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

The Sea Robbers of Messene

F IVE years passed quietly by, and brought few changes to Ithaca. The flocks still grazed in their mountain pastures; the orchard trees still bent under their loads of ripening fruit; the vines still yielded their treasures of purple and red. The simple-hearted islanders arose each day with the coming of the dawn; they went about their tasks with cheerfulness; they sang, and danced, and ate their accustomed meals, and then with the coming of night they lay down to sleep: to them, all days were alike, and life was but one pleasant round of duties. But King Laertes, as he grew older, sought more and more the quiet of his farm and garden; and, for the most part, he allowed his little kingdom to take care of itself, and his subjects to do as they pleased.

And in these five years young Odysseus had become a man. He had grown not so much in stature as in wisdom, nor yet so much in size of limb and body as in strength of bone and muscle. There was nothing in his face or figure that could be called handsome, and yet he was the pride of Ithaca. For, in all the deeds and feats most worthy of men, he was without a peer. In wrestling and leaping, in rowing and swimming, in shooting with the bow, and in handling the heavy spear, there was no one that could equal him. He was a very master of words; and when his speech warmed into earnestness, the dullest hearer was spell-bound by his eloquence. Even to the Achaian mainland and among the islands of the sea, he was famed for his far-reaching shrewdness. Indeed, his craftiness oftentimes outweighed his sense of honor; for, in that early day, to outwit one's fellows even by fraud was thought to be praiseworthy.

One evening in summer, four strange ships, with long black hulls, sailed into the harbor at Ithaca, and were moored in the deep water close to the shore. They were found to be manned by crews of seafarers from the low-lying shores of Messene; and their captain brought greetings from Orsilochus their king, and offered to barter silver and merchandise for Ithacan wool and long-horned sheep. Laertes welcomed the strangers warmly; and as the night was near, he advised that early on the morrow they should bring their wares ashore, and allow his people to bargain for what they needed most. And soon darkness covered all the ways, and Ithaca was wrapped in slumber.

When the gray dawn peeped into his chamber, and awakened him, the king arose, and looked out towards the harbor. Not one of the black-hulled ships could he see. They had silently cast their moorings, and had stolen away through the darkness. While the king looked and wondered, an old shepherd with frightened face and gestures of alarm came running in breathless haste to the palace. In a few words he told what strange things had happened. By the light of the waning moon, the sea rovers from Messene had sailed around to a little cove where the pastures slope down to the water's edge. There they had landed, and without much ado had driven a whole flock of sheep aboard their ships,—three hundred long-wooled ewes and bleating lambs, the choicest of the fields. And they had carried away not only these, but the six sleepy shepherds whose duty it had been to guard them.

An alarm was quickly sounded, and the news was passed from mouth to mouth until it was known to all. The bravest men of Ithaca hastened to the shore, where stood Odysseus and his father, ready to direct them. Their fleetest vessels, lying high upon the beach, were cleared ready to be launched. Five ships with vermilion prows were pushed into the waves; and each was manned by a score of lusty rowers, and headed towards the open sea. The long oars dipped into the water, as if all were moved by a single hand; and the vessels sped out upon their errand, like dogs of the chase intent upon a fleeing victim.

The sky was clear. The waves danced merrily in the sunlight. The wind blew gently from the shore. The crews of the Ithacan ships bent to the oars like practised seamen; but when they rounded the headlands at the foot of the bay, and came out upon the open sea, they saw no trace of the pirate fleet, nor even a single sail upon the laughing face of the deep. Whether the men of Messene had pushed straight homeward with their plunder, or whether they had put into some other cove or inlet farther down the coast, no one could guess. All that their pursuers could do was to sail close along the shore, southward towards Cephallenia, peering behind every jutting headland, and into every sheltered nook, in hopes of coming upon them.

Five days afterward, the red-prowed ships returned to Ithaca. Nothing had been seen of the sea robbers: nothing had been heard of the stolen flocks.

What was to be done? The robbers were known to be men of Messene, the subjects of Orsilochus. It was no secret, that much of the wealth of Messene had been gotten by the plunder and pillage of foreign coasts; but were the pirates of that country to be allowed thus to rob their near neighbors and kinsfolk? Laertes called together a council of the chiefs and elders, and asked them what it was best to do.

"We are a peaceful, home-loving people," said some of the older men, "and it would neither be wise nor pleasant to entangle ourselves in a war with a strong king like Orsilochus. The loss of three hundred sheep is not much where there are so many, and it is not likely that the sea robbers will ever trouble us again. Let us go quietly back to our fields and homes, and leave well enough alone."

