Menelaus had returned from Ilios, bringing with him the bones of his countrymen who had died in that distant land. The great plague had been stayed, for the anger of Apollo had been assuaged. And it had seemed for a time that the old days of peace and plenty had come again to Lacedæmon, never to depart.
Yet within a few weeks all was changed once more. There was silence in the golden halls of Menelaus, and guests sat no longer as of yore around the banquet tables. Anger and grief and uneasiness were plainly seen in every face. Men gathered in the streets, and talked in wild, excited tones about the strange things which had lately happened in Lacedæmon; and the words "Helen," and "Paris," and "Troy," and "Ilios" seemed to be on every tongue, and repeated with every sign of love and hatred, of admiration and anxiety.
"Our good king, by his visit to Ilios, lifted the scourge of pestilence and famine from our land," said one of the elders of the city; "but he brought to our shores a greater evil,--even Paris, the handsome prince of Troy. And now the glory of our country, the sun which delighted all hearts, the peerless Helen, has been stolen by the perfidious one, and carried to his home beyond the sea."
"And do you think there will be war?" asked a long-haired soldier, toying with the short dagger in his belt.
"How can it be otherwise?" answered the elder. "When Menelaus won peerless Helen for his wife, the noblest princes of Hellas promised with solemn oaths that they would aid him against any one who should try either by guile or by force to take her from him. Let the word be carried from city to city, and all Hellas will soon be in arms. The king, with his brother Agamemnon, has even now crossed over to Pylos to take counsel with old Nestor, the wisest of men. When he comes back to Lacedæmon, you may expect to see the watch-fires blazing on the mountain-tops."
"No sight would be more welcome," answered the soldier.
"None, indeed, save only the towers and palaces of Troy in flames!" returned the other earnestly.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, with troubled brow and anxious heart, Menelaus sat in Nestor's halls, and told the story of his wrongs. Before him, seated on a fair embroidered couch, was the aged king, listening with eager ears. Behind him stood his brother Agamemnon, tall and strong, and with eye and forehead like mighty Zeus. Close by his feet two heroes sat: on this side, Antilochus, the valiant son of Nestor; and on that, sage Palamedes, prince of Eubœa's distant shores. The last had just arrived at Pylos, and had not learned the errand which had brought the king of Lacedæmon thither.
"Tell again the story of your visit to Troy," said Nestor. "Our guest, good Palamedes, would fain understand it all; and I doubt not that he may be of service to your cause."
Then Menelaus began once more at the beginning,--
"There is no need that I should speak of the long voyage to Ilios, or of the causes which persuaded me to undertake it. When I drew near the lofty citadels of Troy, and through the Scæan gates could see the rows of stately dwellings and Athené's marble temple, and the busy market-place of that great city, I stopped there in wonder, fearing to venture farther. Then I sent a herald to the gates, who should make known my name and lineage, and the errand upon which I had come; but I waited without in the shade of a spreading beech, not far from the towering wall. Before me stood the mighty city; behind me the fertile plain sloped gently to the sea; in the distance I could see the tomb of Ilus and the sparkling waters of Scamander; while much farther, and on the other side, the wooded peak of Ida lifted itself toward the clouds. But I had not long to view this scene; for a noble company of men led by Paris himself, handsome as Apollo, came out of the gates to welcome me. With words of kind greeting from the king, they bade me enter within the walls. They led me through the Scæan gates and along the well-paved streets, until we came, at last, to Priam's noble hall. It was a splendid house, with broad doorways and polished porticos, and marble columns richly carved. Within were fifty chambers, joining one another, all walled with polished stone; in these abode the fifty sons of Priam with their wedded wives. On the other side, and opening into the court, were twelve chambers, built for his daughters; while over all were the sleeping-rooms for that noble household, and around were galleries and stairways leading to the king's great hall below.
"King Priam received me kindly, and, when he understood my errand, left naught undone to help me forward with my wishes. Ten days I abode as a guest in his halls, and when I would return to Lacedæmon he pressed me to tarry yet a month in Troy. But the winds were fair, and the oracles promised a pleasant voyage, and I begged that on the twelfth day he would let me depart. So he and his sons brought many gifts, rich and beautiful, and laid them at my feet,--a fair mantle, and a doublet, and a talent of fine gold, and a sword with a silver-studded hilt, and a drinking-cup richly engraved that I might remember them when I pour libations to the gods.
