THE BRASS BELL
THE CHARIOT OF DEATH
A Tale of Caesar's Gallic Invasion
By EUGENE SUE
TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL FRENCH BY
SOLON DE LEON
NEW YORK LABOR NEWS COMPANY, 1907
NEW EDITION 1916
COPYRIGHT, 1907, BY THE
NEW YORK LABOR NEWS CO.
PREFACE TO THE TRANSLATION
The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death is the second of Eugene Sue's monumental serial known under the collective title of The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages.
The first story—The Gold Sickle; or, Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen—fittingly preludes the grand drama conceived by the author. There the Gallic people are introduced upon the stage of history in the simplicity of their customs, their industrious habits, their bravery, lofty yet childlike—such as they were at the time of the Roman invasion by Caesar, 58 B. C. The present story is the thrilling introduction to the class struggle, that starts with the conquest of Gaul, and, in the subsequent seventeen stories, is pathetically and instructively carried across the ages, down to the French Revolution of 1848.
D. D. L.
TABLE OF CONTENTS.
Preface to the Translation
Chapter 1. The Conflagration 1
Chapter 2. In the Lion's Den 8
Chapter 3. Gallic Virtue 24
Chapter 4. The Trial 35
Chapter 5. Into the Shallows 41
Chapter 6. The Eve of Battle 52
Chapter 7. The Battle of Vannes 59
Chapter 8. After the Battle 80
Chapter 9. Master and Slave 88
Chapter 10. The Last Call to Arms 102
Chapter 11. The Slaves' Toilet 107
Chapter 12. Sold into Bondage 115
Chapter 13. The Booth across the Way 126
The call to arms, sounded by the druids of the forest of Karnak and by the Chief of the Hundred Valleys against the invading forces of the first Caesar, had well been hearkened to.
The sacrifice of Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen, seemed pleasing to Hesus. All the peoples of Brittany, from North to South, from East to West, rose to combat the Romans. The tribes of the territory of Vannes and Auray, those of the Mountains of Ares, and many others, assembled before the town of Vannes, on the left bank, close to the mouth of the river which empties into the great bay of Morbihan. This redoubtable position where all the Gallic forces were to meet, was situated ten leagues from Karnak, and had been chosen by the Chief of the Hundred Valleys, who had been elected Commander-in-Chief of the army.
Leaving behind them their fields, their herds, and their dwellings, the tribes were here assembled, men and women, young and old, and were encamped round about the town of Vannes. Here also were Joel, his family, and his tribe.
Albinik the mariner, together with his wife Meroe left the camp towards sunset, bent on an errand of many days' march. Since her marriage with Albinik, Meroe; was the constant, companion of his voyages and dangers at sea, and like him, she wore the seaman's costume. Like him she knew at a pinch how to put her hand to the rudder, to ply the oar or the axe, for stout was her heart, and strong her arm.
In the evening, before leaving the Gallic army, Meroe dressed herself in her sailor's garments—a short blouse of brown wool, drawn tight with a leather belt, large broad breeches of white cloth, which fell below her knees, and shoes of sealskin. She carried on her left shoulder her short, hooded cloak, and on her flowing hair was a leathern bonnet. By her resolute air, the agility of her step, the perfection of her sweet and virile countenance, one might have taken Meroe for one of those young men whose good looks make maidens dream of marriage. Albinik also was dressed as a mariner. He had flung over his back a sack with provisions for the way. The large sleeves of his blouse revealed his left arm, wrapped to the elbow in a bloody bandage.
Husband and wife had left Vannes for some minutes, when Albinik, stopping, sad and deeply moved, said to Meroe:
"There is still time—consider. We are going to beard the lion in his den. He is tricky, distrustful and savage. It may mean for us slavery, torture, or death. Meroe, let me finish alone this trip and this enterprise, beside which a desperate fight would be but a trifle. Return to my father and mother, whose daughter you are also!"
"Albinik, you had to wait for the darkness of night to say that to me. You would not see me blush with shame at the thought of your thinking me a coward;" and the young woman, while making this answer, instead of turning back, only hastened her step.
"Let it be as your courage and your love for me bid," replied her husband. "May Hena, my holy sister, who is gone, protect us at the side of Hesus."
The two continued their way along the crests of a chain of lofty hills. They had thus at their feet and before their eyes a succession of deep and fertile valleys. As far as eye could reach, they saw here villages, yonder small hamlets, elsewhere isolated farms; further off rose a flourishing town crossed by an arm of the river, in which were moored, from distance to distance, large boats loaded with sheaves of wheat, casks of wine, and fodder.
But, strange to say, although the evening was clear, not a single one of those large herds of cattle and of sheep was to be seen, which ordinarily grazed there till nightfall. No more was there a single laborer in sight on the fields, although it was the hour when, by every road, the country-folk ordinarily began to return to their homes; for the sun was fast sinking. This country, so populous the preceding evening, now seemed deserted.
The couple halted, pensive, contemplating the fertile lands, the bountifulness of nature, the opulent city, the hamlets, and the houses. Then, recollecting what they knew was to happen in a few moments, soon as the sun was set and the moon risen, Albinik and Meroe; shivered with grief and fear. Tears fell from their eyes, they sank to their knees, their eyes fixed with anguish on the depths of the valleys, which the thickening evening shade was gradually invading. The sun had disappeared, but the moon, then in her decline, was not yet up. There was thus, between sunset and the rising of the moon, a rather long interval. It was a bitter one for husband and wife; bitter, like the certain expectation of some great woe.
"Look, Albinik," murmured the young woman to her spouse, although they were alone—for it was one of those awful moments when one speaks low in the middle of a desert—"just look, not a light: not one in these houses, hamlets, or the town. Night is come, and all within these dwellings is gloomy as the night without."
"The inhabitants of this valley are going to show themselves worthy of their brothers," answered Albinik reverently. "They also wish to respond to the voice of our venerable druids, and to that of the Chief of the Hundred Valleys."
"Yes; by the terror which is now come upon me, I feel we are about to see a thing no one has seen before, and perhaps none will see again."
"Meroe, do you catch down there, away down there, behind the crest of the forest, a faint white glimmer!"
"I do. It is the moon, which will soon be up. The moment approaches. I feel terror-stricken. Poor women! Poor children!"
"Poor laborers; they lived so long, happy on this land of their fathers: on this land made fertile by the labor of so many generations! Poor workmen; they found plenty in their rude trades! Oh, the unfortunates! the unfortunates! But one thing equals their great misfortune, and that is their great heroism. Meroe! Meroe!" exclaimed Albinik, "the moon is rising. That sacred orb of Gaul is about to give the signal for the sacrifice."
"Hesus! Hesus!" cried the young woman, her cheeks bathed in tears, "your wrath will never be appeased if this last sacrifice does not calm you."
The moon had risen radiant among the stars. She flooded space with so brilliant a light that Albinik and his wife could see as in full day, and as far as the most distant horizon, the country that stretched at their feet.
Suddenly, a light cloud of smoke, at first whitish, then black, presently colored with the red tints of a kindling fire, rose above one of the hamlets scattered in the plain.
"Hesus! Hesus!" exclaimed Meroe. Then, hiding her face in the bosom of her husband who was kneeling near her, "You spoke truly. The sacred orb of Gaul has given the signal for the sacrifice. It is fulfilled."
"Oh, liberty!" cried Albinik, "Holy liberty!——"
He could not finish. His voice was smothered in tears, and he drew his weeping wife close in his arms.
Meroe did not leave her face hidden in her husband's breast any longer than it would take a mother to kiss the forehead, mouth, and eyes, of her new born babe, but when she again raised her head and dared to look abroad, it was no longer only one house, one village, one hamlet, one town in that long succession of valleys at their feet that was disappearing in billows of black smoke, streaked with red gleams. It was all the houses, all the villages, all the hamlets, all the towns in the laps of all those valleys, that the conflagration was devouring. From North to South, from East to West, all was afire. The rivers themselves seemed to roll in flame under their grain and forage-laden barges, which in turn took fire, and sank in the waters.
The heavens were alternately obscured by immense clouds of smoke, or reddened with innumerable columns of fire. From one end to the other, the panorama was soon nothing but a furnace, an ocean of flame.
Nor were the houses, hamlets, and towns of only these valleys given over to the flames. It was the same in all the regions which Albinik and Meroe had traversed in one night and day of travel, on their way from Vannes to the mouth of the Loire, where was pitched the camp of Caesar.
All this territory had been burned by its inhabitants, and they abandoned the smoking ruins to join the Gallic army, assembled in the environs of Vannes. Thus the voice of the Chief of the Hundred Valleys had been obeyed—the command repeated from place to place, from village to village, from city to city:
"In three nights, at the hour when the moon, the sacred orb of Gaul shall rise, let all the countryside, from Vannes to the Loire, be set on fire. Let Caesar and his army find in their passage neither men nor houses, nor provisions, nor forage, but everywhere, everywhere cinders, famine, desolation, and death."
It was done as the druids and the Chief of the Hundred Valleys had ordered.
The two travelers, who witnessed this heroic devotion of each and all to the safety of the fatherland, had thus seen a sight no one had ever seen in the past; a sight which perhaps none will ever see in the future.
Thus were expiated those fatal dissensions, those rivalries between province and province, which for too long a time, and to the triumph of their enemies, had divided the people of Gaul.
