Chalmers Roberts.

Tales from Blackwood : being the most famous series of stories ever published, especially selected from that celebrated English publication. [Series II] (Volume 6) online

. (page 10 of 11)
Online LibraryChalmers RobertsTales from Blackwood : being the most famous series of stories ever published, especially selected from that celebrated English publication. [Series II] (Volume 6) → online text (page 10 of 11)
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who connived at their misconduct. The elder sons
and daughters looked upon their father and mother
as the cause of their losing their uncle's rich inheri-
tance ; and Anna, abandoned by suitors, had not a
good word left for her parents. The curse of hatred
was upon the whole family ; and Caspar, as he
followed his oxen across his fields, would often
say to himself " Were I but three years younger,
I well know what I would do. But since this has
lasted three years, it must last till my death." And
thereupon he struck the goad so sharply into the
oxen that they sprang aside, and the furrow went

A hard winter came. In January and February
it snowed incessantly ; at night it froze, and the
snow remained on the ground. Upon the lower
Khine the thaw was looked forward to with much
uneasiness. March was well advanced before it
came : then the vane suddenly swung round from
north to south-west, and in a single day the black
earth everywhere pierced through its snowy cover-
ing. The Khine rose, and a terrible flood was to
be apprehended if the thaw were as sudden and
lasting in the mountains as in the lowlands. Had
there but been a proper dike made in the autumn !
Now it was too late ; there was barely time to think
of a makeshift. Caspar's stubborn mood yielded to


his anxiety for his wife, children, and home. With-
out again asking or waiting for his brother's help,
he replaced the demolished rampart by a row of
large fir-stems, set deep in the ground, and filled
up the intervals with strong wickerwork, so as to
break the force of the flood. He thus made sure of
time to save at least the most valuable of his goods.

The river rose higher and higher : Caspar took
away his wife and children in a boat ; the water
was up to the second floor. He himself still re-
mained in the dangerous building, like the captain
of a ship sticking to his wrecked vessel till it sinks.
His fir-tree barricade held together famously, and
he strengthened it with a great barn-door, which he
managed to fix against the weakest part of the
wickerwork parapet. This increased the value of
his breakwater, and further protected the house
from the force of the flood. At times, when the
eddies were unusually violent, the fir-trees bent and
cracked as though they would have given way ;
but their elasticity preserved them, and again they
righted themselves. If the river did not further
increase and at last the rise seemed to have dis-
continued the house was saved.

But one evening dark clouds overspread the sky
^-a strong wind blew from the west, and drove the
waves over towards the village. The rain fell in
torrents, the river rose two feet an hour, and the
water began to climb the walls of Zebulon's house.


Zebulon lay down in bis clothes upon the bed on
his upper floor. His house had never yet been en-
dangered by the floods ; so he had not thought of
leaving it, and had not even provided a boat ; and
although his brother, also blockaded in his fortress,
had a skiff moored to his window, he had no mind
to ask his assistance. But, in fact, he was nowise
anxious, for he relied upon the strength of his
house. He kept a lamp burning, and read a vol-
ume of sermons.

Suddenly, however, Zebulon saw the water bubble
up between the boards of the floor like a mountain
stream in early spring. His hair bristled with
terror: he looked around and saw the invading
element gush in over the threshold of the room.
He jumped up and opened the door, and was almost
carried off his legs by the torrent that entered ; and
hardly had he time to get upon his table when the
water was level with the window-still. A frightful
death stared him in the face ; if the water rose to
the top of the windows, he must be drowned or
stifled. He made his way to the window that looked
towards the village, and shouted for help ; but the
roaring of the stream and the sharp whistling of
the wind mocked his utmost efforts to be heard,
and the water plashed in and out, and reached up
to his breast. On this side there was no chance of
rescue, but on the side of the river a faint hope
remained. Close to the window-shutter stood one