"'Take these gifts,' said Priam, 'as tokens of our friendship for you, and not only for you, but for all who dwell in distant Hellas. For we too are the children of the immortals. Our mighty ancestor, Dardanus, was the son of Zeus. He it was who built Dardania on the slopes of Ida, where the waters gush in many silvery streams from underneath the rocky earth. To Dardanus a son was born named Erichthonius, who, in his time, was the richest of mortal men. And Erichthonius was the father of Tros, to whom were born three noble sons, Ilus, Assaracus, and Ganymedes. The last was the handsomest of men, and for his beauty's sake the gods carried him to Ida's sacred summit to be the cup-bearer of Father Zeus and the companion of the immortals. Then Ilus had a son, famous in song and story, named Laomedon, who in his old age became my father. He, though my sire, did many unwise things, and brought sore distress upon the people of this land.
"'One day Apollo and Poseidon came to sacred Troy, disguised as humble wayfarers seeking some employment. This they did because so ordered by mighty Zeus.
"'"What can you do?" asked my father, when the two had told their wishes.
"'Poseidon answered, "I am a builder of walls."
"'And Apollo answered, "I am a shepherd, and a tender of herds."
"'"It is well," answered Laomedon. "The wall-builder shall build a wall around this Troy so high and strong that no enemy can pass it. The shepherd shall tend my herds of crook-horned kine in the wooded glens of Ida. If at the end of a twelvemonth, the wall be built, and if the cattle thrive without loss of one, then I will pay you your hire: a talent of gold, two tripods of silver, rich robes, and armor such as heroes wear."
"'So the shining archer, and the shaker of the earth, served my father through the year for the hire which he had promised. Poseidon built a wall, high and fair, around the city; and Apollo tended the shambling kine, and lost not one. But when they claimed their hire, Laomedon drove them away with threats, telling them that he would bind their feet and hands together, and sell them as slaves into some distant land, having first sheared off their ears with his sharp sword. And the twain went away with angry hearts, planning in their minds how they might avenge themselves.
"'Back to his watery kingdom, and his golden palace beneath the sea, went great Poseidon. He harnessed his steeds to his chariot, and rode forth upon the waves. He loosed the mighty winds from their prison-house, and sent them raging over the sea. The angry waters rushed in upon the land; they covered the pastures and the rich plain of Troy, and threatened even to beat down the mighty walls which their king had built. Then, little by little, the flood shrank back again; and the people went out of the city to see the waste of slime and black mud which covered their meadows. While they were gazing upon the scene, a fearful monster, sent by angry Poseidon, came up out of the sea, and fell upon them, and drove them with hideous slaughter back to the city gates; neither would he allow any one to come outside of the walls.
"'Then my father, in his great distress, clad himself in mourning, and went in deep humility to the temple of Athené, where stands the heaven-sent statue which we call Palladion. In sore distress, he called unto the goddess, and besought to know the means whereby the anger of Poseidon might be assuaged. And in solemn tones a voice came from the moveless lips of the Palladion, saying,--
"'"Every day one of the maidens of Troy must be fed to the monster outside of the walls. The shaker of the earth has spoken. Disobey him not, lest more cruel punishments befall thee."
"'Then in every house of Troy there was sore distress and lamentation, for no one knew upon whom the doom would soonest fall. And every day a hapless maiden, young and fair, was chained to the great rock by the shore, and left there to be the food of the pitiless monster. And the people cried aloud in their distress, and cursed the mighty walls and the high towers which had been reared by the unpaid labors of Poseidon; and my father sat upon his high seat, and trembled because of the dire calamities which his own deeds had brought upon his people.
"'At last, after many humbler victims had perished, the lot fell upon the fairest of my sisters, Hesione, my father's best-loved daughter. In sorrow we arrayed her in garments befitting one doomed to an untimely death; and when we had bidden her a last farewell, we gave her to the heralds to lead forth to the place of sacrifice. Just then, however, a noble stranger, taller and more stately than any man in Troy, came down the street from the Scæan gate. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, handsome and strong, he seemed a very god to all who looked upon him. Over his shoulder he wore the tawny skin of a mighty lion, while in his hand he carried a club most wonderful to behold. And the people, as he passed, prayed him that he would free our city from the dread monster who was robbing us of our fair loved ones.
"'"I know that thou art a god!" cried my father, when he saw the stranger. "I pray thee, save my daughter, who even now is being led forth to a cruel death!"
