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Alfred J. Church

The News at Athens

The Skylark excelled herself in the display of her sailing qualities. Thanks to this, Callias, in spite of the untoward delays which had occurred on his journey, was the first to bring intelligence of the victory to Athens. The news ran like wild fire through the city, gathering, as may be supposed, a vast number of imaginary details, as it passed from mouth to mouth, and the assembly which was called by proclamation for the next day, to hear the reading of the despatches, was, considering the empty condition of the city, most unusually crowded. No one who could crawl to the market-place was absent, and all the entrances and approaches were thronged by women, children, and slaves. The first stress of fear had been relieved, for it was known that a victory had been won; but there was still much room for anxiety. The victory had not been gained without cost—no victories ever were—and it was only too probable that in this case the cost had been heavy. The despatch was brief and formal. It told the numbers engaged, and the order of formation, with the number of hostile vessels captured or sunk. It mentioned the fact that there had been losses on the side of the conquerors, and promised details when there should have been time to ascertain the facts.

After the assembly had been dismissed, Callias was overwhelmed with enquiries. To these he thought it well to return very vague answers. The fact was that there was much that he knew and much that he did not know. He knew the name of more than one of the ships that had been sunk or disabled. Two or three had been run down before his eyes. About others he had information almost equally certain. He could have told some of his questioners what would have confirmed their worst fears. On the other hand he could not give anything like a complete list of the losses. Some enquirers he could reassure. He had seen or even talked to their friends after the battle. All the admirals, he knew, were safe. And steps, he was sure, had been taken to rescue the shipwrecked crews. On the subject of Diomedon's fears he preserved absolute silence. If any disaster had happened, it was only too sure to be heard of before long.

On the evening of the day of assembly a great banquet was held in the Prytaneum, or Town-hall of Athens. Such a banquet was always an interesting sight, and on this occasion Callias, as he witnessed it for the first time, also saw it to the very greatest advantage. All the public guests of the city that were not absent, on active service, or were not positively hindered from coming by age or infirmity were present. The ranks of these veterans were indeed sadly thinned. The war had been curiously deadly to officers high in command. The fatal expedition to Sicily had swept off many of the most distinguished. Others had fallen in the "little wars" in which Athens like all states that have wide dominions had been perpetually involved. One famous survivor of a generation that had long since passed away was there, Myronides, the victor of Œnophyta. The old man had been born in the Marathon year, and was therefore now eighty-four. His life, it will be seen, embraced with remarkable exactitude the period of the greatness of Athens. The victory that had made him famous had been won fifty-one years before, and had been, so to speak, the "high water mark" of Athenian dominion. He had lived to see almost its lowest ebb, though happily for himself as he died before the year was out, he was spared from seeing the absolute ruin of his country. Callias was distantly related to him and was on terms of as close a friendship as the difference of age permitted with his son Eteonicus, one of the ablest and most patriotic statesmen of the time. After the libation which was the usual signal for the wine drinking, had been poured, the old man rose from his place, as his habit was, and walked down the hell, touching our hero on his shoulder as he passed.

"Come," he said, as Callias looked up, "if you can spare half an hour from the wine cup to bear an old man company."

The young man immediately left his place and accompanied the veteran to one of the small chambers leading from the hall.

"And now tell me all about it," he said, when they were seated.

Callias gave him as full an account as he could of all that he had seen during the campaign. Myronides plied him with questions that showed an intelligence of unabated vigor. The armament and sailing qualities of the ships, the morale and physique of the crews, every detail, in fact, that concerned the efficiency of the force that Athens had in the field, were subjects of liveliest interest to the old man. When he had heard all that his young kinsman had to say, he heaved a deep sigh. "Ah! my dear boy," he said, "things have come to a pretty pass with Athens. As an old soldier I know what some of the things that you tell me mean better than you do yourself. We are near the beginning of the end, and I can only hope that I shall be gone when the end itself comes. I don't mean that this is not a great victory that Diomedon and the rest of them have won; but it is a victory that will never be won again. In the very nature of things it can not. Do you think that the old men and boys that I won the day with at Œnophyta would have sufficed for a regular force, a force that the city could rely on? Of course not. I could not even have afforded to risk the chance if they had not had something strong behind them. But now what is there? Old men and boys, and nothing behind them. The slaves, you say? Very good; they fought very well, I hear. And of course they will get their freedom. Do you think that they will fight as well again after they have got it? Why should they? A man may as well die as be a slave, and so they might very well risk their lives to get free. But, once free, why should they risk them again?"

