Gateway to the Classics: Lucius, Adventures of a Roman Boy by Alfred J. Church
Lucius, Adventures of a Roman Boy by  Alfred J. Church

The Pirate Captain

Heracleo had now to dispose of his prisoners, of whom there were about thirty in all. It was no part of his policy to feed a number of useless mouths, and he could not dispose of them by sale—the usual way, in those times, of dealing with such property. They were all ranged in a line along the deck, and Lucius had to take his place among them. The pirate captain walked up and down this line several times, carefully inspecting the men's faces and figures. For the most part they were a poor, puny, half-starved lot. Never very strong, bad and scanty food had still further reduced them, while their ragged clothing would have almost looked shabby upon scarecrows. Still there were four young fellows whose frames, large, though ill-filled out, seemed to promise better things. These the captain picked out with the eye of a connoisseur, and beckoned them to stand out from the rank.

"Men," said he, "Rome does not seem to have fed or clothed you very well. Do you feel disposed to try whether I shall treat you better? Look at these fellows here "—the crew were standing in a half-circle watching the proceedings—"and see how you like their looks. We are all free comrades here. Every man has his share of what we earn according to his rank and time of service. When he thinks he has had enough he can retire, and we will find him a bit of land somewhere at home. What do you say?"

Three of the four came forward at once and said, "We agree;" the fourth stood still in his place, but shook his in token of refusal.

"Very good, my man," said the pirate; "you think us a disreputable lot, and will have nothing to do with us. Perhaps you are right. Stand back; I will dispose of you afterwards."

The poor wretches who had not passed the captain's scrutiny stood trembling and fearing the worst. Pirates always have, and, for the most part, deserve, a very bad reputation, and report had of course been busy with the horrible doings of Heracleo and his companions. The men fell on their knees, stretched out their hands, and begged mercy. Lucius remained standing, and another who had looked at first inclined to imitate the rest, followed his example.

"Rise up," said the captain with a smile of contempt. "I have no quarrel with you, and would not stir a finger to hurt you. I do not love the Romans; and you, if I may guess from your looks, have no special reason to do so. You shall be set on shore, but I recommend you not to try to earn your living in this way again. You see it is but a poor trade, and it isn't every one would be so merciful to his prisoners as I am, nor will I promise to be so a second time, if I catch sight of your faces again."

He then ordered a small flag to be hoisted from the mizzen mast. Two or three fishing-boats that were in the neighborhood of the ship seemed to understand the signal, and hastened to approach. They evidently recognized the pirate, but were in no sort of fear of him. It was indeed his policy to be on good terms with the fishermen and all the humbler inhabitants of the coast, while he waged unceasing war against the fleets of Rome whether they were bent on war or on trade. These humble folk furnished him with information which often enabled him to lay his hands on prizes which he would not otherwise have secured, they piloted him through unknown waters, and indeed made it possible for him to defy for so many years all the power that was brought against him.

"Have you any fish for sale?" he began by asking.

An ample supply was promptly forthcoming, of which he purchased as much as he wanted at what seemed to Lucius a liberal price.

"And now," said he, "I want you to do something for me. You see these fellows here. I didn't ask you to take them in exchange for your fish. You might have thought it a bad bargain. What I do ask you is this. Put them ashore at the nearest town. Here is a silver piece for each man's passage-money. Deal fairly with them; you are honest fishermen, so don't behave worse than pirates."

He divided the prisoners among the boats, paying to the captains the sum which he had promised to give for their fare to the shore. He then handed to each prisoner another silver piece. "This," he said, "will buy you a loaf of bread or so till you can get something to do. And here are five pieces for you who were too honest a man to join us. As it is don't think we want you. Still I like an honest man though I am a pirate. Good luck go with you."

The fishing-boats went off with their new cargo, and now Lucius and a single companion remained to be dealt with. The elder of the two was taken first, and it was evident from the looks of the crew that a serious matter was in hand.

"Who is this man?" asked the captain; "does any one any thing about him?"

