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    Ch. 6: A Tryst at an Ancient Earth Work

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    Chapter 6
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    At one's every step forward it rises higher against the south sky, with
    an obtrusive personality that compels the senses to regard it and
    consider. The eyes may bend in another direction, but never without the
    consciousness of its heavy, high-shouldered presence at its point of
    vantage. Across the intervening levels the gale races in a straight line
    from the fort, as if breathed out of it hitherward. With the shifting of
    the clouds the faces of the steeps vary in colour and in shade, broad
    lights appearing where mist and vagueness had prevailed, dissolving in
    their turn into melancholy gray, which spreads over and eclipses the
    luminous bluffs. In this so-thought immutable spectacle all is change.

    Out of the invisible marine region on the other side birds soar suddenly
    into the air, and hang over the summits of the heights with the
    indifference of long familiarity. Their forms are white against the
    tawny concave of cloud, and the curves they exhibit in their floating
    signify that they are sea-gulls which have journeyed inland from expected
    stress of weather. As the birds rise behind the fort, so do the clouds
    rise behind the birds, almost as it seems, stroking with their bagging
    bosoms the uppermost flyers.

    The profile of the whole stupendous ruin, as seen at a distance of a mile
    eastward, is cleanly cut as that of a marble inlay. It is varied with
    protuberances, which from hereabouts have the animal aspect of warts,
    wens, knuckles, and hips. It may indeed be likened to an enormous many-
    limbed organism of an antediluvian time--partaking of the cephalopod in
    shape--lying lifeless, and covered with a thin green cloth, which hides
    its substance, while revealing its contour. This dull green mantle of
    herbage stretches down towards the levels, where the ploughs have essayed
    for centuries to creep up near and yet nearer to the base of the castle,
    but have always stopped short before reaching it. The furrows of these
    environing attempts show themselves distinctly, bending to the incline as
    they trench upon it; mounting in steeper curves, till the steepness
    baffles them, and their parallel threads show like the striae of waves
    pausing on the curl. The peculiar place of which these are some of the
    features is 'Mai-Dun,' 'The Castle of the Great Hill,' said to be the
    Dunium of Ptolemy, the capital of the Durotriges, which eventually came
    into Roman occupation, and was finally deserted on their withdrawal from
    the island.

    * * * * *

    The evening is followed by a night on which an invisible moon bestows a
    subdued, yet pervasive light--without radiance, as without blackness.
    From the spot whereon I am ensconced in a cottage, a mile away, the fort
    has now ceased to be visible; yet, as by day, to anybody whose thoughts
    have been engaged with it and its barbarous grandeurs of past time the
    form asserts its existence behind the night gauzes as persistently as if
    it had a voice. Moreover, the south-west wind continues to feed the
    intervening arable flats with vapours brought directly from its sides.

    The midnight hour for which there has been occasion to wait at length
    arrives, and I journey towards the stronghold in obedience to a request
    urged earlier in the day. It concerns an appointment, which I rather
    regret my decision to keep now that night is come. The route thither is
    hedgeless and treeless--I need not add deserted. The moonlight is
    sufficient to disclose the pale riband-like surface of the way as it
    trails along between the expanses of darker fallow. Though the road
    passes near the fortress it does not conduct directly to its fronts. As
    the place is without an inhabitant, so it is without a trackway. So
    presently leaving the macadamized road to pursue its course elsewhither,
    I step off upon the fallow, and plod stumblingly across it. The castle
    looms out off the shade by degrees, like a thing waking up and asking
    what I want there. It is now so enlarged by nearness that its whole
    shape cannot be taken in at one view. The ploughed ground ends as the
    rise sharpens, the sloping basement of grass begins, and I climb upward
    to invade Mai-Dun.

