THE ADVENTURES OF ULYSSES
BY CHARLES LAMB
The Queen’s Suitors.—The Battle of the Beggars.—The Armour Taken Down.—
The Meeting with Penelope.
Now Telemachus sat at meat with the suitors, and knew that it was the king his father who in that shape begged an alms; and when his father came and presented himself before him in turn, as he had done to the suitors one by one, he gave him of his own meat which he had in his dish, and of his own cup to drink. And the suitors were past measure offended to see a pitiful beggar, as they esteemed him, to be so choicely regarded by the prince.
Then Antinous, who was a great lord, and of chief note among the suitors, said, “Prince Telemachus does ill to encourage these wandering beggars, who go from place to place, affirming that they have been some considerable persons in their time, filling the ears of such as hearken to them with lies, and pressing with their bold feet into kings’ palaces. This is some saucy vagabond, some travelling Egyptian.”
“I see,” said Ulysses, “that a poor man should get but little at your board; scarce should he get salt from your hands, if he brought his own meat.”
Lord Antinous, indignant to be answered with such sharpness by a supposed beggar, snatched up a stool, with which he smote Ulysses where the neck and shoulders join. This usage moved not Ulysses; but in his great heart he meditated deep evils to come upon them all, which for a time must be kept close, and he went and sat himself down in the door-way to eat of that which was given him; and he said, “For life or possessions a man will fight, but for his belly this man smites. If a poor man has any god to take his part, my lord Antinous shall not live to be the queen’s husband.”
Then Antinous raged highly, and threatened to drag him by the heels, and to rend his rags about his ears, if he spoke another word.
But the other suitors did in nowise approve of the harsh language, nor of the blow which Antinous had dealt; and some of them said, “Who knows but one of the deities goes about hid under that poor disguise? for in the likeness of poor pilgrims the gods have many times descended to try the dispositions of men, whether they be humane or impious.” While these things passed, Telemachus sat and observed all, but held his peace, remembering the instructions of his father. But secretly he waited for the sign which Minerva was to send from heaven.
That day there followed Ulysses to the court one of the common sort of beggars, Irus by name, one that had received alms beforetime of the suitors, and was their ordinary sport, when they were inclined (as that day) to give way to mirth, to see him eat and drink; for he had the appetite of six men, and was of huge stature and proportions of body; yet had in him no spirit nor courage of a man. This man, thinking to curry favour with the suitors, and recommend himself especially to such a great lord as Antinous was, began to revile and scorn Ulysses, putting foul language upon him, and fairly challenging him to fight with the fist. But Ulysses, deeming his railings to be nothing more than jealousy and that envious disposition which beggars commonly manifest to brothers in their trade, mildly besought him not to trouble him, but to enjoy that portion which the liberality of their entertainers gave him, as he did quietly; seeing that, of their bounty, there was sufficient for all.
But Irus, thinking that this forbearance in Ulysses was nothing more than a sign of fear, so much the more highly stormed, and bellowed, and provoked him to fight; and by this time the quarrel had attracted the notice of the suitors, who with loud laughters and shouting egged on the dispute, and lord Antinous swore by all the gods it should be a battle, and that in that hall the strife should be determined. To this the rest of the suitors with violent clamours acceded, and a circle was made for the combatants, and a fat goat was proposed as the victor’s prize, as at the Olympic or the Pythian games. Then Ulysses, seeing no remedy, or being not unwilling that the suitors should behold some proof of that strength which ere long in their own persons they were to taste of, stripped himself, and prepared for the combat. But first he demanded that he should have fair play shown him, that none in that assembly should aid his opponent, or take part against him, for, being an old man, they might easily crush him with their strengths. And Telemachus passed his word that no foul play should be shown him, but that each party should be left to their own unassisted strengths, and to this he made Antinous and the rest of the suitors swear.
