Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Prize

IT was a bright morning some three weeks after, when a squadron of four Roman galleys swept round the point which is now known as the South Foreland. The leader of the four, all of which, indeed, lay so close together as to be within easy hailing distance, bore on its mainmast the Labarum, or Imperial standard, showing on a ground of purple a cross, a crown, and the sacred initials, all wrought in gold. It was the flagship, so to speak, of the great Count himself, one of the most important lieutenants of the Empire, whose task it was to guard the shores of Britain and Northern Gaul from the pirate swarms that issued from the harbours of the North Sea and the Baltic. The Count himself was on board, coming south from his villa on the eastern shore—for the stations of which he had the charge extended as far as the Wash—to his winter residence in the sunny island of Vectis.

The Count was a tall man of middle age, and wore over his tunic a military cloak reaching to the hips, and clasped at the neck with a handsome device in gold, representing a hunting-dog with his teeth fixed in a stag. His head was covered with a broad-brimmed hat of felt. The only weapon that he carried was a short sword, which, with its plain hilt and leather scabbard, was evidently meant for use rather than show. His whole appearance and bearing, indeed, were those of a man of action and energy. His eyes were bright and piercing; his nose showed, strongly pronounced, the curve which has always been associated with the ability to command; the contour of his chin and lips, as far as could be seen through a short curling beard and moustache, worn as a prudent defence against the climate, betokened firmness. Still, the expression of the face was not unkindly. As a great writer says of one whom Britain had had good reason in earlier days both to fear and to love, "one would easily believe him to be a good man, and willingly believe him to be great."

He was standing in conversation with the helmsman, a weather-beaten old sailor, whose dark Southern complexion had been deepened by the sun and winds of more than fifty years of service into an almost African hue.

"The wind will hardly serve us as well as it has," said the Count, as his practised eye, familiar with every yard of the coast, perceived that they were well abreast of the extreme southern point of the Coast.

"No, my lord," said the old man, "we shall have to take as long a tack as we can to the south. There is a deal of west in the wind—more, I think, than there was an hour since. Castor and Pollux—I beg your lordship's pardon, the blessed Saints—defend us from anything like a westerly gale."

"Ah! old croaker," replied the Count, with a laugh, "I verily believe that you will be half disappointed if we get to our journey's end without some mishap.

"Good words, good words, my lord," said the old man, hastily crossing himself, while he muttered something, which, if it could have been overheard, would have been scarcely suitable to that act of devotion. "Heaven bring us safe to our journey's end! Of course it is your lordship's business to give orders, and ours to go to the bottom, if it is to be so. But I must say, saving your presence, that it is against all rules of a sailor's craft as I have known it, man and boy, for nigh upon threescore years, to be at sea near about a month after the autumn equinox.

'Never let your keel be wet,

When the Pleiades have set;

Never let your keel be dry,

When the Crown is in the sky.'

That is what my father used to say, and his fathers before him, for I do not know how many generations, for we have always followed the sea."

"Very well for them, perhaps," said the Count, "in the days when a man would almost as soon go into a lion's den as venture out of sight of land. But the world is too busy to let us waste half our year on shore."

"Yes, yes, I know all about that," answered the old man, who was privileged to have the last word even with so great a personage as the Count; "but there is a proverb, 'Much haste, little speed,' and I have always found it quite as true by sea as by land."

Meanwhile the proper signals had been given to the rest of the squadron, and the whole four were now heading south, with a point or two to the west, the Panther—for that was the name of the flagship—still slightly leading the way, with her consorts in close company. In this order they made about twelve miles, the wind freshening somewhat as they drew further away from the British shore, and, being nearly aft, carrying them briskly along.

"Fine sailing, fine sailing," said the old helmsman, drawn almost in spite of himself into an exclamation of delight, as the Panther, rushing through the water with an almost even keel, began to widen the gap between herself and her nearest follower. The short waves, which just broke in sparkling foam, the brilliant sunshine, almost bringing back summer with its noonday heat, and the sea with a blue which recalled, though but faintly, the deep tint of his native Mediterranean, combined to gladden the old man's soul. "But we need not put about now," he said to himself. "If this wind holds we shall fetch Lemanis without requiring to tack."

He was about to give the necessary orders to trim the sails, when he was stopped by a shout from the look-out man at the bow, "A sail on the starboard side!" Just within the range of a keen sight, in the south-western horizon, the sunlight fell on what was evidently a sail. But the distance was too great to let even the keenest sight distinguish what kind of craft it might be, or which way it was moving. The Count, who had gone below for his mid-day meal, was of course informed of the news. He came at once upon deck, and lost no time in making up his mind.

"If she is an enemy," he said to the old helmsman, "she will be eastward bound; though I never knew a pirate keep the sea quite so late in the year. If she is a friend she will probably be sailing west-ward, or even coming our way—but it does not matter which. If she has anything to tell us, we shall be sure to hear it sooner or later. But it will never do to let a pirate escape if we can help it. Any one who is out so late as the middle of October must have had good reason for stopping, and can hardly fail to be worth catching. Quintus, put her right before the wind, and clap on every inch of canvas."

