THE Count's difficulties did not seem to diminish as the year advanced. Money grew scarcer and scarcer, till it was only by pledging his personal credit to the merchants of Londinium and other towns in Britain that he was able to find the pay for the crews of his little squadron. His credit happily was still good, a character of twenty years without a single suspicion on his integrity standing him in good stead. Then a disaster happened to one of the few ships that he had retained. After a fierce encounter with a Saxon galley, in which its crew had been much weakened, it had been caught in a storm and driven on the deadly western shore of the island, still dreaded under the name of the Needles by those who navigate the Channel. The ship became a complete wreck and only a small portion of the crew escaped with their lives, all the disabled men being lost.
But the Count's chief perplexities were within rather than without. For more than twenty years he had yielded an unquestioning obedience to the authorities at home. It is true that very little had been demanded of him. He had been given a free hand, and left to do his duty with very little interference, if with very little help. But now in the news of Stilicho's death his loyalty had received a tremendous shock. How was he to bear himself to a ruler who was capable of committing so great a crime? True, he knew enough of the Emperor to be sure that he was only a tool in the hands of others, but this did not make the matter one whit better. Such tools are often more mischievous than men who are actively wicked. What then was he to do? Should he join the usurper Constantine, of whose astonishing success in Gaul and Spain he had heard the most glowing reports? His pride forbad it—an Ælius doing homage to a man who but twelve months before had been a private soldier! The thought was impossible. Should he retire into private life? But would not that be to shirk his duty, not to mention the fact that to retire is the one thing which in troubled times a man in a conspicuous position cannot do. One thing, indeed, was evident—that a decision would have to be made speedily. His position was rapidly becoming untenable, and he would have to make up his mind, without much delay, as to the best way of getting out of it. In the end it happened to him as it happens to so many of us, that his mind was made up for him.
One day, towards the end of August, he was about to seek in a day's sport a little relief from his many cares. It was still about four hours to noon, and he was sitting under a cherry tree (one of his own planting) in the villa garden, and sharing a slight meal of milk and wheaten cakes with his daughter and Carna, both of whom he had persuaded to accompany him. A young Briton stood by holding in a leash a couple of dogs very much like the greyhounds of our own times; another carried a bow and a quiver; a third had a game bag of leather, with a netted front, slung across his shoulders.
The sailing-master of one of the galleys approached and saluted.
"There is a galley," he said, "coming up the Haven, and I thought that you should know at once, since it seems to have something of importance on board."
"What makes you think so?" said the Count.
"I have been watching it for the last hour," said the man. "At first I thought it was a little trading vessel; but I noticed that as soon as it entered the Haven it hoisted the Labarum."
"The Labarum!" exclaimed the Count; "I have not seen that flying from any mast but my own for a year past. Well, that ought to mean something."
It was the etiquette to go as far as was possible to meet an Imperial messenger, just as a host receives a very distinguished guest on his door-step, and the Count, after hastily exchanging his hunting-dress for a toga, went to the little pier at which the galley would land its passenger. He had not to wait many minutes before it arrived, and a handsome young man, with a short military cloak over his traveller's dress, leapt lightly ashore. The Count saluted. The stranger, who was for a time the representative of the Emperor, received the greeting with the dignified gesture of a superior.
"Do I address Lucius Ælius, Count of the Saxon Shore?" he asked.
"I am he," the Count briefly replied.
"I bring the commands of Augustus," said the messenger, producing from a pocket in his tunic a vellum roll, bound with a broad purple cord, and bearing the Imperial seal.
The Count received the missive with a profound inclination, and put it to his lips. At the same time the messenger uncovered, and changed his haughty demeanour for the behaviour usual to a young officer in the presence of his superior.
"It will be more respectful and more convenient to read his Majesty's gracious communication in private. Will you please come with me to my house?"
He led the way to the villa, and introduced the visitor into the little room which he used for the transaction of business. He then cut with his dagger the purple cord which fastened the package containing the despatch, and, after again putting the document to his lips, proceeded to read it. Its contents were seemingly not agreeable, for his face darkened as he went on. He made no remark, however, beyond simply asking the messenger—
"May I presume that you have a general acquaintance with the contents of this document?"
"I have," replied the young man.
"Then you will know that the answer is not one which can be given in a moment. But," and he went on with a rapid change of voice and manner, "cras seria. I was just on the point of going out for a few hours' hunting when your arrival was announced. Will you come with me? I have nothing very great to show you, though we have some big game here too, if we had time to look for it, but if you will condescend to anything so small as hare-hunting, I can show you some sport."
The Imperial messenger was an Italian of the north of the Peninsula, who had been fond of fol-lowing the chase on the slopes of the Apennines before chance had made him a courtier. He accepted the invitation with pleasure, and the party made the best of their way to the high ground now known as Arreton Downs.
"Ah!" said the Count, as he pointed northward to where the great Anderida Forest might be seen stretching far beyond the range of sight, "there is the place for sport; a wilder country I have never seen, no, nor finer game. There are wild boars of which I have never seen the like in Italy, no, nor in the Hercynian Wood itself, where I used to hunt years ago. Last year I killed one which measured six feet from snout to tail. There are wolves, too, and bears, and wild oxen; splendid fellows these last, as fierce as lions, and almost as big as elephants. But to-day we must be content with humbler sport."
