THE HOMECOMING OF ULYSSES

BY M. M. BIRD

After ten long years of fighting Troy had fallen and the kings and captains had sailed away bearing home to Greece the spoils of the sacked city. Among these chieftains was Ulysses, lord of the small and rocky island of Ithaca, and none more famous than he for prowess in arms and yet more for the spirit of wisdom that the wise goddess Minerva put into the heart of her favored warrior.

But while the other leaders straightway sought their homes, Ulysses roamed the seas for another ten years. The goddess Juno loved him not, and often drove him from his course; and he, ever yearning to gain knowledge of lands and men, encountered the strangest adventures in his wanderings, some of which you have already heard. But it is of his homecoming that I have now to tell.

His perils and adventures were not ended yet, and without Minerva's aid he must surely have perished.

When he landed on the rocky coast of Ithaca he found himself a complete stranger in his own land after twenty years of absence, so by Minerva's advice he disguised himself as a beggar that he might discover something of the state of his kingdom before making himself known. His queen, Penelope, had suffered great troubles and perplexities all these years. She had the care of all the lands and vast herds of cattle that made up the riches of the kingdom; many of her servants proved both dishonest and rebellious; and now a number of the neighboring princes had come seeking her hand in marriage. For all men held that Ulysses must have perished or he would surely have returned ere this. Telemachus, her young son, had just reached manhood, but was not yet strong enough unaided to drive out his mother's bold and shameless suitors and restore order to his realm. So the suitors continued to live in the palace, feasting daily and wasting Ulysses' goods and cattle with their wanton extravagances, while they continually urged Penelope to marry one of their number and give him the right to rule her kingdom for her. To this she would not give consent, for she loved Ulysses, and wept in secret over his absence and longed for his return, though she scarcely dared to hope for it after so many years had passed without news of his safety.

At length Telemachus was inspired by Minerva to set out on a journey to seek his father. The goddess accompanied him in the guise of a wise old man named Mentor, to assist him in his search. After adventurous wanderings he reached the city of Sparta, where King Menelaus reigned, who gave him news of Ulysses and counseled him to return at once to Ithaca since his father was on his way thither. Telemachus hastened back, and, arriving before he was expected, went secretly to the house of Eumaeus, a faithful servant of the King, who for many years had filled the post of chief herdsman and keeper of the royal swine. This was an office of trust, for much of the wealth of the kingdom was in these herds of swine, which were required as sacrifices to the gods as well as for human food.

Ulysses by this time had reached the house of Eumaeus, who had received him with kindness, and fed him, although he did not recognize his King in the aged beggar he found at his door. To this beggar he made complaint of the King's wasted substance, and the insufferable behavior of these suitors of the Queen. His tales of their doings made Ulysses' blood boil. He could hardly contain his indignation sufficiently to sustain the character of a wandering beggar whom these things did not concern. But he succeeded so well that Eumaeus had no suspicion who his strange guest could be.

When Telemachus appeared, Eumaeus greeted him with the tenderness of a father, for he loved the young man dearly, and at once hastened to announce the joyful news of his safe return to his mother Penelope. When thus left alone, Ulysses threw off his disguise and declared himself to his son. Long time they discussed how best to take vengeance on these wicked and insolent princes who were plotting to deprive them of their kingdom; and they decided that as they were many and powerful it was needful to exercise caution and overcome them by cunning. Therefore Telemachus departed to the palace and disclosed to no one the news of Ulysses' return, not even to the Queen his mother.

The wicked suitors had planned an ambush to slay the young prince as he made his way home from his journey in search of his father, but thanks to his secret and unexpected arrival, he had escaped their clutches.

According to their daily custom they sat down to a feast in the hall of the palace, where Telemachus, putting on an appearance of great friendliness, joined them. Thither Eumaeus persuaded his aged guest to accompany him. In fluttering rags and leaning on his staff as though weighed down by age and weakness, Ulysses passed along the road to the palace that was his own. Outside the gate they were met by Melanthius, the faithless steward, whose own ill deeds made him show spite and jealousy to the blameless Eumaeus. He rated the old beggar soundly and ordered him away, and when he protested, cursed him and muttered a prayer that some suitor's sword might pierce the heart of Telemachus and rid them of a son no better than his dead father. Ulysses stood a moment in speechless rage, doubting whether to strike the wretch to earth with one blow of his mighty arm; but wiser counsels prevailed, and he curbed his anger and bore all affronts and insults with a noble fortitude that steadfastly awaited the right moment to strike.

Passing the insolent Melanthius with disdain they approached the door. Lying on a dunghill beside the way Ulysses beheld his aged hound Argus, the hero of many a gallant chase. Now neglected, starved, forlorn, he had crept forth to die. But at the sound of his master's voice he strove in vain to raise the wasted body that was too weak to move from the dunghill where it lay. But with tail and ears and eyes he proclaimed his joy. A tear stole unperceived down Ulysses' cheek. He questioned Eumaeus about the hound, and as he paused, the noble creature, to whom fate had granted a sight of his master after twenty years of patient waiting, took one last look and died.

When Eumaeus introduced the old beggar into the banqueting hall, true to the character he had adopted Ulysses went round to each reveler in turn and begged for food. Some carelessly flung him a few scraps, giving away readily what was not their own, but Antinous, the most lawless and violent of all the suitors, abused him and threw a footstool at him, striking him on the shoulder. Telemachus indignantly protested against this act of violence, and Ulysses was permitted to sit down by the door, with his scrip full of scraps from the princes' well-filled table.

