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The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church

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EASTWARD BOUND

[118] THE first care of the newcomers was Manasseh. The effect of the incident had been to bring him perilously near to his end. Weak as he was, he was not one to be still while so exciting a drama was being enacted round him. He was absolutely unable to move from his place; but he sat up in the litter, poured out invectives on the villains who had betrayed him, and encouraged his own party to do their best in the way of resistance. Of course there was a reaction, and when the brief conflict had ended in the flight of the robbers, he was in a fainting condition. Priscilla had to use all her skill and all the appliances she had at hand—she was too good a woman ever to leave herself without some of the most important "first aids," as they were understood at the time—before she could bring him back to consciousness. His state was still doubtful, but he had a vigorous constitution, and what was not less favourable for recovering, an indomitable spirit.

[119] The next question that pressed for solution was the fate of the brigand captain. Some were for making short work with him. Why, they asked, should they encumber themselves with a villain who had plotted to cut all their throats? "Deal him," they cried, "the measure that he would have dealt to us, a couple of inches of cold steel."

Aquila was more inclined to be merciful. He remembered the poor wife. She at least had done her best to counteract her husband's wrong-doing; and he had tender thoughts of the two beautiful children. The Corsican took the same line for quite different reasons. He considered the gigantic stature and mighty thews of the prisoner.

"He is far too fine a fellow," he said, "to be made food for crows and ravens. In these times it is not a bad thing to have so stout a fellow on one's side, and you have got a chance of getting him. Make him swear by whatever he holds sacred—all these fellows have some oath which they do not like to forswear—that he will be faithful to you; that will be better than handing him over to the authorities, who in all probability are greater scoundrels than he is."

This advice prevailed; Aquila had, it is true, some scruples, but did not feel under the circumstances any special obligation to help the law. [120] The brigand told them of a cottage in which he could be safely hidden till he was cured of his lameness, and to this, after he had given the most solemn pledge of good conduct for the future, he was conveyed.

The remainder of the journey to Brundisium was completed without any disturbing incidents. When that place was reached, it became a question what was next to be done; the usual plan followed by travellers bound eastward was to take the shortest sea-passage—most landsmen think that the less they have of the sea the better—to Apollonia, and proceed overland to Corinth. But this necessitated more than one change of conveyance, and various other inconveniences, which the condition of Manasseh, who was still hovering between death and life, rendered peculiarly undesirable. Aquila, by help of some countrymen who were in business at Brundisium, was able to hire a roomy galley with as comfortable accommodation for travellers as any ship of the kind contained. With this they would make the journey direct to the eastern end of the Corinthian Gulf. The whole way would be by sea, and for the greater part of the way by the land-locked waters of the Gulf. The wounded man would so be left in peace, for he would not have to be moved till the western port of Corinth was [121] reached. The old man was immensely grateful to Aquila for thus accommodating his plan of travel to his wants. While not at all superior to the love of money which is commonly attributed, though not always with justice, to his race, he was genuinely disappointed at not being allowed to pay the whole hire of the ship. To Aquila he was gracious, more gracious, possibly, than he had ever been to any human being before. He could not indeed help being suspicious of his orthodoxy as a Jew. Of his real beliefs he had, as may be supposed, but the very vaguest idea. That he was a disciple of a prophet whom the authorized interpreters of the law had condemned was enough. He did not care to go behind this fact. But he could not help being touched, not only by the services rendered to himself, but by the transparent goodness and sincerity of the man. His feeling towards Priscilla was less complex. The veriest churl could not have stood out against her charm. It cost him a pang to accept her kind offices, Gentile as she was, but he quieted his conscience with the plea of necessity. This done, he felt no drawback to the delight of her companionship.

Raphael was curiously different from his father, and yet even less in sympathy with Aquila. The old man had a genuine interest in the glories, and, [122] one might even say, the mission of his nation. All this was to Raphael mere sentiment. A certain pride of race he had; it pleased him to think that his ancestors were princes when Rome was nothing more than the refuge of hill-side robbers. And this feeling kept alive in him a certain loyalty to the national law. At the same time he was wholly worldly. Practically he prized his nationality, not because of any divine promises or privileges which were attached to it, but because it gave him a vantage ground for aggrandisement. He was excellent company; shrewd, well informed, with a superficial liberality and width of view.

The voyage from Brundisium to the entrance of the Corinthian Gulf was as prosperous and easy as could be desired. Scarcely a breath ruffled the surface of the sea, and the sick man benefited greatly by the quiet. When the ship had passed into the Gulf itself, sea troubles and dangers might be considered at an end. The little wind that there was blew from the south; it was just enough to fill out the sails and help the rowers along without raising a sea.

It was a gay scene that met the travellers' eyes. Visitors were flocking to Corinth for the celebration of the Isthmian games, and there were many who preferred the route by sea. Those who came, [123] for instance, from the western Isles, from Corcyra—which had long since made up its old quarrel with its mother-city—from Ithaca, from Cephallonia, especially affected this mode of travel. The galleys and merchant vessels were all in holiday trim, newly painted for the occasion, their signs freshly gilded or silvered, and the masts gay with bunting. The fuglemen, who gave the time to the rowers, played lively tunes, and the high spirits of the crews prompted them to frequent races. For many of the travellers the voyage could not but be a melancholy business. They had been driven from their homes, and the future was more or less dark and doubtful. But even they found it difficult to resist the infectious gaiety of the scene.


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