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A short story by John Roby

The Sands

Title:     The Sands
Author: John Roby [More Titles by Roby]

"It is the shout of the coming foe,
Ride, ride for thy life, Sir John;
But still the waters deeper grew,
The wild sea-foam rushed on."

--Old Ballad.

The following account of an excursion over the sands, from Mr Baines's Companion to the Lakes, will give a very accurate idea of the mode in which travellers accomplish this interesting, though sometimes perilous journey, over the bare sands of the Bay of Morecambe. Taking a horse at Lancaster, and setting out at the same time with the "Over-sands" coach, he says--

"We arrived at Hest Bank, on the shores of Morecambe Bay, three miles and a half from Lancaster, about five in the afternoon. Here a little caravan was collected, waiting the proper time to cross the trackless sands left bare by the receding tide. I soon saw two persons set out in a gig, and, following them, I found that one of them was the guide appointed to conduct travellers, and the other a servant who was driving his master's gig to the Cartmel shore, and was to return with the horse the same evening. He had of course no time to lose, and had begun his journey at the earliest possible hour. We found the sands firm and level, except the slight wrinkles produced by the ripple of the waves; but they were still wet, having only just been left by the sea. The guide appeared to drive with caution, and in no place went farther than a mile from land. We had a good deal of conversation, and I found him intelligent and communicative. His name is Thomas Wilkinson. He is a tall, athletic man, past the middle age, and bears marks of the rough weather he has been exposed to in discharging the duties of his post during the winter months. In stormy, and more especially in foggy weather, those duties must be arduous and anxious. It is his business to station himself at the place where the river Keer runs over the sands to the sea, which is about three miles from Hest Bank, and to show travellers where they may pass with safety. The bed of the river is liable to frequent changes, and a fresh of water after rain may, in a very short time, convert a fordable place into a quicksand. When we came to the river, he got out of the gig, and waded over to ascertain the firmness of the bottom, the water being about knee-deep. Having escorted us a little farther, till we saw the guide for the Kent at a distance, and having pointed out the line we should keep, he left us to return to his proper post. We gave him, as is usual, a few pence; for though he is appointed by government, his salary is only £10 a-year, and he is, of course, chiefly dependent on what he receives from travellers.

"These sands are called the Lancaster Sands, and the guide said that they were at present eleven miles over, from Hest Bank to Kent's Bank, but that he had known them when he could pass directly over in not more than seven miles. The tide forms a channel in the sand, which has been gradually coming nearer the shore for some years past, and has obliged persons crossing to take a longer circuit. It was now the spring-tide, and the sands we were travelling upon would, at high-water, be seventeen feet below the surface of the sea.

"The day was exceedingly fine, and the prospects, in crossing over the sands, were splendid. The whole coast of the bay, from Peel Castle round to the shore beyond Lancaster; the stern crags of Warton and Arnside Fells, on the right; farther eastward, the well-known form of Ingleborough, whose broad head, not apparently of very great elevation, is still visible from every considerable hill in Lancashire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland, and seems to lift itself in serene and unchanging majesty over the neighbouring hills; the broken and picturesque shores of the Kent, beautifully wooded, and forming a vista to the eye;--the fells of Cartmel, rising in the mid-distance, their sides hung with forests, and several ornamental parks lying round their base; and above, and far beyond them, the noble chain of the Westmoreland and Cumberland mountains, whose lofty summits, clothed with light, formed a sublime barrier stretching along the northern horizon. Such are the principal features of a prospect which is not the less beautiful because it rises from the level expanse of the sands, and which was to me the more interesting from the novelty of my own situation.

"The Ulverstone coach, several gigs, and some persons on horseback, had followed us at a little distance, keeping the track left by the wheels of the vehicle which conveyed the guide. When Wilkinson left us, we rode on two or three miles before we came to the channel of the Kent, and there we found a guide on horseback, who had just forded the river from the opposite side. The guide stationed here has long gone by the name of the Carter, and it is difficult to say whether the office has been so called from the family in which it has been vested, or the family have assumed their official title as a cognomen; but it is certain that for many ages the duties of guide over the Lancaster Sands have been performed by a family named Carter, and have descended from father to son. The present possessor of the office is named James Carter, and has lately succeeded his father. He told me that some persons said the office of guide had been in his family five hundred years, but he did not know how anybody could tell that; and all he could say was, that they had held it 'for many grandfathers back, longer than anyone knew.' The salary was only £10 a-year till his father's time, when it was raised to £20; yet I should suppose that the office is a rather productive one, as the family have accumulated some property.

