The Young Carthaginian by G. A. Henty
Chapter II: A Night Attack
The time seemed to Malchus to pass slowly indeed as he sat waiting the commencement of the hunt. Deep roars, sounding like distant thunder, were heard from time to time among the hills. Once or twice Malchus fancied that he could hear other sounds such as would be made by a heavy stone dislodged from its site leaping down the mountain side; but he was not sure that this was not fancy, or that the sound might not be caused by the roaring of lions far away among the hills.
His father had said that three hours would probably elapse before the circuit would be completed. The distance was not great, but the troops would have to make their way with the greatest care along the rocky hills through brushwood and forest, and their advance would be all the more slow that they had to take such pains to move noiselessly.
It was indeed more than three hours after the column had left the camp when the sound of a distant horn was heard far up the hillside. Almost instantaneously lights burst out in a great semicircle along the hillside, and a faint confused sound, as of the shouting of a large body of men, was heard on the still night air.
"That is very well done," the general said in a tone of satisfaction. "I had hardly expected it to be so well managed; for the operation on such broken and difficult ground was not easy to carry out, even with the moon to help them."
"But see, father!" Malchus said, "there are many patches of darkness in the line, and the lions might surely escape through these."
"It would not be possible, Malchus, to place the parties at equal distances over such broken ground. Nor are the lions likely to discover the gaps in the line; they will be far too much terrified by the uproar and sudden blaze of light to approach the troops. Hark, how they are roaring! Truly it is a majestic and terrible sound, and I do not wonder that the wild natives of these mountains regard the animals with something of the respect which we pay to the gods. And now do you keep a sharp eye along the foot of the hills. There is no saying how soon the beasts may break cover."
Slowly the semicircle of light was seen to contract as the soldiers who formed it moved forward towards the foot of the hill; but although Malchus kept his eyes strained upon the fringe of trees at its foot, he could see no signs of movement.
The roaring still continued at intervals, and it was evident that the beasts inclosed in the arc had descended to the lower slopes of the hill.
"They may be upon us sooner than you expect, Malchus. Their colour well nigh matches with that of the sand, and you may not see them until they are close upon us."
Presently a Nubian soldier standing behind Malchus touched him on the shoulder and said in a whisper: "There they are!" pointing at the same time across the plain.
Malchus could for a time see nothing; then he made out some indistinct forms.
"There are six of them," the general said, "and they are making for this grove. Get your bows ready."
Malchus could now clearly see the lions approaching. They were advancing slowly, turning occasionally to look back as if reluctant to quit the shelter of the hills; and Malchus could hardly resist a start of uneasiness as one of them suddenly gave vent to a deep, threatening roar, so menacing and terrible that the very leaves of the trees seemed to quiver in the light of the moon under its vibrations. The lions seemed of huge dimensions, especially the leader of the troop, who stalked with a steady and majestic step at their head. When within fifty yards of the grove the lions suddenly paused; their leader apparently scented danger. Again the deep terrible roar rose in the air, answered by an angry snarling noise on the part of the females.
"Aim at the leader," the general whispered, "and have your brands in readiness."
Immediately behind the party a fire was burning; it had been suffered to die down until it was a mere pile of glowing embers, and in this the ends of a dozen stakes of dried wood were laid. The glow of the fire was carefully hidden by a circle of sticks on which thick cloths had been hung. The fire had been prepared in readiness in case the lions should appear in numbers too formidable to be coped with. The leading lion was within twenty-five paces of the spot where the party was standing when Hamilcar gave the word, and a volley of arrows shot forth from their hiding place.
The lion gave a roar of rage and pain, then, crouching for a moment, with a few tremendous bounds he reached the edge of the wood. He could see his enemies now, and with a fierce spring threw himself upon them. But as soon as they had discharged their arrows the soldiers had caught up their weapons and formed in a close body, and the lion was received upon the points of a dozen spears.
There was a crashing of wood and a snarling growl as one of the soldiers was struck dead with a blow of the mighty paw of the lion, who, ere he could recover himself, received half a dozen javelins thrust deep into his flanks, and fell dead.
The rest of the troop had followed him as he sprang forward, but some of the soldiers, who had been told off for the purpose, seized the lighted brands and threw them over the head of the leader among his followers. As the glowing brands, after describing fiery circles in the air, fell and scattered at their feet, the lions paused, and turning abruptly off dashed away with long bounds across the front of the grove.
