the
night; they will not answer!" He clung to the little heaps that marked the
graves. "I ask but one thing; I do not fear His hell, for I have it here; I
do not desire His heaven, let me but die and be laid beside them; let me
but, when I lie dead, feel my flesh as it moulders, mingle with theirs.
Promise," and he raised himself painfully, and seized my arm, "promise to
bury me with them."

"So God help me and mine as I promise," I replied, "on one condition:
return with me to Windsor."

"To Windsor!" he cried with a shriek, "Never!--from this place I never go
--my bones, my flesh, I myself, are already buried here, and what you see
of me is corrupted clay like them. I will lie here, and cling here, till
rain, and hail, and lightning and storm, ruining on me, make me one in
substance with them below."

In a few words I must conclude this tragedy. I was obliged to leave London,
and Adrian undertook to watch over him; the task was soon fulfilled; age,
grief, and inclement weather, all united to hush his sorrows, and bring
repose to his heart, whose beats were agony. He died embracing the sod,
which was piled above his breast, when he was placed beside the beings whom
he regretted with such wild despair.

I returned to Windsor at the wish of Idris, who seemed to think that there
was greater safety for her children at that spot; and because, once having
taken on me the guardianship of the district, I would not desert it while
an inhabitant survived. I went also to act in conformity with Adrian's
plans, which was to congregate in masses what remained of the population;
for he possessed the conviction that it was only through the benevolent and
social virtues that any safety was to be hoped for the remnant of mankind.

It was a melancholy thing to return to this spot so dear to us, as the
scene of a happiness rarely before enjoyed, here to mark the extinction of
our species, and trace the deep uneraseable footsteps of disease over the
fertile and cherished soil. The aspect of the country had so far changed,
that it had been impossible to enter on the task of sowing seed, and other
autumnal labours. That season was now gone; and winter had set in with
sudden and unusual severity. Alternate frosts and thaws succeeding to
floods, rendered the country impassable. Heavy falls of snow gave an arctic
appearance to the scenery; the roofs of the houses peeped from the white
mass; the lowly cot and stately mansion, alike deserted, were blocked up,
their thresholds uncleared; the windows were broken by the hail, while the
prevalence of a north-east wind rendered out-door exertions extremely
painful. The altered state of society made these accidents of nature,
sources of real misery. The luxury of command and the attentions of
servitude were lost. It is true that the necessaries of life were assembled
in such quantities, as to supply to superfluity the wants of the diminished
population; but still much labour was required to arrange these, as it
were, raw materials; and depressed by sickness, and fearful of the future,
we had not energy to enter boldly and decidedly on any system.

I can speak for myself--want of energy was not my failing. The intense
life that quickened my pulses, and animated my frame, had the effect, not
of drawing me into the mazes of active life, but of exalting my lowliness,
and of bestowing majestic proportions on insignificant objects--I could
have lived the life of a peasant in the same way--my trifling occupations
were swelled into important pursuits; my affections were impetuous and
engrossing passions, and nature with all her changes was invested in divine
attributes. The very spirit of the Greek mythology inhabited my heart; I
deified the uplands, glades, and streams, I

Had sight of Proteus coming from the sea;
And heard old Triton blow his wreathed horn.[1]

Strange, that while the earth preserved her monotonous course, I dwelt with
ever-renewing wonder on her antique laws, and now that with excentric wheel
she rushed into an untried path, I should feel this spirit fade; I
struggled with despondency and weariness, but like a fog, they choked me.
Perhaps, after the labours and stupendous excitement of the past summer,
the calm of winter and the almost menial toils it brought with it, were by
natural re-action doubly irksome. It was not the grasping passion of the
preceding year, which gave life and individuality to each moment--it was
not the aching pangs induced by the distresses of the times. The utter
inutility that had attended all my exertions took from them their usual
effects of exhilaration, and despair rendered abortive the balm of self
applause--I longed to return to my old occupations, but of what use were
they? To read were futile--to write, vanity indeed. The earth, late wide
circus for the display of dignified exploits, vast theatre for a
magnificent drama, now presented a vacant space, an empty stage--for
actor or spectator there was no longer aught to say or hear.

