BEVIS and Mark went eagerly to bathe by themselves, but immediately left the direct path. Human beings must be kept taut, or, like a rope, they will slacken. The very first morning they took a leaping-pole with them, a slender ash sapling, rather more than twice their own height, which they picked out from a number in the rick-yard, intending to jump to and fro the brook on the way. But before they had got half-way to the brook they altered their minds, becoming eager for the water, and raced to the bathing-place. The pole was now to be an oar, and they were to swim, supported by an oar, like shipwrecked people.
So soon as he had had a plunge or two, Bevis put one arm over the pole and struck out with the other, thinking that he should be able in that way to have a long swim. Directly his weight pressed on the pole it went under, and did not support him in the least. He put it next beneath his chest, with both arms over it, but immediately he pushed off down it went again. Mark took it and got astride, when the pole let his feet touch bottom.
'It's no use,' he said. 'What's the good of people falling overboard with spars and oars? What stories they must tell.'
'I can't make it out,' said Bevis; and he tried again, but it was no good, the pole was an encumbrance instead of a support, for it insisted upon slipping through the water lengthways, and would not move just as he wished. In a rage he gave it a push, and sent it ashore, and turned to swimming to the rail. They did not know it, but the governor, still anxious about them, had gone round a long distance, so as to have a peep at them from the hedge on the other side of Fir-Tree Gulf by the Nile. He could tell by the post and rails that they did not go out of their depth, and went away without letting them suspect his presence.
When they got out, they had a run in the sunshine, which dried them much better than towels. The field sloped gently to the right, and their usual run was on the slope beside a nut-tree hedge towards a group of elms. All the way there and back the sward was short and soft, almost like that of the Downs, which they could see, and dotted with bird's-foot lotus, over whose yellow flowers they raced. But this morning, being no longer kept taut, after they had returned from the elms with an enormous mushroom they had found there, they ran to the old quarry, and along the edge above. The perpendicular sandcliff fell to an enclosed pool beneath, in which, on going to the very edge, they could see themselves reflected. Some hurdles and flakes - a stronger kind of hurdle - had been placed here that cattle might not wander over, but the cart-horses, who rub against everything, had rubbed against them and dislodged two or three. These had rolled down, and the rest hung half over.
While they stood still looking down over the broad waters of their New Sea, the sun burned their shoulders, making the skin red. Away they ran back to dress, and taking a short path across a place where the turf had partly grown over a shallow excavation pricked their feet with thistles, and had to limp the rest of the way to their clothes. Now, there were no thistles on their proper race-course down to the elms and back.
As they returned home they remembered the brook, and went down to it to jump with the leaping-pole. But the soft ooze at the bottom let the pole sink in, and Bevis, who of course must take the first leap, was very near being hung up in the middle of the brook. Under his weight, as he sprang off, the pole sank deep into the ooze, and had it been a stiffer mud the pole would have stopped upright, when he must have stayed on it over the water, or have been jerked off among the flags. As it was it did let him get over, but he did not land on the firm bank, only reaching the mud at the side, where he scrambled up by grasping the stout stalk of a willow-herb. In future he felt with the butt of the pole till he found a firm spot, where it was sandy, or where the matted roots of grasses and flags had bound the mud hard. Then he flew over well up on the grass.
Mark took his turn, and as he put the butt in the water a streak of mud came up where a small jack-fish had shot away. So they went on down the bank leaping alternately, one carrying the towels while the other flew over and back.
Sometimes they could not leap because the tripping was bad, undermined where the cowslips in the spring hung over the stream, bored with the holes of water-rats, which when disused become covered with grass, but give way beneath the foot or the hoof that presses on them, pitching leaper or rider into the current, or it was rotten from long-decaying roots, or about to slip. Sometimes the landing was bad, undermined in the same way, or higher than the tripping, when you have not only to get over, but to deliver yourself on a higher level; or swampy, where a wet furrow came to the brook; or too far, where there was nothing but mud to come on. They had to select their jumping-places, and feel the ground to the edge first.
'Here's the raft!' shouted Mark, who was ahead, looking out for a good place.
