This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
The elder of the two newcomers was indeed habited with some richness, wearing a large fur mantle in place of the ordinary seaman’s coarse cloak; the dirk at his belt had a jeweled haft, the belt itself was of fine scarlet leather clasped with gold, and heavy gold rings were in his ears. He signed to his companion to remain at a distance, walked quickly up to Neoptolemus, and gravely saluted him.
“Hail, son of Achilles,” he said; “I have seen your face in the Greek camp, though mine is strange to you, and I recognized the ensign of your ship as I passed her lying at anchor just now. So I brought my barque to land that I might give you a friendly warning. Believe me, prince, you will do wisely to quit Lemnos without an instant’s delay.”
“Stranger,” said Neoptolemus, “I thank you for your good intent, but I must hear who you are and what this means.”
“I am a trader of the isle Peparethos,” replied the other, “captain of my own vessel, and now sailing her home from Troy. When I loosed thence it was the talk of the Greek camp how that Phoenix and Diomedes were going forthwith to Scyros to bring you back by force if need be, because of the prophecy that you shall take the city.”
“They will use force, will they?” exclaimed the youth. “Let them try it. I ask nothing better than to teach them a lesson! But — is Odysseus not with them? I marvel he was not chosen leader of such an enterprise.”
“He had other work on hand,” answered the seeming trader, “and was about to set sail likewise in quest of — someone else…” His voice sank to a whisper as he went on — “A word in your ear, son of Achilles. Know you who this lame man is?”
“Nay, speak aloud,” said Neoptolemus, “this is the renowned archer, Philoctetes, and my good friend; whatever you have to tell me he shall hear also.”
“In few words then,” said the other, “Odysseus is even now on his way hither, having undertaken to bring Philoctetes to Troy or forfeit his head. I heard him swear it. Now I fear the cunning Ithacan; never man thwarts him, they say, that he does not hunt down like a tireless wolf until he destroys him in the end; but I cannot see one so young and noble fall into his clutches for want of a warning — and I trust to your honor not to betray me hereafter. Farewell, prince, for I must to sea again with all speed, and if you love freedom and safety, you will follow; brave as you are, you are no match for Odysseus and his wiles; and if he find you here, back to Troy you go, dead or alive.”
So saying, the disguised messenger turned on his heel and strode rapidly away.
Now Neoptolemus was not subtle-witted, and it passed his understanding why Odysseus should have thus announced his coming and his design to Philoctetes. But the truth was that Odysseus feared the youth’s scruples would return if he talked long with the unhappy castaway, and he foresaw that news of his own approach on such an errand would make Philoctetes eager to escape without further parley. Neoptolemus could not refuse to take him on board without betraying his confederate; to that length he would never go; the victim would enter the trap of his own accord, and Odysseus would keep out of sight until he was safely embarked — then, ah, then he promised himself an hour of richest enjoyment!
Nothing of this did Neoptolemus comprehend, but it seemed plain to him that Odysseus for some reason desired his immediate return to the ship; he therefore turned to Philoctetes and said with an embarrassed air, “You hear, worthy friend? I must away instantly. The gods grant you deliverance from your sufferings — farewell.”
“But you will not leave me here?” cried Philoctetes. “Oh, no, no, you could not have the heart! See, I kneel — I clasp your knees — you shall not shake me off. I am your suppliant, Neoptolemus, not to be repulsed without sacrilege. By Zeus, guardian of suppliants, by your father and your mother, by all you hold dear, I adjure you, have mercy on a helpless wretch — forsake me not in my extremity. Ah, you are loth to take me because of this foul malady — but I will be no trouble, none! I ask no tendance — only a corner in the hold — at the prow, anywhere. Your crew shall not complain of me, I will keep so quiet — they need never come near me except to throw me their broken victuals. See, see — these men look pityingly; ask them if they would not gladly suffer me on the ship for such a little while! Hark you, friends, one day’s sail brings you to Euboea, the nearest point of Greece; do but carry me so far, and I will make shift to reach home; fear not I will burden you all the way to Scyros.”
The hardy Myrmidons were indeed visibly moved by the castaway’s passionate pleading; as for Neoptolemus, he turned his head aside lest Philoctetes should see the tears in his eyes, and said with feigned indifference, “What say you, my men? Myself, I am in doubt how best to act.”
“Let us take the man with us, my prince,” answered a grey-headed retainer; “it were the deed of barbarians to desert him in this plight; so say I, and so will all my comrades, I dare be sworn.”
At these words Philoctetes uttered a joyful exclamation and half rose, stiffly and slowly; Neoptolemus gently helped him to his feet, then said to the Myrmidons:
“It is easier to make promises than to redeem them; and by all I hear of this sufferer, you would rue yours if he became our shipmate. Besides, we shall not abandon him to languish in this solitude, but to be straightway conveyed by Odysseus to the camp at Troy, where he will be sedulously cared for. The chiefs will vie with one another to heap on him marks of honor and regard——”
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“Do you mock me, son of Achilles?” broke in Philoctetes, “or do you forget that the men of whom you speak left me here to die by inches rather than endure my presence? Nay, forgive me. I am overhasty; I have not thought to ask why Odysseus now comes to fetch me. Is it because remorse has touched the Greeks at last?”
