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A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin


 

 

HEROES IN STRANGE GARB

[226] THERE dwelt at Mycenæ a wise soothsayer, named Calchas,—a man versed in all the lore of earth and sky, and holding some sort of communion with the immortals. He could lift the veil of the future, and see what to other men lay hidden in the darkness; and next to the Pythian oracle at Delphi, or the talking oak of Dodona, he was held in high repute as knowing the counsels of the gods. When all the great chiefs sat one day in Agamemnon's hall, and talked of their warriors and their ships and their arms, and boasted of their readiness to sail at once for Ilios, the old soothsayer came and stood before them. His white locks streamed in flowing waves about his shoulders; his gray eyes gleamed with a strange, wild light; he moved his long arms to and fro above his head, and pointed with his thin fingers first towards the sky, and then towards the sea.

"Hearken ye to the seer," said Menelaus; "he has had a vision, and perchance he can tell us how we shall fare in this great business which we have undertaken."

[227] Then Calchas spoke and said, "Verily I know not any thing of this matter, save by the gift of soothsaying which the far-darting Apollo has bestowed upon me. Yet when I inquired of him, this answer did he give: 'Let the long haired Hellenes make war upon Troy. They shall not prevail against that city unless Achilles, the dear son of Thetis, lead them.' Send now for him, and enlist him in your cause; for otherwise you shall fail, and the Trojans shall boast of your ruin!"

Having said these words, the seer strode from the hall, leaving the hero chiefs alone. For a time they sat in silence, each pondering the matter in his own mind. Then Agamemnon spoke, and his words were full of anger and unbelief. "Never yet," said he, "did Calchas prophesy any thing but ill. He sees naught but evil; and when we feel most sure of success, then it is the joy of his heart to foretell failure. Now, after the gods have thus far favored us, and when all things are in readiness for the gathering together of our forces, this woful soothsayer comes to tell us that without Achilles we shall fail. For my part, I care little for his words, and am willing to run all risks."

"Say not so," quickly answered Odysseus. "The old man speaks as Apollo gives him utterance; and no man shall dare put his judgment in the scales against the foreknowledge of the gods. Let us seek Achilles at once, and persuade him to join us in our league against Ilios."

[228] "But who shall find him?" asked Menelaus. "Two months ago, I was in Iolcos by the sea, whither I had gone to see old Peleus. I found that that aged king dwelt no longer in the ancient city, but had removed into his own country of Phthia, and there abode among his Myrmidons. Into Phthia, therefore, I went, hoping to find Achilles also there. But old Peleus wept when I asked about his son. 'In truth, I know not where the young man is,' he said, in answer to my questions. 'For when the news was noised about, that the chiefs of Hellas were planning war upon Troy, then silver-footed Thetis carried her son into some distant, unknown land, and hid him there. For the Fates have declared the doom of Achilles, that his days on earth shall be few but glorious; and his mother feared, that, should he join in the great war, he would meet an untimely death. Thus, then, it is that I am bereft already of my only son; for I know not whether I shall ever again behold him.' In this manner Peleus, the lord of horses, bewailed the absence of his son. And though in every city I sought news concerning the whereabouts of the young hero, I could learn nothing whatever. Even Patroclus, his bosom friend and comrade, wept for him as for one dead. I do not believe that he can be found in Hellas."

Then Nestor the wise arose and spoke. "It does not become us," he said, "to doubt or dispute the words of Calchas the seer. Therefore we must find Achilles, and win him to our cause; or, laying aside all thought [229] of war, we must humbly surrender to Paris the noblest treasure of our country, even beauteous Helen."

"Achilles can be found," said Odysseus. "I myself will seek him, and the moon shall not wane thrice ere I shall have found him. Let the best ship in Argos be put in readiness at once; and let a crew of the most skilful oarsmen be chosen, and a good store of food be put into the hold. I will embark to-morrow, and you shall see me no more until I bring good news of Thetis's godlike son."

So then Odysseus set sail on a long, uncertain voyage to the islands of the sea, in search of the hidden hero. Vainly did he visit Cythera, the lofty isle where Aphrodite first rose in all her beauty from the salt sea-foam; he touched at Melos, rich in corn and wine; he skirted Paros, known to all the world for its figs and its spotless marble; he stopped for a month at sacred Delos, the birthplace of Apollo; he explored well-watered Ophiussa, where serpents curse the ground, and grapes grow purple on the climbing vines; he sought long time in Andros among the groves and in the temple sacred to ruddy-faced Dionysus: yet in none of these lands heard he any news of the godlike son of Peleus. Weary of their long and fruitless voyage, the comrades of Odysseus murmured sorely, and besought him to return to Mycenæ, and give up the search. But he turned a deaf ear to their pleadings, and sailed away to Scyros, where old Lycomedes reigned. For the bright-eyed goddess Athené had whispered to him in [230] a dream, and told him that in the court of Lycomedes he would find the hero for whom he sought.

