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Soon afterwards the hollow sound of the warden's horn, from the watch over the gate of the wall, proclaimed the hour of noon, and they all assembled for dinner in the banqueting chamber. The apartment was on the ground floor, and separated from the larger hall only by an internal wall. The house, erected in the time of the ancients, was not designed for our present style of life; it possessed, indeed, many comforts and conveniences which are scarcely now to be found in the finest palaces, but it lacked the breadth of construction which our architects have now in view.
In the front there were originally only two rooms, extensive for those old days, but not sufficiently so for ours. One of these had therefore been enlarged, by throwing into it a back room and part of the entrance, and even then it was not long enough for the Baron's retainers, and at feast-time a wooden shed was built opposite, and up to the window, to continue, as it were, the apartment out of doors. Workmen were busy putting up this shed when they arrived.
The second apartment retained its ancient form, and was used as the dining-room on ordinary days. It was lighted by a large window, now thrown wide open that the sweet spring air might enter, which window was the pride of the Baroness, for it contained more true glass than any window in the palace of the Prince. The glass made now is not transparent, but merely translucent; it indeed admits light after a fashion, but it is thick and cannot be seen through. These panes were almost all (the central casement wholly) of ancient glass, preserved with the greatest care through the long years past.
Three tables were arranged in an open square; the Baron and Baroness's chairs of oak faced the window, the guests sat at the other tables sideways to them, the servants moved on the outer side, and thus placed the food before them without pushing against or incommoding them. A fourth table was placed in a corner between the fireplace and the window. At it sat the old nurse, the housekeeper (frequently arising to order the servants), and the Baron's henchman, who had taught him to ride, but now, grey and aged, could not mount himself without assistance, and had long ceased from active service.
Already eight or nine guests had arrived besides Felix and Oliver. Some had ridden a great distance to be present at the House Day. They were all nobles, richly dressed; one or two of the eldest were wealthy and powerful men, and the youngest was the son and heir of the Earl of Essiton, who was then the favourite at Court. Each had come with his personal attendants; the young Lord Durand brought with him twenty-five retainers, and six gentlemen friends, all of whom were lodged in the town, the gentlemen taking their meals at the castle at the same time as the Baron, but, owing to lack of room, in another apartment by themselves. Durand was placed, or rather, quietly helped himself to a seat, next to the Lady Aurora, and of all the men there present, certainly there was none more gallant and noble than he.
His dark eyes, his curling hair short but brought in a thick curl over his forehead, his lips well shaped, his chin round and somewhat prominent, the slight moustache (no other hair on the face), formed the very ideal of what many women look for in a man. But it was his bright, lively conversation, the way in which his slightly swarthy complexion flushed with animation, the impudent assurance and yet generous warmth of his manner, and, indeed, of his feelings, which had given him the merited reputation of being the very flower of the nobles.
With such a reputation, backed with the great wealth and power of his father, gentlemen competed with each other to swell his train; he could not, indeed, entertain all that came, and was often besieged with almost as large a crowd as the Prince himself. He took as his right the chair next to Aurora, to whom, indeed, he had been paying unremitting attention all the morning. She was laughing heartily as she sat down, at some sally of his upon a beauty at the Court.
The elder men were placed highest up the tables, and nearest the host, but to the astonishment of all, and not the least of himself, Oliver was invited by the Baron to sit by his side. Oliver could not understand this special mark of favour; the others, though far too proud for a moment to resent what they might have deemed a slight upon them, at once began to search their minds for a reason. They knew the Baron as an old intriguer; they attached a meaning, whether intended or not, to his smallest action.
Felix, crowded out, as it were, and unnoticed, was forced to take his seat at the end of the table nearest that set apart in the corner for the aged and honoured servitors of the family. Only a few feet intervened between him and ancient henchmen; and he could not but overhear their talk among themselves, whispered as it was. He had merely shaken hands with Aurora; the crowd in the drawing-room and the marked attentions of Durand had prevented the exchange of a single word between them. As usual, the sense of neglect and injury over which he had so long brooded with little or no real cause (considering, of course, his position, and that the world can only see our coats and not our hearts), under these entirely accidental circumstances rose up again within him, and blinded him to the actual state of things.
His seat, the lowest, and the nearest to the servitors, was in itself a mark of the low estimation in which he was held. The Lord Durand had been placed next to Aurora, as a direct encouragement to him, and a direct hint to himself not to presume. Doubtless, Durand had been at the castle many times, not improbably already been accepted by the Baron, and not altogether refused by Aurora. As a fact, though delighted with her beauty and conversation, Durand's presence was entirely due to the will of his father, the Earl, who wished to maintain friendly relations with Baron Thyma, and even then he would not have come had not the lovely weather invited him to ride into the forest.
It was, however, so far true, that though his presence was accidental, yet he was fast becoming fascinated by one who, girl though she was, was stronger in mind than he. Now Aurora, knowing that he father's eye was on her, dared not look towards Felix, lest by an open and pronounced conduct she should be the cause of his being informed that his presence was not desirable. She knew that the Baron only needed a pretext to interfere, and was anxious to avoid offering him a chance.
Felix, seeing her glance bent downwards or towards her companion, and never all the time turned to him, not unnaturally, but too hastily, concluded that she had been dazzled by Durand and the possibility of an alliance with his powerful family. He was discarded, worthless, and of no account; he had nothing but his sword; nay, he had not a sword, he was only an archer, a footman. Angry, jealous, and burning with inward annoyance, despising himself since all others despised him, scarce able to remain at the table, Felix was almost beside himself, and did not answer nor heed the remarks of the gentlemen sitting by him, who put him down as an ill-bred churl.
For the form's sake, indeed, he put his lips to the double-handled cup of fine ale, which continually circulated round the table, and was never allowed to be put down; one servant had nothing else to do but to see that its progress never stopped. But he drank nothing, and ate nothing; he could not swallow. How visionary, how weak and feeble now seemed the wild scheme of the canoe and his proposed voyage! Even should it succeed, years must elapse before he could accomplish anything substantial; while here were men who really had what he could only think of or imagine.
The silver chain or sword-belt of Durand (the sword and the dagger were not worn at the banquet, nor in the house, they were received by the marshal, and deposited in his care, a precaution against quarrelling), solid silver links passing over his shoulder, were real actual things. All the magnificence that he could call up by the exercise of his imagination, was but imagination; a dream no more to be seen by others than the air itself.
The dinner went on, and the talk became more noisy. The trout, the chicken, the thyme lamb (trapped on the hills by the shepherds), the plover eggs, the sirloin, the pastry (the Baroness superintended the making of it herself), all the profusion of the table, rather set him against food than tempted him. Nor could he drink the tiny drop, as it were, of ancient brandy, sent round to each guest at the conclusion, precious as liquid gold, for it had been handed down from the ancients, and when once the cask was empty it could not be re-filled.
The dessert, the strawberries, the nuts and walnuts, carefully preserved with a little salt, and shaken in the basket from time to time that they might not become mouldy, the apples, the honey in the comb with slices of white bread, nothing pleased him. Nor did he drink, otherwise than the sip demanded by courtesy, of the thin wine of Gloucester, costly as it was, grown in the vineyard there, and shipped across the Lake, and rendered still more expensive by risk of pirates. This was poured into flagons of maple wood, which, like the earthenware cup of ale, were never allowed to touch the board till the dinner was over.
Wearily the time went on; Felix glanced more and more often at the sky seen through the casement, eagerly desiring to escape, and at least to be alone. At last (how long it seemed!) the Baron rose, and immediately the rest did the same, and they drank the health of the Prince. Then a servitor brought in a pile of cigars upon a carved wooden tray, like a large platter, but with a rim. "These," said the Baron, again rising (the signal to all to cease conversing and to listen), "are a present from my gracious and noble friend the Earl of Essiton" (he looked towards Durand), "not less kindly carried by Lord Durand. I could have provided only our own coarse tobacco; but these are the best Devon."
The ladies now left the table, Aurora escorted by Durand, the Baroness by Oliver. Oliver, indeed, was in the highest spirits; he had eaten heartily of all; especially the sweet thyme lamb, and drunk as freely. He was in his element, his laugh the loudest, his talk the liveliest. Directly Durand returned (he had gone even a part of the way upstairs towards the drawing-room with Aurora, a thing a little against etiquette) he took his chair, formality being now at an end, and placed it by Oliver. They seemed to become friends at once by sympathy of mind and taste.
Round them the rest gradually grouped themselves, so that presently Felix, who did not move, found himself sitting alone at the extreme end of the table; quite apart, for the old retainers, who dined at the separate table, had quitted the apartment when the wine was brought in. Freed from the restraint of the ladies, the talk now became extremely noisy, the blue smoke from the long cigars filled the great apartment; one only remained untouched, that placed before Felix. Suddenly it struck him that thus sitting alone and apart, he should attract attention; he, therefore, drew his chair to the verge of the group, but remained silent, and as far off as ever. Presently the arrival of five more guests caused a stir and confusion, in the midst of which he escaped into the open air.
