WebNovel Children's Literature Part 183

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Our attic was finished, and its sole entrance was by a ladder through a trap-door. At James’s whispered command my sister Eleanor slipped up into the attic, and from the back window let down a rope, to which he tied all the weapons we had–his gun and several axes. These Eleanor drew up and concealed in one of the bunks. My brother then directed that as quietly as possible, and at long intervals, one member of the family after another was to slip up the ladder and into the attic, going quite casually, that the Indians might not realize what we were doing. Once there, with the ladder drawn up after us and the trap-door closed, we would be reasonably safe, unless our guests decided to burn the cabin.

The evening seemed endless, and was certainly nerve-racking. The Indians ate everything in the house, and from my seat in a dim corner I watched them while my sisters waited on them. I can still see the tableau they made in the firelit room and hear the unfamiliar accents of their speech as they talked together. Occasionally one of them would pull a hair from his head, seize his scalping-knife, and cut the hair with it–a most unpleasant sight! When either of my sisters approached them some of the Indians would make gestures, as if capturing and scalping her. Through it all, however, the whisky held their close attention, and it was due to this that we succeeded in reaching the attic un.o.bserved, James coming last of all and drawing the ladder after him. Mother and the children were then put to bed; but through that interminable night James and Eleanor lay flat upon the floor, watching through the cracks between the boards the revels of the drunken Indians, which grew wilder with every hour that crawled toward sunrise. There was no knowing when they would miss us or how soon their mood might change. At any moment they might make an attack upon us or set fire to the cabin. By dawn, however, their whisky was all gone, and they were in so deep a stupor that, one after the other, the seven fell from their chairs to the floor, where they sprawled unconscious. When they awoke they left quietly and without trouble of any kind. They seemed a strangely subdued and chastened band; probably they were wretchedly ill after their debauch on the adulterated whisky the traders had given them.

That autumn the Ottawa tribe had a great corn celebration, to which we and the other settlers were invited. James and my older sisters attended it, and I went with them, by my own urgent invitation. It seemed to me that as I was sharing the work and the perils of our new environment, I might as well share its joys; and I finally succeeded in making my family see the logic of this position. The central feature of the festivity was a huge kettle, many feet in circ.u.mference, into which the Indians dropped the most extraordinary variety of food we had ever seen combined. Deer heads went into it whole, as well as every kind of meat and vegetable the members of the tribe could procure. We all ate some of this agreeable mixture, and later, with one another, and even with the Indians, we danced gaily to the music of a tom-tom and a drum. The affair was extremely interesting until the whisky entered and did its unpleasant work. When our hosts began to fall over in the dance and slumber where they lay, and when the squaws began to show the same ill effects of their refreshments, we unostentatiously slipped away.

During the winter, life offered us few diversions and many hardships.

Our creek froze over, and the water problem became a serious one, which we met with increasing difficulty as the temperature steadily fell. We melted snow and ice, and existed through the frozen months, but with an amount of discomfort which made us unwilling to repeat at least that special phase of our experience. In the spring, therefore, I made a well. Long before this, James had gone, and Harry and I were now the only out-door members of our working-force. Harry was still too small to help with the well; but a young man, who had formed the neighborly habit of riding eighteen miles to call on us, gave me much friendly aid. We located the well with a switch, and when we had dug as far as we could reach with our spades, my a.s.sistant descended into the hole and threw the earth up to the edge, from which I in turn removed it. As the well grew deeper we made a halfway shelf, on which I stood, he throwing the earth on the shelf, and I shoveling it up from that point. Later, as he descended still farther into the hole we were making, he shoveled the earth into buckets and pa.s.sed them up to me, I pa.s.sing them on to my sister, who was now pressed into service. When the excavation was deep enough we made the wall of slabs of wood, roughly joined together. I recall that well with calm content. It was not a thing of beauty, but it was a thoroughly practical well, and it remained the only one we had during the twelve years the family occupied the cabin.

