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Jeanie Lang

What Happened In Ithaca While Odysseus Was Away

While Odysseus was fighting far away in Troyland, his baby son grew to be a big boy. And when years passed and Odysseus did not return, the boy, Telemachus, grew to be a man.

Telemachus loved his beautiful mother, Penelope, but his heart always longed for the hero father whom he could only dimly remember. As time went on, he longed more and more, for evil things came to pass in the kingdom of Odysseus.

The chiefs and lords of Ithaca admired Penelope for her beauty. They also coveted her money and her lands, and when Odysseus did not return, each one of these greedy and wicked men wished to marry her and make all that had belonged to brave Odysseus his own.

'Odysseus is surely dead,' they said, 'and Telemachus is only a lad and cannot harm us.'

So they came to the palace where Penelope and Telemachus lived, and there they stayed, year in, year out, feasting and drinking and wasting the goods of Odysseus. Their roughness and greed troubled Penelope, but still more did they each one daily torment her by rudely asking: 'Wilt thou marry me?'

At last she fell on a plan to stop them from talking to her of marriage.

In the palace hall she set up a great web, beautiful and fine of woof.

Then she said, 'When I have finished weaving this robe I shall give you my answer.'

Each day she worked at it, but each night, when the wooers slept, she undid all that she had done during the day. So it seemed to the wooers as if the robe would never be finished.

Penelope's heart was heavy, and heavy, too, was the heart of Telemachus. For three weary years, while Odysseus was imprisoned on the island of Calypso, the mother and son pined together.

One day Telemachus sat at the door of the palace sadly watching the wooers as they drank and revelled. He was thinking of the brave father that he feared was dead, when there walked up to the door of the courtyard a stranger dressed like a warrior from another land.

The stranger was the goddess Athene. At the same time that she gained leave from the gods to set Odysseus free, they had agreed that she should go to Ithaca and help Telemachus. But she came dressed as a warrior, and not as a beautiful, grey-eyed, golden-haired goddess with golden sandals on her feet.

Telemachus rose up and shook her kindly by the hand, and led her into the hall. He took from her the heavy bronze spear that she carried, and made her sit down on one of the finest of the chairs, in a place where the noise of the rough wooers should not disturb her.

'Welcome, stranger,' he said. 'When thou hast had food, then shalt thou tell us in what way we can help thee.'

88 He then made servants bring a silver basin and golden ewer that she might wash her hands, and he fetched her food and wine of the best.

Soon the wooers entered, and noisily ate they and drank, and roughly they jested. Telemachus watched them and listened with an angry heart. Then, in a low voice, he said to Athene—

'These men greedily eat and drink and waste my father's goods. They think the bones of Odysseus bleach out in the rain in a far land, or are tossed about by the sea. But did my father still live, and were he to come home, the cowards would flee before him. Tell me, stranger, hast thou come from a far-off country? Hast thou ever seen my father?'

Athene answered: 'Odysseus still lives. He is a prisoner on a sea-girt island, but it will not be long ere he escapes and comes home. Thou art like Odysseus, my son. Thou hast a head like his, and the same beautiful eyes.'

When Athene spoke to him so kindly and so hopefully, Telemachus told her all that was in his heart. And when the wickedness and greed of the wooers was made known to her, Athene grew very angry.

'Thou art in sore need of Odysseus,' she said. 'If Odysseus were to come to the door now with lance in hand, soon would he scatter those shameless ones before him.'

Then she told Telemachus what he must do.

'To-morrow,' said she, 'call thy lords to a council meeting, and tell the wooers to return to their homes.'

For himself, she told him to fit out a ship with twenty oarsmen, that he might sail to a land where he should get tidings of his father.

'Thou art tall and handsome, my friend,' she said. 'Be brave, that even in days to come men may praise thy name.'

'Thou speakest as a father to a son. I will never forget what thou hast said,' said Telemachus.

He begged Athene to stay longer, and wished to give her a costly gift. But she would not stay, nor accept any present. To Telemachus she had given a gift, though he did not know it. For into his heart she had put strength and courage, so that when she flew away like a beautiful bird across the sea she left behind her, not a frightened, unhappy boy, but a strong, brave man.

