The young soldier whom Subrius had put in charge of the party had fulfilled his office with a punctilious observance of his military duty. There was probably little or no danger to be apprehended after the party had once got beyond the precincts of Rome, but Pudens did not on that account relax his watchful attention to his task. During one of the halts, when Pomponia appealed to his help in distributing her charities to the sufferers from the fire, he had caught a glimpse of one of the occupants of the other litter; but, though this glimpse had greatly excited his curiosity, he did not suffer himself to indulge it. Always in the front or the rear of the party, according as the nature of the route seemed to suggest, he conducted the little company with as much precaution as if it was traversing an enemy's country. But his thoughts were busy with Pomponia's unknown companion. He was tormented, one might almost say, with that tantalizing experience which is familiar to most of us, when the recollection of a face, name, or a word seems ever to be within our grasp, and yet ever eludes us. And, all the time, he was conscious of a strange feeling that the matter was one of supreme importance to him, one, in fact, which might change the whole tenour of his life. It is no wonder then that he looked forward with impatience to the termination of the journey when he would have, he hoped, a chance of satisfying his curiosity.
His hopes were not disappointed. The ladies indeed were helped out of the litters by their own attendants, and he felt that it would have been an intrusion for him to come forward; still it was natural that he should be near, and chance favoured him with a full view of the unknown traveller. Just as the younger woman stepped from her litter, the moon shone through the clouds that had obscured it during the latter part of the journey, and fell full upon her face, and on a lock of long, light-coloured hair that had escaped from its fastening, and fallen upon her shoulder. In an instant his mind was illuminated with a flash of recognition and recollection. If confirmation had been wanted, it would have been supplied by the tone of her voice, as she chanced to address to Pomponia a few words expressive of delight at the safe termination of their journey.
"Great Jupiter!" said Pudens to himself, "it is Claudia!"
In the surprise of the moment the words were spoken half aloud. The girl, catching the sound of her name, and equally taken by surprise, half turned, but recollected herself before the action was completed. But the gesture showed outlines of figure and a pose that were familiar to the young man, as he stood, himself almost invisible in the shadow, eagerly watching the scene.
It is now time for me to explain to my readers who Pudens was, and how he came to have made acquaintance with the Princess from Britain.
Annius Pudens was the son of a man who had the reputation of being the very richest member of the wealthiest class in Rome, the knights. The elder Pudens had made his immense fortune by farming the public revenue and by money-lending. It would not have been well to inquire too closely into the methods by which it was accumulated. Some of his rivals used to say—the remark may of course have been suggested by the jealousy of trade—that his contracts were often obtained on remarkably easy terms, and from officials who had themselves been treated with equal consideration by the contractor in other matters. But nothing was ever proved, or, indeed, attempted to be proved. The loans Pudens had the prudence to make a long way from Rome. The rate of interest was higher in the provinces than in the capital, and the recovery of a debt could be effected without making any unpleasant disturbance. The small tributary kings, who were permitted by the good pleasure of Rome to keep up a shadowy sovereignty in some of the regions of the East, were among Pudens' best clients. Thirty, forty, even fifty per cent was not too much for these potentates to pay when some caprice of the moment was to be gratified. Rulers who have lost the realities of power commonly think more of its indulgences, and they emptied their treasuries to secure a beautiful slave, a fine singer or musician, or a jewel of unusual size. Pudens had always the gift of knowing exactly how far he could go. This knowledge, and the fact that his claims would be backed up by Roman arms, insured him against loss. The general result of his operations, public and private, was, as has been said, the acquisition of an enormous fortune.
