Count of the Saxon Shore - Alfred J. Church

A Pretender's Difficulties

Our story must now go back a little, and take up the course of events at the camp, where the look of affairs was not promising. The donative promised by Constantine on the day of his election had been paid, but this had been done only after the greatest exertions in wringing money out of unlucky traders, farmers, and even peasants, who had been already squeezed almost dry. All that had any coin left were beginning to bury it, and though the collectors of taxes, or loans, or gifts, or whatever else the frequent requisition of money might be called, had ingenious ways of discovering or making their owners give up these hoards, it was quite evident that very little more could be got out of Britain. The military chest meanwhile was becoming alarmingly empty, and though money was still found somehow for the larger camps, some of the less important garrisons had been left for months with almost nothing in the way of pay. What was to be done was a pressing question, which had to be answered in some way within a few days. If it was not so answered, it was tolerably plain that Constantine would meet the fate of Marcus and Gratianus. The Emperor himself (if we are to give him this title) seemed to be very little troubled by the prospect, and remained stolidly calm. His elevation indeed had made the least possible difference to him. He drank a better kind of wine, and perhaps a little more—for his cups had been limited by his means—but he did not run into excess. He was still the same simple, contented, good-natured man that he had always been. But his sons were of another temper, though curiously differing from each other. Constans the elder was an enthusiast, almost fanatic, a man of strong religious feeling, who would have followed the religious life if it had been possible, and who now, finding himself possessed of power, had schemes of using it to promote his favourite schemes. Julian the younger had ambitions of a more commonplace kind. But both the brothers were agreed in holding on to the power that had been so strangely put into their father's hands, hands which, as he had very little will of his own, were practically theirs.

A council was held at which Constantine, his two sons, and three of the officers of highest rank were present, and the urgent question of the day was anxiously debated.

Julian began the discussion.

"The army," he said, "must be employed, or it will find mischief to do at home which all of us will be sorry for."

"I have some one to introduce to your Majesty," said one of the officers present, "who may have something to say which will influence your decision. He is from Ierne, and brings me a letter from the commander at Uriconium. He came last night."

"Let him enter," said Constantine, with his usual dull phlegmatic voice.

The tribune went to the door of the chamber, and despatched a message to his quarters. In a few minutes the stranger was introduced into the council. He was a man verging upon middle age, somewhat short of stature, with a great bush of fiery-red hair, which stood up from his head with a very fierce look, a long, shaggy beard of the same colour, eyes of the deepest blue, very bright and piercing, but with a wandering and unsteady look in them, and a ruddy complexion which deepened to an intense colour on his cheek bones and other prominent parts of his face. Around his neck he wore a heavy twisted collar of remarkably red gold. Massive rings of the same metal adorned his fingers. His dress was of undyed wool, and very rudely shaped, a curious contrast to the richness of his ornaments. He was followed into the room by an interpreter, a young native of Northern Britain, who had been carried off by Irish pirates from one of the ecclesiastical schools. He had been taught Latin before his captivity, and, while a captive, had made himself acquainted with the Irish language, which indeed did not differ very much from that spoken in Britain. His task of interpreter was not by any means an easy one to fulfil. The Prince broke out into a rapid torrent of complaint, invective, and entreaty, which left the young man, who was not very expert in either of the languages with which he had to deal, hopelessly behind. Then seeing that he was not followed, he turned on his unlucky attendant and dealt him a blow upon the ear that sent him staggering across the room. Then he seemed to remember himself, and began to tell his story again at a more moderate rate of speed, though he still from time to time, when he came to some peculiarly exciting part in the tale of his wrongs, broke out into a rapid eloquence that baffled all interpretation. The upshot of the story was this—