"The Carter seems a cheerful and pleasant fellow. He wore a rough greatcoat and a pair of jack-boots, and was mounted on a good horse, which appeared to have been up to the ribs in the water. When we came to him, he recommended us to wait till the arrival of the coach, which was nearly a mile distant, as the tide would then be gone farther out. I asked if there had been any accidents in this place lately; to which he replied, that some boys were drowned two years ago, having attempted to pass when the tide was up, in defiance of warnings; but that, with that exception, there had not been any accidents for a considerable time. When the coach came up we took the water in procession, and crossed two channels, in one of which the water was up to the horses' bellies. The coach passed over without the least difficulty, being drawn by fine tall horses. Arrived at the other side, the man of high genealogy received our gratuities, and we rode on, keeping close to a line of rods which have been planted in the sand to indicate the track, and which have remained there for many months. We shortly met the coach from Ulverstone, and several other vehicles, and as we proceeded the views of the estuary and the distant mountains became still more beautiful and interesting. Three or four miles brought us to Kent's Bank, on the Cartmel shore. I infer that the river is not fordable for any long period, as the guide told the servant whom I have mentioned that he must return in an hour if he wished to pass over again that evening.

"The peninsula formed by the Kent and the Leven is three miles over; and, after passing it, I came to the latter river, the sands of which are of the same breadth, and must be crossed to reach Ulverstone."

These sands are reckoned more dangerous than the former, as the channel of the river is frequently shifted.

It is safest to cross at spring-tides; the water then is more completely drained out, and the force of the tide sweeps the bottom clean from mud and sediment.

Here another guide on horseback escorts travellers over.

The views up the Leven are fully as picturesque, though not quite so extensive, as those at the mouth of the Kent. A bold, woody promontory, seen in our engraving, projects into the river at the mouth of the ford, narrowing it to less than half the breadth. The two ridges of the Cartmel and Ulverstone Fells, the former clothed with wood and the latter with verdure, run up inland, and carry the eye back to the mountains, round the head of Coniston Water and Windermere. On the Ulverstone shore, to the left of the town, are the grounds of Conishead Priory, which adorn with their rich woods and lawns the gently-waving side of the hill; and the mouth of the Leven opens out to the Bay of Morecambe, the shores of which are visible to a great extent.

The sands forming the Bay of Morecambe, covered by the sea at high water, are crossed every day by travellers whose time or inclination leads them to choose this route rather than one more circuitous, and nearly thrice the distance, inland. Yet the sands are by no means without danger, especially to the uncautious or unwary. Scarcely a year passes without some loss of lives, generally owing to the obstinacy or foolhardiness of the victims. Guides are appointed to conduct strangers across this trackless waste, whose duty it is to examine daily, on the receding of the tide, the several routes by which passengers may accomplish their journey. The places where danger is to be apprehended are the fordings of the several rivers or watercourses, which, even when the sands are bare, still pour forth a considerable stream to the ocean. These fords are continually changing by reason of the shifting of the sands, so that one day's path may on the morrow prove a dangerous and impassable quicksand.

The principal guide has a small annuity from government, and is obliged, in all weathers, to perform this disagreeable but highly-important duty. The priory of Conishead was charged with this office over the Leven or Ulverstone sands, and the guide whom they appointed, besides perquisites, had an allotment of three acres of land, with fifteen marks per annum. Henry the Eighth, on the dissolution of the monasteries, charged himself and his successors with the payment of a certain sum to the person that should be guide for the time being, by patent under the seal of the duchy of Lancaster. Such was the importance and the idea of danger attached to this journey, that on a little rocky island midway between the shores of Cartmel and Furness, there stood a small chapel or oratory built by the monks of Furness, where prayers were daily offered for the safety of travellers then occupied in this perilous attempt. Yet these, called the Ulverstone sands, are scarcely more than three miles across, whilst the well-known Lancaster sands are nine miles, from the circuitous line of the track, though it is said that the shorter passage is the more dangerous. That the longer journey is not unattended with risk may be inferred from the accidents which have occurred, as well as from the fact, that carriages are sometimes left to the mercy of the coming tide, the passengers making their escape in the best manner they are able.

Our tale hath reference to one of these perilous adventures, long years ago; and as neither plot nor story is evolved, the reader is warned, if he so please, that he leave the few following pages unread, unless he be of a temper not liable to suffer disappointment thereby.

