Gateway to the Classics: A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by James Baldwin
A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin

Becalmed at Aulis

A PLEASANT wind from the west sprang up, and drove the great fleet out into the sea. Not a single one of the thousand ships was lost or left behind; and after a quick and happy voyage, they came in sight of a fruitful land and a great city with high towers and pleasant dwellings.

"The gods have favored us, even beyond what we asked!" cried the Hellenes.

Achilles and his Myrmidons landed first, and without waiting for the other ships to come up, they rushed across the plain, and began an assault upon the town. Like a swarm of locusts lighting down upon a field of grain, and consuming every thing before them, so came the destroying Hellenes. The gates were broken down; the astonished people fled in dismay, and sought safety among the hills and in the forest on the other side of the town. Not until many houses had been burned, and many people slain, did Odysseus and Menelaus, whose ships had been delayed, reach the place.

"Men of Hellas!" they cried, hastening into the midst of the carnage. "What is this you are doing? This is not Troy. It is the peaceful city of Teuthrania in Mysia. Cease your slaughter, and return at once to your vessels, lest the wrath of the gods fall upon you."

The word was carried from mouth to mouth; and the hasty heroes, crestfallen and ashamed, stopped their bloody work, and turned their faces back towards the shore where their ships lay beached. None too soon did they retreat; for the king of Mysia, one Telephus a son of Heracles, having quickly called his warriors together, fell upon their rear, and slew great numbers of them, following them even to the sloping beach. As the last ship was pushing out, an arrow from the bow of King Telephus struck Patroclus, wounding him sorely. Then Achilles, poising his long spear, threw it with deadly aim among the Mysians; it struck King Telephus, and laid him senseless though not slain upon the sandy plain.

No sooner had the fleet set sail again upon the sea, than Poseidon stirred up the waves in anger, and loosed the winds upon them. Great was the terror, and great indeed was the destruction. Some of the ships were sunk in mid-sea, and some were driven upon the rocks and wrecked. But the greater number of them, after days and weeks of buffeting with the waves, made their way back to Aulis.

When the heroes stood again on the shores of the Euripus, they began to think that doubtless there was some truth in the omen of the snake and the birds; and the most hopeful among them ceased to dream of taking Troy in a day. While waiting for stragglers to come in, and for the shattered vessels to be repaired, they found enough to do to keep the time from dragging heavily; and when not engaged in some kind of labor they amused themselves with various games, and great sport had they with quoits and javelins, with bows and arrows, and in wrestling and running. And now and then they went out into the woods of Eubœa, and hunted the wild deer which roamed there in abundance.

One day it chanced that Agamemnon, while hunting, started a fine stag, and gave it a long chase among the hills, and through the wooded dells, until it sought safety in a grove sacred to Artemis the huntress queen. The proud king knew that this was a holy place where beasts and birds might rest secure from harm; yet he cared naught for what Artemis had ordained, and with his swift arrows he slew the panting deer. Then was the huntress queen moved with anger, and she declared that the ships of the Hellenes should not sail from Aulis until the king had atoned for his crime. And a great calm rested upon the sea, and not a breath of air stirred the sails at the mast-heads of the ships. Day after day and week after week went by, and not a speck of cloud was seen in the sky above, and not a ripple on the glassy face of the deep. All the ships had been put in order, new vessels had been built, the warriors had burnished their armor and overhauled their arms a thousand times; and yet no breeze arose to waft them across the sea. And they began to murmur, and to talk bitterly against Agamemnon and the chiefs.

In the mean while, a small vessel driven by rowers came up the Euripus, and stopped among the ships at Aulis. On board of it was King Telephus of Mysia, sorely suffering from the wound which Achilles had given him on the Teuthranian beach. He had come to seek the hero who had wounded him, for an oracle had told him that he only could heal the grievous hurt. Achilles carried the sufferer to his tent, and skilfully dressed the wound, and bound it up with healing herbs; for in his boyhood he had learned from wise old Cheiron how to treat such ailments, and now that knowledge was of great use to him. And soon the king was whole and strong again; and he vowed that he would not leave Achilles, but would stay with the Hellenes, and pilot them across the sea to Troy. Yet the wrath of Artemis continued, and not the slightest breeze arose to cool the air, or fill the waiting sails of the ships.