"What!" cried Callias, "not to keep the Spartans out of Athens?"

"You talk as an Athenian," said the old man, "and they are not Athenians. You and I, I allow, would sooner die than see Spartans within the walls: but what would it matter to them? They could eat and drink, buy and sell just as comfortably whoever might be their masters. Yes, my son; it is all over with a city that has to fall back on its slaves. There is only one chance, and that is to make peace now, before we lose all that we have gained. But what chance is there of that? Is there anyone who would even dare to propose such a thing?"

"You would, sir," said the young man.

"Yes, I might; but to what profit? I don't suppose they would do me any harm. 'Poor old man!' they would say, 'he dotes.' But as for listening to me—I know better than that. Is there one of the responsible statesmen who would venture to give such advice? Would my son Eteonicus venture? Not he; and yet he is a sensible and honest young, man, and knows that I am right. But it would be as much as his life, or, what he values more, his whole career is worth, to hint at such thing. Oh! what opportunities I have seen lost in this way. Unfortunately a victory makes the Athenians quite impracticable. They don't seem capable of realizing that the wheel is certain to take a turn. But you have had enough of an old man's croakings. The gods grant that these things may turn out better than my fears! And now give me your arm to the gate, where my people will be waiting for me."

Callias conducted the old man to the door, and saw him put safely into the litter which was waiting for him. He then stood meditating how he should dispose of himself for the rest of the evening. He was unwilling to return to the banquet. Questions would be put to him, he knew, by many of the guests to which it would be difficult either to give or to refuse an answer. He would gladly, indeed, have hidden himself altogether till the fuller despatches should have arrived, which would relieve him of the necessity of playing any longer the difficult part which had been imposed upon him. His thoughts naturally turned to Hippocles and Hermione, and, he had already taken some steps in the direction of the Piræus, when the thought occurred to him that he was scarcely on terms of such intimacy with the family as would warrant a visit at so late an hour. As he stood irresolute, the door of a neighboring house opened, and a party of four young men issued from it into the street.

"Ah!" cried one of them, "'tis the sober Callias. Seize him, Glaucus and Eudæmon, and make him come with us."

The two men addressed ran up to our hero, and laid hold each of an arm.

"You are a prisoner of my spear," said the first speaker, whose name, I may say, was Ctesiphon, "and may as well submit to your fate with as much grace as possible. You shall not suffer anything unendurable, and shall be released at the proper time. Meanwhile you must join our expedition."

"I submit," said Callias, willing, perhaps, to have the question that had been puzzling him settled for him. "But tell me; if I have to follow you, whither you are bound."

"We are going to the house of Euctemon, where there will be something, I know, worth seeing and hearing."

"But I am a stranger," said Callias.

"A stranger!" cried Ctesiphon, "you are no such thing. The man who brings good news to Athens is the friend of everybody. Besides Euctemon is my first cousin, and he is always pleased to see my friends. You should have been at his dinner, but that there was no room on his couches for more guests. But now when the tables are removed we shall easily find places. But come along or we shall lose something."

There was no want of heartiness in Euctemon's greeting to his new guests. To Callias he was especially polite, making room for him on his own couch. When the new arrivals were settled in their places, the host clapped his hands. A white-haired freedman, who acted as major-domo, appeared.

"We are ready for Stephanos," said Euctemon.

