For some time after the events related in the last chapter the siege went on without any noticeable incidents. The fighting was nearly continuous, but there was nothing like a pitched battle. The besiegers did not again attempt an assault, nor did the besieged make a sally in force. Scipio's plan was to complete the blockade of the city, and then to await events, reserving his attack till famine and disease had exhausted the strength of the enemy.
The first step was to cut off all communication on the land side. Carthage stood on a peninsula, and Scipio's superiority in the field made him master of the isthmus by which this peninsula was joined to the mainland. This he covered from sea to sea by a huge fortification, which served at the same time for a camp. It had a ditch and a rampart both on the side that looked towards the city, from which it was distant little more than a bow-shot, and on that which faced the mainland. It was necessary, indeed, that it should be defensible both in the front and in the rear. It was one of the most formidable possibilities of the war that the Roman army might be attacked from behind by the native allies of Carthage. Scipio knew—it was a mark of his genius that he knew everything—that the emissaries of the city were unceasing in their efforts to raise an army of auxiliaries among the native tribes of Northern Africa. The wall had, as usual, towers at intervals over its whole length. One of these towers, built in the most solid fashion of stone, was carried up to such a height that it commanded a view of all that was being done within the city walls.
Of course the besieged did not allow this work, threatening as it was to the very existence of their city, to be carried on without interruption. Catapults, posted on the city walls, kept up a continuous discharge of missiles; unceasing showers of stones came from the archers and clingers, while bodies of infantry were kept in readiness to sally forth whenever and wherever they saw an opportunity of doing damage. The Romans had, so to speak, to build and dig with a workman's tool in the one hand and a weapon in the other, but they stuck to their task with indefatigable zeal and inexhaustible courage. The officers shared all the toils and dangers of their men, and the work progressed, not indeed without loss, but without interruption.
Meanwhile the city was in a state of constantly increasing excitement from another cause, not unconnected, however, with the war. The festival of Baal Hammon—otherwise Moloch—was approaching, and it was to be kept with unusual splendour, even, it was said, with rites of worship that had fallen into disuse for many years. For Carthage, though it had much of the unchanging temper of the East, was not wholly untouched by the spirit of progress, and some of the darker and more savage practices of her religion were no longer practised. But now again the fiercer instincts of the race were waking. It was a common topic of talk in the streets that the desperate fortunes of the state called for more effectual methods of propitiating the anger of heaven. Meetings of the Senate were held daily with closed doors, and it was known, though instant death was the appointed penalty of any indiscreet revelation by a senator, that the chief subject of debate was settling the details of the great Moloch feast.
Cleanor, in common with the other Greeks in the population, whether civil or military, heard but little of the matter. It was, in a way, kept from them by their companions and comrades, who knew that they regarded such proceedings without sympathy, not to say, with disgust. In the ordinary course the great day would have come and passed without his knowing anything about it beyond the fact that it was the chief festival of the Carthaginian year. But this was not to be.
He was returning to his quarters somewhat late in the evening, two days before the appointed time, when he felt a hand laid on the sleeve of his tunic, and heard himself called by his name in a voice which somehow seemed familiar, though he could not immediately connect it with any friend or acquaintance. He halted, and turned to the speaker.
It was a woman, poorly clad as far as he could see in the dim light, and of middle age, to judge from what appeared of her veiled and cloaked figure.
"Help, noble Cleanor!"
That strange faculty of remembering voices that most of us have, strange because it is a sheer effort of memory, unhelped by any accessories of shape and colour, did not fail him.
"What! is it you, Theoxena?" he cried.
Theoxena was his foster-mother, the wife of a poor schoolmaster at Chelys, who had been persuaded by her own need and the liberal offers of Cleanor's father to undertake the nurture of one of his twin-children. She had been resident for some years at Carthage, to which city her husband had migrated, tempted by the prospect of more liberal remuneration than he could hope for in his native place.
