After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xiii

Sailing Away

But the next morning Felix arose straight from his sleep resolved to carry out his plan. Without staying to think a moment, without further examination of the various sides of the problem, he started up the instant his eyes unclosed, fully determined upon his voyage. The breath of the bright June morn as he threw open the window-shutter filled him with hope; his heart responded to its joyous influence. The excitement which had disturbed his mind had had time to subside. In the still slumber of the night the strong undercurrent of his thought resumed its course, and he awoke with his will still firmly bent in one direction.

When he had dressed, he took his bow and the chest bound with the leathern thongs, and went down. It was early, but the Baron had already finished breakfast and gone out to his gardens; the Baroness had not yet appeared. While he was making a hurried breakfast (for having now made up his mind he was eager to put his resolve into execution), Oliver came in, and seeing the chest and the bow, understood that the hour had arrived. He immediately said he should accompany him to Heron Bay, and assist him to start, and went out to order their horses. There were always plenty of riding horses at Old House (as at every fortified mansion), and there was not the least difficulty in getting another for Felix in place of his old favourite.

Oliver insisted upon taking the wooden chest, which was rather heavy, before him on the saddle, so that Felix had nothing to carry but his favourite bow. Oliver was surprised that Felix did not first go to the gardens and say good-bye to the Baron, or at least knock at the Baroness’s door and bid her farewell. But he made no remark, knowing Felix’s proud and occasionally hard temper. Without a word Felix left the old place.

He rode forth from the North Barrier, and did not even so much as look behind him. Neither he nor Oliver thought of the events that might happen before they should again meet in the old familiar house! When the circle is once broken up it is often years before it is reformed. Often, indeed, the members of it never meet again, at least, not in the same manner, which, perhaps, they detested then, and ever afterwards regretted. Without one word of farewell, without a glance, Felix rode out into the forest.

There was not much conversation on the trail to Heron Bay. The serfs were still there in charge of the canoe, and were glad enough to see their approach, and thus to be relieved from their lonely watch. They launched the canoe with ease, the provisions were put on board, the chest lashed to the mast that it might not be lost, the favourite bow was also fastened upright to the mast for safety, and simply shaking hands with Oliver, Felix pushed out into the creek. He paddled the canoe to the entrance and out into the Lake till he arrived where the south-west breeze, coming over the forest, touched and rippled the water, which by the shore was perfectly calm.

Then, hoisting the sail, he put out the larger paddle which answered as a rudder, took his seat, and, waving his hand to Oliver, began his voyage. The wind was but light, and almost too favourable, for he had determined to sail to the eastward; not for any specific reason, but because there the sun rose, and that was the quarter of light and hope. His canoe, with a long fore-and-aft sail, and so well adapted for working into the wind, was not well rigged for drifting before a breeze, which was what he was now doing. He had merely to keep the canoe before the wind, steering so as to clear the bold headland of White Horse which rose blue from the water’s edge far in front of him. Though the wind was light, the canoe being so taper and sharp at the prow, and the sail so large in comparison, slipped from the shore faster than he at first imagined.

As he steered aslant from the little bay outwards into the great Lake, the ripples rolling before the wind gradually enlarged into wavelets, these again increased, and in half an hour, as the wind now played upon them over a mile of surface, they seemed in his canoe, with its low freeboard, to be considerable waves. He had purposely refrained from looking back till now, lest they should think he regretted leaving, and in his heart desired to return. But now, feeling that he had really started, he glanced behind. He could see no one.

He had forgotten that the spot where they had launched the canoe was at the end of an inlet, and as he sailed away the creek was shut off from view by the shore of the Lake. Unable to get to the mouth of the bay because of the underwood and the swampy soil, Oliver had remained gazing in the direction the canoe had taken for a minute or two, absorbed in thought (almost the longest period he had ever wasted in such an occupation), and then with a whistle turned to go. The serfs, understanding that they were no longer required, gathered their things together, and were shortly on their way home. Oliver, holding Felix’s horse by the bridle, had already ridden that way, but he presently halted, and waited till the three men overtook him. He then gave the horse into their charge, and turning to the right, along a forest path which branched off there, went to Ponze. Felix could therefore see no one when he looked back, and they were indeed already on their way from the place.

He now felt that he was alone. He had parted from the shore, and from all the old associations; he was fast passing not only out upon the water, but out into the unknown future. But his spirit no longer vacillated; now that he was really in the beginning of his long contemplated enterprise his natural strength of mind returned. The weakness and irresolution, the hesitation, left him. He became full of his adventure, and thought of nothing else.

The south-west breeze, blowing as a man breathes, with alternate rise and fall, now driving him along rapidly till the water bubbled under the prow, now sinking, came over his right shoulder and cooled his cheek, for it was now noon, and the June sun was unchecked by clouds. He could no longer distinguish the shape of the trees on shore; all the boughs were blended together in one great wood, stretching as far as he could see. On his left there was a chain of islands, some covered with firs, and others only with brushwood, while others again were so low and flat that the waves in stormy weather broke almost over them.

As he drew near White Horse, five white terns, or sea-swallows, flew over; he did not welcome their appearance, as they usually preceded rough gales. The headland, wooded to its ridge, now rose high against the sky; ash and nut-tree and hawthorn had concealed the ancient graven figure of the horse upon its side, but the tradition was not forgotten, and the site retained its name. He had been steering so as just to clear the promontory, but he now remembered that when he had visited the summit of the hill, he had observed that banks and shoals extended far out from the shore, and were nearly on a level with the surface of the Lake. In a calm they were visible, but waves concealed them, and unless the helmsman recognised the swirl sufficiently early to change his course, they were extremely dangerous.

