A Great Scheme
Scipio's forebodings as to the incapacity of the new generals were rapidly justified. The siege operations had not been uniformly successful before they took over the command. There had been losses as well as gains. Still, on the whole, the besiegers had the balance of advantage. The defence had been broken down at more points than one. Carthage was distinctly in a worse position than it had been three months after the breaking out of the war. The besieged had done some damage to the Roman fleet, had burnt a considerable extent of siege-works, and had suffered a distinctly smaller loss in killed and wounded than they had been able to inflict on their assailants.
But if the damage that they suffered was less than that which they did, still it was less capable of being repaired, often indeed could not be repaired at all. If a ship was burnt, they could not build another; the losses of the garrison could not be filled up; the general waste of strength could not be repaired. Carthage, in short, had only itself to draw upon as a reserve; Rome had all the countries that bordered on the Mediterranean, from Greece westward. These were advantages which were certain to tell in the long run, but meanwhile much might occur to delay the final victory.
The first thing to happen in the Roman camp was that supplies began to fall short. The country round Carthage was, of course, so much wasted by this time that practically nothing could be drawn from it. Further off, indeed, there was plenty of food and forage, but the natives showed no readiness in bringing it into camp. The fact was that there was no market; buyers there were in plenty, but not buyers with money in hand, for the military chest was empty, and the pay of the soldiers months in arrear. The consequence of this was that the Roman generals practically raised the siege of Carthage, and devoted their time and strength to reducing the Carthaginian towns, hoping thus to supply their wants. But in this attempt they made very little progress. They began by attacking the town of Clypea. Here they failed. The fleet could not make its way into the harbour, which the towns-people had effectually protected by sinking a couple of ships in the entrance, and the Roman engineers could not reach the walls of the town.
They had better fortune with another small town in the neighbourhood, though their success was gained in a not very creditable way. The towns-people were disposed to come to terms, and a conference between their representatives and the Roman generals was accordingly held. Terms were agreed upon, and the agreement had been actually signed, when some soldiers made their way into the town. The Romans at once broke up the meeting, and treated the place as if it had been taken by storm. This conduct was, of course, as unwise as it was wicked. Next to nothing was gained by the falsehood, while every Carthaginian dependency resolved to resist to the uttermost.
Hippo was the next place to be attacked. After Carthage and Utica—the Roman headquarters were at Utica—Hippo was the largest and most important town in Northern Africa. Its docks, its harbour, its walls were on a grand scale. Two hundred years before, Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse, in his desperate struggle with Carthage had made it the base of his operations. A lavish expenditure, directed by the best engineers of the time, had made it almost impregnable.
The Roman generals had, indeed, excellent reasons for attacking it. Till it was in their power, they could hardly hope to capture Carthage, for it stood almost between their own headquarters and that city, and commanded the route by which stores had to be carried to the besieging army. But the Roman forces were quite unequal to the undertaking. Twice did the people of Hippo, helped by a sally from Carthage, destroy the siege-works, and when the time for retiring to winter quarters arrived, nothing had been accomplished by the besiegers.
All this did vast damage to the prestige of the Romans. Far-seeing persons were convinced, as I have said, that the future belonged to them; but ordinary observers began to think, and not without some excuse, that their decline had begun. Among these were two out of three sons of King Masinissa. Possibly dissatisfaction had something to do with their state of mind. Each had expected to get more than Scipio's award had given him; both grudged to Gulussa the command of the troops, suspecting that this meant in the end their own subjection to him. Gulussa himself seemed to be still loyal to Rome, but the general discontent had not failed to reach some of the high-placed officers in his army.
Cleanor was still with Mastanabal, and, of course, watched the progress of affairs with intense interest. His hopes rose high when tidings reached the palace that the Romans had abandoned the siege of Hippo. At the evening meal that day the subject was discussed, but in a very guarded way, for the prince was still, at least in name, an ally of Rome, and his young secretary, for this was the office which Cleanor now filled, was too discreet to ignore the fact. The hour for retiring had almost come when the confidential slave who waited on the prince hurriedly entered the chamber and placed a letter in his hands. It was a double tablet closely bound together with cords of crimson silk, these again being secured by seals. Hastily cutting the cords with the dagger which he carried at his waist, the prince read the communication with that impassive and inscrutable look which it is one of the necessities of a despotic ruler to acquire. Rising shortly after from table he bade the young Greek good-night, but added, as if by an after-thought, "But stay, I have a book, a new acquisition, to show you. Come into the library."
