The Spoils of Troy
Meanwhile Penelope gave her son as sanguine an account of the letter as she could. How else was she to speak to a ten year old who knew nothing of his father except her love for him and the fact that almost all those he had left behind on the island spoke of him with affection and respect?
Only many years later, long after the war was won and Odysseus still had not returned to Ithaca, was Telemachus allowed to read the letter for himself. He told me that it contained warm expressions both of undying love and of agonized regret that a hard fate had kept him so long from his wife and son. But it was also filled with bitter criticism of the way the war was being fought. In particular, Odysseus was at pains to distance himself from the decision that had just been taken to sacrifice Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenaia on the altar of Artemis in order to secure a fair wind back to Troy.
He attributed the blame for that atrocity to Palamedes, the Prince of Euboea, a man for whom he cherished an abiding hatred. It was Palamedes who had demanded that Odysseus take the terrible oath that had been sworn at Sparta to protect the winner of Helen’s hand from the jealousy of his rivals – an oath which Odysseus (who was not a contender for Helen’s hand) had himself devised. It had been Palamedes who accompanied Menelaus to Ithaca and compromised Odysseus into joining the war against his will. Now it was Palamedes who had thought up the scheme to lure Iphigenaia to her death in Aulis with the pretence that she was to be married to Achilles, and Odysseus could no longer contain his contempt and loathing for the man’s devious mind.
Small wonder then that Penelope had been deeply troubled by the letter, for the roguishly good-humoured, ever-optimistic man she had married was entirely absent from its words. In his place brooded an angry stranger about to return to a war which he had never sought. And he did so with his mind darkened by the conviction that the evil shadow of that war was corrupting all on whom it fell.
So the fleet had put to sea again in the tenth year of the war, and we in Ithaca heard nothing further about the fate of those aboard until the spring afternoon several months later when a black-sailed pentekonter with a serpent figurehead put in at the harbour. It bore the arms of Nauplius, King of Euboea.
Nauplius was not the only visitor to Ithaca at that time. Earlier that week Prince Amphinomus had sailed over from the neighbouring island of Dulichion to pay tribute on behalf of his father, King Nisus, who owed allegiance to Laertes, King of Ithaca. This agreeable young man had proved such an entertaining companion that Penelope persuaded him to remain a while after his business with her father-in-law was done. She claimed that he lifted her spirits in what was, for her, a lonely and anxious time. I also grew fond of Amphinomus. He was possessed of a charming, easy-going manner, was eloquent without showiness, and did not condescend when I revealed in answer to his friendly question that it was my intention to become a bard like my father before me. But Telemachus took against him from the first and to such a degree that his mother felt obliged to admonish the boy for his rudeness.
‘Don’t be too hard on him,’ Amphinomus mildly chided her. ‘After all, he has lacked the guidance of his father’s hand.’
‘Sons have lost their fathers in this war and fathers their sons,’ Penelope sighed. ‘Sometimes I can see no end to the woes it brings.’
‘My own father feels the same way.’ Amphinomus gave her a wry smile. ‘He often thanks the gods that I was too young to go to Troy with Odysseus – though there have been times when I bitterly reproached them for the same reason.’
‘Well, I pray that the war will be over long before you are called upon to serve,’ Penelope replied, ‘and not least so that my husband will come back soon to take this skittish colt of mine in hand.’
At which remark Telemachus scowled, whistled his father’s dog Argus to his heel, and left the chamber.
‘Go with him, Phemius.’ Penelope favoured me with the smile that always made my heart swim. ‘See if you can’t improve his ill humour before we dine.’
But when I did as I was bidden, Telemachus merely glowered at me. ‘You should have stayed and kept an eye on him,’ he said. ‘I don’t trust that man. He’s too eager to be liked.’
‘I like him well enough anyway,’ I said. ‘He’s asked me to sing for him tonight.’
But Telemachus was already staring out to sea where the distant sail of an approaching ship bulged like a black patch stitched into the glittering blue-green. ‘Who’s this putting in now?’ he murmured, throwing a stone into the swell. ‘No doubt some other itchy hound come sniffing at my mother’s skirts.’
