Their spears were unlike any that he had ever seen in the hands of modern savages. Corresponding with the ordinary spear of the African savage, they carried a heavy and formidable javelin that suggested to the mind of the young archaeologist nothing other than the ancient Roman pike, and this similarity was further confirmed by the appearance of the short, broad, two-edged swords that dangled in scabbards supported by straps passing over the left shoulders of the warriors. If this weapon was not the gladius Hispanus of the Imperial Legionary, von Harben felt that his studies and researches had been for naught.
“Ask them what they want, Gabula,” he directed. “Perhaps they will understand you.”
“Who are you and what do you want of us?” demanded Gabula in the Bantu dialect of his tribe.
“We wish to be friends,” added von Harben in the same dialect. “We have come to visit your country. Take us to your chief.”
A tall Negro in the stem of the dugout shook his head. “I do not understand you,” he said. “You are our prisoners. We are going to take you with us to our masters. Come, get into the boat. if you resist or make trouble we shall kill you.
“They speak a strange language,” said Gabula. “I do not understand them.”
Surprise and incredulity were reflected in the expression on von Harben’s face, and he experienced such a sensation as one might who looked upon a man suddenly resurrected after having been dead for nearly two thousand years. Von Harben had been a close student of ancient Rome and its long dead language, but how different was the living tongue, which he heard and which he recognized for what it was, from the dead and musty pages of ancient manuscripts.
He understood enough of what the man had said to get his meaning, but he recognized the tongue as a hybrid of Latin and Bantu root words, though the inflections appeared to be uniformly those of the Latin language.
In his student days von Harben had often imagined himself a citizen of Rome. He had delivered orations in the Forum and had addressed his troops in the field in Africa and in Gaul, but how different it all seemed now when he was faced with the actuality rather than the figment of imagination. His voice sounded strange in his own ears and his words came haltingly as he spoke to the tall man in the language of the Caesars.
“We are not enemies,” he said. “We have come as friends to visit your country,” and then he waited, scarce believing that the man could understand him.
“Are you a citizen of Rome?” demanded the warrior.
“No, but my country is at peace with Rome,” replied von Harben.
The man looked puzzled as though he did not understand the reply. “You are from Castra Sanguinarius.” His words carried the suggestion of a challenge.
“I am from Germania,” replied von Harben.
“I never heard of such a country. You are a citizen of Rome from Castra Sanguinarius.”
“Take me to your chief,” said von Harben.
“That is what I intend to do. Get in here. Our masters will know what to do with you.”
Von Harben and Gabula climbed into the dugout, so awkwardly that they almost overturned it, much to the disgust of the warriors, who seized hold of them none too gently and forced them to squat in the bottom of the frail craft. This was now turned about and paddled along a winding canal, bordered on either side of tufted papyrus rising ten to fifteen feet above the surface of the water.
“To what tribe do you belong?” asked von Harben, addressing the leader of the warriors.
“We are barbarians of the Mare Orientis, subjects of Validus Augustus, Emperor of the East; but why do you ask such questions? You know these things as well as I.”
A half hour of steady paddling along winding water-lanes brought them to a collection of beehive huts built upon the floating roots of the papyrus, from which the tall plants had been cleared just sufficiently to make room for the half dozen huts that constituted the village. Here von Harben and Gabula became the center of a curious and excited company of men, women, and children, and von Harben heard himself and Gabula described by their captors as spies from Castra Sanguinarius and learned that on the morrow they were to be taken to Castrum Mare, which he decided must be the village of the mysterious “masters” to whom his captors were continually alluding. The Negroes did not treat them unkindly, though they evidently considered them as enemies.
When they were interviewed by the headman of the village, von Harben, his curiosity aroused, asked him why they had not been molested if all of his people believed, as they seemed to, that they were enemies.
“You are a citizen of Rome,” replied the headman, “and this other is your slave. our masters do not permit us barbarians to injure a citizen of Rome even though he may be from Castra Sanguinarius, except in self-defense or upon the battlefield in time of war.”
“Who are your masters?” demanded von Harben.
“Why, the citizens of Rome who live in Castrum Mare, of course, as one from Castra Sanguinarius well knows.”
“But I am not from Castra Sanguinarius,” insisted von Harben.
“You may tell that to the officers of Validus Augustus,” replied the headman. “Perhaps they will believe you, but it is certain that I do not.”
“Are these people who dwell in Castrum Mare Negroes?” asked von Harben.
“Take them away,” ordered the headman “and confine them safely in a hut. There they may ask one another foolish questions. I do not care to listen to them further.”
Von Harben and Gabula were led away by a group of warriors and conducted into one of the small huts of the village. Here they were brought a supper of fish and snails and a dish concocted of the cooked pith of papyrus.
