Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Charles Kingsley > Text of Air-Mothers

An essay by Charles Kingsley

The Air-Mothers

Title:     The Air-Mothers
Author: Charles Kingsley [More Titles by Kingsley]

"Die Natur ist die Bewegung."

Who are these who follow us softly over the moor in the autumn eve? Their wings brush and rustle in the fir-boughs, and they whisper before us and behind, as if they called gently to each other, like birds flocking homeward to their nests.

The woodpecker on the pine-stems knows them, and laughs aloud for joy as they pass. The rooks above the pasture know them, and wheel round and tumble in their play. The brown leaves on the oak trees know them, and flutter faintly, and beckon as they pass. And in the chattering of the dry leaves there is a meaning, and a cry of weary things which long for rest.

"Take us home, take us home, you soft air-mothers, now our fathers the sunbeams are grown dull. Our green summer beauty is all draggled, and our faces are grown wan and wan; and the buds, the children whom we nourished, thrust us off, ungrateful, from our seats. Waft us down, you soft air-mothers, upon your wings to the quiet earth, that we may go to our home, as all things go, and become air and sunlight once again."

And the bold young fir-seeds know them, and rattle impatient in their cones. "Blow stronger, blow fiercer, slow air-mothers, and shake us from our prisons of dead wood, that we may fly and spin away north-eastward, each on his horny wing. Help us but to touch the moorland yonder, and we will take good care of ourselves henceforth; we will dive like arrows through the heather, and drive our sharp beaks into the soil, and rise again as green trees toward the sunlight, and spread out lusty boughs."

They never think, bold fools, of what is coming, to bring them low in the midst of their pride; of the reckless axe which will fell them, and the saw which will shape them into logs; and the trains which will roar and rattle over them, as they lie buried in the gravel of the way, till they are ground and rotted into powder, and dug up and flung upon the fire, that they too may return home, like all things, and become air and sunlight once again.

And the air-mothers hear their prayers, and do their bidding: but faintly; for they themselves are tired and sad.

Tired and sad are the air-mothers, and their garments rent and wan. Look at them as they stream over the black forest, before the dim south-western sun; long lines and wreaths of melancholy grey, stained with dull yellow or dead dun. They have come far across the seas, and done many a wild deed upon their way; and now that they have reached the land, like shipwrecked sailors, they will lie down and weep till they can weep no more.

Ah, how different were those soft air-mothers when, invisible to mortal eyes, they started on their long sky-journey, five thousand miles across the sea! Out of the blazing caldron which lies between the two New Worlds, they leapt up when the great sun called them, in whirls and spouts of clear hot steam; and rushed of their own passion to the northward, while the whirling earth-ball whirled them east. So north- eastward they rushed aloft, across the gay West Indian isles, leaving below the glitter of the flying-fish, and the sidelong eyes of cruel sharks; above the cane-fields and the plaintain-gardens, and the cocoa- groves which fringe the shores; above the rocks which throbbed with earthquakes, and the peaks of old volcanoes, cinder-strewn; while, far beneath, the ghosts of their dead sisters hurried home upon the north- east breeze.

Wild deeds they did as they rushed onward, and struggled and fought among themselves, up and down, and round and backward, in the fury of their blind hot youth. They heeded not the tree as they snapped it, nor the ship as they whelmed it in the waves; nor the cry of the sinking sailor, nor the need of his little ones on shore; hasty and selfish even as children, and, like children, tamed by their own rage. For they tired themselves by struggling with each other, and by tearing the heavy water into waves; and their wings grew clogged with sea-spray, and soaked more and more with steam. But at last the sea grew cold beneath them, and their clear steam shrank to mist; and they saw themselves and each other wrapped in dull rain-laden clouds. They then drew their white cloud-garments round them, and veiled themselves for very shame; and said, "We have been wild and wayward: and, alas! our pure bright youth is gone. But we will do one good deed yet ere we die, and so we shall not have lived in vain. We will glide onward to the land, and weep there; and refresh all things with soft warm rain; and make the grass grow, the buds burst; quench the thirst of man and beast, and wash the soiled world clean."

So they are wandering past us, the air-mothers, to weep the leaves into their graves; to weep the seeds into their seed-beds, and weep the soil into the plains; to get the rich earth ready for the winter, and then creep northward to the ice-world, and there die.

