THE journey to Venta Belgarum was accomplished in
safety, and, by dint of starting long before sunrise,
in a single day. The distance was a little more than
twenty miles, and the road, which was so straight that
the end of the journey might almost have been seen from
the beginning, lay almost through an open country. This
was favourable for speed, as there was little or no
need to reconnoitre the ground in advance. It was just
after sunrise when the party reached the spot where the
traces of the great camp of Constantius Chlorus may
still be seen. It had even then ceased to be occupied,
but the soldiers' huts were still standing, and the
avenues, though overgrown with grass, looked as if they
might easily be thronged again with all the busy life
of a camp. The Count called a halt for a few minutes,
and pointed out the locality to Carna.
"See," said he, with a sigh, "there Constantius had
 his camp, the great Constantius to whom we owe so
"And was Constantine himself ever there?" cried the
girl, to whom the first Christian Emperor was the
object of an admiration which we, knowing as we do more
about him, can hardly share.
"I doubt it," returned the Count. "Constantius made it
and held it during his campaigns with Allectus. But, my
child, I was thinking not of its past, but of its
future. It will never be occupied again."
"Why should it?" exclaimed the girl, almost forgetting
in her excitement that she was speaking to a Roman.
"Why should it? Why should not Britain be happy and
safe and free without the legions? Forgive me, father,"
she added, remembering herself again; "I am the last
person in the world who should be ungrateful to Rome."
"I don't blame you," said the Count, and as he looked
at the maiden's flashing eyes and remembered how
bravely she had gone through terrors which would have
driven most women out of their senses, he thought to
himself—"Ah, if there were but a few thousand men who
had half the spirit of this woman in them, the end
might be different. My child," he went on, "I would not
discourage you, but there are dark days before this
island. She has enemies by sea and land, and I doubt
whether she has the
 strength to strike a sufficient blow for herself. I am
thankful that you will be safely away before it comes."
Carna was about to speak, but checked herself. It was
not the time she felt to speak out her heart.
For some time after this little or nothing of interest
occurred; but as the party approached within a few
miles of Venta the scene underwent a remarkable change.
The road had hitherto been almost entirely deserted; it
was now thronged: but the face of every passenger was
turned towards Venta, not a single traveller was going
the other way. Every by-way and bridle-path and
foot-path that touched the road contributed to swell
the throng. In fact, the whole countryside was in
motion. And the fugitives, for their manifest hurry and
alarm proclaimed to be nothing less, carried all their
property with them. Carts laden with rustic furniture,
on the top of which women and children were perched,
waggons loaded with the harvest of the year, droves of
sheep and cattle helped to crowd the road till it was
almost impassable. And still the hurrying pace, the
fearful anxious glances cast behind showed that it was
some terrible danger from which this timid multitude
was flying. For some time, so stupified with fear were
the fugitives, Ælius could get no rational answer to
the questions which he put. "The Picts! The Picts! They
are upon us!" at last said a man whom a
sud-  den catastrophe that brought a great pile of household
goods to the ground, had compelled to halt, and who was
glad to get the help of the Count's attendants to
restore them, all help from neighbours being utterly
out of the question when all were selfishly intent on
saving their own lives and property. When his property
had been set in its place again the man thanked the
Count very heartily, and was collected enough to tell
all he knew.
"There is no doubt that the Picts are not far off. I
have not seen anything of them myself, thank heaven!
but I could see the fires last night all along the sky
to the north."
"Have they ever been here before?"
"Never quite here. You see, sir, the camp at Calleva
kept them in check. A party did slip by, I know, some
little way to the westward, and I was glad to hear they
got rather roughly handled. But, generally, they did
not like to come anywhere near the camps. But now these
are deserted, and there is nothing to keep them back."
"But why don't you defend yourselves?"
"Ah, sir, we have not the strength, nor even the arms.