When morning dawned the prisoners were again served with food similar to that which had been given them the previous evening and shortly thereafter they were ordered from the hut.
Upon the water-lane before the village floated half a dozen dugouts filled with warriors. Their faces and bodies were painted as for war and they appeared to have donned the finery of barbaric necklaces anklets, bracelets, armbands, and feathers that each could command; even the prows of the canoes bore odd designs in fresh colors.
There were many more warriors than could have been accommodated in the few huts within the small clearing, but, as von Harben learned later, these came from other clearings, several of which comprised the village. Von Harben and Gabula were ordered into the chief’s canoe and a moment later the little fleet pushed off into the water-lane. Strong paddlers propelled the dugouts along the winding waterway in a northeasterly direction.
During the first half hour they passed several small clearings in each of which stood a few huts from which the women and children came to the water’s edge to watch them as they passed, but for the most part the water-lane ran between monotonous walls of lofty papyrus, broken only occasionally by short stretches of more open water.
Von Harben tried to draw the chief into conversation, especially relative to their destination and the nature of the “masters” into whose hands they were to be delivered, but the taciturn warrior ignored his every advance and finally von Harben lapsed into the silence of resignation.
They had been paddling for hours, and the heat and monotony had become almost unbearable, when a turn in the water-lane revealed a small body of open water, across the opposite side of which stretched what appeared to be low land surmounted by an earthen rampart, along the top of which was a strong stockade. The course of the canoe was directed toward two lofty towers that apparently marked the gateway through the rampart.
Figures of men could be seen loitering about this gateway, and as they caught sight of the canoes a trumpet sounded and a score of men sallied from the gateway and came down to the water’s edge.
As the boat drew nearer, von Harben saw that these men were soldiers, and at the command of one of them the canoes drew up a hundred yards offshore and waited there while the chief shouted to the soldiers on shore telling them who he was and the nature of his business. Permission was then given for the chief’s canoe to approach, but the others were ordered to remain where they were.
“Stay where you are,” commanded one of the soldiers, evidently an under-officer, as the dugout touched the shore. “I have sent for the centurion.”
Von Harben looked with amazement upon the soldiers drawn up at the landing. They wore the tunics and cloaks of Caesar’s legionaries. Upon their feet were the sandal-like caligae. A helmet, a leather cuirass, an ancient shield with pike and Spanish sword completed the picture of antiquity; only their skin belied the suggestion of their origin. They were not white men; neither were they Negroes, but for the most part of a light-brown color with regular features.
They seemed only mildly curious concerning von Harben, and on the whole appeared rather bored than other-wise. The under-officer questioned the chief concerning conditions in the Village. They were casual questions on subjects of no particular moment, but they indicated to von Harben a seemingly interested and friendly relationship between the Negroes of the outlying villages in the papyrus swamp and the evidently civilized brown people of the mainland; yet the fact that only one canoe had been permitted to approach the land suggested that other and less pleasant relations had also existed between them at times. Beyond the rampart von Harben could see the roofs of buildings and far away, beyond these, the towering cliffs that formed the opposite side of the canyon.
Presently two more soldiers emerged from the gateway opposite the landing. One of them was evidently the officer for whom they were waiting, his cloak and cuirass being of finer materials and more elaborately decorated; while the other, who walked a few paces behind him, was a common soldier, probably the messenger who had been dispatched to fetch him.
And now another surprise was added to those which von Harben had already experienced since he had dropped over the edge of the barrier cliffs into this little valley of anachronisms—the officer was unquestionably white.
“Who are these, Rufinus?’ he demanded of the under-officer.
“A barbarian chief and warriors from the villages of the western shore,” replied Rufinus. “They bring two prisoners that they captured in the Rupes Flumen. As a reward they wish permission to enter the city and see the Emperor.”
“How many are they?” asked the officer.
“Sixty,” replied Rufinus.
“They may enter the city”, said the officer. “I will give them a pass, but they must leave their weapons in their canoes and be out of the city before dark. Send two men with them. As to their seeing Validus Augustus that I cannot arrange. They might go to the palace and ask the praefect there. Have the prisoners come ashore.”
As von Harben and Gabula stepped from the dugout, the expression upon the officer’s face was one of perplexity.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“My name is Erich von Harben,” replied the prisoner. The officer jerked his head impatiently. “There is no such family in Castra Sanguinarius,” he retorted.
”I am not from Castra Sanguinarius.”
“Not from Castra Sanguinarius!” The officer laughed.
“That is the story he told me,” said the chief, who had, been listening to the conversation.
