Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter IX


If Mr. Gundry was in one way right, he was equally wrong in the other. Firm came home quite safe and sound, though smothered with snow and most hungry; but he thought that he should have staid out all the night, because he had failed of his errand. Jowler also was full of discontent and trouble of conscience. He knew, when he kicked up his heels in the snow, that his duty was to find somebody, and being of Alpine pedigree, and trained to act up to his ancestry, he now dropped his tail with failure.

“It comes to the same thing,” said Sawyer Gundry; “it is foolish to be so particular. A thousand better men have sunk through being so pig-headed. We shall find the rogue toward the end of March, or in April, if the season suits. Firm, eat your supper and shake yourself.”

This was exactly the Sawyer’s way — to take things quietly when convinced that there was no chance to better them. He would always do his best about the smallest trifle; but after that, be the matter small or great, he had a smiling face for the end of it.

The winter, with all its weight of sameness and of dreariness, went at last, and the lovely spring from the soft Pacific found its gradual way to us. Accustomed as I was to gentler climates and more easy changes, I lost myself in admiration of this my first Californian spring. The flowers, the leagues and leagues of flowers, that burst into color and harmony — purple, yellow, and delicate lilac, woven with bright crimson threads, and fringed with emerald-green by the banks, and blue by the course of rivers, while deepened here and there by wooded shelter and cool places, with the silver-gray of the soft Pacific waning in far distance, and silken vapor drawing toward the carding forks of the mountain range; and over all the never-wearying azure of the limpid sky: child as I was, and full of little worldly troubles on my own account, these grand and noble sights enlarged me without any thinking.

The wheat and the maize were grown apace, and beans come into full blossom, and the peaches swinging in the western breeze were almost as large as walnuts, and all things in their prime of freshness, ere the yellow dust arrived, when a sudden melting of snow in some gully sent a strong flood down our Blue River. The saw-mill happened to be hard at work; and before the gear could be lifted, some damage was done to the floats by the heavy, impetuous rush of the torrent. Uncle Sam was away, and so was Firm; from which, perhaps, the mischief grew. However, the blame was all put on the river, and little more was said of it.

The following morning I went down before even Firm was out-of-doors, under some touch, perhaps, of natural desire to know things. The stream was as pure and bright as ever, hastening down its gravel-path of fine granite just as usual, except that it had more volume and a stronger sense of freshness. Only the bent of the grasses and the swath of the pendulous twigs down stream remained to show that there must have been some violence quite lately.

All Mr. Gundry’s strengthening piles and shores were as firm as need be, and the clear blue water played around them as if they were no constraint to it. And none but a practiced eye could see that the great wheel had been wounded, being undershot, and lifted now above the power of the current, according to the fine old plan of locking the door when the horse is gone.

When I was looking up and wondering where to find the mischief, Martin, the foreman, came out and crossed the plank, with his mouth full of breakfast.

“Show me,” I said, with an air, perhaps, of very young importance, “where and what the damage is. Is there any strain to the iron-work?”

“Lor’ a mercy, young missus!” he answered, gruffly, being by no means a polished man, “where did you ever hear of ironwork? Needles and pins is enough for you. Now don’t you go and make no mischief.”

“I have no idea what you mean,” I answered. “If you have been careless, that is no concern of mine.”

“Careless, indeed! And the way I works, when others is a-snorin’ in their beds! I might just as well do nort, every bit, and get more thanks and better wages. That’s the way of the world all over. Come Saturday week, I shall better myself.”

“But if it’s the way of the world all over, how will you better yourself, unless you go out of the world altogether!” I put this question to Martin with the earnest simplicity of the young, meaning no kind of sarcasm, but knowing that scarcely a week went by without his threatening to “better himself.” And they said that he had done so for seven years or more.

“Don’t you be too sharp,” he replied, with a grim smile, partly at himself, perhaps. “If half as I heard about you is true, you’ll want all your sharpness for yourself, Miss Remy. And the Britishers are worse than we be.”

“Well, Martin, I am sure you would help me,” I said, “if you saw any person injuring me. But what is it I am not to tell your master?”

“My master, indeed! Well, you need not tell old Gundry any thing about what you have seen. It might lead to hard words; and hard words are not the style of thing I put up with. If any man tries hard words with me, I knocks him down, up sticks, and makes tracks.”

I could not help smiling at the poor man’s talk. Sawyer Gundry could have taken him with one hand and tossed him over the undershot wheel.

“You forget that I have not seen any thing,” I said, “and understand nothing but ‘needles and pins.’ But, for fear of doing any harm, I will not even say that I have been down here, unless I am asked about it.”

“Miss Remy, you are a good girl, and you shall have the mill some day. Lord, don’t your little great eyes see the job they are a-doin’ of? The finest stroke in all Californy, when the stubborn old chap takes to quartz-crushing.”

