Priam Ransoms the Body of Hector by H. L. Havell

I

The busy day was over, and night sank down on the Grecian camp, bringing to all, save one tormented spirit, the blessed gift of sleep. With silence and solitude the pangs of sorrow awakened with new keenness in the heart of Achilles, and he lay tossing and turning on his uneasy pillow, seeking rest, and finding none. A thousand memories of his friendship with Patroclus—gallant adventures, hairbreadth escapes, moving accidents by flood and field—coursed through his mind, bringing home to him the immensity of his loss. After some hours of sleepless misery he sprang to his feet, and throwing on his clothes went down to the sea, and roamed distracted along the sand. With the first glimmer of daylight he yoked his horses to the car, and drove round and round the tomb of Patroclus, dragging after him the body of Hector. Having made the circuit of the tomb three times, he unyoked his horses, and retired once more to his tent, leaving his lifeless victim face downwards in the dust.

Twelve days passed; and every day the same outrage was repeated. All the gods, except Poseidon, Hera, and Athene, whose hatred of all things Trojan was inveterate, were indignant at his senseless barbarity, and they began to urge Hermes to steal Hector's body, and restore it to his friends. But nothing was done until, on the twelfth day, Apollo rose up and reproached the gods, who were met in full assembly, for their cruel indifference. "Is there no pity," he said, "is there no justice, left in heaven, that ye suffer this inhuman son of Peleus to wreak his brutal fury on the body of a man of stainless life, constant all his days in sacrifice and prayer? All your favour is lavished on Achilles, who has the heart of a ravening lion, nourished in havoc and carnage. Death lies about the paths of mortals, taking their nearest and their dearest; yet sorrow must sleep at last, for patience is the best gift which the gods have given to men. But this man is more cruel in his love than in his hate, and because he has lost a friend his rancour burns on like an unquenchable fire."

"Thou forgettest," answered Hera, "that Achilles is the son of a goddess, and shares the privileges of divine descent. His father also was a favourite of heaven, and thou thyself, Phœbus, didst lend the music of thy harp to grace his nuptials; but now, it seemeth, thou takest delight in baser company."

"Fair consort," said Zeus, "be not thus implacable. Granted that Achilles stands higher in honour, yet Hector hath also his claim on our regard, for none was ever more pious than he. Therefore, that we may end this miserable coil at once, let Iris go and summon hither his mother Thetis, that we may contrive some way of restoring Hector to his people."

Iris hastened to obey the command, and, stooping from Olympus to the surface of the sea, dropped like a leaden plummet into the purple depths, until she reached the grotto where Thetis dwelt. She found her sitting among the Nereids, mourning the lot of her matchless son, whose death was near at hand. "What wants the monarch of heaven from me?" she asked, when she heard the summons from Zeus. "I am ill prepared to attend the happy session of the gods, for grief has clouded my mind and marred my face." Nevertheless she rose to go, and putting on a veil of funereal blackness followed Iris, who brought her speedily to the assembly of the gods.

"We thank thee, Thetis," said Zeus, beckoning her to a seat next to his throne, "that thou hast answered so promptly to our call. We know thy sorrows, and have respect for thee and thy son; and for this cause have we sent for thee. For nine days there has been strife among us, concerning the body of Hector, which Achilles still keeps in his possession. Some there were who would have had Hermes steal it away, but this I would not suffer, out of regard to thy son's honour. But go thou to the camp, and tell him that we are sore displeased with him, because in his madness he keeps the corpse of his enemy and will not ransom it. And I will send Iris with a charge to Priam, that he may go with acceptable gifts to the tent of Achilles, and redeem the body for burial."


II

Still nursing his wound, still torn by the demons of rage and grief, Achilles sat moodily in his tent, while his comrades were busy about him, preparing the morning meal. Suddenly he felt a gentle touch on his shoulder, and looking up he saw his mother's face bent over him, with looks of sympathy and love. "My son," she said, in a low sweet voice, "how long wilt thou devour thy heart in bootless anguish, refusing meat and drink, and spurning the tender offices of human affection? O darken not the little remnant that remains to thee of life, but take what good thou canst, and at least live as a man. I have come with a message to thee from Zeus, who bids thee to give up Hector's body, and receive the ransom which his friends will offer thee."

