The Death of Hector by H. L. Havell

I

Having achieved his purpose, Apollo now resumed his own shape, and halting before Achilles thus addressed him: "Knowest thou not me, Achilles? See, the Trojans are safe from thy fury, gathered within their gates. What wouldst thou have? Is it my life thou seekest? Cease, presumptuous mortal, and remember what thou art!"

"Thou hast foiled me, archer-god," answered Achilles, perceiving that he had been tricked. "Thou hast robbed me of my prey, or many another Trojan would have bitten the dust. I would make thee rue this wrong to mine honour had I but the power." Then, like a fiery courser starting in the race, he sped away towards the city, bent on high designs. Like the red rays of that sultry star whose rising heralds in the fierce heat of summer, the season of drought and fever, such was the bright but fearful gleam which flashed from his armour as he ran.

Priam was the first who saw that ill-omened ray, from the place where he stood, on the wall above the gate. And when he marked the destroyer's approach he groaned aloud, and beat his head, and then, stretching out his hands over the battlements, thus spake unto Hector, beseeching him earnestly, and with tears: "O Hector, my son, my son, remain not there, thus deserted and alone, to abide the coming of that fearful man, seeing that he is mightier far than thou. He hath robbed me of many a noble son, whom he hath killed or sold into captivity in distant isles. Spare me this last and bitterest blow! Fling not thy life away, to bring glory on Pelides, and on us sorrow and loss unspeakable. Alas! will it never cease, the storm of misery which rains without pause on this white, distracted head! No, I see them flocking, the spectres of worse evils yet to come, sorrow on sorrow, and woe on woe—murdered sons and daughters dragged into bondage, a violated home, and little children dashed to the ground in the fury of battle. Last scene of all—an old man slaughtered on his own hearthstone, and the dogs who fed at his table and guarded his door now maddened by sights and sounds of horror, and lapping his blood!"

The old man broke off, overpowered by the dark vision which his fancy had conjured up; and the appeal was taken up by Hecuba, the venerable Queen of Troy. "By this breast which nourished thee," she cried, "by the sacred name of mother, I implore thee to abandon thy rash purpose. Fly from this man, or he will slay thee, and dogs will devour thy flesh in the Grecian camp."

But all the anguished entreaties of his father and mother had no power to shake the resolution of Hector. He could not go back now; he had rejected with scorn the prudent advice which Polydamas had given the night before, and had thereby caused the death of a legion of Trojans. How could he face the taunts of the women whom his rashness had made widows, and the mute reproaches of the children now orphaned by his act? He had openly defied Achilles, and it was too late to recall the challenge. A wild plan crossed his mind, only to be instantly rejected: should he lay aside shield, and helmet, and spear, and go unarmed to Achilles, offering to make an end of this lamentable war at the cost of half the city's goods, and the free restitution of Helen with all her wealth? "No," he said, convinced at once of the desperate folly of such an enterprise: "I should then be guilty of self-murder: he would butcher me without mercy, before I had time to utter a word. This is no time for gentle parley, as between maid and youth sitting in soft dalliance under rock or tree: I must meet him with sword and spear, for victory or death."

Achilles was now close at hand, with the mighty Pelian ash swaying on his right shoulder, and his armour blazing like the light of the rising sun. When Hector saw him advancing, like an incarnate spirit of vengeance, all his heroic resolves forsook him, and seized with sudden terror he turned and fled. And as a falcon swoops down on a hare, and pounces, and pounces again, as his victim leaps and doubles, to escape from the fatal clutch, so Achilles darted after Hector, following all the turns and windings of his flight. Past a low hill they went, whence the Trojan scout had espied the advance of the Greeks not many days before, and past the wild fig-tree, following a beaten road, which led to two fair springs, the double source of eddying Scamander. One of the springs is of hot water, and a cloud of steam hangs over it, like the smoke of a burning fire; but the other is cold as ice. Here were broad washing-pits, lined with stone, in which the wives and daughters were wont to tread the clothes, in the old peaceful days, before ever the Greeks had landed on the shores of Troy. Leaving these behind them, they sped on, and still on, pursuer and pursued. Noble was the quarry, but the hunter was nobler far, and never before had he run in so keen a chase. Like mettled steeds, which strive for the mastery, where the prize is a vessel of gold or of silver, they flew; but here they were running for a far higher stake, even the very life of Troy's bravest son.

