After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter iii

Men of the Woods

So far as this, all that I have stated has been clear, and there can be no doubt that what has been thus handed down from mouth to mouth is for the most part correct. When I pass from trees and animals to men, however, the thing is different, for nothing is certain and everything confused. None of the accounts agree, nor can they be altogether reconciled with present facts or with reasonable supposition; yet it is not so long since but a few memories, added one to the other, can bridge the time, and, though not many, there are some written notes still to be found. I must attribute the discrepancy to the wars and hatreds which sprang up and divided the people, so that one would not listen to what the others wished to say, and the truth was lost.

Besides which, in the conflagration which consumed the towns, most of the records were destroyed, and are no longer to be referred to. And it may be that even when they were proceeding, the causes of the change were not understood. Therefore, what I am now about to describe is not to be regarded as the ultimate truth, but as the nearest to which I could attain after comparing the various traditions. Some say, then, that the first beginning of the change was because the sea silted up the entrances to the ancient ports, and stopped the vast commerce which was once carried on. It is certainly true that many of the ports are silted up, and are now useless as such, but whether the silting up preceded the disappearance of the population, or whether the disappearance of the population, and the consequent neglect caused the silting, I cannot venture to positively assert.

For there are signs that the level of the sea has sunk in some places, and signs that it has become higher in others, so that the judicious historian will simply state the facts, and refrain from colouring them with his own theory as Silvester has done. Others again maintain that the supply of food from over the ocean suddenly stopping caused great disorders, and that the people crowded on board all the ships to escape starvation, and sailed away, and were no more heard of.

It has, too, been said that the earth, from some attractive power exercised by the passage of an enormous dark body through space, became tilted or inclined to its orbit more than before, and that this, while it lasted, altered the flow of the magnetic currents, which, in an imperceptible manner, influence the minds of men. Hitherto the stream of human life had directed itself to the westward, but when this reversal of magnetism occurred, a general desire arose to return to the east. And those whose business is theology have pointed out that the wickedness of those times surpassed understanding, and that a change and sweeping away of the human evil that had accumulated was necessary, and was effected by supernatural means. The relation of this must be left to them, since it is not the province of the philosopher to meddle with such matters.

All that seems certain is, that when the event took place, the immense crowds collected in cities were most affected, and that the richer and upper classes made use of their money to escape. Those left behind were mainly the lower and most ignorant, so far as the arts were concerned; those that dwelt in distant and outlying places; and those who lived by agriculture. These last at that date had fallen to such distress that they could not hire vessels to transport themselves. The exact number of those left behind cannot, of course, be told, but it is on record that when the fields were first neglected (as I have already described), a man might ride a hundred miles and not meet another. They were not only few, but scattered, and had not drawn together and formed towns as at present.

Of what became of the vast multitudes that left the country, nothing has ever been heard, and no communication has been received from them. For this reason I cannot conceal my opinion that they must have sailed either to the westward or to the southward where the greatest extent of ocean is understood to exist, and not to the eastward as Silvester would have it in his work upon the “Unknown Orb”, the dark body travelling in space to which I have alluded. None of our vessels in the present day dare venture into those immense tracts of sea, nor, indeed, out of sight of land, unless they know they shall see it again so soon as they have reached and surmounted the ridge of the horizon. Had they only crossed to the mainland or continent again, we should most likely have heard of their passage across the countries there.

It is true that ships rarely come over, and only to two ports, and that the men on them say (so far as can be understood) that their country is equally deserted now, and has likewise lost its population. But still, as men talk unto men, and we pass intelligence across great breadths of land, it is almost certain that, had they travelled that way, some echo of their footsteps would yet sound back to us. Regarding this theory, therefore, as untenable, I put forward as a suggestion that the ancients really sailed to the west or to the south.

