Felix, remembering the character of the mariners, resolved to keep well away from them, but to watch their course as a guide to himself. The mainland now ran abruptly to the north, and the canoe, as he brought her more into the wind, sprang forward at a rapid pace. The outrigger prevented her from making any leeway, or heeling over, and the large spread of sail forced her swiftly through the water. He had lost sight of the ship behind some islands, and as he approached these, began to ask himself if he had not better haul down his sail there, as he must now be getting near her, when to his surprise, on coming close, he saw her great square sail in the middle, as it seemed, of the land. The shore there was flat, the hills which had hitherto bounded it suddenly ceasing; it was overgrown with reeds and flags, and about two miles away the dark sail of the merchantman drifted over these, the hull being hidden. He at once knew that he had reached the western mouth of the straits which divide the southern and northern mainland. When he went to see the channel on foot through the forest, he must have struck it a mile or two more to the east, where it wound under the hills.
In another half hour he arrived at the opening of the strait; it was about a mile wide, and either shore was quite flat, that on the right for a short distance, the range of downs approaching within two miles; that on the left, or north, was level as far as he could see. He had now again to lower his sail, to get the outrigger on his lee as he turned to the right and steered due east into the channel. So long as the shore was level, he had no difficulty, for the wind drew over it, but when the hills gradually came near and almost overhung the channel, they shut off much of the breeze, and his progress was slow. When it turned and ran narrowing every moment to the south, the wind failed him altogether.
On the right shore, wooded hills rose from the water like a wall; on the left, it was a perfect plain. He could see nothing of the merchantman, although he knew that she could not sail here, but must be working through with her sweeps. Her heavy hull and bluff bow must make the rowing a slow and laborious process; therefore she could not be far ahead, but was concealed by the winding of the strait. He lowered the sail, as it was now useless, and began to paddle; in a very short time he found the heat under the hills oppressive when thus working. He had now been afloat between six and seven hours, and must have come fully thirty miles, perhaps rather more than twenty in a straight line, and he felt somewhat weary and cramped from sitting so long in the canoe.
Though he paddled hard he did not seem to make much progress, and at length he recognised that there was a distinct current, which opposed his advance, flowing through the channel from east to west. If he ceased paddling, he found he drifted slowly back; the long aquatic weeds, too, which he passed, all extended their floating streamers westward. We did not know of this current till Felix Aquila observed and recorded it.
Tired and hungry (for, full of his voyage, he had taken no refreshments since he started), he resolved to land, rest a little while, and then ascend the hill, and see what he could of the channel. He soon reached the shore, the strait having narrowed to less than a mile in width, and ran the canoe on the ground by a bush, to which, on getting out, he attached the painter. The relief of stretching his limbs was so great that it seemed to endow him with fresh strength, and without waiting to eat, he at once climbed the hill. From the top, the remainder of the strait could be easily distinguished. But a short distance from where he stood, it bent again, and proceeded due east.
The passage contracted there to little over half a mile, but these narrows did not continue far; the shores, having approached thus near each other, quickly receded, till presently they were at least two miles apart. The merchant vessel had passed the narrows with the aid of her sweeps, but she moved slowly, and, as it seemed to him, with difficulty. She was about a mile and a half distant, and near the eastern mouth of the strait. As Felix watched he saw her square sail again raised, showing that she had reached a spot where the hills ceased to shut off the wind. Entering the open Lake she altered her course and sailed away to the north-north-east, following the course of the northern mainland.
Looking now eastwards, across the Lake, he saw a vast and beautiful expanse of water, without island or break of any kind, reaching to the horizon. Northwards and southwards the land fell rapidly away, skirted as usual with islets and shoals, between which and the shore vessels usually voyaged. He had heard of this open water, and it was his intention to sail out into and explore it, but as the sun now began to decline towards the west, he considered that he had better wait till morning, and so have a whole day before him. Meantime, he would paddle through the channel, beach the canoe on the islet that stood farthest out, and so start clear on the morrow.
Turning now to look back the other way, westward, he was surprised to see a second channel, which came almost to the foot of the hill on which he stood, but there ended and did not connect with the first. The entrance to it was concealed, as he now saw, by an island, past which he must have sailed that afternoon. This second or blind channel seemed more familiar to him than the flat and reedy shore at the mouth of the true strait, and he now recognised it as the one to which he had journeyed on foot through the forest. He had not then struck the true strait at all; he had sat down and pondered beside this deceptive inlet thinking that it divided the mainlands. From this discovery he saw how easy it was to be misled in such matters.
But it even more fully convinced him of the importance of this uninhabited and neglected place. It seemed like a canal cut on purpose to supply a fort from the Lake in the rear with provisions and material, supposing access in front prevented by hostile fleets and armies. A castle, if built near where he stood, would command the channel; arrows, indeed, could not be shot across, but vessels under the protection of the castle could dispute the passage, obstructed as it could be with floating booms. An invader coming from the north must cross here; for many years past there had been a general feeling that some day such an attempt would be made. Fortifications would be of incalculable value in repelling the hostile hordes and preventing their landing.
Who held this strait would possess the key of the Lake, and would be master of, or would at least hold the balance between, the kings and republics dotted along the coasts on either hand. No vessel could pass without his permission. It was the most patent illustration of the extremely local horizon, the contracted mental view of the petty kings and their statesmen, who were so concerned about the frontiers of their provinces, and frequently interfered and fought for a single palisaded estate or barony, yet were quite oblivious of the opportunity of empire open here to any who could seize it.
If the governor of such a castle as he imagined built upon the strait, had also vessels of war, they could lie in this second channel sheltered from all winds, and ready to sally forth and take an attacking force upon the flank. While he pondered upon these advantages he could not conceal from himself that he had once sat down and dreamed beside this second inlet, thinking it to be the channel. The doubt arose whether, if he was so easily misled in such a large, tangible, and purely physical matter, he might not be deceived also in his ideas; whether, if tested, they might not fail; whether the world was not right and he wrong.
The very clearness and many-sided character of his mind often hindered and even checked altogether the best founded of his impressions, the more especially when he, as it were, stood still and thought. In reverie, the subtlety of his mind entangled him; in action, he was almost always right. Action prompted his decision. Descending from the hill he now took some refreshment, and then pushed out again in the canoe. So powerful was the current in the narrowest part of the strait that it occupied him two hours in paddling as many miles.
When he was free of the channel, he hoisted sail and directed his course straight out for an island which stood almost opposite the entrance. But as he approached, driven along at a good pace, suddenly the canoe seemed to be seized from beneath. He knew in a moment that he had grounded on soft mud, and sprang up to lower the sail, but before he could do so the canoe came to a standstill on the mud-bank, and the waves following behind, directly she stopped, broke over the stern. Fortunately they were but small, having only a mile or so to roll from the shore, but they flung enough water on board in a few minutes to spoil part of his provisions, and to set everything afloat that was loose on the bottom of the vessel.
He was apprehensive lest she should fill, for he now perceived that he had forgotten to provide anything with which to bale her out. Something is always forgotten. Having got the sail down (lest the wind should snap the mast), he tried hard to force the canoe back with his longer paddle, used as a movable rudder. His weight and the resistance of the adhesive mud, on which she had driven with much force was too great; he could not shove her off. When he pushed, the paddle sank into the soft bottom, and gave him nothing to press against. After struggling for some time, he paused, beginning to fear that his voyage had already reached an end.
A minute's thought, more potent than the strength of ten men, showed him that the canoe required lightening. There was no cargo to throw overboard, nor ballast. He was the only weight. He immediately undressed, and let himself overboard at the prow, retaining hold of the stem. His feet sank deep into the ooze; he felt as if, had he let go, he should have gradually gone down into this quicksand of fine mud. By rapidly moving his feet he managed, however, to push the canoe; she rose considerably so soon as he was out of her, and, although he had hold of the prow, still his body was lighter in the water. Pushing, struggling, and pressing forward, he, by sheer impact, as it were, for his feet found no hold in the mud, forced her back by slow degrees.
The blows of the waves drove her forward almost as much as he pushed her back. Still, in time, and when his strength was fast decreasing, she did move, and he had the satisfaction of feeling the water deeper beneath him. But when he endeavoured to pull himself into the canoe over the prow, directly his motive power ceased, the waves undid the advance he had achieved, and he had to resume his labour. This time, thinking again, before he attempted to get into the canoe he turned her sideways to the wind, with the outrigger to leeward. When her sharp prow and rounded keel struck the mud-bank end on she ran easily along it. But, turned sideways, her length found more resistance, and though the waves sent her some way upon it, she soon came to a standstill. He clambered in as quickly as he could (it is not easy to get into a boat out of the water, the body feels so heavy), and, taking the paddle, without waiting to dress, worked away from the spot.
