THE ADVENTURES OF ULYSSES
BY CHARLES LAMB
The Change from a King to a Beggar.—Eumaeus and the Herdsmen.—
Not long did Minerva suffer him to indulge vain transports; but briefly recounting to him the events which had taken place in Ithaca during his absence, she showed him that his way to his wife and throne did not lie so open, but that before he were reinstated in the secure possession of them he must encounter many difficulties. His palace, wanting its king, was become the resort of insolent and imperious men, the chief nobility of Ithaca and of the neighboring isles, who, in the confidence of Ulysses being dead, came as suitors to Penelope. The queen (it was true) continued single, but was little better than a state-prisoner in the power of these men, who, under a pretence of waiting her decision, occupied the king’s house rather as owners than guests, lording and domineering at their pleasure, profaning the palace and wasting the royal substance with their feasts and mad riots. Moreover, the goddess told him how, fearing the attempts of these lawless men upon the person of his young son Telemachus, she herself had put it into the heart of the prince to go and seek his father in far countries; how in the shape of Mentor she had borne him company in his long search; which, though failing, as she meant it should fail, in its first object, had yet had this effect, that through hardships he had learned endurance, through experience he had gathered wisdom, and wherever his footsteps had been he had left such memorials of his worth as the fame of Ulysses’s son was already blown throughout the world. That it was now not many days since Telemachus had arrived in the island, to the great joy of the queen his mother, who had thought him dead, by reason of his long absence, and had begun to mourn for him with a grief equal to that which she endured for Ulysses: the goddess herself having so ordered the course of his adventures that the time of his return should correspond with the return of Ulysses, that they might together concert measures how to repress the power and insolence of those wicked suitors. This the goddess told him; but of the particulars of his son’s adventures, of his having been detained in the Delightful Island, which his father had so lately left, of Calypso and her nymphs, and the many strange occurrences which may be read with profit and delight in the history of the prince’s adventures, she forbore to tell him as yet, as judging that he would hear them with greater pleasure from the lips of his son, when he should have him in an hour of stillness and safety, when their work should be done, and none of their enemies left alive to trouble them.
Then they sat down, the goddess and Ulysses, at the foot of a wild olive- tree, consulting how they might with safety bring about his restoration. And when Ulysses revolved in his mind how that his enemies were a multitude, and he single, he began to despond, and he said, “I shall die an ill death like Agamemnon; in the threshold of my own house I shall perish, like that unfortunate monarch, slain by some one of my wife’s suitors.” But then again calling to mind his ancient courage, he secretly wished that Minerva would but breathe such a spirit into his bosom as she inflamed him with in the hour of Troy’s destruction, that he might encounter with three hundred of those impudent suitors at once, and strew the pavements of his beautiful palace with their bloods and brains.
And Minerva knew his thoughts, and she said, “I will be strongly with thee, if thou fail not to do thy part. And for a sign between us that I will perform my promise and for a token on thy part of obedience, I must change thee, that thy person may not be known of men.”
Then Ulysses bowed his head to receive the divine impression, and Minerva by her great power changed his person so that it might not be known. She changed him to appearance into a very old man, yet such a one as by his limbs and gait seemed to have been some considerable person in his time, and to retain yet some remains of his once prodigious strength. Also, instead of those rich robes in which king Alcinous had clothed him, she threw over his limbs such old and tattered rags as wandering beggars usually wear. A staff supported his steps, and a scrip hung to his back, such as travelling mendicants used to hold the scraps which are given to them at rich men’s doors. So from a king he became a beggar, as wise Tiresias had predicted to him in the shades.
To complete his humiliation, and to prove his obedience by suffering, she next directed him in his beggarly attire to go and present himself to his old herdsman Eumaeus, who had the care of his swine and his cattle, and had been a faithful steward to him all the time of his absence. Then strictly charging Ulysses that he should reveal himself to no man, but to his own son, whom she would send to him when she saw occasion, the goddess went her way.
