Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Alfred J. Church

An Antidote

Among Cleonicé's neighbours was one to whom she was greatly attached. The tie between them was of a particularly tender kind, for Tecmessa—this was the neighbour's name—was her foster sister, her elder by some three months. They had played together as children. Later on, Tecmessa had been with her as companion-maid, treated with a familiar kindness which never seemed to recognize any distinction of degree, but returning all the affection showed her with a delicate sense that the distinction was there after all. Ladies in the position of Cleonicé often treat inferiors as if they were equals, and are perfectly sincere in so doing, while yet they unconsciously expect an answering demeanour that an equal would not assume. Tecmessa had borne herself in this somewhat difficult position with the greatest tact and discretion, and the relation between the two had not been troubled by even a hint of disturbance or misunderstanding. About a year and a half before the time my narrative has now reached, Tecmessa had married. Her husband was a prosperous, and, if public opinion could be trusted, a well-conducted young trader. He dealt in a variety of articles, the principal of which were wines, spices and drugs, and was able to give his wife a well-furnished and comfortable home. There was not a better kept household of the class in all Corinth than that of Alexander and Tecmessa. They had one child, a boy of some five months old.

The baby was one morning seized with some mysterious ailment, which entirely perplexed both the father, who had some medical knowledge of a sort, and the local physician, a slave whom his owner permitted to practise on condition of receiving a certain part of his gains. Modern medicine would no doubt have given the illness a name, for the science has advanced prodigiously in classifying, though not perhaps so much in curing. The first thought then was to find a cause in the action of some deity. The child had been smitten, they said, with one of the shafts of Apollo. Then came the question, how had the parents provoked the wrath of the deity? And here the father was visited with a recollection that struck him with dismay and remorse.

"Oh, Tecmessa," he cried, "I fear me much that I am in fault. Even before this dreadful thing happened I was anything but easy in my mind. Yesterday about an hour after noon a customer came in, who asked for a particular kind of medicine. I have to keep it, but I must own that I don't like selling it. It is an excellent medicine, but then a man may easily do himself a great mischief, if he does not know what he is using, or may do a great mischief to some one else if he does know. Still one can hardly refuse a customer. It is like saying to a man, 'You are either a fool or a poisoner.' Well, I sold some of it yesterday. I thought that I had seen the man's face before, but could not fix it, and then it passed out of mind altogether. This morning I heard that Eubulus, the great runner, whom everybody is talking about in Corinth, had been suddenly taken ill. And then it burst upon me all of a sudden that the purchaser was one Cleon, a betting man of no good reputation. Good Heavens! What is to be done?"

"Perhaps," said Tecmessa, "the lady Cleonicé will think of something. She is a wonderfully clever lady. And here, by good luck, she is coming."

So it was. Cleonicé seldom let a couple of days go by without paying a visit to her humble friend; so it was nothing strange that she should make her appearance just in the nick of time. She quite deserved Tecmessa's praise; she was wonderfully clever; and her native wit at once suggested some simple means for giving the little sufferer at least some temporary ease. While this remedy was being applied, she heard the husband's story, and here again she was equal to the occasion.

"You found the poison," she exclaimed, "can't you find the antidote?"

"Dear me," cried the husband, striking his hands together, "what an idiot I have been not to think of it! But that baby screaming and writhing about fairly drove everything out of my head. Antidote! of course I can find an antidote."

"Then don't lose a moment in doing it. Go and make it up at once and follow me to Aquila's tent-factory. You know the place? But stay, how long will you be about the andidote?"

"I believe that I have some ready made up," answered the man.

"In that case," said Cleonicé, "it will save time if you will come with me."

