Gateway to the Classics: Thirty More Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin
Thirty More Famous Stories Retold by  James Baldwin

Penelope's Web

I. The Returning Heroes

O F all the heroes that fought against Troy, the wisest and shrewdest was Ulysses, the young king of Ithaca. Yet he went not willingly to the war. It would have pleased him better to remain at home with his fair wife, Penelope, and his baby boy, Telemachus. He was far happier pruning his grapevines and plowing among his orchard trees than he could ever be in the turmoil of battle, wielding the sword or thrusting the spear. But the princes of Greece demanded that he should help them, and rather than be deemed a coward he consented.

"Go, Ulysses," said Penelope, "I will keep your home and kingdom safe until you return."


Statue of Penelope

"Do your duty, Ulysses," said his old father, Laertes. "Go, and may wise Athene speed your coming back."

And so, bidding farewell to Ithaca and all that he held dear, he sailed away. Forgetting the quiet delights of home, he thenceforth gave all his thoughts to war.

Ten years passed before the weary siege of Troy was ended. When at length the city was laid in ashes, the Greeks embarked in their ships, and each chieftain with his followers sought, in his own way, to return to his native land. Fondly then did the thoughts of Ulysses turn to his loved wife and his child, now a sturdy lad with winning ways; and he longed to see again the rugged hills and pleasant shores of Ithaca.

"Spread the sails, my men, and row hard," he said to his fellows ; "for Penelope waits at home for my return, and keeps my kingdom for me."

But scarcely were his little ships well out to sea ere fearful storms arose. The vessels were tossed hither and thither at the mercy of the winds and waves. They were driven far, far out of their course. The sailors lost their reckoning, and not one could tell which way to steer for Ithaca. By strange, wild shores they sailed, past lands where barbarous people dwelt; and every puff of wind and every stroke of oars drove them farther and farther away from the port which they sought.

II. The Importunate Suitors

Now, one by one, the other heroes reached their homes, and the news of their coming was carried to every part of Greece. But of Ulysses and his companions there came no word whether they were living or dead. Daily did Penelope and young Telemachus and feeble old Laertes stand by the shore and gaze with aching eyes far over the waves. No sign of sail or of glinting oars could they discern. Months passed by and then years, and still no word.

"His ships are wrecked, and he lies at the bottom of the sea," sighed old Laertes; and after that he shut himself up in his narrow room and went no more to the shore.

"Surely Ulysses has perished," said the men and women of Ithaca; "else some news would come to us of his whereabouts."

But Penelope still hoped and hoped and hoped. "He is not dead," she said; "and until he comes I will hold this fair kingdom for him."

Every day his seat was placed for him at the table; his house coat was hung by his chair; his chamber was aired and dusted; his great bow that hung in the hall was polished and kept supple.

Ten years passed thus with constant watching. Telemachus had become a young man, graceful and tall and gentle-mannered; and his mother's queenly beauty had not faded with the lapse of time, but grace and dignity were added to her girlish loveliness. Throughout all Greece fair Penelope's fame was sounded. Men talked of nothing but the charms of her face and form, the sweetness of her manners, and the nobleness of her mind.

"But how foolish of her," said they, "to be forever looking for Ulysses. Everybody knows that he is dead. She ought to marry some one of the young chieftains of Greece and share with him the kingdom of Ithaca; for no woman in the world is more richly endowed than she."

The chieftains and princes who were looking for wives took the hint at once. One after another they sailed to Ithaca, hoping to win the love of Penelope and also the riches which were said to be hers. The first to arrive was Antinous, a young spendthrift, haughty, overbearing, and insolent. After him came Agelaus, a foppish fellow, proud of his slender figure and fine clothes and long, curling hair. The third was a rich old merchant, Leocritus, fat and pompous, and glorying in his wealth. Scarcely were these landed safely in Ithaca before many others arrived, whose names have been forgotten, as they deserved to be.

Straight to the palace they went, with their servants and belongings, not waiting for an invitation. For they knew that they would be treated as honored guests, whether they were welcome or not.

"Penelope," they said, "it is not the custom in our country for a widow to live long unwedded. We have come as suitors for your hand, and you dare not turn us all away. Choose, now, the man among us who pleases you best, and the rest will forthwith depart." And then each one began to tell of his own good qualities, of his noble family, his powerful friends, his wealth, and his courage.

But Penelope answered sadly, "Princes and heroes, this cannot be; for I am quite sure that Ulysses still lives, and I must hold his kingdom for him till he returns."