Weary, and still more weary, slowly, and more slowly still, they will journey on far northward, across fast-chilling seas. For a doom is laid upon them, never to be still again, till they rest at the North Pole itself, the still axle of the spinning world; and sink in death around it, and become white snow-clad ghosts.

But will they live again, those chilled air-mothers? Yes, they must live again. For all things move for ever; and not even ghosts can rest. So the corpses of their sisters, piling on them from above, press them outward, press them southward toward the sun once more; across the floes and round the icebergs, weeping tears of snow and sleet, while men hate their wild harsh voices, and shrink before their bitter breath. They know not that the cold bleak snow-storms, as they hurtle from the black north-east, bear back the ghosts of the soft air-mothers, as penitents, to their father, the great sun.

But as they fly southwards, warm life thrills them, and they drop their loads of sleet and snow; and meet their young live sisters from the south, and greet them with flash and thunder-peal. And, please God, before many weeks are over, as we run Westward Ho, we shall overtake the ghosts of these air-mothers, hurrying back toward their father, the great sun. Fresh and bright under the fresh bright heaven, they will race with us toward our home, to gain new heat, new life, new power, and set forth about their work once more. Men call them the south-west wind, those air- mothers; and their ghosts the north-east trade; and value them, and rightly, because they bear the traders out and home across the sea. But wise men, and little children, should look on them with more seeing eyes; and say, "May not these winds be living creatures? They, too, are thoughts of God, to whom all live."

For is not our life like their life? Do we not come and go as they? Out of God's boundless bosom, the fount of life, we came; through selfish, stormy youth, and contrite tears--just not too late; through manhood not altogether useless; through slow and chill old age, we return from Whence we came; to the Bosom of God once more--to go forth again, it may be, with fresh knowledge, and fresh powers, to nobler work. Amen.

* * * * *

Such was the prophecy which I learnt, or seemed to learn, from the south- western wind off the Atlantic, on a certain delectable evening. And it was fulfilled at night, as far as the gentle air-mothers could fulfil it, for foolish man.

"There was a roaring in the woods all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright,
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the stock-dove broods,
The jay makes answer as the magpie chatters,
And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters"

But was I a gloomy and distempered man, if, upon such a morn as that, I stood on the little bridge across a certain brook, and watched the water run, with something of a sigh? Or if, when the schoolboy beside me lamented that the floods would surely be out, and his day's fishing spoiled, I said to him--"Ah, my boy, that is a little matter. Look at what you are seeing now, and understand what barbarism and waste mean. Look at all that beautiful water which God has sent us hither off the Atlantic, without trouble or expense to us. Thousands, and tens of thousands, of gallons will run under this bridge to-day; and what shall we do with it? Nothing. And yet: think only of the mills which that water would have turned. Think how it might have kept up health and cleanliness in poor creatures packed away in the back streets of the nearest town, or even in London itself. Think even how country folk, in many parts of England, in three months' time, may be crying out for rain, and afraid of short crops, and fever, and scarlatina, and cattle-plague, for want of the very water which we are now letting run back, wasted, into the sea from whence it came. And yet we call ourselves a civilised people."

It is not wise, I know, to preach to boys. And yet, sometimes, a man must speak his heart; even, like Midas' slave, to the reeds by the river side. And I had so often, fishing up and down full many a stream, whispered my story to those same river-reeds; and told them that my Lord the Sovereign Demos had, like old Midas, asses' ears in spite of all his gold, that I thought I might for once tell it the boy likewise, in hope that he might help his generation to mend that which my own generation does not seem like to mend.

I might have said more to him: but did not. For it is not well to destroy too early the child's illusion, that people must be wise because they are grown up, and have votes, and rule--or think they rule--the world. The child will find out how true that is soon enough for himself. If the truth be forced on him by the hot words of those with whom he lives, it is apt to breed in him that contempt, stormful and therefore barren, which makes revolutions; and not that pity, calm and therefore helpful, which makes reforms.

So I might have said to him, but did not--

And then men pray for rain:

My boy, did you ever hear the old Eastern legend about the Gipsies? How they were such good musicians, that some great Indian Sultan sent for the whole tribe, and planted them near his palace, and gave them land, and ploughs to break it up, and seed to sow it, that they might dwell there, and play and sing to him.

