LIVES OF THE GREEK HEROINES.
BY LOUISA MENZIES
PENELOPE, daughter of Ikarius, abode with her father at Lacedaemon, and was well content to know that, while her cousin Helen was wooed by kings and chiefs from Arcadia to remote Phthia, she was sought as wife by one man, Odysseus, son of Laertes, who, although Ithake, which was the chief of his island dominions, was so rugged and so small that it did not afford a plain large enough to drive a chariot in, was yet a man of mark in any council of men, for Zeus himself had endowed him with wisdom and under-standing, and his true heart and lofty soul were worth many kingdoms in the eyes of the prudent young Penelope. But Ikarius, the brother of Tyndareus, had no wife, and only two daughters, Penelope and Ipthima, and Ipthima was already given in marriage to Eumelus; how could he give up his dear Penelope to go over the sea, and remain alone by himself in his old age? Lacedaemon was a fairer land than Ithake; let Odysseus forget his sea-girt rock and abide with him: he would make him rich and he should be listened to in the councils of the chieftains, and have the weight he deserved to have in the broad Achaean land.
But Odysseus could not hearken, for his rocky isle was dear to him and his people, and the noble Laertes and Antikleia, whose one child he was, so he answered Ikarius that he thanked him heartily for his good-will, but that he was not free to give up the duties which Zeus had appointed him, for others of his own choosing; and that it was preferable to him to live and labour with his own people rather than to eat the bread of indolence in lordly Lacedaemon.
Then the heart of Ikarius clave to his daughter, and when she was now going forth with Odysseus and had already got some way from the palace, the old man followed her with tears, entreating her not to leave him, for sons he had, but no daughter now in his house, and what are sons compared with a daughter to an old man who has lost his wife? So tender and so bitter were his words that the heart of Odysseus smote him, and turning to Penelope, who stood beside him, he said:
"Speak thou, Penelope; if thy heart bids thee abide with him, fear not to say so; remain here with thy father, and I will go alone to my home and to my parents."
Then Penelope stood still, and her heart was well nigh riven asunder: she was now pale as marble, now rosy red, and she stood silent while a man might count threescore, then covering her face with her veil, she said softly:--
"Father, it is the will of the Immortals that a woman follow her husband; let me go with mine."
Then Ikarius entreated her no more, but he sent her away with blessings, only in memory of her parting he sought out a cunning artist, who wrought a fair image of a maiden hiding her face with a veil, and Ikarius called the statue Modesty, and set it up on the spot where Penelope had stood when she made her choice.
Happy days then dawned on the wedded lovers as they coasted Messenia and Elis and came to rock-bound Ithake; happy days when Odysseus brought her to his palace, and when the royal Laertes and the gentle Antikleia gave her such welcome as men give to flowers in spring.
Then the joyous hours flew by, for Odysseus, the man of many plans, was never without his hands full; care for the people, care for his own household, head-work and hand-work made the happy days fly past, and Penelope, busily plying her loom and weaving into many a priceless garment the stories of the older time, as she had been wont to do under the eye of Leda, her aunt, in Lacedaemon, found nothing to desire in her grateful heart, but yet more was added to her, for before the year was ended a son was born to her, whom his father, in the vain hope of leading a peaceful life perhaps, called Telemachus. As Odysseus was a true and tender son, so he now grew a loving father; the infant who was laid in his arms by Eurykleia, his own nurse and foster-mother, seemed to him a holy gift, and as other men in grave moments recalled their fathers to kindle them to action or to give weight to their words, it came to be the habit of this grave and thoughtful prince to recall his little son, and if Odysseus said, "May I no longer be called the father of Telemachus," men knew that he was in earnest and not to be trifled with.
Happy wife and happy mother, it was well that Penelope could feed her heart with the sight of Odysseus and his little boy, and that she could store her memory with images of his love and wisdom, for on these her hungry heart must feed for many a long day of loneliness, perplexity, and sorrow.
Telemachus had now begun to know his father and to leap at the sight of him when the evil news rang through the Achaean land, that all who had taken the vow to defend Helen and her husband from wrong, were now summoned to keep it at the instance of Menelaus; for a Trojan prince had carried away to Asia the Queen of Sparta.
