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Sailing Away

From: After London

But the next morning Felix arose straight from his sleep resolved to
carry out his plan. Without staying to think a moment, without further
examination of the various sides of the problem, he started up the
instant his eyes unclosed, fully determined upon his voyage. The breath
of the bright June morn as he threw open the window-shutter filled him
with hope; his heart responded to its joyous influence. The excitement
which had disturbed his mind had had time to subside. In the still
slumber of the night the strong undercurrent of his thought resumed its
course, and he awoke with his will still firmly bent in one direction.

When he had dressed, he took his bow and the chest bound with the
leathern thongs, and went down. It was early, but the Baron had already
finished breakfast and gone out to his gardens; the Baroness had not yet
appeared. While he was making a hurried breakfast (for having now made
up his mind he was eager to put his resolve into execution), Oliver came
in, and seeing the chest and the bow, understood that the hour had
arrived. He immediately said he should accompany him to Heron Bay, and
assist him to start, and went out to order their horses. There were
always plenty of riding horses at Old House (as at every fortified
mansion), and there was not the least difficulty in getting another for
Felix in place of his old favourite.

Oliver insisted upon taking the wooden chest, which was rather heavy,
before him on the saddle, so that Felix had nothing to carry but his
favourite bow. Oliver was surprised that Felix did not first go to the
gardens and say good-bye to the Baron, or at least knock at the
Baroness's door and bid her farewell. But he made no remark, knowing
Felix's proud and occasionally hard temper. Without a word Felix left
the old place.

He rode forth from the North Barrier, and did not even so much as look
behind him. Neither he nor Oliver thought of the events that might
happen before they should again meet in the old familiar house! When the
circle is once broken up it is often years before it is reformed. Often,
indeed, the members of it never meet again, at least, not in the same
manner, which, perhaps, they detested then, and ever afterwards
regretted. Without one word of farewell, without a glance, Felix rode
out into the forest.

There was not much conversation on the trail to Heron Bay. The serfs
were still there in charge of the canoe, and were glad enough to see
their approach, and thus to be relieved from their lonely watch. They
launched the canoe with ease, the provisions were put on board, the
chest lashed to the mast that it might not be lost, the favourite bow
was also fastened upright to the mast for safety, and simply shaking
hands with Oliver, Felix pushed out into the creek. He paddled the canoe
to the entrance and out into the Lake till he arrived where the
south-west breeze, coming over the forest, touched and rippled the
water, which by the shore was perfectly calm.

Then, hoisting the sail, he put out the larger paddle which answered as
a rudder, took his seat, and, waving his hand to Oliver, began his
voyage. The wind was but light, and almost too favourable, for he had
determined to sail to the eastward; not for any specific reason, but
because there the sun rose, and that was the quarter of light and hope.
His canoe, with a long fore-and-aft sail, and so well adapted for
working into the wind, was not well rigged for drifting before a breeze,
which was what he was now doing. He had merely to keep the canoe before
the wind, steering so as to clear the bold headland of White Horse which
rose blue from the water's edge far in front of him. Though the wind was
light, the canoe being so taper and sharp at the prow, and the sail so
large in comparison, slipped from the shore faster than he at first

As he steered aslant from the little bay outwards into the great Lake,
the ripples rolling before the wind gradually enlarged into wavelets,
these again increased, and in half an hour, as the wind now played upon
them over a mile of surface, they seemed in his canoe, with its low
freeboard, to be considerable waves. He had purposely refrained from
looking back till now, lest they should think he regretted leaving, and
in his heart desired to return. But now, feeling that he had really
started, he glanced behind. He could see no one.

He had forgotten that the spot where they had launched the canoe was at
the end of an inlet, and as he sailed away the creek was shut off from
view by the shore of the Lake. Unable to get to the mouth of the bay
because of the underwood and the swampy soil, Oliver had remained gazing
in the direction the canoe had taken for a minute or two, absorbed in
thought (almost the longest period he had ever wasted in such an
occupation), and then with a whistle turned to go. The serfs,
understanding that they were no longer required, gathered their things
together, and were shortly on their way home. Oliver, holding Felix's
horse by the bridle, had already ridden that way, but he presently
halted, and waited till the three men overtook him. He then gave the
horse into their charge, and turning to the right, along a forest path
which branched off there, went to Ponze. Felix could therefore see no
one when he looked back, and they were indeed already on their way from
the place.

He now felt that he was alone. He had parted from the shore, and from
all the old associations; he was fast passing not only out upon the
water, but out into the unknown future. But his spirit no longer
vacillated; now that he was really in the beginning of his long
contemplated enterprise his natural strength of mind returned. The
weakness and irresolution, the hesitation, left him. He became full of
his adventure, and thought of nothing else.

The south-west breeze, blowing as a man breathes, with alternate rise
and fall, now driving him along rapidly till the water bubbled under the
prow, now sinking, came over his right shoulder and cooled his cheek,
for it was now noon, and the June sun was unchecked by clouds. He could
no longer distinguish the shape of the trees on shore; all the boughs
were blended together in one great wood, stretching as far as he could
see. On his left there was a chain of islands, some covered with firs,
and others only with brushwood, while others again were so low and flat
that the waves in stormy weather broke almost over them.

As he drew near White Horse, five white terns, or sea-swallows, flew
over; he did not welcome their appearance, as they usually preceded
rough gales. The headland, wooded to its ridge, now rose high against
the sky; ash and nut-tree and hawthorn had concealed the ancient graven
figure of the horse upon its side, but the tradition was not forgotten,
and the site retained its name. He had been steering so as just to clear
the promontory, but he now remembered that when he had visited the
summit of the hill, he had observed that banks and shoals extended far
out from the shore, and were nearly on a level with the surface of the
Lake. In a calm they were visible, but waves concealed them, and unless
the helmsman recognised the swirl sufficiently early to change his
course, they were extremely dangerous.

