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

A Struggle for Life

For some time hardly a word was spoken. The two oarsmen bent to their work, and put all the speed they could upon the boat. Pursuit, indeed, was not probable, for they seemed to have escaped observation, and several hours would probably elapse before their absence would excite attention. Lucius had steered as he had been directed, due south, finding his course by the stars, for the night was fortunately clear. The wind was nearly aft, coming as it did a few points to the westward of north. When about two hours had passed the dawn became visible, and as the light increased the breeze slightly freshened. The sailor, a stout-built man of about forty years of age, now ceased rowing, and with the help of Charicles put up the mast, and spread the one sail, a large fore-and-aft piece of canvas, to the wind. He took the rudder into his own hand, and giving a slightly more easterly direction to their course proceeded to review the situation. He was a native, we may here say, of Lycia, and spoke a broken dialect of Greek, interspersed with some Latin and some barbarous words, which Lucius would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to understand without the help of the young Greek.

"Will you see, sir," he began, "what we have got to eat and drink? I put in what I could lay my hands upon at the moment, but I am afraid there is very little."

The stock was found to consist of a cask holding about twenty gallons of water, a keg of salted mutton, two bags of biscuit—not exactly our modern article, but bread which, to prevent its growing mouldy, had been double-baked—and a skin of wine, holding, it might be, eight or ten gallons. Lucius had made free to add to his bundle of clothing a couple of the captain's fishing-lines. He never forgot a chance of amusing himself with his favorite sport, and there was a hope that they might be of service in replenishing their stock of food.

"Well," said the sailor, "it might be worse, and it might be better. This won't keep us very long; but it ought to do till we strike the land somewhere—Crete ought to be somewhere on the south-east, unless I am quite out in my reckoning—or, better still, till we fall in with a vessel; the gods grant it be not a pirate! This north-westerly wind will hold, I take it, for a good time yet; it always blows about this time of year, and, luckily, is seldom very strong. We can't stand much of a breeze, you know, in this little cockle-shell."

Lucius and his young friend could, of course, do nothing else but hand over the management of the little craft to their older companion; and indeed they had little doubt of his being well capable of it. According to his calculations they could hardly fail to sight some part of the northern coast of Crete within two days, the course that he steered being south-east by south, and the wind blowing steadily from N.N.W., and driving the little boat with its capacious sail gayly before it at the rate of at least seven miles an hour. So confident were the voyagers of this result, that they were less sparing of their provisions and water than they would otherwise have been. When the third morning came, and then the fourth, and nothing was in sight, their position began to be serious. The sailor himself was evidently anxious, and scanned the southern horizon unceasingly for some token of land, but all in vain. He had evidently miscalculated his position, had probably overshot the eastern end of Crete, and had got besides into a part of the sea which was outside the usual tracks of eastward or westward bound traders. Hitherto, indeed, they had not seen a single sail. Still, if they held on in the same course they could hardly fail to come across the route which was commonly followed by Italian and Greek merchantmen when sailing to Alexandria, the only danger being that they might cross it in the night, and so pass into another unfrequented region. This was reassuring, and they were beginning to recover their spirits when an unexpected calamity reduced them almost to despair. The wind suddenly failed, and they lay under a scorching sun, with not more than a couple of days' scanty allowance of water and food. Lucius tried his fishing-lines, but in vain; they were in one of the deeper regions in the Mediterranean, where, as, indeed, is the case in all seas where the depth exceeds a certain limit, fish are exceedingly scarce. It was possible, indeed, to make a slight progress by rowing, but so slight was it that it scarcely repaid the exertion. Indeed they soon gave it up by common consent. Their only chance seemed to be to husband their strength to the utmost in the hope that some happy chance might bring them across a ship's path. They arranged the sail as an awning, and cowered under its shade from the heat of the sun, waiting with what patience they could muster for relief. The fishing-lines were still useless, except that twice a sea-bird laid hold of the bait as it happened to float upon the top of the water, and was secured and devoured almost before it could be plucked.

