Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xxi.

Nature’s Melodrama.

What, then, had become of Elsley? And whence had he written the fatal letter? He had hurried up the high road for half an hour and more, till the valley on the left sloped upward more rapidly, in dark dreary bogs, the moonlight shining on their runnels; while the mountain on his right sloped downwards more rapidly in dark dreary down, strewn with rocks which stood out black against the sky. He was nearing the head of the watershed; soon he saw slate roofs glittering in the moonlight, and found himself at the little inn of Pen-y-gwryd, at the meeting of the three great valleys, the central heart of the mountains.

And a genial, jovial little heart it is, and an honest, kindly little heart too, with warm life-blood within. So it looked that night, with every window red with comfortable light, and a long stream of glare pouring across the road from the open door, gilding the fir-tree tops in front: but its geniality only made him shudder. He had been there more than once, and knew the place and the people; and knew, too, that of all people in the world, they were the least like him. He hurried past the doorway, and caught one glimpse of the bright kitchen. A sudden thought struck him. He would go in and write his letter there. But not yet — he could not go in yet; for through the open door came some sweet Welsh air, so sweet, that even he paused to listen. Men were singing in three parts, in that rich metallic temper of voice, and that perfect time and tune, which is the one gift still left to that strange Cymry race, worn out with the long burden of so many thousand years. He knew the air; it was “The Rising of the Lark.” Heavens! what a bitter contrast to his own thoughts! But he stood rooted, as if spell-bound, to hear it to the end. The lark’s upward flight was over; and Elsley heard him come quivering down from heaven’s gate, fluttering, sinking, trilling self-complacently, springing aloft in one bar, only to sink lower in the next, and call more softly to his brooding mate below; till, worn out with his ecstasy, he murmured one last sigh of joy, and sank into the nest. The picture flashed through Elsley’s brain as swiftly as the notes did through his ears. He breathed more freely when it vanished with the sounds. He strode hastily in, and down the little passage to the kitchen.

It was a low room, ceiled with dark beams, from which hung bacon and fishing-rods, harness and drying stockings, and all the miscellanea of a fishing inn kept by a farmer, and beneath it the usual happy, hearty, honest group. There was Harry Owen, bland and stalwart, his baby in his arms, smiling upon the world in general; old Mrs. Pritchard, bending over the fire, putting the last touch to one of those miraculous soufflets, compact of clouds and nectar, which transport alike palate and fancy, at the first mouthful, from Snowdon to Belgrave Square. A sturdy fair-haired Saxon Gourbannelig sat with his back to the door, and two of the beautiful children on his knee, their long locks flowing over the elbows of his shooting jacket, as, with both arms round them, he made Punch for them with his handkerchief and his fingers, and chattered to them in English, while they chattered in Welsh. By him sat another Englishman, to whom the three tuneful Snowdon guides, their music-score upon their knees, sat listening approvingly, as he rolled out, with voice as of a jolly blackbird, or jollier monk of old, the good old Wessex song:—

“My dog he has his master’s nose,

To smell a knave through silken hose;

If friends or honest men go by,

Welcome, quoth my dog and I!

“Of foreign tongues let scholars brag,

With fifteen names for a pudding-bag:

Two tongues I know ne’er told a lie;

And their wearers be, my dog and I!”

“That ought to be Harry’s song, and the colly’s too, eh?” said he, pointing to the dear old dog, who sat with his head on Owen’s knee —“eh, my men? Here’s a health to the honest man and his dog!”

And all laughed and drank; while Elsley’s dark face looked in at the doorway, and half turned to escape. Handsome lady-like Mrs. Owen, bustling out of the kitchen with a supper-tray, ran full against him, and uttered a Welsh scream.

“Show me a room, and bring me a pen and paper,” said he; and then started in his turn, as all had started at him; for the two Englishmen looked round, and, behold, to his disgust, the singer was none other than Naylor; the actor of Punch was Wynd.

To have found his bêtes noires even here, and at such a moment! And what was worse, to hear Mrs. Owen say — “We have no room, sir, unless these gentlemen —”

“Of course,” said Wynd, jumping up, a child under each arm. “Mr. Vavasour! we shall be most happy to have your company — for a week if you will!”

“Ten minutes’ solitude is all I ask, sir, if I am not intruding too far.”

“Two hours, if you like. We’ll stay here. Mrs. Owen — the thicker the merrier.” But Elsley had vanished into a chamber bestrewn with plaids, pipes, hob-nail boots, fishing-tackle, mathematical books, scraps of ore, and the wild confusion of a gownsman’s den.

