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A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin


 

 

THE BOW OF EURYTUS

[133]

I
N Arcadia there is a little mountain stream called Alpheus. It flows through woods and meadows and among the hills for many miles, and then it sinks beneath the rocks. Farther down the valley it rises again, and dancing and sparkling, as if in happy chase of something, it hurries onward towards the plain; but soon it hides itself a second time in underground caverns, making its way through rocky tunnels where the light of day has never been. Then at last it gushes once more from its prison chambers; and, flowing thence with many windings through the fields of Elis, it empties its waters into the sea.


[Illustration]

ALPHEUS AND ARETHUSA.

Of this strange river a strange tale is told, and this is what Antilochus related to Odysseus as they rode across the plain towards Pherae:—


"Years ago there was no river Alpheus; the channel through which it flows had not then been hollowed out, and rank grass and tall bending reeds grew thick where now its waters sparkle brightest. It was then that a [134] huntsman, bearing the name of Alpheus, ranged through the woods, and chased the wild deer among the glades and glens of sweet Arcadia. Far away by the lonely sea dwelt Telegona, his fair young wife, and his lovely babe Orsilochus; but dearer than home or wife or babe to Alpheus, was the free life of the huntsman among the mountain solitudes. For he loved the woods and the blue sky and the singing birds, and the frail flowers upon the hillside; and he longed to live among them always, where his ears could listen to their music, and his eyes look upon their beauty.

" 'O Artemis, huntress-queen!' he cried, 'I ask but one boon of thee. Let me ramble forever among these happy scenes!'

"And Artemis heard him, and answered his prayer. For, as he spoke, a bright vision passed before him. A sweet-faced maiden went tripping down the valley, culling the choicest flowers, and singing of hope and joy and the blessedness of a life pure and true. It was Arethusa, the Arcadian nymph, by some supposed to be a daughter of old Nereus, the elder of the sea. Then Alpheus heard no more the songs of the birds, or the music of the breeze; he saw no longer the blue sky above him, or the nodding flowers at his feet: he was blind and deaf to all the world, save only the beautiful nymph. Arethusa was the world to him. He reached out his arms to catch her; but, swifter than a frightened deer, she fled down the valley, through deep ravines and grassy glades and rocky caverns underneath the [135] hills, and out into the grassy meadows, and across the plains of Elis, to the sounding sea. And Alpheus followed, forgetful of every thing but the fleeing vision. When, at length, he reached the sea, he looked back; and, lo! he was no longer a huntsman, but a river doomed to meander forever among the scenes, for love of which he had forgotten his wife and his babe and the duties of life. It was thus that Artemis answered his prayer.

"And men say that Arethusa the nymph was afterwards changed into a fountain; and that to this day, in the far-off island of Ortygia, that fountain gushes from the rocks in an unfailing, crystal stream. But Orsilochus, the babe forgotten by his father, grew to manhood, and in course of time became the king of Pherae and the seafaring people of Messene."


When Odysseus and his companion reached Pherae, the sun had set, and the gates of the palace were closed. But the porter sent a messenger into the hall where King Orsilochus was sitting at the evening meal, who said, "O king, the car of Nestor, our worthy neighbor, stands outside the gate; and in the car are two young men, richly clothed like princes, and bearing themselves in a most princely manner."

Forthwith the king arose, and went out to the gate, and welcomed the young men to his city and his high-built halls. And he took them by the hand, and led them into the feast-chamber where the chiefs of Pherae and Messene already sat at meat. He put the spears [136] which they bore, in a spear-stand, where were other goodly weapons leaning against the wall. Then he seated them on chairs of cunning workmanship, beneath which were linen rugs of many colors; and he gave to each an oaken footstool for his feet. Then a maid poured water into a basin of silver, that they might wash their hands; and she drew a polished table near them, on which another maid placed white loaves of bread, and many dainties well-pleasing to the taste of tired travellers. And the carver brought divers tempting dishes of roasted meats; and a herald poured red wine into golden bowls, and set them within easy reach.

When they had eaten, and had forgotten their hunger and thirst and weariness, an old blind bard came into the hall; and as he sat in a high seat leaning against a pillar, he took his harp in his hand, and, touching it with his deft fingers, sang sweet songs of the gods and the heroes and famous men. Not until he had finished his music and laid aside his harp, did Orsilochus venture to speak of any thing that might disturb the pleasure of his guests. Then with well-chosen words, he asked them their names and their errand.

"Our fathers," answered Odysseus, "are Nestor and Laertes, well known among the heroes who sailed with Jason to the golden strand of Colchis; and the errand upon which we come is one of right and justice."

And then he told the king how the crews of the Messenian ships had landed in Ithaca, and carried away his father's choicest flock. Orsilochus listened kindly; [137] and when Odysseus had ended, he said, "Think no more of this troublesome matter, for I will see that it righted at once. The men who dared thus to wrong your father shall restore fourfold the value of the stolen flocks, and shall humbly beg the pardon of Laertes, as well as of myself. I have spoken, and it shall be done; but you must tarry a while with me in Pherae, and be my honored guest."