Until that moment such a thought had never crossed my mind. Penelope was the faithful wife of the Lord Odysseus and everyone knew that theirs was a love-match. While most of the other princes of Argos had lusted after Helen, Odysseus remained constant in his devotion to her Spartan cousin, the daughter of Icarius. Their marriage had been a cause for great joy on Ithaca and though its early years had been shadowed by a grievous number of miscarriages, no one doubted that the shared grief had deepened their love, or that it was only with the most anguished reluctance that Odysseus finally left his wife and newborn son to fight in the war at Troy. Then, as the war dragged on and King Laertes and his queen Anticleia grew older, Penelope had become the graceful Lady of the island. She was always a reliable source of comfort and wisdom to those in need, revered throughout all Argos for her constancy, and utterly beyond reproach. So I don’t know whether I was more shocked by the vehemence of what Telemachus had said or troubled by my sense of its astuteness.
I was fifteen years old at that time. Telemachus was four years younger, yet he had seen what my own innocently cherished infatuation had failed to see – that the fate of Odysseus was at best uncertain and if he failed to return to Ithaca then Penelope would become the most desirable of prizes. I also realized in that moment that if Telemachus had seen it, then others must have seen it too. And with that thought it occurred to me that he must have overheard someone else uttering some such remark as the one he had just made. In any case, my angry friend stood scowling out to sea, too young to defend his mother’s honour but not too young to worry over it.
However the black ship bearing down on our island that day did not carry some hopeful suitor making a speculative bid for Penelope but someone more devious – a bitter old man motivated neither by love nor by lust but by an inveterate hatred, which he did not at first reveal.
I clearly remember King Nauplius coming ashore on the island that day – a scraggy, bald-headed figure in his sixties with a hawkish nose and an elaborately barbered beard. There was a gaunt and flinty cast to his features, and the shadows webbed around his eyes darkened the critical regard with which he studied both our undefended harbour and the homely palace on the cliff. But what most impressed my young imagination were the conspicuous mourning robes he wore. I remember thinking that whatever news this king was bringing, it could not be good.
King Laertes, the father of Odysseus, was not present in the palace to receive this unexpected visitor. In those days the old king had taken to spending more and more time tending the crops and animals on his farm, or simply sitting in the shade, fanning himself with his hat and wishing that his son would return from the foreign war to assume the burden of kingship over the western islands. Laertes had been famous among the heroes of Argos in his day. As a young man, he had sailed to far Colchis with Jason on the raid that brought back the Golden Fleece. He was also among those who hunted the great boar that Divine Artemis had loosed to ravage the lands around Calydon, but he was growing old and weary now. Earlier that week he had received the year’s tribute from Dulichion, Same and Zacynthus, and then done what he could to give fair judgement over the various disputes that had arisen between them while their leaders were away. Now, once more, he had retreated with his wife Anticleia to the peace of his farm.
Having apologized to the unexpected royal visitor for the king’s absence, Penelope was ordering a runner to call Laertes back to court when Nauplius raised a restraining hand and gravely shook his head. ‘There is no need to trouble him,’ he said. ‘Let old Laertes enjoy such peace as this world allows. In any case, it is you I have come to see.’
The words fell on the air as stark and grim as the robes he wore. Sensing that grief had turned to a mortal sickness inside the man, Penelope said, ‘I see you have suffered some great loss, my lord.’ But she was remembering how she herself had suffered at the last visit from the royal house of Euboea. Already she was fearful that the ill news that Nauplius brought with him must press closely on her own life too.
‘A loss from which I do not expect to recover,’ Nauplius answered. ‘This war has cost me my son.’
‘Palamedes is dead?’
The grey eyes studied her as if in reproach. ‘You have had no word from Troy?’
‘We have heard nothing since the fleet sailed from Aulis.’ Opening helpless hands, Penelope shook her head. ‘I grieve to hear of your loss. Tell me, how did this thing happen?’
Nauplius made as if to answer, then seemed to change his mind, shaking his head at the immense burden of what he had to utter. ‘I have sailed far today,’ he sighed, ‘and my heart is heavy with evil tidings. Let me first rest a while and regain my strength. Then we shall speak of the grief that this war has brought to us.’ Nodding with the absolute authority of a sovereign who had decided that everything that needed to be said for the time being had now been said, he turned away, raising a ringed hand to his body-servant for support.
‘Of course,’ Penelope answered uneasily. ‘My steward will escort you to your chamber. But first … Forgive me, but I must ask you, Lord Nauplius …’
Frowning, the old king tilted his head to look back at her. Penelope forced herself to speak. ‘Do you have word of my husband?’ She saw how one flinty eye was narrower than the other and its lid quivered like a moth beneath its brow. Into a silence that had gone on too long she said, ‘Does Odysseus live?’
