Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Perilous Voyage

IT had been originally arranged that Charidemus should rejoin the army at Gordium, where Alexander was giving his men a few days' rest after their winter's campaign, while he waited for the reinforcements from Macedonia, the fresh levies and the newly-married men who had been allowed to spend the winter at home. But circumstances occurred which made a change of plan necessary. Some heavy siege engines which were to have gone with the troops were not finished in time. The men could not wait till they were ready, for the very good reason that they were being themselves waited for. Nor could they be sent after the army, for means of transport were wanting. The only alternative was to send them by water, a very convenient arrangement as far as easiness of carriage was concerned, but, seeing that the Persians were decidedly superior at sea, not a little hazardous. However they had to go somehow, and by sea it was determined to send them, Tarsus being the port of destination, as being a city which Alexander had good reasons for believing would easily fall into his hands.

Ten merchantmen had been chartered by the regent to convey the machines. All were provided with a certain armament. This, however, was to be used only in case of extreme necessity; for protection against ordinary attacks the fleet had to rely upon its convoy, two ships of war, the Dolphin and the Lark. Charidemus was second in command of the Dolphin.

Everything seemed to conspire against the unlucky enterprise. First, the workmen were intolerably slow. Then, when everything had at last been finished, some of the machinery was seriously damaged in the process of shipping. And, finally, when at last the squadron got under weigh, the Lark was run by a drunken steersman on a rock that was at least ten feet above the water, and that in broad daylight. Happily she was only a few hundred yards from the mouth of the harbour when the disaster occurred, and the crew by desperate exertions were able to get her into shallow water before she went down. But the diver who inspected the damage reported that at least a month would be wanted before the necessary repairs could be completed. To wait a month was a sheer impossibility, and there was not another war-ship at hand, so bare had the harbours been stripped to supply transport for the army of Asia. There was, therefore, nothing for it but for the Dolphin to undertake the whole duty of the convoy.

But the chapter of accidents was not yet finished. On the fourth night of the outward voyage Chærephon, the Dolphin's captain, had been talking to his second-in-command. The latter had just left him to go below when he heard a cry and a splash. He ran to the vessel's side, and was just in time to see the captain's white head above the water in perilous proximity to the oars, which the rowers were plying at the time at full speed. The signal to back water was immediately given, and obeyed without loss of time; but the captain was never seen again. He was known to have been an excellent swimmer, and it is very probable that he had been struck by one of the oars.

Charidemus found himself in command of the fleet, a promotion that was as unwelcome as it was unexpected. As soon as it was light the next day, he signalled to the captains of the merchantmen that he wished for a conference. The captains accordingly came on board; he laid the situation before them, and asked their advice. The consultation ended in his choosing the most experienced among them as his sailing master. What may be called the military command he was compelled to retain in his own hands. It was evident that they were both unfit and unwilling to exercise it.

For some days the voyage was continued under favourable conditions. A brisk breeze by day spared the rowers all labour, and this daily rest enabled them to utilize the calm moonlight nights. To the war-ship, with its superior speed, progress was easy enough; and the crews of the merchantmen, under the stimulus of a promised reward if Tarsus was reached within a certain time, exerted themselves to the utmost to keep up with her.

The squadron touched at Patara, where Charidemus found some much desired intelligence about the movements of the Persian fleet. The main body, he heard, was still in the Northern Ægean; but there was a small detachment cruising about Rhodes, with the object, it was supposed, of intercepting any eastward-bound ships. It was quite possible, the Persians having an highly organized spy system, that the voyage of the Dolphin was known to them. The enemy was, of course, to be avoided if possible, as an engagement would be sure to end in loss. The old sailor whom Charidemus had taken as his prime minister, had intervened with some sagacious advice. "The Phœnicians," he said, "will be sure to watch the channel between Rhodes and the mainland. The best way, therefore, of giving them the slip, will be to turn your ships' heads due south. I think, sir," he went on, "that we sailors are far too fond of hugging the shore. The shore, it seems to me, is often more dangerous than the open sea. For us, sir, under present circumstances, it is so most certainly."

The signal to sail south was accordingly hoisted on board the Dolphin, and obeyed, though not, it may be supposed, without much surprise by the merchant vessels. The result was a complete success. The Phœnicians, as Charidemus afterwards learnt, must have been encountered had he followed the usual route. As it was, he saw nothing of them.

After sailing about thirty miles on a southerly tack the course of the squadron was changed to the eastward. Before long Cyprus was sighted, and, by the old sailor's advice, passed on the left hand. They had just rounded the eastern extremity of the island (now called Cape Andrea), and had Tarsus almost straight before them to the north, and not more than ninety miles distant, when they found that their adventures were not yet over. Two craft hove in sight which the experienced eye of the sailing master at once recognized as Cilician pirates. Charidemus immediately resolved on his plan of action, a plan which he had indeed already worked out in his mind in preparation for the emergency that had actually occurred. He signalled to the merchantmen to scatter, and then make the best of their way to their destination. This done he ordered his own steersman to steer straight for the enemy.

