So, traveler, you want a story. They say that here in Greece there's a story under every stone- and that's a lot, if you take a look at these hills I scratch and now my handful of grain on for a living. But I'm a poor hand at story-telling. If it had been my father, now. . . He was a great one for stories. You couldn't stop him-and din't want to. When I was a boy, and that wasn't yesterday, mind you, he told me about Odysseus. . . .
So you've heard of Odysseus, stranger? Ah, but you don't know what my father knew about him. Odysseus was a native of these parts, and that makes all the difference.
Now eat your supper and drink what's in your cup, and I'll try to tell you the tale again, remembering my father's words; and when I forget them you must forgive me. My tongue runs out fast enough; but that's not the same as telling a story.
It will do me good to tell it you. How can a man live dumb as an ox, year in year out, with never a friend to wag his chin at? Few traveler's pass this way across the mountains. They like the railroad best, and the big port's of full steamships from I don't know where. I've never seen the railroad-would you believe it?- living all my life on these poor acres of mine by the sea, and never going beyond the village behind the hill over there, where the church is. But I've seen the steamships- look, there's one there now, going to the northward with her own smoke following her like a cloud. How she eats up the miles of the sea, fair weather or foul, with no need to wait for a slant of wind like the coasting schooners or the little caïques- which put me in mind of the old ships my father spoke of.
Now what I'm going to tell you happened a while since; how long, the likes of me no means of knowing-but before my father was born, or my grandfather, or his father either; a great while ago, in better days than these, when a man if he had a little to content him at home could take a ship and look elsewhere. Perhaps he was killed in battle, or knocked on the head by robbers, or drowned; but if his luck was in, he found what he wanted-and not only money and cattle either. There was a life for a man then, when there was little law but fate, and God's Will, and his own shame.
Fill up again, my friends, and let's drink together. Look, I turned down my cup and pour this drops on the ground.
Poseidon, brother of Zeus, lord of the sea, girdler of the world. . . .
There's no need to start like that, my friend, or look behind you. Did you think there was a priest over there, hiding in the olives? Don't be afraid; I only whispered, and now-see-I cross myself, and all is well again.
How calm the sea is! It's voice in the bay is like a sigh. The death which comes out of the sea is the gentlest of all: a moment of fear, a little pain, the falling asleep. It is hard to live by the sea, as I do, and be too poor to build a boat and follow the sun over there behind the islands.
Forgive my tongue for wandering. When a man lives alone with only his pigs and two oxen for company the words crowd so thick in his throat that he must let them out, or they'll choke him. God sends guests; evening is the time for tales. Come then, and I'll begin. You see that dark hump far out on the sea, under the sun? Not the big island there, but a little to the northward: a hump like a whale's back dark on the water. Tomorrow at sunrise it will glow as pink as a rose, and before noon it will shine white like snow. But dark or bright the seamen see it, even across the thirty miles of the sea. That's Ithaca: rocky Ithaca. Grapes grow on it, and olives and figs; but there are no cornlands or pasture for horses; only a few goats on the craggy hills. It's so small that even inland a man feels himself still in the midst of the sea, the sound of it in his ears, the dazzle in his eyes, the smell in his nostrils, and the glory of it in his heart.
There in Ithaca, Odysseus was born. What's in a name? Odysseus . . . The man the God's were angry with. Think as you please, stranger; man is born with sorrow, friend deceive, life is short, the dark waits for all; yet Odysseus, whether the God's were angry or not, took life into his hands like a ripe fig and sucked the sweetness out to the last drop. What if he did lose his way in the pathless sea, looking for the Great Brown Mountain at the end of the world? No doubt in some foreign land he sighed now and then for some smoke going up from the roofs of Ithaca, and for the sound of the stream splashing into the bowl of rock by the steep track; yet if anyone said to him, "what have you done Odysseus, that the God's are angry?" He would be silent, and glacing at his questioner with a flicker of malice in his old eyes, stare out again over the sea. For he knew that it was only half truth that troubles come from heaven; the other half was that man brings them on himself by his own desires-and often trouble itself is it's own best reward. What else are man's wits for, his cunning and skill and strength, if not to be used to kill an enemy, or save a friend, or win fame?
For some men home is place to start from, not to live in. Such a man was Odysseus. Yet he loved Ithaca. There was no wine for him like the wine from his father's Laertes' grapes, no figs so black and sweet as the figs that grew by the wall of his father's house on the hill. He carried the thought of them to the end of earth, a childhood memory, an old man's dream. It was well for him he did; for without that love his voyages would have been like the whirling of atoms spinning perpetually through the void, yet never reaching another place.