The young Roman, schooled to endurance from his earliest boyhood, and taught that to bear hunger and cold and heat with patience was at least as great a part of a soldier's and citizen's duty as to be bold on the battle-field, held out against his sufferings, intense as they were, with admirable fortitude. His Greek companion, though not so sternly trained, for he came from one of the luxurious and pleasure-loving cities of the Ionian coast, and was not made of so strong a fibre as Lucius, had yet a brave spirit of his own, and would not be behind his comrade. But the sailor was of a weaker and more vulgar nature. He had had more than his share of the provisions, for the two lads had not failed to remember that he was a full-grown man, besides having to bear the larger part of the labor; but he had never been satisfied. When the last division had been made he had not had the self-restraint to use any economy with the slender store allotted to him, and had been relieved more than once by the kindness of Lucius and the young Greek. As time went on, and the sufferings of the party increased, it was evident that he was becoming desperate. On the morning of the fourth day he signed to the young Greek that he wished to speak to him. (He commonly occupied the fore part of the boat, while the two lads sat in the stern.) Lucius had no particular reason to suspect him of any evil design; still he watched the two as they talked, and saw an unmistakable look of horror come over the face of the Greek. An inkling of the truth flashed across him in a moment. The two, though of different races, were, in a sense, fellow-countrymen; he was a foreigner and a stranger. Could the sailor be plotting his death? and how? What would it profit him, if it were accomplished? Whatever it was that the sailor said, after the first look of dismay which Lucius had happened to catch, the young Greek showed no sign of emotion or surprise. He seemed to listen attentively, and to nod now and then as if in assent.

"What was our friend saying?" whispered Lucius in Latin, when he had returned aft.

"Oh, nothing!" lightly answered the other, purposely using the dialect which the sailor spoke, and raising his voice so that it might reach the man's ears; and he sat silent for a time, which to Lucius, who could not help thinking that there was something to tell, seemed to be almost interminable.

The fact was that the Greek had all the diplomatic instincts of his race. To have answered Lucius' question at once, and to have told him all he had heard, would have roused the fury of the sailor, and would have precipitated a struggle which it was better to postpone. As it grew dark the sailor slept, or pretended to sleep, under the sail, and the Greek found the opportunity for which he had been waiting. By speaking in Latin he could conceal his meaning from the sailor, who knew only a few words of that language, and could not understand a connected sentence in it. But this was not precaution enough for the wary lad. A confidential tone might betray him almost as clearly as if the words themselves were understood. Accordingly he began talking in his usual way about the unfailing topic of the chances of deliverance; and then, without the least change of tone or manner, went on, to Lucius' intense surprise, to tell the secret.

"You caught my look," he said, "I noticed that you did; I saw something of it reflected in your face. I was a fool not to keep a better command of my countenance, but it was a horrible thing that that ruffian said to me. Do you know that he actually proposed that he and I should kill and eat you! 'He and I were Greeks,' he said. All the Furies confound the scoundrel for calling himself a Greek, and proposing in the same breath that we should do a thing which the worst barbarians would be ashamed of! 'You and I are Greeks,' these were his words, 'and he is a stranger, a Roman, and our natural enemy. If we go on like this we shall all die. But that'—he had the grace, thrice-accursed scoundrel as he is, not to say the horrid word again after he had once mentioned it—'that will keep us alive for five or six days at least. Before that a wind must spring up, and we shall be saved, and who is to tell the secret?' Well, I saw that I had better speak him fair. It wouldn't do, of course, to give in at once. That wouldn't have been natural, and he must have suspected me. So I made objections, said you were my friend, that it was a terrible thing, that we should never forgive ourselves if we did it, that we had better wait in the hope of being relieved, and so on—the usual things that one would say; and I made him think that my objections were growing weaker and weaker, and at last I seemed to give in. The villain had all his plans ready. I was to arrange to keep the first watch, and when you were asleep he would come up softly so as not to awake you, and finish the business. The gods forgive me for seeming to favor such a hideous scheme! But anyhow we are prepared, and we will fight it out. It will be very strange if we are not a match, together, for that ruffian. I will take the "Watch, as was arranged, and you will seem to go to sleep—I needn't tell you that you had better keep awake—so we shall be ready for him. I hope to finish him with my sword before he has a chance; but if he gets to close quarters you must be ready with a dagger."

