E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE LION'S BROOD
Author of "The Spell of Ashtaroth," "The Secret of the Crater"
[Frontispiece: Here and there a Gaul would bound forward . . . to throw himself prone beneath the vermilion hoofs.]
New York Doubleday Page & Company 1904 Copyright, 1901, by Doubleday, Page & Co.
To the Memory of
BRILLIANT WRITER, TRUE-HEARTED GENTLEMAN,
STANCH AND LOYAL FRIEND
I. NEWS II. WORDS III. PARTING IV. FABIUS V. TEMPTATION VI. DISOBEDIENCE VII. PUNISHMENT VIII. DISGRACE IX. HOME X. CONVALESCENCE XI. POLITICS XII. BRAWLINGS XIII. THE RED FLAG XIV. CANNAE XV. "WITHIN THE RAILS"
I. THE QUEEN OF THE WAYS II. THE GATE III. PACUVIUS CALAVIUS IV. THE HOUSE OF THE NINII CELERES V. THE BANQUET VI. ALLIES VII. "FREEDOM" VIII. DIPLOMACY IX. THE BAIT X. MELKARTH XI. THE SLAVE XII. FLIGHT XIII. WINTER QUARTERS
THE LION'S BROOD.
Centuries come and go; but the plot of the drama is unchanged, and the same characters play the same parts. Only the actors cast for them are new.
It is much worn,—this denarius,—and the lines are softened and blurred,—as of right they should be, when you think that more than two thousand years have passed since it felt the die. It is lying before me now on my table, and my eyes rest dreamily on its helmeted head of Pallas Nicephora. There, behind her, is the mint-mark and that word of ancient power and glory, "Roma." Below are letters so worn and indistinct that I must bend close to read them: "—M. SERGI," and then others that I cannot trace.
Perhaps I have dozed a bit, for I must have turned the coin, unthinking, and now I see the reverse: a horseman, in full panoply, galloping, with naked sword brandished in his left hand, from which depends a severed head tight-clutched by long, flowing hair.
The clouds hang low over the city, as I peer from my tower window,—driving, ever driving, from the east, and changing, ever changing, their fantastic shapes. Now they are the waving hands and gowns of a closely packed multitude surging with human passions; now they are the headlong rout of a flying army upon which press hordes of riders, dark, fierce, and barbarous—horses with tumultuous manes, and hands with brandished darts. Surely it is a sleepy, workless day! It will be vain to drive my pen across the pages.
I do not see the cloud forms now—not with my eyes, for they have closed themselves perforce; but my brain is awake, and I know that the eyes of Pallas Nicephora see them, and grow brighter as if gazing on well-remembered scenes.
Why not? How many thousand clinkings of coin against coin in purse and pouch, how many hundred impacts of hands that long since are dust, have served to dim your once clear relief!
Surely, Pallas, you have looked upon all this and much more. Shall I see aught with your eyes, lady of my Sergian denarius? Shall I see, if, with you before me, I look fixedly at the legions of clouds that cross my window an hour—two—three—even until the night closes in?
Grant but a grain of this, O Goddess, and lo! I vow to thee a troop of pipe-players upon the Ides of June.
"A troop of pipe-players to Minerva on the Ides of June, if we win!"
"And my household to Mars, if we have lost!"
The speakers were hurrying along the street that leads down from the Palatine Hill toward the Forum, and both were young. Their high shoes fastened with quadruple thongs and adorned with small silver crescents proclaimed their patrician rank.
"Why do you vow as if the gods had already passed judgment, Lucius?"
"Because, my Caius, I am very sure that a battle has been fought. What else do these rumours mean that are flying through the city? rumours that none can trace to a source. It is only a few minutes, since my freedman, Atius, told me how the slaves report that our neighbour Marcus Sabrius rode in last night through the Ratumenian Gate; and when I sent to his house to inquire, the doorkeeper feigned ignorance. That is only one of a hundred tales. Note the crowd thickening around us as we approach the Forum, and how all are pressing in the same direction. Study their faces, and doubt what I say if you can."
"But is it victory or defeat?"
"Answer me your own question, Caius. Is 'victory' or 'defeat' the word that men do not dare to utter?"
The face of Caius became grave. Then suddenly he burst out with:—
"You are right. I see it all now, even as you speak; and what hope had we from the first? Who was the demagogue Flaminius that he should command our army, going forth without the auspices—a consul that was no consul at all in the sight of the gods! Then, too, there were the warnings that poured in from all the country: the ships in the sky, the crow alighting on the couch in the Temple of Juno, the stones rained in Picinum—"
"Foolish stories, my Caius; the dreams of ignorant rustics," replied Lucius, smiling faintly. "Besides, you remember they were all expiated—"
"And who knows that they were expiated truly!" croaked an old woman from a booth by the road. "Who does not know that, as Varro says, your patrician magistrates would rather lose a battle than that a plebeian consul should triumph! Varbo, the butcher, dreamed last night that his son's blood was drenching his bed, and when he awoke, it was water from the roof; and Arates, the Greek soothsayer, says that Varbo's son has been slain in the water, and his blood—"
But the young patricians, who had halted a moment at the interruption, now hurried on with an expression of contempt on their faces.
"That is what Flaminius stands for," resumed Lucius after a moment of silence. "How can we look for success when such men are raised to the command, merely because they are such men; and when a Fabius and a Claudius are set aside because their fathers' fathers led the armies of the Republic to victory in the days when this rabble were the slaves they should still be."
The friends had turned into the Sacred Way. A moment later they arrived at the Forum lined with its rows of booths nestled away beneath massive porticoes of peperino, and with its columned temples standing like divine sentinels about or sweeping away up the rugged slope of the Capitoline to where the great fane of Jupiter Capitolinus shed its protecting glory over the destinies of Rome.
Below, the broad expanse of Forum and Comitia was thronged with a surging crowd—patricians and plebeians,—elbowing and pushing one another in mad efforts to get closer to the Rostra and to a small group of magistrates, who, with grave faces, were clustered at the foot of its steps. These latter spoke to each other in whispers, but such a babel of sounds swelled up around them that they might safely have screamed without fear of being overheard.
The booths were emptied of their cooks and butchers and silversmiths. Waving arms and the flutter of robes emphasized the discussions going on on every side. Here a rumour-monger was telling his tale to a gaping cluster of pallid faces; there a plebeian pot-house orator was arraigning the upper classes to a circle of lowering brows and clenched fists, while the sneering face of some passing patrician told of a disdain beyond words, as he gathered his toga closer to avoid the contamination of the rabble.
One sentiment, however, seemed to prevail over all, and, beside it, curiosity, party rancour, wrath, and contempt were as nothing. It was anxiety sharpened even into dread that brooded everywhere and controlled all other passions, while itself threatening at every moment to sweep away the barriers and to loose the warm southern blood of the citizens into a seething flood of furious riot or headlong panic.
The two young men had descended into this maelstrom of popular excitement, and were making such headway as they could toward the central point of interest. Now and again they passed friends who either looked straight into their faces, without a sign of recognition, or else burst out into floods of information,—prayers for news or vouchsafings of it,—news, good or bad, true or false. Perhaps three-fourths of the distance had been covered at the expense of torn togas and bruised sides, when a sudden commotion in front showed that something was happening. The next moment the hard, stern face of Marcus Pomponius Matho, the praetor peregrinus, rose above the crowd, and then the broad purple band upon his toga, as he mounted the steps of the Rostra.
It seemed hours—almost days—that he stood there, grave and silent, looking down into the sea of upturned faces, while the roar of the multitude died away into a gentle murmur, and then into a silence so oppressive that each man seemed to be holding his breath. Once the magistrate's lips moved, but no words came from them, and strange noises, as of the clenching of teeth and sharp, quick breathing, rose all about. Then a voice came from his mouth, the very calmness of which seemed terrible:—
"Quirites, we have been beaten in a great battle. Our army is destroyed, and Caius Flaminius, the consul, is killed."
For a moment there was stillness deeper almost than before, as if the leadlike words were sinking slowly but steadily along passage and nerve down to the central seats of consciousness; then burst forth a sound as of a single groan—the groan of Jupiter himself in mortal anguish; and then the noise of women weeping, the shrieking treble of age, and the rumbling murmur of curses and execrations,—against senate and nobles, against the rabble and their dead leader, but, above all, against Carthage and her terrible captain.
"Who are these men that slay consuls and destroy armies?" piped the shrill voice of an aged cripple who had struggled up from where he sat upon the steps of Castor, and was shaking the stump of a wrist toward the north.
"Are they not the men who surrendered Sicily that we might let them escape from us at Eryx? Did they not give up their ships, and pay us tribute, and scurry out of Sardinia that Rome might spare them? I—I who am talking to you have seen their armies: naked barbarians from the deserts, naked barbarians from the woods—not one well-armed man in five—a rabble with a score of languages, to whom no general can talk. They to destroy the army of Rome—in her own land!—what crime have we committed that the gods should deal with us thus?"
"But the great beasts that tear up the ranks?" put in a young butcher, one of the circle that had been drawn together about the veteran.
"How did his elephants save Pyrrhus—and then we saw them for the first time?" retorted the cripple.
"You forget, that was before Rome had become the prey of demagogues; before she had Flaminii for consuls."
All turned toward the new speaker—the young patrician whom his companion had called Lucius. He was a man perhaps twenty-five years of age, of middle height, sparely built but as if of tempered steel, with strong, commanding features and dark hawklike eyes that were now glittering with passion. It was not a handsome face except so far as strength and pride make masculine beauty, but it was the face of one whom a man might trust and a woman love.
The butcher was on the point of returning an angry retort, half to hide his awe of the other's rank, when a friend caught him by the arm.
"Do you not see it is Lucius Sergius Fidenas?" he whispered.
The result of the warning was still doubtful, when a sudden commotion in the crowd about them drew the attention of all to a short, thick-set man of middle age, in the light panoply of a mounted legionary. Cries went up from all about:—
"It is Marcus Decius." "He is from the army." "Tell us! what news?"
For answer the newcomer turned from one to the other of his questioners, with a dazed expression on his pale, drawn face.