The transformed Ulysses bent his course to the cottage of the herdsman, and, entering in at the front court, the dogs, of which Eumaeus kept many fierce ones for the protection of the cattle, flew with open mouths upon him, as those ignoble animals have oftentimes an antipathy to the sight of anything like a beggar, and would have rent him in pieces with their teeth, if Ulysses had not had the prudence to let fall his staff, which had chiefly provoked their fury, and sat himself down in a careless fashion upon the ground; but for all that some serious hurt had certainly been done to him, so raging the dogs were, had not the herdsman, whom the barking of the dogs had fetched out of the house, with shouting and with throwing of stones repressed them.
He said, when he saw Ulysses, “Old father, how near you were to being torn in pieces by these rude dogs! I should never have forgiven myself, if through neglect of mine any hurt had happened to you. But Heaven has given me so many cares to my portion that I might well be excused for notattending to everything: while here I lie grieving and mourning for the absence of that majesty which once ruled here, and am forced to fatten his swine and his cattle for food to evil men, who hate him and who wish his death; when he perhaps strays up and down the world, and has not wherewith to appease hunger, if indeed he yet lives (which is a question) and enjoys the cheerful light of the sun.” This he said, little thinking that he of whom he spoke now stood before him, and that in that uncouth disguise and beggarly obscurity was present the hidden majesty of Ulysses.
Then he had his guest into the house, and sat meat and drink before him; and Ulysses said, “May Jove and all the other gods requite you for the kind speeches and hospitable usage which you have shown me!”
Eumaeus made answer, “My poor guest, if one in much worse plight than yourself had arrived here, it were a shame to such scanty means as I have if I had let him depart without entertaining him to the best of my ability. Poor men, and such as have no houses of their own, are by Jove himself recommended to our care. But the cheer which we that are servants to other men have to bestow is but sorry at most, yet freely and lovingly I give it you. Indeed, there once ruled here a man, whose return the gods have set their faces against, who, if he had been suffered to reign in peace and grow old among us, would have been kind to me and mine. But he is gone; and for his sake would to God that the whole posterity of Helen might perish with her, since in her quarrel so many worthies have perished! But such as your fare is, eat it, and be welcome—such lean beasts as are food for poor herdsmen. The fattest go to feed the voracious stomachs of the queen’s suitors. Shame on their unworthiness! there is no day in which two or three of the noblest of the herd are not slain to support their feasts and their surfeits.”
Ulysses gave good ear to his words; and as he ate his meat, he even tore it and rent it with his teeth, for mere vexation that his fat cattle should be slain to glut the appetites of those godless suitors. And he said, “What chief or what ruler is this, that thou commendest so highly, and sayest that he perished at Troy? I am but a stranger in these parts. It may be I have heard of some such in my long travels.”
Eumaeus answered, “Old father, never any one of all the strangers that have come to our coast with news of Ulysses being alive could gain credit with the queen or her son yet. These travellers, to get raiment or a meal, will not stick to invent any lie. Truth is not the commodity they deal in. Never did the queen get anything of them but lies. She receives all that come graciously, hears their stories, inquires all she can, but all ends in tears and dissatisfaction. But in God’s name, old father, if you have got a tale, make the most on’t, it may gain you a cloak or a coat from somebody to keep you warm; but for him who is the subject of it, dogs and vultures long since have torn him limb from limb, or some great fish at sea has devoured him, or he lieth with no better monument upon his bones than the sea-sand. But for me past all the race of men were tears created; for I never shall find so kind a royal master more; not if my father or my mother could come again and visit me from the tomb, would my eyes be so blessed, as they should be with the sight of him again, coming as from the dead. In his last rest my soul shall love him. He is not here, nor do I name him as a flatterer, but because I am thankful for his love and care which he had to me a poor man; and if I knew surely that he were past allshores that the sun shines upon, I would invoke him as a deified thing.”
For this saying of Eumaeus the waters stood in Ulysses’s eyes, and he said, “My friend, to say and to affirm positively that he cannot be alive is to give too much license to incredulity. For, not to speak at random, but with as much solemnity as an oath comes to, I say to you that Ulysses shall return; and whenever that day shall be, then shall you give to me a cloak and a coat; but till then, I will not receive so much as a thread of a garment, but rather go naked; for no less than the gates of hell do I hate that man whom poverty can force to tell an untruth. Be Jove then witness to my words, that this very year, nay, ere this month be fully ended, your eyes shall behold Ulysses, dealing vengeance in his own palace upon the wrongers of his wife and his son.”
