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sides of the streets were connected, at the height of two or perhaps
three stories, by thin arches - mere jets of stone from the one house
to the other, with but in rare instance the smallest superstructure to
keep down the key of the arch. Whatever the intention of them, they
might seem to serve it, for the time they had straddled there
undisturbed had sufficed for moss and even grass to grow upon those
which Mr. Porson now regarded with curious speculation. A bit of an
architect, and foiled, he summoned at last what Italian he could,
supplemented it with Latin and a terminational _o_ or _a_ tacked to
any French or English word that offered help, and succeeded, as he
believed, in gathering from a by-stander, that the arches were there
because of the earthquakes.

He had not language enough of any sort to pursue the matter, else he
would have asked his informant how the arch they were looking at could
be of any service, seeing it had no weight on the top, and but a
slight endlong pressure must burst it up. Turning away to tell his
wife what he had learned, he was checked by a low rumbling, like
distant thunder, which he took for the firing of festa guns, having
discovered that Italians were fond of all kinds of noises. The next
instant they felt the ground under their feet move up and down and
from side to side with confused motion. A sudden great cry arose. One
moment and down every stair, out of every door, like animals from
their holes, came men, women, and children, with a rush. The
earthquake was upon them.

But in such narrow streets, the danger could hardly be less than
inside the houses, some of which, the older especially, were ill
constructed - mostly with boulder-stones that had neither angles nor
edges, hence little grasp on each other beyond what the friction of
their weight, and the adhesion of their poor old friable cement, gave
them; for the Italians, with a genius for building, are careless of
certain constructive essentials. After about twenty seconds of
shaking, the lonely pair began to hear, through the noise of the cries
of the people, some such houses as these rumbling to the earth.

They were far more bewildered than frightened. They were both of good
nerve, and did not know the degree of danger they were in, while the
strangeness of the thing contributed to an excitement that helped
their courage. I cannot say how they might have behaved in an hotel
full of their countrymen and countrywomen, running and shrieking, and
altogether comporting themselves as if they knew there was no God. The
fear on all sides might there have infected them; but the terror of
the inhabitants who knew better than they what the thing meant, did
not much shake them. For one moment many of the people stood in the
street motionless, pale, and staring; the next they all began to run,
some for the gateway, but the greater part up the street, staggering
as they ran. The movement of the ground was indeed small - not more,
perhaps, than half an inch in any direction - but fear and imagination
weakened all their limbs. They had not run far, however, before the
terrible unrest ceased as suddenly as it had begun.

The English pair drew a long breath where they stood - for they had not
stirred a step, or indeed thought whither to run - and imagining it
over for a hundred years, looked around them. Their guide had
disappeared. The two donkeys stood perfectly still with their heads
hanging down. They seemed in deep dejection, and incapable of
movement. A few men only were yet to be seen. They were running up the
street. In a moment more it would be empty. They were the last of
those that had let the women go to church without them. They were
hurrying to join them in the sanctuary, the one safe place: the rest
of the town might be shaken in heaps on its foundations, but the
church would stand! Guessing their goal, the Porsons followed
them. But they were neither of a build nor in a condition to make
haste, and the road was uphill. No one place, however, was far from
another within the toy-town, and they came presently to an open
_piazza_, on the upper side of which rose the great church. It had a
square front, masking with its squareness the triangular gable of the
building. Upon this screen, in the brightest of colours, magenta and
sky-blue predominating, was represented the day of judgment - the
mother seated on the right hand of the judge, and casting a pitiful
look upon the miserable assembly on her left. The square was a good
deal on the slope, and as they went slowly up to the church, they kept
looking at the picture. The last tatters of the skirt of the crowd had
disappeared through the great door, and but for themselves the square
was empty. All at once the picture at which they were gazing, the
spread of wall on which it was painted, the whole bulk of the huge
building began to shudder, and went on shuddering - "just," Mr. Porson
used to say when describing the thing to a friend, "like the skin of a
horse determined to get rid of a gad-fly." The same moment the tiles
on the roof began to clatter like so many castanets in the hands of
giants, and the ground to wriggle and heave. But they were too much
absorbed in what was before their eyes to heed much what went on under
their feet. The oscillatory displacement of the front of the church
did not at most seem to cover more than a hand-breadth, but it was
enough. Down came the plaster surface, with the judge and his mother,
clashing on the pavement below, while the good and the bad yet stood
trembling. A few of the people came running out, thinking the open
square after all safer than the church, but there was no rush to the
open air. The shaking had lasted about twenty seconds, or at most half
a minute, when, without indication to the eyes watching the front,
there came a roaring crash and a huge rumbling, through and far above
which, rose a multitudinous shriek of terror, dismay, and agony, and a
number of men and women issued as if shot from a catapult. Then a few
came straggling out, and then - no more. The roof had fallen upon the
rest.

