CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
"Steady, steady!" cried Serge to the driver. "Mind that great block."
For as they tore on, with more and more traces of an engagement teaching them that they were going right, the driver seemed to be sending the fiery little pair he drove straight for a low mass of stone, contact with which must have meant wreck.
Startled by the old soldier's angry shout, the driver drew one rein sharply, making the ponies swerve right for another far more dangerous obstacle and but for Marcus' readiness in snatching at the other rein, a worse mishap would have occurred.
They were saved from this, but the shouts had scared the fiery little steeds, sending them dashing frantically off in quite a fresh direction, while to Marcus' horror, he saw that it was into another danger in the shape of a vast body of the enemy who, as the flying ponies drew near, sprang to their feet from where they were lying behind a ridge.
Getting the ponies once more well in hand, the driver, who saw nothing but death for himself if they were taken, wrenched the heads of the pair round once more, just when they seemed about to plunge into the thick ranks of the enemy, along whose front they tore in the intent of sweeping round their line.
But the hope was vain, for another body of men came into sight, rising from the earth where they had been lying, to form up at right angles to the first body, and once more the direction of the chariot had to be changed, then altered again and again, for to Marcus' horror foes sprang up in every direction they took, the country seeming alive with the enemy, and all prospect of getting through them and continuing their dash for the Roman army at an end.
"What's to be done, Serge?" cried the boy, at last.
"Steady the ponies and let them get their wind again."
This was done, the gallop being turned into a gentle trot and from that into a walk, while the fugitives watched the slow, steady advance of the barbarians, who in their way, in spite of the name they received, appeared to be nearly as civilised as the Romans themselves.
Their intent now seemed to be to make sure of the capture of the chariot and its occupants as they kept on closing up and gradually narrowing the extent of the open plain about which the galloping evolutions had taken place.
"It's just as if they knew that we were the bearers of an important message, Serge," said Marcus.
"Seems like it, boy, but it is not," was the reply. "We're enemies and invaders on their lands, and they mean to take us at all costs. It looks bad too."
"What does?" said Marcus, sharply.
"The country being up like this. It looks bad for our army, boy. I'm beginning to think that Julius has had to fight every step of the way he has come, and if our message was not what it is I should say it was our soldierly duty to give up attempting to get through with it."
"What!" cried Marcus, with a look of horror, as he turned from watching the approaching enemy spreading out more and more over the open plain.
"I said if it wasn't what it is," said Serge, quietly.
"But you wouldn't give up, Serge, come what may?"
"Do I look the sort of man to give up when I have work to do?"
"No, no," cried Marcus, warmly. "It was wrong of me to think it even for a moment. But now, Serge, our way lies away to the left."
"No, boy; I've been watching every turn we took, and if we kept on as we are now we should about be in the line our army took."
"Then we must make a brave dash now and with lowered spears gallop right through them."
"And come down before we were half through their line, boy."
"Oh, don't oppose what seems to be the only plan, Serge!" cried the boy, appealingly.
"I oppose it because it means being killed or taken prisoners."
"Then what can we do?" cried Marcus.
"I'll tell you what's best, boy," said the old soldier, thoughtfully. "They're a long way off us, both in front and on the left."
"Ah, try and trick them?" cried Marcus. "I know!"
"That's right, then, boy," said Serge, with a smile. "How would you do it?"
"Why like this," cried Marcus, excitedly—"Pull up!" he cried to the driver.
The man obeyed, and the ponies stopped short, looking full of go, but with their sides marked heavily with sweat and foam.
"Now," cried Marcus, laying down his spear and leaping out of the chariot, "out with you both. Lie down, Lupe! Quiet, sir!"
The driver and Serge sprang from their places and followed Marcus to the heads of their steeds, to begin patting and caressing them in the full sight of the army.
"Now," continued Marcus, "you get back into the car," and the driver stepped into his place.
"Take hold of the reins and hold them ready, but sit down as if your work was done. You, Serge, lead one pony; I'll lead the other, and we'll walk them slowly towards the enemy away here to the left."
"So as to let them think we have given up trying to escape, and are going to surrender?" said Serge, quickly. "Well done, boy! That's just about what I was going to say."
"Then," continued Marcus, "when we have slowly walked the ponies as near to the enemy as we dare, resting them all the while, I'll give the word to gallop off, and as the ponies are turned we two spring into the chariot as it passes, and we'll tear away for liberty. No stopping this time, but use our spears."
"That's right," said Serge, rubbing his hands softly; "and I think they will be so taken by surprise that we shall get through; and if we don't—"
"Well, Serge, finish what you were going to say," said Marcus, sadly.
"It will be because it couldn't be done."
"But it must be done."
Just then a faint burst of cheering came to the adventurers' ears and began to run along the line upon their left, towards which they now began to move at a walk.
The next instant it was taken up in front to their right and rear.
"They think we've surrendered, Marcus, boy," said Serge, with a chuckle. "Here, do as I do; take off your helmet and pitch it into the chariot. It will look better."
Marcus followed his companion's example, and leading the ponies, the adventurers advanced slowly towards the enemy on their left, still about a quarter of a mile away, and Marcus had the satisfaction of seeing that the men had all halted, and those on the left were awaiting their approach, while all ideas of order or discipline were at an end, the lines breaking up and becoming so many loose crowds of armed men, instead of roughly-formed Greek-like phalanxes ready for action.
Those were exciting moments, and as the time neared for giving the order for action, Marcus' heart did not fail, for it beat as strongly as ever, but a feeling of doubt began to grow as he glanced along the line of the army he was approaching, and then at the loose mass standing or moving about at right angles, and thought how impossible it would be to dash through them.
At last, when the chariot was about fifty yards from the line, and a couple of the enemy who seemed to be leaders stepped forward as if to take their weapons, Marcus, without turning his head, whispered softly:
"Ready!" was the reply.
"Then drop your rein when I say Now. You, driver, turn their heads at the same moment and gallop away."
For answer the charioteer gathered up the reins a little, when, startled at the touch, the ponies threw up their heads.
What followed looked so natural upon the movement of the steeds that when Marcus gave the word, and he and Serge stepped back together it seemed to the enemy as if the horses had snatched the reins from their hands, and when the chariot was turned rapidly, to dash off, the actions of Marcus and Serge in catching at the sides and swinging themselves in were looked upon as attempts to help the driver check the endeavours of a restive pair of horses which had taken fright and galloped away at full speed.
Consequently a burst of laughter arose, to travel down the line, every man watching the progress of the supposed runaways with delight, while the body of men, now a disorderly crowd, instead of taking the alarm and closing up with presented spears to receive and impale the runaways, caught the contagion of laughter and separated, tumbling over one another in their haste to escape the expected shock, and leaving a wide opening through which the horses tore, urged to their utmost speed by their driver's excited cries.
Seeing this, Marcus shouted to Serge, who was ready with the spears and holding out one to Marcus.
"No, no," he cried, and seeing no danger he bent over the front of the chariot, making believe to snatch at the reins, and grasping his idea Serge seemed to be seconding his efforts as they tore by, and it was not until the last of the enemy was left behind that any attempt was made to follow, while even then the idea that it was a ruse went home but slowly.
"Hurrah!" said Marcus, softly, for he did not dare to shout. "They may think what they like now; we have got the start and ought to be able to drive clear away for the army again, eh, Serge?"
"I hope so, boy, but after what I've seen I'm afraid that the passage of our army has roused up the whole country, and that we shall be meeting enemies every step of the way."
"Oh, don't say disheartening things after this escape, Serge," cried the boy, excitedly. "That's right, lad; keep them going for a bit longer, and then steady down again to give them breath. Look at the beautiful beasts, Serge. I wish we were mounted upon them, instead of letting them drag this heavy chariot."
"I'm looking at the enemy, my boy," cried Serge. "They don't seem to know the truth yet, but scores of them are coming after us at a run. I don't think they'll catch us though, for we are going four feet to their one."
"Yes, but we must not distress the horses. Steady! Steady! An easy gallop now. That's better. A quarter of an hour like this, and we can laugh at them, unless old Serge is right and enemies are ready to spring up everywhere in our way."
"Ah!" shouted Serge, at that moment, and the ponies took his cry to mean faster, and increased their speed. "No, no," he cried. "Steady, steady! Look, Marcus, boy, we are going right," and the old soldier pointed to another of the grim traces of war in the shape of an overturned chariot, with the skeletons of the horses that had drawn it looking ghastly and strangely suggestive of what might have been their fate, or might happen even yet.
Before long the crowded together lines of the enemy began to grow more and more confused; then the idea of distance manifested itself more and more, and those who had pursued melted away into the main body, while the gallant little steeds, whose pace had been slackened down into a steady hand gallop, were eased more and more, to proceed at a gentle trot such as they could easily keep up, till they were checked in the midst of a green slope that ran along by a pine wood, pleasant indications of the mountain land being left behind.
Here a clear cool stream ran prattling along, towards which the ponies stretched out their necks and were allowed to drink, their example being followed by those they had drawn, a short distance higher up, and Marcus rose looking eager and refreshed.
"We shall do it, Serge," he cried; "but I have seen no signs lately of the army having passed this way. Have you?"
Serge gave him a peculiar look.
"Yes," he said, roughly; "there has been fighting just yonder, if you look for it; but don't, boy. I want to get on gently again, and to find some sign of a farm, or peasants' hut. We must have food of some kind if we are to do our work. Let's get a little farther on, and then I must forage."
