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

A Race for a Wife

D AYS and weeks passed by, and still Odysseus tarried as a guest at the court of King Tyndareus. His friend Iphitus had gone on to Tiryns to meet the hero Heracles, and had left with him his blessing and the bow of Eurytus. But the young princes who had come to Lacedæmon to woo the beautiful Helen remained in the palace, and each had vowed in the secret of his heart that he would not depart until he had won the matchless lady for his bride. Each had offered to the king gifts of countless value,—gold and jewels, fine horses, and well-wrought armor; and each had prayed him that he would himself set the bride-price for his daughter, and bestow her on whom he would, even on the man who pleased him best. But the king, for reasons of his own, would give them no answer.

All this time, Odysseus held himself aloof from the crowd of wooers, and kept his own counsel; and, though all believed that he too was smitten with love for the peerless Helen, yet in his heart the blue-eyed Penelope reigned queen. One day as he sat alone with Tyndareus in his chamber, he saw that the king was sorely troubled; and he began in his own way to find out the cause of his distress.


Odysseus Advises King Tyndareus Concerning Helen's Suitors

"Surely, O king!" he said, "you are the happiest of men. For here you have, in Lacedæmon, every thing that can delight the eye, or please the heart. Wherever you may turn, there you see wealth and beauty; and it is all yours, to do with as you like. Your sons are the bravest in the world; your daughters are the fairest; your palace is the most beautiful; your kingdom is the strongest. There is certainly nothing to be wished for that is not already yours."

"And yet," answered Tyndareus, with a sigh, "I am the most miserable of mortals. I would rather be a witless swineherd in the oak forests, living in a hut, and feeding upon roots and wild fruits, than dwell in this palace, beset with cares like those which daily weigh me down."

"I cannot understand you," said Odysseus. "You are at peace with all the world; your children are all with you; you have no lack of comfort. There is nothing more for you to desire. How, indeed, can care come in through these golden doors, and sit upon your brow, and weigh you down with heaviness?"

"I will tell you," answered the king, "for I know that I can trust your good judgment. Here in my palace are all the noblest princes of Hellas suing for the hand of Helen, whom the gods have cursed with more than mortal beauty. Each has offered me a price, and each expects to win her. I dare not withhold her long; for then all will become angered, and my kingdom as well as my daughter will be the prey of him who is the strongest. I dare not give her to one of them, for then the other nine and twenty will make cause against me and bring ruin to Lacedæmon. On this side grin the heads of Scylla, all black with death; on that side dread Charybdis roars; and there is no middle way. Why, oh, why did not the immortals bless my daughter by giving her a homely face?"

Then Odysseus drew nearer to the king, and spoke in lower tones. "I pray you, do not despair," he said. "There is a safe way out of all this trouble. If you will only trust me, I will lead the whole matter to a happy issue."

"How, how?" eagerly asked the king.

"I will tell you," said Odysseus. "But you must first listen to a plea that I have to make. To you alone it is known that I am not a suitor for the hand of Helen, but that my hopes are all for coy Penelope. Speak to her father, your brother Icarius, and help me will her for my own, and I will settle this matter between you and the princely lovers of fair Helen in a manner pleasing to every one."

"It shall be as you wish!" cried the king, taking heart. "I will trust the management of this business to you, and may the wise Pallas Athené prosper you!"

The next morning shrewd Odysseus arose, and clothed himself in princely fashion; and, after the morning meal had been eaten, he bade the heralds call the suitors into the council chamber. And the heralds called the gathering; and the young heroes quickly came, one after another, until nine and twenty sat within the chamber where the elders of Lacedæmon were wont to meet. Then Odysseus stood on the raised platform, close to the door; and Pallas Athené, unseen by the dull eyes of mortals, stood beside him, and whispered words of wisdom in his ear.

"Noble men of Hellas," said Odysseus, "I pray that you will hearken to the words which I shall speak, and that you will duly weigh them in your minds. We have all come to Lacedæmon with one wish and one intent,—and that is, to win the most beautiful woman in the world. We have offered, each one for himself, a bride-price worthy of the bride; yet the king, for reasons which you ought to understand, is slow in bestowing her upon any of us. And so weeks and even months have passed, and we are still here, devouring the substance of our kind host, and yet as far as ever from the prize which we desire. Now, it behooves us to bring this matter to an end; for otherwise we all shall suffer loss by being too long absent from our homes."

The princely suitors listened kindly to his words and all nodded their assent. Then he went on:—

"Upon how many of you, now, has the peerless Helen smiled as if in admiration?"

Every man among them raised his hand in answer.

