Ransom, p.6David Malouf
‘One day war comes, and what the moment demands is strength of nerve and sinew, quickness of eye and foot and hand. An old man has no part to play then but that of a bystander or passive looker-on. And if all goes badly, if the citadel falls and the killers come pouring through the streets – men whose blood is a roaring lion in them, who go raging from house to house looking for women and children to destroy, and feeble old men, old bystanders and lookers-on, to run down and slaughter – it will mean nothing then, nothing at all, if one of those feeble old men happens also to be a king. When the dogs claw at one another’s backs in their frenzy to get at his entrails, when they gnaw at the skull and the misshapen feet, and tear without shame at the old man’s private parts, the source of so many noble sons and daughters.
‘One of the chief concerns of a good king is the image he presents, and most of all, as he grows older, the image that other men will keep of him when he is gone. That is what I am concerned with now, in these last days of my kingship.
‘I cannot stop what may be about to occur. That I leave, as I must, to the gods. If the last thing that happens to me is to be hunted down in the heart of my citadel, and dragged out by the feet, and shamelessly stripped and humiliated, so be it. But I do not want that to be the one sad image of me that endures in the minds of men. The image I mean to leave is a living one. Of something so new and unheard of that when men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I was. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger. Who can go humbly, as a father and as a man, to his son’s killer, and ask in the gods’ name, and in their sight, to be given back the body of his dead son. Lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust.’
Priam’s voice breaks and he turns aside to hide his tears. Hecuba’s hand is there to steady him. The rest too are moved. And they see, as Hecuba does, that there is no point in further argument. Foolish as the old man’s plan may be, they can only reconcile themselves and let him have his way.
It is early afternoon now. Priam, already attired in the plain white robe of his vision, with Hecuba beside him and his head nodding a little, is seated under an awning in the open courtyard. He is waiting while Hippothous and Dius, two of the royal princes, supervise the getting ready of a cart. Helenus has been dispatched to assemble the precious objects he will take from his treasury, the cauldrons, tripods, armour and the rest that will make up Hector’s ransom.
At last, with a buzz of approval from the crowd, Hippothous and Dius reappear and a four-wheeled cart is trundled in, a fine new one, the marks of the adze still visible on its timbers. The twelve-spoked wheels are elaborately carved and painted, a wickerwork canopy covers the tray. All is of the most ingenious design and intricate workmanship.
Behind, attended by two grooms, walks the king’s herald, Idaeus, plainly but splendidly attired, bearing the royal staff; and with him, in an impressive cavalcade, Priam’s ceremonial chariot with two thoroughbred horses between the shafts, elegant, high-stepping creatures all liquid muscle and nerve, their manes plaited with thread-of-gold.
Priam is immediately in a rage. He leaps from his seat, and the princes, who know what he is when he is roused, draw back.
‘Are you deaf?’ he shouts. ‘Did not one of you hear me when I spoke? Or am I so old and feeble now that you no longer feel obliged to take the least notice of what I say? I asked for a cart, an ordinary mule cart, not this … carnival wagon! You have done this because you are still thinking in the old way. I told you, I tried to tell you, that my vision was of something new. Now, this time listen. Go down to the marketplace and find me a common work cart, such as a man might carry logs in, or fired bricks or a load of hay. The mules should be strong, the driver too, but nothing more is required. No chariot, no horses. I will ride in the cart on the crossbench beside the driver. Now, this time bring what I’ve asked for. I won’t ask again!’
So it is that there appears in the palace courtyard, not long after, a stocky fellow of fifty or so, bull-shouldered, shock-headed, with a countryman’s spade-shaped beard, rough-cut and of an iron-grey colour; a carter with a reputation among the market people for being reliable enough but, when he has had a drink or two, a bit of a madcap, and the owner of two strong black mules. His name is Somax.
The princes, who found the man waiting in the marketplace to be hired, have assured him he has committed no wrong, it is not for that reason they are bringing him in; but he is apprehensive just the same when they lead him, in his homespun robe and broken sandals, into the palace yard where so many royal persons are assembled.
A plain workman, he has had no experience till now of princes. He is dazzled by the cleanness, the whiteness of everything here. The arms, necks, faces of the women, of some of the men too, who look as if they have never seen sunlight. The columns, the walls of polished stone, the pavement with not a straw in sight. The plump-breasted fantailed doves that go strutting around a fountain in a formal way, as if they had been trained to do it, dipping their beaks into its pool.
He is surprised, too, by the tallness of these Trojans. And their voices, which are thin and high-pitched, unlike his own and those of the folk he lives among.
He hangs his head and studies the pavement between his feet. He is here, he knows, not for himself but because of his mules, and especially the smaller of the two, which, the moment they entered the marketplace, caught the eye of one of the princes as she does everyone’s – she is such a plain charmer.
A little black thing, strong in the withers but also dainty, her winning nature has much to do with her intelligence, which is there for all to see, and with the fact that she notices people and responds in such a lively way to their interest. Beauty, he calls her. He has raised her up himself, coaxing and sweet-talking her, rewarding her with tidbits from his palm, scratching her downy ears and whispering his small secrets to her.
