Read CHAPTER I - A HERO OF ANCIENT BRITAIN of Stories from English History , free online book, by Hilda T. Skae, on ReadCentral.com.

There was a time, many years ago, when this England of ours was a savage country.

The oldest stories that we read about our island happened so long ago, that the English had not yet come to the land where we live. In those days, the country was not called England but Britain; and the people were the ancient Britons.

In the time of the Britons, the greater part of the country was covered with moors and swamps, and with great forests, where dangerous wild animals lived: wolves and bears and wild cats; where herds of deer wandered, and droves of wild cattle.

The ancient Britons lived in huts built of branches of trees plastered with mud, very low in the roof, and dark, having no windows; and there were no chimneys to let out the smoke. Their villages were only collections of huts surrounded by a fence or stockade, and a ditch to keep out the wild animals, as well as other Britons who were enemies of the tribe, for these wild people were always fighting among themselves.

The Britons had blue eyes, and yellow or reddish hair, which both men and women wore long, and hanging over their shoulders. In summer they went about with their chests and shoulders almost bare, and in winter they clothed themselves in the skins of animals killed in the chase.

They were a wild people, but so brave that we like to hear stories about them.

About two thousand years ago, when the Britons were living their savage life, there lived in the country which is now Italy another people called the Romans. These Romans were one of the greatest and wisest nations that have ever lived.

It seems strange that they should have left their own beautiful country to come to Britain, with its cold climate and savage inhabitants, but they were a very ambitious people, who would not be content until they had subdued every other nation of the earth.

The Romans had already conquered all the nations round about their own country when the Emperor Claudius became their chief; but Claudius wished to win glory by making fresh conquests, and he determined to subdue the wild northern island of Britain.

Knowing that the Britons were a very fierce and brave people, he sent against them an army of forty thousand men under the command of two skilful generals.

When the inhabitants of southern Britain saw the sea about their coasts covered with Roman vessels, while more vessels were always appearing above the horizon, their anger and dismay knew no bounds. They knew that the Romans were the bravest and most skilful soldiers in the world, and that they had come to conquer them if they could, and to take their country away from them.

As the soldiers, wearing their glittering breast-plates and helmets of polished steel, and with the sun flashing upon the gold and silver eagles which they carried for standards, landed from their vessels and marched on their way to the place where they were going to make their camp, the Britons watched them from their hiding-places with both rage and terror.

Still they did not despair. Old men among them were able to tell them how their ancestors had withstood the Romans who had come to their shores a hundred years before, and how the great Julius Caesar had been glad to make peace with the Britons and sail away to his own country.

Messengers were sent far and near to summon the chiefs and their followers, and they resolved to fight to the last.

The Britons proved to be some of the most determined foes that the Romans had ever met. Battle after battle was fought, and the country still remained unsubdued. Sometimes the Romans won, and sometimes the Britons were masters of the day. The Romans were trained soldiers, while their opponents were wild and undisciplined savages, but the Britons were fighting for their homes and freedom, and that made them very brave.

Among the British leaders the noblest was a chieftain of the name of Caradoc, or as the Romans called him, Caractacus. When some of the other chiefs, having been defeated many times, were forced to make peace with the invaders, Caradoc refused to yield. Fighting stubbornly, he contested every inch of southern Britain, but was slowly driven backwards to the mountains of Wales.

Here he gathered around him a band of Britons as brave and determined as himself, and for nearly nine years he held the Romans in check. The invaders, who did not know the country, were unable to penetrate far among these valleys, where thick forests hemmed in the view, and where every hillside might harbour a band of their savage foes.

It was impossible to reach Caradoc in this wild retreat. Accompanied by his followers, he would leave the mountains and sweep suddenly down upon a Roman camp in some distant part of the country. At a time when the Romans were least expecting it, a band of these wild, red-headed warriors would appear, yelling their war-cries as they let fly a shower of darts and arrows; then, after killing and wounding a number of the enemy, they would vanish among their mountains before the Romans had time to follow them up.

As years went on, a large number of Britons found their way to Caradoc in his Welsh retreat. The mountains became full of desperate men who had been driven from their homes, but were still determined to fight for freedom, and the example of their leader gave his followers fresh courage.

After many years of fighting, the Romans saw that the country would never be subdued so long as Caradoc should remain at liberty.

A great army was marched towards the stronghold of the daring chief. Caradoc mustered his retainers, and found himself at the head of a body of men almost as numerous as the Roman army. For nine years these Britons had remained unconquered; and the brave band hoped that the day had now come when they might gain a victory which would end in the invaders being driven out of the country.

Romans and Britons met on the borders of Wales.

The Britons, looking down from their mountains, saw the Romans on the plain far below. Between the armies there flowed a river, which was joined by a torrent rushing down by the side of a steep hill. Caradoc ordered his men to take up their station upon this hill, and all night long the Britons worked to strengthen their defences by building up barricades of loose stones.

