Saturday, October 9, 2010

At Sea

IT was not for long, however, that Charidemus was destined to enjoy these somewhat lonely days, and evenings that seemed only too short. About a week after the day on which he made his first acquaintance with Memnon and his wife, he was roused from his sleep about an hour before dawn by a visit from the governor himself.

"Dress yourself at once," said Memnon, "I will wait for you."

"We can hold the place no longer," the governor explained to his prisoner, as they hurried down the steep path that led from the citadel to the harbour. "I am leaving a garrison in the citadels, but the town is lost. Luckily for me, though not, perhaps, for you, I have still command of the sea."

The harbour was soon reached. Memnon's ship was waiting for him, and put off the moment the gangway was withdrawn; the rest of the squadron had already gained the open sea.

"You must make yourself as comfortable as you can on deck; the ladies have the cabin. Happily the night is fine, and our voyages hereabouts are not very long. The Ægean is the very Elysium of fair-weather sailors."

Charidemus rolled himself up in the cloak with which, at Memnon's bidding, a sailor had furnished him, and slept soundly, under one of the bulwarks, till he was awakened by the increasing heat of the sun. When he had performed as much of a toilet as the means at his disposal would permit, he was joined by Memnon, and conducted to the after-deck, where the breakfast table had been spread under an awning of canvas.

Presently the ladies appeared. Barsiné was one of them; the other was a very beautiful girl, who may have numbered thirteen or fourteen summers. "My niece, Clearista," said Memnon, "daughter," he added in a whisper, "of my brother Mentor;" and then aloud, "The most troublesome charge that a poor uncle was ever plagued with." The damsel shook her chestnut locks at him, and turned away with a pout, which was about as sincere as her uncle's complaint. The next moment a lad of ten, who had been trailing a baited hook over the stern, made his appearance. This was Memnon's son, another Mentor. His tutor, the Nicon, whose acquaintance we have already made, followed him, and the party was now complete.

It was Clearista's first voyage, and her wonder and delight were beyond expression. The sea, calm as a mirror, and blue as a sapphire, under a cloudless sky; the rhythmic dash of the oars as they rose and fell in time to the monotonous music of the fugleman standing high upon the stern; the skimming flight of the sea-birds as they followed the galley in the hope of some morsels of food; the gambols of a shoal of dolphins, playing about so near that it seemed as if they must be struck by the oars or even run down by the prow—these, and all the sights and sounds of the voyage fairly overpowered her with pleasure. Everything about her seemed to breathe of freedom; and she had scarcely ever been outside the door of the women's apartments, or, at most, the walks of a garden. Who can wonder at her ecstasy? Memnon and Barsiné looked on with indulgent smiles. Young Mentor, who had seen a good deal more of the world than had his cousin, felt slightly superior. As for Charidemus he lost his heart on the spot. Child as she was—and she was young for her years—Clearista seemed to him the most beautiful creature that he had ever beheld.

The day's companionship did not fail to deepen this impression. With a playful imperiousness, which had not a touch of coquetry in it, the girl commanded his services, and he was more than content to fetch and carry for her from morning till night. He brought her pieces of bread when it occurred to her that she should like to feed the gulls; he baited her hook when she conceived the ambition of catching a fish; and he helped her to secure the small sword-fish which she was lucky enough to hook, but was far too frightened to pull up. When the sun grew so hot as to compel her to take shelter under the awning the two told each other their stories. The girl's was very brief and uneventful, little more than the tale of journeys, mostly performed in a closed litter, from one town to another; but the young man thought it profoundly interesting. He, on the other hand, had really something to tell, and she listened with a flattering mixture of wonder, admiration, and terror. Towards evening the unwonted excitement had fairly worn her out, and she was reluctantly compelled to seek her cabin.

Charidemus was gazing somewhat disconsolately over the bulwarks when he felt a hand laid upon his shoulder. He turned, and saw Memnon standing behind him with a somewhat sad smile upon his face.

"Melancholy, my young friend?" he said. "Well, I have something to tell you that may cheer you up. I did not forget you yesterday when we left the town. Of course it would not have done to let your people get any inkling of my plans. If they had guessed that we were going to evacuate the place, they might have given us a good deal of trouble in getting off. So instead of sending any message myself, I left one for the commander of the garrison to send as soon as we were safely gone. Briefly, it was to say that I was ready to exchange you for any one of four prisoners-of-war whom I named—I might have said all four without making a particularly good bargain, for, if you will allow a man who is old enough to be your father to say so, I like your looks. If they accepted—and I cannot suppose for a moment that they will hesitate—they were to send out a boat with a flag of truce from Miletus, where we shall be in two hours' time or so, if the weather holds good. Then we shall have to say good-bye."

"I shall never forget your kindness," cried Charidemus.

"Well, my son, some day you may be able to make me or mine a return for it."

"Command me," answered the young man in a tone of unmistakable sincerity; "you shall be heartily welcome to anything that I can do for you or yours."

