Alexander's most pressing care was now the capture of Darius himself. As long as the Great King was at liberty he might become the centre of a dangerous opposition. If he was once taken Persia was practically conquered. He had fled to Ecbatana, the ancient capital of the Medes, from the field of Arbela; and now he had left Ecbatana to find refuge in the wilds of Bactria, the most rugged and inaccessible of all the provinces of the empire. But he was not far in advance; Alexander was only eight days behind him at Ecbatana, and eight days would not, he thought, be difficult to make up, when his own rate of marching was compared with that of the fugitive. Affairs that could not be neglected kept him some days at Ecbatana. These disposed of, he started in pursuit, hoping to overtake the flying king before he could reach the Caspian Gates, a difficult mountain-pass on the southern side of the range which now bears the name of Elburz. He pressed on in hot haste, but found that he was too late. He was still fifty miles from the Gates, when he heard that Darius had passed them. And for the present it was impossible to continue the chase. So worn out were the troops that he had to allow them five days for rest. After this the fifty miles that still separated him from the Gates were traversed in two days. At the first halting place on the other side he heard news that made him curse the delays that had hindered his movements.
Toilsome as this rapid march had been, Queen Sisygambis, the mother of Darius, had, at her own earnest request, accompanied it. Alexander had just finished his evening meal on the evening of the first day after passing the Gates, when he received a message from the queen's mother, requesting an interview on matters of urgent importance. He obeyed the summons at once, and repaired to the tent.
The queen, usually calm and self-possessed, was overwhelmed with grief. "Speak, and tell your story," she said, addressing the elder of two men who stood by wearing the dress of Bactrian peasants. The man stepped forward.
"Stay," cried Alexander, "first tell me who you are, for, unless my eyes deceive me, you are not what you seem."
"It is true, sire," replied the man. "We have disguised ourselves that we might have the better chance of bringing you tidings which it greatly concerns concerns both you and the queen to know. My companion and I are Persian nobles. We have been faithful to King Darius. Till three days ago we followed him, and it is our duty to him that brings us here."
"What do you mean?" cried Alexander. "Where is he? How does he fare?"
"Sire," said Bagistanes, for that was the Persian's name, "he is king no longer."
"And who has presumed to depose him?" said Alexander, flushing with rage. "Who is it that gives and takes away kingdoms at his pleasure?"
"Sire," replied Bagistanes, "since the day when King Darius fled from the field of Arbela—"
The speaker paused, and looked doubtfully at the queen. It was impossible to tell the truth without implying blame of the king, who had in so cowardly a fashion betrayed his army.
"Speak on," said Sisygambis. "I have learnt to bear it."
"Since that day, then," resumed Bagistanes, "the king has had enemies who would have taken from him the Crown of Persia. Bessus, Satrap of Bactria, conspired with other nobles against their master. They consulted whether they should not deliver him to you, and had done so, but that they doubted whether you were one that rewarded traitors. Then they resolved to take him with them in their flight eastward, and in his name to renew the war."
"But had he no friends?" asked the king.
"Yes, he had friends, but they were too weak to resist, nor would the king trust himself to them. Patron, who commanded the Greeks that are still left to him, warned him of his danger, but to no purpose. 'If my own people desert me,' he said, 'I will not be defended by foreigners.' And Patron, who indeed had but fifteen hundred men with him—for only so many are left out of the fifty thousand Greeks who received the king's pay four years ago—Patron could do nothing. Then Artabazus tried what he could do. 'If you do not trust these men because they are foreigners, yet I am a Persian of the Persians. Will you not listen to me?' The king bade him speak, and Artabazus gave him the same advice that Patron had given. 'Come with us, for there are some who are still faithful to you, into the Greek camp. That is your only hope.' The king refused. 'I stay with my own people,' he said. That same day Patron and his Greeks marched off, and Artabazus went with him. My companion and I thought that we could better serve our master by remaining, and we stayed. That night Bessus surrounded the king's tent with soldiers—some Bactrian savages, who know no master but the man who pays them—and laid hands on him, bound him with chains of gold, and carried him off in a covered chariot, closely guarded by Bactrians. We could not get speech with him; but we went a day's journey with the traitors, in order to find out what direction they were going to take. We halted that night at a village, the headman of which I knew to be a faithful fellow—in fact, he is my foster-brother. He gave us these disguises, and we got off very soon after it was dark. Probably we were not pursued; the start was too great. This is what we have come to tell you."
"You will save him, my son," said Sisygambis to Alexander.
"I will, mother," replied the king, "if it can be done by man, and the gods do not forbid."
Within an hour a picked body of troops was ready to continue the pursuit. Two small squadrons, one of the Companion Cavalry, the other of Macedonian light horse—the Thessalians had gone home from Ecbatana—and a company of infantry, selected for their strength and endurance, formed the van of the pursuing force. Alexander, of course, took the command himself. Charidemus, who was beginning to have a reputation for good luck, a gift scarcely less highly esteemed even by the wise than prudence and courage, received orders to accompany him. No man carried anything beyond his arms and provisions for two days, the king himself being as slenderly equipped as his companions. The main body of the army was to follow with the baggage at a more leisurely pace.