Not till he had got some quarter of a mile back towards the mainland did he pause to dry himself and resume part of his clothing; the canoe being still partly full of water, it was no use to put on all. Resting awhile after his severe exertions, he looked back, and now supposed, from the colour of the water and the general indications, that these shallows extended a long distance, surrounding the islands at the mouth of the channel, so that no vessel could enter or pass out in a direct line, but must steer to the north or south until the obstacle was rounded. Afraid to attempt to land on another island, his only course, as the sun was now going down, was to return to the mainland, which he reached without much trouble, as the current favoured him.
He drew the canoe upon the ground as far as he could. It was not a good place to land, as the bottom was chalk, washed into holes by the waves, and studded with angular flints. As the wind was off the shore it did not matter; if it had blown from the east, his canoe might very likely have been much damaged. The shore was overgrown with hazel to within twenty yards of the water, then the ground rose and was clothed with low ash-trees, whose boughs seemed much stunted by tempest, showing how exposed the spot was to the easterly gales of spring. The south-west wind was shut off by the hills beyond. Felix was so weary that for some time he did nothing save rest upon the ground, which was but scantily covered with grass. An hour's rest, however, restored him to himself.
He gathered some dry sticks (there were plenty under the ashes), struck his flint against the steel, ignited the tinder, and soon had a fire. It was not necessary for warmth, the June evening was soft and warm, but it was the hunter's instinct. Upon camping for the night the hunter, unless Bushmen are suspected to be in the neighbourhood, invariably lights a fire, first to cook his supper, and secondly, and often principally, to make the spot his home. The hearth is home, whether there be walls round it or not. Directly there are glowing embers the place is no longer wild, it becomes human. Felix had nothing that needed cooking. He took his cowhide from the canoe and spread it on the ground.
A well-seasoned cowhide is the first possession of every hunter; it keeps him from the damp; and with a second, supported on three short poles stuck in the earth (two crossed at the top in front, forming a fork, and fastened with a thong, the third resting on these), he protects himself from the heaviest rain. This little tent is always built with the back to windward. Felix did not erect a second hide, the evening was so warm and beautiful he did not need it, his cloak would be ample for covering. The fire crackled and blazed at intervals, just far enough from him that he might feel no inconvenience from its heat.
Thrushes sang in the ash wood all around him, the cuckoo called, and the chiff-chaff never ceased for a moment. Before him stretched the expanse of waters; he could even here see over the low islands. In the sky a streak of cloud was tinted by the sunset, slowly becoming paler as the light departed. He reclined in that idle, thoughtless state which succeeds unusual effort, till the deepening shadow and the sinking fire, and the appearance of a star, warned him that the night was really here. Then he arose, threw on more fuel, and fetched his cloak, his chest, and his boar spear from the canoe. The chest he covered with a corner of the hide, wrapped himself in the cloak, bringing it well over his face on account of the dew; then, drawing the lower corners of the hide over his feet and limbs, he stretched himself at full length and fell asleep, with the spear beside him.
There was the possibility of Bushmen, but not much probability. There would be far more danger near the forest path, where they might expect a traveller and watch to waylay him, but they could not tell beforehand where he would rest that night. If any had seen the movements of his canoe, if any lighted upon his bivouac by chance, his fate was certain. He knew this, but trusted to the extreme improbability of Bushmen frequenting a place where there was nothing to plunder. Besides, he had no choice, as he could not reach the islands. If there was risk, it was forgotten in the extremity of his weariness.
When Felix awoke, he knew at once by the height of the sun that the morning was far advanced. Throwing off his cloak, he stood up, but immediately crouched down again, for a vessel was passing but a short distance from the shore, and nearly opposite his encampment. She had two masts, and from the flags flying, the numerous bannerets, and the movements of so many men on board, he knew her to be a ship of war. He was anxious that he should not be seen, and regretted that his canoe was so much exposed, for the bush by which he had landed hid it only from one side. As the shore was so bare and open, if they looked that way the men on board would hardly fail to see it, and might even distinguish him. But whether they were too much engaged with their own affairs, or kept a careless look-out, no notice appeared to be taken, no boat was lowered.
He watched the war-ship for nearly an hour before he ventured to move. Her course was to the eastward, inside the fringe of islands. That she was neither Irish nor Welsh he was certain from her build and from her flags; they were too distant for the exact designs upon them to be seen, but near enough for him to know that they were not those displayed by the foreigners. She sailed fast, having the wind nearly aft, which suited her two square sails.
The wind had risen high during the night, and now blew almost a gale, so that he saw he must abandon for the present his project of sailing out upon the open water. The waves there would be too high for his canoe, which floated low in the water, and had but about six inches freeboard. They would wash over and possibly swamp her. Only two courses were open to him: either to sail inside the islands under shelter of the land, or to remain where he was till the breeze moderated. If he sailed inside the islands, following the northward course of the merchant vessel he had observed the previous evening, that would carry him past Eaststock, the eastern port of Sypolis, which city, itself inland, had two harbours, with the western of which (Weststock) it had communication by water.
Should he continue to sail on, he would soon reach that part of the northern continent which was occupied by the Irish outposts. On the other hand, to follow the war-ship, east by south, would, he knew, bring him by the great city of Aisi, famous for its commerce, its riches, and the warlike disposition of its king, Isembard. He was the acknowledged head of the forces of the League; but yet, with the inconsistency of the age, sometimes attacked other members of it. His furious energy was always disturbing the world, and Felix had no doubt he was now at war with some one or other, and that the war-ship he had seen was on its way to assist him or his enemies. One of the possibilities which had impelled him to this voyage was that of taking service with some king or commander, and so perhaps gradually rising himself to command.
Such adventures were very common, knights often setting forth upon such expeditions when dissatisfied with their own rulers, and they were usually much welcomed as an addition to the strength of the camp they sought. But there was this difference: that such knights carried with them some substantial recommendation, either numerous retainers well armed and accustomed to battle, considerable treasure, or at least a reputation for prowess in the field. Felix had nothing to offer, and for nothing nothing is given.
The world does not recognise intrinsic worth, or potential genius. Genius must accomplish some solid result before it is applauded and received. The unknown architect may say: "I have a design in my mind for an impregnable castle." But the world cannot see or appreciate the mere design. If by any personal sacrifice of time, dignity, or self-respect the architect, after long years, can persuade someone to permit him to build the castle, to put his design into solid stone which squadrons may knock their heads against in vain, then he is acknowledged. There is then a tangible result.
Felix was in the position of the architect. He believed he had ideas, but he had nothing substantial, no result, to point to. He had therefore but little hope of success, and his natural hauteur and pride revolted against making application for enrolment which must be accompanied with much personal humiliation, since at best he could but begin in the common ranks. The very idea of asking was repugnant to him. The thought of Aurora, however, drew him on.
The pride was false, he said to himself, and arose from too high an estimate of his abilities; or it was the consequence of living so long entirely secluded from the world. He acknowledged to himself that he had not been beaten down to his level. Full of devotion to Aurora, he resolved to humble himself, to seek the humblest service in King Isembard's camp, to bow his spirit to the orders of men above him in rank but below him in birth and ability, to submit to the numberless indignities of a common soldier's life.
He proceeded to launch the canoe, and had already placed the chest on board when it occurred to him that the difficulties he had encountered the previous evening, when his canoe was so nearly lost, arose from his ignorance of the channels. It would be advisable to ascend the hill, and carefully survey the coast as far as possible before setting forth. He did so. The war-ship was still visible from the summit, but while he looked she was hidden by the intervening islands. The white foam and angry appearance of the distant open water direct to the eastward, showed how wise he had been not to attempt its exploration. Under the land the wind was steady; yonder, where the gale struck the surface with all its force, the waves were large and powerful.
From this spot he could see nearly the whole length of the strait, and, gazing up it in the direction he had come, he saw some boats crossing in the distance. As they moved so slowly, and appeared so broad, he conjectured that they were flat-bottomed punts, and, straining his eyes, he fancied he detected horses on board. He watched four cross, and presently the first punt returned, as if for another freight. He now noticed that there was a land route by which travellers or waggons came down from the northward, and crossed the strait by a ferry. It appeared that the ferry was not in the narrowest part of the strait, but nearer its western mouth, where the shores were flat, and covered with reeds and flags. He wondered that he had not seen anything of the landing-places, or of the ferry-boats, or some sign of this traffic when he passed, but concluded that the track was hidden among the dense growth of reed and flag, and that the punts, not being in use that day, had been drawn up, and perhaps covered with green boughs to shelter them from the heat of the summer sun.
The fact of this route existing, however, gave additional importance to the establishment of a fort on the shore of the strait, as he had so long contemplated. By now, the first punt had obtained another load, and was re-crossing the channel. It was evident that a caravan of travellers or merchants had arrived, such persons usually travelling in large bodies for safety, so that the routes were often deserted for weeks together, and then suddenly covered with people. Routes, indeed, they were, and not roads; mere tracks worn through the forest and over the hills, often impassable from floods.