"Listen then," said Memnon. "First, there is something that you can do for me. Perhaps it is a foolish vanity, but I should like to be set right some day in the eyes of the world. You will keep what I am going to tell you to yourself till you think that the proper time for telling it is come. I shall be gone then, but I should not like those that come after me to think that I was an incompetent fool. Well, then, your king never ought to have been allowed to land in Asia. We could have prevented it. We had the command of the sea. We had only to bring up the Phœnician squadron, which was doing nothing at all, and our force would have been perfectly overwhelming. Look at the state of affairs now! Your king has positively disbanded his fleet. He knew perfectly well that it had not a chance with ours, and that it was merely a useless expense to him. Just as we could now prevent him from returning, so we could have prevented him from coming. For, believe me, we were as strong in ships six months ago as we are now, and I urged this on the king with all my might. He seemed persuaded. But he was overborne. Some headstrong fools, who unfortunately had his ear, could not be content, forsooth, but they must measure their strength with Alexander. So he was allowed to come, to land his army without losing a single man.

“Still, even then, something might have been done. I knew that we could not bring an army into the field that could stand against him for an hour. The Persians never were a match for the Greeks, man to man; and besides, the Persians are nothing like what they were a hundred and fifty years ago. And the Greek mercenaries could not be relied upon. They were the scum of the cities, and many of them no more Greeks than they are gods. Any man who had a smattering of Greek, and could manage to procure an old suit of armour, could get himself hired; and very likely the only thing Greek about him was his name, and that he had stolen. Well, I knew that such as they were, and without a leader, too—even the best mercenaries without a leader go for very little—they would be worth next to nothing. So I went to Arsites, who was satrap of Phrygia, and in chief command, and said to him, 'Don't fight; we shall most infallibly be beaten. There is nothing in Asia that can stand against the army which we have allowed Alexander to bring over. Fall back before him; waste the country as you go, burn the houses; burn even the towns, if you do not like to detach men enough to hold them. Don't let the enemy find a morsel to eat that he has not brought himself, or a roof to shelter him that he does not himself put up. And then attack him at home. He has brought all the best of his army with him. What he has left behind him to garrison his own dominions is very weak indeed, poor troops, and not many of them. And then he has enemies all round him. The Thracians on the north are always ready for a fight, and in the south there are the Greeks, who hate him most fervently, and have a long score against him and his father, which they would dearly like to wipe out. Half the men that you have with you here, and who will be scattered like clouds before the north-wind, if you try to meet him in battle, will raise such a storm behind him in his own country that he will have no choice but to turn back.'

“Well, Arsites would not listen to me. 'If you are afraid,' he said, 'you can go, you and your men; we shall be able to do very well without you. As for wasting the country and burning the houses, the idea is monstrous. The king has given it into my sole keeping, and there it shall be. Not a field shall be touched, not a house shall be burnt in my province. As for dividing the army, and sending half of it into Europe, it is madness. What good did Darius and Xerxes get by sending armies thither? No—the man has chosen to dare us on our ground, and we will give him a lesson which he and his people will never forget.' I urged my views again, and then the fellow insulted me. 'Of course,' he said, 'it does not suit you to put an end to the war. The more it is prolonged, the more necessary you will be thought.' After that, of course, there was nothing more to be said. We fought, and everything happened exactly as I had foretold. Then the king made me commander-in-chief; but it was too late. I shall be able to do something with the fleet, of course; I shall get hold of some of the islands; but what good will that do when your Alexander is marching, perhaps, on Susa?"

He paused for a while, and took a few turns upon the deck, then he began again.

"As for myself, the end is very near; I have not many months to live. I should like to have measured my strength with this Alexander of yours without having a pack of incompetent satraps to hamper me. Perhaps it is as well for me and my reputation that I never shall. You know my name is not exactly a good omen. He calls himself the descendant of Achilles, and verily I can believe it. Any one who saw him fighting by the river bank on the day of the Granicus might well have thought that it was Achilles come to life again, just as he was when he drove the Trojans through the Xanthus. How gloriously handsome he was! What blows he dealt! Well, you remember—though I don't think it is in Homer, that there was another Memnon who fought with the son of Peleus, and came off the worse; and I might do the same. Doubtless it was in the fates that all this should happen. I have felt for some time that the end was coming for the Great King; though, as I think I told you the other day, I am not at all sure that the change from Darius to Alexander will be for the better.

“And now for my present concerns. My wife and child are going to Susa. It is the way with the Persians to take a man's family as hostages when they put him into a place of trust. Under other circumstances I might have refused. If the Persians wanted my services they must have been content to have them on my own terms. As it is, I do not object. My people will be safer there than anywhere else where I can put them. And that sweet child Clearista will go with them. But I feel troubled about them; they have that fatal gift of beauty. Good Gods, why do ye make women so fair? They break men's hearts and their own. And there is little Mentor too. My elder sons—children, you will understand, of my first wife—can take care of themselves; but my wife and my niece and the dear boy are helpless. Now what I want you to promise is that, if you can, you will protect them. Your Alexander may reach Susa; I think he will; I do not see what there is to stop him. If he does, and you are with him, think of me, and do what you can to help them."

The young man felt a great wave of love and pity surge up in his heart as this appeal was made to him.

"By Zeus and all the gods in heaven," he cried, "I will hold them as dear as my own life."

