Beneath the surface of the Lake there must be concealed very many ancient towns and cities, of which the names are lost. Sometimes the anchors bring up even now fragments of rusty iron and old metal, or black beams of timber. It is said, and with probability, that when the remnant of the ancients found the water gradually encroaching (for it rose very slowly), as they were driven back year by year, they considered that in time they would be all swept away and drowned. But after extending to its present limits the Lake rose no farther, not even in the wettest seasons, but always remains the same. From the position of certain quays we know that it has thus remained for the last hundred years at least.
Never, as I observed before, was there so beautiful an expanse of water. How much must we sorrow that it has so often proved only the easiest mode of bringing the miseries of war to the doors of the unoffending! Yet men are never weary of sailing to and fro upon it, and most of the cities of the present time are upon its shore. And in the evening we walk by the beach, and from the rising grounds look over the waters, as if to gaze upon their loveliness were reward to us for the labour of the day.
On a bright May morning, the sunlight, at five o'clock, was pouring into a room which face the east at the ancestral home of the Aquilas. In this room Felix, the eldest of the three sons of the Baron, was sleeping. The beams passed over his head, and lit up a square space on the opposite whitewashed wall, where, in the midst of the brilliant light, hung an ivory cross. There were only two panes of glass in the window, each no more than two or three inches square, the rest of the window being closed by strong oaken shutters, thick enough to withstand the stroke of an arrow.
In the daytime one of these at least would have been thrown open to admit air and light. They did not quite meet, and a streak of sunshine, in addition to that which came through the tiny panes, entered at the chink. Only one window in the house contained more than two such panes (it was in the Baroness's sitting-room), and most of them had none at all. The glass left by the ancients in their dwellings had long since been used up or broken, and the fragments that remained were too precious to be put in ordinary rooms. When larger pieces were discovered, they were taken for the palaces of the princes, and even these were but sparingly supplied, so that the saying "he has glass in his window" was equivalent to "he belongs to the upper ranks".
On the recess of the window was an inkstand, which had been recently in use, for a quill lay beside it, and a sheet of parchment partly covered with writing. The ink was thick and very dark, made of powdered charcoal, leaving a slightly raised writing, which could be perceived by the finger on rubbing it lightly over. Beneath the window on the bare floor was an open chest, in which were several similar parchments and books, and from which the sheet on the recess had evidently been taken. This chest, though small, was extremely heavy and strong, being dug out with the chisel and gouge from a solid block of oak. Except a few parallel grooves, there was no attempt at ornamentation upon it. The lid, which had no hinges, but lifted completely off, was tilted against the wall. It was, too, of oak some inches thick, and fitted upon the chest by a kind of dovetailing at the edges.
Instead of a lock, the chest was fastened by a lengthy thong of oxhide, which now lay in a coil on the floor. Bound round and round, twisted and intertangled, and finally tied with a special and secret knot (the ends being concealed), the thong of leather secured the contents of the chest from prying eyes or thievish hands. With axe or knife, of course, the knot might easily have been severed, but no one could obtain access to the room except the retainers of the house, and which of them, even if unfaithful, would dare to employ such means in view of the certain punishment that must follow? It would occupy hours to undo the knot, and then it could not be tied again in exactly the same fashion, so that the real use of the thong was to assure the owner that his treasures had not been interfered with in his absence. Such locks as were made were of the clumsiest construction. They were not so difficult to pick as the thong to untie, and their expense, or rather the difficulty of getting a workman who could manufacture them, confined their use to the heads of great houses. The Baron's chest was locked, and his alone, in the dwelling.
Besides the parchments which were nearest the top, as most in use, there were three books, much worn and decayed, which had been preserved, more by accident than by care, from the libraries of the ancients. One was an abridged history of Rome, the other a similar account of English history, the third a primer of science or knowledge; all three, indeed, being books which, among the ancients, were used for teaching children, and which, by the men of those days, would have been cast aside with contempt.
Exposed for years in decaying houses, rain and mildew had spotted and stained their pages; the covers had rotted away these hundred years, and were now supplied by a broad sheet of limp leather with wide margins far overlapping the edges; many of the pages were quite gone, and others torn by careless handling. The abridgment of Roman history had been scorched by a forest fire, and the charred edges of the leaves had dropped away in semicircular holes. Yet, by pondering over these, Felix had, as it were, reconstructed much of the knowledge which was the common (and therefore unvalued) possession of all when they were printed.
The parchments contained his annotations, and the result of his thought; they were also full of extracts from decaying volumes lying totally neglected in the houses of other nobles. Most of these were of extreme antiquity, for when the ancients departed, the modern books which they had composed being left in the decaying houses at the mercy of the weather, rotted, or were destroyed by the frequent grass fires. But those that had been preserved by the ancients in museums escaped for a while, and some of these yet remained in lumber-rooms and corners, whence they were occasionally dragged forth by the servants for greater convenience in lighting the fires. The young nobles, entirely devoted to the chase, to love intrigues, and war, overwhelmed Felix Aquila with ridicule when they found him poring over these relics, and being of a proud and susceptible spirit, they so far succeeded that he abandoned the open pursuit of such studies, and stole his knowledge by fitful glances when there was no one near. As among the ancients learning was esteemed above all things, so now, by a species of contrast, it was of all things the most despised.
Under the books, in one corner of the chest, was a leather bag containing four golden sovereigns, such as were used by the ancients, and eighteen pieces of modern silver money, the debased shillings of the day, not much more than half of which was silver and the rest alloy. The gold coins had been found while digging holes for the posts of a new stockade, and by the law should have been delivered to the prince's treasury. All the gold discovered, whether in the form of coin or jewellery, was the property of the Prince, who was supposed to pay for its value in currency.
As the actual value of the currency was only half of its nominal value (and sometimes less), the transaction was greatly in favour of the treasury. Such was the scarcity of gold that the law was strictly enforced, and had there been the least suspicion of the fact, the house would have been ransacked from the cellars to the roof. Imprisonment and fine would have been the inevitable fate of Felix, and the family would very probably have suffered for the fault of one of its members. But independent and determined to the last degree, Felix ran any risk rather than surrender that which he had found, and which he deemed his own. This unbending independence and pride of spirit, together with scarce concealed contempt for others, had resulted in almost isolating him from the youth of his own age, and had caused him to be regarded with dislike by the elders. He was rarely, if ever, asked to join the chase, and still more rarely invited to the festivities and amusements provided in adjacent houses, or to the grander entertainments of the higher nobles. Too quick to take offence where none was really intended, he fancied that many bore him ill-will who had scarcely given him a passing thought. He could not forgive the coarse jokes uttered upon his personal appearance by men of heavier build, who despised so slender a stripling.
He would rather be alone than join their company, and would not compete with them in any of their sports, so that, when his absence from the arena was noticed, it was attributed to weakness or cowardice. These imputations stung him deeply, driving him to brood within himself. He was never seen in the courtyards or ante-rooms at the palace, nor following in the train of the Prince, as was the custom with the youthful nobles. The servility of the court angered and disgusted him; the eagerness of strong men to carry a cushion or fetch a dog annoyed him.
There were those who observed this absence from the crowd in the ante-rooms. In the midst of so much intrigue and continual striving for power, designing men, on the one hand, were ever on the alert for what they imagined would prove willing instruments; and on the other, the Prince's councillors kept a watchful eye on the dispositions of every one of the least consequence; so that, although but twenty-five, Felix was already down in two lists, the one, at the palace, of persons whose views, if not treasonable, were doubtful, and the other, in the hands of a possible pretender, as a discontented and therefore useful man. Felix was entirely ignorant that he had attracted so much observation. He supposed himself simply despised and ignored; he cherished no treason, had not the slightest sympathy with any pretender, held totally aloof from intrigue, and his reveries, if they were ambitious, concerned only himself.
But the most precious of the treasures in the chest were eight or ten small sheets of parchment, each daintily rolled and fastened with a ribbon, letters from Aurora Thyma, who had also given him the ivory cross on the wall. It was of ancient workmanship, a relic of the old world. A compass, a few small tools (valuable because preserved for so many years, and not now to be obtained for any consideration), and a magnifying glass, a relic also of the ancients, completed the contents of the chest.
Upon a low table by the bedstead were a flint and steel and tinder, and an earthenware oil lamp, not intended to be carried about. There, too, lay his knife, with a buckhorn hilt, worn by everyone in the belt, and his forester's axe, a small tool, but extremely useful in the woods, without which, indeed, progress was often impossible. These were in the belt, which, as he undressed, he had cast upon the table, together with his purse, in which were about a dozen copper coins, not very regular in shape, and stamped on one side only. The table was formed of two short hewn planks, scarcely smoothed, raised on similar planks (on edge) at each end, in fact, a larger form.
From a peg driven into the wall hung a disc of brass by a thin leathern lace; this disc, polished to the last degree, answered as a mirror. The only other piece of furniture, if so it could be called, was a block of wood at the side of the table, used as a chair. In the corner, between the table and the window, stood a long yew bow, and a quiver full of arrows ready for immediate use, besides which three or four sheaves lay on the floor. A crossbow hung on a wooden peg; the bow was of wood, and, therefore, not very powerful; bolts and square-headed quarrels were scattered carelessly on the floor under it.
