After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xviii

The King’s Levy

The king’s booth stood apart from the rest; it was not much larger, but properly thatched with straw, and the wide doorway hung with purple curtains. Two standards stood beside it; one much higher than the other. The tallest bore the ensign of the kingdom; the lesser, the king’s own private banner as a knight. A breastwork encircled the booth, enclosing a space about seventy yards in diameter, with a fosse, and stakes so planted as to repel assailants. There was but one gateway, opposite the general camp, and this was guarded by soldiers fully armed. A knight on horseback in armour, except his helmet, rode slowly up and down before the gate; he was the officer of the guard. His retainers, some thirty or forty men, were drawn up close by.

A distance of fifty yards intervened between this entrenchment and the camp, and was kept clear. Within the entrenchment Felix could see a number of gentlemen, and several horses caparisoned, but from the absence of noise and the fact that every one appeared to walk daintily and on tiptoe, he concluded that the king was still sleeping. The stream ran beside the entrenchment, and between it and the city; the king’s quarters were at that corner of the camp highest up the brook, so that the water might not be fouled before it reached him.

The king’s levy, however, did not seem to be hereabouts, for the booths nearest the head-quarters were evidently occupied by great barons, as Felix easily knew from their banners. There was here some little appearance of formality; the soldiery were not so noisy, and there were several officers moving among them. He afterwards discovered that the greater barons claimed the right to camp nearest the king, and that the king’s levy was just behind their booths. But unable to discover the place, and afraid of losing his liberty if he delayed longer, Felix, after hesitating some time, determined to apply direct to the guard at the gate of the circular entrenchment.

As he crossed the open ground towards it, he noticed that the king’s quarters were the closest to the enemy. Across the little stream were some corn-fields, and beyond these the walls of the city, scarcely half a mile distant. There was no outpost, the stream was but a brook, and could be crossed with ease. He marvelled at the lack of precaution; but he had yet to learn that the enemy, and all the armies of the age, were equally ignorant and equally careless.

With as humble a demeanour as he could assume, Felix doffed his cap and began to speak to the guard at the gateway of the entrenchment. The nearest man-at-arms immediately raised his spear and struck him with the butt. The unexpected blow fell on his left shoulder, and with such force as to render it powerless. Before he could utter a remonstrance, a second had seized his boar-spear, snapped the handle across his knee, and hurled the fragments from him. Others then took him by the shoulders and thrust him back across the open space to the camp, where they kicked him and left him, bruised, and almost stupefied with indignation. His offence was approaching the king’s ground with arms in his hands.

Later in the afternoon he found himself sitting on the bank of the stream far below the camp. He had wandered thither without knowing where he was going or what he was doing. His spirit for the time had been crushed, not so much by the physical brutality as by the repulse to his aspirations. Full of high hopes, and conscious of great ideas, he had been beaten like a felon hound.

From this spot beside the brook the distant camp appeared very beautiful. The fluttering banners, the green roofs of the booths (of ferns and reeds and boughs), the movement and life, for bodies of troops were now marching to and fro, and knights in gay attire riding on horseback, made a pleasant scene on the sloping ground with the forest at the back. Over the stream the sunshine lit up the walls of the threatened city, where, too, many flags were waving. Felix came somewhat to himself as he gazed, and presently acknowledged that he had only had himself to blame. He had evidently transgressed a rule, and his ignorance of the rule was no excuse, since those who had any right to be in the camp at all were supposed to understand it.

He got up, and returning slowly towards the camp, passed on his way the drinking-place, where a groom was watering some horses. The man called to him to help hold a spirited charger, and Felix mechanically did as he was asked. The fellow’s mates had left him to do their work, and there were too many horses for him to manage. Felix led the charger for him back to the camp, and in return was asked to drink. He preferred food, and a plentiful supply was put before him. The groom, gossiping as he attended to his duties, said that he always welcomed the beginning of a war, for they were often half starved, and had to gnaw the bones, like the dogs, in peace. But when war was declared, vast quantities of provisions were got together, and everybody gorged at their will. The very dogs battened; he pointed to half a dozen who were tearing a raw shoulder of mutton to pieces. Before the campaign was over, those very dogs might starve. To what “war” did Felix belong? He replied to the king’s levy.

The groom said that this was the king’s levy where they were; but under whose command was he? This puzzled Felix, who did not know what to say, and ended by telling the truth, and begging the fellow to advise him, as he feared to lose his liberty. The man said he had better stay where he was, and serve with him under Master Lacy, who was mean enough in the city, but liked to appear liberal when thus consorting with knights and gentlemen.