"Be it so," answered Achilles. "Let them bring the price, and I will give back the body." Overjoyed by his ready consent, Thetis bade him farewell, and returned to her ocean home.

Meanwhile the ever-active Iris was gone on another errand, carrying the commands of Zeus to Priam. Swiftly she passed through the streets of Troy, and entered the house of woe, where the voice of sorrow had never ceased since the day when Hector had fallen by the hands of Achilles. Priam himself was lying prostrate on the ground in the courtyard, with his white locks defied with dust and ashes. Round him were gathered his sons, trying in vain to rouse him from his stupor; and at the windows were seen from time to time the white faces of women, when any of his daughters paused in their household tasks to glance at the sorrow-stricken group outside.

Lying thus, mute and motionless, Priam was startled to hear a still, small voice, which seemed to be speaking at a great distance, addressing him in these words: "Take comfort, son of Dardanus, and be not dismayed! I who speak have not come to foretell thee harm, but only good. Thy cries and thy groanings have gone up to the ear of Zeus, and he hath sent me to comfort and advise thee. Hearken now, and do as I shall tell thee: let them prepare thee a wain, loaded with precious gifts, and go thou in thy car to the tent of Achilles, and let only a herald go with thee, a man stricken in years like thyself, to guide the mules. Fear nothing, for heaven is near thee, and the gods have put it into the heart of Achilles to hear thy prayer."

To the amazement of those who stood near, and who knew nothing of the cause, new life and energy were seen to enter the palsied limbs of Priam, and starting to his feet he ordered his sons to prepare the mule car, and make fast to it the great wicker basket which was used for the carriage of goods. Then, without staying for question or reply, he hastened into the house, and calling to Hecuba made known to her his purpose. When she heard what he intended, Hecuba lifted up her hands, and answered in tones of astonishment and terror. "Is it Priam who speaks—the monarch revered for his wisdom even in distant lands—or is it some madman who has taken upon him Priam's likeness? What, wilt thou go into the presence of that butcher, whose savage hands have made thee all but childless? Faithless and ruthless as he is, thinkest thou that he will reverence thy grey hairs? No, he will slaughter thee without pity, and give us new cause for tears. Hector hath received the portion appointed to him at his birth, and dogs shall eat his flesh where he lies in the tent of that man of blood. May the curse of heaven light on his slayer! Would that I could tear his heart with my teeth, and devour it! Then would my noble son be avenged, who died bravely before the face of all his people, with no thought of flight or escape."

But Priam was not to be shaken in his resolve. "Seek not to hinder me," he answered, "and vex me not with thy evil forebodings. I go not at the bidding of any earthly prophet, but with direct assurance of the aid and countenance of heaven. If I have been deceived, I am prepared to die, so that the stroke but find me holding my son in my arms, and clinging to him in a last embrace."

With that he went to his treasure-chamber, and opening the chests of cedarwood took from them rich robes, choice tapestries, and costly raiment. To these he added ten talents of gold and a bowl of silver, which he had received as a gift of honour when he went on an embassy to Thrace. And having set the gifts in order he went forth again into the courtyard, to hasten the preparations for his journey. Finding there a crowd of Trojans, whom some rumour had drawn to the palace, he drove them all out, beating them with his staff, and crying: "What make ye here, idle caitiffs? Have ye not sorrow enough at home that ye come hither to chatter and pry into my grief? Ye will soon learn what ye have lost in my Hector, when ye fly like sheep without a shepherd before the wolves of Greece." The Trojans fled before the old man's anger, and he looked about him, seeking his sons. "Where are ye," he cried, "children of my shame? Would that ye had all perished, and Hector alone were left! Alas! the best are ever taken first, and in those that remain there is neither comfort nor strength, but only dishonour and reproach. Liars, dancers, devourers of the people—these are my children now."

Roused by the loud rebukes of their father, the young princes made haste to bring forth the mule car and harness the mules. Then they loaded the car with the gifts to Achilles, and yoked to the chariot the horses which Priam himself was to drive.

When all was ready, Hecuba came and stood by the chariot, bearing a golden cup filled with wine. "Take this," she said to Priam, "and pour a drink-offering to Zeus, if so be that he will vouchsafe thee a sign, and show thee whether it be by his will or not that thou goest on this journey."

"Thou sayest well," answered Priam. "It is a good thing to hold up our hands to heaven in prayer." Thereupon he washed his hands in water, which was brought by a handmaid, took the cup from his wife, and standing by the altar in the middle of the courtyard lifted up his voice and prayed: "Lord of Ida, most glorious, most great, grant that the heart of Achilles may incline in pity towards me, and send thy messenger, the swift eagle whom thou lovest best of all fowls, that having seen him we may go with good heart and courage to the Grecian camp."

Even as he spoke, a mighty eagle was seen soaring over the city on the right hand, with his vast wings outspread, like the folding doors of a rich man's house. Rejoicing in the omen, Priam mounted his chariot, and drove through the echoing porch, preceded by the herald Idus, who drove the mule car. Along the streets they passed, making what speed they could, through the multitudes who had flocked out to see them depart, and who mourned them as already dead.

Night had fallen, and all the sky was thick set with stars, as they left the city gates, and turned their faces towards the sea. When they reached the ford of the river they paused to let the animals drink: and while they halted Idus suddenly cried out in tones of terror: "My lord, we are undone! I see a man approaching, and I fear he means us no good." Priam peered out into the darkness, following with his eyes the pointing finger of Idus, and saw a tall figure moving with rapid steps towards them.

"What doest thou here?" said the stranger, who was a graceful and comely youth, and whose voice sounded like the chiming of a silver bell. "Why art thou here unguarded, at the very gates of the foe? But be of good cheer—I will not harm thee, nor suffer others to do so. I see in thee a likeness to my dear father."

"Fair youth," answered Priam, whose alarm had vanished before the gentle mien and kind words of the young Greek, "surely some god has sent thee in my way, in pity for my helpless state. Tell me, who art thou, and who is the father who is blest with such a son?"

"I am a follower of Achilles," was the startling reply, "and came hither in the same ship. My father is Polyctor, a wealthy man, and of like age with thee. I am the youngest of seven sons, and the lot fell upon me to follow the host to Troy. And this night I came out to spy upon the movements of the Trojans."

"If thou art a comrade of Achilles," said Priam, "thou canst tell me concerning my son Hector. Lies his body still by the ships, or has Achilles given it already to his dogs to devour?"

"Neither dog," answered the other, "nor unclean fowl hath approached him, nor hath the worm had power over his flesh. Unmarred by violence, untouched by decay, he lieth, without soil or stain, and all his wounds are closed. This miracle the gods have wrought, in the great love which they bear him."

"Glad news thou tellest me," said Priam, "and now I know that piety hath its reward, even in death." Then he took out a silver cup from the mule car, and offering it to the stranger said: "Take this for thyself, and conduct me safe to the ships of Achilles, that I may see the face of my son."

"Tempt me not, old man," replied the Greek. "This cup belongs to Achilles, and if I should steal it from him what thinkest thou that he would do unto me? But come, give me the reins, and I will guide thee to thy goal—yea, though it were in distant Argos, thou shouldst reach it safe and sound, and none should molest thee."

So saying, he sprang to the side of Priam, and took the reins. Under his guidance the horses seemed to be endued with wings, and in a very short time they reached the main entrance of the camp. The gates flew open, as if by magic, and all the sentries were sleeping at their posts. On to the extreme verge of the camp they went, still unchallenged, and drew up at length before a high stockade, within which were the quarters of Achilles. Once more the gates opened at a touch, and they entered. Here the mysterious stranger dismounted from the car, and turning on Priam a countenance which shone with a celestial radiance he said: "I have brought thee to the place where thou wouldst go, and now I will leave thee, for the task is finished which Zeus my father gave me to do. For know that I am Hermes, the herald of the gods, and the strong helper of those that are in need."