Our little town of Windsor, in which the survivors from the neighbouring
counties were chiefly assembled, wore a melancholy aspect. Its streets were
blocked up with snow--the few passengers seemed palsied, and frozen by
the ungenial visitation of winter. To escape these evils was the aim and
scope of all our exertions. Families late devoted to exalting and refined
pursuits, rich, blooming, and young, with diminished numbers and
care-fraught hearts, huddled over a fire, grown selfish and grovelling
through suffering. Without the aid of servants, it was necessary to
discharge all household duties; hands unused to such labour must knead the
bread, or in the absence of flour, the statesmen or perfumed courtier must
undertake the butcher's office. Poor and rich were now equal, or rather the
poor were the superior, since they entered on such tasks with alacrity and
experience; while ignorance, inaptitude, and habits of repose, rendered
them fatiguing to the luxurious, galling to the proud, disgustful to all
whose minds, bent on intellectual improvement, held it their dearest
privilege to be exempt from attending to mere animal wants.

But in every change goodness and affection can find field for exertion and
display. Among some these changes produced a devotion and sacrifice of self
at once graceful and heroic. It was a sight for the lovers of the human
race to enjoy; to behold, as in ancient times, the patriarchal modes in
which the variety of kindred and friendship fulfilled their duteous and
kindly offices. Youths, nobles of the land, performed for the sake of
mother or sister, the services of menials with amiable cheerfulness. They
went to the river to break the ice, and draw water: they assembled on
foraging expeditions, or axe in hand felled the trees for fuel. The females
received them on their return with the simple and affectionate welcome
known before only to the lowly cottage--a clean hearth and bright fire;
the supper ready cooked by beloved hands; gratitude for the provision for
to-morrow's meal: strange enjoyments for the high-born English, yet they
were now their sole, hard earned, and dearly prized luxuries.

None was more conspicuous for this graceful submission to circumstances,
noble humility, and ingenious fancy to adorn such acts with romantic
colouring, than our own Clara. She saw my despondency, and the aching cares
of Idris. Her perpetual study was to relieve us from labour and to spread
ease and even elegance over our altered mode of life. We still had some
attendants spared by disease, and warmly attached to us. But Clara was
jealous of their services; she would be sole handmaid of Idris, sole
minister to the wants of her little cousins; nothing gave her so much
pleasure as our employing her in this way; she went beyond our desires,
earnest, diligent, and unwearied,--

Abra was ready ere we called her name,
And though we called another, Abra came.[2]

It was my task each day to visit the various families assembled in our
town, and when the weather permitted, I was glad to prolong my ride, and to
muse in solitude over every changeful appearance of our destiny,
endeavouring to gather lessons for the future from the experience of the
past. The impatience with which, while in society, the ills that afflicted
my species inspired me, were softened by loneliness, when individual
suffering was merged in the general calamity, strange to say, less
afflicting to contemplate. Thus often, pushing my way with difficulty
through the narrow snow-blocked town, I crossed the bridge and passed
through Eton. No youthful congregation of gallant-hearted boys thronged the
portal of the college; sad silence pervaded the busy school-room and noisy
playground. I extended my ride towards Salt Hill, on every side impeded by
the snow. Were those the fertile fields I loved--was that the interchange
of gentle upland and cultivated dale, once covered with waving corn,
diversified by stately trees, watered by the meandering Thames? One sheet
of white covered it, while bitter recollection told me that cold as the
winter-clothed earth, were the hearts of the inhabitants. I met troops of
horses, herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, wandering at will; here throwing
down a hay-rick, and nestling from cold in its heart, which afforded them
shelter and food--there having taken possession of a vacant cottage. Once
on a frosty day, pushed on by restless unsatisfying reflections, I sought a
favourite haunt, a little wood not far distant from Salt Hill. A bubbling
spring prattles over stones on one side, and a plantation of a few elms and
beeches, hardly deserve, and yet continue the name of wood. This spot had
for me peculiar charms. It had been a favourite resort of Adrian; it was
secluded; and he often said that in boyhood, his happiest hours were spent
here; having escaped the stately bondage of his mother, he sat on the rough
hewn steps that led to the spring, now reading a favourite book, now
musing, with speculation beyond his years, on the still unravelled skein of
morals or metaphysics. A melancholy foreboding assured me that I should
never see this place more; so with careful thought, I noted each tree,
every winding of the streamlet and irregularity of the soil, that I might
better call up its idea in absence. A robin red-breast dropt from the
frosty branches of the trees, upon the congealed rivulet; its panting
breast and half-closed eyes shewed that it was dying: a hawk appeared in
the air; sudden fear seized the little creature; it exerted its last
strength, throwing itself on its back, raising its talons in impotent
defence against its powerful enemy. I took it up and placed it in my
breast. I fed it with a few crumbs from a biscuit; by degrees it revived;
its warm fluttering heart beat against me; I cannot tell why I detail this
trifling incident--but the scene is still before me; the snow-clad fields
seen through the silvered trunks of the beeches,--the brook, in days of
happiness alive with sparkling waters, now choked by ice--the leafless
trees fantastically dressed in hoar frost--the shapes of summer leaves
imaged by winter's frozen hand on the hard ground--the dusky sky, drear
cold, and unbroken silence--while close in my bosom, my feathered
nursling lay warm, and safe, speaking its content with a light chirp--
painful reflections thronged, stirring my brain with wild commotion--cold
and death-like as the snowy fields was all earth--misery-stricken the
life-tide of the inhabitants--why should I oppose the cataract of
destruction that swept us away?--why string my nerves and renew my
wearied efforts--ah, why? But that my firm courage and cheerful exertions
might shelter the dear mate, whom I chose in the spring of my life; though
the throbbings of my heart be replete with pain, though my hopes for the
future are chill, still while your dear head, my gentlest love, can repose
in peace on that heart, and while you derive from its fostering care,
comfort, and hope, my struggles shall not cease,--I will not call myself
altogether vanquished.

