Courteous, and even generous, as Scipio had showed himself in the matter of the exchange of prisoners, he was not a man to let slip a single advantage that might fall into his hands, or, when he delivered a blow, to hesitate to strike with all his force. He allowed a short time for his army to get used to the new condition of things. This he could well afford, for the season was yet early. When he found his army restored to a sound condition, physical and moral, at once hardened to labour and amenable to discipline, in a word, thoroughly efficient, he proceeded to act. It was as a keen, well-tempered sword in his hands, and he struck with promptitude and energy.
His first plan was to follow the line of attack which Mancinus had initiated. The weak spot in the defences of a wealthy city is commonly found in the buildings which are allowed to grow up in times of peace outside the fortifications. Life in a walled city is often both irksome and unhealthy. The poor, always compelled to put up with a narrow space whether within walls or without them, is indifferent, but the rich man wants his garden and his playground, wants room for the health of his family or his own entertainment. In this way a suburb, mainly consisting of residences of the wealthy, had grown up outside the northern walls of the city. It presented, only on a larger scale, much the same features as the locality which Mancinus had fixed upon as his point of attack. But it had a fortified wall of its own. This had in process of time become a necessity. For more than four centuries after its foundation Carthage had never seen a foreign invader on its soil. But there came a time when its enemies discovered that it might be most effectually attacked at home. Therefore, splendid houses which offered a rich prize to the plunderer could no longer be left without a defence, and the Megara had to be surrounded with a fortification, which started from the city wall and joined it again. But the space which had to be inclosed was great, and the new wall was neither so strong, so well furnished with towers, nor so adequately garrisoned as the old. It was meant, in fact, rather for a protection against a sudden attack than as a permanent defence.
Scipio resolved on a night assault, an operation possible only to a thoroughly well-disciplined army. He divided his force into two columns, taking personal command of the one which was actually to attack. The other was to make a demonstration, which was not to be developed into an assault except the officer at its head saw a particularly favourable opportunity. As the two points threatened were more than a couple of miles apart—so great was the circuit of the Megara wall—the attention of the garrison was effectually distracted. Scipio's column succeeded in reaching its destination unobserved, and its sudden approach, coupled with the alarm simultaneously raised on the other side, threw the garrison into confusion.
But the assault received a check. A deserter had indicated the spot where the wall might be most easily scaled. It had been used as a short cut by marauders, stragglers, and others who did not care to go in or out by the gate. Some stones had been broken down at the top of the wall, while at the bottom there was a natural rise in the ground which diminished the height. But the place had not escaped the vigilance of the officer whose business it was to inspect this portion of the fortification. The stones had been replaced and the rise in the ground levelled. A determined attempt was then made at various points with the scaling—ladders. But an assailant who is mounting a ladder is at a considerable disadvantage when matched with an antagonist who has a firm footing on the wall above. Here and there, indeed, especially where a bit of the wall lay in shadow, the ladder could be applied and the wall scaled unobserved by the guard. But these successes could not be followed up. The soldiers who thus made good their footing on the top were few and far between; unable to help each other, they could not hold the ground that they had won. The only decided advantage obtained in this direction was the capture of one of the small towers disposed at intervals along the wall. This tower had been deserted by its guard, who had hurried to repel a scaling-party, and was occupied by the Romans in their absence.
Scipio saw that he was losing men to no purpose, and ordered the retreat to be sounded. But his quick eye had detected a place which seemed to promise better. Some resident in Megara had felt the same impatience of being kept within walls to which the whole suburb itself owed its first existence, and had built, in a spot which commanded a wide view over the sea, one of those towers which we now commonly call "follies". The place was of course deserted when the war broke out, but it was not destroyed, as it ought to have been, for it was dangerously near the wall. So near, indeed, was it that it was quite possible to throw a bridge across the intervening space; fortunately, too, it was not very far from the tower mentioned above as having been occupied by the assailants. A considerable force of archers and slingers was brought up to the spot, and they kept up so vigorous a discharge of missiles that this portion of the wall, some fifty paces or so in length, was absolutely cleared of its defenders. Two scaling-ladders, hastily lashed together, served sufficiently well for a bridge. Across this two or three scores of active young soldiers, picked out for their courage and strength, made their way in rapid succession, and descending from the wall on the inner side, hastened to open one of the gates. Before an hour had passed, Scipio, with nearly four thousand men, was within the walls of the Megara.
For a time the panic was as great as if Carthage itself, and not a suburb, which never could have been seriously defended, had been taken. The garrison of the Megara fled in wild confusion to the inner city, the gates of which were blocked with a crowd of frantic fugitives. Cleanor, who had joined the flying division as a volunteer, found himself carried back towards the city walls by a quite irresistible torrent of panic-stricken men.
