Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

The City in the Lake

THE night was dark and stormy, and the wild southwesterly wind seemed to be increasing in violence with almost every hour that passed. The branches were wildly lashing to and fro, and the moaning and whistling of the wind as it raged through the dark and somber forest, with every now and then the sharp crack and thud of a branch torn off and whizzing to the ground, seemed to create new terrors and a spirit of unutterable despair amongst the wretched fugitives crouching over a feeble and faint-hearted fire in one of the wild recesses of the Polden Hill Forest. The very cattle seemed to be uneasy, and bellowed piteously; they were restless and perpetually jostling one another in the rude zeriba of branches hastily thrown up by very wearied hands.

The chieftain looked gloomily at the small remnant of his people. Were these all that remained to him of the numerous serfs and freemen who had made the great village on the Downs such a busy and cheerful home? It had been totally impossible to make any defense whatever. Those gigantic, yellow-haired people (Prytons, as they called themselves), had stormed the place with a fury and a vigor that carried all before them. If it had not been that they were now occupied in gorging themselves on his special acorn-fattened pork and drinking themselves into stupidity on his own particular mead and beer (he groaned to think of it), not one of his party could have escaped.

Alas! he would never see again the splendid rolling grass covered by his flocks and herds, nor watch them, plodding on their leisurely way homewards, along those deeply worn cattle-tracks which had been formed thousands of years before his time. Never would he see the dew-pond so cunningly constructed of chaff and clay that it never failed to keep full of water, even during the greatest drought. But what was he to do? Where was he to go? They could not live in the forest, and, if they settled themselves anywhere in the open country, their cattle would assuredly be stolen by more Brythonic or Celtic robbers.

The chief was a tall, well-built man, with the brown hair, gray eyes, round head, and broad features of what we call a typically Irish face. He sighed gloomily as he realized to the very full (as only Irish people can do) the extremity of their distress. He looked on the remnant of his people; they were pure Picts for the most part, short, dark, graceful and refined-looking men and women, cunning with their fingers, really clever as carpenters, miners, and potters, and very biddable and patient. But in war they had neither weapons nor the strength or even courage to use them against such enemies as those great, fair-haired, roaring Brythonic or, as they called themselves, Prytonic strangers.

What on earth was he to do? Where was he to go? As the wind faded away for a little, an awful downpour of heavy rain swept down on the defenseless fugitives. What was that? He heard distinctly through the storm the howl of a wolf. The great dogs heard it too, and a furious barking arose. He at once called loudly to the wet, benumbed, and shivering women to help the fire, and, seizing his spear, called loudly to the men to follow him.

Taking firebrands and spears, they ran to the zeriba, where the wolves were already snarling and worrying at the thorny branches. Those cowardly brutes were very soon driven off; but the chief and his trustiest men were awake all night, and the persistent wolves were driven off not once but over and over again. But what was he to do? Life in the forest was quite impossible, for this night showed the dangers from wild beasts, and there was neither pasture nor cornland.

But the Gaelic Celt is often at his best when everything seems black and gloomy, and he suddenly called, "Where is Morgesius?" A tall youth of his own race sprang up lightly with a grin and came to him.

"What was that wild tale of yours about a village in the water?"

"It is the truth. It is what I said it was, six hundred paces long and fifty paces broad. All the houses are on long poles worked deep into the bed of the lake, and it is so far out in the water that no one can get there unless he swims or paddles in a canoe."

"Could we make one in the lake at Glastonbury?"

The boy Morgesius sat down awestruck and hopeless by the chief's side, and then the sanguine audacity of the Celt awoke within him "Why not? Of course we can! AVe shall be safe and secure, for no Brython ever swims, and they have no canoes!"

All that night the chief questioned Morgesius, but with very indifferent success. He could not say how long it would take to build. The building of his Swiss village had been centuries in progress. He knew nothing of the dry details of carpentry and design, so that, in the end, the chief was guided mainly by his own common sense.

