The reader will have no difficulty in understanding that the games of the Isthmus, in common with all similar celebrations in Greece, had entered on a period of decadence. So, indeed, had Greece itself. This condition of decay was no new thing. It had begun in the days when the country was yet free, it became more rapid and more complete when freedom was lost. It may be doubted whether things were worse in the Isthmus than elsewhere. But some of the accompanying evils were brought into greater relief by the near neighbourhood of a wealthy city. One great trouble was the change in the character of the competitions, or, perhaps, one should rather say, in the motives of the competitors. Time had been when honour was the predominant attraction; it had now been replaced by gain. Along with the decline there had been a change in the class of the competitors. It did not follow that a young man of aristocratic family was necessarily better than one who had come of a humbler stock; but it was a fact that the lower class was more easily affected by mercenary motives. It is inconceivable that a youth belonging to the Alcmaeonidae of Athens, or to one of the royal houses of Sparta, or to the Bacchiads of Corinth should barter his chances of success for any earthly consideration. But men who sought victory because victory would put money into their pockets might be tempted to anticipate the object which they sought, if it was put within their reach without risk or delay.
Another result of the change was a vast increase in the betting, of which the various races were the subject. Things were very much as they are now. There was a multitude of people who speculated on these events in very various ways. Some did so simply to get a little excitement. They were ready to make wagers on races and on almost anything else. They had no particular knowledge of them or even interest in them. It was an opportunity of gambling; the gambling was what they really cared about. Others had some kind of interest in them. They had been competitors themselves, had won prizes, or tried to win prizes, in former years, or they knew one or other of the candidates, or they affected a knowledge which they did not really possess. There was no great harm about these two classes. They risked money, it was true, which they could ill spare, and sometimes made wives and children go short of food and clothing; their worst misdeed was to risk what did not in any way belong to them, the property, for instance, of employers. But the most mischievous class was that of the professional betters. Even of these some were honest up to their lights. They took advantage, it is true, of the ignorant and unwary, tempting them, for instance, to take as risks what were really certainties against them. Still they did not descend to downright fraud. If they lost a wager they did not attempt to escape payment; and they did not seek to tamper with competitors or judges. But these men, honest or comparatively honest, were the exception. The great majority of the professional class had no scruples as to the methods by which they made their gain. They bribed or "hocussed" competitors; they corrupted judges, they tampered with implements; they organized demonstrations which might terrify or perplex a candidate whose victory did not suit their operations. There was nothing, in short, in the way of fraud, and even of force, to which, if occasion served, they were not ready to have recourse.
To this highly objectionable class belonged the three men whom I am now about to bring under the notice of my readers. These fellows, Cleon, Democles, and Ariston by name, had been accomplices in sundry nefarious practices for some years. They had made, first and last, no small amount of money by their villainies, but their gains, as happens almost invariably with men of this stamp, seemed to have done them but very little good. They had been lightly come by and had gone lightly, and now they were about as "hard up" as men could well be. It is needless to describe how they stood in regard to other contests in the forthcoming games; it will suffice to say that their prospects were neither particularly good nor particularly bad. They did not stand to lose or to win any great sum. With the long race the case was different. They had begun by giving long odds against Eubulus. This was reasonable enough. The young man when he had begun his training had not shown any special promise, and then there were the adverse family circumstances—they made it their business to make themselves acquainted with everything that was likely to tell upon the result—to be taken into account. He might have to be withdrawn from the competition, as we know he would have been withdrawn but for the quite unforeseen intervention of a friend. These and other reasons made them feel tolerably safe in laying heavy wagers against him. Then the situation changed. The young man developed wonderfully under the trainer's hands; from being almost or wholly unknown, "a dark horse," to use the phraseology of the race-course, he became the first favourite. This, of course, was nothing less than a disaster to the confederates. There needs no great familiarity with the methods of betting to see that men who had been laying, say twenty to one, against him, would stand to lose considerably when the odds come to be two to one upon him. To secure themselves in the case of his winning they would have to risk a sum which they would be absolutely unable to pay; while in the event of his being beaten they would be losing a considerable sum. To making a default in payment they had no objection in conscience, but they had the objection that it would put an end to their career, as far at least as Corinth was concerned.
