This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
Now while Teucer lamented thus, he heard footsteps at hand and, lifting up his eyes, he saw Menelaus striding towards him, followed by his herald. The Spartan king glanced coldly on the prone, shrouded figure between them and said in loud, imperious tones, “Hear me, you! Let none touch this corpse, but leave it where it lies.”
“Wherefore? By whose command?” exclaimed Teucer, too much amazed to heed the discourtesy of this address.
“By my command,” haughtily rejoined Menelaus, “and by my royal brother’s also, whose word is law to the whole Greek armament.”
“But your reason?” cried Teucer, still hardly trusting his ears.
“We are accountable to none,” said Menelaus pompously; “nevertheless, that our justice may be established beyond cavil, I will set forth to you the grounds of this our sentence. Firstly, then, this dead man was a rebel and a mutineer; enlisted under our banner, he defied and set at naught his general, refusing with contumely to submit to his jurisdiction in a matter of grave moment — the awarding of the meed of valor. Next, he plotted against us a deed more ferocious than our deadliest foes could have dreamed of, and, but for divine interposition, he would have murdered us — we should be lying even as he, for his guilt, lies now!
“Most justly, therefore, he is condemned to lie there unburied, deprived of the last rites, exposed to the foulest indignities, a prey to carrion birds and to dogs. For living, he escaped the retribution of his crime; but dead, he shall yet suffer the worst we can inflict. Neither let any man deem this our private vengeance, for as rebel, as destroyer of the common goods, as would-be murderer, Ajax hath triply incurred the name and punishment of a public enemy. And how, but by rigorous chastisement of such, shall kings hold the unruly many in subjection, whether in the city or the tented field? I have spoken; you, Teucer, lay my words to heart if you be wise, and take a warning thereto that, if you dare to dig a grave for Ajax, it is like to prove your own.”
During this harangue, Teucer, white to the lips with rage, stood quivering like a hound in the leash, and seemed more than once at the point to hurl himself upon the speaker. Yet he heard him out; and not until Menelaus paused with a self-satisfied air, as who should say, “How’s that for eloquence?” did he burst forth in accents of intense scorn:
“I had thought shameless lying the vice of baseborn churls, but I see now it is a prerogative of royal blood. Now hear me, Menelaus, for I will be heard. I fling your false words in your teeth, windy braggart that you are! You to talk of Ajax as your liegeman ― rebellious against your authority! As if, forsooth, aught bound him to fight your battles save the old covenant of the princes — as if he came not hither your free, equal ally! Your peer in rank, I say, and in all but rank heaven-high above you. For who and what you are, we all know — Agamemnon’s shadow, Agamemnon’s picture, no more. Without him at your back, little would any reck of your bluster and your goodly outward seeming. Nay, never bend your brows at me, man — I am no child to be frighted with a lion’s skin! Ay, go and fetch your brother hither — let him bring his herald too, to look more royal; but know that were he twice a king and twice as powerful, he should not stay me from burying this my dead.”
“You shall pay me for this,” snarled Menelaus, trembling with fury, and he turned on his heel and strode off, beckoning his herald to follow.
As they disappeared around the bend of the shore, Tecmessa glided out of the wood with her child in her arms.
“I overheard him, Teucer,” she said. “The black-hearted tyrant! Ah, you daunted him for the moment — I saw him quail under your gaze like the coward he is. But now he will bring Agamemnon and his guards to overpower you — this is what I feared would befall when I heard the sons of Atreus were on their way hither!”
“So you came to warn me,” said Teucer; “but you would have done better, Tecmessa, to remember my bidding. Either you or our liegemen are much to blame for letting the news get abroad that Ajax was dead.”
“But we did not, believe me,” said Tecmessa earnestly; “not one of us would have revealed it for our lives. The whole camp knew it already when I returned to our quarters — none could say whence or how the report arose, but Calchas was heard to declare it was one of those divine rumors that oftentimes spread some great tidings abroad ere they could be known by mortal means. Howe’er that be, I made haste to bring the child here, for his helplessness shall be our defense!” She placed the babe on a corner of the veil that shrouded his dead father and, seating herself beside him, put a dark tress of hair intertwined with a short, fair curl into his small hand. “See the suppliant,” she said, “bearing locks of his hair and mine — the consecrated offering of mourners — in lieu of the sacred badge of the fleecy fillet. He plays therewith, the innocent, and knows not the holy power that is in him while he sits thus. Still — sit still, my babe, for not the most impious man alive would dare lay hand on you, or him you guard, so fearful is the curse that rests forever on those who violate a suppliant!”
