This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
The sun had just arisen in a cloudless sky, and already the blue spires of wood smoke were curling aloft from a thousand hearths and the cheerful stir of life began to fill the wide ways of Troy, for even in a beleaguered city the daily round goes on. And indeed, long habit had made the state of war so familiar to the Trojans that they had come to look on it as a thing of course to be pent within their bulwarks, to live amid excursions and alarms, nay, to see the funeral trains of the fallen pass day by day along their streets. Thus it was, even with men and women ripe in years; the younger, who had been but children when the siege began, had almost forgotten the days of peace; as for the little ones, born and bred among the sights and sounds of warfare, tales of dragons and chimeras were not more marvelous to their ears than the old folks’ talk of a time when there were no Greeks and no fighting in the land.
So when in that bright morning hour, ushering in, it seemed, another day of a struggle that would never end, a sudden rumor flew from lip to lip — “The Greeks are gone,” the hearers’ minds were divided between unbelief and blank amazement. It was like being told that the sea was gone from its immemorial bounds! Sober citizens shook their heads — the thing could not be — it was some delusion — or a false report set about by spies of the Greeks. But still the rumor spread, and soon the most incredulous were shaken, for the trumpets summoned the burghers to assembly in the marketplace, and there Priam let proclaim by voice of heralds that the tidings brought in by a scout at dawn were confirmed. Prince Deiphobus with his bodyguard had reconnoitered the shore and found it vacant of ships, and the Greek camp deserted. The cause none might guess, but the whole fleet of the enemy had assuredly departed, under cover of night.
Now even then the Trojans could not realize that deliverance was come to them at last, but stood awhile like folk dazed, until one very aged man lifted up his voice in fervent thanksgiving to the gods, not without tears; whereat the multitude, strangely moved, broke suddenly into wild laughter mingled with weeping. Grave, reverend elders, and battle-hardened warriors embraced one another, sobbing like children and crying out: “Troy is saved! The sword hung over us is taken away! Praise, all praise to Zeus, and holy Apollo, and Athena our Lady of Succour!” Then forthwith each man there must needs carry the great news to his home; and joy, as it were a rising tide, overflowed the hearts of young and old, high and low, throughout the city.
Next, all the men folk were eager to view for themselves the abandoned camp of the foe, and a great company set out thither, headed by the ancient king himself in his mule-drawn car. And being come to the trench and wall that defended the long encampment, and passing through the open gate, they ranged hither and thither among the empty huts, calling one to another to mark now this, now that. Here Hector had made his great assault and all but destroyed the ships with firebrands; these were Achilles’s quarters, these Agamemnon’s; here had been a wrestling ring, and yonder the place of council or assembly, set around with seats of marble.
But presently loud cries from a group that had gone down the seaward side of the ridge whereon the huts were built, called the rest to behold a mysterious and prodigious object. Close upon high water mark, there stood upon the sand the gigantic wooden image of a horse, mounted on wheels of immense size. The legs were four massive posts, and the barrel-shaped body was framed of overlapping planks, like a ship’s hull; but the great head and arched neck were carved to the life, and the eyes, of some lustrous paste, seemed to fix the beholders with a glassy and malevolent stare. Painted vermilion, streaked and dappled with black, the ungainly monster towered against the background of blue sea, a sight to perplex the wisest heads.
For a while, the Trojans lost themselves in conjectures. That this horse was newly made was plain from his scarce dried coat, and the fresh-sawn timbers littered about him. But why had the Greeks undertaken a work of such labor and skill on the eve of departure? They must have meant to leave it here as some sort of memorial — or was it rather an offering to some god? A man of rank and influence, Thymoetes by name, caught up the suggestion and weightily pronounced that the horse was a propitiatory offering to the guardian deities of Troy, and as such ought to be forthwith transported to the city.
“Clearly,” said he, “our enemies furnished it with wheels for no other purpose. Why their gift should take this singular form, I pretend not to explain; but what more natural than that they should seek to avert the wrath of our gods, whose land they have afflicted so long?”