“The party is taken ill with a poem,” said Wynd.

Naylor stuck out his heavy under-lip and glanced sidelong at his friend.

“With something worse, Ned. That man’s eye and voice had something uncanny in them. Mellot said he would go crazed some day; and be hanged if I don’t think he is so now.”

Another five minutes, and Elsley rang the bell violently for hot brandy-and-water.

Mrs. Owen came back looking a little startled, a letter in her hand.

“The gentleman had drunk the liquor off at one draught, and ran out of the house like a wild man. Harry Owen must go down to Beddgelert instantly with the letter; and there was five shillings to pay for all.”

Harry Owen rises, like a strong and patient beast of burden, ready for any amount of walking, at any hour in the twenty-four. He has been up Snowdon once to-day already. He is going up again at twelve to-night, with a German who wants to see the sun rise; he deputes that office to John Roberts and strides out.

“Which way did the gentleman go, Mrs. Owen?” asks Naylor.

“Capel Curig road.”

Naylor whispers to Wynd, who sets the two little girls on the table, and hurries out with him. They look up the road, and see no one; run a couple of hundred yards, where they catch a sight of the next turn, clear in the moonlight. There is no one on the road.

“Run to the bridge, Wynd,” whispers Naylor. “He may have thrown himself over.”

“Tally ho!” whispers Wynd in return, laying his hand on Naylor’s arm, and pointing to the left of the road.

A hundred yards from them, over the boggy upland, among scattered boulders, a dark figure is moving. Now he stops short, gesticulating; turns right and left irresolutely. At last he hurries on and upward; he is running, springing from stone to stone.

“There is but one thing, Wynd. After him, or he’ll drown himself in Llyn Cwn Fynnon.”

“No, he’s striking to the right. Can he be going up the Glyder?”

“We’ll see that in five minutes. All in the day’s work, my boy. I could go up Mont Blanc with such a dinner in me.”

The two gallant men run in, struggle into their wet boots again, and provisioned with meat and bread, whiskey, tobacco, and plaids, are away upon Elsley’s tracks, having left Mrs. Owen disconsolate by their announcement, that a sudden fancy to sleep on the Glyder has seized them. Nothing more will they tell her, or any one; being gentlemen, however much slang they may talk in private.

Elsley left the door of Pen-y-gwryd, careless whither he went, if he went only far enough.

In front of him rose the Glyder Vawr, its head shrouded in soft mist, through which the moonlight gleamed upon the chequered quarries of that enormous desolation, the dead bones of the eldest-born of time. A wild longing seized him; he would escape up thither; up into those clouds, up anywhere to be alone — alone with his miserable self. That was dreadful enough: but less dreadful than having a companion — ay, even a stone by him — which could remind him of the scene which he had left; even remind him that there was another human being on earth beside himself. Yes — to put that cliff between him and all the world! Away he plunged from the high road, splashing over boggy uplands, scrambling among scattered boulders, across a stony torrent bed, and then across another and another:— when would he reach that dark marbled wall, which rose into the infinite blank — looking within a stone-throw of him, and yet no nearer after he had walked a mile?

He reached it at last, and rushed up the talus of boulders, springing from stone to stone; till his breath failed him, and he was forced to settle into a less frantic pace. But upward he would go, and upward he went, with a strength which he never had felt before. Strong? How should he not be strong, while every vein felt filled with molten lead; while some unseen power seemed not so much to attract him upwards, as to drive him by magical repulsion from all that he had left below?

So upward and upward ever, driven on by the terrible gad-fly, like Io of old he went; stumbling upwards along torrent beds of slippery slate, writhing himself upward through crannies where the waterfall splashed cold upon his chest and face, yet could not cool the inward fire; climbing, hand and knee, up cliffs of sharp-edged rock; striding over downs where huge rocks lay crouched in the grass, like fossil monsters of some ancient world, and seemed to stare at him with still and angry brows. Upward still, to black terraces of lava, standing out hard and black against the grey cloud, gleaming like iron in the moonlight, stair above stair, like those over which Vathek and the Princess climbed up to the halls of Eblis. Over their crumbling steps, up through their cracks and crannies, out upon a dreary slope of broken stones, and then — before he dives upward into the cloud ten yards above his head — one breathless look back upon the world.

The horizontal curtain of mist; gauzy below, fringed with white tufts and streamers, deepening above into the blackness of utter night. Below it a long gulf of soft yellow haze in which, as in a bath of gold, lie delicate bars of far-off western cloud; and the faint glimmer of the western sea, above long knotted spurs of hill, in deepest shades, like a bunch of purple grapes flecked here and there from behind with gleams of golden light; and beneath them again, the dark woods sleeping over Gwynnant, and their dark double sleeping in the bright lake below.

