Marcus, The Young Centurion, by George Manville Fenn.
Marcus is eighteen, and his father had been a great Roman General, Cracis, who had fallen from grace some years before and was living quietly, farming in a small way in southern Italy. An old ex-soldier, Serge, works on the farm, and is helping to bring Marcus up. Marcus would like to be a soldier, and is encouraged in this by Serge, but his father has forbidden any discussion of the topic.
One day a stranger comes to the door. This turns out to be none other than Caius Julius, later Caesar, who begs Marcus' father to join him in a war against the Gauls. He agrees, and goes, having made Marcus and Serge promise that they would not try to follow him.
But they do, independently, and then meet accidentally. Serge was being attacked by bandits, and Marcus sees this happening and rushes to the rescue, so they are reunited, later to be joined also by the household dog, Lupe, who has tracked them across Italy. On reaching Rome they are just in time to join the last unit of the Roman army as it leaves for the war. They make their way across the mountains and into Gaul (France), where battles ensue, in which they distinguish themselves, and are brought to the notice of the Generals, whom they had rescued from personal disaster during the battle. So Marcus' military career is assured.
MARCUS, THE YOUNG CENTURION, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
FLIES AND BOYS.
Hot as hot. Through the open window, where a couple of long shoots of one of the grapevines hung down, partially shading the room within, a broad, glowing ray of light, which made the shadows near look purply black, streamed right across the head of Marcus, a Roman lad of about eighteen, making his close, curly, brown hair glisten as if some of the threads were of gold, while the light twinkled on the tiny dew-like drops that stood out on the boy's brown forehead and by the sides of his slightly aquiline nose.
The side of his head was down upon the table and his hands outspread upon either side; a wax-covered tablet had escaped from his left, and a pointed stylus, with which he had been making a line of characters upon the wax, had slipped from his right fingers, for he was sleeping like a top.
All was wonderfully still in the Roman villa, and, from time to time, a slight puff of air which came cool from the mountains, but grew hot before it reached the house, sent one of the vine strands swinging to and fro like a pendulum, while the other, having secured itself to an outer shutter by one of its tendrils, remained motionless.
The one that swung to and fro kept up its motion the more easily from the fact that it was weighted by a closely-set bunch of grapes of a pearly green on one side, but on the other, facing the sun, beginning to be tinged with a soft purple hue. Upon one of these berries a great fly, which seemed to be clad in a coat of golden armour, sat with its face away from the sun as if listening to the sleeping boy, who every now and then uttered a low, buzzing sound which seemed to have attracted the fly from the outer sunshine to dart to the window with a similar kind of hum, buzz round for a few moments, and then settle upon the grape.
There was not much similarity in the two sounds, simply because the fly made his by the rapid motion of the wings, while Marcus produced his softly through his nose. In plain English, Marcus, the Roman boy, son of Cracis, the famous senator, tired out by the heat, had gone to sleep over his studies, snoring like an English lad of this year of grace, nearly two thousand years later on in the progress of the world.
So Marcus snored, not loudly and unpleasantly, but with a nice, soft, humming note; and the great, golden-green fly sat on the grape and seemed to watch him.
It was very still in the simple Roman villa on the steep slope of the hillside—a hill which looked like a young mountain, an offset of the beautiful spur that ran upward from the vineyard farms and villas of the campagna towards the purple shades of the great range far, far away.
But now and again other sounds floated into the shadowy room past the bright bar of golden light which crossed the boy as he slept.
There was the uneasy, querulous bleating of a goat, answered by the impatient cry of a kid, and now and again the satisfied grunting of pigs, though in those days they called them swine, of which there were several basking in the sunshine in the little farm attached to the villa, the little herd having shortly before returned from a muddy pool, dripping and thickly coated, after a satisfying wallow, to lay themselves down to dry and sleep in peace, the mud having dried into a crackling coat of armour which protected them from the flies.
All at once that fly sprang up from the grape, darted into the room, and circled round, humming loudly, one moment invisible in the dark, velvety shade, the next flashing bright and golden as it darted across the sunny bar of light, till, all at once, it dropped suddenly upon the boy's glistening nose, producing such a tickling sensation with its six brush-armed feet, that Marcus started impatiently, perfectly wide awake, and sent his disturber escaping from the window by an angry stroke which, of course, missed, as he impatiently exclaimed in fine, old, sonorous, classic Latin:
"Bother the flies!"
The boy closed his eyes again, opened them sharply, and picked up his tablet and stylus, yawned, and carefully laid them down again, for his head felt very heavy. As he listened to the soft grunting of the swine, his eyelids dropped, and, in another moment, he would have been fast asleep once more, when from somewhere near at hand, as it seemed, there was a sharp crack as of the breaking of a piece of wood.
Marcus listened, fully awake once more, and, rising softly, he rose and approached the window, to peer between the vine leaves that encroached all down one side.
He was listening to a soft whispering which was followed by a laugh, a tearing noise, and another crack.
The boy stole back and stood for a few moments in his loose, woollen, open-fronted garment, not very much unlike a tweed Norfolk jacket without pockets or buttons, very short in the sleeves. His eyes were wandering about the room as if in search of something which was not there, and, not finding it, he stretched out his hands before him, looked at them with a satisfied smile, and doubled his fists. Then, stealing further back into the shadow, he passed through a door, made his way along a passage, across another room, and out into the open atrium, a simply-made, shady court with a central basin where a little jet of water played up, sparkling, and fell back in glistening drops.
The next minute the boy was out in a fairly extensive garden, stooping low as he glided among the trees towards the little trellised vineyard on the sunny slope, where, from the continued sounds, it was evident that a party of marauders were making a foray amongst the unripened grapes, which, trained to fir-poles secured to posts, formed an attractive pergola overhead.
Marcus approached as near as he could unseen, and then paused to reconnoitre, to find that the sounds proceeded from a party of six boys of somewhere about his own age, two of whom had destructively climbed up a couple of the poles to be seated astride amongst the spreading vines, where, after throwing down bunches to their four companions below, they were setting their glistening white teeth on edge with the sour grapes they had torn from the clinging strands.
They were talking in whispers, but that was the only sign of fear they displayed, for the villa stood alone, the nearest domicile, another villa farm, being a couple of hundred yards away lower down the slope, and, apparently perfectly convinced that the occupants of the place were right away, they feasted in perfect security and content.
A grim smile came upon the handsome young face of Marcus as he watched the destruction going on. His eyes sparkled, his sun-browned cheek grew deeper in its tint, and he looked round again for the something that was not to hand, that something being a good stout stick. Then, clenching his fists more tightly—nature's own weapons—and without a sound, he suddenly made a dash for two of the boys who were standing with their backs towards him, and with a couple of springs came down upon them like fate, gripping them by the backs of their necks and sending them face downwards amongst the vine leaves and damaged bunches that had been torn from the vine, kneeling upon one and pressing the head of the other down into the soil, regardless of the shrieks and yells which made the two seated above drop down and follow the other two, who had taken to flight, while the noise that was made startled the sleeping swine outside to add their shrill squeals and heavy grunts to the turmoil of the cultivated ground within.
It was hard work to keep down the two young marauders, who joined to their struggling piteous appeals for mercy; but Right strengthened the hands of Marcus, and he was gaining a complete triumph, and calculating where he should secure his two prisoners until either his father or Serge came back, the latter probably from his tramp through the forest to see after the young acorn-eating pigs.
But the prisoners' shouts reached and added wings to their flying friends' heels for the moment, then checked them, and a feeling of comradeship prevailed. The young rascals stopped short after going some distance; then one looked back, and his example was followed by another and another, till all four were hesitating as to what they should do.
They were on the balance when a more pitiful yell than ever from their trapped companions sent the scale down in the latter's favour. They looked at one another questioningly and then began to steal back to see what was happening, all the while fully on the alert to dash again through the trees which shaded their approach to the garden.
In this way, with their fellows' bellowing ringing in their ears, they at last stole up to the palisading through which they had at first broken, and then, dropping on hands and knees, they crept cautiously up to the edge of the little vineyard and, sheltering themselves well, peered in.
The first and boldest got a good glimpse at once, and beckoned and made way for the others to see what was happening.
There was not much to see, only Marcus half kneeling half sitting upon the ragged back of one of his prisoners, and reaching over to grind the nose of the other a little more closely into the earth every time he squealed.
But that was enough for the return party, which clustered together on all fours with their faces approaching and eyes questioning, like so many quadrupeds.
They looked the more animal-like from their silence during the next few minutes, when the two prisoners made a concerted effort to get free—an effort which only resulted in making their position worse, for, as he mastered them, reducing them to obedience again, the boy jammed his knees fiercely into the ribs of the one upon whom he squatted, and lifted up and banged down again the head of the other.
The result was a piteous burst of shrieks which were too much for their friends and supplied them with the courage in which they were wanting, making them with one consent spring forward to their comrades' help, influenced, however, by the feeling that they were six to one.
So sudden and unexpected was the attack, which accompanied a loud shout—one which made the prisoners join in and heave themselves up to get free—that Marcus was jerked over, and, before he could gain his feet, found himself the centre of a combined attack in which he rapidly began to get the worst of it, for, while he fought bravely and pommelled and banged enemies in front, getting on so well that he succeeded in seizing two by the neck and hammering their heads together, two others leaped on him from behind in his weak rear, in spite of his splendid kicking powers, while two more attacked in front.
Marcus was a young Roman, and fought like the Romans of old; but then the six young roughs were Romans too, and they fought like the Romans of old, and six to one is rather long odds.
Breath began to come short, perspiration was streaming, and an unlucky blow on the nose set another stream flowing, while, all at once, a dab in the eye made the optic flinch, close its lid from intense pain, and refuse to open again, so that one-eyed like a regular old Cyclops, and panting like the same gentleman from the exertions of using his hammer— two in this case, and natural—Marcus fought on, grinding his teeth, rapidly weakening, but determined as ever, though he felt that he was being thoroughly worsted by his foes.
