Gateway to the Classics: A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by James Baldwin
A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin

Long Live the King!

"S URELY," sighed Laertes, "the old heroes pass away; but the younger heroes press hard in their footsteps, and will fill their places well. The gods have written it in every tree, and upon every blade of grass, that the aged, however worthy, cannot endure forever. The ripened fruit falls to the ground, but there will be other and better fruit on the branches by and by. Ancient Cronos gave place, not willingly, to Zeus; and Zeus is by far the greater of the two. And there be certain oracles which have foretold the doom of Zeus; even that he shall be hurled from his throne by a king of peace, who shall reign everlastingly."

Then on a day, he called the elders of Ithaca together, and spoke to them in this wise: "My son Odysseus is now a grown-up man, wise and shrewd beyond any other among you. He is skilled in all kinds of knowledge and of handicraft; in matters of judgment he is without a peer, and in matters requiring courage he is foremost among men. Moreover, he is married to a wife, sweet Penelope, unexcelled in wifely virtues; and he has a son and heir, Telemachus,—a smiling babe who has not yet seen the round of one full moon. Now, why should the old branch stand longer in the way of the new and vigorous shoot? This day I will give up my kingdom to my son, and he shall henceforth rule this island in his own name."

And all the people rejoiced when they heard his words; and straightway they hailed Odysseus king of Ithaca, and offered thanksgiving and sacrifice to Pallas Athené, who had blessed him with wisdom above that of other men. And good Laertes retired to his mountain farm, where no vexing questions of government would take him away from his vines and fruit-trees. "Here," said he, "I hope to end my days in peace."

When the men of Cephallenia and the dwellers in the rugged island of Zacynthus heard that young Odysseus ruled by his own right in Ithaca, they came and offered him their friendship and allegiance; for they were kinsmen of the Ithacans. They brought rich presents of corn and wine and of long-wooled sheep, and promised to bear him aid in time of need, if ever that time should come.

At about this time, old Icarius, the father of Penelope, came to Ithaca for a brief visit to his daughter. For his eyes had long yearned to see her, and he could find no rest until he knew that she was happy and well cared for in the new home which she had chosen. And Penelope asked him a thousand questions about her friends and her kinsfolk in dear old Lacedæmon, and to all these questions he made answer as he best knew.

"We have now a new king at Lacedæmon," said Icarius, "even brave Menelaus, the husband of your cousin Helen."

"But where is King Tyndareus, my good uncle?" asked Penelope. "And where are my noble twin cousins, Castor and Polydeuces? Do they share the kingdom with Menelaus?"

"I will tell you all about it," answered her father. And then he told her how it had come about that Menelaus was called to the kingship of Lacedæmon:—

"As the feebleness of age began to take hold upon him, King Tyndareus bethought him that he would resign his kingdom to his sons, the twin heroes Castor and Polydeuces. But the restless youths cared not to take upon them duties which would keep them within the narrow bounds of Lacedæmon; for they were not home-stayers, but they wandered hither and thither over many seas and through strange lands, doing brave and noble deeds innumerable. The story of their labors in times of peace and of their prowess in times of war was upon every tongue, and was sung by minstrels in every city of Hellas. Wherever public games were held, there the twins were the masters of the course and the field, and the awarders of the prizes. Wherever battles raged and where the fight was thickest, there the glorious heroes, on their snow-white steeds, were seen striking fearlessly for the cause of right. And men told how it was they who first taught the bards to sing songs of battle and pæans of victory; and how it was they who first showed the glad feet of the victors how to tread the wild mazes of the war-dance; and how it was they who, in their friendship for seafarers, had guided many a vessel over the roughest seas, safe into the wished-for haven. They belonged not more to their native Lacedæmon than to the whole wide world.

"There came a time, however, when the men of Laconia quarrelled with their neighbors of Arcadia, and there was war upon the borders. Then Castor and Polydeuces hastened to take sides with their kinsmen. Mounted on their swift steeds, Phlogios and Harpagos, the gifts of Hermes, they made raid after raid across the mountains; and they brought back many a choice herd of cattle, or flock of sheep, from the pasture-lands of Arcadia.

