The Lemnian by John Buchan
He pushed the matted locks from his brow as he peered into the
mist. His hair was thick with salt, and his eyes smarted from the
greenwood fire on the poop. The four slaves who crouched beside the
thwarts-Carians with thin birdlike faces-were in a pitiable case,
their hands blue with oar-weals and the lash marks on their shoulders
beginning to gape from sun and sea. The Lemnian himself bore marks of
ill usage. His cloak was still sopping, his eyes heavy with watching,
and his lips black and cracked with thirst. Two days before the storm
had caught him and swept his little craft into mid-Aegean. He was a
sailor, come of sailor stock, and he had fought the gale manfully and
well. But the sea had burst his waterjars, and the torments of
drought had been added to his toil. He had been driven south almost
to Scyros, but had found no harbour. Then a weary day with the oars
had brought him close to the Euboean shore, when a freshet of storm
drove him seaward again. Now at last in this northerly creek of
Sciathos he had found shelter and a spring. But it was a perilous
place, for there were robbers in the bushy hills-mainland men who
loved above all things to rob an islander: and out at sea, as he
looked towards Pelion, there seemed something adoing which boded
little good. There was deep water beneath a ledge of cliff, half
covered by a tangle of wildwood. So Atta lay in the bows, looking
through the trails of vine at the racing tides now reddening in the
The storm had hit others besides him it seemed. The channel was
full of ships, aimless ships that tossed between tide and wind.
Looking closer, he saw that they were all wreckage. There had been
tremendous doings in the north, and a navy of some sort had come to
grief. Atta was a prudent man, and knew that a broken fleet might be
dangerous. There might be men lurking in the maimed galleys who would
make short work of the owner of a battered but navigable craft. At
first he thought that the ships were those of the Hellenes. The
troublesome fellows were everywhere in the islands, stirring up strife
and robbing the old lords. But the tides running strongly from the
east were bringing some of the wreckage in an eddy into the bay. He
lay closer and watched the spars and splintered poops as they neared
him. These were no galleys of the Hellenes. Then came a drowned
man, swollen and horrible: then another-swarthy, hooknosed fellows,
all yellow with the sea. Atta was puzzled. They must be the men from
the East about whom he had been hearing. Long ere he left Lemnos
there had been news about the Persians. They were coming like locusts
out of the dawn, swarming over Ionia and Thrace, men and ships
numerous beyond telling. They meant no ill to honest islanders: a
little earth and water were enough to win their friendship. But they
meant death to the hubris of the Hellenes. Atta was on the side of
the invaders; he wished them well in their war with his ancient foes.
They would eat them up, Athenians, Lacedaemonians, Corinthians,
Aeginetans, men of Argos and Elis, and none would be left to trouble
him. But in the meantime something had gone wrong. Clearly there had
been no battle. As the bodies butted against the side of the galley
he hooked up one or two and found no trace of a wound. Poseidon had
grown cranky, and had claimed victims. The god would be appeased by
this time, and all would go well.
Danger being past, he bade the men get ashore and fill the
water-skins. "God's curse on all Hellenes," he said, as he soaked up
the cold water from the spring in the thicket.
About noon he set sail again. The wind sat in the north-east, but
the wall of Pelion turned it into a light stern breeze which carried
him swiftly westward. The four slaves, still leg-weary and arm-weary,
lay like logs beside the thwarts. Two slept; one munched some salty
figs; the fourth, the headman, stared wearily forward, with ever and
again a glance back at his master. But the Lemnian never looked his
way. His head was on his breast, as he steered, and he brooded on the
sins of the Hellenes. He was of the old Pelasgian stock, the first
bords of the land, who had come out of the soil at the call of God.
The pillaging northmen had crushed his folk out of the mainlands and
most of the islands, but in Lemnos they had met their match. It was a
family story how every grown male had been slain, and how the women
long after had slaughtered their conquerors in the night. "Lemnian
deeds," said the Hellenes, when they wished to speak of some shameful
thing: but to Atta the shame was a glory to be cherished for ever.
