This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
Priam, king of Troy, was renowned throughout all the lands of the East for the long life of cloudless prosperity wherewith the gods had blessed him. Forty years had he reigned and still was in his prime, being yet a child when he inherited the kingdom; and in all those years it had been well with him. Peace was within his walls, and plenteousness within his borders; his folk were leal and flourishing, his broad demesnes rich in corn and oil, his flocks and herds as the sands of the sea for multitude; but in nothing was he esteemed more fortunate than in the number of goodly children that Hecuba his queen had borne to him.
Now when she had already reared eight sons and four daughters, the queen dreamed that she brought forth a blazing torch; and the soothsayers, being called together to interpret the dream, declared with one voice that the child she next should bear would prove a firebrand to Troy and kindle a flame therein which should consume both city and folk. Not long after, she bore another son, and King Priam, in dread of that prophecy, bade a trusty slave take the babe secretly to the great mountain called Ida, that looks down on the plain of Troy, and there cast it forth to perish. And to grieve his queen the less, he caused her women to tell her that the babe was born dead.
The slave carried away the newborn child as he was bidden, but, when he was about to leave it on the cold hillside, his heart failed him for pity, and he brought it to certain herdsmen that dwelt on Ida, pretending to have found it by chance. Now the wife of one of these herdsmen, moved with compassion, took the foundling and reared it as her own, being herself childless.
So this king’s son, to whom his foster parents gave the name of Paris, grew up among the glens of many-fountained Ida with herdsmen and shepherds for his companions; but though bred a rustic, the delicate comeliness of the lad and his gracious bearing would have well beseemed a palace hall. He had, moreover, the gift of ready and persuasive speech, a voice musical as falling water, and a smile that melted the heart like a caress; few of his rough comrades were ever known to deny him anything, and the saying went among them that Paris could wile the bird from the bough. Nor was it over these simple folk only that he could cast a glamour, as this tale will show.
There is among the vales of Ida one lovelier than all the rest, and lonelier, for it lies near the mountaintop, and its steep sides are walled with dense-growing pines. At the head of the glen, a brook comes leaping down rocky cornices, and swirling through fern-fringed pools and pebbly shallows, falls at its lower end over a sheer crag, in clouds of rainbow spray. Keen-eyed and sure-footed must you be to spy and to climb the dizzy ladder that here tough roots of broom, and there a jutting rock, make up the face of the crag, close to the foam and thunder of the cataract; few or none of the hill folk had ever found that sole path to the fair, sequestered lawns above. But Paris had found it, roving one summer’s day in idle mood, and found, too, that the glen was not wholly untenanted. It was the haunt of a fairy — one of those swift, shy daughters of the Flood and Fell whom men of old called Oreads. White-limbed, slender, tall, with dusky, rippling hair, she stood before the intruder half-angered, half-afraid; swaying a little, as a sapling birch sways in the breeze, and her eyes were like dark hill tarns that the breeze has ruffled.
Paris spoke to her, in that silver voice of his, wooing her to stay, to listen, to tell him who she was, beckoning gently the while as one might soothe a startled fawn; until with a fawn’s timid grace she tripped nearer, still nearer, and looked into his smiling eyes, wonderingly.
“I am Oenone, daughter of Ida,” she said, soft and low. “And you, I think, must be the young Apollo, fairest of the heaven-dwelling gods, for I have heard that his sunny hair floats to his shoulders, even as yours, and that his eyes, too, are emerald, and how he loves to put on the guise of a shepherd.”
Then Paris, laughing, told her he was no immortal, but in good sooth the shepherd lad he seemed, who kept his peasant father’s flock upon the hills, saving when he played truant for a day, as he was doing now. And much more he found to tell her; so much, that the golden hours of that summer’s day fleeted ere they knew. Dusk had fallen when Paris left the glen, whispering that he would come again; and as he went, the heart of the Oread went with him. Thenceforward all her bliss was in his comings; and those comings were many, for he could pass his time as he listed, never hindered or questioned by his doting foster parents. Blithe as children, Oenone and her new playmate would frolic on the meadow lawns, or weave each other wildflower garlands; or she would show him the lair of hill fox or spotted pard, where —for all the wild things knew and loved the Oread— the mother beast would suffer them to fondle her furry, romping cubs. But at sultry noontide they would seek hand in hand some cool recess of the rocks, or mossy hollow beneath the pines, and fall asleep to the lullaby of the brook.
