The Young Carthaginian by G. A. Henty
Chapter XVII: The Escape
For the next two days Malchus was visited only by the Nubian who brought his food. The third night, as he was lying on his straw, wondering how long Hanno would be before he decided his fate, he started to his feet as he heard, apparently close at hand, his name whispered. It was repeated, and he now perceived that it came from above.
"Yes," he said in a low tone, looking upwards, "I am Malchus. Who speaks to me?"
"It is I, Nessus," the voice replied. "Thanks to the gods, I have found my lord."
"How did you get here, Nessus? I feared that you were drowned."
"I swam to shore," the Arab said, "and then watched outside the gate here. I saw several prisoners brought in, and doubted not that you were among them. I was at the port when the ship came in, and found that she brought no passenger. Then I came up here again, soon found friends among the Arab regiment in the garrison; these obtained me employment in the stables of the elephants. Each night, when all has been still, I have crept here, and have whispered your name down each of the gratings. Tonight you have heard me. Now that I know where you are, I will set to work to contrive your escape. Is the passage from your cell here wide enough to admit your being drawn up?"
"Yes," Malchus replied; "it would be a close fit, but with a rope you could get me up through it."
"I will set to work to loosen these bars at once," Nessus said; "but the difficulty is not to get you out from here, but to get you beyond the gates of the citadel. The watch is extremely strict, and the gates are not opened until nine o'clock. Before that your escape would be discovered, and it will be impossible for you to pass out undetected. I must find a hiding place where you can lie concealed until the search is over, and the vigilance of the sentries is relaxed; but it will be no easy matter. And now let us speak no more; it is dangerous to breathe, much less to speak here."
Not another word was spoken for hours. Malchus could hear a low continuous scraping noise as Nessus with his dagger worked away upon the stone into which the grating fitted. At last Nessus spoke again. "I have nearly finished, my lord, the greater part of the grating is loose, and in half an hour I can complete the work. Daylight will soon be breaking and I must go. Tomorrow night I will return with a rope. I hope today to find some place where you may be concealed."
Malchus with renewed hope threw himself upon the straw, and lay there until about noon when he was again summoned to the presence of his judges. They were the same whom he had seen previously.
"Malchus, son of Hamilcar," Hanno said, "you are now brought before us to hear the crime with which you are charged. We have here before us the written list of the names of the members of the conspiracy, headed by Giscon, which had for its aim the murder of many of the senate of Carthage and the overthrow of her constitution. We have also here the confession of several of the conspirators confirming this list, and saying that you were one of the party."
"I do not deny," Malchus said firmly, "that I did once visit the place in which those you speak of met, and that my name was then entered on the roll; but when I went there I was wholly ignorant of the purposes of the association, and as soon as I learned their aims and objects I withdrew from them, and did not again visit their place of meeting."
"You could not well do that," Hanno said, "since it is writ down that you sailed very shortly afterwards for Spain."
"I own that I did so," Malchus replied, "but I told Giscon on the very day that I accompanied him to the meeting that I would go there no more. Moreover, your commissioners with Hannibal's army have already inquired into the circumstances, and they, in consideration of the fact that I was then little more than sixteen years old, that I was led ignorantly into the plot, and at once separated myself from it, absolved me from blame."
"The commissioners had no authority to do so," Hanno replied; "they were ordered to send you to Carthage, and failed to carry out their orders only because Hannibal then, as always, set himself above the authority of the republic. As you have confessed that you were a member of this conspiracy, no further trial is needed, and this court awards to you the same punishment which was meted to all the others concerned in the conspiracy -- you will tomorrow be put to death by the usual punishment of the press."
Malchus abstained from all reply, for it struck him at once that were he to defy and anger his judges they might order him to be instantly executed. He therefore without a word turned and accompanied his jailer to his cell. He waited impatiently for night, and the hours seemed long indeed before he heard the whisper of Nessus above. Directly the Arab received the reply, assuring him that Malchus was still there, he again set to work.
In an hour the grating was removed and the rope lowered. Malchus fastened it under his arms, knotting it in front, and then whispered to Nessus that he was ready. The Arab drew him slowly and steadily up until his head was in the entrance of the narrow passage. Malchus had grasped the rope as high as possible above his head and hung by his hands, thereby drawing the shoulders upwards, and reducing their width as much as possible. He then managed to swing himself so that his body was diagonally across the opening, and when thus placed he found to his joy that the passage was large enough for him to pass through without much difficulty.
Slowly and steadily Nessus drew him up until his shoulders were above the level of the ground, when Malchus, placing his hands on the pavement, sprang noiselessly out. The grating was replaced, and without a word being spoken they glided from the temple. Not a word was said until they had gone some little distance.
"You have saved my life again, Nessus," Malchus said, laying his hand upon his shoulder. "Another twelve hours and it would have been too late. I was to have been put to death in the morning."
Nessus gave a fierce exclamation and placed his hand on his knife.
