"Well—no," said the boy, quickly, and his face began to flush, and grew the deeper in tint as he noticed a supercilious, mocking smile playing upon the visitor's lips. "Serge is a very true, honest fellow, and thought he was doing right."
"Yes, of course," said the other, "but some people in meaning to do right often commit themselves and do great wrong."
"But you knew my father well?" said Marcus, hastily, to change the conversation. "I never heard him mention you."
"No, I suppose not," said the visitor, thoughtfully, but with a mocking smile upon his lip growing more marked as he went on. "I don't suppose he would ever mention me. A very good, true fellow, Cracis, and, as I said, we were once great friends. But a weak and foolish man who got into very great trouble with the Senate and with me. There was great trouble at the time, and I had to defend him."
"You had to defend my father?" said Marcus, turning pale, and with a strange sensation rising in his breast. "What for?"
"Why, there was that charge of cowardice—the retreat he headed from the Gaulish troops," continued the visitor, watching the boy intently all the while. "He was charged with being a coward, and—"
"It was a lie!" cried the boy, fiercely. "You know it was a lie. My father is the bravest, truest man that ever lived, and you who speak so can be no friend of his. Old Serge was right, for he saw at once what kind of man you are. How dare you speak to me like that! Go, sir! Leave this house at once."
"Go, boy?" said the visitor, coldly, and with a look of suppressed anger gathering in his eyes. "And suppose that I refuse to go at the bidding of such a boy as you?"
"Refuse?" cried Marcus, fiercely. "You dare to refuse?"
"Yes, boy, I refuse. And what then?"
"This!" cried the boy, overcome with rage, and, raising his hand, he made a dash as if about to strike, just as a step was heard, and, calmly and thoughtfully, Cracis walked out into the piazza.
THAT GREAT MAN.
For a few moments there was utter silence, Cracis looking as if stunned, and a slight colour beginning to appear in the visitor's pallid cheeks as he stood gazing at Marcus' father, waiting for him to speak, while Cracis after catching his son's wrist and snatching him back, and without taking his eyes from their visitor, found words at last to speak.
"Are you mad, boy?" he exclaimed, hoarsely. "Do you know who this is?"
"No, father," cried the boy, passionately, "only that he is a man who has dared to speak ill of you."
"Ah!" said Cracis, slowly, and with his face softening, as he pressed the boy's arm; and then, in a voice full of dignity and pride: "May I ask why Caius Julius has condescended to visit my humble home?"
"I have come as a friend, Cracis," was the reply.
"To continue your old enmity, and in mine absence revile me to my son?"
"Revile? Nonsense!" cried his visitor. "It was by accident. I came, and found you away, and reviled you?—no! I was but speaking to try your brave and spirited boy. I never for a moment thought that he would fire up as he did with all his father's spirit and readiness to resent a wrong."
"Indeed?" said Cracis, coldly.
"Indeed," replied the visitor. "Only a few minutes ago I was telling your boy how that once we were the greatest of friends. Did I not?" he said quickly, turning to Marcus.
"Yes, father, that is right," cried Marcus. "He praised you very highly at first, and said he was your friend."
"My friend!" said Cracis, bitterly. "My greatest enemy, he meant."
"I was, Cracis, in the past. In my ignorance and pride it was only after we had parted that I learned all that I had lost in my separation from my bravest colleague, my truest and wisest counsellor."
"And now," said Cracis, coldly, "you have found out the truth and have tracked me to my home to accuse me with some base invention to my son."
"Believe me, no!" cried Julius, warmly, and he held out his hand. "Cracis, after much thought and battling with my pride, the pride that has come with the position to which I have climbed, I have mastered self so as to come humbly to my oldest and best friend."
"Why?" said Cracis.
"Because you are the only man I know whose counsel I can respect, and in whom I could fully trust."
"My greatest enemy comes to me to utter words like these, in the presence of my son?"
"Yes, and I am proud that he should hear them, so that he may fully understand that, when I spoke to him lightly as I did, it was but to test him, to try his spirit, to see whether he was fully worthy to bear his great father's name."
Cracis was silent for a few moments, gazing searchingly into his visitor's eyes, which met his frankly and without blenching.
"Is this the truth?" said Cracis, sternly.
"The simple truth. Cracis, we were great friends once, and later the greatest enemies; but in all those troubles of the past did we ever doubt each other's words?"
"Never," said Cracis, proudly. "But there is a reason for all this— something more than a late repentance for the injuries you have done me in the years that have gone. I ask you again—why have you come?"
"For our country's sake. I have climbed high since we parted, but only to stand more and more alone, till now, perhaps at the most critical period of my life, I have been forced to look around me for help, for a man in whom I can place implicit trust, who will give me his counsel in the State, and stand beside me in the perils that lie ahead. Cracis, there is only one man in whom I could trust like that, one only who would bare his sword and fight bravely by my side, and you are he."
Cracis was silent as he shook his head slowly and turned his eyes away from his visitor, to let them rest upon his son's upturned face, as the boy gazed at him in wonder and astonishment at what he heard.
"You do not believe me," cried Julius. "You think that something is underlying all this," and he spoke with deep earnestness, his voice broken and changed.
"Yes," said Cracis; "I cannot do otherwise. I do believe you—every word."
"Then why do you speak so coldly and calmly, when I come to you penitent, to humble myself to you and ask your help?"
"I speak coldly like this," said Cracis, "because I am fighting hard to beat down the feelings of pride and triumph that the time has come when he who drove me from my high position in Rome has sought me out to make so brave and manly an appeal, for, knowing you as I do to the very core, I can feel the battle that you must have had with self before you stooped—you, great general as you are—to come and tell me that you need my help."
"Stooped!" cried the other. "No, Cracis, that is an ill-chosen word. It is that I have mastered self and cast away all pride and weakness so that I might come to you and say: 'For the sake of the old times, help me in this bitter pass, so fraught with peril as it is'; and say, 'I forgive the bygones, and be to me as my brother once again.'"
Cracis was silent, and stood drawing his son closer to him so that he could rest his arm upon the boy's shoulder, while his visitor stood before him with his white robe gathered up so as to leave free his extended arm.
For a few minutes neither spoke, and from the garden there came loud and clear the joyous trilling of the birds.
"You do not take my hand," said Caius Julius, passionately.
"No, not yet," said Cracis; "but do not mistake me. There is no bitterness or pride left in my breast. That died out years ago. I am only thinking."
"Ha!" cried his visitor, with a sigh of relief, "and forgetting the courtesy due to a long-estranged friend."
"Caius Julius, sit down. You are welcome to my simple, humble home. Marcus, my boy, you can believe that all our visitor said was to try his old friend's son to see of what metal he was made. He is a man who, for years past, has found the necessity of testing those he would have to trust, of placing them in the balance to try their worthiness and weight. Boy, we are honoured to-day by the presence of Rome's greatest son, your father's oldest friend, then his greatest enemy, and now, in the fulness of time, his brother once again."
As he spoke he took a step forward with extended hands, which the future conqueror of the world clasped at once in his own, and once more there was silence in the room.
A minute later Cracis drew back and motioned to his son, who, earnest and alert, stepped forward, to find himself clasped to their visitor's breast, before he was released, to draw back wondering whether he liked or hated this man of whose prowess he had heard so much, and stood gazing at him wonderingly, as Julius, the Caesar yet to be, sank back, quivering with emotion, in the nearest seat.
A few minutes later Marcus stood trying to catch his father's eye, for he too had sunk into a chair and sat back gazing away through the open window at the sunlit hills.
At last he turned his eye upon his son and read the question in his speaking face.
"Yes, boy," he said, "you may leave us now. My old friend has much to say, and I too have much to think. Go and see that proper preparations are made for our guest. You will honour us—No," he continued, with a pleasant smile, as he turned to his guest, "we are very simple here, but you will be welcome and stay here to-night."
"Gladly," cried Julius, eagerly. "Believe me, I shall be proud, for I have gained my ends."
"Not yet," said Cracis, gravely. "It means so much, and I must have the night to think. There, Marcus, boy, you know what should be done. Leave us for a while."
The boy hurried away, to seek the servants, and then to make for Serge, but checked himself before he was half way to his old companion's room.
"Not yet," he said. "How do I know that I ought to speak?" And he drew back with a feeling of relief on seeing that the old soldier was right away crossing one of the fields. "It would not have been right without speaking to my father first," thought Marcus. "I wonder what they are saying now?"
THE OLD ARMOUR.