"Who, among you all, believes that fair Helen would prefer him, above every other, for a husband?"

Every man arose, and, glancing proudly around him, answered "I!"

"I have, then, a plan to offer," said Odysseus. "Let us leave the choice to Helen. And, in order that each may the better show whether there be aught of nobility in him, let us go forth straightway, and make trial of all the games in which any one of us excels. And when the games are ended, let glorious Helen come and choose him whom she will wed."

At this all the suitors shouted assent; for each felt sure that he would be the chosen one.

"But hearken to one word more!" cried Odysseus. "The most beautiful woman in the world is a prize of priceless value; and he who wins that prize will hardly keep it through the might of his unaided arm. Let us bind ourselves by an oath that he whom Helen chooses shall be her wedded husband, and that the rest will depart at once from Lacedæmon; and that if any man, from near or far, shall carry peerless Helen from her husband or her husband's home, then we will join our forces, and never falter in the fight until we have restored her to him."

"And further still," added Ajax Telamon, "let us swear that should any one of us forget the agreement made this day, then the remaining nine and twenty will cause swift punishment, and terrible, to fall upon him."

Much more did shrewd Odysseus and the assembled princes say; and in the end they made a solemn sacrifice to Father Zeus, and lifting up their hands they swore that they would hold to all that had been spoken. Then, at an hour which had been set, they went out to make trial of their skill in all kinds of manly games, so that each might show wherein he excelled all other men, and thus stand higher in the regards of matchless Helen. And the heralds made announcement, and a great company followed them to the broad marketplace between the palace and the city walls. King Tyndareus, happy that his perplexities were soon to end, sat upon a high throne overlooking the place; and at his side stood the glorious twins, Castor and Polydeuces, clad in their snow-white armor. But Helen, dowered with beauty by the gods, stood with her maidens at the window of her high-built chamber, and watched the contest from afar.

Then all the suitors, arrayed in princely garments, as became the mightiest men of Hellas, stood up in the lists, each for himself to take his part in the games. And each fondly believed that he, among them all, was the favored suitor of fair Helen. But shrewd Odysseus kept his own counsels, and wisely planned to reach the ends which he so much desired.

Then the games began. And they made trial, first, in throwing the heavy spear; and gray-bearded Idomeneus led all the rest. Then in shooting with the bow; and Odysseus was far the best, for no one else could string or handle the matchless bow of Eurytus. Then in throwing heavy weights; and Ajax, son of Telamon, sent a huge stone hurtling from his strong arms far beyond all other marks. Then in wrestling; and there was not one that could withstand the stout-limbed son of Oileus. Then in boxing; and Philoctetes, the armor-bearer of Heracles, carried off the palm. Then in fencing with the broad-sword; and Diomede held the championship, and found no peer. Then in leaping; and Thoas of Ætolia, one of the later comers, excelled all others. Then in the foot-race; and here again the lesser Ajax left all the rest behind.

And now the car of Helios was sloping towards the western sea, and King Tyndareus by a signal ordered that the games should cease.

"Come, my friends," said he, "the day is spent, and nothing can be gained by further trials of strength and skill. Let us go forthwith to my banquet hall, where the tables groan already with the weight of the good cheer which has been provided for you. And when you have rested yourselves, and put away from you the thought of hunger, fair Helen will descend from her high chamber, and choose from among you him who shall be her husband."

And all obeyed, and went straightway to the great banquet hall of the king. Now the court, and the hall, and even the passage-ways of the palace, were thronged with people old and young, noble and base-born; for all had heard of what was to follow. And the steward of the king had slain a score of long-wooled sheep, and many swine, and two slow-footed oxen; and these he had flayed and dressed for the goodly banquet. Then all sat down at the tables, and stretching forth their hands, they partook of the pleasant food so bounteously spread before them. And though some of the princely suitors had been beaten in the games, yet all were merry and hopeful, and many a pleasant jest was bandied back and forth among them.

"The son of Oileus should remember," said Nireus, "that the race is not always to the swift."

"And Nireus should remember," said Thoas, "that beauty does not consort with comeliness. Aphrodite did not choose Apollo for her husband, but rather the limping smith, Hephaestus."

Then some one asked Nireus what was the price of hair-oils in Syma; and this led to much merriment and many jokes about his smooth curls, his well-shaven face, and his tight-fitting doublet.

"If his father were living," said one, "he would be setting a bride-price upon him."

In the midst of the merriment, a herald passed through the hall, crying out, "Remember your oaths, O princes of the Hellenes! Remember your promises to the immortal gods!"