Even as a child he was seldom in his father's house. Having no brothers or sisters, he cared little for children's play, but was off as soon as his legs would carry him to the meeting place of men, or to the seashore, where he would practice with weapons of hounting or war, the spear, the knife, and his bow made by his father to fit his small strength. As time went on he would be away most days at the shipyard in the town, watching the riggers and shipbuilders at work, asking them questions about their craft and lending a hand when they would let him. They took the boy readily enough, seeing he was quick and clever, and let him into not a few of their mysteries, teaching him to drill holes in the plank with an iron drill, spinning it cunningly with the leather thong, and to drive in the wooden pins good and true. Moreover, as Laertes his father was the man of chief consequence in the island, they were eager to stand well with the son.
There too, while the boy worked at watched by launching slips, he would listen to the yarns of foreign captains who had brought vessels to the island for trade or watering, and sometimes hear with a pang of mingle excitement and pity a tale of men driven from their homes by marauder, or by tribes on the move from the northward, who had killed their women, caught that men they would for slaves, and taken their cattle and lands.
At other times he would go to the little haven at the southern point of the island, where the stream was that tumbled into the stone basin, and brimmed it over, and trickled away into the rocks and sand. It was lonely there between the two promontories of rock, and the sleepy sound of the stream mingling with the lapping of the sea deepened the quietness, except when women from the great house came down to wash the linen, trampling it with their feet in the clear water, and laughing and jabbering as hard as they could.
But the boy liked it best when it was lonely. He could dream then, and watch the cloud shadows cross the neighboring islands, cephallenia and wooded Zante and Delichium, or look westward towards Silica whence his friends the seamen brought stories of savage men, and whirlpools, and dangerous tide rips, and sudden squalls off the land.
One day soon, when he was old enough he would go to the sea himself and find out if the stories were true. He would build a fine black ship with vermilion bows and great painted eye on either side, to help her find her way on a moonlight night, and sail to Silicy and beyond, as far as the place where the sun sank in the sea; and southward round the stormy Cape Makes to those eastern lands which were ringing with the game of the young Agamemnon. Already they called him King of Men, because he was rich and powerful and had a house like a castle on the mountains at Mycenæ, where the hill tracks ran from the southern to northern sea. Agamemnon was a greater man even than Laertes, and could command an army bigger by hundreds if need be. Moreover, there was going to be a war. Mutterings and rumors of it were in all men's mouths. Ever since he could remember, stories had been coming in of the growing power of a city called Troy, far away to the eastward beyond the Ægean sea: Troy, the most hated of cities-the robber city, blocking the trade route to the east and forcing tribute from mearshants and seamen of Greece and the islands. Troy must be pulled down, bloted out, burned by fire; sooner or later the ships of Greece must be assembled and the war begin, and he, Odysseus, would play his part in it, with his own black ship, and his spear, and his bow.
I could tell you much about boyhood of his man: how as he grew stronger and taller he made himself the master of the other boys in Ithaca, loved by a few, envied by many; and how he beat them at their sports when they could get him to compete, in running and wrestling and shooting with the bow. With the bow he was a wonder. He could take a broad axe with a double head and stick it in the ground, and shoot his arrow between the blades to the mark beyond: then between two-or four-or six. When other tried the feat, Looses perhaps, or Antinoüs or Eurynomus, boys like himself and sons of chiefs, their arrows went wide, or struck the iron blade and were shivered to splinters; then Odysseus would laugh, and they would go away angry, grumbling that Odysseus had set the axes askew and cheated them. And so he had, for all I know.
But I have better things to tell than boys' tricks or boys' dreaming.
It is hard, having a listener, not to stretch out my story just for the pleasure of it; but if I did, before I came to the end the stars would have grown faint in tomorrow's dawn, Arcturus and Boötes and the Great Bear which alone never sets in the sea.
Now in the course of time, when Odysseus was already a young man, news came to Ithaca that men of note from all parts of Greece, good fighting men and rich chieftains, were gathering in Sparta at the house of Tyndareus, who ruled that country, to make their bids for the had of his daughter Helen. When Odysseus heard of this, he turned the matter over in his mind, sitting on a rock in the little harbor where the stream was. Then he went up the steep track toward his house. On the way he met Melanthius his father's goatherd, a crooked, swarthy man with shifty eyes and a tuft on his chin like one of his own goats, which wagged as he talked.
Odysseus said to him: "if you were a prince like me, old goat-face, would you put in your bid for Helen's hand?"
"She has the face of a dog," Melanthius answered, and spat on the ground.
