How Helen was made an outcast by the Trojan women, and how Œnone, the old love of Paris, sent her son Corythus to him as her messenger, and how Paris slew him unwittingly; and of the curses of Œnone, and the coming of the Argive host against Troy.
For long in Troia was there peace and mirth, The pleasant hours still passing one by one; And Helen joy’d at each fresh morning’s birth, And almost wept at setting of the sun, For sorrow that the happy day was done; Nor dream’d of years when she should hate the light, And mourn afresh for every day begun, Nor fare abroad save shamefully by night.
And Paris was not one to backward cast A fearful glance; nor pluck sour fruits of sin, Half ripe; but seized all pleasures while they last, Nor boded evil ere ill days begin. Nay, nor lamented much when caught therein, In each adventure always finding joy, And hopeful still through waves of war to win By strength of Hector, and the star of Troy.
Now as the storms drive white sea-birds afar Within green upland glens to seek for rest, So rumours pale of an approaching war Were blown across the islands from the west: For Agamemnon summon’d all the best From towns and tribes he ruled, and gave command That free men all should gather at his hest Through coasts and islets of the Argive land.
Sidonian merchant-men had seen the fleet Black war-galleys that sped from town to town; Had heard the hammers of the bronze-smiths beat The long day through, and when the sun went down; And thin, said they, would show the leafy crown On many a sacred mountain-peak in spring, For men had fell’d the pine-trees tall and brown To fashion them curved ships for seafaring.
And still the rumour grew; for heralds came, Old men from Argos, bearing holy boughs, Demanding great atonement for the shame And sore despite done Menelaus’ house; But homeward soon they turn’d their scarlet prows, And all their weary voyaging was vain; For Troy had bound herself with awful vows To cleave to Helen till the walls were ta’en.
And now, like swallows ere the winter weather, The women in shrill groups were gathering, With eager tongues still communing together, And many a taunt at Helen would they fling, Ay, through her innocence she felt the sting, And shamed was now her gentle face and sweet, For e’en the children evil songs would sing To mock her as she hasted down the street.
Also the men who worshipp’d her of old As she had been a goddess from above, Gazed at her now with lustful eyes and bold, As she were naught but Paris’ light-o’-love; And though in truth they still were proud enough, Of that fair gem in their old city set, Yet well she knew that wanton word and scoff Went round the camp-fire when the warriors met.
There came a certain holiday when Troy Was wont to send her noble matrons all, Young wives and old, with clamour and with joy, To clothe Athene in her temple hall, And robe her in a stately broider’d pall. But now they drove fair Helen from their train, “Better,” they scream’d, “to cast her from the wall, Than mock the Gods with offerings in vain.”
One joy she had, that Paris yet was true, Ay, fickle Paris, true unto the end; And in the court of Ilios were two Kind hearts, still eager Helen to defend, And help and comfort in all need to lend:— The gentle Hector with soft speech and mild, And the old king that ever was her friend, And loved her as a father doth his child.
These, though they knew not all, these blamed her not, But cast the heavy burden on the God, Whose wrath, they deem’d, had verily waxed hot Against the painful race on earth that trod, And in God’s hand was Helen but the rod To scourge a people that, in unknown wise, Had vex’d the far Olympian abode With secret sin or stinted sacrifice.
* * * * * *
The days grew into months, and months to years, And still the Argive army did delay, Till folk in Troia half forgot their fears, And almost as of old were glad and gay; And men and maids on Ida dared to stray, But Helen dwelt within her inmost room, And there from dawning to declining day, Wrought at the patient marvels of her loom.
Yet even there in peace she might not be: There was a nymph, Œnone, in the hills, The daughter of a River-God was she, Of Cebren,—that the mountain silence fills With murmur’d music, for the countless rills Of Ida meet him, dancing to the plain,— Her Paris wooed, yet ignorant of ills, Among the shepherd’s huts, nor wooed in vain.
Nay, Summer often found them by the fold In these glad days, ere Paris was a king, And oft the Autumn, in his car of gold, Had pass’d them, merry at the vintaging: And scarce they felt the breath of the white wing Of Winter, in the cave where they would lie On beds of heather by the fire, till Spring Should crown them with her buds in passing by.
For elbow-deep their flowery bed was strown With fragrant leaves and with crush’d asphodel, And sweetly still the shepherd-pipe made moan, And many a tale of Love they had to tell,— How Daphnis loved the strange, shy maiden well, And how she loved him not, and how he died, And oak-trees moan’d his dirge, and blossoms fell Like tears from lindens by the water-side!
But colder, fleeter than the Winter’s wing, Time pass’d; and Paris changed, and now no more Œnone heard him on the mountain sing, Not now she met him in the forest hoar. Nay, but she knew that on an alien shore An alien love he sought; yet was she strong To live, who deem’d that even as of yore In days to come might Paris love her long.
For dark Œnone from her Father drew A power beyond all price; the gift to deal With wounded men, though now the dreadful dew Of Death anoint them, and the secret seal Of Fate be set on them; these might she heal; And thus Œnone trusted still to save Her lover at the point of death, and steal His life from Helen, and the amorous grave.
