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Sketch Book of the North
A Roman Road


Still and soft with the mild radiance of early spring the afternoon sunshine sleeps upon the rich country, moor and woodland and meadow, that stretches away southward towards the Border. The top of a ruined tower far off rises grey amid the shadowy woods, and a river, like a shining serpent, gleams in blue windings through the russet valley-land, while the smoke of an ancient Border town hangs in the distance, like an amber haze, above the side of its narrow strath. Northward, too, league upon league, sweep the rich pasture-lands of another river valley. The red roofs of more than one peaceful hamlet glow warm there among the bowering road-avenues of ancient trees. And far off at the foot of the purple mountain yonder to the west lies the grey sequestered abbey of the Bruce. North and south upon that rich landscape history marks with a crimson stain the field of many a battle; and though peace and silence sleep upon it to-day in the sunshine, hardly is there hamlet or meadow in sight whose name does not recall some struggle of bygone days. Across these hills a hundred and forty years ago Prince Charles Edward led the last raid of the clans, and before his time the battlefields of Douglas and Percy, of Cumberland and Liddesdale, carry the mind back into the mists of antiquity, out of which looms the sullen splendour of more classic arms.

Here, straight as a swan-flight along the ridge of the water-shed, commanding the country for miles upon either side, still runs the ancient highway of Imperial Rome. From the golden milestone of Augustus in the Capitol, in a line scarce broken by the blue straits of the sea, ran hither the path of that ancient Power. Of old, along these far-stretching arteries came pulsing in tidal waves the iron blood of the stern heart beating far away in the south. From the wooded valleys below, the awed inhabitants doubtless long ago looked up and wondered, as the dark masses of the legions came rolling along these hills.

Tide after tide, like the rising sea, they rolled to break upon the Grampian barriers of the North. Here rode Agricola, his face set towards the dark and mist-wrapt mountains beyond the Forth, eager to add by their conquest the word "Britannicus" to his name. Here by his side, it is probable, rode the courtly Tacitus, his son-in-law, to describe to future ages the Scotland of that time, "lashed," as he knew it, "by the billows of a prodigious sea." Southward here, stern and intent, once sped the swift couriers bearing to Rome tidings of that great battle at Mons Grampus, where the bodies of ten thousand Caledonians slain barred the northward march of the Roman general. Southward, again, along this road it is almost certain has passed the majesty of a Roman Emperor himself. For in the year 211 the Emperor Severus, ill and angry, leaving fifty thousand dead among the unsubdued mountains of the north, was borne out of Scotland by the remnant of his army, to die of chagrin at York. And here, long ago, by his flickering watch-fire at night, the Roman sentinel, perhaps, has let his thoughts wander again sadly to his home by the yellow Tiber two thousand miles away, to the vine-clad cot where the dark-eyed sister of his boyhood, the little Livia or Tessa, would be ripening now like the olives, with no one to care for and protect her.

Fifteen hundred years ago, however, the last yellow-haired captives had been carried south to whet the wonder of the populace in the triumph of a Roman general. Fifteen hundred years ago the power of the Imperial city had begun to wane, and the tide of her conquest ebbed along these hills. The eagles of the empire swept southward to defend their own eyrie upon the Palatine, and here, along the highways they had made, died the tramp of the departing legions. The tides of later wars, it is true, have flowed and ebbed across the Border. Saxon and Norman, both in turn, have set their faces towards the north. But later nations kept lower paths, and, untrodden here along the hill-tops, like the great Roman Empire itself, this chariot-way of the Caesars has looked down upon them all. Forsaken, indeed, and altogether lonely it is now. Torn by the rains of fifteen centuries, and overgrown with the tangle of a thousand years, the roadway that rang to the hoofs of Agricola is haunted to-day by the timid hare, while overhead, where the sun glittered once on the golden eagles of the legions, grey wood-doves flutter now among the trees. But, strongly marked by its moss-grown ramparts, it still bears witness to the might of its makers, and, affording no text for the sad Sic transit gloria mundi, it remains a Roman defiance to time, like the defiance of all true greatness—Non omnis moriar.

Greater benefits than these roads of stone did the Roman bring to the lands he conquered. The tread of the victorious legions it was that broke the dark slumber of Europe, and in the onward march of the western nations the footsteps of the Caesars echo yet upon the earth. Rome, it is true, ploughed her empire with the sword, but in the furrows she sowed the seeds of her own greatness; and these seeds since then have grown to many a stately tree. Fallen, it may be, is the splendour of the "city upon seven hills"; but east and north and west of her rise the younger empires of her sons. Augustus from his gilded Capitol no longer rules the world, and the gleam of the steel-clad legions no longer flashes along these old forsaken highways among the hills; but the earth is listening yet, spell-bound, to the strains of the Latin lyre, and wherever to this hour there is eloquence in the West, there flourishes the living glory of the Roman tongue.

To-day, with the coming of spring in the air, there are symbols enough on every hand of the great Past that is not dead. The bole of the giant beech-tree here, it is true, has itself long since ceased to put forth leaves; but, springing upward from its strength, a hundred branches are spreading aloft the promise of the budding year. The dry brown spires of foxglove that stand six feet high in the coppice near, dropped months ago their purple splendours; but thick already about their roots the green tufts of their seedlings are pushing up through rich mould and warm leaf-drifts of bygone autumn to fill the place anon with tenfold glory. From the gnarled roots of the ancient thorn-hedge hangs many a yellow tress of withered fern; yet the life of the fallen fronds is, even now, stirring under-ground, and from the brown knobs there before long will rise the greenery of another year. Already, here and there, in sunny nooks, a spray of the prickly whin has burst into blossom of bright gold. A little longer, and the mossy crannies of the ruined dyke will be purple with the dim wood-violet. And soon, in the steep corner of the immemorial pasture that runs up there under the edge of the wood, the deep sward will be tufted with creamy clusters of the pale primrose.

A pleasant spot it is to linger in, even on this early spring day, for the sunshine falls warm in the mossy hollow of the road, and rampart and thicket overhead are a shelter from the wind. Resting on the dry branch of a fallen pine, one can gaze away southward over the landscape that the Romans saw; and, fingering through a pocket volume of some old Augustan singer, it is possible to realise something of the iron thought that stirred them to become masters of the world.


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