THE two companions, at the prince's request, shared the same room, and sat up late into the night, considering what was next to be done. The king's palace, where they were quartered, almost adjoined the temple. But, beyond the fact that they were near to the scene of their proposed operations, they could see little light. A hundred plans were started, discussed, and rejected, and they threw themselves down on their beds as dawn began to steal through the windows of their apartment, with a feeling of something like despair. They had come, however, to one conclusion. The Sidonian was to pay a visit to the temple early on the following morning. There would be nothing singular in his doing so. In fact, it would be more remarkable if he did not. If Melkarth was specially worshipped in Tyre, he was, at the same time, not without honour in Sidon; and a prince of the reigning house, the heir, in fact, to the throne, would be expected to pay his respects to the god. Charidemus, on the other hand, it was felt, would do well to stop away. The popular temper was angry and suspicious, and it would be well to avoid anything that might irritate it.
The prince paid his visit accordingly, was present at the morning sacrifice, and propitiated the priests of the temple by an offering of twelve of the gold pieces with which he had prudently filled his pockets. This, however, meant very little. A more hopeful fact, as regarded their chances of success, was the discovery that one of the temple attendants was an old acquaintance of the prince's, like him a Sidonian by birth, who had worked with him in the dockyards, and had now found a easier place in one of the subordinate offices of the temple. The prince suspected that the man had the charge of the victims, having seen him carry what looked like a basket of provisions into one of the ante-chambers of the temple, but, for fear of arousing suspicion, had not made any inquiries on the subject. He had not even, for the present, discovered himself to his old comrade. The question was, how far the man could be trusted. If he betrayed them, all was lost; on the other hand, could his help be secured, the prospect of escape for themselves and Charondas was most hopeful. And they had large inducements to offer, a handsome sum of money in hand, the promise of his life should the city be taken, and the hope of future advancement in his profession. He might be a fanatic. In that case all would be lost. But the presumption was against the idea. Fanaticism ws commonly found in those who worship in a temple rather than in those who serve in it. He might, again, be a coward. That would be equally fatal. But, if he were a man of average temper and courage, who would be willing to rescue a fellow creature from death, if he found himself well paid for doing it, things might go well.
It was finally agreed—indeed no prospect seemed to open out in any other direction—that the prince should discover himself to the man, and sound him. This was done, and with a result that was fairly satisfactory, as far as it went. The man had been much impressed by the new dignity of his former comrade, and still more by his condescension and kindness in seeking him out, and he had been effusively grateful for a present of half-a-score of gold pieces. Asked about his pay and his duties, he had told his questioner that he had charge of the victims destined for sacrifice, and had mentioned that he had several under his care at the moment. He spoke of one in particular with a good deal of feeling. He was a fine young fellow, and he was very sorry for him. It seemed a monstrous thing to butcher him in this fashion. In the course of the conversation it came out that there was a serious difficulty in the case. The care of the victims was divided between two attendants, and the other, according to the Sidonian's account, was a brutal and fanatical fellow, who gloated over the fate of his charges.
After long and anxious consideration a plan was finally decided upon, subject, of course, to such modifications as circumstances might suggest. The prince and Charidemus, the latter being disguised as a slave, were to make their way into the temple, shortly before it was closed for the night. Then, and not till then, the friendly attendant was to be taken into confidence. He seemed a man whom the weight of a secret might very likely so burden as to make him helpless, and who might be best won by large bribes and offers made at the last moment. If the worst came to the worst, he might be overpowered, a course that would certainly have to be taken with his colleague.
There was a private way from the palace into the temple, which was almost in darkness when the companions reached it. Whatever light there was came from a single lamp that hung between the two famous pillars, one of gold, and one, it was said, of emerald, which were the glory of the place and the admiration of travellers. Charidemus had no thoughts for anything but the perilous task that he had in hand, though he carried away from the place a general impression of vast wealth and barbaric splendour.
The friendly attendant came forward to meet the new-comers. The prince caught him by the arm. "Swear," he said, "by Melkarth, to help us, and don't utter another sound, or you die this instant." The man stammered out the oath.
"That is well," said the prince, "we knew that we could trust you. You shall have wealth and honour. When Alexander is master of Tyre, you shall be priest of the temple. Now listen to what we want. We must have this Greek prisoner who is to be sacrificed to the god at the feast of the new moon. He is dear to our king, and must not die."
