Part 1 out of 4
Produced by Lionel G. Sear of Truro, Cornwall, England.
THE LAST GALLEY.
IMPRESSIONS AND TALES
Arthur Conan Doyle.
I have written "Impressions and Tales" upon the title-page of this
volume, because I have included within the same cover two styles of work
which present an essential difference.
The second half of the collection consists of eight stories, which
The first half is made up of a series of pictures of the past which
maybe regarded as trial flights towards a larger ideal which I have long
had in my mind. It has seemed to me that there is a region between
actual story and actual history which has never been adequately
exploited. I could imagine, for example, a work dealing with some great
historical epoch, and finding its interest not in the happenings to
particular individuals, their adventures and their loves, but in the
fascination of the actual facts of history themselves. These facts
might be coloured with the glamour which the writer of fiction can give,
and fictitious characters and conversations might illustrate them; but
none the less the actual drama of history and not the drama of invention
should claim the attention of the reader. I have been tempted sometimes
to try the effect upon a larger scale; but meanwhile these short
sketches, portraying various crises in the story of the human race, are
to be judged as experiments in that direction.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.
THE LAST GALLEY
THROUGH THE VEIL
THE COMING OF THE HUNS
THE LAST OF THE LEGIONS
THE FIRST CARGO
THE RED STAR
THE SILVER MIRROR
THE BLIGHTING OF SHARKEY
THE MARRIAGE OF THE BRIGADIER
THE LORD OF FALCONBRIDGE
OUT OF THE RUNNING
THE GREAT BROWN-PERICORD MOTOR
THE TERROR OF BLUE JOHN GAP
THE LAST GALLEY
"Mutato nomine, de te, Britannia, fabula narratur."
It was a spring morning, one hundred and forty-six years before the
coming of Christ. The North African Coast, with its broad hem of golden
sand, its green belt of feathery palm trees, and its background of
barren, red-scarped hills, shimmered like a dream country in the opal
light. Save for a narrow edge of snow-white surf, the Mediterranean
lay blue and serene as far as the eye could reach. In all its vast
expanse there was no break but for a single galley, which was slowly
making its way from the direction of Sicily and heading for the distant
harbour of Carthage.
Seen from afar it was a stately and beautiful vessel, deep red in
colour, double-banked with scarlet oars, its broad, flapping sail
stained with Tyrian purple, its bulwarks gleaming with brass work.
A brazen, three-pronged ram projected in front, and a high golden figure
of Baal, the God of the Phoenicians, children of Canaan, shone upon the
after deck. From the single high mast above the huge sail streamed the
tiger-striped flag of Carthage. So, like some stately scarlet bird,
with golden beak and wings of purple, she swam upon the face of the
waters--a thing of might and of beauty as seen from the distant shore.
But approach and look at her now! What are these dark streaks which
foul her white decks and dapple her brazen shields? Why do the long red
oars move out of time, irregular, convulsive? Why are some missing from
the staring portholes, some snapped with jagged, yellow edges, some
trailing inert against the side? Why are two prongs of the brazen ram
twisted and broken? See, even the high image of Baal is battered and
disfigured! By every sign this ship has passed through some grievous
trial, some day of terror, which has left its heavy marks upon her.
And now stand upon the deck itself, and see more closely the men who man
her! There are two decks forward and aft, while in the open waist are
the double banks of seats, above and below, where the rowers, two to an
oar, tug and bend at their endless task. Down the centre is a narrow
platform, along which pace a line of warders, lash in hand, who cut
cruelly at the slave who pauses, be it only for an instant, to sweep the
sweat from his dripping brow. But these slaves--look at them! Some are
captured Romans, some Sicilians, many black Libyans, but all are in the
last exhaustion, their weary eyelids drooped over their eyes, their lips
thick with black crusts, and pink with bloody froth, their arms and
backs moving mechanically to the hoarse chant of the overseer. Their
bodies of all tints from ivory to jet, are stripped to the waist, and
every glistening back shows the angry stripes of the warders. But it is
not from these that the blood comes which reddens the seats and tints
the salt water washing beneath their manacled feet. Great gaping
wounds, the marks of sword slash and spear stab, show crimson upon their
naked chests and shoulders, while many lie huddled and senseless athwart
the benches, careless for ever of the whips which still hiss above them.
Now we can understand those empty portholes and those trailing oars.
Nor were the crew in better case than their slaves. The decks were
littered with wounded and dying men. It was but a remnant who still
remained upon their feet. The most lay exhausted upon the fore-deck,
while a few of the more zealous were mending their shattered armour,
restringing their bows, or cleaning the deck from the marks of combat.
Upon a raised platform at the base of the mast stood the sailing-master
who conned the ship, his eyes fixed upon the distant point of Megara
which screened the eastern side of the Bay of Carthage. On the
after-deck were gathered a number of officers, silent and brooding,
glancing from time to time at two of their own class who stood apart
deep in conversation. The one, tall, dark, and wiry, with pure, Semitic
features, and the limbs of a giant, was Magro, the famous Carthaginian
captain, whose name was still a terror on every shore, from Gaul to the
Euxine. The other, a white-bearded, swarthy man, with indomitable
courage and energy stamped upon every eager line of his keen, aquiline
face, was Gisco the politician, a man of the highest Punic blood, a
Suffete of the purple robe, and the leader of that party in the State
which had watched and striven amid the selfishness and slothfulness of
his fellow-countrymen to rouse the public spirit and waken the public
conscience to the ever-increasing danger from Rome. As they talked, the
two men glanced continually, with earnest anxious faces, towards the
"It is certain," said the older man, with gloom in his voice and
bearing, "none have escaped save ourselves."
"I did not leave the press of the battle whilst I saw one ship which I
could succour," Magro answered. "As it was, we came away, as you saw,
like a wolf which has a hound hanging on to either haunch. The Roman
dogs can show the wolf-bites which prove it. Had any other galley won
clear, they would surely be with us by now, since they have no place of
safety save Carthage."
The younger warrior glanced keenly ahead to the distant point which
marked his native city. Already the low, leafy hill could be seen,
dotted with the white villas of the wealthy Phoenician merchants.
Above them, a gleaming dot against the pale blue morning sky, shone the
brazen roof of the citadel of Byrsa, which capped the sloping town.
"Already they can see us from the watch-towers," he remarked. "Even
from afar they may know the galley of Black Magro. But which of all of
them will guess that we alone remain of all that goodly fleet which
sailed out with blare of trumpet and roll of drum but one short month
The patrician smiled bitterly. "If it were not for our great ancestors
and for our beloved country, the Queen of the Waters," said he,
"I could find it in my heart to be glad at this destruction which has
come upon this vain and feeble generation. You have spent your life
upon the seas, Magro. You do not know of know how it has been with us
on the land. But I have seen this canker grow upon us which now leads
us to our death. I and others have gone down into the market-place to
plead with the people, and been pelted with mud for our pains. Many a
time have I pointed to Rome, and said, 'Behold these people, who bear
arms themselves, each man for his own duty and pride. How can you who
hide behind mercenaries hope to stand against them?'--a hundred times I
have said it."
"And had they no answer?" asked the Rover.
"Rome was far off and they could not see it, so to them it was nothing,"
the old man answered. "Some thought of trade, and some of votes, and
some of profits from the State, but none would see that the State
itself, the mother of all things, was sinking to her end. So might the
bees debate who should have wax or honey when the torch was blazing
which would bring to ashes the hive and all therein. 'Are we not rulers
of the sea?' 'Was not Hannibal a great man?' Such were their cries,
living ever in the past and blind to the future. Before that sun sets
there will be tearing of hair and rending of garments; what will that
now avail us?"
"It is some sad comfort," said Magro, "to know that what Rome holds she
"Why say you that? When we go down, she is supreme in all the world."
"For a time, and only for a time," Magro answered, gravely. "Yet you
will smile, perchance, when I tell you how it is that I know it.
There was a wise woman who lived in that part of the Tin Islands which
juts forth into the sea, and from her lips I have heard many things, but
not one which has not come aright. Of the fall of our own country,
and even of this battle, from which we now return, she told me clearly.
There is much strange lore amongst these savage peoples in the west of
the land of Tin."
"What said she of Rome?"
"That she also would fall, even as we, weakened by her riches and her
Gisco rubbed his hands. "That at least makes our own fall less bitter,"
said he. "But since we have fallen, and Rome will fall, who in turn may
hope to be Queen of the Waters?"
"That also I asked her," said Magro, "and gave her my Tyrian belt with
the golden buckle as a guerdon for her answer. But, indeed, it was too
high payment for the tale she told, which must be false if all else she
said was true. She would have it that in coining days it was her own
land, this fog-girt isle where painted savages can scarce row a wicker
coracle from point to point, which shall at last take the trident which
Carthage and Rome have dropped."
The smile which flickered upon the old patrician's keen features died
away suddenly, and his fingers closed upon his companion's wrist.
The other had set rigid, his head advanced, his hawk eyes upon the
northern skyline. Its straight, blue horizon was broken by two low
"Galleys!" whispered Gisco.
The whole crew had seen them. They clustered along the starboard
bulwarks, pointing and chattering. For a moment the gloom of defeat was
lifted, and a buzz of joy ran from group to group at the thought that
they were not alone--that some one had escaped the great carnage as well
"By the spirit of Baal," said Black Magro, "I could not have believed
that any could have fought clear from such a welter. Could it be young
Hamilcar in the _Africa_, or is it Beneva in the blue Syrian ship?
We three with others may form a squadron and make head against them yet.
If we hold our course, they will join us ere we round the harbour mole."
Slowly the injured galley toiled on her way, and more swiftly the two
newcomers swept down from the north. Only a few miles off lay the green
point and the white houses which flanked the great African city.
Already, upon the headland, could be seen a dark group of waiting
townsmen. Gisco and Magro were still watching with puckered gaze the
approaching galleys, when the brown Libyan boatswain, with flashing
teeth and gleaming eyes, rushed upon the poop, his long thin arm
stabbing to the north.
"Romans!" he cried. "Romans!"
A hush had fallen over the great vessel. Only the wash of the water and
the measured rattle and beat of the oars broke in upon the silence.
"By the horns of God's altar, I believe the fellow is right!" cried old
Gisco. "See how they swoop upon us like falcons. They are full-manned
"Plain wood, unpainted," said Magro. "See how it gleams yellow where
the sun strikes it."
"And yonder thing beneath the mast. Is it not the cursed bridge they
use for boarding?"
"So they grudge us even one," said Magro with a bitter laugh. "Not even
one galley shall return to the old sea-mother. Well, for my part, I
would as soon have it so. I am of a mind to stop the oars and await
"It is a man's thought," answered old Gisco; "but the city will need us
in the days to come. What shall it profit us to make the Roman victory
complete? Nay, Magro, let the slaves row as they never rowed before,
not for our own safety, but for the profit of the State."
