THAT afternoon a banquet, which was as handsomely set out as the very short notice permitted, was given to all the officers in the camp. When the tables were removed, Constantine, who had been carefully primed by his sons with what he was to say, addressed his guests. His words were few and to the point. "Britain," he said, "has been long enough ruled by others. It is now time that she should begin herself to rule. It was the error of those who went before me to be content with the limits of this island. But here there is not enough to content us. Beyond the sea, separated from us by only a few hours' journey, lie wealthy provinces which wait for our coming. A kindlier sky, more fertile fields, richer and fairer cities than ours are there. We have only to show ourselves, in short, to be both welcomed and obeyed. Half the victories which we have won here to no profit over poverty-stricken barbarians would have sufficed to give us riches even beyond our desires. Henceforth let us use our arms where they may win something for us beyond empty honour and wounds. Follow me, and within a year you shall be masters both of Gaul and Spain."
The younger guests received this oration with shouts of applause; visions of promotion and prize-money, and even of the spoil of some of the wealthy cities of the mainland floated before them. The older men did not show this enthusiasm. Many of them were attached to Britain by ties that they were very loth to break. They had little to hope, but much to fear, from a change. Still, they saw the necessity for doing something; another year such as that which had just passed would thoroughly demoralize the army of Britain. Legions that get into the habit of making emperors and killing them for their pastime must be dealt with by vigorous remedies, and the easiest and best of these was active service. In any case it would have been impolitic to show dissent. Many feigned, therefore, a joy which they did not feel, and shouted approval when the Senior Tribune exclaimed, "Comrades, drink to our chief, Constantine Augustus, Emperor of Britain and the West."
The revel was kept up late into the night, the young Goth distinguishing himself by the marvellous depth of his draughts and the equally marvellous strength of his head.
The Emperor retired early from the scene, and Constans, who had little liking for these boisterous scenes, followed his example, as did most of the older men.
Outside the camp had grown up a village of considerable size, though it consisted for the most part of humble dwellings. There were two or three taverns, or rather drinking-shops, where the soldiers could carouse on the thin, sour wine of the British vineyards, or, if the length of their purses permitted; on metheglin, a more potent drink, made from the fermentation of honey. A Jew, driven by the restless speculation of his race, had established himself in a shop where he sold cheap ornaments to the soldiers' wives and advanced money to their husbands on the security of their pay. A tailor displayed tunics and cloaks and a shoemaker sold boots warranted to resist the cold and wet of the island climate. There a few cottages occupied by the grooms and stablemen who attended to the horses employed in the camp, by fishermen who plied their trade in the neighbouring waters, and other persons of a variety of miscellaneous employments in one way or other connected with the camp. But just outside the main street, at the end nearest to the camp, stood a house of somewhat greater pretensions. It was indeed a humble imitation of the Roman villa, being built round three sides of an irregular square, which was itself occupied by a grass plot and a few flower beds. It was to this that the Centurion Decius bent his. It was evidently with the reluctant step of the bearer of bad news that he proceeded on his way. As soon as he entered the enclosure his approach was observed from within. Two blooming girls, whose ages may have been seventeen and fifteen respectively, ran gaily to meet him. A woman some twenty-five years older, but still youthful of aspect and handsome, followed at a more sober pace.
"What is the matter, father?" cried the elder of the girls, who had been quick to perceive that all was not right.
The centurion held up his hand and made a signal for silence. "Hush," he said; "I have something to tell you, but it must not be here. Let us go indoors."
"Shall the children leave us alone?" said the centurion's wife, who had now come up.
"No," he answered, wearily, "let them be with us while they can," he added in a low voice, which only the wife's ears, made keenly alive by affection and fear, could catch.
The gaiety of the young people was quenched, for, without having any idea of what had happened, they could see plainly enough that something was disturbing their parents; and it was with fast beating hearts that they waited for his explanation.
"Our happy days here are over, my dearest," said the centurion, drawing his wife to him, and tenderly kissing her, as soon as they were within doors.
"You mean," said she, "that the order has come."
Yes," he answered, "we are to leave as soon as the transports can be collected. The resolution was made to-day and will be announced to the army to-morrow. It is no secret, I suppose, or will not be for long."
"And where are we to go?" cried the elder of the girls, whose face brightened as the thought of seeing a little more of the world, of a home in one of the cities of Gaul, possibly in Rome itself, flitted across her mind.
The poor centurion changed colour. The girl's question brought up the difficulty which he knew had to be faced, but which he would gladly have put off as long as he could.
"We shall go to Gaul, certainly; where I cannot say," he answered, after a long pause, and in a hesitating voice.
"Oh, how delightful!" cried the girl; "exactly the thing that Lucia and I have been longing for. And Rome? Surely we shall go to Rome, father? Are you not glad to hear it, mother? I am sure that we are all tired of this cold, foggy place."
The mother said nothing. If she did not exactly see the whole of the situation, she had at least an housewife's horror of a move. The poor father moved uneasily upon his chair.
"The legion will go," he said, "but your mother and you—"
"Oh, Lucius," cried the poor wife, "you do not, cannot mean that we are not to go with you!"
