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


Leon's party took a day's rest after their journey. Most of them needed it very much; the weather, too, was still too rough to make another excursion by sea quite pleasant. But when they woke on the second morning, the children found that the wind had gone down, and that the sun was shining brightly; and soon they heard with great delight from their father that they were to go to Salamis that day. Nurse was persuaded to stay at home, and though she was very unwilling to be separated from the dear children, and could hardly believe that they would be safe without her to look after them, she was not sorry to stop on dry land.

The Xantho  was a heavier vessel than was wanted for the excursion, so Leon hired a large rowing-boat, and four more men to help his own crew. These made up ten rowers; the mate steered; as for the captain he was so ashamed of himself that he had slipped away as soon as the Xantho  was made fast in the harbor, and never showed himself again. Leon and his party sat behind with a gay-colored awning over their heads to keep off the sun.

While they were on their way, Leon said to the mate: "Is old Ladon alive? Some one told me in the winter that he was not expected to live."

"Yes, he is alive," said the mate, "or was ten days ago, for I saw him fishing for sardines. Yes, and there he is this very moment," he went on, pointing to a little rock jutting out, where there was an old man sitting, with a long rod in his hand.

"Let us go and see whether he will come with us," said Leon. "It would be a thousand pities to see Salamis without old Ladon."

The mate then pointed the boat's head to the shore, taking care not to disturb the water where the old man was fishing. To have done that would have been to put him out of temper for the rest of the day. So they landed about a hundred yards away from the rock, and then made their way to it along the shore. The old man was so intent on his fishing that he did not notice their coming. A basket half full of the bright silvery little sardines was by his side, and every now and then he caught another, which a little boy—his great grandson, as the mate whispered to Leon—took off the hook.

"Hail! Ladon," said Leon.

"Who wants me?" said the old man, without turning his eyes from the float which he was watching.

"Leon, son of Hipponax."

The old man stood up and made a salute. "The good son of a good father!" he said, "the gods preserve you, my son! How can Ladon serve you?"

"Come and show us Salamis," said Leon, "and tell us the story of the battle."

Nothing could have pleased the old man better. He seemed to grow young again at the thought. No one would have thought him of the age he really was, close upon eighty.

"Come with me," he said, and led the way up the steep side of the hill so quickly that some of the party could scarcely keep up with him. In a short time they came to a flat place about as large as a tennis lawn. It was about five hundred feet above the sea. On their right hand the hill rose many hundred feet higher, on their left and behind them there was the city of Athens, with all its beautiful temples, and its harbors full of ships. But it was the view in front of them that they came to see.

If you will look at this little map it will help you to understand what the old man told his friends. (You will have guessed that he had himself fought in the battle.) I need only tell you that the line of Greek ships is to the left and the Persian to the right.

"So you want to hear about the battle. Well, there is the place where it was fought, and this place where we are now is where the king of the Persians had his throne set, that he might see how his people fought. Well, you know what had happened before, so I need only tell you what I saw myself.

"You must know that I was in the admiral's own ship, and always used to attend upon him when he went to see the other admirals. Well, the night before the battle was fought he was at the Spartan admiral's ship, where all the principal captains were assembled. I had rowed him over in a little skiff, and was waiting for him. They had been talking for more than a couple of hours, and talking sometimes very loud too. I could hear their voices. Sometimes two or three would speak at once, and though I could not exactly make out what they said, I felt sure that there was some great dispute. Indeed, most of us knew what it was about. The Greeks from the south wanted to get away, and our admiral was very urgent that they should stop, and fight the Persians where they were. Well, my admiral came out from the cabin where the council was being held, and got into the boat. 'Back to the ship as quick as you can,' he said. There was just enough light for me to see that he looked like a man that was going to do something desperate. 'Wait,' he said, when we got to the ship, 'I have somewhere else to send you.' In about half an hour he came out of his cabin with a young man who was tutor to his children, and said to me: 'Can I trust you?' 'To the death, my lord,' I answered. 'Then row over with my friend here to the Persian admiral's ship. He has something to say to him from me.' You may guess how astonished I was. To the Persian admiral's, indeed! Why, this seemed as if it were worse than death—it looked like treachery. However, it was not for me to object. If he trusted me I must trust him, and I knew that there was not a man who had done more for Athens, and loved her better than he. So the tutor stepped into the boat, and I rowed him as quickly as I could towards the Persian ships. I don't mind saying that I was terribly frightened. I did not much like going among the Persians. You see we had not behaved quite well to some of their messengers, and there was no knowing what they might do to us. But that was not the worst of it. It was my own countrymen that I was afraid of. You see, they would be sure to take us for deserters. And if I had known what was in the letter that the tutor was taking with him, I really do not think that I could have made up my mind to go. We had one very narrow escape. As I was rowing by the outside ship of our fleet, I heard the look-out man say, 'Halt there, runaway,' and a moment afterwards felt a great javelin whizz by within a span of my head. However, by good luck, it missed me, and we got safe to the Persian admiral's. Our business there was soon done. It was only to deliver the letter. Very glad I was when this piece of work was finished, and we were among our own people again. My admiral went back to the Spartan admiral's ship, and there the same kind of angry talk went on for hours and hours. As for me, I was quite tired out with waiting, and fell fast asleep. I was woke by some one touching me on the shoulder. It was one of our greatest men at Athens, no friend of my admiral's, but a good man for all that. They used to call him 'The Just.' 'Tell the admiral that I would speak to him.' So I went to the cabin door and gave the message.