"Yes, sir, it is I," said the poor woman in a voice broken with tears. "And oh, in such trouble! If you could help me—but come in here. 'Tis but a poor place; but I cannot tell you my story in the street."
Her home was close at hand, and Cleanor followed her in. A poor place it was, but clean and neatly kept, and even with some little marks of taste and culture. In one corner of the room stood a capsa, a cylindrical case for holding manuscript rolls, and above it, on a bracket fastened into the wall, a statuette of Hermes. The chairs were of elegant pattern, though of common wood, and the mats on the floor, though worn and shabby, were of artistic pattern.
"Well, Theoxena," he said, "what is the matter? What can I do for you?"
"Oh, sir!" she answered, commanding her voice with an effort, "they have stolen from me my little Cephalus, the dearest, brightest little boy that ever was, and are going to offer him for a sacrifice to their dreadful Hammon."
"But how do you know? How did it happen?"
"You shall hear the story from Daphne, who was with him when he was stolen."
"And who is Daphne?" asked Cleanor.
Daphne, who had been sitting in a small chamber leading out of the main room, came forward on hearing her name, holding in her hands a piece of tapestry at which she had been working. She was a girl of fourteen or thereabouts, not actually beautiful, perhaps, but with a rare promise of beauty; her figure had something of the awkwardness of the time which comes between childhood and womanhood; her features still wanted that subtle moulding which the last critical years of girlhood seem able to give. But her eyes, blue as a southern sea with a noonday sun above it, were marvellously clear and full of light; her complexion was dazzlingly bright, and all the more striking from its contrast to the generally swarthy hue of the inhabitants of Carthage. Her hair was of a rich red gold colour, and would have been of extraordinary beauty if it had had its natural length. As it was, it was cropped almost close, though here and there a little curl of a new growth had begun to show itself.
"This, sir, is my Daphne," said the woman, laying her hand upon the girl's head. "We are good patriots, I am sure, for the dear girl gave up her beautiful hair—if you will believe me, it used to come down nearly to her ankles—to be made into a string for a bow. The bow-maker said it was the very finest he had had, though all the great ladies in Carthage did the same, I am told. Daphne," she went on, "tell the noble Cleanor about our darling little Cephalus."
"Remember," said the young man, who saw that the girl was trembling excessively, "remember that the noble Cleanor is your brother, even as Theoxena is his mother," and he lifted his foster-mother's hand to his lips and respectfully kissed it.
The girl began her story: "I took my little brother to walk in the garden—the garden, I mean, of Mago the senator, who kindly lets us use it, because the streets are so noisy and crowded, and the people are so rude." Cleanor did not wonder that she attracted more notice than she liked. "There is seldom anybody there; but that day there was an old man who began to pet dear little Cephalus, and give him sweetmeats and cakes. He seemed very kind, and I never dreamt of any harm; and besides, I was there, for I never leave Cephalus alone. Ah! but I did leave him alone that morning, wicked girl that I am." And she burst into a flood of tears. "But then what could I do? Hylax—that is the puppy that Cephalus is so fond of—began to fight with another dog, and Cephalus was frightened, and said, 'He'll be killed! he'll be killed! Do save him, Daphne.' He would himself have run to help, but I was afraid he would be bitten, though that would have been better than what did happen. So I told him to sit still where he was, and I ran to help Hylax. It took me a long time to get hold of him, for he was very angry, and would go on fighting though the other dog was much bigger. And when I looked round, the dear little boy was gone. I hunted all over the garden, and called him a hundred times, but it was no use. Mother hasn't blamed me once, but I can't help feeling that it was any fault."
"But what," asked Cleanor, speaking to Theoxena, "has put this dreadful idea of Hammon into your head?"