But against this, certain sage elders of the people declared that an enemy’s gift is ever baneful; far from accepting the horse, the safest way was to destroy it at once, either by axe or by fire. This opinion found favor with the more cautious-minded, but that of Thymoetes prevailed with the unreflecting many, and loud debate arose. Just then, a little procession was seen descending the ridge, led by a stately, black-bearded man in priestly array. Two lads swinging golden censers walked one on either side of him, and a band of temple slaves followed — some bearing faggots and lighted torches, others leading along a garlanded bull. Reverently the crowd made way, for this was Laocoon, priest of Poseidon, and they saw he was come to offer sacrifice to that mighty ruler of the deep upon the seashore, as the manner was.
And suddenly someone cried out that the Greeks’ strange gift must be meant for Poseidon, lord and tamer of the steed, the patron of Troy from the beginning, and fellow builder with Apollo of her sacred wall. Which reading of the riddle so pleased all the folk that they were for dragging the horse to the city then and there. But Laocoon, striding forward, loudly bade them forbear.
“Oh, fools and blind!” he exclaimed. “Do you know the Greeks little after all these years that you cannot scent treachery in this device of theirs? Is this how you profit by the bitter lessons you have had from the master plotter, Odysseus? Or do you think, because the enemy have withdrawn for a season, they have for good? Not so; therefore am I come to implore Poseidon mercifully to avert their return. As for this wooden horse, believe me, it is some engine of destruction; perhaps they have concealed armed men in its huge belly — perhaps —for what is it but a movable tower?— they mean to wheel it alongside our wall and spring to the rampart from its back. Beware of such gifts, sons of the Trojans, and deal with them as I do!”
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So saying, he hurled the javelin he carried at the wooden horse. Mightily he threw, and the broad, keen point struck its flank with a hollow thud and remained fixed, the shaft quivering in air. Was it fancy, or did the bystanders at the same instant really hear a faint clang as of arms reverberate from within the horse? Swayed by the words and example of the priest, many were in act to rush forward and break it open with their swords or iron-shod staves, when the sight of other newcomers arrested them.
These were a troop of shepherds who dragged among them a young man of disheveled and terrified appearance, with arms bound behind his back. They ran full speed to the spot where Priam was standing, and flung their captive at his feet, crying, “A prisoner, lord king! A Greek spy! We bring him to you for sentence.”
“Death to him! Death to the Greek!” thundered the Trojans with one voice; but Priam, stretching forth his scepter, commanded silence and bade the shepherds tell where they had found the man. And they answered that, having heard the good tidings, they had come down from Ida to view the camp; and as they crossed the plain this Greek came out of an osier bed by the river, as if to meet them, nor sought to fly, but willingly yielded himself prisoner. Being taxed with spying, he denied it, but to all questions he would only answer that he would tell his name and business to their rulers. Then Priam commanded to lift the man upon his feet and mildly bade him give account of himself. The trembling prisoner looked with a shudder at the fierce, threatening faces around him, and bursting into tears, “Hapless that I am,” he exclaimed, “there is no soul to pity or befriend me in the wide world! I have ‘scaped death at the hands of mine own comrades only to perish at the hands of these their enemies.”
These words awakened curiosity in the Trojans, and all listened attentively while, at a sign from Priam, the prisoner continued:
“Oh, king, that I am a Greek it were vain to deny, and as such I expect no mercy from you or yours. But since it is your will to know my name and what brings me here, I will speak the whole truth of the matter. I am Sinon of Argos, sprung of an ancient and once powerful house, now brought low by the wicked arts of a remorseless enemy — Odysseus of Ithaca. That accursed miscreant destroyed Palamedes, the head of my kindred, by lying accusations, having a deadly grudge against him; and too well I know now that he plotted to destroy me also, because he heard of my vowing to avenge my murdered kinsman.
“For when our chiefs resolved to give up the siege, Calchas the seer announced that he had received this oracle from Apollo — Hither ye came safely by the shedding of a virgin’s blood; hence shall ye not depart safely without shedding the blood of him I have chosen among you. Then in sore dismay we inquired of the seer who was that predestined victim, but he shrank from uttering the name, and for ten days he kept his hut, refusing speech with any man. Meanwhile, all the host were in a fever to be gone, and at last Odysseus —who but he?— prevailed on Calchas to speak out. Now as the gods live, I believe he bribed the covetous seer with gold to forge that oracle, or at least to name a victim instead of choosing one by lot, for mine was the name that Calchas pronounced at last, in hearing of all.
