Beric the Briton A Story of the Roman Invasion by G. A. Henty
MY DEAR LADS,
My series of stories dealing with the wars of England would be altogether incomplete did it not include the period when the Romans were the masters of the country. The valour with which the natives of this island defended themselves was acknowledged by the Roman historians, and it was only the superior discipline of the invaders that enabled them finally to triumph over the bravery and the superior physical strength of the Britons. The Roman conquest for the time was undoubtedly of immense advantage to the people—who had previously wasted their energies in perpetual tribal wars— as it introduced among them the civilization of Rome. In the end, however, it proved disastrous to the islanders, who lost all their military virtues. Having been defended from the savages of the north by the soldiers of Rome, the Britons were, when the legions were recalled, unable to offer any effectual resistance to the Saxons, who, coming under the guise of friendship, speedily became their masters, imposing a yoke infinitely more burdensome than that of Rome, and erasing almost every sign of the civilization that had been engrafted upon them. How far the British population disappeared under the subsequent invasion and the still more oppressive yoke of the Danes is uncertain; but as the invaders would naturally desire to retain the people to cultivate the land for them, it is probable that the great mass of the Britons were not exterminated. It is at any rate pleasant to believe that with the Saxon, Danish, and Norman blood in our veins, there is still a large admixture of that of the valiant warriors who fought so bravely against Caesar, and who rose under Boadicea in a desperate effort to shake off the oppressive rule of Rome.
G. A. Henty
CHAPTER I: A HOSTAGE
"It is a fair sight."
"It may be a fair sight in a Roman's eyes, Beric, but nought could be fouler to those of a Briton. To me every one of those blocks of brick and stone weighs down and helps to hold in bondage this land of ours; while that temple they have dared to rear to their gods, in celebration of their having conquered Britain, is an insult and a lie. We are not conquered yet, as they will some day know to their cost. We are silent, we wait, but we do not admit that we are conquered."
"I agree with you there. We have never fairly tried our strength against them. These wretched divisions have always prevented our making an effort to gather; Cassivelaunus and some of the Kentish tribes alone opposed them at their first landing, and he was betrayed and abandoned by the tribes on the north of the Thames. It has been the same thing ever since. We fight piecemeal; and while the Romans hurl their whole strength against one tribe the others look on with folded hands. Who aided the Trinobantes when the Romans defeated them and established themselves on that hill? No one. They will eat Britain up bit by bit."
"Then you like them no better for having lived among them, Beric?"
"I like them more, but I fear them more. One cannot be four years among them, as I was, without seeing that in many respects we might copy them with advantage. They are a great people. Compare their splendid mansions and their regular orderly life, their manners and their ways, with our rough huts, and our feasts, ending as often as not with quarrels and brawls. Look at their arts, their power of turning stone into lifelike figures, and above all, the way in which they can transfer their thoughts to white leaves, so that others, many many years hence, can read them and know all that was passing, and what men thought and did in the long bygone. Truly it is marvellous."
"You are half Romanized, Beric," his companion said roughly.
"I think not," the other said quietly; "I should be worse than a fool had I lived, as I have done, a hostage among them for four years without seeing that there is much to admire, much that we could imitate with advantage, in their life and ways; but there is no reason because they are wiser and far more polished, and in many respects a greater people than we, that they should come here to be our masters. These things are desirable, but they are as nothing to freedom. I have said that I like them more for being among them. I like them more for many reasons. They are grave and courteous in their manner to each other; they obey their own laws; every man has his rights; and while all yield obedience to their superiors, the superiors respect the rights of those below them. The highest among them cannot touch the property or the life of the lowest in rank. All this seems to me excellent; but then, on the other hand, my blood boils in my veins at the contempt in which they hold us; at their greed, their rapacity, their brutality, their denial to us of all rights. In their eyes we are but savages, but wild men, who may be useful for tilling the ground for them, but who, if troublesome, should be hunted down and slain like wild beasts. I admire them for what they can do; I respect them for their power and learning; but I hate them as our oppressors."
"That is better, Beric, much better. I had begun to fear that the grand houses and the splendour of these Romans might have sapped your patriotism. I hate them all; I hate changes; I would live as we have always lived."
"But you forget, Boduoc, that we ourselves have not been standing still. Though our long past forefathers, when they crossed from Gaul wave after wave, were rude warriors, we have been learning ever since from Gaul as the Gauls have learned from the Romans, and the Romans themselves admit that we have advanced greatly since the days when, under their Caesar, they first landed here. Look at the town on the hill there. Though 'tis Roman now 'tis not changed so much from what it was under that great king Cunobeline, while his people had knowledge of many things of which we and the other tribes of the Iceni knew nothing."
"What good did it do them?" the other asked scornfully; "they lie prostrate under the Roman yoke. It was easy to destroy their towns while we, who have few towns to destroy, live comparatively free. Look across at Camalodunum, Cunobeline's capital. Where are the men who built the houses, who dressed in soft garments, who aped the Romans, and who regarded us as well nigh savage men? Gone every one of them; hewn down on their own hearthstones, or thrust out with their wives and families to wander homeless—is there one left of them in yonder town? Their houses they were so proud of, their cultivated fields, their wealth of all kinds has been seized by the Romans. Did they fight any better for their Roman fashions? Not they; the kingdom of Cunobeline, from the Thames to the western sea, fell to pieces at a touch and it was only among the wild Silures that Caractacus was able to make any great resistance."
"But we did no better, Boduoc; Ostorius crushed us as easily as Claudius crushed the Trinobantes. It is no use our setting ourselves against change. All that you urge against the Trinobantes and the tribes of Kent the Silures might urge with equal force against us. You must remember that we were like them not so many ages back. The intercourse of the Gauls with us on this eastern sea coast, and with the Kentish tribes, has changed us greatly. We are no longer, like the western tribes, mere hunters living in shelters of boughs and roaming the forests. Our dress, with our long mantles, our loose vests and trousers, differs as widely from that of these western tribes as it does from the Romans. We live in towns, and if our houses are rude they are solid. We no longer depend solely on the chase, but till the ground and have our herds of cattle. I daresay there were many of our ancestors who set themselves as much against the Gaulish customs as you do against those of the Romans; but we adopted them, and benefited by them, and though I would exult in seeing the last Roman driven from our land, I should like after their departure to see us adopt what is good and orderly and decent in their customs and laws."
Beric's companion growled a malediction upon everything Roman.
"There is one thing certain," he said after a pause, "either they must go altogether, not only here but everywhere—they must learn, as our ancestors taught them at their two first invasions, that it is hopeless to conquer Britain—or they will end by being absolute masters of the island, and we shall be their servants and slaves."
"That is true enough," Beric agreed; "but to conquer we must be united, and not only united but steadfast. Of course I have learned much of them while I have been with them. I have come to speak their language, and have listened to their talk. It is not only the Romans who are here whom we have to defeat, it is those who will come after them. The power of Rome is great; how great we cannot tell, but it is wonderful and almost inconceivable. They have spread over vast countries, reducing peoples everywhere under their dominion. I have seen what they call maps showing the world as far as they know it, and well nigh all has been conquered by them; but the farther away from Rome the more difficulty have they in holding what they have conquered.
"That is our hope here; we are very far from Rome. They may send army after army against us, but in time they will get weary of the loss and expense when there is so little to gain, and as after their first invasions a long time elapsed before they again troubled us, so in the end they may abandon a useless enterprise. Even now the Romans grumble at what they call their exile, but they are obstinate and tenacious, and to rid our land of them for good it would be necessary for us not only to be united among ourselves when we rise against them, but to remain so, and to oppose with our whole force the fresh armies they will bring against us.
"You know how great the difficulties will be, Boduoc; we want one great leader whom all the tribes will follow, just as all the Roman legions obey one general; and what chance is there of such a man arising—a man so great, so wise, so brave, that all the tribes of Britain will lay aside their enmities and jealousies, and submit themselves to his absolute guidance?"
"If we wait for that, Beric, we may wait for ever," Boduoc said in a sombre tone, "at any rate it is not while we are tranquil under the Roman heel that such a man could show himself. If he is to come to the front it must be in the day of battle. Then, possibly, one chief may rise so high above his fellows that all may recognize his merits and agree to follow him."
"That is so," Beric agreed; "but is it possible that even the greatest hero should find support from all? Cassivelaunus was betrayed by the Trinobantes. Who could have united the tribes more than the sons of Cunobeline, who reigned over well nigh all Britain, and who was a great king ruling wisely and well, and doing all in his power to raise and advance the people; and yet, when the hour came, the kingdom broke up into pieces. Veric, the chief of the Cantii, went to Rome and invited the invader to aid him against his rivals at home, and not a man of the Iceni or the Brigantes marched to the aid of Caractacus and Togodamnus. What wonder, then, that these were defeated. Worse than all, when Caractacus was driven a fugitive to hide among the Brigantes, did not their queen, Cartismandua, hand him over to the Romans? Where can we hope to find a leader more fitted to unite us than was Caractacus, the son of the king whom we all, at least, recognized and paid tribute to; a prince who had learned wisdom from a wise father, a warrior enterprising, bold, and indomitable—a true patriot?