An apter pupil of Odysseus would have answered yes, but in Neoptolemus the habit of truthful speech was too strong.
“The Greeks send for you,” he blurted out, “because you have the bow of Heracles, and a seer has revealed that Troy cannot be taken without it.”
“Then by all the gods,” said Philoctetes with blazing eyes, “I will linger out my days in torment here rather than let them have it. They have never wasted a thought on my long agony — well, I am avenged at last, that shall suffice me! Ay, I begin to see the gods are just, after all; my foes, too, shall know the sickness of hope deferred; their bones, like mine, shall bleach upon an alien strand; their names, like the name of Philoctetes, fade out of human memory unblest, unsung!”
Neoptolemus looked at him in deepening embarrassment.
“But when Odysseus comes,” he began——
“He will find me forewarned and fore-armed,” interrupted Philoctetes; “and woe betide him if he comes within bowshot, for I will no more spare him than I would the serpent that made me a loathly cripple.”
And then, baffled at every turn, the youth saw nothing for it but to hurry on the deed of treachery.
“Philoctetes,” he said, “I cannot leave you to perish in this wilderness. Since you are utterly purposed not to go to Troy, I will take you to Scyros. The king, my grandsire, will make you welcome, and together we will defend the isle against your foes and mine, though the whole Greek host should sail from Troy to capture us. Come, my men shall carry you down to the ship, for we have no time to lose.”
“The gods reward you for this, true son of Achilles,” said Philoctetes fervently, “even thus would he have spoken, and in you, methinks, his spirit lives again. Let us away — yet tarry a moment or two, while I fetch certain needments from my cave.”
“Nay, spare yourself the trouble,” answered Neoptolemus; “my ship is well found with everything that can minister to your comfort.”
“But not with the thing I need most,” said Philoctetes. “I have found a herb of the isle that assuages the burning pain in my foot, and had just brought in a fresh store of it when I heard your voices below. Pray you, let me fetch that — and I would make sure, also, that I have left none of my arrows in the cave by oversight.” He pointed to the quiver hanging over his shoulder, and added, “The envenomed shafts of Heracles must not fall into some chance comer’s hands — the merest scratch from one, and the Hydra poison turns your blood to liquid flame!”
“Ah,” said Neoptolemus with an eager look, “the shafts of Heracles — and this, doubtless, is the famous bow! May I touch it —hold it, just a moment— if it is not asking too much?”
He blushed scarlet as he spoke, for the impulse had flashed through his mind to cut short this odious scene of deception by rushing away with the fateful weapons, if he were suffered to lay hands on them. But Philoctetes thought he blushed out of modesty and loved him the more.
“Surely, surely, dear lad,” he answered heartily, and held out both the bow and the quiver; “why, ’tis a little thing for you to ask, though more than I would grant to any I did not trust like a son. Hereafter you may boast of being the only mortal, save myself, to handle these sacred relics of the mightiest hero earth has seen. Quick, take them — I — I am ill at ease — let me alone — ’twill pass——”
His voice died away in a stifled groan; he thrust the weapons into the youth’s hands and turned from him abruptly, staggering like a drunken man. Instantly Neoptolemus threw down the coveted prize and ran to support him.
“What is it, oh, what is it?” he cried affrightedly. “Tell me what ails you — lean on me — gods, he is cold as ice! Philoctetes, speak, what can we do for you?”
But Philoctetes pushed him away, muttering hoarsely, “It is nothing, I tell you — let us make for the ships; quick, quick, we have delayed too long! I am well, I can walk alone, for pity’s sake do not touch me.” He reeled forward a few paces, moaning; then, convulsed in every limb, “It comes,” he screamed, “the agony comes upon me! I can bear no more — my foot, my foot of fire! In mercy, boy, draw your sword and hew it off!” And with shriek upon shriek, he fell writhing on the ground.
Pity and horror rooted Neoptolemus to the spot; not for all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them could he have left that tragic figure, and the desire to aid him was now single in his breast. At his command, two of the Myrmidons hastened to bring the bundle of herbs and a jar of fresh water from the cave; but Philoctetes uttered such frantic prayers not to be touched that his would-be helpers could only stand by and watch, as they thought, his death struggle. But gradually the throes that shook him abated, and his tense limbs relaxed; now he lay still, with great drops rolling from his clammy brow; and suddenly a trickle of dark blood oozed from the swathings about his foot.
“The worst is past,” he faintly said; “come near, Neoptolemus, but do not lift me yet. The trance slumber is stealing over me; it will be brief, but while it lasts I must lie here; to break it were death to me, so the physicians of the host declared. Now promise — or I need no oath from Achilles’s son— promise you will not desert me in my sleep, nor suffer others to touch the weapons of Heracles.”
“I do promise,” replied Neoptolemus. “Sleep tranquilly, poor friend, and may you awake restored!”
Philoctetes gave him a look of grateful trust; then closed his eyes, and instantly fell into a profound slumber.
“Now, were I Odysseus,” thought Neoptolemus as he picked up the bow and quiver, “the rest would be easy. How would he upbraid me for letting slip this chance! But said word is thrall; if I stole away now, I were shamed forever in my own sight.”