A Tryst At An Ancient Earthwork



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


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


The profile of the whole stupendous ruin, as seen at a distance of a mile eastward, is cleanly cut as that of a marble inlay.  It is varied with protuberances, which from hereabouts have the animal aspect of warts, wens, knuckles, and hips.  It may indeed be likened to an enormous many-limbed organism of an antediluvian time—partaking of the cephalopod in shape—lying lifeless, and covered with a thin green cloth, which hides its substance, while revealing its contour.  This dull green mantle of herbage stretches down towards the levels, where the ploughs have essayed for centuries to creep up near and yet nearer to the base of the castle, but have always stopped short before reaching it.  The furrows of these environing attempts show themselves distinctly, bending to the incline as they trench upon it; mounting in steeper curves, till the steepness baffles them, and their parallel threads show like the striae of waves pausing on the curl.  The peculiar place of which these are some of the features is "Mai-Dun," "The Castle of the Great Hill," said to be the Dunium of Ptolemy, the capital of the Durotriges, which eventually came into Roman occupation, and was finally deserted on their withdrawal from the island.       


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


The midnight hour for which there has been occasion to wait at length arrives, and journey towards the stronghold in obedience to a request urged earlier in the day.  It concerns an appointment, which I rather regret my decision to keep now that night is come.  The route thither is hedgeless and treeless—I need not add deserted.  The moonlight is sufficient to disclose the pale ribandlike surface of the way as it trails along between the expanses of darker fallow.  Though the road passes near the fortress it does not conduct directly to its fronts.  As the place is without an inhabitant, so it is without a trackway.  So presently leaving the macadamized road to pursue its course else whither, I step off upon the fallow, and plod stumblingly across it.  The castle looms  out off the shade by degrees, like a thing waking up and asking what I want there.  It is now so enlarged by nearness that its whole shape cannot be taken in at one view.  The ploughed ground ends as the rise sharpens, the sloping basement of grass begins, and I climb upward to invade Mai-Dun.         


Impressive by day as this largest Ancient-British work in the kingdom undoubtedly is, its impressiveness is increased now.  After standing still and spending a few minutes in adding its age to its size, and its size to its solitude, it becomes appallingly mournful in its growing closeness.  A squally wind blows in the face with an impact which proclaims that the vapours of the air sail low tonight.  The slope that I so laboriously clamber up the wind skips sportively down.  Its track can be discerned even in this light by the undulations of the withered grass-bents—the only produce of this upland summit except moss.  Four minutes of ascent, and a vantage-ground of some sort is gained. It is only the crest of the outer rampart.  Immediately within this a chasm gapes; its bottom is imperceptible, but the counterscarp slopes not too steeply to admit of a sliding descent if cautiously performed.  The shady bottom, dank and chilly, is thus gained, and reveals itself as a kind of winding lane, wide enough for a waggon to pass along, floored with rank herbage, and trending away, right and left, into obscurity, between the concentric walls of earth.  The towering closeness of these on each hand, their impenetrability, and their ponderousness, are felt as a physical pressure.  The way is now up the second of them, which stands steeper and higher than the first.  To turn aside, as did Christian's companion, from such a Hill Difficulty, is the more natural tendency; but the way to the interior is upward.  There is, of course, an entrance to the fortress; but that lies far off on the other side.  It might possibly have been the wiser course to seek for easier ingress there.       


However, being here, I ascend the second acclivity.  The grass stems—the grey 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 if pulled by a string underground.  From a few thistles a whistling proceeds; and even 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 suddenly made known by a contrasting wind from a new quarter, coming over with the curve of a cascade.  These novel gusts raise a sound from the whole camp or castle, playing upon it bodily as upon a harp.  It is with some difficulty that a foothold can be preserved under their sweep.  Looking aloft for a moment I perceive that the sky is much more overcast than it has been hitherto, and in a few instants a dead lull in what is now a gale ensues with almost preternatural abruptness.  I take advantage of this to sidle down the second counterscarp, but the time the ditch is reached the lull reveals itself to be but the precursor of a storm.  It begins with a heave of the whole atmosphere, like the sigh of a weary strong man on turning to recommence unusual exertion, just as I stand here in the second fosse.  That which now radiates from the sky upon the scene is not so much light as vaporous phosphorescence.       