"What shall I say, neighbours?" he muttered at last. "My horse fell just out there on the Flaminian road, and I came here on foot. I have eaten nothing for a day."
But they paid no attention to his wants, thronging around with almost threatening gestures and crying:—
"What news? What news—not of yourself—of the army?—of the battle?"
"There was no battle, and there is no army," said the man, dully.
Sergius forced his way to the front and threw one arm about the soldier. Then, turning to the crowd:—
"Stand back!" he cried, "and give him air. Do you not see the fellow is fainting?"
"No battle—and yet no army," repeated Decius, in a murmurous monotone, when, for a moment, there were silence and space around him. "We marched by the Lake Trasimenus, and the fog lay thick upon us. Then came a noise of shouts and clash of arms and shrieks, but we saw nothing—only sometimes a great, white, naked body swinging a huge sword, and again a black man buried in his horse's mane that waved about him as he rushed by—only these things and our own men falling—falling without ever a chance to strike or to see whence we were stricken."
The crowd shuddered.
"And the elephants?"
"I did not see them. They say they are all dead."
"And the consul?"
"I do not know."
Just then the cripple from the steps was pushed forward.
"Flaminius is dead. He died fighting, as a Roman consul should. But you? What are you, to let the pulse-eaters at him. You should have seen how we dealt with them off the Aegusian Islands."
"Or at Drepana?" sneered the horseman, roused from his lethargy by the other's taunt.
"That was what a patrician consul brought us to," muttered the cripple, glancing at Sergius. "Do you know what the Claudian did? When the sacred chickens would not eat, he cried out, 'Then they shall drink,' and ordered them thrown overboard. How could soldiers win when an impious commander had first challenged the gods?"
"And what about Flaminius ordering our standards to be dug up when they could not be drawn from the earth?" retorted the other.
"Did he do that?" asked several, and for a moment the feeling that had been with the cripple, and against the victim of this latest disaster, seemed divided.
Sergius perceived only too clearly that, in the present temper of men's minds, the faintest spark could light fires of riot and murder that might leave but a heap of ashes and corpses for the Carthaginian to gain. Taking advantage of the momentary lull, he said in conciliatory tones:—
"Flaminius neglected the auspices, and disaster came upon us for his impiety, but it appears that he died like a brave soldier, and he is a whip-knave who strikes at such. As for this man, he needs succour and care. Stand aside, then, that I may take him where his wants may be ministered to. There will soon be plenty of fugitives to fill your ears with tales."
"Not many, master, not many," murmured Decius, as the young man forced a way for them through the crowd. "Some are taken, but most lie in the defile of Trasimenus or under the waters of the Lake."
Sergius hurried on, thinking of Varbo the butcher's dream, and of Arates the Greek soothsayer's interpretation.
Three days had passed since the awful news from the shore of Lake Trasimenus had plunged Rome into horror and despair. Every hour had brought in stragglers: horse, foot, fugitives from the country-side, each bearing his tale of slaughter. Crowds gathered at the gates, swarming about every newcomer, vociferous for his story, and then cursing and threatening the teller because it was what they knew it must be.
In the atrium of Titus Manlius Torquatus, on the brow of the Palatine, overlooking the New Way, was gathered a company of three: the aged master of the house, a type of the Roman of better days, and a worthy descendant of that Torquatus who had won the name; his son Caius, the youth who had been with Sergius in the Forum; and Lucius Sergius himself. All were silent and serious.
The elder Torquatus sat by a square fountain ornamented with bronze dolphins, that lay in the middle of the mosaic paving of the apartment. The walls were painted half yellow, half red, after the manner of Magna Grascia, while around them were ranged the statues of the Manlian nobles. The roof was supported in the Tuscan fashion by four beams crossing each other at right angles, and including between them the open space above the fountain.
It was the old man who spoke first.
"Do not think, my Lucius, but that I see the justice of your prayer, or that I wish otherwise than that Marcia should wind wool about your doorposts. Still there is much to be said for delay. Surely these days are not auspicious ones for marriages, and surely better will come. You have my pledge, as had my dead friend Marcus Marcius in the matter of her name. Do you think it was nothing for me to call a daughter other than Manlia—and for a plebeian house at that? Yet she is Marcia. Doubt not that I will keep this word as well."
"Aye, but, father," persisted Sergius, "is it not something that she should be mine to protect in time of peril?"
"And who so able to protect as Lucius," put in Caius, with an admiring glance, for Caius Torquatus was six years younger than his friend, and admired him with all the devotion of a younger man.
"Has it come that our house cannot protect its women?" cried the elder Torquatus. "What more shameful than that our daughter should be carried thus across a Sergian threshold—going like a slave to her master!" He spoke proudly and sternly. Then, turning to Sergius, he went on more gently: "Were you to remain in the city, my son, there might be more force in what you claim; but you will go out with one of the new legions that they will doubtless raise, and you will believe an old man who says that it is not well for a soldier in the field to have a young wife at home."
Sergius flushed and was silent, lest his answer should savour of pride or disrespect toward an elder.
Suddenly they became conscious of a commotion in the street. Shrill cries were borne to their ears, and, a moment later, blows fell upon the outer door, followed by the grinding noise as it turned upon its pivots. A freedman burst into the atrium.
Titus Torquatus rose from his seat, and half raised his staff as if to punish the unceremonious intrusion. Then he noted the excitement under which the man seemed to be labouring, and stood stern and silent to learn what news could warrant such a breach of decorum.
"It is Maharbal, they say—" and the speaker's voice came almost in gasps—"Maharbal and the Numidians—"
"Not at the gates!" cried both young men, springing to their feet; but the other shook his head and went on:—
"No, not that—not yet, but he has cut up four thousand cavalry in Umbria with Caius Centenius. The consul had sent them from Gaul—"
"Be silent!" commanded the elder Torquatus. "Surely I hear the public crier in the street. Is he not summoning the Senate? Velo," he said, turning to the freedman; "you are pardoned for your intrusion. Go, now, and bear orders from me to arm my household, and that my clients and freedmen wait upon me in the morning. It is possible that the Republic may call for every man; and though I fear Titus Manlius Torquatus cannot strike the blows he struck in Sicily, yet even his sword might avail to pierce light armour; and he is happy in that he can give those to the State whose muscles shall suffice to drive the point through heavy buckler and breastplate."
"Shall it be permitted that I attend you to the Senate House?" asked Caius.
His father inclined his head, and, donning the togas which slaves had brought, they hurried into the street, hardly noting that Sergius had reseated himself and was gazing absently down into the water, counting the ripples that spread from where each threadlike stream fell from its dolphin-mouth source.
He did not know how long he had sat thus, nor was he, perhaps, altogether conscious of his motive in failing to pay the aged senator the honour of accompanying him, at least so far as the gates of the Temple of Concord. Sounds came to his ears from the apartments above: the trampling of feet and bustle of preparation that told of Velo's delivery of his patron's commands. Then a woman's laugh rang through the passage that led back to the garden of the peristyle.
Sergius rose and turned, just as a girl sprang out into the atrium, looking back with a laughing challenge to some one who seemed to pursue her, but who hesitated to issue from the protecting darkness.
"What do you fear, Minutia," she cried. "My father and Caius have gone, and there is no one—oh!"
Suddenly she became conscious of Sergius' presence, and her olive cheeks flushed to a rich crimson. Then she faced him with an air of pretty defiance and went on:—
"No one here but Lucius Sergius Fidenas, who should have business elsewhere."
Sergius said nothing, but continued to stand with eyes fixed thoughtfully upon her face.
Her figure was tall, slender, and very graceful, her hair and eyes were dark, and her features delicate and perfectly moulded. Over all was now an expression of hoydenish mirth that bespoke the complete forgetfulness of serious things that only comes to young girls. His attentive silence seemed at last to disturb her. An annoyed look drove the smile from her lips, and, with an almost imperceptible side motion of her small head, she went on:—
"Surely Lucius Sergius Fidenas has not allowed my father to go to the Senate House with only Caius to attend him! Lucius respects my father too much for that—and too disinterestedly. It is an even more serious omission than his failure to attend the consul at Trasimenus—"
Sergius' eyes blazed at the taunt, and, struggling with the answer that rose to his lips, he said nothing for fear he might say too much.
The girl watched him closely. Her mirth returned a little at the sight of his confusion, and, with her mirth, came something of mercy.
"Oh, to be sure, his wound. I almost forgot that. Tell me, my brave Lucius, did the Gauls bite hard when they caught you in the woods and drove you and my brave uncle to Tanes? How funny for naked Gauls to ambush Roman legionaries and chase them home! Father has not spoken to Uncle Cneus since. He says it was his duty to have remained on the field, and I suppose he thinks it was yours, too, instead of running away like a fox to be shut up in his hole."
Sergius had recovered his composure now, but his brow was clouded.
"You are as cruel as ever, Marcia," he said. "And yet I know you have heard that it was the men of my maniple who carried me away, senseless from the blow of a dead man."
"Oh, you did kill him. I remember now," she resumed, with some display of interest. "You had run him through, had you not? and he just let his big sword drop on your head. I got Caius to show me about it, and I was the Gaul. Caius did not stab me, but I let the stick fall pretty hard, and Caius had a sore head for two days. I meant it for you, because you are trying to make an old woman of me when I am hardly a girl."
"Marcia—" began Lucius; but she raised her hand warningly and went on:—
"Do you want me to tell you why my father will not let you marry me now? There are two reasons. One because I don't want him to, and another because he thinks you must do something great to wipe out the stain of a Roman centurion's even being carried away before the Gauls."
"That will be an easy task, judging by the news we receive each day. I wish I felt as certain of the safety of the Republic as I am that my honour shall be satisfactorily vindicated."
He spoke bitterly, but she went on without taking note of his meaning.
"These are auspicious words, my Lucius. You will regain your honour; father will once more receive you into his favour, and, by that time, I shall doubtless be old enough to marry,—perhaps too old,—but, no, I must not wait so long as that. Perhaps I shall have married some one else by the time you are worthy of my favour."
"More probably I shall have ceased to care for the favour of living men and women."
