THE camp next day was covered with gloom. The soldiers moved silent and with downcast faces along the avenues, or discharged in a mechanical way their routine duties. The guards were turned out, the sentries relieved, and the general order of service maintained without any action on the part of the officers—at least of those who held superior rank. These remained in the seclusion of their tents; and it may be said that those who were conscious of being popular were almost as much alarmed as those who knew that they were disliked. If the latter dreaded the vengeance of those whom they had offended, the others were scarcely less alarmed by the possibility of being elected to the perilous dignity which had just proved fatal to Gratianus. The country people, whose presence generally gave an air of cheerfulness and activity to the camp, were too much alarmed to come. The trading booths inside the gates were empty, and only a very few stalls were occupied in the market, which was held every day outside them.
The funeral of the late prince was celebrated with some pomp. The soldiers attended it in crowds, and manifested their grief, and, it would seem, their remorse, by groans and tears. They were ready even to give proofs of their repentance by the summary execution of those who had taken an active part in the bloody deed. But here, one of the centurions, whose cheerful, genial manners made him an unfailing favourite with the men, had the courage to check them. "No, my men," said he; "we were all mad last night, and we must all take the blame."
Two days passed without any incident of importance. On the third the question of a successor began to be discussed. One of the other garrisons might be beforehand with them, and they would have either to accept a chief who would owe his best favours to others, or risk their lives in an unprofitable struggle with him. In the afternoon a general assembly of the troops was held, the officers still holding aloof, though some of them mixed, incognito, so to speak, in the crowd.
Of course, the first difficulty was to find any one who would take the lead. At last the genial centurion, who has been mentioned above as a well-established favourite with the soldiers, was pushed to the front. His speech was short and sensible. "Comrades," he said, "I doubt whether what I have to say will please you; but I shall say it all the same. You know that I always speak my mind. We have not done very well in the new ways. Let us try the old. I propose that we take the oath to Honorius Augustus."
A deep murmur of discontent ran through the assembly, and showed that the speaker had presumed at least as far as was safe on his popularity with the troops.
"Does Decius," cried a burly German from the crowd—Decius was the name of the centurion—"does Decius recommend that we should trust to the mercy of Honorius? Very good, perhaps, for himself; for the giver of such advice could scarcely fail of a reward; but for us it means decimation at the least."
A shout of applause showed that the speaker had expressed the feelings of his audience.
"I propose that we all take the oath to Decius himself!" said a Batavian; "he is a brave man and an honest, and what do we want more?"
The good Decius had heard undismayed the angry disapproval which his loyal proposal had called forth; but the mention of his name as a possible candidate for the throne overwhelmed him with terror. His jovial face grew pale as death; the sweat stood in large drops upon his forehead; he trembled as he had never trembled in the face of an enemy.
"Comrades," he stammered, "what have I done that you should treat me thus? If I have offended or injured you, kill me, but not this."
More than half possessed by a spirit of mischief, the assembly answered this piteous appeal by continuous shouts of "Long live the Emperor Decius!"
The good man grew desperate. He drew his sword from the scabbard, and pointed it at his own heart. "At least," he cried, "you can't forbid me this escape."
The bystanders wrested the weapon from him; but the joke had gone far enough, and the man was too genuinely popular for the soldiers to allow him to be tormented beyond endurance. A voice from the crowd shouted, "Long live the Centurion Decius!" to which another answered, "Long live Decius the subject!" and the worthy man felt that the danger was over.
A number of candidates, most of whom were probably as little desirous of the honour as Decius, were now proposed in succession.
"I name the Tribune Manilius," said one of the soldiers.
The name was received with a shout of laughter.
"Let him learn first to be Emperor at home!" cried a voice from the back of the assembly, a sally which had considerable success, as his wife was a well-known termagant, and his two sons the most frequent inmates of the military prison.
"I name the Centurion Pisinna."
"Very good, if he does not pledge the purple," for Pisinna was notoriously impecunious.
"I name the Tribune Cetronius."
"Very good as Emperor of the baggage-guard." Cetronius had, to say the least, no high reputation for personal courage, and was supposed to prefer the least exposed parts on the field.
A number of other names were mentioned only to be dismissed with more or less contumely. Tired of this sport—for it really was nothing more—the crowd cried out for a speech from a well-known orator of the camp, whose fluency, not unmixed with shrewdness and humour, had gained him a considerable reputation among his comrades.
"Comrades," he began, "if you have not yet found a candidate worthy of your suffrages, it is not because such do not exist among you. Can it be believed that Britain is less worthy to produce the Emperor than Gaul, or Spain, or Thrace, or even the effeminate Syria? Was it not from Britain that there came forth the greatest of the successors of Augustus, the Second Romulus, Flavius Aurelius Constantinus?"
The orator was not permitted to proceed any further. The name Constantinus ran like an electric shock through the whole assembly, and a thousand voices took up the cry, "Long live Constantinus, Emperor Augustus!" while all eyes were turned to one of the back rows of the meeting, where a soldier who happened to bear that name was standing. Some of his comrades caught him by the arm, hurried him to the front, and from thence on to the hustings. He was greeted with a perfect uproar of applause, partly, of course, ironical, but partly the expression of a genuine feeling that the right man had been found, and found by some sort of Divine assistance. The soldiers were, as has been said, a strange medley of men, scarcely able to understand each other, and alike only in being savage, ignorant, and superstitious. They had been unlucky in choosing for themselves, and now it might be well to have the choice made for them. And at least the new man had a name which all of them knew and reverenced, as far as they reverenced anything.
Whether he had anything but a name might have seemed perhaps somewhat doubtful. He had reached middle age, for he had two sons already grown up, but had never risen above the rank of a private soldier. It might be said, perhaps, that he had shown some ability in thus avoiding promotion—not always a desirable thing in troublous times; but there was the fact that he was nearly fifty years of age, and was not even a deputy-centurion. On the other hand, he was a respectable man, ignorant indeed, for, like most of his comrades, he could neither read nor write, but with a certain practical shrewdness, so good-humoured that he had never made an enemy, known to be remarkably brave, a great athlete in his youth, and still of a strength beyond the average.
His sudden and strange elevation did not seem to throw him in the least off his balance. He had been perfectly content to go without promotion, and now he seemed equally content to receive the highest promotion of all. He stood calmly facing the excited mob, as unmoved as if he had been a private soldier on the parade ground. A slight flush, indeed, might have been seen to mount to his face when the cloak of imperial purple was thrown over his shoulders, and the peaked diadem put upon his head. He must have been less than man not to have felt some thrill either of fear or pride at the touch of what had brought two of his comrades to their graves within the space of less than half a year; but he showed no other sign of emotion.
The officers, seeing the turn things had taken, had now come to the front, and the senior tribune, taking the new Emperor by the hand, led him to the edge of the hustings, and said, "Comrades, I present to you Aurelius Constantinus, chosen by the providence of God and the choice of the army to be Emperor of Britain and the West. The Blessed and Undivided Trinity order it for the best." A ringing shout of approval went up in response. The tribunes then took the oath of allegiance to the new Emperor in person. These again administered it to the centurions, and the centurions swore in great batches of the soldiers. The new-made prince meanwhile stood unmoved, it might almost be said insensible, so strange was his composure in the face of his sudden elevation. All that he said—the result, it seemed, of a whisper from one of his sons—were a few words, which, however, had all the success of a most eloquent oration.
"Comrades, I promise you a donative; within the space of a month."
The assembly broke up in great good-humour, and the newly-made Emperor, attended by the officers, went to take possession of headquarters.