This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
He watched a while the quiet breathing of the sleeper, but presently bade his followers keep guard while he went to search the cave for the chance-fallen arrows whereof Philoctetes had spoken. And scarcely had he disappeared under the cavern portal when Philoctetes opened his eyes, sat up, and looked about him broad awake.
“Where am I?” he said. “And who are these?” Then, rising to his feet, “Ah, I remember; kind friends, you are with me still — then all is well. But where is your young prince?”
“Here, Philoctetes,” cried Neoptolemus, springing down the slope; “I have been searching your cave for the arrows, but there are none. Why, you look bravely, man; there is color on your cheek and you hold yourself erect! But is it well you should stand — are you wholly yourself again?”
“I can not only stand, but walk while this relief lasts,” answered Philoctetes, “and so let us be going. I have delayed you too long already, but you shall see how fast I will hobble to your ship, dear, loyal-hearted lad! Ah, who else would have borne with me so patiently in my frenzy, tarrying here to his own danger that he might save a poor lost wretch? Never can I cease to bless you, never think of you or hear your name without a prayer that all-seeing Zeus may reward you a thousandfold.”
These words, spoken with a smile of happy confidence, were more than Neoptolemus could bear.
“Philoctetes,” he burst out, “I must and will tell you the truth! It is not to Scyros I shall take you, but to Troy. All I said of my quarrel with the Greek chiefs was false; I came here by their orders, to lure you back to them.”
“You cannot mean it — you are jesting!” exclaimed Philoctetes incredulously; “yet no — your look tells me you are in bitter earnest. Oh, gods, that such a face should mask deceit! Take it hence — begone out of my sight; give me those arms again, and get you back to those that sent you — fit mates for one so early versed in guile!”
“Reproach me as you will,” said Neoptolemus, “but hear me yet a moment. In honest faith, Philoctetes, I tell you the fraud we purposed was for your own good no less than ours, for inspired Calchas declares that not only shall Troy be conquered by you and me together, but you shall be healed there of your grievous wound. Be persuaded, then; forgive and forget things past, and come with me to the camp.”
“Never!” fiercely replied the other, “not if the seer promised me to take fifty Troys; not if I might be made whole the instant this foot touched Trojan soil. Urge me no more, but give me the bow and quiver, and get you gone.”
He reached forth his hand as he spoke, but Neoptolemus drew back quickly and said:
“Nay, these go with me, for I cannot disobey the behest of our chiefs.”
“Oh, viper! Oh, dissembling fiend!” shouted Philoctetes. “You have undone me — robbed me of all by vilest trickery. Oh, master villain, was it for this you feigned compassion and won my trust?” Then, as Neoptolemus stood silent, “But you will not, you cannot do this thing,” he went on in beseeching tones, “for listen, it is life itself you would take from me. I have no food but the wild goats and seabirds I shoot — without my bow, I should perish of hunger. By the gods of your fathers, I implore you, son of Achilles! For the love of mercy, give me the bow again! What, not a word? No answer but that cold, inexorable gaze? Oh, he is deafer to entreaty than these rocks, silent witnesses of my long anguish and now of a woe beyond it all! Is it pride in his triumph that keeps him mute? Alas, he knows not ’tis but a poor corpse he hath despoiled, a shadow, a strengthless phantom that once was Philoctetes… Child, even now be true to your better self! Only restore my arms, and I acquit you of all blame; I will not hold you to your word that you would take me to Scyros. Ah, me, unhappy, am I so scorned, so abject, that not a man here will heed these prayers, these tears? Then let me creep to shelter like a wounded beast and wait death in my lair. Aidless, alone, in the lingering tortures of famine, I will curse with my last breath this boy whose guileless looks have murdered me.”
So saying, he turned and made shift to limp a few paces upward; but lacking the bow to support him, he slipped on the hillside and lay there prone, muttering and moaning.
All this while, Neoptolemus had stood like one fixed in thought, gripping the bow and quiver in either hand. No sign of his inward struggle had escaped him, and the Myrmidons, watching his impassive face, had not dared to betray their growing uneasiness at what they heard. But when Philoctetes uttered his threat of cursing their prince, they shuddered; and the same grey-haired henchman who before had spoken for the rest now ventured to come forward.