Still further satisfied that his original idea of a castle here was founded on a correct estimate of the value of the spot, Felix resolved to keep the conception to himself, and not again to hazard it to others, who might despise him, but adopt his design. With one long last glance at the narrow streak of water which formed the central part, as it were, of his many plans, he descended the hill, and pushed off in the canoe.
His course this time gave him much less trouble than the day before, when he had frequently to change his tack. The steady, strong breeze came off the land, to which he was too close for any waves to arise, and hour after hour passed without any necessity to shift the sail, further than to ease or tighten the sheets as the course of the land varied. By degrees the wind came more and more across his course, at right angles to it, and then began to fall aft as he described an arc, and the land projected northwards.
He saw several small villages on the shore, and passed one narrow bay, which seemed, indeed, to penetrate into the land deeper than he could actually see. Suddenly, after four or five hours, sailing, he saw the tower of a church over the wooded hills. This he knew must indicate the position of Aisi. The question now came, whether he should sail into the harbour, when he would, of course, at once be seen, and have to undergo the examination of the officers; or should he land, and go on foot to the city? A minute's reflection assured him the latter was the better plan, for his canoe was of so unusual a construction, that it would be more than carefully examined, and not unlikely his little treasures would be discovered and appropriated. Without hesitation, therefore, and congratulating himself that there were no vessels in sight, he ran the canoe on shore among the flags and reeds which bordered it.
He drew her up as far as his strength permitted, and not only took down the sail, but unshipped the mast; then cutting a quantity of dead reeds, he scattered them over her, so that, unless a boat passed very close to the land, she would not be seen. While he had a meal he considered how he had better proceed. The only arms with which he excelled were the bow and arrow; clearly, therefore, if he wished an engagement, he should take these with him, and exhibit his skill. But well he knew the utter absence of law and justice except for the powerful. His bow, which he so greatly valued, and which was so well seasoned, and could be relied upon, might be taken from him.
His arrows, so carefully prepared from chosen wood, and pointed with steel, might be seized. Both bow and arrows were far superior to those used by the hunters and soldiery, and he dreaded losing them. There was his crossbow, but it was weak, and intended for killing only small game, as birds, and at short range. He could make no display with that. Sword he had none for defence; there remained only his boar spear, and with this he resolved to be content, trusting to obtain the loan of a bow when the time came to display his skill, and that fortune would enable him to triumph with an inferior weapon.
After resting awhile and stretching his limbs, cramped in the canoe, he set out (carrying his boar-spear only) along the shore, for the thick growth of the firs would not let him penetrate in the direction he had seen the tower. He had to force his way through the reeds and flags and brushwood, which flourished between the firs and the water's edge. It was hard work walking, or rather pushing through these obstacles, and he rejoiced when he emerged upon the slope of a down where there was an open sward, and but a few scattered groups of firs. The fact of it being open, and the shortness of the sward, showed at once that it was used for grazing purposes for cattle and sheep. Here he could walk freely, and soon reached the top. Thence the city was visible almost underneath him.
It stood at the base of a low narrow promontory, which ran a long way into the Lake. The narrow bank, near where it joined the mainland, was penetrated by a channel or creek, about a hundred yards wide, or less, which channel appeared to enter the land and was lost from sight of among the trees. Beyond this channel a river ran into the lake, and in the Y, between the creek and the river, the city had been built.
It was surrounded with a brick wall, and there were two large round brick towers on the land side, which indicated the position of the castle and palace. The space enclosed by the walls was not more than half a mile square, and the houses did not occupy nearly all of it. There were open places, gardens, and even small paddocks among them. None of the houses were more than two storeys high, but what at once struck a stranger was the fact that they were all roofed with red tiles, most of the houses of that day being thatched or covered with shingles of wood. As Felix afterwards learnt, this had been effected during the reign of the present king, whose object was to protect his city from being set on fire by burning arrows. The encircling wall had become a dull red hue from the long exposure to the weather, but the roofs were a brighter red. There was no ensign flying on either of the towers, from which he concluded that the king at that moment was absent.
Slowly descending towards the city, Felix looked in vain for any means of crossing the channel or creek, which extended upon the side of it, and in which he counted twenty-two merchant vessels at anchor, or moored to the bank, besides a number of smaller craft and boats. The ship of war, which had arrived before him, was beached close up by a gate of the city, which opened on the creek or port, and her crew were busily engaged discharging her stores. As he walked beside the creek trying to call the attention of some boatman to take him across, he was impressed by the silence, for though the city wall was not much more than a stone's throw distant, there was none of the usual hum which arises from the movements of people. On looking closer he noticed, too, that there were few persons on the merchant vessels, and not one gang at work loading or unloading. Except the warder stalking to and fro on the wall, and the crew of the war-ship, there was no one visible. As the warder paced to and fro the blade of his partisan gleamed in the sunshine. He must have seen Felix, but with military indifference did not pay the slightest heed to the latter's efforts to attract his attention.
He now passed the war-ship, and shouted to the men at work, who were, he could see, carrying sheaves of arrows and bundles of javelins from the vessel and placing them on carts; but they did not trouble to reply. His common dress and ordinary appearance did not inspire them with any hope of payment from him if they obliged him with a boat. The utter indifference with which his approach was seen showed him the contempt in which he was held.
Looking round to see if there were no bridge or ferry, he caught sight of the grey church tower which he had observed from afar while sailing. It was quite a mile from the city, and isolated outside the walls. It stood on the slope of the hill, over whose summit the tower was visible. He wandered up towards it, as there were usually people in or about the churches, which were always open day and night. If no one else, the porter in the lodge at the church door would be there, for he or his representative never left it, being always on the watch lest some thief should attempt to enter the treasury, or steal the sacred vessels.
But as he ascended the hill he met a shepherd, whose dogs prepared to fly at him, recognising a stranger. For a moment the man seemed inclined to let them wreak their will, if they could, for he also felt inclined to challenge a stranger, but, seeing Felix lower his spear, it probably occurred to him that some of his dogs would be killed. He therefore ordered them down, and stayed to listen. Felix learnt that there was no bridge across the creek, and only one over the river; but there was a ferry for anybody who was known. No strangers were allowed to cross the ferry; they must enter by the main road over the bridge.
"But how am I to get into the place then?" said Felix. The shepherd shook his head, and said he could not tell him, and walked away about his business.
Discouraged at these trifling vexations, which seemed to cross his path at every step, Felix found his way to the ferry, but, as the shepherd had said, the boatman refused to carry him, being a stranger. No persuasion could move him; nor the offer of a small silver coin, worth about ten times his fare.
"I must then swim across," said Felix, preparing to take off his clothes.
"Swim, if you like," said the boatman, with a grim smile; "but you will never land."
"Because the warder will let drive at you with an arrow."
Felix looked, and saw that he was opposite the extreme angle of the city wall, a point usually guarded with care. There was a warder stalking to and fro; he carried a partisan, but, of course, might have his bow within reach, or could probably call to the soldiers of the guard.
"This is annoying," said Felix, ready to give up his enterprise. "How ever can I get into the city?"
The old boatman grinned, but said nothing, and returned to a net which he was mending. He made no answer to the further questions Felix put to him. Felix then shouted to the warder; the soldier looked once, but paid no more heed. Felix walked a little way and sat down on the grass. He was deeply discouraged. These repulses, trifles in themselves, assumed an importance, because his mind had long been strung up to a high pitch of tension. A stolid man would have thought nothing of them. After a while he arose, again asking himself how should he become a leader, who had not the perseverance to enter a city in peaceful guise?
Not knowing what else to do, he followed the creek round the foot of the hill, and so onwards for a mile or more. This bank was steep, on account of the down; the other cultivated, the corn being already high. The cuckoo sang (she loves the near neighbourhood of man) and flew over the channel towards a little copse. Almost suddenly the creek wound round under a low chalk cliff, and in a moment Felix found himself confronted by another city. This had no wall; it was merely defended by a ditch and earthwork, without tower or bastion.
The houses were placed thickly together; there were, he thought, six or seven times as many as he had previously seen, and they were thatched or shingled, like those in his own country. It stood in the midst of the fields, and the corn came up to the fosse; there were many people at work, but, as he noticed, most of them were old men, bowed and feeble. A little way farther he saw a second boathouse; he hastened thither, and the ferrywoman, for the boat was poled across by a stout dame, made not the least difficulty about ferrying him over. So delighted was Felix at this unexpected fortune, that he gave her the small silver coin, at sight of which he instantly rose high in her estimation.
