After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xxi

A Voyage

The sun was up when Felix awoke, and as he raised himself the beauty of the Lake before him filled him with pleasure. By the shore it was so calm that the trees were perfectly reflected, and the few willow leaves that had fallen floated without drifting one way or the other. Farther out the islands were lit up with the sunlight, and the swallows skimmed the water, following the outline of their shores. In the Lake beyond them, glimpses of which he could see through the channel or passage between, there was a ripple where the faint south-western breeze touched the surface. His mind went out to the beauty of it. He did not question or analyse his feelings; he launched his vessel, and left that hard and tyrannical land for the loveliness of the water.

Paddling out to the islands he passed through between them, and reached the open Lake. There he hoisted the sail, the gentle breeze filled it, the sharp cutwater began to divide the ripples, a bubbling sound arose, and steering due north, straight out to the open and boundless expanse, he was carried swiftly away.

The mallards, who saw the canoe coming, at first scarcely moved, never thinking that a boat would venture outside the islands, within whose line they were accustomed to see vessels, but when the canoe continued to bear down upon them, they flew up and descended far away to one side. When he had sailed past the spot where these birds had floated, the Lake was his own. By the shores of the islands the crows came down for mussels. Moorhens swam in and out among the rushes, water-rats nibbled at the flags, pikes basked at the edge of the weeds, summer-snipes ran along the sand, and doubtless an otter here and there was in concealment. Without the line of the shoals and islets, now that the mallards had flown, there was a solitude of water. It was far too deep for the longest weeds, nothing seemed to exist here. The very water-snails seek the shore, or are drifted by the currents into shallow corners. Neither great nor little care for the broad expanse.

The canoe moved more rapidly as the wind came now with its full force over the distant woods and hills, and though it was but a light southerly breeze, the broad sail impelled the taper vessel swiftly. Reclining in the stern, Felix lost all consciousness of aught but that he was pleasantly borne along. His eyes were not closed, and he was aware of the canoe, the Lake, the sunshine, and the sky, and yet he was asleep. Physically awake, he mentally slumbered. It was rest. After the misery, exertion, and excitement of the last fortnight it was rest, intense rest for body and mind. The pressure of the water against the handle of the rudder-paddle, the slight vibration of the wood, as the bubbles rushed by beneath, alone perhaps kept him from really falling asleep. This was something which could not be left to itself; it must be firmly grasped, and that effort restrained his drowsiness.

Three hours passed. The shore was twelve or fifteen miles behind, and looked like a blue cloud, for the summer haze hid the hills, more than would have been the case in clearer weather.

Another hour, and at last Felix, awakening from his slumberous condition, looked round and saw nothing but the waves. The shore he had left had entirely disappeared, gone down; if there were land more lofty on either hand, the haze concealed it. He looked again; he could scarcely comprehend it. He knew the Lake was very wide, but it had never occurred to him that he might possibly sail out of sight of land. This, then was why the mariners would not quit the islands; they feared the open water. He stood up and swept the horizon carefully, shading his eyes with his hand; there was nothing but a mist at the horizon. He was alone with the sun, the sky, and the Lake. He could not surely have sailed into the ocean without knowing it? He sat down, dipped his hand overboard and tasted the drops that adhered; the water was pure and sweet, warm from the summer sunshine.

There was not so much as a swift in the upper sky; nothing but slender filaments of white cloud. No swallows glided over the surface of the water. If there were fishes he could not see them through the waves, which were here much larger; sufficiently large, though the wind was light, to make his canoe rise and fall with their regular rolling. To see fishes a calm surface is necessary, and, like other creatures, they haunt the shallows and the shore. Never had he felt alone like this in the depths of the farthest forest he had penetrated. Had he contemplated beforehand the possibility of passing out of sight of land, when he found that the canoe had arrived he would probably have been alarmed and anxious for his safety. But thus stumbling drowsily into the solitude of the vast Lake, he was so astounded with his own discovery, so absorbed in thinking of the immense expanse, that the idea of danger did not occur to him.

