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

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[101] EVERY hour made Lucius more dissatisfied with his position. His chief was neither a soldier nor a sailor, had no idea of how to navigate a ship, and no wish, as far as could be seen, to fight it. The other captains were, perhaps, a little better fitted for their places. Of seamanship they had little or nothing; still they were not, like Cleomenes, mere effeminate fops. Lucius believed that they would fight if they had the chance. To tell the truth, though he was as brave a young fellow as ever stepped, he did not particularly wish that such a chance should come. For if the equipment of the Chimæra  was defective, that of the other ships was simply deplorable. They had one man where they ought to have had five, and even for these scanty crews there were hardly sufficient arms, and scarcely a morsel of food. Lucius could only devoutly hope that the pirates had been so much terrified by the report of Cleomenes and his squadron that they would not think of making any nearer trial of its strength.

The weather was now becoming very hot, and the commander of the squadron was accustomed to spend both his days and his nights in the tents that had been pitched for [102] him on the shore. He drank far into the night and slept far into the day. To his duties he was absolutely indifferent. No watches were kept; there was no exercising, no manœuvring, no drill. In fact the men were pretty well occupied in keeping themselves alive, for such small stores of provisions as, taught by experience, they had brought with them, were by this time exhausted. Lucius found that the palm-roots which he had seen in the guard-room of the fort were their chief means of subsistence. Some hours were daily spent in digging these from the ground, where happily they were found in unfailing abundance; and the rest of the day was often consumed in a search for any kind of game (for the poor fellows were not at all particular in their tastes) with which their fare might be improved. In this state of things Lucius felt himself helpless. All that he could do was to insist upon the arms being kept clean, and the sails and tackle ready for use, and to refuse, as far as courtesy and policy permitted, the unceasing invitations of his chief.

About a fortnight after the departure of the squadron from Syracuse, Lucius, taking a small guard with him, had been paying a visit to a fort on the south coast with the object of obtaining re-enforcements. This at least was the professed end of his journey; but, as a matter of fact, he had no hope of effecting any thing. He had long since found out that Roman credit and Roman resources were at their very lowest ebb in the island; and he could see no chance of a change for the better. The best thing, he felt, that he could do was to be as busy as he could about whatever duties were left to him, and to forget, as far as possible, [103] a shameful state of things for which he was not responsible. He had done as little as he had expected, and was on his way back, when, mounting a height that commanded a view of the little bay in which the squadron had taken up its position, he saw something that made his heart beat with fierce excitement. A strange vessel was making its way from the southward towards the bay, and a sort of instinct seemed to tell him that she was one of the pirates of whom he had heard so much. She was long and low in the water, with three tall masts, too tall, a landsman would probably have thought, for her size. From the middle of the three a black flag floated. Her deck, he could see, was positively crowded with men. She came rapidly on, using both sails and oars. The sails were new and bright; the oars rose and fell with a regular sweep which told of a strong and well-practised crew. Casting a glance up at the shore, Lucius saw that the approach of the stranger had been perceived. The ships, which had been partially grounded, the sterns almost touching the shore, while the prows were afloat, were being hastily pushed into deeper water. There was indeed no time to notice more. The lieutenant felt that his place was with his ship, and that it was a misfortune, though capable, he hoped, of being repaired, that had separated him from it just at the moment when his services were most required. Bidding his guard follow him without delay, he set out at the top of his speed; and as he was a quick and long-winded runner, contrived to reach the shore at the exact moment when the Chimæra  was gliding out into deep water, and to scramble on board. His companions, who were not so young, and possibly not so zealous, [104] were left some distance in the rear, and judged it best to board one of the other ships.