As, for the most part, those who were left behind were ignorant, rude, and unlettered, it consequently happened that many of the marvellous things which the ancients did, and the secrets of their science, are known to us by name only, and, indeed, hardly by name. It has happened to us in our turn as it happened to the ancients. For they were aware that in times before their own the art of making glass malleable had been discovered, so that it could be beaten into shape like copper. But the manner in which it was accomplished was entirely unknown to them; the fact was on record, but the cause lost. So now we know that those who to us are the ancients had a way of making diamonds and precious stones out of black and lustreless charcoal, a fact which approaches the incredible. Still, we do not doubt it, though we cannot imagine by what means it was carried out.

They also sent intelligence to the utmost parts of the earth along wires which were not tubular, but solid, and therefore could not transmit sound, and yet the person who received the message could hear and recognise the voice of the sender a thousand miles away. With certain machines worked by fire, they traversed the land swift as the swallow glides through the sky, but of these things not a relic remains to us. What metal-work or wheels or bars of iron were left, and might have given us a clue, were all broken up and melted down for use in other ways when metal became scarce.

Mounds of earth are said to still exist in the woods, which originally formed the roads for these machines, but they are now so low, and so covered with thickets, that nothing can be learnt from them; and, indeed, though I have heard of their existence, I have never seen one. Great holes were made through the very hills for the passage of the iron chariot, but they are now blocked by the falling roofs, nor dare any one explore such parts as may yet be open. Where are the wonderful structures with which the men of those days were lifted to the skies, rising above the clouds? These marvellous things are to us little more than fables of the giants and of the old gods that walked upon the earth, which were fables even to those whom we call the ancients.

Indeed, we have fuller knowledge of those extremely ancient times than of the people who immediately preceded us, and the Romans and the Greeks are more familiar to us than the men who rode in the iron chariots and mounted to the skies. The reason why so many arts and sciences were lost was because, as I have previously said, the most of those who were left in the country were ignorant, rude, and unlettered. They had seen the iron chariots, but did not understand the method of their construction, and could not hand down the knowledge they did not themselves possess. The magic wires of intelligence passed through their villages, but they did not know how to work them.

The cunning artificers of the cities all departed, and everything fell quickly into barbarism; nor could it be wondered at, for the few and scattered people of those days had enough to do to preserve their lives. Communication between one place and another was absolutely cut off, and if one perchance did recollect something that might have been of use, he could not confer with another who knew the other part, and thus between them reconstruct the machine. In the second generation even these disjointed memories died out.

At first it is supposed that those who remained behind existed upon the grain in the warehouses, and what they could thresh by the flail from the crops left neglected in the fields. But as the provisions in the warehouses were consumed or spoiled, they hunted the animals, lately tame and as yet but half wild. As these grew less in number and difficult to overtake, they set to work again to till the ground, and cleared away small portions of the earth, encumbered already with brambles and thistles. Some grew corn, and some took charge of sheep. Thus, in time, places far apart from each other were settled, and towns were built; towns, indeed, we call them to distinguish them from the champaign, but they are not worthy of the name in comparison with the mighty cities of old time.

There are many that have not more than fifty houses in the enclosure, and perhaps no other station within a day’s journey, and the largest are but villages, reckoning by antiquity. For the most part they have their own government, or had till recently, and thus there grew up many provinces and kingdoms in the compass of what was originally but one. Thus separated and divided, there came also to be many races where in the first place was one people. Now, in briefly recounting the principal divisions of men, I will commence with those who are everywhere considered the lowest. These are the Bushmen, who live wholly in the woods.

Even among the ancients, when every man, woman, and child could exercise those arts which are now the special mark of nobility, i.e. reading and writing, there was a degraded class of persons who refused to avail themselves of the benefits of civilization. They obtained their food by begging, wandering along the highways, crouching around fires which they lit in the open, clad in rags, and exhibiting countenances from which every trace of self-respect had disappeared. These were the ancestors of the present men of the bushes.

