Odyssey for Boys and Girls - Alfred J. Church

Of the Beggar Irus and Other Things

This same afternoon there came a beggar from the town, whom the young men called Irus, because he carried messages for them, giving him this name because it is Iris who takes the messages of the gods. This fellow was very stout and tall, and a mighty man to eat and drink, but he was a coward. When he saw Ulysses sitting at the door of the palace, he said: "Old man, get away from that place, or I will drag you from it. The young men would like me to do so now, but I think it a shame to strike an old man."

Ulysses said: "There is room here for you and me; get what you can, I do not grudge it you; but you do not make me angry, lest I should hurt you."

But Irus thought to himself: "Here is a man whom I can easily get the better of;" and he said: "Get away from your place, or else fight with me."

Antinoüs heard what he said, and he called to the Suitors and said: "Here is good sport, the best that I have ever seen in this place. These two beggars are going to fight. Come, my friends, and let us make a match between them."

Then the young men got up from their seats to join in the sport. And Antinoüs said: "Here are two haunches of goats—we should have had them for supper. Now if these two beggars will fight, we will give the conqueror one of the haunches for his own supper, and he shall eat it with us, and he shall always have a place kept for him."

Ulysses said: "It is a hard thing for an old man to fight with a young one. Still I am ready. Only you must all swear that you will not give me a foul blow while I am fighting with this fellow."

Telemăchus said: "That shall be so, old man;" and all the Suitors agreed. Then Ulysses made himself ready to fight. And when the Suitors saw his thighs, how strong and thick they were, and how broad his shoulders, and what mighty arms he had, they said to each other: "This is a strong fellow; there will be little left of Irus when the fight is over." As for Irus, when he saw the old beggar stripped, he was terribly afraid, and would have slunk away, but the young men would not suffer it. Antinoüs said: "How is this, Irus? Are you afraid of that old beggar? If you play the coward, you shall be put into a ship, and taken to King Echetus, who will cut off your ears and your nose, and give them to his dogs."

[Illustration] from Odyssey for Boys and Girls by Alfred J. Church


So the two men stood up to fight. And Ulysses thought to himself: "Shall I kill this fellow with a blow, or shall I be content with knocking him down?" And this last seemed the better thing to do. First Irus struck Ulysses, but did not hurt him with his blow; then Ulysses struck Irus, and the blow was on the man's jaw-bone. And Irus fell to the ground, and the blood poured out of his mouth. Then Ulysses dragged him out of the hall, and propped him against the wall of the courtyard, and put a staff in his hand and said: "Sit there, and keep away dogs and swine from coming in at the door; but do not try to lord it over men, no, not even over strangers and beggars, lest some worse thing should happen to you."

Then Antinoüs gave Ulysses the goat's haunch, and another of the Suitors, whose name was Amphinŏmus, took two loaves from the table, and gave them to him. Also he gave him a cup of wine, and himself drank his health, saying: "Good luck to you, father, hereafter, for now you seem to have fallen on evil days."

And Ulysses had a liking for the young man, knowing that he was better than his fellows, and he tried to give him a warning. So he said: "You have some wisdom, and your father, I know, is a wise man. Now listen to me: there is nothing in the world so foolish as man. When he is prosperous, he thinks that no evil will come near him; but when the gods send evil, then he can do nothing to help himself. Look at me; once I was prosperous, and I trusted in myself and in my kinsfolk, and see what I am now! Trust not in robbery and wrong, for the gods will punish such things sooner or later. You and your fellows here are doing wrong to one who is absent. But he will come back some day and slay his enemies. Fly, therefore, while there is time, and be not here to meet him when he comes."

So Ulysses spoke, meaning to be kind to the man. And the man felt in his heart that these words were true; nevertheless he went on in the same way, for his doom was upon him that he should die. And now Athené put it into the heart of Penelopé that she should show herself to the Suitors, and this the goddess did for this reason. First, that the hearts of the young men should be still more lifted up in them with pride and folly, and next that they should be moved to give gifts to the queen, as will be seen; and, thirdly, that the queen might be more honored by her husband and her son. So Penelopé said to the old woman that waited on her: "I have a desire now for the first time to show myself to the Suitors, though they are quite as hateful to me as before. Also, I would say a word to my son, lest he should have too much to do with these wicked men, and that they should do him some harm."

The old woman said: "This is well thought, lady. Go and show yourself to the Suitors, and speak to your son, but first wash and anoint your face. Do not let the tears be seen on your cheeks: it is not well to be always grieving."

But the queen said: "Do not talk to me about washing and anointing my face. What do I care how I look, now that my husband is gone? But tell two of my maids to come with me, for I would not go among these men alone."

