Three Greek Children: A Story of Home in Old Time - Alfred J. Church

A Friend

Leon commonly had one or two guests in his house. They would come to have a day or two's hunting or fishing. Fishing could be got in a little stream that ran through the marsh on the Marathon plain; there you could find sea-fish in the part near the sea, and fresh-water fish higher up. As for hunting, there were hares on the hills above the house, and there were partridges in the corn-fields, and snipes in the marsh. But all big game, such as boars and wolves, had long ago been killed. So far the country was just like England now.

Most of Leon's friends were from Athens, but now and then there would be one from some other part of Greece, and Gorgo, who was very observant, and had sharp ears, noticed that they did not talk quite like her father, pronouncing many of their words in a different way, and sometimes using words which she did not know at all.

One day there was a pouring rain, which made it quite impossible for any one to go out. The night before a guest had come for a day's hunting; but as it was so wet he had to be amused in some other way. The children heard him and their father laughing very loud in Leon's own sitting-room, and Hipponax, who was just a little spoilt, peeped in to see what they were doing. The stranger called out in a curious broad way of talking, which was more like Scotch than any thing else that I can think of: "Coom in, youngster." And the little boy went in readily enough. Only he was too shy to go in alone, and so he dragged Rhodium in along with him, and where Rhodium went of course Gorgo was bound to follow. So all the three children stood inside the room.

Their father and the stranger had just been playing at draughts, and the children could understand from what he was saying that the stranger had been beaten, and, half in pet and half in play, had upset the table, for there it was lying on the floor, while the men had rolled to all parts of the room.

"Come, come," said the stranger, "let us have a game at kottabos." (He spoke in the same broad accent, but I shall not try to imitate it any more.)

"Very good," said Leon, and clapped his hands for a slave, and when the boy came, told him to bring the things that were wanted.

Now I must tell you what sort of game this kottabos  was. On one side of the room was put a round, shallow pan, full of water. It was about three feet across. In fact it was very like a sponging bath. On this a dozen little saucers were set to float. The players stood on the other side of the room, with little cups in their hands filled with wine, and threw the wine so as to fill the saucers and sink them. You will think it silly, perhaps, that they should have used wine instead of water. And, indeed, it was a wasteful thing to do. But then you must remember that the wine that they used was rather thick, not so thick as to stick to the cup, but enough to keep more together than water would, when it had to be thrown some way through the air. At least this is the only reason that I can think of, but, perhaps, it was only a foolish fashion, as fashions often are foolish, to use wine.

The two friends had a wager about the number of saucers they could sink Perhaps this was rather foolish too, but I can only tell what they did, not what they ought to have done. Some of the young men were so silly as to wager large sums, far more than they could afford to lose in this way. But Leon and his friend only staked a silver coin on each saucer, each coin being worth not quite tenpence, almost exactly the same as a French franc. (It was called a drachma, a word that properly meant a "handful," and came down from very old times when there was no money at all; and if a man wanted to sell a fish or a bird he would sell it for so many "handfuls" of corn.) The stranger was very clever at this game, and sunk nine out of the twelve saucers, and so got his revenge, as he called it, for being beaten at draughts. In this way he won six drachmas, but he gave them all to the boy who had brought in the things for the game; so you see that anyhow he did not make wagers, as I am afraid some people do, because he was greedy for money.

When the game was finished, the weather began to clear up, and the stranger went out with his bow, to see whether he could shoot something; but Leon, who had a cold, stopped at home. Gorgo was quite scornful about the stranger. "How foolish he was," she said, "to be vexed because you beat him at draughts! and then how silly he was to jump about so when he managed to sink one of the saucers! And then how broadly he talked, just as if he were a Bťotian!" And she mimicked him, just as a foolish little girl that did not know any better might say, "just like a Scotchman," for the Bťotians used to talk in this broad way.

"Like a Bťotian, my child," said Leon, "why, that is just what he is; that is to say, he is a PlatŠan."