The pirates had not anticipated any such bold manœuvre, and in their anxiety to prevent the escape of the merchantmen had parted company. The distance between the two Cilician galleys was now so great that Charidemus was sure that he could get at close quarters with the nearest of the two before the more remote could come up to help her consort. He had the advantage of the wind behind him, and putting up all his sails, while he bade his fugleman strike up his liveliest and quickest tune, he bore down with all the speed that he could make on the enemy.

The issue of the engagement was scarcely doubtful. The pirate was a long craft, very low in the water, and crowded with men. Able to row and sail with unusual speed, it could always count on overtaking the cumbrous and slow-moving traders, who, when overtaken, could be boarded with irresistible force. But the pirates were not prepared to meet an attack from a strongly built and well equipped man-of-war. Indeed, they were obviously paralyzed by the surprise of so bold a movement.

In any case they would not have been a match for the Dolphin, a vessel of much superior weight, and furnished with a powerful ram. As it was, the pirate captain acted with a vacillation that ensured his destruction. When it was too late, he resolved to fly, and, if possible, to join his consort. The resolve might have been judicious had it been taken earlier; as it was, it had a fatal result. The crew were flurried by finding themselves in circumstances so unusual—for they were not accustomed to stand on the defensive—and were slow and clumsy in executing the captain's order. The consequence was that the Dolphin struck the pirate craft, and cut it down to the water's edge. No sooner had the blow been delivered than Charidemus gave the signal to back-water. The pirates, if they were only given a chance to board, might well change the fortunes of the day, so numerous were they, so well armed, and so experienced in boarding attacks. All such chance was gone when the Dolphin had got fifty yards away. With mainmast broken, and the oars of one side shattered to pieces, the pirate ship could not attempt to pursue. So damaging indeed had been the blow that all the efforts of the crew, and of the consort ship which hurried up to give help, were wanted to keep the vessel afloat.

Late in the evening of the following day, and without meeting with any further adventure, Charidemus reached the mouth of the Cydnus. That night he anchored with his charges inside the bar, and the next day made his way up to the city of Tarsus, which was situated some seven or eight miles from the mouth of the river.

The new-comers found the city in a state of consternation. The king was dangerously ill. Some said that he was dying. Now and then it was whispered that he was dead. The cause of his malady was simple enough. After a long march under a burning sun—for Alexander had a passion for sharing all the fatigues as well as all the dangers of his men—he had plunged into the Cydnus, an ice-cold stream, fed by the melting snows from the Cilician Highlands. But the maladies of great men are not so easily accounted for. There were mysterious rumours of poison, nor could Charidemus forget the sinister hints which he had heard from Aristotle. It was possible, he could not help thinking, that Persian drugs, aided by Persian gold, might have had something to do in bringing about this most untoward event.

After reporting his arrival, and the safe conveyance of the munitions of war which had been under his charge, Charidemus made his way to the quarters of his regiment, and was heartily welcomed by his comrades. He had, of course, much to tell, but it was impossible at that time to discuss any topic but the one absorbing subject of the king's illness.

"The king's doctors have refused to prescribe for him," said Charondas, "nor am I surprised. A couple or so of gold pieces if you succeed, and to lose your head if you fail, is not a fair bargain."

"Is there any news, Polemon?" was the general cry, as a young officer entered the room.

"Yes," said the new-corner, "but whether it is good or bad is more than I can say. Philip the Acarnanian has consented to prescribe for the king."

"Philip is an honest man," cried the young Theban. "He and his father before him were great friends of ours."

"Apollo and Æsculapius prosper him!" said one of the company, and the prayer was heartily echoed by all who were present.

Hour after hour bulletins of the king's condition were issued. They were cautiously worded, as such documents commonly are, but there was nothing encouraging about them. The general fear grew deeper and deeper as the day wore slowly on.

"Let us go and see Philip," said Charondas to his friend, as they were sitting together in gloomy silence after their evening meal. "I think that he will admit us when he hears my name, and we shall at least know all that is to be known."

The friends found the physician's house strongly guarded. So excited were the soldiers that there was no knowing what they might not do. Were a fatal result to follow, the guard itself would hardly be able to protect the unfortunate man. Charondas obtained, as he had expected, admission for himself and his companion by the mention of his name. The first sight of the physician was curiously reassuring. He was perfectly calm and confident. "What about the king;" was the question eagerly put to him.

"Do not fear," was the quiet reply, "he will recover." Just as he spoke a slave entered the room with a communication from the attendants of the king. The physician read it with unmoved face, and after taking a small phial from a case of medicines, prepared to follow the messenger.

"Wait for me here," he said, "I shall be back shortly, and shall have something to tell you."

