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- The Young Carthaginian - 45/62 -
"Have you found a hiding place, Nessus?"
"There is but one place of safety, my lord, that I can think of. I have talked it over with two or three faithful friends, and they agree that so rigid will be the search that it will be well nigh impossible for anyone within the walls of the citadel to escape detection. The spies of Hanno are everywhere, and men fear within these walls even to whisper what they think. At any rate, no more secure hiding place could be found than that which we have decided upon."
"And where is that, Nessus?"
"It is in the reservoirs. With four water skins and some planks we have prepared a raft. My two friends are waiting for us at one of the entrances. They will have fitted the raft together, and all will be in readiness. They are not likely to search for you there."
"The idea is excellent, Nessus."
The reservoirs of Carthage were of enormous extent, and some of these remain to this day and are the wonder and admiration of travellers. They were subterranean, and were cut from the solid rock, the stone extracted from them being used for the walls of the buildings of the city. Pillars were left at intervals to support the roof, and it was calculated that these underground lakes -- for they were no less -- contained sufficient water to supply the wants of the great city for at least six months. These vast storing places for water were an absolute necessity in a climate like that of Northern Africa, where the rain falls but seldom. Without them, indeed, Carthage would have been at the mercy of the first army which laid siege to it.
The greatest pains were devoted to the maintenance of the water supply. The rainfall from the roofs of the temples and houses was conducted to the reservoirs, and these stores were never drawn upon on ordinary occasions, the town being supplied with water brought by aqueducts from long distances among the hills. Here and there openings were cut in the rock which formed the roof of the reservoirs, for the admission of air, and at a few points steps from the surface led down to the water. Iron gates guarded the entrance to these.
Nessus and his friends had the evening before unfastened one of these gates. The lock was old and little used, as the gate was placed rather to prevent children and others going down to the water than for any other purpose, and the Arabs had found little difficulty in picking the rough lock.
Malchus followed Nessus down the steps until he reached the edge of the water, some fifty feet below the surface. Here stood two Arabs bearing torches. At the foot of the steps floated the raft, formed, as Nessus had said, of four inflated sheepskins connected by a framework of planks. Across these a bullock's hide had been stretched, forming a platform. On this were some rugs, a skin of wine, and a pile of flat cakes and fruit, together with half a dozen torches.
"Thanks, my friends!" Malchus said to the Arabs. "Some day I may be able to prove that I am grateful to you."
"The friends of Nessus are our friends," one of the Arabs replied simply; "his lord is our master."
"Here is a paddle, my lord," Nessus said. "I propose that you should paddle straight away as far as you can see a torch burning here; then that you should fasten the raft to a pillar. Every other night I will come with provisions here and show a light. If you see the light burn steadily it is safe for you to approach, and I come only to bring food or news; if you see the torch wave to and fro, it is a warning that they intend to search the reservoirs. I do not think it likely they will do so; still it is best to be prepared, and in that case you must paddle far away in the recesses. They might search for a long time before they find you. I trust that your imprisonment here will not be long, but that we may hit upon some plan of getting you out of the citadel. I would gladly go with you to share your solitude, but I must remain outside to plan some way of escape."
With a short farewell to his faithful follower Malchus took his place on the raft, having lit a torch and fastened it upright upon it. Then he paddled slowly away, keeping between the lines of heavy columns. His rate of progress was slow, and for half an hour he kept the torch in sight. By this time he felt sure that he must be approaching the boundary of the reservoir. He therefore moored his raft against a pillar and waved his torch backwards and forwards. The signal was answered by a similar movement of the distant light, which then disappeared. Malchus now extinguished his own torch, placed the means of relighting it with which Nessus had furnished him close to his hand, and then, wrapping himself in a rug, lay down to sleep.
When he awoke it was day. The light was streaming down on to the water from an opening two or three hundred yards away, while far in the distance he could see a faint light which marked the place of the steps at which he had embarked. In the neighbourhood of the opening the columns stood up clear and gray against the dark background. A little further off their outlines were dim and misty; and wherever else he looked an inky darkness met his eye, save one or two faint bands of misty light, which marked the position of distant openings.