Next morning he threw himself into the congenial task of making an eloquent speech. He succeeded, as only an Irish Celt could have done, in inspiring the people with a fine fervent glow of enthusiasm, and all about nothing; for all that he had to offer was a suggestion to build houses in a lake. But they went on with renewed spirits through long miry paths right over the hills and down to the great lake near Glastonbury.

Every one was soon hard at work; some were cutting down trees with polished stone axes, cumbrously mounted on wooden handles by means of a deer-horn socket, with bronze swords, and even precious iron daggers. Others were tearing up ferns and bracken, or gathering brushwood. A small fishing canoe was hidden in the reeds by the lake, and the chief, Gleas by name, and Morgesius pushed off in this to search for a good position. They discovered a fine shallow place about a mile from the present town of Glastonbury, and a few hundred yards from the forest.

Gleas was working very much in the dark, for on any practical point Morgesius was hopeless; but it would never have done to show any doubt as to what had to be done. The great point was to keep the people's enthusiasm at concert pitch. So a huge raft of big branches and tree-trunks was prepared; some of the logs were fixed together by oaken pins driven in (the holes were bored by a revolving bone-point, and the oak pin placed in them; then heavy stone clubs or mauls were used to drive the two beams together, so that the oak pin was firmly fixed). Underneath the raft was a huge mass of fern and brushwood. Morgesius and others poled this great arrangement to the chosen shallows, where a few upright, sharpened poles were driven vertically downwards through it into the bed of the lake. The shape of this raft was approximately circular or round, and it was about sixty yards in diameter.

The next undertaking was to make a causeway from the shore. This was a very rude sort of affair, consisting of only a line of stakes (most of them below the water) with broad branches fixed to them; it was not straight, but curved irregularly, and the footpath—that is, the horizontal branches—was below water, so that an enemy would find it very difficult to traverse. Then more branches and logs were towed by the canoe to the village, and arranged in a layer crossing the first set of timbers. Along the causeway women and children were always bringing baskets of stones and of clay, which were heaped upon the surface of the raft.

So for several days, from the first light of morning until it was too dark to see, they continued adding layers of tree-trunks, and of stones and clay, until the great raft was firmly imbedded in the mud of the lake, and eventually the surface rose above the water. Then a good platform of stones was placed over it and a bed of clay above that, and they were ready to build their houses.

Before doing this, however, Gleas insisted on having a palisade round the whole artificial island. This was a long and weary task, for a great number of poles from three to nine inches in diameter and eleven feet long had to be stuck in the lake all round the island. Hurdles were arranged between these poles, and so, of course, the people were fairly safe from the javelins and arrows of any enemy.

Their food was very scanty during this period of incessant labor, but beech-nuts, hazel-nuts, crab-apples, raspberries, and brambles were busily collected, and one or two of the men who had to watch the forest paths did their best to bring in sometimes a roebuck, and on one occasion a fine fat red-deer. One small boy, who was very clever with the sling, brought in occasional birds, such as a heron or a seagull, and sometimes a duck or teal. He used small clay bullets baked in the fire. They had also a certain amount of milk, butter, and cheese.

Most of them were, however, able to sleep in safety on their island, though a few of the best hunters and the dogs had to remain on shore to guard the cattle and other animals. They built on shore, and within sight of the settlement, cattle-pounds and watchhouses for the sentinels and their dogs. These were chiefly intended to keep off wolves, bears, and foxes, and consisted of a deep ditch, a high mound, and a close palisade of thorny branches, and poles along the top of it.

Then they thought about making themselves comfortable. During all these weeks scarcely one of them had known what it was to have dry clothes. They had no shelter from rain, and, of course, were always falling into the water. The great house was built first, which was a big undertaking. A long, stout pole was driven through the island to form the central roof pole. Then in a circle around it, at intervals of about a foot, other shorter poles were driven in. Long branches were placed from the high central one to those outer supports extending a foot or two beyond them, and were carefully tied on with creepers and lime-tree bark. A thatched roof was very soon placed on the long branches (the people spent the whole of one rainy day under it for sheer delight in being out of the wet). The side walls were very soon put in, for they consisted only of rude wickerwork of interlaced branches daubed with clay. This house was thirty-five feet in diameter. Then a big, flat stone was brought to act as a hearthstone (the chimney was an opening in the roof), and other stones for an outside fire were put before each door. The doors were made of rough planks, and were only three feet high. Some of the men had brought rude saws, gouges, chisels, and other tools, for the most part of iron.

