SAVAGES CONTINUED – THE CATAMARAN
WITH all their efforts, they could not make a blow-tube, such as is used by savages. Bevis thought and thought, and Mark helped him, and Pan grabbed his fleas, all together in the round blue summer-house; and they ate a thousand strawberries, and a basketful of red currants, ripe, from the wall close by, and two young summer apples, far from ready, and yet they could not do it. The tube ought to be at least as long as the savage, using it, was tall. They could easily find sticks that were just the thickness, and straight, but the difficulty was to bore them through. No gimlet or auger was long enough; nor could they do it with a bar of iron, red-hot, at the end: they could not keep it true, but always burned too much one side or the other.
Perhaps it might be managed by inserting a short piece of tin tubing, and making a little fire in it, and gradually pushing it down as the fire burnt. Only, as Bevis pointed out, the fire would not live in such a narrow place without any draught. A short tube was easily made out of elder, but not nearly long enough. The tinker, coming round to mend the pots, put it into their heads to set him to make a tin blow-pipe, five feet in length; which he promised to do, and sent it in a day or two. But as he had no sheet of tin broad enough to roll the tube in one piece he had made four short pipes and soldered them together. Nothing would go straight through it because the joints were not quite perfect: inside there was a roughness which caught the dart and obstructed the puff, for a good blow-tube must be as smooth and well bored as a gun-barrel.
When they came to look over their weapons, they found they had not got any throw-sticks, nor a boomerang. Throw-sticks were soon made by cutting some with a good thick knob; and a boomerang was made out of a curved branch of ash, which they planed down smooth one side, and cut to a slight arch on the other.
'This is a capital boomerang,' saicl Bevis. 'Now we shall be able to knock a rabbit over without any noise, or frightening the rest, and it will come back and we can kill three or four running.'
'Yes, and one of the mallards,' said Mark. 'Don't you know? – they are always too far for an arrow, and besides, the arrow would be lost if it did not hit. Now we shall have them. But which way ought we to throw it – the hollow first, or the bend first?'
'Let's try,' said Bevis, and ran with boomerang from the shed into the field.
Whiz! Away it went, bend first, and rose against the wind till the impetus ceased, when it hung for a moment on the air, and slid to the right, falling near the summer-house. Next time it turned to the left, and fell in the hedge; another time it hit the hay-rick: nothing could make it go straight. Mark tried his hardest, and used it both ways, but in vain – the boomerang rose against the wind, and, so far, acted properly, but directly the force with which it was thrown was exhausted, it did as it liked, and swept round to the left or the right, and never once returned to their feet.
'A boomerang is a stupid thing,' said Bevis, 'I shall chop it up. I hate it.'
'No; put it upstairs,' said Mark, taking it from him. So the boomerang was added to the collection in the bench-room. A cross-bow was the next thing, and they made the stock from a stout elder branch, because when the pith was taken out, it left a groove for the bolt to slide up. The bow was a thick brier, and the bolt flew thirty or forty yards, but it did not answer, and they could hit nothing with it. A cross bow requires delicate adjustment, and, to act well, must be made almost as accurately as a rifle.
They shot a hundred times at the sparrows on the roof, who were no sooner driven off than they came back like flies, but never hit one; so the cross bow was hung up with the boomerang. Bevis, from much practice, could shoot far better than that with his bow and arrow. He stuck up an apple on a stick, and after six or seven trials hit it at twenty yards. He could always hit a tree. Mark was afraid to throw his bone-headed harpoon at a tree, lest the head should break off; but he had another, without a bone head, to cast; and he too could generally hit a tree.
'Now we are quite savages,' said Bevis, one evening, as they sat up in the bench room, and the sun went down red and fiery, opposite the little window, filling the room with a red glow and gleaming on their faces. It put a touch of colour on the pears, which were growing large, just outside the window, as if they were ripe towards the sunset. The boomerang on the wall was lit up with the light; so was a parcel of canvas on the floor, which they had bought at Latten town, for the sails of their ship.
There was an oyster barrel under the bench, which was to contain the fresh water for their voyage, and there had been much discussion as to how they were to put a new head to it.
'We ought to see ourselves on the shore with spears and thingswhen we are sailing round,' said Mark.
'So as not to be able to land for fear.'
'Poisoned arrows,' said Mark. 'I say, how stupid! we have not got any poison.'
'No more we have. We must get a lot of poison.'
'Curious plants nobody knows anything about but us.'
'Nobody ever heard of them.'
'And dip our arrows and spears in the juice.'
'No one ever gets well after being shot with them.'
'If the wind blows hard ashore and there are no harbours it will be awful with the savages all along waiting for us.'
'We shall see them dancing and shouting with bows and throw-sticks, and yelling.'