"Yes," said Marcus, sadly. "It seems waste of time, but it must be done, I suppose. But why not let the ponies browse a little here? See, they have already begun."
"Because it will be of no use for us to look about here."
"Of course not," said Marcus, hastily, and he stood looking hurriedly round, to see for the first time that all along the edge of the forest which should have been bordered with fresh green bushes, was broken down and trampled, while not far from where he stood fire had been doing its work, and a large portion was blackened stump and skeleton-like stem.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
"Seems to me, my lad," said Serge, "that we ought to have been started on this journey two days earlier."
"Yes, Serge," replied Marcus, in a despairing tone. "It's maddening. Here have we gone on, almost starved, never getting a proper night's rest—"
"Well, but that's nothing to grumble at, my boy. That's soldiering; that is what I always told you. A soldier must be ready to fast and go without sleep, and be always prepared to fight. Now, didn't I teach you that?"
"Yes, Serge, but I didn't quite understand it then."
"But you do now?"
"Oh, yes, I know now; and I wouldn't care a bit if we could only overtake them. Three times over during the past week we have been so close that half a day's march must have brought us to the army."
"That's true," said Serge; "and each time we were cut off by parties of the enemy, and driven back, just as we thought we could march in, find the master and Caius Julius, and deliver our message. Fortune of war, my lad; fortune of war."
"Misfortune of war," cried Marcus, angrily. "Here, I don't know how many days it is since we started, for days and nights and time all seem to have grown mixed up together."
"Yes, we have had rather a muddled and worrying time of it, Marcus, lad."
"And now we are just as far off as ever."
"Well, not quite, my lad."
"I feel weak for want of food, and confused for want of sleep."
"Not you! You only fancy that because you're down in the dumps. You'll be all right as soon as ever there's anything wants doing and we have tumbled by accident near to one of those parties of the enemy, who all seem to be moving the same way as we are to surround the army."
"Yes, Serge, and that's what I am afraid they are doing, and keeping us outside. It's all desperate and bad."
"Oh, I don't know. We shall get to them some time," said Serge.
"Some time!" cried Marcus, mockingly. "Our poor general with his followers must have been utterly destroyed by this time."
"Tchah! Not he! You don't know what a Roman general can do. He'll hold out for months, or kill those who are attacking him. Give it up your fashion!"
"What do you mean by my fashion?" cried Marcus, sharply.
"Give it up in despair sort of way when there's no need."
"No need!" cried Marcus, bitterly. "You seem to be blind to the danger. Why, the main army, as you must see perfectly well, has penetrated so far into the enemy's country that it is completely surrounded by the tribes that have gathered together, and are only now waiting for a favourable opportunity to fall upon it and crush it."
"Well, the army's no worse off than we are. They've surrounded us— parties of them—only we wouldn't be crushed. It's just the same with the Roman army; it won't be crushed. I've taught you times enough, boy, what our generals can do—lock their men together, shield to shield, cohort to cohort, all facing outwards and bristling with spear and sword. These barbarians are brave enough and they rush at our men meaning to crush them and sweep them out of the country; and so they keep on at it, losing more and more, before they roll back beaten."
"Yes, Serge, but only to try again."
"Oh, of course. That's right enough, but it only means to be rolled back again. Now, look here, my boy; you have got your message to deliver."
"Yes, yes, I know," cried Marcus, despairingly.
"And you are a bit disappointed because it's not done. Everything's bad, you say. It's been all misfortune since we started, and we may as well give up at once."
"Well, isn't it all true?" cried Marcus, as he stood unconsciously caressing one of the chariot horses as the pair stood ready to make another dash at a moment's notice, their driver busying himself the while with seeing to and examining the different parts of the harness.
"True! Hardly a bit of it," cried Serge. "I ought to give you a good drilling and bullying for what you said; but somehow I can't, for we have had some very hard work, and all through you have been such a brave boy."
"Oh, nonsense, Serge! You are only saying that to comfort me. You will praise me so."
"Oh no I won't," said the old soldier, gruffly. "I won't give you a bit more than's good for you, boy. When I say you have done well it means you have done well. You won't get any flattery out of me. All this trouble that we are going through is no more than you must expect. Look what we are doing, and how we stand."
Serge was sitting down on a stone, busily employed as he talked polishing and sharpening his sword as it lay across his knees, and he did not trouble himself to look up at his young companion, but kept on lecturing him in a bluff, good-humoured way, smiling to himself with satisfaction all the time.
"Now here we are, trying to overtake our army, which had some days the start of us. If I say what you think isn't right, you stop me. Well, our army has invaded the country of these Gallic tribes. The Gauls are no fools. They know Caius Julius has come to conquer them, and they don't want to be conquered. Their idea is to invade Rome and conquer us. Well, my boy, we have come into their country, and every man who can fight has been called upon to come and fight against us, so that like a big crop in a cultivated land, what has been planted has come up all over. And this crop is fighting men with swords and spears. Now we—you and me and the driver, and we ought to put the horses in, bless 'em, for they've done wonders—have come after the army, marching through this bristling crop, and you, without taking any account of what a hard job it is to get through, keep on grumbling and saying everything is bad."
"And so it is, Serge."
"It arn't, boy!" cried the old soldier, firmly, and letting his sword rest, brightly polished and sharp as it was, he now raised his head and looked smilingly in the boy's face. "Haven't you got proof of it that things are not as bad as you say?"
"No," cried Marcus, angrily. "I was entrusted with a message to my father and Caius Julius, and I have not done my task."
"Not yet, boy, but you are going to at the first chance. Why, look here, my lad, if things were half as bad as you say they are we shouldn't be here. If we have escaped once from being taken or killed we have got through a dozen times. Look at us. Why, we haven't got a scratch, and here we are, better, ever so much, than when we started."
"Better?" cried Marcus.
"Yes, better. We are a bit hungry."
"I tell you I'm half starved," cried Marcus.
"Take your belt up another hole, then, boy. That's a splendid tightener. Hungry! Why, you talk about it as if it was a disease, when it's a thing you can cure yourself the first time you get hold of a big cake and a bowl of goat's milk."
"Oh, how you talk!" cried the boy, holding out his arm and trying to span his wrist with his fingers. "Look how thin I am getting."
"Thin!" cried Serge. "Why, you look prime. You have got rid of a lot of that nasty fat that was filling out your skin through doing nothing but sit on a stool all day making scratches with a stylus on a plate of wax. What does a soldier want with fat? Your armour's quite heavy enough to carry, without your being loaded up with a lot of fat. That's right enough for women and girls; makes 'em look smooth and nice and pretty, and fills up all the holes and corners; but a soldier wants bone and muscle—good, hard, tough muscle and sinew, and that's what you have got now. Look at me."
"Yes, I have looked at you time after time, Serge, and you look hollow-cheeked and haggard and worn."
"Why, I feel prime, my boy, ready for anything; ten years younger than when we started. Why, I have got into regular fighting condition again. Did you see how I jumped into the car yesterday when the ponies started without me?"
"Yes, I saw you run ever so far and jump," cried Marcus.
"And you begin talking to me about being haggard and worn! Isn't a sword all the sharper for being a bit worn?"
"Yes, of course."
"So's a soldier. Look here, boy; we are getting seasoned, and I'm proud to say that I am what a man's officer would call a veteran, and that's the finest title there is in an army. Then, too, look at our lad here. See what a splendid driver he's turned out, and how he can send that chariot in and out among the rocks so close as almost to shave them, and right in between pairs of them where you or I would think there wasn't room to pass. And then there's the ponies! They are a bit thin, certainly, but they are as fine as bronze, and can gallop farther and better than ever. Now then! Speak out honest! Did you ever before see such a splendid pair?"
"No, Serge, never."
"And yet you say that everything's wrong and hopeless and bad. Why, boy, if I didn't know it was all through your being young and anxious and eager to do your duty, I should be ashamed of you."
"But you are not, Serge?" cried the boy, excitedly.
"'Shamed of you? No, boy. I feel proud."
"There, Serge," cried Marcus, leaving the pony, to go and lay his hand upon the old soldier's shoulder, "I've done, and I will try and never complain any more. I do see now what a lot we have to be thankful for. Now then; what's the next thing we ought to do?"
"Same as usual, my lad," said Serge, rising and sheathing his sword, which went back into its scabbard with a quick glide till the hilt was nearly reached, when it required a firm thrust to get it close into its place. "Well, to begin with, forage first. I often think it's a pity a man wasn't made like a horse. Look at those two ponies! How their coats shine in the sunshine! They began eating their breakfast before it was light, for I was watching and wakeful, and I got thinking like this as I heard them busy at it, crop and blow, crop and blow, and after they had eaten all they wanted they had a drink of water, and there they are fit for the day, while we three have got to find out some place or another where we can buy, or frighten them into giving us some bread and milk. We always have been lucky enough so far, and I don't see why we shouldn't be again to-day."
"But which way shall we go, Serge? It's of no use to try to follow up the army as we did yesterday, and then have to turn back because the enemy are between us and it."
"No, boy; I think the best thing we can do is to leave that till we have done foraging, for we must have something to eat. Then we'll try if we can't creep round these tribes, or get in between them somehow. Perhaps we may have a bit of luck to give us a little help. Anyhow, we are not going to despair."
"No, Serge," cried Marcus, firmly; "anything but that."
"Hah!" cried Serge. "That's spoken like Cracis' son."