"Truly? And you think you will have to die? Perhaps you will be a Decius Mus, and stand on the javelin and wear the Cincture Gabinus; and then I shall mourn for you and hang so many garlands on your tomb that all the shades of your friends will be mad with jealousy—"
"Marcia, is it possible for you to be serious?"
He was pale with suppressed passion, and, as he spoke, he stepped forward and laid his hand upon her wrist.
She sprang back and half raised a light staff she carried, while her face flushed crimson.
"I will be more serious than will please you," she said, "if you please me as little as you do now. Learn, I am not your wife that you should seek to restrain me, and it is quite possible that I never shall be."
"You speak truly," he said; "it is quite possible that no woman shall be a new mother to the house of Fidenas—that our name shall die in me. So be it; and may the gods only avert the evils that threaten the Republic, nor look upon one of the race of the Trojan Segestes as an unworthy offering."
Bending his head in respectful salutation, he turned toward the entrance hall.
Marcia stood silent beside the fountain, and her face clouded with thought. The sound of her lover's footsteps grew fainter and fainter. She started forward as if to follow him. Then she stopped and listened. The noise of the street had drowned their echoes; the door had creaked twice on its pivots. He was gone. Then she called, "Lucius!" but there was no answer. Her eyes drooped with a little frown of regret, but in a moment she turned away laughing.
"Never mind. He cannot do anything very desperate yet, and I will treat him better next time—perhaps."
The ensuing days were pregnant with rumour and action. The waves of terror and despair that lashed over the city, as blow after blow fell, had now receded. The white banner, that was always lowered at the approach of an enemy, still spread its undulating folds above Janiculum; the crops and fruit trees and vines smiled upon the hillsides; the flocks and herds browsed peacefully along the Campagna with never a Numidian pillager to disturb their serenity; and, amid all, there was no rumour of allied gates opened to receive the invader, no welcome from the Italians whom he had striven to conciliate. Courage returned, and with courage firmness, and with firmness confidence to endure and dare and do, so long as invaders presumed to set foot upon the heritage of Rome.
How far this new confidence was born of the news that the Carthaginian was turning aside to the west, through Umbria and Picenum, how far by the rumour that Spoletum had closed her gates and repulsed his vanguard, or how far by wrath at the tales of ravage and the numberless murders of Roman citizens that marked his line of march, it would be difficult to apportion.
However these, the city was now seething with energetic preparation. The Senate sat daily and into each night. No word of peace was uttered—all was war and revenge. Quintus Fabius Maximus was elected pro-dictator by a vote of the Comitia—not dictator, because that could only be done through appointment by the surviving consul, then absent in Gaul—or none knew where. By the same power, and in order to appease the commons irritated by criticisms of Flaminius, Marcus Minutius Rufus was elected master of the horse. Nor were the gods neglected. Their stimulating influence was invoked by the dictator to inspire the people with confidence, while he soothed them with the intimation that Flaminius had failed rather through overcourage and neglect of divine things than through mere plebeian temerity and ignorance. Fabius took care to impress it upon all that he himself would take full warning from the lesson. He moved that the Sibylline books should be consulted, and the Senate promptly acted upon the motion. These directed that a holy spring be proclaimed forthwith; that every animal fit for sacrifice, and born between the Kalends of March and May throughout all Italy, should be offered to Jupiter. Votive games were decided upon, couches were set by the judges, whereon the twelve gods should feast in splendour, temples were vowed, to Venus Erycina by the dictator himself, to Mens by Titus Otacilius, the praetor.
But with all, and, as Fabius put it, that the immortal gods should not be overburdened with the petty affairs of mortals, every care that human prudence and warcraft could suggest was taken. Walls and towers were strengthened, and bridges were broken down; the inhabitants of open towns were driven into places of security, and their houses and crops destroyed. Amid all, the rumour came that Servilius was hastening back from Gaul; then, that he was close at hand, and, finally, Fabius set out to meet him, sending orders in advance that the consul should come without lictors, so that the dignity of the dictatorship might stand high before the people. And when Servilius had come, in all respects as commanded, then he, the consul, after first delivering up his legions which he had left at Ariminum, was ordered to Ostia and the fleet to keep watch and ward over the Italian coast and to protect the corn ships. So all the armies of the Republic went to the pro-dictator, together with authority to raise such more as he should consider needful; two new legions in the place of those dead on the shores of Trasimenus, and some thousands of poorer citizens from the tribes, to man the quinqueremes of Servilius and the walls of Rome.
Amid these days of bustle and preparation, Sergius had found little difficulty in keeping his footsteps from Marcia's threshold. After the first grief of the conviction that she did not love him, pride came to his rescue. Should he, the head of the noblest house of the noble Sergian gens, should he abase himself and submit to scornful words even from a daughter of Torquatus? or, yet, should he, as a man, desire to bear the torch before an unwilling bride? These were simple questions, and there was but one word that could answer them; so Sergius struggled to put Marcia from his heart, until he flattered himself that the difficult task had at last been accomplished.
During this internal struggle, there came, also, to help him, word that he had been named as one of the military tribunes in the new Fourth Legion, and, his wound being now almost well, he threw himself headlong into the work of the levy and of exercising his men, striving to bring them to such a degree of efficiency as might win honour for himself and advantage to the Republic. Now and again twinges of the old heart-pain would rack him, but he obstinately attributed all depression and melancholy to the inferior quality, both physically and socially, of many of the new levies, and to his misgivings as to the account they would render of themselves when confronted by the veterans of Hannibal.
At last the day of marching arrived, and with it the greatest struggle of all. Suddenly a suspicion awoke within him, whispering that the task he had set for himself was but poorly done; that the image of Marcia still smiled unbanished above the altar of his heart; and, with all his pride and strength, this suspicion of his weakness was, oddly enough, a source of positive exultation. Caius had been with him through much of his work, for Caius served in the same legion. It was evident, however, that the young man had received strict orders on one subject; for, in all their talks, the name of Marcia never passed his lips. This was unlike Caius, who was thought by many to be given to overmuch speaking, and, for that reason, it irritated Sergius the more, who would sooner have cut away his hand than questioned his friend concerning his sister. Thus the two men, illogically but humanly enough, continued to grow apart, until, with never a thought but of friendliness, their intercourse became limited, through sheer embarrassment, to the commonplaces of fellow-soldiers who held light acquaintance with each other's names and faces.
As the hour drew near, the city bubbled with excitement, and the altars of the gods reeked with unnumbered victims. Especially invoked were Castor, Fortune, Liberty, and Hope, but, above all, the mighty trinity of the Capitol. Lest the pang of so great a parting with men who were about to encounter such grave dangers might sap the courage of those remaining, and thence that of the new levies, the dictator had wisely decreed that the army should assemble at Tibur. So it happened that there was none to go now save himself and a small escort of cavalry, five turmae, at the head of which was Sergius. With these went Rome's last hope: the cast behind which lay only ruin, but for the averting favour of the gods.
At midday the fasces would be carried forth, and it lacked but an hour of the time. Sergius had prepared everything; his men were ready to mount at the blast of the trumpet, and his household was set in order against the absence of its master. He was standing within the Viminal Gate, while an attendant held his horse close by and a little apart from the crowds of weeping women who surrounded the soldiers of the dictator's escort. Suddenly he felt some one pluck him by the cloak, and turned quickly to see a young woman in the single tunic of a slave. Her dress, however, was of finer texture than that worn by most of her class, and seemed to bespeak a rich mistress and especial favour. She stood with her finger to her lips, her eyes great with the importance of her mission.
"My mistress, the Lady Marcia, orders that you come and bid her farewell," she whispered hurriedly.
Then she darted away among the crowd, before the young tribune could make answer to an invitation so oddly worded.
His first impulse was to show the Lady Marcia that he was not to be dismissed and sent for—much less ordered back at the caprice of a girl. His next was to humour the whim of a child, and his third was to obey humbly and thankfully, without a thought but of Marcia's beauty and his own good fortune.
A word to his slave and another to his horse, whereat the former loosed the bridle, and the latter knelt for his master. Then came a wild gallop across the crest of the Viminal Hill, through the ill-omened street where the wicked Tullia had driven over her father's corpse, into the Forum, and out up the New Way to the house of Torquatus.
Throwing his rein to the porter, Sergius entered the court of the atrium, vacant and resounding to the hurried tread of his cothurni. Pausing for a moment and hesitating to penetrate farther into the house, he became aware that the porter had followed him. Like most of his class, he was a man considerably past middle life, and thus considered suited to the comparative ease and responsibility of his position. With a freedom and garrulity born of long service, he began:—
"It was a word I was commanded to deliver to the most noble Sergius, and I doubt not it would have been well and truly delivered, but for his springing from his horse so quickly and rushing past me. It is possible that I might have come to him sooner had he not left me to take care of the animal, and it needed time to summon the groom, whose duty such work is. Therefore—"
"By Hercules, man, give me the message! Do you think I can listen all day to your gabbling?" cried the soldier, furious with impatience.
A faint laugh seemed to come from somewhere beyond the hallway.
"I was about to say, most noble lord," pursued the porter, hardly ruffled by the outburst; "and I trust you will pardon me if I dallied over-much; but—"
Sergius raised his hand. Then, thinking better of the blow, he seized the man by the throat.
"Perhaps I can shake the words out like dice from a box. Now for the Venus cast!" he cried, suiting the action to the speech.
"Are you making trial of your strength that you may break more readily into Carthaginian houses? Remember it is soldiers with whom you are to contend."
Sergius turned quickly, to see Marcia herself standing at the entrance to the hall. In her eyes, on her lips, was malicious laughter; but a little red spot on either cheek seemed to tell of some stronger feeling behind. He had released the porter so quickly that the latter staggered back almost into the fountain, and Marcia smiled.
"I think I have been taking a great deal of trouble for the sake of a very discourteous person," she said. "I sent Minutia to tell a certain soldier that I am willing to bid him farewell, despite his unworthiness, and he comes and nearly strangles poor old Rhetus for trying to say that I was awaiting him in the peristyle."
"Rhetus' attempt was not very successful, and my time was short," said Sergius, growing alternately red and pale.