Thus Odysseus brought to a happy end the quest upon which he had come to Messene and the high-walled town of Pherae. And he tarried many days in the pleasant halls of the king, and was held in higher honor than all the other guests. But Antilochus, on the second morning, mounted again his father's chariot, and journeyed onward into Laconia: why he went thither, and did not return to Pylos, Odysseus was soon to learn.

One evening there came to Pherae a lordly stranger, bringing with him a train of well-armed men and bearing a handsome present for Orsilochus. He was very tall and handsome; he stood erect as a mountain pine, his eyes flashed keen and sharp as those of an eagle; but his long white hair and frosted beard betokened a man of many years, and his furrowed brow showed plainly that he had not lived free from care.

"I am Iphitus of Œchalia," he said, "and I am journeying to Lacedæmon where great Tyndareus rules."

When Odysseus heard the name of Iphitus, he [138] remembered it as that of a dear friend of whom his father had often spoken; and he asked,—

"Are you that Iphitus who sailed with Jason to golden Colchis? And do you remember among your comrades, one Laertes of Ithaca?"

"There is but one Iphitus," was the answer, "and I am he. Never can I forget the noble-hearted Laertes of Ithaca; for, on board the Argo, he was my messmate, my bedfellow, my friend, my sworn brother. There is no man whom I love more dearly. Would that I could see him, or even know that he still lives!"

When he learned that Odysseus was the son of his old-time friend, he was overjoyed; and he took him by the hand, and wept for very gladness. Then he asked the young man a thousand questions about his father and his mother, and his father's little kingdom of Ithaca. And Odysseus answered him truly; for his heart was filled with love for the noble old hero, and he felt justly proud of his friendship. And after this, so long as they staid at Pherae, the young man and the old were constantly together.

One day, as they were walking alone outside of the city walls, Iphitus said, "Do you see this noble bow which I carry, and which I always keep within easy reach?"

"It would be hard not to see it," answered Odysseus, smiling; "for where you are, there also is the bow. I have often wondered why you guard it with so great care."

[139] "It is the bow of my father Eurytus," answered the hero, "and, next to Apollo's silver weapon, it is the most wonderful ever made. My father dwelt in Œchalia, and was skilled in archery above all other men; and the sons of the heroes came to him to learn how to shoot the silent arrow with most deadly aim. Even Heracles, the mightiest of earth-dwellers, was taught by him; but Heracles requited him unkindly.

"In my father's halls, close by the shore of the eastern sea, there were many bright treasures and precious gems and rarest works of art. But more beautiful than any of these, and more precious to my father's heart than any glittering jewel, was our only sister, the lovely Iole. And when Heracles went out from the land of his birth to toil and do the bidding of false Eurystheus, he tarried for a day in my father's halls. There he saw Iole, the blue-eyed maiden, and his great strong heart was taken captive by her gentle will; but the stern words of Eurystheus fell upon his ears, and bade him go forth at once to the labors which had been allotted him. He went; for he had vowed, long time before, always to obey the calls of duty. And Iole grieved for him in secret; yet every day she grew wiser and more beautiful, and every day the tendrils of her love were twined more and more closely about my father's heart.

"Heracles went out to do the thankless tasks which his master Eurystheus had bidden him do. In the swamps of Lerna, he slew the nine-headed Hydra, and dipped his arrows in its poisonous blood. In the [140] forests of Arcadia, he caught the brazen-footed stag sacred to Artemis. In the snowy glens of Erymanthus, he hunted the fierce wild boar which had long been the terror of men; and, having caught him in a net, he carried him to Mycenæ. In Elis he cleansed the stables of Augeas, turning the waters of the river Alpheus into the stalls of his oxen. In the marshes of Stymphalus, he put to flight the loathsome Harpies, and rested not from following them until they were outside the borders of Hellas. In the sunset land of the Hesperides, he plucked the golden apples which hung ripe in the gardens of Here; and he slew the fiery dragon that kept watch and ward around them. And, lastly, he went down into the dark kingdom of Hades, and brought thence the mighty hound Cerberus, carrying him in his strong arms into the very presence of Eurystheus. All these deeds, and many more, did Heracles, because they were tasks set for him by his master; but other things, even mightier than they, did he do because of his love for suffering men. At length, when the days of his servitude to Eurystheus were ended, he came again to Hellas, and dwelt a long time in Calydon with his old-time friend Oineus."

When Iphitus had thus spoken, he was silent for a time; and Odysseus, seeing that he was busy with his own thoughts, asked him no questions. Then, as if talking in a dream he said,—

"Do you see this bow,—the bow of my father Eury- [141] tus? Much grief has it brought upon our house; and yet it was not the bow, but my father's overweening pride, that wrought the mischief, and caused me to go sorrowing through life. Shall I finish my story by telling you how it all ended?"

"Tell me all," answered Odysseus.

"My father Eurytus, as I have said, was the king of archers; for no man could draw an arrow with so unerring aim as he, and no man could send it straight to the mark with a more deadly force. Every thought of his waking hours was upon his bow, and he aspired to excel even the archery of Artemis and Apollo. At length he sent a challenge into every city of Hellas: 'Whosoever will excel Eurytus in shooting with the bow and arrows, let him come to Œchalia, and try his skill. The prize to be given to him who succeeds is Iole, the fair daughter of Eurytus.'

