THE ADVENTURES OF ULYSSES
BY CHARLES LAMB
The Madness from Above.—The Bow of Ulysses.—The Slaughter.—The
When daylight appeared, a tumultuous concourse of the suitors again filled the hall; and some wondered, and some inquired what meant that glittering store of armour and lances which lay in heaps by the entry of the door; and to all that asked Telemachus made reply that he had caused them to be taken down to cleanse them of the rust and of the stain which they had contracted by lying so long unused, even ever since his father went for Troy; and with that answer their minds were easily satisfied. So to their feasting and vain rioting again they fell. Ulysses, by Telemachus’s order, had a seat and a mess assigned him in the doorway, and he had his eye ever on the lances. And it moved gall in some of the great ones there present to have their feast still dulled with the society of that wretched beggar as they deemed him, and they reviled and spurned at him with their feet. Only there was one Philaetius, who had something a better nature than the rest, that spake kindly to him, and had his age in respect. He, coming up to Ulysses, took him by the hand with a kind of fear, as if touched exceedingly with imagination of his great worth, and said thus to him, “Hail father stranger! my brows have sweat to see the injuries which you have received, and my eyes have broke forth in tears, when I have only thought that, such being oftentimes the lot of worthiest men, to this plight Ulysses may be reduced, and that he now may wander from place to place as you do; for such who are compelled by need to range here and there, and have no firm home to fix their feet upon, God keeps them in this earth as under water; so are they kept down and depressed. And a dark thread is sometimes spun in the fates of kings.”
At this bare likening of the beggar to Ulysses, Minerva from heaven made the suitors for foolish joy to go mad, and roused them to such a laughter as would never stop—they laughed without power of ceasing, their eyes stood full of tears for violent joys; but fears and horrible misgivings succeeded; and one among them stood up and prophesied: “Ah, wretches!” he said, “what madness from heaven has seized you, that you can laugh? see you not that your meat drops blood? a night, like the night of death, wraps you about; you shriek without knowing it; your eyes thrust forth tears; the fixed walls, and the beam that bears the whole house up, fall blood; ghosts choke up the entry; full is the hall with apparitions of murdered men; under your feet is hell; the sun falls from heaven, and it is midnight at noon.” But like men whom the gods had infatuated to their destruction, they mocked at his fears, and Eurymachus said, “This man is surely mad; conduct him forth into the market-place, set him in the light, for he dreams that ’tis night within the house.”
But Theoclymenus (for that was the prophet’s name), whom Minerva had graced with a prophetic spirit, that he foreseeing might avoid the destruction which awaited them, answered and said: “Eurymachus, I will not require a guide of thee, for I have eyes and ears, the use of both my feet, and a sane mind within me, and with these I will go forth of the doors, because I know the imminent evils which await all you that stay, by reason of this poor guest who is a favourite with all the gods.” So saying, he turned his back upon those inhospitable men, and went away home, and never returned to the palace.
These words which he spoke were not unheard by Telemachus, who kept still his eye upon his father, expecting fervently when he would give the sign which was to precede the slaughter of the suitors.
They, dreaming of no such thing, fell sweetly to their dinner, as joying in the great store of banquet which was heaped in full tables about them; but there reigned not a bitterer banquet planet in all heaven than that which hung over them this day by secret destination of Minerva.
There was a bow which Ulysses left when he went for Troy. It had lain by since that time, out of use and unstrung, for no man had strength to draw that bow, save Ulysses. So it had remained, as a monument of the great strength of its master. This bow, with the quiver of arrows belonging thereto, Telemachus had brought down from the armoury on the last night along with the lances; and now Minerva, intending to do Ulysses an honour, put it into the mind of Telemachus to propose to the suitors to try who was strongest to draw that bow; and he promised that to the man who should be able to draw that bow his mother should be given in marriage—Ulysses’s wife the prize to him who should bend the bow of Ulysses.
There was great strife and emulation stirred up among the suitors at those words of the prince Telemachus. And to grace her son’s words, and to confirm the promise which he had made, Penelope came and showed herself that day to the suitors; and Minerva made her that she appeared never so comely in their sight as that day, and they were inflamed with the beholding of so much beauty, proposed as the price of so great manhood; and they cried out that if all those heroes who sailed to Colchis for the rich purchase of the golden-fleeced ram had seen earth’s richer prize, Penelope, they would not have made their voyage, but would have vowed their valours and their lives to her, for she was at all parts faultless.
And she said, “The gods have taken my beauty from me, since my lord went for Troy.” But Telemachus willed his mother to depart and not be present at that contest; for he said, “It may be, some rougher strife shall chance of this than may be expedient for a woman to witness.” And she retired, she and her maids, and left the hall.
