As the cooler weather came on, the city became more and more lively. There was greater activity, too, on the part of the Shopetim, as the rulers of the city were called. This meant not only the regular meetings of that body, but also frequent banquets at which affairs of state were freely discussed before coming up officially for debate. These banquets, which were exceedingly elaborate, were possible not because the city paid for them, but because the Shopetim were almost without exception men of great wealth, many of them having bought their way to power. There were no inherited titles in Carthage. The rich and able ruled, regardless of birth. Sometimes the abuse of wealth was carried so far that several offices were held by one man.
Since the First Punic War more or less disquieting news frequently circulated through the city, and it was whispered everywhere that matters between the Romans and the Carthaginians must soon come to another war. This was the more feared because the neighboring tribes, from whom Carthage always exacted a heavy tribute, were becoming more and more restless. Things came to a crisis when a supposed plot was discovered, according to which the Numidians were prepared to enter the city. This plot, which existed only in the imaginations of a group of men who hoped to achieve military promotion, and so greater power through its being believed, was naturally thought part of a Roman plan of invasion.
It was first hinted at about the time of one of the great religious festivals of the season, for which the priests of the many different temples of the city had long been getting ready. This was particularly true of those of the temple of Moloch, that terrible place in Carthage where children were sacrificed to propitiate the gods. The excitement in the city was greatest, perhaps, when the priests announced that twenty children must be given, and urged the sacrifice on all parents, not only for the welfare of their own souls but also for the safety of the city. The response must have been disappointing, for the announcement was made at three different times; finally the priests threatening dire calamity if greater patriotism were not shown.
Hanno paid but little attention to all this, until two days before the great event when he accidentally met his friend Hodo, at whom he stared in astonishment, so altered did he find him. And no wonder. Hodo had terrible news to tell. His little sister, Mishath, had disappeared and he feared the worst.
"She had been talking," he told Hanno brokenly, "of some one whom she called 'a man of God.' One day she came home with some flowers which this 'man of God' had given her: another time with a—kite. We thought nothing of it for—for we considered it the action of some one who had been attracted to her—her pretty face. But we should have paid more attention to her chatter, now—now she is gone," and Hodo, sinking down into a chair in the little workroom which they had reached, sobbed aloud.
Hanno, much moved, and not knowing what other comforts to offer, placed his arm through that of his friend. "Have you no clew?" he asked at last.
"None," Hodo answered, "except the repeated phrase 'man of God!' " Both were silent for several minutes, then Hodo continued slowly: "Once or twice it has occurred to me that there might be—be some connection between the incident that—that occurred shortly after you returned from the Tin Islands—you—you remember, in the priest's garden. But no, surely—" and he shook his head.
When later Hanno had proceeded some distance toward home he suddenly stopped, and, after some reflection, turned and made his way back past the little garden to which Hodo had referred. As he stood staring into it a man came out of the gate, brushed past him, and then turning gave him a sharp, suspicious glance. As Hanno met it, he was struck not only by something sinister in it, but also by something strangely familiar in the man's general aspect. He could not place him, but for some reason when he tried to dismiss him from his thoughts, he found that he could not. What connection, if any, could that man have with the child's disappearance, he wondered. He went to bed early but slept restlessly. Suddenly he awoke conscious of some strange dream in which Hodo, Mishath, and the strange man who had looked so sharply at him before the temple garden were jumbled together. Then the scene changed. The stranger was speaking to another man. Here he awoke fully. Why, they were the two whom he had seen by chance that hot summer day, when he had paid a visit to the suburb of Megara! He rubbed his eyes, but the thought not only persisted but expanded into a belief that they had some connection with his friend's grief. He tried to remember what they had said that day, but could only recall some expressions like "the more beautiful the better the effect on the people, and the more pleasing to the gods." He lay for a long time pondering over this. Had he not heard some one say that Mishath was beautiful? But what had that to do with the effect on the people and the pleasure of the gods? And then he suddenly felt as if choking. It was—The Sacrifice! The Sacrifice to Moloch! Mishath was to be one of the victims!
After that, sleep was impossible. As soon as light dawned he slipped quietly out of the house for a long walk in the open air. But even that did not dispel his gloom. Little Mishath, sweet, innocent little Mishath, must die! For even if the way were found to save her, it must not be done, lest the anger of the terrible god Moloch descend on him and his.
When Hanno returned to the city, however, he had resolved that come what would he must tell Hodo his suspicions. "Perhaps he will laugh away my fears," he thought; "the child may already have been found."
Hodo was not in his workroom, and so Hanno made his way to the tall tenement house in which he lived. Hodo, very pale and hollow-eyed, opened the door for him. His widowed mother came in soon after, her eyes red from weeping and lack of sleep.
The boy had no sooner mentioned his suspicions than the mother uttered a cry: "It is as I thought. There is no hope now," and fell over in a faint.
It took some time to restore her. Hanno was greatly effected, and when the mother sank down on her knees before him, and begged: "Oh, Hodo's friend, you who are so rich and powerful, will you not aid us to recover our darling?" he forgot the fears that had been troubling him all morning and swore by the greatest god, Baal-Hammon, that he would do everything that lay in his power.
But when Hanno reached the street again he felt greatly agitated at what he had done. How would the gods regard his interference? Did not the priests teach that the children who were sacrificed were blest above all others? And whose help could he ask with safety? Neither his father nor mother would sympathize with his efforts. Well, there was his grandmother. She, at least, would not betray his secret nor laugh at it.
And so, after he had breakfasted, he made his way to where she sat in her small balcony, overlooking the garden, superintending the work of two slave girls who knelt on mats at her feet.
Evidently Hanno's face told a story which the bright quick eyes of his grandmother read at a glance.
"I am tired of being out here," she said, the fresh tones of her voice belying her words. "I shall lie down and you must talk to me, Hanno. See, Emca," she continued to the older of the two young women, "that no one disturbs me." Then, nodding to her grandson to follow her, she made her way into a luxurious inner chamber. Here she dropped into a heavy ebony arm-chair, and pointing to a stool at her feet for Hanno to take, asked abruptly, but in a singularly kind voice, "Tell me frankly, what troubles you, Hanno?"
The story was a long one. At its conclusion she asked a few questions, and then sat with her face resting in her hands. When at last she spoke the tones of her voice had changed; there was something weary in its accents.
"I am glad you came to me, Hanno; if you had gone to some one else it might have cost you your liberty. Be careful not to speak of it. If you restore the child do not let any one know you did it. And, Hanno," she continued almost fiercely, "do not trouble your mind about your impiety to the gods,—when you grow older you may learn that the sacrifices seem as barbarous to many Carthaginians deserving of your highest respect, as they seem to the Greeks and Romans." She paused, then added: "Once more, I tell you, Hanno, let your conscience be clear. The gods of the priests are not the gods of the heavens," and with an embrace and promise of help, she dismissed him.