"And so you thought to hasten his speech by closing his throat? Oh! you are a wise man—a very logical man. They should have made you dictator, so that you could save Italy by surrendering Rome."
"Is it to say such things that you sent for me?" asked Sergius, after a pause during which he struggled against embarrassment and wrath.
"Surely not, for how could I know that you were going to behave so outrageously? If you will follow me, we will go into the peristyle."
She turned back through the passage, and Sergius followed, issuing a moment later into a large, cloister-like court, open in the middle, and decorated with flowers and shrubs. Four rows of columns, half plain, half fluted, supported the shed roof that protected the frescoes. These covered three of the walls. On the back was a garden scene so painted as to seem like a continuation of the court itself into the far distance; on the right was the combat between Aeneas and Turnus, and on the left a representation of the first Torquatus despoiling the slain Gaul of the trophy from which the family took its name.
"And now I will tell you why I sent."
She had seated herself in a marble chair with wolf heads carved on the arms, and her face had grown grave and thoughtful.
"It was to tell you a dream—a dream of you that I had last night."
Her cheek flushed, and Sergius' eyes sparkled.
"You dreamt of me?" he said in a low voice. He half raised his arms and came nearer; but she held up one hand in the old imperious manner.
"If you please, I have not sent for you that you should grow presumptuous, because I was unmaidenly enough to dream of so badly behaved a person as yourself. It—it was because it—I thought you should know, so that the omen might be expiated."
Sergius had halted and was standing still. His lip curled slightly.
"I dreamt," she went on, after a short pause, "that there was a wide plain with mountains about it and a river running through; and it was all heaped up with dead men—thousands upon thousands—stripped of arms and clothing, and the air was gray with vultures, and the wolves and foxes were calling to each other back among the hills. And I was very sad and walked daintily so that my sandals and gown might not be splashed with the blood that curdled in pools all about. Suddenly I came to a heap of slain whereon you were lying, with a long javelin through your body. So I screamed and awoke—"
"Surely, then, you felt sorrow," cried Sergius, who had followed the narrative with deep interest, but who seemed to consider nothing of it save the concern she had shown at his death.
"I—I," she began; and then, as if angry with herself at the betrayal of feeling and of her embarrassment, she burst out; "I did not send, foolish one, that you should consider me. Look rather to yourself."
But Sergius was full of the joy of his own thoughts.
"That I shall do, my Marcia, by setting my mind upon things that are better than myself—the Republic—you—"
"Ah, but the omen?"
"I shall put it aside together with the other: that you have called me back from the march; and I shall consider both well expiated by the knowledge that I am not as nothing to you."
Her face grew pale, and she half rose from the chair.
"Truly, I did not think about calling you back. It is terrible—all this—and it is my doing—"
"Then, if you wish, I shall lay it up against you," cried he, gayly, "unless you promise to be Caia in my house—"
"You are unfair to press me now and by such means."
"But it must be now," exclaimed the young man, springing forward and trying to catch her in his arms. "Do you not see I must leave you at once? Shall it be without a promise?"
The blush had turned again to little anger spots, as she evaded him.
"Very well," she said slowly. "I will be Caia where thou art Caius—"
Sergius' face shone with exultation, and his lips parted.
"I will be Caia," she resumed, "upon the day when Orcus sends back the dead from Acheron."
His expression of joy faded, and indignation took its place. Surely this was carrying light speech too far—and at such a time. Suddenly he realized that the dictator might already have ridden on, and disgrace have fallen upon a Sergius at the very beginning of the campaign.
"So be it! I accept that omen—with the others," he cried sternly, and, turning, strode out through the atrium, bounded upon his horse, and dashed headlong down the street, before Marcia was fairly aware that he had gone from her presence.
Sergius rode back to his men, deeply wounded in love and pride. He tried to excuse Marcia for her treatment of him, on the score of her youth and of youth's thoughtlessness; he blamed himself for his abruptness and his lack of knowledge of women—failings that had perhaps turned an impending victory into the defeat that now oppressed him. Worst of all, there was no hope to remedy his or her fault. A dangerous campaign lay before him, and the omens—but pshaw! he was not one of the rabble, to tremble at a flight of birds from the west or an ox with a bad liver. He had always admired the spirit of that old sceptic, Claudius, who had drowned the chickens off Drepana, though he admitted the faulty judgment in failing to realize the effect of such a defiance upon ignorant seamen and marines: the hierarchy was necessary for the State; if only to keep fools in order, but for a man of family and education—well, he smiled. It provoked him, amid all his disbelief, that he could not help preferring that those same omens had been more favourable. Pride, pride was his last and truest safeguard. He, a descendant of the companion of Aeneas, to fear the Carthaginian sword! he, a Roman noble, about to face death for his country, to waste his thoughts upon a silly girl who chose to flout him!
Then the long clarions of the cavalry rang out, and the horsemen ran to their steeds. Down the slope of the Viminal rode the dictator: before him went the twenty-four axes, each in its bundle of staves, their bearers robed in military cloaks of purple cloth; behind came a small troop of illustrious Romans—his legati, his staff, nominated by him and sanctioned by the Senate for their fame and skill in war; also such senators as had elected, by way of personal compliment, to ride with the general and to partake as volunteers in whatever share of the war he might set for them.
Quintus Fabius Maximus seemed a man just passing the prime of life. His figure, as he sat his horse, was squat rather than tall, though this appearance might be due, in a measure, to the great breadth of his shoulders; altogether his frame seemed one better adapted to feats of strength and endurance than for those of agility. The face, with its grizzled hair and beard, both cut short, suited well the figure that bore it. Dignity, firmness, and kindliness were in its strong and rugged outlines, with less, perhaps, of the pride of race and rank than might have been looked for in the head of the great family whose name he bore—he who was now twice dictator of the destinies of Rome. For dress, his purple cloak, similar to those of his lictors, hung loosely from his shoulders to below his knees, and, opening in front, disclosed a corselet of leather overlaid with metal across chest and abdomen, and embossed with bronze designs of ancient pattern and workmanship. The hem of the white tunic showed below the leathern pendants that hung a foot down from his girdle; the greaves were ornamented at the knees with lions' heads; an armour-bearer carried his master's bronze helmet with its crest of divergent red plumes.
Such was the man upon whom Rome now depended for her saving—"for victory," dreamed such of the unthinking as had recovered from their terror; "for time, time, time," reasoned the man with the deep-set, gray eyes upon whom they had pinned their faith.
Hardly a stride behind him rode Marcus Minucius Rufus, tall and well-built, with bold, coarse features and fierce, roving eyes. His red hair bristled from his brow, and he seemed to restrain with difficulty either his steed or himself from darting forward into the lead.
"Yonder is the sword of the Republic," said one of Sergius' men, as the master-of-the-horse rode by the escort; but the man to whom he said it—an old soldier of the Spanish wars—only shrugged his shoulders. A moment later he grunted in reply:—
"Like enough; but it is a shield that the Republic needs most of all."
Then the clarion summoned them to fall in behind the dictator's company, and the troop rode out from the gate—out into the broad plain—away from the protecting walls fluctuant with waving stoles, and from which tear-dimmed eyes strove to follow them among the villas, farms, and orchards of the country-side—away from the Forum, from the sacred fig tree and the black stone of Romulus—away from the divine triad that kept guard over the Capitol. Beyond lay the Alban Mountains, and, beyond these,—no one knew where,—the strange dangers that awaited them: fierce Spaniards with slender blades as red as the crimson borders of their white coats; wild Numidian riders that always fell upon the rear of Rome's battle; serried phalanges of Africans, veterans of fifty wars; naked Gauls with swords that lopped off a limb at every stroke; Balearic slingers whose bullets spattered one's brains over the ground; Cretans whose arrows could dent an aes at a hundred yards; and above all, over all, the great mind, the unswerving, unrelenting purpose that had blended all these elements into one terrible engine of destruction to move and smite and burn and ravage at the touch of a man's will.
The cavalry rode two and two, thinking of such things; picked men, equipped in the new Greek fashion with breastplate, stout buckler, and strong spear pointed at both ends. What thoughts held the mind of the general, none could fathom. With head slightly inclined he seemed to study, now the ribbons woven in his horse's mane, now the small, sensitive ears that pricked backward and forward, as the Tiburtine Way flowed sluggishly beneath. As for Minucius, he alone seemed hopeful and unimpressed by the dangers that menaced. He glided here and there, reining his horse beside this senator or that lieutenant to utter a word of the safety assured to Rome and of the ruin that hung over the invader, or even calling back to the foremost of the escort some rough badinage upon their gloomy looks; for Minucius was a man of the people, scorning patrician pride of race, and wishing it known that, however high his rank, he held himself no whit better than any potter of the Aventine or weaver of the Suburra.
So, riding, thinking, talking, they reached Tibur, where the new levies lay encamped.
Thence began the march of the army—a long, weary march to strike the line of the Carthaginian devastators; and, as it rolled onward, the stream of war gathered volume. At Daunia they were joined by the legions of Servilius that had marched down from Ariminum; and, at every point, contingents of the allies poured in, until even the most timid began to believe it impossible that disaster could befall, and grew first confident, then defiant, then boastful.
To the mind of the dictator himself, however, came no such change. He alone knew the danger, he alone knew the value of the force with which he must meet it—soldiers in whose minds, despite all their present spirit, lingered the tradition of defeat; raw levies not yet truly confident of their officers or themselves, however much the sight of their numbers and their brave show might blind them to the fact that there was another side to the war.
And now rumours began to reach them of the enemy. He was at Praetutia, at Hadriana, at Marrucina, at Frentana! He had set out toward Iapygia! he had reached Luceria! and everywhere the country was a garden before him and a desert behind. Only one gleam of light shone through the darkness,—the Apulians submitted to ravage, but they refused to save their lands by joining fortunes with the invaders.
At last came the day of trial. "The enemy was at hand." Scouts poured in with news of foraging parties, of masses of troops on the march; and at Aecae the dictator ordered the camp to be pitched and fortified in the order that Roman discipline prescribed, with rampart and ditch and stakes—a city in embryo.
Now it was that the boasters must stand by their boasts.
