After London, by Richard Jefferies

Chapter v

Baron Aquila

Felix’s own position was bitter in the extreme. He felt he had talent. He loved deeply, he knew that he was in turn as deeply beloved; but he was utterly powerless. On the confines of the estate, indeed, the men would run gladly to do his bidding. Beyond, and on his own account, he was helpless. Manual labour (to plough, to sow, to work on shipboard) could produce nothing in a time when almost all work was done by bondsmen or family retainers. The life of a hunter in the woods was free, but produced nothing.

The furs he sold simply maintained him; it was barter for existence, not profit. The shepherds on the hills roamed in comparative freedom, but they had no wealth except of sheep. He could not start as a merchant without money; he could not enclose an estate and build a house or castle fit for the nuptials of a noble’s daughter without money, or that personal influence which answers the same purpose; he could not even hope to succeed to the hereditary estate, so deeply was it encumbered; they might, indeed, at any time be turned forth.

Slowly the iron entered into his soul. This hopelessness, helplessness, embittered every moment. His love increasing with the passage of time rendered his position hateful in the extreme. The feeling within that he had talent which only required opportunity stung him like a scorpion. The days went by, and everything remained the same. Continual brooding and bitterness of spirit went near to drive him mad.

At last the resolution was taken, he would go forth into the world. That involved separation from Aurora, long separation, and without communication, since letters could be sent only by special messenger, and how should he pay a messenger? It was this terrible thought of separation which had so long kept him inactive. In the end the bitterness of hopelessness forced him to face it. He began the canoe, but kept his purpose secret, especially from her, lest tears should melt his resolution.

There were but two ways of travelling open to him: on foot, as the hunters did, or by the merchant vessels. The latter, of course, required payment, and their ways were notoriously coarse. If on foot he could not cross the Lake, nor visit the countries on either shore, nor the islands; therefore he cut down the poplar and commenced the canoe. Whither he should go, and what he should do, was entirely at the mercy of circumstances. He had no plan, no route.

He had a dim idea of offering his services to some distant king or prince, of unfolding to him the inventions he had made. He tried to conceal from himself that he would probably be repulsed and laughed at. Without money, without a retinue, how could he expect to be received or listened to? Still, he must go; he could not help himself, go he must.

As he chopped and chipped through the long weeks of early spring, while the easterly winds bent the trees above him, till the buds unfolded and the leaves expanded — while his hands were thus employed, the whole map, as it were, of the known countries seemed to pass without volition before his mind. He saw the cities along the shores of the great Lake; he saw their internal condition, the weakness of the social fabric, the misery of the bondsmen. The uncertain action of the League, the only thread which bound the world together; the threatening aspect of the Cymry and the Irish; the dread north, the vast northern forests, from which at any time invading hosts might descend on the fertile south — it all went before his eyes.

What was there behind the immense and untraversed belt of forest which extended to the south, to the east, and west? Where did the great Lake end? Were the stories of the gold and silver mines of Devon and Cornwall true? And where were the iron mines, from which the ancients drew their stores of metal?

Led by these thoughts he twice or thrice left his labour, and walking some twenty miles through the forests, and over the hills, reached the summit of White Horse. From thence, resting on the sward, he watched the vessels making slow progress by oars, and some drawn with ropes by gangs of men or horses on the shore, through the narrow straits. North and South there nearly met. There was but a furlong of water between them. If ever the North came down there the armies would cross. There was the key of the world. Excepting the few cottages where the owners of the horses lived, there was neither castle nor town within twenty miles.

Forced on by these thoughts, he broke the long silence which had existed between him and his father. He spoke of the value and importance of this spot; could not the Baron send forth his retainers and enclose a new estate there? There was nothing to prevent him. The forest was free to all, provided that they rendered due service to the Prince. Might not a house or castle built there become the beginning of a city? The Baron listened, and then said he must go and see that a new hatch was put in the brook to irrigate the water-meadow. That was all.