The course of the squadron was now changed to nearly due south-east. All eyes, of course, were bent on the strange craft, and before an hour had passed it was evident that the Count had been right in his guess. There were four ships; they were long and low in the water, of the build which was only too well known along the coasts of Gaul and Britain, where no river or creek, if it gave as much as three or four feet of water, was safe from their attack. In short, they were Saxon pirates, and were now moving east-ward with all the speed that sails and oars could give them. The question that every one on board the Panther was putting to himself with intense interest was, "Shall we be able to intercept them?" For the present the Count's ship had the advantage of speed, thanks to the wind abaft the beam. But a stern chase would be useless. On equal terms the pirates were at least as quick as their pursuers. The light, too, of the autumn day would soon fail, and with the light every chance of success would be gone.

For a time it seemed as if the escape of the pirate was certain. "Curse the scoundrels!" cried the Count, as he paced impatiently up and down the after deck. "If it would only come on to blow in real earnest we should have them. Anyhow, I would sooner that we should all founder together than that they should get off scot free."

The Panther, which had left her consorts about a mile in the rear, was now near enough for her crew to see distinctly the outlines of the pirate ships, to mark the glitter of the shields that were ranged along the gunwales, and to catch the rhythmic rise and fall of the long sweeping oars. The Saxons were evidently straining every nerve to make good their escape, and it seemed scarcely possible that they could fail. Then came a turn of fortune—the very thing, in fact, that the Count had prayed for. For a time—only a very few moments—the wind freshened to something like the force of a gale. The masts of the Panther were strained to the utmost of their strength; they groaned and bent like whips under the sudden pressure on the canvas, but the seasoned timber stood the sudden call upon it bravely. How the Count blessed himself that he had never passed over a piece of bad workmanship or bad material! The good ship took a wild plunge forward, but nothing gave way.

But the last of the four pirates was not so fortunate. She had one tall mast, carrying a fore-and-aft sail, so large as to be quite out of proportion to her size. The wind struck her nearly sideways, and she heeled over till her keel could almost be seen. For a moment it was doubtful whether she would not capsize. Then the mast gave. The vessel righted at once, but only to lie utterly helpless on the water, with all her starboard oars hopelessly entangled with the canvas and rigging. What the Count would have done had his ship been entirely in hand it is difficult to say. No speedier or more effective way of dealing with the enemy than running her down could have been practised. The Panther had three or four times the tonnage of her adversary, whose lightness and low bulwarks made her easily accessible to this kind of attack. Nor would the pirates have a chance of showing the desperate valour which the Roman boarding-parties had learnt to respect and almost to fear. The only argument on the other side would have been that prisoners and booty would probably be lost. But, as a matter of fact, the Count had no opportunity of weighing the pros and cons in the matter. The Panther, driving as she was straight before the wind, was practically unmanageable. She struck the pirate craft with a tremendous crash amidships, and cut her almost literally in half. One blow, and one only, did the pirates strike at their conquerors. When escape had become manifestly impossible by the fall of the mast, the Saxon warriors had dropped their oars, and seizing their bows had discharged a volley of arrows against the Roman ship. The hurry and confusion of the moment did not favour accurate aim, and most of the missiles flew wide of the mark; but one seemed to have been destined to fulfil the helmsman's expectations of evil to come. It struck the old man on the left side, inflicting a fatal wound. In the first confusion of the shock the incident was not noticed, for the brave fellow stuck gallantly to the tiller, propping himself up against it while he kept the Panther steadily before the wind. In fact, loss of blood had brought him nearly to his end before it was even known that he had been wounded. Then, in a moment, the Count was at his side:

"Carry him to my own cabin," he said.

The old man raised his hand in a gesture that seemed to refuse the service which half a dozen stout sailors were at once ready to render him. "Nay," said he, "it is idle; this arrow has sped me. But let me die here, where I can see the waves and the sky. I have known them, man and boy, threescore years—aye, and more, for my father would take me on his ship when I was a tiny chap of three feet high. Nay, no cabin for me; 'tis almost as bad as dying in one's bed."

His voice grew feeble. The Count stopped, and asked whether there was anything that he could do for him.

"Nay," said the old man, "nothing; I have neither chick nor child.’Tis all as well as I could have wished. But mark, my lord, I was right about sailing in October. Any one that knows the sea would be sure that trouble must come of it."

The next moment he was past speaking or hearing.

It was his privilege, we must remember, to have the last word.

The Panther meanwhile had been brought to the wind. Her consorts, too, had come up, and a search was made for any survivors of the encounter that might be still afloat. Some had been killed outright by the concussion; others had been so hurt that they could make no effort to save themselves. They would not, however, have made it if they could. Those that had escaped uninjured evidently preferred drowning to a Roman prison. With grim resolution they straightened their arms to their sides and went down. Only two survivors were picked up. These, evidently twins from their close resemblance to each other, were found clinging to a fragment of timber. One had been grievously hurt, the other had not suffered any injury.

The wounded man, who had received an almost fatal blow upon the head, had lost the power to move, and was holding on to life more than half unconsciously; and his brother, moved by that passionate love so often found between twins, had sacrificed himself—that is, the honour which he counted dearer than life—to save him. Had he had only himself to think of, he would have been the first to go down a free man to the bottom of the sea; but his brother was almost helpless, and he could not leave him.

When it was evident that all further search would be useless, the squadron set their sails for Lemanis, which, thanks to a further change in the wind to the northward, they were able to reach before midnight.

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