"Now, Malchus, to horse!" Hamilcar exclaimed. And the general and his son, leaping upon their steeds, dashed out from the grove in pursuit of the troop of lions. These, passing between the two clumps of trees, were making for the plain beyond, when from behind the other grove a dark band of horsemen rode out.
"Let them pass," Hamilcar shouted; "do not head them back."
The cavalry reined up until the troop of lions had passed. Hamilcar rode up to the officer in command.
"Bring twenty of your men," he said; "let the rest remain here. There will doubtless be more of them yet."
Then with the twenty horsemen he rode on in pursuit of the lions.
The chase was an exciting one. For a time the lions, with their long bounds, kept ahead of the horsemen; but the latter, splendidly mounted on their well bred steeds, soon began to gain. When they were within a hundred yards of them one of the lions suddenly faced round. The Numidians, well accustomed to the sport, needed no orders from their chief. They scattered at once and broke off on each flank so as to encircle the lion, who had taken his post on a hummock of sand and lay couched on his haunches, with his tail lashing his sides angrily, like a great cat about to make his spring.
The horsemen circled round him, dashing up to within five-and-twenty yards, discharging their arrows, and then wheeling away. Each time the lion was struck he uttered a sharp, angry growl, and made a spring in the direction of the horsemen, and then fell back to his post.
One of the soldiers, thinking that the lion was now nearly crippled, ventured to ride somewhat closer; he discharged his arrow, but before he could wheel his horse the lion with two tremendous springs was upon him.
A single blow of his paw brought the horse to the ground. Then the lion seized the soldier by the shoulder, shook him as a cat would a mouse, and throwing him on the sand lay with his paw across him. At this moment Malchus galloped past at full speed, his bow drawn to the arrow head and fixed. The arrow struck the lion just behind its shoulder. The fierce beast, which was in the act of rising, sank down quietly again; its majestic head drooped between its forepaws on to the body of the Nubian, and there it lay as if overtaken with a sudden sleep. Two more arrows were fired into it, but there was no movement.
"The brave beast is dead," Malchus said. "Here is the arrow with which I slew it."
"It was well done, Malchus, and the hide is yours. Let us set off after the others."
But the stand which the lion had made had been sufficiently long to enable the rest of the troop to escape. Leaving two or three of their comrades to remove the body of the soldier, the horsemen scattered in various directions; but although they rode far over the plain, they could see no signs of the troop they had pursued.
After a time they gave up the pursuit and rode back towards the camp. When they reached it they found that another troop of lions, eight in number, had approached the other grove, where two had been killed by the party commanded by Adherbal and Giscon, and the rest of the cavalry were still in pursuit of the others. They presently returned, bringing in four more skins; so that eight lions in all had fallen in the night's work.
"Well, Malchus, what do you think of lion hunting?" Adherbal asked as they gathered again in the general's tent.
"They are terrible beasts," Malchus said. "I had not thought that any beast could make so tremendous a roar. Of course I have heard those in captivity in Carthage, but it did not seem nearly so terrible as it sounded here in the stillness of the desert."
"I own that it made my blood run cold," Adherbal said; "and their charge is tremendous -- they broke through the hedge of spears as if they had been reeds. Three of our men were killed."
"Yes," Malchus agreed; "it seemed almost like a dream for a minute when the great beast was among us. I felt very glad when he rolled over on to his side."
"It is a dangerous way of hunting," Hamilcar said. "The chase on horseback in the plains has its dangers, as we saw when that Numidian was killed; but with proper care and skill it is a grand sport. But this work on foot is too dangerous, and has cost the republic the loss of five soldiers. Had I had nets with me I would have adopted the usual plan of stretching one across the trees ten paces in front of us. This breaks the lion's spring, he becomes entangled in its meshes, and can be destroyed with but little danger. But no skill or address avails against the charge of a wounded lion. But you are wounded, Giscon."
"It is a mere nothing," Giscon said.
"Nay," Hamilcar replied, "it is an ugly scratch, Giscon; he has laid open your arm from the shoulder to the elbow as if it were by the cut of a knife."
"It served me right for being too rash," Giscon said. "I thought he was nearly dead, and approached with my sword to give him a finishing thrust. When he struck viciously at me I sprang back, but one of his claws caught my shoulder. A few inches nearer and he would have stripped the flesh from my arm, and perhaps broken the limb and shoulder bone."