A silence fell upon that multitude, like the stillness which takes hold upon all nature when waiting for the thunder-cloud to vent its fury upon the plains. And the minstrel, who sat upon a raised seat at the farther side of the hall, touched his harp with his deft fingers, and brought forth sounds so sweet and low and musical that the ears of all the hearers were entranced. Then the door of the inner chamber opened, and the glorious Helen, leaning on the arm of old Tyndareus, came forth to make her choice. The hearts of all the suitors stood still; they could not bear to look toward her, although her heavenly beauty was modestly hidden beneath her thick veil. She came into the hall: she passed Idomeneus, who sat nearest the inner chamber; she passed the mighty Ajax, him of the noble form and the eagle eye; she passed the doughty Diomede, wielder of the sword; she passed Philoctetes, and Odysseus, and the stout-limbed son of Oileus. The hearts of the younger suitors on the hither side of the hall began to heat with high hopes.

"She surely has her eyes on me!" said the coxcomb Nireus, speaking to himself.

She came to the table where Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon, sat. She paused a moment, and then she held out her lily-white hand, in token that he was the husband of her choice. The great silence was at once broken, and a mighty shout went up to the high roof of the palace. Every one of the slighted suitors felt for an instant the keen pang of disappointment; then, remembering their oaths, all joined in wishing joy to Menelaus and his bride. Some, however, chagrined and crestfallen, soon withdrew from the palace; and calling their servitors about them, they secretly and in haste departed from Lacedæmon. When the morning dawned, only ten of the young princes still staid in the halls of old Tyndareus.

It was easy to understand why these remained. Sweet-faced Penelope had won other hearts beside that of young Odysseus. "Since the glorious Helen is to be the bride of Menelaus," said each of those who tarried, "why shall not her fair cousin—who is worthier if not so beautiful—be mine to wed?"

And straightway they beset Icarius with offers of rich gifts, begging him to set a bride-price on his daughter, and bestow her upon him who should agree most willingly to pay it. The old man was sorely troubled, for he loved his daughter dearly; and he could not bear the thought that a strange prince should lead her into distant lands where, perchance, his eyes should never more behold her.

While he pondered sadly, sitting alone and bewildered in his chamber, he heard a minstrel singing in the hall. He listened. It was a song about Atalanta the fair huntress of Arcadia, beginning with the time when Meleager of the golden hair awarded her the prize in the far-off wood of Calydon.

Then the minstrel sang of the maiden's return to Arcadia: How she had stopped at Delphi on her way, and had asked the Pythia in Apollo's temple to reveal the secrets of her future life. How the oracle could tell her nothing of the things that would befall her, but only gave her this advice: "Keep thyself from wedlock's chains!" How, when she came again to her father's palace, she found him beset by suitors asking for the hand of his fleet-footed daughter. Then the maiden, calling to mind the Pythia's warning, besought her father to send the suitors home, and let her, like Artemis, live unwedded; for she would be as free as the winds which play in the lovely vales of Mantinea, or beat the bleak tops of Mount Enispe. But old Iasus was a crafty man—an unfeeling father, loving gold more than his daughter. "Behold," said he, "the bride-price that is offered. Shall I refuse so great gain, simply to please thy silly whims?" Then Atalanta was sorely troubled, and she prayed Artemis, the huntress-queen, to send her help in the time of her great need. And Artemis hearkened, and spoke words of comfort to her heart; and kind Pallas Athené gave her wisdom.

"My father," said she to old Iasus, "take thou the bride-price that any suitor may offer for me—but on these conditions: that he shall make trial with me in the foot-race, and if he outrun me, then I will go with him as his bride; but if I outstrip him in the race, then he is to lose the bride-price offered, and his life is to be at your mercy."

Crafty Iasus was highly pleased, and he rubbed his palms together with delight; and he caused the heralds to proclaim the terms on which the matchless Atalanta might be won. Some of the suitors departed in despair, for they knew that no mortal man was so fleet of foot as the lovely huntress of Arcadia. But many others, less wise, put themselves in training for the trial. Then one by one, like silly moths plunging into the candle's flame, they went down to the race-course of old Iasus, and tried their speed with that of the wing-footed damsel; but all failed miserably, and none of them ever returned to their homes or their loving friends. And Iasus grew rich upon the spoils—the jewels, and the bride-gifts, and the arms—which he thus gained from the luckless lovers.

One day Milanion, a youth from distant Scandia, came to try his fortune. "Knowest thou the terms?" asked Iasus.

"I know them," was the answer, "and though they were thrice as hard, yet would I win Atalanta."

