FOUR years later Charidemus found the opportunity of revenge for which he had longed in the bitterness of his disappointment. It was the evening of the day which had seen the fall of Thebes. He had joined the army, and, though still full young to be an officer, had received the command of a company from Alexander, who had heard the story of his young kinsman, and had been greatly impressed by his extraordinary strength and agility. He had fought with conspicuous courage in the battle before the walls, and in the assault by which the town had been carried. When the savage sentence which Alexander permitted his Greek allies to pass on the captured city, had been pronounced, the king called the young man to him. "Thebes," he said, "is to be destroyed; but there is one house which I should be a barbarian indeed if I did not respect, that is the house of Pindar the poet. Take this order to Perdiccas. It directs him to supply you with a guard of ten men. I charge you with the duty of keeping the house of Pindar and all its inmates from harm."
Charidemus saluted, and withdrew. He found no great difficulty in performing his duty. The exception made by the Macedonian king to the general order of destruction was commonly known throughout the army, and the most lawless plunderer in it knew that it would be as much as his life was worth not to respect the king's command. Accordingly the flag, which, with the word "Sacred" upon it, floated on the roof of the house, was sufficient protection, and the guard had nothing to do.
The young officer's first care had been to ascertain who were the inmates of the house that were to have the benefit of the conqueror's exemption. He found that they were an old man, two women of middle age who were his daughters, and a bright little boy of some six years, the child of another daughter now deceased. He assured them of their safety, and was a little surprised to find that even after two or three days had passed in absolute security, no one attempting to enter the house, the women continued to show lively signs of apprehension. Every sound seemed to make them start and tremble; and their terror seemed to come from some nearer cause than the thought of the dreadful fate which had overtaken their country.
On the fifth day the secret came out. For some reason or other Charidemus was unusually wakeful during the night. The weather was hot, more than commonly so for the time of year, for it was now about the middle of September, and, being unable to sleep, he felt that a stroll in the garden would be a pleasant way of beguiling the time. It wanted still two hours of sunrise, and the moon, which was some days past the full, had only just risen. He sat down on a bench which had been conveniently placed under a drooping plane, and began to meditate on the future, a prospect full of interest, since it was well known that the young king was preparing for war against Persia.
His thoughts had begun to grow indistinct and unconnected, for the sleep which had seemed impossible in the heated bed-chamber began to steal over him in the cool of the garden, when he was suddenly roused by the sound of a footstep. Himself unseen, for he was entirely sheltered from view by the boughs of the plane-tree, he commanded a full view of the garden. It was not a little to his surprise that in a figure which moved silently and swiftly down one of the side paths he recognized the elder of the two daughters of the house. She had with her, he could perceive, an elderly woman, belonging to the small establishment of slaves, who carried a basket on her arm. The lower end of the garden was bounded by a wall; beyond this wall the ground rose abruptly, forming indeed part of one of the lower slopes of the Acropolis.
It puzzled him entirely when he tried to conjecture whither the women were going. That they should have left the house at such an hour was a little strange, and there was, he knew, no outlet at that end of the garden; for, having, as may be supposed, plenty of time on his hands, he had thoroughly explored the whole place. Watching the two women as far as the dim light permitted, he lost sight of them when they reached the laurel hedge which served as an ornamental shelter for the wall. His instincts as a gentleman forbade him to follow them; nor did he consider it part of his military duty to do so. Nevertheless, he could not help feeling a strong curiosity when about an hour afterwards the two women returned. With the quick eye of a born soldier, he observed that the basket which the attendant carried swung lightly on her arm. It was evident that it had been brought there full, and was being carried back empty. He watched the two women into the house, and then proceeded to investigate the mystery.
At first sight it seemed insoluble. Everything looked absolutely undisturbed. That the women could have clambered over the wall was manifestly impossible. Yet where could they have been? If, as he supposed, the basket had been emptied between their going and their returning, what had been done with its contents? They were certainly not above ground, and they had not been buried—in itself an unlikely idea—for the soil was undisturbed. He had walked up and down the length of the wall some half-dozen times, when he happened to stumble over the stump of an old laurel tree which was hidden in the long grass. In the effort to save himself from falling he struck his hand against the brick wall with some smartness, and fancied that a somewhat hollow sound was returned. An idea struck him, and he wondered that it had not occurred to him before. Might there not be some hidden exit in the wall? There was too little light for him to see anything of the kind, but touch might reveal what the sight could not discover. He felt the surface carefully, and after about half-an-hour's diligent search, his patience was rewarded by finding a slight indentation which ran perpendicularly from about a foot off the top to the same distance from the bottom. Two similar horizontal indentations were more easily discovered. There was, it was evident, a door in the wall, but it had been skillfully concealed by a thin layer of brick-work, so that to the eye, and even to the touch, unless very carefully used, it suggested no difference from the rest of the surface. This discovery made, another soon followed, though it was due more to accident than to any other cause. The door opened with a spring, the place of which was marked by a slight hollow in the surface. Charidemus stumbled, so to speak, upon it, and the door opened to his touch. It led into an underground passage about five or six yards long, and this passage ended in a chamber which was closed by a door of the ordinary kind.