On the right hand Snowdon rises. Vast sheets of utter blackness — vast sheets of shining light. He can see every crag which juts from the green walls of Galt-y-Wennalt; and far past it into the Great Valley of Cwn Dyli; and then the red peak, now as black as night, shuts out the world with its huge mist-topped cone. But on the left hand all is deepest shade. From the highest saw-edges, where Moel Meirch cuts the golden sky, down to the very depth of the abyss, all is lustrous darkness, sooty, and yet golden still. Let the darkness lie upon it for ever! Hidden be those woods where she stood an hour ago! Hidden that road down which, even now, they may be pacing home together! — Curse the thought! He covers his face in his hands, and shudders in every limb.

He lifts his hands from his eyes at last:— what has befallen?

Before the golden haze a white veil is falling fast. Sea, mountain, lake, are vanishing, fading as in a dream. Soon he can see nothing, but the twinkle of a light in Pen-y-gwryd, a thousand feet below; happy children are nestling there in innocent sleep. Jovial voices are chatting round the fire. What has he to do with youth, and health, and joy? Lower, lower, ye clouds! — Shut out that insolent and intruding spark, till nothing be seen but the silver sheet of Cwm Fynnon, and the silver zig-zag lines which wander into it among black morass, while down the mountain side go, softly sliding, troops of white mist-angels. Softly they slide, swift and yet motionless, as if by some inner will, which needs no force of limbs; gliding gently round the crags, diving gently off into the abyss, their long white robes trailing about their feet in upward-floating folds. “Let us go hence,” they seem to whisper to the God-forsaken, as legends say they whispered, when they left their doomed shrine in old Jerusalem. Let the white fringe fall between him and the last of that fair troop; let the grey curtain follow, the black pall above descend; till he is alone in darkness that may be felt, and in the shadow of death.

Now he is safe at last; hidden from all living things — hidden it may be, from God; for at least God is hidden from him. He has desired to be alone: and he is alone; the centre of the universe, if universe there be. All created things, suns and planets, seem to revolve round him, and he a point of darkness, not of light. He seems to float self-poised in the centre of the boundless nothing, upon an ell-broad slab of stone — and yet not even on that: for the very ground on which he stands he does not feel. He does not feel the mist which wets his cheek, the blood which throbs within his veins. He only is; and there is none beside.

Horrible thought! Permitted but to few, and to them — thank God! — but rarely. For two minutes of that absolute self-isolation would bring madness; if, indeed, it be not the very essence of madness itself.

There he stood; he knew not how long; without motion, without thought, without even rage or hate, now — in one blank paralysis of his whole nature; conscious only of self, and of a dull, inward fire, as if his soul were a dark vault, lighted with lurid smoke.

What was that? He started: shuddered — as well he might. Had he seen heaven opened? or another place? So momentary was the vision, that he scarce knew what he saw. There it was again! Lasting but for a moment: but long enough to let him see the whole western heaven transfigured into one sheet of pale blue gauze, and before it Snowdon towering black as ink, with every saw and crest cut out, hard and terrible, against the lightning-glare:— and then the blank of darkness.

Again! The awful black giant, towering high in air, before the gates of that blue abyss of flame: but a black crown of cloud has settled upon his head; and out of it the lightning sparks leap to and fro, ringing his brows with a coronet of fire.

Another moment, and the roar of that great battle between earth and heaven crashed full on Elsley’s ears.

He heard it leap from Snowdon, sharp and rattling, across the gulf toward him, till it crashed full upon the Glyder overhead, and rolled and flapped from crag to crag, and died away along the dreary downs. No! There it boomed out again, thundering full against Siabod on the left; and Siabod tossed it on to Moel Meirch, who answered from all her clefts and peaks with a long confused battle-growl, and then tossed it across to Aran; and Aran, with one dull, bluff report from her flat cliff, to nearer Lliwedd; till, worn out with the long bufferings of that giant ring, it sank and died on Gwynnant far below — but ere it died, another and another thunder-crash burst, sharper and nearer every time, to hurry round the hills after the one which roared before it.

Another minute, and the blue glare filled the sky once more: but no black Titan towered before it now. The storm had leapt Llanberris pass, and all around Elsley was one howling chaos of cloud, and rain, and blinding flame. He turned and fled again.