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Even as she spoke, Agamemnon was seen advancing at the head of an armed retinue. The king stalked majestically up to Teucer, who stood watchful and alert before the corpse; and heavily frowning, said:
“Is it you of whom I hear this insolence — son of a foreign slavewoman? Fit champion, truly, of one whose last estate is low as your beginning! And who, or what, I pray you, was this man you brag of as too exalted to be subject to my sway? What did Ajax ever do that a hundred others —myself among them— have not done as often and as well on the field of war? Because by all but universal suffrage of the Greeks, noble Odysseus was preferred before him, are the sons of Atreus to endure henceforward the calumnies and revilings of Teucer the base-born? Know your place better, serf, or you shall taste of a serf’s schooling; and if grievance you have, offend not our ears with your alien’s gibberish, but plead by the mouth of some free and true-born Greek.”
“I am not so simple, Agamemnon,” answered Teucer steadily, “as to let you put me in the wrong by provoking me to violence. And least of all am I to be moved by taunts like these, for who knows not that my mother was Hesione, King Priam’s sister, whom great Heracles assigned to Telamon as the prize of honor in the day those heroes took Troy? Slave-born I am, if the son of a captive princess be such; an alien, too, by the mother’s side; but that reproach comes strangely from you, who had Lydian Pelops for grandsire and for mother Cretan Aerope of infamous memory. No, little reck I of your baseless insults, save those that touch upon the dead. Oh, Ajax, Ajax, to see how brief a thing is mortal gratitude! To hear this thankless king belittle the man who fought and bled in his cause — who bore the brunt of Hector’s deadly onslaught while he — skulked to his ships!”
At these words, the enraged king plucked his sword halfway from the scabbard, and now had some fatal mischief befallen but for the timely advent of Odysseus. Out of the wood he came with his swift, gliding step, gave one quick glance around, and calmly said:
“What is this, my friends? Did I hear royal Agamemnon’s voice uplifted in wrath — though he stands, I see, in the hallowed presence of the fallen brave?”
The king sheathed his sword and answered with abashed mien, “You would excuse me, wise prince, if you had heard how this Teucer goaded me with insults.”
“I can excuse the man who repays hard words with harder,” rejoined Odysseus, meaningly.
“Oh, he had some from me, I do not deny it,” said Agamemnon, “but not more than he had earned, for —think of it, Odysseus!— the upstart has declared he will give Ajax honorable interment, in defiance of my sovereign edict!”
“Touching that same decree,” said Odysseus, “may a friend speak his mind to you honestly without forfeiting your goodwill?”
“Surely,” replied Agamemnon, graciously, “else were I the veriest fool, for I count you the best and truest friend I have among all the Greeks, son of Laertes.”
“Hear me, then,” resumed the other; “for the love of the gods, do not persist in your intent to dishonor this dead man — do not let rancor urge you beyond the bounds of righteousness! You could not hate him worse than I did — he was my rival, not yours; but as far as in me lies, I will do him justice. I say he was the best of us all, Achilles alone excepted. And I bid you beware how you offer outrage or indignity to his relics, for Ajax is beyond the reach of malice, and not to him but to the eternal law of the gods will you do violence thereby.”
“Little I thought,” exclaimed the king, “that I should live to hear Odysseus champion his worst foe — and against me! Can I have heard you aright — are you indeed fain to see this man laid to rest with funeral honors? But do you not remember that he sought to murder you?”
“I remember this,” answered Odysseus, “that someday I too shall need a grave. And I count it the wise man’s part to do unto others as he would have them do unto him. Neither should I deserve to be called your friend, son of Atreus, if I did not warn you against taking an impious revenge. Be persuaded, then; to yield to one who counsels for your own good is no defeat.”
“You shall have your will, Odysseus,” replied Agamemnon after a moment’s pause, “for to you I would not grudge a greater favor. Deal as you list in this matter; but for my own part I avow myself the implacable foe of him yonder, in death as in life.”
Having thus spoken, he went his way with his retainers.
But Odysseus turned him to Teucer, who stood meanwhile like a trusty warder at his post, with his bow bent in his hand. “Brother of Ajax,” he said, “let us be friends henceforward, and suffer me to join in paying him the last honors, in token of reconcilement.”
“I pray you pardon me, noble Odysseus,” answered Teucer, “for noble I needs must call you, who have proved yourself generous-minded beyond my thought of you. Deem me not ungrateful — but I cannot accept your courtesy. Ajax could not rest quiet in his grave if your hands helped to lay him there. And though it may be I have misjudged you —as the spirit you have now shown almost persuades me— yet friend of mine you can never be while I remember how my brother died. Peace between us if you will, but nothing more!”
“That must content me, then,” replied Odysseus gently and sadly. “I leave you, Teucer, since the homage I fain would pay is unwelcome to your faithful soul.”
With that, he departed, sighing as he went. And now the men of Salamis drew near in mournful procession, and Teucer bent him to his piteous task.