    Impressive by day as this largest Ancient-British work in the kingdom
    undoubtedly is, its impressiveness is increased now. After standing
    still and spending a few minutes in adding its age to its size, and its
    size to its solitude, it becomes appallingly mournful in its growing
    closeness. A squally wind blows in the face with an impact which
    proclaims that the vapours of the air sail low to-night. The slope that
    I so laboriously clamber up the wind skips sportively down. Its track
    can be discerned even in this light by the undulations of the withered
    grass-bents--the only produce of this upland summit except moss. Four
    minutes of ascent, and a vantage-ground of some sort is gained. It is
    only the crest of the outer rampart. Immediately within this a chasm
    gapes; its bottom is imperceptible, but the counterscarp slopes not too
    steeply to admit of a sliding descent if cautiously performed. The shady
    bottom, dank and chilly, is thus gained, and reveals itself as a kind of
    winding lane, wide enough for a waggon to pass along, floored with rank
    herbage, and trending away, right and left, into obscurity, between the
    concentric walls of earth. The towering closeness of these on each hand,
    their impenetrability, and their ponderousness, are felt as a physical
    pressure. The way is now up the second of them, which stands steeper and
    higher than the first. To turn aside, as did Christian's companion, from
    such a Hill Difficulty, is the more natural tendency; but the way to the
    interior is upward. There is, of course, an entrance to the fortress;
    but that lies far off on the other side. It might possibly have been the
    wiser course to seek for easier ingress there.

    However, being here, I ascend the second acclivity. The grass stems--the
    grey beard of the hill--sway in a mass close to my stooping face. The
    dead heads of these various grasses--fescues, fox-tails, and ryes--bob
    and twitch as if pulled by a string underground. From a few thistles a
    whistling proceeds; and even the moss speaks, in its humble way, under
    the stress of the blast.

    That the summit of the second line of defence has been gained is suddenly
    made known by a contrasting wind from a new quarter, coming over with the
    curve of a cascade. These novel gusts raise a sound from the whole camp
    or castle, playing upon it bodily as upon a harp. It is with some
    difficulty that a foothold can be preserved under their sweep. Looking
    aloft for a moment I perceive that the sky is much more overcast than it
    has been hitherto, and in a few instants a dead lull in what is now a
    gale ensues with almost preternatural abruptness. I take advantage of
    this to sidle down the second counterscarp, but by the time the ditch is
    reached the lull reveals itself to be but the precursor of a storm. It
    begins with a heave of the whole atmosphere, like the sigh of a weary
    strong man on turning to re-commence unusual exertion, just as I stand
    here in the second fosse. That which now radiates from the sky upon the
    scene is not so much light as vaporous phosphorescence.

    The wind, quickening, abandons the natural direction it has pursued on
    the open upland, and takes the course of the gorge's length, rushing
    along therein helter-skelter, and carrying thick rain upon its back. The
    rain is followed by hailstones which fly through the defile in
    battalions--rolling, hopping, ricochetting, snapping, clattering down the
    shelving banks in an undefinable haze of confusion. The earthen sides of
    the fosse seem to quiver under the drenching onset, though it is
    practically no more to them than the blows of Thor upon the giant of
    Jotun-land. It is impossible to proceed further till the storm somewhat
    abates, and I draw up behind a spur of the inner scarp, where possibly a
    barricade stood two thousand years ago; and thus await events.

    * * * * *

    The roar of the storm can be heard travelling the complete circuit of the
    castle--a measured mile--coming round at intervals like a
    circumambulating column of infantry. Doubtless such a column has passed
    this way in its time, but the only columns which enter in these latter
    days are the columns of sheep and oxen that are sometimes seen here now;
    while the only semblance of heroic voices heard are the utterances of
    such, and of the many winds which make their passage through the ravines.

    The expected lightning radiates round, and a rumbling as from its
    subterranean vaults--if there are any--fills the castle. The lightning
    repeats itself, and, coming after the aforesaid thoughts of martial men,
    it bears a fanciful resemblance to swords moving in combat. It has the
    very brassy hue of the ancient weapons that here were used. The so
    sudden entry upon the scene of this metallic flame is as the entry of a
    presiding exhibitor who unrolls the maps, uncurtains the pictures,
    unlocks the cabinets, and effects a transformation by merely exposing the
    materials of his science, unintelligibly cloaked till then. The abrupt
    configuration of the bluffs and mounds is now for the first time clearly
    revealed--mounds whereon, doubtless, spears and shields have frequently
    lain while their owners loosened their sandals and yawned and stretched
    their arms in the sun. For the first time, too, a glimpse is obtainable
    of the true entrance used by its occupants of old, some way ahead.

    There, where all passage has seemed to be inviolably barred by an almost
    vertical facade, the ramparts are found to overlap each other like
    loosely clasped fingers, between which a zigzag path may be followed--a
    cunning construction that puzzles the uninformed eye. But its cunning,
    even where not obscured by dilapidation, is now wasted on the solitary
    forms of a few wild badgers, rabbits, and hares. Men must have often
    gone out by those gates in the morning to battle with the Roman legions
    under Vespasian; some to return no more, others to come back at evening,
    bringing with them the noise of their heroic deeds. But not a page, not
    a stone, has preserved their fame.

