[From Dicken’s Household Words.]
SIR VALENTINE SALTEAR was a worthy gentleman, who had made a large fortune by constantly exporting Irish linens and lawns to France (from whence they came over to England as fine French goods), for which service to the trade of the three countries a discerning minister had obtained him the honor of knighthood. This fortune he had in part expended in building for himself a great mansion on the sea-coast of Kent, commanding a fine view of the country from the back windows, and the great ocean from the front. Every room on the first and second floors was furnished with a brass telescope, that could be screwed on to the window-sash, or by means of a pedestal, into the window-sill.
In the front of his house was a great field, in which he and his visitors used to play at cricket. It was bounded by the high, white chalk cliffs, which descended precipitously to the sea.
The cliffs, however, were unfortunately much undermined by natural caverns; so that every year, and, in fact, every time there was a storm at sea, a large portion of the chalk-rock fell down, and in the course of six or seven years he was obliged to rail off as “dangerous” a part of the already reduced field in front of his house. He could now only play at trap-ball, or battledore and shuttle-cock.
Still the sea continued its encroachments, and in a few years more the trap-ball was all over — it was too perilous, even if they had not continually lost the ball — and he and his sons were reduced to a game at long-taw, and hopscotch.
Clearly perceiving that in the course of a few years more his field-sports would be limited to spinning a tee-totum before his front-door, he engaged the services of an eminent architect and civil engineer to build him a sea-wall to prevent the further encroachments of the enemy. The estimate of expense was five thousand pounds, and, as a matter of course, the work, by the time it was finished, cost ten thousand. This was nearly as much as Sir Valentine Saltear had paid for the building of his house.
But the worst part of the business was, that the very next storm which occurred at sea, and only a few weeks after, the waves dashed down, and fairly carried away the whole of this protective wall. In the morning it was clean gone, as though no such structure had been there, and a great additional gap was made in the cliff, plainly showing that the watery monster was quite bent on swallowing up Sir Valentine’s house. He brought an action for the recovery of the money he had paid for his wall; but while this was pending, he saw his house being undermined from day to day, and in sheer despair felt himself obliged to apply to a still more eminent civil engineer. The estimate this gentleman made for the construction of a sea-wall — one that would stand — was ten thousand pounds. It might be a few pounds more or less — probably less. But the recent experience of Sir Valentine making him fear that it would probably be double that amount, he hesitated as to engaging the services of this gentleman. 19 He even thought of sending over to Ireland for fifty bricklayers, carpenters, and masons, and superintending the work himself. He was sure he could do it for six thousand pounds, It never once occurred to him to pull down his house, and rebuild it on high ground a quarter of a mile farther off.
In this dangerous yet undecided state of affairs, Sir Valentine one morning, breakfasting at his club in Waterloo Place, read in a newspaper a notice of the grand mining operation and explosion that was to take place at Seaford, the object of which was to throw down an immense mass of chalk cliff, the broken fragments whereof would, at a comparatively small cost, form a sea-wall, at an elevation of about one-fifth the height of the parent rock. Why, here was Sir Valentine’s own case! His house was upon a very high chalk rock, and a sea-wall of one-fifth the height would answer every purpose. The only difficulty was his present proximity to the edge of the cliff. Still, he thought he could spare thirty feet or so, without losing his door-steps, and this width being exploded down to the base of the cliff, would constitute, by its fall, a very capital mound of protection which might last for a century or more. He therefore determined to see the explosion at Seaford, and if it proved successful, to adopt the very same plan.
Sir Valentine, accordingly, on the nineteenth of September, swallowed an early cup of chocolate, and hurried off to the Brighton railway terminus, and took his place in the Express train for Newhaven. It was a return-ticket, first class, for which he paid the sum of one pound four shillings. An Excursion train had started at nine o’clock, the return-ticket first class, being only eleven shillings; but sir Valentine fearing that it would stop at every station on the way, and might not be in time for the great event, had prudently chosen the Express at Express price; namely, one pound four per ticket. There was some confusion in the arrangements of the terminus, apparently attributable to extensive additions and alterations in the buildings; but there was no difficulty in receiving the money.
The train started; its speed, though an Express, being nothing particular. When it arrived at Lewes, the passengers all had to alight, and wait for another train which was to take them on. At last a train arrived. It was declared to be full!
“Full!” cried Sir Valentine, “why, I have paid for the Express! — first-class — one pound four.”
