Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Deep calling to deep

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All poets, from Job, the ancient Arab, to the laureates of nineteenth-century kings, have spoken of great calamities as floods. The image is so apt as to have almost a literal character; and we may find the homeliest rustic using it, unaware that he is not relating a plain fact when he tells how the fever, or the fire, or the bad year have ruined him. It seems natural that the people of each region of the earth should adopt the imagery suggested by their climate and terrain. And so they do. The Red Indian, and far-west Americans after him, describe a rout of numbers or a flight of fugitive slaves as a stampede, like the rush of buffaloes or wild horses. The same people speak of any social calamity under the imagery of the prairie-fire—the most awful, perhaps, of natural spectacles. In southern Italy the volcano is the name for terror; in Switzerland it is the avalanche; in South America it is the earthquake; in Arabia it is the sand-storm; in Siberia it is the snow-drift; among all the world’s sailors it is the hurricane and the water-spout; and among all wayfarers it is the storms and tempests of the region in which they are. But, amidst all this variety, the idea of flood still prevails, so that even these several images are themselves likened to the sudden irruption or malignant trespass of waters out of bounds. So large a proportion of our ideas is derived from the eastern would and its races that it is not surprising if this kind of imagery should have a stronger hold upon us than it otherwise would: and it probably has, seeing what inundation is when it does occur in the countries which have yielded us the most ancient literature we possess. The rush of the sand-storm, the sweep of the pestilence, the mortality from famine, tropical rains, the heat of the ocean on open sands, are all as extravagant in their character as the intensity of the sunshine, which again is constantly described as a deluge of heat and light. To one country, however, above all others, is the imagery of inundation due. The older the world grows, the more is Egypt found to pervade its human history: and Egypt has been from the dawn of tradition the land of inundation. The story of the rise of the Nile, and the sense of what depended on it, was as common when Joseph discoursed about the fat and lean kine which came up out of the water as in our day when Englishmen are seen every season examining the Nilometer in the island of Rhoda. Some persons have inquired whether Joseph did not understand the matter better than we do, judging by his anticipating a course of good or bad years; whether he had not learned from the priests of Memphis, among other learning of the Egyptians, enough about the causes of the overflow of the Nile to be aware that there were alternations of dearth and sufficiency or excess. However this might be, the fact seems clear that through the whole course of Egyptian history, from that day to this, the Nile overflow has been so generally sufficient and no more, that the exceptions are the salient points in the history of the country. When Herodotus was there, four centuries and a-half before our era, the priests could tell him exactly how high the waters had risen every year for as many centuries as they pretended to account for; and when Abdallatif, the Arabian physician, was there in A.D. 1199, he was enabled to form a list of all exceptional years, which were so few as to make the world wonder at such regularity in an element usually so uncertain. The regularity did not induce a thoughtless confidence—at least, among erudite Egyptians—for Herodotus found them full charged with facts about the depth of the mud and the levels of its surface at various periods, and drawing some very anxious conclusions thence as to what would become of Egypt when the deposit of soil should require a larger and larger deluge to cover it. If eight cubits of rise had once been enough to fertilise the country below Memphis, which then (while Herodotus was there) required sixteen, and was actually barren under fifteen, what could be expected when the deposit has increased as much again? Here we are at a distance of 2000 years from the day when the Greek and the Egyptian held that conversation, and the Nile still fertilises its singular valley: and in this year, A.D. 1861, the local consternation is about not the lack but the superabundance of water. The old time seems indeed to be reproduced in several of its features, so as to convey as strong an impression of the immutability of Egypt as its pyramids and royal tombs.

