The General Thaw
I CE, Snow, and Water—only think of such near neighbours—blood relations, so to speak, from the creation—squabbling about their rights and dignities, and which was best of the three; instead of living pleasantly together, giving and taking in turn, as the case might be.
But so it was, and the facts were these. It was a very, very hard winter that year, and the ice on the mill-dam grew so thick and strong, and was, besides, so remarkably smooth and fine, that it forgot its origin, and fancied itself a crystal floor.
Only think what nonsense! But there is no nonsense people will not be ready to believe, when they once begin to meditate upon their own perfections.
And so, fancying himself a crystal floor, the Ice got to look down upon the Water which flowed underneath him as an impertinent intruder; and considered it a piece of great familiarity, on the part of the Snow, to come dropping upon him from the sky.
In fact his head was so full of his own importance in the world, that it seemed to him everybody else ought to be full of it too, and keep at a respectful distance, and admire him. And he made some very unpleasant remarks to that effect.
For instance: "I should be much obliged to you," observed he one day to the water which ran into the dam from the stream, "if you would have the goodness to turn yourself in some other direction, when you find yourself coming near me. Over the fields to the right hand, or to the left; or into the ditches, if you please; anywhere, in fact, but just under me. You fidget me to death with your everlasting trickling and movement. Pray amuse yourself in some other way than by disturbing people in such a position as mine. I dare say you have no notion of how disagreeable you make yourself to others: you are so used to your own ways yourself. But the truth is, I can bear it no longer, and you must carry your restlessness somewhere else—it distracts my attention from my friends!"
Now the "friends" he spoke of were the skaters and sliders, who did nothing but praise his beauty as they darted along on his surface, making beautiful figures as they went.
"But I wish," answered the Water, as it kept running in, "that you would not talk nonsense, but leave me a little more elbow-room, instead of pressing so close upon me that I get thinner and thinner every day. If you don't, I shall certainly break out if I can, and be at the top myself. I've no notion of being kept down by my neighbours, however grand and polished they may be. Just take care of yourself, and look out. If the springs on the moors should get loose, and the streams fill and come in here with a rush, I should lift you up like nothing, and silly enough you would look. Turn in another direction, indeed!—into the ditches if I please—many thanks for the pleasant suggestion—and all to accommodate you! Why, I should as soon think of sinking into the ground, and I hope I know my own level better than that! Meantime I give you notice. If you won't be obliging yourself, you must expect no favour from me, and it will be good-bye to your beauty and grandeur if I can only squeeze through!"
"If!" shouted the Ice, in a mocking tone.
"If? well, if!" echoed the Water in a rage. "Stiff and strong as you are, it only wants a thaw in the hills to send a torrent our way, and the whole thing's done. But what do you know about thaws, and hills, and torrents, and the force of pent-up water, fixed in one place as you are, and never getting any information? . . .
"Now if you were to ask my advice . . . who know so much more than you do . . . and could give you a hint or two . . . upon yielding gracefully to necessity . . . it would be greatly to your advantage. . . . But . . . ."
But the but died away, and was lost; for, even while the Water was talking, some of it was freezing; and as it froze, its voice got thinner and thinner, till at last it could not be heard at all!
Meantime, the Ice got thicker and thicker, and more conceited every minute. And said he, "It cannot be worth my while to trouble myself with what is happening underneath me! There the Water is, and there he must remain, let him brag and chatter as he will; he at the bottom, and I at the top. As to making out what he means by his long talk, that's hopeless. He stuck fast in the middle of the story himself. I wish he would get out of the way; but as he won't,—well,—there he must stay, I suppose—he at the bottom, and I at the top. He's all in a muddle with his ifs and his threats. But one cannot expect firmness of mind from anything so restless as he is. It needs some solidity of character to maintain one's position in life. Rolling stones gather no moss. I sit firm. And here come my friends to do me honour, I declare!"
And come they did; and in such quantities, that the mill-dam Ice had never felt half so grand before.
It was really the prettiest sight in the world! Here were beautiful ladies in chairs, pushed along from behind by gay young men. There, other young men were skating or sliding; sometimes shooting by like stars, sometimes stooping to hit balls, which flew half across the large expanse of ice by the effort of one blow; sometimes cutting figures, which the eye could scarcely follow, so rapid and brilliant were the movements. While, in a separate corner, children were sliding and shouting, tumbling down, laughing, and getting up again, as happy as any of the others.
Really the Ice, on whom this pretty scene took place, must be excused for feeling a little vain. It seemed to him as if it was all done in compliment to himself; for, you see, he had never been at school to learn any better, and find out how insignificant everybody is to his neighbour.
"That I should be treated with such honour and distinction! that I should be the supporter of such a brilliant assembly! that I should be necessary to the happiness of such crowds!"
Such were the Ice's reflections from time to time, as his friends continued their sports. Talk he could not, for he was lost in a rapture of delight; and he felt that, as life could have nothing more to give he wished it might last on in this way for ever. Poor Ice! He thought only of himself! As to the trickling of the water underneath him, it fidgeted him no longer. "What can I or my friends care for such trifles?" was his consolatory reflection.