Felix next wrote an anonymous letter to the Prince pointing out the value of the place. The Prince should seize it, and add to his power. He knew that the letter was delivered, but there was no sign. It had indeed, been read and laughed at. Why make further efforts when they already had what they desired? One only, the deep and designing Valentine, gave it serious thought in secret. It seemed to him that something might come of it, another day, when he was himself in power — if that should happen. But he, too, forgot it in a week. Some secret effort was made to discover the writer, for the council were very jealous of political opinion, but it soon ended. The idea, not being supported by money or influence, fell into oblivion.

Felix worked on, chipping out the canoe. The days passed, and the boat was nearly finished. In a day or two now it would be launched, and soon afterwards he should commence his voyage. He should see Aurora once more only. He should see her, but he should not say farewell; she would not know that he was going till he had actually departed. As he thought thus a dimness came before his eyes; his hand trembled, and he could not work. He put down the chisel, and paused to steady himself.

Upon the other side of the stream, somewhat lower down, a yellow wood-dog had been lapping the water to quench its thirst, watching the man the while. So long as Felix was intent upon his work, the wild animal had no fear; the moment he looked up, the creature sprang back into the underwood. A dove was cooing in the forest not far distant, but as he was about to resume work the cooing ceased. Then a wood-pigeon rose from the ashes with a loud clapping of wings. Felix listened. His hunter instinct told him that something was moving there. A rustling of the bushes followed, and he took his spear which had been leant against the adjacent tree. But, peering into the wood, in a moment he recognised Oliver, who, having walked off his rage, was returning.

“I though it might have been a Bushman,” said Felix, replacing his spear; “only they are noiseless.”

“Any of them might have cut me down,” said Oliver; “for I forgot my weapon. It is nearly noon; are you coming home to dinner?”

“Yes; I must bring my tools.”

He put them in the basket, and together they returned to the rope ladder. As they passed the Pen by the river they caught sight of the Baron in the adjacent gardens, which were irrigated by his contrivances from the stream, and went towards him. A retainer held two horses, one gaily caparisoned, outside the garden; his master was talking with Sir Constans.

“It is Lord John,” said Oliver. They approached slowly under the fruit-trees, not to intrude. Sir Constans was showing the courtier an early cherry-tree, whose fruit was already set. The dry hot weather had caused it to set even earlier than usual. A suit of black velvet, an extremely expensive and almost unprocurable material, brought the courtier’s pale features into relief. It was only by the very oldest families that any velvet or satin or similar materials were still preserved; if these were in pecuniary difficulties they might sell some part of their store, but such things were not to be got for money in the ordinary way.

Two small silver bars across his left shoulder showed that he was a lord-inwaiting. He was a handsome man, with clear-cut features, somewhat rakish from late hours and dissipation, but not the less interesting on that account. But his natural advantages were so over-run with the affectation of the Court that you did not see the man at all, being absorbed by the studied gesture to display the jewelled ring, and the peculiarly low tone of voice in which it was the fashion to speak.

Beside the old warrior he looked a mere stripling. The Baron’s arm was bare, his sleeve rolled up; and as he pointed to the tree above, the muscles, as the limb moved, displayed themselves in knots, at which the courtier himself could not refrain from glancing. Those mighty arms, had they clasped him about the waist, could have crushed his bending ribs. The heaviest blow that he could have struck upon that broad chest would have produced no more effect than a hollow sound; it would not even have shaken that powerful frame.

He felt the steel blue eye, bright as the sky of midsummer, glance into his very mind. The high forehead bare, for the Baron had his hat in his hand, mocked at him in its humility. The Baron bared his head in honour of the courtier’s office and the Prince who had sent him. The beard, though streaked with white, spoke little of age; it rather indicated an abundant, a luxuriant vitality.

