This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
After scarce a month’s absence, King Menelaus came home again, nothing doubting that his wife would greet him on the threshold, and his Trojan guest be waiting to carouse and hunt with him as before. But dreary silence in the palace, and the pale, dismayed faces of his household, heralded the news that had to be told him — news that at first he angrily refused to believe. His queen had stolen away with the Trojan stranger three nights ago; they had been seen by certain fishermen to embark at dawn upon his ship, which lay in readiness off a lonely headland and at once stood out to sea with oar and sail.
When Menelaus, who was for a while like a man stunned, at length grasped the truth of these tidings, his grief and fury were dreadful to behold. No lioness robbed of her whelps could rage more terribly than he. Now he would give command to launch all his ships in chase of the runaways; anon, recollecting that by now they had gained three days’ start on their unknown course, he would revoke that order and fall to threatening and upbraiding his whole household because they had not suspected and hindered the treason afoot. An old nurse, hoping to soften the king’s mood, brought in to him the only child of his marriage, a darling little maid of two years old; but he turned away with a groan and fiercely bade her keep the brat that was too like its traitress mother out of his sight, lest he did it a mischief.
In the height of his distress came the elder brother of Menelaus to visit him, with a great train, having heard what had befallen. This brother, Agamemnon by name, was likewise a king, ruling the land of Argos, that marches with Sparta on the eastward, and holding lordship over the princes of many cities besides.
And here let it be told how both these two brothers came to be kings. Agamemnon inherited the scepter of their father, Atreus; and at that time there was a king in Sparta called Tyndareus. Now Helen was the daughter of Tyndareus, who, when all the princes of Greece desired to wed the incomparable maiden, told them she should make her own choice among them, if they for their part would be bound by a certain condition. This was that, whomsoever she might choose, all the rest should swear to maintain his rights over her and fight in that cause, if ever need arose. In this manner, Tyndareus provided against the twofold danger he foresaw: of himself offending the other suitors if he preferred any one of them, and of their making war against Helen’s husband out of revenge. All the suitors took the solemn oath he required of them, and Helen’s choice fell on Menelaus, the least in rank and renown, but in person the goodliest.
Not long after, the old Tyndareus died and, because he had no son living, bequeathed his kingdom to Menelaus. He left, however, one other daughter, called Clytemnestra, whom —as it was said, against her will— Agamemnon had taken to wife when he found himself rejected by her sister. Certain at least it was that Clytemnestra was betrothed to another when the powerful king of Argos demanded her in marriage; but willing or unwilling, she had made him a loyal wife and governed her great household well. Thus, then, it came to pass that the two sons of Atreus ruled neighbor countries and were the husbands of two sisters.
And so, too, it befell, when the anguish of Menelaus had a little abated under his brother’s kindly comforting, that he saw a way to recover Helen even from distant and well-walled Troy, if, as he doubted not, Paris had carried her thither. Forthwith he reminded Agamemnon of the covenant made with her suitors, and begged him, as his elder, and chief among Greek princes, to call the rest to war against the Trojans. But Agamemnon was troubled at the request and had much to urge against it. First he said, if a wife proved so fickle and so false, a man was well rid of her — the treacherous wanton was not worth another thought. Menelaus answered that he could never rest until he had dealt her, and Paris also, the doom such traitors merited, for it concerned his honor to be avenged on them both.
“But not to be avenged on the king and folk of Troy,” replied his brother, “unless indeed they aid and abet these evildoers, which is yet to be seen. Moreover, if we proclaim war against them, we publish to the whole world the shame that is fallen on our house. Let us rather send a trusty herald to Troy, as privately as may be, to see if Helen be there, and, if she is, to bid King Priam surrender her straightway, on pain of war with all the Greeks.”