There are inquisitive travellers down that way, as eager as Herodotus himself to find out whatever is known or imagined of the source of the inundation. The difference is that explorers like Speke and Petherick are better qualified to get knowledge at first-hand, than the Egyptian savans whom Herodotus questioned. There are plenty of people still in the Nile Valley who pity the English and the French, as their predecessors pitied the Greeks, 2000 years ago, for depending for food on the fall of rain, and who wonder that the human race in Europe does not come to an end every few years: while, on the other hand, travellers who look across the valley from the roof or deck of their luxurious boat, may be conscious of some compassion for the peasantry who have every year to undergo the solemn and wearing suspense of the rising of the river,—now fearing that it has stopped, now afraid lest it should not stop, and always aware that famine is outside of either line. Rain is sure to fall somewhere at home; and, up to the last moment, there is hope of what it may do: but absolute, irretrievable barrenness is the consequence of a deficient overflow of the Nile, or of an excess beyond a certain point. The differences between the periods are, that the valley is much less populous now than of old; and that, as Egypt is not now the granary of the East, the failure of a crop is not so grave and wide-spread a misfortune. In nothing, however, are the whole series of centuries more alike, throughout their course, than in the spectacle of the waiting upon the rise of the Nile.

When the middle of June is near, there has always been a keen watch set on earth, air, and sky, by day and night. The dykes are examined, and mended as well as the dusty soil permits. The atmosphere at sunrise and sunset affords infinite speculation as to the state of matters in Abyssinia, where the sacred gush is said to take place on the night of the 17th of June (Coptic reckoning). Substances laid out on the housetop at night are weighed in the morning; and prognostications are formed accordingly. Falling stars are counted by watchers, succeeding each other through the night; and every extraordinary meteor is regarded as a curse, because the sign of a curse. Every deficient inundation is held to be preceded by fiery signs in the sky; or, as philosophers put it, by sultry weather. If the meteors tended towards the south, indeed, all might be well, because it portended a north wind, favourable to the inundation; but if they flew all abroad, or darted northwards, calamity might be looked for.

When proclamation is made that the river is rising, the people, in every age, rush to the banks to see and smell the waters. If there is, day after day, any green tinge, and any bad smell, men’s hearts fail them for fear; and yet more if live creatures are found in any portion which is drawn from the river. The current is then slow; and there is little hope. If the water is sweet and of its natural brown, there is plenty, so far. While this is observed, a priestly dignitary is anointing and perfuming the Nilometer,—the graduated column which is to mark the rise of the flood.

For some days, no result can be even conjectured: but the people cannot keep away from the river. They come to the banks, to see their kine go into the flood, and come up again,—to see their acquaintance go by on floats of reeds,—to watch the rising line of the surface. Then they go and open the sluices of their fields, and fetch and carry news between the villages and the river bank.

At length, the channel is filled in one place or another, and the waters spread over the dusty land. By degrees the people are driven to the causeways for communication; and busily they throng the dykes. The most active of the men and boys are gone towards Cairo, or are acting as news-carriers in the space between. There are endless disputes about the marks on the palm stems or the rocks, which indicate eight, ten, or twelve cubits being reached; but the cannon from the heights at Cairo will settle that point. Meantime, as soon as the water is seen to assume the true Nile tint, the family cisterns are everywhere opened; and water for domestic purposes is secured for the year to come. Thus passes the time till September arrives,—a few nervous persons fancying that the tide has not advanced since yesterday, but the fact being that there has been more or less rise every day.

By this time the current is very strong, and it sweeps down portions of the cracked banks, and wasted or neglected embankments: such accidents are easily borne in full prospect of plenty; but they revive the tradition of every landslip which at any time has caused loss of life. News now travels up the river, and back to the convents in the mountains, that the flood has reached sixteen cubits: in other words, there will be produce enough next year for the support of the country, and to pay government dues. Then, among the timid, hope is fulfilled, and at once begins to turn—the least in the world—to fear. Their neighbours remind them that eighteen cubits will afford a double provision of food. This is true; but it will also throw down all the weaker dwellings, and drown some of the live stock of the peasantry: and if it should not stop at eighteen! And nineteen is famine at the other end of the scale. The optimists are in full swing at such times. If some mischief is done, and the accustomed fields cannot be sown, there are other lands, behind and above, which will be fertile for once: and so they comfort their neighbours.