“My prince,” said he, “we all served your father long; his word was our law, and so shall yours be. Are we to make for the ship now, or will you suffer us first to hand yonder man what he craves?”
“That is my desire!” exclaimed Neoptolemus. “But I am in a great strait, my men. I am caught in a web of double-dealing — whatever I do now, I must be forsworn. Oh, why did I ever leave Scyros?”
“Ah, son of Achilles,” cried Philoctetes, rising with outstretched arms, “this shows me I have wronged you. You are not base of soul; you have but hearkened to evil counselors. But listen now to your own heart! Does it not tell you that to break whatever pledge you gave the Greeks is a light thing beside the infamy of robbing a forlorn, helpless wretch that trusted you? Give me my own again, I say, or never hope to be at peace!”
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“What shall I do, men?” said the youth irresolutely.
The Myrmidons were silent, but he read their answer in their looks and had taken one step towards Philoctetes when a voice behind him thundered, “Hold, perfidious boy! Is it thus you keep faith with the Greeks? In their name I forbid you to give up those arms!”
“Odysseus here?” shrieked Philoctetes, starting back; “Ay, ’tis himself! His the plot — I might have known it!”
Odysseus in sooth it was who had drawn near unmarked, and now confronted Neoptolemus with lowering brow and a menacing gleam in his cold, light eyes.
“You have reckoned without me,” he said in a grating voice; and turning to Philoctetes, “Yes, bowman, mine was the plot, I avouch it — and mine is the prize! If this waverer thinks me the man to forego what I have won, you, knowing me of old, can tell him he is in error.”
“Detested villain,” said Philoctetes fiercely, “blot and bane of humankind, too well I know you! What, you come, do you, to gloat over the wreck you have made me — and no bolt from Olympus strikes down that front of brass! Oh, masterstroke of wickedness, to make the son of noble Achilles your tool and catspaw — to warp his young, ingenuous mind with your accursed sophistries! But in that you have failed, you viper, for he pities me —I have felt it all along— and abhors the task you set him. Speak, Neoptolemus, and tell my persecutor you will not rob his victim, nor shall he!”
“Rather be silent, Neoptolemus,” said Odysseus, quickly, “and think on your oath to the Greeks. As for you, Philoctetes, you may rail your fill at me on the ship, and at Troy too, for aught I care. Perhaps I may then find leisure to answer you, but, meanwhile, let us get you on board without more ado.”
So saying, he advanced to lay hold on Philoctetes; but with the strength of despair, the cripple made a bound past him and dragged himself swiftly toward the edge of the cliff, crying, “You take me not alive! Sooner will I dash out my brains on the rocks below!”
“Seize him, men!” shouted Odysseus and Neoptolemus in one breath; and two of the Myrmidons, rushing forward, threw their arms around him just in time to prevent him flinging himself headlong from the ledge.
Philoctetes struggled for a moment, then yielded to their strong but not unkindly grasp, and, when they had half led, half carried him back to the two chiefs, he sank exhausted on a mossy boulder.
“You see to what you may drive him, Odysseus,” said Neoptolemus, deeply moved; “now I warn you fairly: I will not suffer you to lay a finger on him. Come what may, his blood shall not be on my head!”
“Have your own way as to that,” answered Odysseus carelessly, “for now I bethink me, ’tis all one whether he goes with us or not, for the bow of Heracles must conquer Troy, whoever draws it; and why should not the glory this headstrong fellow renounces fall to one of our skilled bowmen — myself, for instance?”
“Vile hound!” exclaimed Philoctetes. “You dare to wield that bow? You, master of the weapons Heracles gave into my keeping with his last breath?”
“Even so,” replied Odysseus coolly, “if Teucer, our best archer, claim them not. Putting him aside, I have not my match as a marksman in all the host, though I say it. Farewell, then, Philoctetes, son of Poias; you are welcome, for my part, to enjoy this fair island realm of yours. Range over it henceforth at your ease — none will come anymore to trouble you, be well assured!”
Thus far he spoke lightly, with a mocking smile; but suddenly wheeling on Neoptolemus he bent on him an intense, compelling gaze, and spoke in tones of grave authority.
“Come, son of Achilles,” he said, “our task here is done. It is full time we were on our way to render account to our chiefs and comrades in arms of the mission they laid upon us and to show them how well we have redeemed our solemn pledges.”
