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

The Long Siege

T HE great fleet sailed once more across the sea, piloted now by Telephus, the king of Mysia; and the ships of Achilles and those of Philoctetes of Melibœa led all the rest. When they had put a little more than half the distance behind them, they came to the isle of Chryse, where were a fair temple and altars built in honor of Athené. Here many of the heroes landed; and while some were busied in refilling the water-casks from the springs of fresh water near the shore, others went up to the temple and offered gifts and heart-felt thanks to Pallas Athené. But as Philoctetes, the cunning archer, stood near one of the altars, a water-snake came out of the rocks and bit him on the foot. Terrible, indeed, was the wound, and great were the hero's sufferings; day and night he groaned and cried aloud by reason of the bitter pain; and there was no physician that could heal him of the grievous hurt. In a few days, a noisome stench began to issue from the wound, and the hero's complainings waxed so loud and piteous that the warriors stopped their ears, so that they might not hear them. Then the chiefs took counsel as to what it were best to do with him; and, although some advised that he be cast into the sea, it was thought best to follow a milder course, and leave him alone on the isle of Lemnos. Hence, while the hero slept, Odysseus and his men carried him on shore; and they laid his great bow, even the bow of Heracles, by his side upon the sand, and put a cask of water and a basket of food within easy reach of his hand. Then they sailed away, and left him alone in his great distress and sorrow.

At length the shores of Ilios were reached, and the high towers of Troy were seen. Then the sails of the vessels were furled and laid away in the roomy holds, the masts were lowered with speed, and the oarsmen seated themselves upon the benches and rowed the ships forward until they stood in one line, stretching more than a league along the shore. But as they drew nearer the sea-beach, the heroes saw all the plain before them covered with armed men, and horses and chariots drawn up to hinder their landing. And they paused, uncertain what to do; for Calchas the soothsayer had declared that he who should first step foot upon the shores of Ilios should meet a sudden death.

"Who among all the heroes will dare be the first to die for Hellas?" was the anxious question heard on every vessel. Not a man was there who was not willing and ready to be the second one to step on shore; but who would be the first? The Trojan host now began to shoot their arrows toward the ships, and to taunt the Hellenes with cowardice. Yet even Achilles and Ajax Telamon, the mightiest of the heroes, fell back and would not take the fearful risk of beginning the fight. Then Protesilaus, who had led forty black ships from Phylace and the shore of Antrona, seeing that some one must die for the cause, leaped boldly out of the ship upon the shelving beach. At once a hundred arrows whistled through the air, and glanced from his sevenfold shield of ox-hide; and a heavy spear, thrown by Hector, the mightiest of the Trojans, pierced his fair armor, and laid him bleeding and dead upon the sand. Quickly the warriors leaped ashore; face to face and hand to hand they fought with the Trojan host; and, led by Achilles and by Diomede of the loud war-cry, they drove their foes across the plain and even through the city gates.

But Protesilaus lay dead upon the beach; and few of the heroes remembered that to him they owed their victory. And when his newly-wedded wife, fair Laodamia, heard in far Phylace that he had fallen first in the fight, she dight herself in mourning and went to pray at the shrine of mighty Zeus. And the prayer which she offered was that she might see her husband once again, and holding his hand, might talk with him if it were only for the space of three hours. Then Hermes led the war-loving hero back to the upper world; and he sat in his bridal chamber, and spoke sweet words of comfort to Laodamia. But when the short hours were past, and the messenger came to lead Protesilaus back to the land of shades, his wife prayed that she might return with him. And men say that this prayer, also, was heard, and that arm in arm the two went forth together to their shadowy home in Hades.

Time would fail me to tell you how the Greeks encamped upon the plain of Troy, and how for more than nine long years they laid siege to that great city. Neither can I speak of the ruinous wrath of Achilles which brought so much woe upon the Hellenes; for of that you will read in the oldest and grandest poem that the world has ever known,—the Iliad of Homer. And there, also, you will read of the death of Patroclus; and of the vengeance which Achilles wrought, even by the slaying of godlike Hector; and of the mighty deeds of Diomede and of Ajax and of Agamemnon on the plains of Troy; and of the shrewd counsels and crafty schemes of Odysseus, who, though in strength surpassing other men, learned to trust rather to his skill in words than to his mastery of arms.

