Chapter VII: A Wolf Hunt
 

The summer's work had been a hard one and the young soldiers of the Carthaginian cavalry rejoiced when they marched into Carthagena again, with the prospect of four months' rest and gaiety. When in the field their discipline was as strict and their work as hard as that of the other corps, but, whereas, when they went into winter quarters, the rest of the army were placed under tents or huts, this corps d'elite were for the time their own masters.

Two or three times a week they drilled and exercised their horses, but with these exceptions they were free to do as they chose. Scarce one but had relations or friends in Carthagena with whom they took up their abode, and those who were not so fortunate found a home at the great military club, of which, ranking as they did with the officers of other corps, they were all members.

Hamilcar and Malchus had rooms assigned to them in the splendid mansion of Hannibal, which was the centre of the life and gaiety of the place, for Hannibal had, before starting on his campaign in the spring, married Imilce, the daughter of Castalius, a Spaniard of noble blood, and his household was kept up with a lavish magnificence, worthy alike of his position as virtual monarch of Spain and of his vast private wealth. Fetes were given constantly for the amusement of the people. At these there were prizes for horse and foot racing, and the Numidian cavalry astonished the populace by the manner in which they maneuvered their steeds; bowmen and slingers entered the lists for prizes of value given by the general; and the elephants exhibited proof of their docility and training.

In the bay there were races between the galleys and triremes, and emulation was encouraged among the troops by large money prizes to the companies who maneuvered with the greatest precision and activity. For the nobles there were banquets and entertainments of music. The rising greatness of Carthagena had attracted to her musicians and artists from all parts of the Mediterranean. Snake charmers from the far Soudan and jugglers from the distant East exhibited their skill. Poets recited their verses, and bards sung their lays before the wealth and beauty of Carthagena. Hannibal, anxious at once to please his young wife and to increase his popularity, spared no pains or expense in these entertainments.

Gay as they were Malchus longed for a more stirring life, and with five or six of his comrades obtained leave of absence for a month, to go on a hunting expedition in the mountains. He had heard, when upon the campaign, the issue of the plot in which he had been so nearly engaged. It had failed. On the very eve of execution one of the subordinates had turned traitor, and Giscon and the whole of those engaged in it had been arrested and put to a cruel death.

Malchus himself had been denounced, as his name was found upon the list of the conspirators, and an order had been sent to Hannibal that he should be carried back a prisoner to Carthage. Hannibal had called the lad before him, and had inquired of him the circumstances of the case. Malchus explained that he had been to their meeting but once, being taken there by Giscon, and being in entire ignorance of the objects of the plot, and that he had refused when he discovered them to proceed in the matter. Hannibal and Hamilcar blamed him severely for allowing himself at his age to be mixed up in any way in public affairs; but they so represented the matter to the two Carthaginian commissioners with the army, that these had written home to say, that having inquired into the affair they found that beyond a boyish imprudence in accompanying Giscon to the place where the conspirators met, Malchus was not to blame in the matter.

The narrow escape that he had had was a lesson which was not lost upon Malchus. Hamilcar lectured him sternly, and pointed out to him that the affairs of nations were not to be settled by the efforts of a handful of enthusiasts, but that grievances, however great, could only be righted when the people at large were determined that a change should be made.

"There would be neither order nor stability in affairs, Malchus, if parties of desperate men of one party or another were ever striving for change, for revolution would be met by counter revolution. The affairs of nations march slowly; sudden changes are ever to be deprecated. If every clique of men who chance to be supported by a temporary wave of public opinion, were to introduce organic changes, there would be no stability in affairs. Capital would be alarmed; the rich and powerful, seeing their possessions threatened and their privileges attacked by the action of the demagogues of the hour, would do as did our forefathers of Tyre, when the whole of the aristocracy emigrated in a body to Carthage, and Tyre received a blow from which she has never recovered."

For some time after this event Malchus had felt that he was in disgrace, but his steadiness and good conduct in the campaign, and the excellent reports which his officers gave of him, had restored him to favour; and indeed his father and Hannibal both felt that a lad might well be led away by an earnest enthusiast like Giscon.

The hunting party took with them a hundred Iberian soldiers used to the mountains, together with six peasants acquainted with the country and accustomed to the chase. They took several carts laden with tents, wine, and provisions. Four days' journey from Carthagena took the party into the heart of the mountains, and here, in a sheltered valley through which ran a stream, they formed their camp.

