‘Sir,’ the driver whispered aside to Priam, who was sitting straight on the crossbench, his figure as wooden as the bench itself, ‘sir – this fellow who is with us – I know he’s wearing a Greek bonnet and is dressed like one, but I wonder if he really is a Greek. Or even, my lord –’ and he lowered his voice still further – ‘a man like the rest of us.’
‘What’s that, old fellow?’ the youth demanded from the off-side of the cart, and the little mule turned her head at the change in his voice, which was no longer light and youthful like that of her friendly stranger. ‘What are you mumbling there? I’ve got good ears, you know, it’s no use whispering. So you think I’m not a man like the rest of you, is that it? What am I then? Who am I?’
Priam’s eyes opened wide. He wondered how he had not seen it before. ‘My lord,’ he breathed. ‘My lord Hermes!’
The carter too was wide-eyed. With his usual feigned indisposition to be astonished by anything the world might throw at him, he disguised the alarm he felt, but could not avoid asking himself one or two discomforting questions.
If he really was the celestial joker – messenger, thief, trickster, escort of souls to the underworld – where were they heading? Had they drowned back there, when he had led them so cheerfully to his chosen crossing place? Were they already disembodied souls on their way to the afterlife?
He pinched himself. Didn’t feel like it! Pushed his nose into the yoke of his robe and sniffed. Didn’t smell like it either.
‘I see you are amazed,’ the god said, ‘both of you. Well, that is understandable, and proper too. What I told you is true, I was sent. Though not by Achilles, who knows nothing of your coming.’
He saw the look of alarm that passed between the two. That too was understandable and he hastened to reassure them.
‘Sent, yes, but not for the usual reasons, nothing of that sort is intended. Not on this occasion. The next time you see me will be a different story. But you’ll know me then, won’t you, old fellow? I am, by the way,’ and he paused to take his gloves from his belt and draw them very delicately over his slender fingertips, ‘invisible, though you can see me well enough. Oh, and that little girl you have been so concerned about –’ this to the carter, as if he had just called it to mind – ‘she’s sitting up now eating a bowl of barley porridge and asking where you’ve got to and when you’ll be back.’ He turned, addressing the king. ‘Now, father,’ he said gravely, ‘the time has come to gather your strength. The Greek trench is just beyond that second barrow. We’re almost there.’
Priam found himself suddenly overcome. He was at the limit of his strength. The moment had arrived when he must do in fact what to this point he had done only in plan, in the realm of thought. Would he be equal to it? Faint with weakness at the thought of coming face to face at last with Achilles, he felt his eyelids droop, as if he might be about to seek refuge in sleep.
What strengthened him was the presence at his side of his good Idaeus, who seemed in no way intimidated by their escort’s transformation. As if the arrival of a god on the scene was in his life a quite ordinary occurrence, one more eventuality to be recognised and taken account of in a world of endless surprise and accident.
Perhaps it was bravado. A determination not to be impressed, or at least not to show it. If so, it worked, it had its effect, and he too felt the benefit.
He took comfort as well from the title the god had just given him. The youth had addressed him as father on earlier occasions, but Priam had taken it then as no more than another aspect of his playful teasing, the sort of half-affectionate, half-patronising tone that young men adopt, especially young men who are in love with their own importance, when they are dealing with the old. Respectful yes, ingratiating even, but with a hint as well of amused condescension. Now, with the play about to begin in which he was to represent ‘the father’ – and in a way he had never till now attempted – he was moved by this invocation of the sacred tie, and took it, from a god’s lips, as an endorsement and blessing.
The youth – Hermes – clasped his wrist, and Priam felt a jolt as his blood responded to the firm, rather icy touch. Then a slow energy flooded his limbs.
They had arrived at the trench before the stockade wall. Two body-lengths wide, three sword-lengths deep, it was overgrown with thistles and protected by a hedge of sharpened stakes set at a forward angle.
Beyond it, twelve feet high and made of pine logs caulked with oakum, was the high portal gate to the camp. Three men were needed to raise the pine trunk with which it was barred. Only Achilles among mortal men could manage it alone.
A company of Argives was on duty in the inner yard. Scattered across the open space, they were squatting round the embers of cookfires where their evening meal was broiling, or sprawled on their cloaks playing at dice. It was the early watch, an easy hour. When a sudden knocking came at the gate the captain of the guard looked up surprised. No signal had come in from the pickets he had posted of strangers approaching the camp.
He climbed slowly to his feet and, with two or three men at his side, started out across the yard. The others, or as many of them as were not too deeply absorbed in talk or in their dice-games, looked on in a casual way to see what was amiss.
But the captain and his companions had barely advanced a dozen paces when, with a crack! that brought the whole yard to its feet, the massive pole that barred the gate, as if moved by some invisible agency, broke from its crutch and slowly began to rise.
The captain and his companions stood as if spellbound, the hands on their half-drawn swords too heavy to lift, the tongues in their open mouths also stopped, and their feet, their breath.
Slowly, as they watched, the leaves of the gate creaked on their hinges and swung open.