The time at length drew near when that which had been spoken concerning the doom of Achilles was to be fulfilled. For, when he saw that he, more than all the Hellenes, was held in dread by the Trojans, his heart was puffed up with unseemly pride, and he boasted of his deeds, and spoke of himself as greater even than Phœbus Apollo. Then the archer-god was greatly angered, and no longer covered him with his great shield of protection, but left him to his doom. Hence, on a day, when he stood before the Scæan gate, and taunted the Trojans on the walls, a mighty spear smote him, and pierced his heart. Some say that the weapon was thrown by Paris, the perfidious one who had caused this bloody war; and others say that far-darting Apollo in his wrath launched the fatal bolt. The body of Achilles incased in his glorious armor lay all day long in the dust, while Hellenes and Trojans fought around it, and neither could gain the mastery, or carry away the ghastly prize. At length a great storm burst upon the combatants: the thunder rolled, the lightning flashed, the rain and hail fell in blinding torrents; and the Trojans withdrew behind their walls. Then the Hellenes lifted the body of Achilles, and carried it to their ships; and, stripping it of his matchless armor, they laid it on a couch, and standing around it, they bewailed his untimely death. And his mother, silver-footed Thetis, came across the waves with all the sea-nymphs in her train; and, while she wept over the body of her child, the nymphs arrayed it in shining robes which they themselves had woven in their coral caves. Then, after many days and nights of bitter lamentation, the Hellenes built a great funeral pile upon the beach; and they laid the hero thereon, and set fire to it, and the flames leaped high over the sea, and Achilles was no more. Then Thetis took the hero's glorious armor, and set it up as a prize to that one who should excel in feats of strength and skill in a grand trial to be made beside the ships. Only two of all the host stood up for the trial,—Ajax Telamon and Odysseus; for no other man dared contend with either of these. Mighty indeed was the contest; but in the end Odysseus prevailed, and the matchless armor was awarded him. Then, when Ajax knew that he had been beaten in the suit,—and beaten not more by honest strength and skill than by crafty guile,—he fell prone upon the earth, and his great mind lost its balance. And when he arose to his feet, he knew no longer his friends and comrades, nor did he remember any thing. But like a roaring wild beast, he rushed from the tents into the fields and pasture lands; and, seeing a flock of sheep browsing among the herbage, he fell upon them with his sword, and slaughtered great numbers of then, fancying that they were foemen seeking his life. Nor did any man dare say any thing to him, or try in any way to check him, or turn him aside from his mad freaks. When he grew tired, at length, of slaughtering the helpless beasts, he went down into a green dell, and fell upon his own sword. A great stream of blood gushed from the wound, and dyed the earth, and from it sprang a purple flower bearing upon its edges both the initials of his name and a sign of woe, the letters αι.

Then Odysseus bewailed his comrade's unhappy death. "Would that I had never prevailed, and won that prize!" he cried. "So goodly a head hath the earth closed over for the sake of these arms, even that of Ajax, who in beauty and in feats of war was of a mould far above all other men, save only peerless Achilles. What a tower of strength wert thou! Long indeed shall it be ere Hellas shall see another like thee!"

After this the Hellenes began to despair; for many of their noblest heroes had perished. Who now should lead them on to victory? Surely not Patroclus, nor Achilles, nor Ajax. Bitter murmurings were heard among the ships, and the men declared that ere another moon should pass, they would embark and sail back to their loved homes, nor ask the leave of Agamemnon.

At the foot of Mount Ida there stood a temple of Apollo, built by the Trojans while yet sweet Peace was smiling on the land. To that temple Helenus the wise soothsayer, one of Priam's sons, was wont to go, stealing out from the city in the darkness of midnight, and returning ere the gray dawn of morning appeared. He went that he might learn from bright Apollo the secrets of the future, and he fondly hoped that his going was unknown to the foes of Troy. But shrewd Odysseus found him out; and one night, with a band of men, he lay in wait for the prophet-prince, and took him captive.

"This is a rich treasure that we have taken," said Odysseus, "and it shall repay us for all our losses."

Helenus was straightway taken to the camp. Around him gathered the heroes,—Agamemnon, Nestor, Menelaus, and all the rest,—demanding that he should uncover the secrets of the future.

"When and how shall the Hellenes overcome your city of Troy?" said Odysseus. "Tell us this, and tell us truly, or death in its fearfullest form shall come upon thee swiftly."

Then the trembling seer revealed to his enemies that which he had learned at Apollo's shrine. He told them that within the present year the Hellenes would certainly prevail if only they did three things, without which Troy could never be taken. First, the Palladion, the monster image of Athené, must be removed from the temple in the city, and set up in the camp by the seashore. Second, young Pyrrhus the son of Achilles must be brought from his island-home of Scyros to take the place of his father at the head of the Myrmidon host. And third, Philoctetes, who had been so deeply wronged by the chiefs, and left to perish on the desert shores of Lemnos, must be found and brought to Troy, and healed of his grievous wound.

"These are great tasks and heavy," said Odysseus. "Nevertheless I will undertake to see them performed."

