Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Marcus: the Young Centurion

George Manville Fenn

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  Marcus, The Young Centurion, by George Manville Fenn.


  Marcus is eighteen, and his father had been a great Roman General,Cracis, who had fallen from grace some years before and was livingquietly, farming in a small way in southern Italy. An old ex-soldier,Serge, works on the farm, and is helping to bring Marcus up. Marcuswould like to be a soldier, and is encouraged in this by Serge, but hisfather has forbidden any discussion of the topic.

  One day a stranger comes to the door. This turns out to be none otherthan Caius Julius, later Caesar, who begs Marcus' father to join him ina war against the Gauls. He agrees, and goes, having made Marcus andSerge promise that they would not try to follow him.

  But they do, independently, and then meet accidentally. Serge was beingattacked by bandits, and Marcus sees this happening and rushes to therescue, so they are reunited, later to be joined also by the householddog, Lupe, who has tracked them across Italy. On reaching Rome they arejust in time to join the last unit of the Roman army as it leaves forthe war. They make their way across the mountains and into Gaul(France), where battles ensue, in which they distinguish themselves, andare brought to the notice of the Generals, whom they had rescued frompersonal disaster during the battle. So Marcus' military career isassured.





  Hot as hot. Through the open window, where a couple of long shoots ofone of the grapevines hung down, partially shading the room within, abroad, glowing ray of light, which made the shadows near look purplyblack, streamed right across the head of Marcus, a Roman lad of abouteighteen, making his close, curly, brown hair glisten as if some of thethreads were of gold, while the light twinkled on the tiny dew-likedrops that stood out on the boy's brown forehead and by the sides of hisslightly aquiline nose.

  The side of his head was down upon the table and his hands outspreadupon either side; a wax-covered tablet had escaped from his left, and apointed stylus, with which he had been making a line of characters uponthe wax, had slipped from his right fingers, for he was sleeping like atop.

  All was wonderfully still in the Roman villa, and, from time to time, aslight puff of air which came cool from the mountains, but grew hotbefore it reached the house, sent one of the vine strands swinging toand fro like a pendulum, while the other, having secured itself to anouter shutter by one of its tendrils, remained motionless.

  The one that swung to and fro kept up its motion the more easily fromthe fact that it was weighted by a closely-set bunch of grapes of apearly green on one side, but on the other, facing the sun, beginning tobe tinged with a soft purple hue. Upon one of these berries a greatfly, which seemed to be clad in a coat of golden armour, sat with itsface away from the sun as if listening to the sleeping boy, who everynow and then uttered a low, buzzing sound which seemed to have attractedthe fly from the outer sunshine to dart to the window with a similarkind of hum, buzz round for a few moments, and then settle upon thegrape.

  There was not much similarity in the two sounds, simply because the flymade his by the rapid motion of the wings, while Marcus produced hissoftly through his nose. In plain English, Marcus, the Roman boy, sonof Cracis, the famous senator, tired out by the heat, had gone to sleepover his studies, snoring like an English lad of this year of grace,nearly two thousand years later on in the progress of the world.

  So Marcus snored, not loudly and unpleasantly, but with a nice, soft,humming note; and the great, golden-green fly sat on the grape andseemed to watch him.

  It was very still in the simple Roman villa on the steep slope of thehillside--a hill which looked like a young mountain, an offset of thebeautiful spur that ran upward from the vineyard farms and villas of thecampagna towards the purple shades of the great range far, far away.

  But now and again other sounds floated into the shadowy room past thebright bar of golden light which crossed the boy as he slept.

  There was the uneasy, querulous bleating of a goat, answered by theimpatient cry of a kid, and now and again the satisfied grunting ofpigs, though in those days they called them swine, of which there wereseveral basking in the sunshine in the little farm attached to thevilla, the little herd having shortly before returned from a muddy pool,dripping and thickly coated, after a satisfying wallow, to laythemselves down to dry and sleep in peace, the mud having dried into acrackling coat of armour which protected them from the flies.

  All at once that fly sprang up from the grape, darted into the room, andcircled round, humming loudly, one moment invisible in the dark, velvetyshade, the next flashing bright and golden as it darted across the sunnybar of light, till, all at once, it dropped suddenly upon the boy'sglistening nose, producing such a tickling sensation with its sixbrush-armed feet, that Marcus started impatiently, perfectly wide awake,and sent his disturber escaping from the window by an angry strokewhich, of course, missed, as he impatiently exclaimed in fine, old,sonorous, classic Latin:

  "Bother the flies!"

  The boy closed his eyes again, opened them sharply, and picked up histablet and stylus, yawned, and carefully laid them down again, for hishead felt very heavy. As he listened to the soft grunting of the swine,his eyelids dropped, and, in another moment, he would have been fastasleep once more, when from somewhere near at hand, as it seemed, therewas a sharp crack as of the breaking of a piece of wood.

  Marcus listened, fully awake once more, and, rising softly, he rose andapproached the window, to peer between the vine leaves that encroachedall down one side.

  He was listening to a soft whispering which was followed by a laugh, atearing noise, and another crack.

  The boy stole back and stood for a few moments in his loose, woollen,open-fronted garment, not very much unlike a tweed Norfolk jacketwithout pockets or buttons, very short in the sleeves. His eyes werewandering about the room as if in search of something which was notthere, and, not finding it, he stretched out his hands before him,looked at them with a satisfied smile, and doubled his fists. Then,stealing further back into the shadow, he passed through a door, madehis way along a passage, across another room, and out into the openatrium, a simply-made, shady court with a central basin where a littlejet of water played up, sparkling, and fell back in glistening drops.

