Chapter XV: A Mountain Tribe
 

"It is a petty place for a chief of any power," Trebon said.

"Yes," Malchus agreed, "but I fancy these hill tribes are broken up into a very large number of small villages in isolated valleys, only uniting when the order of the chief calls upon them to defend the mountains against an invader, or to make a simultaneous raid upon the plains."

As they neared the village several persons were seen to issue out from the gate, and among these was a small and elderly man, evidently the chief of the party. His white hair descended to his waist; a boy standing behind him carried his bow and several javelins. The rest of the men appeared to be unarmed.

"He is a crafty looking old fellow," Malchus said as he alighted and advanced towards the chief, "but I suppose he has made up his mind to receive us as friends, at any rate for the present.

"I come, chief, as an ambassador from the Carthaginian general. When we passed south he received messengers from you, saying that you were ready to enter into an alliance with him. To this he agreed, and sent presents. Since then you have done nothing, although he has sent to you urging you to aid him by making an attack on the tribes allied to Rome. In every battle which he has fought with the Romans he has defeated them with great slaughter; but, owing to the aid which they have received from the tribes in alliance with them, they are enabled continually to put fresh armies in the field. Therefore it is that he has sent me to you and to the other chiefs of the tribes inhabiting the mountains, to urge you to descend with your forces into the plains, and so oblige the tribes there to turn their attention to their own defence rather than to the sending of assistance to Rome. He has sent by my hands many valuable presents, and has authorized me to promise you, in his name, such lands as you may wish to obtain beyond the foot of the hills. He promises you, also, a share in the booty taken at the sack of the Italian cities."

"Will you please to enter," the chief said, speaking a patois of Latin which Malchus found it difficult to understand. "We will then discuss the matters concerning which you speak."

So saying he led the way through the gates to a hut somewhat larger than the rest.

"Do you enter with me, Trebon, but let your men remain in their saddle, and hold our horses in readiness for us to mount speedily if there be need. I doubt the friendliness of this old fellow and his people."

Upon entering the hut Malchus observed at once that the walls were covered with hangings which were new and fresh, and he detected some costly armour half hidden in a corner.

"The Romans have been here before us," he muttered to his companion; "the question is, how high have they bid for his support."

The chief took his seat on a roughly carved chair, and seats were brought in for his visitors. He began by asking an account of the state of affairs in the plains. Malchus answered him truthfully, except that he exaggerated a little the effects that the Carthaginian victories had produced among the natives. The chief asked many questions, and was evidently by some means well informed on the subject. He then expressed a desire to see the presents which they had brought him. Trebon went out and returned with two soldiers bearing them.

"I don't like the look of things," he said in a low voice. "The number of men in the village has trebled since we arrived, and they still keep coming in. None of them show arms at present, but no doubt they are hidden close at hand. I believe the chief is only keeping us in conversation till he considers that a sufficient force has arrived to make sure of us."

"We can't break it off now," Malchus said, "and must take our chance. It would not do to ensure a failure by showing suspicion."

The chief examined the presents with great care and announced his satisfaction at them. Then he entered upon the question of the land which he was to receive, inquired whether the towns were to be captured by the Carthaginians and handed over to him, or were to be captured by his forces. When these points had been arranged, as it seemed, satisfactorily, he entered upon questions in dispute between himself and other chiefs of the mountain tribes. Malchus said he had no instructions as to these points, which were new to him, but that in all questions between the chief and tribes hostile to Carthage, full satisfaction would be given him. As to those between himself and other chiefs, who might also join against the Romans, if they elected to submit them to Hannibal for decision he would arbitrate between them.

At this moment a horn was blown outside. A din of voices instantly arose, which was followed immediately afterwards by the clashing of weapons. Malchus and his companion leaped to their feet and rushed from the hut. They found that their men were attacked by a crowd of mountaineers. In an instant they leaped on their horses, and drawing their swords joined in the fray. The number of their foes was large, a great many men having come in since Trebon had last issued out. The attack was a determined one. Those next to the horsemen hewed at them with axes, those further back hurled darts and javelins, while others crept in among the horses and stabbed them from beneath with their long knives.