When Marcus went to bed his habit was to drop his head upon his pillow, close his eyes in the darkness, and, as it seemed to him, open them the next minute to find it was broad daylight, and spring out of bed; but, almost for the first time in his life, he, that night, lay tossing about, thinking how hot it was, getting in and out of bed to open the window wider or to close it again, changing from side to side, and trying as hard as he possibly could to go off to sleep; and, even when at last he succeeded, it seemed that he had suddenly plunged into a new state of wakefulness in which he was listening to Caius Julius and then quarrelling with him.
Then his father seemed mixed up with his dream, and all kinds of the wildest imaginings came forming processions through his fevered brain. Armies of barbarians were marching to attack Rome. His father was a great warrior and general once again, fighting to save his country. Then he was the quiet student once more in his white toga, chiding him for his love of arms and armour; and, directly after, Serge seemed to come upon the scene, to catch their strange visitor by the ankle with his crook and threaten to thrash him for breaking down the fir-poles and stealing the grapes.
From dreams peopled in this incongruous way the boy woke up again and again, making up his mind that he would not go to sleep any more to be worried by what he termed such a horrible muddle.
The night, which generally passed so quickly, seemed as if it would never end, and when at last he did start up from perhaps the worst and most exciting dream of all, to find that the sun was just about to rise, he sprang off his bed with a sigh of relief, dressed, and went out into the garden to have what he called a good rest.
His intention was to go round to the back and rouse up Serge, not to make any confidence, but just to have a talk about the coming of the visitor and the surly reception the old soldier had given to his father's friend; but, before he had gone many yards, a gleam of something white amongst the trees caught his attention, and he found himself face to face with his father.
"You out so soon?" he cried, in astonishment.
"Yes, boy; it has been no time for sleep. I have had too much to think about."
"But, father—" began the boy.
Cracis held up his hand.
"Wait," he said. "Our visitor, Marcus, seems to have been as sleepless as I; here he comes." For at the same moment they caught sight of Caius Julius leaving the doorway; and, upon seeing them, he came quickly to join them, with extended hand.
The rest of that morning seemed afterwards one whirl of confusion to Marcus, in which he could recall his father's words to their visitor, and his quiet, grave declaration of how much it meant to him to have to give up his calm and peaceful home and its surroundings to plunge at once into the toil, excitement and care of public life.
Marcus recalled too how, divining how they seemed to wish to be alone, he had left them pacing up and down beneath the shading vines, talking earnestly, while he consoled himself by joining Serge, who was in as great a state of excitement as himself and literally pelted him with questions which he could not answer, making the old soldier turn from him fiercely after telling him that he might speak out if he liked, instead of being so obstinate and refusing to trust him with what he knew.
Serge went off in high dudgeon, while, hardly giving him a thought, Marcus strolled back towards the garden in the hope that his father would take some notice of him and call him to his side.
It was then approaching mid-day, and this time he was not disappointed, for, as soon as the boy appeared, Cracis signed to him to approach.
"Come here, Marcus," he said; and the boy noticed that their visitor smiled at him in a satisfied way.
"I am going away, my boy," he said, "to leave our quiet little home, on very serious business."
"Soon, father?" cried Marcus, excitedly, as his father stopped short.
"Very soon, boy—now—at once. That is, as soon as I can make my preparations."
Marcus drew a deep breath.
"You are going to follow—him?"
"I am going with my old friend Caius Julius."
"And you'll take me with you, father?"
Cracis was silent for a few moments, and he sighed deeply as he laid his hand upon his son's head.
"No, my boy; I must leave you behind. I am going to take part in a great struggle."
"A great struggle, father? You don't mean a war?"
"Yes, my boy, I do mean a war."
"Oh!" exclaimed Marcus, and he turned sharply upon their visitor, looking the question he longed to put, while Caius Julius met his eyes and bowed in silence.
"You are too young," said Cracis, slowly; "and now I want you to help me for the short time I am here making my preparations."
"Yes, father," cried the boy, in a choking voice; "but I should like for you to—"
"Yes," said Cracis, interrupting him and speaking very firmly, "I know what you would say—take you with me—but it cannot be. Now, Marcus, you are only a boy, but I want you to let my old friend see that you can act like a man. Do you understand?"
"Then look here, my boy. I reproved you and Serge rather harshly the other day for what you had done—Serge especially, for treasuring up and keeping in order my old war-like gear; but Marcus, one never knows what Fate has in store for us. I could not foresee, neither, for that matter, could he, what was so soon to come, but he did quite right. Now then," he continued, sharply, "away with you at once, and get out all the arms that I shall want, for I cannot leave here as student, but as a soldier once again. You understand?"
Marcus nodded, quickly. He could not trust himself to speak.
"Go to my room then, at once, to the big, old chest. Stop!" he cried, when Marcus was half way to the door. "Serge knows better than you. Call him and take him with you to help you lay out what I shall require. That will do. At once."
His brain whirling with excitement, his heart sinking with disappointment and despair, Marcus ran into the house, striving to make duty conquer all, his first effort being to drag his thoughts from self and condense them upon the task he had in hand.
"Where shall I find Serge?" he muttered. "He'll be gone off somewhere in the fields. Which way had I better go?"
The question had hardly formed itself in his brain as he was hurrying across the little court where the fountain played, when the big, burly figure of the old soldier stopped his way.
"Want me, boy?" he cried, hoarsely.
"Yes, Serge. Father is going away at once."
"With that Caius Julius?" cried the old soldier. "I know him now. It seemed to come to me like this morning when I woke. What does it mean then? The master a prisoner?"
"No, Serge; he's going with him to the war. But come, quickly!" he added, as the man stood staring at him as if struck speechless with wonderment. "Don't talk—don't ask me questions. Father wants his weapons and his armour at once. Come on. You are to help me get them ready."
The old soldier was standing before him with his herdsman's staff in his hand as if ready to go off round the farm, and, drawing himself up, he grasped the stout crook in both his hands, bent down, placed one knee against it, and, with one effort of his great strength, snapped it across his knee as if it were a twig and threw the pieces from him with a gesture of contempt.
"Hah!" he cried, with a deep expiration of his breath. "At last, boy! The master is going to be himself again. There, don't talk to me! I know! I have lain awake, boy, cursing that Caius Julius for coming here to disturb the master's quiet life. He was his enemy always, and I could see nothing in it but ill—blind fool that I was! I can bless him now. Come on, boy! I know! Who was right now in keeping the swords sharp and the armour bright?"
The next minute the great chest had been dragged out into the middle of Cracis' room and the old soldier was down upon his knees joyously unpacking the war-like equipments that he had so sadly stowed away so short a time before.
They were all mingled together so as to make them fit and the great chest contain them all, and as, taking the lead, Serge worked on, it was with a rapid touch that he sorted the three suits, giving each its place, his own armour and weapons, the more handsomely furnished appertaining to his master, and those of the boy, which had been fitted in.
The two former portions he laid to right and left, and, as he drew them forth, he sent pang after pang through the breast of Marcus, for it seemed to him that Serge laid his father's offensive and defensive pieces of accoutrement together with almost reverent care, banging his own together heavily, while, as he dislodged those portions that had been prepared and fitted with such pride to suit the youth who wore them, they were pitched carelessly upon the bed to clash and jingle as if in protest at being looked upon now, when reality ruled the occasion, as toys and of no account.
"Ah!" cried the old soldier, as, when he had nearly finished, he drew out from the bottom of the chest the smallest of the shields and pitched it so that it fell upon Cracis' pillow, suggesting to Marcus that the man meant that it should lie there in his master's absence and sleep; but Serge saw nothing of Marcus' agitated countenance, for he was gazing into the future.
"Here we are," he cried, as he lifted out his own and Cracis' shields together, to stand them up on edge so that he could separate them, for the loops and handles were tightly wedged together so that they seemed loth to come apart. "How soon will he be coming here for me to gird him up?"
"Directly, he said, Serge," replied the boy.
"Then you look sharp, my lad, and put those things of yours back into the chest out of the way. I shall be wanting him to sit there while I fasten some of his buckles and straps. To think of its coming to this again!" he cried, joyously. "Why, how many years is it since I did it last? Why, you were a little toddling boy, and here you are getting on to be a man—man enough, Marcus, to help me and buckle on and hitch together some of the slides and studs when I dress myself."
Marcus nodded, with a look of despair and envy in his eyes, while the old soldier bent down, caught up his old legionary helmet from the floor, gave it a slap with one hand, and then placed it upon his head, to draw himself up proudly before the boy, and give his foot a stamp, as he struck an attitude and cried:
"Burn my old straw hat, Marcus, when I am gone. This fits me again like a shell does one of the old white snails, and makes me feel like a soldier and a man again, instead of a herdsman and a serf."
