LIVES OF THE GREEK HEROINES.
BY LOUISA MENZIES
HELENE of the flowing robe, the loveliest woman of her time, and the cause of bitterest woe to many gallant men and true-hearted women. Who can picture the sweetness and beauty of form and face which gathered the Achaean princes from Messene to remote Phthia to the court of Tyndareus, and there so bewitched them that they were willing, every man among them, to bind themselves by oath to defend her and him whom she should choose, against all aggression, whenever or by whomsoever they might be wronged.
Married in her early womanhood to a husband of her own choice, who loved her with a blind devotion, it was hard to see what was wanting to make the lot of Helene blessed. The palace was richly adorned with all beautiful things, and they had one little daughter, named Hermione, almost equal to her mother in beauty. How pleasant were the hollows of hill-girt Laconia, how sweet the flowing Eurotas to Helene as she wandered among them and beside it with her little daughter! how sweet the evening hours when the little maid was asleep, and Helene sat among her maids directing their tasks, and herself executing works of marvellous skill and beauty. Alas! that so fair a day should darken at its noon!
There came from beyond the sea an adventurous prince, skilled in all the arts of war--most skilled in minstrelsy, for he could draw such sounds from his ivory lyre that those who heard were moved to tears or stirred to martial ardour at his will--Alexander, sometimes called Paris, son of Priam and Hekabé, a prince of Troy. Menelaus made him royally welcome, for he was much interested in learning the manners and customs of foreign nations, and there was no city equal in fame and power in those days to Troy, whose princes traced back their race in a double line to supreme Jove, and who boasted of the special favour of Poseidon and Apollo. Alexander was himself a young man of a most winning presence. He had been nursed in adversity, for owing to a terrible dream by which his mother was visited just before his birth, he had been laid upon the mountains when an infant, and only saved from a cruel death by the pity of a shepherd, who brought him up as his own son, until such time as he declared his princely birth by gallant deeds in defence of the flocks from wild beasts and marauders, and was welcomed back to the palace by his admiring kinsfolk. Godlike Alexander, as his people loved to call him, had learnt by this bringing up to be all things to all men: he could talk of battle and ambuscades with Menelaus; he could hold Helene and her maidens in rapt delight while he sung to them, and he had tender words for the little Hermione; and though he tarried week after week while his ship lay drawn up at Taenaron, he did not seem to his hosts to tarry long, but they ever made him more and more welcome.
In an evil hour a message came from Argos from Agamemnon the king, calling on Menelaus to keep his tryst, and go with him to hunt boars in Arkadia. Menelaus desired to take his guest with him, but the subtle Asiatic knew how to excuse himself without awakening suspicion. No sooner was the king fairly gone than he set about to corrupt his queen, and, partly by persuasion, partly by violence, he wrought upon her so that she turned her back upon her palace and all her happy life, and sailed with him over the seas in his Phrygian ships.
How bitter and how frequent were her self-reproaches! But was she not the sworn votary of Aphrodite, and had not Aphrodite herself promised her as wife to Paris? who, for his part, was also bound by strong vows and by the memories of many happy days to Aenone, the nymph of Ida, who had loved him when he was a solitary shepherd, making sweet music in the glades. Weak and beautiful, better they had died, and all their winsome graces turned to loathsomeness ere they forgot their truth and honour and became a name of desolation and misery each to his home and country!
The blue waters of the great midland sea shone beneath sun and moon, and the flying queen almost forgot her sin in the loveliness of the sea and the shining islands, skimming with full sails ever further and further from Lacedaemon up northward to the great capital of the ancient king; for Aphrodite herself had won from blustering Aeolus gentle winds, and Hera and Athene were holden by the Fates from wreaking their vengeance on the fugitives, that the full measure of their guilt might be made up. Nevertheless, their voyage was not without its note of warning; for when they were now in the midst of the blue waters, and the full moon hung like a golden shield in the sky, the ship suddenly stood still: the sails flapped idly against the mast, and the weary rowers toiled in vain. A supernatural calm brooded over sea and air, and from the bosom of the waters rose the white head of the old sea-god Nereus, with sad and threatening aspect.
Loud and angry was his speech, for all the terrible future rose at his bidding, and the infatuated prince heard, but heard in vain, of the mighty warriors who should arm in the pursuit, of the desolation of Troy, and, finally, of his own dishonoured death! Alas! for him who enters on the path of sin; and yet again alas! for him there are no backward steps. The avengers of his crime drive him deeper and deeper into the mire, until it overwhelms him, and he passes from the ken of man into the unknown.
When Alexander at last reached his native shore, the king and queen made haste to receive the lady of whose matchless beauty they had heard so much, and although they would have gladly had Helene a maid rather than a wife, yet Priam could not but rejoice that vengeance was come at last for his fair sister Hesione, carried away by Herakles and given to Telamon of Salamis to be his wife; and for those other Asiatic princesses dragged from home and country by the bold Achaean seafarers. And who of mortal mould ever looked on the face of Helene and had the heart to blame her? However they might blame her when she was away, no one could withstand the witchery of her feminine grace, of her modest looks--for she was no brazen adulteress, defying the laws she had outraged, but a shrinking woman, foremost to heap accusations on herself, but ever lacking the strength to do the right she knew.
