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World-renowned Troy had fallen. After a siege of ten long years the united forces of the Greeks had sacked and burned the city. The princes, having thus satisfied their thirst for revenge, now longed for home, and putting to sea with their ships, soon sailed away with their companions. Some reached home in safety, others were tossed to and fro upon stormy seas, wandered about for years, and never succeeded in reaching their native land. Agamemnon, the bravest of the surviving heroes, met a still more terrible fate. Joyfully he had gazed once more upon his ancestral home, and thanking the gods for his safe return, hastened impetuously to the arms of his beloved spouse Clytemnestra, not knowing that the faithless one had wed another during his absence. The false one received him with feigned tenderness and presented him with a refreshing draught; he disrobed, drank with deep emotion from the old familiar goblet, and stretched his weary limbs luxuriously upon the soft cushions. Alas! while the unsuspecting hero slept, the despoiler of his fortune and his spouse suddenly fell upon him with a sword and slew him.
How different is the story of the noble Penelope, the beautiful wife of Ulysses! He was king of the isle of Ithaca, off the western coast of Greece, and had been drawn into the war against Troy. Ever since her husband had set sail, a number of the young princes of Ithaca and the neighboring islands had beset her with proposals for her hand. She was young and beautiful and had great wealth in sheep and cattle, goats and swine, so that whoever wed her might hope, by taking Ulysses’ place as chief of the island, to rule over the minor princes. This was a tempting prospect and the young men used every means in their power to persuade the beautiful queen to return to her father’s house as a widow, so that they might formally demand her hand according to ancient custom. Ulysses, they said, would never return. But it was not easy for the suitors to banish the image of her beloved husband from the heart of this devoted wife. She could not so lightly break the tie in which she had found her youthful happiness. He will surely return, she thought, and though she wept day and night for fear and longing, this hope cheered her anxious soul. Year after year passed and still the war went on. At last news reached Ithaca that Troy had fallen and the heroes were returning. Fresh hope now filled the heart of the faithful wife, but another year passed, and still another, and no ship brought back her lord.
Penelope talked with every stranger who came to Ithaca and asked for news of the hero. His companions were said to have returned long ago—Nestor to Pylos, Menelaus to Sparta; no one knew what had become of Ulysses or whether he was dead or living. For nine years longer the poor woman nursed her grief, until nineteen years had passed since she had seen her lord. He had left her with a nursling, now grown into a handsome lad, who was her only consolation, but much too impotent to cope with the presumptuous rabble, which became each year more insistent and at length hit upon a cruel means of forcing the poor lady to return to her father’s house. They leagued themselves with the princes of the neighborhood, over a hundred in number, and agreed that they would all assemble each morning at Ulysses’ palace, there to consume the produce of his herds and granaries and to drink his wines, until his heir, Telemachus, for fear of becoming impoverished, should be compelled to thrust his faithful mother from the door and thus force her into another marriage. Thenceforth the great halls of Ulysses’ palace were filled from morning till night with these uninvited guests, who compelled the king’s servants to do their bidding. They took what they wanted and mocked the owners with loud shouts and laughter. The herds were diminishing perceptibly, the abundance of grain and wine disappearing, and there was no one able to check the robbers. Penelope sat in her upper chamber at her loom and wept; Telemachus was derided whenever he showed himself among the insolent crowd.
A god had brought this woe upon Ulysses’ house. Poseidon, ruler of the sea, was angry at the hero, who had sorely offended him. Therefore he drove him from south to north and from east to west upon the broad seas, dashed his ships to pieces, killed his companions, and forced him through whirlpools and canyons to strange peoples. And now, while his insolent neighbors were consuming his substance, he was held a prisoner upon a lonely island far from home, where reigned Calypso, a daughter of the gods. She desired him for her husband, but Ulysses brooded continually upon his dear country, his wife, and son. He went daily to the shore, and seated himself mournfully by the surf, wishing for nothing more ardently than that he might see the smoke ascending from his own hearth before he died.