of the spiteful poplars. He waded to his bed, rolled
up a dry blanket and secured it round his neck.
Then he climbed cautiously upon the window ledge :
the poplar stood firm, and a stout branch offered
itself to his hand. At a short distance he distin-
guished the roof of his brother's house, still above
water. He saw Caspar, with a lantern in his hand,
getting out of the top window into a boat ; he called
to him, but so great was the uproar that it was im-
possible he should be heard. With great exertion
Caspar pulled his boat under the lee of the break-
water ; whilst Zebulon climbed up his poplar as
high as its branches would bear him, and waited
for daylight and succour. To his great joy, he
presently observed that the water was falling as
fast as it had risen : it was soon below the window
through which he had passed, and he began to think
of abandoning his uncomfortable refuge, and re-
entering his room. Whilst congratulating himself
on his escape, and just as day began to dawn, the
wind again rose and blew in short but violent gusts.
Again the river "rolled more wildly, and the poplars
swayed to and fro. Zebulon was on the very point
of effecting a retreat through his window, when he
heard a terrible crash proceed from the breakwater.
The roof of his brother's house sank plashing into
the flood ; and in the whirl of waters that ensued,
the strong poplar tree to which he had clung was
twisted round and round, as though it had been


but a sapling, until its branches, and even its top-
most spray, were at times submerged, lake the
troe, Zebulon was fain to yield to the blast : now
under water, now whirled dripping through the air,
he clasped his poplar in a desperate embrace. Sud-
denly he experienced a violent shock : the branch
to which he trusted seemed to hurl him from it,
and he fell heavily upon something hard. Stunned
and bewildered, and with the blood streaming from
his nose, he felt himself borne rapidly down-stream.
On recovering his senses sufficiently to look around
him, he found that he was lying upon the great
barn-door which had formed part of the breakwater.
At the other end of the door sat a man, and that
man was his brother Caspar.

When Caspar, warned by the rocking of the
walls, abandoned his house, he dared not row to-
wards the village, lest in the darkness he should
strike against a tree, or be overwhelmed by the
rush of waters. He succeeded in reaching the
breakwater, which still stood firm. There he lay
at anchor, sheltered from the storm, and with the
force of the flood broken. But when, towards
morning, those violent gusts of wind occurred, they
drove the waves directly against the barricade :
after a few shocks, four of the fir-trees were literally
washed out of the ground, and the breach thus
made was instantly followed by the demolition of
the entire fabric. The heavy barn-door, broken


from its fastenings, fell within a few inches of Cas-
par's head, and knocked his frail bark to splinters,
whilst he, as sole chance of salvation, scrambled
upon the door. The flood, now unimpeded, roared
down against his house, whose destruction he wit-
nessed; and it was whilst he was whirled in the
vortex occasioned by its fall, that Zebulon, shaken
from his tree, fell upon the door. Upon beholding
a man thus suddenly thrown on his frail raft, Cas-
par's first impulse was to push him off, lest the
weight of two persons should be more than it would
bear. But his better feelings quickly banished the
thought ; and when by the grey twilight he recog-
nised his detested brother, he contented himself
with getting as far from him as possible. So sat
the pair, each at his own extremity of the door,
which drove down-stream with terrible speed.

Daylight brought little consolation to the house-
wrecked voyagers. The clouds cleared away, and
the storm was stilled ; but on all sides a vast ex-
panse of troubled waters, strewed with furniture,
uprooted trees, and carcasses of cattle, offered itself
to their view. Boats dared not venture into the
furious current : if at times their door was borne
near the bank, the people who saw it were either
afraid, or too occupied with their own losses, to
attempt the rescue of the brothers. Scarcely a
minute passed that they were not threatened with
death, by the violent contact of their crazy raft


with floating timber, or with the trees which
seemed, since the flood, to grow in the bed of the
stream. To add to their miseries, the wind chopped
round to the north, and blew icy-cold through their
wet clothes. Zebulon took the blanket which he
had fastened round his neck, unfolded it, and
wrapped it around him. But even with this cover-
ing, his teeth chattered for cold.

In that hour of suffering and great danger, many
a good old saying about Christian forgiveness and
brotherly love came into Zebulon's head, and pressed
hard upon his conscience. But just as his heart
began to soften, he thought of the pleasant view
out of his upper windows which his brother's house
had intercepted ; and he thought of his sister-in-
law ; and above all, the day of Lizzy's wedding re-
curred to his memory, and then his heart became
hardened as before.