III

The dwelling of Achilles, which, for want of a better word, we have called a tent, was in reality a roomy building, constructed of solid pine trunks, and thatched with moss and rushes. On this memorable evening Achilles was sitting in the main apartment of the dwelling, and two of his squires were removing the vessels used at the evening meal. The light of the fire gleamed fitfully on his face, and he seemed in a gentler and more placid mood than had been usual with him for many days. He had partaken freely of food and wine, and conversed cheerfully with his attendants. He was now silent, and sat musing quietly by himself, when suddenly, to his amazement, an old man of tall stature and regal port entered the room, and throwing himself on the ground before him clasped his knees and kissed his hands—those terrible murderous hands!—bathing them with his tears. Like a man who has slain a fellow-countryman, and enters the house of some wealthy noble, where a great company is gathered, to implore shelter and protection—for the avenger of blood is at his heels—so seemed that aged man to Achilles and those that were with him, so trembling, helpless, and forlorn. And as they gazed in deep wonder, murmuring to each other the name of Priam, he began, in a voice broken with weeping, to urge his petition: "Pity me, Achilles, for thy father's sake, an old man like me, standing on the brink of the grave. Maybe he is in sole straits, oppressed by those that dwell about him, for want of thy succouring arm. Yet still he has hope, as long as thou livest, and looks forward to the joyful day of thy return. But what hope have I, what solace, what refuge from the blows which fate aims without ceasing at mine afflicted head? Fifty sons I had, when the sons of Greece first came to these shores, and of these the greater part have paid their last tribute to the stern god of war. And he, the bravest and the best, the bulwark of my city, fell by thy hand not many days since. Him have I come to ransom at a great price. In the name of thy father, in the name of the gods whom we both adore, have mercy on me, Achilles—on me, who have found it in my heart to do what mortal never did before, to lift to my lips the hand that slew my son!"

Then at last that iron-hearted man was melted into compassion when he saw the renowned King of Asia prostrate at his feet, humbled to the dust for the sake of one poor boon—permission to give his son's body to the grave. And the sight of all that misery awakened anew the thought of his own sad lot, his recent loss, his brief and troubled life, soon to be ended by a coward's hand, the desolation of his home, and his father pining in solitary old age. Surely he also had cause enough for tears!

So the two great enemies were united for the time by the common bond of human sorrow. Then Achilles rose, and, taking the old man by the hand, led him to a seat, and placing himself by his side said to him: "O marked by sorrow's seal before all the children of men, what a heart must thou have, to meet me face to face, who have given to death so many of thy valiant sons! But thou knowest that it is the common lot: only the gods know neither care nor grief, but mortal life is encompassed with ills. Two caskets there are which stand by the throne of Zeus, one filled with good gifts, and the other with evil gifts. And for the more part Zeus mingles the gifts, and tempers much evil with a little good; but now and then some wretch receives naught but evil, and wanders from land to land as misery's thrall, branded by the malice of fate. To Peleus, my father, good things were given at first—wealth, power, and prosperity, and a goddess for his bride. But now he is receiving his portion of ill. And thou too, Priam, wast in old times renowned for the number of thy blessings, and men called thee great king, happy father, and envied thine abundance. But in thy latter years thou hast seen naught but wars and fightings, losses and deaths. So shifts the tide, so turns the scale, now up, now down, and naught that we can do will avail to raise or diminish by one tittle the sum of our fate."

Up to this point Priam had prospered in his mission beyond his hopes. But now he obtained a glimpse of the fearful passions which were smouldering in the breast of Achilles, and ready at any moment to leap up in devouring flames. Being invited by Achilles to stay and rest awhile before resuming his journey, he would have refused, alleging that he could not rest until he had the body of Hector safe in his keeping. But that fierce and imperious nature brooked not the slightest hint of opposition. "Provoke me no further, old man," said the terrible chieftain, with a dark glance at his guest. "Hector's body thou shalt have—but there must be no unseemly haste. My heart is exceeding sore; touch not thou the galled spot, lest I should do thee mischief, and break the ordinances of heaven."