To no one perhaps was the summons more unwelcome than to the son of Laertes, and as he who had proposed the vow could not shrink from keeping it, men say that he feigned madness, and when Agamemnon himself arrived, accompanied by his cousin Palamedes to summon him to the war, he met them in the dress of a slave and gave them no greeting, feigning forsooth to have lost his wits; and to give more colour to the idea he got out the plough, and yoking an ox, and an ass to it he drove up and down on the sea-shore, sprinkling salt in his furrows instead of wheat, Then Agamemnon was at his wit's end and would have gone away, but the crafty Palamedes contrived to steal the little Telemachus from Eurykleia, the nurse, and laid him in the furrow just in front of the plough, When Odysseus beheld his little son lying laughing on the ground, what could he do but turn the plough aside? Then he stood still and lifting the child tenderly in his arms, he turned with a stern look to Palamedes and said:
"Thou hast conquered me now, but have a care that thou do not give me a chance of victory over thyself." Then he carried the boy to his mother, and laying him in her arms he said:
"Take him, Penelope, I would fain have remained with thee and with him, but the gods have willed it otherwise. I am not the only home-loving man who am dragged away to this hateful war, and if men make oaths it is just that they abide by them. Fare thee well, beloved wife, and be sure, whatever happens that I am true to thee, and do thou care for the child and Laertes and Antikleia."
Penelope could not speak for tears, but she hung about his neck and kissed him many times, then she let him go, putting great strain on herself, for Agamemnon and Palamedes were looking on, and Odysseus went steadily down to the ship and clomb over its black side, and never looked back until he stood by the prow and the rowers were lifting their oars.
Having now joined the expedition, Odysseus entered into it heart and soul, and was the author of most of the counsels by which the expedition was guided; it was at his motion that an embassy was sent to Troy to demand back Helen and, if possible, obtain a peaceable solution of the difficulty, and when the crafty temper of the Asiatics made the chieftains in general shrink from the enterprise as too full of danger, he offered to bear Menelaus company, and actually did journey with him to Troy and was entertained by Antenor and obtained a hearing from the Trojans; but though they much admired his gracious speech, the Trojans could not make up their minds to give up their prize, and the two kings returned thoroughly convinced that there was nothing for it but war to the death.
Then for a season Odysseus returned to Ithake, to fit out his ships for the war, and to bid farewell to all he loved best in the world; for, dearly as he loved his kindred, his good wife, and the island which had given him birth--yea, all the more because of his love to them, he never thought of tarrying behind, but he remembered his oath, and set his hand steadfastly to the work, and was one of the first chieftains who arrived at the muster-place at Aulis.
While the Achaeans lay here weather-bound, Odysseus contrived to send messages to Penelope, and to receive tidings from her in return, but when the whole length of the blue Aegean lay between them it was only at rare intervals that Penelope heard news of her husband; but whenever tidings of him did reach her, they were such as made her proud to be his wife. For, though one of the meanest of the kings in extent or quality of his lands, by the force of his wisdom and true-heartedness Odysseus was ever foremost in the counsels of the chiefs; and if Achilles was first in battle, Odysseus yielded only to Nestor of Pylos in the council.
Thus, in tender thoughts of him and careful ruling of her household, in rendering to Laertes and to Antikleia sweet filial tendance, and training the young Telemachus to be worthy of his father, Penelope spent the long ten years during which the Achaeans warred about Troy. But when at length the joyful tidings came that the great city was levelled with the dust, that Priam and all his sons were slain or in captivity, the heart of the queen leapt for joy; for now, thought she, the weary years of separation are over: Odysseus will soon pass again the threshold of his home, and the ten years will seem but as a watch in the night for the joy of the meeting.
So she hung the temples with garlands, and offered hecatombs to Zeus Soter, father of gods and men; to Heré, who sanctifies wedlock; and to Pallas Athene, who most of all the deities loved and honoured Odysseus; and then she went to cheer and comfort Laertes and Antikleia, who had wearied sadly for their only son, so far away during so many years--indeed, Antikleia had wept so much that her health had suffered, and Penelope had been afraid that she should hardly save her alive to welcome her son home again.