IN THE LION'S DEN.
The night passed. When the next day drew to its close Albinik and Meroe had traversed all the burnt country, from Vannes to the mouth of the Loire, which they were now approaching. At sunset they came to a fork in the road.
"Of these two ways, which shall we take?" mused Albinik. "One ought to take us toward the camp of Caesar, the other away from it."
Reflecting an instant, the young woman answered:
"Climb yonder oak. The camp fires will show us our route."
"True," said the mariner, and confident in his agility he was about to clamber up the tree. But stopping, he added: "I forgot that I have but one hand left. I cannot climb."
The face of the young woman saddened as she replied:
"You are suffering, Albinik? Alas, you, thus mutilated!"
"Is the sea-wolf caught without a lure?"
"Let the fishing be good," answered Albinik, "and I shall not regret having given my hand for bait."
The young woman sighed, and after looking at the tree a minute, said to her husband:
"Come, then, put your back to the trunk. I'll step in the hollow of your hand, then onto your shoulder, and from your shoulder I can reach that large branch overhead."
"Fearless and devoted! You are always the dear wife of my heart, true as my sister Hena is a saint," tenderly answered Albinik, and steadying himself against the tree, he took in his hand the little foot of his companion. With his good arm he supported his wife while she placed her foot on his shoulder. Thence she reached the first large bough. Then, mounting from branch to branch, she gained the top of the oak. Arrived there, Meroe cast her eyes abroad, and saw towards the south, under a group of seven stars, the gleam of several fires. She descended, nimble as a bird, and at last, putting her feet on the mariner's shoulder, was on the ground with one bound, saying:
"We must go towards the south, in the direction of those seven stars. That way lie the fires of Caesar's camp."
"Let us take that road, then," returned the sailor, indicating the narrower of the two ways, and the two travelers pursued their journey. After a few steps, the young woman halted. She seemed to be searching in her garments.
"What is the matter, Meroe?"
"In climbing the tree, I've let my poniard drop. It must have worked out of the belt I was carrying it in, under my blouse."
"By Hesus; we must get that poniard back," said Albinik, retracing his steps toward the tree. "You have need of a weapon, and this one my brother Mikael forged and tempered himself. It will pierce a sheet of copper."
"Oh; I shall find it, Albinik. In that well-tempered little blade of steel one has an answer for all, and in all languages."
After some search up the foot of the oak, Meroe found her poniard. It was cased in a sheath hardly as long as a hen's feather, and not much thicker. Meroe fastened it anew under her blouse, and started again on the road with her husband. After some little travel along deserted paths, the two arrived at a plain. They heard far in the distance the great roar of the sea. On a hill they saw the lights of many fires.
"There, at last, is the camp of Caesar," said Albinik, stopping short, "the den of the lion."
"The den of the scourge of Gaul. Come, come, the evening is slipping away."
"Meroe, the moment has come."
"Do you hesitate now?"
"It is too late. But I would prefer a fair fight under the open heavens, vessel to vessel, soldier to soldier, sword to sword. Ah, Meroe, for us, Gauls, who despise ambuscade or cowardice, and hang brass bells on the iron of our lances to warn the enemy of our approach, to come here—traitorously!"
"Traitorously!" exclaimed the young woman. "And to oppress a free people—is that loyalty? To reduce the inhabitants to slavery, to exile them by herds with iron collars on their necks—is that loyalty? To massacre old men and children, to deliver the women and virgins to the lust of soldiers—is that loyalty? And now, you would hesitate, after having marched a whole day and night by the lights of the conflagration, through the midst of those smoking ruins which were caused by the horror of Roman oppression? No! No! to exterminate savage beasts, all means are good, the trap as well as the boar-spear. Hesitate? Hesitate? Answer, Albinik. Without mentioning your voluntary mutilation, without mentioning the dangers which we brave in entering this camp—shall we not be, if Hesus aids our project, the first victims of that great sacrifice which we are going to make to the Gods? Come, believe me; he who gives his life has nothing to blush for. By the love which I bear you, by the virgin blood of your sister Hena, I have at this moment, I swear to you, the consciousness of fulfilling a holy duty. Come, come, the evening is passing."
"What Meroe, the just and valiant, finds to be just and valiant, must be so," said Albinik, pressing his companion to his breast.
"Yes, yes, to exterminate savage beasts all means are good, the trap as well as the spear. Who gives his life has no cause to blush. Come!"
The couple hastened their pace toward the lights of the camp of Caesar. After a few moments, they heard close at hand, resounding on the earth, the measured tread of several soldiers, and the clashing of their swords on their iron armor. Presently they distinguished the invaders' red crested helmets glittering in the moonlight.
"They are the soldiers of the guard, who keep vigil around the camp," said Albinik. "Let us go to them."
Soon the travelers reached the Roman soldiers, by whom they were immediately surrounded. Albinik, who had learned in the Roman tongue these only words: "We are Breton Gauls; we would speak with Caesar," addressed them to his captors; but these, learning from Albinik's own admission that he and his companion were of the provinces that had risen in arms, forthwith took them prisoners, and treated them as such. They bound them, and conducted them to the camp.
Albinik and Meroe were first taken to one of the gates of the entrenchment. Beside the gate, they saw, a cruel warning, five large wooden crosses. On each one of these a Gallic seaman was crucified, his clothes stained with blood. The light of the moon illuminated the corpses.
"They have not deceived us," said Albinik in a low voice to his companion. "The pilots have been crucified after having undergone frightful tortures, rather than pilot the fleet of Caesar along the coast of Brittany."
"To make them undergo torture, and death on the cross," flashed back Meroe, "is that loyalty! Would you still hesitate? Will you still speak of 'treachery'?"
Albinik answered not a word, but in the dark he pressed his companion's hand. Brought before the officer who commanded the post, the mariner repeated the only words which he knew in the Roman tongue:
"We are Breton Gauls; we would speak with Caesar." In these times of war, the Romans would often seize or detain travelers, for the purpose of learning from them what was passing in the revolted provinces. Caesar had given orders for all prisoners and fugitives who could throw light on the movements of the Gauls to be brought before him.
The husband and wife were accordingly not surprised to see themselves, in fulfillment of their secret hope, conducted across the camp to Caesar's tent, which was guarded by the flower of his Spanish veterans, charged with watching over his person.
Arrived within the tent of Caesar, the scourge of Gaul, Albinik and Meroe were freed of their bonds. Despite their souls' being stirred with hatred for the invader of their country, they looked about them with a somber curiosity.
The tent of the Roman general, covered on the outside with thick pelts, like all the other tents of the camp, was decorated within with a purple-colored material embroidered with gold and white silk. The beaten earth was buried from sight under a carpet of tiger skins. Caesar was finishing supper, reclining on a camp bed which was concealed under a great lion-skin, decorated with gold claws and eyes of carbuncles. Within his reach, on a low table, the couple saw large vases of gold and silver, richly chased, and cups ornamented with precious stones. Humbly seated at the foot of Caesar's couch, Meroe saw a young and beautiful female slave, an African without doubt, for her white garments threw out all the stronger the copper colored hue of her face. Slowly she raised her large, shining back eyes to the two strangers, all the while petting a large greyhound which was stretched out at her side. She seemed to be as timid as the dog.
The generals, the officers, the secretaries, the handsome looking young freedmen of Caesar's suite, were standing about his camp bed, while black Abyssinian slaves, wearing coral ornaments at their necks, wrists and ankles, and motionless as statues, held in their hands torches of scented wax, whose gleam caused the splendid armor of the Romans to glitter.
Caesar, before whom Albinik and Meroe cast down their eyes for fear of betraying their hatred, had exchanged his armor for a long robe of richly broidered silk. His head was bare, nothing covered his large bald forehead, on each side of which his brown hair was closely trimmed. The warmth of the Gallic wine which it was his habit to drink to excess at night, caused his eyes to shine, and colored his pale cheeks. His face was imperious, his laugh mocking and cruel. He was leaning on one elbow, holding in one hand, thinned with debauchery, a wide gold cup, enriched with pearls. He looked at it leisurely and fitfully, still fixing his piercing gaze on the two prisoners, who were placed in such a manner that Albinik almost entirely hid Meroe.
Caesar said a few words in Latin to his officers, who had been preparing to retire. One of them went up to the couple, brusquely shoved Albinik back, and took Meroe by the hand. Thus he forced her to advance a few steps, clearly for the purpose of permitting Caesar to look at her with greater ease. He did so, while at the same time and without turning around, reaching his empty cup to one of his young cup-bearers.
Albinik knew how to control himself. He remained quiet while he saw his chaste wife blush under the bold looks of Caesar. After gazing at her for a moment, the Roman general beckoned to one of his interpreters. The two exchanged a few words, whereupon the interpreter drew close to Meroe, and said to her in the Gallic tongue:
"Caesar asks whether you are a youth or a maiden!"
"My companion and I have fled the Gallic camp," responded Meroe ingenuously. "Whether I am a youth or a maiden matters little to Caesar."
At these words, translated by the interpreter to Caesar, the Roman laughed cynically, while his officers partook of the gaiety of their general. Caesar continued to empty cup after cup, fixing his eyes more and more ardently on Albinik's wife. He said a few words to the interpreter, who commenced to question the two prisoners, conveying as he proceeded, their answers to the general, who would then prompt new questions.
