Help from the Hills
One day shortly after the events related in my last chapter, Cleanor's somewhat melancholy musings on the prospects of the future were interrupted by the arrival of his friend Gisco, who had been absent from his duty for several weeks.
"You have been wondering, I dare say," said the Carthaginian, "what has become of me the last month or so."
"Yes, indeed," replied Cleanor; "I asked the officers of your battalion about you, but could find out nothing. However, I noticed once or twice just a suspicion of hesitation in their answers, and so I came to the conclusion that there was a secret."
"Well," said Gisco, "there was what you may call a secret. Anyhow, we thought it best not to say anything about the business I had on hand. It was to be a little surprise to our friends outside, and that is not so easy to manage as things are now. There is very little that goes on in Carthage but is
known the next day in Scipio's tent. This time, however, we have managed, I hope, better."
"Is it a secret still?" asked Cleanor.
"No, no," said Gisco, "everyone may know it now, and, besides, you are not one of those that a man has to keep secrets from. But now for my story. I left Carthage just thirty days ago—it was, I remember, the day before the new moon. It was no easy matter, I can tell you, to get away. One of the Roman sentinels caught sight of me, and I had to take to the lagoon. Happily the water was deep enough for diving, and I am a good hand at that business, but when I came up to breathe I was all but hit by an arrow. However, I got safely to the place I was bound for. There Bithyas met me—Bithyas, you remember, was Gulussa's master of the horse—with two or three troopers and a spare horse for me. Our errand was to go to the tribes that live far up in the country, and gather recruits for a campaign against Rome. Bithyas, who knows the whole region and the tribes better than any man living, was to introduce me, and I was to make engagements on the part of Carthage. We carried with us a sort of talisman which Bithyas had got hold of, I don't exactly know how. Anyhow, it seemed to be respected everywhere, and as soon as it was produced we never failed to get a hearing, and we must have gone to not less than fifteen chiefs."
"You say a 'hearing'," Cleanor put in; "but how did you contrive to make yourselves understood?"
"Well, in this way. We took new interpreters when they were wanted. We found that a man could always make himself understood by the people of the next tribe. Sometimes the same man served for two or three. When he came to the last place where he could be of use, he picked out some likely man, and instructed him in what he was to say. This, after all, was very simple. It was chiefly that they were wanted to fight, and that a chief was to get so many gold pieces, an under-chief so many, and a common man so many. It does not take much talking to explain so much. It might almost be done by signs. Of course we could not carry the money about with us, but we made a present to each of the chiefs, and commonly, when the tribe was a strong one, to one or more of the sub-chiefs. Promises, you may be sure, we did not spare. Even if all goes well, I don't see how Carthage is ever to pay her debts."
"And did you have much success?" inquired Cleanor.
"Yes, we had," replied Gisco. "If all the promises that were made to us are kept, we shall have a hundred thousand men. But that is, of course, too much to expect. If three-fourths, or even a half, let us say, are put into the field, it will be a very great thing, and with what we can do to help by a sortie from the city, we ought to give a good account of the Romans."
"And how soon is this to be?"
"Very soon now; the tribes were beginning to move when we left to return. It took us ten days' hard riding to get back from the last settlement that we visited. They can't come as quickly as that, but they don't linger on the march. Remember that they are all horsemen, though, when it comes to a battle, some of them dismount."
"Well," said Cleanor, "you have been into a new country. Did you see anything strange? There are marvellous tales told about these regions and the people who live in them. What has your experience been?"
"Well," replied Gisco, "I saw some very curious things. And as to the things I heard, and heard too from people who swore that they had seen them with their own eyes, they pass all belief. I never saw such trees as there are on the lower slopes of the hills. You know those tables made of one piece of wood? Well, they come from that region. I saw some that were being sawn off, and others that were being polished. Then the vines were enormously large. I came across some with stems as big as an ordinary-sized column of a temple, and I heard of others—one never sees things quite as wonderful as one hears of—that two men could hardly encompass with their arms. I saw crocodiles, just like those one has heard of in the Nile, and I was told of leeches that were ten feet long—that is pretty good, but then the ear can take in more than the eye. In one place that we came to there was a whole colony of monkeys, just like so many men and women, mothers nursing their children, and old ones with white heads, some chattering peaceably together like friends, and some quarrelling ever so fiercely. As for lions, there were troops of them. Hardly a night passed without an alarm, and though we picketed our horses close to our tents, we had several carried off at night."
"And what," asked Cleanor, "do you think of these people as soldiers?"
"Well," replied Gisco, "I can hardly judge. They are marvellously good horsemen, and have their animals trained to obey them in a most wonderful way. A man may leave his horse standing, not tethered, you understand, as long as he chooses, and when he is riding on one, he will have another following him like a dog. But whether they will be able to stand against the Romans is another matter. If it were not for their numbers, I should not expect much. But with four or five to one they must do something; let them only go on charging, and they must break the line at last."
As Gisco had predicted, the native forces did not linger on the march. They had none of the impedimenta of an army, carrying only their arms and their food,—of this last but a few days' supply,—and they were all mounted. On the third day after the conversation related above their advanced guard could be seen on the summit of the hills which formed the sky-line to the south. It had been arranged that they should make their way to the rock-fortress of Nepheris, now almost the only place, some remote spots in the hills excepted, which Carthage still possessed outside its own city walls. Nepheris was held by a strong garrison of mercenaries, under the command of a skilful soldier, Diogenes by name. Scipio had never been able to spare a sufficient force to invest it, but it had been masked by a considerable body of troops under the command of King Gulussa, strengthened by a small Roman contingent under the leadership of C. Lælius. This force was to be attacked by the native army, while Diogenes with his mercenaries was to make a sally from the fortress. Another sally, timed as nearly as possible for the same moment, was to be made from the city. Everyone, besiegers as well as besieged, recognized the fact that the critical moment had come. If this effort succeeded, the fate of Carthage would be postponed almost indefinitely; if it failed, the capture of the city could be only a question of time. If it did not yield to force, it would certainly succumb to famine.
Hasdrubal himself was roused by the gravity of the situation from his usual self-indulgence and lethargy. He was not wholly without the feelings of a patriot and a soldier, and in this supreme effort of his country he did his best to rise to the occasion. The chief object of his energies was the formation of what may be called a Sacred Phalanx. It was to consist entirely of native Carthaginians, a class of troops seldom used except in cases of grave necessity. These were to be chosen by a method which Hasdrubal borrowed from the practice of Rome. He began by selecting a hundred men of tried courage. Each of the hundred chose nine comrades; and each of these nine, again, chose nine more. The result was a hundred companies, numbering each a hundred men, all bound together by the special obligation of a common tie. The legion was splendidly equipped with richly gilded armour, and arms of the very finest quality. Each company had its own badge.
It was a fine force, but it was all that the citizen population of Carthage could do to raise it. Indeed so reduced were the numbers on the roll of military effectives that some recruits had to be enfranchised in order that they might be enrolled in the legion. Cleanor, not a little to his surprise, found himself attached to Hasdrubal's own staff. The general, indeed, said a few gracious words to the young man when he reported himself. If there had been any difference between them, said Hasdrubal, it might now be forgotten. A chance such as might never be repeated had occurred of saving Carthage. The city would not be ungrateful to those who used this occasion energetically.
Cleanor could not banish his recollections of the past, and the suspicions which persistently followed them; but his pride was naturally flattered, and he hoped for the best.