Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 30
A BURDEN MAKES A ROUGH ROAD ROUGHER.
IT was little more than four hours since the hooker sailed from the creek of Portland, leaving the boy on the shore. During the long hours since he had been deserted, and had been journeying onwards, he had met but three persons of that human society into which he was, perchance, about to enter,—a man (the man on the hill), a woman (the woman in the snow), and the little girl whom he was carrying in his arms. He was exhausted by fatigue and hunger, yet advanced more resolutely than ever, though with less strength and an added burden. He was now almost naked. The few rags which remained upon him, hardened by the frost, were sharp as glass, and cut his skin. He was colder, but the infant was warmer. That which he lost was not thrown away, but was gained by her. He found that the poor infant enjoyed the comfort, which to her was a renewal of life. He continued to advance. From time to time, still holding his burden securely, he bent down, and taking a handful of snow rubbed his feet with it, to prevent their being frost-bitten. At other times, his throat feeling as if it were on fire, he put a little snow in his mouth and sucked it; this for a moment assuaged his thirst, but later changed it into fever,—a relief which proved only an aggravation.
The storm had become appalling in its violence. Deluges of snow are possible; this was one. The tempest scourged the shore at the same time that it up-tore the depths of ocean. This was, perhaps, the very moment when the distracted hooker was going to pieces in its battle with the breakers.
The boy travelled on in this cutting north wind, still towards the east, over wide surfaces of snow. He knew not how the hours passed. For a long time he had ceased to see the smoke. Such indications are soon effaced in the night; besides, it was long past the hour when fires are put out. He had, perhaps, made a mistake, and it was possible that neither town nor village existed in the direction in which he was travelling. Doubting, he yet persevered. Two or three times the little infant cried, at which times he adopted in his gait a rocking movement, and the girl was soothed and silenced; she ended by falling into a sound sleep. Shivering himself, he felt to see if she were warm, and frequently tightened the folds of the jacket round her neck, so that the frost could not get in through any opening, and so that no melted snow should drop between the garment and the child. The plain was unequal; in the declivities into which it sloped, the snow, drifted by the wind, was so deep that it almost ingulfed him, and he had to struggle through it, half buried. He walked on, however, working away the snow with his knees. Having passed the ravine, he reached the high lands swept by the winds, where the snow was thin. There he found the surface a sheet of ice. The little girl's lukewarm breath, playing on his face, warmed it for a moment, then froze in his hair, stiffening it into icicles.
The boy now felt the approach of another danger. He did not dare to sit down and rest; for he knew that if he did so he would never rise again. He was overcome by fatigue, and even the weight of the snow would, as in the case of the dead woman, have held him to the ground, while the ice would have glued him alive to the earth. He had tripped on the sides of precipices, and had recovered himself; he had stumbled into holes, and got out again,—but now the slightest fall would be death; a false step would prove fatal. He must not slip; yet everything was slippery; everywhere there was rime and frozen snow. The little creature whom he carried made his progress fearfully difficult; she was not only a burden which his weariness and exhaustion made excessive, but was also an encumbrance in that she occupied both his arms,—and to him who walks over ice, arms serve as a natural and necessary balancing-pole. The boy was obliged to do without this balance-pole. He did do without it and advanced, bending under his burden, not knowing what would become of him. The infant that he carried was the drop causing the cup of distress to overflow; yet he advanced, reeling at every step, and accomplishing, without spectators, miracles of equilibrium.
Without spectators? We repeat that unseen eyes perhaps watched him on this perilous path,—the eyes of the mother and the eyes of God!
The boy staggered, slipped, recovered himself, tightened his hold on the infant, and drawing the jacket closer about her covered her head with it, and staggered on again. He was, to all appearance, on the plains where Bincleaves Farm was afterwards established, between what are now called Spring Gardens and the Parsonage House. Homesteads and cottages now stand upon what was then a barren waste. Sometimes less than a century changes a steppe into a city.
Suddenly, a lull having occurred in the icy blast which was blinding him, the boy perceived, at a short distance in front of him, a cluster of roofs and of chimneys, the reverse of a silhouette,—a city painted in white on a black horizon, something like what we call nowadays a negative proof. Roofs! dwellings! shelter! He had arrived somewhere at last; he felt the ineffable encouragement of hope. The watch of a ship which has wandered from her course feels some such emotion when he cries, "Land ho!" He quickened his pace. He would soon be among living creatures; there was no longer anything to fear. There glowed within him a sudden warmth,—security; his terrible ordeal was nearly over; thenceforward there would be neither night nor winter nor tempest. It seemed to him that he had left all such misery behind him. The infant was no longer a burden; he almost ran. His eyes were fixed on the roofs: there was life there; he never took his eyes off them. A dead man might gaze thus on what was visible through the half-open cover of his sepulchre. There were the chimneys of which he had seen the smoke; no smoke arose from them now.
It was not long before the boy reached the houses. He came to the outskirts of a town,—an open street. At that period the barring of streets at night had been nearly abandoned. The street began by two houses. In those two houses neither candle nor lamp was visible; nor in the whole street, nor in the whole town, as far as eye could reach. The house to the right was a roof rather than a house; nothing could be more squalid. The walls were of mud, the roof was of straw, and there was more thatch than wall. An immense nettle, springing from the bottom of the wall, reached up to the roof. The hovel had but one door, which was like that of a dog-kennel, and a window which was but a hole. Both were shut up; but at the side an inhabited pig-sty told that the house also was inhabited. The house on the left was large, high, and built entirely of stone, with a slated roof. That too was closed; it was the rich man's home, opposite that of the pauper.
The boy did not hesitate; he approached the great mansion. The double door of massive oak, studded with large nails, was of the kind that leads one to expect that behind it there is an armory of bolts and locks. An iron knocker was attached to it. He raised the knocker with some difficulty, for his benumbed hands were stumps rather than hands, and knocked once. No answer. He knocked again,—twice this time; no movement was heard in the house. He knocked a third time; still there was no sound. He saw that they were all asleep, or did not mean to get up. Then he turned to the hovel. He picked a small stone out of the snow, and knocked with it against the low door; there was no answer. He raised himself on tiptoe, and knocked with his stone against the pane,—too softly to break the glass, but loud enough to be heard; no voice was heard, no step moved, no candle was lighted. He saw that there, as well, they did not care to awake. The house of stone and the thatched hovel were equally deaf to the appeal of the wretched.
The boy decided to push on farther, and make his way down the street in front of him,—a street so dark that it seemed more like a gulf between two cliffs than the entrance to a town.