"If Caractacus could not unite us, what hope is there of finding another who would do so? Moreover, our position is far worse now than it was ten years ago. The Belgae and Dumnonii in the southwest have been crushed after thirty battles; the Dobuni in the centre have been defeated and garrisoned; the Silures have set an example to us all, inflicting many defeats on the Romans; but their power has at last been broken. The Brigantes and ourselves have both been heavily struck, as we deserved, Boduoc, for standing aloof from Caractacus at first. Thus the task of shaking off the Roman bonds is far more difficult now than it was when Plautius landed here twenty years ago. Well, it is time for me to be going on. Won't you come with me, Boduoc?"
"Not I, Beric; I never want to enter their town again save with a sword in one hand and a torch in the other. It enrages me to see the airs of superiority they give themselves. They scarce seem even to see us as we walk in their streets; and as to the soldiers as they stride along with helmet and shield, my fingers itch to meet them in the forest. No; I promised to walk so far with you, but I go no farther. How long will you be there?"
"Two hours at most, I should say."
"The sun is halfway down, Beric; I will wait for you till it touches that hill over there. Till then you will find me sitting by the first tree at the spot where we left the forest."
Beric nodded and walked on towards the town. The lad, for he was not yet sixteen, was the son of Parta, the chieftainess of one of the divisions of the great tribe of the Iceni, who occupied the tract of country now known as Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, and Huntingdon. This tribe had yielded but a nominal allegiance to Cunobeline, and had held aloof during the struggle between Caractacus and the Romans, but when the latter had attempted to establish forts in their country they had taken up arms. Ostorius Scapula, the Roman proprietor, had marched against them and defeated them with great slaughter, and they had submitted to the Roman authority. The Sarci, the division of the tribe to which Beric belonged, had taken a leading part in the rising, and his father had fallen in the defence of their intrenchments.
Among the British tribes the women ranked with the men, and even when married the wife was often the acknowledged chief of the tribe. Parta had held an equal authority with her husband, and at his death remained sole head of the subtribe, and in order to ensure its obedience in the future, Ostorius had insisted that her only son Beric, at that time a boy of eleven, should be handed over to them as a hostage.
Had Parta consulted her own wishes she would have retired with a few followers to the swamps and fens of the country to the north rather than surrender her son, but the Brigantes, who inhabited Lincolnshire, and who ranged over the whole of the north of Britain as far as Northumberland, had also received a defeat at the hands of the Romans, and might not improbably hand her over upon their demand. She therefore resigned herself to let Beric go.
"My son," she said, "I need not tell you not to let them Romanize you. You have been brought up to hate them. Your father has fallen before their weapons, half your tribe have been slain, your country lies under their feet. I will not wrong you then by fearing for a moment that they can make a Roman of you.
"You have been brought up to lie upon the bare ground, to suffer fatigue and hardship, hunger and thirst, and the rich food and splendid houses and soft raiment of the Romans should have no attraction for you. I know not how long your imprisonment among them may last. For the present I have little hope of another rising; but should I see a prospect of anything like unity among our people, I will send Boduoc with a message to you to hold yourself in readiness to escape when you receive the signal that the time has come. Till then employ your mind in gaining what good you may by your residence among them; there must be some advantage in their methods of warfare which has enabled the people of one city to conquer the world.
"It is not their strength, for they are but pigmies to us. We stand a full head above them, and even we women are stronger than Roman soldiers, and yet they defeat us. Learn then their language, throw your whole mind into that at first, then study their military discipline and their laws. It must be the last as much as their discipline that has made them rulers over so vast an empire. Find out if you can the secret of their rule, and study the training by which their soldiers move and fight as if bound together by a cord, forming massive walls against which we break ourselves in vain. Heed not their arts, pay no attention to their luxuries, these did Cunobeline no good, and did not for a day delay the destruction that fell upon his kingdom. What we need is first a knowledge of their military tactics, so that we may drive them from the land; secondly, a knowledge of their laws, that we may rule ourselves wisely after they have gone. What there is good in the rest may come in time.
"However kind they may be to you, bear always in mind that you are but a prisoner among the oppressors of your country, and that though, for reasons of policy, they may treat you well, yet that they mercilessly despoil and ill treat your countrymen. Remember too, Beric, that the Britons, now that Caractacus has been sent a prisoner to Rome, need a leader, one who is not only brave and valiant in the fight, but who can teach the people how to march to victory, and can order and rule them well afterwards. We are part of one of our greatest tribes, and from among us, if anywhere, such a leader should come.
"I have great hopes of you, Beric. I know that you are brave, for single handed you slew with an arrow a great wolf the other day; but bravery is common to all, I do not think that there is a coward in the tribe. I believe you are intelligent. I consulted the old Druid in the forest last week, and he prophesied a high destiny for you; and when the messenger brought the Roman summons for me to deliver you up as a hostage, it seemed to me that this was of all things the one that would fit you best for future rule. I am not ambitious for you, Beric. It would be nought to me if you were king of all the Britons. It is of our country that I think. We need a great leader, and my prayer to the gods is that one may be found. If you should be the man so much the better; but if not, let it be another. Comport yourself among them independently, as one who will some day be chief of a British tribe, but be not sullen or obstinate. Mix freely with them, learn their language, gather what are the laws under which they live, see how they build those wonderful houses of theirs, watch the soldiers at their exercises, so that when you return among us you can train the Sarci to fight in a similar manner. Keep the one purpose always in your mind. Exercise your muscles daily, for among us no man can lead who is not as strong and as brave as the best who follow him. Bear yourself so that you shall be in good favour with all men."
Beric had, to the best of his power, carried out the instructions of his mother. It was the object of the Romans always to win over their adversaries if possible, and the boy had no reason to complain of his treatment. He was placed in the charge of Caius Muro, commander of a legion, and a slave was at once appointed to teach him Latin. He took his meals with the scribe and steward of the household, for Caius was of noble family, of considerable wealth, and his house was one of the finest in Camalodunum. He was a kindly and just man, and much beloved by his troops. As soon as Beric had learned the language, Caius ordered the scribe to teach him the elements of Roman law, and a decurion was ordered to take him in hand and instruct him in arms.
As Beric was alike eager to study and to exercise in arms, he gained the approval of both his teachers. Julia, the wife of Caius, a kindly lady, took a great fancy to the boy. "He will make a fine man, Caius," she said one day when the boy was fourteen years old. "See how handsome and strong he is; why, Scipio, the son of the centurion Metellus, is older by two years, and yet he is less strong than this young Briton."
"They are a fine race, Julia, though in disposition as fierce as wild cats, and not to be trusted. But the lad is, as you say, strong and nimble. I marked him practising with the sword the other day against Lucinus, who is a stout soldier, and the man had as much as he could do to hold his own against him. I was surprised myself to see how well he wielded a sword of full weight, and how active he was. The contest reminded me of a dog and a wild cat, so nimble were the boy's springs, and so fierce his attacks. Lucinus fairly lost his temper at last, and I stopped the fight, for although they fought with blunted weapons, he might well have injured the lad badly with a downright cut, and that would have meant trouble with the Iceni again."
"He is intelligent, too," Julia replied. "Sometimes I have him in while I am working with the two slave girls, and he will stand for hours asking me questions about Rome, and about our manners and customs."
"One is never sure of these tamed wolves," Caius said; "sometimes they turn out valuable allies and assistants, at other times they grow into formidable foes, all the more dangerous for what they have learned of us. However, do with him as you like, Julia; a woman has a lighter hand than a man, and you are more likely to tame him than we are. Cneius says that he is very eager to learn, and has ever a book in his hand when not practising in arms."
"What I like most in him," Julia said, "is that he is very fond of our little Berenice. The child has taken to him wonderfully, and of an afternoon, when he has finished with Cneius, she often goes out with him. Of course old Lucia goes with them. It is funny to hear them on a wet day, when they cannot go out, talking together —she telling him stories of Rome and of our kings and consuls, and he telling her tales of hunting the wolf and wild boar, and legends of his people, who seem to have been always at war with someone."
After Beric had resided for three years and a half at Camalodunum a great grief fell on the family of Caius Muro, for the damp airs from the valley had long affected Julia and she gradually faded and died. Beric felt the loss very keenly, for she had been uniformly kind to him. A year later Suetonius and the governor of the colony decided that as the Sarci had now been quiet for nearly five years, and as Caius reported that their young chief seemed to have become thoroughly Romanized, he was permitted to return to his tribe.
The present was his first visit to the colony since he had left it four months before. His companion, Boduoc, was one of the tribesmen, a young man six years his senior. He was related to his mother, and had been his companion in his childish days, teaching him woodcraft, and to throw the javelin and use the sword. Together, before Beric went as hostage, they had wandered through the forest and hunted the wolf and wild boar, and at that time Boduoc had stood in the relation of an elder brother to Beric. That relation had now much changed. Although Boduoc was a powerful young man and Beric but a sturdy stripling, the former was little better than an untutored savage, and he looked with great respect upon Beric both as his chief and as possessing knowledge that seemed to him to be amazing.