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.
ON THE BRINK.
Evening was coming on on the following day, when, growing tired but in higher spirits, Marcus and Serge were cautiously following the traces well marked along the side of a forest which gave unmistakable evidence of the passing of a large body of men.
There had been rain some hours before, which had left the earth softened and refreshed, ready, too, for yielding to the pressure of horses' hoofs and the clearly-indicated lines formed by chariot wheels. These formed a splendid guide for the adventurers, who added their own traces as they pressed eagerly on.
"They are our people, Marcus, boy, and they are not far ahead."
"Think so, Serge?"
"Sure of it, boy. It has rained since morning, and whoever passed along here has made these marks since the rain."
"And it's certainly not a retreat, Serge, for there's no sign of fighting."
"Not a bit, my boy. It's our army on the march, and all those signs show that our men were in full fettle, ready for anything, and are pushing forward into the middle of the enemy's country. See yon mountains?"
"Mountains!" said Marcus. "You might call them hills."
"Well, hills, then; and it strikes me that we shall find these tracks lead straight to one of those green nicely-rounded tops with a pleasant slope all round. Now, there's that one there," continued Serge, pointing to a hill standing by itself; "that's just the sort of place my old officer would have picked out for his next halting camp, lead his men right to the top, mark out their places, and have them all at work before sundown, busy as bees digging out a ditch and throwing up a wall of earth in front for our men to fight behind, in case they were attacked."
Serge had hardly ceased speaking as he walked with Marcus on one side of their horses, the driver on the other, to rest the brave little animals as much as possible, when, passing round a clump of trees, following the bend of the track made by the marching army, they came more fully in view of the hills whose tops only they had seen before.
Nearest of all was the one to which Serge had drawn attention, and as this opened out more and more in the evening sunshine Marcus uttered an ejaculation and caught at his companion's arm.
"Ah!" cried Serge, starting, and he raised his hand to sign to their driver to stop, before catching at one of the ponies' reins. "What is it? Enemy?"
"I don't know," cried Marcus, excitedly. "Look!"
The old soldier shaded his eyes, and uttered a cry of joy.
"Enemy? No?" he cried. "It's just as I said. Look, boy! Our people! Our army! Far off as it is, I know them by the standards, and the way they have gone to work. Look at them! Why they look no bigger than bees from here, and it is as I said. They are forming camp as if they meant to stop for days."
"Oh, don't, Serge," cried the boy, huskily. "Don't talk like this if you are not sure. It seems too good to believe, after all that we have gone through."
"Not it, boy!" cried Serge, excitedly. "Not a bit too good. Look at all the bad we have had. Everything has another side, and there it is for us."
"Are you sure?"
"As that I am here, boy. That's the Roman army, or part of it, for I can't be certain that Julius and Cracis are there. But if it's only a part it will do for us, for the general who commands can receive our message and go to yon poor fellows' help. Now, then, forward at once, for though that camp looks so near we have miles to travel before we can march up and be stopped by their sentries ready to challenge us in the good old Latin tongue. Why, boy, you said yesterday that all was bad and everything had failed. What do you say now?"
"Forward!" cried Marcus, "and at once!"
The ponies had done little work that day, for the advance had been made cautiously on account of the many bands of the enemy's warriors which swarmed throughout the country, and the empty chariot had formed the load; but now without further conversation Marcus sprang in.
"If we walk, Serge," he said, "we shall not get there till after dark."
"And then have a lot of trouble about going up to the camp," said Serge—"perhaps get a spear in one's ribs; but I wouldn't hurry. Besides, we don't know whether the country's clear between us and them."
It was a glorious evening, and for the first time the land with its forest and verdant hills looked beautiful to Marcus by comparison with the rugged barren mountains they had traversed, and whose peaks lowered up stern and forbidding in the distance, as they glanced back from time to time.
A sharp look-out was kept, as whenever the trees were not too close the adventurers made cautious observations of the surrounding country, but nothing suggestive of the enemy was seen, the broad track made by the advancing Roman army marked their way, descending gradually from the edge of the forest into one of the valleys beyond which extended the range of verdant hills. Upon the special one that they had marked down they had a clear view of the busy soldiery passing to and fro and looking diminutive in the extreme, before the track led farther into the woody valley and the hills were completely shut out.
The distance proved greater than they had expected, but there was their guide wandering here and there up ascents or down into the depths of the valley along which meandered a lovely little river whose moist meadow-like sides were sadly trampled and cut up. Still there was no sign of danger, and the river bank was followed for some distance.
"But those hills are on the other side, Serge," said Marcus after a time.
"Yes, and before long we shall come upon a shallow place that has been forded. They'll have picked out a spot where the chariots could easily pass, and what would do for them will do nicely for us, boy. So keep on, and hold your eyes open, for where the Roman soldiers are, the enemy's men will be pretty near at hand."
Soon after, the track followed a bend of the river, going nearer and nearer, and then all at once struck straight for the bright flowing water, ending at the trampled down bank, and reappearing plainly enough on the farther side.
"Not above a foot deep," grunted Serge; and he proved to be right, the water never once coming up to the chariot's axle trees, while the ponies' hoofs just splashed in the barely covered gravel as they passed out on to the springy grass on the farther side, where the track was more plain than ever.
"Shall we get there before dark, Serge?" said Marcus, after a time.
"Hope so, boy, or we shall find it a bit hard. It's easy enough now, but when the sun's down it will be rather hard to follow the marks with all these trees overhead."
"But the path must soon begin to ascend the hill," said Marcus.
"I expect they'll have found it easier to walk round it and slope up from the other side. I dare say they've got a good deal of baggage— impedimenta, as we call it—else I should have thought that they might have struck up the valley slope at once. It will be dark before long; sooner than I expected."
"But they had the broad daylight, and of course taking a long sweep it would be much easier for the chariots."
"Yes," grunted Serge, "I don't like having it dark. We mustn't strike up at once, must we? It would be nearest."
"No," said Marcus, decisively; "we might not strike the track again, and perhaps find that we had chosen the wrong hill, and have to come back."
"Yes, that's right," said the old soldier. "Slow but sure;" and the ponies went steadily on, their hoofs rustling through the thick, moist grass where it was not trampled down.
"What's the matter, Lupe? Thirsty?" asked Marcus, as the dog raised himself up, looked over the front of the chariot, and then turned to gaze wistfully in his master's eyes. "Want water, old fellow?"
The dog gave the speaker an intelligent look and then sprang out of the chariot, and after trotting alongside for a time, bounded silently forward and disappeared.
They saw no more of him for the next quarter of an hour, and then came upon him sitting waiting at a spot where the beaten track swept away from the river.
"At last!" said Marcus, eagerly, as the ponies' heads were turned; and before they had gone many hundred yards they had the satisfaction of seeing the trees open out and the sky look lighter.
Lupe sprang on in front and disappeared, but at the end of a few minutes they came upon him again, standing gazing straight before him, motionless, while as the ponies reached him, they too stopped short.
"What does that mean?" whispered the old soldier. "Has he seen anything to scare him?"
Serge had hardly spoken when from somewhere in front there came the distant whinnying of a horse.
"From the army!" cried Marcus, excitedly. But Serge clapped his hand upon the boy's lips.
"Our army is not there," he said, in a hoarse whisper, and the driver gave a quick snatch at the reins, just as one of the ponies stretched out its neck to answer the challenge.
"Good!" said Serge, sharply. "Now then, back."
"Turn back," said Marcus, "now we are so near?"
"Yes, boy, and try to get round to the camp another way."
"You think the enemy are near?" whispered Marcus.
"And enough to make me, boy, seeing how our people have been surrounded and followed. I thought we were getting on too fast."
"But look here," said Marcus, excitedly, "I don't like to turn back without making sure. Let me go on alone and see if you are right."
"Well," said Serge, slowly, "it would be best, for then—No, I can't let you do that, boy. We'll stay here for a while till it grows darker, and then, go on together, creeping amongst the bushes to see what we can make out, and then come back to the chariot."
"Why not make a brave dash forward?" said Marcus.
Serge shook his head.
"It would be too rash," he said. "We'll take the horses into yon clump of trees, where they can stand well hidden and it will be easy to find when we come back."
"Serge, we shall never find it again in the darkness. Better keep with it," whispered Marcus, excitedly.
"Well, maybe you are right, boy. Lead on, then, my man, as silently as you can. This way."
Serge stepped in front, and with the darkness closing in fast the ponies were led forward some twenty yards and then out of the clear open space in amongst the dark patch of young growth, and the chariot was hardly hidden from the sight of anyone who might be passing along the track they were following, before Lupe uttered a low warning growl.
Marcus bent over the dog and seized him by the muzzle to keep his jaws closed, and the dog crouched down, while directly after there came the heavy tramp of advancing men, following their path exactly, and very dimly-seen from where the adventurers lay perdu a body of men, who, from the time they took in passing, must have numbered two or three thousand, came by, the dull sound of their footsteps dying out suddenly when they were some little distance away.
"Gone?" whispered Marcus, as soon as he thought it safe to speak.
"No, boy," was whispered back directly. "They've halted a little way farther on."
"What does it mean?" said Marcus.
"I believe," replied Serge, with his lips close to his young companion's ear, "that there is quite an army of the enemy in front, and that these we heard are going to join them."
"Then we ought to go on and give our people warning that they are going to be attacked."