So passed the summer, until one morning Paris found his sweet friend weeping and, heartstruck, asked what ailed her.
“Alas,” she answered, through her tears, “I have heard tidings of a thing that will surely sunder you and me.”
“Nothing shall sunder us two,” he cried, boldly.
“Nothing — while you love me,” she murmured, “but my heart misgives me sorely that you will soon love me no more.”
“Foolish Oenone,” said Paris, tenderly, “have you forgotten what I have sworn to you so often — and so deeply? Shall I call the gods once more to witness that I will never have love or bride in all my life but you?”
“No, do not swear it!” exclaimed Oenone. “The gods laugh, ’tis said, at lovers’ perjuries, and avenge not the breaking of vows made in fondness — and yet I have a dread of evil befalling you if you should prove forsworn.”
“Put me to the test, then,” answered Paris, smiling. “Come with me even now to my homestead, and this very day we will be wedded. At your bidding I have kept our meetings secret — none guesses that a daughter of Ida has stooped to love me — but now, since you doubt my faith, let me prove it as best a man may.”
“You must prove it, indeed,” sighed the Oread, “but not thus, beloved. Now hear my tidings. When I woke at dawn, a rainbow spanned the glen, and beneath its arch I saw Iris the messenger, waving her many-colored wings. In her hand was an apple that shone like pure gold. She called to me by name and holding forth the wondrous fruit, ‘Oenone,’ she said, ‘this was cast yester-eve upon the board where all the gods adorned with their presence the marriage feast of a highly favored mortal. To that feast came also a guest unbidden, undesired, even Discord, hated of gods and men; this apple flung she down, crying, “For her whose title it bears,” and so departed with an evil laugh. But on the apple was engraven FOR THE MOST FAIR, and loud debate arose, which of the goddesses should take it; until three who surpass in divine beauty stood forth and claimed it, the rest yielding them preeminence. These three were Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, among whom none of the gods would presume to judge, as they said. Then spake King Zeus, “We will make a mortal the judge; thus shall we defeat the intent of loathed Discord, to sow feuds and ill-will among us. This judge must be prudent, yet simple; a stranger to courts and cities, yet no churl; neither must he know or be known by any of the three goddesses. Such a judge will declare his mind without fear or favor — and such is Paris, the shepherd lad of Mount Ida.”‘”
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At these words, Paris gave a cry of astonishment.
“I the judge of goddesses!” he exclaimed. “Have you not dreamed all this, Oenone? You shake your head, and sigh — ah, now I guess what bred your doubt of me; you think the sight of these beautiful heaven-dwellers will turn my heart from you! I tell you, if indeed I am made judge of the fairest, that apple is yours; never a goddess of them all can vie in loveliness with my woodland queen.”
“Hush, hush,” murmured the Oread, laying a finger on his lips. “You know not what you say. As a glow-worm’s spark to the splendor of the moon, so is all Earth-born beauty to that of the Sky Children. Hear my tidings to the end. Iris said further that by command of Zeus the three goddesses would shortly be here; she bade me prepare you for your high task and give you the marvelous prize you are to bestow.”
So saying, she drew the apple of Discord from her bosom and laid it in the youth’s hand. Of purest gold it was, and smelled ambrosially, for it was a fruit magical, grown on the dragon-guarded tree of the Hesperides. Thence had Discord stolen it, unseen of the sleepless warder, for that wicked one flies abroad invisible at her pleasure, and she had bethought her how it might serve to stir up strife among the happy gods.
Paris read aloud the inscription on its gleaming rind, and, between jest and earnest, would have slipped it into Oenone’s hand again; but she put it aside with a startled gesture, glided from him, and was lost to view amid the pines.
