"Get up, Serge," said Marcus, letting his hand fall.
"Thankye, my lad. I say, boy, I didn't think you were so strong."
"Didn't you, Serge?"
"No, boy. My word, it's just as if getting into your armour had stiffened you all over. My word, I wouldn't ha' believed that you could fight like you did this morning!"
"I felt hot and excited, Serge, and as if I could do anything."
"Didn't feel a bit scared like, though there was six of them?"
"No," said Marcus, thoughtfully; "I never thought anything about their numbers, only of saving you."
"Thinking all the time it was someone else, sir?"
"Yes, Serge; that was it."
"And you fought fine, sir. Seems to me it's a pity for a youngster like you to be stopping at home unrolling volumes and making scratches with a stylus."
"Does it, Serge?"
"Yes, sir, it do; and likewise it seems a pity that such a man as me, who can do his share of fighting, should be doing nothing better than driving the swine into the acorn woods."
"And looking after and protecting me, Serge," said Marcus, drily.
"Oh, yes, of course; there was that, of course, Master Marcus; but I say, sir, don't you think we've both talked enough for the present; I tackled you and you tackled me in a pretty tidy argument, and both on us had the best of it in turn. I'm beginning to think that there's good clear water coming down from the mountain yonder."
"Yes, Serge; it makes me feel thirsty after getting so hot."
"Then, too, I've got a nice loaf in my wallet and a tidy bit o' meat as I got from a little way back. What do you say to our making a bit o' breakfast together same as we've done before now in the woods?"
"And settle afterwards about whether we should go back, Serge?" said Marcus.
"Yes, my lad; that'll be the sensiblest thing to do."
"Yes," said Marcus, "you've talked about it, and it has made me feel very hungry now."
"Well, look here," said Serge, "we are about even, aren't we?"
"Even!" said Marcus, staring at the man. "Do you mean about both being hungry?"
"Nay-y-y-ay! About being wicked uns. You've done wrong, you know, and disobeyed orders."
"Yes," said Marcus, with a sigh.
"So have I. Well, we are both in disgrace, and that makes us even; so, of course, I can't bully you any more and you can't say ugly things to me. Fair play's the thing, isn't it?"
"Of course," cried Marcus.
"Well, then, as you've behaved uncommon fine in tackling those rough ones, and saved my life—"
"Oh no," said Marcus, modestly.
"But I say, oh yes. Don't you talk to me. They'd have killed me dead, stripped off everything that was worth taking, and then left my body to the wolves."
Marcus recalled the words of the speaker of his wandering away up the mountains to lie down and die, and he felt ready to say: "Well, that would have suited you;" but he thought it better not, and held his tongue.
"As I said before, you have behaved uncommonly well over that, so I'll forgive you for running away, and shake hands, if you'll agree to say nothing more about it to me."
"Oh, very well," cried Marcus. "I don't feel that I can say any more to you."
"Then I won't to you, my lad, and there's my hand on it. Only mind this," cried Serge, as they stood with their hands clasped, "this is only me, you know. I lose my place of looking after you, according to the master's orders, by forsaking my post and going after him, so I aren't no longer holding your rein, as you may say. What I mean is this—I forgive you, but I am not going to answer for what your father will say."
"Oh, of course not," cried Marcus. "We have both got to face that."
"Yes, my lad," said the old soldier, sourly, "and a nice hard time it's going to be. I daren't think about it, but keep on putting it off till it comes. That'll be time enough. So now then, you and me's going to be friends, and try to help one another out of the mud. That is, unless you think we'd better go back home together."
"Oh, no, no," cried Marcus. "Impossible! We must go on now."
"Yes," said Serge, bluntly. "Then it's vittles."
"Vittles?" said Marcus, staring.
"Yes. Don't you know what vittles are? Didn't you say you was hungry?"
"Oh!" cried Marcus.
"Have you got anything?"
"Scarcely anything," replied Marcus.
"Yah! And after all the pains I took with you! Didn't I always say that an army on the march must always look well after its foraging? No commander can expect his men to behave better than a bottle."
"Look here, Serge," cried Marcus, laughing, "why don't you speak out plainly what you mean? What have men got to do with bottles?"
"Oh, a good deal sometimes," said the man, chuckling. "But that's only my way. You can't hold a bottle up, no matter whether it's a goat-skin or one of them big jars made of clay, and expect to pour something out of it if you haven't first put something in?"
"No, of course not," said Marcus, who was busy polishing the point of his spear with a tuft of dried grass.
"Well, men's the same as bottles; if you don't give them plenty to eat and drink you can't get plenty of fighting out of them. Always see to your foraging when you are on the march. I always do, and I have got something ready for us both now. But look here, my lad, this isn't at home, and I'm not going to drive out the swine, and you are not going to your wax table. We are soldiering now, and whether it's two thousand or only two, things are just the same. We have got to keep a sharp look-out for the enemy."
"You didn't," said Marcus, quickly, "or you would have seen me following you."
"That's right," said Serge, "and it was because I could think of nothing else but about being such a bad un as I was and forsaking my post. I dursen't look back either, for fear that I should see someone following me. But that's all over now; you and me's joined forces, and we must go on straight. I don't think it's necessary, but we will just take a look round for danger before we sit down to enjoy our breakfast."
"Enjoy?" said Marcus, dubiously.
"Yes, that's right. We shall both have company over it. It's been precious dull to me, being all alone. So now then; take the lead, captain, and give the orders to advance for a scout all round before we sit down to our meal."
"Very well, then," cried Marcus. "Forward! This way first."
"Yes, but that's too much of it," said the old soldier. "A commanding officer don't make speeches to his men 'cept when he's going into action, and not always then. What you ought to have said was just 'forward!' and then advanced with your troops to follow you."
Marcus nodded and smiled, and, side by side and spear in hand, they climbed to the highest ground, carefully surveying their surroundings of wood and rock—every place, in fact, likely to give harbour to an enemy, till all at once Marcus threw out his left arm across his companion's breast, and, stopping short, stood pointing with his spear to something half hidden behind a patch of bushes upon the other side of the stream.
Serge sheltered his eyes on the instant, and gave a satisfied nod.
"Right, captain," he whispered; "but your force isn't strong enough to surround the enemy. You must advance in line. It's an ambuscade."
The half-concealed figure was nearly a hundred yards away, and, by the time they had covered half the distance, Marcus' keen young eyes sent a message to his brain, and he whispered to his companion in an awe-stricken voice:
"It's that wounded man. He has lain down to die."
The old soldier uttered a low grunt, and sheltered his eyes again.
"Looks like it," he said, "but we had best make sure. Tell your men to level their spears and advance at a run. Dead men are dangerous sometimes."
Recalling the lesson he had just received, Marcus lowered his spear and uttered the one word:
They broke into a sharp trot, straight for the horrible-looking, stiffened figure which lay crouched together in an unnatural attitude just behind a bush; but, before they were half way, there was a quick movement, a sharp rustling of leaves, and the dead man had sprung up and was running as swiftly as a deer.
Marcus stared in astonishment, looking so surprised that Serge lowered the butt of his spear and rested upon its shaft in his familiar home attitude when the staff he carried was terminated by a crook instead of a keenly-pointed blade.
"There, you see, my lad. That's the sort of dead man you have got to beware of after a fight. They are a very dangerous sort; like that fellow, they are crippled a bit, but they won't stop to be buried. They don't like the idea. What they do is to play sham till their enemy has marched by 'em, thinking they are real, and then when some poor fellow is looking forward, one of them dead barbarians lets him have it in the back. There, we will go and sit up on the top there, and I'll lean up against your back, and you shall lean up against mine while we eat our breakfast and are busy with our teeth, and leave our four eyes to play watchful sentry till we've done."
Marcus felt quite willing now that the excitement caused by the flying foe was at an end, and, soon after, Serge's little store was drawn upon, and, quite happy and contented, the two old companions made what Marcus thought was the most appetising breakfast he had ever had in his life.
"Hah!" cried Serge, as they rose at last. "Now let's go down to the stream for a drink. Always camp, my lad, beside a river or a lake; and if you can't—" He stopped short.
"Well, if you can't?" said Marcus.
"Why, then you must go thirsty, same as you must go hungry too sometimes. Didn't I always teach you that a soldier's first duty was to learn how to fast?"
"Oh, yes, I remember," said Marcus, as he lay down to drink, while his companion watched, and then drank in turn, rising to say, as he drew a long, deep breath:
"There, that's as much as I want now. Nice clear water, and we've left plenty for the next as comes. But a deal of trouble I used to have in the face of plenty to make you believe it was a soldier's duty to learn how to fast. You always were the hungriest boy I ever knew."
Marcus laughed, and looked wonderingly at his companion, who now stood up stiffly with his hands resting upon his spear.
