Harper's Round Table, May 12, 1896
Copyright, 1896, by Harper & Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
|published weekly.||NEW YORK, TUESDAY, MAY 12, 1896.||five cents a copy.|
|vol. xvii.—no. 863.||two dollars a year.|
A WILD-OLIVE WREATH
BY S. SCOVILLE, JUN.
Thronged to the gates is the little town of Elis on this the nightbefore the Olympic Games. Here are present not only men of every Greciancity and province, but strange wanderers from the uttermost corners ofthe world have assembled to view the games that honor the Ruler of theGods.
Far away across the plain—so far that the many-voiced tumult of thecrowded city is but an echo—in dark silence stand the sacred olivegroves. Against the grayish-green foliage gleam the white tents of theathletes, chosen from all Greece, who are to compete on the morrow.Close to where towers the vast temple of Olympian Zeus, the world-wonderthat Lidon made, is a little group of tents that shelter the men ofCroton, famed for the might of her athletes. One of all the competitorslies wakeful. Dion, the son of Glaucus, gazes from his couch withwide-open eyes out into the night, sees the glimmer of the stars throughthe flickering leaves, listens to the whisper of the boughs overhead,and sleeps not. On the morrow he, a youth of eighteen, is to run in thedolichos, the hardest race of the games. His breath comes in gasps andthe blood drums in the boy's ears as for the hundredth time in fancy heruns his race. The horrible waiting, the strain of suspense, haveunnerved many an athlete more seasoned than Dion. A short hour before,Hippomaches, the grizzled old trainer of Croton, had made a final visitto see that all was well with his charges. Close on his departure cameGlaucus, the boy's father, a man well past three score, yet with massiveframe seemingly untouched by time as when, forty-four years ago, themighty Milo of Syracuse had fallen before him under such a deadlycestus-stroke that the "blow of Glaucus" passed into a proverb. Dion,who had inherited the slighter frame and almost girlish beauty of aThessalian mother, has always felt more of awe than affection for hissilent Lacedśmonian[Pg 670] father, little knowing what a wealth of love forhis latest-born the grim old Spartan concealed under his impassivecoldness.
To-night Glaucus stands for long without speaking, gazing down at hisson, while the stern, unflinching eyes become very soft. Then, to theamazement of Dion, the hand that for nine Olympiads had won the wreathfrom the world's mightiest rests on his yellow hair, tenderly as awoman's.
"Dion, my son," and the deep voice trembles a little, "thou knowest howthat our blood has ever brought glory to Croton. That the statues of thygrandfather, thy father, and thy two brothers all stand in this groveamong the winners of Olympiads. Now thy turn hath come. Oh, my son, myson, for the love thy father bears thee, for the honor of city andblood, win the wreath to-morrow!"—and Glaucus is gone.
Through the black tree-trunks steals a wavering glow from where the lonepriestess of Hestia tends the eternal flame that forever burns on thePrytaneum. From either side of Dion's tent he hears the deep, regularbreathing of his twin brothers, men of tremendous strength and staturelike to their father, who have won fame almost equal to his—one as awrestler, the other as a boxer. Veterans are they in many a hard-foughtcontest at the great games—Olympic, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian—and,certain of success, rest untroubled by any feverish imaginings.
Dion's thoughts go back to that Olympiad in which his brothers scored adouble victory for Croton. Before the silent multitude that day Glaucusblessed his sons for the glory they had brought him.
Every honor was heaped on the winners that Greece had to bestow. Worldpoets and singers gave of their genius to adorn the names of the sons ofGlaucus. Phidias himself made them immortal in snowy marble. The journeyhomeward was one long series of triumphs; and when at last theOlympiad-winners reached distant Croton, a breach was made through thesolid masonry of the city wall for their entry, no mere gatewaysufficing. Met by the assembled Council of Croton, they were formallyinstalled in the Prytaneum as guests of the city for life.
And Dion, still thrilling at the remembrance of that day, falls asleep.
In the gray hour just before dawn Hippomaches rouses the boy from anuneasy slumber, and then with the clear oil rubs out every trace ofstiffness from the lithe polished limbs of his charge. The nude youthstands in his manly beauty like a statue to Speed carved in ivory, hiswhite skin crimson-tinged where the friction has brought the warm bloodto the surface, while the coiling muscles ripple with every movementacross the slim sinewy frame, from which years of training have takenaway every ounce of useless fat.
"Ah, my lad," exclaims the old trainer, admiringly, as he gives thewhite back a farewell pat, "you are fit to-day to run a brave race forold Croton; and forget not all I have taught you!"
Dion dresses, and after a hurried meal proceeds to the temple, there totake the oath of the games—that he is qualified to run, and will use noguile in his race. Thence they go to the MetroŲn, rich with itstreasures of art, to await the triple trumpet-note that shall announcethe dolichos. For there are three races to be run this day—two shortones, the aulos and diaulos, and lastly the terrible dolichos, in whichthe runner covers the course twenty times. During the weary waitingHippomaches heartens the boy by stories of the performances of hisgrandfather and father in Olympiads long past. The sun is well up beforethe first races are over, and the shrill trumpet-tones give the signalfor the last of the running events.