He and his kind were the ancient people, and the gods loved old
things, as those new folk would find. Very especially he hated the
men of Athens. Had not one of their captains, Militades, beaten the
Lemnians and brought the island under Athenian sway? True, it was a
rule only in name, for any Athenian who came alone to Lemnos would
soon be cleaving the air from the highest cliff-top. But the thought
irked his pride, and he gloated over the Persians' coming. The Great
King from beyond the deserts would smite those outrageous upstarts.
Atta would willingly give earth and water. It was the whim of a
fantastic barbarian, and would be well repaid if the bastard Hellenes
were destroyed. They spoke his own tongue, and worshipped his own
gods, and yet did evil. Let the nemesis of Zeus devour them!
The wreckage pursued him everywhere. Dead men shouldered the
sides of the galley, and the straits were stuck full of things like
monstrous buoys, where tall ships had foundered. At Artemision he
thought he saw signs of an anchored fleet with the low poops of the
Hellenes, and sheered off to the northern shores. There, looking
towards Oeta and the Malian Gulf, he found an anchorage at sunset.
The waters were ugly and the times ill, and he had come on an
enterprise bigger than he had dreamed. The Lemnian was a stout fellow,
but he had no love for needless danger. He laughed mirthlessly as he
thought of his errand, for he was going to Hellas, to the shrine of
It was a woman's doing, like most crazy enterprises. Three years
ago his wife had laboured hard in childbirth, and had had the whims
of labouring women. Up in the keep of Larisa, on the windy hillside,
there had been heart-searching and talk about the gods. The little
olive-wood Hermes, the very private and particular god of Atta's folk,
was good enough in simple things like a lambing or a harvest, but he
was scarcely fit for heavy tasks. Atta's wife declared that her lord
lacked piety. There were mainland gods who repaid worship, but his
scorn of all Hellenes made him blind to the merits of those potent
divinities. At first Atta resisted. There was Attic blood in his
wife, and he strove to argue with her unorthodox craving. But the
woman persisted, and a Lemnian wife, as she is beyond other wives in
virtue and comeliness, excels them in stubbornness of temper. A
second time she was with child, and nothing would content her but that
Atta should make his prayers to the stronger gods. Dodona was far
away, and long ere he reached it his throat would be cut in the
hills. But Delphi was but two days' journey from the Malian coast,
and the god of Delphi, the Far-Darter had surprising gifts, if one
were to credit travellers' tales. Atta yielded with an ill grace, and
out of his wealth devised an offering to Apollo. So on this July day
he found himself looking across the gulf to Kallidromos bound for a
Hellenic shrine, but hating all Hellenes in his soul. A verse of
Homer consoled him-the words which Phocion spoke to Achilles. "Verily
even the gods may be turned, they whose excellence and honour and
strength are greater than thine; yet even these do men, when they
pray, turn from their purpose with offerings of incense and pleasant
vows." The Far-Darter must hate the hubris of those Hellenes, and be
the more ready to avenge it since they dared to claim his
countenance. "No race has ownership in the gods," a Lemnian
song-maker had said when Atta had been questioning the ways of
The following dawn found him coasting past the north end of Euboea
in the thin fog of a windless summer morn. He steered by the peak of
Othrys and a spur of Oeta, as he had learnt from a slave who had
travelled the road. Presently he was in the muddy Malian waters, and
the sun was scattering the mist on the landward side. And then he
became aware of a greater commotion than Poseidon's play with the
ships off Pelion. A murmur like a winter's storm came seawards. He
lowered the sail, which he had set to catch a chance breeze, and bade
the men rest on their oars. An earthquake seemed to be tearing at the
roots of the hills.
The mist rolled up, and his hawk eyes saw a strange sight. The
water was green and still around him, but shoreward it changed its
colour. It was a dirty red, and things bobbed about in it like the
Persians in the creek of Sciathos. On the strip of shore, below the
sheer wall of Kallidromos, men were fighting-myriads of men, for away
towards Locris they stretched in ranks and banners and tents till the
eye lost them in the haze. There was no sail on the queer,
muddy-red-edged sea; there was no man on the hills: but on that one
flat ribbon of sand all the nations of the earth were warring. He
remembered about the place: Thermopylae they called it, the Gate of
the Hot Springs. The Hellenes were fighting the Persians in the pass
for their Fatherland.
Atta was prudent and loved not other men's quarrels. He gave the
word to the rowers to row seaward. In twenty strokes they were in
the mist again...