“I suppose that he will be saying next that he is not a citizen of Rome,” said the officer.
“That is just what he does say” said the chief.
“But wait,” exclaimed the officer, excitedly. “Perhaps you are indeed from Rome herself!”
“No, I am not from Rome,” von Harben assured him.
“Can it be that there are white barbarians in Africa!” exclaimed the officer. “Surely your garments are not Roman. Yes, you must be a barbarian unless, as I suspect, you are not telling me the truth and you are indeed from Castra Sanguinarius.”
“A spy, perhaps,” suggested Rufinus.
“No,” said von Harben. “I am no spy nor am I an enemy,” and with a smile, “I am a barbarian, but a friendly barbarian.”
“And who is this man?” asked the officer, indicating Gabula. “Your slave?”
“He is my servant, but not a slave.”
“Come with me,” directed the officer. “I should like to talk with you. I find you interesting, though I do not believe you.”
Von Harben smiled. “I do not blame you,” he said, “for even though I see you before me I can scarcely believe that you exist.”
“I do not understand what you mean,” said the officer, “but come with me to my quarters.”
He gave orders that Gabula was to be confined in the guardhouse temporarily, and then he led von Harben back to one of the towers that guarded the entrance to the rampart.
The gate lay in a vertical plane at right angles to the rampart with a high tower at either side, the rampart curving inward at this point to connect with the tower at the inner end of the gate. This made a curved entrance that forced an enemy attempting to enter to disclose its right or unprotected side to the defenders upon the rampart, a form of camp fortification that von Harben knew had been peculiar to the ancient Romans.
The officer’s quarters consisted of a single, small, bare room directly off a larger room occupied by the members of the guard. It contained a desk, a bench, and a couple of roughly made chairs.
“Sit down,” said the officer, after they had entered, “and tell me something about yourself. If You are not from Castra Sanguinarius, from whence do you come? How did you get into our country and what are you doing here?”
“I am from Germania,” replied von Harben.
“Bah!” exclaimed the officer. “They are wild and savage barbarians, They do not speak the language of Rome at an; not even as poorly as you.”
“How recently have you come in contact with German barbarians?” von Harben asked.
“Oh, I? Never, of course, but our historians knew them well.”
“And how lately have they written of them?”
“Why, Sanguinarius himself mentions them in the story of his life.”
“Sanguinarius?” questioned von Harben. “I do not recall ever having heard of him.”
“Sanguinarius fought against the barbarians of Germania in the 839th year of Rome.”
“That was about eighteen hundred and thirty-seven years ago,” von Harben reminded the officer, “and I think you will have to admit that there may have been much progress in that time.”
“And why?” demanded the other. “There have been no changes in this country since the days of Sanguinarius and he has been dead over eighteen hundred years. It is not likely then that barbarians would change greatly if Roman citizens have not. You say you are from Germania. Perhaps you were taken to Rome as a captive and got your civilization there, but your apparel is strange. It is not of Rome. It is not of any place of which I have ever heard. Go on with your story.”
“My father is a medical missionary in Africa,” explained von Harben. “Often when I have visited him I heard the story of a lost tribe that was supposed to live in these mountains. The natives told strange stories of a white race living in the depths of the Wiramwazi. They said that the mountains were inhabited by the ghosts of their dead. Briefly, I came to investigate the story. All but one of my men, terrified after we reached the outer slopes of the mountains, deserted me. That one and I managed to descend to the floor of the canyon. Immediately we were captured and brought here.”
For a while the other sat in silence, thinking.
“Perhaps you are telling me the truth,” he said, at last “Your apparel is not that of Castra Sanguinarius and you speak our language with such a peculiar accent and with so great effort that it is evidently not your mother tongue. I shall have to report your capture to the Emperor, but in the meantime I shall take you to the home of my uncle, Septimus Favonius. If he believes your story he can help you, as he has great influence with the Emperor, Validus Augustus.”
“You are kind,” said von Harben, “and I shall need a friend here if the customs of Imperial Rome still prevail in your country, as you suggest. Now that you know so much about me, perhaps you will tell me something about yourself.”
“There is little to tell,” said the officer. “My name is Mallius Lepus. I am a centurion in the army of Validus Augustus. Perhaps, if you are familiar with Roman customs, you will wonder that a patrician should be a centurion, but in this matter as in some others we have not followed the customs of Rome. Sanguinarius admitted all his centurions to the patrician class, and since then for over eighteen hundred years only patricians have been appointed centurions.
“But here is Aspar,” exclaimed Mallius Lepus, as another officer entered the room. “He has come to relieve me and when he has taken over the gate you and I shall go at once to the home of my uncle, Septimus Favonius.”