This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
Three mornings thereafter, Odysseus was standing on the white cliffs of a lone mountain island with Neoptolemus at his side. Behind the narrow, grassy plateau where they stood, the craggy hillside rose abruptly, tufted with dark, low-growing stone pines and mantled here and there with the yellow or scarlet cistus. Four or five of the Myrmidons leaned silently on their spears at either end of the plateau, like sentinels on guard, intently watching both approaches to the spot. There was no motion in the warm, aromatic air; no sound of life arose from the isle; only the faint lapping of waves far below broke the death-like stillness.
“So this is Lemnos!” said Neoptolemus with a sigh. “I had not thought it was such an utter solitude. Not even a fisherman’s hut. Odysseus — has he no one? And here ten years — gods, it is too horrible!”
“He has the wild goats and the sea birds,” answered his companion, shrugging his shoulders; “other inhabitants there are none; but what would you? As I have told you already, his affliction renders Philoctetes unfit to mingle with his kind, and we abandoned him here for that very cause. It is like your generous heart to pity him, but had you heard him making night and day hideous with screams and imprecations in the torments of his malady, you would not blame us. But let us lose no time; were he to see me, it would ruin all. I will but make sure he is still here — alive, then leave you to do the rest.”
“We have searched the whole isle,” began Neoptolemus——
“Yes,” interrupted Odysseus, whose keen eyes had been scanning the hillside, “and here our search ends, for I think I see his lair. Look up yonder, where sunlight is streaming from that low-browed opening in the rocks, and yet you cannot see the sky beyond. That must be a cavern with two entrances, facing the east and west — the very place to keep him warm in winter and cool in summer — sure to have a spring too, handy for his needs! Go up and look, Neoptolemus; but tread quietly — he may be sleeping within.”
The youth went lightly up the steep, rocky slope, peered warily into the cave, and entered; in a moment or two, he reappeared and sprang down to Odysseus’s side.
“There is no one there,” he said; “but I saw a bed of leaves, and some wretched cooking gear by the embers of a fire — and a handful of soiled rags steeping in a crock of water——”
“Ah, dressings for his foot,” said the other quickly. “‘Tis as I thought, then; and he cannot have gone far, crippled as he is. Now, mark me: you and your men must await his return; I go back to the ship, but if you are long delayed I shall send one of the crew to — help on the business. The man will pretend to be a trader, and to have tidings for you; you must seem to believe what he will tell you, and act thereon as occasion requires. As for the tale you are to tell Philoctetes, I trust you are perfect in that?”
“I have it by heart, thanks to your lessoning,” replied the youth somewhat impatiently. “But hear me a moment, Odysseus — the falsehood of it revolts me. I do not know that I can go through with this scheme of yours. Why must we deceive Philoctetes at all? Why not frankly tell him we are come to take him to Troy because he owns the bow of Heracles whereby the Greeks are destined to conquer?”
“Impossible,” answered Odysseus curtly. “I know the man and the bitter hatred he must bear us all. We shall never get him aboard our ship, I tell you, except by trickery.”
“I loathe trickery!” exclaimed Neoptolemus, hotly. “If I cannot persuade him, I had rather bring him on board by force. That should be easy enough, when we are ten strong men against one poor cripple.”
“Not when the cripple wields the weapons of Heracles,” said Odysseus. “You talk folly, Neoptolemus; not knowing, it seems, that this bow has a magic in it that makes the bearer invincible, and the touch of the arrows is death. Now hearken! Your scruples are honorable and worthy of your father’s son — but they come too late. When our chiefs entrusted this quest to me and I chose you for comrade, did you not swear before them all to help me to the uttermost? Fail me, then, if you list; leave me to fulfill this task alone as I will, or die in the attempt; but never show your face again among the Greeks, if they are to hear that the son of Achilles is a recreant and a perjurer.”
“I am not — no man shall say so,” cried Neoptolemus passionately. “I will keep faith with you, Odysseus, though your bidding goes sore against my conscience.”
“Then good speed to you, prince,” said Odysseus, smiling as he turned to go, “and remember, I pray you, that only fools stick at doing a trifling evil that great good may come.”
Neoptolemus watched him out of sight with a frown on his fair young face; then he beckoned his guard of Myrmidons to him and spoke with them awhile in low earnest tones. And while they talked together, a hoarse voice cried from above:
“Strangers, all hail! Welcome, whoe’er you be, that bless my eyes with sight of human faces!”
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At that, they looked up quickly and saw a man standing in the mouth of the cave, leaning on what seemed a staff, but was in truth a huge, unstrung bow.
“All hail!” he cried again and began limping painfully down to them, supporting himself with the bow. His form seemed that of a man in his prime, but his matted hair and beard were flecked with grey, and his weather-beaten face was lined as with age; his single garment hung about him in tatters; one foot was swathed in bandages streaked with blackish-green stains. Having reached the level, he drew a deep breath, scanning the silent group with eyes feverishly bright; then suddenly, “You are Greeks,” he exclaimed, “or I am the more deceived! Oh, speak to me, friends — let me hear my own tongue again at last — at last!”
“Assuredly we are Greeks,” replied Neoptolemus, regarding him compassionately.
“Ah, the dear sound of it!” cried the man with a laugh that was half a sob, “every syllable music to my ear! Say on, fair youth; tell me your name and parentage; whence you come, whither you are bound — and what blessed chance brings you to this unfrequented isle?”
Then said the youth, casting down his eyes, “I am Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. I come from the Greek camp at Troy and am bound for Scyros, my home. We have put in at Lemnos for — for water.”
“And do I indeed see the child of divine Achilles, the fosterling of my guest friend the king of Scyros?” said the other. “Give me your hand, dear lad — a joy beyond words is the sight of you, a boon beyond hope! But how say you that you come from our camp at Troy? Then the war still lingers on — how little we dreamed of this when we sailed all confident of speedy victory!”