Scarcely had the morning broke, when the distant mist of the plain seemed to sparkle with myriads of glittering points—seemed to thicken and become dense with clouds of dust. Mingled noises came to the ears of the waking legions,—the neighing of horses, the inarticulate murmur of a multitude, the dull rumble of marching men, the ring of arms and accoutrements.
Then came the order from the praetorium,—not to advance the standards, but to man the rampart and to repel. Such was not the custom of Rome—to refuse battle amid the ravaged lands of her allies. Had the heart of the dictator grown cold? Forthwith the pale cheeks of the boasters flushed again; lips that had been compressed, before the terrors they had so rashly invoked, parted in wonder and complaint; the mist rose, and the sun pierced through the settling dust. There stood the enemy, drawn up in order of battle across the plain, and waiting; too far away for the Romans to make out their form or equipment—just a long, dense array that seemed dark or light in spots. Now and again a trumpet rang out its distant note of defiance; now and again some portion of the line seemed to manoeuvre or change front, as if to tempt attack, while from time to time a flurry of horsemen—dark-skinned riders, bending low upon the necks of wiry little steeds and urging them with shrill, barbarous cries—swept almost up to the ditch, and brandished their darts, making obscene gestures and shouting words that brought the blood to the faces of the garrison, though they understood not the tongue that uttered them.
A circle of officers surrounded the dictator's tent. Some were silent and shamefaced; some were vociferous of their desire to be allowed to go forth and fight, or, at least, to lead out the cavalry to chastise the insolence of slaves and barbarians; all were wondering and dissatisfied. Few, however, ventured to express their full thoughts. There was a something in the very mildness of the general that discouraged too direct criticism. Only Minucius, presuming, perhaps on his position of second in command, perhaps on his contempt for the great houses, sought the dictator's presence and spoke as if half to him, half to the company of officers. Even his first words but thinly veiled his feelings.
"The enemy await us in line of battle, my master, but I do not see the red flag above your tent. Is it your will that the standards be advanced?"
"No, Marcus, it is not my will, or the signal would have been displayed," said Fabius, calmly.
"The troops are eager to be led out; the enemy insult us up to the very ditch. Italy is wasted," went on Minucius; but, as if slightly cowed by the deep, gray eyes, his tone seemed less aggressive.
Fabius paused a moment, before answering, and glanced around upon the lowering faces of legates and tribunes. Then he said:—
"It is proper, Quirites, that I should say something to you of my plans. Our men are new—untried. Those that have seen service have seen defeat. The enemy are flushed with victory, full of confidence in themselves and their general, well seasoned in battle. Has the Republic a new army if this be lost? But happily there is another side to the picture. We are in our own lands. Our supplies are inexhaustible; we receive; they must take. We shall wear them out in skirmishes, cut off their foragers—men whom they cannot replace, while we replace our losses daily and season ourselves in battle and grow to see that even Carthaginians are not immortal."
There was a moment of silence. Then Minucius spoke again.
"And, while we pursue this prudent policy, what becomes of the spirit of our men who see that their general dares not face the enemy? What becomes of the allies who see their fields wasted and cities burned, while Rome lies silent in her camps and offers no succour?"
Fabius' brow clouded, but he spoke even more mildly than before.
"There is much of truth in what you say Marcus; but I am convinced that there is less danger in such risks than in tempting the fate of Flaminius; and there are many compensations, together with certain victory in the end."
And then the master-of-the-horse lost control of his temper; his voice rose, and he cried out:—
"You are general and you command, but you shall hear me when I say that I had rather have perished bravely with a Flaminius than live to conquer in such cowardly fashion with a Fabius."
A murmur of half-uttered applause ran around the circle, but Fabius did not seem to hear it. He eyed his lieutenant calmly for an instant. Then he said:—
"You speak truth, Marcus, when you say that I am general;" and, turning his back upon Minucius, he passed through the line of officers, as they fell aside to give him way, and proceeded slowly toward the praetorian gate.
Here, among the soldiers, discontent with the dictator's policy was as strong as it had been in the praetorium, while its expression was less governed by the amenities of rank. Roman discipline, however severe as to the acts of the legionary, put very few restrictions upon his speech; and the general, as he watched from the rampart the lines and movements of the enemy, heard many comments no less uncomplimentary than those of his master-of-the-horse, and couched in language almost as coarse as that of the Numidians themselves. It seemed as if the foul words of the barbarians were passed on thus to the man held responsible for Romans being compelled to listen to such insults.
Curiously enough, the centurions and under officers appeared to be the only ones not hostile to Fabius' policy. These were silent or even made some efforts to restrain the ribaldry of their men.
As for the general himself, no one could have appeared less conscious of the storm his orders had provoked. His eyes were still fixed upon the distant array, and when, as the sun almost touched the meridian, Lucius Sergius approached with despatches just arrived from Rome, he was compelled to speak twice before the other was aware of his presence. Then the dictator turned quickly, and, pointing to the Carthaginians, exclaimed:—
"See! they are withdrawing. Do you not note how thin the centre grows? Ah! I shall teach them new lessons of war—new lessons. They will find in me no Flaminius, to let my enemy choose the day and field of battle."
Leaving the ramparts, they walked back toward the praetorium, Fabius breaking the seals and reading the letters as he walked. When they reached the tent, he stood still for a moment and seemed to study the face of the young tribune who had followed, a half pace behind, to receive any answer or order that might be forthcoming.
"What is your opinion of my refusing battle?" he asked suddenly, after a short silence.
Sergius turned crimson, but he answered quickly:—
"I have learned to trust in my general until such time as I know him to be unworthy of trust."
"Some of your colleagues appear to have already arrived at the latter conclusion," he said. Then, after a pause, he went on: "After all, it is the judgment of the centurions that counts for most. Our legates and tribunes feel disgraced by our refusing a challenge; they may be sneered at for that, but who would blame them for the defeat that might follow its acceptance. The common soldier knows only his rage against the enemy, sees his comrades about him furious for battle, and comprehends nothing of its dangers. It is the centurions, our veterans, who realize the truth: the worth of their own men as measured against those of the enemy; nor are they puffed up with foolish pride of rank. You observe, sir, that the centurions are with me."
"Now mark well what will happen," pursued Fabius. "Hannibal will retreat to his camp; he will break camp and march off during the night. He must have forage, and he cannot scatter his forces while I am near. He will escape, and I shall let him, rather than risk the army in a night battle; but I shall hang close as the father-wolf to the stag's haunch, keeping nevertheless to the high ground, where his cavalry cannot trouble me. There will be need of good horsemen who shall cling yet closer and advise me of his movements."
Sergius' eyes flashed with eagerness, but he said nothing.
"You will attend to this service," continued Fabius, not seeming to regard the young officer's exultation. "Take the other five turmae of your legion—not those of the escort. You must have light cavalry to cope with the Numidians, and your Greek horsemen are too heavily equipped. Assemble your men, watch the enemy, follow him when he marches tonight, cut off his stragglers, and send such words to me as you consider necessary. This shall be your reward for trusting greater things to your general."
Turning, he entered the tent, before the tribune could express his thanks.
Deeply impressed by the favour and confidence of the dictator, Sergius hurried away to his quarters, and, sending for Marcus Decius, the decurion who had told the news of Trasimenus to the crowd of the Forum, he directed him to see that the horses were fed and the men in readiness for a night march. Then he resigned himself to sleep and dreams of a certain pictured peristyle on the Palatine Hill,—a peristyle wherein a maid sat spinning by a fountain and thinking—of what? Perhaps of him—for he was only dreaming, and maidens do not always think as men dream.
The night was already far spent, and the Roman camp slept on, secure in all its grim array; silent, but for the tread of the patrols, as they paced the streets and exchanged the watchword, post with post, or but for the clang of sword upon greave, or shield against cuirass, as some sentry at gate, rampart or praetorium shifted his arms in weary waiting for the day.
Far up in the heavens the moon shone silvery and serene, while here and there upon the plain below swaying points of light seemed to move, flicker, go out, and rekindle again. No Roman watcher but knew well that play of moonlight upon the heads of the reedlike spears with which the ancient cavalry of the legion were equipped—weapons which, together with their ox-hide bucklers, were being gradually superseded by the heavier Greek accoutrements. Yes, and had not the word passed from the guard at the praetorian gate, how a tribune and five turmae of the fourth legion had ridden out on the service of the dictator?
Earlier in the night, those who listened closely had heard a low hum that seemed to pervade the air, rising and falling like the dull glow in the west that told of the fluctuant watch-fires of the hostile camp. Now the noises had died away, as in the distance, and the light that had flashed up a few hours since hardly tinted the clouds. It is only the old soldier who can read the signs of a decamping foe, who knows how the fagots must be heaped at the moment of departure, so that the deserted fires may burn until the morning, whose quick ear catches and recognizes the indefinite noises of a host moving in secret. All these things were, and old campaigners among the legionaries at the gate had read them aright. Messenger after messenger hurried to the praetorium, and returned with word that the dictator slept, "having taken all needed measures," and how the master-of-the-horse paced up and down before his tent, grinding his teeth, clenching his hands, and muttering curses upon patrician cowardice and imbecility.
Meanwhile, Lucius Sergius rode on through the night, with Marcus Decius at his side, and the troop of horse trailing out across the plain behind them.
"It is silent, master," said the decurion, but his attitude, as he leaned forward over his horse's neck, was rather of one trying to smell than to listen. "The pulse-eaters sleep deeply." He watched Sergius from under half-closed lids, waiting to be contradicted, that he might measure his officer's warcraft.
Sergius smiled. "Perhaps they are even wider awake than ourselves," he said, drawing rein. Then, as the other nodded several times in satisfied acquiescence, he brought his horse to his haunches a stride beyond, and added: "It was the dictator who said we should find their lair empty, and, though I do not question his judgment, it will be well to send on a few who shall spy out the fact, and see whether there be not Numidians lurking among the huts."
So, slowly and cautiously, they pushed forward again, with riders in advance, until a shout gave notice that the way was indeed clear, and they rode through the open gate of the rampart and along the silent street of the deserted camp.
