After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xxiv

Fiery Vapours

Felix tried to run, but his feet would not rise from the ground; his limbs were numb as in a nightmare; he could not get there. His body would not obey his will. In reality he did move, but more slowly than when he walked. By degrees approaching the canoe his alarm subsided, for although it burned it was not injured; the canvas of the sail was not even scorched. When he got to it the flames had disappeared; like Jack-o’-the-lantern, the phosphoric fire receded from him. With all his strength he strove to launch her, yet paused, for over the surface of the black water, now smooth and waveless, played immense curling flames, stretching out like endless serpents, weaving, winding, rolling over each other. Suddenly they contracted into a ball, which shone with a steady light, and was as large as the full moon. The ball swept along, rose a little, and from it flew out long streamers till it was unwound in fiery threads.

But remembering that the flames had not even scorched the canvas, he pushed the canoe afloat, determined at any risk to leave this dreadful place. To his joy he felt a faint air rising; it cooled his forehead, but was not enough to fill the sail. He paddled with all the strength he had left. The air seemed to come from exactly the opposite direction to what it had previously blown, some point of east he supposed. Labour as hard as he would, the canoe moved slowly, being so heavy. It seemed as if the black water was thick and clung to her, retarding motion. Still, he did move, and in time (it seemed, indeed, a time) he left the island, which disappeared in the luminous vapours. Uncertain as to the direction, he got his compass, but it would not act; the needle had no life, it swung and came to rest, pointing any way as it chanced. It was demagnetized. Felix resolved to trust to the wind, which he was certain blew from the opposite quarter, and would therefore carry him out. The stars he could not see for the vapour, which formed a roof above him.

The wind was rising, but in uncertain gusts; however, he hoisted the sail, and floated slowly before it. Nothing but excitement could have kept him awake. Reclining in the canoe, he watched the serpent-like flames playing over the surface, and forced himself by sheer power of will not to sleep. The two dark clouds which had accompanied him to the shore now faded away, and the cooling wind enabled him to bear up better against his parching thirst. His hope was to reach the clear and beautiful Lake; his dread that in the uncertain light he might strike a concealed sandbank and become firmly fixed.

Twice he passed islands, distinguishable as masses of visible darkness. While the twisted flames played up to the shore, and the luminous vapour overhung the ground, the island itself appeared as a black mass. The wind became by degrees steadier, and the canoe shot swiftly over the water. His hopes rose; he sat up and kept a keener look-out ahead. All at once the canoe shook as if she had struck a rock. She vibrated from one end to the other, and stopped for a moment in her course. Felix sprang up alarmed. At the same instant a bellowing noise reached him, succeeded by a frightful belching and roaring, as if a volcano had burst forth under the surface of the water; he looked back but could see nothing. The canoe had not touched ground; she sailed as rapidly as before.

Again the shock, and again the hideous roaring, as if some force beneath the water were forcing itself up, vast bubbles rising and turning. Fortunately it was at a great distance. Hardly was it silent before it was reiterated for the third time. Next Felix felt the canoe heave up, and he was aware that a large roller had passed under him. A second and a third followed. They were without crests, and were not raised by the wind; they obviously started from the scene of the disturbance. Soon afterwards the canoe moved quicker, and he detected a strong current setting in the direction he was sailing.

The noise did not recur, nor did any more rollers pass under. Felix felt better and less dazed, but his weariness and sleepiness increased every moment. He fancied that the serpent flames were less brilliant and farther apart, and that the luminous vapour was thinner. How long he sat at the rudder he could not tell; he noticed that it seemed to grow darker, the serpent flames faded away, and the luminous vapour was succeeded by something like the natural gloom of night. At last he saw a star overhead, and hailed it with joy. He thought of Aurora; the next instant he fell back in the canoe firm asleep.

His arm, however, still retained the rudder-paddle in position, so that the canoe sped on with equal swiftness. She would have struck more than one of the sandbanks and islets had it not been for the strong current that was running. Instead of carrying her against the banks this warded her off, for it drew her between the islets in the channels where it ran fastest, and the undertow, where it struck the shore, bore her back from the land. Driving before the wind, the canoe swept onward steadily to the west. In an hour it had passed the line of the black water, and entered the sweet Lake. Another hour and all trace of the marshes had utterly disappeared, the last faint glow of the vapour had vanished. The dawn of the coming summer’s day appeared, and the sky became a lovely azure. The canoe sailed on, but Felix remained immovable in slumber.

Long since the strong current had ceased, it scarcely extended into the sweet waters, and the wind only impelled the canoe. As the sun rose the breeze gradually fell away, and in an hour or so there was only a light air. The canoe had left most of the islets and was approaching the open Lake when, as she passed almost the last, the yard caught the overhanging branch of a willow, the canoe swung round and grounded gently under the shadow of the tree. For some time the little wavelets beat against the side of the boat; gradually they ceased, and the clear and beautiful water became still. Felix slept till nearly noon, when he awoke and sat up. At the sudden movement a pike struck, and two moorhens scuttled out of the water into the grass on the shore. A thrush was singing sweetly, whitethroats were busy in the bushes, and swallows swept by overhead.