The wooers took no notice of the comings and goings of the strange warrior, so busy were they with their noisy feast. As they feasted a minstrel played to them on his lyre, and sang a song of the return of the warriors from Troyland when the fighting was over.

From her room above, Penelope heard the song, and came down. For a little, standing by the door, she listened. Then she could bear it no longer, and, weeping, she said to the minstrel—

'Sing some other song, and do not sing a song of return from Troyland to me, whose husband never returned.'

Then Telemachus, in a new and manly way that made her wonder, spoke to his mother.

'Blame not the minstrel, dear mother,' he said. 'It is not his fault that he sings sad songs, but the fault of the gods who allow sad things to be. Thou art not the only one who hast lost a loved one in Troyland. Go back to thy room, and let me order what shall be, for I am now the head of the house.'

In the same fearless, manly way he spoke to the wooers—

'Ye may feast to-night,' he said; 'only let there be no brawling. To-morrow meet with me. For once and for all it must be decided if ye are to go on wasting my goods, or if I am to be master of my own house and king in mine own land.

The wooers bit their lips with rage, and some of them answered him rudely; but Telemachus paid no heed, and when at last they returned to their houses, he went upstairs to his own room. The old woman who had nursed him when he was a child carried torches before him to show him the way. When he sat down on his bed and took off his doublet, she folded the doublet and smoothed it and hung it up. Then she shut the door with its silver handle, and left Telemachus, wrapped in a soft fleece of wool, thinking far into the night of all that Athene had said to him.

When day dawned he dressed and buckled on his sword, and told heralds to call the lords to a council meeting. When all were assembled he went into the hall. In his hand he carried a bronze spear, and two of his hounds followed him, and when he went up to his father's seat and sat down there, the oldest men gave place to him. For Athene had shed on him such a wondrous grace that he looked like a young god.

'Never since brave Odysseus sailed away to Troyland have we had a council meeting,' said one old lord. 'I think the man who hath called this meeting is a true man—good luck go with him! May the gods give him his heart's desire.'

So good a beginning did this seem that Telemachus was glad, and, burning to say all that had been in his heart for so long, he rose to his feet and spoke.

Of the loss of his father he spoke sadly, and then, with burning words, of the cowardly wooers, of their feastings and revellings and wasting of his goods, and of their insolence to Penelope and himself.

When he had thus spoken in rage and grief, he burst into tears.

For a little there was silence, then one of the wooers said angrily—

'Penelope is to blame, and no other. For three years she has deceived us. "I will give you my answer when I have finished weaving this robe," she said, and so we waited and waited. But now that three years have gone and a fourth has begun, it is told us by one of her maids that each night she has undone all that she has woven during the day. She can deceive us no longer. She must now finish the robe, and tell us whom she will marry. For we will not leave this place until she has chosen a husband.'

Then, once again, with pleading words, Telemachus tried to move the hearts of the wooers.

'If ye will not go,' at last he said, 'I will ask the gods to reward you for your wickedness.'

As he spoke, two eagles flew, fleet as the wind, from the mountain crest. Side by side they flew until they were above the place of the council meeting. Then they wheeled about, darted with fury at each other, and tore with their savage talons at each other's heads and necks. Flapping their great wings, they then went swiftly away and were lost in the far distance.

Said a wise old man: 'It is an omen. Odysseus will return, and woe will come upon the wooers. Let us make an end of these evil doings and keep harm away from us.'

Go home, old man,' angrily mocked the wooers. 'Prophesy to thine own children. Odysseus is dead. Would that thou hadst died with him. Then thou couldst not have babbled nonsense, and tried to hound on Telemachus in the hope that he may give thee a gift.'

To Telemachus they said again—

'We will go on wasting thy goods until Penelope weds one of us.'

Only one other beside the old man was brave enough to speak for Telemachus. Fearlessly and nobly did his friend Mentor blame the wooers for their shamelessness. But they jeered at him, and laughed aloud when Telemachus told them he was going to take a ship and go to look for his father.

'He will never come back,' said one, 'and even were Odysseus himself to return, we should slay him when he came.'

Then the council meeting broke up, and the wooers went again to revel in the palace of Odysseus.

Down to the seashore went Telemachus, and knelt where the grey water broke in little white wavelets on the sand.