At last Agamemnon sent for Calchas the soothsayer, and asked him in secret how the anger of the huntress queen might be assuaged. And the soothsayer with tears and lamentations answered that in no wise could it be done save by the sacrifice to Artemis of his maiden daughter Iphigenia. Then the king cried aloud in his grief, and declared that though Troy might stand forever, he would not do that thing; and he bade a herald go through the camp, and among the ships, and bid every man depart as he chose to his own country. But before the herald had gone from his tent, behold his brother Menelaus, the wronged husband of fair Helen, stood before him with downcast eyes and saddest of hearts.

"After ten years of labor and hope," said he to Agamemnon, "wouldst thou give up this enterprise, and lose all?"


Odysseus and Menelaus Persuading Agamemnon to Sacrifice Iphigeneia

Then Odysseus came also into the tent, and added his persuasions to those of Menelaus. And the king hearkened to him, for no man was more crafty in counsel; and the three recalled the herald, and formed a plan whereby they might please Artemis by doing as she desired. And Agamemnon, in his weakness, wrote a letter to Clytemnestra his queen, telling her to bring the maiden Iphigenia to Aulis, there to be wedded to King Achilles. "Fail not in this,"  added he, "for the godlike hero will not sail with us unless my daughter is given to him in marriage."  And when he had written the letter, he sealed it, and sent it by a swift messenger to Clytemnestra at Mycenæ.

Nevertheless the king's heart was full of sorrow, and when he was alone he planned how he might yet save his daughter. Night came, but he could not sleep; he walked the floor of his tent; he wept and lamented like one bereft of reason. At length he sat down, and wrote another letter: "Daughter of Leda, send not thy child to Aulis, for I will give her in marriage at another time."  Then he called another messenger, an old and trusted servant of the household, and put this letter into his hands.

"Take this with all haste to my queen, who, perchance, is even now on her way to Aulis. Stop not by any cool spring in the groves, and let not thine eyes close for sleep. And see that the chariot bearing the queen and Iphigenia pass thee not unnoticed."

The messenger took the letter, and hasted away. But hardly had he passed the line of the tents when Menelaus saw him, and took the letter from him. And when he had read it, he went before his brother, and reproached him with bitter words.

"Before you were chosen captain of the host," said he, "you were kind and gentle, and the friend of every man. There was nothing that you would not do to aid your fellows. Now you are puffed up with pride and vain conceit, and care nothing even for those who are your equals in power. Yet, for all, you are not rid of your well-known cowardice; and when you saw that your leadership was likely to be taken away from you unless you obeyed the commands of Artemis, you agreed to do this thing. Now you are trying to break your word, sending secretly to your wife, and bidding her not to bring her daughter to Aulis."

Then Agamemnon answered, "Why should I destroy my daughter in order to win back thy wife? Let the suitors who swore an oath to King Tyndareus go with thee. In what way am I bound to serve thee?"

"Do as you will," said Menelaus, going away in wrath.

Soon after this, there came a herald to the king, saying, "Behold, your daughter Iphigenia has come as you directed, and with her mother and her little brother Orestes she rests by the spring close to the outer line of tents. And the warriors have gathered around them, and are praising her loveliness, and asking many questions; and some say, 'The king is sick to see his daughter whom he loves so deeply, and he has made up some excuse to bring her to the camp.' But I know why you have brought her here; for I have been told about the wedding, and the noble groom who is to lead her in marriage; and we will rejoice and be glad, because this is a happy day for the maiden."

