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Thyma Castle






Part of: WILD ENGLAND
From: After London

Soon afterwards the hollow sound of the warden's horn, from the watch
over the gate of the wall, proclaimed the hour of noon, and they all
assembled for dinner in the banqueting chamber. The apartment was on the
ground floor, and separated from the larger hall only by an internal
wall. The house, erected in the time of the ancients, was not designed
for our present style of life; it possessed, indeed, many comforts and
conveniences which are scarcely now to be found in the finest palaces,
but it lacked the breadth of construction which our architects have now
in view.

In the front there were originally only two rooms, extensive for those
old days, but not sufficiently so for ours. One of these had therefore
been enlarged, by throwing into it a back room and part of the entrance,
and even then it was not long enough for the Baron's retainers, and at
feast-time a wooden shed was built opposite, and up to the window, to
continue, as it were, the apartment out of doors. Workmen were busy
putting up this shed when they arrived.

The second apartment retained its ancient form, and was used as the
dining-room on ordinary days. It was lighted by a large window, now
thrown wide open that the sweet spring air might enter, which window was
the pride of the Baroness, for it contained more true glass than any
window in the palace of the Prince. The glass made now is not
transparent, but merely translucent; it indeed admits light after a
fashion, but it is thick and cannot be seen through. These panes were
almost all (the central casement wholly) of ancient glass, preserved
with the greatest care through the long years past.

Three tables were arranged in an open square; the Baron and Baroness's
chairs of oak faced the window, the guests sat at the other tables
sideways to them, the servants moved on the outer side, and thus placed
the food before them without pushing against or incommoding them. A
fourth table was placed in a corner between the fireplace and the
window. At it sat the old nurse, the housekeeper (frequently arising to
order the servants), and the Baron's henchman, who had taught him to
ride, but now, grey and aged, could not mount himself without
assistance, and had long ceased from active service.

Already eight or nine guests had arrived besides Felix and Oliver. Some
had ridden a great distance to be present at the House Day. They were
all nobles, richly dressed; one or two of the eldest were wealthy and
powerful men, and the youngest was the son and heir of the Earl of
Essiton, who was then the favourite at Court. Each had come with his
personal attendants; the young Lord Durand brought with him twenty-five
retainers, and six gentlemen friends, all of whom were lodged in the
town, the gentlemen taking their meals at the castle at the same time as
the Baron, but, owing to lack of room, in another apartment by
themselves. Durand was placed, or rather, quietly helped himself to a
seat, next to the Lady Aurora, and of all the men there present,
certainly there was none more gallant and noble than he.

His dark eyes, his curling hair short but brought in a thick curl over
his forehead, his lips well shaped, his chin round and somewhat
prominent, the slight moustache (no other hair on the face), formed the
very ideal of what many women look for in a man. But it was his bright,
lively conversation, the way in which his slightly swarthy complexion
flushed with animation, the impudent assurance and yet generous warmth
of his manner, and, indeed, of his feelings, which had given him the
merited reputation of being the very flower of the nobles.

With such a reputation, backed with the great wealth and power of his
father, gentlemen competed with each other to swell his train; he could
not, indeed, entertain all that came, and was often besieged with almost
as large a crowd as the Prince himself. He took as his right the chair
next to Aurora, to whom, indeed, he had been paying unremitting
attention all the morning. She was laughing heartily as she sat down, at
some sally of his upon a beauty at the Court.

The elder men were placed highest up the tables, and nearest the host,
but to the astonishment of all, and not the least of himself, Oliver was
invited by the Baron to sit by his side. Oliver could not understand
this special mark of favour; the others, though far too proud for a
moment to resent what they might have deemed a slight upon them, at once
began to search their minds for a reason. They knew the Baron as an old
intriguer; they attached a meaning, whether intended or not, to his
smallest action.

Felix, crowded out, as it were, and unnoticed, was forced to take his
seat at the end of the table nearest that set apart in the corner for
the aged and honoured servitors of the family. Only a few feet
intervened between him and ancient henchmen; and he could not but
overhear their talk among themselves, whispered as it was. He had merely
shaken hands with Aurora; the crowd in the drawing-room and the marked
attentions of Durand had prevented the exchange of a single word between
them. As usual, the sense of neglect and injury over which he had so
long brooded with little or no real cause (considering, of course, his
position, and that the world can only see our coats and not our hearts),
under these entirely accidental circumstances rose up again within him,
and blinded him to the actual state of things.

His seat, the lowest, and the nearest to the servitors, was in itself a
mark of the low estimation in which he was held. The Lord Durand had
been placed next to Aurora, as a direct encouragement to him, and a
direct hint to himself not to presume. Doubtless, Durand had been at the
castle many times, not improbably already been accepted by the Baron,
and not altogether refused by Aurora. As a fact, though delighted with
her beauty and conversation, Durand's presence was entirely due to the
will of his father, the Earl, who wished to maintain friendly relations
with Baron Thyma, and even then he would not have come had not the
lovely weather invited him to ride into the forest.