Six or seven slender darts used for casting with the hand, as javelins, stood in another corner by the door, and two stouter boar spears. By the wall a heap of nets lay in apparent confusion, some used for partridges, some of coarse twine for bush-hens, another, lying a little apart, for fishes. Near these the component parts of two turkey-traps were strewn about, together with a small round shield or targe, such as are used by swordsmen, snares of wire, and, in an open box, several chisels, gouges, and other tools.
A blowtube was fastened to three pegs, so that it might not warp, a hunter's horn hung from another, and on the floor were a number of arrows in various stages of manufacture, some tied to the straightening rod, some with the feathers already attached, and some hardly shaped from the elder or aspen log. A heap of skins filled the third corner, and beside them were numerous stag's horns, and two of the white cow, but none yet of the much dreaded and much desired white bull. A few peacock's feathers were there also, rare and difficult to get, and intended for Aurora. Round one footpost of the bed was a long coil of thin hide, a lasso, and on another was suspended an iron cap, or visorless helmet.
There was no sword or lance. Indeed, of all these weapons and implements, none seemed in use, to judge by the dust that had gathered upon them, and the rusted edges, except the bow and crossbow and one of the boar spears. The bed itself was very low, framed of wood, thick and solid; the clothes were of the coarsest linen and wool; there were furs for warmth in winter, but these were not required in May. There was no carpet, nor any substitute for it; the walls were whitewashed, ceiling there was none, the worm-eaten rafters were visible, and the roof tree. But on the table was a large earthenware bowl, full of meadow orchids, blue-bells, and a bunch of may in flower.
His hat, wide in the brim, lay on the floor; his doublet was on the wooden block or seat, with the long tight-fitting trousers, which showed every muscle of the limb, and by them high shoes of tanned but unblacked leather. His short cloak hung on a wooden peg against the door, which was fastened with a broad bolt of oak. The parchment in the recess of the window at which he had been working just before retiring was covered with rough sketches, evidently sections of a design for a ship or galley propelled by oars.
The square spot of light upon the wall slowly moved as the sun rose higher, till the ivory cross was left in shadow, but still the slumberer slept on, heedless, too, of the twittering of the swallows under the eaves, and the call of the cuckoo not far distant.
THE HOUSE OF AQUILA
Presently there came the sound of a creaking axle, which grew louder and louder as the waggon drew nearer, till it approached a shriek. The sleeper moved uneasily, but recognising the noise even in his dreams, did not wake. The horrible sounds stopped; there was the sound of voices, as if two persons, one without and one within the wall, were hailing each other; a gate swung open, and the waggon came past under the very window of the bedroom. Even habit could not enable Felix to entirely withstand so piercing a noise when almost in his ears. He sat up a minute, and glanced at the square of light on the wall to guess the time by its position.
In another minute or two the squeaking of the axle ceased, as the waggon reached the storehouses, and he immediately returned to the pillow. Without, and just beneath the window, there ran a road or way, which in part divided the enclosure into two portions; the dwelling-house and its offices being on one side, the granaries and storehouses on the other. But a few yards to the left of his room, a strong gate in the enclosing wall gave entrance to this roadway. It was called the Maple Gate, because a small maple tree grew near outside. The wall, which surrounded the whole place at a distance of eight or ten yards from the buildings, was of brick, and about nine feet high, with a ditch without.
It was partly embattled, and partly loopholed, and a banquette of earth rammed hard ran all round inside, so that the defenders might discharge darts or arrows through the embrasures, and step down out of sight to prepare a fresh supply. At each corner there was a large platform, where a considerable number of men could stand and command the approaches; there were, however, no bastions or flanking towers. On the roof of the dwelling-house a similar platform had been prepared, protected by a parapet; from which height the entire enclosure could be overlooked.
Another platform, though at a less height, was on the roof of the retainers' lodgings, so placed as especially to command the second gate. Entering by the Maple Gate, the dwelling-house was on the right hand, and the granaries and general storehouses on the left, the latter built on three sides of a square. Farther on, on the same side, were the stables, and near them the forge and workshops. Beyond these, again, were the lodgings of the retainers and labourers, near which, in the corner, was the South Gate, from which the South Road led to the cattle-pens and farms, and out to the south.
Upon the right hand, after the dwelling-house, and connected with it, came the steward's stores, where the iron tools and similar valuable articles of metal were kept. Then, after a covered passage-way, the kitchen and general hall, under one roof with the house. The house fronted in the opposite direction to the roadway; there was a narrow green lawn between it and the enceinte, or wall, and before the general hall and kitchens a gravelled court. This was parted from the lawn by palings, so that the house folk enjoyed privacy, and yet were close to their servitors. The place was called the Old House, for it dated back to the time of the ancients, and the Aquilas were proud of the simple designation of their fortified residence.
Felix's window was almost exactly opposite the entrance to the storehouse or granary yard, so that the waggon, after passing it, had to go but a little distance, and then, turning to the left, was drawn up before the doors of the warehouse. This waggon was low, built for the carriage of goods only, of hewn plank scarcely smooth, and the wheels were solid; cut, in fact, from the butt of an elm tree. Unless continually greased the squeaking of such wheels is terrible, and the carters frequently forgot their grease-horns.
Much of the work of the farm, such as the carting of hay and corn in harvest-time, was done upon sleds; the waggons (there were but few of them) being reserved for longer journeys on the rough roads. This waggon, laden with wool, some of the season's clip, had come in four or five miles from an out-lying cot, or sheep-pen, at the foot of the hills. In the buildings round the granary yard there were stored not only the corn and flour required for the retainers (who might at any moment become a besieged garrison), but the most valuable products of the estate, the wool, hides, and tanned leather from the tan-pits, besides a great quantity of bacon and salt beef; indeed, every possible article that could be needed.
These buildings were put together with wooden pins, on account of the scarcity of iron, and were all (dwelling-houses included) roofed with red tile. Lesser houses, cottages, and sheds at a distance were thatched, but in an enclosure tiles were necessary, lest, in case of an attack, fire should be thrown.
Half an hour later, at six o'clock, the watchman blew his horn as loudly as possible for some two or three minutes, the hollow sound echoing through the place. He took the time by the sundial on the wall, it being a summer morning; in winter he was guided by the position of the stars, and often, when sun or stars were obscured, went by guess. The house horn was blown thrice a day; at six in the morning, as a signal that the day had begun, at noon as a signal for dinner, at six in the afternoon as a signal that the day (except in harvest-time) was over. The watchmen went their round about the enclosure all night long, relieved every three hours, armed with spears, and attended by mastiffs. By day one sufficed, and his station was then usually (though not always) on the highest part of the roof.
The horn re-awoke Felix; it was the note by which he had been accustomed to rise for years. He threw open the oaken shutters, and the sunlight and the fresh breeze of the May morning came freely into the room. There was now the buzz of voices without, men unloading the wool, men at the workshops and in the granaries, and others waiting at the door of the steward's store for the tools, which he handed out to them. Iron being so scarce, tools were a temptation, and were carefully locked up each night, and given out again in the morning.
Felix went to the ivory cross and kissed it in affectionate recollection of Aurora, and then looked towards the open window, in the pride and joy of youth turning to the East, the morning, and the light. Before he had half dressed there came a knock and then an impatient kick at the door. He unbarred it, and his brother Oliver entered. Oliver had been for his swim in the river. He excelled in swimming, as, indeed, in every manly exercise, being as active and energetic as Felix was outwardly languid.
His room was only across the landing, his door just opposite. It also was strewn with implements and weapons. But there was a far greater number of tools; he was an expert and artistic workman, and his table and his seat, unlike the rude blocks in Felix's room, were tastefully carved. His seat, too, had a back, and he had even a couch of his own construction. By his bedhead hung his sword, his most valued and most valuable possession. It was one which had escaped the dispersion of the ancients; it had been ancient even in their days, and of far better work than they themselves produced.
Broad, long, straight, and well-balanced, it appeared capable of cutting through helmet and mail, when wielded by Oliver's sturdy arm. Such a sword could not have been purchased for money; money, indeed, had often been offered for it in vain; persuasion, and even covert threats from those higher in authority who coveted it, were alike wasted. The sword had been in the family for generations, and when the Baron grew too old, or rather when he turned away from active life, the second son claimed it as the fittest to use it. The claim was tacitly allowed; at all events, he had it, and meant to keep it.
In a corner stood his lance, long and sharp, for use on horse-back, and by it his saddle and accoutrements. The helmet and the shirt of mail, the iron greaves and spurs, the short iron mace to bang at the saddle-bow, spoke of the knight, the man of horses and war.
Oliver's whole delight was in exercise and sport. The boldest rider, the best swimmer, the best at leaping, at hurling the dart or the heavy hammer, ever ready for tilt or tournament, his whole life was spent with horse, sword, and lance. A year younger than Felix, he was at least ten years physically older. He measured several inches more round the chest; his massive shoulders and immense arms, brown and hairy, his powerful limbs, tower-like neck, and somewhat square jaw were the natural concomitants of enormous physical strength.