One fine February day, when the sun had reassumed some of its genial power,
I walked in the forest with my family. It was one of those lovely
winter-days which assert the capacity of nature to bestow beauty on
barrenness. The leafless trees spread their fibrous branches against the
pure sky; their intricate and pervious tracery resembled delicate sea-weed;
the deer were turning up the snow in search of the hidden grass; the white
was made intensely dazzling by the sun, and trunks of the trees, rendered
more conspicuous by the loss of preponderating foliage, gathered around
like the labyrinthine columns of a vast temple; it was impossible not to
receive pleasure from the sight of these things. Our children, freed from
the bondage of winter, bounded before us; pursuing the deer, or rousing the
pheasants and partridges from their coverts. Idris leant on my arm; her
sadness yielded to the present sense of pleasure. We met other families on
the Long Walk, enjoying like ourselves the return of the genial season. At
once, I seemed to awake; I cast off the clinging sloth of the past months;
earth assumed a new appearance, and my view of the future was suddenly made
clear. I exclaimed, "I have now found out the secret!"

"What secret?"

In answer to this question, I described our gloomy winter-life, our sordid
cares, our menial labours:--"This northern country," I said, "is no place
for our diminished race. When mankind were few, it was not here that they
battled with the powerful agents of nature, and were enabled to cover the
globe with offspring. We must seek some natural Paradise, some garden of
the earth, where our simple wants may be easily supplied, and the enjoyment
of a delicious climate compensate for the social pleasures we have lost. If
we survive this coming summer, I will not spend the ensuing winter in
England; neither I nor any of us."

I spoke without much heed, and the very conclusion of what I said brought
with it other thoughts. Should we, any of us, survive the coming summer? I
saw the brow of Idris clouded; I again felt, that we were enchained to the
car of fate, over whose coursers we had no control. We could no longer say,
This we will do, and this we will leave undone. A mightier power than the
human was at hand to destroy our plans or to achieve the work we avoided.
It were madness to calculate upon another winter. This was our last. The
coming summer was the extreme end of our vista; and, when we arrived there,
instead of a continuation of the long road, a gulph yawned, into which we
must of force be precipitated. The last blessing of humanity was wrested
from us; we might no longer hope. Can the madman, as he clanks his chains,
hope? Can the wretch, led to the scaffold, who when he lays his head on the
block, marks the double shadow of himself and the executioner, whose
uplifted arm bears the axe, hope? Can the ship-wrecked mariner, who spent
with swimming, hears close behind the splashing waters divided by a shark
which pursues him through the Atlantic, hope? Such hope as theirs, we also
may entertain!

Old fable tells us, that this gentle spirit sprung from the box of Pandora,
else crammed with evils; but these were unseen and null, while all admired
the inspiriting loveliness of young Hope; each man's heart became her home;
she was enthroned sovereign of our lives, here and here-after; she was
deified and worshipped, declared incorruptible and everlasting. But like
all other gifts of the Creator to Man, she is mortal; her life has attained
its last hour. We have watched over her; nursed her flickering existence;
now she has fallen at once from youth to decrepitude, from health to
immedicinable disease; even as we spend ourselves in struggles for her
recovery, she dies; to all nations the voice goes forth, Hope is dead! We
are but mourners in the funeral train, and what immortal essence or
perishable creation will refuse to make one in the sad procession that
attends to its grave the dead comforter of humanity?

Does not the sun call in his light? and day
Like a thin exhalation melt away--
Both wrapping up their beams in clouds to be
Themselves close mourners at this obsequie.[3]

[1] Wordsworth.
[2] Prior's "Solomon."
[3] Cleveland's Poems.

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