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THE UNLOOKED-FOR CATASTROPHE OF THE PEDLAR.
MY OWN UNEASINESS THEREON, AND MY FARTHER
PROGRESS IN MY TOUR.
Who's there besides foul weather ?
Let the great Gods,
Unwhipt of justice !-SHAKSPEARE.—King Lear. We had loitered so long over our tea and ale, not to mention our discourse, that it was now near eight o'clock, and I had full six miles more to accomplish to get to Reading
This would have been nothing in a summer evening, had it been even farther advanced ; and the beanflower, which perfumed the whole country, would have only made the journey a sweeter Midsummernight's dream. But the sultry day began suddenly to produce what it generally does when the clouds have sufficiently conglomerated—a storm; and this one came on with peculiar force. It first began with a rushing
of wind from the north, which, though at first only in a sort of melancholy moan, gained force with every minute, and at length swept along the valley, as if it would tear up every thing, by the roots.
Soon it thundered from the south ; the lightning was incessant and dreadful; for already had it split several trees close to us. At length the whole mass of clouds poured down in cataracts, as if the treasurehouse in which the psalmist supposed them to be heaped had been suddenly opened.
Yet even these effects of the storm were not so disheartening as its long continuance. For its cessation, which we looked for every ten minutes, became hopeless, and the deep darkness at every interval of the lightning, by rendering our situation more uncertain, made it more fearful. The flashes, too, had now disclosed that the river had burst its banks, and was rapidly approaching the walls of our low-built mansion. This completed our terror.
Altogether, neither before nor since have I ever remembered such a war of elements; and had I been an ancient pagan, I should have thought I had seen Jupiter himself, darting his thunderbolts and directing the whirlwind Often afterwards have I called it to mind, in reading the sublime passages that describe the power of the true Jupiter, Jehovah, over these his stupendous instruments,
“ The waters saw thee, O God! the waters saw thee and were afraid.” “ The air thundered, and thine arrows went abroad.”
Thy lightnings shone upon the ground, the earth trembled and
quaked; the very foundations of the hills shook because he was wroth.”
“ He bowed the heavens, and came down, and it was dark under his feet."
“ He rode upon the Cherubims, and came flying upon the wings of the wind.”
“ He made darkness his secret place, his pavilion round about him, with dark water, and thick clouds to cover him."*
What we were to do was now a question, for the Eel-pie House was, I thought, in a fair way of being drowned with all its inhabitants, and I proposed to sally forth to avoid that fate, though to meet another. But the landlady, who was much the most collected of us all, said she had experienced this before, and the river never could rise higher than a deep channel made for a backwater, about twenty yards from the house, which carried it off.
This consoled us; but what most struck me was, that the reckless Mr. Handcock, all day so bold and flippant, seemed more affected with terror than the rest. He was absolutely appalled. At every flash of the lightning he blinked, and begged that all the shutters of the house might be fast closed. As the thunder broke over our heads, he turned pale and trembled; and at some of the peals, peculiarly terrific from being close to us, he cried out, as if in pain, “ Oh ! God, be merciful !"
Presently the chimney, struck with lightning, came down with a crash of horror, and he exclaimed, with a terror of features and a trembling of limbs which I never shall forget, that the day of judgment was
* Psalms, 18-77-97.
The poor, trembling Betsy, more frightened than ever at this, clasped him with her arms, and screamed in agony. His own was scarcely less, and in rising in agitation from his seat, something fell either from it, or his person, with a loud jingle, on the floor.
Judge my astonishment, when I picked it up, to find it was my purse, which, it may be recollected, I had felt safe in my pocket upon the bridge, where I had first met Handcock.
Though the continuation of the storm allowed little time for reflection, still less for accusation, I had not now a doubt in my own mind that the fellow was a thief, and had robbed me on the bridge where we had been close neighbours, and his horror at Autolycus for picking a pocket did any thing but refute the supposition. His present terror indeed shewed that he had some notion of the vengeance of heaven ; but that by no means exempted him from so well-founded a suspicion.
Be that as it might, the lightnings did not prevent my claiming the purse as mine, and to prove it, I named its contents—twenty-seven guineas—which proved correct. At any rate, the landlady said it was not her's, and upon my putting it to Handcock to know if it was his, that accomplished person, with eyes up-raised, declared that it seemed all a dream how it came there, and that it must have worked out of my own pocket and lodged upon his chair before it fell.
The landlady said it was very likely; and as the pedlar was too frightened to play the bully, and I too glad to
have escaped from such a loss, I thought it best to say no more about it then.
The storm having now lasted three hours, with different degrees of violence, began at last to lull. The thunder ceased, the waters, as the landlady had foretold, had gone off in another direction, and the wind, instead of bellowing, had subsided again into a melancholy moan.
I began then, late as it was, to think of prosecuting my journey ; but this was not unreasonably opposed by Mrs. Snow, who said, what seemed true enough, that the waters must be out so as to prevent a man, even in the day-time, from proceeding on his way, and to make it in the night, impossible; that it would be one or two o'clock before I could get to Reading, and nobody would be up; that she had an excellent spare bed, and would get something for supper to comfort us after our fright.
All this appeared so reasonable, that I was disposed to comply; my only doubt was, what was to become of the honest Handcock, as the bed I was to have would have been occupied by him had I not been there. This proceeded from any thing, I fear, but regard. Truth is, I did not like the thought of any bed at all in so lone a place, with a gentleman for my close neighbour, so formed, as he evidently was, upon the models of Autolycus and the wandering sharpers of Gil Blas.
On the other hand, to sit up all night with this said gentleman, who had just picked my pocket, and knew that I must be convinced of it, was no pleasant alter