Callias - The Fall of Athens - Alfred J. Church


Callias found it very hard to sit out the banquet and the entertainment that followed it. He had felt a headache before sitting, or to speak more correctly, lying down, and this grew so bad during the evening that he gladly took the earliest opportunity of leaving. The fact was that he had been ailing for some days; the excitement of the games had carried him through the labors of the day, but he suffered doubly from the reaction, and before nightfall he was seriously ill.

And now he found the advantage of having followed Xenophon's advice and taken up his quarters in the town. Had he been reduced to such nursing and attendance as the camp could have supplied, his chances of moving would have been small indeed. At the house of Demochares, on the contrary, he had everything in his favor, an exceptionally good nurse, and an exceptionally skillful physician. In those days neither branch of the healing art, for nursing has certainly as much to do with healing as physicking, was very successfully cultivated. Women nursed the sick, indeed, often with kindness and devotion, for woman's nature was substantially the same then as it is now, but they did it in a blind and ignorant fashion. As for the practice of medicine it was a mass of curious superstitions and prejudices, leavened here and there with a few grains of experience, and, if the practitioner happened to have that inestimable quality, of good sense. Of systems there was only the beginning. The great physician Hippocrates had indeed acquired a vast reputation, and was beginning to influence the opinion of the faculty throughout Greece; but the medical profession has always been slow to adopt new ideas—what profession, indeed, has not?—the means of communication, too, were very limited, and as yet his teaching had had but little effect.

But Callias happened to be exceedingly fortunate both in his nurse and in his doctor. The house of Demochares was kept by his sister, a widow, who after her husband's death had returned to her old home, and had devoted herself to a life of kindness and charity. The young Athenian had won her heart, not only by his sunny temper and gracious manners; but by his resemblance to a son of her own whose early death—he had been slain in a skirmish with the barbarian neighbors of Trapezus—had been the second great sorrow of her life. His illness called forth her tenderest sympathies, and nothing could have exceeded the devotion with which she ministered to her patient.

The physician, Demoleon by name, was a very remarkable man. He was a native of the island of Cos, and was at this time between fifty and sixty years of age. He had been one of the first pupils of the famous Hippocrates, who was a native of the same island, and had lived on terms of great intimacy with his teacher whom he assisted in his private practice. When Hippocrates was summoned to the plague-stricken city of Athens, Demoleon accompanied him, and, by a curious coincidence, in the course of his residence there had treated the father of Callias. Whatever the benefit that followed the prescriptions of Hippocrates, it is certain that the fact of his being called in to administer them by the most famous citizen of Greece, largely increased his reputation, and that even beyond the border of Greece. The great physician's return from Athens was speedily followed by an invitation from Artaxerxes, King of Persia. The plague that had devastated Greece had passed eastward, and was committing destructive ravages throughout the Persian Empire. Artaxerxes implored Hippocrates to give him and his subjects the benefit of his advice. He offered at the same time the magnificent honorarium of two talents of gold yearly. The patriotism or the prudence of Hippocrates led him to refuse this offer, tempting as it was. He would not, he said, and doubtless with sincerity, give the benefit of his advice to the hereditary enemy of his country. At the same time, we may suppose, he reflected to himself that he would be putting himself, without any possibility of appeal, at the mercy of a tyrannical and unscrupulous master. But one of the Persian envoys succeeded in doing a little business of the same kind on his own account. He found the pupil less resolute against the temptations of a great bribe than the master had been. Accordingly he engaged Demoleon to come in the capacity of physician to himself and his household. The King would have the opportunity of availing himself of his advice if he pleased. Artaxerxes was disappointed at the refusal of Hippocrates, but he did not disdain the help of a man who had shared his practice, and was probably acquainted with his system. Demoleon prescribed at Susa and Persepolis the remedies which his master had employed at Athens, the burning of huge fires in the street and squares, and the use of an antidote. The pestilence either yielded to these influences, or, as is more probable, had exhausted its force. At any rate Demoleon got the credit of having vanquished the enemy, and was rewarded by a munificent present from the King and by an enormous practice.