Cleomenes was in a state of pitiable confusion and terror, bemoaning himself now over the loss of what he had been compelled to leave behind him in his tents on the shore, now on the detestable inconvenience of having to deal with the intruding pirate. "Idiot that I was," he exclaimed, beating his breast, and positively crying with vexation, "idiot that I was to take the best silver bowl on shore, and the Myron cup! There is nothing like it in Syracuse, and now that filthy barbarian will be burying his swine's snout in it. And the wine too! That thirty years' old Chian. I haven't more than two casks in my cellar, and it positively can't be got now for love or money. Lucius, what is to be done? Do you think that we could make terms with the fellow? Would you mind taking a flag of truce and seeing whether you could treat with him?"

"Surely sir," cried the lieutenant astonished, "the best way will be to fight him. We haven't got, perhaps, all that we could wish; but there are some stout fellows on board. And then we are eight to one. Why, sir, we can run him down. The Chimæra  is five times as big and heavy as that craft, and sails like a bird."

"Fight him!" screamed the captain; "fight him! We're not fit to fight. You know we're not. I shall do nothing of the kind. It is all very well for a hare-brained young fellow like you to talk of fighting, but I have got the lives of my men to think of."

He turned to the sailing-master and shouted, "Put every rag of sail on; send down all the men that can be spared to the oars, and steer due north."

[105] For a moment Marius was stupefied with astonishment.

"What, sir," he cried, "you cannot mean that we are to turn our backs upon this pirate! You don't trust your crew. But I am sure that these men will follow you if you will fight."

He looked round at the crew, many of whom had come aft, attracted by the raised voices of the two speakers. A murmur of assent was heard from many of them, though some, who did not care a jot for pirates or Romans, were silent.

"Fight!" cried Cleomenes, "it is impossible. I won't hear of it. I know that ship. It is Heracleo's own, and he is the most dangerous and determined villain in the whole Mediterranean."

Lucius stood in despair. The Chimæra  was just beginning to catch the wind and to move more quickly through the water. Lucius had seen something of her sailing qualities, and had heard more from the old seaman who had practically commanded her. He felt pretty sure that, unless the wind dropped, she would easily outsail the pirate. But to escape on such conditions! It was simply intolerable. His mind was quickly made up. The other captains could not possibly be such cowards as Cleomenes. He would throw in his lot with one of them. The nearest ship to the Chimæra, which, better manned and better equipped as she was, had naturally got a start of the others, was, as a hasty glance showed him, the Gorgon; and he remembered to have met the Gorgon's  commander among the guests of Cleomenes, and to have thought him a man of spirit and courage. Without giving his cowardly superior a chance [106] of stopping him, he stepped on the gunwale of the ship and plunged into the sea. A distance of about three hundred yards divided the Chimæra  from the Gorgon, and the distance was nothing to a practised swimmer, especially as the sea was calm and the water warm. Lightly clothed as he was, and carrying no weapon but a sword, he struck out for the Gorgon, and reached it in the course of a very few minutes. The crew helped him to scramble up its side, and he stood panting and breathless on the deck.

"Welcome, Lucius Marius," cried the captain, "though I never saw a guest arrive in so strange a fashion! But tell me, what is Cleomenes about? Is this some grand manœuvre that he is practising? Why does he not signal to us what we are to do?"

"Manœuvre!" said Lucius as soon as he had recovered his breath. "There is nothing of the kind, unless you call it a manœuvre to run away. He was screaming and crying like a woman, and shrieked with fear at the very notion of fighting. I told him that he could run down the pirate as easily as if it were a cockle-shell; but he wouldn't listen to a word. He could think of nothing but saving his precious skin. All the furies confound the coward! I couldn't stay with the villain and be disgraced. I am under your orders, sir, if you will take me."

The young captain reached out his hand. "You do me honor, sir," he said. "I am ashamed to think that that coward is a fellow-countryman, a Greek. Anyhow we will fight, and to tell you the truth I don't see what else we can do. The Chimæra  can outsail the pirate, but we can't. And if the wind drops, as it is very likely to do towards [107] sunset, Cleomenes, for all his running away, will find himself in a strait."

