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Lords of the World by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

THE LAST OF A VETERAN

THE fate of Chelys caused wide-spread indignation and disgust even among the enemies of Carthage. No one was more indignant than Mastanabal, King Masinissa's second son. The prince had tastes and habits very uncommon in the nation of hunters and fighters to which he belonged. He was a lover of books, and disposed to be a patron of learning, if he could only find learning to patronize. The Greek population of Chelys had always preserved some traces of culture, and the Numidian prince was on terms of friendship with the settlement. He was an occasional visitor at its festivals, had received [27] the compliment of a crown of honour, voted to him in a public assembly, and had shown his appreciation of the distinction by building for the community a new town-hall.

His intercession had been implored by the magistrates when they found themselves repulsed by the commander. Unfortunately he was absent home when their messenger arrived. Immediately on his return he hurried to the spot. Too late, even if it had in any case been possible, to hinder the brutal vengeance of Flamininus, he was yet able to mitigate the lot of the survivors. By pledging his credit to the slave-dealers, themselves disposed to accommodate so powerful a personage, he was able to secure the freedom of all the captives.

He made special inquiries about the family of Lysis, whose hospitality he had always enjoyed during his visits to the town, and learnt enough to induce him to make a personal inspection of the captives. As the melancholy procession passed before him, his keen eyes discovered Cleanor under his disguise. He had, of course, too much delicacy and good taste to inflict upon him the pain of a public recognition. The young man was transported u a closed litter to a hunting-lodge that belonged to the prince. Here he found himself an honoured guest. His personal wants were amply supplied; [28] a library of some extent was at his disposal; and the chief huntsman waited upon him every morning to learn his pleasure in case he should be disposed for an expedition.

In the course of a few days a letter from the prince was put into his hands. Beginning with a tactful and sympathetic reference to his misfortunes, it went on thus:

Use my home as if it were your own for as long as you will. You cannot please me better than by pleasing yourself. But if you are minded to find solace for your sorrows in action—and to this I would myself advise you proceed to Cirta, and deliver the letter which I inclose herewith to the king, my father. My steward will provide you with a guide and an escort, and will also furnish such matters of dress and other equipment as you may need. Farewell!

Cleanor's resolution was taken at once. In the course of a few hours he was in the saddle. Two days of easy travel brought him to Cirta, and he lost no time in presenting himself at the palace of King Masinissa. His letter of introduction, bearing as it did the seal of Prince Mastanabal, procured for him instant admission. The major-domo of the palace conducted him to a guest-chamber, and [29] shortly afterwards one of the king's body-guard brought him a message that Masinissa desired to see him as soon as he had refreshed himself after his journey.

The chamber into which the young Greek was ushered was curiously bare to be the audience-room of a powerful king. The walls were of mud roughly washed with yellow; it was lighted by two large openings in the walls, unglazed, but furnished with lattices which could be closed at will by cords suspended from them; the pavement was of stone, not too carefully smoothed; for furniture it had a sideboard, with some cups, flagons, and lamps upon it, a table, two or three chairs for the use of visitors who were accustomed to these comfortless refinements, and a divan piled up with bright-coloured mats and blankets. Near the divan was a brazier in which logs were smouldering.

Masinissa, king of Numidia, was a man whose intellect and physical powers were alike remarkable. He had consolidated the wandering tribes of Northern Africa into a kingdom, which he had kept together and aggrandized with a politic firmness which never blundered or wavered. His stature, though now somewhat bowed with years, was exceptional. His face, seamed with a thousand wrinkles, and burnt to a dark red by unnumbered suns, the snowy [30] whiteness of hair and beard, and the absolute emaciation of his form, on which not a trace of flesh seemed to be left, spoke of extreme old age. And indeed he had more than completed his ninetieth year, an age not phenomenally rare among us, where the climate and the habits of life are less exhausting, but almost unheard of in a race whose fervid temperament seems to match their burning sky.

The old man's strength was now failing him. Two years before, he had commanded an army in the field, and commanded it with brilliant success, routing the best troops and the most skilled generals that Carthage could send against him. He was not one of the veterans who content themselves with counsel, while they leave action to the young. That day he had remained in the saddle from sunrise to sunset, managing without difficulty a fiery steed, whose saddle was no seat of ease. He had showed that on occasion he could deal as shrewd a blow with the sword, and throw as straight a javelin, as many men of half his age. But at ninety years of age two or three years may make a great difference. Masinissa had fought his last battle. His senses were as keen as ever, the eyes flashed with their old fire, but his breathing was heavy and laboured, and his hands shook with the palsy of age.

"Welcome, Cleanor!" he said with a full resonant [31] voice that the years had not touched, "my son commends you to me. Can you be content to wait on an old man for a month or so? I shall hardly trouble you longer. I have never been a whole day within doors save once for a spear wound in the throat, and once when they tried to poison me; and those who have lived in such fashion don't take long dying."