Then the bow was brought into the midst, and a mark was set up by prince Telemachus; and lord Antinous, as the chief among the suitors, had the first offer; and he took the bow, and, fitting an arrow to the string, he strove to bend it, but not with all his might and main could he once draw together the ends of that tough bow; and when he found how vain a thing it was to endeavour to draw Ulysses’s bow, he desisted, blushing for shame and for mere anger. Then Eurymachus adventured, but with no better success; but as it had torn the hands of Antinous, so did the bow tear and strain his hands, and marred his delicate fingers, yet could he not once stir the string. Then called he to the attendants to bring fat and unctuous matter, which melting at the fire, he dipped the bow therein, thinking to supple it and make it more pliable; but not with all the helps of art could he succeed in making it to move. After him Liodes, and Amphinomus, and Polybus, and Eurynomus, and Polyctorides essayed their strength, but not any one of them, or of the rest of those aspiring suitors, had any better luck; yet not the meanest of them there but thought himself well worthy of Ulysses’s wife, though to shoot with Ulysses’s bow the completest champion among them was by proof found too feeble.
Then Ulysses prayed that he might have leave to try; and immediately a clamour was raised among the suitors, because of his petition, and they scorned and swelled with rage at his presumption, and that a beggar should seek to contend in a game of such noble mastery. But Telemachus ordered that the bow should be given him, and that he should have leave to try, since they had failed; “for,” he said, “the bow is mine, to give or to withhold;” and none durst gainsay the prince.
Then Ulysses gave a sign to his son, and he commanded the doors of the hall to be made fast, and all wondered at his words, but none could divine the cause. And Ulysses took the bow into his hands, and before he essayed to bend it, he surveyed it at all parts, to see whether, by long lying by, it had contracted any stiffness which hindered the drawing; and as he was busied in the curious surveying of his bow, some of the suitors mocked him, and said, “Past doubt this man is a right cunning archer, and knows his craft well. See how he turns it over and over, and looks into it, as if he could see through the wood.” And others said, “We wish some one would tell out gold into our laps but for so long a time as he shall be in drawing of that string.” But when he had spent some little time in making proof of the bow, and had found it to be in good plight, like as a harper in tuning of his harp draws out a string, with such ease or much more did Ulysses draw to the head the string of his own tough bow, and in letting of it go, it twanged with such a shrill noise as a swallow makes when it sings through the air; which so much amazed the suitors that their colours came and went, and the skies gave out a noise of thunder, which at heart cheered Ulysses, for he knew that now his long labours by the disposal of the Fates drew to an end. Then fitted he an arrow to the bow, and drawing it to the head, he sent it right to the mark which the prince had set up. Which done, he said to Telemachus, “You have got no disgrace yet by your guest, for I have struck the mark I shot at, and gave myself no such trouble in teasing the bow with fat and fire as these men did, but have made proof that my strength is not impaired, nor my age so weak and contemptible as these were pleased to think it. But come, the day going down calls us to supper, after which succeed poem and harp, and all delights which use to crown princely banquetings.”
So saying, he beckoned to his son, who straight girt his sword to his side, and took one of the lances (of which there lay great store from the armoury) in his hand, and armed at all points advanced towards his father.
The upper rags which Ulysses wore fell from his shoulder, and his own kingly likeness returned, when he rushed to the great hall door with bow and quiver full of shafts, which down at his feet he poured, and in bitter words presignified his deadly intent to the suitors. “Thus far,” he said, “this contest has been decided harmless: now for us there rests another mark, harder to hit, but which my hands shall essay notwithstanding, if Phoebus, god of archers, be pleased to give me the mastery.” With that he let fly a deadly arrow at Antinous, which pierced him in the throat, as he was in the act of lifting a cup of wine to his mouth. Amazement seized the suitors, as their great champion fell dead, and they raged highly against Ulysses, and said that it should prove the dearest shaft which he ever let fly, for he had slain a man whose like breathed not in any part of the kingdom; and they flew to their arms, and would have seized the lances, but Minerva struck them with dimness of sight that they went erring up and down the hall, not knowing where to find them. Yet so infatuated were they by the displeasure of Heaven that they did not see the imminent peril which impended over them, but every man believed that this accident had happened beside the intention of the doer. Fools! to think by shutting their eyes to evade destiny, or that any other cup remained for them but that which their great Antinous had tasted!