The three rogues were busy discussing the situation in a tavern near the harbour of Lechaeum, a favourite haunt of these men because it was much frequented by sailors, anxious, as has been the way of the sailor from the days of the first ship, to get rid of their money.
"Well, Cleon," said Ariston, "have you had any success with the young man?"
"None at all," answered Cleon. "But I never thought that I should. He is not of that sort."
"Would it be of any good, think you, to raise the price? I have heard wise men say that there is nothing that you cannot persuade a man to do if you only offer him enough."
"Your wise man, I take it, did not know what he was talking about. Anyhow money won't buy him. He may have his price, but it is something, you may depend upon it, that we can't pay him. Now if we could promise him the fair Cleonicé," the rascal had made it his business to find out all that he could about the young man, "it might be to the point; but I don't see how that is to be done. No: he is not to be bought. We must think of some other way of setting to work."
"How about the trainer?" asked Ariston after a pause. "He is not so incorruptible, I suppose. At least I never knew one of the craft that was."
"Well," replied Cleon, "I don't see much of a chance in that direction either. You see, Eurylochus"—this was the trainer's name—"has a very good business, and he has got it together by keeping a good name. Whether he is honest by choice is more than I can say; but he is certainly honest by necessity. It would not be worth his while to do anything shady, or that was in the least suspicious. No: he would certainly want as much as he would ask if he were to sell his business, not to say anything at all of the bother and risk. If he were willing, and I am not at all sure of that, he would want more than we could manage. No: as far as I can see there is nothing to be got out of Eurylochus."
The third conspirator, Democles, who had hitherto been listening in silence, now broke in:—
"I have another idea which might be worth trying. Could we find some one else in the training school to help us? There are some thirty fellows there, and some of them must have begun by this time to find out that they haven't much of a chance of getting a prize—that they have, in fact, been spending time and money to no purpose. Might not one of them be glad to get something back, and be not very particular about the way of doing it? The particular way of doing it will be matter for consideration later on. Eubulus might be hocussed—I know a fellow who is very clever in this kind of thing—or some accident might be contrived; or there is the old way of the dagger, not a bad way either, for dead men can tell no tales and ask no questions. How does this strike you, Cleon?"
"I think there is something in it," answered the man appealed to. "It would be very strange if all Eurylochus' thirty pupils were men of such incorruptible virtue as our friend Eubulus seems to be."
The thirty were discussed one by one. The three rogues showed between them an amazing knowledge of the circumstances of every one of them. The choice was soon narrowed down to a few. No decent man with anything like a future before him could be induced to meddle with such a business, and it would be only dangerous to approach them. It was not long before a final selection was made. A certain Dromeus was fixed upon as the most likely to serve the conspirators' purpose. He was a degenerate descendant of a famous race of athletes. The founder of that race had distinguished himself several centuries before by winning a quite unprecedented number of victories in the long race. He had been proclaimed victor twice at Olympia, as often at the Pythian Games, thrice at the Isthmian and five times at the Nemean. It is quite possible that the revolution that he made in the athletic diet—he changed its staple from cheese to flesh—may have had something to do with these unusual successes, but he must have had a great personal aptitude. Athletic distinction of this kind became hereditary in his family; the name, the significance of which was regarded as a matter of no small importance, was handed down from father to son. If there happened to be a break in the succession, it was taken up by the nearest relative.