She had marked, though he did not, a crested peacock alight on the nearest tree top, and a golden cloud brooding above the peacock. As the bird uttered its shrill scream, Paris looked upward; he saw the cloud take the shape of a pillar and float to earth; white radiance glowed within it, while the enveloping gold turned bluish-grey, curling forth on the bright air in wreaths of odorous vapor. And as that incense-breathing cloud parted and dissolved, a lady stood revealed; taller than the daughters of men, arrayed in white robes that dazzled the eye like snow drifts in sunshine, and wearing a glittering veil thrown back from her crowned brows. Lilies of pearl and gold made her diadem; the scepter she bore was ivory, topped by a cuckoo carved out of sapphire. But more plainly than these splendors, her countenance and mien, august beyond all earthly majesty, proclaimed the goddess.
Bending on Paris her large eyes, brown and lustrous as the eyes of kine, she spoke thus, in deep, mellow tones: “Look on me, shepherd of Ida! I am Hera, queen of Gods, Hera, bride of Zeus. Riches and honor come of me; royal sway, the revenues of wide dominions, the homage of cities and peoples — these are my gifts to mortals, and all these shall be yours if you accord me the prize that is my due. Look on me, Paris, look well, and say, am I not peerless?”
“Look on me also,” broke in another voice that rang sweet and clear as a silver trumpet.
With that, Paris was aware of a stately form that stood at his right hand, leaning on a great, gleaming spear. It was the form of an armed maiden. Her head was covered by a golden helm, embossed with shapes of winged steeds, and crested with a steed’s milk-white mane; she wore a breastplate of golden scales, thickly fringed with gold serpents, over her azure tunic, and carried a golden shield inwrought with combats of gods and giants. By these accouterments, Paris knew her for the virgin warrior, Athena, whom men call also Pallas.
“Look at me well, Paris,” she said again, “for they that judge me fairest must do so for mine own sake, without guerdon promised. Yet if, being mortal, your eyes are bewildered in the light of heavenly presences, remember this: Athena’s gift is wisdom, wherein alone lies true sovereignty. Hera can make you king over others, but I can make you lord of yourself and master of your fate, for the wise man, having conquered fear and desire, is himself unconquerable by men or gods.”
The speaker paused, and Paris earnestly regarded her. He marked that the hair clustered beneath her helm was the color of winter beechwoods; her shape, even taller than Hera’s, as nobly though less bounteously molded; her features, though softened by immortal bloom, were masculine in their severe perfection, their impress of thought and of power.
Suddenly the goddess raised her downcast eyelids and flashed full upon him those eyes that have not their like in earth or heaven. Twin founts of living fire — twin stars whose springing radiance overflowed in a tide that seemed engulfing him — which was it he beheld? Shrinking, yet powerless to avert his gaze, the youth stood terror-charmed, like a bird that helplessly returns the serpent’s stare. But in another moment, the blinding brilliance passed; a film of twilight seemed to curtain those twin orbs, and as his sight undazzled he knew them for what they were two eyes of darkest grey, lovely, steadfast, inscrutable.
“They are more glorious than even Queen Hera’s,” he murmured half aloud, “but — they are terrible; were Athena angered, surely she could slay with a look! I am bewildered, as she said — how shall I dare to choose? Hera promises me power; Athena, wisdom——”
“But I,” said a laughing voice behind him, “will promise you something better than either — a wife who is the most beautiful woman alive. Turn and look on Aphrodite, shepherd!”
Paris turned and saw, throned on a flowery knoll, one whose deep gold hair was crowned with roses and fell in shining waves to her very feet. The third goddess drew back that resplendent veil from either shoulder with pearly, slender fingers, as she stepped lightly to his side. “Am not I the fairest?” she asked him, in a voice like the cooing of doves; and with an exquisite smile she lifted eyes of the wild hyacinth’s blue to his.
Who may declare what then he looked upon? As all the breath and bloom of summer is garnered in a rose, as all the changeful sheen of ocean is housed in a pearl, so all bodily beauty that mind can dream of, or heart desire, dwelled eternal in Aphrodite. And nevertheless, even while he feasted his eyes on her who is Love’s queen and mother both, Paris felt that something diviner than her loveliness, more serene than Hera’s majesty, illumined the full brow of Pallas Athena.
He held the fateful apple out at arm’s length, looking irresolutely from one to another of the waiting three.
