After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter vi

The Forest Track

When the canoe was finished, Oliver came to help Felix launch it, and they rolled it on logs down to the place where the stream formed a pool. But when it was afloat, as Oliver had foretold, it did not swim upright in the water. It had not been shaped accurately, and one side was higher out of the water than the other.

Felix was so disgusted at this failure that he would not listen to anything Oliver could suggest. He walked back to the spot where he had worked so many weeks, and sat down with his face turned from the pool. It was not so much the actual circumstance which depressed him, as the long train of untoward incidents which had preceded it for years past. These seemed to have accumulated, till now this comparatively little annoyance was like the last straw.

Oliver followed him, and said that the defect could be remedied by placing ballast on the more buoyant side of the canoe to bring it down to the level of the other; or, perhaps, if some more wood were cut away on the heavier side, that it would cause it to rise. He offered to do the work himself, but Felix, in his gloomy mood, would not answer him. Oliver returned to the pool, and getting into the canoe, poled it up and down the stream. It answered perfectly, and could be easily managed; the defect was more apparent than real, for when a person sat in the canoe, his weight seemed to bring it nearly level.

It was only when empty that it canted to one side. He came back again to Felix, and pointed this out to him. The attempt was useless; the boat might answer the purpose perfectly well, but it was not the boat Felix had intended it to be. It did not come up to his ideal.

Oliver was now somewhat annoyed at Felix’s sullen silence, so he drew the canoe partly on shore, to prevent it from floating away, and then left him to himself.

Nothing more was said about it for a day or two. Felix did not go near the spot where he had worked so hard and so long, but on the Saturday Philip came home as usual, and, as there was now no secret about the canoe, went down to look at it with Oliver. They pushed it off, and floated two or three miles down the stream, hauling it on the shore past the fallen fir tree, and then, with a cord, towed it back again. The canoe, with the exception of the trifling deficiency alluded to, was a good one, and thoroughly serviceable.

They endeavoured again to restore Felix’s opinion of it, and an idea occurring to Philip, he said a capital plan would be to add an outrigger, and so balance it perfectly. But though usually quick to adopt ideas when they were good, in this case Felix was too much out of conceit with himself. He would listen to nothing. Still, he could not banish it from his mind, though now ashamed to return to it after so obstinately refusing all suggestions. He wandered aimlessly about in the woods, till one day he found himself in the path that led to Heron Bay.

Strolling to the shore of the great Lake, he sat down and watched a vessel sailing afar off slowly before the east wind. The thought presently occurred to him, that the addition of an outrigger in the manner Philip had mentioned would enable him to carry a sail. The canoe could not otherwise support a sail (unless a very small one merely for going before the breeze), but with such a sail as the outrigger would bear, he could venture much farther away from land, his voyage might be much more extended, and his labour with the paddle lessened.

This filled him with fresh energy; he returned, and at once recommenced work. Oliver, finding that he was again busy at it, came and insisted upon assisting. With his help, the work progressed rapidly. He used the tools so deftly as to accomplish more in an hour than Felix could in a day. The outrigger consisted of a beam of poplar, sharpened at both ends, and held at some six or seven feet from the canoe by two strong cross-pieces.

A mast, about the same height as the canoe was long, was then set up; it was made from a young fir-tree. Another smaller fir supplied the yard, which extended fore and aft, nearly the length of the boat. The sail, of coarse canvas, was not very high, but long, and rather broader at each end where the rope attached it to the prow and stern, or, rather, the two prows. Thus arranged, it was not so well suited for running straight before the wind, as for working into it, a feat never attempted by the ships of the time.

Oliver was delighted with the appearance of the boat, so much so that now and then he announced his intention of accompanying Felix on his voyage. But after a visit to the town, and a glance at the Princess Lucia, his resolution changed. Yet he wavered, one time openly reproaching himself for enduring such a life of inaction and ignominy, and at another deriding Felix and his visionary schemes. The canoe was now completed; it was tried on the pool and found to float exactly as it should. It had now to be conveyed to Heron Bay.

The original intention was to put it on a cart, but the rude carts used on the estate could not very well carry it, and a sledge was substituted. Several times, during the journey through the forest, the sledge had to be halted while the underwood was cut away to permit of its passing; and once a slough had to be filled up with branches hewn from fir trees, and bundles of fern. These delays made it evening before the shore of the creek was reached.