But in course of time the family had lost, as families are apt to lose, some of its characteristics. Their physique was not impaired, but the moral qualities, which were of no less importance, had declined. Its present representative was distinctly degenerate. He had indeed made a brilliant beginning of his career, for he had won the boys' foot race at Olympia; unfortunately the success had not done him any good. It had made him conceited, and it had rendered him the object of many flattering attentions, which he was not wise enough to estimate at their proper value. It was followed by two defeats at lesser festivals, and there was now every probability that a third failure would follow. Dromeus had begun to lose heart. He had failed to hold his own in private trials with Eubulus, and as time went on his inferiority became more and more marked. The usual result followed. As the man's hopes diminished his resolution and perseverance slackened. Opportunities of indulgence—and the most jealously guarded system of training could not wholly exclude them—were not avoided, and were soon even sought. So it came to pass that Dromeus' prospects were anything but bright. His means were narrow, he had put himself under very embarrassing obligations, and he had lost his self-respect. He was, in short, exactly in the condition in which he would be most likely to yield to a temptation addressed either to his pride or to his needs.
Cleon proceeded to make his advances with all the skill which a long apprenticeship in villainy had taught him. A direct suggestion of violence or fraud would, he felt, be impolitic. Dromeus was not ripe for it—the evil had only begun to work in him. Jealousy of the young rival, who now stood so high in popular favour, seemed the motive to which an appeal might be most easily made. Cleon had already a slight acquaintance with the young man, and he found opportunities of improving it. A little conversation gave him no little insight into Dromeus' character and capacities. It was evident that he was at once extraordinarily vain and extraordinarily ignorant. The subject of the coming race, and with it, of course, the popularity of Eubulus, soon turned up. Dromeus was almost frantically jealous of his competitor. Both his family and his personal pride were touched.
"Who," he cried, "is this young upstart? Where are his traditions? His father is an artisan, or a trader, or something equally insignificant. And his grandfather? No one probably knows. And these fools in Corinth here crowd to see him, aye, and positively cheer him. I heard them doing it this very morning. Do they know that I am the sixteenth in descent from the great runner Dromeus of Stymphalus?" If any one in Corinth did not know it, it was not by any fault of Dromeus, who was seldom in any company for five minutes without mentioning the name of his great ancestor. "It is monstrous that this low-born fellow should thrust himself forward in this fashion, and intrude himself into the amusements of gentlemen."
"Is he really worth anything?" asked Cleon.
Cleon could have answered his own question as well as any one in Corinth, but he wanted to sound his companion's thoughts.
"Well," answered Dromeus, "he is not bad for a fellow of that class. He has a fair speed and seems to last sufficiently well. But it is the race itself that tests a man. Trials are very different things; but to run with the eyes of fifty thousand people fixed upon you, that proves what is in a man. It is then that the hereditary temper shows itself. Do you know, that when I ran at Olympia I did not feel the faintest suspicion of a tremor?"
"Is it all quite straightforward, think you?" said Cleon.
"Straightforward," replied Dromeus. "I don't quite catch your meaning. I never saw the fellow cheat, I don't think that he would, for he is not a bad sort; even if he could, I must own that I do not see where his opportunity would come in."
"Have you ever heard of charms?" asked Cleon.
"Charms? What do you mean?" cried Dromeus.
"Well, I mean the magic lotions and potions by which witches and wizards do such wonderful things."
"I have heard of such things," said the runner; "but tell me more."
"Well," said Cleon, "there are stories without end of what Medea did in this very city. She put some dreadful drug on the robe which she gave to the King's daughter. Jason, her husband, had divorced her and was going to marry the princess—and it burnt her as if it had been fire, aye, and her old father the King too. This, of course, was a mischievous drug; but there are things which give strength as well as take it away. Go to any drug-seller in the city, and he will tell you of such things, aye, and sell them to you, if you are ready to pay the price. I don't mean to say but what most of these things are mere rubbish; still there is no smoke without fire. The pretence would not be sought after if there was not some reality behind them."
Dromeus was intensely interested in all this. It appealed at once to his jealousy and to his pride. It had been hateful to him to see a low-born rival gaining the advantage over him, and it consoled him vastly to believe that the advantage had been secured by foul means.
Cleon thought it best to interrupt the conversation at this point, and to leave his suggestion to work.