Atta was prudent, but he was also stubborn. He spent the day in a
creek on the northern shore of the gulf, listening to the weird hum
which came over the waters out of the haze. He cursed the delay. Up
on Kallidromos would be clear dry air and the path to Delphi among the
oak woods. The Hellenes could not be fighting everywhere at once. He
might find some spot on the shore, far in their rear, where he could
land and gain the hills. There was danger indeed, but once on the
ridge he would be safe; and by the time he came back the Great King
would have swept the defenders into the sea, and be well on the road
for Athens. He asked himself if it were fitting that a Lemnian should
be stayed in his holy task by the struggles of Hellene and Barbarian.
His thoughts flew to his steading at Larisa, and the dark-eyed wife
who was awaiting his homecoming. He could not return without
Apollo's favour: his manhood and the memory of his lady's eyes
forbade it. So late in the afternoon he pushed off again and steered
his galley for the south.
About sunset the mist cleared from the sea; but the dark falls
swiftly in the shadow of the high hills, and Atta had no fear. With
the night the hum sank to a whisper; it seemed that the invaders were
drawing off to camp, for the sound receded to the west. At the last
light the Lemnian touched a rock-point well to the rear of the
defence. He noticed that the spume at the tide's edge was reddish and
stuck to his hands like gum. Of a surety much blood was flowing on
He bade his slaves return to the north shore and lie hidden to
await him. When he came back he would light a signal fire on the
topmost bluff of Kallidromos. Let them watch for it and come to take
him off. Then he seized his bow and quiver, and his short
hunting-spear, buckled his cloak about him, saw that the gift to
Apollo was safe in the folds of it, and marched sturdily up the
The moon was in her first quarter, a slim horn which at her rise
showed only the faint outline of the hill. Atta plodded steadfastly
on, but he found the way hard. This was not like the crisp sea-turf
of Lemnos, where among the barrows of the ancient dead, sheep and kine
could find sweet fodder. Kallidromos ran up as steep as the roof of a
barn. Cytisus and thyme and juniper grew rank, but above all the
place was strewn with rocks, leg-twisting boulders, and great cliffs
where eagles dwelt. Being a seaman, Atta had his bearings. The path
to Delphi left the shore road near the Hot Springs, and went south by
a rift of the mountain. If he went up the slope in a beeline he must
strike it in time and find better going. Still it was an eerie place
to be tramping after dark. The Hellenes had strange gods of the
thicket and hillside, and he had no wish to intrude upon their
sanctuaries. He told himself that next to the Hellenes he hated this
country of theirs, where a man sweltered in hot jungles or tripped
among hidden crags. He sighed for the cool beaches below Larisa,
where the surf was white as the snows of Samothrace, and the
fisherboys sang round their smoking broth-pots.
Presently he found a path. It was not the mule road, worn by many
feet, that he had looked for, but a little track which twined among
the boulders. Still it eased his feet, so he cleared the thorns from
his sandals, strapped his belt tighter, and stepped out more
confidently. Up and up he went, making odd detours among the crags.
Once he came to a promontory, and, looking down, saw lights twinkling
from the Hot Springs. He had thought the course lay more southerly,
but consoled himself by remembering that a mountain path must have
many windings. The great matter was that he was ascending, for he
knew that he must cross the ridge of Oeta before he struck the Locrian
glens that led to the Far-Darter's shrine.
At what seemed the summit of the first ridge he halted for breath,
and, prone on the thyme, looked back to sea. The Hot Springs were
hidden, but across the gulf a single light shone from the far shore.
He guessed that by this time his galley had been beached and his
slaves were cooking supper. The thought made him homesick. He had
beaten and cursed these slaves of his times without number, but now in
this strange land he felt them kinsfolk, men of his own household.
Then he told himself he was no better than a woman. Had he not gone
sailing to Chalcedon and distant Pontus, many months' journey from
home while this was but a trip of days? In a week he would be
welcomed by a smiling wife, with a friendly god behind him.
The track still bore west, though Delphi lay in the south.
Moreover, he had come to a broader road running through a little
tableland. The highest peaks of Oeta were dark against the sky, and
around him was a flat glade where oaks whispered in the night breezes.