"It happened on a day, that their cousins Idas and Lynceus, two lawless men from Messene, joined them, and the four drove many cattle across the borders, and hid them in a glen at the foot of Mount Taygetus. Then they agreed that Idas should divide the booty into four parts, and give to each a part. But Idas was a crafty man, more famed for his guile than for his courage; and he planned how he might take all the herd for his own. So he killed a fat ox, and having flayed and dressed it, he cut it into four parts. Then he called the other men about him.

" 'It would be a great pity to divide so fine a herd as this of ours among four owners,' he said. ' Therefore I have a plan by which one, or at most two of us, may fairly gain the whole. Behold, here are the four quarters of the ox which I have slain. This quarter belongs to Castor, this to Polydeuces, this to Lynceus, and this to myself. He who first eats the share allotted to him shall have half of the cattle for his own; he who next finishes shall have the other half.'

"Then, without another word, he began to eat the quarter which he had allotted to himself; nor was he long devouring it, but with greedy haste consumed it before his comrades had tasted even a morsel. Next he seized upon the part assigned to Lynceus, and ate it as quickly as his own.

" 'The cattle are all mine!' he cried. And calling upon his brother to help him, they drove the whole herd into Messene.

"Then anger filled the souls of the twin heroes, and they vowed to take vengeance upon their crafty kinsmen. One night when the moon lighted up both plain and mountain with her silvery beams, they made a rapid ride into Messene, and brought back not only the herd which Idas had taken from them by fraud, but as many cattle as were feeding in the Messenian meadows. Then, knowing that their cousins would follow them in hot haste, they hid themselves in the hollow of a tree in the mountain pass, and waited for the morning.

"At break of day, the two Messenians, having missed their cattle, hastened to follow their trail to Mount Taygetus. Then Lynceus, whose sharp eyes could see through rocks and the trunks of trees, climbed to the top of a crag to look about them; for they feared lest they should fall into an ambush. And as he peered into every nook and glen and gorge of the wild mountain, he saw the twins close-hidden in the hollow trunk of an oak. Then quickly he descended, and with stealthy tread he and Idas drew near their hiding-place. Castor saw them first; but before he could speak, a spear from the hand of Idas laid him low in death. Then mighty Polydeuces leaped forth in his wrath, and rushed upon the slayers of his brother. Fear seized upon them, and they fled with winged feet into Messene, and paused not until they stood by the marble tomb of their father, great Aphareus. But Polydeuces, following on, overtook them there, and with his spear smote Lynceus a deadly blow. At the same time, a peal of thunder shook the mountain and rolled over the plain; and Zeus hurled his fiery bolts at the bosom of crafty Idas, and laid him dead upon his father's tomb.

"The grief of Polydeuces for the death of Castor was terrible to see; and there was no one in all the world who could comfort him, or in any way make him forget his loss. Then he prayed the gods that they would take him, too, to Hades, that he might be in the dear company of his brother. And Zeus heard his prayer; and he asked Polydeuces to choose whether he would sit in the courts of Olympus, and be the peer of Ares and Pallas Athené, or whether he would share all things with Castor. And the glorious hero cried, 'Let me be forever with my brother!' His wish was granted to him; and the twin heroes still live, although the quickening earth lies over them. One day they wander in the fields of asphodel, and enjoy the bliss of immortality; the next, they flit among the unquiet shades in the sunless regions of the dead. And thus they share together whatever of joy or woe the grave can bring.

"When King Tyndareus learned that he was bereft of his sons, he fell prone to the earth; and no one in Lacedæmon could console him. 'Send for Helen, my peerless daughter!' he cried. 'Send for Menelaus. He is my only son. He shall dwell in my palace, and rule in my stead!'

"And that is the way in which it came about, that Menelaus was called to the kingship of Lacedæmon."

Old Icarius remained but a short time at Ithaca. A ship was waiting in the harbor, ready to sail to Pylos and the ports beyond; and he knew that a like opportunity to return to Lacedæmon might not soon be offered. And so, leaving his blessing with his children Odysseus and Penelope and the babe Telemachus, he departed.

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