The Bushmen were known to be peculiarly fond of the pheasant, pursuing them all the year round without reference to the breeding season, and so continuously, that it was believed they caused these birds to be much less numerous, notwithstanding the vast extent of the forests, than they would otherwise have been. From the fresh appearance of the snapped bough, the Bushman must have passed but a few hours previously, probably at the dawn, and was very likely concealed at that moment near at hand in the forest, perhaps within a hundred yards.
Felix looked carefully round, but could see nothing; there were the trees, not one of them large enough to hide a man behind it, the furze branches were small and scattered, and there was not sufficient fern to conceal anything. The keenest glance could discern nothing more. There were no footmarks on the ground, indeed, the dry, dead leaves and fir needles could hardly have received any impression, and up in the firs the branches were thin, and the sky could be seen through them. Whether the Bushman was lying in some slight depression of the ground, or whether he had covered himself with dead leaves and fir needles, or whether he had gone on and was miles away, there was nothing to show. But of the fact that he had been there Felix was perfectly certain.
He returned towards Oliver, thoughtful and not without some anxiety, for he did not like the idea (though there was really little or no danger) of these human wild beasts being so near Aurora, while he should so soon be far away. Thus occupied he did not heed his steps, and suddenly felt something soft under his feet, which struggled. Instantaneously he sprang as far as he could, shuddering, for he had crushed an adder, and but just escaped, by his involuntary and mechanical leap, from its venom.
In the warm sunshine the viper, in its gravid state, had not cared to move as usual on hearing his approach; he had stepped full upon it. He hastened from the spot, and rejoined Oliver in a somewhat shaken state of mind. Common as such an incident was in the woods, where sandy soil warned the hunter to be careful, it seemed ominous that particular morning, and, joined with the discovery of Bushman traces, quite destroyed his sense of the beauty of the day.
On hearing the condition of the willow boughs Oliver agreed as to the cause, and said that they must remember to warn the Baron's shepherds that the Bushmen, who had not been seen for some time, were about. Soon afterwards they emerged from the sombre firs and crossed a wide and sloping ground, almost bare of trees, where a forest fire last year had swept away the underwood. A verdant growth of grass was now springing up. Here they could canter side by side. The sunshine poured down, and birds were singing joyously. But they soon passed it, and checked their speed on entering the trees again.
Tall beeches, with round smooth trunks, stood thick and close upon the dry and rising ground; their boughs met overhead, forming a green continuous arch for miles. The space between was filled with brake fern, now fast growing up, and the track itself was green with moss. As they came into this beautiful place a red stag, startled from his browsing, bounded down the track, his swift leaps carried him away like the wind; in another moment he left the path and sprang among the fern, and was seen only in glimpses as he passed between the beeches. Squirrels ran up the trunks as they approached; they could see many on the ground in among the trees, and passed under others on the branches high above them. Woodpeckers flashed across the avenue.
Once Oliver pointed out the long, lean flank of a grey pig, or fern-hog, as the animal rushed away among the brake. There were several glades, from one of which they startled a few deer, whose tails only were seen as they bounded into the underwood, but after the glades came the beeches again. Beeches always form the most beautiful forest, beeches and oak; and though nearing the end of their journey, they regretted when they emerged from these trees and saw the castle before them.
The ground suddenly sloped down into a valley, beyond which rose the Downs; the castle stood on a green isolated low hill, about half-way across the vale. To the left a river wound past; to the right the beech forest extended as far as the eye could see. The slope at their feet had been cleared of all but a few hawthorn bushes. It was not enclosed, but a neatherd was there with his cattle half a mile away, sitting himself at the foot of a beech, while the cattle grazed below him.
Down in the valley the stockade began; it was not wide but long. The enclosure extended on the left to the bank of the river, and two fields on the other side of it. On the right it reached a mile and a half or nearly, the whole of which was overlooked from the spot where they had passed. Within the enclosures the corn crops were green and flourishing; horses and cattle, ricks and various buildings, were scattered about it. The town or cottages of the serfs were on the bank of the river immediately beyond the castle. On the Downs, which rose a mile or more on the other side of the castle, sheep were feeding; part of the ridge was wooded and part open. Thus the cultivated and enclosed valley was everywhere shut in with woods and hills.
The isolated round hill on which the castle stood was itself enclosed with a second stockade; the edge of the brow above that again was defended by a stout high wall of flints and mortar, crenellated at the top. There were no towers or bastions. An old and ivy-grown building stood inside the wall; it dated from the time of the ancients; it had several gables, and was roofed with tiles. This was the dwelling-house. The gardens were situated on the slope between the wall and the inner stockade. Peaceful as the scene appeared, it had been the site of furious fighting not many years ago. The Downs trended to the south, where the Romany and the Zingari resided, and a keen watch was kept both from the wall and from the hills beyond.
They now rode slowly down the slope, and in a few minutes reached the barrier or gateway in the outer stockade. They had been observed, and the guard called by the warden, but as they approached were recognised, and the gate swang open before them. Walking their horses they crossed to the hill, and were as easily admitted to the second enclosure. At the gate of the wall they dismounted, and waited while the warden carried the intelligence of their arrival to the family. A moment later, and the Baron's son advanced from the porch, and from the open window the Baroness and Aurora beckoned to them.
Soon afterwards the hollow sound of the warden's horn, from the watch over the gate of the wall, proclaimed the hour of noon, and they all assembled for dinner in the banqueting chamber. The apartment was on the ground floor, and separated from the larger hall only by an internal wall. The house, erected in the time of the ancients, was not designed for our present style of life; it possessed, indeed, many comforts and conveniences which are scarcely now to be found in the finest palaces, but it lacked the breadth of construction which our architects have now in view.
In the front there were originally only two rooms, extensive for those old days, but not sufficiently so for ours. One of these had therefore been enlarged, by throwing into it a back room and part of the entrance, and even then it was not long enough for the Baron's retainers, and at feast-time a wooden shed was built opposite, and up to the window, to continue, as it were, the apartment out of doors. Workmen were busy putting up this shed when they arrived.
The second apartment retained its ancient form, and was used as the dining-room on ordinary days. It was lighted by a large window, now thrown wide open that the sweet spring air might enter, which window was the pride of the Baroness, for it contained more true glass than any window in the palace of the Prince. The glass made now is not transparent, but merely translucent; it indeed admits light after a fashion, but it is thick and cannot be seen through. These panes were almost all (the central casement wholly) of ancient glass, preserved with the greatest care through the long years past.
Three tables were arranged in an open square; the Baron and Baroness's chairs of oak faced the window, the guests sat at the other tables sideways to them, the servants moved on the outer side, and thus placed the food before them without pushing against or incommoding them. A fourth table was placed in a corner between the fireplace and the window. At it sat the old nurse, the housekeeper (frequently arising to order the servants), and the Baron's henchman, who had taught him to ride, but now, grey and aged, could not mount himself without assistance, and had long ceased from active service.
Already eight or nine guests had arrived besides Felix and Oliver. Some had ridden a great distance to be present at the House Day. They were all nobles, richly dressed; one or two of the eldest were wealthy and powerful men, and the youngest was the son and heir of the Earl of Essiton, who was then the favourite at Court. Each had come with his personal attendants; the young Lord Durand brought with him twenty-five retainers, and six gentlemen friends, all of whom were lodged in the town, the gentlemen taking their meals at the castle at the same time as the Baron, but, owing to lack of room, in another apartment by themselves. Durand was placed, or rather, quietly helped himself to a seat, next to the Lady Aurora, and of all the men there present, certainly there was none more gallant and noble than he.
His dark eyes, his curling hair short but brought in a thick curl over his forehead, his lips well shaped, his chin round and somewhat prominent, the slight moustache (no other hair on the face), formed the very ideal of what many women look for in a man. But it was his bright, lively conversation, the way in which his slightly swarthy complexion flushed with animation, the impudent assurance and yet generous warmth of his manner, and, indeed, of his feelings, which had given him the merited reputation of being the very flower of the nobles.