The waters continue to rise: and now the rarer aspects of Egyptian life appear. The village groups leave their dwellings, and cluster on any ground which may be high and dry. Some are weeping, some are noisy, some are still. By day they see one dwelling after another melt down into the mud: the square chevaux-de-frise of boughs which mark the pigeon houses begin to tumble; and the birds flutter abroad, and hide among the palms. Messengers ride through the water, bringing food or tidings: the sun goes down behind the Lybian mountains, leaving broad flushes of orange, crimson, lilac, and green hues on the heaving mass of waters. When these die out all is colourless and ghastly; but in that remarkable climate the afterglow lights up the scene again for ten minutes or so; the rocks are again orange with blue shadows; and the groups on the hillocks are again brought out by the radiance which lights upon them. Then the twilight deepens rapidly, and the Arabs, who dread cold and damp, shiver at the thought of the night they must pass. Those who have dwellings on some exceptional rise of the ground may sleep under a roof; but every hour now adds to the number of those who have no home.

The night spectacle then begins; and the Coptic monks, in their convents on pinnacles of the rock, must have the best view of it. Fires are kindled from terrace to terrace, as far as eye can reach, north and south; torches are waved over the rushing waters; and their yellow flare contrasts strongly with the blue light of the moon. The splendid planets (by whose position the dates of traditionary inundations may be fixed) and the magnified stars (as they appear to foreign eyes) have a new majesty and charm when they shine out above rushing floods and agitated lights, and find quiet nooks in the world of waters in which to mirror themselves. The islands of shadow here and there are from clusters of palms intercepting the moonlight. In some point or another within view darkness is broken up, and the roar of the flood is mixed with other sounds. The Governor of the district comes down with his band of soldiers to learn the real state of the case. Now they find standing room for their horses on the bank; and now they are wading from point to point, the white dresses of the soldiers and the foam of the stream shining out in the torchlight. The people look up wistfully to the Governor; but what can he say? He can only promise food as long as the stock lasts. The still-rising flood chokes the voice of hope.

Thus do the people wait, day after day, night after night. They can see for themselves that the turning-point is not yet passed: but they almost dread the confirmation of this from Cairo. From Cairo the news is that nineteen cubits are reached; and then the peasants know that they cannot sow their lands this year. They are pauperised,—hundreds of thousands of them in a night. It is not stopping at nineteen cubits. Carcases of beasts now come swirling along, and palm-roofs and walls of reeds floating by tell of villages destroyed. What will become of everybody? It seems like the whole earth melting back into chaos, as it once arose from it. When the fear, hunger, and cold have become almost unbearable, an echo passes along the valley, from the Delta to the First Cataract: the gun has fired at Cairo; and voice after voice tells the fact beyond the range of its boom. The Nile has stopped rising. Will it not go on again? No: by sunset it has begun to subside. It is by hair’sbreadths at first; and for some time the people have to take the fact upon trust; for there is nothing left for them to measure inches by. After a while, however, somebody points out an emerging line of dyke or edge of rock at the base of the mountains. Then palm-tree tops wave over the water, instead of swaying about in it. The grades of the nearest pyramid reappear. The main divisions of the district become distinguishable, and people begin to see exactly where they are. All is dreary, beyond words to express: everything in ruins and swamped. So it was in ancient days of excessive inundation; and so it is now. Instead of Coptic monks looking abroad from their steep, as for fifteen centuries past, there were priests of Ammon and priestesses of Isis stationed on the pylons of the temples: but the waters were from the same everlasting source, and the devastation produced the same misery.