To give the better credence to his words, he amused Eumaeus with a forged story of his life; feigning of himself that he was a Cretan born, and one that went with Idomeneus to the wars of Troy. Also he said that he knew Ulysses, and related various passages which he alleged to have happened betwixt Ulysses and himself, which were either true in the main, as having really happened between Ulysses and some other person, or were so like to truth, as corresponding with the known character and actions of Ulysses, that Eumaeus’s incredulity was not a little shaken. Among other things he asserted that he had lately been entertained in the court of Thesprotia, where the king’s son of the country had told him that Ulysses had been there but just before him, and was gone upon a voyage to the oracle of Jove in Dodona, whence he should shortly return, and a ship would be ready by the bounty of the Thesprotians to convoy him straight to Ithaca. “And in token that what I tell you is true,” said Ulysses, “if your king come not within the period which I have named, you shall have leave to give your servants commandment to take my old carcass, and throw it headlong from some steep rock into the sea, that poor men, taking example by me, may fear to lie.” But Eumaeus made answer that that should be small satisfaction or pleasure to him.
So while they sat discoursing in this manner, supper was served in, and the servants of the herdsman, who had been out all day in the fields, came in to supper, and took their seats at the fire, for the night was bitter and frosty. After supper, Ulysses, who had well eaten and drunken, and was refreshed with the herdsman’s good cheer, was resolved to try whether his host’s hospitality would extend to the lending him a good warm mantle or rug to cover him in the night season; and framing an artful tale for the purpose, in a merry mood, filling a cup of Greek wine, he thus began:
“I will tell you a story of your king Ulysses and myself. If there is ever a time when a man may have leave to tell his own stories, it is when he has drunken a little too much. Strong liquor driveth the fool, and moves even the heart of the wise, moves and impels him to sing and to dance, and break forth in pleasant laughters, and perchance to prefer a speech too which were better kept in. When the heart is open, the tongue will be stirring. But you shall hear. We led our powers to ambush once under the walls of Troy.”
The herdsmen crowded about him eager to hear anything which related to their king Ulysses and the wars of Troy, and thus he went on:
“I remember, Ulysses and Menelaus had the direction of that enterprise, and they were pleased to join me with them in the command. I was at that time in some repute among men, though fortune has played me a trick since, as you may perceive. But I was somebody in those times, and could do something. Be that as it may, a bitter freezing night it was, such a night as this, the air cut like steel, and the sleet gathered on our shields like crystal. There was some twenty of us, that lay close crouched down among the reeds and bulrushes that grew in the moat that goes round the city. The rest of us made tolerable shift, for every man had been careful to bring with him a good cloak or mantle to wrap over his armour and keep himself warm; but I, as it chanced, had left my cloak behind me, as not expecting that the night would prove so cold, or rather I believe because I had at that time a brave suit of new armour on, which, being a soldier, and having some of the soldier’s vice about me—vanity—I was not willing should be hidden under a cloak; but I paid for my indiscretion with my sufferings, for with the inclement night, and the wet of the ditch in which we lay, I was well-nigh frozen to death; and when I could endure no longer, I jogged Ulysses who was next to me, and had a nimble ear, and made known my case to him, assuring him that I must inevitably perish. He answered in a low whisper, ‘Hush, lest any Greek should hear you, and take notice of your softness.’ Not a word more he said, but showed as if he had no pity for the plight I was in. But he was as considerate as he was brave; and even then, as he lay with his head reposing upon his hand, he was meditating how to relieve me, without exposing my weakness to the soldiers. At last, raising up his head, he made as if he had been asleep, and said, ‘Friends, I have been warned in a dream to send to the fleet to king Agamemnon for a supply, to recruit our numbers, for we are not sufficient for this enterprise’; and they believing him, one Thoas was despatched on that errand, who departing, for more speed, as Ulysses had foreseen, left his upper garment behind him, a good warm mantle, to which I succeeded, and by the help of it got through the night with credit. This shift Ulysses made for one in need, and would to heaven that I had now that strength in my limbs which made me in those days to be accounted fit to be a leader under Ulysses! I should not then want the loan of a cloak or a mantle, to wrap about me and shield my old limbs from the night air.”