Nauplius drew in his breath and stood with his mottled head nodding still.
‘Oh yes,’ the voice was barely more than a hoarse wheeze, ‘Odysseus lives still. Odysseus lives.’ And again, with a sigh that seemed to rebuke the relief that broke visibly across her face, he turned away.
When Nauplius and his attendants had left the hall, Amphinomus approached Penelope, smiling. ‘Good news at last, my lady.’
‘Yes.’ Penelope stood with the fingertips of her right hand at her cheek. ‘But I fear that Nauplius has more to say,’
Amphinomus shrugged. ‘It may only be that his grief has darkened his view of things. You mustn’t let his shadow dim your own fair light.’
Penelope shook her head. ‘The truth is that I didn’t greatly care for Palamedes. He was a clever man, in some ways as clever as Odysseus, but he lacked warmth. And I have often wished that he had never set foot on this island. If he hadn’t come here with Menelaus all those years ago, Telemachus would have a father to watch over him and I a husband in my bed. Yet one must pity any man who has lost his son.’
‘One must indeed,’ Amphinomus pursed his lips, ‘even though he brings a deathly chill into the hall with him!’
Penelope reproved the arch smile in the young man’s handsome face. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the King of Euboea sickens from more than grief. Also he is as much a guest of the house as you are, sir. We will be civil with him.’ But she was glad of her friend’s company in what threatened to be a difficult and demanding time.
Her apprehensions were confirmed at dinner that evening when Nauplius merely frowned in response to Penelope’s warmly expressed hope that he was well rested, and then went on to express his surprise that a young woman of the royal house of Sparta had not long since grown discontented with the dull round of life in rustic Ithaca.
‘I regret that our plain ways are not to your taste,’ Penelope answered. ‘I myself have always found the simple life here wonderfully refreshing after the rivalries and gossip of the court in Sparta. With each day that passes I learn to love this island and its people more.’ Nor did she entirely conceal the reproach in her voice as she added, ‘Indeed I sometimes think that were all the world to emulate such dullness, it might be a happier and more peaceful place.’
‘Your husband has been gone for nearly ten years, madam,’ Nauplius replied. ‘Have those years not taught you that happiness and peace are not to be found anywhere for long?’
Penelope shrugged her delicate shoulders. ‘I respect the wisdom of your years, my lord, but it may be that Ithaca has something to teach you still.’
‘However,’ Amphinomus put in, ‘we are all eager for news of the war, and not much reaches us here. Will you share with us what you know of its progress?’
‘Troy still stands,’ Nauplius glowered. ‘Men fight beneath its walls and die, and it would seem that Agamemnon and Achilles are fiercer in their quarrels with each other than they are with the Trojans. Meanwhile prudent counsel is ignored and honest men are traduced by liars. In short, the Argive army is led by knaves and fools. What more is there to say?’ Undismayed by the flush he had brought to Penelope’s face, he looked away.
Amphinomus said quietly, ‘I think you forget that Lord Odysseus is among those who command the host.’
‘No, sir, I do not forget,’ Nauplius answered shortly.
From further down the table Lord Mentor, whom Odysseus had entrusted with the management of his affairs on Ithaca uttered a low growl. ‘Then you will except him from your remarks, I trust?’
But either Nauplius did not hear him or affected not to have done so. He took a trial sip from his wine-cup, wrinkled his nostrils in a barely concealed grimace of disappointment, and smiled at Penelope. ‘Our Euboean vintage is mellower, my dear. I must make a point of sending you some.’
Her voice uncharacteristically tense, Penelope said, ‘My husband is no man’s fool, sir. Do you suggest he is a knave?’
Nauplius opened his hands in a mild gesture of protest. ‘You were daughter to my old friend Icarius long before you became wife to Odysseus. Believe me, I have no desire to say anything that would cause you pain or displeasure.’
Aware that the answer was neither a withdrawal nor an apology, Penelope made an effort to still her breathing. If she had suspected earlier that this dour old man had come with mischief at work in his embittered mind, she was convinced of it now. Looking for space to gather her thoughts, she turned to Amphinomus. ‘Did you not ask Phemius to sing for you tonight? Perhaps his voice will please our royal guest?’