Opening this, the young soldier found himself in a room that was about ten feet square. In the dim light of a lamp that hung from the vaulted ceiling, he could see a couch occupied by the figure of a sleeper, a table on which stood a pitcher and some provisions, a chair, and some apparatus for washing. So deep were the slumbers of the occupant of the room that the entrance of the stranger did not rouse him from them, and it was only when Charidemus laid his hand upon his shoulder that he woke. His first impulse was to stretch out his hand for the sword which lay under his pillow; but the young Macedonian had been beforehand with him. Unarmed himself, for he had not dreamt of any adventure when his sleeplessness drove him into the garden, he had promptly possessed himself of the weapon, and was consequently master of the situation.
The next moment the two men recognized each other. The occupant of this mysterious chamber was Charondas, the Theban, and Charidemus saw the lad who had, as he thought, filched away his prize, lying unarmed and helpless before him.
The young Theban struggled into a sitting posture. Charidemus saw at once that his left arm was disabled. His face, too, was pale and bloodless, his eyes dim and sunken, and his whole appearance suggestive of weakness and depression.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, though the question was needless; it was clear that the young man had taken part in the recent fighting, and was now in hiding.
"I scarcely know; but I suppose life is sweet even to one who has lost everything; and I am too young," he added with a faint smile, "to relish the idea of Charon and his ferry-boat."
"Are you of the lineage of Pindar?"
"I cannot claim that honour. The husband of old Eurytion's sister, and father of the little Creon, whom you have seen doubtless, was my kinsman; but I am not related to the house of Pindar by blood. No; I have no more claim to the clemency of Alexander than the rest of my countrymen."
The young Macedonian stood lost in thought. He had often imagined the meeting that would take place some day, he was sure, between Charondas and himself. But he had never dreamt of it under such circumstances as these. He was to encounter him on the battle-field and vanquish him, perhaps overtake him in the pursuit, and then, perhaps, spare his life, perhaps kill him—he had never been quite able to make up his mind which it should be. But now killing him was out of the question; the man could not defend himself. And yet to give him up to death or slavery—how inexpressibly mean it seemed to him!
"I have no right," said the young Theban, "to ask a favour of you. I wronged you once——"
"Stop," interrupted Charidemus, "how came you to think of doing such a thing? It was shameful to win the prize in such a way."
"It is true," said the other; "but it was not of my own will that I came forward to object. Another urged me to it, and he is dead. You know that our cities give a handsome reward in money to those who win these prizes at the games; and we were very poor. But I could have trampled the crown in the dust, so hateful was it to win by craft what you had won by speed."
"Well, well," said Charidemus, who now had greater prizes than Olympia could give before his eyes, "it was no such great matter after all;" and he held out his hand to the wounded lad.
"Ah!" said the other, "I have no right to ask you favours. Yet one thing I may venture on. Kill me here. I could not bear to be a slave. Those poor women, who have risked their lives to save me, will be sorry when they hear of it, and little Creon will cry; but a child's tears are soon dried. But a slave—that would be too dreadful. I remember a poor Phocian my father had—sold to him after the taking of Crissa, of which, I suppose, you have heard—as well bred a man as any of us, and better educated, for we Thebans, in spite of our Pindar, are not very clever. What a life he led! I would die a hundred times over sooner than bear it for a day! No, kill me, I beseech you. So may the gods above and below be good to you when your need comes! Have you ever killed a man?" he went on. "Hardly, I suppose, in cold blood. Well, then, I will show you where to strike." And he pointed to a place on his breast, from which, at the same time, he withdrew his tunic. "My old trainer," he went on, "taught me that. Or, if you would sooner have it so, give me the sword, and I dare say that I can make shift to deal as straight a blow as will suffice."
The young Macedonian's heart was fairly touched. "Nay," he said, after a brief time given to thought, "I know something that will be better than that. If it fail, I will do what you will. Meanwhile here is your sword; but swear by Zeus and Dionysus, who is, I think, your special god at Thebes, that you will not lift it against yourself, till I give you leave. And now, for three or four hours, farewell."
That morning, as Alexander was sitting with his intimate friend Hephaestion, at a frugal meal of barley cakes and fruit, washed down with wine that had been diluted, sweetened, and warmed, the guard who kept the door of the chamber, a huge Illyrian, who must have measured nearly seven feet in height, announced that a young man, who gave the name of Charidemus, craved a few minutes' speech with the king.
A more splendid specimen of humanity than the Macedonian monarch has seldom, perhaps never, been seen. In stature he did not much surpass the middle height, but his limbs were admirably proportioned, the very ideal of manly strength and beauty. His face, with well-cut features and brilliantly clear complexion, showed such a model as a sculptor would choose for hero or demigod. In fact, he seemed a very Achilles, born again in the later days, the handsomest of men, the strongest, the swiftest of foot.
"Ah!" said the king, "that is our young friend to whom I gave the charge of Pindar's house. I hope no harm has happened to it or him. To tell you the truth, this Theban affair has been a bad business. I would give a thousand talents that it had not happened. Show him in," he cried out, turning to the Illyrian.