"What!" cried Gorgo, "one of that brave people who came to help us at Marathon?" for she remembered, as I hope you remember, the story that old Sciton had told her. "But, father dear," she went on, "you told me that there was no PlatŠa now, for that those wicked Spartans—I hope nurse does not hear me—had destroyed it and killed all the people."

"It is too true," said Leon, "but they did not kill all, for some got away before the town was taken, and Platon, for that is my friend's name, was one of them. Indeed he was one of the leaders, and but for him the thing would never have been done. Perhaps you might like to hear his story, only that you think him so silly."

Gorgo felt very much ashamed of herself, and hung her head, making good resolutions that she would never judge hastily again. She was very polite to the PlatŠan, whenever she saw him, nor did she find it very hard to coax him into telling his story. And this is what he told.

The Escape from PlatŠa

"We had been shut up for more than a year and a half, and our food began to run short. A loaf about as big as my two fists, poor musty stuff too, a bit of salt fish or salt meat as much as would cover the palm of my hand, and half a pint of sour wine—that was a man's allowance; and we felt that something must be done. One night, when I was thinking the matter over, the prophet, who happened to be a great friend of mine, came to tell me what he had seen that afternoon. A number of doves used to build in the eaves of the temple of Hera. The prophet saw a pair of these fly round and round the town, every time going a little farther from the walls. About the fourth time a hawk pounced down on them, and one of them flew back to the temple, and the other flew off in the direction of Athens.

" 'That is a sign,' said he; 'the hawk is the besieger's army, and we are the doves; and the sooner we are off by the way she went the better for us.'

"Now I should tell you that the Spartans had built a double wall all round our town, and that the space between these two walls, which was sixteen feet, was roofed over; also that little towers were built on this roof, about a hundred feet apart; also that there was a ditch on each side of the double wall. Well, there were just four hundred and forty of us in all, and at first all agreed to go; but afterwards half drew back, choosing rather to take their chance in the town. It was a good thing for us that they did, but not for them, poor fellows? Well, we made all our plans, and got ladders ready by which to get up the wall. We guessed the length that they had to be by counting the layers of bricks. One very dark night, when there was a storm of wind blowing, with sometimes rain and sometimes snow, we started. All of us had the right foot bare to keep us from slipping. We crossed the first ditch, and then twelve of us climbed the wall between two of the towers. As soon as these were on the top, six of them ran to one tower and six to the other, and killed the sentinels in them before they could cry out. You must understand that the towers went quite from one side of the wall to the other. No one could go outside them, but had to go through them, if he wanted to make his way along the wall. It was just this way through that the six men who ran to each tower secured. For the time all the hundred feet of wall between the two was ours, and our men went on climbing upon it without ever being noticed. You see the wind made a terrible din, and the Spartans were very bad hands at keeping watch. At last one of us knocked down a tile, and it fell with such a clatter that the guard in the next tower was woke, for I do believe that they were all asleep. Then the soldiers began to rouse up. But just at this time our friends who had stayed behind pretended to be going to break out on the other side of the town, so that, what with the noise and the confusion, the Spartans did not know what to do, and, in fact, simply did nothing. All this time our men were letting themselves down from the wall on the other side, and crossing the ditch—not an easy matter, seeing that it was just covered with thin ice that was not strong enough to bear. But when they did get across they drew up in line on the other bank, and threw their darts at any one who tried to come along the wall. You see they were in the dark, while the soldiers on the walls mostly carried torches, and so could be seen. I should tell you that though the greater part of the besieging army stood still and did nothing, there was a body of three hundred men who were always ready for any thing that might happen, and it was these with whom we had to deal. I have often wondered that we got off so easy; the enemy must have been quite dazed."

"Did you all escape?" asked Gorgo.

"All but one poor fellow who was taken prisoner, and six who were afraid and turned back."

"And when you were all across the outer ditch, of course you set off running towards Athens as fast as you could?"

"Not so, dear young lady; that was just what the enemy thought we should do. We went just the opposite way for about a mile, then turned off to the right, got into the mountains, and so got to Athens by a roundabout way. All the time they were blundering along the high road, and wondering what in the world had become of us. Ah! it is an easy thing to outwit a Spartan."