The sack of Troy, and of how Menelaus would have let stone Helen, but Aphrodite saved her, and made them at one again, and how they came home to Lacedaemon, and of their translation to Elysium.
There came a day, when Trojan spies beheld How, o’er the Argive leaguer, all the air Was pure of smoke, no battle-din there swell’d, Nor any clarion-call was sounding there! Yea, of the serried ships the strand was bare, And sea and shore were still, as long ago When Ilios knew not Helen, and the fair Sweet face that makes immortal all her woe.
So for a space the watchers on the wall Were silent, wond’ring what these things might mean. But, at the last, sent messengers to call Priam, and all the elders, and the lean Remnant of goodly chiefs, that once had been The shield and stay of Ilios, and her joy, Nor yet despair’d, but trusted Gods unseen, And cast their spears, and shed their blood for Troy.
They came, the more part grey, grown early old, In war and plague; but with them was the young Coroebus, that but late had left the fold And flocks of sheep Maeonian hills among, And valiantly his lot with Priam flung, For love of a lost cause and a fair face,— The eyes that once the God of Pytho sung, That now look’d darkly to the slaughter-place.
Now while the elders kept their long debate, Coroebus stole unheeded to his band, And led a handful by a postern gate Across the plain, across the barren land Where once the happy vines were wont to stand, And ’mid the clusters once did maidens sing,— But now the plain was waste on every hand, Though here and there a flower would breathe of Spring.
So swift across the trampled battle-field Unchallenged still, but wary, did they pass, By many a broken spear or shatter’d shield That in Fate’s hour appointed faithless was: Only the heron cried from the morass By Xanthus’ side, and ravens, and the grey Wolves left their feasting in the tangled grass, Grudging; and loiter’d, nor fled far away.
There lurk’d no spears in the high river-banks, No ambush by the cairns of men outworn, But empty stood the huts, in dismal ranks, Where men through all these many years had borne Fierce summer, and the biting winter’s scorn; And here a sword was left, and there a bow, But ruinous seem’d all things and forlorn, As in some camp forsaken long ago.
Gorged wolves crept round the altars, and did eat The flesh of victims that the priests had slain, And wild dogs fought above the sacred meat Late offer’d to the deathless Gods in vain, By men that, for reward of all their pain, Must haul the ropes, and weary at the oar, Or, drowning, clutch at foam amid the main, Nor win their haven on the Argive shore.
Not long the young men marvell’d at the sight, But grasping one a sword, and one the spear Aias, or Tydeus’ son, had borne in fight, They sped, and fill’d the town with merry cheer, For folk were quick the happy news to hear, And pour’d through all the gates into the plain, Rejoicing as they wander’d far and near, O’er the long Argive toils endured in vain.
Ah, sweet it was, without the city walls, To hear the doves coo, and the finches sing; Ah, sweet, to twine their true-loves coronals Of woven wind-flowers, and each fragrant thing That blossoms in the footsteps of the spring; And sweet, to lie, forgetful of their grief, Where violets trail by waters wandering, And the wild fig-tree putteth forth his leaf!
Now while they wander’d as they would, they found A wondrous thing: a marvel of man’s skill, That stood within a vale of hollow ground, And bulk’d scarce smaller than the bitter-hill,— The common barrow that the dead men fill Who died in the long leaguer,—not of earth, Was this new portent, but of tree, and still The Trojans stood, and marvell’d ’mid their mirth.
Ay, much they wonder’d what this thing might be, Shaped like a Horse it was; and many a stain There show’d upon the mighty beams of tree, For some with fire were blacken’d, some with rain Were dank and dark amid white planks of plane, New cut among the trees that now were few On wasted Ida; but men gazed in vain, Nor truth thereof for all their searching knew.
At length they deem’d it was a sacred thing, Vow’d to Poseidon, monarch of the deep, And that herewith the Argives pray’d the King Of wind and wave to lull the seas to sleep; So this, they cried, within the sacred keep Of Troy must rest, memorial of the war; And sturdily they haled it up the steep, And dragg’d the monster to their walls afar.
All day they wrought: and children crown’d with flowers Laid light hands on the ropes; old men would ply Their feeble force; so through the merry hours They toil’d, midst laughter and sweet minstrelsy, And late they drew the great Horse to the high Crest of the hill, and wide the tall gates swang; But thrice, for all their force, it stood thereby Unmoved, and thrice like smitten armour rang.
