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

Among the Pirates

Early in the morning of the third day Lucius was roused by an unusual trampling of feet over his head. He found himself on awaking quite free from pain, and with no more remains of languor than might be got rid of by a bucket or two of sea-water. He was about to go upon deck in search of this remedy, when, to his surprise, he found the door of the cabin fastened from the outside. The cabin had a little window in the stern covered with talc, a passable substitute for glass, used much in ancient times. He could just catch sight through this of a vessel which appeared to be about three miles behind, and which, as far as he could judge, was sailing in the same direction. It had a crowd of canvas upon it; whether it was also using oars it was too far off to see. He naturally began to speculate as to whether the appearance of this stranger had any thing to do with his confinement. Looking again through the window in about a quarter of an hour's time he felt certain that the pursuing ship, if indeed it was pursuing, had decreased the distance. At the same time he became aware that the pirates had manned their oars, and he had little, doubt that they were being chased. A few minutes later the door was opened, and the captain presented himself. "Excuse me," he said, "for keeping you a prisoner down here. You are looking, by the way, much better this morning. The fact is that it would not be safe for you to be on deck just now. That ship—you have seen her, I dare say, through the stern window—is chasing us, and, unless the breeze gets much fresher than it is now, will probably overtake us. I know her by the cut of her sail. She is the Apollo  of Rhodes, and is one of the fastest sailers in these seas. And she is very well manned too. If she comes up with us we shall have a very hard fight for it, and I think that you will be the better out of it. I called you 'our new comrade' the other day; but I know better than that, and the men know it too. You never could be a comrade of ours. Well, you see, as you could not be with us, my men would hardly believe but that you would be against us. Besides, if we were taken you would be an awkward witness against us. I don't know whether witnesses would be much wanted. As for myself, if ever I am taken my fate is certain, for I am as well known in these seas as the Colossus of Rhodes itself. Still there are some here who are not known, and who might escape if there wasn't some one to swear to them, and that is just what you could do, and, mind you, would have to do. You would have to tell the story, for instance, of that poor wretch yesterday, and that would crucify every man on board. Well, the long and short of it is, that if you were seen on deck you would probably be got rid off. I couldn't save you, and I don't want either any thing to happen to you, or to have a quarrel with my men, especially just now. So I shut you in the cabin for your own sake, and I advise you, if we come to a fight, to fasten the door from the inside. I shall do my best to sink the ship sooner than be taken; but if it comes to that, I give you my word to let you out first, and then you must take your chance."

The captain left the cabin, again fastening the door on the outside. Lucius continued to watch, and, it may be guessed, with increased interest, the approach of the Apollo. For that she was approaching there could be no doubt. The breeze was dying away, and the greater breadth of canvas which the Rhodian spread enabled her to catch every breath that there was. Lucius could now see the gilded figure-head under the bowsprit, and the flag bearing upon it a sun with streaming rays (Rhodes was pre-eminently the land of the sun), and could almost reckon the number of rowers that must be plying the two banks of oars. As for himself, he hardly knew what to wish. The thought of freedom was sweet, but the risk was terrible. If the captain should be killed—and what was more likely in the desperate fight that was likely to happen?—who would care or even remember to give him a thought? He might easily be drowned without a chance of escape, shut up like a rat in a trap, and to perish in such a fashion seemed ten times more dreadful than to fall in fair fight upon the field. The Rhodian was now within a hundred yards of the pirate, and commenced the attack by a shower of arrows. But the distance was still too great. A few stuck feebly in the ship's side; most fell into the water. Another moment or two, however, brought the Apollo  within a spear's-throw of her enemy. The antagonists were now so close that Lucius could no longer see any thing from his post of observation. But a heavy fall overhead followed by a groan told him that the battle had commenced in earnest. It had commenced indeed, but it was not to go on. The Rhodian was within a few yards of the pirate, and its crew were preparing to grapple and board, when an unexpected event happened. Lucius, who still looked through his window, though what was going on had passed out of the range of his sight, perceived that the sea to windward had grown suddenly dark. A squall was travelling rapidly in the direction of the two ships, too rapidly to raise the sea into great waves, but raising and whirling a cloud of foam before it as it went. It took the Apollo  entirely unawares, so intent were the captain and crew upon the pursuit and the fight, and as every inch of canvas had been spread to catch the failing breeze the situation was extremely perilous. Happily for the ship her mainmast went by the board. Even then she heeled over to the very edge of the water, and it was doubtful for a moment whether she would recover. The pirate suffered less. She was lower in the water, and she had a smaller breadth of canvas. Lucius felt her dart forward like an arrow from the bow, and the next moment saw the damaged pursuer at least a hundred yards astern, and hanging over her side the mass of tangled sails and cordage which her crew were using all their efforts to cut away. He felt that this chance, whether it meant escape or death, was over, and half disappointed, half relieved, he sat down with what patience he could summon to wait for what next might happen.