The tale pleased the herdsmen; and Eumaeus, who more than all the rest was gratified to hear tales of Ulysses, true or false, said that for his story he deserved a mantle, and a night’s lodging, which he should have; and he spread for him a bed of goat and sheep skins by the fire; and the seeming beggar, who was indeed the true Ulysses, lay down and slept under that poor roof, in that abject disguise to which the will of Minerva had subjected him.
When morning was come, Ulysses made offer to depart, as if he were not willing to burden his host’s hospitality any longer, but said that he would go and try the humanity of the townsfolk, if any there would bestow upon him a bit of bread or a cup of drink. Perhaps the queen’s suitors (he said), out of their full feasts, would bestow a scrap on him; for he could wait at table, if need were, and play the nimble serving-man; he could fetch wood (he said) or build a fire, prepare roast meat or boiled, mix the wine with water, or do any of those offices which recommended poor men like him to services in great men’s houses.
“Alas! poor guest,” said Eumaeus, “you know not what you speak. What should so poor and old a man as you do at the suitors’ tables? Their light minds are not given to such grave servitors. They must have youths, richly tricked out in flowing vests, with curled hair, like so many of Jove’s cupbearers, to fill out the wine to them as they sit at table, and to shift their trenchers. Their gorged insolence would but despise and make a mock at thy age. Stay here. Perhaps the queen, or Telemachus, hearing of thy arrival, may send to thee of their bounty.”
As he spake these words, the steps of one crossing the front court were heard, and a noise of the dogs fawning and leaping about as for joy; by which token Eumaeus guessed that it was the prince, who, hearing of a traveller being arrived at Eumaeus’s cottage that brought tidings of his father, was come to search the truth; and Eumaeus said, “It is the tread of Telemachus, the son of king Ulysses.” Before he could well speak the words, the prince was at the door, whom Ulysses rising to receive, Telemachus would not suffer that so aged a man, as he appeared, should rise to do respect to him, but he courteously and reverently took him by the hand, and inclined his head to him, as if he had surely known that it was his father indeed; but Ulysses covered his eyes with his hands, that he might not show the waters which stood in them. And Telemachus said, “Is this the man who can tell us tidings of the king my father?”
“He brags himself to be a Cretan born,” said Eumaeus, “and that he has been a soldier and a traveller, but whether he speak the truth or not he alone can tell. But whatsoever he has been, what he is now is apparent. Such as he appears, I give him to you; do what you will with him; his boast at present is that he is at the very best a supplicant.”
“Be he what he may,” said Telemachus, “I accept him at your hands. But where I should bestow him I know not, seeing that in the palace his age would not exempt him from the scorn and contempt which my mother’s suitors in their light minds would be sure to fling upon him: a mercy if he escaped without blows; for they are a company of evil men, whose profession is wrongs and violence.”
Ulysses answered: “Since it is free for any man to speak in presence of your greatness, I must say that my heart puts on a wolfish inclination to tear and to devour, hearing your speech, that these suitors should with such injustice rage, where you should have the rule solely. What should the cause be? do you wilfully give way to their ill manners? or has your government been such as has procured ill-will towards you from your people? or do you mistrust your kinsfolk and friends in such sort as without trial to decline their aid? A man’s kindred are they that he might trust to when extremities run high.”
Telemachus replied: “The kindred of Ulysses are few. I have no brothers to assist me in the strife. But the suitors are powerful in kindred and friends. The house of old Arcesius has had this fate from the heavens, that from old it still has been supplied with single heirs. To Arcesius, Laertes only was born, from Laertes descended only Ulysses, from Ulysses I alone have sprung, whom he left so young that from me never comfort arose to him. But the end of all rests in the hands of the gods.”