It was but a little inlet, scarce a bowshot wide at the entrance and coming to a point inland. Here the canoe was left in charge of three serfs, who were ordered to build a hut and stay beside it. Some provisions were sent next day on the backs of other serfs, and in the afternoon (it was Saturday) all three brothers arrived; the canoe was launched, and they started for a trial sail. With a south wind they ran to the eastward at a rapid pace, keeping close to the shore till within a mile of White Horse.

There they brought to by steering the canoe dead against the wind; then transferring the steering-paddle (a rather large one, made for the purpose) to the other end, and readjusting the sail, the outrigger being still to leeward, they ran back at an equal speed. The canoe answered perfectly, and Felix was satisfied. He now despatched his tools and various weapons to the hut to be put on board. His own peculiar yew bow he kept to the last at home; it and his chest bound with hide would go with him on the last day.

Although, in his original purpose, Felix had designed to go forth without anyone being aware of his intention, the circumstances which had arisen, and the necessary employment of so many men, had let out the secret to some degree. The removal of the tools and weapons, the crossbow, darts, and spear, still more attracted attention. But little or nothing was said about it, though the Baron and Baroness could not help but observe these preparations. The Baron deliberately shut his eyes and went about his gardening; he was now, too, busy with the first mowing. In his heart, perhaps, he felt that he had not done altogether right in so entirely retiring from the world.

By doing so he had condemned his children to loneliness, and to be regarded with contempt. Too late now, he could only obstinately persist in his course. The Baroness, inured for so many, many years to disappointment, had contracted her view of life till it scarcely extended beyond mere physical comfort. Nor could she realize the idea of Felix’s approaching departure; when he was actually gone, it would, perhaps, come home to her.

All was now ready, and Felix was only waiting for the Feast of St. James to pay a last visit to Aurora at Thyma Castle. The morning before the day of the Feast, Felix and Oliver set out together. They had not lived altogether in harmony, but now, at this approaching change, Oliver felt that he must bear Felix company. Oliver rode his beautiful Night, he wore his plumed hat and precious sword, and carried his horseman’s lance. Felix rode a smaller horse, useful, but far from handsome. He carried his yew bow and hunting knife.

Thyma Castle was situated fifteen miles to the south; it was the last outpost of civilization; beyond it there was nothing but forest, and the wild open plains, the home of the gipsies. This circumstance of position had given Baron Thyma, in times past, a certain importance more than was due to the size of his estate or the number of his retainers. During an invasion of the gipsies, his castle bore the brunt of the war, and its gallant defence, indeed, broke their onward progress. So many fell in endeavouring to take it, that the rest were disheartened, and only scattered bands penetrated beyond.

For this service the Baron received the grant of various privileges; he was looked on as a pillar of the State, and was welcome at the court. But it proved an injury to him in the end. His honours, and the high society they led him into, were too great for the comparative smallness of his income. Rich in flocks and herds, he had but little coin. High-spirited, and rather fond of display, he could not hold back; he launched forth, with the usual result of impoverishment, mortgage, and debt.

He had hoped to obtain the command of an army in the wars that broke out from time to time; it was, indeed, universally admitted that he was in every respect qualified for such a post. The courtiers and others, however, jealous, as is ever the case, of ability and real talent, debarred him by their intrigues from attaining his object. Pride prevented him from acquiescing in this defeat; he strove by display and extravagance to keep himself well to the front, flaunting himself before the eyes of all. This course could not last long; he was obliged to retire to his estate, which narrowly escaped forfeiture to his creditors.

So ignominious an end after such worthy service was, however, prevented by the personal interference of the old Prince, who, from his private resources, paid off the most pressing creditors. To the last, the old Prince received him as a friend, and listened to his counsel. Thyma was ever in hopes that some change in the balance of parties would give him his opportunity. When the young Prince succeeded, he was clever enough to see that the presence of such men about his Court gave it a stability, and he, too, invited Thyma to tender his advice. The Baron’s hopes now rose higher than ever, but again he was disappointed.

The new Prince, himself incapable, disliked and distrusted talent. The years passed, and the Baron obtained no appointment. Still he strained his resources to the utmost to visit the Court as often as possible; still he believed that sooner or later a turn of the wheel would elevate him.

There had existed between the houses of Thyma and Aquila the bond of hearth-friendship; the gauntlets, hoofs, and rings were preserved by both, and the usual presents passed thrice a year, at midsummer, Christmas, and Lady-day. Not much personal intercourse had taken place, however, for some years, until Felix was attracted by the beauty of the Lady Aurora. Proud, showy, and pushing, Thyma could not understand the feelings which led his hearth-friend to retire from the arena and busy himself with cherries and water-wheels. On the other hand, Constans rather looked with quiet derision on the ostentation of the other. Thus there was a certain distance, as it were, between them.