Felix bore more out from the land, and passing fully a mile to the north, left the shoals on his right. On his other hand there was a sandy and barren island barely a quarter of a mile distant, upon which he thought he saw the timbers of a wreck. It was quite probable, for the island lay in the track of vessels coasting along the shore. Beyond White Horse, the land fell away in a series of indentations, curving inwards to the south; an inhospitable coast, for the hills came down to the strand, ending abruptly in low, but steep, chalk cliffs. Many islands of large size stood out on the left, but Felix, not knowing the shape of the Lake beyond White Horse, thought it best to follow the trend of the land. He thus found, after about three hours, that he had gone far out of his course, for the gulf-like curve of the coast now began to return to the northward, and looking in that direction he saw a merchant vessel under her one square sail of great size, standing across the bay.

She was about five miles distant, and was evidently steering so as to keep just inside the line of the islands. Felix, with some difficulty, steered in a direction to interrupt her. The south-west wind being then immediately aft, his sail did not answer well; presently he lowered it, and paddled till he had turned the course so that the outrigger was now on the eastern side. Then hoisting the sail again, he sat at what had before been the prow, and steered a point or so nearer the wind. This improved her sailing, but as the merchant ship had at least five miles start, it would take some hours to overtake her. Nor on reflection was he at all anxious to come up with her, for mariners were dreaded for their lawless conduct, being, when on a voyage, beyond all jurisdiction.

On the one hand, if they saw an opportunity, they did not hesitate to land and pillage a house, or even a hamlet. On the other, those who dwelt anywhere near the shore considered it good sport to light a fire and lure a vessel to her destruction, or if she was becalmed to sally out in boats, attack, and perhaps destroy both ship and crew. Hence the many wrecks, and losses, and the risks of navigation, not so much from natural obstacles, since the innumerable islands, and the creeks and inlets of the mainland almost always offered shelter, no matter which way the storm blew, but from the animosity of the coast people. If there was an important harbour and a town where provisions could be obtained, or repairs effected, the right of entrance was jealously guarded, and no ship, however pressed by the gale, was permitted to leave, if she had anchored, without payment of a fine. So that vessels as much as possible avoided the harbours and towns, and the mainland altogether, sailing along beside the islands, which were, for the most part, uninhabited, and anchoring under their lee at night.

Felix, remembering the character of the mariners, resolved to keep well away from them, but to watch their course as a guide to himself. The mainland now ran abruptly to the north, and the canoe, as he brought her more into the wind, sprang forward at a rapid pace. The outrigger prevented her from making any leeway, or heeling over, and the large spread of sail forced her swiftly through the water. He had lost sight of the ship behind some islands, and as he approached these, began to ask himself if he had not better haul down his sail there, as he must now be getting near her, when to his surprise, on coming close, he saw her great square sail in the middle, as it seemed, of the land. The shore there was flat, the hills which had hitherto bounded it suddenly ceasing; it was overgrown with reeds and flags, and about two miles away the dark sail of the merchantman drifted over these, the hull being hidden. He at once knew that he had reached the western mouth of the straits which divide the southern and northern mainland. When he went to see the channel on foot through the forest, he must have struck it a mile or two more to the east, where it wound under the hills.

In another half hour he arrived at the opening of the strait; it was about a mile wide, and either shore was quite flat, that on the right for a short distance, the range of downs approaching within two miles; that on the left, or north, was level as far as he could see. He had now again to lower his sail, to get the outrigger on his lee as he turned to the right and steered due east into the channel. So long as the shore was level, he had no difficulty, for the wind drew over it, but when the hills gradually came near and almost overhung the channel, they shut off much of the breeze, and his progress was slow. When it turned and ran narrowing every moment to the south, the wind failed him altogether.

On the right shore, wooded hills rose from the water like a wall; on the left, it was a perfect plain. He could see nothing of the merchantman, although he knew that she could not sail here, but must be working through with her sweeps. Her heavy hull and bluff bow must make the rowing a slow and laborious process; therefore she could not be far ahead, but was concealed by the winding of the strait. He lowered the sail, as it was now useless, and began to paddle; in a very short time he found the heat under the hills oppressive when thus working. He had now been afloat between six and seven hours, and must have come fully thirty miles, perhaps rather more than twenty in a straight line, and he felt somewhat weary and cramped from sitting so long in the canoe.

Though he paddled hard he did not seem to make much progress, and at length he recognised that there was a distinct current, which opposed his advance, flowing through the channel from east to west. If he ceased paddling, he found he drifted slowly back; the long aquatic weeds, too, which he passed, all extended their floating streamers westward. We did not know of this current till Felix Aquila observed and recorded it.

Tired and hungry (for, full of his voyage, he had taken no refreshments since he started), he resolved to land, rest a little while, and then ascend the hill, and see what he could of the channel. He soon reached the shore, the strait having narrowed to less than a mile in width, and ran the canoe on the ground by a bush, to which, on getting out, he attached the painter. The relief of stretching his limbs was so great that it seemed to endow him with fresh strength, and without waiting to eat, he at once climbed the hill. From the top, the remainder of the strait could be easily distinguished. But a short distance from where he stood, it bent again, and proceeded due east.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:47