"Oh! I know from what my neighbours have told me that there is going to be a sacrifice such as there has not been for years and years, and that a number of children are to be put into the fire. The priests say that there must be a hundred, not one less. Some parents offered their own children—to think that anybody could be so wicked!—and these quite rich and noble people, I am told; but still there were not enough, so others had to be taken by force. Besides, the priests said that there must be children of every race that was in Carthage; and no Greek children could be got except by kidnapping them. And there was something, too, which Daphne did not tell you. She picked up a button where the old man had been sitting, and I have been told by someone who knows that it is of a kind that only the temple servants of Hammon use."
"I see," said Cleanor; "there seems very little doubt that it is so. But don't trouble; you shall have your son again. I have a hundred things to ask you, but that must be for another day; there is no time to be lost now. Farewell!"
The young man had spoken confidently enough to the agonized mother, but when he came to reflect on what he had to do he did not feel by any means confident. All night he was busy with the problem, but seemed, when the morning came, as far off a solution as ever. He could not even think where to go for counsel and help. His Greek comrades would feel with him, but they probably knew no more about the matter than he did. As to his Carthaginian fellow-officers, though he was on the best of terms with them, it was quite useless, and indeed impossible, to approach them. At last an idea occurred to him. The Greek physician who had attended him when he was in Hasdrubal's house might possibly be not only willing, but able to help him. Willing he would certainly be, for he was a Greek; able, possibly, seeing that his practice lay largely among Carthaginians of the highest class.
He lost no time in looking for his friend, and was luckily soon successful in his search.
"I am not surprised," said the physician when he had heard the story. "I knew that something of the kind was going on, though the priests keep it as quiet as they can. I was called in yesterday to see the wife of a senator. She was in a state of prostration, for which I could see no physical cause. Of course I diagnosed mental trouble, and put some questions in that direction. I got nothing but the vaguest answers. Just when I was going away I asked some question about her children. She said nothing, but the next moment she fell into the very worst fit of hysterics I have ever seen. I put two and two together, for I haven't been a doctor for forty years for nothing, and guessed the truth. And afterwards, when I was giving the maid in attendance some directions, I heard it for certain. The poor woman had given up her eldest boy, a beautiful little creature of six, to Moloch. And now about this Greek child. Well, we must not be seen on the street talking together. Come to my house about noon to-morrow, and we will talk it over."
Cleanor was punctual at the appointed time.
"I have been thinking it over," said the physician when he had satisfied himself that he could not be overheard. "And I don't see any chance of success except by bribery. I know where the child is in the high-priest's house. I was called in two or three days ago to see a child who was ill there. I thought it strange, for the priests have no families. Still, it might be a child of a relative. But it was stranger still when, after I had prescribed for the little fellow and was going away, I heard the voices of other children. Then it was all explained little creatures, when they have got them by persuasion or force, in the high-priest's house. That is one step, then. We know where the boy is. And the next, by great good luck, is made easy for us. The little fellow that I have been attending will certainly die. I feel almost sure that I shall not find him alive when I go this afternoon. Well, I shall have to report his death to the high-priest, who will have to find a substitute for him, and will, I suppose, kidnap another child. That is a horrible thing; but we can't help it. Now for my plan. You must bribe the attendant who will have to remove the child and see to its burial. That will be easy enough. He is a fellow of the lowest class, and will do anything for a score of gold pieces. And you must also bribe the priest who has the business of actually offering the children. That will be a more serious matter. The practice is for the high-priest to offer the first, and to hand over the rest to a subordinate. This is the man you will have to deal with. It isn't that it will be a matter of' faith with him. Generally, in my experience—not always, mark that—but generally the nearer the altar the less the faith; and this man I know. But it is a dangerous affair, and, besides, the man can make his own terms. I should say that a hundred gold pieces will be wanted. Now, can you manage that? It isn't every young officer that has a hundred gold pieces to spare. I can help you a little, but a physician's fees are small and hard to come by."
"A thousand thanks!" said Cleanor, "but I have as much as will be wanted."
"Come again after dark," the physician went on. "You will have to settle with the men, for I must not appear in the matter, but I will arrange a way for you to see them."
