Part of: WILD ENGLAND
From: After London
Felix's own position was bitter in the extreme. He felt he had talent.
He loved deeply, he knew that he was in turn as deeply beloved; but he
was utterly powerless. On the confines of the estate, indeed, the men
would run gladly to do his bidding. Beyond, and on his own account, he
was helpless. Manual labour (to plough, to sow, to work on shipboard)
could produce nothing in a time when almost all work was done by
bondsmen or family retainers. The life of a hunter in the woods was
free, but produced nothing.
The furs he sold simply maintained him; it was barter for existence, not
profit. The shepherds on the hills roamed in comparative freedom, but
they had no wealth except of sheep. He could not start as a merchant
without money; he could not enclose an estate and build a house or
castle fit for the nuptials of a noble's daughter without money, or that
personal influence which answers the same purpose; he could not even
hope to succeed to the hereditary estate, so deeply was it encumbered;
they might, indeed, at any time be turned forth.
Slowly the iron entered into his soul. This hopelessness, helplessness,
embittered every moment. His love increasing with the passage of time
rendered his position hateful in the extreme. The feeling within that he
had talent which only required opportunity stung him like a scorpion.
The days went by, and everything remained the same. Continual brooding
and bitterness of spirit went near to drive him mad.
At last the resolution was taken, he would go forth into the world. That
involved separation from Aurora, long separation, and without
communication, since letters could be sent only by special messenger,
and how should he pay a messenger? It was this terrible thought of
separation which had so long kept him inactive. In the end the
bitterness of hopelessness forced him to face it. He began the canoe,
but kept his purpose secret, especially from her, lest tears should melt
There were but two ways of travelling open to him: on foot, as the
hunters did, or by the merchant vessels. The latter, of course, required
payment, and their ways were notoriously coarse. If on foot he could not
cross the Lake, nor visit the countries on either shore, nor the
islands; therefore he cut down the poplar and commenced the canoe.
Whither he should go, and what he should do, was entirely at the mercy
of circumstances. He had no plan, no route.
He had a dim idea of offering his services to some distant king or
prince, of unfolding to him the inventions he had made. He tried to
conceal from himself that he would probably be repulsed and laughed at.
Without money, without a retinue, how could he expect to be received or
listened to? Still, he must go; he could not help himself, go he must.
As he chopped and chipped through the long weeks of early spring, while
the easterly winds bent the trees above him, till the buds unfolded and
the leaves expanded--while his hands were thus employed, the whole map,
as it were, of the known countries seemed to pass without volition
before his mind. He saw the cities along the shores of the great Lake;
he saw their internal condition, the weakness of the social fabric, the
misery of the bondsmen. The uncertain action of the League, the only
thread which bound the world together; the threatening aspect of the
Cymry and the Irish; the dread north, the vast northern forests, from
which at any time invading hosts might descend on the fertile south--it
all went before his eyes.
What was there behind the immense and untraversed belt of forest which
extended to the south, to the east, and west? Where did the great Lake
end? Were the stories of the gold and silver mines of Devon and Cornwall
true? And where were the iron mines, from which the ancients drew their
stores of metal?
Led by these thoughts he twice or thrice left his labour, and walking
some twenty miles through the forests, and over the hills, reached the
summit of White Horse. From thence, resting on the sward, he watched the
vessels making slow progress by oars, and some drawn with ropes by gangs
of men or horses on the shore, through the narrow straits. North and
South there nearly met. There was but a furlong of water between them.
If ever the North came down there the armies would cross. There was
the key of the world. Excepting the few cottages where the owners of the
horses lived, there was neither castle nor town within twenty miles.
Forced on by these thoughts, he broke the long silence which had existed
between him and his father. He spoke of the value and importance of this
spot; could not the Baron send forth his retainers and enclose a new
estate there? There was nothing to prevent him. The forest was free to
all, provided that they rendered due service to the Prince. Might not a
house or castle built there become the beginning of a city? The Baron
listened, and then said he must go and see that a new hatch was put in
the brook to irrigate the water-meadow. That was all.