"Well, Serge, what now?" cried Marcus.
"Only waiting, captain. Orders to advance."
"Forward!" cried Marcus; and, the next minute, with eyes eagerly scanning the track in front, they were marching together side by side on the way to Rome.
It was some hours afterwards, when the sun was beating down hotly, that Serge suggested that they should have half an hour's rest in the shade of a clump of huge, spiral-barked chestnuts, whose dark, glossy-green leaves were spread over a bend of the track which had evidently been slightly diverted so that those who followed it might take advantage of the shade.
The trees were approached cautiously, and the pair scouted round the clump to make sure it was untenanted before they stretched themselves amongst the mossy, radiating roots that spread far and wide.
"There seem to have been plenty of people here," said Marcus, pointing to where the soft, moist earth was full of imprints. "There have been wheeled carriages here."
"Yes," grunted Serge. "Those are ox waggons. See?"
"Yes," said Marcus. "But those others are different."
"Yes," said Serge. "Chariot wheels, those."
"How do you know?" said Marcus, sharply.
"Look at 'em," grunted the old soldier. "Can't you see they are light? They are made to gallop. Those others were made to crawl. Why, it's printed all about that they were chariot wheels. Look at the marks of the horses' hoofs."
"Oh yes, I see," cried Marcus. "The waggons show nothing but the feet of oxen. But how come there to be chariot wheels about here?"
"How did that Roman general, Caius Julius, come to the farm?"
"I don't know," said Marcus, starting. "I never thought of that."
"I did," said Serge, with a grunt which might have been copied from one of the swine he had so often driven.
"How did he come?" cried Marcus.
"Same way as he went back to Rome."
"Of course," cried the boy, impatiently. "But how was that?"
"With chariots and horsemen."
"Are you sure? I saw none."
"Didn't go down to the village to look?"
"No; I had too much to think of."
"So had I," said Serge; "but I went and looked all the same. There was a grand chariot and a lot of horsemen, and it was in that chariot that, after walking down to the village, the master went away."
"Oh, then they must be far ahead," cried Marcus.
"Yes; at Rome before now."
"And I have been expecting that we might come upon them at any moment," said Marcus, with a sigh of relief. "Then we shan't see them till we get there?"
"And like enough not then," said Serge, with a grim smile; "so you may make yourself comfortable about this scolding that's got to come, for it won't be yet."
"But we shall see my father as soon as we get to the army."
"Some time perhaps," said Serge; "but the army will be miles long perhaps on the march, and it's hard work, boy, to find one in a hundred thousand men."
"Then we may not find him!" cried Marcus, in an agonised tone.
"Well, no, my lad, but you may make your mind happy about that. One man's not bound to find his general, but his general's pretty sure to find him, or the legion he is in. There, don't you fidget about that. If you and me hadn't done any harm we should be pretty safe, but so sure as one does what one ought not to do, one may make up one's mind that he'll be found out."
The rest was pleasant, but Marcus did not feel so satisfied in his own mind when they started once again on the tramp.
It was on the evening of a hot and wearying day that Marcus sat in a shady grove, gladly resting, while Serge was relieving him of his armour and carefully hanging it piece by piece from, one or other of the branches by which they were surrounded.
"Grand thing, armour," said the old soldier, as he watched the tired boy from the corners of his eyes.
Marcus started from a waking dream of Rome and its glories as he pictured it in his own mind.
"Oh yes," he said, hastily; "glorious!"
"Nice and bright and shining, and makes a man seem worth looking at when it's on, eh?"
"Yes," said Marcus, with a faint sigh.
"How proud you felt when you'd got yours; eh, my lad?"
"Yes, very," said Marcus.
"Nice dress to walk in."
"But it's rather heavy in this hot weather," ventured Marcus.
"Heavy, boy? Why, of course it is. If it wasn't heavy the barbarians' swords and spears would go through it as if it was sheep skin. But yours fits you beautifully, and will for ever so long yet—if you don't grow," added the man, slily.
Marcus turned upon him peevishly.
"Well, I can't help growing, can I?" he cried.
"Oh no, boy; course you can't till you've done growing, and then you won't grow any more."
"Do you think I don't know that?" snapped out the boy.
"No. Oh no; but what's the matter with your shoulder?"
"Nothing much," said Marcus, sourly. "Those shoulder straps rub that one, and the back part frets my neck."
"Does it? That's bad; but I'll put that right when you put it on in the morning. Don't you mind about that: after a bit your skin'll get hard, and what feels to worry and rub you will be soft as a duck's breast."
"Nonsense! How can bronze and brass get to be soft as feathers, Serge?"
"Oh, I dunno, my lad," replied the old soldier, slowly, "but it do. I suppose," he added, mockingly, "you get so much glory on your shoulders that it pads you out and makes your armour fit like wax. It is heavy, though, at first. Mine worried me the first day, because I hadn't worn it for years; but it sits lovely now, and I could run and jump and do anything. Helmet too did feel a bit lumpy; but I felt it more in my toes than on my head."
"Are you laughing at me, Serge?" cried Marcus, turning upon the man, sharply.
"Can't you see I'm not, boy? Why, I'm as serious as a centurion with a new command."
"But do you think I'm going to believe that you felt your heavy helmet in your toes?"
"Of course I do, boy," said the man, chuckling. "If it's heavy, don't the weight go right down to the bottom and drive your toes hard to the very end of your sandals?"
"I didn't think of that, Serge," said the boy, a trifle less irritably.
"S'pose not, boy. You haven't got to the end of everything that there is to know. Besides, your helmet is light."
"Light?" cried Marcus, bitterly.
"Well, of course it aren't as light as a straw hat as you can tilt off every time you come into the shade, and let it hang between your shoulders, same as you do your shield."
"And I suppose that is?" said Marcus, sharply.
"What, as a straw hat, boy? Well, I don't say that," said Serge, drily, "because it do weigh a tidy bit. But that helmet of yours, as I took care should be just right for a boy, is too light altogether."
"Bah!" cried Marcus. "Why, it has made my forehead and the back just behind my ears as sore as sore."
"Pooh! That isn't because the helmet's too heavy; it's on account of your head being so soft and green. It'll be hard enough before the end of this war. Why, if it were lighter, every crack you got in your first fight would make it give way like an eggshell; and then where would you be, my lad? Come, come, cheer up! You're a bit tired with this tramp— the first big one you've had. You'll be better in the morning, and before this time to-morrow night I dare say we shall be in sight of Rome and its hills and the Tiber, and, take my word for it, you won't feel tired then."
"Think not. Serge?"
"Sure of it, boy. Man who's a bit worn out feels as if everything's wrong, and the flies that come buzzing about seem to be as big as crows; but after a good sleep when the sun rises again to make everything look bright, he sees clearer; the flies don't seem to buzz, only hum pleasant like, and what there is of them is golden-green and shiny, and not a bit bigger than a fly should be."
"But I'm disappointed, Serge. I hoped to see my father as soon as I reached Rome, and get this trouble off my mind."
"Instead of which it has to wait. Well, never mind, lad. It will be easier perhaps then. Now then, you do as I say: lie down at once close up there to that dry, sandy bit, and sleep as hard as you can till morning. Then we'll set off and get to Rome as soon as we can, and hear about the army and which way it has gone."
"Perhaps it will not have started yet?" said Marcus, eagerly.
"Like as not, my lad, but, if it has, we can follow it up. Now then, be sharp, for I want to lie down too. We shall be fresh as the field flowers in the morning, for no one is likely to disturb us here."
Marcus said nothing, for he knew that the old soldier's words were meant to encourage him, and he thought so more than ever, as, free now from his heavy armour, he lay looking upward, listening to the faint hum of beetles and seeing the glint of the stars through the trees, while he thought of their journey and the disappointment he felt over Serge's words, while it seemed to him all a part of his thinking instead of a dream—a confused dream when he fancied himself back at the old house seeking for Serge and finding the dog crouched down in the shed where the great stone cistern stood, and in the harvest time the grapes were trodden, those grown in their little vineyard and those from the neighbouring farms where there was no convenience of the kind.
But as he was about to turn away and fasten the door, it seemed strange that the place should be lit up by sunshine coming aslant through the trees, when it was late in the evening and dark. But so it was, with Lupe couching down, making no attempt to follow or pass him as he closed the door, but resting his long, fierce-looking jaws upon his extended paws, till, after trying hard to puzzle out why it was so, Marcus came fully to his waking senses and sat up suddenly, while Lupe followed his example, to burst out into a deep, joyous bark.
"What!" now came in a deep voice from behind Marcus. "Why, Lupe, dog, have you found your way here?"
THE NEW RECRUIT.
