After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xiv

The Straits

The passage contracted there to little over half a mile, but these narrows did not continue far; the shores, having approached thus near each other, quickly receded, till presently they were at least two miles apart. The merchant vessel had passed the narrows with the aid of her sweeps, but she moved slowly, and, as it seemed to him, with difficulty. She was about a mile and a half distant, and near the eastern mouth of the strait. As Felix watched he saw her square sail again raised, showing that she had reached a spot where the hills ceased to shut off the wind. Entering the open Lake she altered her course and sailed away to the north-north-east, following the course of the northern mainland.

Looking now eastwards, across the Lake, he saw a vast and beautiful expanse of water, without island or break of any kind, reaching to the horizon. Northwards and southwards the land fell rapidly away, skirted as usual with islets and shoals, between which and the shore vessels usually voyaged. He had heard of this open water, and it was his intention to sail out into and explore it, but as the sun now began to decline towards the west, he considered that he had better wait till morning, and so have a whole day before him. Meantime, he would paddle through the channel, beach the canoe on the islet that stood farthest out, and so start clear on the morrow.

Turning now to look back the other way, westward, he was surprised to see a second channel, which came almost to the foot of the hill on which he stood, but there ended and did not connect with the first. The entrance to it was concealed, as he now saw, by an island, past which he must have sailed that afternoon. This second or blind channel seemed more familiar to him than the flat and reedy shore at the mouth of the true strait, and he now recognised it as the one to which he had journeyed on foot through the forest. He had not then struck the true strait at all; he had sat down and pondered beside this deceptive inlet thinking that it divided the mainlands. From this discovery he saw how easy it was to be misled in such matters.

But it even more fully convinced him of the importance of this uninhabited and neglected place. It seemed like a canal cut on purpose to supply a fort from the Lake in the rear with provisions and material, supposing access in front prevented by hostile fleets and armies. A castle, if built near where he stood, would command the channel; arrows, indeed, could not be shot across, but vessels under the protection of the castle could dispute the passage, obstructed as it could be with floating booms. An invader coming from the north must cross here; for many years past there had been a general feeling that some day such an attempt would be made. Fortifications would be of incalculable value in repelling the hostile hordes and preventing their landing.

Who held this strait would possess the key of the Lake, and would be master of, or would at least hold the balance between, the kings and republics dotted along the coasts on either hand. No vessel could pass without his permission. It was the most patent illustration of the extremely local horizon, the contracted mental view of the petty kings and their statesmen, who were so concerned about the frontiers of their provinces, and frequently interfered and fought for a single palisaded estate or barony, yet were quite oblivious of the opportunity of empire open here to any who could seize it.

If the governor of such a castle as he imagined built upon the strait, had also vessels of war, they could lie in this second channel sheltered from all winds, and ready to sally forth and take an attacking force upon the flank. While he pondered upon these advantages he could not conceal from himself that he had once sat down and dreamed beside this second inlet, thinking it to be the channel. The doubt arose whether, if he was so easily misled in such a large, tangible, and purely physical matter, he might not be deceived also in his ideas; whether, if tested, they might not fail; whether the world was not right and he wrong.

The very clearness and many-sided character of his mind often hindered and even checked altogether the best founded of his impressions, the more especially when he, as it were, stood still and thought. In reverie, the subtlety of his mind entangled him; in action, he was almost always right. Action prompted his decision. Descending from the hill he now took some refreshment, and then pushed out again in the canoe. So powerful was the current in the narrowest part of the strait that it occupied him two hours in paddling as many miles.

When he was free of the channel, he hoisted sail and directed his course straight out for an island which stood almost opposite the entrance. But as he approached, driven along at a good pace, suddenly the canoe seemed to be seized from beneath. He knew in a moment that he had grounded on soft mud, and sprang up to lower the sail, but before he could do so the canoe came to a standstill on the mud-bank, and the waves following behind, directly she stopped, broke over the stern. Fortunately they were but small, having only a mile or so to roll from the shore, but they flung enough water on board in a few minutes to spoil part of his provisions, and to set everything afloat that was loose on the bottom of the vessel.

He was apprehensive lest she should fill, for he now perceived that he had forgotten to provide anything with which to bale her out. Something is always forgotten. Having got the sail down (lest the wind should snap the mast), he tried hard to force the canoe back with his longer paddle, used as a movable rudder. His weight and the resistance of the adhesive mud, on which she had driven with much force was too great; he could not shove her off. When he pushed, the paddle sank into the soft bottom, and gave him nothing to press against. After struggling for some time, he paused, beginning to fear that his voyage had already reached an end.