Natheless they wrought their will; then altar fires The Trojans built, and did the Gods implore To grant fulfilment of all glad desires. But from the cups the wine they might not pour, The flesh upon the spits did writhe and roar, The smoke grew red as blood, and many a limb Of victims leap’d upon the temple floor, Trembling; and groans amid the chapels dim
Rang low, and from the fair Gods’ images And from their eyes, dropp’d sweat and many a tear; The walls with blood were dripping, and on these That sacrificed, came horror and great fear; The holy laurels to Apollo dear Beside his temple faded suddenly, And wild wolves from the mountains drew anear, And ravens through the temples seem’d to fly.
Yet still the men of Troy were glad at heart, And o’er strange meat they revell’d, like folk fey, Though each would shudder if he glanced apart, For round their knees the mists were gather’d grey, Like shrouds on men that Hell-ward take their way; But merrily withal they feasted thus, And laugh’d with crooked lips, and oft would say Some evil-sounding word and ominous.
And Hecuba among her children spake, “Let each man choose the meat he liketh best, For bread no more together shall we break. Nay, soon from all my labour must I rest, But eat ye well, and drink the red wine, lest Ye blame my house-wifery among men dead.” And all they took her saying for a jest, And sweetly did they laugh at that she said.
Then, like a raven on the of night, The wild Cassandra flitted far and near, Still crying, “Gather, gather for the fight, And brace the helmet on, and grasp the spear, For lo, the legions of the Night are here!” So shriek’d the dreadful prophetess divine. But all men mock’d, and were of merry cheer; Safe as the Gods they deem’d them, o’er their wine.
For now with minstrelsy the air was sweet, The soft spring air, and thick with incense smoke; And bands of happy dancers down the street Flew from the flower-crown’d doors, and wheel’d, and broke; And loving words the youths and maidens spoke, For Aphrodite did their hearts beguile, As when beneath grey cavern or green oak The shepherd men and maidens meet and smile.
No guard they set, for truly to them all Did Love and slumber seem exceeding good; There was no watch by open gate nor wall, No sentinel by Pallas’ image stood; But silence grew, as in an autumn wood When tempests die, and the vex’d boughs have ease, And wind and sunlight fade, and soft the mood Of sacred twilight falls upon the trees.
Then the stars cross’d the zenith, and there came On Troy that hour when slumber is most deep, But any man that watch’d had seen a flame Spring from the tall crest of the Trojan keep; While from the belly of the Horse did leap Men arm’d, and to the gates went stealthily, While up the rocky way to Ilios creep The Argives, new return’d across the sea.
Now when the silence broke, and in that hour When first the dawn of war was blazing red, There came a light in Helen’s fragrant bower, As on that evil night before she fled From Lacedaemon and her marriage bed; And Helen in great fear lay still and cold, For Aphrodite stood above her head, And spake in that sweet voice she knew of old:
“Beloved one that dost not love me, wake! Helen, the night is over, the dawn is near, And safely shalt thou fare with me, and take Thy way through fire and blood, and have no fear: A little hour, and ended is the drear Tale of thy sorrow and thy wandering. Nay, long hast thou to live in happy cheer, By fair Eurotas, with thy lord, the King.”
Then Helen rose, and in a cloud of gold, Unseen amid the vapour of the fire, Did Aphrodite veil her, fold on fold; And through the darkness, thronged with faces dire, And o’er men’s bodies fallen in a mire Of new spilt blood and wine, the twain did go Where Lust and Hate were mingled in desire, And dreams and death were blended in one woe.
Fire and the foe were masters now: the sky Flared like the dawn of that last day of all, When men for pity to the sea shall cry, And vainly on the mountain tops shall call To fall and end the horror in their fall; And through the vapour dreadful things saw they, The maidens leaping from the city wall, The sleeping children murder’d where they lay.
Yea, cries like those that make the hills of Hell Ring and re-echo, sounded through the night, The screams of burning horses, and the yell Of young men leaping naked into fight, And shrill the women shriek’d, as in their flight Shriek the wild cranes, when overhead they spy Between the dusky cloud-land and the bright Blue air, an eagle stooping from the sky.
And now the red glare of the burning shone On deeds so dire the pure Gods might not bear, Save Ares only, long to look thereon, But with a cloud they darken’d all the air. And, even then, within the temple fair Of chaste Athene, did Cassandra cower, And cried aloud an unavailing prayer; For Aias was the master in that hour.
Man’s lust won what a God’s love might not win, And heroes trembled, and the temple floor Shook, when one cry went up into the din, And shamed the night to silence; then the roar Of war and fire wax’d great as heretofore, Till each roof fell, and every palace gate Was shatter’d, and the King’s blood shed; nor more Remain’d to do, for Troy was desolate.
Then dawn drew near, and changed to clouds of rose The dreadful smoke that clung to Ida’s head; But Ilios was ashes, and the foes Had left the embers and the plunder’d dead; And down the steep they drove the prey, and sped Back to the swift ships, with a captive train,— While Menelaus, slow, with drooping head, Follow’d, like one lamenting, through the plain.
Where death might seem the surest, by the gate Of Priam, where the spears raged, and the tall Towers on the foe were falling, sought he fate To look on Helen once, and then to fall, Nor see with living eyes the end of all, What time the host their vengeance should fulfil, And cast her from the cliff below the wall, Or burn her body on the windy hill.
But Helen found he never, where the flame Sprang to the roofs, and Helen ne’er he found Where flock’d the wretched women in their shame The helpless altars of the Gods around, Nor lurk’d she in deep chambers underground, Where the priests trembled o’er their hidden gold, Nor where the armed feet of foes resound In shrines to silence consecrate of old.
So wounded to his hut and wearily Came Menelaus; and he bow’d his head Beneath the lintel neither fair nor high; And, lo! Queen Helen lay upon his bed, Flush’d like a child in sleep, and rosy-red, And at his footstep did she wake and smile, And spake: “My lord, how hath thy hunting sped, Methinks that I have slept a weary while!”
For Aphrodite made the past unknown To Helen, as of old, when in the dew Of that fair dawn the net was round her thrown: Nay, now no memory of Troy brake through The mist that veil’d from her sweet eyes and blue The dreadful days and deeds all over-past, And gladly did she greet her lord anew, And gladly would her arms have round him cast.
Then leap’d she up in terror, for he stood Before her, like a lion of the wild, His rusted armour all bestain’d with blood, His mighty hands with blood of men defiled, And strange was all she saw: the spears, the piled Raw skins of slaughter’d beasts with many a stain; And low he spake, and bitterly he smiled, “The hunt is ended, and the spoil is ta’en.”
No more he spake; for certainly he deem’d That Aphrodite brought her to that place, And that of her loved archer Helen dream’d, Of Paris; at that thought the mood of grace Died in him, and he hated her fair face, And bound her hard, not slacking for her tears; Then silently departed for a space, To seek the ruthless counsel of his peers.
Now all the Kings were feasting in much joy, Seated or couch’d upon the carpets fair That late had strown the palace floors of Troy, And lovely Trojan ladies served them there, And meat from off the spits young princes bare; But Menelaus burst among them all, Strange, ’mid their revelry, and did not spare, But bade the Kings a sudden council call.
To mar their feast the Kings had little will, Yet did they as he bade, in grudging wise, And heralds call’d the host unto the hill Heap’d of sharp stones, where ancient Ilus lies. And forth the people flock’d, as throng’d as flies That buzz about the milking-pails in spring, When life awakens under April skies, And birds from dawning into twilight sing.
Then Helen through the camp was driven and thrust, Till even the Trojan women cried in glee, “Ah, where is she in whom thou put’st thy trust, The Queen of love and laughter, where is she? Behold the last gift that she giveth thee, Thou of the many loves! to die alone, And round thy flesh for robes of price to be The cold close-clinging raiment of sharp stone.”
Ah, slowly through that trodden field and bare They pass’d, where scarce the daffodil might spring, For war had wasted all, but in the air High overhead the mounting lark did sing; Then all the army gather’d in a ring Round Helen, round their torment, trapp’d at last, And many took up mighty stones to fling From shards and flints on Ilus’ barrow cast.
Then Menelaus to the people spoke, And swift his wing’d words came as whirling snow, “Oh ye that overlong have borne the yoke, Behold the very fountain of your woe! For her ye left your dear homes long ago, On Argive valley or Boeotian plain; But now the black ships rot from stern to prow, Who knows if ye shall see your own again?
“Ay, and if home ye win, ye yet may find, Ye that the winds waft, and the waters bear To Argos! ye are quite gone out of mind; Your fathers, dear and old, dishonour’d there; Your children deem you dead, and will not share Their lands with you; on mainland or on isle, Strange men are wooing now the women fair, And love doth lightly woman’s heart beguile.
“These sorrows hath this woman wrought alone: So fall upon her straightway that she die, And clothe her beauty in a cloak of stone!” He spake, and truly deem’d to hear her cry And see the sharp flints straight and deadly fly; But each man stood and mused on Helen’s face, And her undream’d-of beauty, brought so nigh On that bleak plain, within that ruin’d place.
And as in far off days that were to be, The sense of their own sin did men constrain, That they must leave the sinful woman free Who, by their law, had verily been slain, So Helen’s beauty made their anger vain, And one by one his gather’d flints let fall; And like men shamed they stole across the plain, Back to the swift ships and their festival.
But Menelaus look’d on her and said, “Hath no man then condemn’d thee,—is there none To shed thy blood for all that thou hast shed, To wreak on thee the wrongs that thou hast done. Nay, as mine own soul liveth, there is one That will not set thy barren beauty free, But slay thee to Poseidon and the Sun Before a ship Achaian takes the sea!”
Therewith he drew his sharp sword from his thigh As one intent to slay her: but behold, A sudden marvel shone across the sky! A cloud of rosy fire, a flood of gold, And Aphrodite came from forth the fold Of wondrous mist, and sudden at her feet Lotus and crocus on the trampled wold Brake, and the slender hyacinth was sweet.
Then fell the point that never bloodless fell When spear bit harness in the battle din, For Aphrodite spake, and like a spell Wrought her sweet voice persuasive, till within His heart there lived no memory of sin, No thirst for vengeance more, but all grew plain, And wrath was molten in desire to win The golden heart of Helen once again.
Then Aphrodite vanish’d as the day Passes, and leaves the darkling earth behind; And overhead the April sky was grey, But Helen’s arms about her lord were twined, And his round her as clingingly and kind, As when sweet vines and ivy in the spring Join their glad leaves, nor tempests may unbind The woven boughs, so lovingly they cling.
* * * * *
Noon long was over-past, but sacred night Beheld them not upon the Ilian shore; Nay, for about the waning of the light Their swift ships wander’d on the waters hoar, Nor stay’d they the Olympians to adore, So eagerly they left that cursed land, But many a toil, and tempests great and sore, Befell them ere they won the Argive strand.
To Cyprus and Phoenicia wandering They came, and many a ship, and many a man They lost, and perish’d many a precious thing While bare before the stormy North they ran, And further far than when their quest began From Argos did they seem,—a weary while,— Becalm’d in sultry seas Egyptian, A long day’s voyage from the mouths of Nile.
But there the Gods had pity on them, and there The ancient Proteus taught them how to flee From that so distant deep,—the fowls of air Scarce in one year can measure out that sea; Yet first within Aegyptus must they be, And hecatombs must offer,—quickly then The Gods abated of their jealousy, Wherewith they scourge the negligence of men.
And strong and fair the south wind blew, and fleet Their voyaging, so merrily they fled To win that haven where the waters sweet Of clear Eurotas with the brine are wed, And swift their chariots and their horses sped To pleasant Lacedaemon, lying low Grey in the shade of sunset, but the head Of tall Taygetus like fire did glow.
And what but this is sweet: at last to win The fields of home, that change not while we change; To hear the birds their ancient song begin; To wander by the well-loved streams that range Where not one pool, one moss-clad stone is strange, Nor seem we older than long years ago, Though now beneath the grey roof of the grange The children dwell of them we used to know?
Came there no trouble in the later days To mar the life of Helen, when the old Crowns and dominions perish’d, and the blaze Lit by returning Heraclidae roll’d Through every vale and every happy fold Of all the Argive land? Nay, peacefully Did Menelaus and the Queen behold The counted years of mortal life go by.
“Death ends all tales,” but this he endeth not; They grew not grey within the valley fair Of hollow Lacedaemon, but were brought To Rhadamanthus of the golden hair, Beyond the wide world’s end; ah never there Comes storm nor snow; all grief is left behind, And men immortal, in enchanted air, Breathe the cool current of the Western wind.
But Helen was a Saint in Heathendom, A kinder Aphrodite; without fear Maidens and lovers to her shrine would come In fair Therapnae, by the waters clear Of swift Eurotas; gently did she hear All prayers of love, and not unheeded came The broken supplication, and the tear Of man or maiden overweigh’d with shame.
O’er Helen’s shrine the grass is growing green, In desolate Therapnae; none the less Her sweet face now unworshipp’d and unseen Abides the symbol of all loveliness, Of Beauty ever stainless in the stress Of warring lusts and fears;—and still divine, Still ready with immortal peace to bless Them that with pure hearts worship at her shrine.