'That's you and me.'
'Of course. And very likely if the wind is very hard we shall have to let down the sails, and fling out an anchor and stay till the gale goes down.'
'The anchor may drag.'
'Then we shall crash on the rocks.'
'And swim ashore.'
'You can't. There's the breakers and t'he savages behind them. I shall stop on the wreck, and the sun will go down.'
'Red like that, 'pointing out of window.
'And it will blow harder still.'
'Black as pitch.'
'Fire a gun.'
'Make a raft.'
'The clouds are sure to break, or something.'
'I say, said Bevis, won't all these things ' – pointing to the weapons – do first-rate for our war?'
'Capital. There will be arrows sticking up everywlhere all over the battle-field.'
'Broken lances and horses without riders.'
Dints in the ground.'
'Knights with their backs against trees and heaps of soldiers chopping at them.'
'Flashing swords! the ground will shake when we charge.'
'Grass all red!'
'Blood-red sun like that!' The disk growing larger as it neared the horizon shone vast through some distant elms.
'Flocks of crows.'
'Heaps of white bones.'
'And we will take the shovels and make a tumulus by the shore.'
The red glow on the wall dimmed slowly, colour left the pear, and the song of a thrush came from the orchard.
'I want to make some magic,' said Bevis, after a pause. The thing is to make a wand.'
'Genii are best,' said Mark. 'They do anything you tell them.'
'There ought to be a black book telling you how to to do it somewhere, said Bevis; 'but I've looked through the bookcase and there's nothing.'
'Are you sure you have quite looked through!'
'I'll try again,' said Bevis. 'There's a lot of books, but never anything that you want.'
'I know,' said Mark suddenly 'There's the bugle in the old cupboard – that will do for the war.'
So it will; I forgot it.'
'And a flag.'
'No; we must have eagles on a stick.'
'Knock!' They jumped; Polly had hit the ceiling underneath with the handle of a broom.
When they went to bathe next morning, Bevis took with him his bow and arrows, intending to shoot pike. As they walked beside the shore they often saw jack basking in the sun at the surface of the water, and only a few yards distant. He had fastened a long thin string one end to the arrow and the other to the bow, so that he might draw the arrow back to him with the fish on as the savages do. Mark brought his bone-headed harpoon to try and spear something, and between them they also carried a plank, which was to be used as catamaran.
A paddle they had made was tied to it for convenience, that their hands might not be too full. Mark went first with one end of the plank on llis shoulder, and Bevis followed with the other on his, and as they had to hold it on edge it rather cut them. Coming near some weeds where they had had seen a jack the day before, they put the catamaran down, and Bevis crept quietly forward. The jack was not there, but motioning to Mark to stand still. Bevis went on to where the first railings stretched out into the water.
There he saw a jack about two pounds weight basking within an inch of the surface, and aslant to him. He lifted his bow before he went near, shook out the string that it might slip easily like the coil of a harpoon, fitted the arrow, and holding it almost up, stole closer. He knew if he pulled the bow in the usual manner the sudden motion of his arms would send the jack away in an instant. With the bow already in position, he got within six yards of the fish, which, quite still, did not seem to see anything, but to sleep with eyes wide open in the sun. The shaft flew, and like another arrow the jack darted aslant into deep water.
Bevis drew back his arrow with the string, not altogether disappointed, for it had struck the water very near if not exactly at the place the fish had occupied. But he thought the string impeded the shaft, and took it off for another trial. Mark would not stay behind; he insisted upon seeing the shooting, so leaving the catamaran on the grass, they moved gently along the shore. After a while they found another jack, this time much larger, and not less than four pounds weight, stationary, in a tiny bay, or curve of the land. He was Iying parallel to the shore, but deeper than the first, perhaps six inches beneath the surface. Mark stood where he could see the dark line of the fish, while Bevis, with the bow lifted and an arrow half-drawn, took one, two, three, and almost another step forward.
Aiming steadily at the jack's broad side, just behind the front fins, where the fish was widest, Bevis grasped his bow firm to keep it from the least wavering (for it is the left hand that shoots), drew his arrow, and let go. So swift was the shaft, unimpeded, and drawn too this time almost to the head, in traversing the short distance between, that the jack, quick as he was, could not of hirmself have escaped. Bevis saw the acrow enter the water, and, as it seemed to him, strike the fish. It did indeed strike the image of the fish, but the real jack slipped beneath it.
