The Reconciliation by H. L. Havell

I

Dawn was beginning to redden the waters of the Hellespont when Thetis reached the tent of Achilles. She found him sitting, lost in a gloomy reverie, by the side of the bed on which the body of Patroclus lay. "Come," said Thetis, touching him lightly on the shoulder, "let the dead bury their dead, and behold the glorious armour which Hephæstus has wrought for thee."

With that she set down the dazzling panoply, fresh from the forge of the god; the ethereal metal rang with a dreadful sound, and from the burnished surface darted angry beams of light, blinding the eyes of the Myrmidons who had drawn near to gaze, so that they fled in terror from the sight. But the eyes of Achilles flashed with an answering fire, and his heart burned with fierce joy, as he handled the work of the immortal armourer. "Mother," he said, when he had scrutinised every piece, "the work is worthy of the artist—I can say no more. And now to battle! Yet one thing I fear—lest the body of my friend be marred by decay before my vow is accomplished and I am free to bury him."

"Let not that care disquiet thee," answered Thetis, "I will find a means to keep off the destroying hordes of the air, that breathe corruption in the limbs of fallen warriors. Though he lie unburied for the space of a whole year, his flesh shall remain pure and clean, as the flesh of a little child. Now go thou and summon the Greeks to the place of assembly, that when thou hast renounced thy feud with Agamemnon, thou mayest gird thee with might and go forth to battle." Then she brought nectar and ambrosia, and embalmed therewith the body of Patroclus, that his flesh might remain sound and whole.

But Achilles strode rapidly along the strand, shouting as he went to call the people to the assembly. And forthwith from every tent the multitude came flocking, and not one remained behind, no, not even those who pursued peaceful crafts, and were not wont to take part in the councils of the armed host. For not one was willing to be absent from that memorable meeting.

As he passed on, he overtook Odysseus and Diomede, who were limping painfully along, leaning on their spears; for they were still sore with their wounds. After a few words of greeting, he left them to follow, and went forward to the place where the chiefs were sitting round the throne of Agamemnon, which was still vacant. It was a level spot, in the centre of a natural hollow, whose sides rose gently, until they were closed by a background of waving woods. And now all the slopes were black with a swarming multitude, armed and unarmed, stout spearmen, and noisy rabble. At last Agamemnon was seen approaching, moving slowly and with pain. He took his seat on the royal throne, and then a dead hush fell on all that vast company, as Achilles rose in his place, and began to speak.

"Great King," he said, "we are met to end the lamentable feud which arose out of our quarrel for the sake of the maid Briseis. Would that she had never been born, or had been stricken with sudden death by the gentle shafts of Artemis, before ever she had put enmity between me and thee! So would many a brave man have been alive and well who now lies sleeping an iron sleep. Yes, for many a year to come the Greeks will speak of the wrath of Achilles, and of him who was the cause. But here it ends: my wrath is now aimed at another mark, and once more I am thy faithful friend and ally. War, war without quarter or mercy—that is all I ask for now. Let us see if the Trojans will hold their camp at our gates when they stand beneath the shadow of my destroying spear."

Right glad were the Greeks to learn that the tremendous passions of Achilles were now enlisted on their side. But their joyful cries were changed to murmurs of resentment when Agamemnon rose to answer; for they saw in him the author of all their disasters. Signs of remorse and confusion appeared in his face; and the first words of his speech were heard with difficulty amidst the tumult. "Friends and comrades in arms," he began, "I beseech you to hear me with patience, while I make confession of my fault. I have sinned, I cannot deny it, through the dread power of Ate,[1] who blinded my heart, and maimed my wits, on the day when I took from Achilles his prize. Ah! she is a fearful goddess, this Ate, a fiend to vex mankind. Soft is her tread, and her path lies on the heads of men: unseen, unheard, she approaches, and enters into the soul of him whom she has marked for ruin. Once she dwelt among the gods in Olympus, but she dared to lay her foul spells on Zeus himself, so that he fell into grievous error; and when he learnt how he had been deceived, he swore a mighty oath that never again should that abhorred witch set foot in the celestial abode. So he caught her by the hair, and flung her down to earth, to plague the tribes of men. And she it was who made me her victim, whereby all this mischief befell. But now I am ready to make all good, and heal the wrong which I have wrought. And all the gifts which I promised yesterday by the mouth of Odysseus are thine, Achilles, without abatement of one jot. Wait awhile, before thou goest into battle, and my squires shall bring them to thy tent."


[1] A personification of moral blindness.


"As for the gifts," replied Achilles, "they are thine to give or to withhold as thou choosest. But of that hereafter; for the present, I have work to do which admits of no delay. No more of talk, but let us away to the field at once."

But here the voice of prudence intervened, checking the fiery impetuosity of Achilles. "Hear me a moment, valiant prince," said Odysseus. "We must not lead the people fasting to battle, for an empty man hath little heart for the fight, which methinks will be neither short nor easy to-day. Let the people first eat their fill, for a man cannot face the foe from dawn till eve without tasting meat. However willing his spirit, his flesh is weak; his limbs are soon overtaken with weariness, his mouth is parched with thirst, and his knees totter as he goes. Therefore, I say, let us eat, and after that to battle. And thou, Achilles, shalt receive the gifts of Agamemnon, and partake of a banquet of honour with the other chieftains in his tent. The King knows what is fitting, and he cannot do less."

