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BOOK I.

 

NIGHT NOT SO BLACK AS MAN.

 
 

CHAPTER I.


PORTLAND BILL.


A STRONG north wind blew continuously over the mainland of Europe, and yet more roughly over England, during the entire month of December, 1689, and also the month of January, 1690. Hence the terrible cold weather which caused that winter to be noted as "memorable to the poor" on the margin of the old Bible in the Presbyterian chapel of the Non-jurors in London. Thanks to the lasting qualities of the old monarchical parchment employed in official registers, long lists of poor persons, found dead of famine and cold, are still legible in many local repositories,—particularly in the archives of the Liberty of the Clink, in the borough of Southwark, of Pie Powder Court (which signifies Dusty Feet Court), and in those of Whitechapel Court, held in the village of Stepney by the bailiff of the Lord of the Manor. The Thames was frozen over,—a thing which does not happen once in a century, as ice forms on it with difficulty owing to the action of the sea. Coaches rolled over the frozen river, and a fair was held upon it with booths, bear-baiting and bull-baiting. An ox was roasted whole on the ice. This thick ice lasted two months. The year 1690 exceeded in severity even the famous winters at the beginning of the seventeenth century so minutely observed by Dr. Gideon Delane,—the same who was, in his quality of apothecary to King James, honoured by the city of London with a bust and a pedestal.

One evening, towards the close of one of the most bitter days of the month of January, 1690, something unusual was going on in one of the numerous inhospitable coves of the Bay of Portland, which caused the sea-gulls and wild geese to scream and circle round its mouth, not daring to re-enter. In this cove, the most dangerous of all which line the bay during the continuance of certain winds, and consequently the most lonely (well suited, by reason of its very danger, for ships in hiding), a little vessel, almost touching the cliff, so deep was the water, was moored to a point of rock. We are wrong in saying, "The night falls;" we should say "The night rises," for it is from the earth that darkness comes. It was already night at the bottom of the cliff; it was still day at the top. Any one approaching the vessel's moorings would have recognized a Biscayan hooker. The sun, concealed all day by the mist, had just set. That deep and sombre melancholy which might be called longing for the absent sun already pervaded the scene. As there was no breeze from the sea, the water of the creek was calm. This was, especially, in winter, a lucky exception. Almost all the Portland creeks have sand-bars; and in heavy weather the sea becomes very rough, and, to pass in safety, much skill and practice are necessary. These little ports (ports more in appearance than fact) are of small advantage. They are hazardous to enter, dangerous to leave. This evening, for a wonder, there was no danger.

The Biscay hooker is of an ancient model, now fallen into disuse. This kind of craft, which has done service even in the navy, was stoutly built in its hull,—a boat in size, a ship in strength. It figured in the Armada. Sometimes the war-hooker attained to a high tonnage; thus the "Great Griffin," bearing a captain's flag, and commanded by Lopez de Medina, measured six hundred and fifty good tons, and carried forty guns. But the merchant and contraband hookers were very feeble specimens. Sea-folk held them at their true value, and considered the model a very sorry one. The rigging of the hooker was made of hemp, sometimes with wire inside, which was probably intended as a means, however unscientific, of obtaining indications, in the case of magnetic tension. The lightness of this rigging did not exclude the use of heavy tackle, the cabrias of the Spanish galleon, and the cameli of the Eoman triremes. The helm was very long, which gives the advantage of a long arm of leverage, but the disadvantage of a small arc of effort. Two wheels in two pulleys at the end of the tiller corrected this defect, and compensated to some extent for the loss of strength. The compass was well housed in a perfectly square case, and well balanced by its two copper frames placed horizontally, one inside the other, on little bolts, as in Cardan's lamps. There were both science and cunning in the construction of the hooker, but untutored science and barbarous cunning. The hooker was primitive, like the praam and the canoe; was akin to the praam in stability and to the canoe in swiftness; and, like all vessels born of the instinct of the pirate and fisherman, it had remarkable sea-going qualities, and was equally well suited to land-locked and to open waters. Its system of sails, complicated in stays and very peculiar, allowed of its navigating the close bays of Asturias (which are little more than enclosed basins, as Pasages for instance) as well as the open sea. It could sail round a lake, and sail round the world,—a strange craft, as good for a pond as for a storm. The hooker is among vessels what the wagtail is among birds,—one of the smallest and yet one of the boldest. The wagtail perching on a reed scarcely bends it, and flying away crosses the ocean.

