(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Before the Mediterranean world had ever come under the dominance of Rome, a young adventurer from Africa landed on the shores of Sicily and was met by a distraught lady who begged him to assist her friend, who was being attacked by thieves. The young man, who gave his name as Archombrotus, sped to the rescue only to find that his help was not needed: the lady’s friend had dispatched the thieves single-handed. The three returned to the lady’s house where Archombrotus learned that the lady was Timoclea, a respected Sicilian matron, and that her friend was young Poliarchus, also a stranger to Sicily, who had distinguished himself in the service of King Meleander against a rebel army led by the traitorous noble Lycogenes. Poliarchus, having urged more forceful resistance to the rebellion, had been banished when the overcautious King declared a truce. Archombrotus learned that Meleander had a beautiful daughter, Argenis; Archombrotus concluded immediately that Poliarchus was in love with her.

While engaged in their discussion, they noticed signal fires blazing on the surrounding hilltops. Timoclea explained that these beacons were fired to warn the people that a traitor was at large. Presently, a servant entered with word that Poliarchus was the one accused of treachery; the “thieves” had been Lycogenes’ ambassadors, and the King had interpreted his defense as an attempt to break the truce. Timoclea, loyal to her guest, hid him immediately in a cave on her estate and then sent for his friend Arsidas, the Governor of Messana. Arsidas arrived promptly, and he and Poliarchus’ servant, Gelanorus, devised a plan whereby the rumor was spread that Poliarchus had been drowned after a fall from his horse. Arsidas pleaded with Argenis to tell her secretly the truth so that she would not be distracted by false news of Poliarchus’ death.

Meanwhile, rustics on Timoclea’s estate mistook Archombrotus for Poliarchus, seized him, and carried him off to the King. Meleander, realizing their mistake, took Archombrotus into his council but praised the peasants for their loyalty. At the same time, Arsidas arranged to have Argenis see Poliarchus. As a priestess of Pallas, presiding over the sacrifice to celebrate the truce, she was to insist that the common people be allowed to worship the goddess beforehand, and Poliarchus was to come before her in the dress of a peasant; thus, the lovers were briefly united. Poliarchus then fled with Arsidas to Italy. Argenis, throwing herself into a frenzy, claimed that the goddess would not honor the sacrifice or the truce.

Enraged, Lycogenes resumed the war, and Meleander fled with his train to the fortified seaport of Epercte. On the way, he was almost drowned when his coach, driven by a rebel spy, plunged into the river, but he was saved by Archombrotus, who was thus made secure in his favor.

The war was going badly for the King; Archombrotus convinced him that their only hope lay in the return of the champion Poliarchus. The King sent a precious brooch to Poliarchus as a peace offering; however, spies of Lycogenes poisoned the brooch, and the rebel sent his own messenger with a letter warning Poliarchus that the brooch was fatal. If the King’s messenger arrived first, Poliarchus would be dead; if Lycogenes’, he would become an enemy of the King—either way, Lycogenes would no longer have to fear him.

Poliarchus and his servant Gelanorus, however, had already left for Sicily. Shipwrecked off the coast, they were rudely hauled aboard a pirate craft. The two routed the pirates and turned the ship over to its rightful owner.

Discovering jewels and letters belonging to Queen Hyanisbe of Mauritania among the pirate treasure, Poliarchus immediately ordered the ship to Mauritania so that he could return the royal property. The Queen was delighted, for the letters concerned the whereabouts of her knight-errant son. She ordered a celebration that would have continued indefinitely had not Poliarchus been anxious to return to his beloved. In spite of his anxiety, however, he...

(The entire section is 1661 words.)