Then, leaving Priam where he sat, Achilles went out with Automedon and another of his squires, and, bidding Idus attend his master, they unyoked the mules, and brought in the ransom. "Now, haste thee, Automedon," said Achilles, in a low tone, "go with the handmaids to the place where Hector's body lies, and when they have washed and anointed it return with it hither. Be silent, and be wary; for if Priam sees what ye are doing—if he catches sight of Hector's body, where now it lies—I fear that he will break out into anger against me, and becoming outrageous provoke me to slay him."

Having carried out their orders with all due caution, they brought the body, wrapped in fine linen, and Achilles with his own hands placed it in the mule car. But he groaned in spirit when he thought of his promise to Patroclus, and cried aloud, invoking his ghost: "Take it not amiss, my Patroclus, when the news reaches thee in the house of the dead, that I have restored the body of thy slayer. His father hath paid me no mean ransom, whereof thou shalt have thy share."

The laws of hospitality required that Priam should not leave Achilles' roof without breaking bread. Accordingly, on his return to the house, Achilles urged his guest to take some food. "Remember," he said, "that Niobe herself, so constant in her sorrow that even now, though turned to a stone, she weeps and weeps for ever—even she tasted food when the first anguish of her grief was passed. Thou knowest her sad story—how she boasted that she had borne twelve fair children, six stalwart sons and six lovely daughters—and taunted Leto that she had only borne two. But those two were Apollo and Artemis, a god and a goddess, and they slew all the children of Niobe, to avenge the insult to their mother. Apollo slew the sons with his silver bow, and Artemis, the archer-goddess, slew the daughters. For nine days they lay in their blood, with none to give them burial; but on the tenth day the gods buried them with their own hands. And if she, that stricken mother, could sit down to meat, so do thou also, Priam; after that, thou shall take some sleep, and at dawn I will send thee back in safety to Troy."

The meal was prepared, and they sat down face to face at the same table, joined as host and guest, after all that had passed between them. But Priam's eyes were exceeding heavy, for he had hardly closed them in slumber since the awful day when he saw Hector stricken to death before his sight; and after tasting a morsel he begged Achilles to show him the place where he was to rest.


IV

Priam's bed was laid under the portico which ran round the outside of the dwelling, for fear lest any chance visitor to Achilles should see him if he lay within. Overcome by weariness, he soon fell into a deep sleep. But in the dead of night he was roused by the voice of Hermes, whose watchful eye had never left him, and who now came to warn him of the perils by which he was surrounded. What if Agamemnon should hear that the King of Troy was lying asleep in the midst of the Grecian camp! All the wealth of Troy would hardly suffice to ransom such a prisoner.

Priam rose in haste, now fully alive to his danger, and found the horses ready harnessed, and Idus waiting with the mule car. The same powerful hand which had brought them to the dwelling of Achilles now smoothed the way for their return, and day was just breaking as they crossed the ford of the river.

The first to observe their coming was Cassandra, a daughter of Priam, who was watching from the highest tower of the citadel; and the report soon spread throughout the city that Priam was returning, bringing with him the body of Hector. Then not a man nor a woman was left in the city, but all with one accord streamed out through the gates to meet the strange procession. There was seen Hecuba, the mother of the slain, leaning on the shoulder of Andromache, his faithful wife; and following them at a distance, with downcast eyes, avoiding the looks of hate which were cast at her, went the fatal Helen. During all the years that she had lived as an unwelcome guest in the house of Priam, Hector had never reminded her by a look or a word of the miseries which she had brought on his country. He was all gentleness, all goodness, even to her, who had sinned so grievously against him and his people; and when hard words were aimed at her by any of his kinsfolk his patience and charity had ever been her shield.

By the authority of Achilles a truce of eleven days was granted to the Trojans to celebrate the obsequies of Hector. For nine days he lay in the chamber prepared for him in the palace, and all the city was given up to mourning. On the tenth day they buried him, and on the eleventh they raised his monument.

And so, after long delay, that knightly spirit passed into its rest.