"Had they slain my lord," he said, "I would have avenged you. I would have dogged your enemies night and day till, one by one, my knife should have found its way to their hearts!"
"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?"
"I can think on no plan, my lord. So strict is the search that when the elephants went down today to the fountains for water every howdah was examined to see that no one was hidden within it."
"It will be necessary also, Nessus, if you do hit upon some plan for getting me out, to arrange a hiding place in the city."
"That will be easy enough," Nessus replied. "My friends have many relations in the Arab quarter, and once free, you might be concealed there for any time. And now I will wait no longer, for last night visits were made in all the barracks and stables by the agents of the law, to see that every man was asleep in his place. Therefore I will return without delay. In two days I will be here again; but should anything occur which it is needful to tell you I will be here tomorrow night."
Malchus watched for the light on the following evening with but faint hope of seeing it, but at about the same hour as before he saw it suddenly appear again. Wondering what had brought Nessus before his time, he paddled to the stairs.
"Well, Nessus, what is your news?"
"We have hit upon a plan of escape, my lord. As I told you my friend and I are in the stable with the elephants, our duties being to carry in the forage for the great beasts, and to keep the stables in order. We have taken one of the Indian mahouts into our confidence, and he has promised his aid; the elephant of which he is in charge is a docile beast, and his driver has taught him many tricks. At his signal he will put up his trunk and scream and rush here and there as if in the state which is called must, when they are dangerous of approach. The mahout, who is a crafty fellow, taught him to act thus, because when in such a state of temper the elephants cannot be worked with the others, but remain in the stables, and their drivers have an easy time of it.
"On the promise of a handsome reward the mahout has agreed that tomorrow morning, before the elephants are taken out, you shall be concealed in the bottom of the howdah. He will manage that the elephant is the first in the procession. When we get out into the courtyard he will slyly prick the beast, and give him the signal to simulate rage; he will then so direct him that, after charging several times about the court, he shall make a rush at the gate. You may be sure that the guards there will step aside quickly enough, for a furious elephant is not a creature to be hindered.
"When he is once down to the foot of the hill the driver will direct him to some quiet spot. That he will find easily enough, for at his approach there will be a general stampede. When he reaches some place where no one is in sight he will halt the elephant and you will at once drop off him. I shall be near at hand and will join you. The elephant will continue his course for some little distance, and the mahout, feigning to have at last recovered control over him, will direct him back to the citadel."
"The idea is a capital one," Malchus said, "and if carried out will surely succeed. You and I have often seen during our campaigns elephants in this state, and know how every one flies as they come along screaming loudly, with their trunks high, and their great ears out on each side of their heads. At any rate it is worth trying, Nessus, and if by any chance we should fail in getting through the gate, the mahout would, of course, take his elephant back to the stable, and I might slip out there and conceal myself till night, and then make my way back here again."
"That's what we have arranged," Nessus said. "And now, my lord, I will leave you and go back to the stables, in case they should search them again tonight. If you will push off and lie a short distance away from the steps I will be here again half an hour before daybreak. I will bring you a garb like my own, and will take you direct to the stable where the animal is kept. There will be no one there save the mahout and my two friends, so that it will be easy for us to cover you in the howdah before the elephants go out. There is little chance of anyone coming into the stables before that, for they have been searched so frequently during the last two days that Hanno's agents must by this time be convinced that wherever you are hidden you are not there. Indeed, today the search has greatly relaxed, although the vigilance at the gate and on the walls is as great as ever; so I think that they despair of finding you, and believe that you must either have made your escape already, or that if not you will sooner or later issue from your hiding place and fall into their hands."
Malchus slept little that night, and rejoiced when he again saw Nessus descending the steps. A few strokes of his paddle sent the raft alongside. Nessus fastened a cord to it to prevent it from drifting away.
"We may need it again," he said briefly. Malchus placed his own clothes upon it and threw over his shoulders the bernous which Nessus had brought. He then mounted the steps with him, the gate was closed and the bolt shot, and they then made their way across to the stables. It was still perfectly dark, though a very faint light, low in the eastern sky, showed that ere long the day would break.
Five minutes' walking and they arrived at the stables of the elephants. These, like those of the horses and the oxen which drew the cumbrous war machines, were formed in the vast thickness of the walls, and were what are known in modern times as casemates. As Nessus had said, the Indian mahout and the other two Arabs were the only human occupants of the casemate. The elephant at once showed that he perceived the newcomer to be a stranger by an uneasy movement, but the mahout quieted him.
While they were waiting for morning, Nessus described, more fully than he had hitherto had an opportunity of doing, the attack made upon him on board the ship.
"I was," he said, "as my lord knows, uneasy when I found that they had recognized you, and when we were within a day's sail of Carthage I resolved to keep a lookout -- therefore, although I wrapped myself in my cloak and lay down, I did not go to sleep. After a while I thought I heard the sound of oars, and, standing up, went to the bulwark to listen. Suddenly some of the sailors, who must have been watching me, sprang upon me from behind, a cloak was thrown over my head, a rope was twisted round my arms, and in a moment I was lifted and flung overboard.
