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Chapter 2 The Salt-Marsh

  • When a man has reached his mature age he can rest at that point of vantage, and cast his eyes back at the long road along which he has travelled, lyin_ith its gleams of sunshine and its stretches of shadow in the valley behin_im. He knows then its whence and its whither, and the twists and bends whic_ere so full of promise or of menace as he approached them lie exposed an_pen to his gaze. So plain is it all that he can scarce remember how dark i_ay have seemed to him, or how long he once hesitated at the cross roads. Thu_hen he tries to recall each stage of the journey he does so with th_nowledge of its end, and can no longer make it clear, even to himself, how i_ay have seemed to him at the time. And yet, in spite of the strain of years, and the many passages which have befallen me since, there is no time of m_ife which comes back so very clearly as that gusty evening, and to this day _annot feel the briny wholesome whiff of the seaweed without being carrie_ack, with that intimate feeling of reality which only the sense of smell ca_onfer, to the wet shingle of the French beach.
  • When I had risen from my knees, the first thing that I did was to put my purs_nto the inner pocket of my coat. I had taken it out in order to give a gol_iece to the sailor who had handed me ashore, though I have little doubt tha_he fellow was both wealthier and of more assured prospects than myself. I ha_ctually drawn out a silver half-crown, but I could not bring myself to offe_t to him, and so ended by giving a tenth part of my whole fortune to _tranger. The other nine sovereigns I put very carefully away, and then, sitting down upon a flat rock just above high water mark, I turned it all ove_n my mind and weighed what I should do. Already I was cold and hungry, wit_he wind lashing my face and the spray smarting in my eyes, but at least I wa_o longer living upon the charity of the enemies of my country, and th_hought set my heart dancing within me. But the castle, as well as I coul_emember, was a good ten miles off. To go there now was to arrive at a_nseemly hour, unkempt and weather-stained, before this uncle whom I had neve_een. My sensitive pride conjured up a picture of the scornful faces of hi_ervants as they looked out upon this bedraggled wanderer from Englan_linking back to the castle which should have been his own. No, I must see_helter for the night, and then at my leisure, with as fair a show o_ppearances as possible, I must present myself before my relative. Where the_ould I find a refuge from the storm?
  • You will ask me, doubtless, why I did not make for Etaples or Boulogne. _nswer that it was for the same reason which forced me to land secretly upo_hat forbidding coast. The name of de Laval still headed the list of th_roscribed, for my father had been a famous and energetic leader of the smal_ut influential body of men who had remained true at all costs to the ol_rder of things. Do not think that, because I was of another way of thinking, I despised those who had given up so much for their principles. There is _urious saint-like trait in our natures which draws us most strongly toward_hat which involves the greatest sacrifice, and I have sometimes thought tha_f the conditions had been less onerous the Bourbons might have had fewer, o_t least less noble, followers. The French nobles had been more faithful t_hem than the English to the Stuarts, for Cromwell had no luxurious court o_ich appointments which he could hold out to those who would desert the roya_ause. No words can exaggerate the self-abnegation of those men. I have seen _upper party under my father's roof where our guests were two fencing-masters, three professors of language, one ornamental gardener, and one translator o_ooks, who held his hand in the front of his coat to conceal a rent in th_apel. But these eight men were of the highest nobility of France, who migh_ave had what they chose to ask if they would only consent to forget the past, and to throw themselves heartily into the new order of things. But the humble, and what is sadder the incapable, monarch of Hartwell still held th_llegiance of those old Montmorencies, Rohans, and Choiseuls, who, havin_hared the greatness of his family, were determined also to stand by it in it_uin. The dark chambers of that exiled monarch were furnished with somethin_etter than the tapestry of Gobelins or the china of Sevres. Across the gul_hich separates my old age from theirs I can still see those ill-clad, grave- mannered men, and I raise my hat to the noblest group of nobles that ou_istory can show.
  • To visit a coast-town, therefore, before I had seen my uncle, or learn_hether my return had been sanctioned, would be simply to deliver myself int_he hands of the _gens d'armes_, who were ever on the look-out for stranger_rom England. To go before the new Emperor was one thing and to be dragge_efore him another. On the whole, it seemed to me that my best course was t_ander inland, in the hope of finding some empty barn or out-house, where _ould pass the night unseen and undisturbed. Then in the morning I shoul_onsider how it was best for me to approach my uncle Bernac, and through hi_he new master of France.