So it trickled away unattended to, and presently the day closed in, and the company went away home. And then, as night drew on, the wind veered to the south, and a drizzle of snow began to fall. It was very light at first—mere snow-dust, in fact, and in the darkness the Ice knew nothing of what was happening, for feel it he could not.
But by degrees the drizzle turned into flakes, which dropped with graceful delay through the air, and said to themselves as they did so, "How we shall be admired by the world when it awakes! It isn't every day in the year it's so beautifully drest. It's only now and then it has visitors from the skies. Do let us cover it well over, so that it may find itself white altogether for once!"
Which they did; and when the morning came not a bit of the mill-dam Ice was to be seen. Indeed, he might have gone on all day, fancying it was night (for everything was dark to him, as he lay underneath in the shade of the snow-fall), but that one or two luckless urchins, who wanted to slide, came and kicked some of it away with their feet.
And then he found out the truth. There he was, covered up with a great white sheet, and couldn't see out! His beauty, his friends, his glories, where were they now? He thought of yesterday, and his heart almost broke! Oh! who had dared to send those miserable Snow-flakes to disfigure him thus? Never was insolence like this! The trickling of the water below was a trifle, a mere nothing by comparison!
The Snow-flakes were amazed. "We come of ourselves, nobody sent us," murmured they, as they still kept falling gently from the sky, and dropping like eider-down on the ice; "and we have the right to come where we please. Who can hinder us, I wonder? The clouds are too heavy to carry us all, so some of us come down. My sisters and I were nearest, so here we are. We don't understand your rudeness. You ought to be flattered that we choose to come—we, who are used to be carried about by the breezes, and live in the clouds! But such a reception as this, why, it hurts the feelings, of course!"
"The feelings!" shouted the Ice, half ready to crack with vexation; "you to talk of feelings, who have flung yourselves uninvited on my face; beggarly wanderers as you are, without house or home; and have spoilt my beauty and happiness at once! . . . "
He couldn't go on; the words stuck fast as he tried.
"Beggarly wanderers!" echoed the Snow-flakes, almost losing their temper as they repeated the words: "now see what comes of being low-born, and envious, and vile. See what it is to live in the dirty hole of an earthly world! You don't know the good when it comes to you, you dreary, motionless lump of ignorant matter! Beggarly wanderers, indeed! This to us, who are carried about by the breezes, and live in the clouds of the sky! Dear us! Who would lower themselves to your level by choice? And beauty—you talk of beauty, as if we could find any here but what we bring ourselves. Fancy the beauty of dingy, dirty stuff like this earth of yours! But, of course, you know no better; and what is worse, you won't learn when you might. Oh dear, what it is to be low-born, and envious, and vile! Oh dear, what it is to belong to the winds and the skies, and to find one's self in an alien land!"
"If the winds and the skies are so fond of you, let them come and take you away," cried the Ice. "I ask only one thing—Begone! Begone with your mincing conceit and your beauty, you are not worthy that I should hold you up."
"You braggart! we should like to hide you and cover you over for ever," muttered the Snow-flakes. "And we don't intend to go for your pleasure and whim. Here we are, and here we shall stay, let you squall and bawl as you will. We at the top, and you at the bottom; and there you may remain!"
And such seemed likely to be the case; but by and by, when all the clouds had passed over, and no more snow was falling, and the sun had begun to shine, a party of skaters and sliders came and stood on the bank of the dam.
And said they one to another,—first, "What a pity!" and then, "But the snow is not very thick;" and then, "It surely might be shovelled away if we had but two or three men with shovels and brooms." So they sent for two or three men with shovels and brooms, and these swept and shovelled, and shovelled and swept, till a great space of the ice was left clear, and the snow was laid in heaps on the sides.
It was a very hard case for the snow! Such a poor, soft, delicate thing to be so ill-used,—it was really cruel work! Pushed, and flung, and dirtied, and shovelled about till she was ready to melt with self-pity.
But there is no helping one's fate, so she lay along the sides of the mill-dam, grumbling and groaning—the only satisfaction she could get.
"So inhospitable to visitors anyhow," cried she; "and so stupid to visitors like us! But this comes of leaving one's station to mix with things below. And to soil my lovely colour with their hateful besoms and brooms! And to squeeze me and throw me about with their odious shovels, as if I was dirt! Ah! we who belong to the sky should never come near the earth, that's very clear. People here don't know what it is to be delicate and refined. Oh, mercy! what comes next? . . ."
She might well exclaim. The party of sliding boys had quarrelled,—a sort of fun-quarrel among themselves. So there was just now a rush to the side of the dam, a seizing and pommelling, and squeezing of snow into lumps by a dozen active little hands; and then the balls were let fly in every direction; and some hit necks, and others faces, and others jackets, and others caps; and all got messed and broken, and thrown about. There is no knowing when the fight would have ended, if the skaters had not interfered.