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



The roar of the storm can be heard travelling the complete circuit of the castle—a measured mile—coming round at intervals like a circumambulating column 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 sheep and oxen that are sometimes seen here now; while the only semblance of heroic voices heard are the utterances of such, and of the many winds which make their passage through the ravines.       


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


There, where all passage has seemed to be inviolably barred by an almost vertical facade, the ramparts are found to overlap each other like loosely clasped fingers, between which a zigzag path may be followed—a cunning construction that puzzles the uninformed eye.  But its cunning, even where not obscured by dilapidation, is now wasted on the solitary forms of a few wild badgers, rabbits, and hares.  Men must have often gone out by those gates in the morning to battle with the Roman legions under Vespasian; some to return no more, others to come back at evening, bringing with them the noise of their heroic deeds.  But not a page, not a stone, has preserved their fame.



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


I recognize by the now moderate flashes of lightning, which are sheet-like and 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 sinks a little and is still.  It is but the heaving of a mole who chooses such weather as this to work in from some instinct that there will be nobody abroad to molest him.  As the fine earth lifts and lifts and falls loosely aside fragments of burnt clay roll out of it—clay that once formed part of cups or other vessels used by the inhabitants 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 with lightning, I find myself uncovered of the humid investiture and left bare to the mild gaze of the moon, which sparkles now on every wet grass-blade and frond of moss.       


But I am not yet inside the fort, and the delayed ascent of the third and last escarpment is now made.  It is steeper than either.  The first was a surface to walk up, the second to stagger up, the third can only be ascended on the hands and toes.  On the summit obtrudes the first evidence which has been met with in these precincts that the time is really the nineteenth century; it is in the form of a white notice-board on a post, and the wording can just be discerned by 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 be Prosecuted 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 meager quantity, but sufficient to suggest that masonry stood on the spot.  Before the eye stretches under the moonlight the interior of the fort.  So open and so large is it as to be practically an upland plateau, and yet its area lies wholly within the walls 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 build neighbouring villages even before mediaeval or modern history began.  Many a block which once may have helped to form a bastion here rests now in broken and diminished shape as part of the chimney-corner of some shepherd's cottage within the distant horizon, and the corner-stones of this heathen altar may form the base-course of some adjoining village church.       


Yet the very bareness of these inner courts and wards, their condition of mere 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 a permanence of general outline at least results, which no other condition could ensure.       


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

        Within the innermost enclosure, though it is so wide that at a superficial glance the beholder has only a sense of standing on a breezy down, the solitude is rendered yet more solitary by the knowledge that between the benighted sojourner herein and all kindred humanity are those three concentric walls of earth which no being would think of scaling on such a night as this, even were he to hear the most pathetic cries issuing hence that could be uttered by a spectre-chased soul.  I reach a central mound or platform—the crown and axis of the whole structure.  The view from here by day must be of almost limitless extent.  On this raised floor, dais, or rostrum, harps have probably twanged more or less tuneful notes in celebration of daring, strength, or cruelty; of worship, superstition, love, birth and death; of simple loving-kindness perhaps never.  Many a time must the king or leader have directed his keen eyes hence across the open lands towards the ancient road the Icening Way, still visible in the distance, on the watch for armed companies approaching either to succour or to attack.       


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


He, to whom neither weather, darkness, nor difficulty seems to have any relation or significance, so entirely is his soul wrapt up in his own deep intentions, asks me to take the lantern and accompany him.  I take it and walk by his side.  He is a man about sixty, small in figure, with grey old-fashioned whiskers cut to the shape of a pair of crumb-brushes.  He is entirely in black broadcloth—or rather, at present, black and brown, for he is bespattered with mud from his heels to the crown of his low hat.  He has no consciousness of this—no sense of anything but his purpose, his ardour for which causes his eyes to shine like those of a lynx, and gives his motions all the elasticity of an athlete's.       


"Nobody to interrupt us at this time of night!" he chuckles with fierce enjoyment.       


We retreat a little way and find a sort of angle, an elevation in the sod, a suggested squareness amid the mass of irregularities around.  Here, he tells me, if anywhere, the king's house stood.  Three months of measurement and calculation have confirmed him in this conclusion.       