The friends sat down, and waited for an hour, an hour as anxious as any that they had ever spent in their lives. At the end of that time Philip came back. In answer to the inquiries which they looked rather than put into words, he said—

"He goes on well; it is just as it should be. He had to be worse before he could be better. And he is young, and strong, and the best of patients. He deserves to get well, for he trusts his physician. Such patients I very seldom lose. When I gave him the medicine that I had mixed, he took it, and drank it without a word. Afterwards—mark you, afterwards—he handed me a letter which some one had sent him. 'I had been bribed by Darius'—that was the substance of it—'to poison him.' Now, if I had had that letter before I prescribed, I should have hesitated. I do not think I should have ventured on the very potent remedy which I administered. And yet there was nothing else, I felt sure, that could save his life. Yes, as I said, he deserves to live, and so he will. He has been very near the gates; but I left him in a healthy sleep, and, unless something untoward happens, from which Apollo defend us, he will be well before the new moon."

The physician's prophecy was fulfilled. The king, when the crisis of the fever was once successfully passed, recovered his strength with amazing quickness. The solemn thanksgiving for his recovery actually was fixed, so accurate had been the Acarnanian's foresight, for the day of the new moon.

The thanksgiving was a great festival, kept with greater heartiness than such celebrations commonly are. That the army was delighted to recover their heroic leader need not be said; but their joy was equalled by that of the townsfolk of Tarsus. This city, though Assyrian in origin, had become thoroughly Greek in sentiment and manners, and was already acquiring something of the culture which afterwards made it the eastern rival of Athens. It was proportionately impatient of Persian rule, and hailed the Macedonian king as a genuine deliverer. The festivities of the day were crowned by a splendid banquet, at which Alexander entertained the chief citizens of Tarsus and the principal officers of the army. He was in the act of pledging his guests when an attendant informed him that a stranger, who was apparently a deserter from the Persian army, had urgently demanded to see him, declaring that he had information of the greatest importance to communicate.

"Bring him," cried the king. "Something tells me that this is a lucky day, and that the gods have not yet exhausted their favours."

The stranger was brought in between two soldiers. A more remarkable contrast to the brilliant assemblage assem-blage of the royal guests could hardly have been imagined. His face was pale and haggard, his eyes bloodshot, his hair unkempt, his dress—the one sleeved tunic of a slave—worn and travel-stained. The splendour of the scene into which he had been brought seemed to overpower him. He reeled and would have fallen, but that the soldiers on either side held him up.

"Give him a draught of wine," cried the king.

A page handed him a brimming goblet of Chian. He drained it, and the draught brought back the light to his eyes and the colour to his cheek.

"And now," said the king, "tell us your story. But first, who are you, and whence do you come?"

"My name is Narses," said the man, "I am a Carian by birth. I was the slave of Charidemus the Athenian."

"And you have run away from your master," interrupted the king, who began to think that the man was only a common deserter, hoping to get a reward for information that was probably of very little value.

"The gods forbid!" said the man. "There was never a better master, and I had been a thankless knave to leave him. No, my lord, Charidemus the Athenian is no more."

"How so?" asked the king. "Tell us what you know."

"The Persian king held a great review of his army in the plain of Babylon. First he numbered them, sending them into a sort of camp, surrounded by a ditch and rampart, that was reckoned to hold ten thousand men. I watched them march in and out, my lord, for I was then with my master, for the whole of a day from sunrise to sunset. As they came out they took their places on the plain, stretching as far as I could see and further too. 'What think you of that?' said King Darius to my master, when the last detachment had marched out, 'what think you of that? Are there not enough there to trample these insolent Greeks under foot?'

“My master was silent; at last he said, 'Does my lord wish me to speak what is in my heart?' 'Speak on,' said the king. Then my master spoke out: 'This is a splendid sight, I confess. No one could have believed that there could have been gathered together so great, so splendid a host. And I can well believe that there is no people in Asia but would see it with fear and a very just fear too. But the Macedonians and the Greeks are a very different race. You have nothing here that can be matched for a moment with the solidity of their array, with their discipline, with the speed and order of their movements. If you want my advice, my lord king, it is this: It is only in Greece that you can find men who can stand against Greeks. Send these useless crowds away. Take the silver and gold with which they make all this useless display, and use it to hire men who can really fight.'

“There was a perfect howl of rage from all the Persian nobles who were standing by, when my master said this. Some of them shook their fists at him; some drew their scymetars. As for the king himself he was as furious as any of them. He jumped up from his seat, and caught my master by the throat. 'Take him away,' he shouted to the guards who stood behind his throne, 'take him away, and behead him.' My master's face did not change one whit. 'You asked for the truth, my lord,' he said, 'but it does not please you. When it comes to you, not in word but in deed, it will please you less. Some day you will remember what has been said to-day, and Charidemus will be avenged.' After that the executioners led him away, and I saw him no more."

"And about yourself," said the king, "how came you hither?"

There was a fierce light in the man's eyes as he answered this question. "My lord," he said, "the king divided all that belonged to my master between the executioners. I watched my time, and the day after his death I plunged my dagger into the heart of one of the ruffians; I wish that I could have plunged it into the king's. Then I escaped."

"To-morrow," said the king, "you shall tell me in what way you came, and what you saw on the road. Just now you are only fit for rest. Treat him well, and take care of him," he went on to the attendants. "And now, gentlemen," he said to his guests, "said I not well that the gods had good tidings for me on this day? What could be better than this? If the choice had been given me, I could have chosen nothing more to be desired—Darius means to give battle."

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