"I'm about done," he said to himself; but he did not utter a sound save his panting, while suddenly it began to grow dark; for, feeling that the day was their own, the enemy combined in a final rush, closed him in, hung on to him wherever they could get a hold, and were dragging him down to take vengeance for the past—for they were old enemies, Marcus and they—when, all at once, there was a fierce, deep, growling bark, a rush, a man's deep voice as if encouraging a dog, and Marcus was free, to stand there breathless and giddy, listening to the retreating steps of his foes and the shouts to the dog of Serge, who had come to his help in the nick of time.
Marcus, son of Cracis, was a good deal hurt, but his injuries were of a temporary and superficial kind, and, as he stood listening, so little importance did he attach to his injuries that a broad grin began to gather upon his frank young face, and he uttered a low, chuckling laugh; for, as he stood wiping his brow and listening, he could hear the sounds of blows, yells and cries, the worrying growl of the dog, and the harsh encouraging voice of the man pretty close at hand, all of which taught him that the enemy had been checked in their retreat and were being horribly routed by the reinforcements—a cohort of dog and man.
"The young ruffians!" said Marcus, softly, as, unwillingly dragging himself from where he could have the satisfaction of hearing the punishment that was being awarded, he hurried back into the villa and stopped in the court, where he sank upon his knees by the cool, plashing fountain, whose clear waters he tinged as he bathed his face and swollen eye.
He had some intention of hurrying back to the scene of battle to look upon the damaged vines, and see if any prisoners had been made; but, while he was still occupied in his surgical effort to make his injured eye see as well as the other, he was startled into rising up and turning to face the owner of a deep, gruff voice, who had approached him unheard, to growl out:
"Well, you were a pretty fellow, boy! Why didn't you beat 'em?"
The speaker was a big, thick-set, grizzled man of fifty, his bare arms and legs brown-skinned, hairy and muscular, his chest open, and his little clothing consisting of a belted garment similar to that worn by the boy, at whom he gazed with a grim look of satisfaction which lit up his rugged face and fine eyes.
"Weren't running away, were you?"
"No!" shouted Marcus, angrily. "I kept at it till you came, Serge. But there were six."
"Yes, I know. You didn't go the right way to work. Were they at the grapes?"
"Yes. They woke me up; I had been writing, and I dropped asleep."
"Writing?" said the man contemptuously and with a deep grunt of scorn. "Enough to send anybody to sleep on a day like this. I say, lucky for you I came back!"
"Yes," said Marcus, giving his face a final wipe; "I was getting the worst of it."
"Course you were. That's reading and writing, that is. Now, if you had been taught to be a soldier instead of a volumer, you'd have known that when the enemy's many more than you, you ought to attack him in bits, not take him all at once and get yourself surrounded. Yes, it's lucky for you I came."
"Yes, and I hope you gave them something to remember it," said the boy, with his eyes fixed upon the stout crook upon which the new-comer leaned.
"Oh yes, I made them feel this," said the man, with a chuckle; "and old Lupus tickled them up a bit and made them squeak."
"That's right," cried Marcus; "but where is he?"
"On guard," said the man.
"Yes," said the man, with a chuckle. "We took the whole six of them prisoners."
"Ah! Where are they then?"
"Shut up fast alone with the wine-press. They won't get out of there with Lupus looking on."
"Capital!" cried Marcus, forgetting all his sufferings in the triumphant news. "Here, Serge, what shall we do with them?"
"I'm not going to do anything with them," said the man, gruffly. "I've had my turn, and it's yours now. You've got to fight the lot."
"Yes," cried the boy, flushing, and his fists began to clench. "But I say, Serge, I should like to, but I'm a bit tired, and they're still six to one."
"Yes," said the man, "but that's what I want you to see. It won't hurt you to know how, even if you're never going to be a soldier. You come along o' me."
"What, to fight them?" cried Marcus.
"Yes. Aren't afraid, are you?"
"Not a bit," cried the boy, flushing angrily. "Come and see."
The man chuckled as he went off with his young companion to the lower side of the villa, where stood a low-roofed stone building with heavy chestnut plank doors, before which crouched a big, shaggy wolf-hound which pricked up its ears and uttered a deep growl as it lifted up its bushy tail, and rapped the earth in recognition of the new-comers, but did not take its eyes from the door beyond which were the prisoners it had been set to guard.
"Now, boy," said the man, "it was your doing that I taught you a bit of soldiering, and a nice row there'll be about it some day when he finds us out; so now I'm just going to show you, if you're not too tired, how one good Roman can fight six enemies and beat 'em, same as we've often done in the good old days when I wore my armour and brass helmet with its plume, not a straw hat and things like these. Ah, boy," said the man, drawing himself up and shouldering his crook as if it were a spear, "those were grand old times! I was a better man then than now."
"No, you weren't, Serge, not a bit," cried the boy. "You must have always been what you are now—a dear good old chap who'd do anything for me."
The fierce-looking old fellow smiled pleasantly, literally beaming upon the boy, whom he patted on the shoulder.
"Ah," he said, "but there was no you then. But never mind all that. Hark!" he continued, softly, as a whispering was heard beyond the door, "They know we are coming, and they're thinking about making a rush when I open the door. But they'd better not try; you'd pin some of them, wouldn't you, Lupe?"
The dog uttered a low, deep, thundering growl.
"That's right, boy. Now, Marcus, my lad, if you feel too tired, say so, and we'll keep them till the master comes."
"Oh, don't do that," cried the boy. "He'd only talk to them and scold them, and then let them go, after forgiving them for stealing the grapes."
"That's right, boy; so he would."
"And they'd all laugh," cried Marcus, "and come again."
"But they won't after the welting you are going to give them, boy—if you are not too tired."
"Of course I'm tired," cried the boy, impatiently, "after a fight like that; but then they are tired too, so it's all fair—only six to one?"
"Don't I tell you that I am going to show you how to fight them as a Roman should, and how we used to conquer in the good old times before we took to reading and writing and came into the country to keep pigs."
"And grow corn and grapes, and feed our goats in this beautiful farm villa; and if father liked to take to study instead of being a great Roman general and senator, it's not for you, Serge, to find fault with what it pleases him to do."
"Right, boy! Spoken like your father's son. It was only one of my growls. I don't mind. He's one of the finest men that ever stepped, and what he says is right. But you and me, we don't want him to let these young ragamuffins off without loosening their skins a bit to do them good, do we?"
"No!" cried the boy, joyously, as he showed his white teeth. "I say, Serge, I feel rested now, and I want to give it to them for knocking me about as they did. The rascally young plebs! The cowards! Six to one! I believe they'd have half killed me if they had got me down."
"That they would, Marcus, my boy," cried the old soldier, gazing at him proudly. "But come on, I'll show you the way, and Lupe and I will look on and see that they fight fair, while we guard you flank and rear. Old Lupe shall be ready to scatter their mothers, if they hear that we have the young rascals fast. No women will interfere if old Lupe begins to show his teeth."
The man and boy exchanged glances, and, as the former struck his staff down heavily upon the earth in advancing towards the great, rough door of the building, the latter's fists clenched involuntarily, and the dog pricked up his ears and uttered a low sigh.
The next minute a big, rough, hairy hand was raised to the cross-bar which secured the door, and, at the first touch, there was a low, rustling sound within the building.
Serge and Marcus exchanged glances again, while the dog crouched as if about to spring.
Directly after, the bar was loosened, and fell with a clang, the door was dragged open from within, and the prisoners made a simultaneous rush to escape, but only to fall back with a despairing yell, for the great dog bounded at them, and the old soldier and his young master closed in, to fill up the door and step forward.
"Stop outside, Lupe, my lad," said the old soldier, quietly; and the dog turned back to his former position and crouched once more, while the door was shut from the inside, the six boys backing to the far side, beyond the great stone hewn-out press, empty now, dry and clean, for the time of grape harvest was not yet.
"Now then, my fine fellows," growled Serge; "you want to fight, do you?"
"We want to go," half whimpered the one who acted as spokesman.
"Oh, yes, you want to go," said the old soldier; "of course. Well, you shall go soon, but you wanted to fight young Marcus here, and you didn't play fair."
"Never touched him till he came at us," cried another.
"So I suppose," said Serge. "Very hard on you! Six nice boys! Interfered, did he, when you were breaking down the vines and stealing the grapes?"
"They warn't ripe," whimpered another.
"Then they ought to have been, seeing that you wanted them," cried Serge, indignantly, while Marcus laughed. "But as they weren't ripe, of course, it made you cross, and you began to fight young Marcus here."
None of the boys spoke, but gazed longingly at the door.
"Ah! You see it ain't fastened inside," said Serge, mockingly; "but it is fastened outside with dog's teeth. I wouldn't advise you to try to get out, because our dog, Lupus, doesn't like boys, and he's hungry. Nothing he'd like better than to eat such a chap as one of you. But you know that, and you wouldn't have come, only you'd seen me go off to the forest with him to herd up the young swine. Didn't know that we should be back so soon. You see, the young swine were just at the edge."
"You'd better not touch us, old Serge," cried the biggest lad, in a whining tone. "You touch me and see if my father don't mark you!"
"I'm not going to touch you, boy," replied the herdsman. "I've done all I wanted to you for breaking down my grape poles that I cut and set up. I've got you here because you wanted to fight."
"I don't want to fight," cried the youngest of the party. "You'd better let us go."
"Yes, I'm going to as soon as you've fought young Marcus and beat him as you meant to."
"We don't want to fight," half sobbed another. "We want to go home."
"I don't believe it," growled Serge. "You want to whip young Marcus, and I'm going to see you do it; only old Lupe, our dog, and me's going to see fair."
"No, you ain't!" came in chorus. "You've got to call that dog off and let us go."
"Yes, when you've done," said the old soldier, with a grin. "Who's going to be the first to begin? For it's going to be a fair fight, not six all at once upon one. Now then, anyhow you like, only one at a time. What, you won't speak? They're nice boys, Marcus, my lad, so modest they don't like to step before one another; so you'll have to choose for yourself. Just which you like, but I should go or that big fellow first."
"I don't want to fight," whined the lad indicated, and he backed in among his companions and placed himself as far behind them as he could.
"Oh, come! This is wasting time. There, go and fetch him out into the middle, Marcus, my lad—or no, I'll do it."
AN OLD-FASHIONED FIGHT.