"Return, he never will," answered the suitors. "So make your choice, as becomes your duty."

"Give me yet a week, a month, to wait for him," she pleaded. "In my loom I have a half-finished web of soft linen. I am weaving it for the shroud of our father, Laertes, who is very old and cannot live much longer. If Ulysses fails to return by the time this web is finished, then I will choose, although unwillingly."

"Will you work upon this web every day?" asked Antinous.

"Every day," she answered, "I will sit at my loom and weave the web. It would be a sin, indeed, if Laertes should go to the grave while the shroud is unfinished."

"Let her delay her choice as she desires," said Agelaus. "In the meantime, we will enjoy ourselves."

Forthwith the suitors made themselves at home in the palace. They seized upon the best of everything. They feasted daily in the great dining hall, eating and wasting the provisions that had been stored away with greatest care against the homecoming of Ulysses. They helped themselves to the wine in the cellar and to the fruits and flowers in the garden. They were rude and uproarious in the once quiet and beautiful chambers of the palace. They were insolent and overbearing to the servants and friends of Penelope, and they kept the people of Ithaca in constant terror by reason of their lawless deeds.

III. The Discovered Secret

Every day Penelope sat at her loom and wove. "See how much I have added to the length of the web," she would say when the evening came. But in the night, while the suitors were asleep, she raveled out all the threads she had woven in during the day. Thus, although she was always at the work, the web was never finished. And Telemachus, while his mother toiled, sat moodily in the hall or strolled about the palace, angry and sad, and praying for his father's return.

So long as the wine and provisions held out, the suitors seemed to care but little about the web. "We can wait," they said; "and while she is weaving the shroud, we will spend our days in eating, drinking, and making merry."

At the end of a month, however, the cellar was almost empty. The fatted beeves had been killed and eaten; and it was hard for the kitchen maids to find food for the daily feasts. Then the suitors began to wonder and complain.

"How soon may we expect that web to be finished?" they impatiently asked.

"I am busy every day," answered Penelope, "and yet the web grows very slowly. But see how fine and soft it is, and how delicate the meshes. Such a piece of work cannot be completed in a day."

Agelaus, however, was not satisfied. In the dead of night he crept quietly through the great hall and the long passageways, and peeped into the weaving room. There, by the light of a little lamp, sat Penelope, busily unraveling the work of the day and whispering to herself the name of Ulysses.

The spying suitor stayed but a little while, watching her movements. Then he stole silently back to his own place. "The trick is a good one," he said to himself, "but it will not last long."

The next morning the secret was known to every one of the unwelcome guests. When Penelope came down into the hall, as was her wont, they greeted her with jibes and laughter.

"Fair queen," they said, "you are very cunning; but we have found you out, and all your gentle tricks are known to us. The web that has been so long in weaving must be finished to-day; and you must make your choice this very evening. We shall wait no longer."

"Oh, ask not that which is impossible," pleaded Penelope. "Give me yet a little more time. Give me one more day; and I promise you that the web shall then be finished. To-morrow evening the moon will be at its full. Do but wait until then, and you shall have my answer."

"We will wait until that hour," said Antinous, haughtily; "but not a moment longer."

"No, not a moment longer," echoed all the rest.

IV. The Tarnished Weapons

The next afternoon the unwelcome guests were assembled in the great hall as usual. The feast was set, and they ate and drank and sang and shouted as never before. They made such an uproar that the very timbers of the palace shook, and the shields and swords that hung on the walls rattled against each other.

While the turmoil was at its height, Telemachus came in, followed by Eumæus, his father's oldest and most faithful servant. The guests were so busy enjoying themselves that their entrance was scarcely noticed.

"My young master," said Eumæus, "those shields and swords have hung long in their places, waiting for the return of your father."

"Yes," answered Telemachus, "and they are becoming tarnished with the smoke and dust. Let us take them down and put them in the great chest in the treasure room. They will be much better kept there."

"It is a good thought, master," said the old servant. "I will carry the shields and the bows, and you may bring the swords."

"Very well, Eumæus; and let us do the task at once. But my father's great bow that hangs at the head of the hall must not be touched. My mother polishes and supples it every day, and she would sadly miss it if it were removed."

To lift the weapons from the walls was no hard matter; but there were a number of them, and the prince and old Eumæus had to go and come many times before all were removed.