In the tavern where he goes to enjoy a little company, to hear a joke or two and to escape in lightheadedness the harshness of his life, he talks so warmly and so often of his little mule that he is teased for it with all sorts of coarse but joking suggestions; and it is true, he is a little in love with the creature.
So it is the mule that has brought him here, and because of her that he now stands in the royal palace, in a courtyard crowded with princes and their ladies, and rather fearful, under their gaze, of what might be expected of him. He does not recognise at first the spare old fellow, very plainly dressed in a white robe, who gets up out of a chair, comes close, and subjects him to scrutiny. He has seen King Priam only at a distance, an imposing figure, long-boned and tall, standing very straight and stiff in his chariot – never face to face like this. He is surprised how old he looks. How sunken and deeply scored the cheeks, and deeply set in their sockets and milky pale the eyes under their straggle of white brows.
‘So,’ Priam says at last. ‘They have explained to you what we are to do?’
The man nods. He does not know how he should address the king and is conscious, among so much lilting and lisping, of his own harsh-sounding gutturals.
He glances for help to the two princes, who frown but nod. ‘They have,’ he ventures. ‘I am to drive to the Greek camp.’
The king draws closer. The carter thinks he might be taking a whiff of him. He shifts uncomfortably and lifts his shoulders in the looseness of his robe. His nose itches and he has a powerful urge to rub it, but resists. All this, he thinks, along with his smell, the old man, who has come very close now, is taking into account and judging. At last, with no change of expression, the king turns to face the princes.
‘I like the look of this fellow,’ he announces in a good clear voice, and all the members of the court take a second look at him and clap their hands – but in a restrained and formal way, with a sound so pit-a-pat small that the pigeons are barely disturbed in their dipping and promenading.
The man Somax is inclin
Priam meanwhile has been regarding this rough-looking fellow who is to be the sole companion of his journey and is confirmed once again in the rightness of his project. The carter resembles so completely the figure in his dream.
For the whole half-century of his kingship, the herald who has attended Priam on all ceremonial occasions, to carry the royal staff, and raise his voice and speak for him when speech is required, has borne the old Dardanian name of Idaeus, though whether the man who appeared at his side was at every point the same Idaeus he has never found the need to ask. It is the office and the name that matters, not the person, and it is in the light of this identification of name with office, and the continuity of the office in the name, that Priam, who has already made one bold decision, is led now to another.
He turns to the carter, and in a voice that is meant to be intimate rather than peremptory, but loud enough for the whole company to hear, announces: ‘One other thing. I am accustomed, on all occasions when I leave my palace, to have a herald with me. He is called Idaeus. Since you will be my only companion on this journey, that is how I will think of you, and how you, my man, should think of yourself. From now on your name is Idaeus.’
The carter glances about him, believing there must be something here that he has failed to grasp. He shuffles, rubs his nose rather vigorously with the heel of his hand, looks up under wrinkled brows in the hope that he may catch some clue from the reaction of the crowd.
There is a stirring among the princes of subdued unease. Once again this readiness on their father’s part to change on a whim what has been for so long fixed and accepted dismays them.
As for the carter, who is quite out of his depth now and wonders what further madness these high folk will demand of him – what can he do but drop his head and mutter, very low and without much enthusiasm, ‘Very well, sir. Right, my lord.’
But in fact it is not ‘very well’ with him, not at all. His name is Somax. It fits him, he has always thought, rather well. He has been comfortable with it, warm and very much himself, for a good fifty years, give or take a little. It guarantees the breath that passes in and out of his mouth; is an assurance, after a good night’s sleep, that the spirit that has left his body and gone wandering off to all sorts of places will find its way back to the particular pile of straw where he is lying, and be recognised and taken in. It is the name under which he married his dear one and became the father of five children – none of them, alas, now living – and under which he has always conducted himself, so far as a poor man can, honestly, and kept himself in good odour with the gods. Will they recognise him, he wonders, under this new one?
Idaeus indeed! Mightn’t they take it amiss, those high ones, that after fifty years under one denomination he should suddenly present himself under another? Mightn’t they see as a kind of presumption this juggling with the high dignity of heralds and such, this taking on of ‘Idaeus’ by such a plain low-born fellow?
He shuffles. Feels a crawling under his robe as if all his lice had been stirred up and were on the move. Something about the life he has lived all these years, the hardships, the losses he has suffered, and the way he has forced himself to go on and endure, is being set aside and made light of. That is what he feels.
So when the royal princes, in their affected tones and with a deference so out of proportion to his real status that it can only, he thinks, be a form of subtle mockery, with an ‘Idaeus this’, and a ‘my dear Idaeus that’, begin to make requests and give orders, he feels increasingly uneasy, then silently, sullenly affronted.
