Meanwhile the worthy swineherd had picked up the curved bow and was taking it along, when protests rang out from all the Suitors in the hall. One of the insolent youths, expressing the general feeling, yelled: ‘Where are you taking that bow, you wretched swineherd, you vagabond? If Apollo and the other immortal gods favour us, the very dogs you’ve bred will tear you to pieces, out there among your pigs away from everybody.’
Eumaeus, cowed by the angry cries in the hall, then and there put down the bow. But now Telemachus’ voice came loud and menacing from the other side. ‘Come on, bring the bow, old fellow! You’ll soon find that you can’t obey us all. Take care I don’t chase you up the fields with a shower of stones. I may be young, but I am more powerful than you. If only I had the same advantage in muscle over all the Suitors in the place, I’d soon send them packing back where they belong and out of this house of mine where they hatch their ugly plots.’
The Suitors greeted this speech with roars of hilarious laughter, which took the edge off their resentment against Telemachus. The swineherd picked up the bow, carried it down the hall to wise Odysseus and put it in his hands. He then called the nurse Eurycleia from her quarters and said: ‘Eurycleia, you’re sensible. Telemachus’ orders are for you to lock those close-fitting doors to the women’s rooms. And if anyone hears groans or any other noise from the men’s part of the house, they are not to stir from their quarters, but must stay quietly where they are and get on with their work.’
Without a word Eurycleia went and locked the doors leading out of the great hall. At the same time Philoetius slipped quietly out and barred the door leading into the courtyard, which he made fast with a ship’s hawser of reeds that was lying under the colonnade. This done, he went in and sat down on the stool he had left, with his eyes fixed on Odysseus.
Odysseus now had the bow in his hands and was twisting it about and bending it at both ends, in case worms had eaten into the horn in the long absence of its owner. The Suitors glanced at one another and one said: ‘Ha! Quite the expert, with a critic’s eye for bows! No doubt he collects them at home or wants to make one, judging by the way he twists it about. The old vagabond is up to no good.’ Another arrogant youth said: ‘I hope he has as much luck at that as he has chance of ever stringing the bow!’
While they were talking Odysseus, master of stratagems, had picked up the great bow and checked it all over. As a minstrel skilled at the lyre and in song easily stretches a string round a new leather strap, fixing the twisted sheep-gut at both ends, so he strung the great bow without effort or haste. Then with his right hand he tested the string, and it sang as he plucked it with a sound like a swallow’s note. The Suitors were utterly mortified; the colour faded from their cheeks; and to mark the moment there came a thunderclap from Zeus, and Odysseus’ long-suffering heart leapt up for joy at this sign of favour from the Son of Cronos of the devious ways.
One arrow lay loose on the table beside him; the rest, which the Achaean lords were soon to experience, were still inside their hollow quiver. He picked up this shaft, set it against the bridge of the bow, drew back the grooved end and the string together, all without rising from his stool, and, with a straight aim, shot. Not a single axe did he miss. From the first handle-ring, right through them all and out at the last the arrow sped with its burden of bronze. Odysseus turned to his son. ‘Telemachus,’ he said, ‘the stranger sitting in your hall has not disgraced you. I did not miss the target, or make hard work of stringing the bow. My powers are unimpaired, and the Suitors did me an injustice when they disparaged me. But the time has come now to get their supper ready, while it is light, and after that to pass on to the further pleasures of music and dancing, which add to the delights of a banquet.’
As he finished, he gave a nod. Whereupon noble Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, slung on his sharp-edged sword and gripping his spear took his stand by the chair at his father’s side, armed with resplendent bronze.
Throwing off his rags, the resourceful Odysseus leaped on to the great threshold with his bow and his full quiver, and poured out the swift arrows at his feet.
‘The match that was to seal your fate is over,’ he called out to the Suitors. ‘Now for another target which no man has yet hit – if I can hit it and Apollo grants my prayer.’ And with that he levelled a deadly shaft straight at Antinous.
Antinous had just reached for his fine cup to take a draught of wine, and the golden, two-handled beaker was balanced in his hands. No thought of bloodshed entered his head. For who could guess, there in that festive company, that one man, however powerful he might be, would bring evil death and black doom on him against such odds? Odysseus took aim and shot him in the neck. The point passed clean through his tender throat. The cup dropped from his hand as he was hit and he lurched over to one side. His life-blood gushed from his nostrils in a turbid jet. His foot lashed out and kicked the table from him; his food was scattered on the ground, and bread and meat lay there in the dirt.
When the Suitors saw the man collapse, there was uproar in the hall. They sprang from their chairs and rushed in confusion about the room, searching the solid walls on every side. But not a shield or sturdy spear was there to lay hands on. They rounded in fury on Odysseus: ‘Stranger, men make a dangerous target; you have played your last match. Now you shall surely die. You have killed the greatest nobleman in Ithaca: for that the vultures shall eat you.’
Each of them laboured under the delusion that he had killed the man by accident. It had not dawned upon the fools that the fate of all of them was sealed.
The master-strategist Odysseus gave them a black look. ‘You dogs!’ he cried. ‘You never thought to see me back from Troy. So you fleeced my household; you raped my maids; you courted my wife behind my back though I was alive – with no more fear of the gods in heaven than of the human vengeance that might come. One and all, your fate is sealed.’
Fear drained the colour from their cheeks and each man cast round to find some sanctuary from sudden death.