When morning dawned the Britons could see the Roman legions forming in position. The sunbeams were glancing upon the crests of the soldiers’ helmets and upon the points of their spears, and the Britons almost seemed to hear the voice of the general who was riding his prancing war-horse round the ranks of his army.

The Britons were eager to attack, but before a man left his post Caradoc came forward and spoke to his followers.

‘Men of Britain,’ he said; ’this day decides the fate of your country. Your liberty, or your eternal slavery, dates from this hour. Remember your brave ancestors, who drove the great Julius himself across the sea!’

The Britons were so stirred by these words that they replied by a great shout; then rushing down the hill, they let fly a hail of darts and arrows upon the Roman army.

For a long time the battle raged, and neither side appeared to gain the advantage.

In order to meet the Britons hand to hand, the Romans had to cross the river under a storm of darts. Many fell and were swept away by the current. Others struggled onward, to be received by savage cries from the Britons, who tore stones from the barricade to hurl at their advancing foes.

In spite of the fury of the defenders, the Romans swept steadily up the slope. Soon the foremost had reached the barriers. They stumbled and fell among the loose stones, but recovered themselves and pressed onwards, holding up their shields to ward off the blows rained down upon them. The hillside became a seething mass of combatants; the wild, active Britons flying hither and thither to repel the advance of the steel-clad host. From the thick of the fight, Caradoc himself shouted encouragement to his soldiers, who replied by shrill cries and by redoubled exertions.

The stone barriers were passed; Romans and Britons were mingled in a life-and-death struggle.

Soon it became apparent that the day belonged to the better-armed combatants; the soft copper swords of the Britons had been blunted upon the steel breast-plates of the Romans, while their own wooden shields were hacked to pieces by the Roman swords.

In a short time the Britons were flying in all directions, unable any longer to resist the Romans. Caradoc’s two brothers were taken prisoners, and his wife and daughter fell into the hands of the conquerers.

The British leader himself, weary, wounded and disheartened, found his way to the hut of his mother-in-law, and asked her for shelter. She gave him a wolf-skin to lie upon by the fire and soon he was fast asleep, worn out by fatigue and loss of blood.

For a time the old woman sat and watched him.

It had needed no words from the wounded, half-fainting chieftain to tell her that the day was lost.

She thought of the proud Romans who were now masters of the country; of the villages which would be burned, and of their inhabitants who would be carried away into slavery.

Being a selfish old woman, she soon began to think less of other people’s troubles than of her own.

What would happen to her, she wondered, were the Romans to come this way and find out that she was giving shelter to the vanquished chieftain?

She trembled as she thought that soon this poor hut might shelter her no longer; that her few belongings might be taken away from her, and she herself be driven out to perish upon the cold hill-side.

As she looked at her guest, lying asleep in a corner, and frowning a little with the pain of his wound, she felt as though she hated him.

An ugly look came into her face as she realised her helplessness.

Presently she heard cries echoing in the valley, and peeping from the door of the hut she saw some flying Britons, closely pursued by two Roman soldiers.

The Britons disappeared in a thicket and were lost, and as the woman watched the soldiers beating the bushes and brambles with their swords in a vain search for the fugitives, a very evil thought came into her mind.

She left the hut, and crept along in the shelter of the rocks and trees, so that the soldiers might not see where she had come from.

The soldiers were very much surprised when a little wild-looking, wrinkled old woman stood before them, trying to tell them something in the language that the Britons spoke.

They soon understood that she was offering to show them the hiding-place of a captive far more important than the poor British warriors whom they had been pursuing.

‘Come along then, old woman,’ said one of the soldiers; ’show us the way.’

A sly look came into the woman’s small twinkling eyes. ’Wait a little,’ she said; ’what are you going to give me for delivering this great captive into your hands?’

The soldiers looked at each other; and then one of them offered her a gold coin.

The old woman shook her head.

‘No,’ she said; ’this is a very, very great man, and the Romans would like very much to catch him. You must give me far more than that if I show you the way to his hiding-place.’

The soldiers consulted together for a moment. From the old woman’s manner, she evidently had a noted chief or leader in her power.

‘Here, old dame,’ they said, ’if your prisoner is of such importance, you must come with us to the general.’

The old woman was delighted. The Roman general was of course a very rich man, and no doubt he would give her a great deal of money for the captive.

‘Let us be quick,’ she said; ’my prisoner may wake up and go away before we come back.’

The soldiers were astonished at the nimble way in which the old creature skipped over the stones and heather, her little short steps covering the ground as quickly as their long, steady strides. They were almost inclined to think that she must be one of the witches about whom the Britons told such strange stories.

The general was not far away; and soon the old woman’s little greedy eyes were looking up into his grave stern face.

‘Well, my good woman,’ he said, ‘who is this prisoner?’

The old woman grinned, showing a few tusklike teeth. ’He is a very great man,’ she said, ’and I can only give him up for a large sum of money.’