But the young men would not listen to a plan so tame and spiritless. They were eager, if they could not recover what was their own, to take at least what was of equal value from the Messenians. It would be easy, they said, for a few stanch ships with well-chosen crews to cross the sea-ways, and land by night upon the rich coast of Messene; there they could fill the roomy holds of their vessels with fruit and grain; and before any one could hinder, they would sail safely back to Ithaca laden with wealth far greater than three hundred sheep.

Then Odysseus, though a mere youth among bearded men, stood up before them, and said,—

"My good friends, I like neither the one plan nor the other. It is but the part of a slave to suffer wrong without striking back. It is but the part of a coward to strike in the dark, as if fearing the enemy's face. Why not send boldly to Messene, and demand either the stolen sheep, or a fair price for them? I myself will undertake the business, and I promise you that I will bring back to Ithaca gifts and goods worth twice as much as the flock that has been taken."

The elders listened with favor to the young man's words; and, after further talk, it was settled that he should go forthwith across the sea to claim the debt which was due from the people of Messene.

The goodliest ship of all the Ithacan galleys was made ready for Odysseus. The needed stores of food and drink were brought on board, and placed in the vessel's hold. The young hero, with his friend and tutor Phemius, climbed over the vessel's side, and sat down in the prow. The long-haired seamen cast loose the moorings; they plied their oars, and the swift ship was soon far out upon the waters. A steady north wind filled the sail, and the vessel sped swiftly on her way, cleaving the white foam with her keel. By and by the sun went down, and night wrapped the world in her sober mantle, but the ship still held its course, being guided by the moon's pale light, and the steadfast star of the north.

The next day they sailed within sight of the low-lying coast of Elis, which stretched northward and southward farther than their eyes could reach. Yet they turned not to the shore, but sailed straight on; for Odysseus, advised by Pallas Athené, wished first to visit Pylos, where wise old Nestor ruled with his father, the ancient Neleus. This Neleus was the uncle of Jason, chief of the Argonauts, and had been driven from Iolcos by Pelias the usurper. Long time had he wandered, an exile in strange lands, until Aphareus of Arene gave him leave to build a city on the sandy plain close by the sea. There he had reared a noble palace; and there he still dwelt, having outlived three generations of men. But he had given up his kingdom, many years before, to his son Nestor, himself a sage old man.

It was not until late on the third day that the voyagers turned their ship's prow into the harbor of Pylos. It touched the shore, and Odysseus with his tutor sprang out upon the sands. They found the people of the city offering sacrifices there to Poseidon, ruler of the deep. Upon nine long seats they were sitting, five hundred or more on each seat; and the priest stood up before them, pouring out libations and offering sacrifices. Nine coal-black heifers he offered to Poseidon.

King Nestor sat upon a lofty seat while the elders of the city stood around him, or plied their several duties at the feast. Some of them were busy cutting choice bits of flesh from the slaughtered beeves; others fixed these bits upon spits, and roasted them over heaps of glowing coals; and still others handed the smoking food to the waiting people who sat hungry in their places. When Nestor saw Odysseus and the bard, two strangers, standing upon the shore, he arose and went down to meet them. He gave to each a hand, and leading them to the feast he seated them upon soft skins spread on piles of yielding sand. Then he brought to them, in his own hands, choicest pieces of well-cooked and well-flavored food; and when they had eaten as much as they liked, he poured rich wine into a golden goblet, and as he offered it first to the noble bard he said, "Right welcome are you, stranger, whoever you may be, to this our midsummer festival. I give this golden goblet to you first, you being the older man, that you may pray as beseemeth you to great Poseidon. When you have made your prayer, hand then the cup to the young man who is with you, that he too may pour out a libation; for all men have need to pray."

Then the bard took the goblet, and pouring out a rich libation, lifted up his eyes and prayed, "Great Poseidon, thou who dost hold the earth in thy strong arms, hear now the prayer of thy suppliant. Prolong still the life of our aged host, and add to Nestor with each circling year new honors and greater wealth. To the folk of Pylos give rich contentment and that peace which is the befitting prize of those who are mindful of life's varied duties. And lastly, grant that this young man may find that which he seeks, and then return rejoicing to his home and friends."

When he had thus spoken, he gave the goblet to Odysseus, and he in like manner poured out libations, and prayed to great Poseidon.

Then said Nestor as he took again the goblet, "Strangers, you do wisely thus to offer prayers to the gods; for they are far above us in virtue, strength, and honor. When men have failed to do aright, and have broken Heaven's just laws, they may still, by humble vows and supplications, turn aside from evil-doing, and soften the wrath of the ever-living powers."

"Yes, truly," answered Phemius, "by prayers we do honor both ourselves and those to whom we pray. There is an ancient saying, which no doubt you oft have heard, that prayers are the feeble-sighted daughters of Father Zeus, and wrinkled and lame they follow in misfortune's track. But misfortune, strong and swift, outruns them often, and brings distress upon the sons of men; then these blessed prayers, following after, kindly heal the hurts and bind up the aching wounds which have been made. And for this reason the man who is wont to pray feels less the strokes of fortune than does he who lives forgetful of the gods."