And Atalanta, when she saw his manly, handsome face, and heard his pleasant voice, was sad to think that one so noble and so brave should meet so hard a fate. But Milanion went down to the race-course with a firm step and a heart full of hope. For he had prayed to Aphrodite that she would kindly aid his suit, and lend him wings to reach the goal in advance of Atalanta; and Aphrodite had listened to his plea, and had given him three golden apples, and had whispered a secret in his ear.

The signal was given, and youth and maiden bounded from the lists like arrows shot from a bow. But the maiden was much the fleeter of the two, and was soon far in advance.

"Another fool will soon come to grief!" said Iasus, laughing loudly.

By this time Atalanta was near the turning-post, while Milanion, straining every nerve, was many yards behind. Then he remembered the secret which Aphrodite had whispered, and he threw one of the golden apples far beyond the post. It fell upon the green lawn, a stone's-throw outside of the course. The quick eyes of Atalanta marked its beauty, and she ran to pick it up. And while she was seeking it among the grass, Milanion passed the turning-post, and was speeding swiftly back towards the goal. It was only a moment, however, until Atalanta swift as the wind overtook him, and was again far in the lead. Then the young man threw a second apple, this time some distance to the right of the course. The maiden followed, catching it almost before it fell; but Milanion had gained a hundred paces on her. Ere she could again overtake him, he threw his third apple over his shoulder and to the left of the course. Atalanta, forgetting in her eagerness that the goal was so near, stopped to secure this prize also; and lo! as she lifted her eyes, Milanion had reached the end of the course. Old Iasus stormed with rage, and threatened many fearful things. But Milanion, smiling, came boldly forward and claimed his bride; and she, blushing and happy, covered her face with her veil, and followed him willingly to the home of his fathers, in distant Cythera.

Such was the song which the minstrel sang, and to which Icarius listened while sitting in his chamber. Suddenly a new thought seemed to strike him, and he bade a herald call before him all the suitors of sweet Penelope.

"My young friends," he said, "you have asked me for my daughter's hand, and promised me a liberal bride-price. I need none of your gold, nor do I wish to give my daughter to a stranger with whom she would be loath to go. Hence I shall do after this manner: He who shall win in a foot-race to-day, on the long course beyond the market-place, shall be husband of Penelope, but on this condition: that, if she choose to go with him, then he is to have her without the payment of a price; but if she choose to stay with me, then he shall pay me a rich dower, and straightway depart forever from the gates of Lacedæmon."

The suitors heard the words of old Icarius, and all assented. Then soon the people were gathered again in the broad market-place; the long race-course was cleared and put in order, and every thing was made ready for the trial. The trumpet sounded, and the young princes came forward lightly clad for the race. Palamedes, the cousin of Menelaus, fair and tall; and Ajax Oileus, who had won the race on the preceding day; and Megas, brave as Mars, from far Dulichium; and Thoas, the Ætolian prince; and Phidippus, the grandson of great Heracles; and Protesilaus, from distant Thessaly; and Eumelus, son of Admetus and the divine Alcestis; and Polypoetes, descended from the Lapith king Peirithous and Hippodameia the daughter of the Centaurs; and Elphenor, the son of large-souled Chalcodon, ruler of Eubœa and the valorous Abantes; and lastly, Odysseus, who had shrewdly planned all matters to this end. Rarely have ten men so noble stood up together to contend for honors or the winner's prize.

The word was given, and they darted forth, at once and swiftly, raising a cloud of dust along the course. From the very start, they strained at utmost speed; they reached the turning-post, and hurried onward to the goal. But now stout Ajax no longer took the lead; for Odysseus ran before the rest, and passed the goal, and came to the crowd by the lists, while yet the others with laboring breath were speeding down the course.

Old Icarius was pleased with the issue of the race. For he hoped that Penelope would not consent to wed Odysseus and follow him to distant Ithaca; and, if so, he would be happily rid of all the troublesome suitors.

"Come here, my sweet daughter," he said. "This young man, a stranger from a far-off land, has won thee in the games; yet the choice is thine. Wilt thou leave thy old father, lonely and alone in Lacedæmon, preferring to share the fortunes of this stranger? Or wilt thou stay with me, and bid him seek a wife among the daughters of his own people?"

And sweet Penelope covered her face with her veil to hide her blushes, and said, "He is my husband; I will go with him."

Icarius said no more. But on that spot he afterwards raised a marble statue—a statue of Penelope veiling her blushes—and he dedicated it to Modesty.

Soon afterward Odysseus returned with his young wife to his own home and friends in sea-girt Ithaca. And, next to Penelope, the richest treasure that he carried thither was the bow of Eurytus.

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