"Who are you!" said the interpreter, "Whence come you!"
"We are Bretons," answered Albinik. "We come from the Gallic camp, which is established under the walls of Vannes, two days' march from here."
"Why have you deserted the Gallic camp!"
Albinik answered not a word, but unwrapped the bloody bandage in which his arm was swathed. The Romans then saw that his left hand was cut off. The interpreter resumed:
"Who has thus mutilated you?"
"But you are a Gaul yourself?"
"Little does that matter to the Chief of the Hundred Valleys."
At the name of the Chief of the Hundred Valleys, Caesar knit his brows, and his face was filled with envy and hatred.
The interpreter resumed, addressing Albinik: "Explain yourself."
"I am a sailor, and command a merchant vessel. Several other captains and I received the order to transport some armed men by sea, and to disembark them in the harbor of Vannes, by the bay of Morbihan. I obeyed. A gust of wind carried away one of my masts; my vessel arrived the last of all. Then—the Chief of the Hundred Valleys inflicted upon me the penalty for laggards. But he was generous. He let me off with my life, and gave me the choice between, the loss of my nose, my ears, or one hand. I have been mutilated, but not for having lacked courage or willingness. That would have been just, I would have undergone it according to the laws of my country, without complaint."
"But this wrongful torture," joined in Meroe, "Albinik underwent because the sea wind came up against him. As well punish with death him who cannot see clear in the pitchy night—him who cannot darken the light of the sun."
"And this mutilation covers me for ever with shame!" exclaimed Albinik. "Everywhere it is said: 'That fellow's a coward!' I have never known hatred; now my heart is filled with it. Perish that Fatherland where I cannot live but in dishonor! Perish its liberty! Perish the liberty of my people, provided only that I be avenged upon the Chief of the Hundred Valleys! For that I would gladly give the other hand which he has left me. That is why I have come here with my companion. Sharing my shame, she shares my hatred. That hatred we offer to Caesar; let him use it as he wills; let him try us. Our lives answer for our sincerity. As to recompense, we want none."
"Vengeance—that is what we must have," interjected Meroe.
"In what can you serve Caesar against the Chief of the Hundred Valleys?" queried the interpreter.
"I offer Caesar my service as a mariner, as a soldier, as a guide, as a spy even, if he wishes it."
"Why did you not seek to kill the Chief of the Hundred Valleys, being able to approach him in the Gallic camp?" suggested the interpreter. "You would have been revenged."
"Immediately after the mutilation of my husband," answered Meroe, "we were driven from the camp. We could not return."
The interpreter again conversed with the Roman general, who, while listening, did not cease to empty his cup and to follow Meroe with brazen looks.
"You are a mariner, you say!" resumed the interpreter. "You used to command a merchantman?"
"And—are you a good seaman?"
"I am five and twenty years old. From the age of twelve I have traveled on the sea; for four years I have commanded a vessel."
"Do you know well the coast between Vannes and the channel which separates Great Britain from Gaul?"
"I am from the port of Vannes, near the forest of Karnak. For more than sixteen years I have sailed these coasts continuously."
"Would you make a good pilot?"
"May I lose all the limbs which the Chief of the Hundred Valleys has left me, if there is a bay, a cape, an islet, a rock, a sand-bank, or a breaker, which I do not know from the Gulf of Aquitaine to Dunkirk."
"You are vaunting your skill as a pilot. How can you prove it?"
"We are near the shore. For him who is not a good and fearless sailor, nothing is more dangerous than the navigation of the mouth of the Loire, going up towards the north."
"That is true," answered the interpreter. "Even yesterday a Roman galley ran aground on a sand-bank and was lost."
"Who pilots a boat well," observed Albinik, "pilots well a galley, I think."
"To-morrow conduct us to the shore. I know the fisher boats of the country; my wife and I will suffice to handle one. From the top of the bank Caesar will see us skim around the rocks and breakers, and play with them as the sea raven plays with the wave it skims. Then Caesar will believe me capable of safely piloting a galley on the coasts of Brittany."
Albinik's offer having been translated to Caesar by the interpreter, the latter proceeded:
"We accept your test. It shall be done to-morrow morning. If it proves your skill as a pilot—and we shall take all precautions against treachery, lest you should wish to trick us—perhaps you will be charged with a mission which will serve your hatred, all the more seeing that you can have no idea of what that mission is. But for that it will be necessary to gain the entire confidence of Caesar."
"What must I do!"
"You must know the forces and plans of the Gallic army. Beware of telling an untruth; we already have reports on that subject. We shall see if you are sincere; if not, the chamber of torture is not far off."
"Arrived at Vannes in the morning, arrested, judged, and punished almost immediately, and then driven from the Gallic camp, I could not learn the decisions of the council which was held the previous evening," promptly answered Albinik. "But the situation was grave, for the women were called to the council; it lasted from sun-down to dawn. The current rumor was that heavy re-enforcements to the Gallic army were on the way."
"Who were those re-enforcements?"
"The tribes of Finisterre and of the north coasts, those of Lisieux, of Amiens, and of Perche. They said, even, that the warriors of Brabant were coming by sea."
After translating to Caesar Albinik's answer, the interpreter resumed:
"You speak true. Your words agree with the reports which have been made to us. But some scouts returned this evening and have brought the news that, two or three leagues from here, they saw in the north the glare of a conflagration. You come from the north. Do you know anything about that?"
"From the outskirts of Vannes up to three leagues from here," answered Albinik, "there remains not a town, not a borough, not a village, not a house, not a sack of wheat, not a skin of wine, not a cow, not a sheep, not a rick of fodder, not a man, woman, or child. Provisions, cattle, stores, everything that could not be carried away, have been given up to the flames by the inhabitants. At the hour that I speak to you, all the tribes of the burned regions are rallied to the support of the Gallic army, leaving behind them nothing but a desert of smouldering ruins."
As Albinik progressed with his account, the amazement of the interpreter deepened, his terror increased. In his fright he seemed not to dare believe what he heard. He hesitated to make Caesar aware of the awful news. At last he resigned himself to the requirements of his office.
Albinik did not take his eyes from Caesar, for he wished to read in his face what impression the words of the interpreter would make. Well skilled in dissimulation, they say, was the Roman general. Nevertheless, as the interpreter spoke, stupefaction, fear, frenzy and doubt betrayed themselves in the face of Gaul's oppressor. His officers and councillors looked at one another in consternation, exchanging under their breaths words which seemed full of anguish. Then Caesar, sitting bolt upright on his couch, addressed several short and violent words to the interpreter, who immediately turned to the mariner:
"Caesar says you lie. Such a disaster is impossible. No nation is capable of such a sacrifice. If you have lied, you shall expiate your crime on the rack."
Great was the joy of Albinik and Meroe on seeing the consternation and fury of the Roman, who could not make up his mind to believe the heroic resolution, so fatal to his army. But the couple concealed their emotions, and Albinik answered:
"Caesar has in his camp Numidian horsemen, with tireless horses. Let him send out scouts instantly. Let them scour not only the country which we have just crossed in one night and day of travel, but let them extend their course into the east, to the boundary of Touraine. Let them go still further, as far as Berri; and so much further as their horses can carry them; they will traverse regions ravaged by fire, and deserted."
Hardly had Albinik pronounced these words, when the Roman general shot some orders at several of his officers. They rushed from the tent in haste, while he, relapsing into his habitual dissimulation, and no doubt regretful of having betrayed his fears in the presence of the Gallic fugitives, affected to smile, and stretched himself again on his lion skin. He held out his cup to one of his cup-bearers, and emptied it after saying to the interpreter some words which he translated thus:
"Caesar empties his cup to the honor of the Gauls—and, by Jupiter, he gives them thanks for having done just what he wished to do himself. For old Gaul shall humble herself vanquished and repentant, before Rome, like the most humble slave—or not one of her towns shall remain standing, not one of her warriors living, not one of her people free."
"May the gods hear Caesar," answered Albinik. "Let Gaul be enslaved or devastated, and I shall be avenged on the Chief of the Hundred Valleys—for he will suffer a thousand deaths in seeing subdued or destroyed that fatherland which I now curse."
While the interpreter was translating these words, the general, either to hide all the more his fears, or to drown them in wine, emptied his cup several times, and began to cast at Meroe more and more ardent looks. Then, a thought seeming to strike him, he smiled with a singular air, made a sign to one of the freedmen, and spoke to him in a low voice. He also whispered a few hurried words to the Moorish slave-girl, until then seated at his feet, whereupon she and the freedman left the tent.
The interpreter thereupon returned to Albinik: "So far your answers have proved your sincerity. If the news you have just given is confirmed, if to-morrow you show yourself a capable and courageous pilot, you will be able to serve your revenge. If you satisfy Caesar, he will be generous. If you play us false your punishment will be terrible. Did you see, at the entrance to the camp, five men crucified!"
"I saw them."
"They are pilots who refused to serve us. They had to be carried to the crosses, because their legs, crushed by the torture, could not sustain them. Such will be your lot and that of your companion, upon the least suspicion."
"I fear these threats no more than I expect a gift from the magnificence of Caesar," haughtily returned Albinik. "Let him try me first, then judge me."
