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Faces and Places By Sir Henry W. Lucy Characters: 16065

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

A careful survey of the map of Kent will disclose Lydd lying within

four miles of the coast, in the most southerly portion of the

promontory tipped by Dungeness. Lydd has now its own branch line

from Ashford, but when I first knew it the nearest point by rail on

one hand was Folkestone, and on the other Appledore. Between these

several points lies a devious road, sometimes picking its way

through the marshes, and occasionally breaking in upon a sinking

village, which it would probably be delightful to dwell in if it

did not lie so low, was not so damp, and did not furnish the

inhabitants with an opportunity for obtaining remarkably close

acquaintance with the symptoms of the ague. Few of the marsh towns

are more picturesque than Lydd, owing to the sturdy independence

shown by the architects of the houses, and to the persistent and

successful efforts made to avoid anything like a straight line in

the formation of the streets. The houses cluster "anyhow" round the

old church, and seem to have dropped accidentally down in all sorts

of odd nooks and corners. They face all ways, and stand at angles,

several going the length of turning their backs upon the streets and

placidly opening out from their front door into the nearest field.

In the main street, through which her Majesty's cart passes, and

along which all the posting is done, a serious attempt has made at

the production of something like an ordinary street. But even here

the approach to regularity is a failure, owing to some of the houses

along the line putting forth a porch, or blooming into a row of

utterly unnecessary pillars before the parlour windows. In short,

Lydd, being entirely out of the tracks of the world, cares little for

what other towns may do, and has just built its houses where and how

it pleased. Between Dungeness and Lydd there is an expanse of shingle

which makes the transit an arduous undertaking, and one not to be

accomplished easily without the aid of "backstays" (pronounced

"backster"), a simple contrivance somewhat upon the principle of

snowshoes. When the proneness to slip off the unaccustomed foot has

been overcome, backstays are not so awkward as they look. A couple of

flat pieces of inch-thick wood, four inches wide by six long, with a

loop of leather defectively fastened for the insertion of the foot

went to make up the pair of "backsters" by whose assistance I

succeeded in traversing two miles of rough, loose shingle that

separates the southern and eastern edge of Lydd marsh from the sea.

The lighthouse stands on the farthest point, jutting into the sea,

and has at the right of it West Bay, and on the left East Bay. A

signboard on the top of a pole stuck in the shingle, almost within

hail of the lighthouse, announces the proximity of "The Pilot." "The

Pilot" is a small shanty run up on the shingle, and possessed of

accommodation about equal in extent to that afforded by the

residence of the Peggottys. Reminiscences of the well-known abode on

the beach at Yarmouth are further favoured, as we draw nearer, by

the appearance of the son of the house, who comes lounging out in a

pilot-cloth suit, with a telescope under his arm, and a smile of

welcome upon his bright, honest face. This must be Ham, who we find

occupies the responsible position of signalman at this station, and

frequently has the current of his life stirred by the appearance of

strange sail upon the horizon. Peggotty, his father, is the proprietor

of "The Pilot," which hostelry drives a more or less extensive trade

in malt liquor with the eight men constituting the garrison of a

neighbouring fort, supplemented by such stray customers as wind and

tide may bring in.

I made the acquaintance of the Peggotty family and was made free of

the cabin many years ago, in the dark winter time when the Northfleet

went down off Dungeness, and over three hundred passengers were lost.

All the coast was then alive with expectancy of some moment finding

the sea crowded with the bodies of the drowned. The nine days during

which, according to all experience at Dungeness, the sea might hold

its dead were past, and at any moment the resurrection might

commence. But it never came, and other theories had to be broached

to explain the unprecedented circumstance. The most generally

acceptable, because the most absolutely irrefragable, was that the

dead men and women had been carried away by an under-current out

into the Atlantic, and for ever lost amid its wilds.

My old friend Peggotty tells me, in a quiet, matter-of-fact manner,

a story much more weird than this. He says that after we watchers

had left the scene, the divers got fairly to work and attained a

fair run of the ship. They found she lay broadside on to a bank of

sand, by the edge of which she had sunk till it overtopped her

decks. By the action of the tide the sand had drifted over the ship,

and had even at that early date commenced to bury her. The bodies

of the passengers were there by the hundred, all huddled together

on the lee-side.