Nothing was about them save dismantled huts, for the most part mere burrows with roofs of interlaced boughs that were now smoking amid the ashes of the fires. Not a sign of disorder, nor even of the rapidity with which so great an army had been moved; not a scale of armour left behind—only the insufferable stench of a barbarian camp, of offal and refuse piled or scattered about, of dead beasts and of dead men—the sick and wounded who had yielded to sword or disease during the last few days.
It was with a sense of relief that the cavalcade emerged from the shadows of the huts and began to mount the rising ground beyond. The moon, too, had grown faint, and the gray mists of the morning were lying along the lower levels. Sounds, mingled and far ahead, told of the presence of a marching host, and Sergius led his troop on a more oblique course to gain the flank of the foe and lessen the chances of detection and ambuscade.
It was not stirring work for a soldier—the days that followed; never attacking, always guarding against discovery and surprise, viewing slaughter and devastation that duty and weakness alike made him powerless to prevent or punish, sending courier after courier to his general to tell of the enemies' march or of stragglers and foragers to be crushed in the jaws of the army that enveloped the invader's rear. Thus the war passed through Apulia, over the Apennines, down into the old Samnite lands, past Beneventum that closed its gates and mourned over its devastated fields, on across the Volturnus, descending at last into the Falernian plain, the glory of Campania, the Paradise of Italian wealth and luxury.
During all these days Sergius had grown thinner and browner. Little furrows had been ploughed between the eyes that must pierce every ridge and thicket for the glint of javelins and the wild faces of the bridleless riders of the desert. From time to time news of devastators cut to pieces brought a fierce joy to his heart; from time to time he dreamt he saw the eagles of the Republic hovering upon the heights above, ready to stoop and strike and save the allied lands from trials greater than they could bear; but of Marcia, scarce a waking thought. Surely the man he now was had never reclined in peaceful halls where women plied the distaff and talked about love, and of how Rabuleius, the perfume-maker of the Suburra, had just received a new essence from Arabia! That old life was all a dream, perhaps the memory of a former existence, as the sage of Croton had taught. There was nothing real in the world, in these days, but fear and suffering and humiliation and revenge. Even duty had become a mere habit that should minister to greater influences.
And now it was worst of all. Campania was a conflagration from which rose supplications and shrieks and groans, mingled with curses against the cowardly ally that had left her to her fate. Still the legions held to the high ground, and still the black pest of Numidia swept hither and thither on its errand of murder and rapine. Even to Sergius the plans of the dictator began to seem but "coined lead," as Marcus Decius roughly put it. Of what avail was it that the pass at Tarracina was blocked, that he had garrisoned Casilinum in the enemies' rear and Cales upon the Latin Way, and that the sea and the Volturnus and the steep hills with their guarded passes seemed to complete the line of circumvallation? Could such bonds hold one so wise as Hannibal from the rich cities of the plain? Unless Rome would advance her standards, were not Sinuessa and Cumae, Puteoli and Neapolis, Nuceria and Teanum, and, above all, Capua, left to fight their own battle against barbarian insolence and barbarian power? What hope to starve out an enemy established in such a region and amid such affluence!
Then, too, there was less work now for Sergius, even such as it was. The enemy, wheresoever he marched, was well in view from a dozen points held by the dictator, and at last word came to the tribune that he should join the camp near Casilinum. There, at least, he would have companionship in shame, instead of seeming to command men and being unwilling to lead them to fight for lands which the gods themselves had deemed worthy of their contention.
They were near Cales when the orders were brought. Could it be the dictator's intention to give battle and avenge what he had failed to save? By midday they were mounted and threading the forest paths that led to their comrades—paths whence, from time to time, some vista in the woods disclosed the plain below, with here and there a column of smoke that made Sergius grind his teeth and clench his hands in impotent rage. Suddenly he drew rein, for a man, dressed in the coarse, gray tunic of a slave, had half run, half stumbled across his way. An instant more, and the fellow was struggling in the grasp of Decius, who had sprung to the ground.
"What now, forkbearer! what now, delight of the scourges!" cried the decurion. "Will you delay the march of a tribune of the Republic?"
"Pity me, master, pity me and let me go!" cried the man, still striving vainly to escape. "Surely they are close behind me—"
"Who are behind you?" asked Sergius, sternly. "Speak and lie not, food for Acheron!"
"They who are burning the farm."
Sergius' eyes glittered, and he leaned forward to catch the words, as he began to gather their import.
"Speak quickly, and you shall be safe," he said, in more reassuring tones. "Whose farm is it that is burning? Loose him, Marcus."
Released from the hands that held him, the fugitive seemed to waver for a moment between speech and flight. Perhaps exhaustion turned the balance, for, still panting for breath, he threw himself on his knees before Sergius' bridle and gasped:—
"My master's farm—a veteran of the first war—a centurion—the Numidians."
"Where is it? How many are there?"
The man pointed down the slope up which he had scrambled.
"I did not note their numbers, lord. Perhaps a hundred—perhaps more."
As he spoke, the sky began to brighten as with fire, and Sergius, wheeling his horse, urged him downward toward the plain. Decius was by his side in an instant, and behind them came the cavalry at a speed that threatened to hurl them headlong to the foot of the rocky declivity. Joy and fury shone on the faces of the men: only Marcus Decius seemed troubled and abstracted.
"We shall be with them soon, my Marcus," cried Sergius, gayly, and then, noting the furrowed face of his first decurion: "Surely, Trasimenus has not cooled your heart. Take courage. There is no water here to chill you."
Decius flushed through the deep bronze of his skin.
"It is true that there is no water here, and blows might warm my blood. It was the command of the dictator that I thought of."
They had reached the level plain now. A cluster of burning buildings hardly a mile ahead marked their goal.
"And it is you, Marcus, who have been railing at those same commands?"
"I am an old soldier, my master. I growl, but I obey."
For answer, Sergius urged on his horse with knee and thong. Now they could distinguish dark shapes gliding hither and thither around the fires, and now they burst in upon a scene as of the orgies of demons.
Utterly unsuspicious of danger, the marauders had taken no precautions. Their wiry, little horses had been turned loose about the gardens, while the riders murdered and pillaged and ravished and destroyed. The worst was over now. Little remained of the buildings, save clay walls covered with plaster; dead bodies were scattered here and there; the women and such of the slaves as had not been slaughtered, together with the farm stock and other things of value, were gathered beyond the reach of the fires; while, bound high upon a rude cross before his own threshold, the master of the farm writhed amid flames that shot upward to lick his hands and face.
Then, in an instant, the scene was changed: the Roman horsemen burst in, and, frenzied by the spectacle before them, slew madly and fast. Hither and thither they swept, wherever the dusky figures sought to fly, and the thin, reed-like lances rose and plunged and rose again, shivering and dripping, from the bodies of their victims. But for their well-trained steeds, who came and knelt at their masters' calls, not one of the desert horsemen could have escaped, and, as it was, a mere dozen broke out from the carnage and scurried away, with the avengers in close and relentless pursuit. Marcus Decius paused a moment before the cross and studied the torn frame and blackened skin of the man who hung there. Then, with a swift movement of his lance, he transfixed the quivering body, and, hardly catching the "Jove bless thee, comrade," and the sigh with which life escaped, he dashed on after the pursuing squadrons.
That the chase was doomed to be a vain one seemed apparent. Once mounted and urging on their steeds with the shrill, barbaric cries of the desert, Hannibal's light horsemen were safe from all ordinary pursuit. One after another of the Romans drew up his panting animal, and scarce half of their turmae pounded on.
Suddenly they saw the flying Numidians throw their horses upon their haunches. A moment of indecision followed, and then, while several darted off obliquely, the remainder, seven or eight in all, swung around and charged straight at the legionaries. At their head rode a giant, black as ebony save where gouts of red had splashed him with the hue of terror. His frizzly hair was caught up high and ornamented with a cluster of ostrich feathers, while with his right hand he drew javelin after javelin from the sheaf he carried in his left, and launched them with unerring aim at his former pursuers. Three had flown on their errands, two had brought down a soldier each, and the third quivered in the throat of Sergius' horse. Then, as the animal reared and went over, carrying his rider with him, the assailant burst through the line, and in a moment had gained the open plain beyond. Once more he was safe, safe but for one short, thick-set rider,—Marcus Decius, first decurion of the first turma, hastening to overtake his troop.
Escape from such a pursuer was child's play for the Numidian; but the fury of fight was on him, and, gnashing his white teeth, from which the thick, black lips seemed to writhe away, he bent low amid his horse's mane and, with an inarticulate cry, urged him straight at the veteran. His javelins had all been expended in breaking through the Roman line, and a short, heavy dagger was his only weapon. Nothing daunted, he came on, evaded like a flash the thrust of Decius' spear, and hurled himself upon him. It was the small buckler of the Roman that saved his life; the dagger passed through the ox-hide, slightly gashing his arm, and, before the barbarian could withdraw it, the impact of the horses in full career had sent both men and animals to the plain in a floundering heap. Again the Numidian was quicker, and, gaining his feet, he sprang, weaponless as he was, upon the decurion still struggling to untangle himself from his fallen horse. The buckler, with the African's knife thrust through it, had rolled away, and the possession of Decius' sword, which hung in its sheath upon his right thigh, became the object of the struggle. Perhaps the strength of the men was not very unequal; but the Roman, hardly free from his mount, was undermost and wounded, so that the result seemed hardly doubtful. The Numidian's charger had risen to its feet, and stood, with out-stretched neck, whinnying softly, as if sharing in the excitement of the contest. Then the trampling of hoofs sounded in the ears of the straining combatants. Decius felt his adversary make a convulsive effort as if to free himself, and then a gush of something warm came into the Roman's face, and his foe sank down upon him, limp and helpless. With a last effort of his spent strength, he pushed the twitching body aside, and, staggering to his feet, saw Sergius standing beside him, with a dripping sword in his hand, and the bridle of Titus Icilius', the flag-bearer's, horse thrown over his left arm.
