The Greeks had won back Fair Helen, and had burned the city of Troy behind them, but theirs was no triumphant voyage home. Many were driven far and wide before they saw their land again, and one who escaped such hardships came home to find a bitter welcome. This was the chief of all the hosts, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and Argos. He it was who had offered his own daughter Iphigenia to appease the wrath of Diana before the ships could sail for Troy. An ominous leave-taking was his, and calamity was there to greet him home again.
He had entrusted the cares of the state to his cousin Aegisthus, commending also to his protection Queen Clytemnestra with her two remaining children, Electra and Orestes.
Now Clytemnestra was a sister of Helen of Troy, and a beautiful woman to see; but her heart was as evil as her face was fair. No sooner had her husband gone to the wars than she set up Aegisthus in his place, as if there were no other king of Argos. For years this faithless pair lived arrogantly in the face of the people, and controlled the affairs of the kingdom. But as time went by and the child Orestes grew to be a youth, Aegisthus feared lest the Argives should stand by their own prince, and drive him away as an usurper. He therefore planned the death of Orestes, and even won the consent of the queen, who was no gentle mother! But the princess Electra, suspecting their plot, secretly hurried her brother away to the court of King Strophius in Phocis, and so saved his life. She was not, however, to save a second victim.
The ten years of war went by, and the chief, Agamemnon, came home in triumph, heralded by all the Argives, who were as exultant over the return of their lawful king as over the fall of Troy. Into the city came the remnant of his own men, bearing the spoils of war, and, in the midst of a jubilant multitude, King Agamemnon sharing his chariot with the captive princess, Cassandra.
Queen Clytemnestra went out to greet him with every show of joy and triumph. She had a cloth of purple spread before the palace, that her husband might come with state into his home once more; and before all beholders she protested that the ten years of his absence had bereaved her of all happiness.
The unsuspicious king left his chariot and entered the palace; but the princess Cassandra hesitated and stood by in fear. Poor Cassandra! Her kindred were slain and the doom of her city was fulfilled, but the curse of prophecy still followed her. She felt the shadow of coming evil, and there before the door she recoiled, and cried out that there was blood in the air. At length, despairing of her fate, she too went in. Even while the Argives stood about the gates, pitying her madness, the prophecy came true.
Clytemnestra, like any anxious wife, had led the travel-worn king to a bath; and there, when he had laid by his arms, she and Aegisthus threw a net over him, as they would have snared any beast of prey, and slew him, defenceless. In the same hour Cassandra, too, fell into their hands, and they put an end to her warnings. So died the chief of the great army and his royal captive.
The murderers proclaimed themselves king and queen before all the people, and none dared rebel openly against such terrible authority. But Aegisthus was still uneasy at the thought that the Prince Orestes might return some day to avenge his father. Indeed, Electra had sent from time to time secret messages to Phocis, entreating her brother to come and take his rightful place, and save her from her cruel mother and Aegisthus. But there came to Argos one day a rumor that Orestes himself had died in Phocis, and the poor princess gave up all hope of peace; while Clytemnestra and Aegisthus made no secret of their relief, but even offered impious thanks in the temple, as if the gods were of their mind! They were soon undeceived.
Two young Phocians came to the palace with news of the last days of Orestes, so they said; and they were admitted to the presence of the king and queen. They were, in truth, Orestes himself and his friend Pylades (son of King Strophius), who had ventured safety and all to avenge Agamemnon. Then and there Orestes killed Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, and appeared before the Argives as their rightful prince.
But not even so did he find peace. In slaying Clytemnestra, wicked as she was, he had murdered his own mother, a deed hateful to gods and men. Day and night he was haunted by the Furies.
These dread sisters never leave Hades save to pursue and torture some guilty conscience. They wear black raiment, like the wings of a bat; their hair writhes with serpents fierce as remorse, and in their hands they carry flaming torches that make all shapes look greater and more fearful than they are. No sleep can soothe the mind of him they follow. They come between his eyes and the daylight; at night their torches drive away all comfortable darkness. Poor Orestes, though he had punished two murderers, felt that he was no less a murderer himself.
From land to land he wandered in despair that grew to madness, with one only comrade, the faithful Pylades, who was his very shadow. At length he took refuge in Athens, under the protection of Athena, and gave himself up to be tried by the court of the Areopagus. There he was acquitted; but not all the Furies left him, and at last he besought the Oracle of Apollo to befriend him.
“Go to Tauris, in Scythia,” said the voice, “and bring from thence the image of Diana which fell from the heavens.” So he set out with his Pylades and sailed to the shore of Scythia.
Now the Taurians were a savage people, who strove to honor Diana, to their rude minds, by sacrificing all the strangers that fell into their hands. There was a temple not far from the seaside, and its priestess was a Grecian maiden, one Iphigenia, who had miraculously appeared there years before, and was held in especial awe by Thoas, the king of the country round about. Sorely against her will, she had to hallow the victims offered at this shrine; and into her presence Orestes and Pylades were brought by the men who had seized them.
On learning that they were Grecians and Argives (for they withheld their names), the priestess was moved to the heart. She asked them many questions concerning the fate of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and the warriors against Troy, which they answered as best they could. At length she said that she would help one of them to escape, if he would swear to take a message from her to one in Argos.
“My friend shall bear it home,” said Orestes. “As for me, I stay and endure my fate.”
“Nay,” said Pylades; “how can I swear? for I might lose this letter by shipwreck or some other mischance.”
“Hear the message, then,” said the high-priestess. “And thou wilt keep it by thee with thy life. To Orestes, son of Agamemnon, say Iphigenia, his sister, is dead indeed unto her parents, but not to him. Say that Diana has had charge over her these many years since she was snatched away at Aulis, and that she waits until her brother shall come to rescue her from this duty of bloodshed and take her home.”
At these words their amazement knew no bounds. Orestes embraced his lost sister and told her all his story, and the three, breathless with eagerness, planned a way of escape.
The king of Tauris had already come to witness the sacrifice. But Iphigenia took in her hands the sacred image of Diana, and went out to tell him that the rites must be delayed. One of the strangers, said she, was guilty of the murder of his mother, the other sharing his crime; and these unworthy victims must be cleansed with pure sea-water before they could be offered to Diana. The sacred image had been desecrated by their touch, and that, too, must be solemnly purged by no other hands than hers.
To this the king consented. He remained to burn lustral fires in the temple; the people withdrew to their houses to escape pollution, and the priestess with her victims reached the seaside in safety.
Once there, with the sacred image which was to bring them good fortune, they hastened to the Grecian galley and put off from that desolate shore. So, with his new-found sister and his new hope, Orestes went over the seas to Argos, to rebuild the honor of the royal house.