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Lords of the World by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

THE MISSION

CLEANOR'S interview with Hasdrubal was followed by a long conversation with one of his staff, Gisco by name, in which were discussed the best and safest means of crossing from Africa to Greece. The Greek might have had at his command the best and fleetest war-galley in the docks of Carthage, but the idea did not at all commend itself to him. The harbour was not actually blockaded—Roman seamanship was hardly equal to maintaining a blockade, which often means the imminent peril of [62] lying off a lee-shore—but it was pretty closely watched; the sea in the neighbourhood was patrolled by Roman ships, and the chances were at least equal that a Carthaginian galley would be challenged and brought to bay before it could reach Europe, and more than likely that if so challenged it would be captured. Some kind of disguise seemed to be far more promising of safety, and the more obscure the disguise the better the promise.

A little fleet of vessels was about to sail from one of the coast villages for the autumn tunny-fishing, and Cleanor resolved to embark on one of them. It had been one of his boyish delights to spend a few days from time to time at sea, and he had a long-standing acquaintance, which might almost have been called a friendship, with the veteran master of one of these craft. The tunny-fishing had always been too long an affair for the lad, who had his duties at home to attend to. The boats were about a month or more from home if the shoals had to be followed far, for the tunny is a fish that lives mostly in deep water. But there was a standing engagement that some day or other, when he happened to have leisure sufficient, the thing was to be done. Syphax—this was the old fisherman's name—knew nothing about his visitor except that he was a merry, companionable lad who had a sufficient command of gold pieces. To [63] politics he paid no attention whatever. If there was war, it made no difference to him except, possibly, to increase the market for his tunnies, and raise the price. Romans and Carthaginians agreed in liking his wares; if they paid honestly for them, it did not matter to the fisherman what they did in other matters.

When, therefore, two or three days after his visit to Hasdrubal's camp, the Greek knocked at the door of Syphax's little house by the sea, he received a hearty welcome, and was asked no inconvenient questions.

"You're just in time, young sir," cried the old man, "if you are come for the tunnies. We start at sunset, and, if we have luck, we shall be among them by dawn to-morrow. Just now the shoals are pretty near, and we may catch a boat-load before the new moon—it is just full to-day. But you are not in a hurry, I hope, if we should have to go further afield."

"All right, Syphax!" replied Cleanor. "I shall be able to see it through this time."

The old man, who had, indeed, the experience of sixty years to draw from, was quite right in his prediction that they would find themselves among the tunnies at dawn. They had been able to get over a considerable distance during the night. At first their progress had been slow, for it was a dead calm, [64] and the sweeps had to be used. About midnight, when they were well out of the shelter of the land, a light breeze from the south sprang up. The broad lateen sail was gladly hoisted, and the little craft sped gaily along, making, with the wind due aft, some six or seven miles an hour. Cleanor, who had fallen asleep shortly after midnight, not a little fatigued by the share which he had insisted on taking in the rowing, was awakened, after what seemed to him five minutes of slumber, by the captain.

"See," cried the old man, "there they are yonder. Thanks to Dagon, we have got among them quite as soon as I hoped."

And sure enough, about three hundred yards off, just in a line with the sun, which was beginning to lift a crimson disk out of the sea, the water seemed positively alive with fish, little and big. The tunnies had got among a shoal of sardines, and were busy with the chase. Every now and then some score of small fry would throw themselves wildly out of the water to escape their pursuer; behind them the water swirled with the rush of some monster fish, whose great black fin might be discerned, by a keen eye, just showing above the surface. Elsewhere, one of the tunnies would leap bodily into the air, his silvery side gleaming in the almost level rays of the rising sun. The sail had already been lowered, and the [65] sweeps, after some dozen strokes to give a little way to the vessel in the right direction, had been shipped again. In another minute the little craft had quietly glided into the middle of the shoal.

Cleanor, in spite of all the grave preoccupation of his mind, was still young enough to enjoy the brisk scene which followed. There were two ways of securing the fish: the harpoon was one; the hand-line was the other, the hook being baited with a small fish or with a bit of brilliant red cloth. Syphax and two of his sailors used the former. Cleanor and the third sailor, a young man of about the same age, as being not sufficiently expert with the harpoon, were furnished with hand-lines.

The fun was fast and furious. At his very first shot the captain drove his harpoon into the side of a huge tunny. So strong was the creature that it positively towed the boat after it for a few minutes. This gave to Cleanor's baited hook exactly the motion that was wanted. It was soon seized with a force which jerked the line out of his hand, and would infallibly have carried it away altogether, had it not been wound round his leg, more, it must be confessed, by accident than by design.