He might have accumulated great wealth but for an unlucky complication for which he can scarcely be considered to have been to blame. Necessity sometimes compelled a departure, in the case of the physician, from the strict rules of seclusion with which the Persian women were surrounded. Demoleon was called in to visit the daughter of a Persian noble. She was a beautiful girl, or rather would have been beautiful but for the fact that she was blind. It was a case of cataract, and the Greek physician, who was as bold as he was skillful, ventured on an operation which at that time had scarcely been attempted, or even thought of. It proved entirely successful. The gratitude of the father was shown by a munificent present of gold and jewels; that of the daughter by the gift of her heart. One of the very first objects on which her eyes rested when the bandage was permitted to be removed was the form of the young physician who had restored to her one of the greatest joys of life. Under any circumstances it was likely to please her; and Demoleon was in the bloom of early manhood, and his fair complexion and golden hair showed in attractive contrast to the swarthy hues of her countrymen. The result was that she fell deeply in love. Demoleon was not without prudence, and would have hesitated to listen to any promptings of his own heart, for he too had been greatly impressed by the beauty and grace as well as by the pathetic patience of the sufferer. Amestris that was the young lady's name—guessed readily enough that the physician would not venture to speak, and she took the matter into her own hands. She did not speak herself; for that, passionate as was her affection, would have been impossible; but she got some one to speak for her. Her nurse—the nurse was generally the confidante of antiquity—undertook the task of communicating with the young man. One day she gave him a pomegranate, saying at the same time that he would find the fruit especially sweet. Her words would have seemed ordinary enough to anyone that might have happened to hear them; but the young physician, whose feelings made him susceptible, suspected, he could not say why, a particular meaning. Opening the fruit he found a ring engraved with a single Greek word—Be Bold. The next day he thanked the giver of the fruit with emphasis. "It was sweet to the core," he said.

After that the affair proceeded rapidly. The young man, who, as may be guessed, did not hurry the case of his patient, found an opportunity of declaring his love, and in the following summer the two lovers fled together. All the arrangements had been carefully made. The girl feigned sickness, and the physician prescribed a residence among the hills and a simpler life and plainer diet than the patient was likely to get in her father's house. Her foster-mother was the wife of a sheep master who rented some extensive pastures on the hills of Southern Armenia, and it was settled that Amestris should pay her a visit. The lady was sent off under a small escort, no one dreaming that the family of an influential noble would be molested on its journey. Yet, curiously enough, a band of brigands was bold enough to enter the caravanserai where the party was lodging on the fourth night after their departure from Susa. Certainly the keeper of the inn, and, possibly, the commander of the escort, had been bribed—Demoleon's successful practice had put him in the command of as much money as he wanted. For a long time Amestris absolutely disappeared. Her father searched everywhere and offered munificent rewards for information, but he could find and hear nothing. No one knew that a couple of travellers, who might have been two brothers journeying in company and followed by three well armed servants, were in fact Demoleon, Amestris, and the pretended robbers. The party followed much the same route as was afterwards taken by the Ten Thousand, and, after not a few hair-breadth escapes, arrived in safety at the same destination,—the city of Trapezus.

Three years of happiness followed. Then the beautiful Persian died. She never repented of having given her heart to the young physician, who was the best and most affectionate of husbands. But she missed her family and all the associations of her early life, and pined away under the loss. Return was impossible; she could not go back without her husband, and to return with him would have been to expose him, if not herself, to the certainty of death. The hopelessness of the situation broke her heart; and all her husband's skill, even the more potent influence of her husband's love, failed to work a cure.

The widower could not prevail upon himself to leave the place where he had enjoyed his short-lived happiness. He might have gained wealth and fame in larger cities, but he preferred to spend the rest of his days at Trapezus. There, indeed, he was almost worshipped. He had a singularly light and skillful hand; his experience, though, of course, not so large as he might have collected elsewhere, was always ready for use; and he had the rare, the incommunicable gift of felicitous guessing—guessing we call it, but it is really the power of forming rapid conclusions from a number of trifling, often half discerned indications. Anyhow he achieved some very marvellous cures; performed with success operations which others did not venture to attempt; diagnosed diseases with remarkable skill, and was extraordinarily fertile in his expedients. It was specially characteristic of him that while he was never satisfied till he had thoroughly enquired into the causes of disease, he was unwearied in his efforts to relieve the inconvenience and painfulness of a patient's symptoms.

So alarming did the condition of Callias become after his return from the banquet, that Demoleon was called in without loss of time. All that he could do at the moment was to give a sleeping draught, intending to make a thorough examination of the case next morning.

Shortly after sunrise he was by the bedside. Callias was conscious enough to be able to describe his feelings; what he said indicated plainly enough that his illness had been developing for some days past, and had been postponed by sheer courage and determination. It was in fact something like what we call gastric fever; and the experienced physician saw enough to convince him that he should have a hard battle to fight. The patient was young, vigorous, apparently sound of constitution, and, as far as he could learn, of temperate habits. All this was in favor of recovery; but it was not more than was needed to give a glimpse of hope.

