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The Story of Greece by  Mary Macgregor

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THE BOW OF ODYSSEUS

[67] IN the hall of the palace the suitors sat feasting, as was their custom. When Eumaeus entered, followed by the beggar, they no sooner caught sight of him than they began to mock at his rags. But Telemachus took a loaf and gave it to the stranger, bidding him go to each prince and beg for himself, for said he, "Shame is an ill mate of a needy man."

One haughty suitor, named Antinous, rebuked Eumaeus for bringing a beggar to the palace. "Have we not here vagrants enough," he said in angry tones, "killjoys of the feast?" And he seized a footstool and struck Odysseus on the shoulder.

Penelope heard how Antinous had treated the stranger in her halls and she was angry. Turning to her old nurse Eurycleia she said, "Nurse, they are all enemies, for they all devise evil continually, but of them all Antinous is the most like to black fate. Some hapless stranger is roaming about the house, begging alms of the men as his needs bid him; all the others filled his wallet and gave him somewhat, but Antinous smote him at the base of the right shoulder with a stool."

Then she summoned Eumaeus and bade him send the stranger to her, for she wished to know if he had heard aught of Odysseus as he wandered from place to place.

So when evening came the old nurse brought a settle, spread over it a fleece, and placed it near to Penelope. Then the beggar was brought to the queen's room, and, sitting on the settle, he told to her many a tale, and some were true and [68] some were false, for he would not yet have her know that he himself was her lord Odysseus.

Penelope wept as she listened to the stories the stranger told. For he had seen Odysseus, and she thought that her husband might yet return in time to save her from the suitors whom she despised.

But at length the queen dried her tears and called to Eurycleia to come wash the feet of the stranger, who was of the same age as her master.

The old woman answered, "Gladly will I wash his feet, for many strangers travel-worn have ere now come hither, but I say that I have never seen any so like another as this stranger is like Odysseus, in fashion, in voice, and in feet."

Then the king feared lest his old nurse should know him, and he turned his face from the hearth. But she, as she tended him, saw a scar on the spot where a boar had wounded him long years before, and she knew her master had come home.

Tears well-nigh choked her, yet she touched his chin lightly and said, "Yea, verily, thou art Odysseus, my dear child."


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"Yea, verily, thou art Odysseus"

But when she would have told the queen, Odysseus bade her be silent, until he had taken revenge on the princes who were feasting in his palace.

As she dismissed the stranger, Penelope told him that on the morrow the suitors held a feast, when they were to contend for her hand. "Him who shall most easily bend the bow of Odysseus I have promised to wed," she said. "Then will I go and forsake this house, this house of my wedlock, so fair and filled with all livelihood, which methinks I shall yet remember, aye, in a dream."

Then Odysseus answered, "Wife revered of Odysseus, no longer delay this contest in thy halls; for lo, Odysseus will be here before these men, for all their handling of this polished bow, shall have strung it and shot the arrow to the mark."

[69] Penelope scarce heard the stranger's words, so troubled were her thoughts. She bade him farewell, then went to her room to weep for her absent lord until "grey-eyed Athene cast sweet sleep upon her eyelids."

On the morrow Odysseus awoke early, and as he thought of all that he hoped to do that day, he lifted up his hands to Zeus.

"O Father Zeus," he cried, "if thou hast led me to mine own country of good will, then give me a sign." And in answer the god thundered from Olympus, and Odysseus knew the voice of the god and was glad.

Penelope too arose early on this fateful day, and when she had put on her royal robes she came down the wide staircase from her chamber, carrying in her hand the strong key of her lord's treasure-chest.

She unlocked the chest, and taking from it the great bow in its case she laid it upon her knees and wept over it. Then, drawing the bow from its case, she carried it into the hall where the suitors were feasting.

"Ye suitors," she said, as she laid down before them the bow and quiver of arrows, "Ye suitors, who devour this house, making pretence that ye wish to wed me, lo! here is a proof of your skill. Here is the bow of the great Odysseus. Whoso shall bend it easiest in his hands and shoot an arrow nearest to the mark I set, him will I follow, leaving this house of my wedlock, so fair which methinks I shall yet remember, aye, in a dream."

Then each suitor in turn tried to bend the mighty bow, but each tried in vain.

"Give the bow to me," cried the beggar, as he saw that the suitors had failed to bend the mighty bow, "give it to me that I may prove that my hands are strong."

The princes laughed at the words of the stranger. How should the old man bend the bow which they in their youthful strength were unable to move?

But Telemachus gave the bow into the stranger's hands, [70] for, said he, "I would fain see if the wanderer can bend the bow of Odysseus." Then turning to his mother, the prince besought her to go to her daily tasks until the contest was over, for not for her eyes was the dread revenge of Odysseus. So Penelope with her maidens went to her room, and as she spun she mourned for her absent lord.

In the hall Odysseus stood with his beloved bow in his hand. Carefully he tested it lest harm had befallen it in his absence. Then taking an arrow from the quiver he placed it on the bow and drew the string, and lo! it sped to its mark and reached the wall beyond.

At once Telemachus, his sharp sword in his hand, sprang to his father's side, while Eumaeus, to whom the beggar's secret had been told, followed him fast.

The suitors leaped to their feet in dismay as the arrows of Odysseus fell swiftly among them. Then they turned to the walls to seek the arms which usually hung there, but Telemachus had carried them away.

Not until the proud suitors were slain did Odysseus cease to bend his mighty bow. But at length all was over and none were left to mock at the stranger.

Then Odysseus bade Eurycleia go tell Penelope that her lord had returned and awaited her in the hall.

The queen lay on her bed fast asleep when the old nurse broke into her room, and, all tremulous with joy, told her that Odysseus had come and slain the suitors. Too good were the tidings for Penelope to believe.

"Dear nurse," she cried, "be not foolish. Why dost thou mock my sorrow? It may be that one of the gods hath slain the suitors, but Odysseus hath perished in a strange land."

"Nay, I mock thee not, dear child," answered Eurycleia. "The stranger with whom thou didst talk yesterday is Odysseus."

Yet Penelope could not believe that her lord had returned. She spoke sadly to the old nurse, telling her that [71] she was deceived and did not understand the ways of the gods. "None the less," she added, "let us go to my child, that I may see the suitors dead, and him that slew them."

Down in the hall Odysseus, clothed no longer in rags, but in bright apparel, awaited his wife.

Then Penelope as she gazed upon him knew that it was indeed Odysseus, and she threw her arms around him and kissed him, saying "Be not angry with me, Odysseus, that I did not know thee when I first saw thee. For ever I feared lest another than thou should deceive me, saying he was my husband, but now I know that thou art indeed he." So welcome to her was the sight of her lord, that "her white arm she would never quite let go from his neck."

Thus after twenty years did Odysseus come back to Ithaca.


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