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The King's Levy






Part of: WILD ENGLAND
From: After London

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.





Next: Fighting

Previous: The Camp



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