They came to the country of Lacedaemon, where it nestled among the hollowed hills: and they drove up to the home of famous Menelaus. He was in act of feasting his many kinsmen to celebrate the marriages of his son and of the flawless daughter of his house. The girl he was giving to the son of that breaker of the line of battle, Achilles. It was in Troy that Menelaus first accepted the proposal and bowed his head in agreement that his daughter should go; and now by horses and car he was about to send her to the storied city of the Myrmidons over which her bridegroom was king: for the Gods were causing the fulfilment of the match proposed. As for the son – Menelaus was bringing from the town of Sparta the daughter of Alector to wed his Megapenthes, his strong but only son whom he had got by a slave-woman: for to Helen the Gods vouchsafed no more fertility after she had borne her first adorable child Hermione, who was as fair as golden Aphrodite herself. So they were dining delightedly, these neighbours and kinsmen of the famous Menelaus, under his tall roof-tree. Of the party one was a minstrel who sang divinely to his lyre. As soon as his preluding chords were heard two clowns danced in among the guests and threw cartwheels upon the hall floor.
Just then in the clear space before the house there reined up the chariot and pair of heroic Telemachus and Nestor’s distinguished son. Master Etoneus the lively squire of famed Menelaus happened to see them come. He ran through the palace to bear news of them to the Shepherd of the People. Going up close to him he said pointedly, ‘Two men are arriving, my lord Menelaus, nursling of Zeus: strangers, but godlike in look as though they were of Zeus’ own kin. Tell me quickly, shall we now unharness their swift horses? Or send them on to some proper man for entertainment?’
Ruddy Menelaus flushed in wrath and cried to him, ‘You were not anciently such a fool, O Etoneus, son of Boethus! But herein you babble like a fond child, forgetting how many times we two have eaten hospitably in other men’s houses on our way back to this palace, where may Zeus for ever grant us surcease from pain! Hasten to take the horses from the chariot of our guests and bring the two riders in to feast with us.’ At his order the squire darted back through the hall bidding the other brisk footboys help him. They loosed the sweating horses from the yoke and haltered them in the horse-stalls, throwing down for them a mixed feed of corn and white barley. They propped the chariot against the polished return of the gateway and led the men into the marvellous house.
Upon first sight of this palace of the heaven-nurtured king the visitors paused in amaze. The lustre that played through it was as though the sun or the moon had risen within the lofty dwelling of far-famed Menelaus. They stared round, feasting their eyes: then went to the polished bathtubs and bathed: or rather, the house-maidens bathed them and rubbed them down with oil, and after swathed them in warm mantles over tunics; fitting them to take place on their thrones beside Menelaus the son of Atreus.
The washing ewer, a goodly golden ewer, was brought to them by its maid-servant who poured water over their fingers into the silver cistern. She arranged a shining table by their side upon which the aged housekeeper put bread and rich victuals in joyful profusion. The butler came with platters of various flesh-meats and placed golden goblets to their hands. Menelaus waved them to his bounty saying, ‘Taste of our food and be glad: so that after you have eaten we may enquire of you who you are. In scions like you the fathers’ stock has not gone to waste: patently you are of the breed of kings, sceptered god-children of Zeus. The mean people do not sire sons like you.’ With this introduction he picked up and passed to them the luscious loin of beef which had come to him as his privileged portion: then their hands duly made free with the refreshments provided.
Later, when their longings for food or drink had been put away Telemachus leaned his head across near the son of Nestor and whispered in his ear, that the others might not catch his words, ‘Son of Nestor and joy of my heart, see what a blaze of polished copper and gold and electrum and silver and ivory goes through this echoing hall. Surely the mansions of Olympian Zeus must be like this, one great glory within of things wonderful beyond all telling. I am awed by the very sight of it.’