They had good sport. Sometimes with dogs they tracked the bears to their lair, sometimes the soldiers made a wide sweep in the hills, and, having inclosed a considerable tract of forest, moved forward, shouting and clashing their arms until they drove the animals inclosed down through a valley in which Malchus and his companions had taken post.

Very various was the game which then fell before their arrows and javelins. Sometimes a herd of deer would dart past, then two bears with their family would come along growling fiercely as they went, and looking back angrily at the disturbers of their peace. Sometimes a pack of wolves, with their red tongues hanging out, and fierce, snarling barks, would hurry along, or a wild boar would trot leisurely past, until he reached the spot where the hunters were posted. The wolves and deer fell harmlessly before the javelins of the Carthaginians, but the bears and wild boars frequently showed themselves formidable opponents, and there were several desperate fights before these yielded to the spears and swords of the hunters.

Sometimes portions of the animals they had killed were hung up at night from the bough of a tree at a distance from the camp, to attract the bears, and one or two of the party, taking their post in neighbouring trees, would watch all night for the coming of the beasts. The snow was now lying thick on the tops of the mountains, and the wolves were plentiful among the forests.

One day Malchus and two of his companions had followed a wounded deer far up among the hills, and were some miles away from the camp when the darkness began to set in.

"I think we had better give it up," Malchus said; "we shall find it difficult as it is to find our way back; I had no idea that it was so late."

His companions at once agreed, and they turned their faces towards the camp. In another half hour it was perfectly dark under the shadow of the trees, but the moon was shining, and its position afforded them a means of judging as to the direction where the camp lay. But even with such assistance it was no easy matter making their way. The country was rough and broken; ravines had to be crossed, and hills ascended. After pushing on for two hours, Halcon, the eldest of the party, said:

"I am by no means sure that we are going right after all. We have had a long day's work now, and I do not believe we shall find the camp tonight. I think we had better light a fire here and wrap ourselves in our cloaks. The fire will scare wild beasts away, and we shall be easily able to find the camp in the morning."

The proposal was at once accepted; sticks were collected, and, with flint and steel and the aid of some dried fungus which they carried in their pouches, a fire was soon lit, and some choice portions of a deer which they had killed early in the day were soon broiling on sticks over it.

"We must keep watch by turns," Halcon said; "it will not do to let the fire burn low, for likely enough we may be visited by bears before morning."

After eating their meal and chatting for some time, Halcon and his companions lay down to rest, Malchus volunteering to keep the first watch. For some time he sat quietly, occasionally throwing logs on the fire from the store which they had collected in readiness. Presently his attitude changed, he listened intently and rose to his feet. Several times he had heard the howls of wolves wandering in the woods, but he now made out a long, deep, continuous howling; he listened for a minute or two and then aroused his companions.

"There is a large pack of wolves approaching," he said, "and by the direction of the sound I judge they are hunting on the traces of our footsteps. That is the line by which we came down from yonder brow, and it seems to me that they are ascending the opposite slope."

"Yes, and by the sound there must be a very large pack of them," Halcon agreed; "pile up the fire and set yourselves to gather more wood as quickly as possible; these beasts in large packs are formidable foes."

The three men set to work, vigourously cutting down brushwood and lopping off small boughs of trees with their swords.

"Divide the fire in four," Halcon said, "and pile the fuel in the centre; they will hardly dare to pass between the fires."

The pack was now descending the slope, keeping up a chorus of howls and short yelps which sent a shiver of uneasiness through Malchus. As the wolves approached the spot the howling suddenly ceased.

"They see us," Halcon said; "keep a sharp lookout for them, but do not throw away a shot, we shall need all our arrows before daylight."

Standing perfectly quiet, the friends could hear the pattering sound made by the wolves' feet upon the fallen leaves; but the moon had sunk now, and they were unable to make out their figures.

"It seems to me," Malchus said in a whisper, "that I can see specks of fire gleaming on the bushes."

"It is the reflection of the fire in their eyes," Halcon replied. "See! they are all round us! There must be scores of them."

For some time the wolves approached no closer; then, encouraged by the silence of the little group standing in the centre of the fire, two or three gray forms showed themselves in the circle of light. Three bows twanged. Two of the wolves fell, and the third, with a howl of pain, fled in the darkness. There was a sound of snarling and growling; a cry of pain, a fierce struggle, and then a long continued snarling.

"What are they doing?" Malchus asked with a shudder.