"You and your companion will be taken to a nearby tent; you will be guarded there like prisoners."
At a sign from the Roman, the two Gauls were led away and conducted through a winding passage covered with cloth, into an adjacent tent, where they were left alone.
So great was the distrust in which Albinik and his wife held everything Roman, that before passing the night in the tent to which they had been taken, they examined it carefully. The tent, round of form, was decorated inside with woolen cloth, striped in strongly contrasting colors. It was fixed on taut cords which were fastened to stakes driven into the earth. The cloth of the tent did not come down close to the ground, and Albinik remarked that between the coarsely tanned hides which served as a carpet, and the lower edge of the tent, there remained a space three times the width of his palm. There was no other visible entrance to the tent but the one the couple had just crossed, which was closed by two flaps of cloth overlapping each other. An iron bed furnished with cushions was half enveloped in draperies, with which one could shut himself in by pulling a cord hanging over the head of the bed. A brass lamp, raised on a long shaft stuck into the ground, feebly lighted the interior of the tent.
After examining silently and carefully the place where he was to pass the night with his wife, Albinik said to her in a whisper:
"Caesar will have us spied upon to-night. They will listen to our conversation. But no matter how softly they come, or how cunningly they hide themselves, no one can approach the cloth from the outside to listen to us, without our seeing, through that gap, the feet of the spy," and he pointed out to his wife the circular space left between the earth and the lower rim of the tent cloth.
"Do you think, then, Albinik, that Caesar has any suspicions? Could he suppose that a man would have the courage to mutilate himself in order to induce confidence in his feelings of revenge?"
"And our brothers, the inhabitants of the regions which we have just traversed, have they not shown a courage a thousand times greater than mine, in giving up their country to the flames? My one hope is in the absolute need our enemy has of Gallic pilots to conduct his ships along the Breton coasts. Now especially, when the land offers not a single resource to his army, the way by sea is perhaps his only means of safety. You saw, when he learned of that heroic devastation, that he could not, even he, always so dissembling, they say, hide his consternation and fury, which he then tried to forget in the fumes of wine. And that is not the only debauchery to which he gives himself up. I saw you blush under the obstinate looks of the infamous debauchee."
"Oh, Albinik! while my forehead reddened with shame and anger under the eyes of Caesar, twice my hand sought and clasped under my garments the weapon with which I am provided. Once I measured the distance which separated me from him—it was too great."
"At the first movement, before reaching him, you would have been pierced with a thousand sword thrusts. Our project is worth more. If it thrives," added Albinik, throwing a meaning glance at his companion, and instead of speaking low as he had been doing up till now, raising his voice little by little, "if our project thrives, if Caesar has faith in my word, we will be able at last to avenge ourselves on my tormentor. Oh, I tell you, I feel now for Gaul the hatred with which the Romans once inspired me!"
Surprised by Albinik's words, Meroe stared at him in amazement. But by a sign he showed her, through the empty space left between the ground and the cloth, of the tent, the toes of the sandals of the interpreter, who had approached and now listened without. At once the young woman replied:
"I share your hate, as I have shared your heart's love, and the peril of your mariner's life. May Hesus cause Caesar to understand what services you can render him, and I shall be the witness of your revenge as I was the witness of your torture."
These words, and many others, exchanged by the couple to the end of deceiving the interpreter, apparently reassured the spy of the honesty of the two prisoners, for presently they saw him move away.
Shortly thereafter, at the moment that Albinik and Meroe, fatigued with their long journey, were about to throw themselves into bed in their clothes, the interpreter appeared at the entry. The uplifted cloth disclosed several Spanish soldiers.
"Caesar wishes to converse with you immediately," said the interpreter to the mariner. "Follow me."
Albinik felt certain that the suspicions of the Roman general, if he had any, had just been allayed by the interpreter's report, and that the moment had come when he was to learn the mission with which they wished to charge him. Accordingly, he prepared to leave the tent, and Meroe with him, when the interpreter said to the young woman, stopping her with a gesture:
"You may not accompany us. Caesar wishes to speak with your companion alone."
"And I," answered the seaman, taking his wife by the hand, "I shall not leave Meroe."
"Do you really refuse my order?" cried the interpreter. "Beware, beware!"
"We go together to Caesar," began Meroe, "or we go not at all."
"Poor fools! Are you not prisoners at our mercy?" said the interpreter to them, pointing to the soldiers, motionless at the door of the tent. "Willingly or unwillingly, I will be obeyed."
Albinik reflected that resistance was impossible. Death he was not afraid of; but to die was to renounce his plans at the moment when they seemed to be prospering. Nevertheless, the thought of leaving Meroe alone in the tent disturbed him. The young woman divined the fears of her husband, and feeling, like him, that they must resign themselves, said:
"Go alone. I shall wait for you without fear, true as your brother is an able armorer."
Reassured by his wife's significant words, Albinik followed the interpreter. The door flaps of the tent, for the moment raised, fell back into place. Immediately, from behind them, she heard a heavy thud. She ran towards the place, and saw that a thick wicker screen had been fastened outside, closing the door. The young woman was at first surprised with this precaution, but she presently thought that it would be better to remain thus secured while awaiting Albinik, and that perhaps he himself had asked that the tent be closed till his return.
Meroe accordingly seated herself thoughtfully on the bed, full of hope in the interview which undoubtedly her husband was then having with Caesar. Suddenly her revery was broken by a singular noise. It came from the part directly in front of the bed. Almost immediately, the cloth parted its whole length. The young woman sprang to her feet. Her first movement was to seize the poniard which she carried under her blouse. Then, trusting in herself and in the weapon which she held, she waited, calling to mind the Gallic proverb, "He who takes his own life in his hands has nothing to fear but the gods!"
Against the background of dense shadows on which the tent cloth parted, Meroe saw the young Moorish slave approach, wrapped in her white garments. As soon as the slave had put her foot in the tent, she fell upon her knees, and stretched out her clasped hands to Albinik's companion. Touched by the suppliant gesture and the grief imprinted on the face of the slave, Meroe felt neither suspicion nor fear, but compassion mingled with curiosity, and she laid her poniard at the head of the bed. The Moorish girl advanced, creeping on her knees, her two hands still extended towards Meroe, who, full of pity, leaned towards the suppliant, meaning to raise her up. But when the slave had sufficiently approached the bed where the poniard was, she raised herself with a bound, and leaped to the weapon. Evidently she had not lost sight of it since entering the tent, and before Albinik's stupefied companion could oppose her, the poniard was flung into the outer darkness.
By the peal of savage laughter which burst from the Moorish girl when she had thus disarmed Meroe, the latter saw that she had been betrayed. She ran toward the dark passage to recover her poniard, or to flee. But out of those shadows, she saw coming—Caesar.
Stricken with fear, the Gallic woman recoiled several steps, Caesar advanced likewise, and the slave disappeared by the opening, which was immediately closed again. By the uncertain step of the Roman, by the fire in his looks, the excitement which impurpled his cheeks, Meroe saw that he was inebriate. Her terror subsided. He carried under his arm a casket of precious wood. After silently gazing at the young woman with such effrontery that the blush of shame again mounted to her forehead, the Roman drew from the casket a rich necklace of chased gold. He went closer to the lamp-light in order to improve its glitter in the eyes of the woman whom he wished to tempt. Then, simulating an ironical reverence, he stooped and placed the necklace at the feet of the Gaul. Rising, he questioned her with an audacious look.
Meroe, standing with arms crossed on her breast, heaving with indignation and scorn, looked haughtily at Caesar, and spurned the collar with her foot.
The Roman made an insulting gesture of surprise; he laughed with an air of disdainful confidence; and then drew from the casket a magnificent gold net-work for the hair, all encrusted with carbuncles. After making it sparkle in the lamp-light, he deposited the second trinket also at the feet of Meroe. Redoubling his ironical respect, he rose, and seemed to say:
"This time I am sure of my triumph!"
Meroe, pale with anger, smiled disdainfully.
Then Caesar emptied at the young woman's feet all the contents of the casket. It was like a flood of gold, pearls, and precious stones, of necklaces, zones, earrings, bracelets, jewels of all sorts.
This time Meroe did not push away the gewgaws with her foot. She ground under the heel of her boot as many of the trinkets as she could rapidly stamp upon, and drove back the infamous debauchee, who was advancing toward her with confidently open arms.
Confused for a moment, the Roman put his hand to his heart, as if to protest his adoration. The woman of Gaul answered the mute language with a burst of laughter so scornful that Caesar, intoxicated with lust, wine and anger, seemed to say:
"I have offered riches, I have offered prayers. All in vain; I shall use force."
Albinik's wife was alone and disarmed. She knew that her cries would bring her no help. Her resolve was soon taken. The chaste, brave woman leaped upon the bed, seized the long cord which served to lower the draperies, and knotted it around her neck. Then she quickly climbed upon the head of the bed-stead, ready to launch herself into the air, and strangle herself by the weight of her own body at Caesar's first step towards her. So desperate was the resolution depicted on Meroe's face that the Roman general for an instant remained motionless. Then, urged either by compunction for his violence; or by the certainty that, if he attempted force, he would have but a corpse in his possession; or, as the unscrupulous libertine later pretended, by a generous impulse that had guided him throughout;—whatever his motive, Caesar stepped back several paces, and raised his hand to heaven as if to call the gods to witness that he would respect his prisoner. Still suspicious, the Gallic woman kept herself in readiness to give up her life. The Roman turned towards the secret opening of the tent, disappeared into the shadows for a moment, and gave an order in a loud voice. Immediately he returned, but kept himself at a wide distance from the bed, his arms crossed on his toga. Not knowing whether the danger she ran was not still to be increased, Meroe remained standing on the bed-stead with the cord about her neck. After a few minutes she saw the interpreter enter, accompanied by Albinik; with one bound she sprang to her husband.
