After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter xxviii

For Aurora

Felix now began to find out for himself the ancient truth, that difficulties always confront man. Success only changes them, and increases their number. Difficulties faced him in every direction; at home it had seemed impossible for him to do anything. Now that success seemed to smile on him and he had become a power, instead of everything being smooth and easy, new difficulties sprang up for solution at every point. He wished to continue his journey, but he feared that he would not be permitted to depart. He would have to start away in the night, in which case he could hardly return to them again, and yet he wished to return to these, the first friends he had had, and amongst whom he hoped to found a city.

Another week slipped away, and Felix was meditating his escape, when one afternoon a deputation of ten spearmen arrived from a distant tribe, who had nominated him their king, and sent their principal men to convey the intelligence. Fame is always greatest at a distance, and this tribe in the mountains of the east had actually chosen him as king, and declared that they would obey him whether he took up his residence with them or not. Felix was naturally greatly pleased; how delighted Aurora would be! but he was in perplexity what to do, for he could not tell whether the Wolfstead people would be favourably inclined or would resent his selection.

He had not long to consider. There was an assembly of the tribe, and they, too, chose him by common consent as their king. Secretly they were annoyed that another tribe had been more forward than themselves, and were anxious that Felix should not leave them. Felix declined the honour; in spite of his refusal, he was treated as if he were the most despotic monarch. Four days afterwards two other tribes joined the movement, and sent their acceptance of him as their monarch. Others followed, and so quickly now that a day never passed without another tribe sending a deputation.

Felix thought deeply on the matter. He was, of course, flattered, and ready to accept the dignity, but he was alive to considerations of policy. He resolved that he would not use the title, nor exercise the functions of a king as usually understood. He explained his plan to the chiefs; it was that he should be called simply “Leader”, the Leader of the War; that he should only assume royal authority in time of war; that the present chiefs should retain their authority, and each govern as before, in accordance with ancient custom. He proposed to be king only during war-time. He would, if they liked, write out their laws for them in a book, and so give their customs cohesion and shape. To this plan the tribes readily agreed; it retained all the former customs, it left the chiefs their simple patriarchal authority, and it gave all of them the advantage of combination in war. As the Leader, Felix was henceforth known.

In the course of a fortnight, upwards of six thousand men had joined the Confederacy, and Felix wrote down the names of twenty tribes on a sheet of parchment which he took from his chest. A hut had long since been built for him; but he received all the deputations, and held the assemblies which were necessary, in the circular fort. He was so pressed to visit the tribes that he could not refuse to go to the nearest, and thus his journey was again postponed. During this progress from tribal camp to tribal camp, Felix gained the adhesion of twelve more, making a total of thirty-two names of camps, representing about eight thousand spearmen. With pride Felix reflected that he commanded a far larger army than the Prince of Ponze. But he was not happy.

Months had now elapsed since he had parted from Aurora. There were no means of communicating with her. A letter could be conveyed only by a special messenger; he could not get a messenger, and even if one had been forthcoming, he could not instruct him how to reach Thyma Castle. He did not know himself; the country was entirely unexplored. Except that the direction was west, he had no knowledge whatever. He had often inquired of the shepherds, but they were perfectly ignorant. Anker’s Gate was the most westerly of all their settlements, which chiefly extended eastwards. Beyond Anker’s Gate was the trackless forest, of which none but the Bushmen knew anything. They did not understand what he meant by a map; all they could tell him was that the range of mountainous hills continued westerly and southerly for an unascertained distance, and that the country was uninhabited except by wandering gipsy tribes.

South was the sea, the salt water; but they never went down to it, or near it, because there was no sustenance for their flocks and herds. Till now, Felix did not know that he was near the sea; he resolved at once to visit it. As nearly as he could discover, the great fresh water Lake did not reach any farther south; Wolfstead was not far from its southern margin. He concluded, therefore, that the shore of the Lake must run continually westward, and that if he followed it he should ultimately reach the very creek from which he had started in his canoe. How far it was he could not reckon.

There were none of the shepherds who could be sent with a letter; they were not hunters, and were unused to woodcraft; there was not one capable of the journey. Unless he went himself he could not communicate with Aurora. Two routes were open to him; one straight through the forest on foot, the other by water, which latter entailed the construction of another canoe. Journey by water, too, he had found was subject to unforeseen risks. Till he could train some of the younger men to row a galley, he decided not to attempt the voyage. There was but the forest route left, and that he resolved to attempt; but when? And how, without offending his friends?

Meantime, while he revolved the subject in his mind, he visited the river and the shore of the great Lake, this time accompanied by ten spears. The second visit only increased his admiration of the place and his desire to take possession of it. He ascended a tall larch, from whose boughs he had a view out over the Lake; the shore seemed to go almost directly west. There were no islands, and no land in sight; the water was open and clear. Next day he started for the sea; he wished to see it for its own sake, and, secondly, because if he could trace the trend of the shore, he would perhaps be able to put together a mental map of the country, and so assure himself of the right route to pursue when he started for Thyma Castle.