It was, however, so far true, that though his presence was accidental,
yet he was fast becoming fascinated by one who, girl though she was, was
stronger in mind than he. Now Aurora, knowing that he father's eye was
on her, dared not look towards Felix, lest by an open and pronounced
conduct she should be the cause of his being informed that his presence
was not desirable. She knew that the Baron only needed a pretext to
interfere, and was anxious to avoid offering him a chance.

Felix, seeing her glance bent downwards or towards her companion, and
never all the time turned to him, not unnaturally, but too hastily,
concluded that she had been dazzled by Durand and the possibility of an
alliance with his powerful family. He was discarded, worthless, and of
no account; he had nothing but his sword; nay, he had not a sword, he
was only an archer, a footman. Angry, jealous, and burning with inward
annoyance, despising himself since all others despised him, scarce able
to remain at the table, Felix was almost beside himself, and did not
answer nor heed the remarks of the gentlemen sitting by him, who put him
down as an ill-bred churl.

For the form's sake, indeed, he put his lips to the double-handled cup
of fine ale, which continually circulated round the table, and was never
allowed to be put down; one servant had nothing else to do but to see
that its progress never stopped. But he drank nothing, and ate nothing;
he could not swallow. How visionary, how weak and feeble now seemed the
wild scheme of the canoe and his proposed voyage! Even should it
succeed, years must elapse before he could accomplish anything
substantial; while here were men who really had what he could only think
of or imagine.

The silver chain or sword-belt of Durand (the sword and the dagger were
not worn at the banquet, nor in the house, they were received by the
marshal, and deposited in his care, a precaution against quarrelling),
solid silver links passing over his shoulder, were real actual things.
All the magnificence that he could call up by the exercise of his
imagination, was but imagination; a dream no more to be seen by others
than the air itself.

The dinner went on, and the talk became more noisy. The trout, the
chicken, the thyme lamb (trapped on the hills by the shepherds), the
plover eggs, the sirloin, the pastry (the Baroness superintended the
making of it herself), all the profusion of the table, rather set him
against food than tempted him. Nor could he drink the tiny drop, as it
were, of ancient brandy, sent round to each guest at the conclusion,
precious as liquid gold, for it had been handed down from the ancients,
and when once the cask was empty it could not be re-filled.

The dessert, the strawberries, the nuts and walnuts, carefully preserved
with a little salt, and shaken in the basket from time to time that they
might not become mouldy, the apples, the honey in the comb with slices
of white bread, nothing pleased him. Nor did he drink, otherwise than
the sip demanded by courtesy, of the thin wine of Gloucester, costly as
it was, grown in the vineyard there, and shipped across the Lake, and
rendered still more expensive by risk of pirates. This was poured into
flagons of maple wood, which, like the earthenware cup of ale, were
never allowed to touch the board till the dinner was over.

Wearily the time went on; Felix glanced more and more often at the sky
seen through the casement, eagerly desiring to escape, and at least to
be alone. At last (how long it seemed!) the Baron rose, and immediately
the rest did the same, and they drank the health of the Prince. Then a
servitor brought in a pile of cigars upon a carved wooden tray, like a
large platter, but with a rim. "These," said the Baron, again rising
(the signal to all to cease conversing and to listen), "are a present
from my gracious and noble friend the Earl of Essiton" (he looked
towards Durand), "not less kindly carried by Lord Durand. I could have
provided only our own coarse tobacco; but these are the best Devon."

The ladies now left the table, Aurora escorted by Durand, the Baroness
by Oliver. Oliver, indeed, was in the highest spirits; he had eaten
heartily of all; especially the sweet thyme lamb, and drunk as freely.
He was in his element, his laugh the loudest, his talk the liveliest.
Directly Durand returned (he had gone even a part of the way upstairs
towards the drawing-room with Aurora, a thing a little against
etiquette) he took his chair, formality being now at an end, and placed
it by Oliver. They seemed to become friends at once by sympathy of mind
and taste.

Round them the rest gradually grouped themselves, so that presently
Felix, who did not move, found himself sitting alone at the extreme end
of the table; quite apart, for the old retainers, who dined at the
separate table, had quitted the apartment when the wine was brought in.
Freed from the restraint of the ladies, the talk now became extremely
noisy, the blue smoke from the long cigars filled the great apartment;
one only remained untouched, that placed before Felix. Suddenly it
struck him that thus sitting alone and apart, he should attract
attention; he, therefore, drew his chair to the verge of the group, but
remained silent, and as far off as ever. Presently the arrival of five
more guests caused a stir and confusion, in the midst of which he
escaped into the open air.