Odysseus laughed, and presently, as he passed through the farm which lay between the house and the sea, he saw Eumæus, his father's swineherd, driving the pigs from their sties.
"Eumæus" he said, "Shall I go to Sparta to ask for Helen, who old goat-beard says has the face of a dog?"
"Master," Eumæus answered, "Helen is beautiful; but beauty and death walk hand in hand."
In the great hall of the house the woman Eurycleia, who had nursed Odysseus when he was a baby, was setting the maidservants about their work.
"Nurse," Odysseus said "is it true that beauty and death go hand in hand?" The nurse answered. "We're all awed to death. Only God has physic for all ills, and there's a scorpion under every stone- so mind he doesn't bite you. But what is it, my dear, that's in your heart this fine morning? You were always a deep one."
Odysseus said nothing, but passed on to a inner room to find his mother. The nurse watched him with the anxiety of love as he opened the door and shut it behind him.
"Mother," Odysseus said "I am going to Sparta to try my luck with Helen. Wish me Godspeed."
Now Anticleia was proud of her son, and thought no woman could have one braver or handsome or cleverer. Young as he was, he had already proved his manhood and sagacity, and knowledge of the ways and weaknesses of men, going on missions to right his father's wrongs, and always knowing when words were better than deeds to gain an end. And of all men in Ithaca and the islands there was none who could handle like him or nurse her more delicately in a hard wind and a following sea. Yet for all of his mother knew he was reckless and wild, and thirsty for adventure and fame.
"I wish you Godspeed," she said. "Mothers must endure-and hope. Helen is an evil name. Helen-the Destroyer."
Then Odysseus found his father Laertes in the herb garden which he loved, and said: "father, fit me out a ship, a good one, with all new gear and vermilion bows, and let me choose a crew to man her, for I'm going to the court of Tyndareus to bring back Helen as my wife."
"What will you offer for her?" Said Laertes. "I am not rich, remember, as envious people suppose."
Odysseus laughed again. "If she wants me she can take me," he said. "There are more fish in the sea than one. If the mullet escapes, I'll catch a tunny. I'll never break my heart for a woman-or my father's fortune either."
Laertes promised the ship, and gave his son his blessing, greatly approving his sound sence. But he couldn't help giving him a word of advice, all the same.
"Remember," he said, "that God lightly steals a man's wits. Helen is beautiful. Remember, too, that it's friends who betray-we can avoid enemies as a seaman avoids rocks."
Soon the day for sailing came. Odysseus said his farewells, first to Laertes and Anticleia, then to Eumæus, who thought a servant was yet his friend, and lastly to his old nurse. She, poor woman, was more loth to let him go even that his mother was, for she still loved him as her baby, and had not the mother's pride in a son's fame.
"What call have you to get a wife," she said dabbing her eyes to dry the tears, "and you hardly a man yet? I nursed you in my arms, I did, and when the board gashed your thigh, it was I who brought you back to strength when you came home. And now you'll leave us again and never come back-that you won. The world if full of danger and mischief, what with the witches and bad men and monsters and ghost and everything dreadful—and this Helen—who knows if she isn't double—faced, and as bad as thorn with no rose? You are brave and clever, my darling, and as beautiful as palm tree, yes, you are, and a great talker, as I am, but with more sence, for you in when to talk and when to be silent. Silence has its reward, there's no danger in it. Ah, but you'll make yourself rich and famouse, that you will—gold's the best of hosts—and come home a married man, for not Helen or any woman could say no to one like you, and then you'll be looking at her all day long, with never a word to throw at your old nurse. But sure I'll do my duty, as a woman must—"
With that, the nurse gave a great sniff and seized Odysseus' hand and kissed it, and a moment afterwards Odysseus was gone.
He went down to the sea and to his ship, and found his crew already aboard. She was a good ship, Ithacas best: long with a fine run aft for speed and safety in a seaway; painted black, with the three top strakes in her bows scarlet for a third of their length; her stern rising in a curve like a swan's neck above the gunwale. She had a single mast, short and stout, stepped well inboard, with a great yard crossing it, and stayed with ropes of twisted hide, springer and stronger than hemp. Her gunwales were pierced for oars, ten a side, and she was open for all her length except for a short space forward of the mast.
Slowly they pulled her from the quay, and, when they had an offing, the oars were unshipped and the big flaxen square sail set. Sheets and braces were brought aft and secured, a shudder came over the surface of the sea under a puff and wind from the north, the gear creaked as the sail filled and it took the strain, and the wave of her wake followed the ship as she ran to the southward.