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 Ulysses.

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 brother."

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."