This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
Eager though Diomedes was to renew the assault that day, it was plain to him and to all that award must first be made of the arms of Achilles, since the wearer of those arms, Thetis had said, was destined to be foremost in storming the city.
So, after breaking their fast, the council of chiefs met in their place of assembly —a level patch of sand enclosed by a circle of rough-hewn stone seats— and, silence being proclaimed by the heralds, Agamemnon rose up and thus addressed them:
“Princes, my comrades, you have heard one and all the command of immortal Thetis that we should make choice of the best warrior amongst us to receive the wondrous arms forged for Achilles by the lame smith god. Now, therefore, let each of you give his voice for whom he will, without fear or favor. But for my own part, I desire to waive whatever claim I may possess to this meed of valor, because of the high office I hold among you, for it sorts not with the dignity of a general-in-chief to enter such a contest; wherein, if another is preferred before him, his authority is lessened in all eyes, but, if he is victor, envious tongues declare his rank, not his merit, hath prevailed. Neither will I give my suffrage until the rest have spoken, lest I should seem to bias your free choice.”
Then out spoke impetuous Diomedes: “Right royal Agamemnon, it can matter little who speaks first, who last, in such a case, for all here will own that Ajax, son of Telamon, is by far the best warrior we have seen, next to peerless Achilles. Who but he is ever foremost in attack and last in retreat? Who else took up great Hector’s challenge to single combat, ay, and held his own? Who else stood lion-like at bay over slain Patroclus and rescued the corpse from overwhelming odds? And when Hector stormed our camp, while Achilles still kept aloof, nursing his bitter wrath — when all seemed lost, I say, who but Ajax saved the ships from the Trojan firebrands and turned the tide of fight? But time would fail to tell all his valorous deeds; and all here are eyewitnesses to the same. No delay, then — let us bid the son of Telamon take those glorious arms, as his by unquestioned right!”
He ceased, and applausive murmurs told that the greater part of the assembly were of one mind with him. But Odysseus rose up and said, “Generous son of Tydeus, though you forget your own daring exploits, so do not we — I least of all, who have had some slight share therein. To speak of one only — it was not Ajax, I think, who, with a single comrade, surprised the Thracians’ camp by night, killed their king and twelve men besides, and drove off his famous horses? That, in my poor judgment, showed greater prowess than laying on blows in the mellay, in broad daylight and well backed by troops of friends. Therefore, chieftains, were these arms mine to bestow——”
“Forbear, Odysseus, I pray you,” broke in Diomedes; good comrades we have ever been, but now you play no true friend’s part, setting my deeds above a better man’s. ‘Twas kindly meant, I doubt not, but no more of it! I tell you, if the arms were yours to bestow, and you offered them to me, as I take you to mean, my father’s son would think foul scorn to rob noble Ajax of his due.”
“Do you tell me that?” answered Odysseus composedly; “then I will even lay before this company the claims of — my father’s son. Give me leave, King Agamemnon and princes all, while I recall the acts of one who, though he be not the peer of stalwart Ajax in strength, yet, take him for all in all, is the better warrior — as I shall prove to you.”
At this, surprise held the assembly mute; Diomedes alone gave vent to an angry exclamation, and half rose; but Agamemnon, stretching forth his scepter to impose silence, said, “Proceed, wise son of Laertes. Good right have you to plead your claim, and when you have done so we will hear Ajax also in his own behalf, that we may well and fairly judge between you.”
Now had you seen Odysseus as he stood there, awaiting leave to speak, you would have thought him some stolid peasant churl, and marveled what he did in that assemblage of high-born heroes, for all the rest were men of great stature and lofty bearing, and each would stand forth in debate with kingly glance and gesture, waving his staff slowly and gracefully to bespeak attention; but Odysseus, though broad-shouldered and well-knit, was below middle height; his presence was mean, and he stood stock still with a clownish air, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground. Never seemed man less fitted to play the orator — until he opened his lips. But then, in deep, sonorous utterance, words flowed from him thick and fast as the snowflakes of a winter storm; and they were words of power, moulding the hearers’ thoughts to what shape he would, for this was the master stroke of his art, that he made even those he could not win upon his side think the better of Odysseus, by persuading them how exceedingly Odysseus valued their good opinion.
So now even the warmest partisans of Ajax could not but be softened towards his rival by his tone of deference to themselves, and they listened with growing goodwill to a speaker who so plainly showed his trust in their wisdom and justice.