While he was speaking a slave was washing the wound, which he then carefully bandaged up. A few minutes later the whole party lay down to sleep. Malchus found it difficult to dose his eyes. His pulse was still throbbing with excitement, and his mind was busy with the brief but stirring scene of the conflict.
Two or three hours passed, and he felt drowsiness creeping over him, when he heard a sudden challenge, followed instantly by a loud and piercing yell from hundreds of throats. He sprang in an instant to his feet, as did the other occupants of the tent.
"To arms!" Hamilcar cried; "the enemy are upon us."
Malchus caught up his shield and sword, threw his helmet on his head, and rushed out of the tent with his father.
A tremendous din had succeeded the silence which had just before reigned in the desert, and the yells of the barbarians rose high in the air, answered by shouts and loud words of command from the soldiers in the other grove. The elephants in their excitement were trumpeting loudly; the horses stamped the ground; the draught cattle, terrified by the din, strove to break away.
Large numbers of dark figures occupied the space some two hundred yards wide between the groves. The general's guards, twenty in number, had already sprung to their feet and stood to arms; the slaves and attendants, panic stricken at the sudden attack, were giving vent to screams and cries and were running about in confusion.
Hamilcar sternly ordered silence.
"Let each man," he said, "take a weapon of some kind and stand steady. We are cut off from the main body and shall have to fight for our lives. Do you," he said to the soldiers, "lay aside your spears and shoot quickly among them. Fire fast. The great object is to conceal from them the smallness of our number."
Moving round the little grove Hamilcar posted the slaves at short distances apart, to give warning should the enemy be attempting an attack upon the other sides, and then returned to the side facing the other grove, where the soldiers were keeping up a steady fire at the enemy.
The latter were at present concentrating their attention upon their attack upon the main body. Their scouts on the hills during the previous day had no doubt ascertained that the Carthaginian force was encamped here, and the occupants of the smaller grove would fall easy victims after they had dealt with the main body. The fight was raging furiously here. The natives had crept up close before they were discovered by the sentries, and with a fierce rush they had fallen upon the troops before they had time to seize their arms and gather in order.
The fight raged hand to hand, bows twanged and arrows flew, the light javelins were hurled at close quarters with deadly effect, the shrill cries of the Numidians mingled with the deeper shouts of the Iberians and the yells of the natives. Hamilcar stood for a minute irresolute.
"They are neglecting us," he said to Adherbal, "until they have finished with the main body; we must go to their assistance. At present our men are fighting without order or regularity. Unless their leaders are with them they are lost, our presence will encourage and reanimate them. Bring up the elephants quickly."
The three elephants were at once brought forward, their drivers mounted on their necks. Four soldiers with their bows and arrows took their places on the back of each, the general with the rest of the fighting men followed closely behind.
At the orders of their drivers the well trained animals broke into a trot, and the party advanced from the shadow of the grove. The natives scattered between it and the wood fired a volley of arrows and then broke as the elephants charged down upon them. Trained to warfare the elephants dashed among them, catching some up in their trunks and dashing them lifeless to the ground, knocking down and trampling upon others, scattering terror wherever they went, while the archers on their backs kept up a deadly fire. As soon as the way was open Hamilcar led the little party on foot at full speed towards the wood.
As he entered it he ordered his trumpeter to blow his horn. The well known signal revived the hopes and courage of the sorely pressed troops, who, surprised and discouraged, had been losing ground, great numbers falling before the arrows and javelins of their swarming and active foes. The natives, surprised at the trumpet sound in the rear, paused a moment, and before they could turn round to face their unexpected adversaries, Hamilcar with his little band burst his way through them and joined his soldiers, who, gathered now in a close body in the centre of the grove, received their leader with a shout of welcome.
Hamilcar's measures were promptly taken. He saw that if stationary his band must melt away under the shower of missiles which was being poured upon them. He gave the command and the troops rapidly formed into three groups, the men of each corps gathering together. Adherbal, who was in command of the Numidians, placed himself at their head, Giscon led the Iberians, and Hamilcar headed the heavily armed troops, Malchus taking his place at his side. Hamilcar had already given his orders to the young officers. No response was to be made to the fire of the arrows and javelins, but with spear, sword, and battleaxe the troops were to fall upon the natives.