He wandered towards the gate of the wall, passing the wooden shed where the clink of hammers resounded, glanced at the sundial, which showed the hour of three (three weary hours had they feasted), and went out into the gardens. Still going on, he descended the slope, and not much heeding whither he was going, took the road that led into town. It consisted of some hundred or more houses, built of wood and thatched, placed without plan or arrangement on the bank of the stream. Only one long street ran through it, the rest were mere by-ways.
All these were inhabited by the Baron's retainers, but the number and apparently small extent of the houses did not afford correct data for the actual amount of the population. In these days the people (as is well known) find much difficulty in marrying; it seems only possible for a certain proportion to marry, and hence there are always a great number of young or single men out of all ratio to the houses. At the sound of the bugle the Baron could reckon on at least three hundred men flocking without a minute's delay to man the wall; in an hour more would arrive from the outer places, and by nightfall, if the summons went forth in the morning, his shepherds and swineherds would arrive, and these together would add some hundred and fifty to the garrison.
Next must be reckoned the armed servants of the house, the Baron's personal attendants, the gentlemen who formed his train, his sons and the male relations of the family; these certainly were not less than fifty. Altogether over five hundred men, well armed and accustomed to the use of their weapons, would range themselves beneath his banner. Two of the buildings in he town were of brick (the material carried hither, for there was no clay or stone thereabouts); they were not far apart. The one was the Toll House, where all merchants or traders paid the charges in corn or kind due to the Baron; the other was the Court House, where he sat to administer justice and decide causes, or to send the criminal to the gibbet.
These alone of the buildings were of any age, for the wooden houses were extremely subject to destruction by fire, and twice in the Baron's time half the town had been laid in ashes, only to rise again in a few weeks. Timber was so abundant and so ready of access, it seemed a loss of labour to fetch stone or brick, or to use the flints of the hills. About the doors of the two inns there were gathered groups of people; among them the liveries of the nobles visiting the castle were conspicuous; the place was full of them, the stables were filled, and their horses were picketed under the trees and even in the street.
Every minute the numbers increased as others arrived; men, too (who had obtained permission of their lords), came in on foot, ten or twelve travelling together for mutual protection, for the feuds of their masters exposed them to frequent attack. All (except the nobles) were disarmed at the barrier by the warden and guard, that peace might be preserved in the enclosure. The folk at the moment he passed were watching the descent of three covered waggons from the forest track, in which were travelling the ladies of as many noble families.
Some, indeed, of the youngest and boldest ride on horseback, but the ladies chiefly move in these waggons, which are fitted up with considerable comfort, and are necessary to sleep in when the camp is formed by the wayside at night. None noticed him as he went by, except a group of three cottage girls, and a serving-woman, an attendant of a lady visitor at the castle. He heard them allude to him; he quickened his pace, but heard one say, "He's nobody; he hasn't even got a horse."
"Yes he is," replied the serving-woman; "he's Oliver's brother; and I can tell you my lord Oliver is somebody; the Princess LuciaŚ" and she made the motion of kissing with her lips. Felix, ashamed and annoyed to the last degree, stepped rapidly from the spot. The serving-woman, however, was right in a measure; the real or supposed favour shown Oliver by the Prince's sister, the Duchess of Deverell, had begun to be bruited abroad, and this was the secret reason why the Baron had shown Oliver so much and so marked an attention, even more than he had paid to Lord Durand.
Full well he knew the extraordinary influence possessed by ladies of rank and position. From what we can learn out of the scanty records of the past, it was so even in the days of the ancients; it is a hundredfold more so in these times, when, although every noble must of necessity be taught to read and write, as a matter of fact the men do neither, but all the correspondence of kings and princes, and the diplomatic documents, and notices, and so forth, are one and all, almost without a single exception, drawn up by women. They know the secret and hidden motives of courts, and have this great advantage, that they can use their knowledge without personal fear, since women are never seriously interfered with, but are protected by all.
The one terrible and utterly shameful instance to the contrary had not occurred at the time of which we are now speaking, and it was and is still repudiated by every man, from the knight to the boys who gather acorns for the swine. Oliver himself had no idea whatever that he was regarded as a favourite lover of the Duchess; he took the welcome that was held out to him as perfectly honest. Plain, straightforward, and honest, Oliver, had he been openly singled out by a queen, would have scorned to give himself an air for such a reason. But the Baron, deep in intrigue this many a year, looked more profoundly into the possibilities of the future when he kept the young knight at his side.