"I do," said one of the crew, stepping forward and making his salute. "He used to be a tax-gatherer in Lycia; and if he gathered a silver talent for the tax-farmers he gathered a couple for himself. One of his tricks was to put off giving a receipt, and then declaring that he had never been paid. Another was to give no notice, or next to none, claim a great sum which a man could not easily get in a day or two, and sell him up if he was so much as an hour behind. That was how he ruined me. The gods confound him for it! I had as pretty a little farm, corn-land and pasture, and vineyard as there is in Lycia, and this fellow turned me out of it in the depth of winter. My wife and her baby died in the snow, and I lost these fingers from the frost," and he held up his maimed hand. "Yes, I know him."

"Is there any one else to speak to him?" said the captain after a pause.

"I know him," said a gray-haired sailor. "He was a trader then at Rhodes, and I was captain of one of his ships. He was one of a company that made good each other's losses at sea, and he took care that they should have losses enough to make good for him. He sent me to sea with a weak place in my ship's bottom that was bound to give way as soon as ever it was tried. I had my little bit of cargo on board to trade with on my account. That I lost; but that was not all. My two sons were among the crew, and they were both drowned. We three held on to a mast for a day and a night; they, poor fellows, dropped off, first one and then the other; I was coward enough to see them die and to live on. But that is the fellow that did it. Yes, I know him."

"Is there any one else?" asked the captain again.

"I know him," said a third voice, and a young man stepped forward. "If he has been a tax-gatherer and a merchant, he has followed our trade too. You know Cleon of Coracus? But do you know how he, one of the cleverest men that ever sailed a ship, was taken like a fool of a rabbit in a trap? Why, this man betrayed him, sold him and his crew to the Rhodians. He was his lieutenant, and knew his plans. He put the admiral of Rhodes on his track, and was well paid for it too—a quarter-talent for Cleon and three gold pieces for each of his crew, and there were eighty of them. My own brother was one of them; and I saw them crucified and stuck round the harbor. Yes, I know him."

The wretched man turned to each of his accusers as he rose a face that grew more and more ghastly pale.

"What have you to say for yourself?" asked Heracleo in a cold quiet voice.

"They have lied," he said. "I am an honest man."

"Nay," said the captain, "now that I come to think, I do remember you as Cleon's lieutenant, but you are grown fat and sleek beyond all knowledge. That he was betrayed I know, and I always believed that you were the man that did it. And if you could do that, it would be easy enough for you to sell up a farmer, and send a ship and its cargo to the bottom. What say you, men?"

A low growl of assent went round the half-circle. At a sign from the captain a stalwart fellow stepped out from the ranks and laid a heavy hand on the culprit's shoulder. The man started and screamed with fear. "Take care what you are doing. Any harm that you may do me will be repaid tenfold. Don't touch me. I am a citizen of Rome."

The words produced a singular effect upon the assembly. They seemed to pass in a moment from rage to calm. But it would have been a very careless observer who should fancy that the change boded any good for the prisoner. The smile that passed over the captain's face was grim and mocking. It was not fear, but the eager prospect of a bitter jest that made his crew so quiet. The man that had put his hand on the prisoner's shoulder at once stepped back and made an exaggerated gesture of respect.

"Pardon me, sir," he said; "we were not aware that we had the honor of entertaining so distinguished a guest."

Then turning to the rest of the crew, "Do you hear this, you insolent fellows? Here is a Roman citizen, and we have actually kept him in the hold! Down on your knees, all of you, this moment, and beg his pardon."

The men did as he said, with a ludicrous imitation of dismay and penitence. They seized hold of the wretched man's hand and covered it with kisses, while they implored his pardon and besought his good offices with his countrymen. When they had sufficiently amused themselves in this way they went on to play another act in the farce.

"Don't you see," cried the man who had spoken before, "that our honored guest is not dressed quite as he should be? We did not see at once that he is a citizen. Bring a pair of shoes and a gown."

A pair of shoes in the last stage of shabbiness and decay, and a gown of which one might possibly guess that it had once been white, were brought out. The leader in this tragical sport began to untie the sandals which the prisoner wore and to fasten the shoes in their place with an elaborate show of respect and care. The gown was then carefully arranged, the folds being made to fall with as much dignity as their ragged condition allowed.