"Hail, sire," said Charidemus, saluting.
"Is all well?"
"All is well, sire. No one has offered to harm the house or its inmates. But, if you will please to hear me, I have a favour to ask."
"What is it? Speak on."
"I beg the life of a friend."
"The life of a friend! What friend of yours can be in danger of his life?"
Charidemus told his story. Alexander listened with attention, and certainly without displeasure. He had already begun to feel some repentance and even shame for the fate of Thebes; he was not sorry to show clemency in a particular case.
"What," he cried, when he heard the name of the lad for whom Charidemus was making intercession. "What? Was it not Charondas of Thebes who filtched from you the crown at Olympia? And you have forgiven him? What did the wise Aristotle," he went on, turning to Hephaestion, "say about forgiveness?"
"Sire," said Hephaestion, "you doubtless know better than I. You profited by his teaching far more than I—so the philosopher has told me a thousand times.''
"Well," rejoined the king, "as far as I remember, he always seemed a little doubtful. To forgive showed, he thought, a certain weakness of will; yet it might be profitable, for it was an exercise of self-restraint. Was it not so, my friend?"
"Just so," said Hephaestion. "And did not the wise man say that if one were ever in doubt which to choose of two things, one should take the less pleasant. I don't know that I have ever had any experiences of forgiveness, but I certainly know the pleasure of revenge."
"Admirably said," cried the king. "Your re-quest is granted," he went on, speaking to Charidemus. "But what will you do with your friend?"
"He shall follow you, sire, when you go to conquer the great enemy of Hellas."
"So be it. Mind that I never repent this day's clemency. And now farewell!"
The young man again saluted, and withdrew.
But when he unfolded his plan to the Theban, he found an obstacle which he might indeed have foreseen, but on which, nevertheless, he had not reckoned. Charondas was profoundly grateful to his deliverer, and deeply touched by his generosity. But to follow the man who had laid his country in the dust—that seemed impossible.
"What!" he cried, "take service with the son of Philip, the hereditary enemy of Hellas!"
"Listen!" said Charidemus; "there is but one hereditary perpetual enemy of Hellas, and that is the Persian. Since the days of Darius, the Great King has never ceased to scheme against her liberty. Do you know the story of the wrongs that these Persians, the most insolent and cruel of barbarians, have done to the children of Hellas?"
"Something of it," replied Charondas; "but in Thebes we are not great readers; and besides, that is a part of history which we commonly pass over."
"Well, it is a story of nearly two hundred years of wrong. Since Salamis and Platæa, indeed, the claws of the Persian have been clipped; but before that—it makes my blood boil to think of the things that they did to freeborn men. You know they passed through Macedonia, and left it a wilderness. There are traditions in my family of their misdeeds and cruelties which make me fairly grind my teeth with rage. And then the way in which they treated the islands! Swept them as men sweep fish out of a pond! Their soldiers would join hand to hand, and drag the place, as if they were dragging with a net."
"They suffered for it afterwards," said Charondas.
"Yes, they suffered for it, but not in their own country. Twice they have invaded Hellas itself; and they hold in slavery some of the sons of Hellas to this day. But they have never had any proper punishment."
"But what do you think would be proper punishment?" asked the Theban.
"That Hellas should conquer Persia, as Persia dreamt of conquering Hellas."
"But the work is too vast."
"Not so. Did you never hear how ten thousand men marched from the Ægean to the Euxine without meeting an enemy who could stand against them? And these were mere mercenaries, who thought of nothing but their pay. Yes, Persia ought to have been conquered long ago, if your cities had only been united; but you were too busy quarrelling—first Sparta against Athens, and then Thebes against Sparta, and Corinth and Argos and the rest of them backing first one side, and then the other."
"It is too true."
"And then, when there seemed to be a chance of something being done, luck came in and helped the Persians. Alexander of Pheræ had laid his plans for a great expedition against the King, and just at the moment when they were complete, the dagger of an assassin—hired, some said, with Persian gold—struck him down. Then Philip took up the scheme, and worked it out with infinite patience and skill; and lo! The knife again! Well, 'all these things lie upon the knees of the gods.' Alexander of Pheræ was certainly not strong enough for the work, nor, perhaps, Philip himself. And besides, Philip had spent the best years of life in preparing for it, and was scarcely young enough. But now the time has come and the man. You must see our glorious Alexander, best of soldiers, best of generals. Before a year is over, he will be well on his way to the Persians' capital. Come with me, and help him to do the work for which Hellas has been waiting so long. Your true country is not here, among these petty states worn out with incessant strifes, but in the new empire which this darling of the gods will establish in the East."
"Well," said the Theban, with a melancholy smile, "anyhow my country is not any longer here. And what you tell me seems true enough. To you, my friend, I can refuse nothing. The life which you have saved is yours. I will follow you wherever you go, and, perhaps, some day you will teach me to love even this Alexander. At present, you must allow, I have scarcely cause."
Thus began a friendship which could only be dissolved by death.