Chapter I. It is through excess of greatness that man reaches excess of misery
As midnight tolled from St. Paul’s, a man who had just crossed London Bridge struck into the lanes of Southwark. There were no lamps lighted, it being at that time the custom in London, as in Paris, to extinguish the public lamps at eleven o’clock – that is, to put them out just as they became necessary. The streets were dark and deserted. When the lamps are out men stay in. He whom we speak of advanced with hurried strides. He was strangely dressed for walking at such an hour. He wore a coat of embroidered silk, a sword by his side, a hat with white plumes, and no cloak. The watchmen, as they saw him pass, said, “It is a lord walking for a wager,” and they moved out of his way with the respect due to a lord and to a better.
The man was Gwynplaine. He was making his escape. Where was he? He did not know. We have said that the soul has its cyclones – fearful whirlwinds, in which heaven, the sea, day, night, life, death, are all mingled in unintelligible horror. It can no longer breathe Truth; it is crushed by things in which it does not believe. Nothingness becomes hurricane. The firmament pales. Infinity is empty. The mind of the sufferer wanders away. He feels himself dying. He craves for a star. What did Gwynplaine feel? a thirst – a thirst to see Dea.
He felt but that. To reach the Green Box again, and the Tadcaster Inn, with its sounds and light – full of the cordial laughter of the people; to find Ursus and Homo, to see Dea again, to re-enter life. Disillusion, like a bow, shoots its arrow, man, towards the True. Gwynplaine hastened on. He approached Tarrinzeau Field. He walked no longer now; he ran. His eyes pierced the darkness before him. His glance preceded him, eagerly seeking the harbour on the horizon. What a moment for him when he should see the lighted windows of Tadcaster Inn!
He reached the bowling-green. He turned the corner of the wall, and saw before him, at the other end of the field, some distance off, the inn – the only house, it may be remembered, in the field where the fair was held.
He looked. There was no light; nothing but a black mass.
He shuddered. Then he said to himself that it was late; that the tavern was shut up; that it was very natural; that every one was asleep; that he had only to awaken Nicless or Govicum; that he must go up to the inn and knock at the door. He did so, running no longer now, but rushing.
He reached the inn, breathless. It is when, storm-beaten and struggling in the invisible convulsions of the soul until he knows not whether he is in life or in death, that all the delicacy of a man’s affection for his loved ones, being yet unimpaired, proves a heart true. When all else is swallowed up, tenderness still floats unshattered. Not to awaken Dea too suddenly was Gwynplaine’s first thought. He approached the inn with as little noise as possible. He recognized the nook, the old dog kennel, where Govicum used to sleep. In it, contiguous to the lower room, was a window opening on to the field. Gwynplaine tapped softly at the pane. It would be enough to awaken Govicum, he thought.
There was no sound in Govicum’s room.
“At his age,” said Gwynplaine, “a boy sleeps soundly.”
With the back of his hand he knocked against the window gently. Nothing stirred.
He knocked louder twice. Still nothing stirred. Then, feeling somewhat uneasy, he went to the door of the inn and knocked. No one answered. He reflected, and began to feel a cold shudder come over him.
“Master Nicless is old, children sleep soundly, and old men heavily. Courage! louder!”
He had tapped, he had knocked, he had kicked the door; now he flung himself against it.
This recalled to him a distant memory of Weymouth, when, a little child, he had carried Dea, an infant, in his arms.
He battered the door again violently, like a lord, which, alas! he was.
The house remained silent. He felt that he was losing his head. He no longer thought of caution. He shouted, –
At the same time he looked up at the windows, to see if any candle was lighted. But the inn was blank. Not a voice, not a sound, not a glimmer of light. He went to the gate and knocked at it, kicked against it, and shook it, crying out wildly, –
The wolf did not bark.
A cold sweat stood in drops upon his brow. He cast his eyes around. The night was dark; but there were stars enough to render the fair-green visible. He saw – a melancholy sight to him – that everything on it had vanished.
There was not a single caravan. The circus was gone. Not a tent, not a booth, not a cart, remained. The strollers, with their thousand noisy cries, who had swarmed there, had given place to a black and sullen void.
All were gone.
The madness of anxiety took possession of him. What did this mean? What had happened? Was no one left? Could it be that life had crumbled away behind him? What had happened to them all? Good heavens! Then he rushed like a tempest against the house. He struck the small door, the gate, the windows, the window-shutters, the walls, with fists and feet, furious with terror and agony of mind.
He called Nicless, Govicum, Fibi, Vinos, Ursus, Homo. He tried every shout and every sound against this wall. At times he waited and listened; but the house remained mute and dead. Then, exasperated, he began again with blows, shouts, and repeated knockings, re-echoed all around. It might have been thunder trying to awake the grave.
There is a certain stage of fright in which a man becomes terrible. He who fears everything fears nothing. He would strike the Sphynx. He defies the Unknown.
Gwynplaine renewed the noise in every possible form – stopping, resuming, unwearying in the shouts and appeals by which he assailed the tragic silence. He called a thousand times on the names of those who should have been there. He shrieked out every name except that of Dea – a precaution of which he could not have explained the reason himself, but which instinct inspired even in his distraction.
Having exhausted calls and cries, nothing was left but to break in.
“I must enter the house,” he said to himself; “but how?”
He broke a pane of glass in Govicum’s room by thrusting his hand through it, tearing the flesh; he drew the bolt of the sash and opened the window. Perceiving that his sword was in the way, he tore it off angrily, scabbard, blade, and belt, and flung it on the pavement. Then he raised himself by the inequalities in the wall, and though the window was narrow, he was able to pass through it. He entered the inn. Govicum’s bed, dimly visible in its nook, was there; but Govicum was not in it. If Govicum was not in his bed, it was evident that Nicless could not be in his.
The whole house was dark. He felt in that shadowy interior the mysterious immobility of emptiness, and that vague fear which signifies – “There is no one here.”
Gwynplaine, convulsed with anxiety, crossed the lower room, knocking against the tables, upsetting the earthenware, throwing down the benches, sweeping against the jugs, and, striding over the furniture, reached the door leading into the court, and broke it open with one blow from his knee, which sprung the lock. The door turned on its hinges. He looked into the court. The Green Box was no longer there.