The gods received the offerings and heard the prayers, but they did not grant them in the way in which she desired to have them granted; for the Moirae had decreed that Odysseus should win for himself a name above that of chief or king, by sufferings nobly borne, and that Penelope should be approved a true and faithful wife by much trial.
Instead of Odysseus, came evil tidings of his shipwreck and death, on hearing which Antikleia swooned, and the sudden grief broke her heart, overstrained by weary waiting, so that she never opened her eyes again, but her gentle soul passed out of the ken of those who loved her, into the shadowy house of Hades, as though drawn by the foreknowledge that to those lustreless regions the loving Odysseus must descend, before he could win his way back to Ithake, to seek counsel of the prophet Teiresias. For there indeed she did behold him, and much tender discourse they had together, and she was able to cheer him with comfortable tidings of the goodness of his wife, and of the manly promise of the young Telemachus.
When Antikleia passed away in her swoon, Laertes was so sorrow-stricken at his double loss of son and wife that he could not endure the sight of the palace any longer, but must needs go right away to a little farm he had in the country; and there he lived a disconsolate life, with no one to bear him company but Eumelus the wise old swineherd, and the other farm-servants.
Thus left alone, a new evil assailed the wife of Odysseus. Hitherto the presence of Laertes and Antikleia, and the great fame of Odysseus had protected his wife and child; but better is a living dog than a dead lion, and when the chiefs of the neighbouring islands and of the mainland heard that the man of many counsels was no more, seeing that Penelope was still a fair woman, and Telemachus too young to bear rule over them, they began to gather to her palace to beg her to choose a second husband, and, under pretence of this, to make great cheer for themselves out of the good treasure of Odysseus, slaying his beeves and his sheep and drinking his honey-sweet wine.
Penelope feared to displease them, lest her son, alone among such stormy neighbours, should come to grief; so she put them off with subtlety from time to time, holding fast to the belief that Odysseus still lived, and would come home again.
But the hoped-for tidings did not come, and year was added to year, until Telemachus was now a stalwart youth, with the down thick upon his lip: the wooers meanwhile waxed ever more importunate, and made themselves more and more at home in the palace.
Then, when they pressed her for an answer, and threatened to harry the land, burn the palace, and slay Telemachus if she did not speedily make her choice, Penelope hit upon a crafty device, which put them off for a time. She bade them observe how Laertes was grown so feeble that he could not be much longer upon earth, and she said it would be an eternal disgrace to him and all his royal house if, when he died, there were no choice robe to wrap him in.
"Permit me," she said, "to design and weave in peace for him a suitable robe, and if the noble Odysseus be not returned by the time it is wrought, or tidings received of him, then we will talk of what ye desire."
"Men come not back from the house of Hades, and the hands of Penelope are deft and swift," said Eurubates, one of the wooers; "only when the web is woven, let her take heed that she keep her faith, lest we mingle her and the boy Telemachus with the ashes: of the burning palace."
So Penelope wrought at her web--a lovely work, into which she wove delicate patterns and histories of heroes who had passed away, and the wooers saw the web and marvelled at its beauty; but the skilled fingers of the queen seemed to have lost their swiftness. Weeping and waiting for tidings do not speed work any more than they preserve beauty: and though all the world knew that Odysseus was at the bottom of the sea, the foolish queen would believe that he was still alive, and would spend the nights in weeping for him, as though she were a young bride, not a twenty years' widow.
One of the attendants of Penelope heard the wooers thus wondering among themselves at her loss of skill, and indignant at the slighting mention of her mistress, she exclaimed
"Nay, it is not the hands of Penelope that have lost their speed--they are swift as ever to obey her will; but ye are dull, and know not that the work does not grow because she will none of you. Had the winding-sheet been for you and all who misuse the house of Odysseus, to wrap you in your last sleep, it would have been finished long ago!"
So spake the foolish damsel, and the wooer to whom she spoke seized her roughly, and would not let her go until she told him how Penelope spent half the night in unravelling the work which she had wrought in the day.