A few minutes afterwards a figure appeared, so curiously like the traditional representations of Homer that everyone was startled. Stephanos was a rhapsodist, or professional writer, and he had made it one of the aims of his life to imitate as closely as he could the most distinguished member that his profession could boast. In early life he had been a school master, and an accident, if we may so describe a blow from the staff of a haughty young aristocrat, whom he had ventured to chastise, had deprived him of sight. His professional education had included the knowledge of the authors whom the Greeks looked upon as classics, Homer holding the first place among them, and he was glad to turn this knowledge to account, when he was no longer able to teach. In this occupation too his blindness could be utilized. It had its usual effect of strengthening the memory, and it helped him to look the part, which, as has been said, he aspired to play.

The blind minstrel was guided to the seat which had been reserved for him in the middle of the company by an attendant, who also carried his harp.

"What shall we have, gentlemen?" asked the host. "You will hardly find anything worth learning that Stephanos does not know."

The guests had various tastes, so various that it seemed very difficult to make a choice. One wanted the story of the Cyclops, another the tale as told by Demodocus to Alcinous and the Phæacian princes, of the loves of Ares and Aphrodite. A third, of a more sober turn of mind, called for one of the didactic poems of Solon, and a fourth would have one of the martial elegies with which the old Athenian bard Tyrtæus stirred, as was said, the spirits of the Spartan warriors.

"Let Callias, the bringer of good news, name it," said Euctemon, after some dozen suggestions had been made. The proposal was received with a murmur of approval.

The young man thought for a moment. Then a happy idea struck him. About a year before there had occurred an incident which had roused the deepest feeling in Athens. The aged Sophocles, accused by his son Iophon before a court of his clansmen, of imbecility and incapacity for managing his affairs, had recited as a sufficient vindication of his powers, a noble chorus from a play which he was then composing, the last and ripest fruit of his genius—the "Œdipus in Colonus." The verses had had a singular success, as indeed they deserved to have, in catching the popular fancy. They were exquisitely beautiful, and they were full of patriotic pride. Everyone had them on his lips; and before they had time to grow hackneyed, the interest in them had been revived by the death of the veteran poet himself.

"Let us have the 'Praises of Athens' by Sophocles the son of Sophilus of Colonus."

The choice met with a shout of applause. The minstrel played a brief prelude on his harp in the Dorian or martial mood, and then began:

"Swell the song of praise again;

Other boons demand my strain,

Other blessings we inherit,

Granted by the mighty spirit;

On the sea and on the shore,

Ours the bridle and the oar.

Son of Chronos old whose sway

Stormy winds and waves obey,

Thine be heaven's well-earned meed,

Tamer of the champing steed;

First he wore on Attic plain

Bit of steel and curbing rein.

Oft too, o'er the water blue,

Athens strains thy laboring crew;

Practiced hands the barks are plying,

Oars are bending, spray is flying,

Sunny waves beneath them glancing.

Sportive myriads round them dancing,

With their hundred feet in motion,

Twinkling 'mid the foam of ocean."

He concluded amidst thunders of applause, the reference to the fleet being especially rewarded with a purse from the host and a shower of gold pieces from the guests.

Other recitations followed, not all, it must be confessed, in so elevated a strain; each was produced with a few bars of music appropriate to its character.

The next entertainment was of a less intellectual kind. Now dancers were introduced into the room by the trainer who had taught them, and whose slaves in fact they were. The man was a red-faced, bloated looking creature, who, however, had been very active in his time, and could still display a wonderful amount of agility when he was engaged in teaching his pupils. The dancers were brother and sister, twins, and curiously alike, though the boy was nearly a half-head taller, and generally on a larger scale than the girl. The performance commenced with a duet of the harps and the flute. The harp, a small instrument not larger than a violin, was played by the boy, the flute by a female player, who had come into the room along with the dancers. After a while the harp became silent, the flute continuing to give out a very marked measure. To this the girl began to dance, whirling hoops into the air as she moved, and catching them as they fell. Many were in the air at once, and the girl neither made a single step out of time nor let a single hoop fall to the ground.