Hating the Romans blindly he had trembled lest he should find Beric on his return completely Romanized. He had many times, during the lad's stay at Camalodunum, carried messages to him there from his mother, and had sorrowfully shaken his head on his way back through the forest as he thought of his young chief's surroundings. Beric had partially adopted the Roman costume, and to hear him talking and jesting in their own language to the occupants of the mansion, whose grandeur and appointments filled Boduoc with an almost superstitious fear, was terrible to him. However, his loyalty to Beric prevented him from breathing a word in the tribe as to his fears, and he was delighted to find the young chief return home in British garb, and to discover that although his views of the Romans differed widely from his own, he was still British at heart, and held firmly the opinion that the only hope for the freedom of Britain was the entire expulsion of the invaders.
He was gratified to find that Beric had become by no means what he considered effeminate. He was built strongly and massively, as might be expected from such parents, and was of the true British type, that had so surprised the Romans at their first coming among them, possessing great height and muscular power, together with an activity promoted by constant exercise.
Beric had fallen back upon the customs of his people as thoroughly as if he had never dwelt in the stately Roman town. He was as ready as before to undertake the longest hunting expeditions, to sleep in the forest, to go from sunrise to sunset without breaking his fast. When not engaged in hunting he practised incessantly hurling the javelin and other warlike exercises, while of an evening he frequently related stories of Roman history to any chiefs or other guests of his mother, on which occasions the humbler followers would gather thickly in the background, evincing an interest even greater than that which they felt in the songs and legends of the bards.
Beric generally chose stories relating to periods when Rome was hardly pressed by her foes, showing how the intense feeling of patriotism, and the obstinate determination to resist, in spite of all dangers, upon the part of the population, and the discipline and dogged valour of the soldiers, saved her from destruction. He was cautious to draw no parallel openly to the case of Britain. He knew that the Romans were made acquainted, by traitors in their pay, with much that passed among the native tribes, and that at first they were sure to interest themselves in his proceedings. At present there could be no thought of a rising, and the slightest sign of disaffection might bring disaster and ruin upon his tribe. Only when some unexpected event, some invasion of the rights of the Britons even more flagrant than those that had hitherto taken place, should stir the smouldering fire of discontent, and fan it into a fierce flame of revolt from end to end of Britain, could success be hoped for.
No Roman could have found fault with Beric's relation of their prowess or their valour; for he held them up to the admiration of his hearers. "No wonder Rome is great and powerful," he said, "when its people evince so deep a love of country, so resolute a determination in the face of their enemies, so unconquerable a spirit when misfortune weighs upon them."
To the men he addressed all this was new. It was true that a few princes and chiefs had visited Rome, occasionally as travellers desiring to see the centre of her greatness, more often as exiles driven from Britain by defeat in civil strife, but these had only brought back great tales of Rome's magnificence, and the Britons knew nothing of the history of the invaders, and eagerly listened to the stories that Beric had learned from their books in the course of his studies. The report of his stories spread so far that visits were paid to the village of Parta by chiefs and leading men from other sections of the Iceni to listen to them.
Oratory was among the Britons, as among most primitive tribes, highly prized and much cultivated. Oral tradition among such peoples takes the place of books among civilized nations. Story and legend are handed down from father to son, and the wandering bard is a most welcome guest. Next only to valour oratory sways and influences the minds of the people, and a Ulysses had greater influence than an Ajax. From his earliest childhood Beric had listened to the stories and legends told by bards in the rough palace of his father, and his sole schooling before he went to Camalodunum had been to learn these by heart, and to repeat them with due emphasis and appropriate gesture. His father had been one of the most eloquent and influential of the chiefs of the Iceni, and had early impressed upon him the importance of cultivating the power of speech.
His studies in Roman history, too, had taught him the power exercised by men with the gift of moving multitudes by their words; he had learned from books how clearly and distinctly events could be described by a careful choice of words, and attention to form and expression, so that almost unconsciously to himself he had practised the art in his relations of the tales and legends of British history to Berenice and her mother. Thus, then, the manner no less than the matter of his recitals of Roman story, gained him a high estimation among his hearers, and he was already looked upon as a young chief likely to rise to a very high position among the Iceni. Among the common herd his glowing laudations of Roman patriotism, devotion, and sacrifice, caused him to be regarded with disfavour, and the epithet "the Roman" was frequently applied to him. But the wiser spirits saw the hidden meaning of his stories, and that, while holding up the Romans as an example, he was endeavouring to teach how much can be done by patriotism, by a spirit of self sacrifice, and by unity against a common foe. Parta was also proud of the congratulations that distinguished chiefs, famed for their wisdom throughout the tribe, offered to her on the occasion of their visits.
"Beric will be a great chief," one of the wisest of these said to her; "truly his sojourn among the Romans has done great things for him. It would be well, indeed, if every noble youth throughout the island were to have such schooling, if he had your son's wit in taking advantage of it. He will be a great orator; never among our bards have I heard narrations so clear and so well delivered; although the deeds he praises are those of our oppressors, one cannot but feel a thrill of enthusiasm as he tells them. Yea, for the moment I myself felt half a Roman when he told us of the brave youth who thrust his hand into the flames, and suffered it to be consumed in order to impress the invader with a knowledge of the spirit that animated the Romans, and of the three men who held against a host the bridge that their friends were breaking down behind them.
"If he could stir me thus by his tales of the deeds of our enemies, what will it be when some day he makes the heroes of Britain his theme, and calls upon his countrymen to imitate their deeds! I have heard him called 'the Roman,' Parta. Now that I have listened to him I know that he will, when the time comes, be one of Rome's most formidable foes. I will tell you now that Prasutagus, our king, and his queen Boadicea, spoke to me about Beric, and begged me to come hither to see for myself this youth of whom they had heard reports from others, some saying that he had returned a Roman heart and soul, while others affirmed that, while he had learned much from them, he had forgotten nothing of the injuries he had received at their hands in the death of his father, and the disaster of the tribe. I shall know now what to tell them. To Prasutagus, whose fear of the Romans is even greater than his hatred for them, I shall say that the lad is full of the glories of Roman story, and that there is no fear of his doing or saying aught that will excite the anger or suspicion of the Romans. To Boadicea, who hates the Romans far more than she fears them, I shall tell the truth, and shall inform her that when the time comes, as assuredly it some day will, that the Iceni are called upon to defend their liberties against Rome, in Beric she will find a champion of whom I predict that he will be worthy to take his place in our history by the side of Caractacus and Cassivelaunus. May our gods avert that, like them, he fall a victim to British treachery!"
After leaving Boduoc, Beric crossed the bridge built by the Romans over the Stour, and entered the city. Camalodunum was the chief seat of the Roman power in England. Although but so short a time had elapsed since Claudius had occupied it, it was already a large city. A comparatively small proportion, however, was Roman work, but all bore the impress of Roman art and civilization, for Cunobeline, whose capital it had been, was a highly enlightened king, and had introduced Roman ways and methods among his people. Men instructed in their arts and architecture had been largely employed in the building of the town, and its edifices would have borne comparison with those in minor towns in the Roman provinces.
The conquerors, therefore, found much of their work done for them. The original possessors of the houses and of the highly cultivated lands lying round the town were ejected wholesale, and the Romans, establishing themselves in their abodes and farms, then proceeded to add to, embellish, and fortify the town. The 2nd, 9th, and 14th Legions were selected by Claudius to found what was called the colony, and to take possession of the surrounding country. Plautius was appointed propraetor, or governor, and establishing himself in the royal palace of Cunobeline, his first step was to protect the city from renewed attacks by the Britons. He accordingly erected vast works to the westward of the town, extending from the sea to the river, by which means he not only protected the city from attack, but gained, in case of an assault by overpowering numbers, the means of retiring safely to Mersea Island, lying a short distance from the shore.
A council house and a tribunal were erected for the Roman magistrates; temples, a theatre, and baths raised. The civilian population increased rapidly. Architects, artists, and musicians, decorators, skilled artisans, and traders were attracted from the mainland to the rising city, which rapidly increased in wealth and importance. Conspicuous on the most elevated position stood a temple erected to the honour of Claudius, who was raised by the grateful legionaries to divine rank. So strong and populous was the city that the Trinobantes, during the years that had elapsed since the Romans took possession of it, remained passive under the yoke of their oppressors, and watched, without attempting to take part in them, the rising of the Iceni and Brigantes, the long and desperate war of the Silures and Ordovices under Caractacus, and the reduction of the Belgae and Dumnonii from Hampshire to Cornwall by Vespasian. Yet, had their spirit remained unbroken, there was an opportunity for revenge, for a large part of the veteran legionaries had been withdrawn to take part in the struggle against the western tribes. The tribe had, however, been disarmed, and with Camalodunum on the north, and the rising towns of London and Verulamium on the south, they were cut off from other tribes, and could not hope for final success, unless the powerful Iceni, who were still semi-independent, rose in the national cause. Whether their easy defeat of this tribe soon after the occupation of Camalodunum had rendered the Romans contemptuous of their fighting powers, or that they deemed it wiser to subdue the southwest and west of England, and to strike a heavy blow at the Brigantes to the north before interfering with a powerful tribe so close to their doors, is uncertain; but doubtless they felt that so long as Prasutagus reigned there was little fear of trouble in that quarter, as that king protested himself the friend and ally of Rome, and occupied himself wholly in acquiring wealth and adding to his personal possessions.
