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

The End of Sciton

About ten days after the death of Hylax, Sciton was taken ill. He had been at work as usual with the vines, which were his especial charge, from an hour after sunrise till noon. Then he went home to his mid-day meal. He seemed to enjoy it as usual, and when it was finished took a short sleep, as his custom was. This mid-day sleep was almost the only way in which he seemed to allow that he was not quite so young as he had been. When he woke, instead of rising to go back as usual to the vineyard, he sat still. The daughter who lived with him, a middle-aged widow who had lost her husband many years before at Coronea, was quite surprised. She had never known him to do such a thing before, for indeed the old man had never had a day's illness. "My work is done," he said, in answer to her look; "I will sleep a little more." "Take a little wine first," she said; and she poured out a little from a jar which Elpinicé had given her for the old man's use. She put a little hot water to it and a spoonful of honey. Her father took a mouthful, and then settled himself to sleep. Pheido—that was the daughter's name—watched him for a few minutes till she saw that he was asleep, and then hurried to the great house to tell the master and mistress. There was something in her father's look and voice that made her feel quite sure that there was a change coming.

It so happened that the family doctor from Athens had come over the day before to pay his usual monthly visit. There was little hope of doing any thing for an old man of ninety; but still, every one was anxious to make things as easy as they could for him. When the news came, the doctor, who happily had found nothing for him to do in Leon's family household, had just come in from a walk. But it would not have been proper for him to visit the sick man in his walking dress. He went at once to his room, and put on a perfectly clean white robe. He had not been wearing any rings, but now he took two very handsome ones out of the case in which he carried his instruments and medicines; and he did not forget to put some scented oil on his hair, and brush it very carefully. You must not think that he took all this trouble because he was a fop, and wanted to look fine. Not so; it was a rule with him to please his patients. "They must not see any thing that is not pleasant, as far as it can be helped," he would say; and he took just as much trouble in this way for the poorest man or woman as he did for rich people.

When the doctor was ready, Leon and Elpinicé went with him to Sciton's cottage. The old man was now in bed, and did not seem to notice their coming in. The doctor sat down on a stool by his side, and felt his pulse. When he found how weak it was, he looked grave, and took a little bottle out of his case. He poured something out of this into a silver cup. This had a long spout, so that it could be easily put between a patient's lips. "Drink, father," he said into the old man's ear; and, at the same time, with the help of the daughter, who was standing on the other side of the bed, he raised him up a little. Sciton swallowed the draught. A minute or two afterwards a little color came into his cheek, and he opened his eyes.

He looked round the room, and his eye lighted up a little when he saw Leon. Still he seemed to miss something. Elpinicé guessed what he wanted, and whispered a few words to the maid whom she had brought with her. "He shall come, father," she said to the old man, for she knew that he wanted the little boy. It was easy to see, from the restful look that came into his eyes, that she had guessed right.

"I would make my will," he said. The doctor had his tablets and stylus out directly, for he was used to do this office for his patients. It was very short. "Let Leon, son of Hipponax, see that all I have be divided between my daughters. Only let Pheido, seeing that she is the elder, have the choice of such one thing as she may best like. The gods have not given me a son, therefore I give my shield to Leon; let him hang it, if he will, in his hall. My sword I give to Hipponax, son of Leon."

Just as he said these last words, the maid came back, leading the little boy by the hand. The old man beckoned to her to bring him to the bedside. Then he said to his daughter: "Fetch me my sword." She went and took it down from where it hung over the fire-place. "My son," said the old man to the little boy, "take this, and the gods give you strength to strike many a good blow for your country." Then he laid the weapon across the child's outstretched arms, put his right hand on the little fellow's head, and kept it there for about a minute. His lips were moving, but no one could hear what he said. When he removed his hand, Elpinicé signed to the maid to lead the child away. He marched out, looking solemn, but very proud, with the big sword still upon his arms. He could only just carry it.

For a little time Sciton lay with his eyes closed. Then he began to talk quickly. He was fighting his first battle over again. These were some of the words they caught: "Not quite so fast, master; I cannot keep pace with you. . . . See, that rascal is bending his bow. . . . He has it. . . . It is nothing, a mere scratch. . . . Lean on me, master till you can fetch your breath. . . . Dead! no, it is impossible; he was stronger than I." He opened his eyes, and his look fell on Leon. His face brightened in a way that none that stood there had ever seen before. "They told me you were dead, dear master, and here you are, sound and well. It is well; we will have another bout with these Persian dogs, if Arés please." He thought he was speaking to the young master by whose side he had fought some seventy years before on the Marathon plain. Perhaps he did see him, but not there. The next moment he had fallen back. There was the same happy look upon his face. The old Marathon hero was dead.

The next day Leon and his wife went to take a last look at the old man. He lay in a coffin of rough pottery work; a copper coin was between his lips; and between his hands, which were folded on his breast, was a cake made of flour, honey, and poppy seed. Perhaps you will ask what the coin and the cake were for. Well, it was the custom to put them there, and the reason of the custom was this. People believed that when a man was dead, his soul had to be ferried across the river that was called the Styx, and they put the coin in his lips that he might be able to pay the ferryman his fare for taking him. And they believed also that when he got across the river he would come to a narrow place in the way, where there was a very fierce dog with three heads, which would tear him in pieces unless it could be kept quiet. So they put the honey cake in his hands that he might throw it to the creature. You see the poppy seeds in it would make the dog fall asleep. I do not suppose that Leon, or indeed, that many people, believed these silly stories. But old customs often last long after there has ceased to be any reason for keeping them up. Flowers and herbs of various kinds, of which parsley was the chief, were strewed on the body. The two daughters sat by the bed of death, for, besides Pheido, he had another daughter who was married to a coppersmith in Athens. Now and then one or other of them would raise a shrill cry. Their hair hung down loose over their shoulders.


The Funeral of Sciton

Early in the morning of the next day Sciton was carried to his grave. A Marathon hero was not to be buried without some honors. Six noble youths had come from Athens to bear his coffin; and two of the chief magistrates, with six of the principal inhabitants of Marathon walked behind. Leon was there, leading little Hipponax by the hand. And behind the men walked the two daughters and Elpinicé. Last of all came four flute players. Of course the poor were not commonly buried with so much state; but then Sciton was a Marathon hero. The grave of the old man was in a place where he had often liked to sit in his lifetime. It was under an old olive-tree on the brow of a hill, from which you could see the Marathon plain and the battle-field. The coffin was put into a little vault made of bricks, and with it were a few little things such as cups and jars. Before the vault was closed up, Leon called out three times in a loud voice:

"Sciton, Sciton, Sciton."

Then all the party went back to Leon's house, where there was a feast given to the visitors from Athens and from the village. The dead man was supposed to be the host. Before they began to eat and drink, Leon poured out some wine from a cup upon the ground, saying: "Sciton offers this to Zeus the Protector, and to Athene, keeper of this city, and to all the gods and goddesses." Then he filled the cup again. and drank to the company, saying: "Sciton bids you welcome, and wishes you health and prosperity."

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