"'"You make mistake," answered the fair stranger. "I am not one of the gods. My name is Heracles, and like you I am mortal. Yet I may help you in this your time of need."
"'Now, in my father's stables there were twelve fair steeds, the best that the earth ever knew. So light of foot were they, that when they bounded over the land, they might run upon the topmost ears of ripened corn, and break them not; and when they bounded over the sea, not even Poseidon's steeds could glide so lightly upon the crests of the waves. Some say they were the steeds of Boreas given to my grandfather Tros, by his sire Erichthonius; others, that they were the price which Zeus paid for godlike Ganymedes, most beautiful of men. These steeds, my father promised to give to Heracles if he would save Hesione.
"'Then the heralds led my fair sister to the shore, and chained her to the rock, there to wait for the coming of the monster. But Heracles stood near her, fearless in his strength. Soon the waves began to rise; the waters were disturbed, and the great beast, with hoarse bellowings, lifted his head above the breakers, and rushed forward to seize his fair prey. Then the hero sprang to meet him. With blow upon blow from his mighty club, he felled the monster; the waters of the sea were reddened with blood; Hesione was saved, and Troy was freed from the dreadful curse.
"'"Behold thy daughter!" said Heracles, leading her gently back to the Scæan gate, and giving her to her father. "I have saved her from the jaws of death, and delivered your country from the dread scourge. Give me now my hire.'
"'Shame fills my heart as I tell this story, for thanklessness was the bane of my father's life. Ungrateful to the hero who had risked so much and done so much that our homes and our country might be saved from ruin, he turned coldly away from Heracles; then he shut the great gates in his face, and barred him out of the city, and taunted him from the walls, saying, "I owe thee no hire! Begone from our coasts, ere I scourge thee hence!"
"'Full of wrath, the hero turned away. "I go, but I will come again," he said.
"'Then peace and plenty blessed once more the land of Ilios, and men forgot the perils from which they had been delivered. But ere long, great Heracles returned, as he had promised; and with him came a mighty fleet of white-sailed ships and many warriors. Neither gates nor strong walls could stand against him. Into the city he marched, and straight to my father's palace. All fled before him, and the strongest warriors quailed beneath his glance. Here, in this very court, he slew my father and my brothers with his terrible arrows. I myself would have fallen before his wrath, had not my sister, fair Hesione, pleaded for my life.
"'"I spare his life," said Heracles, in answer to her prayers, "for he is but a lad. Yet he must be my slave until you have paid a price for him, and thus redeemed him."
"'Then Hesione took the golden veil from her head, and gave it to the hero as my purchase price. And thenceforward I was called Priam, or the purchased; for the name which my mother gave me was Podarkes, or the fleet-footed.
"After this, Heracles and his heroes went on board their ships and sailed back across the sea, leaving me alone in my father's halls. For they took fair Hesione with them, and carried her to Salamis, to be the wife of Telamon, the sire of mighty Ajax. There, through these long years she has lived in sorrow, far removed from home and friends and the scenes of her happy childhood. And now that the hero Telamon, to whom she was wedded, lives no longer, I ween that her life is indeed a cheerless one.'
"When Priam had finished his tale, he drew his seat still nearer mine, and looked into my face with anxious, beseeching eyes. Then he said, 'I have long wished to send a ship across the sea to bring my sister back to Troy. A dark-prowed vessel, built for speed and safety, lies now at anchor in the harbor, and a picked crew is ready to embark at any moment. And here is my son Paris, handsome and brave, who is anxious to make voyage to Salamis, to seek unhappy Hesione. Yet our seamen, having never ventured far from home, know nothing of the dangers of the deep, nor do they feel sure that they can find their way to Hellas. And so we have a favor to ask of you; and that is, that when your ship sails to-morrow, ours may follow in its wake across the sea.'
"I was glad when Priam spoke these words, for, in truth, I was loath to part with Paris; and I arranged at once that he should bear me company in my own swift ship, while his vessel with its crew followed not far behind.
