Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXIX

At the Pump

This blow was so sharp and heavy that I lost for the moment all power to go on. The sense of ill fortune fell upon me, as it falls upon stronger people, when a sudden gleam of hope, breaking through long troubles, mysteriously fades away.

Even the pleasure of indulging in the gloom of evil luck was a thing to be ashamed of now, when I thought of that good man’s family thus, without a moment’s warning, robbed of love and hope and happiness. But Mrs. Strouss, who often brooded on predestination, imbittered all my thoughts by saying, or rather conveying without words, that my poor fathers taint of some Divine ill-will had re-appeared, and even killed his banker.

Betsy held most Low–Church views, by nature being a Dissenter. She called herself a Baptist, and in some strange way had stopped me thus from ever having been baptized. I do not understand these things, and the battles fought about them; but knowing that my father was a member of the English Church, I resolved to be the same, and told Betsy that she ought not to set up against her master’s doctrine. Then she herself became ashamed of trying to convert me, not only because of my ignorance (which made argument like shooting into the sea), but chiefly because she could mention no one of title with such theology.

This settled the question at once; and remembering (to my shame) what opinions I had held even of Suan Isco, while being in the very same predicament myself, reflecting also what Uncle Sam and Firm would have thought of me, had they known it, I anticipated the Major and his dinner party by going to a quiet ancient clergyman, who examined me, and being satisfied with little, took me to an old City church of deep and damp retirement. And here, with a great din of traffic outside, and a mildewy depth of repose within, I was presented by certain sponsors (the clerk and his wife and his wife’s sister), and heard good words, and hope to keep the impression, both outward and inward, gently made upon me.

I need not say that I kept, and now received with authority, my old name; though the clerk prefixed an aspirate to it, and indulged in two syllables only. But the ancient parson knew its meaning, and looked at me with curiosity; yet, being a gentleman of the old school, put never a question about it.

Now this being done, and full tidings thereof sent off to Mrs. Hockin, to save trouble to the butcher, or other disappointment, I scarcely knew how to be moving next, though move I must before very long. For it cost me a great deal of money to stay in European Square like this, albeit Herr Strouss was of all men the most generous, by his own avowal, and his wife (by the same test) noble-hearted among women. Yet each of them spoke of the other’s pecuniary views in such a desponding tone (when the other was out of the way), and so lamented to have any thing at all to say about cash — by compulsion of the other — also both, when met together, were so large and reckless, and not to be insulted by a thought of payment, that it came to pass that my money did nothing but run away between them.

This was not their fault at all, but all my own, for being unable to keep my secret about the great nugget. The Major had told me not to speak of this, according to wise experience; and I had not the smallest intention of doing an atom of mischief in that way; but somehow or other it came out one night when I was being pitied for my desolation. And all the charges against me began to be doubled from that moment.

If this had been all, I should not have cared so much, being quite content that my money should go as fast as it came in to me. But there was another thing here which cost me as much as my board and lodgings and all the rest of my expenses. And that was the iron pump in European Square. For this pump stood in the very centre of a huddled district of famine, filth, and fever. When once I had seen from the leads of our house the quag of reeking life around, the stubs and snags of chimney-pots, the gashes among them entitled streets, and the broken blains called houses, I was quite ashamed of paying any thing to become a Christian.

Betsy, who stood by me, said that it was better than it used to be, and that all these people lived in comfort of their own ideas, fiercely resented all interference, and were good to one another in their own rough way. It was more than three years since there had been a single murder among them, and even then the man who was killed confessed that he deserved it. She told me, also, that in some mining district of Wales, well known to her, things were a great deal worse than here, although the people were not half so poor. And finally, looking at a ruby ring which I had begged her to wear always, for the sake of her truth to me, she begged me to be wiser than to fret about things that I could not change. “All these people, whose hovels I saw, had the means of grace before them, and if they would not stretch forth their hands, it was only because they were vessels of wrath. Her pity was rather for our poor black brethren who had never enjoyed no opportunities, and therefore must be castaways.”

Being a stranger, and so young, and accustomed to receive my doctrine (since first I went to America), I dropped all intention of attempting any good in places where I might be murdered. But I could not help looking at the pump which was in front, and the poor things who came there for water, and, most of all, the children. With these it was almost the joy of the day, and perhaps the only joy, to come into this little open space and stand, and put their backs up stiffly, and stare about, ready for some good luck to turn up — such as a horse to hold, or a man coming out of the docks with a half-penny to spare — and then, in failure of such golden hope, to dash about, in and out, after one another, splashing, and kicking over their own cans, kettles, jars, or buckets, and stretching their dirty little naked legs, and showing very often fine white chests, and bright teeth wet with laughter. And then, when this chivy was done, and their quick little hearts beat aloud with glory, it was pretty to see them all rally round the pump, as crafty as their betters, and watching with sly humor each other’s readiness to begin again.