All the blood and bone and thew and sinew of the house seemed to have fallen to his share; all the fiery, restless spirit and defiant temper; all the utter recklessness and warrior's instinct. He stood every inch a man, with dark, curling, short-cut hair, brown cheek and Roman chin, trimmed moustache, brown eye, shaded by long eyelashes and well-marked brows; every inch a natural king of men. That very physical preponderance and animal beauty was perhaps his bane, for his comrades were so many, and his love adventures so innumerable, that they left him no time for serious ambition.
Between the brothers there was the strangest mixture of affection and repulsion. The elder smiled at the excitement and energy of the younger; the younger openly despised the studious habits and solitary life of the elder. In time of real trouble and difficulty they would have been drawn together; as it was, there was little communion; the one went his way, and the other his. There was perhaps rather an inclination to detract from each other's achievements that to praise them, a species of jealousy or envy without personal dislike, if that can be understood. They were good friends, and yet kept apart.
Oliver made friends of all, and thwacked and banged his enemies into respectful silence. Felix made friends of none, and was equally despised by nominal friends and actual enemies. Oliver was open and jovial; Felix reserved and contemptuous, or sarcastic in manner. His slender frame, too tall for his width, was against him; he could neither lift the weights nor undergo the muscular strain readily borne by Oliver. It was easy to see that Felix, although nominally the eldest, had not yet reached his full development. A light complexion, fair hair and eyes, were also against him; where Oliver made conquests, Felix was unregarded. He laughed, but perhaps his secret pride was hurt.
There was but one thing Felix could do in the way of exercise and sport. He could shoot with the bow in a manner till then entirely unapproached. His arrows fell unerringly in the centre of the target, the swift deer and the hare were struck down with ease, and even the wood-pigeon in full flight. Nothing was safe from those terrible arrows. For this, and this only, his fame had gone forth; and even this was made a source of bitterness to him.
The nobles thought no arms worthy of men of descent but the sword and lance; missile weapons, as the dart and arrow, were the arms of retainers. His degradation was completed when, at a tournament, where he had mingled with the crowd, the Prince sent for him to shoot at the butt, and display his skill among the soldiery, instead of with the knights in the tilting ring. Felix shot, indeed, but shut his eyes that the arrow might go wide, and was jeered at as a failure even in that ignoble competition. Only by an iron self-control did he refrain that day from planting one of the despised shafts in the Prince's eye.
But when Oliver joked him about his failure, Felix asked him to hang up his breastplate at two hundred yards. He did so, and in an instant a shaft was sent through it. After that Oliver held his peace, and in his heart began to think that the bow was a dangerous weapon.
"So you are late again this morning," said Oliver, leaning against the recess of the window, and placing his arms on it. The sunshine fell on his curly dark hair, still wet from the river. "Studying last night, I suppose?" turning over the parchment. "Why didn't you ride into town with me?"
"The water must have been cold this morning?" said Felix, ignoring the question.
"Yes; there was a slight frost, or something like it, very early, and a mist on the surface; but it was splendid in the pool. Why don't you get up and come? You used to."
"I can swim," said Felix laconically, implying that, having learnt the art, it no more tempted him. "You were late last night. I heard you put Night in."
"We came home in style; it was rather dusky, but Night galloped the Green Miles."
"Mind she doesn't put her hoof in a rabbit's hole, some night."
"Not that. She can see like a cat. I believe we got over the twelve miles in less than an hour. Sharp work, considering the hills. You don't inquire for the news."
"What's the news to me?"
"Well, there was a quarrel at the palace yesterday afternoon. The Prince told Louis he was a double-faced traitor, and Louis told the Prince he was a suspicious fool. It nearly came to blows, and Louis is banished."
"For the fiftieth time."
"This time it is more serious."
"Don't believe it. He will be sent for again this morning; cannot you see why?"
"If the Prince is really suspicious, he will never send his brother into the country, where he might be resorted to by discontented people. He will keep him close at hand."
"I wish the quarrelling would cease; it spoils half the fun; one's obliged to creep about the court and speak in whispers, and you can't tell whom you are talking to; they may turn on you if you say too much. There is no dancing either. I hate this moody state. I wish they would either dance or fight."
"Anybody. There's some more news, but you don't care."
"No. I do not."
"Why don't you go and live in the woods all by yourself?" said Oliver, in some heat.
"Tell me your news. I am listening."
"The Irish landed at Blacklands the day before yesterday, and burnt Robert's place; they tried Letburn, but the people there had been warned, and were ready. And there's an envoy from Sypolis arrived; some think the Assembly has broken up; they were all at daggers drawn. So much for the Holy League."
"So much for the Holy League," repeated Felix.
"What are you going to do to-day?" asked Oliver, after awhile.
"I am going down to my canoe," said Felix.
"I will go with you; the trout are rising. Have you got any hooks?"
"There's some in the box there, I think; take the tools out."
Oliver searched among the tools in the open box, all rusty and covered with dust, while Felix finished dressing, put away his parchment, and knotted the thong round his chest. He found some hooks at the bottom, and after breakfast they walked out together, Oliver carrying his rod, and a boar-spear, and Felix a boar-spear also, in addition to a small flag basket with some chisels and gouges.
When Oliver and Felix started, they left Philip, the third and youngest of the three brothers, still at breakfast. They turned to the left, on getting out of doors, and again to the left, through the covered passage between the steward's store and the kitchen. Then crossing the waggon yard, they paused a moment to glance in at the forge, where two men were repairing part of a plough.
Oliver must also look for a moment at his mare, after which they directed their steps to the South Gate. The massive oaken door was open, the bolts having been drawn back at hornblow. There was a guard-room on one side of the gate under the platform in the corner, where there was always supposed to be a watch.
But in times of peace, and when there were no apprehensions of attack, the men whose turn it was to watch there were often called away for a time to assist in some labour going forward, and at that moment were helping to move the woolpacks farther into the warehouse. Still they were close at hand, and had the day watchman or warder, who was now on the roof, blown his horn, would have rushed direct to the gate. Felix did not like this relaxation of discipline. His precise ideas were upset at the absence of the guard; method, organization, and precision, were the characteristics of his mind, and this kind of uncertainty irritated him.
"I wish Sir Constans would insist on the guard being kept," he remarked. Children, in speaking of their parents, invariably gave them their titles. Now their father's title was properly "my lord," as he was a baron, and one of the most ancient. But he had so long abnegated the exercise of his rights and privileges, sinking the noble in the mechanician, that men had forgotten the proper style in which they should address him. "Sir" was applied to all nobles, whether they possessed estates or not. The brothers were invariably addressed as Sir Felix or Sir Oliver. It marked, therefore, the low estimation in which the Baron was held when even his own sons spoke of him by that title.
Oliver, though a military man by profession, laughed at Felix's strict view of the guards' duties. Familiarity with danger, and natural carelessness, had rendered him contemptuous of it.
"There's no risk," said he, "that I can see. Who could attack us? The Bushmen would never dream of it; the Romany would be seen coming days beforehand; we are too far from the Lake for the pirates; and as we are not great people, as we might have been, we need dread no private enmity. Besides which, any assailants must pass the stockades first."
"Quite true. Still I don't like it; it is a loose way of doing things."
Outside the gate they followed the waggon track, or South Road, for about half a mile. It crossed meadows parted by low hedges, and they remarked, as they went, on the shortness of the grass, which, for want of rain, was not nearly fit for mowing. Last year there had been a bad wheat crop; this year there was at present scarcely any grass. These matters were of the highest importance; peace or war, famine or plenty, might depend upon the weather of the next few months.
The meadows, besides being divided by the hedges, kept purposely cropped low, were surrounded, like all the cultivated lands, by high and strong stockades. Half a mile down the South Road they left the track, and following a footpath some few hundred yards, came to the pool where Oliver had bathed that morning. The river, which ran through the enclosed grounds, was very shallow, for they were near its source in the hills, but just there it widened, and filled a depression fifty or sixty yards across, which was deep enough for swimming. Beyond the pool the stream curved and left the enclosure; the stockade, or at least an open work of poles, was continued across it. This work permitted the stream to flow freely, but was sufficiently close to exclude any one who might attempt to enter by creeping up the bed of the river.
They crossed the river just above the pool by some stepping-stones, large blocks rolled in for the purpose, and approached the stockade. It was formed of small but entire trees, young elms, firs, or very thick ash-poles, driven in a double row into the earth, the first or inner row side by side, the outer row filling the interstices, and the whole bound together at the bottom by split willow woven in and out. This interweaving extended only about three feet up, and was intended first to bind the structure together, and secondly to exclude small animals which might creep in between the stakes. The reason it was not carried all up was that it should not afford a footing to human thieves desirous of climbing over.
The smooth poles by themselves afforded no notch or foothold for a Bushman's naked foot. They rose nine or ten feet above the willow, so that the total height of the palisade was about twelve feet, and the tops of the stakes were sharpened. The construction of such palisades required great labour, and could be carried out only by those who could command the services of numbers of men, so that a small proprietor was impossible, unless within the walls of a town. This particular stockade was by no means an extensive one, in comparison with the estates of more prominent nobles.
The enclosure immediately surrounding the Old House was of an irregular oval shape, perhaps a mile long, and not quite three-quarters of a mile wide, the house being situated towards the northern and higher end of the oval. The river crossed it, entering on the west and leaving on the eastern side. The enclosure was for the greater part meadow and pasture, for here the cattle were kept, which supplied the house with milk, cheese, and butter, while others intended for slaughter were driven in here for the last months of fattening.