You are a Roman, I see, and, if I may judge, a man in
authority, and you know that I am
 speaking the truth. You have not allowed us to do
anything for ourselves, and how can we do it now at a
few months' notice?"
The Count made no answer; indeed, none was possible.
"And you expect to find shelter at Venta?"
"I don't say that I expect it, but it is our only
chance. The place has at least walls."
"And any one to man them?"
"There should be some old soldiers, but how many I
cannot say; anyhow scarcely enough for a garrison."
When the Count learned the situation he felt that his
best course would be to press on with his party to
Venta with all the speed possible. The chief authority
of the town was in the hands of a native, who had the
title of Head of the City.
It was possible that this officer might be a man of
courage and capacity; but it was far more likely that
he would be quite unequal to the emergency. In either
case the Count felt that his advice and personal
influence might be of very great use. Even the twenty
stout soldiers whom he had with him would be no
inconsiderable addition to the fighting force of the
place. Accordingly he gave orders to his followers to
quicken their pace. Fortunately the greater part
 of the fugitives was behind them; still it was no easy
task for the party to make its way through the
struggling masses of human beings and cattle, and it
was past sunset when they rode up to the gates of
It was evident that the bad news had already arrived.
The gates were closely shut, while the walls were
crowded with spectators anxiously looking northwards
for signs of the approaching enemy. The porter was at
first unwilling to admit the strangers, peering
anxiously through the wicket at them, and declaring
that he must first consult his superior. One of the
spectators on the wall happened, however, to recognize
the Count, and the party was admitted without further
question, and rode up at once to the quarters of the
Commander of the Town.
If he had hoped to find an official with whom it would
be possible or profitable to cooperate in the
Princeps of Venta, the Count was very much
disappointed. He was an elderly man, who had realized
a fair fortune by contracting for the provisioning of
the army in Southern Britain, and had done very fairly
as long as he had nothing to do but execute the orders
of the military governor. Left to himself he was
absolutely helpless. Indeed he had been taking refuge
from his anxieties in the wine-cup, and the Count found
him at least half intoxicated. At the moment of the
party's arrival the poor creature
 had reached the valorous stage of drunkenness, and was
loud in his declarations that there was no possible
"They will know better," he said, "than to come near
Venta. If they do, very few will go back. Indeed I
should like nothing better than to give them a lesson.
You shall see something worth looking at if you will
give us the pleasure of your company in our little town
for a day or two."
Another cup, which he drained to the prosperity of
Britain and the confusion of her enemies, changed his
mood. He now seemed to have forgotten all about the
invaders, insisted on recognizing a dear friend of past
times in the Count, and invited him to spend the rest
of the day in talking over old times.
The Count did not waste many minutes with the old man,
but when he left the house the darkness had already
closed in. After finding with some difficulty
accommodation for Carna, he returned to the gate,
anxious to learn for himself how things were going on.
He found the place a scene of frightful confusion. The
warders had abandoned their office as hopeless. An
incessant stream of fugitives, men, women, and
children, mingled with carts and waggons of every shape
and size, was pouring into the town. Every now and then
one of these vehicles, brought out perhaps in the
sudden emergency from the repose of years, broke down
 blocked the way. Then the living torrent began to rage
at the obstacle, as a river in flood roars about a tree
which has fallen across its current. Shortly the
offending vehicle would be removed by main force, and
with a very scanty regard for its contents. Then the
uproar lulled again, though there never ceased a babel
of voices, cursing, entreating, complaining,
quarrelling, through all the gamut of notes, from the
deepest base to the shrillest treble. The wall was
crowded with the inhabitants of the town, and every eye
was fixed intently on the northern horizon. There, as
was only too plainly to be seen, the sky was reddened
with a dull glow, which might have been described as a
sunrise out of place, but that it was brightened now
and then for a moment by a shoot of flame. "Where are
they?" "How soon will they be here?" were the questions
which every one was asking, and which no one attempted
to answer. The Count made his way with some
difficulty along the top of the rampart in search of
some one from whom he might hope to get some rational
account of the situation. At last he found among the
spectators an old man, whose bearing struck him as
having something soldierly about it. A nearer look
showed him a military decoration. He lost no time in
"Comrade," he said, "I see that you have followed the
 The veteran recognized something of the tone of command
in the Count's voice, and made a military salute.