Demochares, who had a strong regard for the young man, as indeed everyone had that had been brought hip contact with him, intercepted the physician as he was leaving the house after a prolonged examination of the patient.

"How do you find him?" he asked.

Demoleon shook his head. The gesture was not exactly despairing, but it indicated plainly enough that the situation was serious.

"You will put him all right before long?" returned the merchant, alarmed at the gravity of the physician's manner.

"All these things lie on the knees of the gods," said Demoleon, quoting from his favorite Homer. (It was a maxim of his that a man who did not know his Homer was little better than a fool.) It may be said that the physician was more than a little brusque in manner and speech. Twenty years of solitary life had made him so, for since his wife's death he had held aloof from all the social life of the place.

"What ails him?" enquired the merchant.

"A fever," was the brief reply.

"Does it run high?"

"Very high indeed."

"You have bled him, of course."

The physician's answers to enquiries were generally as short as the rules of politeness permitted; occasionally, some of his questioners were disposed to think, even shorter; but there were remarks that always made him fluent of speech, though the fluency was not always agreeable to his audience.

"Bleed him, sir," he cried, "why don't you say at once stab him, poison him? No, sir, I have not bled him, and do not intend to."

"I thought that it was usual in such cases," said the merchant timidly.

"Very likely you did," answered Demoleon, "and there are persons, I do not doubt, who would have done it, persons, too, who ought to know better." This was levelled at a rival practitioner in the town for whom he entertained a most thorough contempt. "Do you know, sir," he went on, "where men learnt the practice of bleeding?"

"No, I do not," said Demochares.

"It was from the hippopotamus. That animal has been observed to bleed himself. Doubtless the operation does him good. But it does not follow that what is good for an animal as big as a cottage is good also for a man. Doubtless there are men for whom it is good. When I have to deal with a mountain of a man, one of your city dignitaries, bloated by rich feeding, by chines of beef and pork and flagons of rich wine, I don't hesitate to bleed him. His thick skin, his rolls of fat flesh, seem to require it. In fact he is a human hippopotamus. But to bleed a spare young fellow, who has been going through months of labor and hard living would be to kill him. I wonder that you can suggest such a thing."

"I am sure I am very sorry," said the merchant humbly.

"Happily no harm is done," replied the physician, cooling down a little. "And, after all, this is not your business, and you may be excused for your ignorance, but there are others," he went off muttering in a low voice, "who ought to know better, and ought to be punished for such folly. It is sheer murder."

I do not intend to describe the course of the long illness of which this was the beginning. There were times when even the hopefulness of the physician—and his hopefulness was one of his strongest and most helpful qualities—failed him. Relapse after relapse, coming with disheartening frequency, just when he had seemed to have gathered a little strength, brought him close to the gates of death.

"I have done all that I can," said Demoleon one evening to Epicharis the nurse. "If anyone is to save him, it must be you. If you want me, send for me, of course. Otherwise I shall not come. It breaks my heart to see this fine young fellow dying, when there are hundreds of worthless brutes whom the earth would be better without."

Epicharis never lost heart; for a nurse to lose heart is more fatal than the physician's despair. For nearly a week she scarcely slept. Not a single opportunity of administering some strengthening food did she lose—for now the fever had passed, and the danger lay in the excessive exhaustion. At last her patience was rewarded. The sick man turned the corner, and Demoleon, summoned at last, to alleviate, he feared, the last agony, found, to his inexpressible delight, that the cure was really begun.

"You are the physician," he cried, as he seized the nurse's hand and kissed it; "I am only a fool."

Winter had passed into spring, and spring into summer, before Callias could be pronounced out of danger. Even then his recovery was slow. Some months were spent in a mountain village where the bracing air worked wonders in giving him back his strength. As the cold weather came on he returned to his comfortable home in Trapezus. Though scarcely an invalid, he was still a little short of perfect recovery. Besides it was not the time for travelling. Anyhow it was the spring of the following year, and now more than twelve months from the time of his first illness, when he was pronounced fit to travel. Even then it was only something like flat rebellion on the part of his patient that induced Demoleon to give way. The young man was wearying for home and friends. He had heard nothing of them for several months, for communication was always stopped during the winter between Athens and the ports of the Euxine, while the eastward bound ships that always started after the dangerous season of the equinox had passed, had not yet arrived.