"We must get out of this or we are lost," Trebon exclaimed, and, encouraging the men with his shouts, he strove to hew a way through the crowd to the gate, while Malchus faced some of the men round and covered the rear. Several of the Carthaginians were already dismounted, owing to their horses being slain, and some of them were despatched before they could gain their feet. Malchus shouted to the others to leap up behind their comrades.

By dint of desperate efforts Trebon and the soldiers with him cleared the way to the gate, but those behind were so hampered by the enemy that they were unable to follow. The natives clung to their legs and strove to pull them off their horses, while a storm of blows was hurled upon them. Trebon, seeing the danger of those behind, had turned, and in vain tried to cut his way back to them; but the number of the natives was too great. Malchus seeing this shouted at the top of his voice:

"Fly, Trebon, you cannot help us, save those you can." Seeing that he could render his friend no assistance, Trebon turned round and galloped off with nine of the soldiers who had made their way with him to the gate. Five had already fallen, and Malchus shouted to the other six to throw down their arms and yield themselves as prisoners. This they did, but two of them were killed before the villagers perceived they had surrendered.

Malchus and the others were dragged from their horses, bound hand and foot, and thrown into one of the huts. The natives shouted in triumph, and yells of delight arose as the packages borne by the baggage animals were examined, and the variety of rich presents, intended for the various chiefs, divided among them.

Most of the captives were more or less severely wounded, and some of the natives presently came into the hut and examined and bound up the wounds.

"Keep up your spirits," Malchus said cheerfully, "it is evident they don't intend to kill us. No doubt they are going to send us prisoners to the Romans, and in that case we shall be exchanged sooner or later. At any rate the Romans would not dare ill treat us, for Hannibal holds more than a hundred prisoners in his hands to every one they have taken."

Three days passed, food was brought to the captives regularly, and their bonds were sufficiently relaxed for them to feed themselves. At the end of that time they were ordered to rise and leave the hut. Outside the chief with some forty of his followers were waiting them. All were armed, and the prisoners being placed in their midst, the party started.

They proceeded by the same road by which Malchus had ridden to the village, and some miles were passed without incident, when, as they were passing through a narrow valley, a great number of rocks came bounding down the hillside, and at different points along it several Carthaginians appeared. In these Malchus recognized at once the soldiers of his escort. One of these shouted out:

"Surrender, or you are all dead men. A strong force surrounds you on both sides, and my officers, whom you see, will give orders to their men, who will loose such an avalanche of rocks that you will all be swept away."

"It is only the men who escaped us," the chief cried; "push forward at once."

But the instant the movement began the Carthaginians all shouted orders, and a great number of rocks came bounding down, proving that they were obeyed by an invisible army. Several of the mountaineers were crushed by the stones, and the old chief, struck by a great rock in the chest, fell dead. A Carthaginian standing next to Malchus was also slain.

The tribesmen gave a cry of terror. Hand to hand they were ready to fight valiantly, but this destruction by an unseen foe terrified them. The Carthaginian leader raised his hand, and the descent of the stones ceased.

"Now," he said, "you see the truth of my words. Hesitate any longer and all will be lost; but if you throw down your arms, and, leaving your captives behind, retire by the way you came, you are free to do so. Hannibal has no desire for the blood of the Italian people. He has come to free them from the yoke of Rome, and your treacherous chief, who, after our making an alliance with him, sold you to the Romans, has been slain, therefore I have no further ill will against you."

The tribesmen, dismayed by the loss of their chief, and uncertain as to the strength of the foes who surrounded them, at once threw down their arms, and, glad to escape with their lives, fled at all speed up the pass towards their village, leaving their captives behind them.

The Carthaginians then descended, Trebon among them.

"I did not show myself, Malchus," the latter said as he joined his friend, "for the chief knew me by sight, and I wished him to be uncertain whether we were not a fresh party who had arrived."

"But who are your army?" Malchus asked; "you have astonished me as much as the barbarians."

"There they are," Trebon said, laughing, as some fifty or sixty women and a dozen old men and boys began to make their way down the hill. "Fortunately the tribesmen were too much occupied with their plunder and you to pursue us, and I got down safely with my men. I was, of course, determined to try to rescue you somehow, but did not see how it was to be done. Then a happy thought struck me, and the next morning we rode down to the plain till we came to a walled village. I at once summoned it to surrender, using threats of bringing up a strong body to destroy the place if they refused. They opened the gates sooner than I had expected, and I found the village inhabited only by women, old men, and children, the whole of the fighting men having been called away to join the Romans. They were, as you may imagine, in a terrible fright, and expected every one of them to be killed. However, I told them that we would not only spare their lives, but also their property, if they would obey my orders.

