Lords of the World - Alfred J. Church




The Fate of the Melcart

The Melcart, the sacred ship of Carthage, was on its homeward voyage from Tyre, and had accomplished the greater part of its journey in safety; in fact, it was only a score or so of miles away from its destination. It had carried the mission sent, year by year, to the famous shrine of the god whose name it bore, the great temple which the Greeks called by the title of the Tyrian Hercules. This was too solemn and important a function to be dropped on any pretext whatsoever. Never, even in the time of her deepest distress, had Carthage failed to pay this dutiful tribute to the patron deity of her mother-city; and, indeed, she had never been in sorer straits than now. Rome, in the early days her ally, then her rival, and now her oppressor, was resolved to destroy her, forcing her into war by demanding impossible terms of submission. Her old command of the sea had long since departed. It was only by stealth and subtlety that one of her ships could hope to traverse unharmed the five hundred leagues of sea that lay between her harbour and the old capital of Phoenicia. The Melcart had hitherto been fortunate. She was a first-rate sailer, equally at home with the light breeze to which she could spread all her canvas and the gale which reduced her to a single sprit-sail. She had a picked crew, with not a slave on the rowing benches, for there were always freeborn Carthaginians ready to pull an oar in the Melcart. Hanno, her captain, namesake and descendant of the great discoverer who had sailed as far down the African coast as Sierra Leone itself, was famous for his seamanship from the Pillars of Hercules to the harbours of Syria.

The old man—it was sixty years since he had made his first voyage—was watching intently a dark speck which had been visible for some time in the light of early dawn upon the north-western horizon. "Mago," he said at last, turning to his nephew and lieutenant, "does it seem to you to become bigger? your eyes are better than mine."

"Not that I can see," answered the young man.

"She hardly would gain upon us if she has no more wind than we have. Well, I shall go below, and have a bite and a sup."

He wetted his finger and held it up. "It strikes me," he went on, "that the wind, if you can call it a wind, has shifted half a point. Tell the helmsman to put her head a trifle to the north. Perhaps I may have a short nap. But if anything happens, call me at once."

Something did happen before ten minutes had passed. When Mago had given his instructions to the helmsman, and had superintended a slight shifting of the canvas, he looked again at the distant ship. It had become sensibly larger. The wind had freshened out at sea, and was rapidly bringing the stranger nearer. Mago hurried below to rouse his uncle. The old man was soon up on deck.

"I wish we were ten miles nearer home," he muttered, after taking a long look into the distance. "Get the oars out. If she is an enemy, and wants to cut us off, half a mile may make all the difference."

The order was promptly obeyed, and the rowers bent to their work with a will. But all the will in the world could not make the Melcart  move very fast through the water. She was stoutly built, as became a ship that had to carry a precious burden through all weather, and she was foul with the long voyage. The goal of the race between her and the stranger, which could now be seen to be a Roman ship-of-war, was a headland behind which, as Hanno knew, was the harbour of Chelys. Let her reach that and she was safe. But it seemed as if this was not to be. The Roman ship had what wind there was right aft, and, notwithstanding all the efforts of the Melcart's  crew, moved more rapidly through the water. She would manifestly cut off the Melcart  before the headland was reached. But Hanno was not yet at the end of his resources.

"Call Mutines," he said to his lieutenant.

Mutines was a half-caste Carthaginian, whose thick lips, flat nose, and woolly hair indicated a negro strain in his blood. "Mutines," said the old man, "you used to have as good an aim with the catapult as any man in Carthage. If your hand has not lost its cunning, now is the time to show your skill. Knock that rascal's steering-gear to pieces, and there is a quarter-talent for you."

"I will do my best, sir," said Mutines; "but I am out of practice, and the machine, I take it, is somewhat stiff."

The catapult, which was of unusual size and power, had been built, so to speak, into the ship's forecastle. It could throw a bolt weighing about 75 lbs., and its range was 300 yards. While Mutines was preparing the engine, word was passed to the rowers that they were to give six strokes and no more. That, as Mutines reckoned, would be enough to bring him well within range of the enemy. The calculation was sufficiently exact. When the rowers stopped, the two ships, having just rounded the headland, were divided by about 350 yards. The impetus of the Melcart  carried her over about 100 more. When she was almost stationary Mutines let fly the bolt. He had never made a happier shot. The huge bullet carried away both the tillers by which the steering paddles were worked. The ship fell away immediately, and the Melcart, for whose rowers the fugleman set the liveliest tune in his repertory, shot by, well out of range of the shower of arrows which the Roman archers discharged at her. In the course of a few minutes she had reached the harbour of Chelys.

But her adventures were not over. The captain of the Roman ship was greatly enraged at the escape of his prey. To capture so famous a prize would mean certain promotion, and he was not prepared to resign his hopes without an effort to realize them. As soon as the steering-gear had been temporarily repaired, he called his sailing-master, and announced his intention of following the Carthaginian into the harbour.

