Chapter XII: Among the Passes

It was not until long after the guards to whom he was chained had fallen asleep that Malchus followed their example. It seemed to him he had been asleep a long time when a pressure by a hand on his shoulder woke him; at the same moment another hand was placed over his mouth.

"Hush, my lord!" a voice said. It was Nessus. "Arise and let us go. There is no time to be lost, for it is nigh morning. I have been the whole night in discovering where you were."

"But the guards, Nessus?"

"I have killed them," Nessus said in a tone of indifference.

"But I am chained to them by the ankles."

Nessus gave a little exclamation of impatience, and then in the darkness felt the irons to discover the nature of the fastenings. In a minute there was a sound of a dull crashing blow, then Nessus moved to the other side and the sound was repeated. With two blows of his short heavy sword the Arab had cut off the feet of the dead Romans at the ankle, and the chains were free.

"Put on the clothes of this man, my lord, and take his arms; I will take those of the other."

As soon as this was done Nessus wrapped some folds of cloth round each of the chains to prevent their clanking, then passing a band through the ends he fastened them to Malchus' waist.

"Quick, my lord," he said as he finished the work; "daylight is beginning to break."

They stepped over the dead sentry at the door of the tent and were going on when Malchus said:

"Best lift him inside, Nessus; it may be some little time before it is noticed that he is missing from his post."

This was quickly done, and they then moved away quietly among the tents till they approached the rear of the camp. It was now light enough to enable them to see dimly the figures of the Roman sentries placed at short intervals round the camp.

"We cannot get through unseen," Malchus said.

"No, my lord," Nessus replied; "I have wasted too much time in finding you."

"Then we had best lie down quietly here," Malchus said; "in a short time the men will be moving about, and we can then pass through the sentries without remark."

As the light spread over the sky sounds of movement were heard in the camp, and soon figures were moving about, some beginning to make fires, others to attend to their horses. The two Carthaginians moved about among the tents as if similarly occupied, secure that their attire as Roman soldiers would prevent any observation being directed towards them. They were anxious to be off, for they feared that at any moment they might hear the alarm raised on the discovery that the sentry was missing.

It was nearly broad daylight now, and when they saw two or three soldiers pass out between the sentries unquestioned they started at once to follow them. The morning was very cold, and the soldiers who were about were all wearing their military cloaks. Malchus had pulled the irons as high up as he could possibly force them, and they did not show below his cloak.

Walking carelessly along they passed through the sentries, whose duties, now that morning had dawned, related only to discovering an enemy approaching the camp, the soldiers being now free to enter or leave as they pleased.

"It is of no use to go far," Malchus said; "the nearer we hide to the camp the better. We are less likely to be looked for there than at a distance, and it is impossible for me to travel at any speed until I get rid of these heavy irons. As soon as we get over that little brow ahead we shall be out of sight of the sentries, and will take to the first hiding place we see."

The little rise was but a short distance from camp, the country beyond was open but was covered with low brushwood. As soon as they were over the brow and were assured that none of those who had left the camp before them were in sight, they plunged into the brushwood, and, making their way on their hands and knees for a few hundred yards, lay down in the midst of it.

"They are not likely to search on this side of the camp," Malchus said. "They will not know at what hour I escaped, and will naturally suppose that I started at once to regain our camp. Listen, their trumpets are blowing. No doubt they are about to strike their camp and march; by this time my escape must be known. And now tell me, Nessus, how did you manage to follow and discover me?"

"It was easy to follow you, my lord," Nessus said. "When I heard your order I lay still, but watched through the bushes your meeting with the Gauls. My arrow was in the string, and had they attacked you I should have loosed it among them, and then rushed out to die with you, but when I saw them take you a prisoner I followed your orders. I had no difficulty in keeping you in sight until nightfall. Then I crept up to the wood and made my way until I was within a few yards of you and lay there till nearly morning; but, as the men around you never went to sleep, I could do nothing and stole away again before daylight broke. Then I followed again until I saw our horsemen approaching. I had started to run towards them to lead them to you when I saw the Roman horse, and I again hid myself.

"The next night again the Romans kept too vigilant a watch for me to do anything, and I followed them all yesterday until I saw them enter the Roman camp. As soon as it was dark I entered, and, getting into the part of the camp occupied by the Massilians, whose Gaulish talk I could understand a little, I gathered that a Carthaginian prisoner who had been brought in was to be executed in the morning. So I set to work to find you; but the night was too dark to see where the sentries were placed, and I had to crawl round every tent to see if one stood at the entrance on guard, for I was sure that a sentry would be placed over you. I entered seven tents, at whose doors sentries were placed, before I found yours, but they were all those of Roman generals or persons of importance. I entered each time by cutting a slit in the back of the tent. At last when I was beginning to despair, I found your tent.