He was, or rather had been, a small king in South-eastern Ireland, the eldest of four brothers, having succeeded his father about ten years before. There had been a quarrel about the division of some property. The Prince was a little obscure in his description of the property; indeed it was a matter about which he was shrewd enough to say as little as possible. But his hearers had no difficulty in presuming that it consisted of spoil carried off from Britain. The quarrel had come to blows. All the nation had been divided into parties in the dispute. Finally he had been compelled by his ungrateful subjects to fly for his life. Would the Emperor bring him back? He was liberal, even extravagant, in his offers. He would bring the whole island under his dominion. (As a matter of fact, his dominions had never reached more than seventy miles inland, and he had contrived to make himself so hated during his ten years' reign that he had scarcely a friend or follower left.) And what an island it was! There never was such a place. The sheep were fatter, the cows gave more milk than in any other place in the whole world. And there was gold too, gold to be had for the picking up; and amber on the shores, and pearls in the rivers. In short, it was a treasure-house of wealth, which was waiting for the lucky first-comer.

"Are you a Christian?" asked Constans.

The exiled chief would have gladly said that he was, and indeed for a moment thought of the audacious fiction that his attachment to the new faith had been one of the causes of his expulsion. He was, in fact, a savagely bigoted pagan, and had dealt very roughly with one or two missionaries who had ventured into his neighbourhood. But he reflected that the falsehood would infallibly be detected, and would inevitably do him a great deal of harm.

"No!" he exclaimed; "would that I were. But there is nothing that I so much desire if only I could attain to that blessing. But I promise to be baptized myself, and to have every man, woman, and child within my dominions baptized within a month, you will only bring me back to them."

Even Constans thought this zeal to be a little excessive.

"And how many men can you bring into the field?" asked the more practical Julian; "and what money can you find for the pay of the soldiers?" The stranger was taken aback at these direct questions.

"All my subjects, all my treasures are yours," he said, after a pause.

"I don't believe," said one of the tribunes in Latin to Julian, "that he has any subjects besides this wretched interpreter, or any treasure beyond what he wears on his neck and his fingers."

"Shall he withdraw?" said Julian to his father.

Constantine, who never spoke when he could avoid speaking, answered by a nod, and the Irish Prince withdrew.

"Let us have nothing to do," said the practical Julian, "with these Irish savages. They may cut their own throats, and welcome, without our helping them. The men, too, would rebel at the bare mention of Ierne. It is out of the world in their eyes, and I think they are about right. And as to the gold and pearls, I don't believe in them."

"Perhaps you are right," said Constans; "but it would be a great work to bring over a new nation to the orthodox faith."

Julian answered with a laugh. "My good brother, we are not all such zealous missionaries as you. I am afraid that preaching is not exactly the work which our friends the soldiers are looking out for."

"What does your Majesty say to an expedition to chastise those thieving Picts? They grow more insolent every day."

This was the suggestion of one of the tribunes.

"What is to be got?" was Julian's answer.

"Glory!" answered the tribune.

"Glory! What is that?—the men want pay and plunder. These bare-legged villains haven't so much as a rag that you can take from them, and they have a shrewd way of giving at least as many hard blows as they take. No!—we will leave the Picts alone, and only too thankful if they will do the same for us!"

"The Count of the Shore has not yet taken the oath to his Majesty," said an officer who had not spoken before. "We might give some employment to the men in bringing him to reason."

Constantine spoke for the first time since the council had begun its sitting—"The Count is a good man and does his business well. Leave him alone."

Other suggestions were made and discussed without any sensible approach to a conclusion, and the council broke up, but with an understanding that it should meet again with as little delay as possible.

On the afternoon of that very day an incident occurred which convinced every one—if further conviction was needed—that delay would certainly be fatal.

A party of soldiers was practising javelin throwing, and Constantine, who had been particularly expert in this exercise in his youth, stood watching the game. He had stepped up to examine the mark made by one of the weapons on the wooden figure at which the men were throwing, when a javelin passed most perilously near his head and buried itself in the wood. It could not have been an accident; no one could have been so recklessly careless as to throw under the circumstances. Constantine was as imperturbable as usual. Without a sign of fear or anger, he said, "Comrades, you mistake; I am not made of wood," and, signing to his attendants, walked quietly away. The incident, however, made a great impression upon him, and a still greater upon his sons.

javelin throwing


The consultation was renewed and prolonged far into the night, and, as no conclusion was reached, continued on the next day. About noon an unexpected adviser appeared upon the scene.