So the great red ship laboured and lurched onwards, like a weary panting
stag which seeks shelter from his pursuers, while ever swifter and ever
nearer sped the two lean fierce galleys from the north. Already the
morning sun shone upon the lines of low Roman helmets above the
bulwarks, and glistened on the silver wave where each sharp prow shot
through the still blue water. Every moment the ships drew nearer, and
the long thin scream of the Roman trumpets grew louder upon the ear.
Upon the high bluff of Megara there stood a great concourse of the
people of Carthage who had hurried forth from the city upon the news
that the galleys were in sight. They stood now, rich and poor, effete
and plebeian, white Phoenician and dark Kabyle, gazing with breathless
interest at the spectacle before them. Some hundreds of feet beneath
them the Punic galley had drawn so close that with their naked eyes they
could see those stains of battle which told their dismal tale.
The Romans, too, were heading in such a way that it was before their
very faces that their ship was about to be cut off; and yet of all this
multitude not one could raise a hand in its defence. Some wept in
impotent grief, some cursed with flashing eyes and knotted fists, some
on their knees held up appealing hands to Baal; but neither prayer,
tears, nor curses could undo the past nor mend the present. That
broken, crawling galley meant that their fleet was gone. Those two
fierce darting ships meant that the hands of Rome were already at their
throat. Behind them would come others and others, the innumerable
trained hosts of the great Republic, long mistress of the land, now
dominant also upon the waters. In a month, two months, three at the
most, their armies would be there, and what could all the untrained
multitudes of Carthage do to stop them?
"Nay!" cried one, more hopeful than the rest, "at least we are brave men
with arms in our hands."
"Fool!" said another, "is it not such talk which has brought us to our
ruin? What is the brave man untrained to the brave man trained? When
you stand before the sweep and rush of a Roman legion you may learn the
"Then let us train!"
"Too late! A full year is needful to turn a man to a soldier. Where
will you--where will your city be within the year? Nay, there is but
one chance for us. If we give up our commerce and our colonies, if we
strip ourselves of all that made us great, then perchance the Roman
conqueror may hold his hand."
And already the last sea-fight of Carthage was coming swiftly to an end
before them. Under their very eyes the two Roman galleys had shot in,
one on either side of the vessel of Black Magro. They had grappled with
him, and he, desperate in his despair, had cast the crooked flukes of
his anchors over their gunwales, and bound them to him in an iron grip,
whilst with hammer and crowbar he burst great holes in his own
sheathing. The last Punic galley should never be rowed into Ostia, a
sight for the holiday-makers of Rome. She would lie in her own waters.
And the fierce, dark soul of her rover captain glowed as he thought that
not alone should she sink into the depths of the mother sea.
Too late did the Romans understand the man with whom they had to deal.
Their boarders who had flooded the Punic decks felt the planking sink
and sway beneath them. They rushed to gain their own vessels; but they,
too, were being drawn downwards, held in the dying grip of the great red
galley. Over they went and ever over. Now the deck of Magro's ship is
flush with the water, and the Romans, drawn towards it by the iron bonds
which held them, are tilted downwards, one bulwark upon the waves,
one reared high in the air. Madly they strain to cast off the death
grip of the galley. She is under the surface now, and ever swifter,
with the greater weight, the Roman ships heel after her. There is a
rending crash. The wooden side is torn out of one, and mutilated,
dismembered, she rights herself, and lies a helpless thing upon the
water. But a last yellow gleam in the blue water shows where her
consort has been dragged to her end in the iron death-grapple of her
foemen. The tiger-striped flag of Carthage has sunk beneath the
swirling surface, never more to be seen upon the face of the sea.
For in that year a great cloud hung for seventeen days over the African
coast, a deep black cloud which was the dark shroud of the burning city.
And when the seventeen days were over, Roman ploughs were driven from
end to end of the charred ashes, and salt was scattered there as a sign
that Carthage should be no more. And far off a huddle of naked,
starving folk stood upon the distant mountains, and looked down upon the
desolate plain which had once been the fairest and richest upon earth.
And they understood too late that it is the law of heaven that the world
is given to the hardy and to the self-denying, whilst he who would
escape the duties of manhood will soon be stripped of the pride, the
wealth, and the power, which are the prizes which manhood brings.
In the year of our Lord 66, the Emperor Nero, being at that time in the
twenty-ninth year of his life and the thirteenth of his reign, set sail
for Greece with the strangest company and the most singular design
that any monarch has ever entertained. With ten galleys he went forth
from Puteoli, carrying with him great stores of painted scenery and
theatrical properties, together with a number of knights and senators,
whom he feared to leave behind him at Rome, and who were all marked for
death in the course of his wanderings. In his train he took Natus,
his singing coach; Cluvius, a man with a monstrous voice, who should
bawl out his titles; and a thousand trained youths who had learned to
applaud in unison whenever their master sang or played in public.
So deftly had they been taught that each had his own role to play.
Some did no more than give forth a low deep hum of speechless
appreciation. Some clapped with enthusiasm. Some, rising from
approbation into absolute frenzy, shrieked, stamped, and beat sticks
upon the benches. Some--and they were the most effective--had learned
from an Alexandrian a long droning musical note which they all uttered
together, so that it boomed over the assembly. With the aid of these
mercenary admirers, Nero had every hope, in spite of his indifferent
voice and clumsy execution, to return to Rome, bearing with him the
chaplets for song offered for free competition by the Greek cities.
As his great gilded galley with two tiers of oars passed down the
Mediterranean, the Emperor sat in his cabin all day, his teacher by his
side, rehearsing from morning to night those compositions which he had
selected, whilst every few hours a Nubian slave massaged the Imperial
throat with oil and balsam, that it might be ready for the great ordeal
which lay before it in the land of poetry and song. His food, his
drink, and his exercise were prescribed for him as for an athlete who
trains for a contest, and the twanging of his lyre, with the strident
notes of his voice, resounded continually from the Imperial quarters.
Now it chanced that there lived in those days a Grecian goatherd named
Policles, who tended and partly owned a great flock which grazed upon
the long flanks of the hills near Heroea, which is five miles north of
the river Alpheus, and no great distance from the famous Olympia.
This person was noted all over the countryside as a man of strange gifts
and singular character. He was a poet who had twice been crowned for
his verses, and he was a musician to whom the use and sound of an
instrument were so natural that one would more easily meet him without
his staff than his harp. Even in his lonely vigils on the winter hills
he would bear it always slung over his shoulder, and would pass the long
hours by its aid, so that it had come to be part of his very self.
He was beautiful also, swarthy and eager, with a head like Adonis, and
in strength there was no one who could compete with him. But all was
ruined by his disposition, which was so masterful that he would brook no
opposition nor contradiction. For this reason he was continually at
enmity with all his neighbours, and in his fits of temper he would spend
months at a time in his stone hut among the mountains, hearing nothing
from the world, and living only for his music and his goats.
One spring morning, in the year of 67, Policles, with the aid of his boy
Dorus, had driven his goats over to a new pasturage which overlooked
from afar the town of Olympia. Gazing down upon it from the mountain,
the shepherd was surprised to see that a portion of the famous
amphitheatre had been roofed in, as though some performance was being
enacted. Living far from the world and from all news, Policles could
not imagine what was afoot, for he was well aware that the Grecian games
were not due for two years to come. Surely some poetic or musical
contest must be proceeding of which he had heard nothing. If so, there
would perhaps be some chance of his gaining the votes of the judges; and
in any case he loved to hear the compositions and admire the execution
of the great minstrels who assembled on such an occasion. Calling to
Dorus, therefore, he left the goats to his charge, and strode swiftly
away, his harp upon his back, to see what was going forward in the town.
When Policles came into the suburbs, he found them deserted; but he was
still more surprised when he reached the main street to see no single
human being in the place. He hastened his steps, therefore, and as he
approached the theatre he was conscious of a low sustained hum which
announced the concourse of a huge assembly. Never in all his dreams
had he imagined any musical competition upon so vast a scale as this.
There were some soldiers clustering outside the door; but Policles
pushed his way swiftly through them, and found himself upon the
outskirts of the multitude who filled the great space formed by roofing
over a portion of the national stadium. Looking around him, Policles
saw a great number of his neighbours, whom he knew by sight, tightly
packed upon the benches, all with their eyes fixed upon the stage.
He also observed that there were soldiers round the walls, and that a
considerable part of the hall was filled by a body of youths of foreign
aspect, with white gowns and long hair. All this he perceived; but what
it meant he could not imagine. He bent over to a neighbour to ask him,
but a soldier prodded him at once with the butt end of his spear, and
commanded him fiercely to hold his peace. The man whom he had
addressed, thinking that Policles had demanded a seat, pressed closer to
his neighbour, and so the shepherd found himself sitting at the end of
the bench which was nearest to the door. Thence he concentrated himself
upon the stage, on which Metas, a well-known minstrel from Corinth and
an old friend of Policles, was singing and playing without much
encouragement from the audience. To Policles it seemed that Metas was
having less than his due, so he applauded loudly, but he was surprised
to observe that the soldiers frowned at him, and that all his neighbours
regarded him with some surprise. Being a man of strong and obstinate
character, he was the more inclined to persevere in his clapping when he
perceived that the general sentiment was against him.
But what followed filled the shepherd poet with absolute amazement.
When Metas of Corinth had made his bow and withdrawn to half-hearted and
perfunctory applause, there appeared upon the stage, amid the wildest
enthusiasm upon the part of the audience, a most extraordinary figure.
He was a short fat man, neither old nor young, with a bull neck and a
round, heavy face, which hung in creases in front like the dewlap of an
ox. He was absurdly clad in a short blue tunic, braced at the waist
with a golden belt. His neck and part of his chest were exposed, and
his short, fat legs were bare from the buskins below to the middle of
his thighs, which was as far as his tunic extended. In his hair were
two golden wings, and the same upon his heels, after the fashion of the
god Mercury. Behind him walked a negro bearing a harp, and beside him a
richly dressed officer who bore rolls of music. This strange creature
took the harp from the hands of the attendant, and advanced to the front
of the stage, whence he bowed and smiled to the cheering audience."
This is some foppish singer from Athens," thought Policles to himself,
but at the same time he understood that only a great master of song
could receive such a reception from a Greek audience. This was
evidently some wonderful performer whose reputation had preceded him.
Policles settled down, therefore, and prepared to give his soul up to
The blue-clad player struck several chords upon his lyre, and then burst
suddenly out into the "Ode of Niobe." Policles sat straight up on his
bench and gazed at the stage in amazement. The tune demanded a rapid
transition from a low note to a high, and had been purposely chosen for
this reason. The low note was a grunting, a rumble, the deep discordant
growling of an ill-conditioned dog. Then suddenly the singer threw up
his face, straightened his tubby figure, rose upon his tiptoes, and with
wagging head and scarlet cheeks emitted such a howl as the same dog
might have given had his growl been checked by a kick from his master.
