After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xix

Fighting

Twice Felix saw the king. Once there was a review of the horse outside the camp, and Felix, having to attend with his master’s third charger (a mere show and affectation, for there was not the least chance of his needing it), was now and then very near the monarch. For that day at least he looked every whit what fame had reported him to be. A man of unusual size, his bulk rendered him conspicuous in the front of the throng. His massive head seemed to accord well with the possession of despotic power.

The brow was a little bare, for he was no longer young, but the back of his head was covered with thick ringlets of brown hair, so thick as to partly conceal the coronet of gold which he wore. A short purple cloak, scarcely reaching to the waist, was thrown back off his shoulders, so that his steel corselet glistened in the sun. It was the only armour he had on; a long sword hung at his side. He rode a powerful black horse, full eighteen hands high, by far the finest animal on the ground; he required it, for his weight must have been great. Felix passed near enough to note that his eyes were brown, and the expression of his face open, frank, and pleasing. The impression left upon the observer was that of a strong intellect, but a still stronger physique, which latter too often ran away with and controlled the former. No one could look upon him without admiration, and it was difficult to think that he could so demean himself as to wallow in the grossest indulgence.

As for the review, though it was a brilliant scene, Felix could not conceal from himself that these gallant knights were extremely irregular in their movements, and not one single evolution was performed correctly, because they were constantly quarrelling about precedence, and one would not consent to follow the other. He soon understood, however, that discipline was not the object, nor regularity considered; personal courage and personal dexterity were everything. This review was the prelude to active operations, and Felix now hoped to have some practical lessons in warfare.

He was mistaken. Instead of a grand assault, or a regular approach, the fighting was merely a series of combats between small detachments and bodies of the enemy. Two or three knights with their retainers and slaves would start forth, cross the stream, and riding right past the besieged city endeavour to sack some small hamlet, or the homestead of a noble. From the city a sortie would ensue; sometimes the two bodies only threatened each other at a distance, the first retiring as the second advanced. Sometimes only a few arrows were discharged; occasionally they came to blows, but the casualties were rarely heavy.

One such party, while returning, was followed by a squadron of horsemen from the town towards the stream to within three hundred yards of the king’s quarters. Incensed at this assurance, several knights mounted their horses and rode out to reinforce the returning detachment, which was loaded with booty. Finding themselves about to be supported, they threw down their spoils, faced about, and Felix saw for the first time a real and desperate melée. It was over in five minutes. The king’s knights, far better horsed, and filled with desire to exhibit their valour to the camp, charged with such fury that they overthrew the enemy and rode over him.

Felix saw the troops meet; there was a crash and cracking as the lances broke, four or five rolled from the saddle on the trodden corn, and the next moment the entangled mass of men and horses unwound itself as the enemy hastened back to the walls. Felix was eager to join in such an affray, but he had no horse nor weapon. Upon another occasion early one bright morning four knights and their followers, about forty in all, deliberately set out from the camp, and advanced up the sloping ground towards the city. The camp was soon astir watching their proceedings; and the king, being made acquainted with what was going on, came out from his booth. Felix, who now entered the circular entrenchment without any difficulty, got up on the mound with scores of others, where, holding to the stakes, they had a good view.

The king stood on a bench and watched the troops advance, shading his eyes with his hand. As it was but half a mile to the walls they could see all that took place. When the knights had got within two hundred yards and arrows began to drop amongst them, they dismounted from their horses and left them in charge of the grooms, who walked them up and down, none remaining still a minute, so as to escape the aim of the enemy’s archers. Then drawing their swords, the knights, who were in full armour, put themselves at the head of the band, and advanced at a steady pace to the wall. In their mail with their shields before them they cared not for such feeble archery, nor even for the darts that poured upon them when they came within reach. There was no fosse to the wall, so that, pushing forward, they were soon at the foot. So easily had they reached it that Felix almost thought the city already won. Now he saw blocks of stone, darts, and beams of wood cast at them from the parapet, which was not more than twelve feet above the ground.

Quite undismayed, the knights set up their ladders, of which they had but four, one each. The men-at-arms held these by main force against the wall, the besiegers trying to throw them away, and chopping at the rungs with their axes. But the ladders were well shod with iron to resist such blows, and in a moment Felix saw, with intense delight and admiration, the four knights slowly mount to the parapet and cut at the defenders with their swords. The gleam of steel was distinctly visible as the blades rose and fell. The enemy thrust at them with pikes, but seemed to shrink from closer combat, and a moment afterwards the gallant four stood on the top of the wall. Their figures, clad in mail and shield in hand, were distinctly seen against the sky. Up swarmed the men-at-arms behind them, and some seemed to descend on the other side. A shout rose from the camp and echoed over the woods. Felix shouted with the rest, wild with excitement.

The next minute, while yet the knights stood on the wall, and scarcely seemed to know what to do next, there appeared at least a dozen men in armour running along the wall towards them. Felix afterwards understood that the ease with which the four won the wall at first was owing to there being no men of knightly rank among the defenders at that early hour. Those who had collected to repulse the assault were citizens, retainers, slaves, any, in fact who had been near. But now the news had reached the enemy’s leaders, and some of them hastened to the wall. As these were seen approaching, the camp was hushed, and every eye strained on the combatants.

The noble four could not all meet their assailants, the wall was but wide enough for two to fight; but the other two had work enough the next minute, as eight or ten more men in mail advanced the other way. So they fought back to back, two facing one way, and two the other. The swords rose and fell. Felix saw a flash of light fly up into the air, it was the point of a sword broken off short. At the foot of the wall the men who had not had time to mount endeavoured to assist their masters by stabbing upwards with their spears.

