Count of the Saxon Shore - Alfred J. Church

The Picts

The journey to Venta Belgarum was accomplished in safety, and, by dint of starting long before sunrise, in a single day. The distance was a little more than twenty miles, and the road, which was so straight that the end of the journey might almost have been seen from the beginning, lay almost through an open country. This was favourable for speed, as there was little or no need to reconnoitre the ground in advance. It was just after sunrise when the party reached the spot where the traces of the great camp of Constantius Chlorus may still be seen. It had even then ceased to be occupied, but the soldiers' huts were still standing, and the avenues, though overgrown with grass, looked as if they might easily be thronged again with all the busy life of a camp. The Count called a halt for a few minutes, and pointed out the locality to Carna.

"See," said he, with a sigh, "there Constantius had his camp, the great Constantius to whom we owe so much."

"And was Constantine himself ever there?" cried the girl, to whom the first Christian Emperor was the object of an admiration which we, knowing as we do more about him, can hardly share.

"I doubt it," returned the Count. "Constantius made it and held it during his campaigns with Allectus. But, my child, I was thinking not of its past, but of its future. It will never be occupied again."

"Why should it?" exclaimed the girl, almost forgetting in her excitement that she was speaking to a Roman. "Why should it? Why should not Britain be happy and safe and free without the legions? Forgive me, father," she added, remembering herself again; "I am the last person in the world who should be ungrateful to Rome."

"I don't blame you," said the Count, and as he looked at the maiden's flashing eyes and remembered how bravely she had gone through terrors which would have driven most women out of their senses, he thought to himself—"Ah, if there were but a few thousand men who had half the spirit of this woman in them, the end might be different. My child," he went on, "I would not discourage you, but there are dark days before this island. She has enemies by sea and land, and I doubt whether she has the strength to strike a sufficient blow for herself. I am thankful that you will be safely away before it comes."

Carna was about to speak, but checked herself. It was not the time she felt to speak out her heart.

For some time after this little or nothing of interest occurred; but as the party approached within a few miles of Venta the scene underwent a remarkable change. The road had hitherto been almost entirely deserted; it was now thronged: but the face of every passenger was turned towards Venta, not a single traveller was going the other way. Every by-way and bridle-path and foot-path that touched the road contributed to swell the throng. In fact, the whole countryside was in motion. And the fugitives, for their manifest hurry and alarm proclaimed to be nothing less, carried all their property with them. Carts laden with rustic furniture, on the top of which women and children were perched, waggons loaded with the harvest of the year, droves of sheep and cattle helped to crowd the road till it was almost impassable. And still the hurrying pace, the fearful anxious glances cast behind showed that it was some terrible danger from which this timid multitude was flying. For some time, so stupified with fear were the fugitives, Ælius could get no rational answer to the questions which he put. "The Picts! The Picts! They are upon us!" at last said a man whom a sudden catastrophe that brought a great pile of household goods to the ground, had compelled to halt, and who was glad to get the help of the Count's attendants to restore them, all help from neighbours being utterly out of the question when all were selfishly intent on saving their own lives and property. When his property had been set in its place again the man thanked the Count very heartily, and was collected enough to tell all he knew.

"There is no doubt that the Picts are not far off. I have not seen anything of them myself, thank heaven! but I could see the fires last night all along the sky to the north."

"Have they ever been here before?"

"Never quite here. You see, sir, the camp at Calleva kept them in check. A party did slip by, I know, some little way to the westward, and I was glad to hear they got rather roughly handled. But, generally, they did not like to come anywhere near the camps. But now these are deserted, and there is nothing to keep them back."

"But why don't you defend yourselves?"

"Ah, sir, we have not the strength, nor even the arms. You are a Roman, I see, and, if I may judge, a man in authority, and you know that I am speaking the truth. You have not allowed us to do anything for ourselves, and how can we do it now at a few months' notice?"

The Count made no answer; indeed, none was possible.

"And you expect to find shelter at Venta?"

"I don't say that I expect it, but it is our only chance. The place has at least walls."

"And any one to man them?"

"There should be some old soldiers, but how many I cannot say; anyhow scarcely enough for a garrison."

When the Count learned the situation he felt that his best course would be to press on with his party to Venta with all the speed possible. The chief authority of the town was in the hands of a native, who had the title of Head of the City. It was possible that this officer might be a man of courage and capacity; but it was far more likely that he would be quite unequal to the emergency. In either case the Count felt that his advice and personal influence might be of very great use. Even the twenty stout soldiers whom he had with him would be no inconsiderable addition to the fighting force of the place. Accordingly he gave orders to his followers to quicken their pace. Fortunately the greater part of the fugitives was behind them; still it was no easy task for the party to make its way through the struggling masses of human beings and cattle, and it was past sunset when they rode up to the gates of Venta.

It was evident that the bad news had already arrived. The gates were closely shut, while the walls were crowded with spectators anxiously looking northwards for signs of the approaching enemy. The porter was at first unwilling to admit the strangers, peering anxiously through the wicket at them, and declaring that he must first consult his superior. One of the spectators on the wall happened, however, to recognize the Count, and the party was admitted without further question, and rode up at once to the quarters of the Commander of the Town.

If he had hoped to find an official with whom it would be possible or profitable to cooperate in the Princeps  of Venta, the Count was very much disappointed. He was an elderly man, who had realized a fair fortune by contracting for the provisioning of the army in Southern Britain, and had done very fairly as long as he had nothing to do but execute the orders of the military governor. Left to himself he was absolutely helpless. Indeed he had been taking refuge from his anxieties in the wine-cup, and the Count found him at least half intoxicated. At the moment of the party's arrival the poor creature had reached the valorous stage of drunkenness, and was loud in his declarations that there was no possible danger.

