Count of the Saxon Shore - Alfred J. Church

A Rival

It was a fact that Martianus had taken possession of the villa in the island, on the strength of a claim which was far less definite than he had chosen to represent to Carna. But no other owner was forthcoming, and the place was important in the minds of the British population as having been the dwelling of the last representative of Roman power. The new occupant might seem to have succeeded to the position of the one who had lately quitted it. It flattered the man's vanity, too, to put himself in the place, so to speak, of the powerful Count of the Shore, while he could use the appliances of the villa, which were comfortable and even luxurious, to gratify his taste for what he called the pleasures of civilized life. His establishment would probably have failed to satisfy the fastidious taste of a Roman gentleman; the cooking was barbarous, and the service generally rude. Still there was a certain imitation, which imposed at least upon the ignorant, of Roman refinement, and Martianus flattered himself that he was at least a passable successor of Count Ælius.

Meanwhile he pursued his suit to Carna with a good deal of craft. He was a diligent attendant at the village church, and professed to feel such an interest in the teaching of the old priest that the ministrations in church must be supplemented by conversations at home. To Carna he said little or nothing about his personal claims, but he was eloquent on the subject of the future of Britain. About this she was never tired of hearing, and in hearing him speak of it, which he did with a certain eloquence, the sense of his falseness and unreality began to grow fainter in her mind. The maiden faith which "glorifies clown and satyr" began to make this schemer, who indeed was not without ability and accomplishments, look like a genuine patriot. As for the priest and his wife, they were simply captivated by him, and never lost an opportunity of praising him to their young kinswoman. On the whole, his suit made some progress. It was only when he seemed to put forward any personal claim, or ventured to address to Carna any personal compliments, that she decidedly shrank from him. He was quite shrewd enough to see this, and though it was a very unpleasant experience for his vanity as well as for his love, he did not fail to guide his conduct by it. As long as he talked about Britain, its wrongs in the past, and its hopes for the future, he was sure of a favourable hearing.

Martianus had other things to think of besides his suit to Carna. As he said, he had broken entirely with Ambiorix. He had found that the strength of the old Druid party had been greatly exaggerated, and that in fact the time for its revival had gone by for ever. Any chance, too, of even temporary success that it might have had had been lost with the life of Carausius. The priest had held many threads of secret intrigue in his hands, and there was no one to take them up, when they dropped from his hand. And Ambiorix, besides being worth but little as an ally, had wanted too much, for he was not of a temper to be satisfied with the second place.

Still Martianus was well aware that his rival would have to be reckoned with sooner or later. If he could induce Carna to become his wife, and thus unite her family claim to his own, this reckoning might be got through with care and success. If he had to rely upon himself the chances would be decidedly less favourable. The dilemma in which he found himself was this. On the one hand, to hasten his suit might be to ruin it altogether; Carna, too, might fairly ask him for something more substantial than his own assertion of his pretensions. On the other hand, there was the danger of being attacked and crushed before he could make his appeal to the country. Ambiorix, he knew, was a man of even desperate courage, and would not suffer himself to be effaced without a struggle.

Martianus did his best to guard himself against this danger. He strengthened the fortifications which the Count had made round the villa, laid up a store of provisions which might be sufficient for a prolonged siege, and used all his resources—he was one of the richest men in Britain—to get together as large and effective a garrison as possible.

These precautions were not taken a day too soon. About the beginning of June he received intelligence from his agents on the mainland that Ambiorix was preparing to attack him. He hurried at once with the news to the priest's house.

"You know," he said, "that my house has always been at your disposal, but, much as I should have liked to receive you as my guests, I would not press the invitation upon you. But now, in the face of what I have just heard, your coming is a necessity. Ambiorix and his followers are almost on the way to attack us, and there is no place of safety but the villa."

The proposition was most distasteful to Carna, who shuddered at the thought of entering her old home in such society. At first she was disposed to be generally incredulous, knowing that Martianus was not incapable of exaggerating, and even of inventing, when he had an object to serve. Compelled, by the proofs which the chief advanced, to acknowledge that the danger was real, she took refuge in the argument that "it did not concern them."

