Sacred Texts  Women  Classics  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 162


"O MY lord, the time is all too short! Consider how many need thy presence here; what plans for the happiness of the people and the improvement of the city must come to naught if thou goest. The people and the land are given into thy care by Zeus himself; thou canst not give them up. Why must this unhappy Helene be the cause of widowed beds and tears to so many women who, but for her, had been happy wives and mothers? Tarry, my lord, tarry at home. Here the very trees and fountains rejoice in thy presence; here thou art a very sun of joy to men. Go not to yonder proud city to waste strength and manhood on a quarrel that is none of thine."

Protesilaus, the king, bowed his head to kiss the brow and lips of his pleading wife, who, with clinging arms and supplicating voice, would fain have held him back.

"True, Laodameia, the quarrel is none of mine, but

p. 163

the oath is mine, and a man must abide by his oath, as thou well knowest, whatever may betide him. Alas! thou knowest not how much this keeping of the oath which the son of Laertes won from us by subtlety costs me; thou knowest not how gladly I would spend all my days here with thee, and lead the happy life we have lived together until the end. But, dearest wife, I must, even for thy sake, be true in this matter. How could I look men in the face if I alone of the Achaean kings hung back? Take courage, my queen; it must never be said that Laodameia, daughter of Akastus, had reason to blush because she was called the wife of Protesilaus."

Then Laodameia held her peace and tried to be patient, and Protesilaus, the king, marshalled his men, gathering a great host of nearly five thousand men, to plough the wide backs of the sea in forty black ships, and with him sailed the gallant Podarkes, his brother. From peace and hopeful work they went to strife and bloodshed, and Laodameia, the queen, remained in Phylace, wearying for her lord, and finding her only comfort in sacrifice and prayer to all the gods, but most of all to Demeter, the great goddess who had fixed her favourite home in flower-enamelled Pyrrhasus, and who loved all the land of Protesilaus for its richness and its beauty.

Day by clay the queen besieged the gods with prayers for the king, finding all her comfort in carrying on the works which he had set on foot, and made

p. 164

happy and hopeful if tidings came of Protesilaus; and during the weary weeks that the vast Achaean fleet lay wind-bound at Aulis, Protesilaus contrived to send frequent messages to his queen, and to receive tidings from her in return.

But now Artemis was appeased, the fleet spread its thousand sails, and the young men rowed and sped over the blue Aegean past the shining Cyklades.

At the holy island, where the twin children of Latona were born, and where a fair temple rose to the divine Bow-bearer, they came to land, and Agamemnon offered sacrifice, consulting the god as to how they should approach the shore and effect a landing on the plains of Troy; then a voice rang out clearly from the shrine---

"Go forward, fear not, Atreus' noble son,
The wind shall fill thy sails, the shore be won;
But he who first shall leap upon the shore
From his well-bench’d, black ship shall rue it sore;
The Moirae will it that this chief be slain,
And with his life-blood drench the sandy plain."

At this response of the oracle a chill ran through the assembled chiefs; all the manhood of the Achaeans trembled. Achilles himself turned pale. He knew that he must die early. He had chosen a short and glorious life. Was this the glory, to give his life for the host before he had looked upon the god-built walls of Troy---before he had changed a blow with Hektor, the slayer of men--to die, leaping from his ship on to

p. 165

the shore? He had looked death in the face many a time in the chase, in the foray, by flood and field, but to go calmly to certain death, deliberately to choose to die, was beyond the virtue of the beautiful and passionate son of Thetis. Odysseus pondered the words, but felt they were not for him. He must live to counsel the chiefs and bring them home again. If he flung away his life as the purchase-money of the landing of the host, how would it fare with all the gallant armament left to the guidance of the rash and haughty Agamemnon? And how would it fare with the little Telemachus, with Penelope, with his parents Laertes and Antikleia, and with his beloved Ithake? Odysseus shook his head. The fate was a glorious one, but it was not for him to covet. Diomedes and Ajax pondered the words, each in his own way. Not a king, not a man of note in all the host who did not hear them ringing in his ears when he laid him down to sleep and when he rose in the morning; but when the grey old city lay before them, its battlements crowded with eager old men, women, and children, and the whole shore flashing with helmets and breastplates and bristling with spears, the Achaean armament paused. The black galleys lay still on the waters, for the sails were taken down and the oars were lifted in the air; then one galley pushed stoutly on, and one chief in flashing armour leapt upon the shore, with a shout that rung from Ilion to Tenedos. Then ship after ship was driven upon the beach, and the crews leapt eagerly into the sea

p. 166

and fought hand to hand with the Trojans, secure of victory, for the price had been paid. But it was not until the Trojans had shut themselves up in their walls and the Achaeans had leisure to repose, that the word passed from mouth to mouth that he who had won the day for them was the gallant Protesilaus, king of Phylake, to whom life might be supposed to be as sweet as to any in the host.

Tidings were sent by the council of the chiefs to the widowed queen of the devotion of her husband, and she drank in with thirsty ears every word of the messenger, proud of his virtue, though smitten to the heart by the loss of him.

"He was too noble, alas! he was too noble," she cried; "but the gods are merciful, and it is not possible but that they will take pity on me. It was they who put it into his heart to make this sacrifice. What woman was ever so bereft as I? Fatherless, mother-less, and childless; there is no one on whom I can pour out the treasure of my love. The gods below hearkened to Orpheus when he sought his Eurydice. Was Admetus worthy to receive from the hand of Herakles the wife whom he had allowed to perish for him; and shall it not be given to me once again to behold my husband?"

Then with sacrifice by night and day, with prayers to gods above and gods below, the poor lady wrestled with her fate, until Proserpina pitied, and Zeus permitted Hermes, the kindly interpreter between gods

p. 167

and men, to conduct Protesilaus once again to his home. There for three hours of agony and joy Laodameia once more beheld him she loved, but he who had passed the Styx and dwelt in Elysium, was so purged of earthly passion, that the impetuous love of his queen saddened instead of gladdened him, his etherealized form escaped her arms when she would have embraced him, and with high reasoning and pure counsel, he strove to win her to a patient submission to the will of the gods. Laodameia listened and strove to obey; but when the fated time was come, and Hermes returned to conduct the hero back to the shadowy realms which were now his home, all reason and self-control vanished in an agony of grief; Laodameia shrieked aloud as the two passed into the darkness, and, when her attendants came hurrying at her cry, they lifted from the floor a lifeless woman.

But she whose life had been shortened by her unreasoning passion, and who, having enjoyed the rare honour of a husband altogether noble, had been unable to bear the loss of his bodily presence with her, was not permitted at once to join him in the happy fields. Proserpina decreed that she must first learn self-control and resignation apart, and not until the years allotted by the Moirae to her mortal life were passed, was Hermes permitted to conduct her to the happy fields, to dwell for ever with Protesilaus, and all good men and women who have earned that peaceful home by their virtue.

p. 168

The Achaeans buried their champion on the shore of the Hellespont, and men showed a mighty mound of earth from which grew a knot of trees, and they called it the tomb and the grove of Protesilaus, in memory of whom those trees, as they said, showed a strange half human sympathy.

"For ever when such height they had attain’d, 11
That Ilium's walls were subject to their view,
The trees' tall summits wither’d at the sight,
A constant interchange of growth and blight."


Next: Notes