"There, sir," said the man, falling back a step and pretending to look at his victim with admiring awe. "There, sir, you are dressed at last as becomes your station. And now I doubt not you would gladly leave us and return to your native country. It overwhelms me with grief and dismay to think that we have detained a citizen of Rome so long. – Make ready there for my lord's departure."

A ladder was let down the ship's side, and the pirate, taking the prisoner's hand, led him with the utmost courtesy of manner to the side.

"I am afraid, sir," he went on, "that there will be a little difficulty about the way. We can take you most conveniently as far as the water; but as to any thing further we really don't see what can be done. You will have to do the best you can. But no harm can possibly happen to so distinguished a person, and in any case we could not possibly think of detaining you any longer. Will you please to descend?"

The wretched man cast an agonized glance about him; but there was not one gleam of pity in any of the swarthy faces which surrounded him. Then he collected himself. Vicious and degraded as he was, his nerves shaken by the excesses of an evil life, he was still a Roman, and like a Roman he would die. Folding his arms resolutely upon his breast he jumped from the deck, and in a moment disappeared below the water.

It was now Lucius' turn, and the prospect was gloomy for him. The ferocious instincts of the crew had been roused, and they were ready to demand another victim.

"And you too, young sir," said the man who had taken the leading part in the dismal farce which has been described, "are you a Roman citizen?"

The captain whispered, "Say that you are not. No one knows you here."

For a moment Lucius hesitated. Life was dear to him, as it is dear to every man, even to those whom it has given little, and promises, perhaps, less. And it had been dearer than ever to him since that perilous ride across the Calabrian hills with the Tarentine maiden, and the happy following days in which he had learned to love, and had begun to hope that he was himself beloved. For a moment he hesitated, but not for more than a moment. If he followed that poor wretch down to the bottom of the sea he should never look on Philareté again, but neither, he felt, could he look upon her again if he were to stain his honor with a lie, and deny his country. He made up his mind.

"Yes," he said in a clear confident voice, lifting his head as he spoke, "yes, I am a citizen of Rome."

There were a few in the crowd on whom the courage of this frank declaration was not lost; but they were only a few. A pirate's life does not help to cultivate generous feelings. A low growl of "Let him go home with his fellow "ran round the crowd, and the man who had been foremost in the sport stepped forward again. But Lucius' time was not come. The pirate captain stood up in front of the men and spoke:

"Comrades, I don't often interfere between you and your spoil or your sport. You have your share, and I have mine. If there is any one who thinks that he has been unfairly dealt with, let him speak. You are all silent; then I will assume that you are satisfied. But I have a right, which I have seldom claimed, the right to have my first choice out of the booty which we take. I claim it now, and my choice is this lad. And you, I trust, approve."

He spoke in a good-humored tone, but like a man who was not accustomed to have his requests denied. A sullen murmur was heard from some of the crew. In a moment his manner changed. "What!" he cried; "do you hesitate? It is my right, and I will have it. Have I been your captain these ten years, led you to victories more than you could ever have hoped, and made you richer than your dreams, and now my right, I do not say my wish, but my right, is questioned. Who is on my side?"

More than half the crew stepped forward; the rest looked at each other and hesitated. "Down on your knees, mutineers," cried the captain in a voice of thunder, "and beg pardon." He was instantly obeyed. Then his manner changed again. His tone became soft and caressing. "Surely such old friends as we are cannot quarrel about such a trifle as this. It is my whim, and you must honor me. The steward shall broach a cask of Cyprus for you, and you shall drink to our new comrade."

He turned to Lucius and whispered, "You are safe for the present. Come into my cabin. It will be best for you to be out of their sight. We shall have time to talk about your future to-morrow. Meanwhile take a little rest."

The young Roman was glad to follow this advice. His head was beginning to ache most painfully. He had had, in fact, a slight sunstroke. For two or three days he was not able to raise his head from the couch on which he had thrown himself, but passed his time in a half-dozing condition. The pirate ship meanwhile was rapidly pursuing its journey eastward.

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