"What are you doing with those swords and shields?" cried Antinous, as they were going out with the last load.

"We are putting them in the big chest in the treasure room. They were being ruined with hanging here so long in the dust and smoke," answered Telemachus, not deigning to stop.

"The lad is uncommonly cheerful to-day," remarked one of the younger suitors.

"Perhaps he is expecting his father," said old Leocritus, with a sneer.

V. The Strolling Beggar

At that moment a strange beggar entered the courtyard. He was dressed in rags; his feet were bare, his head was uncovered, his hands trembled as he slowly walked toward the doorway of the great hall. Some of the servants who saw him laughed at his poverty, and bade him begone; but others pitied his distress and checked their rudeness. "Deal gently with him," they said; "for mayhap he brings news of our master, the lordly Ulysses. He looks as though he had traveled far."

An old greyhound, Argos, was lying on a heap of ashes by the kitchen door. Twenty years before he had been the swiftest and most beautiful of hunting dogs—the pet and companion of Ulysses. But now, grown old and helpless, he was neglected and abused. His teeth gone, his eyes grown dim, his legs shaky and useless, he had no longer any joy of life. When he saw the beggar slowly moving through the yard, he raised his head to look. Then a strange light came suddenly into his old eyes. His tail wagged feebly, and he tried with all his failing strength to rise. He looked up lovingly into the beggar's face, and uttered a long but joyful howl like that which he was wont to utter in his youth when greeting his master.

The beggar stooped and patted his head. "Argos, old friend!" he whispered.


"Argos, old friend!" he whispered.

The dog staggered to his feet, then fell, and was dead with the look of joy still in his eyes.

"What ails the old dog?" asked Antinous; for the sound of his howling was heard even in the feast hall.

"Doubtless he is bewailing the loss of his mistress," said Agelaus; and all the suitors laughed.

A moment afterward the beggar stood in the door.

"Well, well!" cried Leocritus. "What newcomer is this who thus pushes himself among his betters?"

"What do you want here, Old Rags?" said another of the suitors, hurling a crust at his head. "Don't you know that this is the king's palace? Begone!"

"Yes, begone!" shouted old Eumæus, trying to appear harsh.

"I wish to speak with the son of Ulysses," said the beggar, humbly.

"Then speak, for I am he," said Telemachus, frowning and seeming angry. "Make your story short."

"O noble youth," said the beggar, "you are strong and fair, and life is all before you. But I am old and have fallen upon evil days. I pray that you will have pity on my distress." Then in a low voice he added, "Have you removed all the weapons as I bade you? And are they safe in the great chest?"

"All except the great bow which hangs at the head of the hall," whispered Telemachus. "What say you? Shall we strike now?"

"Shall we strike now?" said old Eumæus, drawing near and speaking below his breath.

"What is it the old vagrant is telling the boy?" cried Antinous. "Out with him!"

"Yes, out with him!" cried the younger suitors, crowding forward with threatening gestures.

"Let him stay," said Leocritus. "Let him stay. We shall have great sport with him. Perhaps he, too, has come to claim the hand of fair Penelope. Say, is it not so, my humble friend?"

The beggar made no answer. He grasped his staff with a firmer grip and gazed across the hall where was the lofty stairway that led to the queen's chambers. Down the stairs came Penelope, stately and beautiful, with her servants and maids around her.

"The queen! the queen!" cried the suitors. "She has come to redeem her promise."

"Telemachus, my son," said Penelope, "what poor man is this whom our guests treat so roughly?"

"Mother, he is a strolling beggar whom the waves cast upon our shores last night," answered the prince. "He says that he brings news of my father."

"Then he shall tell me of it," said the queen, "But first he must rest and be fed and receive the attentions due to every guest." With this she caused the beggar to be led to a seat at the farther side of the room, and she bade Telemachus bring him food and drink with his own hands. "Here, Melampo," she said to one of her maids, "bring a bowl and water with which to wash the poor man's feet."

"Not I," said the proud maid; "I touch no beggar's foot."

"Then I will do the queen's bidding," said Dame Eurycleia, the old nurse who had cared for Ulysses when he was a child.

Forthwith she brought a great bowl and warm water and towels; and kneeling on the stones before the stranger she began to bathe and wash his feet. Then suddenly, with a scream, she sprang up, overturning the bowl in her confusion. "O master! the scar!" she muttered hoarsely, but so low that only the stranger heard her. And then, to turn away suspicion, she added in a louder tone, "How awkward I have become in my old age, that I should do so careless a thing! Now I shall have to refill the bowl."

