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Alfred J. Church

Noblesse Oblige

Some fourteen or fifteen days have passed since the humiliation of Athens was completed. To have come to the end, bitter as it was, was in one way a relief. To know the worst always brings a certain comfort, and that worst might have been, was, in fact, very near being far more terrible than what actually happened. Then there was a great material relief. The pressure of famine was removed. Supplies poured plentifully into Athens, for the city, in spite of all its sacrifices and losses, was still rich. If fever still remained—it always lingers a while after its precursor, hunger, has departed it was now possible to cope with it effectually. And then, last not least, it was the delightful season of spring. The Athenians could once more enjoy the delights of that country life from which they had been shut out so long, but which they had never ceased to love. Attica, indeed, had suffered sadly from the presence, repeated year after year, of the invading host; but it had suffered less than might have been expected. The olive yards in particular, had not been touched. A religious feeling had forbidden any injury to a tree which was supposed to be under the special protection of the patron goddess of the land. The sacred groves also of the heroes, that were scattered about the country, had not been harmed. Not a few houses with their gardens had been saved by having served as residences for officers high in command in the Peloponnesian army. And now Nature, the restorer, was busy in the genial season of growth in healing or at least hiding the wounds that had been made by the ravages of war.

"What do you say to a trip to Marathon?" said Hippocles one day, to his daughter and Callias. "You both of you look as if a little fresh air would do you good."

"An excellent idea," cried Hermione, clapping her hands, "it is years since I have seen the place."

"What say you, Callias?" said Hippocles, turning to the young man.

Callias was only too glad to join any expedition when he was to have the company of Hermione. He did not give this reason, but he assented to the proposal very heartily.

"But, father, how shall we go?" said Hermione. "There is scarcely a horse to be found, I suppose."

"Why not go by sea?" was her father's reply. "I have a pinnace which would just suit us. We will go to-morrow if the weather holds fine, stop the first night at Sunium, and the second at Marathon. At Sunium there is my villa, and at Marathon there is a little house of which I can get the use, and which will serve us if we do not mind roughing it a little. We can return the next day. Only we must take provisions, for except such fish as we may catch in the Marathon stream, and possibly some goats' milk, if all the goats have not been eaten up, we shall have nothing but what we bring. That must be your care, Hermione."

"Trust me, father," cried the girl joyously. "If you have gone through four months' famine, depend upon it you shall not be starved now."

The weather on the following day was all that could be desired. A warm and gentle west wind was blowing.

This served them very well as they sailed southward to Sunium. In such good time did they reach the promontory that by unanimous vote they agreed to finish the journey that same day. Sailing northward was as easy as sailing southward, and the sun was still an hour, from setting when they reached the northern end of the plain, having travelled a distance of upwards of sixty miles. This was about three times as far as they would have had to go, had they made the journey by land. No one, however, regretted having followed Hippocles' suggestion. The voyage was indeed as delightful an excursion as could have been devised. The deep blue sky overhead, the sea, borrowing from the heavens a color as intense, and only touched here and there with a speck of white where a little wave swelled and broke, sea birds now flying high in the air, now darting for their prey into the waters, the white cliffs tipped with the fresh green of spring that framed the coast line, made a picture that the party intensely enjoyed, although they did not put their enjoyment into words with the fluency and ease which would have come readily to a modern. The ancients loved nature, but, as a rule, they felt this love much more than they expressed it.

The little house at Marathon was one that had escaped destruction by having been occupied by a Spartan officer. It was bare indeed of furniture, but it was habitable; and the party had brought with them the few things that were absolutely necessary, far fewer, we must remember, than what we now consider to be indispensable. Supper was felt by all to be a most enjoyable meal. The room in which they sat was bare, for, of course, the luxurious couches on which it was the fashion to recline were absent. There was not even a table, and there was but one broken chair, which was naturally resigned to Hermione. But it was lighted with a cheerful fire, which was not unwelcome after seven or eight hours' exposure to a high wind. Happily the late occupant had left a store of logs, which had been cut on the slopes of Pentelicus in the previous autumn, and which now blazed up most cheerfully. The meal was declared by both Hippocles and Callias to be good enough for a state banquet in the Prytaneum. One of the sailors had caught a basketful of fish in the stream, and these Hermione had cooked with her own hands. An Athenian who had plenty of fish seldom wanted anything in the way of flesh, and the provisions which Hermione, not liking to trust to the skill or the luck of the anglers had brought with her, were not touched. A cold pudding, some of the famous Attic figs, which had been preserved through the winter, bread with honey from Hymettus, and dried grapes completed the repast. Some of the goats, it turned out, had survived, and a jug of their milk was forth-coming for Hermione. The two men had a flask of wine which they largely diluted with water. When, after the libation, Hippocles proposed the toast of the evening, as, in consideration of the locality it might fairly be called, "To the memory of the Heroes of Marathon," Hermione honored it by putting her lips to the cup. It was the first time that wine had ever passed them, but she could not refuse this tribute to the chief glory of the city of her adoption.