It was about the beginning of the first watch when the flying column started. It made a forced march of two nights and a day, making only a few brief halts for food, and taking a somewhat longer rest when the sun was at its hottest. When the second day began to dawn, the camp from which Bagistanes had escaped to bring his information could be descried. Bessus was now three days in advance. Another forced march, this time for twenty-four hours, broken only by one brief siesta, for the men ate in their saddles, materially decreased the distance. The column reached a village which Bessus and his prisoner had left only the day before. Still the prospect was discouraging. The headman was brought before Alexander, and questioned by means of an interpreter. The man had plenty to tell, for it was only the day before that he had been similarly questioned by Bessus. From what had fallen from the satrap, the headman had concluded that it was the intention of the fugitives to push on night and day without halting.
"Can we overtake them?" asked the king. "Tell me how I may do it and you shall have a hundred gold coins for yourself, and your village shall be free of tribute for ever."
"You cannot overtake them by following them; but you can cut them off."
The man then described the route which would have to be followed. It lay across a desert; it was fairly level and not unusually rough, but it was absolutely without water. Sometimes used in winter, it was never traversed between the spring and the autumn equinox. But the distance saved was very large indeed.
Alexander's resolution was at once taken. He was one of the men to whom nothing is impossible, and this waterless desert was only one of the obstacles which it was his delight to overcome. But, if his idea was audacious, he had also a consummate readiness of resource, and a most careful and sagacious faculty of adapting means to ends. He began by selecting from the cavalry force which accompanied him the best horses and the best men. All the infantry were left behind. The riding weight of the chosen horsemen was reduced to the lowest possibility, even the ornaments of the horses being left behind. Then he gave them a long rest, so long that there was no little wonder among them at what seemed a strange waste of time. But the king knew what he was doing. He was going to make one supreme effort, and everything must be done to avoid a breakdown.
The start was made at nightfall, but the moon was fortunately full, and the riders had no difficulty in keeping the track. By an hour after sunrise on the following day they had completed nearly fifty miles, and their task was all but accomplished.
They had, in fact, cut the Persians off. The two bodies of men were marching on converging lines, which, had they been followed, would have actually brought them together. Unluckily some quick-sighted Bactrian had caught a glimpse of the Macedonians, and had given the alarm to his commander. Bessus and his column were already in flight when they, somewhat later, became visible to the Macedonians.
The best mounted of the troopers started at once in pursuit. They recognized the figure of the satrap, and took it for granted that Darius would be with him. The chase would in any case have been fruitless, for the Bactrians had not been pushing their horses during the night, and easily distanced the wearied pursuers. But, as a matter of fact, Darius was not there, and it was Charidemus who, by mingled sagacity and good luck, won the prize of the day. His eye had been caught by an object in the Persian line of march which he soon discovered to be a covered chariot, surrounded by troops. He saw it become the centre of a lively movement and then observed that it was left standing alone. He also observed that before the soldiers left it they killed the animals which were drawing it. It at once occurred to him that it was here that Darius would be found. He looked round for the king, intending to make his conjecture known to him. But Alexander was a long way behind. His horse, not the famous Bucephalus, which was indeed too old for such work, but a young charger which he was riding for the first time, had broken down. No time was to be lost, and Charidemus galloped up to the chariot.
His guess had been right. Darius was there, but he was dying. The story told afterwards by the slave who, hidden himself, had witnessed the last scene, was this: Bessus and the other leaders, as soon as they discovered that the Macedonians had overtaken them, had urged the king to leave the chariot and mount a horse. He refused. "You will fall," cried Bessus, "into the hands of Alexander." "I care not," answered Darius. "At least he is not a traitor." Without further parley they hurled their javelins at him and fled, not even turning to see whether the wounds were mortal.
The king was near his end when Charidemus entered. The slave had come out of his hiding-place, and was endeavouring in vain to stanch the flow of blood. Darius roused a little as the strange figure came in sight.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Charidemus, my lord," was the answer.
"What?" murmured the dying man, "do his furies haunt me still?"
"My lord," said the young man, "I have only kindness to remember."
Darius recognized his voice. "Ah! I recollect," he said, "you were at Issus. But where is your king?"
"He is behind; he is coming; but his horse failed him."
"He will be too late, if indeed he wished to see me alive. But it matters not: Darius, alive or dead, is nothing now. But give him my thanks, and say that I commend my mother to him and all of my kindred that may fall into his hands. He is a generous foe, and worthier than I of the sceptre of Cyrus. But let him beware. He is too great; and the gods are envious."
Here his voice failed him. A shudder passed over his limbs; he drew a few deep breaths, and the last of the Persian kings was gone.
About half an hour afterwards Alexander arrived, having obtained a horse from one of his troopers. For some minutes he stood looking at the dead man in silence. Then calling some of his men, who by this time had collected in considerable numbers, he bade them pay the last duties to the dead. The corpse was conveyed to the nearest town, and there roughly embalmed. In due time it received honourable burial in the royal tomb at Pasargadę.