Menelaus was forced to consent to this, but loud and long he protested that it was mere throwing away of time and labor, since Helen, for all her wickedness, was a prize that the Trojans and all men else with eyes to see would keep at any hazard. And it seemed he was right, for the herald brought back word that Helen was indeed at Troy and married to Paris, nor had King Priam vouchsafed any answer but this: that he was ready to protect his dear daughter against all the blusterers in Greece.
That taunt stung Agamemnon’s pride to the quick; yet still he would fain have turned Menelaus from his purpose, so much his heart misgave him at the thought of leading the Greek host over the pathless deep to fight in a far country — and all for a worthless woman’s sake. Had not his oath bound him, even the great love he bore his brother would hardly have won him to undertake that enterprise. But bound he was, and so Menelaus had his way at last, and the summons went forth to all those who were his sworn champions at need, to gather with their vassals and ships of war at the seaport of Aulis.
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East and west and south and north fared the heralds of the brother kings on their errand, and everywhere they found the Greek princes as unwilling for the war as Agamemnon, for some were now past their prime, and most had wife and children, and to all it seemed a hard thing that they must leave home and kingdom to brave the perils of the sea and of foreign war, in another’s man’s quarrel. Nevertheless, none durst refuse, knowing that the high gods visit the oathbreaker with their heaviest plagues.
It were long to tell the names and lineage of all the chieftains who mustered at the trysting place, and here we will speak only of those who played the greatest part in the coming war. From the ancient city of Argos came Diomedes, good at need, who held sway there under Agamemnon’s suzerainty. From Ithaca in the west came Odysseus, son of Laertes; lord of a barren isle, he brought no great following; but none was more powerful in the council of the princes, by reason of his subtle wit and ever-ready tongue. Not less revered for wisdom, which in him was the fruit of long experience, was Nestor, king of sandy Pylos, whose life had been prolonged through three generations of men. Many a tale could he tell of heroes, once his comrades, whose children’s children now bore arms; yet his eye was not dimmed nor the warlike spirit in him abated, and he thought scorn to bide at home, but sailed to Aulis with his valiant sons.
But the sons of two renowned kings whom age had enfeebled came in their fathers’ stead, namely Ajax, son of Telamon, and Achilles, son of Peleus. No warrior in all the host could compare with these two princes in strength or stature; the towering bulk of Ajax drew all eyes when he walked abroad, but, when the young Achilles first appeared, word flew through the camp that some god was come among them. And indeed, though mortal, he came of immortal race, for the mother that bore him was Thetis the sea fairy, whom Peleus won for his bride by the favor of high Zeus. When Achilles was born, Thetis would have made her babe immortal also by passing him through fire, but Peleus in great fear snatched him from her, not knowing what she did, and, because he broke that sacred spell, Thetis fled to the sea deeps again, never more to house with men. So Achilles had his rearing in the mountain cave of Chiron, the wise Centaur, teacher of many a hero, until Peleus, moved by a prophecy that one of his blood should overthrow Troy, sent for the youth to lead his vassals in the war now toward.
Now while the Greek host lay at Aulis, making ready to embark, a thing befell that was the beginning of many sorrows. Hunting in the near woodlands one day, King Agamemnon roused a hare and chased her to the border of a grove, wherein stood an altar. There, out of the bracken, started up a tall peasant girl and barred his way, saying to him, “I forbid thee, king, to slay the hare, for she is heavy with young, and she has taken sanctuary at yonder altar, that belongs to Artemis, lady of the wild things.”
But in his eagerness, Agamemnon thrust her aside and slew the hare with his arrow as she cowered by the altar stone. Then he turned to bid his huntsmen seize that insolent stranger, but she had disappeared among the trees of the grove and they searched the place for her in vain. For she was great Artemis herself, who loves the helpless, innocent creatures of Earth, and abhors all such as destroy them wantonly.
On the morrow, all things being now ready, the Greek fleet was in act to sail, when suddenly so furious a wind blew landward that not a ship could leave harbor; and that tempest raged day after day and week after week, until the storm-stayed host in their discouragement clamored to be led home again, since the gods plainly willed that they should never see Troy town.