Caspar was still more troubled in his conscience,
and he muttered to himself one prayer after another.
The cold was intense, and every moment he was
more and more benumbed. Suddenly it occurred to
him that, just before he got into the boat, he had
put a flask of spirits into his pocket in case of need.
He felt for it ; and behold there it was, well corked
and unbroken. He took a famous pull at it, and
his blood circulated more freely, and his eyes
sparkled. At sight of this, poor Zebulon's teeth
chattered worse than ever. Caspar perceived it,


and quite slowly, as though he counted his words,
he said to his brother

" Zebulon, will you take a pull ? "

The tailor's countenance brightened at the offer :
his need was too great, his stubborn spirit was
broken, and a whispered " yes " escaped from his
set teeth. Caspar crept cautiously to the middle of
the door, and Zebulon as cautiously to meet him ; for
they dared not attempt to stand up, lest they should
capsize the raft. The one offered the flask ; the
other received it, and took a deep draught. But
with returning warmth their ancient spite revived.
Zebulon gave back the bottle, said, " I thank you ; "
and turned his back upon Caspar, to resume his
place at the end of the door.

For another hour the two men were hurried
along ; the sun shone brightly, and nature calmed
herself after her recent convulsion. Caspar, worn
out by the fatigues of the last few days and nights,
could not keep himself awake, and his head nodded
to and fro. Zebulon saw his brother's danger, and
this time he spoke first. "Caspar," he said, "lie
down and sleep, or you will drown me ; I will keep
watch, and awake you if anything happens."

Caspar did not need to be told twice, but let him-
self fall forward, laid his head upon his arms, and
began to snore. Zebulon crept softly towards him,
took off the blanket, which was now dry, and laid
it carefully over his brother.

s.s. XL M


Another hour passed, and Zebulon perceived that
their progress became less rapid. He looked around
him, and uttered an exclamation of heartfelt joy.
They had reached a place where the stream took a
bend to the right, and by some accident their raft had
got out of the main current, and was driving through
calmer water towards a black line, which looked
like a bank. When Zebulon had noticed all this,
he awoke his brother. Caspar sat up and stretched
himself. " I know the place," he said. " Yonder
black line is a dam, in front of which we shall find
still water : if we can but reach it, a walk along its
summit will take us to shore." In their joy at this
prospect of deliverance, they took another dram;
and Caspar gave back the blanket to his brother,
and continued to watch the course of their raft.

" How is it," he suddenly exclaimed, " that we
advance so fast, and our speed seems to increase
if that be indeed a dam ? "

He rose to his feet, and, shading his eyes with
his hands, looked sharply before him. After gazing
thus for a few moments, his countenance fell.

" Now are we indeed lost," he said, in a hollow
voice. " There is a break in the dike, and we are
caught in the current that sets towards the opening.
Do you see ? we swim each moment faster. Yonder
foam the furious waters : we shall drive against the
bank, and our destruction is certain."

And so it was. More swiftly than any steam-


boat they shot along to the narrow rent in the
dike, through which the water poured with the force
of a cataract, and against whose rugged sides the
door must inevitably be dashed to pieces. " Three
minutes more," groaned Caspar, falling on his
knees, like a criminal before the block "ay, in
three minutes, all is over."

But Zebulon averted his eyes from the broken
dike, and fixed them upon Caspar. " Brother," he
said, in a loud firm tone, " are we to appear as
enemies before the judgment-seat of God ? "

Then Caspar's heart melted, and exclaiming,
" Brother, forgive me ! " he threw himself into
Zebulon's arms. For the first time for four years
the two men felt their hearts glow towards each
other with the warmth of brotherly love. Tears
of joy and affection rolled down their cheeks, and
on the verge of death they were happier than they
for long had been in their disunited and vindic-
tive existence.

A roar of waters and a violent agitation of their
raft put an end to the close embrace in which for
upwards of a minute they had held each other.
In expectation of instant death, both looked in the
direction of the dike. But no dike was there.
Bewildered with surprise, they turned their heads,
and, behold, it was behind them ! In the moment
of their reconciliation, they had passed unharmed
through the very jaws of death. The door upon


which they knelt, and which appeared at least as
wide as the opening in the dike, had passed through
it, by a seeming miracle, without striking either
right or left. They were saved ; at a short dis-
tance before them lay the land, towards which the
subsiding waves were now gently floating them.
Yet a few minutes, and their raft was aground on
the slope of an inundated field.

