An Offshore Wind, by Bartimeus

The circular rim of the fore-top took on a harder outline as the sky paled at the first hint of dawn.

From this elevation it was possible to make out the details of the ships astern, details that grew momentarily more distinct. Day, awakening, found the Battle Fleet steaming in line ahead across a smooth grey sea. The smoke from the funnels hung like a long dark smear against the pearly light of the dawn; but as the pearl changed to primrose and the primrose to saffron, the sombre streamers dissolved into the mists of morning.

Somewhere among the islands on our starboard bow a little wind awoke and brought with it the scent of heather and moist earth. It was a good smell—just such a smell as our nostrils had hungered for for many months—and it stirred a host of vagrant memories as it went sighing past the halliards and shrouds.

It was the turn of the Indiarubber Man (with whom I had shared the night's vigil aloft) to snatch a "stretch off the land" with his back against the steel side of our erie [Transcriber's note: eyrie?]. He shifted his position uneasily, and the hood of his duffel-suit fell back: his face, in the dawning, looked white and tired and unshaven. Cinders had collected in the folds of the thick garment as wind-blown snow lies in the hollows of uneven ground.

As I stood looking down at him an expression of annoyance passed across his sleeping countenance.

"Any old where——" he said in a clear, decisive voice. "Down a rabbit-hole . . ."

And I laughed because the off-shore wind had fluttered the same page in the book of pleasant memories that we both shared. The petulant expression passed from his face, and he sank into deeper oblivion, holding the Thermos flask and binoculars against him like a child clasping its dolls in its sleep.

It was just before we mobilised for the summer—a mobilisation which, had we but known it, was to last until our book of pleasant memories was thumbed and dog-eared and tattered with much usage—that the Indiarubber Man suggested taking a day off and having what he called a "stamp." He fetched our ordnance map and spread it on the ward-room table, and we pored over it most of the evening, sucking our pipes.

All Devon is good; and for a while the lanes had called us, winding from one thatched village to another between their fragrant, high-banked hedges. "Think of the little pubs . . ." said the Indiarubber Man dreamily. We thought of them, but with the vision came one of cyclists of the grey-sweater variety, and motorists filling the air with petrol fumes and dust.

There was the river: woodland paths skirting in the evening a world of silver and grey, across which bats sketched zigzag flights. Very nice in the dimpsey light, but stuffy in the daytime. So the moor had it in the end. We would trudge the moor from north to south, never seeing a soul, and, aided by map and compass, learn the peace of a day spent off the beaten tracks of man.

We had been in the train some time before the Indiarubber Man made his electrifying discovery.

"Where's the map?" We eyed one another severely and searched our pockets. "We were looking at it before I went to get the tickets," he pursued. "I gave it to you to fold up."

So he had. I left it on the station seat.

At a wayside station bookstall we managed to unearth an alleged reproduction of the fair face of South Devon to replace the lost map.

The Indiarubber Man traced the writhings of several caterpillars with his pipe-stem. "These are tors," he explained generously. After this we studied the map in silence, vainly attempting to confirm our recollections of a course marked out the previous evening on an ordnance survey map.

We were both getting slightly confused when, with a screech of brakes, the train pulled up at the little moorside station that was our destination by rail. Sunlight bathed the grey buildings on the platform and the sleepy village beyond. From the blue overhead came the thin, sweet notes of a lark, and as we listened in the stillness we heard a faint whispering "swish" like the sound of a very distant reaper. It was the wind flowing across miles of reeds and grass and heather from the distant Atlantic. But it was not until half an hour later, when we breasted the crest of the great hog-back that stretched before us like a rampart, that we ourselves met the wind. It came out of the west, athwart the sun's rays, a steady rush of warm air; and with it came the tang of the sea and hint of honey and new-mown hay that somehow clings to Devon moorland through all the changing seasons.

A cluster of giant rocks piled against the sky to our left drew us momentarily out of our course. With some difficulty we scrambled up their warm surfaces, where the lichen clung bleached and russet, and stood looking out across the rolling uplands of Devon. Worthier adventurers would have improved the shining hour with debate as to the origin of this upflung heap of Nature's masonry. Had it served departed Phoenicians as an altar? Heaven and the archaeologists alone knew.

