Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 28
THE CHILD IN THE SHADOW.
THE storm was no less severe on land than on sea. The same wild strife among the elements had taken place around the abandoned child. The weak and innocent become their sport in the exhibitions of frantic rage in which they sometimes indulge. Shadows see not, and inanimate things have not the clemency they are supposed to possess.
On the land there was but little wind; yet there was an inexplicable dumbness in the cold. There was no hail; but the thickness of the falling snow was fearful. Hailstones strike, harass, bruise, stun, crush; snow-flakes do worse. Soft and inexorable, the snow-flake does its work in silence. Touch it, and it melts. It is pure, even as the hypocrite is candid. It is by tiny particles slowly heaped one upon another that the snow-flake becomes an avalanche and the knave a criminal.
The child continued to advance in the mist; mist, like snow, is full of treachery. Though ill-fitted to cope with all these perils, he had succeeded in reaching the bottom of the descent, and had gained Chesil. Without knowing it he was on an isthmus, with water on either side; so that he could not lose his way in the fog, in the snow, or in the darkness, without falling into the deep waters of the gulf on the right hand, or into the raging billows of the sea on the left. He was travelling on, in blissful ignorance, between these two abysses.
The Isthmus of Portland was at that time extremely sharp and rugged. No sign of its former configuration remains to-day. Since the idea of manufacturing Portland stone into cement was first conceived, the cliffs have been subjected to operations which have completely changed their original appearance. Calcareous lias, slate, and trap are still to be found there, rising from layers of conglomerate like teeth out of a gum. But the pickaxe has broken up and levelled those bristling, rugged peaks which were once the homes of the eagles. The summits no longer exist where the labbes and the skua gulls used to flock, soaring, like the envious, to sully high places. In vain you seek the tall monolith called Godolphin,—an old British word signifying "white eagle." In summer you may still gather on these cliffs (pierced and perforated like a sponge) rosemary, pennyroyal, wild hyssop, and sea-fennel, which when infused makes a good cordial, and that herb full of knots, which grows in the sand and from which they make matting; but you no longer find grey amber or black tin, or that triple species of slate,—one sort green, one blue, and the third the colour of sage-leaves. The foxes, the badgers, the otters, and the martens have taken themselves off; on the cliffs of Portland, as well as at the extremity of Cornwall, where there were at one time chamois, none remain. The people still fish in some inlets for plaice and pilchards; but the shy salmon no longer ascend the Wey, between Michaelmas and Christmas, to spawn. Nor can one see there, as during the reign of Elizabeth, those nameless birds as large as hawks, who cut an apple in two, but ate only the pips. You never meet those crows with yellow beaks, called in English Cornish choughs (pyrrocorax in Latin), who mischievously drop burning twigs on thatched roofs; nor that magic bird the fulmar, a wanderer from the Scottish archipelago, dropping from his bill an oil which the islanders used to burn in their lamps. Nor do you ever find in the evening, in the plash of the ebbing tide, that ancient, legendary neitse, with the feet of a hog and the bleat of a calf. The tide no longer throws up the whiskered seal, with its curled ears and sharp jaws, dragging itself along on its nailless paws. On the Portland cliffs, so changed nowadays as to be scarcely recognizable the absence of forests precluded nightingales; and now the falcon, the swan, and the wild goose have fled. The sheep of Portland, nowadays, are fat and have fine wool; the few scattered ewes which nibbled the salt grass there two centuries ago were small and tough, and coarse of fleece, as became Celtic flocks brought there by garlic-eating shepherds who lived to a hundred, and who at the distance of half a mile could pierce a cuirass with their yard-long arrows. Uncultivated land makes coarse wool.
The Chesil of to-day resembles in no particular the Chesil of the past, so much has it been disturbed by man and by those furious winds which disintegrate the very stones. The Isthmus of Portland two hundred years ago was a huge mound of sand, with a vertebrated spine of rock. At present this tongue of land bears a railway, terminating in a pretty cluster of houses, called Chesilton, and there is a Portland station. Railway carriages roll where seals used to crawl.
