Gateway to the Classics: The Wonder-Book of Horses by James Baldwin
The Wonder-Book of Horses by  James Baldwin

The Great Wooden Horse

I. The Puzzled Trojans

O F all the wooden horses that men have ever made, he was the hugest. Yet he was not very handsome. Built hastily of rough-hewn maple planks and of beams and spars from the wrecks of unseaworthy ships, the great wonder is that he was so well made. But old Epeus, who planned and directed the building of the huge fellow, was a master-carpenter, the skillfullest in the world; and the rough pieces of timber were fitted together with such nicety that there was no crack, nor crevice, nor point of weakness, in any part of the work. Certain men who were jealous of Epeus's fame whispered that it was not he, but the goddess Athena, who did it all; and this we shall not deny.

Early one morning the people of Troy were astonished to learn that the Greeks, who had been besieging their city for ten weary years, had sailed away during the night. Nobody had seen them go, nobody knew whither they had gone; but anybody, by climbing up to the watchtower above the Scæan gate, could see that they had utterly vanished. The sandy beach where a thousand ships had been drawn up was deserted and bare, save that it was strewn with the ruins of the huts and tents that had so long sheltered the persistent Greeks. A short distance to the left, and half concealed behind a growth of tall reeds, was a dark object which puzzled the Trojan watchmen not a little. When first seen in the gray light of the dawn, it looked like some huge sea-monster, black and slimy, just emerged from the water.

"Great Neptune is with us!" cried one of the men. "He has sent a creature out of the deep, and it has swallowed up our enemies and their tents and their ships, and left not one to tell the tale."

"Nonsense!" said another, who had sharper eyes. "This thing looks to me like no creature at all, but rather a statue of some kind which the Greeks have built, and left behind them as a token of their disappointment and defeat. And now I remember that I have seen crowds of them busy at work on the same spot for several days. I have no doubt but that they are all far over the sea by this time, and this east wind will waft them swiftly to their own country."

All Troy, when it awoke and heard the glad news, stretched itself out and took a long breath. The shopkeepers threw open their doors and hung up their handsomest goods where they would catch the eyes of the passers-by. The farmers brought out their plows and mended their old harness and talked about the big crops they would raise in the fields that had lain fallow so long and had been enriched with so much human blood. The housewives returned to their long-neglected spinning, or overhauled their linen closets, and brushed the cobwebs out of their bed-chambers. The citizen-soldiers hung up their bows and quivers, their swords and shields, and each began to furbish up the instruments of his trade. The maidens donned their best gowns and went out to walk and smile sweetly. The small boys with their fishing-lines in their pockets, and the great crowd of idlers who always expected to grow rich upon what they could find, hastened into the streets and elbowed their way to the gates, only to find them closed.

About noon, however, the gate next to the sea was thrown wide open. A great multitude poured out, and the mad race that was made for the shore was like the scramble of boomers on our Western frontier when lands are given away by the Government. Soon thousands were on the beach, looking eagerly for whatever the Greeks might have dropped, but seldom finding anything more valuable than a broken comb, a bit of leather, or some small pieces of crockery. All were shy of the southern part of the beach, where the strange monster stood among the reeds. Everybody could plainly see now that it was a horse. Its huge head, its arching neck, its broad back, its flowing tail, were visible from every part of the beach; and the boys who had ventured nearest said that it stood firmly on a broad platform of planks.

That it was an immense horse, and that it was made of wood, nobody could dispute. But why had the Greeks built it, and why had they left it there? Presently a number of the king's counselors came out to look at the strange object and decide what to do with it. Some advised that it should be drawn into the city and lodged within the tower, there to be a kind of permanent exposition of the folly of the Greeks. Others were in favor of throwing it into the sea, or of kindling a fire beneath it and burning it to ashes.

The dispute would doubtless have ended in blows had not Laocoön, a prince of Troy and priest of Apollo, come hastily out from the city with a small company of soldiers.

"What folly is this?" he cried. "Who wants to take anything into the city that the Greeks have left upon our shores? As for my part, I would look with dread upon any gift that they might offer us. This horse is not so harmless as he looks. Either there are armed men within his giant body, or he is so put together that when he is taken into the city he will fly into pieces, knock down our walls, and destroy our houses. Throw him into the sea, burn him to ashes, do anything but receive him within our walls."

Having said this, he hurled his heavy spear at the monster. The weapon struck it full in the breast, where it remained quivering, and those who stood nearest fancied that they heard deep hollow groans issuing from the throat of the beast.

"To the sea with him! To the sea with him!" cried a hundred voices.

"What a fine blaze he will make!" cried others. And they ran hither and thither gathering sticks and driftwood with which to kindle a fire beneath him.