He had hardly finished speaking when the door was thrown open, and as if imbued by his old follower's feelings, Cracis, no longer in his movements the calm, grave student, but the general and leader of men once more, strode quickly into the room and stopped short as the old soldier drew himself up motionless in his helmet, stiffly awaiting his officer's next command.
It seemed to Marcus, too, no longer his calm, grave father who, the next moment, spoke as he raised one hand and pointed at the helmet his man had donned.
"What is the meaning of this, Serge?" he said, sternly.
"Only the thought of old times, general," cried Serge, sharply, and to Marcus the man's manner struck him as being completely changed, for he spoke shortly and bluntly, standing up as stiff and erect as before, and then in his misery and disappointment there was something very near akin to malicious triumph as his father said, sternly:
"Tut, man! Take that off! Did you think you were going too?"
Serge's jaw dropped.
"Not going too, master?" cried Serge, as soon as he could recover himself from a verbal blow which had, for the moment, seemed to crush him down; and, as Marcus heard the hopeless despair in the poor fellow's tones, the feeling of malicious triumph in his breast died away.
"No," said Cracis, firmly; "your duty lies here."
"Lies here, master?" stammered Serge.
"Yes, man, here. Whom am I to leave in charge of my home? Who is to protect my son if I take you with me?"
"Home—Son?" faltered Serge. "But you, master—who is to protect you if your old follower is left behind?"
"I must protect myself, Serge," said Cracis, and his voice lost for the moment the hard, firm sternness of the soldier. "Your duty is here, Serge, and I look to you to carry it out. I leave you a greater charge than that of following and trying to shield me."
"No, no, master, no!" cried the old soldier, passionately. "I was with you always. I followed you through the wars, and I've stood by you like a man in peace. Once my master always my master while you could trust me, and it must be so still."
"No, Serge," cried Cracis, sternly. "I have told you your duty and now give you your orders. Protect my property; watch over my son till my return, if I ever do return," he added, sadly; "and if I fall, your place is still here to stand by my son and follow him as you have followed me."
"But you will not let me follow you, master!" cried Serge, passionately. "Oh, master, master! Young Marcus isn't a suckling; he's big and strong enough to fend himself. I've been waiting all these years for you to take your place as a soldier and a general once again! Don't— pray don't leave me behind!"
"Serge," said Cracis, sternly, "you have led these years of peace, but recollect that you are a soldier still. Man, your officer has given you your orders—Obey!"
As Marcus gazed at their old follower he seemed to have suddenly grown old. His face was wrinkled, and the skin appeared to hang, while a piteous look of despair filled his eyes as, throwing out his hands towards one who seemed to him to be delivering his death sentence, he fell heavily upon his knees and poured forth:
"There, there, master, here's your sword, keener and brighter than ever. Draw it and put me out of my misery at once. I won't say a word, only give you a last look like that of a faithful hound who has died in your service. Kill me at once, and let that be the end, but now that you are coming to your rights again after all these weary years of waiting, and are going to fight for brave old Rome, don't throw me over as if I was a helpless log. Think what it means to an old soldier who never turned his back upon an enemy in his life. Use your sword on me, master, if you feel that I'm not the man to draw my own again; but don't—pray don't leave me behind!"
Marcus felt ready to join his petition to that of the old soldier, but he could not speak, only stand and listen to his father's words, as he stepped forward to lay his hand upon the man's shoulder.
"Serge," he said, in a voice full of emotion—"brave old follower—true old friend, I could sternly order you to obey my commands, but I can only beg of you as you do of me. Rise up, man, and hear me. I would gladly take you with me and have you always at my back, but we cannot do everything we would. In my absence, Serge, your place is here to protect my boy. It is your duty, and perhaps the last command I shall ever give you, for the Gauls are stout warriors and it is no child's play that takes me from my home. I beg, then, as well as order. Stay and protect my son."
"But you don't know, master, how you may be surrounded by enemies ready to strike at you."
"No," said Cracis, firmly, and there was a ring of command in his tones. "Neither do I know how closely my boy may be hemmed in, and I want to leave here with the peaceful feeling that, whatever happens, my son has one beside him that I can always trust. Your duty, Serge, is here, and I leave Marcus in your charge. Now, no more save this: Rise up like my trusted servant. Duty calls me away, not only as a counsellor, but also as one of my country's generals. Now help me with my armour, for I go forth to fight. There have been words enough. Take the example of my son. He feels the bitterness of being left behind as much as you. Now, quick! We have lost too much time already. Caius Julius awaits my coming, and my heart is burning to be free from all this suffering and mental pain. Marcus, my boy, help him. It is the first time I ever asked you to arm me as a soldier. Quick, boy, and let us get it done."
Marcus sprang to his father's side, while, heavy and slow, Serge, as he rose, tottered here and there as he busied himself over a task that had not fallen to him for many long years, while a faint groan of misery escaped his lips from time to time before the last metal loop had been forced over its stud and then drawn into its place, the last buckle drawn tight, and the armed cheek-straps of the great Robin helmet passed beneath the general's chin.
These final preparations made, Cracis stood, grave and thoughtful, asking himself whether there was anything more he wished to do, anything in the way of orders to give his servant and his son before he left his home.
"Leave me now, Marcus," he said. "I wish to be alone for a while. Well," he continued, as the boy stood frowning and looking at him wistfully, "why do you stay? You want to ask me something before I go?"
These words stirred the boy into action, and he started to his father's side; but, though his lips parted, no words came.
"The time is gliding away, Marcus, my boy," said Cracis, sadly. "Come, speak out. You want to ask some favour before I go?"
"Yes, father, but after what you have said I hardly dare," cried the boy, hoarsely.
"Speak out, my son, boldly and bravely," said Cracis. "What is it you wish to say?"
"That there is yet time, father, before you go."
"Time for what?" said Cracis, frowning as if he grasped what his son was about to say.
"Time for you to withdraw your command," cried the boy, desperately. "Father, I can't help it; I could not stay behind here with you leaving home for the wars. You must take me with you after all."
Cracis frowned heavily.
"Is this my son speaking?" he said, harshly. "After the commands I have given you—after the way in which I have arranged for you to represent me here, and take my place in all things? Where are all my teachings about duty—have all flown to the winds?"
"No, no, father," cried the boy, passionately; "but you cannot tell how I feel. You do not know what it is to be left alone, and for me to see you go."
"You are wrong, my boy; I do know," cried Cracis; "and I may answer you and say, neither do you know what it is for me to give up my happy home and all belonging to me, to go hence never to return."
"Oh, I do, I do, father! I can feel that it must be terrible," cried the boy, excitedly; "but there is no need for you to go alone. I know how young I am, but I could be of great help to you. I am sure I could. So pray, pray don't leave me behind."
"Is that all you have to say, Marcus?" said Cracis, sternly.
"Ye-e-es, father," faltered the boy, in a despairing tone, for he could read plainly enough in his father's eyes that his appeal had been in vain.
"Then leave me now, boy, and do not make my task harder by speaking like this again. I have my duty to do towards my country and my home. My duty to my country is to follow Caius Julius in the great venture he is about to attempt; my duty to my home and son is to leave you here and not expose you, at your age, to the horrors of this war."
"But father!" cried the boy, wildly.
"Silence, boy!" said Cracis, firmly. "Obey me. I will hear no more. Go!"
Marcus' lips parted to make one more appeal, but, as his eyes met his father's where Cracis stood pointing towards the door, his own fell again, and feeling mastered, crushed in his despair, he moved slowly towards the door, his heart seeming to rise to his throat to strangle him in the intense emotion from which he suffered; but, as soon as he was outside, his elastic young spirit seemed to spring up again, and he hurried to his room, to stand there thinking, with the resolve to make one more strong effort to move his father's determination.
"He does not—he cannot know what I feel," he said to himself with energy. "I did not half try. I should have thrown myself at his feet and prayed to him. No, no," said the boy, mournfully, as he felt more and more the hopelessness of his cause. "It would have been no good. Father is like iron in his will; he is so strong, I am so weak—He a great man—I only a poor, feeble boy to be left behind to mind the house, as if I were a girl! Oh, it's of no use; I must stay—I must stay!" he half groaned, in his despair. "When perhaps I might help him so, I and Serge, when he was in the fight, or—oh, if he were wounded! Suppose he were cut down and bleeding, perhaps dying, and I not there to help him! Oh, it's of no use to despair; I must—I will go. I know! I'll appeal to Caius Julius; he will hear me, I feel sure."