Then did their captains inquire of Calchas, the wise seer that was to voyage along with them, what offended power had sent these contrary gales, and for what cause. And in full council of the princes, he declared the wrath of Artemis against their general, Agamemnon, and how it would not cease from him until he made atonement for the slaughter of her suppliant, the hare. But what that atonement must be, Calchas would not reveal until Agamemnon and all present had sworn to hold him blameless and keep him scathless, when they heard it.
Then, covering his face with a corner of his mantle, he said in tremulous tones: “Innocent blood for the innocent blood — the fruit of a man’s body for the sin of his soul — this law is ancient in heaven. Therefore, oh, King Agamemnon, Artemis requires of thee thy first-born daughter’s life, whom thine own hands must slay for a sacrifice upon her altar. But if thou wilt not, then disband this host thou hast gathered together, for not a man of them shall pass hence to Troy, though they tarry till their beards be grey.”
Awe and horror held the council mute while the seer uttered these words; when he ceased, the sons of Atreus sprang up and dashed their scepters on the ground, crying as with one voice that they would forfeit revenge, honor, nay, life itself, rather than consent to such a deed.
Of the two, Menelaus was loudest in protestation: “My ships,” he exclaimed, “shall rot upon this shore —their crews and I perish here of cold and hunger— before I will see my noble brother become for my sake the murderer of his child!”
The sound of that dreadful name goaded the stricken father past endurance; he rushed from the council to hide himself in his tent, whither Menelaus hastily followed.
That day, and many hours of that night, Agamemnon paced to and fro like a caged lion, refusing meat or drink, his proud soul racked with humiliation and despair. What visions of glory and triumph had risen before him as he surveyed the mighty armament at his command — how soon that gallant sight had quelled his earlier misgivings! And now — must those hopes perish? Must the Trojans exult, and the whole world be set laughing at the tale of the king who mustered a thousand ships, only to send them home again? Coward, they would call him. Ay, the name of Agamemnon would become a byword among men for craven-heartedness, for folly and failure, unless — unless! He shuddered at the thought that came to him then, but it would not be driven away; and before morning dawned he could face it calmly, though it was the thought of yielding Artemis her victim.
That was the work of Odysseus. Well-skilled to read the hearts of men, he knew the sons of Atreus infirm of purpose, stubborn if thwarted, but easily led by any who would flatter their pride; he saw the mischief that might ensue to all Greece did they hold their resolve to disband the host, and one girl’s life seemed to him but a small thing in comparison. Biding his time until Agamemnon’s passion should have spent itself, he came to the king’s tent late in the night and craved speech with him on a matter deeply importing the general weal. Then, with all the craft he was master of, Odysseus set forth the shame and loss that must befall the princes who at so much labor and cost had manned the greatest fleet ever seen in Greece, if they were forced to turn back on the very threshold of their enterprise; the bitter grudge they must thenceforth bear the house of Atreus; above all, the fatal consequences that might flow from their resentment.
“By all I can hear,” he said, “the chiefs of our host are in a dangerous mood. Even to me, your known friend, they let fall hints of seeking nearer home the conquest and plunder you promised them at Troy; and much I fear lest the strength of their array tempt them to such reprisals on you and your kingdom as will plunge all Greece into long and bloody war.”
“Odysseus, my friend,” said Agamemnon, slowly, “you do not tell me all this without some purport in view. If your wisdom has found any remedy for the evils that beset me, say on.”
“Give me patient hearing, then,” replied Odysseus, “for the medicine that alone can cure them is a bitter one, and you will shrink but to hear it named. But why should I name it — why tell you the thing your own noble heart, I know, bids you do for the common good? This much, then, I will say; it is expedient that one maiden die for her race; it is a king’s part to be a father to his people, cherishing them no less than his own offspring. King of Argos, be true to your royal nature! Let your people rise up and call you blessed, let this great host be proud to follow you to the death, because you spared not the most precious thing you had, to save Greece!”
