Lords of the World - Alfred J. Church

At Thermopylae

So far Cleanor's experiences had been distinctly disappointing. But he still clung to his hopes, trying to comfort himself with the thought that Greece meant much more than the little tract of country which bore the name. It was to be found in Egypt, in Syria, in the finest regions of Lesser Asia; and the country from which the most powerful Greek influence had come forth was not Athens or Sparta, or any one of the ancient states, but half-barbarous Macedonia. The next thing was to see what promise Macedonia held forth.

The season was now growing late for travel by sea, and Cleanor gladly joined a party which was about to make its way overland to Pella, the old capital of Macedonia. The route lay through a number of famous places. His study of history had long since made him familiar with their names and associations. They were now seen for the first time with the most vivid interest, an interest which reached its climax in the famous Pass of ThermopylŠ. The place, which has now been altered by the action of nature and time almost beyond recognition, was then but little changed. The wall behind which the Greek army took up its position, though almost in ruins, was still to be seen; the mound upon which the immortal Three Hundred made their last stand could easily be recognized. So could the tomb of the heroes, with the epitaph, so appropriate in its simplicity and modesty, which Simonides the poet had written for it. Close by was the separate sepulchre of the valiant king Leonidas, with an epitaph of its own not less happy. Cleanor saw with regret that there was not enough of local patriotism to keep these memorials of a splendid past in decent repair. The letters of the inscriptions were so grown over with moss that it was very difficult to decipher them. Some of the stones of the tomb of the Three Hundred were out of place; and it would not be long, unless some repairs were done to it, before the whole must fall into ruin. The lion, too, had a weather-beaten, almost dilapidated look. Some mischievous hand, possibly that of a collector of relics,—a class which was as unscrupulous in its greed for specimens then as now, had chipped off a portion from one of the ears. The pedestal was covered with rudely carved initials, for this foolish practice was as great a favourite with idle hands in the ancient world as it is now.

The young man was meditating sadly on the want of public spirit that suffered so scandalous a neglect of national glories, when he received another rude shock to his feelings. Something had been said in the course of the morning's march—it was about noon when they halted in the Pass—about the tribesmen near ThermopylŠ not having the best of characters, but it had been in a half-jesting way, and Cleanor had paid little attention to the remark. Nor had he noticed that the party, which, indeed, had soon exhausted its slender interest in the place, had gone some distance further to make their halt for the noonday meal in the open country beyond the Gates. He was roused from a fit of musing by feeling a hand laid roughly on his shoulder. In a moment the chance words of the morning came back to him. He swung himself violently aside, and so released himself from the grasp of the intruder. Instantly facing about he dealt the man a heavy blow straight from the shoulder, which tumbled him to the ground. But he was unarmed, except for a short dagger which he carried in his belt, and which was meant to serve for a feast rather than for a fray. And he was overmatched. For the moment, indeed, he was free; his assailant had been alone. But looking up and down the Pass he saw small parties of armed men advancing in both directions. Flight, too, was impossible, for the rocks rose sheer on either side of him. There was nothing to be done but to submit to his fate, which manifestly was to be captured by bandits. Throwing his dagger to the ground, he held up his hands in token of surrender.

A man somewhat better clad and better armed than his companions—they were a ragged, ill-equipped set—advanced from one of the approaching parties and accosted our hero. Nothing could be more polite than his manner of address.

"You will excuse us, sir," he said, "for detaining you for a short time. Nothing but the exigencies of business could have induced us to put you to any inconvenience."

The fellow whom Cleanor had knocked down had regained his feet, and was coming up with a threatening air.

"Be quiet, Laches," said the leader. "My friend did nothing but what was quite right and natural. You took a great liberty. To put your hand upon a gentleman's shoulder indeed! And your blow, sir, was well delivered," he went on, turning to Cleanor. "It was not the first time, I fancy, that you have used your fists. A very pretty stroke indeed! I am quite delighted to offer such poor hospitality as I have at command to so accomplished a guest. I have your promise, I suppose, not to attempt to leave us till we have improved our acquaintance somewhat. I have been obliged now and then to handcuff a friend who was so modest as to wish to withdraw. But you, sir, I know, will accept my friendship as frankly as it is offered."

