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The Hot Swamp

The Hot Swamp

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


Nearly two thousand seven hundred years ago--or somewhere about eight hundred years BúCú--there dwelt a Phoenician sea-captain in one of the eastern sea-ports of Greece--known at that period, or soon after, as Hellas....
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  Nearly two thousand seven hundred years ago--or somewhere about eighthundred years BúCú--there dwelt a Phoenician sea-captain in one of theeastern sea-ports of Greece--known at that period, or soon after, asHellas.

  This captain was solid, square, bronzed, bluff, and resolute, as allsea-captains are--or ought to be--whether ancient or modern. He owned,as well as commanded, one of those curious vessels with one mast and amighty square-sail, fifty oars or so, double-banked, a dragon's tail inthe stern and a horse's head at the prow, in which the Phoenicians ofold and other mariners were wont to drive an extensive and lucrativetrade in the Mediterranean; sometimes pushing their adventurous keelsbeyond the Pillars of Hercules, visiting the distant Cassiterides or TinIsles, and Albion, and even penetrating northward into the Baltic, insearch of tin, amber, gold, and what not.

  One morning this captain, whose name was Arkal, sauntered up from theharbour to his hut, which stood on a conspicuous eminence overlookingthe bay. His hands were not thrust into his pockets, because he had nopockets to put them into--the simple tunic of the period being destituteof such appendages. Indeed, the coarse linen tunic referred toconstituted the chief part of his costume, the only other portions beinga pair of rude shoes on his feet, a red fez or tarbouche on his bushybrown locks, and yards of something wound round his lower limbs toprotect them from thorns on shore, as well as from the rasping ofcordage and cargo at sea.

  At the door of his hut stood his pretty little Greek wife, with a solid,square, bluff, and resolute, but not yet bronzed, baby in her arms.

  "Well, Penelope, I'm off," said the captain. At least he used words tothat effect, as he enveloped wife and baby in a huge embrace.

  Of course he spoke in a dialect of ancient Greek, of which we render afree translation.

  The leave-taking was of the briefest, for just then a loud halloo fromhis mate, or second in command, apprised the captain that all was readyto set sail. But neither Penelope nor her husband were anxious souls oraddicted to the melting mood. The square baby was rather more given tosuch conditions. In emulation of the mate it set up a sudden howl whichsent its father away laughing to the harbour.

  "No sign of the young men," remarked the mate, as his superior camewithin hail.

  "It is ever the way with these half-fledged boys who think themselvesmen while their faces are yet hairless," growled the captain, casting aglance at his unfailing chronometer, the rising sun. "They have no moreregard for the movements of that ball of fire than if it was set in thesky merely to shine and keep them warm, and had no reference whatever totime. If this youth from Albion does not appear soon, I shall set sailwithout him, prince though he be, and leave him to try his hand atswimming to the Cassiterides. His comrade and friend, Dromas, assuredme they would not keep us waiting; but he is no better than the rest ofthem--a shouting, singing, smooth-faced, six-foot set they are, whothink they inherit the combined wisdom of all their grandfathers butnone of their weaknesses; reckless fear-nothings, fit only for war andthe Olympic games!"

  "Nevertheless, we could not do well without them," returned the mate,glancing significantly at the ship's crew, a large proportion of whichwas composed of these same stalwart fear-nothings of whom his leaderspoke so contemptuously; "at least they would make a fine show at thesegames, and our ventures at sea would not prosper so well if we had notsuch to help us."

  "True, true, and I would not speak slightingly of them, but they do tryone's patience; here is the wind failing, and we all ready to hoistsail," returned the captain with another growl, a glance at the sky, anda frown at his vessel, everything about which betokened readiness forinstant departure. The crew--partly composed of slaves--were seated atthe oars; the fighting men and seamen were all on board arranging theirshields round the vessel's sides, and the great sail was cast looseready to hoist as soon as the mouth of the harbour should be cleared.

  Just then a band of young men issued from the town, and the captain'sgood humour was restored as they hurried towards him. They seemed to bemuch excited, and talked in loud tones as they advanced, their mannersand costumes indicating that they belonged to the upper ranks ofsociety.