It must not be supposed that all this was said without interruption. So long a speech might have aroused suspicion. The young Greek accordingly paused from time to time, and Lucius, taking the cue from him, interposed in the same indifferent tone of voice some observation or question. Their plans finally settled, the Greek began the watch, and Lucius apparently composed himself to sleep.


Nothing could be done but to leave the sailor to perish.

It was about midnight when the lads heard a slight noise of movement from under the sail. The night was dark, for there was no moon, and the stars, though the sky was cloudless, were veiled with a haze; but now and then, as the slow heave of a swell passed under the boat, a flash of phosphorescent light would give a momentary glimpse of every object in it. It was such a flash that showed the sailor to the young Greek. The man's eyes glowed like a wild beast's with hunger and rage as he crawled slowly towards the stern, while the blade of the dagger which he held between his teeth gleamed in the momentary light. Lucius, lying in the attitude of a sleeper, could see nothing; but a touch of the foot from his companion warned him that the crisis had come. The sailor paused for a moment in his approach. "Is he asleep?" he asked in a hoarse whisper. The Greek made no reply, but struck fiercely at him with his sword. Unluckily the darkness deceived his eye and the blow fell short. Before he could recover his weapon the sailor had closed with him. The lad's strength was no match for the tough sinews of the man; still he had an advantage of his own. Like all the well-born youths of his race he had been carefully trained in gymnastic exercises, and he was a skilful wrestler. Remembering just in time a trick of the ring, he tripped up his powerful foe, who fell heavily on the deck, dragging, however, with him the young Greek, on whom he kept a firm hold. Lucius was ready to do his part in the struggle; but the darkness was intense, and he was afraid to strike lest he should harm his friend and not his foe. The sailor's strength soon told in the struggle that followed—in a few moments he was uppermost, and in a few moments more had disengaged himself from the grasp of the lad and was preparing to strike. Lucius saw his opportunity, and threw himself, dagger in hand, upon the man. But the boat was now rocking so fearfully with the movements of the combatants that it was difficult to aim; and the blow, instead of piercing the body as had been intended, only inflicted a slight wound upon the arm. The sailor turned furiously upon his new assailant, and struck at him with his dagger; but his foot caught in the figure of the young Greek, who was lying half-stunned in the bottom of the boat, and he fell forward upon the gunwale with great force. Lucius, stepping backward to avoid the blow aimed at him, had thrown his weight upon the same side; and the next moment the danger which had been threatening them for some time was realized, and the boat upset. The sailor, like many of his class then as now, could not swim a stroke, and screamed for help. But Lucius, if he had been disposed to give it, had his hands full already. The Greek, never a very skilful swimmer, was now half-unconscious, and though somewhat revived by the shock of his sudden immersion, needed all the support and encouragement which his friend could give. Nothing could be done but leave the sailor to perish. The wretched man made a frantic effort to grasp the side of the boat, but, utterly unable as he was to make the least forward movement in the water, failed to reach it. He sank with a cry of despair, then for a moment rose again. This time he was too exhausted to utter a sound. Lucius to his dying day never forgot the brief glimpse which he had of that agonized face as it became visible for a moment in the weird phosphorescent light that now and again gleamed upon the sea. His own position was perilous, in fact almost hopeless. The boat was floating bottom uppermost. It was doubtful whether the two lads would have been able to right it if they had had their full strength. As it was, when both were weakened by hunger and thirst, and one was still suffering from the hurt received in the late struggle, it was impossible. All that Lucius could do was to climb on to the boat as it floated and seat himself astride, and to help his companion to gain the same position. A thin rope of some fathoms' length was fastened to some part of the stern. This he cut off with his knife, and used it to fasten his weaker companion to himself. This done, there was nothing left for him but to wait. Faint signs of the day, the "rosy fingers of the dawn," were now showing themselves in the east. He watched them rapidly brighten into gold, and then saw the sunrise slowly out of the waters, unshaded by a single streak of cloud. He was conscious of a dim sense of the beauty of the sight, mingled with the thought, which seemed hardly to terrify or distress, that he should look upon such sights no more. It was his last moment of consciousness. He fell forward, still mechanically grasping the keel, and remembered no more.

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