All this was beyond me, and I told him so, and we parted good friends, while he shook his long head and went home to feed many pappooses. For the strangest thing of all things was, though I never at that time thought of it, that there was not any one about this place whom any one could help liking. Martin took as long as any body to be liked, until one understood him; but after that he was one of the best, in many ways that can not be described. Also there was a pair of negroes, simply and sweetly delightful. They worked all day and they sang all night, though I had not the pleasure of hearing them; and the more Suan Isco despised them — because they were black, and she was only brown — the more they made up to her, not at all because she governed the supply of victuals. It was childish to have such ideas, though Suan herself could never get rid of them. The truth, as I came to know afterward, was that a large, free-hearted, and determined man was at the head of every thing. Martin was the only one who ever grumbled, and he had established a long right to do so by never himself being grumbled at.

“I’ll be bound that poor fellow is in a sad way,” Mr. Gundry said at breakfast-time. “He knows how much he is to blame, and I fear that he won’t eat a bit for the day. Martin is a most conscientious man. He will offer to give up his berth, although it would be his simple ruin.”

I was wise enough not to say a word, though Firm looked at me keenly. He knew that I had been down at the mill, and expected me to say something.

“We all must have our little mistakes,” continued Sawyer Gundry; “but I never like to push a man when he feels it. I shall not say a syllable to Martin; and, Ephraim, you will do the like. When a fellow sticks well to his work like Martin, never blame him for a mere accident.”

Firm, according to his habit, made no answer when he did not quite agree. In talking with his own age he might have argued, but he did not argue with his grandfather.

“I shall just go down and put it right myself. Martin is a poor hand at repairing. Firm, you go up the gulch, and see if the fresh has hurt the hurdles. Missy, you may come with me, if you please, and sketch me at work in the mill-wheel. You have drawn that wheel such a sight of times, you must know every feather of it better than the man who made it.”

“Uncle Sam, you are too bad,” I said. “I have never got it right, and I never shall.”

I did not dare as yet to think what really proved to be true in the end — that I could not draw the wheel correctly because itself was incorrect. In spite of all Mr. Gundry’s skill and labor and ingenuity, the wheel was no true circle. The error began in the hub itself, and increased, of course, with the distance; but still it worked very well, like many other things that are not perfect.

Having no idea of this as yet, and doubting nothing except my own perception of “perspective,” I sat down once more in my favorite spot, and waited for the master to appear as an active figure in the midst of it. The air was particularly bright and clear, even for that pure climate, and I could even see the blue-winged flies darting in and out of the oozy floats. But half-way up the mountains a white cloud was hanging, a cloud that kept on changing shape. I only observed it as a thing to put in for my background, because I was fond of trying to tone and touch up my sketches with French chalks.

Presently I heard a harsh metallic sound and creaking of machinery. The bites, or clamps, or whatever they are called, were being put on, to keep the wheel from revolving with the Sawyer’s weight. Martin, the foreman, was grumbling and growling, according to his habit, and peering through the slot, or channel of stone, in which the axle worked, and the cheery voice of Mr. Gundry was putting down his objections. Being much too large to pass through the slot, Mr. Gundry came round the corner of the building, with a heavy leathern bag of tools strapped round his neck, and his canvas breeches girt above his knees. But the foreman staid inside to hand him the needful material into the wheel.

The Sawyer waded merrily down the shallow blue water, for he was always like a boy when he was at work, and he waved his little skull-cap to me, and swung himself up into the wheel, as if he were nearer seventeen than seventy. And presently I could only see his legs and arms as he fell to work. Therefore I also fell to work, with my best attempts at penciling, having been carefully taught enough of drawing to know that I could not draw. And perhaps I caught from the old man’s presence and the sound of his activity that strong desire to do my best which he seemed to impart to every one.

At any rate, I was so engrossed that I scarcely observed the changing light, except as a hindrance to my work and a trouble to my distance, till suddenly some great drops fell upon my paper and upon my hat, and a rush of dark wind almost swept me from the log upon which I sat. Then again all was a perfect calm, and the young leaves over the stream hung heavily on their tender foot-stalks, and the points of the breeze-swept grass turned back, and the ruffle of all things smoothed itself. But there seemed to be a sense of fear in the waiting silence of earth and air.

This deep, unnatural stillness scared me, and I made up my mind to run away. But the hammer of the Sawyer sounded as I had never heard it sound. He was much too hard at work to pay any heed to sky or stream, and the fall of his strokes was dead and hollow, as if the place resented them.

“Come away, come away,” I cried, as I ran and stood on the opposite bank to him; “there is something quite wrong in the weather, I am sure. I entreat you to come away at once, Uncle Sam. Every thing is so strange and odd.”

“Why, what’s to do now?” asked the Sawyer, coming to my side of the wheel and looking at me, with his spectacles tilted up, and his apron wedged in a piece of timber, and his solid figure resting in the impossibility of hurry. “Missy, don’t you make a noise out there. You can’t have your own way always.”

