This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
Now the Greeks spent three days in dividing the spoils of Troy; so vast was the booty they carried off, reckless of peril to life and limb, from the burning houses. For the better avoiding of disputes, inquisition was made throughout the host, and every man, from Agamemnon down to the meanest camp follower, was compelled to bring his plunder to the forecourt of Hera’s temple, where lay the treasure of Priam. And by the general voice, Odysseus, Nestor, and Phoenix were chosen to assess the whole and apportion to every man his share, according to his rank and deserving.
After that, the multitude of the captives were allotted in like fashion, but to the chiefs only. Now these were women all, for the Greeks had kept but too well their cruel vow to put every male in Troy to the sword, even the babe at the breast. And first, Neoptolemus, being adjudged to have earned the highest meed of valor, received Andromache for prize, fairest of the Trojan dames, and illustrious above them all as great Hector’s wife and widow. Then were the rest of the princesses assigned to their new masters, and Cassandra fell to the share of Agamemnon. But as for the aged Queen Hecuba, her reason had fled as she beheld the sword descending on Priam’s grey hairs; from that moment, her mind was a stranger to all that passed, and nothing seemed to touch her further.
Now Odysseus, as was indeed his due, took a portion of spoil equal with the best, but reserved no captive for himself; and when his comrades urged him to choose a fair lady worthy of his deserts, he dryly answered, “Nay, friends, beauty is a toy I have no mind to, and other good in women I never met with save in one — Penelope, my wife. But since you urge me, I will take Queen Hecuba with handmaids enough to tend her, for I perceive she is not like to burden me long.”
Then up rose Calchas the seer, to whom had been given the lovely Polyxena, youngest of Priam’s daughters, and he said, “For my part, I am bidden by a dream to offer my captive at Achilles’s tomb, a gift of honor to his spirit on behalf of all the host. And meet it is we shed the blood of a Trojan maiden at our departing hence, in remembrance and retribution of Iphigeneia’s death.”
None gainsaying him, that deed was done forthwith, and they that mourned for Polyxena were not her companions in captivity, but the victors themselves, for the Greeks, beholding her youth and beauty, could not forbear to bewail her untimely doom; but Andromache and Cassandra and all her kinswomen took farewell of her even smiling, calling her happy and enviable in such a fate; and the virgin herself went to death as to a bridal, rejoicing that she was delivered from worse things in the house of bondage. Insomuch that the Greeks marveled saying, “Had the men of Troy been as valiant in soul as their women, surely we had never prevailed against them.”
When these matters were ended, the host set joyfully about making ready their ships for launching, trusting in a few days’ space to see the homes they had yearned for so long. But they reckoned without one who from their most powerful friend was turned to be their enemy, and that was Pallas Athena, for there is nothing more displeasing to the immortals than that spirit of high-flown insolence which is begotten in men by great and sudden prosperity and leads them to overstep the bounds of righteousness, neither fearing god nor regarding man.
Filled with this spirit, the Greeks had not only exacted vengeance on their foes beyond measure, in that they spared neither the newborn babe nor him that stooped for age; they had pillaged the treasuries of the gods, even of those to whom they owed their victory, and burned their holy places with fire, openly boasting themselves conquerors by their own strength and in despite of the city’s divine patrons. Most heinous of all, one among them had violated the sacred right of asylum that belonged to Athena’s temple by dragging a suppliant from the very feet of the goddess.
This impious and reckless transgressor was a namesake of Ajax of Salamis and chieftain of the wild and warlike Locrian folk; men called him Ajax son of Oileus, or Ajax the Less, to distinguish him from the mighty son of Telamon. He it was who found Cassandra clinging to Athena’s gold-robed image; and in his ferocious mood he wound his bloodstained hands in the tresses that yet bore Apollo’s sacred chaplet, and haled her, shrieking, from the sanctuary, not without such violence as it were shame to tell.
When this deed was known, the more part of the Greeks were for stoning Ajax Oileus, as one guilty of double sacrilege, because he had done outrage at once to a suppliant and a votaress of Apollo; but his friends and wellwishers, warmly pleading his many valorous acts, secured his pardon on condition of his giving up Cassandra and forfeiting besides one half of his share in the spoils.