"Charge!" he shouted in a voice that was heard above the yells of the barbarians. "Clear the wood of these lurking enemies, they dare not face you. Sweep them before your path."
With an answering shout the three bodies of men sprang forward, each in a different direction. In vain the natives poured in volleys of arrows and javelins; many fell, more were wounded, but all who could keep their feet rushed forward with fury upon their assailants.
The charge was irresistible. The natives, fighting each for himself, were unable for a moment to withstand the torrent, and, vastly superior in numbers as they were, were driven headlong before it. When they reached the edge of the wood each of the bodies broke into two. The Numidians had directed their course towards their horses, which a party of their own men were still defending desperately against the attacks of a large body of natives. Through these they cut their way, and springing upon their steeds dashed out into the plain, and sweeping round the grove fell upon the natives there, and cut down the parties of men who emerged in confusion from its shelter, unable to withstand the assaults of Hamilcar and his infantry within.
The heavy infantry and the Iberians, when they gained the edge of the wood, had swept to the right and left, cleared the edge of the grove of their enemies until they met, then joining they again plunged into the centre. Thus they traversed the wood in every direction until they had completely cleared it of foes.
When the work was done the breathless and exhausted troops gathered outside, in the light of the moon. More than half their number had fallen; scarce one but was bleeding from wounds of arrow or javelin. The plain beyond was thickly dotted to the foot of the hills with the bodies of the natives who had been cut up by the Numidian horse or trampled by the elephants, while the grove within was thickly strewn with their bodies.
As there was no fear of a renewal of the attack, Hamilcar ordered the men to fall out of ranks, and the hours until daybreak were passed in extracting arrows and binding up wounds, and in assisting their comrades who were found to be still living in the grove. Any natives still breathing were instantly slain.
Hamilcar found that a party of the enemy had made their way into his own camp. His tent had been hastily plundered, but most of the effects were found in the morning scattered over the ground between the groves and the hills, having been thrown away in their flight by the natives when the horsemen burst out of the wood in pursuit. Of the slaves and attendants several had been killed, but the greater portion had, when Hamilcar left the grove with the troops, climbed up into trees, and remained there concealed until the rout of the assailants.
It was found in the morning that over one hundred and fifty of the three hundred Carthaginian troops had fallen, and that four hundred of the natives had been slain either in the grove or in the pursuit by cavalry.
The following day two envoys arrived from the hostile tribe offering the submission of their chief.
As pursuit in the hills would be useless Hamilcar offered them comparatively easy terms. A heavy fine in horses and cattle was to be paid to the republic, and ten of the principal members of the tribe were to be delivered up as hostages for their future good behaviour. The next day the hostages were brought into the camp with a portion of the ransom; and Hamilcar, having thus accomplished the mission he had been charged to perform, marched away with his troops to Carthage.
As they approached the coast the whole character of the scenery changed. The desert had been left behind them, and they entered a fertile tract of country which had been literally turned into a garden by the skill and industry of the Carthaginian cultivators, at that time celebrated throughout the world for their knowledge of the science of agriculture. The rougher and more sterile ground was covered with groves of olive trees, while rich vineyards and orchards of fig and other fruit trees occupied the better soil. Wherever it was possible little canals leading water from reservoirs and dammed up streams crossed the plains, and every foot of the irrigated ground was covered with a luxuriant crop.
The villages were scattered thickly, and when the troops arrived within a day's march of Carthage they came upon the country villas and mansions of the wealthy inhabitants. These in the richness of their architecture, the perfection and order of their gardens, and the beauty and taste of the orchards and grounds which surrounded them, testified alike to the wealth and taste of their occupants.
Fountains threw their water into the air, numerous waterfalls splashed with a cool, soothing sound over artificial rocks. Statues wrought by Greek sculptors stood on the terraces, shady walks offered a cool retreat during the heat of the day, the vine, the pomegranate, and the fig afforded refreshment to the palate as well as pleasure to the eye. Palm trees with their graceful foliage waved gently in the passing breezes. All the countries with which the Carthaginians traded had supplied their contingent of vegetation to add to the beauty and production of these gardens, which were the admiration and envy of the civilized world.
Crossing the brow of a low range of hills the detachment came in sight of Carthage. The general and his three companions, who were riding in the rear of the column, drew in their horses and sat for a while surveying the scene. It was one which, familiar as it might be, it was impossible to survey without the deepest feeling of admiration.
