This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
But a true friendship had sprung up between the castaway of Lemnos and his rescuer, so Neoptolemus would have Philoctetes to lodge in his own quarters and appointed slaves to tend upon him. Since they left the isle, Philoctetes had felt no return of his torments, but the voyage had greatly wearied him, and on his first night in the camp he slept profoundly.
As he slept, he dreamed a dream. He thought there stood by his bedside a tall, white-robed man of an earnest and sweet countenance, having in his left hand an amber cup, with a little green snake curled about the stem, and the snake held a blood-red stone in its mouth. With his other hand, the stranger drew off the coverlet from Philoctetes and deftly unrolled the swathings from his wound; and instantly the snake darted forth and coiled itself around his foot. At that, the dreamer shrieked and would have struggled, but his limbs refused to move.
“Be still, and fear not,” said the stranger; “this companion of mine will do you no hurt, but good. By the wisdom of his kind, he found the stone he carries, which has the virtue of drawing to itself all deadly poison whatsoever. With one touch of it, he will purge your envenomed wound, and through the potency of this celestial balm your flesh shall come again, like the flesh of a little child.”
As he spoke, Philoctetes felt the gentle pressure of something smooth and cold upon his foot; his visitant dropped crystal-shining liquor thereon out of the amber cup, and immediately deep sleep took hold on him, and he knew no more. But when he awoke in the morning, he knew it was Asclepios who had appeared to him, for behold, his foot was made whole and sound with never a scar, so that he leaped and walked, praising the gods.
That day the Greeks made ready for battle once more, deeming victory secure, now they had not only Neoptolemus with them, but the bow of Heracles. But Odysseus said, “We lack one thing yet; until that be ours, it is lost labor to assail the city. What, have you forgotten the oracle I learned from the mouth of Helenus, concerning the Palladium?”
Then answered bold Diomedes, “It comes in my mind, son of Laertes, that the Trojan forged that oracle with intent to discourage us, for to find the Palladium we must first take Troy, where it is hidden. Up, then, and come with me; if we fight not till the image is ours, we may sit here till our swords are rust.”
“A word in your ear, comrade,” said Odysseus, smiling, and drew him aside from the rest. And when they had spoken together a little while, Diomedes declared, to the wonder of all, that Sthenelus, his kinsman, should lead his men to battle, but he himself would keep the camp with Odysseus. So the rest of the chiefs set forth with the host, and many a gibe they cast at those two, who out of mere faint-heartedness were forfeiting their share of glory and of spoil that day.
But when evening came, the laugh was with Odysseus and Diomedes, for the host returned crestfallen because the battle had gone sore against them; and what should they see, set on the altar in the midst of the camp, but the Palladium itself! Open-mouthed with astonishment, the Greeks crowded to gaze upon that ancient barbaric semblance of her whom they worshipped in common with their foes. Rudely carved in what seemed to be ebony, and about a cubit in height, the idol was draped from neck to foot in a narrow robe of golden tissue, thickly sown with pearls and precious stones; its eyes, each a single emerald, glittered formidably in the sunlight; the hands, held stiffly downwards against the sides, grasped a lance and targe of gold. Such was the Luck of the Trojans — their Little Pallas, fashioned by artificers in the ancient ages out of a shapeless block that, as tradition told, had fallen from the skies.
Now Odysseus and Diomedes were standing as though on guard beside the miraculous image, each with drawn sword in hand; and the swords were red with blood. And a youth lay bound at the altar foot, apparelled like a king’s son. The two chieftains were at once surrounded by eager questioners, but their replies were drowned in a babel of joyful and wondering cries, until Agamemnon commanded the multitude to draw back and keep silence while Odysseus should tell what had befallen. So Odysseus stood forth before them all and recounted the matter briefly and sedately, after his wont.
He told how he came to guess that the Palladium was no longer hidden in Troy, but on Mount Ida; and how, from the night he let Helenus go free, he found means to have his comings and goings continually spied upon, until the youth was tracked to a certain densely-wooded hollow of the mountain. Who did this work of espial, he forbore to tell, but, from hints he let fall, his hearers easily gathered that he had once more purchased confederates within the city.
Neither did Odysseus think fit to say why he kept the knowledge thus gained from all his comrades but Diomedes; the truth being that he desired to share the honors of his exploit with as few others as might be, since he could not achieve it single-handed. “Finding you so bent on fight, princes,” he said, “I was loth to thwart you and imparted my design only to the man who had braved so many perils at my side. The rest is soon told. Having made our way to the place already pointed out to me, Diomedes and myself surprised and slew the men we found keeping guard there; but we took Helenus alive and have brought him here a captive, as you see, because he knows much that may profit us to learn. Now, sons of the Greeks, victory is assured you at last; there stands the Palladium; the Luck of the Trojans is gone from them, and therewithal the gods have delivered them into your hands.”
In the same hour, a small band of Trojans went toiling up the steep forest ways of Ida, bearing among them an open litter. The evening light fell soft and golden athwart the leafy canopy of their path, and danced on their bronze helms, on the burnished metalwork of the litter, on the jeweled collar and armlets of a young man lying motionless therein. His eyes were closed, his curled lovelocks shaded a countenance deathly in its pallor; his flower-broidered vesture was torn apart at the bosom, showing a crimson puncture in the ivory flesh, whence dark drops trickled slowly.