The scene in Camalodunum was a familiar one to Beric. The streets were thronged with people. Traders from Gaul and Italy, Roman artisans and workmen, haughty legionaries with shield and helmet, civil officials, Greek players, artists and decorators, native tribesmen, with the products of their fields or the spoils of the chase, walking with humble mien; and shopkeepers sitting at the open fronts of their houses, while their slaves called the attention of passersby to the merits of the goods. Here were the rich products of Eastern looms, there the cloths and linen of Rome, further on a smith's shop in full work, beyond that a silversmith's, next door to which was a thriving trader who sold unguents and perfumes, dyes for the ladies' cheeks and pigments for their eyebrows, dainty requisites for the toilette, and perfumed soap. Bakers and butchers, vendors of fish and game, of fruit, of Eastern spices and flavourings abounded.
Druggists and dealers in dyes for clothing and in the pigments used in wall decorations and paintings were also to be found; and, in fact, this Roman capital of a scarcely subjugated country contained all the appliances for luxury and comfort that could be found in the cities of the civilized provinces.
The only shops at which Beric paused were those of the armourers and of the scribes, at some of which were exhibited vellums with the writings of the Greek and Roman poets and historians; and Beric muttered to himself, "If I am ever present at the sack of Camalodunum these shall be my share of the spoil, and I fancy that no one is likely to dispute their possession with me."
But he did not linger long. Boduoc would be waiting for him, and he could not hurry over his visit, the first he had paid since his absence; therefore he pushed on, with scarce a glance at the stately temple of Claudius, the magnificent baths or other public buildings, until he arrived at the villa of Caius Muro, which stood somewhat beyond the more crowded part of the town.
CHAPTER II: CITY AND FOREST
The house of Caius Muro had been built six years before on the model of one owned by him in the Tuscan hills. Passing through the hall or vestibule, with its mosaic pavement, on which was the word of welcome, "Salve!" Beric entered the atrium, the principal apartment in the house. From each side, at a height of some twenty feet from the ground, extended a roof, the fall being slightly to the centre, where there was an aperture of about eight feet square. Through this light and air made their way down to the apartment, the rainfall from the roofs and opening falling into a marble tank, called the impluvium, below the level of the floor, which was paved with squares of coloured marble. On either side of the atrium were the small sleeping chambers, the bed places being raised and covered with thick mats and rugs.
The walls of the bed chambers as well as of the atrium were painted in black, with figures and landscapes in colour. On the centre of the side facing the vestibule was the tablinum, the apartment of Caius Muro himself. This formed his sitting room and study. The floor was raised about a foot above that of the atrium, and it was partly open both on that side and on the other, looking into the peristylium, so that, while at work, he commanded a view of all that was going on in the atrium and in the courtyard. In the centre of this was a fountain surrounded by plants. From the courtyard opened the triclinium, or dining room, and also rooms used as storerooms, kitchen, and the sleeping places of the slaves.
At the back of the peristylium was the oecus, or state apartment, where Caius received distinguished guests, and where, in the lifetime of Julia, entertainments were given to the ladies of the colony. Like the triclinium, this room was also partially open at both ends, affording the guests a view of the graceful fountain on the one side and of the garden on the other. In winter wooden frames, with heavy hangings, were erected across these openings and that of the tablinum, for the Romans soon found the necessity for modifying the arrangements which, although well suited for an Italian climate, were wholly unfit for that of Britain. The opening in the centre of the atrium was then closed with an awning of oiled canvas, which admitted a certain amount of light to pass, but prevented the passage of rain and snow, and kept out much of the cold. There was a narrow passage between the atrium and the peristylium; this was called the fauces. Above the chambers round the atrium was a second story, approached by a staircase from the peristylium; here were the apartments of the ladies and of the female slaves.
As Beric entered the atrium, a man, who was reading a roll of parchment, rose to his feet.
"Welcome, Beric!" he said warmly.
"All hail, preceptor!" the lad replied. "Are all well here?"
"All well, Beric. We had looked to see you before, and Berenice has been constantly asking me when you were coming."
"I had been absent over four years, you see," Beric replied, "and it was not easy to get away from home again. Now I must speak to Caius." He crossed the apartment, and stood at the entrance to the tablinum. Caius looked up from a military treatise he was perusing.
"Ah, Beric! it is you! I am glad to see you again, though I am sorry to observe that you have abandoned our fashions and taken to the native garb again."
"It was necessary, Caius," Beric said. "I should have lost all influence with the tribe had I not laid aside my Roman dress. As it is, they regard me with some doubt, as one too enamoured of Roman customs."
"We have heard of you, Beric, and, indeed, report says that you speak well of us, and are already famous for your relations of our history."
"I thought it well that my countrymen should know your great deeds," Beric said, "and should see by what means you have come to rule the world. I received nought but kindness at your hands, and no prisoner's lot was ever made more easy than mine. To you and yours I am deeply grateful. If your people all behaved as kindly towards the natives of this country as you did to me, Britain would be conquered without need of drawing sword from scabbard."
"I know not that, Beric; to rule, one should be strong as well as kind. Still, as you know, I think that things might have been arranged far less harshly than they have been. It was needful that we should show ourselves to be masters; but I regret the harshness that has been too often used, and I would that not one of us here, from the governor down to the poorest soldier, was influenced by a desire for gain, but that each was animated, as he assuredly should be, only by a desire to uphold the glory and power of Rome. But that would be expecting too much from human nature, and even among you there are plenty ready to side against their countrymen for the sake of Roman gold. In that they have less excuse than we. Custom and habit have made our wants many, and all aim at attaining the luxuries of the rich. On the other hand, your wants are few, and I see not that the piling up of wealth adds in any way to your happiness."
"That is true, Caius. I quite agree with you that it is far more excusable for a Roman to covet wealth than for a Briton; and while I blame many officials and soldiers for the harshness with which they strive to wring all their possessions from my countrymen, I deem their conduct as worthy and honourable when compared with that of Britons who sell their country for your gold."
"We must take the world as we find it, Beric. We may regret that greed and the love of luxury should influence men, as we may grieve that they are victims of other base passions; but it is of no use quarrelling with human nature. Certain it is that all vices bring their own punishment, and that the Romans were a far nobler race when they were poor and simple, in the days of the early consuls, than they are now, with all their power, their riches, and their luxuries. Such is the history of all peoples—of Egypt, of Persia, of Greece, and Carthage; and methinks that Rome, too, will run the course of other nations, and that some day, far distant maybe, she will sink beneath the weight of her power and her luxury, and that some younger and more vigorous people will, bit by bit, wrest her dominions from her and rule in her place.
"As yet, happily, I see no signs of failing in her powers. She is still vigorous, and even in the distant outskirts of the empire the wave of conquest flows onward. Happily for us, I think, it can flow no farther this way; there is but one island beyond this to conquer, and then, as in Western Gaul and Iberia, the ocean says to Rome, 'Thou shalt go no farther.' Would that to the south, the east, and north a similar barrier checked our progress, then we could rest and be content, and need no longer waste our strength in fresh conquests, or in opposing the incursions of hordes of barbarians from regions unknown to us even by report. I could wish myself, Beric, that nature had placed your island five days' sail from the coasts of Gaul, instead of placing it within sight. Then I might have been enjoying life in my villa among the Tuscan hills with my daughter, instead of being exposed at any moment to march with the Legion against the savage mountaineers of the west. Ah! here comes Berenice," he broke off, as his daughter, attended by her old nurse, entered the atrium from the vestibule. She hastened her steps as she saw Beric standing before her father in the tablinum.
"I knew you would come back, Beric, because you promised me; but you have been a long time in keeping your word."
"I am not my own master at home, any more than I was here, Berenice," he said, "and my mother would not hear before of my leaving her. I have only come now for an hour's visit, to see that all goes well in this house, and to tell you that I had not forgotten my promise; the next time I hope to pay a longer visit. At daybreak tomorrow we have a party to hunt the wolves, which have so multiplied as to become a danger in the forests of late."
"I should like to go out to see a wolf hunt, Beric."
"I fear that would not be possible," he said; "the woods are thick and tangled, and we have to force our way through to get to their lair."
"But last winter they came close to the town, and I heard that some came even into the streets."
"Yes, they will do so when driven by hunger; but they were hunting then and not being hunted. No, Berenice, I fear that your wish to see a wolf hunt cannot be gratified; they are savage beasts, and are great trouble and no loss to us. In winter they carry off many children, and sometimes devour grown up people, and in times of long snow have been known to attack large parties, and, in spite of a stout resistance by the men, to devour them. In summer they are only met singly, but in winter they go in packs and kill numbers of our cattle."
"I should like to go into the woods," the girl said earnestly, "I am tired of this town. My father says he will take me with him some day when he goes west, but so far I have seen nothing except this town and Verulamium, and the country was all just as it is here, fields and cultivation. We could see the forests in the distance, but that was all. My father says, that if we went west, we should travel for miles through the forest and should sleep in tents, but that we cannot do it till everything is quiet and peaceful. Oh, Beric! I do wish the Britons would not be always fighting."
Beric smiled. "The British girls, Berenice, say they wish the Romans would not be always fighting."