To the northward the patchwork of plough and green corn, covert and hamlet commenced at the edge of the railway and stretched undulating over hill and dale to where a grey smudge proclaimed the sea.

South lay the moor, inscrutable and mysterious, dotted with the monuments of a people forgotten before walls ringed the seven hills of Rome. The outlines of tors, ever softening in the distance, led the eye from rugged crest to misty beacon till, forty miles away, they dissolved into the same grey haze.

The Indiarubber Man pointed a lean, prophetic forefinger to the rolling south. "There's Wheatwood," he said. "Come on." And so, shouldering our coats, with the hot sunlight on our right cheeks and the day before us, we started across Dartmoor.

For nearly two hours the tor from which we had started watched with friendly reassurance over intervening hills; then it dipped out of sight, and we were conscious of a sudden loneliness in a world of enigmatic hut-circles, peopled by sheep and peewits. We were working across a piece of ground intersected by peat-cuttings, and after half an hour of it the Indiarubber Man fished out the map and compass from his pocket.

"There ought to be a clump of trees, a hut-circle, and a Roman road knocking about somewhere. Can you see anything of them?"

I searched the landscape through glasses from my recumbent position in the heather, but prolonged scrutiny failed to reveal a single tree, nor was the Roman road startlingly obvious in the trackless waste. Our map had proved too clever for us. In the circumstances there was only one thing to be done. With awful calm we folded the sheet, tore it into little pieces, and hid them in a rabbit-hole.

For about five miles after that we kept along a promontory that shouldered its way across an undulating plain, ringed in the distance by purple hills; then we sighted our distant landmark—a conical beacon—that we had been steering for. We were descending, thigh-deep in bracken, when the wind bore down to us from a dot against the skyline of a ridge the tiniest of thin whistles. A few minutes later a sheep-dog raced past in the direction of a cluster of white specks. For a while we watched it, and each lithe, effortless bound, as it passed upon its quest, struck a responsive chord within us—we who floundered clumsily among the boulders in our path.

But, for all this momentary exhilaration, it seemed a long time later that we struck the source of the burn which would in time guide us to our half-way halting place. To us, who had been nurtured on its broad bosom,[1] there was something almost pathetic—as in meeting an old nurse in much reduced circumstances—about this trickle among the peat and moss. Lower down, however, it widened, and the water poured over granite boulders, with a bell-like contralto note, into a succession of amber pools.

There we shed our few garments on the bank, and the moments that followed, from the first exultant thrill as the water effervesced over our bodies till we crawled out dripping to dry in the wind and sun, seemed to hold only gratitude—an immense undefined gratitude to the Power that held all life. At its heels came hunger, wonderfully well defined.

Lower down, where the road that stretches like a white ribbon over the bosom of the moor crosses the river, there is an inn. I will not name it: writers of poems and guide-books—worthier penmen all—have done that. Besides, quite enough people go there as it is. We dropped, via a kine-scented yard and over a seven-foot bank, into the road abreast the inn door, and here a brake, freighted with tourist folk, brought us suddenly back to the conventions that everyday life demands.

True, we were never fain to cling to these; but, standing there on the King's high-road, clad in football knickers and thin jerseys, sun-burnt and dishevelled, we were conscious of a sudden immense embarrassment. And, in sooth, had we dropped from the skies or been escaping from the grey prison not far distant, the tenants of the brake could hardly have been less merciful in their scrutiny or comments.

After the clean wind of the moor, the taint of the last meal and over-clad fellow-beings seemed to cling unpleasantly to the low-ceilinged room whither we fled, and I do not think we breathed comfortably again till we had paid our bill and returned to the sunlight. Before leaving we inquired the time, and learned it was nearly four o'clock.