"The divers could not see them," Peggotty adds, "for what with the

mud and sand the water is pretty thick down there. But they could

feel them well enough--an arm sticking out there, and a knee sticking

out here, and sometimes half a body clear of the silt, owing to lying

one over another. They could have got them all up easy enough, and

would, too, if they had been paid for it. They were told that they

were to have a pound apiece for all they brought up. They sent up

one, but there was no money for it, and no one particularly glad to

see it, and so they left them all there, snug enough as far as

burying goes. The diving turned out a poor affair altogether. The

cargo wasn't much good for bringing up, bein' chiefly railway iron,

spades, and such like. There were one or two sales at Dover of odd

stores they brought up, but it didn't fetch in much altogether, and

they soon gave up the job as a bad un."

The years have brought little change to this strange out-of-the-way

corner of the world, an additional wreck or two being scarcely a

noteworthy incident. The section of an old boat in which, with

fortuitous bits of building tacked on at odd times as necessity has

arisen, the Peggottys live is as brightly tarred as ever, and still

stoutly braves the gales in which many a fine ship has foundered

just outside the front door. One peculiarity of the otherwise

desirable residence is that, with the wind blowing either from the

eastward, westward, or southward, Mrs. Peggotty will never allow

the front door to be opened. As these quarters of the wind

comprehend a considerable stretch of possible weather, the

consequence is that the visitor approaching the house in the usual

manner is on eight days out of ten disturbed by the apparition of

Peggotty at the little look-out window, violently, and to the

stranger, mysteriously, beckoning him away to the northward,

apparently in the direction of the lighthouse.

This means, however, only that he is to go round by the back, and

the détour is not to be regretted, as it leads by Peggotty's garden,

which in its way is a marvel, a monument of indomitable struggle

with adverse circumstances. It is not a large plot of ground, and

perhaps looks unduly small by reason of being packed in by a high

paling, made of the staves of wrecked barrels and designed to keep

the sand and grit from blowing across it. But it is large enough

to produce a serviceable crop of potatoes, which, with peas and

beans galore occupy the centre beds, Peggotty indulging a weakness

for wallflowers and big red tulips on the narrow fringe of soil

running under the shadow of the palings. The peculiarity about the

garden is that ever

y handful of soil that lies upon it has been

carried on Peggotty's back across the four-mile waste of shingle

that separates the sea-coast from Lydd. That is, perhaps, as severe

a test as could be applied to a man's predilection for a garden.

There are many people who like to have a bit of garden at the back

of their house. But how many would gratify their taste at the expense

of bringing the soil on their own backs, plodding on "backstays"

over four miles of loose shingle?

One important change has happened in this little household since I

last sat by its hearthstone. Ham is married, and is, in some

incomprehensible manner, understood to reside both at Lydd with

Mrs. Ham and at the cabin with his mother. As for Mrs. Peggotty,

she is as lively and as "managing" as ever--perhaps a trifle smaller

in appearance, and with her smooth clean face more than ever

suggestive of the idea of a pebble smoothed and shaped by the action

of the tide.

I find on chatting with Peggotty that the old gentleman's mind is in

somewhat of a chaotic state with respect to the wrecks that abound

in the bay. He has been here for forty-eight years, and the fact is,

in that time, he has seen so many wrecks that the timbers are, as it

were, floating in an indistinguishable mass through his mind, and

when he tries to recall events connected with them, the jib-boom of

"the Rhoda brig" gets mixed up with the rigging of "the Spendthrift,"

and "the Branch, a coal-loaded brig," that came to grief thirty years

ago, gets inextricably mixed up with the "Rooshian wessel." But,

looking with far-away gaze towards the Ness Lighthouse, and sweeping

slowly round as far east as New Romney, Peggotty can tot off a number

of wrecks, now to be seen at low water, which with others, the names

whereof he "can't just remember," bring the total past a score.

The first he sees on this side of the lighthouse is the Mary, a bit

of black hull that has been lying there for more than twenty years.

She was "bound somewheres in France," and running round the Ness,

looking for shelter in the bay, stuck fast in the sand, "and broke

up in less than no time." She was loaded with linseed and

millstones, which I suspect, from a slight tinge of sadness in

Peggotty's voice as he mentioned the circumstance, is not for people

living on the coast the best cargo which ships that will go down in

the bay might be loaded with. Indeed, I may remark that though

Peggotty, struggling with the recollections of nearly fifty years,

frequently fails to remember the name of the ship whose wreck shows

up through the sand, the nature of her cargo comes back to him with

singular freshness.