Felix next wrote an anonymous letter to the Prince pointing out the
value of the place. The Prince should seize it, and add to his power. He
knew that the letter was delivered, but there was no sign. It had
indeed, been read and laughed at. Why make further efforts when they
already had what they desired? One only, the deep and designing
Valentine, gave it serious thought in secret. It seemed to him that
something might come of it, another day, when he was himself in
power--if that should happen. But he, too, forgot it in a week. Some
secret effort was made to discover the writer, for the council were very
jealous of political opinion, but it soon ended. The idea, not being
supported by money or influence, fell into oblivion.
Felix worked on, chipping out the canoe. The days passed, and the boat
was nearly finished. In a day or two now it would be launched, and soon
afterwards he should commence his voyage. He should see Aurora once more
only. He should see her, but he should not say farewell; she would not
know that he was going till he had actually departed. As he thought thus
a dimness came before his eyes; his hand trembled, and he could not
work. He put down the chisel, and paused to steady himself.
Upon the other side of the stream, somewhat lower down, a yellow
wood-dog had been lapping the water to quench its thirst, watching the
man the while. So long as Felix was intent upon his work, the wild
animal had no fear; the moment he looked up, the creature sprang back
into the underwood. A dove was cooing in the forest not far distant, but
as he was about to resume work the cooing ceased. Then a wood-pigeon
rose from the ashes with a loud clapping of wings. Felix listened. His
hunter instinct told him that something was moving there. A rustling of
the bushes followed, and he took his spear which had been leant against
the adjacent tree. But, peering into the wood, in a moment he recognised
Oliver, who, having walked off his rage, was returning.
"I though it might have been a Bushman," said Felix, replacing his
spear; "only they are noiseless."
"Any of them might have cut me down," said Oliver; "for I forgot my
weapon. It is nearly noon; are you coming home to dinner?"
"Yes; I must bring my tools."
He put them in the basket, and together they returned to the rope
ladder. As they passed the Pen by the river they caught sight of the
Baron in the adjacent gardens, which were irrigated by his contrivances
from the stream, and went towards him. A retainer held two horses, one
gaily caparisoned, outside the garden; his master was talking with Sir
"It is Lord John," said Oliver. They approached slowly under the
fruit-trees, not to intrude. Sir Constans was showing the courtier an
early cherry-tree, whose fruit was already set. The dry hot weather had
caused it to set even earlier than usual. A suit of black velvet, an
extremely expensive and almost unprocurable material, brought the
courtier's pale features into relief. It was only by the very oldest
families that any velvet or satin or similar materials were still
preserved; if these were in pecuniary difficulties they might sell some
part of their store, but such things were not to be got for money in the
Two small silver bars across his left shoulder showed that he was a
lord-in-waiting. He was a handsome man, with clear-cut features,
somewhat rakish from late hours and dissipation, but not the less
interesting on that account. But his natural advantages were so over-run
with the affectation of the Court that you did not see the man at all,
being absorbed by the studied gesture to display the jewelled ring, and
the peculiarly low tone of voice in which it was the fashion to speak.
Beside the old warrior he looked a mere stripling. The Baron's arm was
bare, his sleeve rolled up; and as he pointed to the tree above, the
muscles, as the limb moved, displayed themselves in knots, at which the
courtier himself could not refrain from glancing. Those mighty arms, had
they clasped him about the waist, could have crushed his bending ribs.
The heaviest blow that he could have struck upon that broad chest would
have produced no more effect than a hollow sound; it would not even have
shaken that powerful frame.
He felt the steel blue eye, bright as the sky of midsummer, glance into
his very mind. The high forehead bare, for the Baron had his hat in his
hand, mocked at him in its humility. The Baron bared his head in honour
of the courtier's office and the Prince who had sent him. The beard,
though streaked with white, spoke little of age; it rather indicated an
abundant, a luxuriant vitality.
