Alcibiades had established a system of communication with all the principal stations in the Ægean which gave him early information of what was going on.
Early in the new year (405) intelligence reached him at his castle, that Lysander was coming out from Sparta to assume the command of the allied fleet. This news affected Alcibiades very considerably.
"I anticipated this," he said to his guest after the evening meal on the day when the news had reached him, "and it is the worst thing that could have happened for Athens. There was just a chance that the Spartans, who, happily for us, are very stupid and obstinate, would stick to their rule that no man should be appointed naval commander-in-chief thrice. But they had, as I heard from a friend in Chios, a very strong requisition from the allies to appoint Lysander, and so they have sent him out again, saving their rule by appointing a nominal chief, a man called Arachus, who, of course, is a mere figure head. Now Lysander is by far the ablest man that the Spartans have got; he is quite unscrupulous; he is a bitter enemy of ours; and what is worst of all, he can do anything that he pleases with Cyrus. You have not been campaigning for two or three years without finding out that the Persian money bags are the real weights that make the scales of fate go up and down. Last year Callicratidas was crippled because Cyrus, at this very Lysander's request, kept his purse strings tight. Now everything will be straight and easy, and before two months are over the Spartans will have as good a fleet as money can make." The year wore slowly on. The long Thracian winter, which Callias, though not unused to cold weather in Athens found exceedingly severe, yielded at last to spring, and spring in its turn to summer. All the while the news which reached Bisanthe continued to have a gloomy complexion. At Miletus, as well as in other of the mainland towns, thorough-going partisans of Lysander were installed in power. Cyrus had been called away to Upper Asia, where the old king, his father, was lying sick to death, and had left all his treasuries at the disposal of the Spartan admiral. With this supply of money the pay of the sailors had been increased, and new ships bad been laid down on the stocks. In March the Athenian fleet sailed for the seat of war. It was larger than any that had been sent forth by the city in recent years, for it numbered no less than one hundred and eighty ships; but private letters gave an unfavorable account of the way in which it was equipped, and officered. This adverse opinion continued to be borne out by the news that arrived from time to time of its doings. It seemed to be moving about aimlessly and fruitlessly, always behind, always in the wrong place. It offered battle to Lysander, who lay in harbor near Ephesus, but in vain. The wary Spartan had no mind to fight but at his own time, and the Athenian admirals had no way of compelling him. Then the ships were scattered in plundering expeditions along the mainland coasts and among the islands which had accepted the Spartan alliance. The gain was small, for the booty was insignificant, but the demoralization and relaxation of discipline were great. About mid-summer followed a bold maneuver on the part of Lysander. He sailed across the Ægean to the coast of Attica, where his sudden appearance caused no little consternation. The Athenian commanders were as usual behindhand. If they had heard of this movement as soon as they ought, and had been ready to follow immediately, it is quite possible that they might have inflicted a damaging blow on their adversaries. As it was, the news was long in reaching them and, when it came, found them with their fleet scattered and unprepared. Accordingly they missed their chance of forcing Lysander to an engagement off an hostile shore, an engagement, too, which he would hardly have been able to decline. Lysander crossed and recrossed the Ægean without molestation, and shortly afterwards sailed northward.
Alcibiades, whose intelligence department was, as has been said, admirably organized, received information that this movement was intended, and in consequence took up his quarters at a little fort which he possessed at the extremity of the Chersonesus. He and his guest had not been there more than a day when the Spartan fleet came in sight. He watched it pass at a distance of two or three miles, with eager interest.
"They have a very formidable appearance," he said to Callias when he had scanned with his practical eye every detail of their equipment. "I shall be agreeably surprised if our ships have anything as good to show." On the following day the Athenian fleet appeared, showing only too plainly how just had been Alcibiades' forebodings. The effects of wind and weather—the ships had now been nearly six months at sea—were plainly visible; the sails, which, as there was a slight breeze from the west, they used to assist their progress, were dirty and ragged; the rowers were deplorably out of time.