Agamemnon willingly assented, and was proceeding to give the order to bring the gifts when Achilles started up again, in eager protest against this delay.

"Illustrious King," he said, "surely there will be time enough to speak of these lesser matters when we have humbled the pride of the Trojans, who are waiting for us on the plain. My friend lies slaughtered, pierced by Hector's spear, and ye talk to me of meat and drink! By my will the whole army should keep a solemn fast, until we have washed out the stain on our honour in a sea of blood, and then, after the great act of vengeance is complete, we will feast and make merry. I at least will suffer no morsel or drop to pass my lips as long as my comrade lies in my tent with his feet to the door, and the women mourning round. No; far other thoughts fill my heart—blood and slaughter, and the groans of dying men."

But these desperate counsels found no favour with the veteran heads of the army, and a deep hum of approval greeted the more sober eloquence of Odysseus, who now rose again to reply. "Mighty son of Peleus," he said, "thou art stronger far than I, and thy spear writes deadlier record on the foemen's ranks; but I have lived longer than thou, and seen more: bear with me, then, while I speak what reason and experience hath taught me. Soon weary grows the hand which toils in war's barren harvest, where the swathe is so thick, and the yield so scanty when the day is done. We cannot keep a fast for every Greek that falls—where would be the end? The warrior's dirge is short, and he is honoured enough if he is mourned for a day. And those who are left must eat, that they may have strength to fight on the morrow. To your tents, then, every one! And when ye have eaten, come quickly, armed for the fight, and await no second summons."

For all his fierce impatience, Achilles was compelled to yield. With great effort he controlled himself while the gifts were brought, and the ceremonies performed, with no circumstance of solemnity omitted, to ratify the covenant of forgiveness and reconciliation between him and Agamemnon. And so the first act in the great drama of his wrath is concluded.


II

Seven youths of princely rank, attended by a long train of bearers, were despatched to the tent of Achilles, loaded with the costly gifts of atonement from the King. With them went Briseis, thus returned to her former lord. When she saw Patroclus on the bed where he lay, she beat her breast, and, embracing the cold body, burst into a passion of weeping. "Friend of my sorrow!" she cried, "I left thee living, and I find thee dead. Woe, and more woe, is all my portion. When I came hither, an orphaned captive, bereaved of all, thou didst comfort me in my great affliction, promising, when the war was over, to make me Achilles' lawful wife. Thy gentleness and thy knightly courtesy shed balm upon my wounded spirit, and now thou art gone, and my last comfort is gone with thee."

So mourned Briseis, and all the captive ladies wept afresh when they heard her, having cause enough for tears, every one. The sound of their lamentation reached the ears of Achilles where he sat, but he remained unmoved by the tragedy of these lesser spirits, being absorbed in the sense of his own great loss. The tide of his passion had ebbed again, leaving his heart cold and desolate. His men brought him food and drink, but he repulsed them sternly, and would touch nothing. He thought of the happy past—when he and Patroclus had partaken together of many a cheerful meal—and then of the bitter present, when the sight of bread and meat filled him with loathing. He thought of his father Peleus, growing old in his solitary home, waiting in sad expectation to hear of his son's death, and of the young Neoptolemus, his own child, growing up among strangers in the island of Scyros. "Lost, lost, all lost!" he murmured; "I shall never see them again."

But the gods had not forgotten their favourite. Zeus beheld him as he sat thus stricken and forlorn, and sent Athene to inspire him with new comfort and strength. Unseen, she alighted at his side, and fed him, though he knew it not, with heavenly food, filling his heart with more than mortal vigour and courage. Meanwhile the clash of arms rang through the camp as the Greeks marched out, column after column, to battle, thick as autumnal leaves, or hovering snowflakes in winter. The air seemed on fire with the flash of myriads of spears, and the earth shook beneath the thunder of their tread.

Roused by the sound, Achilles sprang to his feet, and buckled on his corslet, and clasped the greaves to his ankles. Then he flung the sword over his shoulder, and thrust his arm through the strap of his shield, which shone like the full-orbed moon, or a beaconlight blazing afar over a stormy sea. Last of all, he lifted his mighty helmet, with its nodding, golden plume, and set it on his head. And now, being arrayed in his harness from head to foot, he raised himself to his towering height, and stretched his fleet limbs, to prove the armour; and it became unto him as wings, making him lighter and nimbler than ever before.

Grasping in his right hand his spear—the mighty Pelian ash, pointed with death—he went forth before the tent, where Automedon stood waiting with his car. "Now hear me, ye children of the wind!" he cried, addressing his steeds, "see that ye play me not false to-day, as when ye left Patroclus dead on the field, and came back with an empty car."

Then there befell a wondrous thing; for the good steed Xanthus, drooping low his head, answered with a human voice, and spake thus unto his master: "Yea, we will carry thee safe back, most dread Achilles, when the fight is o'er. It was by no sloth or tardiness of ours that thy brave comrade met his death; that deed was wrought by the hand of Apollo, using Hector as his instrument—even as thou too shalt be cut off by a human weapon, but by no human power."

So spake the immortal courser, for the first and the last time; for fate suffered it not again. And Achilles answered him, and said: "Waste not thy prophecies on me, good steed! I know my fate—death on the battlefield, far from my home: but ere that hour comes I will send many a Trojan to herald my coming among the dead."

Then, shouting his dread battle-cry, he sprang into his car, and drove headlong to the front.