Then he ordered a swift ship to be made ready; and with old Phoinix as companion, and a score of trusted fighting-men, he went on board, and sailed at once for Scyros the quondam home of great Achilles. Ten days afterward he returned, bringing with him the lad Pyrrhus, so like his glorious father in face and figure that the Myrmidons hailed him at once as their chief and king.

"Thus have I done one of the three tasks," said Odysseus. "I shall perform the other two, mayhap as easily, and then the high walls of Troy shall fall before us."

Three days later the swift ship of Odysseus again put to sea; and young Pyrrhus was the hero's comrade. It was but a short voyage to Lemnos; and, when they reached that island, they moored their vessel in the sheltering cove close by the spot where, nine years before, the suffering Philoctetes had been left. Odysseus concealed himself, and sent the young prince on shore with some of the warriors who had come with them; for he rightly guessed that Philoctetes had not forgotten the wrong which he had suffered at his hands.


Pyrrhus Finds Philoctetes in a Cave

Pyrrhus found the hero living alone in a wretched cave with no friend but the mighty bow of Heracles, and suffering still great torments from the horrid wound in his foot. Yet the prince could not prevail upon him to sail to Troy; for he said that he would rather endure the distress, the hunger, and the loneliness which were his in Lemnos, than meet again those false friends who had left him there to die. Then Odysseus came forth from his hiding-place, with a company of men, to seize the hero and carry him by force on board the vessel. But this the young prince would not permit; and Philoctetes, when he saw them, fled into the innermost parts of his cave, and would not come forth. When Odysseus found that neither threats nor entreaties would prevail upon the hero, he went back to his ship, and made ready to return to Troy. Then it was that a vision appeared to Philoctetes,—a vision of mighty Heracles clothed in bright raiment, and a great glory shining in his face.

"Go thou to the land of Ilios," said the vision. "There thou shalt first be healed of thy grievous sickness; and afterwards thou shalt do great deeds, and shalt aid in taking the city; and the first prize of valor shall be awarded to thee among all the heroes. For it is the will of the immortals that Troy shall be taken, and that my bow shall mightily aid in its overthrow."

Then Philoctetes went forth from his hiding-place, and was taken on board the vessel. And as the sails were spread, and the breezes wafted them towards the Trojan shore, he bade a tearful farewell to Lemnos, where he had spent so many years of loneliness and sorrow:—

"Farewell to thee, O home that didst befriend me when others failed! Farewell, ye nymphs that haunt the meadows and the shore, or dwell beside the gushing mountain springs. Farewell, O cave that oft hast been my shelter from the winter's frosty winds and the sweltering rays of the summer's sun. I leave you now; and thou, O sea-girt Lemnos, I may never more behold! And grant, ye gods, that favoring winds may blow, and carry me safely wheresoe'er the Fates would have me go!"

As soon as the heroes reached the Trojan shore, and the ship was drawn to its place high on the beach, Philoctetes was carried to the tents, and given in charge of Machaon, Asclepius' noble son. And as he lay upon a cot in the tent of the kind physician, a sweet odor, like that of blossoming orchards and the bloom of clover, filled the air around him, and he slept; and men said that the spirit of Asclepius had fanned him into slumber. Then Machaon, with matchless skill, cut out the poisoned flesh from his foot, and cleansed it, and bound it up with soft linen. And when the hero awoke, the pain had left him; and the wound from which he had suffered such untold torments began at once to heal.

It chanced one day as Philoctetes was sitting outside of his tent, that a party of Trojans led by Paris made a sally from the city gates, and came scouring across the plain, intent on doing mischief to the Hellenes. As the daring warriors drew near the tents, Philoctetes fitted an arrow to the great bow of Heracles, and took aim at their fair-faced leader. The deadly dart pierced the shoulder of Paris, and he fell headlong from his chariot; and there he would have met his death, had not his comrades quickly rallied, and carried him, faint with pain, back to the city and his father's halls. Terrible were the tortures which the hero suffered, for the arrow was one of those which Heracles had poisoned by dipping in the blood of the hydra. The venom sped through his burning veins; his strength failed him; the torments of a thousand deaths seemed to be upon him. Then he forgot fair Helen, for whose sake was all this war and bloodshed; and he bethought him of gentle Œnone, whom, in the innocent days of youth, he had wooed and won in the pleasant dales of Ida. And he cried aloud, "Bring to me Œnone, her whom I have so grievously wronged! She alone can heal me of my hurt!"

Then swift messengers were sent to the woody slopes of Ida, to find, if it might be, the long-deserted, long-forgotten wife. "Come quickly and save thy erring but repentant husband,"—such was the message,—"behold, he suffers from a grievous wound! But thou art skilled in the healing art above all who dwell in Ilios; and he prays that, forgiving all wrong, thou wilt hasten to help him."