Then the wooers were very wroth, and threatened terrible things to the queen for the trick she had played them; and Penelope, fearing for her son, gave them fair words, and was content if she could put them off from day to day, and at this time she seldom left the house, but spent her days for the most part in the upper chambers with her women, thus avoiding the insolent importunity of the wooers.
But Telemachus was now grown to be a man, and Athene, who loved him as she loved his father, put it into his heart to leave his native land, where the arrogance of the wooers and the waste of the house tortured him, and to go to his father's friends and comrades in search of news of him, for the wooers only mocked at him when he remonstrated with them; but he did not bid his mother farewell, for he well knew that she would never consent to have him part from her.
And indeed when Penelope learnt that Telemachus was gone, her heart seemed nigh to break, for it seemed to her that the cruel sea which kept Odysseus so long from his home, if it had not swallowed him up, would rob her of her son also, and she would never look upon his face again. In vain Eurykleia, the nurse, who had been in the confidence of Telemachus, assured her that he was but gone to Pylos and to Sparta, and that he would speedily return.
Telemachus had not been long gone, when Medon the herald, a faithful retainer of Odysseus, came to her in great trouble to tell her that the wooers were plotting to waylay Telemachus on his return homewards, to seize his ship and murder him. Then the poor queen fairly broke down, for what could she do there in her upper chamber among her women to defeat the wiles of the boisterous revellers below? and flinging herself on the floor of her chamber she bewailed her son as though he were already dead, and her women mourned with her. Then in her extremity she bethought her of the aged Laertes dwelling away in the country, and she bade them summon Dolius, an aged slave, whom she had brought with her from Lacedaemon, and who had charge of her orchard, that she might send him to Laertes to acquaint him with the danger threatening the one hope of his house, and entreat him to come to the city to save him.
But Eurykleia bade her take comfort and spare the age and weakness of Laertes, whose tenderness of heart she well knew, and rather appeal to the divine Athene, daughter of Zeus, for counsel and protection; for she knew neither age nor weakness, but was both able and willing to help all of the household of Odysseus. At these wise words of the old nurse Penelope was greatly cheered, and drying her tears she arrayed herself and her women in white sacrificial robes, and ascending to the uppermost chamber of the palace, where there was nothing between her and the pure heaven, she offered up her barley-cakes, and poured out her soul in prayer to the daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, the invincible.
Then Athene sent peace into the heart of Penelope, and a sweet sleep came upon her when the night fell, and a vision appeared to her of her dear sister Ipthima, who was wedded to Eumelus, in Lakonia, and whose living face she had never seen since she went on board ship with Odysseus as his wife: but to the sense of the sleeping queen it seemed no way strange, only infinitely sweet to see again her old playfellow, and to hear from her lips words of comfort and assurance; she only vaguely wondered how in this season of agony and despair it had come about that her sister, whom she had so often vainly desired to see, should be there familiarly in her chamber with her; and when the sleep left her, and she awoke, the queen knew that it was no one but the gracious Athene herself who had spoken to her under the form of the woman whom she loved best upon earth; and she went for many days in the strength of that comfort, knowing that Telemachus was safe in the protection of his beneficent patroness. While she communed with the vision, Penelope would fain have gathered tidings of Odysseus also; but here the goddess was mute, for the gods who lived for ever had willed that his faith should be made perfect by suffering, hers by patience.
Before very many days were past Telemachus returned from his journey, with no tidings of his father's whereabouts indeed, but much to think about, for he had visited the aged Nestor in Pylos, and by his advice had extended his travels to Lacedaemon, where he had beheld and been entertained by Menelaus and Helene in their palace, rich with the treasure of many lands, so that the riot and the licence that degraded his father's halls seemed to him all the more horrible; and, indeed, during his absence matters had waxed rapidly worse, for the wooers had grown more daring, and the women servants, who should have taken example by their mistress and held aloof, had joined themselves to the rioters; so that the house of Odysseus was become a scene of the lowest riot and waste.