"No need, boy," whispered Serge; "they won't catch our men lying about with their eyes shut. Careful watch has been set by now, and scouts will be well advanced. Cracis and Julius will not be caught asleep in the enemy's country. Now, then, as soon as we can feel sure that no more are coming we will try and get up to the camp."
"But you will not be able to find it in the darkness."
"I think I shall, boy," said the old fellow, confidently.
"Pst!" whispered the driver, and Lupe uttered another growl, and then had to suffer the indignity of being muzzled with Marcus' hand, till the fresh tramping sound had approached them and then passed away.
"Now, then," said Marcus, "we must risk it now."
"I'm ready," said Serge. "But what are you going to do?"
"Go back nearly to the river, and then strike for the hill which must be to our right. It will be too dark to see, but we ought to be near it before long, and we are pretty sure to be challenged."
"I can't propose anything better," said Serge. "So on at once."
The ponies were led out, and in the gloom Lupe was just seen as he stepped out in front of the chariot and started off as if to lead the way, while directly after the low, dull trampling of the ponies and the soft, crushing sound of the chariot wheels rose in the moist evening air, the ponies following the dog and the latter acting as if he perfectly well knew where his master meant to go. For some little time after the rippling of the river had reached their ears the dog struck off to the right up a very gradual slope apparently quite free from trees, keeping on for nearly an hour, before he stopped short, uttering a low, deep growl, while as it rose in the silence the driver checked the ponies, just as a sharp, low whispering of voices came from their front, and then there was silence again, while Marcus and Serge stood together in the chariot, hand clasped in hand.
WHAT SERGE THOUGHT.
The silence seemed to be awful to the listeners, who were prepared to give the word for the ponies to dash away as soon as the approach they expected commenced.
"Our people?" whispered Marcus at last, with his lips close to Serge's ear.
"No," was whispered back, and the next moment there was the heavy trampling of feet, but not towards them; and they had proof directly that they were no friends by the strange yell of defiance which suddenly rang out in response to a challenge given in the unmistakable Roman tongue.
"Oh!" whispered Marcus, excitedly. "Our people, and so near! We must go forward now."
"No, not yet, boy. Hark! Yonder are our people speaking out, and the fight is beginning."
"A night attack," whispered Marcus, hoarsely, and with his heart beating heavily.
"Yes, boy, and as far as I can make out the hill and camp have been surrounded. Now, then, the darkness may prove to be our friend. What do you say? Shall we try to join our people, or fall back till morning, when we can see what is best for us to do?"
"Try and join the army," said Marcus, firmly. "If the hill is surrounded we shall be getting into fresh danger by attempting to fall back."
"Yes," said Serge, in a low, deep voice, and no further word was uttered. Lupe gave vent to an impatient growl, and the ponies from time to time stamped uneasily as if eager to advance, while away to right and left rose, all the more horrible for the darkness, the clash of arms and roar of voices, mingled with the loud braying of trumpets, followed by the responsive shouts of the soldiery. There were moments when the tide of battle seemed to flow in the direction of the chariot, but only to be beaten back and sway to and fro.
Then, Marcus never afterwards knew how it happened—all he could recall was a fragment or two of their situation—Serge had just almost shouted in his ear, having to raise his voice to make himself heard, that they must at all costs make a dash to get away, and he himself had laid his hand on their driver's shoulder to bid him drive on, when he found that he was too late. For all at once he discovered that the battle was raging close at hand, right in front of the horses' heads, and directly after as they were swung round in the opposite direction for the occupants of the chariot to seek safety, there was a rush of armed men. These came into contact with another body, and so it was that whichever way they turned there was the wild turmoil and fury of the fight going on, while as far as Marcus could make out, one minute the Roman soldiers were driving the barbarians back and carrying all before them, but only to be overwhelmed in turn by some tremendous wave of the enemy in the shape of reinforcements, which raged and swirled round the more disciplined men, carrying them back by sheer weight of numbers in the direction from which they had come.
Both Marcus and Serge seemed to bear a charmed life. They made no attempt to use their weapons, and their position in the car had something to do with their escape from injury as they held on to the front, to be borne here and there by their frantic horses, while naturally enough Roman and Gaul, where they were crowded together in contention, yielded and made way for the plunging and rearing steeds, whose hoofs seemed to them for the time being more dangerous than the weapons of a foe.
How long all this lasted Marcus never knew.
It was enough for his brain to take in the wild horrors of the fierce fight and its many changes till all at once in the dim light shed by the stars the chariot horses had borne him and Serge partly out of the fierce crowds of fighting men.
Encounters were taking place all around in single combat, and charges and counter charges made by little parties who were separated from the main body crowded together in the central portions of the battlefield; and snatching at the opportunity, Serge, spear in hand, leaned over to Marcus and, pointing forward to an opening in front, shouted to him to bid their driver make for that gap in the human wall.
Marcus planted his spear shaft sharply down upon the floor of the chariot to steady himself, as he leaned down to the driver to utter his commands, and the next minute the fiery little steeds were tearing away at full gallop along the open space, as if in their wild excitement they were eager to escape from the savage scenes and bloodshed going on around.
But before a hundred yards had been traversed, the sea of human beings closed in again, completely filling up the opening, and seeming about to entirely stop the fugitives' course.
Serge and the driver, both now as excited as the horses, burst forth into a wild cry of command, and this and the sight of the dimly-seen approaching steeds thundering along had their effect. The crowd opened out again just as the driver's efforts were rewarded and he was able to check the furious gallop of his steeds and save them from plunging into the mass of friend and foe alike.
The gallop became a trot, the trot a gentle amble, as the chariot now rolled slowly on to where about a score altogether of Romans and Gauls, each party headed by an officer, were just in the act of meeting, pretty evenly balanced, in deadly combat.
As with wild shouts they rushed together with sword and spear clashing loudly against helmet, shield, or the protecting body armour they wore, the driver of Marcus' chariot dragged upon his left rein to try and swing round to avoid the contending foes. But in the darkness he did not grasp that which was on his left, and Marcus became aware by a sudden jerk that their further progress was at an end, the chariot being wedged in between a couple of trees, while the horses were plunging wildly to escape from a tangle of bush and branch, and the driver had leaped out to seize them by their heads.
"Look, look!" shouted Serge just then.
Marcus, who had had to cling to the sides of the chariot to save himself from being thrown out, turned sharply to learn the meaning of his old comrade's cry, and he was just in time to see him throw himself over the chariot's side, evidently to hurry to the help of the Roman officer and his few men, who, completely outnumbered, were being beaten down by two or three times their number of Gauls.
Serge said no more in words; his acts spoke for themselves, and grasping that he meant at all costs to go to the help of the Roman officer, Marcus stood for a moment spear in hand and hurled it with all his might at four of the barbarians who were attacking the Roman leader, who was cut off from his companions and faring badly, in spite of a valorous defence, at his enemies' hands.
It was pretty nearly momentary, but Marcus took all in at a glance. He saw that their coming and the dash of the chariot had had their effect upon a portion of the Gauls, who turned and fled, while some of their fellows were beating back the few Roman soldiers left unhurt.
There were enough still, though, of the Gauls to rush at spear-armed Serge with a yell of triumph, and Marcus, as he saw the sturdy old soldier making furious play with his spear, snatched out his sword to rush to his help; but his course was diverted by that which he saw just beyond, dimly enough, but with sufficient vividness to go straight to his heart.
It was the Roman officer staggering back with his helmet falling from his head from a blow he had just received from one Gaul, while, taking advantage of his momentary helplessness, a second rushed at him with his spear, bore him down backwards, and with a yell of triumph planted one foot upon his chest and drove his spear with all his force right at his throat.
There was a curious crashing sound as the spear point was turned aside by the finely-tempered gorget the Roman wore, and with a snarl the Gaul raised his weapon again for a second blow.
He made the thrust, but it was caught midway by the sword of Marcus, who ended his rush to the Roman's help with a bound; his keen sword met the descending spear shaft, cutting it right through as if it were a twig, while he who wielded the sword came with all his weight full upon the Gaul's chest and sent him rolling over and over upon the ground.
Marcus, too, came heavily to earth, but it was upon hands and knees, and, still retaining his sword, he scrambled to his feet again at the same time as the Gaul, who raised his headless spear on high to bring it down upon the head of his assailant.
But at that moment Marcus was reinforced by the officer whose life he had saved, and who, regaining his feet, cut down the Gaul and turned to meet his next enemy; for about a dozen men came at him with a rush, but only to be borne back in turn by a rallying party of the Romans, who, coming at their officer's help, sprang at the Gauls, to be swept on in turn by a tremendous rush in which Marcus was trampled down, to lie half insensible for a few minutes before he struggled up, looked round, and than staggered towards the trees in which the chariot was entangled, while the horses were still being held by the driver.
Here Marcus supported himself, panting and breathing hard, by the edge of the chariot. He was giddy, and the dim battlefield seemed to be heaving and slowly gliding round before his eyes. There was a curious feeling of sickness troubling him and an intense longing for a draught of water, while his thoughts were all, so to speak, broken and confused and mingled together with a selfish feeling that he must be very badly hurt.
By degrees, though, the various objects began to settle down, and the roar of battle and clash of arms gave place slowly to a dull, singing noise in his ears. Then, as if by a sudden jump, his power of thinking lucidly came back, and he looked round for the officer he had tried to help.
But he was not there. Some twenty or thirty dead and wounded men were scattered about as they had fallen, some few of whom wore the armour of Roman soldiers, but for the most part they were Gauls, and Marcus looked in vain for the object of his search.