The second spring after our arrival Harry and I extended our operations by tapping the sugar-bushes, collecting all the sap, and carrying it home in pails slung from our yoke-laden shoulders. Together we made one hundred and fifty pounds of sugar and a barrel of syrup, but here again, as always, we worked in primitive ways. To get the sap we chopped a gash in the tree and drove in a spile. Then we dug out a trough to catch the sap. It was no light task to lift these troughs full of sap and empty the sap into buckets, but we did it successfully, and afterward built fires and boiled it down. By this time we had also cleared some of our ground, and during the spring we were able to plow, dividing the work in a way that seemed fair to us both. These were strenuous occupations for a boy of nine and a girl of thirteen, but, though we were not inordinately good children, we never complained; we found them very satisfactory subst.i.tutes for more normal bucolic joys. Inevitably, we had our little tragedies. Our cow died, and for an entire winter we went without milk. Our coffee soon gave out, and as a subst.i.tute we made and used a mixture of browned peas and burnt rye. In the winter we were always cold, and the water problem, until we had built our well, was ever with us.

When I was fifteen years old I was offered a situation as school-teacher. By this time the community was growing around us with the rapidity characteristic of these Western settlements, and we had nearer neighbors whose children needed instruction. I pa.s.sed an examination before a school-board consisting of three nervous and self-conscious men whose certificate I still hold, and I at once began my professional career on the modest salary of two dollars a week and my board. The school was four miles from my home, so I “boarded round” with the families of my pupils, staying two weeks in each place, and often walking from three to six miles a day to and from my little log school-house in every kind of weather. During the first year I had about fourteen pupils, of varying ages, sizes, and temperaments, and there was hardly a book in the schoolroom except those I owned. One little girl, I remembered, read from an almanac, while a second used a hymn-book.

In winter the school-house was heated by a wood-stove to which the teacher had to give close personal attention. I could not depend on my pupils to make the fires or carry in the fuel; and it was often necessary to fetch the wood myself, sometimes for long distances through the forest. Again and again, after miles of walking through winter storms, I reached the school-house with my clothing wet through, and in these soaked garments I taught during the day. In “boarding round” I often found myself in one-room cabins, with bunks at the end and the sole part.i.tion a sheet or a blanket, behind which I slept with one or two of the children. It was the custom on these occasions for the man of the house to delicately retire to the barn while we women got to bed, and to disappear again in the morning while we dressed. In some places the meals were so badly cooked that I could not eat them, and often the only food my poor little pupils brought to school for their noonday meal was a piece of bread or a bit of raw pork.


Hero stories have a special place in the literature of childhood, and of all such stories none has ever surpa.s.sed that of Leonidas and his brave Spartans. The account of that famous event is given from Miss Yonge’s _A Book of Golden Deeds_ (1864), which is yet one of the best storehouses of hero stories. It is published in a variety of editions by different publishers, and teachers will find it an excellent source for usable material.



_B. C. 430_

There was trembling in Greece. “The Great King,” as the Greeks called the chief potentate of the East, whose domains stretched from the Indian Caucasus to the Aegaeus, from the Caspian to the Red Sea, was marshaling his forces against the little free states that nestled amid the rocks and gulfs of the Eastern Mediterranean. Already had his might devoured the cherished colonies of the Greeks on the eastern sh.o.r.e of the Archipelago, and every traitor to home inst.i.tutions found a ready asylum at that despotic court, and tried to revenge his own wrongs by whispering incitements to invasion. “All people, nations, and languages,” was the commencement of the decrees of that monarch’s court; and it was scarcely a vain boast, for his satraps ruled over subject kingdoms, and among his tributary nations he counted the Chaldean, with his learning and old civilization, the wise and steadfast Jew, the skillful Ph[oe]nician, the learned Egyptian, the wild freebooting Arab of the desert, the dark-skinned Ethiopian, and over all these ruled the keen witted, active native Persian race, the conquerors of all the rest, and led by a chosen band proudly called the Immortal. His many capitals–Babylon the great, Susa, Persepolis, and the like–were names of dreamy splendor to the Greeks, described now and then by Ionians from Asia Minor who had carried their tribute to the King’s own feet, or by courtier slaves who had escaped with difficulty from being all too serviceable at the tyrannic court. And the lord of this enormous empire was about to launch his countless host against the little cl.u.s.ter of states, the whole of which together would hardly equal one province of the huge Asiatic realm! Moreover, it was a war not only on the men but on their G.o.ds. The Persians were zealous adorers of the sun and of fire, they abhorred the idol-worship of the Greeks, and defiled and plundered every temple that fell in their way. Death and desolation were almost the best that could be looked for at such hands–slavery and torture from cruelly barbarous masters would only too surely be the lot of numbers, should their land fall a prey to the conquerors.