All the while the lyre twanged and thrummed, sometimes in front of and
sometimes behind the voice of the singer. But what amazed Policles most
of all was the effect of this performance upon the audience. Every
Greek was a trained critic, and as unsparing in his hisses as he was
lavish in his applause. Many a singer far better than this absurd fop
had been driven amid execration and abuse from the platform. But now,
as the man stopped and wiped the abundant sweat from his fat face, the
whole assembly burst into a delirium of appreciation. The shepherd held
his hands to his bursting head, and felt that his reason must be leaving
him. It was surely a dreadful musical nightmare, and he would wake soon
and laugh at the remembrance. But no; the figures were real, the faces
were those of his neighbours, the cheers which resounded in his ears
were indeed from an audience which filled the theatre of Olympia.
The whole chorus was in full blast, the hummers humming, the shouters
bellowing, the tappers hard at work upon the benches, while every now
and then came a musical cyclone of "Incomparable! Divine!" from the
trained phalanx who intoned their applause, their united voices sweeping
over the tumult as the drone of the wind dominates the roar of the sea.
It was madness--insufferable madness! If this were allowed to pass,
there was an end of all musical justice in Greece. Policles' conscience
would not permit him to be still. Standing upon his bench with waving
hands and upraised voice, he protested with all the strength of his
lungs against the mad judgment of the audience.
At first, amid the tumult, his action was hardly noticed. His voice was
drowned in the universal roar which broke out afresh at each bow and
smirk from the fatuous musician. But gradually the folk round Policles
ceased clapping, and stared at him in astonishment. The silence grew in
ever widening circles, until the whole great assembly sat mute, staring
at this wild and magnificent creature who was storming at them from his
perch near the door.
"Fools!" he cried. "What are you clapping at? What are you cheering?
Is this what you call music? Is this cat-calling to earn an Olympian
prize? The fellow has not a note in his voice. You are either deaf or
mad, and I for one cry shame upon you for your folly."
Soldiers ran to pull him down, and the whole audience was in confusion,
some of the bolder cheering the sentiments of the shepherd, and others
crying that he should be cast out of the building. Meanwhile the
successful singer having handed his lyre to his negro attendant, was
inquiring from those around him on the stage as to the cause of the
uproar. Finally a herald with an enormously powerful voice stepped
forward to the front and proclaimed that if the foolish person at the
back of the hall, who appeared to differ from the opinion of the rest of
the audience, would come forward upon the platform, he might, if he
dared, exhibit his own powers, and see if he could outdo the admirable
and wonderful exhibition which they had just had the privilege of
Policles sprang readily to his feet at the challenge, and the great
company making way for him to pass, he found himself a minute later
standing in his unkempt garb, with his frayed and weather-beaten harp
in his hand, before the expectant crowd. He stood for a moment
tightening a string here and slackening another there until his chords
rang true. Then, amid a murmur of laughter and jeers from the Roman
benches immediately before him, he began to sing.
He had prepared no composition, but he had trained himself to improvise,
singing out of his heart for the joy of the music. He told of the land
of Elis, beloved of Jupiter, in which they were gathered that day, of
the great bare mountain slopes, of the swift shadows of the clouds, of
the winding blue river, of the keen air of the uplands, of the chill of
the evenings, and the beauties of earth and sky. It was all simple and
childlike, but it went to the hearts of the Olympians, for it spoke of
the land which they knew and loved. Yet when he at last dropped his
hand, few of them dared to applaud, and their feeble voices were drowned
by a storm of hisses and groans from his opponents. He shrank back in
horror from so unusual a reception, and in an instant his blue-clad
rival was in his place. If he had sung badly before, his performance
now was inconceivable. His screams, his grunts, his discords, and harsh
jarring cacophanies were an outrage to the very name of music.
And yet every time that he paused for breath or to wipe his streaming
forehead a fresh thunder of applause came rolling back from the
audience. Policles sank his face in his hands and prayed that he might
not be insane. Then, when the dreadful performance ceased, and the
uproar of admiration showed that the crown was certainly awarded to this
impostor, a horror of the audience, a hatred of this race of fools, and
a craving for the peace and silence of the pastures mastered every
feeling in his mind. He dashed through the mass of people waiting at
the wings, and emerged in the open air. His old rival and friend Metas
of Corinth was waiting there with an anxious face.
"Quick, Policles, quick!" he cried. "My pony is tethered behind yonder
grove. A grey he is, with red trappings. Get you gone as hard as hoof
will bear you, for if you are taken you will have no easy death."
"No easy death! What mean you, Metas? Who is the fellow?"
"Great Jupiter! did you not know? Where have you lived? It is Nero the
Emperor! Never would he pardon what you have said about his voice.
Quick, man, quick, or the guards will be at your heels!"
An hour later the shepherd was well on his way to his mountain home, and
about the same time the Emperor, having received the Chaplet of Olympia
for the incomparable excellence of his performance, was making inquiries
with a frowning brow as to who the insolent person might be who had
dared to utter such contemptuous criticisms.
"Bring him to me here this instant," said he, "and let Marcus with his
knife and branding-iron be in attendance."
"If it please you, great Caesar," said Arsenius Platus, the officer of
attendance, "the man cannot be found, and there are some very strange
rumours flying about."
"Rumours!" cried the angry Nero. "What do you mean, Arsenius? I tell
you that the fellow was an ignorant upstart, with the bearing of a boor
and the voice of a peacock. I tell you also that there are a good many
who are as guilty as he among the people, for I heard them with my own
ears raise cheers for him when he had sung his ridiculous ode. I have
half a mind to burn their town about their ears so that they may
remember my visit."
"It is not to be wondered at if he won their votes, Caesar," said the
soldier, "for from what I hear it would have been no disgrace had you,
even you, been conquered in this conquest."
"I conquered! You are mad, Arsenius. What do you mean?"
"None know him, great Caesar! He came from the mountains, and he
disappeared into the mountains. You marked the wildness and strange
beauty of his face. It is whispered that for once the great god Pan has
condescended to measure himself against a mortal."
The cloud cleared from Nero's brow. "Of course, Arsenius! You are
right! No man would have dared to brave me so. What a story for Rome!
Let the messenger leave this very night, Arsenius, to tell them how
their Emperor has upheld their honour in Olympia this day."
THROUGH THE VEIL.
He was a great shock-headed, freckle-faced Borderer, the lineal
descendant of a cattle-thieving clan in Liddesdale. In spite of his
ancestry he was as solid and sober a citizen as one would wish to see,
a town councillor of Melrose, an elder of the Church, and the chairman
of the local branch of the Young Men's Christian Association. Brown was
his name--and you saw it printed up as "Brown and Handiside" over the
great grocery stores in the High Street. His wife, Maggie Brown, was an
Armstrong before her marriage, and came from an old farming stock in the
wilds of Teviothead. She was small, swarthy, and dark-eyed, with a
strangely nervous temperament for a Scotch woman. No greater contrast
could be found than the big tawny man and the dark little woman; but
both were of the soil as far back as any memory could extend.
One day--it was the first anniversary of their wedding--they had driven
over together to see the excavations of the Roman Fort at Newstead.
It was not a particularly picturesque spot. From the northern bank of
the Tweed, just where the river forms a loop, there extends a gentle
slope of arable land. Across it run the trenches of the excavators,
with here and there an exposure of old stonework to show the foundations
of the ancient walls. It had been a huge place, for the camp was fifty
acres in extent, and the fort fifteen. However, it was all made easy
for them since Mr. Brown knew the farmer to whom the land belonged.
Under his guidance they spent a long summer evening inspecting the
trenches, the pits, the ramparts, and all the strange variety of objects
which were waiting to be transported to the Edinburgh Museum of
Antiquities. The buckle of a woman's belt had been dug up that very
day, and the farmer was discoursing upon it when his eyes fell upon Mrs.
"Your good leddy's tired," said he. "Maybe you'd best rest a wee before
we gang further."
Brown looked at his wife. She was certainly very pale, and her dark
eyes were bright and wild.
"What is it, Maggie? I've wearied you. I'm thinkin' it's time we went
"No, no, John, let us go on. It's wonderful! It's like a dreamland
place. It all seems so close and so near to me. How long were the
Romans here, Mr. Cunningham?"
"A fair time, mam. If you saw the kitchen midden-pits you would guess
it took a long time to fill them."
"And why did they leave?"
"Well, mam, by all accounts they left because they had to. The folk
round could thole them no longer, so they just up and burned the fort
aboot their lugs. You can see the fire marks on the stanes."
The woman gave a quick little shudder. "A wild night--a fearsome
night," said she. "The sky must have been red that night--and these
grey stones, they may have been red also."
"Aye, I think they were red," said her husband. "It's a queer thing,
Maggie, and it may be your words that have done it; but I seem to see
that business aboot as clear as ever I saw anything in my life.
The light shone on the water."
"Aye, the light shone on the water. And the smoke gripped you by the
throat. And all the savages were yelling."
The old farmer began to laugh. "The leddy will be writin' a story aboot
the old fort," said he. "I've shown many a one over it, but I never
heard it put so clear afore. Some folk have the gift."
They had strolled along the edge of the foss, and a pit yawned upon the
right of them.
"That pit was fourteen foot deep," said the farmer. "What d'ye think we
dug oot from the bottom o't? Weel, it was just the skeleton of a man
wi' a spear by his side. I'm thinkin' he was grippin' it when he died.
Now, how cam' a man wi' a spear doon a hole fourteen foot deep?
He wasna' buried there, for they aye burned their dead. What make ye o'
"He sprang doon to get clear of the savages," said the woman.
"Weel, it's likely enough, and a' the professors from Edinburgh couldna
gie a better reason. I wish you were aye here, mam, to answer a' oor
difficulties sae readily. Now, here's the altar that we foond last
week. There's an inscreeption. They tell me it's Latin, and it means
that the men o' this fort give thanks to God for their safety."
They examined the old worn stone. There was a large deeply-cut "VV"
upon the top of it. "What does 'VV' stand for?" asked Brown.
"Naebody kens," the guide answered.
"_Valeria Victrix_," said the lady softly. Her face was paler than
ever, her eyes far away, as one who peers down the dim aisles of
"What's that?" asked her husband sharply.
She started as one who wakes from sleep. "What were we talking about?"
"About this 'VV' upon the stone."
"No doubt it was just the name of the Legion which put the altar up."
"Aye, but you gave some special name."
"Did I? How absurd! How should I ken what the name was?"
"You said something--'_Victrix_,' I think."
"I suppose I was guessing. It gives me the queerest feeling, this
place, as if I were not myself, but someone else."
"Aye, it's an uncanny place," said her husband, looking round with an
expression almost of fear in his bold grey eyes. "I feel it mysel'.
I think we'll just be wishin' you good evenin', Mr. Cunningham,
and get back to Melrose before the dark sets in."
Neither of them could shake off the strange impression which had been
left upon them by their visit to the excavations. It was as if some
miasma had risen from those damp trenches and passed into their blood.
All the evening they were silent and thoughtful, but such remarks as
they did make showed that the same subject was in the minds of each.
Brown had a restless night, in which he dreamed a strange connected
dream, so vivid that he woke sweating and shivering like a frightened
horse. He tried to convey it all to his wife as they sat together at
breakfast in the morning.
"It was the clearest thing, Maggie," said he. "Nothing that has ever
come to me in my waking life has been more clear than that. I feel as
if these hands were sticky with blood."