Then the king was sorely distressed, and knew not what to do. "Sad, sad indeed," said he, "is the wedding to which the maiden cometh. For the name of the bridegroom is Death."

At the same time Menelaus came back, sorrowful and repentant. "You were right, my brother," said he. "What, indeed, has Iphigenia to do with Helen, and why should the maiden die for me? Send the Hellenes to their homes, and let not this great wrong be done."

"But how can I do that now?" asked Agamemnon. "The warriors, urged on by Odysseus and Calchas, will force me to do the deed. Or, if I flee to Mycenæ, they will follow me, and slay me, and destroy my city. Oh, woe am I, that such a day should ever dawn upon my sight!"

Even while they spoke together, the queen's chariot drove up to the tent's door, and the queen and Iphigenia and the little Orestes alighted quickly, and merrily greeted the king.

"It is well that you have sent for me, my father," said Iphigenia, caressing him.

"It may be well, and yet it may not," said Agamemnon. "I am exceeding glad to see thee alive and happy.

"If you are glad, why then do you weep?"

"I am sad because thou wilt be so long time away from me."

"Are you going on a very long voyage, father?"

"A long voyage and a sad one, my child. And thou, also, hast a journey to make."

"Must I make it alone, or will my mother go with me?"

"Thou must make it alone. Neither father nor mother nor any friend can go with thee, my child."

"But when shall it be? I pray that you will hasten this matter with Troy, and return home ere then."

"It may be so. But I must offer a sacrifice to the gods, before we sail from Aulis."

"That is well. And may I be present?"

"Yes, and thou shalt be very close to the altar."

"Shall I lead in the dances, father?"

Then the king could say no more, for reason of the great sorrow within him; and he kissed the maiden, and sent her into the tent. A little while afterward, the queen came and spoke to him, and asked him about the man to whom their daughter was to be wedded; and Agamemnon, still dissembling, told her that the hero's name was Achilles, and that he was the son of old Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis.

"And when and where is the marriage to be?" asked the queen.

"On the first lucky day in the present moon, and here in our camp at Aulis," answered Agamemnon.

"Shall I stay here with thee until then?"

"Nay, thou must go back to Mycenæ without delay."

"But may I not come again? If I am not here, who will hold up the torch for the bride?"

"I will attend to all such matters," answered Agamemnon.

But Clytemnestra was not well pleased, neither could the king persuade her at all that she should return to Mycenæ. While yet they were talking, Achilles himself came to the tent door, and said aloud to the servant who kept it, "Tell thy master that Achilles, the son of Peleus, would be pleased to see him."

When Clytemnestra overheard these words, she hastened to the door, and offered the hero her hand. But he was ashamed and drew back, for it was deemed an unseemly thing for men to speak thus with women. Then Clytemnestra said, "Why, indeed, should you, who are about to marry my daughter, be ashamed to give me your hand?"

Achilles was struck with wonder, and asked her what she meant; and when she had explained the matter, he said,—

"Truly I have never been a suitor for thy daughter, neither has Agamemnon or Menelaus spoken a word to me regarding her."

And now the queen was astonished in her turn, and cried out with shame that she had been so cruelly deceived. Then the keeper of the door, who was the same that had been sent with the letter, came forward and told the truth regarding the whole matter. And Clytemnestra cried to Achilles, "O son of the silver-footed Thetis! Help me and help my daughter Iphigenia, in this time of sorest need! For we have no friend in all this host, and none in whom we can confide but thee."

Achilles answered, "Long time ago I was a pupil of old Cheiron the most righteous of men, and from him I learned to be honest and true. If Agamemnon rule according to right, then I will obey him; but not otherwise. And now since thy daughter was brought to this place under pretence of giving her to me as my bride, I will see that she shall not be slain, neither shall any one dare take her from me."

