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Marcus: the Young Centurion, Page 2

George Manville Fenn



  Marcus, son of Cracis, was a good deal hurt, but his injuries were of atemporary and superficial kind, and, as he stood listening, so littleimportance did he attach to his injuries that a broad grin began togather upon his frank young face, and he uttered a low, chuckling laugh;for, as he stood wiping his brow and listening, he could hear the soundsof blows, yells and cries, the worrying growl of the dog, and the harshencouraging voice of the man pretty close at hand, all of which taughthim that the enemy had been checked in their retreat and were beinghorribly routed by the reinforcements--a cohort of dog and man.

  "The young ruffians!" said Marcus, softly, as, unwillingly dragginghimself from where he could have the satisfaction of hearing thepunishment that was being awarded, he hurried back into the villa andstopped in the court, where he sank upon his knees by the cool, plashingfountain, whose clear waters he tinged as he bathed his face and swolleneye.

  He had some intention of hurrying back to the scene of battle to lookupon the damaged vines, and see if any prisoners had been made; but,while he was still occupied in his surgical effort to make his injuredeye see as well as the other, he was startled into rising up and turningto face the owner of a deep, gruff voice, who had approached himunheard, to growl out:

  "Well, you were a pretty fellow, boy! Why didn't you beat 'em?"

  The speaker was a big, thick-set, grizzled man of fifty, his bare armsand legs brown-skinned, hairy and muscular, his chest open, and hislittle clothing consisting of a belted garment similar to that worn bythe boy, at whom he gazed with a grim look of satisfaction which lit uphis rugged face and fine eyes.

  "Weren't running away, were you?"

  "No!" shouted Marcus, angrily. "I kept at it till you came, Serge. Butthere were six."

  "Yes, I know. You didn't go the right way to work. Were they at thegrapes?"

  "Yes. They woke me up; I had been writing, and I dropped asleep."

  "Writing?" said the man contemptuously and with a deep grunt of scorn."Enough to send anybody to sleep on a day like this. I say, lucky foryou I came back!"

  "Yes," said Marcus, giving his face a final wipe; "I was getting theworst of it."

  "Course you were. That's reading and writing, that is. Now, if you hadbeen taught to be a soldier instead of a volumer, you'd have known thatwhen the enemy's many more than you, you ought to attack him in bits,not take him all at once and get yourself surrounded. Yes, it's luckyfor you I came."

  "Yes, and I hope you gave them something to remember it," said the boy,with his eyes fixed upon the stout crook upon which the new-comerleaned.

  "Oh yes, I made them feel this," said the man, with a chuckle; "and oldLupus tickled them up a bit and made them squeak."

  "That's right," cried Marcus; "but where is he?"

  "On guard," said the man.

  "On guard?"

  "Yes," said the man, with a chuckle. "We took the whole six of themprisoners."

  "Ah! Where are they then?"

  "Shut up fast alone with the wine-press. They won't get out of therewith Lupus looking on."

  "Capital!" cried Marcus, forgetting all his sufferings in the triumphantnews. "Here, Serge, what shall we do with them?"

  "I'm not going to do anything with them," said the man, gruffly. "I'vehad my turn, and it's yours now. You've got to fight the lot."

  "Yes," cried the boy, flushing, and his fists began to clench. "But Isay, Serge, I should like to, but I'm a bit tired, and they're still sixto one."

  "Yes," said the man, "but that's what I want you to see. It won't hurtyou to know how, even if you're never going to be a soldier. You comealong o' me."

  "What, to fight them?" cried Marcus.

  "Yes. Aren't afraid, are you?"

  "Not a bit," cried the boy, flushing angrily. "Come and see."

  The man chuckled as he went off with his young companion to the lowerside of the villa, where stood a low-roofed stone building with heavychestnut plank doors, before which crouched a big, shaggy wolf-houndwhich pricked up its ears and uttered a deep growl as it lifted up itsbushy tail, and rapped the earth in recognition of the new-comers, butdid not take its eyes from the door beyond which were the prisoners ithad been set to guard.

  "Now, boy," said the man, "it was your doing that I taught you a bit ofsoldiering, and a nice row there'll be about it some day when he findsus out; so now I'm just going to show you, if you're not too tired, howone good Roman can fight six enemies and beat 'em, same as we've oftendone in the good old days when I wore my armour and brass helmet withits plume, not a straw hat and things like these. Ah, boy," said theman, drawing himself up and shouldering his crook as if it were a spear,"those were grand old times! I was a better man then than now."

  "No, you weren't, Serge, not a bit," cried the boy. "You must havealways been what you are now--a dear good old chap who'd do anything forme."

  The fierce-looking old fellow smiled pleasantly, literally beaming uponthe boy, whom he patted on the shoulder.

  "Ah," he said, "but there was no you then. But never mind all that.Hark!" he continued, softly, as a whispering was heard beyond the door,"They know we are coming, and they're thinking about making a rush whenI open the door. But they'd better not try; you'd pin some of them,wouldn't you, Lupe?"

  The dog uttered a low, deep, thundering growl.

  "That's right, boy. Now, Marcus, my lad, if you feel too tired, say so,and we'll keep them till the master comes."