A good deal of excitement was caused at this stage of the work by a small child tumbling into the water. But the chief made a law that every infant was to be tied to its mother by a string attached to its toe. He also covered in, by a platform, the space between the palisade and the island, and had a trapdoor made in this platform, with a ladder seven feet long, so as to admit of easy entrance to the island.

There were other smaller houses to build, but they were only some fifteen feet across. It was also necessary to make a slanting arrangement of beams and stones round the island, to prevent the waves on a stormy day from interfering with the foundations. Then they set to work on their ordinary daily life, and began to heap up riches, for it was really worth while now, seeing that there was a distinct chance for them to escape being murdered and plundered on account of them. Patches of forest were cut and burnt, and sowed with wheat. Apples were collected, and split, and dried for winter use. Some specialized on fishing, and manufactured nets, with floats and sinkers, lines and fish-hooks (some of which scarcely differ in design from those we use to-day). Pike and carp were common in the lake, and salmon swarmed in the neighboring streams. Fish became, therefore, a very important article of diet; they even tried to feed their horses on fish in the winter, but the stupid animals would not eat them! They made traps for beaver and for otters. Those for the last were like a shallow wooden trough, with a square hole in the middle. A stout, springy sapling was fixed and kept bent like a bow by a short piece of wood, its end passed under two holes at each end. When the otter put its head through the hole to seize the bait, the stout sapling was set free and caught it under the neck, so that it was very soon drowned.

By this time they had fixed polishing or grinding stones before each hut, as well as a proper quern for grinding corn. So they were once more able to make bread. The forest yielded an abundance of acorns for their pigs, as well as honey and beeswax. They became much more expert in catching wildfowl; and wild geese, wild swans, and other birds were often taken. The small boy who had taken to bird-hunting, found a frog in a heron's crop, and, in a rash spirit of adventure, cooked and ate the frog. He was injudicious enough to boast about his discovery, for so many others overcame a natural prejudice, and ate both frogs and toads, that there was a serious scarcity in the supply of these animals near Glastonbury.

The women also set up a rough loom, and made clay weights, spindles, and other necessary apparatus for it, so that linen and woolen clothes were soon being actively prepared. Very pretty, long-handled combs of bone were soon the fashion. Indeed, the delicious feeling of security, of having an hour or two of leisure every day, was so new and strange to these Picts and Gauls, that they were at first utterly happy and contented. Gleas had even begun to make experiments in glass-making, for his people were expert miners and blacksmiths, and in the old days lead-mining had been one of his most profitable undertakings. But a strange and unexpected interruption occurred. He was sitting one evening beside the outside fire, ruminating over the problem of producing a scarlet bead of vitreous paste, when the alarm signal sounded from the land, followed by the yodel, which meant "peaceful strangers." He at once seized his spear and sword, and, just as he was, jumped into the small canoe and paddled ashore. He had nothing on but a tunic, breeches, and an old bearskin, very much the worse for wear. He had only a small gold bracelet.

The first that he heard was Morgesius talking hard, and in a very bold, off-hand, and conceited fashion. That youth was inclined to swagger too much; but then the last twist of the miry forest path was turned, and a strange party came into view. First was Morgesius swaggering, then a most beautiful girl, "divinely tall, and most divinely fair," with deep mysterious blue eyes, and a great mass of yellow hair, loose and disordered, on her shoulders. He scarcely noticed the rest of the party, which consisted of an old Brython king, weeping bitterly, and several serfs, mostly wounded, and two or three miserable handmaidens. It was the Brython princess who occupied him altogether. She was proud, haughty, and contemptuous, even though weary and scarce able to walk, and most sorely travel-stained. Her kirtle was miry with the black mud of the forest. Her dainty feet were bleeding from many thorn scratches, which her absurdly frivolous sandals were unable to keep off.