"It is very troublesome," she said pettishly. "I should like everyone to be friends, and then there would be no need to have so many soldiers in Britain, and perhaps the emperor would order our legions home. Father says that we ought to look upon this as home now, for that the legion may remain here for years and years; but he said the other day that he thought that if everything was quiet here he should, when I am sixteen years old, obtain leave from the governor, and go back to Rome for two or three years, and I think, though he has not said so outright, that he will perhaps retire and settle there."
"It would be much the best for you," Beric said earnestly. "I should be sorry, because you have been very kind to me, and I should grieve were you to leave me altogether; but there may be trouble here again some day, and I think it would be far better for you to be back in Rome, where you would have all the pleasures and delights of the great capital, and live in ease and comfort, without the risk of your father having to march away to the wars. I know that if I were your father I would take you back. He says that his villa there is exactly like this, and you have many relations there, and there must be all sorts of pleasures and grand spectacles far beyond anything there is here. I am sure it would be better for you, and happier."
"I thought that you would be quite sorry," she said gravely.
"So I shall be very sorry for myself," Beric said; "as, next to my own mother, there is no one I care for so much as you and your father. I shall miss you terribly; but yet I am so sure that it would be best for you to be at home with your own people, that I should be glad to hear that your father was going to take you back to Rome."
But Berenice did not altogether accept the explanation. She felt really hurt that Beric should view even the possibility of her going away with equanimity, and she very shortly went off to her own apartment; while a few minutes later, Beric, after bidding goodbye to Caius, started to rejoin Boduoc, whom he found waiting at the edge of the forest.
That evening Berenice said to her father, "I was angry with Beric today, father."
"Were you, child? what about?"
"I told him that perhaps in another three years, when I was sixteen, you would take me to Rome, and that I thought, perhaps, if we went there you would not come back again; and instead of being very much grieved, as I thought he would, he seemed quite pleased at the idea. Of course he said he was sorry, but he did not really seem to be, and he says he thought it would be very much better for me. I thought he was grateful, father, and liked us very much, and now I am quite disappointed in him."
Caius was silent for a minute or two.
"I do not think Beric is ungrateful," he said, "and I am sure that he likes us, Berenice."
"He said he did, father, that he cared for us more than anyone except his mother; but if he cared for us, surely he would be very, very sorry for us to go away."
"Beric is a Briton, my dear, and we are Romans. By this time he must have thoroughly learned his people's feelings towards us. I have never believed, as some do, that Britain is as yet completely conquered, and that when we have finished with the Silures in the west our work will be completely done.
"Beric, who knows his countrymen, may feel this even more strongly than I do, and may know that, sooner or later, there will be another great effort on the part of the Britons to drive us out. It may be a year, and it may be twenty, but I believe myself that some day we shall have a fierce struggle to maintain our hold here, and Beric, who may see this also, and who knows the feeling of his countrymen, may wish that we should be away before the storm comes.
"There is but little doubt, Berenice, that we despise these people too much, still less that we treat them harshly and cruelly. Were I propraetor of Britain, I would rule them differently. I am but the commander of a legion, and my duty is but to rule my men. I would punish, and punish sternly, all attempts at rising; but I would give them no causes for discontent. We treat them as if their spirit were altogether broken, as if they and their possessions were but our chattels, as if they possessed no rights, not even the right to live. Some day we shall find our mistake, and when the time comes the awakening will be a rude one. It is partly because I see dimly the storm gathering in the distance that I long to be home again. As long as your mother lived this seemed a home to me, now I desire rest and quiet. I have done my share of fighting, I have won honour enough, and I may look before long to be a general; but I have had enough of it, and long for my quiet villa in the Alban hills, with an occasional visit to Rome, where you can take part in its gaieties, and I can have the use of the libraries stored with the learning of the world. So do not think harshly of Beric, my child; he may see the distant storm more plainly than I do. I am sure that he cares for us, and if he is glad at the news that we are going, it is because he wishes us away and in safety before the trouble comes.
"Nero has come to the imperial throne, and the men he is sending hither are of a widely different stamp from the lieutenants of Claudius. The latter knew that the Britons can fight, and that, wild and untutored as they are, it needed all the skill and courage of Ostorius and Vespasian to reduce them to order. The newcomers regard them as slaves to be trampled upon, robbed, and ill used as they choose. I am sure they will find their mistake. As long as they deal only with the tribes thoroughly subdued, the Trinobantes, the Cantii, the Be1gae, and the Dumnonii, all may be quiet; they dare not move. But the Iceni and Brigantes, although they both have felt the weight of our swords, are still partly independent, and if pressed too severely will assuredly revolt, and if they give the signal all Britain may be up in arms again. I am scoffed at if I venture to hint to these newcomers that there is life yet in Britain. Dwelling here in a Roman city, it seems to them absurd that there can be danger from the savages who roam in the forests that stretch away from beyond the river at our very feet to the far distant north, to regions of which we are absolutely ignorant. I regard what Beric has said as another warning."
"But I thought that Beric was our friend, father, and you told me you had heard that he was teaching his countrymen how great is our history."
"Beric is a Briton in the midst of Britons, child. He is a partially tamed wolf cub, and had he been sent to Rome and remained there he would have done credit to our teaching. He is fond of study, and at the same time fond of arms; he might have turned out a wise citizen or a valiant soldier. But this was not done. He has gone back again among the wolves, and whatever his feelings towards us personally may be, he must side with his own people. Did they suspect him of being Roman at heart they would tear him in pieces. I believe that as he knows our strength, and that in the end we must conquer, his influence will always be on the side of peace; but if arms are taken up he will have no choice but to side with his countrymen, and should it be another ten years before the cloud bursts, he may be one of our most formidable opponents. Don't blame him, child; he only shows his regard for you, by wishing you back safely in Rome before trouble arises."
"You are just in time, Beric," Boduoc said as the young chief joined him. "The sun is but a hand's breadth above that hill. Here are your spear and sword where you hid them, though why you should have done it I know not, seeing that they have not yet ventured to order us to disarm."
"And if they did we should not obey them, Boduoc; but as the Trinobantes have long been forbidden to carry arms, it might have caused trouble had I gone armed into the town, and we don't want trouble at present. I went on a peaceful visit, and there was no occasion for me to carry my weapons. But give me a piece of that deer flesh and an oaten cake; we have a long march before us."
"Why, did you not eat with them?"
"No. I was, of course, invited, but I had but a short time to stop and did not wish it to seem as if I had come for a taste of Roman dainties again."
As soon as the meal was eaten they set out. It was but a track through the forest, for although the trees had been cleared away for a width of twenty feet there was but little traffic, for the road was seldom traversed, save by an occasional messenger from Prasutagus. It had been used by the legions at the time that Ostorius had built a line of forts stretching from the Nen to the Severn, and by it they had advanced when the Iceni had risen; but from that time it had been unused by them, as the Iceni had paid their tribute regularly, and held aloof from all hostile movements against them. Prasutagus was always profuse in his assurance of friendship towards Rome, and save that the Roman officers visited his capital once a year to receive their tribute, they troubled but little about the Iceni, having their hands occupied by their wars in the south and west, while their main road to the north ran far to the west of Camalodunum.
"We shall arrive about midnight," Beric said as they strode along.
"We may or we may not," Boduoc said curtly.
"What is to prevent us, Boduoc?"
"Well, the wolves may prevent us, Beric; we heard them howling several times as we came along this morning. The rapacious brutes have not been so bold for years, and it is high time that we hunted them down, or at any rate made our part of the country too hot to hold them. I told Borgon before I started that if we did not return by an hour after midnight it would be because we had been obliged to take to a tree, and that he had better bring out a party at the first break of day to rescue us."
"But we have never had any trouble of that kind while we have been hunting, Boduoc."
"No; but I think there must have been some great hunts up in Norfolk, and that the brutes have come south. Certain it is that there have in the last week been great complaints of them, and, as you know, it was for that reason that your mother ordered all the men of the tribe to assemble by tomorrow morning to make war against them. The people in the farms and villages are afraid to stay out after nightfall. No man with arms in his hands fears a wolf, or even two or three of them, in the daytime; but when they are in packs they are formidable assailants, even to a strong party. Things are getting as bad now as they were twenty years ago. My father has told me that during one hard winter they destroyed full half our herds, and that hundreds of people were devoured by them. They had to erect stockades round the villages and drive in all the cattle, and half the men kept guard by turns, keeping great fires alight to frighten them away. When we have cleared the land of those two legged wolves the Romans, we shall have to make a general war upon them, for truly they are becoming a perfect scourge to the land. It is not like the wild boar, of which there might with advantage be more, for they do but little harm, getting their food for the most part in the woods, and furnishing us with good eating as well as good sport. But the wolves give us nothing in return, and save for the sport no one would trouble to hunt them; and it is only by a general order for their destruction, or by the offer of a reward for their heads, that we shall get rid of them."
"Well, let us press on, Boduoc. I would not that anything should occur to prevent us starting with the rest in the morning."
"We are walking a good pace now," Boduoc said, "and shall gain but little by going faster. One cannot run for six hours; and besides it is as much as we can do to walk fast in the dark. Did we try to run we should like enough fall over a stump or root, and maybe not arrive there even though the wolves stopped us not."