His guides took him directly south, and in three marches (three days) brought him to the strand. This journey was not in a straight line; they considered it was about five-and-thirty or forty miles to the sea, but the country was covered with almost impenetrable forests, which compelled a circuitous path. They had also to avoid a great ridge of hills, and to slip through a pass or river valley, because these hills were frequently traversed by the gipsies who were said, indeed, to travel along them for hundreds of miles. Through the river valley, therefore, which wound between the hills, they approached the sea, so much on a level with it that Felix did not catch a distant glimpse.

In the afternoon of the third day they heard a low murmur, and soon afterwards came out from the forest itself upon a wide bed of shingle, thinly bordered with scattered bushes on the inland side. Climbing over this, Felix saw the green line of the sea rise and extend itself on either hand; in the glory of the scene he forgot his anxieties and his hopes, they fell from him together, leaving the mind alone with itself and love. For the memory of Aurora rendered the beauty before him still more beautiful; love, like the sunshine, threw a glamour over the waves. His old and highest thoughts returned to him in all their strength. He must follow them, he could not help himself. Standing where the foam came nearly to his feet, the resolution to pursue his aspirations took possession of him as strong as the sea. When he turned from it, he said to himself, “This is the first step homewards to her; this is the first step of my renewed labour.” To fulfil his love and his ambition was one and the same thing. He must see her, and then again endeavour with all his abilities to make himself a position which she could share.

Towards the evening, leaving his escort, he partly ascended the nearest slope of the hills to ascertain more perfectly than was possible at a lower level the direction in which the shore trended. It was nearly east and west, and as the shore of the inland lake ran west, it appeared that between them there was a broad belt of forest. Through this he must pass, and he thought if he continued due west he should cross an imaginary line drawn south from his own home through Thyma Castle; then by turning to the north he should presently reach that settlement. But when he should cross this line, how many days’ travelling it would need to reach it, was a matter of conjecture, and he must be guided by circumstances, the appearance of the country, and his hunter’s instinct.

On the way back to Wolfstead Felix was occupied in considering how he could leave his friends, and yet be able to return to them and resume his position. His general idea was to build a fortified house or castle at the spot which had so pleased him, and to bring Aurora to it. He could then devote himself to increasing and consolidating his rule over these people, and perhaps in time organize a kingdom. But without Aurora the time it would require would be unendurable; by some means he must bring her. The whole day long as he walked he thought and thought, trying to discover some means by which he could accomplish these things; yet the more he considered the more difficult they appeared to him. There seemed no plan that promised success; all he could do would be to risk the attempt.

But two days after returning from the sea it chanced towards the afternoon he fell asleep, and on awakening found his mind full of ideas which he felt sure would succeed if anything would. The question had solved itself during sleep; the mind, like a wearied limb, strained by too much effort, had recovered its elasticity and freshness, and he saw clearly what he ought to do.

He convened an assembly of the chief men of the nearest tribes, and addressed them in the circular fort. He asked them if they could place sufficient confidence in him to assist him in carrying out certain plans, although he should not be able to altogether disclose the object he had in view.

They replied as one man that they had perfect confidence in him, and would implicitly obey.

He then said that the first thing he wished was the clearing of the land by the river in order that he might erect a fortified dwelling suitable to his position as their Leader in war. Next he desired their permission to leave them for two months, at the end of which he would return. He could not at that time explain the reasons, but until his journey had been made he could not finally settle among them.

To this announcement they listened in profound silence. It was evident that they disliked him leaving them, yet did not wish to seem distrustful by expressing the feeling.

Thirdly, he continued, he wanted them to clear a path through the forest, commencing at Anker’s Gate and proceeding exactly west. The track to be thirty yards wide in order that the undergrowth might not encroach upon it, and to be carried on straight to the westward until his return. The distance to which this path was cleared he should take as the measure of their loyalty to him.

They immediately promised to fulfil this desire, but added that there was no necessity to wait till he left them, it should be commenced the very next morning. To his reiterated request for leave of absence they preserved an ominous silence, and as he had no more to say, the assembly then broke up.

It was afternoon, and Felix, as he watched the departing chiefs, reflected that these men would certainly set a watch upon him to prevent his escape. Without another moment’s delay he entered his hut, and took from their hiding-place the diamond bracelet, the turquoise ring, and other presents for Aurora. He also secured some provisions, and put two spare bowstrings in his pocket. His bow of course he carried.

Telling the people about that he was going to the next settlement, Bedeston, and was anxious to overtake the chief from that place who had attended the assembly, he started. So soon as he knew he could not be seen from the settlement he quitted the trail, and made a wide circuit till he faced westwards. Anker’s Gate was a small outlying post, the most westerly from Wolfstead; he went near it to get a true direction, but not sufficiently near to be observed. This was on the fourth of September. The sun was declining as he finally left the country of his friends, and entered the immense forest which lay between him and Aurora. Not only was there no track, but no one had ever traversed it, unless, indeed, it were Bushmen, who to all intents might be confused with the wild animals which it contained.

Yet his heart rose as he walked rapidly among the oaks; already he saw her, he felt the welcoming touch of her hand; the danger of Bushman or gipsy was nothing. The forest at the commencement consisted chiefly of oaks, trees which do not grow close together, and so permitted of quick walking. Felix pushed on, absorbed in thought. The sun sank; still onward; and as the dusk fell he was still moving rapidly westwards.

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