The elder Pudens had one great object always before him, and this was to give his son all that was desirable in life; one, I say, because this was really the motive of that devotion to money-making, which was commonly believed to be his ruling passion. For this son, an only child, left motherless in early infancy, nothing was too good, nothing too costly. Unfortunately, the father, who was a man of limited intelligence and feeble judgment, except in the one matter of money-making, set about securing his object in the very worst fashion imaginable. He knew that money can do much, and he imagined that it can do everything. He believed that he could furnish his child with all that he ought to have if he only paid enough for it. Himself a man of frugal and even parsimonious habits,—the common pleasures of life had no attractions for him,—he gave the child the very costliest establishment that could be purchased for money. For the nurses who attended to his wants when he was an infant, the slaves who waited on him in his boyhood, he gave the highest possible prices, and thought that in giving them he was necessarily securing the best of service. And he had, it must be owned, some ill luck in efforts that were really well meant. A friend had told him that slaves were not to be trusted, and he put a lady of respectable family over his son's establishment. Unfortunately, she was a selfish, unprincipled woman, whose only object was to make a purse for herself and to secure an easy life by indulging her young charge. A still more fatal mistake was the choice of a tutor. A smooth-tongued Greek, who concealed under a benign and even venerable exterior almost every vice of which humanity is capable, palmed himself off upon the credulous father, and was installed as the "guide, philosopher, and friend" of the unlucky son.
Happily for himself, the younger Pudens had a nature that refused to be entirely spoiled. He had an innate refinement that shrunk from the worst excesses, a kindly and unselfish temper that kept his heart from being utterly hardened by indulgences, a taste for sport and athletics that gave him plenty of harmless and healthy employment, and a love of letters which commonly secured for study some part of his days and nights.
Still he was on the high road to ruin, when, just as he was entering on his nineteenth year, he lost his father. Happily, the elder Pudens, in appointing a guardian for his son, had for once made a wise choice. He had asked Subrius, who was a distant kinsman, to accept the office, and the Prætorian had consented, little thinking that he should ever be called upon to act, for indeed the testator was little older than himself. When he found that his guardianship had become an actual responsibility, he acted with vigour. He seized the opportunity when the son was under the softening impression of his recent loss, and used it with the very best effect. He avoided anything like rebuke, but appealed to the young man's pride and to his adventurous spirit, as well as to the momentary disgust at his useless and discreditable existence which had come over him. Active service as a soldier was the remedy which Subrius prescribed, and, if the expression may be allowed, lost no time in administering. Almost before the young Pudens could reflect, he was on his way to join as a volunteer the army of Britain, then under the command of one of the most distinguished generals of the time, Suetonius Paulinus.
His career was very near being cut short before he reached his destination. The galley which was to convey him from Gaul to the port of Regnum encountered a violent gale from the southwest on its way, was driven on to the Needles, then, as now, one of the most dangerous spots on the southern coast, and dashed in pieces. The only survivors of the wreck were Pudens and two young sailors. He owed his life to his vigorous frame and to his power of swimming; powers well known on the Campus, where he had been accustomed to distance all competitors, sometimes crossing the Tiber as many as ten times. He struggled to one of the little bays of beach which were to be found at the foot of the cliffs of Vectis, contrived to climb the almost precipitous face of the rock, and after various adventures,—his perils were not ended with his escape from the waves,—contrived to reach Regnum in safety.
Cogidumnus, the native ruler, a far-sighted prince, who had discovered that the friendship of Rome, if not actually desirable, was at least better than its enmity, received the stranger in the most hospitable fashion. Pudens, after giving, not very willingly, a couple of days to rest, was on the point of setting out to join the army of Paulinus when news from Eastern Britain changed all his plans. The powerful tribe of the Iceni had broken out in open revolt. The colony of Camalodunum had been utterly destroyed, and Boadicea, the leader of the rebellion, had sworn that every town in Britain that had accepted the Roman supremacy should share its fate. Swift messengers were on their way to recall Paulinus from the Northwest, whither he had gone to attack the Druid stronghold of Mona. Whether he would get back in time, or, getting back in time, would be strong enough to save the friendly Britons of the South from the fate that threatened them, seemed only too doubtful.
