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Alfred J. Church

The Trial of the Bow

U LYSSES lay down to sleep in the gallery of the hall. He lay with the undressed hide of a bull under him, and he took to cover him fleeces of sheep that had been killed for sacrifice and feast. Also the dame that kept the house laid a mantle over him. But he could not sleep, for he was thinking about many things, chiefly how he, being one, with but some two or three to help him, could slay all the company of Suitors.

While he turned from side to side thinking over those things, Athené came and stood over his head in the likeness of a woman, and said to him: "Why do you not sleep? Here you are in your own home, and you find that your wife is true to you, and that your son is just such as you could wish. What troubles you?"

Ulysses answered: "These things that you say, O goddess! are true. But I think how I, being one against many, shall be able to slay the Suitors. This troubles me; and this also, how, if I slay them, shall I escape the avengers of blood?"

The goddess answered: "Truly, your faith is weak. Should you not trust in the gods, for they are stronger than men? The gods are on your side; I am with you, and will keep you to the end. And now sleep, for to wake all night is vexation of spirit."

So she poured sleep on eyes, and left him.

When he awoke up in the morning, he took up the fleeces which had covered him, and laid them on a seat in the hall, and the bull's hide on which he had slept he carried outside. And as he stood, he looked up to the sky and said: "O Zeus, send me now a sign, if indeed, in bringing me back to my country, thou meanest to do me good?"

And even while he was speaking there came thunder from the sky, and Ulysses was glad to hear it. Also there came another sign to him, and this was a word which was spoken by a woman at the mill. Twelve women there were who ground corn for the palace, wheat and barley. Eleven of them were sleeping, for they had finished their task; but this one was weaker than the rest, and had not finished her part, but still was grinding. And when she heard the thunder, she cried: "O Zeus, may this be a sign of good to me! may it mean that I shall never grind wheat and barley any more for the Suitors!"

And now Telemăchus came down from the room where he slept, and said to the nurse: "Did you give to our guest food and drink and bedding as was fitting?"

Then nurse said: "The man ate and drank as much as he would, but a mattress and rugs he would not have. He slept on a bull's hide, and had the fleeces of sheep to cover him. But he had also a mantle over him."

After this the swineherd came, driving three fat hogs for the day's feast. He said to Ulysses: "Stranger, how have these young men behaved to you?"

Ulysses said: "May the gods deal with them as they have dealt with me!"

And after the swineherd came Melanthius the goatherd, bringing goats for the day's feast. When he saw Ulysses, he spoke roughly to him: "Old man, are you still plaguing us with your begging? We shall not part, I take it, till we have made trial of each other with our fists. Your begging is past bearing. Are there not other feasts to which you can go?"

Last came the neatherd, whose name was Philaetius, and he was driving a barren heifer; and this also, besides the pigs and the goats, was for the feast. He said to Ulysses: "Friend, I hope that you may have better luck in the time to come; for now I see that you have many troubles. Maybe Ulysses is wandering about, clothed in rags as you are and begging his bread. I weep to think of it. Ay, it may be that he is dead. That would be a great grief. Long ago he set me to take care of his cattle, and they have increased under my hand, yet it vexes me to see how these strangers are ever devouring them in his own home. Long ago I would have fled to some other place, for the thing is past bearing, but that I hope that Ulysses will yet come again to his own."

Ulysses said to him: "Philaetius, I see that you are a good man. Now listen to what I say: I swear that this day, while you are still here, Ulysses will come home. You shall see it with your eyes—yes, and the end of the Suitors also." And now the Suitors came and sat down, as they were wont, to their morning meal. And the servants took to Ulysses a full share of meat and drink, for this was what Telemăchus had bidden them do. When Ctesippus saw this—he was one who cared neither for gods nor men—he said: "Is this fellow to fare as well as we fare? See now what gift I will give him!" And he took the foot of a bullock out of a basket, and threw it at Ulysses. But he moved his head to the left, and the foot flew by, and made a mark on the wall.

When Telemăchus saw this, he cried: " 'Tis well for you, Ctesippus, that you did not hit the stranger. Truly, if you had hit him, I had pierced you through with my spear, and your father would have had to make ready your burying, not your wedding."

"That is well said," cried another of the Suitors; " 'tis a shame to do wrong either to Telemăchus, or to his guest. Nevertheless, he must bid his mother choose out from among us the man whom she will marry, so that we may not waste our time any more."

Telemăchus answered: "My mother may marry whom she will; but never will I force her to leave this house."

When he said this the Suitors laughed, but their laughter was not as of men that were glad. And there came a darkness over the place, so that one of the men cried: "It is this stranger that brings bad luck with him. Let us send him away, for the hall seems to grow dark while he is here."

