The solemnity of the great church festival was made even greater by the death, that very week, of one of the Shopetim. It augured no good, the people said.
On the day of the funeral the entire city wrapped itself in gloom. The unnatural, dismal silence which pervaded it was now and then disturbed by a piercing outburst of grief. The body of the deceased, carried by slaves on a richly draped litter, had been first enveloped in bands, the mouth and eyes being covered with gold leaf. An amulet, consisting of a little gold case containing a text written on gold plates, had been tied around the neck. The procession wound its way through the principal streets, past beautiful marble palaces, and the magnificent works of art, many of which Carthage had ruthlessly seized from conquered cities, until it reached the burial-place, where it made its way to a plot set apart for persons high in the state. A handsome sarcophagus, called the eternal house, stood ready to receive the body.
Queer little lamps, made of discs of clay, pinched back in three places to form peaks, had been placed within this tomb to light the soul on its long journey. There were food and drink too, that the soul might not grow faint, and tiny images of warriors, horses, and chariots, as well as figures of the gods, each with a significance of its own.
Then, only two days after this, came a very different scene. The streets now were filled to overflowing, shops being emptied, workmen idle. Not only was all of Carthage gathered to see and take part in the gorgeous pageant prepared, but the people of all the outlying districts, and many from neighboring countries, had come to witness it, and to feast and make merry, after the required religious rites had been fulfilled. The unmistakable undertone of excitement and impatience grew constantly greater, especially among the multitudes of naked, unwashed children. It was seen, too, in the constant surging of the crowd, even those who had gained advantageous positions seldom remaining quietly in them. It was with difficulty that many arms kept a pathway clear. At last a great shout went up: "They come! they come!" At the same time a loud trumpet blast announced that the procession had started. A deep expectant silence fell on all.
The succession of gods, goddesses, priests and priestesses that now began to file by was headed by the greatest god whom the Carthaginians acknowledged, Baal-Hammon, the Lord of Heaven, the Sun god, figured as a man in the prime of life, with enormous ram's horns. Next to him came the representation of Ashtoreth or Astarte, the Moon goddess, or, as some claim, the goddess of all Nature, presiding over a never-ending process of creation and destruction. Over her shoulders was draped a square embroidered mantle, purple red in color, so fine, so beautiful, so rare that its purchase price would have ransomed a city. On one of her outstretched hands was perched a dove, while her head-dress represented a moon-disc.
Near her was Esmoun, the god of Medicine, or Æsculapius, as the Greeks called him, the supreme manifestation of the Divinity, whose magnificent temple was in the Byrsa itself.
Then came many statues representing lesser gods, among them those of Greece and Egypt as well as a bevy of strange, grotesque dwarf gods. Last came Moloch, the terrible God of Fire and Light, to whom human sacrifices were made, and to whom this day was to be particularly devoted.
Among these representatives of the gods of Carthage walked the proud priests, richly dressed in scarlet stoles, which fell to their bare or sandaled feet, with garlands in their hands and golden crowns on their shaven heads.
The priestesses came after the musicians, with their lyres and castanets. Among them one of extraordinary beauty commanded attention. She was dressed in the costume of the great Egyptian Goddess Isis, a vulture's head surmounting her head-dress, and wings of the sacred bird spread over her dress. She walked with a free majestic calm, which, combined with her fine face, left an impression of courageous strength that accorded well with the bravery shown later by the women of Carthage when they knew that their city was doomed.
Such throngs filled all the temples that it was sometimes difficult to enter or leave, but the greatest crowd of all, and one constantly increasing, was massed at the magnificent shrine of the Fire God.
In the outer portion, arrayed against the walls, were more of the beautiful statues which Carthage appropriated for her own whenever possible. Some of these were painted with a rare delicacy. The Greek influence was to be plainly seen. Here and there rose other statues representing different aspects of Moloch. These were surrounded by offerings, including incense boxes, perfume bottles, fruits, flowers, and rather crude tablets, on many of which the donors were represented in an adoring attitude, and in which they did not hesitate to recapitulate what they had already given to this deity. Only one of these tablets was of superior workmanship. It was very simple, with a border representing the Egyptian and Phœnician symbol of the universe, a snake with its tail in its mouth, and a representation of a raised hand denoting supplication. It ended with the words, "As thou hearest this supplication, oh, Baal Moloch, do thou bless me and mine."