Cleanor was not sure whether this elaborate civility was an improvement on the more brutal manners of the average bandit, but thought it best to accept the situation with as much show of good-humour as he could manage. "I shall be delighted," he said, "to improve my acquaintance with this most interesting country of yours. But I have important business on hand at Pella, and to business even the most attractive pleasures must be postponed."

"I shall be delighted to fall in with your views," replied the brigand chief, with an elaborate bow, "though I cannot but regret that anything should shorten your visit."

After proceeding down the Pass for some two hundred yards, the party turned into a path on the right-hand side, and began to climb a somewhat steep ascent.

"This is the very path, sir," said the chief, "by which Ephialtes brought the Persians to take King Leonidas and his army in the rear. That villainous traitor was, I regret to say, a native of Malia, the only dishonest man that the place has ever produced. I myself have the honour of having been born there."

An hour's smart walking brought the party to a small grassy plateau. Here they left the path, and, making their way through a clump of ilex, reached the entrance to a cavern in the mountain side. The entrance was narrow, and so low that a man of even moderate stature had to stoop before he could pass under it; but the cavern was spacious and lofty.

"My men's quarters," said the chief, with a wave of the hand; "rather dark, as you see, but dry, and fairly warm. My own apartment is a little further this way."

Another doorway, not unlike that by which they had entered, led from the larger into a smaller cavern. This, as Cleanor observed, could be shut off by a thick door solidly backed with iron.

"I like to be by myself now and then," explained the chief "Our friends, too, are sometimes a little boisterous in their mirth, and the noise interferes with my studies."

The arrangement, it occurred to Cleanor, served for protection as well as retirement. The smaller cave had also, he concluded from a ray of light which made its way through the wall, a separate exit.

It had been furnished with some attempt at comfort. There was a couch in one of the corners; in the middle, round a hearth on which a few sticks were smouldering, coverlets and skins were piled. A couple of hunting-spears, a bow, and a quiver hung on the walls, and a curtain could be drawn over the door that led into the outer cave.

"Welcome to my home!" said the chief; "a poor place; but better men have been worse lodged. If you have any money, you had better let me take care of it. My men are not bad fellows on the whole, but you must not trust them too far. They are common Phocians, you must know, not men of Malia." Cleanor had again to make a virtue of necessity. He had taken the precaution of sending a remittance on to Pella, to await his arrival at that place, and carried about with him little more than what would be wanted on the journey. This—some twenty gold pieces—he had in a purse-girdle round his waist, which he now produced and handed to the chief. The man examined it, not without first making an apology, and counted the coins. Cleanor fancied that his face fell somewhat at finding that they were so few. His manner, however, continued to be as gay and friendly as before, and the talk, which he poured forth in an unceasing stream, as intelligent as it was amusing.

"The sun must be nearly setting," he said, looking upwards at the aperture in the roof—long practice had enabled him to guess the time of day very accurately by the variation in the light—"and you must be ready by this time for dinner. 'Tis but a humble repast I can offer you, but you can understand that we have to rough it up here. My neighbours, however, are very kind, and we always have enough, though the quality now and then leaves something to be desired."

Opening the door that communicated between the two caves, he called to Laches—the same, it will be remembered, with whom Cleanor had had a collision earlier in the day.

"Tell Persis," he said, "to let us have something to eat as soon as possible. You will join us, Laches," he added, "when it is ready, if by chance you have any appetite left.

"I thought it as well," he explained, "to do away with any little soreness there may be in the man's mind. He will be ready to swear eternal friendship over a flask of wine."