Three times they compassed the whole circuit of the walls, and again and again Hector tried to draw his pursuer within range of the spears of the Trojans who lined the battlements; but each time his effort was defeated by Achilles, who barred his way to the city, and drove him back into the open plain.

As one who pursues his enemy in a dream, and cannot catch him, though he seems ever within reach, so was Achilles ever baffled, when he strove to overtake Hector, and Hector, when he strove to escape. All the Greeks stood near in their ranks, watching the chase—and many a time a spear was levelled at Hector, to strike him down; but Achilles beckoned with his hand, and forbade his comrades to come between him and his victim.

For the fourth time they came to the place of the washing-pits, and here by mutual consent they paused to draw breath; for both were sore spent with running, and could not go a step farther. As Achilles stood panting, and leaning on his spear, Athene drew near to him, unseen of all the rest, and said: "He cannot escape us now, though Apollo should grovel in the dust at the feet of Zeus, begging for his life. Remain awhile and recover thy strength, and I will go and persuade him to fight thee face to face."

About an arrow's flight distant, Hector had come to a standstill, and drooped heavily, resting his hands on his knees, half strangled by his efforts to breathe. Suddenly, to his amazement, he saw Deiphobus, his brother, standing by his side, and heard the familiar tones of his voice. "Dear brother," said Deiphobus, "thou art hard beset, and driven to bay by this fierce son of Peleus. But lo! I am here to aid thee, and I will not fail thee in this strait."

"Deiphobus," answered Hector, "thou wert ever dearest to me of all the sons whom Hecuba bore to Priam: but now thou art dear and honoured too, since alone of all my nation thou hast dared to leave the shelter of the walls."

"Ay," answered the pretended Deiphobus, "my mother and my father, and all my friends, strove to hold me back; but my heart yearned towards thee in thy mortal need. But come with me, and together we will try the fortune of war. Go thou first, and I will follow."

Hector accordingly advanced to meet Achilles, who was already moving towards him. "I will fly thee no more," he said, when they were within a spear's cast of each other, "I will either slay thee, or be slain. But let us first make a covenant, and call the gods to witness it: swear thou that, if I fall, thou wilt restore my body and my armour to the Trojans—and I will swear to do the like by thee."

"Talk not to me of covenants, thou villain!" answered Achilles fiercely. "As there is no treaty possible between lions and men, no concord between wolves and lambs, but only fear and hatred, so is there hate unending between me and thee, which naught but death may cancel or abate. Summon up all thy manhood, and prepare to pay the price of my comrades whom thou hast slain."

This said he poised and flung his spear; but Hector stooped low, and the spear flew over his head, and sank deep into the earth. Unobserved by Hector, Athene drew it out, and gave it back to Achilles. "Take now my spear!" shouted the Trojan, "take it to thy heart, thou braggart, that thinkest to dismay me with boastful words!" The weapon flew straight to its mark, and, striking the centre of Achilles' shield, rebounded to a distance, and fell rattling on the ground. Then Hector called anxiously to Deiphobus, bidding him bring another lance. But no answer came, for the real Deiphobus was safe behind the walls, and he who had appeared to Hector was a false Deiphobus, concealing the person of Athene.

"Alas! I have been deceived," said Hector. "My last bolt is shot, and my fate summons me to death. Let me not die inglorious and without a struggle, but in such wise that I shall be named with honour by generations yet unborn."

Then, drawing his sword, he rushed upon Achilles, who came on slowly, towering above the rampart of his shield, nodding his golden plumes and brandishing high his spear, whose point twinkled and flashed like the light of the evening star. Scanning every joint in Hector's armour, at last Achilles spied a point, between the shoulder-blade and the neck, which was undefended; and at this mark he hurled his spear with all his force and pierced him through the neck. But the passage of his voice was left untouched, so that he was still able to speak.

"Thou hast paid thy debt to Patroclus," said Achilles, standing over his fallen enemy, "and now thou shalt pay the usury. Dogs and vultures shall give thee burial, but he shall lie in an honoured tomb."

"By thy life," answered Hector faintly, "by thy father's name, I implore thee, give not my body to be devoured by dogs, but restore it to my friends, who will pay thee a heavy ransom, that I may receive my due in death."

