Odyssey for Boys and Girls - Alfred J. Church

Of Laertes

The next day Ulysses said to his wife: "You and I have suffered many things for many years. You wearied for my coming back, and feared that I might be dead, and I was kept from coming. And now we are together again, but there are some things still to be done. I see that the Suitors have wasted my flocks and herds, devouring them at their feasts. My loss I must make up. Some I will take from other lands, where my enemies live, and some shall be paid back to me by the fathers of the men who have robbed me. But now I will go and see my old father, who is very sad, I know, thinking that I shall never return. And there is another thing of which I must speak. The people of Ithaca will soon hear how the Suitors have been slain, and there will be great anger in their hearts, for some of them had sons and brothers among the men who are dead. Do you, therefore, and your maids keep close to your own rooms. Do not look out, nor ask for news. Only wait till I shall set everything right."

Then Ulysses put on his armour, and took his spear and his sword. His son, and the swineherd, and the keeper of the cattle did the same; and the four went to the place where the old man Laertes lived, Ulysses leading the way. It was a farm which the old king had cleared, breaking up the moorland, and cutting down the forest, and was now rich and fertile. Round the old man's cottage were huts in which his slaves lived, and in the cottage itself was an old woman of Sicily, who looked after him very faithfully and lovingly.

Ulysses said to his son and to the two herds: "Go into the house, and make ready a meal for mid-day, killing one of the pigs. I will find the old man, my father, where he is at work on the farm, and will see whether he knows me or not." So he put off his armour, and laid down his spear and sword, and went to the vineyard, for he thought he should find the old man there. Now all the men that worked on the farm had gone on an errand to fetch stones for building up the gaps in the vineyard wall. So the old man was left alone. Ulysses saw him as he stood hoeing round the stock of a vine. He had on a coat that was soiled with earth, and patched and shabby. He wore also leggings of leather that the briars and thorns should not hurt him, and hedger's gloves on his hands, and a goatskin cap on his head.

And when Ulysses saw the old man, his father, how feeble he was, and bowed with years, and sad, he stood still under a pear tree that there was in the place, and his eyes were blinded with tears. He doubted for a while whether he should go up to the old man and throw his arms round him, and kiss him, and tell him who he was, and how he had come back, or whether he should try him, and see whether or no he knew him. And this seemed to be the better of the two. So he came near him as he stood hoeing the ground by the vine-stock, and said; "Sir, you know well how to work an orchard or a vineyard; all is going well here. 'Tis plain to me that there is neither seedling, nor fig tree, nor vine, nor olive, nor pear, nor plot of herbs in the garden that you have not cared for. But there is no one, I see, to care for you, to look after your old age, or to see that you are decently clad. You are no idle servant that your master should neglect you; and, indeed, I take it that you are not a servant at all. You have not the look of such, but you are tall and shaped like a king. Such a one as you should have good food, and the bath when he will, and a soft bed. Tell me, now, whose servant are you? Whose is this orchard that you are working? But first tell me, is this truly the land of Ithaca? I asked this of a man that I met on the way, and the churl seemed tongue-tied, for he did not answer me a word. And another question I would willingly have asked him, but that he did not even stay to hear it. And this question was about a certain friend of mine in old days, for I desired to know whether he was alive or dead. And now, old sir, let me ask this same question of you. Years ago there came to my house a certain man, and was my guest. I loved him much—never has there been one of all the strangers that I have seen whom I loved so well. This man said that he was born in Ithaca, and he said also that his father's name was Laertes, and that he was king of Ithaca. Many days did I keep him in my house, and when he went away, I gave him splendid gifts—several talents of gold, and a great silver bowl, worked with flowers, and twelve cloaks, and as many coats."

When the old man heard this, he wept aloud: "It is so, stranger; you have come to the land of Ithaca. But, alas! it is in the hands of evil men. If you had found him of whom you speak, even my son, then truly we would have given you gifts such as you gave to him, and requited your kindness as was fitting. But tell me this: how many years have passed since you took my son into your house?—for, indeed, it was my son who was your guest. Alas! he has had evil fortune. He has died far from his friends and his country, for either the fish of the sea have devoured him or the ravens have pecked out his eyes, or the wild beasts have torn him; but his wife, the faithful Penelopé, did not close his eyes, nor weep over his body. Tell me this, and tell me also who you are, and from what country you have come, and who was your father, and whether you travelled hither in a ship of your own, or were brought in the ship of another?"

Then Ulysses answered, telling this tale, for a tale he always had ready for those that asked him: "I come from the land of Sicily, and I was carried hither by a storm. And as for the time of your son's coming to my house, know that it was four years ago. We thought that he would have good luck when he went, for all the signs were good, and I was glad that it should be so, and sent him on his way with good cheer and with great gifts."

When he heard these words, the old man Laertes was overborne with grief, and he stooped down and caught up the dust from the ground, and poured it on his white head, sitting and groaning the while. And when Ulysses saw this, his heart yearned towards the old man, and there was a stinging pain of tears in his nostrils, so that he could no more refrain. And he fell on the old man's neck, and held him close, and kissed him, saying: "My father, my father, look at me, for I am your long-lost son. I have come back at last after twenty years. And I have slain the Suitors in my hall, paying them back in full for all the wrong that they have done."

But Laertes stared at him, doubting whether the thing was indeed true, and said: "If you are indeed my son Ulysses, come back after all these years, show me some proof that may make me sure."

Then Ulysses answered: "Look now at this scar which the wild boar made when I went hunting with my mother's father long ago on the mountain of Parnassus. That is proof enough; but I will give you yet another, for I will tell you of the trees which you gave me many years ago in this orchard. I was a little lad, running after you, and you gave me ten apple trees and thirteen pears, and forty fig trees, and fifty rows of vine. And these I remember grew ripe at different times."

When the old man heard these words, his knees failed under him for very joy, and he threw his arms about his son, and his son clasped him close. But when his spirit revived in him, he said: "This is well that the Suitors have suffered for their evil deeds. Truly there are gods in heaven, but I fear greatly that the men of Ithaca and from the islands round about should gather an army, and come against us, for these men had kindred among them."

Ulysses answered: "Fear not, I will see to this. But now come to the house, for there a meal has been made ready for us."

So they went to the house. And the old man went to the bath and was anointed with oil, and was vested in a fine cloak. Athené also—for she was near at hand—made him broader and taller, so that his son wondered to see him, and cried: "Surely one of the gods that live for ever has done this thing for you."

After this they sat down to the meal; but before they began, came the old steward, Dolius by name, coming back from his work, and his tall sons with him. And when they saw Ulysses, they wondered who he might be; but Ulysses cried from his place: "Sit down, father, and eat; and you, my men, wonder no more. Here is the meal ready for you, and we would not begin till you had come."

Then Dolius came near, and caught his master's hand, and kissed it at the wrist and said: "Oh, my dearest lad, so you have come back at last to them who longed for you so sorely! Welcome to you! The gods themselves have sent you home; may they give you blessings without end. Does the queen know of your coming, or shall we send a messenger to tell her?"

Ulysses answered: "She knows it; but think not of other things. Let us eat and drink."

So they ate and drank, and were of good cheer.