The Story of the Death of Agamemnon

On the roof of King Agamemnon’s palace in Argos a watchman sat watching. So had he sat night after night, through a whole year, nor was there one of the stars of heaven which he had not seen to rise and set. And as he watched, his eyes were fixed ever on the north, looking for the signal of fire which should bring good tidings to the Queen and to all Argos. For now the great city of Troy was tottering to its fall, and the ten years’ toil was coming to an end.

And lo! even as it drew towards morning, there was a light in the sky that was not the light of the sun, and the man cried aloud, “Now blessed be this light that I have watched for, seeing that it bringeth good tidings to this land. I will straightway to the Queen that she send the news about the city. And may the Gods grant that I join hand to hand with my master when he cometh back to his home, wherein if there be aught that is ill-ordered, who am I that I should speak thereof? Let the walls cry out, if they will, only I will keep silence.”

Then he made haste and told the Queen, who sent messengers throughout Argos, bidding that men should burn thank-offerings of incense on every altar. Also she would that the old men, who were the chiefs and counsellors of the city, should be gathered together to the palace, that they might know the truth of the matter. And while they waited for the Queen, they talked much of what had been in days gone by, in the beginning of the ten years’ war, when King Agamemnon, with King Menelaüs, who was his brother, sailed from that very land of Argos, seeking vengeance for Queen Helen. And one said, “Remember ye not what we saw when the army set forth from the city? how upon the right hand as they marched there appeared two eagles, one black altogether and the other with feathers of white in him, that devoured a hare big with young ones? and how Calchas, the soothsayer, interpreted the thing, saying, ‘The eagles are the two kings; and as these have devoured the hare, so shall the kings devour the city of Troy together with her children! Only we must needs pray that there come not wrath upon the army. For Queen Artemis loveth not these winged dogs of her father Zeus, even the eagles. And if her anger be kindled against us, we shall not turn it away save by an evil sacrifice, from which also shall spring great wrath in the time to come. Therefore may Apollo help us, who is the healer of all evils,’ So spake Calchas, the soothsayer, knowing indeed that Queen Artemis was wroth with King Agamemnon, for that he had hunted and slain, even in her own grove, a beautiful hart which she loved.”

Then said another of the elders, “Nor indeed did the wrath of the goddess tarry. For when the army was gathered together in Aulis she caused that the winds blew ever from the north and hindered the ships from their voyage, so that the men were pinched with hunger and wasted with disease. Then said Calchas, the soothsayer, ‘This is the thing whereof I spake: the goddess asketh the sacrifice that thou knowest of.’ But when the kings heard this, they wept, and smote with their sceptres upon the ground. And King Agamemnon said, ‘How shall I do this thing, and slay my own daughter, even Iphigenia, who is the joy and beauty of my dwelling? Yet it were base to be false to them that have trusted me to be their leader in this war. Therefore the Gods shall have their will.’ Thus he hardened his heart to the evil work; nor did the chiefs have pity on her for all that she was young and fair exceedingly. So when the priests had ended their prayers, her father bade the ministers take her as she lay with her robes about her, and lift her up on the altar, even as men lift a kid which they slay for sacrifice, putting a bridle upon her lips, that she should not cry aloud. Then she let fall to the earth her saffron veil, being fair to see as a very lovely picture, and smote all that stood by with a look exceeding piteous: yea, and would fain have spoken to them, for often had they heard her voice when she sang in the guest-hall of her father. But of the end what need to speak? Who knoweth it not? For indeed the counsels of Calchas were fulfilled.”

While they talked these things one to another the Queen Clytæmnestra came forth from the palace, and they asked her, “Hast thou heard good news, O Queen, that thou biddest them burn incense on the altars?”

“Good news, indeed,” she said, “for the Greeks have taken the great city of Troy.”

And when they doubted if this could be so, and would know when the thing had happened, and how she had heard it so speedily, she set the matter forth to them, as the king had ordered it. “For first,” she said, “they made a great fire on Mount Ida, which is over Troy; and from Ida the light passed to the island of Lemnos, and from Lemnos to the mountain of Athos. But Athos sent it on southward across the sea, on a path of gold like the sunshine, even to Makistus in Eubœa, and Makistus to Messapius, and Messapius, kindling a great pile of heath, sent it, bright as is the moon, across the plain of the Asopus to the cliffs of Cithæron. And from Cithæron it travelled, brighter than before, by the lake Gorgopis to the hill of Ægiplanctus, which looketh down upon the Saronic gulf, and hence to Arachneüs, which is hard by the city. Thus hath the King sent the tidings to me.”