Morgesius boastfully explained how he had found them lost and wandering in the forest, and induced them to come to Gleas' court; but the latter cut him short, and curtly ordered him to fetch the big canoe. The old chief (King Uther) could do nothing but weep, and knelt before him, taking his knee and asking for protection, greatly to the disgust of his daughter. He was idiotic from grief, and not very intelligent at any time. The daughter explained that their neighbor king had suddenly stormed their fort and utterly beaten their retainers.

Then Gleas, with his best air and in very courtly style, begged to offer them shelter and food until they could make their plans But in the midst of a very eloquent speech he perceived the lady's cold blue eyes fixed intently on his ragged bearskin, and suddenly grew confused, and faltered.

The lady thanked him haughtily and coldly, but when the canoe came, he saw that she had never been in a dug-out before. This was a specially good one, twenty-two feet long and two feet ten inches broad, with a square stern closed by a board; but even good ones like this require care. So he got into the water and told her to put her hand on his shoulder and get in very carefully. She tried to spring in without doing so, and the canoe rocked fearfully; then she lost presence of mind and clutched at him; but the canoe upset, and she fell full length into the water. In a moment he had righted the canoe, and placed her carefully in it. Then the old king entered, and he paddled them skillfully off to the settlement. (His paddle was about three feet long and five inches broad.) But she was very angry, and hated him worse than ever, for she could not but be aware that she had made a fool of herself.

Men they arrived, there was great excitement, but he handed her over to his mother, and went off to prepare for dinner. His mother came to tell him that she was absolutely worn out, and would not be able to see him that night.

From the old king's conversation, he gathered that they were absolutely destitute. His palace had been raided, his cattle taken, and, unless he could find a place for his serfs, they would be forced to put themselves under his enemy, who, it seems, had been offended by the not too courteously expressed refusal of his daughter to marry him. This was good news to Gleas, for if the Brythons were quarreling among themselves, they might perhaps leave him alone.

Next morning Gleas' boy had a hard time of it. His master was shaved with a bronze razor; his hair and moustache were carefully combed and trimmed He put on a splendid linen cloak, fastened on the right shoulder with a coral-studded brooch. He had his best sword on, with its splendid leather scabbard, adorned with gold, and also his best armlets, bracelets, and finger-rings. At the last moment he tastefully decorated his cheeks with a chaste design in red ochre and charcoal, mixed with grease. The boy stared at him, for this was a new development in Gleas. But she was anything but courteous—would scarcely speak to him, and complained of the dampness of the hut. He tried in vain to explain that that was very easily remedied. His people would lay down a new hearthstone and a fresh layer of clay in a day or two. Then she said she could not think of putting him to so much trouble. Would it not be best for him to give her up to King Maglocune, who was at least wealthy and a warrior.

So their conversation during the next day or two was not specially agreeable to Gleas, whose thoughts were very much taken up with that very Maglocune and his probable doings on this emergency. Nor was he at all deceived. There was cause for grave anxiety, and he had already given orders to hide cattle, sheep, and horses, and destroy all paths. Every person who could be spared was kept on the settlement, and all canoes save one were kept in the palisades.

It was well that he had done so, for a wild note of alarm sounded two days afterwards, and Morgesius and the scouts came running in to report a strong set of Brythons advancing to the attack. His mother and the older men begged him to give up the girl, who was a useless burden to them, but he would not listen to them.

He was already busy superintending the execution of his long-planned schemes for defense, for he could not hope to be always left alone. He and Morgesius were already dismantling the causeway beams and carefully planting stakes where the water was deep and the bed very muddy, and where the causeway did not go.

So when the fierce yellow-haired Brythons came and raged at him, he simply let them rave as long as they liked. They fired arrows and javelins, but the range was very long, and there was nothing but a palisade to fire at. They then tried the causeway, but fell into deep water and mud, and had much trouble in rescuing one another. After this there was a long consultation, and they began cutting down trees and hauling them to the waterside. A rough raft was made of this, and very slowly this crank craft began to make an erratic and devious course towards the settlement.