The horses in actual use for riding, or for the waggons, were also turned out here temporarily. There were two pens and rickyards within it, one beside the river, one farther down. The South Road ran almost down the centre, passing both rickyards, and leaving the stockade at the southern end by a gate, called the barrier. At the northern extremity of the oval the palisade passed within three hundred yards of the house, and there was another barrier, to which the road led from the Maple Gate, which has been mentioned. From thence it went across the hills to the town of Ponze. Thus, anyone approaching the Old House had first to pass the barrier and get inside the palisade.
At each barrier there was a cottage and a guard-room, though, as a matter of fact, the watch was kept in peaceful times even more carelessly than at the inner gates of the wall about the House itself. Much the same plan, with local variations, was pursued on the other estates of the province, though the stockade at the Old House was remarkable for the care and skill with which it had been constructed. Part of the duty of the watchman on the roof was to keep an eye on the barriers, which he could see from his elevated position.
In case of an incursion of gipsies, or any danger, the guard at the barrier was supposed to at once close the gate, blow a horn, and exhibit a flag. Upon hearing the horn or observing the flag, the warder on the roof raised the alarm, and assistance was sent. Such was the system, but as no attack had taken place for some years the discipline had grown lax.
After crossing on the stepping-stones Oliver and Felix were soon under the stockade which ran high above them, and was apparently as difficult to get out of as to get into. By the strict law of the estate, any person who left the stockade except by the public barrier rendered himself liable to the lash or imprisonment. Any person, even a retainer, endeavouring to enter from without by pole, ladder, or rope, might be killed with an arrow or dart, putting himself into the position of an outlaw. In practice, of course, this law was frequently evaded. It did not apply to the family of the owner.
Under some bushes by the palisade was a ladder of rope, the rungs, however, of wood. Putting his fishing-tackle and boar spear down, Oliver took the ladder and threw the end over the stockade. He then picked up a pole with a fork at the end from the bushes, left there, of course, for the purpose, and with the fork pushed the rungs over till the ladder was adjusted, half within and half without the palisade. It hung by the wooden rungs which caught the tops of the stakes. He then went up, and when at the top, leant over and drew up the outer part of the ladder one rung, which he put the inner side of the palisade, so that on transferring his weight to the outer side it might uphold him. Otherwise the ladder, when he got over the points of the stakes, must have slipped the distance between one rung and a second.
Having adjusted this, he got over, and Felix carrying up the spears and tackle handed them to him. Felix followed, and thus in three minutes they were on the outer side of the stockade. Originally the ground for twenty yards, all round outside the stockade, had been cleared of trees and bushes that they might not harbour vermin, or thorn-hogs, or facilitate the approach of human enemies. Part of the weekly work of the bailiffs was to walk round the entire circumference of the stockade to see that it was in order, and to have any bushes removed that began to grow up. As with other matters, however, in the lapse of time the bailiffs became remiss, and under the easy, and perhaps too merciful rule of Sir Constans, were not recalled to their duties with sufficient sharpness.
Brambles and thorns and other underwood had begun to cover the space that should have been open, and young sapling oaks had risen from dropped acorns. Felix pointed this out to Oliver, who seldom accompanied him; he was indeed rather glad of the opportunity to do so, as Oliver had more interest with Sir Constans than himself. Oliver admitted it showed great negligence, but added that after all it really did not matter. "What I wish," said he, "is that Sir Constans would go to Court, and take his proper position."
Upon this they were well agreed; it was, in fact, almost the only point upon which all three brothers did agree. They sometimes talked about it till they separated in a furious temper, not with each other but with him. There was a distinct track of footsteps through the narrow band of low brambles and underwood between the stockade and the forest. This had been made by Felix in his daily visits to his canoe.
The forest there consisted principally of hawthorn-trees and thorn thickets, with some scattered oaks and ashes; the timber was sparse, but the fern was now fast rising up so thick, that in the height of summer it would be difficult to walk through it. The tips of the fronds unrolling were now not up to the knee; then the brake would reach to the shoulder. The path wound round the thickets (the blackthorn being quite impenetrable except with the axe) and came again to the river some four or five hundred yards from the stockade. The stream, which ran from west to east through the enclosure, here turned and went due south.
On the bank Felix had found a fine black poplar, the largest and straightest and best grown of that sort for some distance round, and this he had selected for his canoe. Stones broke the current here into eddies, below which there were deep holes and gullies where alders hung over, and an ever-rustling aspen spread the shadow of its boughs across the water. The light-coloured mud, formed of disintegrated chalk, on the farther and shallower side was only partly hidden by flags and sedges, which like a richer and more alluvial earth. Nor did the bushes grow very densely on this soil over the chalk, so that there was more room for casting the fly than is usually the case where a stream runs through a forest. Oliver, after getting his tackle in order, at once began to cast, while Felix, hanging his doublet on an oft-used branch, and leaning his spear against a tree, took his chisels and gouge from the flag basket.
He had chosen the black poplar for the canoe because it was the lightest wood, and would float best. To fell so large a tree had been a great labour, for the axes were of poor quality, cut badly, and often required sharpening. He could easily have ordered half-a-dozen men to throw the tree, and they would have obeyed immediately; but then the individuality and interest of the work would have been lost. Unless he did it himself its importance and value to him would have been diminished. It had now been down some weeks, had been hewn into outward shape, and the larger part of the interior slowly dug away with chisel and gouge.
He had commenced while the hawthorn was just putting forth its first spray, when the thickets and the trees were yet bare. Now the May bloom scented the air, the forest was green, and his work approached completion. There remained, indeed, but some final shaping and rounding off, and the construction, or rather cutting out, of a secret locker in the stern. This locker was nothing more than a square aperture chiselled out like a mortice, entering not from above but parallel with the bottom, and was to be closed with a tight-fitting piece of wood driven in by force of mallet.
A little paint would then conceal the slight chinks, and the boat might be examined in every possible way without any trace of this hiding-place being observed. The canoe was some eleven feet long, and nearly three feet in the beam; it tapered at either end, so that it might be propelled backwards or forwards without turning, and stem and stern (interchangeable definitions in this case) each rose a few inches higher than the general gunwale. The sides were about two inches thick, the bottom three, so that although dug out from light wood the canoe was rather heavy.
At first Felix constructed a light shed of fir poles roofed with spruce-fir branches over the log, so that he might work sheltered from the bitter winds of the early spring. As the warmth increased he had taken the shed down, and now as the sun rose higher was glad of the shade of an adjacent beech.
Felix had scarcely worked half an hour before Oliver returned and threw himself on the ground at full length. He had wearied of fishing, the delicate adjustment of the tackle and the care necessary to keep the hook and line from catching in the branches had quickly proved too much for his patience. He lay on the grass, his feet towards the stream which ran and bubbled beneath, and watched Felix chipping out the block intended to fit into the secret opening or locker.
"Is it nearly finished, then?" he said presently. "What a time you have been at it!"
"Nearly three months."
"Why did you make it so big? It is too big."
"Is it really? Perhaps I want to put some things in it."
"Oh, I see; cargo. But where are you going to launch it?"
"Below the stones there."
"Well, you won't be able to go far; there's an old fir across the river down yonder, and a hollow willow has fallen in. Besides, the stream's too shallow; you'll take ground before you get half a mile."
"Of course you will. That boat will float six inches deep by herself, and I'm sure there's not six inches by the Thorns."
"Why didn't you have a hide boat made, with a willow framework and leather cover? Then you might perhaps get down the river by hauling it past the shallows and the fallen trees. In two days' time you would be in the hands of the gipsies."
"And you would be Sir Constans' heir!"
"Now, come, I say; that's too bad. You know I didn't mean that. Besides, I think I'm as much his heir as you now" (looking at his sinewy arm); "at least, he doesn't listen as much to you. I mean, the river runs into the gipsies' country as straight as it can go."
"Well, you seem very cool about it!"
"I am not going down the river."
"Then, where are you going?"
"On the Lake."
"Whew!" (whistling) "Pooh! Why, the Lake's—let me see, to Heron Bay it's quite fifteen miles. You can't paddle across the land."
"But I can put the canoe on a cart."
"Aha! why didn't you tell me before?"
"Because I did not wish anyone to know. Don't say anything."
"Not I. But what on earth, or rather, on water, are you driving at? Where are you going? What's the canoe for?"
"I am going a voyage. But I will tell you all when it is ready. Meantime, I rely on you to keep silence. The rest think the boat is for the river."
"I will not say a word. But why did you not have a hide boat?"
"They are not strong enough. They can't stand knocking about."
"If you want to go a voyage (where to, I can't imagine), why not take a passage on board a ship?"
"I want to go my own way. They will only go theirs. Nor do I like the company."
"Well, certainly the sailors are the roughest lot I know. Still, that would not have hurt you. You are rather dainty, Sir Felix!"
"My daintiness does not hurt you."
"Can't I speak?" (sharply)
A silence. A cuckoo sang in the forest, and was answered from a tree within the distant palisade. Felix chopped away slowly and deliberately; he was not a good workman. Oliver watched his progress with contempt; he could have put it into shape in half the time. Felix could draw, and design; he could invent, but he was not a practical workman, to give speedy and accurate effect to his ideas.