  • The wind had freshened meanwhile into a gale, and it was so dark upon th_eaward side that I could only catch the white flash of a leaping wave her_nd there in the blackness. Of the lugger which had brought me from Dover _ould see no sign. On the land side of me there seemed, as far as I could mak_t out, to be a line of low hills, but when I came to traverse them I foun_hat the dim light had exaggerated their size, and that they were mer_cattered sand-dunes, mottled with patches of bramble. Over these I toile_ith my bundle slung over my shoulder, plodding heavily through the loos_and, and tripping over the creepers, but forgetting my wet clothes and m_umb hands as I recalled the many hardships and adventures which my ancestor_ad undergone. It amused me to think that the day might come when my ow_escendants might fortify themselves by the recollection of that which wa_appening to me, for in a great family like ours the individual is alway_ubordinate to the race.
  • It seemed to me that I should never get to the end of the sand-dunes, but whe_t last I did come off them I heartily wished that I was back upon them again; for the sea in that part comes by some creek up the back of the beach, formin_t low tide a great desolate salt-marsh, which must be a forlorn place even i_he daytime, but upon such a night as that it was a most dreary wilderness. A_irst it was but a softness of the ground, causing me to slip as I walked, bu_oon the mud was over my ankles and half-way up to my knees, so that each foo_ave a loud flop as I raised it, and a dull splash as I set it down again. _ould willingly have made my way out, even if I had to return to the sand- dunes, but in trying to pick my path I had lost all my bearings, and the ai_as so full of the sounds of the storm that the sea seemed to be on every sid_f me. I had heard of how one may steer oneself by observation of the stars, but my quiet English life had not taught me how such things were done, and ha_ known I could scarcely have profited by it, since the few stars which wer_isible peeped out here and there in the rifts of the flying storm-clouds. _andered on then, wet and weary, trusting to fortune, but always blunderin_eeper and deeper into this horrible bog, until I began to think that my firs_ight in France was destined also to be my last, and that the heir of the d_avals was destined to perish of cold and misery in the depths of this obscen_orass.
  • I must have toiled for many miles in this dreary fashion, sometimes comin_pon shallower mud and sometimes upon deeper, but never making my way on t_he dry, when I perceived through the gloom something which turned my hear_ven heavier than it had been before. This was a curious clump of some whitis_hrub—cotton-grass of a flowering variety—which glimmered suddenly before m_n the darkness. Now, an hour earlier I had passed just such a square-headed, whitish clump; so that I was confirmed in the opinion which I had alread_egun to form, that I was wandering in a circle. To make it certain I stoope_own, striking a momentary flash from my tinder-box, and there sure enough wa_y own old track very clearly marked in the brown mud in front of me. At thi_onfirmation of my worst fears I threw my eyes up to heaven in my despair, an_here I saw something which for the first time gave me a clue in th_ncertainty which surrounded me.
  • It was nothing else than a glimpse of the moon between two flowing clouds.
  • This in itself might have been of small avail to me, but over its white fac_as marked a long thin V, which shot swiftly across like a shaftless arrow. I_as a flock of wild ducks, and its flight was in the same direction as tha_owards which my face was turned. Now, I had observed in Kent how all thes_reatures come further inland when there is rough weather breaking, so I mad_o doubt that their course indicated the path which would lead me away fro_he sea. I struggled on, therefore, taking every precaution to walk in _traight line, above all being very careful to make a stride of equal lengt_ith either leg, until at last, after half an hour or so, my perseverance wa_ewarded by the welcome sight of a little yellow light, as from a cottag_indow, glimmering through the darkness. Ah, how it shone through my eyes an_own into my heart, glowing and twinkling there, that little golden speck, which meant food, and rest, and life itself to the wanderer! I blundere_owards it through the mud and the slush as fast as my weary legs would bea_e. I was too cold and miserable to refuse any shelter, and I had no doub_hat for the sake of one of my gold pieces the fisherman or peasant who live_n this strange situation would shut his eyes to whatever might be suspiciou_n my presence or appearance.
  • As I approached it became more and more wonderful to me that any one shoul_ive there at all, for the bog grew worse rather than better, and in th_ccasional gleams of moonshine I could make out that the water lay i_limmering pools all round the low dark cottage from which the light wa_reaking. I could see now that it shone through a small square window. As _pproached the gleam was suddenly obscured, and there in a yellow fram_ppeared the round black outline of a man's head peering out into th_arkness. A second time it appeared before I reached the cottage, and ther_as something in the stealthy manner in which it peeped and whisked away, an_eeped once more, which filled me with surprise, and with a certain vagu_pprehension.
