A coach-and-six, as a rule, may be called an impressive Object.
But something depends on where you see it.
Viewed from the tall cliffs—along the base of which, on a strip of beach two hundred feet below, it crawled between the American continent and the Atlantic Ocean—Captain Oliver Vyell’s coach-and-six resembled nothing so nearly as a black-beetle.
For that matter the cliffs themselves, swept by the spray and humming with the roar of the beach—even the bald headland towards which they curved as to the visible bourne of all things terrestrial—shrank in comparison with the waste void beyond, where sky and ocean weltered together after the wrestle of a two days’ storm; and in comparison with the thought that this rolling sky and heaving water stretched all the way to Europe. Not a sail showed, not a wing anywhere under the leaden clouds that still dropped their rain in patches, smurring out the horizon. The wind had died down, but the ships kept their harbours and the sea-birds their inland shelters. Alone of animate things, Captain Vyell’s coach-and-six crept forth and along the beach, as though tempted by the promise of a wintry gleam to landward.
A god—if we may suppose one of the old careless Olympians seated there on the cliff-top, nursing his knees—must have enjoyed the comedy of it, and laughed to think that this pert beetle, edging its way along the sand amid the eternal forces of nature, was here to take seizin of them—yes, actually to take seizin and exact tribute. So indomitable a fellow is Man, improbus Homo; and among men in his generation Captain Oliver Vyell was Collector of Customs for the Port of Boston, Massachusetts.
In fairness to Captain Vyell be it added that he—a young English blood, bearing kinship with two or three of the great Whig families at home, and sceptical as became a person of quality—was capable as any one of relishing the comedy, had it been pointed out to him. With equal readiness he would have scoffed at Man’s pretensions in this world and denied him any place at all in the next. Nevertheless on a planet the folly of which might be taken for granted he claimed at least his share of the reverence paid by fools to rank and wealth. He was travelling this lonely coast on a tour of inspection, to visit and report upon a site where His Majesty’s advisers had some design to plant a fort; and a fine ostentation coloured his progress here as through life. He had brought his coach because it conveyed his claret and his batterie de cuisine (the seaside inns were detestable); but being young and extravagantly healthy and, with all his faults, very much of a man, he preferred to ride ahead on his saddle-horse and let his pomp follow him.
Six horses drew the coach, and to each pair of leaders rode a postillion, while a black coachman guided the wheelers from the box-seat; all three men in the Collector’s livery of white and scarlet. On a perch behind the vehicle—which, despite its weight, left but the shallowest of wheel-ruts on the hard sand—sat Manasseh, the Collector’s cook and body-servant; a huge negro, in livery of the same white and scarlet but with heavy adornments of bullion, a cockade in his hat, and a loaded blunderbuss laid across his thighs. Last and alone within the coach, with a wine-case for footstool, sat a five-year-old boy.
Master Dicky Vyell—the Collector’s only child, and motherless—sat and gazed out of the windows in a delicious terror. For hours that morning the travellers had ploughed their way over a plain of blown sand, dotted with shrub-oaks, bay-berries, and clumps of Indian grass; then, at a point where the tall cliffs began, had wound down to the sea between low foothills and a sedge-covered marsh criss-crossed by watercourses that spread out here and there into lagoons. At the head of this descent the Atlantic had come into sight, and all the way down its echoes had grown in the boy’s ears, confusing themselves with a delicious odour which came in fact from the fields of sedge, though he attributed it to the ocean.
But the sound had amounted to a loud humming at most; and it was with a leap and a shout, as they rounded the last foothill and saw the vast empty beach running northward before them, league upon league, that the thunder of the surf broke on them. For a while the boom and crash of it fairly stunned the child. He caught at an arm-strap hanging by the window and held on with all his small might, while the world he knew with its familiar protective boundaries fell away, melted, left him—a speck of life ringed about with intolerable roaring emptiness. To a companion, had there been one in the coach, he must have clung in sheer terror; yes, even to his father, to whom he had never clung and could scarcely imagine himself clinging. But his father rode ahead, carelessly erect on his blood-horse—horse and rider seen in a blur through the salt-encrusted glass. Therefore Master Dicky held on as best he might to the arm-strap.
By degrees his terror drained away, though its ebb left him shivering. Child though he was, he could not remember when he had not been curious about the sea. In a dazed fashion he stared out upon the breakers. The wind had died down after the tempest, but the Atlantic kept its agitation. Meeting the shore (which hereabouts ran shallow for five or six hundred yards) it reared itself in ten-foot combers, rank stampeding on rank, until the sixth or seventh hurled itself far up the beach, spent itself in a long receding curve, and drained back to the foaming forces behind. Their untiring onset fascinated Dicky; and now and again he tasted renewal of his terror, as a wave, taller than the rest or better timed, would come sweeping up to the coach itself, spreading and rippling about the wheels and the horses’ fetlocks. “Surely this one would engulf them,” thought the child, recalling Pharaoh and his chariots; but always the furious charge spent itself in an edge of white froth that faded to delicate salt filigree and so vanished. When this had happened a dozen times or more, and still without disaster, he took heart and began to turn it all into a game, choosing this or that breaker and making imaginary wagers upon it; but yet the spectacle fascinated him, and still at the back of his small brain lay wonder that all this terrifying fury and uproar should always be coming to nothing. God must be out yonder (he thought) and engaged in some mysterious form of play. He had heard a good deal about God from Miss Quiney, his governess; but this playfulness, as an attribute of the Almighty, was new to him and hitherto unsuspected.
