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III. THE HOME-COMING.
Now all these twenty years, in the island of Ithaca, Penelope had
watched for her husband's return. At first with high hopes and then in
doubt and sorrow (when news of the great war came by some traveller),
she had waited, eager and constant as a young bride. But now the war
was long past; her young son Telemachus had come to manhood; and as for
Odysseus, she knew not whether he was alive or dead.
For years there had been trouble in Ithaca. It was left a kingdom
without a king, and Penelope was fair and wise. So suitors came from
all the islands round about to beg her hand in marriage, since many
loved the queen and as many more loved her possessions, and desired to
rule over them. Moreover, every one thought or said that King Odysseus
must be dead. Neither Penelope nor her aged father-in-law Laertes could
rid the place of these troublesome suitors. Some were nobles and some
were adventurers, but they all thronged the palace like a pest of
crickets, and devoured the wealth of the kingdom with feasts in honor
of Penelope and themselves and everybody else; and they besought the
queen to choose a husband from their number.
For a long time she would hear none of this; but they grew so clamorous
in their suit that she had to put them off with craft. For she saw that
there would be danger to her country, and her son, and herself, unless
Odysseus came home some day and turned the suitors out of doors. She
therefore spoke them fair, and gave them some hope of her marriage, to
"Ye princely wooers," she said, "now I believe that the king Odysseus,
my husband, must long since have perished in a strange land; and I have
bethought me once more of marriage. Have patience, therefore, till I
shall have finished the web that I am weaving. For it is a royal shroud
that I must make against the day that Laertes may die (the father of my
lord and husband). This is the way of my people," said she; "and when
the web is done, I will choose another king for Ithaca."
She had set up in the hall a great loom, and day by day she wrought
there at the web, for she was a marvellous spinner, patient as Arachne,
but dear to Athena. All day long she would weave, but every night in
secret she would unravel what she had wrought in the daytime, so that
the web might never be done. For although she believed her dear husband
to be dead, yet her hope would put forth buds again and again, just as
spring, that seems to die each year, will come again. So she ever
looked to see Odysseus coming.
Three years and more she held off the suitors with this wile, and they
never perceived it. For, being men, they knew nothing of women's
handicraft. It was all alike a marvel to them, both the beauty of the
web and this endless toil in the making! As for Penelope, all day long
she wove; but at night she would unravel her work and weep bitterly,
because she had another web to weave and another day to watch, all for
nothing, since Odysseus never came. In the fourth year, though, a
faithless servant betrayed this secret to the wooers, and there came an
end to peace and the web, too!
Matters grew worse and worse. Telemachus set out to find his father,
and the poor queen was left without husband or son. But the suitors
continued to live about the palace like so many princes, and to make
merry on the wealth of Odysseus, while he was being driven from land to
land and wreck to wreck. So it came true, that prophecy that, if the
herds of the Sun were harmed, Odysseus should reach his home alone in
evil plight to find Sorrow in his own household. But in the end he was
to drive her forth.
Now, when Odysseus woke, he did not know his own country. Gone were the
Phaeacians and their ship; only the gifts beside him told him that he
had not dreamed. While he looked about, bewildered, Athena, in the
guise of a young countryman, came to his aid, and told him where he
was. Then, smiling upon his amazement and joy, she shone forth in her
own form, and warned him not to hasten home, since the palace was
filled with the insolent suitors of Penelope, whose heart waited empty
for him as the nest for the bird.
Moreover, Athena changed his shape into that of an aged pilgrim, and
led him to the hut of a certain swineherd, Eumaeus, his old and
faithful servant. This man received the king kindly, taking him for a
travel-worn wayfarer, and told him all the news of the palace, and the
suitors and the poor queen, who was ever ready to hear the idle tales
of any traveller if he had aught to tell of King Odysseus.
Now who should come to the hut at this time but the prince Telemachus,
whom Athena had hastened safely home from his quest! Eumaeus received
his young master with great joy, but the heart of Odysseus was nigh to
bursting, for he had never seen his son since he left him, an infant,
for the Trojan War. When Eumaeus left them together, he made himself
known; and for that moment Athena gave him back his kingly looks, so
that Telemachus saw him with exultation, and they two wept over each
other for joy.
By this time news of her son's return had come to Penelope, and she was
almost happy, not knowing that the suitors were plotting to kill
Telemachus. Home he came, and he hastened to assure his mother that he
had heard good news of Odysseus; though, for the safety of all, he did
not tell her that Odysseus was in Ithaca.
Meanwhile Eumaeus and his aged pilgrim came to the city and the palace
gates. They were talking to a goatherd there, when an old hound that
lay in the dust-heap near by pricked up his ears and stirred his tail
feebly as at a well-known voice. He was the faithful Argus, named after
a monster of many eyes that once served Juno as a watchman. Indeed,
when the creature was slain, Juno had his eyes set in the feathers of
her pet peacocks, and there they glisten to this day. But the end of
this Argus was very different. Once the pride of the king's heart, he
was now so old and infirm that he could barely move; but though his
master had come home in the guise of a strange beggar, he knew the
voice, and he alone, after twenty years. Odysseus, seeing him, could
barely restrain his tears; but the poor old hound, as if he had lived
but to welcome his master home, died that very same day.
Into the palace hall went the swineherd and the pilgrim, among the
suitors who were feasting there. Now how Odysseus begged a portion of
meat and was shamefully insulted by these men, how he saw his own wife
and hid his joy and sorrow, but told her news of himself as any beggar
might,--all these things are better sung than spoken. It is a long
But the end was near. The suitors had demanded the queen's choice, and
once more the constant Penelope tried to put it off. She took from her
safe treasure-chamber the great bow of Odysseus, and she promised that
she would marry that one of the suitors who should send his arrow
through twelve rings ranged in a line. All other weapons were taken
away by the care of Telemachus; there was nothing but the great bow and
quiver. And when all was ready, Penelope went away to her chamber to
But, first of all, no one could string the bow. Suitor after suitor
tried and failed. The sturdy wood stood unbent against the strongest.
Last of all, Odysseus begged leave to try, and was laughed to scorn.
Telemachus, however, as if for courtesy's sake, gave him the bow; and
the strange beggar bent it easily, adjusted the cord, and before any
could stay his hand he sped the arrow from the string. Singing with
triumph, it flew straight through the twelve rings and quivered in the
"Now for another mark!" cried Odysseus in the king's own voice. He
turned upon the most evil-hearted suitor. Another arrow hissed and
struck, and the man fell pierced.
Telemachus sprang to his father's side, Eumaeus stood by him, and the
fighting was short and bitter. One by one they slew those insolent
suitors; for the right was theirs, and Athena stood by them, and the
time was come. Every one of the false-hearted wooers they laid low, and
every corrupt servant in that house; then they made the place clean and
But the old nurse Eurycleia hastened up to Queen Penelope, where she
sat in fear and wonder, crying, "Odysseus is returned! Come and see
with thine own eyes!"
After twenty years of false tales, the poor queen could not believe her
ears. She came down into the hall bewildered, and looked at the
stranger as one walking in a dream. Even when Athena had given him back
his youth and kingly looks, she stood in doubt, so that her own son
reproached her and Odysseus was grieved in spirit.
But when he drew near and called her by her name, entreating her by all
the tokens that she alone knew, her heart woke up and sang like a brook
set free in spring! She knew him then for her husband Odysseus, come
home at last.
Surely that was happiness enough to last them ever after.
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