After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter i

Sir Felix

On a bright May morning, the sunlight, at five o’clock, was pouring into a room which face the east at the ancestral home of the Aquilas. In this room Felix, the eldest of the three sons of the Baron, was sleeping. The beams passed over his head, and lit up a square space on the opposite whitewashed wall, where, in the midst of the brilliant light, hung an ivory cross. There were only two panes of glass in the window, each no more than two or three inches square, the rest of the window being closed by strong oaken shutters, thick enough to withstand the stroke of an arrow.

In the daytime one of these at least would have been thrown open to admit air and light. They did not quite meet, and a streak of sunshine, in addition to that which came through the tiny panes, entered at the chink. Only one window in the house contained more than two such panes (it was in the Baroness’s sitting-room), and most of them had none at all. The glass left by the ancients in their dwellings had long since been used up or broken, and the fragments that remained were too precious to be put in ordinary rooms. When larger pieces were discovered, they were taken for the palaces of the princes, and even these were but sparingly supplied, so that the saying “he has glass in his window” was equivalent to “he belongs to the upper ranks”.

On the recess of the window was an inkstand, which had been recently in use, for a quill lay beside it, and a sheet of parchment partly covered with writing. The ink was thick and very dark, made of powdered charcoal, leaving a slightly raised writing, which could be perceived by the finger on rubbing it lightly over. Beneath the window on the bare floor was an open chest, in which were several similar parchments and books, and from which the sheet on the recess had evidently been taken. This chest, though small, was extremely heavy and strong, being dug out with the chisel and gouge from a solid block of oak. Except a few parallel grooves, there was no attempt at ornamentation upon it. The lid, which had no hinges, but lifted completely off, was tilted against the wall. It was, too, of oak some inches thick, and fitted upon the chest by a kind of dovetailing at the edges.

Instead of a lock, the chest was fastened by a lengthy thong of oxhide, which now lay in a coil on the floor. Bound round and round, twisted and intertangled, and finally tied with a special and secret knot (the ends being concealed), the thong of leather secured the contents of the chest from prying eyes or thievish hands. With axe or knife, of course, the knot might easily have been severed, but no one could obtain access to the room except the retainers of the house, and which of them, even if unfaithful, would dare to employ such means in view of the certain punishment that must follow? It would occupy hours to undo the knot, and then it could not be tied again in exactly the same fashion, so that the real use of the thong was to assure the owner that his treasures had not been interfered with in his absence. Such locks as were made were of the clumsiest construction. They were not so difficult to pick as the thong to untie, and their expense, or rather the difficulty of getting a workman who could manufacture them, confined their use to the heads of great houses. The Baron’s chest was locked, and his alone, in the dwelling.

Besides the parchments which were nearest the top, as most in use, there were three books, much worn and decayed, which had been preserved, more by accident than by care, from the libraries of the ancients. One was an abridged history of Rome, the other a similar account of English history, the third a primer of science or knowledge; all three, indeed, being books which, among the ancients, were used for teaching children, and which, by the men of those days, would have been cast aside with contempt.

Exposed for years in decaying houses, rain and mildew had spotted and stained their pages; the covers had rotted away these hundred years, and were now supplied by a broad sheet of limp leather with wide margins far overlapping the edges; many of the pages were quite gone, and others torn by careless handling. The abridgment of Roman history had been scorched by a forest fire, and the charred edges of the leaves had dropped away in semicircular holes. Yet, by pondering over these, Felix had, as it were, reconstructed much of the knowledge which was the common (and therefore unvalued) possession of all when they were printed.

The parchments contained his annotations, and the result of his thought; they were also full of extracts from decaying volumes lying totally neglected in the houses of other nobles. Most of these were of extreme antiquity, for when the ancients departed, the modern books which they had composed being left in the decaying houses at the mercy of the weather, rotted, or were destroyed by the frequent grass fires. But those that had been preserved by the ancients in museums escaped for a while, and some of these yet remained in lumber-rooms and corners, whence they were occasionally dragged forth by the servants for greater convenience in lighting the fires. The young nobles, entirely devoted to the chase, to love intrigues, and war, overwhelmed Felix Aquila with ridicule when they found him poring over these relics, and being of a proud and susceptible spirit, they so far succeeded that he abandoned the open pursuit of such studies, and stole his knowledge by fitful glances when there was no one near. As among the ancients learning was esteemed above all things, so now, by a species of contrast, it was of all things the most despised.

Under the books, in one corner of the chest, was a leather bag containing four golden sovereigns, such as were used by the ancients, and eighteen pieces of modern silver money, the debased shillings of the day, not much more than half of which was silver and the rest alloy. The gold coins had been found while digging holes for the posts of a new stockade, and by the law should have been delivered to the prince’s treasury. All the gold discovered, whether in the form of coin or jewellery, was the property of the Prince, who was supposed to pay for its value in currency.