"The gods reward you for it," said Memnon, wringing his young friend's hand, while the unaccustomed tears gathered in his eyes.

Then silence fell between the two. It was interrupted by the approach of a sailor.

"My lord," said the man, addressing himself to Memnon, "there is a boat coming out from Miletus with a flag of truce."

"Ha!" cried Memnon, "they are sending for you. Well, I am sorry to part. But it is for your good, and for mine too, for I trust you as I would trust my own son."

Turning to the man who had brought the message, he said, "I expected the boat. Tell the captain from me to lie to till she boards us."

When the little craft drew near enough for the occupants to be distinguished, Memnon burst into a laugh. "Ah!" he said, "they have put a proper value on you, my young friend. They have positively sent all four. I did not like, as I told you, to ask for more than one; but here they all are. It is not exactly a compliment to them; but they won't mind that, if they get their freedom."

Very shortly afterwards the boat came alongside; and a Macedonian officer climbed up the side of the galley. He made a profoundly respectful salutation to Memnon, and then presented a letter. The document ran thus:

"Alexander, King of the Macedonians, and Commander of the United Armies of the Hellenes to Memnon, Commander of the Armies of the King, greeting.

"I consent to the exchange which you propose. But as I would not be as Diomed, who gave brass in exchange for gold, I send you the four prisoners whom you mention, in exchange for Charidemus the Macedonian. Farewell."

The letter had been written by a secretary, but it had the bold autograph of Alexander, signed across it.

"My thanks to the king your master, who is as generous as he is brave," was the message which Memnon gave to the officer in charge. The four exchanged prisoners now made their way up the side of the ship, were courteously received by Memnon, and bidden to report themselves to the captain.

"Will your lordship please to sign this receipt for the prisoners?" said the Macedonian officer.

This was duly done.

"Will you drink a cup of wine?" asked Memnon.

The officer thanked him for his politeness, but declined. He was under orders to return without delay.

"Then," said Memnon, "your countryman shall accompany you directly. You will give him a few moments to make his adieus."

The Macedonian bowed assent, and the two descended into the cabin. Barsiné was sitting busy with her needle by the side of a couch on which Clearista lay fast asleep.

"Our young friend leaves us immediately," said Memnon to his wife; "I proposed an exchange, as you know, and it has been accepted. The boat is waiting to take him ashore. He is coming to say farewell."

"We are sorry to lose you," said Barsiné, "more sorry, I fancy, than you are to go."

"Lady," said Charidemus, "you put me in a sore strait when you say such a thing. All my future lies elsewhere; but at least I can cherish the recollection of your kindness. Never, surely, had a prisoner less reason to wish for freedom."

"And now," said Memnon, in as light a tone as he could assume, "I should like to give our young friend a keepsake. It is possible that you may meet him at Susa."

"Meet him at Susa," echoed Barsiné, in astonishment, "how can that be?"

"My darling," returned Mentor, "if our people cannot make any better stand against Alexander than they did at the Granicus, there is no reason why he should not get to Susa, or anywhere else for that matter."

Barsiné turned pale, for lightly as her husband spoke, she knew that he meant something very serious indeed.

"Yes," continued her husband, "you may meet him there, and he may be able to be of some use to you. I give him, you see, this ring;" he took, as he spoke, a ring set with a handsome sapphire from a casket that stood near. "If he can help you I know he will come himself, if anything should hinder him from doing that, he will give it to some one whom he can trust. Put yourself and your children in his hands, or in the hands of his deputy."

"Oh! Why do you talk like this?" cried Barsiné.

"Darling," replied Memnon, "it is well to be prepared for everything. This invasion may come to nothing. But if it does not, if Alexander does make his way to the capital—well, it is not to me you will have to look for help; by that time I shall—"

The poor woman started up and laid her hand upon the speaker's mouth.

"Good words, good words!" she cried.

He smiled. "You are right, for as your favourite Homer says: 'In sooth on the knees of the gods lieth all whereof we speak.'

And now give him something yourself that he may remember you by."

She detached a locket that hung round her neck, and put it into his hand. He raised it respectfully to his lips.

"And Clearista—she might spare something. Artemis bless the child! How soundly she sleeps!" said Memnon, looking affectionately at the slumbering girl. And indeed the voices of the speakers had failed to rouse her. Exquisitely lovely did she look as she slept, her cheek tinged with a delicate flush, her lips parted in a faint smile, her chestnut hair falling loosely over the purple coverlet of the couch.

"The darling won't mind a curl," said Memnon; "put that in my wife's locket, and you will remember both of them together;" and he cut off a little ringlet from the end of a straggling lock.

One of the sailors tapped at the cabin door.

"Yes; we are coming," said Memnon. The young man caught Barsiné's hand and pressed it to his lips; he knelt down and imprinted a gentle kiss on Clearista's right hand. She smiled in her sleep, but still did not wake. A few moments afterwards he was in the boat, Memnon pressing into his hand at the last moment a purse, which he afterwards found to contain a roll of thirty Darics and some valuable jewels. In the course of an hour he stepped on to the quay of Miletus, a free man, but feeling curiously little pleasure in his recovered liberty.

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