A more difficult and exciting performance followed. The flute player changed the character of her music. The Lydian measure which had been admirably suited to the graceful steps of the dance gave place to the swift Phrygian scale, wild and fantastic music such as might move the devotees of Cybele or Dionysus to the mysterious duties of their worship. At the same time an attendant of the trainer brought in a large hoop, studded round its inner circle with pointed blades. The girl commenced to dance again with steps that grew quicker and quicker with the music, till, as it reached a climax of sound, she leapt through the hoop. The flute player paused for a moment, as the dancer turned to recover her breath, her bosom rising and falling rapidly, and her eyes flashing with excitement. Then the music and the dance began again, with the same crescendo of sound and motion, till the same culminating point was reached, and the same perilous leap repeated.

The spectators watched the scene with breathless interest; but it was an exhibition that was scarcely suited to Greek taste. A Greek could be even horribly cruel on occasions, but a cruel spectacle—and spectacles that depend for their attraction on the danger to the performer are critically cruel—offended their artistic taste. The company began to feel a little uneasy, and Euctemon finally interrupted the festival when after the second leap had been successfully accomplished he signed to the flute player to cease her music.

"Child," he said to the dancer, "Aphrodite and the graces would never forgive me, if you were to come to any harm in my house. It is enough; you have shown us that no one could be more skillful or more graceful than you."

The boy and girl now performed together in what was called the Pyrrhic or war dance. Each carried a light shield and spear, made of silvered tin. They represented two warriors engaged in single combat. Each took in turn the part of the assailant and the assailed, the one darting forward the spear which had been carefully made incapable of doing any harm, the other either receiving the blow upon his shield or avoiding it with agile movements of the body. The flute player accompanied the dance with a very lovely and spirited tune, while the company looked on with the greatest admiration, so agile, so dexterous, and so invertably graceful were the motions of the two dancers.

When the boy and girl had retired, and while the guests were again devoting themselves to the wine, Callias was accosted by a neighbor with whose handsome featured, characterized as they were by a gravity not often seen in young Athenians, he was familiar, though he did not happen ever to have made his acquaintance.

"I am about to retire," said the stranger, "and if I may presume so far, I would recommend you to do the same. Our host is hospitable and generous, and has other virtues which I need not enumerate; but his entertainments are apt to become after a certain hour in the night such as no modest young man—and such from your face I judge you to be—would willingly be present at. So far we have had an excellent and blameless entertainment; but why not depart? What say you?"

"That I am ready to go with you," answered Callias. "My friend Ctesiphon brought me hither, and I know nothing of our host except the report of his riches and liberality." "What! are you going?" cried the host, as the two young men rose from their places. "Nay, but you are losing the best part of the entertainment. It is but a short time to the first watch when Lysicles will come with his troop of dancers. He says that they are quite incomparable."

"Nay, sir," said the young man who had spoken to Callias, "you must excuse us."

"Ah!" cried one of the guests, a young dandy, whose flushed face and flower-garland set awry on his forehead seemed to show that he had been indulging too freely in his host's strong Chian wine, "'Tis old Silverside. He pretends to be a young man; but I believe that he is really older than my father. At least I know that the old gentleman is far more lively. Come, Philip and Hermogenes," he went on addressing two of his neighbors, "don't let us permit our pleasant party to be broken up in this way."

The three revellers started up from their places, and were ready to stop the departing guests by force. But the host, who was still sober, and was too much of a gentleman to allow annoyances of the kind to be inflicted upon anyone in his house, interfered.

"Nay, gentlemen," he cried, "I will put force on no man for if our friends think that they can be better or more pleasantly employed elsewhere, I can only wish them good night, and thank them for so much of their company as they have been pleased to bestow upon us."

The two, accordingly, made their escape without any further interference.

"Will you walk with me as far as my house," said Callias' companion to him: "It lies in the Agræ. The night is fine and I shall be glad of your company."

Callias cheerfully consented, and was glad that he had done so, so witty and varied was his companion's conversation.

When they had reached their destination his new friend invited him to enter. This he declined to do for the hour was late, and he wished to be at home.

"Well then," said the other, "we can at least meet again. This, you see, is my house, and my name is Xenophon, the son of Gryllus."