With the first rush from the church, the shaking ceased utterly, and
the still earth seemed again the immovable thing the English
spectators had conceived her. Of what had taken place there was little
sign on the earth, no sign in the blue sun-glorious heaven; only in
the air there was a cloud of dust so thick as to look almost solid,
and from the cloud, as it seemed, came a ghastly cry, mingled of
shrieks and groans and articulate appeals for help. The cry kept on
issuing, while the calm front of the church, dominated by that
frightful canopy, went on displaying the assembled nations delivered
from their awful judge. While the multitude groaned within, it spread
itself out to the sun in silent composure, welcoming and cherishing
his rays in what was left of its gorgeous hues.

The Porsons stood for a moment stunned, came to their senses, and made
haste to enter the building. With white faces and trembling hands,
they drew aside the heavy leather curtain that hung within the great
door, but could for a moment see nothing; the air inside seemed filled
with a solid yellow dust As their eyes recovered from the sudden
change of sunlight for gloom, however, they began to distinguish the
larger outlines, and perceived that the floor was one confused heap of
rafters and bricks and tiles and stones and lime. The centre of the
roof had been a great dome; now there was nothing between their eyes
and the clear heaven but the slowly vanishing cloud of ruin. In the
mound below they could at first distinguish nothing human - could not
have told, in the dim chaos, limbs from broken rafters. Eager to help,
they dared not set their feet upon the mass - not that they feared the
walls which another shock might bring upon their heads, but that they
shuddered lest their own added weight should crush some live human
creature they could not descry. Three or four who had received little
or no hurt, were moving about the edges of the heap, vaguely trying to
lift now this, now that, but yielding each attempt in despair, either
from its evident uselessness, or for lack of energy. They would give a
pull at a beam that lay across some writhing figure, find it
immovable, and turn with a groan to some farther cry. How or where
were they to help? Others began to come in with white faces and
terror-stricken eyes; and before long the sepulchral ruin had little
groups all over it, endeavouring in shiftless fashion to bring rescue
to the prisoned souls.

The Porsons saw nothing they could do. Great beams and rafters which
it was beyond their power to move an inch, lay crossed in all
directions; and they could hold little communication with those who
were in a fashion at work. Alas, they were little better than vainly
busy, while the louder moans accompanying their attempts revealed that
they added to the tortures of those they sought to deliver! The two
saw more plainly now, and could distinguish contorted limbs, and here
and there a countenance. The silence, more and more seldom broken, was
growing itself terrible. Had they known how many were buried there,
they would have wondered so few were left able to cry out. At moments
there was absolute stillness in the dreadful place. The heart of
Mrs. Porson began to sink.

"Do come out," she whispered, afraid of her own voice. "I feel so sick
and faint, I fear I shall drop."

As she spoke something touched her leg. She gave a cry and started
aside. It was a hand, but of the body to which it belonged nothing
could be seen. It must have been its last movement; now it stuck there
motionless. Then they spied amid sad sights a sadder still. Upon the
heap, a little way from its edge, sat a child of about three, dressed
like a sailor, gazing down at something - they could not see
what. Going a little nearer, they saw it - the face of a fair woman,
evidently English, who lay dead, with a great beam across her
heart. The child showed no trace of tears; his white face seemed
frozen. The stillness upon it was not despair, but suggested a world
in which hope had never yet been born. Pity drove Mrs. Porson's
sickness away.