The dog had been lying for hours watching the sleepers, who had lain perfectly unconscious of the presence of such a sentry and guardian, while he had crouched there with his muzzle almost touching Marcus' breast, pricking up his ears at the slightest sound made by some nocturnal food-seeking creature, and uttering a low sigh of content as he settled himself down again.
Several times over he had heard some sound which he could not understand, and upon these occasions he sprang up, smothering the low growl that tried for exit, and seeming to understand the necessity for caution, he began to reconnoitre in the direction from which the suspicious noise had come.
Had anybody been there to watch the dog, what they had seen would have excited wonder at the amount of reason that the animal displayed; not that Lupe, big wolf-hound, one of the kind kept by the peasantry in the far-back past for the protection of their flocks, was anything exceptional, for plenty of dogs at the present time are ready to display an instinct that is almost human.
Point out some very human act, and there are plenty who will tell you either that it is the result of teaching, or that it has come naturally from the dog's long continued intercourse with man. One ventures to think that it is something more than teaching that makes a shut-out dog wait till he sees what he considers to be a suitable stranger whom he has never seen before, and then trot up to him and begin to gambol and lead him on till the gate or door is reached, stopping short then and saying as plainly as a dog can speak in barks—not the most expressive language in the world—Open it and let me in.
Lupe was evidently a dog that could reason in his way, and attributing two of these interruptions of the night to the presence of wolves that had come prowling down from the hills, he set off cautiously, with the thick, dense hair bristling up about his neck, his armour against his deadly enemy's teeth, and his black gums retiring to display his trap-like jaws full of glistening ivory teeth. And all the time, in spite of his efforts, there was a low, deep sound like young thunder rumbling somewhere in his chest.
But in each case, before he had gone far, Lupe's reason told him that his natural enemies did not come prowling down from the mountains during the soft summer nights, but waited till their hunger was sharpened by the frosts of winter, and that he was over-anxious regarding the safety of those he had come so far to find, judging rightly that the sounds he had heard and magnified were only caused by some innocent little animal which did not smell in the least like a wolf. So he trotted slowly back, making sounds suggestive of mutterings against his own stupidity, and dropped quietly down once more to watch.
"Why, Serge," cried Marcus, "how could that dog manage to find us all this distance from home?"
"I dunno," said the old soldier, stooping down to caress the savage-looking beast in his customary way, which was to bang him heavily on both shoulders with his great, horny hand, the blows given being such as would have made an ordinary dog howl; but their effect upon Lupe was to make him half close his eyes, open his wide jaws, and loll out his long, lambent tongue, which curled up at the end; and, as it quivered in the fresh morning light, he rolled over upon his back and began patting playfully at Serge's hand.
"Don't knock him about like that, Serge," cried Marcus.
"Knock him about?" cried the old soldier. "Why, he likes it; it loosens his skin and makes it fit easy, and knocks out the dust. How did he manage to find his way here? Ask him. I dunno. I left him at home, yelping about and uneasy like, looking as if he'd like to go at the general and tear his toga off his back."
"I left him," cried Marcus, "hunting all over the place to find you. He came twice over into my room, whining and asking me where you were."
"Did he?" cried Serge. "Good old dog!" And he gave the animal a few more of his tender caresses, with the result that the dog wriggled himself along snake-like fashion upon his spine, and then made a playful dab at his friend's hand.
"I found him at last," continued Marcus, "in the press-house, and when I came away I shut him up."
"What, to starve?"
"No, no; I thought he would howl till someone came and let him out; but I didn't want him to follow me. Someone must have let him out in the morning."
"Oh, I don't know," said Serge, who began replacing his armour. "He'd have got out somehow, through the window or roof."
"He couldn't," cried Marcus.
"Think not? Then he'd have scratched a way for himself under the door."
"Well, but then?"
"Oh, then—he'd have stood and smelt about till he'd got hold of our scent, and then come on."
"What, all this way and all this time? The scent couldn't have lain so long."
"It never seems to me that there's any scent at all," said Serge, "but old Lupe there somehow seems to do it. He is a dog, and no mistake. Why, he's lost himself time after time going after the wolves when I have been out hunting, and it has seemed to me that I should never find him again. Why, you know, he's been away sometimes for days, but he's always found his way back. Well, now then, give yourself your orders to get ready to march, and let's get on to Rome."
"Yes, of course," cried Marcus.
"But how do you feel, lad? You seemed ready to knock up last night, tired out."
"Did I?" cried Marcus, flushing slightly.
"Did yer? Why, you seemed sore all over, whining about your armour and your helmet."
"Oh, nonsense!" cried the boy, as he hastily followed his companion's lead, handily buckling and securing his defensive armour the while. "We had had a very long march, and it was as hot as could be. I feel quite fresh this morning."
"Ready for anything, eh? Well, what about this chap?"
"Yes; we don't want him. The general won't want him to join."
"No-o," said Marcus, thoughtfully, as he stooped to pat the dog's head, a favour which Lupe responded to by leaning himself as hard as he could against his young master's legs. "I should like to have him with us, Serge."
"So should I, boy, if it comes to that. He'd have been splendid with us, and saved us scouting when those rough uns were hanging round. Why, if I had had him with me when those six came on they would have been no worse than three, and I shouldn't have wanted you."
"Yes," said Marcus, thoughtfully, "I should like to keep him with us, but I'm afraid we shall have to send him away."
"Send him away!" cried Serge. "You may try to send, but he won't go. We can't take him with us," continued the man, drily, "and it looks to me as if we shall have to make an end of him and hang him on the nearest tree."
"What!" cried Marcus with a look of horror. "You wouldn't be such a brute?"
"No," said Serge, slowly, "I suppose I wouldn't; but what are we to do? The first captain that we speak to when we get to the army and ask him to let us join his lot will shake his head at us if we bring a dog."
"Yes, I suppose so," said Marcus, thoughtfully.
"But look here, we wouldn't bring him. We didn't bring him. He came. The country's free for all, and if he chooses to follow us we are not to blame."
"Well, that's right. Are you nearly ready?"
"Yes," said Marcus, taking his helmet from where it rested in the fork of a young tree, and lowering it slowly upon his head.
"Does it hurt?" said Serge.
"Oh no, it feels quite comfortable now. Why?"
"Because you put it on as if it were red hot. But give the word 'forward,' captain, and let's march. The first farm or house we come to we must halt and forage. My wallet's empty, and we want something very much better than water for our next meal."
"Forward, then!" cried Marcus, and the dog responded with a volley of his deep barking, and bounded off before them, old Serge smiling grimly the while.
"Got his nose straight for Rome," he said, with a laugh. "Why, if I was a general, Master Marcus, and going to lead our armies against the barbarians as won't let us alone but keep on attacking and wanting to come to plunder the riches of the place, and carry the Roman people off as slaves, do you know what I'd do?"
"Beat them and drive them back, and make them slaves instead," replied Marcus.
"Ah, but besides that, my lad, I'd get together an army of dogs like our Lupe, and set them to work to tear 'em down and chase 'em away."
"Oh, barbarous!" cried Marcus, laughing.
"Barbarous! Aren't they barbarians? Why, I don't believe you could manage it in a better way."
It was the beginning of a tramp that lasted days.
Rome had been soon reached, but they were too late to witness the turmoil of excitement that had preceded and accompanied the departure of the last division of the army which, Marcus and his companion gathered from a group of invalided soldiers left behind, had been tarrying and awaiting the return of Caius Julius to assume the supreme command. He, they were told, had been away upon a mission to claim the assistance of some great general who was supposed to be an old friend full of wisdom; and he, they told Serge, had been brought in triumph to the city, to place himself with Julius at the head of the waiting men.
"You should have been here then," said one old man, "and seen the welcome they had from our gallant boys and the women who crowded the streets waiting to see them go. Ah, it made the tears come into my old eyes to think that I should be left behind."
"Then why were you left behind?" growled Serge. "You are not an older man than I."
"No," said the old soldier, laughing softly, "but you have two legs to march on. I have only one and this stick."
Marcus glanced sharply down at the speaker, and, seeing the boy's intention, the old fellow laughed again.
"Oh, yes, you are thinking I lie. There's two of them, my lad, and one's as good a leg as ever stepped; but as for the other, it's years ago now, when I was with Julius, and I got a swoop from a Gallic sword; the savage ducked down as I struck at him, and brought his blade round to catch me just above the heel. But he never made another blow," continued the old man, grimly. "My short, sharp sword took him in the chest, and he never hurt a Roman again."
"But you got over your wound?" cried Marcus, eagerly.
"It soon healed up, my lad, but he had cut through the tendon, and I was never fit to march again, or I shouldn't be talking to you here. But look here, old fellow, you were ready enough to twit me about not being with the army. Why are you not there?"
"Can't you see we are too late?" growled Serge, angrily.
