Helen of Troy

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Chapter 2

Of the coming of Paris to the house of Menelaus, King of Lacedaemon, and of the tale Paris told concerning his past life.



All day within the palace of the King    In Lacedaemon, was there revelry, Since Menelaus with the dawn did spring    Forth from his carven couch, and, climbing high    The tower of outlook, gazed along the dry White road that runs to Pylos through the plain,    And mark’d thin clouds of dust against the sky, And gleaming bronze, and robes of purple stain.



Then cried he to his serving men, and all    Obey’d him, and their labour did not spare, And women set out tables through the hall,    Light polish’d tables, with the linen fair.    And water from the well did others bear, And the good house-wife busily brought forth    Meats from her store, and stinted not the rare Wine from Ismarian vineyards of the North.



The men drave up a heifer from the field    For sacrifice, and sheath’d her horns with gold; And strong Boethous the axe did wield    And smote her; on the fruitful earth she roll’d,    And they her limbs divided; fold on fold They laid the fat, and cast upon the fire    The barley grain.  Such rites were wrought of old When all was order’d as the Gods desire.



And now the chariots came beneath the trees    Hard by the palace portals, in the shade, And Menelaus knew King Diocles    Of Pherae, sprung of an unhappy maid    Whom the great Elian River God betray’d In the still watches of a summer night,    When by his deep green water-course she stray’d And lean’d to pluck his water-lilies white.



Besides King Diocles there sat a man    Of all men mortal sure the fairest far, For o’er his purple robe Sidonian    His yellow hair shone brighter than the star    Of the long golden locks that bodeth war; His face was like the sunshine, and his blue    Glad eyes no sorrow had the spell to mar Were clear as skies the storm hath thunder’d through.



Then Menelaus spake unto his folk,    And eager at his word they ran amain, And loosed the sweating horses from the yoke,    And cast before them spelt, and barley grain.    And lean’d the polish’d car, with golden rein, Against the shining spaces of the wall;    And called the sea-rovers who follow’d fain Within the pillar’d fore-courts of the hall.



The stranger-prince was follow’d by a band    Of men, all clad like rovers of the sea, And brown’d were they as is the desert sand,    Loud in their mirth, and of their bearing free;    And gifts they bore, from the deep treasury And forests of some far-off Eastern lord,    Vases of gold, and bronze, and ivory, That might the Pythian fane have over-stored.



Now when the King had greeted Diocles    And him that seem’d his guest, the twain were led To the dim polish’d baths, where, for their ease,    Cool water o’er their lustrous limbs was shed;    With oil anointed was each goodly head By Asteris and Phylo fair of face;    Next, like two gods for loveliness, they sped To Menelaus in the banquet-place.



There were they seated at the King’s right hand,    And maidens bare them bread, and meat, and wine, Within that fair hall of the Argive land    Whose doors and roof with gold and silver shine    As doth the dwelling-place of Zeus divine. And Helen came from forth her fragrant bower    The fairest lady of immortal line, Like morning, when the rosy dawn doth flower.



Adraste set for her a shining chair,    Well-wrought of cedar-wood and ivory; And beautiful Alcippe led the fair,    The well-beloved child, Hermione,—    A little maiden of long summers three— Her star-like head on Helen’s breast she laid,    And peep’d out at the strangers wistfully As is the wont of children half afraid.



Now when desire of meat and drink was done,    And ended was the joy of minstrelsy, Queen Helen spake, beholding how the sun    Within the heaven of bronze was riding high:    “Truly, my friends, methinks the hour is nigh When men may crave to know what need doth bring    To Lacedaemon, o’er wet ways and dry, This prince that bears the sceptre of a king?



“Yea, or perchance a God is he, for still    The great Gods wander on our mortal ways, And watch their altars upon mead or hill    And taste our sacrifice, and hear our lays,    And now, perchance, will heed if any prays, And now will vex us with unkind control,    But anywise must man live out his days, For Fate hath given him an enduring soul.