"It was the smallest of any that had been guarded, and this made me think I was right. When I crawled in I found feeling cautiously about, that two Roman soldiers were asleep on the ground and that you were lying between them. Then I went to the entrance. The sentry was standing with his back to it. I struck a blow on his neck from behind, and he died without knowing he was hurt. I caught him as I struck and lowered him gently down, for the crash of his arms as he fell would have roused everyone near. After that it was easy to stab the two guards sleeping by you, and then I woke you."

"You have saved my life, Nessus, and I shall never forget it," Malchus said gratefully.

"My life is my lord's," the Arab replied simply. "Glad am I indeed that I have been able to do you a service."

Just as he spoke they saw through the bushes a party of Roman horse ride at a gallop over the brow between them and the camp. They halted, however, on passing the crest, and an officer with them gazed long and searchingly over the country. For some minutes he sat without speaking, then he gave an order and the horsemen rode back again over the crest.

"I think we shall see no more of them," Malchus said. "His orders were, no doubt, that if I was in sight they were to pursue, if not, it would be clearly useless hunting over miles of brushwood in the hope of finding me, especially as they must deem it likely that I am far away in the opposite direction."

An hour later Nessus crept cautiously forward among the bushes, making a considerable detour until he reached the spot whence he could command a view of the Roman camp. It had gone, not a soul remained behind, but at some distance across the plain he could see the heavy column marching north. He rose to his feet and returned to the spot where he had left Malchus, and told him that the Romans had gone.

"The first thing, Nessus, is to get rid of these chains."

"It is easy as to the chains," Nessus said, "but the rings around your legs must remain until we rejoin the camp, it will need a file to free you from them."

The soil was sandy, and Nessus could find no stone sufficiently large for his purpose. They, therefore, started in the direction which the Romans had taken until, after two hours' slow walking, they came upon the bed of a stream in which were some boulders sufficiently large for the purpose.

The rings were now pushed down again to the ankles, and Nessus wound round them strips of cloth until he had formed a pad between the iron and the skin to lessen the jar of the blow, then he placed the link of the chain near to the leg upon the edge of the boulder, and, drawing his sharp heavy sword, struck with all his force upon the iron.

A deep notch was made; again and again he repeated the blow, until the link was cut through, then, with some difficulty, he forced the two ends apart until the shackle of the ring would pass between them. The operation was repeated on the other chain, and then Malchus was free, save for the two iron rings around his ankles. The work had taken upwards of an hour, and when it was done they started at a rapid walk in the direction taken by the column. They had no fear now of the natives, for should any come upon them they would take them for two Roman soldiers who had strayed behind the army.

Scipio made a long day's march, and it was not until nightfall that his army halted. Malchus and his companion made a long detour round the camp and continued their way for some hours, then they left the track that the army would follow, and, after walking for about a mile, lay down among some bushes and were soon asleep.

In the morning they agreed that before proceeding further it was absolutely necessary to obtain some food. Malchus had been fed when among the Romans, but Nessus had had nothing from the morning when he had been upset in the Rhone four days before, save a manchet of bread which he had found in one of the tents he had entered. Surveying the country round carefully, the keen eye of the Arab perceived some light smoke curling up at the foot of the hills on their right, and they at once directed their course towards it. An hour's walking brought them within sight of a native village.

As soon as they perceived it they dropped on their hands and knees and proceeded with caution until within a short distance of it. They were not long in discovering a flock of goats browsing on the verdure in some broken ground a few hundred yards from the village. They were under the charge of a native boy, who was seated on a rock near them. They made their way round among the brushwood until they were close to the spot.

"Shall I shoot him?" Nessus asked, for he had carried his bow and arrows concealed in his attire as a Roman soldier.

"No, no," Malchus replied, "the lad has done us no harm; but we must have one of his goats. His back is towards us, and, if we wait, one of them is sure to come close to us presently."

They lay quiet among the bushes until, after a delay of a quarter of an hour, a goat, browsing upon the bushes, passed within a yard or two of them.