The night was beautifully calm: the moon just sinking upon the verge of the distant waters, where the Bay of Morecambe, the great estuary so called, according to some authorities, by Ptolemy, opens out into the broad channel of the Irish Sea.

The stars shone down, keen, bright, and piercing,--"fixed in their everlasting seat,"--ever presenting the same aspect, the same order and disposition, through all the changes of this changing and mutable world. The scene was peculiarly inviting--so calm, so placid, the whole wide and visible hemisphere was without a blot. Nature, like a deceitful mistress, looked so hypocritically serene, that her face might never have been darkened with a cloud or furrowed by a frown. So winning was she withal, that, though the veriest shrew, and all untamed and ungovernable in her habits and conditions, this night she became hushed and gentle as the soothed infant in its repose.

The same night came down to the Kent side, intending to set out on their perilous march over the sands of the bay, divers travellers, well mounted for the occasion. Yet were their steeds much harassed, weltering in mud and foam, by reason that their journey had been both long and hasty, and their business urgent, nor were they yet without apprehension of pursuit. They looked wistfully down towards the west, where the moon hung over the ocean's brim, a red ensanguined crescent, as if about to dip her golden bowl into the raging deep, or mayhap to launch her glittering bark on that perilous tide. For, in good sooth, the travellers on that same day, having forded the estuaries of the Duddon and the Leven, were barely in time for their passage across the sands of the Kent, their destination being the tower of Arnside, standing on a round rocky peninsula, little more than two miles from their present station. Yet was the way perilous, though they had time sufficient for their purpose. The river Kent, or Ken, which, when the tide hath receded from the bay, followeth often at a considerable depth and speed, was at this period much swollen by reason of the late swells and freshes from the hills. Moreover, the tide would ere long press back the waters towards their source, and but few hours should elapse ere the ocean itself would roll over and obliterate every trace of their intended path. Yet though sure and undeviating was the peril before them, another more imminent and perchance not less remote, awaited them from behind. They were pursued. Hot and hasty was the chase, and their blood alone would slake the vengeance of their adversaries.

Pausing ere the first plash was heard in the heavy sands beneath the shore, the foremost horseman of the party thus held discourse. Those that followed were likewise armed, and to all appearance were followers or retainers of the chief, who had been with them upon some foray or predatory excursion.

"We are between fire and water, I trow; but what of that? We must e'en cross."

"And how if the fog of yesternight should come again, or we should miss our track?"

"Tush, Harry, with thine evil croak. There will be time enough to discourse with danger when it comes. Besides, I would know it blindfold, and the night doth bear no token of either distemper or disquiet."

"Thou art passing careless of our jeopardy. It were better, even now, that we follow the track by the coast. My counsel was set at naught, or we had gone forward by Cartmel, and missed this perilous pathway of the sea."

"And with it met the enemy at my gate; or, peradventure, having passed on thither before us, we should have found them in quiet possession of our good fortalice yonder. Truly it were a precious entertainment! We should have Lenten fare, I trow, where they be lords o' the feast."

"Our steeds, I think, would have outstripped them, even by way of the forest and the bridges, but"----

"Thou reckonest not for delay by the hill-paths and the morass, let alone the weary miles that we should have to ride. Tut, man, they fancy not of our crossing this little brooklet here, because I misled them ere we departed; and they are now mightily sure of cutting off our retreat, and getting at the tower before us. How the knaves will slink back when they find the gate barred in their teeth. Forward, Sir Harry, and let the Cumberland wolves take the hindmost!"

They dashed down the slope into the heavy mud by the beach, and soon the little band might have been seen moving like dark specks on the sandy waste, even though night had come on, so clear and unsullied was the atmosphere.

The wind, which through the day had blown light, but piercing, from the north, seemed all at once to become more bland and genial. A pause was felt; then a veering to and fro, like the flapping sail, ere the big canvas comes bellying before the wind; a pause, created by one of those occult and uncomprehended operations of nature, to be understood only in the secret recesses of her power, where all the germs of being are elaborated, but whither the most daring and exalted of human capacities never penetrated.

It was near the turn of the tide, and the wind, obeying her spell, as though at the call of that mighty wizard, was gradually veering towards the sea, and shortly would ride on with the rolling billows, driving forward, like some proud charioteer, the dark waters of the Atlantic in its progress.

