On his throne in the palace at Troy, King Priam solemnly addresses four of his sons. “After so many hours, lives, and speeches spent, thus once again says Nestor from the Greeks: ‘Deliver Helen, and all damages else—honour, loss of time, travail, expense, wounds, friends and what else dear that is consumèd in the hot digestion of this cormorant war—shall be struck off.’”
Even after the fighting had bogged down, years ago, the Attic invaders, once eager for glory and pillage, still demanded, along with the return of Sparta’s queen, reparations and penalties. Now they want to go home.
“Hector, what say you to’t?” the sovereign asks the eldest, strongest and most confident—the Trojans’ champion.
“Insofar as it touches me in particular,” says the prince, “though no man fears the Greeks less than I, yet, dread Priam, there is no lady of softer bowels—more spongy to suck in the reasoning offear, more ready to cry out, ‘Who knows what follows?’—than Hector is. And modest doubt, called ‘the beacon of the wise,’ is the bandaging gauze that reaches to the bottom of awound. The worst of peace is surety: safety securèd.
“Let Helen go.”
All are surprised—and Prince Paris’s face is now flushed.
“Ever since the first sword was drawn about this question,” says Hector, “every tithèd soul ’mongst many thousand dead hath been as prizèd as Helen!
“I mean, of ours. If we have lost so many tenths of ours to guard a thing not ours—nor worth to us, had it our name, the value of one in ten!—what merit is in that thinking which denies the yielding of her up?”
“Fie, fie, my brother!” cries Troilus, the youngest prince. “Weigh you the worth in honour of a king so great as our dread father on a scale of common ounces? Will you with counters sum the vast proportion of his infinite?—and buckle-in a waist most fathomless with spans and inches so diminutive as fears and reasons? Fie, for his godly shame!”
Prince Helenus laughs. “No marvel, though, that you bite so sharply at reasons, you are so empty of them! Should not our father bear the great sway of his affairs with reason? Because your speech hath none, that tells him so!”
Troilus scoffs. “You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest! You fur your gloves with reason!
“Here are your reasons: you know an enemy intends you harm; you know that a sword employèd is perilous—and reason flies from the intent of all harm! Who marvels then, when Helenus beholds a Grecian and his sword, if he do set the very wings of reason onto his heels, and fly like chidden Mercury from Jove?—or like a star disorbèd!”—a comet. “Nay, if we talk of reason, let’s shut our gates and sleep! Manhood and honour would have hare-hearts, if they but larded their thoughts with his crampèd reason! Reason in that respect makes livers pale, and lustihood dejected!”
But Hector seems loath to abandon logic. “Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost for the holding.”
“What is ought but as ’tis valuèd?” counters Troilus; the Greeks apparently treasure her.
“But value dwells not in particular will,” says Hector, “it holds estimate, and dignity as well, when ’tis as precious in itself as in the prizer. ’Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god! And the will dotes that is attentive to whatitself infectiously adores without some image of the adorèd’s merit!”
Troilus offers an argument: “Say I take today a wife, and my election is led on in the conduct of my enkindled will by mine eyes and ears—two trusted pilots ’twixt the dangerous shores of will and judgment.
“If my will later distaste what it elected, how may I avoid the wife I chose? There can be no evasion, no blenching from this standing firm by honour!” In his view, Troy is wedded to the war. “We turn not back the silks upon the merchant when we have soiled them, nor the remaining viands we do not throw in unrespective stew because we now are full!”
Helen’s lover is silent—but grinds his teeth, hearing the youth’s inept analogies.
Troilus presses on, citing the past. “It was thought meet that Paris should do some vengeance on the Greeks.” He tells Hector, “Your breath of full consent bellied his sails! The seas and winds, old wranglers, took a truce, and did him service: he touchèd the ports desired. And in reprisal for an old aunt whom the Greeks hold captive”—King Priam’s sister Hesione—“he brought back a Grecian queen, whose youth and freshness wrinkles Apollo’s face, and makes stale the morning!
“Why keep we her?—the Grecians keep our aunt!
“Is she worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl whose price hath launchèd ships above a thousand, and turned crownèd kings into merchants! If you’ll avouch ’twas wisdom that Paris went—as you must needs, for you all cried, ‘Go, go!’—if you’ll confess he brought home a noble prize—as you must needs, for you all clapped your hands and cried, ‘Inestimable!’—why do you now berate the result of your proper wisdoms, and do a deed that Fortune never did?—beggar the estimation of that which you prizèd richer than sea and land!
“Oh, theft most base, that we have stol’n what we do fear to keep!—thieves so unworthy of a thing stolen that, in their company whom we did disgrace, we fear to warrant it in our native place!”
The princes—now defensive as thieves—are musing, when they hear a woman’s shrill, despairing voice coming nearer: “Cry, Trojans, cry!”
The old king is startled. “What noise? What shriek is this?”
“’Tis our mad sister,” says Troilus. “I do know her voice.”
She calls again. “Cry, Trojans!”
“It is Cassandra,” mutters Hector.