"We are too insignificant to be harmed," she said.

"Pardon me, Carna," replied Martianus. "You surely know better than that about yourself. And if, as I can easily believe, you are careless on your own account, think of your host. There is nothing that Ambiorix hates with so deadly a hatred as a Christian priest."

The old priest, a worthy man, but not of the stuff of which martyrs are made, was terribly alarmed at this statement. Carna, too, was compelled to acknowledge that this fear was not without reason, and reluctantly consented to the removal. Her mind once made up, she found abundance of occupation in making it as little grievous to others as might be. The villa could not hold any great number of inmates in addition to the garrison, and of course it was necessary that the number of non-combatants should be as small as possible. Some of the inhabitants of the settlement could, of course, remain safely in their homes. They had little or nothing to be robbed of, and the expected assailants had no other reason for harming them. But many households had to be broken up, and as only very few could be received at the villa, there were many painful scenes to be gone through, and Carna was unceasingly busy giving all the comfort and help that she could. Martianus, who was not unkindly in temper, put all his resources at her disposal, and his readiness to assist put him higher in her favour than he had ever been before.

Nor was she sorry that she had found shelter within the fortifications of the villa when the next morning revealed the presence of the invaders. They had come across in the night to the number of several hundreds, and could be seen from the windows of the villa. And a very singular sight they were. A spectator might have imagined himself to have been carried back more than four centuries and a half, and to be looking on the hosts which had gathered to oppose the landing of the first Cæsar. These warriors who came up shouting to the palisade which formed the outer defence of the villa seemed to be absolute barbarians; no one could have believed that for many generations they had been subjects of a civilized power. They had, in fact, deliberately thrown off all the signs of that subjection. It was the dream of Ambiorix to have Britain such as she might have been had Rome never conquered her. It was a hopeless attempt, this rolling back the course of time by four centuries, but in such matters as dress and equipment something could be done. Accordingly, his troops were such as the troops of Cassibelan might have been had they suddenly risen from their graves. Most of them were naked to the waist; what clothing they had was chiefly of skins, though some wore gaily-coloured trews. All wore their hair falling over their shoulders, and long, drooping moustaches, but no beard or whisker. All the exposed parts of their bodies were dyed a deep indigo-blue, by the application of woad. Ambiorix had been very anxious to revive the chariots of his ancestors, but had been compelled to give up the idea. In any case he could not have transported them to the island. He had been at great pains to instruct them in the genuine British war-cries, as far as tradition had preserved them. Here, again, the result had been somewhat disappointing. There were things which they had learnt from Rome which they could not put off as easily as their dress; and the challenges which they shouted out to the besieged as they surged up to the defences were a curious mixture of the British and Latin tongues.

The battle at first went decidedly against the assailants. The Count had left behind him a catapult among other effects which he had not thought it worth while to remove; and Martianus, who had practised some of the garrison in the use of it, brought it into play with considerable effect. The very first discharge killed one of the lesser chiefs, and a little later in the day Ambiorix himself was badly bruised by one of the stones propelled from it. Meanwhile the defenders escaped almost wholly without injury. There was no need for them to leave the shelter of the buildings. As long as they kept within this the bows and slings of the enemy failed to harm them. One or two rash, young recruits exposed themselves unnecessarily, and were wounded in consequence; but when Ambiorix, about an hour before sunset, called off his men, the garrison found that the casualties had been very slight and few.

During the night the besiegers were not idle. They constructed a mantelet of wicker work covered with stout hides, and brought it out close to the palisade—an operation which the besieged, with a culpable carelessness, allowed them to do unmolested. From under cover of this they plied long poles, armed at the ends with blades of steel (for Ambiorix was not so obstinate a conservative as to go back to the axe of bronze), and hacked away at the palisade. The catapult produced no effect on this erection, and though arrows, discharged almost perpendicularly into the air so as to fall just on the other side of it, inflicted some injury, the work went on without interruption. Martianus, seeing this, headed a sally in person, and, after a sharp struggle, succeeded in possessing himself of it. The wicker work was broken in pieces, and the hides carried off within the line of defences.