"I did not cry out, because I had already made up my mind that it was better not to arouse you from sleep whatever happened, as, had you run out, you might have been killed, and I thought it likely that their object would be, if you offered no resistance, to take you a prisoner, in which case I trusted that I might later on hope to free you. As my lord knows, I am a good swimmer. I let myself sink, and when well below the surface soon got rid of the rope which bound me, and which was, indeed, but hastily twisted round my arms. I came up to the surface as noiselessly as possible, and after taking a long breath dived and swam under water as far as I could. When I came up the ship was so far away that there was little fear of their seeing me; however, I dived again and again until in perfect safety.
"I heard a boat rowed by many oars approach the vessel. I listened for a time and found that all was quiet, and then laid myself out for the long swim to shore, which I reached without difficulty. All day I kept my eye on the vessel, which remained at anchor. As I could not tell to which landing place you might be brought I went up in the evening and took my post on the road leading up here, and when towards morning a party entered, carrying one with them on a stretcher, I had little doubt that it was you.
"I was sure to find friends among the Arabs either belonging to the regiment stationed in Byrsa or those employed in the storehouses or stables; so the next morning I entered the citadel and soon met these men, who belonged to my tribe and village. After that my way was plain; my only fear was that they might kill you before I could discover the place in which you were confined, and my heart sank the first night when I found that, though I whispered down every one of the gratings, I could obtain no reply.
"I had many answers, indeed, but not from you. There might be many cells besides those with openings into the temple, and were you placed in one of these I might never hear of you again. I had resolved that if the next night passed without my being able to find you, I would inform some of those known to be friends of Hannibal that you were a prisoner, and leave it in their hands to act as they liked, while I still continued my efforts to communicate with you. You may imagine with what joy I heard your reply on the following night."
"I must have been asleep the first night," Malchus said, "and did not hear your voice."
"I feared to speak above a whisper, my lord; there are priests all night in the sanctuary behind the great image."
Day had by this time broken, and a stir and bustle commenced in front of the long line of casemates; the elephants were brought out from their stables and stood rocking themselves from side to side while their keepers rubbed their hides with pumice stone. Nessus was one of those who was appointed to make the great flat cakes of coarse flour which formed the principal food of the elephants. The other Arabs busied themselves in bringing in fresh straw, which Malchus scattered evenly over the stall; heaps of freshly cut forage were placed before each elephant.
In a short time one of the Arabs took the place of Nessus in preparing the cakes, while Nessus moved away and presently went down into the town to await the coming of Malchus. By this arrangement if the superintendent of the stables came round he would find the proper number of men at work, and was not likely to notice the substitution of Malchus for Nessus, with whose face he could not yet have become familiar. By this time numbers of the townsmen were as usual coming up to the citadel to worship in the temple or to visit friends dwelling there. Malchus learned that since his escape had been known each person on entrance received a slip of brass with a stamp on it which he had to give up on leaving.
All employed in the citadel received a similar voucher, without which none could pass the gate. The time was now come when the elephants were accustomed to be taken down to the fountains in the town below, and the critical moment was at hand. The mahout had already begun to prepare his elephant for the part he was to play. It had been trumpeting loudly and showing signs of impatience and anger. The animal was now made to kneel by the door of its stable, where Malchus had already lain down at the bottom of the howdah, a piece of sacking being thrown over him by the Arabs. The two Arabs and the mahout carried the howdah out, placed it on the elephant, and securely fastened it in its position.
These howdahs were of rough construction, being in fact little more than large open crates, for the elephants after being watered went to the forage yard, where the crates were filled with freshly cut grass or young boughs of trees, which they carried up for their own use to the citadel.
The mahout took his position on its neck, and the elephant then rose to its feet. The symptoms of bad temper which it had already given were now redoubled. It gave vent to a series of short vicious squeals, it trumpeted loudly and angrily, and, although the mahout appeared to be doing his best to pacify it, it became more and more demonstrative. The superintendent of the elephants rode up.
"You had better dismount and take that brute back to the stable," he said; "he is not safe to take out this morning." As he approached the elephant threw up his trunk, opened his mouth, and rushed suddenly at him. The officer fled hastily, shouting loudly to the other mahouts to bring their animals in a circle round the elephant, but the mahout gave him a sudden prod with his pricker and the elephant set off with great strides, his ears out, his trunk in the air, and with every sign of an access of fury, at the top of his speed. He rushed across the great courtyard, the people flying in all directions with shouts of terror; he made two or three turns up and down, each time getting somewhat nearer to the gate.
As he approached it for the third time the mahout guided him towards it, and, accustomed at this hour to sally out, the elephant made a sudden rush in that direction. The officer on guard shouted to his men to close the gate, but before they could attempt to carry out the order the elephant charged through, and at the top of his speed went down the road.