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There was a concert that evening; the palace was crowded with guests. From time to time Malchus stole away to his room, where the Numidians were seated on the ground, silent and immovable as so many bronze statues. At other times he kept near Hannibal, watching closely the movements of every native who passed near him, and ready to spring forward instantly if he saw any signs of an evil intention. However, he did not much apprehend that, even if his suspicions were correct and a plot was on foot against Hannibal, any attempt would be made to assassinate him in the midst of a crowded assembly, where there would be no possibility of escape for the perpetrators of such a deed. At last the guests began to depart, and an hour later all was quiet in the palace. Laying aside his sandals, Malchus stole noiselessly over the marble pavements until he approached the entrance which he had twice seen opened so late. A slave was lying close to it.
Unobserved Malchus stole away again to his chamber and bade the Numidians follow him. Noiselessly the troop of barefooted Arabs moved shadow-like through the lofty halls and corridors. Two of them he placed at the entrance to the chamber where Hannibal slept, with orders to allow no one to pass until he returned, then with the others he proceeded to the entrance. A few lights only were burning in the passages, and it was not until they were close at hand that the slave perceived the approaching figures. He leaped to his feet, but before he could cry out Malchus stepped forward and said:
"Silence, if you value your life! You know me; I am Malchus the son of Hamilcar. Now, tell me the truth, or tomorrow the torture shall wring it from you. Who placed you here, and why?"
"Carpadon, one of the chief attendants, ordered me to remain here to admit him on his return. I knew not there was harm in it," the slave said.
"Is it the first time you have kept watch for such a purpose?"
"No, my lord; some six or seven times he has gone out late."
"Do you know the cause of his absence?"
"No, my lord; it would not become a slave to question one of the chief attendants of my lord Hannibal as to why he goes or comes."
The man's manner was so natural, and his surprise at the interest which one of the rank of Malchus showed in the doings of an attendant so genuine, that Malchus was convinced he knew nothing of any enterprise in which the man who had placed him there might be engaged.
"Very well," he said, "I will believe what you tell me. Now, do you resume your place at the door, and open it as usual at his signal. Say no word and make no sign which may lead him to know of our presence here. Mind, my eye will be upon you, and your life will pay for any treachery."
Malchus with four of his men now took post on one side of the door, standing well back in the shadow so that their presence would not be noticed by anyone entering. Trebon, with the remaining four men, took up a similar position on the other side of the doorway.
Two hours passed. At length a low tap, followed by two others, was heard at the door. The slave at once opened it. Carpadon entered, and with a sudden movmovement threw one arm round the slave's neck and with the other stabbed him to the heart. Then he opened the door wide, and said in a low tone:
"Enter, all is safe."
In a moment a dark mass of men poured in at the door. The matter was more serious than Malchus had expected. He had looked for the entry perhaps of three or four men, and had intended to close in behind them and cut them off; but here was a score at least, and how many more might be outside he knew not. He therefore gave the signal by shouting "Carthage!" and at once with his followers fell upon one flank of the natives, for such their dress showed them to be, while Trebon attacked them on the other. There was a shout of surprise and alarm at the unexpected onslaught, and several were cut down at once. The others, drawing their swords, began to defend themselves, trying at the same time to retreat to the door, through which, however, many others were still pressing in. For a few minutes a severe fight went on, and the numbers and desperation of Carpadon's followers began to tell, and, in spite of the efforts of Malchus and the Numidians, they would have been forced to fall back and allow the others to pass out, had not help been at hand.
The shouting and clashing of weapons had awakened the palace, and the officer of the guard with ten of his men, some of them bearing torches, came running at full speed from their post at the chief entrance. As the guard came up and stood gazing, uncertain what to do or among whom the conflict was raging, Malchus for a moment drew out from the fray.
"Seize and disarm all the natives," he said; "the Numidians are here by my orders."
The instant the soldiers understood the situation they fell to, and the natives, whose retreat was cut off by the Numidians, were speedily disarmed; those nearer to the door had, the instant they saw the torches approaching, taken to flight.
A moment later Hannibal, Hamilcar, and many other officers resident at the palace came running up.
"What means this fray, Malchus?"
"It means an attempt upon your life, Hannibal, which I have been fortunate enough to discover and defeat."
"Who are these men?" Hamilcar asked.
"So far as I know they are natives," Malchus replied. "The chief of the party is that man who lies bleeding there; he is one of your attendants."
One of the soldiers held a torch close to the man's face.