"Oh yes, that's plain enough," said the old man, maliciously, as he rested upon his staff, "and some great fighting men who win great battles with their tongues are always too late to strike a blow. How is it you are late like that?"
"Oh, that's what you want to know, is it?" said Serge, surlily.
"Yes," said the old man. "A man with legs like yours ought to have been there."
"Well, I'll tell you," said Serge. "It was like this. My chariot had gone to have new wheels. But perhaps I might have made the old ones do. But both my chariot horses were down with a sort of fever. Then the driver had gone away to get married and couldn't be found, and so I had to walk. And now you know."
"Bah!" cried the old man. "Look at your rough hands! You have been like me. You never had a chariot or horses of your own. You're only a working man. All lies."
"Every word of it," said Serge, grinning, "'cept that it's true about me and the youngster here having to walk like our dog. But we want to get there, brother, as soon as we can, so put us on our way to overtake the army, or by a short track to cut it off."
"Do you mean it?" said the old soldier.
"Mean it? Of course!" cried Marcus, excitedly. "The division, mind, that's led by Caius Julius."
"Ho, ho, my young cockerel!" cried the old man. "Then nothing will do for you but the best?"
"Nothing," cried Marcus, eagerly. "We want to be where that great general is that Julius went to seek. Now put us on the way."
"That's easily done," cried the old man. "There's a troop of horse that sets off to-night to follow the rear-guard, and they'll have chariots with them too. Go and see if you can get along with them. You've no horses, but you might run beside the chariots, and their drivers, as soon as they see there's stuff in you and that you want to fight, will give you a lift from time to time."
"Run beside the chariots, eh?" said Serge, with a laugh, as he glanced at Marcus. "Running would suit you better, my lad, than it would me. I've got a deal more flesh to carry than you have, and running is not good in armour with a big helmet on your head. You'd have something to grumble at about feeling sore, or I'm mistaken. But never mind; we want to get there, don't we?"
"Oh yes, we must get on," cried Marcus, "and if we can't run we can walk."
"What I was going to say," cried Serge, "so put us on the right way, old comrade," he continued, to the old cripple, "and you shan't want for something to pay for to-morrow; eh, Marcus, my lad?"
"Oh no," cried the boy, thrusting his hand into his pouch; but Serge clapped a hand upon his arm.
"Wait a bit, boy," he said. "Don't pay for your work until it is done."
A short time before, weary with their long tramp, the disappointment of finding that they were quite left behind had made the future look blank and dismal. But the old cripple's words seemed to bring the sun out again, and he hobbled along by their side through street after street, chattering volubly about his old experiences with the army and his disappointment now in seeing the sturdy warriors march off, legion after legion, leaving him behind.
"Ah," he said, "it's lucky to be you, able to go, and luckier still for you to have met me who can lead you to the place where the last party are camping."
"Where's that?" said Marcus, sharply, for the man seemed to be taking them a very devious course.
"Just outside the gate, over yonder. There, you can see the wall, and in a few minutes we shall be there."
The old soldier's words proved to be quite true, as, at the end of a few minutes, he led them to the little camp, all astir with the soldiery preparing to start—horsemen, chariots, baggage, horses and camp followers, all were there, with the leaders fuming and fretting about making the last preparations, and eager to make the start.
The old soldier gave his new friends a nudge of the elbow and a very knowing look.
"I know what to do," he said. "You leave it to me. I wasn't in a marching army for years without learning something. Yonder is a big captain, there by that standard. Nothing like going to the top at once. Come along."
The old cripple drew himself up as well as he could, and, thumping his stick heavily down, led the way to the fierce-looking captain, whose face looked scarlet with anger and excitement.
"Here, captain," cried the old man.
The officer turned upon him angrily.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" he roared.
The old man pointed to Marcus and Serge.
"Two brave fighting men," he cried; "volunteers, well-armed and trained, who want to join."
"Oh, I've all I want," cried the captain, roughly, "and—" He stopped short, for, as he spoke, he ran his eyes over the two strangers, resting them longest upon Serge, and he hesitated.
"Here, you," he said, as he noted the way in which Marcus' companion was caparisoned, "you've been in the army before?"
"Years, captain," cried Serge, with military promptness. "I served with Cracis and Julius in the old war."
"Hah! You'll do," cried the captain. "But I don't want boys."
Marcus' spirits had been rising to the highest point, but the contemptuous tone in which these words were uttered dashed his hopes to the ground, and he listened despairingly as in imagination he saw himself rudely separated from his companion and left behind.
The thoughts were instantaneous, and he was consoling himself with the reflection that Serge would not forsake him, and anticipating the old soldier's words, as Serge turned sharply upon his new commander.
"Boys grow into men, captain," he said, sharply, "and I've trained this one myself. He can handle a sword and spear better than I."
"Hah!" cried the captain, as he looked critically at Marcus, examining him from top to toe, whilst, as if for no reason whatever, he slowly drew his sword, while Marcus, who stood spear in hand and shield before him, in the attitude he had been taught by Serge, quivered beneath the captain's searching eye.
"Trained him yourself, have you?"
"He can use his weapons?"
To the astonishment of both Serge and Marcus, and as if without the slightest reason, the big, burly, war-like captain made one step forward and with it like lightning he struck a blow with his sword right at the comb of Marcus' helmet, such a one as would have, had it been intended, brought the boy to his knees.
But Serge had spoken truth when he said that he trained Marcus well, for, quicker in his action than the deliverer of the blow, Marcus had thrown up his shield-bearing left arm, there was a loud clang upon its metal guards as he received the sword blow, and, the next moment, the captain drew back as sharply as he had advanced, to avoid the boy's short spear, directed at his throat.
"Good!" he cried. "Well done, boy!" And he began to sheath his sword. "Your teacher, an old hand, no doubt, could not have done better. Why, boy," he continued, "you are a soldier, every inch," and he grasped the lad by both arms. "But this won't do; you must lay on muscle here, and thicken and deepen in the chest. That helmet's too heavy for you too. Yes, you are quite a boy—a brave one, no doubt, and well-trained; but you are too young and slight to stand the hardships of a rough campaign. I should like to take you, but I want men—strong men like your companion here—and I should be wronging your parents if I took you. Whose son are you, boy?"
"My father is Cracis, sir, a friend of Caius Julius, and he is at the front."
"Ha!" cried the officer, looking at him searchingly. "Then why are you at the rear?"
Marcus' spirits had been rising again, and his eyes were sparkling, lit up as they were by hope; but at that question down they went directly to the lowest point.
He tried hard to look firmly in the captain's face, but his eyes would blench. He tried to speak, but he could not answer, and he stood quivering in every nerve, shamefaced and humbled, while his trouble increased and he turned his eyes upon Serge, looking appealingly at him for help, as the big officer suddenly exclaimed, as he caught him by the shoulder:
"Why, you young dog, it's all written in your face! You've run away! Ha-ha! I don't mean from the fight, but to it. Let me see. Am I right? You being a trained young soldier, wanted to go with your father to the war, and he told you to stay at home. You've run away to follow him. Am I right?"
Marcus looked at him firmly now. There was no shrinking in his eyes, for he was uttering the truth.
"Yes, sir," he said, huskily; "quite right."
"Well, but I say, captain," growled Serge, "that's all true enough, every word. But the boy aren't a bit worse than me. The master said I was to stop at home and mind him and the swine and things about the farm; but I couldn't do it with the smell of battle in the air, being an old soldier, don't you see, and the master gone to lead. I felt like the boy did, ashamed to stop and let one's armour rust when Rome's enemies were waiting to be beaten. I felt obliged to come, and so did young Marcus here. A brave boy, captain, so don't be hard."
"Hah!" cried the captain, frowning severely. "A nice pair, both of you! It isn't likely, but how could I meet Cracis or Julius by and by if I took you into my following?"
"Oh, we'd keep out of sight, captain," growled Serge.
The captain pointed mockingly at Marcus.
"He doesn't look much like a boy who'd keep out of sight, old warrior," he said. "Far more likely to thrust himself into the front with all the unbalanced rashness of a boy. A nice pair indeed! But I should like to have a thousand of you, all the same. No, I don't think I ought to take you, boy," he continued, slowly, with a very severe frown gathering on his forehead. "But look here; I don't like to stand in the light of one of Rome's brave sons, however young, at a time when our country needs their help. But tell me, boy; if I say to you, go back home and wait a year or two till you have grown more of a man, you will go back at once, will you not?"
"Shall you tell Serge to go back too?" replied Marcus, sharply.
"Most certainly not," said the captain, laughing. "He has offered his services, and I have taken him. You will have to go home alone. Tell me, will you obey my orders?"
"No," said Marcus, firmly. "I am not going to forsake old Serge."