Fair-haired Menelaus had overheard his whisper. He opened his mouth to them with momentous words. ‘Dear children, with Zeus no mortal man can vie. His houses and his treasures are from everlasting to everlasting. On earth – well, there may be a man as rich as myself, or there may not: but it was only after terrible suffering and eight years of adventure in foreign parts that I won home from overseas with this my wealth. I wandered through Cyprus and Phoenicia and Egypt: I have seen Ethiopians and Sidonians and the Erembi in their native haunts: even Libya, where the ewes bring forth their lambs with horns on and bear them three several times in the cycle of each year. No Libyan, be he king or shepherd, goes short of cheese or mutton or sweet ewe-milk, for the udders are full there all the year round.
‘Yet, while I was roaming in such places gathering the wealth you note, another man crept privily upon my unsuspecting brother and murdered him; by connivance of his vile wife. Wherefore my rule over all these great possessions gives me no joy. Probably the story will have been told you by your fathers, whosesoever sons you are: for I have notoriously suffered much and brought to ruin a family which had been flourishing and rich in blessings. Gladly would I cut this wealth to a third if so I might repeople our homes with the men who died years ago in the rolling Troad, exiles from Argos the mother-land of horses. For these my men I am always moaning aloud and making lamentation – or perhaps not quite always, for now and then my heart grows suddenly sated with grief: and thereupon my eyes run dry, even as I sit here in our lordly hall. So abruptly does the comfort of tears turn cold and become a surfeit.
‘Yet above and beyond all my company do I especially vex my weeping heart for ONE, whose memory makes me utterly loathe sleep and food. No man of the Achaeans deserved so greatly or laboured so greatly as great Odysseus laboured and endured. For him it was written that the outcome should be but sorrow upon sorrow: and for me a distress for his sake not ever to be forgotten while he continues missing and we in ignorance of whether he be alive or dead. Without doubt they mourn him too, old Laertes and self-possessed Penelope and Telemachus, who was no more than a child newly-born, left behind by his father in the house.’
Thus he spoke, and his words moved in the son a longing to bewail his father when he heard mention of his name. A tear splashed from his eyelids to the ground and he lifted up the purple cloak with both hands before his eyes: while Menelaus who noted it guessed the significance and pondered in his heart and head whether he should wait and allow him to name his father: or press him and try his every word by cross-questioning.
While thus his heart and mind debated, Helen, like a vision of Artemis of the golden distaff, came out from her high-coffered, incense-laden room with her women; of whom Adraste carried the graceful reclining-chair for her mistress while Alcippe had her soft woollen carpet and Phylo a silver basket given the queen by Alcandre, wife of Polybus, a dweller in Egyptian Thebes, that richest in palaces of all the cities of the earth. Polybus himself had given to Menelaus two bathing-tubs of silver and a pair of three-legged cauldrons and ten talents in gold: while his wife added for Helen other wonderful gifts, such as a spindle all of gold, beside this silver basket which the maid Phylo now brought in and set beside her. The basket was mounted on a wheeled carriage also of silver and the rims of it were carried out in gold. It was heaped full of the smoothest yarn and across it, at the moment, lay the distaff wound with wool of a woodviolet blue.
The queen sat down in her long chair which had a stool to support her feet: then she began to speak with her lord, asking him all that was forward: ‘Do we know yet, heaven-nurtured Menelaus, from their own lips the truth about these two men our visitors? Shall I play the ignorant or disclose what my sure instinct tells me? My heart is so full of it that I must speak and discharge my utter astonishment: for never in all my experience saw I man or woman with so extraordinary a likeness as this lad bears to magnanimous Odysseus. Surely he must be Telemachus, that son he left behind him a mere infant in the house, when for the sake of this worthless self of mine all you Achaeans came up breathing savage war against the town of Troy.’
Auburn Menelaus answered her and said, ‘Indeed, now I can see the likeness which you limn. Those are the feet of Odysseus and his hands and the flash of his eye and his head with the crested hair atop. And just now when I was casting my mind back upon Odysseus and recounting the bitter toil and woe he suffered for my sake, the young man suddenly let a salt tear drop from his bent brows and raised up the purple cloak to veil his eyes.’