She explained to him, in answer to his inquiries, that this was also called Aisi; this was the city of the common folk. Those who were rich or powerful had houses in the walled city, the precinct of the Court. Many of the houses there, too, were the inns of great families who dwelt in the country in their castles, but when they came to the Court required a house. Their shields, or coats of arms, were painted over the doors. The walled city was guarded with such care, because so many attempts had been made to surprise it, and to assassinate the king, whose fiery disposition and constant wars had raised him up so many enemies. As much care was taken to prevent a single stranger entering as if he were the vanguard of a hostile army, and if he now went back (as he could do) to the bridge over the river, he would be stopped and questioned, and possibly confined in prison till the king returned.
"Where is the king?" asked Felix; "I came to try and take service with him."
"Then you will be welcome," said the woman. "He is in the field, and has just sat down before Iwis."
"That was why the walled city seemed so empty, then." said Felix.
"Yes; all the people are with him; there will be a great battle this time."
"How far is it to Iwis?" said Felix.
"Twenty-seven miles," replied the dame; "and if you take my advice, you had better walk twenty-seven miles there, than two miles back to the bridge over the river."
Someone now called from the opposite bank, and she started with the boat to fetch another passenger.
"Thank you, very much," said Felix, as he wished her good day; "but why did not the man at the other ferry tell me I could cross here?"
The woman laughed outright. "Do you suppose he was going to put a penny in my way when he could not get it himself?"
So mean and petty is the world! Felix entered the second city and walked some distance through it, when he recollected that he had not eaten for some time. He looked in vain for an inn, but upon speaking to a man who was leaning on his crutch at a doorway, he was at once asked to enter, and all that the house afforded was put before him. The man with the crutch sat down opposite, and remarked that most of the folk were gone to the camp, but he could not because his foot had been injured. He then went on to tell how it had happened, with the usual garrulity of the wounded. He was assisting to place the beam of a battering-ram upon a truck (it took ten horses to draw it) when a lever snapped, and the beam fell. Had the beam itself touched him he would have been killed on the spot; as it was, only a part of the broken lever or pole hit him. Thrown with such force, the weight of the ram driving it, the fragment of the pole grazed his leg, and either broke one of the small bones that form the arch of the instep, or so bruised it that it was worse than broken. All the bone-setters and surgeons had gone to the camp, and he was left without attendance other than the women, who fomented the foot daily, but he had little hope of present recovery, knowing that such things were often months about.
He thought it lucky that it was no worse, for very few, he had noticed, ever recovered from serious wounds of spear or arrow. The wounded generally died; only the fortunate escaped. Thus he ran on, talking as much for his own amusement as that of his guest. He fretted because he could not join the camp and help work the artillery; he supposed the ram would be in position by now and shaking the wall with its blow. He wondered if Baron Ingulph would miss his face.
"Who's he?" asked Felix.
"He is captain of the artillery," replied his host.
"Are you his retainer?"
"No; I am a servant."
Felix started slightly, and did but just check himself from rising from the table. A "servant" was a slave; it was the euphemism used instead of the hateful word, which not even the most degraded can endure to bear. The class of the nobles to which he belonged deemed it a disgrace to sit down with a slave, to eat with him, even to accidently touch him. With the retainers, or free men, they were on familiar terms, though despotic to the last degree; the slave was less than the dog. Then, stealing a glance at the man's face, Felix saw that he had no moustache; he had not noticed this before. No slaves were allowed to wear the moustache.
This man having been at home ill some days had neglected to shave, and there was some mark upon his upper lip. As he caught his guest's glance, the slave hung his head, and asked his guest in a low and humble voice not to mention this fault. With his face slightly flushed, Felix finished his meal; he was confused to the last degree. His long training and the tone of the society in which he had moved (though so despised a member of it) prejudiced him strongly against the man whose hospitality was so welcome. On the other hand, the ideas which had for so long worked in his mind in his solitary intercommunings in the forest were entirely opposed to servitude. In abstract principle he had long since condemned it, and desired to abolish it. But here was the fact.
He had eaten at a slave's table, and sat with him face to face. Theory and practice are often strangely at variance. He felt it an important moment; he felt that he was himself, as it were, on the balance; should he adhere to the ancient prejudice, the ancient exclusiveness of his class, or should he boldly follow the dictate of his mind? He chose the latter, and extended his hand to the servant as he rose to say good-bye. The act was significant; it recognised man as distinct from caste. The servant did not know the conflict that had taken place; but to be shaken hands with at all, even by a retainer as he supposed Felix to be, was indeed a surprise. He could not understand it; it was the first time his hand had been taken by any one of superior position since he had been born. He was dumb with amazement, and could scarcely point out the road when asked; nor did he take the small coin Felix offered, one of the few he possessed. Felix therefore left it on the table and again started.
Passing through the town, Felix followed the track which led in the direction indicated. In about half a mile it led him to a wider track, which he immediately recognised as the main way and road to the camp by the ruts and dust, for the sward had been trampled down for fifty yards wide, and even the corn was cut up by wheels and horses' hoofs. The army had passed, and he had but to follow its unmistakable trail.
Felix walked steadily on for nearly three hours, when the rough track, the dust, and heat began to tell upon him, and he sat down beside the way. The sun was now declining, and the long June day tending to its end. A horseman passed, coming from the camp, and as he wore only a sword, and had a leathern bag slung from his shoulder, he appeared to be a courtier. The dust raised by the hoofs, as it rose and floated above the brushwood, rendered his course visible. Some time afterwards, while he still rested, being very weary with walking through the heat of the afternoon, he heard the sound of wheels, and two carts drawn by horses came along the track from the city.
The carts were laden with bundles of arrows, perhaps the same he had seen unloading that morning from the war-ship, and were accompanied only by carters. As they approached he rose, feeling that it was time to continue his journey. His tired feet were now stiff, and he limped as he stepped out into the road. The men spoke, and he walked as well as he could beside them, using his boar-spear as a staff. There were two carters with each cart; and presently, noting how he lagged, and could scarce keep pace with them, one of them took a wooden bottle from the load on his cart, and offered him a draught of ale.
Thus somewhat refreshed, Felix began to talk, and learnt that the arrows were from the vessel in whose track he had sailed; that it had been sent loaded with stores for the king's use, by his friend the Prince of Quinton; that very great efforts had been made to get together a large army in this campaign; first, because the city besieged was so near home, and failure might be disastrous, and, secondly, because it was one of three which were all republics, and the other two would be certain to send it assistance. These cities stood in a plain, but a few miles apart, and in a straight line on the banks of the river. The king had just sat down before the first, vowing that he would knock them down, one after the other, like a row of ninepins.
The carters asked him, in return, whose retainer he was, and he said that he was on his way to take service, and was under no banner yet.
"Then," said the man who had given him a drink, "if you are free like that, you had better join the king's levy, and be careful to avoid the barons' war. For if you join either of the barons' war, they will know you to be a stranger, and very likely, if they see that you are quick and active, they will not let you free again, and if you attempt to escape after the campaign, you will find yourself mightily mistaken. The baron's captain would only have to say you had always been his man; and, as for your word, it would be no more than a dog's bark. Besides which, if you rebelled, it would be only to shave off that moustache of yours, and declare you a slave, and as you have no friends in camp, a slave you would be."
"That would be very unjust," said Felix. "Surely the king would not allow it?"
"How is he to know?" said another of the carters. "My brother's boy was served just like that. He was born free, the same as all our family, but he was fond of roving, and when he reached Quinton, he was seen by Baron Robert, who was in want of men, and being a likely young fellow, they shaved his lip, and forced him to labour under the thong. When his spirit was cowed, and he seemed reconciled, they let him grow his moustache again, and there he is now, a retainer, and well treated. But still, it was against his will. Jack is right; you had better join the king's levy."
The king's levy is composed of his own retainers from his estates, of townsmen, who are not retainers of the barons, of any knights and volunteers who like to offer their services; and a king always desires as large a levy as possible, because it enables him to overawe his barons. These, when their "war", or forces, are collected together in camp, are often troublesome, and inclined to usurp authority. A volunteer is, therefore, always welcome in the king's levy.
Felix thanked them for the information they had given him, and said he should certainly follow their advice. He could now hardly keep up with the carts, having walked for so many hours, and undergone so much previous exertion. Finding this to be the case, he wished them good-night, and looked round for some cover. It was now dusk, and he knew he could go no farther. When they understood his intention, they consulted among themselves, and finally made him get up into one of the carts, and sit down on the bundles of arrows, which filled it like faggots. Thus he was jolted along, the rude wheels fitting but badly on the axle, and often sinking deep into a rut.
They were now in thick forest, and the track was much narrower, so that it had become worn into a hollow, as if it were the dry bed of a torrent. The horses and the carters were weary, yet they were obliged to plod on, as the arms had to be delivered before the morrow. They spoke little, except to urge the animals. Felix soon dropped into a reclining posture (uneasy as it was, it was a relief), and looking up, saw the white summer stars above. After a time he lost consciousness, and slept soundly, quite worn out, despite the jolting and creaking of the wheels.
