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Fiery Vapours

From: After London

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

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

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

Next: The Shepherds

Previous: Strange Things

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