Charidemus arrived at Babylon punctually at the time appointed, reaching it at a date which may be put in our reckoning as early in January, 323. Alexander had not arrived, but was on his way from Susa.
A week after his arrival he had the pleasure of meeting his Theban friend, who had been sent on in advance to superintend the final arrangements for a ceremony which occupied most of the king's thoughts at this time, the funeral of Hephaestion. For Hephaestion was dead, killed by a fever, not very serious in itself, but aggravated by the patient's folly and intemperance, and Alexander was resolved to honour him with obsequies more splendid than had ever before been bestowed on mortal man. The outlay had already reached ten thousand talents, and at least two thousand more would have to be spent before the whole scheme was carried out. And then there were chapels to be built and priesthoods endowed, for the oracle of Ammon had declared that the dead man might be lawfully worshipped as a hero, though it had forbidden the divine honours which it was asked to sanction.
In April the king reached Babylon. The soothsayers had warned him not to enter the city. He might have heeded their advice but for the advice of his counsellor, the Greek sophist Anaxarchus, who had permanently secured his favour by his extravagant flatteries. "The priests of Belus," he suggested, "have been embezzling the revenues of the temple, and they don't want to have you looking into their affairs." His stay was brief; the funeral preparations were not complete, and he started for a voyage of some weeks among the marshes of the Euphrates, an expedition which probably did not benefit his health.
In June he returned, and, all being then ready, celebrated the funeral of his friend with all the pomp and solemnity with which it was possible to surround it. The beasts offered in sacrifice were enough to furnish ample meals for the whole army. Every soldier also received a large allowance of wine. The banquet given to the principal officers was one of extraordinary magnificence and prolonged even beyond what was usual with the king.
Two or three days afterwards the two friends were talking over the disquieting rumours about the king's health which were beginning to circulate through the city. They could not fail to remember the curious prediction which they had heard years before from the lips of Arioch, or to compare with it the recent warnings of the Babylonian soothsayers. Charondas, too, had a strange story to tell of Calanus, an Indian sage, who had accompanied the conqueror in his return from that country. Weary of life the man had deliberately burnt himself on a funeral pile raised by his own hands. Before mounting it he had bidden farewell to all his friends. The king alone he left without any salutation. "My friend," he had said, "I shall soon see you again."
When the friends reached their quarters they found Philip, the Acarnanian, waiting for them. The physician looked pale and anxious.
"Is the king ill?" they asked with one voice. "Seriously so," said Philip, "if what I hear be true."
"And have you prescribed for him?"
"He has not called me in; nor would he see me if I were to present myself. He has ceased to believe in physicians; soothsayers, prophets, quacks of every kind, have his confidence. Gladly would I go to him, though indeed a physician carries his life in his hand, if he seeks to cure our king or his friend. Poor Glaucias did his best for Hephaestion. But what can be expected when a patient in a fever eats a fowl and drinks a gallon of wine? Ćsculapius himself could not have saved his life. And then poor Glaucias is crucified because Hephaestion dies.
And, mark my words, the king will go the same way, unless he changes his manners. What with his own folly and the folly of his friends, there is no chance for him. You saw what he drank at the funeral banquet. Well, he had the sense to feel that he had had enough, and was going home, when Medius must induce him to sup with him, and he drinks as much more. Then comes a day of heavy sleep and then another supper, at which, I am told, he tried to drain the great cup of Hercules, and fell back senseless on his couch. The next morning he could not rise; and to-day, too, he has kept his bed. But he saw his generals in the afternoon and talked to them about his plans. I understood from Perdiccas that he seemed weak, but was as clear in mind as ever. And now, my friends, I should recommend you not to leave Babylon till this matter is settled one way or another. If Alexander should die—which the gods forbid–there is no knowing what may happen; and there is a proverb which I, and I dare say you, have often found to be true, that the absent always have the worst of it."
In obedience to this suggestion the two friends remained in Babylon, waiting anxiously for the development of events. On the second day after the conversation with Philip, recorded above, Charidemus met the admiral Nearchus, as he was returning from an interview with the king. "How is he?" he asked. "I can hardly say," replied the admiral. "To look at him, one would say that things were going very badly with him. But his energy is enormous. He had a long talk with me about the fleet. He knew everything; he foresaw everything. Sometimes his voice was so low that I could hardly hear him speak, but he never hesitated for a name or a fact. I believe that he knows the crew and the armament, and the stores of every ship in the fleet. And he seems to count on going. We are to start on the day after to-morrow. But it seems impossible."
Three days more passed in the same way. The councils of war were still held, and the king showed the same lively interest in all preparations, and still talked as if he were intending to take a part himself in the expedition. Then came a change for the worse. It could no longer be doubted that the end was near, and the dying man was asked to whom he bequeathed his kingdom. "To the strongest," he answered, and a faint smile played upon his lips as he said it. Afterwards an attendant heard him muttering to himself, "They will give me fine funeral games." The following day the generals came as usual; he knew them, but could not speak.