The travellers were pricking on their way discreetly, the channel of the river just before them, rippling pleasantly over some quiet star, that seemed to sink deep within its bosom.

To their right was the voice of the restless and mystic ocean, obeying the fiat of Him who hath fixed its bounds--at too great a distance now to excite other feelings than those of their own impotence, and the immensity by which they were surrounded. I know of no sound to be compared to it. There is nought in the wide range of our intelligence that can produce the dread, the almost terrific expansion which it seems to create in the mind, save it be the dizzy view over some dark and unfathomable abyss--an impression that comes over us like the dread unutterable anticipations of eternity!

Suddenly a thin white vapour was seen obscuring the brightness in the west. Then came a cloud-like haze, scudding on the very surface of the stream, wherein the plash of horses' feet announced their entrance. They rode slowly on, but the channel was deep, and it seemed as though some sleight and witchery was about them, for the mist became so dense that the clouds seemed to have dropped down to encompass and enfold them. The stream gradually became deeper, until the foremost horse was wading to the belly, labouring and snorting from the chillness and oppression upon his chest.

"'Tis an unlucky and an embarrassing escort that we are favoured with," said the rider. "The wind, too, whiffles about strangely. 'Tis on my face, now, and verily I think the stream will ne'er be crossed. I trust we are not wading it down towards the sea."

"Troth but we be, though," hastily replied his friend, after looking down, bending as low as possible to observe his horse's feet, where he could just discern the gouts of foam as they ran right before, instead of passing them from left to right.

"Put back--put back, and soon!" he cried, in great alarm; for the mist bewildered them strangely. They did put back, but instead of all obeying the same impulse, some of the party, finding themselves on opposite sides of the stream, were plunging and replunging into it, to rejoin their comrades, every one calling out for his neighbour to follow; so that, in the end, the whole party were so confused that, on being gathered together once more on the sand, they really knew not on which side of the stream they stood, nor which way to move. They seemed like persons discoursing in a dream, and the mist hung about them so closely that they could not, even by dismounting, see the marks of their own footsteps. They felt that they were standing on a bank of sand, which they knew must inevitably, and ere long, be covered by the raging tide, even then, perhaps, on its way to overwhelm and devour them. But this was the utmost of their knowlege, for the direction in which to proceed, or the bearing of either shore, was beyond their knowledge or apprehension. They would now have been glad to retrace their steps, but this, alas! they knew not how to accomplish. To remain would be certain destruction; to go on, might only be hastening to meet it. But move they must, as the only chance of escape; yet opinions were as various as the points of the compass. One was for going to the right, another to the left, another straight forward; so that, what with arguing and wrangling, they became more bewilderd and uncertain than ever.

"I do verily believe we have not yet crossed the river," said one.

"Not come across!" replied another; "why we've been through and through, to my own certainty, at least thrice."

"Thrice in thy teeth!" said his angry opponent; "and so I'll go forward."

"And I'll go back," was the reply. But the precise idea they had formed of these opposite and important determinations was more than either of them could explain; even though they had been ever so certain upon these points, to proceed in a straight line in any direction was impossible, without some object by which to direct their course. Ever and anon was heard a heavy plunge into the stream, but even this token had ceased to avail them, for its course could not be ascertained. The tide was now arresting its progress, and the water moved to and fro in every direction, according to the various impulses it received. The wind, too, was light and treacherous; its breath seemed to come and go, without any fixed point by which they could feel either its arrival or departure. In this dilemma, and without any clue to their extrication, harassed and confounded, they were like men bereft of their senses, and almost at their wits' end. Still they clung instinctively about each other, but their conduct had now taken the opposite extreme. Before, all was bustle and activity, everybody giving directions, hallooing, shouting, and so forth. Now, they were silent, and almost stationary, stupefied, distracted. There is a fascination in danger. I have known those who never could look down a precipice without a horrible impulse to leap over the brink. Like the scared bird, almost within the gripe of its destroyer, yet unable to flee, so had they lost, apparently, all power of escape. It was a silence more awful even than the yellings of despair. Its horrid gripe was on every heart; every bosom withered beneath its touch. The nature of the most courageous appeared to change; trembling and perplexity shook the stoutest frame; yet suddenly and unexpectedly was the silence broken, and the spell that bound them dissolved.

"Hark!" said every voice together; "a bell, by the blessed Virgin!" The sound roused them from their stupor. Hope again visited the prison-house of the spirit.

"On, on!" said their leader.