Remounting, they rode slowly back to their troop, and then the cause of the strange boldness of the fugitives was disclosed. Advancing across the plain directly in the path of their flight came four hundred of the allied cavalry, whom the dictator had sent out to reconnoitre, and, caught thus between two lines, the Numidians had, for the most part, chosen to take their chances against the weaker force. Not one of the marauders was alive, but they had sold their lives dearly; for a dozen of the Romans also were dead, and a score more showed wounds that marked this last spasm of barbarian frenzy.
While the men talked together, Sergius sought the praefect of the new detachment, a Hostilian of the family of Mancinus, whom he recalled among the young hot-heads that formed the party of the master-of-the-horse, and declaimed against the policy of Fabius as cowardly and base. He found him in the best possible humour, laughing and making coarse jests amid a circle of decurions and optios—as rude a Roman as marched with the standards, yet able, when occasion demanded, to play the man of fashion who had spent a year at Athens. The latter mood fell upon him when he descried Sergius. He came forward to meet him.
"Health to you, my Lucius!" he cried, "Surely the gods have held you in especial favour this day. I am told you have cut up a few squadrons of this African offal."
"With your timely aid," replied Sergius, bowing.
"I but made the hares double to your coursing," said Hostilius, carelessly; "and they tell me you have won both the spolia opima and a civic crown. That is a great deal for one day—and under a peaceful dictator."
"I shall not claim them," he said. "Doubtless, Decius would have both slain the fellow and saved himself had I not come up—"
"No modesty! no modesty!" cried Hostilius, gayly. "I assure you it is even less Greek than Roman in these days. Lo! now, I myself will claim both for you at Rome, if only to show that I do not grudge you your share of the carrion. Perhaps such honours will not prejudice you in a certain house on the Palatine," he added, slyly. "But come! you and I shall join our forces and raid together. We have sent two hundred to Acheron since we left the camp, and birds have been singing on our left all the morning."
"Where is the dictator now?" asked Sergius.
"In his tent, of course," replied the other, scornfully. "And no one cares where that may be."
"Oh! he was persuaded at last to risk a scouting party, and, at the request of the brave Minucius, he gave the command to me with strict injunctions to use only my eyes. Well, I have used them so sharply that my hands, too, have been full," and Hostilius laughed. "There are some five hundred of the cross-food that have evaded me thus far. We shall catch them now, though, and, together, it will be easy for us to prevail."
Sergius was silent. To make a dash from the heights in defence of allies dying in his sight, was one thing; to deliberately join this insubordinate in turning a reconnaissance into a raid, was another and much more serious matter.
The praefect noted his hesitation, and a slight frown chased the smile from his lips.
"Or perhaps you prefer to obey the old woman's orders," he added, "and keep your couch warm. Well, our men and horses are fed by this time, and I am off. If you are a Roman, I greet you to ride with me; if you fear robbers or the axe that smote Titus Manlius, why, I will bid you farewell and ride alone."
"Where do you set your course?" queried Sergius, with a vague hope of at least seeming to combine inclination with duty.
"Toward the enemy," replied the other, shortly. "Does not the direction please you?" and he turned to his horse.
Sergius' brow clouded. His blood was hot with the conflict just finished. Youth, courage—all combined to turn him from obedience; but obedience bade fair to conquer, when Marcia's laugh rang in his ears, and he could hear her gravely complimenting his prudence and discoursing on the rare value of docility in a husband. Besides, what did it all matter? Had he not said that he sought death? and, surely, the way it came soonest was the best.
Placing his hand upon his horse's withers, he vaulted upon its back, before the animal had time to kneel, and a moment later was beside Hostilius.
"By Hercules!" exclaimed the latter; "I am glad you are here. Even in these days of strange things, I would have found it difficult to imagine that a Sergian could be a coward."
"And now," cried Sergius, "you will only have to imagine him a fool. So be it, and let the cost of his life pay for his folly."
"Jupiter avert the omen!" exclaimed Hostilius, shuddering, and then, turning to his trumpeter, he bade him give the signal for the march.
It was a desolate country—the fair plains of Campania through which they rode. Here and there a cluster of blackened ruins, here and there things that were once men, fruit trees cut down, vines uprooted, corn-fields reaped with the sword; while far away upon the horizon smoky columns curled up to show that the work of devastation still went on.
"May Mavers curse him—curse him forever!" cried Hostilius, grinding his teeth in rage at each new manifestation of the enemy's handiwork. "Could the most disastrous battle be worse than this?"
Sergius was silent. In a way his feelings went out to meet those of his companion; but the dictator had trusted him, and he had disobeyed, and, for all his disobedience, his soldier's instinct told him that the dictator was right.
Hostilius eyed him sharply and suspiciously, as if trying to divine his thoughts.
"If you regret—" he began.
Suddenly a decurion of the allies dashed up beside them.
"Look!" he cried, pointing toward the east. "There is carrion for the wolves."
Both leaders turned at the words.
Far out across the plain was what seemed at first sight like a clump of dark foliage, save that it moved and changed shape too much.
"Numidians!" exclaimed the decurion, following his finger with his speech, while the veins in Hostilius' forehead began to swell and grow dark.
"The signal! Let it be given," he cried to his officer, and, turning, he dug his knees into his horse's sides and galloped toward the distant quarry. A moment later the cavalry wheeled at the trumpet call, and, in some disorder but full of eagerness, began the pursuit of their leader.
As for Sergius, he, too, gave order and rein, though more deliberately, and his troop followed the cavalry of the allies in somewhat better array. By his side galloped Decius with an expression hard to analyze upon his weather-beaten face.
Sergius glanced at the old soldier from time to time with a look of inquiry and concern. At last he ventured to question his grim mentor.
"Is it well or ill, Marcus?"
"Ill for you that command, well for me who obey," growled the other, and Sergius flushed and was silent.
"Shall we catch them?" he asked, a few moments later, for the clump of Numidians, who had sat motionless upon their horses until the Romans covered half the intervening distance, had now wheeled for flight.
"If they be too strong for us, we shall catch them," replied Decius. "It is as they will."
And now it became apparent that the marauders were far inferior in numbers to the assailants, and that they recognized the fact; for flight and pursuit began in earnest. Horses were urged to higher speed. At one moment the Numidians seemed to be holding their distance; at another, the Romans gained slightly but unmistakably. All order of detachments and turmae was soon lost; Romans and allies, officers and men, were mingled together in a straggling mass, with naught but the eagerness of the riders and the speed of their animals to marshal them. Only Decius continued to pound along, with his horse's nose at his tribune's elbow. The thunder of many hundred hoofs rolled across the plain.
"By Hercules! we shall do it!" cried Sergius, in whom ardour of the chase had put to flight all sentiments of regret or doubt. "Do you not see we are gaining?"
"They ride silently yet," said Decius. "It is but knee-speed with them. Wait till they cry out to their horses, and we shall see."
Suddenly, as if to supplement the words, a single shrill cry, half whistle, half scream, rose up ahead. Had they been closer, they might have noted the pricking ears of the desert steeds; but this much they saw:—one horse and rider darting out of the press, like arrow from bow, and scurrying away over the plain as if their former gait had been but a hand-gallop.
An instant of misgiving came to some few of the Romans, who were not blind to everything but the excitement of the moment, but they, like the rest, only plied knee and thong the harder, and the episode of the single rider was forgotten by all save Marcus Decius and Sergius.
"It is a trap, master," said the former, with an inquiring glance at his leader.
Sergius bowed his head, and his face was troubled, as he replied:—
"I know it, my Marcus, but we cannot turn back now. I have accepted the feast: therefore I must recline until my host gives the signal to rise. I pray you pardon me."
By a quick movement Decius urged his horse a stride ahead of the tribune's, that he might the better hide his emotion; at the same time growling:—
"I pardon you?—and for the chance of a blow at the scum? I thank you many times."
And now, from the plain ahead rose a low range of rolling hills over which a light cloud seemed to hover. Was it the ascent that wearied the horses of the Numidians? Surely the space between pursuers and pursued was lessening rapidly, and Hostilius leaned far forward, shaking his spear and calling upon his men for a renewed effort.
"Now! now!" he cried. "See! they are spent! Up with them ere they top the hill!"
But the Numidians gained the sought-for ridge, if only by a few spear-lengths' lead, and the cloud, now close ahead, hung so dense that there were those who thought it the smoke of another farm. Decius' eyes seemed set in a dazed stare. There was too much red in that cloud, and yet it was not the red of fire, and it was too light and too thin for smoke. He knew it; he had known it all along, but what did it matter? The last Numidian had disappeared down the opposite slope—no! surely they had turned again, and in a longer line—a thicker one; and the light javelins and naked black bodies had become long, stout spears and glittering corselets, while at their head rode a slender man with forked beard, and his black eyes seemed to burn in his head like coals. So, with one barbaric roar, the whole array poured down over the allied cavalry, and these were like the dust of the trampled field.
Sergius hardly knew what was happening. He was conscious that the stride of his horse had been checked by a dense mass of plunging animals in front—a mass that grew more dense and more tangled with every instant. Those behind were still endeavouring to press forward, and those in front were hurled back upon them or were striving frantically to break through the rearmost squadrons and escape; while, shrill above the clash of arms and the shouts and screams, rose a name that Sergius found himself listening to with a sort of curious interest.
"Maharbal! Maharbal!" came the cry, nearer and nearer.
At the first moment of the check, Marcus Decius had pushed the sturdy horse that he rode well to the fore. He saw Hostilius riding back, waving one arm and crying out incoherent words: his spear was gone, and the head of a Spaniard's lance had been thrust through his shoulder and broken off, so that a third of the shaft hung from the wound.
Then what had happened and the hopelessness of it all became apparent. Like the veriest fools they had ridden into the snare, and Maharbal, the Carthaginian, with at least two thousand Spanish and African horsemen, was thundering on their front and flanks: their front—but in a moment, their rear; for now those who had not been ridden down at the first onset or become inextricably entangled with their fellows broke away over the plain, carrying their officers with them in a mad frenzy of flight; while other Numidians—fresh riders on fresh steeds—urged the pursuit and smote down the hindermost.
