Count of the Saxon Shore - Alfred J. Church


The next morning the Count invited the Imperial messenger to a private conference. His daughter and Carna were present, as was also Claudian.

"You have the latest news," the Count began. "Pray let us have them. Here we know nothing. But tell us first how you got here. It was noticed that you did not hoist the standard till you were within the Haven. You did not, I suppose, think it a safe flag to sail under."

"Well," replied the messenger, "I thought it better to have no flag at all. But, to tell the truth, the Labarum is not just now exactly the best passport in the world."

"You crossed from Gaul, I suppose?" the Count went on. "How are matters there?"

"Constantine, with the legions he brought from here, and those that have joined him since, is pretty well master of the country, and of Spain too."

"And what is the Emperor doing? Did he let these provinces go without a struggle? Spain was the first province that Rome ever had, and Gaul was the second. None, I take it, have been so steadily profitable, and now we are to lose them."

He rose from his seat, and walked up and down the room in an agitation which he could not conceal.

"And the only man who could keep the Empire together is gone; butchered, as if he were a criminal!"

The messenger said nothing to this outburst. He went on, "I believe his Majesty proposes to admit Constantine to a share of the Imperial honours, to make him Cæsar of Gaul and Spain."

"What!" said the Count. "Do not my ears deceive me? This fellow, whom I have seen wearing the collar for the neglect of duty, recognized as his colleague by Augustus!"

"I do not pretend to know his Majesty's purposes, I can only say what is reported at head-quarters, and, it would seem, on good authority. But," continued the speaker, in a voice from which he had studiously banished all kind of emphasis, and looking as he spoke at the ceiling of the room, "your lordship is aware that the honours thus unexpectedly bestowed do not always turn out to the advantage of those who receive them."

"What do you mean?" asked the Count.

"I mean that what is given may be taken away—and taken away with very handsome interest for the loan—when the proper time comes. Your lordship has not forgotten the name of Carausius."

"Well," said the Count, "this is not the old way Rome had of dealing with her enemies. But, 'other times, other manners.' Tell me now, if the Augustus has arranged or is going to arrange with Constantine, what about Alaric?"

"Oh! he will be quiet for a time, or should be, if there is any truth in a barbarian's oath. You have heard how he marched on Rome?"

"No, indeed," replied the Count. "I have heard nothing here, except, quite early in the year, a vague rumour that he was on the move again. But tell me—has Augustus given him, too, a share in the Empire?"

"Not exactly; but I will tell what has taken place. He marched on Rome."

"Yes," interjected the Count, "and there was no Stilicho to save it!"

"The city was almost helpless. Even the walls had not been kept in repair, and if they had, there was no proper force to man them. The only thing possible was to make peace on the best terms that they could. I happened to be in Alaric's camp with a letter, under a flag of truce, the very day that the ambassadors came out to treat with the king, and I saw the whole affair. I don't mind saying that it was not one to make a man feel proud of being a Roman. The barbarians, it seemed to me, had not only all the strength on their side, but the dignity also. Alaric himself is a splendid specimen of humanity, every inch a king, the tallest and handsomest man in his army, and that, too, an army of giants. It was a contrast, I can tell you, between him and the two miserable, pettifogging creatures that represented the Senate. At first they tried what a little brag could do. 'Give us an honourable peace,' said their spokesman, 'or you will repent of having driven to despair a nation of warriors, a nation that has conquered the world.' The king laughed; he knew what the Romans have come to. 'The thicker the hay,' he said, 'the easier to mow.' And then he fixed the ransom that he would take for retiring from before the walls. Brennus throwing his sword into the scales was moderation in comparison to him. 'Give me,' he said, 'all the gold and silver, coined or uncoined, private property or public that you have, and all the other property that the envoys whom I shall send think worth taking; and hand over to me all the slaves that you have of the nations of the North, Goths, or Huns, or Vandals. You are pleased to call them barbarians, but they are more fit to be masters than you; and I will not suffer them to be in a bondage so unworthy. Your Greeks, and Africans, and Asiatics, and such like cattle you may keep.' The ambassadors were pale with dismay. If they had taken back such an answer, the Romans had at least enough spirit left to tear them in pieces. 'What do you leave us, then?' they said. 'Your lives!' he thundered out. In the end, however, he softened somewhat. Five thousand pounds of gold and thirty thousand pounds of silver, and I don't know how much silk, and cloth, and spices, were what he finally asked. I know the city was stripped pretty bare before the Senate could make up the sum. I am told that the treasuries of the churches had to be emptied. Well, as I said, Alaric, if he keeps his bargain, ought to be quiet for a time, but you will see that the Emperor has need of all his friends round him, and all the strength which he can bring together. That is what I have to say by way of explanation of the despatch that I brought."

"May I ask you to leave us for a while?" said the Count to the young Italian.