    * * * * *

    Acoustic perceptions multiply to-night. We can almost hear the stream of
    years that have borne those deeds away from us. Strange articulations
    seem to float on the air from that point, the gateway, where the
    animation in past times must frequently have concentrated itself at hours
    of coming and going, and general excitement. There arises an
    ineradicable fancy that they are human voices; if so, they must be the
    lingering air-borne vibrations of conversations uttered at least fifteen
    hundred years ago. The attention is attracted from mere nebulous
    imaginings about yonder spot by a real moving of something close at hand.

    I recognize by the now moderate flashes of lightning, which are sheet-
    like and nearly continuous, that it is the gradual elevation of a small
    mound of earth. At first no larger than a man's fist it reaches the
    dimensions of a hat, then sinks a little and is still. It is but the
    heaving of a mole who chooses such weather as this to work in from some
    instinct that there will be nobody abroad to molest him. As the fine
    earth lifts and lifts and falls loosely aside fragments of burnt clay
    roll out of it--clay that once formed part of cups or other vessels used
    by the inhabitants of the fortress.

    The violence of the storm has been counterbalanced by its transitoriness.
    From being immersed in well-nigh solid media of cloud and hail shot with
    lightning, I find myself uncovered of the humid investiture and left bare
    to the mild gaze of the moon, which sparkles now on every wet grass-blade
    and frond of moss.

    But I am not yet inside the fort, and the delayed ascent of the third and
    last escarpment is now made. It is steeper than either. The first was a
    surface to walk up, the second to stagger up, the third can only be
    ascended on the hands and toes. On the summit obtrudes the first
    evidence which has been met with in these precincts that the time is
    really the nineteenth century; it is in the form of a white notice-board
    on a post, and the wording can just be discerned by the rays of the
    setting moon:

    CAUTION.--Any Person found removing Relics, Skeletons, Stones, Pottery,
    Tiles, or other Material from this Earthwork, or cutting up the Ground,
    will be Prosecuted as the Law directs.

    Here one observes a difference underfoot from what has gone before:
    scraps of Roman tile and stone chippings protrude through the grass in
    meagre quantity, but sufficient to suggest that masonry stood on the
    spot. Before the eye stretches under the moonlight the interior of the
    fort. So open and so large is it as to be practically an upland plateau,
    and yet its area lies wholly within the walls of what may be designated
    as one building. It is a long-violated retreat; all its corner-stones,
    plinths, and architraves were carried away to build neighbouring villages
    even before mediaeval or modern history began. Many a block which once
    may have helped to form a bastion here rests now in broken and diminished
    shape as part of the chimney-corner of some shepherd's cottage within the
    distant horizon, and the corner-stones of this heathen altar may form the
    base-course of some adjoining village church.

    Yet the very bareness of these inner courts and wards, their condition of
    mere pasturage, protects what remains of them as no defences could do.
    Nothing is left visible that the hands can seize on or the weather
    overturn, and a permanence of general outline at least results, which no
    other condition could ensure.

    The position of the castle on this isolated hill bespeaks deliberate and
    strategic choice exercised by some remote mind capable of prospective
    reasoning to a far extent. The natural configuration of the surrounding
    country and its bearing upon such a stronghold were obviously long
    considered and viewed mentally before its extensive design was carried
    into execution. Who was the man that said, 'Let it be built here!'--not
    on that hill yonder, or on that ridge behind, but on this best spot of
    all? Whether he were some great one of the Belgae, or of the Durotriges,
    or the travelling engineer of Britain's united tribes, must for ever
    remain time's secret; his form cannot be realized, nor his countenance,
    nor the tongue that he spoke, when he set down his foot with a thud and
    said, 'Let it be here!'

    Within the innermost enclosure, though it is so wide that at a
    superficial glance the beholder has only a sense of standing on a breezy
    down, the solitude is rendered yet more solitary by the knowledge that
    between the benighted sojourner herein and all kindred humanity are those
    three concentric walls of earth which no being would think of scaling on
    such a night as this, even were he to hear the most pathetic cries
    issuing hence that could be uttered by a spectre-chased soul. I reach a
    central mound or platform--the crown and axis of the whole structure. The
    view from here by day must be of almost limitless extent. On this raised
    floor, dais, or rostrum, harps have probably twanged more or less tuneful
    notes in celebration of daring, strength, or cruelty; of worship,
    superstition, love, birth, and death; of simple loving-kindness perhaps
    never. Many a time must the king or leader have directed his keen eyes
    hence across the open lands towards the ancient road, the Icening Way,
    still visible in the distance, on the watch for armed companies
    approaching either to succour or to attack.