It was not long before he heard the outside bolts withdrawn. The captain entered, in high spirits as it seemed.

"Well," said he, "that was a narrow escape, and perhaps it was as lucky for you as it certainly was for us. It might have gone hard with you, especially if I had been killed. Now you can come upon deck. The men are in the best of humors. Indeed, we are now so near home that we may feel pretty safe. Don't you feel disturbed at that. You may depend upon me for getting you away from our disreputable company somehow."

Lucius gladly availed himself of the permission to leave his prison, and breathed again the fresh air with the keenest delight. A bath was his first thought, and this was easily managed after a fashion. There was a ladder down the side of the ship. He climbed down this, and stood on the lowest rung while one of the crew dashed over him some buckets of sea-water, a vigorous shower-bath which did him, he felt, an immensity of good, and gave him an appetite which almost astonished himself, for the breakfast of boiled fish and bread, washed down with warm wine and water, which was served to him and the captain under an awning on deck.

"We are not far from our journey's end," said Heracleo to his guest. "If this wind holds good a while longer we shall be there to-morrow morning. We don't go back home till the winter sets in; but we have a station about half-way between that and our best hunting-ground (which, I may tell you, is the sea about Italy). There we put in some time in the course of the summer, according as it may suit, to repair damages, and refit and divide any profits that we may have made. The place, by the way, is something of a secret. No one who happened to sail by would guess that it was there; and you will have to swear in the presence of the crew to say nothing about it. Otherwise I shan't be able to answer for your life. When we get there we will see what can be done for you."

The west wind continued to blow steadily, and the pirate dashed gayly along eastward. Lucius, though he was a prisoner among men who were commonly thought to be the worst cut-throats in the world, could not help feeling his spirits rise. What the future might bring he could not, did not even try to, guess; but the present, as far at least as its outward surroundings were concerned, was delightful. The sea was of the deepest blue, touched here and there with white as a wave curled over and broke; the sky was cloudless, though a slight haze just veiled the sun and tempered its heat. Sometimes a "school" of tunnies or porpoises would be seen rolling over and over in the water; sometimes a flock of sea-gulls and cormorants would be seen, now hovering in air, now dashing down upon the waves, where a shoal of mackerel moved like the shadow of a little cloud across the shining surface of the sea. Meanwhile the crew, glad to be released from the labor of the oars by a steady stern wind that sent on the ship faster than any rowing could move her, lay on the deck or lounged against the bulwarks, joining in a snatch, now of Greek, now of Latin, and now again of some barbarous song. They were indeed a polyglot collection. The bulk of the crew were Cilicians, and fellow-countrymen of the captain; but they had recruits among them from the whole of the Mediterranean shores, from the Pillars of Hercules on the west as far as the Syrian coast on the east. Whatever the place they came from, most of them had learned to express themselves, if it was but rudely, in both Latin and Greek. How far they had come on their way, Lucius had but little idea. Some high land was just visible in the extreme distance on their left hand, and he guessed, judging by the length of time they had been running before the wind, that it might be the southern point of Greece; and the idea was confirmed, when, after two or three more hours' sailing, a long stretch of land, which seemed as they approached rapidly to rise out of the water, showed itself on their right. Before the light failed he could just distinguish white cliffs, which formed, he could hardly doubt, the western end of the "chalk island," Crete.

"You had best go below," said the captain to him, as he lingered, long after sunset, on the deck, entranced by the singular beauty of the scene. "The wind has brought us on quicker than I expected. Had it been in the daytime I should have had to blindfold you, for we don't care that any stranger should know the secret of our harbor of refuge. As it is, it will be enough if you will go below and sleep. Don't wake, or anyhow don't rise, till I call you."

