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Lords of the World by  Alfred J. Church

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THE PRISONERS

THE Roman became so unwell, from the shock of his sudden immersion following on a night of unusual exertion, that Cleanor found it necessary to take him to his quarters. They were sitting together at the morning meal a few hours later, when Cleanor's soldier-servant announced that someone had called to see him on urgent business. It was the Carthaginian officer in whose company he had been during the adventures of the night preceding.

"What about the young Roman?" asked the new-comer, who seemed to be in a state of great agitation. "Did you give him up at head-quarters, or did you bring him here by accident?"

"He is here," replied Cleanor. "He seemed so [166] weak that I thought it best to bring him home with me."

"That is well," said the Carthaginian, "though really I can hardly say whether it is well. Do you know what has happened?"

"I have heard nothing. My chief has released me from duty for four-and-twenty hours, and I have taken the chance of getting a good long sleep."

"Well, there have been most horrible doings. Hasdrubal was in a towering rage this morning when he heard what had been going on in the Megara. The fact is"—the speaker lowered his voice to a whisper—"that, between you and me, he was too tipsy last night to appear. I am told that they could not make him understand anything. That did not make him more amiable this morning. Then he has been blamed for letting the Megara remain as it is, and especially for the tower, which certainly ought not to have been allowed to stand. And lastly, there has been more talk of capitulation during the last few days. People were very much struck with Scipio's liberality in the matter of the prisoners, and have begun to think that better terms might be got from him. Well, all these things have been working him up to a great pitch of fury. So this morning he had all the prisoners that were taken in last night's business, some threescore altogether, brought down to the wall at the point nearest to the [167] Roman camp, and there he tortured them to death in the cruellest way. We Carthaginians are not so squeamish as you Greeks; but I tell you that I felt fairly sick at what I saw, and I did not see a half or even a quarter of the horrors that took place. Some had their eyes or their tongues torn out, some were flayed alive; and when he had done with them, he had them flung down from the wall. 'Tell your general,' he shouted out, when the last of the poor wretches was tossed down, 'tell your general that I shan't charge him more than one copper coin apiece for them."

"But this is mere madness," cried Cleanor. "What can he have been thinking of? What was his motive?"

"That is easily explained," replied the Carthaginian. "When it was all over he turned to one of the senators, who is supposed to favour peace—he had compelled the man to come with him—and said: 'We have heard the last of capitulation, I fancy, for some time. What terms do you think your dear Scipio will be disposed to give you after this?' And now about your prisoner. I have come straight to warn you. We must think what is to be done. One thing, of course, is certain—you can't keep him here. Some bird of the air would carry the matter. Hasdrubal, too, has his spies everywhere, and knows everything, and you would [168] hardly like to give him up. He seemed a nice young fellow."

"Give him up!" cried Cleanor—"certainly not. I should deserve to be crucified myself if I did."

"You might tell him what has happened, and put him in the way of taking the matter into his own hands. The Romans seem never to trouble much about killing themselves."

"That seems but a mean way of getting out of the difficulty. The man is my guest. I have eaten and drunk with him. He shan't be harmed, if I can help it. I don't love the Romans, but I could not behave so to the very worst of them, and least of all to a Scipio."

"But you'll get into very serious trouble yourself."

"Well, trouble or no trouble, I am determined to save him somehow. Meanwhile, many thanks to you for warning me. But there's no good in your mixing yourself up in the matter."

"Good! but mind this, the sooner he is out of the way the better for him, if not for you. Farewell!"

"Well," said the young Roman, when his captor returned, "this is a very pleasant way of being a prisoner, but I suppose it can't last. You must do your duty; pray, don't get yourself into trouble on my account."

[169] Cleanor was in a state of extreme perplexity. To hand over a gallant young soldier to a merciless savage such as Hasdrubal was impossible. Yet it seemed scarcely dutiful to Carthage to let a valuable prisoner escape; and, again, if he could make up his mind to this, how was such an escape to be managed?

"Doing my duty," he said, after a few minutes of silent reflection, "happens to be more than usually difficult."

After another pause he went on, "After all, there is nothing for it but to tell you the simple truth. Hasdrubal has put all the prisoners to death, and to a horribly cruel death."

The prisoner grew pale. He was young, and life was dear to him. As a Roman, too, he knew the hideous traditions of Carthaginian cruelty. In a few moments he had recovered himself and his voice was firm.

"I can bear," he said, "what my countrymen have borne. Or, if you would make me feel that I have been more fortunate than they, give me back my sword for a moment."

"Hasdrubal's deed is a crime," replied the young Greek, "and I will not make myself an accomplice in it. Your sword I will certainly give you if I can see no other way."

