|Site Map > Electronic Library > Thomas Hardy > A Pair of Blue Eyes > Chapter XXI 'On thy cold grey stones, O sea!'|
Listen to audiobooks at Litphonix
previous: Chapter XX 'A distant dearness in the hill.'
Chapter XXI 'On thy cold grey stones, O sea!'
Stephen had said that he should come by way of Bristol, and thence by a steamer to Castle Boterel, in order to avoid the long journey over the hills from St. Launce's. He did not know of the extension of the railway to Camelton.
During the afternoon a thought occurred to Elfride, that from any cliff along the shore it would be possible to see the steamer some hours before its arrival.
She had accumulated religious force enough to do an act of supererogation. The act was this - to go to some point of land and watch for the ship that brought her future husband home.
It was a cloudy afternoon. Elfride was often diverted from a purpose by a dull sky; and though she used to persuade herself that the weather was as fine as possible on the other side of the clouds, she could not bring about any practical result from this fancy. Now, her mood was such that the humid sky harmonized with it.
Having ascended and passed over a hill behind the house, Elfride came to a small stream. She used it as a guide to the coast. It was smaller than that in her own valley, and flowed altogether at a higher level. Bushes lined the slopes of its shallow trough; but at the bottom, where the water ran, was a soft green carpet, in a strip two or three yards wide.
In winter, the water flowed over the grass; in summer, as now, it trickled along a channel in the midst.
Elfride had a sensation of eyes regarding her from somewhere. She turned, and there was Mr. Knight. He had dropped into the valley from the side of the hill. She felt a thrill of pleasure, and rebelliously allowed it to exist.
'What utter loneliness to find you in!'
'I am going to the shore by tracking the stream. I believe it empties itself not far off, in a silver thread of water, over a cascade of great height.'
'Why do you load yourself with that heavy telescope?'
'To look over the sea with it,' she said faintly.
'I'll carry it for you to your journey's end.' And he took the glass from her unresisting hands. 'It cannot be half a mile further. See, there is the water.' He pointed to a short fragment of level muddy-gray colour, cutting against the sky.
Elfride had already scanned the small surface of ocean visible, and had seen no ship.
They walked along in company, sometimes with the brook between them - for it was no wider than a man's stride - sometimes close together. The green carpet grew swampy, and they kept higher up.
One of the two ridges between which they walked dwindled lower and became insignificant. That on the right hand rose with their advance, and terminated in a clearly defined edge against the light, as if it were abruptly sawn off. A little further, and the bed of the rivulet ended in the same fashion.
They had come to a bank breast-high, and over it the valley was no longer to be seen. It was withdrawn cleanly and completely. In its place was sky and boundless atmosphere; and perpendicularly down beneath them - small and far off - lay the corrugated surface of the Atlantic.
The small stream here found its death. Running over the precipice it was dispersed in spray before it was half-way down, and falling like rain upon projecting ledges, made minute grassy meadows of them. At the bottom the water-drops soaked away amid the debris of the cliff. This was the inglorious end of the river.
'What are you looking for? said Knight, following the direction of her eyes.
She was gazing hard at a black object - nearer to the shore than to the horizon - from the summit of which came a nebulous haze, stretching like gauze over the sea.
'The Puffin, a little summer steamboat - from Bristol to Castle Boterel,' she said. 'I think that is it - look. Will you give me the glass?'
Knight pulled open the old-fashioned but powerful telescope, and handed it to Elfride, who had looked on with heavy eyes.
'I can't keep it up now,' she said.
'Rest it on my shoulder.'
'It is too high.'
'Under my arm.'
'Too low. You may look instead,' she murmured weakly.
Knight raised the glass to his eye, and swept the sea till the Puffin entered its field.
'Yes, it is the Puffin - a tiny craft. I can see her figure-head distinctly - a bird with a beak as big as its head.'
'Can you see the deck?'
"Wait a minute; yes, pretty clearly. And I can see the black forms of the passengers against its white surface. One of them has taken something from another - a glass, I think - yes, it is-and he is levelling it in this direction. Depend upon it we are conspicuous objects against the sky to them. Now, it seems to rain upon them, and they put on overcoats and open umbrellas. They vanish and go below - all but that one who has borrowed the glass. He is a slim young fellow, and still watches us.'
Elfride grew pale, and shifted her little feet uneasily.
Knight lowered the glass.
'I think we had better return,' he said. 'That cloud which is raining on them may soon reach us. Why, you look ill. How is that?'
'Something in the air affects my face.'
'Those fair cheeks are very fastidious, I fear,' returned Knight tenderly. 'This air would make those rosy that were never so before, one would think - eh, Nature's spoilt child?'
Elfride's colour returned again.
'There is more to see behind us, after all,' said Knight.
She turned her back upon the boat and Stephen Smith, and saw, towering still higher than themselves, the vertical face of the hill on the right, which did not project seaward so far as the bed of the valley, but formed the back of a small cove, and so was visible like a concave wall, bending round from their position towards the left.
