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 coastline.
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 the Germans.
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 Syria, Zenobia.
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 good.
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 young voice.
He laughed. "Have you never seen a Roman tribune before?"
"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 unarmed.
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 Camulodunum.
"What's your father's name, Princess?"
"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 tribunes."
"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 camp?"
"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 impertinence?
"That's a punitive expedition", he said slowly.
"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, Princess?"
"Elen. Maybe one day you will remember it."
"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.
Read de Wohl's thoughts about being a Catholic and a novelist.
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