Again he reflected, then his face lighted up. He [170] had thought of a way of escape out of part at least of his difficulty.

"There is another way, and I will ask you to follow it without any questioning. I will certainly not give you up to Hasdrubal, nor will I suffer you to give up your life for mine. Your sacrifice, too, would be useless. Hasdrubal will say, if he should come to know about you, that he wanted you alive, not dead, and will be as furious with me for letting you kill yourself as for letting you escape. So put that thought out of your mind. Now about escape; I have had half a hundred plans in my mind during the last half-hour, but the best, I might say the only one, seems to be this. All Carthage is hard at work on some ramparts of earth that are being made in the rear of the south wall, just where the ground dips a little. Men of all ranks are working at them, and even women and children. All are volunteers, no wages are given, and no questions are asked. You can't miss the place, for there is a steady stream of people going backwards and forwards to it. Most of the men wear a rough sort of workman's tunic. I can give you one, and I can furnish you with a spade. Work on there till it is dark. No one will think it strange, for people who are employed in the day often give two or three hours to work at the ramparts in the night. Then you must take your chance. Bide your time, and drop quietly down from the wall. One [171] thing remember: don't on any account open your mouth. If anyone speaks to you, pretend to be dumb or that you don't understand. And there is one thing more which I ask, not because I think it necessary, but because I shall be able to answer for you better: swear by the oath that in your country you think most binding, that you will give to the besiegers no information as to what you have seen in the city."

The young man swore by Jupiter and the household gods of his own family that he would be absolutely silent on all that he had seen or heard. Shortly afterwards, equipped as Cleanor had described, he took his way to the earthworks. It is needless to say anything more than that, after night-fall, he easily made his escape.

When the day came to an end without any inquiry being made for the prisoner, Cleanor began to hope that the whole affair might escape notice. Just before midnight, however, he received a visit from his Carthaginian friend. "I have only a few moments," said the young man. "First, as to the prisoner—what have you done with him? where is he?"

"In the Roman camp by this time, I hope," replied Cleanor; and proceeded briefly to describe what he had done.

"Well," said the other, "as nothing has been seen or heard of him, he has probably made his escape; [172] and a very lucky thing for him! But now about yourself. Hasdrubal knows, or will know to-morrow morning. One of the soldiers who was with us gave information. I will be even with him some day, the mercenary scoundrel! Happily, the chief was too tipsy to understand what was being told him. But he will be sober to-morrow morning, and then look out for yourself. But what do you mean to do?"

"Do?" replied Cleanor, "nothing, except tell him the truth."

"Well, you don't want for courage. But remember, he is the most merciless brute on earth. Don't flatter yourself that you will find him anything else."

"I have made up my mind. Let him do his worst. But a thousand thanks to you!"

"I wish we had a thousand men such as he in Carthage," muttered the young officer to himself as he went away—"as gentle as he is brave, whereas our people's fancy is to be cruel and cowardly."

Early on the following morning an orderly made his appearance at Cleanor's quarters. "The general understands," he said, "that you have a prisoner in your hands. You are to deliver him up."

Cleanor did not feel himself bound to make any explanation to an orderly, and simply replied that he had no prisoner in his hands.

"Then," said the man, "I am instructed to search your quarters."

[173] "Search, but you will find nothing."

The man searched and went away. An hour or so afterwards he reappeared, this time with a guard of four soldiers. He had instructions, he said, to arrest Cleanor, son of Lysis, an officer of the guards of the south-west wall Cleanor surrendered himself without a word, and was at once marched to head-quarters. On his arrival he was handcuffed. Hasdrubal, who had never possessed much personal courage, was accustomed to take this precaution when any prisoner was brought into his presence.

"I have it on good authority," said the general, when Cleanor stood before him, "that you had a Roman prisoner in your hands on the night of the day before last. Why did you not deliver him up at once to the proper authorities?"

"Because he was ill. If this was irregular, I acknowledge my fault."

"Let that pass, then. Where is he now? How was it you suffered him to escape?"

"I did not suffer him to escape; I took care that he should escape."

"What!" cried the general in a furious voice—so far he had succeeded in keeping calm—"what! you deliberately let him go! This is sheer treason! What have you to say?"

"I could not let him be dealt with as the others [174] were dealt with. To have given him up after that would have been a crime."

"What audacity! Who are you, paltry Greek that you are, to make yourself a ruler and a judge in Carthage? That is enough. It is your life for his life. Take him away!" he roared to the guards who had the prisoner in their charge.