Then a rally took place. In the first place the fugitives were compelled to halt, if for no other reason than because they could not get through the gates. Then the old instinct of obedience and discipline reasserted itself, especially in the mercenaries, among whom the panic had been most severe. Little by little the officers were able to restore some kind of order, and even to recover some of the lost ground. The defenders had the inestimable advantage of knowing the locality. To the mercenaries, indeed, most of whom had never been inside Carthage, the place was as strange as it was to the Romans; but the flying division consisted entirely of native troops, and these were thoroughly at home among the lanes and alleys of the Megara, where indeed most of them had their family residences.
Cleanor had an hour or so of very lively adventure in the company of an officer of the division, and could not help feeling a certain regret when he heard the Roman bugles sound the recall. Scipio, in truth, had found that his position was not by any means desirable. The Megara was almost covered with detached houses, each surrounded by its gardens and orchards, these again being intersected by running streams, some of which were of considerable depth, and had branches winding in all directions. Any adequate military occupation of such a region would require a much larger force than he had at hand, and would serve no useful purpose. And he could not quite trust his men. They had accepted his reforms with wonderful docility, but here they were in the presence of almost overpowering temptations. Many of the houses in the Megara were full of the accumulated wealth of centuries. A few minutes among such possessions would enrich a soldier with more than he could hope to acquire in twenty campaigns. In fact, it was only too probable that the men would take to plundering, and quite certain that, if they did, they would be destroyed in detail. There were abundant reasons, therefore, why the Roman general should order a retreat. Even as it was, his losses were not inconsiderable.
"I wonder whether anyone has been paying a visit here?" said Cleanor's companion to him as they approached one of the houses in the Megara. "This is my father's place."
It should be explained that the non-combatant population had fled from the Megara as soon as it was attacked. Even before that many persons had deserted their houses for safer quarters within the city itself.
"It is a very likely place," the Carthaginian continued, "for a man to lose his way in. Perhaps we may lay our hands on a prize. Come this way; I know the best place for waiting."
The two young men, taking a couple of soldiers with them, made their way down a narrow lane which skirted the garden of the house. The moon had set by this time, but there was a dim light of dawn. After a few minutes of waiting, the party could plainly hear that someone was approaching.
"There must be two men at least," whispered the Carthaginian; "and they have missed the path, for they are crashing through the shrubs. By Dagon! we have them, for there is a bit of deep water that they must get over. Let us come a little further on. Mago, you know the hand-bridge; go as quick as you can and secure it."
He had scarcely finished speaking when the party for which they were watching came in sight. It consisted of three persons, and there was now enough light to distinguish them. One was a Roman officer. He wore the ornaments of a tribune, and might have been some twenty years of age. His two companions were private soldiers, and light-armed. The three, forcing their way through the shrubbery, which here was particularly dense, came upon the water. It was evidently an entirely unexpected obstacle.
"Caius," said the officer, addressing one of the men, "how is this to be managed?"
"We can jump it," the man answered, "with the help of our spears. When we are on the further side, you, sir, must do the best you can, and we will help you out."
"Very good," said the officer, "jump!"
"Let them go," whispered the Carthaginian to Cleanor, "we don't want them; but the officer will be a prize worth having."
Each of the two soldiers planted his spear in the bed of the stream, and swung himself across without much difficulty. The tribune, having first thrown his sword to the other side, jumped his furthest. No run was possible, for the shrubs were thick on the bank; still it was a good leap—excellent, indeed, considering the weight of the young Roman's armour. The breadth of the water was about twenty-four feet, and the tribune had cleared eighteen. His companions were in the act of reaching out one of their spears for him to grasp when the Carthaginian and his party showed themselves. The young Roman understood the situation in a moment.
"Save yourselves," he gasped, as soon as he could speak, "I am lost!"
After a moment's hesitation the men obeyed. To stay would have been a useless sacrifice, for they must have been inevitably cut down while they were attempting to save their companion.
"Speak to him," said the Carthaginian. "Try him with Greek; the Roman gentlemen mostly know it. But perhaps we had better help him out of the water first."
"Do you yield?" said Cleanor in Greek, when the Roman had reached the shore.
"I see no choice," replied the young man in the same language.
Giving his promise that he would not attempt to escape, he received his sword, and accompanied his captors to the city. A few inquiries, made and answered in Greek, satisfied them that they had indeed, as the Carthaginian had anticipated, secured a prize. The tribune was a Scipio, a kinsman not very distantly related to the commander.
"Let him be your prisoner," said Cleanor's companion to him. "He may bring you promotion, which I am pretty sure of in any case. Though, indeed," he added after a pause, "I strongly suspect that it will be all the same for most of us, promotion or no promotion, a year hence."