The stillness which reigned in this vast cavern was almost oppressive. Sometimes a faint rustling whisper, the echo of some sound in the citadel above, passed among the columns; and the plaintive squeak of a bat was heard now and then, for numbers of these creatures were flitting noiselessly in the darkness, their forms visible for an instant as they passed and repassed between Malchus and the light. He wondered vaguely what they could find to eat here, and then remembered that he had heard that at nightfall numbers of bats could be seen flying up from the openings to the reservoirs to seek food without, returning to their hiding places when morning approached.
Malchus amused himself by thinking over the fury and astonishment of Hanno and his colleagues on hearing that their prisoner had disappeared, and he pictured to himself the hot search which was no doubt going on throughout the citadel. He thought it improbable in the extreme that any search would be made in the reservoir. Nessus would refasten the gate after passing through it again, and the idea that he could be floating on the subterranean lake could hardly occur to them.
Then he turned over in his mind the various devices by which it might be possible to get beyond the walls of the citadel. The anxiety of Hanno and those acting with him to prevent the manner in which they had kidnapped and sentenced to death the messenger and kinsman of Hannibal from becoming known in the city, would be so great that extraordinary vigilance would be used to prevent any from leaving the citadel. The guards on the walls would be greatly increased; none would be allowed to pass the gate without the most rigourous examination; while every nook and corner of the citadel, the temples, the barracks, storehouses, and stables, would be searched again and again. Even should a search be made in the reservoir, Malchus had little fear of discovery; for even should a boat come towards the spot where he was lying, he would only have to pass the raft round to the opposite side of the great pillar, some twelve feet square, against which he was lying.
When the light faded out he again lay down to sleep. As before, he slept soundly; for, however great the heat above, the air in the subterranean chambers was always fresh and cool, and he could well bear the rugs which Nessus had provided. The next day passed more slowly, for he had less to think about. After the daylight had again faded he began to look forward expectantly for the signal, although he knew that many hours must still elapse before Nessus would be able to make his way to the place of meeting.
So slowly did the hours pass, indeed, that he began at last to fear that something must have happened -- perhaps that Nessus had been in some way recognized, and was now in the dungeons below the temple of Moloch. At last, however, to his joy Malchus saw the distant light; it burned steadily, and he at once set out to paddle towards it. He did not light his torch -- it would have taken time, and he knew that, quietly as he paddled, the sound would be borne along the surface of the water to Nessus. At last he arrived at the steps. Nessus was there alone; beside him was a basket of fresh provisions.
"Well, Nessus, what news?"
"All is well, my lord; but Hanno is moving heaven and earth to find you. The gates of the citadel were kept closed all day yesterday; and although today they have again been opened, the examination of those who pass out is so strict that no disguise would avail to deceive the scrutiny of the searchers. One or other of the men who attended you in the prison is always at the gate. The barracks have been searched from end to end, the troops occupying them being all turned out while the agents of the law searched them from top to bottom. The same has been done with the stables; and it is well that we did not attempt to hide you above ground, for assuredly if we had done so they would have found you, however cunningly we had stowed you away. Of course the name of the prisoner who has escaped is known to none, but the report that an important prisoner had escaped from the state prisons beneath the temple has created quite an excitement in the city, for it is said that such an event never took place before. At present I can hit on no plan whatever for getting you free."
"Then I must be content to wait for a while, Nessus. After a time their vigilance is sure to relax, as they will think that I must have got beyond the walls."
"Are there any to whom you would wish me to bear news that you are here?"
This was a question which Malchus had debated with himself over and over again. It appeared to him, however, that Hanno's power was so great that it would be dangerous for anyone to come forward and accuse him. No doubt every one of the leading men of the Barcine party was strictly watched; and did Hanno suspect that any of them were in communication with the escaped prisoner, he would take instant steps against them. He thought it better, therefore, that none should be acquainted with the secret until he was free. He therefore replied in the negative to the question of Nessus.
"I must wait till I am free. Any action now might bring down the vengeance of Hanno upon others. He would find no difficulty in inventing some excuse for dealing a blow at them. You think here is no possibility of escape at present?"
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