Cleanor found his task an easy one. The old king suffered little, except from the restlessness which comes with extreme exhaustion. Even over this he maintained a remarkable control. It was not during his waking hours, but in his short periods of fitful slumber, that the uneasy movements of his limbs might be observed. His intelligence was as keen as ever, and his memory curiously exact, though it was on the far past that it chiefly dwelt. What a story the young Greek could have pieced together out of the old man's recollections? He had seen and known the heroes of the last fierce struggle between Carthage and Rome, had ridden by the side of the great Scipio at Zama, and had been within an ace of capturing the famous Hannibal himself as he fled from that fatal field. The young Greek, surprised to find himself in such a position, was naturally curious to know why the old man preferred the companionship of a stranger to that of his own kindred. When he ventured [32] to hint something of the kind, the king smiled cynically.

"You don't understand," he said, "the amiable ways of such a household as mine. What do you think would have been the result if I had chosen one of my three sons to be with me now? Why, furious jealousy and plots without end on the part of the other two. And if I had had the three of them together? Well, I certainly could not have expected to die in peace. Quarrel they certainly will, but I can't have them quarrelling here. Mind, I don't say that they are worse than other sons; on the contrary, they are better. I do hope they may live in peace when I am gone; at least, I have done my best to secure it."

As the days passed, the king grew weaker and weaker, but his faculties were never clouded, and his cheerfulness was unimpaired.

About ten days after the conversation recorded above, a Greek physician, whose reputation was widely spread in Northern Africa, arrived at the palace. The three princes had sent him. Masinissa, informed of his coming, made no difficulty about seeing him. "I am not afraid of being poisoned," he said with a smile;" I really do not think that my sons would do such a thing. It would not be worth while, and, anyhow, they could not agree about it. Yes, let him come in. Of course he [33] can't do me any good; but it is one of the penalties to be paid for greatness, that one must die according to rule. No one of any repute is allowed to die in these parts without having Timśus to help him off. Yes, I will see him. And mind, Cleanor, when he has examined me have a talk with him, and make him tell you the absolute truth."

That afternoon after the physician had departed, the king summoned the young Greek to his chamber.

"Well, what doe she say, Cleanor?" he asked.

The young man hesitated.

"Come," cried the old king, raising his voice. "I command you to speak. As for these physicians, it is quite impossible for a patient to get the truth out of them. It seems to be a point of honour not to tell it. But I suppose he told it to you. Speak out, man; you don't suppose that I am afraid of what I have faced pretty nearly every day for nearly fourscore years."

"He said," answered Cleanor in a low voice, "that your time, sire, was nearly come."

"And how many days, or, I should rather say, hours did he give me?"

"He said that you could hardly live more than two days."

"Well, I am ready. I have had my turn, a full [34] share of the feast of life, and it would be a shameful thing if I was to grudge to go. But there is trouble ahead for those who are to come after me. I have done my best for my kingdom, yet nothing can save it long. You know, I had to choose, when I was about your age, between Rome and Carthage, and my choice was the right one. If I had taken sides with Carthage, Rome would have swallowed up this kingdom fifty years ago; as it is, she will swallow us up fifty years hence. Sooner or later we are bound to go. But it has lasted my time, and will last my sons' time too, if they are wise. And now, as to this matter. I have something to put in your charge. You have heard of Scipio?"

Cleanor nodded his assent.

"He came over here some two months ago, when I had had my first warning that my time was short, and that I had best set my affairs in order. No one had any notion but that he came on military business. The Romans had asked me for help, and I didn't choose to give it just then. They hadn't consulted me in what they had done, and it was time, I thought, that they should have a lesson. We did discuss these matters; but what he really came for was a more serious affair. I left it to him to divide my kingdom between my three sons. I had thought of dividing it in the usual way; this and that province to one, and this and that province to another. [35] But he had quit another plan in his head, and it seemed to me wonderfully shrewd. 'Don't divide the kingdom,' he said; 'the three parts would be too weak to stand alone. Divide the offices of the kingdom. Let each prince have the part for which he is best fitted—one war and outside affairs, another justices, and a third, civil affairs.' Well I took his advice, and had this settlement put in writing. The chief priest of the temple of Zeus in Cirta here has the document in his keeping."

After this the old man was silent for a time. Rousing himself again, for he had been inclined to doze, he said:

"Cleanor, are you here?"

"Yes, sire," replied the Greek.

"Don't leave me till all is over. And now give me a cup of wine."

"But sire—the physician said—"

"Pooh! what does it matter if I die one hour or two or three hours before sunrise? And I want something that will give me a little strength."

Cleanor filled a cup and handed it to the king. "It hardly tastes as good as usual," said the old man, when he had drained it, "yet that, I can easily believe, is not the wine's fault, but mine. But tell me, do you think that I shall know anything about what is going on here when I am gone? What does Mastanabal say? I haven't had time to think about [36] these things; but he reads, and you are something of a student too. What do the philosophers say?"

"Aristotle thinks, sire, that the dead may very well know something about the fortunes of their descendants—it would be almost inhuman, he says, if they did not—but that it will not be enough to make them either happy or unhappy."