The man ventured on a remonstrance. "It's not safe, sir," he said; "I don't know the place, but I have heard that the water is shallow everywhere except in the channel of the stream."

"You have heard my orders," returned the captain, who was a Claudius, and had all the haughtiness and obstinacy of that famous house. The sailing-master had no choice but to obey.

Chelys, so called from the fancied resemblance of its site to the shape of a tortoise, was a small Greek settlement which lay within the region dominated by Carthage. It was a place of considerable antiquity—older, its inhabitants were fond of asserting, than Carthage itself. For some years it had maintained its independence, but as time went by this position became more and more impossible. Had Chelys possessed any neighbours of the same race, a league might have given her at least a chance of preserving her freedom. But she stood absolutely alone, surrounded by Phúnician settlements, and she had no alternative but to make her submission to her powerful neighbour. She obtained very favourable terms. She was free from tribute, no slight privilege, in view of the enormous sums which the ruling city was accustomed to exact from her dependencies. She was allowed to elect her own magistrates, and generally to manage her own affairs. To contribute a small contingent to the army and navy of the suzerain state was all that was demanded of her. It was natural, therefore, that Chelys should be loyal to Carthage—far more loyal, in fact, than most of that city's dependencies. Rome, which had more than once exacted a heavy sum as the price of the little town's immunity from ravage, she had no reason to like.

The incident described above had taken place within full view of the piers and quays of Chelys. The excited population which crowded them had hailed with an exulting shout the fortunate shot that had crippled the Roman vessel, and had warmly welcomed the Melcart  as she glided into the shelter of the harbour. Their delight was turned into rage when it became evident that the enemy was intending to pursue her. The insolent audacity of the proceeding excited the spectators beyond all bounds. Stones and missiles of all kinds were showered upon the intruders. As the ship was within easy range of the quays on both sides of the harbour, which was indeed of very small area, the crew suffered heavily.

Claudius perceived that he had made a mistake, and gave orders to the rowers to back, there not being space enough to turn. It was too late, and when a huge pebble, aimed with a fatal accuracy, struck down the steersman from his place, the doom of the Melicerta—for this was the name of the Roman ship—was sealed. A few moments afterwards she grounded.

This was, of course, the signal for a determined attack. Hundreds of men waded through the shallow water and climbed over the bulwarks. The crew made a brave resistance, but they were hopelessly outnumbered and were cut down where they stood. The magistrates of the city happened to be in consultation in the town-hall. Disturbed in the midst of their deliberations by the sudden uproar they hurried down to the waterside, but were too late to save any but a very few lives. Claudius had stabbed himself when he saw how fatal a mistake he had made.

Chelys was, of course, in a tumult of delight at its brilliant success in destroying a Roman ship-of-war. Its responsible rulers, however, were very far from sharing this feeling. A defenceless city, and Chelys was practically such, for its walls, never very formidable, had been suffered to fall into decay, must take no part in the hostilities of a campaign. So long as it observes this neutrality it is really better off than a fortified town, but to depart from this policy is sheer madness.

The magistrates did all they could. They sent back the few prisoners whom they had been able to rescue from the hands of the populace, to the commander of the squadron to which the Melicerta had belonged. They offered to pay an indemnity. They went so far as to promise that the ringleaders of the riot should be handed over for trial. The Roman admiral, a Flaminius, and so belonging to a family that had more than once made itself notorious for unusual brutality, would not hear of making any conditions. He determined upon a vengeance which was not the less pleasing because it would be as lucrative as it was cruel. Chelys was to be visited with the severest penalty known in warfare—all the male inhabitants of the military age and over were to be put to death, the women and children were to be sold as slaves. The slaves from Chelys, as Flamininus, a shrewd and unscrupulous man of business knew, would fetch a high price. They were Greeks, if not of the purest blood, and while barbarians in any number could be easily obtained, Greek slaves were a rare article in the market.

His resolve once taken, Flamininus took every precaution that its execution should be as complete as possible. The magistrates, who had come to intercede for their countrymen, were detained; no hint of what was intended was allowed to reach the doomed city. Landing the half legion of marines which the squadron carried he occupied in irresistible force Chelys and all the roads by which it could be approached or left. His next step was to make what may be called an inventory of the prey which had fallen into his hands. The census roll of citizens was seized, and information about their families was purchased from some prisoners who were willing thus to redeem their lives. A few wealthy men and women were allowed to ransom themselves at the highest prices that could be extorted from their fears; and then, when a few days had been allowed for the assembling of the slave-dealers, who, with other animals of prey, human and non-human, followed the armies and fleets of Rome, Flamininus allowed the deputation to return, and proceeded to execute his sentence.