The chariot in which the girl had come was standing at the door; and the chemist, who had found a dose of the antidote ready, as he had hoped, mounted, not a little abashed at finding himself in so fashionable a vehicle. The party was fortunate enough to find Priscilla at home, and reinforced by her, a naturally capable person, with a large experience gathered in years of charitable ministration to others, went on at once to the trainer's house. Here confusion reigned supreme. The trainer himself was in despair. Such a thing had never before come within the range of his experience The young man, such was the upshot of the narrative which his visitors somehow contrived to extract from him, had shown all his usual vigour at the exercises, and was just rising from the evening meal, when he fell back speechless and senseless. The physician attached to the school had been hastily summoned, and had not hesitated, on a review of the symptoms, to pronounce that his patient had been poisoned. Before his arrival, however, a rough and ready remedy had been applied which had possibly saved the young man's life. One of the pupils had a faint recollection of seeing a similar case healed by the application of a strong current of cold water to the back of the neck. This was done, and pulsation, which appeared to be suspended, was revived. The physician had nothing to suggest except the administration of a cordial. This had been attempted, but with little success. The patient's teeth were firmly clenched, and it was almost impossible to make him swallow. This physical difficulty was the first that had to be overcome. How Priscilla overcame it is beyond the present chronicler's power to describe. She had had a large experience in a class of disease much more frequent in Southern Europe than in our own land, a class of which the generic name is tetanus or lockjaw, and of which this is the most painful and perplexing symptom. After a long course of patient effort she accomplished her end; the antidote was administered and its powerfully stimulant qualities made it speedily effective. During some part of the time Cleonicé had been present rendering such help as she could. As the crisis approached, Priscilla, almost fearing that an experience so full of excitement might throw another patient on her hands, compelled her to retire. When appearances began to indicate the favourable result of which at one time every one had despaired, she could not resist the temptation of calling her back. The situation was, as we know, profoundly interesting to her, and she, could not decline the chance of seeing how it would develop itself. As a nurse, too, she could easily persuade herself that nothing could be better for the patient than that his eyes should first open on what she knew was the dearest sight that this world could show him.

The result was all that she could hope for. Cleonicé, whom Priscilla had not forgotten to put exactly where the young man's eyes would be likely first to fall, could not fail to see that the young man recognized her. The first gaze of his wide-open eyes was without meaning; then as consciousness returned, it became instinct with a fullness of joy and love which it was impossible to mistake. The girl turned away in surprise and confusion; one wonders whether she was wholly without some anticipation of what she saw, but we may be sure that an hour of eloquent speech could not have set forth the secret of his heart more plainly and forcibly than did that one glance of returning life.

The poison was not one of those that injure the tissues of the body or permanently impair its organs. Its danger lies in the power that it has to bring about a sudden suspension of animation. It is not unlike a case of drowning. Recover the drowned, or apparently drowned, person, before the heart and lungs have been inactive too long, and he has received no permanent injury. Eubulus, accordingly, was soon himself again; a day or two sufficed for complete recovery from the shock. Of course his popularity in Corinth was enormously increased. The news of an adventure that has come so very near to being fatal increased the interest felt in him by his fellow citizens almost beyond precedent.

As for Dromeus, he was seen no more at the trainer's or anywhere else in Corinth. It would not have been safe for him to show himself anywhere in the town, for he would infallibly have been lynched. His conduct when Eubulus was suddenly seized with illness had caused suspicion; he was no hardened criminal, always able to hide his feelings. But he was forgotten in the general confusion, and he took the opportunity thus given him to escape. He had the wit to see that he was not likely to make a success of the traditional profession of his family, and applied himself to some mercantile persuit, and but for an occasional hint that if it had not been for the malevolence of his enemies he would have been the first athlete in Greece, he passed the rest of his life with an eminently respectable character.

As for the confederates, they had fought, it might be said, a drawn battle. They had accomplished nothing as far as the disabling of the athlete was concerned, and they felt that this avenue at least was closed against them. If they were to accomplish their object it must be done in some other way. On the other hand, they had escaped without suspicion. Dromeus had practically acknowledged his guilt by his precipitate flight. They were not absolutely discouraged, but they felt that they were driven into a corner; the time was short and speedy action was necessary. We shall see in the next chapter what was the device to which they had recourse.