When Œnone heard the message, she remembered the cruel wrongs which she had endured so long at the hands of faithless Paris; and without a word in answer, she turned away and went about her daily tasks in her humble cottage home. Then the messengers returned to Troy, and told the prince that Œnone would not come to help him. And Paris, with a groan of pain and a sigh of despair, turned his face to the wall, and died.

Then Œnone, too late, repented that she had turned a deaf ear to her husband's last request. And in haste she clad herself in her wedding robes, and came to the sad halls of the prince, not knowing that death had taken him. Fair and beautiful as in the days of her youth, she stood before his lifeless form. She took his cold hands in her warm palm, and said, "I have come, O Paris! Waken, and speak to me! Dost thou not remember me,—Œnone, whom thou didst woo in the flowery dells of Ida? I am still the same, and never have I wronged thee. Speak to me, O Paris!" Then she knelt beside him, and saw the gaping wound which the arrow of Philoctetes had made; and she knew that life had fled, and that the hero never more would waken or speak to her. And the gentle heart of Œnone was broken with the anguish which came upon her; and when the men of Troy laid Paris upon the funeral pile, and the smoke and flame arose towards heaven, the fair, perfidious prince was not alone, for Œnone shared his blazing couch.

While Troy was in mourning for the unhappy death of Paris, Odysseus and Diomede were planning the means by which to obtain the sacred image of Athené—the Palladion of Troy. In the guise of a ragged beggar, Odysseus found his way into the city, and to the door of the temple where the great image stood.

"Ah, Odysseus! I know thee despite thy rags!" was whispered into his ear, as a fair hand offered him a pittance. He looked up, and saw the peerless Helen before him, as beautiful as when, a score of years before, the princes of Hellas had sued for her hand at the court of old Tyndareus.

"Be not afraid," she said, "I will not betray you."

And then she told him how unhappy she had been in Troy, and how she longed to return to her countrymen and to her much-wronged husband Menelaus. And she promised to aid him in whatever way she could, to carry off the treasured Palladion, and to open the way for the overthrow of Troy. Odysseus, shrewdest of men, talked not long with the princess, but soon returned to the camp. Three nights later, he and Diomede made their way by stealth into the city, and carried away the priceless Palladion.

And now the three tasks which Helenus had spoken of, had been performed. What more remained ere the doomed city should be overthrown? The chiefs must needs again consult with shrewd Odysseus; and the plan which he proposed was carried out. A wooden horse, of wondrous size, was made; and in it the doughtiest heroes of the host, with young Pyrrhus as their leader, hid themselves. Then the rest of the Hellenes embarked, with all their goods, aboard their ships, and sailed away beyond the wooded shores of Tenedos. But the monster horse, with its hidden load of heroes, stood alone upon the beach.

When the Trojans, looking from their high towers, beheld their enemies depart, they were filled with joy; and, opening wide their gates, they poured out of the city, and crowded across the plain, anxious to see the wonderful horse,—the only relic which their foes had left upon their shores. While they were gazing upon it, and hazarding many a guess at its purpose and use, a prisoner was brought before the chiefs. It was Sinon, a young Hellene, who had been found lurking among the rocks by the shore. Trembling with pretended fear, he told the Trojans a sad, false story, of wrongs which he said he had suffered at the hands of Odysseus.

"But what meaneth this monster image of a horse? Tell us that," said the Trojan chiefs.

Then Sinon told them how the Hellenes had suffered great punishment at the hands of Athené, because they had stolen the sacred Palladion of Troy, and how it was on this account that they had at last given up the siege of Troy, and had sailed away for their homes in distant Hellas. And he told them, too, of the words of Calchas the soothsayer; that they should leave on the shores of Ilios an image which should serve the same purpose to those who honored it, as the sacred Palladion had served within the walls of Troy; and that if the Trojans should revere this figure, and set it up within their walls, it would prove a tower of strength to them, insuring eternal greatness to Troy, and utter destruction to Hellas.

Need I tell you how this artful story deceived the Trojans, and how with shouts of triumph they dragged the great image into the city? Need I tell you how, in the darkness of the night, the fleet returned from Tenedos, and the mighty host again landed upon the Trojan shore; or how the heroes, concealed within the wooden horse, came out of their hiding-place, and opened the gates to their friends outside; or how the Hellenes fell upon the astonished Trojans, awakened so suddenly from a false dream of peace; or how, with sword and torch, they slew and burned, and meted out the doom of the fated city? It was thus that the princes of Hellas performed the oath which they had sworn, years and years before, in the halls of King Tyndareus; and it was thus that the wrongs of Menelaus were avenged, fair Helen was given back to her husband, and the honor of Hellas was freed from blemish.

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