Arm in arm went the brothers to the nearest vil-
lage, where they dried their clothes and obtained
food. Gladly would they have rested there a night,
but they thought of the anxiety of Caspar's wife
and children. Caspar sold his barn door, Zebulon
his blanket ; and this, with some little money they
had in their pockets, furnished funds for the journey.
All the roads near the river were flooded ; they had
to make a circuit over the mountains, and the dis-
tance they had floated in six hours was a three
days' march on foot. But the three days seemed
shorter to them than the six hours ; for in those
three days' intimate communion, they went over
all that had occurred to them in the previous four
years ; old feelings of kindness and mutual de-
pendence resumed their sway, and they laid plans
of future happiness for both. In the last town they
passed through, Zebulon stopped at a notary's, and
destroyed a will he had lying there.

Late upon the third evening they reached their
home. The river was sinking fast; the poplars


with their double wall, and the new house which
had been the apple of discord, had disappeared, and
left no trace of their existence. Caspar lingered a
little in the rear ; Zebulon stole softly round the
corner of his house, which stood firm and uninjured.
His sister-in-law, surrounded by her children, sat
in a despairing attitude upon the site of her former
dwelling, whence the waves had but lately retired.
" Pray for your father," Zebulon heard her say, " for
here the flood swept him away ; and pray also,"
she added to her elder children, " for your mother,
for she was the cause both of his death and of that
of your poor uncle Zebulon."

" Not of mine," cried Zebulon, stepping forward.
The children, forgetting old quarrels, flocked around
him. " And because you, sister, are sorry for what
is past, God is merciful to you, and suffers Zebulon,
whom you were regretting, to bring back your hus-
band to your arms."

As he spoke, Caspar stood by his side, and the
joyful woman threw an arm round each. Then said
Zebulon " Friends, we have had a famous lesson
these four years past ; and truly, if it had lasted
four years longer, we might have found ourselves
reduced to a beggar's staff. But let that be all
bygone and forgotten. To-morrow we will begin
to build a new dike. Of a new house you have no
need. Come back and live with me. All that is
mine is yours and your children's,"



"lITY dear Septimus," I said, "I congratulate
-L'-L you on your son. He is a most pleasant
fellow; cheerful without silliness intelligent, but
not a prig."

" Humph ! " replied my friend.
A great part of conversation in this country is
carried on by grunts ; but if there is anything
which cannot be expressed in this manner, it is
cordial assent. I relapsed into silence, and filled
my glass. Septimus passed his hand over his
hair, which is rather long, and still thick, though
streaked with many threads of grey, and gazed
thoughtfully through the window, which opened on
to the lawn. A feint light lingered in the west,
and one star shone brilliantly above the black
cedar, near which was dimly seen the graceful


figure of my friend's wife. At her side was the
young man on whom, moved by genuine liking
and the emotions natural to a benevolent person
who has dined well, I had just pronounced a seem-
ingly inopportune panegyric. We sat at a round
table, over which a shaded light was hanging,
and the claret passed slowly between us. It was
too old to be hurried. After a silence of a few
minutes, my friend leaned back in his chair, and

" If it would not bore you, I should like to tell
you a few anecdotes of my dear boy's life."

"Pray, do," I said. I was in the mood for
listening disposed for silence and moderately
curious. Septimus has a manner gentle as the
evening, and a voice which might have grown
mellow in his own cellar.

" It has long seemed to me," he began, " that the
rules of conduct which we try to impress on our
children are absurdly inconsistent with those by
which we expect them to regulate their later life.
When they are young they are to be unobtrusive,
and to give up to everybody ; when they have
reached man's estate they are to give way to no-
body, but to push their fortunes in the world. As
well might we punish the child for going near the
water, and expect the man to swim ; or train the
runner for the race by making him walk backwards.


When Tommy was born, I made up my mind to
avoid the common error. In the battle of life he
should be taught to win, and not to go round, when
the fighting was over, with a red cross on his arm.
When he was a baby he showed a great love of
colour, and would lie for hours smiling at the sun-
light, and making little motions with his hands.
It seemed clear to me in those days that the child
would be a great painter (you know that I was
always fond of art), and take a high position.
There is a great opening in that direction. An
active man, who cultivates a bold style, and is
above niggling over details, can paint ten pic-
tures in the year, and, when he has made a name,
can sell them for 1000 each. When I pointed
out to Jessie what a road of fortune lay before
our baby, she laughed at him, and called him
Tommy E.A.