"Your wife is a woman of manful virtue," said the interpreter to Albinik. "Behold those treasures at her feet; she has spurned them. Great Caesar's love she has scorned. He pretended to resort to violence. Your companion, disarmed by a trick, was prepared to take her own life. Thus gloriously has she come out of the test."
"The test?" answered Albinik, with an air of sinister doubt. "The test? Who, here, has the right to test the virtue of my wife?"
"The thought of vengeance, which have brought you into the Roman camp, are the thoughts of a haughty soul, roused by injustice and barbarity. The mutilation which you have suffered seemed above all to prove the truth of your words," resumed the interpreter. "But fugitives always arouse a secret suspicion. The wife often is a test of the husband. Yours is a valiant wife. To inspire such fidelity, you must be a man of courage and of truth. That is what we wished to make sure of."
"I don't know," began the mariner doubtfully, "the licentiousness of your general is well known——"
"The gods have sent us in you a precious aid; you can become fatal to the Gauls. Do you believe Caesar is foolish enough to wish to make an enemy of you by outraging your wife, at the very moment, perhaps, when he is about to charge you with a mission of trust? No, I repeat: he wished to try you both, and so far the trials are favorable to you."
Caesar interrupted the interpreter, saying a few words to him. Then bowing respectfully to Meroe, and saluting Albinik with a friendly gesture, he slowly and majestically left the tent.
"You and your wife," said the interpreter, "are henceforth assured of the general's protection. He gives you his word for it. You shall no more be separated or disturbed. The wife of the courageous mariner has scorned these rich ornaments," added the interpreter, collecting the jewels and replacing them in the casket. "Caesar wishes to keep as a reminder of Gallic virtue the poniard which she wore, and which he took from her by ruse. Reassure yourself, she shall not remain unarmed."
Almost at the same instant, two young freedmen entered the tent. They carried on a large silver tray a little oriental dagger of rich workmanship, and a Spanish saber, short and slightly curved, hung from a baldric of red leather, magnificently embroidered in gold. The interpreter presented the dagger to Meroe and the saber to Albinik, saying to them as he did so:
"Sleep in peace, and guard these gifts of the grandeur of Caesar."
"And do you assure him," returned Albinik, "that your words and his generosity dissipate my suspicions. Henceforth he will have no more devoted allies than my wife and myself, until our vengeance be satisfied."
The interpreter left, taking with him the two freedmen. Albinik then told his wife that when he had been taken into the Roman general's tent, he had waited for Caesar, in company with the interpreter, up to the moment when they both returned to the tent, under the conduct of a slave. Meroe told in turn what had occurred to her. The couple concluded that Caesar, half drunk, had at first yielded to a foul thought, but that Meroe's desperate resolve, backed up by the reflection that he was running the risk of estranging a fugitive from whom he might reap good service, had curbed the Roman's passion. With his habitual trickery and address, he had given, under the pretext of a "trial," an almost generous appearance to the odious attempt.
The next morning Caesar, accompanied by his generals, set out for the bank which commanded the mouth of the Loire, where a tent had been set up for him. From this place the sea and its dangerous shores, strewn with sand-bars and rocks level with the water, could be seen in the distance. The wind was blowing a gale. Moored to the bank was a fisherman's boat, at once solid and light, rigged Gallic fashion, with one square sail with flaps cut in its lower edge. To this craft Albinik and Meroe were forthwith conducted.
"It is stormy, the sea is menacing," said the interpreter to them. "Will you dare to venture it alone with your wife? There are some fishermen here who have been taken prisoners—do you want their help?"
"My wife and I have before now braved tempests alone in our boat, when we made for my ship, anchored far out from shore on account of bad weather."
"But now you are maimed," answered the interpreter. "How will you be able to manage!"
"One hand is enough for the tiller. My companion will raise the sail—the woman's business, since it is a sort of cloth," gaily added the mariner to give the Romans faith in him.
"Go ahead then," said the interpreter. "May the gods direct you."
The bark, pushed into the waves by several soldiers, rocked a minute under the flappings of the sail, which had not yet caught the wind. But soon, held by Meroe, while her husband managed the tiller, the sail filled, and bellied out to the blast. The boat leaned gently, and seemed to fly over the crests of the waves like a sea-bird. Meroe, dressed in her mariner's costume, stayed at the prow, her black hair streaming in the wind. Occasionally the white foam of the ocean, bursting from the prow of the boat, flung its stinging froth in the young woman's noble face. Albinik knew these coasts as the ferryman of the solitary moors of Brittany knows their least detours. The bark seemed to play with the high waves. From time to time the couple saw in the distance the tent of Caesar, recognizable by its purple flaps, and saw gleaming in the sun the gold and silver which decked the armor of his generals.
"Oh, Caesar!—scourge of Gaul—the most cruel, the most debauched of men!" exclaimed Meroe. "You do not know that this frail bark, which at this moment you are following in the distance with your eyes, bears two of your most desperate enemies. You do not know that they have beforehand given over their lives to Hesus in the hope of making to Teutates, god of journeys by land and by sea, an offering worthy of him—an offering of several thousand Romans, sinking in the depths of the sea. It is with hands raised to you, thankful and happy, O, Hesus, that we shall disappear in the bottom of the deep, with the enemies of our sacred Gaul!"
The bark of Albinik and Meroe, almost grazing the rocks and glancing over the surges along the dangerous ashore, sometimes drew away from, sometimes approached the bank. The mariner's companion, seeing him sad and thoughtful, said:
"Still brooding, Albinik! Everything favors our projects. The Roman general is no longer suspicious; your skill this morning will decide him to accept your services; and to-morrow, mayhap, you will pilot the galleys of our enemies——"
"Yes, I will pilot them to the bottom, where they will be swallowed up, and we with them."
"What a magnificent offering to the gods! Ten thousand Romans, perhaps!"
"Meroe," answered Albinik with a sigh, "then, after ending our lives here, even as the soldiers, brave warriors after all, we shall be resurrected elsewhere with them. They will say to me: 'It was not through bravery, with the lance and the sword, that you overcame us. No, you slew us without a combat, by treason. You watched at the rudder, we slept in peace and confidence. You steered us on the rocks—in an instant the sea swallowed us. You are like a cowardly poisoner, who would send us to our death by putting poison in our food. Is that an act of valor? No, no longer do you know the open boldness of your fathers, those proud Gauls who fought us half naked, who railed at us in our iron armor, asking why we fought if we were afraid of wounds or death.'"
"Ah!" exclaimed Meroe, sadly and bitterly, "Why did the druidesses teach me that a woman ought to escape the last outrage by death! Why did your mother Margarid tell us so often, as a noble example to follow, the deed of your grandmother Syomara, who cut off the head of the Roman who ravished her, and carrying the head under the skirt of her robe to her husband, said to him these proud and chaste words: 'No two men living can boast of having possessed me!' Why did I not yield to Caesar?"
"Perhaps you would then have been avenged! faint heart! weak spirit! Must then the outrage be completed, the ignominy swallowed, before your anger is kindled?"
"It is not enough for you, then, that the Roman has proposed to your wife to sell herself, to deliver herself to him for gifts? It is to your wife—do you hear!—to your wife, that Caesar made that offer of shame!"
"You speak true," answered the mariner, feeling anger fire his heart at the memory of these outrages, "I was a spiritless fellow——"
But his companion went on with redoubled bitterness:
"No, I see it now. This is not enough. I should have died. Then perhaps you would have sworn vengeance over my body. Oh, they arouse pity in you, these Romans, of whom we wish to make an offering to the gods! They are not accomplices to the crime which Caesar attempted, say you? Answer! Would they have come to my aid, these soldiers, these brave warriors, if, instead of relying on my own courage and drawing my strength from my love for you, I had cried, implored, supplicated, 'Romans, in the name of your mothers, defend me from the lust of your general'? Answer! Would they have come at my call? Would they have forgotten that I was a Gaul—that Caesar was Caesar? Would the 'generous hearts' of these brave fellows have revolted? After rape, do not they themselves drown the infants in the blood of their mothers?——"
Albinik did not allow his companion to finish. He blushed at his lack of heart. He blushed at having an instant forgotten the horrible deeds perpetrated by the Romans in their impious war. He blushed at having forgotten that the sacrifice of the enemies of Gaul was above all else pleasing to Hesus. In his anger, he rang out, for answer, the war song of the Breton seamen, as if the wind could carry his words of defiance and death to Caesar where he stood on the bank:
Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn! As I was lying in my vessel I heard The sea-eagle calling, in the dead of night. He called his eaglets and all the birds of the shore. He said to them as he called: 'Arise ye, all—come—come. It is no longer the putrid flesh of the dog or sheep we must have— It is Roman flesh.'
"Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn! Old sea-raven, tell me, what have you there? The head of the Roman leader I clutch; I want his eyes—his two red eyes!' And you, sea-wolf, what have you there?
'The heart of the Roman leader I hold— I am devouring it.' And you, sea-serpent, what are you doing there, Coiled 'round that neck, your flat head so close To that mouth, already cold and blue? 'To hear the soul of the Roman leader Take its departure am I here!' Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn!"
Stirred up, like her husband, by the song of war, Meroe repeated with him, seeming to defy Caesar, whose tent they discerned in the distance:
"Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn!"
Still the bark of Albinik and Meroe played with the rocks and surges of those dangerous roads, sometimes drawing off shore, sometimes in.
"You are the best and most courageous pilot I have ever met with, I, who have in my life traveled so much on the sea," said Caesar to Albinik when he had regained dry land, and, with Meroe, had left the boat. "To-morrow, if the weather is fair, you will guide an expedition, the destination of which you will know at the moment of setting sail."
INTO THE SHALLOWS.
The following day, at sunrise, the wind being favorable and the sea smooth, the Roman galleys were to sail. Caesar wished to be present at the embarkment. He had Albinik brought to him. Beside the general was a soldier of great height and savage mien. A flexible armor, made of interwoven iron links, covered him from head to foot. He stood motionless, a statue of iron, one might say. In his hand he held a short, heavy, two-edged axe. Pointing out this man, the interpreter said to Albinik:
"You see that soldier. During the sail he will stick to you like your shadow. If through your fault or by treason, a single one of the galleys grates her keel, he has orders to kill you and your companion on the instant. If, on the contrary, you carry the fleet to harbor safely, the general will overwhelm you with gifts. You will then give the most happy mortals cause for envy."
"Caesar shall be satisfied," answered Albinik.
Followed by the soldier with the axe, he and Meroe went up into the galley Pretoria which was to lead the fleet. She was distinguished from the other ships by three gilded torches placed on the poop.
Each galley carried seventy rowers, ten sailors to handle the sails, fifty light-armed archers and slingers, and one hundred and fifty soldiers cased in iron from top to toe.
When the galleys had pulled out from shore, the praetor, military commandant of the fleet, told Albinik, through an interpreter, to steer for the lower part of the bay of Morbihan, in the neighborhood of the town of Vannes, where the Gallic army was assembled. Albinik with his hand at the tiller was to convey to the interpreter his orders to the master of the rowers. The latter beat time for the rowers, according to the pilot's orders, with an iron hammer with which he rapped on a gong of brass. As the speed of the Pretoria, whose lead the rest of the Roman fleet followed, needed quickening or slackening, he indicated it by quickening or slowing the strokes of the hammer.
The galleys, driven by a fair wind, sailed northward. As the interpreter had done before, so now the oldest sailors admired the bold manoeuvre and quick sight of the Gallic pilot. After a sail of some length, the fleet found itself near the southern point of the bay of Morbihan, and knew that now it was to enter into those channels, the most dangerous on all the coast of Brittany because of the great number of small islands, rocks and sand banks, and above all, because of the undercurrents, which ran with irresistible violence.
A little island situated in the mouth of the bay, which was still more constricted by two points of land, divided the inlet into two narrow lanes. Nothing in the surface of the sea, neither breakers nor foam nor change in the color of the waters gave token of the slightest difference between the two passes. Nevertheless, in one lay not a rock, while the other was strewn with danger. In the latter channel, after a hundred strokes of the oars, the ships in single file, led by the Pretoria, would have been dragged by a submarine current toward a reef of rocks which was visible in the distance, and over which the sea, calm everywhere else, broke tumultuously. The commanders of the several galleys could perceive their peril only one by one; each would be made aware of it only by the rapid drifting of the galley ahead of him. Then it would be too late. The violence of the current would drag and hurl vessel upon vessel. Whirling in the abyss, fouling the bottom, and crashing into one another, their timbers would part and they would sink into the watery depths with all on board, or else dash themselves on the rocky reef. A hundred more strokes of the oar, and the fleet would be annihilated in this channel of ruin.
The sea was so calm and beautiful that not one of the Romans had any suspicion of danger. The rowers accompanied with songs the measured fall of their oars. Of the soldiers some were cleaning their arms; some were stretched out in the bow asleep; others were playing at huckle-bones. A short distance from Albinik, who was still at the helm, a white haired veteran with battle-scarred face was seated on one of the benches in the poop, between his two sons, fine young archers of eighteen or twenty years. They were conversing with their father, each with one arm familiarly laid on a shoulder of the old warrior, whom they thus held tight in their embrace; all three seemed to be talking in pleasant confidence, and to love one another tenderly. In spite of the hatred he entertained for the Romans, Albinik could not help sighing with pity when he thought of the fate of these three soldiers, who did not imagine they were so near the jaws of death.
Just then one of those light boats used by the Irish seamen shot out from the bay of Morbihan by the safe channel. Albinik had, on his journeys, made frequent voyages to the coast of Ireland, an island that is inhabited by people of Gallic stock. They speak a language almost the same as that of the Gauls, yet difficult to understand for one who had not been as often on their coast as Albinik had.
The Irishman, either because he feared that he would be pursued and caught by one of the men-of-war which he saw approaching, and wished to avoid that danger by coming up to the fleet of his own accord, or else because he had useful information to give, steered straight toward the Pretoria. Albinik shuddered. Perhaps the interpreter would question the Irishman, and he might point out the danger which the fleet ran in taking one of the passages. Albinik therefore gave orders to bend to the oars, in order to get inside the channel of destruction before the Irishman could join the galleys. But after a few words exchanged between the military commandant and the interpreter, the latter ordered them to wait for the boat which was drawing near, so as to ask for tidings of the Gallic fleet. Albinik obeyed; he did not dare to oppose the commandant for fear of arousing suspicion. Before long the little Irish shallop was within hailing distance of the Pretoria. The interpreter, stepping forward, hailed the Irishman in Gallic:
"Where do you come from, and where are you bound to? Have you met any vessels at sea?"
At these questions the Irishman motioned that he did not understand. Then he began in his own half-Gallic tongue:
"I am coming to the fleet to give you news."
"What language does the man speak?" said the interpreter to Albinik. "I do not catch his meaning, although his language does not seem entirely strange."
"He speaks half Irish, half Gallic," answered Albinik. "I have often trafficked on the coasts of his country. I understand the tongue. The fellow says he has steered up to us to give us important news."
"Ask him what his news is."
"What information have you to give?" called Albinik to the Irishman.
"The Gallic vessels," answered he, "coming from various ports of Brittany, joined forces yesterday evening in the bay I have just left. They are in great number, well armed, well manned, and cleared for action. They have chosen their anchorage at the foot of the bay, near the harbor of Vannes. You will not be able to see them till after doubling the promontory of A'elkern."
"The Irishman carries us favorable tidings," cried Albinik to the interpreter. "The Gallic fleet is scattered on all sides; part of the ships are in the river Auray; the others, still more distant, towards the bay of Audiern, and Ouessant. At the foot of this bay, for the defense of Vannes, are but five or six poor merchantmen, barely armed in their haste."
"By Jupiter!" exclaimed the interpreter, "the gods, as always, are favorable to Caesar!"
The praetor and the officers, to whom the interpreter repeated the false news given by the pilot, seemed also overjoyed at the dispersion of the fleet of Gaul. Vannes was thus delivered into the hands of the Romans almost without defenses on the sea side.
Then Albinik said to the interpreter, indicating the soldier with the axe:
"Caesar has suspected me. The gods have been kind to allow me to prove the injustice of his suspicions. Do you see that islet, about a hundred oar-lengths ahead?"
"I see it."
"In order to enter the bay, we must take one of two passages, one to the right of the islet, the other to the left. The fate of the Roman fleet is in my hands. I could pilot you by one of these passages, which to the eye is exactly like the other, and an undercurrent would tow your galleys onto a sunken reef. Not one would escape."
"What say you?" exclaimed the interpreter. As for Meroe, she gazed at her husband in pained surprise, for, by his words, he seemed finally to have renounced his vengeance.
"I speak the truth," answered Albinik. "I'll prove it to you. That Irishman knows as well as I the dangers attendant upon entering the bay he has just left. I shall ask him to go before us, as pilot, and in advance I shall trace for you the route he will take. First he will take the channel to the right of the islet; then he will advance till he almost touches that point of land which you see furthest off; then he will make a wide turn to the right until he is just off those black rocks which tower over yonder; that pass behind us, those rocks shunned, we shall be safely in the bay. If the Irishman executes this manoeuvre from point to point, will you still suspect me?"
"No, by Jupiter!" answered the interpreter. "It would then be absurd to entertain the least doubt of your good faith."
"Judge me then," said Albinik, and he addressed a few words to the Irishman, who consented to pilot the ships. His manoeuvring tallied exactly with what Albinik had foretold. The latter, having given to the Romans this testimony of his truthfulness, deployed the fleet in three files, and for some time he guided them among the little islands with which the bay was dotted. Then he ordered the rowers to rest on their oars. From this place they could not see the Gallic fleet, anchored at the furthest part of the bay at almost two leagues' distance, and screened from all eyes by a lofty promontory.