Full of enthusiasm once more, he hurried out of his room to seek for the visitor, who had wrought such a change in their quiet home; but, as he caught sight of him pacing slowly up and down the little inner court close to the fountain, the boy's heart failed him again, for he recalled the angry passage that had taken place between them the previous day— their visitor's half-mocking words, and his own burst of passion, which had roused him into forgetting the sacred rites of hospitality and raising his hand to strike.
"I can't ask him; I dare not beg him to intercede," thought Marcus. "He would only jeer at me for being a boy, and put me out of temper again. But I must," he said. "It is for father's sake. Yes, I will. Why should I mind? Let him laugh at me if he likes."
Raising his courage he was on his way to their visitor's side when Caius Julius turned and caught sight of the approaching boy.
"Ah, Marcus," he said; "is your father nearly ready to go?"
"Yes," cried the boy, "but—"
He stopped short, for the words refused to come.
"Well, what were you about to say?" said Julius, frowning.
"Your father is not going to repent?"
"Repent? About me?" cried the boy, excitedly.
"About you, boy? Why should he repent about you?"
"And let me go with him," cried Marcus, excitedly, as, forgetting all his dislike, he caught his father's visitor by the robe and spoke eagerly and well. "I want to go with him to the war."
"You? To fight?"
"Yes; I know I am young and weak—Yes, I know, only a boy, but I shall grow strong, and it is not only to fight. I want to be there to help him. He might be sick or wounded. He says I must stay at home here, but I appeal to you. You can tell him how useful I could be. You will tell him, sir, for I feel that I ought not—that I cannot stay here and let him go alone."
"Well spoken, my brave boy!" cried Caius Julius. "Spoken like a man! So you, young as you are, would go with us?"
"Yes, yes, of course," cried Marcus, in his wild excitement, as he listened to this encouraging reception of his appeal. "I think I could fight; but even if I could not there is so much that I could do."
"And you would not feel afraid?" cried Julius, catching the boy by the arm.
"No—yes—no—I do not know," said the boy, colouring. "I hope not."
"You do not know the horrors of a battlefield, boy," said Julius, fixing Marcus with his keen eyes.
"No," said Marcus, thoughtfully; "it must be very terrible, but I do not think I should shrink. I should be thinking so much of my father."
"Well, honestly and modestly spoken, boy," said Julius. "Why, you make me feel full of confidence in your becoming as brave and great a man as your father."
"Oh no, sir," replied Marcus, sadly. "No one could be so great and brave a man as he."
"But you would follow us into the middle of the battle's horrors?"
"Yes, sir, I would indeed; indeed I would," cried Marcus, eagerly.
"I believe you, my boy, and all the more for your simple honesty of speech."
"And you will prevail upon my father to let me go?" cried Marcus, appealingly.
"I do not know," said Julius, thoughtfully. "You say that you have begged hard and your father says that you must stay?"
"Yes," cried Marcus, "but you have the power, sir, and you will speak to him and tell him that he must take me?" cried Marcus.
Julius shook his head.
"Let me see," he said; "you told me that you would try to be brave."
Marcus felt that his hopes were vain, but he spoke out desperately:
"Yes, I would indeed try to be as brave and firm as I could."
"I know you would, boy, but remember this: it is very brave to be obedient to those who are in authority over you," said Julius. "A good son obeys his father, and Cracis has given you his commands to stay here, has he not?"
"Yes," cried Marcus, desperately; "but I was sure that I could be of the greatest help."
"I believe that you would try to be," said Julius, gravely; "but, my boy, I cannot fight for you in this and oppose your father's commands. Be brave and do your duty here. Put up with the disappointment and wait. Time flies fast, boy, and you will be a man sooner than you expect—too soon perhaps for the golden days of youth. No, my boy, I cannot interfere. You must obey your father's commands."
"Oh," cried Marcus, passionately, "and suppose he is stricken down, to lie helpless on the field?"
Julius shrugged his shoulders, and at that moment the voice of Cracis was heard summoning the boy, who turned away hanging his head in his despair. Marcus turned to meet his father, who looked at him wondering to see him there, and bringing the colour to the boy's cheeks, so guilty did he feel, as, with his cloak over his arm, Cracis drew his son to him to press him to his mailed breast, held out his hand to Serge, and then strode forward with heavy tread to join his old military companion, who was now slowly bending over the side of the fountain, into whose clear surface he kept on lowering the white tips of his fingers so that one or the other of the little fish that glided about within the depths might dart at them and apply its lips in the belief that something was offered to it fit for food.
Caius Julius rose up slowly as he heard the heavy tramp of his friend's armoured feet upon the paved floor, and took in his appearance with a smile of satisfaction.
"You are ready, then?" he said.
"Yes," was the laconic reply.
"Then nothing remains but for you to take your farewell of my brave young friend, your defender when I ventured to try his faith."
"That is done," said Cracis, gravely; "and as Rome awaits my coming, lead the way."
"But I have not said my valediction to your son, Cracis, and it is this: Wait, Marcus, my brave boy. Some day perhaps I may come to you as I have come to your father to ask your help. Better still, send him, full of the honours he has won, to bring his son to Rome. Till then, farewell."
Marcus felt the touch of their visitor's hands and heard his words, but he could not speak, only stand side by side with Serge, who looked older and more bent than when he first learned the truth that he was to stay behind; but the boy had no thought at the moment but of the father who was going away to face peril as well as to strike for glory and his country's welfare.
He could only follow the pair of Rome's great men as, side by side, they passed out of the open court where the fountain played and the water that sparkled like diamonds in the bright sunshine fell back into the basin with a musical splashing sound.
A minute later and Cracis with his companion passed out through the porched entry into the tree-shaded road, the grave, white-robed leader and the well-armed general with his shield, which flashed and turned off a shower of keen darts which came from on high, as he turned once to wave his hand to his son.
At that moment there was a low, deep bay, and the great wolf-dog, which had caught sight of his master, bounded from the shadow where he had crouched to avoid the flies, and, seeing the two strangers, as they seemed to him, he leaped forward, but crouched at his master's feet as he recognised his face and voice.
"Good dog!" cried Cracis. "No, go back and guard all here till I return."
If the dog did not grasp the words, he did the tone and gesture, replying by throwing up his muzzle and giving vent to a piteous howl full of protest, as he turned and walked slowly back to join Marcus and Serge, dropping at the former's feet just as the departing pair disappeared at a turn of the road.
Then there was a pause for a time, before the dog slunk off to his kennel; Serge hung his head and moved away in silence towards the back of the villa and the room that Marcus playfully called his den, while the boy, feeling that all was over and hope dead and buried in his breast, went slowly and sadly to his seat in the study, where his stylus and waxen tablets lay, to slowly scratch upon the smooth surface the words:
"Gone. Left behind."
GOOD-BYE, OLD HOME.
There was a strange solemnity about the Roman villa as soon as Marcus was left alone. All seemed to have grown painfully still. It was fancy, no doubt, but, to the boy, the birds had ceased to sing and chirp among the trees, the sounds from the farm were distant, and though more than once Marcus listened intently he did not hear Serge go to or from his room, nor his step anywhere about the road.
"Poor old Serge," thought Marcus; "he is as miserable as I am—no, not quite, because he does not feel so guilty nor ready to disobey. He heard what my father said, bowed his head, and went away."
And how slowly the time glided away. The hottest part of the afternoon came, when, as a rule, the boy felt drowsy and ready to have a restful sleep till the sun began to get low; but this day Marcus felt so alert and excited that he never once thought of sleep, though he more than once longed to see the sun go down so that it might be darkness such as would agree with the misery and despair which kept him shut in his room hating the very sight of day.
Marcus took up his stylus to write a dozen times over, but he did not add a word to those which he had written as soon as he was alone, and he threw the pointed implement down each time with a feeling of disgust.
"I feel as if I shall never write again," he said, bitterly. "Oh, it is too hard to bear!"
He buried his face in his hands, resting his elbows upon his knees, feeling at times almost stunned by his misery, quite ignorant of the lapse of time, and so wretched that he did not even wonder how far his father and the great Roman general had got by this time upon their journey to Rome.
"Is it never going to be night?" groaned the boy at last, and then he started violently, for something cold and moist touched one of his hands.
"You, Lupe?" he said, with a sigh, as he realised his disturber, and he looked gently at the great dog, whose eyes were fixed enquiringly and wistfully on his. "He's gone, old boy—gone—gone—gone—and, yes, the place does seem lonely and sad."
