The News is brought to Achilles by H. L. Havell

I

"Why tarries Patroclus so long?" asked Achilles of himself, as he sat waiting by his tent. "Alas! I fear that he hath disobeyed me, and lost his life by his rashness. Did not my mother tell me that the noblest of the Greeks should fall in battle with the Trojans while I lived?" His alarm increased when he saw straggling parties of the Greeks entering the camp, with every sign of panic and defeat. Presently the roar of the struggle drew nearer and nearer, and he had just determined to rush to the ramparts, and learn the worst, when Antilochus came running up, and in broken accents panted out his dreadful message.

As when a thunderbolt descends, laying low some giant of the forest, so fell the mighty Pelides, laid prostrate beneath that stunning blow. Then that proud head, which had never bowed to mortal man, was defiled with dust, and those heroic limbs, the very mould of manly strength and beauty, grovelled and writhed on the ground. He tore his hair, cast ashes on his head, and moaned like a wounded beast in his agony. And all the handmaids whom he had taken in war gathered round him, wailing and beating their breasts; for sorrow was their portion, and their tears were ever ready to flow. By his side knelt Antilochus, holding his hands, in fear lest he should do violence to his life.

Then Achilles shook off the grasp of Antilochus, and started to his feet with a fearful cry, glaring wildly, like one about to do some desperate act. But just at this moment a sound of female voices came floating over the placid sea, and Thetis glided into his presence, with all her band of Ocean nymphs attending. Achilles flung himself down again when he saw her, with a fresh burst of grief; and kneeling by him she embraced him tenderly, and weeping cried: "O child of my sorrow, what new cause of mourning hath reached thee now? Hath not Zeus fulfilled his promise, and avenged thine honour?"

"What avails his promise, or the fulfilment thereof?" answered Achilles, groaning bitterly. "What care I for honour, if I must pay for it with the life of my best beloved? He lies in his blood, and Hector, his slayer, has taken the glorious armour which the gods gave to Peleus when they made thee his unwilling bride. 'Twas a woeful match, for thee and for me, and soon thou shall reap the bitter fruit, for Hector must die by my hand, to appease the ghost of Patroclus, and thou hast told me that, when Hector falls, my own end is not far off." A mournful silence followed, broken only by the sobs of Thetis, who knew her son had pronounced his own doom. Then Achilles burst out again, in louder and angrier tones: "But let me die, when that task is done! What has life been to me?—a burden to myself, and a curse to others! Here have I lain, like a useless trunk, encumbering the sod, and left my comrades to perish, and given him, the very light of mine eyes, to be a prey to the spoiler. Accursed, and thrice accursed, be the spirit of strife, which trickles, sweeter than honey, into the hearts of men, and rises up again, in words more bitter than gall!—even as Agamemnon provoked me to fierce anger, which now comes back upon me, with thrice envenomed sting. But past is past—we will speak no more of that. My fate calls me to vengeance—and after that the grave. Then away, soft visitings of love and gentle sorrow! And thou, fond heart, become a stone! I will strew with havoc the path which leads me to mine enemy, and the streets of Troy shall be filled with lamentation, and women wailing for their dead."

"I know that I cannot shake thy purpose," answered Thetis sadly, "and it shall be as thou hast said. But unarmed thou canst not go into battle. Remain here therefore until my return, and by to-morrow's dawn I will bring thee such armour as never mortal wore."


II

While these events were passing, the struggle over the slain Patroclus raged fiercer than ever. Slowly the Greeks were driven back to the very gates of their camp, and at the eleventh hour that pitiful prize which had cost so much blood would have fallen into the hands of the Trojans, had not Hera intervened and sent Iris to summon Achilles to the rescue.

"Rouse thee, son of Peleus!" said Iris, appearing at his side. "Hector hath sworn to set the head of Patroclus on the battlements of Troy, and he will accomplish his threat if thou sittest idle here."

"How can I go unarmed to the field?" answered Achilles. "I know of none whose armour I might wear, save only Ajax, and he is fighting at the front."