Then suddenly a sense of neglected duty would seize some little body with a hand to its side, nine times out of ten a girl, whose mother, perhaps, lay sick at home, and a stern idea of responsibility began to make the buckets clank. Then might you see, if you cared to do so, orderly management have its turn — a demand for pins and a tucking up of skirts (which scarcely seemed worthy of the great young fuss), large children scolding little ones not a bit more muddy than themselves, the while the very least child of all, too young as yet for chivying, and only come for company, would smooth her comparatively clean frock down, and look up at her sisters with condemnatory eyes.

Trivial as they were, these things amused me much, and made a little checker of reflected light upon the cloud of selfish gloom, especially when the real work began, and the children, vying with one another, set to at the iron handle. This was too large for their little hands to grasp, and by means of some grievance inside, or perhaps through a cruel trick of the plumber, up went the long handle every time small fingers were too confiding, and there it stood up like the tail of a rampant cow, or a branch inaccessible, until an old shawl or the cord of a peg-top could be cast up on high to reduce it. But some engineering boy, “highly gifted,” like Uncle Sam’s self, “with machinery,” had discovered an ingenious cure for this. With the help of the girls he used to fasten a fat little thing, about twelve months old, in the bend at the middle of the handle, and there (like a ham on the steelyard) hung this baby and enjoyed seesaw, and laughed at its own utility.

I never saw this, and the splashing and dribbling and play and bright revelry of water, without forgetting all sad counsel and discretion, and rushing out as if the dingy pump were my own delicious Blue River. People used to look at me from the windows with pity and astonishment, supposing me to be crazed or frantic, especially the Germans. For to run out like this, without a pocket full of money, would have been insanity; and to run out with it, to their minds, was even clearer proof of that condition. For the money went as quickly as the water of the pump; on this side and on that it flew, each child in succession making deeper drain upon it, in virtue of still deeper woes. They were dreadful little story-tellers, I am very much afraid; and the long faces pulled, as soon as I came out, in contrast with all the recent glee and frolic, suggested to even the youngest charity suspicions of some inconsistency. However, they were so ingenious and clever that they worked my pockets like the pump itself, only with this unhappy difference, that the former had no inexhaustible spring of silver, or even of copper.

And thus, by a reason (as cogent as any of more exalted nature), was I driven back to my head-quarters, there to abide till a fresh supply should come. For Uncle Sam, generous and noble as he was, did not mean to let me melt all away at once my share of the great Blue River nugget, any more than to make ducks and drakes of his own. Indeed, that rock of gold was still untouched, and healthily reposing in a banker’s cellar in the good town of Sacramento. People were allowed to go in and see it upon payment of a dollar, and they came out so thirsty from feasting upon it that a bar was set up, and a pile of money made — all the gentlemen, and ladies even worse than they, taking a reckless turn about small money after seeing that. But dear Uncle Sam refused every cent of the profit of all this excitable work. It was wholly against his wish that any thing so artificial should be done at all, and his sense of religion condemned it. He said, in his very first letter to me, that even a heathen must acknowledge this champion nugget as the grandest work of the Lord yet discovered in America — a country more full of all works of the Lord than the rest of the world put together. And to keep it in a cellar, without any air or sun, grated harshly upon his ideas of right.

However, he did not expect every body to think exactly as he did, and if they could turn a few dollars upon it, they were welcome, as having large families. And the balance might go to his credit against the interest on any cash advanced to him. Not that he meant to be very fast with this, never having run into debt in all his life.

This, put shortly, was the reason why I could not run to the pump any longer. I had come into England with money enough to last me (according to the Sawyer’s calculations) for a year and a half of every needful work; whereas, in less than half that time, I was arriving at my last penny. This reminded me of my dear father, who was nearly always in trouble about money (although so strictly upright); and at first I was proud to be like him about this, till I came to find the disadvantages.

It must not even for a moment be imagined that this made any difference in the behavior of any one toward me. Mrs. Strouss, Herr Strouss, the lady on the stairs, and a very clever woman who had got no rooms, but was kindly accommodated every where, as well as the baron on the first floor front, and the gentleman from a hotel at Hanover, who looked out the other way, and even the children at the pump — not one made any difference toward me (as an enemy might, perhaps, suppose) because my last half crown was gone. It was admitted upon every side that I ought to be forgiven for my random cast of money, because I knew no better, and was sure to have more in a very little time. And the children of the pump came to see me go away, through streets of a mile and a half, I should think; and they carried my things, looking after one another, so that none could run away. And being forbidden at the platform gate, for want of respectability, they set up a cheer, and I waved my hat, and promised, amidst great applause, to come back with it full of sixpences.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31