Then Eumaeus departing to see to some necessary business of his herds, Minerva took a woman’s shape, and stood in the entry of the door, and was seen to Ulysses, but by his son she was not seen, for the presences of the gods are invisible save to those to whom they will to reveal themselves. Nevertheless, the dogs which were about the door saw the goddess, and durst not bark, but went crouching and licking of the dust for fear. And giving signs to Ulysses that the time was now come in which he should make himself known to his son, by her great power she changed back his shape into the same which it was before she transformed him; and Telemachus, who saw the change, but nothing of the manner by which it was effected, only he saw the appearance of a king in the vigour of his age where but justnow he had seen a worn and decrepit beggar, was struck with fear, and said, “Some god has done this house this honour,” and he turned away his eyes, and would have worshipped. But his father permitted not, but said, “Look better at me; I am no deity; why put you upon me the reputation of godhead? I am no more but thy father: I am even he; I am that Ulysses by reason of whose absence thy youth has been exposed to such wrongs from injurious men.” Then kissed he his son, nor could any longer refrain those tears which he had held under such mighty restraint before, though they would ever be forcing themselves out in spite of him; but now, as if their sluices had burst, they came out like rivers, pouring upon the warm cheeks of his son. Nor yet by all these violent arguments could Telemachus be persuaded to believe that it was his father, but he said some deity had taken that shape to mock him; for he affirmed that it was not in the power of any man, who is sustained by mortal food, to change his shape so in a moment from age to youth: for, “but now,” said he, “you were all wrinkles, and were old, and now you look as the gods are pictured.”
His father replied: “Admire, but fear not, and know me to be at all parts substantially thy father, who in the inner powers of his mind, and the unseen workings of a father’s love to thee, answers to his outward shape and pretence! There shall no more Ulysseses come here. I am he that after twenty years’ absence, and suffering a world of ill, have recovered at last the sight of my country earth. It was the will of Minerva that I should be changed as you saw me. She put me thus together; she puts together or takes to pieces whom she pleases. It is in the law of her free power to do it: sometimes to show her favourites under a cloud, and poor, and again to restore to them their ornaments. The gods raise and throw down men with ease.”
Then Telemachus could hold out no longer, but he gave way now to a full belief and persuasion, of that which for joy at first he could not credit, that it was indeed his true and very father that stood before him; and they embraced, and mingled their tears.
Then said Ulysses, “Tell me who these suitors are, what are their numbers, and how stands the queen thy mother affected to them?”
“She bears them still in expectation,” said Telemachus, “which she never means to fulfil, that she will accept the hand of some one of them in second nuptials. For she fears to displease them by an absolute refusal. So from day to day she lingers them on with hope, which they are content to bear the deferring of, while they have entertainment at free cost in our palace.”
Then said Ulysses, “Reckon up their numbers that we may know their strength and ours, if we having none but ourselves may hope to prevail against them.”
“O father,” he replied, “I have ofttimes heard of your fame for wisdom, and of the great strength of your arm, but the venturous mind which your speeches now indicate moves me even to amazement: for in nowise can it consist with wisdom or a sound mind that two should try their strengths against a host. Nor five, or ten, or twice ten strong are these suitors, but many more by much: from Dulichium came there fifty and two, they and their servants; twice twelve crossed the seas hither from Samos; from Zacynthus twice ten; of our native Ithacans, men of chief note, are twelve who aspire to the bed and crown of Penelope; and all these under one strong roof—a fearful odds against two! My father, there is need of caution, lest the cup which your great mind so thirsts to taste of vengeance prove bitter to yourself in the drinking. And therefore it were well that we should bethink us of some one who might assist us in this undertaking.”
“Thinkest thou,” said his father, “if we had Minerva and the king of skies to be our friends, would their sufficiencies make strong our part; or must we look out for some further aid yet?”
“They you speak of are above the clouds,” said Telemachus, “and are sound aids indeed; as powers that not only exceed human, but bear the chiefest sway among the gods themselves.”
Then Ulysses gave directions to his son to go and mingle with the suitors, and in nowise to impart his secret to any, not even to the queen his mother, but to hold himself in readiness, and to have his weapons and his good armour in preparation. And he charged him that when he himself should come to the palace, as he meant to follow shortly after, and present himself in his beggar’s likeness to the suitors, that whatever he should see which might grieve his heart, with what foul usage and contumelious language soever the suitors should receive his father, coming in that shape, though they should strike and drag him by the heels along the floors, that he should not stir nor make offer to oppose them, further than by mild words to expostulate with them, until Minerva from heaven should give the sign which should be the prelude to their destruction. And Telemachus, promising to obey his instructions, departed; and the shape of Ulysses fell to what it had been before, and he became to all outward appearance a beggar, in base and beggarly attire.