In a narrow inlet, hidden by trees and tall reeds, the ship was moored, while shrewd Odysseus went alone and unheralded to the palace of the king. He had laid aside his warrior's gear, and was now attired in the guise of a wandering peddler, and loaded with a heavy pack of precious wares. And lo! as he neared the high-built halls of Lycomedes, he came to a spacious garden just outside of the courtyard, and hard by the lofty gate. A green hedge ran round it on four sides, while within grew many tall trees laden with fruits and blossoms,—pear trees, pomegranates, apple trees, and olives. So well cared for were these trees, that they yielded fruit in every season of the year, nor ever failed, even in winter time. Beyond these, all manner of garden-beds were planted, where flowers bloomed in never-ending freshness,—the dewy lotus, the crocus flower, the pale hyacinth, violets, asphodels, and fair lilies. And in their midst, two springs of never-failing water gushed: one of them watered the garden and the fields beyond; the other ran close by the threshold of the palace, and bubbled up in the market-square, where all the people came to fill their vessels.

As Odysseus stood and gazed in rapt delight upon this scene of beauty, a party of happy maidens came through the courtyard, and stopped in the garden to pluck the fruits and flowers. Then on the open lawn, [231] they fell to playing ball; and one among them sang a lightsome song as they tossed the missile to and fro, or danced with happy feet upon the smooth-mown sward. When they saw Odysseus standing in the path, they stopped their game, and stood silent in their places, scarce knowing whether to advance and greet the stranger kindly, or in girlish timidness to flee into the palace. The hero opened then his peddler's pack, and held up to their delighted gaze a golden necklace set with amber beads. No further thought of flight had the maidens now. With eager yet hesitating feet, they came crowding around him, anxious to see what other thing of beauty he had brought with him. One by one, he showed them all his treasures,—ear-rings, bracelets of finest workmanship, clasps, buckles, head-bands, and golden hair-pins. These they took in their hands, and, passing them from one to another, eagerly debated the price. One only of the company, taller and nobler than the others, stood aloof, and seemed to care nothing for the rich and handsome ornaments. Odysseus noticed this, but shrewdly kept his counsels to himself.

"A merchant like myself," said he, "must needs have goods for all,—for the young as well as for the old, for the grave as well as for the gay, for the hero as well as for the lady. It is his duty no less than his delight to please."

With these words he laid before the maidens a sword with hilt most deftly carved, a dagger with long keen blade, and a helmet thickly inlaid with precious [232] gems. The one who had not cared to look at the trinkets now started quickly as if a trumpet had blown; she took up the sword, and handled it like a warrior long used to weapons; she tested the edge of the dagger, and sounded the strength of the helmet. Odysseus had learned all that he wished to know. He thought no more of the ornaments,—the bracelets, the clasps, and the hair-pins,—but gave them to the maidens for any price that they chose to offer. When all were pleased and satisfied, he turned to that one still toying with the sword, and said sharply,—

"Achilles!"

Had an earthquake shaken the isle of Scyros at that moment, Achilles would not have been more startled. For the tall, fair body, clad in a maiden's robes, was none other than that long-sought hero.

"Achilles," again said Odysseus, "I know thee, and it is useless to struggle longer against thy destiny. Put off that unbecoming garb, and come with me. Thy countrymen need thee to aid them in waging bitter war against Troy."

Then he told to the listening hero the story of the great wrong which Paris had done,—the unbearable insult which he had put upon the folk of Hellas. No man ever used words more persuasive. When he had ended, Achilles took him by the hand, and said, "Odysseus, truly do I know the destiny which is mine, and it behooves no man to struggle long against the doom which has been allotted to him. For the gods [233] ordain that man should live in pain, while they themselves are sorrowless. You have heard it said, how on the threshold of Zeus there stand two caskets full of gifts to men. One casket holds the evil, and one the good; and to whomsoever is dealt a mingled lot, upon him misfortunes sometimes fall, and sometimes blessings. So it is with me and with my father's house. For upon Peleus were bestowed rich gifts, even from his birth, and he excelled all other men in good fortune and in wealth; and he was king over the Myrmidons; and to him was given a sea-nymph for a wife, even Thetis, my goddess-mother. Yet, with all the good, sorrow has come upon him in his old age; for in his halls there are no kingly sons to gladden his heart, and hold up his hands. I am his only son, and of me it has been written that I am doomed to an untimely death; and it was for this that silver-footed Thetis brought me hither across the sea, and, clothing me in maidenly attire, left me to serve in Lycomedes' pleasant halls. But I tire of life like this. I would rather die to-morrow, a hero in some grand struggle, than live a hundred years among these soft delights. I will sail with you at once for Phthia, where my father sits, already bereaved, in his spacious halls. There I will summon my Myrmidons, and my best-loved friend Patroclus; and then with eager hearts we will hasten to join our countrymen in war against the Trojan power."