But when Ulysses had laid aside his garments, and was bare to the waist, all the beholders admired at the goodly sight of his large shoulders, being of such exquisite shape and whiteness, and at his great and brawny bosom, and the youthful strength which seemed to remain in a man thought so old; and they said, What limbs and what sinews he has! and coward fear seized on the mind of that great vast beggar, and he dropped his threats, and his big words, and would have fled, but lord Antinous stayed him, and threatened him that if he declined the combat, he would put him in a ship, and land him on the shores where king Echetus reigned, the roughest tyrant which at that time the world contained, and who had that antipathy to rascal beggars, such as he, that when any landed on his coast he would crop their ears and noses and give them to the dogs to tear. So Irus, in whom fear of king Echetus prevailed above the fear of Ulysses, addressed himself to fight. But Ulysses, provoked to be engaged in so odious a strife with a fellow of his base conditions, and loathing longer to be made a spectacle to entertain the eyes of his foes, with one blow, which he struck him beneath the ear, so shattered the teeth and jawbone of this soon baffled coward that he laid him sprawling in the dust, with small stomach or ability to renew the contest. Then raising him on his feet, he led him bleeding and sputtering to the door, and put his staff into his hand, and bade him go use his command upon dogs and swine, but not presume himself to be lord of the guests another time, nor of the beggary!
The suitors applauded in their vain minds the issue of the contest, and rioted in mirth at the expense of poor Irus, who they vowed should be forthwith embarked, and sent to king Echetus; and they bestowed thanks on Ulysses for ridding the court of that unsavoury morsel, as they called him; but in their inward souls they would not have cared if Irus had been victor, and Ulysses had taken the foil, but it was mirth to them to see the beggars fight. In such pastimes and light entertainments the day wore away.
When evening was come, the suitors betook themselves to music and dancing. And Ulysses leaned his back against a pillar from which certain lamps hung which gave light to the dancers, and he made show of watching the dancers, but very different thoughts were in his head. And as he stood near the lamps, the light fell upon his head, which was thin of hair and bald, as an old man’s. And Eurymachus, a suitor, taking occasion from some words which were spoken before, scoffed, and said, “Now I know for a certainty that some god lurks under the poor and beggarly appearance of this man, for, as he stands by the lamps, his sleek head throws beams around it, like as it were a glory.” And another said, “He passes his time, too, not much unlike the gods, lazily living exempt from labour, taking offerings of men.” “I warrant,” said Eurymachus again, “he could not raise a fence or dig a ditch for his livelihood, if a man would hire him to work in a garden.”
“I wish,” said Ulysses, “that you who speak this and myself were to be tried at any taskwork: that I had a good crooked scythe put in my hand, that was sharp and strong, and you such another, where the grass grew longest, to be up by daybreak, mowing the meadows till the sun went down, not tasting of food till we had finished; or that we were set to plough four acres in one day of good glebe land, to see whose furrows were evenest and cleanest; or that we might have one wrestling-bout together; or that in our right hands a good steel-headed lance were placed, to try whose blows fell heaviest and thickest upon the adversary’s head-piece. I would cause you such work as you should have small reason to reproach me with being slack at work. But you would do well to spare me this reproach, and to save your strength till the owner of this house shall return, till the day when Ulysses shall return, when returning he shall enter upon his birthright.”
This was a galling speech to those suitors, to whom Ulysses’s return was indeed the thing which they most dreaded; and a sudden fear fell upon their souls, as if they were sensible of the real presence of that man who did indeed stand amongst them, but not in that form as they might know him; and Eurymachus, incensed, snatched a massy cup which stood on a table near and hurled it at the head of the supposed beggar, and but narrowly missed the hitting of him; and all the suitors rose, as at once, to thrust him out of the hall, which they said his beggarly presence and his rude speeches had profaned. But Telemachus cried to them to forbear, and not to presume to lay hands upon a wretched man to whom he had promised protection. He asked if they were mad, to mix such abhorred uproar with his feasts. He bade them take their food and their wine, to sit up or to go to bed at their free pleasures, so long as he should give license to that freedom; but why should they abuse his banquet, or let the words which a poor beggar spake have power to move their spleens so fiercely’
They bit their lips and frowned for anger to be checked so by a youth; nevertheless for that time they had the grace to abstain, either for shame, or that Minerva had infused into them a terror of Ulysses’s son.
So that day’s feast was concluded without bloodshed, and the suitors, tired with their sports, departed severally each man to his apartment. Only Ulysses and Telemachus remained. And now Telemachus, by his father’s direction, went and brought down into the hall armour and lances from the armoury; for Ulysses said, “On the morrow we shall have need of them.” And moreover he said, “If any one shall ask why you have taken them down, say it is to clean them and scour them from the rust which they have gathered since the owner of this house went for Troy.” And as Telemachus stood by the armour, the lights were all gone out, and it was pitch dark, and the armour gave out glistering beams as of fire, and he said to his father, “The pillars of the house are on fire.” And his father said, “It is the gods who sit above the stars, and have power to make the night as light as the day.” And he took it for a good omen. And Telemachus fell to cleaning and sharpening of the lances.