“Give it to me, Paris,” said Hera, proudly. “Behold, all men strive for power, but few seek after wisdom, for that is a barren gift, which the strong need not, and the weak find of small avail. Know, fair youth, that, though peasant-bred, the blood of kings runs in your veins. Does it not leap to your heart at the thought of a kingly crown? Then yield me the apple and a crown you shall wear, by grace of heaven’s queen.”
Almost persuaded, so much surprise and newborn ambition thrilled him at these words, Paris took one step towards Hera — then turned once more to Athena, expecting that she also would speak again. But Athena held her peace.
“What profits it, my Paris,” came Aphrodite’s low voice in his ear, “what profits it a man to gain all power and all wisdom, if therewithal he have no pleasure in his days? Youth withers like the rose, loveless, joyless Age creeps on apace, Death ends all, as a tale that is told. Can you take your glory or riches or knowledge with you into the land where all things are forgotten? Nay, mortal, leave these gifts to the ever-living gods and choose rather my gifts: Love, Delight, heart-easing Mirth, that your little life may be sweet while it lasts; this is the one good for creatures of a day. Come, own me fairest, and pleasures beyond thought shall be yours, through the bride I promised you even now, for I myself have clothed her in such beauty that I am well nigh jealous to behold it; there is none like her among women, nor shall be to the end of Time; and with better reason than they know, do men call her the world’s desire.”
Thus spoke she, the heavenly temptress; and Paris, overborne by visions of unknown bliss, forgot in that instant honor and plighted faith and put the shining apple into her outstretched hand.
Sweetly laughed Aphrodite in her triumph, and at that sound Paris started like one awaking from a dream to find himself alone. Gone were those celestial visitants, and, looking around on the familiar, silent scene, he could have thought their coming a dream indeed, until a muffled sound of sobbing came to him out of the near pines, as it were the sough of the wind among their branches. Then, not enduring to look on her whom he had betrayed, he fled from the glen like a guilty thing pursued, for so it was with Paris then and thereafter, that he shunned the sight of pain more than the giving of it.
Now the next day and the next, he would fain have returned to Oenone and made her what amends he could. But ever a voice within him whispered, “It is too late. The gods never recall their gifts. You have taken a bride at the hand of Aphrodite — hers you are and shall be to the end.”
There haunted him also that word of Hera’s that he was king-born. He had long known that those whom he called father and mother were not his true parents, for the story of his finding was common talk; but happy in his free, simple life, he had never given a thought to the mystery of his birth. Now, however, he felt himself born to greater things and nursed the secret hope that some high fortune was in store for him. Shunning the wooded heights, he led his flock day by day to the mountain’s lower slopes, whence the eye had clearer prospect of the plain with its winding rivers, and the sparkling sea beyond, and towered Troy itself, that as yet he had never visited. Yonder, he would fancy, as he gazed at the spacious city, some splendid lot awaited him; yonder, perhaps, he was to meet the wondrous unknown — the World’s Desire!
It befell about this time that King Priam sent servants to Mount Ida to take his yearly toll of sheep and cattle from the hillmen. Now, the foster father of Paris owned one young bull, the finest beast of all the herds on Ida, which, when the king’s servants saw, they claimed and drove off, although the old man pleaded hard, saying that, except a few sheep, it was all the livestock he had. So that night when Paris brought home his flock, he found the bull’s stall empty and the old folks lamenting, and his heart grew hot within him at their tale.
“Tomorrow,” he said to them, “I will go down to Troy and stand before the king, and bid him right this wrong his greedy servants have done us in his name. For sure, being royal, he will think scorn to deal so meanly as to take our one beast, and he with a thousand of his own.”
The old herdsman was well content that he should go, for he thought Paris could talk over any man, even the king, and next to his pride in Paris was his pride in the young bull.
But his wife, who had the name of a wise woman among her neighbors, looked troubled and prayed her foster son to bide at home. “Troy town is no place for you,” said she, “and evil will come of your errand, or I am the more deceived. Only last night I dreamed that I saw you feasting in the king’s hall. The couch you lay on was all heaped over with rose leaves, and behold, while you drank and laughed, a serpent crawled out of the rose leaves and stung you on the breast — and at your shriek I awoke. Here was a plain sign that some deadly peril lurks for you in Troy.”