In the center of the temple was a great, paved courtyard, lined with a succession of high columns, forming shaded porticos. At one end rose the pavilion on which sat the enormous and horrible metal statue representing Moloch, before which men looked like dwarfs.
Here the throng of worshipers was the thickest, many of them prostrate on the floor in their devotion, others bartering, strangely enough, with amulet merchants, or the peddlers of sacred statuettes. It was a beautiful place in which to be, with the trees and flowers which breathed forth a strange, almost over-powering perfume. The effect of these heavy odors was enhanced by the sound of the gently falling waters of fountains and the innumerable cooings of doves.
Very early that same morning there had been two unusual and trembling visitors to that inner courtyard. They were Hodo and Hanno. Their visit was the outcome of several secret meetings in the apartments of Hanno's grandmother, and were brought about entirely through her influence.
In the outer apartment Hodo, carrying something in a square wooden box, had stopped before one of the many regulations affixed to the walls and had read aloud, "Whoever transgresses against the Lord God Moloch shall forfeit his harvest to the Priest."
He gave a deep sigh. "Yea," he said in a low tone to Hanno, "and that and more will—will I gladly forfeit if—if my transgressions prove effective!"
Before the enormous statue the boys were met by one of the lesser priests who, taking the box from Hodo (evidently according to some agreement), opened it, revealing the beautiful silver plate that Hodo had once proudly shown Hanno as a commission from one of the Greek temples.
"And so," said the priest, eyeing it curiously, "the Greeks gave you this to do! Well, it is very fine, and I am glad that you are pious enough to donate it on this great day to our temple. The Lord God Moloch will surely reward you."
Here Hanno, seeing that Hodo could not speak, began to ask questions regarding the celebration. "Everything," concluded the priest, "is ready."
"And does the machinery of the statue never go amiss?" asked Hodo, his teeth chattering.
"It is always overhauled the day before it is to be put to any great use. That," the priest continued, "is absolutely necessary."
"Hodo here gets queer orders sometimes," began Hanno, remembering how his grandmother had drilled him. "Some one wants him to make little movable gods to take to Africa. Now, if he could get a glimpse of the machinery"—here Hanno held out a gold piece—"he might form an idea how to go to work." And he jingled two more pieces.
"Ah," said the priest, made good-natured by the gift and the sight of the money, "that's your game, is it? Well, it's against the rules but—if you're quick—" He glanced around. No one was in sight, and, lifting a heavy curtain, he disclosed a small door which he opened, the boys following him into an alcove immediately back of the statue.
"If I—I—touch this, would it—it move?" and Hodo laid a quivering hand on one part of the works. The priest nodded curtly. "Come," he said, "you've seen enough," and he led the way back.
The three walked slowly into the outer hall. Here Hodo stopped and fumbling under the folds of his tunic, stutteringly said, "I—I—I—dropped—" and, without waiting to conclude, turned and ran back into the inner shrine.
A few minutes later Hodo, his face white as clay, had rejoined Hanno and the priest, whom his friend had managed to detain near the entrance. Fortunately for him some worshipers now entered, and Hanno, placing his arm through Hodo's, helped him regain the outer air.
Here the young artist seemed to breathe more easily. "It—is—is done," he gasped. "If—if—it works—there will be no—no sacrifice to-day."
And now both were somewhere in the temple. The ceremony began by a rich Sardinian carpet being placed before the statue. Then the High Priest, standing on it, gave a short prayer, begging the god to accept the offerings of his faithful subjects, and to bestow his favor on all in the city, but particularly on those who had made the greatest sacrifices. Then other priests muttered incantations and swung their censers. A deep silence fell as the worshipers prepared themselves for the great feature of the day, which was to consist of one child after another, to the number of twenty, being placed in the god's outstretched arms, from whence, by delicately managed machinery, each was to be dropped into his broad lap, in the hollow beneath which a bright fire burned.
