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- The Young Carthaginian - 20/62 -
that a legion should be stationed there for their protection. But Rome hesitated at despatching a legion of troops to so distant a spot, where, in case of a naval reverse, they would be isolated and cut off.
Hannibal had not far to look for an excuse for an attack upon Saguntum. On the previous year, while he had been engaged in his campaign against the Carpatans, the Saguntines, taking advantage of his critical position, had made war upon the town of Torbola, an ally of Carthage. Torbola had implored the assistance of Hannibal, and he was now preparing to march against Saguntum with his whole force without waiting for the arrival of spring. His preparations had been silently made. The Saguntines, although uneasy, had no idea of any imminent danger, and the Carthaginian army collected in and around Carthagena were in entire ignorance that they were about to be called upon to take the field.
"What say you, Malchus?" Hannibal asked that evening. "It is time now that I gave you a command. As my near relative it is fitting that you should be in authority. You have now served a campaign, and are eligible for any command that I may give you. You have shown yourself prompt in danger and worthy to command men. Which would you rather that I should place under you -- a company of these giant Gauls, of the steady Iberians, of the well disciplined Libyans, or the active tribesmen of the desert? Choose which you will, and they shall be yours."
Malchus thought for some time.
"In the day of battle," he said at last, "I would rather lead Gauls, but, in such a march as you have told me you are meditating, I would rather have a company of Numidian footmen to act as scouts and feel the way for the army. There would not, perhaps, be so much glory to be obtained, but there would be constant work and excitement, and this will be far better than marching in the long column of the army."
"I think your choice is a good one," Hannibal replied. "Such a corps will be needed to feel the way as we advance, to examine the roads and indicate that by which the column had best move, and to guard against ambushes and surprises. Tomorrow I will inspect the Numidian footmen and will put them through their exercises. We will have foot races and trials of skill with the bow, and I will bid their officers pick me out two hundred of the most active and vigourous among them; these you shall have under your command. You can choose among your comrades of the guards one whom you would like to have as your lieutenant."
"I will take Trebon," Malchus said; "we fought side by side through the last campaign. He is prompt and active, always cheerful under fatigue, and as brave as a lion. I could not wish a better comrade."
"So be it," Hannibal replied, "henceforth you are captain of the advanced company of the army. Remember, Malchus, that the responsibility is a great one, and that henceforward there must be no more boyish tricks. Your company will be the eyes of the army, and upon your vigilance its safety, when we once start upon our expedition, will in no slight degree depend. Remember, too, that you have by your conduct to justify me in choosing my young kinsman for so important a post."
The next day the Numidians were put through their exercises, and by nightfall the two hundred picked men were chosen from their ranks and were placed by Hannibal under the command of Malchus. Trebon was greatly pleased when he found himself appointed as lieutenant of the company. Although of noble family his connections were much less influential than those of the majority of his comrades, and he had deemed himself exceptionally fortunate in having been permitted to enter the chosen corps of the Carthaginian cavalry, and had not expected to be made an officer for years to come, since promotion in the Carthaginian army was almost wholly a matter of family influence.
"I am indeed obliged to you, Malchus," he said as he joined his friend after Hannibal had announced his appointment to him. "The general told me that he had appointed me at your request. I never even hoped that such good fortune would befall me. Of course I knew that you would speedily obtain a command, but my people have no influence whatever. The general says that your company are to act as scouts for the army, so there will be plenty of opportunity to distinguish ourselves. Unfortunately I don't see much chance of fighting at present. The Iberian tribesmen had such a lesson last autumn that they are not likely for a long time to give us further trouble."
"Do not make yourself uneasy on that score, Trebon," Malchus said, "I can tell you, but let it go no further, that ere long there will be fighting enough to satisfy even the most pugnacious."
One evening Malchus had left the club early. Full as he was of the thoughts of the tremendous struggle which was soon to begin between the great antagonists, he wearied of the light talk of his gay comrades. The games of chance, to which a room in the club was allotted, afforded him no pleasure; nor had he any interest in the wagering which was going on as to the merits of the horses which were to run in the races on the following day. On leaving the club he directed his footsteps towards the top of the hill on which Carthagena stood, and there, sitting alone on one of the highest points, looked over the sea sparkling in the moonlight, the many vessels in the harbour and the lagoons stretching inland on each side of the city.