The feast being soon ended, Nestor turned again to the strangers, and said, "Behold now, the day is well-nigh gone, and all have paid their vows to the ever-living gods. The time has come when we may ask our stranger-guests their names and errand. Who are you who come thus unheralded to the sandy shores of Pylos? Is your visit one of peace, and shall we welcome you as friends? Or do you come as spies, to find out what there may be of wealth or of weakness in our city?"

Odysseus answered: "O noble Nestor, we will speak the truth, and hide nothing from you. I am Odysseus of Ithaca; my father is King Laertes, who was once your comrade when you sailed on the Argo to golden Colchis. Ten days ago, there came to our island sea-faring men from Messene, whom we welcomed as friends and neighbors. But under cover of the night they landed on our shores; they seized three hundred of our long-wooled sheep, together with the shepherds, and bore them across the sea to some one of the pirate harbors of Messene. I now am on my way to King Orsilochus, to bid him send back the stolen flock; and if he will not hearken to my words, then I shall either gain by guile or take by force double the value of the sheep. But I have come first to Pylos, that you, my father's old-time friend, might know my errand, and, if need be, lend me your aid."

"You have spoken well," answered Nestor; "and for your father's sake you are thrice welcome to the lofty halls of Pylos. Abide with me for one night, and in the morning I will give you a car and steeds, and a trustworthy guide, to take you by the straightest road to Pherae, where the king of Messene dwells. Orsilochus must learn from me, that, though his pirate-crews may plunder foreign shores, they must not molest the flocks and goods of our home-staying neighbors."

Having thus spoken, he led the way to the fair palace, which his father Neleus erstwhile had built. There they found that aged chieftain sitting in the great hall, upon a soft couch spread with purple coverings. His hair and his long beard were white as the driven snow, and his hands trembled from very feebleness, for he was exceeding old. He spoke kindly to Odysseus, and asked many questions about his father Laertes, and his home in Ithaca; but he seemed most pleased when the young man told him of his visit, when a boy, to Iolcos and Mount Pelion. For Iolcos had been the home of Neleus in his youth; and he it was he who had helped Pelias drive Æson from the kingdom which was his by right. But Nemesis had followed him, and punished him for the deed.

Soon the shades of night began to darken the fair hall, and the chiefs and elders went each one to his own house. But Nestor led Odysseus and the bard to an upper chamber, where a fair, soft couch was spread upon a jointed bedstead. There he left them for the night, and there they soon found rest in soothing slumber.

As soon as the light of day began to streak the eastern sky, the aged Neleus, as was his wont, arose from his couch, and, leaning on the arm of Nestor, went feebly out, and took his seat upon a smooth white stone before the palace gate. Then every one who had aught of grievance, or had suffered any wrong, came and told his story, and made his plea; and the old hero weighed the matter with an even hand, and gave judgment for the right.

"What shall be done to aid the son of Laertes, that so his journey into Messene shall prosper?" asked Nestor. "Thou knowest that King Orsilochus has ever been our friend and ally; yet shall we allow his lawless men thus to despoil our neighbors and old-time comrades?"

"Send to Pherae, with the young man, a trusty messenger who shall speak for him," answered old Neleus. "Send them both in thy own chariot, and ask Orsilochus, in the name of a friend, to deal justly with the son of Laertes."

By this time Odysseus and the bard had awakened from their slumber. They arose; and when they had bathed, and had been annointed with soft oil, they clothed themselves in robes of noble texture, and went down into the banquet hall. There they found King Nestor waiting; and they sat down with him at the table, and willing servants waited on them, bringing choice food and pouring sweet wine into golden goblets.

When the meal was finished, the bard bade his host farewell; and, praying that the gods would speed Odysseus on his errand, he went down to the red-prowed ship which was waiting by the shore. And as soon as he stepped on board, the sailors loosed the moorings, and set the sail; and a brisk wind bore them swiftly back towards Ithaca.

But Nestor spoke to the young men about him, "Bring out my finest horses, and yoke them forthwith to my lightest car. They shall carry Odysseus on his journey across the plain to Pherae; and my son Antilochus shall bear him company, and be my messenger to the Messenian king."

Soon the car was ready. The young men took their places; and Antilochus touching the restive horses with his whip, they sped across the dusty plain. It was a rough and tiresome journey, along unbroken ways, and roads scarcely marked with tracks of wheels or horses' hoofs; and night had begun to fall ere they came to the river Nedon and the high walls of Pherae where dwelt Orsilochus, the king of Messene.

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