Peisistratus the son of Nestor took up the reply and said ‘Menelaus, Zeus-fostered son of Atreus, leader of the common people, my friend here is indeed the son of that man, the one and only, as you say. But he is very slow-spoken and would be ashamed in his heart on first coming here to pour out a flood of words before you, in whose utterance we two are taking such pleasure as if it were the voice of a god! Therefore did Nestor of Gerenia, master of chariots and horses, send me with Telemachus as guide. For Telemachus greatly wished to see you and be prompted by you to some word or work. Heavy griefs fall to the lot of a home-keeping son whose father is absent, if so it be that he can find no guardian to champion him. The father of Telemachus is still absent, and he lacks men at home to ward him from calamity.’
To which the reply of yellow-maned Menelaus was: ‘Wonderful, wonderful! that there should come to this house the son of my most especial friend who endured unnumbered ordeals for my sake. I had promised myself that when Odysseus came he should be embraced above all my Argives: if only all-knowing Olympian Zeus had granted us to return across the salt sea in our running ships. I would have removed him from Ithaca with his goods and his child and all his dependents, and contrived for him in Argos a dwelling place, a house, a city, by emptying completely of inhabitants one of the towns of my lordship which lies round about us. Then continually would we have foregathered here; nor should any force have sundered us, the lover and the enjoyed, before death’s black cloud rolled down on us and covered one from other. I think the God himself perhaps envied us that happiness which would have been: at least he decreed that Odysseus, unhappy soul, should not return.’
So spoke he, and his words quickened in them all a longing to weep. Argive Helen, seed of Zeus, burst into tears: Telemachus too and Atrides-Menelaus: nor could the son of Nestor keep dry eyes, for there came to his memory stainless Antilochus whom the glorious son of shining Dawn had slain. Remembering him he said memorably: ‘Atrides, that you were fuller of the knowledge of God than any other of mortal men was always the saying of venerable Nestor, whenever in his great house we brought up your name and questioned of you. Yet in this moment, if it be lawful, I would have you take counsel of me. Know that I take no delight in weeping after my supper: and now it is much after supper: the night advances towards the birth of a new dawn.
‘Not that I would disclaim the fitness of weeping for any one of the sons of men who has run upon his fate and died. The last homage we can pay to woe-begone humanity is to shear close our hair and let the tears run down our cheeks. See now, I too have suffered loss: my brother who was far from meanest of the Achaeans. It may well be that you knew him. I was too young to meet or set eyes on him: but they tell me Antilochus was remarkable for that he outran other men in his swiftness of foot and fought surpassingly.’
Said fair Menelaus, ‘My dear, when you have said so much you have spoken and acted with the discretion of an enlightened man, even were he a generation older than yourself. As the son of such a father naturally you speak with wisdom. It takes no art to pick out the offspring of a man into the texture of whose days the son of Kronos has woven bliss in the marriage bed and in the procreation of fair children. Nestor, to return to him, has had supremely granted him for all his days that he should glide peacefully into old age in his comfortable halls, surrounded by sons well-advised and very adept with their spears. So now we will let be the weeping aloud which before came upon us and remember again our supper. Ho there, pour water once more upon our hands that we may eat! In the morning Telemachus and I will bandy our fill of tales.’
So he spoke: and Asphalion the great man’s handiest retainer poured water over their fingers, which they then employed on the rich food set ready. But Helen, of the line of Zeus, called to mind another resource. Into the wine they were drinking she cast a drug which melted sorrow and sweetened gall, which made men forgetful of their pains. Whoso swallowed it mixed within his cup would not on that day let roll one tear down his cheeks, not though his mother and his father died, not though men hacked to death his brother or loved son with the cutting edge before him and he seeing it with his eyes. These drugs of subtle potency had been furnished the daughter of Zeus by the wife of Thon, even Polydamna the woman of Egypt, where the ploughlands excel other plough-lands of earth in bearing abundance of medicines: of which some when compounded are healing and others baneful. Every man of that country is a physician of knowledge incomparable, for they are of the true strain of Paeon the healer of the Gods.