A minute’s thought, more potent than the strength of ten men, showed him that the canoe required lightening. There was no cargo to throw overboard, nor ballast. He was the only weight. He immediately undressed, and let himself overboard at the prow, retaining hold of the stem. His feet sank deep into the ooze; he felt as if, had he let go, he should have gradually gone down into this quicksand of fine mud. By rapidly moving his feet he managed, however, to push the canoe; she rose considerably so soon as he was out of her, and, although he had hold of the prow, still his body was lighter in the water. Pushing, struggling, and pressing forward, he, by sheer impact, as it were, for his feet found no hold in the mud, forced her back by slow degrees.

The blows of the waves drove her forward almost as much as he pushed her back. Still, in time, and when his strength was fast decreasing, she did move, and he had the satisfaction of feeling the water deeper beneath him. But when he endeavoured to pull himself into the canoe over the prow, directly his motive power ceased, the waves undid the advance he had achieved, and he had to resume his labour. This time, thinking again, before he attempted to get into the canoe he turned her sideways to the wind, with the outrigger to leeward. When her sharp prow and rounded keel struck the mud-bank end on she ran easily along it. But, turned sideways, her length found more resistance, and though the waves sent her some way upon it, she soon came to a standstill. He clambered in as quickly as he could (it is not easy to get into a boat out of the water, the body feels so heavy), and, taking the paddle, without waiting to dress, worked away from the spot.

Not till he had got some quarter of a mile back towards the mainland did he pause to dry himself and resume part of his clothing; the canoe being still partly full of water, it was no use to put on all. Resting awhile after his severe exertions, he looked back, and now supposed, from the colour of the water and the general indications, that these shallows extended a long distance, surrounding the islands at the mouth of the channel, so that no vessel could enter or pass out in a direct line, but must steer to the north or south until the obstacle was rounded. Afraid to attempt to land on another island, his only course, as the sun was now going down, was to return to the mainland, which he reached without much trouble, as the current favoured him.

He drew the canoe upon the ground as far as he could. It was not a good place to land, as the bottom was chalk, washed into holes by the waves, and studded with angular flints. As the wind was off the shore it did not matter; if it had blown from the east, his canoe might very likely have been much damaged. The shore was overgrown with hazel to within twenty yards of the water, then the ground rose and was clothed with low ash-trees, whose boughs seemed much stunted by tempest, showing how exposed the spot was to the easterly gales of spring. The south-west wind was shut off by the hills beyond. Felix was so weary that for some time he did nothing save rest upon the ground, which was but scantily covered with grass. An hour’s rest, however, restored him to himself.

He gathered some dry sticks (there were plenty under the ashes), struck his flint against the steel, ignited the tinder, and soon had a fire. It was not necessary for warmth, the June evening was soft and warm, but it was the hunter’s instinct. Upon camping for the night the hunter, unless Bushmen are suspected to be in the neighbourhood, invariably lights a fire, first to cook his supper, and secondly, and often principally, to make the spot his home. The hearth is home, whether there be walls round it or not. Directly there are glowing embers the place is no longer wild, it becomes human. Felix had nothing that needed cooking. He took his cowhide from the canoe and spread it on the ground.

A well-seasoned cowhide is the first possession of every hunter; it keeps him from the damp; and with a second, supported on three short poles stuck in the earth (two crossed at the top in front, forming a fork, and fastened with a thong, the third resting on these), he protects himself from the heaviest rain. This little tent is always built with the back to windward. Felix did not erect a second hide, the evening was so warm and beautiful he did not need it, his cloak would be ample for covering. The fire crackled and blazed at intervals, just far enough from him that he might feel no inconvenience from its heat.

Thrushes sang in the ash wood all around him, the cuckoo called, and the chiff-chaff never ceased for a moment. Before him stretched the expanse of waters; he could even here see over the low islands. In the sky a streak of cloud was tinted by the sunset, slowly becoming paler as the light departed. He reclined in that idle, thoughtless state which succeeds unusual effort, till the deepening shadow and the sinking fire, and the appearance of a star, warned him that the night was really here. Then he arose, threw on more fuel, and fetched his cloak, his chest, and his boar spear from the canoe. The chest he covered with a corner of the hide, wrapped himself in the cloak, bringing it well over his face on account of the dew; then, drawing the lower corners of the hide over his feet and limbs, he stretched himself at full length and fell asleep, with the spear beside him.

There was the possibility of Bushmen, but not much probability. There would be far more danger near the forest path, where they might expect a traveller and watch to waylay him, but they could not tell beforehand where he would rest that night. If any had seen the movements of his canoe, if any lighted upon his bivouac by chance, his fate was certain. He knew this, but trusted to the extreme improbability of Bushmen frequenting a place where there was nothing to plunder. Besides, he had no choice, as he could not reach the islands. If there was risk, it was forgotten in the extremity of his weariness.

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