Odysseus began by reminding them that two things are needful in the perfect warrior — valor and prudence, for the man who fights only with his muscles can never be a match in the long run for the man who fights with his brain; the one may win a battle, but it is the other who comes off victor in a war. Hence the supreme worth of wise generalship, wherewith, to the blessing of the Greeks, the gods had so richly endowed King Agamemnon and his chief counselor Nestor. Yet prudence is scarcely more needful to those in highest places than to those set in authority under them; who fulfill, as it were, the duties of a pilot at a vessel’s prow, looking watchfully ahead and sounding for hidden dangers, that the master mariner may know how best to steer.
From this comparison Odysseus deftly passed to the services he himself had rendered to the Greek cause from the beginning by watchfulness, shrewdness, and ready invention; but he spoke of them simply, without boastfulness or self-praise, even as though he were recounting the doings of another man.
And first he told how but for him the Greeks must have lacked their great champion, Achilles, for Thetis, foreseeing his doom at Troy, had spirited away her son to the isle of Scyros and presented him disguised as a maiden to the king’s daughter, that he might not be found when the heralds came to the house of Peleus with the summons to war. But when none could find Achilles, Odysseus surmised that old Peleus had sent him out of danger’s way to his guest friend the king of Scyros; forthwith he went to the isle in the guise of a pedlar and, as he showed his wares to the king’s daughter and her maidens, his keen eye dwelled on one taller by head and shoulders than the rest. Then on some pretext Odysseus displayed a sword of rare workmanship; enchanted with the noble weapon, the seeming maiden could not forbear handling it, and proving its temper by cleaving therewith an old helm nailed to the wall — and thus Achilles was found and known, and Odysseus easily prevailed on him to join the glorious enterprise of the Greeks.
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Briefly, then, Odysseus touched on his next service the luring of Iphigeneia to Aulis by the pretence of betrothal to Achilles. “King Agamemnon,” he said, “will bear me witness that I devised the plan but for which the maiden’s mother would never have suffered her to be taken from home, and our fleet could never have sailed.” But he was too prudent to add in Agamemnon’s presence what most of his hearers knew well — that he it was who overcame the king’s resolve to spare his daughter.
Much, too, he recalled of stratagems devised against the foe in the long war; and told lastly of feats of arms that proved he could shine no less in battle than in council. And then, smiling and looking down, he said, “Should not the best proof of a warrior’s prowess be the testimony of his foes? Now, if it be your pleasure, I can call a witness to the repute I possess among the Trojans, for one of our scouts watched them last night as they burned their dead without the walls, and he can repeat to you what he overheard them say concerning me.”
“Let him be summoned,” said Agamemnon, and, when the heralds had brought the man, he bade him declare what he had heard.
And the scout said, “Oh, king, I was creeping through a little coppice on the plain, near one of the burning pyres, and I heard two of the Trojans that stood by talking together, and I kept still to listen. One said to the other, ‘What Greek, think you, Deiphobus, will work us the most mischief now that Achilles is dead? For my part, I have most fear of Ajax, son of Telamon, and his huge strength.’ But the other answered, ‘You speak like a fool; Odysseus of Ithaca is more to be feared than fifty such as he. Ajax can do no more than rout us from the field, with all his thews and sinews; but Odysseus is ever hatching plots against us in that cunning brain of his, and mark my words, ’tis by his contriving Troy will fall at last, not by the wild bull onslaughts that are all Ajax is good for.’ With that, the two men moved away, and I heard no more.”
Now Deiphobus was the name of one of Priam’s sons, a discreet and valiant prince, next in age to Hector and best-loved by him of all his brothers, who had led the Trojans since Hector’s death. So the Greek chieftains thought it no small matter that he stood in such fear of Odysseus, and the scout’s report did the work which Odysseus meant it should. When the man had withdrawn, he modestly yet firmly desired them to weigh well all they heard of his achievements, and assured them of his readiness to abide by their judgment, adding that, if it were against him, they should not find he bore any of them a grudge or slackened in his zeal for the common cause. And thereupon he sat down in his place.
All eyes turned expectantly to Ajax, as Agamemnon called upon him to plead his claims in turn. But Ajax remained seated and answered, darkly scowling: “I will not plead, son of Atreus! Who made you lord and judge over me, your free ally, that I should stand forth at your bidding to render account of my doings — to sue and wheedle and prate like a beggar, or — an Odysseus? By the immortal gods, I marvel what stuff you are all made of to bear with him thus long! But think not Ajax will stoop to vie with him in words. No, my deeds speak loud enough for me, to all ears that are not the willing dupes of a glozing tongue!”
Passionately he spoke, glaring about him like a wounded lion, and his burly frame quivered with excess of rage.
