THE WOODEN HORSE

BY F. STORR

Thrice three years had passed, and it seemed to the Greek leaders that they were no nearer the capture of Troy than when they had first landed in the Troad, a gallant company, fired with hope and the promise of an easy victory. Since then the tide of battle had ebbed and flowed with alternate fortunes. Many a Trojan chieftain had fallen, but no breach had been made in the walls, and they seemed to have gained no painful inch. There was mutiny in the Grecian host, and they clamored to be led home again.

But the crafty Ulysses summoned the mutineers to an assembly, and addressed them in honeyed words: "My friends," he said, "we have all endured hardships, I no less than you. Have patience yet a while. Have we labored for nothing these nine weary years? Will ye leave your quarry when it is at the last gasp? Know ye not the prophecy of Calchas, that in the tenth year, and not before, Troy was destined to fall? Trust to me, for to me the gods have revealed a cunning stratagem whereby of a surety ye shall take and sack the city." Thus Ulysses persuaded them to stay on, for not only was he the most persuasive of orators, but none had ever known his wisdom at fault.

Nor had they long to wait for the fulfilment of his promise. The very next day came an order that all should strike their tents and embark forthwith. Before night-fall the whole host had gathered on the shore; the beached ships had been hauled down, and away they sailed. Westward they sailed, but not to Greece. No sooner were they to the leeward of a small rocky island in the offing then they tacked, and came to anchor in a sandy cove well hidden from the mainland by jutting cliffs.

Great was the rejoicing in Troy town at their departure. The gates were flung wide open, and the townsfolk, so long pent up within the walls, streamed out as for a holiday, to visit the battlefield and view the spots where so many famous forays and single combats had taken place. But of all the sights that attracted the crowd, the most popular was a strange object that no one had observed before. It was a Wooden Horse on rollers, in build and shape not unlike one of those toys that children love to drag about by a string; but this horse was huge as a mountain, and ribbed with solid beams of fir. Long and eagerly they debated for what purpose it had been built, and why the Greeks had left it behind them. Some were for burning it as an uncanny thing that could bode them no good. Others cried: "'Tis a votive offering to Minerva; let us drag it within the walls and set it up in the citadel as a memorial of our deliverance."

While this dispute was hotly raging, Laoco÷n, in his priestly robes, rushed into the throng. "Fools," he cried, "will ye let yourselves be cheated? Are ye so slow of heart as not to detect Greek subtlety or the guile of Ulysses? The Greeks, I tell you, have not gone, and either this Horse is an engine of war to overtop our battlements, or Greek warriors are hidden in its womb." And as he spoke he hurled a mighty spear against the Horse, and the cavernous depths reverberated with the shock, and from within there came a rattle as of clashing arms. But the multitude heeded not the warning, for fate had sealed their ears.

While this was going on outside the walls, there was scarcely less excitement in the city. Certain shepherds had surprised a young Greek, and were dragging their captive before King Priam, with a hooting and jeering crowd at their heels. "Woe is me!" cried the youth as he came into the king's presence; "have I escaped from the Greeks, my bitter foes who sought my life, only to fall among Trojans from whom I can expect no mercy?" But the king bade him fear nothing, and tell his tale.

It was an artful tale concocted for him by Ulysses, how to the Greeks, desirous of sailing home and detained by contrary winds, an oracle had come—

"To speed you here a virgin maid was slain,
Blood must be spilt to speed you home again"—

how he had been pointed out by Calchas as the destined victim, and had escaped even as he was being led in bonds to the altar.

His tattered dress and bleeding wrists bore out this plausible tale. The king ordered his captors to free him from his manacles, and assuring the prisoner that he need fear nothing, begged him to tell them what was the design of the Greeks in building and leaving behind them the Wooden Horse.

Sinon (for that was the name that the pretended deserter took) first invoked on his head the direst curses if he failed to reveal to his deliverers the whole truth, and then repeated the lesson in which his cunning master Ulysses had drilled him. "You must know," he said, "that all the hopes of Greece lay in the favor and protection of their patron goddess, Minerva. But the wrath of the goddess was kindled against the host, for the son of Tydeus, at the prompting of Ulysses—that godless knave who sticks at no crime—had invaded her shrine, slain her custodians, and snatched therefrom the Palladium, the sacred image of the goddess, deeming it a charm that would bring them certain victory. And the goddess showed by visible signs her displeasure. In each encounter our forces were routed; around the carven image now set up in the camp lightnings played, and thrice amid the lightning and thunder the goddess herself was seen with spear at rest and flashing targe. And Calchas, of whom we sought counsel in our terror, bade us sail back to Argos, and when in her great temple we had shriven us, with happier auspices renew the fray; but first in her honor we must erect a Wooden Horse, so huge that it could not pass your gates or be brought within your walls. Moreover, Calchas told us that if any man were rash enough to lay sacrilegious hands on the votive Horse, he would straightway be smitten by the vengeful goddess!"

And lo! even as he spoke a strange portent was seen to confirm his words. Laoco÷n, the high priest of Neptune—he who had hurled his spear at the Wooden Horse—was sacrificing to the sea god a mighty bull at the altar, when far away in the offing two leviathans of the deep were seen approaching from Tenedos. They looked like battleships as they plowed the waves, but as they drew nearer you could mark the blood-beclotted mane and ravenous jaws of the sea-serpent, while behind lay floating many a rood coil upon coil like some huge boa-constrictor's.

The crowd fled in terror, but the sea-serpents passed through the midst and made straight for the altar of Neptune. First they coiled themselves round the two sons of Laoco÷n, who were ministering to their father as he sacrificed, and squeezed the life out of the miserable boys. Then, as Laoco÷n rushed to release his sons and sought to pierce the scaly monsters with his sacrificial knife, they wound their folds twice about his middle and twice about his neck, and high above his head they towered with blood-shot eyes and triple-forked tongues. And Laoco÷n, like the bull he had immolated at the altar, bellowed aloud in his dying agony. But the sea-serpents slowly unwound themselves and glided out of sight beneath the pediment of Diana's statue.

This seemed to all a sign from heaven to confirm what Sinon had told them. No more doubt was possible, and a universal clamor arose: "To the Horse! to the Horse!" Out rushed the crowd; ropes were fastened to its neck and legs, and soon half the city was tugging at them might and main, while the sappers made a breach in the walls to let it in, and by help of levers and pulleys it mounted the steep escarpment, and as it passed down the street a joyous troop of boys and girls followed, struggling to take hold of the taut ropes and chanting snatches of pŠans and songs of victory.

Thus did the gods send on the Trojans a strong delusion that they should believe a lying tale; and what ten long campaigns and a thousand brass-beaked ships, what all the might of Agamemnon, king of men, and the prowess of Achilles, goddess-born, had failed to accomplish, was brought to pass by the guile and craft of one man.