" But of course in those days I could not be sure
of the line in which my son would excel. My duty
was to prepare him to excel in any which he might
choose, by developing in him the taste for competi-
tion. I looked about for a competitor, and had the
good luck to find my little nephew Theodore, who
is ten minutes older than Tommy. I borrowed
him from his parents, and at once brought the two
lads into competition. I well remember my first
attempt, and its failure, I had been left in charge


of the children for a short time, and seizing the
opportunity, induced them to race across the room
for a lump of sugar."

Here I interrupted my friend by asking if the
boys were not young for education.

" Not at all," said he ; " for let me tell you that
in these days, when the idea of individual liberty
is in the air we breathe, children rebel against the
influence of their parents almost before they are

" You surprise me," I said, " and wellnigh make
me accept the poet's picture. You remember the

' Didst never hear how the rebellious Egg
Stood up i' the straw, and to his Mother Goose
Cried, Madame, I will not be sat upon.' "

Septimus smiled in a deprecating manner, some-
what uncertain, I think, whether I were in jest or
earnest. He continued his story. " Tommy was a
good walker, if you make allowance for the novelty
of the accomplishment, but lost some time in lateral
motion like that of a landsman on a rolling sea ;
therefore Theodore, who had a perpetual inclina-
tion forward, and went with an involuntary goose-
step, took the lead at once, and would have won,
had not his head, advancing too quickly for his
legs, come suddenly in contact with the floor.


Now was my boy's chance ; but instead of going
by his cousin, who was prostrate and howling, he
8at down on the carpet and bellowed twice as loud
for sympathy. Jessie said that I ought to be
ashamed of myself, and divided the lump of sugar
between the competitors.

"When the boys were a little older, I again
borrowed Theodore, and made a little class of him
and Tommy, hoping for healthy rivalry in the ac-
quisition of knowledge. I began with an opening
address, in which I pointed out to them that the
duty of each was to beat the other ; and that, as
every man in the grown-up world was trying to
get as much of the luxuries and honours as he
could, so each boy should try to gain for himself
as large a share as possible of the marbles, toffee,
and other prizes, which I should from time to time
offer. They heard me with great gravity, and our
opening day was a decided success. I soon found,
however, that my prize system was a failure, since,
as the students always played together, they cared
not a jot who won the toys, which they enjoyed in
common ; and as to the toffee, they both suffered so
much after the first prize-day, that Jessie put her
veto on that form of reward.

"After this I determined to substitute pennies,
and for a time thought that I had effected my pur-
pose. Tommy grew wonderfully industrious, and


in spite of my strict impartiality accumulated a
vast store of copper. Week after week he drew on
me with papers of marks, which were duly honoured,
until I saw myself in days to be the aged father of
the first of gentile financiers. He should direct
the application of his neighbours' fortunes, specu-
late in a gigantic war, become Baron Tommy at a
foreign court, perhaps Sir Thomas at his own. My
dream was rudely dispelled. One day my small
nephew came to me in great glee. ' Uncle Septi-
mus,' said he, 'do you know that it is my birth-
day?' 'Yes,' I replied, 'and Tommy's birthday
too, although you certainly gained an advantage
over him, for which no activity on his part can
ever compensate.' ' And please, Uncle Septimus,'
continued Theodore, ' do look at the present which
Tommy has given me ; ' and he held up a highly
decorated whip and scarlet reins. It was but too
clear that the fortune which my son had accumu-
lated by his industry, had been expended in a
present for the defeated candidate ; and when
questioned on the subject, the young prodigal at
once allowed that this had been the sole motive
of his extraordinary devotion to study. While I
was trying to impress upon him that if the triumph
of the successful resulted in the gain of the un-
successful competitor, emulation was impossible,
his mother came in with a rush and hugged him.

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Online LibraryChalmers RobertsTales from Blackwood : being the most famous series of stories ever published, especially selected from that celebrated English publication. [Series II] (Volume 6) → online text (page 10 of 11)