A Devon Estuary
September 11, 1920. "This dreary expanse, the guide-book explains, "will not attract the tourist." The guide was right. I was alone to that degree beyond mere solitude when you feel you are not alone, but that the place itself is observing you. Yet only five miles away long lines of motor-cars were waiting to take tourists, at ruinous prices, to the authentic and admitted beauty spots. There was not, as the polite convention would put it, a soul about. It was certainly a dreary expanse, but the sunlight there seemed strangely brilliant, I thought, and, what was more curious, appeared to be alive. It was quivering. The transient glittering of some seagulls remote in the blue was as if you could glimpse, now and then, fleeting hints of what is immaculate in heaven. Nothing of our business was in sight anywhere except the white stalk of a lighthouse, and that, I knew, was miles away across the estuary whose waters were then invisible, for it was not only low tide, but I was descending to the saltings, having left the turf of the upper salt marshes.
You felt that here in the saltings you were beyond human associations. The very vegetation was unfamiliar. The thrift, sea lavender, rocket, sea campion, and maritime spurge did not descend so low as this. They came no nearer than where the highest tidal marks left lines of driftwood and bleached shells, just below the break of the upper marshes. Here it was another kingdom, neither sea nor land, but each alternately during the spring tides. At first the sandy mud was reticulated with sun-cracks, not being daily touched by the sea, and the crevasses gave a refuge for algæ. There was a smell, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, which reminded you of something so deep in the memory that you could not give it a name. But it was sound and good. Beyond that dry flat the smooth mud glistened as if earth were growing a new skin, which yet was very tender. It was spongy, but it did not break when I trod on it, though the earth complained as I went. It was thinly sprinkled with a plant like little fingers of green glass, the maritime samphire, and in the distance this samphire gave the marsh a sheen of continuous and vivid emerald.
The saltings looked level and unbroken. But on walking seaward I was continually surprised by drainage channels. These channels serpentined everywhere, and were deep and wide. Sometimes they contained nothing but silt, and sometimes they were salt-water rivers. I came upon each canyon unexpectedly. The first warning was a sudden eruption from it, a flock of dunlin, a flock which then passed seawards in a regimented flight that was an alternate flash of light and a swift shadow. Dunlin, curlew, oyster-catchers, or gulls, left a gulley just before I knew I was headed off again. In one of these creeks, however, the birds left me more than their delicate footprints to examine. They left there a small craft whose mast I had long taken to be a stump projecting from the mud. A young man in a brown beard, a brown shirt, and a pair of khaki trousers was sitting on its skylight. He hailed, and showed me how I could get to him without sinking up to more than the knees in this dreary spot.
"Stay here if you like," he said, when I was with him. "When the tide is full I'll pull you round to the village." It was a little cutter of about fifteen tons, moored to the last huge links of a cable, the rest of which had long been covered up. I thought he was making holiday in a novel way. "No," he replied, "I'm living here."
It seems (I am but paraphrasing his apology) that he returned from Cambrai, bringing back from France, as a young officer, some wounds and other decorations, but also his youthful credulity and a remembrance of society's noble promises to its young saviours. But not long after his return to us the sight of us made him feel disappointed. He "stuck it," he said, as long as he could. But the more he observed us the worse he felt. That was why he gave up a good position a second time on our account. "What was the good of the money? The profiteers took most of it. I worked hard, and had to give up what I earned to every kind of parasite. London was more disagreeable than ever was Flanders. Yet I think I would not object to sweep the roads for a community of good people. Yes, I thought nothing could be worse than the dead in the mud. But I found something worse. The minds of the living who did not know what I knew in France were worse to me. I couldn't remember the friends I'd lost and remain where I was with such, folk about me. It was more awful than that German--did you ever meet him?--who lay just the other side of the parapet for weeks and weeks."
His only companion now is a paraffin stove, which does not, perhaps, require a gas-mask to aid in its companionship, though about that I won't be sure. The only conversation he hears is that of the curlews subdued, cheerful, and very intimate voices, having just that touch of melancholy which intimacy, when it is secure and genuine, is sure to give, however jolly the intimacy may be. He said that at first he was afraid he could not live on what little money he had, and must earn casually, after buying the boat, but "it's easier to live than I thought. There's not nearly as much worry needed as I used to suppose. It is surprising how much one can do without. I was rather scared at first when I got rid of my sense of duty. But, after all, it is not so hard to be free. Perhaps the world already has more soft and easy people than is good for it. I find one benefit of this life is that, being free of the crowd, I feel indifferent about the way the crowd chooses to go. I don't care now what the public does--that's its own affair, and I hope it will enjoy it." After a silence he said "That sounds selfish, I know. And I'm not sure yet that it isn't. Anyhow, if one could help one's fellows one would. But is it possible to help them? When did they last listen to reason? The only guides they will listen to are frauds obvious enough to make an ass lay back his ears. Well, I think I'll wait here till the crowd knows enough to stop before it gets to the edge of the steep place--if it can stop now."
I asked him what he read. "Very little. I fish more than I read. You'd think it would take only a week to learn all there is here. I should have thought so once. I see now that I shall never thoroughly know this estuary. It's a wonderful place. Every tide is a new experience. I am beginning to feel right again." In the boat, going round to the village, he learned I was a writer, rested on his oars, and drifted with the tide. "I'll give you a job," he said. "Write a book that will make people hate the idea that the State is God as Moloch was at last hated. Turn the young against it. The latest priest is the politician. No ritual in any religion was worse than this new worship of the State. If men don't wake up to that, then they are doomed." He began then to pull me towards humanity again.