"It is Carpadon," Hannibal said. "I believed him honest and faithful."
"He is the tool of others, Hannibal; he has been well paid for this night's work."
Hannibal gave orders for the prisoners to be strictly guarded, and then, with Hamilcar and Malchus, returned to his private study. The lamps were lighted by the attendants, who then withdrew.
"Now, Malchus, tell us your story," Hannibal said. "It seems strange to me that you should have said nought to your father or me of what you had learned and left us to take such measures as might seem fit to us, instead of taking the matter into your own hands."
"Had I had certainties to go upon I should assuredly have done so, but, as you will see when I tell you all I had learned, I had nothing but suspicions, and those of the vaguest, and for aught I knew I might be altogether in the wrong."
Malchus then gave the full details of the manner in which his suspicions had been first excited, and in which on the previous night he had taken steps to ascertain whether there were any foundation for them.
"You see," he concluded, "there was no sort of certainty; nothing to prove that the money was not paid for the purchase of a horse or slave. It was only the one fact that one of the party was a servant here that rendered what I discovered serious. Had it not been for the fate of Hasdrubal, I should never have given the matter a second thought; but, knowing that he was assassinated by a trusted servant, and seeing two men whose families I knew belonged to Hanno's faction engaged in secret talk with one of your attendants, the suspicion struck me that a similar deed might again be attempted. The only words I had to go upon were, 'Tomorrow night, then, without fail.' This was not great enough for me to bring an accusation against two men of noble family; and, had I told you the tale without the confirmation it has now received, you would probably have treated it but lightly. I resolved, therefore, to wait and see, taking such precaution that no harm could come of my secrecy. I concealed in my room ten of my Numidians, with my lieutenant Trebon--an ample force, whatever may betide.
"If, as I suspected, this man intended, with two or three others, to steal into your chamber and slay you while you slept, we could at once have stopped the attempt. Should he come with a larger force, we could, as is proved, resist them until the guard arrived on the spot. If, on the other hand, night passed off quietly and my suspicions proved to be altogether erroneous, I should escape the ridicule which would certainly have been forthcoming had I alarmed you without cause."
"You have acted very wisely and well, my son," Hamilcar said, "and Carthage owes you the life of our beloved Hannibal. You indeed reasoned with great wisdom and forethought. Had you informed us of what you had discovered we should have taken precautions which would doubtless have effected the object; but they would probably have become known to the plotters, and the attempt would have been postponed and attempted some other time, and perhaps with success. What say you, Hannibal; have I not reason to be proud of this young son of mine?"
"You have indeed, Hamilcar, and deeply an I indebted to him. It is not my life I care for, although that now is precious to me for the sake of my beloved Imilce, but had I fallen now all the plans which we have thought of together would have been frustrated, and the fairest chance which Carthage ever had of fighting out the quarrel with her rival would have been destroyed. Truly it has been a marvelous escape, and it seems to me that the gods themselves must have inspired Malchus to act as he did on such slight grounds as seeing two Carthaginians of the guard in company with three or four natives at a late hour of the evening."
"What do you think will be best to do with the traitors who have plotted against your life, Hannibal? Shall we try and execute them here, or send them to Carthage to be dealt with?"
Hannibal did not answer for a minute.
"I think, Hamilcar, the best plan will be to keep silent altogether as to the danger I have run. The army would be furious but would at the same time be dispirited, were it known in Carthage that two of her nobles had been executed for an attempt on my life. It would only cause a fresh outbreak of animosity and an even deadlier feud than before between Hanno's friends and ours. Therefore, I say, let the men taken tonight be executed in the morning without question asked, and let no word be said by them or by us that they were bribed by Carthaginians. All in the palace now know that a party of natives have broken in, and will guess that my life was their object; there is no need that they should know more. As to the two men, I will call them before me tomorrow, with none but you present, and will let them know that I am aware that they are the authors of this attempt, and will bid them resign their places in the guard and return at once to Carthage."
"It grieves me that they should go unpunished," Hamilcar said; "but doubtless your plan is the wisest."
"Then," Hannibal said, rising, "we will go to bed again. Malchus, acquaint Trebon of our determination that silence is to be kept; tell him that I shall bear him in mind, and not forget his share in this night's work. As for you, Malchus, henceforth you are more than my cousin; you have saved my life, and I shall never forget it. I shall tell Imilce in the morning of the danger which has passed, for it is sure to come to her ears, and she will know better than I do how to thank you."
