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Lords of the World by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

IN SORE NEED

CLEANOR succeeded in landing without attracting, as far as he knew, any observation. He lent a hand to the disembarking of the cargo of the Sea-mew, and after going to and fro between the [267] ship and the warehouse some half-dozen times, quietly slipped away. It was now far on towards midnight. The rest of the night he spent in a shed. This gave him shelter; of food he had been careful to provide as large a supply as he could conveniently carry. He foresaw an immediate use for it.

Rising—it cannot be said waking, as he scarcely slept during the whole night—as soon as the earliest light of dawn made its way into his resting-place, he made his way out of the inclosure which surrounded the docks by an exit which he had observed during his sojourn in the city, and had noted for possible use in the future. He was still fortunate enough not to be seen.

This done, he soon made his way to the street where he remembered the house of his foster-mother, Theoxena, to be situated. It was still early morning, and but very few persons were about, these being almost entirely women, who were fetching water from the public fountain at the end of the street. He was not long in recognizing among these his foster-mother, and it went to his heart to see how pale and wasted she looked, and how slowly and painfully she moved under the slight burden of the pitcher which she carried upon her shoulder.

He was careful not to betray himself by look or movement, for he was anxious to know whether his disguise was successful. If her eyes, sharpened by a love that was almost as strong as a mother's, did not discover him, he felt that he was safe, and on [268] this not only his own life but the power to help others depended. He passed her slowly, exaggerating a little the limp caused by his lameness. She looked at him twice, the second time, he thought, with a momentary awakening of interest, which, however, died away almost as soon as it appeared.

And now chance gave him a fully convincing proof of how completely she had failed to recognize him. At the very moment of his passing she made a slight stumble, her feebleness probably causing her to drag her feet. The pitcher shook upon her shoulder, and was in imminent danger of falling. Cleanor caught it with his hand, and steadied it till she had recovered herself. She looked at him with a little smile of thanks, murmured a few words of acknowledgment of his help, and passed on, in what was evidently complete ignorance of his identity.

This was proof enough for Cleanor. Looking round and hastily satisfying himself that there was no one near, he murmured "Theoxena". She started and looked at him, but still without recognition, for his voice was disguised. The art of doing this was an accomplishment in which he was almost perfect; and indeed, the most elaborate dressing up of features and figure is of but little avail without the disguised voice.

"What, mother Theoxena," he added in his, natural tones, "don't you know your son?"

In a moment her face beamed with delighted recognition. Pressing his finger on his lips to enjoin [269] silence, he stepped up to her door, which, happily, was close at hand. Had it taken her more than two or three steps to reach it she must have fallen in the street. As it was, he had almost to lift her across the threshold, and to put her in one of the two chairs which formed part of the very scanty furniture of the room. Seeing that she wanted help, he ventured to call out the name of Daphne.

In a few seconds the girl appeared. She was dressing, and had been about to bind up her hair when she was startled by the sudden call. Her locks—cut short, the reader will remember, to furnish the string of a bow—had grown enough to fall over her shoulders, and were even more luxuriant and brilliant than ever. But her face was a piteous contrast to their splendour—so pale, so wasted, so worn with suffering was it. The eyes, which had haunted the young man's memory, looked larger than before, so shrunk were her cheeks, and their look was pathetic beyond expression. She seemed scarcely to observe the presence of a stranger, but flew to her mother's side and busied herself with the task of restoring her to consciousness.

When Theoxena began to revive, Cleanor put a few drops of a strong cordial wine which he carried in a flask between her lips, and had the pleasure of seeing a faint tinge of colour show itself in her cheeks. In a few minutes more she was sufficiently recovered to sit up. Cleanor would not permit her to talk.

[270] "Not a word," he said; "you are not strong enough yet. You must be satisfied for the present with seeing me alive and well. The rest we can postpone. Do you think she could eat something?" he went on, turning to the girl.

Poor Daphne's eyes filled with tears. "We have nothing in the house, sir," she said. "We had a little crust of rye-bread at noon yesterday, but she said that she was not hungry, and made me eat nearly all of it."

Cleanor was horrified. He had expected to find them in great want, but this actual starvation was worse than he had looked for. He glanced hastily round the room. He had already noticed that it was very bare. He now saw that it had been stripped of almost everything. Daphne observed his look, and explained.

"We have had to sell nearly all the furniture for food, and oh, sir, they give so little for the things! I know that money is very scarce, and the dealers are quite besieged with people who want to sell their furniture and clothes, but I can't help thinking that they cheat me because I am a girl and cannot help myself. Six days ago I sold mother's bed for eight drachmas—I remember her telling me that it cost thirty—and the eight were only enough to buy two rye-loaves and two anchovies. Poor mother does find it so hard to eat the bread alone. These lasted us till yesterday. We should have had nothing but for the old man who lives next door.

[271] He had a grandson who used to play with our little Cephalus. The dear little boy died about a month ago, and the old man always will make us have what he calls the child's portion. It has been getting to be very small lately, for the old man's pension is not large, and money buys less and less every day. But I don't know what we should have done without it."

"Well," said Cleanor, "you will have me to help you now. I suppose, by the way, you remember who I am?"

"Yes, sir," replied the girl; "it was you that were so kind to us about Cephalus."

"You ought to have remembered, then, to call me not 'sir' but brother; or, better still, Cleanor. But now about food. This will be better than nothing for the present."

He produced from the pack which he carried some twice-baked bread, something like what we call biscuit, and some strips of dried goat's flesh. It was pitiful to see how the girl tried to hide the eager look which would come into her eyes at the sight of the food. The elder woman had almost ceased to care for life, but youth protests against suffering and will make its voice heard.

The meal was not abundant. Cleanor's prudence restricted the supply, because he feared the reaction after a long period of starvation. When it was finished he said, "Now, let us see what is to be done."

"We heard you were dead," began Theoxena— [272] "killed, too, so they said, by our own people. The gods be thanked a thousand times that it isn't true!"

"Well," said Cleanor, "that is past and done with. We won't talk about what other people have done or tried to do. Here I am alive, and hoping to keep alive in spite of them, and I have come to see what I can do for you."

"But what do you mean?" cried the woman. "Where have you been? Where do you come from?"

"Well," replied Cleanor, "I came from Egypt last of all, and before that I was in the Roman camp, where I found, I am bound to say, very kind friends."

"But have you really come back into this doomed city—for doomed it certainly is—when you were actually safe and among friends outside?"

"Yes, I have, if you must know. And what else could I do? You don't suppose I was going to leave you to perish here while I was safe and comfortable outside?"

"But why? What claim—?"

"Do you ask me what claim? You are my mother, Daphne here is my sister. I have friends, and kind friends too, but you are all the home I have. So that is disposed of. I have come back to get you safe out of Carthage, and we must consider how that is to be done. But before I say anything more, how about the little boy?"

"I have never seen him, but I have heard several [273] times—the last time was only four days ago—that he is well. Oh! how can I thank you enough?"

"We'll talk about thanks another time, dear mother," said Cleanor with a smile. "We must think about the present."

"I hear," said Theoxena, "that everyone is to move into the Upper City. Hasdrubal thinks that there is no chance of defending the rest. I would as soon—I would sooner stop here and die. But you see it is not only dying that one has to fear. That would be easy enough. We must go; yet where shall we find a corner to hide ourselves in, or a crust of bread to eat?"

"Leave all that to me," said Cleanor. "If it can be done, I will do it; and I think," he added after a moment's pause, "I think that I see a way."

As he spoke there flashed through his mind the thought that he might find help where he had found it before. If the physician who had served him in the matter of the little Cephalus were still alive, no more skilful, and, he was sure, no more willing auxiliary could he discovered.

"Wait," he said to Theoxena, "you and Daphne, where you are, and don't show yourselves more than you can help. Will the provisions I have here serve you for a day or so?" And he emptied the contents of his pack upon the table.

The woman smiled. She and Daphne had contrived to live for not a few days upon far less.

[274] "Yes, it is abundance."

"Till to-morrow, then," cried the young man with a gaiety which he did not feel. If the physician should be unable to help, or should have died!

Happily this misfortune was spared him. Cleanor found the man, and, thanks to his knowledge of his habits, without loss of time. It was still an hour short of noon when he saw the leech coming out of a casemate in the wall, which he was accustomed to visit at that hour for the purpose of inspecting the newly wounded.

"This is a good sight," cried the physician. "What ∆sculapius has brought you back from the dead? They told me that you were killed, and I feared that they had only too good reason for knowing that it was true."

"That," said the Greek, "is a long story, and will keep. As usual, I want your help."

"You are not ill?—no, I have never seen you look better. What is it?"

Cleanor told him his story.

The physician looked grave, and after a pause he said: "You are wanting for your two friends what a couple of hundred thousands of people in this city are wanting—a safe place of shelter. Yet it can be found; all things can be found, if one knows where to look for them. But it will be costly, very costly." And be looked inquisitively at the young Greek, who certainly, in his pedlar's dress, did not look as if he had the command of boundless wealth.

[275] Cleanor understood the look, and whispered a few words in the old man's ear.

"That is capital," he said with an admiring glance. "You are certainly a young man of business."

Cleanor had, in fact, brought with him, in view of any possible necessities that might arise, an ample supply of means in the most portable, and therefore most valuable form that wealth under the circumstances of the time could possibly bear. Gold, precious as it is, is not very portable. A really wealthy man would require a whole caravan to transport his fortune from one place to another if it were in the shape of gold. Paper money—for the ancient world did business by bills of exchange very much as we do—was not available. The commercial credit of Carthage had collapsed for ever.

The one readily available vehicle for wealth was precious stones. These had risen in Carthage to an almost incredible price. Sooner or later, everyone felt, the city would be taken. When that should happen, gold would be almost useless. The one chance of preserving it, and that but a slight one, would be to bury it. That might hide it from the enemy, but might very probably also hide it from the owner. Jewels, on the other hand, could be carried anyhow. If a man could contrive to escape at all, he could also contrive to escape with a fortune, so invested, about him. Cleanor, accordingly, was now utilizing this part of the old king's bounty. He [276] carried round his waist, next to his skin, a slender girdle-purse in which he had stored a number of jewels. This he was resolved not to lose except with his life. While he kept this, he felt that he could do anything that money could accomplish.

"Come home with me," said the physician, "and talk this matter over. You are best out of sight, for someone might recognize you in spite of your disguise, and that would be very awkward indeed."


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