Not waiting reply, he turned and strode along the way he had come, and Neoptolemus followed him some paces like one dazed, until an exceeding bitter cry broke from Philoctetes — “Oh, misery, will he leave me thus with never a word? Speak to me, Neoptolemus, bid me at least farewell — ah, speak once more, ere the awful silence closes round me again!”
And at that Neoptolemus caught Odysseus by the sleeve and said, “Tarry, son of Laertes, for I cannot abandon this man without one more effort to save him. Hear me, Philoctetes! I am unskilled to persuade or plead, but this I will do — I will give you time to reflect, alone and calmly, in the hope that you may yet see the unreason of your stubbornness. So now I go with Odysseus to the ship to bid our crew have all in readiness for sailing and to offer along with them sacrifice and prayers for a speedy voyage; then, in about an hour’s space, I will return to hear your last word, whether it be yea or nay. And that you may know I will return without fail, these my followers shall bide here meanwhile.”
Having said this firmly and with a steadfast countenance, the youth set forward at a round pace, heedless of the complaints and expostulations which Odysseus poured into his ear as they went along.
Philoctetes watched them out of sight in silence; then with a heavy sigh, “Friends,” he said to the Myrmidons, “this is well meant of your young lord, but ’tis in vain. What knows he, a boy, of the iron that enters a man’s soul in such exile as mine? Now, deem me not churlish if I leave you; I am sorely spent, and fain would rest in the coolness of my cave.”
With that, he took his slow way uphill; and the Myrmidons sat them down wherever boulder or shrub made a patch of shade, for by this it was high noon, and isle and sea lay hushed and shimmering in the full blaze of the midsummer sun.
For about an hour they had kept drowsy watch, when suddenly they beheld Neoptolemus running towards them, fleet as a stag, still bearing the quiver and the bow.
“Where is he?” he asked, halting and glancing eagerly around.
“Resting yonder,” answered the Myrmidons, pointing to the cave, and in an instant Neoptolemus had bounded halfway up the slope, calling Philoctetes loudly by name.
“Halt! No nearer!” cried the castaway, stepping forth; “if you mean not some new treachery, speak from where you stand.”
“I mean none, by high and holy Zeus,” said the youth, and stood still; “I bring you proof of that — but first I ask you for the last time, will you not relent and come to Troy?”
“And I answer, No —a thousand times no!” said Philoctetes angrily. “You have tormented me enough — go, I will not hear another word.”
“Then take back these,” said Neoptolemus, and held out the bow and quiver, “take them quickly — I gave Odysseus the slip, but he will not be long-tracking me. Say you forgive me, Philoctetes, and let us part friends, since part we must.”
But Philoctetes kept his place and answered bitterly, “You will not trick me twice, son of Achilles, with your fair words and frank looks. Even thus it was you beguiled me of these arms — do you think I can believe you now? Not so, this is some fresh snare!”
“It is true I deceived you basely,” cried Neoptolemus, “but cannot you believe a man may repent his fault and own it, and make amends — ay, cost him what it may? Ah, but you shall!”
He flung the weapons on the ground and, looking Philoctetes proudly in the face, “There!” he said, “take them up when I am gone, if you cannot trust yourself within my reach — to clasp hands in farewell.”
And he turned away, but Philoctetes, touched to the heart, called out, “I will — I do trust you now,” and hobbling down to him with what speed he could, flung himself into his arms with tears and blessings.
At that moment a roar like a wounded lion’s rent the air, and Odysseus appeared at the end of the plateau, sending his great voice before him in shouts of “Neoptolemus! Traitor! Come back!”
“I have you now, mine enemy,” hissed Philoctetes; quick as thought he snatched up and strung the bow, fitted an arrow to the string, and was taking aim when Neoptolemus seized his arm crying, “No, not that — he is my comrade!”
“Unhand me,” panted Philoctetes, striving to free himself, “balk me not of a just revenge.”
But the youth only tightened his grasp, and meanwhile Odysseus had caught sight of the pair and of the bended bow, and instantly retreated out of view.
“The coward is ‘scaped,” said Philoctetes regretfully; “you did ill to stay my hand, dearest boy; I would have ridded you, too, of a remorseless foe — for such will Odysseus be to you henceforward. And now, what will you do? You cannot return to Troy—”
“Unless, for my sake, you will go also,” put in Neoptolemus.
