Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 9
THE NORTH POINT OF PORTLAND.
THE child ran until he was breathless, at random, desperate, over the plain into the snow, into space. His flight warmed him. He needed it. Without the run and the fright he would have died. When his breath failed him, he stopped, but he dared not look back. He fancied that the birds would pursue him, that the dead man had undone his chain and was perhaps hurrying after him, that possibly the very gibbet itself was descending the hill, running after the dead man; he feared that he should see these things if he turned his head. When he had somewhat recovered his breath, he resumed his flight.
To account for facts does not belong to childhood. This child had received impressions which were magnified by terror, but he did not link them together in his mind, nor form any conclusion on them. He was going on, no matter how or where; he ran in agony and difficulty as one in a dream. During the three hours or so since he had been deserted, his onward progress, still vague, had changed in character. At first it was a search; now it was a flight. He was no longer conscious of hunger or cold; he felt only fear. One instinct had given place to another. To escape was now his one desire,—to escape. From what? From everything. On all sides life seemed to enclose him like a horrible wall. If he could have fled from everything, he would have done so. But children know nothing of that breaking from prison which is called suicide. He was running; he ran on for an indefinite time. But fear dies with lack of breath.
All at once, as if seized by a sudden accession of energy and intelligence, he stopped. One would have said he was ashamed of running away. He drew himself up, stamped his foot, and with head erect looked round him. There was no hill, no gibbet, no flying crows visible now. The fog had resumed possession of the horizon. The child continued his way; but now he no longer ran, but walked. To say that this meeting with a corpse had made a man of him was not far from the truth. The gibbet which had so terrified him still seemed to him an apparition; but terror overcome is strength gained, and he felt himself stronger. Had he been of an age to probe self, he would have discovered a thousand other germs of meditation; but the reflection of children is shapeless, and the most they feel is the bitter aftertaste of that which, obscure to them, the man later on calls indignation. Let us add that a child has the faculty of promptly accepting the conclusions of a sensation; the distant boundaries which amplify painful subjects escape him. A child is protected by the very limit of his understanding from emotions which are too complex. He sees the fact, and little else. The difficulty of being satisfied with half-formed ideas does not exist so far as he is concerned. It is not until later that experience comes, with its brief, to conduct the lawsuit of life. Then he confronts groups of facts which have crossed his path; the understanding, cultivated and enlarged, draws comparisons; the memories of youth reappear like the traces of a palimpsest after erasure; these memories form the bases of logic, and that which was a vision in the child's brain becomes a syllogism in the man's. Experience is varied, however, and leads to good or evil according to natural disposition.
The child had run quite a quarter of a league, and walked another quarter, when suddenly he felt the cravings of hunger. A thought which altogether eclipsed the hideous apparition on the hill occurred to him,—that he must eat. Happily there are in man brute instincts which serve to lead him back to reality. But what to eat, where to eat, how to eat? He felt in his pockets mechanically, well knowing that they were empty. Then he quickened his pace, without knowing whither he was going. He was hastening towards a possible shelter. This faith in a shelter is one of the convictions rooted by God in man; to believe in a shelter is to believe in God.
On that snow-clad plain, however, there was nothing resembling a roof. Yet the child went on, and the waste continued bare as far as eye could reach. There had never been a human habitation on the table-land. It was at the foot of the cliff, in holes in the rocks, that the aboriginal inhabitants had dwelt long ago,—men who had slings for weapons, dried cow-dung for fuel, for a god the idol Heil standing in a glade at Dorchester, and for a trade the fishing of that grey coral which the Gauls called plin, and the Greeks Isidis plocamos. The child made his way along as best he could. Destiny is made up of cross-roads; an option of path is sometimes dangerous. This little creature had an early choice of doubtful chances. He continued to advance, but although the muscles of his thighs seemed to be of steel, he began to tire. There were no tracks in the plain, or if there were any the snow had obliterated them. Instinctively he directed his course eastwards. Sharp stones had wounded his heels; had it been daylight, blood-stains might have been seen in the foot-prints he left in the snow. He recognized no landmarks; for he was crossing the plain from south to north, and it is probable that the band with which he had come, to avoid meeting any one, had crossed it from east to west. They had probably sailed in some fisherman's or smuggler's boat from a point on the coast of Uggescombe (such as St. Catherine's Cape), or Swancry, to Portland, to find the hooker which awaited them; and they must have landed in one of the creeks of Weston, and re-embarked in one of the creeks of Easton. That route intersected the one the child was now following; but it was impossible for him to recognize the road.
On the plain of Portland there are here and there occasional strips of elevated land, ending abruptly at the shore, where they plunge straight down into the sea. The wandering child had now reached one of these culminating points and stopped on it, hoping that a broader view might furnish some helpful indications. He tried to see around him. Before him, in place of an horizon, was a vast livid opacity. He looked at this attentively, and under the intentness of his gaze objects became less indistinct. At the base of a distant eminence to the eastward (a moving and wan sort of precipice, which resembled a cliff of the night) crept and floated some dim black specks, some mere shreds of vapour. The pale opacity was fog, the black shreds were smoke. Where there is smoke there must be men. The child turned his steps in that direction. He saw some distance off a descent, and at the foot of the descent, among shapeless conformations of rock, blurred by the mist, what seemed to be either a sandbank or a tongue of land, probably connecting the plains in the horizon with the table-land he had just crossed. It was evident he must pass that way. He had, in fact, arrived at the Isthmus of Portland, a diluvian alluvium which is called Cheshil.
The child began now to descend the side of the plateau. The descent was difficult and rough. It was (with less ruggedness, however) the reverse of the ascent he had made on leaving the creek. Every ascent is balanced by a decline; after having clambered up, he now crawled down. He leaped from one rock to another at the risk of a sprain, and at the risk of falling into the vague depths below. To save himself when he slipped on the rock or on the ice, he caught hold of tufts of weeds and furze, thick with thorns, the points of which ran into his fingers. Sometimes he came to an easier declivity, where he took breath as he descended; then came to a precipice again, where each step was fraught with peril. In descending precipices every movement is a problem. One must be skilful under penalty of death. These problems the child solved with an instinct which would have won him the admiration of apes and mountebanks. The descent was steep and long. Nevertheless he was nearing the Isthmus, of which from time to time he caught a glimpse. Now and then, as he bounded or dropped from rock to rock, he pricked up his ears, his head erect the while like a listening deer. He was hearkening to a diffused and faint uproar, far away to the left, like the deep note of a clarion. It was the roar of the winds, preceding that fearful northern blast, which is heard rushing from the pole, like an invasion of trumpets. At the same time the child felt on his brow, on his eyes, and on his cheeks something which was like the palms of cold hands being placed on his face. These were large frozen flakes, sown at first softly in space, then eddying wildly and heralding a snow-storm. The child was soon covered with them. The snow-storm, which for the last hour had been raging on the sea, had now reached the land, and was slowly invading the plains.