Serge had been standing leaning over his crook, but now, taking it in both hands and holding it before him, he stepped quickly towards the big lad, who backed more and more away; but his effort to escape was in vain, for, quick as thought, Serge brought down his crook as if to strike the lad a violent blow, making him wince and bound aside, when, before he knew what was happening, he was hooked by the leg like an obstinate swine, and dragged, yelling and calling for help, out into the middle of the stone shed.
"Got you," said Serge, coolly. "There, it's no use to kick. Here, you other boys, close up and see fair."
Satisfied at once that they were outside the trouble, the other lads began to grin, and, obeying the old soldier, they closed in together, whispering to their companion who had just been hauled out, as they believed, to bear the brunt of the expected punishment.
Their whispers were ill received by the selected victim, who, as soon as his leg was released from the crook, made as if to back away again; but his companions put a stop to this and began urging him on, trying to incite him to begin, he reluctant and resisting all the time, till his ire was roused by Marcus, who, at a word from the old soldier, dashed in to make a beginning, using his fists upon his enemy so well that, at the end of two or three minutes, the latter threw himself down, howling dismally and covering his face with his arms.
"Here, you are not half done!" cried Serge, poking him in the ribs with the butt end of his crook. "Get up, will you, or I'll make the other fellows stand you in a corner to be thrashed."
"Oh, let him be, Serge," cried Marcus. "I did give it him well, and hit him as hard as I could."
"Oh, very well," said the old soldier, hooking the boy again and dragging him, resisting all he could, to the door.
"Just hold it open, Marcus, my lad. That'll do. No, no, Lupe, we don't want you. Now then, young fellow, off you go, and if ever I see you here again I'll set the dog at you, and if he once gets hold he won't let you off so easily as I do."
One minute the boy was resisting and tugging to get his leg free of the crook; the next, as soon as he realised that he was being set free, he dashed off, yelling threats of what he meant to do, till the dog sprang up with a growl, and the yells gave place to a shriek of fear, uttering which he disappeared from view.
"Oh, no, you don't!" cried Serge, as, taking advantage of the dog's back being turned, the others cautiously approached the door, and were about to make a dash for liberty.
As the old soldier spoke he thrust his crook across the doorway, and, as the boys fell back again, the dog resumed its watchful position and the door was closed.
Directly after, to Marcus' great enjoyment, there was a repetition of the previous proceedings, Serge selecting another victim with his crook from the five prisoners, dragging him out into the middle, where Marcus, who now thoroughly enjoyed his task, attacked him as Serge fell back, and, between him and the other lads, the second prisoner was forced to fight; but it was a sorry exhibition of cowardice, resulting in a certain amount of punishment, before he too lay down and howled, and was then set at liberty.
The proceedings were repeated till the other four had received a thrashing, and the last had clashed off, shamming terrible injury one minute till he was outside the door, and yelling defiance the next; and then, as the footsteps died out, Marcus threw himself upon the ground under the shady vines.
"Hallo!" cried Serge, anxiously. "Have they hurt you, boy?"
"No," was the reply; "but I hurt myself a good deal against their thick heads. But I say, Serge, do you think that was fair?"
"Fair? Of course it was!"
"But it seemed so one-sided, and as if I had it all my own way. They couldn't fight because they were afraid of you."
"Of you, you mean, boy, when it was man to man."
"No," said Marcus; "they'd have fought better if you and the dog hadn't been here."
"Yes, and they could all have come on you at once. A set of mongrel young hounds—half savages, that's what they are. You didn't thrash them half enough."
"Quite as much as I wanted to," cried the boy, "for my knuckles are as sore as sore. But oh, I say, Serge, it was comic!"
"They didn't think it was, my lad."
"I mean, to see you hooking them out one after another with your old crook, yelling and squealing like pigs."
"Humph!" grunted the old soldier, with his grim face relaxing. "Well, it has given them a pretty good scaring, and I don't suppose that they will come after our grapes again."
"Yah-h-ah!" came in a defiant chorus from a distance, where the young marauders had gathered together, and the dog sprang upon his feet, growling fiercely, before bursting into a deep, baying bark.
"Hear that?" cried Marcus.
"Hear it, yes! And it would not take much to make me set old Lupe after them. He'd soon catch them up, and then—"
"Fetch them down, boy!" shouted the old soldier, and, with a fierce roar, the dog dashed off in a series of tremendous bounds, but only to be checked by a shrill whistle from Marcus, which stopped the fierce beast and brought him trotting slowly back, to crouch down at his young master's feet.
"Why did you do that, lad?" cried the old soldier, staring.
"Because I didn't want Lupe to get amongst them, worrying and tearing. What would my father have said?"
The old soldier let his crook fall into the hollow of his left arm and pushed off his battered straw hat, to let it slide down between his shoulders, where it hung by its string, while, with his grim sun-tanned face as full of wrinkles as a walnut shell, he slowly swept the drops of moisture from his brow.
"Hah, yes," he said; "I didn't think of that. He wouldn't have liked it. He's got so soft and easy with people since he took to volumes and skins covered with writing. Why, his sword would be all rusty if it wasn't for me. It's all waste of time, for he'll never use it again, but I don't like to see a good blade such as his all covered with spots. Yes, boy," added the man, thoughtfully, "I'm glad you stopped old Lupe. Haw-haw-haw! I should rather liked to have seen him, though, nibbling their heels and making them run."
"Nibbling!" laughed Marcus. "Nibbling, Serge!" And the boy stooped down, raised the great dog's muzzle, and pulled up one of his lips to show the great, white fangs. "Not much of nibblers, these."
"Well, no, my lad," said the old soldier; "they don't look nibbley. Nibblers wouldn't do for him, would they, Lupe, old man? He wants good tools to tackle the wolves in winter. There, it's all over, and I don't feel so savage now. Here, you had better go and have a good wash while I see to the vine poles and put in a new un or two from the stack. I expect I shall have to prune a bit too, and tie, where those young ruffians have been at work. Let's get a bit tidy before the master comes back, though I don't suppose he'd take any notice if there wasn't a grape bunch left. But he'd see the dirt and scratches on your face first thing."
"Yes, of course," cried the boy, hastily, as he held up his knuckles, two of which were minus skin, and showing traces of dried blood. "But I say, Serge, look at my face. Is it much knocked about?"
"Well, pretty tidy, my lad. You look as if you had been in the wars. Nose is a little bit knocked on one side."
"Oh, Serge!" cried the boy, showing real excitement now.
"Left eye looks a bit sleepy, too."
"Well, you asked me, my lad—and your bottom lip has been cut against your tooth."
"Oh, what will he say?" cried the boy, wildly.
"I dunno," growled the old soldier, grimly. "Yes, I do," and his eyes twinkled with satisfaction and pride in the prowess his young master had displayed.
"What will he say?" cried the boy, anxiously, and as if he placed full confidence in the old servant's words.
"Say you oughtn't to have been fighting, but been busy scratting about with your stylus and making marks on that wax."
"But I was busy, only it was so hot and one couldn't keep awake; and when I heard those fellows breaking down the vines—"
"Why, you went out and walloped them, of course," cried the man. "Quite nat'ral. What boy wouldn't who had got any stuff in him at all? There, don't you fret yourself about it, lad. The master will grumble at you a bit, of course, same as he does at me; but he's a right to, and it's only his way as he's got into now since he took to his books and writing. But there was a time—ah! And not so very long ago, my lad— when if he'd caught those ragged young cubs tearing down his vines, he'd have stood and laughed and enjoyed seeing you thrash 'em, and helped you with his stick. And done them good too, made men of them, knowing what was right. But there, those days have all passed away. No more marching in the legion with the men's plumes dancing in the sunshine, and every man's armour as bright and clean as hands can make it. Ah, Marcus, my boy, those were grand old days, when we marched out to conquer, and came back and made grand processions, and the prisoners carrying all the spoil. I did hope to have seen you as fine a young centurion, growing into a general, as your father was before you. But— but—There, don't stand staring at me with your eyes shining, your face red, and your mouth half open like that. Be off at once and have a good wash, and bathe those cuts and bruises till they look better."
"Yes! I had better go," said the boy, with a sigh. "It was a great bother for those boys to come. I meant when you came back for us to have some practice with the shield and spear, and then for you to show me again how to use the sword."
"Hah, yes," growled the old man, drawing a deep breath through his dilating nostrils, and unconsciously he whirled up his crook with one hand, and as he dropped into a picturesque attitude with one foot advanced and let the stout staff drop into his extended left hand, "that's the way," he cried. "Fancy, boy, a thousand spears presented all at once like that to the coming barbarians, and then the advance slowly and steadily, driving them scattered back, while the trumpets sounded and the ground quivered like a coming earthquake beneath the army's tramp. That's how we conquered and made the fame of grand old Rome. Bah! What an old fool I am!" he cried, as he stamped the end of his crook down once more, "I forget I'm not a soldier now, boy, only Cracis' man who tends his farm and keeps his swine."
"Never mind, Serge; we are very nice and happy here. The place is so beautiful. Father likes you."
"Bah! Not he! He only looks upon me as a slave."
"That he doesn't!" cried the boy, indignantly. "Why, only the other day he was talking about you."
"Yes, and saying what a happy, peaceful place this was."
"And that it didn't matter what came to pass, he had me with him."
"Of course! Spoken like a father."
"And you," continued the boy, "a true old friend in whom he could trust."
"What!" cried the old soldier. "What! Friend? Did he say that?"
"Of course. He often talks like that."
"A friend in whom he could trust!" muttered the old soldier. "And here have I been listening to you and doing what I know he'd hate."
He gripped the boy sharply by the wrist as he spoke.
"Why, Serge, what do you mean?" cried the boy, wonderingly.
"Mean! Why, what have I been doing? Doesn't he want you to grow up as one who hates fighting, and a lover of peace? And here have I been teaching you how to use the sword and spear and shield, making of you one who knows how to lead a phalanx to the fight—a man of war. What would he say if he knew?"
Marcus was silent.
"I have done wrong, boy," continued the old soldier, "and some day he'll find us out."
The boy was still silent for a few moments. Then quickly—
"I must tell him some day, Serge, that it was all my doing—that I wouldn't let you rest until you had taught me what I know."
