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THE SACRIFICE OF ALCESTIS
NCE upon a time when Pelias, the crafty king, ruled in
Iolchos by the sea, his nephew Jason came and tried to
win back from him the land that was his by right. But
Pelias put him off with cunning words, and sent him
forth to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece,
thinking that so he need never look upon his face
again. Jason, therefore, who was brave and stout of
heart, and feared not man nor beast, sent a
proclamation through the land, bidding all who loved
adventure to join him in the good ship Argo, and
sail with him for the Golden Fleece. From the length
and breadth of Hellas the heroes and sons of the
Immortals flocked. Among them came Admetus of
Pheræ, in the first bloom of his manhood; and
sailing with the Argonauts, he braved all the terrors
of that fearful voyage, and sat at his oar like a man
in the midst of deadly peril.
After many a long day the remnant of the heroes who had
sailed away from Iolchos returned with the
 Golden Fleece; and standing before proud Pelias, they
laid it at his feet. In the great hall of the palace he
received them sitting on his throne: on his right hand
sat Philomache his wife, and all about him stood his
daughters, Peisidice and Asteropæa,
Hippoth, and Evadne, and Alcestis—maidens
whose beauty would gladden any father's heart. But
fairest of the fair, as the moon among stars, was
Alestis. When Admetus looked upon her face, his heart
was filled with love for her, and he swore a great oath
that he would live and die unwed, or else have Alcestis
When Pelias had welcomed back the Argonauts, he bid
the henchmen spread the tables in the hall, and soon
the king with his son Acastus and all the menfolk were
seated with the heroes round the well-filled board.
Against a pillar leant a minstrel, who sang of great
deeds and heroes, and how the good ship Argo had
braved the terrors of the seas; while the daughters of
Pelias bore round the sweet dark wine in flagons, and
filled up the golden goblets. To Alcestis it fell to
fill up the cup of Admetus, and as he held it out
towards her their eyes met, and she blushed beneath his
gaze, and tried to hide her confusion in the folds of
her veil. She was vexed with herself for the blush and
vexed with him for having called it forth. Yet withal
her heart beat fast, and the beating of it was not
altogether born of wrath; for Admetus was a proper man
in the prime of life, who had sailed the high seas and
seen danger face to face, and a brave man's admiration
is ever dear to a woman's heart. So it came to pass
that when Admetus drew from his breast a lock of the
Golden Fleece, which Jason had given him for a
 memorial, and held it forth to her, she refused it not,
but took it and hid it in the folds of her gown, and
when Admetus was gone away she would draw it forth and
sigh as she looked at it.
When Admetus saw that she did not altogether disdain
him, he was glad at heart, and plucked up all his
courage, and went and stood before the king her father,
and boldly asked her hand in marriage. As he spoke the
king's brow darkened, for he loved not Jason nor any of
his crew. He had sent them forth, as he thought, to
their death, and now they were come home to wrest the
kingdom from him and give it to the lawful heir. So he
cast about in his mind for some excuse; for Admetus was
nobly born, and heir to a great kingdom, and he could
not say him nay without good reason. In his trouble he
bethought him of an ancient oracle which a soothsayer
had spoken when Alcestis lay a babe upon her mother's
breast. Till now he had put aside all thought of it,
and had looked upon the seer as a mad prophet whose
words were of no account. But now that they would serve
him in his need, he pretended that he had always laid
them up in his heart, and intended to abide by them.
"Young man," he said, "they who would woo my child
Alcestis must woo and win her as the gods have ordered.
When she lay in her mother's arms, there came a prophet
and stood over her and spake, saying, 'Child of evil
fortune! whosoever thou weddest, woe to thy wedded
life, sobeit thy lord come not to bear thee away in a
chariot drawn by a lion and a boar.' Thus spake the
prophet of the gods, and his words shall surely come to
pass. Think not, then, that I will give my daughter up
 to misery, or that thou hast but to look on her beauty
and long for her, to have her for thine own. Nay;
hence, away, and bethink thee how thou canst so beguile
a lion's heart that he shall walk tamely in the yoke
beside his lawful prey. Then, and then only, when thou
comest driving this strange pair shalt thou have
Alcestis for thy wife."
Admetus was sad at heart when he heard the king's
words, and he set out sorrowfully home for the halls of
Pheres, his father; for he thought that this thing was
beyond the power of mortal man to do, and that all his
life long he must live in loneliness of soul, without
Alcestis to wife.