"On, on!" was re-echoed on every side; but they were still attempting to escape in different directions. Scarcely two of them were agreed as to the place whence the sound proceeded. Yet it came on, at stated intervals, a long, deep, melancholy knell, almost terrific in their present condition. Another council was attended with the same results--opinions being as varied as ever. Still that warning toll had some connection with their fellow-men, some link, which, however remote, united them to those who were now slumbering in happiness and security. Yet of their true course and bearing they were as ignorant as ever.

"Now, by'r lady," said one, "there's either witch or wizard at the tail o' this. Haven't I passed this very place to and fro, man and boy, these twenty years, and never went away by a yard's space, right or left. Now"----

"Right well, Humphry Braithwaite, should I know it too, and yet we might be in a wilderness for aught I can distinguish, either land-mark or sea-mark. Hush, I'm sure that bell is from the right."

"Nay, I hear it yonder, to the left, if I'm not witched."

"Thee'rt gone daft, man, 'tis----Well, if the sound binna from both sides, right and left! I hear it behind me now."

"We must be moving," said the leader. There's no chance for us here. We can but meet the enemy at the worst, and there are three chances of escaping for one of drowning, which way soever we take, at a blind venture. Then let us away together; and may the Virgin and St Bees be our helper!"

But there were some who would rather trust to their own guidance; and what with the indecision of one, the obstinacy of another, and the timidity of a third, he soon found himself with only one companion, besides his good grey steed, when he flung the reins to his control, and spurred forward.

Reckless, almost driven to desperation, he committed his way to the beast's better discretion, as he thought, goading on the jaded animal incessantly, his fellow-traveller still keeping behind, but at no great distance. They halted after a space; but how long it is impossible to say. Hours and minutes, in seasons of pain or excitement, are, in the mind's duration, arbitrary and conventional. To measure time by the state of our feelings would be as futile as an attempt to measure space by the slowness or impetuosity of our movements. Hours dwindle into minutes, and minutes are exaggerated into hours, according to the circumstances under which the mind moves on. We are conscious of existence only by the succession of our feelings. We are conscious of time only by its lapse. Hence we are apt to make the same measure serve for both; and, as our own dispositions predicate, so doth time run fast or slow. True it is that time cannot measure thought. The mind notes but the current and passage of its own feelings; they only are the measure of existence and the medium of identity.

"Halt, Lord Monteagle!" cried his companion from behind; "I hear the sea before us. Hush, and use thine own senses, if they be worth the trial."

The other listened, but it was only for one moment; the next saw him wheel round, urging on his flight in the opposite direction, for he knew, or his senses were rendered deceptive through terror, the sound of the coming tide.

"Halt, Lord Monteagle!" again cried the horseman from behind; "for the water is deeper at every plunge. Halt, I say, for the love of"----The sound died on the speaker's lip, for he was overwhelmed and sickening with the dread anticipation of death.

"On one side or the other, then, I care not which," cried the foremost rider.

"To the right, and Heaven grant us a safe deliverance!"

Away went the panting steeds; but the waters increased; yet were they powerful animals, and they swam boldly on amid the roar and dash of the rising waves. Still it was with difficulty they could breast the torrent. The courageous beasts braced every sinew to the work--instinctively grappling with danger--every effort was directed to their escape. Suddenly a loud shout was heard, and something dark rose up before them. It might be the hull of some vessel, that was approaching an ark of safety. This thought was the first that crossed them. But they felt a sudden shock and a vibration, as though their steeds had struck the land.

They saw, or it was a deception produced by agitation or excitement, the dark outline of the beach, and men hurrying to and fro with lighted torches. They galloped on through the waves, and a few moments brought them safely upon the hard, loose pebbles of the shore.

Joyful was the recognition; for those who had come to their succour were the party from whom they had separated, who had luckily gained the shore before them. But what was their surprise when they found they had been galloping to and fro almost within a stone's throw of the beach opposite the place of their destination! Yet such was their state of bewilderment that it was an even hand but they had put about on the other side, and attempted to return across the channel. In that case no human help could have rescued them from destruction, for the tide already had overtaken them, and it was only their close proximity unto the shore which enabled the horses to regain their footing, and bear them safely to land.

It seems that their pursuers were still outdone, for their stronghold was open to receive them; and the enemy, foiled in their expectations, returned with all speed into Cumberland, lest during their absence some more dangerous foe from the Borders should lay waste their possessions.

[The end]
John Roby's short story: Sands