"You are a pretty fellow for a volunteer," cried the captain, merrily. "Ask me to take you into my following, and, at the first command I give you, tell me flat to my nose that you won't obey!"
"I'll do anything else you tell me, captain, but that," cried Marcus, quickly.
"Well, boy," said the captain. "But stop. What shall you do now?"
"Find my way to the army alone," said Marcus, quickly.
"You'd never do that, boy. The country ahead is in a state of war, and swarms with ruffians hanging about the heels of the army like wolves following a drove of sheep—worse, these, than the enemy. Boy, before many days had passed you'd be stripped of all your bravery, robbed for the sake of your weapons, and left dead or dying somewhere in the forest."
"I can fight, sir," said Marcus, proudly, "and my sword and spear are sharp."
"Yes, boy, and I should be sorry for the one or two who tried to stop your way. But wolves hunt in packs, and can pull the bravest down. Are you heeding what I say?"
Marcus nodded. He could not speak, but stood gazing at Serge, who had taken off his helmet and with a face full of perplexity was vigorously scratching at his grizzled head.
"Well, boy," continued the captain, "I have thought it over and I must do my duty, which is to send you back."
"Oh!" cried Marcus, and throwing his spear sharply into his left hand he held out his right to Serge.
"But if I do that duty," continued the captain, "it will be to expose you to greater risks amongst the marauders gathering everywhere now than if I take you with me."
"And you will let me come?" cried Marcus.
"I am obliged to, boy," said the captain, smiling, "for I can't help feeling that Cracis, if we meet, would blame me more for doing my duty than for letting you come. Here, old man, you shall not tramp after our horse to come in weary and distressed at every halt. I'll put the boy, as he is Cracis' son, in one of the chariots, one of the light ones drawn by Thracian horses. There are several with their drivers yonder that I have not yet manned. You as his spearman may accompany him, of course. There, boy, no thanks," continued the captain, sternly. "I have no time for more. Off with you to your place. One of my officers will see that all is right. What is that man? Away with you!" he shouted to the old crippled soldier, who had heard all and now hobbled forward to speak. But a couple of soldiers placed their spear shafts before him and drove him back.
But Marcus had seen, and sprang after him, dived under the spears and pressed a few coins into his hand before he was hurried away, babbling his thanks.
"I'd about given it up, Marcus, boy," said Serge just then. "Here, come along; here's a young captain waiting to show us where to go, and my word, talk about a piece of luck! I thought I was going to be taken away, never to see you again, and here we are. A chariot and pair with our own driver, and me to sit behind you and do nothing but tell you how to fight. Here, come along. Talk about a piece of luck! How old are you? Eighteen. Why, you'll be a general at the end of another week!"
"I shall never be able to do it, Serge," said Marcus, nervously, as he stood with his old companion looking admiringly at a pair of fiery-looking little steeds harnessed to a low chariot just big enough to afford room for three.
The little pair were being held, stamping and covering their sides with the foam they champed from their bits, by a short, broad-shouldered, swarthy driver, who had his work to restrain the impatient little animals.
They were less in size than what would now be termed cobs, almost ponies, but beautifully formed, arched-necked and heavily maned and tailed, a pair that had excited admiration in the boy's eyes as soon as he saw the chariot to which he had been led. But they were almost wild, and ready to resent the buffets given by their driver with teeth and hoofs.
"A chariot to be proud of," Serge had growled in the boy's ear. "Why, a captain needn't wish for better. I don't know what the master will say when he sees you."
"Oh, don't talk about the meeting, Serge. I feel so excited," replied the boy, and then he added the words which head this chapter.
"Never be able to do what?" cried the old soldier.
"Manage the chariot. It seems too much for me."
"Tchah!" cried Serge. "Don't want no managing. You've got your driver to take you where you tell him right at the enemy, when you get your orders to advance, and cut them up. You'll stand there in front with your spear or javelin, and I shall sit behind ready with spare ones for you to throw when you are amongst the enemy, and stop anyone who tries to come up behind if he's foolish enough. But I don't hold with throwing javelins. It wants a lot of practice, and those who have practised most, when they are going at full gallop, are pretty well sure to miss. I should like for you to use your spear, and keep it tightly in your hand. It means closer quarters, but your thrusts are surer, and you do better work. Besides, you don't lose your weapon."
"But I feel it's almost too much for me."
"Then don't feel at all," said the old soldier. "Go and do what you've got to do along with the cavalry when you have got your orders, and don't think at all. What you have got to do is to skirmish and drive the enemy, and what I have got to do is to mind they don't skirmish and drive you. There, jump in boldly, and look as big as you can."
"Nonsense! How am I to look big?"
"By opening your mouth, boy, and speaking loud. You are not afraid?"
"Oh no, I am not afraid," cried Marcus.
"Then don't let that little driver chap think you are," whispered Serge. "Act like a captain. That little fellow is only your slave, but if you put on a scared look he'll try to play the master. Unlucky for him if he does, for, if he don't do what he's told, I'll crack him like I would a nut."
There was no time for more conversation, for the little detachment under the captain's command had already begun to advance; an order was brought to the cavalry, and the chariot driver appealed to Serge to come and stand at the horses' heads for a moment while he took the reins.
Serge changed places with him directly, while the driver assumed the reins, the slight touch upon the ponies' withers making them snort and plunge as much as Serge's strong arms at their bits would allow.
Then a trumpet rang out, Serge joined his young master in the chariot, and in a few minutes the ponies had settled down into a steady progress at the rear of the column.
Exciting days followed, during which Marcus began to learn lessons of what it meant to advance into an enemy's country, the necessity of being constantly on the alert, where everyone was unfriendly, and to loiter behind the main body meant being cut off, leaving the loiterer's place in the column empty.
It was all new to Marcus, as those days passed on, and his captain followed exactly in the track of the army that had gone before, working his men hard, practising various evolutions, keeping them on the alert and ready for action at a moment's notice.
It was on one of these occasions, many days after their start, that towards evening a halt was called just after the column had moved out from a narrow mountain ravine, such a place as had presented plenty of opportunities for the enemy, had they been near, to descend from one of the side gorges and attack, to the cutting off of the column.
And all this had necessitated careful scouting and watchfulness on the part of the leader. But at last it seemed as if they had ridden out into safety, a wide, open plain stretching before them, suitable for forming camp for the night, where there was no risk of ambush or surprise.
A murmur of satisfaction ran through the column as posts were set, fires lit, and the men began settling down. Marcus' horses had given up a good deal of their wildness and begun to form a kind of friendship with Lupe, who had narrowly escaped execution, consequent upon the effect that he had had upon Marcus' chariot pair, who, whenever he came near, had exhibited a frantic determination to tear off at full speed, and this generally where the ground was of the very roughest character and the destruction of the chariot would have been certain.
It had been a difficulty, but, like other difficulties better or worse, it had been mastered, and, instead of meeting his death, the constant training, through which the chariots and horsemen had passed, resulted in the above-named friendly feeling, and now, at an advance, the dog took his place just in front of the fiery little steeds and trotted before them, while when they halted, he took it as a matter of course that one or other of the beautiful little animals should stretch out its arched neck, nuzzle among his bristly hairs, and at times close its teeth upon the back of the dog's neck and attempt to raise him from the ground.
"I should never have thought he would have stood it, my lad," said Serge; "but he has found out it means friendly, or else he'd bark and let them have his teeth in turn."
This was said as the sturdy driver was freeing the pair from their place on each side of the chariot pole and twisting up their traces, for night was falling fast, and the men's fires were beginning to twinkle here and there.
"Tired, boy?" said the old soldier, who was carefully removing the dust from his armour.
"Horribly," replied Marcus. "I want to lie down and sleep. Oh, how I can sleep to-night!"
The words had hardly passed his lips when there was the blare of a trumpet, followed by another and another, with the result that it seemed as if a nest of hornets had been disturbed, for a loud buzzing filled the darkening air, leaders' voices rose giving orders, and there was a murmur punctuated, so to speak, by the clinking of armour, the rattle of weapons against shields, and the whinnying and squealing of horses, accompanied by angry cries from those who were harnessing them again.
"And I was so tired, Serge," said Marcus, as he finished hurrying on his armour. "What does it mean?"
"An alarm or an advance; I can't say which, boy. But be smart. We may get our orders at any moment."
"I shall be ready directly. There, he has done harnessing the horses. Down, Lupe! Quiet! Keep away from their heads."
The dog crouched in front, just beyond the reach of one of the horses, waiting patiently for what was next to come.
"Ah, you are the best off, after all," said Marcus, "You just get up on all four legs, give yourself a shake, and you are ready for anything."