It is so this year. When the height of the Nile is given as above 24 cubits, we must suppose that some people are talking of one kind of cubit, and some of another. The Jews had one cubit of 18 inches, and another of 21 inches: and the cubit of the Nilometer is 19½ inches. It is by this last measure that 19 cubits are found to be equivalent to famine; so that we must suppose the estimate of 24½ this year to mean something else. The destruction, though not total, is very severe. Fifty villages, we are told, have disappeared; and palaces of princes have melted down like huts of mud. Before the highest point was reached, one-third of each crop was given up,—grain, pulse, cucumbers, cotton,—everything the soil produces. As for the live stock, the question is whether any remains. It is only lately that beef has been procurable in Egypt, since the murrain of 1837, after which the killing of cattle of any age was forbidden by government till the valley should be replenished with kine. But sheep were then to be had. At any settlement on the river, a sheep in its fleece was to be had for six shillings; and the fowls and eggs were innumerable. It is to be feared that these are nearly all gone. The sorest lamentation is probably about the cotton crop, which promised new wealth to the peasants this year, but which is said to be to a great extent destroyed. For many dreary months to come, the people must see before them only the dirty ooze where the green crops should be springing. Every other year, they have been going forth by this time to cast their seed upon the waters,—upon the last vanishing film of them,—sure of finding bread there after many days. In a few hours the early blade should be visible; in a few days every embankment and every enclosure should be green. This year it will be only the lines of the recent desert that will be green: and all lower soil will be stagnant water till it must become a baked desert in its turn. The water-wheels and sakias must be swept away in great numbers, as the dykes and sluices are. The novelty on this occasion is the railway. The “silent highway” has risen up against the noisy one. Old Nile has not only put out the engine fires, but carried off the rails. The telegraph posts are down, and the wires broken; and altogether the scene must hint a doubt whether the spirit of old Egypt has not come up against our century, and resolved to swamp innovation altogether. It is certain that when the people were most confidently looking for fat kine, as lean ones as ever were seen have come up out of the river.

This is not the only untoward Egyptian deluge of the year. Some years ago there was a gush and spread of speculation in that region which was promised to render it fruitful in wealth beyond all precedent. When the isthmus of Suez was cut through, and a sea-passage all the way to India was opened, half the commerce of the world would pass through the gates of Egypt; the tolls would be the fortune of any country that had them: and the whole eastern portion of the Nile valley to far above the Delta would be as populous and prosperous as any part of ancient Egypt ever was.

Under the stimulus of such promises, the ruler of Egypt became deeply involved in the Suez Canal scheme: and he supposed himself warranted by his prospects in spending largely on his army and its manœuvres. The Suez canal is not paying; and the world is coming round to the English opinion that it never will pay. The difficulties are rising up before the eyes of the involved parties, as they rose up before other people’s eyes to prevent their involving themselves; and now the Pasha, standing on the high ground near Suez, overlooking the course of the unfinished canal of ancient days, may well wonder how he ever could believe that a trustworthy ship-channel, fit for the passage of a world’s commerce, could be carried through those sands, and out beyond the miles of shallows at the head of the Red Sea. Far away there lies the Indian packet, at the nearest point of approach. Will he ever see great ships pass through either the Mediterranean shallows, or these, or the intervening sands? And, if not, his fortunes are wrecked. He suspects perhaps that the old “ship of the desert” will not yet be driven from its home and function. The steam-horse has partly displaced the camel; but that merchant-ships will maybe believed when it is seen. The Pasha perhaps has but a dim notion of what merchant-ships may come to be, and has supposed them all to be such vessels as could pass the Suez Canal. The necessity of transshipment may have been disclosed to him;—the necessity which would be fatal to a scheme otherwise practicable, as it renders the passage by the Cape the more profitable of the two. However this may be, the cold waters of discouragement have risen in the Pasha’s mind, and are still rising so as to have chilled his very heart. Poverty has overtaken him as a flood: he does not know which way to turn himself for help. Like a sensible man, he is retrenching in his personal and court expenses: but he has buried vast sums in the sands and mud of French speculation; and he may well doubt whether there will be any resurrection. His money has produced a crop of French settlements within his frontier, a crop of discontents among his peasantry, carried from their homes to toil at the works; and there will he eventually a great crop of world’s jokes at the second failure of an Egyptian canal from sea to sea: but beyond such sorry crops the impoverished Pasha need look for no result. If he lingers on the memory of the prospect once spread fair before him, the waves and billows will only swamp his hopes the more drearily.