"I believe they are eating their wounded comrade," Halcon replied. "I have heard such is the custom of the savage brutes. See, the carcasses of the other two have disappeared already."

Short as had been the time which had elapsed since they had fallen, other wolves had stolen out, and had dragged away the bodies of the two which had been killed. This incident, which showed how extreme was the hunger of the wolves, and how noiseless were their motions, redoubled the vigilance of the party.

Malchus threw a handful of brushwood on to each of the fires.

"We must be careful of the fuel," Halcon said. "I would we had thought of this before we lay down to sleep. If we had collected fuel enough for our fires we should have been safe; but I doubt much if our supply will last now till morning."

As the hours went on the attitude of the wolves became more and more threatening, and in strong bodies they advanced close up to the fires. Every time that they did so armfuls of fuel were thrown on, and as the flames leaped up brightly they each time fell back, losing several of their numbers from the arrows of the little party. But the pile of fuel was now sinking fast, and except when the wolves advanced it was necessary to let the fires burn down.

"It must want four hours yet of daylight," Halcon said, as he threw on the last piece of wood. "Look round as the fire blazes up and see if you can make out any tree which may be climbed. I would that we had taken to them at first instead of trusting to our fires."

Unfortunately they had chosen a somewhat open space of ground for their encampment, for the brushwood grew thick among the trees.

"There is a tree over there," Malchus said, pointing to it, "with a bough but six feet from the ground. One spring on to that and we are safe."

"Very well," Halcon assented; "we will attempt it at once before the fire burns low. Put your swords into your sheaths, sling your bows and arrows behind you, and take each a burning brand. These will be better weapons in such a case than swords or spears. Now, are you ready? Now!"

Waving the burning brands over their heads, the three Carthaginians dashed across the intervening space towards the tree.

It seemed as if the wolves were conscious that their prey were attempting to escape them; for, with a fierce howl, they sprang from the bushes and rushed to meet them; and, undeterred by the blazing brands, sprang upon them.

Malchus scarce knew what passed in the short, fierce struggle. One wolf sprang upon his shield and nearly brought him to the ground; but the sharp boss pierced its body, and he flung it from him, at the same moment that he dashed the brand full in the face of another. A third sprang upon his shoulder, and he felt its hot breath in his face. Dropping his brand, he drove his dagger deep into its side. Then he hurled his heavy shield among the mass of wolves before him, took a bound into their midst, and grasping the bough, swung himself into the tree and sat there with his legs drawn up as a score of wolves leaped up towards him with open mouths.

He gave a cry of horror. His two friends were down, and a confused mass of struggling bodies alone showed where they had fallen. For an instant he hesitated, debating whether he should leap down and strive to rescue them; but a glance below showed him that he would be pulled down long before he could reach the spot where they had fallen.

Shifting himself along the arm until he reached the trunk, he rose to his feet and sent his arrows vengefully into the midst of the struggling mass of wolves until he had but three or four shafts left. These he reserved as a last resource.

There was nothing to do now, and he sat down on the branch, and burst into tears over the fate of his comrades. When he looked up again all was quiet. The fierce pack had devoured not only his comrades, but their own fallen companions, and now sat in a circle with their red tongues hanging out and their eyes fixed upon him. As the fire gradually died out their form disappeared; but he could hear their quick breathing, and knew that they were still on the watch.

Malchus climbed the tree until he reached a fork where he could sit at ease, and there waited for morning, when he hoped that his foes would disappear. But as the gray light dawned he saw them still on the watch; nor, as the dawn brightened into day, did they show any signs of moving.

When he saw they had no intention of leaving the place, Malchus began to consider seriously what he had best do. He might still be, for aught he knew, miles away from the camp, and his friends there would have no means of knowing the position in which he was placed. They would no doubt send out all the soldiers in search of the party; but in that broken wilderness of forest and mountain, it was the merest chance whether they would find the spot where he was prisoner. Still, it appeared to him that this was the only possibility of his rescue. The trees grew thickly together, and he could easily have climbed from that in which he was stationed to the next, and might so have made his way for some distance; but as the wolves were watching him, and could see as well by night as by day, there was no advantage in shifting his position.

The day passed slowly. The wolves had for the most part withdrawn from beneath the tree, but a few kept their station there steadily, and Malchus knew that the rest were only lying beneath the bushes round; for he could hear their frequent snarling, and sometimes a gray head was thrust out, and a pair of eager eyes looked hungrily towards him. From time to time Malchus listened breathlessly in hopes of hearing the distant shouts of his comrades; but all was still in the forest, and he felt sure that the wolves would hear anyone approaching before he should.