The dog looked up, gave the speaker a friendly growl, and then let his head rest again upon his extended paws, while Marcus walked to the side of his chariot horses to pat and caress their arched necks, friendly advances which were now accepted by the savage little animals without any attempts to bite, while he could pass behind them now without having to beware of a lightning-like kick.
"All ready?" growled Serge, who had just loosened the throwing spears he had laid in the bottom of the chariot.
"Oh yes, I am ready; but can't I lie down and sleep till the order comes to advance?"
"No, you can't," growled Serge. "A soldier shouldn't want to sleep when he is waiting for the trumpet to sound."
"Oh, I don't know," said Marcus, peevishly. "I should have thought he ought to snatch a little sleep whenever he could."
"That's right," said the old soldier, grumpily. "But he can't now."
"Why?" said Marcus, with a yawn.
"Because the foot soldiers are starting now, and the horse went scouting on ten minutes ago. I wonder we haven't got our orders before this."
"Why, we shouldn't have been ready if they had come," said Marcus.
"No," growled Serge. "We with the chariots are horribly slow. It's all through having to depend upon these driver fellows and our horses having to drag a clumsy car at their heels. Now look here, I am beginning to think that the enemy's afoot coming down to surprise us, and, if so, we with the chariots shall have our turn."
"What makes you think that?" cried Marcus, shaking off his drowsiness at these words.
"I don't know, boy, only I do. In with you. Now we are off."
The driver was already in his place as Marcus sprang into the chariot, and seized one of the throwing spears, to be followed directly by Serge; for an order rang out, there was a peculiar sound as the horses started at the first shaking of their reins and the guttural cries of their drivers, and then, in a fairly well-kept line, some twenty of the war-like cars, drawn by their snorting horses, advanced in line over the moderately smooth plain in the direction already taken by the foot and horse. But as they nearly came within touch, the mounted figure of the captain was seen facing them in front, where he sat ready to give a fresh order, when the line of chariots broke, as it were, in two, half passing him to left, the other half to right, to take up position on the flanks of the infantry, which was about a couple of hundred yards in advance.
The next minute from out of the darkness ahead there came faintly the sound of shouts, accompanied by the beating of hoofs, and a horseman tore up to the captain, to make some communication which caused him to set spurs to his horse and gallop forward, while Marcus, as his chariot rolled on, rested his hand on the front and peered forward over his horses' heads into the bank of gloom which now grew more and more alive with sound.
There was the heavy tramp, tramp of armed men, followed by the sudden rush and thunder of hoofs, while where he stood there was the rattle of the chariot wheels and the cries of the drivers as they urged their horses on.
"How are you, boy?" said Serge, hoarsely, with his lips close to his young master's ear.
"Oh, I'm well enough," was the reply, "but I can't see. I want to know what we are going to do."
"Don't you want to lie down and have a sleep?" said Serge, grimly.
"Sleep? No! I want to understand what's going on."
"What for?" growled Serge. "What's it got to do with you?"
"What has it got to do with me?" cried Marcus, without turning his head.
"Yes; what's it got to do with you? That's the captain's business. We are advancing slowly, and by and by when the enemy has passed through our cavalry, and delivered its attack upon our foot, and they are coming on—I can hear them hurrah, boy! This isn't a false alarm. Hear that shouting?"
"Hear it, yes!"
"That's the enemy, and they are very strong too."
"How do you know?"
"I can hear them, boy."
"Oh, then why don't we gallop forward and attack?" cried Marcus, excitedly.
"Because it arn't our time. There! Hear that?"
"Yes; what does it mean?" cried Marcus, as a dull, low, clattering sound was heard.
"Why, you ought to know by now. That's our foot-men joining shields together to receive the enemy's horse, which must have scattered ours. They are driven back, and they will come round behind us if I am not mistaken."
"What, have they run away?" cried Marcus.
"Oh no, boy. Bent back to right and left. They were taken by surprise, I should say, and gave way. That's the art of war. And now! Hark at them! The enemy's coming down with a rush upon our infantry to cut them up and sweep us all away."
"What!" cried Marcus, wildly. "And we in the chariots are ambling on like this! Oh, if I could only see something besides that line in front!"
"See with your ears, boy, as I do," growled Serge. "This is the first bit of real work I have been in for many a year, but it's all going right. We have got a captain over us who knows what he is about. There! What did I say? Hear that?"
It was plain enough to hear: a confused rush of galloping hoofs away in front beyond the line of infantry, another thunder of galloping horses panting and snorting as they rushed by in the darkness close at hand, and another body away to Marcus' left, beyond the second half of the line of chariots. This ceased directly afterwards, and, as the boy glanced back, he could see a mass of horsemen forming up behind the cars, while, at the same moment from away in front, there was a terrific burst of savage yells, answered by shouts of defiance and the clatter of spears and shields, mingled with a confused clash as the enemy's horsemen charged home upon the infantry.
Marcus' ears rang with the confusion of sounds which followed—cries of agony, shouts of triumph, and the trampling of horses, and then a roar, above which rang out somewhere near at hand the shrill note of a clarion, whose effect was to make the chariot horses burst into a gallop.
"Now we are off," shouted Serge into the boy's ear. "Your spear, lad. Throw when you get a chance; I have another ready for you. But don't waste your stroke."
Marcus heard, but he did not heed, for his heart was beating violently, his head swimming with excitement, and he felt half stunned, half maddened, as he was borne onward, his chariot about the middle of the little line so close together that, moment by moment, it seemed as if the wheels of the cars on either side must come into collision.
But the collision was not to be there, for as, excited by the yells of their drivers, the little pairs tore on, there suddenly seemed to spring up out of the darkness ahead a confused crowd of mounted men; and then there was a shock, and Marcus felt his car leap forward on its wheels, rising on one side as if to overturn, but coming down level directly and bounding oh again at the heels of his excited steeds.
He could not see to right or left, but he was conscious that there were other chariots tearing on beside him, and there was another shock, and another, mingled with yells and cries, and then they were racing on again apparently being hunted by a body of horse, and it seemed to the boy as if his and his fellow chariots were in full flight.
But just then there were the faint notes of a trumpet, and, as they tore on, the line of chariots swung round as upon a pivot and began to tear back.
And now it seemed to Marcus that the horsemen who had been pursuing them were taking flight in turn, and, as he realised this, the boy shouted to his driver to drive more swiftly.
"No, no!" yelled Serge, furiously. "Steady! Steady! And keep in line."
"But they will get away!" cried the boy, mad now with excitement.
"Bah! You don't understand," cried Serge. "Those are our horsemen."
Another trumpet brayed out and the cavalry in front of the chariots swung round to right and left, making an opening through which they passed, slackening their speed, but careering on till Marcus made out a solid body of infantry on his right front.
A minute later the chariots had wheeled round again in the infantry's rear, and in the distance there was, dying away, the sound of hoofs.
"Well, boy, what do you think of that?" said a voice in Marcus' ear.
"I—I don't know," panted Marcus, as short of breath as if he had been running hard. "I don't think I understand."
"Ha, ha!" laughed Serge, hoarsely. "I don't suppose you do. I don't quite myself, but I should think that was a big body of the Gallic horse who came down thinking to surprise us and to snuff us out. But they found out their mistake."
"And where are they now?" panted Marcus.
"Oh, far away. You can just hear them in the distance. They have gone off beaten, with their tails between their legs. Couldn't you feel how we cut them up?"
"Cut them up!" said Marcus.
"Yes. Don't you remember how we tore through them, crash into their midst, after they were broken from their charge upon our infantry, which stood together like a rock? It was splendid, boy, though it was almost too dark to see."
"Oh yes, I recollect something of it; but it was all wild and confused and strange. I couldn't see anything clearly."
"No more could anyone else, boy. We, who do the fighting, never see."
"Because it was so dark to-night."
"It would be just the same by day. But, hallo! Where's your spear?"
"I don't know," said Marcus, staring. "Oh, I think I remember, I threw it at a horseman, just before we went crash upon him and the chariot was nearly overturned. But there, don't ask me. It seemed to be all one wild struggle and noise, and my head's all whirling now."
"Well, what did you expect it to be?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Marcus. "But tell me, Serge, have we won?"
"Won? Of course! We Romans always do. This was through our leader's skill, training against an undisciplined horde of horsemen, twice our number I should think. They are in full retreat, and I expect we shall find they have left half their number upon the field."
"Hark!" cried Marcus, excitedly. "Here they come again!"
"No, boy; not at a gentle trot like that. Those you hear are the best portion of our horsemen who have been pursuing and scattering the enemy far and wide. Rather exciting all this, my lad, eh?"
"Exciting? Yes! Only I couldn't understand."
"But your captain could, my boy, and won the fight. Here, catch hold of this; and next time you throw your spear, pick up another, sharp."
"But oughtn't you to have given me one directly? You taught me something of the kind."