A covered wagon was there, five paces outside the gate, drawn by two black mules and with two old men seated side by side on the crossbench.
Only when it had lurched and rumbled on into the camp, and the leaves of the great gate had closed behind it, and the bar, once again as if moved by invisible hands, had dropped with a thud into its lock, did the watchers, all staring now, give voice to their consternation, each man doubting what he had seen.
Achilles is at mess in his hut. He eats almost nothing these days but feels obliged out of consideration for his men to make an appearance.
The men, all closely crowded shoulder to shoulder, share a trestle table in the centre of the hut. Achilles sits apart, at a little folding table of inlaid ivory that his attendants, Automedon and his squire Alcimus, have set in a secluded corner where the torchlight does not reach.
Under the low thatched roof the air is thick with the smell of pitch from pinewood torches that sputter and pour out smoke and acrid fumes; and of animal fat and the sweat of unwashed bodies. The men are noisy. The noise they make gathers to an uproar, then lapses, then rises again, wave on wave, like the sea. Cups are banged down hard in drunken fists.
A quarrel breaks out. A shaggy head above a shaggier fur-clad shoulder looms in giant reflection against the flickering red of the deal-plank wall. Others leap to join it, and for a time they surge in lumbering shadow play, from which sweaty faces, wet mouths, black eye-pits, flare, half-dark, half-flame. Then the heave subsides, and the big shadows go back to being the solid bodies of men, who slap one another on the back and, shouting, crowd in close, shoulder to shoulder. In a quiet moment someone begins a rambling reminiscence, some old sadness or talk of home, and is roughly silenced. More wine is carried in.
Achilles barely notices all this. It is just the noise that grown men make when they are in company and afraid of where silence might take them. Trees in a blow make such a din. So do stones when they dash together.
He sits with a full cup of wine before him, eating only so that his attendants will be free to eat.
Now that Patroclus is gone, Automedon is his chief attendant, the driver of his chariot and his close body-servant. One of the noblest of the Myrmidons, he is a lean-jawed fellow of an imp
The fact is, he resents Automedon. His presence is both a reminder and a rebuke.
When the helmet was struck from Patroclus’ head and he went reeling, hot blood gushing from his mouth, it was this man, Automedon, who ran to lift him up, and holding him close in his arms, watched the light that moved cloudlike across his gaze as the bright world dimmed, and crying out and leaning closer, caught the last breath at his lips. It was Automedon who stood astride the body and, blinded by tears, fought the Trojan jackals off.
Him, Achilles tells himself bitterly, not me. In his arms, not mine.
It is because he resents Automedon that Achilles has made him his squire. Patroclus, he knows, would expect nothing less of him. But the thought is there, always. Him, not me – and it rankles.
Automedon, alert to every mood in Achilles, is aware of this. He recognises Achilles’ grief; he too is grieving. He loves the man, and not only for Patroclus’ sake, and does not let the hurt he feels affect the attention he gives to even the smallest and most unspoken of Achilles’ needs. Ever watchful, when Achilles gives the sign at last, he nods to Alcimus and they draw stools up to the table and join him.
They are young, these men, and have hearty appetites. Forcing himself, Achilles takes something from each of the dishes they have set before him – scallions, a handful of olives, bread, a little sour cheese. The wine they have mixed and poured he barely touches.
Automedon tries not to make it obvious that they have been holding back. But Alcimus, who is just a boy, does not. When Achilles has served himself, his big hands go quickly to the platter of roast meat, the bread in its woven basket, and his jaws work horribly over the gobbets of fat.
Automedon, Achilles observes, says nothing. He does not have to. Suddenly conscious of the sound his chewing makes, Alcimus swallows the last pieces whole, and when he sucks the grease from his fingers it is in a restrained, maidenly way that is almost comic.
Achilles is fond of Alcimus and feels sorry for him. He would rather, he knows, be with the others, banging his cup down on the trestle table and tearing at his food as he shouts to be heard above the crowd. It is this overabundance in him of an animal nature he has not yet learned to subdue that Achilles finds endearing in the youth, and which makes his lapses into hulking awkwardness so easy to forgive. He likes to have Alcimus by him. For his own sake, but as a reminder too of what he himself was just a season ago.
Once again he reaches into a dish so that his companions can seize the occasion and do likewise. Takes a skewer of meat. Turns it in his fingers. Puts it back.
Now, in the smoky darkness at the far end of the hut, a hand sweeps across sounding strings. Achilles raises his head.
A god moves invisible among them, and in the wake of his passing the full-throated shouting of the Myrmidons is cut off. The silvery notes of the lyre touch and change the air. When the voices start up again, as they do soon enough, they are not so loud that the music cannot be heard beneath them. It persists. And so, for Achilles, does the chord the music has struck in him.
He knows what this sudden suspension of his hard, manly qualities denotes. This melting in him of will, of self. Under its aspect things continue to be just themselves, but what is apprehensible to him now is a fluidity in them that on other occasions is obscured. The particles of which they are composed, within the solid forms, tumble and swarm. As if flow, not fixity, were their nature. The world swims, and for as long as the mood lasts he too is afloat.