With such a reputation, backed with the great wealth and power of his father, gentlemen competed with each other to swell his train; he could not, indeed, entertain all that came, and was often besieged with almost as large a crowd as the Prince himself. He took as his right the chair next to Aurora, to whom, indeed, he had been paying unremitting attention all the morning. She was laughing heartily as she sat down, at some sally of his upon a beauty at the Court.
The elder men were placed highest up the tables, and nearest the host, but to the astonishment of all, and not the least of himself, Oliver was invited by the Baron to sit by his side. Oliver could not understand this special mark of favour; the others, though far too proud for a moment to resent what they might have deemed a slight upon them, at once began to search their minds for a reason. They knew the Baron as an old intriguer; they attached a meaning, whether intended or not, to his smallest action.
Felix, crowded out, as it were, and unnoticed, was forced to take his seat at the end of the table nearest that set apart in the corner for the aged and honoured servitors of the family. Only a few feet intervened between him and ancient henchmen; and he could not but overhear their talk among themselves, whispered as it was. He had merely shaken hands with Aurora; the crowd in the drawing-room and the marked attentions of Durand had prevented the exchange of a single word between them. As usual, the sense of neglect and injury over which he had so long brooded with little or no real cause (considering, of course, his position, and that the world can only see our coats and not our hearts), under these entirely accidental circumstances rose up again within him, and blinded him to the actual state of things.
His seat, the lowest, and the nearest to the servitors, was in itself a mark of the low estimation in which he was held. The Lord Durand had been placed next to Aurora, as a direct encouragement to him, and a direct hint to himself not to presume. Doubtless, Durand had been at the castle many times, not improbably already been accepted by the Baron, and not altogether refused by Aurora. As a fact, though delighted with her beauty and conversation, Durand's presence was entirely due to the will of his father, the Earl, who wished to maintain friendly relations with Baron Thyma, and even then he would not have come had not the lovely weather invited him to ride into the forest.
It was, however, so far true, that though his presence was accidental, yet he was fast becoming fascinated by one who, girl though she was, was stronger in mind than he. Now Aurora, knowing that he father's eye was on her, dared not look towards Felix, lest by an open and pronounced conduct she should be the cause of his being informed that his presence was not desirable. She knew that the Baron only needed a pretext to interfere, and was anxious to avoid offering him a chance.
Felix, seeing her glance bent downwards or towards her companion, and never all the time turned to him, not unnaturally, but too hastily, concluded that she had been dazzled by Durand and the possibility of an alliance with his powerful family. He was discarded, worthless, and of no account; he had nothing but his sword; nay, he had not a sword, he was only an archer, a footman. Angry, jealous, and burning with inward annoyance, despising himself since all others despised him, scarce able to remain at the table, Felix was almost beside himself, and did not answer nor heed the remarks of the gentlemen sitting by him, who put him down as an ill-bred churl.
For the form's sake, indeed, he put his lips to the double-handled cup of fine ale, which continually circulated round the table, and was never allowed to be put down; one servant had nothing else to do but to see that its progress never stopped. But he drank nothing, and ate nothing; he could not swallow. How visionary, how weak and feeble now seemed the wild scheme of the canoe and his proposed voyage! Even should it succeed, years must elapse before he could accomplish anything substantial; while here were men who really had what he could only think of or imagine.
The silver chain or sword-belt of Durand (the sword and the dagger were not worn at the banquet, nor in the house, they were received by the marshal, and deposited in his care, a precaution against quarrelling), solid silver links passing over his shoulder, were real actual things. All the magnificence that he could call up by the exercise of his imagination, was but imagination; a dream no more to be seen by others than the air itself.
The dinner went on, and the talk became more noisy. The trout, the chicken, the thyme lamb (trapped on the hills by the shepherds), the plover eggs, the sirloin, the pastry (the Baroness superintended the making of it herself), all the profusion of the table, rather set him against food than tempted him. Nor could he drink the tiny drop, as it were, of ancient brandy, sent round to each guest at the conclusion, precious as liquid gold, for it had been handed down from the ancients, and when once the cask was empty it could not be re-filled.
The dessert, the strawberries, the nuts and walnuts, carefully preserved with a little salt, and shaken in the basket from time to time that they might not become mouldy, the apples, the honey in the comb with slices of white bread, nothing pleased him. Nor did he drink, otherwise than the sip demanded by courtesy, of the thin wine of Gloucester, costly as it was, grown in the vineyard there, and shipped across the Lake, and rendered still more expensive by risk of pirates. This was poured into flagons of maple wood, which, like the earthenware cup of ale, were never allowed to touch the board till the dinner was over.
Wearily the time went on; Felix glanced more and more often at the sky seen through the casement, eagerly desiring to escape, and at least to be alone. At last (how long it seemed!) the Baron rose, and immediately the rest did the same, and they drank the health of the Prince. Then a servitor brought in a pile of cigars upon a carved wooden tray, like a large platter, but with a rim. "These," said the Baron, again rising (the signal to all to cease conversing and to listen), "are a present from my gracious and noble friend the Earl of Essiton" (he looked towards Durand), "not less kindly carried by Lord Durand. I could have provided only our own coarse tobacco; but these are the best Devon."
The ladies now left the table, Aurora escorted by Durand, the Baroness by Oliver. Oliver, indeed, was in the highest spirits; he had eaten heartily of all; especially the sweet thyme lamb, and drunk as freely. He was in his element, his laugh the loudest, his talk the liveliest. Directly Durand returned (he had gone even a part of the way upstairs towards the drawing-room with Aurora, a thing a little against etiquette) he took his chair, formality being now at an end, and placed it by Oliver. They seemed to become friends at once by sympathy of mind and taste.
Round them the rest gradually grouped themselves, so that presently Felix, who did not move, found himself sitting alone at the extreme end of the table; quite apart, for the old retainers, who dined at the separate table, had quitted the apartment when the wine was brought in. Freed from the restraint of the ladies, the talk now became extremely noisy, the blue smoke from the long cigars filled the great apartment; one only remained untouched, that placed before Felix. Suddenly it struck him that thus sitting alone and apart, he should attract attention; he, therefore, drew his chair to the verge of the group, but remained silent, and as far off as ever. Presently the arrival of five more guests caused a stir and confusion, in the midst of which he escaped into the open air.
He wandered towards the gate of the wall, passing the wooden shed where the clink of hammers resounded, glanced at the sundial, which showed the hour of three (three weary hours had they feasted), and went out into the gardens. Still going on, he descended the slope, and not much heeding whither he was going, took the road that led into town. It consisted of some hundred or more houses, built of wood and thatched, placed without plan or arrangement on the bank of the stream. Only one long street ran through it, the rest were mere by-ways.
All these were inhabited by the Baron's retainers, but the number and apparently small extent of the houses did not afford correct data for the actual amount of the population. In these days the people (as is well known) find much difficulty in marrying; it seems only possible for a certain proportion to marry, and hence there are always a great number of young or single men out of all ratio to the houses. At the sound of the bugle the Baron could reckon on at least three hundred men flocking without a minute's delay to man the wall; in an hour more would arrive from the outer places, and by nightfall, if the summons went forth in the morning, his shepherds and swineherds would arrive, and these together would add some hundred and fifty to the garrison.
Next must be reckoned the armed servants of the house, the Baron's personal attendants, the gentlemen who formed his train, his sons and the male relations of the family; these certainly were not less than fifty. Altogether over five hundred men, well armed and accustomed to the use of their weapons, would range themselves beneath his banner. Two of the buildings in he town were of brick (the material carried hither, for there was no clay or stone thereabouts); they were not far apart. The one was the Toll House, where all merchants or traders paid the charges in corn or kind due to the Baron; the other was the Court House, where he sat to administer justice and decide causes, or to send the criminal to the gibbet.
These alone of the buildings were of any age, for the wooden houses were extremely subject to destruction by fire, and twice in the Baron's time half the town had been laid in ashes, only to rise again in a few weeks. Timber was so abundant and so ready of access, it seemed a loss of labour to fetch stone or brick, or to use the flints of the hills. About the doors of the two inns there were gathered groups of people; among them the liveries of the nobles visiting the castle were conspicuous; the place was full of them, the stables were filled, and their horses were picketed under the trees and even in the street.