"That's true, boy," said Serge, in a sombre tone, "and it all comes of letting you see me take so much care of his old armour and his sword and spear. Yes, like my own old arms and weapons, I have kept them all bright and ready for use, for it's always seemed to me as if the time might come and bring the order for us to march to tackle some of Rome's old enemies, or to make new conquests—perhaps to Gaul—and that we must be ready for that day. I oughtn't to have done it, boy, but I was an old soldier, one who loved to see his weapons ready for the fight, and somehow I did. There, off you go! It's no use to think now of what is done."
It was the next day, under a brilliant blue Italian sky, that Marcus, after spending the morning with his father in the room he devoted to his studies, hurried out with a sense of relief to seek out the old soldier, whom he expected to find repairing damages amongst the vines. But the damages were repaired, and very few traces remained of the mischief that had been done; but several of the upright fir-poles looked new, and there were marks of knife and bill-hook upon some of the fresh cross-pieces that had been newly bound in their places. But a freshly tied-in cane and the careful distribution of the broad leaves pretty well hid the injured places, and Marcus walked away smiling as he thought of the encounter he had had, while passing his fingers daintily over bruise and cut, and feeling gently a place or two that were tender still. He walked down one path and up another of the garden, his eyes wandering about to see if Serge were busy there; but he was absent, and there was no sign of him in the farmyard, and none of the labourers whom he found at work could give any news of his whereabouts.
For quite half an hour the boy wandered about the well-kept little estate of his father before beginning to return towards the villa embowered in flowers that had been carefully trained over the stone walls, when, going round to the back, he heard a burring sound as if someone with a very unmusical voice were trying to sing; and, hurrying along a path, after muttering impatiently, the boy made for an open window, grasping the fact that he had had all his walk and search for nothing, and that, if he had gone round to the two rooms set apart for the old soldier's use before going out, he would have found him there.
Marcus dashed up to the window, and looked in.
"Why, Serge," he cried, "I've been hunting for you everywhere! Ah! What are you doing there?"
Without waiting for an answer, the boy drew sharply back, ran to an open doorway, entered and made his way at once into Serge's room, a rough museum in its way of the odds and ends of one who acted as herdsman, gardener, and general odd man to the master of the little country Roman villa.
"Why, I have just come in time!"
"Oh, here you are, then," said Serge, ignoring the boy's question. "Well, what did the master say about the broken vines?"
"Nothing," replied Marcus.
"Well, about your cuts and bruises?"
"Nothing," said the boy again.
"He must have said something, seeing how you're knocked about."
"No, he must not."
"He was so quiet and thoughtful yesterday evening, and again this morning, that he hardly looked at me at breakfast time; and when we went into the study he took up the new volume he is reading, and hardly raised his head again."
"Then you haven't been scolded for fighting?"
"Not in the least."
"So much the better for you."
"But I say, what in the world is the meaning of all this?" cried the boy, as he stepped to the rough table, upon which, bright with polishing, was a complete suit of armour such as would have been worn by a Roman man-at-arms if he had joined the army when a mere youth.
There lay the curved, brazen helmet with its comb arching over and edged with its plume, the scaled cheek-straps that held it in its place, the leathern breast and back-piece moulded and hammered into the shape of the human form, brazen shoulder-pieces, ornamentations and strengthening, the curved, oblong shield and short sword with lion's head to its hilt and heavy sheath.
There were two more helmets and suits of armour hanging from the walls, the one rich and ornamental, such as an officer would have worn, the other plain, and every indication visible of the old soldier having had a general clean up, the result of his polishing being that every piece of metal glistened and was as bright as hands could make it.
"Come in time?" said Serge. "What for? I didn't want you here."
"No, but I wanted to come. How beautiful it all looks!"
These words softened the old soldier's next remarks. He uttered a satisfied grunt as he said:
"Yes, I have had a good turn at them; but it seems a pity, don't it?"
"What seems a pity?"
"To wrap all that tackle up and put it away so as it shan't be seen, till I think it wants cleaning again."
"Yes, of course. But you are not going to put mine away."
"Oh, yes, I am," said the old man. "I didn't sleep all last night for thinking about it. I don't mean for us to get into any trouble with the master, so remember that."
"Look here, Serge!" cried the boy, angrily, "you can put your armour and father's away, of course, but this is mine, and I didn't save up the money father gave me and let you buy what was wanted and pay those old workmen, the smith and armourer, to cut down and alter and make all these things to fit me, to have them all wrapped up and put away where I can't see them."
"But you must, boy. You are not going to fight."
"Never mind that. I am not going to have them put away."
"Because I want to put them on sometimes."
"Bah! To go and strut about like a full-plumaged young cockerel in the spring, and look at yourself in a bit of glass!"
"No; I'm not so vain," said the boy; "but I've got that armour and those weapons, and you have been teaching me how to use a sword and spear, and a lot more besides, and I mean to go on learning—so mind that."
"Ho!" cried the old man. "And who's going to teach you?"
"You are, till I'm perfect."
"Can't ever get perfect in using a sword and spear. It arn't to be done, no matter how you practise."
"Well, I mean to get as perfect as I can, and you are going on teaching me."
"Nay," said the old man; "once a fool don't mean always a fool. I am going to put all these away, and you have got to forget it."
"No!" cried the boy, angrily. "I shall never forget what you've taught me, Serge—never; and I'm not going to have my things put away. You shall keep them here, as you have since you fetched them home one after the other as they were made."
"And all too big for you, so that you might fill up and grow into them," said the old soldier, with a sigh of regret.
"And I have grown, ever so much, Serge."
"You have, lad; and you're big-boned, and you'll make a big man one of these days. You were framing finely for a soldier, my boy. But that's all over now."
"No, it isn't," cried the boy, impatiently, "and you shall go on teaching me about all the fighting and the men's shields being all linked together so that the enemy shouldn't break through the serried ranks."
"Nay, my lad," sighed the old warrior; "that was all very grand, but I don't know what I could have been thinking about to let you persuade me to teach you what I did, all going against the master's orders as it was. I suppose I liked it, for it put me in mind of the old days; but I seem to have come to myself like and know better now. You tempted me, my lad, and I'm afraid I tempted you; but no more of it. I'm sorry for what's done, and the best way to be sorry for it is to own up and never do so any more."
"Then you mean that you're to leave off teaching me?"
"Yes, my lad; that's so."
"And suppose I say, as your master: 'you shall go on.' What then?"
"I should say: 'you're not going to disobey your father's orders any more, but to give all this soldiering up like a man.'"
"That's right, my lad, and I know you aren't going to set your face against what the master says I'm right, aren't I?"
"Yes, Serge," said the boy, sadly; "but it seems very hard."
"It do, boy, very, very hard; but orders are orders, and I forgot to teach you what is the first thing a soldier has to learn."
"What's that, Serge? How to use his sword and shield? You did teach me that."
"No, that's not what I meant. What a soldier has to learn first is to obey orders, and I want to teach you that now."
Marcus was silent for a while, as he stood looking wistfully at the speaker, then at the bright soldierly accoutrements, back at the old man, and lastly, as if the bright weapons and armour fascinated him, he stood frowning fixedly down at everything that was spread out upon the rough table.
The boy's looks and actions affected the old man, who said sadly:
"It do seem hard, lad, eh?"
"Yes, very, very hard, Serge," replied Marcus.
"But it's duty, boy, eh! What we ought to do?"
"Yes, Serge, and it must be done; but I wish we had never begun it all."
"Ay, lad, so do I; but it's of no use to wish. There, have one good look at it, and then I'll put it all away in the big chestnut box."
"But I shall want to look at it all sometimes, Serge."
"Well, I don't see no harm in that, my boy. Only no more fighting lessons."
"No," sighed Marcus; "no more fighting lessons. You are right, Serge, and I'm going to forget all about it if I can; but I shall always feel that I should have liked to be a Roman soldier."
"Ah, you can't help that, boy, of course."
"No, I can't help that," sighed Marcus, and, stretching out his hands, he picked up the heavy brazen helmet, looked at it round and round before turning it with the back towards him, and then, slowly raising it, he balanced the heavy head-piece on high for a few moments before slowly lowering it down upon his head; the scaled cheek-straps fell into their places, and he drew himself up erect with his eyes flashing and face lighting up, as he gazed half defiantly at the old soldier.
"Hah!" cried the latter. "It do fit you well, boy, and you look nearly a man in it."
"Do I, Serge?" cried the boy, flushing, as he put off the helmet with a sigh, and set it aside; then, catching up the sword and belt, he went out on to the Piazza to buckle them on, his fingers trembling with excitement the while.
"Do you, boy? Yes, and a regular soldier too," said Serge, following.
Marcus threw his hand across and grasped the scabbard of the short sword blade with his left, the hilt with his right, and, the next moment, the keen, two-edged weapon flashed in the sunlight.
"Good! Brave boy!" cried the old soldier excitedly, and, forgetting all the words that had passed, he fetched the oblong, round-faced shield from the table and held it ready for Marcus to thrust his left arm through the loop and then grasp the hand-hold firmly, and draw the piece of defensive armour before his breast. "Well done! Now think that I'm going to cut you down."
In an instant Marcus had drawn back with all his weight upon his right foot, as he slightly raised the shield to cover his head and left breast, before throwing himself forward again, bringing up his right hand, sword-armed as it was, and delivering a thrust which, in the boy's excitement, lightly touched the folds of the thick woollen garment which crossed his breast, while the receiver smartly drew himself aside.
"Gently, boy!" he shouted. "I didn't mean you to do that!"
"Oh, Serge!" cried Marcus, flushing scarlet. "I didn't mean to touch you like that! I haven't hurt you, have I?" he cried.
"Well, no," said the old fellow, smiling grimly; "but it was very near, and the point of that sword's as sharp as I could grind it."
"I'm so sorry," cried Marcus. "I didn't think."
"Lucky for me I did," said Serge, with a laugh. "Did you think I was an enemy?"
"No," cried Marcus, hurriedly; "I thought—no, I didn't think."
"Of course you didn't, boy, but—"
"What is the meaning of this?" said a stern voice, and a bare-headed figure draped in the folds of a simple Roman toga stood looking wonderingly at the pair.
THE TROUBLE GROWS.
"There!" muttered Serge. "We've done it now!"
