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BREEZE ON BEACHY HEAD
THE waves coming round the promontory before the west wind still give the idea of a flowing stream, as they did in Homer's days. Here beneath the cliff, standing where beach and sand meet, it is still; the wind passes six hundred feet overhead. But yonder, every larger wave rolling before the breeze breaks over the rocks; a white line of spray rushes along them, gleaming in the sunshine; for a moment the dark rock-wall disappears, till the spray sinks.
The sea seems higher than the spot where I stand, its surface on a higher level — raised like a green mound — as if it could burst in and occupy the space up to the foot of the cliff in a moment. It will not do so, I know; but there is an infinite possibility about the sea; it may do what it is not recorded to have done. It is not to be ordered, it may overleap the bounds human observation has fixed for it. It has a potency unfathomable. There is still something in it not quite grasped and understood — something still to be discovered — a mystery.
So the white spray rushes along the low broken wall of rocks, the sun gleams on the flying fragments of the wave, again it sinks, and the rhythmic motion holds the mind, as an invisible force holds back the tide. A faith of expectancy, a sense that something may drift up from the unknown, a large belief in the unseen resources of the endless space out yonder, soothes the mind with dreamy hope.
The little rules and little experiences, all the petty ways of narrow life, are shut off behind by the ponderous and impassable cliff; as if we had dwelt in the dim light of a cave, but coming out at last to look at the sun, a great stone had fallen and closed the entrance, so that there was no return to the shadow. The impassable precipice shuts off our former selves of yesterday, forcing us to look out over the sea only, or up to the deeper heaven.
These breadths draw out the soul; we feel that we have wider thoughts than we knew; the soul has been living, as it were, in a nutshell, all unaware of its own power, and now suddenly finds freedom in the sun and the sky. Straight, as if sawn down from turf to beach, the cliff shuts off the human world, for the sea knows no time and no era; you cannot tell what century it is from the face of the sea. A Roman trireme suddenly rounding the white edge-line of chalk, borne on wind and oar from the Isle of Wight towards the gray castle at Pevensey (already old in olden days), would not seem strange. What wonder could surprise us coming from the wonderful sea?
The little rills winding through the sand have made an islet of a detached rock by the beach; limpets cover it, adhering like rivet-heads. In the stillness here, under the roof of the wind so high above, the sound of the sand draining itself is audible. From the cliff blocks of chalk have fallen, leaving hollows as when a knot drops from a beam. They lie crushed together at the base, and on the point of this jagged ridge a wheatear perches.
There are ledges three hundred feet above, and from these now and then a jackdaw glides out and returns again to his place, where, when still and with folded wings, he is but a speck of black. A spire of chalk still higher stands out from the wall, but the rains have got behind it and will cut the crevice deeper and deeper into its foundation. Water, too, has carried the soil from under the turf at the summit over the verge, forming brown streaks.
Upon the beach lies a piece of timber, part of a wreck; the wood is torn and the fibres rent where it was battered against the dull edge of the rocks. The heat of the sun burns, thrown back by the dazzling chalk; the river of ocean flows ceaselessly, casting the spray over the stones; the unchanged sky is blue.
Let us go back and mount the steps at the Gap, and rest on the sward there. I feel that I want the presence of grass. The sky is a softer blue, and the sun genial now the eye and the mind alike are relieved — the one of the strain of too great solitude (not the solitude of the woods), the other of too brilliant and hard a contrast of colours. Touch but the grass and the harmony returns; it is repose after exaltation.
A vessel comes round the promontory; it is not a trireme of old Rome, nor the "fair and stately galley" Count Arnaldus hailed with its seamen singing the mystery of the sea. It is but a brig in ballast, high out of the water, black of hull and dingy of sail: still it is a ship, and there is always an interest about a ship. She is so near, running along but just outside the reef, that the deck is visible. Up rises her stern as the billows come fast and roll under; then her bow lifts, and immediately she rolls, and, loosely swaying with the sea, drives along.
The slope of the billow now behind her is white with the bubbles of her passage, rising, too, from her rudder. Steering athwart with a widening angle from the land, she is laid to clear the distant point of Dungeness, Next, a steamer glides forth, unseen till she passed the cliff; and thus each vessel that comes from the westward has the charm of the unexpected. Eastward there is many a sail working slowly into the wind, and as they approach, talking in the language of flags with the watch on the summit of the Head.
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 passed at all. In so few hours has the earth been encompassed.
The sea-gulls as they settle on the surface ride high out of the water, like the medieval 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 grasses 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 grass 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 brimming ocean had been straked — the rod passed 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 space. They are as much held from above as upborne from beneath.
They are motionless, midway in space — 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 grass 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 l — the sweeter for the knowledge of the profound abyss behind.
Here, reclining on the grass — 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 I
On returning homewards towards Eastbourne stay awhile by the tumulus on the slope. There are others hidden among the furze; butterflies flutter over them, and the bees hum round by day; by night the nighthawk passes, 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 shore 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 grass 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 grass, 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 grasses; 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 grass, 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 shore westward are filled with a luminous mist.
Or if it should be calm, and you should like to look at the massive 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.