ULYSSES AND THE CYCLOPS

BY HOPE MONCRIEFF

Many a year did the much-enduring Ulysses sail unknown seas, on his way back from Troy to Ithaca, his island home. Beset by such mishaps and enchantments that for long he seemed little like to see again his faithful wife Penelope and his son Telemachus, he escaped from one perilous adventure after another, but none more fearsome than when he came to the smoking mountain-land of the Cyclopes. So were named a cruel race of one-eyed giants, wild as the rocky heights on which they fed their flocks of sheep and goats, knowing not to plant corn or fruit, and holding no commerce with kindly men, nor reverencing the lords of heaven.

The very danger of venturing into such a land was lure enough for this hero, when from his ship he sighted a huge cave opening high above the beach, its mouth half hidden by a tangle of dark wood. Here lived alone one of these monsters, Polyphemus by name, a savage so churlish of nature that he kept aloof even from his fierce fellows. Eager to explore that gloomy lair, Ulysses picked out twelve of his boldest men, with whom he landed, leaving the vessel moored by the shore to await their return. On reaching the cave they found its master absent, but that he would soon return they might guess from the flocks of bleating lambs and kids penned up within, along with great piles of cheeses, vats of curd, and rows of milking vessels, the giant's household goods. The sailors, their hearts chilled by its damp shades, were not for staying long in this vast and deep-sunk hollow.

"Let us begone," they urged their leader, "back to the ship with a load of cheeses and a drove of lambs and kids to mend our fare on the salt waves! It were better to help ourselves behind the back of such a host, who may soon come to catch us in his den."

But Ulysses let curiosity get the better of prudence. He had a mind at all risks to know what manner of creature this was that lived in so strange an abode; and he kept his companions in the cave, with a venturesomeness that cost them dear. They even made bold to light a fire and to refresh themselves from the giant's store of milk and cheese; and thus were they caught, taking their ease, when Polyphemus came home at evening, driving before him his full-uddered flock.

Above their bleating and scurrying was heard the heavy tramp of that monster, and the earth shook as from his shoulders he flung down a crashing stack of firewood, gathered in the forests through which he stalked like a moving mountain. The flock driven inside, he closed the entrance of the cave by dragging across it a mighty boulder that would have made a load for twenty wagons. Having thus shut out the fading light, he knelt down to milk his ewes and goats, as yet unaware what uninvited guests were straining their eyes at his black bulk from the deepest and darkest recess into which they had shrunk before his coming. But when he went on to light a fire, the flickering flames showed them his hideous face with its one broad red eye, that glowed in sudden anger when it fell upon the strangers; and through the smoky vaults echoed the blood-curdling roar with which he greeted them.

"Who, and whence are ye?" he thundered forth. "Pirates, doubtless, who peril your own lives to rob other men!"

"Nay," answered Ulysses, who of all the trembling band alone found voice to speak. "We are men of famous race, the Greeks who at last overcame Troy, and now, sailing home, have been driven by winds and waves upon this coast. As helpless suppliants we fall before thee, seeking the hospitality due to misfortune from all who fear the gods."

"Ho, ho!" bellowed Polyphemus, in gigantic laughter. "Stranger, thou art strange indeed to this land, and a fool to boot, if thou think'st a Cyclops owns any law but his own will. For gods we care not, nor yet for men, whoever they boast themselves! But say, how and where came ye on our shore?"

So he asked cunningly, hoping to make prize of their ship if anchored near at hand; but Ulysses was no less wily than bold, and took heed not to tell the truth.

"Our vessel, alas! was dashed to pieces on the cliff, and, of all the crew, we only have saved nothing but our lives."

Now the men saw with what an inhuman monster they had to do. The savage giant, wasting no more time in parley, caught up the first two that came to his hands, dashed their brains out against the stony floor, then greedily devoured their flesh before the eyes of the survivors, shuddering to think how soon they might meet the same fate. Ulysses alone, undaunted and indignant, laid hands on his sword, but forebore to draw it. Even when, having ended his horrid meal and washed it down with large draughts of milk, Polyphemus laid himself carelessly to sleep among his flocks, the hero saw it was vain to strike, for though he might slay their fearsome foe, he knew that the strength of all together could not roll away that rocky barrier from the cave mouth. There was nothing for it but to remain patient, watching a chance to overcome the giant by craft rather than by force.

Through the night the poor sailors took such rest as they could, and the glimmering dawn brought fresh terror. As soon as the giant had risen and stretched his knotty limbs, he first set the lambs to the ewes, then snatched up two more of the hapless men, taken at random, to glut his taste for blood. When he turned out the flock to pasture, he neglected not to roll back the great rock that sealed up the cave, thus turned into a prison for these rash strangers, and soon like to be their tomb.

But through the day their shrewd captain set his wits to work on a plot for escape. By good chance they had brought on shore with them a goat-skin full of strong wine, that now might serve to dull the giant's senses. In the cave they found a tree trunk he had plucked up by the root to make a club such as only so huge a monster could wield, for it was longer than the mast of their ship. This Ulysses had sharpened to a point and hardened in the fire before hiding it away among the dust and dirt that littered the cave. He explained to his comrades how he meant to use this enormous weapon, bidding them draw lots who should bear a hand with himself in the attempt; and, to his secret satisfaction, the lot fell on the very men he would have chosen for a daring deed.

Polyphemus duly returned at night-fall and again, when he had closed the entrance and seen to his flocks, he caught up two more of the Greeks to make his supper. Half of his twelve men having thus been devoured, Ulysses brought to the blood-stained monster a milk-pail filled from the wine-skin.