Every minute the numbers increased as others arrived; men, too (who had obtained permission of their lords), came in on foot, ten or twelve travelling together for mutual protection, for the feuds of their masters exposed them to frequent attack. All (except the nobles) were disarmed at the barrier by the warden and guard, that peace might be preserved in the enclosure. The folk at the moment he passed were watching the descent of three covered waggons from the forest track, in which were travelling the ladies of as many noble families.
Some, indeed, of the youngest and boldest ride on horseback, but the ladies chiefly move in these waggons, which are fitted up with considerable comfort, and are necessary to sleep in when the camp is formed by the wayside at night. None noticed him as he went by, except a group of three cottage girls, and a serving-woman, an attendant of a lady visitor at the castle. He heard them allude to him; he quickened his pace, but heard one say, "He's nobody; he hasn't even got a horse."
"Yes he is," replied the serving-woman; "he's Oliver's brother; and I can tell you my lord Oliver is somebody; the Princess Lucia—" and she made the motion of kissing with her lips. Felix, ashamed and annoyed to the last degree, stepped rapidly from the spot. The serving-woman, however, was right in a measure; the real or supposed favour shown Oliver by the Prince's sister, the Duchess of Deverell, had begun to be bruited abroad, and this was the secret reason why the Baron had shown Oliver so much and so marked an attention, even more than he had paid to Lord Durand.
Full well he knew the extraordinary influence possessed by ladies of rank and position. From what we can learn out of the scanty records of the past, it was so even in the days of the ancients; it is a hundredfold more so in these times, when, although every noble must of necessity be taught to read and write, as a matter of fact the men do neither, but all the correspondence of kings and princes, and the diplomatic documents, and notices, and so forth, are one and all, almost without a single exception, drawn up by women. They know the secret and hidden motives of courts, and have this great advantage, that they can use their knowledge without personal fear, since women are never seriously interfered with, but are protected by all.
The one terrible and utterly shameful instance to the contrary had not occurred at the time of which we are now speaking, and it was and is still repudiated by every man, from the knight to the boys who gather acorns for the swine. Oliver himself had no idea whatever that he was regarded as a favourite lover of the Duchess; he took the welcome that was held out to him as perfectly honest. Plain, straightforward, and honest, Oliver, had he been openly singled out by a queen, would have scorned to give himself an air for such a reason. But the Baron, deep in intrigue this many a year, looked more profoundly into the possibilities of the future when he kept the young knight at his side.
Felix was now outside the town and alone in the meadow which bordered the stream; he knelt, and drank from it with the hollow of his hand. He was going to ascend the hill beyond, and had already reached the barrier upon that side, when he recollected that etiquette demanded the presence of the guests at meal-times, and it was now the hour for tea. He hastened back, and found the courtyard of the castle crowded. Within, the staircase leading to the Baroness's chamber (where tea was served) could scarcely be ascended, what with the ladies and their courtiers, the long trains of the serving-women, the pages winding their way in and out, the servants endeavouring to pass, the slender pet greyhounds, the inseparable companions of their mistresses.
By degrees, and exercising patience, he gained the upper floor and entered the drawing-room. The Baroness alone sat at the table, the guests wheresoever they chose, or chance carried them; for the most part they stood, or leaned against the recess of the open window. Of tea itself there was none; there had been no tea to be had for love or money these fifty years past, and, indeed, its use would have been forgotten, and the name only survived, had not some small quantities been yet preserved and brought out on rare occasions at the palaces. Instead, there was chicory prepared from the root of the plant, grown for the purpose; fresh milk; fine ale and mead; and wine from Gloucester. Butter, honey, and cake were also on the table.
The guests helped themselves, or waited till the servants came to them with wooden carved trays. The particular characteristic of tea is the freedom from restraint; it is not considered necessary to sit as at dinner or supper, nor to do as others do; each pleases himself, and there is no ceremony. Yet, although so near Aurora, Felix did not succeed in speaking to her; Durand still engaged her attention whenever other ladies were not talking with her. Felix found himself, exactly as at dinner-time, quite outside the circle. There was a buzz of conversation around, but not a word of it was addressed to him. Dresses brushed against him, but the fair owners were not concerned even to acknowledge his existence.
Pushed by the jostling crowd aside from the centre of the floor, Felix presently sat down, glad to rest at last, behind the open door. Forgotten, he forgot; and, looking as it were out of the present in a bitter reverie, scarcely knew where he was, except at moments when he heard the well-known and loved voice of Aurora. A servant after a while came to him with a tray; he took some honey and bread. Almost immediately afterwards another servant came and presented him with a plate, on which was a cup of wine, saying, "With my lady's loving wishes."
As in duty bound, he rose and bowed to the Baroness; she smiled and nodded; the circle which had looked to see who was thus honoured, turned aside again, not recognising him. To send a guest a plate with wine or food is the highest mark of esteem, and this plate in especial was of almost priceless value, as Felix saw when his confusion had abated. It was of the ancient china, now not to be found in even the houses of the great.
In all that kingdom but five perfect plates were known to exist, and two of these were at the palace. They are treasured as heirlooms, and, if ever broken, can never be replaced. The very fragments are rare; they are often set in panels, and highly prized. The Baroness, glancing round her court, had noticed at last the young man sitting in the obscure corner behind the door; she remembered, not without some twinge of conscience, that his house was their ancient ally and sworn hearth-friend.
She knew, far better than the Baron, how deeply her daughter loved him; better, perhaps, even than Aurora herself. She, too, naturally hoped a higher alliance for Aurora; yet she was a true woman, and her heart was stronger than her ambition. The trifle of the wine was, of course, nothing; but it was open and marked recognition. She expected that Felix (after his wont in former times, before love or marriage was thought of for Aurora) would have come upon this distinct invitation, and taken his stand behind her, after the custom. But as he did not come, fresh guests and the duties of hospitality distracted her attention, and she again forgot him.
He was, indeed, more hurt than pleased with the favour that had been shown him; it seemed to him (though really prompted by the kindest feeling) like a bone cast at a dog. He desired to be so regarded that no special mark of favour should be needed. It simply increased his discontent. The evening wore on, the supper began; how weary it seemed to him, that long and jovial supper, with the ale that ran in a continual stream, the wine that ceaselessly circled round, the jokes, and bustle, and laughter, the welcome to guests arriving; the cards, and chess, and games that succeeded it, the drinking, and drinking, and drinking, till the ladies again left; then drinking yet more freely.
He slipped away at the first opportunity, and having first strolled to and fro on the bowling green, wet with dew, at the rear of the castle, asked for his bedroom. It was some time before he could get attended to; he stood alone at the foot of the staircase while others went first (their small coins bought them attention), till at last a lamp was brought to him, and his chamber named. This chamber, such as it was, was the only pleasure, and that a melancholy one, he had had that day.
Though overflowing with guests, so that the most honoured visitors could not be accommodated within the castle, and only the ladies could find sleeping room there, yet the sacred law of honour, the pledge of the hearth-friend passed three generations ago, secured him this privilege. The hearth-friend must sleep within, if a king were sent without. Oliver, of course, would occupy the same room, but he was drinking and shouting a song below, so that for a while Felix had the chamber to himself.
It pleased him, because it was the room in which he had always slept when he visited the place from a boy, when, half afraid and yet determined to venture, he had first come through the lonely forest alone. How well he remembered that first time! the autumn sunshine on the stubble at Old House, and the red and brown leaves of the forest as he entered; how he entered on foot, and twice turned back, and twice adventured again, till he got so deep into the forest that it seemed as far to return as to advance. How he started at the sudden bellow of two stags, and the clatter of their horns as they fought in the brake close by, and how beautiful the castle looked when presently he emerged from the bushes and looked down upon it!
This was the very room he slept in; the Baroness, mother-like, came to see that he was comfortable. Here he had slept every time since; here he had listened in the early morning for Aurora's footfall as she passed his door, for the ladies rose earlier than did the men. He now sat down by the open window; it was a brilliant moonlight night, warm and delicious, and the long-drawn note of the nightingale came across the gardens from the hawthorn bushes without the inner stockade. To the left he could see the line of the hills, to the right the forest; all was quiet there, but every now and then the sound of a ballad came round the castle, a sound without recognizable words, inarticulate merriment.
If he started upon the hazardous voyage he contemplated, and for which he had been so long preparing, should he ever sleep there again, so near the one he loved? Was it not better to be poor and despised, but near her, than to attempt such an expedition, especially as the chances (as his common sense told him) were all against him? Yet he could not stay; he must do it, and he tried to stifle the doubt which insisted upon arising in his mind. Then he recurred to Durand; he remembered that not once on that day had he exchanged one single word, beyond the first and ordinary salutation, with Aurora.
Might she not, had she chosen, have arranged a moment's interview? Might she not easily have given him an opportunity? Was it not clear that she was ashamed of her girlish fancy for a portionless and despised youth? If so, was it worth while to go upon so strange an enterprise for her sake? But if so, also, was life worth living, and might he not as well go and seek destruction?
While this conflict of feeling was proceeding, he chanced to look towards the table upon which he had carelessly placed his lamp, and observed, what in his agitated state of mind he had previously overlooked, a small roll of manuscript tied round with silk. Curious in books, he undid the fastening, and opened the volume. There was not much writing, but many singular diagrams, and signs arranged in circles. It was, in fact, a book of magic, written at the dictation, as the preface stated, of one who had been for seven years a slave among the Romany.
He had been captured, and forced to work for the tent to which his owners belonged. He had witnessed their worship and their sorceries; he had seen the sacrifice to the full moon, their chief goddess, and the wild extravagances with which it was accompanied. He had learnt some few of their signs, and, upon escaping, had reproduced them from memory. Some were engraved on the stones set in their rings; some were carved on wooden tablets, some drawn with ink on parchment; but, with all, their procedure seemed to be the repetition of certain verses, and then a steady gaze upon the picture. Presently they became filled with rapture, uttered what sounded as the wildest ravings, and (their women especially) prophesied of the future.
A few of the signs he understood the meaning of, but the others he owned were unknown to him. At the end of the book were several pages of commentary, describing the demons believed in and worshipped by the Romany, demons which haunted the woods and hills, and against which it was best to be provided with amulets blessed by the holy fathers of St. Augustine. Such demons stole on the hunter at noonday, and, alarmed at the sudden appearance, upon turning his head (for demons invariably approach from behind, and their presence is indicated by a shudder in the back), he toppled into pits hidden by fern, and was killed.
Or, in the shape of a dog, they ran between the traveller's legs; or as woman, with tempting caresses, lured him from the way at nightfall into the leafy recesses, and then instantaneously changing into vast bat-like forms, fastened on his throat and sucked his blood. The terrible screams of such victims had often been heard by the warders at the outposts. Some were invisible, and yet slew the unwary by descending unseen upon him, and choking him with a pressure as if the air had suddenly become heavy.
But none of these were, perhaps, so much to be dreaded as the sweetly-formed and graceful ladies of the fern. These were creatures, not of flesh and blood, and yet not incorporeal like the demons, nor were they dangerous to the physical man, doing no bodily injury. The harm they did was by fascinating the soul so that it revolted from all religion and all the rites of the Church. Once resigned to the caress of the fern-woman, the unfortunate was lured farther and farther from the haunts of men, until at last he wandered into the unknown forest, and was never seen again. These creatures were usually found among the brake fern, nude, but the lower limbs and body hidden by the green fronds, their white arms and shoulders alone visible, and their golden hair aglow with the summer sunshine.
Demons there were, too, of the streams, and demons dwelling in the midst of the hills; demons that could travel only in the moonbeams, and others that floated before the stormy winds and hurled the wretched wanderer to destruction, or crushed him with the overthrown trees. In proof of this the monk asked the reader if he had not heard of huge boughs falling from trees without visible cause, suddenly and without warning, and even of trees themselves in full foliage, in calm weather, toppling with a crash, to the imminent danger or the death of those who happened to be passing. Let all these purchase the amulets of St. Augustine, concluded the writer, who it appeared was a monk in whose monastery the escaped prisoner had taken refuge, and who had written down his relation and copied his rude sketches.
Felix pored over the strange diagrams, striving to understand the hidden meaning; some of them he thought were alchemical signs, and related to the making of gold, especially as the prisoner stated the Romany possessed much more of that metal in the tents than he had seen in the palaces of our kings. Whether they had a gold mine from whence they drew it, or whether they had the art of transmutation, he knew not, but he had heard allusions to the wealth in the mountain of the apple trees, which he supposed to be a mystical phrase.
When Felix at last looked up, the lamp was low, the moonbeams had entered and fell upon the polished floor, and from the window he could see a long white ghostly line of mist where a streamlet ran at the base of the slope by the forest. The songs were silent; there was no sound save the distant neigh of a horse and the heavy tramp of a guest coming along the gallery. Half bewildered by poring over the magic scroll, full of the signs and the demons, and still with a sense of injury and jealousy cankering his heart, Felix retired to his couch, and, weary beyond measure, instantly fell asleep.
In his unsettled state of mind it did not once occur to him to ask himself how the manuscript came to be upon his table. Rare as they were, books were not usually put upon the tables of guests, and at an ordinary time he would certainly have thought it peculiar. The fact was, that Aurora, whom all day he had inwardly accused of forgetting him, had placed it there for him with her own hands. She, too, was curious in books and fond of study. She had very recently bought the volume from a merchant who had come thus far, and who valued it the least of all his wares.
She knew that Felix had read and re-read every other scrap of writing there was in the castle, and thought that this strange book might interest him, giving, as it did, details of those powers of the air in which almost all fully believed. Unconscious of this attention, Felix fell asleep, angry and bitter against her. When, half an hour afterwards, Oliver blundered into the room, a little unsteady on his legs, notwithstanding his mighty strength, he picked up the roll, glanced at it, flung it down with contempt, and without a minute's delay sought and obtained slumber.
At ten in the morning next day the feast began with a drama from Sophocles, which was performed in the open air. The theatre was in the gardens between the wall and the inner stockade; the spectators sat on the slope, tier above tier; the actors appeared upon a green terrace below, issuing from an arbour and passing off behind a thick box-hedge on the other side of the terrace. There was no scenery whatever.
Aurora had selected the Antigone. There were not many dramatists from whom to choose, for so many English writers, once famous, had dropped out of knowledge and disappeared. Yet some of the far more ancient Greek and Roman classics remained because they contained depth and originality of ideas in small compass. They had been copied in manuscripts by thoughtful men from the old printed books before they mouldered away, and their manuscripts being copied again, these works were handed down. The books which came into existence with printing had never been copied by the pen, and had consequently nearly disappeared. Extremely long and diffuse, it was found, too, that so many of them were but enlargements of ideas or sentiments which had been expressed in a few words by the classics. It is so much easier to copy an epigram of two lines than a printed book of hundreds of pages, and hence it was that Sophocles had survived while much more recent writers had been lost.
From a translation Aurora had arranged several of his dramas. Antigone was her favourite, and she wished Felix to see it. In some indefinable manner the spirit of the ancient Greeks seemed to her in accord with the times, for men had or appeared to have so little control over their own lives that they might well imagine themselves overruled by destiny. Communication between one place and another was difficult, the division of society into castes, and the iron tyranny of arms, prevented the individual from making any progress in lifting himself out of the groove in which he was born, except by the rarest opportunity, unless specially favoured by fortune. As men were born so they lived; they could not advance, and when this is the case the idea of Fate is always predominant. The workings of destiny, the Irresistible overpowering both the good and the evil-disposed, such as were traced in the Greek drama, were paralleled in the lives of many a miserable slave at that day. They were forced to endure, for there was no possibility of effort.
Aurora saw this and felt it deeply; ever anxious as she was for the good of all, she saw the sadness that reigned even in the midst of the fresh foliage of spring and among the flowers. It was Fate; it was Sophocles.
She took the part of the heroine herself, clad in Greek costume; Felix listened and watched, absorbed in his love. Never had that ancient drama appeared so beautiful as then, in the sunlight; the actors stepped upon the daisied sward, and the song of birds was all their music.
While the play was still proceeding, those who were to form the usual procession had already been assembling in the court before the castle, and just after noon, to the sound of the trumpet, the Baron, with his youngest son beside him (the eldest was at Court), left the porch, wearing his fur-lined short mantle, his collar, and golden spurs, and the decoration won so many years before; all the insignia of his rank. He walked; his war-horse, fully caparisoned, with axe at the saddle-bow, was led at his right side, and upon the other came a knight carrying the banneret of the house.
The gentlemen of the house followed closely, duly marshalled in ranks, and wearing the gayest dress; the leading retainers fully armed, brought up the rear. Immediately upon issuing from the gate of the wall, the procession was met and surrounded by the crowd, carrying large branches of may in bloom, flowers, and green willow boughs. The flowers they flung before him on the ground; the branches they bore with them, chanting old verses in honour of the family. The route was through the town, where the Baron stopped at the door of the Court House, and proclaimed a free pardon to all serfs (who were released within a few minutes) not guilty of the heavier crimes.
Thence he went to the pasture just beyond, carefully mown close and swept for the purpose, where the May-pole stood, wreathed with flowers and green branches. Beneath it he deposited a bag of money for distribution upon a carved butt placed there, the signal that the games were open. Instantly the fiddles began to play, and the feast really commenced. At the inns ale was served out freely (at the Baron's charge), carts, too, came down from the castle laden with ale and cooked provisions. Wishing them joy, the Baron returned by the same road to the castle, where dinner was already served in the hall and the sheds that had been erected to enlarge the accommodation.
In the afternoon there were foot-races, horse-races, and leaping competitions, and the dances about the May-pole were prolonged far into the night. The second day, early in the morning, the barriers were opened, and trials of skill with the blunt sword, jousting with the blunt lance at the quintain, and wrestling began, and continued almost till sunset. Tournament with sharpened lance or sword, when the combatants fight with risk of serious wounds, can take place only in the presence of the Prince or his deputy. But in these conflicts sufficiently severe blows were given to disable the competitors.
On the third day there was a set battle in the morning between fifteen men on each side, armed with the usual buckler or small shield, and stout single-sticks instead of swords. This combat excited more interest than all the duels that had preceded it; the crowd almost broke down the barriers, and the cheering and cries of encouragement could be heard upon the hills. Thrice the combatants rested from the engagement, and thrice at the trumpet call started again to meet each other, at least those who had sustained the first onslaught.
Blood, indeed, was not shed (for the iron morions saved their skulls), but nearly half of the number required assistance to reach the tents pitched for their use. Then came more feasting, the final dinner prolonged till six in the evening, when the company, constantly rising from their seats, cheered the Baron, and drank to the prosperity of the house. After the horn blew at six, the guests who had come from a distance rapidly dispersed (their horses were already waiting), for they were anxious to pass the fifteen miles of forest before nightfall. Those on foot, and those ladies who had come in covered waggons, stayed till next morning, as they could not travel so speedily. By seven or eight the castle courtyard was comparatively empty, and the Baron, weary from the mere bodily efforts of saying farewell to so many, had flung himself at full length on a couch in the drawing-room.
During the whole of this time Felix had not obtained a single moment with Aurora; her time, when not occupied in attending to the guests, was always claimed by Lord Durand. Felix, after the short-lived but pure pleasure he had enjoyed in watching her upon the grass-grown stage, had endured three days of misery. He was among the crowd, he was in the castle itself, he sat at table with the most honoured visitors, yet he was distinct from all. There was no sympathy between them and him. The games, the dancing, the feasting and laughter, the ceaseless singing and shouting, and jovial jostling, jarred upon him.
The boundless interest the people took in the combats, and especially that of the thirty, seemed to him a strange and inexplicable phenomenon. It did not excite him in the least; he could turn his back upon it without hesitation. He would, indeed, have left the crowd, and spent the day in the forest, or on the hills, but he could not leave Aurora. He must be near her; he must see her, though he was miserable. Now he feared that the last moment would come, and that he should not exchange a word with her.
He could not, with any show of pretext, prolong his stay beyond the sunset; all were already gone, with the exceptions mentioned. It would be against etiquette to remain longer, unless specially invited, and he was not specially invited. Yet he lingered, and lingered. His horse was ready below; the groom, weary of holding the bridle, had thrown it over an iron hook in the yard, and gone about other business. The sun perceptibly declined, and the shadow of the beeches of the forest began to descend the grassy slope. Still he stayed, restlessly moving, now in the dining chamber, now in the hall, now at the foot of the staircase, with an unpleasant feeling that the servants looked at him curiously, and were watching him.
Oliver had gone long since, riding with his new friend Lord Durand; they must by now be half-way through the forest. Forced by the inexorable flight of time, he put his foot upon the staircase to go up to the drawing-room and bid farewell to the Baroness. He ascended it, step by step, as a condemned person goes to his doom. He stayed to look out of the open windows as he went by; anything to excuse delay to himself. He reached the landing at last, and had taken two steps towards the door, when Aurora's maid, who had been waiting there an hour or more for the opportunity, brushed past him, and whispered, "The Rose arbour."
Without a word he turned, hastened down the stairs, ran through the castle yard, out at the gate, and, entering the gardens between the wall and the inner stockade, made for the arbour on the terrace where the drama had been enacted. Aurora was not there; but as he looked round, disappointed, she came from the Filbert walk, and, taking his arm, led him to the arbour. They sat down without a word. In a moment she placed her head upon his shoulder; he did not respond. She put her arm (how warm it felt!) about his neck; he yielded stiffly and ungraciously to the pressure; she drew down his head, and kissed him. His lips touched but did not press hers; they met, but did not join. In his sullen and angry silence he would not look. She drew still nearer, and whispered his name.
Then he broke out: he pushed her away; his petty jealousy and injured self-esteem poured out upon her.
"I am not the heir to an earldom," he said; "I do not ride with a score of gentlemen at my back. They have some wonderful diamonds, have they not—Countess?"
"It is no use. Yes, your voice is sweet, I know. But you, all of you, despise me. I am nothing, no one!"
"You are all, everything, to me."
"You were with—with Durand the whole time."
"I could not help myself."
"Not help yourself! Do you think I believe that?"
"Felix, dear. I tell you I could not help myself; I could not, indeed. You do not know all—"
"No, probably not. I do not know the terms of the marriage contract."
"Felix, there is no such thing. Why, what has come to you? How pale you look! Sit down!" for he had risen.
"I cannot, Aurora, dear; I cannot! Oh, what shall I do? I love you so!"
Felix fell on the seat beside her, burying his face in the folds of her dress; he sobbed, not with tears, but choking passion. She held him to her heart as if he had been a child, stroking his hair and kissing it, whispering to him, assuring him that her love was his, that she was unchanged. She told him that it was not her fault. A little while before the feast the Baron had suddenly broken out into a fit of temper, such as she had never seen him indulge in previously; the cause was pressure put upon him by his creditors. Unpleasant truths had escaped him; amongst the rest, his dislike, his positive disapproval of the tacit engagement they had entered into.
He declared that if the least outward sign of it appeared before the guests that were expected, he would order Felix to leave the place, and cancel the hearth-friendship, no matter what the consequence. It was clear that he was set upon a wealthy and powerful alliance for her; that the Earl was either coming, or would send his son, he knew; and he knew that nothing so repels a possible suitor as the rumour that the lady has a previous engagement. In short, he made it a condition of Felix's presence being tolerated at all, that Aurora should carefully abstain from showing the slightest attention to him; that she should ignore his existence.
Nor could she prevent Durand following her without a marked refusal to listen to his conversation, a refusal which would most certainly at once have brought about the dreaded explosion. She thought it better, under the circumstances, to preserve peace, lest intercourse between her and Felix should be entirely broken off for ever. This was the secret history of the apparent indifference and neglect which had so deeply hurt him. The explanation, accompanied as it was with so many tender expressions and caresses, soothed him; he returned her kisses and became calmer. He could not doubt her, for in his heart he had suspected something of the kind long since.
Yet it was not so much the explanation itself, nor even the love she poured upon him, as the mere fact of her presence so near that brought him to himself. The influence of her steadfast nature, of her clear, broad, straightforward view of things, the decision of her character, the high, unselfish motives which animated her, all together supplied that which was wanting in himself. His indecision, his too impressionable disposition, which checked and stayed the force of his talent, and counteracted the determination of a naturally iron will; these, as it were, were relieved; in a word, with her he became himself.
How many times he had told her as much! How many times she had replied that it was not herself, but that in which she believed, that was the real cause of this feeling! It was that ancient and true religion; the religion of the primitive church, as she found it in the fragments of the Scriptures that had come down from the ancients.
Aurora had learnt this faith from childhood; it was, indeed, a tradition of the house preserved unbroken these hundred years in the midst of the jarring creeds, whose disciples threatened and destroyed each other. On the one hand, the gorgeous rite of the Vice-Pope, with the priests and the monks, claimed dominion, and really held a large share, both over the body and the soul; on the other, the Leaguers, with their bold, harsh, and flowerless creed, were equally over-bearing and equally bigoted. Around them the Bushmen wandered without a god; the Romany called upon the full moon. Within courts and cities the gay and the learned alike mocked at all faith, and believed in gold alone.
Cruelty reigned everywhere; mercy, except in the name of honour, there was none; humanity was unknown. A few, a very few only, had knowledge of or held to the leading tenets, which, in the time of the ancients, were assented to by everyone, such as the duty of humanity to all, the duty of saving and protecting life, of kindness and gentleness. These few, with their pastors, simple and unassuming, had no power or influence; yet they existed here and there, a living protest against the lawlessness and brutality of the time.
Among these the house of Thyma had in former days been conspicuous, but of late years the barons of Thyma had, more from policy than from aught else, rather ignored their ancestral faith, leaning towards the League, which was then powerful in that kingdom. To have acted otherwise would have been to exclude himself from all appointments. But Aurora, learning the old faith at her mother's knee, had become too deeply imbued with its moral beauty to consent to this course. By degrees, as she grew up, it became in her a passion; more than a faith, a passion; the object of her life.
A girl, indeed, can do but little in our iron days, but that little she did. The chapel beside the castle, long since fallen to decay, was, at her earnest request, repaired; a pastor came and remained as chaplain, and services, of the simplest kind, but serious and full of meaning, took place twice a week. To these she drew as many as possible of the inhabitants of the enclosure; some even came from afar once now and then to attend them. Correspondence was carried on with the remnant of the faith.
That no one might plead ignorance (for there was up to the date no written record) Aurora set herself the task of reducing the traditions which had been handed down to writing. When the manuscript was at last completed it occupied her months to transcribe copies of it for circulation; and she still continued to make copies, which were sent by messengers and by the travelling merchants to the markets, and even across the sea. Apart from its intrinsically elevating character, the mere mental labour expended on this work had undoubtedly strengthened a naturally fine intellect. As she said, it was the faith, the hope that that faith would one day be recognised, which gave her so much influence over others.
Upon this one thing only they differed; Felix did not oppose, did not even argue, he was simply untouched. It was not that he believed in anything else, nor that he doubted; he was merely indifferent. He had too great a natural aptitude for the physical sciences, and too clear a mind, to accept that which was taught by the one or the other of the two chief opposing parties. Nor could he join in the ridicule and derision of the gay courtiers, for the mystery of existence had impressed him deeply while wandering alone in the forest. But he stood aloof; he smiled and listened, unconvinced; like the wild creatures of the forest, he had no ears for these matters. He loved Aurora, that was all.
But he felt the influence just the same; with all his powers of mind and contempt of superstitions in others, he could not at times shake off the apprehensions aroused by untoward omens, as when he stepped upon the adder in the woods. Aurora knew nothing of such things; her faith was clear and bright like a star; nothing could alarm her, or bring uneasiness of mind. This beautiful calm, not cold, but glowing with hope and love, soothed him.
That evening, with her hope and love, with her message of trust, she almost persuaded him. He almost turned to what she had so long taught. He almost repented of that hardness of heart, that unutterable distance, as it were, between him and other men, which lay at the bottom of his proposed expedition. He opened his lips to confess to her his purpose, and had he done so assuredly she would have persuaded him from it. But in the very act of speaking, he hesitated. It was characteristic of him to do so. Whether she instinctively felt that there was something concealed from her, or guessed that the discontent she knew he had so long endured was coming to a point, or feared lest what she had told him might drive him to some ill-considered act, she begged him with all the power of her love to do nothing hasty, or in despair, nothing that would separate them. He threw his arms around her, he pressed her closely to him, he trembled with the passion and the struggle within him.
"My lady calls for you, Mademoiselle," said a voice; it was Aurora's maid who had kept watch. "She has asked for you some time since. Someone is coming into the garden!"
There was no help for it; Aurora kissed him, and was gone before he could come to himself. How long the interview had lasted (time flies swiftly in such sweet intercourse), or how long he sat there after she left, he could not tell; but when he went out already the dusk was gathering, the sun had gone down, and in the east the as yet pale orb of the moon was rising over the hills. As if in a dream he walked with unsteady steps to the castle stable; his horse had been put back, and the grooms suggested to him that it was better not to attempt the forest at night. But he was determined; he gave them all the coin he had about him, it was not much, but more than they had expected.
They ran beside him to the barrier; advising him as they ran, as he would go, to string his bow and loosen an arrow in the girdle, and above all, not to loiter, or let his horse walk, but to keep him at as sharp a trot as he could. The fact that so many wealthy persons had assembled at the castle for the feast would be sure to be known to the banditti (the outlaws of the cities and the escaped serfs). They were certain to be on the look out for travellers; let him beware.
His ears tingled and his head felt hot, as if the blood had rushed into it (it was the violence of the emotion that he had felt), as he rode from the barrier, hearing, and yet without conscious knowledge of what they said. They watched him up the slope, and saw him disappear from sight under the dark beeches of the forest.
NIGHT IN THE FOREST
At first Felix rode quickly, but his horse stumbling, though accustomed to the woods, warned him to be more careful. The passage of so many horsemen in the last few days had cut up and destroyed the track, which was nothing but a green path, and the covered waggons had of course assisted in rendering it rough and broken. He therefore rode slowly, and giving his horse his head, he picked his way of his own accord at the side of the road, often brushing against the underwood.
Still, indeed, absorbed by the feelings which had almost mastered him in the arbour, and thinking of Aurora, he forgot where he was, till the dismal howling of wood-dogs deep in the forest woke him. It was almost pitch dark under the tall beeches, the highest of the trees preventing the beams of the moon from illuminating the path till later in the night. Like a curtain the thick foliage above shut out the sky, so that no star was visible. When the wood-dogs ceased there was no sound beyond the light fall of the horse's hoofs as he walked upon the grass. Darkness and silence prevailed; he could see nothing. He spoke to his horse and patted his neck; he stepped a little faster and lifted his head, which he had held low as if making his way by scent.
The gloom weighed upon him, unhappy as he was. Often as he had voluntarily sought the loneliness of the woods, now in this state of mind, it oppressed him; he remembered that beyond the beeches the ground was open and cleared by a forest fire, and began to be anxious to reach it. It seemed an hour, but it really was only a few minutes, when the beeches became thinner and wider apart, the foliage above ceased, and the stars shone. Before him was the open space he had desired, sloping to the right hand, the tall grass grey-green in the moonlight, and near at hand sparkling with dew.
Amongst it stood the crooked and charred stems of furze with which it had been covered before the fire passed. A white owl floated rather than flew by, following the edge of the forest; from far down the slope came the chattering notes of a brook-sparrow, showing that there was water in the hollow. Some large animal moved into the white mist that hung there and immediately concealed it, like a cloud upon the ground. He was not certain in the dim light, and with so momentary and distant a view, but supposed from its size that it must have been a white or dun wood-cow.
Ahead, across the open, rose the dark top of the fir trees through which the route ran. Instead of the relief which he had anticipated as he rode towards them, the space clear of trees around seemed to expose him to the full view of all that might be lurking in the forest. As he approached the firs and saw how dark it was beneath them, the shadowy depths suggested uncertain shapes hiding therein, and his memory immediately reverted to the book of magic he had read at the castle.