"Everything is going as well as possible," said the physician when the two met again. "As I expected, the child was dead. And here I have made a little change in our plans. I thought that it might make complications if two were engaged in the affair. And the priest might object if he found his secret shared by an attendant of far inferior rank. It might mean, he would say, endless black-mailing. What I did, then, was to tell the man that there was something very strange about the child's illness, that I wanted to discover the real cause, and that I would give him a couple of gold pieces—to offer him more would have been suspicious—if he would let me have the body. That is disposed of, then. Now for the priest. He comes here to-night; he has long been a patient of mine, and he wants to see me. The fellow, who is one of the hardest drinkers in Carthage, would have been dead long ago but for me. You will see him, and tell him what he is to do, which, in a word, is to put a dead child for a living one, and what you will give him for doing it. That is the naked truth, but you will wrap it up as you think best."
"But will not that be an impossible thing—a dead child for a living?" asked Cleanor.
"Not at all," replied the physician, "and not by any means so hard as you think. You don't know, I daresay, that the children are drugged as heavily as possible without making them actually insensible. All the creatures that are brought to be sacrificed have to be drugged. You know that it is thought to be the very worst omen if a bull or a ram breaks away from the attendants as they are bringing it to the altar. You don't suppose that there is a miracle perpetually worked so that what happens every day in the slaughter-house never happens in a temple? And this makes the affair comparatively easy. There is not much difference between a drugged child and a dead child."
The priest came in due course. The physician with some cautious hints excited his curiosity and greed, and Cleanor found his task neither so difficult nor so costly as he had anticipated. It is needless to relate the negotiations. As the physician had anticipated, the priest's faith was not a difficulty. He had not a vestige of belief. He had been a party to too many impostures to have anything of the kind left. Fraudulent miracles were a part almost, it might be said, of his daily business. But he made the most of the risk of the proceeding, and this was undoubtedly great. Not only was the dead child to be substituted for the living, but the living was to be smuggled away. The physician had provided a temporary refuge for it; it was to be received into the family of the couple which kept his house. The thing probably appeared to be more difficult than it really was, chiefly because no one would have any idea that it would be attempted. A bargain was ultimately made for a somewhat smaller sum than the physician had named. The priest was to receive five-and-twenty gold pieces down, and fifty pieces more when Cleanor was satisfied of the safety of the child.
Cleanor was long in doubt whether or not he should be present at the hideous ceremony of the coming day. All the instincts of his own nature and his race revolted against such doings. The Greek temper was not particularly merciful, and certainly never shrank from taking life when occasions of policy or promptings of revenge seemed to suggest it, but it had no liking for spectacles of blood. Even in its degradation it revolted from the savage amusements which fascinated the Romans. And Cleanor had the best feelings of his race in high development. On the other hand, he reflected that if any chance suspicion should arise his presence might help to disarm it. Above all, his interest in the fate of his little foster-brother was so overpowering that he felt it impossible to keep away.
The solemnities of the day began with a great procession, in which the inferior deities of the Carthaginian faith were carried to pay their homage, as it was said, to Baal Hammon their chief. Each had his own company of priests and temple attendants; both the deity and his satellites were decked out for the occasion with all the splendours which the temple treasuries—most of them rich with the accumulation of centuries—could furnish.
First,—for it was right that the most dignified visitor should be the first to arrive,—came Melcart, Hammon's vicegerent, as he might be called, who had under his special protection the daughter cities of the Phoenician race, as he had the great mother-city of Tyre. The god was not represented by any human figure, but a great sun, with gilded rays, was borne under a canopy of rich purple curtains. Next to Melcart came Tanit or Astarte, symbolized by a similar image of the moon, but smaller, and with silver rays; and after Tanit again, Dagon, the fish-god, the special protector of the fleets of Carthage, held in less reverence since the eldest daughter of Tyre had lost the hereditary supremacy of the seas. These were the three great dignitaries of the procession; after them followed a crowd of inferior powers with figures of man or brute, always heavy with gold or sparkling with gems, but grotesque or even hideous in shape, for the Phœnician craftsman made no effort to emulate the grace of his Greek rival.