"No more words," replied Iris. "Do as thou art bidden, and heaven will find a way." Then Achilles arose, and went to the ramparts; and Athene drew near him, and threw her tasselled ęgis over his shoulders, and on his head she caused a golden cloud to descend, which shot forth rays of angry light. As in a beleaguered city, where a thousand watch-fires are lighted, and all day long the pillars of smoke ascend, but in the darkness the red blaze is seen afar, a signal of distress to distant allies—so shone that unearthly fire on the head of Achilles, as he stood on the brink of the moat. Then he lifted up his voice, and shouted; and the sound was as the sound of a trumpet summoning to arms.

When they saw the dreadful light, and heard the brazen voice of Pelides, the Trojans were astonished, and halted in the midst of their wild assault; and while they wavered the Greeks fell upon them, and drove them back in disorder. The tide had turned at last, and the long day of battle, so full of strange revolutions of fortune, came to an end.

Slowly and reverently the body of Patroclus was laid upon a bier, and carried to the tent of Achilles. But a few short hours before he had gone forth, with horses and with chariots, to battle, in the pride of youth and strength; and now he lay cold in death, gored with hideous wounds by Trojan spears. And all night long Achilles and his comrades mourned for their slaughtered hero, the gentlest and the best of all their band. Like a lion who leaves his whelps in their dark forest lair, and returns to find his bed empty, and his young ones gone; roaring with rage and grief he tracks the footsteps of the robber along many a mountain path, and all the forest is filled with the sound of his wrath: such was Pelides in his sorrow, and such the voice of his mourning. "Vain, alas! was the promise which I made to thy father Menœtius, that I would bring thee back safe to thy home in Locris, loaded with the spoils of Troy. Thy blood is red on the Trojan sod, where mine too shall flow before many days are passed. Now hear my vow, Patroclus, and take comfort, even in death I will not pay the last rites to thy corpse until I have brought Hector's body hither, with the armour which he has taken, and slain twelve Trojan captives as a sacrifice to thy shade. Till then thou shalt lie as thou art, and the women of Troy, whom we won with the might of our hands, shall mourn thee night and day."

Then they washed the body, and anointed it with fragrant oil, and laid it, wrapped in fine linen, on a bed to wait for burial.


III

The Trojans still kept the field, though with far other feelings than when they lit their camp-fires, only the night before. Before ever they thought of supper the chiefs met in council, and stood about in anxious groups, waiting until some recognised leader should advise them in their present strait. Then Polydamas, who was esteemed the wisest head among them, came forward and commanded silence; and all listened attentive to hear what he should say. "Friends," he began, "ye had best take heed what ye do; as for me, I have but one thing to advise—back to the city, and let not to-morrow's dawn find us here! We have all had our hopes, and I among the rest; but all those hopes are fled now that Achilles has arisen again; and if we abide his coming we shall learn too late what it means to face him in the open field. Here, where we stand, dogs and vultures will hold their foul revel, and batten on our flesh, at the going-down of the sun. Therefore, I say again, back to the city, and put a stout bulwark of stone and oak between yourselves and this terrible man. To-morrow we will man the walls, and laugh at his fury if he seeks to assail us there. Yea, his steeds shall weary with drawing his car, and he himself shall sicken of the vain attempt, for he knows well that Troy is not destined to fall by his hands."

So ran the counsels of prudence; but another spirit was there also—the spirit of rash confidence and unauthorised ambition—and it found passionate utterance in the voice of Hector, who was the next to speak. "I like not thy words, Polydamas," said he, with an angry look; "I like not the cowardly counsel which bids us skulk behind our walls. Who is not sick of our long confinement in that pinfold there? We have drained our treasury, and scattered abroad the wealth for which Troy was once famed throughout the world, wherever human speech is heard. But now that we have been vouchsafed the glorious promise of carrying the war into the enemy's camp, and driving these hounds of war out of our land—now, I say, unlock no more the thoughts of thy base soul, to damp our courage, and quench the bright flame of hope which has been kindled in our breasts. Now hear what I advise: to-night we will hold our camp here, and keep watch in turn; and to-morrow at first peep of day we will put on our armour and march against the Grecian stronghold. Achilles is arisen, sayest thou? The worse for him: I will not fly before him, but will meet him face to face, and slay him, or be slain."

The fiery eloquence of Hector carried his hearers with him, and they resolved with one accord to remain where they were, and abide the issue.