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

[234] Thus, then, did Odysseus perform his quest, and thus the last and greatest ally was won to the Hellenic cause. And yet the war was long delayed. Many times did the moon wax and wane; and seed-time and harvest, and fruit-gathering, and the storms of winter, came again and again in their turn,—and still the heroes were unready to join their forces and enter upon the mighty struggle.

At length, however, after nearly ten years had passed, all the princes and warriors of Hellas gathered their ships and men together at Aulis, and along the shores of the Euripus. A thousand dark-hulled vessels were moored in the strait; and a hundred thousand brave men were on board, ready to follow their leaders whithersoever they should order.

Chief of all that host was mighty Agamemnon, king of men, bearing the sceptre of Mycenæ, which Hephaestus, long before, had wrought most wondrously. He was clad in flashing armor, and his mind was filled with overweening pride when he thought how high he stood among the warriors, and that his men were the goodliest and bravest of all that host.

Next to him was Menelaus, silent and discreet, by no means skilled above his fellows, and yet, by reason of his noble heart, beloved and honored by all the Greeks; and it was to avenge his wrongs that this mighty array of men and ships had been gathered together.

Odysseus came next, shrewd in counsels, and no longer an unwilling hero; but, earnest and active, he [235] moved among the men and ships, inspiring all with zeal and courage. He wore upon his shoulders a thick purple mantle, clasped with a golden brooch of curious workmanship, which Penelope had given to him as a parting gift. Around his waist was a shining tunic, soft and smooth, and bright as the sunshine. With him, wherever he went, was his herald and armor-bearer, Eurybates,—a hunchbacked, brown-skinned, curly-haired man, whom Odysseus held in high esteem because of his rare good sense.

There, also, was young Achilles, tall and handsome, and swift of foot. His long hair fell about his shoulders like a shower of gold, and his gray eyes gleamed like those of the mountain eagle. By the shore lay his trim ships—fifty in all—with thousands of gallant Myrmidons on board. And ever at his side was his bosom friend and comrade, Patroclus, the son of Menoitios. He it was to whom old Peleus had said when they were about embarking for Aulis, "Thou art older than my child Achilles, but he is nobler born and mightier far in warlike deeds. But thou art wise and prudent; therefore, do thou speak gentle words of warning to him, and show him what is best to do: he will hearken to thy words spoken for his good."

There also was Ajax, the valiant son of Telamon, huge in body and slow in speech, but, next to Achilles, the bravest of all the host. And the other Ajax, clad in his linen corslet, and master of forty ships from Locris, moved also among the mightiest of the heroes.

[236] There, too, was Nestor, the aged king of Pylos, rich in wisdom and experience, and skilled in persuasive speech. With him was his son Antilochus, the quondam suitor of fair Helen, a warrior worthy of such a sire.

And there was Idomeneus, the stalwart chief who ruled the hundred cities of Crete, and was the sworn friend of Menelaus, And there was Philoctetes, the cunning archer, carrying the great bow which had been given him for his last sad act of friendship to his master, Heracles. And there was Diomede, of the loud war-cry, wearing the skin of a great fiery lion round his shoulders, and marshalling the warriors who had come with him from Argos, and Tiryns of the mighty walls. And there, too, among so many others of far greater worth, was Nireus of Syma, his well-oiled locks as neatly curled, and his linen as spotlessly white, as when in youth he had sued for Helen's hand in the court of old Tyndareus.

Now when the day had come for the fleet to sail, the chiefs stood upon the shore, and offered solemn sacrifices to Poseidon, and prayed the gods to prosper them in their undertaking and bring them safe again to their loved homes in Hellas. While they were burning the choicest bits of fat and flesh, behold, a strange thing happened! From a crevice in the rocks a shining serpent, with glittering cold eyes and forked tongue, came creeping silently into the sunlight. The heroes gazed upon it with wonder in their faces, for they knew that [237] it was sent as a sign to them. Not far away stood a plane-tree, green with foliage, in which a bird had built her nest; and in the nest were nine tiny fledglings, tenderly cared for by the mother bird. Straight to this tree the serpent crept; it twined around the trunk, and stealthily climbed to the nest; it seized the helpless little ones in its fangs, and devoured them; then it darted upon the distressed mother bird, and destroyed her most pitilessly. But now a gleam of lightning flashed across the sky, and a peal of thunder shook the earth and sea. When the astonished chiefs looked up again, behold, the serpent had been turned into stone.

"Call Calchas the seer, and let him tell us what this portends!" they cried.

Then Calchas, his long hair streaming in the wind, his wild eyes rolling in awe, his gaunt arms waving to and fro above his head, came and looked upon the wonder.

"Ye men of Hellas!" he cried, "I will tell you what this portends. As there were nine birds in the nest, ye shall war nine years against Troy, and shall not prevail; but, even as the serpent destroyed the mother bird, so in the tenth year shall the city and its god-built walls fall into your hands."


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