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




[259] EARLY next morning Lucius was roused by the news that a party of horsemen were waiting for him. He was to rise at once and start with them. When he was about to mount his horse a written message from the king was put into his hands by the commander of the party.

"Mithradates the King to Lucius Marius, Citizen of Rome, greeting:

"You will renew to the bearer of this letter the promise not to escape which you made to myself. If you refuse to do so, he has orders to put you immediately to death. Your promise given, you will accompany him. No harm is intended against you, nor shall you lack any thing which my kingdom can supply. I trust that you will show to me the same good faith which I have shown to you. You will have many solicitations, for there are many traitors, especially among those of my own household. Be honest and firm. I shall see you again, possibly, if it so please the gods, at Rome. Meanwhile, farewell."

It was a long and tedious journey on which Lucius now set out. At first its direction, as Lucius could tell by his observation of the sun and stars, was nearly due west. After [260] about fifteen days' riding the party made a turn northward, and a few days more brought them within sight of a great expanse of water on their left hand which Lucius at once perceived must be the eastern extremity of the Euxine. Almost the next turn of the road brought a prospect which to the young Italian was a far greater surprise and delight. They had been riding for days with a somewhat steep wall of cliff on their right hand, shutting out all further prospect. At this moment there came a great gap in this wall, and through it the travellers could see in the far distance the towering heights of the Caucasus. Range behind range they rose high against the eastern sky, broken now and then by some depression in the line, now by some summit which rose far above its neighbors and seemed to pierce the clouds themselves. It was late in the afternoon when this prospect opened upon them, and the sun was just disappearing. Lucius had not been trained, as is the youth of the present day, to admire the beauties of nature, but he had a susceptible nature, and the first sight of these snow mountains, tinged as they were with the rosy light of sunset, stirred in him an emotion which he could not have described.

The leader of the party, it may be safely said, was wholly free from any such touch of sentiment. The sight did nothing but remind him that they had reached a country where they might expect attack, and must take every precaution against surprise. Hitherto they had gone on their way in the secure fashion of travellers passing through a friendly country; now they moved in military order. Two horsemen rode a couple of hundred yards in advance; and any [261] thing that seemed suspicious was reported to the leader. Lucius felt that he was watched. Indeed the leader explained the situation to him in the frankest manner possible.

You will not escape," he said, "I know, for you have given your promise. But I am not to let you be taken alive, at least if I can help it. That is the king's order. You will understand then that it will be your interest that we should make this journey safely."

As it turned out they had to fight once only. After accomplishing two days' journey from the place at which their dangers had begun without any thing worse than a few alarms, they found the road, which happened at this point to pass through a village, barred by a force which they roughly estimated at about four times their own number (this was twenty-five, including Lucius). A brief consultation was held between the leader and his two oldest troopers, and Lucius was invited to assist at it, though he could hardly understand the barbarous Greek in which it was carried on. Asked for his opinion he managed to convey it in some such terms as these:

"We cannot force our way here, it seems to me, except by making these people believe that we are much stronger than we really are. The first thing will be to wait till night. The day will infallibly betray us. But we mustn't use the darkness to try to steal through. We must multiply ourselves by its help, waving torches, making as much noise as we can, and then charging boldly at their line. They won't believe that so small a party would dare to do such a thing. They will think that we are the advanced guard of an army, [262] and will give way. Anyhow this, I take it, is our best chance, for there seems to be no way round."

The plan was carried out exactly, except that, on the suggestion of one of the troopers, some of the baggage animals were employed in a stratagem which was to deceive the enemy. The most valuable part of the baggage was stowed on the back of three or four of the best and most valuable beasts. These were, if possible, to be taken along with them by the party. The others were to be left behind tethered by long ropes to trees by the roadside, and having lighted torches fastened upon their heads. Their movements, agitated as they would be by their terror at the fire, would give the enemy, it was hoped, the idea of a numerous force. The device succeeded. The night, fortunately for the execution of the stratagem, was pitch dark. The enemy, who did not expect any movement on the part of the strangers, was taken by surprise, and gave way under a sudden impulse of alarm, which was increased by the sight of the flaming torches. The party took immediate advantage of the chance, dashed through the opening, and, riding at the top of their speed through the village, were soon in the open country beyond.

After this adventure they pursued their journey without any further interruption. The party, indeed, was just of the kind that might hope to travel with as much safety as ever was possible in that wild region. It was not large enough to alarm the inhabitants, who would certainly have gathered in force to oppose the advance of any thing like an army; and it was too strong, too well armed, and showed too little prospect of booty, to provoke the attack of small bands of [263] robbers. There was a general feeling of relief, however, when, coming to a little fishing village on the coast, the line of which they kept as closely as possible, they found it possible to hire two vessels of moderate size which might carry them to their destination. Their horses, which would be of little or no use to them in the town for which they were bound, were left behind in the charge of the principal man of the village, who was to dispose of them at his discretion. The party, with all the effects that they had been able to carry so far, then embarked. They rather overloaded the crank little ships, which were not constructed to carry more than seven or eight apiece, and Lucius could not help anticipating another experience of shipwreck. The weather, however, favored them, blowing with very moderate strength from the south-west, and bringing them in the course of two or three days, during which they were never more than a mile from the shore, to the Greek colony of the Twin Brethren, a town with which the king had always maintained the most amicable relations. Here they were hospitably entertained, besides obtaining a well-appointed ship which was to convey them to the appointed end of their journey, Phanagoria, another Greek town on the eastern shore of what is now called the Straits of Yenikale, but then went under the name of the Cimmerian Bosphorus.

