Chapter XIX -- In the Kingdom of the Night

Heigh-ho! for that run along the ice -- a matter of half a dozen leagues or so -- at dead of night with a keen north-easterly wind whipping up the blood, and motion -- smooth gliding motion -- to cause it to glow in every vein.

Heigh-ho! for the joy of living, for the joy in the white, ice-covered world, the joy in the night, and in the moon, and in those distant lights of Leyden which gradually recede and diminish -- tiny atoms now in the infinite and mysterious distance!

What ho! a dark and heavy bank of clouds! whence come ye, ye disturbers of the moon's serenity? Nay! but we are in a hurry, the wind drives us at breathless speed, we cannot stay to explain whence we have come.

Moon, kind moon, come out again! ah, there she is, pallid through the frosty mist, blinking at this white world scarce less brilliant than she.

On, on! silently and swiftly, in the stillness of the night, the cruel skates make deep gashes on the smooth skin of the ice, long even strokes now, for the Meer is smooth and straight, and the moon -- kind moon! -- marks an even silvery track, there where the capricious wind has swept it free of snow.

Hat in hand for the wind is cool and good, and tames the hot young blood which a woman's biting tongue has whipped into passion.

"The young vixen," shouts a laughing voice through the night, "was she aware of her danger? how I could have tamed her, and cowed her and terrified her! Did she play a cat and mouse game with me I wonder. . . . Dondersteen! if I thought that. . . ."

But why think of a vixen now, of blue eyes and biting tongues, when the night with unerring hand clothes the landscape with glory. One word to the north-east wind and he sweeps the track quite clear and causes myriads of diamonds to fly aimlessly about, ere they settle like tiny butterflies on tortuous twigs, and rough blades of coarse grass. One call to the moon and she partially hides her face, painting the haze around her to a blood-red hue; now a touch of blue upon the ice, further a streak of emerald, and then the tender mauves of the regal mantle of frost.

Then the thousand sounds that rise all around: the thousand sounds which all united make one vast, comprehensive silence: the soughing of the wind in the bare poplar trees, the rattle of the tiny dead twigs and moaning of the branches; from far away the dull and ceaseless rumble which speaks of a restless sea, and now and again the loud and melancholy boom of the ice, yielding to the restless movements of the water beneath.

The sounds which make up silence -- silence and loneliness, nature's perfect repose under its downy blanket of snow, the vast embrace of the night stretching out into infinity in monotonous flatnesses far away, to the mysterious mists which lie beyond the horizon.

Oh! for the joy of it all! the beauty of the night, the wind and the frost! and the many landmarks which loom out of the darkness one by one, to guide that flying figure on its way; the square tower of the old Katwyk-binnen church, the group of pollard willows at the corner of Veenenburg Polder, the derelict boats on the bank of the Haarlemer Meer, and always from the left that pungent smell of the sea, the brine and the peculiar odour which emanates from the dykes close by, from the wet clay and rotting branches of willows that protect man against the encroachment of the ocean.

On, on, thou sole inhabitant of this kingdom of the night! fly on thy wings of metal -- hour after hour -- midnight -- one -- two -- three -- where are the hours now? there are no hours in the kingdom of the night! On, on, for the moon's course is swift and this will be a neck to neck race. Ah! the wicked one! down she goes, lower and lower in her career, and there is a thick veil of mist on the horizon in the west! Moon! art not afraid? the mists will smother thee! Tarry yet awhile! tarry ere thou layest down on the cold, soft bed! thy light! give it yet awhile! -- two hours! one hour until thou hast outlined with silver the openwork tower of Haarlem's Groote Kirk.

On, on, for a brief hour longer how can one pause even to eat or drink? there is no hunger in the kingdom of night, no thirst, no fatigue! and this a neck to neck race with the moon.

Ah Dondersteen! but thou art beaten, fair moon! Let the mists embrace thee now! sink! fall! die as thou list, there is the tower of St. Bavon! and we defy the darkness now!

Here it comes creeping like a furtive and stealthy creature wiping out with thick black cloth here a star and there the tip of a tall poplar tree, there a shrub, there a clump of grass! Take care, traveller, take care! that was not just the shadow from the bank, it was a bunch of reeds that entangle the feet and bring the skater down on to his face and will drag him, if he be not swift and alert, right under into the water under the ice.

Take care! there is danger everywhere now in this inky blackness! danger on the ice, and upon the bank, danger in the shadows that are less dark than the night!

Darker and darker still, until it seemed as if the night's brush could not hold a more dense hue. The night -- angered that she hath been so long defied -- has overtaken the flying skater at last. She grips him, she holds him, he dare not advance, he will not retreat. Haarlem is there not one whole league away and he cannot move from where he is, in the midst of the Meer, on her icy bosom, with shadows as tangible as human bodies hemming him in on every side.

Haarlem is there! the last kiss of the moon before she fell into that bed of mist, was for St. Bavon's tower, which then seemed so near. Since then the night had wiped out the tower, and the pointed gables which cluster around, and the solitary skater is a prisoner in the fastness of the night.