Now Telemachus was but newly returned, when it chanced that Eumaeus, the faithful slave and swine-herd, came from the farm where Laertes abode, bringing with him an aged beggar with worn features and tattered garments; and going to the queen, he told her of other things which imported her to know, and of the stranger, whom he had entertained for three days, and who had travelled much and in many lands.
"Call him to me at once," said Penelope; "haply he may give me tidings of Odysseus."
"He hath indeed many and precious tidings of him, madam."
"O! then bring him hither at once, for if he tell me true tidings of my lord, coat and cloak, and all he stands in need of, these hands shall amply yield him."
Then Eumaeus hastened to the stranger, who sat in the hall at the door, and would have him at once to the queen; but he excused himself, begging her to wait until the evening, for he feared the violence of the wooers.
Hardly was Eumaeus gone back to the queen, when there came swaggering into the hall, Irus, the licensed beggar of the palace, who finding the stranger in his place was very wroth, as if forsooth his rights were invaded; and the wooers, keen for any sport, at once bade the beggars fight for the place, promising a roasted breast of goat to him who should prove himself the better man; and they, nothing loth, prepared to try their strength. But when the stranger stripped off his ragged garments, he showed a body so white and comely, and such thews that all men wondered; nor was their amazement lessened when he smote Irus so sore with his fist that he broke his jawbone; and seizing him by the leg, dragged him out into the courtyard, and left him there as the scum and curse of men.
Then returning to the hall he begged for food and alms, and Telemachus treated him with kindly respect, as aged and a stranger, and some of the chiefs gave him contemptuous bounty, which cost them little, seeing that they fed at another man's table; but Antinous, the haughtiest and fiercest among them, taunted him, and snatching up the stool on which his feet rested, flung it at the old man, and smote him heavily on the right shoulder.
The queen hearing of this ill-usage to an aged man, a traveller and a guest, was much moved, and calling her women, she went down herself to the hall to chide Telemachus for the discourteous and unmanly treatment to which the stranger had been subjected; and she looked so noble and so lovely in her royal zeal for the honour of her house, that while Telemachus replied and told her of the manly bearing of the stranger in his struggle with Irus, her queenly beauty so smote the eyes of the princes that they forgot all else in gazing at her, and Eurymachus could not hold his peace, but broke out into lavish praises of her beauty and perfections.
"Alas!" she said, "such praises give me no pleasure, they only call to my mind my absent lord, for whom alone I would be fair; but he in his wisdom foresaw the calamities that have since overwhelmed him and me, and left me the charge of those who were dearest to him, his father, his mother, and his son. 'And if I come not back,' he said, 'when Telemachus is grown to be a man and can take charge of his own household, then choose thee another mate, whomsoever thou wilt.' Such was the parting charge of Odysseus, and it is my desire to conform myself in all things to his will, and to free his house and Telemachus his son from the riotous waste of these days. So though second nuptials are as distasteful to me as they must be to every worthy woman, I fear me I must obey my lord, even in this respect. But surely it was never seen before that men who wooed an honourable and wealthy lady should look to her to entertain them with her sheep and beeves, but they should rather entertain her and her friends and ply her with costly gifts besides."
"Gifts, madam, we will freely give thee," said Antinous; "but know that we are resolved not to quit thine house until thou choose one among us, whomsoever thou dost prefer, to be thine husband."
Then they sent and fetched costly gifts, and the herald bore them to the queen: from Antinous a robe exceeding beautiful, with twelve clasps of solid gold to fasten it; from Eurymachus a golden tablet richly chased with figures and set in a frame of amber. Eurydamus sent a pair of earrings, in the hollows of which were radiant pearls; each wooer sent his own gift, the choicest treasure that was laid up in his house; but Penelope received them all and retired to her chamber, her women bearing them after her. And she being withdrawn, the wooers fell at once to their accustomed sports of dancing and revelry.
But when the night was now fairly come and the wooers had retired to their houses, supper was served to the queen in the hall, whither she came to enjoy the heat of the fire. In the hall the beggar still abode, all the rest being parted; and Melantho, one of the women, who had given too much heed to Eurymachus, though she should have known better, seeing that she was the daughter of Dolius, the queen's gardener, and had been daintily bred and much cared for by the queen, roughly chid the old man and bade him not tarry there to see what ladies do, but go at once out of doors lest he should be singed with firebrands. But the stranger chid her, and bade her remember how fickle fortune is, and how if she brought discredit on the house of Odysseus by insulting his guest, Odysseus might himself call her to account; or if Odysseus were really gone, Telemachus would demand satisfaction from her.