The hooker of the poorest Biscayan was gilded and painted. Tattooing was also one of the accomplishments of these people, who are still to some extent savage in their tastes. The superb colouring of their mountains, varied by dazzling snows and emerald meadows, teaches them the wonderful charm that ornamentation exerts. They are poverty-stricken and yet magnificent; they put coats-of-arms on their cottages; they have huge asses, which they bedizen with bells, and huge oxen, on which they put gay head-dresses of feathers. Their coaches, the wheels of which you can hear creaking two leagues off, are illuminated, carved, and decked with ribbons. A cobbler has a bas-relief on his door; it is only St. Crispin and an old shoe, but it is in stone. They trim their leathern jackets with lace. They do not mend their rags, but they embroider them. The Basques are like the Greeks, children of the sun; while the Valencian wraps himself, bare and sad, in his mantle of russet wool, with a hole to pass his head through, the natives of Galicia and Biscay delight in fine linen shirts, bleached in the dew. Their thresholds and their windows teem with fair and fresh faces, laughing under garlands of maize; a joyous and proud serenity shines out in their ingenious arts, in their trades, in their customs, in the dress of their maidens, in their songs. The mountain, that colossal ruin, is all aglow in Biscay: the sun's rays penetrate every nook and crevice. The wild jaïzquivel is full of idylls. Biscay is Pyrenean grace as Savoy represents Alpine grace. With dangerous bays, with storms, with clouds, with flying spray, with the raging of the waves and winds, with terror, with uproar, are mingled boat-women crowned with roses. He who has seen the Basque country once longs to see it again. It is a favoured land,—two harvests a year; villages resonant and gay; a stately poverty; all Sunday the sound of guitars, dancing, castanets, love-making; houses clean and bright; storks in the belfries.

But let us return to Portland, that rugged mountain in the sea.

The peninsula of Portland, viewed geometrically, presents the appearance of a bird's head, of which the bill is turned towards the ocean, the back of the head towards Weymouth; the isthmus is its neck. Portland exists now only for trade. The value of the Portland stone was discovered by quarrymen and plasterers about the middle of the seventeenth century. Ever since that period what is called Roman cement has been made of the Portland stone,—a useful industry, enriching the district but disfiguring the bay. Two hundred years ago these coasts were being eaten away as a cliff; to-day, as a quarry. The pick bites meanly, the wave grandly; hence a diminution of beauty. To the magnificent ravages of the ocean have succeeded the measured strokes of men. These measured strokes have annihilated the creek where the Biscay hooker was moored. To find any vestige of the little anchorage, now destroyed, the eastern side of the peninsula should be searched, towards the point beyond Folly Pier and Dirdle Pier, beyond Wakeham even, between the place called Church Hope and the place called Southwell.

The creek, walled in on all sides by cliffs much taller than its width, was becoming more and more veiled in shadow. The misty gloom, usual at twilight, became thicker; it was like the growth of darkness at the bottom of a well. The opening of the creek seaward, a narrow passage, traced on the almost night-black interior a pallid rift where the waves were moving. You must have been quite close to perceive the hooker moored to the rocks, and, as it were, hidden by the great mantle of shadow. A plank extending to a low and level projection of the cliff, the only point on which a landing could be made, placed the vessel in communication with the land. Dark figures were passing and repassing one another on this tottering gangway, and in the shadow beyond several persons could be dimly discerned standing on the deck.

It was less cold in the creek than out at sea, thanks to the screen of rock rising to the north of the basin, which did not, however, prevent the people from shivering. They were hurrying. The effect of the twilight defined the forms as though they had been punched out with a tool. Certain indentations in their clothes were visible, and showed that they belonged to the class called in England, "The ragged." The windings of the pathway could be vaguely distinguished on the side of the cliff. This pathway, full of curves and angles, almost perpendicular, and better adapted for goats than men, terminated at the platform where the plank was placed. The pathways of cliffs ordinarily imply a not very inviting declivity; they plunge downward rather than slope. This one—probably some ramification of a road on the plain above—was disagreeable to look at, so steep was it. From below you saw it attain by a series of zig-zags the summit of the cliff where it passed out on to the high plateau through a cut in the rock; and the passengers for whom the vessel was waiting must have come by this path.

No step, no noise, no breath was heard except the stir of embarkation which was being made in the creek. At the other side of the roads, at the entrance of Ringstead Bay, you could just distinguish a fleet of shark-fishing boats, which were evidently out of their reckoning. These polar boats had been driven from Danish into English waters by the whims of the sea. Northerly winds play these tricks on fishermen. They had just taken refuge in the anchorage of Portland,—a sign of bad weather expected and danger out at sea. They were now engaged in casting anchor. The principal boat was placed in front after the old custom in Norwegian flotillas, all her rigging standing out black, above the sea; while in front might be seen the iron rack, loaded with all kinds of hooks and harpoons destined for the Greenland shark, the dog-fish, and the spinous shark, as well as the nets to pick up the sun-fish. Except a few other craft, all driven into the same corner, the eye beheld nothing on the vast horizon. Not a house, not a ship. The coast in those days was not inhabited, and the roads, at that season, were not safe.

In spite of the ominous indications of the weather, the persons who were going to sail away in the Biscayan urca, hastened on the hour of departure. They formed a busy and confused group. To distinguish one from another was difficult; to tell whether they were old or young was impossible. The dim evening light intermixed and blurred them; the mask of shadow was over their faces. There were eight of them, and there were apparently one or two women among them whom it was hard to distinguish under the rags and tatters in which the group was attired,—clothes which were no longer either man's or woman's. Rags have no sex. A smaller shadow, flitting to and fro among the large ones, indicated either a dwarf or a child. It was a child.