True it was that ten years back the former Great King had sent his best troops to be signally defeated upon the coast of Attica; but the losses at Marathon had but stimulated the Persian l.u.s.t of conquest, and the new King Xerxes was gathering together such myriads of men as should crush down the Greeks and overrun their country by mere force of numbers.

The muster place was at Sardis, and there Greek spies had seen the mult.i.tudes a.s.sembling and the state and magnificence of the king’s attendants. Envoys had come from him to demand earth and water from each state in Greece, as emblems that land and sea were his, but each state was resolved to be free, and only Thessaly, that which lay first in his path, consented to yield the token of subjugation. A council was held at the Isthmus of Corinth, and attended by deputies from all the states of Greece to consider of the best means of defense. The ships of the enemy would coast round the sh.o.r.es of the Aegean sea, the land army would cross the h.e.l.lespont on a bridge of boats lashed together, and march southwards into Greece. The only hope of averting the danger lay in defending such pa.s.sages as, from the nature of the ground, were so narrow that only a few persons could fight hand to hand at once, so that courage would be of more avail than numbers.

The first of these pa.s.ses was called Tempe, and a body of troops was sent to guard it; but they found that this was useless and impossible, and came back again. The next was at Thermopylae. Look in your map of the Archipelago, or Aegean Sea, as it was then called, for the great island of Negropont, or by its old name, Eub[oe]a. It looks like a piece broken off from the coast, and to the north is shaped like the head of a bird, with the beak running into a gulf, that would fit over it, upon the main land, and between the island and the coast is an exceedingly narrow strait. The Persian army would have to march round the edge of the gulf. They could not cut straight across the country, because the ridge of mountains called Oeta rose up and barred their way. Indeed, the woods, rocks, and precipices came down so near the sea-sh.o.r.e that in two places there was only room for one single wheel track between the steeps and the impa.s.sable mora.s.s that formed the border of the gulf on its south side. These two very narrow places were called the gates of the pa.s.s, and were about a mile apart. There was a little more width left in the intervening s.p.a.ce; but in this there were a number of springs of warm mineral water, salt and sulphurous, which were used for the sick to bathe in, and thus the place was called Thermopylae, or the Hot Gates. A wall had once been built across the westernmost of these narrow places, when the Thessalians and Phocians, who lived on either side of it, had been at war with one another; but it had been allowed to go to decay, since the Phocians had found out that there was a very steep narrow mountain path along the bed of a torrent, by which it was possible to cross from one territory to the other without going round this marshy coast road.

This was, therefore, an excellent place to defend. The Greek ships were all drawn up on the further side of Eub[oe]a to prevent the Persian vessels from getting into the strait and landing men beyond the pa.s.s, and a division of the army was sent off to guard the Hot Gates. The council at the Isthmus did not know of the mountain pathway, and thought that all would be safe as long as the Persians were kept out of the coast path.

The troops sent for this purpose were from different cities, and amounted to about 4,000 who were to keep the pa.s.s against two millions.

The leader of them was Leonidas, who had newly become one of the two kings of Sparta, the city that above all in Greece trained its sons to be hardy soldiers, dreading death infinitely less than shame. Leonidas had already made up his mind that the expedition would probably be his death, perhaps because a prophecy had been given at the Temple at Delphi that Sparta should be saved by the death of one of her kings of the race of Hercules. He was allowed by law to take with him 300 men, and these he chose most carefully, not merely for their strength and courage, but selecting those who had sons, so that no family might altogether be destroyed. These Spartans, with their helots or slaves, made up his own share of the numbers, but all the army was under his generalship. It is even said that the 300 celebrated their own funeral rites before they set out lest they should be deprived of them by the enemy, since, as we have already seen, it was the Greek belief that the spirits of the dead found no rest till their obsequies had been performed. Such preparations did not daunt the spirits of Leonidas and his men, and his wife, Gorgo, was not a woman to be faint-hearted or hold him back. Long before, when she was a very little girl, a word of hers had saved her father from listening to a traitorous message from the King of Persia; and every Spartan lady was bred up to be able to say to those she best loved that they must come home from battle “with the shield or on it”–either carrying it victoriously or borne upon it as a corpse.

When Leonidas came to Thermopylae, the Phocians told him of the mountain path through the chestnut woods of Mount Oeta, and begged to have the privilege of guarding it on a spot high up on the mountain side, a.s.suring him that it was very hard to find at the other end, and that there was every probability that the enemy would never discover it. He consented, and encamping around the warm springs, caused the broken wall to be repaired, and made ready to meet the foe.