  • So cautious were the movements of this sentinel, and so singular the positio_f his watch-house, that I determined, in spite of my misery, to see somethin_ore of him before I trusted myself to the shelter of his roof. And, indeed, the amount of shelter which I might hope for was not very great, for as I dre_oftly nearer I could see that the light from within was beating through a_everal points, and that the whole cottage was in the most crazy state o_isrepair. For a moment I paused, thinking that even the salt-marsh migh_erhaps be a safer resting-place for the night than the headquarters of som_esperate smuggler, for such I conjectured that this lonely dwelling must be.
  • The scud, however, had covered the moon once more, and the darkness was s_itchy black that I felt that I might reconnoitre a little more closel_ithout fear of discovery. Walking on tiptoe I approached the little windo_nd looked in.
  • What I saw reassured me vastly. A small wood fire was crackling in one o_hose old-fashioned country grates, and beside it was seated a strikingl_andsome young man, who was reading earnestly out of a fat little book. He ha_n oval, olive-tinted face, with long black hair, ungathered in a queue, an_here was something of the poet or of the artist in his whole appearance. Th_ight of that refined face, and of the warm yellow firelight which beat upo_t, was a very cheering one to a cold and famished traveller. I stood for a_nstant gazing at him, and noticing the way in which his full and somewha_oose-fitting lower lip quivered continually, as if he were repeating t_imself that which he was reading. I was still looking at him when he put hi_ook down upon the table and approached the window. Catching a glimpse of m_igure in the darkness he called out something which I could not hear, an_aved his hand in a gesture of welcome. An instant later the door flew open, and there was his thin tall figure standing upon the threshold, with hi_kirts flapping in the wind.
  • 'My dear friends,' he cried, peering out into the gloom with his hand over hi_yes to screen them from the salt-laden wind and driving sand, 'I had give_ou up. I thought that you were never coming. I've been waiting for tw_ours.'
  • For answer I stepped out in front of him, so that the light fell upon my face.
  • 'I am afraid, sir—' said I.
  • But I had no time to finish my sentence. He struck at me with both hands lik_n angry cat, and, springing back into the room, he slammed the door with _rash in my face.
  • The swiftness of his movements and the malignity of his gesture were in suc_ingular contrast with his appearance that I was struck speechless wit_urprise. But as I stood there with the door in front of me I was a witness t_omething which filled me with even greater astonishment.
  • I have already said that the cottage was in the last stage of disrepair.
  • Amidst the many seams and cracks through which the light was breaking ther_as one along the whole of the hinge side of the door, which gave me fro_here I was standing a view of the further end of the room, at which the fir_as burning. As I gazed then I saw this man reappear in front of the fire, fumbling furiously with both his hands in his bosom, and then with a spring h_isappeared up the chimney, so that I could only see his shoes and half of hi_lack calves as he stood upon the brickwork at the side of the grate. In a_nstant he was down again and back at the door.
  • 'Who are you?' he cried, in a voice which seemed to me to be thrilling wit_ome strong emotion.
  • 'I am a traveller, and have lost my way.' There was a pause as if he wer_hinking what course he should pursue.
  • 'You will find little here to tempt you to stay,' said he at last.
  • 'I am weary and spent, sir; and surely you will not refuse me shelter. I hav_een wandering for hours in the salt-marsh.'
  • 'Did you meet anyone there?' he asked eagerly.
  • 'No.'
  • 'Stand back a little from the door. This is a wild place, and the times ar_roublous. A man must take some precautions.'
  • I took a few steps back, and he then opened the door sufficiently to allow hi_ead to come through. He said nothing, but he looked at me for a long time i_ very searching manner.
  • 'What is your name?'
  • 'Louis Laval,' said I, thinking that it might sound less dangerous in thi_lebeian form.
  • 'Whither are you going?'
  • 'I wish to reach some shelter.'
  • 'You are from England?'
  • 'I am from the coast.'
  • He shook his head slowly to show me how little my replies had satisfied him.
  • 'You cannot come in here,' said he.
  • 'But surely—'
  • 'No, no, it is impossible.'
  • 'Show me then how to find my way out of the marsh.'
  • 'It is easy enough. If you go a few hundred paces in that direction you wil_erceive the lights of a village. You are already almost free of the marsh.'
  • He stepped a pace or two from the door in order to point the way for me, an_hen turned upon his heel. I had already taken a stride or two away from hi_nd his inhospitable hut, when be suddenly called after me.
  • 'Come, Monsieur Laval,' said he, with quite a different ring in his voice; '_eally cannot permit you to leave me upon so tempestuous a night. A warm by m_ire and a glass of brandy will hearten you upon your way.'
  • You may think that I did not feel disposed to contradict him, though I coul_ake nothing of this sudden and welcome change in his manner.
  • 'I am much obliged to you, sir,' said I.
  • And I followed him into the hut.