Nessus let fly his arrow, it passed almost through the animal, right behind its shoulder, and it fell among the bushes. In an instant Nessus was upon it, and, grasping its mouth tightly to prevent it from bleating, cut its throat. They dragged it away until a fall in the ground hid them from the sight of the natives, then they quickly skinned and cut it up, devoured some of the meat raw, and then, each taking a leg of the animal, proceeded upon their way.

They now walked without a halt until, late in the evening, they came down upon the spot where the Carthaginian army had crossed. It was deserted. Going down to the edge of the river they saw the great rafts upon which the elephants had crossed.

"We had best go on a mile or two ahead," Nessus said, "the Roman cavalry may be here in the morning, though the column will be still a day's march away. By daylight we shall have no difficulty in finding the traces of the army."

Malchus took the Arab's advice, and the next morning followed on the traces of the army, which were plainly enough to be seen in the broken bushes, the trampled ground, and in various useless articles dropped or thrown away by the troops. They were forced to advance with caution, for they feared meeting any of the natives who might be hanging on the rear of the army.

After three days' travelling with scarce a pause they came upon the army just as the rear guard was crossing the Isere, and Malchus received a joyous welcome from his friends, who had supposed him drowned at the passage of the Rhone. His account of his adventure was eagerly listened to, and greatly surprised were they when they found that he had been a prisoner in the camp of Scipio, and had been rescued by the fidelity and devotion of Nessus. Hannibal asked many questions as to the strength of Scipio's army, but Malchus could only say that, not having seen it except encamped, he could form but a very doubtful estimate as to its numbers, but considered it to be but little superior to that of the Carthaginian.

"I do not think Scipio will pursue us," Hannibal said. "A defeat here would be as fatal to him as it would be to us, and I think it more likely that, when he finds we have marched away north, he will return to his ships and meet us in Italy."

Malchus learned that everything had progressed favourably since the army had crossed the Rhone, the natives having offered no further opposition to their advance. A civil war was going on in the region the army had now entered, between two rival princes, brothers, of the Allobroges. Hannibal was requested to act as umpire in the quarrel, and decided in favour of the elder brother and restored order. In return he received from the prince whom he reseated on his throne, provisions, clothing, and other necessaries for the army, and the prince, with his troops, escorted the Carthaginians some distance up into the Alps, and prevented the tribes dwelling at the foot of the mountains from attacking them.

The conquest of Catalonia, the passage of the Pyrenees, and the march across the south of Gaul, had occupied many months. Summer had come and gone, autumn had passed, and winter was at hand. It was the eighteenth of October when Hannibal led his army up the narrow valleys into the heart of the Alps. The snow had already fallen thickly upon the upper part of the mountains, and the Carthaginians shuddered at the sight of these lofty summits, these wild, craggy, and forbidding wastes. The appearance of the wretched huts of the inhabitants, of the people themselves, unshaved and unkempt and clad in sheepskins, and of the flocks and herds gathering in sheltered spots and crowding together to resist the effects of the already extreme cold, struck the Carthaginian troops with dismay. Large bodies of the mountaineers were perceived posted on the heights surrounding the valleys, and the column, embarrassed by its length and the vast quantity of baggage, was also exposed to attack by hordes who might at any moment rush out from the lateral ravines. Hannibal, therefore, ordered his column to halt.

Malchus was now ordered to go forward with his band of scouts, and to take with him a party of Gauls, who, their language being similar to that of the natives, could enter into conversation with them. The mountaineers, seeing but a small party advancing, allowed them to approach peaceably and entered freely into conversation with them. They declared that they would on no account permit the Carthaginian army to pass forward, but would oppose every foot of their advance.

The Gauls learned, however, that, believing the great column could only move forward in the daytime, the natives were in the habit of retiring from their rocky citadels at nightfall. Malchus returned with this news to Hannibal, who prepared to take advantage of it. The camp was at once pitched, and the men set to work to form an intrenchment round it as if Hannibal meditated a prolonged halt there. Great fires were lit and the animals unloaded. The natives, seeing from above everything that was being done, deserted their posts as usual at nightfall, confident that the Carthaginians had no intention of moving forward.

Malchus with his scouts crept on along the path, and soon sent down word to Hannibal that the heights were deserted. The general himself now moved forward with all his light troops, occupied the head of the pass, and posted strong parties of men upon the heights commanding it. As soon as day broke the rest of the army got into motion and proceeded up the pass. The natives were now seen approaching in great numbers, but they halted in dismay on seeing that the Carthaginians had already gained possession of the strong places.

