Border Ghost Stories
by Howard Pease
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There was a holiday in camp; the rumour of a fighting with cocks had brought in the Britons; some Spaniards had come over from Chesters, sundry Gauls from Vindolana, and there were the Tungrian auxiliaries from Boreovicus itself.

So it was amid a motley throng of spectators that Castus and Rufus stood up to box together with the caestus that afternoon, and a murmur of admiration rose up from the spectators as the two handsome, graceful young men stepped lightly into the grassy arena. Their right arms and fists were bound about with thongs of bull's hide; the balls of lead and iron usually attached thereto in the case of professional pugils were absent, as the encounter was a friendly one, and meant to amuse and instruct the soldiers. So, stripped for the match and smiling upon each other, they took their places in the green arena, and, facing north and south so as to avoid the sun, saluted the Prefect, after the manner of gladiators, and at once began preluding to the attack.

Rufus had been carefully instructed by Castus for some little time past, and was now almost as skilful as his instructor. In strength probably the Roman was the superior, but the Briton was somewhat more alert and active on his feet.

The first round was devoted to a display of their art; the second grew somewhat more intent in purpose, the applause of the spectators stimulating the two boxers to put forth their whole strength.

Castus had seen Penchrysa sitting in the amphitheatre to his right hand, and had at once realised that she was really interested in the fight and was applauding himself, not her cousin.

Inspired by this to renewed effort he deceived his friend by a clever feint, then getting in a fine clean hit with his left on the forehead, followed it up with a right-hander on the jaw. Rufus staggered backward, swayed wildly on his feet, then fell unconscious to the ground.

Applause broke out over the whole amphitheatre, and Castus was proudly conscious that the white hands of Penchrysa were clapping him vigorously, even as he ran forward to raise his friend's head and assist him to his feet as he recovered from his faint.

After this some cock-fighting followed, and many of the spectators left or changed their seats. Castus marked Penchrysa rise and walk away with her brother, and he followed them amid the crowd.

'I am victorious,' he said, as he came up with them, 'but the victory is yours, for had you not applauded I had not won.'

Penchrysa looked upon him with a glowing eye that seemed to Castus to have lost its first hostility, as she said simply she was pleased that he had been victorious.

She said she must go, and bending down her head, added in a low, hurried voice, 'If thou wishest further converse with me meet me as the moon rises by the limestone crags above Chesters to-morrow night.' She laid her finger on her lip, and moved away with her supple grace through the straggling crowd.

Castus, enraptured by the thought that he had captured this proud beauty, could scarce contain himself for joy. He had no difficulty in keeping his assignation, for he had a good pretext in an old promise to advise with the Commander of the Chesters Camp. Thus he rode out joyously next afternoon from Corstopitum, and as dusk drew on and the time for the moon's rising came near, he dismounted below the limestone crags and led his horse slowly up to the highest point of the limestone outcrop where a monolith stood dark and threatening. Tethering his horse to a tree near by he advanced towards it, and the moon—now risen—faintly touched it with light. Two figures moved from it as he came up. The first was Penchrysa, the second an old, grey-bearded man.

'Welcome, O Roman!' said she gravely, then with more emotion, 'thy looks and actions tell me thou lovest me. If so I have a proposal to make to thee; and as I know your tongue but ill this old man, my friend, who has served with your armies, will set it before thee, for I have no skill in the Roman language.'

Castus, carried away by his passion, seized her hand and kissed it, and was about to put his arms about her, but she put up her hand and bade him wait for her proposal from the interpreter's lips.

'Thou art strong, O Roman,' said the old man earnestly, 'brave, and canst command men, for my Princess has watched thee narrowly. She is of royal birth, and royal amongst womankind. None surpasses her. She will give thee herself if thou wilt command our hosts. The Caledonii will avenge Mons Grampius and rise with the British race, fling off the hated yoke of Rome, and make this island free as it was of old. There are ten thousand within call of us now!' He whistled thrice like a golden plover, and on all sides dark forms showed themselves in response to his call. 'The rule of Rome approacheth its doom. This wall proves their weakness. The Emperor is in the western land and can be dispatched with ease. We want a leader, and our Princess chooseth thee. Take her and be Emperor of Britain.'

As he spake thus, Penchrysa leaned forward and whispered in the ear of the astounded Roman, 'Come, and we will rule together!' Her lovely face showing lovelier in the soft moonlight, her breath honey-sweet upon his cheek, the vision of rule together had almost intoxicated him. But then the shame of betrayal rose in him like a flood. Lust dropped from him as a garment. In one second he had drawn his sword and stabbed his temptress to the heart. 'So perish!' he cried aloud, 'all enemies of Rome!'

* * * * *

He bounded to his horse, leapt on its back, and at breakneck speed they hurtled down the fell. He was wounded by darts in shoulder and right arm, and his horse's loins were gashed by a spear, yet the camp at Chesters was but two miles away, and, setting his teeth together, he gave his horse the rein and leaned forward on its neck to take his weight off the loins.

The yells of the pursuers became fainter as he sped onward. Soon he saw the dark outline of the camp on the haugh below, and in a few minutes arrived at the western port.

'Who are ye?' inquired the sentry of the port.

'Castus, Vexillarius of the first squadron, Sixth Legion,' he shouted hoarsely, 'the Britons have risen!'

The stone gate jarred on its hinge; Castus, thrusting through, dismounted and wiped the foam from his gallant steed.

'What a fool I have been!' he murmured. 'Never again will I traffic with a woman. Vale, O Femina—in eternum vale! Henceforth I dedicate my life to Rome—

"Romae matri meae— Orbis Imperatrici."'

And, ratifying his vow by the head of Caesar, he fell to the ground, unconscious through loss of blood.

Printed by T. and A. CONSTABLE, Printers to His Majesty at the Edinburgh University Press

Transcriber's Notes.

Words have been hyphenated consistently within each story, and punctuation has been corrected without notation.

Spaces in common contractions (whether in dialect or not) e.g. "there's" "Aah'll" and "ye'd" have been closed up.

Dialect contractions, e.g. "o't" and "wi't", or "is 't" and "D' ye" are given as generally printed.

Footnotes have been moved to the end of each story.

The following obvious typographical errors in the original have been corrected:

On Page 158, "and swings away at a hand gallop" changed to "and swings away at a hard gallop".

On Page 181 "for Ah'll stan' none" changed to "for Aah'll stan' none" (consistent with spelling in same speech).

On Page 209, "went forward at a good trot an drecked" changed to "went forward at a good trot and recked."

In Footnote 1 to "Muckle-Mouthed Meg" (i.e. Footnote to Page 205) "Provost is really an anacronism" changed to "Provost is really an anachronism."

The questionable spellings of "Chateau-Laffite" and "Vindolana" are as per the original book.


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