For two hours more they strode along. Boduoc's eyes had been trained by many a long night spent among the woods, and dark as it was beneath the overarching trees, he was able to discern objects around him, and kept along in his regular stride as surely and almost as noiselessly as a wild beast; but the four years spent in the Roman town had impaired Beric's nocturnal vision; and though he had done much hunting since his return home, he was far from being able to use his eyes as his companion did, and he more than once stumbled over the roots that crossed the path.
"You will be on your head presently," Boduoc growled.
"It is all very well for you, Boduoc, who have the eyes of a cat; but you must remember we are travelling in the dark, and although I can make out the trunks on either hand the ground is all black to me, and I am walking quite at hazard."
"It is not what I should call a light night," Boduoc admitted.
"Well, no, considering that there is no moon, and that the clouds that were rising when the sun went down have overspread all the sky. I don't see that it could well be darker."
"Well we will stop at that hut in the little clearing, somewhere about half a mile on, and get a couple of torches. If you were to fall and twist your foot you would not be able to hunt tomorrow."
"What is that?" Beric exclaimed as a distant cry came to their ears.
"I think it is the voice of a woman," Boduoc said. "Or maybe it is one of the spirits of evil."
Beric during his stay among the Romans had lost faith in most of his superstitions. "Nonsense, Boduoc! it was the cry of a woman; it came from ahead. Maybe some woman returning late has been attacked by wolves. Come along," he shouted, and he started to run, followed reluctantly by his companion.
"Stop, Beric, stop!" he said in a short time, "I hear other sounds."
"So do I," Beric agreed, but without checking his pace. "My eyes may be dull, Boduoc, but they are not so dull as your ears. Why, don't you know the snarling of wolves when you hear them?"
Again the loud cry of distress came on the night air. "They have not seized her yet," Beric said. "Her first cry would have been her last had they done so. She must be in that hut, Boduoc, and they are trying to get at her. Maybe her husband is away."
"It is wolves," Boduoc agreed in a tone of relief. "Since that is all I am ready for them; but sword and spear are of no avail against the spirits of the air. We must be careful though, or instead of us attacking we may be attacked."
Beric paid no attention. They had as they passed the hut that morning stopped for a drink of water there, and he saw now before his eyes the tall comely young woman with a baby in her arms and two children hanging to her skirts. In a short time they stood at the edge of the little clearing by the side of the path. It was lighter here, and he could make out the outline of the rude hut, and, as he thought, that of many dark figures moving round it. A fierce growling and snarling rose from around the hut, with once or twice a sharp yell of pain.
"There are half a dozen of them on the roof," Boduoc said, "and a score or more round the hut. At present they haven't winded us, for the air is in our faces."
"I think we had best make a rush at them, Boduoc, shouting at the top of our voices as we go, and bidding the woman stand in readiness to unbar the door. They will be scared for a moment, not knowing how many of us there may be, and once inside we shall be safe from them."
"Let us get as near as we can before we begin to shout, Beric. They may run back a few paces at our voice, but will speedily rally."
Holding their spears in readiness for action they ran forward. When within thirty yards of the hut Boduoc raised his voice in a wild yell, Beric adding his cry and then shouting, "Unbar your door and stand to close it as we enter."
There was, however, no occasion for haste. Boduoc' s sudden yell completely scared the wolves, and with whimpers of dismay they scattered in all directions. The door opened as Beric and his companion came up, and they rushed in and closed it after them. A fire burned on the hearth. A dead wolf lay on the ground, the children crouched in terror on a pile of rushes, and a woman stood with a spear in her hand.
"Thanks to our country's gods you have come!" she said. "A few minutes later and all would have been over with me and my children. See, one has already made his way through the roof, and in half a dozen places they have scratched holes well nigh large enough to pass through."
"We heard your cry," Beric said, "and hastened forward at the top of our speed."
"It was for you that I called," the woman said. "By what you said this morning I judged you would be returning about this hour, and it was in hopes you might hear me that I cried out, for I knew well that no one else would be likely to be within earshot."
"Where is your husband?" Beric asked.
"He started this afternoon for Cardun. He and all the able bodied men were ordered to assemble there tonight in readiness to begin the war against the wolves at daybreak. There is no other house within a mile, and even had they heard me there they could have given me no assistance, seeing there are but women and children remaining behind."
"They are coming again," Boduoc broke in; "I can hear their feet pattering on the dead leaves. Which shall we do, Beric, pile more wood on the fire, or let it go out altogether? I think that we shall do better without it; it is from the roof that they will attack, and if we have a light here we cannot see them till they are ready to leap down; whereas, if we are in darkness we may be able to make them out when they approach the holes, or as they pass over any of the crevices."
"I don't know, Boduoc; I think we shall do better if we have light. We may not make them out so well, but at least we can use our spears better than we could in the dark, when we might strike them against the rafters or thick branches."
The woman at once gathered some of the pieces of wood that had fallen through as the wolves made the holes and put them on the hearth, where they soon blazed up brightly.
"I will take this big hole," Boduoc said, "it is the only one by which they can come down at present. Do you try and prevent them from enlarging any of the others."
There was a sudden thump overhead, followed almost immediately by several others.
"They get up by the wood pile," the woman said. "It is against that side of the hut, and reaches nearly up to the eaves."
There was a sharp yell as Boduoc thrust his spear up through the hole when he saw a pair of eyes, shining in the firelight, appear at the edge. At the same moment there was a sound of scraping and scratching at some of the other holes. The roof was constructed of rough poles laid at short distances apart, and above these were small branches, on which was a sort of thatch of reeds and rushes. Standing close under one of the holes Beric could see nothing, but from the sound of the scratching he could tell from which side the wolf was at work enlarging it. He carefully thrust the point of his spear through the branches and gave a sudden lunge upwards. A fierce yell was heard, followed by the sound of a body rolling down the roof, and then a struggle accompanied by angry snarling and growling outside.
"That is one less, Beric," Boduoc said. "I fancy I only scratched mine. Ah!" he exclaimed suddenly, as without the least warning a wolf sprang down through the hole. Before it could gather its legs under it for a fresh spring Beric and the woman both thrust their spears deeply into it, Boduoc keeping his eyes fixed on the hole, and making a lunge as another wolf peered down in readiness to spring after the one that had entered.
For hours the fight went on. Gradually the holes, in spite of the efforts of the defenders, were enlarged, and the position became more and more critical. At least twenty of the wolves were slain; but as the attack was kept up as vigorously as at first, it was evident that fresh reinforcements had arrived to the assailants.
"We cannot keep them out much longer, Beric," Boduoc said at last. "It seems to me that our only plan is to fire the hut, and then, each taking a child, to make a rush across to the trees and climb them. The sudden burst of fire will drive them back for a little, and we may make good our retreat to the trees."
"What time is it, think you, Boduoc?"
"It must be two or three hours past midnight, and if Borgon carried out my instructions help ought to be near at hand. I would that we could let them know of our peril."
"There is a cow horn," the woman said, pointing to the corner of the hut. "My husband uses it for calling in the cattle."
Boduoc seized the horn and blew a deep hollow blast upon it. There was a sudden pattering of feet overhead and then silence.
"That has scared them," Beric said. "Blow again, Boduoc; if we can but gain half an hour our friends may be up."
Again and again the hoarse roar of the cow horn rose, but the wolves speedily recovered from their scare and crowded on the roof.
"We can't hold out much longer," Beric said, as two wolves that leapt down together had just been despatched. "Get a brand from the fire." At this moment there was a sudden scuffle overhead, and the three defenders stood, spear in hand, ready to repel a fresh attack; but all was quiet; then a loud shout rose on the air.
"Thank the gods, here they are!" Boduoc said. He listened a moment, but all was still round the hut; then he threw the door open as a score of men with lighted torches came running towards it, and raised a shout of satisfaction as the light fell upon Beric.
"Thanks for your aid, my friends!" he said as they crowded round him; "never was a shout more welcome than yours. You were just in time, as you may see by looking at the roof. We were about to fire it and make for the trees, though I doubt if one of us would have reached them."
As the men entered the hut and looked at the ragged holes in the roof and the bodies of nine wolves stretched on the ground, they saw that they had, indeed, arrived only just in time. Among the rescuing party was the man to whom the hut belonged, whose joy at finding his wife and children unhurt was great indeed; and he poured forth his thanks to Beric and Boduoc when he learned from his wife that they had voluntarily abandoned the wood, where they could have been secure in the shelter of a tree, in order to assist her in defending the hut against the wolves.
"You must all come with us," Beric said; "the wolves may return after we have gone. When our hunt is over I will send some men to help you to repair your roof. Where are the cattle?"
"They are safe in a stockade at the next village," the man said. "We finished it only yesterday, and drove in all the cattle from the forests, and collected great quantities of wood so that the women might keep up great bonfires if the wolves tried to break in."
A few minutes later the party started on their return. As they walked they could sometimes hear the pattering of footsteps on the falling leaves, but the torches deterred the animals from making an attack, and after three hours' walking they arrived at Cardun. The village stood on a knoll rising from swamps, through which a branch of the Stour wound its way sluggishly. Round the crest of the knoll ran two steep earthen banks, one rising behind the other, and in the inclosed space, some eight acres in extent, stood the village. The contrast between it and the Roman city but two-and-twenty miles away was striking. No great advance had been made upon the homes that the people had occupied in Gaul before their emigration. In the centre stood Parta's abode, distinguished from the rest only by its superior size. The walls were of mud and stone, the roof high, so as to let the water run more easily off the rough thatching. It contained but one central hall surrounded by half a dozen small apartments.