The dog whined softly, and then looked sharply in his face again, before turning to the door, forcing it open and passing through.
"Who'd ever have thought a dog would feel it so?" thought Marcus. "But he does. He missed him directly, and he has gone to hunt for him.
"What, can't you find him, Lupe?" cried Marcus, as there came a scratching at the door, which was forced open, and the dog came in again, to utter a piteous whimper which increased into a howl.
"Poor old Lupe!" sighed Marcus. "Can't you find him, boy? No, and you never will. I dare say he will never come back here again. Good old dog!" he continued, taking hold of his ears and drawing the head into his lap, to keep on caressing him and talking to him the while. "What mistakes one makes! I used to think you such a surly, savage old fellow, and here you are as miserable as I am, Lupe. Oh, he might have let me go!"
The dog whined softly as it gazed wistfully in his eyes, and whined again.
"Where's old Serge, Lupe? You haven't seen him since father went."
The dog growled.
"Oh, don't be cross with him, Lupe. I dare say he's as disappointed as I am; but he will have to stay," continued the boy, bitterly, as he uttered a mocking laugh, "and take care of the house and the servants and all the things about the farm; and you will have to stay and help him too. Just as if all these things were of any consequence at all. There, get away; I can't make a fuss over you now. I feel half wild and savage. I can't bear it, Lupe. It's too much—too much."
He thrust the dog's head roughly away, and Lupe stood up before him and shook himself violently so that his ears rattled. Then, trotting towards the door, he was stopped short, for the latch was in its place and he tried to drag it open with his claws, but tried for some moments in vain. Then showing plenty of intelligence, he trotted back to the middle of the room, looked up anxiously in his young master's face, and barked angrily.
"Oh, look here," cried Marcus, "I can't bear this. Be off!"
The dog trotted back to the door and scratched at it with his head turned towards the boy the while; but Marcus was too full of his own troubles to grasp the great animal's meaning, and, finding that he was not understood, Lupe trotted to Marcus' side, lifted one leg, and pawed at him.
"Get away, I tell you!" cried the boy, and the dog barked a little, and stood barking in the middle of the room for a few moments, before turning and making for the window, where he crouched a little, and then, with one effort, sprang right out into the garden, while Marcus subsided into his old attitude with his face buried in his hands.
No one disturbed him, and at last the night began to fall, the shadows in the room darkened and grew darker still, till at last the boy seemed to wake out of a deep sleep, though he had never closed his eyes.
Springing up, he went to the window, looked out at the dark and silent garden, and then uttering a low, deep sigh he crossed to the door, passed through, and made for his father's study, to find there that all was darker still. But he knew what he wanted, and with outstretched hands made for his father's bed, when they came in contact at once with what he wanted.
Then there arose from the place where his father rested night after night a short, sharp, clinking noise as of metal against metal, while the boy quickly and carefully gathered together the various portions of his armour and accoutrements which had been placed there by old Serge when he unpacked and sorted out the portions of the three suits.
It did not take long to clear the bed, and then, hugging everything tightly to him, Marcus crept softly out through the darkness, listening carefully the while before every movement, his acts suggesting that he was playing the part of a robber; and he thought so and laughed to himself, as he said softly, as if answering his conscience, "Yes, but I am only stealing my own," and then made his way to his own sleeping chamber, a narrow little closet of a place which opened upon the court, where the musical tinkling of the water as it fell back into the basin could be plainly heard.
In the darkness everything was wonderfully still, save that the music of the water sometimes sounded loud, and when the boy rather roughly freed himself from his burden that he carried by casting the armour and weapons upon his own bed, he was half startled by the resulting crash, and turned back quickly into the court to stand and listen.
As he did this the low murmur of voices came to his ear, making him step cautiously across the little square court and go round to the spot from which the sounds came.
There he stood listening for a few moments, to satisfy himself that it was only his father's servants talking together, their subject being their master's going away.
"Oh," he said, impatiently, "they don't think about me, any more than old Serge does. But he might have given me a thought and come and said a word or two to show that he was sorry for my disappointment.
"But no; he wouldn't," continued the boy, with a sigh. "I suppose people in trouble are always selfish, and he thinks his trouble a bigger one than mine. Never mind. I won't be selfish. I'll go and speak to him, just a few kind words to let him see that I am sorry for him, and then—Oh, it's very miserable work, and what a difference father could have made if he would have listened to me—and that Julius too.
"Caius Julius! Yes, of course, I have heard about him, but it never troubled me—in fact I hardly knew there was such a man in the world— the greatest man in Rome, a mighty soldier and conqueror, old Serge said more than once; but I never took any notice, for it seemed nothing to do with me. Oh, who could have thought that in a few short hours there could be such a change as this!"
The boy turned off, crossed the court again, and made his way to Serge's den, where all was still and dark as the part of the building he had just quitted.
"You here, Serge?" he cried, cheerily, thrusting open the door. "Where are you? What have you been doing all this time?"
Marcus' words sounded hollow and strange, coming back to him, as it were, and startling him for the moment.
"Are you asleep?" he shouted, loudly, as if to encourage himself, for an uncomfortable feeling thrilled him through and through.
"Oh, what nonsense!" he muttered. "Not likely that he would be asleep; he'd have heard me directly and sprung up. Where can he be?"
The boy thought for a few moments, and then hurried out towards the farm buildings and sheds, but stopped short as another thought struck him, and he made at once for the dark building with its stone cistern where the grapes were trodden.
The door was ajar, and he stepped in at once.
"You here, Serge?" he cried; and this time there was an answer, but it was made by the dog, which approached him fawningly and uttered a low, whining, discontented howl.
"Oh, get out! I don't want you," cried Marcus, angrily; and he turned to leave the place, but his conscience smote him and he stooped down and began patting the great beast's head.
"Yes, I do," he said, gently. "Poor old Lupe! I mustn't be surly to my friends. Good old dog, then! But where's Serge? Do you know where he is, boy?"
The dog growled, and pressed up against Marcus' leg.
"No, you don't know, old fellow. If you did you'd be with him. There, go and lie down. I daresay he's gone into the woods to sulk and walk it off."
The dog whined softly, and then, in obedience to his master's commands, let himself subside upon the stones, while Marcus strolled off, stopped once or twice to think and listen, and then said, half aloud:
"There, it's of no use, and perhaps it's all for the best, for I'm so weak and stupid, and I daresay I shouldn't have been able to talk to him and say what I meant without breaking down."
He drew himself up firmly, then stood breathing hard for a few moments, as he turned and gazed through the darkness in different directions, and then made straight for his little cubicle, entered at once, and, breathing hard the while as if he had been running far, he cast off his loose every-day garment and began rapidly to put on the armour in which he had had such pride.
Practice with old Serge had made him perfect, and, in spite of the darkness, his fingers obeyed him well, so that it was not long before he stood girded and buckled up, fully accoutred, with nothing more to be done than to crown his preparations by placing his heavy helmet upon his head.
Before he began, his spirits were down to the lowest ebb, but exertion and excitement, joined with something in the touch of the war-like garb and the thoughts this last engendered, so that as he went on he gradually grew brighter, adventurous thoughts encouraged him; and, at last, taking the helmet in both hands, he placed it upon his head, drew the armed strap beneath his chin, and readjusted the hang of his short broadsword, before standing in the darkness absolutely motionless.
"Why, it makes me feel ten years older," he said, "even if I am but a boy! And here was I, before I began, shrinking and feeling that I should repent and be afraid to go. And now I am like this!"
He lifted his shield from where it lay upon the bed, took the short spear which he had leaned in a corner of the wall, and then, stiffened by his armour and far more by the spirit that seemed to thrill through every nerve and tendon, he stepped out into the court, to bend down and place his lips to the clear water in the fountain basin, drink deeply, and then stand up in the darkness to look round.
"Good-bye, old home!" he said, aloud, and his voice broke a little; but it hardened again the next moment, as he said, quickly:
"No, it isn't home now that he has gone away. I am coming, father, and you must forgive me when we meet, for I cannot—I dare not stay."
There was the quick, sharp tramp of the boy's feet as he crossed the stone-paved court, with the arms he wore, and those he carried, making a slight crackling and clinking noise, while his bronze protected feet made his steps sound heavier than of old.
The next minute he was fighting against the desire to turn and look back, and, conquering, for he felt that it would be weak, he strode off with quickened pace away along the track that had been taken by his father and Caius Julius hours before.