"Tell me of it--tell me slow," said she.
"When it began, I was oot on a braeside. I was laying flat on the
ground. It was rough, and there were clumps of heather. All round me
was just darkness, but I could hear the rustle and the breathin' of men.
There seemed a great multitude on every side of me, but I could see no
one. There was a low chink of steel sometimes, and then a number of
voices would whisper 'Hush!' I had a ragged club in my hand, and it had
spikes o' iron near the end of it. My heart was beatin' quickly, and I
felt that a moment of great danger and excitement was at hand.
Once I dropped my club, and again from all round me the voices in the
darkness cried, 'Hush!' I put oot my hand, and it touched the foot of
another man lying in front of me. There was some one at my very elbow
on either side. But they said nothin'.
"Then we all began to move. The whole braeside seemed to be crawlin'
downwards. There was a river at the bottom and a high-arched wooden
bridge. Beyond the bridge were many lights--torches on a wall.
The creepin' men all flowed towards the bridge. There had been no sound
of any kind, just a velvet stillness. And then there was a cry in the
darkness, the cry of a man who has been stabbed suddenly to the hairt.
That one cry swelled out for a moment, and then the roar of a thoosand
furious voices. I was runnin'. Every one was runnin'. A bright red
light shone out, and the river was a scarlet streak. I could see my
companions now. They were more like devils than men, wild figures clad
in skins, with their hair and beards streamin'. They were all mad
with rage, jumpin' as they ran, their mouths open, their arms wavin',
the red light beatin' on their faces. I ran, too, and yelled out curses
like the rest. Then I heard a great cracklin' of wood, and I knew that
the palisades were doon. There was a loud whistlin' in my ears, and I
was aware that arrows were flyin' past me. I got to the bottom of a
dyke, and I saw a hand stretched doon from above. I took it, and was
dragged to the top. We looked doon, and there were silver men beneath
us holdin' up their spears. Some of our folk sprang on to the spears.
Then we others followed, and we killed the soldiers before they
could draw the spears oot again. They shouted loud in some foreign
tongue, but no mercy was shown them. We went ower them like a wave, and
trampled them doon into the mud, for they were few, and there was no end
to our numbers.
"I found myself among buildings, and one of them was on fire. I saw the
flames spoutin' through the roof. I ran on, and then I was alone among
the buildings. Some one ran across in front o' me. It was a woman.
I caught her by the arm, and I took her chin and turned her face so as
the light of the fire would strike it. Whom think you that it was,
His wife moistened her dry lips. "It was I," she said.
He looked at her in surprise. "That's a good guess," said he. "Yes, it
was just you. Not merely like you, you understand. It was you--you
yourself. I saw the same soul in your frightened eyes. You looked
white and bonny and wonderful in the firelight. I had just one thought
in my head--to get you awa' with me; to keep you all to mysel' in my own
home somewhere beyond the hills. You clawed at my face with your nails.
I heaved you over my shoulder, and I tried to find a way oot of the
light of the burning hoose and back into the darkness.
"Then came the thing that I mind best of all. You're ill, Maggie.
Shall I stop? My God! You nave the very look on your face that you had
last night in my dream. You screamed. He came runnin' in the
firelight. His head was bare; his hair was black and curled; he had a
naked sword in his hand, short and broad, little more than a dagger.
He stabbed at me, but he tripped and fell. I held you with one hand,
and with the other--"
His wife had sprung to her feet with writhing features.
"Marcus!" she cried. "My beautiful Marcus! Oh, you brute! you brute!
you brute!" There was a clatter of tea-cups as she fell forward
senseless upon the table.
They never talk about that strange isolated incident in their married
life. For an instant the curtain of the past had swung aside, and some
strange glimpse of a forgotten life had come to them. But it closed
down, never to open again. They live their narrow round--he in his
shop, she in her household--and yet new and wider horizons have vaguely
formed themselves around them since that summer evening by the crumbling
It was daybreak of a March morning in the year of Christ 92. Outside
the long Semita Alta was already thronged with people, with buyers and
sellers, callers and strollers, for the Romans were so early-rising a
people that many a Patrician preferred to see his clients at six in the
morning. Such was the good republican tradition, still upheld by the
more conservative; but with more modern habits of luxury, a night of
pleasure and banqueting was no uncommon thing. Thus one, who had
learned the new and yet adhered to the old, might find his hours
overlap, and without so much as a pretence of sleep come straight from
his night of debauch into his day of business, turning with heavy wits
and an aching head to that round of formal duties which consumed the
life of a Roman gentleman.
So it was with Emilius Flaccus that March morning. He and his fellow
senator, Caius Balbus, had passed the night in one of those gloomy
drinking bouts to which the Emperor Domitian summoned his chosen friends
at the high palace on the Palatine. Now, having reached the portals of
the house of Flaccus, they stood together under the pomegranate-fringed
portico which fronted the peristyle and, confident in each other's tried
discretion, made up by the freedom of their criticism for their long
self-suppression of that melancholy feast.
"If he would but feed his guests," said Balbus, a little red-faced,
choleric nobleman with yellow-shot angry eyes. "What had we? Upon my
life, I have forgotten. Plovers' eggs, a mess of fish, some bird or
other, and then his eternal apples."
"Of which," said Flaccus, "he ate only the apples. Do him the justice
to confess that he takes even less than he gives. At least they cannot
say of him as of Vitellius, that his teeth beggared the empire."
"No, nor his thirst either, great as it is. That fiery Sabine wine of
his could be had for a few sesterces the amphora. It is the common
drink of the carters at every wine-house on the country roads. I longed
for a glass of my own rich Falernian or the mellow Coan that was bottled
in the year that Titus took Jerusalem. Is it even now too late?
Could we not wash this rasping stuff from our palates?"
"Nay, better come in with me now and take a bitter draught ere you go
upon your way. My Greek physician Stephanos has a rare prescription
for a morning head. What! Your clients await you? Well, I will see
you later at the Senate house."
The Patrician had entered his atrium, bright with rare flowers, and
melodious with strange singing birds. At the jaws of the hall, true to
his morning duties, stood Lebs, the little Nubian slave, with snow-white
tunic and turban, a salver of glasses in one hand, whilst in the other
he held a flask of a thin lemon-tinted liquid. The master of the house
filled up a bitter aromatic bumper, and was about to drink it off, when
his hand was arrested by a sudden perception that something was much
amiss in his household. It was to be read all around him--in the
frightened eyes of the black boy, in the agitated face of the keeper of
the atrium, in the gloom and silence of the little knot of ordinarii,
the procurator or major-domo at their head, who had assembled to greet
their master. Stephanos the physician, Cleios the Alexandrine reader,
Promus the steward each turned his head away to avoid his master's
"What in the name of Pluto is the matter with you all?" cried the amazed
senator, whose night of potations had left him in no mood for patience.
"Why do you stand moping there? Stephanos, Vacculus--is anything amiss?
Here, Promus, you are the head of my household. What is it, then?
Why do you turn your eyes away from me?"
The burly steward, whose fat face was haggard and mottled with anxiety,
laid his hand upon the sleeve of the domestic beside him.
"Sergius is responsible for the atrium, my lord. It is for him to tell
you the terrible thing that has befallen in your absence."
"Nay, it was Datus who did it. Bring him in, and let him explain it
himself," said Sergius in a sulky voice.
The patience of the Patrician was at an end. "Speak this instant, you
rascal!" he shouted angrily. "Another minute, and I will have you
dragged to the ergastulum, where, with your feet in the stocks and the
gyves round your wrists, you may learn quicker obedience. Speak, I say,
and without delay."
"It is the Venus," the man stammered; "the Greek Venus of Praxiteles."
The senator gave a cry of apprehension and rushed to the corner of the
atrium, where a little shrine, curtained off by silken drapery, held the
precious statue, the greatest art treasure of his collection--perhaps of
the whole world. He tore the hangings aside and stood in speechless
anger before the outraged goddess. The red perfumed lamp which always
burned before her had been spilled and broken; her altar fire had been
quenched, her chaplet had been dashed aside. But worst of all--
insufferable sacrilege!--her own beautiful nude body of glistening
Pantelic marble, as white and fair as when the inspired Greek had hewed
it out five hundred years before, had been most brutally mishandled.
Three fingers of the gracious outstretched hand had been struck off, and
lay upon the pedestal beside her. Above her delicate breast a dark mark
showed, where a blow had disfigured the marble. Emilius Flaccus,
the most delicate and judicious connoisseur in Rome, stood gasping and
croaking, his hand to his throat, as he gazed at his disfigured
masterpiece. Then he turned upon his slaves, his fury in his convulsed
face; but, to his amazement, they were not looking at him, but had all
turned in attitudes of deep respect towards the opening of the
peristyle. As he faced round and saw who had just entered his house,
his own rage fell away from him in an instant, and his manner became as
humble as that of his servants.
The newcomer was a man forty-three years of age, clean shaven, with a
massive head, large engorged eyes, a small clear-cut nose, and the full
bull neck which was the especial mark of his breed. He had entered
through the peristyle with a swaggering, rolling gait, as one who walks
upon his own ground, and now he stood, his hands upon his hips, looking
round him at the bowing slaves, and finally at their master, with a
half-humorous expression upon his flushed and brutal face.
"Why, Emilius," said he, "I had understood that your household was the
best-ordered in Rome. What is amiss with you this morning?"
"Nothing could be amiss with us now that Caesar has deigned to come
under my roof," said the courtier. "This is indeed a most glad surprise
which you have prepared for me."
"It was an afterthought," said Domitian. "When you and the others had
left me, I was in no mood for sleep, and so it came into my mind that I
would have a breath of morning air by coming down to you, and seeing
this Grecian Venus of yours, about which you discoursed so eloquently
between the cups. But, indeed, by your appearance and that of your
servants, I should judge that my visit was an ill-timed one."
"Nay, dear master; say not so. But, indeed, it is truth that I was in
trouble at the moment of your welcome entrance, and this trouble was, as
the Fates have willed it, brought forth by that very statue in which you
have been graciously pleased to show your interest. There it stands,
and you can see for yourself how rudely it has been mishandled."
"By Pluto and all the nether gods, if it were mine some of you should
feed the lampreys," said the Emperor, looking round with his fierce eyes
at the shrinking slaves. "You were always overmerciful, Emilius.
It is the common talk that your catenoe are rusted for want of use.
But surely this is beyond all bounds. Let me see how you handle the
matter. Whom do you hold responsible?"
"The slave Sergius is responsible, since it is his place to tend the
atrium," said Flaccus. "Stand forward, Sergius. What have you to say?"
The trembling slave advanced to his master. "If it please you, sir, the
mischief has been done by Datus the Christian."
"Datus! Who is he?"
"The matulator, the scavenger, my lord. I did not know that he belonged
to these horrible people, or I should not have admitted him. He came
with his broom to brush out the litter of the birds. His eyes fell upon
the Venus, and in an instant he had rushed upon her and struck her two
blows with his wooden besom. Then we fell upon him and dragged him
away. But alas! alas! it was too late, for already the wretch had
dashed off the fingers of the goddess."