As soon as it had started, Gleas was surprised by his mother: "That girl has lifted the trapdoor, and is going to give herself up." Gleas hurried to the place, and saw her struggling in the water. He promptly hauled her up the ladder, and told her sternly to listen to what Maglocune was saying. The chieftain was explaining forcibly what he would do to the girl who had refused him, and his ideas of torture were ingenious and too horrible to quote. So Gleas tied her arms, and carried her to the but before hastening back to the palisade. It is not very easy to steer a very self-willed and cranky raft, and at the same time to hold a shield over you, as Maglocune and his people discovered. One man was dead already, and several were wounded with arrows. But still they were approaching far too close. So Gleas suddenly attacked. He, Morgesius, and three of his stalwarts sallied out in their best canoe. When only ten yards off all discharged their arrows and threw spears. The men on the raft were discomfited with the sudden attack and the storm of arrows, and the raft rocked wildly and upset.

Maglocune and some of his warriors swam towards the canoe, but Gleas had his wits about him. By his orders Maglocune was left alone. Those men who swam ashore were allowed to go, but two or three who clung to the raft, and those who followed the chief to attack the canoe, were soon disposed of. Then Gleas gave his orders. His men, even the bold Morgesius, remonstrated, but he knew what he was about. Gleas had the canoe brought behind Maglocune; then he suddenly rose upright, and neatly jumped into the water—a very difficult feat—without upsetting the craft. A few strong strokes brought him on to the back of Maglocune, whom he proceeded to half-drown in a cool and scientific manner. When the poor wretch was almost dead, he made him swear by the god of thunder and of fire that he would never attack the settlement, and would leave the girl alone. Then he took him to the remains of his raft, and towed it near the shore. Other well-armed canoes sallied out, and they kept arrow on string until the half-drowned Brython chief had been carried off by his men into the forest. Then they had a happy time in searching for the slain Brythons. Their heads were cut off, and stuck on poles outside the palisade as trophies of war. Only one of their boys had been killed, and he was buried in the village tomb. This was a vault, about six feet long and five feet deep, lined with huge stone slabs, on the shore, and about a mile away.

This victory enormously encouraged and heartened the settlement. To have got the better of Maglocune, the famous warrior, was in itself a great glory; but to have spared his life, and sent him back like a drowned rat, was the sort of story that appealed to the Celtic imagination, whether Gaelic or Brython. The person who enjoyed it least was Gleas himself. He could not understand why the girl had wanted to throw herself into the water, and to be taken to Maglocune. So a day or two afterwards he had his chariot furbished up. It was a rough one of two wheels (twelve spokes) and drawn by two sturdy ponies. With a few other men on ponies, he drove off to visit a respectable Brython chief, with whom he had established correct, if not cordial relations, and who was beginning to understand that Gleas' people, with their skill in pottery and other useful arts, were really valuable as neighbors. He took a present of some glass beads, yellow, green, and blue, with zigzag patterns in wavy white lines. He was well received, for the king hated Maglocune, and wanted to hear the tale. This king had no objections to the great waste forest-land, bordering the lake on the north, being settled by old King Uther's serfs. They did a little trade also in pottery, wooden bowls, and otter skins. He laughed heartily when he heard what was the present that Gleas wished, thumped him jovially on the back, and told him if the girl did not want him after that, she had better be drowned in the lake.

Gleas, much encouraged, returned to the settlement, and immediately sent for his mother. She grinned horribly when she saw the presents, but brought Gleas to the girl, who was looking very much ashamed of herself. But, as soon as she saw what Gleas offered, namely, a bronze mirror, a small lump of rouge, another of antimony, and an exquisite pair of bronze tweezers, she suddenly laughed heartily, and Gleas had no further trouble in wooing her.

Here, however, we must take leave of him, only remarking that the settlement flourished, that there were sixty or seventy huts, and that some of the wooden bowls and pottery designed by his people are amongst the most valued treasures of the British Museum.

by G. F. Scott Elliot

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