Though Troy shook to her centre, and loss upon loss for ten weary years broke the hearts of king and people; though Hektor, bravest of his race, maintained the unequal contest, hopeless but undismayed, until his lifeless body was dragged round the walls for which he had fought; though the prophecy of Nereus was wrought out upon Alexander, and his lovelocks were at last dragged in the dust,--she who was the cause of all the woe went in and out of the palaces, weaving her skilled embroideries, and not denied a place among the princesses, though many sorrowed for her sake and eyed her askance.
But Aphrodite, her sweet patroness, fenced her round with witcheries and love; and when at length the city was taken, and Deïphobus, the brother of Paris, to whom on his death she had been given as wife, fell a victim to the vengeful wrath of Menelaus, no word of blame fell on Helene's ears; nay, she returned with him to the Achaean land his honoured queen and wife, as though no blight had ever fallen on her, and all the blood of Achaeans and Trojans which had mingled with the waters of Simois and Skamander had not been shed for the sake of her fatal beauty.
Odysseus, Diomedes, Nestor, and Menelaus, first of the princes, set sail on their return from Troy, although Agamemnon would fain have delayed his brother for a solemn sacrifice to the displeased Athena; and thus the brothers parted in some wrath, never again to meet on this mortal earth.
The four kings sailed to Tenedos; there they offered a solemn sacrifice, and all went well with them until they reached Lesbos. Here a mighty storm overtook them, and scattered them in different directions over the sea. Menelaus and Helene from this time forth for many years wandered from coast to coast, visiting Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Libya, where the horned men abide, and where the sheep drop lambs thrice in the year. In their voyagings they >gathered much art treasure, of gold and silver and needlework, and Helene learned much medicinal skill in Egypt, the cradle of science, from Polydamna, wife of Thon, the hospitable king of that land.
In the isle of Pharos, but a day's sail from Egypt, they were detained by contrary winds and half famished, having nothing to subsist on but such fish as they were able to catch, and they might have perished there had not the gracious sea-maid Eidothea, daughter of the mighty Proteus, taken pity on them. She taught Menelaus how to wrest from her father such information as should enable him to rescue himself and his people from their broiling prison.
By her direction he chose out three of the sturdiest and trustiest of his comrades, and when the rosy dawn coloured the eastern sky, he went down to the sea-shore, having first earnestly supplicated the gods to, prosper his enterprise. No sooner did the Achaean warriors reach the line of sand than from the broad bosom of the deep rose the gracious sea-maid Eidothea, and she brought with her an unsavoury burden--four seal-skins newly flayed. She then made hollows in the sand big enough for the men to lie in, and she placed the men in them side by side, and over each she drew a seal-skin, so that it looked as though four seals lay sleeping on the shore.
Never in all his multitudinous adventures had Menelaus suffered such misery, not though he had lain in, the womb of the wooden horse, when it groaned a trembled beneath the spear of Laokoon, for the stench of the newly-flayed skins, as they lay beneath them in the sunshine from dawn till full noon, was so horrible that they could not have endured it had not the sea-maid, beholding their misery, brought them ambrosia, the divine perfume of which refreshed their senses and overcame the stench.
So there with heroic patience they lay until the great flock of the seals came thronging up from the sea, and lay down to sleep upon the beach. With them was Proteus himself, their shepherd, who having counted the flock and finding the tale complete lay down also to sleep, never perceiving the trick. No sooner had Proteus closed his eyes than Menelaus and his men rushed upon him with a shout and seized him firmly, but the old sea god, though taken unawares, did not forget his cunning. First he became a bearded lion, then a serpent, then a leopard, then a foaming boar; and when these monsters did not appal them, he sought to slip from their fingers like running water. Then he became a tree swaying in the wind, then a flame of fire; but the Achaeans, forewarned by Eidothea, never slackened their grasp; until at length seeing his craft availed him nothing, Proteus took again his natural form, and demanded of Menelaus what he wanted. "Nay," said the son of Atreus, "art not thou learned in all knowledge, seeing that thou art god and prophet; thou knowest how we are pent in this rocky prison house and cannot by any means win out."
Then Proteus bade him offer solemn sacrifice to Jove and the other gods if he would ever see his native land again, and he told him that to be acceptable to the Immortals this sacrifice must be offered on the banks of the great Egyptian river. At this announcement bitter disappointment smote the heart of Menelaus, for he had hoped that he had looked his last upon the swarthy Nile; but he had borne disappointment too often to murmur at the will of the gods, so he promised that he would do as Proteus commanded him, and he took occasion to gather tidings of the fate of the many friends he had left in Troy. Then Proteus told him, nothing loth, of Ajax Oïleus, whose rash impiety shipwrecked him half way to his home, of Agamemnon carried safe through the tempest by the gracious care of Heré, but slain treacherously in his own palace by the working of Aegisthus, his hereditary foe.
When he heard of the death of his brother, Menelaus wept sore, sitting on the wet sea sand, so that Proteus pitied him and bade him cheer up, for that he should find when he reached Argos that Aegisthus in his turn was slain by the young Orestes, and should have the happiness of joining in solemn funeral honours to his brother. Then Menelaus would know something of his trusty friend and ally Odysseus, whether he had succeeded in getting home to his beloved Ithaké and to the friends he loved so dearly; but Proteus told him that he was detained sorely against his will in the halls of Kalypso, daughter of Atlas, having lost all his comrades; then turning to Menelaus himself, the god said:--
"Hast thou no desire to learn aught of thyself and of thy wife, son of Atreus?"
"Yea, fain would I know what shall be the end of our lives and whether we shall abide together until the end, though methinks he is a bold man who will thrust himself into the counsels of the Moirae."
"Ay, truly is he! for what in the accomplishment is easy as sleep, in the anticipation often seems hard as death; but do thou take comfort, the troubles of thy life are nearly at an end, nothing shall ever separate thee more from Helene, fairest of women, and as thou hast been her true husband all thy life and so art son-in-law of Jove, the Styx shall never be passed by thee, but the Immortals themselves shall conduct thee with Helene by a path of their own to the Elysian plains; yea, to the ends of the earth, where the auburn-haired Rhadamanthus holds sway, and where temperate breezes from the oceany-stream maintain the life of man in full vigour--where there is no snow, nor heavy rain, but sweet, temperate weather all the year round."
Then Proteus, having uttered this gracious prophecy, blew his horn, and straightway all the lithe seals began to lift their heads and to push their huge bodies down the level sands, and with a mighty sound of splashing water to plunge into the bosom of the deep; and when they were now all gone, Proteus himself seemed to the Achaeans as they gazed on him to vanish in a wreath of mist, his hoary hair and beard floating on the waves till they were lost in the sea foam; and as he vanished there arose the low sighing of a gentle wind, and the heat of that terrible island was softened, and Menelaus went up from the shore to where Helene waited, and gladly bade her bestir herself, for the good wind was come which would take them back once more to the hospitable court of Thon, where they must needs tarry to make the great sacrifice, without which they could never see again their native land.
Then Helene gladly arose and went on ship-board; and so it was that when the gods were duly appeased, they at length in the eighth year of their voyaging beheld once more the longed-for Achaean shore, and the first land that was given to their eyes was Argos, and there they learnt the truth of the first prophecy of Proteus, how Agamemnon, being slain by Klytaemnestra and Aegisthus, was now newly avenged by Orestes, his son.
Menelaus and Helene, grieved at the sorrows of the house, joined Elektra, Krysothemis, and Orestes in solemn rites to Agamemnon, and in funeral ceremonies to Klytaemnestra whose body was hidden in the earth, and to whose angry spirit her children offered vain sacrifice; but Aegisthus was flung out dishonoured for the birds of the air to rend and the beasts of the field to devour.
These sad duties rendered, Menelaus and Helene gladly turned their faces southward; and it was given them once more to behold their stately palace, and to hold their beloved daughter Hermione in their arms.
Here they dwelt for many days in peace and honour, and here they were visited by many princes; among others by Telemachus, son of Odysseus, when he was come abroad to seek news of his father; and the Ithacan prince was so dazzled by the flash of bronze, of gold and of silver, of amber and of ivory in the great hall of the palace, that he was unable to control his admiration, and exclaimed in his simple way, that surely such must be the palace of Olympian Jove.
But toil and wanderings had chastened the hearts of Menelaus and his queen, and often as they sat, she with her distaff; he leaning on his sceptre, clouds of great shame and sorrow darkened their minds thinking of the years that were gone, and of the brave men whose lives had been made miserable or prematurely ended on their account; nor were they without a present and personal sorrow, for Hermione, their one child, became a cause of grief and almost a quarrel to them. In his gratitude for his great services in bringing the war to an end, Menelaus had promised his daughter to Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and in spite of the en-treaties of his wife, and the aversion of the maiden, he insisted on carrying through the nuptials; but Hermione loved not the fierce warrior, nay, rather she loved Orestes her unhappy cousin, wandering from shore to shore, pursued by the furies of his mother, and Helene pitied them both, and would gladly have helped them. So that when now Orestes, being pronounced free from guilt by the dread court on the Areopagus, made use of his freedom to seek out Neoptolemus, and, meeting him at Delphi, there slew him, and seizing on Hermione brought her home with him to Argos, Helene managed to soften the anger of Menelaus, and to make him give consent to the union of the lovers.
Then in due time, before age had dimmed her beauty or weakened his manly strength, the mysterious visitants foretold by Proteus appeared, and at their call the king and queen arose once more--leaving their pleasant home--but this time side by side, and departed for ever to the blessed fields where eternal joys awaited them.