But when the winter arrived, the Gipsies all came to the Sultan, and cried that they were starving. "But what have you done with the seed- corn which I gave you?" "O Light of the Age, we ate it in the summer." "And what have you done with the ploughs which I gave you?" "O Glory of the Universe, we burnt them to bake the corn withal."

Then said that great Sultan--"Like the butterflies you have lived; and like the butterflies you shall wander." So he drove them out. And that is how the Gipsies came hither from the East.

Now suppose that the Sultan of all Sultans, who sends the rain, should make a like answer to us foolish human beings, when we prayed for rain: "But what have you done with the rain which I gave you six months since?" "We have let it run into the sea." "Then, ere you ask for more rain, make places wherein you can keep it when you have it." "But that would be, in most cases, too expensive. We can employ our capital more profitably in other directions."

It is not for me to say what answer might be made to such an excuse. I think a child's still unsophisticated sense of right and wrong would soon supply one; and probably one--considering the complexity, and difficulty, and novelty, of the whole question--somewhat too harsh; as children's judgments are wont to be.

But would it not be well if our children, without being taught to blame anyone for what is past, were taught something about what ought to be done now, what must be done soon, with the rainfall of these islands; and about other and kindred health-questions, on the solution of which depends, and will depend more and more, the life of millions? One would have thought that those public schools and colleges which desire to monopolise the education of the owners of the soil; of the great employers of labour; of the clergy; and of all, indeed, who ought to be acquainted with the duties of property, the conditions of public health, and, in a word, with the general laws of what is now called Social Science--one would have thought, I say, that these public schools and colleges would have taught their scholars somewhat at least about such matters, that they might go forth into life with at least some rough notions of the causes which make people healthy or unhealthy, rich or poor, comfortable or wretched, useful or dangerous to the State. But as long as our great educational institutions, safe, or fancying themselves safe, in some enchanted castle, shut out by ancient magic from the living world, put a premium on Latin and Greek verses: a wise father will, during the holidays, talk now and then, I hope, somewhat after this fashion:--

You must understand, my boy, that all the water in the country comes out of the sky, and from nowhere else; and that, therefore, to save and store the water when it falls is a question of life and death to crops, and man, and beast; for with or without water is life or death. If I took, for instance, the water from the moors above and turned it over yonder field, I could double, and more than double, the crops in that field henceforth.

Then why do I not do it?

Only because the field lies higher than the house; and if--now here is one thing which you and every civilised man should know--if you have water-meadows, or any "irrigated" land, as it is called, above a house, or even on a level with it, it is certain to breed not merely cold and damp, but fever or ague. Our forefathers did not understand this; and they built their houses, as this is built, in the lowest places they could find: sometimes because they wished to be near ponds, from whence they could get fish in Lent; but more often, I think, because they wanted to be sheltered from the wind. They had no glass, as we have, in their windows; or, at least, only latticed casements, which let in the wind and cold; and they shrank from high and exposed, and therefore really healthy, spots. But now that we have good glass, and sash windows, and doors that will shut tight, we can build warm houses where we like. And if you ever have to do with the building of cottages, remember that it is your duty to the people who will live in them, and therefore to the State, to see that they stand high and dry, where no water can drain down into their foundations, and where fog, and the poisonous gases which are given out by rotting vegetables, cannot drain down either. You will learn more about all that when you learn, as every civilised lad should in these days, something about chemistry, and the laws of fluids and gases. But you know already that flowers are cut off by frost in the low grounds sooner than in the high; and that the fog at night always lies along the brooks; and that the sour moor-smell which warns us to shut our windows at sunset, comes down from the hill, and not up from the valley. Now all these things are caused by one and the same law; that cold air is heavier than warm; and, therefore, like so much water, must run down hill.

But what about the rainfall?