Felix drew a long deep breath of intense relief; it was like awakening in Paradise. He snatched up a cup, dipped, and satisfied his craving thirst, then washed his hands over the side, and threw the water over his face. But when he came to stand up and move, he found that his limbs were almost powerless. Like a child he tottered, his joints had no strength, his legs tingled as if they had been benumbed. He was so weak he crawled on all fours along to the mast, furled the sail kneeling, and dragged himself rather than stepped ashore with the painter. The instant he had fastened the rope to a branch, he threw himself at full length on the grass, and grasped a handful of it. Merely to touch the grass after such an experience was intense delight.

The song of the thrush, the chatter of the whitethroats, the sight of a hedge-sparrow, gave him inexpressible pleasure. Lying on the sward he watched the curves traced by the swallows in the sky. From the sedges came the curious cry of the moorhen; a bright kingfisher went by. He rested as he had never rested before. His whole body, his whole being was resigned to rest. It was fully two hours before he rose and crept on all fours into the canoe for food. There was only sufficient left for one meal, but that gave him no concern now he was out of the marshes; he could fish and use his crossbow.

He now observed what had escaped him during the night, the canoe was black from end to end. Stem, stern, gunwale, thwart, outrigger, mast and sail were black. The stain did not come off on being touched, it seemed burnt in. As he leaned over the side to dip water, and saw his reflection, he started; his face was black, his clothes were black, his hair black. In his eagerness to drink, the first time, he had noticed nothing. His hands were less dark; contact with the paddle and ropes had partly rubbed it off, he supposed. He washed, but the water did not materially diminish the discoloration.

After eating, he returned to the grass and rested again; and it was not till the sun was sinking that he felt any return of vigour. Still weak, but able now to walk, leaning on a stick, he began to make a camp for the coming night. But a few scraps, the remnant of his former meal, were left; on these he supped after a fashion, and long before the white owl began his rounds Felix was fast asleep on his hunter’s hide from the canoe. He found next morning that the island was small, only a few acres; it was well-wooded, dry, and sandy in places. He had little inclination or strength to resume his expedition; he erected a booth of branches, and resolved to stay a few days till his strength returned.

By shooting wildfowl, and fishing, he fared very well, and soon recovered. In two days the discoloration of the skin had faded to an olive tint, which, too, grew fainter. The canoe lost its blackness, and became a rusty colour. By rubbing the coins he had carried away he found they were gold; part of the inscription remained, but he could not read it. The blue china-tile was less injured than the metal; after washing it, it was bright. But the diamond pleased him most; it would be a splendid present for Aurora. Never had he seen anything like it in the palaces; he believe it was twice the size of the largest possessed by any king or prince.

It was as big as his finger-nail, and shone and gleamed in the sunlight, sparkling and reflecting the beams. Its value must be very great. But well he knew how dangerous it would be to exhibit it; on some pretext or other he would be thrown into prison, and the gem seized. It must be hidden with the greatest care till he could produce it in Thyma Castle, when the Baron would protect it. Felix regretted now that he had not searched further; perhaps he might have found other treasures for Aurora; the next instant he repudiated his greed, and was only thankful that he had escaped with his life. He wondered and marvelled that he had done so, it was so well known that almost all who had ventured in had perished.

Reflecting on the circumstances which had accompanied his entrance to the marshes, the migration of the birds seemed almost the most singular. They were evidently flying from some apprehended danger, and that most probably would be in the air. The gale at that time, however, was blowing in a direction which would appear to ensure safety to them; into, and not out of, the poisonous marshes. Did they, then, foresee that it would change? Did they expect it to veer like a cyclone and presently blow east with the same vigour as it then blew west? That would carry the vapour from the inky waters out over the sweet Lake, and might even cause the foul water itself to temporarily encroach on the sweet. The more he thought of it, the more he felt convinced that this was the explanation; and, as a fact, the wind, after dropping, did arise again and blow from the east, though, as it happened, not with nearly the same strength. It fell, too, before long, fortunately for him. Clearly the birds had anticipated a cyclone, and that the wind turning would carry the gases out upon them to their destruction. They had therefore hurried away, and the fishes had done the same.

The velocity of the gale which had carried him into the black waters had proved his safety, by driving before it the thicker and most poisonous portion of the vapour, compressing it towards the east, so that he had entered the dreaded precincts under favourable conditions. When it dropped, while he was on the black island, he soon began to feel the effect of the gases rising imperceptibly from the soil, and had he not had the good fortune to escape so soon, no doubt he would have fallen a victim. He could not congratulate himself sufficiently upon his good fortune. The other circumstances appeared to be due to the decay of the ancient city, to the decomposition of accumulated matter, to phosphorescence and gaseous exhalations. The black rocks that crumbled at a touch were doubtless the remains of ancient buildings saturated with the dark water and vapours. Inland similar remains were white, and resembled salt.

But the great explosions which occurred as he was leaving, and which sent heavy rollers after him, were not easily understood, till he remembered that in Sylvester’s “Book of Natural Things” it was related that “the ancient city had been undermined with vast conduits, sewers, and tunnels, and that these communicated with the sea”. It had been much disputed whether the sea did or did not still send its tides up to the site of the old quays. Felix now thought that the explosions were due to compressed air, or more probably to gases met with by the ascending tide.

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