The child's danger had now assumed a different form. What he had had to fear in the descent of the cliff was falling to the bottom of the precipice; in the isthmus, his fear was of falling into the holes. After contending with the precipice, he had now to contend with pitfalls. Everything on the sea-shore is a trap; the rock is slippery, the strand is full of quicksands. Resting-places are but snares. It is walking on ice which may suddenly crack and yawn with a fissure, through which you will disappear. The ocean has false stages below, like a well-arranged theatre.
The long backbone of granite, from which both sides of the isthmus slope, is difficult of access. It is hard to find there what, in scene-shifters' language, are termed "practicables." Man need expect no hospitality from the ocean,—from the rock no more than from the wave; the sea is kind to the bird and the fish alone. Isthmuses are especially bare and rugged; the wave, which wears and undermines them on either side, reduces them to the simplest form. Everywhere there were sharp ridges, cuttings, frightful fragments of torn stone yawning with many points like the jaws of a shark, breakneck places of wet moss, rapid slopes of rock ending in the sea. Whosoever undertakes to cross an isthmus encounters at every step huge blocks of stone as large as houses, in the shape of shin-bones, shoulder-blades, and thigh-bones,—the hideous anatomy of dismembered rocks. It is not without reason that these striæ of the sea-shore are called ribs. The wayfarer must escape as he best can out of the confusion of these ruins. It is like journeying over the bones of an enormous skeleton.
Imagine a child put to this Herculean task! Broad daylight might have aided him; but it was night. A guide was necessary; but he was alone. All the vigour of manhood would not have been too much; but he had only the feeble strength of a child. In default of a guide, a footpath might have aided him; but there was none. By instinct he avoided the sharp ridge of rock, and kept as near the strand as possible. It was there that he met with the pitfalls. They were, multiplied before him under three forms,—the pitfall of water, the pitfall of snow, and the pitfall of sand. This last is the most dangerous of all, because the most deceptive. To know the peril we face is alarming; to be ignorant of it is terrible. The child was fighting against unknown dangers; he was groping his way through something which might perhaps prove to be his grave. But he did not hesitate. He went round the rocks, avoided the crevices, guessed at the pitfalls, and followed the twistings and turnings caused by such obstacles; yet he went on. Though unable to advance in a straight line, he walked with a firm tread. He patiently retraced his steps if necessary; he managed to tear himself in time from the horrid bird-lime of the quicksands; he shook the snow off him; more than once he entered the water up to the knees, and directly he left it his wet knees were frozen by the intense cold of the night; he walked rapidly in his stiffened garments, yet he took care to keep his sailor's coat dry and warm on his chest. He was still tormented by hunger.
The chances of the abyss are illimitable. Everything is possible in it, even salvation; an issue may be found, though it be invisible. How the child, wrapped in a smothering winding-sheet of snow, lost on a narrow elevation between two jaws of an abyss, managed to cross the isthmus is something he could not himself have explained. He slipped, climbed, rolled, searched, walked, persevered,—that is all; that, indeed, is the secret of all triumphs. At the end of less than half an hour he felt that the ground was rising. He had reached the other shore. Leaving Chesil, he had gained terra firma. The bridge which now unites Sandford Castle with Smallmouth Sands did not then exist. It is probable that in his gropings he had re-ascended as far as Wyke Regis, where there was then a tongue of sand, a natural road crossing East Fleet.
The isthmus lay behind the child now; but he found himself still face to face with the tempest, with the cold, and with the night. Before him stretched the plain, shrouded in impenetrable gloom. He examined the ground, seeking a footpath. Suddenly he bent down: he had discovered in the snow something that looked like a track. It was indeed a track,—the imprint of a foot. The print was clearly cut in the whiteness of the snow, which rendered it distinctly visible. He examined it. It was a naked foot; too small for that of a man, too large for that of a child. It was probably the foot of a woman. Beyond that mark was another, then another and another. The footprints followed one another at the distance of a step, and struck across the plain to the right. They were still fresh, and butcovered with snow. A woman had just passed that way. This woman was walking in the direction where the child had seen the smoke. With his eyes fixed on the footprints, he set to work to follow them.