The library was a small inner room, of a semi- circular shape, which opened out of the dining-hall. It had this great advantage, contemplated, no doubt, by the builder who designed it, that conversations held in it could not by any possibility be overheard. It had an outer wall everywhere except on the side which adjoined the dining-hall. It was built on columns, so that no one could listen beneath, and there was no storey over it. As long as the outer chamber was empty, absolute secrecy was ensured. Only a bird of the air could carry the matters discussed in it.
"Listen, Cleanor," said the prince, and proceeded to read the following letter:
Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, to King Mastanabal greeting. Know that if you would save Africa, now, and now only, you have the opportunity. The Romans have fled from Hippo fewer by a third than when they first attacked it. Bithyas, commander of Gulussa's cavalry, has come over to us with seven hundred of his best troopers. Strike then along with us such a blow as shall rid us of this devouring Beast now and for ever. Else you shall yourself surely be devoured. Think not that when Carthage is destroyed, there shall be any hope left for Numidia. Farewell!
"What think of this, Cleanor?" the king asked after a pause. "I know well enough that you have no liking for the Romans. Indeed, why should you? But you can judge of how things stand, judge, doubtless, better in some ways than I can, for there many things that we kings never see. Speak frankly. No one can overhear us."
"Sire," replied the young Greek, "it wants, I fear, more wisdom than I possess to give you any profitable counsel. I hate Rome, but I fear her. She makes blunders without number, but always manages to succeed in the end. She chooses mere fools and braggarts for her generals, but always finds the right man at last. So I read her history. There was a time when everyone believed that Hannibal would make and end of her, and yet she survived. She lost army after army, yet conquered in the end. After Flaminius and Varro she found a Scipio. And she has a Scipio now. I saw him, sire, the other day, and felt that he was a great man."
"But he is too young." interrupted the king. "He wants some five years yet of the age when he can be put in chief command."
"True, sire; but when a man is absolutely necessary they will have him, be he young or old."
"Then there is their unending civil strife. What of that?"
"It makes for us, no doubt. But even that they can drop on occasion."
After a pause of some minutes Mastanabal spoke again.
"Then, what do you advise?"
"Sire," replied the young Greek, "I would advise you for the present to do nothing. Let me answer this letter in person, and answer it as I think best, if you can trust me so far. I have a plan, for I have been thinking of these matters night and day. But don't ask me what it is. It is better that you should know nothing about it. I will start at once. It might look well if you were to send some troopers in pursuit. Of course they must not catch me. Put Juba in command, and we may rely on their not being too active."
"Will you carry any token from me?" asked the king.
"No, sire, it is better not. Let me have the letter; that will be enough. Will you forgive me if I steal Whitefoot from her stable?"
"Take her or any other horse that you want. Have you money enough?"
"Ample, sire; your good father provided me with that."
"Then, farewell! You make me curious, but I suppose that I may not ask any questions. In any case, and whatever happens, count me as a sure friend."
Before midnight Cleanor was well on his way to Carthage. At the first signs of dawn he drew rein, and halted for the day at a small cluster of palms, where there was abundance of herbage for his horse. Starting again at nightfall he reached the camp of Hasdrubal just as the light was showing itself in the east. The camp, it should be explained, was pitched outside the city. The larger half of the Carthaginian army occupied it. The remainder of the troops were stationed within the walls under the command of another Hasdrubal.
Cleanor, who had contrived to learn something about the arrangements of the camp, gave himself up into the hands of the officer commanding an outlying picket. Hasdrubal's letter proved, as he had anticipated, a sufficient passport, and he was conducted, after taking a few hours' rest, into the general's presence.