Penelope, hearing the dispute, upbraided Melantho for her saucy frowardness, and bade her woman Eurynome place a stool close beside her chair, and bring the stranger that she might question him privately touching any knowledge he might have of her dear lord.
The stranger, much urged by the queen, told her that he was a younger brother of Idomeneus, king of Crete, and that Odysseus on his way to Ilion had been driven into Crete by stress of weather, at which time he abode for three days in his house as a guest, and he told her so much of the sayings and doings of Odysseus that she burst into an uncontrollable passion of weeping; yet wishing to be quite sure that the stranger was not deceiving her, she said:
"Since he abode so many days as thy guest, thou canst tell me what kind of man he was to look at, what weeds he wore, and whom of his followers he trusted most."
"Alas I" replied the guest, "it is now twenty long years since Odysseus abode with me, and I doubt whether I can trust my memory; yet methinks his dress was this: A double purple robe closed with a golden clasp, with a facing of many colours. On the skirts of the robe a hound was pursuing a spotted hind, most admirably wrought; beneath this robe a was an under garment of marvellous beauty, thin as any dry onion skin, soft, and glistening like the sun, so that every woman who saw it was lost in admiration of it. As to his size and appearance, methinks he was about my height, and the principal attendant who lives in my memory was his herald, a swarthy man somewhat older than Odysseus and much trusted by him, and his name was Eurybates."
The queen hearing all these details about her lord, and especially the description of the weeds which she had given him at parting, wept yet more tenderly, and feeling sure that the stranger was a true man, she declared that henceforth he should be her guest-friend, and should receive at her hands all that he needed.
Then the stranger bade her take comfort and look I for the speedy return of her lord, for he assured her that he had tidings from the Thesprotians, among whom he had lately sojourned, that Odysseus was alive and would speedily be home; that he had indeed lost all his men by the wrath of Helios, whose sacred oxen they had devoured in spite of his warning, and had been wrecked and cast ashore on the fair island of Scheria, where the Phaeacians dwell; these kindly folks had made him royally welcome, in spite of his destitute state, and sent him on his way with rich presents. He might therefore be looked for at any moment, for he had only gone to take the sense of the oracle at Dodona, as to whether he should return publicly and in state, or come home secretly and in disguise. "So, madam, be very sure that Odysseus will possess his own within the year, and that before the month be out he will be here alive."
The queen, overjoyed at this glad news, could not make enough of the stranger: she bade her women prepare a costly couch whereon he might repose, and get water for his feet, and bathe them for him. But the stranger would on no account accept the services of the saucy damsels whom he had seen on too familiar terms with the wooers "but if," he said, "there be any aged woman, who is not afraid of work, and who has learnt to show old men fitting reverence, from her I will gladly accept such a kindly office."
Then Penelope called Eurykleia the nurse, who having finished her nightly tendance on her beloved Telemachus, now sat dozing by the fire, and told her to wash the feet of the stranger, bidding her observe that he was of about the same age as Odysseus, and that his hands and feet were shaped like to his.
Eurykleia at the bare mention of the name of Odysseus began to weep, but she bestirred herself to do the queen's bidding, bewailing the while her lost nursling. When she had poured the water into the basin, she took the dusty and travel-worn feet of the stranger and began to chafe them tenderly, pouring the water over them; but as she handled them, all at once she uttered a cry of joy and surprise, and looking up into his face she took him by the chin, exclaiming, "O my child! thou art Odysseus, thou canst be no other."
And it was indeed the long absent, much desired lord, who had come to his house in this poor guise, and the old nurse Eurykleia knew him by the scar of a deep wound which he had received when a lad from a wild boar. Odysseus finding himself discovered, hastily bade the old woman restrain herself; for the queen, who had sunk into a train of thoughts suggested by the tidings she had heard, paid no heed to the stranger and Eurykleia, so the nurse was able to control her emotion after the first outburst, and obey the command of her lord not to betray him, even to his queen.