As the actual value of the currency was only half of its nominal value (and sometimes less), the transaction was greatly in favour of the treasury. Such was the scarcity of gold that the law was strictly enforced, and had there been the least suspicion of the fact, the house would have been ransacked from the cellars to the roof. Imprisonment and fine would have been the inevitable fate of Felix, and the family would very probably have suffered for the fault of one of its members. But independent and determined to the last degree, Felix ran any risk rather than surrender that which he had found, and which he deemed his own. This unbending independence and pride of spirit, together with scarce concealed contempt for others, had resulted in almost isolating him from the youth of his own age, and had caused him to be regarded with dislike by the elders. He was rarely, if ever, asked to join the chase, and still more rarely invited to the festivities and amusements provided in adjacent houses, or to the grander entertainments of the higher nobles. Too quick to take offence where none was really intended, he fancied that many bore him ill-will who had scarcely given him a passing thought. He could not forgive the coarse jokes uttered upon his personal appearance by men of heavier build, who despised so slender a stripling.

He would rather be alone than join their company, and would not compete with them in any of their sports, so that, when his absence from the arena was noticed, it was attributed to weakness or cowardice. These imputations stung him deeply, driving him to brood within himself. He was never seen in the courtyards or ante-rooms at the palace, nor following in the train of the Prince, as was the custom with the youthful nobles. The servility of the court angered and disgusted him; the eagerness of strong men to carry a cushion or fetch a dog annoyed him.

There were those who observed this absence from the crowd in the ante-rooms. In the midst of so much intrigue and continual striving for power, designing men, on the one hand, were ever on the alert for what they imagined would prove willing instruments; and on the other, the Prince’s councillors kept a watchful eye on the dispositions of every one of the least consequence; so that, although but twenty-five, Felix was already down in two lists, the one, at the palace, of persons whose views, if not treasonable, were doubtful, and the other, in the hands of a possible pretender, as a discontented and therefore useful man. Felix was entirely ignorant that he had attracted so much observation. He supposed himself simply despised and ignored; he cherished no treason, had not the slightest sympathy with any pretender, held totally aloof from intrigue, and his reveries, if they were ambitious, concerned only himself.

But the most precious of the treasures in the chest were eight or ten small sheets of parchment, each daintily rolled and fastened with a ribbon, letters from Aurora Thyma, who had also given him the ivory cross on the wall. It was of ancient workmanship, a relic of the old world. A compass, a few small tools (valuable because preserved for so many years, and not now to be obtained for any consideration), and a magnifying glass, a relic also of the ancients, completed the contents of the chest.

Upon a low table by the bedstead were a flint and steel and tinder, and an earthenware oil lamp, not intended to be carried about. There, too, lay his knife, with a buckhorn hilt, worn by everyone in the belt, and his forester’s axe, a small tool, but extremely useful in the woods, without which, indeed, progress was often impossible. These were in the belt, which, as he undressed, he had cast upon the table, together with his purse, in which were about a dozen copper coins, not very regular in shape, and stamped on one side only. The table was formed of two short hewn planks, scarcely smoothed, raised on similar planks (on edge) at each end, in fact, a larger form.

From a peg driven into the wall hung a disc of brass by a thin leathern lace; this disc, polished to the last degree, answered as a mirror. The only other piece of furniture, if so it could be called, was a block of wood at the side of the table, used as a chair. In the corner, between the table and the window, stood a long yew bow, and a quiver full of arrows ready for immediate use, besides which three or four sheaves lay on the floor. A crossbow hung on a wooden peg; the bow was of wood, and, therefore, not very powerful; bolts and square-headed quarrels were scattered carelessly on the floor under it.

Six or seven slender darts used for casting with the hand, as javelins, stood in another corner by the door, and two stouter boar spears. By the wall a heap of nets lay in apparent confusion, some used for partridges, some of coarse twine for bush-hens, another, lying a little apart, for fishes. Near these the component parts of two turkey-traps were strewn about, together with a small round shield or targe, such as are used by swordsmen, snares of wire, and, in an open box, several chisels, gouges, and other tools.

A blowtube was fastened to three pegs, so that it might not warp, a hunter’s horn hung from another, and on the floor were a number of arrows in various stages of manufacture, some tied to the straightening rod, some with the feathers already attached, and some hardly shaped from the elder or aspen log. A heap of skins filled the third corner, and beside them were numerous stag’s horns, and two of the white cow, but none yet of the much dreaded and much desired white bull. A few peacock’s feathers were there also, rare and difficult to get, and intended for Aurora. Round one footpost of the bed was a long coil of thin hide, a lasso, and on another was suspended an iron cap, or visorless helmet.

There was no sword or lance. Indeed, of all these weapons and implements, none seemed in use, to judge by the dust that had gathered upon them, and the rusted edges, except the bow and crossbow and one of the boar spears. The bed itself was very low, framed of wood, thick and solid; the clothes were of the coarsest linen and wool; there were furs for warmth in winter, but these were not required in May. There was no carpet, nor any substitute for it; the walls were whitewashed, ceiling there was none, the worm-eaten rafters were visible, and the roof tree. But on the table was a large earthenware bowl, full of meadow orchids, blue-bells, and a bunch of may in flower.

His hat, wide in the brim, lay on the floor; his doublet was on the wooden block or seat, with the long tight-fitting trousers, which showed every muscle of the limb, and by them high shoes of tanned but unblacked leather. His short cloak hung on a wooden peg against the door, which was fastened with a broad bolt of oak. The parchment in the recess of the window at which he had been working just before retiring was covered with rough sketches, evidently sections of a design for a ship or galley propelled by oars.

The square spot of light upon the wall slowly moved as the sun rose higher, till the ivory cross was left in shadow, but still the slumberer slept on, heedless, too, of the twittering of the swallows under the eaves, and the call of the cuckoo not far distant.

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