"They will know better," he said, "than to come near Venta. If they do, very few will go back. Indeed I should like nothing better than to give them a lesson. You shall see something worth looking at if you will give us the pleasure of your company in our little town for a day or two."

Another cup, which he drained to the prosperity of Britain and the confusion of her enemies, changed his mood. He now seemed to have forgotten all about the invaders, insisted on recognizing a dear friend of past times in the Count, and invited him to spend the rest of the day in talking over old times.

The Count did not waste many minutes with the old man, but when he left the house the darkness had already closed in. After finding with some difficulty accommodation for Carna, he returned to the gate, anxious to learn for himself how things were going on. He found the place a scene of frightful confusion. The warders had abandoned their office as hopeless. An incessant stream of fugitives, men, women, and children, mingled with carts and waggons of every shape and size, was pouring into the town. Every now and then one of these vehicles, brought out perhaps in the sudden emergency from the repose of years, broke down and blocked the way. Then the living torrent began to rage at the obstacle, as a river in flood roars about a tree which has fallen across its current. Shortly the offending vehicle would be removed by main force, and with a very scanty regard for its contents. Then the uproar lulled again, though there never ceased a babel of voices, cursing, entreating, complaining, quarrelling, through all the gamut of notes, from the deepest base to the shrillest treble. The wall was crowded with the inhabitants of the town, and every eye was fixed intently on the northern horizon. There, as was only too plainly to be seen, the sky was reddened with a dull glow, which might have been described as a sunrise out of place, but that it was brightened now and then for a moment by a shoot of flame. "Where are they?" "How soon will they be here?" were the questions which every one was asking, and which no one attempted to answer. The Count made his way with some difficulty along the top of the rampart in search of some one from whom he might hope to get some rational account of the situation. At last he found among the spectators an old man, whose bearing struck him as having something soldierly about it. A nearer look showed him a military decoration. He lost no time in addressing him.

"Comrade," he said, "I see that you have followed the eagles."

The veteran recognized something of the tone of command in the Count's voice, and made a military salute.

"Yes, sir, so I have, though my sword has been hanging up for more than thirty years."

"And what do you think of the prospect?"

"Badly, sir, badly. This is just what I feared; but it has come even sooner than I looked for it. Things have been very bad for some time in the north ever since the garrisons were taken from the Wall, but, except for a troop of robbers now and then, we were fairly safe here. But now that these barbarians know that the legions are gone, there will be no stopping them."

"They are the Picts, I hear. Have you ever had to do with them?"

"Yes, sir, I have seen as much of them as ever I want to see. I came to this island thirty-nine years ago with Theodosius, grandfather, you know, of the Augustus;" and the old man, who was steadfastly loyal to the Emperor, bared his head as he spoke. "I am a Batavian from the island of the Rhine, and was then a deputy-centurion in Theodosius' army. We found Britain full of the savages. They had positively over-run the whole country as far as the southern sea, and only the walled towns escaped them, and these were almost in despair. I shall never forget how the people at Londinium crowded about the general, kissing his hands and feet, when he rode into the town. But I must not tire you with an old soldier's stories. You ask me about the Picts. They are the worst savages I ever saw, and I have had some experience too. They go naked but for some kind of a skin girdle about their loins, and they are hideously painted, and their hair is more like a beast's than a man's, and then they eat human flesh. Ah, sir, you may shake your head, but I know it. We used to find dead bodies with the fleshy parts cut off where they had been. I shudder to think of what I saw in those days. Well, we gave them a good lesson, drove them back to their own country, and an awful country it is, all lakes and mountains, with not so much as a blade of corn from one end to the other. But now they will be as bad as ever."

"But you are safe here in Venta, I suppose?"

"Safe! I wish we were. If we had a proper garrison here, there is no one to command them. You have seen the Princeps?"

The Count said nothing, but his silence was significant.

"But there is no garrison. There are not more than fifty men in the place who have ever carried arms."

"But surely the people will defend themselves. You, as an old soldier, know very well that civilians, who would be quite useless in the field, may do good service behind walls."

True, sir, if they have two things—a spirit and a leader; and these people, as far as I can tell, have neither."

"That is a bad look out. But tell me—how soon do you think the enemy will be here?"

"Not to-night, certainly; perhaps not to-morrow. And indeed it is just possible that they may not come at all. You see that they get a great quantity of plunder in the country without much trouble or danger, and they may leave the towns alone. Barbarians mostly don't care to knock their heads against stone walls, and of course they think us a great deal stronger than we are."

After making an appointment with his new acquaintance for a meeting on the following day, the Count rejoined his party.

The next day the Princeps  called a meeting of the principal burgesses of the town, at which the Count, in consideration of his rank as a Roman official, was invited to attend. The tone of the meeting was better than he had expected. There were one or two resolute men among the local magistrates, and these contrived to communicate something of their spirit to the rest. A general levy of the inhabitants between the ages of sixteen and sixty was to be made. The town was divided into districts, and recruiting officers were appointed for each. By an unanimous vote of the meeting the Count was requested to take the chief command. The delay of the invaders gave some time for carrying out these preparations for defence. A force was speedily raised, sufficient, as far at least as numbers were concerned, to garrison the walls. This was divided into companies, each having two watches, which were to be on duty alternately. The whole extent of work was divided among them, and the town was stored with such missiles as could be collected or manufactured, while Carna busied herself among the women, organizing the supply of food and drink for the guards of the wall, and preparations for the care of the wounded.