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


 

 

THE SWINEHERD

[112] WHEN Odysseus stepped ashore upon the sandy beach of Ithaca, the good people of the town, both young and old, had gathered there to welcome him; and they sang a song of greeting like that with which they were wont to meet their returning heroes. He staid only a moment to speak with them. With winged feet he hastened to the hall where his queenly mother waited for his coming. She threw her arms about him, and in the fulness of her joy wept aloud; and she kissed his head and his eyes and both his hands, and welcomed him as one saved from death.

"Thou hast come at last, Odysseus," she said. The light is not more sweet to me. I feared that I should never see thee more, when I heard that thou hadst gone from Parnassus to distant Pelion. Come now, and sit before me as of yore, and let me look into those eyes which have been so long time away."

And Laertes, too, folded the boy in his arms, and kissed him, and plied him with a thousand questions which he could not answer. Then, in the halls of the [113] king, a feast was made ready, and the day was given over to music and merry-making; and all the people joined in offering thanks to Pallas Athené, who had brought the wanderer safe home to his friends and his kindred.

When the evening had come, and the guests had gone to their own homes, Odysseus sat upon a low stool at his mother's feet; while she asked him many questions about her aged sire Autolycus, and about the dear home of her girlhood on the farther side of Mount Parnassus. And he told her of all that she asked him, and of the wonderful things that he had seen and heard in far-away lands and seas.

"But were you not afraid that evil would befall you, and that your eyes would never more behold fair Ithaca?" asked his mother, tenderly stroking his yellow hair.

"Nightly I prayed to Pallas Athené," answered the lad, "and she watched kindly over me every hour. Who would be afraid when shielded and led by so great a friend? Then, too, good Phemius questioned the Pythian oracle about me; and the answer was such as to make me sure of safety. It was this:—

'To home and kindred he shall safe return ere long,

With scars well-won, and greeted with triumphal song.' "

"Well," said Laertes, "the oracle doubtless spoke the truth. We know that you have returned to your home, and that you have been greeted with songs, but I fear you have yet to gain the scars."

[114] "Not so, father," answered Odysseus. And then he showed them the great white scar which the tusk of the wild boar had made upon his knee; and he told them of the famous hunt in the woods of Parnassus, and of the days of pain and enforced quiet which he had afterward spent on an invalid's couch. And all those who listened to his story were struck with the wisdom of his thoughts; and they wondered at the choice beauty of the words which fell from his lips, soft and persuasive like the flakes of snow on a quiet day in winter.

After this, many pleasant days came and passed. The simple-hearted folk of Ithaca went about their tasks as of yore,—some tending their flocks in the mountain pastures, some gathering the autumn fruits from the overladen trees, and some twirling the spindle or plying the loom in their humble homes. King Laertes himself worked early and late in his vineyards or in his well-tilled orchard grounds; and Odysseus was often with him, as busy as he, tending his own trees and vines. For, long time before, when he was but a little child, the boy had walked through these grounds with his father, and had asked the names of the trees. And Laertes had not only answered the prattler, but had given him a whole small orchard for his own: of pear trees, thirteen; of apple trees, ten; of fig trees, forty; and he promised to give him fifty rows of vines, each of which ripened at a different time, with all manner of clusters on their boughs.

[115] Sometimes Odysseus went out with other boys of his age to ramble among the hills and on the wooded mountain slopes. Sometimes they played at ball in the open field, or loitered around the flowing spring whence the people of the town drew water. This well had been digged and walled by Ithacus and Neritus, the first settlers of the island; and close by it was a thicket of reeds and alders, growing green and rank from the boggy soil; while, on the rock from beneath which the ice-cold water gushed, an altar had been built, where all wayfarers laid some offering for the nymphs. This was a lovely spot; and in the heat of the day, the boys would often sit in the cool shade of the trees, and play a quiet game with pebbles, or talk about the noble deeds of the heroes.

Once they wandered far over the hills to the sheltered woodland where the swine of Laertes were kept. There, near the rock called Corax, was the spring of Arethusa, around which grew many great oak trees, yielding abundance of acorns. Here the slave Eumæus lived in a humble lodge of his own building, and fed and tended his master's swine, far from the homes of other men.

When the swineherd saw Odysseus, and knew that he was the master's son, he ran to welcome him and his comrades to his lowly home. He led them to the lodge, and took them in, and strewed fragrant leaves upon the floor, and stirred the blazing fire upon the hearth. Then he hastened to the sties where the fattest young pigs were penned. Two of these he killed and dressed; [116] and when he had cut them in pieces, he roasted the choicest parts on spits before the fire. Then he set the smoking food upon a table before Odysseus and his comrades, and sprinkled it all over with white barley-meal. After this, he mixed honey-sweet wine with water in a wooden bowl, and sat down to the feast with them. Right heartily did they eat and drink, and many were the pleasant jests that were passed among them. When they had finished, Odysseus said,—

"Swineherd Eumæus, you have fed us right nobly, and there is nothing more welcome to tired and hungry boys than plenty of well-seasoned food. Surely one who can serve so royally as you have done was not born a slave?"