When they heard of their son's return, Pheres and
Periclymene, his wife, came forth to greet him, and
fell upon his neck and embraced him with tears of joy.
A great feast was prepared, and the altars of the gods
sent up to heaven the savoury smoke of sacrifice, and
all the people rejoiced together at the return of the
hero their land had sent forth.
After all the feasting and merrymaking was ended,
Pheres drew his son aside to his chamber and said,
"My son, whilst thou hast been away in strange lands
the hand of Time hath dealt heavily with me. My knees
are weak beneath me, my hair is white with age, and all
my strength is gone. Year by year it groweth harder for
me to ride forth among my people, and the folk on the
far boundary know my face no more, and I cannot say
whether all is well with them. Time is it for me to
give my crown and sceptre to a younger man, and thou
hast shown thyself worthy to rule. Take now the
 kingdom from my hand, that thy mother and I may pass
our last years in peace together. A mighty kingdom have
I builded up for thee, and worthy of mighty kings. See
to it, then, that thou take to wife some princess of a
royal house and rear up a son to rule the land when
thou art dead."
And Admetus answered,
"The kingdom will I take from thee right gladly, my
father, and rule it well and wisely so long as the gods
give me strength. But as to taking a wife in my halls,
that I can never do."
Then he told him of his love for Alcestis, and how he
could never hope to win her. But his father laughed and
shook his head.
" 'Tis the way of hot-headed youth to think that in all
the wide world one woman alone hath a fair face and
bright eyes. Time and the beauty of another woman shall
heal thy malady, never fear."
"Time and another woman may drive me to my death," he
answered hotly," but never will I wed with any maid
save Alcestis alone, whom I love.
And he strode in anger from the room. But Pheres
laughed the louder.
"Verily, young blood is the same the whole world
through," said he.
So Admetus became King of Pheræ and ruled in his
father's stead; and from the shores of the sea below
Pelion to the land of the Molossians, the mountain-folk
of the Far West, his name was held in honour among his
people; for the land had peace in his day, and the
valleys stood thick with corn, and by the fair-flowing
 Boebe the shepherd played his pipes, and his flocks
wandered browsing about the green meadows. No stranger
was ever turned away from the palace doors, but,
however poor and ragged he might be, he was welcomed
right gladly, and feasted in the halls and sped upon
his way with kindly words. So it came to pass that
through the length and breadth of Hellas, when men
spoke of good cheer and hospitality, they always raised
the cup in honour of Admetus, the kindliest of hosts to
rich and poor alike.
day as Admetus sat at meat in the great hall with his
parents and all the household, a thing befell which
changed the course of his whole life. Inside the fire
burnt brightly on the hearth, and the torches on the
walls sent a cheerful gleam through the shadowy
vastness. But outside the wind howled about the corners
of the palace like Furies in their wrath, and anon it
sunk down to a sob and a wail, while the lashing of the
rain against the walls was as the whip of a furious
driver urging on his steeds. And lo! from out the
darkness of the storm there came a man, who stood in
the doorway of the great hall and looked round about
upon the company. Many a long mile must he have come
that day in the teeth of the gale, for from head to
foot he was splashed with mud, and the water ran from
his ragged cloak in streamlets, making a pool upon the
floor. In his hand he carried a staff; from a strap
about his body hung a strange instrument such as no man
in the hall had ever seen before; and he held his head
up proudly and looked fearlessly about him,
 so that for all his sorry raiment he seemed no common
beggar, but a young king in all his pride. A hush fell
upon the people as they gazed, for his eyes shone
strangely bright, and in the darkness of the shadowy
doorway his stature seemed greater than that of mortal
man. When he had looked his fill and saw where Admetus
sat, he strode across the hall with great swinging
strides, and came and stood before him. As he walked
the people looked silently after him, for a great ship
running before the wind was not more fair than he.
"O king," he said, and his voice rang clear and mellow
through the hall, "a suppliant I stand before thee, and
my hand is red with blood. Say, wilt thou receive me in
thy halls, or wilt thou turn me forth into the storm
And Admetus marvelled at his words.
"Who art thou, stanger, to make this bold request? When
a man's hand is stained with blood, 'tis to the altars
of the gods that he should fly for cleansing, and not
bring pollution to the palaces of kings."
"My name is behoveth thee not to know now, nor the deed
I have done. Let it suffice thee when I say that not
yet have the altars of that god been built who hath the
power to cleanse me from blood-guiltiness. Nay, myself
I must work out mine own cleansing, and for the waxing
and the waning of twelve moons it is decreed that I
must serve a mortal man. Wilt thou take me for thine
herdsman—yea or nay?"