Bevis looked and looked, he was so certain he had hit it, and so he had hit the mark he aimed at, which was the refraction, but the fish was unhurt. It was explained to him afterwards that the fish appears higher in the water than it actually is, and that to have hit it he should have aimed two inches underneath, and he proved the truth of it by trying to touch things in the water with a long stick. The arrow glanced after going two feet or so deep, and performed a curve in the water exactly opposite to that it would have traced in the air. In the air it would have curved over, in the water it curved under, and came up to the surface not very far out; the water checked it so. Bevis fastened the string again to another arrow, and shot it out over the first, so that it caught and held it, and he drew them both back.
They fetched the catamaran, and went on till they came to the point where there was a wall of stones rudely put together to shield the land from the full shock of the waves, when the west wind rolled them heavily from the Indian Ocean and the Golden Sea. Putting the plank down again, Mark went forward with his harpoon, for he knew that shoals of fish often played in the water when it was still just beneath this rocky wall. As he expected, they were there this morning, for the most part roach, but a few perch. He knelt and crept out on all fours to the edge of the wall, leaving his hat on the sward. Looking over, he could see to the stony bottom, and as there was not a ripple, he could see distinctly.
He put his harpoon gently, without a splash, into the sunlit water, and let it sink slowly in among the shoal. The roach swam aside a yard or so from it, but showed no more fear than that it should not touch them Mark kept his harpoon still till a larger roach came slowly by within eighteen inches of the point, when he jerked it at the fish. It passed six inches behind his tail, and though Mark tried again and again, thrusting quickly, he could not strike them with his single point. To throw it like a dart he knew was useless, they were too deep down, nor could he hit so small an object in motion. He could not do it, but some days afterwards he struck a small tench in the brook, and got him out. The tench was still, so that he could put the head of his harpoon almost on it.
They marched on, and presently launched the catamaran. It would only support one at a time astride and half in the water, but it was a capital thing. Sitting on it, Bevis paddled along the shore nearly to the rocky wall and back, but he did not forget his promise, and was not out of his depth; he could see the stones at the bottom all the time. Mark tried to stand on the plank, but one edge would go down and pitch him off. He next tried to lie on it on his back, and succeeded so long as he let his legs dangle over each side, and so balanced it. Then they stood away, and swam to it as if it had been the last plank of a wreck.
'Look!' said Mark, after they had done this several times. He was holding the plank at arm's length with his limbs floating. 'Look!' 'I see. What is it?'
'This is the way. We ought to have held the jumping-pole like this. This is the way to hold an oar and swim.'
'So it is,' said Bevis, 'of course, that's it; we'll have the punt, and try with a scull.'
Held at arm's length, almost anything will keep a swimmer afloat; but if he puts it under his arm or chest, it takes a good-sized spar. Splashing about, presently the plank, forgotten for the moment, slipped away, and, impelled by the waves they made, floated into deep water.
'I'm sure I could swim to it,' said Bevis, and he was inclined to try 'We promised not,' said Mark.
'You stupe – I know that; but if there's a plank, that's not dangerous then.' 'Stupe' was their word for stupid. He waded out till the water was over his shoulders, and tried to lift him.
'Don't – don't,' said Mark. Bevis began to lean his chest on the water.
'If you're captain,' cried Mark, 'you ought not to.'
'No more I ought,' said Bevis, coming back. 'Get my bow.'
'Go and get my bow.'
'I shan't, if you say it like that.'
'You shall. Am I not captain?
Mark was caught by his own argument, and went out on the sward for the bow.
'Tie the arrow on with the string,' shouted Bevis. Mark did it, and brought it in, keeping it above the surface. Bevis climbed on the railings, half out of water, so that he could steady himself with his knees against the rail.
'Now, give me the bong,' he said. He took good aim and the nail, filed to a sharp point, was driven deep into thc soft deal of the plank. With the string he hauled the catamaran gently back, but it would not come straight; it slipped sideways (like the boomerang in the air) and came ashore under the aspen bough.
When they came out they bathed again in the air and the sunshine; they rolled on the sward, and ran. Bevis, as he ran and shouted, shot off an arrow, with all his might to see how far it would go. It went up, up, and curving over, struck a bough at the top of one of the elms, and stopped there by the rooks' nests. Mark shouted and danced on the bird's-root lotus, and darted his spear heedless of the bone head. It went up into the hazel boughs of the hedge among the young nuts, and he could not get it till dressed, for the thistles.
They ran again and chased each other in and out the sycamore trunks, and visited the hollow, shouting their loudest, till the distant herd looked up from their grazing. The sun-light poured upon them, and the light air came along; they bathed in air and sun-beam, and gathered years of health like flowers from the field.
After they had dressed they took the catamaran to the quarry to leave it there (somewhat out of sight lest anyone should take it for firewood), so as to save the labour of carrying it to and fro. There was a savage of another tribe in the quarry, and they crept on all fours, taking great pains that he should not see them. It was the old man who was supposed to look after the boats, and generally to watch the water. Had they not been so occupied they would have heard the thump, thump of the sculls as he rowed, or rather moved the punt up to where the narrow mound separated the New Sea from the quarry.