Well, I have wandered a little from the rainfall: though not as far as you fancy; for fever and ague and rheumatism usually mean--rain in the wrong place. But if you knew how much illness, and torturing pain, and death, and sorrow arise, even to this very day, from ignorance of these simple laws, then you would bear them carefully in mind, and wish to know more about them. But now for water being life to the beasts. Do you remember--though you are hardly old enough--the cattle-plague? How the beasts died, or had to be killed and buried, by tens of thousands; and how misery and ruin fell on hundreds of honest men and women over many of the richest counties of England: but how we in this vale had no cattle- plague; and how there was none--as far as I recollect--in the uplands of Devon and Cornwall, nor of Wales, nor of the Scotch Highlands? Now, do you know why that was? Simply because we here, like those other uplanders, are in such a country as Palestine was before the foolish Jews cut down all their timber, and so destroyed their own rainfall--a "land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills." There is hardly a field here that has not, thank God, its running brook, or its sweet spring, from which our cattle were drinking their health and life, while in the clay-lands of Cheshire, and in the Cambridgeshire fens--which were drained utterly dry--the poor things drank no water, too often, save that of the very same putrid ponds in which they had been standing all day long, to cool themselves, and to keep off the flies. I do not say, of course, that bad water caused the cattle-plague. It came by infection from the East of Europe. But I say that bad water made the cattle ready to take it, and made it spread over the country; and when you are old enough I will give you plenty of proof--some from the herds of your own kinsmen--that what I say is true.

And as for pure water being life to human beings: why have we never fever here, and scarcely ever diseases like fever--zymotics, as the doctors call them? Or, if a case comes into our parish from outside, why does the fever never spread? For the very same reason that we had no cattle- plague. Because we have more pure water close to every cottage than we need. And this I tell you: that the only two outbreaks of deadly disease which we have had here for thirty years, were both of them, as far as I could see, to be traced to filthy water having got into the poor folk's wells. Water, you must remember, just as it is life when pure, is death when foul. For it can carry, unseen to the eye, and even when it looks clear and sparkling, and tastes soft and sweet, poisons which have perhaps killed more human beings than ever were killed in battle. You have read, perhaps, how the Athenians, when they were dying of the plague, accused the Lacedaemonians outside the walls of poisoning their wells; or how, in some of the pestilences of the middle ages, the common people used to accuse the poor harmless Jews of poisoning the wells, and set upon them and murdered them horribly. They were right, I do not doubt, in their notion that the well-water was giving them the pestilence: but they had not sense to see that they were poisoning the wells themselves by their dirt and carelessness; or, in the case of poor besieged Athens, probably by mere overcrowding, which has cost many a life ere now, and will cost more. And I am sorry to tell you, my little man, that even now too many people have no more sense than they had, and die in consequence. If you could see a battle-field, and men shot down, writhing and dying in hundreds by shell and bullet, would not that seem to you a horrid sight? Then--I do not wish to make you sad too early, but this is a fact which everyone should know--that more people, and not strong men only, but women and little children too, are killed and wounded in Great Britain every year by bad water and want of water together, than were killed and wounded in any battle which has been fought since you were born. Medical men know this well. And when you are older, you may see it for yourself in the Registrar-General's reports, blue-books, pamphlets, and so on, without end.

But why do not people stop such a horrible loss of life?

Well, my dear boy, the true causes of it have only been known for the last thirty or forty years; and we English are, as good King Alfred found us to his sorrow a thousand years ago, very slow to move, even when we see a thing ought to be done. Let us hope that in this matter--we have been so in most matters as yet--we shall be like the tortoise in the fable, and not the hare; and by moving slowly, but surely, win the race at last. But now think for yourself: and see what you would do to save these people from being poisoned by bad water. Remember that the plain question is this--The rainwater comes down from heaven as water, and nothing but water. Rainwater is the only pure water, after all. How would you save that for the poor people who have none? There; run away and hunt rabbits on the moor: but look, meanwhile, how you would save some of this beautiful and precious water which is roaring away into the sea.

* * * * *

Well? What would you do? Make ponds, you say, like the old monks' ponds, now all broken down. Dam all the glens across their mouths, and turn them into reservoirs.