By this time he judged from the stars that midnight had passed, and
he began to consider whether, now that he was beyond the fighting, he
should not sleep and wait for dawn. He made up his mind to find a
shelter, and, in the aimless way of the night traveller, pushed on and
on in the quest of it. The truth is his mind was on Lemnos, and a
dark-eyed, white-armed dame spinning in the evening by the threshold.
His eyes roamed among the oaktrees, but vacantly and idly, and many a
mossy corner was passed unheeded. He forgot his ill temper, and
hummed cheerfully the song his reapers sang in the barley-fields below
his orchard. It was a song of seamen turned husbandmen, for the gods
it called on were the gods of the sea....
Suddenly he found himself crouching among the young oaks, peering
and listening. There was something coming from the west. It was
like the first mutterings of a storm in a narrow harbour, a steady
rustling and whispering. It was not wind; he knew winds too well to
be deceived. It was the tramp of light-shod feet among the
twigs--many feet, for the sound remained steady, while the noise of a
few men will rise and fall. They were coming fast and coming
silently. The war had reached far up Kallidromos.
Atta had played this game often in the little island wars. Very
swiftly he ran back and away from the path up the slope which he knew
to be the first ridge of Kallidromos. The army, whatever it might be,
was on the Delphian road. Were the Hellenes about to turn the flank
of the Great King?
A moment later he laughed at his folly. For the men began to
appear, and they were crossing to meet him, coming from the west.
Lying close in the brushwood he could see them clearly. It was well
he had left the road, for they stuck to it, following every
winding-crouching, too, like hunters after deer. The first man he
saw was a Hellene, but the ranks behind were no Hellenes. There was no
glint of bronze or gleam of fair skin. They were dark, long-haired
fellows, with spears like his own, and round Eastern caps, and
egg-shaped bucklers. Then Atta rejoiced. It was the Great King who
was turning the flank of the Hellenes. They guarded the gate, the
fools, while the enemy slipped through the roof.
He did not rejoice long. The van of the army was narrow and kept
to the path, but the men behind were straggling all over the
hillside. Another minute and he would be discovered. The thought was
cheerless. It was true that he was an islander and friendly to the
Persian, but up on the heights who would listen to his tale? He would
be taken for a spy, and one of those thirsty spears would drink his
blood. It must be farewell to Delphi for the moment, he thought, or
farewell to Lemnos for ever. Crouching low, he ran back and away from
the path to the crest of the sea-ridge of Kallidromos.
The men came no nearer him. They were keeping roughly to the line
of the path, and drifted through the oak wood before him, an army
without end. He had scarcely thought there were so many fighting men
in the world. He resolved to lie there on the crest, in the hope that
ere the first light they would be gone. Then he would push on to
Delphi, leaving them to settle their quarrels behind him. These were
the hard times for a pious pilgrim.
But another noise caught his ear from the right. The army had
flanking squadrons, and men were coming along the ridge. Very bitter
anger rose in Atta's heart. He had cursed the Hellenes, and now he
cursed the Barbarians no less. Nay, he cursed all war, that spoiled
the errands of peaceful folk. And then, seeking safety, he dropped
over the crest on to the steep shoreward face of the mountain.
In an instant his breath had gone from him. He slid down a long
slope of screes, and then with a gasp found himself falling sheer
into space. Another second and he was caught in a tangle of bush,
and then dropped once more upon screes, where he clutched desperately
for handhold. Breathless and bleeding he came to anchor on a shelf of
greensward and found himself blinking up at the crest which seemed to
tower a thousand feet above. There were men on the crest now. He
heard them speak and felt that they were looking down.
The shock kept him still till the men had passed. Then the terror
of the place gripped him, and he tried feverishly to retrace his
steps. A dweller all his days among gentle downs, he grew dizzy with
the sense of being hung in space. But the only fruit of his efforts
was to set him slipping again. This time he pulled up at the root of
gnarled oak, which overhung the sheerest cliff on Kallidromos. The
danger brought his wits back. He sullenly reviewed his case, and
found it desperate.