"They agreed willingly enough, and I ordered all those who were strong enough to be of any good to take each sufficient provisions for a week and to accompany me. Astonished as they were at the order, there was nothing for them to do but to obey, and they accordingly set out. I found by questioning them that the road we had travelled was the regular one up to the village, and that you would be sure to be brought down by it if the chief intended to send you to Rome.

"By nightfall we reached this valley. The next morning we set to work and cut a number of strong levers, then we went up on the hillside to where you saw us, and I posted them all behind the rocks. We spent all the day loosing stones and placing them in readiness to roll down, and were then prepared for your coming. At nightfall I assembled them all, and put a guard over them. We posted them again at daybreak yesterday, but watched all day in vain, and here we should have remained for a month if necessary, as I should have sent down some of the boys for more provisions when those they brought were gone. However, I was right glad when I saw you coming today, for it was dull work. I would have killed the whole of these treacherous savages if I had not been afraid of injuring you and the men. As it was I was in terrible fright when the stones went rushing down at you. One of our men has been killed, I see; but there was no help for it."

The whole party then proceeded down the valley. On emerging from the hills Trebon told his improvised army that they could return to their village, as he had no further need of their services, and, delighted at having escaped without damage or injury, they at once proceeded on their way.

"We had best halt here for the night," Trebon said, "and in the morning I will start off with the mounted men and get some horses from one of the villages for the rest of you. No doubt they are all pretty well stripped of fighting men."

The next day the horses were obtained, and Malchus, seeing that, now he had lost all the presents intended for the chiefs, it would be useless to pursue his mission further, especially as he had learned that the Roman agents had already been at work among the tribes, returned with his party to Hannibal's camp.

"I am sorry, Malchus," the Carthaginian general said, when he related his failure to carry out the mission, "that you have not succeeded, but it is clear that your failure is due to no want of tact on your part. The attack upon you was evidently determined upon the instant you appeared in sight of the village, for men must have been sent out at once to summon the tribe. Your friend Trebon behaved with great intelligence in the matter of your rescue, and I shall at once promote him a step in rank."

"I am ready to set out again and try whether I can succeed better with some of the other chiefs if you like," Malchus said.

"No, Malchus, we will leave them alone for the present. The Romans have been beforehand with us, and as this man was one of their principal chiefs, it is probable that, as he has forsaken his alliance with us, the others have done the same. Moreover, the news of his death, deserved as it was, at the hands of a party of Carthaginians, will not improve their feelings towards us. Nothing short of a general movement among the hill tribes would be of any great advantage to us, and it is clear that no general movement can be looked for now. Besides, now that we see the spirit which animates these savages, I do not care to risk your loss by sending you among them."

The news of the disaster of Lake Trasimene was met by Rome in a spirit worthy of her. No one so much as breathed the thought of negotiations with the enemy, not even a soldier was recalled from the army of Spain. Quintus Fabius Maximus was chosen dictator, and he with two newly raised legions marched to Ariminum and assumed the command of the army there, raised by the reinforcements he brought with him to fifty thousand men.

Stringent orders were issued to the inhabitants of the districts through which Hannibal would march on his way to Rome to destroy their crops, drive off their cattle, and take refuge in the fortified towns. Servilius was appointed to the command of the Roman fleet, and ordered to oppose the Carthaginians at sea. The army of Fabius was now greatly superior to that of Hannibal, but was inferior in cavalry. He had, moreover, the advantage of being in a friendly country, and of being provisioned by the people through whose country he moved, while Hannibal was obliged to scatter his army greatly to obtain provisions.

Fabius moved his army until within six miles of that of Hannibal, and then took up his position upon the hills, contenting himself with watching from a distance the movements of the Carthaginians. Hannibal marched unmolested through some of the richest provinces of Italy till he descended into the plain of Campania. He obtained large quantities of rich booty, but the inhabitants in all cases held aloof from him, their belief in the star of Rome being still unshaken in spite of the reverses which had befallen her.