'Hear me,' he cried, 'thou who didst speak with me yesterday. I know now that thou art a god. Tell me, I pray thee, how shall I find a ship to sail across the misty sea and find my father? For there is none to help me.'

Swiftly, in answer to his cry, came Athene.

'Be brave. Be thy father's son,' she said. 'Go back to thy house and get ready corn and wine for the voyage. I will choose the best of all the ships in Ithaca for thee, and have her launched, and manned by a crew, all of them willing men.'

Then Telemachus returned to the palace. In the courtyard the wooers were slaying goats and singeing swine and making ready a great feast.

'Here comes Telemachus, who is planning to destroy us,' they mocked. 'Telemachus, who speaks so proudly-—angry Telemachus.'

Said one youth—

'Who knows but what if he goes on a voyage he will be like Odysseus, and never return. Then will we have all his riches to divide amongst ourselves, and his house will belong to the man who weds Penelope.'

Telemachus shook off the jeering crowd, and went down to the vaulted chamber where his father's treasures were kept. Gold and bronze lay there in piles, and there were great boxes of splendid clothes, and casks of wine. The heavy folding doors of the treasure chamber were shut day and night, and the old nurse was the keeper of the treasures.

Telemachus bade her get ready corn and wine for the voyage.

'When my mother has gone to rest I will take them away,' he said, 'for this night I go to seek my father across the sea.'

At this the old nurse began to cry.

'Do not go, dear child,' she wailed. 'Thou art our only one, and we love thee so well. Odysseus is dead, and what canst thou do, sailing far away across the deep sea? As soon as thou art gone, those wicked men will begin to plot evil against thee. Do not go. Do not go. There is no need for thee to risk thy life on the sea and go wandering far from home.'

'Take heart, nurse,' said Telemachus. 'The goddess Athene has told me to go, so all will be well. But promise me not to tell my dear mother that I am gone until she misses me. For I do not wish to mar her fair face with tears.'

The nurse promised, and began to make ready all that Telemachus wished.

Meantime Athene, in the likeness of Telemachus, found a swift-sailing ship, and men to sail it. When darkness fell, she sent sleep on the wooers and led Telemachus down to the shore where his men sat by their oars.

To the palace, where every one slept and all was still and quiet, Telemachus brought his men. None but the old nurse knew he was going away, but they found the food and wine that she had got ready and carried it down to the ship. Then Athene went on board, and Telemachus sat beside her. A fresh west wind filled the sails and went singing over the waves. The dark water surged up at the bow as the ship cut through it. And all night long and till the dawn, the ship sailed happily on her way.

At sunrise they came to land, and Athene and Telemachus went on shore. The rulers of the country welcomed them and treated them well, but could tell nothing of Odysseus after the siege of Troy was over. Athene gave Telemachus into their care, then, turning herself into a sea-eagle, she flew swiftly away, leaving them amazed because they knew she must be one of the gods.

While Telemachus sought for news of his father in this kingdom, and the kingdoms near it, the wooers began to miss him at their feasts. They fancied he was away hunting, until, one day, as they played games in front of the palace, the man whose ship Athene had borrowed came to them.

'When will Telemachus return with my ship?' he asked. 'I need it that I may cross over to where I keep my horses. I wish to catch one and break him in.'

When the wooers heard from him that Telemachus had sailed away with twenty brave youths, in the swiftest ship in Ithaca, they were filled with rage.

At once they got a ship and sailed to where they might meet Telemachus in a strait between Ithaca and another rocky island.

'We will slay him there,' said they. 'We will give him a woful end to his voyage in search of his father.'

When Penelope heard this, and knew that her son was perhaps sailing to his doom, her heart wellnigh broke. She wept bitterly, and reproached her maidens with not having told her that Telemachus had gone.

'Slay me if thou wilt,' said the old nurse, 'but I alone knew it. Telemachus made me promise not to tell thee, that thy fair face might not be marred by weeping. Do not fear, the goddess Athene will take care of him.'

Thus she comforted her mistress, and although she lay long awake that night, Penelope fell asleep at last. In her dreams Athene came to her and told her that Telemachus would come safely home, and so Penelope's sad heart was cheered.

While she slept the wooers sailed away in a swift, black ship, with spears in their hands and murder in their hearts. On a little rocky isle they landed until the ship of Telemachus should pass, and there they waited, that they might slay him when he came.