Cupid, grant all tongue-tied maidens here: bed, chamber—and Pandar to provide this gear! In the Greeks’ camp after supper, King Agamemnon walks with King Menelaus and Lord Nestor. The general is followed by three warriors, Ulysses, his friend Diomedes, and powerful Ajax.
A priest of Apollo, Calchas, approaches the foreign leader and his brother, and bows. “Now, princes, for the service I have done you, the advantage of the time prompts me to call aloud for recompense.
“Appear it to your mind that, through the sight I bear in things to come, I have abandoned Troy, left my possessions, incurred a traitor’s name!—exposed myself from certain and possessèd convenience to doubtful fortune, sequestering from me all that time, acquaintance, custom and condition made tame and most familiar to my nature!—and here, to do you service, am become as new unto the world—strange, unacquainted.
“I do beseech you to give me now, as by way of a taste, a little benefit out of those many registered in promise, which you say live to come in my behalf.”
Agamemnon knows and respects the nobleman, who occupies a tent within Menelaus’s large pavilion. “What wouldst thou of us, Trojan? Make demand.”
“You have a Trojan prisoner called Antenor, yesterday took,” says Calchas. “Troy holds him very dear.
“Oft have you—and often have you had thanks therefore—requested in rightly great exchange my Cressida, whom Troy hath still denied. But this Antenor, I know, is so much addressèd in their affairs that their military moves all must slack, lacking his manage, and they will almost give us a prince of blood, a son of Priam, in exchange for him!
“Let him be sent, great princes, and he shall buy my daughter!—and her presence shall quite strike off all service I have done in most-accepted pain!”
Agamemnon nods approval. “Let Diomedes bear him, and bring us Cressida hither. Calchas shall have what he requests of us.
“Good Diomedes, furnish you fairly for this interchange; withal, take word that Hector will tomorrow be answerèd in his challenge. Ajax is ready!”
“This shall I undertake,” says Diomedes, bowing. He smiles at Ajax. “And ’tis a burden which I am proud to bear!” He and Calchas go to prepare Lord Antenor for his return to Troy.
As the royal party walked here, Ulysses had been peering forward. “Achilles stands i’ the entrance of his tent,” he tells his companions. “Please it our general to pass strangely by him, as if he were forgotten!—and, princes all, lay negligent and loose regard upon him.
“I will come last. ’Tis likely he’ll question me why such unapplausive eyes are bent on him. If so, I have, to use between your strangeness and his pride, derision—medicinable, which his own will shall have desire to drink!
“It may do good, for pride hath no other mirror to show itself but pride! Supple knees feed arrogance, and are the proud man’s fees.”
Agamemnon agrees. “We’ll execute your purpose, and put on a form of strangeness as we pass along. So do each lord—and either greet him not, or else disdainfully, which shall shake him more than if not looked on. I will lead the way.”
As the first two lords pass him, Achilles, standing with his friend Patroclus, addresses them. “What?—comes the general to speak with me? You know my mind: I’ll fight no more ’gainst Troy.”
Agamemnon, not pausing to look, asks Nestor, “What says Achilles? Would he aught with us?”
The old man glances at Achilles, “Would you, my lord, aught with the general?”
“Nothing, my lord,” Nestor tells Agamemnon.
“The better,” says the general, as he and Nestor walk on.
“Good day, good day,” says Achilles blandly as the king goes.
As he ambles past, King Menelaus, eyes on the path ahead, only mumbles, “How do you, how do you?”
Achilles asks Patroclus, “What?—does the cuckold scorn me?”
Then the new champion comes by. He nods. “How now, Patroclus.”
Achilles replies. “Good morrow, Ajax.”
“Eh?” grunts Ajax, trudging along.
“Aye, and good next day, too.” Then Ajax is gone.
The Greeks’ greatest warrior is perturbed. “What mean these fellows? Know they not Achilles?”
“They pass by strangely,” Patroclus admits. “They were used to bend, to send their smiles before them to Achilles—to come as humbly as they use to creep to holy altars!”
“What, am I poor of late?” asks the hero. “’Tis certain: greatness, once fall’n out with Fortune, must fall out with men too. What the decline is he shall as soon read in the eyes of others as feel in his own fall; for men, like butterflies, show not their grainy wings but to the summer.
“Not a man, being simply Man, hath any honour but those honours that are outside him—place, riches, favour—prizes of accident as oft as merit. And when they fall, being slippery standers, the loves that leaned on them slip, too!—do pluck down one another, and together die in the fall.
“But ’tis not so with me!—Fortune and I are friends! I do enjoy at ample point all that I did possess!” He frowns. “Save these men’s looks, which do, methinks, find out in me something not worthy of such rich beholding as they have often given.” He sees another passer-by. “Here is Ulysses; I’ll interpret his reading.
“How now, Ulysses!”