Lord John was not at ease. He shifted from foot to foot, and
occasionally puffed a large cigar of Devon tobacco. His errand was
simple enough. Some of the ladies at the Court had a fancy for fruit,
especially strawberries, but there were none in the market, nor to be
obtained from the gardens about the town. It was recollected that Sir
Constans was famous for his gardens, and the Prince despatched Lord John
to Old House with a gracious message and request for a basket of
strawberries. Sir Constans was much pleased; but he regretted that the
hot, dry weather had not permitted the fruit to come to any size or
perfection. Still there were some.
The courtier accompanied him to the gardens, and saw the water-wheel
which, turned by a horse, forced water from the stream into a small pond
or elevated reservoir, from which it irrigated the ground. This supply
of water had brought on the fruit, and Sir Constans was able to gather a
small basket. He then looked round to see what other early product he
could send to the palace. There was no other fruit; the cherries, though
set, were not ripe; but there was some asparagus, which had not yet been
served, said Lord John, at the Prince's table.
Sir Constans set men to hastily collect all that was ready, and while
this was done took the courtier over the gardens. Lord John felt no
interest whatever in such matters, but he could not choose but admire
the extraordinary fertility of the enclosure, and the variety of the
products. There was everything; fruit of all kinds, herbs of every
species, plots specially devoted to those possessing medicinal virtue.
This was only one part of the gardens; the orchards proper were farther
down, and the flowers nearer the house. Sir Constans had sent a man to
the flower-garden, who now returned with two fine bouquets, which were
presented to Lord John: the one for the Princess, the Prince's sister;
the other for any lady to whom he might choose to present it.
The fruit had already been handed to the retainer who had charge of the
horses. Though interested, in spite of himself, Lord John, acknowledging
the flowers, turned to go with a sense of relief. This simplicity of
manners seemed discordant to him. He felt out of place, and in some way
lowered in his own esteem, and yet he despised the rural retirement and
beauty about him.
Felix and Oliver, a few yards distant, were waiting with rising tempers.
The spectacle of the Baron in his native might of physique, humbly
standing, hat in hand, before this Court messenger, discoursing on
cherries, and offering flowers and fruit, filled them with anger and
disgust. The affected gesture and subdued voice of the courtier, on the
other hand, roused an equal contempt.
As Lord John turned, he saw them. He did not quite guess their
relationship, but supposed they were cadets of the house, it being
customary for those in any way connected to serve the head of the
family. He noted the flag basket in Felix's hand, and naturally imagined
that he had been at work.
"You have been to-to plough, eh?" he said, intending to be very gracious
and condescending. "Very healthy employment. The land requires some
rain, does it not? Still I trust it will not rain till I am home, for my
plume's sake," tossing his head. "Allow me," and as he passed he offered
Oliver a couple of cigars. "One each," he added; "the best Devon."
Oliver took the cigars mechanically, holding them as if they had been
vipers, at arm's length, till the courtier had left the garden, and the
hedge interposed. Then he threw them into the water-carrier. The best
tobacco, indeed the only real tobacco, came from the warm Devon land,
but little of it reached so far, on account of the distance, the
difficulties of intercourse, the rare occasions on which the merchant
succeeded in escaping the vexatious interference, the downright robbery
of the way. Intercourse was often entirely closed by war.
These cigars, therefore, were worth their weight in silver, and such
tobacco could be obtained only by those about the Court, as a matter of
favour, too, rather than by purchase. Lord John would, indeed, have
stared aghast had he seen the rustic to whom he had given so valuable a
present cast them into a ditch. He rode towards the Maple Gate, excusing
his haste volubly to Sir Constans, who was on foot, and walked beside
him a little way, pressing him to take some refreshment.
His sons overtook the Baron as he walked towards home, and walked by his
side in silence. Sir Constans was full of his fruit.
"The wall cherry," said he, "will soon have a few ripe."
Oliver swore a deep but soundless oath in his chest. Sir Constans
continued talking about his fruit and flowers, entirely oblivious of the
silent anger of the pair beside him. As they approached the house, the
warder blew his horn thrice for noon. It was also the signal for dinner.
Next: The Forest Track
Previous: The Canoe