Egypt is indeed inundated with calamity. The waters will go down some day, and leave her fresh and fertile, as she will be while the Nile flows; but the people deserve all sympathy and compassion while awaiting the subsidence of the flood.

In many countries there have been devastations from literal floods of late. In France, Spain, and Germany, rivers have brimmed over their banks, torrents have rushed from the high lands, canals have burst their embankments; land-marks are swept away, and corn and seed-fields are turned into stony deserts. The condition of Holland, a few months since, when the whole country seemed likely to be swallowed up in the sea, is full in our memories. Worse even than the fate of the poor villagers sitting on the dykes in the rain, seeing their perch crumbling down into the dashing waves, must be the fate of the miners who were the other day swamped fathoms deep in the earth. At Bessèges, in the south of France, a waterspout destroyed the machinery of the mines, and sent a torrent over the edge of the pit, like a cataract. The gas exploded, all was confusion; and when the prefect of the department and his officials were moving about with torches at midnight, amidst a pallid crowd who watched their proceedings with jealous eagerness, it was because hundreds of men and boys were buried below. Day after day did pick and spade work (if they are not working still) to let out the living; and wonderfully strong were the voices of the prisoners of the flood: but there must have been many who died a death in comparison with which the strangulation of drowning is an easy end.

In India there has been a literal deluge overflowing the fertile districts of Bengal,—the indigo, cotton, and grain,—and plunging peasantry and landowners to the lips in poverty. But the worse calamity further west,—the famine and pestilence which were incessantly likened to a deluge,—has so far subsided as that a new growth of prosperity is already apparent. A blasting air seemed to have passed over the region, and the drought left a desolation behind it very like that of a ruinous flood. AU was bare, baked brown earth where crops should be waving: and all was lifeless where man and beast should have been plying their industry. Then came pestilence, such as we find in our damp corners and villages on marsh land: and disease swept human beings into eternity as the Nile or the Scheldt flood carries the cattle out to sea. This was our latest inundation of calamity as a nation: and it is nearly gone past. We are warned to expect a flood of trouble in the coming months, from the bad weather in Ireland, impoverishing farmer and labourer for the season; and from the distress anticipated in our chief department of manufacture, we may expect to have a rising tide of Lancashire poverty to deal with, which we shall, I trust, meet with the best skill and kindliness we can muster for so great an occasion. There is another menace which will be met in a different temper. When we hear or read that a flood of Socialism is sweeping over the country, we may think the expression too strong; but nobody disputes the fact which it means to express. The tyranny and ruinous folly of the socialism of the hour, as manifested in the strike in the building-trades, is too large a topic for these pages: but it must have a word of notice as one of the devastating calamities of the time.

To the worst of all it is enough to allude. The Americans have cut their dykes, and destruction is foaming in, as some of us gave ample warning that it would. If one party cut the dyke, both were guilty of damming up the stream which should naturally have carried off the danger. Both are responsible for the existence of slavery at this day: and where slavery exists there is always a gathering of waters of wrath going on; and the eventual rush of destruction is only a question of time. The difference between them now is that the one section proposes to continue the damming practice, while the other has had enough of it, and is thinking of insisting on making all safe, and keeping the control of the tides henceforth. The spectacle meanwhile of the ravages of civil war in that favoured country is like what a severe Nile inundation would be in Prince Rasselas’ Happy Valley. And it is a calamity not limited to one seed time and harvest.

Here are floods, literal and symbolical, more than enough for a year.

From the Mountain.