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CHAPTER XXI. THE TRIAL OF THE BOW

Ulysses laid him down to sleep in the gallery of the hall. On a bull's hide he lay, and over him he put fleeces of sheep that had been slain for sacrifice and feast, and the dame that kept the house threw a mantle over him.

And he slept not, for he had many thoughts in his heart, but turned him from side to side, thinking how, being one against many, he might slay the suitors in his hall.

Then Athene came down from Olympus, and stood over his head, having taken upon herself the likeness of a woman. And she spake, saying: “Wakest thou still, man of many troubles? Is not this thy house? And is not thy wife within, and thy son, a noble lad?”

Ulysses made answer: “This is true, O goddess. But I think how I, being one against many, can slay the suitors in my hall.”

Then answered the goddess: “Verily, thou art weak in faith. Some put trust in men, yet men are weaker than the gods; why trustest not thou in me? Verily, I am with thee, and will keep thee to the end. But now sleep, for to watch all the night is vexation of spirit.”

So saying, she poured sleep upon his eyes and went back to Olympus.

When the morning came Ulysses awoke, and he took up the fleeces, and set them on a seat in the hall, and the bull's hide he carried without. Then he lifted up his hands to Zeus, and prayed, saying, “O Father Zeus, if thou hast led me to mine own country of good will, then give me a sign.”

And even as he spake Zeus thundered from Olympus; and Ulysses heard it, and was glad. Also a woman at the mill spake a word of omen. Twelve women there were that ground the meal, wheat, and barley. Eleven of these were now sleeping, for they had finished their task; but this one, being weakest of all, was still grinding. And now she stayed her work, and said: “Surely, Father Zeus, this is a sign, for thou hast thundered in a clear sky. Grant now that this be the last meal that I shall grind for the suitors in the house of Ulysses!”

Afterwards came Telemachus, and spake to the nurse, saying, “Hast thou given to the guest food and bedding, or doth he lie uncared for?”

The nurse made answer: “The stranger drank as much as he would, and ate till he said that he had had enough; but blankets and a mattress he would not have; on an hide he slept, with fleeces of sheep above. Also we cast a mantle over him.”

Next came the swineherd, leading three fatted hogs, the best of all the herd. And he said. “Stranger, do these men treat thee well?”

Ulysses made answer, “May the gods repay them as they have dealt insolently with me!”

Afterwards came Melanthius, the goatherd, having goats for the feast of the day. And he spake to Ulysses bitter words: “Wilt thou still plague us, stranger, with thy begging? Verily, I think that we shall not part till we have made trial of each other with our fists. Thy begging is not to be borne; and there are other feasts whither thou mightest go.”

But Ulysses answered him not a word.

Last came Philoetius [Footnote: Phi-loe'-ti-us.], the cattleherd, bringing a heifer for the feast of the suitors. He spake to Ulysses, saying: “May happiness come to thee, stranger, hereafter! Now thou art encompassed with sorrows. Mine eyes are full of tears as I behold thee, for it may be that Ulysses is clad in vile garments like to these, wandering about among men, if, indeed, he is yet alive. But if he is dead, that, indeed, is a great sorrow. For he set me over his cattle, and these are now increased beyond all counting; never have herds increased more plentifully. Nevertheless, it vexeth my heart because strangers are ever devouring them in his hall. Verily, I would have fled long since, for the thing is past all enduring, but that I hope to see Ulysses yet come again to his own.”

Then Ulysses made answer: “Cattleherd, thou art a man of an understanding heart. Now hearken to what I shall say. While thou art still in this place, Ulysses shall come home, and thou shalt see it with thine eyes, yea, and the slaying of the suitors also.”

And after awhile the suitors came and sat down, as was their wont, to the feast. And the servants bare to Ulysses, as Telemachus had bidden, a full share with the others. And when Ctesippus, a prince of Samos, saw this (he was a man heedless of right and of the gods), he said: “Is it well that this fellow should fare even as we? Look now at the gift that I shall give him.” Thereupon he took a bullock's foot out of a basket wherein it lay, and cast it at Ulysses.

But he moved his head to the left and shunned it, and it flew on, marking the wall. And Telemachus cried in great wrath:—

“It is well for thee, Ctesippus [Footnote: Cte-sip'-pus.], that thou didst not strike this stranger. For surely, hadst thou done this thing, my spear had pierced thee through, and thy father had made good cheer, not for thy marriage, but for thy burial.”

Then said Agelaus [Footnote: A-ge-la'-us.]: “This is well said. Telemachus should not be wronged, no, nor this stranger. But, on the other hand, he must bid his mother choose out of the suitors whom she will, and marry him, nor waste our time any more.”

