Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 5
THE child remained motionless on the rock, with his eyes fixed; no calling out, no appeal. Though this was unexpected by him, he uttered not a word. The same silence reigned in the vessel. No cry from the child to the men; no farewell from the men to the child. There was on both sides a mute acceptance of the widening distance between them. It was like a separation of ghosts on the banks of the Styx. The child, as if nailed to the rock, up which the tide was beginning to creep, watched the departing bark. It seemed as if he realized his position. What did he realize? Darkness.
A moment more, and the vessel had reached the mouth of the creek, and entered it. Against the clear sky the masthead was visible, rising above the split blocks between which the strait wound as between two walls. Then it was seen no more; all was over; the bark had reached the sea.
The child watched its disappearance; he was astonished but thoughtful. His stupefaction was increased by a sense of the grim reality of existence. It seemed as if there were experience in this youthful being. Did he, perchance, already exercise judgment? Experience coming too early constructs, sometimes, in the depths of a child's mind some dangerous balance, in which the poor little soul weighs God. Feeling himself innocent, he submitted. There was no complaint; the irreproachable does not reproach. His rough expulsion drew from him no sign; he suffered a sort of internal stiffening. The child did not bow under this sudden blow of fate, which seemed to put an end to his existence ere it had well begun; he received the thunderstroke standing. It would have been evident to any one who could have seen his astonishment unmixed with dejection, that, in the group which abandoned him, there was no one who loved him, and no one whom he loved.
Brooding, the child forgot the cold. Suddenly the wave wetted his feet,—the tide was flowing; a gust passed through his hair,—the north wind was rising. He shivered. There came over him, from head to foot, the shudder of awakening. He glanced about him. He was alone. Up to this time there had never existed for him any other men than those who were now in the hooker,—those men who had just stolen away. Strange to say, those men, the only ones he knew, were really strangers to him. He could not have told who they were. His childhood had been passed among them, without his having the consciousness of being one of them. He was in juxtaposition to them, nothing more. He had just been forgotten by them. He had no money about him, no shoes on his feet, scarcely a garment on his body, not even a piece of bread in his pocket. It was winter; it was night. It would be necessary to walk several miles before a human habitation could be reached. He did not know where he was. He knew nothing, unless it was that those who had come with him to the brink of the sea had gone away without him. He felt himself put outside the pale of life. He felt that man had failed him. He was ten years old.
The child was in a desert, between heights from which he saw the night descending, and depths where he heard the waves murmuring. He stretched out his little thin arms and yawned. Then, suddenly, with the agility of a squirrel, or perhaps of an acrobat, he turned his back on the creek, and set to work to climb the cliff. He escaladed the path, left it, then returned to it, quick and venturesome. He was hurrying inland, as though he had a destination marked out; nevertheless he was going nowhere. He hastened on without an object,—a fugitive before Fate. To climb is the function of a man; to crawl is that of an animal; he did both.
As the cliffs of Portland face southward, there was scarcely any snow on the path; the intensity of cold had, however, frozen that snow into dust very troublesome to the walker. The child freed himself of it. His jacket, which was much too big for him, complicated matters, and got in his way. Now and then on an overhanging crag or in a declivity he came upon a little ice, which caused him to slip. Then, after hanging some moments over a precipice, he would catch hold of a dry branch or projecting stone. Once he came on a vein of slate, which suddenly gave way under him, letting him down with it. Crumbling slate is treacherous. For some seconds the child slid like a tile on a roof; he rolled to the extreme edge of the chasm; a tuft of grass which he clutched at the right moment saved him. He was as mute on the verge of the abyss as he had been in the company of the men; he gathered himself up and re-ascended silently. The slope was steep; so he had to zig-zag in ascending. The precipice seemed to grow in the darkness, and the summit to recede farther and farther in proportion as the child ascended; but at last he reached the top. He had scarcely set foot on the summit when he began to shiver. The wind cut his face like a whip-lash, for the bitter northwester was blowing. He tightened his rough sailor's jacket about his chest. It was a good coat, called in ship-language a "sou'-wester," because made of a sort of stuff that allows little of the south-westerly rain to penetrate.
