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    Chapter 19

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    Chapter 19
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    Abbotsbury

    Abbotsbury is an old unspoilt village, not on but near the
    sea, divided from it by half a mile of meadowland where all
    sorts of meadow and water plants flourish, and where there are
    extensive reed and osier beds, the roosting-place in autumn
    and winter of innumerable starlings. I am always delighted to
    come on one of these places where starlings congregate, to
    watch them coming in at day's decline and listen to their
    marvellous hubbub, and finally to see their aerial evolutions
    when they rise and break up in great bodies and play at clouds
    in the sky. When the people of the place, the squire and
    keepers and others who have an interest in the reeds and
    osiers, fall to abusing them on account of the damage they do,
    I put my fingers in my ears. But at Abbotsbury I did not do
    so, but listened with keen pleasure to the curses they vented
    and the story they told. This was that when the owner of
    Abbotsbury came down for the October shooting and found the
    starlings more numerous than ever, he put himself into a fine
    passion and reproached his keepers and other servants for not
    having got rid of the birds as he had desired them to do.
    Some of them ventured to say that it was easier said than
    done, whereupon the great man swore that he would do it
    himself without assistance from any one, and getting out a big
    duck-gun he proceeded to load it with the smallest shot and
    went down to the reed bed and concealed hiniself among the
    bushes at a suitable distance. The birds were pouring in, and
    when it was growing dark and they had settled down for the
    night he fired his big piece into the thick of the crowd, and
    by and by when the birds after wheeling about for a minute or
    two settled down again in the same place he fired again. Then
    he went home, and early next morning men and boys went into
    the reeds and gathered a bushel or so of dead starlings. But
    the birds returned in their thousands that evening, and his
    heart being still hot against them he went out a second time
    to slaughter them wholesale with his big gun. Then when he
    had blazed into the crowd once more, and the dead and wounded
    fell like rain into the water below, the revulsion came and he
    was mad with himself for having done such a thing, and on his
    return to the house, or palace, he angrily told his people to
    "let the starlings alone" for the future--never to molest them
    again!

    I thought it one of the loveliest stories I had ever heard;
    there is no hardness comparable to that of the sportsman, yet
    here was one, a very monarch among them, who turned sick at
    his own barbarity and repented.

    Beyond the flowery wet meadows, favored by starlings and a
    breeding-place of swans, is the famous Chesil Bank, one of the
    seven wonders of Britain. And thanks to this great bank, a
    screen between sea and land extending about fourteen miles
    eastward from Portland, this part of the coast must remain
    inviolate from the speculative builder of seaside holiday
    resorts or towns of lodging-houses.

    Every one has heard of the Fleet in connection with the famous
    swannery of Abbotsbury, the largest in the land. I had heard
    so much about the swannery that it had but little interest for
    me. The only thing about it which specially attracted my
    attention was seeing a swan rise up and after passing over my
    head as I stood on the bank fly straight out over the sea. I
    watched him until he had diminished to a small white spot
    above the horizon, and then still flying he faded from sight.
    Do these swans that fly away over the sea, and others which
    appear in small flocks or pairs at Poole Harbour and at other
    places on the coast, ever return to the Fleet? Probably some
    do, but, I fancy some of these explorers must settle down in
    waters far from home, to return no more.

    The village itself, looked upon from this same elevation, is
    very attractive. Life seems quieter, more peaceful there out
    of sight of the ocean's turbulence, out of hearing of its
    "accents disconsolate." The cottages are seen ranged in a
    double line along the narrow crooked street, like a procession
    of cows with a few laggards scattered behind the main body.
    One is impressed by its ancient character. The cottages are
    old, stone-built and thatched; older still is the church with
    its grey square tower, and all about are scattered the
    memorials of antiquity--the chantry on the hill, standing
    conspicuous alone, apart, above the world; the vast old abbey
    barn, and, rough thick stone walls, ivy-draped and crowned
    with beautiful valerian, and other fragments that were once
    parts of a great religious house.