So the old woman went to tell the maids. But Athené would not let the queen have her own way in this matter. So she caused a deep sleep to fall upon her, and while she slept, she made her more beautiful and taller than she was before.

When the queen awoke, she said to herself: "O that I might die without pain, just as now I have fallen asleep. For what good is my life to me, now that my husband is gone?"

Then she got up from her bed, and washed her face, and went down to the hall, and stood in the door, with a maid standing on either side of her. Never was there a more beautiful woman, and every one of the Suitors prayed in his heart that he might have her for his wife.

First she spoke to her son: "Telemăchus, when you were a child, you had a ready wit; but now that you are grown up, though you are such to look at as a king's son should be, tall and fair, yet your thoughts seem to go astray. What is this that has now been done in this house—this ill-treating a stranger? It would be a shame to us for ever, if he should be hurt."

Telemăchus answered: "You do well to be angry, my mother. Nevertheless, I am not to blame; I cannot have all things as I would wish them to be, for others are stronger than I am, and will have their way. But as for this fight between the stranger and Irus, it did not end as the Suitors would have had it. The stranger had the better of him, and Irus now sits by the gate, wagging his head, and cannot raise himself on to his feet, for the stranger has taken all the strength out of him. I wish in my heart that all the Suitors were in as evil case as he."

Then said one of the Suitors to Penelopé: "O queen, if all the Greeks could behold you, there would be such a crowd in this hall to-morrow as never was seen, so fair are you above all the women in the land."

Penelopé said: "Do not talk to me of beauty; my beauty departed when my lord, Ulysses, went to Troy. If only he would return! Then it would be well with me. I remember how, when he departed, he took me by the hand, and said: 'O lady, not all the Greeks that go this day to Troy will come back, for the men of Troy, they say, are great spearmen, and skilled in shooting with the bow, and good drivers of chariots. And so I know not whether I shall come back to my home or perish there before the walls of the city. Do thou, therefore, care for my father and for my mother while I am away; care for them as you do now, and even more. And bring up our son, Telemăchus. And when he is a bearded man, then, if I am dead, marry whom you will.' So my husband spoke. And now the time is come. For he is dead, for it is ten years since Troy was taken, and yet he has not come back; and Telemăchus is grown to be a man; and I am constrained to make another marriage, although I am unhappy. And I have yet another trouble. My Suitors are not as the Suitors of other women. For the custom is that when a man would woo a lady, he brings sheep and oxen and makes a feast for his kindred and friends, but these men devour my substance, and make no payment for it."

So spoke the queen; and Ulysses was glad to see how she beguiled the men, drawing gifts from them, while she hated them in her heart.

Then said Antinoüs: "Lady, we will give you gifts, nor will you do well to refuse them. But know this, that we will not depart from this place till you have chosen one of us for your husband."

To this all the Suitors agreed. And every man sent his squire to fetch his gift. Antinoüs gave an embroidered robe, very handsome, with twelve brooches and twelve clasps of gold on it. Another gave a chain of curious work, with beads of amber; a third a pair of ear-rings; and yet another a very precious jewel. Every one gave a gift. So the queen went back to her chamber.

Then said one of the Suitors to his fellows, scoffing at the stranger: "See now our good luck in that the gods have sent this man to us. How does the light of the torches flash on his bald head!" And he turned to Ulysses, and said: "Stranger, will you serve me as a hired servant at my farm among the hills? Your wages will be sure, and you shall work, gathering stones, and building walls, and planting trees. And you shall have clothes, and shoes for your feet, and bread to eat. But you do not care, I take it, to work in the fields; you like better to beg your bread and to do no work."

Ulysses answered: "Young man, I would gladly try my strength against yours. We two might each take a scythe in his hand and mow grass when the days grow long in the spring, fasting meanwhile. Or we might plough against each other, driving teams of oxen in a field of four acres. Then you should see whether I could plough a clean and straight furrow. Or if Zeus should order, would that you and I might stand together in the front rank! You think overmuch of yourself; but, verily, if Ulysses should come back, this door would not be wide enough for you and your fellows to escape."

The man was very angry to hear such words. "Old man," he cried, "you had better not say such things, lest I do you a mischief. Has the wine stolen away your wits, or is it your way to prate in this idle fashion, or are you puffed up by having got the better of Irus the beggar?"

And he caught up a footstool, and threw it at Ulysses, but Ulysses stooped down and escaped it. But the footstool struck a young man who was carrying round the wine, and hurt his hand so grievously that he fell back, and lay on the floor groaning.

Then said one of the Suitors to his neighbour: "I wish this fellow would go away. Ever since he came hither there has been strife and quarrelling in the place. Now we shall have no more pleasure in the feast." But Telemăchus said: "It is plain that you have had meat and drink enough. Now let us all go to rest." And they agreed and went away.