"Things," he said to his companion, "are even worse than I expected; that fleet will be no match for its enemy, except under far more skillful management than it is likely to have. Still let us hope for the best; and it may be possible to give our friends some good advice, if they will take it." This, unfortunately, was the last thing that the Athenian admirals, certainly incompetent, and probably traitorous, were willing to do. The progress of events, briefly described, was this:
Lysander possessed himself, by a sudden attack, of the town of Lampsacus, which was in alliance with Athens. This conquest put him in possession of abundant supplies, and of what was more valuable, a safe and convenient base of operations. While securing these material advantages, he also, with a generosity which he could always assume on occasion, allowed the Lampsacenes to go unharmed. He gained thus not only a strong position but a friendly population. On the other hand the position occupied by the Athenians was by no means so favorable. They moved their fleet to the mouth of a little stream known by the name of Ægos Potami, or the Goat's River. This spot was directly opposite Lampsacus—the Hellespont here is somewhat less than two miles broad—but it had no conveniences for the purpose for which it was chosen. There was no harbor, the anchorage was indifferent, there were no houses in the neighborhood, and the nearest point from which supplies could be obtained was the town of Sestos, nearly two miles distant.
The opportunity for offering advice which Alcibiades had foreseen had now occurred, and he promptly took advantage of it. The morning after the arrival of the fleet, he rode, with Callias in his company, to the spot where the Athenian generals had pitched their headquarters, and requested an interview. He was introduced into the tent which they used for purposes of consultation, and saw the two officers, Menander and Tydeus by name, who happened to be detailed that day for duty on shore.
They received him with a coldness and hauteur which augured ill for the success of his mission.
"Allow me, gentlemen," he said, "to offer you a piece of advice which, from my knowledge of the country, I feel sure will be useful. Transfer your fleet from this position, which, you must allow me to say, has nothing to recommend it, to Sestos. You must go to Sestos for your supplies; why not stay there altogether. The harbor is good and you will be able to do what you please, fight, or not fight, as it may seem best. Here, if it comes on a blow from the south—and you will remember that the equinox is near—you will be in a very awkward predicament; and, anyhow, I do not see how you are to keep your men together when they have to forage in this manner for supplies."
"We are obliged to you for the trouble you have taken in coming," said Menander, "but you must allow us to remind you that it is we, and not you whom the Athenian people have appointed to the command of this fleet."
"The gods prosper you in it," replied Alcibiades with unruffled coolness. "And now, farewell."
"I have done all that I could," observed Alcibiades to his companion, who had been expecting his return outside the tent. "Now we can only await the event. As for these men, I would say of them that the gods strike with madness those whom they are determined to destroy, but for one thing. There may be a method in their madness. They may mean to bring about a disaster. In a word they may have sold their country. It is a hard thing to say of any man, but could any admiral, not being a madman or a traitor, keep his fleet in such a place as this? And yet I do not know. I have seen honest men act with a folly so outrageous that one could not help suspecting something more. Let us go home, and prepare for the worst. But stay—there is yet a chance. There is Conon. He must know better than this. Will you see him? I cannot, for there is too deadly a feud between us. Do you know him?"
"Yes," said Callias, "I was with him last year when he was shut up in Mitylene, and he sent me with despatches to Athens."
"And will you go to him?"
"Certainly, if it would not seem too presumptuous."
"You can give your authority; he will understand why I did not come myself; and he is too sensible not to listen to good advice from whomsoever it may come."
Conon was on board his ship in which he was practicing some maneuvers about half a mile from the shore. The young Athenian was rowed out to see him, and returned in about an hour. The report which he brought back was this:
"Conon was very reserved, but courteous. He wished me to thank you for your message, and to say he was sure you wished well to Athens. He would do what he could, but he was only one out of many, and he might be out-voted. Anyhow, he would keep his own men from straggling."