“Tell us more,” said the old man, “for we can scarcely believe this thing.”

“Of a truth,” said the Queen, “this day the Greeks possess the city of Troy, wherein, I trow, are many things which ill agree. For women are making lamentation for husbands and brothers slain with the sword, while the conquerors feast and live softly, being quit of hunger and cold and watchings. Only let them do honour to the gods of the city, nor lay hands greedy of gain on that which is holy. So shall they have a safe return. But if they anger the Gods, haply there shall come upon them the vengeance of them that are slain.”

Then the Queen departed, and the old men spake again among themselves. “Now are the sinners, the men of Troy, caught in the net of destruction! Long since did Zeus bend the bow and make it ready against the transgressor, and now hath the arrow sped to the mark! Evil was the day when Paris shamed the table of his host, stealing the wife of his bosom! Evil the hour when she went, as one that goeth lightly and carelessly, through the gates of Troy, and brought with her the dowry of destruction and death. Sorrow she left behind her in her home; the desolate couch and the empty hall, for here, the grace of the shapely statues mocked her husband’s grief with the stony stare of their loveless eyes, and there, but the empty joy remained that dwells in the dreams of the night. Aye! and a sorrow she left that was greater than this. For the heroes went forth from the land of Greece, valiant and wise and true; and lo! all that Ares, the changer, but not of money, sendeth back is a handful of ashes shut in an urn of brass! Therefore there is wrath in the city against the sons of Atreus, the leaders of the host; nor does the vengeance of the Gods forget the shedder of blood.”

But while they talked thus among themselves, some yet doubting whether the thing were true, cried one of them, “Now shall we know the certainty of this matter, for here cometh a herald with leaves of olive on his head, and he hath dust on his garments and mire on his feet, as one who cometh from a journey.”

Then the herald, whose name was Talthybius, came to the place where they had assembled, and when he had saluted Zeus and Apollo, whom, having been an enemy at Troy, he would fain have as friend, and Hermes, who was the god of his heralds’ craft he said, “Know ye all that King Agamemnon hath come, having, by the help of Zeus, executed judgment to the full against Troy and her children, for the evil which they wrought against the Gods and against this land.”

Then he told the elders what things they had suffered, first on sea, being crowded together on shipboard; and then on land, having their lodging near to the walls of their enemies, and under the open canopy of heaven, being drenched with rains and dews, and frozen with snows from Mount Ida, and burnt with the sun in the windless days of summer. “But now,” he said, “these things are past and gone. And we will nail the spoils of Troy in the temples of the Gods, to be a memorial for them that shall come after. But let the people rejoice, and praise their King and his captains.”

Then came forth Queen Clytæmnestra, and said, “Mark ye who doubted, how that all things are even as I said. And now, herald, go tell thy lord that I wait to receive him with all honour; wherefore let him come with what speed he may; so shall he find a faithful guardian in his house who hath kept true watch and ward over all that he left behind, for this is the boast I make, both true and well beseeming a noble dame.”

Then said the chief of the elders, “Listen to her, herald, for her words are fair. But tell me now, hath Menelaüs had safe return?”

“Would,” said he, “I had some better thing to tell! But what profiteth it to deceive? Truly, the man, together with his ship, is vanished out of our sight.”

“Sailed he then before you?” said the elder, “or was he parted from you in a storm?”

“Twas even so,” answered the herald.

“And did men judge of him as living or dead?”

“That, indeed, no man knoweth, but only the sun who seeth all things. But hearken, I will declare the whole matter. There went out wrath from heaven against us. For after we had set sail, the waves rose high in the night, and the fierce winds from the north dashed our ships one against another, so that when the morning came, lo! the sea was covered with bodies of men and wrecks. But the ship of the King suffered not, for the hand of a god, I trow, and not of a man, held the helm. But be of good cheer. For doubtless they too think of us as of those that have perished, even as we of them. And as for Menelaüs, be assured that he will yet return, for the will of Zeus is not that this house should perish.”