“You were of the fleet, it seems,” said Neoptolemus; “pray you, what is your name?”
“Why, I am Philoctetes,” said the castaway. “Surely you knew that, knowing this is Lemnos? You shake your head — you never heard of me? Ah, accursed sons of Atreus and thrice accursed Odysseus, this is your work! Was it not enough to consign me to this living tomb, but you must bury my very name in oblivion? The gods do so to you and more also, ye hearts of stone!”
He raised his clenched hands to heaven with a fierce gesture and sank down upon the greensward trembling from head to foot.
“Some great wrong moves you thus, Philoctetes,” said Neoptolemus gently; “whatever it be, I pity you from my soul. Can you, without too much pain, tell me the nature of it? I would fain learn — but I fear you are overwrought——”
“Nay, I will be calm,” said Philoctetes, raising himself; “sit beside me, kind and dear prince, and I will tell you all — it will ease my heart. As you may know, the Greek fleet touched at diverse places before reaching Troy; one was a small, desert isle where we sought harborage in a storm. Now there was an ancient shrine there, having the name Chryse engraved over the portal; and some of our sailors were much afraid when they saw it, because, said they, Chryse was a goddess of the islanders in those seas, most powerful and malign, whose sanctuary none dare enter or even approach, except the priests. So the rest kept aloof from it; but I, in my foolhardiness deeming lightly of a goddess of barbarians, must needs go in to see what might be seen. And I saw neither image nor altar within, only a rude pillar of black stone anointed with oil and a great bowl of milk and honey set before it.
“But as I turned to go, I trod unawares on something alive — it was a black snake, and like lightning he struck his fangs into my foot. I rushed back to my comrades half mad with terror and pain, and they did for me what they could, but neither leechcraft nor spells could allay that fell poison. From that day to this, the unstanched festering wound has racked me with pangs that abate for a while —else must I have died long since— only to renew themselves in more cruel violence.
“Now would you think, Neoptolemus, that any born of woman could have the heart to add to misery such as this? I tell you, savage beasts would have shown me more mercy than did those brother kings and Odysseus! Next after Chryse’s Isle, we touched at Lemnos, where the seer Calchas bade us land and offer sacrifice to Hephaestus the smith god, from whose forge arises the flame and smoke that are ofttimes seen on yon mountain peak. Then, while the sacrifice was offering, a paroxysm of my torment seized me —I should have told you that after each of these comes a brief, deep trance— and when it passed I lay like one dead upon the shore. And when I came to myself I saw the whole fleet in full sail to the eastward, the black ship of Odysseus hindmost, and that was the only one still within hail. I shouted, I screamed and I was answered. The cruel villain himself, whom I could clearly see upon the stern, called out some mockery of farewell; some lying plea that Agamemnon durst not carry me further lest one so manifestly under a curse should bring pollution upon all the host. Then for a time I became a madman; how long it was before I regained my wits I know not; but ever since my daily prayer has been for Death to come and take me and he, too, will not heed!”
“But has no ship visited Lemnos all these years?” asked Neoptolemus; “no roving trader or the like?”
“There is but ill harborage here,” answered Philoctetes evasively; “stress of weather has brought two or three crews that gave me alms of food and clothing — but they would not cumber themselves with a sick man. And though they promised to bear news of my plight to my father’s house in Trachis, either they kept not faith with me or else the old man is no more, for succor has never come. Belike those others would not rescue me for fear of the Greek commanders — but you, son of Achilles, you will not let friendship for your allies hinder you from taking me hence?”
“Fear not that, Philoctetes,” replied Neoptolemus, “for I have renounced alliance with the Greeks and hold the brother kings and Odysseus, their counselor, my worst enemies. Good cause have I to hate them no less than you do, since they have despoiled me of my dead father’s god-wrought arms.”
“Woe is me,” exclaimed Philoctetes. “Has Achilles fallen? And how — surely by no mortal foeman’s prowess?”
“By the hand of Paris,” said Neoptolemus, “but, as we hear, Apollo himself gave and guided the shaft. Then, directed by an oracle, the Greek chiefs sent for me, with many false and flattering messages; but when I came to them, I found they had bestowed the arms, my rightful heritage, on Odysseus as a meed of valor; neither would they nor he restore them for all my pleading. Nay, Odysseus added insult to wrong, taunting me as a callow stripling unfit to possess the weapons of a warrior.”
“That was like him, the shameless dog,” said Philoctetes. “But where then was gallant Ajax? —— Where was Patroclus, your father’s other self? They would never suffer you to be thus foully wronged.”
“I saw them not,” answered the youth sadly, “only their graves beside the sea.”
“Alas, have they likewise perished?” cried Philoctetes; “these are heavy tidings indeed. But there was another who should have seen you righted — lives not the good old Nestor, my father’s friend and mine?”
“He lives,” said Neoptolemus, “but in such evil case that he can little heed another man’s woes. The death of his beloved Antilochus sits heavy at his heart.”
“Antilochus too!” said Philoctetes bitterly; “now would not this tempt the most pious to doubt if there be any justice in heaven? These four, so noble, so upright of soul, cut off in their flower; while the base and treacherous prosper and prevail! Look to it, Olympians, lest men fain to adore the divine be yet driven to renounce such gods as you!”
At that moment, one of the Myrmidons touched Neoptolemus on the arm saying, “My prince, yonder comes one of our crew and a stranger with him. Is it your pleasure they should approach, or shall we bid them wait awhile?”
“Let them come near,” said Neoptolemus. “They may bring some message from our ship’s captain. But who can the stranger be? He looks like a trader and one that is well to pass.”