“And Odysseus, standing beside me, whispered in my ear — ‘Those that threaten me, Sinon, seldom live long.’ But I, overpowered with horror, found no voice to plead — no strength to resist my doom — and of all I called friends not one interposed to save me. In place of pity I saw only selfish joy in every face, each man exulting in his own escape — nay, eager to seal his safety with my blood! Why should I dwell on the dreadful scene that followed? Enough to tell, that at the last moment, at the very altar, I shook off the numbing trance of despair — sudden strength like a madman’s came to me — I burst my bonds and fled as on wings! How I outstripped my pursuers I know not, but I gained the river bank and, doubling through the osier coverts, threw them off my track. The search went on till nightfall, while I lay quaking in a bed of reeds — then I heard a trumpet sounding the recall to camp. Now, Trojan lords, you have heard all, and I am ready to die. Strike quickly, if you would do Odysseus a service!”
But the kindly old king made answer, “We have no thought of harming you, unfortunate young man; rather will we give you a new home and new friends in the stead of those you have lost by no fault of your own. Unbind him, some of you! And now tell us, Sinon, since that is your name, what moved the Greeks thus suddenly to depart — and what means this strange horse they have built?”
Released from his bonds, Sinon raised his hands to heaven and solemnly said, “Be witness, divine light of day; be witness, the altar of sacrifice and the sacred fillets placed on my devoted head, that lawfully I renounce the ties of country, lawfully forswear allegiance to the Greeks and reveal their secrets! And you, gracious king, when you shall find Troy owes salvation and triumph to the knowledge I now impart, be mindful of your promise to spare and befriend me!”
He paused, looking around the expectant circle with a furtive smile on his pale face, then addressed himself again to Priam: “You must know, royal lord, that the Greeks have ever placed all their hopes of victory in the favoring might of Pallas Athena. But since that theft of the Palladium, whereby they thought to deprive you utterly of her protection, the goddess has manifested by clear and awful signs her deadly wrath against them. To name but one, the sacred image was no sooner set up in our camp than a dazzling flame burst from its helmed head, and, to the terror of all, it brandished three times the lance in its hand! And Athena herself revealed to Calchas in a vision that the Greeks were become utterly hateful to her, because Diomedes and Odysseus had polluted that most holy image by the touch of their bloodstained hands, after they had slain its keepers on Ida.
“Nothing could wipe out that stain of innocent blood; but a heavy penalty must be paid if the Greeks would escape sheer destruction at the hands of the outraged goddess, for not only must they quit the Trojan land, but they must make and leave behind them another wooden image in lieu of that which they had desecrated; and it should be a new and more exceeding potent talisman, bringing glory as well as safety to Troy. Yea, if the Trojans once lodged it within their citadel, they might cross the seas in their turn and subdue all Greece by the power of that wondrous war charm! All this the vision spake to Calchas, and the Greeks, not daring to disobey, caused Epeus, a noted craftsman, to build this horse forthwith.”
Again Sinon paused, and several voices cried, “But why a horse? Why of so huge a size?”
“Ah, friends,” he answered, “you have yet to learn the cunning of the Greeks. Athena gave no command concerning the form or size of the image; therefore they bethought them of making it such that the Trojans should neither guess its purpose nor be able to take it through the city gates. Who indeed could guess that the image of a four-footed beast was to take the place of Athena’s own likeness as the Luck of Troy?”
Then said Laocoon, sternly eyeing the Greek, “Yet the horse might be taken for the symbol of Poseidon, the builder and lover of our city?”
“True,” answered Sinon readily, “but all the less reason to connect it with Athena, for those two immortals, men say, are rivals in many cities. Is it not told how they disputed for possession of bright Athens, and, when they had referred their claims to a jury of the burghers, Athena made hers good by creating the olive tree, while Poseidon caused a horse to spring from the ground?”