Decius found himself riding in the middle of the press. His face was as imperturbable as ever, though he glanced over his shoulder from time to time as if to note how much nearer death had come. Sergius galloped close behind him, careless and abstracted, his rein lying loose on his charger's steaming neck. Then, of a sudden, a resolve seemed to come to him. Straightening himself, he urged the weary horse forward through the fugitives till he drew up even with Hostilius, who, still frantic with panic, was now swaying in his saddle from the pain and loss of blood.
Sergius leaned over and laid his hand upon the other's arm, and Hostilius started as if he had touched a serpent. Then he became calmer, and a troubled look was in the eyes that sought the tribune's face.
"Yes, I know," he said at last, speaking hurriedly and in odd, strained accents. "I led you into it, and now I am flying."
"Let us turn back," said Sergius, mildly. "I do not reproach you, but let us turn back. Surely it is better than the rods and axe."
Hostilius shuddered, and, at that moment, Decius, who had overtaken them, broke in with:—
"By Hercules! there is no fear of those. They cut us down in flight. The choice is, shall we have it in the face or between the shoulders."
"By the gods of Rome, then!" shouted the praefect, suddenly reining up, while Sergius and Decius swung their horses in short circles.
There was no trumpet to give the signal, and the little cavalry banner had gone down long ago; but such was the force of Roman training that nearly all of Sergius' men and half of the allies turned in mid-panic with their leaders. To make head, much less to form was impossible, for the foremost of the enemy were well mingled with the rearmost fugitives. As Decius had said, it was only a choice of deaths: the one swift and honourable, the other more lingering, but none the less inevitable.
Almost in a moment it was over. Between two and three hundred of the united detachments had fallen already, and the hundred or so that now sought to face about, went down in a crushed and bleeding mass under the thousands of hoofs that overwhelmed them. Such was the weight and impetus of the pursuing force that there was no time even to strike, and most of the victims fell unwounded by spear or javelin. Sergius was vaguely conscious that he had seen the praefect cloven through the head by the short, swordlike Numidian knife, his own horse seemed to collapse under him, and that was the end.
Then he knew that it was dark and cold and that there was a howling in the air, as of beasts of prey, and the shadow of a man fell across him, for the moon was in the heavens, and the man was cursing by all the gods of the Capitol.
Gradually consciousness returned, and he recalled, incident by incident, the happenings of the past day. He had been lying still, thus far, without further wish than to look up at the stars and think and listen to what he now knew was the distant howling of wolves and the nearer curses of Marcus Decius. At last he stirred slightly, and the decurion turned and looked down.
"Do you live, master?"
"Yes, truly," replied Sergius; "unless you chance to be a shade."
Then he struggled to his feet, and the two gazed silently at each other and around them. All about, in the moonlight, lay the bodies of horses and men, the latter glittering in their white tunics, save here and there an officer whose helmet and breastplate had seemed to mark out his corpse for stripping and nameless desecrations. Sergius' head-piece was gone, but he glanced at his own corselet and then at Decius.
"We were buried together under a heap of dead," said the latter, in answer to the unasked query. "They made haste in their spoiling; and, when they had gone, I drew myself free and found you: the wolves are feasting well to-night; can you walk?"
Sergius moved stiffly a few steps. He felt bruised from head to foot, and one arm hung useless from a dislocated shoulder, but he found no wound. Decius had not escaped so lightly. Besides the gash he had received earlier in the day, he had been cut again across the forehead, but his prodigious strength seemed to have inexhaustible resources to draw upon.
"Come," he said. "We must go southward as quickly as possible. Sergius still walked slowly about, glancing at one corpse after another, until the decurion, at last divining his thought, broke in roughly:—
"Come! The wolves must provide him sepulchre as they will do for better men. What would he have? The she-wolf suckled the twins. Let Hostilius pay the debt by feeding the she-wolf's cubs. By Hercules! other sepulchre for him means need of one for ourselves."
So speaking, he at last drew Sergius away, and they began their weary tramp across the field.
"If I could have seen but one pulse-eater among the slain," said the tribune, after they had gone some distance in silence.
"I know of one that should be dead," remarked Decius, grimly, "if a spear through his midriff be enough for him. Truly the ancient shafts are useless in close fight, save for a single thrust. I, for one, welcome the Greek equipment—and the sooner the better."
Suddenly Sergius stopped and laid his hand upon his comrade's arm.
"Look!" he said.
A long, low rampart seemed to rise up from the plain two hundred yards ahead.
"Their camp," said the decurion, after a short pause, "and deserted. Let us go forward cautiously; perhaps we shall find food."
Step by step they crept up, walking faster and more erect as they drew nearer and as the evidence that life was not there became more apparent.
"They have left it only to-night," said Decius, clambering up the mound of earth and sniffing the air. "Had it been a day old, we should have smelt it long ago, though the wind blows from us."
Then, as they descended and traversed the silent lanes, a puzzled expression came to his face, and he halted from time to time.
Sergius eyed him inquiringly.
"Do you not smell fresh blood?" said the veteran, at last. "I remember when we marched with Lucius Aemilius, after the Gauls had beaten the praetor's army at Clusium. There were ten thousand men just slain, and the air was salt like the sea—by Jupiter! What is this?"
Resuming their advance, they had come upon a space of open ground near the centre of the camp, doubtless the spot reserved for a market; but what meat was it that cumbered the shambles, without buyer or seller? Piled in ghastly heaps, or covering the ground two and three deep, lay a fresh-reaped harvest of corpses, stripped, distorted, gleaming in the moonlight. Could it be that the camp had been taken? But these were no African dead, nor yet was this a Roman camp. There was a set deliberation, too, about the slaughter, that told no tale of battle.
Suddenly Decius cried out and, stooping down, raised the hands of one of the victims—hands upon which the shackles still hung.
"Slaves," murmured Sergius; "but why—"
"Say, rather, prisoners," said the centurion, grimly.
Sergius struck his thigh. It was all clear to him now.
"May the plague fall upon him! may he go to a thousand crosses! Do you not see? He is escaping. He has made for the passes and slain his prisoners, that they may not hamper his march. Who knows but that by now he is on the road to Rome? Gods! This was Hostilius' duty and mine, and we wasted our time and our men on a few score of miserable Numidians. Come, my Marcus, come: there are no such things as wounds or weariness or caution. We must reach the dictator at once, and may the gods grant that it be not too late!"
Marcus Decius had been gazing gloomily at the young man, as the words burst from his lips.
"Where shall we go, and how?" he said, with a despairing gesture.
"On our feet," cried Sergius. "Did I not say that weariness and wounds were not? It is for the life of the Republic: I to the camp near Casilinum; you to Tarracina. They will march by the Appian or by the Latin Way, if they strike for Rome. If not, the plan may not be fatal."
Decius yielded to the decision of his companion, and, with hasty fingers, they unlaced each other's corselets and hurried out of the camp, each to run his race with what strength remained. The last clasp of hands had been given and received, when, far away on the hills east and northeast, the quick eye of Sergius caught the gleam of a rapidly moving torch: then another and another and another seemed to flame out in the night, like stars when the moon has failed, until the whole range of heights blazed with fires that flashed and danced and crossed and recrossed each other in mad confusion, as if all the thronging bacchanals of Greece had assembled for one frenzied orgy.
Dazed and confounded by the spectacle, as grand as it was weird and unexplainable, they stood spell-bound, powerless each to take the first stride. Decius, the older man, the veteran, turned to his companion, yielding that unconscious homage to birth and rank and education, that comes in the presence of unknown perils. No experience of war could help him here, and his mind leaped at once to the supernatural for an explanation. As for the tribune, such thoughts, at least, had not occurred to him. Greek scepticism had already gained too strong a hold upon young Romans of rank, to let them regard the theology of the State other than as a machinery devised by wise men to control an ignorant rabble. Besides, his mind had taken another direction from the discovery of the slaughter of the prisoners, and, humanlike, it ran on in its channel, right or wrong.
Decius was trembling violently.
"Truly, master, the gods of Carthage are loose to-night," said he.
There was even a little of contempt in the glance with which Sergius noted the abject terror of the sturdy veteran. Utterly at a loss to explain the apparitions, he never doubted for a moment but that they were the product of some human wile.
"Come," he said shortly. "The gods of Carthage have favoured us in lighting the way. First of all, we shall go together and learn the truth." Without waiting for a reply, he set off, at an easy, loping gait, in the direction of the strange fires. Decius followed, as he would have followed through the portals of Avernus.
The distance to the heights was not great,—four or five miles at the utmost,—but half an hour had passed, and still the spectacle, wilder and more brilliant than ever, remained unexplained. For a stretch of miles, the hills above, beyond, and below were all ablaze with rushing flames that seemed guided by no sentient agency; then, suddenly, a single torch glanced out from a small grove of trees a short distance ahead and darted diagonally across their path. Decius stopped for an instant, with trembling knees; but Sergius bounded forward to intercept the torch-bearer, and the veteran followed from sheer shame.
Up, down to the ground, up again, and then around in frantic waving circles swept the flame: a mad bellowing rolled through the night, until the tribune himself almost checked his stride in awe-struck wonder. The next instant the torch, if torch it was, seemed to flounder to the earth, from which it rose again and came driving directly toward him, explained at last,—an ox with a great bundle of blazing fagots fastened between its horns, blinded, frantic with pain and terror.
Sergius sprang aside, as the beast dashed by; but Decius, roused once more to the possibility of independent thought and action, stepped toward it and, as it passed, plunged his sword between its heaving ribs.
"What now, my master?" he said, flushing with shame at his fears of the last hour—perhaps the bravest hour of his life. "Does the lying Carthaginian seek to terrify Quintus Fabius, the dictator, as he terrified Marcus Decius, the decurion?"
"Yes, truly," replied Sergius, gloomily; "and he will succeed even better. No general, and, least of all, ours, would lead out his army in the night against such a spectacle. Come, it is necessary that we should reach the camp," and, turning once again, they fell to running in a more southern direction, where a dim glow in the sky seemed to tell of the watchfires of an army.
At first no sound broke the stillness of the night, save the laboured breathing of the weary runners and the strokes of their leathern cothurni upon the hard ground; but soon other noises came to mingle with these and, at last, to drown them: the lowing of thousands of cattle, now scattered far and wide over the plain and hillsides, and then the distant clash of arms and the cries of combatants.