He could not go back, and, even if he did, he would meet the
Persians. If he went on he would break his neck, or at the best fall
into the Hellenes' hands. Oddly enough he feared his old enemies less
than his friends. He did not think that the Hellenes would butcher
him. Again, he might sit perched in his eyrie till they settled their
quarrel, or he fell off. He rejected this last way. Fall off he
should for certain, unless he kept moving. Already he was retching
with the vertigo of the heights. It was growing lighter. Suddenly he
was looking not into a black world, but to a pearl-grey floor far
beneath him. It was the sea, the thing he knew and loved. The sight
screwed up his courage. He remembered that he was Lemnian and a
seafarer. He would be conquered neither by rock, nor by Hellene, nor
by the Great King. Least of all by the last, who was a barbarian.
Slowly, with clenched teeth and narrowed eyes, he began to clamber
down a ridge which flanked the great cliffs of Kallidromos. His plan
was to reach the shore and take the road to the east before the
Persians completed their circuit. Some instinct told him that a great
army would not take the track he had mounted by. There must be some
longer and easier way debouching farther down the coast. He might yet
have the good luck to slip between them and the sea.
The two hours which followed tried his courage hard. Thrice he
fell, and only a juniper-root stood between him and death. His hands
grew ragged, and his nails were worn to the quick. He had long ago
lost his weapons; his cloak was in shreds, all save the breast-fold
which held the gift to Apollo. The heavens brightened, but he dared
not look around. He knew he was traversing awesome places, where a
goat could scarcely tread. Many times he gave up hope of life. His
head was swimming, and he was so deadly sick that often he had to lie
gasping on some shoulder of rock less steep than the rest. But his
anger kept him to his purpose. He was filled with fury at the
Hellenes. It was they and their folly that had brought him these
mischances. Some day ....
He found himself sitting blinking on the shore of the sea. A
furlong off the water was lapping on the reefs. A man, larger than
human in the morning mist, was standing above him.
"Greeting, stranger," said the voice. "By Hermes, you choose the
difficult roads to travel."
Atta felt for broken bones, and, reassured, struggled to his feet.
"God's curse upon all mountains," he said. He staggered to the
edge of the tide and laved his brow. The savour of salt revived him.
He turned to find the tall man at his elbow, and noted how worn and
ragged he was, and yet how upright. "When a pigeon is flushed from
the rocks, there is a hawk near," said the voice.
Atta was angry. "A hawk!" he cried. "Nay, an army of eagles.
There will be some rare flushing of Hellenes before evening."
"What frightened you, Islander?" the stranger asked. "Did a wolf
bark up on the hillside?"
"Ay, a wolf. The wolf from the East with a multitude of
wolflings. There will be fine eating soon in the pass."
The man's face grew dark. He put his hand to his mouth and
called. Half a dozen sentries ran to join him. He spoke to them in
the harsh Lacedaemonian speech which made Atta sick to hear. They
talked with the back of the throat and there was not an "s" in their
"There is mischief in the hills," the first man said. "This
islander has been frightened down over the rocks. The Persian is
stealing a march on us."
The sentries laughed. One quoted a proverb about island courage.
Atta's wrath flared and he forgot himself. He had no wish to warn
the Hellenes, but it irked his pride to be thought a liar. He began to
tell his story hastily, angrily, confusedly; and the men still
Then he turned eastward and saw the proof before him. The light
had grown and the sun was coming up over Pelion. The first beam fell
on the eastern ridge of Kallidromos, and there, clear on the sky-line,
was the proof. The Persian was making a wide circuit, but moving
shoreward. In a little he would be at the coast, and by noon at the
His hearers doubted no more. Atta was hurried forward through the
lines of the Greeks to the narrow throat of the pass, where behind a
rough rampart of stones lay the Lacedaemonian headquarters. He was
still giddy from the heights, and it was in a giddy dream that he
traversed the misty shingles of the beach amid ranks of sleeping
warriors. It was a grim place, for there were dead and dying in it,
and blood on every stone. But in the lee of the wall little fires
were burning and slaves were cooking breakfast. The smell of roasting
flesh came pleasantly to his nostrils, and he remembered that he had
had no meal since he crossed the gulf.
Then he found himself the centre of a group who had the air of
kings. They looked as if they had been years in war. Never had he
seen faces so worn and so terribly scarred. The hollows in their
cheeks gave them the air of smiling, and yet they were grave. Their
scarlet vests were torn and muddled, and the armour which lay near was
dinted like the scrap-iron before a smithy door. But what caught his
attention were the eyes of the men. They glittered as no eyes he had
ever seen before glittered. The sight cleared his bewilderment and
took the pride out of his heart. He could not pretend to despise a
folk who looked like Ares fresh from the wars of the Immortals.
