I anticipated the course of my story when I spoke of the first prize being adjudged to the comedy exhibited by Aristophanes. There were various competing plays—how many we do not know, but the titles and authors of two that won the second and third prizes have been preserved—and all those had of course to be performed before a decision could be made. Two or three days at least must have passed before the exhibition was at an end.
The next competitor had certainly reason to complain of his ill luck. Just before the curtain fell for the opening scene of his comedy an incident occurred which made the people little disposed to listen to anything more that day. The spectators had just settled themselves in their places, when a young officer hastily made his way up to the bench where the magistrates were seated, and handed a roll to the president. The occurrence was very unusual. It was reckoned almost an impiety to disturb the festival of Bacchus with anything of business; only matters of the very gravest importance could be allowed to do it. The entrance of the young man, happening as it did, just in the pause of expectation before the new play began, had been generally observed. Everyone could see from his dress that he was a naval officer, and many knew him as one of the most promising young men in Athens. "News from the fleet" was the whisper that ran through the theatre, and there were few among the thousands there assembled to whom news from the fleet did not mean the life or death of father, brother, or son. The president glanced at the document put into his hands, and whispering a few words to the messenger, pointed to a seat by his side. All eyes were fastened upon him. (The magistrates, it may be explained, occupied one of the front or lowest rows of seats, and were therefore more or less in view of the whole theatre, which was arranged in the form of a semicircle, with tier upon tier of benches rising upon the slope of the hill on the side of which the building was constructed.) When a moment afterwards, the curtain was withdrawn, scarcely a glance was directed to the stage. The action and the dialogue of the new piece were absolutely lost upon what should have been an audience, but was a crowd of anxious citizens, suddenly recalled from the shows of the stage to the realities of life.
The president now carefully read the document and passed it on to his colleagues. Some whispered consultations passed between them. When at the end of the first act a change of scenery caused a longer pause than usual the president quietly left the theatre, taking the bearer of the despatch with him. Some of the other magistrates followed him, the rest remaining behind because it would have been unseemly to leave the official seats wholly untenanted while the festival was still going on. This proceeding increased the agitation of the people, because it emphasized the importance of the news that had arrived. Some slipped away, unable to sit quietly in their places and endure the suspense, and vaguely hoping to hear something more outside. Among those that remained the buzz of conversation grew louder and louder. Only a few very determined play-goers even pretended to listen to what was going on upon the stage. Meanwhile the unfortunate author, to whom, after all, the fate of his play was not less urgent a matter than the fate of the city, sat upon his prompter's stool—the author not uncommonly did the duty of prompter—and heartily cursed the bad luck which had distracted in so disastrous a way the attention of his audience.
When at last, to the great relief of everyone concerned, the performance was brought to a conclusion, the young officer told his story, supplementing the meagre contents of the despatch which he had brought, to a full conclave of magistrates, assembled in one of the senate-rooms of the Prytaneum or Town-hall of Athens. I may introduce him to my readers as Callias, the hero of my story.
Many of the details that follow had already been given by Callias, but as he had to repeat them for the benefit of the magistrates who had stopped behind in the theatre, I may as well put them all together.
"We know," said the president, "that Conon was beaten in a battle in the harbor of Mitylene. So much we heard from Hippocles, a very patriotic person by the way, though he is an alien. He has a very swift yacht that can outstrip any war ship in Greece, and often gives us very valuable intelligence. Do you know him?"
"Yes," said Callias, flushing with pleasure, for indeed he knew and respected Hippocles greatly, "I know him very well."
"Well, to go on," resumed the president. "So much we know, but no more. Tell us exactly how Conon fared in the battle."
"Sir," answered the young man, "he lost thirty ships."
"And the crews," asked the president.
"They escaped; happily they were able to get to land."
"Thank Athene for that"; and a murmur of relief ran round the meeting. "And the other forty—he had seventy, I think, in all?" Callias nodded assent.
"What happened to the forty?"
"They were hauled up under the walls when the day went against us."
"Now tell us exactly what has been going on since."
"The Spartans blockaded the harbor, having some of their ships within, and some without. Our general saw that it was only a matter of time when he should have to surrender. The Spartans had four times as many ships, the ships not, perhaps, quite as good as his, but the crews, I am afraid, somewhat better."
"Shade of Themistocles," murmured one of the magistrates, "that it should come to this—the Spartan crews 'somewhat better' than ours. But I am afraid that it is only too true."
"He could not break through; and could not stand a long siege. Mitylene was fairly well provisioned for its ordinary garrison, but here were seventy crews added all of a sudden to the number. He sent some officers—I had the honor of being one of them—and we found that by sparing everything to the very utmost, we might hold out for five weeks. The only chance was to send news to Athens. You might help us, we thought."
"We might; we must, I say. But how it is to be done is another matter. Tell us how you got here?"
"The general took the two fastest ships in his squadron, manned them with the very best rowers that he could find, practised the crews for four days in the inner harbor, and then set about running the blockade with them. The Spartans, you see, had grown a little careless. We hadn't made any attempt to get out, and Conon got a Lesbian freedman to desert to the Spartans with a story that we were meaning to surrender. This put them off their guard still more.
They got into a way of leaving their ships at noon, to take their meal and their siesta afterwards on shore. We made a dart at an unguarded place between two of their blockading ships and we got through. I don't think that we lost a single man. By the time that the crews of the blockading galleys regained their vessels we were well out of bow-shot. Our instructions were to separate, when we got outside the harbor. We did not do this at once because we had planned a little trick which might, we hoped, help to put the enemy off the scent. The ship that I was in was really the swifter of the two. This was, of course, the reason why I was put into it. But as long as we kept together we made believe that we were the slower. When they came out after us—they had manned half a dozen ships or so as quickly as they could—we separated. My ship, which you will understand, was really the faster of the two, was put about the north as if making for Hellespont; the other kept on its course, straight for Athens. The Spartans told off their best ships to follow the latter which they thought that they had the better chance of catching. And of course, as it was headed this way, it seemed the more important of the two."
"I suppose that they overtook it," said the president, or it would have been here before this."
"Well, we soon outstripped the two galleys that were told to look after us. When we were well out of sight, we headed westward again, took a circuit round the north side of Lemnos, and got here without seeing another enemy."
"How long is it since you left Mitylene?"
"About five days."
"But how long did Conon think he could hold out?"
"About forty days; perhaps more, if the men were put on short rations."
"You have done well, my son," said the president kindly, "and Athens will not forget it. We will consult together, though there is small need of consulting, I take it. The relief must be sent. Is it not so gentlemen?"
Hit colleagues nodded assent.
"But there are things to be talked over. We must decide how much we can send, and that cannot be done upon the spot. But there is a matter that can be settled at once. Conon must be told that he is going to be relieved. Now, who will tell him? Will you?"
"Certainly, if you see fit to give me the order."
"I would consult with Hippocles."
"Excellent!" cried the president. "He is just the man to help us. You will go and see him, and then report to me. Come to me to-night; it will not matter how late it is; I shall be waiting for you."
Cailias saluted, and withdrew.