“Then tell us, prithee, all that may be told,    And if thou art a mortal, joy be thine! And if thou art a God, then rich with gold    Thine altar in our palace court shall shine,    With roses garlanded and wet with wine, And we shall praise thee with unceasing breath;    Ah, then be gentle as thou art divine, And bring not on us baneful Love or Death!”



Then spake the stranger,—as when to a maid    A young man speaks, his voice was soft and low,— “Alas, no God am I; be not afraid,    For even now the nodding daisies grow    Whose seed above my grassy cairn shall blow, When I am nothing but a drift of white    Dust in a cruse of gold; and nothing know But darkness, and immeasurable Night.



“The dawn, or noon, or twilight, draweth near    When one shall smite me on the bridge of war, Or with the ruthless sword, or with the spear,    Or with the bitter arrow flying far.    But as a man’s heart, so his good days are, That Zeus, the Lord of Thunder, giveth him,    Wherefore I follow Fortune, like a star, Whate’er may wait me in the distance dim.



“Now all men call me Paris, Priam’s son,    Who widely rules a peaceful folk and still. Nay, though ye dwell afar off, there is none    But hears of Ilios on the windy hill,    And of the plain that the two rivers fill With murmuring sweet streams the whole year long,    And walls the Gods have wrought with wondrous skill Where cometh never man to do us wrong.



“Wherefore I sail’d not here for help in war,    Though well the Argives in such need can aid. The force that comes on me is other far;    One that on all men comes: I seek the maid    Whom golden Aphrodite shall persuade To lay her hand in mine, and follow me,    To my white halls within the cedar shade Beyond the waters of the barren sea.”



Then at the Goddess’ name grew Helen pale,    Like golden stars that flicker in the dawn, Or like a child that hears a dreadful tale,    Or like the roses on a rich man’s lawn,    When now the suns of Summer are withdrawn, And the loose leaves with a sad wind are stirr’d,    Till the wet grass is strewn with petals wan,— So paled the golden Helen at his word.



But swift the rose into her cheek return’d    And for a little moment, like a flame, The perfect face of Argive Helen burn’d,    As doth a woman’s, when some spoken name    Brings back to mind some ancient love or shame, But none save Paris mark’d the thing, who said,    “My tale no more must weary this fair dame, With telling why I wander all unwed.”



But Helen, bending on him gracious brows,    Besought him for the story of his quest, “For sultry is the summer, that allows    To mortal men no sweeter boon than rest;    And surely such a tale as thine is best To make the dainty-footed hours go by,    Till sinks the sun in darkness and the West, And soft stars lead the Night along the sky.”



Then at the word of Helen Paris spoke,    “My tale is shorter than a summer day,— My mother, ere I saw the light, awoke,    At dawn, in Ilios, shrieking in dismay,    Who dream’d that ’twixt her feet there fell and lay A flaming brand, that utterly burn’d down    To dust of crumbling ashes red and grey, The coronal of towers and all Troy town.



“Then the interpretation of this dream    My father sought at many priestly hands, Where the white temple doth in Pytho gleam,    And at the fane of Ammon in the sands,    And where the oak tree of Dodona stands With boughs oracular against the sky,—    And with one voice the Gods from all the lands, Cried out, ‘The child must die, the child must die.’



“Then was I born to sorrow; and in fear    The dark priest took me from my sire, and bore A wailing child through beech and pinewood drear,    Up to the knees of Ida, and the hoar    Rocks whence a fountain breaketh evermore, And leaps with shining waters to the sea,    Through black and rock-wall’d pools without a shore,— And there they deem’d they took farewell of me.



“But round my neck they tied a golden ring    That fell from Ganymedes when he soar’d High over Ida on the eagle’s wing,    To dwell for ever with the Gods adored,    To be the cup-bearer beside the board Of Zeus, and kneel at the eternal throne,—    A jewel ’twas from old King Tros’s hoard, That ruled in Ilios ages long agone.