II. The Captured Greek

In great danger then was the sturdy beast, and the Trojans would have made an end of him right quickly had not something happened to change their minds. Suddenly a great hubbub was heard some distance down the beach, and men and boys, forgetting the horse for the moment, ran hurriedly to the spot to see what was going on. A party of peasants were dragging toward the city a young man who, covered with mud and blood, and with his hands tied behind him, seemed a target for every kind of insult. His clothing told that he was a Greek.

"Hold on!" cried one of the king's counselors. "Bring the fellow here, and stop your noise. We will see what he can tell us about his friends and this strange monster that they have left on our shores. Who are you, wretch, and where are your people who so lately were encamped on this very spot?"

"My name," said the captive, "is Sinon, and I am by birth a Greek. But people I have none; for the Greeks have condemned me to death, and now ye Trojans also seek my life. Where, indeed, shall I turn when kinsmen and foes would alike slay me?"

These words, spoken in sweet and persuasive tones, touched the hearts of the rude rabble, and they paused to hear what further the young man would say.

"Speak on," said the king's counselor, "and tell us by what cruel fate you have been left behind by your countrymen to fall into the hands of your foes."

"It is a long story," responded the young man, "but I will not weary you. For more than a year the crafty Ulysses has been plotting my destruction, and for no other reason than because I once befriended a chief whom he dislikes. When, at length, three months ago, the Greeks decided in council to give up this war and return to their own land, he saw his opportunity. Storms swept across the sea, and the south wind brought tempests in its train, and the ships dared not leave their moorings. Then the chiefs called together the soothsayers and asked them what should be done to appease the gods, that so they might have favorable winds and a smooth sea for their home-returning voyage. And one of them, Eurypylus, declared that nothing short of a human sacrifice would turn aside the vengeful ire of Apollo; the other, Calchas, explained that since the Greeks had stolen the statue of Athena which stood in your great temple of Troy, that goddess would never suffer them to return to their native land until they had reared on these shores the massive figure of a horse to be a witness to their repentance. Then the chiefs asked who should be the victim to be offered up to Apollo. And Calchas, urged on by Ulysses, answered 'Sinon.' Forthwith, I was bound with cords, fillets were tied about my temples, and the knife was sharpened ready to pierce my heart. But on the night before the rueful day, I burst my bonds and escaped to the slimy marshes, where I lay hidden until I saw my countrymen embark and sail away in their thousand ships across the sea to distant Greece. Then, almost dead from hunger and privation, I ventured out, only to be seized by these rude peasants and dragged to this place as you see me now."

"But the horse—the horse!" cried the Trojans. "What about the horse?"

"I have already told you," answered Sinon, "that the image was built to appease the wrath of the goddess Athena. The soothsayers declared that not only would it bless its builders, but that into whatever city it should go, there it would carry good fortune and peace and prosperity. The Greeks, however, were unwilling that it should bring happiness to you, their foes, and hence they built it very large, and so tall that it cannot pass through any of your gates; and they placed it here close to the reedy marsh, in the hope that, when the autumn rains fell and the sea raged furiously, the waves would beat upon and overwhelm it and carry it away, and no people whatever should be blessed by its presence."

"Ah! That is their game, is it?" cried the Trojans with one voice. "Well, we'll see about that. We'll have the good horse inside our walls this very night."

Then there was great shouting and rejoicing on every side, and those who had been the first to wreak their spite upon Sinon were the first to undo his bonds and wipe the blood from his face, and find food for him to eat. Forthwith two companies of men were sent to the city, one to bring long, strong ropes, and the other to make a breach in the wall large enough to allow the great horse to be drawn through.

III. The Fate of Laocoon

In the meanwhile a fearful tragedy was being enacted on the beach. Laocoön, the priest of Apollo, had built an altar on the sands and was making ready to offer up a sacrifice, as had been the custom of his country from ancient times. His two sons stood beside him, one on either hand, ready to do their part. Suddenly loud shouts arose from those who were nearest the sea, and everybody fled in dismay. Looking out toward the island of Tenedos, Laocoön saw two huge serpents swimming with wondrous speed toward the land. He smiled at the cowardly fears of the people, and would not desert the altar which he had raised. He doubtless thought that the reptiles were mere water-snakes, and that they would not venture upon the land. But in this he was sadly mistaken, for upon reaching the beach the serpents reared their heads high in the air and glided with the swiftness of light over the sands. Ere Laocoön and his boys could make a single movement toward escape, the horrid creatures had reached the altar; they had twined their slimy folds around the necks and limbs of the three unfortunates; they had crushed them to death in their terrible embrace. The people who saw this awful tragedy from a distance were spellbound with horror, nor did they know who might be the next victim. But the serpents, when they had done their deadly work, glided quietly away and hid themselves beneath an altar which the Greeks had erected to Athena.