Presently there entered another beggar, a surly vagrant of great stature, named Irus, well known at the tables of the rich. He was enraged to find that another had been before him, and attacked the old man with loud abuse, finally challenging him to a fight, thinking him too weak with age to defend himself.

The princes applauded him and urged on the fight between the two beggars. Ulysses pretended to fear, but when he threw off his rags and displayed his well-knit limbs and great muscles, all gazed at him astonished, and Irus tried to escape. He was caught and dragged before Ulysses and forced to engage in the combat he had provoked. Ulysses, knowing his own strength to be invincible, did not strike with more than half his force, but the first blow broke the sturdy beggar's jaw and flung him to the ground, from whence he was unable to rise. Ulysses was then given as the prize of victory a stew of savory meat.

When the revelers were deep in their cups Ulysses and his son Telemachus stole away from the hall and conferred together in secret. They gathered all the best of the weapons in the armory and hid them in a convenient chamber, to be at hand in case of need.

Telemachus then introduced Ulysses to the chamber of his mother Penelope, who failed to pierce his disguise, but listened with eagerness to the account the beggar gave of his wanderings and adventures. He claimed to have formerly entertained her husband in Crete, described his appearance exactly, and declared to her joy that his return within a month was certain. She then sent him to the bath, and bade Euryclea wait upon him. It happened that Euryclea was his old nurse, and her heart went out to the stranger, for in his look and voice there was something that reminded her of her absent lord. Gladly she fetched water to refresh him and knelt before him to bathe his feet. He remembered the long scar on his thigh, made by the tusk of a wild boar when as a youth he had hunted on Parnassus, and he strove to keep it concealed. But the loving eyes of his faithful nurse pierced the tattered rags that he wore, and she knew him for her lord and master. "My son—my King!" she cried. He laid his hand on her lips to stay the cry of joy that broke from her, and gravely warned her not to betray his return.

When he returned from his bath, the Queen, still more impressed by his noble presence, though yet she knew him not, confided to him a design she had planned to assist her choice among these suitors who were all distasteful to her. She proposed to set them a superhuman task—to bend the great bow of Ulysses and perform the feat in which he used to excel. Two rows of beams, six in each row, should be set at equal distances apart, to support twelve silver ax rings, and through each line of six rings the archer must let fly his arrow straight and true. And the noble archer who should perform this feat should be rewarded by her hand.

Ulysses applauded this design, urging her not to fear to name herself the prize, since Ulysses himself would enter the lists before the trial was over, win the prize, and claim her for his own.

The following day another great feast was set, and the princes sat down to their feasting. Ulysses by this had watched the behavior of his people, and now understood who were faithful to him and who deserved no trust. Into this scene of revelry Penelope entered with her maidens, bearing the great bow and arrows of Ulysses, and challenged the princes to bend this bow and shoot the arrow through the silver rings as her lord Ulysses had been used to do, promising that he who could accomplish this should be her husband.

The beams were already set in place, and Telemachus claimed his right to try his skill first among the suitors, since victory meant to him the safeguarding of a kingdom already his by right of descent. He set the axes in line upon the beams, with the rings ready for the flight of his arrow. Three times his young arm tried to bend the bow, three times he failed.

Then all the princes in order, from right to left, took up the bow in turn and tried their skill. In vain they strained their muscles; they rubbed the bow with fat; they warmed it at the flame to make it supple; they tried every device to bend it. The tough bow bent not in their impious hands!

While they strove Ulysses took aside Eumaeus, and Philaetus a herdsman and one who had remained faithful to him, and revealed himself to them. He then ordered that every door of the palace should be guarded by a trusty matron, and the main gate secured by a cable, and bade them then attend on him in the hall. Telemachus had sent his mother and her maids away to their own apartments, and asserting his authority now directed Eumaeus to bear the bow to the disguised beggar, that he might try his skill and strength. All the suitors were furious at this strange favor shown to a common beggar, and it was amidst a scene of tumult and confusion that Ulysses, without rising from his seat, bent the bow and sent his arrow straight and true through the silver rings. There was a moment of silent astonishment. Telemachus hastened to gird on his sword and, taking his javelin in his hand, stood by his father's side. Ulysses cried aloud to the suitors that he had won the first game he had tried to-day, and was ready to play a second with them. And another arrow winged its way straight at the throat of Antinous, who had raised a golden bowl and was drinking deep of the wine. The arrow pierced his neck and he dropped the goblet and fell lifeless on the marble floor.

There was panic in the hall; the princes looked in vain for weapons or a way of escape from the doom that menaced them. "Aimest thou at princes?" they cried to Ulysses in their terror.

"Dogs! ye have had your day!" cried he, and declared his name and estate to them. Some drew their swords and rushed on him, but the flying arrows pinned them, and they fell dead in heaps, while the sword and javelin of young Telemachus did good service. At length every suitor lay dead. The hall was like a shambles.

Then the unfaithful servants were made to purify the palace and afterwards paid with their lives for their misdeeds, while those who had been true to their lord crowded around him with joy.

Euryclea flew to summon the sleeping Penelope. She was unable to believe the glad news. "Ulysses comes! The suitors are no more!" She could not think it true. At last she stood trembling before her lord, still afraid to believe it was he, age and time seemed to have made him so strange to her eyes.

Then Minerva crowned her watchful care of the hero by restoring to him the beauty of his youth; but still the Queen hesitated. Ulysses therefore described to her the marvels of the bridal bed he had contrived for her of the huge olive tree that grew in the courtyard.

Penelope saw then that it was indeed the King, who alone could have known the secret of the bed. She fell fainting into his arms in a transport of joy, and Ulysses once more resumed his sway over the kingdom.