"My old arms and weapons! Yours, Serge! And these?—How came you to be possessed of those, my boy?"
The new-comer pointed, frowning the while, at the boy's weapons, and then turned his eyes upon Serge, who turned as red as the detected boy, and made signs for him to speak; but, instead of speaking out, Marcus signalled back for his companion to explain.
"I am waiting very patiently for one of you to give me some explanation, though I see plainly enough that I have been disobeyed by you, my son, as well as by my old servant, in whom I thought I could place confidence. Marcus, my son, do not disgrace yourself further by behaving like a coward. Speak out at once and confess."
"Yes, father," cried the boy, making a desperate effort to speak out frankly. "I want to tell you everything, but it is so hard to do."
"Hard to speak the truth, boy?"
"No, father, I did not mean that. I—I—"
"I've done wrong, father, and I am ashamed of it."
"Hah! Come, that is more like my boy," cried Cracis, very sternly, but with the frown upon his brow less deeply marked. "There, go on."
"It was like this, father. One day I found Serge cleaning and burnishing the old armour that you and he used to wear."
"Why was this, sir?" cried Cracis sternly to his old servant. "Did I not tell you that I had given up a warrior's life for ever?"
"Did I place any tie upon you? Did I not tell you that you were free to remain in the legion?"
"Yes, master; but how was I to leave you? You know I could not."
"Well, sir, I gave you leave to stay here with me in my country house, but I told you to leave all traces of my former life behind."
"You did, master."
"Is this the way that you obey a master who has always been true to you in his dealings?"
"It's all bad, master," replied the man, "and I tried hard to do my duty, and so I brought the old armour and our swords, and something seemed to make me keep everything clean and bright, ready if it should be wanted."
"It never could be wanted by one who was rejected, humbled and disgraced as I was, man. You knew all that took place, and saw me cast down from my position."
"Yes, master, and my heart bled for you. That's why I came."
"Yes," said Cracis, more gently, "and in my heart, Serge, I thank you for your fidelity; but my orders were that all traces of our old position in the Roman army should be destroyed."
"Yes, master," said the man, humbly, "but they wouldn't destroy. I only kept them, and cleaned them up now and then when no one was looking; but you know what young Marcus is: he found me out."
"Yes, father," cried Marcus, excitedly; "don't blame Serge. I made him talk to me about the past, and he was obliged to tell me all about you being such a great friend of Caesar, and how, at last, you went against him and he—There, I won't say any more, father, because I can see from your face how it hurts you; but I got to know everything, and, when you were busy reading and writing of an evening, I used to come and sit by the fire in the winter's nights and make him tell me about the wars and what a great general you were; and so, from always loving to hear about rights, I loved to hear of the wars and conquests more and more, and—"
"Go on, my son, and keep nothing. I must hear everything now."
"Yes, father; I want to be frank. It was all my doing, for I persuaded and then I ordered Serge to get me sword and armour, and made the armourer alter a man's breast-plate and helmet to fit me, and—and paid for it all by degrees; and then I made Serge teach me how to wear the armour and use the sword and spear and shield; and it was all like that, father."
"And he has taught you all this?" said Cracis, sternly.
"Yes, father. I made him do it; but I did it all as a thoughtless boy."
"And did this old soldier do all as a thoughtless boy," said Cracis, bitterly, "or as my trusted servant?"
"He did it as my servant as well as yours, father," said the boy, proudly. "I told him it was his duty to obey me, his master's son, father, and, poor fellow, he obeyed unwillingly till to-day, when he felt and I felt, that we had been doing very wrong, that it was all worse than we had ever thought, and this was the last time the teaching was to go on. Everything was to be put aside, and I was going to work hard at my writing and reading, as you wished, and try to think no more about the army and the wars."
Cracis was silent for a few moments, during which he gazed searchingly at his son.
"Is this the very truth?" he said.
"Every word of it, master!" cried Serge, excitedly. "Tell him, Marcus boy, how it was all by chance you put on your helmet and drew your sword. I wish now, boy, it had gone through me and made an end of me, before I had to stand up like this and own all my fault."
"What do you mean by that—the sword gone through you, Serge?"
"Yes, father. In my eagerness I made a big thrust at him, and the point of my sword almost entered his breast."
"Dangerously close?" asked Cracis.
"Horribly close, father, and—there, I am glad you found it all out. I have no more to say, father, only that you must punish me, not Serge, and I will bear everything without saying a word."
Cracis was silent for a few minutes, and his voice sounded different when he spoke again.
"Where have these war-like implements been kept?" he said.
"In your big chest, master, made out of the planks cut from the big chestnut that was hewn down four years ago."
"Place them back there, Serge," said Cracis, gravely. "Fasten them in, and carry the chest and bestow it where it may stand beside my bed."
"But father—" began Marcus.
"Silence, sir!" said Cracis. "I wish to think of all this, and not judge hastily. Take off those unseemly weapons, which are far from suited for my student son. Let this be done at once, Serge. You, Marcus, will follow me to my room, and be there an hour hence. I have much to say to you, my boy, very much to say."
Cracis turned thoughtfully away, leaving his son with the old soldier, for them to gaze sadly at one another as the slow steps of the father and master died away.
"He'll never forgive us, Marcus, my lad."
"He will forgive us both, Serge," said Marcus quickly; "but what would I not give if it had never been done!"
"No," said Serge, grimly, "he'll never forgive us."
"Nonsense!" cried Marcus. "You don't know my father as I do."
"Better, a lot, boy. I've fought with him, starved with him, saved his life; and I'll be fair—he's saved mine more than once. But he's hard as bronze, boy, and when he says a thing he'll never go back."
"And I say he's as good and forgiving as can be, and when all the armour has been put away as he told you, he'll forget all this trouble, and we shall be as happy again as ever."
"You say that, boy, because you don't know him. I do, and there's nothing left for it but for me to make up my bundle and go off."
"What!" cried Marcus, laughing. "You pack up your bundle and go?"
"Yes, my lad; I can never get over this again. I have been a servant and herdsman here all these years because I felt your father respected me, but now he don't I feel as if I could never do another stroke of work, and I shall go."
"No, you won't, Serge; you are only saying that because you are cross."
"Oh no," said the man, shaking his head, "not cross, boy—wounded. Cut to the heart. I'm only a poor sort of labouring man here and servant, but I have been a soldier, and once a soldier always a soldier at heart, a man who thinks about his honour. Ah, you smile; and it does sound queer for a man dressed like this and handling a herdsman's crook to talk about his honour; but inside he's just the same man as wore the soldier's armour and plumed helmet and marched in the ranks, erect and proud, ready to follow his general wherever he led. You wouldn't think it strange for a proud-looking man like that to say his honour was touched."
"No," said Marcus, thoughtfully.
"Well, boy, I'm the same man still. I have lost your father's confidence, and as soon as I have done putting away of our armour and weapons, as he told me, in the big old chest, I shall pack up and go."
"Shall you take your sword and helmet with you, Serge?" asked the boy.
The man stared, and looked at him sharply, before remaining silent for quite a minute.
"No," he cried, angrily; "I shall take nothing that will bring up the past. I want to forget it all."
"But what do you mean to do?" said Marcus.
"I don't know yet, boy. Something will happen, I daresay; for we never know what's going to take place to-morrow, and I shall leave all that."
The man ceased speaking, and began almost caressingly to straighten and arrange the various pieces of military accoutrement that he had been burnishing, while Marcus sat leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, watching him sadly.
"I don't like it, Serge," he said at last.
"Nay, boy, and I don't like it," replied the man. "I said just now we never know what is going to take place to-morrow. Who would have thought yesterday that things could have been like this to-day? But here they are. Hah!" he cried passionately. "I wish I hadn't shrunk away."
"Shrunk away!" cried Marcus. "Why, you are bigger and stouter than ever you were."
"Pah!" ejaculated the man, angrily. "I don't mean that. I mean shrunk away as I did just now when you made that thrust at me with the sword."
"What!" cried Marcus. "Why, I should have killed you. That sword point is so horribly sharp. You don't know what a shudder ran through me when I saw what I had nearly done."
"Yes, you would have killed me, boy, and that's what I wish you had done."
"Serge, do you know what you are talking about?" cried Marcus. "Are you going mad?"
"Oh yes, I know what I'm talking about, and perhaps I am going mad. What else can you expect of a poor fellow who, all at once, finds himself dishonoured and disgraced?"
"You are not. I tell you I don't believe that my father will ever say another word when all the things are put away."
"Yes, because you don't know him, boy. There, it's no use to talk. I have made up my mind to go."
"What nonsense!" said Marcus. "When my father as good as said he was going to look over all the past."
"Ah, but that won't do for me, boy. I am dishonoured and disgraced, and I can never hold up my head again."
"Oh, Serge, this comes hard on me," cried the boy, passionately.
"Nay, boy; it's all on my unfortunate head."
"It isn't, Serge," cried Marcus, "for, as I told father, it was all my doing. It was my stupid vanity and pride. I took it into my head that I wanted to be a soldier the same as father and you had been, and it has brought all this down upon you. I shall never forgive myself as long as I live."
"Nay, but you will, boy, when I'm gone and forgotten."
"Gone and forgotten!" cried Marcus, angrily. "You are not going, and you couldn't be forgotten. I shall never forget you, Serge, as long as I live."
"Shan't you, boy?" said the man, smiling sadly. "Well, thank ye. I don't think you will. I like that, boy, for you never seemed like a young master to me. I'm old and ugly, while you're young and handsome, but somehow we have always seemed to be companions like, and whatever you wanted me to do I always did."
"Yes, that you did, Serge," cried Marcus, laughing.
"I don't see nothing to laugh at, boy," said the old soldier, bitterly, as he half drew Marcus' blade from its scabbard, and then thrust it fiercely back with a sharp snap.
"No, but I do," said Marcus, "sad as all this is. It seems so droll."
"What does?" cried the man, fiercely.
"For you to talk about being old and ugly—you, such a big, strong, manly fellow as you are. Why, you are everything that a man ought to be."
"What!" cried the old soldier, gazing wonderingly at the boy, a puzzled look in his eyes as if he was in doubt whether the words to which he listened were mocking him.