"Behold the vengeance of the goddess!" cried some of the people.

"She has punished Laocoön for his wickedness in smiting the great horse with his spear!" cried others.

"Such be the fate of all who would try to thwart the will of the ever-living powers!" cried the priests. "Let us hasten to appease Athena by drawing her horse into the city and giving it the shelter which it ought to have."

IV. The Success of the Stratagems

By this time the men who had been sent after ropes had returned, bringing also stout wheels to be placed underneath the platform whereon the horse stood. With infinite trouble a slip-knot was thrown over the huge wooden head, and long ropes were attached to each of the fore legs. Then, with the aid of levers and pulleys, the whole huge mass was lifted a little at a time, and the smooth-sliding wheels were fastened in their places, one under each corner of the platform. This being done, as many as could get near enough seized hold of the ropes, the word of command was given, and the three long lines of tugging men and boys moved slowly over the plain, dragging the horse behind them. When they drew near the city the whole populace came out to meet them, and the glad shouts which rent the air seemed louder than the cries which warriors utter on the field of battle.

A wide breach had been opened in the wall, and through this, just as the sun was dipping into the sea, the horse was pushed into the city. Once, when the huge body struck against a projecting stone, the Trojans who were nearest were astonished to hear a sound like the rattling of shields, and some turned pale, and looked around with dread, and forgot to join in the chorus of song that was raised in welcome to the image that was to bring peace and good fortune to Troy. Soon darkness came, and the tired people hastened to their homes. Not a soldier remained to guard the broken wall, not a watchman stayed at his post above the gates. Worn out with the excitement of the day, everybody retired early to rest.

About midnight a man crept stealthily along the dark streets, and came finally to the breach that had been made in the wall. With a little lantern and a kettle of pitch in one hand, he climbed up the rough stones to the top. Once there, he sat down for a moment and gazed steadily toward the sea. The moon, now just rising behind him, lighted up the great expanse of water, and he could plainly see not only the long line of beach with the waves rippling upon the sand, but the dark outline of Tenedos Island lying in the shadows four miles farther away. But what did he see between the island and the shore? A thousand ships with their dark hulls just visible above the water, and all propelled by twenty thousand oars that glinted strangely in the moonlight as they rose and fell. The Greeks, who had lain hidden all day behind Tenedos, were returning to the Trojan shore—in a few minutes their vessels would be drawn up in their old places along the white beach.

The man on the wall seemed greatly pleased with what he saw. Rising again to his feet, he hung the kettle of pitch by a chain upon the outside of the wall and into it he dropped a bit of blazing pine which he had lighted with his lantern. Soon a lurid flame arose from the burning mass. It lighted up the plain and was reflected upon the top of the wall, showing the face of the man. It was Sinon, the young Greek.

Immediately answering lights appeared on the ships, and Sinon clambered hastily to the ground. The huge figure of the wooden horse loomed up in the moonlight before him. With the flat of his sword he struck each of its legs three times. Then suddenly there was a great sound of rattling armor above him. The creature seemed to be strangely endowed with life. In a moment there was a noise as of the shooting of bolts and the grating of hinges; a narrow door was opened in the horse's breast, and a gleaming helmet, with a man's face beneath it, was thrust out.

"Is that you, Sinon?"

"It is I, Ulysses."

"Is all well?"

"All is well. The ships are already drawn up upon the sands. The Greeks are marching across the plain. The witless Trojans are asleep and dream not of danger."

Then a rope was let down from the open door, and Ulysses, fully armed, slid hand over hand to the ground. Other heroes followed, all incased in armor, and all right glad to escape from their prison house.

"The trick has succeeded even better than any of us hoped," said Ulysses. "And now for the last act in this long and weary war! Let fire and sword do their work!"

I need not tell how the gates were thrown open to the Greeks, nor how the Trojans were awakened from their dreams of peace only to meet death at the hands of their foes, nor how the torches were applied to palace and hut and the whole city was wrapped in flames. The horse had nothing to do with all this. Amid the smoke and fire, and the din of rattling arms and the shouts of the victors, he stood all the rest of the night and through the morning hours. Toward noon, however, Ulysses and Sinon, passing by the spot, observed that he had disappeared. Whether, in the confusion, Athena had claimed him and carried him away, or whether he had been mysteriously endowed with life and had galloped out of the burning city to find refuge in the woods and mountains, neither of these heroes could tell.

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