Baron Thyma could not, of course, be ignorant of the attachment between his daughter and Felix; yet as much as possible he ignored it. He never referred to Felix; if his name was incidentally mentioned, he remained silent. The truth was, he looked higher for Lady Aurora. He could not in courtesy discourage even in the faintest manner the visits of his friend’s son; the knightly laws of honour would have forbidden so mean a course. Nor would his conscience permit him to do so, remembering the old days when he and the Baron were glad companions together, and how the Baron Aquila was the first to lead troops to his assistance in the gipsy war. Still, he tacitly disapproved; he did not encourage.

Felix felt that he was not altogether welcome; he recognised the sense of restraint that prevailed when he was present. It deeply hurt his pride, and nothing but his love for Aurora could have enabled him to bear up against it. The galling part of it was that he could not in his secret heart condemn the father for evidently desiring a better alliance for his child. This was the strongest of the motives that had determined him to seek the unknown.

If anything, the Baron would have preferred Oliver as a suitor for his daughter; he sympathized with Oliver’s fiery spirit, and admired his feats of strength and dexterity with sword and spear. He had always welcomed Oliver heartily, and paid him every attention. This, to do Oliver justice, was one reason why he determined to accompany his brother, thinking that if he was there he could occupy attention, and thus enable Felix to have more opportunity to speak with Aurora.

The two rode forth from the courtyard early in the morning, and passing through the whole length of the enclosure within the stockade, issued at the South Barrier and almost immediately entered the forest. They rather checked their horses’ haste, fresh as the animals were from the stable, but could not quite control their spirits, for the walk of a horse is even half as fast again while he is full of vigour. The turn of the track soon shut out the stockade; they were alone in the woods.

Long since, early as they were, the sun had dried the dew, for his beams warm the atmosphere quickly as the spring advances towards summer. But it was still fresh and sweet among the trees, and even Felix, though bound on so gloomy an errand, could not choose but feel the joyous influence of the morning. Oliver sang aloud in his rich deep voice, and the thud, thud of the horses’ hoofs kept time to the ballad.

The thrushes flew but a little way back from the path as they passed, and began to sing again directly they were by. The whistling of blackbirds came from afar where there were open glades or a running stream; the notes of the cuckoo became fainter and fainter as they advanced farther from the stockade, for the cuckoo likes the woodlands that immediately border on cultivation. For some miles the track was broad, passing through thickets of thorn and low hawthorn-trees with immense masses of tangled underwood between, brambles and woodbine twisted and matted together, impervious above but hollow beneath; under these they could hear the bush-hens running to and fro and scratching at the dead leaves which strewed the ground. Sounds of clucking deeper in betrayed the situation of their nests.

Rushes, and the dead sedges of last year, up through which the green fresh leaves were thrusting themselves, in some places stood beside the way, fringing the thorns where the hollow ground often held the water from rainstorms. Out from these bushes a rabbit occasionally started and bounded across to the other side. Here, where there were so few trees, and the forest chiefly consisted of bush, they could see some distance on either hand, and also a wide breadth of the sky. After a time the thorn bushes were succeeded by ash wood, where the trees stood closer to the path, contracting the view; it was moister here, the hoofs cut into the grass, which was coarse and rank. The trees growing so close together destroyed themselves, their lower branches rubbed together and were killed, so that in many spots the riders could see a long way between the trunks.

Every time the wind blew they could hear a distant cracking of branches as the dead boughs, broken by the swaying of the trees, fell off and came down. Had any one attempted to walk into the forest there they would have sunk above the ankle in soft decaying wood, hidden from sight by thick vegetation. Wood-pigeons rose every minute from these ash-trees with a loud clatter of wings; their calls resounded continually, now deep in the forest, and now close at hand. It was evident that a large flock of them had their nesting-place here, and indeed their nests of twigs could be frequently seen from the path. There seemed no other birds.

Again the forest changed, and the track, passing on higher ground, entered among firs. These, too, had killed each other by growing so thickly; the lower branches of many were dead, and there was nothing but a little green at the tops, while in many places there was an open space where they had decayed away altogether. Brambles covered the ground in these open places, brambles and furze now bright with golden blossom. The jays screeched loudly, startled as the riders passed under them, and fluttered away; rabbits, which they saw again here, dived into their burrows. Between the first the track was very narrow, and they could not conveniently ride side by side; Oliver took the lead, and Felix followed.

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