"Why, look at you! Look at your arms and legs, and the way in which you step out, and then your strength! The way in which you lift heavy things! Do you remember that day when you took hold of me by the belt and lifted me up, to hold me out at arm's length for ever so long when I was in a passion and tried to hit you, and the more I raged the more you held me out, and laughed, till I came round and thought how stupid I was to attack such a giant as you, when I was only a poor feeble boy?"
"Nay, nay, you were never a poor feeble boy, but always a fine, sturdy little chap, and strong for your years, from the very first. That was partly my training, that was, and the way I made you feed. Don't you remember how I told you that it was always a soldier's duty to be able to fast, to eat well when he had the chance, and go without well when he hadn't, and rest his teeth?"
"Oh, yes, I recollect you told me it was the way to grow up strong and hearty, and that some day I should be like you."
"Well, wasn't that true enough? Only it takes time. And so you thought I was quite a giant, did you?"
"Yes, and so I do now. Old and worn out! What stuff! Why, Serge, I have always longed and prayed that I might grow up into a big, strong, fine-looking man like you."
"Thank you, my lad," said the man, sadly, and with the beaming smile that had come upon his face dying out, to leave it cold and dull. "Then you won't forget me, boy, when—" He stopped short, with a suggestion of moisture softening his fierce, dark eyes.
"Forget you! You know I shan't. But what do you mean by 'when'?"
"When my well-picked, dry bones are lying out somewhere up the mountain side, scattered here and there."
"What!" cried Marcus, laughing merrily. "Who's going to pick them and scatter them to dry up in the mountains?"
"The wolves, boy, the wolves," said the man, bitterly, "for I suppose I shall come to that. You asked me what I was going to do. I'll tell you. I shall wander away somewhere right up among the mountains, for my soldiering days are over, and I can never serve another master now, and at last I shall lie down to die! The wolves will come, and," he added, with a sigh, "you know what will happen then."
"Oh yes," said Marcus, with mock seriousness. "The poor wolves! I shall be sorry for them. I know what will happen then. At the first bite you will jump up in a rage, catch them one at a time by the tail, give them one swing round, and knock their brains out against the stones. You wouldn't give them much chance to bite again."
A grim smile gradually dawned once more upon the old soldier's countenance, and, slowly raising one of his hands, he began to scratch the side of his thickly-grizzled head, his brow wrinkling up more deeply the while, as he gazed into the merry, mocking eyes that looked back so frankly into his.
"You are laughing at me, boy," he said, at last.
"Of course I am, Serge. Oh my! You are down in the dumps! I say, how many wolves do you think you could kill like that? But, oh nonsense! You wouldn't be alone. If old Lupe saw you going off with your bundle he'd spring at you, get it in his teeth, and follow you carrying it wherever you went."
"Hah! Good old Lupe!" said the man, thoughtfully. "I'd forgotten him. Yes, he'd be sure to follow me. You'd have to shut him up in the wine-press."
"And hear him howl to get out?" cried Marcus. "No, I shouldn't, because I shouldn't be there."
"Why, where would you be?" said Serge, wonderingly.
"Along with you, of course."
"Along o' me?"
"Yes. If you left home and went away for what was all my fault, do you think I should be such a miserable cur as to stop behind? No; I should go with you, Serge, and take my sword, and you and Lupe and I could pretty well tackle as many wolves as would be likely to come up at us on the mountain side."
"Ah," cried the man, "you are talking like a boy."
"And so are you, Serge, when you say such things as you did just now. Now, look here; you are going to do as father said, pack up all the armour in the old chest, and then you are going to speak out and tell him that you are sorry that you listened to me, and then it will be all over and we shall go on again just the same as before. You and I will think out something that we can learn or do, and talk of something else besides fighting. There, let's have no more talking about going away. Look sharp and get it over. I shan't be happy till I see you and father shaking hands again. Now promise me you will go and get it done."
"'Tis done, boy; I did speak and made myself humble, just as you want; but he wouldn't take it right, and you know what he said. I can't never forget it now. He wouldn't listen to me, and no words now, no shaking hands, will put it straight. I shall have to go."
"Oh!" cried Marcus. "What an obstinate old bull it is! Yes, I mean it, Serge; you are just like a human bull. Now, look here; do as I tell you. You have got to go and speak to father as I say."
"Nay, boy," said the man, solemnly, "not a word. I am going to do my bit of work, the last job I shall ever do here, and then it will be good-bye."
Marcus sprang up in a passion.
"I can't bring you to your senses," he said. "You are too stubborn and blunt. If you won't promise me you will go and speak to father, I shall go myself and tell him all you say."
"Do, boy; that's right! I like to hear you turn like that. Hit me and kick me if you will. It will all make it easier for me to go away."
Marcus stood up before him, looking at him fiercely, and he was about to flash out a torrent of angry words, but, feeling that he would say something of which he might afterwards repent, he dashed out of the room and made for his father's study.
MAKING THE BEST OF IT.
Cracis was deep in thought, seated by the open window, with the double roll of a volume in his hands, reading slowly line by line of the old papyrus Romano-Grecian writings of one of the philosophers, and, as he came to each line's end, it slowly disappeared beneath the upper roll, while the nether was opened out to leave the next line visible to the reader's eye.
Marcus dashed in loudly, but stopped short as he saw how his father was occupied, and waited for him to speak; but Cracis was deep in his studies and heard him not, so, bubbling over with impatience, the boy advanced and laid his hand upon the student's arm.
Cracis looked up, wonderingly, and seemed to be obliged to drag his attention from the book, smiling pleasantly in the flushed face of his son, and with every trace of anger missing from his own.
"Well, boy," he said, gently, "what is it? Something you can't make out?"
"Yes, father—old Serge."
"Ah, Serge!" said Cracis, with his brow clouding over. "I am sorry all that happened, but it was your fault, my boy. You regularly led the brave, old, honest fellow astray."
"Yes, father, I did," cried Marcus, eagerly, "and now he has taken all your angry words to heart."
"Oh, tut, tut, tut! Nonsense! I have forgiven it all, my boy; but he has not yet brought in the chest."
"No, father, I have left him packing it all now, and I have told him that all that is over, and that when we have time we must amuse ourselves in some other way than playing at soldiers and talking of war."
Cracis laid his hand upon his son's shoulder and, with his face growing sterner, looked proudly in the young, frank face.
"Thank you, my boy," he said. "That is very brave and right of you. It shows great respect for me. Well, there! The past is all forgiven and forgotten—nay, I will not say forgotten; that can never be. Let it always stand in your memory as a stone of warning. Well, that is all over now."
"But it isn't all over, father," cried the boy. "Old Serge says what you said has cut him to the heart, and that you didn't forgive him properly, and that he is dishonoured and disgraced as a soldier."
"Poor brave old Serge!" said Cracis, warmly.
"Hah!" cried Marcus, excitedly. "I wish he were here to hear you speak like that."
"Oh, nonsense, boy. Time is too valuable to waste by thinking over such troubles as that. He must understand that I have reproved him for a fault and forgiven him."
"But he won't understand, father. He's as obstinate as a bull."
"He is, and always was, Marcus," said Cracis, smiling; "but no man is perfect, and Serge's good qualities more than balance all his bad. But there, boy, what does he want me to do?"
"I don't know, father. He thinks what you have said can never be undone, that he can never be the same here again as he was, that he has lost your confidence and you won't trust him again, and—"
"Well, and what?" said Cracis, smiling tolerantly.
"Oh, it's too stupid to tell you, father."
"One has to hear stupid things in life, my boy, as well as wise, so tell me all the same. You see, poor Serge, with all his noble qualities, has never been a man to read and learn wisdom from the works of the great. Simple, matter-of-fact and straightforward, he is not one who reflects and balances his acts before he makes them live. I don't think Serge ever said to himself: 'shall I? Shall I not?' before he did a thing, and I suppose he has not been reflecting now. I am sorry I hurt his feelings, but I am the master. He is my servant, just as in old days I was his officer, he my legionary. It was his duty to obey. Now then, what is he doing?"
"Putting the armour together to go in the chest."
"Well, quite right."
"But it's what he's going to do next, father."
"And what is he going to do next?"
"Pack up his bundle, and then tramp up into the mountains to lie down and die, for the wolves to pick his bones."
It is impossible to put in words the young speaker's tones, mingled, as they were, of sadness, ridicule and mirth, while Cracis drew a deep, long breath and said, softly:
"Brave as a lion, strong beyond the limits of ordinary men; and yet, poor faithful Serge, what a child he is at heart! Don't tell him what I said, boy. That is a piece of confidence between ourselves."
"But it's all so real, father. If you are angry with me you scold me, and it's soon all over. I forget it all."
"Yes, too soon, my boy, sometimes."
"Oh, but I do try to go on right, father. But, you see, with poor old Serge it all sticks. He's regularly wounded."
"Yes, my boy, I know, and it's the sort of wound that will not heal. Well, of course, that's all absurd. He mustn't go."
"He will, father, if something isn't done."
"Yes, I am afraid he would; so something must be done. Who is in the wrong, boy—I or he?"
"It's this—I, father."
"Of course," said Cracis, laughing; "but I think I am in the right. The master, if right, cannot humble himself to his man if he is in this position, Marcus. If he is in the wrong it is noble and brave to give way. Tell Serge to come to me at once. I will try to set him at one with me; the sooner this is set aside the better for us all."
"Thank you, father," cried the boy, excitedly; and hurrying out he made for the back of the villa, where he found Serge in his own particular den, hard at work packing the various accoutrements, but evidently finding it difficult to make them fit.
"Well, I've been and talked to father, Serge," cried Marcus, quickly.
"That's right, boy," said the old soldier, without turning his head.
"I told him you were packing up the armour."
"Yes? Hard work. The things don't lie easy one with another, and we mustn't have the helmets bruised. The shields don't lie so flat as I could wish, but—"
"Father wants you, Serge."
"What for, boy? What for?"
"To talk to you about you know what."
"Then you've told him I'm going away?"
"Then it's of no use for me to go and see him."
"But that's what he wishes to speak about."
"Yes, and I know how he can talk and get round a man. Why, if I went to his place yonder he'd talk me into stopping, and I'm not going to do that now."