A message was brought into the council-chamber that a merchant from Gaul had something of importance to communicate to the Emperor. The man was admitted, after having been first searched by way of precaution. His dress was sober in cut and colour, and he had a small pack such as the wandering dealers in jewellery and similar light articles were accustomed to carry. Otherwise he was little like a trader; indeed, it did not need a very acute or practised hand to detect in him a soldier's bearing, and even that of one who was accustomed to command.

"You have something to tell us?" said Julian.

"Yes, I have," said the stranger, "but let me first show you my credentials."

He spoke in passable Latin, but with a decided accent, which, strongly marked as it was, was not recognized by any of those present. At the same time he produced from a silken purse, which he wore like a girdle round his waist, a small square of parchment. It was a letter written in a minute but very clear hand, and it had evidently been put for the security of the bearer, who could thus more easily dispose of it in case of need, into the smallest possible compass. This was handed to Constantine, who, in turn, passed it on to his elder son Constans, he being the only one present who could read and write with fluency. It ran thus:

"Alaric, the son of Baltha, King of the Goths, Emperor of the World, to Marcus, Emperor of Britain and the West, greeting."

A grim smile passed over Constantine's face as he heard this address. He muttered to himself, " 'Marcus,' indeed! Those who write to the Emperor of Britain must have speedy letter-carriers." The letter proceeded thus:

"I desire friendship and alliance with the nations who are wearied and worn out with the oppressions and cruelties of Rome, and for this purpose send this present by my trusty kinsman and counsellor Atualphus, to you who are, I understand, asserting against the common tyrant of the world the liberty of Britain and the West. I have not thought it fit to trust more to writing, but commend to you the bearer hereof, the aforesaid Atualphus, who is acquainted with the mind and purpose of myself and of my people, and with whom you may conveniently concert such plans as may best serve our common welfare. Farewell. Given at my camp at Æmona."

"Marcus is no more," said Julian. "He was unworthy of his dignity. You are in the presence of the most excellent Constantine, Emperor of Britain."

"It matters not," said the Goth, with a haughty smile. "My lord the king will treat as willingly with one as with another, so he be an enemy of Rome!"

"And what does he propose? What would he have us do?"

"Make common cause with him against Honorius and Rome."

"What shall we gain thereby?"

"Half of the Empire of the World."

"How shall that be?"

"The King will march into Italy and attack the Emperor in his own land. The Emperor will withdraw all the legions that he yet controls for his own defence. With them the King will deal. Then comes your opportunity. What does it profit you to remain in this island, where nothing is to be won either of glory or of riches. Cross over into Gaul and Spain, which, wearied with oppression and desiring above all things to throw off the Roman yoke, will gladly welcome you. Your Cæsar shall reign on this side of the Alps and the Pyrenees. The future may bring other things, but that may suffice for the present."

The plan, so bold, and yet, it would seem, so feasible, and presenting a ready escape out of a situation that seemed hopeless, struck every one present with a delighted surprise. Even the phlegmatic Constantine was roused. "It shall be done," he said.

Some further conversation followed, which it is not necessary to relate. Ways and means were discussed. Questions were asked about the strength and temper of the forces in Gaul and Spain, about the feeling of the towns, and a hundred other matters, with all of which Atualphus showed a curiously intimate knowledge. When the Goth retired from council, he left very little doubt or hesitation behind him.

"They are heretics—these Goths," grumbled Constans; "obstinate Arians every one of them, I told—"

"You shall convert them, my brother," answered Julian, "when you are Bishop of Rome. When we divide the West between us, that shall be your portion."

"It shall be done," said Constantine again, as he rose from his chair.