After the Shadow
I ONCE saw a total eclipse of the sun in Yorkshire. It will be remembered that it was across that part of England that the belt of totality went. I was in Yorkshire again at the end of last September, when the great shadow of impending war fell on a far wider area. And, looking back on each of these times, I have a vivid memory of simple, almost unnoticed, rural things. I remember a thorn tree in a green field at the time of the eclipse, and a dense darkness under it, as though it poured down from the branches; and the sky darkening to a Prussian blue; and then the huge golden sickle of the returning sun; and England again as it had been before, and for hundreds and hundreds of years.
The darkness last September was not visible; it was a shadow distinguished in all of us rather by the spirit than by the eyes; but it was certainly there, dark over us and England. I think that the dark things in life are more quickly forgotten than the bright ones; but, however it be, the clearest memory I have of those days is of things that to European statesmen would appear too trivial to notice, let alone to remember. And these are the things that I noticed at the time, looking poignant then because it seemed that so many men would soon lose them; and appearing to shine so vividly when departing peace came back to us that I shall probably remember them for a few more years: short grass on a land held up by a hill as steep as Atlas, whence other hills could be seen, one beyond the other, like a brood of giants all holding up heathery moors and the grassy land that sheep graze at the heather’s edges.
But it was the earth itself all round my feet that held my attention then, and the little things that grew on it in that shadow, rather than the immense view which at other times might have attracted me more. It was a place so lonely that I do not remember having ever met any man there, and yet little tracks ran all over it. So elfin they looked that one scarcely associated them with sheep. Here one identified definitely a sheep track, and then one came to a patch of greener grass, like a tiny lawn laid out alone on the hill, and in the middle of it was a rabbit hole, showing the dark earth, and seven or eight tracks running from it — evidently quite a meeting place for those that care nothing for man. Thrusting up through the grass one often saw the scarlet heads of toadstools, and sometimes brown puffballs. Fungi are there in plenty, a few flowers and innumerable tracks, but not a sign of man; though by the side of a little valley where the gray rock breaks out, and at the very summit of the hill, stand three figures about five feet high, made entirely of loose stones, which are a foot or so lower after every storm for a while, but which always recover their stature. So men must go there sometimes. Indeed, I never pass them myself without adding a trifle to their inches, probably for the same reason that urges everyone else to give them the same care, though what that reason is I could not explain.
A deep ghyll, as they call it in Yorkshire, plunges down at the back of the hill, and there the tracks of the sheep run along steep edges, and the tinier tracks of the rabbits, and one feels that one is in a populous welltrodden land where no man ever came. Not far away lies the heather, a land shut off from the grass by a loose wall of stone, as though, if the grass were not protected against so wild a thing as the moor, the heather would leap at it one night and take it back to that ancient dominion that never bowed to the Romans. One wonders how the grass, supporting a few sheep, was won from the grip of the savage and beautiful moor. Probably by the labor of men, many centuries dead.
But, however it came, that land by the edge of the moor stands out very clear in my memory, probably because it is of a time and a civilization that seemed about to be blasted away; so that the short blades of grass and the rabbits’ tracks, the red toadstools and the gray rocks, had the pathetic appeal about them of drowning hands. And then the shadow lifted, and they were still there. In reality they are the things that will outlast all our wars and all our civilizations — the ghylls with the steep sides on which only rock can stand, and the grass at the edge of the moor which sheep will nibble. It was not they that were leaving us, but all of us who seemed to be about to be leaving them. There was no change in them during those dark days at all; and there will be no change in them ever; only, for those few days they had a certain wistfulness in which they seemed to shine as they shine in dew, and as they still shine in my memory.