The Fight for the Body of Patroclus by H. L. Havell

I

Menelaus was the first to mark the fall of Patroclus, and he came with a rush and stood over his body to defend it, like a young mother of the herd when she stands lowing plaintively over her calf, the first that she has borne. Shield on shoulder and spear in hand he stood, glaring defiance at the foe; and Euphorbus, the Trojan who had dealt the first blow at Patroclus, took up the challenge, addressing Menelaus with these haughty words: "Make way, son of Atreus, and leave me to take my lawful spoil. 'Twas I that wounded Patroclus first, and his armour belongs by right to me. Back, or thou shalt die the death."

"If big words could kill," answered Menelaus, with scorn, "then wert thou and thy brethren the most dreaded warriors of all thy nation; for there are no such windy braggarts in Priam's army. Away with thee, if thou wouldst have breath left in thee to boast again."

But Euphorbus, though a boaster, and a mere novice in war, was no coward. He thrust manfully at Menelaus, who parried the blow with his shield, and then, striking in his turn, and throwing all his weight into the stroke, drove his spear into Euphorbus' throat, so that the point came out at the back of his neck. Down he went, and his armour clattered upon him, and his love locks, curiously adorned with gold and silver, were dabbled with blood. As when a man tends carefully a green olive-shoot, in some sheltered spot, near a gushing fountain-head; and now it is a comely tree, just bursting into blossom, and lightly rocked by all the airs of heaven: then comes a sudden tempest, and uproots it from the soil, and all its promise is marred: so stricken and cut off in the dawn of his manhood lay that gallant lad. And as a lion comes down from the mountains, trusting in his might, and strikes down a young heifer feeding in a meadow, the fairest of the herd, breaking her neck with his mighty teeth, and then glutting himself with her blood and her flesh; and the herdsmen with their hounds stand apart, making great uproar, but not one dares to interrupt him in his meal: so dared not one of the Trojans to stand against Menelaus face to face.

Hector, who after slaying Patroclus had gone off in pursuit of the car of Achilles, was recalled from that fruitless chase by the tidings of Euphorbus' death. With a loud cry of rage he turned back, and hastened to the place where the young Trojan lay, side by side with Patroclus. Menelaus stayed not to abide his coming, but fell back upon the ranks of his comrades, and there halted, and scanned the fighting line, looking for the great Telamonian Ajax. Observing him at last on the extreme left of the battle, he ran up to him, crying eagerly: "Make haste, Ajax, and aid me to recover the body of Patroclus, that we may carry it back, naked as it is, to Achilles; for the armour Hector has taken already."

So together they went, and stood side by side over the body of Patroclus; and Hector in his turn shrank back, when he was confronted by the towering form of Ajax, with his massive, sevenfold shield. But he took with him the armour, and gave it to two of his men to carry to the city.

Glaucus was full of anger when he saw Hector quail before Ajax, and he reproached him bitterly, calling him faint-hearted, and false to his great office. "It is a thankless task," he said, "to fight under such a leader. Henceforth let the Trojans make shift to defend their city without our aid, for we of Lycia at least will fight their battles no more. Basely hast thou dealt with us, after all our good service, leaving our great captain Sarpedon in the hands of the Greeks. If ye of Troy had the spirit of men, ye would aid us to capture the body of Patroclus, that we might keep it to exchange for Sarpedon's corpse. But thou art a prudent warrior, and fearest the face of Ajax, knowing him to be a far better man than thou art."

"O folly of the wise!" answered Hector scornfully. "'Tis Glaucus can talk thus, who hath the rarest wit, as we are told, among all the men of Lycia. Come and stand by me, and thou shall see if I fear the face of Ajax, or any other Greek. But first I will put on the armour of Achilles, which was given, men say, by the gods, as a wedding gift to his father Peleus." And with that he ran and overtook the men who were carrying the spoils of Patroclus towards the city, and taking off his own armour began to put on that of Achilles.

When Zeus beheld him thus gaily equipping himself in the spoils of the mighty, he shook his head, and spake thus to his own heart: "Ah! wretch, thy triumph will be short lived, and the hand of doom is stretched out already to take thee. But thou shall have thine hour, and Andromache shall hear of thy deeds, though never more shall she welcome thee returning from battle."

He said it, and confirmed it with a nod, and forthwith the very demon of war entered into the heart of Hector, and with a fierce cry he ran back to the field, glittering in the armour of Pelides, which seemed to have been wrought for himself, so well it fitted his limbs.

