Lords of the World - Alfred J. Church


The Nile boat which had been engaged for Cleanor was lying at one of the quays which bordered a considerable part of the eastern or city shore of Lake Mareotis. The arrangement had been that it should start early in the morning of the day following the departure of Polybius. But the young man purposely delayed his appearance till late in the day, and the captain and crew, who had plenty of private affairs to occupy them for as long as their employers chose to stay, made no complaint.

It wanted but two or three hours to sunset when Cleanor at last presented himself. The captain explained that they would not have time that day to go further than the mouth of the canal which connected the lake with the river Nile. This was false. They had plenty of light to make the passage of the canal itself. But the passenger assented with an unquestioning alacrity which inspired the old rogue who owned the boat with the liveliest expectations of a lazy and prosperous voyage. Both were, in fact, equally satisfied. The captain wanted to do as little as possible, and also contemplated a final carouse at the Canal Tavern, a house famous for its wines. The passenger, who had made up his mind to leave the boat at the earliest opportunity, was glad not to be taken any further distance from the city than could be helped.

As soon as they halted for the night he summoned the old captain and had an explanation with him. He began by asking in an indifferent tone the names of the chief cities which they were to pass. The captain of course had his lesson by heart, and answered with a long list of places, adding, as he mentioned each name, the chief sights for which it was famous.

"And do you particularly wish to see all these places again?" asked the Greek with a smile.

The old man stared at him. "It is my business, my lord," he answered; "a poor trade, it is true, but it was my father's before me, and his father's too, and so on for I don't know how many generations. I don't know why I have stuck to it, for the pay is poor, but so I have. It is our way, I suppose, in Egypt."

"The pay is poor, you say," said the Greek; "but it would be better if you didn't go this voyage, and had the pay all the same."

"My lord is laughing at his servant," said the captain, staring again with eyes more wide open than ever.

"Not at all; the fact is that I have no more wish to see these places than you have."

The captain went on staring. "Then why—?" he began.

"My friends settled the matter for me; but I would sooner stay where I am."

"I understand," said the captain, closing one eye entirely, and diminishing the other to its natural size. "I understand. You have a friend, a young friend, I daresay, and you don't think that this is a good time for a long voyage."

Cleanor saw that the captain had his own ideas of what was keeping him in Alexandria, and did not care to disabuse him. After all, he reflected, he was not quite wrong. He nodded.

"You are right, my lord. These cities and temples and tombs up the river are very fine, but they will be just as fine ten, twenty, thirty years hence. You can't say that of youth. It passes, my lord, it passes, and you must enjoy it while you can. But what am I to say? I have been paid to take you up to Philæ, and, if you wish it, as far as the Second Cataract. I signed the agreement before a notary. He knows all about it; other people know it. What am I to say when they find me loitering about here and your lordship not to be seen? You will hardly believe it, but there are positively people so wicked that they will say I murdered you to get the money without making the journey."

Cleanor did believe that there were such people, and thought to himself that the captain did not look altogether like a man to whom such things were impossible.

"Oh!" said he, "I will set that all right. I will sign a paper before the chief of the village, or anyone else that will serve, to say that I was compelled by urgent private business, which kept me in Alexandria, to give up my proposed voyage. You will be able to show that to any one who may be curious enough to inquire.

And this was actually done. The village headman was called on for his services, and witnessed a declaration on the part of Cleanor that he released the captain of the Sphinx from his contract to carry him to Philæ and the Second Cataract, and that he claimed no compensation or return of the money or of any part of it for the non-fulfilment of the conditions. This done, he made the captain and crew a present of a gold piece, and saw with satisfaction that they departed to expend it at the Canal Tavern. Shortly afterwards Cleanor hired a small rowing-boat, and before long found himself again in Alexandria.

As to his general plan of operations he was quite clear. There was only one plan of getting into Carthage. It was full of risk, but still it was practicable. A brisk trade was being carried on from Alexandria in blockade-running. Corn had long been at famine prices in the besieged city. What was worth an ounce of silver on an Alexandrian quay could be sold for at least half an ounce of gold in the markets of Carthage. If only one ship-load out of three succeeded in escaping the Roman galleys a magnificent profit was realized. The average of those ships that ran the blockade was not smaller; it was probably higher. The new harbour-mouth gave, as has been explained, a better chance.

