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moored to a point of rock. We are wrong in saying, The night falls; we
should say the night rises, for it is from the earth that obscurity
comes. It was already night at the bottom of the cliff; it was still day
at top. Any one approaching the vessel's moorings would have recognized
a Biscayan hooker.

The sun, concealed all day by the mist, had just set. There was
beginning to be felt that deep and sombrous melancholy which might be
called anxiety for the absent sun. With no wind from the sea, the water
of the creek was calm.

This was, especially in winter, a lucky exception. Almost all the
Portland creeks have sand-bars; and in heavy weather the sea becomes
very rough, and, to pass in safety, much skill and practice are
necessary. These little ports (ports more in appearance than fact) are
of small advantage. They are hazardous to enter, fearful to leave. On
this evening, for a wonder, there was no danger.

The Biscay hooker is of an ancient model, now fallen into disuse. This
kind of hooker, which has done service even in the navy, was stoutly
built in its hull - a boat in size, a ship in strength. It figured in the
Armada. Sometimes the war-hooker attained to a high tonnage; thus the
Great Griffin, bearing a captain's flag, and commanded by Lopez de
Medina, measured six hundred and fifty good tons, and carried forty
guns. But the merchant and contraband hookers were very feeble
specimens. Sea-folk held them at their true value, and esteemed the
model a very sorry one, The rigging of the hooker was made of hemp,
sometimes with wire inside, which was probably intended as a means,
however unscientific, of obtaining indications, in the case of magnetic
tension. The lightness of this rigging did not exclude the use of heavy
tackle, the cabrias of the Spanish galleon, and the cameli of the Roman
triremes. The helm was very long, which gives the advantage of a long
arm of leverage, but the disadvantage of a small arc of effort. Two
wheels in two pulleys at the end of the rudder corrected this defect,
and compensated, to some extent, for the loss of strength. The compass
was well housed in a case perfectly square, and well balanced by its two
copper frames placed horizontally, one in the other, on little bolts, as
in Cardan's lamps. There was science and cunning in the construction of
the hooker, but it was ignorant science and barbarous cunning. The
hooker was primitive, just like the praam and the canoe; was kindred to
the praam in stability, and to the canoe in swiftness; and, like all
vessels born of the instinct of the pirate and fisherman, it had
remarkable sea qualities: it was equally well suited to landlocked and
to open waters. Its system of sails, complicated in stays, and very
peculiar, allowed of its navigating trimly in the close bays of Asturias
(which are little more than enclosed basins, as Pasages, for instance),
and also freely out at sea. It could sail round a lake, and sail round
the world - a strange craft with two objects, good for a pond and good
for a storm. The hooker is among vessels what the wagtail is among
birds - one of the smallest and one of the boldest. The wagtail perching
on a reed scarcely bends it, and, flying away, crosses the ocean.

These Biscay hookers, even to the poorest, were gilt and painted.
Tattooing is part of the genius of those charming people, savages to
some degree. The sublime colouring of their mountains, variegated by
snows and meadows, reveals to them the rugged spell which ornament
possesses in itself. They are poverty-stricken and magnificent; they put
coats-of-arms on their cottages; they have huge asses, which they
bedizen with bells, and huge oxen, on which they put head-dresses of
feathers. Their coaches, which you can hear grinding the wheels two
leagues off, are illuminated, carved, and hung with ribbons. A cobbler
has a bas-relief on his door: it is only St. Crispin and an old shoe,
but it is in stone. They trim their leathern jackets with lace. They do
not mend their rags, but they embroider them. Vivacity profound and
superb! The Basques are, like the Greeks, children of the sun; while the
Valencian drapes himself, bare and sad, in his russet woollen rug, with
a hole to pass his head through, the natives of Galicia and Biscay have
the delight of fine linen shirts, bleached in the dew. Their thresholds
and their windows teem with faces fair and fresh, laughing under
garlands of maize; a joyous and proud serenity shines out in their
ingenious arts, in their trades, in their customs, in the dress of their
maidens, in their songs. The mountain, that colossal ruin, is all aglow
in Biscay: the sun's rays go in and out of every break. The wild
Ja√ѓzquivel is full of idylls. Biscay is Pyrenean grace as Savoy is
Alpine grace. The dangerous bays - the neighbours of St. Sebastian, Leso,
and Fontarabia - with storms, with clouds, with spray flying over the
capes, with the rages of the waves and the winds, with terror, with
uproar, mingle boat-women crowned with roses. He who has seen the Basque
country wishes to see it again. It is the blessed land. Two harvests a
year; villages resonant and gay; a stately poverty; all Sunday the sound
of guitars, dancing, castanets, love-making; houses clean and bright;
storks in the belfries.