The crew was mustered, and Lucius observed with dismay that their numbers scarcely exceeded forty; that nearly half of them were men clearly unfit for service, and that the remainder, though more effective, were but indifferently armed, and bore on their faces the evident marks of privation and neglect. Such as they were, however, the best had to be made of them. The captain briefly addressed them.

"Comrades, the only hope you have is in yourselves and your swords. The pirate knows nothing of mercy. He may spare two or three of the strongest among you to ply his oars; the rest he will drown as a man would drown so many useless whelps. But you can at least die like men. This young Roman, sooner than fly with that runaway in the Chimæra, has come to share your fate. Follow him and me, and he will not be sorry that he left a coward to stand by the side of brave men."

The men shouted in reply as boldly and cheerily as any one could have hoped. Meanwhile the Gorgon  was moving slowly on before a failing breeze, and the pirate was rapidly diminishing his distance. The position of affairs was this. Six of the squadron were in advance of the Gorgon, the Chimæra  leading the way and rapidly gaining on its consorts; the remaining ship of the eight was about a quarter of a mile behind it. The pirate was now close upon this laggard, and Lucius and his comrades watched with intense interest for the result of the encounter between them. Would they surrender? Would they attempt to resist? Had they [108] but been strong enough to man the oars, they would have reversed their course and hastened to the help of their comrade. But they had literally not a single man to spare for the rowing-benches, and the wind was against them if they wanted to go back. It was maddening to have to wait without being able to stir a finger to help themselves, but it was all that they could do. Their suspense was soon over, for they saw the pirates board and take possession of the vessel, apparently without meeting with any kind of resistance. Their own fate could not now be long delayed, as the pursuer was moving with at least double their own speed. A few minutes indeed brought him alongside; grappling-irons attached to light chains of finely-wrought iron, which it would have been difficult to sever, were made fast in their bulwarks, and the assailants prepared to board. Lucius had seen fighting before, but only as a non-combatant, unless we are to except his adventure in Calabria. He was now about to strike a blow for himself, and after one tremor—he hardly knew whether of joy or fear—had passed through him he addressed himself to his work. He felt a strange exaltation and intensifying of every feeling and faculty. Keeping his eyes fixed on the boarders, who were now climbing up from their own bulwarks on to the Gorgon  (which stood some three or four feet higher out of the water than the pirate craft), he nevertheless seemed to take in as if by instinct the attitude and demeanor of every man in his own crew, and to appreciate in a moment the chances of the conflict. These, indeed, were deplorably unfavorable. Some ten or twelve cravens had already thrown down their arms and were begging for quarter; nearly as many more [109] were evidently failing both in spirits and strength. The knot of determined men who had clustered about the captain and Lucius numbered less than a score, and the assailants were many times as numerous. The pirate leader, a wiry, well-knit man of about forty, led the attack, and engaged the captain of the Gorgon. Lucius found himself matched with a gigantic Asiatic, to judge from the darkness of his complexion, who had the advantage over him of nearly half a foot of stature. The young Roman, however, was a practised swordsman, and a resolute temper, inherited from a long line of ancestors who had been accustomed to take to fighting as one of the avocations of life, enabled him to turn the teaching of the fencing-school to good account. His blood seemed to be absolutely on fire, and yet he was entirely cool, if to be cool means to be wary and self-possessed, to see every chance, to use every opportunity, to lose nothing from rage or excitement. His head was protected by a small steel cap, but he had no other armor, and for the single conflict in which he was engaged, its absence, leaving its limbs unfettered, was no small advantage. He had laid aside his short Roman sword, and used a longer weapon of Asiatic manufacture (it came from a Colchian forge). A small dagger suspended from the girdle completed his equipment. His antagonist evidently thought that he could make short work of the affair. He dealt a tremendous blow at the young Roman's head, a blow delivered with such force that it partially broke through his guard, and but for the steel cap would have inflicted a severe, if not a fatal, wound. For a moment Lucius was half stunned, and the feeling of confusion lasted long enough to [110] prevent him from dealing the counter-stroke to which his adversary had laid himself open. Two or three seconds restored him to himself, and the pirate was not long in finding out that he had no raw lad to deal with. Each arm in succession received a wound that weakened though it did not disable him. His almost gigantic frame was better suited for a single violent exertion than for endurance; and his courage was not of the kind that holds out against pain. His blows became feeble, his guard unsteady; he gave ground, and would even, if the field of conflict had made the movement possible, have turned to fly. Lucius, confident of victory, felt something of a playful impulse in dealing with his vanquished foe, and remembering an old trick of the fencing-school, gave a sudden twist to his weapon which wrenched the weapon out of his adversary's hand, and sent it spinning over the vessel's side. With a sullen look, in which rage and fear were mingled, the barbarian stood waiting for the deadly blow. A practised soldier would probably have dealt it at once, but some impulse which he would have found it difficult to name stayed the young Roman's hand. The battle had been a positive delight to him; but now to kill this stalwart fellow, who but just now had been matching his strength against him, seemed monstrous. He fancied himself back in the fencing-school, where to strike an antagonist already disarmed would have been an impossible act. It was the feeling of a boy in his first battle, one that would hardly recur in a second experience, and perhaps would not even then have resisted the reflection that he must either kill or be killed. But if the disarmed pirate had reason to thank the impulse [111] which checked the blow, so also had the young soldier himself. His duel had been brief, but it had lasted longer than the struggle of which it was a part. This indeed had been finished as soon as it was begun. Numbers, arms, and spirit, every thing in fact, had been on the side of the assailants. An unlucky slip of the foot had put an end to the gallant fight which the captain, a brave and skilful man-at-arms, was preparing to make. A lunge at his antagonist, the commander of the pirate vessel, made perhaps with too much vigor, had exposed him to a sword stroke which almost severed his head from his body. His men lost all heart at his fall. A common feeling of the uselessness of resistance made them drop their weapons. Both conquerors and conquered had then turned to witness the duel that was being fought between Lucius and the Asiatic giant. The pirate chief had forbidden interference by a significant gesture, and he now watched the conflict with an amused interest. The giant was known and disliked as being something of a bully, and no one was prepared to be better pleased than his superior if he could be taught to be a little less overbearing. When he stood disarmed and at the Roman's mercy, the captain thought it was time to interfere, and gave a sign to two of the crew. They stealthily approached Lucius behind, and the lad, who had forgotten every thing but himself and his enemy, found himself in a moment disarmed and with his arms tied down to his sides. A single glance round showed him that the battle was over and that all his comrades were prisoners like himself.

