2.XI ODYSSEUS MEETS PENELOPE
There was in Ithaka a most greedy beggar nicknamed Irush because he used to run errands for the servants of Odysseus’ house. He came in the evening, and seeing a beggar seated at the door, he flew into a rage and shouted at him.
‘Get away from here, old man, or else you will be dragged away by the hand or foot. The lords inside the house are giving me the sign to throw you out. Get up now and go before I lose my temper.’
Odysseus looked at the fellow and said, ‘I have not harmed you in any way, and I am not jealous of anything that you may get in this house. The place I sit on is wide enough for two of us.’
‘What words this fellow has!’ said Irus the beggar. ‘I won’t waste any more words on him. Get up now, and prepare for the fight, for I’m going to show all the lords that I can keep the door for them.’
‘Do not provoke me,’ said Odysseus. ‘Old as I seem, I may be able to beat you.’
But Irush kept on shouting, ‘I’ll knock the teeth out of your jaws.’ ‘I’ll trounce you.’ Antinous, the most insolent of the suitors, saw the squabble, and he laughed to see the pair arguing. ‘Friends,’ he said, ‘the gods are good to us, and don’t fail to send us entertainment The beggar and our own Irush are threatening each other. Let us see that they don’t draw back from the fight. Let us match one against the other.’
All the suitors went to the doorway and stood round the ragged men. Antinous thought of something to make the game more amusing. ‘There are two great pies in the kitchen,’ he said. ‘Let us offer them as a prize to these fighters. Come, Irush. Come, stranger. A choice of puddings for whichever of you wins the match. Whoever wins will be allowed to eat every day in this hall, and no other beggar shall be let near the house. Let’s begin now, you mighty men.’ All the suitors crowded round and clapped the men on to the fight.
Odysseus said, ‘Friends, an old man like me cannot fight someone who is younger and stronger.’
But they cried to him, ‘Go on, go on. Get into the fight or else we will beat you.’
Odysseus tied up his rags. When his great arms and shoulders and thighs were seen, the suitors were amazed and Irush was frightened. He would have slipped away if Antinous had not caught him and said to him, ‘You coward, you! If you do not stand up before this man I will have you thrown on my ship and sent over to King Echetus, who will cut off your nose and ears and give your flesh to his dogs to eat,’ He took hold of Irush and dragged him into the ring.
The fighters faced each other. But Odysseus stood for long without striking, for he was pondering whether he should strike Irush a hard or a light blow. It seemed to him better to strike him lightly, so that his strength should not be noticed by the suitors and wondered at. Irus struck first. He struck Odysseus on the shoulder. Then Odysseus aimed a blow at his neck, just below the ear, and the beggar fell to the ground, with the blood gushing from his mouth and nose.
The suitors were not sorry for Irush. They laughed until they were ready to fall backwards. Then Odysseus seized Irush by the feet, and dragged him out of the house, and to the gate of the courtyard. He lifted him up and put him standing against the wall. Placing the staff in the beggar’s hands, he said, ‘Sit there, and scare off the dogs and swine. A worse thing might have happened to you you.’
Then he went back to the hall, with his beggar’s bag on his shoulder and his clothes more ragged than ever. When the suitors saw him they burst into peals of laughter and shouted out,’May Zeus, Oh stranger, give you your dearest wish and your heart’s desire. You will only be a beggar in Ithaka.’ They laughed and laughed again when Antinous brought out the great pudding that was the prize. Odysseus took it from him. And another of the suitors toasted him in a golden cup, saying, ‘May you come to your own, Oh beggar, and may happiness be yours in time to come.’
While these things were happening, the wife of Odysseus, the lady Penelope, called to Eurycleia, and said, ‘This evening I will go into the hall of our house and speak to my son, Telemachus. Tell my two maids to get ready to come with me, for I am afraid of going amongst the suitors alone.’
Eurycleia went to tell the maids and Penelope washed off her cheeks the traces of the tears that she had wept that day. Then she sat down to wait for the maids to come to her. As she waited she fell into a deep sleep. As she slept, the goddess Pallas Athene bathed her face in the Water of Beauty and took all weariness away from her body, and restored all her youthfulness to her. The sound of the handmaidens’ voices as they came in awakened her, and Penelope rose up to go into the hall.
Now when she came amongst them with her two maids, one standing each side of her, the wooers were amazed, for they had never seen anyone so beautiful. The hearts of all were enchanted with love for her, and each prayed that he might have her for his wife.
Penelope did not look on any of the suitors, but she went to her son, Telemachus, and spoke to him.
‘Telemachus,’ she said, ‘I have heard that a stranger has been ill-treated in this house. How, my child, did you permit such a thing to happen?’
Telemachus said, ‘My mother, you have no right to be angry about what took place in this hall.’
So they spoke to one another, mother and son. Now one of the suitors named Eurymachus, spoke to Penelope, saying, ‘Lady, if any other men could see the beauty that you have now you will have twice as many suitors by tomorrow.’
‘Do not say such things to me, lord Eurymachus,’ said Penelope, ‘do not speak of my beauty, which departed in the grief I felt when my lord went to the wars of Troy.’
Odysseus stood up, and gazed at his wife who was standing amongst her suitors. Eurymachus noted him and going to him, said, ‘Stranger, would you come to work for me? If you worked on my farm, I would give you food and clothes. But I think you would prefer to go begging your way through the country.’
Odysseus, standing there, said to that proud wooer, ‘Lord Eurymachus, if there was be a contest of labour between us two, I know which of us would come out the better man. If we two stood together, a scythe in the hands of each, and a good stretch of meadow to be mown—then I would match you. Or, if we were set ploughing together then you would see who would plough the longest and the best furrow! Or if we two were in the war then you would see who would be in the front rank of battle. You think yourself a great man but if Odysseus should return, that door, wide as it is, would be too narrow for your escape.’
Eurymachus was so angry at this speech that he would have struck Odysseus if Telemachus had not come between them, saying, ‘That man must not be struck again in this hall. Sirs, if you have finished feasting, then the time has come for you to go to your own homes, go in peace I pray you.’
All were astonished that Telemachus should speak so boldly. No one answered him back, for they said to each other, ‘What he has said is right. We have nothing to say against it. To misuse a stranger in the house of Odysseus is a shame. Now let us pour out an offering of wine to the gods, and then let each man go to his home.’
The wine was poured out and the suitors departed. Then Penelope and her maids went to her own room and Telemachus was left with his father, Odysseus.