PROTESILAUS

BY MRS. GUY E. LLOYD

Protesilaus, King of Thessaly, was a happy and a fortunate man. A beautiful and fertile kingdom was his, left to him by his father, the fleet-footed Iphicles, and his wife Laodamia, a fair and gracious queen, was very dear to his heart.

But the call of honor came, and all Greece was arming to revenge upon the false Paris the wrong he had done to his host Menelaus in carrying off his wife, the beauteous Helen. Then Protesilaus donned his armor with the rest, and forty goodly vessels sailed from the coast of Thessaly, and joined the assembled fleet of the Greeks at Aulis in Bœotia.

Sad was the parting with the fair Queen Laodamia, and many bitter tears she wept when her husband's ships had sailed away and she was left alone. Her whole life was bound up in him, and when he was gone everything that was left to her seemed empty and worthless. Often would she climb the rocks and look forth over the sun-lit waters for hours dreaming and dreaming of the day when Protesilaus should come back to her again to reign over his people in peace and safety.

For many days the Greek ships lay wind-bound at Aulis, because their leader, King Agamemnon, had offended the great goddess Diana. At length (as the preceding story told) he was forced to expiate his guilt by the sacrifice of his innocent daughter Iphigenia. As soon as the offering was completed the goddess, appeased, let loose the imprisoned winds, and the great fleet set sail for Troy.

Most of the warriors on those bounding ships were eager and happy; their waiting was over, the delight of battle was close before them.

But Protesilaus was silent and thoughtful; he would stand for hours on the deck of his vessel looking down upon the lines of foam that it left in its wake, and ever his thoughts were the same.

He was not mourning for his beloved wife, nor for the happy home he had left. He was not sad to think of all the perils and hardships that awaited the Greeks at Troy. He was thinking and thinking of the words spoken by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The first man to leap ashore, so the oracle had said, should be slain; and even as he had first heard the stern sentence the heart of Protesilaus had beat high with the determination that he himself would be that man. He would crowd all sail on his swift ship, and waiting on the prow would spring on shore through the breakers, and so fulfil the will of the gods.

All through the voyage this one thought filled the mind of Protesilaus. He grieved, it is true, that he should never again see his dearly loved wife, Laodamia, nor the beautiful palace they had been building for themselves, wherein they had hoped to be happy together for many years, after the war was over. And sometimes a passionate regret would overcome the warrior when he remembered that the war must all be fought out without his having any share in the famous battles that were before his comrades. His brother would lead the men of Thessaly to the strife, and would return with them in triumph to their homes when, as Calchas had foretold, in the tenth year the city of King Priam should fall.

So, undaunted in courage, steadfast in resolution though sad at heart, Protesilaus sailed on to his chosen fate, and even the immortal gods were stirred with wonder and admiration when they saw his ship shoot forth before all the rest as soon as the land of Troy came in sight. Tall and stately on the prow stood the figure of Protesilaus, clad in glittering armor, and with sword and spear and shield all ready for the combat. The helmsman steered straight for a little sandy spit that rose from the water's edge, and Protesilaus sprang ashore long before the rest of the Greek array had neared the Trojan strand. Then the words of the oracle were fulfilled. Some say it was the spear of Hector, some that of Æneas that struck the hero down. Foremost of all the mighty army of King Agamemnon he fell, honored and mourned by all his comrades.

Queen Laodamia waited impatiently in the peaceful land of Thessaly, longing for tidings from her lord. She had heard of the long waiting at Aulis, she shuddered when the words of Calchas were repeated to her; in sight of all the host a serpent devoured first nine sucklings and then the mother sow, and when Calchas saw it he said that this was a sign that in the tenth year the city of Priam should fall before the attacks of the Greeks.

Ten years seemed a long, long time to the eager queen before she should see her dear lord home again. She would wake up suddenly in the night, and stare into the darkness, thinking with terror of the months and months of hopeless waiting that lay before her.

Then tidings came to Thessaly of the sailing of the fleet, and as men told over the names of the mighty heroes who had gone forth to fight with Agamemnon, they forgot the words of the wise seer Calchas, and hoped that this brave array must soon return in triumph.

Not many weeks later Laodamia was seated at her loom weaving a robe for her warrior to wear on his return in triumph when there came to her, white and trembling, her favorite of all her maidens.

The queen looked up in alarm. "What ails thee, child?" she asked. "Why dost thou stand there pale and silent? Is aught amiss?"

The maiden tried in vain to frame words to answer. Covering her face with her hands she sank upon her knees and burst into tears.

And the queen, with a great terror at her heart, went forth into a house full of tears and lamentations, for the tidings had come, over the sea, of the death of the noble Protesilaus.