Once or twice, indeed, he fancied that by their pricked ears and attitude of attention they could hear sounds inaudible to him; but the alarm, if such it was, soon passed away, and it might have been that they were listening only to the distant footsteps of some stag passing through the forest. Night came again with its long, dreary hours. Malchus strapped himself by his belt to the tree to prevent himself from falling and managed to obtain a few hours of uneasy sleep, waking up each time with a start, in a cold perspiration of fear, believing that he was falling into the hungry jaws below. In the morning a fierce desire to kill some of his foes seized him, and he descended to the lowest branch.

The wolves, seeing their prey so close at hand, thronged thickly under it, and strove to leap up at him. Lying down on the bough, and twisting his legs firmly under it to give him a purchase, Malchus thrust his sword nearly to the hilt between the jaws, which snapped fiercely as a wolf sprang to within a few inches of the bough. Several were killed in this way, and the rest, rendered cautious, withdrew to a short distance. Suddenly an idea struck Malchus. He took off his belt and formed it into a running noose, and then waited until the wolves should summon up courage to attack again. It was not long. Furious with hunger, which the prey they had already devoured was only sufficient to whet, the wolves again approached and began to spring towards the bough.

Malchus dropped the noose over one of their necks, and with an effort, hauled it to the bough, and despatched it with his dagger. Then he moved along the bough and hung it on a branch some ten feet from the ground, slashing open with his dagger its chest and stomach. Having done this he returned to his place. Six wolves were one after the other so hauled up and despatched, and as Malchus expected, the smell of their blood rendered the pack more savage than ever. They assembled round the foot of the tree, and continued to spring at the trunk, making vain endeavours to get at the supply of food which hung tantalizingly at so short a distance beyond their reach.

So the day passed as before without signs of rescue. When it became dark Malchus again descended to the lowest trunk, and fired his three remaining arrows among the wolves below him. Loud howls followed each discharge, followed by a desperate struggle below. Then he tumbled from their position the six dead wolves to the ground below, and then as noiselessly as possible made his way along a bough into an adjoining tree, and so into another, till he had attained some distance from the spot where the wolves were fighting and growling over the remains of their companions, far too absorbed in their work for any thought of him.

Then he dropped noiselessly to the ground and fled at the top of his speed. It would be, he was sure, some time before the wolves had completed their feast; and even should they discover that he was missing from the tree, it would probably be some time before they could hit upon his scent, especially, as, having just feasted on blood, their sense of smell would for a time be dulled. His previsions were accurate. Several times he stopped and listened in dread lest he should hear the distant howl, which would tell him that the pack was again on his scent. All was quiet, save for the usual cries and noises in the forest. In two hours he saw a distant glow of light, and was soon in the encampment of his friends.

"Why, Malchus!" his comrades exclaimed as he entered the tent, "where have you been these two days? Why, you are splashed with blood. Where are Halcon and Chalcus?"

"Dead," Malchus said -- "devoured by wolves."

A cry of horror broke from the three young guardsmen.

"`Tis too true," Malchus went on; "but give me food and wine. I have neither eaten nor drunk for the last two days, and I have gone through a terrible time. Even now I seem to see all round me countless cruel eyes, and hungry open mouths with their red tongues."

Seeing that Malchus was utterly worn and exhausted his companions hastened to place food and drink before him before asking any further questions.

Malchus drank a cup of wine and took a mouthful of bread; but he was too faint and exhausted at present to eat more. He had supported well the terrible strain for the last forty-eight hours, and as he had run through the forest he had not noticed how it had told upon him; but now that he was safe among his friends he felt as weak as a child. For a time he lay upon the lion skin on which he had thrown himself upon entering the tent, unable to reply to his comrades' questions. Then, as the cordial began to take effect, he roused himself and forced himself to eat more. After that he told his friends what had happened.

"You have indeed had an escape, Malchus; but how was it you did not take to the trees at once?"

"I did not think of it," Malchus said, "nor, I suppose, did the others. Halcon was our leader, and we did as he told us. He thought the fires would keep them off. Who could have thought the beasts would have ventured to attack us!"

"I have always heard they were terrible," one of the others said; "but I should have thought that three armed men would have been a match for any number of them."