He has moved into his mother’s element and is open again to her shimmering influence. In such moods he sees things – a thickening of the half-light beyond Automedon’s shoulder that strikes him first as a startling of his blood.
A figure, as yet all hovering vagueness, has begun to take shape there.
Patroclus, he breathes. You! At last, at last! He watches spell-struck as the figure advances through the smoky dark towards him.
But this is no young man. His disappointment dissolves in another, deeper sorrow.
The figure, tall, spare, wearing a white robe without decoration, is old. The loose flesh under the chin hangs in wrinkled folds, the eyes deep-set under knotty brows.
It is half a question this time. Slowly he rises from his seat.
Alcimus glances at Automedon, then back across his shoulder to see what is there. He sees, and he and Automedon start up both and reach for their swords. Achilles, half-risen, continues to stare.
It is nine years since Achilles last saw his father. When he sailed from Phthia he was little more than a boy, already fully grown and well-made but with few signs upon him of the man he has become – a warrior, deep-chested, thick in the shoulders and neck, his features roughened by long months of bivouacking on the open plain. It is what time has done to him. And it strikes him now, in a great wave of sadness, how much his father too is changed.
The Peleus he left, who had clasped him so strongly to his breast, reluctant to the point of tears to let him go, had been in the prime of life, strong-thewed and warrior-like, a man to be feared. The figure who comes to him now is still noble-looking and tall, but all his muscles are slack. The hair, once thick and iron-grey, is thin and of a fleecy whiteness.
‘Father,’ he says again, aloud this time, overcome with tenderness for this old man and his trembling frailty. ‘Peleus! Father!’
The great Achilles, eyes aswarm, is weeping. With a cry he falls on one knee, and leans out to clasp his father’s robe. Automedon and Alcimus, their swords now drawn and gleaming, leap to his side.
Achilles, startled, looks again.
The man is a stranger. Noble, yes, even in his plain robe, but not at all like Peleus. What tricks the heart can play! The man is clearly not his father, but for half a hundred beats of his heart his father had been truly present to him, and he continues now to feel tenderly vulnerable to all those emotions in him that belong to the sacred bond.
Which is why, to the puzzlement of his two attendants, he does not immediately take the interloper by the throat but enquires, almost mildly, ‘But who are you? How did you get into this hut?’ As if, whoever he might be, there was something uncanny in this stranger’s appearing so suddenly, and unnoticed, in a place thick with his followers.
The old man totters and looks as if he might fall. He glances apprehensively at the younger of the two men who face him with drawn swords. Alcimus, lionlike, can barely restrain himself from springing.
Achilles, seeing what it is that has alarmed the man, makes a sign, and Alcimus, after a quick look to Automedon for confirmation, sheathes his sword.
Priam steadies himself. The occasion has moved too quickly, and in a way he is not prepared for. He has come here to kneel to Achilles. Instead the great Achilles is kneeling to him. Still, the moment has arrived. He must go on.
‘I am Priam, King of Troy,’ he says simply. ‘I have come to you, Achilles, just as you see me, just as I am, to ask you, man to man, as a father, for the body of my son. To ransom and bring him home.’
Priam closes his eyes. Now, he thinks. Now, they will strike.
The two attendants continue to stand alert, Automedon still hand on sword. Achilles rises to his feet. But nothing happens.
‘But how did you get here?’ he asks. ‘Into the camp? Into this hut?’
‘I was guided,’ Priam answers. And in recalling the god who has led him here, Hermes the giant-killer, he takes heart.
Achilles, he sees, is impressed by this. He does not repeat the word but it is registered in the line that appears between his brows, the slight parting of his lips. He understands immediately, Priam sees, that more
‘I came in a wagon,’ he explains. ‘With my herald, Idaeus. He is out there in the yard with the treasure I have brought you.’
He does not kneel. The occasion for that has passed. So the whole scene, as he had imagined and acted it out in his mind, does not take place.
Instead, he stands quietly in the stillness that surrounds them, despite the noise that Achilles’ Myrmidons are making, and waits.
Achilles narrows his eyes, examines the man before him. He makes a sign, almost invisible, to Automedon, who removes his hand from his weapon and goes out.
All this has happened so quickly and so quietly in this darkened corner of the hut that the men at the big mess table remain unaware of the extraordinary happening in their midst. They continue to shout one another down in boisterous argument and raise their cups in drunken toasts. Under the din they make, the notes of the lyre continue to colour the air. All of which gives the moment, as Achilles experiences it, a dreamlike quality.
The tenderness of his earlier mood is still strong upon him. Beyond this old man who claims – can it be true? – to be Priam, King of Troy, hovers the figure of his father, which is too immediate in Achilles’ mind, too disturbing, to be pushed aside. Impatient to know what it is exactly that he has to deal with, he makes a sign to Alcimus to go after Automedon and bring back news of what he has found.
Ransom by David Malouf / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes