Chapter 22 Discoveries

This little circumstance of the mallards always flying over him and away behind, when flushed, presently made Felix speculate on the cause, and he kept a closer watch. He now saw (what had, indeed, been going on for some time) that there was a ceaseless stream of waterfowl, mallards, ducks, coots, moorhens, and lesser grebes coming towards him, swimming to the westward. As they met him they parted and let him through, or rose and went over. Next he noticed that the small birds on the islands were also travelling in the same direction, that is against the wind. They did not seem in any haste, but flitted from islet to islet, bush to tree, feeding and gossiping as they went; still the movement was distinct.

Finches, linnets, blackbirds, thrushes, wrens, and whitethroats, and many others, all passed him, and he could see the same thing going on to his right and left. Felix became much interested in this migration, all the more singular as it was the nesting-time, and hundreds of these birds must have left their nests with eggs or young behind them. Nothing that he could think of offered an adequate explanation. He imagined he saw shoals of fishes going the same way, but the surface of the water being ruffled, and the canoe sailing rapidly, he could not be certain. About an hour after he first observed the migration the stream of birds ceased suddenly.

There were no waterfowls in the water, and no finches in the bushes. They had evidently all passed. Those in the van of the migratory army were no doubt scattered and thinly distributed, so that he had been meeting the flocks a long while before he suspected it. The nearer he approached their centre the thicker they became, and on getting through that he found a solitude. The weeds were thicker than ever, so that he had constantly to edge away from where he supposed the mainland to lie. But there were no waterfowls and no birds on the islets. Suddenly as he rounded a large island he saw what for the moment he imagined to be a line of white surf, but the next instant he recognised a solid mass, as it were, of swallows and martins flying just over the surface of the water straight towards him. He had no time to notice how far they extended before they had gone by him with a rushing sound. Turning to look back, he saw them continue directly west in the teeth of the wind.

Like the water and the islands, the sky was now cleared of birds, and not a swallow remained. Felix asked himself if he were running into some unknown danger, but he could not conceive any. The only thing that occurred to him was the possibility of the wind rising to a hurricane; that gave him no alarm, because the numerous islands would afford shelter. So complete was the shelter in some places, that as he passed along his sail drew above, while the surface of the water, almost surrounded with bushes and willows, was smooth. No matter to how many quarters of the compass the wind might veer, he should still be able to get under the lee of one or other of the banks.

The sky remained without clouds; there was nothing but a slight haze, which he sometimes fancied looked thicker in front or to the eastward. There was nothing whatever to cause the least uneasiness; on the contrary, his curiosity was aroused, and he was desirous of discovering what it was that had startled the birds. After a while the water became rather more open, with sandbanks instead of islands, so that he could see around him for a considerable distance. By a large bank, behind which the ripple was stilled, he saw a low wave advancing towards him, and moving against the wind. It was followed by two others at short intervals, and though he could not see them, he had no doubt shoals of fishes were passing and had raised the undulations.

The sedges on the sandbanks appeared brown and withered, as if it had been autumn instead of early summer. The flags were brown at the tip, and the aquatic grasses had dwindled. They looked as if they could not grow, and had reached but half their natural height. From the low willows the leaves were dropping, faded and yellow, and the thorn bushes were shrivelled and covered with the white cocoons of caterpillars. The farther he sailed the more desolate the banks seemed, and trees ceased altogether. Even the willows were fewer and stunted, and the highest thorn bush was not above his chest. His vessel was now more exposed to the wind, so that he drove past the banks and scattered islands rapidly, and he noticed that there was not so much as a crow on them. Upturned mussel-shells, glittering in the sunshine, showed where crows had been at work, but there was not one now visible.

Felix thought that the water had lost its clearness and had become thick, which he put down to the action of the wavelets disturbing the sand in the shallows. Ahead the haze, or mist, was now much thicker, and was apparently not over a mile distant. It hid the islands and concealed everything. He expected to enter it immediately, but it receded as he approached. Along the strand of an island he passed there was a dark line like a stain, and in still water under the lee the surface was covered with a floating scum. Felix, on seeing this, at once concluded that he had unknowingly entered a gulf, and had left the main Lake, for the only place he had ever seen scum before was at the extremity of a creek near home, where the water was partly stagnant on a marshy level. The water of the Lake was proverbial for its purity and clearness.

He kept, therefore, a sharp look-out, expecting every moment to sight the end of the gulf or creek in which he supposed himself sailing, so that he might be ready to lower his sail. By degrees the wind had risen till it now blew with fury, but the numerous sandflats so broke up the waves that he found no inconvenience from them. One solitary gull passed over at a great height, flying steadily westwards against the wind. The canoe now began to overtake fragments of scum drifting before the wind, and rising up and down on the ripples. Once he saw a broad piece rise to the surface together with a quantity of bubbles. None of the sandbanks now rose more than a foot or so above the surface, and were entirely bare, mere sand and gravel.