Let us return to Portland - that rugged mountain in the sea.

The peninsula of Portland, looked at geometrically, presents the
appearance of a bird's head, of which the bill is turned towards the
ocean, the back of the head towards Weymouth; the isthmus is its neck.

Portland, greatly to the sacrifice of its wildness, exists now but for
trade. The coasts of Portland were discovered by quarrymen and
plasterers towards the middle of the seventeenth century. Since that
period what is called Roman cement has been made of the Portland
stone - a useful industry, enriching the district, and disfiguring the
bay. Two hundred years ago these coasts were eaten away as a cliff;
to-day, as a quarry. The pick bites meanly, the wave grandly; hence a
diminution of beauty. To the magnificent ravages of the ocean have
succeeded the measured strokes of men. These measured strokes have
worked away the creek where the Biscay hooker was moored. To find any
vestige of the little anchorage, now destroyed, the eastern side of the
peninsula should be searched, towards the point beyond Folly Pier and
Dirdle Pier, beyond Wakeham even, between the place called Church Hope
and the place called Southwell.

The creek, walled in on all sides by precipices higher than its width,
was minute by minute becoming more overshadowed by evening. The misty
gloom, usual at twilight, became thicker; it was like a growth of
darkness at the bottom of a well. The opening of the creek seaward, a
narrow passage, traced on the almost night-black interior a pallid rift
where the waves were moving. You must have been quite close to perceive
the hooker moored to the rocks, and, as it were, hidden by the great
cloaks of shadow. A plank thrown from on board on to a low and level
projection of the cliff, the only point on which a landing could be
made, placed the vessel in communication with the land. Dark figures
were crossing and recrossing each other on this tottering gangway, and
in the shadow some people were embarking.

It was less cold in the creek than out at sea, thanks to the screen of
rock rising over the north of the basin, which did not, however, prevent
the people from shivering. They were hurrying. The effect of the
twilight defined the forms as though they had been punched out with a
tool. Certain indentations in their clothes were visible, and showed
that they belonged to the class called in England the ragged.

The twisting of the pathway could be distinguished vaguely in the relief
of the cliff. A girl who lets her stay-lace hang down trailing over the
back of an armchair, describes, without being conscious of it, most of
the paths of cliffs and mountains. The pathway of this creek, full of
knots and angles, almost perpendicular, and better adapted for goats
than men, terminated on the platform where the plank was placed. The
pathways of cliffs ordinarily imply a not very inviting declivity; they
offer themselves less as a road than as a fall; they sink rather than
incline. This one - probably some ramification of a road on the plain
above - was disagreeable to look at, so vertical was it. From underneath
you saw it gain by zigzag the higher layer of the cliff where it passed
out through deep passages on to the high plateau by a cutting in the
rock; and the passengers for whom the vessel was waiting in the creek
must have come by this path.

Excepting the movement of embarkation which was being made in the creek,
a movement visibly scared and uneasy, all around was solitude; no step,
no noise, no breath was heard. At the other side of the roads, at the
entrance of Ringstead Bay, you could just perceive a flotilla of
shark-fishing boats, which were evidently out of their reckoning. These
polar boats had been driven from Danish into English waters by the whims
of the sea. Northerly winds play these tricks on fishermen. They had
just taken refuge in the anchorage of Portland - a sign of bad weather
expected and danger out at sea. They were engaged in casting anchor: the
chief boat, placed in front after the old manner of Norwegian flotillas,
all her rigging standing out in black, above the white level of the sea;
and in front might be perceived the hook-iron, loaded with all kinds of
hooks and harpoons, destined for the Greenland shark, the dogfish, and
the spinous shark, as well as the nets to pick up the sunfish.

Except a few other craft, all swept into the same corner, the eye met
nothing living on the vast horizon of Portland - not a house, not a ship.
The coast in those days was not inhabited, and the roads, at that
season, were not safe.

Whatever may have been the appearance of the weather, the beings who
were going to sail away in the Biscayan urca pressed on the hour of
departure all the same. They formed a busy and confused group, in rapid
movement on the shore. To distinguish one from another was difficult;
impossible to tell whether they were old or young. The indistinctness of
evening intermixed and blurred them; the mask of shadow was over their
faces. They were sketches in the night. There were eight of them, and
there were seemingly among them one or two women, hard to recognize
under the rags and tatters in which the group was attired - clothes which
were no longer man's or woman's. Rags have no sex.

A smaller shadow, flitting to and fro among the larger ones, indicated
either a dwarf or a child.

It was a child.



This is what an observer close at hand might have noted.