He requests me now to open the lantern, which I do, and the light streams out 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 than meet me for a meditative ramble through the stronghold.  I ask him why, having a practicable object, he should have minded interruptions and not have chosen the day?  He informs me, quietly pointing to his spade, that it was because his purpose is to dig, then signifying with a grim nod the gaunt notice-post against the sky beyond.  I inquire why, as a professed and well-known antiquary with capital letters at the tail of his name, he did not obtain the necessary authority, considering the stringent penalties for this sort of 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 follow on with, assures me that, penalty or no penalty, honest men or marauders, he is 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 some special science, art, or hobby, have quite lost the moral sense which would restrain 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 justifiable intention in this matter; namely, to uncover, to search, to verify a theory or displace it, and to cover up again.  He means to take away nothing—not a grain of sand. In this he says he sees no such monstrous sin.  I inquire if this is really a promise to me? He repeats that it is a promise, and resumes digging. My contribution 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; such things never are deep.  A few minutes later the point of the pickaxe clicks upon a stony substance.  He draws the implement out as feelingly as if it had entered a man's body.  Taking up the spade he shovels with care, and a surface, level as an altar, is presently disclosed.  His eyes flash anew; he pulls handfuls of grass and mops the surface clean, finally rubbing it with his handkerchief.  Grasping the lantern from my hand he holds it close to the ground, when the rays reveal a complete mosaic—a pavement of minute tesserae of many colours, of intricate pattern, a work of much art, of much time, and of much industry.  He exclaims in 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 more than the original framework which the latter took and adapted till it became the present imposing structure.       


I ask, What if it is Roman?       


A great deal, according to him.  That it proves all the world to be wrong in this great argument, and himself alone to be right!  Can I wait while he digs further?       


I agree—reluctantly; but he does not notice my reluctance.  At an adjoining spot he begins flourishing the tools anew with the skill of a navvy, this venerable scholar with letters after his name.  Sometimes he falls on his knees, burrowing with his hands in the manner of a hare, and where his old-fashioned broadcloth touches the sides of the hole it gets plastered with the damp earth.  He continually murmurs to himself how important, how very important, this discovery is!  He draws out an object; we wash it in the same primitive way by rubbing it with the wet grass, and it proves to be a semi-transparent bottle of iridescent beauty, the sight of which draws groans of luxurious sensibility from the digger.  Further and further search brings out a piece of a weapon.  It is strange indeed that by merely peeling off a wrapper of modern accumulations we have lowered ourselves into an ancient world.  Finally a skeleton is uncovered, 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 of burial.  He turns again to the trench, scrapes, feels, till from a corner he draws out 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 of Mercury, obviously, its head being surmounted with the petasus or winged hat, the usual accessory of that deity.  Further inspection reveals the workmanship to be of good finish and detail, and, preserved by the limy earth, to be as fresh in 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 remote spot was a component part, we do not notice what is going on in the present world till reminded of it by the sudden renewal of the storm.  Looking up I perceive that the wide extinguisher of cloud has again settled down upon the fortress-town, as if resting upon the edge of the inner rampart, and shutting out the moon.  I turn my back to the tempest, still directing the light across the hole.  My companion. digs on unconcernedly; he is living two thousand years ago, and despises things of the moment as dreams.  But at last he is fairly beaten, and standing up beside me looks round on what he has done.  The rays of the lantern pass over the trench to the tall skeleton stretched upon the grass on 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 in the candle-shine as they lie.       


This storm, like the first, is of the nature of a squall, and it ends as abruptly as the other.  We dig no further.  My friend says that it is enough—he has proved his point.  He turns to replace the bones in the trench and covers them.  But they 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, but is carried out.  The treasures are inhumed again in their respective holes: they are not ours.  Each deposition seems to cost him a twinge; and at one moment I fancied 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 again consigned to darkness; the trench is filled up; the sod laid smoothly down; he wipes the perspiration from his forehead with the same handkerchief he had used to mop the skeleton and tesserae clean; and we make for the eastern gate of the fortress.       


Dawn bursts upon us suddenly as we reach the opening.  It comes by the lifting and thinning of the clouds that way till we are bathed in a pink light.  The direction of his homeward journey is not the same as mine, and we part under the 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 gilded image 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 his word.                       


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


Detroit Post,

March 1885.