The next three days passed without incident, and the inmates of the villa began to hope that the danger had passed over. In reality, however, the besiegers were collecting materials for the construction of another mantelet on a much larger scale. As much of this as was possible was put together out of sight of the villa, and on the morning of the fourth day an erection of considerable size could be seen about fifty yards from the palisade. It soon became evident that the new plan of the assailants was to try the effect of fire. Arrows were wrapped round with tow, and, when this had been lighted, were discharged into the enclosure. Some mischief was done, not so much to the buildings, for it was not difficult to put out the fire if the arrows happened to fall on an inflammable place, but to the garrison. The men who had to extinguish the flames could not avoid exposing themselves, and those who exposed themselves were frequently hit by the slingers and archers. On the whole, however, little progress was made, and when, in the course of the evening, a heavy rain came on, and the wind, which had hitherto assisted the flames, altogether died away, the discharge ceased.

It was now necessary for Ambiorix to bring matters to a crisis. His followers had nearly exhausted the store of provisions which they had brought with them, and, as he was unwilling to alienate the inhabitants of the island by resorting to plunder, he did not see how he could replenish it. Nothing remained, therefore, but to try a direct assault, and this he did in the early dawn of the sixth day after his arrival. Under cover of a heavy mist which rolled in from the sea, and helped by the neglect of the sentinels, who, never very watchful, had relaxed their care altogether when the light became visible, he brought his men close up to the palisade at the spot where an opening had been left, closed with a strong gate. For a few minutes, such was the supineness of the garrison, the assailants were allowed to batter and hew at this undisturbed. When some of the defenders had been rallied to the spot, the work was more than half done. Ambiorix, who was now entirely recovered from the injury received on the first day of the siege, plied his axe with extraordinary energy, and his immediate followers, whom he had carefully selected for their courage and strength, followed his example. By the time Martianus arrived on the scene the gate had been broken down, and the assailants were pouring into the enclosure. The garrison, who were outnumbered in the proportion of nearly three to one, were at once ordered to fall back into the quadrangle of the villa. They formed a line across the open side where they were covered by the archers and slingers posted on the roofs of the various buildings. Here a long and fierce struggle ensued. The defenders had some advantage in their position, and were better drilled and disciplined; the assailants, on the other hand, had the courage of fanaticism. When an hour had passed, and the combatants, by mutual consent, paused to take breath, both sides had lost many in killed and wounded, but neither had gained any considerable advantage.

Carna meanwhile had been busy ministering to the needs of the wounded, and was scarcely aware of the true position of affairs, the room in which she was at work not commanding a view of the space in which the struggle was going on. Chancing, however, to leave it for a moment in search of something which she wanted for her work, she saw what had taken place. In a moment her resolution was taken. During the siege her thoughts had been taken up, not with the danger to herself and the other inmates of the villa, but with the terrible fact that Britons were fighting against Britons. Long before she would have attempted to put an end to their cruel strife, if she had seen any hope of success. She would not have hesitated risking her life in the attempt. Indeed she had proposed to Martianus that she should go with a party bearing a flag of truce, and seek an interview with the hostile commander. He had met her with a courteous and peremptory refusal, and she had been compelled to acquiesce. But now it seemed to her that her chance was come. Taking advantage of the pause in the struggle, she ran between the combatants, and threw herself on her knees with her face towards the assailants.

A murmur of astonishment and admiration ran through both the ranks. She seemed to be a visitor from another world, so strange, so unexpected, and, at the same time, so beautiful was her appearance.

"Britons, brothers," she cried, in a sweet but penetrating voice, which made itself heard through the throng, "what is this? Britons, brothers, have you forgotten what you are? Your masters have left you. You carry arms which have been forbidden to you for more than four hundred years, and must you first use them against your own countrymen? Have you no enemies abroad that you must look for them at home?"

A shriek of terror, followed by a wild war cry, which, though strange to many of the crowd, was only too familiar to the dwellers on the coast, gave a fearful emphasis to her words. The enemies from without were there.