All wore long cloaks, torn and patched, but covering them, and at need
concealing them up to the eyes; useful alike against the north wind and
curiosity. They moved with ease under these cloaks. The greater number
wore a handkerchief rolled round the head - a sort of rudiment which
marks the commencement of the turban in Spain. This headdress was
nothing unusual in England. At that time the South was in fashion in the
North; perhaps this was connected with the fact that the North was
beating the South. It conquered and admired. After the defeat of the
Armada, Castilian was considered in the halls of Elizabeth to be elegant
court talk. To speak English in the palace of the Queen of England was
held almost an impropriety. Partially to adopt the manners of those upon
whom we impose our laws is the habit of the conquering barbarian towards
conquered civilization. The Tartar contemplates and imitates the
Chinese. It was thus Castilian fashions penetrated into England; in
return, English interests crept into Spain.

One of the men in the group embarking appeared to be a chief. He had
sandals on his feet, and was bedizened with gold lace tatters and a
tinsel waistcoat, shining under his cloak like the belly of a fish.
Another pulled down over his face a huge piece of felt, cut like a
sombrero; this felt had no hole for a pipe, thus indicating the wearer
to be a man of letters.

On the principle that a man's vest is a child's cloak, the child was
wrapped over his rags in a sailor's jacket, which descended to his

By his height you would have guessed him to be a boy of ten or eleven;
his feet were bare.

The crew of the hooker was composed of a captain and two sailors.

The hooker had apparently come from Spain, and was about to return
thither. She was beyond a doubt engaged in a stealthy service from one
coast to the other.

The persons embarking in her whispered among themselves.

The whispering interchanged by these creatures was of composite
sound - now a word of Spanish, then of German, then of French, then of
Gaelic, at times of Basque. It was either a patois or a slang. They
appeared to be of all nations, and yet of the same band.

The motley group appeared to be a company of comrades, perhaps a gang of

The crew was probably of their brotherhood. Community of object was
visible in the embarkation.

Had there been a little more light, and if you could have looked at them
attentively, you might have perceived on these people rosaries and
scapulars half hidden under their rags; one of the semi-women mingling
in the group had a rosary almost equal for the size of its beads to that
of a dervish, and easy to recognize for an Irish one made at
Llanymthefry, which is also called Llanandriffy.

You might also have observed, had it not been so dark, a figure of Our
Lady and Child carved and gilt on the bow of the hooker. It was probably
that of the Basque Notre Dame, a sort of Panagia of the old Cantabri.
Under this image, which occupied the position of a figurehead, was a
lantern, which at this moment was not lighted - an excess of caution
which implied an extreme desire of concealment. This lantern was
evidently for two purposes. When alight it burned before the Virgin, and
at the same time illumined the sea - a beacon doing duty as a taper.

Under the bowsprit the cutwater, long, curved, and sharp, came out in
front like the horn of a crescent. At the top of the cutwater, and at
the feet of the Virgin, a kneeling angel, with folded wings, leaned her
back against the stem, and looked through a spyglass at the horizon. The
angel was gilded like Our Lady. In the cutwater were holes and openings
to let the waves pass through, which afforded an opportunity for gilding
and arabesques.

Under the figure of the Virgin was written, in gilt capitals, the word
_Matutina_ - the name of the vessel, not to be read just now on account
of the darkness.

Amid the confusion of departure there were thrown down in disorder, at
the foot of the cliff, the goods which the voyagers were to take with
them, and which, by means of a plank serving as a bridge across, were
being passed rapidly from the shore to the boat. Bags of biscuit, a cask
of stock fish, a case of portable soup, three barrels - one of fresh
water, one of malt, one of tar - four or five bottles of ale, an old
portmanteau buckled up by straps, trunks, boxes, a ball of tow for
torches and signals - such was the lading. These ragged people had
valises, which seemed to indicate a roving life. Wandering rascals are
obliged to own something; at times they would prefer to fly away like
birds, but they cannot do so without abandoning the means of earning a
livelihood. They of necessity possess boxes of tools and instruments of
labour, whatever their errant trade may be. Those of whom we speak were
dragging their baggage with them, often an encumbrance.

It could not have been easy to bring these movables to the bottom of the
cliff. This, however, revealed the intention of a definite departure.

No time was lost; there was one continued passing to and fro from the
shore to the vessel, and from the vessel to the shore; each one took his
share of the work - one carried a bag, another a chest. Those amidst the
promiscuous company who were possibly or probably women worked like the
rest. They overloaded the child.

It was doubtful if the child's father or mother were in the group; no
sign of life was vouchsafed him. They made him work, nothing more. He
appeared not a child in a family, but a slave in a tribe. He waited on
every one, and no one spoke to him.