Near the Mary is another French ship, which had been brought to

anchor there in order that the captain might run ashore and visit

the ship's agent at Lydd. Whilst he was ashore a gale of wind came

on "easterdly"; ship drifted down on Ness Point, and knocked right

up on the shore, the crew scrambling out on to dry land as she went

to pieces. Another bit of wreck over there is all that is left of the

Westbourne, of Chichester, coal-laden. She was running for Ness Point

at night, and, getting too far in, struck where she lay, and all the

crew save one were drowned. Nearer is the Branch, also a coal-loaded

brig, a circumstance which suggests to Peggotty the parenthetical

remark that "at times there is a good deal of coal about the shingle."

A little more to the east is "the Rooshian wessel Nicholas I.," in

which Peggotty has a special interest so strong that he forgets to

mention what her cargo was. It is forty-six years since Nicholas I.

came to grief; and no other help being near, the whole of the crew

were saved through the instrumentality of Peggotty's dog. It was

broad daylight, with a sea running no boat could live in. The

"Rooshian" was rapidly breaking up, and the crew were shrieking in

an unknown tongue, the little group on shore well knowing that the

unfamiliar sound was a cry for help. Peggotty's Newfoundland dog was

there, barking with mad delight at the huge waves that came tumbling

on the shore, when it occurred to Peggotty that perhaps the dog

could swim out to the drowning men. So he signalled him off, and in

the dog went, gallantly buffeting the waves till it reached the ship.

The Russian sailors tied a piece of rope to a stick, put the stick in

the dog's mouth, and he, leaping overboard, carried it safely to

shore, and a line of communication being thus formed, every soul on

board was saved.

"They've got it in the school-books for the little children to

read," Peggotty says, permitting himself to indulge in the

slightest possible chuckle. I could not ascertain what particular

school-book was meant, because last winter, when another Russian

ship came ashore here and was totally wrecked, Peggotty presented

the captain with his only copy of the work as a souvenir of the

compulsory visit. But when we returned to the cabin, Mrs. Peggotty

brought down a faded, yellow, much-worn copy of the Kent Herald,

in which an account of the incident appears among other items of

the local news of the day.

Further eastward are the remains of a West Indiaman, loaded with

mahogany and turtles, the latter disappearing in a manner still a

marvel at Dungeness, whilst of the former a good deal of salvage

money was made. It is not far from this wreck that the Russian

last-mentioned came to grief. She met her fate in a peculiarly sad

manner. The Alliance, a tar-loaded vessel, drifting inwards before

a strong east wind, began to burn pitch barrels as a signal for

assistance. The Russian, thinking she was on fire, ran down to her

assistance, and took the ground close by. Both ships were totally

wrecked, and the crews saved with no other property save

the clothes they stood in.

Still glancing from Dungeness eastward, we see at every hundred

yards a black mass of timber, sometimes showing the full length of

a ship, oftener only a few jagged ribs marking where the carcase

lies deeply embedded. Each has its name and its history, and is a

memento of some terrible disaster in which strong ships have been

broken up as if they were built of cardboard, and through which

men and women have not always successfully struggled for life.

"We don't have so much loss of life in this bay as in the west bay

round the point," said Ham. "Here, you see, when there's been a

rumpus, the water quiets soon after, and the shipwrecked folk can

take to their boats; on the other side the water is rougher, and

there's less chance for them. There was one wreck here not long

since, though, when all hands were lost. It was a Danish ship that

came running down one stormy night, and run ashore there before

she could make the light. We saw her flash her flare-up lights,

and made ready to help her, but before we could get up she went to

pieces, and what is most singular, never since has a body been seen

from the wreck. Ah, sir, it's a bad spot. Often between Saturday

and Monday you'll see three fine ships all stranded together on this

beach. When there's a big wreck like the Northfleet over there,

everybody talks about it, and all the world knows full particulars.

But there's many and many a shipwreck here the newspapers never

notice, and hundreds of ships get on, and with luck get off, without

a word being said anywhere."

"There's mother signallin' the heggs and bakin is done," said

Peggotty, looking back at the cabin, where a white apron waved out

of one of the port-holes that served for window.

So we turned and left this haunted spot, where, with the ebbing

tide, twenty-three wrecks, one after the other, thrust forth a

rugged rib or a jagged spar to remind the passer-by of a tragedy.

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