By the sensation of his feet, he knew that he was going up hill; and if he but went upward, he cared not whither he went. The rain gushed through, where the lightning pierced the cloud, in drops like musket balls. He was drenched to the skin in a moment; dazzled and giddy from the flashes; stunned by the everlasting roar, peal over-rushing peal, echo out-shooting echo, till rocks and air quivered alike beneath the continuous battle-cannonade. —“What matter? What fitter guide for such a path as mine than the blue lightning flashes?”

Poor wretch! He had gone out of his way for many a year, to give himself up, a willing captive, to the melodramatic view of Nature, and had let sights and sounds, not principles and duties, mould his feelings for him: and now, in his utter need and utter weakness, he had met her in a mood which was too awful for such as he was to resist. The Nemesis had come; and swept away helplessly, without faith and hope, by those outward impressions of things on which he had feasted his soul so long, he was the puppet of his own eyes and ears; the slave of glare and noise.

Breathless, but still untired, he toiled up a steep incline, where he could feel beneath him neither moss nor herb. Now and then his feet brushed through a soft tuft of parsley fern: but soon even that sign of vegetation ceased; his feet only rasped over rough bare rock, and he was alone in a desert of stone.

What was that sudden apparition above him, seen for a moment dim and gigantic through the mist, hid the next in darkness? The next flash showed him a line of obelisks, like giants crouching side by side, staring down on him from the clouds. Another five minutes, he was at their feet, and past them; to see above them again another line of awful watchers through the storms and rains of many a thousand years, waiting, grim and silent, like those doomed senators in the Capitol of Rome, till their own turn should come, and the last lightning stroke hurl them too down, to lie for ever by their fallen brothers, whose mighty bones bestrewed the screes below.

He groped his way between them; saw some fifty yards beyond a higher peak; gained it by fierce struggles and many falls; saw another beyond that; and, rushing down and up two slopes of moss, reached a region where the upright lava-ledges had been split asunder into chasms, crushed together again into caves, toppled over each other, hurled up into spires, in such chaotic confusion, that progress seemed impossible.

A flash of lightning revealed a lofty cairn above his head. There was yet, then, a higher point! He would reach it, if he broke every limb in the attempt! and madly he hurried on, feeling his way from ledge to ledge, squeezing himself through crannies, crawling on hands and knees along the sharp chines of the rocks, till he reached the foot of the cairn; climbed it, and threw himself at full length on the summit of the Glyder Vawr.

An awful place it always is; and Elsley saw it at an awful time, as the glare unveiled below him a sea of rock-waves, all sharp on edge, pointing toward him on every side: or rather one wave-crest of a sea; for twenty yards beyond, all sloped away into the abysmal dark.

Terrible were those rocks below; and ten times more terrible as seen through the lurid glow of his distempered brain. All the weird peaks and slabs seemed pointing up at him: sharp-toothed jaws gaped upward — tongues hissed upward — arms pointed upward — hounds leaped upward — monstrous snake-heads peered upward out of cracks and caves. Did he not see them move, writhe? or was it the ever-shifting light of the flashes? Did he not hear them howl, yell at him? or was it but the wind, tortured in their labyrinthine caverns?

The next moment, and all was dark again; but the images which had been called up remained, and fastened on his brain, and grew there; and when, in the light of the next flash, the scene returned, he could see the red lips of the phantom hounds, the bright eyes of the phantom snakes; the tongues wagged in mockery; the hands brandished great stones to hurl at him; the mountain-top was instinct with fiendish life — a very Blocksberg of all hideous shapes and sins.

And yet he did not shrink. Horrible it was; he was going mad before it. And yet he took a strange and fierce delight in making it more horrible; in maddening himself yet more and more; in clothing those fantastic stones with every fancy which could inspire another man with dread. But he had no dread. Perfect rage, like perfect love, casts out fear. He rejoiced in his own misery, in his own danger. His life hung on a thread; any instant might hurl him from that cairn, a blackened corpse.

What better end? Let it come! He was Prometheus on the peak of Caucasus, hurling defiance at the unjust Jove! His hopes, his love, his very honour — curse it! — ruined! Let the lightning stroke come! He were a coward to shrink from it. Let him face the worst, unprotected, bare-headed, naked, and do battle, himself, and nothing but himself, against the universe! And, as men at such moments will do, in the mad desire to free the self-tortured spirit from some unseen and choking bond, he began wildly tearing off his clothes.

But merciful nature brought relief, and stopped him in his mad efforts, or he had been a frozen corpse long ere the dawn. His hands, stiff with cold, refused to obey him; as he delayed he was saved. After the paroxysm came the collapse; he sank upon the top of the cairn half senseless. He felt himself falling over its edge; and the animal instinct of self-preservation, unconsciously to him, made him slide down gently, till he sank into a crack between two rocks, sheltered somewhat, as it befell happily, from the lashing of the rain.