There could not be such things, and yet no one in his heart doubted their existence; deny it as they might with their tongues as they sat at the supper-table and handed round the ale, out of doors in the night, the haste to pass the haunted spot, the bated breath, and the fearful glances cast around, told another tale. He endeavoured to call philosophy to his aid; he remembered, too, how many nights he had spent in the deepest forest without seeing anything, and without even thinking of such matters. He reproved himself for his folly, and asked himself if ever he could hope to be a successful leader of men who started at a shadow. In vain: the tone of his mind had been weakened by the strain it had undergone.
Instead of strengthening him, the teachings of philosophy now seemed cold and feeble, and it occurred to him that possibly the belief of the common people (fully shared by their religious instructors) was just as much entitled to credence as these mere suppositions and theories. The details of the volume recurred to his mind; the accurate description of the demons of the forest and the hill, and especially the horrible vampires enfolding the victim with outstretched wings. In spite of himself, incredulous, yet excited, he pressed his horse to greater speed, though the track was narrow and very much broken under the firs. He obeyed, and trotted, but reluctantly, and needed continual urging.
The yellow spark of a glowworm shining by a bush made him set his teeth; trifling and well known as it was, the light suddenly seen thrilled him with the terror of the unexpected. Strange rushings sounded among the fern, as if the wings of a demon brushed it as he travelled. Felix knew that they were caused by rabbits hastening off, or a boar bounding away, yet they increased the feverish excitement with which he was burdened. Though dark beneath the firs, it was not like the darkness of the beeches; these trees did not form a perfect canopy overhead everywhere. In places he could see where a streak of moonlight came aslant through an opening and reached the ground. One such streak fell upon the track ahead; the trees there had decayed and fallen, and a broad band of light lit up the way.
As he approached it and had almost entered, suddenly something shot towards him in the air; a flash, as it were, as if some object had crossed the streak, and was rendered visible for the tenth of a second, like a mote in the sunbeams. At the same instant of time, the horse, which he had pressed to go faster, put his foot into a rut or hole, and stumbled, and Felix was flung so far forward that he only saved himself from being thrown by clinging to his neck. A slight whizzing sound passed over his head, followed immediately by a sharp tap against a tree in his rear.
The thing happened in the twinkling of an eye, but he recognised the sound; it was the whiz of a crossbow bolt, which had missed his head, and buried its point in a fir. The stumble saved him; the bolt would have struck his head or chest had not the horse gone nearly on his knee. The robber had so planned his ambush that his prey should be well seen, distinct in the moonlight, so that his aim might be sure. Recovering himself, the horse, without needing the spur, as if he recognised the danger to his rider, started forward at full speed, and raced, regardless of ruts, along the track. Felix, who had hardly got into his seat again, could for awhile but barely restrain it, so wildly he fled. He must have been carried within a few yards of the bandit, but saw nothing, neither did a second bolt follow him; the crossbow takes time to bend, and if the robber had companions they were differently armed.
He was a furlong or more from the spot before he quite realized the danger he had escaped. His bow was unstrung in his hand, his arrows were all in the quiver; thus, had the bolt struck him, even if the wound had not been mortal (as it most likely would have been) he could have made no resistance. How foolish to disregard the warnings of the grooms at the castle! It was now too late; all he could do was to ride. Dreading every moment to be thrown, he pushed on as fast as the horse would go. There was no pursuit, and after a mile or so, as he left the firs and entered the ash woods, he slackened somewhat. It was, indeed, necessary, for here the hoofs of preceding horsemen had poached the turf (always damp under ash) into mud. It was less dark, for the boughs of the ashes did not meet above.
As he passed, wood-pigeons rose with loud clatterings from their roosting-places, and once or twice he saw in the gloom the fiery phosphoric eye-balls of the grey wood-cats. How gladly he recognised presently the change from trees to bushes, when he rode out from the thick ashes among the low hawthorns, and knew that he was within a mile or so of the South Barrier at home! Already he heard the song of the nightingale, the long note which at night penetrates so far; the nightingale, which loves the hawthorn and the neighbourhood of man. Imperceptibly he increased the speed again; the horse, too, knew that he was nearing home, and responded willingly.
The track was much broader and fairly good, but he knew that at one spot where it was marshy it must be cut up. There he went at the side, almost brushing a projecting maple bush. Something struck the horse, he fancied the rebound of a bough; he jumped, literally jumped, like a buck, and tore along the road. With one foot out of the stirrup, it was with the utmost difficulty he stuck to his seat; he was not riding, but holding on for a moment or two. Presently recovering from the jolt, he endeavoured to check him, but the bit was of no avail; the animal was beside himself with terror, and raced headlong till they reached the barrier. It was, of course, closed, and the warder was asleep; so that, until he dismounted, and kicked and shouted, no one challenged him.
Then the warder, spear in hand, appeared with his lantern, but recognising the voice, ran to the gate. Within the gate a few yards there were the embers of a fire, and round it a bivouac of footmen who had been to the feast, and had returned thus far before nightfall. Hearing the noise, some of them arose, and came round him, when one immediately exclaimed and asked if he was wounded. Felix replied that he was not, but looking at his foot where the man pointed, saw that it was covered with blood. But, upon close examination, there was no cut or incision; he was not hurt. The warder now called to them, and showed a long deep scratch on the near flank of the horse, from which the blood was dripping.
It was such a scratch as might have been made with an iron nail, and, without hesitation, they all put it down to a Bushman's spud. Without doubt, the Bushman, hearing Felix approach, had hidden in the maple bush, and, as he passed, struck with his nail-like dagger; but, miscalculating the speed at which the horse was going, instead of piercing the thigh of the rider, the blow fell on the horse, and the sharp point was dragged along the side. The horse trembled as they touched him.
"Sir," said one of the retainers, their headman, "if you will pardon me, you had best string your bow and send a shaft through his heart, for he will die in misery before morning."
The Bushman's spud, the one he uses for assassination or to despatch his prey, is poisoned. It is a lingering poison, and takes several hours to produce its effect; but no remedy is known, and many who have escaped from the cowardly blow have crawled to the path only to expire in torture. There was no denying that what the retainer proposed was the only thing that could be done. The warder had meantime brought a bucket of water, of which the poor creature drank eagerly. Felix could not do it; he could not slay the creature which had carried him so long, and which twice that night had saved him, and was now to die, as it were, in his place. He could not consent to it; he led the horse towards home, but he was weak or weary, and could not be got beyond the Pen.
There the group assembled around him. Felix ordered the scratch to be cleansed, while he ran over in his mind every possible remedy. He gave strict orders that he should not be despatched, and then hastened to the house. He undid with trembling hands the thongs that bound his chest, and took out his manuscripts, hoping against hope that among the many notes he had made there might be something. But there was nothing, or in his excitement he overlooked it. Remembering that Oliver was a great authority upon horses, he went into his room and tried to wake him. Oliver, weary with his ride, and not as yet having slept off the effects of the feast, could not be roused.
Felix left him and hurried back to the Pen. Weary as he was, he watched by the horse till the larks began to sing and the dawn was at hand. As yet he had not shown any severe symptoms except twitching of the limbs, and a constant thirst, which water could not quench. But suddenly he fell, and the old retainer warned them all to stand away, for he would bite anything that was near. His words were instantly fulfilled; he rolled, and kicked, and bit at everything within reach. Seeing this agony, Felix could no longer delay. He strung his bow, but he could not fit the arrow to the string, he missed the notch, so much did his hands shake. He motioned to the retainers who had gathered around, and one of them thrust his spear into the horse behind his shoulder.
When Felix at last returned to his chamber he could not but reflect, as the sun rose and the beams entered, that every omen had been against him; the adder under foot, the bandit's bolt, the Bushman's poisoned point. He slept till noon, and, upon going out, unrefreshed and still weary, he found that they had already buried the horse, and ordered a mound to be raised above his grave. The day passed slowly; he wandered about the castle and the enclosed grounds, seeking comfort and finding none. His mind vacillated; he recalled all that Aurora had said, persuading him not to do anything in haste or despair. Yet he could not continue in his present condition. Another day went by, and still undecided and doubting, he remained at home.