    I am startled by a voice pronouncing my name. Past and present have
    become so confusedly mingled under the associations of the spot that for
    a time it has escaped my memory that this mound was the place agreed on
    for the aforesaid appointment. I turn and behold my friend. He stands
    with a dark lantern in his hand and a spade and light pickaxe over his
    shoulder. He expresses both delight and surprise that I have come. I
    tell him I had set out before the bad weather began.

    He, to whom neither weather, darkness, nor difficulty seems to have any
    relation or significance, so entirely is his soul wrapped up in his own
    deep intentions, asks me to take the lantern and accompany him. I take
    it and walk by his side. He is a man about sixty, small in figure, with
    grey old-fashioned whiskers cut to the shape of a pair of crumb-brushes.
    He is entirely in black broadcloth--or rather, at present, black and
    brown, for he is bespattered with mud from his heels to the crown of his
    low hat. He has no consciousness of this--no sense of anything but his
    purpose, his ardour for which causes his eyes to shine like those of a
    lynx, and gives his motions, all the elasticity of an athlete's.

    'Nobody to interrupt us at this time of night!' he chuckles with fierce
    enjoyment.

    We retreat a little way and find a sort of angle, an elevation in the
    sod, a suggested squareness amid the mass of irregularities around. Here,
    he tells me, if anywhere, the king's house stood. Three months of
    measurement and calculation have confirmed him in this conclusion.

    He requests me now to open the lantern, which I do, and the light streams
    out upon the wet sod. At last divining his proceedings I say that I had
    no idea, in keeping the tryst, that he was going to do more at such an
    unusual time than meet me for a meditative ramble through the stronghold.
    I ask him why, having a practicable object, he should have minded
    interruptions and not have chosen the day? He informs me, quietly
    pointing to his spade, that it was because his purpose is to dig, then
    signifying with a grim nod the gaunt notice-post against the sky beyond.
    I inquire why, as a professed and well-known antiquary with capital
    letters at the tail of his name, he did not obtain the necessary
    authority, considering the stringent penalties for this sort of thing;
    and he chuckles fiercely again with suppressed delight, and says,
    'Because they wouldn't have given it!'

    He at once begins cutting up the sod, and, as he takes the pickaxe to
    follow on with, assures me that, penalty or no penalty, honest men or
    marauders, he is sure of one thing, that we shall not be disturbed at our
    work till after dawn.

    I remember to have heard of men who, in their enthusiasm for some special
    science, art, or hobby, have quite lost the moral sense which would
    restrain them from indulging it illegitimately; and I conjecture that
    here, at last, is an instance of such an one. He probably guesses the
    way my thoughts travel, for he stands up and solemnly asserts that he has
    a distinctly justifiable intention in this matter; namely, to uncover, to
    search, to verify a theory or displace it, and to cover up again. He
    means to take away nothing--not a grain of sand. In this he says he sees
    no such monstrous sin. I inquire if this is really a promise to me? He
    repeats that it is a promise, and resumes digging. My contribution to
    the labour is that of directing the light constantly upon the hole. When
    he has reached something more than a foot deep he digs more cautiously,
    saying that, be it much or little there, it will not lie far below the
    surface; such things never are deep. A few minutes later the point of
    the pickaxe clicks upon a stony substance. He draws the implement out as
    feelingly as if it had entered a man's body. Taking up the spade he
    shovels with care, and a surface, level as an altar, is presently
    disclosed. His eyes flash anew; he pulls handfuls of grass and mops the
    surface clean, finally rubbing it with his handkerchief. Grasping the
    lantern from my hand he holds it close to the ground, when the rays
    reveal a complete mosaic--a pavement of minute tesserae of many colours,
    of intricate pattern, a work of much art, of much time, and of much
    industry. He exclaims in a shout that he knew it always--that it is not
    a Celtic stronghold exclusively, but also a Roman; the former people
    having probably contributed little more than the original framework which
    the latter took and adapted till it became the present imposing
    structure.

    I ask, What if it is Roman?

