After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xvii

The Camp

Felix walked steadily on for nearly three hours, when the rough track, the dust, and heat began to tell upon him, and he sat down beside the way. The sun was now declining, and the long June day tending to its end. A horseman passed, coming from the camp, and as he wore only a sword, and had a leathern bag slung from his shoulder, he appeared to be a courtier. The dust raised by the hoofs, as it rose and floated above the brushwood, rendered his course visible. Some time afterwards, while he still rested, being very weary with walking through the heat of the afternoon, he heard the sound of wheels, and two carts drawn by horses came along the track from the city.

The carts were laden with bundles of arrows, perhaps the same he had seen unloading that morning from the war-ship, and were accompanied only by carters. As they approached he rose, feeling that it was time to continue his journey. His tired feet were now stiff, and he limped as he stepped out into the road. The men spoke, and he walked as well as he could beside them, using his boar-spear as a staff. There were two carters with each cart; and presently, noting how he lagged, and could scarce keep pace with them, one of them took a wooden bottle from the load on his cart, and offered him a draught of ale.

Thus somewhat refreshed, Felix began to talk, and learnt that the arrows were from the vessel in whose track he had sailed; that it had been sent loaded with stores for the king’s use, by his friend the Prince of Quinton; that very great efforts had been made to get together a large army in this campaign; first, because the city besieged was so near home, and failure might be disastrous, and, secondly, because it was one of three which were all republics, and the other two would be certain to send it assistance. These cities stood in a plain, but a few miles apart, and in a straight line on the banks of the river. The king had just sat down before the first, vowing that he would knock them down, one after the other, like a row of ninepins.

The carters asked him, in return, whose retainer he was, and he said that he was on his way to take service, and was under no banner yet.

“Then,” said the man who had given him a drink, “if you are free like that, you had better join the king’s levy, and be careful to avoid the barons’ war. For if you join either of the barons’ war, they will know you to be a stranger, and very likely, if they see that you are quick and active, they will not let you free again, and if you attempt to escape after the campaign, you will find yourself mightily mistaken. The baron’s captain would only have to say you had always been his man; and, as for your word, it would be no more than a dog’s bark. Besides which, if you rebelled, it would be only to shave off that moustache of yours, and declare you a slave, and as you have no friends in camp, a slave you would be.”

“That would be very unjust,” said Felix. “Surely the king would not allow it?”

“How is he to know?” said another of the carters. “My brother’s boy was served just like that. He was born free, the same as all our family, but he was fond of roving, and when he reached Quinton, he was seen by Baron Robert, who was in want of men, and being a likely young fellow, they shaved his lip, and forced him to labour under the thong. When his spirit was cowed, and he seemed reconciled, they let him grow his moustache again, and there he is now, a retainer, and well treated. But still, it was against his will. Jack is right; you had better join the king’s levy.”

The king’s levy is composed of his own retainers from his estates, of townsmen, who are not retainers of the barons, of any knights and volunteers who like to offer their services; and a king always desires as large a levy as possible, because it enables him to overawe his barons. These, when their “war”, or forces, are collected together in camp, are often troublesome, and inclined to usurp authority. A volunteer is, therefore, always welcome in the king’s levy.

Felix thanked them for the information they had given him, and said he should certainly follow their advice. He could now hardly keep up with the carts, having walked for so many hours, and undergone so much previous exertion. Finding this to be the case, he wished them good-night, and looked round for some cover. It was now dusk, and he knew he could go no farther. When they understood his intention, they consulted among themselves, and finally made him get up into one of the carts, and sit down on the bundles of arrows, which filled it like faggots. Thus he was jolted along, the rude wheels fitting but badly on the axle, and often sinking deep into a rut.

They were now in thick forest, and the track was much narrower, so that it had become worn into a hollow, as if it were the dry bed of a torrent. The horses and the carters were weary, yet they were obliged to plod on, as the arms had to be delivered before the morrow. They spoke little, except to urge the animals. Felix soon dropped into a reclining posture (uneasy as it was, it was a relief), and looking up, saw the white summer stars above. After a time he lost consciousness, and slept soundly, quite worn out, despite the jolting and creaking of the wheels.