With these words, Odysseus rose up and went out quickly and going to old Nestor’s tent, where some of the princes held late and anxious converse —for few slept that night— he bade them hope good tidings on the morrow, since he was much deceived if Agamemnon were not already turned from his purpose of abandoning the war.
Even so it was; next morning all were summoned early to council, and Agamemnon, with a mournful dignity, proclaimed his submission to the will of Artemis. The sacrifice required of him, he said, he would perform, cost him what grief it might, out of zeal for the common welfare of Greece. And scarcely had he said this, when the tempestuous east wind died away, and the raging sea was still. Then all the host shouted for gladness and fain would have sailed that very hour; but needs must they wait her coming, whose death was the appointed price of their seafaring.
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Now Agamemnon knew that Clytemnestra his wife, being of a resolute spirit, would defy his messengers if she learned their true errand; therefore, by advice of Odysseus, he sent for his daughter under pretext of wedding her to Achilles, flower of warriors, as a sure pledge of alliance. So the maiden, who was fifteen summers old and named Iphigeneia, was brought to the camp decked in bridal array, a sight so fair and piteous that none of all that warrior multitude looked on it unmoved. Stern, bearded chiefs, who many a time had sat at Agamemnon’s feasts when the young princess filled her father’s wine cup and chanted in her fresh voice the hymn that hallows the revel, turned away their faces as she passed by, lest she should see their tears. But dry-eyed the father met his heart’s darling, steeling himself for the thing that he must do, and she must hear of — from his own lips. Ah, heavier task than that deed itself was the undeceiving of the maiden lured by a maiden’s tenderest hopes to her doom!
But meanwhile Achilles knew nothing of his feigned betrothal to one whom he had never seen; and some report that, when it came to his ears, he would have braved the wrath of Greeks and of goddess to rescue Iphigeneia, could he have gained her consent, for, having bribed the princess’s guards, he visited her that night and told her he was Achilles, come to save her and make her his bride in right earnest that very hour, would she but go with him to his tents, where the good swords of his clansmen should defend their chieftain’s wife against the whole Greek army, if king or seer dared claim her then. But she gently answered him she could not purchase life by the ruin of her country’s cause; neither beseemed it a weak, unlessoned girl to question the decree of her father and king, but rather, since death must come soon or late, to die as she had lived, in obedience to him and to the gods. And seeing her thus steadfast, Achilles marveled and went away sorrowful.
But others say he knew neither the fraud of Odysseus nor Iphigeneia’s coming to Aulis until too late, for Agamemnon and his subtle counselor feared the youth’s impetuous spirit, that loathed and scorned a lie; so they contrived to send him hunting with certain companions who should delay his return, under color of pursuing their sport, until after the day of sacrifice.
When that day dawned in angry, blood-red light, the assembled Greeks saw the royal virgin led to her doom, unfaltering, uncomplaining, as became the daughter of a great heroic line. Through the hushed ranks of spearmen and bowmen she passed, to where kings and priests waited in circle around a new-built altar; there, while Calchas prayed aloud, she stood in her meek loveliness, looking with tear-dimmed eyes on those familiar faces — silently, wistfully, as a picture looks. Then, at a sign from Calchas, the ministers of the goddess bound the passive victim, swathing her long veil close about her face, and with all reverence lifted her to the altar slab… From sight of that which followed, all covered their eyes; even he that, shuddering, raised the sacrificial knife did it with averted head, and hand guided by another. Moments passed, and seemed long like hours, ere any durst look again at the altar and its burden; but suddenly a great shout broke from Calchas: “A miracle! Behold a miracle! See, see what Artemis hath wrought and adore her unspeakable mercy!”
In breathless wonder, kings and commons stared at the shape that lay on the encrimsoned altar. It was not the body of a maiden — but of a slender, dappled fawn. Artemis, as it seemed, had saved the life she claimed, and provided herself another sacrifice; but of the vanished Iphigeneia’s fate, no sign or token could be found, neither was it revealed to Calchas or to any man until many years after.