The personality of Hasdrubal was not by any means attractive, and Cleanor could not help comparing his puny physique and sinister expression with the commanding figure and noble countenance of Scipio. The Carthaginian may be best described by saying that he resembled the more ignoble type of Jew. It is often forgotten that the Phœnician race, of which the Carthaginian people was the principal offshoot, was closely akin to the Hebrew in blood and language. Hasdrubal showed the relationship plainly enough. His black, ringlety hair, prominent nose, thick, sensual lips, and keen but shifty eyes, were just such as might have been seen at that day in the meaner quarters of Jerusalem or Alexandria (then become the second capital of the Jews), and at the present time in the London Whitechapel or the Roman Ghetto.
On the present occasion, however, Hasdrubal wore his most pleasing expression. He was genuinely delighted to see Cleanor, as much delighted as he was astonished, for he had taken it for granted that the young man had perished in the destruction of Chelys.
"Hail, Cleanor!" he cried with a heartiness that was not in the least affected. "What good fortune has restored you to us? we had long given you up as dead."
Cleanor gave him in the fewest possible words a sketch of what had happened.
"And what can I do for you?" continued Hasdrubal. "If, as I hope, you are come to join us, I can find plenty of work for you. Things are looking more bright for Carthage than they have done for years past. We shall soon have all Africa with us. When that happens the Romans will have nothing left them but the ground that they stand on, and even that, I hope, not very long. You have heard of Bithyas with his squadron coming over to us? We shall soon have the rest of Gulussa's army following him, and then there will be Gulussa himself and his brothers. You have been in Mastanabal's household; tell me how he stands."
Cleanor produced in answer Hasdrubal's own letter. "The king's position," he went on, "is a very difficult one, and he must act with the greatest caution in your interests as well as in his own. If he declares himself too soon, his brothers will most certainly take the other side. What is wanted is a combination so strong as to compel all the three to declare themselves together. He wishes well to you; that I can say positively."
"That is good as far as it goes, though I should have liked something more definite."
"May I put before you," said Cleanor, "an idea which has been working for some time in my head? I am afraid that it is somewhat presumptuous in a youth such as I am to discuss such things; still, if you are willing to hear—"
"Say on, my young friend," cried the Carthaginian; "a son of your house is not likely to say anything but what is worth hearing."
"I spoke of a combination which would enable Mastanabal to declare himself. Don't you think such a combination might be made among all those who hate Rome or fear her? First there is my own nation. The League is, I have heard, little satisfied with its powerful friends, and it needs only a little blowing to set that fire a-blazing. Then there are the Macedonians, who haven't forgotten that they were masters of the world not so very long ago. There is Syria, there is Egypt, both of them afraid of being swallowed up before long. There are the Jews, kinsmen of your own, I believe. Is it not so?"
"Yes," said the Carthaginian, kinsmen, but not friends. I fear that we shall not get much help there."
"Then there is Spain. What do you know, sir, of Spain? Is there any chance of a rising?"
"The northern tribes still hold their own, but they will hardly go outside their own borders. They are quite content to be free themselves without thinking of others. Still, there is something that might be done in Spain. Only, unluckily, the Spaniards don't love us any more than they love the Romans. Perhaps they love us rather less. However, this is a promising scheme of yours, my young friend. Ah! If it had not been for you Greeks we should have had all the shores of the Sea long ago. We never could get you out of Sicily. It would be strange if you were now to make amends to us for all the mischief that you have done."
Cleanor, who had read history to some purpose, could not help thinking to himself that mankind would hardly have been better off than it was if Carthage had been mistress of the west. But he put away the thought. His lot was cast, and he could not, would not change it. The memory of the inexpiable wrong that he had suffered swept over his mind, and he set himself resolutely to carry out his purpose.
"And what do you suggest?" continued Hasdrubal.
"To go myself and see what can be done," replied the Greek.
"Good! And let no time be lost I don't mean that you are one to lose time; that you certainly are not; I mean that we had better not say anything about this to the authorities inside the walls. There will be questions, debates, delays, nothing settled, I feel sure, till it is too late. You must go unofficially, but I will give you letters of commendation which you will find useful. Succeed, and there is nothing that you may not ask, and get, from Carthage and from me. When shall you be ready to start?"
"And whither do you propose to go first?"
"First, of course, to Greece; then to Macedonia. I hear that there is someone there who calls himself the son of King Philip, and that the Macedonians are flocking to his standard."
"So be it. Farewell; and Hercules be with you!"