"So I did, boy; but you see I have been out of practice for many years, and forgot my duty in the hurry of the fight; but I won't do so again."
OLD SERGE MUSES.
"Sure you are not hurt, boy?" said Serge, as they stood waiting by the chariot for further orders, their sturdy little driver taking advantage of the opportunity to carefully attend to his steeds.
"Hurt? No!" cried Marcus. "I only feel hot and excited."
"Of course you do; but I don't suppose we shall move now for some time, till the captain's scouts that he must have sent out bring back news of the enemy, and then he will camp for the rest of the night. He ought to. I should, so as to give the men a rest ready for when the enemy attacks again in the morning."
"But you said that the enemy were beaten and driven away."
"So they were, boy, but in a war like this they will only make for the mountains and collect together again ready for a fresh attack as soon as they get the chance."
"But will they keep on doing that?" cried Marcus.
"Of course they will whenever they feel strong enough; and when they are weak they will give up."
"Oh, I don't understand it a bit," cried Marcus.
"Well, you don't want to understand it," said Serge. "That's for the generals and big captains to do. All that they want of us is to fight."
"But why is this war?" said Marcus, impatiently.
"Oh, I suppose it's because some of the tribes have been attacking and plundering and carrying off cattle and goods of the country people, till the chiefs say: This sort of thing must be stopped, and they collect an army, talk it over with the peaceful tribes who are ready to be friends, and then with their help march into the enemy's country, conquer it, and bring them to their senses. That's what we do, and used to do—bring all these nations round about under the rule of Rome. These we are fighting with now are the peoples off to the north and west. They have got all sorts of names, but I suppose they are all Gauls. But now look here: a bit ago you were so tired out with your long march that you wanted to sleep. Half the night hasn't gone, so the best thing you can do is to curl yourself up and sleep till sunrise as hard as you can."
"Sleep!" cried Marcus, mockingly. "Who's to sleep at a time like this?"
"A soldier, of course, and be glad to when he gets the chance."
"Oh, I couldn't sleep," cried Marcus. "I feel all bubbling over with excitement, and if I were to lie down I should seem to be galloping over the fields again."
"Nonsense! You lie down and have a sleep. You always used to mind what I said when I tried to teach you. Do so now, and get some rest."
"But suppose they come back and attack us again?"
"Well, we shall have warning. There are scouts and sentries out in all directions, and you would have plenty of time to get up into the chariot, I dare say. There, lie down."
"Don't you order me, Serge," said the boy, peevishly. "You are not my officer."
"No, we are only comrades, and I am not ordering, only telling you for the best. There, get a sleep, boy, while you can."
"Well, I'll lie down, but I can't sleep, Serge. I shall be thinking about the war, and the tribes that are coming to attack us, all the night."
"Very well, boy, think about them, then, as you are so anxious to understand all about the war. I'd be sure and call you when you are wanted. I am not greedy about having all the fighting to myself. You shall have your share."
"Very well," said Marcus, and selecting a place that seemed a little less hard than the stony ground in their close neighbourhood, and where he was not likely to be trampled upon by any of the chariot horses, he threw himself down, but started up again in alarm with his hand seeking his sword, for a big lump of stone dimly-seen in the darkness suddenly seemed endowed with life, springing up to give itself a rough shake, and assuming the form of a big dog.
"Why, Lupe, you here?" cried Marcus, laughing. "Look here, Serge; he was lying here curled up, asleep. Where's he been all the time?"
"Taking care of himself and waiting for us to come back, I suppose. There, do you want a lesson in campaigning, boy?"
"No, not to-night, thank you. You said I was to go to sleep."
"Of course; and here's your lesson all the same. Make Lupe lie down, and use him for a warm, dry pillow. Not a bad thing at a time like this. A deal better than a horse, for it isn't always you can get them to lie down, and a horse's hoofs are rather bad company if he gets restless in the night."
Half irritably in his exalted state Marcus turned away with a gesture of annoyance.
"Down, Lupe! Lie down!" growled the old soldier; and as the dog obediently subsided on the rough ground, the boy thought better of it, sank upon his knees, and then awkwardly in his armour adjusted himself so that he could lay his face with his cheek in the rough hair about the dog's neck.
There was something comforting and friendly in the deep, satisfied sigh Lupe gave, holding quite rigid as he stretched himself out, while Marcus said to himself:
"Oh, this is stupid! I shall never go to sleep like this;" and he lay staring right before him at the indistinctly seen chariot with its pair of horses standing together, one or the other every now and then giving an impatient stamp or whinnying softly.
Beyond them and their driver all was dark confusion, out of which came murmurs of voices, the jingling of armour, and a suggestion of people passing to and fro.
And then the darkness seemed to lighten and horses were tearing along at full gallop with the enemy in front, and Marcus gave a sudden start, his sharp movement producing a low remonstrant growl from his pillow.
"What was that?" thought Marcus. "Why, I must have been asleep. Ah, there it is again!" For from somewhere out of the darkness there came a low agonised cry which made the boy sit up and listen.
"Are you there, Serge?" he said, softly.
"Yes. What is it, boy?" came from the back of the chariot, where the old soldier had seated himself; and he rose at once and crossed the few yards which lay between him and his young companion's resting place.
"Did you hear that?" asked Marcus.
"Oh, yes, I heard it, boy."
"What was it?"
"A wounded man. They have been carrying some in from over yonder."
"How horrible!" whispered the boy. "Let's go and help him."
"No, go to sleep. You can do nothing there."
"Sleep!" cried the boy, reproachfully. "Who can sleep with anyone suffering like that?"
"You," said Serge, quietly. "You have been asleep an hour, and of course there have been plenty of poor fellows carried by, enemies and friends."
"But—" began Marcus.
"Go to sleep again, boy. You can do nothing there. We'd go together if we could help."
Marcus was silent as he lay resting on one hand, listening and thinking what it was his duty to do, but listening in vain, for no such sound again broke the silence of the night, while after standing by him a few minutes, Serge walked away into the darkness and then returned to his seat in the chariot, where he too, utterly devoid of all inclination to sleep, sat and thought about their position there and asked himself whether it was yet too late to reverse their plans, and seeking the first opportunity to hurry his young companion away from the scenes of carnage and the dangers by which they were surrounded.
"I have done wrong all along," he muttered to himself. "I went against my orders, and some day I shall have to face the master and answer for myself. Yes," he muttered, "I must take him back." And with the full intention, as he sat there leaning his left shoulder against the side of the chariot, of leaving the little rear-guard of the army as soon as he could, Serge changed his position to the other side of the chariot to rest his right side, and as he subsided against the hard iron-bound wood, listening for danger, the galloping-in of scouts, or some other warning of another night attack, a fresh current of thoughts began to chase each other through his brain.
"No," he said, "I won't go, and if I would he'd say again that he wouldn't come. He's a soldier's son, and it comes natural to him. What am I growling at myself for? I didn't set him to run away. He came of himself, and if I hadn't done the same he'd have been here all alone without me to watch over him, take his part, and help him, same as he did me when I was attacked. Why, after all, everything's gone right and happened as it should. We are in for it, and must go on. But this won't do; I mustn't go to sleep." And springing up, the old soldier took a few steps up and down like a sentry, before stopping short and going down on one knee, steadying himself the while by means of his spear, and bending over Marcus, who was sleeping heavily, his breath coming regularly as he lay there deaf to everything that was going on around, while the dog uttered a low whine and lifted his heavy tail slowly, to beat with it softly upon the ground.
"He's all right," said Serge, and he backed away again, to march up to the horses, pat them, and then say a word or two to their driver, who was lying upon his back just in front, sleeping heavily and quite unconscious of Serge's presence.
The latter took another turn or two up and down, thinking deeply the while.
"Yes," he said softly, "what I told the boy's about right, and I can tell him some more to-morrow, for out here in the darkness and silence all my old soldiering seems to be coming back. We are a sort of rear-guard, that's what we are, and it's our job to keep some miles behind the main army, to prevent the enemy from closing in and harassing our troops, besides seeing that they carry out the general's orders and bring up the food and forage they as a conquered people are ordered to supply. Conquered people!" he said, with a contemptuous ejaculation. "Why, it's like digging a channel through a bed of dry sand. I know what this country is. If we go on like this for a few days we shall be right in amongst the mountains, full of holes and hiding-places where the enemy can lurk, and as fast as they are driven off they will be like dry sand, as I said, and come running back again."
Serge went and bent over Marcus again to satisfy himself that the boy was sleeping deeply, and uttered a low grunt that might have been learned of the swine he tended at the farm.
"Do him no end of good," he muttered—"strengthen his legs." And he began to walk up and down again, pausing once or twice to pat the horses and growl at the driver, who was sleeping hard with his mouth wide open.