'Is it?' said Bevis, running along on the other side. They had so completely forgotten it, that it came upon them like something new. Bevis took a leap and came over, and they set to work at once to launch it. The raft slipped gradually down the shelving shore of the drinking-place, and they thrust it into the stream. Bevis put his foot on board, but immediately withdrew it, for the water rushed through twenty leaks spurting up along the joins. Left on the sand in the sun's rays the wood of the raft shrank a little, opening the planking, while the clay they had daubed on to caulk the crevices had cracked, and the moss had dried up and was ready to crumble. The water came through everywhere, and the raft was half-full even when left to itself without any pressure.
'We ought to have thatched it,' said Mark. 'We ought to have made a roof over it. Let's stop the leaks.'
'Oh, come on,' said Bevis, 'don't let's bother. Rafts are no good, no more than poles or oars when you fall overboard. We shall have a ship soon.'
The raft was an old story, and he did not care about it. He went on with the leaping-pole, but Mark stayed a minute and hauled the raft on shore as far as his strength would permit. He got about a quarter of it on the ground, so that it could not float away, and then ran after Bevis.
They went into the Peninsula, and looked at all the fir trees, to see if any would do for the mast for the blue boat they were to have. As it had no name, they called it the blue boat to distinguish it from the punt. Mark thought an ash-pole would do for the mast, as ashpoles were so straight and could he easily shaved to the right size; but Bevis w ould not hear of it, for masts were never made of ash, but always of pine, and they must have their ship proper. He selected a tree presently, a young fir, straight as an arrow, and started Mark for the axe, but before he had gone ten yards Mark came back. saying that the tree would be of no use unless they liked to wait till next year, because it would be green, and the mast ought to be made of seasoned wood.
'So it ought,' said Bevis. 'What a lot of trouble it is to make a ship.'
But as they sat on the railing across the isthmus swinging their legs, Mark remembered that there were some fir-poles which had been cut a long time since behind the great wood-pile, between it and the walnut trees, out of sight. Without a word away they ran, chose one of these and carried it into the shed where Bevis usually worked. They had got the dead bark off and were shaving away when it was dinner-time, which they thought a bore, but which wise old Pan, who was never chained now, considered the main object of life.
Next morning as they went through the meadow, where the dew still lingered in the shade, on the way to the bathing-place, taking Pan with them this time, they hung about the path picking cloverheads and sucking the petals, pulling them out and putting the lesser ends in their lips, looking at the white and pink bramble flowers, noting where the young nuts began to show, pulling down the woodbine, and doing everything but hasten on to their work of swimming. They stopped at the gate by the New Sea, over whose smooth surface slight breaths of mist were curling, and stood kicking the ground and the stones as flighty horses paw
'We ought to be something,' said Mark discontentedly.
'Of course we ought,' said Bevis. 'Things are very stupid unless you are something.'
'Lions and tigers,' said Mark, growling, and showing his teeth.
'Shipwrecked people on an island.'
'Fiddle! They have plenty to do and are always happy, and we are not.'
'No; very unhappy. Let's try escaping, - prisoners running away.'
'So it is.'
'This is a very stupid sea.'
'There's nothing in it.'
'Let's be hermits.'
'There's always only one hermit.'
'Well, you live that side' (pointing across), 'and I'll live this.'
'Hermits eat pulse and drink water.'
'I suppose it's barley-water.'
'You say what we shall be then.'
'Pan, you old conk,' said Bevis, rolling Pan over with his foot. Lazy Pan lay on his back, and let Bevis bend his ribs with his foot.
'Caw, caw!' a crow went over the down to the shore, where he hoped to find a mussel surprised by the dawn in shallow water.
Bang! 'Hoi! Hoi! Yah!' The discharge was half a mile away, but the crow altered his mind, and flew over the water as near the surface as he could without touching. Why do birds always cross the water in that way?
'That's Tom,' said Mark. Tom was the bird-keeper. He shot first, and shouted after. He potted a hare in the corn with bits of flint, a button, three tin-tacks, and a horse-stub, which scraped the old barrel inside, but slew the game. That was for himself. Then be shouted his loudest to do his duty - for other people. The sparrows had flown out of the corn at the noise of the gun, and settled on the hedge; when Tom shouted they were frightened from the hedge, and went back into the wheat. From which learn this, shoot first and shout after.