The Persian army were seen covering the whole country like locusts, and the hearts of some of the southern Greeks in the pa.s.s began to sink.

Their homes in the Peloponnesus were comparatively secure–had they not better fall back and reserve themselves to defend the Isthmus of Corinth? But Leonidas, though Sparta was safe below the Isthmus, had no intention of abandoning his northern allies, and kept the other Peloponnesians to their posts, only sending messengers for further help.

Presently a Persian on horseback rode up to reconnoiter the pa.s.s. He could not see over the wall, but in front of it and on the ramparts, he saw the Spartans, some of them engaged in active sports, and others in combing their long hair. He rode back to the king, and told him what he had seen. Now, Xerxes had in his camp an exiled Spartan Prince, named Demaratus, who had become a traitor to his country, and was serving as counselor to the enemy. Xerxes sent for him, and asked whether his countrymen were mad to be thus employed instead of fleeing away; but Demaratus made answer that a hard fight was no doubt in preparation, and that it was the custom of the Spartans to array their hair with especial care when they were about to enter upon any great peril. Xerxes would, however, not believe that so petty a force could intend to resist him, and waited four days, probably expecting his fleet to a.s.sist him, but as it did not appear, the attack was made.

The Greeks, stronger men and more heavily armed, were far better able to fight to advantage than the Persians with their short spears and wicker shields, and beat them off with great ease. It is said that Xerxes three times leapt off his throne in despair at the sight of his troops being driven backwards; and thus for two days it seemed as easy to force a way through the Spartans as through the rocks themselves. Nay, how could slavish troops, dragged from home to spread the victories of an ambitious king, fight like freemen who felt that their strokes were to defend their homes and children?

But on that evening a wretched man, named Ephialtes, crept into the Persian camp, and offered, for a great sum of money, to show the mountain path that would enable the enemy to take the brave defenders in the rear! A Persian general, named Hydarnes, was sent off at night-fall with a detachment to secure this pa.s.sage, and was guided through the thick forests that clothed the hillside. In the stillness of the air, at daybreak, the Phocian guards of the path were startled by the crackling of the chestnut leaves under the tread of many feet. They started up, but a shower of arrows was discharged on them, and forgetting all save the present alarm, they fled to a higher part of the mountain, and the enemy, without waiting to pursue them, began to descend.

As day dawned, morning light showed the watchers of the Grecian camp below a glittering and shimmering in the torrent bed where the s.h.a.ggy forests opened; but it was not the sparkle of water, but the shine of gilded helmets and the gleaming of silvered spears. Moreover, a Cimmerian crept over to the wall from the Persian camp with tidings that the path had been betrayed, that the enemy were climbing it, and would come down beyond the Eastern Gate. Still, the way was rugged and circuitous, the Persians would hardly descend before midday, and there was ample time for the Greeks to escape before they could thus be shut in by the enemy.

There was a short council held over the morning sacrifice. Megistias, the seer, on inspecting the entrails of the slain victim, declared, as well he might, that their appearance boded disaster. Him Leonidas ordered to retire, but he refused, though he sent home his only son.

There was no disgrace to an ordinary tone of mind in leaving a post that could not be held, and Leonidas recommended all the allied troops under his command to march away while yet the way was open. As to himself and his Spartans, they had made up their minds to die at their post, and there could be no doubt that the example of such a resolution would do more to save Greece than their best efforts could ever do if they were careful to reserve themselves for another occasion.

All the allies consented to retreat, except the eighty men who came from Mycenae and the 700 Thespians, who declared that they would not desert Leonidas. There were also 400 Thebans who remained; and thus the whole number that stayed with Leonidas to confront two million of enemies were 1400 warriors, besides the helots or attendants on the 300 Spartans, whose number is not known, but there was probably at least one to each.

Leonidas had two kinsmen in the camp, like himself, claiming the blood of Hercules, and he tried to save them by giving them letters and messages to Sparta; but one answered that “he had come to fight, not to carry letters”; and the other, that “his deeds would tell all that Sparta wished to know.” Another Spartan, named Dienices, when told that the enemy’s archers were so numerous that their arrows darkened the sun, replied, “So much the better, we shall fight in the shade.” Two of the 300 had been sent to a neighboring village, suffering severely from a complaint in the eyes. One of them, called Eurytus, put on his armor, and commanded his helot to lead him to his place in the ranks; the other, called Aristodemus, was so overpowered with illness that he allowed himself to be carried away with the retreating allies. It was still early in the day when all were gone, and Leonidas gave the word to his men to take their last meal. “To-night,” he said, “we shall sup with Pluto.”