"Well, the less one knows the better, when one comes to think. To see things going wrong and not be able to interfere! . . . But enough of this. . . And now, Cleanor, about yourself. You do not love the Romans, I think?"

The young Greek's face flushed at the question. "I have no reason to love them, sire."

"Very likely not. Indeed, who does love them? Not I; if I could crush them I would, as readily as I stamp my foot on a viper's head. But that is not the question. Can you make use of them? You shake your head. It does not suit your honour to pretend a friendship which you do not feel. That has not been my rule, as you know, but there is something to be said for it. Well, it is a pity that you can't walk that way. Whether we love them or no, depend upon it, the future belongs to them. And I could have helped you with some of their great men. I have written a letter to Scipio, and two or three others to powerful people in Rome who would help you for my sake. You can deliver [37] them or not as you please. But tell me, what are you going to do if the Romans are out of the question?"

"I thought of going to Carthage," answered the young man in a hesitating voice.

"Carthage!" repeated the king in astonishment. "Why, the place is doomed. It can't hold out more than a year,—or two at the outside. And then the Roman's won't leave so much as one stone standing upon another. They won't run the chance of having another Hannibal to deal with. Carthage! You might as well put a noose round your neck at once!"

"I hope not, sire," said the young man. "And in any case I have only Carthage and Rome to choose between."

"Well," replied the old king after a pause, "you must go your own way. But still I can help you, at least with some provision for the journey. Put your hand under my pillow and you will find a key."

The young man did as he was told.

"Now open that chest in yonder corner, and bring me a casket that you will find wrapped up in a crimson shawl."

Cleanor brought the casket and put it into the king's hands. Masinissa unlocked it and took out a rouleau of gold pieces, which he gave to Cleanor. "That will be useful for the present," he said; "but [38] gold is a clumsy thing, and you can hardly carry about with you what would serve for a single year. This bit of parchment is an order for a thousand ounces of gold—five hundred thousand sesterces in Roman money—on Caius Rabirius, knight, of the Cúlian Hill in Rome, who has kept some money for me for thirty years or more. You can sell the parchment to Bocchar the banker in Cirta here. He will charge you something for his commission, but it will save you trouble. And he will keep the money for you, or whatever part of it you please. It is a very handy way of carrying about money; but there is another that is more handy still."

The old man took out a small leather bag full of precious stones. "These," he said, "you can always hide. It is true that the merchants will cheat you more or less when you want to sell them. Still, you will find these stones very useful."

The jewels were worth at least five times as much as the order on the parchment. "It is too much," murmured the Greek. "I did not expect—"

"It is true that you did not expect. I have seen that all along, and that is one of the reasons why I give it. And as for the 'too much', you must leave me to judge about that. My sons will find treasure enough when they come to divide my goods between them. I have been saving all my life, and this is but a trifle which they will not miss, and which you [39] will find very useful. And now give me another cup of wine After this I will sleep a while. You will stay,—and don't let that young villain Jugurtha come near me.

Two or three hours afterwards Cleanor was startled to see the old man raise himself in bed, a thing which he had not been able to do without help for three or four days past. He hastened to the bedside, but the king, though his eyes were wide open, did not seem to see him. Yet something there was that he saw; his was no vacant stare, but a look full of tenderness. Then he began to speak, and his voice had a soft tone of which Cleanor could not have believed it was capable.

"So, sweetest and fairest, you have not forgotten me; you, as all men know, no one can forget. Why am I in such haste? Nay, dearest, look in our mirror for an answer. And besides, when you are mine, the Romans can have nothing more to say. Till to-morrow, then—but stay, let me give you a little token. Nay,"—and his voice changed in an instant to a note of horror—"what, pray, has changed my love-gift to this? Faugh!"

And with a gesture as of one who dashed something to the ground, he sank down upon the bed, and in another moment was sleeping again.

[40] Early the next morning the king's three sons, who had heard the physician's report of their father's health, arrived at the palace. Their emotion, as they knelt by the dying king, was genuine, though probably not very deep. The old man was perfectly self-possessed and calm.

"My sons," he said, "I have done my best for you. Probably you will not like it. What is there, indeed, that you would all like? But lay your hands on my head and swear that you will accept what I have done. What it is you had best not know till I am gone. But trust me that I have been just to all of you."

The princes took the oath.

"Cleanor here knows where I have put away my testament, but he is bound by me not to tell till I am buried. And now farewell! Don't wait for the end. You will have your hands full, I warrant, as soon as the tribes know that the old man is gone."

The princes left the room and the old man turned his face to the wall and seemed to sleep. All the [41] rest of that day Cleanor watched, but noticed no change. Just before dawn he heard the sleeper draw two or three deep breaths. He bade the slave who was in waiting in the ante-chamber call the physician.

But the man of science found no movement either of pulse or heart. When he held a mirror to the mouth, there was not the faintest sign of breath upon it. The world had seen the last of one of the most wonderful of its veterans.


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