After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter iv

The Canoe

Felix had scarcely worked half an hour before Oliver returned and threw himself on the ground at full length. He had wearied of fishing, the delicate adjustment of the tackle and the care necessary to keep the hook and line from catching in the branches had quickly proved too much for his patience. He lay on the grass, his feet towards the stream which ran and bubbled beneath, and watched Felix chipping out the block intended to fit into the secret opening or locker.

“Is it nearly finished, then?” he said presently. “What a time you have been at it!”

“Nearly three months.”

“Why did you make it so big? It is too big.”

“Is it really? Perhaps I want to put some things in it.”

“Oh, I see; cargo. But where are you going to launch it?”

“Below the stones there.”

“Well, you won’t be able to go far; there’s an old fir across the river down yonder, and a hollow willow has fallen in. Besides, the stream’s too shallow; you’ll take ground before you get half a mile.”

“Shall I?”

“Of course you will. That boat will float six inches deep by herself, and I’m sure there’s not six inches by the Thorns.”

“Very awkward.”

“Why didn’t you have a hide boat made, with a willow framework and leather cover? Then you might perhaps get down the river by hauling it past the shallows and the fallen trees. In two days’ time you would be in the hands of the gipsies.”

“And you would be Sir Constans’ heir!”

“Now, come, I say; that’s too bad. You know I didn’t mean that. Besides, I think I’m as much his heir as you now” (looking at his sinewy arm); “at least, he doesn’t listen as much to you. I mean, the river runs into the gipsies’ country as straight as it can go.”

“Just so.”

“Well, you seem very cool about it!”

“I am not going down the river.”

“Then, where are you going?”

“On the Lake.”

“Whew!” (whistling) “Pooh! Why, the Lake’s — let me see, to Heron Bay it’s quite fifteen miles. You can’t paddle across the land.”

“But I can put the canoe on a cart.”

“Aha! why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Because I did not wish anyone to know. Don’t say anything.”

“Not I. But what on earth, or rather, on water, are you driving at? Where are you going? What’s the canoe for?”

“I am going a voyage. But I will tell you all when it is ready. Meantime, I rely on you to keep silence. The rest think the boat is for the river.”

“I will not say a word. But why did you not have a hide boat?”

“They are not strong enough. They can’t stand knocking about.”

“If you want to go a voyage (where to, I can’t imagine), why not take a passage on board a ship?”

“I want to go my own way. They will only go theirs. Nor do I like the company.”

“Well, certainly the sailors are the roughest lot I know. Still, that would not have hurt you. You are rather dainty, Sir Felix!”

“My daintiness does not hurt you.”

“Can’t I speak?” (sharply)

“Please yourself.”

A silence. A cuckoo sang in the forest, and was answered from a tree within the distant palisade. Felix chopped away slowly and deliberately; he was not a good workman. Oliver watched his progress with contempt; he could have put it into shape in half the time. Felix could draw, and design; he could invent, but he was not a practical workman, to give speedy and accurate effect to his ideas.

“My opinion is,” said Oliver, “that that canoe will not float upright. It’s one-sided.”

Felix, usually so self-controlled, could not refrain from casting his chisel down angrily. But he picked it up again, and said nothing. This silence had more influence upon Oliver, whose nature was very generous, than the bitterest retort. He sat up on the sward.

“I will help launch it,” he said. “We could manage it between us, if you don’t want a lot of the fellows down here.”

“Thank you. I should like that best.”

“And I will help you with the cart when you start.”

Oliver rolled over on his back, and looked up idly at the white flecks of cloud sailing at a great height.

“Old Mouse is a wretch not to give me a command,” he said presently.

Felix looked round involuntarily, lest any one should have heard; Mouse was the nick-name for the Prince. Like all who rule with irresponsible power, the Prince had spies everywhere. He was not a cruel man, nor a benevolent, neither clever nor foolish, neither strong nor weak; simply an ordinary, a very ordinary being, who chanced to sit upon a throne because his ancestors did, and not from any personal superiority.

He was at times much influenced by those around him; at others he took his own course, right or wrong; at another he let matters drift. There was never any telling in the morning what he might do towards night, for there was no vein of will or bias running through his character. In fact, he lacked character; he was all uncertainty, except in jealousy of his supremacy. Possibly some faint perception of his own incapacity, of the feeble grasp he had upon the State, that seemed outwardly so completely his, occasionally crossed his mind.

Hence the furious scenes with his brother; hence the sudden imprisonments and equally sudden pardons; the spies and eavesdroppers, the sequestration of estates for no apparent cause. And, following these erratic severities to the suspected nobles, proclamations giving privileges to the people, and removing taxes. But in a few days these were imposed again, and men who dared to murmur were beaten by the soldiers, or cast into the dungeons. Yet Prince Louis (the family were all of the same name) was not an ill-meaning man; he often meant well, but had no stability or firmness of purpose.

This was why Felix dreaded lest some chance listener should hear Oliver abuse him. Oliver had been in the army for some time; his excellence in all arms, and especially with lance and sword, his acknowledged courage, and his noble birth, entitled him to a command, however lowly it might be. But he was still in the ranks, and not the slightest recognition had ever been taken of his feats, except, indeed, if whispers were true, by some sweet smiles from a certain lady of the palace, who admired knightly prowess.

Oliver chafed under this neglect.

“I would not say that kind of thing,” remarked Felix. “Certainly it is annoying.”

“Annoying! that is a mild expression. Of course, everyone knows the reason. If we had any money, or influence, it would be very different. But Sir Constans has neither gold nor power, and he might have had both.”