"Now," said Albinik to the interpreter, "We now run only one danger; it is a great one. Before us are shifting sandbanks, occasionally displaced by the high tides; the galleys might ground there. It is necessary, then, that I reconnoitre the passage plummet in hand, before bringing the fleet into it. Let them rest as they are on their oars. Order the smallest boat your galley has to be launched, with two rowers. My wife will take the tiller. If you have any suspicion, you and the soldier with the axe may accompany us in the boat. Then, the passage reconnoitred, I shall return on board to pilot the fleet even to the mouth of the harbor of Vannes."
"I no longer suspect," answered the interpreter. "But according to Caesar's order, neither the soldier nor I may leave you a single instant."
"Let it be as you wish," assented Albinik.
A small boat was lowered from the galley. Two rowers descended into it, with the soldier and the interpreter; Albinik and Meroe embarked in their turn; and the boat drew away from the Roman fleet, which was disposed in a crescent, waiting on its oars, for the pilot's return. Meroe, seated at the helm, steered the boat according to the directions of her husband. He, kneeling and hanging over the prow, sounded the passage by means of a ponderous lead fastened to a long stout cord. Behind the little islet which the boat was then skirting stretched a long sand-bar which the tide, then ebbing, was beginning to uncover. Beyond the sand-bar were several rocks fringing the bank. Albinik was just about to heave the lead anew; while seeming to be examining on the cord the traces of the water's depth, he exchanged a rapid look with his wife, indicating with a glance the soldier and the interpreter. Meroe understood. The interpreter was seated near her on the poop; then came the two rowers on their bench; and at the farther end stood the man with the axe, behind Albinik, who was leaning at the bow, his lead in his hand. Rising suddenly he made of the plummet a terrible weapon. He imparted to it the rapid motion that a slinger imparts to his sling. The heavy lead attached to the cord struck the soldier's helmet so violently that the man sank to the bottom of the boat stunned with the blow. The interpreter rushed forward to the aid of his companion, but Meroe seized him by the hair and pulled him back; loosing his balance he toppled into the sea. One of the two rowers, who had raised his oar at Albinik, immediately rolled headlong overboard. The movement given to the rudder by Meroe made the boat approach so close to the rocky islet that she and her husband both leaped on it. Rapidly they climbed the steep rocks. There was now but one obstacle to their reaching shore. That was the sand-bar, one part of which, already uncovered by the sea, was in motion, as could be seen from the air bubbles which continually rose to the surface. To take that way to reach the rocks of the shore was to die in the abyss hidden under the treacherous surface. Already the couple heard, from the other side of the island, which hid them from view, the cries and threats of the soldier, who had recovered from his daze, and the voice of the interpreter, whom the rowers had doubtlessly pulled out of the water. Thoroughly familiar with these coasts, Albinik discovered, by the size of the gravel and the clearness of the water that covered it, that the sand-bar some paces off was firm. At that point, he and Meroe crossed, wading up to their waists. They reached the rocks on the shore, clambered up nimbly, and then stopped a moment to see if they were pursued.
The man with the axe, hampered by his heavy armor and being, no more than the interpreter, accustomed to move upon slippery rocks covered with seaweed, such as were those of the islet which they had to cross in order to reach the fugitives, arrived after many efforts opposite the quicksands, which were now left high and dry by the tide. Furious at the sight of Albinik and his companion, from whom he saw himself separated by only a narrow and level sand-bar, the soldier thought the passage easy, and dashed on. At the first step he sank in the quicksand up to his knees. He made a violent effort to clear himself but sank deeper yet, up to his waist. He called his companions to his aid, but hardly had he called when only his head was above the abyss. Then the head also disappeared. The soldier raised his hands to heaven as he sank. A moment later only one of his iron gauntlets was to be seen convulsively quivering above the sand. Presently nothing was to be seen—nothing except some bubbles of air on the surface of the quagmire.
The rowers and the interpreter, seized with fear, remained motionless, not daring to risk certain death in the capture of the fugitives. Feeling safe at last, Albinik addressed these words to the interpreter:
"Say thou to Caesar that I maimed myself to inspire him with confidence in the sincerity of my offers of service. My design was to conduct the Roman fleet to certain perdition, sacrificing my companion and myself. Accident changed my plan. Just as I was piloting you into the channel of destruction, whence not a galley would have come back, we met the Irishman who informed me that the Gallic ships, since yesterday assembled in great numbers and trimmed for fight, are anchored at the foot of the bay, two leagues off. Learning that, I changed my plan. I no longer wished to cast away the galleys. They will be annihilated just the same, but not by a snare or by treachery; it will come about in valorous combat, ship to ship, Gaul to Roman. Now, for the sake of the fight to-morrow, listen well to this: I have purposely led your galleys into the shallows, where in a few minutes they will be left high and dry on the sands. They will stay there grounded, for the tide is falling. To attempt to disembark is to commit suicide; you are surrounded on all sides by moving quicksands like the one in which your soldier and his axe have just been swallowed up. Remain on board of your ships. To-morrow they will be floated again by the rising tide. And to-morrow, battle—battle to the finish. The Gaul will have once more showed that NEVER DID BRETON COMMIT TREASON, and that if he glories in the death of his enemy, it is because he has killed his enemy fairly."
Then Albinik and Meroe, leaving the interpreter terrified by their words, turned in haste to the town of Vannes to give the alarm, and to warn the crews of the Gallic fleet to prepare for combat on the morrow.
On the way, Albinik's wife said to him:
"The heart of my beloved husband is more noble than mine. I wished to see the Roman fleet destroyed by the sea-rocks. My husband wishes to destroy it by the valor of the Gauls. May I forever be proud that I am wife to such a man!"
THE EVE OF BATTLE.
It was the eve of the battle of Vannes; the battle of Vannes which, waged on land and sea, was to decide the fate of Brittany, and, consequently, of all Gaul, whether for liberty or enslavement. On this memorable evening, in the presence of all the members of our family united in the Gallic camp, except my brother Albinik, who had joined the Gallic fleet in the bay of Morbihan, my father Joel, the brenn of the tribe of Karnak, addressed me, his eldest born, Guilhern the laborer, who now writes this account. He said to me:
"To-morrow, my son, is the day of battle. We shall fight hard. I am old—you are young. The angel of death will doubtless carry me hence first; perhaps to-morrow I shall meet in the other life my sainted daughter Hena. Here, now, is what I ask of you, in the face of the misfortunes which menace our country, for to-morrow the fortunes of war may go with the Romans. My desire is that as long as our stock shall last, the love of old Gaul and sacred memories of our fathers shall be ever kept fresh in our family. If our children should remain free men, the love of country, the reverence for the memory of their ancestors, will all the more endear their liberty to them. If they must live and die slaves, these holy memories will remind them, from generation to generation, that there was a time when, faithful to their gods, valiant in war, independent and happy, masters of the soil which they had won from nature by severe toil, careless of death, whose secret they held, the Gallic race lived, feared by the whole world, yet withal hospitable to peoples who extended to them a friendly hand. These memories, kept alive from age to age, will make slavery more horrible to our children, and some day give them the strength to overthrow it. In order that these memories may be thus transmitted from century to century, you must promise by Hesus, my son, to be faithful to our old Gallic custom. You must tenderly guard this collection of relics which I am going to entrust you with; you must add to it; you must make your son Sylvest swear to increase it in his turn, so that the children of your grandchildren may imitate their fore-fathers, and may themselves be imitated by their posterity. Here is the collection. The first roll contains the story of all that has chanced to our family up to the anniversary of my dear Hena's birthday, that day which also saw her die. This other roll I received this evening about sunset from my son Albinik the mariner. It contains the story of his journey across the burnt territory, to the camp of Caesar. This account throws honor on the courage of the Gaul, it throws honor on your brother and his wife, faithful as they were, almost excessively so, to that maxim of our fathers: 'Never did Breton commit treason.' These writings I confide to you. You will return them to me after to-morrow's conflict if I survive. If not, do you preserve them, or in lack of you, your brothers. Do you inscribe the principal events of your life and your family's; hand the account over to your son, that he may do as you, and thus on, forever—generation after generation. Do you swear to me, by Hesus, to respect my wishes?"
I, Guilhern the laborer, answered: "I swear to my father Joel, the brenn of the tribe of Karnak, that I will faithfully carry out his desires."
The orders then given to me by my father, I have carried out to-day, long after the battle of Vannes, and after innumerable misfortunes. I make the recital or these misfortunes for you, my son Sylvest. It is not with blood that I should write this narrative. No blood would run dry. I write with tears of rage, hatred and anguish,—their source never runs dry!
After my poor and well-beloved brother Albinik piloted the Roman fleet into the bay of Morbihan, the following was the course of events on the day of the battle of Vannes. It all took place under my own eyes—I saw it all. Were I to have lived all the days I am to live in the next world and into all infinity, yet will the remembrance of that frightful day, and of the days; that followed it, be ever vivid before me, as vivid as it is now, as it was, and as it ever will be.