Another minute, and he slept a dreamless sleep.

But there are two men upon that mountain, whom neither rock nor rain, storm nor thunder have conquered, because they are simply brave honest men; and who are, perhaps, far more “poetic” characters at this moment than Elsley Vavasour, or any dozen of mere verse-writers, because they are hazarding their lives, on an errand of mercy, and all the while have so little notion that they are hazarding their lives, or doing anything dangerous or heroic, that, instead of being touched for a moment by Nature’s melodrama, they are jesting at each other’s troubles, greeting each interval of darkness with mock shouts of misery and despair, likening the crags to various fogies of their acquaintance, male and female, and only pulling the cutty pipes out of their mouths to chant snatches of jovial songs. They are Wynd and Naylor, the two Cambridge boating-men, in bedrabbled flannel trousers, and shooting-jackets pocketful of water; who are both fully agreed, that hunting a mad poet over the mountains in a thunder-storm is, on the whole, “the jolliest lark they ever had in their lives.”

“He must have gone up here somewhere. I saw the poor beggar against the sky as plain as I see you — which I don’t —” for darkness cut the speech short.

“Where be you, William? says the keeper.”

“Here I be, sir, says the beater, with my ‘eels above my ‘ed.”

“Wery well, William; when you get your ‘ed above your ‘eels, gae on.”

“But I’m stuck fast between two stones! Hang the stones!” And Naylor bursts into an old seventeenth century ditty of the days of “three-man glees.”

“They stoans, they stoans, they stoans, they stoans —

They stoans that built George Riddler’s oven,

O they was fetched from Blakeney quarr’;

And George he was a jolly old man,

And his head did grow above his har’.

“One thing in George Riddler I must commend,

And I hold it for a valiant thing;

With any three brothers in Gloucestershire

He swore that his three sons should sing.

“There was Dick the tribble, and Tom the mane,

Let every man sing in his own place;

And William he was the eldest brother,

And therefore he should sing the base. —

I’m down again! This is my thirteenth fall.”

“So am I! I shall just lie and light a pipe.”

“Come on, now, and look round the lee side of this crag. We shall find him bundled up under the lee of one of them.”

“He don’t know lee from windward, I dare say.” “He’ll soon find out the difference by his skin; — if it’s half as wet, at least, as mine is.”

“I’ll tell you what, Naylor, if the poor fellow has crossed the ridge, and tried to go down on the Twll du, he’s a dead man by this time.”

“He’ll have funked it, when he comes to the edge, and sees nothing but mist below. But if he has wandered on to the cliffs above Trifaen, he’s a dead man, then, at all events. Get out of the way of that flash! A close shave, that! I believe my whiskers are singed.”

“‘Pon my honour, Wynd, we ought to be saying our prayers rather than joking in this way.”

“We may do both, and be none the worse. As for coming to grief, old boy, we’re on a good errand, I suppose, and the devil himself can’t harm us. Still, shame to him who’s ashamed of saying his prayers, as Arnold used to say.”

And all the while, these two brave lads have been thrusting their lanthorn into every crack and cranny, and beating round every crag carefully and cunningly, till long past two in the morning.

“Here’s the ordnance cairn, at last; and — here am I astride of a carving-knife, I think! Come and help me off, or I shall be split to the chin!”

“I’m coming! What’s this soft under my feet? Who-o-o-oop! Run him to earth at last!”

And diving down into a crack, Wynd drags out by the collar the unconscious Elsley.

“What a swab! Like a piece of wet blotting-paper. Lucky he’s not made of salt.”

“He’s dead!” says Naylor.

“Not a bit. I can feel his heart. There’s life in the old dog yet.”

And they begin, under the lee of a rock, chafing him, wrapping him in their plaids, and pouring whiskey down his throat.

It was some time before Vavasour recovered his consciousness. The first use which he made of it was to bid his preservers leave him; querulously at first; and then fiercely, when he found out who they were.

“Leave me, I say! Cannot I be alone if I choose? What right have you to dog me in this way?”

“My dear sir, we have as much right here as any one else; and if we find a man dying here of cold and fatigue —”

“What business of yours, if I choose to die?”

“There is no harm in your dying, sir,” says Naylor. “The harm is in our letting you die; I assure you it is entirely to satisfy our own consciences we are troubling you thus;” and he begins pressing him to take food.

