Lords of the World - Alfred J. Church

A Refuge in the Storm

"You have the necessary means, I understand," said the physician to Cleanor, when the two were seated together safe from interruption. "Now for my plan. The only safe hiding-place will be one of the temples. Now, there are three temples which would answer our purpose, I mean three that would be specially suitable on account of the number of private apartments which are attached to them. There is Ęsculapius in the citadel, Apollo in the arsenal, and Baal Hammon in the Upper City; but that, of course, you know. On the whole, I am inclined to Apollo in the arsenal, and I will tell you why. Ęsculapius is the strongest place in Carthage, and it is there that the last stand will be made. There are some desperate men who will hold on to the last extremity, and perish rather than surrender. There are some of the old nobles who are too proud to live under the rule of Rome, and there are the deserters, who know that pardon is impossible. Hasdrubal himself gives out that he intends to cast in his lot with them, but I doubt him; he is a cur. Now, I know as a matter of fact that preparations have been made for holding Ęsculapius as long as possible. And when it becomes impossible, then it will be destroyed. I know these Carthaginians. Drive them to extremities, and they will behave as the scorpion between two fires. Clearly, then, Ęsculapius is not the place for non-combatants. Then at Baal Hammon there are too many priests, and they are a bad lot. That fellow whom you bribed about the little boy was very useful to you, but then he is a great scoundrel. In that matter you could trust him, because he had put his own neck in the noose; but in this you could not. You see he might easily make double gain out of it—a heavy sum from you for keeping your friends safe, and another sum for selling them to the Romans. No, you had better have nothing to do with Baal Hammon and its crew. Then there remains Apollo in the arsenal. There are only two priests there. There's the old man, who is almost in his dotage, and the son, who is a decent fellow with a really excellent wife. He is not above taking money, but he will not be extortionate. She—poor woman, she has just lost her only child—would take in your friends out of pure kindness. Anyhow, she will do her best for them. You had better leave the matter to me, for the less you are seen the better. Now, what do you say?"

"I am only too glad," said Cleanor, "to leave the matter in your hands. How much money will be wanted, do you think?"

"It can hardly be less than two hundred gold pieces," replied the physician.

"These," said Cleanor, as he produced some rubies and emeralds, with a rose diamond, small, but of peculiarly brilliant lustre, "have been valued at a talent by a very good judge. Your friend the priest will get, if he wishes it, another opinion as to their value, but I feel sure that the price is not too high. That is what was actually offered me as a first bid by Raphael, the first jeweler in Alexandria, and, as you know, a man does not offer his highest price in his first bid."

"A talent!" said the physician, who was himself something of a connoisseur in precious stones, and had been examining them with obvious admiration. "A talent, indeed! Unconscionable scoundrel! He ought to have said three. This diamond alone is worth a talent, and more too. Well, I will see to the affair at once, for there is no time to be lost. You stop here, and make yourself at home."

About noon the physician reappeared. "Everything is settled," he said. "I have saved your diamond for you. It was really too much to give. The rubies and emeralds were quite sufficient. Mago—that is the younger priest's name—is a good judge of jewels, and was quite satisfied. You are to meet him to-night at the upper end of the street where your friends live, and take him to their house, and introduce him. He will take the women in charge, and conduct them to the temple. He has the means of getting them through one of the arsenal gates without any questions being asked. I am to hand over the price to-morrow, when the first part of the business shall have been finished. For the rest you must trust him. Indeed, you have no other choice; but he is not a bad fellow, and, as I said, his wife is absolutely loyal."

By midnight Theoxena and Daphne were safely lodged in a little chamber adjoining that occupied by the priest and his wife.

The change was not effected a day too soon. Early on the following morning the Roman armies were seen to be in motion, and peremptory orders were issued that the Lower City was to be evacuated. Many of the inhabitants had anticipated it, and had found such shelter as they could in the Upper City. But thousands had lingered behind, hoping against hope that the change might be avoided, or simply paralysed by despair. Destitute as many of them were, both of means and friends, they stayed only because it was easier to stay than to move.

Even now some doggedly remained behind. The troops had instructions to drive them out by force, and they attempted for a time to carry out this order. But they were met with a passive resistance that baffled them. Some would not, some could not be stirred from the homes to which they were accustomed, and which at least afforded them a present shelter. Still, there was an overpowering rush of panic-stricken fugitives. The streets leading to the Upper City were crowded up to and beyond the utmost limit of their capacity. At the gates the press was something terrible. All night long the human stream flowed ceaselessly on; when the morning broke it was still dense and strong. Scipio, fully aware that the helpless crowd would be a source of weakness rather than strength to the besieged, had strictly forbidden pursuit. But for this fact, any number might have been killed or captured.

Still, the arsenal itself was not to remain long undisturbed. To abandon it to the besiegers was to acknowledge that the fall of the whole city was only a question of time, for this sufficient reason, if for no other, that no fresh supplies could possibly be introduced. Up to this time a certain amount of food had been brought in, as we have seen in the case of the Sea-mew. The supply was small and irregular, but it had been sufficient to replenish the stores of the garrison. Now and then something, had been spared for the wants of the general population. All this would come to an end when the port fell into the hands of the enemy.

But Hasdrubal had really no choice. He could not hope to defend the fortifications of the arsenal with the forces at his command. He had to concentrate his strength within the smaller compass of the Upper City. Accordingly, in the night following the abandonment of the Lower City, the arsenal was evacuated by its garrison. The last detachment to leave was instructed to set the stores on fire. Nor was this done an hour too soon. The necessity which constrained the Carthaginian commander to this course of action had not escaped the notice of Scipio. Lęlius, the ablest of his lieutenants, was making his way into the arsenal—which he found, somewhat to his surprise, undefended—at the very time when the garrison was leaving it at the opposite end.

The physician was too busy with his work to pay much attention to military affairs, and Cleanor having accomplished, as far as was possible for the present, the purpose for which he had returned to Carthage, did not risk recognition and capture by venturing out of doors. It was with surprise, therefore, as well as dismay, that he learned what had happened. The first thing that he saw on looking out of his window the following morning was the area of the arsenal swarming with Roman soldiers. Some were endeavouring, under the direction of their officers, to quench the flames in the store-houses; not a few, it was easy to see, were busy in collecting plunder; the Temple of Apollo was evidently one of the chief objects of attraction.

It was an anxious moment for Cleanor, but if he could have seen what was going on in the temple, he would almost have despaired of the safety of Theoxena and her daughter. The fact was that the Roman soldiery, for all the strictness of discipline to which it had been habituated by Scipio, was for the time completely out of hand. The siege had been long and tedious, and the perils, so far, out of all proportion to the prizes. And now, almost for the first time for three years, these men, starving, so to speak, for booty, found themselves within reach of what seemed enormous wealth.

In the centre of the temple stood a figure of Apollo, about double the size of life. It had the appearance of being of gold; in truth, it was of wood, covered with massive plates of gold. The throne on which it was seated, the lattice-work on either side, and the canopy above its head were of the same metal, and these were absolutely solid. The weight of the whole was afterwards reckoned at about two hundred and fifty of our tons. Possibly this was an exaggeration; but the treasure was unquestionably very large. So large, indeed, was it that the first impression of the soldiers when they burst into the shrine was that the whole was of some base metal gilded.

Then the discovery was made. A Roman in mere mischief aimed a blow with his sword at the trellis-work which surrounded the statue. Picking up the fragment which he had thus lopped off, more in curiosity than with any definite expectation of finding treasure, he was astonished by its weight. Then the truth dawned upon him.

"By Pollux!" he cried, "it must be gold."

The scene which followed was one new to Roman experience. All Rome, it might almost be said all Italy, hardly contained so much treasure. Since the day when the soldiers of Alexander burst into the treasury of Persepolis, and saw what the wealthiest monarchy of the world had been accumulating for centuries, such a sight had never met human eyes. It overpowered the solid strength of Roman discipline; with a frantic cry the men precipitated themselves on the spoil. The centurions, who with the instinct of command endeavoured to keep them back, were thrust roughly aside. One of them, who ventured to use the vine cudgel which he carried by way of enforcing his orders, was levelled to the ground by a blow of the fist. The tribune in command of the detachment, when he ventured to interfere, met with no more respect. In less than half an hour the statue was stripped of its costly covering, and the shrine was hacked to pieces.

Then the strange passion of destruction, which seems always to follow close after any great mutinous outbreak, seized upon the men. Possibly they were carried away by a frantic desire to abolish the very scene of their offence. Anyhow, the temple was for a few minutes in the most imminent danger of being burned. A soldier thrust a torch into the fire which was burning near the great central altar, and threw it all blazing among the curtains which covered one of the walls.

At this critical moment Scipio himself appeared upon the scene. His presence seemed to recall the frantic soldiery to themselves. His first care was to see that the fire was extinguished. With the plunder he did not at the moment attempt to deal; he reserved that matter for a cooler moment. It was one of the secrets of his success that he never strained his power. But order was restored and firmly enforced. A guard was put in charge of the building. This was to be changed at fixed intervals. It was to have, meanwhile, its full share of all prize-money that might be earned on exactly the same scale as actual combatants. After this the temple and its inmates were as safe as any place or persons could be at such a time.