Telemachus said: “It is well. She shall marry whom she will. But from my house I will never send against her will.”

After this Penelope went to fetch the great bow of Ulysses. From the peg on which it hung she took it with its sheath, and, sitting down, she laid it on her knees and wept over it, and after this rose up and went to where the suitors sat feasting in the hall. The bow she brought, and also the quiver full of arrows, and, stalling by the pillar of the dome, spake thus:—

“Ye suitors, who devour this house, lo! here is a proof of your skill. Here is the bow of the great Ulysses. Whoever shall bend it easiest in his hands, and shoot an arrow most easily through the holes in the heads of the twelve axes that Telemachus shall set up, him will I follow, leaving this house, which I shall remember only in my dreams.”

Then she bade Eumaeus bear the bow and the arrows to the suitors. And the good swineherd wept to see his master's bow, and Philoetius, the herdsman of the kine, wept also, for he was a good man, and loved the house of Ulysses.

Then Telemachus planted in order the axes wherein were the holes, and was minded himself to draw the bow; and indeed would have done the thing, but Ulysses signed to him that he should not. Therefore he said, “Methinks I am too weak and young; ye that are elder should try the first.”

Then first Leiodes [Footnote: Lei-o'-des.], the priest, who alone among the suitors hated their evil ways, made trial of the bow. But he moved it not, but wearied his hands with it, for they were tender, and unaccustomed to toil. And he said, “I cannot bend this bow; let some other try; but I think that it shall be grief and pain to many this day.”

And Antinous was wroth to hear such words, and bade Melanthius bring forth a roll of fat, that they might anoint the string and soften it. So they softened the string with fat, but still could they not bend it, for they all of them tried in vain, till only Antinous and Eurymachus were left, who, indeed, were the bravest and the strongest of them all.

Now the swineherd and the herdsman of the kine had gone forth out of the yard, and Ulysses came behind them and said: “What would ye do if Ulysses were to come back to his home? Would ye fight for him or for the suitors?”

And both said that they would fight for him.

And Ulysses said: “It is even I who am come back in the twentieth year, and ye, I know, are glad at heart that I am come; nor know I of any one besides. And if ye will help me as brave men to-day, wives shall ye have, and possessions and houses near to mine own. And ye shall be brothers and comrades to Telemachus. And for a sign, behold this scar which the wild boar made.”

Then they wept for joy and kissed Ulysses, and he also kissed them. And he said to Eumaeus that he should bring the bow to him when the suitors had tried their fortune therewith; also that he should bid the women keep within doors, nor stir out if they should hear the noise of battle. And Philoetius he bade lock the doors of the hall, and fasten them with a rope.

After this he came back to the hall, and Eurymachus had the bow in his hands, and sought to warm it at the fire. Then he essayed to draw it, but could not. And he groaned aloud, saying: “Woe is me! not for loss of this marriage only, for there are other women to be wooed in Greece, but that we are so much weaker than the great Ulysses. This is, indeed, shame to tell.”

Then said Antinous: “Not so; to-day is a holy day of the god of archers; therefore we could not draw the bow. But to-morrow will we try once more, after sacrifice to Apollo.”

And this saying pleased them all; but Ulysses said, “Let me try this bow; for I would fain know whether I have such strength as I had in former days.”

At this all the suitors were wroth, and chiefly Antinous, but Penelope said that it should be so, and promised the man great gifts if he could draw this bow.

But Telemachus spake thus: “Mother, the bow is mine to give or to refuse. And no man shall say me nay, if I will that this stranger make trial of it. But do thou go to thy chamber with thy maidens, and let men take thought for these things.”

And this he said because he would have her depart from the hall forthwith, knowing what should happen therein. But she marvelled to hear him speak with such authority, and answered not, but departed. And when Eumaeus would have carried the bow to Ulysses, the suitors spake roughly to him, but Telemachus constrained him to go. Therefore he took the bow and gave it to his master. Then went he to Eurycleia, and bade her shut the door of the women's chambers and keep them within, whatsoever they might hear.

Then Ulysses handled the great bow, trying it, whether it had taken any hurt, but the suitors thought scorn of him. Then, when he had found it to be without flaw, just as a minstrel fastens a string upon his harp and strains it to the pitch, so he strung the bow without toil; and holding the string in his right hand, he tried its tone, and the tone was sweet as the voice of a swallow. Then he took an arrow from the quiver, and laid the notch upon the string and drew it, sitting as he was, and the arrow passed through every ring, and stood in the wall beyond. Then he said to Telemachus:—

“There is yet a feast to be held before the sun go down.”

And he nodded the sign to Telemachus. And forthwith the young man stood by him, armed with spear and helmet and shield.