He tried to imagine the course that the army was to follow, the terrible journey through the snow covered passes of that tremendous range of mountains of which he had heard, the descent into the plains of Italy, and the first sight of Rome. He pictured to himself the battles which would have to be fought by the way, and above all, the deadly conflict which would take place before Rome could be carried by assault, and the great rival of Carthage be humbled to the dust. Then he pictured the return of the triumphant expedition, the shouting multitudes who would acclaim Hannibal the sole arbitrator of the destinies of Carthage, and in his heart rejoiced over the changes which would take place -- the overthrow of the faction of Hanno, the reform of abuses, the commencement of an era of justice, freedom, and prosperity for all.
For more than three hours he sat thus, and then awoke to the fact that the night was cold and the hour late. Drawing his bernous tightly round him he descended into the city, which was now for the most part wrapped in sleep. He was passing through the native quarter when a door opened and several men came out. Scarcely knowing why he did so Malchus drew back into a doorway until they had moved on ahead of him, and then followed them at some little distance. At any other time he would have thought nothing of such an incident, but his nerves were highly strung at the moment, and his pause was dictated more by an indisposition to encounter anything which might disturb the current of his thoughts than by any other motive.
In the moonlight he could see that two of the five men ahead of him were members of the Carthaginian horse guard, for the light glittered on their helmets; the other three were, by their attire, natives. Two of the latter soon separated from the others, and on reaching the better part of the town the two Carthaginians turned down a side street, and in the still night Malchus heard the parting words to their neighbour, "At the same place tomorrow night." The remaining native kept straight along the road which Malchus was following. Still onward he went, and Malchus, to his surprise, saw him go up to one of the side entrances to Hannibal's palace. He must have knocked very quietly, or someone must have been waiting to admit him, for without a sound the door was opened and the man entered.
Malchus went round to the principal entrance, and after a little badinage from the officer on guard as to the lateness of the hour at which he returned, made his way to his apartment.
He was puzzled by what he had seen. It was strange that two of the Carthaginian guard, men necessarily belonging to noble families, should have been at a native gathering of some sort in the upper town. Strange, too, that a man probably an attendant or slave belonging to the palace should also have been present. The more he thought of it the more he was puzzled to account for it, and before he went to sleep he came to the resolution that he would, if possible, on the following night discover the object of such a gathering.
Next evening, therefore, he returned from the Syssite early, exchanged his helmet for a skullcap, and, wrapping himself in his cloak, made his way to the house from which he had seen the men come forth. It stood at the corner of the street. Thick hangings hung across the openings for the windows, and prevented even a ray of light from finding its way out. Listening attentively Malchus could hear a low hum of voices within. As there were still people about he moved away for half an hour.
On his return the street was deserted. Malchus put his hand through a window opening into the side street and felt that the hanging was composed of rushes tightly plaited together. With the point of his dagger he very cautiously cut a slit in this, and applying his eye to it was able to obtain a glimpse of the apartment within. On low stools by a fire two Carthaginians were sitting, while four natives were seated on the rushes which covered the floor. Malchus recognized the Carthaginians at once, for they were members of the troop in which he had served. Neither of them were men popular among their fellows, for they belonged to families closely related to Hanno. They had always, however, professed the greatest admiration for Hannibal, and had declared that for their part they altogether repudiated the doings of the party to which their family belonged.
The conversation was carried on in low tones, a precaution absolutely necessary in the day when glass windows were unknown, unless the discourse was upon general subjects. Malchus listened attentively, but although he thought he caught the words Hanno and Hannibal repeated several times, he was unable to hear more. At the end of the half hour the conference was apparently at an end, for all rose to their feet. One of the Carthaginians put a bag, which was evidently heavy, into the hands of one of the natives, and the party then went out. Malchus stepped to the corner and caught the words, "Tomorrow night, then, without fail."
The party then separated, the Carthaginians passing straight on, the natives waiting until they had gone some little distance ahead before they followed. Malchus remained for some little time in the side street before he sallied out and took his way after them. After he saw two of the natives leave the other, he quickened his steps and passed the man, who proceeded alone towards the palace, a short distance before he arrived there. As he did so he glanced at his face, and recognized him as one of the attendants who waited at Hannibal's table. Malchus did not turn his head, however, but
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