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A Young Macedonian by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

FROM TYRE TO THE TIGRIS

[226] THE pleasant sojourn on the shores of the Sea of Galilee came to an end in the early summer of the following year. Charidemus was summoned to meet the king at Tyre, where he was intending to complete his plans for his next campaign, a campaign that would, he hoped, be decisive. And it was arranged that the young man's charges should accompany him. Alexander had fixed on another residence for his wife and child. (Barsiné, it should be said, had given birth to a son in the early part of the winter.) His choice had fallen on Pergamos, one of the strongest fortresses in his dominions. The fact is that schemes of conquest were opening up before him which he felt would occupy him for many years. The next campaign would complete the conquest of Persia proper, but the eastern provinces would remain to be subdued, and after these, India, and after India the rest, it might be said, of the habitable world, for nothing less would satisfy his vast ambition. In Barsiné's son he had an heir, possibly [227] not the heir who would succeed him, but still one who might be called to do so. To place him in safety was a desirable thing, and Pergamos, which was not far from the coast of the Ćgean, with its almost impregnable citadel, seemed an eligible spot.

Charidemus's instructions were to make the best of his way with his charges to Pergamos, and to rejoin the army with all speed, a fast-sailing Sidonian vessel being assigned for the service. Both voyages were accomplished with unusual speed. But it is probable that in any case the first, made in such delightful company, would have seemed too short; the second, with a decisive and exciting campaign in view, too long.

It was early in May when Charidemus left Tyre, and the end of July, when, having accomplished his mission, he landed again at Sidon. Here he was met by an invitation to the palace, where he had the pleasure of meeting Charondas. The young man had been left behind when Alexander set out, to complete his recovery from an attack of illness. King Abdalonymus hospitably pressed the friends to prolong their stay with him for some days. Charondas, he said, would be better for a little more rest, while Charidemus wanted refreshment after his double voyage. At any other time the offer would have been gladly accepted, for Abdalonymus was a very striking personage. He had been little more than a day labourer when he was suddenly raised to the throne; [228] but power had done nothing to spoil him. He was as frugal and temperate as ever; and he kept, rarest of possessions in a palace, his common sense. The two friends, however, were eager to set out. The army had already had ten days' start of them, and the bare idea of any decisive battle being fought before they had come up with it was intolerable.

They were on horseback at dawn the next morning. Their road was up the valley of the Leontes, and then, turning eastward, between the ranges of Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon. So far as the great ford over the Euphrates at Thapsacus there could be no question as to their route. Practically there was only one way, and that was the one which the army had taken. Arrived at the ford they found that they had gained three days. A week still remained to be made up, and this it seemed easy enough to do at the cost of some extra labour and, possibly, a little risk. Darius, it was known, had gathered a vast host more numerous even than that which had been routed at Issus, and was going to make a final struggle for his throne. His whereabouts was not exactly known, but it was certainly somewhere to the eastward of the Tigris, which river would probably be made his first line of defence. Anxious to make his march as little exhausting as possible to his men, Alexander had taken a somewhat circuitous line, turning first to the north, in the direction of the Armenian mountains, then striking eastward, and [229] touching the Tigris at its lowest ford, some thirty miles above Nineveh. To go straight from Thapsacus to this point would be to save no little time if it could be done. The two friends resolved to make the experiment.

The first day passed without adventure. The travelers did not see a human creature from morning to evening, and had to spend the night under a terebinth, with no more refreshment than the food which they had had the forethought to carry with them, and a scanty draught of very muddy water. Their halting-place on the second day seemed to promise much better entertainment. As they drew rein beside an inviting looking clump of trees they were accosted by a venerable stranger, who, in broken but intelligible Greek, offered them hospitality for the night. Their host showed them a small tent where they would sleep, and made them understand that he should be glad of their company at his own evening meal. Half-an-hour afterwards they sat down to a fairly well-dressed supper, a lamb which had been killed in their honour, barley cakes baked on the embers, and palm-wine. There was not much conversation, for the old sheikh's stock of phrases did not go very far, and the two somewhat sullen looking youths who made up the company, seemed not to know a word of any language but their own. When the host found that the strangers declined his offer to try another skin of palm-wine, [230] he smilingly wished them good-night. One of the silent young men showed them to their tent, and they were left to repose.

The hour was still early, and the friends did not feel inclined for sleep. Both had a good deal to say to each other. Besides personal topics they had to talk about the prospects of the war, and that a war which seemed to promise adventures of the most exciting kind. It must have been about an hour short of midnight when, just as they were thinking of lying down for the night, their attention was attracted by a slight noise at the tent door. Charondas going, lamp in hand, to see what it meant started back in horror at the sight that met his eyes. A dwarfish looking man stood, or rather crouched before him. His figure was bent almost double by bodily infirmity, it would seem, rather than by age. The long black hair streaked with grey, that fell on his shoulders was rough and unkempt, his dress was ragged and filthy. But the horror of the poor wretch's appearance was in the mutilation which had been practised upon him. His ears had been cut off; his nostrils had been cropped as close as the knife could shear them, his right arm had been cut short at the elbow, and his left leg at the knee.

"Let me speak with you," said the stranger, "if you can bear awhile with a sight so hideous."

He spoke in pure Greek, and with the accent of an educated man.