She storms into the hall. “Cry, Trojans, cry! Lend me ten thousand eyes, and I will fill them with prophetic tears!”
Hector tries to fend her off. “Peace, sister, peace!”
The lady stares at the warriors, wide-eyed in dismay. “Virgins and boys, mid-age and wrinkled eld!—soft infancy, that nothing canst but cry, add to my clamours!” she pleads. “Let us pay betimes a moiety”—half—“of that mass of moan to come!
“Cry, Trojans, cry! Practice your eyes for shedding tears! Troy must not be, nor goodly Ilion stand!—our firebrand brother Paris burns us all! Cry, Trojans, cry!
“Cry out ‘Helen’ and ‘Ah, woe!’ Cry ‘Troy burns!’—or else let Helen go!”
She has finished this repetition of one of her dire warnings; as always, the noblemen will ignore her exhortation. Tugging at her hair in frustration, she departs, reduced to sobs.
Hector resumes his probing. “Now, youthful Troilus, do not these high strains of divination in our sister work some touches of remorse? Or is your blood so madly hot that no discourse on reason—nor fear of bad outcome in a bad cause—can qualify the same?”
The youngest prince is unyielding. “Why, brother Hector, we may think the justness of each act such and no other than as event doth form it!—and not once reject the courage of our minds because Cassandra’s mad! Her brain-sick raptures cannot distaste the goodness of a quarrel which hath our several honours all engagèd to make it gracious to fight for and maintain!
“As for my private part, I am no more touchèd than all Priam’s sons.” Suddenly aware of the older men’s wry amusement, he blushes. He aims sharp sarcasm at the priest—even Helenus had laughed: “And Jove forbid there should be done amongst us such things as might offend the weakest spleen!”
Paris, too, glares—at Troilus. “Else might the world be convinced of levity in my undertakings as well as your counsels!
“But I attest by the gods: your full consent gave wings to my proposition, and cut off all fears attending on so dire a project! For what, alas, could these my single arms do?—what propagation is in one man’s valour to withstand the push and enmity of those this quarrel would excite?
“Yet, I protest, were I alone to pass upon the difficulties, and had as ample power as I have will, Paris should ne’er retract what he hath done, nor falter in the pursuit!”
Old King Priam finds his bravado irksome. “Paris, you speak like one besotted on your sweet delights! You have the honey still—but these, the gall!—so to be valiant has no praise at all!”
But Paris persists. “Sir, I purpose not merely for myself the pleasures such beauty brings with it, but I would have the soiling in her ‘fair rape’ wiped clean, by honourably keeping her!”
He appeals to the others. “What treason it were to the ransackèd queen—disgrace to your great worths, and shame to me—now to deliver her possession up on terms of base compulsion! Can it be that so degenerate a strain as this should once set footing in your generous bosoms?
“There’s not the meanest spirit in our party without a heart to dare, or sword to draw, where Helen is defended!—nor none so noble whose life were ill bestowed, or death unfamed, when Helen is the subject!
“Then, I say, well may we fight for her whom, we know well, the world’s large spaces cannot parallel!”
Prince Hector has listened to the others’ arguments. “Paris and Troilus, you have both said well, but on the cause and question now in hand have glozed—spoken superficially, not much unlike young men whom Aristotle thought unfit to hear moral philosophy.
“The reasons you allege do more conduce to the hot passion of distempered blood than to making up of free determination ’twixt right and wrong!—for pleasure and revenge have ears more deaf than adders to the voice of any true decision.
“Nature craves that all dues be rendered to their owners; now, what dearer debt in all humanity than wife is to the husband? If this law of Nature be corrupted through emotion, and great minds, in partial indulgence of their benumbèd wills, resist the same, there is law in each well-ordered nation to curb those raging appetites that are most disobedient and refractory.
“If Helen, then, be wife to Sparta’s king—as it is known she is—these moral laws of nature and of nations speak loud to have her back returnèd!
“Thus to persist in doing wrong extenuates not wrong, but makes it much more heavy!
“Hector’s opinion is this, in the way of truth.”
He smiles. “Yet ne’ertheless, my spirited brethren, I do defend that you resolve to keep Helen still!—for ’tis a cause that hath no mean implication upon our joint and several dignities!”
Young Troilus is delighted. “Why, there you touch the life of our design! Were it not glory that we more cared about than the performance of our heaving spleens,”—strong emotions, “I would not wish a drop of Trojan blood spent more in her defence!
“But, worthy Hector, she is a theme of honour and renown, a spur to valiant and magnificent deeds—in whose presence courage may beat down our foes!
“And Fame in time will come to canonize us! For I presume brave Hector would not lose so rich advantage of promised glory as smiles upon the forehead of this action for the wide world’s revenue!”
Hector nods, and smiles at his youngest brother. “I am yours, you valiant offspring of great Priamus!
“I have sent a roistering challenge amongst the dull and factious nobles of the Greeks which will strike amazement in their drowsy spirits!
“I was advisèd their great general slept, whilst dissension in his army crept.