At this moment the other attendant came up the central avenue of the temple, of course utterly unsuspicious of danger. The prince, a young man of more than usual muscular power, seized him by the throat. He uttered a stifled cry, which, however, there was no one in the temple to hear. The next moment he was gagged, bound hand and foot, and dragged into a small side chapel, the door of which was fastened upon him from the outside. His keys had previously been taken from him.
"Now for the prisoner," said the prince.
The attendant led the way to a door that opened out from the north-east corner of the temple, and this he unlocked. It led into a spacious chamber well lighted by two lamps that hung from the arched ceiling. Charondas was seated on a chair of ebony and ivory; all the belongings of the place were handsome and even costly. Round his waist was a massive chain of gold (the prisoners of the god could not be bound by anything less precious), which was fastened to a staple in the wall. The attendant unlocked it, using—for the lock was double—first his own key, and then one that had been taken from the person of his colleague.
"Explanations afterwards," whispered Charidemus; "now we must act."
The prince looked inquiringly at the attendant. What was to be done after the release of the prisoner was to be left, it had been agreed, to circumstances. What the circumstances really were, no one knew so well as this man.
"I have it," cried the temple servant, meditating for a few moments, and he led the way to a small chamber used for keeping the sacred vestments. He then explained his plan.
"There is a small temple at the mouth of the southern harbour. If we can get there, it will be something; and I think we can. Anyhow it is our best chance."
Charidemus and the prince were disguised as priests. So ample were the robes that the figure of the person wearing them became undistinguishable, while the tall mitre with which the head was covered could be so worn that any slight difference of height would not be observed. The attendant, when he had finished robing them, an operation that of course he performed with a practised skill, pronounced that they made a very good pair of priests. He wore his own official dress, and arrayed the Theban in one that belonged to his comrade.
Thus equipped, the party set out, the pretended priests in front, and the attendants behind, holding a canopy over their superiors. They made their way at the slow and measured pace that befitted their profession to the harbour temple, passed the guard which was set at the land entrance to the port without challenge, and reached the sacred building without any mishap.
They were now close to the water, and could even see the friendly ships of the southern blockading squadron; but the guard ships by which the mouth of the harbour was closed were between them and safety. The question was, how these were to be passed. It was a question that had to be answered without delay, for they could see from a window of the temple which commanded a view of the whole harbour signs of commotion, such as the flashing of torches, which indicated that their escape had been discovered.
This indeed was the case. The king had sent an attendant a little after sunset to summon his guests to the evening meal. He reported their absence to his master, who, however, for a time suspected nothing. But when a second messenger found them still absent, inquiries were made. Some one had heard sounds in the temple, and the temple was searched; after that everything else that had happened could be seen or guessed.
Nothing remained for the fugitives but to strip off their garments and plunge into the water. Unfortunately the temple attendant was an indifferent swimmer. A boat, however, was lying moored some thirty yards from the shore, and this the party managed to reach. But by the time that they had all clambered on board, a thing which it always takes some time to do, the pursuers were within a hundred yards of the harbour-temple.
At each end of the row of ships by which the harbour mouth was protected, was an empty hulk, and that between the hulk and the pier side was a narrow opening only just broad and deep enough for a boat to pass over. This the prince had observed on some former occasion when he had been reconnoitring the defences of the harbour, and he now steered towards it, the rowers tugging at their oars with all their might. The boat had nearly reached the passage when the manœuvre was observed. The crew of the nearest ship hastened to get on board the hulk; but the distance between these two was too great for a leap, and in the darkness the gangway commonly used could not be at once found. At the very moment when it was put into position the boat had cleared the passage. So shallow indeed was the water that the hinder part of the keel had stuck for a few moments, but when the four occupants threw their weight into the bow, which was already in deeper water, it floated over.
Happily the night was very dark. The sky was overcast, and it still wanted a day to the new moon. Nor did the torches with which the whole line of galleys was ablaze, make it easier to distinguish an object outside the range of their light. Still the boat could be dimly seen, and till it was beyond the range of missiles the fugitives could not consider themselves safe. And indeed they did not wholly escape. Both Charidemus and Charondas were struck with bullets that caused somewhat painful contusions, the prince was slightly wounded in the hand, and the attendant more seriously in the arm, which was indeed almost pierced through by an arrow. A few more strokes, however, carried them out of range, and they were safe.