"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings"--Well, that will have to be done. That is being done more and more, more or less well. The good people of Glasgow did it first, I think; and now the good people of Manchester, and of other northern towns, have done it, and have saved many a human life thereby already. But it must be done, some day, all over England and Wales, and great part of Scotland. For the mountain tops and moors, my boy, by a beautiful law of nature, compensate for their own poverty by yielding a wealth which the rich lowlands cannot yield. You do not understand? Then see. Yon moor above can grow neither corn nor grass. But one thing it can grow, and does grow, without which we should have no corn nor grass, and that is--water. Not only does far more rain fall up there than falls here down below, but even in drought the high moors condense the moisture into dew, and so yield some water, even when the lowlands are burnt up with drought. The reason of that you must learn hereafter. That it is so, you should know yourself. For on the high chalk downs, you know, where farmers make a sheep-pond, they never, if they are wise, make it in a valley or on a hill-side, but on the bleakest top of the very highest down; and there, if they can once get it filled with snow and rain in winter, the blessed dews of night will keep some water in it all the summer through, while the ponds below are utterly dried up. And even so it is, as I know, with this very moor. Corn and grass it will not grow, because there is too little "staple," that is, soluble minerals, in the sandy soil. But how much water it might grow, you may judge roughly for yourself, by remembering how many brooks like this are running off it now to carry mere dirt into the river, and then into the sea.

But why should we not make dams at once; and save the water?

Because we cannot afford it. No one would buy the water when we had stored it. The rich in town and country will always take care--and quite right they are--to have water enough for themselves, and for their servants too, whatever it may cost them. But the poorer people are--and therefore usually, alas! the more ignorant--the less water they get; and the less they care to have water; and the less they are inclined to pay for it; and the more, I am sorry to say, they waste what little they do get; and I am still more sorry to say, spoil, and even steal and sell--in London at least--the stop-cocks and lead-pipes which bring the water into their houses. So that keeping a water-shop is a very troublesome and uncertain business; and one which is not likely to pay us or any one round here.

But why not let some company manage it, as they manage railways, and gas, and other things?

Ah--you have been overhearing a good deal about companies of late, I see. But this I will tell you; that when you grow up, and have a vote and influence, it will be your duty, if you intend to be a good citizen, not only not to put the water-supply of England into the hands of fresh companies, but to help to take out of their hands what water-supply they manage already, especially in London; and likewise the gas-supply; and the railroads; and everything else, in a word, which everybody uses, and must use. For you must understand--at least as soon as you can--that though the men who make up companies are no worse than other men, and some of them, as you ought to know, very good men; yet what they have to look to is their profits; and the less water they supply, and the worse it is, the more profit they make. For most water, I am sorry to say, is fouled before the water companies can get to it, as this water which runs past us will be, and as the Thames water above London is. Therefore it has to be cleansed, or partly cleansed, at a very great expense. So water companies have to be inspected--in plain English, watched--at a very heavy expense to the nation, by government officers; and compelled to do their best, and take their utmost care. And so it has come to pass that the London water is not now nearly as bad as some of it was thirty years ago, when it was no more fit to drink than that in the cattle yard tank. But still we must have more water, and better, in London; for it is growing year by year. There are more than three millions of people already in what we call London; and ere you are an old man there may be between four and five millions. Now to supply all these people with water is a duty which we must not leave to any private companies. It must be done by a public authority, as is fit and proper in a free self- governing country. In this matter, as in all others, we will try to do what the Royal Commission told us four years ago we ought to do. I hope that you will see, though I may not, the day when what we call London, but which is really, nine-tenths of it, only a great nest of separate villages huddled together, will be divided into three great self-governing cities, London, Westminster, and Southwark; each with its own corporation, like that of the venerable and well-governed City of London; each managing its own water-supply, gas-supply, and sewage, and other matters besides; and managing them, like Dublin, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, and other great northern towns, far more cheaply and far better than any companies can do it for them.

But where shall we get water enough for all these millions of people? There are no mountains near London. But we might give them the water off our moors.

No, no, my boy.

"He that will not when he may,
When he will, he shall have nay."

Some fifteen years ago the Londoners might have had water from us; and I was one of those who did my best to get it for them: but the water companies did not choose to take it; and now this part of England is growing so populous and so valuable that it wants all its little rainfall for itself. So there is another leaf torn out of the Sibylline books for the poor old water companies. You do not understand: you will some day. But you may comfort yourself about London. For it happens to be, I think, the luckiest city in the world; and if it had not been, we should have had pestilence on pestilence in it, as terrible as the great plague of Charles II.'s time. The old Britons, without knowing in the least what they were doing, settled old London city in the very centre of the most wonderful natural reservoir in this island, or perhaps in all Europe; which reaches from Kent into Wiltshire, and round again into Suffolk; and that is, the dear old chalk downs.

Why, they are always dry.