They took naturally to the neglected fields, and forming “camps” as they call their tribes, or rather families, wandered to and fro, easily subsisting upon roots and trapped game. So they live to this day, having become extremely dexterous in snaring every species of bird and animal, and the fishes of the streams. These latter they sometimes poison with a drug or a plant (it is not known which), the knowledge of which has been preserved among them since the days of the ancients. The poison kills the fishes, and brings them to the surface, when they can be collected by hundreds, but does not injure them for eating.

Like the black wood-dogs, the Bushmen often in fits of savage frenzy destroy thrice as much as they can devour, trapping deer in wickerwork hedges, or pitfalls, and cutting the miserable animals in pieces, for mere thirst of blood. The oxen and cattle in the enclosures are occasionally in the same manner fearfully mutilated by these wretches, sometimes for amusement, and sometimes in vengeance for injuries done to them. Bushmen have no settled home, cultivate no kind of corn or vegetable, keep no animals, not even dogs, have no houses or huts, no boats or canoes, nothing that requires the least intelligence or energy to construct.

Roaming to and fro without any apparent aim or object, or any particular route, they fix their camp for a few days wherever it suits their fancy, and again move on, no man knows why or whither. It is this uncertainty of movement which makes them so dangerous. To-day there may not be the least sign of any within miles of an enclosure. In the night a “camp” may pass, slaughtering such cattle as may have remained without the palisade, or killing the unfortunate shepherd who has not got within the walls, and in the morning they may be nowhere to be seen, having disappeared like vermin. Face to face the Bushman is never to be feared; a whole “camp” or tribal family will scatter if a traveler stumbles into their midst. It is from behind a tree or under cover of night that he deals his murderous blow.

A “camp” may consist of ten or twenty individuals, sometimes, perhaps, of forty, or even fifty, of various ages, and is ruled by the eldest, who is also the parent. He is absolute master of his “camp”, but has no power or recognition beyond it, so that how many leaders there may be among them it is not possible even to guess. Nor is the master known to them as king, or duke, nor has he any title, but is simply the oldest or founder of the family. The “camp” has no law, no established custom; events happen, and even the master cannot be said to reign. When he becomes feeble, they simply leave him to die.

They are depraved, and without shame, clad in sheep-skins chiefly, if clad at all, or in such clothes as they have stolen. They have no ceremonies whatever. The number of these “camps” must be considerable, and yet the Bushman is seldom seen, nor do we very often hear of their depredations, which is accounted for by the extent of country they wander over. It is in severe winters that the chief danger occurs; they then suffer from hunger and cold, and are driven to the neighbourhood of the enclosures to steal. So dexterous are they in slipping through the bushes, and slinking among the reeds and osiers, that they will pass within a few yards without discovering their presence, and the signs of their passage can be detected only by the experienced hunter, and not always by him.

It is observed that whatever mischief the Bushman commits, he never sets fire to any ricks or buildings; the reason is because his nature is to slink from the scene of his depredations, and flame at once attracts people to the spot. Twice the occurrence of a remarkably severe winter has caused the Bushmen to flock together and act in an approach to concert in attacking the enclosures. The Bushmen of the north, who were even more savage and brutal, then came down, and were with difficulty repulsed from the walled cities. In ordinary times we see very little of them. They are the thieves, the human vermin of the woods.

Under the name of gipsies, those who are now often called Romany and Zingari were well known to the ancients. Indeed, they boast that their ancestry goes back so much farther than the oldest we can claim, that the ancients themselves were but modern to them. Even in that age of highest civilization, which immediately preceded the present, they say (and there is no doubt of it) that they preserved the blood of their race pure and untainted, that they never dwelt under permanent roofs, nor bowed their knees to the prevalent religion. They remained apart, and still continue after civilization has disappeared, exactly the same as they were before it commenced.