And she had borne, though Paris knew it not, A child, fair Corythus, to be her shame, And still she mused, whenas her heart was hot, “He hath no child by that Achaean dame:” But when her boy unto his manhood came, Then sorer yet Œnone did repine, And bade him “fare to Ilios, and claim Thy father’s love, and all that should be thine!”
Therewith a golden bodkin from her hair She drew, and from a green-tress’d birchen tree She pluck’d a strip of smooth white bark and fair, And many signs and woful gravèd she, A message of the evil things to be. Then deftly closed the birch-bark, fold on fold, And bound the tokens well and cunningly, Three times and four times, with a thread of gold.
“Give these to Argive Helen’s hand,” she cried: And so embraced her child, and with no fear Beheld him leaping down the mountain-side, Like a king’s son that goes to hunt the deer, Clad softly, and in either hand a spear, With two swift-footed hounds that follow’d him, So leap’d he down the grassy slopes and sheer, And won the precinct of the forest dim.
He trod that ancient path his sire had trod, Far, far below he saw the sea, the town; He moved as light as an immortal god, For mansions in Olympus gliding down. He left the shadow of the forest brown, And through the shallow waters did he cross, And stood, ere twilight fell, within the crown Of towers, the sacred keep of Ilios.
Now folk that mark’d him hasting deem’d that he Had come to tell the host was on its way, As one that from the hills had seen the sea Beclouded with the Danaan array, So straight to Paris’ house with no delay They led him, and did eagerly await Within the forecourt, in the twilight grey, To hear some certain message of their fate.
Now Paris was asleep upon his bed Tired with a listless day; but all along The palace chambers Corythus was led, And still he heard a music, shrill and strong, That seem’d to clamour of an old-world wrong, And hearts a long time broken; last they came To Helen’s bower, the fountain of the song That cried so loud against an ancient shame.
And Helen fared before a mighty loom, And sang, and cast her shuttle wrought of gold, And forth unto the utmost secret room The wave of her wild melody was roll’d; And still she fashion’d marvels manifold, Strange shapes of fish and serpent, bear and swan, The loves of the immortal Gods of old, Wherefrom the peoples of the world began.
Now Helen met the stranger graciously With gentle speech, and bade set forth a chair Well wrought of cedar wood and ivory That wise Icmalius had fashion’d fair. But when young Corythus had drunk the rare Wine of the princes, and had broken bread, Then Helen took the word, and bade declare His instant tidings; and he spake and said,
“Lady and Queen, I have a secret word, And bear a token sent to none but thee, Also I bring message to my Lord That spoken to another may not be.” Then Helen gave a sign unto her three Bower-maidens, and they went forth from that place, Silent they went; and all forebodingly, They left the man and woman face to face.
Then from his breast the birchen scroll he took And gave to Helen; and she read therein: “Oh thou that on those hidden runes dost look, Hast thou forgotten quite thine ancient sin, Thy Lord, thy lofty palace, and thy kin, Even as thy Love forgets the words he spoke The strong oath broken one weak heart to win, The lips that kiss’d him, and the heart that broke?
“Nay, but methinks thou shalt not quite forget The curse wherewith I curse thee till I die; The tears that on the wood-nymph’s cheeks are wet, Shall burn thy hateful beauty deathlessly, Nor shall God raise up seed to thee; but I Have borne thy love this messenger: my son, Who yet shall make him glad, for Time goes by And soon shall thine enchantments all be done:
“Ay, soon ’twixt me and Death must be his choice, And little in that hour will Paris care For thy sweet lips, and for thy singing voice, Thine arms of ivory, thy golden hair. Nay, me will he embrace, and will not spare, But bid the folk that hate thee have their joy, And give thee to the mountain beasts to tear, Or burn thy body on a tower of Troy.”
Even as she read, by Aphrodite’s will The cloud roll’d back from Helen’s memory: She saw the city of the rifted hill, Fair Lacedaemon, ’neath her mountain high; She knew the swift Eurotas running by To mix his sacred waters with the sea, And from the garden close she heard the cry Of her beloved child, Hermione.
Then instantly the horror of her shame Fell on her, and she saw the coming years; Famine, and fire, and plague, and all men’s blame, The wounds of warriors and the women’s fears; And through her heart her sorrow smote like spears, And in her soul she knew the utmost smart Of wives left lonely, sires bereaved, the tears Of maidens desolate, of loves that part.
She drain’d the dregs out of the cup of hate; The bitterness of sorrow, shame, and scorn; Where’er the tongues of mortals curse their fate, She saw herself an outcast and forlorn; And hating sore the day that she was born, Down in the dust she cast her golden head, There with rent raiment and fair tresses torn, At feet of Corythus she lay for dead.
But Corythus, beholding her sweet face, And her most lovely body lying low, Had pity on her grief and on her grace, Nor heeded now she was his mother’s foe, But did what might be done to ease her woe, While, as he thought, with death for life she strove, And loosed the necklet round her neck of snow, As who that saw had deem’d, with hands of love.
