THE RING OF POLYCRATES

BY M. M. BIRD

"Then, would'st thou keep thy happy place,
Beseech the Immortals of their grace
Some bitter with their sweet to blend;
For when the gods on any pour
Of happiness an unmixed store,
Ruin full sure will be his end."—Schiller.

Of all earth's monarchs, the lordliest and the proudest was Polycrates, Tyrant of Samos. Whatever he set his hand to had prospered. One by one he had conquered all the isles of Greece, and never had his galleys by sea or his archers on land known defeat. Alone to be compared with him in power was his friend and ally, Amasis, King of Egypt, by whose side he had warred and shared the spoils of victory.

This Polycrates, in his palace on Samos, gazing out across the shining sea and meditating what new venture should occupy his arms, saw one day a single galley speeding swiftly from the south. It bore the cognizance of the King of Egypt, the watchmen said.

"What message can our good brother Amasis have for us?" mused the King. "For what new exploit does he demand our aid, what deed does he not dare to venture till he league our charmed fortune with his own?"

The galley flew over the waters; it glided round the outflung arm of the mole, and reached the quay. Messengers bore in haste to the palace a missive sealed with the great seal of Amasis.

Polycrates searched the hieroglyphics in vain for some bold scheme, his share in which shall be more slaves, more land, more gold, more power, and more hate from those he conquers.

For this is what Amasis wrote to his ally:

"It is pleasant to hear of the success of a friend and ally. But thy excessive good fortune doth not please me, knowing as I do that the divinity is jealous. As for me, I would rather choose that both I and my friends should be partly successful in our undertakings, and partly suffer reverses; and so pass life meeting with vicissitudes of fortune than be prosperous in all things. For I cannot remember that I ever heard of any man who, having suffered no reverse, did not at last utterly perish. Be advised therefore by me, and act thus with regard to thy good fortune. Consider well what thou valuest most, and the loss of which would most pain thy soul; this treasure so cast away that it may never more be seen of man."

Polycrates put down the letter and meditated. He looked round the gorgeous hall wherein he sat, he looked out of the window at the marble terraces, the vines and fruit trees of his palace gardens. Below he saw the crowded streets of his busy town, his quays where ships unloaded their merchandise for his pleasure. There was the harbor where his galleys lay, a hundred of them, each manned by fifty strong oarsmen, slaves. Beyond the great mole that captives of war had built for him lay the crowded islands of the Grecian seas, and they too were his vassals or allies. His power knew no check; the stream of gold flowed unbroken to his shores. He owned to himself with mingled pride and alarm that such prosperity was a thing to provoke the jealous envy of the immortals.

Amasis had seen this danger, and had sent a kindly warning to his friend. It was well done.

What loss would he most mourn?

Tyrant as he was, Polycrates was a patron of the arts. It was at his court that Anacreon sung of wine and love as none had sung before. Painters and sculptors and musicians were entertained there, and he delighted in their arts. Should he sacrifice his favorite singer, his most gifted painter? Should he obliterate the world-famous fresco of his banquet hall, or slay the most beautiful of his slaves? But a new singer would soon replace the old, another artist would arise and would paint a more enchanting scene, a lovelier slave would fall captive to his arms.

He despaired of selecting among his countless treasures what was most precious, when his eye fell on the great gold signet on his fore-finger. There was the symbol of his power itself, the splendid gold ring, carved by Theodorus, son of Telecles the Samian. There was the emerald engraved by Theodorus with his signet device. The impress of that signet on the pliant wax set the seal of the King's command on every order. His eyes dwelt on the beautiful ring; he turned it on his finger, he marked the cunning work of it, the elegant design. The gold glittered in the sunlight, the heart of the great emerald glowed with green fire.

"This ring," he cried, "my dearest treasure, my most valued possession, I will cast into the sea!"

His ministers and courtiers heard him astonished. They spoke among themselves with bated breath of the thing the King proposed to do. How could the business of the realm go on without the King's recognized seal to set upon his ordinances? The news spread through the palace, where astonishment was mingled with consternation, and consternation with admiration of the King who would sacrifice so great a treasure to propitiate the gods for the good of his realm. From the palace the news spread to the town, and men gathered in knots to discuss it, and women ran from house to house to tell and hear it. Then they saw the royal barge of fifty oars being swiftly prepared for sea. The crowds of workers left their toil in the workshops of the town and clustered on the quay. They looked and saw the King coming in procession from the palace, his ministers about him, his courtiers following after. A frown was on his brow and a fierce resolve in his eyes. And as he passed along the gangway they marked that his royal hand was bare; no green fire shone from it like a glow-worm at night.

Out, far out into the sea the rowers drove the swift galley; the water boiled beneath the keel, and fled hissing from the stroke of those fifty oars. At last the silent King made a sign, and the oars flashed out of the water, scattering a silver fountain of spray.

Thrice the King raised his arm in act to throw, and thrice as he eyed the priceless gem he clutched it in his open palm. But the fourth time he closed his dazzled eyes and flung it far from him. And the great emerald, as it fell into the main, flashed like a streamer in the northern sky.

No sign that the gods accepted his sacrifice followed the deed. The sun shone bright overhead, and below was the innumerable laughter of the waves.

The King made a sign with the hand, now so significantly bare, and the galley sped back to the quay. And all the days that followed there was mourning in the palace, the King was wrapped in gloom, the business of the state seemed to have been brought to a standstill.

On the sixth day a humble fisherman climbed to the palace gates, bearing as a gift a royal sturgeon. "Accept, O King," he cried, "an offering worthy of thee. For three-score years have I plied my humble trade, yet never before have my nets brought to land so goodly a fish."

Polycrates thanked the fisherman and bestowed on him a purse of gold, and the fish he ordered to be served for that night's banquet.

The King was in his chamber, deep in state affairs, when a scullion came running demanding instant audience. In his hand was a jewel that flashed and glowed.

Polycrates stared in amazement, and then stretched forth his hand to seize the ring that had been miraculously restored. For when the fisherman's gift had been cut open the ring had been found in its belly.

The courtiers whispered together in fear: "What can this mean? Have the jealous gods rejected the sacrifice?"

But Polycrates was beside himself with joy. He wrote in haste to Amasis, King of Egypt, to tell him what had befallen. "Such good fortune as mine," he declared, "is unassailable by gods or men."

But Amasis was of a different opinion. He felt that no power could avail to save a man so unnaturally fortunate from the vengeance of the jealous gods. He sent his herald to say that he renounced the friendship between them lest, said he, if some dreadful and great calamity befell Polycrates he might himself be involved in it!

Black anger at this desertion filled the heart of Polycrates. He heard that Cambyses, son of Cyrus, King of Persia, was on the point of invading Egypt with a great army, so he offered him help by sea. Cambyses gladly accepted this alliance, and Polycrates despatched forty ships of war.

But in his heaven-sent blindness he manned them with malcontents and men of conquered nations whom he suspected of disloyalty and wished to remove—sending with them secretly a message to Cambyses that he did not wish a man of them to return.

These warriors mutinied before they reached the battle ground, and returned in war array against Samos, but they, too, failed and Polycrates became more powerful than ever. And then it was that Orœtes, the Persian satrap of Sardis, who had conceived a hatred of Polycrates, enticed the fortunate tyrant to visit him and seized upon him treacherously and crucified him, so that men might see how the jealous gods will not suffer a mortal to share immortal bliss, and that soon or late pride has a fall.