Then Laodamia went back into her inner chamber, and covering her head she flung herself prone upon the ground, and lay there all through the day, while her maidens wept and wailed without the door, and none dared enter or attempt to comfort her.

But at nightfall the queen arose, and passing from her chamber to the temple, she begged the priest to instruct her what sacrifice to offer to the gods of the world of spirits, that they might allow her but once more to look upon her lord.

Then the priest prepared in haste the sevenfold offering due to the great gods of the under-world, and told her the vows and prayers that she must offer, and then left her alone in the temple.

Then, standing erect and stretching her suppliant hands towards the heavens, the queen flung her whole soul into the impassioned entreaty that she might see her dear lord once again.

No door opened, no curtain was lifted, but on a sudden two forms appeared before the startled suppliant. One she saw at once, by his winged helmet and his rod encircled by snakes, must be the swift messenger of the gods, Mercury; the other, she recognized with a thrill of terror and joy, was the husband for a sight of whom she had just been praying so earnestly.

Then Mercury touched Laodamia with his rod, and at the touch all her fear fell from her at once.

"Great Jupiter has heard thy prayer," said Mercury. "Behold, thy husband is with thee once more, and he shall tarry with thee for the space of three hours."

Having thus spoken Mercury vanished from sight, and Protesilaus and Laodamia stood alone together.

Then the queen sprang forward and tried to fling her arms round her dear husband; but though he stood there before her in form and features unchanged, it was but the ghost of her lost lord. Thrice she essayed to embrace him, and thrice her arms clasped nothing but the empty air.

Then she cried out in anguish: "Alas! have the gods mocked me after all? Is this not Protesilaus, then, who seems to stand before me?"

Then the shade of the warrior made answer: "Nay, dear wife, the gods do not mock thee, and it is indeed Protesilaus who stands before thee. Yet am I no living man; for the oracle had foretold that the first of the Greek host to leap ashore should be slain; therefore, seeing that the immortal gods asked a life, I gave them mine, and steering to the shore before all the other ships, I sprang on land the first of all the host, and fell, slain by the spear of the enemy."

Then the queen made answer: "Noblest and best of warriors! even the gods are filled with admiration for thy courage, for they have allowed thee to come back to thy wife and to thy home. Surely they will go on to give thee even a greater gift. As I look upon thee I see no change in thee; thou art fair and young as when we said farewell. Doubtless the gods will give thee back to me wholly again, and naught shall ever more divide us."

But even as she spoke the queen shrank back in dread, for the face of the vision changed and became like that of a dead man, while Protesilaus made answer: "Short is my sojourn upon earth, soon must I leave thee again. But be brave and wise, dear love; give not thy whole life over unto mourning, but be patient; and though I must pass from thee now, some day we shall meet once more; and though our earthly love is ended, yet may we joy for ever in faithful companionship one with another."

"Ah! wherefore shouldst thou leave me?" cried the queen; "the gods have already wrought wonders, why should they not give thee back thy life? If thou goest from me again, I will follow thee, for I cannot stay alone."

Then Protesilaus tried to soothe and calm his wife, that she might give up the vain hope of living again together as they once had done, and might look forward instead to a pure and happy life beyond the grave. The gods had already given her much, he said, and she ought to strive to be worthy of their mercy, and by her courage and self-control win for herself eternal peace.

While her husband was speaking his face lost its ghastly look, and he seemed even more beautiful and gracious than when he was alive. And Laodamia watched him, and was calmed and cheered at the sight; but she hardly marked his words, so sure was she that the gods would relent when the end of the three hours was come, and would allow him to stay with her once more a living man.

But even while the hero urged his wife to be patient and courageous, even while she looked for the gods to restore him to her, lo! the three hours were past, and Mercury stood once more within the temple.

Then, Laodamia understood that her hopes were vain, and that Protesilaus was doomed to leave her. She tried to hold that dear form fast, but she grasped a shadow; her empty fingers closed helplessly as Protesilaus vanished from her sight.

With a shriek she fell prone on the temple floor, and the priests who hurried to their queen's assistance raised a lifeless corpse.

True to her lord, if ever yet was wife, she had followed him to the Shades; yet alas! in death they were not reunited. The gods are just, and Laodamia had not yet learnt the lesson of Protesilaus, that there is a higher and nobler thing even than human love—self-sacrifice and duty. Therefore she is doomed for a set time to wander in the Mourning Fields apart from happy ghosts, till her spirit raised and solemnized by suffering is worthy to meet her lord who walks with the heroes of old in the dwellings of the blest.