Master Lacy was a merchant of Aisi, an owner of vessels. Like most of his fellows, when war came so close home, he was almost obliged to join the king’s levy. Had he not done so it would have been recorded against him as a lack of loyalty. His privileges would have been taken from him, possibly the wealth he had accumulated seized, and himself reduced to slavery. Lacy, therefore, put on armour, and accompanied the king to the camp. Thus Felix, after all his aspirations, found himself serving as the knave of a mere citizen.

He had to take the horses down to water, to scour arms, to fetch wood from the forest for the fire. He was at the beck and call of all the other men, who never scrupled to use his services, and, observing that he never refused, put upon him all the more. On the other hand, when there was nothing doing, they were very kind and even thoughtful. They shared the best with him, brought wine occasionally (wine was scarce, though ale plentiful) as a delicacy, and one, who had dexterously taken a purse, presented him with half a dozen copper coins as his share of the plunder. Felix, grown wiser by experience, did not dare refuse the stolen money, it would have been considered as the greatest insult; he watched his opportunity and threw it away.

The men, of course, quickly discovered his superior education, but that did not in the least surprise them, it being extremely common for unfortunate people to descend by degrees to menial offices, if once they left the estate and homestead to which they naturally belonged. There as cadets, however humble, they were certain of outward respect: once outside the influence of the head of the house, and they were worse off than the lowest retainer. His fellows would have resented any show of pride, and would speedily have made his life intolerable. As he showed none, they almost petted him, but at the same time expected him to do more than his share of the work.

Felix listened with amazement to the revelations (revelations to him) of the inner life of the camp and court. The king’s weaknesses, his inordinate gluttony and continual intoxication, his fits of temper, his follies and foibles, seemed as familiar to these grooms as if they had dwelt with him. As for the courtiers and barons, there was not one whose vices and secret crimes were not perfectly well known to them. Vice and crime must have their instruments; instruments are invariably indiscreet, and thus secrets escape. The palace intrigues, the intrigues with other states, the influence of certain women, there was nothing which they did not know.

Seen thus from below, the whole society appeared rotten and corrupted, coarse to the last degree, and animated only by the lowest motives. This very gossip seemed in itself criminal to Felix, but he did not at the moment reflect that it was but the tale of servants. Had such language been used by gentlemen, then it would have been treason. As himself of noble birth, Felix had hitherto seen things only from the point of view of his own class. Now he associated with grooms, he began to see society from their point of view, and recognised how feebly it was held together by brute force, intrigue, cord and axe, and woman’s flattery. But a push seemed needed to overthrow it. Yet it was quite secure, nevertheless, as there was none to give that push, and if any such plot had been formed, those very slaves who suffered the most would have been the very men to give information, and to torture the plotters.

Felix had never dreamed that common and illiterate men, such as these grooms and retainers, could have any conception of reasons of State, or the crafty designs of courts. He now found that, though they could neither writer nor read, they had learned the art of reading man (the worst and lowest side of character) to such perfection that they at once detected the motive. They read the face; the very gait and gesture gave them a clue. They read man, in fact, as an animal. They understood men just as they understood the horses and hounds under their charge. Every mood and vicious indication in those animals was known to them, and so, too, with their masters.

Felix thought that he was himself a hunter, and understood woodcraft; he now found how mistaken he had been. He had acquired woodcraft as a gentleman; he now learned the knave’s woodcraft. They taught him a hundred tricks of which he had had no idea. They stripped man of his dignity, and nature of her refinement. Everything had a blackguard side to them. He began to understand that high principles and abstract theories were only words with the mass of men.

One day he saw a knight coolly trip up a citizen (one of the king’s levy) in the midst of the camp and in broad daylight, and quietly cut away his purse, at least a score of persons looking on. But they were only retainers and slaves; there was no one whose word would for a moment have been received against the knight’s, who had observed this, and plundered the citizen with impunity. He flung the lesser coins to the crowd, keeping the gold and silver for himself, and walked off amidst their plaudits.

Felix saw a slave nailed to a tree, his arms put round it so as to clasp it, and then nails driven through them. There he was left in his agony to perish. No one knew what his fault had been; his master had simply taken a dislike to him. A guard was set that no one should relieve the miserable being. Felix’s horror and indignation could not have been expressed, but he was totally helpless.

His own condition of mind during this time was such as could not be well analysed. He did not himself understand whether his spirit had been broken, whether he was really degraded with the men with whom he lived, or why he remained with them, though there were moments when it dawned upon him that this education, rude as it was, was not without its value to him. He need not practise these evils, but it was well to know of their existence. Thus he remained, as it were, quiescent, and the days passed on. He really had not much to do, although the rest put their burdens upon him, for discipline was so lax, that the loosest attendance answered equally well with the most conscientious. The one thing all the men about him seemed to think of was the satisfying of their appetites; the one thing they rejoiced at was the fine dry weather, for, as his mates told him, the misery of camp life in rain was almost unendurable.

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