However, he made haste, and, like the others of this mysterious troop,
he seemed to have but one thought - to embark as quickly as possible. Did
he know why? probably not: he hurried mechanically because he saw the
others hurry.

The hooker was decked. The stowing of the lading in the hold was quickly
finished, and the moment to put off arrived. The last case had been
carried over the gangway, and nothing was left to embark but the men.
The two objects among the group who seemed women were already on board;
six, the child among them, were still on the low platform of the cliff.
A movement of departure was made in the vessel: the captain seized the
helm, a sailor took up an axe to cut the hawser - to cut is an evidence
of haste; when there is time it is unknotted.

"Andamos," said, in a low voice, he who appeared chief of the six, and
who had the spangles on his tatters. The child rushed towards the plank
in order to be the first to pass. As he placed his foot on it, two of
the men hurried by, at the risk of throwing him into the water, got in
before him, and passed on; the fourth drove him back with his fist and
followed the third; the fifth, who was the chief, bounded into rather
than entered the vessel, and, as he jumped in, kicked back the plank,
which fell into the sea, a stroke of the hatchet cut the moorings, the
helm was put up, the vessel left the shore, and the child remained on



The child remained motionless on the rock, with his eyes fixed - no
calling out, no appeal. Though this was unexpected by him, he spoke 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, which the high tide was beginning to bathe, watched the
departing bark. It seemed as if he realized his position. What did he
realize? Darkness.

A moment later the hooker gained the neck of the crook 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. The truck
wandered to the summit of the rocks, and appeared to run into them. Then
it was seen no more - all was over - the bark had gained the sea.

The child watched its disappearance - he was astounded but dreamy. His
stupefaction was complicated by a sense of the dark reality of
existence. It seemed as if there were experience in this dawning being.
Did he, perchance, already exercise judgment? Experience coming too
early constructs, sometimes, in the obscure depths of a child's mind,
some dangerous balance - we know not what - in which the poor little soul
weighs God.

Feeling himself innocent, he yielded. 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 nothing which loved him, nothing which he loved.

Brooding, he 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 cast his eyes about him.

He was alone.

Up to this day there had never existed for him any other men than those
who were now in the hooker. Those men had just stolen away.

Let us add what seems a strange thing to state. Those men, the only
ones he knew, were unknown to him.

He could not have said who they were. His childhood had been passed
among them, without his having the consciousness of being 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 to his feet, scarcely a garment to
his body, not even a piece of bread in his pocket.

It was winter - it was night. It would be necessary to walk several
leagues 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 failed him.

He was ten years old.

The child was in a desert, between depths where he saw the night rising
and depths where he heard the waves murmur.

He stretched his little thin arms and yawned.

Then suddenly, as one who makes up his mind, bold, and throwing off his
numbness - with the agility of a squirrel, or perhaps of an acrobat - he
turned his back on the creek, and set himself to climb up the cliff. He
escaladed the path, left it, returned to it, quick and venturous. He was
hurrying landward, just as though he had a destination marked out;
nevertheless he was going nowhere.

He hastened without an object - a fugitive before Fate.

To climb is the function of a man; to clamber is that of an animal - he
did both. As the slopes 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 man's jacket, which was 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 down.
Then, after hanging some moments over the 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 decline; a tuft of
grass which he clutched at the right moment saved him. He was as mute in
sight of the abyss as he had been in sight of the men; he gathered
himself up and re-ascended silently. The slope was steep; so he had to
tack in ascending. The precipice grew in the darkness; the vertical rock
had no ending. It receded before the child in the distance of its
height. As the child ascended, so seemed the summit to ascend. While he
clambered he looked up at the dark entablature placed like a barrier
between heaven and him. At last he reached the top.

He jumped on the level ground, or rather landed, for he rose from the

Scarcely was he on the cliff when he began to shiver. He felt in his
face that bite of the night, the north wind. The bitter north-wester 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 that
sort of stuff allows little of the south-westerly rain to penetrate.

The child, having gained the tableland, stopped, placed 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 masked the zenith.

On reaching the summit of the rocky wall he found himself turned towards
the land, and looked at it attentively. It lay before him as far as the
sky-line, flat, frozen, and covered with snow. Some tufts of heather
shivered in the wind. No roads were visible - nothing, 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, become suddenly misty, rolled
themselves into the horizon. The great dull plains were lost under the
white fog. Deep silence. It spread like infinity, and was hush as the

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.

Certain lights of night are very clearly cut in their hardness; the sea
was like steel, the cliff like ebony. From the height where the child

Online LibraryVictor HugoThe Man Who Laughs → online text (page 4 of 48)