The crash of cymbals, shouts from the priests and the excited ejaculations from the populous came together as three infants, one after the other, disappeared within the fiery furnace.
Hanno stood as if petrified. So Hodo had failed, after all. The machinery—yes, there was no doubt of it—was working. Rousing himself, he started to make his way toward the pillar against which Hodo was leaning. He had almost reached it when Hodo with a despairing cry rushed forward.
The awful moment had come. Mishath was led forth. She must have been drugged, for she seemed to offer no resistance. She was dressed in white, a single perfect rose in her beautiful hair, which hung in waves almost to her knees. A murmur of admiration could be heard as the High Priest came forward and stood holding her by the hand for a few moments before he lifted her into the enormous arms of the idol.
Unable to take his eyes from Mishath's pale face and apparently unseeing eyes, Hanno was nevertheless aware that Hodo was struggling with several priests in the very front ranks of the prostrated people. "She is gone," he heard him cry; "gone forever!" But she was not yet gone. She lay uneasily on the outstretched arms which made no motion to deposit her below. Around her stood several astonished priests, two of them speaking in low tones to the angry-browed High Priest.
For a moment he stood over the child with outstretched hands, as if about to slay her. Then arriving at some sudden decision, and evidently resolved to turn defeat into victory, stepped forth and addressed the worshipers. "Oh, people of Carthage, rejoice with me. A great sign has been given us by Moloch that our sacrifices have been more than enough, for see, he refuses this child, beautiful and good though she undoubtedly is, and bids her live." As he spoke, he took Mishath up in his arms and cast a glance down to where Hodo was striving to free himself from the temple assistants who held him.
"You," said the High Priest, a look of understanding passing over his face; "do you claim her? Let him go," he added to the attendants, and placing the child in the arms of Hodo, who had rushed forward, said in a sharp but lower tone, "and go quickly!"
There was no need for the last words. The artist with his burden made his way through the crowds with an energy for which few acquaintances would have given him credit. At the entrance he was joined by Hanno who accompanied him to his home. As they passed out of the crowds into the tenement quarter where Hodo lived, now entirely bare of people, Hanno suddenly had a feeling that some one was at their very heels, and turning, saw the very man who lately had been constantly haunting his dreams—the evil-eyed temple servant. The latter met his startled gaze with a malignant glance, and turning sharply, disappeared down a side street.
Hanno said nothing of this to Hodo, but having seen that the child was not seriously injured, and was recovering in her mother's arms, he returned home. Exceedingly tired with the exciting events of the last three days he threw himself down on the couch and fell into a deep sleep.
When he awoke he found his grandmother standing before him, her kind, strong face greatly troubled. For awhile she could not speak as he gazed inquiringly at her.
"My poor, dear boy," she said, clasping him to herself, "I am in deep trouble about you."
Then she told him that word had reached them through a trusted friend, that steps were to be taken to arrest both himself and Hodo for that most serious of all crimes—impiety.
"It is my fault," she exclaimed; "I should have foreseen the consequences; but come, your parents are waiting below to decide what is to be done."
Down-stairs Hanno found his father and his mother, his gay cousin, now very serious, and a trusted friend of the family.
It was a long, grave consultation that was held, the seriousness of any persecution by the priests being admitted by all. Finally, after long debate, the decision arrived at was not an altogether unwelcome one to Hanno. A merchant ship was to sail at dawn next morning for Spain. It was arranged that Hanno with Hodo, his mother and sister, were to board a pleasure-boat belonging to Maco that very night and travel in it as far as Utica, where they could board the larger vessel the next morning. Hanno was hastily provided with a special letter to Hannibal, and then word was sent to Hodo's home of the necessity of making certain quick preparations. Once out of the city, all felt certain that the matter would be dropped, and that Hanno at least, through liberal donations to the church, could soon return to Carthage.
Everything went even better than had been hoped. Hodo, his mother and Mishath, the latter weak but otherwise on the way to recovery, were dropped at the Island of Sardinia where provision was made for their temporary stay, while Hanno sailed on to what was to be the beginning of a new, and long, and very important era in his life.