Fabius followed at a safe distance, avoiding every attempt of Hannibal to bring on a battle.

The Roman soldiers fretted with rage and indignation at seeing the enemy, so inferior in strength to themselves, wasting and plundering the country at their will. Minucius, the master of horse and second in command, a fiery officer, sympathized to the full with the anger of the soldiers, and continually urged upon Fabius to march the army to the assault, but Fabius was immovable. The terrible defeats which Hannibal had inflicted upon two Roman armies showed him how vast would be the danger of engaging such an opponent unless at some great advantage.

Such advantage he thought he saw when Hannibal descended into the plain of Campania. This plain was inclosed on the south by the river Vulturnus, which could be passed only at the bridge at Casilinum, defended by the Roman garrison at that town, while on its other sides it was surrounded by an unbroken barrier of steep and wooded hills, the passes of which were strongly guarded by the Romans.

After seeing that every road over the hills was strongly held by his troops, Fabius sat down with his army on the mountains, whence he could watch the doings of Hannibal's force on the plains. He himself was amply supplied with provisions from the country in his rear, and he awaited patiently the time when Hannibal, having exhausted all the resources of the Campania, would be forced by starvation to attack the Romans in their almost impregnable position in the passes.

Hannibal was perfectly aware of the difficulties of his position. Had he been free and unencumbered by baggage he might have led his army directly across the wooded mountains, avoiding the passes guarded by the Romans, but with his enormous trail of baggage this was impossible unless he abandoned all the rich plunder which the army had collected. Of the two outlets from the plain, by the Appian and Latin roads which led to Rome, neither could be safely attempted, for the Roman army would have followed in his rear, and attacked him while endeavouring to force the passages in the mountains.

The same objection applied to his crossing the Vulturnus. The only bridge was strongly held by the Romans, and the river was far too deep and rapid for a passage to be attempted elsewhere with the great Roman army close at hand. The mountain range between the Vulturnus and Cades was difficult in the extreme, as the passes were few and very strongly guarded, but it was here that Hannibal resolved to make the attempt to lead his army from the difficult position in which it was placed. He waited quietly in the plain until the supplies of food were beginning to run low, and then prepared for his enterprise.

An immense number of cattle were among the plunder. Two thousand of the stoutest of these were selected, torches were fastened to their horns, and shortly before midnight the light troops drove the oxen to the hills, avoiding the position of the passes guarded by the enemy. The torches were then lighted, and the light troops drove the oxen straight up the hill. The animals, maddened by fear, rushed tumultuously forward, scattering in all directions on the hillside, but, continually urged by the troops behind them, mounting towards the summits of the hills.

The Roman defenders of the passes, seeing this great number of lights moving upwards, supposed that Hannibal had abandoned all his baggage, and was leading his army straight across the hills. This idea was confirmed by the light troops, on gaining the crest of the hills, commencing an attack upon the Romans posted below them in the pass through which Hannibal intended to move. The Roman troops thereupon quitted the pass, and scaled the heights to interrupt or harass the retreating foe.

As soon as Hannibal saw the lights moving on the top of the hills he commenced his march. The African infantry led the way; they were followed by the cavalry; then came the baggage and booty, and the rear was covered by the Spaniards and Gauls. The defile was found deserted by its defenders, and the army marched through unopposed. Meanwhile Fabius with his main army had remained inactive. The Roman general had seen with astonishment the numerous lights making their way up the mountain side, but he feared that this was some device on the part of Hannibal to entrap him into an ambush, as he had entrapped Flaminius on Lake Trasimene. He therefore held his army in readiness for whatever might occur until morning broke.

Then he saw that he had been outwitted. The rear of the Carthaginian army was just entering the defile, and in a short time Fabius saw the Gauls and Spaniards scaling the heights to the assistance of their comrades, who were maintaining an unequal fight with the Romans. The latter were soon driven with slaughter into the plain, and the Carthaginian troops descended into the defile and followed their retreating army. Hannibal now came down into the fertile country of Apulia, and determined to winter there. He took by storm the town of Geronium, where he stored his supplies and placed his sick in shelter, while his army occupied an intrenched camp which he formed outside the town.