Lord John was not at ease. He shifted from foot to foot, and occasionally puffed a large cigar of Devon tobacco. His errand was simple enough. Some of the ladies at the Court had a fancy for fruit, especially strawberries, but there were none in the market, nor to be obtained from the gardens about the town. It was recollected that Sir Constans was famous for his gardens, and the Prince despatched Lord John to Old House with a gracious message and request for a basket of strawberries. Sir Constans was much pleased; but he regretted that the hot, dry weather had not permitted the fruit to come to any size or perfection. Still there were some.

The courtier accompanied him to the gardens, and saw the water-wheel which, turned by a horse, forced water from the stream into a small pond or elevated reservoir, from which it irrigated the ground. This supply of water had brought on the fruit, and Sir Constans was able to gather a small basket. He then looked round to see what other early product he could send to the palace. There was no other fruit; the cherries, though set, were not ripe; but there was some asparagus, which had not yet been served, said Lord John, at the Prince’s table.

Sir Constans set men to hastily collect all that was ready, and while this was done took the courtier over the gardens. Lord John felt no interest whatever in such matters, but he could not choose but admire the extraordinary fertility of the enclosure, and the variety of the products. There was everything; fruit of all kinds, herbs of every species, plots specially devoted to those possessing medicinal virtue. This was only one part of the gardens; the orchards proper were farther down, and the flowers nearer the house. Sir Constans had sent a man to the flower-garden, who now returned with two fine bouquets, which were presented to Lord John: the one for the Princess, the Prince’s sister; the other for any lady to whom he might choose to present it.

The fruit had already been handed to the retainer who had charge of the horses. Though interested, in spite of himself, Lord John, acknowledging the flowers, turned to go with a sense of relief. This simplicity of manners seemed discordant to him. He felt out of place, and in some way lowered in his own esteem, and yet he despised the rural retirement and beauty about him.

Felix and Oliver, a few yards distant, were waiting with rising tempers. The spectacle of the Baron in his native might of physique, humbly standing, hat in hand, before this Court messenger, discoursing on cherries, and offering flowers and fruit, filled them with anger and disgust. The affected gesture and subdued voice of the courtier, on the other hand, roused an equal contempt.

As Lord John turned, he saw them. He did not quite guess their relationship, but supposed they were cadets of the house, it being customary for those in any way connected to serve the head of the family. He noted the flag basket in Felix’s hand, and naturally imagined that he had been at work.

“You have been to-to plough, eh?” he said, intending to be very gracious and condescending. “Very healthy employment. The land requires some rain, does it not? Still I trust it will not rain till I am home, for my plume’s sake,” tossing his head. “Allow me,” and as he passed he offered Oliver a couple of cigars. “One each,” he added; “the best Devon.”

Oliver took the cigars mechanically, holding them as if they had been vipers, at arm’s length, till the courtier had left the garden, and the hedge interposed. Then he threw them into the water-carrier. The best tobacco, indeed the only real tobacco, came from the warm Devon land, but little of it reached so far, on account of the distance, the difficulties of intercourse, the rare occasions on which the merchant succeeded in escaping the vexatious interference, the downright robbery of the way. Intercourse was often entirely closed by war.

These cigars, therefore, were worth their weight in silver, and such tobacco could be obtained only by those about the Court, as a matter of favour, too, rather than by purchase. Lord John would, indeed, have stared aghast had he seen the rustic to whom he had given so valuable a present cast them into a ditch. He rode towards the Maple Gate, excusing his haste volubly to Sir Constans, who was on foot, and walked beside him a little way, pressing him to take some refreshment.

His sons overtook the Baron as he walked towards home, and walked by his side in silence. Sir Constans was full of his fruit.

“The wall cherry,” said he, “will soon have a few ripe.”

Oliver swore a deep but soundless oath in his chest. Sir Constans continued talking about his fruit and flowers, entirely oblivious of the silent anger of the pair beside him. As they approached the house, the warder blew his horn thrice for noon. It was also the signal for dinner.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/jefferies/richard/after/part2.5.html

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