When he had left the room the Count turned to his daughter, and said—

"And this is our country! This is Rome! The Emperor, forsooth, has need of all his friends. His friends indeed! I little thought that the day would come when I should feel ashamed of the title. But tell me, daughter; what shall we do? Shall we go?"

"What else can we do?" asked the girl.

"I have thought much about the matter since I heard the dreadful news of Stilicho's death, and have had all kinds of wild schemes in my head. I have felt that I could not go back and touch in friendship the hands that murdered him. Sometimes I thought, while Cedric was here, that we would take him with us, and sail eastward. I have had many a hard fight with these Saxons, but at least they are men, and brave men, too, who are true to their friends, if they hate their enemies. But that is now at an end. But is there no other way to go? What say you, Claudian—have you any counsel to give us?"

"I would not advise you to sail eastward," said the poet. "We know pretty well what lies that way; tribes of barbarians, of whom the less we see the better, with all respect to your friend Cedric, who seems to have been a fine fellow. But why not westward? You will laugh at me for believing in the Islands of the Blest. Well, I do not mean to say that there is a country where Achilles and the rest of the heroes are living in immortal joy and peace. If there is, it is not one which any ship, built by the art of man, can reach. But I do believe that there is a country. These old tales, depend upon it, have something more in them than mere fancy. Why, my lord, should not you be the one to find it?"

"Yes, let us go, dear father," said Ælia, "and leave this dreadful world with all its troubles and quarrels behind us. Don't you think so, Carna?"

Carna only smiled sadly.

"Or," continued the poet, "there is the land beyond the north, the country of the blessed Hyperboreans, that old Herodotus talks about. Why should we not go there? Or, if that sounds too wild, there is Africa, with regions rich and fertile beyond all doubt that are waiting to be explored. These at least are no matter of legend. We know where they are. Let us search for them. Whatever world we may find, it can hardly be worse than that which we are leaving behind."

"And what says Carna?" said the Count, turning, with an affectionate look, to his adopted daughter.

The girl thus appealed to flushed painfully. For a moment she seemed about to speak, but not a syllable passed her lips.

"Speak," cried the Count; "you always see clearer and farther than the rest of us."

"My father," the girl went on, "I will speak from my heart, as I know you always wish me to do. Forgive me if I seem to teach when it is my part to learn and to obey. But, if you ask what I think you should do, I say, 'Go home to Rome or Ravenna, or wherever else the Emperor bids you.' After all, it is your country, and it never needed the help of good and brave men more than it does now."

"By heaven! Claudian," cried the Count, after a brief silence, "the girl is right, as she always is. These are not the times for an honest man to turn his back upon his country. If I could reach the Islands of the Blest, or the happy people who live beyond the north, as easily as I can walk across this room, I would not do it; and after all, what is the world without Rome to a Roman? What say you, Claudian?"

"I am but a poor singer, who has lost all that made him sing. I could do little in any case, and I doubt whether those who killed Stilicho will have anything but the axe for Stilicho's friend. Still, I go with you. It is not for a Roman to say that Rome is unworthy."

"So that is settled," exclaimed the Count.

"Oh, Carna," cried Ælia, throwing her arms round her sister, "shall we ever be as happy again as we have been in this dear place?"

Carna clung to her, and sobbed as if her heart would break.

"Does it trouble you so much to go?" asked the Count. "Surely the place is not so much to you. You can be happy, wherever you may be, with those you love."

The girl lifted up a tear-stained face to him.

"Father," she said—"more than father, for you have loved me without any tie of kindred—I cannot go, my home is here."

"Nay, child, what are you saying? Your home has been with us ever since you were a babe in arms, and it is so still; or," he added, with a smile, "are you going to leave us for a husband?"

The girl blushed crimson as she shook her head. When she could recover her speech, choked, as it was, with sobs, she said—

"You asked me just now what you should do, and I said 'Go home to your country.' Can I do less myself? Rome is your country, and Britain is mine. And oh, if Rome wants all her sons and daughters, how much more does this poor Britain!"

"But where will you live?" broke in the Count's daughter; "Where will you be safe? Think of the dreadful things you have gone through within the last few months! How can you bear to face them with your friends gone? And, dearest Carna," she went on, as she clasped her still closer, "how can I live without you?"

"My dearest sister," sobbed the girl, "don't make it harder than it is. It breaks my heart to part from you, but I cannot doubt what my duty is. And I am not without hope. There are brave men here, and men who love their country, and I cannot but trust that they will be able to do something. Of course, we shall stumble, for we have not been used to go alone, but I do hope that we shall not fall altogether."

"But, Carna, what can you do?" said Ælia. "You seem to be sacrificing yourself for nothing."

"Not for nothing; it is something if I can only sit at home and pray. But it must be at home that I must pray. God would not hear me if I were to put myself in some safe, comfortable place, and then pretend to care for the poor people whom I had left behind."

She hurried from the room when she had said this, as if she could not trust herself against persuasions that touched her heart so nearly.

"Carna is right," said the Count, when she had gone, "but I feel as if she were going to her death."