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Alfred J. Church

Of What Happened in Ithaca

N OW we must leave Ulysses in the island of Calypso, and see what was gong on at his home in Ithaca. You have been already told that before he went to Troy he had married a wife, Penelopé by name, and had a son who was called Telemăchus. When this son was still only a baby, Ulysses had to go to Troy with the other chiefs of the Greeks to fight with the Trojans. And now nearly twenty years had passed, and he had not come home: and no one knew what had become of him. What had happened to the other chiefs every one knew. Some had died during the siege, and others had perished on the way home, and the leader of them all had come back and been wickedly killed by his wife, and another had had to fly from his home and build a city in a distant country, and others had got back safely, sooner or later; but Ulysses was still absent, and, as has been said, no one knew where he was, or whether he was alive or dead. But it seemed most likely that he was dead. It is no wonder, then, that many of the young men among the nobles of Ithaca, and of the islands round about, came and tried to persuade his wife Penelopé to marry again. "It is of no use," they said, "for you to wait any longer for your husband. By this time he must be dead. And you ought to have some one to look after your property and your kingdom, for your son is too young to do this properly."

Now Penelopé believed in her heart that her husband was alive, and that he would come back; but she knew that hardly any one else believed it. And she felt very helpless. The people of Ithaca thought that she ought to marry again. They were very badly governed when there was no king. Even if the man whom she chose—for, of course, her husband would be king—was not very good, this would be better than to have a whole crowd of men coming day after day to the palace, eating and drinking and gambling, and wasting the king's goods. So she tried to gain time. She thought to herself: "If I can put off these people"—suitors they were called—"for a while, perhaps my husband will come back in the meanwhile." So she said to them: "You know that my husband's father is an old man, and that it would be a great disgrace to me if he were to die and there were no proper grave clothes to bury him in; for you know that he has been a king, and should be buried with honour. Let me weave a shroud for him, and when this is finished, then I will choose one from among you to be my husband." The Suitors were glad to hear this, for they said to themselves: "This weaving cannot take a very long time; and when it is finished, then one of us, at least, will get what he wants." So they waited, but somehow the weaving was not finished. The truth was that the queen undid every night what she had done in the day. How long this would have gone on no one knows, but at last one of the women that waited on the queen told the secret to a friend of hers among the Suitors. That night three or four of them were taken by the woman to the queen's own room, and found her undoing what she had done in the day. So the queen could not put the Suitors off any longer in this way; the shroud was finished, and she did not know what to do.


Penelopé Surprised by the Suitors

Now there was one among the gods and goddesses who more than all the others cared for Ulysses. This was Athené, the goddess of Wisdom, and she loved Ulysses because he was so wise. And Athené thought to herself: "Now there are two things to be done: we must bring Ulysses back to his home; he has been away for twenty years, and that is enough, and too much. And we must not let Telemăchus, his son, sit still any longer and do nothing, as if he did not care at all what has happened to his father, and whether he is alive or dead. It would be a bad thing if Ulysses were to come home and find out that Telemăchus had never taken any pains to look for him or ask about him. For Telemăchus is now a young man, and able to think and act." And Athené, being wise, saw that this was the first thing to do, for nothing could be worse than that, for any reason, father and son should not be good friends. And the way in which she stirred up Telemăchus was this.

One day he sat among the Suitors, who were feasting and playing draughts in his father's house. Every day did they come thither, and they made a sad waste of the things which belonged to Ulysses. The sheep and oxen and swine were killed for their meat, and they drank the wines from his cellars. And Telemăchus could do nothing, for he was but one against many. As he sat very sad at heart, there came a stranger to the door. Now this stranger was Athené, who had come down to the earth and taken a man's shape. When Telemăchus saw him, he got up from his place and brought him in, and commanded his servants to set food and drink before him.

When he had ended his meal, Telemăchus asked him his business. The stranger said: "I am Mentes; I am king of the Taphians, and I am on my way to Cyprus with a cargo of iron, which I am going to exchange for copper. And I have come wishing to see your father, for I knew him and his father also. But now they tell me that he is not here. Something has hindered him from coming home, for I am sure that he is alive. But who are these? what are they doing here? Is this a wedding feast? A wise man would not like to see such doings in his house."

And Telemăchus answered: "Oh, sir, while my father was yet alive, this house was rich and prosperous. But now that he is gone, things go very ill with me. It had been far better if he had fallen in battle fighting against the Trojans, but now the sea has swallowed him up. And these men are the princes of Ithaca and of the islands round about, and they come, they say, seeking my mother in marriage. She will neither say Yes nor No to them. Meanwhile they sit and waste my substance."