Then said one of the old men, “Rightly they named her Helen, for like hell hath she devoured men and ships, aye, and this great city of Troy. I have heard tell how a man reared a lion’s cub in his house. Very pleasant was he at the first, for the children played with him, and he made sport for the old; but when he grew he showed the temper of his race, and filled the house with blood. Even so came Helen, smiling and fair, to Troy, and now behold the end! But here cometh King Agamemnon. Let us greet him in fitting fashion.”

And as he spake the King came near to the doors of the palace, sitting in a chariot drawn by mules; and by him sat Cassandra, who was daughter to King Priam, having been given to him by the princes when they divided the spoil of Troy. And when the King had saluted the Gods, giving them thanks that they had helped him to take vengeance on the men of Troy, and had also set forth his purpose to order all things in a regular assembly if anything had been done amiss in his absence, there came forth the Queen to greet him, saying, “I am not ashamed, men of Argos, to confess that with great gladness of heart I receive my husband. For truly it is an evil lot for a woman when she sitteth alone in her house, hearing continually rumours and tidings of misfortune. Verily, had my lord here been wounded as oft as fame related this thing of him, these same wounds had been more in number than the meshes of a net; and had he died as often as men reported him dead, three bodies such as the story telleth Geryon to have had, had not sufficed him. Hence it is, O King, that our son Orestes is not here, for I sent him to Strophius the Phocian, who is, as thou knowest, an ancient friend of our house, fearing, if aught should befall thee at Troy, lest some tumult of the people should work harm also unto him. Scant truly and light have been my slumbers, and with many tears have I watched for thee. And now thou art come, what shall I say? Truly this man is to me as the strong pillar of a roof, as an only child to a father, as land seen beyond all hope by sailors, after much toil at sea, as a clear shining after storm, as a fountain springing forth to one that journeyeth in a thirsty land. And now, my lord, I would that thou step from thy car, not setting thy foot upon the earth, seeing that it hath trampled upon the great city of Troy. Why linger ye, ye maids? Strew the pathway with carpeting of purple!”

And King Agamemnon made answer, “Truly, daughter of Leda, thy speech hath been even as my absence, exceeding long. But why dost thou pamper me with luxury, or make my goings hateful to the Gods, strewing this purple under my feet? It is not well, me thinks, that a man should trample on such wealth.”

“Nay,” said the Queen, “be content. Thinkest thou that Priam would not have walked on purple if perchance he had been the conqueror?”

And after they had talked awhile, she prevailed, only the King bade them loose the sandals from under his feet, thinking it shame to waste the substance of his house. Also he gave commandment that they should deal very kindly with the strange woman that had ridden with him in his chariot, for that the Gods have a favour unto them that use their victory with mercy. And when he had said these things he went into the palace, the Queen leading the way.

Then one of the elders said, “There is a nameless fear in my heart; and when I should rejoice for the return of the King and the host, a voice of boding riseth to my lips. If a man be wealthy above measure, let him fling over-board a part, and so escape shipwreck of his house. But blood that hath been spilt upon the earth, what charmer can bring back? Did not Zeus slay the man who raised the dead? For a while ’twere best to be silent.”

