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A Tryst At An Ancient Earthwork Analysis

Author: Prose of Thomas Hardy Type: Prose Views: 454

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At one’s every step forward it rises higher against the south sky, with anobtrusive personality that compels the senses to regard it and consider.Theeyes may bend in another direction, but never without the consciousness of itsheavy, high-shouldered presence at its point of vantage.Across the interveninglevels the gale races in a straight line from the fort, as if breathed out of ithitherward.With the shifting of the clouds the faces of the steeps vary in colourand in shade, broad lights appearing where mist and vagueness had prevailed,dissolving in their turn into melancholy grey, which spreads over and eclipsesthe luminous bluffs. in this so-thought immutable spectacle all is change.

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

The profile of the whole stupendous ruin, as seen at a distance of a mileeastward, is cleanly cut as that of a marble inlay.It is varied withprotuberances, which from hereabouts have the animal aspect of warts, wens,knuckles, and hips.It may indeed be likened to an enormous many-limbedorganism of an antediluvian time-partaking of the cephalopod in shape-lyinglifeless, and covered with a thin green cloth, which hides its substance, whilerevealing its contour.This dull green mantle of herbage stretches down towardsthe levels, where the ploughs have essayed for centuries to creep up near andyet nearer to the base of the castle, but have always stopped short beforereaching it.The furrows of these environing attempts show themselvesdistinctly, bending to the incline as they trench upon it; mounting in steepercurves, till the steepness baffies them, and their parallel threads show like thestriae of waves pausing on the curl.The peculiar place of which these are someof the features is "Mai-Dun," "The Castle of the Great Hill," said to be theDunium of Ptolemy, the capital of the Durotriges, which eventually came intoRoman occupation, and was finally deserted on their withdrawal from the island.

The evening is followed by a night on which an invisible moon bestows asubdued, yet pervasive light-without radiance, as without blackness.From thespot whereon I am ensconced in a cottage, a mile away, the fort has nowceased to be visible; yet, as by day, to anybody whose thoughts have beenengaged with it and its barbarous grandeurs of past time the form asserts itsexistence behind the night gauzes as persistently as if it had a voice.Moreover,the southwest wind continues to feed the intervening arable flats with vapoursbrought directly from its sides.

The midnight hour for which there has been occasion to wait at lengtharrives, and journey towards the stronghold in obedience to a request urgedearlier in the day.It concerns an appointment, which I rather regret mydecision to keep now that night is come.The route thither is hedgeless andtreeless-I need not add deserted.The moonlight is sufficient to disclose the paleribandlike surface of the way as it trails along between the expanses of darkerfallow.Though the road passes near the fortress it does not conduct directly toits fronts.As the place is without an inhabitant, so it is without a trackway.Sopresently leaving the macadamized road to pursue its course elsewhither, I stepoff upon the fallow, and plod stumblingly across it.The castle loomsout off theshade by degrees, like a thing waking up and asking what I want there.It isnow so enlarged by nearness that its whole shape cannot be taken in at oneview.The ploughed ground ends as the rise sharpens, the sloping basement ofgrass begins, and I climb upward to invade Mai-Dun.Impressive by day as this largest Ancient-British work in the kingdomundoubtedly is, its impressiveness is increased now.After standing still andspending a few minutes in adding its age to its size, and its size to its solitude, itbecomes appallingly mournful in its growing closeness.A squally wind blows inthe face with an impact which proclaims that the vapours of the air sail lowtonight.The slope that I so laboriously clamber up the wind skips sportivelydown.Its track can be discerned even in this light by the undulations of thewithered grass-bents-the only produce of this upland summit except moss.Fourminutes of ascent, and a vantage-ground of some sort is gained. It is only thecrest of the outer rampart.Immediately within this a chasm gapes; its bottomis imperceptible, but the counterscarp slopes not too steeply to admit of a slidingdescent if cautiously performed.The shady bottom, dank and chilly, is thusgained, and reveals itself as a kind of winding lane, wide enough for a waggon topass along, floored with rank herbage, and trending away, right and left, intoobscurity, between the concentric walls of earth.The towering closeness ofthese on each hand, their impenetrability, and their ponderousness, are felt as aphysical pressure.The way is now up the second of them, which stands steeperand higher than the first.To turn aside, as did Christian's companion, from sucha Hill Difficulty, is the more natural tendency; but the way to the interior isupward.There is, of course, an entrance to the fortress; but that lies far off onthe other side.It might possibly have been the wiser course to seek for easieringress there.

However, being here, I ascend the second acclivity.The grass stems-thegrey beard of the hill-sway in a mass close to my stooping face.The deadheads of these various grasses-fescues, fox-tails, and ryes-bob and twitch as ifpulled by a string underground.From a few thistles a whistling proceeds; andeven 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 suddenlymade known by a contrasting wind from a new quarter, coming over with thecurve of a cascade.These novel gusts raise a sound from the whole camp orcastle, playing upon it bodily as upon a harp.It is with some difficulty that afoothold can be preserved under their sweep.Looking aloft for a moment Iperceive that the sky is much more overcast than it has been hitherto, and in afew instants a dead lull in what is now a gale ensues with almost preternaturalabruptness.I take advantage of this to sidle down the second counterscarp, butthe time the ditch is reached the lull reveals itself to be but the precursor of astorm.It begins with a heave of the whole atmosphere, like the sigh of a wearystrong man on turning to recommence unusual exertion, just as I stand here inthe second fosse.That which now radiates from the sky upon the scene is notso much light as vaporous phosphorescence.

