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A Voyage






Part of: WILD ENGLAND
From: After London

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.





Next: Discoveries

Previous: In Danger



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