Before long, a wrinkled old woman, who looked quite the ideal cook of a robber's cave, brought in a smoking dish of roast kid, garnished with onions. Flat cakes of what we should call "damper" served as bread, for the latter, as the chief explained, could seldom be made for want of yeast. A jug of red wine of the country was drawn from a cask which stood in a corner of the cave, to be succeeded at the proper time by a flask of stately dimensions, which contained a rich vintage from Lesbos.

"This," said the chief, "my good friend Clarilaus, eparch of Larissa, was kind enough to supply me with."

Cleanor opened his eyes. Farmers and shepherds might find it worth while to buy the brigand's forbearance by a toll from their flocks, but was such a dignitary as an eparch content to pay blackmail? The chief smiled.

"Perhaps I might explain," he said, "that we came across the eparch's wagon as it was on its way to Larissa from the coast. As there was clearly more wine than he could use—it is the one fault of Lesbian wine that it does not keep very well—I took it for granted that some must have been meant for me. He is famous for his taste in wine, and I think you will own that this does him credit."

It was soon evident that the Lesbian wine had strength as well as flavour, for the two brigands became very communicative as the flask grew lighter.

"Tell us your story, Laches," said the chief. "It always puts me in better conceit with myself to hear it. This life of ours here is not exactly the ideal. My old master at the Academy, Philippus, would scarcely have approved of it. Yes, my young friend, I too have been in Arcadia, or rather, I should say, in Athens, though I may not look like it; but I always console myself by thinking that there are worse thieves than I am. Go on Laches."

The man's tale ran thus:—

"I was a shepherd by occupation. My father was a shepherd; so had his father before him been, and his father too, for many generations. Yes, for many hundred years, but not always. There was a tradition in the family that we had been princes once, owning all the land over which the flocks we cared for grazed, and a great deal more. We believed that we were descended from the great Thessalus himself. Well, we were fairly content. Our master was a gay young fellow, a little thoughtless, and too ready with his hands if things did not go quite as he wished, but kind and generous. Poor fellow! he was killed by a wild-boar. To tell the truth, he had taken a cup too much. It was his habit, and a bad habit too—a very bad habit."

Laches was quite sincere, though his own utterance had grown a little thick.

"We had found a boar in the morning, and lost him. After the mid-day meal—he would finish the flask of heady Chian—we found the brute again. My master threw one of his two hunting-spears, and wounded him in the shoulder. He was a little flurried, and he threw it too soon, and with a bad aim. The boar charged, and my master knelt on one knee to receive it. Flurried again, and the spear not quite straight. I was running as hard as I could, but it was too late. When I came up, he was lying on the ground, with as bad a wound in the thigh as ever I saw. He was dead before you could count twenty.

"Then our troubles began. The master was not married, and all the property went to an uncle, the meanest old skinflint in Thessaly. He had been a spendthrift, they said, in his young days; such men always make the worst kind of misers, I have heard. Anyhow, he was as bad as he could be. He hadn't been in possession for a week when he began to cut us short in everything. We used to be allowed half a drachma for every lamb that we reared. This was taken away. Not only that, but we had to make good all that died. 'Your fault,' he would say; 'your fault; a quite healthy lamb.' All the lambs, according to him, were quite healthy. It was the same if one was killed by a wolf, and there are a terrible lot of wolves in that part of the country. What used to be our best time, the lambing season, came to be the worst. There was very little of our wages left by the time that we had made good all the losses. Then he charged us for every stick of wood that we picked up. We were not allowed to catch a fish or snare a bird. We had to buy our flour at his mill; damp, chalky stuff it was, more like bird-lime than flour. Sour wine, rotten cloth, stinking salt-fish—we had to buy them all of him. At every turn the villain made a profit out of us. As for our wages, it was the rarest thing for us to see an obol of them. Most months he made out the balance to be on the wrong side."

"Well, to out the story short, we got pretty deeply into his debt, my poor father and I. What does the scoundrel do but take my sister—as good and as pretty a girl as there was in the whole country to be sold as a slave, in payment of the debt, he said. He took care to do this villainy when we—I mean the girl's husband that was to be and I—were with the sheep on the summer pastures in the hills. A nice home-coming we had; my old father dead—he had a stroke the day when his daughter was carried away, dying in an hour,—and my sister gone. She wrenched herself out of the hands of the slave-dealer as they were crossing the Peneus, threw herself into the river, and was drowned—the best thing that could happen to her, poor girl!