Full, however, this long train was. Presently a guard shouted that there was room for three in a second-class carriage.
“I secure one!” shouted Sir Valentine, holding up his fore-finger in a threatening manner to the guard, and jumping in. In due time, and by no means in a hurry, the “Express” train arrived.
Out leaped Sir Valentine, and demanded of the first person he met how far it was to Seaford? The man said he didn’t know! to the utter astonishment and contempt of the excited knight. He asked the next person; who replied that he hadn’t the very least idea, but they could tell him at the “tap.” Sir Valentine looked on all sides to see, if there were any cabs, flies, or vehicles of any kind, and descrying several in a group at some little distance, made toward them at long running strides — a boy who had overheard his question as to the distance, following at his heels, and bawling — “Two miles as a crow flies! — four miles by the road! — two miles as a cro-o-o-o! — four by the ro-o-o-o!”
Arrived amidst the vehicles, the knight found nearly all of them either engaged, or full, and it was only as a matter of favor that he was admitted as “one over the number,” to the inside of a small van without springs; where, beside the heat and crushing, he had to endure a thorough draught and three short pipes, all the way.
The road wound round the base of a series of hills and other rising ground, and a line of vehicles might be seen all along this serpentine road, for two or three miles’ distance; while a long unbroken line of pedestrians were descried winding along the pathway among the fields. After a very jolting and rumbling drive, Sir Valentine found himself “shot out” with the rest of the company, in front of a small “public” knocked up for the occasion, with a load or two of bricks and some boards, and crowded to excess. Private carriages, flies, cabs, carts, wagons, vans, were standing around, together with booths and wheelbarrows, set out with apples, nuts, bread and cheese, and ginger-beer of a peculiarly thin stream. Sir Valentine having breakfasted early, hastily, and lightly, was by this time — a quarter to two — extremely sharp set; he endeavored, therefore, to make his way into the house to get a bottle of stout and some ham or cold beef for luncheon. But after ten minutes’ continuous efforts, he found he was still between the door-posts, and the noisy, choked -up window of the “bar,” as far from his hopes as ever. He abandoned the attempt in disgust — but not without addressing himself to a seafaring man who was standing with his hands in his pockets, looking on:
“Is this sense?” said the knight. “Do you call this common sense? Do you think you are acting with any more reason than a dog possesses, to treat the public in this way? Then, your own interest — look at it!” (pointing to the crowd, struggling in the door-way). “If you had any foresight, or a head for the commonest arrangements, would you not have a barrel of ale on wheels outside here?”
The seafaring man swung round on his heel with a smile, and Sir Valentine, having made his way into the field, obtained six pennyworth of gingerbread and a dozen of small apples, with which provender he in some sort revived his exhausted frame. He now bustled on toward 20 the foot of a broken embankment leading up to a lofty rising ground, the summit being the cliffs, a large portion of which was shortly to be detached, and thrown down by the explosion of a mine. The part to be blown off was marked out by broad belts of white, where the chalk had been thrown up, which made an imposing appearance even on the distant heights.
The sun shone brightly. All over the fields and fallow ground that lay between the halting-place just described, and the foot of the steep mount, the visitors were scattered — pedestrians, with here and there a horseman; — sight-seers — the old and the young — men of science from various parts of the world — infantry soldiers, sappers and miners, ladies and gentlemen, sailors, marines, country people, railway laborers, policemen, boys and girls, and — far in the rear of all, with disapproving looks — two or three old women in spectacles. Renovated by his gingerbread and apples, Sir Valentine made his way manfully up the steep grassy ascent of the hill, chalk mountain it might be more properly termed, and, in the course of a quarter of an hour, he found himself at the spot where the explosion was to take place.
It was a tolerably level surface, of some hundred yards in diameter. Transverse belts of excavated chalk, with several trenches and pits half filled up, marked out the huge fragment of the solid mass which was to be separated, The boundary was further indicated by small flagstaffs, and also by sentinels, who prevented any of the visitors from trespassing on the dangerous ground, whereon, of course, they all had a half-delightful tingling wish to perambulate, and to feel themselves liable to be blown to atoms by a premature explosion.