He was at work scooping out some sand, and filling sacks with the best, with which cargo he would presently voyage home, and retail it to the dairymaids and at the roadside inns to eke out that spirit of juniper-berries needful to those who have dwelt long by marshy places. They need not have troubled to conceal themselves from this stranger savage. He would not have seen thern if they had stood close by him. A narrow life narrows the sweep of the eye. Miserable being, he could see no farther than one of the mussels of the lake, which travel in a groove. His groove led to the sanded inn-kitchen, and his shell was shut to all else. But they crept like skirmishers, dragging the catamaran laboriously behind them, using every undulation of the ground to hide themselves, till they had got it into the hollow, where they left it beside a heap of stones. Then they had to crawl out again, and for thirty yards along the turf, till they could stand up unseen.
'Let's get the poison,' said Mark, as they were going home.
So they searched for the poison-plants. The woody nightshade they knew very well, having been warned long ago against the berries. It was now only in flower, and it would be some time before there were any berries; but after thinking it over they decided to gather a bundle of stalks, and soak them for the deadly juice. There were stems of arum in the ditches, tipped with green berries. These they thought would do, but shrank from touching. The green looked unpleasant and slimy.
Next they hunted for mandragora, of which John Young had given thern an account. It grew in waste places, and by the tombs in the churchyard, and shrieked while you pulled it up. This they could not find. Mark said perhaps it wanted an enchanter to discover it, but he gathered a quantity of the dark green milfoil from the grass beside the hedge and paths, and crammed his pockets with it. Some of the lads had told him that it was a deadly poison. It is the reverse – thus reputation varies – for it was used to cure medieval sword-cuts. They passed the water-parsnip, unaware of its pernicious qualities, looking for noisome hemlock. 'There's another kind of nightshade,' said Bevis, 'because I read about it in that old book indoors, and it's much stronger than this. We must have some of it. '
They looked a long time, but could not find it; and, full of their direful object, did not heed sounds of laughter on the other side of the hedge they were searching, till they got through a gap and jumped into the midst of a group of haymakers resting for lunch. The old men had got a little way apart by themselves, for they wanted to eat like Pan. All the women were together in a 'gaggle,' a semicircle of them sitting round a young girl who lounged on a heap of mown grass, with a huge labourer Iying full length at her feet. She had a piece of honeysuckle in her hand, and he had a black wooden 'bottle' near him.
There was a courting going on between these two, and all the other women, married and single, collected round them, to aid in the business with jokes and innuendoes.
Bevis and Mark instantly recognized in the girl the one who at 'Calais' had shown them the road home, and in the man at her feet the fellow who was asleep on the flint-heap.
Her large eyes, like black cherries – for black eyes and black cherries have a faint tint of red behind them – were immediately bent full on Bevis as she rose and curtsyed to him. Her dress at the throat had become unhooked, and showed the line to which the sun had browned her, and where the sweet clear whiteness ol the untouched skin began. The soft roundness of the swelling plum as it ripens filled her common print, torn by briars, with graceful contours. In the shadow of the oak her large black eyes shone larger, loving and untaught.
Bevis did not speak. He and Mark were a little taken aback, having jumped through the gap so suddenly from savagery into haymaking. They hastened through a gateway into another field.
'How do you keep a-staring arter they!' said the huge young labourer to the girl. 'Yen you seen he afore! It's onely our young measter.'
'I knows,' said the girl, sitting down as Bevis and Mark disappeared through the gateway. 'He put a bough on you to keep the flies off while you were sleeping.'
'Did a'? Then why didn't you ax 'un for a quart?'
She had slipped along the fields by the road that day, and had seen Bevis put the bough over her lover's face as he slept on the flint-heap – where she left him. The grateful labourer's immediate idea was to ask Bevis for some beer.
Behind the hedge Bevis and Mark continued their search for deadly poison. They took some 'gix,' but were not certain that it was the true hemlock.
'There's a sort of sorrel that's poison,' said Mark.
'And heaps of roots,' said Bevis.
They were now near home, and went in to extract the essence from the plants they had. The nightshade yielded very little juice from its woody bines, or stalks; the 'gix' not much more: the milfoil, well bruised and squeezed gave most. They found three small phials: the nightshade and 'gix' only filled a quarter of the phials used for them; Mark had a phial three-parts full of milfoil. These they arranged in a row in the bench in the bench-room under the crossbow and boomerang, for future use in war. They did not dip their arrows or harpoon in yet, lest they should poison any fish or animal they might kill, and so render it unfit for food.