“Curb yourself, noble Ajax,” old Nestor admonished him; “unreasonable is this wrath, yea, and causeless, for what more is required of you than needs must be when any meed of valor is adjudged? Or what offense is it that we, your peers and comrades, though well knowing your weighty claims to this glorious prize, should yet hear them from your own lips ere we award it?”
“I claim it as my due,” answered Ajax sullenly, “and let that suffice. What I am, and what I have done, none here can pretend he knows not; if, knowing it, he can declare Odysseus my better, on his own head be the shame.”
It was arrogantly said; and by contrast with the moderation and courtesy of the speech of Odysseus, the haughty self-confidence of Ajax doubly offended his hearers. Odysseus was quick to seize his advantage and said, as though to himself, but loud enough for all to hear: “I had forgotten one virtue of the perfect warrior, wherein Ajax outshines us all — self-control.”
“Be silent, dog,” fiercely exclaimed Ajax, starting to his feet, and would have rushed upon his wily adversary had not Nestor and Diomedes held him back.
“Forbear this unseemly violence, Ajax,” then said Agamemnon, “and you, Odysseus, refrain from adding fuel to his wrath. Here is enough said on both sides, since Ajax in his insolence refuses to justify the claim he hath set up. Now therefore, chieftains, let us pronounce judgment between these two, each of us in turn, beginning with honored Nestor.”
“Were it not better,” said Odysseus quickly, “if judgment were given by means of the voting urn, so that none may know which chieftains pronounced for Ajax and which for me?”
“Better far,” said Nestor, “for it will shut out all occasion of grudge or contention hereafter.”
And the rest eagerly assenting, Agamemnon commanded the heralds to prepare for the balloting.
But at this Ajax could no longer contain himself.
“What!” he thundered, rising and looking scornfully around the circle as he towered above them, “Is it come to this, that the assembled princes of Greece dare not proclaim their choice by word of mouth? And why — unless they have made a choice they know unworthy? Now by Zeus above us, I swear, I want no man’s suffrage who is ashamed to give it openly. Of all that call me friend is there not one to say boldly, ‘I am for Ajax‘? Not one — all silent? Diomedes — do even you fall from me?”
“Do not think it,” replied Diomedes in a low voice, laying a hand on his arm, “but I yield to authority, and so must you. Be calmer, I entreat you, for your own sake; this violence harms you more than aught Odysseus can say or do. And frankly, it warrants us in desiring to vote secretly rather than risk future strife, as Nestor says.”
“You are grown wondrous wise on a sudden,” answered Ajax, bitterly, “for when was Diomedes ever known to counsel meekness and discretion? But I see you have well learned your lesson. Oh, ay, prudence is the mark of the perfect warrior! And so I leave you to pay homage with the rest to the illustrious pattern of that virtue.”
So saying, Ajax strode out of the assembly with head erect and blazing eyes, and betook himself to his own quarters.
Diomedes looked after him with a frown of perplexity. “He surely is bewitched,” he said to Nestor. “What can ail him to talk so unlike himself? Proud, I have always known him, and terrible if roused to wrath — but not easily moved, and even then, never venting anger in taunts and gibes. To flout us all like this! And for what? As if, forsooth, though we admire Odysseus for wisdom, we cannot all see well enough that Ajax is far above him as a warrior.”
“So you think, my son,” said old Nestor, “but —a word in your ear— I would not be too sure that others see with your eyes. However, we shall soon know, for here comes Talthybius with the voting urn.”
Talthybius, the herald of Agamemnon, approached Nestor as he spoke and, setting down a tall vase of painted clay at his feet, desired him in his master’s name to preside over the voting. Meanwhile, the herald of Menelaus distributed two pebbles to each of the chieftains —one white and the other red— loudly announcing that the white pebbles were to be given for Odysseus and the red for Ajax. In solemn silence chieftain then dropped a pebble into the urn, taking care to conceal its color; when all had thus voted, Talthybius spread a cloak upon the ground and Nestor shook out the pebbles thereon. Instantly a buzz of excited voices arose, for it was seen that of some thirty pebbles thus displayed only three were red.
Diomedes stared on the cloak for a moment as if he could not believe his eyes; then said to Nestor, “The fools — the heartless fools! What has possessed them all? Two votes for our noblest, our bravest — besides my own! But yours was one of them, I know it, true old heart. Come, then, let us search out Ajax instantly — he must not hear this except from friends. Come, for none so well as you can break the tidings and persuade him to patience.”
“I fear me he is past persuasion,” began Nestor, but Diomedes in his eagerness caught him by the arm and hurried him away.