Even the great Ajax felt a cold touch of fear as Hector bore down upon him, with the most famous warriors of Troy and Lycia at his back. "We are lost," he said to Menelaus, "unless we can get some other succour to beat back this tempest of war." Then, raising his voice, he shouted: "To the rescue, ye captains and princes of the Greeks! Let not Patroclus become a prey to dogs in the streets of Troy." His cry was heard, and soon he was joined by Idomeneus, and Meriones, and the lesser Ajax.

Like the roar of the advancing tide, when it meets the torrent waters at the mouth of the mighty river, such was the shout of the Trojans as they rushed to the onset. And the Greeks stood firm to meet them, making a fence with their shields over the body of Patroclus. At the first shock of that tremendous charge they were forced to give ground a little, and one of the Trojans fastened a thong to the ankle of the corpse, and began to drag it away. But he had not gone far when Ajax sprang upon him, and with one blow of his sword shivered his helmet, and clave him to the chin. This gave time for the Greeks to rally, and the battle was renewed in that narrow space round the body of Patroclus, where many a valiant deed was wrought, and many a hero bit the dust, fighting for the possession of a helpless corpse. Over this struggling mass of warriors in the centre of the field was spread a thick curtain of darkness, for Zeus had ordered it so, while the rest of the Greeks and Trojans were fighting in the broad sunlight. Far away on the border of the fight were Antilochus, the son of Nestor, and his brother, who had not yet heard that Patroclus had been slain.

But in that dark kernel of the battle the ruthless tug of war went on. There was no stay, no pause, while they hewed, and thrust, and strove, till the blinding sweat poured down into their eyes, and their knees shook with weariness. As when a master currier gives to his journeymen a great bull's hide, well drenched with fat, to be stretched, and they stand in a circle, and tug with all their might, straining it equally on all sides, until all moisture departs from it, and the fat penetrates to every pore; so they tugged the body between them, this way and that, the Trojans haling it towards the city, and the Greeks towards their camp. "Die, ye Greeks!" cried Ajax, who was fighting like twenty men; "die, rather than give up the body to the Trojans."


II

After the fall of Patroclus, Automedon had driven his car out of the press of battle, flying from the fury of Hector. When Hector was recalled from the pursuit, Automedon strove in vain to stir his horses from the spot where he had halted. In vain he plied the lash, in vain he coaxed and threatened; still as a monumental pillar on a tomb they stood, with their heads drooping to the earth, and their glossy manes streaming over their eyes, while the hot tears dropped fast in the dust, as they wept for the gentle prince, whom they had borne so often to battle.

Zeus pitied them in their sorrow, and spake thus within himself: "Ah! hapless pair, why did we give you to a mortal master, while ye know neither age nor death? What part or lot have ye with human misery, or with man, the most wretched thing that breathes and moves on earth? But Hector shall never mount the car behind you, or put the bit in your mouths—I will not suffer that. Be strong, and bear your driver safe, until the battle be done."

Therewith, he breathed new vigour into the steeds, and they shook the dust from their manes, and galloped lightly with the car back to the fighting lines. Singlehanded, Automedon could take no part in the hand-to-hand battle with the Trojans, and for some time he contented himself with making rapid charges with his chariot, swooping down here and there, like an eagle pouncing on a flock of geese, and easily avoiding every attack. At last he found a helper in a comrade named Alcimedon, and handing the reins to him he dismounted himself to fight on foot.

When Hector saw the car of Achilles in charge of a strange driver he called to ∆neas, and said: "See, there are the steeds of ∆acides, ill-guided, and ill-defended; let us not miss the occasion to win so glorious a prize." So together they went, ∆neas and Hector, and two other Trojans, in high hope to slay Automedon, and take the car. But Automedon, uttering a prayer to Zeus, flung his spear, and slew Aretus, one of his assailants; and before Hector, who missed his cast at Automedon, could come to close quarters with his sword, Ajax interposed, and drove him back.

The arrival of Automedon had interrupted the struggle for the possession of the body of Patroclus; but it was resumed with new fury on both sides, and the Greeks now received a new ally in the person of Athene, who obtained permission from Zeus to bring aid to her old allies. Disguised in the form of the aged Phœnix, she went and stood by the side of Menelaus, and said to him: "Courage, son of Atreus! We shall win the battle yet, and save the noble comrade of Achilles from the foeman's hands."

"Ah! Phœnix," answered Menelaus, "I would that Athene would put strength into my arm; then might I, as far as it is now possible, retrieve the bitter loss which we have suffered this day."

Athene was glad that he had named her before any other god, and she filled him with an indomitable spirit, and gave him the stubborn courage of a fly, which returns again and again to the attack, in its fierce desire for blood. And, seeing a good mark for his spear in the back of a flying Trojan, Menelaus flung, and pierced him in the waist. The man whom he slew was Podes, a son of EŽtion, and a friend and boon companion of Hector. Provoked beyond measure by the death of his comrade, Hector led such a determined charge against the Greek centre that even the bravest began to flinch; and to affright them the more there came a deafening peal of thunder from the heights of Ida, now wrapped in a pitchy cloud.

