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Lucius. Adventures of a Roman Boy by  Alfred J. Church

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THE CARAVAN

[176] THE caravan which Lucius was to join started on the 3d of November. It was sent, in the first instance, by the city of Tarsus with presents to the king—a robe of honor and a crown of gold. It was consequently protected by a detachment of the local force which the city kept in its pay. Merchants and other travellers were of course glad to take the opportunity of making the journey in comparative safety. As most of these had armed followers of their own the caravan could muster an imposing number of men, and was fairly safe from attack. The city, too, thought it expedient, not indeed to pay a tax—that would not have become its dignity—but to make presents to the mountain tribes through whose territory the road passed. A handsome supply of wheat and wine, neither of which the mountaineers could produce for themselves, was annually sent to the chiefs, and it was understood that caravans which carried the city's ensign of a flying bird should not be molested. There was sometimes a little trouble when the tribes happened to fall out among themselves, but on the whole the bargain was fairly well kept, and the road was, in consequence, tolerably safe.

[177] The escort was nominally commanded by a citizen of Tarsus. But Anthemius—for this was his name—was now an old man, and, thanks to the city feasts at which he was a regular guest, had grown too fat to mount his horse. His regular practice was to give out his intention of making the journey, to be carried in a litter for the first half dozen miles, and then to discover that business or family affairs, of which he heard from a messenger duly instructed to overtake him at the appointed place, demanded his return. He would then call a halt, assemble the escort, make a little speech expressing his regret that he had been again prevented from making the journey, and hand over his authority to the second in command.

Leucon, the second in command, was a soldier of a very different stamp. He was a man of about forty-five, a spare, wiry, well-knit figure, his face burnt to a deep umber by the suns of nearly thirty campaigns, his short hair and close-cut beard (a long beard, he was wont to say, was most dangerous to a soldier) just sprinkled with gray. He had been struck by Lucius' soldierly figure, and by the grace and ease with which he managed his horse, and he lost no time in introducing himself and striking up an acquaintance. Lucius found him an entertaining companion, all the more interesting because it gave him a glimpse of a kind of life which was quite new to him. Leucon, in the course of their journey, told him the story of his life. It was told, of course, bit by bit, but we may conveniently put it together.

"I come from Nonacris in Arcadia. Fighting has been the profession of my family for I don't know how many generations, and we never cared particularly for whom we [178] fought, as long as the pay was good. The rule was for one son to stop at home and cultivate the little farm which was our hereditary property, and for the others to take service abroad. Very few of them came back; I don't think that they were very welcome if they did. You see, when a man has been fighting for his own hand for thirty or forty years he doesn't quite fall in with peaceable ways. Of late years the trade has not been as good as it was. A hundred years ago there was always fighting going on in Greece and Asia and Syria. But you Romans have put an end to most of this, and a man has to go further afield. I went out when I was eighteen, and took service with King Mithradates. Ah! that is a wonderful man, and unless I am very much mistaken we haven't heard the last of him yet. In these days he hadn't come to blows with Rome, but he was always at war with the tribes of the Black Sea coast and of the Caucasus. Well, I had as much fighting as a man could wish for seven or eight years. Hard work it was, the worst climate you can imagine, the sea frozen over in winter, and the dust and heat intolerable in summer, and the king caring for nothing—he might have been made of iron. Then there was nothing to get beyond one's pay, for the savages had simply nothing that was worth taking away. Still one learned a good deal about soldiering there. Then there came an awful piece of business. The king had been fighting with the Romans, or at least with the Romans' friends, for two or three years, for things were wonderfully confused, and you were too busy quarrelling at home to care much what was going on abroad. He was spending the winter at Pergamos, and he sent for me—he had left me to [179] look after things at home. When I got to Pergamos I found I was to go to Miletus with a sealed letter that was not to be opened till a certain day. And when I opened it I found my orders were these. Every Roman or Latin in the place was to be murdered. Well, sir, I would have no hand in such a business. I am not particular about men's lives; when it comes in the way of my duty I can take them without any scruple, but then my duty is to be a soldier, not a murderer. The letter said that I was to go to the magistrates of the town, tell them what was to be done, get their orders, and then do the work—I had thirty men under me. Well, I took the letter and showed it to the chief of the Roman merchants in the town. I knew he would not believe it unless he saw it in black and white. That was all that I could do for them. I heard afterwards that most of them took the warning and got off; but others preferred to stay and take their chance, and I don't wonder at it. They had lived there half their lives, had married there, and didn't care to begin the world again. Then I had to think of myself. I made some excuse about business for the king that I wanted to do at some inland place, and then I started. I had my horse, and ten gold pieces in my purse, and that was all that I had after more than ten years' service. I had saved something, but I had left it at home—I mean at the king's court—and then there was a half-year's pay due to me. All that, of course, I lost; and indeed I thought that I should be lucky if I got off with my life. Well, on thinking it over I concluded that Tarsus would be the best place for me to make for. You see, the king had never got a hold of the city, and was not likely to get it. So I tried to make [180] my way by this same road that we are travelling now. A very hard piece of work, for it was winter-time and bitterly cold, and the snow deep on all the high ground. I got on my way pretty well till I lost my horse, which was drowned in crossing a river, and very nearly drowned me, too, along with him. I found that I was being hunted after, and had to disguise myself. By the greatest good luck I found one of the wandering priests of Cybele lying dead—he had been overtaken by a snowstorm on one of the mountains in Phrygia. I dressed myself up in his clothes, and buried my own. That did very well till I fell in with some of my own craft. You see, that I didn't know their jargon, and felt sure that they would find out pretty soon that I was an impostor. Well, I got away from them when they were all tipsy, and then my good luck came in again. I met a beggar on the road, and exchanged clothes with him. To be honest, you might call it robbery rather than exchange, for I made him give up his own clothes and take mine. But then I gave him my last gold piece to make it up to him. As for his clothes, they were not worth a drachma, I am sure. I shudder to this day when I think how dirty they were. However, they were as good as a safe-conduct, for nobody thought of touching me. So at last I got to Tarsus, without a brass coin in my pocket, my feet so frost-bitten that I nearly lost them, in fact the most miserable object you can conceive. Happily I had one or two old friends in the place who knew me, and took care of me. When I recovered I took service with the city, and a very good master it is."