“Oh, Uncle Sam, don’t talk like that. I am in such a fright about you. Do come out and look at the mountains.”

“I have seen the mountains often enough, and I am up to every trick of them. There may be a corn or two of rain; no more. My sea-weed was like tinder. There can’t be no heavy storm when it is like that. Don’t you make pretense, missy, to know what is beyond you.”

Uncle Sam was so seldom cross that I always felt that he had a right to be so. And he gave me one of his noble smiles to make up for the sharpness of his words, and then back he went to his work again. So I hoped that I was altogether wrong, till a bolt of lightning, like a blue dagger, fell at my very feet, and a crash of thunder shook the earth and stunned me. These opened the sluice of the heavens, and before I could call out I was drenched with rain. Clinging to a bush, I saw the valley lashed with cloudy blasts, and a whirling mass of spiral darkness rushing like a giant toward me. And the hissing and tossing and roaring mixed whatever was in sight together.

Such terror fell upon me at first that I could not look, and could scarcely think, but cowered beneath the blaze of lightning as a singed moth drops and shivers. And a storm of wind struck me from my hold, so that I fell upon the wet earth. Every moment I expected to be killed, for I never could be brave in a thunder-storm, and had not been told much in France of God’s protection around me. And the darts of lightning hissed and crossed like a blue and red web over me. So I laid hold of a little bent of weed, and twisted it round my dabbled wrist, and tried to pray to the Virgin, although I had often been told it was vanity.

Then suddenly wiping my eyes, I beheld a thing which entirely changed me. A vast, broad wall of brown water, nearly as high as the mill itself, rushed down with a crest of foam from the mountains. It seemed to fill up all the valley and to swallow up all the trees; a whole host of animals fled before it, and birds, like a volley of bullets, flew by. I lost not a moment in running away, and climbing a rock and hiding. It was base, ungrateful, and a nasty thing to do; but I did it almost without thinking. And if I had staid to cry out, what good could I have done — only to be swept away?

Now, as far as I can remember any thing out of so much horror, I must have peeped over the summit of my rock when the head of the deluge struck the mill. But whether I saw it, or whether I knew it by any more summary process, such as outruns the eyes sometimes, is more than I dare presume to say. Whichever way I learned it, it was thus:

A solid mass of water, much bigger than the mill itself, burst on it, dashed it to atoms, leaped off with it, and spun away the great wheel anyhow, like the hoop of a child sent trundling. I heard no scream or shriek; and, indeed, the bellow of a lion would have been a mere whisper in the wild roar of the elements. Only, where the mill had been, there was nothing except a black streak and a boil in the deluge. Then scores of torn-up trees swept over, as a bush-harrow jumps on the clods of the field; and the unrelenting flood cast its wrath, and shone quietly in the lightning.

“Oh, Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!” I cried. But there was not a sign to be seen of him; and I thought of his gentle, good, obstinate ways, and my heart was almost broken. “What a brute — what a wretch I am!” I kept saying, as if I could have helped it; and my fear of the lightning was gone, and I stood and raved with scorn and amazement.

In this misery of confusion it was impossible to think, and instinct alone could have driven my despair to a desperate venture. With my soaked clothes sticking between my legs, I ran as hard as they would go, by a short-cut over a field of corn, to a spot where the very last bluff or headland jutted into the river. This was a good mile below the mill according to the bends of channel, but only a furlong or so from the rock upon which I had taken refuge. However, the flood was there before me, and the wall of water dashed on to the plains, with a brindled comb behind it.

Behind it also came all the ruin of the mill that had any floatage, and bodies of bears and great hogs and cattle, some of them alive, but the most part dead. A grand black bull tossed back his horns, and looked at me beseechingly: he had frightened me often in quiet days, but now I was truly grieved for him. And then on a wattle of brush-wood I saw the form of a man — the Sawyer.

His white hair draggled in the wild brown flood, and the hollow of his arms was heaped with froth, and his knotted legs hung helpless. Senseless he lay on his back, and sometimes the wash of the waves went over him. His face was livid, but his brave eyes open, and a heavy weight hung round his neck. I had no time to think, and deserve no praise, for I knew not what I did. But just as an eddy swept him near me, I made a desperate leap at him, and clutched at something that tore my hands, and then I went under the water. My senses, however, were not yet gone, and my weight on the wattle stopped it, and I came up gurgling, and flung one arm round a fat, woolly sheep going by me. The sheep was water-logged, and could scarcely keep his own poor head from drowning, and he turned his mild eyes and looked at me, but I could not spare him. He struck for the shore in forlorn hope, and he towed us in some little.

It is no good for me to pretend to say how things were managed for us, for of course I could do nothing. But the sheep must have piloted us to a tree, whose branches swept the torrent. Here I let him go, and caught fast hold; and Uncle Sam’s raft must have stuck there also, for what could my weak arm have done? I remember only to have felt the ground at last, as the flood was exhausted; and good people came and found him and me, stretched side by side, upon rubbish and mud.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50