The child, having gained the table-land, stopped, planted his feet firmly on the frozen ground and looked about him. Behind him was the sea; in front the land; above, the sky,—but a sky without stars; an opaque mist hid the zenith. On reaching the summit of the rocky wall he found himself facing the interior, and he gazed at it attentively. It stretched before him far as the eye could reach, flat, frozen, and covered with snow. A few tufts of heather shivered in the wind. No roads were visible,—no dwelling, not even a shepherd's cot. Here and there, pale, spiral vortices might be seen, which were whirls of fine snow, snatched from the ground by the wind and blown away. Successive undulations of ground suddenly became misty and disappeared from view. The great dull plains were lost in the white fog. A deep silence reigned, far-reaching as infinity, hushed as the tomb.
The child turned again towards the sea. The sea, like the land, was white,—the one with snow, the other with foam. There is nothing so melancholy as the light produced by this double whiteness. The sea was like steel, the cliff like ebony. From the height where the child was, the bay of Portland appeared almost like a geographical map in a semicircle of hills. There was something dreamlike in that nocturnal landscape,—a wan disk belted by a dark crescent; the moon sometimes has a similar appearance. From cape to cape, along the whole coast, not a single spark indicated a hearth with a fire; not a lighted window, not an inhabited house, was to be seen. On earth as in heaven there was no light,—not a lamp below, not a star above. Here and there came sudden elevations in the broad expanse of water, as the wind disturbed and wrinkled the vast sheet. The hooker was still visible in the bay, looking like a black triangle gliding over the water. The "Matutina" was making rapid headway; she seemed to grow smaller every minute. Nothing can compare in rapidity with the flight of a vessel disappearing in the distance. Suddenly she lighted the lantern at her prow. Probably the darkness closing in around her made those on board uneasy, and the pilot thought it necessary to throw light on the waves. This luminous point, a spark seen from afar, clung like a spectral light to the tall black form.
Photogravure by Goupil et Cie.—From Painting
by Emile Vernier.
There was a storm in the air; the child took no notice of it, but a sailor would have trembled. It was one of those moments when it seems as if the elements were changing into persons, and that one was about to witness the mysterious transformation of the wind into the windgod. The sea becomes Ocean; its power reveals itself as Will: hence the terror. The soul of man fears to be thus confronted with the soul of Nature. Chaos was about to appear. The wind rolled back the fog, and making a stage of the clouds behind set the scene for that fearful drama of wave and winter, which is called a snow-storm. Vessels putting back hove in sight. For some minutes past the roads had no longer been deserted; every moment anxious barks hastening towards an anchorage appeared from behind the capes; some were doubling Portland Bill, the others St. Alban's Head. From afar ships were running in. It was a race for life. Southwards the darkness had thickened, and clouds full of menace bordered the sea. The weight of the tempest hanging overhead made a dreary lull on the waves. It certainly was no time to set sail.
Yet the hooker had sailed. She was steering due south. She was already out of the gulf, and in the open sea. Suddenly there came a gust of wind. The "Matutina," which was still clearly in sight, put on all sail, as if resolved to profit by the hurricane. It was the nor'-wester, a wind sullen and angry. Its weight was felt instantly. The hooker, caught broadside on, staggered, but recovering held her course to sea. This indicated a flight rather than a voyage, less fear of sea than of land, and greater dread of pursuit from man than from the wind. The hooker, passing through every degree of diminution, sank into the horizon. The little star which she carried paled into shadow, then disappeared,—this time for good and all.
At least the child seemed to understand it so, for he ceased to look at the sea. His gaze reverted to the plains, the moor, the hills, where it might be possible to find some living creature. Towards this unknown region he now directed his steps.