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- Prose Idylls - 30/37 -
is drawn home from it in the shape of a few turnips will be wasted by every rain of heaven, and the straw probably used to mend bad places in the road with; while the land returns to twenty years of worse sterility than ever; on the ground that -
'"Veather did zo, and gramfer did zo, and why shouldn't Jan do the zame?"' * * * *
'But here is Morte below us. "The little grey church on the windy shore," which once belonged to William de Tracy, one of your friend Thomas a Becket's murderers. If you wish to vent your wrath against those who cut off your favourite Saxon hero, there is a tomb in the church which bears De Tracy's name; over which rival Dryasdusts contend fiercely with paper-arrows: the one party asserting that he became a priest, and died here in the wilderness; the others that the tomb is of later date, that he fled hence to Italy, under favour of a certain easy-going Bishop of Exeter, and died penitent and duly shriven, according to the attestations of a certain or uncertain Bishop of Cosenza.'
'Peace be with him and with the Bishop! The flight to Italy seems a very needless precaution to a man who owned this corner of the world. A bailiff would have had even less chance here then than in Connemara a hundred years ago.'
'He certainly would have fed the crabs and rock-cod in two hours after his arrival. Nevertheless, I believe the Cosenza story is the safer one.'
'What a chaos of rock-ridges!--Old starved mother Earth's bare-worn ribs and joints peeping out through every field and down; and on three sides of us, the sullen thunder of the unseen surge. What a place for some "gloom-pampered man" to sit and misanthropize!'
'"Morte," says the Devonshire proverb, "is the place on earth which heaven made last, and the devil will take first."'
'All the fitter for a misanthrope. But where are the trees? I have not seen one for the last four miles.'
'Nor will you for a few miles more. Whatever will grow here (and most things will) they will not, except, at least, hereafter the sea- pine of the Biscay shore. You would know why, if you had ever felt a south-westerly gale here, when the foam-flakes are flying miles inland, and you are fain to cling breathless to bank and bush, if you want to get one look at those black fields of shark's-tooth tide- rocks, champing and churning the great green rollers into snow. Wild folk are these here, gatherers of shell-fish and laver, and merciless to wrecked vessels, which they consider as their own by immemorial usage, or rather right divine. Significant, how an agricultural people is generally as cruel to wrecked seamen, as a fishing one is merciful. I could tell you twenty stories of the baysmen down there to the westward risking themselves like very heroes to save strangers' lives, and beating off the labouring folk who swarmed down for plunder from the inland hills.'
'Knowledge, you see, breeds sympathy and love. But what a merciless coast!'
'Hardly a winter passes without a wreck or two. You see there lying about the timbers of more than one tall ship. You see, too, that black rock a-wash far out at sea, apparently a submarine outlier of the north horn of this wide rock-amphitheatre below us. That is the Morte stone, the "Death-rock," as the Normans christened it of old; and it does not belie its name even now. See how, even in this calm, it hurls up its column of spray at every wave; and then conceive being entrapped between it and the cliffs, on some blinding, whirling winter's night, when the land is shrouded thick in clouds, and the roar of the breakers hardly precedes by a minute the crash of your bows against the rocks.'
'I never think, on principle, of things so painful, and yet so irrelievable. Yet why does not your much-admired Trinity House erect a light there?'
'So ask the sailors; for it is indeed one of the gateway-jambs of the Channel, and the deep water and the line of coast tempt all craft to pass as close to it as possible.'
'Look at that sheet of yellow sand below us now, banked to the inland with sand-hills and sunny downs, and ending abruptly at the foot of that sombre wall of slate-hill, which runs out like a huge pier into the sea some two miles off.'
'That is Woollacombe: but here on our right is a sight worth seeing. Every gully and creek there among the rocks is yellow, but not with sand. Those are shells; the sweepings of the ocean bed for miles around, piled there, millions upon millions, yards deep, in every stage of destruction. There they lie grinding to dust; and every gale brings in fresh myriads from the inexhaustible sea-world, as if Death could be never tired of devouring, or God of making. The brain grows dizzy and tired, as one's feet crunch over the endless variety of their forms.'
'And then one recollects that every one of them has been a living thing--a whole history of birth, and growth, and propagation, and death. Waste it cannot be, or cruelty on the part of the Maker: but why this infinite development of life, apparently only to furnish out of it now and then a cartload of shell-sand to these lazy farmers? But after all, there is not so much life in all those shells put together as in one little child: and it may die the hour that it is born! What we call life is but an appearance and a becoming; the true life of existence belongs only to spirits. And whether or not we, or the sea-shell there, are at any given moment helping to make up part of some pretty little pattern in this great kaleidoscope called the material universe, yet, in the spirit all live to Him, and shall do so for ever.'