Then he turned giddy again, for a mental cloud seemed to close him in, and he snatched at his helmet and dragged it off, when the cool night wind that played upon his heated brow brought with it a sense of relief, and he thought clearly again, not of self but of Serge, and with a cry of horror he ran from where he had stood, to bend over each of the prostrate Roman soldiers in turn, uttering a sigh of relief as he raised himself up, replaced his helmet, and looked round, fully conscious now that the tide of war had swept right away to a distance. The fighting was still going on, and the cries and the clashing of weapons were strangely commingled, but faintly heard. One side had evidently won the battle and was driving its enemies before it. But were was Serge?
Marcus turned to where the driver was still soothing the horses, but he could give him no information. He had not seen Serge since he leapt from the chariot and was lost directly in the crowd of fighting men. Marcus stepped back to the spot where his own encounter had taken place, and looked round again for a few moments, but though he could see several prostrate bodies Serge's was not one, and going on and on in the dim starlight he was to some extent able to follow the course of the fighting men by those they had left behind, till he grew confused as to his position and began to retrace his steps.
It was not easy, for he had nothing to guide him, and some considerable space of time had elapsed before, utterly worn out and disheartened, he made out a clump of trees, towards which he now directed his steps in the hope that it might be the one in which the chariot had been entangled.
To his great delight, as he approached, he heard the voice of the driver talking to the horses, and, hurrying on, he found that he was approaching the chariot from the opposite side to that he had left. The next minute he was tugging his sword from its sheath, for an armed man suddenly rose up from just in front, and as the boy's sword fell to his side, caught him in his arms.
"And I thought you were dead—I thought you were dead!" came in a familiar, deep, gruff voice, broken by sobs. "Oh, Marcus, my boy, where have you been?"
"Looking for you, Serge."
"You have? Well, that's what I have been doing for you."
"But where were you?" cried Marcus.
"I d'know, boy, only that I have been fighting. I was hard at it when there was a rush, and I was carried along with all the rest, getting a hit now and then at one of the enemy, but not often, for they don't fight fair. They all crowd at you together, and I got the worst of it badly."
"Then you are wounded?" cried Marcus. "No, boy; but I lost my spear."
"Lost your spear?" cried Marcus, staring. "Yes, boy; this 'ere's only a savage one."
"But you are not hurt?" cried Marcus again.
"Not hurt?" cried Serge. "Why, boy, I just am. Battered and banged and hit all over. If it hadn't been for the goodness of my armour there wouldn't have been no Serge—nothing left but a few bits. But you, my boy?"
"Oh, I'm very sore and bruised and sprained, but nothing worse. But that officer, Serge, that we went to help?"
"Ah!" cried Serge. "That officer we went to help! What about him? You didn't let him be killed, boy?"
"No; I remember he got up and fought again."
"That's right, boy; but where is he now?"
"I don't know," cried Marcus. "I was trampled down and lost my senses. Don't you know what became of him?"
"No," said Serge, "and I don't care, boy now that I have found you. Here, don't let's stand talking, but help to get out that chariot. I want to get up to the Roman camp."
"Can we? Did our people win?"
"Win? Why, of course, my lad! Romans never fail."
"Quick, then!" cried Marcus. "The chariot, and then up to the camp. There's the message; and let's hope my father's there."
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.
THE GENERAL'S TENT.
The driver's face lit up as he saw Marcus and Serge come to his help, for the battle was as nothing to him compared to the state of the chariot and horses; and he eagerly set to work over the extraction of the vehicle, which, though splintered and battered, was not much the worse for the accident, and was soon dragged out from where it had been wedged close to the spot where the horses, now quit calmed, had settled down to browse upon the grass, which grew in abundance outside the clump of trees.
It was the harness which had fared the worst, but the driver and Serge were both pretty handy, and by the time the day dawned tying and lacing had done their work, so that, excepting appearance, the ropes, straps and thongs were as good as ever, and, tired and anxious, Marcus hurried his companions into the chariot to start for the camp.
Guessing at the direction where the slope led, they had just started when they were encountered by a minor officer at the head of a party of men, who looked hard at them and accosted them with:
"Have you seen anything of an overturned chariot in a clump of trees?"
"Yes," said Marcus, smiling.
"Which way?" cried the officer, who looked surprised at Marcus' way of receiving the question.
"Straight down that slope," said Marcus. "You can almost see the trees from here."
The officer nodded his thanks and was turning away, but Marcus stopped him by saying:
"The chariot is not there now."
"No; this is it."
"Ah!" cried the officer, eagerly. "Then you are the youth and this is the man I want."
"What for?" asked Marcus, flushing slightly.
"Oh, you'll know soon enough. My chief has sent me to find you. It is for something that took place in the fight last night."
"Something that took place in the fight last night?" faltered Marcus, wearily. "But tell me, did the Romans win the battle?"
"Oh, yes, of course; but don't stop to talk. I must make haste back. You haven't been murdering and plundering the people, have you?"
"No, of course not," cried Marcus, sharply.
"So much the better for you," said the officer, shortly. "Come along."
He gave orders to some of his men to form up behind the chariot, and with the rest he placed himself in front, and gave the order to march, leading off at once to the left of the route in which the chariot had been moving when it was stopped.
"Why, anyone would think that we were prisoners," said Marcus, who felt annoyed, but, satisfied that they were being taken to the camp, he thought of his message and was content. He, however, reached over the front of the chariot and called to the young officer, asking who was in command of the army.
The young man looked at him superciliously.
"What is it to you?" he said, shortly. "Ask the general himself when you come before him, and then perhaps you will be able to explain why you who are Romans have come to be fighting on the side of the Gaul."
"What!" said Marcus. "Do you know that—"
"Never mind what I know, my lad," said the officer, shortly, "and don't speak to me again in that free off-hand tone. Please to understand that I am an officer and you a prisoner. Forward, and mind this: any attempt to escape will be followed by a shower of spears."
"Thanks," said Marcus, sarcastically; and he turned to Serge.
"I shall not tell him why we have come," he said, with his face of a deeper red than before.
"That's right, boy," growled Serge. "We don't want him to be civil; all we want is for him to take us to the general. You can tell him why we have come."
They were ascending a slope that grew more and more steep, and the morning would have seemed beautiful to Marcus, whose heart beat high at the prospect of being able to deliver his message to the general in command, whoever it might be; but the beauty of the scene and the approaching sunrise were marred by the traces left by the battle, which they were constantly passing: the dead here, wounded men waiting for help there; the trampled and stained earth everywhere. It was a pleasant relief when the top of the hill they were ascending had been reached, though it showed no trace of any camp till the descending slope came into view, and then the adventurers found that they had to cross a valley, beyond which, with the trench and banks showing in rich brown tints gilded by the rays of the rising sun, was the Roman camp, with its few tents and moving columns of men passing up the flanks of the steep hill upon which it stood, evidently returning in regular order from the pursuit of the scattered foes who had resisted the attack upon the invader during the past night.
In his eagerness Marcus gave an order to the driver for the chariot to advance down the slope and cross the valley at a trot; but the officer turned upon him angrily, and ordered two of his spear-armed men to take the ponies by the rein, and in this fashion Marcus and his companion were led right to the centre of the camp before one of the tents, up to whose entrance the officer marched, spoke to another who was on guard, and then entered.
"Got all you want to say ready?" whispered Serge.
"Yes," whispered back Marcus. "Oh, if he would only be quick! This is all wasting time."
The young officer was quick enough, for he returned directly, and his manner seemed changed as he stepped up to the chariot.
"Follow me, sir," he said. "The generals will see you directly."
Marcus' heart beat quicker than ever now, as he sprang from the chariot, wincing slightly from his stiffness, while Serge limped and screwed up his face as he strove in vain to hold himself erect.
It was bright with the early sunshine outside the tent, where Marcus now found himself face to face with a stern-looking man in the dress of a general, who sat with his hand resting upon his helmet.
But he was not alone, for another officer was lying upon a rough couch, evidently, from his bandaged head, wounded; but he was fully dressed, and his helmet and sword were upon the rolled-up cloak at the side of his averted head.
"You are welcome," began the sitting general, warmly. "I have sent for you to give you the thanks of my injured friend, whose life—Why, what is this! My severe young friend Marcus here!"
"What!" came from the couch, and its occupant sprang into a sitting position.
"Father!" cried Marcus, and Serge, who had doffed his helmet, now in his astonishment let it fall upon the skins which covered the ground with a heavy thud.
As Marcus spoke he ran to his father's side and sank down upon one knee to gaze anxiously in his face.
"Are you much hurt?" he said, hoarsely.
"No, no, not much, my boy," said Cracis; "but in the excitement I did not know you, Marcus. Oh, it seems impossible that you could have been my preserver!"
"It was more Serge than I, father," cried Marcus, quickly.
"Nay, nay, nay!" growled the old soldier, in his hoarsest tones. "Speak the truth, boy."
"That is the truth," cried Marcus, quickly.
"I helped, of course, but it was him, master, who made that cut at the Gaul's spear and knocked him over. But we neither of us knew that it was you."
"But you, Marcus, my boy," said Cracis, as he gazed wonderingly in his son's face, while Caius Julius watched them both in turn—"you knew me, of course?"
"No, father," replied Marcus, whose face was scarlet now with excitement. "I only saw that it was a Roman officer."