The huts of the people consisted but of a single room, with a hole in the roof by which the smoke of the fire in the centre made its way out. The doorway was generally closed by a wattle secured by a bar. When this was closed light only found its way into the room through the chinks of the wattle and the hole in the roof. In winter, for extra warmth, a skin was hung before the door. Beyond piles of hides, which served as seats by day and beds at night, there was no furniture whatever in the rooms, save a few earthen cooking pots.
Parta's abode, however, was more sumptuously furnished. Across one end ran a sort of dais of beaten earth, raised a foot above the rest of the floor. This was thickly strewn with fresh rushes, and there was a rough table and benches. The walls of the apartment were hidden by skins, principally those of wolves.
The fireplace was in the centre of the lower part of the hall, and arranged on a shelf against the wall were cooking pots of iron and brass; while on a similar shelf on the wall above the dais were jugs and drinking vessels of gold. Hams of wild boar and swine hung from the rafters, where too were suspended wild duck and fish, and other articles of food. Parta's own apartment led from the back of the dais. That of Beric was next to it, its separate use having been granted to him on his return from Camalodunum, not without some scoffing remarks upon his effeminacy in requiring a separate apartment, instead of sleeping as usual on the dais; while the followers and attendants stretched themselves on the floor of the hall.
CHAPTER III: A WOLF HUNT
Shouts of welcome saluted Beric as with his party he crossed the rough bridge over the stream and descended the slope to the village. Some fifteen hundred men were gathered here, all armed for the chase with spears, javelins, and long knives. Their hair fell over their necks, their faces were, according to the universal custom, shaved with the exception of the moustache. Many of them were tattooed—a custom that at one time had been universal, but was now dying out among the more civilized. Most of them were, save for the mantle, naked from the waist up, the body being stained a deep blue with woad—a plant largely cultivated for its dye. This plant, known as Isatis tinctoria, is still grown in France and Flanders. It requires rich ground and grows to a height of three or four feet, bearing yellow flowers. The dye is obtained from the leaves, which are stripped two or three times in the season. They are partially dried, and are then pounded or ground, pressed into a mass with the hands or feet, and piled in a heap, when fermentation takes place. When this process is completed the paste is cut up, and when placed in water yields a blue dye. It can also be prepared by laying it in the water in the first place and allowing it to ferment there. The water, which becomes a deep blue, is drawn off and allowed to settle, the dye remaining at the bottom. Fresh water is then added to the leaves, which are again stirred up and the operation is repeated.
Passing through the crowd of tribesmen, Beric entered his mother's abode, walked up to the dais, and saluted her by a deep bow. Parta was a woman of tall stature and of robust form. Her garment was fastened at each shoulder by a gold brooch. A belt studded and clasped by the same metal girded it in at the waist, and it then fell in loose folds almost to her feet. She had heavy gold bracelets on her arms.
"You are late, Beric," she said sternly. "Our tribesmen have been waiting nigh an hour for you. I only heard at daybreak that Borgon had gone out to search for you with a party."
"It was well that he did, mother, for Boduoc and I were besieged in a hut by a pack of wolves, who would shortly have made an end of us had not rescue arrived."
"What were you doing in the hut?" she asked. "You told me you should leave the Romans' town before sunset and make your way straight back here."
Beric shortly related the circumstances of the fight.
"It is well that it is no worse," she said; "but Boduoc ought to have known better than to have allowed you to leave the trees, where you would at least have been safe from the wolves. What mattered the life of a woman in comparison to yours, when you know my hopes and plans for you? But stay not talking. Magartha has some roasted kid in readiness for you. Eat it quickly, and take a horn of mead, and be gone. An hour has been wasted already."
A few minutes sufficed for Beric to satisfy his hunger. Then he went out and joined two or three minor chiefs of experience who had charge of the hunt. The greater portion of the tribesmen had already started. Almost every man had brought with him one or more large dogs trained in hunting the wolf and boar, and the woods beyond the swamp rang with their deep barking. Instructions had already been given to the men. These proceeded in parties of four, each group taking its post some fifty yards from the next. Those who had the farthest to go had started before daybreak, and it was another two hours before the whole were in position, forming a long line through the forest upwards of ten miles in length. A horn was sounded in the centre where the leaders had posted themselves, and the signal was repeated at points along the line, and then, with shouts on the part of the men and fierce barkings on that of the dogs, the whole moved forward. The right of the line rested on the Stour, the left upon the Orwell; and as they passed along through the forest the line contracted. At times wild boars made a dash to break through it. Many of these were slain, till the chiefs considered that there was a sufficient supply of food, and the rest were then allowed to pass through.
No wolves were seen until they neared the point where the two rivers unite, by which time the groups were within a few paces of each other. Then among the trees in front of them a fierce snarling and yelping was heard. The dogs, which had hitherto been kept in hand, were now loosed, and with a shout the men rushed forward both on the bluffs in the centre and along the low land skirting the rivers on either side. Soon the wolves came pouring down from the wooded bluff, and engaged in a furious conflict with the dogs. As the men ran up, a few of the wolves in their desperation charged them and endeavoured to break through, but the great majority, cowed by the clamour and fierce assault, crouched to the earth and received their death blow unresistingly. Some took to the water, but coracles had been sent down to the point the evening before, and they were speedily slain. Altogether some four or five hundred wolves were killed.
It was now late in the afternoon. Wood was collected and great fires made, and the boars' flesh was soon roasting over them. At daybreak they started again, and retracing their steps formed a fresh line at the point where the last beat had begun, this time beating in a great semicircle and driving the wolves down on to the Stour. So for a fortnight the war went on. Only such deer and boar as were required for food were killed; but the wolves were slain without mercy, and at the end of the operations that portion of the country was completely cleared of these savage beasts, for those who had escaped the beating parties had fled far away through the forest to more quiet quarters.
The work had been laborious; for each day some forty miles had been traversed in the march from the last place of slaughter to the next beat, and in the subsequent proceedings. It had, however, been full of interest and excitement, especially during the second week, when, having cleared all the country in the neighbourhood of the rivers, the men were ranged in wide circles some ten miles in diameter, advancing gradually towards a centre. Occasionally many of the wolves escaped before the lines had narrowed sufficiently for the men to be near enough to each other to oppose a successful resistance, but in each case the majority continued to slink from the approaching noises until the cordon was too close for them to break through.
Altogether over four thousand wolves were slain. All those whose coats were in good condition were skinned, the skins being valuable for linings to the huts, for beds, and winter mantles. Many men had been bitten more or less severely by them, but none had been killed; and there was much rejoicing at the complete clearance from the district of a foe that had, since the arrival of the large packs from the north, made terrible inroads among the herds of cattle and swine, and had killed a considerable number of men, women, and children. The previous winter had been a very severe one, and had driven great numbers of wolves down from North Britain. The fighting that had been going on for years in the south and west, and at times in the midlands, had put a stop to the usual chases of wolves in those districts, and they had consequently multiplied exceedingly and had become a serious scourge even before the arrival of the fresh bands from the north. However, after so great a slaughter it was hoped that for a time at least they would not again make their appearance in that neighbourhood.
Returning home at the end of their expedition Beric was surprised as he entered the hall to see a Druid standing upon the dais conversing with his mother, who was pacing up and down with angry gestures. That their conference was an important one he did not doubt; for the Druids dwelt in the recesses of the forests or near their temples, and those who wished to consult them must journey to them to ask their counsel beneath a sacred oak or in the circle of the magic stones. When great events were impending, or when tribes took up arms against each other, the Druids would leave their forest abodes, and, interposing between the combatants, authoritatively bid them desist. They acted as mediators between great chiefs, and were judges upon all matters in dispute. He was sure, therefore, that the Druid was the bearer of news of importance. He stood waiting in the centre of the hall until his mother's eye fell upon him.
"Come hither, Beric," she said, "and hear the news that the holy Druid has brought. Think you not that the Romans have carried their oppression far enough when they have seized half the land of our island, enslaved the people, and exacted tribute from the free Britons? What think you, now? The Roman governor Severus, knowing that it is our religion as well as love of our country that arms us against them, and that the Druids ever raise their voices to bid us defend our altars and our homes, have resolved upon an expedition against the Sacred Island, and have determined to exterminate our priests, to break down our altars, and to destroy our religion. Ten days since the legion marched from Camalodunum to join the army he is assembling in the west. From all other parts he has drawn soldiers, and he has declared his intention of rooting out and destroying our religion at its centre."
"The news is terrible," the Druid said, "but our gods will fight for us, and doubtless a terrible destruction will fall upon the impious men who thus dream of profaning the Sacred Island; but it may be otherwise, or perchance the gods may see that thus, and thus only, can the people of Britain be stirred to take up arms and to annihilate the worshippers of the false gods of Rome. Assuredly we are on the eve of great events, and every Briton must prepare to take up arms, either to fall upon the legions whom our gods have stricken or to avenge the insult offered to our faith."
