Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

Boadicea (continued)

C.  You promised, grandfather, to finish the story of the Queen.

G.  You shall hear it, though it was a miserable business from beginning to end. Well, after the Roman towns had been destroyed, many of our people, not so much the Queen's own tribe as those that had joined in afterwards, began to slip away with their plunder. I dare say some of them hoped to get off free whatever might happen.

However, there were quite enough left to do all that was wanted. Indeed, to tell you the truth, I believe that we should have fared much better if we had had only half the number. A great mob of all sorts such as we had, many of them with more of the robber than the soldier in them, was not good for much. It was too confident at first, and too easily frightened afterwards. However, we did not think so then. You see we had never really tried what the Roman soldiers were like. The legion we destroyed on the way to London was taken by surprise, and had no chance of showing what it was like. After that there had been no fighting at all, only plundering and slaying helpless people. And we certainly seemed to be more than a match for them. Our scouts told us that the Governor had no more than ten thousand men. He had sent—so they said—to the commander of a camp in the west to bring all the troops that he could spare, and the man had refused. That encouraged us, as you may suppose, not a little. Some of the Romans, we could see, were afraid.

C.  But what a foolish thing for him to do, grandfather!

G.  Yes, indeed, my boy. What could he have hoped to do if the main body had been destroyed? He killed himself afterwards, so ashamed was he of having been so cowardly and foolish. However, as I said, it gave us no little confidence. There was scarcely one among us but believed that there would not be a Roman soldier alive at the end of the day. Soon after daybreak we were ready for the battle. Before we moved forward the Queen drove in her chariot through the army, and spoke to every division—it was divided, you must understand, by tribes, and not a little jealousy and quarrelling was there about places.

C.  What was she like, grandfather?

G.  The very noblest-looking woman that I ever saw. She was taller than most men—indeed there were not many in the whole army that overtopped her. There was a stern look on her face, and a fierce light in her eyes, though I can remember a time when she was as sweet and gentle a lady as there was in Britain. But many things had happened since then. Her hair was of rich golden red, and fell in great waves down to her hips. Round her head it was kept together by a circlet of gold. She had a tunic, with crossbars of bright colours on it—you seldom see such a thing now that the Roman dress is so much in fashion—and a military cloak over her shoulders. In her right hand she held a spear.

C.  Can you remember what she said, grandfather?

G.  Every word, and shall to the day of my death, or as long, at least, as I remember anything. But I shall not repeat it. What good would it be if I did? The Romans are our masters, and it is best to be content with them. Anyhow they are the best that we are likely to find. But you shall hear the last thing that she said, because it was so like her. "We must conquer," she said, "nor do I see how we can fail. But if not, what then? DIE, that is what a woman  means to do; I leave it to men  to live and be slaves."

The Queen had left her own people to the last; and as the division to which I belonged was on the extreme right of the army—she began her progress through the divisions at the left—when she had finished her speech to us the battle began. Our men rushed forward helter-skelter, as if they were going to simply run over the enemy, as a herd of cattle might run over a man. And there was such a cloud of javelins, darts, arrows, stones, as, I should think, had never been seen before. The Romans simply stood where they were, and bore it. They held their shields over their heads, but no man moved an inch from his place. If a man was struck down—and though hundreds of missiles missed where one hit, some of them were; I myself saw several fall—the gap was filled up in a moment. This went on for about an hour. By the end of that time we had spent all our stock of breath and of weapons.

Then there happened something that I suppose no one had looked for. The legion charged. It was in close order, something like a wedge, and marched, I may say, like one man. There was no standing against it. It broke through our loose ranks as a hatchet breaks through a piece of wood. And then their light-armed soldiers and their horsemen finished what the legion had begun, for they cut down those that fled, or tried to fly, for it was very hard to get away from the battlefield. There were rows of wagons in our rear, in which the women and children were carried. Poor things! they had come to see a fine sight, as they thought. But it turned out to be something very, very different.

C.  And what happened to the Queen?

G.  It was no fault of hers that she did not die on the field of battle. If a woman ever sought for death, she did. But it was not to be. Towards the end of the day she was wounded, and fainted with loss of blood. While she was in this state her charioteer drove her off the field. It was a long time before she rightly came to herself. When she did she would have killed herself; but her servants put everything out of her reach. You see they wanted to make favour with the Romans by giving her up to them. The Governor would have paid a high price, no doubt, if he could have got hold of her alive. Of course you have read in your histories about the Roman triumphs, as they call them. It would have been a fine thing for the Governor to take such a woman as the Queen through the streets of Rome. I doubt whether they had ever seen her like before. However, they did not get their way. She managed to get at some poison, and killed herself in that way.

C.  So that was the end of the great Queen! And now tell me about my own people.

G.  Your grandfather was killed in the battle, and I was taken prisoner. We were in the same chariot. Of course I never expected or indeed wished for anything but death. But they spared my life; I had been able to save a few people when London was sacked, and they were grateful for it.

One of them in particular, a very rich knight, made great interest with the Governor for me. He found it a very hard matter, for Paulinus—that was the Governor's name—was as hard and stern as a man could be. But Paulinus was recalled, and some one less stern and strict was sent out in his place. Then I received my pardon, and with it a share of my property, which, of course, had been confiscated.

At the time I would sooner have died, but afterwards I was reconciled to life. My son, your grandfather that is, had left a daughter, who was then a girl of ten years old or so. It was a great comfort to me to have her with me; she was all that was left to me, for my second son had died, as I told you, in Italy. When she was eighteen, she married a Roman officer, who had bought some property in the island. I thought that I should spend my last days with her and her husband, but it was not to be.

The year after their marriage there were awful troubles all over the world, and they reached even to our poor home out here. First the Emperor at Rome was killed, or rather driven to kill himself. Then the general that was chosen to come after him was murdered by the soldiers in the streets of Rome. The soldiers of Rome put up an Emperor of their own, but the army in Germany would not have him, and chose their own general. He won the victory, after some very fierce fighting.

And then the army in the East had their turn. Why should not they have their Emperor, they said, as well as any one else? And it so happened that they had a really good man at their head. Vespasian was his name. Many years before he had been a soldier in this country, and had distinguished himself very much, and my son-in-law had served under him then, and had got to like and admire him very much. And now, as soon as he heard what had happened, nothing would content him but that he must hurry over to Italy, and do what he could to help his old chief.

I could not blame him, but all the same I wished with all my heart that the thought had never entered into his mind. But he was ambitious, I suppose, as well as grateful. He had thought that he was content to farm, and hunt, and fish, but it was not so; as soon as he had the chance of something more he took it. Well, there was some sharp fighting in Italy before Vespasian's party won the day, and my granddaughter's husband went through all of it without getting as much as a scratch. And just in the last battle of all, at the very end of the day, when they were making their way into Rome, he was killed by a wounded man, who struck at him from the ground. The news killed my poor granddaughter. You were born on the day when it arrived, and she just lived long enough to kiss you.

Now, my dear boy, you will not wonder that I do not altogether love these Romans. Still, they are here, and you must make the best of them. My time is short, and the future does not concern me; but you have your time to live, and the better friends you are with your masters, the more you will prosper.

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