All at once two of the knights were hurled from the wall; one seemed to be caught by his men, the other came heavily to the ground. While they were fighting their immediate antagonists, others within the wall had come with lances; and literally thrust them from the parapet. The other two still fought back to back for a moment; then, finding themselves overwhelmed, they sprang down among their friends.

The minute the two first fell, the grooms with the horses ran towards the wall, and despite the rain of arrows, darts, and stones from the parapet, Felix saw with relief three of the four knights placed on their chargers. One only could sit upright unassisted, two were supported in their saddles, and the fourth was carried by his retainers. Thus they retreated, and apparently without further hurt, for the enemy on the wall crowded so much together as to interfere with the aim of their darts, which, too, soon fell short. But there was a dark heap beneath the wall, where ten or twelve retainers and slaves, who wore no armour, had been slain or disabled. Upon these the loss invariably fell.

None attempted to follow the retreating party, who slowly returned towards the camp, and were soon apparently in safety. But suddenly a fresh party of the enemy appeared upon the wall, and the instant afterwards three retainers dropped, as if struck by lightning. They had been hit by sling stones, whirled with great force by practised slingers. These rounded pebbles come with such impetus as to stun a man at two hundred yards. The aim, it is true, is uncertain, but where there is a body of troops they are sure to strike some one. Hastening on, leaving the three fallen men where they lay, the rest in two minutes were out of range, and came safely into camp. Everyone, as they crossed the stream, ran to meet them, the king included, and as he passed in the throng, Felix heard him remark that they had had a capital main of cocks that morning.

Of the knights only one was much injured; he had fallen upon a stone, and two ribs were broken; the rest suffered from severe bruises, but had no wound. Six men-at-arms were missing, probably prisoners, for, as courageous as their masters, they had leapt down from the wall into the town. Eleven other retainers or slaves were slain, or had deserted, or were prisoners, and no trouble was taken about them. As for the three who were knocked over by the sling stones, there they lay until they recovered their senses, when they crawled into camp. This incident cooled Felix’s ardour for the fray, for he reflected that, if injured thus, he too, as a mere groom, would be left. The devotion of the retainers to save and succour their masters was almost heroic. The mailed knights thought no more of their men, unless it was some particular favourite, than of a hound slashed by a boar’s tusk in the chase.

When the first flush of his excitement had passed, Felix, thinking over the scene of the morning as he took his horses down to water at the stream, became filled at first with contempt, and then with indignation. That the first commander of the age should thus look on while the wall was won before his eyes, and yet never send a strong detachment, or move himself with his whole army to follow up the advantage, seemed past understanding. If he did not intend to follow it up, why permit such desperate ventures, which must be overwhelmed by mere numbers, and could result only in the loss of brave men? And if he did permit it, why did he not, when he saw they were overthrown, send a squadron to cover their retreat? To call such an exhibition of courage “a main of cocks”, to look on it as a mere display for his amusement, was barbarous and cruel in the extreme. He worked himself up into a state of anger which rendered him less cautious than usual in expressing his opinions.

The king was not nearly so much at fault as Felix, arguing on abstract principles, imagined. He had long experience of war, and he knew its extreme uncertainty. The issue of the greatest battle often hung on the conduct of a single leader, or even a single man-at-arms. He had seen walls won and lost before. To follow up such a venture with a strong detachment must result in one of two things, either the detachment in its turn must be supported by the entire army, or it must eventually retreat. If it retreated, the loss of prestige would be serious, and might encourage the enemy to attack the camp, for it was only his prestige which prevented them. If supported by the entire army, then the fate of the whole expedition depended upon that single day.

The enemy had the advantage of the wall, of the narrow streets and enclosures within, of the houses, each of which would become a fortress, and thus in the winding streets a repulse might easily happen. To risk such an event would be folly in the last degree, before the town had been dispirited and discouraged by the continuance of the siege, the failure of their provisions, or the fall of their chief leaders in the daily combats that took place.

The army had no discipline whatever, beyond that of the attachment of the retainer to his lord, and the dread of punishment on the part of the slave. There were no distinct ranks, no organized corps. The knights followed the greater barons, the retainers the knights; the greater barons followed the king. Such an army could not be risked in an assault of this kind. The venture was not ordered, nor was it discouraged; to discourage, indeed, all attempts would have been bad policy; it was upon the courage and bravery of his knights that the king depended, and upon that alone rested his hopes of victory.

The great baron whose standard they followed would have sent them assistance if he had deemed it necessary. The king, unless on the day of battle, would not trouble about such a detail. As for the remark, that they had had “a good main of cocks that morning,” he simply expressed the feeling of the whole camp. The spectacle Felix had seen was, in fact, merely an instance of the strength and of the weakness of the army and the monarch himself.

Felix afterwards acknowledged these things to himself, but at the moment, full of admiration for the bravery of the four knights and their followers, he was full of indignation, and uttered his views too freely. His fellow-grooms cautioned him; but his spirit was up, and he gave way to his feelings without restraint. Now, to laugh at the king’s weaknesses, his gluttony or follies, was one thing; to criticise his military conduct was another. The one was merely badinage, and the king himself might have laughed had he heard it; the other was treason, and, moreover, likely to touch the monarch on the delicate matter of military reputation.

Of this Felix quickly became aware. His mates, indeed, tried to shield him; but possibly the citizen, his master, had enemies in the camp, barons, perhaps, to whom he had lent money, and who watched for a chance of securing his downfall. At all events, early the next day Felix was rudely arrested by the provost in person, bound with cords, and placed in the provost’s booth. At the same time, his master was ordered to remain within, and a guard was put over him.

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