"Yes," muttered the old soldier, "a good sleep will do the boy good— harden his legs. I said my old soldiering was coming back; I wish my old legs would come back and be the same as they used to when I could walk for weeks, instead of aching like this when I haven't had to walk, but have been riding all day. Hah!" he sighed, as he lowered himself down into the back of the chariot to lean against the side once more. "I can keep watch over him just as well sitting down as standing up. I don't see that I need watch at all when the boy's got a pillow with a set of teeth like a rat trap that will take fast hold of anyone who came to interfere with him. But there's the master. We have got to meet some day, and I shall have to give an account of myself. 'What were you doing away from the farm?' he'll say. 'Watching over your boy, master,' says I. That will have him on the hip. That's my only chance, the only thing that will save me."
Serge's grim face relaxed, and he rolled about in his seat, chuckling softly.
"It will get me off," he said; "it will get me off with the master. He won't be very hard on me after that. It aren't quite honest, for I never thought a bit about the boy when I went away. But I did mean to take him back, and I'd have done it too, and stopped with him, only he was too much for me. Ah, he's a clever one. He's only a boy, but he's got a lot of man in him, and when he gets ripe, you mark my words," he said, softly, staring hard at the dimly-seen driver the while, "he'll be as big a man as his father. I don't mean as to size; like as not he'll be bigger. I mean as to his head. It aren't quite fair, and maybe it's a bit like deceiving the master to answer him like that when he says, 'What are you doing there?' and I says, 'Watching over your boy, master,' But I am going to watch over him, and I'll stick to him, and I'll die for him if I'm obliged; and you can't say that arn't honest."
Serge bent forward and literally glared at the sleeping driver, who muttered something in reply.
"Ah, you may say what you like," muttered Serge, "but that will be honest; and if you put that in one side of the balance, and my forsaking the old place when I was told to stay, in the other, they'll weigh pretty much alike. Yes, I'll watch over him, master, like a man, just as I would have done if he had been my own, for somehow I always seemed to like him, and I suppose I should have felt just about the same if he had been mine. It's precious dark and quiet enough now. I don't suppose we shall be disturbed before daylight, for the enemy got more than they expected, so I may just as well sit and rest. I can watch over him just the same, and—" Serge's next utterance was not understandable if treated as words, but perfectly plain if considered as a snore, for he had sunk sideways till his head rested on the hard edge of the car, while at regular intervals he gave vent to a series of deep gruff tones which sounded as if his neck were bent at such a severe angle that there was not room for his breath to pass comfortably round the corner.
It was not comfortable for him, for though he was sleeping very soundly, his rest was uneasy, consequent upon which he began to dream in a troubled way about being at home; and his busy brain put its own interpretation upon the sounds that rose from his chest and interfered with the soundness of his sleep, so that, half awakened, he lay back listening to his own snoring and attributed it to something else, gradually awakening more and more the while.
"Hark at that!" he muttered. "And after all the trouble I took to mend that bit of fence! Talk about sheep always following one another through a gap, why they are nothing to swine! They want a gap, too, for the leader to go through, but an old boar big with that snout of his and them tusks, he'll bore and bore and bore till he makes a little hole a big un, and once he gets his snout in he drives on till he gets right through. Now, I've mended that hole so as you'd have thought it was quite safe; but hark at that! He's got right through into the garden, and the old sow and the young uns has followed him. But just wait a bit till I get my staff, and I'll make such music as will bring Master Marcus out to ask me if I am killing a pig. There's no room about the place to please them, no miles of acorn and chestnut forest so that they can fill themselves as full as sacks, but they must come into my garden and raven there! Nothing will do for them but my melons and cucumbers! Well, we'll just see about that."
Serge rose from his seat, after taking hold of the spear that he had rested against the side of the chariot, and with his eyes closely shut took a couple of steps forward, and then stopped short with his eyes wide open, as he stared wildly round in an absolute state of confusion and strove hard to make out where he was.
For some moments his mind was a complete blank, and the darkness seemed impenetrable, while his mind absolutely refused to answer the mental question—Where am I?
Then he knew, and there was fierce anger in the low tones of his voice, which formed the self-accusatory words:
"Why, I've been asleep!"
He struck a sharp blow with the staff of his spear; but it was not at the imaginary patriarch of the home herd, but at his own head, which was saved from harm by his helmet, the stroke causing a sharp sound sufficiently loud to make Lupe utter an ominous growl, and the horses where they were tethered start and stamp.
"And sarve you right too!" growled Serge, removing his helmet, which he had knocked on one side, and softly rubbing one spot that had felt the bottom edge keenly. "And here have I been going on about being honest and keeping a true watch over that boy! Here, I'm proud of myself, I am! If I go to sleep again it shall be standing up, anyhow." And pulling himself together he shouldered his spear and commenced pacing up and down, to keep it up steadily hour after hour, only pausing to listen from time to time, to hear nothing more suspicious than the regular night sounds of a camp surrounded by sentries and scouts and on the watch for an enemy known to be near at hand.
Marcus slept well till daybreak, when the first warning of the enemy's movements was given, and he sprang to his feet, to find himself face to face with Serge.
"What was that?" he cried.
"Trumpet, boy. Make ready. The enemy's going to stir us up again."
IN THE SNOWY PASS.
Serge's announcement was quite correct, for while the Romans rested, the enemy had been gathering together again among the hills, and were coming on in force to attack the camp; but what they had failed to do by their night attack proved doubly difficult in the light of day. The little Roman force, though vastly outnumbered and surrounded, was well commanded by a skilful officer, who was able, by keeping his well-disciplined men together, to roll back the desultory attacks delivered on all sides, till, quite disheartened, the enemy retreated in all directions and the march was resumed again.
That day's tramp and the many that followed were a succession of marches through an enemy's country, with the foe always on the watch to harass the little force, and cut it off from joining the main invading body far ahead.
Every day brought its skirmishes, with victory constantly on the Roman side.
There was no want of bravery on the enemy's part, but the discipline of the little civilised division with its strong coherence was too much for the loose dashes, ambushes, and traps that were laid.
The consequence was a slow, steady advance that nothing could impede, through the fertile plains of the South and ever onward, with the snow-capped mountains growing nearer and nearer, till the great pass was at hand that had been traversed by the main army, and no difficulty was then experienced as to the route, for its passage was marked plainly enough by the traces of the many encounters and the ruin and destruction that indicated its way.
"Shall we never overtake them?" said Marcus, one evening.
"Well, if we keep on I suppose we shall," replied the old soldier. "But what's your hurry? Are you tired out?"
"Oh, no," cried the boy; "we don't go fast enough for that; but I am anxious to join father once again."
"Humph!" grunted Serge. "I don't feel so much in a hurry myself. Perhaps we shan't overtake him at all."
"But we are going to join the army."
"We are going just where our captain takes us, boy. He's doing his work splendidly, and so are we."
"What, keeping on with these little petty skirmishes?"
"Of course, boy. Don't you see how we are keeping the enemy from closing in about the army's rear, and saving them from destroying and burning every homestead and village whose supplies are wanted for our men?"
"Oh, I don't quite understand," cried Marcus, impatiently.
"Leave it to your leader, then, boy. That's what a good soldier ought to do. But what's the matter with you? Cold?"
"Yes, horribly. Why, it was as hot as could be in the valley this morning."
"Well, no wonder," said Serge, with a grim smile. "We were all amongst the trees and pleasant grass down there, and now on each side and straight before you—"
"Yes," said Marcus, as he glanced around him. "It looks all very bleak and bare down here."
"Up here, boy. We have been steadily rising all the day. Look at the ice and snow up yonder and straight before us. This time to-morrow we shall be shivering amongst the snow."
"But we can't get the horses and the baggage right over that mountain in front." And he pointed at the jagged peaks and hollows which were glistening like gold in the last rays of the setting sun.
"No, boy, but we can go on along this rugged valley, which leads right through, and then when we get to the top of the pass begins to go down again, when we shall find it getting warmer every hour till we are once more in the plains amongst the green fields and forests of the enemy's country. Look there at that stream," and the old soldier pointed to the dingy-coloured rushing waters which flowed by the side of the level which their leader had chosen as the site of that night's camp.
"Yes, I see; and it isn't fit to drink," said Marcus.
"Snow water," said the old man, shortly. "Well, which way does it run?"
"Why, towards us, of course."
"Well, by this time to-morrow, if it's like one that I tramped by with your father years ago, we shall have found it coming out from underneath a bed of ice, left it behind, and on the other side of the hill come upon another flowing right away to the north and west; and alongside of that road will be our road, right into the enemy's country, and the enemy posted every here and there to stop us from reaching the plain— that is, if Julius and your father have not driven them right away. But most likely they have, and all our troubles now will come from the rear."