“And there they left me in that dell untrod,—    Shepherd nor huntsman ever wanders there, For dread of Pan, that is a jealous God,—    Yea, and the ladies of the streams forbear    The Naiad nymphs, to weave their dances fair, Or twine their yellow tresses with the shy    Fronds of forget-me-not and maiden-hair,— There had the priests appointed me to die.



“But vainly doth a man contend with Fate!    My father had less pity on his son Than wild things of the woodland desolate.    ’Tis said that ere the Autumn day was done    A great she-bear, that in these rocks did wonn, Beheld a sleeping babe she did convey    Down to a den beheld not of the sun, The cavern where her own soft litter lay.



“And therein was I nurtured wondrously,    So Rumour saith: I know not of these things, For mortal men are ever wont to lie,    Whene’er they speak of sceptre-bearing kings:    I tell what I was told, for memory brings No record of those days, that are as deep    Lost as the lullaby a mother sings In ears of children that are fallen on sleep.



“Men say that now five autumn days had pass’d,    When Agelaus, following a hurt deer, Trod soft on crackling acorns, and the mast    That lay beneath the oak and beech-wood sere,    In dread lest angry Pan were sleeping near, Then heard a cry from forth a cavern grey,    And peeping round the fallen rocks in fear, Beheld where in the wild beast’s tracks I lay.



“So Agelaus bore me from the wild,    Down to his hut; and with his children I Was nurtured, being, as was deem’d, the child    Of Hermes, or some mountain deity;    For these with the wild nymphs are wont to lie Within the holy caverns, where the bee    Can scarcely find a darkling path to fly Through veils of bracken and the ivy-tree.



“So with the shepherds on the hills I stray’d,    And drave the kine to feed where rivers run, And play’d upon the reed-pipe in the shade,    And scarcely knew my manhood was begun,    The pleasant years still passing one by one, Till I was chiefest of the mountain men,    And clomb the peaks that take the snow and sun, And braved the anger’d lion in his den.



“Now in my herd of kine was one more dear    By far than all the rest, and fairer far; A milkwhite bull, the captive of my spear,    And all the wondering shepherds called him Star:    And still he led his fellows to the war, When the lean wolves against the herds came down,    Then would he charge, and drive their hosts afar Beyond the pastures to the forests brown.



“Now so it chanced that on an autumn morn,    King Priam sought a goodly bull to slay In memory of his child, no sooner born    Than midst the lonely mountains cast away,    To die ere scarce he had beheld the day; And Priam’s men came wandering afar    To that green pool where by the flocks I lay, And straight they coveted the goodly Star,



“And drave him, no word spoken, to the town:    One man mine arrow lit on, and he fell; His comrades held me off, and down and down,    Through golden windings of the autumn dell,    They spurr’d along the beast that loved me well, Till red were his white sides; I following,    Wrath in my heart, their evil deeds to tell In Ilios, at the footstool of the King.



“But ere they came to the God-builded wall,    They spied a meadow by the water-side, And there the men of Troy were gathered all    For joust and play; and Priam’s sons defied    All other men in all Maeonia wide To strive with them in boxing and in speed.    Victorious with the shepherds had I vied, So boldly followed to that flowery mead.



“Maeonia, Phrygia, Troia there were met,    And there the King, child of Laomedon, Rich prizes for the vanquishers had set,    Damsels, and robes, and cups that like the sun    Shone, but the white bull was the chiefest one; And him the victor in the games should slay    To Zeus, the King of Gods, when all was done, And so with sacrifice should crown the day.



“Now it were over long, methinks, to tell    The contest of the heady charioteers, Of them the goal that turn’d, and them that fell.    But I outran the young men of my years,    And with the bow did I out-do my peers, And wrestling; and in boxing, over-bold,    I strove with Hector of the ashen spears, Yea, till the deep-voiced Heralds bade us hold.



“Then Priam hail’d me winner of the day;    Mine were the maid, the cup, and chiefest prize, Mine own fair milkwhite bull was mine to slay;    But then the murmurs wax’d to angry cries,    And hard men set on me in deadly wise, My brethren, though they knew it not; I turn’d,    And fled unto the place of sacrifice, Where altars to the God of strangers burn’d.