"Deign, O Cyclops," he cried on bended knee, "to taste this precious blood of the grape that rightly crowns a Greek banquet. It is well we have saved from our wreck one skin to offer thee, that may move thy heart to send us on our way unhurt, and not without some friendly boon. Else thy thirst for human blood will scare all men from this hateful shore, and never again canst thou come by such noble drink. Taste and know!"

The greedy giant snatched up the bowl and drained it to the bottom; then, smacking his lips for delight, he held it out to be refilled.

"Truly, it is noble drink, such as was never known in our land! Speak, stranger. Who art thou that bringest the nectar of the gods? Thy name?"

"My name is Noman," quoth the crafty Ulysses, as he refilled the bowl.

"Then, Noman, I grant thee a boon," hiccoughed the giant in boisterous glee, the fumes of the wine already mounting to his head. "In reward for the drink, I will eat up all thy companions before thee; and Noman shall be the last of all to die. So fill once more!"

Again was poured the dark wine; and when Polyphemus had tossed off three brimming bowls, his brain began to reel, while his limbs failed him as well as his voice, with which he would have roared out brutal jests mixed with praises of this magic liquor. Staggering here and there, he stumbled and sprawled helplessly on the ground, and soon his snoring re-echoed through the cave like rolling thunder, as he sank into drunken slumber.

When all else was still, Ulysses whispered the word to his wakeful crew. From the litter they silently dragged out that huge stake he had made ready: and blowing up the fire, heated its point till the green wood had almost burst into flame. It was all they could do to bear it along to the side of the sleeping giant. When their leader gave the signal, they plunged that red-hot spit into his eye, and, turning it like an awl, they bored a hole so deep and so wide that a torrent of blood gushed out to quench the fiery brand.

The drunken giant started to his feet with a roar which sent them quailing backwards. But when he had torn the tormenting brand from his forehead, all he could do was to grope blindly around him, stamping and howling for pain and for rage against those puny enemies that in the dim firelight could take heed to keep out of his reach. So furious was the alarm he raised, that it woke his neighbor giants, who presently came hurrying along to the cave's mouth, and shouted to him:

"What ails thee, Polyphemus, that thus our rest is disturbed? Who breaks upon thy sleep? Has any man found means to hurt thee? Or has some one been robbing thee by force or fraud?"

"Noman has hurt me!" yelled back the blind giant. "Noman is robbing my flock! Noman, I say, has played a cruel trick upon me!"

"Then if no man does thee harm, why these complaints?" grumbled his neighbors, while Ulysses chuckled over his sly device, all the more as he heard the giants tramping away to their own lairs with a parting word of mockery for the victim of a nightmare, as they took it to be. "If the gods send thee pain, take to prayer, and rouse us no more to give help against no man in mortal flesh!"

Thus left to himself, the blinded monster, pouring out his rage in tears of blood, found it hopeless to lay hands on the silently exulting foes, who all night long remained shut up with him in the cave; yet more fiercely his dark mind was bent on revenge against that insolent Noman and the rest of his crew. Fumbling about till he touched the rock that barred the entrance, he heaved it away; then there sat down with his hands stretched out before him, to make sure that none of the men should slip through among the flock when the rosy dawn called them forth to their pasture.

But again Ulysses was too wily for the thick-headed giant. Through the night he had been busy lashing the biggest rams together, three and three; and each midmost beast bore a man bound to it by osier twigs. The largest of all he kept for himself, creeping beneath it, and clinging to the thick fleece below its belly. On this strange steed he would come forth last of all.

So, when the sheep poured out into the dewy uplands, the Cyclops, handling each as it slipped past him, felt nothing but their fleecy backs. Blind as he was, he knew the tread of that big ram, the pride of the flock, under which lay Ulysses, holding his breath, as its master stopped the beast to growl out:

"Why com'st thou last who wert wont to lead the way, like a chief among thy fellows? Can it be that a dumb creature mourns for what Noman and his hateful band have done to its lord? Ah! could'st thou but speak to tell me in what corner the wretch lurks within, trembling for the moment when at last I shall dash out his brains and warm my heart with his blood!"

With this he let the ram go, still sitting watchful at the entrance barred by his huge hands. But as he sat muttering threats, to his strained ears came a mocking cry from without, where now Ulysses had unbound his men, and the whole band were hurrying down to their ship, driving before them the pick of the giant's flock.

Heartily the crew hailed their captain's return, and eagerly they would have known how it had fared with him. But this was no time for words. Ulysses bid them push off in haste, taking to their oars as soon as they had heaved the sheep on board. Scarcely indeed had they launched when the stumbling and shouting giant appeared upon the rocky heights above the shore.

"Ha, ungracious host!" cried Ulysses; "didst thou think to gorge thyself on me, whom the gods have made an instrument to punish thy churlish manners?"

No longer able to see his exultant enemies, the raging Cyclops plucked up a great rock to hurl after them, guided by the sound of that mocking voice. So near it fell that it had almost smashed the rudder, and raised such a wave as would have washed the galley back on shore had not Ulysses pushed it off again with all his strength, while the rowers bent their backs as for their lives. Though they begged him to be silent, their bold captain could not refrain from once more raising his voice in boastful taunts of the baffled monster.

"Hear, Cyclops! Should men ask who blinded thee and made thy face more hideous than before, say not it was Noman, but Ulysses of Ithaca, victor at the walls of Troy!"

Again the giant hurled a mighty rock that, had it struck fair, would have crushed their ship like an eggshell. Drenched by the splash, they rowed with might and main, and were soon out of reach; but so long as they could hear his voice, the raging giant's curses drove them onward across the bounding seas.

Thus did Ulysses, by his cunning, prevail over the brute force of the Cyclops, for Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, inspired and guided him. Then soon, with a hungry heart craving for more adventures, he sailed to further wondrous lands and gathered fresh knowledge year by year.