Now Ulysses had not seen his wife Penelope in all the time since his return; for the queen did not care to mingle with the suitors at their banquets, but, as became one that had been Ulysses’s wife, kept much in private, spinning and doing her excellent housewiferies among her maids in the remote apartments of the palace. Only upon solemn days she would come down and show herself to the suitors. And Ulysses was filled with a longing desire to see his wife again, whom for twenty years he had not beheld, and he softly stole through the known passages of his beautiful house, till he came where the maids were lighting the queen through a stately gallery that led to the chamber where she slept. And when the maids saw Ulysses, they said, “It is the beggar who came to the court to- day, about whom all that uproar was stirred up in the hall: what does he here?” But Penelope gave commandment that he should be brought before her, for she said, “It may be that he has travelled, and has heard something concerning Ulysses.”
Then was Ulysses right glad to hear himself named by his queen, to find himself in nowise forgotten, nor her great love towards him decayed in all that time that he had been away And he stood before his queen, and she knew him not to be Ulysses, but supposed that he had been some poor traveller. And she asked him of what country he was.
He told her (as he had before told Eumaeus) that he was a Cretan born, and, however poor and cast down he now seemed, no less a man than brotherto Idomeneus, who was grandson to king Minos; and though he now wanted bread, he had once had it in his power to feast Ulysses. Then he feigned how Ulysses, sailing for Troy, was forced by stress of weather to put his fleet in at a port of Crete, where for twelve days he was his guest, and entertained by him with all befitting guest-rites. And he described the very garments which Ulysses had on, by which Penelope knew he had seen her lord.
In this manner Ulysses told his wife many tales of himself, at most but painting, but painting so near to the life that the feeling of that which she took in at her ears became so strong that the kindly tears ran down her fair cheeks, while she thought upon her lord, dead as she thought him, and heavily mourned the loss of him whom she missed, whom she could not find, though in very deed he stood so near her.
Ulysses was moved to see her weep, but he kept his own eyes dry as iron or horn in their lids, putting a bridle upon his strong passion, that it should not issue to sight.
Then told he how he had lately been at the court of Thesprotia, and what he had learned concerning Ulysses there, in order as he had delivered to Eumaeus; and Penelope was wont to believe that there might be a possibility of Ulysses being alive, and she said, “I dreamed a dream this morning. Methought I had twenty household fowl which did eat wheat steeped in water from my hand, and there came suddenly from the clouds a crooked-beaked hawk, who soused on them and killed them all, trussing their necks; then took his flight back up to the clouds. And in my dream methought that I wept and made great moan for my fowls, and for the destruction which the hawk had made; and my maids came about me to comfort me. And in the height of my griefs the hawk came back, and lighting upon the beam of my chamber, he said to me in a man’s voice, which sounded strangely even in my dream, to hear a hawk to speak: ‘Be of good cheer,’ he said, ‘O daughter of Icarius for this is no dream which thou hast seen, but that which shall happen to thee indeed. Those household fowl, which thou lamentest so without reason, are the suitors who devour thy substance, even as thou sawest the fowl eat from thy hand; and the hawk is thy husband, who is coming to give death to the suitors.’ And I awoke, and went to see to my fowls if they were alive, whom I found eating wheat from their troughs, all well and safe as before my dream.”
Then said Ulysses, “This dream can endure no other interpretation than that which the hawk gave to it, who is your lord, and who is coming quickly to effect all that his words told you.”
“Your words,” she said, “my old guest, are so sweet that would you sit and please me with your speech, my ears would never let my eyes close their spheres for very joy of your discourse; but none that is merely mortal can live without the death of sleep, so the gods who are without death themselves have ordained it, to keep the memory of our mortality in our minds, while we experience that as much as we live we die every day; in which consideration I will ascend my bed, which I have nightly watered with my tears since he that was the joy of it departed for that bad city”—she so speaking because she could not bring her lips to name the name of Troy so much hated. So for that night they parted, Penelope to her bed and Ulysses to his son, and to the armour and the lances in the hall, where they sat up all night cleaning and watching by the armour.