"You know what 'The Just' had come to say. There was no question any longer of running away. The Persians had blocked up the passage, that which you see right before you, and we had to stop and fight whether we liked it or no. We did not know then that the letter which we had carried to the Persian admiral was to tell him that the Greeks were going to escape, and that if he wanted to catch them, he must block up the passage. And this was what he had done.

"Well, I think that everybody was relieved when the word was passed through the fleet that we should fight next morning. I know that we Athenians were delighted. By sunrise we were all ready, our anchors drawn up, and our stern-cables unfastened.

"There were the Persian ships drawn up against us in a long line, larger and closer than ours, for there were twice as many of them. And we could see the Persian king quite plainly, sitting on this place where we are standing now, with a little crowd of his courtiers around him. The gold and purple which they wore were quite plain, with the sun shining upon them. I was standing, I should tell you, by the admiral's side.

"Well, we began to row out to meet the Persian ships. But there were some faint-hearted ones, who did not like the look of that great black line which seemed so much stronger than ours, and some rowed very slowly, and some stopped still, and some even began to back water. And there happened a very wonderful thing. I cannot say that I saw it myself, or that I ever talked with any one who did see it with his own eyes; but still there is no doubt that it happened. A goddess came down from the sky, and said with a loud voice: 'My good men, how much farther are you going to back water?' But it is certain, for this I did see, that in a moment every one took courage, and the whole line of our ships dashed forward as fast as the men could make them go.

"As for telling you all that happened after that, I could no more do it than I could count the waves of the sea there. But there was one thing that any one could see, that we fought with one mind, and tried to help each other, and that they did not. You see they did not know each other, or care for each other; and then, they were not fighting for their own homes. But there were brave men among them too. We had a desperate fight with the Persian admiral's ship—I knew it, you see, because it was the very one that I had been to the night before. Our admiral attacked him on one side, and another Athenian ship on the other. And when we were close together, he tried to board us. He led the boarding party himself. What a splendid man he was! Four cubits and a half high, with a purple turban, with a feather in it, on his head, and a silver coat of mail, and a large curved sword. How he swept about with that sword! I saw him cut one man's head clean off. And his coat of mail turned a great many blows. At last our admiral ran him through the neck with his spear. When he was dead his people stopped fighting. They always did that. You see they are not equal and free as we are. One is master with them, and all the rest are slaves. And when the master is dead, the slaves are good for nothing.


Atossa's Dream

"But the most wonderful thing that I saw that day was done by a woman. She was the queen of a city over there, I was told, and she had come to help the Persian king. We saw her standing in the stern of her ship, with her long hair, just the color of gold, over her shoulders, and a helmet on her head, and a spear in her hand. There was a Greek ship pursuing her vessel, and when she saw that she could not escape, she told her steersman to ram another ship that was close in front of her. And so he did, and sank it too. It was one of her own friends; but that did not matter to her. When the people in the Greek ship saw this, they left off pursuing, for, of course, when they saw her sink an enemy, they thought that she must be a friend. Our admiral knew better, but he always liked to see a clever thing, and I heard him mutter to himself: 'Well done! well done!' Still, he would have a try to take her himself, for he thought it a most impudent thing that a woman should presume to attack Athens. But we were too far off. So she got safe away, and I heard had praises and presents without number from the Persian king. 'My men are become women, and my women men,' he said. Of course he never knew but that the ship that she sunk was really a Greek; not a single man of the crew lived to tell the story. That was the most wonderful thing that I saw; but it was a great day."

"Ah!" said Leon, "the old Persian queen's dream came true."

"What was that, father?" asked Gorgo.

"One night, after her son had been gone several months, she dreamt that she saw two sisters, both the most beautiful women she had ever beheld. One was dressed like a Persian and the other like a Greek. And it seemed to her that her son tried to harness them in his chariot, and that the one in the Persian dress was very quiet, but that the other struggled very fiercely, and turned round, and tore the harness to pieces, and broke the top of the chariot, so that her son was tumbled out of it on the ground. That was the queen's dream."

"And it served him right," said Hipponax, "for trying to harness a Greek lady like a horse."

"Why, my son," said Leon, "I saw you harnessing Rhodium only the other day."

"But that was only in fun, and besides, I am a Greek boy, and not a cowardly Persian."

After this the party went down to the boat again, and rowed over to the island of Salamis, and saw all the places that the old man had talked about from close by. It was almost dark when they got back to Peiræus after a most delightful day.

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