"And so with favoring winds being blessed, we made a quick voyage back to Lacedæmon, bringing with us the bones of my beloved countrymen. What followed is too sad for lengthy mention, and is in part already known to you. Need I tell you how I opened my halls to Paris, and left no act of courtesy undone that I might make him happy? Need I tell you how he was welcomed by fair Helen, and how the summer days fled by on golden wings; and how in the delights of Lacedæmon he forgot his errand to Salamis, and cared only to remain with me, my honored guest and trusted friend? One day a message came to me from my old friend Idomeneus. He had planned a hunt among the mountains and wooded vales of Crete, and he invited me to join him in the sport. I had not seen Idomeneus since the time that we together, in friendly contention, sought the hand of Helen. I could not do otherwise than accept his invitation, for he had sent his own ship to carry me over to Crete. So I bade farewell to Helen, saying, 'Let not our noble guest lack entertainment while I am gone; and may the golden hours glide happily until I come again.' And to Paris I said, 'Tarry another moon in Lacedæmon; and when I return from Crete, I will go with you to Salamis, and aid you in your search for Hesione.' Then I went on board the waiting ship, and prospering breezes carried us without delays to Crete.
"Idomeneus received me joyfully, and entertained me most royally in his palace; and for nine days we feasted in his halls, and made all things ready for the hunt. But, lo! on the evening of the last day, a vision came to me. Gold-winged Iris, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, stood before me. 'Hasten back to Lacedæmon,' she cried, 'for thou art robbed of thy dearest treasure!' And even while she spoke, one of my own ships came sailing into the harbor, bringing trusted heralds whom the elders of Lacedæmon had sent to me. They told me the fatal news. 'No sooner were you well on your way,' they said, 'than Paris began to put his ship in readiness to depart. Helen prayed him to tarry until your return, but he would not hearken. "I will stay no longer," he said. "My seamen rest upon their oars; the sails of my ship are spread; the breeze will soon spring up that will carry me to my own fair home across the sea. But you, beauteous Helen, shall go with me; for the deathless gods have spoken it. Aphrodite, long ago, promised that the most beautiful woman in the world should be my wife. And who is that most beautiful woman if it is not yourself? Come! fly over the sea, and be my queen. It is the will of the gods."'
"It was thus that the perfidious Trojan wrought the ruin of all that was dear to me. At first, Helen refused. But Paris is a handsome prince, and day after day he renewed his suit. Then on the sixth day she yielded. In the darkness of the night they went on board his waiting vessel, carrying with them the gold and jewels of my treasure-house; and in the morning, when the sun arose on Lacedæmon, they were far out at sea.
"You know the rest: how in wrath and great sorrow I hurried home from Crete; how I first counselled with my own elders, and then with my brother Agamemnon of Mycenæ. And now, O noble Nestor, we have come to Pylos, seeking thy advice. On these two things my mind is set: Helen must be mine again, and Paris must suffer the punishment due to traitors."
When Menelaus had ended, sage Nestor answered with many words of counsel. "Keep the thought of vengeance ever before you," he said. "Yet act not rashly. The power of Troy is very great; and, in case of war, all the tribes of Asia will make common cause with Ilios. But an insult to Lacedæmon is an insult to all Hellas, and every loyal Hellene will hasten to avenge it. More than this, the chiefs of almost every state have already sworn to aid you. We have but to call upon them, and remind them of their oaths, and all the mightiest warriors of our land will take up arms against the power of Troy."
Then Palamedes spoke in like manner, and his words had great weight with Menelaus; for among all the heroes there were few who equalled him in wisdom. He it was who first built beacon fires on the headlands, and lighthouses to warn venturous seamen of the hidden dangers in their way; he it was who first invented scales for weighing, and who taught men how to measure grain and wine by certain standards; he it was who first made dice, and who showed what beauty and mystery lie hidden in the letters which Cadmus brought from Phoenicia to Hellas. And he was wise in statecraft and the knowledge of human nature.
"Nestor has spoken well," he said, addressing Menelaus, "and it behooves us to follow his advice. Now do you and Agamemnon return at once to Argos and Lacedæmon, and call upon the fighting men along the eastern coast to join you in the war. In the mean while, Nestor and myself will do the same, here on the western coast and among the islands of the sea."
"By the way," said Nestor, "there is Odysseus, king of Ithaca,--the rarest and bravest of men. Did he but know of this affair, he would be a host within himself, to lead us to sure victory."
"That is true," said Palamedes, "and we must seek his aid first. My ship lies now at anchor, just off the beach; and if noble Nestor will be my comrade, we will sail to-morrow to Ithaca, and make sure of his valued aid."
"Most surely I will go with you," said old Nestor. "And I will never rest nor give up the fight, until Helen is returned to Menelaus, and Paris has received his due reward."