“At mine own funeral feast, had I been slain,    But, fearing Zeus, they halted for a space, And lo, Apollo’s priestess with a train    Of holy maidens came into that place,    And far did she outshine the rest in grace, But in her eyes such dread was frozen then    As glares eternal from the Gorgon’s face Wherewith Athene quells the ranks of men.



“She was old Priam’s daughter, long ago    Apollo loved her, and did not deny His gifts,—the things that are to be to know,    The tongue of sooth-saying that cannot lie,    And knowledge gave he of all birds that fly ’Neath heaven; and yet his prayer did she disdain.    So he his gifts confounded utterly, And sooth she saith, but evermore in vain.



“She, when her dark eyes fell on me, did stand    At gaze a while, with wan lips murmuring, And then came nigh to me, and took my hand,    And led me to the footstool of the King,    And call’d me ‘brother,’ and drew forth the ring That men had found upon me in the wild,    For still I bore it as a precious thing, The token of a father to his child.



“This sign Cassandra show’d to Priam: straight    The King wax’d pale, and ask’d what this might be? And she made answer, ‘Sir, and King, thy fate    That comes to all men born hath come on thee;    This shepherd is thine own child verily: How like to thine his shape, his brow, his hands!    Nay there is none but hath the eyes to see That here the child long lost to Troia stands.’



“Then the King bare me to his lofty hall,    And there we feasted in much love and mirth, And Priam to the mountain sent for all    That knew me, and the manner of my birth:    And now among the great ones of the earth In royal robe and state behold me set,    And one fell thing I fear not; even dearth, Whate’er the Gods remember or forget.



“My new rich life had grown a common thing,    The pleasant years still passing one by one, When deep in Ida was I wandering    The glare of well-built Ilios to shun,    In summer, ere the day was wholly done, When I beheld a goodly prince,—the hair    To bloom upon his lip had scarce begun,— The season when the flower of youth is fair.



“Then knew I Hermes by his golden wand    Wherewith he lulls the eyes of men to sleep; But, nodding with his brows, he bade me stand,    And spake, ‘To-night thou hast a tryst to keep,    With Goddesses within the forest deep; And Paris, lovely things shalt thou behold,    More fair than they for which men war and weep, Kingdoms, and fame, and victories, and gold.



“‘For, lo! to-night within the forest dim    Do Aphrodite and Athene meet, And Hera, who to thee shall bare each limb,    Each grace from golden head to ivory feet,    And thee, fair shepherd Paris, they entreat As thou ’mongst men art beauteous, to declare    Which Queen of Queens immortal is most sweet, And doth deserve the meed of the most fair.



“‘For late between them rose a bitter strife    In Peleus’ halls upon his wedding day, When Peleus took him an immortal wife,    And there was bidden all the God’s array,    Save Discord only; yet she brought dismay, And cast an apple on the bridal board,    With “Let the fairest bear the prize away” Deep on its golden rind and gleaming scored.



“‘Now in the sudden night, whenas the sun    In Tethys’ silver arms hath slept an hour, Shalt thou be had into the forest dun,    And brought unto a dark enchanted bower,    And there of Goddesses behold the flower With very beauty burning in the night,    And these will offer Wisdom, Love, and Power; Then, Paris, be thou wise, and choose aright!’



“He spake, and pass’d, and Night without a breath,    Without a star drew on; and now I heard The voice that in the springtime wandereth,    The crying of Dame Hera’s shadowy bird;    And soon the silence of the trees was stirred By the wise fowl of Pallas; and anigh,    More sweet than is a girl’s first loving word, The doves of Aphrodite made reply.