"My dear!" she said; but the child took no heed. Her voice, however,
seemed to wake something in him. He started to his feet, and rushing
at the beam, began to tug at it with his tiny hands. Mrs. Porson burst
into tears.

"It's no use, darling!" she cried.

"Wake mamma!" he said, turning, and looking up at her.

"She will not wake," sobbed Mrs. Porson.

Her husband stood by speechless, choking back the tears of which,
being an Englishman, he was ashamed.

"She _will_ wake," returned the boy. "She always wakes when I kiss
her."

He knelt beside her, to prove upon her white face the efficacy of the
measure he had never until now known to fail. That he had already
tried it was plain, for he had kissed away much of the dust, though
none of the death. When once more he found that she did not even close
her lips to return his passionate salute, he desisted. With that
saddest of things, a child's sigh, and a look that seemed to Mrs.
Porson to embody the riddle of humanity, he reseated himself on the
beam, with his little feet on his mother's bosom, where so often she
had made them warm. He did not weep; he did not fix his eyes on his
mother; his look was level and moveless and set upon nothing. He
seemed to have before him an utter blank - as if the outer wall of
creation had risen frowning in front, and he knew there was nothing
behind it but chaos.

"Where is your papa?" asked Mr. Porson.

The boy looked round bewildered.

"Gone," he answered; nor could they get anything more from him.

"Was your papa with you here?" asked Mrs. Porson.

He answered only with the word _Gone_, uttered in a dazed fashion.

By this time all the men left in the town were doing their best, under
the direction of an intelligent man, the priest of a neighbouring
parish. They had already got one or two out alive, and their own
priest dead. They worked well, their terror of the lurking earthquake
forgotten in their eagerness to rescue. From their ignorance of the
language, however, Mr. Porson saw they could be of little use; and in
dread of doing more harm than good, he judged it better to go.

They stood one moment and looked at each other in silence. The child
had dropped from the beam, and lay fast asleep across his mother's
bosom, with his head on a lump of mortar. Without a word spoken,
Mrs. Person, picking her way carefully to the spot, knelt down by the
dead mother, tenderly kissed her cheek, lifted the sleeping child, and
with all the awe, and nearly all the tremulous joy of first
motherhood, bore him to her husband. The throes of the earthquake had
slain the parents, and given the child into their arms. Without look
of consultation, mark of difference, or sign of agreement, they turned
in silence and left the terrible church, with the clear summer sky
looking in upon its dead.

As they passed the door, the sun met them shining with all his
might. The sea, far away across the tops of hills and the clefts of
valleys, lay basking in his glory. The hot air quivered all over the
wide landscape. From the flight of steps in front of the church they
looked down on the streets of the town, and beyond them into space. It
looked the best of all possible worlds - as neither plague, famine,
pestilence, earthquakes, nor human wrongs, persuade me it is not,
judged by the high intent of its existence. When a man knows that
intent, as I dare to think I do, _then_ let him say, and not till
then, whether it be a good world or not. That in the midst of the
splendour of the sunny day, in the midst of olives and oranges, grapes
and figs, ripening swiftly by the fervour of the circumambient air,
should lie that charnel-church, is a terrible fact, neither to be
ignored, nor to be explained by the paltry theory of the greatest good
to the greatest number; but the end of the maker's dream is not this.

When they turned into the street that led to the gate, they found the
donkeys standing where they had left them. Their owner was not with
them. He had gone into the church with the rest, and was killed. When
they caught sight of the patient, dejected animals, unheeded and
unheeding, then first they spoke, whispering in the awful stillness of
the world: they must take the creatures, and make the best of their
way back without a guide! They judged that, as the road was chiefly
down hill, and the donkeys would be going home, they would not have
much difficulty with them. At the worst, short and stout as they were,
they were not bad walkers, and felt more than equal to carrying the
child between them. Not a person was in the street when they mounted;
almost all were in the church, at its strange, terrible service. Mrs.
Porson mounted the strongest of the animals, her husband placed the
sleeping child in her arms, and they started, he on foot by the side
of his wife, and his donkey following. No one saw them pass through
the gate of the town.