Another hour passed, and he now began to gaze about him more eagerly for some sight of land, for he had very little provision with him, and he did not wish to spend the night upon the Lake. Presently, however, the mist on the horizon ahead appeared to thicken, and then became blue, and in a shorter time than he expected land came in sight. This arose from the fact of its being low, so that he had approached nearer than he knew before recognising it. At the time when he was really out of sight of the coast, he was much further from the hilly land left behind than from the low country in front, and not in the mathematical centre, as he had supposed, of the Lake. As it rose and came more into sight, he already began to wonder what reception he should meet with from the inhabitants, and whether he should find them as hard of heart as the people he had just escaped from. Should he, indeed, venture among them at all? Or should he remain in the woods till he had observed more of their ways and manners? These questions were being debated in his mind, when he perceived that the wind was falling.

As the sun went past the meridian the breeze fell, till, in the hottest part of the afternoon, and when he judged that he was not more than eight miles from shore, it sank to the merest zephyr, and the waves by degrees diminished. So faint became the breeze in half-an-hour’s time, and so intermittent, that he found it patience wasted even to hold the rudder-paddle. The sail hung and was no longer bellied out; as the idle waves rolled under, it flapped against the mast. The heat was now so intolerable, the light reflected from the water increasing the sensation, that he was obliged to make himself some shelter by partly lowering the sail, and hauling the yard athwart the vessel, so that the canvas acted as an awning. Gradually the waves declined in volume, and the gentle breathing of the wind ebbed away, till at last the surface was almost still, and he could feel no perceptible air stirring.

Weary of sitting in the narrow boat, he stood up, but he could not stretch himself sufficiently for the change to be of much use. The long summer day, previously so pleasant, now appeared scarcely endurable. Upon the silent water the time lingered, for there was nothing to mark its advance, not so much as a shadow beyond that of his own boat. The waves having now no crest, went under the canoe without chafing against it, or rebounding, so that they were noiseless. No fishes rose to the surface. There was nothing living near, except a blue butterfly, which settled on the mast, having ventured thus far from land. The vastness of the sky, over-arching the broad water, the sun, and the motionless filaments of cloud, gave no repose for his gaze, for they were seemingly still. To the weary gaze motion is repose; the waving boughs, the foam-tipped waves, afford positive rest to look at. Such intense stillness as this of the summer sky was oppressive; it was like living in space itself, in the ether above. He welcomed at last the gradual downward direction of the sun, for, as the heat decreased, he could work with the paddle.

Presently he furled the sail, took his paddle, and set his face for the land. He laboured steadily, but made no apparent progress. The canoe was heavy, and the outrigger or beam, which was of material use in sailing, was a drawback to paddling. He worked till his arms grew weary, and still the blue land seemed as far off as ever.

But by the time the sun began to approach the horizon, his efforts had produced some effect, the shore was visible, and the woods beyond. They were still five miles distant, and he was tired; there was little chance of his reaching it before night. He put his paddle down for refreshment and rest, and while he was thus engaged, a change took place. A faint puff of air came; a second, and a third; a tiny ripple ran along the surface. Now he recollected that he had heard that the mariners depended a great deal on the morning and the evening — the land and the Lake — breeze as they worked along the shore. This was the first breath of the Land breeze. It freshened after a while, and he re-set his sail.

An hour or so afterwards he came near the shore; he heard the thrushes singing, and the cuckoo calling, long before he landed. He did not stay to search about for a creek, but ran the canoe on the strand, which was free of reeds or flags, a sign that the waves often beat furiously there, rolling as they must for so many miles. He hauled the canoe up as high as he could, but presently when he looked about him he found that he was on a small and narrow island, with a channel in the rear. Tired as he was, yet anxious for the safety of his canoe, he pushed off again, and paddled round and again beached her with the island between her and the open Lake. Else he feared if a south wind should blow she might be broken to pieces on the strand before his eyes. It was prudent to take the precaution, but, as it happened, the next day the Lake was still.

He could see no traces of human occupation upon the island, which was of small extent and nearly bare, and therefore, in the morning, paddled across the channel to the mainland, as he thought. But upon exploring the opposite shore, it proved not to be the mainland, but merely another island. Paddling round it, he tried again, but with the same result; he found nothing but island after island, all narrow, and bearing nothing except bushes. Observing a channel which seemed to go straight in among these islets, he resolved to follow it, and did so (resting at noon-time) the whole morning. As he paddled slowly in, he found the water shallower, and weeds, bulrushes, and reeds became thick, except quite in the centre.