    A great deal, according to him. That it proves all the world to be wrong
    in this great argument, and himself alone to be right! Can I wait while
    he digs further?

    I agree--reluctantly; but he does not notice my reluctance. At an
    adjoining spot he begins flourishing the tools anew with the skill of a
    navvy, this venerable scholar with letters after his name. Sometimes he
    falls on his knees, burrowing with his hands in the manner of a hare, and
    where his old-fashioned broadcloth touches the sides of the hole it gets
    plastered with the damp earth. He continually murmurs to himself how
    important, how very important, this discovery is! He draws out an
    object; we wash it in the same primitive way by rubbing it with the wet
    grass, and it proves to be a semi-transparent bottle of iridescent
    beauty, the sight of which draws groans of luxurious sensibility from the
    digger. Further and further search brings out a piece of a weapon. It
    is strange indeed that by merely peeling off a wrapper of modern
    accumulations we have lowered ourselves into an ancient world. Finally a
    skeleton is uncovered, fairly perfect. He lays it out on the grass, bone
    to its bone.

    My friend says the man must have fallen fighting here, as this is no
    place of burial. He turns again to the trench, scrapes, feels, till from
    a corner he draws out a heavy lump--a small image four or five inches
    high. We clean it as before. It is a statuette, apparently of gold, or,
    more probably, of bronze-gilt--a figure of Mercury, obviously, its head
    being surmounted with the petasus or winged hat, the usual accessory of
    that deity. Further inspection reveals the workmanship to be of good
    finish and detail, and, preserved by the limy earth, to be as fresh in
    every line as on the day it left the hands of its artificer.

    We seem to be standing in the Roman Forum and not on a hill in Wessex.
    Intent upon this truly valuable relic of the old empire of which even
    this remote spot was a component part, we do not notice what is going on
    in the present world till reminded of it by the sudden renewal of the
    storm. Looking up I perceive that the wide extinguisher of cloud has
    again settled down upon the fortress-town, as if resting upon the edge of
    the inner rampart, and shutting out the moon. I turn my back to the
    tempest, still directing the light across the hole. My companion digs on
    unconcernedly; he is living two thousand years ago, and despises things
    of the moment as dreams. But at last he is fairly beaten, and standing
    up beside me looks round on what he has done. The rays of the lantern
    pass over the trench to the tall skeleton stretched upon the grass on the
    other side. The beating rain has washed the bones clean and smooth, and
    the forehead, cheek-bones, and two-and-thirty teeth of the skull glisten
    in the candle-shine as they lie.

    This storm, like the first, is of the nature of a squall, and it ends as
    abruptly as the other. We dig no further. My friend says that it is
    enough--he has proved his point. He turns to replace the bones in the
    trench and covers them. But they fall to pieces under his touch: the air
    has disintegrated them, and he can only sweep in the fragments. The next
    act of his plan is more than difficult, but is carried out. The
    treasures are inhumed again in their respective holes: they are not ours.
    Each deposition seems to cost him a twinge; and at one moment I fancied I
    saw him slip his hand into his coat pocket.

    'We must re-bury them all,' say I.

    'O yes,' he answers with integrity. 'I was wiping my hand.'

    The beauties of the tesselated floor of the governor's house are once
    again consigned to darkness; the trench is filled up; the sod laid
    smoothly down; he wipes the perspiration from his forehead with the same
    handkerchief he had used to mop the skeleton and tesserae clean; and we
    make for the eastern gate of the fortress.

    Dawn bursts upon us suddenly as we reach the opening. It comes by the
    lifting and thinning of the clouds that way till we are bathed in a pink
    light. The direction of his homeward journey is not the same as mine,
    and we part under the outer slope.

    Walking along quickly to restore warmth I muse upon my eccentric friend,
    and cannot help asking myself this question: Did he really replace the
    gilded image of the god Mercurius with the rest of the treasures? He
    seemed to do so; and yet I could not testify to the fact. Probably,
    however, he was as good as his word.

    * * *

    It was thus I spoke to myself, and so the adventure ended. But one thing
    remains to be told, and that is concerned with seven years after. Among
    the effects of my friend, at that time just deceased, was found,
    carefully preserved, a gilt statuette representing Mercury, labelled
    'Debased Roman.' No record was attached to explain how it came into his
    possession. The figure was bequeathed to the Casterbridge Museum.

    Detroit Post,

    March 1885.
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