The Phoenician Ratman

28 Sep

Two men met at a dockside tavern in Carthage, their purpose one of mass murder.

The man who conceived of and developed the means of killing enormous numbers of trade competitors was named Gisgo. He had started working on commercial sailing ships at an early age and knew every craft and position. But when he had attempted to command a vessel in the western Mediterranean, a violent storm had sank the carrier along with all of his hopes. He was forced into working landside after that.

Captain Dagan was an experienced old veteran with many years at sea behind him. He had been to all the Phoenician colonies and trading outposts, as well as the ports of Spain and Italy. His reputation was one of steadfast honesty. But he had saved very little and had proved to have little sense of business. Dagan feared he would lack resources in his later years of life.

“I wished to speak to you about a project that I have worked on for several years,” began Gisgo. “Several friends have told me that you might agree to take part in carrying it out.”

The hazel eyes of Dagan grew wide. “What is it?” he asked with deep curiosity.

Gisgo spoke in a lowered voice. “It involves getting back at the Greeks by destroying their commercial harbors and outposts here on the western sea. I own a small lot in the country where I have experimented with a creature that, if secretly released, could decimate and cripple their merchant fleet. And no one could ever figure out where the poisoning factor came from. There would be no proof, no connection to the persons bringing the things to them. But we would have ruined the Greeks’ prosperous trade here in the West.”

Dagan stared intently at the short, thin man across the small table from him.

“What is this creature you refer to?” asked the ship captain. “What do you plan to do with it?”

The young plotter lowered his voice even more, until he was whispering.

“There is nothing more hazardous at sea than a rat carrying the plague of death. It kills through its unseen presence. Wherever it goes, so also does the plague from the East. The animal might as well be invisible, for there is insurmountable difficulty in capturing or eradicating any large number of seaborne rats. It is well known that once aboard a cargo vessel, they can travel to any port or harbor of the Mediterranean. Do you see what can be possible with them?”

Completely astounded, Dagan gave no answer.

“My hope is to recruit you into becoming the transporter of container boxes filled with the dangerous rats I have bred on my country property. They are all descended from contaminated ones I obtained when in our homeland of Phoenicia several years ago.

“You must take me and my boxes on your next voyage. I will pay you for the trip. We shall take vengeance on the Greeks for all they have done in reducing and ruining our commerce in this western region. I hope to convince you that my plan is feasible and justifiable. Together, we can restore our trading fleet to the supremacy it deserves.”

The two gazed at each other in silence.

Gisgo was able to read rising acceptance in the face and eyes of his new partner.

Five large wooden boxes, each a cubit high and three elbows wide, were brought aboard the sailing vessel of Captain Dagan. The containers had tiny breathing holes for the rats they held. Gisgo was the one responsible for taking care of and feeding the infection-carrying passengers. The crew was ordered to stay away from these odd boxes in the hold.

Gisgo carefully provided the rats grain to eat. The rodents appeared lethargic and passive, as if drugged into stupor.

“What is it you are giving them to feed on?” inquired the puzzled captain.

The keeper of the rats grinned sardonically. “The grain they eat is saturated with laudanum,” said Gisgo with a self-satisfied expression on his face. “It will keep them quiet until we land.”

Dagan frowned with heavy thoughts. “We informed everyone who asked at the Carthage harbor that we are on our way to Cadiz for a load of iron and copper, but I have ordered our pilot to steer toward Greek Marsalia. By anchoring a distance from the mouth of the harbor, you will be free to release the rats without anyone suspecting anything. Then we can escape with total safety.”

Gisgo had a faraway look in his chestnut brown eyes. “The rodents will increase in numbers once on land. As they search for food, their target will become the city at the mouth of the river coming down into the sea. We shall then be free to continue on as if we know nothing about what is happening at the Greek trade emporia of Marsalia.” He seemed to be seeing the coming ruin and destruction he wished to come about in his mind.

Gisgo, for the first time, talked to the navigator of the ship. This was a strong, stocky sailing master called Horon. The two soon became acquainted, conversing at length on the bow of the ship.

“I have spent several years on the Atlantic coast, on ships that bring silver and copper from the mines and smelters of Iberia and the African territories. We transported the materials to Phoenician cities in the eastern Mediterranean. I came in contact with many of our Greek rivals on my voyages in both directions and even learned to speak their language. They are quite sharp people, very intelligent traders indeed.”