  The next minute the boy was out in a fairly extensive garden, stoopinglow as he glided among the trees towards the little trellised vineyardon the sunny slope, where, from the continued sounds, it was evidentthat a party of marauders were making a foray amongst the unripenedgrapes, which, trained to fir-poles secured to posts, formed anattractive pergola overhead.

  Marcus approached as near as he could unseen, and then paused toreconnoitre, to find that the sounds proceeded from a party of six boysof somewhere about his own age, two of whom had destructively climbed upa couple of the poles to be seated astride amongst the spreading vines,where, after throwing down bunches to their four companions below, theywere setting their glistening white teeth on edge with the sour grapesthey had torn from the clinging strands.

  They were talking in whispers, but that was the only sign of fear theydisplayed, for the villa stood alone, the nearest domicile, anothervilla farm, being a couple of hundred yards away lower down the slope,and, apparently perfectly convinced that the occupants of the place wereright away, they feasted in perfect security and content.

  A grim smile came upon the handsome young face of Marcus as he watchedthe destruction going on. His eyes sparkled, his sun-browned cheek gr
ewdeeper in its tint, and he looked round again for the something that wasnot to hand, that something being a good stout stick. Then, clenchinghis fists more tightly--nature's own weapons--and without a sound, hesuddenly made a dash for two of the boys who were standing with theirbacks towards him, and with a couple of springs came down upon them likefate, gripping them by the backs of their necks and sending them facedownwards amongst the vine leaves and damaged bunches that had been tornfrom the vine, kneeling upon one and pressing the head of the other downinto the soil, regardless of the shrieks and yells which made the twoseated above drop down and follow the other two, who had taken toflight, while the noise that was made startled the sleeping swineoutside to add their shrill squeals and heavy grunts to the turmoil ofthe cultivated ground within.

  It was hard work to keep down the two young marauders, who joined totheir struggling piteous appeals for mercy; but Right strengthened thehands of Marcus, and he was gaining a complete triumph, and calculatingwhere he should secure his two prisoners until either his father orSerge came back, the latter probably from his tramp through the forestto see after the young acorn-eating pigs.

  But the prisoners' shouts reached and added wings to their flyingfriends' heels for the moment, then checked them, and a feeling ofcomradeship prevailed. The young rascals stopped short after going somedistance; then one looked back, and his example was followed by anotherand another, till all four were hesitating as to what they should do.

  They were on the balance when a more pitiful yell than ever from theirtrapped companions sent the scale down in the latter's favour. Theylooked at one another questioningly and then began to steal back to seewhat was happening, all the while fully on the alert to dash againthrough the trees which shaded their approach to the garden.

  In this way, with their fellows' bellowing ringing in their ears, theyat last stole up to the palisading through which they had at firstbroken, and then, dropping on hands and knees, they crept cautiously upto the edge of the little vineyard and, sheltering themselves well,peered in.

  The first and boldest got a good glimpse at once, and beckoned and madeway for the others to see what was happening.

  There was not much to see, only Marcus half kneeling half sitting uponthe ragged back of one of his prisoners, and reaching over to grind thenose of the other a little more closely into the earth every time hesquealed.

  But that was enough for the return party, which clustered together onall fours with their faces approaching and eyes questioning, like somany quadrupeds.

  They looked the more animal-like from their silence during the next fewminutes, when the two prisoners made a concerted effort to get free--aneffort which only resulted in making their position worse, for, as hemastered them, reducing them to obedience again, the boy jammed hisknees fiercely into the ribs of the one upon whom he squatted, andlifted up and banged down again the head of the other.

  The result was a piteous burst of shrieks which were too much for theirfriends and supplied them with the courage in which they were wanting,making them with one consent spring forward to their comrades' help,influenced, however, by the feeling that they were six to one.

  So sudden and unexpected was the attack, which accompanied a loudshout--one which made the prisoners join in and heave themselves up toget free--that Marcus was jerked over, and, before he could gain hisfeet, found himself the centre of a combined attack in which he rapidlybegan to get the worst of it, for, while he fought bravely and pommelledand banged enemies in front, getting on so well that he succeeded inseizing two by the neck and hammering their heads together, two othersleaped on him from behind in his weak rear, in spite of his splendidkicking powers, while two more attacked in front.

  Marcus was a young Roman, and fought like the Romans of old; but thenthe six young roughs were Romans too, and they fought like the Romans ofold, and six to one is rather long odds.

  Breath began to come short, perspiration was streaming, and an unluckyblow on the nose set another stream flowing, while, all at once, a dabin the eye made the optic flinch, close its lid from intense pain, andrefuse to open again, so that one-eyed like a regular old Cyclops, andpanting like the same gentleman from the exertions of using his hammer--two in this case, and natural--Marcus fought on, grinding his teeth,rapidly weakening, but determined as ever, though he felt that he wasbeing thoroughly worsted by his foes.

  "I'm about done," he said to himself; but he did not utter a sound savehis panting, while suddenly it began to grow dark; for, feeling that theday was their own, the enemy combined in a final rush, closed him in,hung on to him wherever they could get a hold, and were dragging himdown to take vengeance for the past--for they were old enemies, Marcusand they--when, all at once, there was a fierce, deep, growling bark, arush, a man's deep voice as if encouraging a dog, and Marcus was free,to stand there breathless and giddy, listening to the retreating stepsof his foes and the shouts to the dog of Serge, who had come to his helpin the nick of time.