At this Admetus marvelled the more, and looked hard in
the face of the stanger, but his eyes fell beneath the
other's fearless gaze as those of a dog beneath his
 and he answered him never a word, for he felt that the
thought of his heart lay writ beneath that piercing
look as clear as writing on a tablet. So he signed to
his attendants, and they led the stranger forth and
bathed him in warm water, and anointing him, clad him
in fresh sweet linen and a tunic of silk. When all was
accomplished, they led him back to the hall; and if the
people had marvelled before at his beauty, their wonder
was increased twofold as they gazed at him now.
When he had taken his fill of meat and wine, the
stranger turned to Admetus and said,
"My noble host, fain would I, in some poor measure,
requite thee and thy household for kindness to a
wanderer and a suppliant. I have some small skill in
song, and have fashioned me an instrument whereon I
play sweet harmonies, that frame the melody of my song
like the golden setting of a gem. Have I thy leave to
sing before thee in thy halls?"
As Admetus bowed his head the stranger loosed the
curious instrument from his girdle. The body of it was
the hollow shell of a tortoise, in the rim of which two
twisted horns were cunningly fitted, joined together
towards the top by a silver band. The space between the
band and the furthermost edge of the shell was spanned
by seven strings of gold. Lovingly he drew his fingers
across the strings, and the chords rang soft and true
through the silence of the hall, as he played a prelude
to his song, and anon raised his voice and sang. He
sang a strange, sweet song, such as no man there had
ever heard, and yet in the depths of his soul each one
of them felt that he had known it before he was born.
For the song that the
 stranger sang was the song that the stars first sang
together when the universe was born, and light sprang
forth from the darkness. The melody they made that day
vibrates for ever till the end of time. Musicians and
artists and poets, and those whom the gods love, hear
it and sing it, each in his separate way, for those who
have forgotten the sound of it. Deep in the heart of
every man it lies voiceless, till once at least in his
lifetime the hand of the divine musician sets the
chords vibrating, and opens the ears of the soul to
hear the heavenly harmonics. Such was the song that the
stranger sang, and the people sat breathless beneath
his spell, and gazing deep into the red-hot heart of
the fire, saw strange dreams and visions. The very dogs
awoke from their sleep, and crept closer to the music,
and with their heads between their paws, gazed with
unblinking eyes at the singer; and a magic thrill ran
round the circle of them that listened, both man and
beast, and welded and fused their souls in one, so that
they felt that the life in them all was the same. When
the song was ended, silence fell upon all
things—even the storm outside had ceased to rage;
and Time stood still as each man sat motionless in his
seat, with heart too full for speech. But at length the
spell was broken, and with a sigh and a whisper, they
glided away to their rest, till Admetus and the
stranger were left face to face before the hearth.
"O divine musician," said Admetus, "I know not who thou
art. This only do I know, that I could worship thee for
the godlike beauty of thy song, and follow thee and see
thee all my days."
"Nay, O king; 'tis destined that I must serve thee, and
 be thy servant for a year. To-morrow I will lay aside
this silken doublet, and put on the dress that suits my
station, and go forth with the other shepherds of thy
"O stranger, this thing can never be! Who am I that
thou shouldst be my servant?"
"Thou art the man who turneth not the stranger from thy
doors, though his hands, like mine, be red with blood.
As for me, I must work out my cleansing, as I told
thee. For blood-guiltiness is mine, though I have not
sinned in the shedding thereof. But even Zeus himself,
thou knowest, hath not reached wisdom and might, save
by sore struggle against powers less wise than he.
Happy am I if by the service of an upright man I may be
From that day forth the stranger became a herdsman in
the halls of Admetus, and in no wise would he be
treated differently from the other servants. Clad in
the coarse, rough homespun of a shepherd, he would go
forth at early dawn with the flocks, and at eventide
return and sit among his fellows at the lower table.