"My opinion is," said Oliver, "that that canoe will not float upright. It's one-sided."
Felix, usually so self-controlled, could not refrain from casting his chisel down angrily. But he picked it up again, and said nothing. This silence had more influence upon Oliver, whose nature was very generous, than the bitterest retort. He sat up on the sward.
"I will help launch it," he said. "We could manage it between us, if you don't want a lot of the fellows down here."
"Thank you. I should like that best."
"And I will help you with the cart when you start."
Oliver rolled over on his back, and looked up idly at the white flecks of cloud sailing at a great height.
"Old Mouse is a wretch not to give me a command," he said presently.
Felix looked round involuntarily, lest any one should have heard; Mouse was the nick-name for the Prince. Like all who rule with irresponsible power, the Prince had spies everywhere. He was not a cruel man, nor a benevolent, neither clever nor foolish, neither strong nor weak; simply an ordinary, a very ordinary being, who chanced to sit upon a throne because his ancestors did, and not from any personal superiority.
He was at times much influenced by those around him; at others he took his own course, right or wrong; at another he let matters drift. There was never any telling in the morning what he might do towards night, for there was no vein of will or bias running through his character. In fact, he lacked character; he was all uncertainty, except in jealousy of his supremacy. Possibly some faint perception of his own incapacity, of the feeble grasp he had upon the State, that seemed outwardly so completely his, occasionally crossed his mind.
Hence the furious scenes with his brother; hence the sudden imprisonments and equally sudden pardons; the spies and eavesdroppers, the sequestration of estates for no apparent cause. And, following these erratic severities to the suspected nobles, proclamations giving privileges to the people, and removing taxes. But in a few days these were imposed again, and men who dared to murmur were beaten by the soldiers, or cast into the dungeons. Yet Prince Louis (the family were all of the same name) was not an ill-meaning man; he often meant well, but had no stability or firmness of purpose.
This was why Felix dreaded lest some chance listener should hear Oliver abuse him. Oliver had been in the army for some time; his excellence in all arms, and especially with lance and sword, his acknowledged courage, and his noble birth, entitled him to a command, however lowly it might be. But he was still in the ranks, and not the slightest recognition had ever been taken of his feats, except, indeed, if whispers were true, by some sweet smiles from a certain lady of the palace, who admired knightly prowess.
Oliver chafed under this neglect.
"I would not say that kind of thing," remarked Felix. "Certainly it is annoying."
"Annoying! that is a mild expression. Of course, everyone knows the reason. If we had any money, or influence, it would be very different. But Sir Constans has neither gold nor power, and he might have had both."
"There was a clerk from the notary's at the house yesterday evening," said Felix.
"About the debts, no doubt. Some day the cunning old scoundrel, when he can squeeze no more interest out of us, will find a legal quibble and take the lot."
"Or put us in the Blue Chamber, the first time the Prince goes to war and wants money. The Blue Chamber will say, 'Where can we get it? Who's weakest?' 'Why, Sir Constans!' 'Then away with him.'"
"Yes, that will be it. Yet I wish a war would happen; there would be some chance for me. I would go with you in your canoe, but you are going you don't know where. What's your object? Nothing. You don't know yourself."
"No, you don't; you're a dreamer."
"I am afraid it is true."
"I hate dreams." After a pause, in a lower voice, "Have you any money?"
Felix took out his purse and showed him the copper pieces.
"The eldest son of Constans Aquila with ten copper pieces," growled Oliver, rising, but taking them all the same. "Lend them to me. I'll try them on the board to-night. Fancy me putting down copper! It's intolerable" (working himself into a rage). "I'll turn bandit, and rob on the roads. I'll go to King Yeo and fight the Welsh. Confusion!"
He rushed into the forest, leaving his spear on the sward.
Felix quietly chipped away at the block he was shaping, but his temper, too, was inwardly rising. The same talk, varied in detail, but the same in point, took place every time the brothers were together, and always with the same result of anger. In earlier days Sir Constans had been as forward in all warlike exercises as Oliver was now, and being possessed of extraordinary physical strength, took a leading part among men. Wielding his battle-axe with irresistible force, he distinguished himself in several battles and sieges.
He had a singular talent for mechanical construction (the wheel by which water was drawn from the well at the palace was designed by him), but this very ingenuity was the beginning of his difficulties. During a long siege, he invented a machine for casting large stones against the walls, or rather put it together from the fragmentary descriptions he had seen in authors, whose works had almost perished before the dispersion of the ancients; for he, too, had been studious in youth.
The old Prince was highly pleased with this engine, which promised him speedy conquest over his enemies, and the destruction of their strongholds. But the nobles who had the hereditary command of the siege artillery, which consisted mainly of battering-rams, could not endure to see their prestige vanishing. They caballed, traduced the Baron, and he fell into disgrace. This disgrace, as he was assured by secret messages from the Prince, was but policy; he would be recalled so soon as the Prince felt himself able to withstand the pressure of the nobles. But it happened that the old Prince died at that juncture, and the present Prince succeeded.
The enemies of the Baron, having access to him, obtained his confidence; the Baron was arrested and amerced in a heavy fine, the payment of which laid the foundation of those debts which had since been constantly increasing. He was then released, but was not for some two years permitted to approach the Court. Meantime, men of not half his descent, but with an unblushing brow and unctuous tongue, had become the favourites at the palace of the Prince, who, as said before, was not bad, but the mere puppet of circumstances.
Into competition with these vulgar flatterers Aquila could not enter. It was indeed pride, and nothing but pride, that had kept him from the palace. By slow degrees he had sunk out of sight, occupying himself more and more with mechanical inventions, and with gardening, till at last he had come to be regarded as no more than an agriculturist. Yet in this obscure condition he had not escaped danger.
The common people were notoriously attached to him. Whether this was due to his natural kindliness, his real strength of intellect, and charm of manner, or whether it was on account of the uprightness with which he judged between them, or whether it was owing to all these things combined, certain it is that there was not a man on the estate that would not have died for him. Certain it is, too, that he was beloved by the people of the entire district, and more especially by the shepherds of the hills, who were freer and less under the control of the patrician caste. Instead of carrying disputes to the town, to be adjudged by the Prince's authority, many were privately brought to him.
This, by degrees becoming known, excited the jealousy and anger of the Prince, an anger cunningly inflamed by the notary Francis, and by other nobles. But they hesitated to execute anything against him lest the people should rise, and it was doubtful, indeed, if the very retainers of the nobles would attack the Old House, if ordered. Thus the Baron's weakness was his defence. The Prince, to do him justice, soon forgot the matter, and laughed at his own folly, that he should be jealous of a man who was no more than an agriculturist.
The rest were not so appeased; they desired the Baron's destruction if only from hatred of his popularity, and they lost no opportunity of casting discredit upon him, or of endeavouring to alienate the affections of the people by representing him as a magician, a thing clearly proved by his machines and engines, which must have been designed by some supernatural assistance. But the chief, as the most immediate and pressing danger, was the debt to Francis the notary, which might at any moment be brought before the Court.
Thus it was that the three sons found themselves without money or position, with nothing but a bare patent of nobility. The third and youngest alone had made any progress, if such it could be called. By dint of his own persistent efforts, and by enduring insults and rebuffs with indifference, he had at last obtained an appointment in that section of the Treasury which received the dues upon merchandise, and regulated the imposts. He was but a messenger at every man's call; his pay was not sufficient to obtain his food, still it was an advance, and he was in a government office. He could but just exist in the town, sleeping in a garret, where he stored the provisions he took in with him every Monday morning from the Old House. He came home on the Saturday and returned to his work on the Monday. Even his patience was almost worn out.
The whole place was thus falling to decay, while at the same time it seemed to be flowing with milk and honey, for under the Baron's personal attention the estate, though so carelessly guarded, had become a very garden. The cattle had increased, and were of the best kind, the horses were celebrated and sought for, the sheep valued, the crops the wonder of the province. Yet there was no money; the product went to the notary. This extraordinary fertility was the cause of the covetous longing of the Court favourites to divide the spoil.
Felix's own position was bitter in the extreme. He felt he had talent. He loved deeply, he knew that he was in turn as deeply beloved; but he was utterly powerless. On the confines of the estate, indeed, the men would run gladly to do his bidding. Beyond, and on his own account, he was helpless. Manual labour (to plough, to sow, to work on shipboard) could produce nothing in a time when almost all work was done by bondsmen or family retainers. The life of a hunter in the woods was free, but produced nothing.
The furs he sold simply maintained him; it was barter for existence, not profit. The shepherds on the hills roamed in comparative freedom, but they had no wealth except of sheep. He could not start as a merchant without money; he could not enclose an estate and build a house or castle fit for the nuptials of a noble's daughter without money, or that personal influence which answers the same purpose; he could not even hope to succeed to the hereditary estate, so deeply was it encumbered; they might, indeed, at any time be turned forth.
Slowly the iron entered into his soul. This hopelessness, helplessness, embittered every moment. His love increasing with the passage of time rendered his position hateful in the extreme. The feeling within that he had talent which only required opportunity stung him like a scorpion. The days went by, and everything remained the same. Continual brooding and bitterness of spirit went near to drive him mad.