“No, sir; nothing from you! You have shown me impertinence enough in the last few weeks, without pressing on me benefits for which I do not wish. Let me go! If you will not leave me, I shall leave you!”

And he tried to rise: but, stiffened with cold, sank back again upon the rock.

In vain they tried to reason with him; begged his pardon for all past jests: he made effort after effort to get up; and at last, his limbs, regaining strength by the fierceness of his passion, supported him; and he struggled onward toward the northern slope of the mountain.

“You must not go down till it is light; it is as much as your life is worth.”

“I am going to Bangor, sir; and go I will!”

“I tell you, there is fifteen hundred feet of slippery screes below you.”

“As steep as a house-roof, and with every tile on it loose. You will roll from top to bottom before you have gone a hundred yards.”

“What care I? Let me go, I say! Curse you, sir! Do you mean to use force?”

“I do,” said Wynd quietly, as he took him round arms and body, and set him down on the rock like a child.

“You have assaulted me, sir! The law shall avenge this insult, if there be law in England!”

“I know nothing about law: but I suppose it will justify me in saving any man’s life who is rushing to certain death.”

“Look here, sir!” said Naylor. “Go down, if you will, when it grows light: but from this place you do not stir yet. Whatever you may think of our conduct to-night, you will thank us for it to-morrow morning, when you see where you are.”

The unhappy man stamped with rage. The red glare of the lanthorn showed him his two powerful warders, standing right and left. He felt that there was no escape from them, but in darkness; and suddenly he dashed at the lanthorn, and tried to tear it out of Wynd’s hands.

“Steady, sir!” said Wynd, springing back, and parrying his outstretched hand. “If you wish us to consider you in your senses, you will be quiet.”

“And if you don’t choose to appear sane,” said Naylor, “you must not be surprised if we treat you as men are treated who — you understand me.”

Elsley was silent awhile; his rage, finding itself impotent, subsided into dark cunning. “Really, gentlemen,” he said at length, “I believe you are right; I have been very foolish, and you very kind; but you would excuse my absurdities if you knew their provocation.”

“My dear sir,” said Naylor, “we are bound to believe that you have good cause enough for what you are doing. We have no wish to interfere impertinently. Only wait till daylight, and wrap yourself in one of our plaids, as the only possible method of carrying out your own intentions; for dead men can’t go to Bangor, whithersoever else they may go.”

“You really are too kind; but I believe I must accept your offer, under penalty of being called mad;” and Elsley laughed a hollow laugh; for he was by no means sure that he was not mad. He took the proffered wrapper; lay down; and seemed to sleep.

Wynd and Naylor, congratulating themselves on his better mind, lay down also beneath the other plaid, intending to watch him. But worn out with fatigue, they were both fast asleep ere ten minutes had passed.

Elsley had determined to keep himself awake at all risks; and he paid a bitter penalty for so doing; for now that the fury had passed away, his brain began to work freely again, and inflicted torture so exquisite, that he looked back with regret on the unreasoning madness of last night, as a less fearful hell than that of thought; of deliberate, acute recollections, suspicions, trains of argument, which he tried to thrust from him, and yet could not. Who has not known in the still, sleepless hours of night, how dark thoughts will possess the mind with terrors, which seem logical, irrefragable, inevitable?

So it was then with the wretched Elsley; within his mind a whole train of devil’s advocates seemed arguing, with triumphant subtlety, the certainty of Lucia’s treason; and justifying to him his rage, his hatred, his flight, his desertion of his own children — if indeed (so far had the devil led him astray) they were his own. At last he could bear it no longer. He would escape to Bangor, and then to London, cross to France, to Italy, and there bury himself amid the forests of the Apennines, or the sunny glens of Calabria. And for a moment the vision of a poet’s life in that glorious land brightened his dark imagination. Yes! He would escape thither, and be at peace; and if the world heard of him again, it should be in such a thunder-voice, as those with which Shelley and Byron, from their southern seclusion, had shaken the ungrateful motherland which cast them out. He would escape; and now was the time to do it! For the rain had long since ceased; the dawn was approaching fast; the cloud was thinning from black to pearly grey. Now was his time — were it not for those two men! To be kept, guarded, stopped by them, or by any man! Shameful! intolerable! He had fled hither to be free, and even here he found himself a prisoner. True, they had promised to let him go if he waited till daylight; but perhaps they were deceiving him, as he was deceiving them — why not? They thought him mad. It was a ruse, a stratagem, to keep him quiet awhile, and then bring him back — “restore him to his afflicted friends.” His friends, truly! He would be too cunning for them yet. And even if they meant to let him go, would he accept liberty from them, or any man? No; he was free! He had a right to go; and go he would, that moment!

