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Ulysses was subjected to continual insult, and the suitors, quarreling among themselves, insisted that Penelope should give them some definite answer.
Finally the queen and her son perfected a plan and announced to the suitors that at a certain time after the feast the queen would decide which she would accept. Penelope then went to the inmost room of the palace and unlocked the door where the royal treasures lay, and taking from among them the great bow which Ulysses had carried, and the quiver that contained his arrows, she brought them down to the hall. This bow was a gift to Ulysses in his youth, and the warrior had used it in many a fierce combat, but so powerful was it that none but himself could bend it.
Taking the bow before the assembled suitors, the majestic queen spoke as follows: "You make vain pretense that you love me; you speak of me as a prize, and you say you seek me as a wife. Now hear the conditions under which I will decide, and commence the trial. Whichever one of you shall first bend the bow of Ulysses, and send a fleet arrow through the eyes of twelve axes truly arranged, him will I follow, leaving this home which has been my delight and which now has come to be but a torture to me."
She spoke carefully, and at the same time showed the rings and the bow. But as she touched the powerful weapon, thoughts of her lost king filled her eyes with tears.
The suitors did not like the plan Penelope proposed, but saw no other way to gratify their hopes. Although they objected, Telemachus insisted that Ulysses should be present at the trial, and that he himself should be the first to make the attempt, for he said, "If I win, then will my mother go with me."
Three times Telemachus twanged the bow, and three times his arrows sped along the hall, each time missing by a narrower margin the difficult mark. As he was about to make the fourth attempt, Ulysses signaled him to stop, feeling sure that on this trial the young man would succeed.
Disappointed and grieving, Telemachus obeyed, saying, "I have failed, but it is because of my youth and not my weakness. So let the suitors try."
The first to make the attempt was Leiodes, a blameless priest, the best of all the suitors, the only one in the throng who was a decent man, and who detested the conduct of the wretches who hung about the queen. However strong his heart, his feeble fingers were not able to bend the bow, and in despair he passed it on to the next. One after another the suitors tried and failed, till only two remained; but they were the mightiest and the best.
At this point Ulysses, still in disguise, summoned two of his old servants, the masters of his herds and flocks, and with them passed out of the banquet hall. Once by themselves, the king made himself known, and in a moment both the men were at his feet, embracing his knees and shedding tears of joy and gratitude.
Without delay, Ulysses spoke, "We have no time now to indulge in unseemly joy. Our foes are too numerous and too fierce, and almost before we know it some one may betray us. Let us return to the banquet separately; I first, and you following me a few moments later. Tell no one who I am, but when the remaining suitors refuse to allow me to make the attempt with the bow, you, Eumaeus, bring the instrument at once. In the meantime lock every gate of the palace, and set some woman to lock each door within and leave it locked, no matter what sound of arms, or shouts, or dying groans they hear. You, Philaetius, guard the main gate to the palace; guard it faithfully with your life!"
When Ulysses was within, he spoke to the two powerful suitors as follows: "Take my advice, noble lords, let the bow rest in peace this day, and tomorrow dispute for the prize. But as you delay the contest, let me take the bow for one moment and prove to you that I whom you despise may yet have in my feeble arm some of its ancient force."
Antinous, with lightning flashing from his eyes, yet with some terror at the bold carriage of the beggar, cried, "Is it not enough, O miserable guest, that you should sit in our presence, should be admitted among princes? Remember how the Centaur was treated; dragged from the hall, his nose shortened and his ears slit. Such a fate may be yours."
But the queen interfered, saying, "It is impious to shame this stranger guest who comes at the request of our son Telemachus. Who knows but that he may have strength to draw the bow? Virtue is the path to praise; wrong and oppression can bring no renown. From his bearing, and from his face and his stature, we know our guest can have descended from no vulgar race. Let him try the bow, and if he wins he shall have a new sword, a spear, a rich cloak, fine embroidered sandals, and a safe conveyance to his home."
"O royal mother," interrupted Telemachus, "grant me a son's just right! No one but a Grecian prince has power to grant or deny the use of this bow. My father's arms have descended to me alone. I beg you, O queen, return to your household tasks and leave us here together. The bow and the arms of chivalry belong to man alone, and most of all these belong to me."
With admiration for her manly son, Penelope left the banquet hall and returned to her chamber, where she sat revolving in her mind her son's words, while thoughts of his noble father brought abundant tears to her eyes.