A sharp struggle followed. For some time the fisherman seemed to get no nearer to securing his fish. It would suffer itself to be drawn up a few yards, and would then by a fierce rush recover and even [66] increase its distance. But the line was of a thickness and strength which allowed any strain to be put upon it, and the hook was firmly fastened into the leathery substance of the fish's mouth. The creature's only chance of escape was that the tremendous jerks it gave might flatten the barb of the hook. This did not happen, for Syphax took good care that all his tackle should be of the very best quality, and, after a conflict of half an hour, Cleanor had the satisfaction of seeing his prey turn helpless and exhausted on to its side. He drew it up close to the vessel, glad enough to give a little rest to his fingers, which were actually bleeding with the friction of the line. A sailor put his fingers into the animal's gills, and lifted it by a great effort over the gunwale. It weighed a little more than a hundred pounds.

The sport continued till noon, only interrupted by a few short intervals when the shoal moved away and had to be followed. By noon so many fish had been secured that it became necessary to take measures for preserving them. They were split open and cleaned. The choicest portions were immersed in casks which held a liquid used for pickling; other parts were salted lightly or thoroughly, according as they were intended for speedy consumption or otherwise.

"You have brought us good luck," said Syphax [67] to his guest, as they shared the last meal after a day's hard work. "In all my experience—and it goes back sixty years at least—I don't remember getting so much sport so soon. Another day or two of this and we shall have a full cargo, and may go home again."

He had hardly spoken when his eye was caught by a strange appearance in the water,—strange, that is, to Cleanor, but only too familiar and intelligible to the old man.

"Ah!" he cried, "I thought that it was too good to last. Do you see that eddy yonder? And look, there is the brute's back-fin."

"What is it?" asked Cleanor.

"A shark, of course," replied the old man. "They never bode any good to anyone. Dagon only knows where we shall find the tunnies again. They will be leagues away from here by sunrise to-morrow, and there is not telling what way they will go. However, we have done pretty well, even if we don't see them again this moon. To-night we will lie-to; it will be time enough in the morning to decide what is to be done."

Cleanor had begun to fear that his experiment might turn out to be a failure. Nothing, he knew, would induce the old man to sail another league away from home when once his cargo had been completed. Accordingly he had hailed the shark's [68] appearance with delight as soon as he comprehended what it meant, and now he turned to sleep with a lighter heart.

Again did the old fisherman show himself a true prophet. The next morning, and for many mornings afterwards, not a tunny was to be seen. The weather, however, continued fine, and the little craft made its way in a leisurely fashion towards the north-east, a sharp look-out being kept by day, and, as far as was possible, by night, for the object of pursuit. Two days had passed in this way when masses of floating sea-weed and flocks of gulls began to warn the captain that he was drawing near the land.

"We have been on the wrong tack," he said to Cleanor, "and must put her head about. We are more likely to find the fish in deep water than here."

"Where are we, then?" asked the Greek.

"Almost within sight of Lilybaeum, as far as I can guess."

Cleanor felt that it was time to act. "Will you do me a favour?" he said.

"Certainly," replied the old man, "if I possibly can."

"Well, then, put me ashore."

"That is easy enough, if I am not wrong in my [69] guess as to our whereabouts. How long do you want to stay? I should not like to lose this fine weather. As for landing, I should have had to do that in any case, for we are getting short of water."

"I don't want you to wait for me. Only land me and leave me."

"What! Tired of the business, I suppose. Well, we have been a long time doing nothing, but we must come across the tunnies soon."

Cleanor, who was anxious above all things not to be thought to have any serious object in view, allowed that the time did seem a little long. He had friends and kinsfolk, too, in Sicily, he said, and it would be a pity to lose the opportunity of paying them a visit. It was arranged, accordingly, that he should be landed, and that the crew should replenish their water-casks at the same time. He parted with his friends on the best of terms. Two gold pieces to the captain and one to each of the crew sent them away in great glee, singing his praises as the most open-handed young sportsman that they had ever had to do with.

It is needless to relate in detail our hero's journey through Sicily. He bought a stout young horse, one of the famous breed of Sicilian cobs, at Agrigentum, near which place he had been landed, and reached Syracuse without further adventure. At Syracuse he found a merchant vessel about to start for [70] Corinth, secured a berth in her, and reached that city after a rapid and prosperous voyage.


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