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THERE was in Ithaka a common beggar; he was a most greedy fellow, and he was nicknamed Irus because he used to run errands for the servants of Odysseus’ house. He came in the evening, and seeing a seeming beggar seated on the threshold, he flew into a rage and shouted at him:

‘Get away from here, old fellow, lest you be dragged away by the hand or foot. Look you! The lords within the house are giving me the wink to turn you out. But I can’t demean myself by touching the like of you. Get up now and go while I’m easy with you.’

Odysseus looked at the fellow and said, ‘I have not harmed you in deed or word, and I do not grudge you anything of what you may get in this house. The threshold I sit on is wide enough for two of us.’

‘What words this fellow has!’ said Irus the beggar. ‘He talks like an old sit-by-the-fire. I’ll not waste more words on him. Get up now, heavy paunch, and strip 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 draw your blood.’

But Irus kept on shouting, ‘I’ll knock the teeth out of your jaws.’ ‘I’ll trounce you.’ Antinous, the most insolent of the wooers, saw the squabble, and he laughed to see the pair defying each other. ‘Friends,’ said he, ‘the gods are good to us, and don’t fail to send us amusement. The strange beggar and our own Irus 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 wooers trooped to the threshold and stood round the ragged men. Antinous thought of something to make the game more merry. ‘There are two great puddings in the larder,’ he said. ‘Let us offer them for a prize to these pugilists. Come, Irus. Come, stranger. A choice of puddings for whichever of you wins the match. Aye, and more than that. Whoever wins shall have leave to eat every day in this hall, and no other beggar shall be let come near the house. Go to it now, ye mighty men.’ All the wooers crowded round and clapped the men on to the fight.

Odysseus said, ‘Friends, an old man like me cannot fight one who is younger and abler.’

But they cried to him, ‘Go on, go on. Get into the fight or else take stripes upon your body.’

Then said Odysseus, ‘Swear to me, all of you, that none of you will show favour to Irus nor deal me a foul blow.’

All the wooers cried out that none would favour Irus or deal his opponent a foul blow. And Telemachus, who was there, said, ‘The man who strikes thee, stranger, will have to take reckoning from me.’

Straightway Odysseus girt up his rags. When his great arms and shoulders and thighs were seen, the wooers were amazed and Irus was frightened. He would have slipped away if Antinous had not caught him and said to him, ‘You lubber, you! If you do not stand up before this man I will have you flung 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 Irus and dragged him into the ring.

The fighters faced each other. But Odysseus with his hands upraised stood for long without striking, for he was pondering whethering he should strike Irus a hard or a light blow. It seemed to him better to strike him lightly, so that his strength should not be made a matter for the wooers to note and wonder 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 wooers were not sorry for Irus. They laughed until they were ready to fall backwards. Then Odysseus seized Irus 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 scarce off the dogs and swine, and do not let such a one as you lord it over strangers. A worse thing might have befallen you.’

Then back he went to the hall, with his beggar’s bag on his shoulder and his clothes more ragged than ever. Back he went, and when the wooers saw him they burst into peals of laughter and shouted out:

‘May Zeus, O stranger, give thee thy dearest wish and thy heart’s desire. Thou only shalt be 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 wooers pledged him in a golden cup, saying, ‘May you come to your own, O 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. Bid my two handmaidens make ready to come with me, for I shrink from going amongst the wooers alone.’

Eurycleia went to tell the handmaidens 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 handmaidens to come to her. As she waited she fell into a deep sleep. And 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 handmaidens, one standing each side of her, the wooers were amazed, for they had never seen one 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 wooers, 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, didst thou permit such a thing to happen?’

Telemachus said, ‘My lady mother, thou hast no right to be angered at what took place in this hall.’

So they spoke to one another, mother and son. Now one of the wooers, Eurymachus by name, spoke to Penelope, saying:

‘Lady, if any more than we beheld thee in the beauty thou hast now, by so many more wouldst thou have wooers to-morrow.’

‘Speak not so to me, lord Eurymachus,’ said Penelope, ‘speak not of my beauty, which departed in the grief I felt when my lord went to the wars of Troy.’

Odysseus stood up, and gazed upon his wife who was standing amongst her wooers. Eurymachus noted him and going to him, said, ‘Stranger, wouldst thou be my hireling? If thou wouldst work on my upland farm, I should give thee food and clothes. But I think thou art practised only in shifts and dodges, and that
thou wouldst prefer to go begging thy way through the country.’

Odysseus, standing there, said to that proud wooer, ‘Lord Eurymachus, if there might be a trial of labour between us two, I know which of us would come out the better man. I would that we two stood together, a scythe in the hands of each, and a good swath of meadow to be mown--then would I match with thee, fasting from dawn until evening’s dark. Or would that we were set ploughing together. Then thou shouldst see who would plough the longest and the best furrow! Or would that we two were in the ways of war! Then shouldst thou see who would be in the front rank of battle. Thou dost think thyself a great man. But if Odysseus should return, that door, wide as it is, would be too narrow for thy flight.’

So angry was Eurymachus at this speech that he would have struck Odysseus if Telemachus had not come amongst the wooers, saying, ‘That man must not be struck again in this hall. Sirs, if you have finished feasting, and if the time has come for you, 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 one said to the other, ‘What he has said is proper. We have nothing to say against it. To misuse a stranger in the house of Odysseus is a shame. Now let us pour out a libation of wine to the gods, and then let each man go to his home.’

The wine was poured out and the wooers departed. Then Penelope and her handmaidens went to her own chamber and Telemachus was left with his father, Odysseus.

Next: Chapter XII