The mist ahead was sensibly nearer, and yet it eluded him; it was of a faint yellow, and though so thin, obscured everything where it hovered. From out of the mist there presently appeared a vast stretch of weeds. They floated on the surface and undulated to the wavelets, a pale yellowish green expanse. Felix was hesitating whether to lower his sail or attempt to drive over them, when, as he advanced and the mist retreated, he saw open water beyond. The weeds extended on either hand as far as he could see, but they were only a narrow band, and he hesitated no longer. He felt the canoe graze the bottom once as he sailed over the weeds. The water was free of sandbanks beyond them, but he could see large islands looming in several directions.

Glancing behind him he perceived that the faint yellow mist had closed in and now encircled him. It came with two or three hundred yards, and was not affected by the wind, rough as it was. Quite suddenly he noticed that the water on which the canoe floated was black. The wavelets which rolled alongside were black, and the slight spray that occasionally flew on board was black, and stained the side of the vessel. This greatly astonished and almost shocked him; it was so opposite and contrary to all his ideas about the Lake, the very mirror of purity. He leant over, and dipped up a little in the palm of his hand; it did not appear black in such a small quantity, it seemed a rusty brown, but he became aware of an offensive odour. The odour clung to his hand, and he could not remove it, to his great disgust. It was like nothing he had ever smelt before, and not in the least like the vapour of marshes.

By now being some distance from any island, the wavelets increased in size, and spray flew on board, wetting everything with this black liquid. Instead of level marshes and the end of the gulf, it appeared as if the water were deep, and also as if it widened. Exposed to the full press of the gale, Felix began to fear that he should not be able to return very easily against it. He did not know what to do. The horrid blackness of the water disposed him to turn about and tack out; on the other hand, having set out on a voyage of discovery, and having now found something different to the other parts of the Lake, he did not like to retreat. He sailed on, thinking to presently pass these loathsome waters.

He was now hungry, and indeed thirsty, but was unable to drink because he had no water-barrel. No vessel sailing on the Lake ever carried a water-barrel, since such pure water was always under their bows. He was cramped, too, with long sitting in the canoe, and the sun was perceptibly sloping in the west. He determined to land and rest, and with this purpose steered to the right under the lee of a large island, so large, indeed, that he was not certain it was not part of the mainland or one side of the gulf. The water was very deep close up to the shore, but, to his annoyance, the strand appeared black, as if soaked with the dark water. He skirted along somewhat farther, and found a ledge of low rocks stretching out into the Lake, so that he was obliged to run ashore before coming to these.

On landing, the black strand, to his relief, was fairly firm, for he had dreaded sinking to the knees in it; but its appearance was so unpleasant that he could not bring himself to sit down. He walked on towards the ledge of rocks, thinking to find a pleasanter place there. They were stratified, and he stepped on them to climb up, when his foot went deep into the apparently hard rock. He kicked it, and his shoe penetrated it as if it had been soft sand. It was impossible to climb up the reef. The ground rose inland, and curious to see around him as far as possible, he ascended the slope.

From the summit, however, he could not see farther than on the shore, for the pale yellow mist rose up round him, and hid the canoe on the strand. The extreme desolation of the dark and barren ground repelled him; there was not a tree, bush, or living creature, not so much as a buzzing fly. He turned to go down, and then for the first time noticed that the disk of the sun was surrounded with a faint blue rim, apparently caused by the yellow vapour. So much were the rays shorn of their glare, that he could look at the sun without any distress, but its heat seemed to have increased, though it was now late in the afternoon.

Descending towards the canoe, he fancied the wind had veered considerably. He sat down in the boat, and took some food; it was without relish, as he had nothing to drink, and the great heat had tired him. Wearily, and without thinking, he pushed off the canoe; she slowly floated out, when, as he was about to hoist up the sail, a tremendous gust of wind struck him down on the thwarts, and nearly carried him overboard. He caught the mast as he fell, or over he must have gone into the black waves. Before he could recover himself, she drifted against the ledge of rocks, which broke down and sank before the bow, so that she passed over uninjured.

Felix got out a paddle, and directed the canoe as well as he could; the fury of the wind was irresistible, and he could only drive before it. In a few minutes, as he was swept along the shore, he was carried between it and another immense reef. Here, the waves being broken and less powerful, he contrived to get the heavy canoe ashore again, and, jumping out, dragged her up as far as he could on the land. When he had done this, he found to his surprise that the gale had ceased. The tremendous burst of wind had been succeeded by a perfect calm, and the waves had already lost their violent impetus.

This was a relief, for he had feared that the canoe would be utterly broken to pieces; but soon he began to doubt if it were an unmixed benefit, as without a wind he could not move from this dismal place that evening. He was too weary to paddle far. He sat on the canoe to rest himself, and, whether from fatigue or other causes, fell asleep. His head heavily dropping on his chest partly woke him several times, but his lassitude overcame the discomfort, and he slept on. When he got up he felt dazed and unrefreshed, as if sleeping had been hard work. He was extremely thirsty, and oppressed with the increasing heat. The sun had sunk, or rather was so low that the high ground hid it from sight.