In the hall was riot, noise, and wild uproar as Euinaeus started to place the bow in the hand of Ulysses.
"Go back to thy den, far away from the society of men, or we will throw you to your dogs!" cried the crowd of disappointed suitors to the trembling servant.
"Slight their empty words, listen not to them," shouted Telemachus. "Are you so foolish as to think you can please so many lords? If you give not the bow to the suppliant, my hands shall drive you from the land, and if I were strong enough I would expel this whole shoal of lawless men." Thus encouraged, Euinaeus handed the great bow to the king.
In the meantime the gates had been closed, and Philaetius secured them with strong cables, after which he returned silent to the banquet room, and took his seat with his eyes upon his lord.
In his hands Ulysses turned the bow on all sides, and viewed it over and over, wondering if time had weakened it, or other injury had come to it during his long absence. Snarling in anger, the suitors spoke derisively, but the chieftain disdained reply, and continued with exact eye to study every inch of his weapon. Then with ease he held the bow aloft in one hand, and with the other tried its strength. It twanged short and sharp like the shrill cry of a swallow. Every face paled, and a general horror ran through all present, for from the skies the lightning burst, and Jove thundered loudly on high.
Then sitting as he was, Ulysses fitted an arrow to the string and drew back, leveling his eye to every ring. Then with a mighty pull, he drew back the bow and gave the arrow wing. Straight it left the string, and straight it passed through every ring and struck the gate behind, piercing even the solid wood through and through.
[Illustration: ULYSSES GAVE THE ARROW WING ]
"I have brought no shame to you," said Ulysses, turning to Telemachus, "nor has my hand proved unfaithful to my aim. I have not lost my ancient vigor, and ill did I deserve the disdain of these haughty peers. Let them go and find comfort among themselves, if they can, in music and banqueting."
Even as Ulysses spoke, Telemachus girded on his shining sword, seized a javelin, and took his stand at his father's side.
From that moment Ulysses ceased to be the beggar, and stripped of his rags he stood forth like a god, full before the faces of the astonished suitors. He lifted his bow, and threw before his feet a rattling shower of darts.
"We have another game to play this day, O coward princes!" he exclaimed. "Another mark we must reach with our arrows. May Phoebus assist us, and our labor not be in vain!"
With the last word, the great chieftain loosed his arrow, and on its wing death rode to Antinous, who at that moment had raised a golden bowl from which to drink. The fateful arrow passed through his neck, and he fell upon the floor, and the wine from the tumbling goblet mingled with his blood.
The rest of the suitors were confounded at what they saw, and thronged the hall tumultously, half in fear and half in anger.
"Do you aim at princes?" they cried. "This is the last of the unhappy games you shall play. Death now awaits you, and vultures shall tear your body."
"Dogs, you have had your day," the Greek warrior spoke. "You thought there was no further fear of Ulysses, and here you have squandered his wealth, made his house your home, and preyed upon his servants. Worse than all, fired by frenzy, you have claimed even the wife of your chieftain. You have known neither shame nor dread of the gods, and now is come the hour of vengeance. Behold your King!"
The confused suitors stood around with pale cheeks and guilty heads before the dreadful words of Ulysses.
Eurymachus alone was bold enough to speak. "If you are indeed Ulysses, great are your wrongs, for your property has been, squandered, and riot and debauchery have filled your palace. But at your feet now lies Antinous, whose wild ambition meant to slay your son and divide your kingdom. Since he is dead, spare the rest of your people. Our gold and treasures shall defray the expense, and the waste of years shall be refunded to you within the day. Until then, your wrath is just."
With high disdain the king thus sternly spoke, "All the treasures that we had before you began your pillage, joined with all your own, would not bring you mercy. I demand your blood and your lives as prizes, and shall not cease till every one of you lies as pale as yonder wretch upon the floor. You have but one choice--to fight or to fly."
All the great assembly trembled with guilty fears excepting Eurymachus alone, who calling upon the others to follow him, drew his traitor sword, and rushed like a lion against his lord.
As they met, Ulysses turned aside the sword of his rushing foe, and forced his own through the traitor's breast. Eurymachus dropped his sword from his weakening hand, and fell prone upon the table, breaking it to the ground, and scattering the rich viands over the marble floor.
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