This humbler game, however, afforded plenty of amusement, and they returned with a bag of eight fine hares—a very fair burden for the carrier of the game-bag—and an excellent appetite for dinner.
The meal, to which the Count had invited the captains of his galleys and the principal persons in the little colony which was now gathered about the villa, passed off very well. The young Italian was loud in his praises of everything. "Your oysters," he said, "all the world knows, but some of your other dishes are a surprise. The turbot, for instance, how incomparably superior to the flabby and tasteless things which they bring us from our own coasts. The colder water of the seas is, I suppose, the cause. The hares, too, how fine and fleshy! You seem to be amazingly well off in the way of food in this corner of the world."
"Ah!" said the Count, with a sigh, "we should do very well, if the rest of the world would only leave us alone. But our neighbours cannot be content without a share of some of our good things, and they have a very rough and disagreeable way of asking for it."
The speaker went on to draw for the benefit of his guest a vivid picture of the trouble which the Saxons were giving by sea and the Picts by land, till the Italian exclaimed—
"Ah! I see that you too have your disagreeables. I began to think that this was a land of peace and plenty, where one might find a pleasant refuge. But these barbarians, in one shape or another, are everywhere. We are fallen upon evil times indeed."
"Yes," said the Count, "evil times, and no one knows how to deal with them; and if God does send us a capable man, we treat him as if he were an enemy."
When the tables had been cleared, the Count rose and proposed the toast of the Emperor's health; but he did this without a single word of compliment, a significant omission that did not fail to attract the attention of all who were present. He then proceeded, and again without any preface, to read to the company the despatch which had been put into his hands the day before. It ran thus:
"Flavius Honorius Augustus to the faithful and valiant Lucius Ælius, Count of the Saxon Shore, greeting.
"Our Imperial care for the dominions, which by Divine Providence have been committed to our trust, bids us combine the safety of the seat of our government with the welfare of the provinces. For, seeing that these are mutually related, as are the head and the limbs in the body of man, it is manifest that neither can prosper without the other. Our well-beloved and faithful province of Britain has now for many generations been protected by our invincible legions and fleets. But even as there comes a time when the most careful fathers judge it to be not only needless but even harmful to keep their children in dependence upon themselves, so do we now judge that our province may now with great advantage, not only to us—for of this we think little—but also to itself, defend itself with its own resources. We charge you, therefore, our well-beloved and faithful Ælius, as having supreme command of the fleets of the said province of Britain, to withdraw them as soon as you conveniently may, but not without leaving our loyal subjects the assurance of our fatherly love and of the unfailing protection of our majesty. The Ever-Blessed Trinity keep and prosper both you and all that are committed to your charge. Given at Ravenna, the twelfth day before the Kalends of August, in the year of our Lord 408, and the fifteenth year of our reign."
The reading of the despatch was followed by a dead silence. Every one had felt for some time that the present state of affairs could not last. Only a man of the vigorous character of the Count, and having long years of excellent service to fall back upon, could have maintained it so long, but it was impossible not to see that it must soon end. A solitary commander, without resources or support, could not maintain himself on the remotest borders of the Empire. Yet to know that the moment for the change had come was disturbing. The fleet, reduced as it had been to a petty squadron, was still, while it remained, the symbol of Imperial power, and seemed to be worth more in the way of protection than it really was. When this was withdrawn, Britain would be really left to itself; and this prospect, however it might be regarded elsewhere, was not agreeable to any one of the Count's guests.
The Count was the first to break the silence. "This," he said, "is manifestly a matter that calls for serious thought. Let us postpone it till to-morrow, and for the present turn ourselves to matters more suitable for a festive occasion. Perhaps my friend Claudian will give us the recitation of something with which he has already charmed the ears of our fellow-countrymen elsewhere."
The poet, not more reluctant than his brother-countryman to exhibit his genius, at once signified his willingness to comply with this request, and gave a recitation from an unfinished poem which he had then in hand.
"The elemental order there she drew,
And Jove's high dwellings; there you saw
The needle tell how ancient Chaos grew
To harmony and law;
"How Nature set in order due and rank
Her atoms, raised the light on high,
And to the middle place the weightier sank;
There lustrous shone the sky,
"The heavens were pink with flame, the ocean rolled,
The great world hung in mid suspense.
Each was of diverse hue; she worked in gold
The starry fires intense,
"Bade ocean flow in purple, and the shore
With gems upraised. Divinely wrought,
The threads embossed to swelling billows bore
Strange likeness; you had thought
"They dashed the seaweed on the rocks, or crept
Hoarse murmuring thro' the thirsty sands.
Five zones, she added. In mid place she kept
With red distinct the lands
"Leaguered with burnings; all the region showed
Scorched into blackness, and the thread
Dry as with sunshine that eternal glowed;
Or either hand were spread
"The realms of life, lapt in a milder breath
Kindly to men; and next appear,
On this extreme and that, dull lands of death;
She made them dark and drear
"With year-long frost, and saddened all the hue
With endless winter; last she showed
What seats her sire's grim brother holds;
nor knew The fated dark abode."