The sound of a trumpet woke him with a start. His heavy and dreamless sleep for a moment had taken away his memory, and he did not know where he was. As he sat up two sacks fell from him; the carters had thrown them over him as a protection against the night’s dew. The summer morning was already as bright as noonday, and the camp about him was astir. In half a minute he came to himself, and getting out of the cart looked round. All his old interest had returned, the spirit of war entered into him, the trumpet sounded again, and the morning breeze extended the many-coloured banners.

The spot where he stood was in the rear of the main camp, and but a short distance from the unbroken forest. Upon either hand there was an intermingled mass of stores, carts, and waggons crowded together, sacks and huge heaps of forage, on and about which scores of slaves, drivers and others, were sleeping in every possible attitude, many of them evidently still under the influence of the ale they had drunk the night before. What struck him at once was the absence of any guard here in the rear. The enemy might steal out from the forest behind and help himself to what he chose, or murder the sleeping men, or, passing through the stores, fall on the camp itself. To Felix this neglect appeared inexplicable; it indicated a mental state which he could not comprehend, a state only to be described by negatives. There was no completeness, no system, no organization; it was a kind of haphazardness, altogether opposite to his own clear and well-ordered ideas.

The ground sloped gently downwards from the edge of the forest, and the place where he was had probably been ploughed, but was now trodden flat and hard. Next in front of the stores he observed a long, low hut built of poles, and roofed with fir branches; the walls were formed of ferns, straw, bundles of hay, anything that had come to hand. On a standard beside it, a pale blue banner, with the device of a double hammer worked in gold upon it, fluttered in the wind. Twenty or thirty, perhaps more, spears leant against one end of this rude shed, their bright points projecting yards above the roof. To the right of the booth as many horses were picketed, and not far from them some soldiers were cooking at an open fire of logs. As Felix came slowly towards the booth, winding in and out among the carts and heaps of sacks, he saw that similar erections extended down the slope for a long distance.

There were hundreds of them, some large, some small, not placed in any order, but pitched where chance or fancy led, the first-comers taking the sites that pleased them, and the rest crowding round. Beside each hut stood the banner of the owner, and Felix knew from this that they were occupied by the barons, knights, and captains of the army. The retainers of each baron bivouacked as they might in the open air; some of them had hunter’s hides, and others used bundles of straw to sleep on. Their fire was as close to their lord’s hut as convenient, and thus there were always plenty within call.

The servants, or slaves, also slept in the open air, but in the rear of their owner’s booth, and apart from the free retainers. Felix noticed, that although the huts were pitched anyhow and anywhere, those on the lowest ground seemed built along a line, and, looking closer, he found that a small stream ran there. He learnt afterwards that there was usually an emulation among the commanders to set up their standards as near the water as possible, on account of convenience, those in the rear having often to lead their horses a long distance to water. Beyond the stream the ground rose again as gradually as it had declined. It was open and cultivated up to the walls of the besieged city, which was not three-quarters of a mile distant. Felix could not for the moment distinguish the king’s head-quarters. The confused manner in which the booths were built prevented him from seeing far, though from the higher ground it was easy to look over their low roofs.

He now wandered into the centre of the camp, and saw with astonishment groups of retainers everywhere eating, drinking, talking, and even playing cards or dice, but not a single officer of any rank. At last, stopping by the embers of a fire, he asked timidly if he might have breakfast. The soldiers laughed and pointed to a cart behind them, telling him to help himself. The cart was turned with the tail towards the fire, and laden with bread and sides of bacon, slices of which the retainers had been toasting at the embers.

He did as he was bid, and the next minute a soldier, not quite steady on his legs even at that hour, offered him the can, “for,” said he, “you had best drink whilst you may, youngster. There is always plenty of drink and good living at the beginning of a war, and very often not a drop or a bite to be got in the middle of it.” Listening to their talk as he ate his breakfast, Felix found the reason there were no officers about was because most of them had drunk too freely the night before. The king himself, they said, was put to bed as tight as a drum, and it took no small quantity to fill so huge a vessel, for he was a remarkably big man.