The first to fly was Peneleos, the bravest of the Bœotians, whose shoulder had been cut to the bone by the spear of Polydamas. Then Idomeneus, coming to succour a wounded Greek, broke his spear on Hector's breastplate, and it would have gone hard with him had not Cœranus, a Cretan, driven up to the rescue in the car of Meriones; for Idomeneus had come to the field on foot, leaving his own car in the camp. The brave Cœranus paid for this good service with his life, sustaining a fearful thrust from Hector's spear, which struck him just at the angle of the jaw, and severed his tongue at the root. He fell from the car, and dropped the reins on the ground; but Meriones picked them up, and gave them to Idomeneus, who drove off at full speed towards the ships.

Thus deprived of his bravest supporters, Ajax cast a glance of dismay at Menelaus, who was still fighting at his side, and said: "Alas! even a blind man might see that Zeus himself is aiding the Trojans. Every weapon of theirs finds its mark, let it be hurled by ever so weak a hand; but our spears fall idle to the ground, one and all. Yet, abandoned though we are, let us take thought how we may save the body of Patroclus, and ourselves return alive to gladden the eyes of our faithful comrades, who methinks are in sore distress, thinking that the might and the murderous hands of Hector shall no more be stayed until they have hurled destruction on our fleet. Also I would fain despatch a messenger to bear the bitter tidings to Pelides, who dreams not that his beloved Patroclus has perished. But I cannot see anyone to whom I might deliver this charge, for men and steeds alike are covered by thick darkness. Dread sire of heaven, at least from darkness deliver the sons of Greece! Bring back the day, and give us the sight of our eyes. Slay us, if die we must—but slay us in the light!"

Zeus had compassion on that brave man in his agony, and forthwith the thick cloud of darkness was removed, and the sun shone out, and all the field of battle was disclosed to view. "Now haste, Menelaus," said Ajax. "Go thou, and find Antilochus, who is very dear to Achilles, and bid him carry this message, which none other may dare to bring."

Menelaus was very reluctant to leave his place among the defenders of Patroclus. Slowly, and with many a backward glance, he turned to go, like a lion who is driven off at dawn by a shower of javelins and burning brands, after he has prowled all night round the stalls where fat oxen are housed. "Ah! remember," he said earnestly, pausing once more, "remember how dear, how gentle he was to us all, this poor Patroclus, who now lies cold in death. Forsake him not, but stand by him till I come back."

After this fervent appeal he made all haste, and ran along the fighting line, looking about him with a piercing glance, like an eagle soaring high in the heaven, who spies out a hare as she crouches in the shadow of a thicket. So did the keen eye of Menelaus soon discern where Antilochus was fighting, on the extreme left of the field. "Dire is the news I bring," said Menelaus, halting by his side: "Patroclus is slain, Hector has his armour, and thou art chosen to tell Achilles of his loss, that if it be possible he may yet save the body."

With parted lips, and eyes staring with horror, Antilochus stood gazing at the bringer of the message of woe. Then dashing the tears from his eyes, and drawing a deep sobbing breath, he flung down his shield and sped away on his mournful errand.

"I have sent him," said Menelaus, when he had returned with all speed to the defenders of the fallen Patroclus. "I know not what Achilles will do—he cannot fight without armour. But to our task." "The Trojans have drawn off a little," answered Ajax. "Now is the time: do thou and Meriones take the corpse on your shoulders, while I and my brother-in-arms hold the foe in play."

Without a moment's delay Menelaus and Meriones hoisted the body on their shoulders and began to carry it towards the camp: which when the Trojans saw, they raised a great shout, and rushed after, like hounds attacking a wounded wild boar; but as the hounds are scattered when the great brute wheels to the charge, so fled the Trojans before the determined stand of Ajax and his comrade.

But only for a moment: on they came again, fierce as a mighty conflagration, which sweeps through the streets of a town, driven before the gale, while the houses melt away like wax in the flames: with like furious uproar came horse and foot hard at their heels, as they bore the body from the field. But stoutly and stubbornly they plodded on with their burden, panting and sweating like a pair of mules which drag a heavy beam down a rugged mountain path: and behind them those two doughty champions opposed an impassable barrier to the Trojans, like a long wooded mountain spur, which hurls back the fierce assault of a swollen stream, and cannot be broken.

Yet even now the issue seemed doubtful; for just as the bearers reached the barriers of the camp Hector and ∆neas led a vigorous charge, scattering the Greeks as a hawk scatters a noisy mob of starlings or daws.