At last the resolution was taken, he would go forth into the world. That involved separation from Aurora, long separation, and without communication, since letters could be sent only by special messenger, and how should he pay a messenger? It was this terrible thought of separation which had so long kept him inactive. In the end the bitterness of hopelessness forced him to face it. He began the canoe, but kept his purpose secret, especially from her, lest tears should melt his resolution.
There were but two ways of travelling open to him: on foot, as the hunters did, or by the merchant vessels. The latter, of course, required payment, and their ways were notoriously coarse. If on foot he could not cross the Lake, nor visit the countries on either shore, nor the islands; therefore he cut down the poplar and commenced the canoe. Whither he should go, and what he should do, was entirely at the mercy of circumstances. He had no plan, no route.
He had a dim idea of offering his services to some distant king or prince, of unfolding to him the inventions he had made. He tried to conceal from himself that he would probably be repulsed and laughed at. Without money, without a retinue, how could he expect to be received or listened to? Still, he must go; he could not help himself, go he must.
As he chopped and chipped through the long weeks of early spring, while the easterly winds bent the trees above him, till the buds unfolded and the leaves expanded—while his hands were thus employed, the whole map, as it were, of the known countries seemed to pass without volition before his mind. He saw the cities along the shores of the great Lake; he saw their internal condition, the weakness of the social fabric, the misery of the bondsmen. The uncertain action of the League, the only thread which bound the world together; the threatening aspect of the Cymry and the Irish; the dread north, the vast northern forests, from which at any time invading hosts might descend on the fertile south—it all went before his eyes.
What was there behind the immense and untraversed belt of forest which extended to the south, to the east, and west? Where did the great Lake end? Were the stories of the gold and silver mines of Devon and Cornwall true? And where were the iron mines, from which the ancients drew their stores of metal?
Led by these thoughts he twice or thrice left his labour, and walking some twenty miles through the forests, and over the hills, reached the summit of White Horse. From thence, resting on the sward, he watched the vessels making slow progress by oars, and some drawn with ropes by gangs of men or horses on the shore, through the narrow straits. North and South there nearly met. There was but a furlong of water between them. If ever the North came down there the armies would cross. There was the key of the world. Excepting the few cottages where the owners of the horses lived, there was neither castle nor town within twenty miles.
Forced on by these thoughts, he broke the long silence which had existed between him and his father. He spoke of the value and importance of this spot; could not the Baron send forth his retainers and enclose a new estate there? There was nothing to prevent him. The forest was free to all, provided that they rendered due service to the Prince. Might not a house or castle built there become the beginning of a city? The Baron listened, and then said he must go and see that a new hatch was put in the brook to irrigate the water-meadow. That was all.
Felix next wrote an anonymous letter to the Prince pointing out the value of the place. The Prince should seize it, and add to his power. He knew that the letter was delivered, but there was no sign. It had indeed, been read and laughed at. Why make further efforts when they already had what they desired? One only, the deep and designing Valentine, gave it serious thought in secret. It seemed to him that something might come of it, another day, when he was himself in power—if that should happen. But he, too, forgot it in a week. Some secret effort was made to discover the writer, for the council were very jealous of political opinion, but it soon ended. The idea, not being supported by money or influence, fell into oblivion.
Felix worked on, chipping out the canoe. The days passed, and the boat was nearly finished. In a day or two now it would be launched, and soon afterwards he should commence his voyage. He should see Aurora once more only. He should see her, but he should not say farewell; she would not know that he was going till he had actually departed. As he thought thus a dimness came before his eyes; his hand trembled, and he could not work. He put down the chisel, and paused to steady himself.
Upon the other side of the stream, somewhat lower down, a yellow wood-dog had been lapping the water to quench its thirst, watching the man the while. So long as Felix was intent upon his work, the wild animal had no fear; the moment he looked up, the creature sprang back into the underwood. A dove was cooing in the forest not far distant, but as he was about to resume work the cooing ceased. Then a wood-pigeon rose from the ashes with a loud clapping of wings. Felix listened. His hunter instinct told him that something was moving there. A rustling of the bushes followed, and he took his spear which had been leant against the adjacent tree. But, peering into the wood, in a moment he recognised Oliver, who, having walked off his rage, was returning.
"I though it might have been a Bushman," said Felix, replacing his spear; "only they are noiseless."
"Any of them might have cut me down," said Oliver; "for I forgot my weapon. It is nearly noon; are you coming home to dinner?"
"Yes; I must bring my tools."
He put them in the basket, and together they returned to the rope ladder. As they passed the Pen by the river they caught sight of the Baron in the adjacent gardens, which were irrigated by his contrivances from the stream, and went towards him. A retainer held two horses, one gaily caparisoned, outside the garden; his master was talking with Sir Constans.
"It is Lord John," said Oliver. They approached slowly under the fruit-trees, not to intrude. Sir Constans was showing the courtier an early cherry-tree, whose fruit was already set. The dry hot weather had caused it to set even earlier than usual. A suit of black velvet, an extremely expensive and almost unprocurable material, brought the courtier's pale features into relief. It was only by the very oldest families that any velvet or satin or similar materials were still preserved; if these were in pecuniary difficulties they might sell some part of their store, but such things were not to be got for money in the ordinary way.
Two small silver bars across his left shoulder showed that he was a lord-in-waiting. He was a handsome man, with clear-cut features, somewhat rakish from late hours and dissipation, but not the less interesting on that account. But his natural advantages were so over-run with the affectation of the Court that you did not see the man at all, being absorbed by the studied gesture to display the jewelled ring, and the peculiarly low tone of voice in which it was the fashion to speak.
Beside the old warrior he looked a mere stripling. The Baron's arm was bare, his sleeve rolled up; and as he pointed to the tree above, the muscles, as the limb moved, displayed themselves in knots, at which the courtier himself could not refrain from glancing. Those mighty arms, had they clasped him about the waist, could have crushed his bending ribs. The heaviest blow that he could have struck upon that broad chest would have produced no more effect than a hollow sound; it would not even have shaken that powerful frame.
He felt the steel blue eye, bright as the sky of midsummer, glance into his very mind. The high forehead bare, for the Baron had his hat in his hand, mocked at him in its humility. The Baron bared his head in honour of the courtier's office and the Prince who had sent him. The beard, though streaked with white, spoke little of age; it rather indicated an abundant, a luxuriant vitality.
Lord John was not at ease. He shifted from foot to foot, and occasionally puffed a large cigar of Devon tobacco. His errand was simple enough. Some of the ladies at the Court had a fancy for fruit, especially strawberries, but there were none in the market, nor to be obtained from the gardens about the town. It was recollected that Sir Constans was famous for his gardens, and the Prince despatched Lord John to Old House with a gracious message and request for a basket of strawberries. Sir Constans was much pleased; but he regretted that the hot, dry weather had not permitted the fruit to come to any size or perfection. Still there were some.
The courtier accompanied him to the gardens, and saw the water-wheel which, turned by a horse, forced water from the stream into a small pond or elevated reservoir, from which it irrigated the ground. This supply of water had brought on the fruit, and Sir Constans was able to gather a small basket. He then looked round to see what other early product he could send to the palace. There was no other fruit; the cherries, though set, were not ripe; but there was some asparagus, which had not yet been served, said Lord John, at the Prince's table.
Sir Constans set men to hastily collect all that was ready, and while this was done took the courtier over the gardens. Lord John felt no interest whatever in such matters, but he could not choose but admire the extraordinary fertility of the enclosure, and the variety of the products. There was everything; fruit of all kinds, herbs of every species, plots specially devoted to those possessing medicinal virtue. This was only one part of the gardens; the orchards proper were farther down, and the flowers nearer the house. Sir Constans had sent a man to the flower-garden, who now returned with two fine bouquets, which were presented to Lord John: the one for the Princess, the Prince's sister; the other for any lady to whom he might choose to present it.
The fruit had already been handed to the retainer who had charge of the horses. Though interested, in spite of himself, Lord John, acknowledging the flowers, turned to go with a sense of relief. This simplicity of manners seemed discordant to him. He felt out of place, and in some way lowered in his own esteem, and yet he despised the rural retirement and beauty about him.
Felix and Oliver, a few yards distant, were waiting with rising tempers. The spectacle of the Baron in his native might of physique, humbly standing, hat in hand, before this Court messenger, discoursing on cherries, and offering flowers and fruit, filled them with anger and disgust. The affected gesture and subdued voice of the courtier, on the other hand, roused an equal contempt.
As Lord John turned, he saw them. He did not quite guess their relationship, but supposed they were cadets of the house, it being customary for those in any way connected to serve the head of the family. He noted the flag basket in Felix's hand, and naturally imagined that he had been at work.
"You have been to-to plough, eh?" he said, intending to be very gracious and condescending. "Very healthy employment. The land requires some rain, does it not? Still I trust it will not rain till I am home, for my plume's sake," tossing his head. "Allow me," and as he passed he offered Oliver a couple of cigars. "One each," he added; "the best Devon."
Oliver took the cigars mechanically, holding them as if they had been vipers, at arm's length, till the courtier had left the garden, and the hedge interposed. Then he threw them into the water-carrier. The best tobacco, indeed the only real tobacco, came from the warm Devon land, but little of it reached so far, on account of the distance, the difficulties of intercourse, the rare occasions on which the merchant succeeded in escaping the vexatious interference, the downright robbery of the way. Intercourse was often entirely closed by war.