Yes. But the turf on them never burns up, and the streams which flow through them never run dry, and seldom or never flood either. Do you not know, from Winchester, that that is true? Then where is all the rain and snow gone, which falls on them year by year, but into the chalk itself, and into the greensands, too, below the chalk? There it is, soaked up as by a sponge, in quantity incalculable; enough, some think, to supply London, let it grow as huge as it may. I wish I too were sure of that. But the Commission has shown itself so wise and fair, and brave likewise--too brave, I am sorry to say, for some who might have supported them--that it is not for me to gainsay their opinion.

But if there was not water enough in the chalk, are not the Londoners rich enough to bring it from any distance?

My boy, in this also we will agree with the Commission--that we ought not to rob Peter to pay Paul, and take water to a distance which other people close at hand may want. Look at the map of England and southern Scotland; and see for yourself what is just, according to geography and nature. There are four mountain-ranges; four great water-fields. First, the hills of the Border. Their rainfall ought to be stored for the Lothians and the extreme north of England. Then the Yorkshire and Derbyshire hills--the central chine of England. Their rainfall is being stored already, to the honour of the shrewd northern men, for the manufacturing counties east and west of the hills. Then come the lake mountains--the finest water-field of all, because more rain by far falls there than in any place in England. But they will be wanted to supply Lancashire, and some day Liverpool itself; for Liverpool is now using rain which belongs more justly to other towns; and besides, there are plenty of counties and towns, down into Cheshire, which would be glad of what water Lancashire does not want. And last come the Snowdon mountains, a noble water-field, which I know well; for an old dream of mine has been, that ere I died I should see all the rain of the Carnedds, and the Glyders, and Siabod, and Snowdon itself, carried across the Conway river to feed the mining districts of North Wales, where the streams are now all foul with oil and lead; and then on into the western coal and iron fields, to Wolverhampton and Birmingham itself: and if I were the engineer who got that done, I should be happier--prouder I dare not say--than if I had painted nobler pictures than Raffaelle, or written nobler plays than Shakespeare. I say that, boy, in most deliberate earnest. But meanwhile, do you not see that in districts where coal and iron may be found, and fresh manufactures may spring up any day in any place, each district has a right to claim the nearest rainfall for itself? And now, when we have got the water into its proper place, let us see what we shall do with it.

But why do you say we? Can you and I do all this?

My boy, are not you and I free citizens; part of the people, the Commons--as the good old word runs--of this country? And are we not--or ought we not to be in time--beside that, educated men? By the people, remember, I mean, not only the hand-working man who has just got a vote; I mean the clergy of all denominations; and the gentlemen of the press; and last, but not least, the scientific men. If those four classes together were to tell every government--"Free water we will have, and as much as we reasonably choose;" and tell every candidate for the House of Commons,--"Unless you promise to get us as much free water as we reasonably choose, we will not return you to Parliament:" then, I think, we four should put such a "pressure" on government as no water companies, or other vested interests, could long resist. And if any of those four classes should hang back, and waste their time and influence over matters far less important and less pressing, the other three must laugh at them, and more than laugh at them; and ask them--"Why have you education, why have you influence, why have you votes, why are you freemen and not slaves, if not to preserve the comfort, the decency, the health, the lives of men, women, and children--most of those latter your own wives and your own children?"

But what shall we do with the water?

Well, after all, that is a more practical matter than speculations grounded on the supposition that all classes will do their duty. But the first thing we will do will be to give to the very poorest houses a constant supply, at high pressure; so that everybody may take as much water as he likes, instead of having to keep the water in little cisterns, where it gets foul and putrid only too often.

But will they not waste it then?

So far from it, wherever the water has been laid on at high pressure, the waste, which is terrible now--some say that in London one-third of the water is wasted--begins to lessen; and both water and expense are saved. If you will only think, you will see one reason why. If a woman leaves a high-pressure tap running, she will flood her place and her neighbour's too. She will be like the magician's servant, who called up the demon to draw water for him; and so he did: but when he had begun he would not stop, and if the magician had not come home, man and house would have been washed away.

But if it saves money, why do not the water companies do it?