Perhaps he is wrong and no offence is intended; they are simply acting in accordance with their father’s odd wishes, and however foolish and effeminate they may appear, this is the way they always speak. But he smoulders just the same, and in spirit at least clenches his fist. He steadies himself by turning to his mules, who stand patient amid so much fluster, waiting for him, in the usual way, to give some indication of when they should move. Beauty the one is called, and the other Shock, though there is no reason why anyone here should know this, and he decides, in a spirit of quiet resistance, to keep these names to himself.
Meanwhile piles of treasure are being brought in: copper cauldrons and tripods, ewers, urns, cups, ceremonial arms and armour; some of it – the cauldrons for instance – so weighty that it takes two servants to heave the pieces up onto the tray. Slowly, the wagon, which has known nothing till now, as the driver could tell them, but winter wood, or hides or stacks of forage, is tight-packed with precious objects.
To the watchers, as the treasure is assembled piece by piece, it is as if what is taking shape there, in all its shining parts, is a body – that of their dear kinsman Hector, for which in their hearts, filled now with the hope that comes from wishing, the hoard has already been exchanged.
At last, when all is done, Hecuba sends her steward for a jar of clear springwater and a cup of wine for a drink offering.
She herself takes the ewer from her steward’s hand, and when Priam has turned back the sleeves of his pure white robe, sprinkled his fingers and dried them with a cloth, she hands him the cup and he prays aloud. Raising his face to where the gods, in their high court, will be looking on, he allows a few drops of the mellow wine to spill on the pavement and prays again.
The carter, peering up from under his brows, is impressed by the solemnity of the occasion, but the moment lasts too long. His nose begins to itch.
At last the tension breaks and someone notices, high up under thin clouds, a bird hanging with wings extended in the blue.
Mmm, the carter thinks, a chickenhawk. Riding the updraught and hanging there, on the lookout for a fieldmouse in the furrows below, or a venturesome hamster or vole.
But prompted by his mother, the priest Helenus proclaims it an eagle. The carter is surprised at this, though no one else appears to be. The whole assembly raises its eyes, and the murmur that fills the court is one of wonder and relief.
Clear for all to see, Jove’s emblem and messenger is hovering there, holding them, these mighty representatives of Troy, and the many thousands of people outside the palace, in the city and in the villages and provinces beyond, in the quivering net of its celestial attention and concern.
Each day at first light the people of Troy crowd the ramparts of the city, the colonnade before the Scaean gate and the broad streets leading to the central square, to watch the Trojan army with shields newly polished, and breastplates and helmets flashing, march out to the field. The passing of this or that hero among them occasions cheers. Some of the little girls in the crowd have gathered flowers and rush forward to pelt their favourites. There is laughter as vivid red petals spatter a warrior’s breast. The air is just heating, and the men sweat inside their leather, but step out briskly in close order. The day is new and still to be won.
Then, in the shadows of late afternoon, in the same numbers but more quietly now, until the stillness is broken by the shrieks of some wife or mother, the crowd assembles for a second time to see their defenders, all streaked with sweat and dust, or in bandages and bleeding, troop home. Some – too many – lie on pallets borne by their squires or comrades, groaning or already stiff in death. Others, propped up on one elbow, call to their family or to friends and neighbours in the crowd – ‘See, I am alive, I’m still living.’ Or with teeth clenched in silent pain, they clasp the hand of a wife or child who walks, half-laughing, half-weeping, at their side. All this till eleven days ago when Hector was slain and all fighting betwe
Now, at three in the afternoon, news spreads from yard to yard and stall to stall in the swarming market that a procession is gathering at the palace gate.
Labourers in neat-skin aprons with a hammer at their belt call down from the scaffolding of the buildings they are at work on and point, for though the city stands, and has stood for nearly ten years now on the brink of destruction, new houses are still being built and old ones repaired or added to. In spite of alarms, and many deprivations and shortages, the life of the city goes on. Linen is still spread to dry on quince trees or rosemary bushes. Hives have to be visited each day and honey gathered from dripping racks. Cats have still to be set to keep mice out of granaries and the cellars where oil jars are kept, pine logs trimmed and stacked in piles against the winter, trenches dug and cisterns maintained so that the autumn rain when it comes pelting will not run off down the sides of the bluff along which the city is spread. Magistrates, sweating in the late-afternoon heat, have still to hear witnesses and endure the long-winded addresses of rival advocates in a case of assault or murder, since even under threat from a common enemy citizens still harbour grudges and pursue with undiminished bitterness long-standing quarrels or vendettas, and wars still break out among neighbours over the most trivial affronts.
But today, all this busy activity comes to a halt. Crowds race through the streets and push for a place on the city walls. Boys leave off their arm-wrestling, or their games of jackstones or tag, and scramble out between the legs of their elders to be in the front row of spectators; among greybeards, pickpockets, idlers and loungers of every sort, women with a child on their hip and another in hand that they drag along howling, sellers of perfume, sellers of pickles, sellers of fried grasshoppers and of almonds still soft in their velvety green shells, prosperous shopkeepers and their wives who have set a reluctant assistant to watch over their wares while they bustle, fat and breathless, to the nearest vantage point.
Ransom by David Malouf / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes