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Chapter VII.: A NIGHT'S PROBATION. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 6 (Messrs. Vanderput and Snoek, The Loom and the Lugger Parts 1 & 2) 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 6.
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A NIGHT'S PROBATION.
“Why must Gertrude go so soon?” asked Christian of his mother, one fine evening, when the little family were seated at their homely supper. “I am sure when she came, she did not mean to go away so soon. Nobody wishes her to go.”
“I wish her to stay,” replied Mrs. Snoek; and Gertrude knows that I do; so that I think she would stay if she could. But you can ask her.”
Gertrude must go the next morning, though she was as fond of the country, and as sorry to leave her friends as Christian could desire. Her servant had orders to prepare for the little voyage, and——
“I will stop her,” cried both the younger children,’ each trying to outstrip the other in getting down from their high stools and flying to the door. Their mother called them back, with a rebuke for leaving their seats before grace was said; and even Christian thought that Gertrude should be allowed to do as she pleased.
“But,” he continued, “the pastor comes with Heins to-morrow or the next day; and you could go home with them, instead of having only your old woman to talk to in the trekschuit.”
“The pastor will talk to you instead of to me,” replied Gertrude, with a smile; “and that will be better for you than parting with three friends at one time.”
“But you have never seen the rush-planting here,” exclaimed Luc. “We all came too late for the spring planting; and now, you are going away before the autumn one. I do not know whether they will let me plant any this year; but last year, they would not allow any children to go nearer than the top of the dyke. Just as if we should pull any up!”
The imputation of pulling up reeds from the dykes was repelled as indignantly by a Dutch-man, woman, or child, in those days, as a charge of sheep-stealing would now be in this country. Such an act was death, according to the old Dutch law, and the entire nation was educated to regard it with disgust and horror.
Christian told how he was laid on the edge of the dyke, and saw gangs of men and women at work on the slope, planting the reeds with which the banks were bristled, in order that the sand which was washed up by the sea should be retained till it hardened into an outer coating of the mound. If Gertrude would stay, perhaps Heins would take the whole party out in a boat, to see from the bay the people at work all along the dyke, while the sea washed their very feet.—Mrs. Snoek thought it a still better reason for Gertrude's remaining that Amsterdam was now in its least healthy state. She would find the canals very offensive, after the air of the open sea, to which she had been accustomed of late. In another month they would be cleared out, and then all would fee safe till the next season's hot weather. Katrina, who was waiting,—that is, sitting at work in the window till she should be wanted,—put in an observation that the waters round Winkel had never been fresher than now. The late high seas had filled the channel between the inner and the sea-dyke, and all the mills had been in full activity for some days. The apothecary was of opinion that there would be less ague at Winkel this autumn than for many seasons past. So saying, Katrina looked out, to see how all the mills within view appeared to be alive, their sails swinging, and their machinery, open towards the water, whirling and twisting, as if by some self-moving power.
She did not draw in her head immediately; and Luc would have hastened to see what it was that attracted her attention, but that grace had not yet been said.
“Kaatje, what is the matter?” asked her mistress, as she saw the work drop from the maid's hands.
“Christ, have pity! the dyke has burst!” exclaimed Katrina. “The flood comes pouring—Mercy! how it sweeps in by the peat-field!”
“The peat-field! Then we are lost,” cried Gertrude, “Where——”
“Mother!” said Christian, “say grace, and let us go.”
Not one word of the long grace was omitted or hurried, or pronounced in a less steady voice than usual. When it was ended, Mrs. Snoek issued her orders.
“To the upper rooms, my children! Christian, we will carry you to the top of the house. Katrina, ring the great bell. It may be heard as far as the village. But first, close all the lower shutters. They may be some little defence. And, Gertrude, we must put out a flag from the roof.”
“The summer-house!” suggested Christian. “The boat is there.”
“True, true. We will get to the summer-house, if there is still time.”
There was time, as the summer-house stood on high ground, and the water had not yet reached the lowest part of the garden. The servants and children ran as for their lives. Mrs. Snoek and Gertrude, who carried Christian's little couch between them, walked more slowly, and stopped at a seat half-way up the gravel walk. There they looked around, and perceived that their abode and its precincts formed a little island in the midst of a flood, which was rapidly advancing on every side, as if to close them in. Tossing waves were chasing each other over the green fields, swallowing up all that came in their way; while the terrified cattle, for the most part, ran towards the farm-buildings on the little dyke below, as if to find safety there; and a few endeavoured to keep their footing in the midst of the tide, lashing with their tails every swell that came lo buffet them. The trim garden, with its gay beds, shone in the evening light with as quiet an air as if its low hedge formed a sufficient security from the deluge, while a sunny haze hung like a canopy over its recesses, and made the tranquillity of the upper air contrast strangely with the watery surface, which seemed troubled by storm. Far off, the village rose upon the loftier dyke which bordered the canal, its grey willows looking as firmly rooted, its houses as spruce as when no one dreamed of its being within the reach of accident. Thither Gertrude's gaze was turned intently.
“Thank God! the whole country round is not under water,” she cried. “It is only the section between the north canal and Winkel. Thank God! there are but few in jeopardy.”
Christian could perceive that people were gathering on the dyke of the north canal; and both they and the Winkel people seemed wholly occupied in watching the section which lay between. Not a face appeared to be turned the other way.
“A horse!” cried Christian. “Do not you see a horse on the ridge? The magistrate is out, and the people will begin to do something for us.”
That the magistrate was on horseback to take the command,—a practice which is reserved for very rare occasions,—was a favourable sign; but Mrs. Snoek silently pointed to one which dashed Christian's confidence. The dyke which had given way,—the same that had been injured by Slyk's bog-water,—appeared now to be crumbling down, ell by ell, with a rapidity which defied all attempts at repair. Its layers of soil oozed away in mud; its wattles were floating on the billows; and the blocks of stiff clay which had lain square, one upon another, showed a rounded surface till they disappeared from their positions. The opening enlarged every moment, and it seemed as if the tide in the outer channel rose in proportion as it found a vent. The first dribblings over the edge of the dyke appeared at wider and wider distances, while the gushing in the centre grew more copious as the waters below rose to meet it.
“Do but hear!” said Christian, in a low voice. “How it splashes and roars!”
His mother perceived that spray was beginning to fly in at the gate at the bottom of the garden, and some of the poor cattle were already afloat, supported for awhile by the clothing which would soon help to sink them. She made a sign to Gertrude to resume her share of their burden, and they proceeded towards the summer-house.—When the servants had been sent back for the provisions they ought to have brought with them, and had returned with all they could fetch away, (the lower apartments being already flooded;) their mistress gave orders for the summer-house door to be closed. Christian begged to be first carried out for a moment. He wished to look up to the roof. A stork was perched there, flapping its wings; and Christian was satisfied. The next thing to be done was to bring the boat immediately under the window, and to fasten it securely to the summer-house, that it might not be carried away out of reach.
“I wish the pastor was here,” said Christian, who, with the rest of the party, had little apprehension of personal danger, as long as the evening was serene, and the extent of the devastation limited. “I wish the pastor was here now, to tell us what we ought to do.”
“We need no voice of man,” replied Gertrude. “Hark, how deep calleth unto deep!”
The boy looked entranced as he fixed his eyes alternately on the line of blue sea, where ships were gliding in the light breeze, and on the muddy surge around, which already bore many wrecks, and assumed a more threatening appearance every moment. His mother's voice in prayer was the first thing that roused him.—Before it ceased, the garden had a multitude of streams running through it, and only a few red and yellow blossoms reared their heads where all had lately been so gay. Next came the first dash against the walls of the building, and spray thrown in at the window, whence Roselyn withdrew in mute terror. Before closing the shutter, her mother gave an anxious look towards the village and the farm-buildings.
“The herd and his wife have a boat, and each a stout arm,” said she, “and we may consider them safe. Kaatje, you can row; and both Gertrude and I can hold an oar. They do not seem to be doing anything for us from the village.”
Katrina, alarmed, like the rest of the party, by her mistress's words and manner, declared that she had never dipped an oar in troubled waters. It was little she could do on a canal. The sun was gone down too, and what were they to attempt in the dark? Surely her mistress would remain where they were till assistance came, even if that should not be till morning.—Certainly, if possible, was her mistress's reply; from which Gertrude inferred that Mrs. Snoek thought the summer-house unsafe. It was raised on piles, like the best part of Amsterdam, and more strongly founded than the dwelling-house; but it even now shook perceptibly; and it seemed too probable that it might fall very soon, if the rush of waters continued.
Twilight faded away, and darkness succeeded, and no hail from a distance was yet heard:—no sound but that of waters, to which the party remained silently listening; Christian, with his eyes fixed on the scarcely discernible boat which danced below, and Gertrude watching for the moon as anxiously as if their safety depended on a gleam of light. It came, at length, quivering on the surface below, and lighting up the tree tops which appeared here and there like little islands where the inner dyke had been.
The flood was found to have risen to the level of the floor; and the servants, almost glad to have something to do, began to lower the provisions into the boat. Presently a loud crack was heard; the mirror, which reflected the broken moonbeams, was perceived to hang awry; and, more ominous still, the stork first fluttered and then sped away.
“Do you see, mother?” said Christian, as he pointed upwards. “We must go.”
“You are not afraid, my dear boy? Katrina and I will go first, and Gertrude will let you down while we keep the boat steady. You are not afraid, Christian?”
“I wish Luc was not so frightened,” replied the boy, who, in truth, seemed more animated than alarmed. “Luc, the Spirit is on the face of these waters too.”
Roselyn, tired out, had fallen asleep on her mother's bosom. It was a rough waking, amidst spray and the chill night air; and she made her cries heard further than perhaps any signal shout that her companions could have raised. Nothing that had yet happened had distressed the party so much as this child's screams, renewed with every pitch of the boat, which, though strong, and so large as to consist of two cabins, was now tossed like the lightest shallop. Christian never could bear Roselyn's lamentations, and they now had their usual effect upon him, of making him cough dreadfully, and upsetting his cheerfulness for the time. When he could find voice, he began to complain of several things which no one could remedy; and struggled the more to express himself, the more violently his cough returned.
“You must be silent,” Gertrude said, gently. “We cannot help one another. God only can help us now; and we must await his will.”
“Thank you for putting me in mind,” cheerfully replied the boy. “O, Gertrude, I wonder what that will is! Do you think we shall sink deep, deep in these cold waters? I think the apostle Peter was very daring to go down out of the boat. There is no Christ now to come over these rough waves, and bid us not be afraid. O, if there were——”
“We can try not to be afraid, as if he were really here,” said Gertrude. “Let us be still, lest we should be tempted to complain.”
Christian did not speak again, and tried to suppress his cruel cough. His mother was aware of the effort, and would have had him carried down, saying that the poor boy was doomed, whether they ever reached land or not. He would never get over the exposure of this night. Christian made no opposition, but Gertrude suggested that the boat itself was in danger from the wrecks which it encountered; and that the only chance of safety, in case of any great shock, was in being on the exposed part. So Christian was left to feed his spirit as he would with the impressions which came upon his awakened senses.
Katrina's oar had been carried away at the first attempt to use it. The other could be employed only in pushing off whatever was brought by the waves to threaten the boat. One object after another was recognized by the party;—a plank, which from its colour was known to belong to the farm buildings; and a chest that had stood in the dwelling-house, which must therefore be down. Whatever security might await her family, Mrs. Snoek saw that the fruits of long toil and much care were already swept away.
A fearful crisis came at last, while the party were watching a dark object at no great distance, which looked like a boat. It might be many things instead of a boat; but it was more like one than any object they had seen this night. While she was looking at it, something came fluttering against Gertrude's face, which made her start. It was the flag which had waved from the gilt ball of the summerhouse. All turned, and dimly saw the whole fabric fall in sideways, and disappear amidst a cloud of dust, which was blown full in their faces. No fixture could be found near, by which the single oar could be made of any avail to keep the boat out of the eddy. That there were fixed points was soon made known, however, by the repeated shocks which the boat underwent; shocks which threatened to drive in its bottom.
“Now God have mercy upon us!” cried the mother. “If we go down, it will be now.”
A cry arose from the children and the servants. From Christian there was no cry, but a groan, which, though low, reached his mother's ear and heart. She saw that his hands were grasping the ribs of the boat.
“My boy, your pain is upon you.”
“Never mind me,” said the boy, in a voice patient through its agony. “Let my Father take me. Save Luc. Save Roselyn.”
The boat had been staved by the last shock, and was now rapidly sinking. Help was, however, at hand. The dark object was really a boat. The cry had directed it to the right spot; it arrived in time to pick up every one of the party, not before they were wet, but before they were actually afloat. Christian was very nearly going down with the wreck, so firmly were his hands clenched to its sides: but his mother exerted her fast failing strength to rescue him, and afterwards to hold him on her knees during the fearful struggle with the enemy from which he would thankfully have been released by drowning.
The villagers who manned the rescuing boat respected the misery of the mother, whom they believed to be watching over her dying child. They spoke only to say that the passage to the village would be long and perilous, and that the earliest assistance would be procured by landing on the nearest point of the sea dyke, where succours could be brought, if there should not happen to be a house at hand.
Before the moon had gone down upon the watery waste, the party were received into the house of a hospitable fisherman, who, with his wife, did all that could be done for their safety and comfort till they could he removed to the abode of an acquaintance in Winkel; or, as Gertrude proposed, to her brother's country house at Saardam. To make the exertion of this removal was, she believed, the best thing for Mrs. Snoek's spirits and for Christian's health, which might possibly be revived by the care which would be bestowed on him by those whom he most loved, in a familiar scene, far distant from the desolation which must meet his eye every time he looked abroad, if he remained at Winkel.