One ought to "know the time," it seems, among men's haunts; but, once out of sight of these, it suffices, surely, to eat when hungry, sleep when tired, roam as long as daylight and legs will let one—in fine, to share with the shaggy ponies and browsing sheep a lofty disregard for all artificial divisions of the earth's journey through space. And our joint watch happened at the time to be undergoing repairs in Plymouth.

To follow the ramifications of a road gives one no lasting impression of the surrounding country, but directly a wanderer has to depend on landmarks as a guide, all his powers of observation quicken. One ragged hill-top guided us to another, across valleys scored with the workings of forgotten tin-mines. A brook, crooning its queer, independent moor-song between banks of peat, rambled beside us for some time. Then, as if wearying of our company, it turned abruptly and was lost to view; in the summer stillness of late afternoon we heard it babbling on long after our ways separated.

If the truth be known, I suspect it deemed us dullish dogs. But we were tiring—not with the jaded weariness begotten of hard roads, when the spine aches and knees stiffen; no, a comfortable lassitude was slackening our joints and bringing thoughts of warm baths and supper. However, our shadows, valiant fellows, swung along before us across the rusty bracken with a cheerful constancy, and, encouraged by their ever-lengthening strides and by the solitude, we even found heart to lift our voices in song. Now and again small birds fled upwards with shrill twitters at our approach, and settled again to resume their interrupted suppers; but after a while they left for their roosts in the rowans and sycamores to the south, and rabbits began to show themselves in the open spaces among the furze. As if reluctantly, the perfect day drew to its close.

We raced up the flank of a long ridge to keep the setting sun in view, reaching the crest as it dipped to meet a ragged tor, and sank in a golden glow. A little wind, like a tired sigh, ruffled the tops of the heather, swayed the grass an instant, and was gone.

"Ah-h-h!" breathed the Indiarubber Man in the stillness.

A thousand feet below us smoke was curling from the thickly wooded valley. It was five miles away, but somewhere amid those trees men brewed and women baked.

"Come on," he added tensely. "Beer!"

As we descended into the lowlands a widening circle of night was stealing up into the sky—the blue-grey and purple of a pigeon's breast. A single star appeared in the western sky, intensifying the peace of the silent moor behind us. Stumbling through twilit woods and across fields of young barley, we met a great dog-fox en route for someone's poultry-run. He bared his teeth with angry effrontery as he sheered off and gave us a wide berth across the darkening fields. Doubtless he claimed his supremacy of hour and place, as did the sheep-dog that passed us so joyously earlier in the day. And, after all, what were we but interlopers from a lower plane!

The thirty-odd miles of our ramble reeled up like a tape-measure as we reached the lane, splashed with moonlight, that led us to the village. The gateway to every field held a pair of lovers whispering among the shadows: yet inexplicably they seemed an adjunct of their surroundings and the faintly bewildering night-scents. A dog sitting at the gate of a cottage uttered a short bark as we neared his domain; then, with a queer grumbling whimper, he came to us across the dust, and perhaps because—as far as is given to man in his imperfections—we had not wittingly done evil that day, he slobbered at our hands.

In the flagged and wainscotted parlour of the village inn a child brought us bread and cheese and froth-crested mugs of beer. While we ate and drank, she watched us with tranquil interest in violet-coloured eyes that foretold a sleepless night for some bucolic swain in years to come.

The Indiarubber Man finished his last draught and stood up with a mighty sigh to loosen his belt. Then, bending down, he took the child's flower-like face between his hands:

"'Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,'" he said gravely.
Beer was ever prone to lend a certain smack of Scripture to his remarks.

"Surt'nly," said the little maid, all uncomprehending, and ran out to fetch our reckoning.

* * * * *

The Thermos flask slid with a clatter on to the steel deck of the top, and the Indiarubber Man opened his eyes. He yawned and stretched himself and rose stiffly to his feet.

The first rays of the sun were rising out of the sea. "Hai-yah!" He yawned. "Another bloomin' day. . . . I was dreaming . . . about . . . blowed if I can remember what I was dreaming about." He adjusted the focus of his glasses and stared out across the North Sea. "I wonder if they're coming out to-day."

It was the two hundred and seventy-third morning we had wondered that.

[1] The River Dart.