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Chapter One of The Living Wood:
Saint Helena and the Emperor Constantine (A Novel) | Louis de Wohl
There was fog in the channel.
The lone man, groping his way over the cliffs,
was cursing softly as his feet slid over the wet grass, which was scarce, like
the ugly tufts of hair on the bald head of a giant.
Rain came down through the gray atmosphere in a
monotonous, hesitant, lazy drizzle. There was nothing refreshing or wild or
aggressive about it; it was wet and queasy, an old man's rain.
A hopeless country, thought the man, wiping the
drops off his face: a hades of a country. Mad idea to be out surveying this
Rufus had warned him, of course, and Rufus knew
the country, for he had been stationed in Britain these last seven years, poor
fellow. But he had not listened; instead, he had barked at him: "Very
well, if you're afraid of getting wet feet, you can stay in camp and play dice.
I don't need an orderly. I'll go alone!"
And Rufus had made his long-suffering service
face and saluted, and he had gone out alone, like a fool.
Damn that grass. Damn the rain. Damn the whole
god-forsaken country! What was the good of surveying this strip of coast,
anyway? No one in his senses would try to invade a country like this, not even
Service in any of the districts along the Rhine
was sheer joy compared with this land of mist and wetness—to say nothing
of Belgium, or Gaul.
It had looked quite different, when the news of
his command in East Britain had come through, in the middle of an amusing time
with the Fourteenth Legion at imperial headquarters in Milan. Or rather, at the
former imperial headquarters. The generals had been taking it easy ever since the
Emperor went east-to Egypt, for the campaign against that little Queen in
Among the younger officers there had been no
doubt whatsoever about the purpose of Aurelian's campaign. Let the old
warhorses of the staff gibber about the importance of Palmyra as the crossing
of the great caravan roads to the east and the south.
Caravan roads! As though an Emperor would think
fit to make war for the sake of a few roads! But Zenobia was supposed to be the
most beautiful woman in the world, and old Aurelian had always known what was
So it had been wine and women and an occasional
bit of drill for the Fourteenth in Milan, and there wasn't much future in that
for a man of ambition.
It was not bad to be a tribune at the age of
twenty-seven; but it was better to be a legate, and you cannot be a legate at
that age unless you get an opportunity. And Britain, after all, was an outpost
of the Empire and not just the place where oysters came from.
By Pluto, he had actually gone so far as to
pull strings in order to get transferred to this.
It had been a dismal disappointment, right from
the start. A lot of third-rate ruffians, calling themselves the Twentieth
Legion! A general who admitted, from the third goblet on, that he was here
because he wasn't liked anywhere else—Aulus Caronius, bald, potbellied,
and as lazy as a Syrian whore.
"Rheumatism, my dear boy, rheumatism!
You'll get it, too, in this infernal climate, don't you worry."
The medicos sent him west to Aquae Sulis every
year to take the baths there.
In the meantime one could try to make soldiers
out of the rabble that was wearing the proud name of the Twentieth Legion.
Shadow of Caesar, if you could see them! Hardly
a Roman among them. Gallic hotheads, Belgian good-for-nothings, a few hundred
tame Germans, and a sprinkle of Spaniards and Greeks—the dregs of the
recruiting stations, with names that twisted one's tongue.
What a life! And where was that damned road
now? By Styx, you can't see three yards ahead! By the cold nose of Cerberus,
I've lost the direction—a fine thing for an officer supposed to be
surveying a potential invasion shore. Blast that cat-livered, yellow-bellied
son of a one-eyed mule driver, Rufus
Rocks, fog, and rain.
Standing still, he became instantly aware of
the fact that he was soaked through, coat and armor and tunic and all.
He might have left the damned armor at home, at
least, but he hadn't. He had wanted to give an example of discipline. Rufus
would grin when one came home. That is, one came home. It wasn't at all certain
now. This looked more and more like one of the bigger and better labyrinths of
hades. Right? Left?
The sea was out of sight, of course, and it
would come into sight possibly when it was just a little too late, when a perfectly
good Roman tribune was hurtling, head on, through the air, because one of these
thrice-blasted chalk slabs had given way under a wet sandal.
"Halt", said an angry voice in Latin.
"Stop where you are. Who are you?"
The tribune needed a few moments to take in an
entirely new situation. About the last thing in the world he could have thought
of was to be challenged by an enemy. There wasn't a war on. True, up in the
deep north there always was, with the barbarous painted tribes beyond the wall.
But that wall was hundreds of miles away, and this was a quiet British province—as
far as he knew, at least.
As for robbers—well, they were
omnipresent, of course. But what robber in his senses would choose this rugged
bit of landscape for his beat?
He had done what a soldier does instinctively
when suddenly challenged: he had thrown his small shield forward and laid his
right hand on the sword hilt. But the mind needed more time than the body to
sort itself out.
"Who are you yourself?" he asked,
more curious than annoyed.
The challenging voice came back: "Never
mind that. I'm at home here; you are not. So you just answer my questions."
It was a very angry voice—but also a very
He laughed. "Have you never seen a Roman
"Stupid", said the voice. "Am I
to see a man's rank in this fog?"
The challenger's Latin was excellent, but it
had a distinctly foreign intonation.
The tribune was annoyed this time.
"Tribune Constantius of the staff of the Twentieth Legion, reporting to
you", he said with sharp irony. "And who the hell are you, and where
are you hiding yourself?"
"Here I am", said the voice. A shadow
became visible through the fog. It was a very slim shadow, and it seemed to be
Constantius made two cautious steps forward—the
soil was still very slippery; he swung the shield on his back and seized the
challenger's slim shoulder.
"Let me have a look at you", he said
grimly—and stared into the face of a girl.