On the following day, while Agamemnon sat grief-stricken in his tent, the maiden came before him carrying the babe Orestes in her arms; and she cast herself upon her knees at his feet, and caressing his hands, she thus besought him: "Would, dear father, that I had the voice of Orpheus, to whom even the rocks did listen! then I would persuade thee. O father! I am thy child. I was the first to call thee 'Father,' and the first to whom thou saidst 'My child.' "

The father turned his face away, and wept; he could not speak for sadness. Then the maiden went on: "O, father, hear me! thou to whom my voice was once so sweet that thou wouldst waken me to hear my prattle amid the songs of birds when it was meaningless as theirs. And when I was older grown, then thou wouldst say to me, 'Some day, my birdling, thou shalt have a nest of thy own, a home of which thou shalt be the mistress.' And I did answer, 'Yes, dear father, and when thou art old I will care for thee, and pay thee with all my heart for the kindness thou dost show me.' But now thou hast forgotten it all, and art ready to slay my young life."

A deep groan burst from the lips of the mighty king, but he spoke not a word. Then after a death-like silence broken only by the deep breathings of father and child, Iphigenia spoke again: "My father, can there be any prayer more pure and more persuasive than that of a maiden for her father's welfare? and when the cruel knife shall strike me down, thou wilt have one daughter less to pray for thee." A shudder shook the frame of Agamemnon, but he answered not a word.

At that moment Achilles entered. He had come in haste from the tents beside the shore, and he spoke in hurried, anxious accents.

"Behold," said he, "a great tumult has arisen in the camp; for Calchas has given out among the men that you refuse to do what Artemis has bidden, and that hence these delays and troubles have arisen. And the rude soldiers are crying out against you, and declaring that the maiden must die. When I would have stayed their anger, they took up stones to stone me,—my own Myrmidons among the rest. And now they are making ready to move upon your tent, threatening to sacrifice you also with your daughter. But I will fight for you to the utmost, and the maiden shall not die."

As he was speaking, Calchas entered, and, grasping the wrist of the pleading maiden, lifted her to her feet. She looked up, and saw his stony face and hard cold eyes; and turning again to Agamemnon, she said, "O father, the ships shall sail, for I will die for thee."

Then Achilles said to her, "Fair maiden, thou art by far the noblest and most lovely of thy sex. Fain would I save thee from this fate, even though every man in Hellas be against me. Fly with me quickly to my long-oared galley, and I will carry thee safely away from this accursed place."

"Not so," answered Iphigenia: "I will give up my life for my father and this land of the Hellenes, and no man shall suffer for me."

And the pitiless priest led her through the throng of rude soldiers, to the grove of Artemis, wherein an altar had been built. But Achilles and Agamemnon covered their faces with their mantles, and staid inside the tent. Then Talthybius the herald stood up, and bade the warriors keep silence; and Calchas put a garland of sweet-smelling flowers about the victim's head.

"Let no man touch me," said the maiden, "for I offer my neck to the sword with right good will, that so my father may live and prosper."

In silence and great awe, the warriors stood around, while Calchas drew a sharp knife from its scabbard. But, lo! as he struck, the maiden was not there; and in her stead, a noble deer lay dying on the altar. Then the old soothsayer cried out in triumphant tones, "See now, ye men of Hellas how the gods have provided for you a sacrifice, and saved the innocent daughter of the king!" And all the people shouted with joy; and in that self-same hour, a strong breeze came down the Euripus, and filled the idle sails of the waiting ships.

"To Troy! to Troy!" cried the Hellenes; and every man hastened aboard his vessel.

How it was that fair Iphigenia escaped the knife; by whom she was saved, or whither she went,—no one knew. Some say that Artemis carried her away to the land of the Taurians, where she had a temple and an altar; and that, long years afterward, her brother Orestes found her there, and bore her back to her girlhood's home, even to Mycenæ. But whether this be true or not, I know that there have been maidens as noble, as loving, as innocent as she, who have given up their lives in order to make this world a purer and happier place in which to live; and these are not dead, but live in the grateful memories of those whom they loved and saved.

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