“You have the glib tongue of all your race, stranger,” returned the priest scornfully; “if you have not also your share of their cunning, I am the more deceived. Now hear me, princes and men of Troy. Be not so lost to all prudence as to trust the bare word of this unknown Greek. For my part, I find gross unlikelihood in every part of his tale. How could one man break through a multitude and escape, as he pretends? Or who ever heard of divine vengeance falling on a whole people for the sin of two offenders, and they themselves left unscathed? Or think you any would dare to cheat the goddess of her will by such a device as this man alleges? No! The whole story smells of falsehood and of treason, nor will I, for one, believe a word of it unless Athena herself send a sign that it is true. Heed my warning, Trojans, if you be men, not credulous children; meanwhile, I must about my sacred duties.”
With that, Laocoon advanced slowly and majestically to the margin of the waves and stood there between the two incense bearers, who were his own sons, chanting an invocation to Poseidon, while the attendants made ready for the sacrifice. Then, in full view of the throng who reverently watched him, the sign whereof he had spoken was given in fearful wise, for a pair of huge sea snakes suddenly came gliding over the calm surface of the deep, their crested emerald heads reared aloft, their burnished coils rising and falling as they swam; straight to the shore they came with the speed of arrows, and in an instant each had enfolded one of Laocoon’s sons in its deadly grip.
The slaves fled screaming, but the agonized father rushed, javelin in hand, upon the nearest monster — in vain, for, ere he could strike, a blow of its tail dashed the weapon from his grasp, and he too was seized in its coils. Even then, he freed one arm and clutched the other serpent by the neck, but now both the great beasts twined themselves about him, so that the terror-stricken onlookers beheld father and sons writhing in one dreadful web. There was a moment of struggle, of furious hisses and throttling cries; then three crushed, lifeless bodies sank upon the beach and the serpents darted onward, side by side. And all ran for their lives, scattering right and left in blind, headlong flight; but the serpents neither halted nor turned aside; through the camp they went, rolling their vast, sinuous coils along, and swiftly disappeared across the plain. Few save women and aged men were abroad in Troy that day, but these told shudderingly how they saw the two dire creatures glide through the unguarded gates, and up to Athena’s temple in the citadel, within whose portals they vanished, to be seen no more of human eye.
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This fearful end of Laocoon and his sons appeared to all that witnessed it a manifest judgment upon him for thwarting the will of Athena, and a clear proof that Sinon’s tale was true. Therefore, the Trojans’ first act on recovering from their terror was to bury the three corpses in the sand where they lay, without rites and in silence, as the custom was when any perished by lightning or other heaven-sent doom. And next, having dispatched messengers for wain ropes, they hasted to drag the wooden horse to Troy. At the gate, they were brought to a standstill, for that towering bulk of timber rose far higher than the lintel, and its head was almost level with the cornice of the wall above.
Then out spoke the sage prince Antenor, near kinsman to Priam, “Truly said Sinon that the Greeks had made the horse so great and tall of set purpose. But they shall not balk us. Come, let us make a breach in the wall to give it entrance!”
And forthwith the men of Troy set to work with axes and crowbars; and as the Fates decreed, they breached the wall at the very spot where Achilles had torn down the battlement in the hour of his doom. Moreover, though the Trojans then remembered it not, it was just here that Heracles, with Telamon his comrade, broke through on the day when he took the city and slew the treacherous King Laomedon.
Now all these things were ordained from the beginning, for, when Poseidon and Apollo were yet building that wall for Laomedon, he betrayed his intent to defraud them of their promised hire; wherefore they secretly brought another builder to finish it, even Aeacus, the father of Peleus; because they knew that their own handiwork was impregnable, but what a mortal built, other mortals could destroy. And when Aeacus had filled with masonry the gap they had left, behold, three serpents appeared, and each in turn strove to mount the wall at the place where he had labored. Two fell back, writhing in throes of death, but the third passed over with a weird and warlike cry. Then did Apollo interpret that portent to Aeacus, saying that the three serpents signified three warriors descended from himself, who should assault Troy in the after time. Their names the god revealed not, but his prophecy was handed down in the family of Aeacus; and by this time it was evident that the first two serpents prefigured Patroclus and Achilles, who were both of his posterity. As for the third and conquering serpent, the hour was even now at hand that should reveal the victor he foreshadowed.