The Last Battle by the Ships by H. L. Havell

Hera was watching the action with such eagerness that she had forgotten her charge, and was startled by the angry voice of Zeus, who had awakened suddenly, and was looking down upon her with lowering brows. "This is thy work," he said sternly, pointing to the Trojan plain, where Hector lay senseless, and his comrades were beginning to fly. "Wilt thou never be schooled to obedience, or what harder lesson lackest thou yet? Dost thou remember the time when I hung thee in chains in the cold vault of ether, with two anvils at thy feet, and all the gods together were powerless to relieve thee? This was thy reward for thy evil devices against my son, Heracles; but that shall be mirth and laughter compared with the rod which thou shall feel if thou cease not from thy mutiny against my sovereign will."

Then Hera was sore afraid, and she answered submissively: "I swear by earth and heaven, and by the down-falling waters of Styx, the greatest and most awful thing by which a god may swear—yea, by thy sacred head I swear it, and by the holy bond which unites us—it was not by my devices that Poseidon first began to aid the Greeks, but he was led thereto by the thoughts of his own heart. And, by my advice, he will give way to thee."

Somewhat appeased by her humility, Zeus replied: "If that be so, and thou art willing to heal the mischief thou hast done, go and send hither Iris and Apollo, that they may receive my commands. And understand me once for all—I will not cease from my rage and my fury against the Greeks, nor suffer any of the gods to aid them, until the vengeance of Pelides is accomplished, and the oath fulfilled which I sware unto his mother, Thetis, when she touched my knees and besought me to honour her son."

Swift as is the glance of the mind when some great traveller revolves all his wanderings in thought, and murmurs to himself: "Would that I were in this place or that!" naming some distant scene which he hath visited, so swiftly flew Hera with her lord's message. When she reached Olympus she found all the gods seated together, drinking their nectar from golden cups. Smiling with her lips, but bending her dark brows in a gloomy frown, she said, as she eyed that festal gathering: "Ye are making good cheer, I see! And ye will be cheered the more when I tell you what Zeus intends. Ay, drink deep!" she continued, turning to Ares, who was just draining a full cup, "thou hast need of comfort, for thy son is slain." And she named a Greek, Ascalaphus, son of Ares, who had been slain by Deiphobus in the battle.

When he heard that, the god of war groaned with grief and anger, and crying: "I will avenge him!" rushed to seize his arms. But Athene hastened after him, and finding him already equipped for battle she snatched the spear from his hand, and took the helmet from his head, saying: "Madman, wilt thou undo us all? Go back to thy place, lest the wrath of Zeus descend upon the whole company of the gods, and on thee the first. Better men have fallen than this son of thine, and we must look to our own safety, and leave mortals to their fate."

While Athene was occupied in restraining the frenzy of Ares, Hera despatched Iris and Apollo to receive the commands of Zeus. So they went forthwith to Ida, and found Zeus sitting in the place where he had slept, with the golden cloud still hanging above his head. Zeus was well content that his wilful consort had been so prompt in his business, and he commanded Iris to go down to the fleet, and warn Poseidon to leave the battlefield. "And thus and thus shalt thou say unto him," added Zeus, instructing her in the very words which she was to use.

Iris descended to earth, walking delicately along her rainbow bridge, and, having found Poseidon among the warring Greeks, she said to him: "Thus saith Zeus, our sovereign lord and king: 'Let Poseidon leave the battlefield, and depart to Olympus, or to his own watery realm. And if he will not obey me I will come myself, and fight against him, face to face. Let him avoid my hands, for he knoweth that I am far mightier than he, and higher in station and in dignity.'"

"What!" answered Poseidon, swelling with injured pride. "Am I my brother's slave, that he sends me this haughty summons? I am no subject of his, but his peer, holding a third part in our divided empire. For three sons were born unto Cronos—Zeus and Hades and myself. And when Cronos ceased to reign we cast lots between us, and Zeus obtained the throne of heaven, I of the sea, and Hades of the underworld; but the earth, and wide Olympus, were left common to us all. Therefore I bid him keep to his own domain, and not meddle with me, for I will not live under his laws, nor bow to his rod, which he may keep for his sons and daughters."

"Is this, then, the answer which I must carry back to Zeus?" asked Iris gravely. "Oh, reflect a little! Enter not into an unnatural feud with thine elder brother."

"'Tis wisely said," replied Poseidon. "Thou art a discreet messenger, and knowest how to season thy words with courtesy. 'Twere ill, as thou sayest, to stir up the demon of domestic strife among us. Therefore I will depart, and leave him to work his will. But, since he has used threats, let him hear this from me: if he seeks to avert the doom of Troy, he will find a cold welcome when he joins the circle of the gods in Olympus."