Cleanor was taken back to the guard-room, and shortly afterwards transferred from that to a cell in the basement of the house, a squalid, stifling, ill-smelling place, dimly lighted by a strongly-barred aperture in the roof. Here he spent five days. Every morning his jailer opened the door just long enough to put within it a loaf of coarse rye-bread and a flagon of doubtful-looking water. He saw and heard nothing more during the day.

On the sixth day he was again brought before Hasdrubal. The general was, or seemed to be, in a different mood. He affected to be much disturbed at the prisoner's squalid appearance, inquired how he had been treated, and when he heard the details declared that his orders had been entirely misunderstood. Cleanor knew exactly how much value was to be attached to these protestations, but prudently kept his counsel and thanked the general for his kind intentions.

"I have been wishing," Hasdrubal continued, "to have some conversation about a matter in which you [175] might be very useful to Carthage, but you are really not fit for it. Let me at all events do what I can to repair this deplorable mistake."

He whispered some instructions to an attendant, and Cleanor was ushered out of the room, being treated with a politeness which was in strong contrast to the rude handling which he had received on the former occasion. He was provided with a bath and a change of clothes, and afterwards sat down to an excellent meal.

Later on in the day he was again summoned into the general's presence. "I cannot but think," said Hasdrubal, "that you were wrong in the matter of the prisoner, but you meant well; yes, you meant well, and it may turn out for the best after all. The prisoner who escaped was a Scipio, was he not?"

"Yes," replied the Greek, "he was a Scipio."

"The Scipios will feel that they owe you something for what you have done. Does not that seem to give you an opening?"

"I don't understand," replied Cleanor, though he had little doubt, as a matter of fact, what it was that the general wanted.

"There are some things," continued Hasdrubal after a pause, "which I should much like to know, and I would gladly give ten talents to the man who would find them out for me."

[176] "To put it plainly," said Cleanor, "you want me to go as a spy?"

"Well," replied Hasdrubal, "if you choose to put it so—yes."

"I cannot do it," said Cleanor.

"I know that it is a dangerous bit of work; a spy gets no mercy. But then, think—I won't say, of the reward, for I believe that you think little of that—think of the service you may be doing to Carthage."

"It isn't that I refuse to be a spy. A spy's work, I take it, is as lawful and honest as any other. But I am not going to trade on what I did for that young man. That would be base."

Hasdrubal checked himself with some difficulty. He could see that the young Greek was not one to be bullied into compliance; but he did not give up the hope of persuading him.

"Well, well," he said after a pause, "we must talk of this again. Perhaps we may find some way for you to help us without offending your conscience. Farewell for the present; and believe me that I am deeply concerned that you should have been put to inconvenience. It shall not happen again."

Cleanor found his quarters and his fare changed very much for the better. He had now an airy little chamber high up in the house, which commanded a view of the sea. He received a visit from [177] the general's own physician, a countryman of his own, who claimed to be one of the great ∆sculapid clan.

"A little reduced," said the man of science, after feeling his pulse and listening to the beats of his heart—"a little reduced, but that is not to be wondered at. I shall not have to exhibit any drug; a generous diet will do all that is wanted. And the general gives you the use of his own private terrace, so that you will not want for fresh air and exercise."

Time now passed pleasantly enough with the young man, though it was irksome to be shut up in idleness while so much was going on. And there was always the anxiety as to what Hasdrubal would do. The tiger was pleased for the time to sheath his claws, but the claws were there, and would be shown some day. Meanwhile he made the best of his position. The physician paid him a daily visit, told him the news of the siege, chatted with him on various subjects, played sundry games of draughts or soldiers, and, best of all, lent him some books.

More than once he was summoned to an interview with the general, who, however, did not again introduce the subject of the last meeting, but was always very communicative and friendly, flattering [178] the young man by referring to him sundry military questions, and asking his advice. At the end of a fortnight he was unconditionally released, not a little to his surprise. And his release was followed by reappointment to his old command.

He was not long left in ignorance of the causes which had brought about this unexpected result. The fact was that pressure, which he did not feel able to resist, had been brought to bear upon Hasdrubal. Tyrant and savage as he was, he stood in fear of his soldiers, and could not afford to neglect any strong feeling that they might show. The Greek contingent among the mercenaries was numerous, and constituted the most effective part of the force. With many of these men Cleanor was a personal favourite; most of them knew him by repute, and had heard with sympathy his melancholy story. Among the native Carthaginians also he had not a few well-wishers. Hasdrubal, accordingly, was made to understand that if anything should happen to the young man, it would be strongly resented. His superior officer gave him an outline of these facts, but added, with significant emphasis:

"Be on your guard with him, though that is easier to say than to do. He does not forget or forgive."


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