Hitherto, he had stood on the defensive, and had husbanded the lives of his men; but he now desired to make as great a slaughter as possible, so as to inspire the enemy with dread of the Grecian name. He therefore marched out beyond the wall, without waiting to be attacked, and the battle began. The Persian captains went behind their wretched troops and scourged them on to the fight with whips! Poor wretches, they were driven on to be slaughtered, pierced with the Greek spears, hurled into the sea, or trampled into the mud of the mora.s.s; but their inexhaustible numbers told at length. The spears of the Greeks broke under hard service, and their swords alone remained; they began to fall, and Leonidas himself was among the first of the slain. Hotter than ever was the fight over his corpse, and two Persian princes, brothers of Xerxes, were there killed; but at length word was brought that Hydarnes was over the pa.s.s, and that the few remaining men were thus enclosed on all sides. The Spartans and Thespians made their way to a little hillock within the wall, resolved to let this be the place of their last stand; but the hearts of the Thebans failed them, and they came towards the Persians holding out their hands in entreaty for mercy. Quarter was given to them, but they were all branded with the king’s mark as untrustworthy deserters. The helots probably at this time escaped into the mountains; while the small desperate band stood side by side on the hill still fighting to the last, some with swords, others with daggers, others even with their hands and teeth, till not one living man remained amongst them when the sun went down. There was only a mound of slain, bristled over with arrows.

Twenty thousand Persians had died before that handful of men! Xerxes asked Demaratus if there were many more at Sparta like these, and was told there were 8,000. It must have been with a somewhat failing heart that he invited his courtiers from the fleet to see what he had done to the men who dared to oppose him, and showed them the head and arm of Leonidas set up upon a cross; but he took care that all his own slain, except 1,000, should first be put out of sight. The body of the brave king was buried where he fell, as were those of the other dead. Much envied were they by the unhappy Aristodemus, who found himself called by no name but the “Coward,” and was shunned by all his fellow-citizens. No one would give him fire or water, and after a year of misery, he redeemed his honor by perishing in the forefront of the battle of Plataea, which was the last blow that drove the Persians ingloriously from Greece.

The Greeks then united in doing honor to the brave warriors who, had they been better supported, might have saved the whole country from invasion. The poet Simonides wrote the inscriptions that were engraved upon the pillars that were set up in the pa.s.s to commemorate this great action. One was outside the wall, where most of the fighting had been.

It seems to have been in honor of the whole number who had for two days resisted–

“Here did four thousand men from Pelops’ land Against three hundred myriads bravely stand.”

In honor of the Spartans was another column–

“Go, traveler, to Sparta tell That here, obeying her, we fell.”

On the little hillock of the last resistance was placed the figure of a stone lion, in memory of Leonidas, so fitly named the lion-like; and Simonides, at his own expense, erected a pillar to his friend, the seer Megistias–

“The great Megistias’ tomb you here may view, Who slew the Medes, fresh from Spercheius fords; Well the wise seer the coming death foreknew, Yet scorn’d he to forsake his Spartan lords.”

The names of the 300 were likewise engraven on a pillar at Sparta.

Lion, pillars, and inscriptions have all long since pa.s.sed away, even the very spot itself has changed; new soil has been formed, and there are miles of solid ground between Mount Oeta and the gulf, so that the Hot Gates no longer exist. But more enduring than stone or bra.s.s–nay, than the very battle-field itself–has been the name of Leonidas. Two thousand three hundred years have sped since he braced himself to perish for his country’s sake in that narrow, marshy coast road, under the brow of the wooded crags, with the sea by his side. Since that time how many hearts have glowed, how many arms have been nerved at the remembrance of the Pa.s.s of Thermopylae, and the defeat that was worth so much more than a victory!



“. . . Forsooth he cometh unto you with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner; and, pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue even as the child is often brought to take most wholesome things by hiding them in such others as have a pleasant taste. . . .”

–Sir Philip Sidney, _An Apologie for Poetrie_.




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