Gateway to the Classics: Three Greek Children by Alfred J. Church
Three Greek Children by  Alfred J. Church

The Story of Aristomenes

One day, when the children were out for a walk with the maid that waited on them, a sudden storm of rain came on. They ran for shelter to a house that was close by. It was a farm-house, and the farmer's wife took them into her kitchen that they might get warm by the fire. There was a very old woman sitting in the chimney corner, who was getting some wool ready for spinning. The farmer's wife whispered: "That is my husband's mother. Don't take any notice of her; for she very seldom speaks to any one." Very stern the old woman looked as she sat there, not seeming to see any thing but the wool that she was winding. For some time the children were too busy with the bread and milk which the farmer's wife gave them to say any thing. But when they had finished it, they began to talk; and as soon as the old woman heard their voices, she turned to her daughter and said: "Who are these strangers?" "I do not know, mother," said the daughter, "but they are strangers, for their speech is not as ours." Then the maid explained who they were, and how they had come to Sparta. When she had finished her story, the old woman beckoned to Hipponax that he should come and stand by her. So he came, and she put her hands on his head, and said: "Boy, do you love the Spartans?" "No," said he, "for they are the enemies of my people." "And they have taken my people's land," said the old woman. "It is many, many years ago, but we do not forget; and some day we shall go back. Now listen to me. I don't often talk of these things, for the people about me have no spirit. There is my daughter's husband; he has his farm from a Spartan and dares not say any thing against them; but you are a brave boy, and shall hear the story of a brave man."

The Story of Aristomenes

"A long time ago the people from whom I came fought against the Spartans, who tried to take their country from them. They fought for many years; and sometimes one side got the better, and sometimes the other; but there were more of the Spartans than of our people; and, on the whole, they prevailed. Then our kings and rulers sometimes did foolish things. But the real reason for our being conquered in the end was that the gods would have it so. It was their pleasure that the Messenians—that was the name of my people—should be driven away from their country, and I supposed that we had deserved it. But we shall come back, we shall come back some day. Now I am going to tell you of some of the wonderful things that happened to a man whom our people made their general, after they had been fighting for several years.

"One day he heard that the women from Sparta were going to keep a feast to the goddess Demeter. So he lay in wait, he and fifty men with him, in a little wood by the side of the road, and when the women came by on their way to the temple he and his men rushed out on them."

"But," said Gorgo, "it was not very brave of him to make war upon women."

"You see," said the old woman, who was not at all offended, but liked the girl's spirit in answering,—"you see he thought that if he could take the women prisoners, their husbands and brothers and fathers would be willing to make peace, so that they might get them back. But perhaps you are right, my child; and anyhow he did not get much good from what he tried to do. For some of the women had knives with them, the knives which they used for killing the sheep that were to be sacrificed; and all of them had spits for cooking the flesh of the sheep. So they turned on the Messenians, and wounded many of them, and even killed four or five. And Aristomenes himself they took prisoner. You see these Spartan women were very strong, for they always had the same games and exercises as the men.

"Well, when the women had taken him prisoner, they bound him with a strong rope, and shut him up in the temple, thinking that he was quite safe there, and that the next morning they would take him to Sparta. But, when they came to look for him next morning, lo and behold, he was gone. All that they could find was the rope burnt through in several places. Now, what he had done was this. There was a fire in the temple, and Aristomenes rolled over and over on the ground from the place where they had put him till he got quite close to the fire. Then he put first one arm with the rope on it into the fire till the rope was burnt through, and then the other. The fire burnt his arms dreadfully, as you may suppose, while it was burning the rope, but he did not mind that, so long as he was free again. You see, as soon as he got his arms free, he could untie the rope from his legs. If he had had to burn his legs too he would hardly have been able to escape. As it was, the Spartans could not believe that he had done it, and they would have it that the priestess had cut the rope with a knife, because she was an old sweetheart of his, and then put it in the fire so as to look as if it had been burnt.

"Some time after this a terrible thing happened to him. He got together a great army, both of his own people and of the Arcadians who live among the hills, and who hated the Spartans just as much as he did. But the Spartans bribed the king of the Arcadians to play him false. And this he did, for in the middle of the battle he gave the signal to his soldiers that they were to run away, and so left the Messenians alone. That day Aristomenes lost nearly all his army.