Since the change their numbers have greatly increased, and were they not always at war with each other, it is possible that they might go far to sweep the house people from the land. But there are so many tribes, each with its king, queen, or duke, that their power is divided, and their force melts away. The ruler of the Bushman families is always a man, but among the gipsies a woman, and even a young girl, often exercises supreme authority, but must be of the sacred blood. These kings and dukes are absolute autocrats within their tribe, and can order by a nod the destruction of those who offend them. Habits of simplest obedience being enjoined on the tribe from earliest childhood, such executions are rare, but the right to command them is not for a moment questioned.

Of the sorcerers, and particularly the sorceresses, among them, all have heard, and, indeed, the places where they dwell seem full of mystery and magic. They live in tents, and though they constantly remove from district to district, one tribe never clashes with or crosses another, because all have their especial routes, upon which no intrusion is ever made. Some agriculture is practiced, and flocks and herds are kept, but the work is entirely done by the women. The men are always on horseback, or sleeping in their tents.

Each tribe has its central camping-place, to which they return at intervals after perhaps wandering for months, a certain number of persons being left at home to defend it. These camps are often situated in inaccessible positions, and well protected by stockades. The territory which is acknowledged to belong to such a camp is extremely limited; its mere environs only are considered the actual property of the tribe, and a second can pitch its tents with a few hundred yards. These stockades, in fact, are more like store-houses than residences; each is a mere rendezvous.

The gipsies are everywhere, but their stockades are most numerous in the south, along the sides of the green hills and plains, and especially round Stonehenge, where, on the great open plains, among the huge boulders, placed ages since in circles, they perform strange ceremonies and incantations. They attack every traveller, and every caravan or train of waggons which they feel strong enough to master, but they do not murder the solitary sleeping hunter or shepherd like the Bushmen. They will, indeed, steal from him, but do not kill, except in fight. Once, now and then, they have found their way into towns, when terrible massacres have followed, for, when excited, the savage knows not how to restrain himself.

Vengeance is their idol. If any community has injured or affronted them, they never cease endeavouring to retaliate, and will wipe it out in fire and blood generations afterwards. There are towns which have thus been suddenly harried when the citizens had forgotten that any cause of enmity existed. Vengeance is their religion and their social law, which guides all their actions among themselves. It is for this reason that they are continually at war, duke with duke, and king with king. A deadly feud, too, has set Bushman and gipsy at each other’s throat, far beyond the memory of man. The Romany looks on the Bushman as a dog, and slaughters him as such. In turn, the despised human dog slinks in the darkness of the night into the Romany’s tent, and stabs his daughter or his wife, for such is the meanness and cowardice of the Bushman that he would always rather kill a woman than a man.

There is also a third class of men who are not true gipsies, but have something of their character, though the gipsies will not allow that they were originally half-breeds. Their habits are much the same, except that they are foot men and rarely use horses, and are therefore called the foot gipsies. The gipsy horse is really a pony. Once only have the Romany combined to attack the house people, driven, like the Bushmen, by an exceedingly severe winter, against which they had no provision.

But, then, instead of massing their forces and throwing their irresistible numbers upon one city or territory, all they would agree to do was that, upon a certain day, each tribe should invade the land nearest to it. The result was that they were, though with trouble, repulsed. Until lately, no leader ventured to follow the gipsies to their strongholds, for they were reputed invincible behind their stockades. By infesting the woods and lying in ambush they rendered communication between city and city difficult and dangerous, except to bodies of armed men, and every waggon had to be defended by troops.

The gipsies, as they roam, make little secret of their presence (unless, of course, intent upon mischief), but light their fires by day and night fearlessly. The Bushmen never light a fire by day, lest the ascending smoke, which cannot be concealed, should betray their whereabouts. Their fires are lit at night in hollows or places well surrounded with thickets, and, that the flame may not be seen, they will build screens of fir boughs or fern. When they have obtained a good supply of hot wood coals, no more sticks are thrown on, but these are covered with turf, and thus kept in long enough for their purposes. Much of their meat they devour raw, and thus do not need a fire so frequently as others.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:47