"Thou dog!" replied Achilles, with a furious look, "talk not of thy dues, nor name my father to me! Would that I could find it in my heart to carve and devour thy flesh, as surely as thou shalt not escape the hounds and vultures, no, not if Priam were to offer thy weight in gold, after what thou hast done unto me and mine."

"I knew that I should not persuade thee," said Hector, with his dying breath. "Thou hast a heart of iron. But vengeance shall reach thee in the day when Apollo and Paris shall subdue thee at the gates of Troy."

As he uttered this prophecy a shudder ran through his limbs, and the gallant spirit fled to the land of shadows.

"Die!" said Achilles, as Hector uttered his last sigh. "As for me, I am prepared to meet my fate whensoever heaven wills its accomplishment."

Then he drew out his spear, and laying it aside, began to strip off the armour which Hector had taken from Patroclus. And the Greeks came crowding round, to gaze on the beauty and stature of Hector, and stab the helpless body with their spears. Far other had he seemed to them when he came with fire and sword to burn their ships, and fill their camp with slaughter!

When Achilles had finished stripping the corpse, he stood up and spoke thus to the assembled host: "Princes and counsellors of the Greeks, now that the gods have granted us to slay this mighty champion, who hath done us more harm than all the rest together, shall we not advance in full force against the city, and end the war at one bold stroke? But alas! what am I saying? We have another and a sadder duty to perform. Patroclus lies among the ships, unburied, unwept, and shall I forget him in this hour of triumph? No; not in the hour of death, not in the grave itself, which brings, they say, oblivion to all, shall my love for him grow cold. Therefore follow me, sirs, to the ships, and raise the song of victory. We have gained great glory, we have slain Troy's chief defender, to whom all the Trojans prayed as to a god."

Then, in fulfilment of his horrible menaces, he prepared to take hideous vengeance on his slaughtered enemy. Stooping down he pierced the dead man's feet from heel to ankle, and passed a leathern thong through the holes; then he made fast the thong behind the chariot, and, taking up the armour, he sprang into the driver's place, and lashed his horses to a gallop. So amid a swirling cloud of dust the fallen hero was dragged along, with his dark locks streaming, and that comely head marred and defiled; and Zeus delivered him to injury and outrage at the hands of his enemies in his own native land.


II

But what were the feelings of the Trojans watching on the walls when they saw their great champion fall, and with what eyes did the aged king and the fond mother behold their Hector, their joy and pride, and chief defence, butchered, mutilated, and dragged through the dust! Through all the city arose a great cry of lamentation, and such horror was written on every face as if the Greeks had carried Troy by storm, and were filling her streets with fire and slaughter. Priam was hardly restrained from going forth at once, with the purpose of entering the Grecian camp, and throwing himself at the feet of Achilles.

But there was another, bound by an even nearer and dearer tie to the slain, who was the last to learn the fearful news. This was Andromache, Hector's wife, who was sitting at her loom in the retirement of her chamber, weaving a piece of flowered tapestry. Presently she left her task, and calling her handmaids bade them prepare the bath for their master against his return from battle. Her face was cheerful and serene, and she smiled as she thought of the happy meeting which seemed so near. But in the midst of these pleasant household cares a dreadful sound reached her ears—a shrill note, as of women shrieking, mingled with the deeper groans of men. "Hark!" she said, turning deadly pale, and dropping the shuttle, which she had been holding in her hand: "What mean these cries?" Then, as she paused again to listen, she heard the voice of Hecuba, raised in loud anguish above the rest. With a woman's quick instinct she divined that the worst had befallen her, and shrieking: "Hector, my Hector, is slain!" she hastened, with ashy cheeks, and tottering knees, to the walls. The crowd fell back at her approach, and every voice was hushed when they saw her bending over the battlements, and gazing with wild eyes across the plain. Then she saw Achilles in full career towards the ships, dragging her husband's body behind his car. At that sight she gave one gasping cry, and reeling back fell swooning into the arms of her kinswomen who were standing ready to aid. Thus for awhile she lay, motionless and lifeless, with her long hair, escaped from its bands, streaming about her. At last she drew a deep, sobbing breath, and opening her eyes looked into the anxious faces bent over her. Then the full consciousness of her loss rushed back upon her in a bitter flood, and breaking from the gentle hands which held her she made as if she would fling herself down from the battlements. She was prevented by kindly force, and led away, moaning and weeping, to her widowed home.