They spoke among themselves in quiet voices. Scouts came and
went, and once or twice one of the men, taller than the rest, asked
Atta a question. The Lemnian sat in the heart of the group, sniffing
the smell of cooking, and looking at the rents in his cloak and the
long scratches on his legs. Something was pressing on his breast, and
he found that it was Apollo's gift. He had forgotten all about it.
Delphi seemed beyond the moon, and his errand a child's dream.
Then the King, for so he thought of the tall man, spoke--
"You have done us a service, Islander. The Persian is at our back
and front, and there will be no escape for those who stay. Our allies
are going home, for they do not share our vows. We of Lacedaemon wait
in the pass. If you go with the men of Corinth you will find a place
of safety before noon. No doubt in the Euripus there is some boat to
take you to your own land."
He spoke courteously, not in the rude Athenian way; and somehow
the quietness of his voice and his glittering eyes roused wild
longings in Atta's heart. His island pride was face to face with a
greater-greater than he had ever dreamed of.
"Bid yon cooks give me some broth," he said gruffly. "I am faint.
After I have eaten I will speak with you."
He was given food, and as he ate he thought. He was on trial
before these men of Lacedaemon. More, the old faith of the islands,
the pride of the first masters, was at stake in his hands. He had
boasted that he and his kind were the last of the men; now these
Hellenes of Lacedaemon were preparing a great deed, and they deemed
him unworthy to share in it. They offered him safety. Could he brook
the insult? He had forgotten that the cause of the Persian was his;
that the Hellenes were the foes of his race. He saw only that the
last test of manhood was preparing and the manhood in him rose to
greet the trial. An odd wild ecstasy surged in his veins. It was not
the lust of battle, for he had no love of slaying, or hate for the
Persian, for he was his friend. It was the sheer joy of proving that
the Lemnian stock had a starker pride than these men of Lacedamon.
They would die for their fatherland, and their vows; but he, for a
whim, a scruple, a delicacy of honour. His mind was so clear that no
other course occurred to him. There was only one way for a man. He,
too, would be dying for his fatherland, for through him the island
race would be ennobled in the eyes of gods and men.
Troops were filing fast to the east--Thebans, Corinthians. "Time
flies, Islander," said the King's voice. "The hours of safety are
slipping past." Atta looked up carelessly. "I will stay," he said.
"God's curse on all Hellenes! Little I care for your quarrels. It
is nothing to me if your Hellas is under the heels of the East. But I
care much for brave men. It shall never be said that a man of Lemnos,
a son of the old race, fell back when Death threatened. I stay with
you, men of Lacedaemon.
The King's eyes glittered; they seemed to peer into his heart.
"It appears they breed men in the islands," he said. "But you
err. Death does not threaten. Death awaits us.
"It is all one," said Atta. "But I crave a boon. Let me fight my
last fight by your side. I am of older stock than you, and a king in
my own country. I would strike my last blow among kings."
There was an hour of respite before battle was joined, and Atta
spent it by the edge of the sea. He had been given arms, and in
girding himself for the fight he had found Apollo's offering in his
breastfold. He was done with the gods of the Hellenes. His offering
should go to the gods of his own people. So, calling upon Poseidon,
he flung the little gold cup far out to sea. It flashed in the
sunlight, and then sank in the soft green tides so noiselessly that it
seemed as if the hand of the Sea-god had been stretched to take it.
"Hail, Poseidon!" the Lemnian cried. "I am bound this day for the
Ferryman. To you only I make prayer, and to the little Hermes of
Larisa. Be kind to my kin when they travel the sea, and keep them
islanders and seafarers for ever. Hail and farewell, God of my own
Then, while the little waves lapped on the white sand, Atta made a
song. He was thinking of the homestead far up in the green downs,
looking over to the snows of Samothrace. At this hour in the morning
there would be a tinkle of sheep-bells as the flocks went down to the
low pastures. Cool wind would be blowing, and the noise of the surf
below the cliffs would come faint to the ear. In the hall the maids
mould be spinning, while their dark-haired mistress would be casting
swift glances to the doorway, lest it might be filled any moment by
the form of her returning lord. Outside in the chequered sunlight of
the orchard the child would be playing with his nurse, crooning in
childish syllables the chanty his father had taught him. And at the
thought of his home a great passion welled up in Atta's heart. It was
not regret, but joy and pride and aching love. In his antique island
creed the death he was awaiting was not other than a bridal. He was
dying for the things he loved, and by his death they would be blessed
eternally. He would not have long to wait before bright eyes came to
greet him in the House of Shadows.