They were not sure of the way, for they had been partly asleep as they
came, but so long as they went downward, and did not leave the road,
they could hardly go wrong! The child slept all the way.



Chapter IV.

The new family.


How shall a man describe what passed in the mind of a childless wife,
with a motherless boy in her arms! It is the loveliest provision,
doubtless, that every child should have a mother of his own; but there
is a mother-love - which I had almost called more divine - the love,
namely, that a woman bears to a child because he is a child,
regardless of whether he be her own or another's. It is that they may
learn to love thus, that women have children. Some women love so
without having any. No conceivable treasure of the world could have
once entered into comparison with the burden of richness Mrs. Porson
bore. She told afterward, with voice hushed by fear of irreverence,
how, as they went down one of the hills, she slept for a moment, and
dreamed that she was Mary with the holy thing in her arms, fleeing to
Egypt on the ass, with Joseph, her husband, walking by her side. For
years and years they had been longing for a child - and here lay the
divinest little one, with every mark of the kingdom upon him! His
father and mother lying crushed under the fallen dome of that fearful
church, was it strange he should seem to belong to her?

But there might be some one somewhere in the world with a better
claim; possibly - horrible thought! - with more need of him than she! Up
started a hideous cupidity, a fierce temptation to dishonesty, such as
she had never imagined. We do not know what is in us until the
temptation comes. Then there is the devil to fight. And Mrs. Porson
fought him.

Mr. Porson was, in a milder degree, affected much as his wife. He
could not help wishing, nor was he wrong in wishing, that, since the
child's father and mother were gone, they might take their place, and
love their orphan. They were far from rich, but what was one child!
They might surely manage to give him a good education, and set him
doing for himself! But, alas, there might be others - others with
love-property in the child! The same thoughts were working in each,
but neither dared utter them in the presence of the sleeping treasure.

As they descended the last slope above the town, with the wide
sea-horizon before them, they beheld such a glory of after-sunset as,
even on that coast, was unusual. A chord of colour that might have
been the prostrate fragment of a gigantic rainbow, lay along a large
arc of the horizon. The farther portion of the sea was an indigo blue,
save for a grayish line that parted it from the dusky red of the
sky. This red faded up through orange and dingy yellow to a pale green
and pale blue, above which came the depth of the blue night, in which
rayed resplendent the evening star. Below the star and nearer to the
west, lay, very thin and very long, the sickle of the new moon. If
death be what it looks to the unthinking soul, and if the heavens
declare the glory of God, as they do indeed to the heart that knows
him, then is there discord between heaven and earth such as no
argument can harmonize. But death is not what men think it, for
"Blessed are they that mourn for the dead."

The sight enhanced the wonder and hope of the two honest good souls in
the treasure they carried. Out of the bosom of the skeleton Death
himself, had been given them - into their very arms - a germ of life, a
jewel of heaven! At the thought of what lay up the hill behind them,
they felt their joy in the child almost wicked; but if God had taken
the child's father and mother, might they not be glad in the hope that
he had chosen them to replace them? That he had for the moment at
least, they were bound to believe!

They travelled slowly on, through the dying sunset, and an hour or two
of the star-bright night that followed, adorned rather than lighted by
the quaint boat of the crescent moon. Weary, but lapt in a voiceless
triumph, they came at last, guided by the donkeys, to their hotel.

All were talking of the earthquake. A great part of the English had
fled in a panic terror, like sheep that had no shepherd - hunted by
their own fears, and betrayed by their imagined faith. The steadiest
church-goer fled like the infidel he reviled. The fool said in his
heart, "There is no God," and fled. The Christian said with his mouth,
"Verily there is a God that ruleth in the earth!" and fled - far as he
could from the place which, as he fancied, had shown signs of a
special presence of the father of Jesus Christ.