These cigars, therefore, were worth their weight in silver, and such tobacco could be obtained only by those about the Court, as a matter of favour, too, rather than by purchase. Lord John would, indeed, have stared aghast had he seen the rustic to whom he had given so valuable a present cast them into a ditch. He rode towards the Maple Gate, excusing his haste volubly to Sir Constans, who was on foot, and walked beside him a little way, pressing him to take some refreshment.
His sons overtook the Baron as he walked towards home, and walked by his side in silence. Sir Constans was full of his fruit.
"The wall cherry," said he, "will soon have a few ripe."
Oliver swore a deep but soundless oath in his chest. Sir Constans continued talking about his fruit and flowers, entirely oblivious of the silent anger of the pair beside him. As they approached the house, the warder blew his horn thrice for noon. It was also the signal for dinner.
THE FOREST TRACK
When the canoe was finished, Oliver came to help Felix launch it, and they rolled it on logs down to the place where the stream formed a pool. But when it was afloat, as Oliver had foretold, it did not swim upright in the water. It had not been shaped accurately, and one side was higher out of the water than the other.
Felix was so disgusted at this failure that he would not listen to anything Oliver could suggest. He walked back to the spot where he had worked so many weeks, and sat down with his face turned from the pool. It was not so much the actual circumstance which depressed him, as the long train of untoward incidents which had preceded it for years past. These seemed to have accumulated, till now this comparatively little annoyance was like the last straw.
Oliver followed him, and said that the defect could be remedied by placing ballast on the more buoyant side of the canoe to bring it down to the level of the other; or, perhaps, if some more wood were cut away on the heavier side, that it would cause it to rise. He offered to do the work himself, but Felix, in his gloomy mood, would not answer him. Oliver returned to the pool, and getting into the canoe, poled it up and down the stream. It answered perfectly, and could be easily managed; the defect was more apparent than real, for when a person sat in the canoe, his weight seemed to bring it nearly level.
It was only when empty that it canted to one side. He came back again to Felix, and pointed this out to him. The attempt was useless; the boat might answer the purpose perfectly well, but it was not the boat Felix had intended it to be. It did not come up to his ideal.
Oliver was now somewhat annoyed at Felix's sullen silence, so he drew the canoe partly on shore, to prevent it from floating away, and then left him to himself.
Nothing more was said about it for a day or two. Felix did not go near the spot where he had worked so hard and so long, but on the Saturday Philip came home as usual, and, as there was now no secret about the canoe, went down to look at it with Oliver. They pushed it off, and floated two or three miles down the stream, hauling it on the shore past the fallen fir tree, and then, with a cord, towed it back again. The canoe, with the exception of the trifling deficiency alluded to, was a good one, and thoroughly serviceable.
They endeavoured again to restore Felix's opinion of it, and an idea occurring to Philip, he said a capital plan would be to add an outrigger, and so balance it perfectly. But though usually quick to adopt ideas when they were good, in this case Felix was too much out of conceit with himself. He would listen to nothing. Still, he could not banish it from his mind, though now ashamed to return to it after so obstinately refusing all suggestions. He wandered aimlessly about in the woods, till one day he found himself in the path that led to Heron Bay.
Strolling to the shore of the great Lake, he sat down and watched a vessel sailing afar off slowly before the east wind. The thought presently occurred to him, that the addition of an outrigger in the manner Philip had mentioned would enable him to carry a sail. The canoe could not otherwise support a sail (unless a very small one merely for going before the breeze), but with such a sail as the outrigger would bear, he could venture much farther away from land, his voyage might be much more extended, and his labour with the paddle lessened.
This filled him with fresh energy; he returned, and at once recommenced work. Oliver, finding that he was again busy at it, came and insisted upon assisting. With his help, the work progressed rapidly. He used the tools so deftly as to accomplish more in an hour than Felix could in a day. The outrigger consisted of a beam of poplar, sharpened at both ends, and held at some six or seven feet from the canoe by two strong cross-pieces.
A mast, about the same height as the canoe was long, was then set up; it was made from a young fir-tree. Another smaller fir supplied the yard, which extended fore and aft, nearly the length of the boat. The sail, of coarse canvas, was not very high, but long, and rather broader at each end where the rope attached it to the prow and stern, or, rather, the two prows. Thus arranged, it was not so well suited for running straight before the wind, as for working into it, a feat never attempted by the ships of the time.
Oliver was delighted with the appearance of the boat, so much so that now and then he announced his intention of accompanying Felix on his voyage. But after a visit to the town, and a glance at the Princess Lucia, his resolution changed. Yet he wavered, one time openly reproaching himself for enduring such a life of inaction and ignominy, and at another deriding Felix and his visionary schemes. The canoe was now completed; it was tried on the pool and found to float exactly as it should. It had now to be conveyed to Heron Bay.
The original intention was to put it on a cart, but the rude carts used on the estate could not very well carry it, and a sledge was substituted. Several times, during the journey through the forest, the sledge had to be halted while the underwood was cut away to permit of its passing; and once a slough had to be filled up with branches hewn from fir trees, and bundles of fern. These delays made it evening before the shore of the creek was reached.
It was but a little inlet, scarce a bowshot wide at the entrance and coming to a point inland. Here the canoe was left in charge of three serfs, who were ordered to build a hut and stay beside it. Some provisions were sent next day on the backs of other serfs, and in the afternoon (it was Saturday) all three brothers arrived; the canoe was launched, and they started for a trial sail. With a south wind they ran to the eastward at a rapid pace, keeping close to the shore till within a mile of White Horse.
There they brought to by steering the canoe dead against the wind; then transferring the steering-paddle (a rather large one, made for the purpose) to the other end, and readjusting the sail, the outrigger being still to leeward, they ran back at an equal speed. The canoe answered perfectly, and Felix was satisfied. He now despatched his tools and various weapons to the hut to be put on board. His own peculiar yew bow he kept to the last at home; it and his chest bound with hide would go with him on the last day.
Although, in his original purpose, Felix had designed to go forth without anyone being aware of his intention, the circumstances which had arisen, and the necessary employment of so many men, had let out the secret to some degree. The removal of the tools and weapons, the crossbow, darts, and spear, still more attracted attention. But little or nothing was said about it, though the Baron and Baroness could not help but observe these preparations. The Baron deliberately shut his eyes and went about his gardening; he was now, too, busy with the first mowing. In his heart, perhaps, he felt that he had not done altogether right in so entirely retiring from the world.
By doing so he had condemned his children to loneliness, and to be regarded with contempt. Too late now, he could only obstinately persist in his course. The Baroness, inured for so many, many years to disappointment, had contracted her view of life till it scarcely extended beyond mere physical comfort. Nor could she realize the idea of Felix's approaching departure; when he was actually gone, it would, perhaps, come home to her.
All was now ready, and Felix was only waiting for the Feast of St. James to pay a last visit to Aurora at Thyma Castle. The morning before the day of the Feast, Felix and Oliver set out together. They had not lived altogether in harmony, but now, at this approaching change, Oliver felt that he must bear Felix company. Oliver rode his beautiful Night, he wore his plumed hat and precious sword, and carried his horseman's lance. Felix rode a smaller horse, useful, but far from handsome. He carried his yew bow and hunting knife.
Thyma Castle was situated fifteen miles to the south; it was the last outpost of civilization; beyond it there was nothing but forest, and the wild open plains, the home of the gipsies. This circumstance of position had given Baron Thyma, in times past, a certain importance more than was due to the size of his estate or the number of his retainers. During an invasion of the gipsies, his castle bore the brunt of the war, and its gallant defence, indeed, broke their onward progress. So many fell in endeavouring to take it, that the rest were disheartened, and only scattered bands penetrated beyond.
For this service the Baron received the grant of various privileges; he was looked on as a pillar of the State, and was welcome at the court. But it proved an injury to him in the end. His honours, and the high society they led him into, were too great for the comparative smallness of his income. Rich in flocks and herds, he had but little coin. High-spirited, and rather fond of display, he could not hold back; he launched forth, with the usual result of impoverishment, mortgage, and debt.
He had hoped to obtain the command of an army in the wars that broke out from time to time; it was, indeed, universally admitted that he was in every respect qualified for such a post. The courtiers and others, however, jealous, as is ever the case, of ability and real talent, debarred him by their intrigues from attaining his object. Pride prevented him from acquiescing in this defeat; he strove by display and extravagance to keep himself well to the front, flaunting himself before the eyes of all. This course could not last long; he was obliged to retire to his estate, which narrowly escaped forfeiture to his creditors.
So ignominious an end after such worthy service was, however, prevented by the personal interference of the old Prince, who, from his private resources, paid off the most pressing creditors. To the last, the old Prince received him as a friend, and listened to his counsel. Thyma was ever in hopes that some change in the balance of parties would give him his opportunity. When the young Prince succeeded, he was clever enough to see that the presence of such men about his Court gave it a stability, and he, too, invited Thyma to tender his advice. The Baron's hopes now rose higher than ever, but again he was disappointed.
The new Prince, himself incapable, disliked and distrusted talent. The years passed, and the Baron obtained no appointment. Still he strained his resources to the utmost to visit the Court as often as possible; still he believed that sooner or later a turn of the wheel would elevate him.