"Then," said Alcibiades, "we have shot our last bolt, let us go back." For some days the two companions waited for news in a suspense that they often felt to be almost beyond bearing. One night—it was the night of the fifteenth of September— they had watched through the hours of darkness till the began to show itself in the eastern sky. Both had felt the presentiment that their waiting was about to end, though neither had acknowledged it to the other.
"Is it never coming?" said the elder man, as he rose from his seat, and looked from the window across the sea, just beginning to glitter with the morning light. In a moment his attitude of weariness changed to one of eager attention.
"Look!" he cried to Callias. "What is that?" and he pointed to a boat that had just rounded the nearest point to the westward. It was a fishing boat, manned, apparently, by seven or eight men, and making all the speed it could with both oars and sails. The two men hurried down to the castle pier, and awaited the arrival of what they were sure was the long expected message.
The boat was still about two hundred yards away when Alcibiades recognized the steersman.
"Ah!" he cried, "it is old Hipparchus." And he waved his hand with a friendly gesture.
"It is bad news he brings," he said again after a quiet pause, "he makes no reply."
A few more strokes brought the boat alongside of the pier. Alcibiades reached his hand to the steersman, and helped him to disembark. That his errand was bad was only too evident from his look. He was deadly pale, and in his eyes' was the expression of one who had lately seen some terrible sight.
"It is all over," he said, "Athens is lost."
For a few minutes the three men stood silent. Perhaps it was then that Alcibiades felt the keenest remorse of his life. After all, it was he who, more than any living man, had brought this ruin to his country. He had led her into an enterprise which overmatched her strength; and he had suggested to her enemies the too successful policy that had ended in her overthrow. If Athens was indeed lost it was his doing—and yet he loved her. Much of this the younger man could guess at, for he had not been at Bisanthe for now nearly a year without learning something of his host's inner thoughts. He turned away his face unwilling to witness the emotion which he felt could be seen in the other's countenance. The messenger from the scene of the disaster stood with downcast eyes, absorbed in the dismal recollection of what he had lately witnessed.
"Tell us how it happened," said Alcibiades.
"For five days," so he began, "we manned our ships every morning about the third hour, formed them in line of battle, and moved across the strait to the harbor of Lampsacus. The Spartan fleet was ranged in line outside the harbor with their army drawn up upon the shore on either side. Our admirals did not venture to attack; and so we sailed back. I noticed that a few quick-sailing galleys followed us at about half a mile distance. When we got back to our station, our men used to scatter in search of provisions for their noonday meal—our commissariat, you must know, was very ill-supplied. Some went up the country, but most made their way to Sestos. None of our admirals, except Conon, seemed to have a notion that this was dangerous, though some of us old sailors could have warned them if we had dared. Conon always kept his men together. Well, on the fifth day—our men, you must understand, had been growing more and more careless—about an hour after we got back, a shield was run up to the masthead of one of the Spartan swift-sailing galleys. I saw it flash in the sunshine; and a few moments afterwards the whole Spartan fleet rowed from their anchorage and made their way across the strait. They caught us entirely unprepared. There was no battle; scarcely a blow was struck. I can easily believe that they did not lose a single man. Some of our ships they found absolutely deserted. None of them had more than two-thirds of their complement. No, I should not say none; twelve were ready, emotes eight and four others, one of which was the Paralus. I was on board Menander's own ship, of which I was steersman. There were eight others with me. We hurried as fast as we could to Sestos. There, the next day, I was able to hire this boat, and thought the best thing that I could do was to come here."
"You say that twelve ships escaped," said Alcibiades, "how many then were taken?
"About a hundred and seventy," answered the man. "And how many prisoners?"
"I cannot say, but certainly several thousand. Before we came away, a boat from Lampsacus brought an awful story, of what had been done there. All the Athenian prisoners were put to death, between three and four thousand. Only the admiral Adeimantus was spared."
"Ah! I see," cried Alcibiades, "he was the traitor."