Because--and really here there are many excuses for the poor old water companies, when so many of them swerve and gib at the very mention of constant water-supply, like a poor horse set to draw a load which he feels is too heavy for him--because, to keep everything in order among dirty, careless, and often drunken people, there must be officers with lawful authority--water-policemen we will call them--who can enter people's houses when they will, and if they find anything wrong with the water, set it to rights with a high hand, and even summon the people who have set it wrong. And that is a power which, in a free country, must never be given to the servants of any private company, but only to the officers of a corporation or of the government.

And what shall we do with the rest of the water?

Well, we shall have, I believe, so much to spare that we may at least do this--In each district of each city, and the centre of each town, we may build public baths and lavatories, where poor men and women may get their warm baths when they will; for now they usually never bathe at all, because they will not--and ought not, if they be hard-worked folk--bathe in cold water during nine months of the year. And there they shall wash their clothes, and dry them by steam; instead of washing them as now, at home, either under back sheds, where they catch cold and rheumatism, or too often, alas! in their own living rooms, in an atmosphere of foul vapour, which drives the father to the public-house and the children into the streets; and which not only prevents the clothes from being thoroughly dried again, but is, my dear boy, as you will know when you are older, a very hot-bed of disease. And they shall have other comforts, and even luxuries, these public lavatories; and be made, in time, graceful and refining, as well as merely useful. Nay, we will even, I think, have in front of each of them a real fountain; not like the drinking-fountains--though they are great and needful boons--which you see here and there about the streets, with a tiny dribble of water to a great deal of expensive stone: but real fountains, which shall leap, and sparkle, and plash, and gurgle; and fill the place with life, and light, and coolness; and sing in the people's ears the sweetest of all earthly songs--save the song of a mother over her child--the song of "The Laughing Water."

But will not that be a waste?

Yes, my boy. And for that very reason, I think we, the people, will have our fountains; if it be but to make our governments, and corporations, and all public bodies and officers, remember that they all--save Her Majesty the Queen--are our servants; and not we theirs; and that we choose to have water, not only to wash with, but to play with, if we like. And I believe--for the world, as you will find, is full not only of just but of generous souls--that if the water-supply were set really right, there would be found, in many a city, many a generous man who, over and above his compulsory water-rate, would give his poor fellow-townsmen such a real fountain as those which ennoble the great square at Carcasonne and the great square at Nismes; to be "a thing of beauty and a joy for ever."

And now, if you want to go back to your Latin and Greek, you shall translate for me into Latin--I do not expect you to do it into Greek, though it would turn very well into Greek, for the Greeks knew all about the matter long before the Romans--what follows here; and you shall verify the facts and the names, &c.;, in it from your dictionaries of antiquity and biography, that you may remember all the better what it says. And by that time, I think, you will have learnt something more useful to yourself, and, I hope, to your country hereafter, than if you had learnt to patch together the neatest Greek and Latin verses which have appeared since the days of Mr. Canning.

* * * * *

I have often amused myself, by fancying one question which an old Roman emperor would ask, were he to rise from his grave and visit the sights of London under the guidance of some minister of state. The august shade would, doubtless, admire, our railroads and bridges, our cathedrals and our public parks, and much more of which we need not be ashamed. But after a while, I think, he would look round, whether in London or in most of our great cities, inquiringly and in vain, for one class of buildings, which in his empire were wont to be almost as conspicuous and as splendid, because, in public opinion, almost as necessary, as the basilicas and temples--"And where," he would ask, "are your public baths?" And if the minister of state who was his guide should answer--"O great Caesar, I really do not know. I believe there are some somewhere at the back of that ugly building which we call the National Gallery; and I think there have been some meetings lately in the East End, and an amateur concert at the Albert Hall, for restoring, by private subscriptions, some baths and wash-houses in Bethnal Green, which had fallen to decay. And there may be two or three more about the metropolis; for parish vestries have powers by Act of Parliament to establish such places, if they think fit, and choose to pay for them out of the rates:"--Then, I think, the august shade might well make answer--"We used to call you, in old Rome, northern barbarians. It seems that you have not lost all your barbarian habits. Are you aware that, in every city in the Roman empire, there were, as a matter of course, public baths open, not only to the poorest freeman, but to the slave, usually for the payment of the smallest current coin, and often gratuitously? Are you aware that in Rome itself, millionaire after millionaire, emperor after emperor, from Menenius Agrippa and Nero down to Diocletian and Constantine, built baths, and yet more baths; and connected with them gymnasia for exercise, lecture-rooms, libraries, and porticos, wherein the people might have shade and shelter, and rest?--I remark, by-the-by, that I have not seen in all your London a single covered place in which the people may take shelter during a shower--Are you aware that these baths were of the most magnificent architecture, decorated with marbles, paintings, sculptures, fountains, what not? And yet I had heard, in Hades down below, that you prided yourselves here on the study of the learned languages; and, indeed, taught little but Greek and Latin at your public schools?"