It was not without relief that Zeus heard of Poseidon's submission; for he had feared that he would be obliged to engage in a fearful struggle, which would have confounded earth and heaven. This danger being removed, he sent Apollo, armed with his own shield—the awful ęgis, clothed with attributes of terror—commanding him to heal Hector of his hurt, and bring him back to battle. Like a falcon stooping on his quarry, Apollo shot down from Ida's peak, and alighted at the ford of Scamander, where Hector was still lying. By this time the stricken man had recovered from his swoon, and was gazing in bewilderment around him.

One touch from that potent hand, one word from those immortal lips, sufficed to banish all the effects of the fearful blow which had left Hector as weak as a child. Bounding to his feet, he cried: "Lead on, mighty god! I fear no perils with thee at my side," and like a gallant war horse, that smelleth the battle afar off, he ran at full speed to rejoin the Trojans, who were now flying tumultuously from the camp. And as when a troop of hunters with their hounds have started a royal stag, and chased him with wild halloo to the thick covert of a tangled wood; then suddenly they shrink back with cries of dismay, for they see a lion standing in the path: so panic fell upon the Greeks in the midst of their triumph, when they saw Hector returning to battle, full of vigour and courage, though they had already counted him among the dead.

On poured the Trojans, Hector and Apollo leading the van, and the Greeks gave ground before them, scared by the dread ęgis, which Apollo shook in their faces, crying his terrible cry. At first they yielded slowly, keeping their ranks, and attempting some defence; but soon the retreat became a rout, and the moat was filled with a struggling multitude, seeking the shelter of the wall and the ships. "Kill, kill!" cried Hector fiercely. "Pause not to strip the dead, but slay the men, and burn their ships. Let me but see anyone skulking behind for plunder and he dies by my hand."

With that he lashed his horses, and drove straight across the moat, the Trojans following him in dense column. In front strode Apollo, trampling down the sides of the moat as he went, and making a path broad as the farthest cast of a spear. Then he hurled himself on the wall, and overthrew it, as easily as a child destroys with his feet a castle of sand which he has raised in sport on the margin of the sea.

Like a towering billow, which topples down upon a ship, crushing her bulwarks and flooding her with brine, so rushed the Trojans in a torrent over the wall, and fell upon the hindmost row of ships; and the Greeks on their side mounted the decks, and thrust at their assailants with long boarding-pikes, which lay ready to hand.

Foremost among the defenders was seen the giant form of Telamonian Ajax; and by his side fought Teucer, whose bow had already done such good service to the Greeks. But just as Teucer was aiming an arrow at Hector his bowstring snapped, and the arrow dropped harmless to the ground. "Fate is against us to-day," he cried; "it was a new string, the stoutest and the best I had, which I fitted to my bow this very morning."

"Go quickly," answered Ajax. "And arm thyself with shield and spear; there is no room here for thine archery to-day." And Teucer went and armed himself, and returned with all speed to his mighty brother's side.

Hector was overjoyed when he saw Teucer's mishap, which he hailed as the direct act of Zeus himself. "On, Trojans!" he shouted; "on, ye men of Lycia! Zeus is fighting on our side. Now is the great day of vengeance, after all the weary years when we were penned within our walls like sheep."

"Why flinch ye?" cried Ajax, in his turn, to the Greeks. "Know ye not that we must conquer or die to-day? Or will we reach home on foot, if ye suffer your ships to be burned? Come, join the wild dance to which Hector summons us. Fight, and we will drive out this rabble yet; but if ye falter we shall surely perish."

Again the Greeks rallied to the well-known voice of Ajax, and drew up in close order before the ships, barring Hector's way. But the finger of Apollo had touched him, filling his breast with a divine frenzy. Foaming and glaring with rage, he flung himself on the solid phalanx, and cut down a tall champion of Mycenę, making a gap in the line. Before the Greeks could close their ranks the Trojans were among them, hewing them down as a woodman hews a path through the forest. Forward and still forward they pressed, driving the Greeks before them, and compelling them to retire from the first line of ships.

Then nothing but the tremendous valour of Ajax could have saved the Greek army from total rout and ruin. Active as a panther, in spite of his huge bulk, he sprang from deck to deck, wielding an enormous boarding-pike and striking down the Trojans, as they advanced with lighted torches to set fire to the ships. Like a practised rider, who yokes together four horses, and drives them at a gallop along a level highroad, leaping from one steed to another as he goes—so Ajax shifted his ground from one ship to another, dashing down Trojan after Trojan, and shouting to the Greeks to come to his support.

It was a grim and desperate struggle. There was no shooting of arrows, no casting of javelins now, but foot to foot, and hand to hand, they fought, with axe, and sword, and spear. At last Hector forced his way to a beautiful galley, which had brought Protesilaus[1] to Troy, and laying his hand on the high, fanlike ornament of the stern he shouted: "Bring a torch, that I may be the first to kindle the fire which shall burn these accursed ships, which came here for our destruction, but shall now serve as a pyre for their crews."

[1] P. 24.