The Story of Old Phœnix
A FTER a while old Phœnix stood up and spoke, and as he spoke he shed many tears, for he was much afraid lest the ships of the Greeks should be burnt. "O Achilles," he said, "if you are indeed determined to go away, how can I stay here without you? Did not the old man Peleus, your father, make me your teacher, that I might show you both what you should say and what you should do, when he sent you from the land of Phthia to be with King Agamemnon? In those days, for all that you are now so strong and skilful in war, you were but a lad, knowing nothing of how warriors fight in battle, or of how they take counsel together. No: I cannot stay here without you; I would not leave you, no, not if the gods would make me young again as when I came to the land of Phthia, to be with Peleus your father. For at the first I lived in Hellas, and left it because the old man, my father, was angry with me. So angry was he that he cursed me, and prayed to Zeus and the other gods that no child of mine should ever sit upon his knees. And I, too, was very angry when I heard him say these words. Truly the thought came into my heart that I would fall upon him and slay him with the sword. But the gods were merciful to me and helped me to put away this wicked thought out of my heart. So I gave up my anger, for I could not bear that men should say of me: 'See, there is the man who killed his own father!' But I was determined to go away from my father's house and from the land of Hellas altogether. Then came my friends and my kinsmen, and made many prayers to me, beseeching me that I would not depart. But I would not listen to them. Then they would have kept me by force. Nine days and nine nights they watched my father's house, eating the flesh of sheep and oxen and swine, and drinking wine without stint from my father's stores. They took turns to watch, and they kept up two fires without ceasing, one in the cloister that was round the house, and one before the great door. But on the tenth night, when the watchmen were overcome with sleep and the fires were low, then I broke open the door of my chamber, for all that they had shut it fast with a knot that was hard to untie, and I leapt over the fence in the courtyard, and neither man nor maid saw me. So I escaped, and fled from Hellas, and came to Phthia to the old man Peleus your father. And your father was very kind to me, and was as a father to me. He gave me riches, and he gave me a kingdom which I might rule under him, and also he trusted you to me, O Achilles, when you were but a little child, that I might teach you and rear you. And this I did. And, indeed, you loved me much. With no one but me would you go into the hall or sit at the feast. I would hold you on my knees and carve the choicest bits for you from the dish, and put the wine-cup to your lips. Many a time have you spoilt my clothes sputtering out the wine from your lips, when I had put the cup to your lips. Yes, I suffered much, and toiled much for you, and you were as a child to me, for child of my own I never had. And now, I pray you, listen to me. Put away the anger in your heart even as I put the anger out of mine. It is not fit that a man should harden his heart in this way. Even the gods are turned from their purpose, and surely the gods are more honourable and more powerful than you. Yet men turn them by offering of incense and by drink-offerings and by burnt-offerings and by prayers. And if a man sins against them yet can he turn them from their anger. For, indeed, Prayers are the daughters of Zeus. They are weak and slow of foot, whereas Sin is swift and strong, and goes before, running over all the earth, and doing harm to men. But nevertheless they come after and heal the harm that Sin has done. If, therefore, a man will reverence these daughters of Zeus, and will do honour to them when they come near to him, and will listen to their voice, they will bless him and do good to him. But if a man hardens his heart against them and will not listen to their voice, then they curse him and bring him to ruin. Take heed, therefore, O Achilles, that thou do such honour to these daughters of Zeus as becomes a righteous man, for it will be well for you to do so. If, indeed, King Agamemnon had stood apart and given you no gifts, nor restored to you that which he took from you, then I would not have bidden you to cease from your anger, no, not to save the Greeks from their great trouble. But now he gives you many gifts, and promises you yet more, and has sent an embassy to you, the wisest and noblest that there are in the whole army, and also dear friends of yours. Refuse not, therefore, to listen to their words. Listen now to this tale that I will tell you, that you may see how foolish a thing it is for a man, however great he may be, to shut his ears when prayers are made to him.