He wandered towards the gate of the wall, passing the wooden shed where
the clink of hammers resounded, glanced at the sundial, which showed the
hour of three (three weary hours had they feasted), and went out into
the gardens. Still going on, he descended the slope, and not much
heeding whither he was going, took the road that led into town. It
consisted of some hundred or more houses, built of wood and thatched,
placed without plan or arrangement on the bank of the stream. Only one
long street ran through it, the rest were mere by-ways.

All these were inhabited by the Baron's retainers, but the number and
apparently small extent of the houses did not afford correct data for
the actual amount of the population. In these days the people (as is
well known) find much difficulty in marrying; it seems only possible for
a certain proportion to marry, and hence there are always a great number
of young or single men out of all ratio to the houses. At the sound of
the bugle the Baron could reckon on at least three hundred men flocking
without a minute's delay to man the wall; in an hour more would arrive
from the outer places, and by nightfall, if the summons went forth in
the morning, his shepherds and swineherds would arrive, and these
together would add some hundred and fifty to the garrison.

Next must be reckoned the armed servants of the house, the Baron's
personal attendants, the gentlemen who formed his train, his sons and
the male relations of the family; these certainly were not less than
fifty. Altogether over five hundred men, well armed and accustomed to
the use of their weapons, would range themselves beneath his banner. Two
of the buildings in he town were of brick (the material carried hither,
for there was no clay or stone thereabouts); they were not far apart.
The one was the Toll House, where all merchants or traders paid the
charges in corn or kind due to the Baron; the other was the Court House,
where he sat to administer justice and decide causes, or to send the
criminal to the gibbet.

These alone of the buildings were of any age, for the wooden houses were
extremely subject to destruction by fire, and twice in the Baron's time
half the town had been laid in ashes, only to rise again in a few weeks.
Timber was so abundant and so ready of access, it seemed a loss of
labour to fetch stone or brick, or to use the flints of the hills. About
the doors of the two inns there were gathered groups of people; among
them the liveries of the nobles visiting the castle were conspicuous;
the place was full of them, the stables were filled, and their horses
were picketed under the trees and even in the street.

Every minute the numbers increased as others arrived; men, too (who had
obtained permission of their lords), came in on foot, ten or twelve
travelling together for mutual protection, for the feuds of their
masters exposed them to frequent attack. All (except the nobles) were
disarmed at the barrier by the warden and guard, that peace might be
preserved in the enclosure. The folk at the moment he passed were
watching the descent of three covered waggons from the forest track, in
which were travelling the ladies of as many noble families.

Some, indeed, of the youngest and boldest ride on horseback, but the
ladies chiefly move in these waggons, which are fitted up with
considerable comfort, and are necessary to sleep in when the camp is
formed by the wayside at night. None noticed him as he went by, except a
group of three cottage girls, and a serving-woman, an attendant of a
lady visitor at the castle. He heard them allude to him; he quickened
his pace, but heard one say, "He's nobody; he hasn't even got a horse."

"Yes he is," replied the serving-woman; "he's Oliver's brother; and I
can tell you my lord Oliver is somebody; the Princess Lucia--" and she
made the motion of kissing with her lips. Felix, ashamed and annoyed to
the last degree, stepped rapidly from the spot. The serving-woman,
however, was right in a measure; the real or supposed favour shown
Oliver by the Prince's sister, the Duchess of Deverell, had begun to be
bruited abroad, and this was the secret reason why the Baron had shown
Oliver so much and so marked an attention, even more than he had paid to
Lord Durand.

Full well he knew the extraordinary influence possessed by ladies of
rank and position. From what we can learn out of the scanty records of
the past, it was so even in the days of the ancients; it is a
hundredfold more so in these times, when, although every noble must of
necessity be taught to read and write, as a matter of fact the men do
neither, but all the correspondence of kings and princes, and the
diplomatic documents, and notices, and so forth, are one and all, almost
without a single exception, drawn up by women. They know the secret and
hidden motives of courts, and have this great advantage, that they can
use their knowledge without personal fear, since women are never
seriously interfered with, but are protected by all.

The one terrible and utterly shameful instance to the contrary had not
occurred at the time of which we are now speaking, and it was and is
still repudiated by every man, from the knight to the boys who gather
acorns for the swine. Oliver himself had no idea whatever that he was
regarded as a favourite lover of the Duchess; he took the welcome that
was held out to him as perfectly honest. Plain, straightforward, and
honest, Oliver, had he been openly singled out by a queen, would have
scorned to give himself an air for such a reason. But the Baron, deep in
intrigue this many a year, looked more profoundly into the possibilities
of the future when he kept the young knight at his side.





Next: Superstitions

Previous: The Forest Track Continued



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