'Shall we say that was a gun at sea?' continued Mark.
'They are always heard at night,' said Bevis. 'Pitch black, you know.'
'Everything is somehow else,' said Mark .
Pan closed his idle old eyes, and grunted with delight as Bevis rubbed his ribs with his foot. Bevis put his hands in his pockets and sighed deeply. The sun looked down on these sons of care, and all the morning beamed.
'Savages!' shouted Mark, kicking the gate to with a slam that startled Pan up. 'Savages, of course!'
'They swim, conk: don't they? They're always in water, and they have catamarans and ride the waves and dance on the shore, and blow shells --'
Away they ran towards the bathing-place to be savages, but Mark stopped suddenly, and asked what sort they were? They decided that they were the South Sea sort, and raced on again, Pan keeping pace with a kind of shamble; he was too idle to run properly. They dashed into the water, each with a wood-pigeon's feather (which they had found under the sycamore-trees above the quarry) stuck in his hair. At the first dive the feathers floated away. Upon the other side of the rails there was a large aspen-tree whose lowest bough reached out over the water, which was shallow there.
Though they made such a splashing, when Bevis looked over the railings a moment, he saw some little roach moving to and fro under the bough. The wavelets from his splashing rolled on to the sandy shore, rippling under the aspen. As he looked, a fly fell on its back out of the tree, and struggled in vain to get up. Bevis climbed over the rails, picked an aspen leaf, and put it under the fly, which thus on a raft, and tossed up and down as Mark dived, was floated slowly by the undulations to the strand. As he got over the rails a kingfisher shot out from the mouth of the Nile opposite, and crossed aslant the gulf, whistling as he flew.
'Look!' said Mark. 'Don't you know that's a sign. Savages read signs, and those birds mean that there are heaps of fish.'
'Yes, but we ought to have a proper language.'
'Kalabala-blong!' said Mark.
'Hududu-blow-fluz!' replied Bevis, taking a header from the top of the rail on which he had been sitting, and on which he just contrived to balance himself a moment without falling backwards.
'Umplumum!' he shouted, coming up again.
'Ikiklikah,' and Mark disappeared.
'Noklikah,' said Bevis, giving him a shove under as he came up to breathe.
'That's not fair,' said Mark, scrambling up.
Bevis was swimming, and Mark seized his feet. More splashing and shouting, and the rocks resounded. The echo of their voices returned from the quarry and the high bank under the firs.
They raced presently down to the elms along the sweet soft turf, sprinkling the dry grass with the drops from their limbs, and the sunlight shone on their white shoulders. The wind blew and stroked their gleaming backs. They rolled and tumbled on the grass, and the earth was under them. From the water to the sun and the wind and the grass.
They played round the huge sycamore trunks above the quarry, and the massive boughs stretched over - from a distance they would have seemed mere specks beneath the immense trees. They raced across to a round hollow in the field and sat down at the bottom, so that they could see nothing but the sky overhead, and the clouds drifting. They lay at lull length, and for a moment were still and silent; the sunbeam and the winds the soft touch of the grass, the gliding cloud, the eye-loved blue gave them the delicious sense of growing strong in drowsy luxury.
Then with a shout, renewed, they ran, and Pan, who had been waiting by their clothes, was startled into a bark of excitement at their sudden onslaught. As they went homewards they walked round to the little sheltered bay where the boats were kept, to look at the blue boat and measure for the mast. It was beside the punt, half drawn up on the sand, and fastened to a willow root. She was an ill-built craft with a straight gunwale, so that when afloat she seemed lower at stem and stern than abeam, as if she would thrust her nose into a wave instead of riding it. The planks were thick and heavy and looked as if they had not been bent enough to form the true buoyant curve.