Then Ulysses revealed himself to all in that presence, and that he was the man whom they held to be dead at Troy, whose palace they had usurped, whose wife in his lifetime they had sought in impious marriage, and that for this reason destruction was come upon them. And he dealt his deadly arrows among them, and there was no avoiding him, nor escaping from his horrid person; and Telemachus by his side plied them thick with those murderous lances from which there was no retreat, till fear itself made them valiant, and danger gave them eyes to understand the peril; then they which had swords drew them, and some with shields, that could find them, and some with tables and benches snatched up in haste, rose in a mass tooverwhelm and crush those two; yet they singly bestirred themselves like men, and defended themselves against that great host, and through tables, shields, and all, right through the arrows of Ulysses clove, and the irresistible lances of Telemachus; and many lay dead, and all had wounds, and Minerva in the likeness of a bird sat upon the beam which went across the hall, clapping her wings with a fearful noise; and sometimes the great bird would fly among them, cuffing at the swords and at the lances, and up and down the hall would go, beating her wings, and troubling everything, that it was frightful to behold, and it frayed the blood from the cheeks of those heaven-hated suitors; but to Ulysses and his son she appeared in her own divine similitude, with her snake-fringed shield, a goddess armed, fighting their battles. Nor did that dreadful pair desist till they had laid all their foes at their feet. At their feet they lay in shoals: like fishes, when the fishermen break up their nets, so they lay gasping and sprawling at the feet of Ulysses and his son. And Ulysses remembered the prediction of Tiresias, which said that he was to perish by his own guests, unless he slew those who knew him not.
Then certain of the queen’s household went up and told Penelope what had happened, and how her lord Ulysses was come home, and had slain the suitors. But she gave no heed to their words, but thought that some frenzy possessed them, or that they mocked her; for it is the property of such extremes of sorrow as she had felt not to believe when any great joy cometh. And she rated and chid them exceedingly for troubling her. But they the more persisted in their asseverations of the truth of what they had affirmed; and some of them had seen the slaughtered bodies of the suitors dragged forth of the hall. And they said, “That poor guest whom you talked with last night was Ulysses.” Then she was yet more fully persuaded that they mocked her, and she wept. But they said, “This thing is true which we have told. We sat within, in an inner room in the palace, and the doors of the hall were shut on us, but we heard the cries and the groans of the men that were killed, but saw nothing, till at length your son called to us to come in, and entering we saw Ulysses standing in the midst of the slaughtered.” But she, persisting in her unbelief, said that it was some god which had deceived them to think it was the person of Ulysses.
By this time Telemachus and his father had cleansed their hands from the slaughter, and were come to where the queen was talking with those of her household; and when she saw Ulysses, she stood motionless, and had no power to speak, sudden surprise and joy and fear and many passions so strove within her. Sometimes she was clear that it was her husband that she saw, and sometimes the alteration which twenty years had made in his person (yet that was not much) perplexed her that she knew not what to think, and for joy she could not believe, and yet for joy she would not but believe; and, above all, that sudden change from a beggar to a king troubled her, and wrought uneasy scruples in her mind. But Telemachus, seeing her strangeness, blamed her, and called her an ungentle and tyrannous mother; and said that she showed a too great curiousness of modesty, to abstain from embracing his father, and to have doubts of his person, when to all present it was evident that he was the very real and true Ulysses.
Then she mistrusted no longer, but ran and fell upon Ulysses’s neck, and said, “Let not my husband be angry, that I held off so long with strange delays; it is the gods, who severing us for so long time, have caused this unseemly distance in me. If Menelaus’s wife had used half my caution, she would never have taken so freely to a stranger’s bed; and she might have spared us all these plagues which have come upon us through her shameless deed.”
These words with which Penelope excused herself wrought more affection in Ulysses than if upon a first sight she had given up herself implicitly to his embraces; and he wept for joy to possess a wife so discreet, so answering to his own staid mind, that had a depth of wit proportioned to his own, and one that held chaste virtue at so high a price; and he thought the possession of such a one cheaply purchased with the loss of all Circe’s delights and Calypso’s immortality of joys; and his long labours and his severe sufferings past seemed as nothing, now they were crowned with the enjoyment of his virtuous and true wife Penelope. And as sad men at sea whose ship has gone to pieces nigh shore, swimming for their lives, all drenched in foam and brine, crawl up to some poor patch of land, which they take possession of with as great a joy as if they had the world given them in fee, with such delight did this chaste wife cling to her lord restored, till the dark night fast coming on reminded her of that more intimate and happy union when in her long-widowed bed she should once again clasp a living Ulysses.
So from that time the land had rest from the suitors. And the happy Ithacans with songs and solemn sacrifices of praise to the gods celebrated the return of Ulysses; for he that had been so long absent was returned to wreak the evil upon the heads of the doers; in the place where they had done the evil, there wreaked he his vengeance upon them.