[231] "Speak on," said Charidemus, "we feel nothing but pity for a countryman who has been unhappy;" and he took the sufferer's hand in his own, and pressed it with a friendly grasp.

"I am come to warn you," said the visitor, "but if I do not first tell you my story you will scarce believe me."

He paused overcome with emotion.

"I am a native of Crotona, and belonged to a family of physicians. We reckoned among our ancestors the great Democedes, whom the first Darius, as you may remember, honoured and enriched. Some political troubles with which I need not weary you compelled me to leave my country, and I settled [232] at Ephesus. There I did well enough, till in an evil hour I was sent for to prescribe for the satrap of Phrygia. I had acquired, I may say, some reputation for myself, but my name—it is the same as that of my great ancestor—did far more for me. It has made, indeed, the fortune of many a physician of our nation. Well, I cured the satrap, who indeed had nothing worse the matter with him than too much meat and drink. He was very grateful, and bribed me by the promise of a great salary—three hundred minas, if you will believe me, gentlemen," explained the poor wretch with a lingering feeling of pride in his professional success, "he bribed me, I say, to go with him when he returned to court. For a time all went well; then a favourite slave fell ill. The poor lad was in a consumption; not Ćsculapius himself could have cured him; and I could do nothing for him, but make his end easy. Masistius—that was my employer's name—was in a furious rage. He maimed me in the cruel way you see, and sold me for a slave."

"What! you a free-born Greek," exclaimed the young men with one voice.

"Yes," replied the man, "and 'tis no uncommon experience, as you will find when you get further into the country. Yes; there are hundreds of Greeks who have suffered the same horrors as you see in me. [233] Well; he sold me as a slave to the villain whose meat you have been eating to-night."

"Do you call him villain?" said Charidemus in surprise. "He seemed kind and hospitable enough."

"Aye, he seems," replied the man, "that is part of his craft. But for all his amiable looks, he is a robber and a murderer. He makes it his business to do away with guests whom he entertains as he has entertained you. Commonly he plies them with his accursed palm-wine till they fall into a drunken sleep. When that fails, they are stabbed or strangled. One or two I have contrived to warn; but they generally prevent me from coming near the poor wretches."

"That is brave of you," said one of the young men.

"Oh!" was the answer, "I deserve no credit, I am weary of my life, and should be thankful if they would put an end to it, though a sort of hope prevents me from doing it myself. And yet what hope!" he went on in a lower tone, "what can a mutilated wretch such as I am hope for but to escape from the sight of my fellow men? But they leave me alone; I am too valuable to them to be injured. The wretches are never ill themselves, but they set me to cure their cattle and sheep, and I save them a great deal more than the miserable pittance of food and drink which they give me. But now for what concerns yourselves. The wretch will send his [234] assassins—those two brutal-looking sons mostly do his work for him—about the end of the third watch when a man commonly sleeps his soundest. So you have two hours and more before you. Your horses are picketed at the other end of the grove from that by which you entered, not where you saw them fastened, that was only done to deceive you. It is just where you see the moon showing itself above the trees. Get to them as quietly as you can, and then ride for your lives. But mind, go westward, that is, back along the way you came. In about an hour's time turn sharp to the north. Another hour will bring you to a little stream; cross that, and after you have gone some thousand paces you will come to another clump of trees very like this. Another Sheikh has his encampment there; I am not sure but that he does a little robbery and murder on his own account; but just now he has the merit of being at daggers drawn with his neighbour here. And he has a kindness for me, for I cured his favourite horse; and if you mention my name to him, I am sure that he will treat you well. And now, farewell!"

"What can we do for you?" said Charidemus, "we are on our way to join the great Alexander; it is such wrongs as yours that he has come to redress."

"Do for me!" cried the unhappy man, in a tone of inexpressible bitterness; "forget that you have ever seen me. I should be sorry that any but you [235] should know that Democedes has suffered such wrongs, and yet has been willing to live. But stay—I would gladly see that villain Masistius crucified, if he is still alive, as indeed I trust he is; and you will remember your kind and venerable host of to-night. And now, again, farewell!"

The two friends lost no time in making their way to the spot whence they were to find their horses. A man had been set to watch the animals. Happily for the fugitives he had fallen asleep. It went against the grain with them, generous young fellows as they were, to kill him in his slumber; but, unless they were to alarm the encampment, they had no alternative. His employment, too, showed that he was in the plot. It was not in their owners' interest that he had been set to watch the horses. With half-averted face Charondas dealt him the fatal blow, and he died without a struggle or a groan. A short time was spent, for the advantage seemed worth the delay, in muffling the horses' hoofs. That done, they rode back, quietly at first and then at full speed, by the road by which they had come, till it was time, as they judged, for them to turn off. The day had dawned when they reached the other encampment. The name of Democedes proved as good an introduction to the chief as they could wish. When he further learnt that his guests were officers on their way to join the army of the great Alexander, he was profuse in his offers of help and entertainment. [236] They accepted an escort of horsemen who should see them well out of the reach of their treacherous host, and under their protection and guidance reached a district where no further danger was to be apprehended. It was with no small pleasure that at the very moment when the Tigris came in sight their eyes caught the glitter of arms in the distance. The vanguard of the Macedonian army was filing down the slopes that led to the ford.


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