A council of war was held by the Athenian admirals on one of the Arginusæ islets as soon as they could meet after the fighting had come to an end. Callias, by Diomedon's desire, waited outside the tent in which the deliberations were being held, and could not help hearing, so high were the voices of the speakers raised, that there was an angry argument about the course to be pursued. The intolerably clumsy system of having ten generals of equal authority was on its trial, if indeed any trial was needed, and was once more found wanting. Even if the right decision should be reached, time was being wasted, time that, as we shall see, was of a value absolutely incalculable.
When at last the council broke up—its deliberations had lasted for more than an hour—and Diomedon rejoined the young officer, he wore a gloomy and anxious look.
"I am afraid," he said, "that mischief will come of this. I feel it so strongly that, though I ought not, perhaps, to tell outside the council what has been going on within, I must call you to witness. I did my very best to persuade my colleagues. 'Our first business,' I said, 'is to save our friends. There were twenty-six ships,' I said, 'disabled. A few were sunk on the spot; others, I am afraid, have gone down since; but more than half, I hope, are still afloat. Even where the ship is gone already, there are sure to be some of the crew who have been able to keep themselves afloat either by swimming or by holding on to floating stuff. For the sake of the gods, gentlemen,'—I give you my very words—'don't lose another moment. We have lost too many already. Send every seaworthy ship that you have got to the rescue of the shipwrecked. It is better to let ten enemies escape, than lose a single friend.' They would not listen to me. They were bent, they said, on following up their victory, an excellent thing, I allow; but only when the first duty of making all that you have got quite safe has been performed. One of them—I will mention no names—positively insulted me. 'Diomedon,' he said, 'has doubtless had enough fighting for the day.' Why, in the name of Athene, do they put such lowbred villains into office. The fellow has a long tongue, and so the people elect him. I 'tired of fighting' indeed? I might have some excuse if I were, for I was hard at it, when he was a thievish boy, picking up unconsidered trifles in the market-place. Well; the end of it was that we came to a sort of compromise. Forty-odd ships are to go and save what can be saved from the wrecks—the gods only know how many will be left by this time—while the rest are to make the best of their way to Mitylene, and cut off the blockading squadron."
"And you, sir?" asked Callias, "with which squadron are you to be?"
"I am to go to Mitylene, of course, after what that fellow said, I could not ask to have the other duty; but I feel that it is what I ought to be doing."
"Who is to have it, sir," said Callias.
"No one, if you will believe it," answered the admiral, with an angry stamp of the foot. "I mean no one of ourselves, of the Ten. They are all so anxious to follow up the victory, as they put it, and make a great show of taking Spartan ships, that they will not take the trouble. Theramenes and Thrasybulus are to do it. I know that they have been in command in former years and may be supposed to be competent. Thrasybulus, too, is trustworthy; but Theramenes—to put it plainly—is a scoundrel. You know that I don't care about politics; I am a plain sailor and leave such things to others; but I say this, politics or no politics, a man who turns against his friends is a scoundrel. I don't know what trick he is not capable of playing. Anyhow, whether these two do the business ill or well, one of the Ten ought to go. It would be better; and I am sure trouble will come of our not going. Mind this is all in confidence. You are never to breathe a word of it, till I give you leave."
"And am I to go with you, sir?" said Callias.
"No," was the answer; "I forgot to tell you; the worry of all this put it out of my mind. You are to take the despatch to Athens."
"But the shipwrecked men"—exclaimed Callias. "We must obey orders."
An hour afterward Callias was on his way to Athens; the storm had now increased to something like a gale. As the waves came from the south it was impossible to take a straight course for the point in view, lying as it did almost due west. Few ships in those days could keep a straight line with the wind on the quarter. Indeed it was soon impossible to keep up any sail at all, nor was it safe, even if the strength of the rowers already wearied by the labors of the day had permitted it, to keep the ship broadside to the waves. Nothing remained but to put her about and drive before the wind, a sail being now hoisted again and the rowers exerting themselves to the utmost to avoid being "pooped" by the heavy waves. Toward morning the wind moderated, but by that time the Swallow, for that was the name of the despatch-boat which had been told off for the service, had been driven as much as fifty miles out of her course. This would not have been of much consequence, but that the timber of the Swallow had been so strained by her battle with the sea that she began to leak inconveniently, if not dangerously. Her crew, too, were now in urgent need of rest. Under ordinary circumstances, Chios, which could be seen, as the day broke, about ten miles on the right bow, would have afforded a convenient shelter; but Chios was in the hands of the enemy. The little island of Vara, lying some ten miles to the north-west, was the only alternative. Here Callias, much against his will, for he feared that his news would be anticipated, was compelled to stop, the captain of the despatch-boat refusing to proceed, until vessel and men were better able to face the weather.
