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


 

 

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN THE WORLD

[146] VERY early on the following day, Iphitus bade Orsilochus farewell, and started on his journey back towards Tiryns; and Odysseus, to the surprise of all, went with him, riding in the same chariot.

"I know that you want to go into Laconia," Iphitus had said. "Why not go now? For I and my brave men will convoy you safely as far as Lacedæmon; and when there, I will commend you to my old comrades, Castor and Polydeuces, who dwell in the palace of their father, King Tyndareus."

And Odysseus had gladly consented; for, although his host had pressed him hard to stay longer, he was very anxious for many reasons to visit Lacedæmon.

For two days the company travelled slowly eastward. They crossed the mountain land which lies between Messene and Laconia, and came to the plain, rich with wheat-fields, which lay beyond. And now the way was easier, and the road led straight towards Lacedæmon.

At noon on the second day, they rested upon the [147] banks of a little stream; and, as the sun was hot, they sat a long time in the pleasant shade of some trees which grew not far from the roadside. Some distance down the valley they caught glimpses of the high towers of the city; and now and then they heard the sound of busy workers within the walls, or the shouts of the toilers in the neighboring fields. A ride of only a few minutes would bring them to the gates of Lacedæmon.

While they were thus waiting and resting, an old minstrel, who had come out of the city, joined them by the roadside, and began to entertain them. At first he played sweetly upon his lyre, and sang songs, new and old, which he thought would be pleasing to his listeners. Then he told them stories of the times, now long past, when yet men lived in peaceful innocence, unbeset with eating cares.

"And now," he said, "since you are about to enter Lacedæmon, and will spend the night within the kingly halls of great Tyndareus, you must needs hear of the beauty and the courage and the wealth for which this city is far famed among all the states of Hellas. The riches of which we boast cannot be measured like gold and precious stones; our wealth lies in the courage and true-heartedness of our men, and in the beauty and devotedness of our women."

And then he told them of the four wonderful children whom King Tyndareus and his wife Leda had reared in the pleasant halls of Lacedæmon,—Castor and Polydeuces, the devoted brothers; and the sisters, [148] proud Clytemnestra, and Helen the beautiful. He told how Castor and Polydeuces were famed among all the heroes of Greece; how they had sailed with Jason on the Argo; how they had hunted the wild boar in the woods of Calydon; and how they had fought under the banner of Peleus when he stormed the town of Iolcos, and drove the false Acastus from his kingdom. He told how Helen, while yet a mere child, had been stolen from her home and her parents, and carried by Theseus of Athens to far-distant Attica; and how her brothers Castor and Polydeuces had rescued her, and brought her back to her loving friends in Lacedæmon. He told how the two brothers excelled in all the arts of war, and in feats of courage and skill; how Castor was renowned at home and abroad as a tamer of horses, and how Polydeuces was without a peer as a boxer and as a skilful wielder of the sword. And he told how the beauty of Helen had brought hosts of suitors from every quarter of the world; and how her father, old Tyndareus, was all the time beset with courtiers, princes, and heroes, the noblest of the earth,—all beseeching him for the hand of the matchless fair one.

No one knows how long the old man would have kept on talking, had not Iphitus bade him cease. "We have heard already, a thousand times, the tales that you tell us," he said. "Waste no more time with vain words which are on the tongue of every news-monger in Argolis; but make haste back to the city, and say [149] to Castor and Polydeuces that Iphitus, who erstwhile was their comrade on the Argo, waits outside the gates of Lacedæmon."

The minstrel bowed, and said, "It is not for me to act the part of a herald for a stranger. But do you send one of your young men into the city, and I will gladly go with him into the broad palace of the king, where he may announce your coming."

Then Iphitus called to one of the young men in his company, and bade him go before them to the palace, to herald their coming; and the old minstrel went with him.

Now when the sun was beginning to sink behind the heights of lofty Taygetes, the company arose from their resting-place by the roadside, and began to move slowly towards the city. At the same time, two horsemen came out through the gate, and rode rapidly up the valley to meet them. Iphitus waved his long-plumed helmet in the air, and shouted aloud. "There they come," he cried,—"the twin heroes! as noble and as handsome, and seemingly as young, as when we sailed together on the Argo."

It seemed but a moment until the horsemen approached and drew rein before them. They were tall and comely youths, exceedingly fair, and so alike that no man could tell which one was Castor or which Polydeuces. Their armor was of gold, and glowed in the light of the setting sun like watch-fires on the mountain-tops. Their steeds were white as snow, with long [150] manes that glimmered and shone like the silvery beams of the mown on a still summer's evening.

