Lucius was of course all impatience to enter upon his new duties, and grudged every moment of delay. He guessed, however, that it would be a waste of time to make a very early visit to Cleomenes, and, as he found when about two hours before noon he called at the young Greek's house, guessed right. Cleomenes had but just finished his first meal, and was amusing himself with two young friends who had breakfasted with him, at a game which our hero could not help regarding with some little contempt. A number of small earthenware saucers were floating in a large basin of water. The players stood about six yards off, each with a cup holding a small quantity of wine in his hand. Their object was to throw the wine in such a way that it would fall into one of the saucers and sink it. Each saucer so sunk was worth a gold piece to the fortunate or skilful player who contrived to send it to the bottom. When the game began there had been nine saucers afloat, and each of the three players had put three gold pieces into the pool, and would take one out for each saucer he might secure. Four had disappeared when Lucius was announced, and Cleomenes was in the highest spirits because three out of the four had fallen to his share.
"Good-morning!" he said. "For Heaven's sake don't interrupt me! I am giving my friends here such a beating as they never had before in their lives. I can aim like Cupid himself this morning. Look here!"
As he spoke he threw the wine again, and, to his unbounded delight, a fifth saucer disappeared.
"Come," he cried to his competitors, "I will wager fifty drachmas that I get two out of the four that are left. There is nothing like following up one's luck."
The young men were not disposed to take the bet. It was clearly their host's day, and they felt that the less they risked the better. Cleomenes in fact did sink two more of the saucers, and consequently pocketed six of the nine gold pieces. Then turning to Lucius with an air of triumph: "What an omen," he cried, "for you and me! Could the Twin Brethren have sent a better? Don't you see?—the saucers there are the pirates, and I, with you to help me, am the man to sink them. You shall have your revenge," he continued, speaking to his friends, "if you will come to-morrow. Meanwhile farewell! My young friend here and I have business to transact—business of the state, you will understand, which cannot be neglected."
And he endeavored to assume an air of dignified importance, not a little to the amusement of his friends, who knew him a great deal too well to be so taken in.
"You must not suppose," he said to the young Roman when they found themselves alone, "that I am given to these trifles. But one should not apply one's self to business immediately after meals. My physician expressly forbids it. But now for our affairs. We are tolerably well prepared for a cruise—in fact about as well as we are likely to be. You won't find things, perhaps, quite as you might expect or wish. We have not got many stores on board. You see this is not like a long voyage. We are always near our base, as the soldiers say, and can pick up pretty nearly what we want as we go along. The crews, too, are not quite complete. It really is no use feeding and paying a lot of idle fellows when they are not wanted. We can always get them when they are required. I reckon that we shall pick up the men as well as the stores as we go along. We will press the fellows out of two or three forts that I know of. What is the good of their kicking their heels all day long and looking out to sea? A bit of a cruise and a little service—no running into danger, you will understand, but something that will bring plenty of credit without much risk—that will do them a world of good. Well, if we are ready we had better set out at once. We generally have settled weather about this time of year. The pirates, too, are getting a little impudent. Of course they will be off at once as soon as we show ourselves. When can you be ready? Will three days be enough?"
"I don't want more than three hours," said Lucius.
"Admirable! What energy! This is how you Romans have conquered the world. But I have some little matters to settle. A married man, you see, can't leave every thing at a moment's notice, as a gay young bachelor like yourself. Shall we say the day after to-morrow, about two hours before sunset—that is, if the weather still looks fine? Will you try your hand with the Cottabos?—no? You Romans like something more energetic, I dare say. Farewell, then, for the present. Our ship, you will remember, is the Chimæra."
When Lucius presented himself, punctual to the moment, at the rendezvous, he found the Chimæra as gay as paint and varnish and gilding could make her. A huge figure of the monster from which she got her name—a mixture of lion, goat, and snake—adorned the bows. A small pent-house on the stern covered gilded images of the Twin Brethren, under whose protection she was supposed to be. An old sailor greeted the young Roman on his arrival with a respectful salute. "We do not sail, sir," he said, "till to-morrow. The captain thinks that there is a little too much wind; and besides, he dines with the governor. Meanwhile, sir, you are to be in charge, and I hand over the ship to you."