The journey was not to be made without some interruption. One of the quarrels among the mountaineers, which, [181] as has been said, sometimes disturbed the peaceful arrangements between them and the city, had broken out, and about the seventh day the caravan found its progress blocked by a strong force of barbarians which occupied a height commanding the road. A halt was immediately called, and as it was already nearly dark it was determined to bivouac for the night. The commander called Lucius, of whose spirit and intelligence he had begun to think very highly, into counsel.

"We might storm the position," he said, "but I don't feel quite certain about my men. Very few of them have seen any fighting, and this is not the kind of thing to give them for their first experience. You see, get up the heights as quickly as they may, they must lose some men before they get a blow at the enemy, and that is a thing that young soldiers don't like. No, a first fight should always be on equal terms. We might fail, you see, and that would mean the loss of every thing. No, we must use stratagem, and I will tell you what I think of doing, and I look to you to help mc. I noticed, before it got too dark to see, that there was another height behind the one on which the mountaineers are posted. Well, I propose to send some dozen men or so to occupy that, and take the enemy in the flank. If there is one thing more than another that barbarians cannot stand, it in the fear of being taken in flank. I have got a steady old officer whom I shall send in command, and you shall go with him. Of course I shall give him instructions; but if he is steady he is stupid, and I want you to understand my plan. You have got to make as much of your dozen men as you can. Let them show themselves without being too [182] much seen. Two or three of them shall have bows, and two or three slings. Make as much play with these as you can, and don't spare shouting."

The lieutenant was sent for and duly instructed, and told to look to Lucius for further explanations if they were wanted. About two hours after midnight the party started under the guidance of a merchant's clerk, who happened to know the way, being indeed a native of one of the neighboring villages. They had to make a considerable compass to gain the desired post without running any risk of being observed by the enemy, and their way lay, for the most part, through a very dense and tangled wood. It was close upon dawn when they found themselves on the height. The enemy had not thought of posting any sentinels, knowing that the advance of the caravan would be sure to wake them. They were sleeping, most of them, on the bare ground, wrapped in their rough cloaks of Cilician goat's hair, though there were two or three tents for the accommodation of the chiefs. Every thing favored the commander's plan. The little party could approach the enemy without any danger, at least immediate danger, of being attacked, for the camp was overhung by an almost precipitous height. From this they could discharge their arrows and missiles with effect, while they could show themselves among the trees which lined the edge without letting the enemy discover how small were their numbers. The ruse succeeded to perfection. The mountaineers at once concluded that a powerful force was about to take them on the flank and cut off their retreat, and they hastily abandoned their position. The caravan, which had been ready to start for more than an hour, at [183] once moved forward, and the difficult bit of road was passed before the enemy could find out the truth.

The rest of the journey was accomplished without any hinderance, so that before the end of November the travellers were safely lodged in Pessinus.


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