Then said Mentes: "It is indeed time that Ulysses should come back and put an end to such doings. But it is time also that you should do something for yourself. Now listen to me. First call the people of Ithaca to an Assembly. It is well to have the people on your side. Then bid the Suitors depart, each man to his house. And if your mother be minded to take another husband, let her go back to her father's house, and let her own people make ready a wedding feast and other things such as a daughter should have. When these things are done, make ready a ship with twenty oars, and go inquire after your father; perhaps some man may have seen him or heard of him; perhaps the gods themselves will give you an answer if you ask them. Go first to Pylos, where the old man Nestor lives. After that go to Sparta, and see King Menelaüs, for he was the last of all the Greeks to get back to his home. And if you should find out that your father is dead, then raise a mound for him, and give him such honours as are due to the dead. And if these Suitors still trouble you, then devise some way of slaying them. It is time for you to behave yourself as a man."

Telemăchus said: "You speak to me as a father might speak to his son, nor will I ever forget what you have said. But come now, stay awhile, that I may give you some goodly gift such as a friend should give to a friend."

"Nay," said Mentes, "I cannot stay. Keep your gift, I pray you, till I come again."

So he rose from his seat, and went out at the door. And lo! of a sudden he seemed to change his shape. It was as if he were changed into a sea-eagle. And Telemăchus knew that this stranger was not Mentes, but the goddess Athené. And he went back to the hall of the palace, where a minstrel, Phemius by name, was telling the tale of how the Greeks came back from Troy, and of the many things which they suffered because they had sinned against the gods. And lo! in the midst of his telling, Penelopé came down from the upper chamber where she sat, having two handmaids with her. She stood in the door of the hall, having drawn her veil over her face, and said to the minstrel: "Phemius, you know many tales about the deeds of gods and men. Tell one of these, and let the guests hear it while they drink their wine. But tell this tale no more, for it breaks my heart to hear it. Surely I am the most unhappy of women, for of all the chiefs that went to Troy, and never came back to their homes, my husband was the most famous."

Then said Telemăchus: "Mother, why do you forbid the minstrel to make us glad in the way that he thinks best? Why do you forbid him to sing of the coming back of the Greeks? 'Tis a new tale, and men always like to hear that which is new. Go back, then, to your chamber, and mind the business of the house, and see that your maids do their work, their spinning and the like. But here I am master."

And Penelopé went back to her chamber without answering a word, for never had Telemăchus spoken in such a way before. But she wept for Ulysses her husband, till sleep came down upon her eyes.

And when she was gone, Telemăchus said to the Suitors: "Let us now feast and be merry, and let there be no quarrelling among us. And let us listen to the minstrel's tale. What could we do better, for his voice is as the voice of a god. But mark this. To-morrow we will have an Assembly of the people, and there I will declare my purpose. And my purpose is this—that you go away from this place, and eat and drink in your own homes at your own cost."

And they were astonished at his boldness, just as his mother had been astonished, for he had never so spoken before. And one of them, whose name was Antinoüs, said: "Surely it is some god that makes you speak so boldly. I hope that you will never be king here in Ithaca, though it is but right that you should have that which belonged to your father."

Telemăchus said: "I know that it is a good thing to be a king, for a king has riches and honour. But there are many here in Ithaca, young men and old, who may have the kingdom now that Ulysses is dead. Only this I know, that I will be master in my own house."

Then stood up another of the Suitors, and said: "It is for the gods to settle who shall be king in Ithaca; but that you ought to be master in your own house, and keep your own goods, no man will deny. But tell me, who was this stranger that came just now to the palace? Did he bring news of your father, or did he come on business of his own? Why did he not stay to greet us? He was no common man, I take it."

Telemăchus answered: "As for tidings of my father, I do not make any count of them, whoever it is that brings them; Ulysses will come back no more. And as for the soothsayers whom my mother loves to entertain, that find out for her what has befallen her husband, I think nothing of them. They are makers of lies. As for this stranger about whom you ask: he was Mentes, king of the Taphians." So he said, but he knew in his heart that the stranger was Athené.

Then the Suitors feasted, and made merry with singing and dancing, till the night was far spent; and they went each man to his own home to sleep. But Telemăchus went to his chamber, and Eurycleia, who had been his nurse when he was but a baby, led the way, holding a torch in either hand, to light him. And when he came to the chamber, he took off his doublet and gave it to the nurse, and she folded it and smoothed it, and hung it on a pin. This done, she went out and pushed to the door and made it fast. But Telemăchus lay long awake, thinking of the journey which he was about to take.