‘Tell me first who he is,’ said the general; ’we can talk about the reward afterwards.’

There was no one that the Romans despised so much as a traitor, and the general thought this old woman was the most mean and base person he had ever met.

‘The prisoner,’ said the woman, with a still wider grin, ’is Caradoc himself. He came to my hut after the battle; and you should have seen how pale and weary he was! He thought I would shelter him, because he is my son-in-law, but after he had fallen asleep I said to myself, “The Romans are good folk, and they will be grateful to an old woman who hands over a wicked rebel“’

‘That will do, my good woman,’ said the general, cutting her short. ’Here is a bag of gold; it is your fee for delivering the British leader into our hands. Come and show us where he is to be found; or if you are playing us false it will be the worse for you.’

The old woman’s fingers closed round the gold, and her delight at getting so much money prevented her from feeling the contempt in the general’s voice and eyes.

Presently the tiny hut was surrounded by Roman soldiers. Bending his tall form at the doorway, the general entered, followed by two soldiers leading between them the old woman, whose skinny fingers were tightly clutching the bag of gold.

Caradoc stirred in his sleep, then he sat up and looked at the Romans.

His eyes fell upon his mother-in-law; and he understood.

He had to stand up and submit to having his hands bound behind his back by the Roman soldiers.

The old woman left the hut and disappeared with her ill-gotten gains.

For once in her life she felt ashamed of herself.

She had betrayed her country, and although she was now one of the richest women in Britain she was never really happy again.

When the wounded chieftain joined the other prisoners in the Roman camp, his wife and daughter fell into his arms, weeping.

Caradoc tried his best to comfort them, and he begged all the prisoners to have courage, and to bear their misfortunes like brave men and women.

After this victory the Roman general returned to his own country. Caradoc and the other prisoners were carried on board the vessels of the conquerors; and after a voyage of many days they landed upon the strange, unknown shores of Italy.

The Roman people were delighted to hear that the wild, savage island of Britain had at last been subdued, and when the victorious general reached the city they resolved to give him a public triumph.

The emperor and empress sat on thrones in front of their palace while the general was drawn through the streets in a chariot decked with flowers and garlands. All the citizens came out to see him, and the balconies and even the roofs of the houses were crowded with people who shouted and hurrahed and threw up their caps as the conqueror passed by.

Behind the chariot came the troops who had taken part in the victory. The soldiers marched past in fighting array; their helmets and spears garlanded with flowers and with wreaths of laurel, and they looked round them proudly in response to the shouts of their countrymen.

But these were not the only people who took part in the procession.

Immediately behind the general followed the captives whom he had taken in the war; Caradoc with his wife and daughter and the other prisoners who had helped him in his nine years’ struggle with the Romans.

As these poor captives passed, loaded with chains, the people in the streets jeered at them and shouted out unkind speeches. Most of the prisoners walked with downcast eyes and sad faces, but Caradoc marched along with so proud a bearing that the spectators wondered at the courage shown by this savage chief. He did not seem to feel the dust and glare, or to be abashed by the hard, unfeeling gaze of the thousands of people who had come out to stare at him.

As he passed he looked at the fine buildings, at the triumphal arches, and the marble palaces, and at the gaily dressed people who thronged the streets. Sometimes he looked up into the sunny Italian sky; and he was evidently thinking deeply. Some one asked him what he was thinking about.

‘I was wondering,’ said Caradoc, ’how these people could envy me my mud cottage and my few fields so far away in our poor, cold, northern Britain?’

The spectators, who had flocked from all parts of Italy to see the famous chief, began to think it was a pity that so brave a man should be put to death.

After the triumph, the emperor wished to meet this gallant savage face to face.

Caradoc and his wife were brought before Claudius, who, in royal garments of purple and gold, was seated upon an ivory throne.

Caradoc looked at the emperor with his calm, brave eyes, and did not appear to be in the least dismayed.

Claudius said to himself that this British chief was a truly great man. He asked his prisoner what he thought of Rome.

‘I think it is a very great and wonderful city,’ replied Caradoc, ’and that its people are a very great people.’

’Do you know what this great people do to those who have been bold enough to resist their will?’ asked the emperor.

‘Yes,’ replied Caradoc simply; ’I am told that you put their leaders to death when you have captured them; and I wonder that a wise and great people like the Romans should have such a custom. After having defeated a man, what greater glory is to be won by putting him to death? It seems to me that it would be more worthy of the Roman people to spare him in order to show that they are generous as well as brave.’

Claudius was so pleased with his captive’s wise and fearless reply that he had him restored to liberty, with his wife and family.

The Roman who has told us the story of Caradoc in one of his books does not say whether the brave chief was allowed to return to Britain, or whether he had to spend the rest of his life in the land of his conquerors.

I hope his captors sent him back to Britain, for I am sure that he loved his native land the best, and that he would have liked to end his days among the brave countrymen who had helped him to withstand the great and powerful nation of Rome.