The blue paint had scaled and faded, the rowlocks were mended with a piece cut from an old rake-handle, there was a small pool of bilge-water in the stern-sheets from the last shower, full of dead insects, and yellow willow leaves. A clumsy vessel put together years ago in some by-water of the far distant Thames above Oxford, and not good enough even for that unknown creek. She had drifted somehow into this landlocked pond and remained unused, hauled on the strand beneath the willows; she could carry five or six, and if they bumped her well on the stones it mattered little to so stout a frame.
Still she was a boat, with keel and curve, and like lovers they saw no defect. Bevis looked at the hole in the seat or thwart, where the mast would have to be stepped, and measured it (not having a rule with him) by cutting a twig just to the length of the diameter. Mark examined the rudder and found that the lines were rotten, having hung dangling over the stern in the water for so long. Next they stepped her length, stepping on the sand outside, to decide on the height of the mast, and where the ropes were to be fastened, for they meant to have some standing rigging.
At home afterwards in the shed, while Bevis shaved the fir-pole for the mast, Mark was set to carve the leaping-pole, for the South Sea savages have everything carved. He could hardly cut the hard dried bark of the ash, which had shrunk on and become like wood. He made a spiral notch round it, and then searched till he found his old spear, which had to be ornamented and altered into a bone harpoon. A bone from the kitchen was sawn off while in the vice, and then half through two inches from the largest end. Tapping a broad chisel gently, Mark split the bone down to the sawn part, and then gradually filed it sharp. He also filed three barbs to it, and shell fitted the staff of the spear into the hollow end. While he was engraving lines and rings on the spear with his pocket-knife, the dinner interrupted his work.
Bevis, wearying of the mast, got some flints, and hammered them to split off flakes for arrowheads, but though he bruised his fingers, he could not chip the splinters into shape. The fracture always ran too far, or not far enough. John Young, the labourer, came by as he was doing this sitting on the stool in the shed, and watched him.
'I see a man do that once,' said John.
'How did he do it? Tell me: what's the trick?' said Bevis, impatient to know.
'Aw, I dunno; I see him at it. A' had a gate-hinge snopping um.'
The iron hinge of a gate, if removed from the post, forms a fairly good hammer, the handle of iron as well as the head.
'Where was it? what did he do it for?'
'Aw, up in the downs. Course he did it to sell um.'
The prehistoric art of chipping flints lingered among the shepherds on the Downs till the percussion-cap came in, and no longer having to get flakes for the flintlock guns they slowly let it disappear. Young had seen it done, but could not describe how.
Bevis battered his flints till he was tired; then he took up the last and hurled it away in a rage with all his might. The flint whirled over and over and hummed along the ground till it struck a small sarsen or boulder by the wood-pile, put there as a spurstone to force the careless carters to drive straight. Then it flew into splinters with the jerk of the stoppage.
'Here's a sharp 'un,' said John Young, picking up a flake, 'and here's another.'
Altogether there were three pointed flakes which Bevis thought would do. Mark had to bring some reeds next day from the place where they grew, half a mile below his house in a by-water of the brook. They were green, but Bevis could not wait to dry them. He cut them off a little above the knot or joint, split the part above, and put the flint flake in, and bound it round and round with horsehair from the carter's store in the stable. But when they were finished, they were not shot off, lest they should break; they were carried indoors into the room upstairs where there was a bench, and which they made their armoury.
They made four or five darts next of deal shaved to the thickness of a thin walking-stick, and not quite so long. One end was split in four - once down and across that - and two pieces of cardboard doubled up thrust in, answering the purpose of feathering. There was a slight notch two-thirds up the shaft, and the way was to twist a piece of twine round it there crossed over a knot so as just to hold, the other end of the twine firmly coiled about the wrist, so that in throwing the string was taut and the point of the dart between the fingers. Hurling it, the string imparted a second force, and the dart, twirling like an arrow, flew fifty or sixty yards.
Slings they made with a square of leather from the sides of old shoes, a small hole cut out in the centre that the stone might not slip, hut these they could never do much with, except hurl pebbles from the rick-yard, rattling up into the boughs of the oak, on the other side of the field. The real arrows to shoot with - not the reed arrows to look at - were tipped with iron nails filed to a sharp point. They had much trouble in feathering them; they had plenty of goose feathers (saved from the Christmas plucking), but to glue them properly was not easy.