"All hail, our old-time comrade!" they cried. "Welcome to the halls of Lacedæmon! We bid you welcome in the name of our aged father, King Tyndareus."

Then they turned, and led the way to the lofty palace gates.

As Odysseus and his aged friend dismounted from their car, a score of ready squires came out to serve them. Some loosed the horses from the yoke, and led them to the stables, and fed them plentifully with oats and white-barley grains; others tilted the car against the wall of the outer court, so that no careless passer-by would run against or injure it; and still others carried the arms of the heroes into the spacious hall, and leaned them with care against the grooved columns.

Then Castor and Polydeuces, the glorious twins, led the heroes into the broad hall of King Tyndareus. Odysseus gazed about him with wondering eyes, for he had never seen so great magnificence. Walls of polished marble ran this way and that from the brazen threshold; the doors were of carved oak inlaid with gold, and the door-posts were of shining silver. Within were seats and sumptuous couches ranged against the wall, from the entrance even to the inner chambers; and upon them were spread light coverings, woven and embroidered by the deft hands of women. And so great was the sheen of brass, of gold and silver, and of precious gems, within this hall, that the light [151] gleamed from floor to ceiling, like the beams of the sun or the round full moon.

The aged king was pleased to see the heroes; for Iphitus and he had been lifelong friends, firm and true, through every turn of fortune. And when he learned the name and parentage of young Odysseus, he took him by the hand, and bade him welcome for the sake of his father, good Laertes.

The first words of greeting having been spoken, Odysseus, still wondering, went down into the polished baths. There, when he had bathed, he clothed himself in princely garments; and he threw a soft, rich cloak about his shoulders, and made himself ready to stand in the presence of beauty, nobility, and courage. Then Polydeuces led him back into the great hall.

But a change had taken place while he was gone. The king was no longer alone. There stood around him, or sat upon couches, all the noblest young heroes of Hellas. The king's son-in-law, tall Agamemnon of Mycenæ, stood behind the throne; and near him was his handsome brother Menelaus. Among all the princes then at Lacedæmon, these two sons of Atreus were accounted worthiest; for not only did they excel in strength and wisdom, but they were heirs to the kingdom of Argolis, and the lordship over men. Next to them stood Ajax the son of Telamon; he was nephew to old King Peleus, who had wedded the sea-nymph in the cave-halls of Mount Pelion; and among the [152] younger heroes there was none who equalled him in bravery.

Reclining on a couch at the king's left hand was another prince of the same name,—Ajax, the son of Oileus. He had come from distant Locris, where he was noted as the swiftest runner and the most skilful spearsman in all Hellas. He was neither so tall nor so handsome as the son of Telamon; but the very glance of his eye, and the curl of his lip, made men admire and love him.

Below him stood Diomede of Tiryns, who, though still a mere youth, was a very lion in war. His father, brave Tydeus, had met his death while fighting with the Thebans; but he had long ago avenged him.

Idomeneus, a prince of Crete, known far and wide for his skill in wielding the spear, was next, a man already past the prime of life. And beyond him in order were other princes: Philoctetes of Melibœa, famous for his archery; Machaon, son of Asclepius, from Œchalia, the home of Iphitus; Antilochus of Pylos, late the companion of Odysseus; Nireus of Syma, famed only for his comeliness; and Menestheus of Athens, who, in the management of men and horses and the ordering of battle, had not a peer on earth.

All these were in the hall of King Tyndareus; and they received Odysseus with words of seeming kindness, although a shade of jealousy was plainly seen upon their faces. While they were speaking, a minstrel entered, and began to play deftly upon his lyre; [153] and, as he played and sung, two dancers sprang upon the floor, and whirled in giddy mazes about the hall. Then from their high-roofed chamber, where the air was full of sweet perfumes, came three women to listen to the music. Helen, like in form to Artemis the huntress-queen, led the rest; and when Odysseus saw her, he remembered no more the golden splendor which had dazzled his eyes when first he stood upon the threshold of the palace, for every thing else paled in the light of Helen's unspeakable beauty. Next to her came Clytemnestra, who, a few years before, had been wedded to Agamemnon of Mycenæ. She was fair, but not beautiful; and the glance which fell from her eye sent a thrill of pain to the heart of the young hero. The two sisters were followed by their cousin, sweet Penelope, who, blushing like the morning, kept her eyes modestly upon the ground, and looked not once towards the company of princely strangers. And, as she stood leaning against a lofty column, Odysseus wondered within himself whether he admired more the glorious beauty of Helen, or the retiring sweetness of Penelope.


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