The composition of the huge hill was revealed to its backbone and marrow here at its rent extremity. It consisted of a vast stratification of blackish-gray slate, unvaried in its whole height by a single change of shade.
It is with cliffs and mountains as with persons; they have what is called a presence, which is not necessarily proportionate to their actual bulk. A little cliff will impress you powerfully; a great one not at all. It depends, as with man, upon the countenance of the cliff.
'I cannot bear to look at that cliff,' said Elfride. 'It has a horrid personality, and makes me shudder. We will go.'
'Can you climb?' said Knight. 'If so, we will ascend by that path over the grim old fellow's brow.'
'Try me,' said Elfride disdainfully. 'I have ascended steeper slopes than that.'
From where they had been loitering, a grassy path wound along inside a bank, placed as a safeguard for unwary pedestrians, to the top of the precipice, and over it along the hill in an inland direction.
'Take my arm, Miss Swancourt,' said Knight.
'I can get on better without it, thank you.'
When they were one quarter of the way up, Elfride stopped to take breath. Knight stretched out his hand.
She took it, and they ascended the remaining slope together. Reaching the very top, they sat down to rest by mutual consent.
'Heavens, what an altitude!' said Knight between his pants, and looking far over the sea. The cascade at the bottom of the slope appeared a mere span in height from where they were now.
Elfride was looking to the left. The steamboat was in full view again, and by reason of the vast surface of sea their higher position uncovered it seemed almost close to the shore.
'Over that edge,' said Knight, 'where nothing but vacancy appears, is a moving compact mass. The wind strikes the face of the rock, runs up it, rises like a fountain to a height far above our heads, curls over us in an arch, and disperses behind us. In fact, an inverted cascade is there - as perfect as the Niagara Falls - but rising instead of falling, and air instead of water. Now look here.'
Knight threw a stone over the bank, aiming it as if to go onward over the cliff. Reaching the verge, it towered into the air like a bird, turned back, and alighted on the ground behind them. They themselves were in a dead calm.
'A boat crosses Niagara immediately at the foot of the falls, where the water is quite still, the fallen mass curving under it. We are in precisely the same position with regard to our atmospheric cataract here. If you run back from the cliff fifty yards, you will be in a brisk wind. Now I daresay over the bank is a little backward current.'
Knight rose and leant over the bank. No sooner was his head above it than his hat appeared to be sucked from his head - slipping over his forehead in a seaward direction.
'That's the backward eddy, as I told you,' he cried, and vanished over the little bank after his hat.
Elfride waited one minute; he did not return. She waited another, and there was no sign of him.
A few drops of rain fell, then a sudden shower.
She arose, and looked over the bank. On the other side were two or three yards of level ground - then a short steep preparatory slope - then the verge of the precipice.
On the slope was Knight, his hat on his head. He was on his hands and knees, trying to climb back to the level ground. The rain had wetted the shaly surface of the incline. A slight superficial wetting of the soil hereabout made it far more slippery to stand on than the same soil thoroughly drenched. The inner substance was still hard, and was lubricated by the moistened film.
'I find a difficulty in getting back,' said Knight.
Elfride's heart fell like lead.
'But you can get back?' she wildly inquired.
Knight strove with all his might for two or three minutes, and the drops of perspiration began to bead his brow.
'No, I am unable to do it,' he answered.
Elfride, by a wrench of thought, forced away from her mind the sensation that Knight was in bodily danger. But attempt to help him she must. She ventured upon the treacherous incline, propped herself with the closed telescope, and gave him her hand before he saw her movements.
'O Elfride! why did you?' said he. 'I am afraid you have only endangered yourself.'
And as if to prove his statement, in making an endeavour by her assistance they both slipped lower, and then he was again stayed. His foot was propped by a bracket of quartz rock, balanced on the verge of the precipice. Fixed by this, he steadied her, her head being about a foot below the beginning of the slope. Elfride had dropped the glass; it rolled to the edge and vanished over it into a nether sky.
'Hold tightly to me,' he said.
She flung her arms round his neck with such a firm grasp that whilst he remained it was impossible for her to fall.
'Don't be flurried,' Knight continued. 'So long as we stay above this block we are perfectly safe. Wait a moment whilst I consider what we had better do.'
He turned his eyes to the dizzy depths beneath them, and surveyed the position of affairs.
Two glances told him a tale with ghastly distinctness. It was that, unless they performed their feat of getting up the slope with the precision of machines, they were over the edge and whirling in mid-air.
For this purpose it was necessary that he should recover the breath and strength which his previous efforts had cost him. So he still waited, and looked in the face of the enemy.
The crest of this terrible natural facade passed among the neighbouring inhabitants as being seven hundred feet above the water it overhung. It had been proved by actual measurement to be not a foot less than six hundred and fifty.