The commander, strolling past, glances up from his book. “’Now, great Thetis’ son!”
“What are you reading?”
Ulysses looks down at the page as if puzzled. “A strange fellow here writes that, ‘A man, however dearly reported, however much in having, either without or in, cannot make boast to have that which he hath, nor feels not what he owns, but by a reflecting—as when his virtue, shining upon others, heats them, and they retort that heat again to the first giver.’”
Achilles takes charge. “This is not strange, Ulysses! The beauty that is borne here in the face the bearer knows not!—it commends itself to others’ eyes. Nor doth the eye, that most pure spirit of sense, behold itself, not going into itself; but, eye to eye opposèd, each salutes the other with the other’s form. For speculation turns not to itself till it hath travelled, and is mirrored there where it may see itself. This is not strange at all.”
Still, Ulysses seems troubled. “I do not strain at the position—it is familiar—but at the author’s drift, which, in his explanation, expressly proves that no man is the lord of anything—though in and of him there be much consisting—till he communicate his parts to others!
“Nor doth he himself know them for aught, till he behold them formèd in the applause where they’re extended, which like an arch reverberates the voice again, or, like a gate of steel fronting the sun, receives and renders back its figure and its heat.
“I was much wrapt in this,” says Ulysses, “when suddenly I perceived the unknown Ajax!—Heavens, what a man is there!—a very horse, in that has he knows not his nature. What things there are most abject in regard, yet valuable in use!”
He shakes his head. “What things, again, most dear in the esteem, but poor in worth.
“And now shall we see, tomorrow—in acts that very chance doth throw upon him—Ajax renownèd!
“O heavens, what some men do, which some men leave to do! How some men creep into skittish Fortune’s hall, while others play the idiot in her eyes! How one man eats into another’s pride while that pride is feasting on its wantonness!
“To see these Grecian lords!—why, even now they clap the lubber Ajax on the shoulder as if his foot were already on brave Hector’s breast, and great Troy shrinking!”
“I do believe it,” grumbles Achilles, “for they passed by me as misers do by beggars!—gave to me neither good word nor look! What?—are my deeds forgot?”
Ulysses shrugs. “Time hath, my lord, a pouch at his back wherein he puts alms for Oblivion—the great-sized monster of ingratitude! Those scraps are good deeds past—which are devoured as fast as they are made, forgotten as soon as done.
“Perseverance, dear my lord, keeps honour bright; to have done is to hang quite out of fashion, like a knight’s rusty mail, in monumental mockery!
“Take the immediate way!”—act now. “For Honour travels in a strait so narrow that only one goes abreast with her. Keep then the path!—for Envy hath a thousand sons, that one by one pursue!If you give way, or hedge aside from the direct sight forth, like an entered tide they’ll all rush by, and leave you hindmost!—or, like a gallant horse fall’n in the first rank, to lie there as pavement for the abject rear!—o’er-run and trampled on!
“Then what they do in present, though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours! For Time is like a fashionable host that but slightingly shakes a parting guest by his hand, yet with arms outstretchèd grasps-in the comer as if he would flee! ‘Welcome’ ever smiles, and ‘Farewell’ goes out sighing.
“Oh, let not Virtue seek remuneration for the thing it was; for beauty, wit, high birth, vigour of bone, desert in service, love, friendship, charity—all are subject to envious and calumniating Time.
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin: that all with one consent praise new-born gauds, though they are made and molded of things past, and give to dust that is a little gilded more laud than gold o’er-dust-ed!
“The present eye praises the object present. Then marvel not, thou great and complete man, that all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax, since things in motion sooner catch the eye than what stirs not.
“The cry went once on thee… and still it might. It may yet again, if thou—whose glorious deeds in these fields but of late made missions ’mongst the emulous gods themselves,”—drew them into the conflict, “and drave great Mars to faction!—wouldst not entomb thyself alive, encase thy reputation in thy tent!”
Achilles is indignant. “For this my privacy I have strong arguments!”
“But the arguments ’gainst your privacy are more potent than heroical. ’Tis known, Achilles, that you are in love with one of Priam’s daughters!”—Lady Polyxena, Cassandra’s sister.
Achilles is surprised. “Huh? Known?”
“Is that such a wonder? The prudence that’s in a watchful state knows almost every grain of Plutus’s gold, finds bottom in the incomprehensible deeps, keeps pace with thought!—and, almost like the gods, does uncover thoughts in their quiet cradles! In the soul of a state there is a mystery, with which reason durst never meddle, which hath an operation more divine than breath or pen can give expression to!
“All the commerce that you have had with Troy is ours as perfectly as yours, my lord—and much better would it fit Achilles to throw down Hector than Polyxena!”