He raised himself cautiously. The lanthorn had burned to the socket: and he could not see the men, though they were not four yards off; but by their regular and heavy breathing he could tell that they both slept soundly. He slipped from under the plaid; drew off his shoes, for fear of noise among the rocks, and rose. What if he did make a noise? What if they woke, chased him, brought him back by force? Curse the thought! — And gliding close to them, he listened again to their heavy breathing.

How could he prevent their following him?

A horrible, nameless temptation came over him. Every vein in his body throbbed fire; his brain seemed to swell to bursting; and ere he was aware, he found himself feeling about in the darkness for a loose stone.

He could not find one. Thank God that he could not find one! But after that dreadful thought had once crossed his mind, he must flee from that place ere the brand of Cain be on his brow.

With a cunning and activity utterly new to him, he glided away, like a snake; downward over crags and boulders, he knew not how long or how far; all he knew was, that he was going down, down, down, into a dim abyss. There was just light enough to discern the upper surface of a rock within arm’s length; beyond that all was blank. He seemed to be hours descending; to be going down miles after miles: and still he reached no level spot. The mountain-side was too steep for him to stand upright, except at moments. It seemed one uniform quarry of smooth broken slate, slipping down for ever beneath his feet. — Whither? He grew giddy, and more giddy; and a horrible fantastic notion seized him, that he had lost his way; that somehow, the precipice had no bottom, no end at all; that he was going down some infinite abyss, into the very depths of the earth, and the molten roots of the mountains, never to reascend. He stopped, trembling, only to slide down again; terrified, he tried to struggle upward: but the shale gave way beneath his feet, and go he must.

What was that noise above his head? A falling stone? Were his enemies in pursuit? Down to the depth of hell rather than that they should take him! He drove his heels into the slippery shale, and rushed forward blindly, springing, slipping, falling, rolling, till he stopped breathless on a jutting slab. And lo! below him, through the thin pearly veil of cloud, a dim world of dark cliffs, blue lakes, grey mountains with their dark heads wrapped in cloud, and the straight vale of Nant Francon, magnified in mist, till it seemed to stretch for hundreds of leagues towards the rosy north-east dawning and the shining sea.

With a wild shout he hurried onward. In five minutes he was clear of the cloud. He reached the foot of that enormous slope, and hurried over rocky ways, till he stopped at the top of a precipice, full six hundred feet above the lonely tarn of Idwal.

Never mind. He knew where he was now; he knew that there was a passage somewhere, for he had once seen one from below. He found it, and almost ran along the boggy shore of Idwal, looking back every now and then at the black wall of the Twll du, in dread lest he should see two moving specks in hot pursuit.

And now he had gained the shore of Ogwen, and the broad coach-road; and down it he strode, running at times, past the roaring cataract, past the enormous cliffs of the Carnedds, past Tin-y-maes, where nothing was stirring but a barking dog; on through the sleeping streets of Bethesda, past the black stairs of the Penrhyn quarry. The huge clicking ant-heap was silent now, save for the roar of Ogwen, as he swirled and bubbled down, rich coffee-brown from last night’s rain.

On, past rich woods, past trim cottages, gardens gay with flowers; past rhododendron shrubberies, broad fields of golden stubble, sweet clover, and grey swedes, with Ogwen making music far below. The sun is up at last, and Colonel Pennant’s grim slate castle, towering above black woods, glitters metallic in its rays, like Chaucer’s house of fame. He stops, to look back once. Far up the vale, eight miles away, beneath a roof of cloud, the pass of Nant Francon gapes high in air between the great jaws of the Carnedd and the Glyder, its cliffs marked with the upright white line of the waterfall. He is clear of the mountains; clear of that cursed place, and all its cursed thoughts! On, past Llandegai and all its rose-clad cottages; past yellow quarrymen walking out to their work, who stare as they pass at his haggard face, drenched clothes, and streaming hair. He does not see them. One fixed thought is in his mind, and that is, the railway station at Bangor.

He is striding through Bangor streets now, beside the summer sea, from which fresh scents of shore-weed greet him. He had rather smell the smoke and gas of the Strand.

The station is shut. He looks at the bill outside. There is no train for full two hours; and he throws himself, worn out with fatigue, upon the doorstep.

Now a new terror seizes him. Has he money enough to reach London? Has he his purse at all? Too dreadful to find himself stopped short, on the very brink of deliverance! A cold perspiration breaks from his forehead, as he feels in every pocket. Yes, his purse is there: but he turns sick as he opens it, and dare hardly look. Hurrah! Five pounds, six — eight! That will take him as far as Paris. He can walk; beg the rest of the way, if need be.