"It is terrible news, indeed," Beric said; "and though I am but a lad, father, I am ready when the call comes to fight in the front ranks of the Iceni with our people. My father fell fighting for his country by the sword of the Romans, and I am ready to follow his example when my mother shall say, 'Go out to war.'"
"For the present, Beric, we must remain quiet; we must await news of the result of this expedition; but the word has gone round, and I and my brethren are to visit every chief of the Iceni, while the Druids of the north stir up the Brigantes; the news, too, that the time of their deliverance is at hand, and that they must hold themselves in readiness to rise against the oppressors, is passing through the Trinobantes and the tribes of the south and southwest. This time it must be no partial rising, and we must avoid the ruinous error of matching a single tribe against the whole strength of the Romans. It must be Britain against Rome—a whole people struggling for their homes and altars against those who would destroy their religion and reduce them to slavery."
"I would that it could have been postponed for a time, father," Beric said. "During the four years I passed as a hostage at Camalodunum I have been learning the tactics that have enabled the Romans to conquer us. I have learned their words of command, and how the movements were executed, and I hope when I become a man to train the Sarci to fight in solid order, to wheel and turn as do the Romans, so that we might form a band which might in the day of battle oppose itself to the Roman onset, check pursuit, and perhaps convert a reverse into a victory."
"Heed not that," the Druid said enthusiastically. "It would be useful indeed, but there is but scant time for it now. Our gods will fight for us. We have numbers and valour. Our warriors will sweep their soldiers aside as a wave dashes over a rock."
The conversation between the Druid and Parta had been heard by others in the hall, and the news spread rapidly among the tribesmen as they returned from the chase. Shouts of fury and indignation rose outside, and several of the minor chiefs, followed by a crowd of excited men, poured into the hall, demanding with loud shouts that war should be declared against the Romans. The Druid advanced to the edge of the dais.
"Children," he said, "the time has not yet come, nor can the Sarci do aught until the word is given by Prasutagus, and the whole of the Iceni rise in arms, and not the Iceni alone, but Britons from sea to sea. Till then hold yourselves in readiness. Sharpen your arms and prepare for the contest. But you need a chief. In the ordinary course of things years would have elapsed before Beric, the son of your last brave prince, would have been associated with his mother in the rule of the tribe; but on the eve of such a struggle ordinary customs and usages must be set at nought. I therefore, in virtue of my sacred authority, now appoint Beric as chief next to his mother in the tribe, and I bid you obey him in all things relating to war. He has learned much of Roman ways and methods, and is thus better fitted than many far older than he to instruct you how best to stand their onset, and I prophesy that under him no small honour and glory will fall to the tribe, and that they will bear a signal share in avenging our gods and winning our freedom. Come hither, Beric;" and the Druid, laying a hand upon the lad's head, raised the other to heaven and implored the gods to bestow wisdom and strength upon him, and to raise in him a mighty champion of his country and faith. Then he uttered a terrible malediction upon any who should disobey Beric's orders, or question his authority, who should show faint heart in the day of battle, or hold his life of any account in the cause of his country.
"Now," he concluded, "retire to your homes. We must give no cause or pretext for Roman aggression until the signal is given. You will not be idle. Your young chief will teach you somewhat of the discipline that has rendered the Roman soldiers so formidable, so that you may know how to set yourselves in the day of battle, how to oppose rank to rank, to draw off in good order, or to press forward to victory. The issue is ever in the hands of the gods, but we should do all we can to deserve it. It is good to learn even from our enemies. They have studied war for ages, and if they have conquered brave peoples, it has not been by superior valour, but because they have studied war, while others have trusted solely to their native valour. Therefore deem not instruction useless, or despise methods simply because you do not understand them. None could be braver than those who fought under Caractacus, yet they were conquered, not by the valour, but by the discipline of the Romans. It was the will of the gods that your young chief should dwell for four years a hostage among the Romans, and doubtless they willed it should be so in order that he might be fitted to be a worthy champion of his country, and so to effect what even the valour of Caractacus failed to do. The gods have spoken by me. See that you obey them, and woe to the wretch who murmurs even in his own heart against their decrees!"
As he concluded a loud shout was raised throughout the crowded hall, and swelled into a mighty roar outside, for those at the open door had passed his words to the throng of tribesmen outside. When the shout subsided, Beric added a few words, saying, that although he regretted he had not yet come to his full strength, and that thus early he should be called upon to lead men, he accepted the decree of the gods, and would strive not to be wanting in the day of trial. In matters connected with war he had learned much from the Romans, who, oppressors as they were and despisers of the gods of Britain, were skilled beyond all others in such matters. In all other respects he had happily his mother's counsel and guidance to depend upon, and before assuming any civil authority he should wait until years had taught him wisdom, and should then go through all the usual ceremonies appointed by their religion, and receive his instalment solemnly in the temple at the hands of the Druids.
That night there was high feasting at Cardun. A bullock and three swine were slain by order of Parta, and a number of great earthen jars of mead broached, and while the principal men of the tribe feasted in the hall, the rest made merry outside. The bard attached to Parta's household sang tales of the glories of the tribe, even the women from the villages and detached huts for a large circle round came in, happy that, now the wolves had been cleared away, they could stir out after nightfall without fear. After entertaining their guests in the hall, Parta and her son went round among the tribesmen outside and saw that they had all they needed, and spoke pleasantly even to the poorest among them.
It was long before Beric closed his eyes that night. The events of the day had been a complete surprise to him. He had thought that in the distant future he should share with his mother in the ruling of the tribe, but had never once dreamed of its coming for years. Had it not been for the news that they had heard of the intended invasion of the Holy Isle he should not have regretted his elevation, for it would have given him the means and opportunity to train the tribesmen to fight in close order as did the Romans. But now he could not hope that there would be time to carry this out effectually. He knew that throughout Britain the feeling of rage and indignation at this outrage upon the gods of their country would raise the passions of men to boiling point, and that the slightest incident would suffice to bring on a general explosion, and he greatly feared that the result of such a rising would in the end be disastrous.
His reading had shown him how great was the power of Rome, and how obstinately she clung to her conquests. His countrymen seemed to think that were they, with a mighty effort, to free Britain of its invaders, their freedom would be achieved; but he knew that such a disaster would arouse the Roman pride, and that however great the effort required, fresh armies would be despatched to avenge the disaster and to regain the territory lost.
"The Britons know nothing of Roman power," he said to himself. "They see but twenty or thirty thousand men here, and they forget that that number have alone been sent because they were sufficient for the work, and that Rome could, if need be, despatch five times as many men. With time to teach the people, not of the Sarci tribe only, but all the Iceni, to fight in solid masses, and to bear the brunt of the battle, while the rest of the tribes attacked furiously on all sides, we might hope for victory; but fighting without order or regularity, each man for himself, cannot hope to prevail against their solid mass.
"If I could have gained a name before the time came, so that my voice might have had weight and power in the councils of the chiefs, I might have done something. As it is, I fear that a rising now will bring ruin and slavery upon all Britain."
Beric thought but little of himself, or of the personal danger he should encounter. The Britons were careless of their lives. They believed implicitly in a future life, and that those who fell fighting bravely for their country would meet with reward hereafter; hence, as among the Gauls, cowardice was an almost unknown vice.
Beric had faith in the gods of his country, while he had none whatever in those of Rome, and wondered how a mighty people could believe in such deities; but, unlike the Britons in general, he did not believe that the gods interfered to decide the fate of battles.
He saw that the Romans, with their false gods, had conquered all other nations, and that so far they had uniformly triumphed over his own. Therefore, mighty as he believed the gods to be, he thought that they concerned themselves but little in the affairs of the world, and that battles were to be won solely by valour, discipline, and numbers. Numbers and valour the British had, but of discipline they were absolutely ignorant, and it was this that gave so tremendous an advantage to the Romans. Hence Beric felt none of the exultation and excitement that most British lads of his age would have done on attaining to rank and command in the tribe to which they belonged.
The Britons despised the Romans as much for their belief in many gods as for their luxury, and what they considered their effeminacy. The religion of the Britons was a pure one, though disfigured by the offering of human sacrifices. They believed in one great Supreme Spirit, whose power pervaded everything. They thought of him less as an absolute being than as a pervading influence. They worshipped him everywhere, in the forests and in the streams, in the sky and heavenly bodies. Through the Druids they consulted him in all their undertakings. If the answer was favourable, they followed it; if unfavourable, they endeavoured to change it by sacrifices and offerings to the priests. They believed firmly in a life after death, when they held that the souls of all brave and good men and women would be transported at once to an island far out in the Atlantic, which they called the Happy Island. The highest places would be theirs who had fought valiantly and died in battle; but there was room for all, and all would be happy. Holding this idea firmly, the Britons sought rather than avoided death. Their lives in their separate tribes were quiet and simple, except when engaged in the chase or war. They were averse to labour. They were domestic, virtuous, frank, and straightforward. The personal property of a stranger was sacred among them, and the most lavish hospitality was exercised. It was not strange that a simple hardy people, believing firmly in the one supreme god, should have regarded with contempt alike the luxury of the Romans and their worship of many gods in the likenesses of men and women, and that the more Beric had seen of the learning and wisdom of the Romans in other directions, the more he should wonder that such a people should be slaves to what seemed to him childish superstitions.