Felix bore more out from the land, and passing fully a mile to the
north, left the shoals on his right. On his other hand there was a sandy
and barren island barely a quarter of a mile distant, upon which he
thought he saw the timbers of a wreck. It was quite probable, for the
island lay in the track of vessels coasting along the shore. Beyond
White Horse, the land fell away in a series of indentations, curving
inwards to the south; an inhospitable coast, for the hills came down to
the strand, ending abruptly in low, but steep, chalk cliffs. Many
islands of large size stood out on the left, but Felix, not knowing the
shape of the Lake beyond White Horse, thought it best to follow the
trend of the land. He thus found, after about three hours, that he had
gone far out of his course, for the gulf-like curve of the coast now
began to return to the northward, and looking in that direction he saw a
merchant vessel under her one square sail of great size, standing across
the bay.

She was about five miles distant, and was evidently steering so as to
keep just inside the line of the islands. Felix, with some difficulty,
steered in a direction to interrupt her. The south-west wind being then
immediately aft, his sail did not answer well; presently he lowered it,
and paddled till he had turned the course so that the outrigger was now
on the eastern side. Then hoisting the sail again, he sat at what had
before been the prow, and steered a point or so nearer the wind. This
improved her sailing, but as the merchant ship had at least five miles
start, it would take some hours to overtake her. Nor on reflection was
he at all anxious to come up with her, for mariners were dreaded for
their lawless conduct, being, when on a voyage, beyond all jurisdiction.

On the one hand, if they saw an opportunity, they did not hesitate to
land and pillage a house, or even a hamlet. On the other, those who
dwelt anywhere near the shore considered it good sport to light a fire
and lure a vessel to her destruction, or if she was becalmed to sally
out in boats, attack, and perhaps destroy both ship and crew. Hence the
many wrecks, and losses, and the risks of navigation, not so much from
natural obstacles, since the innumerable islands, and the creeks and
inlets of the mainland almost always offered shelter, no matter which
way the storm blew, but from the animosity of the coast people. If there
was an important harbour and a town where provisions could be obtained,
or repairs effected, the right of entrance was jealously guarded, and no
ship, however pressed by the gale, was permitted to leave, if she had
anchored, without payment of a fine. So that vessels as much as possible
avoided the harbours and towns, and the mainland altogether, sailing
along beside the islands, which were, for the most part, uninhabited,
and anchoring under their lee at night.

Felix, remembering the character of the mariners, resolved to keep well
away from them, but to watch their course as a guide to himself. The
mainland now ran abruptly to the north, and the canoe, as he brought her
more into the wind, sprang forward at a rapid pace. The outrigger
prevented her from making any leeway, or heeling over, and the large
spread of sail forced her swiftly through the water. He had lost sight
of the ship behind some islands, and as he approached these, began to
ask himself if he had not better haul down his sail there, as he must
now be getting near her, when to his surprise, on coming close, he saw
her great square sail in the middle, as it seemed, of the land. The
shore there was flat, the hills which had hitherto bounded it suddenly
ceasing; it was overgrown with reeds and flags, and about two miles away
the dark sail of the merchantman drifted over these, the hull being
hidden. He at once knew that he had reached the western mouth of the
straits which divide the southern and northern mainland. When he went to
see the channel on foot through the forest, he must have struck it a
mile or two more to the east, where it wound under the hills.

In another half hour he arrived at the opening of the strait; it was
about a mile wide, and either shore was quite flat, that on the right
for a short distance, the range of downs approaching within two miles;
that on the left, or north, was level as far as he could see. He had now
again to lower his sail, to get the outrigger on his lee as he turned to
the right and steered due east into the channel. So long as the shore
was level, he had no difficulty, for the wind drew over it, but when the
hills gradually came near and almost overhung the channel, they shut off
much of the breeze, and his progress was slow. When it turned and ran
narrowing every moment to the south, the wind failed him altogether.

On the right shore, wooded hills rose from the water like a wall; on the
left, it was a perfect plain. He could see nothing of the merchantman,
although he knew that she could not sail here, but must be working
through with her sweeps. Her heavy hull and bluff bow must make the
rowing a slow and laborious process; therefore she could not be far
ahead, but was concealed by the winding of the strait. He lowered the
sail, as it was now useless, and began to paddle; in a very short time
he found the heat under the hills oppressive when thus working. He had
now been afloat between six and seven hours, and must have come fully
thirty miles, perhaps rather more than twenty in a straight line, and he
felt somewhat weary and cramped from sitting so long in the canoe.

Though he paddled hard he did not seem to make much progress, and at
length he recognised that there was a distinct current, which opposed
his advance, flowing through the channel from east to west. If he ceased
paddling, he found he drifted slowly back; the long aquatic weeds, too,
which he passed, all extended their floating streamers westward. We did
not know of this current till Felix Aquila observed and recorded it.

Tired and hungry (for, full of his voyage, he had taken no refreshments
since he started), he resolved to land, rest a little while, and then
ascend the hill, and see what he could of the channel. He soon reached
the shore, the strait having narrowed to less than a mile in width, and
ran the canoe on the ground by a bush, to which, on getting out, he
attached the painter. The relief of stretching his limbs was so great
that it seemed to endow him with fresh strength, and without waiting to
eat, he at once climbed the hill. From the top, the remainder of the
strait could be easily distinguished. But a short distance from where he
stood, it bent again, and proceeded due east.

Next: The Straits

Previous: Night In The Forest

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