"Nonsense! Father only wants to say a few words more. He has forgiven you—I mean, us—and, after he has spoken, everything will be as it was before. He says it's all nonsense about your going away."
"Yes, I knew he'd say that, my boy. Of course he would."
"Well," said Marcus, impatiently, "isn't that what you want?"
"No, not now, boy. Things can never be the same again."
"Why not?" cried Marcus.
"Because they can't, boy."
"Oh, Serge, don't be so obstinate!"
"No, my lad, not obstinate; only doing what's right. I can't help what's done, nor what's said."
"But don't stop talking, Serge. Father wants to see you at once."
The old soldier shook his head and went on packing with increased vigour.
"Well, why don't you go?" cried Marcus, impatiently.
"I daren't," said the man, frowning.
"Then that's because you feel you're in the wrong, Serge."
"Yes, boy, that's it; I'm in the wrong, and the master knows it, so it's of no use for me to go."
"Oh, Serge," cried Marcus, "you do make me so angry when you will keep on like this. Look here, Serge."
"No," said the man, sourly, "and it's of no use for you to talk, boy, because my mind's made up. You want to talk me round, same as your father, the master, would. I've done wrong, and I told him so. It's all because I tried to make a good soldier of you, as is what Nature meant you to be, and he can't forgive me for that. He couldn't even if he tried. There, that's better—you lie there, and that'll make more room for the boy's helmet. Yes, that'll do. Swords lie on each side under the shields and keep them steady," he continued, apostrophising the different portions of the military equipment, as he worked very rapidly now in spite of Marcus' words, till the whole of the war-like pieces were to his liking and the chest quite full, when he closed the lid and sat upon it as if to think, with his eyes fixed upon one corner of the place.
"There, now are you satisfied?" cried Marcus. "Fortunately, father is reading, and he will not notice how long you have been. You've made me horribly impatient. Now go in to him at once and get it over."
"I shall only want a little bundle and my staff," said Serge, as if to himself. "That is mine, for I cut it in the forest and shaped and trimmed it myself. Yes, that's all."
"Aren't you going to take the chest into father's room?" said Marcus, quietly.
"Eh? No, my lad."
"But he told you to."
"Yes, boy, but it was after all was over, and I can't face him again."
"Then you are going off without saying good-bye to him?"
The old soldier nodded.
"And you are not going in to see him after he has sent for you to come?"
"No, boy," said the old soldier, with a sigh. "It's the only way. I'm just going to take my bundle and my stick, and then I'm going off at once—alone," he added, meaningly.
"No, you're not, Serge, for someone else can be stubborn too."
"What do you mean?" cried the man, sharply.
"What I told you. I'm coming too."
"Nay, boy, you're not; your father would stop that, and you must obey him," cried Serge, angrily.
"No, I mustn't," said Marcus.
"What! Sons must obey their fathers."
"And soldiers must obey their officers."
"But he's not my officer now."
"Yes, he is," cried Marcus, angrily; "your officer as well as my father. If you go, Serge, I shall go, and I don't care where it is."
"He'd never forgive you," cried the old soldier, angrily.
"Well, I should take my chance of that. You know me, Serge. When I say I'll do a thing I do it; and I shall do this, for I don't mean to let you go away from here alone. Now what have you got to say?"
The old soldier got up from the shut-down lid of the chest, walked to the corner of the room, and took his crook-like staff, to which a rough bundle was already tied, and then he stepped back to where Marcus was seated upon the edge of the table which had so lately borne the armour carefully spread out.
"Good-bye, Marcus, boy," he said, holding out his hand.
The lad sprang from the table and made for the door.
"Won't you say good-bye, Marcus?" cried Serge, pitifully.
"No," was the short, sharp reply. "What's the good? But stop a moment. I'd better go and shut up Lupus, or he'll come bounding after us and we shan't get rid of him again."
"Oh!" roared the old soldier, angrily, and he dashed his bundle and staff across the room to the corner from which they had been taken. "You're both of you too much for me."
"Come on, Serge, old fellow," said Marcus, softly, as he took his old companion by the arm. "Shall I come in to father with you?"
"No!" growled Serge. "I'm going to be beat, and I'll go alone."
The next minute his steps were heard plodding heavily towards his master's study, and, as he listened Marcus burst out into a merry, silent laugh.
"Poor old Serge!" he said. "How father hurt his feelings! He'll never leave us while he lives, but I believe if he had gone away it would have broken his heart. Well, that's all over, and things will be all right again."
The boy stood thinking for a few minutes, and then he sighed.
"My poor old sword and shield," he said, half aloud; "and the helmet and armour too! Oh, how grand it was! When I had them on I used to feel as if I was marching with a successful army coming from the wars, and now it's all over and I must sit and read and write, and the days will seem so dull with nothing exciting, nothing bright, no war in the future— Yes, there will be," he cried; "there'll be those boys. They'll be coming on again as the grapes turn black. Yes," he went on, with a merry laugh, "and if they come I'll make some of them turn black. No war! I'll make war with them, with old Serge and Lupus for allies. And then the winter will come again, and there'll be the wolves. Why, there'll be plenty to think of, after all."
"I want to go out," said Marcus to himself, one morning, as he sat at the little table exclusively his.
There was a small volume, a double roll tied round by a band of silk, his tablets and stylus were before him, the latter quite blank, and the window was open, giving him a glorious view of the distant, sunlit mountains, while the air that was wafted in through the vine leaves was rich in delicious odours that came gratefully to his nostrils.
"But I can't go out," he said; "I have all that writing to do, and the first thing when father comes back will be to ask me how much I have done. And here have I been sitting for long enough and have not scratched a word. I wonder how soon he will come?"
The boy sat silently for a few minutes watching some twittering young birds that were playing in the garden trees, chasing one another from twig to twig in the full enjoyment of their life in the transparent atmosphere.
"I wish I were a bird!" sighed the boy, and then half passionately: "Oh, what a lazy dog I am! I am always longing to be or do something else than what I am. But look at that," he said, dropping into his dreamy way again. "How beautiful it must be to throw oneself off the very top of a tree and go floating and gliding about just where one likes, with no books to study, nothing to write, only play about in the sunshine, covered with clothes of the softest down; no bother about a house to live in or a bed, but just when the sun goes down sing a bit about how pleasant life is as one sits on a twig, and then tuck one's head under one's wing, stick one's feathers up till one looks like a ball, and go to sleep till the Sun rises again. Oh, how glorious to be a bird! Ha, ha, ha!" he cried, with a merry laugh, "Old Serge is right. He says I am a young fool, when he's in the grumps, and I suppose I am to think like that; but it seems a life so free from trouble to be a bird, till a cat comes, or a weasel, or perhaps a snake, and catches one on the ground, or a hawk when one's flying in the air, or one of the noisy old owls when one's roosting in the ivy at night. And then squeak— scrunch—and there's no more bird. Everything has to work, I suppose, and nothing is able to do just as it pleases. That's what father says, and, of course, it's true; but somehow I should like to go out this morning, but I can't; I have to stick here and write. There's father gone off, and old Serge too. I wonder where he's gone. Right away into the forest, of course, to look after the swine, or else into the fields to see whether something's growing properly, and mind that the men keep to work and are not lying snoozing somewhere in the shade. Oh, how beautiful it looks out of doors!"
Marcus sat gazing longingly out of the window, and then apparently, for no reason at all, raised his right hand and gave himself a sharp slap on the side of the head.
"Take that, you lazy brute!" he cried. "Of course you can't do your work if you sit staring out of the window. Turn your back to it, sir, and look inside where you will only see the wall. No wonder you can't work."
He jumped up quickly, raised his stool, and was in the act of turning it round, giving a final glance through the window before he began to work in earnest, when he stopped short and set down the stool again.
"There's somebody coming along the road," he said. "Who's he? Dressed just like father, in his long, white toga. Wonder where he's going, and who he is? Some traveller, I suppose, seeing the country and enjoying himself."
The boy stood watching the stranger for a few moments.
"Why, where can he be going?" he said. "That path only leads here and to our fields. He can't be coming here, because nobody ever comes to see us, and father doesn't seem to have any friends. Perhaps he wants to see Serge about buying some pigs or corn, or to sell some young goats? Yes, that's it, I should think. He wants to sell something. No; it can't be that; he doesn't look the sort of man. Look at that smooth-shaven face and short-cut hair. He seems quite a patrician, just like father. What can he want? Here, how stupid!" cried the boy, as he saw the stranger stop short a little distance from the villa front and begin to look about him as if admiring the beauty of the place and the distant scene. "I know; he's a traveller, and he's lost his way."
Excited by his new thought, Marcus hurried out and down the garden, catching the attention of the stranger at once, who smiled as he looked with the eyes of curiosity at the bright, frank lad, while he took out a handkerchief and stood wiping his dewy face.
"Lost your way?" cried Marcus.
"Well, not quite," was the reply; "but I know very little of these parts."
"I do," said Marcus, "laughing always, and have. I'll show you if you tell me where you want to go."
"Thank you," said the stranger, gravely and quietly; and the boy thought to himself once more that he was no dealer or trader, but some patrician on his travels, and he noted more particularly the clear skin, and clean-cut features of a man thoughtful and strong of brain, who spoke quietly, but in the tones of one accustomed to command.
"You have a beautiful place here, my boy," he continued, as he looked round and seemed to take in everything; "fields, woodlands, garden. Fruit too—vines and figs. An attractive house too. The calm and quiet of the country—a tired man could live very happily here."
"Yes, of course," cried Marcus and with a merry laugh, "a boy too!"
"Hah! Yes," said the stranger, smiling also, as he gazed searchingly in the boy's clear eyes. "So you lead a very happy life here, do you?"
"But not alone?" said the stranger.
"Oh no, of course not," cried Marcus. "There's father, and old Serge, and the labourers and servants."
"Yes, a very pleasant place," said the stranger, as he once more wiped his dewy face.
"You look hot," said the boy. "Come in and sit down for a while and rest. It's nice and shady in my room, and you get the cool breeze from the mountains."
"Thank you, my boy, I will," said the stranger, and he followed Marcus through the shady garden and into the lately vacated room, where the boy placed a chair, and his visitor sank into it with a sigh of relief.
"Have you walked far?" he asked.