Lucius promptly obeyed advice which, though spoken with good humor, had all the tone of a command, and was soon sleeping the dreamless sleep of youth. When he awoke he found the captain standing by his couch.

"Well done, my son," was his morning salutation. "You really flatter me by sleeping so soundly. I can't indeed be so bad as they would make me out if my prisoners are so much at their ease. But get up and dress yourself. You remember about the oath. We are going to have a sacrifice, and you can't do better than take it on the victim. For myself, I am quite satisfied with your word; and besides, I don't suppose you have much notion of where you are, or how you got here. Still, the men will have it so, and it is only fair to satisfy them."

"I have no difficulty about swearing," said Lucius; "though, as you say, I know nothing to tell, except that when I last saw the land I guessed that we were somewhere near the west end of Crete."

"Well, that is not much of a clew. I don't mind telling you that you are right so far. But Crete, you know, is a famous place for labyrinths; and this is as pretty a little labyrinth for finding your way in or out of as you will easily see."

It was indeed a curious scene that met the young Roman's eyes when he came upon deck. He found himself in what he knew must be a landlocked harbor, but which, only that he knew that the ship must have found its way in by some channel or other, he would have believed to be an inland lake. Its shores were steep down to the water's edge, varying in height from fifty to sometimes as much as two hundred feet. Above the cliffs rose a perfect circle of wooded hills, the sloping sides of which were now lustrous in the early morning sunlight. On one side only of the harbor was there any level ground. Here a small stream, which found its way down through a ravine in the hills, had made, it would seem, a little delta for itself. An expanse of meadow, still beautifully green, though midsummer was now past, lay on either side of the channel, through which the water, though now shrunk to almost its smallest space, still babbled gayly. It was on the edge of this low-lying part of the shore, that Heracleo's ship, with five others, for Lucius saw that they were not the only occupants of the harbor, were drawn up. They were ranged with their sterns to the shore, being attached by strong cables to posts driven into the ground, while the prows were kept in position by anchors on either side. A crowd of men, which must have numbered at the least five or six hundred, was ranged in a semicircle in one of the river-side meadows. Close to the stream itself stood a rude altar of stone, and a number of oxen, sheep, white and black, and some large swine, were ranged, ready, it would seem, for the sacrificer's knife.

"Come along," said the captain: "they are waiting for us. They will sacrifice that white bull you see there, and you will have to put your hand on the altar, and swear to keep the secret of the island."

They landed by a gangway, and went up to the altar, a loud cry of welcome rising from the crowd as soon as the well-known figure of the captain was seen. The bull, whose horns had been roughly gilded, stood quiet, an omen of good luck, as the crowd did not fail to observe with delight. The first thing was to cut away some of the short hairs which grew upon the forehead and to burn them in the fire that had been kindled on the altar. One of the attendants now brought a bowl of salted meal, which he sprinkled between the animal's horns. Meanwhile another had approached from behind, and swinging a great pole-axe over his head, dealt a mighty blow which severed the spine. The bull fell heavily forward. Another attendant cut the throat from ear to ear, and a fourth held beneath a broad dish which was to catch the blood. Lucius was now called up to take the oath. As it did nothing but bind him to secrecy about things of which he really had no knowledge, he felt no objection to taking it. Placing one hand on the stones of the altar, the other on one of the horns of the victim, he repeated the words: "I, Lucius Marius, swear by all the gods of heaven and hell that I will reveal nothing that I know concerning the affairs of the free Confederacy of the Seas." The sacrifice then proceeded. Some of the inner fat and some of the entrails of the animal were burned in the fire; the rest of the flesh was kept for the feast, which was not the least important part of the ceremony. The other animals were dealt with in the same way, the name of a different god or goddess being called over each. Roman, Greek, and barbarian deities were thus honored. As may be supposed, a congregation of sailors did not forget to secure, if they could, the favor of the powers that controlled the weather. White sheep were offered to the nymphs whose kindly power was supposed to give gentle breezes, and black sheep to the storms.

The banquet that followed was a scene of rude enjoyment. An unlimited supply of fresh meat was a luxury that the company but seldom enjoyed, and which they made the most of on the rare occasions when it came. Lucius had seen at home that a Volscian ploughman or vine-dresser, accustomed to live for the most part on vegetable diet, could, on the occasion of a feast, dispose of a vast quantity of flesh, but he had never seen any thing like the feats which his new companions accomplished in this way. The sea-air seemed to have given them appetites which it was impossible to satisfy. These heroic supplies of food were washed down by equally heroic draughts of wine. Great casks had been broached; from these the wine had been transferred into pitchers, and mixed with rather more than its own bulk in water. A number of young lads were fully employed in running up and down the ranks in which the guests had ranged themselves round the altar, and filling the cups. These, Lucius observed, were of silver, and in some cases even of gold. Many a private plate-chest, many a public treasury, and, it was said, many a temple in the sea-board cities of the Mediterranean must have been ransacked to make so goodly a show of wealth. The mirth of the day, of course, would not have been complete without song. As the feast was held in the open air, and the company was large, there were few singers who could have made themselves heard by all. The guests, therefore, naturally broke up into parties, who found for themselves the entertainment that they best liked. In one place a party of Greeks, real or so called—for the Greeks had always an astonishing success in giving their customs and language to tribes quite remote from them by birth—listened to a recitation from Homer. In another place a number of Cilician mountaineers joined in chorus with some ballad in their own tongue. Lucius himself, pressed to sing, and yielding to the request on a nod from the captain, gave them an old Volscian war-song, handed down from the time when the little mountain state had matched itself on equal terms with Rome. We may venture to say that none of the audience understood it, but the air and lilt of the words had something spirited and martial about them; Lucius, too, possessed a very sweet and powerful voice, and the effort was received with great applause.

Having thus discharged his duties as a guest, he was glad enough to steal away and refresh himself with a bath. The bath over, he took a detour which brought him to the upper side of the meadow on which the feast was held. It was his fancy to follow up the stream through the woods, from which it issued forth on to the plain. This was no easy task, but it amply repaid all the trouble spent upon it. The air, permanently protected from the sun by the over-arching trees, was deliciously cool; and the stream made its way down to the plain by a beautiful succession of cascades and pools, these latter tenanted, as Lucius could see, by some fish of magnificent size. After a while farther progress was barred by a precipice, over which the stream made a sudden leap of more than sixty feet, and which, as far as the young traveller could see, it was impossible to climb.

It was almost dark when he found himself again on the shore. A few revelers were still lingering over the remnants of the feast, but the greater part lay fast asleep about the meadow. It had been arranged that he should take up his quarters at night in the ship, and he was very glad to avoid the noisy or drunken occupants of the beach.

In the course of the next day he made acquaintance with a young Greek of about the same age as himself; and the friendship grew as rapidly as friendships do under such circumstances. Two or three days afterwards the two had been bathing together, and were resting after an unusually long swim, when they heard voices on the other side of the rock in the shadow of which they were sitting. They could not see or be seen by the speakers, but as the distance was not more than a few yards every word uttered was distinctly audible.

"It is all very well," began one of the men, "for our captain to have his fancies; but it does not seem to me the right way of carrying on our business. To my mind there is only one safe maxim for this trade of ours: 'Dead men tell no tales.' I don't take much count of oaths. I have broken too many myself; ay, and seen others break them too. I know something much better than an oath for stopping a man's mouth."

What this something was, Lucius and his companion could not see, for the speaker explained himself by a gesture; but they could guess.

"Ay," said another voice, "but what will the captain say? He has taken a great fancy to the lad, and I shouldn't care to come in his way if he knew that I had harmed him."

"There is no need for him to know," returned the first speaker; "the fellow and that young Greek, who, by the way, is just another of the same sort, are always wandering about; and a couple of strokes of a dagger would dispose of them. Bury their bodies in the sand for the time, and sink them in thirty fathom of water next night with a stone round their necks, and we needn't trouble about them any more. What do you say?"

At this point the two fellows turned back, but Lucius had heard enough.

"And what do you say?" he said to his young friend.

"Why, that we must be off. I have thought so for some time. I have been here, as I dare say you know, some time longer than you, and I have heard one or two hints before that the men don't like any one to be here who is not one of them. You see, they bury a great deal of their treasure here. That I happen to know for certain. If they knew I knew it, I should have made acquaintance long since with the pleasant things which our friends just now were talking about. But even as it is they are suspicious. We must go, I say."