The sound of a trumpet woke him with a start. His heavy and dreamless sleep for a moment had taken away his memory, and he did not know where he was. As he sat up two sacks fell from him; the carters had thrown them over him as a protection against the night's dew. The summer morning was already as bright as noonday, and the camp about him was astir. In half a minute he came to himself, and getting out of the cart looked round. All his old interest had returned, the spirit of war entered into him, the trumpet sounded again, and the morning breeze extended the many-coloured banners.
The spot where he stood was in the rear of the main camp, and but a short distance from the unbroken forest. Upon either hand there was an intermingled mass of stores, carts, and waggons crowded together, sacks and huge heaps of forage, on and about which scores of slaves, drivers and others, were sleeping in every possible attitude, many of them evidently still under the influence of the ale they had drunk the night before. What struck him at once was the absence of any guard here in the rear. The enemy might steal out from the forest behind and help himself to what he chose, or murder the sleeping men, or, passing through the stores, fall on the camp itself. To Felix this neglect appeared inexplicable; it indicated a mental state which he could not comprehend, a state only to be described by negatives. There was no completeness, no system, no organization; it was a kind of haphazardness, altogether opposite to his own clear and well-ordered ideas.
The ground sloped gently downwards from the edge of the forest, and the place where he was had probably been ploughed, but was now trodden flat and hard. Next in front of the stores he observed a long, low hut built of poles, and roofed with fir branches; the walls were formed of ferns, straw, bundles of hay, anything that had come to hand. On a standard beside it, a pale blue banner, with the device of a double hammer worked in gold upon it, fluttered in the wind. Twenty or thirty, perhaps more, spears leant against one end of this rude shed, their bright points projecting yards above the roof. To the right of the booth as many horses were picketed, and not far from them some soldiers were cooking at an open fire of logs. As Felix came slowly towards the booth, winding in and out among the carts and heaps of sacks, he saw that similar erections extended down the slope for a long distance.
There were hundreds of them, some large, some small, not placed in any order, but pitched where chance or fancy led, the first-comers taking the sites that pleased them, and the rest crowding round. Beside each hut stood the banner of the owner, and Felix knew from this that they were occupied by the barons, knights, and captains of the army. The retainers of each baron bivouacked as they might in the open air; some of them had hunter's hides, and others used bundles of straw to sleep on. Their fire was as close to their lord's hut as convenient, and thus there were always plenty within call.
The servants, or slaves, also slept in the open air, but in the rear of their owner's booth, and apart from the free retainers. Felix noticed, that although the huts were pitched anyhow and anywhere, those on the lowest ground seemed built along a line, and, looking closer, he found that a small stream ran there. He learnt afterwards that there was usually an emulation among the commanders to set up their standards as near the water as possible, on account of convenience, those in the rear having often to lead their horses a long distance to water. Beyond the stream the ground rose again as gradually as it had declined. It was open and cultivated up to the walls of the besieged city, which was not three-quarters of a mile distant. Felix could not for the moment distinguish the king's head-quarters. The confused manner in which the booths were built prevented him from seeing far, though from the higher ground it was easy to look over their low roofs.
He now wandered into the centre of the camp, and saw with astonishment groups of retainers everywhere eating, drinking, talking, and even playing cards or dice, but not a single officer of any rank. At last, stopping by the embers of a fire, he asked timidly if he might have breakfast. The soldiers laughed and pointed to a cart behind them, telling him to help himself. The cart was turned with the tail towards the fire, and laden with bread and sides of bacon, slices of which the retainers had been toasting at the embers.
He did as he was bid, and the next minute a soldier, not quite steady on his legs even at that hour, offered him the can, "for," said he, "you had best drink whilst you may, youngster. There is always plenty of drink and good living at the beginning of a war, and very often not a drop or a bite to be got in the middle of it." Listening to their talk as he ate his breakfast, Felix found the reason there were no officers about was because most of them had drunk too freely the night before. The king himself, they said, was put to bed as tight as a drum, and it took no small quantity to fill so huge a vessel, for he was a remarkably big man.
After the fatigue of the recent march, they had, in fact, refreshed themselves, and washed down the dust of the track. They thought that this siege was likely to be a very tough business, and congratulated themselves that it was not thirty miles to Aisi, so that so long as they stayed there they might, perhaps, get supplies of provisions with tolerable regularity. "But if you're over the water, my lad," said the old fellow with the can, picking his teeth with a twig, "and have got to get your victuals by ship; by George, you may have to eat grass, or gnaw boughs like a horse."
None of these men wore any arms, except the inevitable knife; their arms were piled against the adjacent booth, bows and quivers, spears, swords, bills and darts, thrown together just as they had cast them aside, and more or less rusty from the dew. Felix thought that had the enemy come suddenly down in force they might have made a clean sweep of the camp, for there were no defences, neither breastwork, nor fosse, nor any set guard. But he forgot that the enemy were quite as ill-organized as the besiegers; probably they were in still greater confusion, for King Isembard was considered one of the greatest military commanders of his age, if not the very greatest.
The only sign of discipline he saw was the careful grooming of some horses, which he rightly guessed to be those ridden by the knights, and the equally careful polishing of pieces of armour before the doors of the huts. He wished now to inquire his way to the king's levy, but as the question rose to his lips he checked himself, remembering the caution the friendly carters had given him. He therefore determined to walk about the camp till he found some evidence that he was in the immediate neighbourhood of the king.
He rose, stood about a little while to allay any possible suspicion (quite needless precautions, for the soldiers were far too agreeably engaged to take the least notice of him), and then sauntered off with as careless an air as he could assume. Looking about him, first at a forge where the blacksmith was shoeing a horse, then at a grindstone, where a knight's sword was being sharpened, he was nearly knocked down by a horse, urged at some speed through the crowds. By a rope from the collar, three dead bodies were drawn along the ground, dusty and disfigured by bumping against stone and clod. They were those of slaves, hanged the preceding day, perhaps for pilfering, perhaps for a mere whim, since every baron had power of the gallows.
They were dragged through the camp, and out a few hundred yards beyond, and there left to the crows. This horrible sight, to which the rest were so accustomed and so indifferent that they did not even turn to look at it, deeply shocked him; the drawn and distorted features, the tongues protruding and literally licking the dust, haunted him for long after. Though his father, as a baron, possessed the same power, it had never been exercised during his tenure of the estate, so that Felix had not been hardened to the sight of executions, common enough elsewhere. Upon the Old House estate a species of negative humanity reigned; if the slaves were not emancipated, they were not hanged or cruelly beaten for trifles.
Hastening from the spot, Felix came across the artillery, which consisted of battering rams and immense crossbows; the bows were made from entire trees, or, more properly, poles. He inspected these clumsy contrivances with interest, and entered into a conversation with some men who were fitting up the framework on which a battering ram was to swing. Being extremely conceited with themselves and the knowledge they had acquired from experience only (as the repeated blows of the block drive home the pile), they scarcely answered him. But, presently, as he lent a hand to assist, and bore with their churlishness without reply, they softened, and, as usual, asked him to drink, for here, and throughout the camp, the ale was plentiful, too plentiful for much progress.
Felix took the opportunity and suggested a new form of trigger for the unwieldy crossbows. He saw that as at present discharged it must require some strength, perhaps the united effort of several men, to pull away the bolt or catch. Such an effort must disconcert the aim; these crossbows were worked upon a carriage, and it was difficult to keep the carriage steady even when stakes were inserted by the low wheels. It occurred to him at once that the catch could be depressed by a lever, so that one man could discharge the bow by a mere pressure of the hand, and without interfering with the aim. The men soon understood him, and acknowledged that it would be a great improvement. One, who was the leader of the gang, thought it so valuable an idea that he went off at once to communicate with the lieutenant, who would in his turn carry the matter to Baron Ingulph, Master of the Artillery.
The others congratulated him, and asked to share in the reward that would be given to him for this invention. To whose "war" did he belong? Felix answered, after a little hesitation, to the king's levy. At this they whispered among themselves, and Felix, again remembering the carters' caution, said that he must attend the muster (this was a pure guess), but that he would return directly afterwards. Never for a moment suspecting that he would avoid the reward they looked upon as certain, they made no opposition, and he hurried away. Pushing through the groups, and not in the least knowing where he was going, Felix stumbled at last upon the king's quarters.
THE KING'S LEVY
The king's booth stood apart from the rest; it was not much larger, but properly thatched with straw, and the wide doorway hung with purple curtains. Two standards stood beside it; one much higher than the other. The tallest bore the ensign of the kingdom; the lesser, the king's own private banner as a knight. A breastwork encircled the booth, enclosing a space about seventy yards in diameter, with a fosse, and stakes so planted as to repel assailants. There was but one gateway, opposite the general camp, and this was guarded by soldiers fully armed. A knight on horseback in armour, except his helmet, rode slowly up and down before the gate; he was the officer of the guard. His retainers, some thirty or forty men, were drawn up close by.