Beneath the part marked off by the flagstaffs and sentinels, at a great depth in the chalk rock, were buried many thousand (the Brighton Herald said twenty-seven thousand!) pounds of gunpowder, distributed in different chambers and galleries, one communicating with another by means of a platina wire. This ware was carried up through the rock into a little wooden house, in which certain chemical mysteries were being secretly carried on by engineer officers. There was a little window in front, out of which the mysterious officer now and then half thrust his head, looked out, with profound gravity, upon the belts of chalk on the space before him, and, without appearing to see any of the crowding visitors, withdrew from the window. Presently another officer came, and did the same. “Come like shadows,” muttered Sir Valentine, “so depart!”
But wishing that they might “show his eyes” the mysterious operations in the little wooden house, however grievous it might be to his feelings, our anxious knight hurried round to the back, where, he took it for granted, there was some means of entrance, as he had seen no officer get in at the window. He was right. There was a small narrow door of planks, with a sentry standing before it, who wore a forbidding face of much importance. And now a gentleman in blue spectacles approached, and nodded to the sentinel, who tapped at the door. The door was unlocked, and the favored man of science entered. Through the closing door, Sir Valentine caught sight of a sort of long, shapeless table, covered with chemical instruments and utensils, in short, an apparatus exciting great curiosity. The door closed, just as Sir Valentine handed up his card to the sentinel. The door was opened again — his card given in; somebody took it, and it seemed to fly over a row of small white porcelain painters’ pallets, standing mid-deep in water, and then disappeared, as the door was suddenly closed again. A voice within was heard to say, impatiently, ‘I really am afraid we can’t be disturbed!”
“Can’t you!” exclaimed Sir Valentine, addressing himself to a servant girl, with a child in her arms, who was trying to get a peep in at the door: “can’t you, indeed! What treatment do you call this? Do you think gentlemen would take the trouble to come down here, such a distance, and up here such a height, if they did not expect to see all that could possibly be seen? Is this your duty to the public who pays you? Why should you conceal any thing from me? Am I not a person of sufficient wealth and respectability to be allowed to know of all your doings up here? What brings you here but the public service? Who is your master? tell me that!”
“Edward Smith, of Seaford,” answered the girl, with an angry face; “but I don’t know as it’s any business of yours!”
Sir Valentine brushed past the girl with a “Pooh, pshaw!” Observing it was announced, by a placard on one side of the little wooden house, that the explosion would take place at three o’clock, he took out his watch and found that it was already half-past two. It became important to decide on the most advantageous place to take up a position, in order to have the best view of the grand explosion. Some of the visitors — in fact, a considerable number — had ascended to the very highest part of the rock, which swept upward, with its green coating of grass to a distance of a hundred and fifty or two hundred yards beyond the dangerous spot. Another crowd took their posts at about the same distance below the fatal spot, each crowd being widely scattered, the boldest in each being nearest, the most timid the furthest off. Another crowd — and this was the largest by far — had descended to the beach, to see, from below, the fall of the great mass of lofty rock. Many had taken boats, and rowed, or sailed out, to behold it from a more directly opposite, yet safer position.
Now, Sir Valentine Saltear, being an enthusiast in sight-seeing, had not the least doubt but the way really to enjoy the thing, would be to stand upon the portion of the cliff that was to be thrown down; and, leaping from crack 21 to crack, and from mass to mass, as it majestically descended, reach by this means the sea, into which a good dive forward would render your escape from danger comparatively safe and easy. On second thoughts, however, he saw that it was precarious, because if the charge of powder were in excess of the weight to be separated, a great mass of fragments might fly upward into the air, and who could say but one of these might be the very place on which he himself was standing? He, therefore, contented himself with advancing to the extreme edge of the cliff, and peering over upon the beach below. The height was prodigious; the crowds walking about below were of pigmy size. The boats that were hovering about on the sea looked no bigger than mussel shells. Sir Valentine once thought of going out in a boat, but immediately recollecting that by doing so he should lose the fine effect of the trembling of the earth, he at once abandoned the idea. If he mounted above the scene of action he should lose the grandeur of the descent of the mass; if he stood on the mount at some distance below it, he could not see the surface crack and gape, though he might be exposed to flying fragments. He, therefore, decided forthwith on going down to the beach, and accordingly he hurried along the grassy slope, and then made his way down a precipitous zig-zag fissure in the sand hill below, till he found his feet rattling and limping over the stones of the beach.