  One of the band, a fair youth, towered, like Saul, head and shouldersabove his fellows. Another, of dark complexion, handsome features, andelegant, active frame, hurried forward to salute the captain.

  "I fear we have kept you waiting," he said with a pleasant expressionthat disarmed reproof.

  "I will not deny that, Dromas," answered the captain, "but you have notdetained me long. Nevertheless, I was on the point of sailing withoutyour friend, for the winds and waves respect no one."

  "But you are neither a wind nor a wave," remarked the youth.

  "True, but I am the humble friend of both," retorted the captain, "andam bound to accommodate myself to them. I suppose this is the princeyou spoke of," he added, turning to the towering youth already referredto, with the air of a man who had as little--or as much--regard for aprince as a peasant.

  "Yes, Captain Arkal, this is Prince Bladud. Let me present him to you."

  As the prince and the seaman joined hands the latter looked up from analtitude of five feet six and squared his broad shoulders with the airof a man ready to defy all creation, and anxious rather than otherwiseto do so. The prince, on the other hand, looked down from an eminenceof six feet seven, and bent his head with a modest grace and a genialsmile that indicated a desire to be on good terms, if possible, with theworld at large.

  Although almost equal as to physical strength, the inequality of the twomen in height rendered their experience in those rude warlike times verydissimilar, for, whereas the sailor was often compelled to give proof ofhis strength to tall unbelievers, the prince very seldom had occasion todo so. Hence, partly, their difference in manner, the one beingsomewhat pugnacious and the other conciliatory, while both were inreality good-natured, peace-loving men.

  No two men, however, could have been more unlike in outward aspect. Theprince was, if we may say so, built on the Gothic model--fair,blue-eyed, bulky of limb, huge, muscular, massive, with a soft beard andmoustache--for he had not yet seen twenty-four summers--and hair thatfell like rippling gold on his shoulders. Captain Arkal, on thecontrary, was dark, with a thick reddish beard, luxuriant brown hair,piercing black eyes, and limbs that were hardened as well as darkened bythirty years of constant exposure to elemental and other warfare.

  "I hope that I may be of some use to you," said the prince, "though Iprofess not to know more of seamanship than I acquired during my voyagehither, and as that voyage occurred six years ago, it may be that I havelost the little I had learned. But if pirates should assail us, perhapsI may do you some service."

  "Little fear I have of that," returned the captain with an approvingnod. "Now, bid your comrades farewell and get on board, for the wind isfailing fast, and it behoves us to get well forward on our voyage beforenight."

  It was evident that the leave-taking which ensued was not merely formal,for the youths from whom Bladud was parting had been his companions instudy for six years, as well as his competitors in all the manly gamesof the period, and as he excelled them all in most things--especially inathletics--some looked up to the young prince from Albion as a sort ofdemi-god, while others to whom he had been helpful in many ways regardedhim with the warmest affection.

  "Come here aside with me; I must have a few last words with you alone,"said Bladud, taking young Dromas by the arm and leading him aside.

  The prince's other friends made no objection to this evidence ofpreference, for Dromas had shared the same apartment with him while inAthens, and engaged in similar studies with Bladud for several years;had travelled with him in the East, and sailed over the sea in hiscompany, even as far as Egypt, besides having been second to him in mostof the games practised by the young men. Indeed, at the high jump heequalled, and at the short race had even excelled him.

  "Dromas," said the prince impressively--"Come, now, my old friend andcomrade," interrupted the Greek youth lightly, "don't put on such a longface. I foresee that you are about to give me a lecture, and I don'twant the tone of remonstrance to be the last that I shall hear. I knowthat I'm a wild, good-for-nothing fellow, and can guess all you wouldsay to me. Let us rather talk of your speedy return to Hellas, for, totell you the truth, I feel as if the loss of you would leave me like apoor man who has been crippled in the wars. I shall be a mere shadowtill you return."

  There was a slight tremor in the voice, which showed that much of thegaiety of the young man was forced.