The scattered, begrimed morsels could not utter a single word. But the Ice talked fast enough. "Now you have got your deserts," cried he gaily. "Now you see what it is to come and boast over your betters. Oh, you're too delicate and refined for earth, are you? Well, then, keep in the sky. Nobody wants you here—I told you that before. See, now, you have to sit in a corner, and watch how the world admires me! You wanted to hide me for ever, did you, you poor, soft, foolish thing? But my friends knew better than that, and now you've got your deserts. I shall have you all in order one of these days. You and the water below, with his fidgety spite. What a droll idea it is! Why, you both want to be at the top, if—poor dears!—you only could. And you can't see—poor blind things!—that I'm the only one fit to stand alone!"
"We will soon see to that," growled the Water from below, and surely rather louder than usual. "I feel what I feel, and you'll feel it presently, too. If I can't stand alone, I can bide my time. We both want to be at top, do you say? And who are both, if you please? Are you classing me, with my strength, and that flimsy snow together? What a judge you must be!"
"As if strength was the only merit!" murmured what still remained of flaky snow on the ice. "What a coarse, earthy notion! But it's just what one might expect; they're all alike down here, Water and Ice and all; no fit companions for us: but we've found that out too late. We lowered ourselves to come down,—the more's the pity, I'm sure!"
Were there ever three creatures so silly as the Water, the Snow, and the Ice? I dare not answer, No.
Well, before the day was over, the skaters had asked each other, as they passed and repassed, "Was there not a softness on the ice?"—"Was not the snow less crisp?" But all was perfectly safe, so people did not stop to talk then: only, as they went home, they agreed that a thaw was coming.
Which remark, the Ice, not hearing, knew nothing about. So he never suspected why the water underneath was more fussy than ever, but thought it was all out of spite to himself; so he raved and scolded away; boasting that his friends should one day help him to get rid of it, as they had done just now of the snow. "It's a great thing to have powerful friends!" cried he, triumphantly.
But the water gurgled and giggled, and made no answer.
The truth was, that one or two springs in the hills had got loose from a few hours' thaw; and a strong stream, though not a torrent, was pouring into the dam. And presently there was a cry for room.
"More room! more room! make much more room! You stiff-necked Ice, do you hear?"
And now the contest began.—"I shall not give way an inch, you noisy vagabond Water!"
—"If you don't, I shall wash you away!"
—"You shall wash the world away first. I shall maintain my position."
—"We shall see about that in a minute."
And so they went on, while the Snow-heaps whimpered at the sides, "What a coarse-minded couple they are! What it is to be low-born and vile! We are quite unfit to be here!"
Meantime, the water poured in, and kept swelling more and more; till at last there was a heaving upward—in spite of all he could do—of the crystal floor; and by and by a sharp crack rang along its surface, from one end to the other.
He could not maintain his position after all!
And now came another, and another, and these were along the sides, as the lift-up came; and at one corner in oozed the water itself. It had no chance of bragging, however; for as fast as it touched the surface it froze, and was turned to ice.
So this was all the Water could do then, for the thaw in the hills had stopped. But the Ice never rallied again, because of those horrible cracks. He was laughed at on every side—he who had boasted so much! For the Water below and the Snow above, who were ready enough to tease each other at other times, were willing to join together now in spiting a common foe. Such is the way of the world!
And when a real general thaw came in the air, and all over the country, as it soon did, and the sliders and skaters withdrew—oh, dear, those were dismal days for the poor deserted Ice!—"My friends forsake me," cried he, "and my foes rejoice! Those cracks have broken my heart! I believe it is melting away."
And it was; but the Snow-flakes were the first to disappear, and then the Ice became wet outside. And said he: "The water has squeezed through, I declare! This comes of keeping bad company; but, anyhow, the Snow-flakes are gone, and that's civil at least. They did what they were asked, and that's something."
Now the Water had not squeezed through, and the Snow-flakes had not been civil; but the cleverest people make mistakes sometimes.
And presently the Water below found the pressure upon him not quite so great. There was a little more room to move in. So said he: "Dear me! this is good. My friend the Ice is giving way. 'Better late than never,' we'll say. He's coming to reason at last."
But the Ice was not coming to reason—he was only melting away. And as he got thinner and thinner, he struggled less and less with the Water; and said he, "We shall all live to be friends and neighbours at last, I believe."
But they lived to be far more than that, for one day they found themselves brothers! For when the Ice got so thin that the water poured over the sides, it broke into a thousand fragments, and went rolling and tumbling about, dissolving away every minute. And the snow-heaps which had stuck on the sides fell in too, and they all rolled about together, Ice and Snow and Water in one. And they wept, and rolled, and tumbled, and tumbled, and rolled, and wept; and cried they, "What have we been doing? What folly have we been talking? Scolding, and thwarting, and boasting, when, my friends—my dear, dear friends—we are all of us brothers together!"
It was a long and happy embrace: it is going on still! But, oh! what a pity they did not find the truth out sooner! Let those who are brothers by nature think of this, and not wait for The General Thaw—Death.