Here he was amid six or seven thousand people — many more than he had seen from above — some walking about, some sitting in long rows or in groups, on the damp shingles, some standing in knots — all speculating as to how soon it would now be before the great explosion. A few flagstaffs were planted, with several sentinels, to mark the line which no one was allowed to pass; and this line was very strongly marked besides by a dark crowd of the most fearless of the visitors. According to their several degrees of apprehension, the crowds were scattered over the beach at various distances, some of them being at least a mile and a half off.
Sir Valentine, after an examination of all the bearings of the case, elected to have a place in the front row, close to the flagstaff; but, taking into consideration the possibility that the explosion might send up a great mass of fragments, which might come flying over that way, and crush numbers by their fall, he looked round to try and secure a retreat the instant he should see a black cloud of fragments in the air. The front line would not be able to retreat in time, because, being crowded, they would, in the panic of the moment, stumble over each other, and falling pell-mell, become an easy prey to the descending chalk. Sir Valentine, therefore, being not only an enthusiast, but also a man of foresight, took his post to the extreme right of the line, so that he could, if he saw need, retreat into the sea; to make sure of which, and, at the same time, to have an unimpeded view, he now stood half up to his knees in water.
It was three o’clock — the hour of doom for the chalk in its contest with gunpowder. A bugle sounded, and a movement of the sentries on the top of the rock was discerned by the thousands of eyes looking up from the beach. Many, also, who were above, suddenly thought they could better their positions by moving further off. Below, on the beach, there was a hush of voices; not a murmur was heard. Every body stood in his favorite attitude of expectation. All eyes were bent upon the lofty projecting cliff; and nearly every mouth was open, as if in momentary anticipation of being filled with an avalanche of chalk. Again a bugle sounded — and all was silence. Not a shingle moved.
Presently there was a low, subterranean murmur, accompanied by a trembling of the whole sea-beach — sea and all; no burst of explosion; but the stupendous cliff was seen to crack, heave outward, and separate in many places half way down; the upper part then bowed itself forward, and almost at the same instant, the cliff seemed to bend out and break at one-third of the way from the base, till, like an old giant falling upon his knees, down it sank, pitching at the same time head foremost upon the beach with a tremendous, dull, echo-less roar. A dense cloud of white dust and smoke instantly rose, and obscured the whole from sight.
Every body kept his place a moment in silence — the front line then made a rush onward — then abruptly stopped, bringing up all those behind them with a jerk. Who knows but more cliff may be coming down? In the course of half a minute the cloud of dust had sufficiently dispersed itself to render the fallen mass visible. It formed a sort of double hill, about one-fifth of the height of the rocks above, the other hill nearest the sea (which had been the head and shoulders of the fallen giant) being by far the largest. It was made up of fragments of all sizes, from small morsels, and lumps, up to huge blocks of chalk, many of which were two or three feet in thickness, intermixed with masses of the upper crust, having grass upon the upper surface.
Toward this larger hill of broken masses of chalk, the front rank of the crowd below, on the beach, now rushed. But after a few yards, they again stopped abruptly, bringing every body behind them bump up against their backs. Again, they moved on waveringly, when suddenly a small piece of cracked rock detached itself from above, and came rolling down. Back rushed the front line — a panic took place, and thousands retreated, till they found the cliff was not coming after them, when they gradually drew up, faced about, and returned to the onset. At length it became a complete charge: the front rank made directly for the large broken mound, in the face of clouds of drifting chalk-dust, and fairly carried it by 22 assault — mounting over blocks, or picking their way round about blocks, or between several blocks, and through soft masses of chalk, and so upward to the top — two soldiers, three sailors, a boy, and Sir Valentine, being the first who reached it. Thereupon, they set up a shout of victory, which was echoed by thousands from below. Fifty or sixty more were soon up after them; and one enthusiast, who had a very clever little brown horse, actually contrived to lead him up to the top, and then mounted him, amid the plaudits of the delighted heroes who surrounded him. Every body, horse and all, was covered with the continual rain of chalk-dust. The heroes were all as white as millers.
It was almost as difficult to descend as it had been to get up. However, Sir Valentine managed to effect this with considerable alacrity, and made his way hastily across the field to the little “public,” with intent to secure a fly, or other conveyance, before they were all occupied by the numbers he had left behind him on the beach. Nothing could be had: all were engaged. He walked onward hastily, and was fortunate enough to overtake a large pleasure-cart, into which he got, and, after suffering the vexation of seeing every vehicle pass them, he at length arrived at the Newhaven railway station.
* From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume II, Number VII, December, 1850; Harper & Bros; New York; 1906; pp. 18-22.