    Looking back at the great round hill from the village it is
    impossible not to notice the intense red colour of the road
    that winds over its green slope. One sometimes sees on a
    hillside a ploughed field of red earth which at a distance
    might easily be taken for a field of blossoming trifolium.
    Viewed nearer the crimson of the clover and red of the earth
    are very dissimilar; distance appears to intensify the red of
    the soil and to soften that of the flower until they are very
    nearly of the same hue. The road at Abbotsbury was near and
    looked to me more intensely red than any ordinary red earth,
    and the sight was strangely pleasing. These two complementary
    colours, red and green, delight us most when seen thus--a
    little red to a good deal of green, and the more luminous the
    red and vivid the green the better they please us. We see
    this in flowers--in the red geranium, for example--where there
    is no brown soil below, but green of turf or herbage. I
    sometimes think the red campions and ragged-robins are our
    most beautiful wild flowers when the sun shines level on the
    meadow and they are like crimson flowers among the tall
    translucent grasses. I remember the joy it was in boyhood in
    early spring when the flowers were beginning to bloom, when in
    our gallops over the level grass pampas we came upon a patch
    of scarlet verbenas. The first sight of the intense blooms
    scattered all about the turf would make us wild with delight,
    and throwing ourselves from our ponies we would go down among
    the flowers to feast on the sight.

    Green is universal, but the red earth which looks so pleasing
    amid the green is distributed very partially, and it may be
    the redness of the soil and the cliffs in Devon have given
    that county a more vivid personality, so to speak, than most
    others. Think of Kent with its white cliffs, chalk downs, and
    dull-coloured clays in this connection!

    The humble subterraneous mole proves himself on occasions a
    good colourist when he finds a soil of the proper hue to
    burrow in, and the hillocks he throws up from numberless
    irregular splashes of bright red colour on a green sward. The
    wild animals that strike us as most beautiful, when seen
    against a green background, are those which bear the reddest
    fur--fox, squirrel, and red deer. One day, in a meadow a few
    miles from Abbotsbury, I came upon a herd of about fifty milch
    cows scattered over a considerable space of ground, some lying
    down, others standing ruminating, and still others moving
    about and cropping the long flowery grasses. All were of that
    fine rich red colour frequently seen in Dorset and Devon
    cattle, which is brighter than the reds of other red animals
    in this country, wild and domestic, with the sole exception of
    a rare variety of the collie dog. The Irish setter and red
    chouchou come near it. So beautiful did these red cows look
    in the meadow that I stood still for half an hour feasting my
    eyes on the sight.

    No less was the pleasure I experienced when I caught sight of
    that road winding over the hill above the village. On going
    to it I found that it had looked as red as rust simply because
    it was rust-earth made rich and beautiful in colour with iron,
    its red hue variegated with veins and streaks of deep purple
    or violet. I was told that there were hundreds of acres of
    this earth all round the place--earth so rich in iron that
    many a man's mouth had watered at the sight of it; also that
    every effort had been made to induce the owner of Abbotsbury
    to allow this rich mine to be worked. But, wonderful to
    relate, he had not been persuaded.

    A hard fragment of the red stuff, measuring a couple of inches
    across and weighing about three ounces avoirdupois, rust-red
    in colour with purple streaks and yellow mottlings, is now
    lying before me. The mineralogist would tell me that its
    commercial value is naught, or something infinitesimal; which
    is doubtless true enough, as tens of thousands of tons of the
    same material lie close to the surface under the green turf
    and golden blossoming furze at the spot where I picked up my
    specimen. The lapidary would not look at it; nevertheless, it
    is the only article of jewellery I possess, and I value it
    accordingly. And I intend to keep this native ruby by me for
    as long as the lords of Abbotsbury continue in their present
    mind. The time may come when I shall be obliged to throw it
    away. That any millionaire should hesitate for a moment to
    blast and blacken any part of the earth's surface, howsoever
    green and refreshing to the heart it may be, when by so doing
    he might add to his income, seems like a fable, or a tale of
    fairyland. It is as if one had accidentally discovered the
    existence of a little fantastic realm, a survival from a
    remote past, almost at one's doors; a small independent
    province, untouched by progress, asking to be conquered and
    its antediluvian constitution taken from it.

    From the summit of that commanding hill, over which the red
    path winds, a noble view presents itself of the Chesil Bank,
    or of about ten miles of it, running straight as any Roman
    road, to end beneath the rugged stupendous cliffs of Portland.
    The ocean itself, and not conquering Rome, raised this
    artificial-looking wall or rampart to stay its own proud
    waves. Formed of polished stones and pebbles, about two
    hundred yards in width, flat-topped, with steeply sloping
    sides, at this distance it has the appearance of a narrow
    yellow road or causeway between the open sea on one hand and
    the waters of the Fleet, a narrow lake ten miles long, on the
    other.