His mother consented with the less difficulty that there was every probability of a fever prevailing in the district which had been laid waste. She had suffered too much from the flood, to think of braving the pestilence which must ensue. When her farm servant and his wife came to condole and relate their share of the perils of the preceding night, they received her directions about saving the wreck of the property, and doing what might be practicable towards restoring the estate.
These people were full of indignation at having been left, with their mistress's family, to try their chance of escape from drowning, while those who deserved such a fate much more had taken good care of their own security. Jan and his household had chanced to sleep on board their boats for two or three nights past, after bustling about with extraordinary vigour during the day. Slyk and his daughter had also, most opportunely, been induced to pass a few days with an acquaintance whose abode was at some distance from the scene of disaster. They came to sympathize with the Snoeks; old Jakob glorifying Providence for having interfered in so marvellous a manner to preserve himself and Fransje; and Fransje full of anxiety to know whether Heins was likely to come to assist in the great work of reclaiming the section which now lay waste.
Heins came as appointed, attended by the pastor:—came to see his Danish cattle floating lifeless in the muddy lake; to try doubtfully to fix the point where his mother's pretty residence had stood; to ponder whether the extent of the damage and of his liabilities could be concealed from his partner; and to wonder how much Gertrude had been told, and what she would think of the issue of this his first grand scheme of enterprise.
Mrs. Snoek greeted the pastor with a hope that she need not look on this calamity as a judgment on her solicitude about worldly interests. The pastor had said much to her, and said it often, about sitting loose from the things of this world; and she trusted she had taken it to heart. Unless she was much mistaken, she had only endeavoured to do what, as a mother, and the widow of an honourable man, it behaved her to improve her children's fortunes, and justify their father's ambition for them. The pastor decided that she would best prove the purity of her views by her cheerful acquiescence in her present losses.
A Dutch lady of a later age would have found it easy to acquiesce in such losses for the sake of the amount of wealth which remained: but in the times of the high prosperity of the Dutch, desire grew with acquisition, and it was not enough to be rich, if it was possible to be richer, or if others were richer, or if the individual had been go at a preceding time. Though she and her children had more wealth than they could consume, the widow found it required all her resignation to bear patiently the loss of what she had no occasion for.
“You always told me,” said Christian to the pastor, “to take care not to love any people or things too much, because I should most likely have to leave them all very soon. But you see they have left me.—O, I do not mean my mother, and Gertrude, and Luc and Roselyn; but I have lost my pretty calf; and my tame heron has flown away; and my tulips,—that beautiful late-blower! There was not such a Bybloemen in all the district as the best of mine. When I bade it farewell for this year, and looked for the last time into its cup, with its white bottom, so beautifully broken with cherry, I did not think it would be rotting under the water so soon. I never saw such a cup as that flowed had. I shall never see such another.”
The pastor shook his head. Christian, taking this for sympathy in his grief, went on,
“And my calf had got to know me, and to let me do what I liked with him. He stood quite still to let me help to put on his jacket yesterday when the evening chill was coming on. I am glad I did not see him die, if he splashed in the water like one poor cow that I saw. I shall never love another calf. O, now I know why you shake your head so. You think that I should soon have left them, if they had not left me. Perhaps I may never get better than I am to-day; and to-day I cannot sit up at all. But, tell me one thing I want to know. Do you think animals live again? It seems very hard that my calf should die so soon, if it is not to live any more: and, if I am to die soon too——”
“You would like to meet whatever you have loved,” said the pastor, finishing his sentence for him. “I think God will give you beings to love wherever you are, Christian; because I think you cannot live without loving; and I am very sure that, wherever you are, there will be some to love you.”
Christian smiled, and said that people loved him now out of kindness, because they were sorry for his pain, and that he could not do what other children did: and he loved them because they were so good as not to mind the trouble he was always giving them. He was sure they would not forget him when he had ceased to be a trouble to any body; and perhaps he could do something for them when there should be an end of all pain, and when he might perhaps be as strong as the angel that stood between heaven and earth, and cried out so that the thunders answered him. This reminded Christian to tell how he now knew what the voices were like that came from under God's throne. Last night, he had learned what was the sound of many waters. Just when his pain came on, he thought these voices were calling for him. He seemed now disappointed that it had not been so. The pastor told him that it should be left to God to call him away in whispers or in thunders. His only care should be to hold himself ready to depart.