Cleanor, then, was resolved to make his venture in a blockade-running corn-ship. The question was, what disguise should he use? Fortune had done something for him. The wound in his thigh had given him a limp. During his illness a slight beard and a fairly thick moustache had grown. These things meant a considerable change. More was effected by a brown dye which gave him the complexion of an Arab. The character that he thought it best to assume was that of pedlar. He provided himself with suitable clothing and a pack, which last, however, he left for the present unfilled.

As Egypt was in alliance with Rome the traders that followed the business of blockade-running had to affect a certain disguise. The cargoes were consigned to dealers in Italian ports, and the ships themselves actually shaped their course for Italy, and kept on it as long as possible, so as to minimize to the utmost the chances of capture. The event of a passenger offering himself was rare, for the destination of this class of corn-ships was an open secret. If, however, one chanced to come, the captain could hardly refuse a passage. If he was exceptionally honest he might put difficulties in the way; commonly he left the stranger to find out his mistake, taking the precaution of having the passage-money paid in advance.

Cleanor, who had put up for the night at a little tavern close to the water-side, picked up a little information from the talk which was going on round him. Improving his acquaintance with a sailor, who seemed the most respectable of the somewhat miscellaneous company at the tavern, he learnt a good deal more. Finally his new friend offered to introduce him to the captain of the Sea-mew, a blockade-runner which was intending to sail the following day.

"Dioscorides," said the sailor, "is an honest man in his way. He would have taken your passage-money for Rhegium, it is true, and made no scruple about carrying you to Carthage. That, you might say, is scarcely fair. But then you are quite safe with him. He won't cut your throat and throw you overboard for the sake of your pack. That's what I call honesty in a sea-captain. If you want to find a finer article, you will hardly get it on this side of the Pillars of Hercules. We will go on board at the last moment, and I will give him a hint that it is all straight."

The object of going on board so late was to show that the person proposing himself as a passenger had no idea of lodging an information against the ship with the agent of the Roman Republic.

On the following day, accordingly, this programme was carried out. The Sea-mew  was taking on board the water wanted for the voyage, a part of the preparations naturally left to the last, when Cleanor and his friend reached the quay. A grizzled veteran, whose face was tanned by the suns and winds of some fifty years of voyaging, was receiving his last instructions from a keen-looking man, whose pale and unhealthy-looking skin spoke of long confinement to the desk and the counting-house. The conference over, Cleanor was introduced.

"My young friend here," said the sailor, "is going the same way as you are. Cleanor, this is Dioscorides, the captain of the Sea-mew. You could not sail with a better man; and you," he went on, turning to the captain, "will find him an agreeable and accommodating passenger." The word "accommodating" was emphasized by a wink.

"Good!" said the captain; "come and see your quarters. That is the last water-cask, and now we are off."

He led the way as he spoke to the gangway that connected the quay-side with the deck. In five minutes more the Sea-mew  was on her way west-ward.

A little after noon, the Sea-mew  being now fairly started and making good way with a strong breeze that was almost dead aft, the captain invited his passenger to come below. The cabin was not spacious,—for the vessel, though carrying cargo, was built for speed, her owners having had in view the more risky kinds of trade,—but it was well furnished, and the meal that was spread on the table was almost sumptuous. The captain did not fail to observe his passenger's look of surprise.

"In this business," he said, "a mina or two this way or that does not make much odds. It is no use to save when you are going either to make your fortune or be drowned, or, it may be, hanged."

"Possibly," replied Cleanor; "but a passenger is not in the same case. I am afraid that such fare will not suit my modest means."

"Don't trouble yourself on that score," returned the captain. "Suppose we say fifty drachmas for your passage-money, and ten more as a present to the crew, if the voyage turns out to your liking."

"I am afraid that you will not gain much by me on these terms," said Cleanor as he produced the money, which he had carefully made up out of a variety of coins. He thought it safer to avoid any appearance of wealth.

The voyage which followed was prosperous in the extreme. A west wind, with just a touch of south in it, carried the Sea-mew  towards Italy, which, as has been said, was nominally her destination, with a quite surprising regularity of speed. She seldom made more than six miles in the hour, but she did this day and night with little variation, and without a single drawback. Her course lay just within view of the African shore till Cyrene was sighted. Then the captain struck a bolder course, nor did they come again within sight of land till a little object showed itself in the northern horizon which was speedily identified as Malta. Not long after they spoke a coral-fisher's boat, from which they learnt that a Roman squadron, with the commander-in-chief on board, had passed a couple of days before.