These gloomy tidings reached Regnum in the early morning, just as Pudens was about to start. The King was intending to ride with his guest for the first stage of his journey, a stage which would take him across the Downs into the valley of the stream now known as the Western Rother. His daughter, an active and spirited girl of sixteen, who as an only and motherless child was her father's habitual companion, was going to form one of the party. Just as they were riding out of the court-yard of the palace, a messenger hurried up in breathless haste. He had been sent by the King's agent at Londinium, a trader to whom Cogidumnus was accustomed to consign such goods in the way of skins, agricultural produce, and the like as he had to dispose of. He had traversed in about twenty-four hours more than seventy miles, mostly of rough forest paths, and was in the last stage of exhaustion. The message, written, for safety's sake, on a small piece of paper which its bearer could have made away with in a moment, ran thus:—
"Camalodunum has been destroyed. Boadicea will enter Londinium in a few hours. I have heard nothing of Paulinus. Save yourself."
In the course of about half an hour the messenger, who was a well-trained and practised runner, had recovered sufficiently to be able to tell what he knew. Suetonius, he said, had returned, and had actually marched into Londinium, but had evacuated it again, feeling that he was not strong enough to hold it. He had about ten thousand men with him, less by nearly a half than what he had expected to put into the field, because,—so the messenger had heard,—the commanding officer of the Second Legion had refused to leave his quarters. Paulinus, accordingly, had occupied a strong position to the north of the city, and had left Londinium to its fate. Of what had happened since his departure the messenger could not speak with certainty, but looking back when he reached the highest point of the range now known as the Hog's Back, he had seen a great glare of light in the northeastern sky, and did not doubt that Londinium was in flames.
The King was perfectly aware of the gravity of the situation. Verulamium, situated as it was little more than twenty miles from Londinium, would probably be the next object of attack; after that his own turn would come. In the meantime, what was to be done? The King's natural impulse was to make the best preparations that he could for defending Regnum. He had begun to make a hasty calculation of what was wanted and of what he had at his command, when the Princess showed herself in a character that fairly astonished the young Roman.
"Father!" she cried, "it is idle to think of our defending ourselves here. If Paulinus cannot stand against Boadicea and her army, how shall we do it, when we shall be left alone with all Britain against us? Send every man we have to help the Romans now. Then they will be of some use. I wish to Heaven I were a man that I might go with them!"
Pudens was not unaccustomed to see precocity in his own country-women. Roman girls began to think and talk of love and lovers before they were well in their teens. But this clear and vigorous intelligence, this ready comprehension of affairs in one who seemed little more than a child, surprised him beyond measure. The advice itself seemed admirable, and he seconded it with all his might, offering at the same time his own services in any capacity in which they might be made useful. The upshot of the matter was that in the course of the day an advance force of some hundreds of men started to join the Roman army. The King himself was to follow as speedily as possible with the remainder of his available troops; Claudia, with her attendants, was put for safety on board a galley in the harbour, the captain having instructions to make for a port in Gaul in case any disaster should happen. She accepted the situation with a practical good sense which impressed Pudens almost as much as her spirit and promptitude had done before.
He did not see her again. He started that evening, and was able to reach the camp of Paulinus before the great battle which may be said to have settled the fate of Britain for the next three centuries. He was seriously wounded in the battle with the Iceni, and after his recovery did not care to prolong his service with the general, who, though a great soldier, was a harsh administrator. He had come to see war, and the task of hunting down the defeated rebels, in which Paulinus would have employed him, was not to his taste. Pleading a wish to enlarge his military experience, he obtained permission to transfer himself to the Army of the Upper Rhine, and from thence again to the Armenian frontier. Here his health had somewhat failed, and he had been sent home on leave. But wherever he had been he had carried with him the recollection of that bright, eager face, that clear, ringing voice. It was a strange sentiment, one which he scarcely acknowledged to himself and which he would certainly have found it impossible to define. She was but a child, and he had seen her once only, and then for but a few minutes. He had scarcely exchanged a word with her. But her image seemed to cling to his thoughts with a strange persistence. In the battle and in the bivouac "her face across his fancy came," till he began to fancy it a talisman of safety, and now, when he found himself again in Rome, it made the old evil associations into which opportunity and the want of employment might have thrown him again, seem utterly distasteful.
It is easy to believe that as he rode slowly back to the city that night, leaving some half-dozen trusty men to protect the house, the familiar image presented itself to his thoughts more vividly than ever.