The Emperor smiled grimly, while the Patrician's thin face grew pale
"Where is the fellow?" he asked.
"In the ergastulum, your honour, with the furca on his neck."
"Bring him hither and summon the household."
A few minutes later the whole back of the atrium was thronged by the
motley crowd who ministered to the household needs of a great Roman
nobleman. There was the arcarius, or account keeper, with his stylum
behind his ear; the sleek praegustator, who sampled all foods, so as to
stand between his master and poison, and beside him his predecessor, now
a half-witted idiot through the interception twenty years before of a
datura draught from Canidia; the cellarman, summoned from amongst his
amphorae; the cook, with his basting-ladle in his hand; the pompous
nomenclator, who ushered the guests; the cubicularius, who saw to their
accommodation; the silentiarius, who kept order in the house; the
structor, who set forth the tables; the carptor, who carved the food;
the cinerarius, who lit the fires--these and many more, half-curious,
half-terrified, came to the judging of Datus. Behind them a chattering,
giggling swarm of Lalages, Marias, Cerusas, and Amaryllides, from the
laundries and the spinning-rooms, stood upon their tiptoes and extended
their pretty wondering faces over the shoulders of the men. Through
this crowd came two stout varlets leading the culprit between them.
He was a small, dark, rough-headed man, with an unkempt beard and wild
eyes which shone, brightly with strong inward emotion. His hands were
bound behind him, and over his neck was the heavy wooden collar or furca
which was placed upon refractory slaves. A smear of blood across his
cheek showed that he had not come uninjured from the preceding scuffle.
"Are you Datus the scavenger?" asked the Patrician.
The man drew himself up proudly. "Yes," said he, "I am Datus."
"Did you do this injury to my statue?"
"Yes, I did."
There was an uncompromising boldness in the man's reply which compelled
respect. The wrath of his master became tinged with interest.
"Why did you do this?" he asked.
"Because it was my duty."
"Why, then, was it your duty to destroy your master's property?"
"Because I am a Christian." His eyes blazed suddenly out of his dark
face. "Because there is no God but the one eternal, and all else are
sticks and stones. What has this naked harlot to do with Him to whom
the great firmament is but a garment and the earth a footstool?
It was in His service that I have broken your statue."
Domitian looked with a smile at the Patrician. "You will make nothing
of him," said he. "They speak even so when they stand before the lions
in the arena. As to argument, not all the philosophers of Rome can
break them down. Before my very face they refuse to sacrifice in my
honour. Never were such impossible people to deal with. I should take
a short way with him if I were you."
"What would Caesar advise?"
"There are the games this afternoon. I am showing the new
hunting-leopard which King Juba has sent from Numidia. This slave may
give us some sport when he finds the hungry beast sniffing at his
The Patrician considered for a moment. He had always been a father to
his servants. It was hateful to him to think of any injury befalling
them. Perhaps even now, if this strange fanatic would show his sorrow
for what he had done, it might be possible to spare him. At least it
was worth trying.
"Your offence deserves death," he said. "What reasons can you give why
it should not befall you, since you have injured this statue, which is
worth your own price a hundred times over?"
The slave looked steadfastly at his master. "I do not fear death," he
said. "My sister Candida died in the arena, and I am ready to do the
same. It is true that I have injured your statue, but I am able to find
you something of far greater value in exchange. I will give you the
truth and the gospel in exchange for your broken idol."
The Emperor laughed. "You will do nothing with him, Emilius," he said.
"I know his breed of old. He is ready to die; he says so himself.
Why save him, then?"
But the Patrician still hesitated. He would make a last effort.
"Throw off his bonds," he said to the guards. "Now take the furca off
his neck. So! Now, Datus, I have released you to show you that I trust
you. I have no wish to do you any hurt if you will but acknowledge your
error, and so set a better example to my household here assembled."
"How, then, shall I acknowledge my error?" the slave asked.
"Bow your head before the goddess, and entreat her forgiveness for the
violence you have done her. Then perhaps you may gain my pardon as
"Put me, then, before her," said the Christian.
Emilius Flaccus looked triumphantly at Domitian. By kindness and tact
he was effecting that which the Emperor had failed to do by violence.
Datus walked in front of the mutilated Venus. Then with a sudden spring
he tore the baton out of the hand of one of his guardians, leaped upon
the pedestal, and showered his blows upon the lovely marble woman.
With a crack and a dull thud her right arm dropped to the ground.
Another fierce blow and the left had followed. Flaccus danced and
screamed with horror, while his servants dragged the raving iconoclast
from his impassive victim. Domitian's brutal laughter echoed through
"Well, friend, what think you now?" he cried. "Are you wiser than your
Emperor? Can you indeed tame your Christian with kindness?"
Emilius Flaccus wiped the sweat from his brow. "He is yours, great
Caesar. Do with him as you will."
"Let him be at the gladiators' entrance of the circus an hour before the
games begin," said the Emperor. "Now, Emilius, the night has been a
merry one. My Ligurian galley waits by the river quay. Come, cool your
head with a spin to Ostia ere the business of State calls you to the
I THE COMING OF MAXIMIN
Many are the strange vicissitudes of history. Greatness has often sunk
to the dust, and has tempered itself to its new surrounding.
Smallness has risen aloft, has flourished for a time, and then has sunk
once more. Rich monarchs have become poor monks, brave conquerors have
lost their manhood, eunuchs and women have overthrown armies and
kingdoms. Surely there is no situation which the mind of man can invent
which has not taken shape and been played out upon the world stage.
But of all the strange careers and of all the wondrous happenings,
stranger than Charles in his monastery, or Justin on his throne, there
stands the case of Giant Maximin, what he attained, and how he attained
it. Let me tell the sober facts of history, tinged only by that
colouring to which the more austere historians could not condescend.
It is a record as well as a story.
In the heart of Thrace some ten miles north of the Rhodope mountains,
there is a valley which is named Harpessus, after the stream which runs
down it. Through this valley lies the main road from the east to the
west, and along the road, returning from an expedition against the
Alani, there marched, upon the fifth day of the month of June in the
year 210, a small but compact Roman army. It consisted of three
legions--the Jovian, the Cappadocian, and the men of Hercules.
Ten turmae of Gallic cavalry led the van, whilst the rear was covered by
a regiment of Batavian Horse Guards, the immediate attendants of the
Emperor Septimus Severus who had conducted the campaign in person.
The peasants who lined the low hills which fringed the valley looked
with indifference upon the long files of dusty, heavily-burdened
infantry, but they broke into murmurs of delight at the gold-faced
cuirasses and high brazen horse-hair helmets of the guardsmen,
applauding their stalwart figures, their martial bearing, and the
stately black chargers which they rode. A soldier might know that it
was the little weary men with their short swords, their heavy pikes over
their shoulders, and their square shields slung upon their backs, who
were the real terror of the enemies of the Empire, but to the eyes of
the wondering Thracians it was this troop of glittering Apollos who bore
Rome's victory upon their banners, and upheld the throne of the
purple-togaed prince who rode before them.
Among the scattered groups of peasants who looked on from a respectful
distance at this military pageant, there were two men who attracted much
attention from those who stood immediately around them. The one was
commonplace enough--a little grey-headed man, with uncouth dress and a
frame which was bent and warped by a long life of arduous toil,
goat-driving and wood-chopping among the mountains. It was the
appearance of his youthful companion which had drawn the amazed
observation of the bystanders. In stature he was such a giant as is
seen but once or twice in each generation of mankind. Eight feet and
two inches was his measure from his sandalled sole to the topmost curls
of his tangled hair. Yet for all his mighty stature there was nothing
heavy or clumsy in the man. His huge shoulders bore no redundant flesh,
and his figure was straight and hard and supple as a young pine tree.
A frayed suit of brown leather clung close to his giant body, and a
cloak of undressed sheep-skin was slung from his shoulder. His bold
blue eyes, shock of yellow hair and fair skin showed that he was of
Gothic or northern blood, and the amazed expression upon his broad frank
face as he stared at the passing troops told of a simple and uneventful
life in some back valley of the Macedonian mountains.
"I fear your mother was right when she advised that we keep you at
home," said the old man anxiously. "Tree-cutting and wood-carrying will
seem but dull work after such a sight as this."
"When I see mother next it will be to put a golden torque round her
neck," said the young giant. "And you, daddy; I will fill your leather
pouch with gold pieces before I have done."
The old man looked at his son with startled eyes. "You would not leave
us, Theckla! What could we do without you?"
"My place is down among yonder men," said the young man. "I was not
born to drive goats and carry logs, but to sell this manhood of mine in
the best market. There is my market in the Emperor's own Guard.
Say nothing, daddy, for my mind is set, and if you weep now it will be
to laugh hereafter. I will to great Rome with the soldiers."
The daily march of the heavily laden Roman legionary was fixed at twenty
miles; but on this afternoon, though only half the distance had been
accomplished, the silver trumpets blared out their welcome news that a
camp was to be formed. As the men broke their ranks, the reason of
their light march was announced by the decurions. It was the birthday
of Geta, the younger son of the Emperor, and in his honour there would
be games and a double ration of wine. But the iron discipline of the
Roman army required that under all circumstances certain duties should
be performed, and foremost among them that the camp should be made
secure. Laying down their arms in the order of their ranks, the
soldiers seized their spades and axes, and worked rapidly and joyously
until sloping vallum and gaping fossa girdled them round, and gave them
safe refuge against a night attack. Then in noisy, laughing,
gesticulating crowds they gathered in their thousands round the grassy
arena where the sports were to be held. A long green hillside sloped
down to a level plain, and on this gentle incline the army lay watching
the strife of the chosen athletes who contended before them. They
stretched themselves in the glare of the sunshine, their heavy tunics
thrown off, and their naked limbs sprawling, wine-cups an baskets of
fruit and cakes circling amongst them, enjoying rest and peace as only
those can to whom it comes so rarely.
The five-mile race was over, and had been won as usual by Decurion
Brennus, the crack long-distance champion of the Herculians. Amid the
yells of the Jovians, Capellus of the corps had carried off both the
long and the high jump. Big Brebix the Gaul had out-thrown the long
guardsman Serenus with the fifty pound stone. Now, as the sun sank
towards the western ridge, and turned the Harpessus to a riband of gold,
they had come to the final of the wrestling, where the pliant Greek,
whose name is lost in the nickname of "Python," was tried out against
the bull-necked Lictor of the military police, a hairy Hercules, whose
heavy hand had in the way of duty oppressed many of the spectators.
As the two men, stripped save for their loin-cloths, approached the
wrestling-ring, cheers and counter-cheers burst from their adherents,
some favouring the Lictor for his Roman blood, some the Greek from
their own private grudge. And then, of a sudden, the cheering died,
heads were turned towards the slope away from the arena, men stood up
and peered and pointed, until finally, in a strange hush, the whole
great assembly had forgotten the athletes, and were watching a single
man walking swiftly towards them down the green curve of the hill.