Helen, after she had mixed the Egyptian drug with their wine and bidden them serve it, returned to the conversation and said, ‘Menelaus, son of Atreus and godson of Zeus, and you other sons of the great: it is the way of Zeus to dispense good and evil, now to this man and now to that. He is the all-mighty. Your present lot is to feed, sitting in the halls, and to cheer yourselves with tales, of which I will lead off with one that is seasonable, touching a single one of those innumerable adventures of Odysseus; one only, for beyond all my listing or telling were the exploits of that hardy one.
‘Marvellous was this adventure which the iron-nerved man conceived and dared to execute in the Troad of unhappy memory to all Achaeans. He punished himself with humiliating stripes and threw a coarse wrap about his shoulders as if he were a bondman: and so went down into the broad streets of the hostile city amongst his enemies, hiding himself in his foreign shape and making believe he was a mendicant, a figure very unlike that he cut in the Achaean fleet. Yet in this disguise he went through the city of the Trojans – and not a soul of them accosted him. But I knew who this man was and challenged him again and again while he cunningly eluded my questions. After the washing and anointing with oil when I was clothing him in new garments I swore to him a mighty oath that I would not declare to the Trojans that it was Odysseus, before he had got back to the swift ships and the bivouacs. Then he told me all the intention of the Achaeans: and get back to them he did, replete with great fund of news, after killing many Trojans on the way with his long pointed sword: whereupon the Trojan women wailed shrilly: but my heart laughed, for now my desire had shifted to get back home, and deplored too late the infatuation engendered by Aphrodite to lead me away from my own dear country, abandoning child and marriage-ties and a lord not poor in wit or looks.’
Fair Menelaus took up the tale: ‘Of all these things, my lady wife, you have said what is needful. In my time I learnt the counsel and thought of many brave men, and traversed many countries, but never set eyes on another man as high-hearted as my beloved Odysseus. The sort of deed his bold heart would imagine and dare to do was such an adventure as that carved horse within which all we flower of the Argives lay hidden, with death and destruction our guerdon for Troy. You came to us then, my lady: surely some god prompted you in desire to glorify the Trojans. Godlike Deiphobus had escorted you thither. Three times you circled our packed lair, stroking it with your hands and calling by name upon the leaders of the Greeks. Your voice was the voice of all our absent wives. Myself and the son of Tydeus and stout Odysseus were inside and heard you calling: and of a sooth two of us, Diomedes and I, raged furiously to leap up and call you or quickly to answer you from within. But with main strength Odysseus held us back against our passions. Wherefore all the other sons of the Achaeans were still: save only Anticlus who was about to address you, when Odysseus with his great hands gripped his jaws and held on, thus saving all the Achaeans: until Pallas Athene at last called you away.’
To him staid Telemachus replied: ‘Son of Atreus, Menelaus, foster son of Zeus, bulwark of the rank of battle: all the worse is our pain. For this courage did not deliver him from grievous ruin nor would it have availed if his heart had been of unflawed iron. But come now, dismiss us to our beds that we may stretch out and take our fill of the sweetness of sleep.’
At his word Helen of Argos ordered her house-maidens to range beds under the sun-porch, piling them with lovely purple blankets covered smoothly with rugs and thick woollen cloaks on top of all. The maids left the hall, torch in hand, and made ready the beds. Then the usher showed the guests out. So they slept there, in the entry, heroic Telemachus and Nestor’s brilliant son: while the son of Atreus lay remote in the great house, and beside him Helen of the flowing robes, fairest of women.
At dawn’s first redness in the sky Menelaus of the resounding war-cry arose from bed, clothed himself, belted on a sharp sword and bound gay sandals beneath his lively feet. Like a god he went forth from the married quarters and calling Telemachus to sit by him, greeted him and said, ‘What promptings drove you to me, princely Telemachus, here to Lacedaemon the fair, over the broad swelling sea? Public or private need? Confide in me freely.’