After the heat of midday had gone over, he resumed his voyage, and still found the same; islets and banks, more or less covered with hawthorn bushes, willow, elder, and alder, succeeded to islets, fringed round their edges with reeds and reed canary-grass. When he grew weary of paddling, he landed and stayed the night; the next day he went on again, and still for hour after hour rowed in and out among these banks and islets, till he began to think he should never find his way out.

The farther he penetrated the more numerous became the waterfowl. Ducks swam among the flags, or rose with a rush and splashing. Coots and moorhens dived and hid in the reeds. The lesser grebe sank at the sound of the paddle like a stone. A strong northern diver raised a wave as he hurried away under the water, his course marked by the undulation above him. Sedge-birds chirped in the willows; black-headed buntings sat on the trees, and watched him without fear. Bearded titmice were there, clinging to the stalks of the sedges, and long-necked herons rose from the reedy places where they love to wade. Blue dragon-flies darted to and fro, or sat on water-plants as if they were flowers. Snakes swam across the channels, vibrating their heads from side to side. Swallows swept over his head. Pike “struck” from the verge of the thick weeds as he came near. Perch rose for insects as they fell helpless into the water.

He noticed that the water, though so thick with reeds, was as clear as that in the open Lake; there was no scum such as accumulates in stagnant places. From this he concluded that there must be a current, however slight, perhaps from rivers flowing into this part of the Lake. He felt the strongest desire to explore farther till he reached the mainland, but he reflected that mere exploration was not his object; it would never obtain Aurora for him. There were no signs whatever of human habitation, and from reeds and bulrushes, however interesting, nothing could be gained. Reluctantly, therefore, on the third morning, having passed the night on one of the islets, he turned his canoe, and paddled southwards towards the Lake.

He did not for a moment attempt to retrace the channel by which he had entered; it would have been an impossibility; he took advantage of any clear space to push through. It took him as long to get out as it had to get in; it was the afternoon of the fourth day when he at last regained the coast. He rested the remainder of the afternoon, wishing to start fresh in the morning, having determined to follow the line of the shore eastwards, and so gradually to circumnavigate the Lake. If he succeeded in nothing else, that at least would be something to relate to Aurora.

The morning rose fair and bright, with a south-westerly air rather than a breeze. He sailed before it; it was so light that his progress could not have exceeded more than three miles an hour. Hour after hour passed away, and still he followed the line of the shore, now going a short way out to skirt an island, and now nearer it to pass between sandbanks. By noon he was so weary of sitting in the canoe that he ran her ashore, and rested awhile.

It was the very height of the heat of the day when he set forth again, and the wind lighter than in the morning. It had, however, changed a little, and blew now from the west, almost too exactly abaft to suit his craft. He could not make a map while sailing, or observe his position accurately, but it appeared to him that the shore trended towards the south-east, so that he was gradually turning an arc. He supposed from this that he must be approaching the eastern end of the Lake. The water seemed shallower, to judge from the quantity of weeds. Now and then he caught glimpses between the numerous islands of the open Lake, and there, too, the weeds covered the surface in many places.

In an hour or two the breeze increased considerably, and travelling so much quicker, he found it required all his dexterity to steer past the islands and clear the banks upon which he was drifting. Once or twice he grazed the willows that overhung the water, and heard the keel of the canoe drag on the bottom. As much as possible he bore away from the mainland, steering south-east, thinking to find deeper water, and to be free of the islets. He succeeded in the first, but the islets were now so numerous that he could not tell where the open Lake was. The farther the afternoon advanced, the more the breeze freshened, till occasionally, as it blew between the islands, it struck his mast almost with the force of a gale. Felix welcomed the wind, which would enable him to make great progress before evening. If such favouring breezes would continue, he could circumnavigate the waters in a comparatively short time, and might return to Aurora, so far, at least, successful. Hope filled his heart, and he sang to the wind.

The waves could not rise among these islands, which intercepted them before they could roll far enough to gather force, so that he had all the advantage of the gale without its risks. Except a light haze all round the horizon, the sky was perfectly clear, and it was pleasant now the strong current of air cooled the sun’s heat. As he came round the islands he constantly met and disturbed parties of waterfowl, mallards, and coots. Sometimes they merely hid in the weeds, sometimes they rose, and when they did so passed to his rear.

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