Here and in its more important neighbor on the other side of the strait, Panticapćum, now called Kertsch, it was our hero's hard lot to spend as much as four years of his life. It was a wearisome time for the young man, who felt that his best opportunities of making a name and a place for himself in the world were slipping away from him. Still [264] it had its consolations. The young Cilician had been allowed to accompany him from Pontus, and proved to be as fine, brave, and honest a young fellow as could have been wished. The country had considerable resources in the way of sport. There was bear and wolf hunting in the winter. Hares were to be found in abundance, and could be run down in the warmer months of the year with the dogs of the country, a kind somewhat resembling the beagle, and tracked in the snow during the winter. This latter season, too, introduced Lucius to an amusement of which he had never even heard. He had known frosts in Italy severe enough to damage the olives and vines, but he had never seen one so severe and so long continued as to freeze a large body of water; and though the winter in Armenia had been hard enough for this purpose it had so happened that there was no lake in the neighborhood of his place of abode in that country. He now became familiar with the sight of the sea itself covered with a thick sheet of ice for months together, and soon learned the native custom of skating. The skates of those days were bones fastened beneath the boots, and though they were not suited for the cutting of intricate figures and the graceful evolutions of the outer edge, they enabled the skater to enjoy the excitement, or, as some one has called it, the "poetry" of rapid motion. The town, too, was not without some society. It was a Greek settlement, dating from between four and five hundred years before, and the descendants of the original colonists still struggled hard to keep up the traditions of their race. They pretended indeed—it was little more than a pretence—to look upon a Roman as being just as much a [265] barbarian as any Colchian or Scythian tribesman; but, as a matter of fact, they were glad to make friends with a civilized stranger. Lucius, too, had by this time learned to speak Greek with ease and fluency. His Greek, indeed, was not a little better than that spoken by the colony, which, during its residence of four hundred years and more in the midst of barbarians, had admitted into its daily talk not a few of the native words.

Occasionally too he had the consolation of getting news from Italy and even from Tarsus, though indeed it took nearly a year for a letter to make the double journey to and from that place. The letters came by sea, being brought by traders who penetrated to the remote eastern shores of the Black Sea for some of the products of the country, beaver-skins among other things, and the admirable iron tools which were wrought on the forges of Colchis. The young Roman was free to communicate with his friends, though, even if he had not been bound by his promise, he would probably have found it impossible to escape. As Mithradates had been courteous enough to send information to the Roman commander in Pontus of the place to which his prisoner had been sent, the young man had the happiness of receiving letters with home news in the year after his arrival, as soon as the season was open enough to allow the traders to approach the coast.

In the course of this year (which, we may remind our readers, was the year 66 B.C.) Lucius received a letter from his father which contained some very important tidings. We omit the details about domestic affairs, and about certain neighbors and friends with whom we are not concerned in [266] this story, and give the intelligence which so interested the prisoner. This part of the letter ran thus:

"And now for yourself and your prospects, my dearest son. Know therefore that the invincible Pompey has been appointed to command the armies of Asia, and that Lucullus, who had ceased to have the control of his soldiers, has been recalled. The fame of Pompey is indeed so great that there is nothing which the Roman people is not willing to commit to his hands. And the reason of this fame is to be found in a matter of which it is possible that you, dwelling in the very confines of the earth, have not heard, though indeed it somewhat concerns you. Last year this same Pompey having been appointed by a special law to have as his province the sea and all the coast within fifty miles, with soldiers and ships as many as he might see fit to demand, in order that he might wage war with the pirates, did within fifty days clear those pirates from the sea, so that at this hour there is not so much as one of them left. Wherefore, when tidings came to the city that things were not altogether prosperous in Asia, one Manilius, a tribune of the people, proposed a law which should give to Pompey the rule of all the legions and fleets in Asia, and this rule he has already taken upon himself. May the gods turn it to your deliverance!"

Lucius broke the news as gently as he could to the young Cilician, knowing that it probably meant the death of his father. For some days the youth seemed lost in thought. He had apparently something on his mind which he wished and yet could not resolve to tell. Several times he began [267] to speak, and then relapsed suddenly into silence. At last he seemed to make up his mind.

"I have a secret," he said one day, "which I can no longer keep to myself. It can hardly be but that my father is dead; and if this is so, then no one knows of this matter but myself. You told me of the island and the harbor to which my father took you. These, as you know, are not easy to find. But there is in the island itself a secret which, if indeed my father is no longer alive, is known to me only. He was accustomed to bury a large portion, not of the general booty, for that was divided among all, but of his own share; his father also had done the same before him; and when I first went to sea with him he told the secret of the place of this treasure to me. Now I mean to tell it to you; and I leave you free to do with it as you will. You will remember that there is a stream which runs into the harbor. Step three hundred paces eastward from the mouth of this stream along the shore. You will know that you have stepped them right if they bring to a little bit of sand which is always wet. Then turn with your back to the sea and go exactly the same distance inland. This distance you will not be able to measure by pacing it, for you will have to go over some rough ground; you must have an actual measure, and lay it along the ground as you go. My father, of course, knew the place well, and could find it without any help; but he told me this to guide me. At the three hundred paces then up in the wood you will find an open space, about sixty feet each way. The spot you have to look for is in this; of course you might dig it all up; but you will find the exact place by this—that there is a little gap in the hills on the [268] opposite side of the harbor, and that exactly at midnight, on the last day of August, the constellation of the Pleiades is just visible from the right spot. If we both get away from this place we will, if you please, go together and search. If I come to my end here, and sometimes I feel that I shall, you will go yourself. You will remember that the island itself lies a little to the north-west of the eastern end of Crete."

Lucius noted down the particulars, but the matter did not make much impression on him; he was far more interested in speculating on the chances of freedom, which the coming of a new general, and that the most notoriously lucky man in Rome, might bring him. We shall see in the next chapter how he fared.

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