The road by which the column was ascending wound along the face of a precipice, and was so narrow that it was with difficulty that the horses, snorting with fright, could be persuaded to proceed. The natives, seeing the confusion which the fright of the animals created in the column, at once took to the mountains, climbing up rugged precipices which appeared to the Carthaginians absolutely inaccessible, and presently made their appearance far up on the mountain side above the column.

Here, sending up the most piercing yells, they began to roll rocks and stones down upon the column. The confusion below became terrible. The horses, alarmed by the strange wild cries, echoed and re-echoed a score of times among the mountains, and struck by the falling stones, plunged and struggled wildly to escape. Some tore along the path, precipitating those in front of them over the precipice, others lost their footing, and, dragging with them the carts to which they were attached, fell into the valley below. All order was lost. Incapable of defence or of movement the column appeared to be on the verge of destruction.

"Come, my men," Malchus exclaimed to his Arabs, "where these men can climb we can follow them; the safety of the whole column is at stake."

Slinging their weapons behind them the scouts began to climb the crags. Sure footed and hardy as they were, it was with the greatest difficulty that they could make their way up. Many lost their footing, and rolling down were dashed to pieces; but the great majority succeeded in climbing the heights, and at once became engaged in desperate battle with the natives.

Every narrow ledge and crag was the scene of a conflict. The natives from the distant heights encouraged their companions with their shouts, and for a time the confusion in the column below was heightened by the combat which was proceeding far above them. Every stone dislodged by the feet of the combatants thundered down upon them, and the falling bodies of those hit by arrow or javelin came crushing down with a dull thud among the mass.

At last the bravery and superior weapons of the Arabs prevailed. The precipice was cleared of the natives, and as the uproar ceased and the missiles ceased to fall, the column recovered its order, and again moved forward until the whole army gained the top of the pass. Here Hannibal took possession of a rough fort erected by the natives, captured several villages, and enough flocks and herds to feed his army for three days. Then descending from the top of the pass, which is now known as the Gol-du-Chat, he entered the valley of Chambery, and marched forward for three days without opposition.

Malchus and his scouts received the warmest congratulations for their conduct at the pass, for they had undoubtedly saved the army from what had at one time threatened to be a terrible disaster. On arrival at a town supposed to be identical with the modern Conflans, the inhabitants came out with green boughs and expressed their desire for peace and friendship. They said that they had heard of the fate which had befallen those who ventured to oppose the Carthaginians, and that they were anxious to avoid such misfortunes. They offered to deliver hostages as a proof of their good intentions, to supply sheep and goats for the army, and to furnish guides through the difficult country ahead.

For two days the march continued. The route the army was passing was that now known as the little St. Bernard. Fortunately Hannibal had from the first entertained considerable doubt as to the good faith of his guides, and never relaxed his vigilance. The scouts and light infantry, with the cavalry, preceded the great column of baggage, the heavy cavalry defended the rear.

The track, which had for the last five days' march proceeded along a comparatively level valley, now mounted rapidly, and turning aside from the valley of the Isere it led up the deep bed of the mountain torrent known as the Reclus; this stream ran in a deep trough hollowed out in a very narrow valley. The bed is now so piled with rocks and stones as to be impassable, and the Romans afterwards cut a road along on the side of the mountain. But at this time it was possible for men and animals to proceed along the bed of the torrent.

Suddenly while struggling with the difficulties of the ascent, a vast number of the natives appeared on the hills on either side, and began to hurl down stones and rocks upon the column below, while at the same time a still stronger force attacked them in the rear. The instant the natives made their appearance the treacherous guides, who were proceeding with the scouts at the head of the column, attempted to make their escape by climbing the mountain side. The Arabs were starting off in pursuit, but Malchus checked them.

"Keep together," he shouted, "and on no account scatter; the enemy are upon us in force, and it behooves us all to be steady and deliberate in our action."

A flight of arrows was, however, sent after the traitors, and most of them rolled lifeless down the slope again.

Hannibal's first care was to extricate his cavalry from the gorge. This was performed with great difficulty, and they were drawn up in good order on the narrow piece of level ground between the gorge in which the river ran and the mountains bordering the side of the pass.

The light troops now ascended the hills on both sides, and speedily became engaged with the enemy. The confusion in the bed of the torrent was tremendous. Great numbers of men and animals were killed by the rocks and missiles from above, but more of the soldiers were trampled to death by the frightened horses. The heavy infantry in the rear remained steady, and repulsed every effort of the main body of the enemy to break in upon the column.