But the wrath of Athena was kindled against the Greeks, and she stirred up Poseidon also to anger, complaining of their intolerable arrogance and thanklessness towards their heavenly benefactors. “It is even as you say,” answered Poseidon, “and so soon as these ingrates put forth upon my watery realm, they shall learn by bitter lessoning that their boasted strength is a thing of naught, for I will vex them with all my storms and drive their goodly ships like whirling leaves before the breath of my mouth.”
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Now it was not hidden from Calchas the seer that evil was determined by Athena and Poseidon against the host, and he gave them warning not to sail until they had turned away the indignation of these gods by prayer and sacrifice. But none would heed, so eager were all hearts for home faring, except King Agamemnon, and Nestor and Diomedes. These three tarried yet five days, and on each day they prayed and sacrificed to Athena and to Poseidon, lord of waves, and vowed them tithes of all their booty if they reached home in safety. And a safe and speedy voyage was granted to all three; the good old Nestor ruled his folk yet many years in peace and honor; the brave Diomedes lived to achieve other quests by sea and land; as for Agamemnon, the manner of welcome he had in his city of Mycenae shall presently be told.
It grieved the king of Argos much that for the first time his brother would not be swayed by his counsel, but Menelaus had recovered his Helen and, after a brief outburst of rage in which he threatened her life, had been moved by her tears to a pity that swiftly kindled into renewal of love; before that day ended, his one thought was to have his wife at his side again in their palace hall. And so great was his haste that his were the first ships to leave the Trojan shore.
Those of Odysseus followed, for it was noteworthy in that prudent prince that he ever made small account of seer craft, signs, and omens; “A wise man,” he would say, “carries the best of diviners in his bosom.”
And after these sailed the rest of the ships, except those of the chieftains I have named and those of Neoptolemus. By command of Thetis, who appeared to him while he slept, he and all his following had already departed, journeying overland to the strait called Hellespont, there to take ferry from the Asian to the European shore, for the goddess warned him by no means to sail for Scyros, because of the great tempest Poseidon was brewing, but to make by land for Phthia, the country of Peleus, where he should find his aged grandfather yet alive and inherit his kingdom.
Philoctetes also journeyed along with Neoptolemus and came safe to his own land, according to the word of Heracles. It was on a lovely morning of late summer that the Greek fleet stood out to sea, and blithe was every heart in the warrior multitude as they looked their last on the detested scene of so many toils, and felt once more under their feet the timbers of the gallant ships that were bearing them every moment nearer home. With laughter and song and the merry noise of flutes, the beaked galleys swept onward over the blue, dancing waves, a fair wind filling their sails and lightening the rowers’ task; the wineskins went round among chieftains and retainers; the slaves had their share too — who would grudge it them on such a day as this?
And who but a keen-eyed helmsman or two could mark the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand that was rising out of the sea, far to northward? Those who escaped with their lives out of that tempest were wont to declare that its coming blotted out the world of sunshine about them as swiftly as one may draw a curtain across a doorway. It may have been so, for Poseidon’s was the hand that drew that curtain — Poseidon’s the voice that swelled tenfold the roar of the hurricane as it swooped upon the reeling ships. Had the god worked his will, he would have engulfed them all in the black chasms that yawned for them on every side between the crests of monstrous billows, for he is one whose wrath, once kindled, gluts itself with destruction the most enormous.
Whole navies sucked down by the boiling deep whole cities swallowed up by earthquake these are among the dread marvels wrought by his trident’s power. But Athena now stayed his hand, desiring to humble, but not to destroy utterly, her rebellious Greeks. And she saved alive every chief of note and name — albeit not without grievous loss of men and ships to each of them — except Ajax, son of Oileus.
He, when his vessel foundered beneath him, was tossed by a huge wave upon the summit of an islet rock, in size no greater than a threshing floor. There he clung awhile and, perceiving himself lodged above reach of the raging seas, his savage heart was the more hardened; he laughed and shouted like a madman amid the clamor of winds and waters, hurling defiance at Athena, mocking her because she had done her worst, and he yet lived. But with a stroke of his trident Poseidon split the rock to its foundations and whelmed the blasphemer fathoms deep in brine. Such an end had the Lesser Ajax, in whom was fulfilled the ancient and true saying — Evil shall hunt the wicked person to overthrow him.
Now, of the heroes that escaped in that awful hour of divine judgment, some fared straightway to their desired havens; but to others the gods appointed yet further trials and troubles ere they saw home again; whereof more anon.