Then, if the minister should make reply--"Oh yes, we know all this. Even since the revival of letters in the end of the fifteenth century a whole literature has been written--a great deal of it, I fear, by pedants who seldom washed even their hands and faces--about your Greek and Roman baths. We visit their colossal ruins in Italy and elsewhere with awe and admiration; and the discovery of a new Roman bath in any old city of our isles sets all our antiquaries buzzing with interest."

"Then why," the shade might ask, "do you not copy an example which you so much admire? Surely England must be much in want, either of water, or of fuel to heat it with?"

"On the contrary, our rainfall is almost too great; our soil so damp that we have had to invent a whole art of subsoil drainage unknown to you; while, as for fuel, our coal-mines make us the great fuel-exporting people of the world."

What a quiet sneer might curl the lip of a Constantine as he replied--"Not in vain, as I said, did we call you, some fifteen hundred years ago, the barbarians of the north. But tell me, good barbarian, whom I know to be both brave and wise--for the fame of your young British empire has reached us even in the realms below, and we recognise in you, with all respect, a people more like us Romans than any which has appeared on earth for many centuries--how is it you have forgotten that sacred duty of keeping the people clean, which you surely at one time learnt from us? When your ancestors entered our armies, and rose, some of them, to be great generals, and even emperors, like those two Teuton peasants, Justin and Justinian, who, long after my days, reigned in my own Constantinople: then, at least, you saw baths, and used them; and felt, after the bath, that you were civilised men, and not 'sordidi ac foetentes,' as we used to call you when fresh out of your bullock-waggons and cattle-pens. How is it that you have forgotten that lesson?"

The minister, I fear, would have to answer that our ancestors were barbarous enough, not only to destroy the Roman cities, and temples, and basilicas, and statues, but the Roman baths likewise; and then retired, each man to his own freehold in the country, to live a life not much more cleanly or more graceful than that of the swine which were his favourite food. But he would have a right to plead, as an excuse, that not only in England, but throughout the whole of the conquered Latin empire, the Latin priesthood, who, in some respects, were--to their honour--the representatives of Roman civilisation and the protectors of its remnants, were the determined enemies of its cleanliness; that they looked on personal dirt--like the old hermits of the Thebaid--as a sign of sanctity; and discouraged--as they are said to do still in some of the Romance countries of Europe--the use of the bath, as not only luxurious, but also indecent.

At which answer, it seems to me, another sneer might curl the lip of the august shade, as he said to himself--"This, at least, I did not expect, when I made Christianity the state religion of my empire. But you, good barbarian, look clean enough. You do not look on dirt as a sign of sanctity?"

"On the contrary, sire, the upper classes of our empire boast of being the cleanliest--perhaps the only perfectly cleanly--people in the world: except, of course, the savages of the South Seas. And dirt is so far from being a thing which we admire, that our scientific men--than whom the world has never seen wiser--have proved to us, for a whole generation past, that dirt is the fertile cause of disease and drunkenness, misery and recklessness."

"And, therefore," replies the shade, ere he disappears, "of discontent and revolution; followed by a tyranny endured, as in Rome and many another place, by men once free; because tyranny will at least do for them what they are too lazy, and cowardly, and greedy to do for themselves. Farewell, and prosper; as you seem likely to prosper, on the whole. But if you wish me to consider you a civilised nation: let me hear that you have brought a great river from the depths of the earth, be they a thousand fathoms deep, or from your nearest mountains, be they five hundred miles away; and have washed out London's dirt--and your own shame. Till then, abstain from judging too harshly a Constantine, or even a Caracalla; for they, whatever were their sins, built baths, and kept their people clean. But do your gymnasia--your schools and universities, teach your youth nought about all this?"

[The end]
Charles Kingsley's essay: The Air-Mothers