"It would have been as much as thirty could have done to withstand them," Malchus replied; "they did not seem to care for their lives, but sought only to slay. There were hundreds and hundreds of them. I would rather march alone to the assault of a walled city than face those terrible beasts."

In the morning the whole party started for the scene of the encounter.

Malchus had some difficulty in discovering it; but at last, after searching a long time he came upon it.

The ground beneath the tree was everywhere trampled and torn by the wolves in their struggles, and was spotted with patches of dry blood. The helmets, shields and arms of Halcon and Chalcus lay there, but not a remnant of their bones remained, and a few fragments of skin and some closely gnawed skulls alone testified to the wolves which had fallen in the encounter. The arms were gathered up, and the party returned to their camp, and the next day started for Carthagena for, after that experience, none cared for any further hunting.

It was some weeks before Malchus completely recovered from the effects of the strain he had undergone. His nights were disturbed and restless. He would constantly start from his couch, thinking that he heard the howl of the wolves, and any sudden noise made him start and turn pale. Seeing how shaken his young kinsmen was, and what he had passed through, Hannibal sent him several times in ships which were going across to Africa for stores. He did not venture to send him to Carthage; for although his influence with the commissioners had been sufficient to annul the order of the council for the sending of Malchus as a prisoner there, it was probable that were he to return he would be seized and put to death -- not for the supposed crime he had committed, but to gratify the hatred of Hanno against himself and his adherents.

The sea voyages soon restored Malchus to his accustomed health. Trained and disciplined as his body had been by constant exercise, his nerves were not easily shaken, and soon recovered their tone, and when, early in March, he rejoined his regiment, he was able to enter with zest and energy into the preparations which Hannibal was making for the siege of Saguntum. Difficult as this operation would be, the preparations which were being made appeared enormous. Every week ships brought over reinforcements of troops, and the Iberian contingents were largely increased.

One day Malchus entered an apartment where his father and Hannibal were talking earnestly together with a large map spread out before them. He would have retired at once, but Hannibal called him in.

"Come in, Malchus, I would have no secrets from you. Although you are young I know that you are devoted to Carthage, that you are brave and determined. I see in you what I was myself at your age, but nine years ago, and it may be that some day you will be destined to continue the work which I am beginning. You, too, have commenced early, your training has been severe. As your father's son and my cousin your promotion will naturally be rapid. I will, therefore, tell you my plans. It is clear that Rome and Carthage cannot both exist -- one or the other must be destroyed. It is useless to strike at extremities, the blow must be dealt at the heart. Unfortunately our fleet is no longer superior to that of Rome, and victories at sea, however important, only temporarily cripple an enemy.

"It is by land the blow must be struck. Were the sea ours, I should say, land troops in southern Italy, and continue to pour over reinforcements until all the fighting men of North Africa are at the gates of Rome. But without the absolute command of the sea this cannot be done. Therefore I intend to make Spain our base, and to march through Southern Gaul over the Alps into Italy, and there to fight the Romans on their own ground. Already I have agents at work among the Gauls and the northern tribes of Italy, who will, I trust, join me in the war against our common enemy. The enterprise is a great one, but it is not impossible; if it succeeds, Rome will be destroyed and Carthage will reign, without a rival, mistress of the world. The plan was Hasdrubal's, but it has fallen to me to carry it out."

"It is a grand plan indeed," Malchus exclaimed enthusiastically -- "a glorious plan, but the difficulties seem tremendous."

"Difficulties are made to be overcome by brave men," Hannibal said. "The Alps are the greatest barrier, but my agents tell me that the difficulties are not insuperable even for elephants. But before we start we have Spain to subdue. Saguntum is under the protection of Rome, and must be crushed, and all the country north of the Ebro conquered and pacified. This done the passage of reinforcements to my army in Italy will be easy. The Gauls will favour us, the mountains tribes will be crushed or bought over, so that the route for the advance of reinforcements, or for our retreat, if too hardly pressed, will be always open. But all this is for yourself alone.

"My plans must not yet be known. Already our enemies in Carthage are gaining in strength. Many of our adherents have been put to death and the estates of others confiscated; but the capture of Saguntum will restore our supremacy, and the enthusiasm which it will incite among the populace will carry all before it. The spoils which will be taken there will be sufficient to silence every murmur in Carthage. Now leave us, Malchus, we have much to talk over and to arrange, and I have given you plenty to think about for the present."