"Well fought, young sir!" cried the captain, who had picked up a fair amount of Latin in conversation with not [112] a few Italian prisoners. "Well fought! I haven't a better swordsman in my crew. Inguomar there has met his match, and, perhaps, will crow a trifle less loudly than hitherto. Excuse the indignity of being disarmed and bound. I did not know what mischief a hot young fellow with a sword in his hand might do, but if you will give me your word not to escape you shall be free."

Lucius saw no use in refusing the promise, and gave it with a grace and cheerfulness which made a favorable impression on his captor. No such indulgence was shown to the other prisoners, who were tied hand and foot and lowered into the hold.

The wind had by this time altogether failed, and the remainder of the Roman ships had got out such oars as they could man. They made, however, but little progress, and Lucius began to hope that, thus driven to bay, they would, willing or unwilling, be forced to fight. They might have done so then, as they would probably have done before, but for the cowardice of the commander of the squadron. The course of the Chimæra  was suddenly changed. It became evident that Cleomenes had given up the hope of escaping with his ship, and was determined to abandon it. Its prow was directed to the shore, from which, indeed, it was not more than two or three hundred yards distant. In a few moments Lucius saw it beached, and watched the captain, whom he could distinguish by his gay cloak, leap from the deck on to the sand, and run inland at the top of his speed. The crew were quick to imitate his example. The other ships followed the lead of the Chimæra; all five were soon rocking, empty and helpless, in the breakers. The pirate [113] captain did not apparently think it worth while to search them. He was doubtless aware how very little of value there was likely to be in a Roman ship which depended its equipment upon Verres. He rowed up to each in turn, ordered some combustibles, of which he seemed to have an ample supply in hand, to be put on board and lighted. In a few minutes the whole were in a blaze, and a few minutes more, for the ships were dry and rotten, the squadron had ceased to exist.