A distance of fifty yards intervened between this entrenchment and the camp, and was kept clear. Within the entrenchment Felix could see a number of gentlemen, and several horses caparisoned, but from the absence of noise and the fact that every one appeared to walk daintily and on tiptoe, he concluded that the king was still sleeping. The stream ran beside the entrenchment, and between it and the city; the king's quarters were at that corner of the camp highest up the brook, so that the water might not be fouled before it reached him.
The king's levy, however, did not seem to be hereabouts, for the booths nearest the head-quarters were evidently occupied by great barons, as Felix easily knew from their banners. There was here some little appearance of formality; the soldiery were not so noisy, and there were several officers moving among them. He afterwards discovered that the greater barons claimed the right to camp nearest the king, and that the king's levy was just behind their booths. But unable to discover the place, and afraid of losing his liberty if he delayed longer, Felix, after hesitating some time, determined to apply direct to the guard at the gate of the circular entrenchment.
As he crossed the open ground towards it, he noticed that the king's quarters were the closest to the enemy. Across the little stream were some corn-fields, and beyond these the walls of the city, scarcely half a mile distant. There was no outpost, the stream was but a brook, and could be crossed with ease. He marvelled at the lack of precaution; but he had yet to learn that the enemy, and all the armies of the age, were equally ignorant and equally careless.
With as humble a demeanour as he could assume, Felix doffed his cap and began to speak to the guard at the gateway of the entrenchment. The nearest man-at-arms immediately raised his spear and struck him with the butt. The unexpected blow fell on his left shoulder, and with such force as to render it powerless. Before he could utter a remonstrance, a second had seized his boar-spear, snapped the handle across his knee, and hurled the fragments from him. Others then took him by the shoulders and thrust him back across the open space to the camp, where they kicked him and left him, bruised, and almost stupefied with indignation. His offence was approaching the king's ground with arms in his hands.
Later in the afternoon he found himself sitting on the bank of the stream far below the camp. He had wandered thither without knowing where he was going or what he was doing. His spirit for the time had been crushed, not so much by the physical brutality as by the repulse to his aspirations. Full of high hopes, and conscious of great ideas, he had been beaten like a felon hound.
From this spot beside the brook the distant camp appeared very beautiful. The fluttering banners, the green roofs of the booths (of ferns and reeds and boughs), the movement and life, for bodies of troops were now marching to and fro, and knights in gay attire riding on horseback, made a pleasant scene on the sloping ground with the forest at the back. Over the stream the sunshine lit up the walls of the threatened city, where, too, many flags were waving. Felix came somewhat to himself as he gazed, and presently acknowledged that he had only had himself to blame. He had evidently transgressed a rule, and his ignorance of the rule was no excuse, since those who had any right to be in the camp at all were supposed to understand it.
He got up, and returning slowly towards the camp, passed on his way the drinking-place, where a groom was watering some horses. The man called to him to help hold a spirited charger, and Felix mechanically did as he was asked. The fellow's mates had left him to do their work, and there were too many horses for him to manage. Felix led the charger for him back to the camp, and in return was asked to drink. He preferred food, and a plentiful supply was put before him. The groom, gossiping as he attended to his duties, said that he always welcomed the beginning of a war, for they were often half starved, and had to gnaw the bones, like the dogs, in peace. But when war was declared, vast quantities of provisions were got together, and everybody gorged at their will. The very dogs battened; he pointed to half a dozen who were tearing a raw shoulder of mutton to pieces. Before the campaign was over, those very dogs might starve. To what "war" did Felix belong? He replied to the king's levy.
The groom said that this was the king's levy where they were; but under whose command was he? This puzzled Felix, who did not know what to say, and ended by telling the truth, and begging the fellow to advise him, as he feared to lose his liberty. The man said he had better stay where he was, and serve with him under Master Lacy, who was mean enough in the city, but liked to appear liberal when thus consorting with knights and gentlemen.
Master Lacy was a merchant of Aisi, an owner of vessels. Like most of his fellows, when war came so close home, he was almost obliged to join the king's levy. Had he not done so it would have been recorded against him as a lack of loyalty. His privileges would have been taken from him, possibly the wealth he had accumulated seized, and himself reduced to slavery. Lacy, therefore, put on armour, and accompanied the king to the camp. Thus Felix, after all his aspirations, found himself serving as the knave of a mere citizen.
He had to take the horses down to water, to scour arms, to fetch wood from the forest for the fire. He was at the beck and call of all the other men, who never scrupled to use his services, and, observing that he never refused, put upon him all the more. On the other hand, when there was nothing doing, they were very kind and even thoughtful. They shared the best with him, brought wine occasionally (wine was scarce, though ale plentiful) as a delicacy, and one, who had dexterously taken a purse, presented him with half a dozen copper coins as his share of the plunder. Felix, grown wiser by experience, did not dare refuse the stolen money, it would have been considered as the greatest insult; he watched his opportunity and threw it away.
The men, of course, quickly discovered his superior education, but that did not in the least surprise them, it being extremely common for unfortunate people to descend by degrees to menial offices, if once they left the estate and homestead to which they naturally belonged. There as cadets, however humble, they were certain of outward respect: once outside the influence of the head of the house, and they were worse off than the lowest retainer. His fellows would have resented any show of pride, and would speedily have made his life intolerable. As he showed none, they almost petted him, but at the same time expected him to do more than his share of the work.
Felix listened with amazement to the revelations (revelations to him) of the inner life of the camp and court. The king's weaknesses, his inordinate gluttony and continual intoxication, his fits of temper, his follies and foibles, seemed as familiar to these grooms as if they had dwelt with him. As for the courtiers and barons, there was not one whose vices and secret crimes were not perfectly well known to them. Vice and crime must have their instruments; instruments are invariably indiscreet, and thus secrets escape. The palace intrigues, the intrigues with other states, the influence of certain women, there was nothing which they did not know.
Seen thus from below, the whole society appeared rotten and corrupted, coarse to the last degree, and animated only by the lowest motives. This very gossip seemed in itself criminal to Felix, but he did not at the moment reflect that it was but the tale of servants. Had such language been used by gentlemen, then it would have been treason. As himself of noble birth, Felix had hitherto seen things only from the point of view of his own class. Now he associated with grooms, he began to see society from their point of view, and recognised how feebly it was held together by brute force, intrigue, cord and axe, and woman's flattery. But a push seemed needed to overthrow it. Yet it was quite secure, nevertheless, as there was none to give that push, and if any such plot had been formed, those very slaves who suffered the most would have been the very men to give information, and to torture the plotters.
Felix had never dreamed that common and illiterate men, such as these grooms and retainers, could have any conception of reasons of State, or the crafty designs of courts. He now found that, though they could neither writer nor read, they had learned the art of reading man (the worst and lowest side of character) to such perfection that they at once detected the motive. They read the face; the very gait and gesture gave them a clue. They read man, in fact, as an animal. They understood men just as they understood the horses and hounds under their charge. Every mood and vicious indication in those animals was known to them, and so, too, with their masters.
Felix thought that he was himself a hunter, and understood woodcraft; he now found how mistaken he had been. He had acquired woodcraft as a gentleman; he now learned the knave's woodcraft. They taught him a hundred tricks of which he had had no idea. They stripped man of his dignity, and nature of her refinement. Everything had a blackguard side to them. He began to understand that high principles and abstract theories were only words with the mass of men.
One day he saw a knight coolly trip up a citizen (one of the king's levy) in the midst of the camp and in broad daylight, and quietly cut away his purse, at least a score of persons looking on. But they were only retainers and slaves; there was no one whose word would for a moment have been received against the knight's, who had observed this, and plundered the citizen with impunity. He flung the lesser coins to the crowd, keeping the gold and silver for himself, and walked off amidst their plaudits.
Felix saw a slave nailed to a tree, his arms put round it so as to clasp it, and then nails driven through them. There he was left in his agony to perish. No one knew what his fault had been; his master had simply taken a dislike to him. A guard was set that no one should relieve the miserable being. Felix's horror and indignation could not have been expressed, but he was totally helpless.
His own condition of mind during this time was such as could not be well analysed. He did not himself understand whether his spirit had been broken, whether he was really degraded with the men with whom he lived, or why he remained with them, though there were moments when it dawned upon him that this education, rude as it was, was not without its value to him. He need not practise these evils, but it was well to know of their existence. Thus he remained, as it were, quiescent, and the days passed on. He really had not much to do, although the rest put their burdens upon him, for discipline was so lax, that the loosest attendance answered equally well with the most conscientious. The one thing all the men about him seemed to think of was the satisfying of their appetites; the one thing they rejoiced at was the fine dry weather, for, as his mates told him, the misery of camp life in rain was almost unendurable.