The beach, with here and there a break, extended for close upon twenty miles, still curving towards the headland; and the travellers covered more than two-thirds of the distance without espying a single living creature. As the afternoon wore on the weather improved. The sun, soon to drop behind the cliff-summits on the left, asserted itself with a last effort and shot a red gleam through a chink low in the cloud-wrack. The shaft widened. The breakers—indigo-backed till now and turbid with sand in solution—began to arch themselves in glass-green hollows, with rainbows playing on the spray of their crests. And then—as though the savage coast had become, at a touch of sunshine, habitable—our travellers spied a man.
He came forth from a break in the cliffs half a mile ahead and slowly crossed the sands to the edge of the surf, the line of which he began, after a pause, to follow as slowly northwards. His back was turned thus upon the Collector’s equipage, to which in crossing the beach he had given no attention, being old and purblind.
The coach rolled so smoothly, and the jingle of harness was so entirely swallowed in the roar of the sea, that Captain Vyell, pushing ahead and overtaking the old fellow, had to ride close up to his shoulder and shout. It appeared then, for further explanation, that his hearing as well as his eyesight was none of the best. He faced about in a puzzled fashion, stared, and touched his hat—or rather lifted his hand a little way and dropped it again.
“Your Honour will be the Collector,” he said, and nodded many times, at first as if proud of his sagacity, but afterwards dully—as though his interest had died out and he would have ceased nodding but had forgotten the way. “Yes; my gran’-darter told me. She’s in service at the Bowling Green, Port Nassau; but walks over on Lord’s Days to cheer up her mother and tell the news. They’ve been expectin’ you at Port Nassau any time this week.”
The Collector asked where he lived, and the old man pointed to a gully in the cliff and to something which, wedged in the gully, might at a first glance be taken for a large and loosely-constructed bird’s nest. The Collector’s keen eyes made it out to be a shanty of timber roofed with shingles and barely overtopping a wood pile.
“A good amount of it ought to be comin’ in, after the gale.”
“Then where’s your hook?”—for the wreckwood gatherers along this part of the coast carry long gaffs to hook the flotsam and drag it above reach of the waves.
“Left it up the bank,” said the old man shortly. After a moment he pulled himself together for an explanation, hollowed his palms around his mouth, and bawled above the boom of the surf. “I’m old. I don’t carry weight more’n I need to. When a log comes in, my darter spies it an’ tells me. She’s mons’rous quick-sighted for wood an’ such like— though good for nothin’ else.” (A pause.) “No, I’m hard on her; she can cook clams.”
“You were looking for clams?” Captain Vyell scrutinised the man’s face. It was a patriarchal face, strikingly handsome and not much wrinkled; the skin delicately tanned and extraordinarily transparent. Somehow this transparency puzzled him. “Hungry?” he asked quickly; and as quickly added, “Starving for food, that’s what you are.”
“It’s the Lord’s will,” answered the old man.
The coach had come to a halt a dozen paces away. The child within it could hear nothing of this conversation; but to the end of his life his memory kept vivid the scene and the two figures in it—his father, in close-fitting riding-coat of blue, with body braced, leaning sideways a little against the wind, and a characteristic hint of the cavalryman about the slope of the thigh; the old wreck-picker standing just forward of the bay’s shoulder and looking up, with blown hair and patient eyes. Memory recalled even the long slant of the bay’s shoulder—a perfectly true detail, for the horse was of pure English race and bred by the Collector himself.
After this, as he remembered, some command must have been given, for Manasseh climbed down, opened the coach door and drew from under the seat a box, of which he raised the lid, disclosing things good to eat— among them a pasty with a crisp brown crust.
The wreck-picker broke off a piece of the pasty and wrapped it in a handkerchief—and memory recalled, as with a small shock of surprise, that the handkerchief was clean. The old man, though ragged enough to scare the crows, was clean from his bare head to his bare sea-bleached feet. He munched the rest of the pasty, talking between mouthfuls. To his discourse Dicky paid no heed, but slipped away for a scamper on the sands.
As he came running back he saw the old man, in the act of wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, suddenly shoot out an arm and point. Just beyond the breakers a solitary bird—an osprey—rose with a fish shining in the grip of its claws. It flew northward, away for the headland, for a hundred yards or so; and then by some mischance let slip his prey, which fell back into the sea. The boy saw the splash. To his surprise the bird made no effort to recover the fish—neither stooped nor paused—but went winging sullenly on its way.
“That’s the way o’ them,” commented the old wreck-picker. “Good food, an’ to let it go. I could teach him better.”
But the boy, years after, read it as another and different parable.
Categories: English Literature