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

The roar of the storm can be heard travelling the cornplete circuit of thecastle-a measured mile-coming round at intervals like a circumambulatingcolumn of infantry.Doubtless such a column has passed this way in its time,but the only columns which enter in these latter days arc the columns of sheepand oxen that are sometimes seen here now; while the only semblance of heroicvoices heard are the utterances of such, and of the many winds which maketheir passage through the ravines.

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

There, where all passage has seemed to be inviolably barred by an almostvertical facade, the ramparts are found to overlap each other like looselyclasped fingers, between which a zigzag path may be followed-a cunningconstruction that puzzles the uninformed eye.But its cunning, even where notobscured by dilapidation, is now wasted on the solitary forms of a few wildbadgers, rabbits, and hares.Men must have often gone out by those gates inthe morning to battle with the Roman legions under Vespasian; some to returnno more, others to come back at evening, bringing with them the noise of theirheroic deeds.But not a page, not a stone, has preserved their fame.

Acoustic perceptions multiply to-night.We can almost hear the stream ofyears that have home those deeds away from us.Strange articulations seem tofloat on the air from that point, the gateway, where the animation in past timesmust frequently have concentrated itself at hours of coming and going, andgeneral excitement.There arises an ineradicable fancy that they are humanvoices; if so, they must be the lingering air-borne vibrations of conversationsuttered at least fifteen hundred years ago.The attentions is attracted frommere nebulous imaginings about yonder spot by a real moving of somethingclose at hand.

I recognize by the now moderate flashes of lightning, which are sheet-likeand 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 sinksa little and is still.It is but the heaving of a mole who chooses such weather asthis to work in from some instinct that there will be nobody abroad to molesthim.As the fine earth lifts and lifts and falls loosely aside fragments of burntclay roll out of it-clay that once formed part of cups or other vessels used by theinhabitants 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 withlightning, I find myself uncovered of the humid investiture and left bare to themild gaze of the moon, which sparkles now on every wet grass-blade and frondof moss.

But I am not yet inside the fort, and the delayed ascent of the third andlast escarpment is now made.It is steeper than either.The first was a surfaceto walk up, the second to stagger up, the third can only be ascended on thehands and toes.On the summit obtrudes the first evidence which has been metwith in these precincts that the time is really the nineteenth century; it is in theform of a white notice-board on a post, and the wording can just be discernedby 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 beProsecuted 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 meagrequantity, but sufficient to suggest that masonry stood on the spot.Before theeye stretches under the moonlight the interior of the fort.So open and so largeis it as to be practically an upland plateau, and yet its area lies wholly within thewalls 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 buildneighbouring villages even before mediaeval or modern history began.Many ablock which once may have helped to form a bastion here rests now in brokenand diminished shape as part of the chimney-corner of some shepherd's cottagewithin the distant horizon, and the corner-stones of this heathen altar may formthe base-course of some adjoining village church.Yet the very bareness of these inner courts and wards, their condition ofmere 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 apermanence of general outline at least results, which no other condition couldensure.

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

Within the innermost enclosure, though it is so wide that at a superficialglance the beholder has only a sense of standing on a breezy down, the solitudeis rendered yet more solitary by the knowledge that between the benightedsojourner herein and all kindred humanity are those three concentric walls ofearth which no being would think of scaling on such a night as this, even werehe to hear the most pathetic cries issuing hence that could be uttered by aspectre-chased soul.I reach a central mound or platform-the crown and axis ofthe whole structure.The view from here by day must be of almost limitlessextent.On this raised floor, dais, or rostrum, harps have probably twangedmore or less tuneful notes in celebration of daring, strength, or cruelty; ofworship, superstition, love, birth and death; of simple loving-kindness perhapsnever.Many a time must the king or leader have directed his keen eyes henceacross the open lands towards the ancient road the Icening Way, still visible inthe distance, on the watch for armed companies approaching either to succouror to attack.

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

He, to whom neither weather, darkness, nor difficulty seems to have anyrelation or significance, so entirely is his soul wrapt up in his own deepintentions, asks me to take the lantern and accompany him.I take it and walkby his side.He is a man about sixty, small in figure, with grey old-fashionedwhiskers cut to the shape of a pair of crumb-brushes.He is entirely in blackbroadcloth-or rather, at present, black and brown, for he is bespattered withmud from his heels to the crown of his low hat.He has no consciousness ofthis-no sense of anything but his purpose, his ardour for which causes his eyesto shine like those of a lynx, and gives his motions all the elasticity of anathlete's.