Accordingly, in the morning, Hannibal's orders were carried out; the twelve natives taken prisoners were beheaded without any of the usual tortures which would have been inflicted upon a similar occasion. No less than fourteen others had been killed in the fight. The two Carthaginian nobles were sent for by Hannibal. They came prepared to die, for they knew already by rumor that the attempt had failed, and doubted not, when the summons reached them, that Carpadon had denounced them as his accomplices. But they went to their certain doom with the courage of their class-pale, perhaps, but otherwise unmoved. Hannibal was alone with Hamilcar when they entered.
"That assassination is not an altogether unknown crime in Carthage," he said quietly, "I was well aware; but I did not before think that nobles in the Carthaginian horse would stoop to it. I know that it was you who provided the gold for the payment of the men who made an attempt upon my life, that you personally paid my attendant Carpadon to hire assassins, and to lead them to my chamber. Were I to denounce you, my soldiers would tear you in pieces. The very name of your families would be held accursed by all honest men in Carthage for all time. I do not ask you whether I have given you cause for offense, for I know that I have not done so; you acted simply for the benefit of Hanno. Whether you were instructed by him I do not deign to ask. I shall not harm you. The tale of your infamy is known to but four persons, and none others will ever know it. I am proud of the honor of the nobles of Carthage, and would not that the scum of the people should bandy the name of your families on their lips as guilty of so foul an act of treason. You will, of course, at once resign your positions in the Carthaginian horse. Make what pretext you will-illness or private affairs. Tomorrow sail for Carthage, and there strive by efforts for the good of your country to efface the remembrance of this blow which you would have struck her."
So saying, with a wave of the hand he dismissed them.
They went without a word-too astonished at his clemency, too humiliated by their own disgrace even to utter a word of thanks. When they were fairly beyond the palace they looked at each other as men awakened from a dream.
"What a man!" one of them exclaimed. "No wonder the soldiers adore him! He has given us our lives-more, he has saved our names from disgrace. Henceforth, Pontus, we, at least, can never again take part against him."
"It is almost too much to bear," the other said. "I feel that I would rather that he had ordered us to instant execution."
"Ay, for our own sakes, Pontus, but not for those of others. For myself I shall retire to the country; it seems to me that never again shall I be able to mix with others; they may know nothing of it, but it will be ever on my mind. How they would shrink back in horror were what we have done whispered to them! Truly, were it not for my family, I would prefer death with the worst torture to life as it will be now."
The excitement in the army was intense when it became known that a body of Iberians had attempted to break into Hannibal's palace with the design of murdering him, and many of the soldiers, seizing their arms, hurried toward the city, and had not an officer ridden with the news to Hannibal, they would assuredly have fallen upon the native inhabitants, and a general massacre would have taken place.
Hannibal at once mounted and rode out to meet the soldiers. He was received with enthusiastic acclamation; at length he raised his arm to restore silence, and then addressed the troops, telling them how deeply he valued the evidence of their affection, but that he prayed them to return to their camp and lay by their arms.
"We must not," he said, "confound the innocent with the guilty. Those who were concerned in the attempt have paid the penalty with their lives; it is not because a handful of Spaniards have plotted against me that you are to swear hatred against the whole race; were you to punish the innocent for the guilty you would arouse the fury of the Iberians throughout the whole peninsula, and all our work would have to be done over again. You know that above all things I desire the friendship and good will of the natives. Nothing would grieve me more that that, just as we were attaining this, our efforts should be marred by a quarrel between yourselves and the people here. I pray you, therefore, as a personal favor to me, to abstain from all tumult and go quietly back to your camp. The attack upon my palace was made only by some thirty or forty of the scum of the inhabitants, and the attempt was defeated by the wisdom and courage of my young cousin Malchus, whom you must henceforth regard as the savior of my life."
The soldiers at once acceded to the request of their general, and after another outburst of cheering, they returned quietly to their camp.
The result of this affair was to render Malchus one of the most popular personages in the army, and the lad was quite abashed by the enthusiastic reception which the soldiers gave him when he passed among them. It removed, too, any feeling of jealousy which might have existed among his former comrades of the Carthaginian horse, for although it was considered as a matter of course in Carthage that generals should appoint their near relatives to posts of high command, human nature was then the same as now, and men not possessed of high patronage could not help grumbling a little at the promotion of those more fortunate than themselves. Henceforth, however, no voice was ever raised against the promotion of Malchus, and had he at once been appointed to a command of importance none would have deemed such a favor undeserved by the youth who had saved the life of Hannibal.