"Yes, sir, so I have, though my sword has been hanging
up for more than thirty years."
"And what do you think of the prospect?"
"Badly, sir, badly. This is just what I feared; but it
has come even sooner than I looked for it. Things have
been very bad for some time in the north ever since the
garrisons were taken from the Wall,
but, except for a troop of robbers now and then, we
were fairly safe here. But now that these barbarians
know that the legions are gone, there will be no
"They are the Picts, I hear. Have you ever had to do
"Yes, sir, I have seen as much of them as ever I want
to see. I came to this island thirty-nine years ago
with Theodosius, grandfather, you know, of the
Augustus;" and the old man, who was steadfastly loyal
to the Emperor, bared his head as he spoke. "I am a
Batavian from the island of the Rhine, and was then a
deputy-centurion in Theodosius' army. We found Britain
full of the savages. They had positively over-run the
whole country as
 far as the southern sea, and only the walled towns
escaped them, and these were almost in despair. I shall
never forget how the people at Londinium crowded about
the general, kissing his hands and feet, when he rode
into the town. But I must not tire you with an old
soldier's stories. You ask me about the Picts. They are
the worst savages I ever saw, and I have had some
experience too. They go naked but for some kind of a
skin girdle about their loins, and they are hideously
painted, and their hair is more like a beast's than a
man's, and then they eat human flesh. Ah, sir, you may
shake your head, but I know it. We used to find dead
bodies with the fleshy parts cut off where they had
been. I shudder to think of what I saw in those days.
Well, we gave them a good lesson, drove them back to
their own country, and an awful country it is, all
lakes and mountains, with not so much as a blade of
corn from one end to the other. But now they will be as
bad as ever."
"But you are safe here in Venta, I suppose?"
"Safe! I wish we were. If we had a proper garrison
here, there is no one to command them. You have seen
The Count said nothing, but his silence was
"But there is no garrison. There are not more than
fifty men in the place who have ever carried arms."
 "But surely the people will defend themselves. You, as
an old soldier, know very well that civilians, who
would be quite useless in the field, may do good
service behind walls."
True, sir, if they have two things—a spirit and a
leader; and these people, as far as I can tell, have
"That is a bad look out. But tell me—how soon do you
think the enemy will be here?"
"Not to-night, certainly; perhaps not to-morrow. And
indeed it is just possible that they may not come at
all. You see that they get a great quantity of plunder
in the country without much trouble or danger, and they
may leave the towns alone. Barbarians mostly don't
care to knock their heads against stone walls, and of
course they think us a great deal stronger than we
After making an appointment with his new acquaintance
for a meeting on the following day, the Count rejoined
The next day the Princeps called a meeting of the
principal burgesses of the town, at which the Count, in
consideration of his rank as a Roman official, was
invited to attend. The tone of the meeting was better
than he had expected. There were one or two resolute
men among the local magistrates, and these contrived to
communicate something of their spirit to the rest. A
general levy of the inhabitants
 between the ages of sixteen and sixty was to be made.
The town was divided into districts, and recruiting
officers were appointed for each. By an unanimous vote
of the meeting the Count was requested to take the
chief command. The delay of the invaders gave some time
for carrying out these preparations for defence. A
force was speedily raised, sufficient, as far at least
as numbers were concerned, to garrison the walls. This
was divided into companies, each having two watches,
which were to be on duty alternately. The whole extent
of work was divided among them, and the town was stored
with such missiles as could be collected or
manufactured, while Carna busied herself among the
women, organizing the supply of food and drink for the
guards of the wall, and preparations for the care of
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