And now the Greeks might hoist sail at last; sped by a favorable breeze they came straight to the Asian coast; but for lack of a guide they landed at first too far southward, near a city they mistook for Troy. The king of that country, seeing a great host come against him, went forth with all his men to give them battle; at the first onset he fell wounded by the spear of Achilles, who took him prisoner, asking him his name. And the king said, “I am Telephus of Mysia, a son of Heracles.”
At that, Achilles shouted with a great shout to the Greeks to stay the fight, for this land and people were none of Priam’s. So they made their peace with the king of Mysia and departed; and it grieved Achilles much that he had wounded a son of Heracles, that mighty helper of men, who now was with the gods above. After this, the fleet touched at certain islands and, having learned their true course, came at last to the Trojan shore.
News of their approach had reached King Priam, and they found all his warriors drawn up along the beach to dispute their landing; nevertheless, they rowed the ships close in, and arming in haste were ready to spring ashore, when a voice out of the waves cried on the name of Achilles, warning him that the first Greek whose foot touched Trojan ground must die the self-same hour. It was the voice of Thetis, who like all the sea people had knowledge of things to come and never ceased to watch over Achilles with a mother’s love. Then all the Greeks hung back, even the dauntless son of Peleus, for to die now was to lose not life alone, but victory and fame.
But one there was to whom his country’s glory was dearer than his own; the chieftain Protesilaus leaped suddenly overboard and, shouting his war cry, flung himself upon the Trojan spears. Instantly the whole Greek host likewise dashed to land, and before their furious onset the Trojans broke and fled. The invaders pursued them almost to Troy walls, killing many by the way, but, when reinforcements were seen issuing from the city gate, old Nestor bade the chiefs sound a retreat, nor risk a pitched battle so far from their ships, which meanwhile lay unguarded, an easy prey for Trojan skirmishers. The younger warriors were for storming the town then and there, but the counsel of Nestor prevailed with the sons of Atreus. So the Greeks drew back unmolested to the shore; there they made their encampment, stretching in front of the long line of ships, and there they buried Protesilaus, raising a great mound over his grave, for an everlasting remembrance. Thus began the siege of Troy.
But in those far-off days, all that we call siegecraft was yet unknown. No engines of battery, no undermining of walls or blockading by counter walls or earthworks then threatened a beleaguered town. There were only two means of taking a fortified place: to fight your way in, or to starve the garrison into surrender. And the Greeks soon learned that they must not hope to reduce Troy by famine. Not only had Priam —as their spies reported— laid up vast stores of corn, oil, and wine on the first rumor of the war, but the circuit of Troy’s wall was too great for even their numbers to besiege closely. Were they to spread their camp right around the city, they could not guard it at all points from sallies of the besieged.
Succours and supplies, therefore, could still reach the Trojans from inland; but the Greeks could, and did, cut them off from the coast and from the sea-borne trade that brought them the chief part of their wealth. Also, Achilles and his clansmen made forays far and wide in Priam’s country and in all the regions around about, laying waste both fields and towns, and carrying off captives, flocks, herds, and all manner of spoil; whereby the Trojan allies were impoverished, and the Greek host maintained in plenty.
Meanwhile, the rest of the commanders led many assaults upon Troy town; but always they were beaten back with loss, so valiantly its folk defended it, fighting both on the walls and in sorties from the gates. Of all the princes that led them, the Greeks most dreaded Hector, Priam’s eldest born, a lion in daring and in strength, whom they named the Bulwark of Troy.
After this manner the war went on, with varying fortune to besiegers and besieged, until nine summers and nine winters had slipped away.
Now in the tenth year fell out that bitter quarrel between Achilles and King Agamemnon, sung in the greatest of all poems. Who knows not the story that lives for all time in the strong-winged verse of Homer? Briefly as I may, I set down what has been retold in so many tongues, from age to age.