As night fell the combat ceased, but Hannibal and the troops in advance of the column passed the night under arms at the foot of a certain white rock standing above the ravine, and which still marks the exact site of the conflict. The natives had suffered heavily both from their conflict with the light troops upon the hillside, and from the repulse of their assaults upon the rear guard, and in the morning they did not venture to renew the attack, and the column moved forward out of the ravine and continued its march, the natives from time to time dashing down to attack it.

The elephants were placed on the flank of the line of march, and the appearance of these strange beasts so terrified the enemy that they desisted from their attack, and by evening the army encamped on the summit of the pass.

The snow had already fallen deeply, the army were worn out and dispirited by the exertions and dangers through which they had passed, and had suffered great losses in men and animals in the nine days which had elapsed since they first entered the mountains. Hannibal gave them two days' rest, in which time they were joined by many stragglers who had fallen behind, and by beasts of burden which, in the terror and confusion of the attack, had got rid of their loads and had escaped, but whose instinct led them to follow the line of march.

At the end of the second day Hannibal assembled his troops and addressed them in a stirring speech. He told them that the worst part of their journey was now over. He pointed to them the plains of Italy, of which a view could be obtained through the pass ahead, and told them that there they would find rest and friends, wealth and glory. The soldiers as usual responded to the words of their beloved general with shouts of acclamation, and with renewed spirits prepared to meet the difficulties which still lay before them.

The next morning the march was renewed. The snow lay deep on the track, and the soldiers found that, great as had been the difficulties of the ascent, those of the descent were vastly greater, for the slopes of the Alps on the Italian side are far steeper and more abrupt than are those on the French. Every step had to be made with care; those who strayed in the slightest from the path found the snow gave way beneath their feet and fell down the precipice beside them.

Many of the baggage animals thus perished; but at last the head of the column found itself at the foot of the steep descent in a ravine with almost perpendicular walls, amid whose foot was in summer occupied by a mountain stream. Into the depth of this ravine the rays of the sun never penetrated, and in it lay a mass of the previous year's snow which had never entirely melted, but which formed with the water of the torrent a sheet of slippery ice.

The newly formed snow prevented the troops from seeing the nature of the ground, and as they stepped upon it they fell headlong, sliding in their armour down the rapidly sloping bed of ice, many dashing out their brains or breaking their limbs against the great boulders which projected through it. The cavalry next attempted the passage, but with even less success, for the hoofs of the horses broke through the hard upper crust of the old snow and the animals sank in to their bellies. Seeing that it was impossible to pass this obstacle, Hannibal turned back the head of the column until they reached the top of the ascent down which they had just come. There he cleared away the snow and erected a camp; all the infantry were then brought down into the pass and set to work to build up a road along the side of the ravine.

The engineers with fire and explosives blasted away the foot of the cliffs; the infantry broke up the rocks and formed a level track. All night the work continued, the troops relieving each other at frequent intervals, and by the morning a path which could be traversed by men on foot, horses, and baggage animals was constructed for a distance of three hundred yards, beyond which the obstacle which had arrested the advance of the army did not continue.

The cavalry, baggage animals, and a portion of the infantry at once continued their way down the valley, while the rest of the infantry remained behind to widen the road sufficiently for the elephants to pass along. Although the work was pressed on with the greatest vigour it needed three days of labour in all before the elephants could be passed through. The animals were by this time weak with hunger, for from the time when they had turned aside from the valley of the Isere the Alps had been wholly bare of trees, and the ground being covered with snow, no foliage or forage had been obtainable to eke out the store of flour which they carried for their consumption. Nor was any wood found with which to manufacture the flat cakes into which the flour was formed for their rations.

The elephants once through, the march was continued, and, joining the troops in advance, who had halted in the woods below the snow level, the column continued its march. On the third day after passing the gorge they issued out on to the plain of the Po, having lost in the fifteen days' passage of the Alps great numbers of men from the attacks of the enemy, from the passage of the rapid torrents, from falls over the precipices, and from cold, and having suffered still more severely in horses and baggage animals.

Of the 59,000 picked troops with which he had advanced after the conquest of Catalonia, Hannibal reached the plains of Italy with but 12,000 African infantry, 8,000 Spanish and Gaulish infantry, and 6,000 cavalry -- in all 26,000 men. A small force indeed with which to enter upon the struggle with the might and power of Rome. Of the 33,000 men that were missing, 13,000 had fallen in the passes of the Pyrenees and the march through Gaul, 20,000 had died in the passage of the Alps.