By this time Penelopé had taken down the great bow of Ulysses from the peg on which it hung, and she drew it out of the case in which it was kept, and laid it across her knees and wept over it. Then, after a while, she rose, and carried it to the hall, where the Suitors sat feasting. With the bow she brought also the quiver full of arrows, and, standing by the pillar that stood under the dome, she said:—

"You, who come here day after day, and devour my substance, pretending that you wish to marry me, see here; look at this bow and these arrows; they belong to the great Ulysses, and with these I will try you. Whoso among you that shall most easily bend this bow with his hands, and shall shoot best at the mark which my son shall set up, him will I take for my husband; him will I follow, leaving this house, which I shall never see again except in my dreams."


Penelopé Carrying the Bow of Ulysses to the Suitors

Then Telemăchus set the mark. And when he had set it, he made as if he would have drawn the bow himself; and this he would have done, for he was strong and worthy of his father; but Ulysses signed to him that he should not do it. So he said: "I am too young, and have not grown to my full strength; you that are older than I should try first."

Then a certain priest who was among the Suitors, Leiodes by name, made trial of the bow. He was the best among them, and did not like their ways; but for all that he stayed with them. He took the bow, and tried to bend it, wearying himself with it, making his hands sore, for they were soft and not used to work. At last he said: "I cannot bend the bow; and I fear that it will bring grief and pain to many this day."

But Antinoüs cried: "Why do you say such words?" And he bade the goatherd fetch a roll of fat from the kitchen, that they might make the string soft with it. And the Suitors rubbed the fat upon it, trying to soften it. But they could not bend it; they tried all of them, but it was in vain, till only two were left, Antinoüs and Eurymachus, who were indeed the strongest of them all.

While the Suitors were trying the bow, Ulysses went out into the court, and spoke to the swineherd, and the man who herded the cattle, taking them by themselves, and said to them: "What would you do if Ulysses were to come back to his home? Would you fight for him, or for the Suitors?"

They both answered with one voice: "We would fight for him."

Then said Ulysses: "Look now at me: I am Ulysses, and I have come back after twenty years. You are glad in your hearts to see me; but I know not whether there is any one else besides you who is glad. Come now, be brave men to-day and help me, and I will reward you; you shall have wives and lands and houses, and you shall lie near me, and Telemăchus shall take you for comrades and brothers. And if you want a sign that I am indeed Ulysses, look at this scar; this is the wound which the wild boar made on the day when I went hunting with my grandfather."

The men wept for joy to hear this; and they kissed Ulysses, and he kissed them. Then he said to the swineherd: "When the Suitors have tried the bow, bring it to me. Also bid the women keep within doors, and not move out if they hear the noise of battle." To the herdsman of the cattle he said: "Lock the doors of the hall, and fasten them with a rope."

Then he went back to the hall. Eurymachus had the bow in his hand, and was warming it at the fire. Then he tried to draw it, but could not. And he groaned aloud, saying: "Woe is me! I am grieved not for the loss of this marriage, for there are other women in Greece who may be wooed, but because we are all weaker than the great Ulysses. This is, indeed, a shameful thing." But Antinoüs said: "Do not lose heart. This day is holy to the god of Archers, and it does not please him that we are about this business. We will try again to-morrow, and first we will sacrifice to the god."

They were all pleased to hear these words, hoping that they might yet be able to draw the bow. But Ulysses said: "Let me try it; I should like to know whether I have still the strength which I had when I was young."

The Suitors were very angry that the stranger should dare to think of such a thing; but Penelopé said that the man should try the bow, and that she would give him great gifts if he could bend it. Then said Telemăchus: "Mother, this bow is mine, and I will give it or refuse it, as I shall see fit. And if it pleases me that this stranger shall try it, then it shall be so, and no man shall say nay. But now do you and your maids go to your rooms; these things are for men to settle."

This he said because he knew what would soon happen in the hall, and he would not have her there. She wondered to hear him speak with such authority, but she made no answer to him, and she went out of the hall, taking her maids with her.

Then Telemăchus gave the bow to the swineherd, and bade him take it to Ulysses. The Suitors were angry, and would have stopped him, but Telemăchus said: "Take it; it is mine to give or to refuse," and the swineherd took it to Ulysses. And when he had done this, he went to the nurse, and bade her keep the women within doors whatever they might hear.

Then Ulysses took the bow in his hand, and felt it to see whether it had suffered any hurt; and the Suitors laughed to see him do it. And when he found that it was without a flaw, then he bent it, and strung it, and he twanged the string, and the tone of it was shrill and sweet as the cry of a swallow. After this he took an arrow from the quiver, and laid the notch upon the string, and drew the bow to the full, still sitting in his place. And the arrow went straight to the mark. Then he said to Telemăchus: "Come, stand by me; there is yet another feast to be kept before the sun goes down." And the young man stood by his side, armed with a spear.