After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xx

In Danger

Hope died within Felix when he thus suddenly found himself so near the executioner. He had known so many butchered without cause, that he had, indeed, reason to despair. Towards the sunset he felt sure he should be dragged forth and hanged on the oak used for the purpose, and which stood near where the track from Aisi joined the camp. Such would most probably have been his fate, had he been alone concerned in this affair, but by good fortune he was able to escape so miserable an end. Still, he suffered as much as if the rope had finished him, for he had no means of knowing what would be the result.

His heart swelled with bitterness; he was filled with inexpressible indignation, his whole being rebelled against the blundering, as it were, of events which had thus thrown him into the jaws of death. In an hour or two, however, he sufficiently recovered from the shock to reflect that most probably they would give him some chance to speak for himself. There would not be any trial; who would waste time in trying so insignificant a wretch? But there might be some opportunity of speaking, and he resolved to use it to the utmost possible extent.

He would arraign the unskilful generalship of the king; he would not only point out his errors, but how the enemy could be defeated. He would prove that he had ideas and plans worthy of attention. He would, as it were, vindicate himself before he was executed, and he tried to collect his thoughts and to put them into form. Every moment the face of Aurora seemed to look upon him, lovingly and mournfully; but beside it he saw the dusty and distorted features of the copse he had seen drawn by the horse through the camp. Thus, too, his tongue would protrude and lick the dust. He endured, in a word, those treble agonies which the highly-wrought and imaginative inflict upon themselves.

The hours passed, and still no one came near him; he called, and the guard appeared at the door, but only to see what was the matter, and finding his prisoner safe, at once resumed his walk to and fro. The soldier did not, for his own sake, dare to enter into conversation with a prisoner under arrest for such an offence; he might be involved, or suspected. Had it been merely theft or any ordinary crime, he would have talked freely enough, and sympathized with the prisoner. As time went on, Felix grew thirsty, but his request for water was disregarded, and there he remained till four in the afternoon. They then marched him out; he begged to be allowed to speak, but the soldiery did not reply, simply hurrying him forward. He now feared that he should be executed without the chance being afforded him to say a word; but, to his surprise, he found in a few minutes that they were taking him in the direction of the king’s quarters. New fears now seized him, for he had heard of men being turned loose, made to run for their lives, and hunted down with hounds for the amusement of the Court.

If the citizen’s wealth had made him many enemies (men whom he had befriended, and who hoped, if they could be see him executed, to escape the payment of their debts), on the other hand, it had made him as many friends, that is, interested friends, who trusted by doing him service to obtain advances. These latter had lost no time, for greed is quite as eager as hate, and carried the matter at once to the king. What they desired was that the case should be decided by the monarch himself, and not by his chancellor, or a judge appointed for the purpose. The judge would be nearly certain to condemn the citizen, and to confiscate whatever he could lay hands on. The king might pardon, and would be content with a part only, where his ministers would grasp all.

These friends succeeded in their object; the king, who hated all judicial affairs because they involved the trouble of investigation, shrugged his shoulders at the request, and would not have granted it had it not come out that the citizen’s servant had declared him to be an incapable commander. At this the king started. “We are, indeed, fallen low,” said he, “when a miserable trader’s knave calls us incapable. We will see this impudent rascal.” He accordingly ordered that the prisoner should be brought before him after dinner.

Felix was led inside the entrenchment, unbound, and commanded to stand upright. There was a considerable assembly of the greater barons anxious to see the trial of the money-lender, who, though present, was kept apart from Felix lest the two should arrange their defence. The king was sleeping on a couch outside the booth in the shade; he was lying on his back breathing loudly with open mouth. How different his appearance to the time when he sat on his splendid charger and reviewed his knights! A heavy meal had been succeeded by as heavy a slumber. No one dared to disturb him; the assembly moved on tiptoe and conversed in whispers. The experienced divined that the prisoners were certain to be condemned, for the king would wake with indigestion, and vent his uneasy sensations upon them. Full an hour elapsed before the king awoke with a snort and called for a draught of water. How Felix envied that draught! He had neither eaten nor drunk since the night previous; it was a hot day, and his tongue was dry and parched.

The citizen was first accused; he denied any treasonable designs or expressions whatever; as for the other prisoner, till the time he was arrested he did not even know he had been in his service. He was some stroller whom his grooms had incautiously engaged, the lazy scoundrels, to assist them. He had never even spoken to him; it the knave told the truth he must acknowledge this.

“How now,” said the king, turning to Felix; “what do you say?”

“It is true,” replied Felix, “he has never spoken to me nor I to him. He knew nothing of what I said. I said it on my own account, and I say it again!”

“And pray, sir knave,” said the king, sitting up on his couch, for he was surprised to hear one so meanly dressed speak so correctly, and so boldly face him. “What was it you did say?”

“If your majesty will order me a single drop of water,” said the prisoner, “I will repeat it word for word, but I have had nothing the whole day, and I can hardly move my tongue.”

Without a word the king handed him the cup from which he had himself drunk. Never, surely, was water so delicious. Felix drained it to the bottom, handed it back (an officer took it), and with one brief thought of Aurora, he said: “Your majesty, you are an incapable commander.”

“Go on,” said the king sarcastically; “why am I incapable?”

“You have attacked the wrong city; these three are all your enemies, and you have attacked the first. They stand in a row.”

“They stand in a row,” repeated the king; “and we will knock them over like three nine-pins.”

“But you have begun with the end one,” said Felix, “and that is the mistake. For after you have taken the first you must take the second, and still after that the third. But you might have saved much trouble and time if ——”

“If what?”

“If you had assaulted the middle one first. For then, while the siege went on, you would have been able to prevent either of the other two towns from sending assistance, and when you had taken the first and put your garrison in it, neither of the others could have stirred, or reaped their corn, nor could they even communicate with each other, since you would be between them; and in fact you would have cut your enemies in twain.”

“By St. John!” swore the king, “it is a good idea. I begin to think — but go on, you have more to say.”

“I think, too, your majesty, that by staying here as you have done this fortnight past without action, you have encouraged the other two cities to make more desperate resistance; and it seems to me that you are in a dangerous position, and may at any moment be overwhelmed with disaster, for there is nothing whatever to prevent either of the other two from sending troops to burn the open city of Aisi in your absence. And that danger must increase every day as they take courage by your idleness.”

“Idleness! There shall be idleness no longer. The man speaks the truth; we will consider further of this, we will move on Adelinton,” turning to his barons.

“If it please your majesty,” said Baron Ingulph, “this man invented a new trigger for our carriage crossbows, but he was lost in the crowd, and we have sought for him in vain; my serjeant here has this moment recognised him.”

“Why did you not come to us before, fellow?” said the king. “Let him be released; let him be entertained at our expense; give him clothes and a sword. We will see you further.”

Overjoyed at this sudden turn of fortune, Felix forgot to let well alone. He had his audience with him for a moment; he could not resist as it were following up his victory. He thanked the king, and added that he could make a machine which would knock the walls yonder to pieces without it being necessary to approach nearer than half a bow-shot.

“What is this?” said the king. “Ingulph, have you ever heard of such a machine?”

“There is no such thing,” said the Baron, beginning to feel that his professional reputation as the master of the artillery was assailed. “There is nothing of the kind known.”

“It will shoot stones as big, as heavy as a man can lift,” said Felix eagerly, “and easily knock towers to fragments.”

The king looked from one to another; he was incredulous. The Baron smiled scornfully. “Ask him, your majesty, how these stones are to be thrown; no bow could do it.”

“How are the stones to be thrown?” said the king sharply. “Beware how you play with us.”

“By the force of twisted ropes, your majesty.”

They all laughed. The Baron said: “You see, your majesty, there is nothing of the kind. This is some jester.”

“The twisted rope should be a halter,” said another courtier, one of those who hoped for the rich man’s downfall.

“It can be done, your majesty,” cried Felix, alarmed. “I assure you, a stone of two hundredweight might be thrown a quarter of a mile.”

The assembly did not repress its contempt.

“The man is a fool,” said the king, who now thought that Felix was a jester who had put a trick upon him. “But your joke is out of joint; I will teach such fellows to try tricks on us! Beat him out of camp.”

The provost’s men seized him, and in a moment he was dragged off his feet, and bodily carried outside the entrenchment. Thence they pushed him along, beating him with the butts of their spears to make him run the faster; the groups they passed laughed and jeered; the dogs barked and snapped at his ankles. They hurried him outside the camp, and thrusting him savagely with their spear butts sent him headlong. There they left him, with the caution which he did not hear, being insensible, that if he ventured inside the lines he would be at once hanged. Like a dead dog they left him on the ground.

Some hours later, in the dusk of the evening, Felix stole from the spot, skirting the forest like a wild animal afraid to venture from its cover, till he reached the track which led to Aisi. His one idea was to reach his canoe. He would have gone through the woods, but that was not possible. Without axe or wood-knife to hew a way, the tangled brushwood he knew to be impassable, having observed how thick it was when coming. Aching and trembling in every limb, not so much with physical suffering as that kind of inward fever which follows unmerited injury, the revolt of the mind against it, he followed the track as fast as his weary frame would let him. He had tasted nothing that day but the draught from the king’s cup, and a second draught when he recovered consciousness, from the stream that flowed past the camp. Yet he walked steadily on without pause; his head hung forward, and his arms were listless, but his feet mechanically plodded on. He walked, indeed, by his will, and not with his sinews. Thus, like a ghost, for there was no life in him, he traversed the shadowy forest.

The dawn came, and still he kept onwards. As the sun rose higher, having now travelled fully twenty miles, he saw houses on the right of the trail. They were evidently those of retainers or workmen employed on the manor, for a castle stood at some distance.

An hour later he approached the second or open city of Aisi, where the ferry was across the channel. In his present condition he could not pass through the town. No one there knew of his disgrace, but it was the same to him as if they had. Avoiding the town itself, he crossed the cultivated fields, and upon arriving at the channel he at once stepped in, and swam across to the opposite shore. It was not more than sixty yards, but, weary as he was, it was an exhausting effort. He sat down, but immediately got up and struggled on.

The church tower on the slope of the hill was a landmark by which he easily discovered the direction of the spot where he had hidden the canoe. But he felt unable to push through the belt of brushwood, reeds, and flags beside the shore, and therefore struck through the firs, following a cattle track, which doubtless led to another grazing ground. This ran parallel with the shore, and when he judged himself about level with the canoe he left it, and entered the wood itself. For a little way he could walk, but the thick fir branches soon blocked his progress, and he could progress only on hands and knees, creeping beneath them. There was a hollow space under the lower branches free from brushwood.

Thus he painfully approached the Lake, and descending the hill, after an hour’s weary work emerged among the rushes and reeds. He was within two hundred yards of the canoe, for he recognised the island opposite it. In ten minutes he found it undisturbed and exactly as he had left it, except that the breeze had strewn the dry reeds with which it was covered with willow leaves, yellow and dead (they fall while all the rest are green), which had been whirled from the branches. Throwing himself upon the reeds beside the canoe, he dropped asleep as if he had been dead.

He awoke as the sun was sinking and sat up, hungry in the extreme, but much refreshed. There were still some stores in the canoe, of which he ate ravenously. But he felt better now; he felt at home beside his boat. He could hardly believe in the reality of the hideous dream through which he had passed. But when he tried to stand, his feet, cut and blistered, only too painfully assured him of its reality. He took out his hunter’s hide and cloak and spread himself a comfortable bed. Though he had slept so long he was still weary. He reclined in a semi-unconscious state, his frame slowly recovering from the strain it had endured, till by degrees he fell asleep again. Sleep, nothing but sleep, restores the overtaxed mind and body.

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