  "Nay, I have no mind to give you a lecture," returned Bladud, "I onlyask you to grant me two requests."

  "Granted, before mentioned, for you have ever been a reasonablecreature, Bladud, and I trust you to retain your character on thepresent occasion."

  "Well, then, my first request is that you will often remember the manytalks that you and I have had about the gods, and the future life, andthe perplexing conditions in which we now live."

  "Remember them," exclaimed Dromas with animation, "my difficulty wouldbe to forget them! The questions which you have propounded andattempted to answer--for I do not admit that you have been quitesuccessful in the attempt--have started up and rung in my ears at allkinds of unseasonable times. They haunt me often in my dreams--though,to say truth, I dream but little, save when good fellowship has led meto run supper into breakfast--they worry me during my studies, which,you know, are frequent though not prolonged; they come between me andthe worthy rhapsodist when he is in the middle of the most interesting--or least wearisome--passage of the poem, and they even intrude on me atthe games. The very last race I ran was lost, only by a few inches,because our recent talk on the future of cats caused a touch of internallaughter which checked my pace at the most critical moment. You mayrest assured that I cannot avoid granting your first request. What isyour second?"

  "That you promise to visit me in my home in Albion. You know that itwill be impossible for me ever again to re-visit these shores, where Ihave been so happy. My father, if he forgives my running away from him,will expect me to help him in the management of his affairs. But youhave nothing particular to detain you here--"

  "You forget--the old woman," interrupted Dromas gravely.

  "What old woman?" asked Bladud in surprise.

  "My mother!" returned his friend.

  The prince looked a little confused and hastened to apologise. Dromas'mother was one of those unfortunate people who existed in the olden timeas well as in modern days, though perhaps not so numerously. She was aconfirmed invalid, who rarely quitted her house, and was seldom seen byany one save her most intimate friends, so that she was apt to beforgotten--out of sight out of mind, then as now.

  "Forgive me, Dromas--," began Bladud, but his friend interrupted him.

  "I cannot forgive when I have nothing to forgive! Say no more aboutthat. But, now I come to consider of it, I grant your second requestconditionally. If my mother agrees to accompany me to Albion, you mayexpect to see me some day or other--perhaps a year or two hence. Yousee, since my father and brother were slain in the last fight with ourneighbours, I am the only one left to comfort her, so I cannot forsakeher."

  "Then this will be our final parting," returned Bladud, sadly, "for yourmother will never consent to leave home."

  "I don't know that," returned Dromas with a laugh. "The dear old soulis intensely adventurous, like myself, and I do believe would venture ona voyage to the Cassiterides, if the fancy were strong upon her. Youhave no idea how powerfully I can work upon her feelings. I won't saythat I can make much impression on her intellect. Indeed, I have reasonto know that she does not believe in intellect except as an unavoidabledoorway leading into the feelings. The fact is, I tried her the otherday with the future of cats, and do you know, instead of treating thatsubject with the gravity it merits, she laughed in my face and called menames--not exactly bad names, such as the gods might object to--butnames that were not creditable to the intelligence of her first-born.Now," continued Dromas with increasing gravity, "when I paint to her thebeauty of your native land; the splendour of your father's court; thekindliness of your mother, and the exceeding beauty of your sister--fairlike yourself, blue-eyed, tall--you said she was tall, I think?"

  "Yes--rather tall."

  "Of course not _quite_ so tall as yourself, say six feet or so, with aslight, feminine beard--no? you shake your head; well, smooth-faced androsy, immense breadth of shoulders--ah! I have often pictured to myselfthat sister of yours--"

  "Hilloa!" shouted Captain Arkal in a nautical tone that might almosthave been styled modern British in its character.

  It was an opportune interruption, for Dromas had been running on withhis jesting remarks for the sole purpose of crushing down the feelingsthat almost unmanned him.

  With few but fervently uttered words the final farewells were at lastspoken. The oars were dipped; the vessel shot from the land, swept outupon the blue waves of the Aegean, the sail was hoisted, and thus beganthe long voyage to the almost unknown islands of the far North-West.