And now, human aid being despaired of, a final effort was made to get help from other powers. The desperately sick were sometimes brought into the temple of Serapis, the pleasure of the god having been first ascertained by a deputation of friends who spent the night in the temple. Accordingly seven of the chief officers of the army inquired of the deity whether he would that Alexander should be brought into the shrine. "Let him remain where he is," was the answer given in some mysterious way; and the king was left to die in peace.
One thing, however, still remained to be done. The news of the king's dangerous illness had spread through the army, and the men came thronging in tumultuous crowds about the gates of the palace. It was, too, impossible to quiet them. They would see him; they would know for themselves how he fared; if he was to be concealed, how could they be sure that some foul play was not being practised. The murmurs were too loud and angry, and the murmurers too powerful to be disregarded with impunity. The officers and a certain number of the soldiers, selected by their comrades, were to be admitted within the gates and into the sick chamber itself. It was a strange and pathetic sight. The dying king sat propped up with pillows on his couch. He had not, indeed, worn and wasted as were his features, the aspect of death. The fever had given a brilliance to his eyes and a flush to his cheek that seemed full of life. And he knew his visitors. He had a truly royal memory for faces, and there was not one among the long lines of veterans, weeping most of them with all the abandonment of grief which southern nations permit themselves, whom he did not recognize. Speak he could not, though now and then his lips were seen to move, as though there were something that he was eager to say. When Charondas passed him he seemed to be specially moved. He bent his head slightly—for he could not beckon with his hands, long since become powerless—as if he would speak with him. The Theban bent down and listened intently. He could never afterwards feel sure whether he had heard a sound or guessed the word from the movements of the lips, but he always retained an absolute conviction that the king uttered, or at least formed in his breath, the word "Dionysus." He had walked all his days in fear of the anger of the god. Now it had fallen upon him to the uttermost. Thebes was avenged by Babylon.
That evening the great conqueror died.
"There was some truth after all in what Arioch told us," said Charidemus to his friend, about a week after the death of the king, "though I have always felt sure that the spirit which he pretended to consult was a fraud. But was there not something which concerned ourselves?"
"Yes," replied Charondas, "I remember the words well. 'Happy are they who stand afar off and watch.' And indeed it scarcely needs a soothsayer to tell us that."
"You have heard, I dare say," said Charidemus, "of what Alexander was heard to whisper to himself. 'They will give me fine funeral games.' Have you a mind to take part in these same games?"
"Not I," replied his friend; "two or three of the big men will win great prizes, I doubt not; but little folk such as you and me will run great risk of being tripped up. But what are we to do?"
The Macedonian paused a few moments, "I have thought the matter over many times, and talked it over too with my wife, who has, if you will believe me, as sound a judgment as any of us. You see that standing out of the tumult, as I have been doing for the last five years and more, I have had, perhaps, better opportunities for seeing the matter on all sides. I always felt that if the king died young—and there was always too much reason to fear, quite apart from the chances of war, that he would—there would be a terrible struggle for the succession. No man living, I am sure, could take up the burden that he bore. Many a year will pass before the world sees another Alexander; but there will be kingdoms to be carved out of the empire. That I saw; and then I put to myself the question, what I should do. It seemed to me that there would be no really safe resting-place where a man might enjoy his life in peace and quietness in either Macedonia or Greece. I sometimes thought that there would be no such place anywhere. And then I recollected a delightful spot where I spent some of the happiest months of my life, while you were with the king in Egypt, that inland sea in the country of the Jews. If there is to be a haven of rest anywhere, it will be there. What say you? are you willing to leave the world and spend the rest of your days there?"
"Yes," said the Theban, "on conditions."
"And what are these conditions?"
"They do not depend upon you, though you may possibly help me to obtain them."
The conditions, as my readers may guess, were the consent of Miriam, the great-grand-daughter of Eleazar of Babylon, to share this retirement, and the approbation of her kinsfolk. These, not to prolong my story now that its main interest is over, were obtained without much difficulty. Eleazar was dead. Had he been alive, it is likely that he would have refused his consent, for he kept with no little strictness to the exclusive traditions of his race. His grandson and successor was more liberal, or, perhaps we should say, more latitudinarian in his views. Charondas bore a high reputation as a gallant and honourable man; and he had acquired a large fortune, as any high officer in Alexander's army could hardly fail to do, if he was gifted with ordinary prudence. A bag of jewels which he had brought back from India, and which were estimated as worth four hundred talents at the least, was one of the things, though it is only fair to say, not the chief thing that impressed the younger Eleazar in his favour. Miriam's consent had virtually been given long before.
Charidemus and his wife had a painful parting with Barsiné. She recognized the wisdom of their choice; but she refused to share their retirement. "I must keep my son," she said, "where his father placed him. Some day he may be called to succeed him, and his subjects must know where to find him."
In the spring of the following year the two households were happily established in two charming dwellings at the southern end of the Lake of Galilee. Though the friends never formally adopted the Jewish faith, they regarded it with such respect that they and their families became "Proselytes of the gate." It is needless to tell the story of their after lives. Let it suffice to say that these were singularly uneventful and singularly happy.