After the Persons were in the house, there came two or three small
shocks. Every time, out with a cry rushed the inhabitants into the
streets; every time, out into the garden of the hotel swarmed such as
were left in it of Germans and English. But our little couple, who had
that day seen so much more of its terrors than any one else in the
place, and whose chamber was at the top of the house where the swaying
was worst, were too much absorbed in watching and tending their lovely
boy to heed the earthquake. Perhaps their hearts whispered, "Can that
which has given us such a gift be unfriendly?"

"If his father and mother," said Mrs. Person, as they stood regarding
him, "are permitted to see their child, they shall see how we love
him, and be willing he should love us!"

As they went up the stairs with him, the boy woke When he looked and
saw a face that was not his mother's, a cloud swept across the heaven
of his eyes. He closed them again, and did not speak. The first of the
shocks came as they were putting him to bed: he turned very white and
looked up fixedly, as if waiting another fall from above, but sat
motionless on his new mother's lap. The instant the vibration and
rocking ceased, he drank from the cup of milk she offered him, as
quietly as if but a distant thunder had rolled away. When she put him
in the bed, he looked at her with such an indescribable expression of
bewildered loss, that she burst into tears. The child did not cry. He
had not cried since they took him. The woman's heart was like to break
for him, but she managed to say,

"God has taken her, my darling. He is keeping her for you, and I am
going to keep you for her;" and with that she kissed him.

The same moment came the second shock.

Need wakes prophecy: the need of the child made of the parson a
prophet.

"It is God that does the shaking," he said. "It's all right. Nobody
will be the worse - not much, at least!"

"Not at all," rejoined the boy, and turned his face away.

From the lips of such a tiny child, the words seemed almost awful.

He fell fast asleep, and never woke till the morning. Mrs. Porson lay
beside him, yielding him, stout as she was, a good half of the little
Italian bed. She scarcely slept for excitement and fear of smothering
him.

The Persons were honest people, and for all their desire to possess
the child, made no secret of how and where they had found him, or of
as much of his name as he could tell them, which was only _Clare_. But
they never heard of inquiry after him. On the gunboat at Genoa they
knew nothing of their commander's purposes, or where to seek him. Days
passed before they began to be uneasy about him, and when they did
make what search for him they could, it was fruitless.



Chapter V.

His new home.


The place to which the good people carried the gift of the
earthquake - carried him with much anxiety and more exultation - had no
very distinctive features. It had many fields in grass, many in crop,
and some lying fallow - all softly undulating. It had some trees, and
everywhere hedges dividing fields whose strange shapes witnessed to a
complicated history, of which few could tell anything. Here and there
in the hollows between the motionless earth-billows, flowed, but did
not seem to flow, what they called a brook. But the brooks there were
like deep soundless pools without beginning or end. There was no life,
no gaiety, no song in them, only a sullen consent to exist. That at
least is how they impress one accustomed to real brooks, lark-like,
always on the quiver, always on the move, always babbling and gabbling
and gamboling, always at their games, always tossing their pebbles
about, and telling them to talk. A man that loved them might say there
was more in the silence of these, than in the speech of those; but
what silence can be better than a song of delight that we are, that we
were, that we are to be! The stillness may be full of solemn fish,
mysterious as itself, and deaf with secrets; but blessed is the brook
that lets the light of its joy shine.

Dull as the place must seem in this my description, it was the very
country for the boy. He would come into more contact with its modest
beauty in a day than some of us would in a year. Nobody quite knows
the beauty of a country, especially of a quiet country, except one who
has been born in it, or for whom at least childhood and boyhood and
youth have opened door after door into the hidden phases of its
life. There is no square yard on the face of the earth but some one
can in part understand what God meant in making it; while the same
changeful skies canopy the most picturesque and the dullest
landscapes; the same winds wake and blow over desert and pasture land,
making the bosoms of youth and age swell with the delight of their
blowing. The winds are not all so full as are some of delicious odours
gathered as they pass from gardens, fields, and hill-sides; but all



Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldA Rough Shaking → online text (page 3 of 24)