The old salt's face, as he spoke, was perfectly grave, but there was a twinkle in his eye which showed that he had his own opinions about the delay. As to the weather, indeed, Lucius, landsman as he was, could see that the excuse was ridiculous. A fair breeze was blowing just strongly enough to touch the waves with white. Small fishing and pleasure boats were going in and out of the harbor; in fact the weather was fair, and promised to be still fairer as the day went on. Lucius found occupation and amusement enough in thoroughly inspecting the ship. It was a decked vessel, and though it would have seemed small to modern eyes, was reckoned to be of unusual size. Its new lieutenant was a little surprised to find so few seamen on board, but concluded that the men, like their commander, had been given or had taken an extra day's leave. They were probably loitering in the town; they must be recalled in good time the next day. This must be his first duty as second in command; for it would not do for his chief to find, when he came on board, that any of his crew were missing. When he announced his intention of calling the roll early next day and of sending a guard on shore to bring in any stragglers, the old seaman listened with a half-suppressed smile, which Lucius perceived but could not understand.
The next morning, about half an hour after sunrise, the ceremony of the roll-call took place. Demarchus (that was the old sailor's name) called over the names. Every one was duly answered, but the lieutenant soon perceived a suspicious resemblance in the voices that replied. Before long in fact, he became certain that one man was doing duty in this way for a good many; and stepping a little aside to where he could command a view of the place from which the voices seemed again and again to come, he saw that there was a man who sometimes answered to as many as five or six names in succession. He thought it best not to interrupt the call, but to demand an explanation as soon as it was finished.
"What," he said to Demarchus, "is the meaning of this? There are about one hundred and eighty names on the list; but there were, I am sure, not a hundred at the call. And what did that fellow behind the mast mean by answering name after name? Are the men loitering about in the town? If so, we must fetch them."
"Sir," said the old sailor, "it is all a queer business, but you will have to know it sooner or later, and I had better tell you at once. To put the matter quite shortly, these men are nowhere. Some of them died years ago, some ran away; some I never saw, and I have been on the Chimæra a matter of five years. You look surprised, sir, and well you may be. But listen and you will understand." As he spoke he dropped his voice to a whisper. "They are nowhere, but they get their pay all the same, or somebody else gets it. The town that finds this ship pays for one hundred and eighty men; and we have, as you see, something less than a hundred. Say each man gets half a drachma a day. There you have forty drachmas in somebody's pocket. It is not for me to say whose pocket, but I am pretty sure that not a single drachma goes back to the town. Then there is an allowance for food. The missing men, of course, want food just as much as those that are here; and to tell you the truth, those that are here don't get much more than the missing. Yes, sir, we haven't food for fifty on board—I might say a score—let alone a hundred. Some of the men bring a supply on board; and then when we touch anywhere—and we touch, as you may guess, pretty often—they are exceedingly nimble in picking up any trifles that may come in their way. Then there is something to be done in fishing when the weather is fine. No, sir, they don't starve; but you can't say much more. And, sir, we are better off in the Chimæra than they are in any of the other ships. We haven't got much more than half our crew, but they haven't a quarter. You see, our captain is a favorite at headquarters, and he is better treated than some; but you wouldn't believe how short-handed some of the others are. Do you know the real reason why we didn't sail yesterday? The weather was all right—you saw that. sir, though I doubt whether you have been much to sea before; but the wind was blowing into the harbor mouth, and we could not get out. We had not enough men to man the oars, and so we had to stay at home. You see people suspect something, but they don't know; and it would never do to show our weakness publicly. We shall go to-day, sir. The wind has shifted and blows out of the harbor, and we can do without our oars. The Chimæra makes a brave show, sir; and the others look pretty well too when they are under sail, but I don't like the look of things. And if the pirates do show fight—and I am told they will—it may turn out a very ugly business. And now, sir, I have told you the whole truth, as far as I know it; for I seem to see in your face that you are one to be trusted. But mind, you must not seem to know any thing. See, here comes the captain."
Just as he finished speaking Cleomenes stepped out of a litter, which had been carried by the bearers down to the water's side, and came on board by a gangway. He greeted his lieutenant with much friendliness and warmth.
"My excellent Lucius, I am delighted to see you. I felt sure when we first met that you were exactly the man that I should like to have with me. You have every thing ready, I see." He saw something in the young Roman's eye that seemed to say that every thing was not ready, and hastened to anticipate any remark. "Ah! there are some things you want to speak to me about. Very good. We shall have plenty of time for that when we are out of harbor. That is the first thing to do. Demarchus," he added, turning to the old sailor, "signal to the rest of the squadron that they are to follow me out of harbor under sail."
