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Sailing Onwards






Part of: WILD ENGLAND
From: After London

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.





Next: The City

Previous: The Straits



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