The wooers having now made their nuptial offerings to the queen, expected that she should name some one from among them whom she would take as her husband; and Penelope, aware of this, and that if thwarted they would probably break out into some violence, once more met them with subtlety, for she declared that she would take him as her husband who could draw the bow of Odysseus, and send an arrow through twelve poleaxes placed at equal distances. The wooers readily accepted the test, for they had a very good opinion of their own strength and skill, and Penelope went herself to fetch the bow and quiver, which still hung in her treasure-chamber where Odysseus himself had hung them, above the presses richly stored with perfumed garments. They were the gift of Iphitus, the Argonaut, to Odysseus when a youth, and much valued by him. When Penelope beheld the bow hanging where Odysseus had himself hung it up, she wept, and taking it down tenderly, bore it in her own hands to the great hall, where the wooers were feasting. Then she gave it to Eumaeus, the swine-herd, and bade him deliver it to them.
At the sight of the stout bow all the wooers were aghast, for well they guessed they lacked both strength and craft to bend that mighty bow. Then Telemachus, to give them heart, rose from his seat and took the bow in his hand, and essayed to bend it, but all to no purpose, and he sat down again, confessing that he was either inferior to his father in strength and skill, or that his sinews were not yet firmly enough knit to fit him for the task.
Then Antinous bade his pages light a great fire and rub the bow with fat to make it lissom, but when they had rubbed it until they were weary, it was all the same. No one could span it, but each in turn withdrew from the task exhausted and dispirited.
"Nay," said Antinous when now there was a pause, and no one came forward to take the bow, "wist ye not that this is the feast of Helios, and a day to be kept holy? That is, doubtless, why we cannot bend the bow. Let us lay it aside until the morrow, and in the morning offer a solemn sacrifice to the god, the patron of bows and of archers, and then essay this task."
Then, to the amazement of all, the strange beggar came forward and craved to be permitted to try his chance, that he might see whether he still retained his ancient strength, or whether his many and painful wanderings had impaired his force. At this Antinous was very wroth, and bade the beggar keep his place if he valued the safety of his carcase. But the queen herself came forward and bade them take heed, as the very poorest guest whom Telemachus chose to entertain was deserving of their respect and courtesy.
"Surely, madam," cried Eurymachus, "it would be a fine story if a wandering beggar came and drew the bow which not one of the princes could draw--a shame and an indignity which none of them could survive."
"As to the stranger," said the queen, "it ill becomes you to speak slightingly of him, seeing that he is well born and well made. Give him the bow, I charge ye; and if he succeed in spanning it, I hereby promise him that he shall be well supplied with food and raiment, guarded from harm and insult, and sped on his way whithersoever he would go."
"Nay," said Telemachus, who saw that the wooers were growing angry, and that there was like to be wild work ere long, "am not I the son of Odysseus, and doth not this bow and all that he had belong to me of absolute right, and is it not mine to give or to with-hold? Retire, thou, madam, with thy women, and tend thy loom and ply thy distaff, but leave the bow of my father to my care."
The queen gazed with wonder at Telemachus, for he had suddenly assumed the bearing and the speech of a man, and rejoicing inwardly in her heart, as mothers do rejoice when they can look for comfort and protection to their sons, she withdrew to her chamber, and there sat sweetly musing, as was her wont, on her absent lord, for to him always her true heart turned, until Pallas Athene, who had her at this time in her special care, poured deep sleep on her eyelids, and she lay in dreamless repose until she was roused by the voice of Eurykleia, bidding her wake and come down to welcome home her lord, Odysseus, who was once more at home, and who, while she slept, had freed the house of all the rabble rout that vexed it so long.
"Shame on thee, woman!" said the queen, who was yet scarce awake, and who could not credit such great news; "is it not enough that thou hast wakened me out of a sleep so sweet and deep as I have not enjoyed these twenty years, but thou must, add to the sorrow I must needs bear by telling of a joy that might have been?"