“There was a clerk from the notary’s at the house yesterday evening,” said Felix.

“About the debts, no doubt. Some day the cunning old scoundrel, when he can squeeze no more interest out of us, will find a legal quibble and take the lot.”

“Or put us in the Blue Chamber, the first time the Prince goes to war and wants money. The Blue Chamber will say, ‘Where can we get it? Who’s weakest?’ ‘Why, Sir Constans!’ ‘Then away with him.’”

“Yes, that will be it. Yet I wish a war would happen; there would be some chance for me. I would go with you in your canoe, but you are going you don’t know where. What’s your object? Nothing. You don’t know yourself.”

“Indeed!”

“No, you don’t; you’re a dreamer.”

“I am afraid it is true.”

“I hate dreams.” After a pause, in a lower voice, “Have you any money?”

Felix took out his purse and showed him the copper pieces.

“The eldest son of Constans Aquila with ten copper pieces,” growled Oliver, rising, but taking them all the same. “Lend them to me. I’ll try them on the board to-night. Fancy me putting down copper! It’s intolerable” (working himself into a rage). “I’ll turn bandit, and rob on the roads. I’ll go to King Yeo and fight the Welsh. Confusion!”

He rushed into the forest, leaving his spear on the sward.

Felix quietly chipped away at the block he was shaping, but his temper, too, was inwardly rising. The same talk, varied in detail, but the same in point, took place every time the brothers were together, and always with the same result of anger. In earlier days Sir Constans had been as forward in all warlike exercises as Oliver was now, and being possessed of extraordinary physical strength, took a leading part among men. Wielding his battle-axe with irresistible force, he distinguished himself in several battles and sieges.

He had a singular talent for mechanical construction (the wheel by which water was drawn from the well at the palace was designed by him), but this very ingenuity was the beginning of his difficulties. During a long siege, he invented a machine for casting large stones against the walls, or rather put it together from the fragmentary descriptions he had seen in authors, whose works had almost perished before the dispersion of the ancients; for he, too, had been studious in youth.

The old Prince was highly pleased with this engine, which promised him speedy conquest over his enemies, and the destruction of their strongholds. But the nobles who had the hereditary command of the siege artillery, which consisted mainly of battering-rams, could not endure to see their prestige vanishing. They caballed, traduced the Baron, and he fell into disgrace. This disgrace, as he was assured by secret messages from the Prince, was but policy; he would be recalled so soon as the Prince felt himself able to withstand the pressure of the nobles. But it happened that the old Prince died at that juncture, and the present Prince succeeded.

The enemies of the Baron, having access to him, obtained his confidence; the Baron was arrested and amerced in a heavy fine, the payment of which laid the foundation of those debts which had since been constantly increasing. He was then released, but was not for some two years permitted to approach the Court. Meantime, men of not half his descent, but with an unblushing brow and unctuous tongue, had become the favourites at the palace of the Prince, who, as said before, was not bad, but the mere puppet of circumstances.

Into competition with these vulgar flatterers Aquila could not enter. It was indeed pride, and nothing but pride, that had kept him from the palace. By slow degrees he had sunk out of sight, occupying himself more and more with mechanical inventions, and with gardening, till at last he had come to be regarded as no more than an agriculturist. Yet in this obscure condition he had not escaped danger.

The common people were notoriously attached to him. Whether this was due to his natural kindliness, his real strength of intellect, and charm of manner, or whether it was on account of the uprightness with which he judged between them, or whether it was owing to all these things combined, certain it is that there was not a man on the estate that would not have died for him. Certain it is, too, that he was beloved by the people of the entire district, and more especially by the shepherds of the hills, who were freer and less under the control of the patrician caste. Instead of carrying disputes to the town, to be adjudged by the Prince’s authority, many were privately brought to him.

This, by degrees becoming known, excited the jealousy and anger of the Prince, an anger cunningly inflamed by the notary Francis, and by other nobles. But they hesitated to execute anything against him lest the people should rise, and it was doubtful, indeed, if the very retainers of the nobles would attack the Old House, if ordered. Thus the Baron’s weakness was his defence. The Prince, to do him justice, soon forgot the matter, and laughed at his own folly, that he should be jealous of a man who was no more than an agriculturist.

The rest were not so appeased; they desired the Baron’s destruction if only from hatred of his popularity, and they lost no opportunity of casting discredit upon him, or of endeavouring to alienate the affections of the people by representing him as a magician, a thing clearly proved by his machines and engines, which must have been designed by some supernatural assistance. But the chief, as the most immediate and pressing danger, was the debt to Francis the notary, which might at any moment be brought before the Court.

Thus it was that the three sons found themselves without money or position, with nothing but a bare patent of nobility. The third and youngest alone had made any progress, if such it could be called. By dint of his own persistent efforts, and by enduring insults and rebuffs with indifference, he had at last obtained an appointment in that section of the Treasury which received the dues upon merchandise, and regulated the imposts. He was but a messenger at every man’s call; his pay was not sufficient to obtain his food, still it was an advance, and he was in a government office. He could but just exist in the town, sleeping in a garret, where he stored the provisions he took in with him every Monday morning from the Old House. He came home on the Saturday and returned to his work on the Monday. Even his patience was almost worn out.

The whole place was thus falling to decay, while at the same time it seemed to be flowing with milk and honey, for under the Baron’s personal attention the estate, though so carelessly guarded, had become a very garden. The cattle had increased, and were of the best kind, the horses were celebrated and sought for, the sheep valued, the crops the wonder of the province. Yet there was no money; the product went to the notary. This extraordinary fertility was the cause of the covetous longing of the Court favourites to divide the spoil.

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