"If that is so," said the captain, "I shall steer straight for Carthage. We are likely to have a clear course. It is scarcely likely that the Roman cruisers will be prowling about for prizes in the wake of their own squadron."

As they sat together at their supper, the only officer who messed with them having gone on deck to superintend the setting of another sail, the captain said to Cleanor:

"Don't suppose that I want to intrude on your private affairs, and if my questions are inconvenient, or you have any reason whatever for declining to say anything more about yourself, don't hesitate to tell me. I shan't be offended or think the worse of you for it. On the other hand, I may be able to help you or give you a hint. Now, to be quite frank, I can't make you out. You wish to pass as a pedlar—excuse my plainness of speech. Now, you are no more a pedlar than I am; not so much, indeed, for you have never, I should say, either bought or sold anything in your life. You talk like a gentleman. I could not do it myself, but I know the real thing when I hear it. Now, what does it mean?"

Cleanor had been long prepared for some such question as this. When he adopted his disguise he had vaguely counted on being one among a crowd of passengers, and able to keep himself as much in the background as he pleased. In such a situation he might have sustained his character with fair success. But it was a very different thing to sit tête-à-tête  for a fortnight together with a shrewd man of business, who had been accustomed to mix with all sorts and conditions of passengers. Cleanor had felt from the first that it would be useless to maintain the pretence, and he was prepared to abandon it if he should be challenged. But he was not prepared to tell his true story. He had devised what he could not help thinking a very plausible substitute for it.

"You are quite right, my good friend," he said, "I am not a pedlar. Still, I hope to do a good stroke of business in Carthage."

"Business!" said the captain, opening his eyes wide. "I fancy this is a poor time for business there."

"For buying, doubtless—I suppose they have to keep all their money for food—but not for selling. That is what I am after. I have had a commission from someone whose name I must not mention to buy books."

"Books!" repeated the old sailor in unfeigned astonishment; "who in the world wants to buy books?"

"Well," said Cleanor, "there are people who have the taste. There are some very valuable things of the kind in Carthage, taken, most of them, from Greek cities in Sicily. My employer thought it a good opportunity for picking up some bargains, and he has made it worth my while to go. You see, books are not like gold and jewels. Most people don't see anything in them. You yourself, though you have seen a good deal of the world, could not understand anyone buying them. I am not likely, you see, to be interfered with."

The sailor shrugged his shoulders.

"Well," he said, "everyone to his taste. However, now I understand how it is that you don't talk like other pedlars. Good luck go with you!"

The captain was right in supposing that the sea would be clear in the wake of the Roman squadron. He now matured a very bold design, which wanted for its successful accomplishment only one element of good fortune, an absolutely favourable wind. The Sea-mew  was one of the fastest sailers in the Mediterranean, and with her own wind, which was a point or so off aft, could do what she liked even with a well-manned ship of war. The captain's plan was to hang closely, but just out of range, on the skirts of the Roman squadron as they neared their destination. This he could do without difficulty. Twenty galleys presented a larger object to him than he to them, and he reckoned, with a confidence that was not misplaced, that they would not keep a very careful look-out aft. If a solitary sail was to heave in sight for a moment it would probably attract no attention.

What was wanted was the right wind, and this, to his great joy, he got just when it was wanted. The breeze, which for some hours had been due north, shifted to W.N.W. The weather thickened a little, and to make the lucky combination complete, the voyage came to an end a little after nightfall. The Sea-mew, which for some hours had been keeping, under shelter of the failing light, within two miles of the Roman squadron, now came up close to the rearward galley. In the preoccupation of the time she was practically unobserved. The Sea-mew was built almost on war-ship lines, and was flying Roman colours. No one certainly supposed for a moment that she was an Alexandrian blockade-runner.

Two hours afterwards she was safe in the harbour of Carthage, and the captain—he was owner as well as master—had realized a handsome fortune. He had shipped one hundred and fifty tons of wheat and as much barley at Alexandria, the wheat at one mina and a half per ton, and the barley for half as much, and he now sold the wheat for eight and the barley for five minas per ton. The crew had a fourth of the gross profits divided between them, but enough was left to enable the captain to give up this very perilous kind of business for good and all.

"If I tempt the gods again after this I deserve to be crucified," he said to his chief officer; and he kept his word.