“Ah, no more of that, if you love me,” returned the other hastily; “I was about to say that the Greek leaders will hate you worse than any Trojan for this day’s work, and I am right glad of it, for the false and vile should be the foes, not the friends, of noble Achilles’s son. May the gods destroy them all root and branch, and their names become a hissing! But let us twain make for Scyros, even as you promised me; there you shall reign in peace over your own people, and none shall make you afraid, for I will dwell with you, and the bow shall be your sure defense. And when I die, it shall pass into your keeping, seeing you have proved yourself worthy to be made heir of Heracles.”
“So let it be,” answered Neoptolemus, after a brief pause, “for I see there is no other way.” And giving his arm to Philoctetes, he led him carefully down the rough hillside.
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But scarcely had they reached the plateau once more when a deep, bell-like voice called from aloft, “Philoctetes, son of Poias, whither away?”
“The gods preserve us!” gasped Philoctetes, clutching the arm of his companion, “I should know that voice among a thousand — ’tis Heracles calls me, and see, ah, see, yonder he stands!”
Awe-struck, Neoptolemus and the Myrmidons gazed in the direction of his upraised finger, and beheld, high on a shelving crag, the figure of a man garbed in a lion skin. He seemed below middle height, but of mighty thews and sinews; majesty dwelled in his look and mien, and glory above the brightness of the sun shone round about him; yet was there somewhat in his serene countenance that spoke to the beholders of conflicts passed and sorrows endured, insomuch that they felt this was no tearless, immutable Olympian, but one that had known like trials and passions with themselves.
“Philoctetes!” rang his mellow voice again, “whither go you with those arms of mine?”
“To Scyros,” answered Philoctetes, tremulously; “but, oh, friend long-lost, by what miracle do you appear to me thus — not as the Dead are wont, thin-voiced, shadowy, but in all points your living self, save that celestial radiance transfigures you? Do I wake indeed, or is this but a mocking dream?”
“Be of good cheer, comrade,” answered the shining presence, “for I am very Heracles. It pleased Zeus that I should not pass to the dim shades of underground, but ascend bodily from my funeral pyre to dwell with him in bliss. And now I come by his command from the heavenly halls to charge you and this son of Achilles to sail not to Scyros — but to Troy, for so shall each of you accomplish his destiny, and the purpose of the high gods be fulfilled. Hearken now, heroes both — but first I speak to you, Philoctetes, to whom I spoke my last words with mortal breath.
“Remember how, when the fiery torment of the poisoned robe was consuming me, though friends and followers had heaped a pyre at my bidding and laid me writhing thereon, none but you found heart to kindle it and so put me from my pain. For that last service, I bade you take in possession the bow and arrows that had won me so many a victory in so many lands, not knowing then the thing ordained, even that Troy must fall the second time by means of the very weapons wherewith I overcame her treacherous king. But so it is; with yonder bow you shall slay Paris, author of these long woes to Greeks and Trojans, and after that shall the end come. Moreover, at Troy you shall be healed of your grievous wounds, for I will send Asclepios, the divine physician, Apollo’s beloved son, to meet you there. Rich shall be your portion of the city’s spoils, and safe your home faring, and peaceful the remnant of your days. And now I bid you farewell once again, trusty comrade; obey, live happy, and remember Heracles!
“But to you, child of a glorious sire, I have this word from Zeus. Yours it is to conquer where Achilles fell, and to avenge his fall: for this were you born and came into the world, that you might be a chosen instrument in the hand of Zeus, to deal his justice on Priam’s sinful house. Go your way, then, with Philoctetes and with Odysseus, on both of whom I lay solemn charge to put aside their feud, though friends they may never be. And think no more, Neoptolemus, of pleasant Scyros and the home of your childhood; these you have left forever; but in their stead the gods will give you the kingdom of your fathers, even the goodly land of Phthia, when you have won the victor’s crown that the inscrutable fates denied to peerless Achilles.”
Now when he had thus spoken, Heracles vanished into air. And Philoctetes and Neoptolemus were not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but went down straightway to the ship and, having told Odysseus what had befallen, they made an easy peace with him, so all three returned in seeming amity to the camp before Troy.