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


 

 

AN UNWILLING HERO

[220] IN the shade of the orchard trees, at the foot of Mount Neritus, there was gathered, one afternoon, a happy family party. The chief figure in the group was white-haired Laertes, in his gardener's garb, picking some ripe fruit from the overloaded branches. At his right stood Anticleia, as queenly beautiful as when her hero-husband had won her in the halls of old Autolycus. At his left was Penelope, her sweet face beaming with smiles; while on the ground beside her sat Odysseus, gently dandling in his arms the babe Telemachus, and laughing at the budding wisdom of the child.

"Some men wander the wide world over, seeking for empty glory," said he, turning towards Penelope. "But I would rather have my pleasant home, and live amid its never-failing delights, than share the honors even of great Heracles."

At this moment, Phemius the bard was seen coming in haste from the palace. "What news, Phemius?" asked Odysseus. "Hast thou finished that new song [221] of thine? And dost thou hasten thus to sing it to us before some part of it shall go out of thy mind?"

"Nay, master," answered the bard, speaking in anxious tones. "I have come to tell you that there are guests waiting in the hall. Famous men they are,—even Nestor, king of Pylos, and shrewd Palamedes of Eubœa. And they bring wonderful news,—news of that which will, perchance, fill our land with sadness."

"Tell me what it is," said Odysseus.

Then the bard told the story of Paris and Helen, as he had learned it briefly from Palamedes; and he explained the errand of the hero-guests which they had thoughtlessly imparted to him. Odysseus looked at his smiling babe, and at his fair wife, and his loved mother, and his honored father; and his brow darkened as he shook his head, and said, "Why should I risk so much, and, joining in this war, leave all that is dear to me on earth, simply for the sake of Menelaus and his misguided Helen?"

Then, after a moment's thought, he added, "I will not go. Tell Nestor and Palamedes that I am mad, and cannot go."

All at once a great change seemed to come over him. He put the babe into its nurse's arms; and then with long strides, and in the aimless manner of a maniac, he made his way across the orchard, and along the foot-path by the beach to the white palace near the shore. When his old friends, Nester and Palamedes, saw him, they hastened towards him, expecting to receive [222] his greeting; but with unmeaning words, and a vacant stare, he passed by them without a word of recognition.

"He is mad," said the frightened servants, as they fled before him.

"Yes, he is mad, and knows not where he is nor what he does," said Phemius, hastily rejoining the guests. "When I went out to find him just now, he was wandering among the fruit trees, picking the green fruit, and roaring like a wild beast. The gods have taken his reason from him."

"How sad that so great a mind should be thus clouded!" answered Nestor, with a sigh. "And at this time it is doubly sad for us and for all who love him, for we had counted on great things from shrewd Odysseus. Surely some unfriendly god has done this thing with intent to harm all Hellas."

"Do not judge hastily," whispered Palamedes. "We shall find out from whence this madness comes."


[Illustration]

PALAMEDES TESTS THE MADNESS OF ODYSSEUS.

Soon Odysseus rushed from his chamber, looking wildly about him, as if the very Furies were at his heels. He was dressed in his richest garments, and on his shoulder he carried a bag of salt. Without speaking to any one, he made his way to the stables, where, with his own hands, he harnessed a mule and a cow, and yoked them side by side to a plough. Then he drove his strange team down to the beach, and he began to plough long, deep furrows in the sand. By and by, he opened the bag of salt, and strewed the grains here and there, as though he were sowing seed. This [223] strange work he continued until the daylight faded into darkness, and all the people were fain to seek rest under their home-roofs. Then he drove his team back to the stables, unyoked the beasts and fed them, and hurried silently to his chamber.

The next morning, as soon as the dawn appeared, he was seen ploughing the sandy beach as before.

"I will see whether there be any reason in his madness," said Palamedes to Nestor.

It chanced at that moment, that Eurycleia the nurse was passing by with little Telemachus in her arms. Without another word, Palamedes lifted the babe, and laid it smiling in the last furrow that Odysseus had made, so that on his next round the team would trample upon it. As Odysseus drew near, urging forward the mule and the cow, with many cries and maniacal gestures, he saw the helpless babe. The sight of its danger made him forget himself and his assumed madness; he turned his team aside, and running forward seized Telemachus, and, kissing his laughing lips, handed him, with every show of gentleness, to the good nurse.

"Ha, Odysseus!" cried Palamedes. "Thou canst not deceive us. Thou art no more mad than I am. Cease now that boyish play, and come and talk with us as becometh a hero."

Then Odysseus, seeing that he had been fairly outwitted by one as shrewd as himself, knew that further pretence of madness would avail him nothing. For a [224] single moment his brow was clouded with anger, and he whispered hoarsely to Palamedes, "You shall have your reward for this!" Then, leaving his plough and his ill-matched team upon the beach, he took his two guests kindly by the hand, and led them into his palace. A great feast was spread upon the tables, and the morning was spent in eating and merry-making, and not a word was said concerning the great business which had brought the kings to Ithaca.

Later in the day, however, Nestor told Odysseus the story of the perfidy of Paris. Then Palamedes followed with a speech so clear, so forcible, that the hearts of all who heard it were stirred to their very depths; and Odysseus, rising from his seat, renewed the vow which he had made when Menelaus won fair Helen for his bride. And from that time to the very end, there was not a man among all the Hellenes, who threw himself more earnestly into the work than did Odysseus.

For seven days Nestor and Palamedes tarried at Ithaca, talking with Odysseus, and making plans for the war against Troy. On the eighth day, the three heroes embarked for the mainland; and for months they journeyed from country to country, and from city to city, reminding the princes of their vows, and stirring all Hellas into a flame. Soon the watch-fires were kindled on every mountain-top; and every warrior in the land made haste to see that his arms were in order, and every seaman to put his ship to rights. And Ares, the [225] mighty god of battle, brandished his sword above the sea; dread comets blazed red in mid-heaven; glittering stars fell to the earth, or shot gleaming athwart the sky. Sounds of warlike preparation were heard, not only in the dwellings of men, but even in the halls of Zeus, upon the airy summit of Olympus.


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