The order was duly given. The Chimæra soon had its sails hoisted, and led the way gayly enough. Its consorts, as the lieutenant soon saw, were not in such good case. The start was not so speedily made, the sails were not so skilfully handled, and the canvas, when spread to the wind, looked old, discolored, and worn. Still the squadron, which numbered eight ships in all, made a sufficiently fair show is they passed one after another out of the harbor mouth. Crowds of people had gathered on the piers on either side to see them off. Most of them noticed nothing wrong; and though there were not wanting critical eyes, for Syracuse had plenty of sailors, young and old, among its citizens, there was a strong feeling that silence was safer than speech. The exit safely accomplished, the squadron turned southward, and had the honor of receiving the farewell salutations of the governor himself, who stood dressed in purple cloak and tunic reaching down to his heels, and surrounded by a party of gayly attired ladies in front of his seaside quarters.
In the course of an hour or so Cleomenes beckoned to his lieutenant. "You find," he said, "that every thing is not quite complete. You will remember that I told you so. But we have really got pretty nearly every thing we want, for this will be more of a promenade than an expedition. The pirates daren't show themselves within ten miles of us. Why, the Chimæra would sail over any one of their little bits of vessels and not feel it. Still we may as well pick up some more men from the seaside forts. To-morrow I will send you with a requisition to the officers in command. We shall get some provisions too, I dare say, in the same way. As for to-day we will do about ten miles more or so, and then stop for the night. I shall have my tent pitched and dine on shore. It is far more pleasant, I think, than living on board. You will come of course, to-night, and whenever you please without further invitation."
Two or three days' easy voyaging in this fashion brought the squadron to the south-east corner of the island. Lucius paid his visits to the forts, and duly presented his commander's requisition. His experience at the first of these places, a somewhat ruinous building about five-and-twenty miles south of Syracuse, pretty well represented what he found at them all. "You want some men," said the old soldier in command, a deputy centurion who must have seen at least thirty years of service, "and are authorized to take as many as are not required for the safe keeping of the fort. That is how your document runs. Very good, sir. I will muster the garrison, and you shall see how many I have to spare. Very luckily you have come just at the right time to see them all. They are mostly scattered a good deal, looking out for something to eat, it may be, or doing a stroke of work for a farmer in the neighborhood. But just now they are all at hand."
All at hand they were, and they numbered exactly nine. "Now, sir," continued the old soldier, "I might hold this place with a hundred men, if the attack was not too brisk. Of course if the enemy brought big catapults to bear on us, or came to close quarters with pickaxes, they would soon have the whole place down about our ears. Still I might hold out pretty well with a hundred men. Well, I never had more than thirty. This was five years ago, sir, when I came to the place. Since then they have been dropping off one by one. All the young and active fellows have found something better to do, and nobody seems to care whether they stay or no. The district round about here goes on paying for them, I am told, and some one, I suppose, draws the pay. It does not much matter, I fancy. Of course the pirates could take the place if they chose. But it is not worth their while. There is nothing for them to get, and I don't feel uneasy on that score, though this not the sort of thing that a veteran like myself cares to do. But you perceive, sir, I can't do any thing for you in the way of men. I see the requisition goes on: The commander will also furnish you with any surplus stores that he may possess beyond what may be needed for his garrison. Well, come this way and see what the men have got for their dinner."
He led the way into an adjoining room, where the men were engaged with their meal. They had a steaming dish before them, which Lucius at first sight supposed to consist of parsnips, but which he found on inquiry to be the roots of dwarf-palms. There, sir," said the old officer, "that is what my men mostly live on. Happily there is no want of them about here. We do pick up a bird or rabbit now and then, and we keep a few hens, and sometimes we catch some fish on shore-lines; but if it were not for the palms the men would sometimes come off very badly. No, sir, I have not got any surplus stores beyond what may be needed for my garrison."
This matter disposed of, Lucius had some interesting talk with the old soldier. He had served his first campaigns in Northern Italy two and thirty years before, when the barbarians had swarmed across the Alps, and seemed likely to bring back the times of Brennus and the Gauls. He had been one of the few survivors of the dreadful day of Arausio, where eighty thousand Romans and allies lay dead on the field of battle, and he had shared in the two great victories by which Caius Marius had delivered Rome from a destruction that had at one time seemed inevitable. His respect for our hero was of course immensely increased when he found out that he was a kinsman of the great consul. But when the young man, whose blood fairly boiled at the tale of these monstrous abuses, spoke of trying to get things righted, he strongly advised him to do nothing. "You will only be running your head against a wall, sir. These things will get set right some day, but we had best leave them alone. I am told that the governor we have now does not care much what he does, so that he gets his own way. He has scourged men and crucified them, yes, Roman citizens too, if they so much as ventured to whisper a word against him and his goings on. Take my advice, sir, and say nothing, at all events as long as you are in Sicily."
This, as has been said, was a type of what our hero found at all the forts which he visited on the same errand, and he began to think that his command was not quite so desirable a thing as he had once expected.