After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xvi

The City

Slowly descending towards the city, Felix looked in vain for any means of crossing the channel or creek, which extended upon the side of it, and in which he counted twenty-two merchant vessels at anchor, or moored to the bank, besides a number of smaller craft and boats. The ship of war, which had arrived before him, was beached close up by a gate of the city, which opened on the creek or port, and her crew were busily engaged discharging her stores. As he walked beside the creek trying to call the attention of some boatman to take him across, he was impressed by the silence, for though the city wall was not much more than a stone’s throw distant, there was none of the usual hum which arises from the movements of people. On looking closer he noticed, too, that there were few persons on the merchant vessels, and not one gang at work loading or unloading. Except the warder stalking to and fro on the wall, and the crew of the war-ship, there was no one visible. As the warder paced to and fro the blade of his partisan gleamed in the sunshine. He must have seen Felix, but with military indifference did not pay the slightest heed to the latter’s efforts to attract his attention.

He now passed the war-ship, and shouted to the men at work, who were, he could see, carrying sheaves of arrows and bundles of javelins from the vessel and placing them on carts; but they did not trouble to reply. His common dress and ordinary appearance did not inspire them with any hope of payment from him if they obliged him with a boat. The utter indifference with which his approach was seen showed him the contempt in which he was held.

Looking round to see if there were no bridge or ferry, he caught sight of the grey church tower which he had observed from afar while sailing. It was quite a mile from the city, and isolated outside the walls. It stood on the slope of the hill, over whose summit the tower was visible. He wandered up towards it, as there were usually people in or about the churches, which were always open day and night. If no one else, the porter in the lodge at the church door would be there, for he or his representative never left it, being always on the watch lest some thief should attempt to enter the treasury, or steal the sacred vessels.

But as he ascended the hill he met a shepherd, whose dogs prepared to fly at him, recognising a stranger. For a moment the man seemed inclined to let them wreak their will, if they could, for he also felt inclined to challenge a stranger, but, seeing Felix lower his spear, it probably occurred to him that some of his dogs would be killed. He therefore ordered them down, and stayed to listen. Felix learnt that there was no bridge across the creek, and only one over the river; but there was a ferry for anybody who was known. No strangers were allowed to cross the ferry; they must enter by the main road over the bridge.

“But how am I to get into the place then?” said Felix. The shepherd shook his head, and said he could not tell him, and walked away about his business.

Discouraged at these trifling vexations, which seemed to cross his path at every step, Felix found his way to the ferry, but, as the shepherd had said, the boatman refused to carry him, being a stranger. No persuasion could move him; nor the offer of a small silver coin, worth about ten times his fare.

“I must then swim across,” said Felix, preparing to take off his clothes.

“Swim, if you like,” said the boatman, with a grim smile; “but you will never land.”

“Why not?”

“Because the warder will let drive at you with an arrow.”

Felix looked, and saw that he was opposite the extreme angle of the city wall, a point usually guarded with care. There was a warder stalking to and fro; he carried a partisan, but, of course, might have his bow within reach, or could probably call to the soldiers of the guard.

“This is annoying,” said Felix, ready to give up his enterprise. “How ever can I get into the city?”

The old boatman grinned, but said nothing, and returned to a net which he was mending. He made no answer to the further questions Felix put to him. Felix then shouted to the warder; the soldier looked once, but paid no more heed. Felix walked a little way and sat down on the grass. He was deeply discouraged. These repulses, trifles in themselves, assumed an importance, because his mind had long been strung up to a high pitch of tension. A stolid man would have thought nothing of them. After a while he arose, again asking himself how should he become a leader, who had not the perseverance to enter a city in peaceful guise?

Not knowing what else to do, he followed the creek round the foot of the hill, and so onwards for a mile or more. This bank was steep, on account of the down; the other cultivated, the corn being already high. The cuckoo sang (she loves the near neighbourhood of man) and flew over the channel towards a little copse. Almost suddenly the creek wound round under a low chalk cliff, and in a moment Felix found himself confronted by another city. This had no wall; it was merely defended by a ditch and earthwork, without tower or bastion.

The houses were placed thickly together; there were, he thought, six or seven times as many as he had previously seen, and they were thatched or shingled, like those in his own country. It stood in the midst of the fields, and the corn came up to the fosse; there were many people at work, but, as he noticed, most of them were old men, bowed and feeble. A little way farther he saw a second boathouse; he hastened thither, and the ferrywoman, for the boat was poled across by a stout dame, made not the least difficulty about ferrying him over. So delighted was Felix at this unexpected fortune, that he gave her the small silver coin, at sight of which he instantly rose high in her estimation.

