Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dangers Ahead

THE winter that followed the departure of the legions was a busy time with the Count. He was now almost the only representative of Roman power in Southern Britain, and the villa on the island became a place of considerable importance. A military force of some strength was gathered there. Constantine's enterprise was not universally popular, and many had taken any chance that offered itself of escaping from it. Some had reached, or very nearly reached, the end of their time of service, and claimed their discharge; others were known to be loyal to Rome, and were allowed to retire. Not a few of those who found themselves without home or employment, and did not happen to have friends or kinsfolk in Britain, rallied to the Count. The families, too, of some that had gone with the legions were glad to claim such shelter and protection as the neighbourhood of the villa could give. Among these were the wife and daughters of the Centurion Decius; the old mother had steadily refused to accompany them, and, with an aged dependent of nearly the same age, continued to occupy the house near the deserted camp. It was an anxious matter with the Count what was to be done with these helpless people. While things were quiet they could live safely, if not very comfortably, in the neighbouring village; but if trouble were to come—and there were several quarters from which it might come—they would have to be sheltered somewhere in the villa. This never could be made into a really strong place; but it might serve well enough for a time and against ordinary attack. Some of the outbuildings and domestic offices were fortified as well as the position admitted; such material of war as could be got was accumulated, and provisions also were stored. The most reliable resource, however, was in the ships of war. These were not, as was usual, drawn up on the beach for the winter, but were kept at anchor, ready for immediate use.

Nor were these precautions unnecessary, for indeed, mischief of a very formidable kind was brewing, and indeed had been brewing ever since the departure of the legions, and even before that event. And it was mischief of a kind of which it may safely be affirmed that neither the Count nor any Roman official, had any notion. Britain, to all appearance, had for many generations been thoroughly subdued. Any Roman, if he had been told that there was any danger of rebellion among the Britons, would have laughed the suggestion to scorn. The legions, indeed, had often been mutinous and turbulent, and their generals ambitious and unscrupulous. The island indeed had gained so bad a reputation for loyalty to the Empire that it had been called the mother of tyrants, by "tyrant" being meant "usurper." But whenever Rome had been defied, she had been defied by her own troops. The Britons had enlisted in the rebel armies, but they had never attempted to assert anything like British independence. And yet the tradition of independence and liberty had always been kept alive. The Celtic race is singularly tenacious of such ideas, and also singularly skilful in concealing them from those who are its masters for the time, and the Britons were Celts of the purest blood. Caradoc and Boadicea and other heroes and heroines of British independence, were household words in many families which were yet thoroughly Roman in spirit and manners. Just as the Christianized Jews of Spain, though to all appearances devout worshippers at church, still clung in secret to the rites of their own worship, so these loyal subjects of the Empire, as all the world believed them, cherished in their hearts the memory of the free Britain of the past and the hope of a free Britain in the future. And the time was now at hand when their leaders thought that this hope might be fulfilled.

The Shanklin Chine of to-day is not a little different from the Shanklin Chine of fifteen hundred years ago. It has, so to speak, been subdued and civilized. Now it is a very pretty and pleasant wood; then it was an almost impenetrable thicket, a noted lair of elk and wild boar. Inaccessible, however, as it seemed to any one who surveyed it from above, there was for those who were in the secret a way of approaching its recesses. A little path, the beginning of which it was almost impossible to discover without a guide, led up from the sea-end of the ravine to a hut which had been constructed about half way up the ascent. It consisted of a single chamber, about fourteen feet long, ten broad, and not more than seven in height, and was constructed of roughly-hewn logs, the interstices of which were filled with clay. The walls, however, were not visible, for they were covered with hangings of a dark blue material, something like serge. The floor was strewn with rushes. In the centre of the apartment there was a hearth, having over it an aperture in the roof, not, however, opening directly into the outer air, by which the smoke might escape. On this hearth two or three logs were smouldering with a dull heat which it would have been easy to fan into flame. There were two windows unglazed, but closed with rough wooden lattices.

On three settles, roughly but strongly made of oak, which, with a rudely-polished slab of wood that served for table, constituted all the furniture of the hut, sat three confederates, and behind each stood a stalwart attendant armed with a wicker shield which hung from his neck, and a long Gallic sword. The three chiefs were curiously different in appearance. One, as far, at least, as dress and manner were concerned, might have passed anywhere for a genuine Roman. He was taller, it is true, than the Romans commonly were; and his complexion, though dark rather than fair, had a ruddier hue than was often seen under the more glowing skin of Italy; still he might have walked down the Sacred Way or the Saburra unnoticed save as an exceptionally handsome man, of that fair beauty which the southern nations especially admire. His hair was carefully curled and perfumed; his face as carefully shaven, and showing no trace of beard, moustache, or whisker. His toga of brilliant white, his long-sleeved tunic of some dark purple stuff, his elegant sandals, were all such as a dandy of the Palatine might have worn. The one thing which would have been singular in a Roman street was the undergarment reaching to his knees, which he had assumed in consideration of the cold and wet of the insular climate. His fingers were loaded with rings, one of them a sapphire of unusual size, on which was engraved a likeness of the feeble features of the Emperor Honorius; on his left wrist might be seen a bracelet of gold.

If Martianus—for that was the name of that personage—might have been easily mistaken for a Roman, the chief who sat facing him on the opposite side of the hearth was as manifestly a Briton. His hair fell over his shoulders in long natural curls which suggested no suspicion of the barber's or the perfumer's art. His upper lip was covered with a moustache which drooped to his chin. His body was covered with a sleeveless coat skilfully made of otters' skins. Both arms were bare, and were plentifully painted with woad. On his legs he wore a garment something like the "trews" or short trowsers which the Highland regiments sometimes wear in lieu of the kilt; his feet were enveloped in rude boots of hide which were laced round his ankles. His ornaments were a massive chain of twisted gold, which he wore round his neck, and a single ring, rudely wrought of British gold, in which was set a British pearl of immense size but indifferent hue. He had a Roman name, as he could on occasion wear Roman costume, and speak the Latin tongue. In the present company he was known and addressed by his native name of Ambiorix.

The third conspirator had the appearance of a middle-class provincial. He wore the tunic that formed part of a Roman's ordinary dress, but not the toga, which was replaced by a garment somewhat resembling a short cloak. But under the garb of a well-to-do townsman was concealed a very remarkable career and character. Carausius—for this was the name by which he was generally known—was one of the last representatives of the ancient Druid priesthood. The glory and power of this remarkable caste, which had once held itself superior to the kings of Britain, were departed. Indeed, it was almost dangerous to hold the ancient faith, and practise the ancient worship. Since the publication of the edict by which Constantine had made Christianity the Imperial religion, the adherents of the old religion had become fewer and feebler. Some of the chiefs and nobles still held it in secret, or were, at least, ready to return to it, if it should ever again become powerful; but its adherents were mostly to be found among the poorer classes. Even these in the towns were, in name at least, mostly Christians; it was only the dwellers in the remoter and wilder parts of the country that remained faithful. But these scattered adherents revered the name of Carausius, who was believed to possess all the wisdom of his class, and was indeed credited with mysterious powers over nature and the gift of prophecy. From the Roman population all this was a secret, and the secret was remarkably well kept. Carausius was supposed to be nothing more than an ordinary farmer. His Roman neighbours would have been astonished in the last degree if they could have seen him presiding at one of the Druid ceremonies, in his white robes curiously embroidered with mystic figures, his chaplet of golden oak-leaves, and the headless spear, which was to him what the crozier was to a Christian bishop.

Previous Next

No comments:

Post a Comment