"And you dashed at once to his help," said Caius Julius, smiling. "Well, it was a brave act then, while now I scarcely know what to call it. Why, Marcus, you must feel very proud of what you have done."
"Stop!" cried the boy, quickly, eager to end the words of praise and compliment.
"Yes, stop," said Cracis, sternly. "You here, Marcus, in a soldier's armour, and Serge as well! Is this the way my commands are obeyed? Why are you here?"
"To bring the message of the general commanding the rear-guard, father. He is shut in on the snowy pass that crosses the mountain, and held there by many times his number of the enemy; and he sent me and Serge to the army here to ask for help."
"He sent you, boy?" cried Cracis, quickly.
"Yes, father," replied Marcus, "and I was to say that at all cost he would hold out till help was sent."
"Help shall be sent at once," said Cracis, firmly; "or better still, Julius," he continued, "our work being so far completed, with yesterday's victory, we will march to his help ourselves."
Caius Julius bent his head without saying a word, and then sat back in his seat, attentively watching father and son.
"But your message did not answer my question, boy," said Cracis, coldly. "Marcus, my son, how came it that you were with the little army that at my orders was to follow in our wake, crushing down the Gauls who would be sure to gather after we had passed? Speak out, sire: how came you there?"
"I could not bear it, father: something seemed to tell me that you would be in danger, and I followed you to Rome, and then on here."
"Then you disobeyed my commands, boy," said Cracis, sternly; and Marcus sank upon his other knee, clasped his hands, and held them out before him. Closing his eyes then he threw back his head and was silent while one might have slowly counted ten. Then in a low, distinct tone, full of sorrow and despair, he said slowly:
"Yes, father; I disobeyed your command."
"And you, Serge, my old and trusted servant, old soldier though you were," continued Cracis, in tones that sounded icy, "as soon as my back was turned you plotted with my son to follow me and forsake your post."
"Nay, master," cried Serge, quickly; "there was no plotting. I deserted first."
"Hah!" ejaculated Caius Julius again, and his clearly-cut face looked as if it were formed of marble.
"Worse and worse," cried Cracis, angrily. "Then you set the example which my weak son followed?"
"No, father," cried Marcus, quickly; "I did not know that Serge had gone."
"Ah!" said Cracis, quickly. "What excuse have you to make, sir, for deserting your post?"
"I didn't, master," cried the old soldier, stoutly. "I didn't desert my post. My post was where I was last night, at my master's side. It was my post that deserted me."
"What!" cried Cracis, angrily. "Insolent!"
"Nay, master," cried the old soldier; "I'm as humble as young Marcus there, and I'd kneel down just the same as he's a-doing now, but them Gauls knocked me about so in the fight that my legs won't bend. Look here, master; I couldn't help it. I was just like the boy there; I felt somehow that you'd want your old follower's help, and I was obliged to come and join you. You see, we came together, and reached you just in time."
"You disobeyed my commands, Serge," said Cracis, speaking as if deaf to his old follower's appealing words. "You too, my son; but the words of both tell of the repentance in your breasts. Prove, then, by your next acts that you are willing to make amends. Silence! Do not speak, but act. The horrors and bloodshed of this campaign are not for my son and servant. You, Serge, do your duty as guardian—you, Marcus, yours, in obedience at once. Back home at once, and I will forgive."
"And leave you now, father, wounded, amidst all these perils?" cried Marcus, wildly. "I cannot! I would sooner die!"
Cracis started angrily to his feet and tore the bandage from his head, as at that moment two officers advanced as if to receive commands.
"You hear me, Marcus?" he cried, sternly. "You hear me, Serge?"
"Yes, master," said the old soldier, slowly, and making an effort with his bruised and stiffened limb, he slowly passed his hand across to his left side and drew his short, heavy sword, passed the hilt into his left so that he could clasp the blade with his right, and in that way held it out to Cracis as he went on speaking: "I disobeyed you once, master, and that's enough for a Roman soldier. Take hold. I've kept it as sharp as it was in the old days when I followed you to victory, ready to die for you, master, as I am this day, for I can't live to disobey you again. Take it, I say, master, and let me die at once; better that you should cut me down than that I should myself fall upon my sword, for that has always seemed to me a coward's death."
"Stop, Serge!" cried Marcus, passionately, and he laid his hand upon his old comrade's blade. "I am a Roman, if only a boy, and I have the right to appeal."
Turning to Caius Julius, he cried:
"You refused me once, sir, when I appealed to you, saying that I was but a weak unseasoned boy—not in those words, but that is what you meant."
Caius Julius gravely bent his head, and fixed his keen, glittering eyes upon the speaker, who went on:
"Since then I have tried hard to prove myself worthy to bear the arms I was taught by an old soldier to use."
The general bowed his head slowly once again.
"Then help me, sir. It is from no desire to disobey, but I feel that I cannot leave my father now. Forgive me, father. I cannot obey you. Forgive me, too, for this appeal."
"Yes," said Caius Julius, rising from his seat and taking a step or two forward. "You both disobeyed, and came here bearers of an important despatch which means more than you, boy, can imagine, in time to save a father's and a master's life. Serge, old comrade," he continued, laying his hand upon the unsheathed sword, "keep your blade for our enemies. If it prove necessary I will kneel for you to my oldest friend and ask his forgiveness for you and my brave young soldier here. Boy," he continued, "you have confessed your fault as your father's son, but since he left you, a simple scholar, you have become a soldier and bravely done your duty in your country's cause. Cracis, my brother general, I grant your son's appeal. Endorse it, man, for a fault so frankly acknowledged is half atoned."
"I must have obedience," said Cracis, coldly, "not defiance, at a time like this."
"I feel with you, old friend," said Caius Julius, slowly, "but your wounds have fevered you, and it has not been cool, calculating Cracis who has spoken, but the angry, offended general. Brother, you desire that your old servant and your son should return home at once?"
"Yes," said Cracis, speaking faintly now.
"How?" said Caius Julius, quickly. "Alone, to fight their way through the thousands of half conquered Gauls who will bar their way to the pass where the great captain is waiting for help?"
Cracis looked wildly at his brother in arms, and then slowly turned his eyes upon his son—eyes that had flashed but a short time before, but which now softened into a look of loving pride, as he slowly sank back insensible upon his rough pillow, Marcus darting to his side.
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO.
"MY OWN BRAVE BOY!"
The speech Cracis made when he recovered from the fainting fit brought on by emotion when he was weak and prostrate from his wounds, and found Marcus by his side bathing his face, was very short, setting the boy's heart at rest and telling him that the past was entirely forgiven; and the stern Roman judge merged once more in the loving father. For the speech was this:
"My own brave boy!"
"Ah!" cried Caius Julius, who had just hurried back, after having been away for a very brief time giving the orders which had set the whole camp in motion. "This is bad for you, Cracis, for we start at once straight for the pass, and as fast as we can go. Do you think you will be able to sit a horse?"
"I will," said Cracis, firmly. "Yes, I am better now. My wounds are mere scratches, and once I get to-day and to-night over I shall be nearly myself again."
"Nearly," said Caius Julius, with a smile. "Well, we shall see. What do you say, nurse?"
Marcus flushed up at the term by which he was addressed.
"If my father says he will do a thing he will," cried the boy.
"No doubt," said the general; "but do you feel well enough to give me your counsel and make any suggestions about our return?"
"Yes, certainly," was the reply. "First, then, tell me if you are fully aware of our position."
"Yes," said Julius, "we have scattered the Gauls in every direction, and as soon as we start they will take it for granted that we are so disheartened that we are hurrying back through the country in full retreat, and they will begin to flow back upon us like a great tide, fiercer and more venturesome than ever."
"That is enough," said Cracis. "I ought to have known your feelings, but nearly helpless as I am, I was afraid that last triumph would make you over confident, and that our followers would take their cue from their leader and become careless at a time when our position will be more hazardous than ever."
"Trust me, Cracis; I shall be ready for the enemy at any moment. Now, Marcus, can I leave your father in your charge?"
"No," said Cracis, before the boy could speak, "I am not going to be a burden to our men and join the train of litters and our wounded. My son Marcus and his old follower, Serge, will join one of the cohorts, and you will place him where I am sure he would like to be as his father's son."
"And that is—?" said Caius Julius.
"Where would you like to be, my boy?"
Marcus flushed deeper than ever as he replied:
"Serge always taught me, father, that the place of honour was in the front."
That morning, as the army moved off in perfect order from their camp upon the hill, a message came to where Marcus was marching on one side of his father's horse, Serge limping stiffly along on the other, that the boy was to come forward to join his cohort at once, by the general's orders; and Marcus started upon seeing that the messenger, at the head of ten stern-looking veterans, was the young officer who had fetched him to the general's tent.
There was a brief and soldierly leave-taking, and then Marcus was hurrying forward with his guide, who began at once to falter out hurriedly his apologies for his former treatment of the boy.
"I didn't know," he said. "I couldn't tell who you were. I thought you were to be a prisoner brought in as a traitorous Roman who had been fighting on the enemy's side."
"Don't say a word more," cried Marcus, holding out his hand, and, the best of friends directly, the young officer began to tell him how all that he had done was known in the cohort, and how proud the men were to have Cracis' son appointed to join their ranks.
"Ah," said Serge, as soon as he could get an opportunity to speak to Marcus alone, "do you see how I am marching now, my lad?"
"Oh, I have been watching you all the way," cried Marcus, "and pitying you."