"Then there came to the contest, great numbers of young men, the pride of Hellas. But when they saw this wonderful bow of Eurytus, and tried its strength, their hearts sank within them; and when they aimed their shafts at the target, they shot far wide of the mark, and my father sent them home ashamed and without the prize.

" 'My dearest Iole,' he would often say, 'I am not afraid of losing you, for there lives no man who knows the bow as well as I.'

"But by and by great Heracles heard of my father's boasts, and of the prize which he had offered.

[142] " ' I will go down to Œchalia,' said he, 'and I will win the fair Iole for my bride.'

"And when he came, my father remembered how he had taught him archery in his youth; and he felt that in his old pupil he had at last found a peer. Yet he would not cease his boasting. 'If the silver-bowed Apollo should come to try his skill, I would not fear to contend even with him.'

"Then the target was set up, so far away that it seemed as if one might as well shoot at the sun.

" 'Now, my good bow,' said my father, 'thou hast never failed me: do thou serve me better to-day than ever before!'

"He drew the strong cord back, bending the bow to its utmost tension; and then the swift arrow leaped from its place, and sped like a beam of light straight towards the mark. But, before it reached its goal, the strength which my father's arm had imparted to it began to fail; it wavered in the air, its point turned downward, and it struck the ground at the foot of the target.

"Then Heracles took up his bow, and carelessly aimed a shaft at the distant mark. Like the lightning which Zeus hurls from the high clouds straight down upon the head of some lordly oak, so flashed the unfailing arrow through the intervening space, piercing the very centre of the target.

" 'Lo, now, Eurytus, my old-time friend,' said Heracles, 'thou seest that I have won the victory over thee. [143] Where now is the prize, even the lovely Iole, that was promised to him who could shoot better than thou?'

"But my father's heart sank within him, and shame and grief took mighty hold of him. And he sent Iole away in a swift-sailing ship, to the farther shores of the sea, and would not give her to Heracles as he had promised. Then the great hero turned him about in anger, and went back to his home in Calydon, threatening vengeance upon the house of Eurytus. I besought my father that he would remember his word, and would call Iole home again, and would send her to Heracles to be his bride. But he would not hearken, for the great sorrow which weighed upon him. He placed his matchless bow in my hands, and bade me keep it until I should find a young hero worthy to bear it.

" 'It has served me well,' he said, 'but I shall never need it more.' Then he bowed his head upon his hands, and when I looked again the life had gone from him. Some men say that Apollo, to punish him for his boasting, slew him with one of his silent arrows; others say that Heracles smote him because he refused to give to the victor the promised prize, even fair Iole, the idol of his heart. But I know that it was grief and shame, and neither Apollo nor Heracles, that brought death upon him.

"As to Heracles, he dwelt a long time in Calydon, where he wooed and won the princess Deianeira, the daughter of old Oineus; but the memory of Iole, as she [144] had been to him in the bright days of his youth, was never blotted from his mind. And the people of Calydon loved him, because, with all his greatness and his strength, he was the friend and helper of the weak and needy. But one day, at a feast, he killed by accident a little boy in the palace of Oineus, named Eunomos; and his heart was filled with grief, and he took his wife Deianeira, and, leaving Calydon, he journeyed aimlessly about until he came to Trachis in Thessaly. There he built him a home, but his restless spirit would give him no peace; and so, leaving Deianeira in Trachis, he came back towards Argolis by way of the sea. Three moons ago, I met him in Tiryns. He greeted me as a dear old friend, and kindly offered to help me in the undertaking which I had then on foot; for robbers had driven from my pastures twelve brood mares, the finest in all Hellas, and I was searching for them.

" 'Go you with your men into Messene,' said he, 'for doubtless you will find that which you seek among the lawless men who own Orsilochus as king. If you find them not, come again to Tiryns, and I will aid you in further search, and will have them restored to you, even though Hermes, or great Autolycus, be the thief.'

"So I left him, and came hither to Messene, and to the high-walled towers of Pherae; and thus you know my errand which I have kept hidden from Orsilochus. I have found no traces of the stolen mares; and [145] so to-morrow I shall return to Argolis and Tiryns where the great hero waits for me."

Much more would godlike Iphitus have spoken; but now the sun had set, and the two friends hastened back to the palace of Orsilochus.

"Never have I met a man whose friendship I prized more highly than thine," said Odysseus, as they crossed the courtyard, and each was about to retire to his chamber. "I pray that thou wilt take this sharp sword, which was my father's, and this mighty spear, as tokens of the beginnings of a loving friendship." And the young man put the noble weapons into the old hero's hands.

"And do thou take in return an equal present," said Iphitus. "Here is the matchless bow of Eurytus my father; it shall be thine, and shall he to thee a worthy token of the love which I bear towards thee."

Odysseus took the bow. It was a bow of marvellous beauty, and its strength was so great that no man, save its proud new owner, could string it. It was indeed a matchless gift, and a treasure to be prized.


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