She was very young—seventeen, eighteen,
perhaps; hardly more.
Many of the native women here were quite good
looking in a fierce, dark way, and this girl was no exception. At least that
was what he thought at the sight of her fine, well-cut features. She seemed to
be well built, too, from what little one could see in this night of a day.
He began to laugh. "My dear girl, you seem
to have chosen a bad time for a meeting with your lover—"
"I have no lover", said the girl
contemptuously. "Let go my shoulder."
He did, to his own surprise. Her dress was a
little more elaborate than any he had seen so far, and she was wearing pearls.
"I've told you who I am", he said.
"Don't you think you might tell me who you are, too?"
"I'm Elen", said the girl. "And
you may be a tribune, but I know something else you are."
"You're lost. You don't know where you
are. Or else you wouldn't be here."
He raised his eyebrows. "Why not?"
"Because this is sacred ground. Only
Druids are allowed here."
Constantius frowned. It was an unwritten law in
the Roman army not to interfere with native gods and their worship. It was not
so much because of their potential power, though one could never know for
certain about that, but rather because it was bad policy. It caused a lot of
annoyance with no advantage to make up for it, and Caronius hated difficulties,
let alone unnecessary ones. If this was sacred ground—but then, the girl
had given him the benefit of the doubt, and an opening, too.
"You are a Druid, then", he said in a
bantering tone. "They choose them young, these days."
"Silly", said the girl gravely.
"Of course I'm not a Druid. I'm just a girl. But I am allowed here because
I am the King's daughter."
This was worse—if it was true. She might
get hysterical and scream, and Caronius would have a first-rate scandal to deal
with when the news reached him in Aquae Sulis. "The King's daughter".
The only King around here was old Coellus, who resided somewhere near
"What's your father's name,
"Coel—surely you know that? All the
tribunes I have ever met before did."
"And have you met many?"
"Too many", said the princess acidly.
He laughed. "You don't seem to like
"I don't like Romans. But you mustn't tell
my, father that I said that. He doesn't like me to tell the truth."
Constantius began to be amused. "Well,
he's quite right. It's dangerous."
She flared up. "What nonsense you talk! My
father has more courage than any Roman. But he believes in not telling the
truth when it hurts people."
"Now that's very nice of him",
acknowledged Constantius. "And you disagree?"
She tossed up her head. "I don't mind
hurting people when they deserve it."
Promising little lady, thought Constantius. But
he remembered what she had said about this being sacred ground.
"You are quite right about one thing,
anyway", he said. "I really am lost in the fog, and I am sorry that I
came to this place. I swear it by all the gods."
It was difficult to hide a smile. There was
little likelihood of the gods taking that oath amiss-after all, he had done nothing
else but feel sorry about having come to Britain, these last hours.
The girl gave him a puzzled look. "You've
admitted that you are lost, and you have said you are sorry", she stated. "So
now I shall help you."
"That's good of you", murmured
Constantius. "Let's go, shall we?" She nodded and took the lead.
"How far away am I from the new
"Five hours at least. You can't get there
tonight. I'm taking you to my father."
The tribune thought that over for a moment or
two. Old Coellus was supposed to be something of a lone wolf. Of the present
garrison, only a very few officers had ever seen him. Caronius had, of course,
and two or three others. It was not exactly an agreeable idea to meet him—it
might create some sort of a diplomatic entanglement.
But then he shrugged his shoulders. One had
become too cautious in the gilded imperial city of Milan, where everything one
said or did or didn't say or didn't do would be twisted and turned by the
courtiers. Besides, what else could one do? And he was wet and hungry.
"Right, Princess", he said. "How
long will it take us?"
"Half an hour the way we're walking now.
If I were alone—half that time."
He laughed. "You're carrying no
armor", he said.
"And you don't need to", was the
quick answer. "There's peace in this country, I believe. But you Romans
will go about, tramp, tramp, tramp—" She imitated the long, heavy
step of the regular troops, and again he laughed.
"One day you may thank your gods for the
step of the legions, child. Wherever they march, they protect the land."
"They're marching in Syria now, aren't
they?" asked the girl.
He gave her a quick look—innocence or
"That's a punitive expedition", he
"Yes—against a woman. I wonder, does
she regard it as that?"
"Zenobia? Well, no—she'll probably
call it a war of aggression. They all do."
The girl smiled angrily—he could just see
it. "She's wonderful. She has beaten armies led by men before, hasn't she?
She'll do it again."
"She won't beat the Emperor, child."
"That remains to be seen. She is a great
woman—as great as Boadicea was—and Cleopatra—as great as—"
She broke off.
"You've had history lessons,
Princess", said Constantius not unkindly. "You'll remember, then, how
those women died."
"How did Caesar die?" she flashed
back at him, quickening her step. He stumbled after her in the semidarkness. This
was not exactly the moment to insist on the superiority of the male sex.
Still, it was amazing to find a girl with these
views here, in Britain, of all places.
"What did you say your name was,
"Elen. Maybe one day you will remember
"I won't forget it again. Elen—that's
Helena with us. You've heard, I suppose, of the story of Helena—the Helena—whose
beauty caused the death of many men?"
"I don't know about her", said the
girl contemptuously. "And beauty is nothing."
Constantius, looking at her, thought not
without surprise that she herself looked very beautiful.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Book Excerpt:
Chapter One of Citadel of God: A Novel About Saint
Benedict | Louis de Wohl
Louis de Wohl (1903-1961) was a distinguished and internationally respected
Catholic writer whose books on Catholic saints were bestsellers worldwide.
He wrote over fifty books; sixteen of those books were made into films.
Pope John XXIII conferred on him the title of Knight Commander of the Order
of St. Gregory the Great.
de Wohl's thoughts about being a Catholic and a novelist.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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