Then the Queen came forth from the palace, and bade Cassandra descend from the car and enter the gates. For why, she said, should she struggle against fate which made her to be a slave? Happy indeed was the lot which had brought her to a house of ancient wealth. ‘Twas the newly rich that used harshness to their slaves. But her persuasion availed nothing with the maiden, for she sat and made no answer; and though the old men joined their counsel to the same end, she moved not nor spake. But when the Queen was departed again into the palace, she began to cry aloud, like unto one that was possessed, that there came a smell from the house, as the smell of a slaughter-house, and that she saw the shapes of children who had been cruelly murdered; and then, that another crime was now about to be wrought, a bath made ready, and an entangling robe, and a double-headed axe lifted to strike. And then she spake of herself, that the doom was upon her, and that the King had brought her to die with him, and that she should fall even as the city of her father had fallen. But after awhile her fury abated, and she began to speak plainly. And first she told the elders how it came to pass that she had this gift of prophecy, that she could see what had been, as indeed she had spoken of ancient wickedness that had been done in the house, and also could tell beforehand what should come hereafter. For that Apollo had loved her, and had given her this art; but, because she had deceived him, he had added thereto this curse, that no one should believe her even speaking truth. And then she told them that the old crimes of the house should end in yet another crime; that there was one in the house, a woman to look at, but in truth a very Scylla, a monster of the sea. And at the last she declared plainly that they should see the King Agamemnon lying dead. But the curse was upon her, and they believed her not And then crying out that she saw a lioness that had taken a wolf to be her paramour, she cast away the tokens of prophecy that she carried, the staff from her hand, and the necklace from about her neck. And when she had done this she went to the palace gates, knowing that she went to her death. But first she said that there should come an avenger who should execute vengeance for his father that had been slain and also for her. And when she was arrived at the door of the palace, at the first she started back, for the smell of blood smote her in the face; but then she took heart again and passed on. Only first she turned and said, “O Sun, whose light I see now for the last time, grant that the hand that taketh vengeance for the King may take it also for the slave-woman whom they slay—a conquest, in good sooth, right easy to be made.”

But while the old men doubted what these things might mean, saying that no man could trust in prosperous fortune, if the King, who had won such a victory over the city of Troy, should himself perish, there came a dreadful voice from within, crying out, “Woe is me! I am smitten with a mortal blow!” And while they doubted, it came again, crying, “Woe again! I am smitten with a second blow!” Then they debated what were best to do; and one would have them call to the citizens for help, and another that they should rush into the palace; and some doubted whether aught might now avail. And lo! the great doors of the palace were thrown back and there appeared a dreadful sight—two dead bodies, covered each with a veil, and the Queen, with an axe in her hand, standing beside them, who said—

“I spake before words fitting the time, and now I am not ashamed to speak that which is contrary to them. For this is in truth an old purpose that I have executed. Yea, from the day that he shed the innocent blood, even the blood of Iphigenia, my daughter, it hath been in my heart to slay him. I threw a net about him, whence there was no escape, entangling his limbs in a royal robe. Twice I smote him; twice he groaned, stretching out his limbs in death; aye, and a third blow I added—my offering of thanks to the Ruler of the dead. Right glad was I when the blood spirted on me; glad as the seed when the increase-giving rain cometh down from the sky.”

Then the old men, the counsellors of the city, cried shame upon her that she had done so foul a deed, saying that the people should curse her and cast her out. But she was not one whit fearful or ashamed, saying that he whom she had slain was a man of blood, and unfaithful, and that he had suffered a just punishment together with his paramour. And when they made lamentation over the King that he had been treacherously slain, she said, “Think not that I am this dead man’s wife, as indeed I seem to be; rather am I the avenger that executeth judgment for the ancient evils of this house.”

And when they cried, “O my King, who shall do thee due honour at thy burial, and speak thy praise, and weep for thee?” she made reply, “Trouble not yourselves with these things. As I slew him so will I bury him. And though many tears follow him not from his house, yet doubtless when he cometh to the dwellings of the dead, Iphigenia, his daughter, whom he loved, will meet him, and throw her arms about him, and kiss him, so dear a father he was to her.”

And while they talked thus with each other, there came forward the Prince Ægisthus, with his guard about him, boasting that now the wrongs of his father Thyestes were avenged. Then again the strife of words grew fierce, for the counsellors reproached the Prince that he was treacherous, having bound himself with a false woman against his lord the King; and cowardly also and base, in that he had not dared to do this deed himself, but had left it to the hands of another; also they prophesied that Orestes should come and execute the just judgment of the Gods on them that had slain his father. And the Prince endured not to hear such words, but threatened bonds and imprisonment. So had strife nearly begun, for Ægisthus called to his guards, and the counsellors would fain have roused the citizens, but the Queen, for indeed she would that the shedding of blood should have an end, spake and soothed the anger of the Prince, saying, “Heed not what these babblers say. Thou and I are rulers in this place, aye, and will order all things aright.”

So the two lived together for a while in great pride and joy. But the blood cried against them from the ground, and the Gods forgat them not.

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