She explained to him, in answer to his inquiries, that this was also called Aisi; this was the city of the common folk. Those who were rich or powerful had houses in the walled city, the precinct of the Court. Many of the houses there, too, were the inns of great families who dwelt in the country in their castles, but when they came to the Court required a house. Their shields, or coats of arms, were painted over the doors. The walled city was guarded with such care, because so many attempts had been made to surprise it, and to assassinate the king, whose fiery disposition and constant wars had raised him up so many enemies. As much care was taken to prevent a single stranger entering as if he were the vanguard of a hostile army, and if he now went back (as he could do) to the bridge over the river, he would be stopped and questioned, and possibly confined in prison till the king returned.

“Where is the king?” asked Felix; “I came to try and take service with him.”

“Then you will be welcome,” said the woman. “He is in the field, and has just sat down before Iwis.”

“That was why the walled city seemed so empty, then.” said Felix.

“Yes; all the people are with him; there will be a great battle this time.”

“How far is it to Iwis?” said Felix.

“Twenty-seven miles,” replied the dame; “and if you take my advice, you had better walk twenty-seven miles there, than two miles back to the bridge over the river.”

Someone now called from the opposite bank, and she started with the boat to fetch another passenger.

“Thank you, very much,” said Felix, as he wished her good day; “but why did not the man at the other ferry tell me I could cross here?”

The woman laughed outright. “Do you suppose he was going to put a penny in my way when he could not get it himself?”

So mean and petty is the world! Felix entered the second city and walked some distance through it, when he recollected that he had not eaten for some time. He looked in vain for an inn, but upon speaking to a man who was leaning on his crutch at a doorway, he was at once asked to enter, and all that the house afforded was put before him. The man with the crutch sat down opposite, and remarked that most of the folk were gone to the camp, but he could not because his foot had been injured. He then went on to tell how it had happened, with the usual garrulity of the wounded. He was assisting to place the beam of a battering-ram upon a truck (it took ten horses to draw it) when a lever snapped, and the beam fell. Had the beam itself touched him he would have been killed on the spot; as it was, only a part of the broken lever or pole hit him. Thrown with such force, the weight of the ram driving it, the fragment of the pole grazed his leg, and either broke one of the small bones that form the arch of the instep, or so bruised it that it was worse than broken. All the bone-setters and surgeons had gone to the camp, and he was left without attendance other than the women, who fomented the foot daily, but he had little hope of present recovery, knowing that such things were often months about.

He thought it lucky that it was no worse, for very few, he had noticed, ever recovered from serious wounds of spear or arrow. The wounded generally died; only the fortunate escaped. Thus he ran on, talking as much for his own amusement as that of his guest. He fretted because he could not join the camp and help work the artillery; he supposed the ram would be in position by now and shaking the wall with its blow. He wondered if Baron Ingulph would miss his face.

“Who’s he?” asked Felix.

“He is captain of the artillery,” replied his host.

“Are you his retainer?”

“No; I am a servant.”

Felix started slightly, and did but just check himself from rising from the table. A “servant” was a slave; it was the euphemism used instead of the hateful word, which not even the most degraded can endure to bear. The class of the nobles to which he belonged deemed it a disgrace to sit down with a slave, to eat with him, even to accidently touch him. With the retainers, or free men, they were on familiar terms, though despotic to the last degree; the slave was less than the dog. Then, stealing a glance at the man’s face, Felix saw that he had no moustache; he had not noticed this before. No slaves were allowed to wear the moustache.

This man having been at home ill some days had neglected to shave, and there was some mark upon his upper lip. As he caught his guest’s glance, the slave hung his head, and asked his guest in a low and humble voice not to mention this fault. With his face slightly flushed, Felix finished his meal; he was confused to the last degree. His long training and the tone of the society in which he had moved (though so despised a member of it) prejudiced him strongly against the man whose hospitality was so welcome. On the other hand, the ideas which had for so long worked in his mind in his solitary intercommunings in the forest were entirely opposed to servitude. In abstract principle he had long since condemned it, and desired to abolish it. But here was the fact.

He had eaten at a slave’s table, and sat with him face to face. Theory and practice are often strangely at variance. He felt it an important moment; he felt that he was himself, as it were, on the balance; should he adhere to the ancient prejudice, the ancient exclusiveness of his class, or should he boldly follow the dictate of his mind? He chose the latter, and extended his hand to the servant as he rose to say good-bye. The act was significant; it recognised man as distinct from caste. The servant did not know the conflict that had taken place; but to be shaken hands with at all, even by a retainer as he supposed Felix to be, was indeed a surprise. He could not understand it; it was the first time his hand had been taken by any one of superior position since he had been born. He was dumb with amazement, and could scarcely point out the road when asked; nor did he take the small coin Felix offered, one of the few he possessed. Felix therefore left it on the table and again started.

Passing through the town, Felix followed the track which led in the direction indicated. In about half a mile it led him to a wider track, which he immediately recognised as the main way and road to the camp by the ruts and dust, for the sward had been trampled down for fifty yards wide, and even the corn was cut up by wheels and horses’ hoofs. The army had passed, and he had but to follow its unmistakable trail.

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