This huge solitary figure, with the oaken club in his hand, the
shaggy fleece flapping from his great shoulders, and the setting sun
gleaming upon a halo of golden hair, might have been the tutelary god of
the fierce and barren mountains from which he had issued. Even the
Emperor rose from his chair and gazed with open-eyed amazement at the
extraordinary being who approached him.
The man, whom we already know as Theckla the Thracian, paid no heed to
the attention which he had aroused, but strode onwards, stepping as
lightly as a deer, until he reached the fringe of the soldiers.
Amid their open ranks he picked his way, sprang over the ropes which
guarded the arena, and advanced towards the Emperor, until a spear at
his breast warned him that he must go no nearer. Then he sunk upon his
right knee and called out some words in the Gothic speech.
"Great Jupiter! Whoever saw such a body of a man!" cried the Emperor.
"What says he? What is amiss with the fellow? Whence comes he, and
what is his name?"
An interpreter translated the Barbarian's answer. "He says, great
Caesar, that he is of good blood, and sprung by a Gothic father from a
woman of the Alani. He says that his name is Theckla, and that he would
fain carry a sword in Caesar's service."
The Emperor smiled. "Some post could surely be found for such a man,
were it but as janitor at the Palatine Palace," said he to one of the
Prefects. "I would fain see him walk even as he is through the forum.
He would turn the heads of half the women in Rome. Talk to him,
Crassus. You know his speech."
The Roman officer turned to the giant. "Caesar says that you are to
come with him, and he will make you the servant at his door."
The Barbarian rose, and his fair cheeks flushed with resentment.
"I will serve Caesar as a soldier," said he, "but I will be
house-servant to no man-not even to him. If Caesar would see what
manner of man I am, let him put one of his guardsmen up against me."
"By the shade of Milo this is a bold fellow!" cried the Emperor.
"How say you, Crassus? Shall he make good his words?"
"By your leave, Caesar," said the blunt soldier, "good swordsmen are too
rare in these days that we should let them slay each other for sport.
Perhaps if the Barbarian would wrestle a fall--"
"Excellent!" cried the Emperor. "Here is the Python, and here Varus the
Lictor, each stripped for the bout. Have a look at them, Barbarian, and
see which you would choose. What does he say? He would take them both?
Nay then he is either the king of wrestlers or the king of boasters, and
we shall soon see which. Let him have his way, and he has himself to
thank if he comes out with a broken neck."
There was some laughter when the peasant tossed his sheep-skin mantle to
the ground and, without troubling to remove his leathern tunic, advanced
towards the two wrestlers; but it became uproarious when with a quick
spring he seized the Greek under one arm and the Roman under the other,
holding them as in a vice. Then with a terrific effort he tore them
both from the ground, carried them writhing and kicking round the arena,
and finally walking up to the Emperor's throne, threw his two athletes
down in front of him. Then, bowing to Caesar, the huge Barbarian
withdrew, and laid his great bulk down among the ranks of the applauding
soldiers, whence he watched with stolid unconcern the conclusion of the
It was still daylight, when the last event had been decided, and the
soldiers returned to the camp. The Emperor Severus had ordered his
horse, and in the company of Crassus, his favourite prefect, rode down
the winding pathway which skirts the Harpessus, chatting over the future
dispersal of the army. They had ridden for some miles when Severus,
glancing behind him, was surprised to see a huge figure which trotted
lightly along at the very heels of his horse.
"Surely this is Mercury as well as Hercules that we have found among the
Thracian mountains," said he with a smile. "Let us see how soon our
Syrian horses can out-distance him."
The two Romans broke into a gallop, and did not draw rein until a good
mile had been covered at the full pace of their splendid chargers.
Then they turned and looked back; but there, some distance off, still
running with a lightness and a spring which spoke of iron muscles and
inexhaustible endurance, came the great Barbarian. The Roman Emperor
waited until the athlete had come up to them.
"Why do you follow me?" he asked. "It is my hope, Caesar, that I may
always follow you." His flushed face as he spoke was almost level with
that of the mounted Roman.
"By the god of war, I do not know where in all the world I could find
such a servant!" cried the Emperor. "You shall be my own body-guard,
the one nearest to me of all."
The giant fell upon his knee. "My life and strength are yours," he
said. "I ask no more than to spend them for Caesar."
Crassus had interpreted this short dialogue. He now turned to the
"If he is indeed to be always at your call, Caesar, it would be well to
give the poor Barbarian some name which your lips can frame. Theckla is
as uncouth and craggy a word as one of his native rocks."
The Emperor pondered for a moment. "If I am to have the naming of him,"
said he, "then surely I shall call him Maximus, for there is not such a
giant upon earth."
"Hark you," said the Prefect. "The Emperor has deigned to give you a
Roman name, since you have come into his service. Henceforth you are
no longer Theckla, but you are Maximus. Can you say it after me?"
"Maximin," repeated the Barbarian, trying to catch the Roman word.
The Emperor laughed at the mincing accent. "Yes, yes, Maximin let it
be. To all the world you are Maximin, the body-guard of Severus.
When we have reached Rome, we will soon see that your dress shall
correspond with your office. Meanwhile march with the guard until you
have my further orders."
So it came about that as the Roman army resumed its march next day, and
left behind it the fair valley of the Harpessus, a huge recruit, clad in
brown leather, with a rude sheep-skin floating from his shoulders,
marched beside the Imperial troop. But far away in the wooden farmhouse
of a distant Macedonian valley two old country folk wept salt tears, and
prayed to the gods for the safety of their boy who had turned his face
II THE RISE OF GIANT MAXIMIN
Exactly twenty-five years had passed since the day that Theckla the huge
Thracian peasant had turned into Maximin the Roman guardsman. They had
not been good years for Rome. Gone for ever were the great Imperial
days of the Hadrians and the Trajans. Gone also the golden age of the
two Antonines, when the highest were for once the most worthy and most
wise. It had been an epoch of weak and cruel men. Severus, the swarthy
African, a stark grim man, had died in far away York, after fighting all
the winter with the Caledonian Highlanders--a race who have ever since
worn the martial garb of the Romans. His son, known only by his
slighting nick-name of Caracalla, had reigned during six years of insane
lust and cruelty, before the knife of an angry soldier avenged the
dignity of the Roman name. The nonentity Macrinus had filled the
dangerous throne for a single year before he also met a bloody end, and
made room for the most grotesque of all monarchs, the unspeakable
Heliogabalus with his foul mind and his painted face. He in turn was
cut to pieces by the soldiers, and Severus Alexander, a gentle youth,
scarce seventeen years of age, had been thrust into his place.
For thirteen years now he had ruled, striving with some success to put
some virtue and stability into the rotting Empire, but raising many
fierce enemies as he did so-enemies whom he had not the strength nor the
wit to hold in check.
And Giant Maximin--what of him? He had carried his eight feet of
manhood through the lowlands of Scotland, and the passes of the
Grampians. He had seen Severus pass away, and had soldiered with his
son. He had fought in Armenia, in Dacia, and in Germany. They had made
him a centurion upon the field when with his hands he plucked out one by
one the stockades of a northern village, and so cleared a path for the
stormers. His strength had been the jest and the admiration of the
soldiers. Legends about him had spread through the army and were the
common gossip round the camp fires--of his duel with the German axeman
on the Island of the Rhine, and of the blow with his fist which broke
the leg of a Scythian's horse. Gradually he had won his way upwards,
until now, after quarter of a century's service he was tribune of the
fourth legion and superintendent of recruits for the whole army.
The young soldier who had come under the glare of Maximin's eyes, or had
been lifted up with one huge hand while he was cuffed by the other,
had his first lesson from him in the discipline of the service.
It was nightfall in the camp of the fourth legion upon the Gallic shore
of the Rhine. Across the moonlit water, amid the thick forests which
stretched away to the dim horizon, lay the wild untamed German tribes.
Down on the river bank the light gleamed upon the helmets of the Roman
sentinels who kept guard along the river. Far away a red point rose and
fell in the darkness--a watch-fire of the enemy upon the further shore.
Outside his tent, beside some smouldering logs, Giant Maximin was
seated, a dozen of his officers around him. He had changed much since
the day when we first met him in the Valley of the Harpessus. His huge
frame was as erect as ever, and there was no sign of diminution of his
strength. But he had aged none the less. The yellow tangle of hair was
gone, worn down by the ever-pressing helmet. The fresh young face was
drawn and hardened, with austere lines wrought by trouble and privation.
The nose was more hawk-like, the eyes more cunning, the expression more
cynical and more sinister. In his youth, a child would have run to his
arms. Now it would shrink screaming from his gaze. That was what
twenty-five years with the eagles had done for Theckla the Thracian
He was listening now--for he was a man of few words--to the chatter of
his centurions. One of them, Balbus the Sicilian, had been to the main
camp at Mainz, only four miles away, and had seen the Emperor Alexander
arrive that very day from Rome. The rest were eager at the news, for it
was a time of unrest, and the rumour of great changes was in the air.
"How many had he with him?" asked Labienus, a black-browed veteran from
the south of Gaul. "I'll wager a month's pay that he was not so
trustful as to come alone among his faithful legions."
"He had no great force," replied Balbus. "Ten or twelve cohorts of the
Praetorians and a handful of horse."
"Then indeed his head is in the lion's mouth," cried Sulpicius, a
hot-headed youth from the African Pentapolis. "How was he received?"
"Coldly enough. There was scarce a shout as he came down the line."
"They are ripe for mischief," said Labienus. "And who can wonder, when
it is we soldiers who uphold the Empire upon our spears, while the lazy
citizens at Rome reap all of our sowing. Why cannot a soldier have what
a soldier gains? So long as they throw us our denarius a day, they
think that they have done with us."
"Aye," croaked a grumbling old greybeard. "Our limbs, our blood, our
lives--what do they care so long as the Barbarians are held off, and
they are left in peace to their feastings and their circus? Free bread,
free wine, free games--everything for the loafer at Rome. For us the
frontier guard and a soldier's fare."
Maximin gave a deep laugh. "Old Plancus talks like that," said he; "but
we know that for all the world he would not change his steel plate for a
citizen's gown. You've earned the kennel, old hound, if you wish it.
Go and gnaw your bone and growl in peace."
"Nay, I am too old for change. I will follow the eagle till I die.
And yet I had rather die in serving a soldier master than a long-gowned
Syrian who comes of a stock where the women are men and the men are
There was a laugh from the circle of soldiers, for sedition and mutiny
were rife in the camp, and even the old centurion's outbreak could not
draw a protest. Maximin raised his great mastiff head and looked at
"Was any name in the mouths of the soldiers?" he asked in a meaning
There was a hush for the answer. The sigh of the wind among the pines
and the low lapping of the river swelled out louder in the silence.
Balbus looked hard at his commander.
"Two names were whispered from rank to rank," said he. "One was
Ascenius Pollio, the General. The other was--"
The fiery Sulpicius sprang to his feet waving a glowing brand above his
"Maximinus!" he yelled, "Imperator Maximinus Augustus!"