"Nor indeed was I," answered Eumæus. "In my childhood I was a prince, noble as yourself. But the Fates bring strange fortunes to some men, and strangely have I been tossed about in the world."

"Do tell us," said Odysseus, "how this great change was made in your life. Was the goodly town in which your father and your lady mother dwelt, laid waste by an enemy? Or did unfriendly men find you in the fields alone, and sell you to him who would pay the goodliest price?"

"Since you ask me for my story, young master," said Eumæus, "I will tell it you. But sit you here upon this couch of goat skins while you listen, for I know that your long walk has wearied you.


[Illustration]

THE SWINEHERD TELLING HIS STORY TO ODYSSEUS.

"Far out in the sea there is an island called Syria, [117] above which the sun turns in its course. It is not very thickly peopled, but it is rich in vineyards and wheatfields, and in pastures where thousands of cattle graze. There no one ever goes hungry for lack of food, and sickness never comes; but when men grow old, then silver-bowed Apollo, and Artemis his huntress sister, strike them with their noiseless arrows, and they cease to live. In that island stand two cities, fair and rich; and over them both my father is sole lord and king. There, in his white halls where care never enters, my infancy was passed; and never did I dream of the hard lot which the pitiless Fates had decreed for me.

"One day there came to our island some Phœnician merchants, shrewd seafaring men, intent on trade and profit. In their ship they brought countless trinkets to barter with our folk for corn and wine; and they moored their vessel in the harbor close to the shore. In my father's house there dwelt a Phœnician slave-woman, tall and fair, and skilled in needlework. And when the merchants knew that she spoke their language, they asked her who she was and from whence she came.

" 'In Sidon I was born,' she answered, 'and Arybas my father was one of the wealthiest of Sidonian merchants. Once as I was walking on the shore, a band of Taphian sea-robbers siezed me unawares, and carried me in their dark-hulled ship across the sea. They brought me to this far-distant island, and sold me, for [118] much gold, to the man who lives in yonder palace.' And she pointed to my father's lofty dwelling.

"Then the merchants asked her if she would return with them to Sidon, where she might again behold her father and mother, and the sweet home of her girlhood. And she consented, only asking that they pledge themselves to take her safely home.

" 'Now say no more,' she said; 'and should any of you meet me on the road or by the well, hold your tongues, and let no word be spoken between us. But when you have sold your goods, and have filled your ship with corn and wine, send some one to the house who shall tell me secretly. Then I will hie me to your swift-sailing vessel, bringing gold wherewith to pay my fare, and, if fortune favor, even more than gold. For I am nurse to the little son of my master, a cunning prattler whom I often take with me in my walks. I will bring him on board your ship, and when you have reached some rich foreign land you can sell him for a goodly price.'

"And thus having settled upon a plan, the Phœnician woman went back to my father's halls; and the merchants staid a whole year in our harbor, and filled their ship with grain. But when at last they were ready to sail, they sent a messenger to tell the woman. He came to our house with many trinkets, bracelets, and golden necklaces, which pleased the eyes of my lady mother and her maidens. And while they were looking, and asking the price, he signed to my Phœnician nurse, [119] and straightway gathered up his goods, and hastened back to his fellows. When the sun went down, the woman took my hand, and led me from the house as she had often done before. Thoughtlessly I followed her to the shore where the fast-sailing ship was moored. The Phœnicians took us both on board; they hoisted the broad sail, and a brisk wind quickly carried us far away from my home and friends. On the seventh day, Artemis the archer queen smote the woman with her silent arrows, and her eyes saw no more the sweet light of heaven. Then the crew cast her forth into the sea, to be food for fishes and the sea calves; and I was left alone and stricken with grief and fear. But the swift ship brought us ere long to Ithaca, and there those who had stolen me bartered me to Laertes for a goodly price. And that is why I am your father's thrall, and dwell here lonely underneath these sheltering oaks."

Such was the tale which the swineherd told Odysseus and his young companions as they sat together in the lodge.

"I pity thee, Eumæus," said the lad. "Thy story is indeed a sad one; and, could I do so, I would gladly send thee back to far-off Syria where thy mother sorrows even yet for thee."

"Alas!" answered the swineherd. "There is no hope. No ship will ever sail through the unknown seaways which lead to my boyhood's home. My life must [120] be spent in this spot; yet I am happy in knowing that my master is the kindest of men, and that I shall be well provided for. Even a slave may find enjoyment if his heart be right; for it is the mind, and not the force of outward things, that makes us rich and free."


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