Twice Felix saw the king. Once there was a review of the horse outside the camp, and Felix, having to attend with his master's third charger (a mere show and affectation, for there was not the least chance of his needing it), was now and then very near the monarch. For that day at least he looked every whit what fame had reported him to be. A man of unusual size, his bulk rendered him conspicuous in the front of the throng. His massive head seemed to accord well with the possession of despotic power.
The brow was a little bare, for he was no longer young, but the back of his head was covered with thick ringlets of brown hair, so thick as to partly conceal the coronet of gold which he wore. A short purple cloak, scarcely reaching to the waist, was thrown back off his shoulders, so that his steel corselet glistened in the sun. It was the only armour he had on; a long sword hung at his side. He rode a powerful black horse, full eighteen hands high, by far the finest animal on the ground; he required it, for his weight must have been great. Felix passed near enough to note that his eyes were brown, and the expression of his face open, frank, and pleasing. The impression left upon the observer was that of a strong intellect, but a still stronger physique, which latter too often ran away with and controlled the former. No one could look upon him without admiration, and it was difficult to think that he could so demean himself as to wallow in the grossest indulgence.
As for the review, though it was a brilliant scene, Felix could not conceal from himself that these gallant knights were extremely irregular in their movements, and not one single evolution was performed correctly, because they were constantly quarrelling about precedence, and one would not consent to follow the other. He soon understood, however, that discipline was not the object, nor regularity considered; personal courage and personal dexterity were everything. This review was the prelude to active operations, and Felix now hoped to have some practical lessons in warfare.
He was mistaken. Instead of a grand assault, or a regular approach, the fighting was merely a series of combats between small detachments and bodies of the enemy. Two or three knights with their retainers and slaves would start forth, cross the stream, and riding right past the besieged city endeavour to sack some small hamlet, or the homestead of a noble. From the city a sortie would ensue; sometimes the two bodies only threatened each other at a distance, the first retiring as the second advanced. Sometimes only a few arrows were discharged; occasionally they came to blows, but the casualties were rarely heavy.
One such party, while returning, was followed by a squadron of horsemen from the town towards the stream to within three hundred yards of the king's quarters. Incensed at this assurance, several knights mounted their horses and rode out to reinforce the returning detachment, which was loaded with booty. Finding themselves about to be supported, they threw down their spoils, faced about, and Felix saw for the first time a real and desperate melee. It was over in five minutes. The king's knights, far better horsed, and filled with desire to exhibit their valour to the camp, charged with such fury that they overthrew the enemy and rode over him.
Felix saw the troops meet; there was a crash and cracking as the lances broke, four or five rolled from the saddle on the trodden corn, and the next moment the entangled mass of men and horses unwound itself as the enemy hastened back to the walls. Felix was eager to join in such an affray, but he had no horse nor weapon. Upon another occasion early one bright morning four knights and their followers, about forty in all, deliberately set out from the camp, and advanced up the sloping ground towards the city. The camp was soon astir watching their proceedings; and the king, being made acquainted with what was going on, came out from his booth. Felix, who now entered the circular entrenchment without any difficulty, got up on the mound with scores of others, where, holding to the stakes, they had a good view.
The king stood on a bench and watched the troops advance, shading his eyes with his hand. As it was but half a mile to the walls they could see all that took place. When the knights had got within two hundred yards and arrows began to drop amongst them, they dismounted from their horses and left them in charge of the grooms, who walked them up and down, none remaining still a minute, so as to escape the aim of the enemy's archers. Then drawing their swords, the knights, who were in full armour, put themselves at the head of the band, and advanced at a steady pace to the wall. In their mail with their shields before them they cared not for such feeble archery, nor even for the darts that poured upon them when they came within reach. There was no fosse to the wall, so that, pushing forward, they were soon at the foot. So easily had they reached it that Felix almost thought the city already won. Now he saw blocks of stone, darts, and beams of wood cast at them from the parapet, which was not more than twelve feet above the ground.
Quite undismayed, the knights set up their ladders, of which they had but four, one each. The men-at-arms held these by main force against the wall, the besiegers trying to throw them away, and chopping at the rungs with their axes. But the ladders were well shod with iron to resist such blows, and in a moment Felix saw, with intense delight and admiration, the four knights slowly mount to the parapet and cut at the defenders with their swords. The gleam of steel was distinctly visible as the blades rose and fell. The enemy thrust at them with pikes, but seemed to shrink from closer combat, and a moment afterwards the gallant four stood on the top of the wall. Their figures, clad in mail and shield in hand, were distinctly seen against the sky. Up swarmed the men-at-arms behind them, and some seemed to descend on the other side. A shout rose from the camp and echoed over the woods. Felix shouted with the rest, wild with excitement.
The next minute, while yet the knights stood on the wall, and scarcely seemed to know what to do next, there appeared at least a dozen men in armour running along the wall towards them. Felix afterwards understood that the ease with which the four won the wall at first was owing to there being no men of knightly rank among the defenders at that early hour. Those who had collected to repulse the assault were citizens, retainers, slaves, any, in fact who had been near. But now the news had reached the enemy's leaders, and some of them hastened to the wall. As these were seen approaching, the camp was hushed, and every eye strained on the combatants.
The noble four could not all meet their assailants, the wall was but wide enough for two to fight; but the other two had work enough the next minute, as eight or ten more men in mail advanced the other way. So they fought back to back, two facing one way, and two the other. The swords rose and fell. Felix saw a flash of light fly up into the air, it was the point of a sword broken off short. At the foot of the wall the men who had not had time to mount endeavoured to assist their masters by stabbing upwards with their spears.
All at once two of the knights were hurled from the wall; one seemed to be caught by his men, the other came heavily to the ground. While they were fighting their immediate antagonists, others within the wall had come with lances; and literally thrust them from the parapet. The other two still fought back to back for a moment; then, finding themselves overwhelmed, they sprang down among their friends.
The minute the two first fell, the grooms with the horses ran towards the wall, and despite the rain of arrows, darts, and stones from the parapet, Felix saw with relief three of the four knights placed on their chargers. One only could sit upright unassisted, two were supported in their saddles, and the fourth was carried by his retainers. Thus they retreated, and apparently without further hurt, for the enemy on the wall crowded so much together as to interfere with the aim of their darts, which, too, soon fell short. But there was a dark heap beneath the wall, where ten or twelve retainers and slaves, who wore no armour, had been slain or disabled. Upon these the loss invariably fell.
None attempted to follow the retreating party, who slowly returned towards the camp, and were soon apparently in safety. But suddenly a fresh party of the enemy appeared upon the wall, and the instant afterwards three retainers dropped, as if struck by lightning. They had been hit by sling stones, whirled with great force by practised slingers. These rounded pebbles come with such impetus as to stun a man at two hundred yards. The aim, it is true, is uncertain, but where there is a body of troops they are sure to strike some one. Hastening on, leaving the three fallen men where they lay, the rest in two minutes were out of range, and came safely into camp. Everyone, as they crossed the stream, ran to meet them, the king included, and as he passed in the throng, Felix heard him remark that they had had a capital main of cocks that morning.
Of the knights only one was much injured; he had fallen upon a stone, and two ribs were broken; the rest suffered from severe bruises, but had no wound. Six men-at-arms were missing, probably prisoners, for, as courageous as their masters, they had leapt down from the wall into the town. Eleven other retainers or slaves were slain, or had deserted, or were prisoners, and no trouble was taken about them. As for the three who were knocked over by the sling stones, there they lay until they recovered their senses, when they crawled into camp. This incident cooled Felix's ardour for the fray, for he reflected that, if injured thus, he too, as a mere groom, would be left. The devotion of the retainers to save and succour their masters was almost heroic. The mailed knights thought no more of their men, unless it was some particular favourite, than of a hound slashed by a boar's tusk in the chase.
When the first flush of his excitement had passed, Felix, thinking over the scene of the morning as he took his horses down to water at the stream, became filled at first with contempt, and then with indignation. That the first commander of the age should thus look on while the wall was won before his eyes, and yet never send a strong detachment, or move himself with his whole army to follow up the advantage, seemed past understanding. If he did not intend to follow it up, why permit such desperate ventures, which must be overwhelmed by mere numbers, and could result only in the loss of brave men? And if he did permit it, why did he not, when he saw they were overthrown, send a squadron to cover their retreat? To call such an exhibition of courage "a main of cocks", to look on it as a mere display for his amusement, was barbarous and cruel in the extreme. He worked himself up into a state of anger which rendered him less cautious than usual in expressing his opinions.
The king was not nearly so much at fault as Felix, arguing on abstract principles, imagined. He had long experience of war, and he knew its extreme uncertainty. The issue of the greatest battle often hung on the conduct of a single leader, or even a single man-at-arms. He had seen walls won and lost before. To follow up such a venture with a strong detachment must result in one of two things, either the detachment in its turn must be supported by the entire army, or it must eventually retreat. If it retreated, the loss of prestige would be serious, and might encourage the enemy to attack the camp, for it was only his prestige which prevented them. If supported by the entire army, then the fate of the whole expedition depended upon that single day.