"It is all very well," returned Lucius, "to say 'go,' but how is it to be done? It seems to me that we might as well try to fly up to the moon."

"Well, we can't go by ourselves. Still, I think that I see a way. There is a man here who goes in fear of his life, and would be rejoiced to get away. He has got a blood-feud, you see, with some of his comrades; and though it is supposed that such things are forgotten on service, it will sometimes happen that on a dark night, when a man is found alone, they will be suddenly remembered. He is a strong fellow, and a capital seaman, I have heard. My idea is that we should get him to go with us; make free with one of the boats, the smallest we can find that will stand any sea, put something to eat and drink on board if we can find it, and make the best of our way off."

"But how about the captain? Shall we tell him?"

"I should say 'certainly not.' He is an excellent fellow, a great deal too good for his company; but it is better that he should know nothing about it. If he were to help us it would be very awkward for him with his men. You see, he is captain, but he mustn't draw the reins too tight. No; we had best go without a word; and, depend upon it, he will be very glad if we can get away, and all the more glad the more kindly he feels towards us. Meanwhile I will see what my friend the sailor thinks. Meet me after sunset. If it is to be done we had better lose no time about it."

At the time appointed Lucius returned to the place, and had not to wait long before he saw the young Greek, whose name, by the way, was Charicles, approaching.

"I have made it all right with the sailor," he said; "he is as anxious to get away as we are. He is in charge of one of the ships, and he can get away with the biggest of the boats without taking much trouble. Don't go to sleep to-night, but keep on the lookout for us. We shall come to your cabin as soon after midnight as possible. The moon will be just rising then, and there will be enough light, but not too much."

Lucius' only anxiety was about the captain. Would he pass the night as usual on shore? Very probably; but once he had slept on board ship. If he did so on this occasion there would be nothing for it, Lucius felt, but to take the chance of letting him into the secret. Luckily the question did not arise. Heracleo slept on shore, where indeed his presence was required to keep a somewhat turbulent company in order.

The hours seemed to Lucius to be lengthening almost into days as he waited for the boat. As a matter of fact, however, it was punctual to its time. The moon was still behind the amphitheatre of wooded hills, though the sky had begun to lighten a little under the influence of its rays, when a boat, rowed by two muffled oars, came stealing silently along. It was not without reluctance that Lucius left his preserver in so unceremonious a fashion. The purse girdle which he wore round his waist still contained a small store of gold pieces. Of these he left three as payment for a small bundle of clothing with which the captain had supplied him, and which he now thought it better to take with him. To these he added a small silver ring, the parting gift of one of his boyish friends at Arpinum. He was unwilling to part with it, but he was still more unwilling to leave one who, pirate as he was, had served him so well, without some token of remembrance. It would be as well, he felt, to postpone as long as possible the discovery of his departure. Accordingly he did not leave the money and the ring on the table of the cabin, where the captain would be sure to notice them, but dropped them into a drawer where they would probably lie for some time undiscovered, but would certainly be found sooner or later. These preparations had been made before the time appointed for the boat's arrival. When it came he had nothing to do but to drop into it with his bundle. The shore on which the ship lay was happily within the shadow of the hills, behind which the moon was rising. By this shadow, which grew darker and less penetrable as the moon began to throw its light on the rest of the harbor, the boat crept along, the sailor looking carefully out for the opening of the harbor, a place which it was very easy to miss. There was a break in the line of cliff; but it was a break through which one saw, not the open sea, but another line of cliff behind. The fact was that the real opening was guarded from sight by a great mass of rock, some two hundred feet in length, and covered at the top with a growth of trees, and separated from the shore by a channel of about forty feet in breadth. Into this channel there was, of course, an entrance at either end of the covering rock, but the sailor, for all the intentness of his watch, missed that to which the boat first came, and had nearly missed the other. Luckily he observed it before it was too late. Creeping round the corner of the rock, a manúuvre easy enough for the boat, but difficult in the extreme for a ship of any size, they found themselves in the channel. A slight motion of the water soon told them that they were near the sea; and before long the sea itself, light with the rays of a moon which had now risen high in the heavens, became visible to them.

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