Telemachus answered him with advisement. ‘Atrides-Menelaus the god-nurtured, pre-eminent when battle is ranged, I come to know if perchance you can give me any rumour of my father. My household is being eaten up and my fat properties ruined. Our home is full of evil-minded men, these inordinately proud suitors of my mother, who ever butcher my numerous sheep and slow swaying oxen with the crumpled horns. Therefore am I come pleading to your knee that you may consent to tell me the story of his pitiful destruction as you saw it with your eyes or as you learnt it from the lips of another wanderer. Indeed his mother conceived him to great misery. Condone nothing and spare me nothing out of misplaced pity: but relate just as much as you saw of him. If the excellent Odysseus my father ever fulfilled word or pledge of his to you in that Troy of unhappy suffering for the Achaeans, then I pray you recompense me now by remembering it and dealing with me as faithfully.’
Menelaus flushed with anger and cried to him: ‘The dastards, who would lay their puny selves in the bed of that whole-hearted warrior! It is as if a deer had laid her newborn suckling fawns in a lion’s den and gone out searching across the mountain-spurs and green valleys for her pasture. When the strong beast returns to the thicket which is his lair he will fearfully kill those poor intruders: and even such a mean death shall Odysseus deal out to these pests. By Zeus our Father, and Athene, and Apollo! I can remember how once in luxurious Lesbos Odysseus rose up in a rage and wrestled with Philomeleides and threw him strongly: and all the Greeks rejoiced. If only he might confront the suitors with that old strength. How swiftly would fate close on them and turn their nuptials into bitterness! As for these questions you entreat of me I promise you to distort nothing nor let myself speak beside the truth, nor shall I trick you. Yea, not one word will I hide from you or cover up of all that the Ancient of the Sea, the Infallible, told me.
‘It was in Egypt. I was eager to return but the Gods delayed me there because I had not perfected their full ritual sacrifice. Ever jealous the Gods are, that we men mind their dues. In the surge that breaks across the mouth of the river of Egypt there lies a certain island which men called Pharos, no further from the land than a laden ship will make in the daylight hours, granted that she has a favouring wind to bluster her squarely forward. In it is a harbour with good landing beaches and clean, deep wells of fresh water, from which, after drawing their fill, men run down the trim hulls into the sea. In this island the gods kept me for twenty days, nor ever did there blow a breath of those sea-breezes which inspire ships to move over the wide ridges of the sea.
‘And now would our last rations have been devoured and with them the courage of my men, had not a divinity taken pity on me and been merciful. Eidothea she was, that daughter of stalwart Proteus, the sea’s venerable lord. The sad sight of me touched her heart on a time she met me wandering furtively apart from my followers, who daily quartered the island, angling with hooks that they had bent up, for fish to allay the hunger which griped their bellies. Eidothea, however, drawing near called me and put a question: “Stranger, are you foolish or to such a point easy-going that freely you abandon yourself to enjoy the sense of pain? All this long time you are prisoned in the island and put no term to the delay, though the spirit of your company diminishes.” Thus she addressed me: and I in my turn replied, “Whatever one of the goddesses you are, let me protest that I am not willingly held here. It would seem that I have transgressed against the immortal gods which are in high heaven. Tell me therefore of your knowledge (for the Gods know all) which deathless one it is who fetters me here and prevents my leaving? Also of my return; how is that to be managed across the swarming deep?”
‘So I said: and forthwith the fair goddess answered, “Freely will I inform you, Stranger. This is the haunt of the authentic Ancient of the Sea, Proteus of Egypt, the Immortal One, who knows the unplumbed ocean-pits and is first minister to Poseidon. Rumour makes him my father by course of nature. If you can but summon strength to lie in wait for him and take him, then he will impart to you how and where and when your course should be and what return you will have, riding over the fishes’ element. He will even tell you, heaven-nurtu...