"Once upon a time there was a great strife between the Ætolians and the men who dwelt near to Mount Curium. And the cause of the strife was this. There was a great wild boar which laid waste all the land of Calydon where the Ætolians dwelt. And Meleager, who was the King of the land, sent for hunters from all Greece, and they came from far and wide, bringing their dogs with them, for the beast was so great and fierce that it was not an easy thing to kill it, but there was need of many hunters. Now, among those that came was Atalanta, the fair maid of Arcadia. And when the beast was killed, then there was a great quarrel as to who should have the spoils, that is to say the head and the hide. For Meleager gave them to the fair Alalanta, and when the brethren of his mother took them from her, then he slew them. But when his mother, Althea by name, heard that her brethren were dead, then she cursed him, yea, even her own son. So it came to pass that there was war between the Ætolians and the men of Mount Curium, for Althea and her brethren were of that land. And also the curse began to work so that the quarrel became more fierce. Now, when in time past Meleager had fought among the Ætolians there was none that could stand up against him, so great a warrior was he. But now, being very angry with his mother, he stood aside from the war, and would not help, sitting in his chamber apart. The men of Mount Curium, therefore, prevailed in the battle, and the Ætolians were driven into the city of Calydon, and there was a din of war about the gates of the city, and great fear lest the enemy should break them down. Then first the elders of the city sent an embassy to him, priests of the gods, the holiest that there were in the land, to pray that he would come forth from his chamber and defend them. Also they promised him a noble gift, a great estate in the plain of Ætolia, half ploughland and half vineyard, such as he might choose for himself. So the priests came, beseeching him, and offering him the gift, but he would not listen to them. After them came his mother and sisters, and made their prayers to him, but them he refused even more fiercely. And the old man neus, his father, besought him, standing on the threshold of his chamber, and shak- ing the door; but he would not listen. Nor would he hear the voices of his friends and comrades, although they were very dear to him. But at the last, when the enemy had now begun to climb upon the towers, and to burn the fair city of Calydon with fire, aye and to batter on the doors of his palace, then his wife, the fair Cleopatra, arose and besought him with many prayers and tears. 'Think now,' she said, 'what woes will come upon your people if the enemy prevail against them, for the city will be burnt with fire, and the men will be slain, and the women will be carried into captivity.' Then at last his spirit was stirred within him, and he arose, and put on his arms, and went down into the street and drove the men of Mount Curium before him. So did he save the Ætolians, but the gifts which they promised, these he never had. This, O Achilles, is the story of Meleager. Let not your thoughts be like to his. It would be a foolish thing to put off saving of the ships till they are already on fire. Come, therefore, take the gifts which King Agamemnon gives you; so shall all the Greeks honour you even as they honour a god. But if you delay, then may you lose both honour and gifts, even though you save us from the Trojans."
Achilles answered: "Phœnix, my father, I have no need of this honour
and these gifts. Riches I have as much as I need, and Zeus gives me honour.
And listen to this: trouble me no more with prayers and tears, while you
seek to help King Agamemnon. Take not his side, lest I, who love you now,
come to hate you. It were better for you to vex him who has vexed me.
Return now with me to the land of Phthia, and I will give you the half of my
kingdom. And stay this night in my tent;
Then Achilles nodded to Patroclus, and made signs that he should make a bed ready for the old man, so that the other two, seeing this, should depart without delay.
So Patroclus made the bed ready. And when Ajax saw this he said to Ulysses:
"Let us go, Ulysses. We shall do nothing
Achilles answered: "You speak well, great Ajax. Nevertheless the anger is yet hot in my heart, because Agamemnon put me to shame before all people, as if I were but a common man. But go, and take my message. I will not arise to do battle with the Trojans till Hector shall come to these tents and shall seek to set fire to my ships. But when he shall do this, then I will arise, and verily I will stop him, however eager he may be for the battle."
So Ajax and Ulysses departed, and gave the message of Achilles to King Agamemnon.