Little Dorrit HTML version

1. Sun and Shadow
Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.
A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in southern France
then, than at any other time, before or since. Everything in Marseilles, and about
Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a
staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of
countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets,
staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The
only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping
under their load of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air
barely moved their faint leaves.
There was no wind to make a ripple on the foul water within the harbour, or on
the beautiful sea without. The line of demarcation between the two colours, black
and blue, showed the point which the pure sea would not pass; but it lay as quiet
as the abominable pool, with which it never mixed. Boats without awnings were
too hot to touch; ships blistered at their moorings; the stones of the quays had
not cooled, night or day, for months. Hindoos, Russians, Chinese, Spaniards,
Portuguese, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Genoese, Neapolitans, Venetians,
Greeks, Turks, descendants from all the builders of Babel, come to trade at
Marseilles, sought the shade alike--taking refuge in any hiding-place from a sea
too intensely blue to be looked at, and a sky of purple, set with one great flaming
jewel of fire.
The universal stare made the eyes ache. Towards the distant line of Italian coast,
indeed, it was a little relieved by light clouds of mist, slowly rising from the
evaporation of the sea, but it softened nowhere else. Far away the staring roads,
deep in dust, stared from the hill-side, stared from the hollow, stared from the
interminable plain. Far away the dusty vines overhanging wayside cottages, and
the monotonous wayside avenues of parched trees without shade, drooped
beneath the stare of earth and sky. So did the horses with drowsy bells, in long
files of carts, creeping slowly towards the interior; so did their recumbent drivers,
when they were awake, which rarely happened; so did the exhausted labourers
in the fields. Everything that lived or grew, was oppressed by the glare; except
the lizard, passing swiftly over rough stone walls, and the cicala, chirping his dry
hot chirp, like a rattle. The very dust was scorched brown, and something
quivered in the atmosphere as if the air itself were panting.
Blinds, shutters, curtains, awnings, were all closed and drawn to keep out the
stare. Grant it but a chink or keyhole, and it shot in like a white-hot arrow. The
churches were the freest from it. To come out of the twilight of pillars and arches-
-dreamily dotted with winking lamps, dreamily peopled with ugly old shadows
piously dozing, spitting, and begging--was to plunge into a fiery river, and swim
for life to the nearest strip of shade. So, with people lounging and lying wherever
shade was, with but little hum of tongues or barking of dogs, with occasional