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

A Runner from Marathon

"Of what are you thinking, these days?" asked Orestes, as he came upon Chartas walking slowly along a footpath outside the city.

"Of Sparta's lack of readiness for war," answered Chartas frankly. "Even the boys of my company drill but half-heartedly. I think their interests are all upon games and festivals. I am not so good a captain as you were, Orestes."

"I do not hear that from others," replied Orestes with a smile. "But all Sparta is restless," he added, "and I think it is not wholly due to the games."

The sound of rapid footfalls and of panting breath close behind them, made them turn quickly. A man dashed past. His look was strained; he half staggered as he ran; he was covered with dust.

[Illustration] from Our Little Spartan Cousin by Julia D. Cowles


"What news?" cried Orestes, as he passed.

The man turned his head for but one word. "War," he said, hoarsely, as he staggered and ran on.

Orestes and Chartas bounded forward, more fleet of foot, now, than the runner, and when he reached the market-place the people had already been summoned.

"I have come from Athens," the man gasped. "The Persian army is ready to make an attack. Send troops; send troops, or Greece is lost!" As the man finished he dropped, exhausted, upon the ground.

"Where will the battle be fought?" asked the ephors.

"Marathon," gasped the man. And it was no wonder that he gasped, for it was learned that he had run a distance of one hundred and forty miles in forty-eight hours.

The word spread like fire through the city. "A runner has come from Marathon. The Persian army is ready to attack Athens. They want us to send troops."

There was consternation. It was the time of sacrificing to the gods, and it lacked five days till the full moon. No Spartan army could begin its march till the time of the full moon. What could be done?

"Can the sacrifices be neglected?" asked some.

"What care the Persians for our sacrifices!" exclaimed others. "Will they wait for that? What about Athens?"

"We must help Athens! How can we refuse?" cried Orestes.

"But the sacrifices! We must honor the gods if we hope to win in battle!" said the older men.

"It is yet five days till the moon is full," cried another. "We cannot send our soldiers until then!"

"'Twill take that time to gather our army," another declared—though it was but an excuse to temporize.

The counsel of the older men prevailed, as it always did in Sparta, and after the long five days of delay the troops were in readiness.

"I am not too young to go," cried Chartas imploringly. "And Sparta has too few men to meet the Persian horde!"

"He is best of all the Pyrrhic war dancers," said one of the men.

"If Orestes goes, we cannot hold him," said another.

And so, when the troops marched away from Sparta, Chartas went by Orestes' side.

After anxious days of waiting, the sounds of fife and cithara were heard advancing from the hills.

The people of Sparta flocked out, and ran far beyond the city to meet the returning army. Would there be few, or many? How had the battle gone?

The entire army was returning! The people shouted for joy.

But the soldiers marched with grim faces.

"We were too late!" exclaimed the general in command, and it was as though he had flung the words in the faces of the people. "We delayed! The battle was fought without us! But," he added, "the Persians were defeated. The gods themselves fought for Greece."

As the army disbanded, groups formed here and there to learn the story in greater detail. Then the people were told how the Athenians, though few in number, had met the Persian host on the plain of Marathon, and had driven them back to their ships. They were told, too, of the size and magnificence of the invading army, and of the rich spoils which were left upon the field.

"Our general said that the gods had a part in the battle," said Theognis. "What did he mean by that?"

"They told us strange stories when we reached the field," said Chartas. "Some of the people declared that the Greek soldiers were encouraged by the god Pan, who shouted and cheered them on from the mountains. Others said that Theseus himself was in the thick of the battle, clad in armor, and fighting mightily against the Persians; and that great Herakles appeared, and drove the barbarians into the water, as men would drive a flock of sheep."

"'Twas a deed bravely done!" exclaimed Orestes. "Would that we might have had a part in it!"

Theognis' face lighted as he listened. Then, when none was noticing, he stole away to the foot-hills. The impulse was strong upon him. He had been stirred by the picture which Chartas' words had called up—of the gods fighting for Greece—and easily, naturally, he began to put the pictures into words, and then to sing. As the pictures grew more distinct, so the words of his song fashioned themselves more readily, until his voice rose clearly, freely, in a song of triumph, a paean of thanksgiving.

"Hark!" said Orestes softly, for he and Chartas had strolled away from the noisy groups. "'Tis the voice of Theognis."

"Truly it is," said Chartas. "But what is his song? I have not heard it."

"No?" questioned Orestes, with an odd smile. "What have I told you, Chartas?"

For a moment Chartas looked puzzled, and then his face lighted. With a gasp of astonishment he asked: "Do you think the song is his own?"

"Listen," said Orestes again, and now they heard the words, as Theognis sang of the battle—of the aid of the gods in the battle.

"'Tis his own!" cried Chartas in delight. "Oh, Orestes, he must sing at the festival!"

"I hope that he will," said Orestes, "but we must bide his own time."

That night, as the men sat in barracks after their evening meal, Theognis took his cithara and began to sing. It was his own song of the battle.

The men listened; they leaned forward; unconsciously they began to beat the time, and when the song was finished, voices arose shouting, "Victor! victor!"

There was no laurel wreath with which to crown him, but Theognis was satisfied, for he knew that his song was approved; that his gift was recognized.

The song was called for again, and yet again. Then others began to sing it with him, until finally all the voices joined in the new paean of thanksgiving.

"Ah, Theognis," said Chartas, as soon as he could join him, "Orestes has been waiting for this, but I was stupid. I did not know."

"Orestes!" exclaimed Theognis in surprise. "How should he know?"

"Oh," replied Chartas, "he has understood you. But I was blind!"

"But, Chartas," said Theognis, grasping his hand, "it was you who aroused me at last. It was you who gave me the subject for my song!"