"Nobody to interrupt us at this time of night!" he chuckles with fierceenjoyment.We retreat a little way and find a sort of angle, an elevation in the sod, asuggested squareness amid the mass of irregularities around.Here, he tells me,if anywhere, the king's house stood.Three months of measurement andcalculation have confirmed him in this conclusion.

He requests me now to open the lantern, which I do, and the light streamsout 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 thanmeet me for a meditative ramble through the stronghold.I ask him why,having a practicable object, he should have minded interruptions and not havechosen the day?He informs me, quietly pointing to his spade, that it wasbecause his purpose is to dig, then signifying with a grim nod the gauntnotice-post against the sky beyond.I inquire why, as a professed andwell-known antiquary with capital letters at the tail of his name, he did notobtain the necessary authority, considering the stringent penalties for this sortof 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 followon with, assures me that, penalty or no penalty, honest men or marauders, heis 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 somespecial science, art, or hobby, have quite lost the moral sense which wouldrestrain 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 justifiableintention in this matter; namely, to uncover, to search, to verify a theory ordisplace it, and to cover up again.He means to take away nothing-not a grainof sand. In this he says he sees no such monstrous sin.I inquire if this is reallya promise to me? He repeats that it is a promise, and resumes digging. Mycontribution 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; suchthings never are deep.A few minutes later the point of the pickaxe clicks upona stony substance.He draws the implement out as feelingly as if it had entereda man's body.Taking up the spade he shovels with care, and a surface, level asan altar, is presently disclosed.His eyes flash anew; he pulls handfuls of grassand mops the surface clean, finally rubbing it with his handkerchief.Graspingthe lantern from my hand he holds it close to the ground, when the rays reveala complete mosaic-a pavement of minute tesserae of many colours, of intricatepattern, a work of much art, of much time, and of much industry.He exclaimsin 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 morethan the original framework which the latter took and adapted till it became thepresent imposing structure.

I ask, What if it is Roman?A great deal, according to him.That it proves all the world to be wrong inthis great argument, and himself alone to be right!Can I wait while he digsfurther?I agree-reluctantly; but he does not notice my reluctance.At an adjoiningspot he begins flourishing the tools anew with the skill of a navvy, this venerablescholar with letters after his name.Sometimes he falls on his knees, burrowingwith his hands in the manner of a hare, and where his old-fashioned broadclothtouches the sides of the hole it gets plastered with the damp earth.Hecontinually murmurs to himself how important, how very important, thisdiscovery is!He draws out an object; we wash it in the same primitive way byrubbing it with the wet grass, and it proves to be a semi-transparent bottle ofiridescent beauty, the sight of which draws groans of luxurious sensibility fromthe digger.Further and further search brings out a piece of a weapon.It isstrange indeed that by merely peeling off a wrapper of modern accumulationswe have lowered ourselves into an ancient world.Finally a skeleton isuncovered, 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 ofburial.He turns again to the trench, scrapes, feels, till from a corner he drawsout 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 ofMercury, obviously, its head being surmounted with the petasus or winged hat,the usual accessory of that deity.Further inspection reveals the workmanshipto be of good finish and detail, and, preserved by the limy earth, to be as freshin 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 remotespot was a component part, we do not notice what is going on in the presentworld till reminded of it by the sudden renewal of the storm.Looking up Iperceive that the wide extinguisher of cloud has again settled down upon thefortress-town, as if resting upon the edge of the inner rampart, and shutting outthe moon.I turn my back to the tempest, still directing the light across thehole.My companion. digs on unconcernedly; he is living two thousand yearsago, and despises things of the moment as dreams.But at last he is fairlybeaten, and standing up beside me looks round on what he has done.The raysof the lantern pass over the trench to the tall skeleton stretched upon the grasson 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 inthe candle-shine as they lie.

This storm, like the first, is of the nature of a squall, and it ends as abruptlyas the other.We dig no further.My friend says that it is enough-he has provedhis point.He turns to replace the bones in the trench and covers them.Butthey fall to pieces under his touch: the air has disintegrated them, and he canonly sweep in the fragments.The next act of his plan is more than difficult, butis carried out.The treasures are inhumed again in their respective holes: theyare not ours.Each deposition seems to cost him a twinge; and at one moment Ifancied 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 againconsigned to darkness; the trench is filled up; the sod laid smoothly down; hewipes the perspiration from his forehead with the same handkerchief he hadused to mop the skeleton and tesserae clean; and we make for the eastern gateof the fortress.Dawn bursts upon us suddenly as we reach the opening.It comes by thelifting and thinning of the clouds that way till we are bathed in a pink light.Thedirection of his homeward journey is not the same as mine, and we part underthe 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 gildedimage 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 hisword.

It was thus I spoke to myself, and so the adventure ended.But one thingremains to be told, and that is concerned with seven years after.Among theeffects of my friend, at that time just deceased, was found, carefully preserved, agilt statuette representing Mercury, labelled "Debased Roman." No record wasattached to explain how it came into his possession.The figure was bequeathedto the Casterbridge Museum.


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