    When the mackerel visit the coast, and come near enough to be
    taken in a draw-net, every villager who owns a share (usually
    a tenth) in a fishing-boat throws down his spade or whatever
    implement he happens to have in his hand at the moment, and
    hurries away to the beach to take his share in the fascinating
    task. At four o'clock one morning a youth, who had been down
    to the sea to watch, came running into the village uttering
    loud cries which were like excited yells--a sound to rouse the
    deepest sleeper. The mackerel had come! For the rest of the
    day there was a pretty kind of straggling procession of those
    who went and came between the beach and the village--men in
    blue cotton shirts, blue jerseys, blue jackets, and women in
    grey gowns and big white sun-bonnets. During the latter part
    of the day the proceedings were peculiarly interesting to me,
    a looker-on with no share in any one of the boats, owing to
    the catches being composed chiefly of jelly-fish. Some
    sympathy was felt for the toilers who strained their muscles
    again and again only to be mocked in the end; still, a draught
    of jelly-fish was more to my taste than one of mackerel. The
    great weight of a catch of this kind when the net was full was
    almost too much for the ten or twelve men engaged in drawing
    it up; then (to the sound of deep curses from those of the men
    who were not religious) the net would be opened and the great
    crystalline hemispheres, hyaline blue and delicate salmon-pink
    in colour, would slide back into the water. Such rare and
    exquisite colours have these great glassy flowers of ocean
    that to see them was a feast; and every time a net was hauled
    up my prayer--which I was careful not to repeat aloud--was,
    Heaven send another big draught of jelly-fish!

    The sun, sinking over the hills towards Swyre and Bridport,
    turned crimson before it touched the horizon. The sky became
    luminous; the yellow Chesil Bank, stretching long leagues
    away, and the hills behind it, changed their colours to
    violet. The rough sea near the beach glittered like gold; the
    deep green water, flecked with foam, was mingled with fire;
    the one boat that remained on it, tossing up and down near the
    beach, was like a boat of ebony in a glittering fiery sea. A
    dozen men were drawing up the last net; but when they gathered
    round to see what they had taken--mackerel or jelly-fish--I
    cared no longer to look with them. That sudden, wonderful
    glory which had fallen on the earth and sea had smitten me as
    well and changed me; and I was like some needy homeless tramp
    who has found a shilling piece, and, even while he is
    gloating over it, all at once sees a great treasure before
    him--glittering gold in heaps, and all rarest sparkling gems,
    more than he can gather up.

    But it is a poor simile. No treasures in gold and gems,
    though heaped waist-high all about, could produce in the
    greediest man, hungry for earthly pleasures, a delight, a
    rapture, equal to mine. For this joy was of another and
    higher order and very rare, and was a sense of lightness and
    freedom from all trammels as if the body had become air,
    essence, energy, or soul, and of union with all visible
    nature, one with sea and land and the entire vast overarching
    sky.

    We read of certain saints who were subject to experiences of
    this kind that they were "snatched up" into some supramundane
    region, and that they stated on their return to earth that it
    was not lawful for them to speak of the things they had
    witnessed. The humble naturalist and nature-worshipper can
    only witness the world glorified--transfigured; what he finds
    is the important thing. I fancy the mystics would have been
    nearer the mark if they had said that their experiences during
    their period of exaltation could not be reported, or that it
    would be idle to report them, since their questioners lived on
    the ground and would be quite incapable on account of the
    mind's limitations of conceiving a state above it and outside
    of its own experience.

    The glory passed and with it the exaltation: the earth and sea
    turned grey; the last boat was drawn up on the slope and the
    men departed slowly: only one remained, a rough-looking youth,
    about fifteen years old. Some important matter which he was
    revolving in his mind had detained him alone on the darkening
    beach. He sat down, then stood up and gazed at the rolling
    wave after wave to roar and hiss on the shingle at his feet;
    then he moved restlessly about, crunching pebbles beneath his
    thick boots; finally, making up his mind, he took off his
    coat, threw it down, and rolled up his shirt-sleeves, with the
    resolute air of a man about to engage in a fight with an
    adversary nearly as big as himself. Stepping back a little
    space, he made a rush at the sea, not to cast himself in it,
    but only, as it turned out, with the object of catching some
    water in the hollow of his hands from the top of an incoming
    wave. He only succeeded in getting his legs wet, and in
    hastily retreating he fell on his back. Nothing daunted, he
    got up and renewed the assault, and when he succeeded in
    catching water in his hands he dashed it on and vigorously
    rubbed it over his dirty face. After repeating the operation
    about a dozen times, receiving meanwhile several falls and
    wettings, he appeared satisfied, put on his coat and marched
    away homewards with a composed air.
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