Hammon's temple was thronged, and indeed had been thronged from the hour of dawn, when its gates were thrown open, with an excited multitude. A lane, however, was kept clear in the middle by two ranks of stalwart guards, native Carthaginians, all of them splendid in gilded helmets, with nodding plumes of the African ostrich, and armour of shining steel, with short purple cloaks over their shoulders. This lane was left for the approach of the divine visitors. As the first of these drew near, the great doors, themselves covered with a scarlet curtain, that separated the sanctuary from the body of the temple, were thrown back, and the holy place became visible, to most of those present that day for the first time in their lives.
In the centre of a semicircular recess at the further end, on a throne of gold, approached by twelve steps, each flanked by the image of a lion, sat the colossal statue of Hammon. The canopy above it was formed by the meeting wings of two stooping figures. The image was made of some black stone, probably basalt, carved into a rude similitude of the human figure, with arms of steel which extended forwards. In front, so close to the image as to be partly under the arms, was an opening six feet wide, from which, now and then, a slender tongue of coloured flame might be seen to shoot forth.
When the opened doors revealed the image, an instantaneous silence fell upon the assembled multitude, in striking contrast to the babel of sounds which had filled the temple a minute before. The awful moment had come, and the multitude waited with mingled wonder and terror for what was to follow.
The silence was first broken by the voice of the high-priest as he began to chant the litany of supplication. It was heard plainly enough, but few understood it, for the form had not been changed from the earliest times, and the language was mostly obsolete. At certain intervals the voices of the inferior priests might be heard coming in with the refrain. The ancient formula ended, the high-priest added special supplications for the day. He invoked blessings on Carthage, on her armies, her fleets, her priests, and her people. He cursed her enemies, Rome first of all, with special mention of the name of Scipio. The supplications ended, the high-priest turned to the people, crying, "Sons of Carthage, offer with a willing heart, and of your best, to your Lord and Saviour Hammon!"
There was a momentary pause. Then the Shophetim descended from the seats on which they had been sitting, and, coming forward, cast gold and spices into the opening. No one imitated, or was expected to imitate them. They represented the people, and their gifts symbolized the offering of the people's wealth. The more solemn part of the sacrifice remained to be performed, and this part, for evident reasons, the priests retained in their own hands.
The high-priest began again:
"O Baal Hammon, we have given-thee the most precious of things without life; now we give thee flesh of our flesh, and life of our life."
So saying, he took from the hands of a subordinate priest something—what it was no one could discern—wrapped in white linen, and placed it on the outstretched arms of the colossus. The image, worked by concealed machinery from behind, bowed its head, and at the same time lowered its arms, dropping the burden that had been placed upon them into the chasm underneath. Something between a roar and a shriek went up from the multitude that filled the temple. There was the joy of seeing that the great Hammon accepted their offering; there was the horror—for even the Carthaginians were human—of knowing what the offering was. The next instant a loud crash of sound came from the cymbal-players, who had been stationed in a recess out of sight of the multitude. Every time another burden was placed on the arms and dropped into the chasm there was the same outburst of wild music.
Cleanor watched the horrible ceremony with intense attention. Now and then he fancied—he had found a place, it should be said, not far from the sanctuary—that he saw a movement, and even heard a cry. But he could not feel certain. He recognized the priest who handed the first child to the high-priest, and who placed the others on the arms of the image, as the man with whom he had negotiated, and he felt sure that on one occasion he made a slight gesture, which no one else would notice, in his direction. It was a great relief when the horrible rite was finished. As to the fate of the child he could not immediately satisfy himself. It would have been imprudent to make any inquiries. He had, however, the satisfaction of receiving, during the course of the next day, a message from his friend the physician that the boy was safe. The same comforting intelligence was conveyed to the mother. She, of course, had to be content with an occasional sight of her child, and the hope of regaining him at some happier time.