Joel my father, Margarid my mother, Henory my wife, my two children Sylvest and Syomara, as well as my brother Mikael the armorer, his wife Martha, and their children, to mention only our nearest relatives, had, like all the rest of our tribe, gathered in the Gallic camp. Our war chariots, covered with cloth, had served us for tents until the day of the battle at Vannes. During the night, the council, called together by the Chief of the Hundred Valleys, and Tallyessin, the oldest of the druids, had met. Several mountaineers of Ares, mounted on their tireless little horses, were sent out in the evening to scout the area of the conflagration. At dawn they hastened back to report that at six leagues' distance from Vannes they saw the fires of the Roman army, encamped that night in the midst of the ruins of the town of Morh'ek. The Chief of the Hundred Valleys concluded that Caesar, to escape from the circle of devastation and famine that was drawing in closer and closer upon his army, had left the wasted country behind him by forced marches, and intended to offer battle to the Gauls. The council resolved to advance to meet Caesar, and to await him on the heights which overlooked the river Elrik. At break of day, after the druids had invoked the blessings of the gods, our tribe took up its march for its post in the battle.
Joel, mounted on his high-mettled stallion Tom-Bras, commanded the Mahrek-Ha-Droad, of which myself and my brother Mikael were members, I as a horseman, Mikael as a foot-soldier. According to the custom of the army, it was our duty to fight side by side, I on horse-back, he afoot, and mutually support each other. The war chariots, armed with scythes at the hubs, were placed in the center of the army, with the reserve. In one of them were my mother and wife, the wife of Mikael, and our children. Some young lads, lightly armed, surrounded the chariots and were with difficulty holding back the great war-dogs, which, after the example of Deber-Trud, the man-eater, were howling and tugging at their leashes, already scenting battle and blood. Among the young men of the tribe who were in the array, were two who had taken the bond of friendship, like Julyan and Armel. Moreover, to make it more certain that they would share the same fate, a stout iron chain was riveted to their collars of brass, and fastened them together. The chain as the symbol of their pledge of solidarity held them inseparable, scathless, wounded, or dead.
On the way to our post in the battle, we beheld the Chief of the Hundred Valleys passing at the head of the Trimarkisia. He rode a superb black horse, in scarlet housings; his armor was of steel; his helmet of plated copper, which shone like the sun, was capped by the emblem of Gaul, a gilded cock with half spread wings. At either side of the Chief rode a bard and a druid, clad in long white robes striped with purple. They carried no arms, but when the troops closed in to battle, then, disdainful of danger, they stood in the front ranks of the combatants, encouraging these with their words and their songs of war. Thus chanted the bard at the moment when the Chief of the Hundred Valleys passed by Joel's column:
"Caesar has come against us. In a loud voice he asks: 'Do you want to be slaves? Are ye ready?'
"No, we do not want to be slaves. No, we are not ready. Gauls! Children of the same race, Let us raise our standards on the mountains and pour down upon the plains. March on! March on against Caesar, Joining in the same slaughter him and his army! To the Romans! To the Romans!"
As the bard sang this song, every heart beat with the ardor of battle.
As the Chief of the Hundred Valleys passed the troop at the head of which was my father Joel, he reined in his horse and cried:
"Friend Joel, when I was your guest, you asked my name. I answered that I was called Soldier so long as our old Gaul should be under the oppressor's scourge. The hour has come when we must show ourselves faithful to the motto of our fathers: 'In all war, there is but one of two outcomes for the man of courage: to conquer or to die.' O, that my love for our common country be not barren! O, that Hesus keep our arms! Perhaps then the Chief of the Hundred Valleys will have washed off the stain which covers a name he no longer dares to bear. Courage, friend Joel, the sons of your tribe are brave of the brave. What blows will they not deal on this day which makes for the welfare of Gaul!"
"My tribe will strike its best, and with all its might," answered my father. "We have not forgotten that song of the bards who accompanied you, when the first war-cry burst from them in the forest of Karnak: 'Strike the Roman hard—strike for the head—still harder—strike!—The Romans, strike!'"
With one voice the whole tribe of Joel took up the cry:
"Strike!—The Romans, strike!"
THE BATTLE OF VANNES.
The Chief of the Hundred Valleys took his departure, in order to address a few words of exhortation to each tribe. Before proceeding to our post of battle, far from the war chariots which held our wives, daughters and children, my father, brother and myself wished to make sure by a last look that nothing was lacking for the defense of that car which held our dear ones. My mother, Margarid, as calm as when she held the distaff in the corner of her own fireplace, was leaning against the oak panel which formed the body of the chariot. She had set Henory and Martha to work, giving more play to the straps which, fastened to pegs driven in the edge of the chariot, secured the handles of the scythes, which were used for defense in the same manner as oars fastened to the gunwhale of a boat.
Several young girls and women of our kindred were occupied with other cares. Some were preparing behind the chariots, with thick skins stretched on cords, a retreat where the children would be under cover from the arrows and stones thrown by the slingers and archers of the enemy. Already the children were laughing and frolicking with joyous cries around the half finished den. As an additional protection, my mother Margarid, watchful in everything, had some sacks filled with grain placed in front of the hut. Other young girls were placing, along the interior walls of the car, knives, swords and axes, to be used in case of need, and weighing no more on their strong white arms than did the distaff. Two of their companions, kneeling near my mother, were opening chests of linen, and preparing oil, balm, salt and witch-hazel, to dress the wounds, following the example of the druidesses, near whom the car was stationed.
At our approach the children ran gaily from the depths of their retreat into the fore-part of the wagon, whence they stretched out their little hands to us. Mikael, being on foot, took in his arms his son and his daughter, while Henory, to spare me the trouble of dismounting from my horse, reached out, one at a time, my little Syomara and Sylvest into my arms. I seated them both before me on the saddle, and at the moment of starting for the fight, I had the pleasure of kissing their yellow heads. My father, Joel, then said to my mother:
"Margarid, if fortune turns against us, and the car is attacked by the Romans, do not free the dogs until the moment of attack. The brave animals will be only the more furious for their long wait, and will not then stray away from where you are."
"Your advice will be followed, Joel," answered my mother. "Look and see if these straps give the scythes enough play."
"Yes, they are free enough," answered my father, looking at some of the straps. Then, examining the array of scythes which defended the other side of the chariot, he broke out:
"Wife, wife! What were those girls thinking of! Look here! Oh, the rattle heads! On this side the scythe-blades are turned towards the shaft of the chariot, and over there they are pointed backwards!"
"It was I who had the weapons placed so," said she.
"And why are not all the blades turned the same way, Margarid?"
"Because a car is almost always attacked before and behind at once. In that case the two rows of scythes, placed in opposite directions, are the best defense. My mother taught me that, and I am showing the method to these dear girls."
"Your mother saw further than I, Margarid. A good harvest time is thus made certain. Let the Romans come and assault the car! Heads and limbs will fall, mown down like ripe ears at the reaping! Let Hesus make it a good one, this human harvest!"
Then, listening intently, my father said to Mikael and myself:
"Sons, I hear the cymbals of the bards and the clarions of the Trimarkisia. Let us rejoin our friends. Well, Margarid, well, my daughters,—till we meet again, here—or above!"
"Here or above, our fathers and husbands will find us pure and unstained," answered Henory, more proud, more beautiful than ever.
"Victorious or dead you will see us again," added Madalen, a young maiden of sixteen. "But enslaved or dishonored, no. By the glorious blood of our Hena—— no—— never!"
"No!" said Martha, the wife of Mikael, pressing to her bosom her two children, whom their father had just replaced in the chariot.
"These dear girls are of our race—rest easy, Joel," continued my mother, even now calm and grave. "They will do their duty."
"Even as we will do ours. And thus will Gaul be delivered," answered my father. "You also will do your duty, old man-eater, old Deber-Trud!" added the brenn, stroking the enormous head of the war-dog, who in spite of his chain, was standing up with his paws on the horse's shoulder. "Soon will come the hour of the quarry, fine bloody quarry, Deber-Trud! Her! Her! To the Romans!"
The mastiff and the rest of the war pack responded to these words with furious bayings. The brenn, my brother and myself cast one last look upon our families. My father turned his spirited stallion's head towards the ranks of the army, and speedily came up with them. I followed my father, while Mikael, robust and agile, holding tightly with his left hand to the long mane of my galloping horse, ran along beside me. Sometimes falling in with the sway of the horse, Mikael leaped with it, and was thus raised off the ground for several steps. We two, like many others of our tribe, had in time of peace familiarized ourselves with the manly military exercise of the Mahrek-Ha-Droad. Thus the brenn, my brother and myself rejoined our tribe and took our stand in the ranks of battle.
The Gallic army occupied the summit of a hill about one league's distance from Vannes. To the east their line of battle was covered by the forest of Merek, which was filled with their best archers. To the west they were defended by the lofty cliffs which rose from the bay of Morbihan. At the lower end of the bay was the fleet, already weighing anchor to proceed to the attack of the Roman galleys, which, motionless as a flock of sea-swans, lay at rest on the waves. No longer piloted by Albinik, the fleet of Caesar, although floated by the rising tide, still held its position of the previous evening, for fear of running upon the invisible rocks.
Before the army flowed the River Roswallan. The Romans would have to ford it in order to attack us. Skillfully had the Chief of the Hundred Valleys chosen his position. He had before him a river; behind him the town of Vannes; on the west the sea; on the east the forest of Merek: its border chopped down, offered insurmountable obstacles to the Roman cavalry; and with an eye to the Roman infantry, the best of Gaul's archers were scattered among the mighty trees.