Hermione, fatigued it may be said, with all the delights of the day, retired early to rest. Soon after she had gone Callias took the opportunity of opening his heart to his companion on a subject which had long occupied his thoughts.

"We have peace at last," he said, "not such a peace as I had ever hoped for, but still better than the utter ruin which lately I had begun to fear. A good citizen may now begin to think of himself and of his own happiness. You sir, can hardly have failed to observe why I have begun to look for that happiness. If your daughter will only consent to share my life, I feel that I shall have to ask the gods for nothing more. She is free as far as I know. And me you have known from my childhood. You were my father's friend and since he died you have stood in his place. Can you give her to me?"

Hippocles caught his young companion's hand, and gave it a hearty grasp.

"I will not pretend," he said, "not to have observed something of what you say; nor will I deny that I have observed it with pleasure. What father would not be glad if Callias, the son of Hipponieus, loved his daughter? Of Hermione's feelings I say nothing, indeed I know nothing, save that she has regarded you since childhood with a strong affection, and that as you say she is free. But there are facts which neither you nor I can forget; and the chief of them is this, that while you are Callias, son of Hipponicus, a Eupatrid of the Eupatrids, I am Hippocles, the Alien. I am well-born in my own country, but that is nothing here. I am wealthy—so wealthy that I care not a single drachma whether my future son-in-law has a thousand talents for his patrimony or one. I am, I hope and believe, not without honor in the city of my adoption. But I am an alien, my child is an alien. Whether you have thought of all that this means I know not—love is apt to hide these difficulties from a man's eyes—but the fact must be faced; you and my daughter must face it. You speak of my giving her to you. But, if Hermione is a Greek, she is also an Italian. The Italian women choose for themselves. I could not if I would constrain her will, she must decide, and she must answer."

"There is nothing that I should desire better. But you do not tell me, sir, what you yourself wish. Have I your consent and your good wishes?"

"Yes," said Hippocles, "you have. I have thought over the difficulties, for I foresaw that you would some day speak to me on this subject. As far as I am concerned I am ready to waive them. But then, they do not concern me in the first place."

The two men sat in silence for some time after this conversation had passed between them, buried each of them in his own thoughts. At last Hippocles rose from his seat.

"It is time to sleep," he said; "I will speak to my daughter to-morrow; you shall not want my good word, but I can do nothing more. You must speak to her yourself. That is, I think, what few fathers in Greece would tell a suitor to do. But then Hermione is not as other maidens."

Callias passed a restless night, and was glad to make his way into the open air when the first streaks of dawn appeared on the Eubœan hills, which were in full view from the house. He shrank from meeting Hermione till he could meet her alone, and ask the momentous question which was occupying his whole mind. Partly to employ the time, partly to banish thought, if it might be done by severe bodily exercise, he started to climb the height of Pentelicus, which rose on the southern side of the Marathonian plain. The excursion occupied him the whole morning. On his way back he traversed the hills which skirted the western side of the plain, and, following what was evidently a well-beaten track, came at last in view of the mound under which reposed the Athenian dead who had fallen in that great battle. His quick eye soon perceived a familiar figure, conspicuous in its white garments among the monuments which stood on the top of the mound. Hippocles had filled his promise, and had said all that he could to Hermione in favor of her suitor. He had dwelt upon his noble birth, the reputation as a soldier which he had already won, his culture and taste for philosophy, and his blameless life. "As for wealth," he ended by saying, "that is of little account where my daughter is concerned. Yet a man should be independent of his wife, and I may tell you as one who knows—and I have had charge of his property for some years past—that Callias is one of the richest men in Athens. That will not weigh with you, I know, but I would have you know all the circumstances."

Hermione said nothing; she took her father's hand and kissed it. A tear dropped on it as she raised it to her lips. As she turned away, Hippocles noticed that she was shaken by a sob.

An instinct in the girl's heart told her that it was on the mound that her lover would speak to her, and it was here that she wished to give her answer to him. It was not the first time that she had visited it. Indeed there was not a woman and not many men in Athens who knew so much about its records.