“These voices did I follow through the trees,    Threading the coppice ’neath a starless sky, When, lo! the very Queen of Goddesses,    In golden beauty gleaming wondrously,    Even she that hath the Heaven for canopy, And in the arms of mighty Zeus doth sleep,—    And then for dread methought that I must die, But Hera called me with soft voice and deep:



“‘Paris, give me the prize, and thou shalt reign    O’er many lordly peoples, far and wide, From them that till the black and crumbling plain,    Where the sweet waters of Aegyptus glide,    To those that on the Northern marches ride, And the Ceteians, and the blameless men    That round the rising-place of Morn abide, And all the dwellers in the Asian fen.



“‘And I will love fair Ilios as I love    Argos and rich Mycenae, that doth hoard Deep wealth; and I will make thee king above    A hundred peoples; men shall call thee lord    In tongues thou know’st not; thou shalt be adored With sacrifice, as are the Gods divine,    If only thou wilt speak a little word, And say the prize of loveliness is mine.’



“Then, as I doubted, like a sudden flame    Of silver came Athene, and methought Beholding her, how stately, as she came,    That dim wood to a fragrant fane was wrought;    So pure the warlike maiden seem’d, that nought But her own voice commanding made me raise    Mine eyes to see her beauty, who besought In briefest words the guerdon of all praise.



“She spake: ‘Nor wealth nor crowns are in my gift;    But wisdom, but the eyes that glance afar, But courage, and the spirit that is swift    To cleave her path through all the waves of war;    Endurance that the Fates can never mar; These, and my loving friendship,—these are thine,    And these shall guide thee, steadfast as a star, If thou hast eyes to know the prize is mine.’



“Last, in a lovely mist of rosy fire,    Came Aphrodite through the forest glade, The queen of all delight and all desire,    More fair than when her naked foot she laid    On the blind mere’s wild wave that sank dismay’d, What time the sea grew smoother than a lake;    I was too happy to be sore afraid. And like a song her voice was when she spake:



“‘Oh Paris, what is power?  Tantalus    And Sisyphus were kings long time ago, But now they lie in the Lake Dolorous,    The hills of hell are noisy with their woe;    Ay, swift the tides of Empire ebb and flow, And that is quickly lost was hardly won,    As Ilios herself o’erwell did know When high walls help’d not King Laomedon.



“‘And what are strength and courage? for the child    Of mighty Zeus, the strong man Herakles, Knew many days and evil, ere men piled    The pyre in Oeta, where he got his ease    In death, where all the ills of brave men cease. Nay, Love I proffer thee; beyond the brine    Of all the currents of the Western seas, The fairest woman in the world is thine!’



“She spake, and touched the prize, and all grew dim    I heard no voice of anger’d Deity, But round me did the night air swoon and swim,    And, when I waken’d, lo! the sun was high,    And in that place accursed did I lie, Where Agelaus found the naked child;    Then with swift foot I did arise and fly Forth from the deeps of that enchanted wild.



“And down I sped to Ilios, down the dell    Where, years agone, the white bull guided me, And through green boughs beheld where foam’d and fell    The merry waters of the Western sea;    Of Love the sweet birds sang from sky and tree, And swift I reach’d the haven and the shore,    And call’d my mariners, and follow’d free Where Love might lead across the waters hoar.



“Three days with fair winds ran we, then we drave    Before the North that made the long waves swell Round Malea; but hardly from the wave    We ’scaped at Pylos, Nestor’s citadel;    And there the son of Neleus loved us well, And brought us to the high prince, Diocles,    Who led us hither, and it thus befell That here, below thy roof, we sit at ease.”



Then all men gave the stranger thanks and praise,    And Menelaus for red wine bade call; And the sun fell, and dark were all the ways;    Then maidens set forth braziers in the hall,    And heap’d them high with lighted brands withal; But Helen pass’d, as doth the fading day    Pass from the world, and softly left them all Loud o’er their wine amid the twilight grey.



So night drew on with rain, nor yet they ceased    Within the hall to drink the gleaming wine, And late they pour’d the last cup of the feast,    To Argus-bane, the Messenger divine;    And last, ’neath torches tall that smoke and shine, The maidens strew’d the beds with purple o’er,    That Diocles and Paris might recline All night, beneath the echoing corridor.

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