"Yes, some distance," was the reply; "but the country is very beautiful, especially through the woodlands, and very pleasant to one who is fresh from the hot and crowded city."
"The city!" cried Marcus, eagerly. "You don't mean Rome?"
"I do mean Rome," said the visitor, leaning back smiling, and with his eyes half closed, but keenly reading the boy the while. "Have you ever been there?"
"Oh no," said Marcus, quickly, "but I know all about it. My father often used to tell me about Rome."
"Your father? May I ask who your father is?"
"Cracis," said the boy, drawing himself up proudly, as if he felt it an honour to speak of such a man. "He used to live in Rome. You've come from there. Did you ever hear of him?"
"Cracis? Cracis? Yes, I have heard the name. Is he at home?"
"No; he went out this morning; but I daresay he will be back soon. Serge is out too."
"Serge?" said the stranger.
"Yes; our man who superintends the farm. He was an old soldier, and knew Rome well. He was in the wars."
"Ha!" said the stranger. "And they are both away?"
"Yes; but you are tired, sir, and look faint. I'll come back directly."
Marcus hurried from the room, but returned almost immediately, laden with a cake of bread, a flask and cup, and a bunch or two of grapes lying in an open basket.
"Ha, ha!" said the visitor, smiling. "Then you mean to play the host to a tired stranger?"
"Of course," said the boy. "That is what father would do if he were at home."
"And the son follows his father's teaching, eh?"
Marcus smiled, and busied himself in pouring out a cup of wine and breaking the bread, which he pressed upon his guest, who partook of both sparingly, keenly watching the boy the while.
"The rest is good," he said, as he caught the boy's eye, "the room cool and pleasant, and these most refreshing. You will let me rest myself awhile? I might like to see your father when he comes."
"Oh, of course," cried the boy. "Father will be very glad, I am sure. We so seldom have anyone to see us here."
Quite unconsciously the boy went on chatting, little realising that he was literally answering his visitor's questions and giving him a full account of their life at the villa and farm.
He noted how sparingly his visitor ate and drank, and pressed him hospitably to partake of more, but, after a few minutes, the guest responded by smilingly waving the bread and wine aside.
"Quantum sufficit, my boy," he said; "but I will eat a few of your grapes."
He broke off a tiny bunch, and went on talking as he glanced around.
"Your studies?" he said, pointing to the tablets and stylus. "And you read?"
"Oh yes," said the boy. "My father teaches me. He is a great student."
"Indeed?" said the guest. "And are you a great student too?"
"No," cried Marcus, merrily; "only a great stupid boy!"
"Very," said the visitor, sarcastically. "Well, and what are you going to be when you grow up?"
"Oh, a student too, and a farmer, I suppose."
"Indeed! Why, a big, healthy, young lad like you ought to be a soldier, and learn to fight for his country, like a true son of Rome."
"Hah!" cried Marcus, flushing up and frowning, while the visitor watched him intently.
"I knew just such a boy as you who grew up to be a general, a great soldier as well as a student who could use his pen."
"Ah, that's what I should like to be," cried the boy, springing from his seat with his eyes flashing, as his imagination seemed fired. "That's what Serge says."
"What does Serge say?" asked the visitor.
"Just what you do," cried the boy, boldly; "that I might grow up to be a great soldier, and still read and use my pen."
"Well, why not?" said the guest, as he slowly broke off and ate a grape.
The boy frowned and shook his head.
"It is a man's duty to be ready to draw his sword for his country like a brave citizen, and that country's son," continued the guest, warmly, while the boy watched him eagerly, and leaned forward with one hand resting upon the table as if he was drinking in every word that fell from the other's lips.
"Yes, that's what Serge says," he cried, "and that it is a great and noble thing for a man to be ready to die for his country if there is any need."
"But it is pleasanter to live, my boy," said the visitor, smiling, "and to be happy with those we love, with those whom we are ready to defend against the enemy. You must be a soldier, then—a defender of your land."
"No," said the boy, quickly, and he gave his head a quick shake. "It can never be."
"Because my father says 'no.'"
The visitor raised his brows a little, and then, leaning forward slightly to gaze into the boy's eyes, he said, softly:
"Why does your father say that?"
"Because people are ungrateful and jealous and hard, and would ill-use me, the same as they did him and drove him away from Rome."
The visitor tightened his lips and was silent, sitting gazing past the boy and through the window, so full of thought that he broke off another grape, raised it to his lips, and then threw it through the opening into a tuft of flowers beyond.
"Ah!" he said, at last, as his eyes were turned again towards the boy. "And so you are going to live here then, and only be a student?"
"Of course," said the boy, proudly. "It is my father's wish."
"And you know nothing, then, about a soldier's life?"
"Oh, yes, I do," cried the boy, with his face lighting up.
"Hah! Then your father has taught you to be a soldier and man?"
"Oh, no; he has taught me to read and write. It was some one else who taught me how to use a sword and spear."
"Hah!" cried the visitor, quickly. "Then you are not all a student?"
"You know how to use a sword?"
"Yes," said Marcus, laughing, "and a spear and shield as well," and, warming up, the boy began to talk quickly about all he had learned, ending, to his visitor's great interest, with a full account of his training in secret and his father's discovery and ending of his pursuits.
"Well, boy," said the guest, at last, "it seems a pity."
"For me to tell you all this?" cried Marcus, whose face was still flushed with excitement. "Yes, I oughtn't to have spoken and said so much, but somehow you questioned me and seemed to make me talk."
"Did I?" said the visitor. "Well, I suppose I did; but what I meant was that it seems a pity that so promising a lad should only be kept to his books. But there, a good son is obedient to his father, and his duty is to follow out his commands."
"Yes," said the boy, stoutly, "and that's what Serge says."
"Then he doesn't want you to be a soldier now?"
"No," cried the boy. "He says one of the first things a soldier learns is to obey."
"Ah!" said the visitor, looking at the boy with his quiet smile. "I should like to know this old soldier, Serge."
"You soon can," said the boy, laughing. "Here he comes!" For at that moment there was the deep bark of a dog.
"The dog?" said the visitor.
"Oh, that's our wolf-hound, Lupe. It means that Serge is coming back."
The boy had hardly spoken when the man's step was heard outside, and, directly after, as Marcus' guest sat watching the door, it was thrust open, and the old soldier entered, saying: "Has the master come back, my lad?" and started back, staring at the sight of the stranger.
"Not yet, Serge. This is a gentleman, a traveller from Rome, who is sitting down to rest."
Serge drew himself up with a soldierly salute, which was received with dignity, and, as eyes met, the stranger looked the old warrior through and through, while Serge seemed puzzled and suspicious, as he slowly raised his hand and rubbed his head.
"Yes," said the visitor, "your young master has been playing the kindly host to a weary man. Why do you look at me so hard? You know my face?"
"No," said Serge, gruffly; "no. But I think I have seen someone like you before."
"And I," said the visitor, "have seen many such like you, but few who bear such a character as your young master gives."
"Eh?" cried Serge, sharply. "Why, what's he been saying about me?"
"Told me what a brave old soldier you have been."
"Oh! Oh! Stuff!" growled Serge, sourly.
"And of how carefully you have taught him the duties of a soldier, and told him all about the war."
"There!" cried Serge, angrily, stepping forward to bring his big, hairy fist down upon the table with a thump. "I don't know you, or who you are, but you have come here tired, and been given refreshment and rest, and, instead of being thankful, you have been putting all sorts of things in this boy's head again that he ought to have forgot."
"Serge! Serge!" cried Marcus, excitedly. "Mind what you are saying! This is a stranger, and a noble gentleman from Rome."
"I don't care who he is," replied the old soldier, fiercely. "He's no business to be coming here and talking like this. Now, look here, sir," he continued, turning upon the visitor, who sat smiling coldly with his eyes half closed, "this lad's father, my old officer—and a better never stepped or led men against Rome's enemies—gave me his commands, and they were these: that young Marcus here was to give up all thoughts of soldiering and war, and those commands, as his old follower, I am going to carry out. So, as you have eaten and are rested, the sooner you go on your journey the better, and leave us here at peace."
"Serge!" cried Marcus, firmly; and he drew himself up with his father's angry look, "you mean well, and wish to do your duty, but this is not the way to speak to a stranger and my father's guest."
"He's not your father's guest, my lad, but yours, and he's taken upon himself to say to you what he shouldn't say, and set you against your father's commands."
"Even if he has, Serge, he must be treated as a guest—I don't know your name, sir," continued the boy, turning to the visitor, "but in my father's name I ask you to forgive his true old servant's blunt, honest speech."
The visitor rose, grave and stern.
"It is forgiven, my boy," he said; "for after hearing what he has said I can only respect him for his straightforward honesty. My man, I am an old soldier too. I regret that I have spoken as I did, and I respect you more and more. Rome lost a brave soldier when you left her ranks. Will you shake hands?"
Serge drew back a little, and looked puzzled.
"Yes, give me your hand," said the visitor. "I am rested and refreshed, but I am not yet going away. I am going to stay and see Cracis, who was once my dear old friend."
"You knew my master?" cried Serge, with the puzzled look deepening in his eyes.
"Thoroughly," was the reply, "and we have fought together in the past. He will forgive me what I have said, as I do you, and I shall tell him when he comes how glad I am to see that he has such a son and is so bravely served."
For answer the old soldier hesitatingly took the proffered hand, and then gladly made his retreat, the pair following him slowly out into the shady piazza, where they stood watching till he disappeared, when the visitor, after glancing round, gathered his toga round him, and sank down into a stone seat, beside one of the shadow-flecked pillars, frowning heavily the while.
"He means well, sir," said Marcus, hastily; "but I'm sure my father would have been sorry if he had heard. I am glad, though, that I asked you in."
"Why?" said the visitor, with a peculiar look in his eyes.
"Because you say you are an old friend of his, and, of course, I didn't know. It was only out of civility that I did so."
"Yes, so I suppose," was the reply. "Poor fellow! Your man meant well," continued the visitor, with his whole manner changed, and he spoke in a half-mocking, cynical way which puzzled and annoyed the boy. "A poor, weak, foolish fellow, though, who hardly understands what he meant. Don't you think he was very weak, bull-headed and absurd?"