It was now nearly dark, and the pirates judged it best to main where they were till the morrow. The prisoners in the hold were supplied with bread and water; Lucius was honored with better fare, some preserved meat, some dried fruit, and a small flask of tolerable wine. This he disposed of without going below. When he had finished, the captain brought him a cloak made of the rough goats'-hair cloth for which Cilicia was famous.

"You will be more comfortable up here than down below," he said in a friendly tone;" but wrap this round you against the dews, and take care to cover up your face from the moon. We sailors on these seas think the moon far more dangerous than the sun. A man won't let his worst enemy sleep uncovered in the moon, And now, good night!"

"Well," said Lucius to himself, "that does not mean very much. He may keep me from being moonstruck to-night, and may cut my throat to-morrow. However, it is no sort of good to anticipate, and he does not seem a bad kind of fellow."

All his anxiety, and of course it was impossible to feel [114] quite at ease when he found himself in such a plight, did not keep the young fellow long awake. He slept soundly and long, and the morning was well advanced before he opened his eyes. When he did open them he was half disposed to believe that they were deluding him. The pirate vessel was close upon the mouth of the harbor of Syracuse. At the moment of his first looking about him it was almost exactly opposite the place where the tents of Verres had been pitched. The prætor's camp had, it was evident, been hastily struck, and the beach was strewed with the relics of flight. Most men in Heracleo's position would have been content to drive the governor of Sicily from his summer quarters, but he was of a singularly daring temper, and he resolved to brave his enemies in a way that would not easily be forgotten. Three other vessels had by this time joined him. With this little squadron he entered the harbor. It was a thing that no hostile fleet but one had ever ventured to do before, and that one had never returned to tell the tale. The fleet of Athens, three hundred and fifty years before, had found its way in, but had never got out again. The Carthaginians had never been able to do so much; the Romans themselves, though they had taken the city, had failed here. It was by land, and not by sea, that they had been successful. Lucius had been long enough in Syracuse to know that the town was proud of the harbor which no enemy had ever entered except to his own loss and ruin, and he watched with unmixed astonishment four insignificant vessels which could hardly have withstood one good-sized man-of-war make their way into the sacred enclosure. The sight that met his eyes was strange indeed. The harbor [115] went deep into the most populous part of the city. From end to end its sides were thronged with men and women and children; the windows of the houses and the roofs of the public halls and temples were crowded. Not a sound was heard from the vast multitude as the four pirate ships rowed leisurely up the harbor, keeping about a bowshot from the shore, but otherwise, it would seem, careless of attack. There was both fear and anger in that strange silence. But the silence did not last very long. When the daring little squadron, after reaching almost the farthest point of the harbor, turned to leave it, without so much as a finger being raised to avenge the insult, a great roar of hatred and rage burst from the crowd. Men shook their fists at these impudent intruders; they shook them with still greater fury at the prætor's palace, where Verres, for once, it may almost be believed, ashamed of himself, was hiding. A new idea seemed to strike Heracleo when he heard the uproar. He gave orders that the course of his ship should be changed so as to bring it within a few yards of a spot where he could see the magistrates, conspicuous by their robes of office, standing at the water's edge. Astonished at this new piece of audacity the crowd grew silent again. The pirate threw some of the palm-roots which the Roman crew had been reduced to eat, and which had been left in the ship. "See," he cried in a clear voice which was heard far and wide, "see, your men have left their bread behind them." This done, he and his companions left the harbor as calmly and unconcernedly as they had entered it.

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