Who could tell how it came about? No one had thought of it an hour
before. And now it sprang in an instant to full accomplishment.
The shout of the frenzied young African had scarcely rung through the
darkness when from the tents, from the watch-fires, from the sentries,
the answer came pealing back: "Ave, Maximinus! Ave Maximinus Augustus!"
From all sides men came rushing, half-clad, wild-eyed, their eyes
staring, their mouths agape, flaming wisps of straw or flaring torches
above their heads. The giant was caught up by scores of hands, and sat
enthroned upon the bull-necks of the legionaries. "To the camp!" they
yelled. "To the camp! Hail! Hail to the soldier Caesar!"
That same night Severus Alexander, the young Syrian Emperor, walked
outside his Praetorian camp, accompanied by his friend Licinius Probus,
the Captain of the Guard. They were talking gravely of the gloomy faces
and seditious bearing of the soldiers. A great foreboding of evil
weighed heavily upon the Emperor's heart, and it was reflected upon
the stern bearded face of his companion.
"I like it not," said he. "It is my counsel, Caesar, that with the
first light of morning we make our way south once more."
"But surely," the Emperor answered, "I could not for shame turn my back
upon the danger. What have they against me? How have I harmed them
that they should forget their vows and rise upon me?"
"They are like children who ask always for something new. You heard the
murmur as you rode along the ranks. Nay, Caesar, fly tomorrow, and
your Praetorians will see that you are not pursued. There may be some
loyal cohorts among the legions, and if we join forces--"
A distant shout broke in upon their conversation--a low continued roar,
like the swelling tumult of a sweeping wave. Far down the road upon
which they stood there twinkled many moving lights, tossing and sinking
as they rapidly advanced, whilst the hoarse tumultuous bellowing broke
into articulate words, the same tremendous words, a thousand-fold
repeated. Licinius seized the Emperor by the wrist and dragged him
under the cover of some bushes.
"Be still, Caesar! For your life be still!" he whispered. "One word
and we are lost!"
Crouching in the darkness, they saw that wild procession pass, the
rushing screaming figures, the tossing arms, the bearded, distorted
faces, now scarlet and now grey, as the brandished torches waxed or
waned. They heard the rush of many feet, the clamour of hoarse voices,
the clang of metal upon metal. And then suddenly, above them all, they
saw a vision of a monstrous man, a huge bowed back, a savage face, grim
hawk eyes, that looked out over the swaying shields. It was seen for an
instant in a smoke-fringed circle of fire, and then it had swept on into
"Who is he?" stammered the Emperor, clutching at his guardsman's sleeve.
"They call him Caesar."
"It is surely Maximin the Thracian peasant." In the darkness the
Praetorian officer looked with strange eyes at his master.
"It is all over, Caesar. Let us fly your tent."
But even as they went a second shout had broken forth tenfold louder
than the first. If the one had been the roar of the oncoming wave, the
other was the full turmoil of the tempest. Twenty thousand voices from
the camp had broken into one wild shout which echoed through the night,
until the distant Germans round their watch-fires listened in wonder
"Ave!" cried the voices. "Ave Maximinus Augustus!"
High upon their bucklers stood the giant, and looked round him at the
great floor of upturned faces below. His own savage soul was stirred by
the clamour, but only his gleaming eyes spoke of the fire within.
He waved his hand to the shouting soldiers as the huntsman waves to the
leaping pack. They passed him up a coronet of oak leaves, and clashed
their swords in homage as he placed it on his head. And then there came
a swirl in the crowd before him, a little space was cleared, and there
knelt an officer in the Praetorian garb, blood upon his face, blood upon
his bared forearm, blood upon his naked sword. Licinius too had gone
with the tide.
"Hail, Caesar, hail!" he cried, as he bowed his head before the giant.
"I come from Alexander. He will trouble you no more."
III THE FALL OF MAXIMIN
For three years the soldier Emperor had been upon the throne.
His palace had been his tent, and his people had been the legionaries.
With them he was supreme; away from them he was nothing. He had
gone with them from one frontier to the other. He had fought against
Dacians, Sarmatians, and once again against the Germans. But Rome knew
nothing of him, and all her turbulence rose against a master who cared
so little for her or her opinion that he never deigned to set foot
within her walls. There were cabals and conspiracies against the absent
Caesar. Then his heavy hand fell upon them, and they were cuffed, even
as the young soldiers had been who passed under his discipline. He knew
nothing, and cared as much for consuls, senates, and civil laws.
His own will and the power of the sword were the only forces which he
could understand. Of commerce and the arts he was as ignorant as when
he left his Thracian home. The whole vast Empire was to him a huge
machine for producing the money by which the legions were to be
rewarded. Should he fail to get that money, his fellow soldiers
would bear him a grudge. To watch their interests they had raised him
upon their shields that night. If city funds had to be plundered or
temples desecrated, still the money must be got. Such was the point
of view of Giant Maximin.
But there came resistance, and all the fierce energy of the man, all the
hardness which had given him the leadership of hard men, sprang forth to
quell it. From his youth he had lived amidst slaughter. Life and death
were cheap things to him. He struck savagely at all who stood up to
him, and when they hit back, he struck more savagely still. His giant
shadow lay black across the Empire from Britain to Syria. A strange
subtle vindictiveness became also apparent in him. Omnipotence ripened
every fault and swelled it into crime. In the old days he had been
rebuked for his roughness. Now a sullen dangerous anger arose against
those who had rebuked him. He sat by the hour with his craggy chin
between his hands, and his elbows resting on his knees, while he
recalled all the misadventures, all the vexations of his early youth,
when Roman wits had shot their little satires upon his bulk and his
ignorance. He could not write, but his son Verus placed the names upon
his tablets, and they were sent to the Governor of Rome. Men who had
long forgotten their offence were called suddenly to make most bloody
A rebellion broke out in Africa, but was quelled by his lieutenant.
But the mere rumour of it set Rome in a turmoil. The Senate found
something of its ancient spirit. So did the Italian people.
They would not be for ever bullied by the legions. As Maximin
approached from the frontier, with the sack of rebellious Rome in his
mind, he was faced with every sign of a national resistance. The
countryside was deserted, the farms abandoned, the fields cleared of
crops and cattle. Before him lay the walled town of Aquileia. He flung
himself fiercely upon it, but was met by as fierce a resistance.
The walls could not be forced, and yet there was no food in the country
round for his legions. The men were starving and dissatisfied.
What did it matter to them who was Emperor? Maximin was no better than
themselves. Why should they call down the curse of the whole Empire
upon their heads by upholding him? He saw their sullen faces and their
averted eyes, and he knew that the end had come.
That night he sat with his son Verus in his tent, and he spoke softly
and gently as the youth had never heard him speak before. He had spoken
thus in old days with Paullina, the boy's mother; but she had been dead
these many years, and all that was soft and gentle in the big man had
passed away with her. Now her spirit seemed very near him, and his own
was tempered by its presence.
"I would have you go back to the Thracian mountains," he said. "I have
tried both, boy, and I can tell you that there is no pleasure which
power can bring which can equal the breath of the wind and the smell of
the kine upon a summer morning. Against you they have no quarrel.
Why should they mishandle you? Keep far from Rome and the Romans.
Old Eudoxus has money, and to spare. He awaits you with two horses
outside the camp. Make for the valley of the Harpessus, lad. It was
thence that your father came, and there you will find his kin. Buy and
stock a homestead, and keep yourself far from the paths of greatness and
of danger. God keep you, Verus, and send you safe to Thrace."
When his son had kissed his hand and had left him, the Emperor drew his
robe around him and sat long in thought. In his slow brain he revolved
the past--his early peaceful days, his years with Severus, his memories
of Britain, his long campaigns, his strivings and battlings, all leading
to that mad night by the Rhine. His fellow soldiers had loved him then.
And now he had read death in their eyes. How had he failed them?
Others he might have wronged, but they at least had no complaint against
him. If he had his time again, he would think less of them and more of
his people, he would try to win love instead of fear, he would live for
peace and not for war. If he had his time again! But there were
shuffling Steps, furtive whispers, and the low rattle of arms outside
his tent. A bearded face looked in at him, a swarthy African face that
he knew well. He laughed, and, bearing his arm, he took his sword
from the table beside him.
"It is you, Sulpicius," said he. "You have not come to cry 'Ave
Imperator Maximin!' as once by the camp fire. You are tired of me, and
by the gods I am tired of you, and glad to be at the end of it.
Come and have done with it, for I am minded to see how many of you I can
take with me when I go."
They clustered at the door of the tent, peeping over each other's
shoulders, and none wishing to be the first to close with that laughing,
mocking giant. But something was pushed forward upon a spear point, and
as he saw it, Maximin groaned and his sword sank to the earth.
"You might have spared the boy," he sobbed. "He would not have hurt
you. Have done with it then, for I will gladly follow him."
So they closed upon him and cut and stabbed and thrust, until his knees
gave way beneath him and he dropped upon the floor.
"The tyrant is dead!" they cried. "The tyrant is dead," and from all
the camp beneath them and from the walls of the beleaguered city the
joyous cry came echoing back, "He is dead, Maximin is dead!"
I sit in my study, and upon the table before me lies a denarius of
Maximin, as fresh as when the triumvir of the Temple of Juno Moneta sent
it from the mint. Around it are recorded his resounding titles--
Imperator Maximinus, Pontifex Maximus, Tribunitia potestate, and the
rest. In the centre is the impress of a great craggy head, a massive
jaw, a rude fighting face, a contracted forehead. For all the pompous
roll of titles it is a peasant's face, and I see him not as the Emperor
of Rome, but as the great Thracian boor who strode down the hillside on
that far-distant summer day when first the eagles beckoned him to Rome.
THE COMING OF THE HUNS
In the middle of the fourth century the state of the Christian religion
was a scandal and a disgrace. Patient, humble, and long-suffering in
adversity, it had become positive, aggressive, and unreasonable with
success. Paganism was not yet dead, but it was rapidly sinking, finding
its most faithful supporters among the conservative aristocrats of the
best families on the one hand, and among those benighted villagers on
the other who gave their name to the expiring creed. Between these two
extremes the great majority of reasonable men had turned from the
conception of many gods to that of one, and had rejected for ever the
beliefs of their forefathers. But with the vices of polytheism they
had also abandoned its virtues, among which toleration and religious
good humour had been conspicuous. The strenuous earnestness of the
Christians had compelled them to examine and define every point of their
own theology; but as they had no central authority by which such
definitions could be checked, it was not long before a hundred heresies
had put forward their rival views, while the same earnestness of
conviction led the stronger bands of schismatics to endeavour, for
conscience sake, to force their views upon the weaker, and thus to cover
the Eastern world with confusion and strife.
Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople were centres of theological
warfare. The whole north of Africa, too, was rent by the strife of the
Donatists, who upheld their particular schism by iron flails and the
war-cry of "Praise to the Lord!" But minor local controversies sank to
nothing when compared with the huge argument of the Catholic and the
Arian, which rent every village in twain, and divided every household
from the cottage to the palace. The rival doctrines of the Homoousian
and of the Homoiousian, containing metaphysical differences so
attenuated that they could hardly be stated, turned bishop against
bishop and congregation against congregation. The ink of the
theologians and the blood of the fanatics were spilled in floods on
either side, and gentle followers of Christ were horrified to find that
their faith was responsible for such a state of riot and bloodshed as
had never yet disgraced the religious history of the world. Many of the
more earnest among them, shocked and scandalized, slipped away to the
Libyan Desert, or to the solitude of Pontus, there to await in
self-denial and prayer that second coming which was supposed to be at
hand. Even in the deserts they could not escape the echo of the distant
strife, and the hermits themselves scowled fiercely from their dens at
passing travellers who might be contaminated by the doctrines of
Athanasius or of Arius.
Such a hermit was Simon Melas, of whom I write. A Trinitarian and a
Catholic, he was shocked by the excesses of the persecution of the
Arians, which could be only matched by the similar outrages with which
these same Arians in the day of their power avenged their treatment on
their brother Christians. Weary of the whole strife, and convinced that
the end of the world was indeed at hand, he left his home in
Constantinople and travelled as far as the Gothic settlements in Dacia,
beyond the Danube, in search of some spot where he might be free from
the never-ending disputes. Still journeying to the north and east, he
crossed the river which we now call the Dneister, and there, finding a
rocky hill rising from an immense plain, he formed a cell near its
summit, and settled himself down to end his life in self-denial and
meditation. There were fish in the stream, the country teemed with
game, and there was an abundance of wild fruits, so that his spiritual
exercises were not unduly interrupted by the search of sustenance for
his mortal frame.
In this distant retreat he expected to find absolute solitude, but the
hope was in vain. Within a week of his arrival, in an hour of worldly
curiosity, he explored the edges of the high rocky hill upon which he
lived. Making his way up to a cleft, which was hung with olives and
myrtles, he came upon a cave in the opening of which sat an aged man,
white-bearded, white-haired, and infirm--a hermit like himself.
So long had this stranger been alone that he had almost forgotten the
use of his tongue; but at last, words coming more freely, he was able to
convey the information that his name was Paul of Nicopolis, that he was
a Greek citizen, and that he also had come out into the desert for the
saving of his soul, and to escape from the contamination of heresy.
"Little I thought, brother Simon," said he, "that I should ever find any
one else who had come so far upon the same holy errand. In all these
years, and they are so many that I have lost count of them, I have never
seen a man, save indeed one or two wandering shepherds far out upon
From where they sat, the huge steppe, covered with waving grass and
gleaming with a vivid green in the sun, stretched away as level and as
unbroken as the sea, to the eastern horizon. Simon Melas stared across
it with curiosity.
"Tell me, brother Paul," said he, "you who have lived here so long--what
lies at the further side of that plain?"
The old man shook his head. "There is no further side to the plain,"
said he. "It is the earth's boundary, and stretches away to eternity.
For all these years I have sat beside it, but never once have I seen
anything come across it. It is manifest that if there had been a
further side there would certainly at some time have come some
traveller from that direction. Over the great river yonder is the Roman
post of Tyras; but that is a long day's journey from here, and they have
never disturbed my meditations."
"On what do you meditate, brother Paul?"
"At first I meditated on many sacred mysteries; but now, for twenty
years, I have brooded continually on the nature of the Logos. What is
your view upon that vital matter, brother Simon?"
"Surely," said the younger man, "there can be no question as to that.
The Logos is assuredly but a name used by St. John to signify the
The old hermit gave a hoarse cry of fury, and his brown, withered face
was convulsed with anger. Seizing the huge cudgel which he kept to beat
off the wolves, he shook it murderously at his companion.
"Out with you! Out of my cell!" he cried. "Have I lived here so long
to have it polluted by a vile Trinitarian--a follower of the rascal
Athanasius? Wretched idolater, learn once for all, that the Logos
is in truth an emanation from the Deity, and in no sense equal or
co-eternal with Him! Out with you, I say, or I will dash out your
brains with my staff!"
It was useless to reason with the furious Arian, and Simon withdrew in
sadness and wonder, that at this extreme verge of the known earth the
spirit of religious strife should still break upon the peaceful
solitude of the wilderness. With hanging head and heavy heart he made
his way down the valley, and climbed up once more to his own cell, which
lay at the crown of the hill, with the intention of never again
exchanging visits with his Arian neighbour.
Here, for a year, dwelt Simon Melas, leading a life of solitude and
prayer. There was no reason why any one should ever come to this
outermost point of human habitation. Once a young Roman officer--
Caius Crassus--rode out a day's journey from Tyras, and climbed the hill
to have speech with the anchorite. He was of an equestrian family, and
still held his belief in the old dispensation. He looked with interest
and surprise, but also with some disgust, at the ascetic arrangements of
that humble abode.
"Whom do you please by living in such a fashion?" he asked.
"We show that our spirit is superior to our flesh," Simon answered.
"If we fare badly in this world, we believe that we shall reap an
advantage in the world to come."
The centurion shrugged his shoulders. "There are philosophers among our
people, Stoics and others, who have the same idea. When I was in the
Herulian Cohort of the Fourth Legion we were quartered in Rome itself,
and I saw much of the Christians, but I could never learn anything from
them which I had not heard from my own father, whom you, in your
arrogance, would call a Pagan. It is true that we talk of numerous
gods; but for many years we have not taken them very seriously.
Our thoughts upon virtue and duty and a noble life are the same as your
Simon Melas shook his head.
"If you have not the holy books," said he, "then what guide have you to
direct your steps?"
"If you will read our philosophers, and above all the divine Plato, you
will find that there are other guides who may take you to the same end.
Have you by chance read the book which was written by our Emperor Marcus
Aurelius? Do you not discover there every virtue which man could have,
although he knew nothing of your creed? Have you considered, also, the
words and actions of our late Emperor Julian, with whom I served my
first campaign when he went out against the Persians? Where could you
find a more perfect man than he?"
"Such talk is unprofitable, and I will have no more of it," said Simon,
sternly. "Take heed while there is time, and embrace the true faith;
for the end of the world is at hand, and when it comes there will be no
mercy for those who have shut their eyes to the light." So saying, he
turned back once more to his praying-stool and to his crucifix, while
the young Roman walked in deep thought down the hill, and mounting his
horse, rode off to his distant post. Simon watched him until his
brazen helmet was but a bead of light on the western edge of the great
plain; for this was the first human face that he had seen in all this
long year, and there were times when his heart yearned for the voices
and the faces of his kind.
So another year passed, and save for the chance of weather and the slow
change of the seasons, one day was as another. Every morning, when
Simon opened his eyes, he saw the same grey line ripening into red in
the furthest east, until the bright rim pushed itself above that far-off
horizon across which no living creature had ever been known to come.
Slowly the sun swept across the huge arch of the heavens, and as the
shadows shifted from the black rocks which jutted upward from above his
cell, so did the hermit regulate his terms of prayer and meditation.
There was nothing on earth to draw his eye, or to distract his mind, for
the grassy plain below was as void from month to month as the heaven
above. So the long hours passed, until the red rim slipped down on the
further side, and the day ended in the same pearl-grey shimmer with
which it had begun. Once two ravens circled for some days round the
lonely hill, and once a white fish-eagle came from the Dneister and
screamed above the hermit's head. Sometimes red dots were seen on the
green plain where the antelopes grazed, and often a wolf howled in the
darkness from the base of the rocks. Such was the uneventful life of
Simon Melas the anchorite, until there came the day of wrath.
It was in the late spring of the year 375 that Simon came out from his
cell, his gourd in his hand, to draw water from the spring. Darkness
had closed in, the sun had set, but one last glimmer of rosy light
rested upon a rocky peak, which jutted forth from the hill, on the
further side from the hermit's dwelling. As Simon came forth from under
his ledge, the gourd dropped from his hand, and he stood gazing in
On the opposite peak a man was standing, his outline black in the fading
light. He was a strange almost a deformed figure, short-statured,
round-backed, with a large head, no neck, and a long rod jutting out
from between his shoulders. He stood with his face advanced, and his
body bent, peering very intently over the plain to the westward.
In a moment he was gone, and the lonely black peak showed up hard and
naked against the faint eastern glimmer. Then the night closed down,
and all was black once more.
Simon Melas stood long in bewilderment, wondering who this stranger
could be. He had heard, as had every Christian, of those evil spirits
which were wont to haunt the hermits in the Thebaid and on the skirts of
the Ethiopian waste. The strange shape of this solitary creature, its
dark outline and prowling, intent attitude, suggestive rather of a
fierce, rapacious beast than of a man, all helped him to believe that he
had at last encountered one of those wanderers from the pit, of whose
existence, in those days of robust faith, he had no more doubt than of
his own. Much of the night he spent in prayer, his eyes glancing
continually at the low arch of his cell door, with its curtain of deep
purple wrought with stars. At any instant some crouching monster, some
homed abomination, might peer in upon him; and he clung with frenzied
appeal to his crucifix, as his human weakness quailed at the thought.
But at last his fatigue overcame his fears, and falling upon his couch
of dried grass, he slept until the bright daylight brought him to his
It was later than was his wont, and the sun was far above the horizon.
As he came forth from his cell, he looked across at the peak of rock,
but it stood there bare and silent. Already it seemed to him that that
strange dark figure which had startled him so was some dream, some
vision of the twilight. His gourd lay where it had fallen, and he
picked it up with the intention of going to the spring. But suddenly he
was aware of something new. The whole air was throbbing with sound.
From all sides it came, rumbling, indefinite, an inarticulate mutter,
low, but thick and strong, rising, falling, reverberating among the
rocks, dying away into vague whispers, but always there. He looked
round at the blue, cloudless sky in bewilderment. Then he scrambled up
the rocky pinnacle above him, and sheltering himself in its shadow, he
stared out over the plain. In his wildest dream he had never imagined
such a sight.
The whole vast expanse was covered with horse-men, hundreds and
thousands and tens of thousands, all riding slowly and in silence, out
of the unknown east. It was the multitudinous beat of their horses'
hoofs which caused that low throbbing in his ears. Some were so close
to him as he looked down upon them that he could see clearly their thin
wiry horses, and the strange humped figures of the swarthy riders,
sitting forward on the withers, shapeless bundles, their short legs
hanging stirrupless, their bodies balanced as firmly as though they were
part of the beast. In those nearest he could see the bow and the
quiver, the long spear and the short sword, with the coiled lasso behind
the rider, which told that this was no helpless horde of wanderers, but
a formidable army upon the march. His eyes passed on from them and
swept further and further, but still to the very horizon, which quivered
with movement, there was no end to this monstrous cavalry. Already the
vanguard was far past the island of rock upon which he dwelt, and he
could now understand that in front of this vanguard were single scouts
who guided the course of the army, and that it was one of these whom he
had seen the evening before.
All day, held spell-bound by this wonderful sight, the hermit crouched
in the shadow of the rocks, and all day the sea of horsemen rolled
onward over the plain beneath. Simon had seen the swarming quays of