"For all this he would not give in; but he and some brave men that still followed him shut themselves up in a fort that was on the top of a mountain, called Eira. The Spartans besieged the fort for eleven years, without being able to take it; indeed it would often happen that Aristomenes made his way out without their knowing any thing about it, and plundered the country round about. At last he became so bold that he attacked a Spartan army that was marching along under one of their kings, and was at least ten times as big as his own little company. While he was fighting, some one threw a stone at him from behind and hit him on the head. The blow made him quite dizzy, and before he could recover, a number of Spartans rushed upon him, and took him prisoner. Fifty of his own men were also taken at the same time.

"The Spartans determined to put all these prisoners to death. They threw them down into a great cave that there was in a mountain near the city. All the others were killed by the fall, but somehow or other Aristomenes was alive when he came to the bottom. I cannot say how this happened. Some people tell a story of how an eagle flew under him, and kept him up with its wings. I don't know whether this can be true. Perhaps, being a very strong man, he was able to hold himself up by some shrubs that grew out of the side of the rock, and so broke his fall. Anyhow, he was not killed: at first he thought it would have been better if he had, fearing he should be starved to death. He wrapped his face in his cloak, and sat down to wait till his time came. But after two days he heard a noise, and looking out he saw a jackal that was eating one of the dead bodies. Then he said to himself. 'There must be some hole by which that jackal gets in and out; and I will make it show me.' So he crept along as quietly as he could till he was quite close to the beast, and then he caught it by the tail. Of course it turned and tried to bite him; but he had covered his hand with his cloak, and it could not hurt him very much. Then it ran away, and Aristomenes ran with it, still holding it by the tail, till it came to the hole by which it got into the cave. It was a very small hole, but the brave hero soon made it larger by pulling away stones. Before long he was back at Eira, and very glad his followers were to see him. They had long before given him up for lost. As for the Spartans, they could not believe their eyes when he showed himself on the wall of the fort.

"Not many days afterwards he showed that it was he, and no one else. The people of Corinth sent an army to help the Spartans to take the fort. Aristomenes thought that very likely they would be marching carelessly, especially as they thought that he was dead. And so it turned out. He came upon them as they were sleeping in their camp without any guard, and killed a great many of them. Perhaps you have never heard that when a man has killed a hundred enemies with his own hand, he offers a special sacrifice to the gods. Aristomenes did this for the second time, after he had killed these Corinthians; and they say that before he was obliged to give over fighting he did it a third time.

"Not long after this he was taken prisoner again. The Spartans made a truce with the people in Eira for forty days, and went to keep a certain feast at home. So he came out of Eira, and went about the country feeling quite safe."

"But were the Spartans so wicked that they broke the truce?" asked Gorgo, in a very indignant voice.

"No, child; I hate them, but I don't think that they would do that. There were some archers from the island of Crete whom they had hired to help. These men did not know or care any thing about the truce, and they came upon Aristomenes as he was walking without any arms, and took him prisoner. There were seven of them, and two ran as fast as they could to Sparta with the news that Aristomenes was taken, and the other five took him to a farm-house that was close by."

"Of course," said Gorgo, "the Spartans would not have taken advantage of this, but would have let him go."

"Perhaps so," said the old woman, with a little laugh, "but they did not have the chance. In the farmhouse there lived a widow with her daughter. The night before the girl dreamed that some wolves had brought a lion to the house, that was bound with ropes, and had no claws, and that she had loosed the lion from the ropes, and had given it claws. So when the archers came in with their prisoner, boasting what a piece of luck they had had, the girl said to herself, 'This is the lion, and these are wolves. And if the first half of my dream has come true, I don't see why the second should not come true also.' So she gave the archers a great quantity of wine to drink with their supper, and when they were fast asleep she took the sword of one of them, and cut the bonds of Aristomenes and then gave him the sword. He killed all five of them, and got safe away."

"And did he conquer the Spartans after all?" asked Hipponax, who did not understand about things very clearly.

"No, my son," said the old woman, "for Eira was taken that very year by the treachery of a bad woman; but I cannot tell you the story; it is not fit for you to hear such wicked things."

"And what became of the people that were in it?" said one of the children.

"Some were taken prisoners, and made slaves. I am descended from one of them. But Aristomenes himself got away, and some of his brave companions with him. Of course they are all dead long since, for it is many, many years ago. But their children will come back some day, though I shall not live to see it."

"I hope the wicked king of Arcadia, who took the bribe, was punished," said Gorgo.

"Yes," said the old lady; "when his people found out how wicked he had been, they stoned him to death. Aristomenes was there, but when they looked at him to see whether he was not glad to see the traitor punished, he was crying. He had a very tender heart, though he did kill so many people."

"And what happened to the girl that had the dream about the lion and the wolves?"

"Oh, she married Aristomenes' son, and lived happily with him ever after, for he escaped with his father."

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