What will he do now? Wander over the town, and gaze vacantly at one little object and another about the house fronts. One thing he will not look at; and that is the bright summer sea, all golden in the sun rays, flecked with gay white sails. From all which is bright and calm, and cheerful, his soul shrinks as from an impertinence; he longs for the lurid gas-light of London, and the roar of the Strand, and the everlasting stream of faces among whom he may wander free, sure that no one will recognise him, the disgraced, the desperate.

The weary hours roll on. Too tired to stand longer, he sits down on the shafts of a cart, and tries not to think. It is not difficult. Body and mind are alike worn out, and his brain seems filled with uniform dull mist.

A shop-door opens in front of him; a boy comes out. He sees bottles inside, and shelves, the look of which he knows too well.

The bottle-boy, whistling, begins to take the shutters down. How often, in Whitbury of old, had Elsley done the same! Half amused, he watched the lad, and wondered how he spent his evenings, and what works he read, and whether he ever thought of writing poetry.

And as he watched, all his past life rose up before him, ever since he served out medicines fifteen years ago; — his wild aspirations, heavy labours, struggles, plans, brief triumphs, long disappointments: and here was what it had all come to — a failure — a miserable, shameful failure! Not that he thought of it with repentance, with a single wish that he had done otherwise: but only with disappointed rage. “Yes!” he said bitterly to himself —

“‘We poets in our youth begin in gladness,

But after come despondency and madness.’

This is the way of the world with all who have nobler feelings in them than will fit into its cold rules. Curse the world! what on earth had I to do with mixing myself up in it, and marrying a fine lady? Fool that I was! I might have known from the first that she could not understand me; that she would go back to her own! Let her go! I will forget her, and the world, and everything — and I know how!”

And springing up, he walked across to the druggist’s shop.

Years before, Elsley had tried opium, and found, unhappily for him, that it fed his fancy without inflicting those tortures of indigestion which keep many, happily for them, from its magic snare. He had tried it more than once of late: but Lucia had had a hint of the fact from Thurnall; and in just terror had exacted from him a solemn promise never to touch opium again. Elsley was a man of honour, and the promise had been kept. But now —“I promised her, and therefore I will break my promise! She has broken hers, and I am free!”

And he went in and bought his opium. He took a little on the spot to allay the cravings of hunger. He reserved a full dose for the railway-carriage. It would bridge over the weary gulf of time which lay between him and town.

He took his second-class place at last; not without stares and whispers from those round at the wild figure which was starting for London, without bag or baggage. But as the clerks agreed, “If he was running away from his creditors, it was a shame to stop him. If he was running from the police, they would have the more sport the longer the run. At least it was no business of theirs.”

There was one thing more to do, and he did it. He wrote to Campbell a short note.

“If, as I suppose, you expect from me ‘the satisfaction of a gentleman,’ you will find me at . . . Adelphi. I am not escaping from you but from the whole world. If, by shooting me you can quicken my escape, you will do me the first and last favour which I am likely to ask from you.”

He posted his letter, settled himself in a corner of the carriage, and took his second dose of opium. From that moment he recollected little more. A confused whirl of hedges and woods, rattling stations, screaming and flashing trains, great red towns, white chalk cuttings; while the everlasting roar and rattle of the carriages shaped themselves in his brain into a hundred snatches of old tunes, all full of a strange merriment, as if mocking at his misery, striving to keep him awake and conscious of who and what he was. He closed his eyes and shut out the hateful garish world: but that sound he could not shut out. Too tired to sleep, too tired even to think, he could do nothing but submit to the ridiculous torment; watching in spite of himself every note, as one jig-tune after another was fiddled by all the imps close to his ear, mile after mile, and county after county, for all that weary day, which seemed full seven years long.

At Euston Square the porter called him several times ere he could rouse him. He could hear nothing for awhile but that same imps’ melody, even though it had stopped. At last he got out, staring round him, shook himself awake by one strong effort, and hurried away, not knowing whither he went.

Wrapt up in self, he wandered on till dark, slept on a doorstep, and awoke, not knowing at first where he was. Gradually all the horror came back to him, and with the horror the craving for opium wherewith to forget it.

He looked round to see his whereabouts. Surely this must be Golden Square? A sudden thought struck him. He went to a chemist’s shop, bought a fresh supply of his poison, and, taking only enough to allay the cravings of his stomach, hurried tottering in the direction of Drury Lane.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/two_years_ago/chapter21.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:48