"Nothing is settled," he replied, "it is true; but I am much troubled about it. You might go, though I do not like the idea of your following the camp; but these dear girls—and yet they cannot be separated from you."
The unhappy wife saw the truth only too clearly. If the times had been quiet, she might herself have possibly accompanied the legion in its march southward; but even then she could not have taken her daughters with her, her daughters whom she never allowed to go within the precincts of the camp, except on the one day, the Emperor's birthday, when all the officers' families were expected to be present at the ceremony of saluting the Imperial likeness. And this had of late been omitted when it was difficult to say from day to day what Emperor the troops acknowledged. The centurion had spoken only too truly; the legion might go, but they must stay behind. She covered her face with her hands and wept.
"Lucia," cried the elder girl to her sister, "we will enlist; we will take the oath; I should make just as good a soldier as many of the Briton lads they are filling up the cohorts with now; though you, I must allow, are a little too small," she added, ruefully, as she looked at her sister's plump little figure, too hopelessly feminine ever to admit the possibility of a disguise. "Cheer up, mother," she went on, "we shall find a way out of the difficulty somehow." And she threw her arms round the weeping woman, and kissed her repeatedly.
There was silence for a few minutes, broken at last by the timid, hesitating voice of the younger girl.
"But must you go, father?" she said. "Surely they don't keep soldiers in the camp for ever. And have you not served long enough? You were in the legion, I have heard you say, before even Maria was born."
"My child," said the centurion, "it is true that my time is at least on the point of being finished. Yet I can't leave the service just now. Just because I am the oldest officer the Legate counts on me, and I can't desert him. It would be almost as bad as asking for one's discharge on the eve of a battle. And besides, though I don't like troubling your young spirits with such matters, I cannot afford it. Were I to resign now I should get no pension, or next to none. But in a year or two's time, when things are settled down, I hope to get something worth having—some post, perhaps, that would give me a chance of making a home for you."
A fifth person, who had hitherto taken no part in the conversation, and whose presence in the room had been almost forgotten by every one, now broke in, with a voice which startled the hearers by its unusual clearness and precision. Lena, mother of the centurion's wife, had nearly completed her eightieth year. Commonly, she sat in the chimney corner, unheeding, to all appearances, of the life that went on about her, and dozing away the day. In her prime, and even down to old age, she had been a woman of remarkable activity, ruling her daughter's household as despotically as in former days she had ruled her own. Then a sudden and severe illness had prostrated her, and she had seemed to shrink at once into feebleness and helplessness of mind and body. Her daughter and granddaughters tended her carefully and lovingly; but she seemed scarcely to take any notice of them. The only thing that ever seemed to rouse her attention was the sight of her son-in-law when he chanced to enter the chamber without disarming. The shine of the steel brought a fire again into her dim, sunken eyes. It was probably this that had now roused her; and her attention, once awakened, had been kept alive by what she heard.
"And at whose bidding are you going?" she said, in a startlingly clear voice to come from one so feeble, "This Honorius, as he calls himself, a feeble creature who has never drawn a sword in his life! Now, if it had been his father! He was a man to obey. He did deserve to be called Emperor. I saw him forty years ago just after you were born, daughter—when he came with his father. A splendid young fellow he was; and one who would have his own way, too! How he gave those turbulent Greeks at Thessalonica their deserts! Fifteen thousand of them! That was an Emperor worth having!"
"Oh, mother!" cried her daughter, horrified to see the old woman's ferocity, softened, she had hoped, by age and infirmity, roused again in all its old strength. "Oh! Mother, don't say such dreadful things. That was an awful crime in Theodosius, and he had to do penance for it in church."
"Ay," muttered the old woman, "I can fancy it did not please the priests. But why," she went on, raising her voice again, "why does not Britain have an Emperor of her own?"
"So she has, mother," said the centurion. "You forget our Lord Constantine."
"Our Lord Constantine!" she repeated. "Who is Constantine? Why, I remember his mother—a slave girl—whom the Irish pirates carried off from somewhere in the North. Constantine's father bought her, and married her. Why should he be Emperor? I could make as good a one any day out of a faggot stick."
"Peace, dear mother," said the centurion, soothingly, afraid that her words might have other listeners.
"Why not you," went on the old woman, unheeding; "you are better born."
"I, Emperor!" cried the centurion. "Speak good words, dearest mother."
"Well," said the old woman, dropping her voice again, "they are poor creatures now-a-days." And she relapsed into silence, looking again as wholly indifferent to the present as if the strange outburst of rage and impatience which her family had just witnessed had never taken place.
The family discussed the position of affairs anxiously till far into the night.
"And what will happen," said the wife, "when the legions are gone?"
"There will be a British kingdom, I suppose; and, if it were united, it might stand. But it will not be united. It will be every man for himself."
"And how about the Saxons and the Picts? If the legions hardly protected us from them, how will it be when they are gone?"
The centurion's look grew gloomier than ever. "I know," he said, "the prospect is a sad one. But I hope that for a year you will be fairly safe; and after that I shall hope to send for you. Or you might go over to Gaul. But I hope to see the Count of the Shore about these matters. He will give me the best advice. Here, of course, you can hardly stay, even if you cared, to do it; and some place must be found. Meanwhile, make all the preparations you can for a move."