And there was one that saw: for Paris woke Half-deeming and half-dreaming that the van Of the great Argive host had scared the folk, And down the echoing corridor he ran To Helen’s bower, and there beheld the man That kneel’d beside his lady lying there: No word he spake, but drove his sword a span Through Corythus’ fair neck and cluster’d hair.
Then fell fair Corythus, as falls the tower An earthquake shaketh from a city’s crown, Or as a tall white fragrant lily-flower A child hath in the garden trampled down, Or as a pine-tree in the forest brown, Fell’d by the sea-rovers on mountain lands, When they to harry foreign folk are boune, Taking their own lives in their reckless hands.
But still in Paris did his anger burn, And still his sword was lifted up to slay, When, like a lot leap’d forth of Fate’s own urn, He mark’d the graven tokens where they lay, ’Mid Helen’s hair in golden disarray, And looking on them, knew what he had done, Knew what dire thing had fallen on that day, Knew how a father’s hand had slain a son.
Then Paris on his face fell grovelling, And the night gather’d, and the silence grew Within the darkened chamber of the king. But Helen rose, and a sad breath she drew, And her new woes came back to her anew: Ah, where is he but knows the bitter pain To wake from dreams, and find his sorrow true, And his ill life returned to him again!
She needed none to tell her whence it fell, The thick red rain upon the marble floor: She knew that in her bower she might not dwell, Alone with her own heart for ever more; No sacrifice, no spell, no priestly lore Could banish quite the melancholy ghost Of Corythus; a herald sent before Them that should die for her, a dreadful host.
But slowly Paris raised him from the earth, And read her face, and knew that she knew all, No more her eyes, in tenderness or mirth, Should answer his, in bower or in hall. Nay, Love had fallen when his child did fall, The stream Love cannot cross ran ’twixt them red; No more was Helen his, whate’er befall, Not though the Goddess drove her to his bed.
This word he spake, “the Fates are hard on us”— Then bade the women do what must be done To the fair body of dead Corythus. And then he hurl’d into the night alone, Wailing unto the spirit of his son, That somewhere in dark mist and sighing wind Must dwell, nor yet to Hades had it won, Nor quite had left the world of men behind.
But wild Œnone by the mountain-path Saw not her son returning to the wold, And now was she in fear, and now in wrath She cried, “He hath forgot the mountain fold, And goes in Ilios with a crown of gold:” But even then she heard men’s axes smite Against the beeches slim and ash-trees old, These ancient trees wherein she did delight.
Then she arose and silently as Sleep, Unseen she follow’d the slow-rolling wain, Beneath an ashen sky that ’gan to weep, Too heavy laden with the latter rain; And all the folk of Troy upon the plain She found, all gather’d round a funeral pyre, And thereon lay her son, her darling slain, The goodly Corythus, her heart’s desire!
Among the spices and fair robes he lay, His arm beneath his head, as though he slept. For so the Goddess wrought that no decay, No loathly thing about his body crept; And all the people look’d on him and wept, And, weeping, Paris lit the pine-wood dry, And lo, a rainy wind arose and swept The flame and fragrance far into the sky.
But when the force of flame was burning low, Then did they drench the pyre with ruddy wine, And the white bones of Corythus bestow Within a gold cruse, wrought with many a sign, And wrapp’d the cruse about with linen fine And bare it to the tomb: when, lo, the wild Œnone sprang, with burning eyes divine, And shriek’d unto the slayer of her child:
“Oh Thou, that like a God art sire and slayer, That like a God, dost give and take away! Methinks that even now I hear the prayer Thou shalt beseech me with, some later day; When all the world to thy dim eyes grow grey, And thou shalt crave thy healing at my hand, Then gladly will I mock, and say thee nay, And watch thine hours run down like running sand!
“Yea, thou shalt die, and leave thy love behind, And little shall she love thy memory! But, oh ye foolish people, deaf and blind, What Death is coming on you from the sea?” Then all men turned, and lo, upon the lee Of Tenedos, beneath the driving rain, The countless Argive ships were racing free, The wind and oarsmen speeding them amain.
Then from the barrow and the burial, Back like a bursting torrent all men fled Back to the city and the sacred wall. But Paris stood, and lifted not his head. Alone he stood, and brooded o’er the dead, As broods a lion, when a shaft hath flown, And through the strong heart of his mate hath sped, Then will he face the hunters all alone.
But soon the voice of men on the sea-sand Came round him; and he turned, and gazed, and lo! The Argive ships were dashing on the strand: Then stealthily did Paris bend his bow, And on the string he laid a shaft of woe, And drew it to the point, and aim’d it well. Singing it sped, and through a shield did go, And from his barque Protesilaus fell.
Half gladdened by the omen, through the plain Went Paris to the walls and mighty gate, And little heeded he that arrowy rain The Argive bowmen shower’d in helpless hate. Nay; not yet feather’d was the shaft of Fate, His bane, the gift of mighty Heracles To Philoctetes, lying desolate, Within a far off island of the seas.