The enemy had the advantage of the wall, of the narrow streets and enclosures within, of the houses, each of which would become a fortress, and thus in the winding streets a repulse might easily happen. To risk such an event would be folly in the last degree, before the town had been dispirited and discouraged by the continuance of the siege, the failure of their provisions, or the fall of their chief leaders in the daily combats that took place.
The army had no discipline whatever, beyond that of the attachment of the retainer to his lord, and the dread of punishment on the part of the slave. There were no distinct ranks, no organized corps. The knights followed the greater barons, the retainers the knights; the greater barons followed the king. Such an army could not be risked in an assault of this kind. The venture was not ordered, nor was it discouraged; to discourage, indeed, all attempts would have been bad policy; it was upon the courage and bravery of his knights that the king depended, and upon that alone rested his hopes of victory.
The great baron whose standard they followed would have sent them assistance if he had deemed it necessary. The king, unless on the day of battle, would not trouble about such a detail. As for the remark, that they had had "a good main of cocks that morning," he simply expressed the feeling of the whole camp. The spectacle Felix had seen was, in fact, merely an instance of the strength and of the weakness of the army and the monarch himself.
Felix afterwards acknowledged these things to himself, but at the moment, full of admiration for the bravery of the four knights and their followers, he was full of indignation, and uttered his views too freely. His fellow-grooms cautioned him; but his spirit was up, and he gave way to his feelings without restraint. Now, to laugh at the king's weaknesses, his gluttony or follies, was one thing; to criticise his military conduct was another. The one was merely badinage, and the king himself might have laughed had he heard it; the other was treason, and, moreover, likely to touch the monarch on the delicate matter of military reputation.
Of this Felix quickly became aware. His mates, indeed, tried to shield him; but possibly the citizen, his master, had enemies in the camp, barons, perhaps, to whom he had lent money, and who watched for a chance of securing his downfall. At all events, early the next day Felix was rudely arrested by the provost in person, bound with cords, and placed in the provost's booth. At the same time, his master was ordered to remain within, and a guard was put over him.
Hope died within Felix when he thus suddenly found himself so near the executioner. He had known so many butchered without cause, that he had, indeed, reason to despair. Towards the sunset he felt sure he should be dragged forth and hanged on the oak used for the purpose, and which stood near where the track from Aisi joined the camp. Such would most probably have been his fate, had he been alone concerned in this affair, but by good fortune he was able to escape so miserable an end. Still, he suffered as much as if the rope had finished him, for he had no means of knowing what would be the result.
His heart swelled with bitterness; he was filled with inexpressible indignation, his whole being rebelled against the blundering, as it were, of events which had thus thrown him into the jaws of death. In an hour or two, however, he sufficiently recovered from the shock to reflect that most probably they would give him some chance to speak for himself. There would not be any trial; who would waste time in trying so insignificant a wretch? But there might be some opportunity of speaking, and he resolved to use it to the utmost possible extent.
He would arraign the unskilful generalship of the king; he would not only point out his errors, but how the enemy could be defeated. He would prove that he had ideas and plans worthy of attention. He would, as it were, vindicate himself before he was executed, and he tried to collect his thoughts and to put them into form. Every moment the face of Aurora seemed to look upon him, lovingly and mournfully; but beside it he saw the dusty and distorted features of the copse he had seen drawn by the horse through the camp. Thus, too, his tongue would protrude and lick the dust. He endured, in a word, those treble agonies which the highly-wrought and imaginative inflict upon themselves.
The hours passed, and still no one came near him; he called, and the guard appeared at the door, but only to see what was the matter, and finding his prisoner safe, at once resumed his walk to and fro. The soldier did not, for his own sake, dare to enter into conversation with a prisoner under arrest for such an offence; he might be involved, or suspected. Had it been merely theft or any ordinary crime, he would have talked freely enough, and sympathized with the prisoner. As time went on, Felix grew thirsty, but his request for water was disregarded, and there he remained till four in the afternoon. They then marched him out; he begged to be allowed to speak, but the soldiery did not reply, simply hurrying him forward. He now feared that he should be executed without the chance being afforded him to say a word; but, to his surprise, he found in a few minutes that they were taking him in the direction of the king's quarters. New fears now seized him, for he had heard of men being turned loose, made to run for their lives, and hunted down with hounds for the amusement of the Court.
If the citizen's wealth had made him many enemies (men whom he had befriended, and who hoped, if they could be see him executed, to escape the payment of their debts), on the other hand, it had made him as many friends, that is, interested friends, who trusted by doing him service to obtain advances. These latter had lost no time, for greed is quite as eager as hate, and carried the matter at once to the king. What they desired was that the case should be decided by the monarch himself, and not by his chancellor, or a judge appointed for the purpose. The judge would be nearly certain to condemn the citizen, and to confiscate whatever he could lay hands on. The king might pardon, and would be content with a part only, where his ministers would grasp all.
These friends succeeded in their object; the king, who hated all judicial affairs because they involved the trouble of investigation, shrugged his shoulders at the request, and would not have granted it had it not come out that the citizen's servant had declared him to be an incapable commander. At this the king started. "We are, indeed, fallen low," said he, "when a miserable trader's knave calls us incapable. We will see this impudent rascal." He accordingly ordered that the prisoner should be brought before him after dinner.
Felix was led inside the entrenchment, unbound, and commanded to stand upright. There was a considerable assembly of the greater barons anxious to see the trial of the money-lender, who, though present, was kept apart from Felix lest the two should arrange their defence. The king was sleeping on a couch outside the booth in the shade; he was lying on his back breathing loudly with open mouth. How different his appearance to the time when he sat on his splendid charger and reviewed his knights! A heavy meal had been succeeded by as heavy a slumber. No one dared to disturb him; the assembly moved on tiptoe and conversed in whispers. The experienced divined that the prisoners were certain to be condemned, for the king would wake with indigestion, and vent his uneasy sensations upon them. Full an hour elapsed before the king awoke with a snort and called for a draught of water. How Felix envied that draught! He had neither eaten nor drunk since the night previous; it was a hot day, and his tongue was dry and parched.
The citizen was first accused; he denied any treasonable designs or expressions whatever; as for the other prisoner, till the time he was arrested he did not even know he had been in his service. He was some stroller whom his grooms had incautiously engaged, the lazy scoundrels, to assist them. He had never even spoken to him; it the knave told the truth he must acknowledge this.
"How now," said the king, turning to Felix; "what do you say?"
"It is true," replied Felix, "he has never spoken to me nor I to him. He knew nothing of what I said. I said it on my own account, and I say it again!"
"And pray, sir knave," said the king, sitting up on his couch, for he was surprised to hear one so meanly dressed speak so correctly, and so boldly face him. "What was it you did say?"
"If your majesty will order me a single drop of water," said the prisoner, "I will repeat it word for word, but I have had nothing the whole day, and I can hardly move my tongue."
Without a word the king handed him the cup from which he had himself drunk. Never, surely, was water so delicious. Felix drained it to the bottom, handed it back (an officer took it), and with one brief thought of Aurora, he said: "Your majesty, you are an incapable commander."
"Go on," said the king sarcastically; "why am I incapable?"
"You have attacked the wrong city; these three are all your enemies, and you have attacked the first. They stand in a row."
"They stand in a row," repeated the king; "and we will knock them over like three nine-pins."
"But you have begun with the end one," said Felix, "and that is the mistake. For after you have taken the first you must take the second, and still after that the third. But you might have saved much trouble and time if——"
"If you had assaulted the middle one first. For then, while the siege went on, you would have been able to prevent either of the other two towns from sending assistance, and when you had taken the first and put your garrison in it, neither of the others could have stirred, or reaped their corn, nor could they even communicate with each other, since you would be between them; and in fact you would have cut your enemies in twain."
"By St. John!" swore the king, "it is a good idea. I begin to think—but go on, you have more to say."
"I think, too, your majesty, that by staying here as you have done this fortnight past without action, you have encouraged the other two cities to make more desperate resistance; and it seems to me that you are in a dangerous position, and may at any moment be overwhelmed with disaster, for there is nothing whatever to prevent either of the other two from sending troops to burn the open city of Aisi in your absence. And that danger must increase every day as they take courage by your idleness."
"Idleness! There shall be idleness no longer. The man speaks the truth; we will consider further of this, we will move on Adelinton," turning to his barons.
"If it please your majesty," said Baron Ingulph, "this man invented a new trigger for our carriage crossbows, but he was lost in the crowd, and we have sought for him in vain; my serjeant here has this moment recognised him."
"Why did you not come to us before, fellow?" said the king. "Let him be released; let him be entertained at our expense; give him clothes and a sword. We will see you further."