“Good mother,” answered Paris, merrily, “have I not heard you say that a snake bite in a dream signifies an arrow wound? No fear of that in peaceful Troy, so think no more of your dream.”
Next morning before daybreak he set out with a light heart for the city. It was the hour of full market when he entered its landward gate and passed through wide, straight streets into the marketplace, where King Priam was sitting in a marble chair, giving judgments to his folk. Wisely and mildly dealt he with the suits they pleaded before him, healing disputes between neighbors, upholding the cause of the widow and the orphan, and meting equal justice to rich and poor. Seeing this, Paris was the more emboldened; he stepped forward in his turn and made request to have the bull restored, pleading his father’s poverty and the injury he suffered by so heavy a toll on his small substance. And all who heard the young shepherd wondered at his discreet, fair-flowing speech, and his mien that was so princely, though modest as became his years.
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But the king, looking fixedly on him, knew him —so like he was to the princes, his brothers— and eagerly questioned him of his name and parentage. Then Paris told all his story and, being asked further, what man it was that brought him a babe to the herdsmen, answered, they knew not his name, but he was one of the king’s household. When Priam heard that, he rose up and bade Paris follow him into the palace, and, taking him into a chamber apart, he sent for that slave, now grown old and feeble, whom he had charged to make riddance of the fatal child. The slave no sooner saw Paris than he likewise knew him and fell down at the king’s feet, confessing his disobedience. But Priam pardoned him with right good will, for his heart yearned over his son, seeing how goodly and gracious a youth he was become, and in his gladness he recked no more of the soothsayers’ prophecy concerning him. So that day all Troy kept high festival because the dead was alive again and the lost was found.
Queen Hecuba received her son with tears of joy, and a loving welcome he had from all his brothers and sisters, except one, who greeted him in strange sort. Cassandra was the name of this princess; in earliest girlhood she had chosen to become Apollo’s priestess and vowed herself to his service forever, and the god in recompense had endued her with the gift of prophecy. But before she had dwelled long in his holy temple, an earthly love made her false to her sacred vows; she was now dwelling again under her father’s roof, and soon, it was said, would be married to the son of a neighbor king, who had wooed and won her by stealth.
Cassandra came into the hall when all the rest were already gathered at the feast the king made in his long-lost son’s honor; and the instant that she caught sight of Paris, where he sat on Priam’s right hand, she threw up her white arms and reeled backward, crying out in a frenzy, “The firebrand! Trample out the firebrand! See, see, it sets alight our purple hangings — the blaze leaps to the rafters — they kindle too — now all is one flame! All Troy is burning, burning! Oh, oh, all Troy’s on fire!” And with a shriek that curdled the blood to hear, she fell down in a swoon.
Then did Priam and Hecuba tremble and turn pale, bethinking themselves of the prophecy; yet on the morrow both were ready to make light of it, for the beauty of Paris and his winning ways subdued their hearts to extravagant fondness. Haggard with weeping, Cassandra sought the king alone and implored him to send her new-found brother out of the land:
“I cannot look on him,” she said, “but straightway a fire dances before me, and a shout of armed men rings in mine ears. Oh, father, banish him hence! I feel — I know, by the god-given power within me, that if he bides here he will bring destruction on us all.”
But Priam would not heed her, for her mood had been very strange of late; and as for her vision of the firebrand, he thought that she had somehow heard the tale of Hecuba’s dream and its interpretation —although he had commanded the soothsayers to keep it secret— and that had wrought her distempered mind to this dread and horror of Paris. Therefore he gently chid his daughter, bidding her beware of yielding to unwholesome fantasies, perilous alike to health and wits.
Then Cassandra wrung her hands and cried, “Behold, the curse is come upon me that Apollo spoke when he knew me faithless, for he appeared to me in the temple and said, Though I cannot take away a gift once given, I will make mine fruitless unto thee, and it shall prove thy bane. Still shalt thou foresee what is to come, but henceforth no man shall believe thy prophecies.“
Now for a time all went merrily in Troy, and Paris increased daily in favor with all his kindred, except the seer maiden, who scarce endured the sight of him. King Priam had sent back the bull to his foster parents, and therewith such rich rewards for their kindness to the foundling that they could live at ease all the rest of their days.