In the centre stood the great rock of Byrsa, a flat topped eminence with almost perpendicular sides rising about two hundred feet above the surrounding plain. This plateau formed the seat of the ancient Carthage, the Phoenician colony which Dido had founded. It was now the acropolis of Carthage. Here stood the temples of the chief deities of the town; here were immense magazines and storehouses capable of containing provisions for a prolonged siege for the fifty thousand men whom the place could contain. The craggy sides of the rock were visible but in few places. Massive fortifications rising from its foot to its summit defended every point where the rock was not absolutely perpendicular. These walls were of enormous thickness, and in casemates or recesses in their thickness were the stables for the elephants, horses, and cattle of the garrison.
Round the upper edge of the rock extended another massive wall, above which in picturesque outline rose the temple and other public edifices. At the foot of this natural citadel stretched the lower town, with its crowded population, its dense mass of houses, its temples and forum. The style of architecture was peculiar to the city. The Carthaginians abhorred straight lines, and all their buildings presented curves. The rooms were for the most part circular, semicircular, or oval, and all exterior as well as interior angles were rounded off. The material used in their construction was an artificial stone composed of pieces of rock cemented together with fine sand and lime, and as hard as natural conglomerate. The houses were surmounted by domes or cupolas. Their towers were always round, and throughout the city scarce an angle offended the eye of the populace.
Extending into the bay lay the isthmus, known as the Tana, some three miles in length, communicating with the mainland by a tongue of land a hundred yards wide.
This was the maritime quarter of Carthage; here were the extensive docks in which the vessels which bore the commerce of the city to and from the uttermost parts of the known world loaded and unloaded. Here were the state dockyards where the great ships of war, which had so long made Carthage the mistress of the sea, were constructed and fitted out. The whole line of the coast was deeply indented with bays, where rode at anchor the ships of the mercantile navy. Broad inland lakes dotted the plain; while to the north of Byrsa, stretching down to the sea and extending as far as Cape Quamart, lay Megara, the aristocratic suburb of Carthage.
Here, standing in gardens and parks, were the mansions of the wealthy merchants and traders, the suburb presenting to the eye a mass of green foliage dotted thickly with white houses. Megara was divided from the lower town by a strong and lofty wall, but lay within the outer wall which inclosed Byrsa and the whole of Carthage and stretched from sea to sea.
The circumference of the inclosed space was fully twenty miles; the population contained within it amounted to over eight hundred thousand. On the north side near the sea, within the line of the outer fortifications, rose a low hill, and here on the face which sloped gently down to the sea was the great necropolis -- the cemetery of Carthage, shaded by broad spreading trees, dotted with the gorgeous mausoleums of the wealthy and the innumerable tombs of the poorer families, and undermined by thousands of great sepulchral chambers, which still remain to testify to the vastness of the necropolis of Carthage, and to the pains which her people bestowed upon the burying places of their dead.
Beyond all, from the point at which the travellers viewed it, stretched the deep blue background of the Mediterranean, its line broken only in the foreground by the lofty citadel of Byrsa, and far out at sea by the faint outline of the Isle of Zinbre.
For some minutes the party sat immovable on their horses, then Hamilcar broke the silence:
"`Tis a glorious view," he said; "the world does not contain a site better fitted for the seat of a mighty city. Nature seems to have marked it out. With the great rock fortress, the splendid bays and harbours, the facilities for commerce, the fertile country stretching away on either hand; give her but a government strong, capable, and honest, a people patriotic, brave, and devoted, and Carthage would long remain the mistress of the world."
"Surely she may yet remain so," Adherbal exclaimed.
"I fear not," Hamilcar said gravely, shaking his head. "It seems to be the fate of all nations, that as they grow in wealth so they lose their manly virtues. With wealth comes corruption, indolence, a reluctance to make sacrifices, and a weakening of the feeling of patriotism. Power falls into the hands of the ignorant many. Instead of the destinies of the country being swayed by the wisest and best, a fickle multitude, swayed by interested demagogues, assumes the direction of affairs, and the result is inevitable -- wasted powers, gross mismanagement, final ruin."
So saying Hamilcar set his horse in motion and, followed silently by his companions, rode with a gloomy countenance after his little columns towards the capital.