"What!" growled the old soldier.
"You seemed so lame and in such pain. I don't know what has become of our chariot, but as that's gone you ought to be in one of the litters carried by the slaves."
"Wha-a-at!" growled the old soldier, making the interjection as long in its utterance as half a dozen six-syllabled words. "Well, I do call this hard! The knocking about you have had must have got into your head, my lad, and upset your eyes. Why, you can't see a bit!"
"What do you mean?" cried Marcus.
"Why, this, boy. When I began to march after that young cockerel had brought the orders, I was so stiff that I could hardly put one leg before the other; but the very news of you being appointed to take your place in one of the leading cohorts of the army has acted like salve, and all my stiffness is as good as gone. Carried in a litter by slaves! Me! Do I look the sort of fellow who wants carrying in a litter like a sick woman? Bah! Why, before we get far on the march we shall have the enemy closing in on all sides, and the fight beginning."
"Think so, Serge?"
"Yes, my boy. We have got our work cut out, for they'll never believe till it's knocked into them that we are not making a retreat. Me in a litter!" he growled. "Just you wait a bit, and I shall be showing that I have got a little fighting left in me."
Serge proved his words the very next day, when, after many hours' marching painfully in the ranks, pretty close to where his young master had been appointed a junior officer, and been received by the men with cheers, a desperate attack was made upon this, the advance guard, by a perfect crowd of fierce Gallic warriors made up of the scattered remnants of the beaten army, who came down upon the marching cohort like the sea upon some massive rock. So fierce was the onslaught that though the Roman ranks remained comparatively unbroken, they were pressed back by the sheer weight of their enemies, but only to recoil, and as they advanced to recover their lost ground, it was over the bodies of some of their wounded men, and to Marcus' horror he found himself once more called upon to dash forward to another's help. This time, however, it was not blindly and in the dusk, for a shiver of dread ran through him, knowing how crippled his old companion was, when he saw that Serge was one of those who had been unable to keep his place in the rank when the Romans were driven back, and that now he was defending himself and striving to hold his own against the attack of three of the Gauls. Tearing off his helmet, as if it were an incumbrance, and making his short sword flash through the air, Marcus rushed to his old companion's help, but too late to save him being hurled heavily to the ground, while, ready as he was to contend against ordinary weapons, this barbaric method of attack confused and puzzled him. One of his half-nude enemies made as if to flinch from a coming blow, and then sprang up, hurling something through the air, and in an instant the boy found himself entangled in the long cord of strips of hide, which was dragged tight above his arms and crippled the blow he would have struck, while as he was jerked round the Gaul's companions flung themselves upon his back, and for the moment he was prisoner in his turn.
The struggle that followed was brief, for the blade Marcus wielded was that in which old Serge had taken pride, feeling as he did that his master's son should be armed with a weapon that was keenest of the keen. Fortunately, too, the aim of the enemy was to make a prisoner of the well-caparisoned young Roman, and not a slay, so that Marcus, in spite of the way in which his arms were dragged to his side, was able to turn the point of his sword upward, and give one thrust between the cord and his breast, when the rope parted like tinder upon the razor-like edge, and his enemies started back from the sweep of the terrible blade he whirled above his head.
Staggered for the moment, they were preparing for a fresh attack when Serge, uttering a deep growl like a wounded lion, sprang to his feet, after snatching his sword from where it lay.
That was enough for the three Gauls, who turned at once and fled, for a rank of the Roman soldiers was advancing, and as they closed up, Marcus and Serge were free to take their places in the line once more as if nothing had happened, and the advance guard steadily pressed on.
There was a fortnight's hard fighting carried on day by day, with a succession of halts for the formation of camps in the strongest positions that offered themselves as havens of refuge against a teeming enemy which refused to be crushed and constantly swarmed round the retiring Roman army, perfectly reckless of life, and apparently content with the smallest advantages that they could gain.
Rolled back one day by a Roman charge, the Gauls gathered together again during the night to attack and harass the retiring troops; but all was in vain, for step by step Caius Julius carried all before him, and the help that Marcus had been sent to seek gradually drew nearer to the beleaguered force till one morning, as the army came into position to continue its march, Marcus was passing along the ranks and halted by Serge, who eagerly drew his attention to the glittering snow upon the mountains a mile or two in front.
"See that?" he cried. "Why, before long we shall reach that stream and be marching into that great hollow among the mountains where we stopped that day with the chariot to see our general lead his men up into the pass. Why, to-night we ought to be camping there amongst the snows; and a nice change too, my boy, for its been rather hot work for about a fortnight now."
"Yes," said Marcus, quietly; "but according to the tidings the scouts have been bringing in all through the night, the Gauls are swarming in that great amphitheatre between here and the pass, and all promises for the biggest fight that the army has yet had."
Serge took off his helmet and rubbed one ear thoughtfully, as he gazed straight before him in the direction of the pass.
"Well," he said, slowly, "I shouldn't wonder if such a fight did come off, and if it does it will be hard and fierce. I shouldn't wonder if it is what your father means. That used to be the way we went on: he planned where the fight was to be, and Caius Julius went on and won. I remember every bit of that amphitheatre place, and what a death trap it seemed. You know the captain would not stay in it when the Gauls had surrounded him, but left the way clear for us to go for the help we've brought, and led his force right up into the pass so as to make the enemy follow him. Now our generals are scheming to get the Gauls, who have kept on attacking us front, rear and flanks, right into that amphitheatre of a place in the mountains, where they mean, so it seems, to make a stand and stop our getting up by the pass—for that's what they think we mean to do—so as to join forces with him who is holding it still."
"But is he holding it still?" said Marcus. "The scouts that were sent out last night as soon as it was dark have not yet returned."
"Yes they have," said Serge, quickly. "I saw them come back an hour ago, and make for the general's headquarters."
Serge was right, for one of his comrades had heard the result of their investigation, the news they brought back being that their leader was still holding the pass, and, what was more, he was well supplied with provisions, for the country people on the farther slope, realising the strength of the Roman general's position, had judged it best to accept the conquest, and, making friends, had kept up an ample supply of food, so that the little force which kept the gateway into Gaul and commanded the approaches on either side, had had no greater difficulties to contend with than an occasional attack on the part of the enemy.
This being made known to Serge, he laughed softly.
"There, you'll see how our generals will carry to-day's work out, my lad. That's it: Cracis has calculated upon its being like this, and this place will be instead of a retreat a masterly scheme which will end this war."
"How?" said Marcus.
"How? Why, in the way your father has arranged. You'll see that when we advance the general will throw out two wings to secure the little hollows by which the Gauls have been advancing, till he has got round them, and then, and then only, he will advance his centre. Do you see?"
"Not quite," said Marcus, "though I am trying to follow you."
"Well, I should have thought you would have been soldier enough to have seen what would follow."
"A desperate fight?" said Marcus.
"Most likely, boy; but don't you see what will happen then?"
"A horrible slaughter, Serge," said Marcus, excitedly.
"Perhaps, boy, but it may happen that when the enemy finds how he has been out-manoeuvred and that he is trapped he may surrender."
"But everything has proved that the enemy is too stubborn for that."
"He has never been in such a fix as this yet, my boy."
"But he has equal chances with us, Serge, and may fight to the last and drive us back."
"Not when he finds out the truth."
"That our men are better disciplined than his?"
"No, boy; he must have found that out long ago. Not that, but that, as I said before, he has been completely out-manoeuvred by your father."
"Well, you said that before, Serge," said Marcus, impatiently; "but I don't see matters as you do, though I have tried very hard."
"Then you ought to have seen," cried the old soldier, gruffly. "The captain is still holding the pass, isn't he?"
"Yes, we have heard so."
"Well, boy, knowing him, do you think he will go on holding it without doing anything when we advance and close the enemy in more and more?"
"Ah! I see now!" cried Marcus, eagerly. "He will come down from the pass with his men, and attack the Gauls in the rear."
"To be sure he will, and do the greater part of the fighting and driving the enemy on to our troops. Why, in a very short time, as I see it, I mean after the attack, half their men will be prisoners, for no matter how clever the Gaul general may be he is bound to give up or have his forces cut down to a man."
"Yes," said Marcus, eagerly.
"Just you take warning, then, boy, by this day's work: never you, when you grow up to be a general with an army at your command, never you let yourself be driven into a hole like this where you may be caught between two fires."
"I never will if I can help it," said Marcus, smiling.
"Forewarned is forearmed, boy. You know now."
"Yes, Serge; but I am anxious to see what this afternoon brings forth."
"Not much but a little marching and counter marching to get things quite exact and to the satisfaction of our generals. I expect this battle will be fought out before night."
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE.
AFTER THE BATTLE.
Serge was right. The weather was glorious; the hot sun blazed down; but the heat was tempered by the gentle breeze which wafted its coolness from the snowy pass.
To one ignorant of the horrors that lurked behind, it was one grand display of armed men, with their armour glittering and standards on high, marching in different bodies as if to take part in some glorious pageant to be held in the mighty, rugged amphitheatre whose walls were mountains and whose background was formed by the piled-up masses of ice and snow, here silvery, there dazzling golden in the blaze of the afternoon sun, and farther back beauteous with the various azure tints, from the faintest tinge to the deepest purple, in the rifts and chasms far on high.
