THE DEATH OF AJAX
BY F. STORR
Of all the Greek knights who fought against Troy
the boldest and most chivalrous was Ajax, son of
Telamon. But his fiery temper oft proved his bane, and
in the end it led him to ruin and death.
When Achilles died he left his arms to be awarded by
the captains of the host to him whom they should pronounce
the bravest of the Greeks, and the prize fell to
Ajax took this award in high dudgeon, and, knowing
himself the better man, affirmed that this judgment could
have been procured only by fraud and corruption, and
swore that he would be avenged of his crafty rival. He
challenged his enemy to single combat, but Ulysses was
too wary to risk his life against such a swordsman, and
the chiefs who heard of the quarrel interfered, saying that
Greek must not take the blood of Greek. Thus balked,
Ajax raged more furiously, and swore that if Ulysses
would not fight he would slay him in his tent.
So Ulysses went about in fear of his life, and he appealed
to his patron goddess to defend him. Minerva heard
his prayer, and promised her favorite warrior that he
should suffer no harm. She kept her word by sending
on Ajax a strong delusion, whereby in his frenzy he mistook
beasts for men.
The Greeks found the herds and flocks that had been
taken in raids, and were kept in pound as a common stock
to feed the army, hacked and hewn in the night, as
though a mountain lion had been ravaging them; and
they suspected Ajax, whose strange behavior none could
fail to notice, as the offender, but they had no certain
proof, and Ulysses, the man of many wiles, was by common
consent deputed to search into the matter.
So the next night he stole forth from the camp alone,
and in the early light of dawn he espied a solitary figure
hurrying over the plain, and he followed the trail like
a bloodhound till it led him to the tent of Ajax.
He paused uncertain, for he dared not venture farther,
and was about to return and report to the commanders
what he had seen, when he heard a voice saying, "Ulysses,
what dost thou here?" and he knew it could be none other
than the voice of his own goddess Minerva.
He told her the case and craved her aid in his perplexity,
and the goddess gently upbraided him. "Thou
wert no coward soul, Ulysses, when I chose thee as my
favored knight, and now dost thou fear a single unarmed
man, and one by me bereft of his wits?" And
Ulysses answered, "Goddess, I am no coward, but the
bravest may quail before a raving madman." But Minerva
replied, "Be of good heart, and trust as ever to
me. Lo, I will show thee a sight whereon thou mayst
glut thine eyes." Thereupon she opened the flap of the
tent, and within stood Ajax, wild and haggard, his hands
dripping with gore, and all around him were sheep and
oxen, some beheaded, some ripped up, and some horribly
mutilated—a very shambles. At the moment Ajax was
belaboring a huge ram that he had strapped up to a
pillar of the tent, and, as each blow of the double thong
descended he shouted, "Take that, Ulysses; that's for
thy knavery, that for thy villainy, that for thy lies, thou
white-livered rogue." Ulysses could not but smile as he
saw himself scourged and cursed in effigy, but he was
touched by a thought of human infirmity and the ruin of
a noble soul, and he prayed the goddess to avert from
him such a calamity.
In the women's tent hard by sat Tecmessa, the captive
wife of Ajax, weeping and wringing her hands. His
tender love had made her forget her desolate home and
slaughtered brethren, and she had borne him a son, the
pride and joy of both parents. But ever since he had
lost the prize for bravery she had noted a growing
estrangement. He avoided her, meeting her advances
with cold looks, and the night before, when she asked him
why he was girding on his armor at that hour, he had
answered her, "Silence, woman; women should be seen,
not heard." And then he had gone forth and returned
with these beeves and sheep that he was now hacking to
pieces like a madman. Their boy she had sent away with
his nurse to be out of harm's way, and she sat cowering
in her tent.
As she sat, half dazed with grief and watching, she
heard her name called. Trembling she arose and met her
lord at the tent door. Again he called her, but now his
voice was tender and low, and he gazed at her with a look
of mingled pity and love. And her heart rejoiced, for she
saw that his madness had passed, that her old Ajax
was restored to her. "Tecmessa," he asked, "where is
our boy?" And Tecmessa hastened and brought back
their child Eurysaces. Ajax took him from his nurse's
arms, and he kissed the innocent brow and spoke: "My
boy, may thy lot in life be happier than thy father's; but
in all else be like unto me, and thou shalt prove no base
man." Then he passed with Tecmessa into her tent, and
flung himself down on the bed and lay there as a sick
man who has scarce recovered from a grievous illness.
She would fain have ministered to him, but he refused
all meat and drink, and lay for long hours holding her
hand. Ever and anon he would ask, "Where is Teucer?
Is not Teucer returned? I would fain speak with my
As the sun was setting he rose from his bed and took
his sword, telling his wife that he must leave her for a
while, but would soon return. She, fearing another fit
of madness, sought with tears to detain him, but he
gently put her aside and told her what his errand was.
He must needs go to the sea-baths, and with pure ablution
wash away his stains and make him clean. And he
gently unwound her clinging arms, closed her lips with a
kiss, and went on his way.
When he reached the river, he drew his sword from
the scabbard and planted it firm in earth. "Fatal blade,"
he cried, "once the sword of Hector, then a foeman's
gift to his arch-enemy, a bane to each who owned thee;
but to me, thy last master, a friend at need. I have had
my day, and for me there is living none. My sword, go
with me to the shades." Therewith he hurled himself
upon the naked steel and gave up the ghost.
Fishermen dragging their nets at dawn found the body,
and brought it back to camp. Teucer, warned by the seer
Calchas that unless his brother could be kept within doors
for that day some dread calamity awaited him, had hurried
to warn and save him from his doom; but as he
reached the tent he was met by the bearers bringing home
his brother's corpse.
There was mourning in the Grecian camp. A great
man had fallen that day; for his brief madness the gods
alone were to blame; and his long years of service, his
gallant deeds, his fearless courage, his noble generosity,
were alone remembered. So they decreed for him a
public funeral with all the pomp and ceremony that befitted
a great chieftain.
Already they had begun to raise a huge funeral pile
and to deck the sacrificial altar, when Menelaus, who
shared with Agamemnon the chief command, rode up in
hot haste to forbid the public burial. "No man," he
declared, "who had defied his authority and done such
injury to the common cause should be honored." But
Ulysses with a soft answer turned away his wrath:
"True, he hath sinned against thee, O king, and in life
he hated me, but death is the great atoner. Honor the
fearless knight. Let his ashes rest in peace."