It was all one blur of mystery to Marcus as he tramped through the forest, following the slightly beaten road. Time seemed to be no more, and distance not to count. Everything was dreamy and strange, over-ruled by the one great thought that he was going to reach his father somewhere, somehow, in the future, when he would reprove him bitterly and forgive him, but he would never turn him back; and, governed by these thoughts, he went on, almost unconscious of everything else.
The way was sometimes desolate, sometimes grand, with mountain and forest, over which and through which the roughly beaten track always led, for it was not one of the carefully constructed military roads that his great people afterwards formed through the length and breadth of their land.
The rocks amongst the mountains afforded resting places; beneath the grand trees of the forest there was mossy carpet, upon which he slept; there were trickling rills and natural basins where crystal water gave him drink, or places where he could bathe his hot and tired feet, while now and again he came upon the rude hut of some goat-herd or Pagan who, for a small coin, gladly supplied him with coarse black bread and a bowl of freshly-drawn goat's milk.
And this went on, as he could recall when he thought, day after day, night after night, if he tried to think; but that was rarely, for he had no time. The one great thought of finding his father mastered all else, as, still in what continued a strange, blurred, adventurous dream, he went on and on, seeming to grow more vigorous and stronger every hour, feeling too, at heart, that he was on the right way, with Rome in the distance, the goal for which he was bound; and once there—ah!
All was blank and confused again, but it was a confusion full of excitement, where flashes of greatness played up on the great city of which he had heard so much, and his father and the army were there.
There was nothing to hinder his progress, for the weather was glorious, and, each morning when he awakened from his sleep, it was with his heart throbbing with joy and desire as he sprang up refreshed and eager with nothing to stay his way, till, on the morning of the third—the fourth— the fifth—he could not tell what day—all he knew was that it was during his journey—he came suddenly in a dense part of a forest, upon a big, armed figure marching before him far down the track, evidently going the same way as he, turning neither to the right nor left, but striding steadily on, and Marcus suffered a new emotion near akin to fear and dread, not of this armed man, but of what he might do. For the boy reasoned that, if he overtook this man, he might question him, find out who he was, and turn him back.
Marcus stopped short, after stepping aside to shelter himself partly behind a tree-trunk, to watch the soldier, whose helmet glistened in the sun-rays which played through the leaves, while the head of his spear flashed at times as if it were a blade of fire.
It was not fear alone that troubled the boy, for the sight of this warrior, who was evidently on the march to join the army, sent a thrill through his breast, and the war-like ardour of old fostered by old Serge, came back stronger than ever, as he said to himself that there was nothing to mind, for they were both, this big, grand-looking warrior and he, upon the same mission.
"He'll make me welcome," thought Marcus, "and we can march on together and talk about the wars, the same as Serge and I used to before father found us out.
"I wonder whether this man knew my father? He'll be sure to know Caius Julius, and I can talk about him and his coming to my home."
But Marcus did not hurry on, for the dread came, and with it the horror of being ignominiously forced to retrace his steps, while the Roman warrior seemed to increase and grow large, till he disappeared among the trees, came into sight again farther on, and, after a time, as Marcus still hesitated, he finally passed out of sight, making the boy breathe more freely.
"What a coward I am!" he cried, aloud. "It's because I'm doing wrong in leaving home as I did after receiving my father's commands. But I couldn't help it. Something forced me to come away, and it was only because I felt that I ought to be at father's side.
"Perhaps it wasn't cowardice," he muttered, after a pause. "It may have been prudence—the desire to make sure of reaching the army without being turned back. And I'm such a boy that this great warrior would have laughed at me and perhaps have looked at me mockingly as he felt my arms. I've done quite right, and I'll keep to myself and join nobody till I get to the army, where I shall be safe."
After a time Marcus started off again, keeping a sharp look-out along the road as he proceeded, till, some time later, he saw afar off a flash of light, then another, which proved that the first had come from the marching warrior's helmet, and once more Marcus slackened his pace.
He saw no more of the man that day, but, as the evening was closing in, upon the slope of a wooded mountain the boy caught sight of a goat-herd's hut, where he obtained bread and milk, and the peasant who lived there asked him if he was a companion of the big warrior who had been there a short time before.
Marcus shook his head, and soon after continued his journey, keeping a stricter watch than ever, but seeing no more of the man. But he turned aside into the forest as soon as he found a suitable place offering shelter and a soft, dry couch, and was soon after plunged in a restful sleep which lasted till the grey dawn, when he suddenly started into wakefulness, disturbed, as he was, by the rattling of armour.
Marcus shrank back among the undergrowth which had been his shelter, waking fully to the fact that he had lain down to sleep not above a dozen yards from where the man had made his couch, while, in all probability, had he continued his journey for those few paces the night before, he would have stumbled upon him he sought to avoid.
There was nothing for it but to wait for a while so as to give his fellow-traveller time to get some distance ahead, and, when he thought that he might start, Marcus went on again slowly, with the result that, during that day, he caught sight of the man twice over steadily plodding on, but never once looking back or hesitating as to his path.
When night closed in again, the country had become far more hilly, and, as Marcus was descending a steep slope at the bottom of which a stream gurgled and rippled along, the boy awoke to the fact that the man had been resting and bathing in the bottom of the tiny valley, and was now ascending the opposite slope, where, in full sight of his fellow-traveller, he stopped beneath a tree, divested himself of a portion of his armour, and then lay down to rest.
To have gone on and passed him would have been the most sensible thing to do, but to do this the boy would have had to creep along a rugged path close beside the sleeper's halting place, at the great risk of dislodging stones and awakening him if he were asleep, while, if he were yet awake, to pass without being seen was impossible.
It was not the spot where Marcus would have chosen his resting place, but there was no option, and, carefully keeping among the trees, he dropped down at the most suitable place, and then lay for some time vainly trying to sleep, till at last he lost consciousness, resting and preparing for his next day's journey, waking at sunrise in the hope that if he could not lose sight of his unwelcome fellow-traveller, the next night would find him so near to Rome that another day's march would, at least, bring him so close that there would be no more such anxious travel.
But matters turn out in daily life very often in a different way from what is expected, and so it was here. Marcus waited and watched till he saw the warrior rise bare-headed, but not to go on at once after donning his helmet, but to come back in his direction.
"He must have seen me," thought the boy excitedly, and he began to creep carefully away through the low bushes; but, at the end of a minute, upon glancing back, he found that the man was not following him, but had made his way down to the little stream to drink and wash.
Relieved by this, Marcus reseated himself to watch unseen every action of the soldier, who had left his helmet, shield and weapons at the foot of the tree where he had slept; and, after bathing his face and hands, he was on his way back, when, to Marcus' horror, he caught sight of a glint of something bright, and, directly after, made out first one and then another rough-looking, armed man, till he saw there were no less than six creeping towards the spot where the Roman soldier had left his weapons.
Marcus thought no more of himself at this, but was about to issue from his hiding place when he grasped the fact that the soldier had realised his danger, and, springing forward with a shout, he made a dash to reach his resting place first.
The strange men were evidently shaken by his bold action, but only for a few moments, and turned to meet the soldier, knife in hand; but their hesitation gave the warrior time to reach shield and sword, when, without waiting to be attacked, the men advanced upon him at once.
Such an encounter as this was quite new to Marcus, and he stood there hidden from all concerned for quite a minute, with his heart beating rapidly, trembling with excitement, and taking the position of a spectator, gazing with starting eyes at the party of strangers as if the fight were no concern of his.
Strangers? Yes, they were all strangers—enemies perhaps; and then, like a flash, it struck him that these rough-looking, knife-armed men were robbers intent upon spoiling the warrior and perhaps taking his life.
This flash of intelligence opened the way for another, making him see the cowardice of six attacking one while that one was brave as brave could be.
For a few moments, as he watched the encounter in the bright morning light, Marcus was full of admiration for the brave and clever way in which, hemmed in though he was, the big warrior interposed his shield and turned off blow after blow. But all the same it was very evident that numbers would gain the day and some desperate thrust lay the poor fellow low.
Marcus' thoughts passed very quickly in his excitement, and now another came like a question: You are in armour, with a good shield, a sharp sword and spear. You have taken upon yourself the part of a Roman soldier, and you stand there doing nothing but look on.
That thought seemed to smite Marcus right in the face, and the next moment he was running hard, spear in hand, down the steep hill slope, to leap the rivulet and, with lowered spear, charge up the other side towards the contending party, a loud shout ringing out upon the morning air.
So fully were the attacking party taken up by their work of escaping the single swordsman's blows and trying to get in a thrust, that they paid no heed to the shout of the boy, and were not even conscious of his presence till he was close at hand.