So Atta made the Song of Atta, and sang it then, and later in the
press of battle. It was a simple song, like the lays of seafarers.
It put into rough verse the thought which cheers the heart of all
adventurers--nay, which makes adventure possible for those who have
much to leave. It spoke of the shining pathway of the sea which is
the Great Uniter. A man may lie dead in Pontus or beyond the Pillars
of Herakles, but if he dies on the shore there is nothing between him
and his fatherland. It spoke of a battle all the long dark night in a
strange place--a place of marshes and black cliffs and shadowy
"In the dawn the sweet light comes," said the song, "and the salt
winds and the tides will bear me home..."
When in the evening the Persians took toll of the dead, they found
one man who puzzled them. He lay among the tall Lacedaemonians on the
very lip of the sea, and around him were swathes of their countrymen.
It looked as if he had been fighting his way to the water, and had
been overtaken by death as his feet reached the edge. Nowhere in the
pass did the dead lie so thick, and yet he was no Hellene. He was
torn like a deer that the dogs have worried, but the little left of
his garments and his features spoke of Eastern race. The survivors
could tell nothing except that he had fought like a god and had been
singing all the while.
The matter came to the ear of the Great King who was sore enough
at the issue of the day. That one of his men had performed feats of
valeur beyond the Hellenes was a pleasant tale to tell. And so his
captains reported it. Accordingly when the fleet from Artemision
arrived next morning, and all but a few score Persians were shovelled
into holes, that the Hellenes might seem to have been conquered by a
lesser force, Atta's body was laid out with pomp in the midst of the
Lacedaemonians. And the seamen rubbed their eyes and thanked their
strange gods that one man of the East had been found to match those
terrible warriors whose name was a nightmare. Further, the Great King
gave orders that the body of Atta should be embalmed and carried with
the army, and that his name and kin should be sought out and duly
honoured. This latter was a task too hard for the staff, and no more
was heard of it till months later, when the King, in full flight
after Salamis, bethought him of the one man who had not played him
false. Finding that his lieutenants had nothing to tell him, he eased
five of them of their heads.
As it happened, the deed was not quite forgotten. An islander, a
Lesbian and a cautious man, had fought at Therrnopylae in the Persian
ranks, and had heard Atta's singing and seen how he fell. Long
afterwards some errand took this man to Lemnos, and in the evening,
speaking with the Elders, he told his tale and repeated something of
the song. There was that in the words which gave the Lemnians a clue,
the mention, I think, of the olive-wood Hermes and the snows of
Samothrace. So Atta came to great honour among his own people, and
his memory and his words were handed down to the generations. The
song became a favourite island lay, and for centuries throughout the
Aegean seafaring men sang it when they turned their prows to wild
seas. Nay, it travelled farther, for you will find part of it stolen
by Euripides and put in a chorus of the Andromache. There are echoes
of it in some of the epigrams of the Anthology; and, though the old
days have gone, the simple fisher-folk still sing snatches in their
barbarous dialect. The Klephts used to make a catch of it at night
round their fires in the hills, and only the other day I met a man in
Scyros who had collected a dozen variants, and was publishing them in
a dull book on island folklore.
In the centuries which followed the great fight, the sea fell away
from the roots of the cliffs and left a mile of marshland. About fifty
years ago a peasant, digging in a rice-field, found the cup which Atta
bad given to Poseidon. There was much talk about the discovery, and
scholars debated hotly about its origin. To-day it is in the Berlin
Museum, and according to the new fashion in archaeology it is labelled
"Minoan," and kept in the Cretan Section. But any one who looks
carefully will see behind the rim a neat little carving of a dolphin;
and I happen to know that that was the private badge of Atta's house.