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

The Public Tables

When the boys of Orestes' company gathered for their evening meal, Gelon alone was missing. Each boy, as he returned, brought with him something for the tables, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, meat, or meal.

The grapes which Chartas and Brasidas brought were placed upon the tables, that of the old men being supplied first, for age was respected in Sparta. No one commented upon the scratched faces and hands of the two boys, nor upon the marks of blood upon his feet and the slight limp of Chartas, but the older men looked at the boys with approval, although they were careful that they should receive no word of spoken praise. Only Orestes, as he met Chartas, threw his arm across his shoulders in a way that meant much to the younger boy. But even he said nothing. The Spartans were men of deeds, not words.

The boys' tables were separate from those of the men, but the smallest boys sat on stools beside their fathers, and were handed their portions of food.

After the meal the men began talking of the Assembly, which had been held that day, and the boys listened. They spoke of the ambassador; of the singer. They gave their opinions freely, and they asked many questions of each other, and of the boys.

Then one of the men touched the strings of his cithara, and began to sing. Others took up the song, and soon a great chorus of men's voices arose and filled the large room.

Chartas felt a thrill, as he always did at the sound of music. He remembered when he had seen a company of Spartan soldiers march away to battle singing the same song, and he knew that the greatest singers of Sparta had been her bravest men.

The men stopped singing. Suddenly one of them, named Agis, turned and, nodding toward Brasidas, asked, "Who established the Olympian games?"

"Herakles," replied Brasidas promptly.

"What is the sacred truce?" Agis continued, nodding at Theognis.

"The peace which is preserved between all the states of Greece during the games at Olympia," Theognis answered.

"Why does Sparta need no walls?" came a third question, and this time it was directed to Theron; but Theron was not paying attention, and did not even know that he had been spoken to. He was so intent upon teasing a smaller boy—when he should have been listening and learning—that he now had his back toward the speaker.

"Theron, son of Cinadon," said Agis, and at the tone of his voice Theron started, and turned, "you have shown disrespect to age, and a contempt for knowledge. You may go out and spend the night among the mountains."

Theron rose and instantly left the room. If any among the boys or men thought the punishment severe, they did not show it by word or look, and they probably did not consider it too severe. But Chartas, remembering his flight down the mountainside during the day, wondered how he would have fared had it been dark. "It is good to give attention," he thought, as the door closed upon Theron.

"Why does Sparta need no walls?" The question was repeated, and this time Agis nodded to Chartas.

"The men of Sparta are her walls," replied Chartas, and the grave men about the tables smiled approvingly at the earnestness of the boy.

Another song was sung, joking remarks were exchanged between the men, some of the boys were quizzed until they scarcely knew how to answer; and then, one by one, the men arose and bade each other good night. There were no lights in the streets, and the streets themselves were irregular and unpaved. The buildings of the city were set here and there without plan, and the streets wound here and there between them. None of the younger men carried lights, but the men who were over sixty were carefully lighted to their homes.

Even the smaller boys of Sparta were accustomed to going about without lights. But none of the boys went home at night. From the time they were seven years old, they slept, as well as ate, in the public buildings which were furnished for that purpose, and each company of boys had its own quarters.

"Gelon has not yet returned," said Theognis, as the boys of Orestes' company gathered in their quarters.

"And now Theron is gone, too," added Brasidas with a shrug of his shoulders.

"To sleep, boys," was the only response of their iren, and at once the boys dropped upon their beds of reeds.

"I wonder if Orestes will suffer for Theron's conduct," wondered Chartas, as he tossed about, for he well knew that the irens were held responsible for the conduct of the boys of their company.

Chartas' muscles were lame and sore, and the bed of rushes was far from soft, but it was the only sort of bed he knew, and he was trained to hardy endurance. It was not long before he was sound asleep.

In the meantime Theron had been following the path to the mountain, over which Chartas and Brasidas had traveled during the day. He might easily have hidden in the dark and irregular streets of the city until morning—but he had been told to go to the mountains. He might, through his love of mischief, be inattentive, but he would scorn to disobey. Besides, there were real dangers in the mountains at night, and to stay in the city would be cowardly, as well as disobedient—and what Spartan boy could bear the brand of cowardice?

So Theron climbed the path till he came to the steeper cliffs. "I will rest on one of these cliffs," he said. "It is safer here than higher up among the trees." Unconsciously he had spoken his thoughts aloud, and as he stopped, he heard an answering sound. He was alert at once. It might be one of the beasts of the mountain, for he well knew that it was the haunt of wild animals, and that they roamed about at night.

He held his breath and listened.

At a little distance he again heard the sound, and then the words, softly spoken, "Can it be you, Theron?"

"Yes," said Theron with a ring of gladness in his voice. "Where are you, Gelon? What has happened?"

"I thought it was your voice," said Gelon, making his way to the cliff. "How came you here? Did you fail, too?"

"No," answered Theron, "I did not fail, for I carried a large cruse of oil to the tables. But yet I am in disgrace." Then he explained how he came to be sent to the mountain.

"And what of you?" he asked, in conclusion.

"Oh, I am due to have a flogging," said Gelon, reluctantly. "Not that I mind that, but I stole a piece of meat and was making off with it, when I caught my foot in a vine and stumbled. I fell headlong, and scared a flock of sheep, who ran bleating in all directions. That called out their owner, and he saw me. I got away without being caught, but the piece of meat flew from my arms when I fell, and dropped to a great distance below me, for I was on a steep hillside. The man was upon me too soon for me to get it again, and I would not go back to barracks empty-handed."

"So you have stayed here in the mountain!" exclaimed Theron. "I am glad that I came this way. As soon as it is light, we will forage again, and perhaps we can both find food for the tables."

"That is good of you," said Gelon. He had been without food since morning, but he added, "I shall not go back till I succeed."