At the northwestern corner of the Altis, by the station-entrance thatonly judges and competitors are privileged to use, the two separate, andHippomaches hastens away to take his place among the men of Croton, whohave their station near the base of the hill Kronion. Dion, with a crowdof other competitors, passes through the vaulted tunnel between longlines of brazen Zanes, and finds himself on the stadion in the fullglare of the early sunlight. The heights around are thronged far as theeye can see with a vast crowd. To-day Dion runs before an assembledworld. The long straight expanse of the stadion stretches before him. Ateither end are sunken slabs of white marble. Ten times must a runnertouch each block to cover the full twenty courses. High above the stonewhich marks both start and finish are ranged the ten Hellenodikś, thejudges, while on the opposite side the white-faced priestess of DemeterChamyrne sits alone—the only woman whose eyes may behold the games.
A great hush has fallen on the multitude as the competitors take theplaces assigned them by lot. It is broken by the voice of the herald.
"Let him that knows of any stain on the life or blood of a competitorspeak now!" it thunders. A moment of tense silence, and then——"Letevery runner place his feet on the mark!" echoes along the hill-side.
Each nude figure bends forward; a clear trumpet-note, and they are away,a rushing mass of bodies that gleam in the sunlight.
A little apart from the crowd in the seats of honor sit Glaucus, histwin sons—whose events do not come until late afternoon—andHippomaches, the trainer.
"'Tis an easy game, this running," remarks one of the twins, the boxer,a little disdainfully.
"I say to you, oh winner with the cestus," Hippomaches responds,sternly, "that the most grievous blows on the palśstra are not to becompared with the suffering of the last five courses of the dolichos!"
But Glaucus hears nothing of this, nothing of the ejaculations andmurmurs of excitement, pleasure, and disappointment that sound from allthe throng. But for one thing has he eyes—a slim lithe figure far inthe rear of the others, yet which moves with a smooth effortless gaitlike the swoop of a swallow. His iron grip tightens like a vise on thetrainer's shoulder. "I know little of contests wherein men trust totheir feet," he mutters. "Why lags the boy so far behind? He—he is notlosing heart?"
"Watch the first turning, O Glaucus, and thou wilt see why Dion holdsback," Hippomaches answers, grimly. "'Tis the bitter stadia that comeslast by which thy son's courage will be proven."
Now the crowd of runners are at the end of the first course. The madnessof the race is upon most of the novices. Forgetting the long stadia thatcome after, they strain every muscle to be the first to touch the whitestone, and, instantly turning, retrace their course. In the wild jostlethat results, Polymnestor, the Platśan runner, is thrown headlong, andthough he rises instantly, and limpingly follows the others, never isthe lost ground regained. A little group of the older runners, includingDion, who races with all the judgment of a veteran, have held back, andnow, avoiding the returning rush, complete the course with no danger ofinterference, and are soon close upon the heels of the leaders.
It is to this little group that the knowing ones look for the winner.There is Philoctetes, the Spartan, a grim, black-bearded man in theprime of life, who won the dolichos at the last Olympiad. Near him areformidable rivals—Listhenes, Athens's speediest runner, who defeatedPhiloctetes by a desperate effort at the recent Nemean Games, andAntenor of Corinth, the winner of the event at the Pythian Games, isjust at his shoulder. Then come two runners from distant provinces inAsia, who are rumored to have done marvellous racing over their nativestadia. Back of them all is Dion, with the smouldering flame in his eyesand the long graceful stride. At the end of the second course the samescene of confusion is repeated, and two more runners go down. Stadionafter stadion are traversed, and slowly the leaders drop back. By theend of the tenth the six that had brought up the rear are now in thevan. Another course, and they begin to draw away from those who haveexhausted their strength during the first half of the race. At lastthere are but five stadia more—the stadia in which the real race isrun, the stadia that are the supreme test of a runner's courage andendurance.
Hippomaches tugs at his grizzled beard excitedly. "Fourteen Olympiandolichoi have I seen run in my day," he exclaims[Pg 671] to Glaucus, "but nevera faster than this. Flesh and blood cannot stand that pace much longer;some one will drop soon, and—the gods send it be not our Dion!"
Philoctetes is in the lead. His teeth are clinched, and the foam lieswhite on his black beard. A fit embodiment is he of the grimLacedśmonian spirit which is yet to dominate all Greece. Faster andfaster he runs, hoping to exhaust his rival from hated Athens—noneother does he fear. A deep-throated roar of encouragement rises from thetiers of stern-faced, impassive Spartans as their champion flashes pastthem. Shrill cries come from the excitable Greeks of the Asiaticprovinces as they cheer on their representatives, who are beginning towaver. But it is vain. Very different is an Olympic dolichos from anyrace of the provinces, and though struggling desperately, they dropback, unable longer to stand the tremendous strain. One stadion, twostadia, are passed, and the third begun, nor does Philoctetes falteraught in his even, rapid gait. Right at his shoulder glare the eyes ofListhenes, who would gladly give his life this day that Athens mightwin. There is a great hush as the runners traverse the third course. Thesupreme moment of the race is drawing nigh. All