There came to the Greek camp one day a reverend old man, priest of Phoebus Apollo, craving to have his daughter restored to him, who had been captured in a raid and given to Agamemnon as his tithe of the spoil. But the king haughtily repulsed him; and he went away along the sea beach, muttering prayers to his god, not unheard, for straightway a pestilence smote the Greek host, which Calchas the seer declared to be Apollo’s vengeance on the oppressors of his priest.
Thereupon Agamemnon sent back the damsel to her home, but, heaping wrong on wrong, he seized Briseis, the fairest captive of Achilles, to make good his loss. For that insult done him, Achilles withdrew himself from council and fight and abode in his tent; nor would be pacified when the king, humbled by reverses in battle, offered him Briseis again and untold treasure beside. At last, his loved comrade Patroclus gained his leave to succor the Greeks, whom Hector had routed and pursued even to their ships. Great glory won Patroclus that day, driving back the Trojans to their walls and well-nigh breaking into the town; but heedless of his friend’s parting charge, he dared combat with great Hector’s self and fell by his spear.
With that stroke, Hector wrought doom to himself, and for his house an irredeemable woe; for like an avenging god Achilles rushed to battle and after a slaughter grim and great he encountered Hector singly, without the city gate called Scaean, and there slew him under the eyes of his aged father and mother, and his kindred, that watched upon the wall. Nor did this glut the wrath of Thetis’s son; in the frenzy of that hour he tied the corpse to his chariot wheels and dragged it through the bloody dust of the battlefield, to lie unburied, a prey to dogs and vultures, near the mounded sepulcher of Patroclus.
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But dear to the gods was noble Hector, who honored them meetly all his days, and they preserved his body from corruption, neither suffered beast or bird to touch it. And when Greeks and Trojans had mourned certain days, these for Hector, those for Patroclus, Hermes, the herald, taking mortal shape, guided old Priam by night to Achilles’s tent, to beg the body of his son. The god himself drove the sleek mules of Priam’s car, and by his power the eyes of the Greek sentinels were holden, as they passed through the camp.
Now when Achilles saw that white-haired king sink prostrate at his feet and heard him falter out a plea for mercy in the name of his own father Peleus, who yet might know such a grief as this; when he felt the old man’s tears fall on the hand so lately reddened with his first-born’s blood — his own tears began to flow, for the thought of all the sorrow there is under the sun and the bitter changes and chances that darken man’s brief life, knocked upon his heart.
Gently he raised up Priam, gently led him to a seat, and for a little space those two wept together, as father and son may weep a common loss. But when the old king would have urged his request, Achilles checked him imperiously, not trusting himself to hear the slayer of Patroclus so much as named without some access of rage; then he spoke apart to his henchmen, and they went forth and reverently took up dead Hector and, having wrapped about him the precious webs of sea purple that Priam had brought for his ransom, they laid him in the car. As for the rest of the ransom, chosen by Priam among his costliest treasures, Achilles would not refuse it, out of his great courtesy; and saying he would offer those gifts at the tomb of Patroclus, he thereby marked his reverence for the giver.
And because he saw that the old man was spent with grief and weariness, he made him lie down to sleep on a couch prepared apart, so Priam slept in peace under guard of that noble foe. But when the stars paled their fires, he mounted his car and drove softly homeward; for Achilles had warned him that the chiefs would not let such a hostage as the king of Troy escape them, if they knew he was in their midst.
Now he granted Priam a truce of eleven full days, wherein to bury his son with sacrifices and solemn feasts and all wonted honors of the dead, so during that time the Trojans mourned for Hector with a great mourning.
Thus far has divine Homer told the tale, and where he closed his lay begins the last scene of all; from the death of Hector, the tide of Troy’s fortunes ebbed ever lower, until the royal city paid at last the price of her rulers’ guilt — until the smoke of her burning had gone up to heaven as from a funeral pyre, kindled for all his race by the firebrand born of Hecuba.