There had existed between the houses of Thyma and Aquila the bond of hearth-friendship; the gauntlets, hoofs, and rings were preserved by both, and the usual presents passed thrice a year, at midsummer, Christmas, and Lady-day. Not much personal intercourse had taken place, however, for some years, until Felix was attracted by the beauty of the Lady Aurora. Proud, showy, and pushing, Thyma could not understand the feelings which led his hearth-friend to retire from the arena and busy himself with cherries and water-wheels. On the other hand, Constans rather looked with quiet derision on the ostentation of the other. Thus there was a certain distance, as it were, between them.
Baron Thyma could not, of course, be ignorant of the attachment between his daughter and Felix; yet as much as possible he ignored it. He never referred to Felix; if his name was incidentally mentioned, he remained silent. The truth was, he looked higher for Lady Aurora. He could not in courtesy discourage even in the faintest manner the visits of his friend's son; the knightly laws of honour would have forbidden so mean a course. Nor would his conscience permit him to do so, remembering the old days when he and the Baron were glad companions together, and how the Baron Aquila was the first to lead troops to his assistance in the gipsy war. Still, he tacitly disapproved; he did not encourage.
Felix felt that he was not altogether welcome; he recognised the sense of restraint that prevailed when he was present. It deeply hurt his pride, and nothing but his love for Aurora could have enabled him to bear up against it. The galling part of it was that he could not in his secret heart condemn the father for evidently desiring a better alliance for his child. This was the strongest of the motives that had determined him to seek the unknown.
If anything, the Baron would have preferred Oliver as a suitor for his daughter; he sympathized with Oliver's fiery spirit, and admired his feats of strength and dexterity with sword and spear. He had always welcomed Oliver heartily, and paid him every attention. This, to do Oliver justice, was one reason why he determined to accompany his brother, thinking that if he was there he could occupy attention, and thus enable Felix to have more opportunity to speak with Aurora.
The two rode forth from the courtyard early in the morning, and passing through the whole length of the enclosure within the stockade, issued at the South Barrier and almost immediately entered the forest. They rather checked their horses' haste, fresh as the animals were from the stable, but could not quite control their spirits, for the walk of a horse is even half as fast again while he is full of vigour. The turn of the track soon shut out the stockade; they were alone in the woods.
Long since, early as they were, the sun had dried the dew, for his beams warm the atmosphere quickly as the spring advances towards summer. But it was still fresh and sweet among the trees, and even Felix, though bound on so gloomy an errand, could not choose but feel the joyous influence of the morning. Oliver sang aloud in his rich deep voice, and the thud, thud of the horses' hoofs kept time to the ballad.
The thrushes flew but a little way back from the path as they passed, and began to sing again directly they were by. The whistling of blackbirds came from afar where there were open glades or a running stream; the notes of the cuckoo became fainter and fainter as they advanced farther from the stockade, for the cuckoo likes the woodlands that immediately border on cultivation. For some miles the track was broad, passing through thickets of thorn and low hawthorn-trees with immense masses of tangled underwood between, brambles and woodbine twisted and matted together, impervious above but hollow beneath; under these they could hear the bush-hens running to and fro and scratching at the dead leaves which strewed the ground. Sounds of clucking deeper in betrayed the situation of their nests.
Rushes, and the dead sedges of last year, up through which the green fresh leaves were thrusting themselves, in some places stood beside the way, fringing the thorns where the hollow ground often held the water from rainstorms. Out from these bushes a rabbit occasionally started and bounded across to the other side. Here, where there were so few trees, and the forest chiefly consisted of bush, they could see some distance on either hand, and also a wide breadth of the sky. After a time the thorn bushes were succeeded by ash wood, where the trees stood closer to the path, contracting the view; it was moister here, the hoofs cut into the grass, which was coarse and rank. The trees growing so close together destroyed themselves, their lower branches rubbed together and were killed, so that in many spots the riders could see a long way between the trunks.
Every time the wind blew they could hear a distant cracking of branches as the dead boughs, broken by the swaying of the trees, fell off and came down. Had any one attempted to walk into the forest there they would have sunk above the ankle in soft decaying wood, hidden from sight by thick vegetation. Wood-pigeons rose every minute from these ash-trees with a loud clatter of wings; their calls resounded continually, now deep in the forest, and now close at hand. It was evident that a large flock of them had their nesting-place here, and indeed their nests of twigs could be frequently seen from the path. There seemed no other birds.
Again the forest changed, and the track, passing on higher ground, entered among firs. These, too, had killed each other by growing so thickly; the lower branches of many were dead, and there was nothing but a little green at the tops, while in many places there was an open space where they had decayed away altogether. Brambles covered the ground in these open places, brambles and furze now bright with golden blossom. The jays screeched loudly, startled as the riders passed under them, and fluttered away; rabbits, which they saw again here, dived into their burrows. Between the first the track was very narrow, and they could not conveniently ride side by side; Oliver took the lead, and Felix followed.
THE FOREST TRACK CONTINUED
Once as they trotted by a pheasant rose screaming from the furze and flew before them down the track. Just afterwards Felix, who had been previously looking very carefully into the firs upon his right hand, suddenly stopped, and Oliver, finding this, pulled up as quickly as he could, thinking that Felix wished to tighten his girth.
"What is it?" he asked, turning round in his saddle.
"Hush!" said Felix, dismounting; his horse, trained to hunting, stood perfectly still, and would have remained within a few yards of the spot by the hour together. Oliver reined back, seeing Felix about to bend and string his bow.
"Bushmen," whispered Felix, as he, having fitted the loop to the horn notch, drew forth an arrow from his girdle, where he carried two or three more ready to hand than in the quiver on his shoulder. "I thought I saw signs of them some time since, and now I am nearly sure. Stay here a moment."
He stepped aside from the track in among the firs, which just there were far apart, and went to a willow bush standing by some furze. He had noticed that one small branch on the outer part of the bush was snapped off, though green, and only hung by the bark. The wood cattle, had they browsed upon it, would have nibbled the tenderest leaves at the end of the bough; nor did they usually touch willow, for the shoots are bitter and astringent. Nor would the deer touch it in the spring, when they had so wide a choice of food.
Nothing could have broken the branch in that manner unless it was the hand of a man, or a blow with a heavy stick wielded by a human hand. On coming to the bush he saw that the fracture was very recent, for the bough was perfectly green; it had not turned brown, and the bark was still soft with sap. It had not been cut with a knife or any sharp instrument; it had been broken by rude violence, and not divided. The next thing to catch his eye was the appearance of a larger branch farther inside the bush.
This was not broken, but a part of the bark was abraded, and even torn up from the wood as if by the impact of some hard substance, as a stone thrown with great force. He examined the ground, but there was no stone visible, and on again looking at the bark he concluded that it had not been done with a stone at all, because the abraded portion was not cut. The blow had been delivered by something without edges or projections. He had now no longer any doubt that the lesser branch outside had been broken, and the large inside branch bruised, by the passage of a Bushman's throw-club.
These, their only missile weapons, are usually made of crab-tree, and consist of a very thin short handle, with a large, heavy, and smooth knob. With these they can bring down small game, as rabbits or hares, or a fawn (even breaking the legs of deer), or the large birds, as the wood-turkeys. Stealing up noiselessly within ten yards, the Bushman throws his club with great force, and rarely misses his aim. If not killed at once, the game is certain to be stunned, and is much more easily secured than if wounded with an arrow, for with an arrow in its wing a large bird will flutter along the ground, and perhaps creep into sedges or under impenetrable bushes.
Deprived of motion by the blow of the club, it can, on the other hand, be picked up without trouble and without the aid of a dog, and if not dead is despatched by a twist of the Bushman's fingers or a thrust from his spud. The spud is at once his dagger, his knife and fork, his chisel, his grub-axe, and his gouge. It is a piece of iron (rarely or never of steel, for he does not know how to harden it) about ten inches long, an inch and a half wide at the top or broadest end, where it is shaped and sharpened like a chisel, only with the edge not straight but sloping, and from thence tapering to a point at the other, the pointed part being four-sided, like a nail.
It has, indeed, been supposed that the original spud was formed from a large wrought-iron nail, such as the ancients used, sharpened on a stone at one end, and beaten out flat at the other. This instrument has a handle in the middle, half-way between the chisel end and the point. The handle is of horn or bone (the spud being put through the hollow of the bone), smoothed to fit the hand. With the chisel end he cuts up his game and his food; the edge, being sloping, is drawn across the meat and divides it. With this end, too, he fashions his club and his traps, and digs up the roots he uses. The other end he runs into his meat as a fork, or thrusts it into the neck of his game to kill it and let out the blood, or with it stabs a sleeping enemy.
The stab delivered by the Bushman can always be distinguished, because the wound is invariably square, and thus a clue only too certain has often been afforded to the assassin of many an unfortunate hunter. Whatever the Bushman in this case had hurled his club at, the club had gone into the willow bush, snapping the light branch and leaving its mark upon the bark of the larger. A moment's reflection convinced Felix that the Bushman had been in chase of a pheasant. Only a few moments previously a pheasant had flown before them down the track, and where there was one pheasant there were generally several more in the immediate neighbourhood.