The beams of the rising sun had gilded the lofty domes of Carthage, and given, with its rich and mellow light, a tinge of beauty even to the frowning ramparts of the outer harbor. Sheltered by the verdant shores, a hundred triremes were riding proudly at their anchors, their brazen beaks glittering in the sun, their streamers dancing in the morning breeze, while many a shattered plank and timber gave evidence of desperate conflict with the fleets of Rome.
No murmur of business or of revelry arose from the city. The artisan had forsaken his shop, the judge his tribunal, the priest the sanctuary, and even the stern stoic had come forth from his retirement to mingle with the crowd that, anxious and agitated, were rushing toward the senate-house, startled by the report that Regulus had returned to Carthage.
Onward, still onward, trampling each other under foot, they rushed, furious with anger, and eager for revenge. Fathers were there, whose sons were groaning in fetters; maidens, whose lovers, weak and wounded, were dying in the dungeons of Rome, and gray-haired men and matrons, whom the Roman sword had left childless.
But when the stern features of Regulus were seen, and his colossal form towering above the ambassadors who had returned with him from Rome; when the news passed from lip to lip that the dreaded warrior, so far from advising the Roman senate to consent to an exchange of prisoners, had urged them to pursue, with exterminating vengeance, Carthage and Carthaginians,--the multitude swayed to and fro like a forest beneath a tempest, and the rage and hate of that tumultuous throng vented itself in groans, and curses, and yells of vengeance.
But calm, cold, and immovable as the marble walls around him, stood the Roman; and he stretched out his hand over that frenzied crowd, with gesture as proudly commanding as though he still stood at the head of the gleaming cohorts of Rome. The tumult ceased; the curse, half muttered, died upon the lip; and so intense was the silence, that the clanking of the brazen manacles upon the wrists of the captive fell sharp and full upon every ear in that vast assembly, as he thus addressed them:--
"Ye doubtless thought--for ye judge of Roman virtue by your own--that I would break my plighted oath, rather than, returning, brook your vengeance. I might give reasons for this, in Punic comprehension, most foolish act of mine. I might speak of those eternal principles which make death for one's country a pleasure, not a pain. But, by great Jupiter! methinks I should debase myself to talk of such high things to you; to you, expert in womanly inventions; to you, well-skilled to drive a treacherous trade with simple Africans for ivory and gold!
"If the bright blood that fills my veins, transmitted free from godlike ancestry, were like that slimy ooze which stagnates in your arteries, I had remained at home, and broke my plighted oath to save my life. I am a Roman citizen; therefore have I returned, that ye might work your will upon this mass of flesh and bones, that I esteem no higher than the rags that cover them.
"Here, in your capital, do I defy you. Have I not conquered your armies, fired your towns, and dragged your generals at my chariot wheels, since first my youthful arms could wield a spear? And do you think to see me crouch and cower before a tamed and shattered senate? The tearing of flesh and rending of sinews is but pastime compared with the mental agony that heaves my frame.
"The moon has scarce yet waned since the proudest of Rome's proud matrons, the mother upon whose breast I slept, and whose fair brow so oft had bent over me before the noise of battle had stirred my blood, or the fierce toil of war nerved my sinews, did, with fondest memory of bygone hours, entreat me to remain. I have seen her, who, when my country called me to the field, did buckle on my harness with trembling hands, while the tears fell thick and fast down the hard corselet scales--I have seen her tear her gray locks and beat her aged breast, as on her knees she begged me not to return to Carthage! and all the assembled senate of Rome, grave and reverend men, proffered the same request. The puny torments which ye have in store to welcome me withal, shall be, to what I have endured, even as the murmur of a summer's brook to the fierce roar of angry surges on a rocky beach.
"Last night, as I lay fettered in my dungeon, I heard a strange, ominous sound; it seemed like the distant march of some vast army, their harness clanging as they marched, when suddenly there stood by me Xanthippus, the Spartan general, by whose aid you conquered me, and, with a voice as low as when the solemn wind moans through the leaflless forest, he thus addressed me:--
"'Roman, I come to bid thee curse, with thy dying breath, this fated city: know that in an evil moment, the Carthaginian generals, furious with rage that I had conquered thee, their conqueror, did basely murder me. And then they thought to stain my brightest honor. But, for this foul deed, the wrath of Jove shall rest upon them here and hereafter.' And then he vanished.
"And now, go bring your sharpest torments. The woes I see impending over this guilty realm shall be enough to sweeten death, though every nerve and artery were a shooting pang. I die! but my death shall prove a proud triumph; and, for every drop of blood ye from my veins do draw, your own shall flow in rivers.
"Woe to thee, Carthage! Woe to the proud city of the waters! I see thy nobles wailing at the feet of Roman senators! thy citizens in terror! thy ships in flames! I hear the victorious shouts of Rome! I see her eagles glittering on thy ramparts. Proud city, thou art doomed! The curse of God is on thee--a clinging, wasting curse. It shall not leave thy gates till hungry flames shall lick the fretted gold from off thy proud palaces, and every brook runs crimson to the sea."