On the top of this tumulus, which still rises thirty feet above the surrounding plain, and which was then, it is probable, considerably higher, there stood in those days eleven stone columns inscribed with the names of those who had fallen in the great battle. Each of the ten Athenian tribes had its own peculiar column, while the eleventh commemorated the gallant men of Platæa, Platæa, which alone among the cities of Greece, had sent her sons on that day to stand shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers of Athens.

Hermione was apparently engrossed in the task of deciphering the names, now become somewhat obliterated by time, which were engraved on one of the columns. So intent was she on this occupation that she did not notice the young man's approach. Turning suddenly round, she faced him. At that moment, though she had expected him to come, his actual coming was a surprise, and the hot blood crimsoned her face and neck.

"Hermione," he said, "I have spoken to your father, and he bids me speak to you. You can hardly have failed to read my heart, and if I have not spoken to you before, it has been because I have not presumed. You know all that needs be known about me, and though I do not think myself worthy of you, I need not be ashamed of my fathers or of myself."

The brilliant color had faded from the girl's cheek, her hand trembled, her bosom heaved. Twice she opened her lips; twice the voice seemed to fail her. At last she spoke.

"You speak of your fathers. You are, I think, of the tribe of Pandion?"

"I am," said Callias.

"And this is the column of their tribe, and this"—she pointed as she spoke—"the name of an ancestor of yours?"

"Yes," replied the young man, "this Hipponicus whose name you see engraved here was my great-grandfather."

"He had been Archon at Athens the year before the great battle. You see," she added with a faint smile, "I know something of your family history."

"It was so."

"And his son, a Callias like yourself, was Archon general many times—held, in fact, every honor that Athens could bestow?"

"Yes, there was no more distinguished man in the city than he."

"And your father; he died, I think I have heard, in early honor?"

"Doubtless had he lived he would not have been inferior in distinction to my grandfather."

"And you have started well in the same course? I need not ask you that. We all know it better, perhaps, than you know it yourself, and we are proud of it. My dear brother," the girl's voice which hitherto had been clear and even commanding in its tones, faltered at the mention of the dead, "my dear brother used to say that there was nothing that you might not hope for, nothing to which you might not rise."

"You speak too well of me; but I hope that I am not altogether unworthy of my ancestors."

The girl paused for a while. She seemed unable to utter what she had next to say. The flush mounted again to her cheek, and she stood silent and with downcast eyes.

Meanwhile the young man stood in utter perplexity. He had heard nothing from the girl's lips but what might have made any man proud to hear. She knew, as she had said, the history of his race, and she believed him to be not unworthy of it. Yet this was not the way in which he had hoped to hear her speak. He was conscious that there was something behind that did not promise well for his hopes.

At last she went on. Her voice was low but distinct, her eyes were still bent on the ground.

"And what your fathers have been in Athens, what you hope to be yourself, you would have your son to be after you?

"Surely," he answered, without thinking of what he was admitting.

"Could it be so if I—" she altered the phrase—"if a woman not of Athenian blood were his mother?"

He was struck dumb. So this was the end she had before her when she enumerated the honors and distinctions of his race.

"Mind," she said, "I do not say that my race is unworthy of yours. I am not ashamed of my ancestors. They were chiefs; they were good men. I am proud to be their daughter. But here in Athens their goodness and their nobility goes for nothing. I am Hermione, the daughter of Hippocles, the Alien. Marrying me you shut out, not perhaps yourself, but your children from the, career which is their inheritance. I am too proud, "—and here the girl dropped her voice to a whisper,—"and I love you too well for that."

"What is my career to your love?" cried the young man passionately; "I am ready to give up country and all for that."

"That," said Hermione, "is the only unworthy thing that I ever heard you say. Your better thoughts will make you withdraw it. Athens has fallen; the gods know that it has wrung my heart to see it. But she needs all the more such sons as you are. She has little now to offer. It is a thankless office, perhaps, to command her fleets and armies. All the more honor to those who cling to her still and cherish her still. You must not leave her or betray her. I should think foul shame of myself if I tempted you for a moment to waver in your loyalty to her. I may not love you—that the gods have forbidden me—but you will let me be proud of you."

The young man turned away. The final word, he knew, had been spoken. This resolution was not to be shaken by indignant reproaches or by tender pleadings. All that remained was to forget, if that was possible. He would not see Hippocles or his daughter again till the wound of this bitter disappointment had had time to heal. Returning to the house, which he found empty but for a single attendant, he snatched a hasty meal, and then set out to return overland to Athens.