That is to say, it is nearly three times the height of Flamborough, half as high again as the South Foreland, a hundred feet higher than Beachy Head - the loftiest promontory on the east or south side of this island - twice the height of St. Aldhelm's, thrice as high as the Lizard, and just double the height of St. Bee's. One sea-bord point on the western coast is known to surpass it in altitude, but only by a few feet. This is Great Orme's Head, in Caernarvonshire.
And it must be remembered that the cliff exhibits an intensifying feature which some of those are without - sheer perpendicularity from the half-tide level.
Yet this remarkable rampart forms no headland: it rather walls in an inlet - the promontory on each side being much lower. Thus, far from being salient, its horizontal section is concave. The sea, rolling direct from the shores of North America, has in fact eaten a chasm into the middle of a hill, and the giant, embayed and unobtrusive, stands in the rear of pigmy supporters. Not least singularly, neither hill, chasm, nor precipice has a name. On this account I will call the precipice the Cliff without a Name.*
* See Preface
What gave an added terror to its height was its blackness. And upon this dark face the beating of ten thousand west winds had formed a kind of bloom, which had a visual effect not unlike that of a Hambro' grape. Moreover it seemed to float off into the atmosphere, and inspire terror through the lungs.
'This piece of quartz, supporting my feet, is on the very nose of the cliff,' said Knight, breaking the silence after his rigid stoical meditation. 'Now what you are to do is this. Clamber up my body till your feet are on my shoulders: when you are there you will, I think, be able to climb on to level ground.'
'What will you do?'
'Wait whilst you run for assistance.'
'I ought to have done that in the first place, ought I not?'
'I was in the act of slipping, and should have reached no standpoint without your weight, in all probability. But don't let us talk. Be brave, Elfride, and climb.'
She prepared to ascend, saying, 'This is the moment I anticipated when on the tower. I thought it would come!'
'This is not a time for superstition,' said Knight. 'Dismiss all that.'
'I will,' she said humbly.
'Now put your foot into my hand: next the other. That's good-well done. Hold to my shoulder.'
She placed her feet upon the stirrup he made of his hand, and was high enough to get a view of the natural surface of the hill over the bank.
'Can you now climb on to level ground?'
'I am afraid not. I will try.'
'What can you see?'
'The sloping common.'
'What upon it?'
'Purple heather and some grass.'
'Nothing more - no man or human being of any kind?'
'Now try to get higher in this way. You see that tuft of sea-pink above you. Get that well into your hand, but don't trust to it entirely. Then step upon my shoulder, and I think you will reach the top.'
With trembling limbs she did exactly as he told her. The preternatural quiet and solemnity of his manner overspread upon herself, and gave her a courage not her own. She made a spring from the top of his shoulder, and was up.
Then she turned to look at him.
By an ill fate, the force downwards of her bound, added to his own weight, had been too much for the block of quartz upon which his feet depended. It was, indeed, originally an igneous protrusion into the enormous masses of black strata, which had since been worn away from the sides of the alien fragment by centuries of frost and rain, and now left it without much support.
It moved. Knight seized a tuft of sea-pink with each hand.
The quartz rock which had been his salvation was worse than useless now. It rolled over, out of sight, and away into the same nether sky that had engulfed the telescope.
One of the tufts by which he held came out at the root, and Knight began to follow the quartz. It was a terrible moment. Elfride uttered a low wild wail of agony, bowed her head, and covered her face with her hands.
Between the turf-covered slope and the gigantic perpendicular rock intervened a weather-worn series of jagged edges, forming a face yet steeper than the former slope. As he slowly slid inch by inch upon these, Knight made a last desperate dash at the lowest tuft of vegetation - the last outlying knot of starved herbage ere the rock appeared in all its bareness. It arrested his further descent. Knight was now literally suspended by his arms; but the incline of the brow being what engineers would call about a quarter in one, it was sufficient to relieve his arms of a portion of his weight, but was very far from offering an adequately flat face to support him.
In spite of this dreadful tension of body and mind, Knight found time for a moment of thankfulness. Elfride was safe.
She lay on her side above him - her fingers clasped. Seeing him again steady, she jumped upon her feet.
'Now, if I can only save you by running for help!' she cried. 'Oh, I would have died instead! Why did you try so hard to deliver me?' And she turned away wildly to run for assistance.
'Elfride, how long will it take you to run to Endelstow and back?'
'Three-quarters of an hour.'
'That won't do; my hands will not hold out ten minutes. And is there nobody nearer?'
'No; unless a chance passer may happen to be.'
'He would have nothing with him that could save me. Is there a pole or stick of any kind on the common?'
She gazed around. The common was bare of everything but heather and grass.
A minute - perhaps more time - was passed in mute thought by both. On a sudden the blank and helpless agony left her face. She vanished over the bank from his sight.
Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized lonliness.
Turn to the next chapter: Chapter XXII 'A woman's way.'