"Nay, madam," said Eurykleia, kindly, "it is in very truth my royal lord and foster-son who is come home again, and there is nothing now to cause thee fear, for thou thyself hast seen and spoken with him; and all the wooers, who tortured thee and vexed the house, are slain, and it is no other than that poor guest to whom thou wert so royally gracious, and whom the wooers in their arrogance insulted."
Then the queen was convinced, and she joyously sprang up and embracing Eurykleia, overwhelmed her with questions, which the good old nurse joyfully answered, telling her how she had been summoned by Telemachus, when the wooers were all slain by the terrible bow of Odysseus, to assist in clearing and cleansing the hall. And when she entered she beheld, the king standing in the midst of the slain princes, who were heaped up like a wall about him, looking like a lion, and smeared with blood and dust. But now the carcases had been borne out into the fore-court, where they lay piled one on another, and Odysseus was busy with such of the maids as had not suffered with their lives for their misconduct, in cleansing the hall with fire and sulphur, and he desired that Penelope would descend and come to welcome him.
Then Penelope's heart again misgave her; what if it were not Odysseus after all, but some god who, indignant at the insolence of the wooers, had assumed his form to punish them, and the real Odysseus were indeed dead.
"Nay, madam, be sure it is my lord himself and no spirit. Did I not know him by the scar on his leg from the tusk of the wild boar, when I bathed his feet yester-even? yea, and I cried out and would have told thee then but that he bade me hold my peace if I valued his life."
Then the queen delayed no longer but went down into the great hall. When she came thither Odysseus sat on a settle by the fire and never looked up at her entrance, waiting until she should know him; but she, still doubtful whether it were indeed her very lord, spoke no word, but went and sat down opposite to him, and could not be sure whether it were himself, for wear of time and the change wrought in his appearance made her hesitate.
Then Telemachus lost patience, and reproached her as ungentle and unkind to give her husband no word of welcome after his infinite toils and wanderings.
But the queen replied that she was so amazed that she could not speak, nor did she feel that she could trust her own judgment so as to know whether this were indeed Odysseus; "but if it be really himself," she said, "there are tokens by which I may know him."
At this Odysseus burst into a laugh, and said with some bitterness, "That his poor apparel doubtless made her doubt whether such a loathed creature could be the lord whose memory she had so dearly loved. But now there is no time to think of signs and tokens, for behold we have slain all the choice nobility of this and the neighbour isles, and we must consider how we may confirm our victory, for surely the people will demand of us an account of this night's work. Therefore let us bathe and clothe ourselves with fresh attire and fill the air with minstrelsy and dancing, that the people may not guess what has befallen until I can bring my father, Laertes, from the country to sanction me with his presence."
Then Telemachus and Eumaeus gladly did as Odysseus advised, and when the king had bathed and put on his royal garments Athene herself breathed upon him a divine lustre; but the queen still hesitated, nor would she be moved by his comely presence any more than by his low estate. "It is not my way," she said, "to be taken by the valour of men, nor to slight men in the humblest condition. But at least this stranger has done us good service and deserves courteous entertainment; fetch the bed which stands in our bridal chamber and spread it royally."
Odysseus well knew the richly carved and ornamented bed which his own hands had fashioned, and he flushed indignantly at these words of the queen.
"How can they fetch it hither? thou knowest well that it is built into the alcove, and cannot be moved out of it but by levers."
Then Penelope knew beyond question that this was indeed her own lord come home again, and she ran to him and flinging her arms about his neck and kissing him many times in a passion of love, excused her hesitation by the lapse of time and the terrible consequences of a mistake. "If Argive Helen," she said, "had only been less ready to hearken to a stranger, what woe and mischief had been spared, but now I know that thou art my very lord himself, for no one but thou and I and Eurykleia have ever beheld the secret of that bed."
Thus the faithful wife was rewarded for her weary waiting; the trials of Odysseus were now soon ended, for Athene enabled him to conciliate the relations of the slain chieftains who came in wrath to avenge them, and for many years he dwelt happily with his wife in his native Ithake, and wherever good and faithful wives are spoken of, Penelope, daughter of Ikarius, will be pre-eminent.Next: Iphigeneia