Ulysses now mentions, with seeming sadness, Achilles’ eight-year-old son: “And it must grieve young Pyrrhus, now at home, when Fame shall in our islands sound her trumpet, and all the Greekish girls shall trippingly sing, ‘Great Hector’s sister did Achilles win—but our great Ajaxbravely beat down him!’
“Farewell, my lord. I as your friend speak: the fool”—Ajax—“slides o’er the ice that you should break!” Ulysses opens his book, resumes reading, and walks away.
Patroclus touches his patron’s massive arm. “To that effect, Achilles, have I moved you!
“A woman impudent and mannish grown is not more loathèd than an effeminate man in time of action! I stand condemnèd for this!—they think my little stomach for the war, and your great love for me, restrain you thus!
“Sweet, rouse yourself! The weak, wanton Cupid shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold, and, like a dew-drop from the lion’s mane, be shook to air!”
Achilles is deeply vexed. “Shall Ajax fight with Hector?”
“Aye—and perhaps receive much honour by him!”
“I see my reputation is at stake. My fame is sharply gorèd!” He stares at the ground, considering.
“Oh, then beware! Those wounds heal ill that men do give themselves!” warns Patroclus. “Omission to do what is necessary seals a commission to draw from a reserve of dangers!—and then like an ague, danger subtly taints, even when we sit idly in the sun!”
Achilles looks up. “Go call Thersites hither, sweet Patroclus. I’ll send the fool to Ajax, and desire him to invite the Trojan lords to see us here, unarmèd, after the combat.
“I have a woman’s longing—an appetite that I am sick withal, to see great Hector in his garb of peace—to talk with him, and to behold his visage, even to my full view.” The theory Ulysses described troubles him. What will be see there of himself?
Just then Thersites comes to the tent. “A labour saved,” says Patroclus.
The slender gentleman is annoyed. “A wonder!”
“What?” asks Achilles.
“Ajax goes up and down the field, meeting by himself!”
“He must fight singly tomorrow with Hector,” says Thersites, “and is so pathetically proud of an heroical cudgelling that he raves by saying nothing!”
“How can that be?”
“Why, he stalks up and down like a peacock—a stride, then a stand!—ruminates, like a hostess that hath no arithmetic, but uses her brain to set down her reckoning!—bites his lip with a politic regard,”—a determined look, “as if to say, ‘There were wit in this head, if ’twould come out!’ And so there is—but it lies as coldly in him as fire in a flint, which will not show without knocking!”
Thersites laughs. “The man’s undone forever! For if Hector break not his neck i’ the combat, he’ll break it himself in vainglory!
“He knows not me! I said, ‘Good morrow, Ajax,’ and he replied, ‘Thanks, Agamemnon.’ What think you of this man that takes me for the general? He’s grown into a very land-fish!—languageless!—a monster!”
“Thou must be my ambassador to him, Thersites.”
“Who, I? Why, he’ll answer nobody!—he professes not answering! Speaking is for beggars; he wears his tongue in’s arms!” Thersites offers to show them the warrior’s new demeanor. “I will put on his presence: let Patroclus make demands to me; you shall see the pageant of Ajax!”
Achilles grins. “To him, Patroclus! Tell him I humbly desire the valiant Ajax to invite the most valorous Hector to come unarmèd to my tent, and to procure safe-conduct for his person from the magnanimous and most illustrious, six-or-seven-times-honoured captain-general of the Grecian army, Agamemnon… et cetera. Do thus.”
Patroclus begins the skit. “Jove bless great Ajax!”
Thersites’ expression is blank. “Hm.”
“I come from the worthy Achilles—”
“—who most humbly desires you to invite Hector to his tent—”
“—and to procure safe-conduct from Agamemnon.”
“Aye, my lord.”
“What say you to’t?”
Thersites’ Ajax merely blinks. “God b’ wi’ you, with all my heart.”
“Your answer, sir?”
The simulated hero mumbles. “If tomorrow be a fair day, by eleven o’clock it will go one way or other.” He scowls. “Howsoever, he shall pay for me ere he has me!”
“Your answer, sir?”
Thersites’ Ajax turns away. “A plague on opinion—a man may wear it on both sides, like a leather jerkin. Fare you well, with all my heart….”
Achilles laughs. “Why, he is not in this tune, is he?”
“No—he’s but out o’ tune thus!” replies Thersites. “What music will be in him when Hector has knocked out his brains, I know not—but I am sure none, unless the fiddler Apollo takes his sinews to make catlings of!”—to use as his instrument’s gut-strings.
Achilles regards the abrasive agent. “Come, thou shalt bear a letter to him straight.”
“Let me bear another one to his horse, for that’s the more capable creature!”
The big warrior frowns. “My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirrèd; and I see not myself at the bottom of it.” Finding no reflection is a bad omen. He and Patroclus go into the tent.
Thersites considers Achilles’ muddied thinking. Would the fountain of your mind were clear again—so I might water an ass at it!