"Dear nurse," whispered the seeming beggar, "you were ever discreet and wise. You know me by the old scar that I have carried on my knee since boyhood. Keep well the secret, for I bide my time and the hour of vengeance is nigh."

"O Ulysses, my master," she answered softly, "I knew that you would come."

This man in rags was indeed Ulysses, the king. Alone in a little boat he had been cast, that very morning, upon the shore of his own island. He had made himself known first to old Eumæus and then to his son Telemachus, but to no other person; and it was by his orders that the weapons had been removed from the great hall.


Ulysses makes himself known to Telemachus

But the old nurse was prudent and shrewd. With the empty bowl in her hands, she hobbled from the hall to refill it, muttering loud complaints against the troublesome beggar. And Telemachus, bending over his father, whispered hoarsely, "Shall we not strike now?"

VI. The Web Is Finished

In the meanwhile the suitors had gathered again around the feast table and were more boisterous than before. "Come, fair Penelope!" they shouted. "Come and grace our banquet with your presence. The beggar can tell his tale to-morrow, for we shall delay no longer. The moon is full, and your promise must be redeemed. Come! choose a husband from among us. For know you this, that Ulysses, even though he lives, shall never again enter this house."

"Yes, choose! choose!" cried the younger men, as the queen passed slowly to the head of the hall.

"Choose me," said Agelaus, the fop; "for not even Apollo can match me for grace of form and figure."

"Choose me," said rich Leocritus, "and the treasures of land and sea shall be yours."

"Choose me," said Antinous, the insolent; "for you dare not arouse my displeasure, and you shall be mine whether you choose or not."

"Chiefs and princes," said Penelope, in trembling tones, "it is not fit that I should decide this question. Let us leave it to the gods. Behold, there hangs the great bow of Ulysses with which he was wont to do most valiant deeds ere cruel fate called him to Troy. Let each of you try his strength in bending it, and I will choose that one who can shoot an arrow from it the most skillfully."

"Well said!" cried all the suitors, "and we agree to it. Hand us the bow, Telemachus, and let us make the trial."

First Antinous took the bow in his hands, and struggled long to bend it. Then, losing patience, he threw it upon the ground and strode away. "None but a giant can string a bow like that," he said.

Then, one by one, the other suitors made trial of their strength; but all in vain.

"Perhaps the old beggar who has just had his feet washed would like to take a part in this contest," said Agelaus, with a sneer.

Then Ulysses in his beggar's rags rose from his seat and went with halting steps to the head of the hall. He lifted the great bow and looked with fond recollection at its polished back and its long, well-shaped arms, stout as bars of iron. "Methinks," he said, "that in my younger days I once saw a bow like this."

He took the slender bowstring of rawhide in his fingers. With seeming awkwardness he fumbled long with the bow, seeming unable to bend it. "Enough! enough, old man!" cried Antinous, striking him in the face with his hand. "Drop the bow, and stay no longer in the company of your betters."

Suddenly a great change came over Ulysses. Without apparent effort he bent the great bow and strung it. Then, rising to his full height, he shook off his beggar's rags and appeared in his own true likeness, clad in armor from head to foot, and every inch a king.

"O Ulysses! Ulysses!" cried Penelope, falling, fainting into the arms of the old nurse.

The suitors were speechless with amazement. Then in the wildest alarm they turned and tried to escape from the hall. But the arrows of Ulysses were swift and sure, and not one missed its mark. "Now I avenge myself upon those who have eaten up my substance and would destroy my home!" cried the hero.

Twang! went the bow; and Antinous, the insolent, fell headlong upon the threshold of the palace. Twang! went the bow; and Agelaus in his silken robes rolled in the dust. Twang! went the bow; and all the wealth of Leocritus availed him nothing. And thus, one after another, the lawless suitors perished—slain by the wrath of the hero whom they had wronged.

* * * * * *

The next day as Ulysses sat in the great hall with his queenly wife and his noble son Telemachus and the joyful men and maidens of his household, he told the story of his long wanderings over the sea. And Penelope, in turn, related how she had faithfully kept the kingdom for him, as she had promised, though beset by insolent and wicked suitors. Then she brought from her chamber a roll of soft, white cloth of wonderful fineness and beauty, and said, "This is the web, Ulysses. I promised that on the day of its completion I would choose a husband; and I choose you."

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