After the fatigue of the recent march, they had, in fact, refreshed themselves, and washed down the dust of the track. They thought that this siege was likely to be a very tough business, and congratulated themselves that it was not thirty miles to Aisi, so that so long as they stayed there they might, perhaps, get supplies of provisions with tolerable regularity. “But if you’re over the water, my lad,” said the old fellow with the can, picking his teeth with a twig, “and have got to get your victuals by ship; by George, you may have to eat grass, or gnaw boughs like a horse.”

None of these men wore any arms, except the inevitable knife; their arms were piled against the adjacent booth, bows and quivers, spears, swords, bills and darts, thrown together just as they had cast them aside, and more or less rusty from the dew. Felix thought that had the enemy come suddenly down in force they might have made a clean sweep of the camp, for there were no defences, neither breastwork, nor fosse, nor any set guard. But he forgot that the enemy were quite as ill-organized as the besiegers; probably they were in still greater confusion, for King Isembard was considered one of the greatest military commanders of his age, if not the very greatest.

The only sign of discipline he saw was the careful grooming of some horses, which he rightly guessed to be those ridden by the knights, and the equally careful polishing of pieces of armour before the doors of the huts. He wished now to inquire his way to the king’s levy, but as the question rose to his lips he checked himself, remembering the caution the friendly carters had given him. He therefore determined to walk about the camp till he found some evidence that he was in the immediate neighbourhood of the king.

He rose, stood about a little while to allay any possible suspicion (quite needless precautions, for the soldiers were far too agreeably engaged to take the least notice of him), and then sauntered off with as careless an air as he could assume. Looking about him, first at a forge where the blacksmith was shoeing a horse, then at a grindstone, where a knight’s sword was being sharpened, he was nearly knocked down by a horse, urged at some speed through the crowds. By a rope from the collar, three dead bodies were drawn along the ground, dusty and disfigured by bumping against stone and clod. They were those of slaves, hanged the preceding day, perhaps for pilfering, perhaps for a mere whim, since every baron had power of the gallows.

They were dragged through the camp, and out a few hundred yards beyond, and there left to the crows. This horrible sight, to which the rest were so accustomed and so indifferent that they did not even turn to look at it, deeply shocked him; the drawn and distorted features, the tongues protruding and literally licking the dust, haunted him for long after. Though his father, as a baron, possessed the same power, it had never been exercised during his tenure of the estate, so that Felix had not been hardened to the sight of executions, common enough elsewhere. Upon the Old House estate a species of negative humanity reigned; if the slaves were not emancipated, they were not hanged or cruelly beaten for trifles.

Hastening from the spot, Felix came across the artillery, which consisted of battering rams and immense crossbows; the bows were made from entire trees, or, more properly, poles. He inspected these clumsy contrivances with interest, and entered into a conversation with some men who were fitting up the framework on which a battering ram was to swing. Being extremely conceited with themselves and the knowledge they had acquired from experience only (as the repeated blows of the block drive home the pile), they scarcely answered him. But, presently, as he lent a hand to assist, and bore with their churlishness without reply, they softened, and, as usual, asked him to drink, for here, and throughout the camp, the ale was plentiful, too plentiful for much progress.

Felix took the opportunity and suggested a new form of trigger for the unwieldy crossbows. He saw that as at present discharged it must require some strength, perhaps the united effort of several men, to pull away the bolt or catch. Such an effort must disconcert the aim; these crossbows were worked upon a carriage, and it was difficult to keep the carriage steady even when stakes were inserted by the low wheels. It occurred to him at once that the catch could be depressed by a lever, so that one man could discharge the bow by a mere pressure of the hand, and without interfering with the aim. The men soon understood him, and acknowledged that it would be a great improvement. One, who was the leader of the gang, thought it so valuable an idea that he went off at once to communicate with the lieutenant, who would in his turn carry the matter to Baron Ingulph, Master of the Artillery.

The others congratulated him, and asked to share in the reward that would be given to him for this invention. To whose “war” did he belong? Felix answered, after a little hesitation, to the king’s levy. At this they whispered among themselves, and Felix, again remembering the carters’ caution, said that he must attend the muster (this was a pure guess), but that he would return directly afterwards. Never for a moment suspecting that he would avoid the reward they looked upon as certain, they made no opposition, and he hurried away. Pushing through the groups, and not in the least knowing where he was going, Felix stumbled at last upon the king’s quarters.

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