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The Camp






Part of: WILD ENGLAND
From: After London

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.





Next: The King's Levy

Previous: The City



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