Our Little Spartan Cousin of Long Ago - Julia D. Cowles

"Earth and Water"

"You seem so quiet, Orestes, and so thoughtful. Is anything troubling you?" It was Chartas who spoke, and he looked anxiously into Orestes' face.

Three years have passed since we last saw Chartas, and he is no longer a member of a company of boys, but the captain of a company of his own. The friendship between Orestes and himself has grown with the years, and now there seems less difference between their ages than when they were younger.

"I am troubled," Orestes answered. "Not for myself," he added, as Chartas gave a quick gesture of sympathy, "but for Sparta—nay, not for Sparta alone, but for Greece."

"Then you believe the rumors," said Chartas.

"You think the Persians are really likely to invade Greece?"

"Yes," replied Orestes, "I do believe the rumors."

"But even though the Persian numbers are great, as 'tis said," Chartas answered, "they are a barbarian horde. They could not stand against the trained soldiers of Greece."

Orestes smiled at the earnest face of Chartas, but his smile was one of appreciation, not of amusement.

"I hope you are right," he said. "But sometimes I fear it is our own ignorance that makes us feel so secure. Mind," he added, "I do not think we are going to be defeated if the Persians come, but that the struggle will be a much greater one than we Spartans, at least, now realize."

"How have you learned this?" asked Chartas, for Orestes' earnest speech had made a deep impression upon him.

"I have thought much about it," replied Orestes, "and I have asked many questions of those who have traveled abroad."

Chartas was silent. Persia was, to him, an unknown land, as it was to most of the Spartans, who seldom left their own country. His gaze rested upon the road which led from Sparta toward the hills on the farther side of the river, but his thoughts were far beyond the hills.

Suddenly his gaze grew intent, and after a moment he leaned forward, as though to see more clearly. "Who are the men coming yonder?" he asked.

Orestes turned and gazed as earnestly as Chartas had done.

"They are not Spartans," he said. "One can see their rich apparel, and they wear the hats of travelers."

They continued to gaze, and, at length, as the men came close, they exclaimed together, "They are barbarians! They are no Greeks. What does it mean?"

As the men passed on, Chartas and Orestes followed at a distance. The men went straight to the market-place, passed the Temple of Fear, and stopped before the Ephoreum. After looking about them for a moment, they entered the building.

By this time quite a crowd had gathered, for the sight of the two strangers had awakened the curiosity of all.

"Who are they?" "Where are they from?" "What is their business?" These questions were heard upon every side, but no one could answer.

For a long time the people waited, while the crowd increased as the news spread, until it seemed as though every citizen of Sparta was in the throng.

At length the ephors appeared. The strangers were with them. Then these stepped aside, and the two kings of Sparta stepped from the door of the Ephoreum.

"They must have interrupted a session of the ephors," said Chartas, and then he stopped and listened, for one of the kings was speaking.

"Men of Sparta," he said, "King Darius of Persia has sent his ambassadors to demand of us a gift of earth and water."

There was a moment of absolute silence. Then, from every side, there arose an uproar of sound. Men shouted, groaned, shook their fists; there were imprecations, bellowings of wrath, jeers, and oaths. The women who fringed the crowd shrieked, or wailed, or laughed aloud in derision.

The king waited. The ambassadors of Darius first flushed; then grew pale.

"Earth and water!" exclaimed Orestes between set teeth. "It has come! But I wish Darius himself were here. I wonder if he would think the Spartans likely to become his subjects—to pay him tribute!" For this was the meaning of the ambassadors' mission. Earth and water were the signs of surrender.

In the meantime the uproar continued—increased. The sound had brought others from the outskirts of the city. From all directions they were coming,—running, shouting, inquiring. And as they learned the news, they, too, shouted defiance, threw their arms, threatened.

At first the ambassadors had listened to the mob with curling lips and heads thrown back. But as the tumult increased their manner changed. One of them raised his hand, and attempted to speak.

But it was useless. The effort only roused the mob to ridicule; and then threats of violence began to be heard.

"No, no!" cried Orestes, to a man beside him, who was shouting threats against the ambassadors, "remember the honor of Sparta.

Let the ambassadors carry our message to their king."

But it was like trying to stop the flow of a mountain torrent with a man's hand. Not even the kings could stop the mighty outburst of the mob's anger and passion.

There was a sudden surge of the crowd. It swept up the steps of the Ephoreum, and the ambassadors were dragged away.

Later in the day, when the city had grown quiet and the people had gone to their houses,—though they still gathered in small groups here and there, in excited conversation,—Orestes and Chartas walked once more together along the river bank.

A man passed them. With a savage laugh he exclaimed: "Darius will wait long for his ambassadors!"

But Orestes responded: "And Sparta's honor! What of that?"