But his approach was noted by the brave soldier, just as an attack from behind was delivered simultaneously with one in front, and it gave him strength to make a last effort which enabled him to lay one of his assailants low; but at the same moment another enemy sprang upon his back, and he went down, his foes hurling themselves upon him with a shout of triumph, which turned into a yell of dismay as the boy literally leaped amongst them as if to join in the mastery over the fallen man.
But though Marcus sprang quickly into their midst, his spear moved far more quickly than his feet, and he darted in to right and left two of the thrusts that he had learned from Serge in one of his mock combats at home when his spear had been only a short, light pole, cut and trimmed by the old soldier for the purpose in hand.
All that was sham, but this was startlingly real to the boy, as, at each thrust, he saw blood start, and heard the yells of pain given by the receivers of the point.
Those cries were auxiliaries, for they pierced the ears of those who attacked, making them turn in their surprise to find amongst them a fully-armed warrior whose arms flashed in the morning sun, as, advancing his shield ready for a blow, he darted his spear forward at another, who avoided the thrust by a backward leap, and, once started, dashed away as hard as they could go. Fighting men are prone to follow their leader, sometimes to victory, sometimes in panic flight. This latter was the case here. Marcus' next thrust, delivered with all his might, coming too late, for it was at a flying foe, three men running swiftly, one limping away, another running more slowly, nursing his right arm, and the sixth, who had been struck down by the Roman soldier's sword, crawling along towards the rivulet, by which he stopped to bathe his wound.
It was a matter of very few moments, and Marcus had hardly realised the fact that his daring surprise had completely turned the tables, for his first thought was, "They couldn't have seen what a boy I am," when his next led him to turn back to see how the beaten-down soldier had fared, just in time to meet him face to face, as, half stunned, he struggled to his knees and pressing his sword upon one of the stones hard by, used it as a staff to enable him to gain his feet.
The next moment he was afoot, passing his sword into his shield-bearing hand so that he might raise his big helmet, which, in the struggle, had been driven down over his eyes. Then it was that he stared at his deliverer, and his deliverer stared at him.
"Thank you, whoever you are—" began the soldier, and then his jaw dropped and he was silent. Not so Marcus, whose countenance lit up with delight, as he shouted:
"Why, Serge! Can this be you?"
TURNING THE TABLES.
"Marcus, boy!" came back the next instant, as the old soldier dashed down his shield and his sword upon it with a clattering noise, before catching his deliverer in his arms and holding him to his breast.
"Well done!" he cried. "Well done, boy! Well done! Hah! Hurrah! Think of it! Six on 'em! And you set 'em running. Hah!" he panted, breathlessly, as he freed the boy, took a couple of steps backward, planted his great fists upon his hips, gazed at him proudly, and then gave a sweeping look round as if addressing a circle of lookers-on instead of blocks of stone and trees; "Hah!" he exclaimed. "I taught him to fight like that!"
"Yes, Serge, you did—you did!" cried Marcus. "But you are covered with blood, and you are badly hurt. Those wretches must have stabbed you with their knives."
"Eh?" growled the old soldier, beginning to feel himself all over. "Yes, how nasty! All over my breast. It's a long time since I have been in a mess like this. I felt a dig in the front, and another in my back, and another—" Serge ceased speaking as his hands were busy feeling for his wounds, and then he exclaimed: "Yes, it's blood, sure enough, but 'tain't mine, boy. Their knives didn't go through. I am all right, only out of breath. But you? Did you get touched?"
"Oh no," cried Marcus. "I escaped."
"But you made your marks on them, boy. My marks, I call 'em."
"Pick up your sword and shield, Serge," cried Marcus, excitedly. "They'll be coming back directly perhaps."
"Well, yes, it would be wise, boy," said the old soldier, taking his advice. "Look yonder; that's the fellow I cut down," and he pointed with his sword to the man who had been bathing his wound and, after crossing the rivulet, was also in full retreat. "No, he's had enough of it, and if the others came back it wouldn't be six to one, but five to two—two well-armed warriors, you and me," said the old man, proudly, as he made Marcus' shield clatter loudly as he tapped it with his sword. "You and me, boy," he repeated. "Tchah! They won't come on again. Why, back to back, you and me—why, we are ready for a dozen of them if they came. Here, I had my wash, but I must go now and have another while you keep guard over me. Think of it!—While you keep guard over me, boy! No, I won't call you boy no more, for I have made you a fighting man, and here's been the proof of it this morning. There's only one thing wanted to make all this complete. Boy! Tchah! I can't call you a boy: you are a young Roman warrior."
"Oh, nonsense, Serge!" cried the boy, flushing.
"Nonsense, eh? Look at you and the way you handled that spear. Why, you are better with your sword, if you have to draw it, as I well know. Do you remember how you nearly did for me?"
"Oh yes, I remember," replied Marcus.
"Yes, I had to jump that time; and lucky I did, or I shouldn't have been here for you to fight like this. But, as I was saying, it only wanted one thing, and that was for your father, who has come to his senses at last, to have been here to see, and—"
The old soldier stopped short, his big, massive jaw dropped, and he stood staring as he took off his heavy helmet and wiped his brow with the back of his hand.
"But I say," he cried, at last, staring at the boy with the puzzled expression upon his features growing more and more intense, "what are you doing here?"
Marcus' sun-browned face turned scarlet, and he stood silent, staring in reply, beginning almost to cower—he, the brave, young, growing warrior—before the old servant's stern eyes, and ready to shiver at the pricking of the conscience that was now hard at work.
"Look here," cried Serge, extending his shield and raising his short broadsword to punctuate his words with the taps he gave upon this armour of defence, "your father said that you were not to use that armour any more, and I left it, being busy getting his for him to go off to the war, lying upon his bed. It wasn't yours any longer. It was his'n. You have been in and stole it; that's what you have done. Do you hear me?" continued the old soldier, fiercely. "You've been and stole it and put it on, when he said you warn't to. That's what you've done."
"Yes, Serge," said the boy, meekly.
"Hah!" cried the old soldier, gathering strength.
"And your father said you were to stop at home and take care of his house and servants, and the swine and cattle, and his lands, and, as soon as he's gone, you begin kicking up your heels and playing your wicked young pranks. That's what you've done, and been pretty quick about it too. Now then, out with it. Let's have the truth—the truth, and no excuses. Let's have the truth."
It was no longer punctuation, but a series of heavy musical bangs upon the shield, and once more, very meekly indeed, Marcus said, almost beneath his breath:
"Yes, Serge; that's quite right. Everything is as you say."
"Ah, well," growled the old soldier, a little mollified by his young master's frankness, "that don't make it quite so bad. Now then, just you answer right out. Where were you a-going to go?"
"To join father at the war."
"Hah! I thought as much," cried the old soldier, triumphantly, and looking as though he credited himself with a grand discovery. "And now you see what comes of not doing what you are told. I've just catched you on the hop, and it's lucky for you it's me and not the master himself. So, now then, it's clear enough what I've got to do."
"To do?" cried Marcus, quickly. "What do you mean, Serge?"
"What do I mean? Why, to make you take off that coat of armour on the spot. Well, no, I can't do that, because you aren't got nothing else to wear. Well, never mind; you must go as you are."
"Oh yes, Serge, never mind about the armour; I'll go as I am. But gather your things together—that bundle of yours."
"How did you know I'd got a bundle?" said the old soldier, suspiciously.
"I have seen you carrying it day after day."
"What! You've seen me day after day?"
"Oh yes. I don't know how long it's been, but I have often seen you right in front."
"Worse and worse!" cried the old soldier, angrily. "That shows what a bad heart you've got, boy. You've come sneaking along after me to find the way, and never dared to show your face."
"I did dare!" cried the boy, indignantly. "But I only saw your back. I didn't know it was you."
"Oh, you didn't know it was me?" growled Serge. "Well, that don't make it quite so bad. But you knew it was me that you came to help?"
"Oh! Then I might have been a stranger?"
"Yes, of course. I saw six men attacking one, and—"
"Oh, come, he ain't got such a bad heart as I thought," said the old soldier. "And you did behave very well. I did feel a bit proud of you. But never mind that; we have got something else to talk about," said Serge, as he rearranged his armour and picked up his wallet and spear. "Now then, let's get back at once, and mind this, if you attempt to give me the slip—"
"Give you the slip! Get back!" cried Marcus, excitedly. "What do you mean by get back at once?"
"Why, get back home to your books and that there wax scratcher to do as your father said. This is a pretty game, upon my word!"
"But I am not going back, Serge," cried the boy, firmly. "I am going to join my father."