Oliver began to jest at him; had he abandoned the expedition? Oliver could not understand indecision; perhaps he did not see so many sides to the question, his mind was always quickly made up. Action was his forte, not thought. The night came, and still Felix lingered, hesitating.
But the next morning Felix arose straight from his sleep resolved to carry out his plan. Without staying to think a moment, without further examination of the various sides of the problem, he started up the instant his eyes unclosed, fully determined upon his voyage. The breath of the bright June morn as he threw open the window-shutter filled him with hope; his heart responded to its joyous influence. The excitement which had disturbed his mind had had time to subside. In the still slumber of the night the strong undercurrent of his thought resumed its course, and he awoke with his will still firmly bent in one direction.
When he had dressed, he took his bow and the chest bound with the leathern thongs, and went down. It was early, but the Baron had already finished breakfast and gone out to his gardens; the Baroness had not yet appeared. While he was making a hurried breakfast (for having now made up his mind he was eager to put his resolve into execution), Oliver came in, and seeing the chest and the bow, understood that the hour had arrived. He immediately said he should accompany him to Heron Bay, and assist him to start, and went out to order their horses. There were always plenty of riding horses at Old House (as at every fortified mansion), and there was not the least difficulty in getting another for Felix in place of his old favourite.
Oliver insisted upon taking the wooden chest, which was rather heavy, before him on the saddle, so that Felix had nothing to carry but his favourite bow. Oliver was surprised that Felix did not first go to the gardens and say good-bye to the Baron, or at least knock at the Baroness's door and bid her farewell. But he made no remark, knowing Felix's proud and occasionally hard temper. Without a word Felix left the old place.
He rode forth from the North Barrier, and did not even so much as look behind him. Neither he nor Oliver thought of the events that might happen before they should again meet in the old familiar house! When the circle is once broken up it is often years before it is reformed. Often, indeed, the members of it never meet again, at least, not in the same manner, which, perhaps, they detested then, and ever afterwards regretted. Without one word of farewell, without a glance, Felix rode out into the forest.
There was not much conversation on the trail to Heron Bay. The serfs were still there in charge of the canoe, and were glad enough to see their approach, and thus to be relieved from their lonely watch. They launched the canoe with ease, the provisions were put on board, the chest lashed to the mast that it might not be lost, the favourite bow was also fastened upright to the mast for safety, and simply shaking hands with Oliver, Felix pushed out into the creek. He paddled the canoe to the entrance and out into the Lake till he arrived where the south-west breeze, coming over the forest, touched and rippled the water, which by the shore was perfectly calm.
Then, hoisting the sail, he put out the larger paddle which answered as a rudder, took his seat, and, waving his hand to Oliver, began his voyage. The wind was but light, and almost too favourable, for he had determined to sail to the eastward; not for any specific reason, but because there the sun rose, and that was the quarter of light and hope. His canoe, with a long fore-and-aft sail, and so well adapted for working into the wind, was not well rigged for drifting before a breeze, which was what he was now doing. He had merely to keep the canoe before the wind, steering so as to clear the bold headland of White Horse which rose blue from the water's edge far in front of him. Though the wind was light, the canoe being so taper and sharp at the prow, and the sail so large in comparison, slipped from the shore faster than he at first imagined.
As he steered aslant from the little bay outwards into the great Lake, the ripples rolling before the wind gradually enlarged into wavelets, these again increased, and in half an hour, as the wind now played upon them over a mile of surface, they seemed in his canoe, with its low freeboard, to be considerable waves. He had purposely refrained from looking back till now, lest they should think he regretted leaving, and in his heart desired to return. But now, feeling that he had really started, he glanced behind. He could see no one.
He had forgotten that the spot where they had launched the canoe was at the end of an inlet, and as he sailed away the creek was shut off from view by the shore of the Lake. Unable to get to the mouth of the bay because of the underwood and the swampy soil, Oliver had remained gazing in the direction the canoe had taken for a minute or two, absorbed in thought (almost the longest period he had ever wasted in such an occupation), and then with a whistle turned to go. The serfs, understanding that they were no longer required, gathered their things together, and were shortly on their way home. Oliver, holding Felix's horse by the bridle, had already ridden that way, but he presently halted, and waited till the three men overtook him. He then gave the horse into their charge, and turning to the right, along a forest path which branched off there, went to Ponze. Felix could therefore see no one when he looked back, and they were indeed already on their way from the place.
He now felt that he was alone. He had parted from the shore, and from all the old associations; he was fast passing not only out upon the water, but out into the unknown future. But his spirit no longer vacillated; now that he was really in the beginning of his long contemplated enterprise his natural strength of mind returned. The weakness and irresolution, the hesitation, left him. He became full of his adventure, and thought of nothing else.
The south-west breeze, blowing as a man breathes, with alternate rise and fall, now driving him along rapidly till the water bubbled under the prow, now sinking, came over his right shoulder and cooled his cheek, for it was now noon, and the June sun was unchecked by clouds. He could no longer distinguish the shape of the trees on shore; all the boughs were blended together in one great wood, stretching as far as he could see. On his left there was a chain of islands, some covered with firs, and others only with brushwood, while others again were so low and flat that the waves in stormy weather broke almost over them.
As he drew near White Horse, five white terns, or sea-swallows, flew over; he did not welcome their appearance, as they usually preceded rough gales. The headland, wooded to its ridge, now rose high against the sky; ash and nut-tree and hawthorn had concealed the ancient graven figure of the horse upon its side, but the tradition was not forgotten, and the site retained its name. He had been steering so as just to clear the promontory, but he now remembered that when he had visited the summit of the hill, he had observed that banks and shoals extended far out from the shore, and were nearly on a level with the surface of the Lake. In a calm they were visible, but waves concealed them, and unless the helmsman recognised the swirl sufficiently early to change his course, they were extremely dangerous.
Felix bore more out from the land, and passing fully a mile to the north, left the shoals on his right. On his other hand there was a sandy and barren island barely a quarter of a mile distant, upon which he thought he saw the timbers of a wreck. It was quite probable, for the island lay in the track of vessels coasting along the shore. Beyond White Horse, the land fell away in a series of indentations, curving inwards to the south; an inhospitable coast, for the hills came down to the strand, ending abruptly in low, but steep, chalk cliffs. Many islands of large size stood out on the left, but Felix, not knowing the shape of the Lake beyond White Horse, thought it best to follow the trend of the land. He thus found, after about three hours, that he had gone far out of his course, for the gulf-like curve of the coast now began to return to the northward, and looking in that direction he saw a merchant vessel under her one square sail of great size, standing across the bay.
She was about five miles distant, and was evidently steering so as to keep just inside the line of the islands. Felix, with some difficulty, steered in a direction to interrupt her. The south-west wind being then immediately aft, his sail did not answer well; presently he lowered it, and paddled till he had turned the course so that the outrigger was now on the eastern side. Then hoisting the sail again, he sat at what had before been the prow, and steered a point or so nearer the wind. This improved her sailing, but as the merchant ship had at least five miles start, it would take some hours to overtake her. Nor on reflection was he at all anxious to come up with her, for mariners were dreaded for their lawless conduct, being, when on a voyage, beyond all jurisdiction.
On the one hand, if they saw an opportunity, they did not hesitate to land and pillage a house, or even a hamlet. On the other, those who dwelt anywhere near the shore considered it good sport to light a fire and lure a vessel to her destruction, or if she was becalmed to sally out in boats, attack, and perhaps destroy both ship and crew. Hence the many wrecks, and losses, and the risks of navigation, not so much from natural obstacles, since the innumerable islands, and the creeks and inlets of the mainland almost always offered shelter, no matter which way the storm blew, but from the animosity of the coast people. If there was an important harbour and a town where provisions could be obtained, or repairs effected, the right of entrance was jealously guarded, and no ship, however pressed by the gale, was permitted to leave, if she had anchored, without payment of a fine. So that vessels as much as possible avoided the harbours and towns, and the mainland altogether, sailing along beside the islands, which were, for the most part, uninhabited, and anchoring under their lee at night.