And thereon he rambled off into a long lecture on 'species-spirits,' and 'individual-spirits,' and 'personal spirits,' doubtless most important. But I, what between the sun, the luncheon, and the metaphysic, sank into soft slumbers, from which I was only awakened by the carriage stopping, according to our order, on the top of Saunton hill.
We left the fly, and wandered down towards the old gabled court, nestling amid huge walnuts in its southward glen; while before us spread a panorama, half sea, half land, than which, perhaps, our England owns few lovelier.
At our feet was a sea of sand--for the half-mile to the right smooth as a floor, bounded by a broad band of curling waves, which crept slowly shorewards with the advancing tide. Right underneath us the sand was drifted for miles into fantastic hills, which quivered in the heat, the glaring yellow of its lights chequered by delicate pink shadows and sheets of grey-green bent. To the left were rich alluvial marshes, covered with red cattle sleeping in the sun, and laced with creeks and flowery dykes; and here and there a scarlet line, which gladdened Claude's eye as being a 'bit of positive colour in the foreground,' and mine, because they were draining tiles. Beyond again, two broad tide-rivers, spotted with white and red-brown sails, gleamed like avenues of silver, past knots of gay dwellings, and tall lighthouses, and church-towers, and wandered each on its own road, till they vanished among the wooded hills. On the eastern horizon the dark range of Exmoor sank gradually into lower and more broken ridges, which rolled away, woodland beyond woodland, till all outlines were lost in purple haze; while, far beyond, the granite peaks of Dartmoor hung like a delicate blue cloud, and enticed the eye away into infinity. From hence, as our eyes swept round the horizon, the broken hills above the river's mouth gradually rose into the table-land of the 'barren coal-measures' some ten miles off,--a long straight wall of cliffs which hounded the broad bay, buried in deepest shadow, except where the opening of some glen revealed far depths of sunlit wood. A faint perpendicular line of white houses, midway along the range, marked our destination; and far to the westward, the land ended sheer and suddenly at the cliffs of Hartland, the 'Promontory of Hercules,' as the old Romans called it, to reappear some ten miles out in the Atlantic, in the blue flat- topped island of Lundy, so exactly similar in height and form to the opposite cape, that it required no scientific imagination to supply the vast gap which the primeval currents had sawn out. There it all lay beneath us like a map; its thousand hues toned down harmoniously into each other by the summer haze, and 'the eye was not filled with seeing,' nor the spirit with the intoxicating sight of infinitely various life and form in perfectest repose.
I was the first to break the silence.
'Claude, well-beloved, will you not sketch a little?'
'Not even rhapsodize? call it "lovely, exquisite, grand, majestic"? There are plenty of such words in worldlings' mouths--not a Cockney but would burst out with some enthusiastic commonplace at such a sight--surely one or other of them must be appropriate.'
'Silence, profane! and take me away from this. Let us go down, and hide our stupidities among those sand-hills, and so forget the whole. What use standing here to be maddened by this tantalizing earth- spirit, who shows us such glorious things, and will not tell us what they mean?'
So down we went upon the burrows, among the sands, which hid from us every object but their own chaotic curves and mounds. Above, a hundred skylarks made the air ring with carollings; strange and gaudy plants flecked the waste round us; and insects without number whirred over our heads, or hung poised with their wings outspread on the tall stalks of marram grass. All at once a cloud hid the sun, and a summer whirlwind, presage of the thunderstorm, swept past us, carrying up with it a column of dry sand, and rattling the dry bents over our heads.
'What a chill, doleful sigh comes from those reeds!' said Claude. 'I can conceive this desert, beneath a driving winter's sky instead of this burning azure, one of the most desolate places on the earth.'
'Ay, desolate enough,' I said, as we walked down beyond the tide- mark, over the vast fields of ribbed and splashy sands, 'when the dead shells are rolling and crawling up the beach in wreaths before the gale, with a ghastly rattle as of the dry bones in the "Valley of Vision," and when not a flower shows on that sandcliff, which is now one broad bed of yellow, scarlet, and azure.'
'That is the first spot in England,' said Claude, 'except, of course, "the meads of golden king-cups," where I have seen wild flowers give a tone to the colouring of the whole landscape, as they are said to do in the prairies of Texas. And look how flowers and cliff are both glowing in a warm green haze, like that of Cuyp's wonderful sandcliff picture in the Dulwich Gallery,--wonderful, as I think, and true, let
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