"You are not going to join your father," said the old soldier, sturdily. "You've run away like one of them village ragged-jacks, and I am ashamed of you, that's what I am. But 'shamed or no 'shamed, I've catched you and I am going to take you back."
"No!" cried Marcus, fiercely.
"Nay, boy, it's yes, so make no more bones about it."
"I am going to join my father, sir, and answer to him, not to his servant."
"You are going back home to your books and to take care of your father's house."
"And suppose I refuse?" cried Marcus.
"Won't make a bit of difference, boy, for I shall make you."
"Indeed!" cried Marcus.
"Now then, none of that! None of your ruffling up like a young cockerel and sticking your hackles out because you think your spurs have grown, when you are not much more than fledged, because that won't do with me. I tell you this: you come easy and it will be all the better for you, for if you behave well perhaps I won't tell the master, after all. So make up your mind to be a good boy at once."
"A good boy!" cried Marcus, scornfully. "Why, you called me a brave young warrior just now."
"Yes, I am rather an old fool sometimes," growled Serge; "but you needn't pitch that in my teeth. Now then, no more words, and let's waste no more time. I want to get back."
"But Serge—" cried the boy.
"That'll do. You know what your father said, and you've got to obey him, or I shall make you. Aren't you sorry for doing wrong?"
"Yes—no," cried Marcus.
"Yes—no? What do you mean by that, sir?"
"I don't know," cried Marcus, desperately. "Look here, Serge: it is too late now. I've taken this step, and I must go on and join my father now."
"Taken this step? Yes, of course you have," cried the old soldier, sarcastically, "and a nice step it is! What's it led to? Your having to take a lot more steps back again. I know; but you didn't, being such a young callow bit of a fellow. Soon as you do anything wrong you have to do a lot more bad things to cover it up. Lucky for you I catched you; so now then, come on."
"But Serge," cried Marcus, passionately, "you can't understand how I felt—how it seemed as if I must go after my father, to be with him in case he wanted help. He might be wounded, you know."
"Well, if he is there'll be plenty to help him. Soldiers are always comrades, and help one another. If he is wounded he won't want a boy like you, so stop all that. I'm not going to stand here and let you argue me into a rage. You've got to come back and obey your father's commands, instead of breaking his orders. I wonder at you, boy, that I do. Did this come out of your reading and writing?"
"Serge!" cried the boy. "I did try hard—so hard, you don't know; but I couldn't stay. I was obliged to come."
"Won't do, boy," growled the old soldier, frowning. "Orders are orders, and one has to obey them whether one likes 'em or whether one don't. Ready?"
"No, Serge, no, I'm not ready," pleaded the boy. "It is too late. I can't go back."
"Too late? Not a bit. Now then: come on."
"I cannot, Serge. I must—I will go on now."
"You mustn't, sir, and you will not," cried the old soldier, sternly. "Now then, no nonsense; come on."
"No, no, Serge. Pray, pray take my side. It is to be with my father; can't you see?"
"No, boy; I'm blind when it comes to orders."
"Oh, Serge, have you no mercy?" cried Marcus, piteously.
"Not a bit, boy. Now then, once more, come on."
"I cannot," cried Marcus, passionately.
"Then I'm going to make you."
"I'm going to carry you, heavy as you'll be, and long as it will make the road. But I've got it to do, and, if it takes me a month, I'm going to make you obey your father's orders, sir, and stop at home."
As he spoke Serge swung his shield between his shoulders, pressed his sheathed sword a little more round to his side, and with a sharp dig made his spear stand up in the earth.
"Now then," he cried, and he caught Marcus by the wrists, and a struggle seemed to be imminent.
"Serge!" cried Marcus, angrily.
"Your orders were to stay at home, sir, and home you go," cried the old soldier. "If you will be carried back like a scrap of a little child, why, carried you shall be. So give up. I'm twice as strong as you, and it's your father's commands."
"Hah!" cried Marcus, ceasing his struggles on the instant, and leaving his wrists tightly clasped in the old soldier's hands.
"Well, what are you 'hah-ing' about?" cried Serge, as he noted the suddenly triumphant tones of the boy's voice.
"I was thinking about my father's orders," cried Marcus, in a state of wild excitement now.
"Good boy; and quite time. Pity you didn't think more of 'em and much sooner. Then you're going to mind me without more fuss, and come home like a good boy now?"
"No," cried Marcus, fiercely. "I am going on to my father. I will not stir a step backward now."
"What!" cried Serge, as fiercely now, for the old man was roused by the boy's obstinacy. "You won't obey?"
"No," cried Marcus, catching his companion by the top of his breast armour. "It's my turn now. Look here, sir; you talk about my father's commands."
"Yes, boy, I do," roared the old soldier, looking as fierce now as one of the campagna bulls, whose bellow he seemed to emulate, "and I'll make you obey them too."
"Commands—obey—when I'm only going to join him?"
"Yes, that's it, my lad. So now then!"
"Yes," cried Marcus, giving his companion a fierce thrust which forced him a little back so that he caught his heels against a projecting stone, and as he tried to recover himself was brought down by Marcus upon his knees. "Hah!" he cried. "I've got you! What have you got to say about my father's orders? What are you doing here?"
COMING TO TERMS.
Serge was in the act of gathering himself together so as to spring up and catch his prisoner by the arms, but, as the boy questioned him sharply he sank a little lower upon his knees, and, as if all the strength had been suddenly discharged from within him, he said in quite a different tone of voice:
"What am I doing here?"
"Yes, sir," cried Marcus, forcing him a little more back, and fixing him with his eyes, "what are you doing here?"
"Well, I—er—I—I'm here to take you back."
"You old shuffler!" cried Marcus, in a rage. "I can see through you. My father's orders, indeed! What were his orders to you, sir? Weren't they to stop and take care of his house and belongings, and of me?"
"Well, they was something like that," growled the man, softly; "but don't drive your knuckles into my throat like that, my lad. You hurt."
"Hurt! Yes, and you deserve it," cried Marcus, growing stronger in his attack upon the old servant as the latter grew more confused and weak. "So this is the way you obey my father's commands. You took upon yourself to go into his room and help yourself to the armour you have on. Confess, you did; didn't you?"
"Well, if it comes to that, Master Marcus," grumbled the man, "it was my armour, and wouldn't fit no one else."
"That's shuffling again, Serge, and it's no good. You took the armour, unknown to my father?"
"Course I did, my lad," cried the man, recovering himself a little. "He wasn't there, was he?"
"Pah!" ejaculated Marcus. "More shuffling. Now then, confess: you took the armour and disobeyed the orders given you. What is more, you forsook me and left me to myself. Speak out; you did, didn't you?"
"Well, I s'pose it's o' no use to deny it, Master Marcus. I s'pose I did."
"And in direct opposition to my father's orders you were going to follow him to the war?"
"That's right, Master Marcus, but how could I help it? Could I let him, as I'd followed into many a fight, go off to meet those savage Gauls without me at his back to stand by him as I've done many and many a time before?"
"You disobeyed him, sir," cried Marcus.
"Well, boy, I own up," growled the man; "but I meant to do it for the best. How could I stop at home nussing you like a baby and thinking all the while that my old master was going about with swords and spears offering at his throat? How could I do it, Master Marcus? Don't be so hard on a man. It wasn't to be done."
"And yet you were as hard as iron to me, sir," cried Marcus.
"Well, didn't your father order me to be in the way of taking care of you? It was my duty."
"Was it?" cried Marcus. "Then now I'm going to do my duty to you, sir."
"What are you going to do, Master Marcus?" said Serge, quite humbled now.
"Make you go back to the old home and take care of it."
"Master never gave you orders to do that," cried the old soldier, triumphantly; "and now I'm started to follow him and fight for him, nobody shan't make me go; so there!"
Marcus and Serge remained gazing in one another's eyes, till at last the latter spoke.
"Look here, Master Marcus, I meant it for the best. Aren't you being a bit hard on me?"
"Look here, Serge," replied Marcus, "I meant it for the best. Weren't you a bit hard upon me?"
"I think not, Master Marcus, boy."
"And that's what I think, Serge."
"I couldn't see my dear old master go away alone into danger."
"And I couldn't see my dear old father go away alone into danger."
"Of course you couldn't, Master Marcus. I say, my lad, you know what I used to tell you about enemies doing when they come to a check like— what they settled was best."
"What, made a truce?" said Marcus.
"Yes, my lad. I should like one now, for that bruise you've made with your knuckles in my throat's quite big enough. It'll be black to-morrow."