“My experiences with them have been unhappy,” said Gisgo with a frown. “They do not have the character of our kind. I mean in a moral, civilized sense.”

“You have had unfavorable encounters with Greeks?”

The ratman looked away a moment before replying.

“It is a long story, but they are responsible for my losing the ship I once owned. Greeks undercut me on shipments I planned to make and depended on for paying for my vessel. I had to sell it at a great loss. Greek competition ruined my business prospects. I have never forgotten or forgiven them.”

Horon said no more on the subject but kept what he had heard in his memory.

Gisgo fed his rats with care, always being attentive to the need of keeping them securely in their boxes and preventing any escape. His task was a secret except for Captain Dagan, until one morning the navigator appeared out of the blue at the bottom of the hull.

“What are you doing there?” asked Horon with curiosity. “Is there something alive in the box?”

The ratman was for a moment flustered. “There are special creatures here that I am transporting for a purpose. The reason for them has not been given to any of the crew. Only the Captain and myself have knowledge of what is in the boxes and what we intend to the inhabitants.”

Horon bent down to have a closer look through the air holes.

“They look like rodents!” excitedly said that pilot as he righted himself.

“That is exactly what they are.”

Gisgo stared at the broad face of the other, finally deciding to let him in on the secret. He described the main points of the plan devised to cause death and destruction at the Greek colony of Marsalia.

Horon gasped at the ugliness of the revenge contemplated.

“That is incredibly adventurous,” he managed to say. “But will it work? Can such a bold enterprise end with success? I have never heard of anything so strange and deadly. How can anyone involved in a conspiracy so terrible ever sleep again?”

Gisgo seemed to smirk. “The audacity of what we have in mind means that none of the Greeks in Marsalia can foresee what is coming. Nor can the source of the fatal pestilence be found. The event will forever be a mystery to these evil merchants.”

“You think so?”

“I have never been so certain of anything,” affirmed Gisgo. “All my life experiences tell me that victory is in store for us.”

“But what will the effect on the consciences of the perpetrators be?” asked the navigator.

He received only silence in reply.

As they crossed the western Mediterranean, the two men argued at length, always away from the ears of the crew. But hints as to what they discussed escaped among the others and gradually gave them a vague notion of what was going on.

Horon grew indignant and aghast at the extent of the destruction planned.

Gisgo was compelled to defend the scheme with vehemence.

“We are in a maritime war for survival,” maintained the ratman. “The Greeks will rule the waves unless we act now.”

“It is madness for us to go on. The rats must be disposed of before it is too late.”

Back and forth the two of them quarreled. Their bitterness increased. Both man lost their tempers.

The day of arrival near Greek Marsalia approached.

A glorious reddish orange sunset dropped over the waters as the ship became anchored.

Captain Dagan whispered to Gisgo on the foredeck.

“The small rescue boat is ready for taking the boxes to the shore. That position is the best, in my opinion. It is close to the city, but deserted and empty of people.”

“The crew can start bringing up the boxes,” murmured Gisgo. “I will need one person to row, that is all. The two of us can release all the rats.”

“Everything will soon be ready to go,” softly said the Captain.

Gisgo was surprised that only one member of the crew volunteered to accompany him. It was Horon, the navigator so opposed to the enterprise.

The pair climbed down to the boat and the boxes were lowered to them in large nets.

When the boxes were aboard at last, Horon used an oar to move the boat away from the ship, toward the dark, lightless shore of the continent.

Neither passenger said a word for a time, till Gisgo decided to ask a question.

“Why did you agree to help me, when you held so many objections?”

The navigator hesitated, but at last replied.

“I have not reversed my thinking,” he asserted. “This is a demonic project, and you are mad.”

Gisgo had no chance to argue, for the other leaped to his feet and began to stamp on the bottom of the boat, making it wabble and shake.

Alarmed and stunned, the ratman sprang upright. But it was too late to save himself, for the boat was tipping over into the water.

“I cannot swim,” desperately shouted Gisgo as he fell into the sea.

Horon, confident he could cross the water in safety, leaped into it.  He was willing to allow the Mediterranean to swallow the rats and their master. His own conscience was clear.


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