There was a grim meaning behind it all as the troops under the command of Caius Julius swept round by slow degrees to seize upon and hold the different little valleys leading into the amphitheatre, and all in a slow orderly fashion suggesting merely change of position, and as if collision with the Gallic force was the last thing likely to occur.
For as the Roman soldiery gradually advanced as if the distant pass were the object they held in view, ready for pressing through it in one long extended column, the barbarian troops gradually fell back, to form themselves into one vast dam whose object it was to check the Roman human river and roll it back broken and dismembered, ready for final destruction in the plains they had invaded.
There were moments when, as he stood beside the line of stalwart men with whom he had been placed, Marcus' thoughts were wholly upon the scene of which, from high up on a slope of one of the valleys, he had a most comprehensive view; and he too was ready to forget what was behind, as for an hour he watched and waited, until as if by magic the marching and changing of position of the thousands before his eyes had ceased.
It was evening then, with the sun sinking behind the hills in the rear of the now concentrated Roman army, while the Gauls who filled the amphitheatre and faced them were lit up, and their armour and weapons blazed as if turned to fire by the orange glow which rose and filled the mountain hollows and the pass beyond with its ever-deepening reddening haze.
Naturally enough Marcus took his stand close by Serge, who seemed to have quite recovered from the injuries which he had received, and stood up bronzed and sturdy, with his face lit up with the expectancy of one whose training taught him to foresee a triumph for the Roman arms.
"Are we all ready, Serge?" said Marcus, in a low voice.
"Yes, boy. Isn't it grand! Take the lesson to heart. You will understand it better later on, for it's too much for one so young as you to take in all at once. Look how our generals have placed their men, with never a bit of confusion from beginning to end, and all ready when the trumpets sound to advance and strike, while these Gauls, crowded up together into this great trap, don't even know as yet that their numbers will be worse than nothing, only a big crowd in which every man will be in his neighbour's way."
"But suppose they stand fast," said Marcus, "instead of giving way?"
"We shall march over them, boy, straight for the pass. Nothing can stop our advance. One of our lines may go down, but another will step into its place, and if that is broken there is another close behind, and another and another, each of which must weaken the resistance and pave the way for our army to pass on."
"Don't say pave the way, Serge. It sounds too horrible, and makes me think of what it means."
"Don't think, then, boy."
"I must," replied Marcus; "but it will be dreadful for the first cohort which leads."
"Grand, you mean, boy," cried the veteran, "and you ought to be proud, for it is ours."
"I don't see any signs of the captain's coming to meet us."
"In hiding perhaps," said Serge. "He's certain to be there. He will not let his men show themselves until we advance, and he has not stirred as yet."
"How do you know?"
"Look at the barbarians," cried the old soldier, pointing to the distant crowd far up the slope. "They would be showing it by now if he were coming on."
"It is getting late," said Marcus, after a pause.
"Yes," replied Serge, "and if I were in command I should be here to begin leading on my men. Think of that now," he whispered, sharply. "Here he is!"
"Who? My father?"
"No, boy. He'd be in the rear upon one of these hills, directing the advance of the legions, where he can look over the whole amphitheatre."
No more was said, for a thrill seemed to be running through the long serried line of veterans extending to right and left, as, followed by a group of his principal officers, Caius Julius rode close up to his leading cohort, gave the order to advance, and turned his horse to ride in front and lead.
Then as the heavy tramp of the armed men rang out and the advance with shield joined to shield moved on over the stony ground, there was a roar like distant thunder which rose and rolled and reverberated from the rocks around, as the Gauls in one vast mass flashed forward to meet them and sweep the van of the Roman army away.
The deep thunderous sound as of a storm was awe-inspiring enough to daunt the stoutest, but it had no effect upon the Roman warriors who steadily advanced close to the heels of their leaders' horses; and once more with his heart beating fast the while, it all seemed to Marcus like some grand pageant in which he was honoured by being allowed to play his little part.
Fate had placed his rank almost within touch of their general, who rode calmly, probably anticipating that the wild charge of Gauls as they came tearing on would never be carried home, and that the enemy would melt away to right and left before the steady pressure of that rank upon rank of unbroken shields bristling with sword and spear.
But the general was deceived. The wild barbarian charge of undisciplined Gallic warriors was carried home. Borne on by their own impetuosity, and pressed forward by the crowd behind, the enemy came on with a wild rush, and then came the clashing arms, the roar of the fierce multitude. Then as the steady stride of the line of Roman veterans was checked in the awful shock, Marcus was conscious of the struggles of a charger which reared up, fighting fiercely with its hoofs against the enemy which hemmed him in, and then of its sidewise fall, to lie upon its flank, plunging feebly in its efforts to rise, before lying prone and motionless with half a dozen spear thrusts in its breast and throat.
Marcus was conscious of striking out fiercely with his keen, short sword, and of the pressure on both sides amidst the roar and rush of the fight in which he was taking part. But all seemed wild and confused, as he stood with one foot planted on the fallen horse's side, the other on the rock, holding his shield the while in front of the fallen rider, who was striving vainly to free himself from the weight of the charger which pinned him down.
It seemed to be some long space of time, all horror and death, during which men fought and heaved and swayed, sometimes beaten back a few feet, then recovering themselves, regaining the lost ground, and pressing on, till in regular rhythmic pulsation rank after rank of warriors tramped on, opening out as they reached the group of dead and wounded men whose core was the spear-slain horse. But in fact it was but a matter of minutes before the pressure ceased as the ranks passed on and a big, heavy-looking man came up, and by signs—for no voice could make itself heard—seemed to be urging other men to seize and drag the dead horse off the prisoned officer, who was saving himself from falling prone, possibly to be trampled to death by the advancing ranks, by clasping his hands round Marcus' waist as he still stood over him with ready sword and shield.
The start having been made, there were willing hands in plenty to drag the horse away, and its rider stood up, holding on by Marcus' arms, as once more a wave of the enemy seemed to rise up out of the tumultuous sea of carnage, sweeping between the two Romans and their friends, the former being left to face the bristling spears of the Gauls, and death appearing inevitable for Marcus and the officer he had saved.
The boy was borne back by half a score of the hirsute semi-savages, leaving his companion standing erect with nothing to defend himself but his clenched hand, when, half maddened by the scene, Marcus uttered a wild cry, recovered himself, and dashed forward to the rescue, staggering the foe with astonishment by the fierceness of his onslaught, as he literally hurled himself between the officer and his fate, the upraised shield turning aside the spears gliding with deadly aim toward his throat.
At that moment the deadly wave of destruction was checked in its onward sweep by the rebound of a line of Roman veterans, the Gauls fell back, and the officer drew himself up panting and waving one arm on high, when a couple of officers rode up, one of whom dismounted and held his stirrup, when, without a word, the companion of Marcus in peril sprang upon the charger's back and dashed forward, the late rider holding on by the mane.
"Well done, boy! Grand!" was shouted in Marcus' ear, as he stood there wondering whether it was all real, that noise of men tramping by, the clash of arms, and the roar as of muttering thunder ahead, and not some horrible dream in which, faint and sick, everything was whirling slowly round.
"That you, Serge?" someone said, for they did not seem to be his words.
"Yes, boy; grand, but we ought to be along with our cohort, and it's far ahead, so we must join the ranks of one of these that are going by."
"Are we losing?" said Marcus, faintly, and still it was as if someone else was speaking.
"Losing!" cried the old soldier. "Winning, you mean. But think of you having such luck as that!"
"Luck?—Luck?" said the same voice, slowly.
"Yes, I never saw anything like you. Sprang forward, you did, just as the general's horse reared up, and saved him from an ugly death by the thrust you gave that Gaul."
"Who did?" said the same voice, feebly heard in the horrible dream.
"Who did? Why, you did, and covered him afterwards with your shield all the while he was pinned down by his dead charger. Why, Marcus, boy, if you were a man you'd be made a big officer at once. But what's the matter with you, boy?"
"I—I don't know, Serge."
"But I do!" roared the old soldier, with a roar like a lion. "Why, who did this?"
"That—that Gaul," said the boy, faintly, as he felt himself seized and pressed back, to lie with his head pillowed upon the dead charger's neck, while he was conscious of his old comrade's hands being busily unbuckling his armour and then bandaging him tightly to stop the flowing blood.
"Feel better now, boy?" cried Serge, at last, as he bent down close to the wounded lad's face.
"Yes; not so sick," was the reply. "But tell me, Serge, about the fight," and as Marcus uttered these words he was conscious that they were his own.
"Tell you about the fight? Ah, that's a sign you are better. A nasty cut, my boy, between the shoulder and the neck. But it's nothing to hurt."
"But it does, Serge."
"Pooh! Only smarts. It hasn't killed you. Soldiers expect wounds, and you've got yours."
"But the fight—the fight?"
"Oh, just what I told you it would be, boy. The captain has brought his men down the pass, and the Gauls, taken between the two armies, are breaking up and streaming away to right and left. There'll be no Gallic army by the time the litters come to carry the wounded off the field, and the first shall be for the lad who saved the life of Caius Julius."
"Oh, Serge, it is impossible that I could have done that," said Marcus, feebly.
"That's what I should have said, boy, if I had not seen."
"I look out sharp, boy, so don't doubt what I say. Your wound made you forget. I wonder whether the general will."
"But you don't tell me about the fight, Serge."
"What, do you want to know more?"
"Well, the Gauls are taken in a trap, and after all is over I hope that one of those snowstorms will come down from the pass to cover all that the amphitheatre will have to show. It's terrible work, my boy."