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You would have said the hardest heart must be melted to ruth by a sight so fair and piteous, for, though he lay like one asleep, his mouth was rigid with pain, and Death’s seal was set visibly on that beautiful brow. But his companions eyed him coldly as now and again they halted for a shift of bearers; and at last one of them muttered to another, “He is dying fast. We might have spared this labor, for he will be gone ere we can bring him whither he bade us.”
To whom his comrade made answer, “And a good riddance, say I; but better for Troy had it come sooner. Ay, would to the gods he had died a babe on these hillsides — then might our noble Hector be living yet, and hundreds of brave men more that have fallen in defense of him and his light-o’-love. But set on, friends; kings’ sons must be obeyed while there is breath in them, and ’tis the whim of Paris to die where he was reared.”
Then silently they bore the litter onward until they came to the clearing in the forest where stood the thatched cot of Paris’s foster parents. Now the old herdsman was dead, but his wife dwelled there still. She came out to meet them and signed to them to set down the litter, and, as she looked thereon, she wept.
“Alas!” she cried. “Now is the dream come true I dreamed long years ago. Full well I knew what it foreboded, and many a time I said to my good man, now at rest, ‘We shall see our beautiful fosterling no more till he comes to us with the death wound in his breast.’ Sirs, ’tis an arrow wound, is it not? Know you whose hand sped the shaft?”
“Ay, good mother,” answered one of the men, “I can tell you that. When the Greeks gave us battle today, the lord Paris went not forth, but watched the mellay from the wall, for Queen Helen, as we heard, had prevailed with him to forbear the fight. Now there was with the Greeks a bowman whom none of us had seen before; he carried the hugest bow I ever beheld, but he fought neither with small nor great and seemed to be looking for someone amid our ranks. At last, I saw a warrior beside him point upwards to where our prince was standing; straightway the bowman took aim… a black-feathered arrow sang through the air… a shriek from Paris told what mark it had found. And when —praise the gods— we had beaten off the enemy for the hundredth time, I, with these others, was bidden carry him hither, for the leeches, it seems, pronounced his wound mortal, and thereupon he cried out incessantly that he must go back to Ida. A strange fancy — but dying men are given to such——”
“Who says I am dying?” came a faint voice from the litter, “I shall not die, I tell you, if only… ah, this dizzy trance!… Give me some wine that I may speak…”
It was the old woman who gently raised the head of Paris and held the cup to his lips; when he had drunk, he revived a little and knew her, and said, “Mother, will you help your boy now, though he has forsaken you these many years?”
“Surely,” said she, weeping, “but I fear you are past help, my son.”
“No, no,” murmured Paris, “only you must hasten. Lead my bearers to the poplar grove, where the brook comes down from the upper glens; then take this ring from my little finger and throw it into the water. And then leave me, all of you, for a helper will come… whom I must meet alone.”
“This is the end, dame,” whispered one of the Trojans, “his wits begin to wander.”
“I am none so sure,” answered the foster mother in his ear, “I remember that silver ring — he would never tell me whence he had it — who knows but there is some magic in it? At least, let him have his will.”
So they did even as Paris had bidden them, and he was left alone on the margin of the brook.
Now this brook was the same brook that flowed through Oenone’s secret vale. She it was who had given the silver ring to Paris, in that far-off summertide of their happy love; and she had told him, if ever he had need of her, to cast the token into the stream, and she would come to him without fail. And still he had worn her token, not knowing why, for little he thought ever to put it to use. But when he knew himself wounded to the death, a sudden memory came to him; had not the wood nymph once said that she and her sisters were gifted to heal all manner of hurts and diseases by their touch? Nay, he remembered proof of it — he had seen Oenone’s flower-soft hands restore a dove to life that had dropped at her feet with the hunter’s arrow in its breast. Oenone would save him, could he but summon her in time!
The sun had set now; a green light lingered in the West; but the shadows were deepening momently about Paris where he lay like some fair, ruined statue amid the dark columns of the trees. It was pleasant there, he thought, drowsily; a little breeze had woke at nightfall and was sighing through the poplars — the brook sang him a low, lulling tune… how sweet was this woodland peace after the heat and turmoil of Troy! And now he felt no more pain, only a deep, delicious languor… he would sleep until Oenone came… for that she would come, and coming forgive and heal him, it was not in Paris to doubt for an instant; what heart of woman had ever resisted when he chose to plead?
Meantime, Oenone stood already near at hand in the twilit grove and watched him awhile with a mind divided between love and bitterness. But as he sank into the slumber she knew must end in death, she glided forward with a soft cry of pity, bent over him, and lightly kissed his brow. “Wake,” she said, “wake and speak to me, dear heart.”
Paris unclosed his failing eyes, and with a smile of infinite tenderness — “I was dreaming of you,” he murmured, “my soul’s joy — my Helen.” And with that name upon his lips, he died.
For at the sound of it the nymph leaped back as though stung by a serpent. “Let Helen save you, then,” she cried, “for Oenone will not! Why should I give you life to waste in a harlot’s arms?” So saying, the daughter of Ida fled weeping through the darkened forest.