  "Oh, don't do that," cried the boy. "He'd only talk to them and scoldthem, and then let them go, after forgiving them for stealing thegrapes."

  "That's right, boy; so he would."

  "And they'd all laugh," cried Marcus, "and come again."

  "But they won't after the welting you are going to give them, boy--ifyou are not too tired."

  "Of course I'm tired," cried the boy, impatiently, "after a fight likethat; but then they are tired too, so it's all fair--only six to one?"

  "Don't I tell you that I am going to show you how to fight them as aRoman should, and how we used to conquer in the good old times before wetook to reading and writing and came into the country to keep pigs."

  "And grow corn and grapes, and feed our goats in this beautiful farmvilla; and if father liked to take to study instead of being a greatRoman general and senator, it's not for you, Serge, to find fault withwhat it pleases him to do."

  "Right, boy! Spoken like your father's son. It was only one of mygrowls. I don't mind. He's one of the finest men that ever stepped,and what he says is right. But you and me, we don't want him to letthese young ragamuffins off without loosening their skins a bit to dothem good, do we?"

  "No!" cried the boy, joyously, as he showed his white teeth. "I say,Serge, I feel rested now, and I want to give it to them for knocking meabout as they did. The rascally young plebs! The cowards! Six to one!I believe they'd have half killed me if they had got me down."

  "That they would, Marcus, my boy," cried the old soldier, gazing at himproudly. "But come on, I'll show you the way, and Lupe and I will lookon and see that they fight fair, while we guard you flank and rear. OldLupe shall be ready to scatter their mothers, if they hear that we havethe young rascals fast. No women will interfere if old Lupe begins toshow his teeth."

  The man and boy exchanged glances, and, as the former struck his staffdown heavily upon the earth in advancing towards the great, rough doorof the building, the latter's fists clenched involuntarily, and the dogpricked up his ears and uttered a low sigh.

  The next minute a big, rough, hairy hand was raised to the cross-barwhich secured the door, and, at the first touch, there was a low,rustling sound within the building.

  Serge and Marcus exchanged glances again, while the dog crouched as ifabout to spring.

  Directly after, the bar was loosened, and fell with a clang, the doorwas dragged open from within, and the prisoners made a simultaneous rushto escape, but only to fall back with a d
espairing yell, for the greatdog bounded at them, and the old soldier and his young master closed in,to fill up the door and step forward.

  "Stop outside, Lupe, my lad," said the old soldier, quietly; and the dogturned back to his former position and crouched once more, while thedoor was shut from the inside, the six boys backing to the far side,beyond the great stone hewn-out press, empty now, dry and clean, for thetime of grape harvest was not yet.

  "Now then, my fine fellows," growled Serge; "you want to fight, do you?"

  "We want to go," half whimpered the one who acted as spokesman.

  "Oh, yes, you want to go," said the old soldier; "of course. Well, youshall go soon, but you wanted to fight young Marcus here, and you didn'tplay fair."

  "Never touched him till he came at us," cried another.

  "So I suppose," said Serge. "Very hard on you! Six nice boys!Interfered, did he, when you were breaking down the vines and stealingthe grapes?"

  "They warn't ripe," whimpered another.

  "Then they ought to have been, seeing that you wanted them," criedSerge, indignantly, while Marcus laughed. "But as they weren't ripe, ofcourse, it made you cross, and you began to fight young Marcus here."

  None of the boys spoke, but gazed longingly at the door.

  "Ah! You see it ain't fastened inside," said Serge, mockingly; "but itis fastened outside with dog's teeth. I wouldn't advise you to try toget out, because our dog, Lupus, doesn't like boys, and he's hungry.Nothing he'd like better than to eat such a chap as one of you. But youknow that, and you wouldn't have come, only you'd seen me go off to theforest with him to herd up the young swine. Didn't know that we shouldbe back so soon. You see, the young swine were just at the edge."

  "You'd better not touch us, old Serge," cried the biggest lad, in awhining tone. "You touch me and see if my father don't mark you!"

  "I'm not going to touch you, boy," replied the herdsman. "I've done allI wanted to you for breaking down my grape poles that I cut and set up.I've got you here because you wanted to fight."

  "I don't want to fight," cried the youngest of the party. "You'd betterlet us go."

  "Yes, I'm going to as soon as you've fought young Marcus and beat him asyou meant to."

  "We don't want to fight," half sobbed another. "We want to go home."

  "I don't believe it," growled Serge. "You want to whip young Marcus,and I'm going to see you do it; only old Lupe, our dog, and me's goingto see fair."

  "No, you ain't!" came in chorus. "You've got to call that dog off andlet us go."

  "Yes, when you've done," said the old soldier, with a grin. "Who'sgoing to be the first to begin? For it's going to be a fair fight, notsix all at once upon one. Now then, anyhow you like, only one at atime. What, you won't speak? They're nice boys, Marcus, my lad, somodest they don't like to step before one another; so you'll have tochoose for yourself. Just which you like, but I should go or that bigfellow first."

  "I don't want to fight," whined the lad indicated, and he backed inamong his companions and placed himself as far behind them as he could.

  "Oh, come! This is wasting time. There, go and fetch him out into themiddle, Marcus, my lad--or no, I'll do it."