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Once now and then the great _Orient_ pauses on her outward route to Australia, slowing her engines: the immense length of her hull contains every adjunct of modern life; science, skill, and civilisation are there. She starts, and is lost sight of round the cliff, gone straight away for the very ends of the world. The incident is forgotten, when one morning, as you turn over the newspaper, there is the _Orient_ announced to start again. It is like a tale of enchantment; it seems but yesterday that the Head hid her from view; you have scarcely moved, attending to the daily routine of life, and scarce recognise that time has pa.s.sed at all. In so few hours has the earth been encompa.s.sed.
The sea-gulls as they settle on the surface ride high out of the water, like the mediaeval caravals, with their sterns almost as tall as the masts. Their unconcerned flight, with crooked wings unbent, as if it were no matter to them whether they flew or floated, in its peculiar jerking motion somewhat reminds one of the lapwing--the heron has it, too, a little--as if aquatic or water-side birds had a common and distinct action of the wing.
Sometimes a porpoise comes along, but just beyond the reef; looking down on him from the verge of the cliff, his course can be watched. His dark body, wet and oily, appears on the surface for two seconds; and then, throwing up his tail like the fluke of an anchor, down he goes. Now look forward, along the waves, some fifty yards or so, and he will come up, the sunshine gleaming on the water as it runs off his back, to again dive, and reappear after a similar interval. Even when the eye can no longer distinguish the form, the spot where he rises is visible, from the slight change in the surface.
The hill receding in hollows leaves a narrow plain between the foot of the sward and the cliff; it is ploughed, and the teams come to the footpath which follows the edge; and thus those who plough the sea and those who plough the land look upon each other. The one sees the vessel change her tack, the other notes the plough turning at the end of the furrow. Bramble bushes project over the dangerous wall of chalk, and gra.s.ses fill up the interstices, a hedge suspended in air; but be careful not to reach too far for the blackberries.
The green sea is on the one hand, the yellow stubble on the other. The porpoise dives along beneath, the sheep graze above. Green seaweed lines the reef over which the white spray flies, blue lucerne dots the field.
The pebbles of the beach seen from the height mingle in a faint blue tint, as if the distance ground them into coloured sand. Leaving the footpath now, and crossing the stubble to "France," as the wide open hollow in the down is called by the shepherds, it is no easy matter in dry summer weather to climb the steep turf to the furze line above.
Dry gra.s.s is as slippery as if it were hair, and the sheep have fed it too close for a grip of the hand. Under the furze (still far from the summit) they have worn a path--a narrow ledge, cut by their cloven feet--through the sward. It is time to rest; and already, looking back, the sea has extended to an indefinite horizon. This climb of a few hundred feet opens a view of so many miles more. But the ships lose their individuality and human character; they are so far, so very far, away, they do not take hold of the sympathies; they seem like sketches--cunningly executed, but only sketches--on the immense canvas of the ocean. There is something unreal about them.
On a calm day, when the surface is smooth as if the br.i.m.m.i.n.g ocean had been straked--the rod pa.s.sed across the top of the measure, thrusting off the irregularities of wave; when the distant green from long simmering under the sun becomes pale; when the sky, without cloud, but with some slight haze in it, likewise loses its hue, and the two so commingle in the pallor of heat that they cannot be separated--then the still ships appear suspended in s.p.a.ce. They are as much held from above as upborne from beneath.
They are motionless, midway in s.p.a.ce--whether it is sea or air is not to be known. They neither float nor fly; they are suspended. There is no force in the flat sail, the mast is lifeless, the hull without impetus.
For hours they linger, changeless as the constellations, still, silent, motionless, phantom vessels on a void sea.
Another climb up from the sheep path, and it is not far then to the terrible edge of that tremendous cliff which rises straighter than a ship's side out of the sea, six hundred feet above the detached rock below, where the limpets cling like rivet heads, and the sand rills run around it. But it is not possible to look down to it--the glance of necessity falls outwards, as a raindrop from the eaves is deflected by the wind, because it _is_ the edge where the mould crumbles; the rootlets of the gra.s.s are exposed; the chalk is about to break away in flakes.
You cannot lean over as over a parapet, lest such a flake should detach itself--lest a mere trifle should begin to fall, awakening a dread and dormant inclination to slide and finally plunge like it. Stand back; the sea there goes out and out, to the left and to the right, and how far is it to the blue overhead? The eye must stay here a long period, and drink in these distances, before it can adjust the measure, and know exactly what it sees.
The vastness conceals itself, giving us no landmark or milestone. The fleck of cloud yonder, does it part it in two, or is it but a third of the way? The world is an immense cauldron, the ocean fills it, and we are merely on the rim--this narrow land is but a ribbon to the limitlessness yonder. The wind rushes out upon it with wild joy; springing from the edge of the earth, it leaps out over the ocean. Let us go back a few steps and recline on the warm dry turf.
It is pleasant to look back upon the green slope and the hollows and narrow ridges, with sheep and stubble and some low hedges, and oxen, and that old, old sloth--the plough--creeping in his path. The sun is bright on the stubble and the corners of furze; there are bees humming yonder, no doubt, and flowers, and hares crouching--the dew dried from around them long since, and waiting for it to fall again; partridges, too, corn-ricks, and the roof of a farmhouse by them. Lit with sunlight are the fields, warm autumn garnering all that is dear to the heart of man, blue heaven above--how sweet the wind comes from these!--the sweeter for the knowledge of the profound abyss behind.
Here, reclining on the gra.s.s--the verge of the cliff rising a little, shuts out the actual sea--the glance goes forth into the hollow unsupported. It is sweeter towards the corn-ricks, and yet the mind will not be satisfied, but ever turns to the unknown. The edge and the abyss recall us; the boundless plain, for it appears solid as the waves are levelled by distance, demands the gaze. But with use it becomes easier, and the eye labours less. There is a promontory standing out from the main wall, whence you can see the side of the cliff, getting a flank view, as from a tower.
The jackdaws occasionally floating out from the ledge are as mere specks from above, as they were from below. The reef running out from the beach, though now covered by the tide, is visible as you look down on it through the water; the seaweed, which lay matted and half dry on the rocks, is now under the wave. Boats have come round, and are beached; how helplessly little they seem beneath the cliff by the sea!
On returning homewards towards Eastbourne stay awhile by the tumulus on the slope. There are others hidden among the furze; b.u.t.terflies flutter over them, and the bees hum round by day; by night the nighthawk pa.s.ses, coming up from the fields and even skirting the sheds and houses below.
The rains beat on them, and the storm drives the dead leaves over their low green domes; the waves boom on the sh.o.r.e far down.
How many times has the morning star shone yonder in the East? All the mystery of the sun and of the stars centres around these lowly mounds.
But the glory of these glorious Downs is the breeze. The air in the valleys immediately beneath them is pure and pleasant; but the least climb, even a hundred feet, puts you on a plane with the atmosphere itself, uninterrupted by so much as the tree-tops. It is air without admixture. If it comes from the south, the waves refine it; if inland, the wheat and flowers and gra.s.s distil it. The great headland and the whole rib of the promontory is wind-swept and washed with air; the billows of the atmosphere roll over it.
The sun searches out every crevice amongst the gra.s.s, nor is there the smallest fragment of surface which is not sweetened by air and light.
Underneath, the chalk itself is pure, and the turf thus washed by wind and rain, sun-dried and dew-scented, is a couch prepared with thyme to rest on. Discover some excuse to be up there always, to search for stray mushrooms--they will be stray, for the crop is gathered extremely early in the morning--or to make a list of flowers and gra.s.ses; to do anything, and, if not, go always without any pretext. Lands of gold have been found, and lands of spices and precious merchandise; but this is the land of health.
There is the sea below to bathe in, the air of the sky up hither to breathe, the sun to infuse the invisible magnetism of his beams. These are the three potent medicines of nature, and they are medicines that by degrees strengthen not only the body but the unquiet mind. It is not necessary to always look out over the sea. By strolling along the slopes of the ridge a little way inland there is another scene where hills roll on after hills till the last and largest hides those that succeed behind it.
Vast cloud-shadows darken one, and lift their veil from another; like the sea, their tint varies with the hue of the sky over them. Deep narrow valleys--lanes in the hills--draw the footsteps downwards into their solitude, but there is always the delicious air, turn whither you will, and there is always the gra.s.s, the touch of which refreshes.
Though not in sight, it is pleasant to know that the sea is close at hand, and that you have only to mount to the ridge to view it. At sunset the curves of the sh.o.r.e westward are filled with a luminous mist.
Or if it should be calm, and you should like to look at the ma.s.sive headland from the level of the sea, row out a mile from the beach.
Eastwards a bank of red vapour shuts in the sea, the wavelets--no larger than those raised by the oar--on that side are purple as if wine had been spilt upon them, but westwards the ripples shimmer with palest gold.
The sun sinks behind the summit of the Downs, and slender streaks of purple are drawn along above them. A shadow comes forth from the cliff; a duskiness dwells on the water; something tempts the eye upwards, and near the zenith there is a star.