As it turned out, the delay did no harm. In fact it was the means of his reaching Athens with more speed and safety than he might otherwise have done. A day indeed was lost in doing such repairs as the imperfect resources of the little island permitted, but on the morrow, Callias set out again, and was groaning over the day that had been lost, and the very little good that the clumsy boat-builders had been able to do for him, when he found himself being rapidly overhauled by a vessel which had not long before hove in sight. Before noon he recognized the cut of the disguised Skylark, and at once ran up a signal which Hippocles whom he supposed to be on board would, he knew, recognize. The signal was immediately answered, and before another half hour had passed the Skylark was along-side. After a brief colloquy it was arranged that the Swallow should make the best of her way to Samos, where there was an arsenal in which she could be properly repaired and that Callias with his despatches should take his passage to Athens in the yacht.
Hippocles was acquainted with the general fact that the Athenian fleet had won a great victory; but he knew no details, and was eager to hear from the lips of one who had taken a part in the action. And he had much that was interesting to say to his young friend. The three weeks which he had spent in Mitylene with the blockaded squadron had not made him hopeful about the first issue of the war. He had found that Conon was not hopeful, and Conon was as able and intelligent an officer as Athens had in her service.
"This has been a stupendous effort on the part of the city," he said, "and it has saved us for a time, but it can't be kept up and it can't be repeated. Athens is like a gambler reduced to his last stake. He wins it; very good. But then he has to throw again; and as often as he throws, it is the same—if he loses, he loses all. And, sooner or later, lose he must. In the long run the chances are against us. We have lost our morale. I saw a good deal of Conon's men when I was shut up, and I thought very badly of them; and he thinks badly, too, I know. It is only a question of time. Do you know," he went on, sinking his voice to a whisper—"and mark you, this is a thing that I should not venture to say to anyone in the world but you—I am half inclined to wish that we had been beaten in the last battle—that is, if Callicratidas had lived. A noble fellow indeed! Do you know that he let the Athenians whom he took at Methymna go on their parole? Any one else would have sold them for slaves."
"Well," said Callus, who was a little staggered by his friend's view of affairs, "as your hero is drowned—mind that I quite agree in what you say of him—perhaps it is better that things have turned out as they have. And I can't believe that our chances are as bad as you make out. Anyhow we are better off than when I saw you last."
"I hope so; I hope so"; said Hippocles in a despondent tone. "But they might have done better. For instance, we have let the blockading squadron at Mitylene escape."
"How was that?" asked Callias. "Did you see nothing of our fleet. It was to sail northward at once."
"No—I never saw or heard of it. Now listen to what happened. On the day after the battle—though of course I knew nothing of what happened—two despatch-boats came into the harbor—so at least everyone thought—and the second had wreaths on mast and stern, as if it had brought good news. And Eteonicus—he was in command of the blockading squadron—was good enough to send us a herald with the intelligence that Callicratidas had won a great sea fight, and that the whole of the Athenian fleet had been destroyed. Of course we did not quite believe that, but if only a quarter of it was true, it was not pleasant hearing. My old sailing master, who has as sharp eyes as any man I know, said to me. 'My belief, sir, is that it is all nonsense about this great victory, and that the second boat was only the first dressed up. I observed them both particularly, and they were amazingly alike. In both the bow side oars were just a little behind the stroke, and one of the oars, I noticed, was a new one, and not painted like the rest. And why should the man take the trouble to tell us about the victory as he calls it. If it is true, he has us safe, and can cut us up at his leisure. No, sir, I don't believe a word of it.' Well, I was not certain that the old man was right, but I strongly suspected that he was. Anyhow I was so convinced of it that I spent the whole night in getting ready; and, sure enough, the next morning the blockading squadron had slipped off, with nobody to hinder them."
"That was a very smart trick for a Spartan," said Callias.