On Something/In Patria

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
In Patria

There is a certain valley, or rather profound cleft, through the living rock of certain savage mountains through which there roars and tumbles in its narrow trench the Segre, here but a few miles from its rising in the upland grass.

This cleft is so disposed that the smooth limestone slabs of its western wall stand higher than the gloomy steps of cliff upon its eastern, and thus these western cliffs take the glare of the morning sunlight upon them, or the brilliance of the moon when she is full or waning in the first part of her course through the night.

The only path by which men can go down that gorge clings to the eastern face of the abyss and is for ever plunged in shadow. Down this path I went very late upon a summer night, close upon midnight, and the moon just past the full. The air was exceedingly clear even for that high place, and the moon struck upon the limestone of the sheer opposing cliffs in a manner neither natural nor pleasing, but suggesting horror, and, as it were, something absolute, too simple for mankind.

It was not cold, but there were no crickets at such a level in the mountains, nor any vegetation there except a brush here and there clinging between the rocks and finding a droughty rooting in their fissures. Though the map did not include this gorge, I could guess that it would be impossible for me, save by following that dreadful path all night, to find a village, and therefore I peered about in the dense shadow as I went for one of those overhanging rocks which are so common in that region, and soon I found one. It was a refuge better than most that I had known during a lonely travel of three days, for the whole bank was hollowed in, and there was a distinct, if shallow, cave bordering the path. Into this, therefore, I went and laid down, wrapping myself round in a blanket I had brought from the plains beyond the mountains, and, with my loaf and haversack and a wine-skin that I carried for a pillow, I was very soon asleep.

* * * * *

When I woke, which I did with suddenness, it seemed to me to have turned uncommonly cold, and when I stepped out from my blanket (for I was broad awake) the cold struck me still more nearly, and was not natural in such a place. But I knew how a mist will gather suddenly upon these hills, and I went out and stood upon the path to see what weather the hour had brought me. The sky, the narrow strip of sky above the gorge, was filled with scud flying so low that now and then bulges or trails of it would strike against that western cliff of limestone and wreath down it, and lift and disappear, but fast as the scud was moving there was no noise of wind. I seemed not to have slept long, for the moon was still riding in heaven, though her light now came in rapid waxing and waning between the shreds of the clouds. Beneath me a little angrier than before (so that I thought to myself, "Up in the hills it has been raining") roared the Segre.

As I stood thus irresolute and quite awakened from sleep, I saw to my right the figure of a little man who beckoned. No fear took me as I saw him, but a good deal of wonder, for he was oddly shaped, and in the darkness of that pathway I could not see his face. But in his presence by some accident of the mind many things changed their significance: the gorge became personal to me, the river a voice, the fitful moonlight a warning, and it seemed as though some safety was to be sought, or some certitude, upwards, whence I had come, and I felt oddly as though the little figure were a guide.

He was so short as I watched him that I thought him almost a dwarf, though I have seen men as small guiding the mules over the breaches in the ridge of the hills. He was hunchback, or the great pack he was carrying made him seem so. His thin legs were long for his body, and he walked too rapidly, with bent knees; his right hand he leant upon a great sapling; upon his head was a very wide hat, the stuff of which I could not see in the darkness. Now and again he would turn and beckon me, and he always went on a little way before. As for me, partly because he beckoned, but more because I felt prescient of a goal, I followed him.

No mountain path seems the same when you go up it and when you go down it. This it was which rendered unfamiliar to me the shapes of the rocks and the turnings of the gorge as I hurried, behind my companion. With every passing moment, moreover, the light grew less secure, the scud thickened, and as we rose towards the lower level of those clouds the mass of them grew more even, until at last the path and some few yards of the emptiness which sank away to our left was all one could discern. The mist was full of a diffused moonlight, but it was dense. I wondered when we should strike out of the gorge and begin to find the upland grasses that lead toward the highest summits of those hills, for thither I was sure were we bound.

Soon I began to recognize that easier trend in the rock wall, those increasing and flattened gullies which mark the higher slope. Here and there an unmelted patch of snow appeared, grass could be seen, and at last we were upon the roll of the high land where it runs up steeply to the ridge of the chain. Moss and the sponging of moisture in the turf were beneath our feet, the path disappeared, and our climb got steeper and steeper; and still the little man went on before, pressing eagerly and breasting the hill. I neither felt fatigue nor noticed that I did not feel it. The extreme angle of the slope suited my mood, nor was I conscious of its danger, though its fantastic steepness exhilarated me because it was so novel to be trying such things at night in such a weather. The moon, I think, must by this time have been near its sinking, for the mist grew full of darkness round about us, and at last it was altogether deep night. I could see my companion only as a blur of difference in the darkness, but even as this change came I felt the steepness relax beneath my climbing feet, the round level of the ridge was come, and soon again we were hurrying across it until there came, in a hundred yards or so, a moment in which my companion halted, as men who know the mountains halt when they reach an edge below which they know the land to break away.

He was waiting, and I waited with him: we had not long so to stand.

The mist which so often lifts as one passes the crest of the hills lifted for us also, and, below, it was broad day.

Ten thousand feet below, at the foot of forest cascading into forest, stretched out into an endless day, was the Weald. There were the places I had always known, but not as I had known them: they were in another air. There was the ridge, and the river valley far off to the eastward, and Pasham Pines, Amberley wild brooks, and Petworth the little town, and I saw the Rough clearly, and the hills out beyond the county, and beyond them farther plains, and all the fields and all the houses of the men I knew. Only it was much larger, and it was more intimate, and it was farther away, and it was certainly divine.

A broad road such as we have not here and such as they have not in those hills, a road for armies, sank back and forth in great gradients down to the plain. These and the forests were foreign; the Weald below, so many thousand feet below, was not foreign but transformed. The dwarf went down that road. I did not follow him. I saw him clearly now. His curious little coat of mountain stuff, his thin, bent legs walking rapidly, and the chestnut sapling by he walked, holding it in his hand by the middle. I could see the brown colour of it, and the shininess of the bark of it, and the ovals of white where the branchlings had been cut away. So I watched him as he went down and down the road. He never once looked back and he no longer beckoned me.

In a moment, before a word could form in the mind, the mist had closed again and it was mortally cold; and with that cold there came to me an appalling knowledge that I was alone upon such a height and knew nothing of my way. The hand which I put to my shoulder where my blanket was found it wringing wet. The mist got greyer, my mind more confused as I struggled to remember, and then I woke and found I was still in the cave. All that business had been a dream, but so vivid that I carried it all through the day, and carry it still.

* * * * *

It was the very early morning; the gorge was full of mist, the Segre made a muffled roaring through such a bank of cloud; the damp of the mist was on everything. The stones in the pathway glistened, the air was raw and fresh, awaiting the rising of the sun. I took the path and went downward.