But Paris had no mind to revisit that lowly home, and the herdsman’s wife looked for him long in vain. At last she said, “The lad I nursed in my bosom has forgotten me — ay, and more than me. It is borne upon my mind that another heart aches for him on Ida, with a bitterer pang than mine.”
“That may be,” said her husband, “for lads will be lads, and every maid on the mountain had a smile for our Paris. But never fret yourself, good wife; though he is a prince now and has other things to think of, he will come back to us one of these days.”
“In an ill day for him, then,” said she, “for I will tell you another thought that sticks in my mind — I shall see him next with the death wound in his breast that my dream foreboded.”
It chanced, soon after this, that a Phoenician trader came in his ship to Troy, bringing jewels and costly stuffs for sale, and Paris was by when he showed his choicest wares to Queen Hecuba and her daughters. Among them was a girdle of rare device, studded with sapphires, which the trader vowed had not its match in the world, except one that he had sold to a queen, who was well worthy of such a masterpiece, being accounted the fairest woman under the sun.
“What may be her name?” asked Paris, eagerly.
“She is called Helen,” replied the trader, “but the bards of her country have given her the name of World’s Desire. They say she chose her husband among fifty suitors, all kings or sons of kings; he is King Menelaus of Sparta, in the land of Greece.”
Paris needed no more to assure him that this Helen must be the peerless bride promised him by Aphrodite; the trader’s report made him long to behold her, and surely, he thought, the goddess herself had sent him tidings of her name and habitation so that he might go in quest of her. After pondering long, he went to King Priam and prayed leave to voyage with the trader as far as the great harbor town of Sidon, whither he was next bound, and thence to journey home by land, seeing men and cities, or even as a shepherd, he said, he had longed for a sight of the wonders in far countries; and now he was come to high estate, it irked him all the more to be so ignorant of the great world that had ever been the school of princes and heroes.
Priam was very loth to part with his now best-beloved son, but, being still more loth to cross him in anything, consented; he gave him a retinue befitting a prince, and great store of gold, and offered up sacrifices to all the gods of Troy for his prosperous voyaging, when the ship set sail.
Prosperous, in truth, was the voyage, but it was not to Sidon, for Paris had secretly hired the Phoenician to carry him straight to Sparta. And being come to the city of Menelaus, he made himself known to that king as Priam’s son, journeying through Greece to pay vows of thanksgiving at holy Delphi, which is the chiefest seat and sanctuary of Apollo.
King Menelaus made the Trojan prince right welcome, and soon conceived such friendship for him that he took all means to prolong his sojourn, giving nightly feasts in his honor and entertaining him by day with great huntings of the hart and the wild boar. Three se’nnights had passed in this manner when a business that brooked no delay called the hospitable king overseas to the isle of Crete, but, since he would not be absent long, he urged his guest to await his return.
“My queen,” said he, “will play the hostess to you meanwhile, and I have charged her, as she loves me, to see you lack nothing our house can afford for your ease and pleasure.”
Paris made a feint of refusal, under plea of desiring to set forward at once to Delphi, but at last he yielded, with joy in his heart, for, from the first hour he saw Queen Helen, he knew that he must win her or die; she was his star, fairer than the thousands that gemmed Night’s kirtle — and hitherto she had seemed remote as they. It was as though, when he came into her presence, an invisible barrier rose about her, holding him aloof. Not that she failed in gentle courtesy to the stranger within her gates; but whether at the banquet, or when, seated beside the hearth of an evening, she plied her ivory distaff, listening to the talk between Menelaus and his guest, the queen was ever as one whose thoughts are far away, spoke seldom, nor so much as glanced at Paris. But now, he promised himself, all this should be altered; he saw the hand of Aphrodite in the seeming chance that took Menelaus from home, “And it shall go hard,” he thought, “but I will profit by this luck the goddess sends me. With her to aid, and sweet Helen left unguarded, what may I not achieve?”
Thus did Paris, glorying in his heart, set his feet upon the road that lay plain and smooth before him, and little recked whither it might lead at the last.