"You can guess the end, I dare say. The villain, my master, was found dead in his bed—his throat out from ear to ear—three days afterwards. They caught Agathon—that was the lover, you understand—and crucified him. And I am here."

"But," cried Cleanor, "are there no laws?"

"Laws!" answered the chief; "laws in plenty. But the question is—who administers them?"

"The Romans, I suppose," replied Cleanor.

"I only wish they did," was the unexpected answer. "We might get some sort of justice then. No; they leave the matter in the hands of the rich, and there is only one in a hundred who has a spark of conscience or pity in him. Mark this, young sir. I have twelve men in my band, and there is not one of them but has a story to tell as bad as what Laches here has told us. And in every one of them the oppressor has been one of our own people. And now, doubtless, you will be ready for sleep."

Sleep was long in coming that night to the young man, and his thoughts were full of gloom. He could not but feel some fears for himself. His captors, it is true, were civil and even friendly; but he knew that such people conducted their affairs on strict business principles, and that one invariable principle was to get rid of a prisoner whose ransom was not forthcoming in good time. He had funds, indeed, in the hands of a merchant at Pella, but how was he to identify himself? And his experiences hitherto had been very dispiriting. Whatever he might find elsewhere, so far he had not met with the vigorous, united, patriotic Greece of which he had dreamed.

It was late before he fell asleep, and then his slumber was light and troubled. Just as the day was showing he was roused by the chief.

"Get up," said the man, "there is no time to be lost, if you don't want to be choked like a rat in a hole."

Cleanor started to his feet. Thin coils of smoke were finding their way through the crevices of the doorway between the two caves and through various fissures in the wall. Dazed by the suddenness of his rousing he looked to the chief for an explanation.

"Don't you understand? They have tracked us, and now they are smoking us out. I am not going to leave my men. They're a rough lot, but they have stuck faithfully to me, and I will stick to them. But that is nothing to you. You have got time to escape; don't waste it. You will find some steps cut in the far side of the cave. Follow them; they will take you to a hole near the roof just big enough for you to creep through. That is the entrance to a narrow passage which leads to the top of the hill. No one knows it but myself; it was well to have my own way of getting out. But I am not going to use it now. Take care how you go; the passage is pitch dark, and has some dangerous places in it. And here is your purse. I am sorry to have hindered you in your journey. We took you for something quite different from what you are. Still you have learnt something. If you can, think kindly of us. Even a set of rascally robbers may have something to say for themselves."

There was no time to be lost in talking. Cleanor scrambled with little difficulty to the entrance of the passage. But the passage itself was an awful experience. As the chief had said, it was pitch dark, and the Greek had to feel his way as he crept along on hands and knees. Twice he found the path come to what seemed an abrupt end in what he supposed to be a chasm, for he heard far below him the sound of falling water. But exploring the wall on the left hand he found a ledge just broad enough to allow him to creep along. At last, after what seemed hours of anxious toil—he found afterwards that the time was much less than it seemed—he saw a faint speck of light in the distance. Before long he reached the open air on the hillside, at the height of some four hundred feet above the plain.

It was not long before Cleanor fell in with a peasant. The man was aware of what had happened. He had seen the Thessalian troops on their march, and seeing the smoke rising from the hillside had guessed the tactics which they had employed. It was plain from the man's talk that the robbers were not unpopular in the district. As a rule they had paid, and paid liberally, for supplies. In short, they had been regarded, as such people often have been before and since, as friends of the poor. The man took Cleanor by a short cut into the highroad, and so enabled him to overtake his party, which reached Pella without further adventure. The banditti, as he heard during his stay in Macedonia, had fallen to a man in a desperate sally which they had made against the attacking party.