The hearts of all the household were warmed towards
him, and it seemed that in his presence no evil thing
could live; for if ever a quarrel or strife of tongues
arose, a look from the stranger would take all the
spirit from the combatants, and the matter fell dead
between them like a ball at the feet of listless
players—nay, it seemed that he could read the
very thoughts of their inmost hearts, and all malice
and unkindness withered away in the sunshine of his
presence, like sprigs that have no root. Strange tales
were told of how he shepherded his flocks, for the
 who went forth with him at dawn would lie at his feet
in some shady grove whilst the flocks browsed close at
hand; and he would take his lyre and sing to them of
all things in heaven and earth, and at the sound of his
voice the hearts of all living things were moved. From
the rocky heights of Othrys the lion came down and
fawned at his feet with bloodless fangs, and the
spotted lynxes gambolled with the flocks. The shy fawns
forgot their fears and left the shelter of the tall
pine-woods, and danced about his lyre with fairy feet;
for the magic of his singing made the whole world kin,
and the bow and the arrow were laid aside in those
days, and no watchman stood upon the heights to guard
the herds from beasts of prey. But the flocks increased
and multiplied, and the earth brought forth rich
harvests of corn and fruit, and all the land had peace.
So Admetus loved and honoured his strange herdsman
above all his fellows, and took counsel with him, and
followed his advice in all things.
in Iolchos by the sea the old king Pelias had died. His
son Acastus succeeded to his throne, and, as the custom
was, held great games in honour of his father. Far and
wide through Hellas he sent the news, and bade all men
of might come and take part in the contests of running
and wrestling and hurling the quoit. To the victors in
each trial he offered to give one of his sisters in
marriage, but for Alcestis he made the contest doubly
hard, for she was the fairest and noblest of the
daughters of Pelias, and he knew that the suitors would
 flock without number for her hand if the task that was
set them was not well-nigh impossible. So he ordained
that he who would win her must prove himself the
mightiest of all men in the field that day, and that,
moreover, he must come to bear away his bride in a
chariot drawn by a lion and a boar; for so the king,
her father, had ordered in obedience to the words of
When Admetus heard the news, the fire of his love for
Alcestis burst forth into flame, and he felt that he
could conquer the whole world to win her. When he went
to rest that night he could dream of nought but her,
and of how all men would marvel when they saw him come
to bear her away in a chariot drawn by a lion and a
boar. How he was to train this stranger yoke-pair he
knew not, but he felt that Alcestis was not one whom
the gods had fated to live unwedded all her days. From
the length and breadth of Hellas men would flock to woo
her, and surely from all the host one would be found to
do this deed, and why should he not be that one? So he
argued, and dreamed sweet dreams of love and happiness.
But,—whether it be that sweet dreams take the
heart from a man, because in sleep they put within his
grasp visions which, on waking, he finds to be but
shadows of a shade, and he longs to clasp them once
again without the labour and toil which alone on earth
can bring man happiness,—certain it is that when
he awoke Admetus felt that the task was hopeless, and
that all his efforts would be vain. His heart was in a
tumult; his longing for Alcestis was as strong as ever,
but the confidence of winning her was gone. He went
out into the woodland and threw
 himself on the grass beside the stream and gazed
moodily into the dark depths of a pool. Its silent
stillness so maddened him that he cast a pebble into
the midst, and watched it as it slowly sank, feeling
that it was an image of his own life. An hour or more
he sat there idly playing with the pebbles and the
water, heavy at heart, and a prey to morbid fancies. At
length he was roused from his dreaming by the sound of
music far away. Slowly it drew nearer, and from the
shadow of the trees came the strange herdsman playing
on his lyre, followed by his flocks and the wild
creatures of the forest. Without a word he came and sat
beside Admetus at the water's edge, and the animals lay
grouped around. Then he changed the key of his song
from a merry dance-tune to a solemn lay, and the burden
of his song was love—how love, if it were but
strong and pure, could conquer the whole world and
accomplish deeds undreamt of. As Admetus listened, the
tumult of his heart was stilled, and once again the
flower of hope sprang up in his breast—not the
phantom flower that springs from idle dreams, but the
bright living flower whose roots are firmly planted in
the will to do and dare all things to win the promised
FROM THE SHADOW OF THE TREES CAME THE STRANGE HERDSMAN PLAYING ON HIS LYRE.
When the herdsman had ended his song, he laid aside his
lyre and gazed at Admetus.
"Dost thou love this maiden with all thy heart and
soul, Admetus?" he asked.
"I would face the whole world to win her," said he.
"Wouldst thou lay down thy life for her?"
"Why ask so poor a sacrifice? My life without her would
be a thing of nought."
 Again the herdsman gazed at him, and seemed to read his
"In sooth, I verily believe that, were death now to
face thee, thou wouldst gladly die for her. Go forth,
then, and win thy bride, and I will help thee all I
can. If thou fulfil the first part of the test, I will
see to it that thou fail not in the second."
"Master," cried Admetus, "what meanest thou?"
"Go thou and enter the lists for Alcestis, and show
thyself the best man in the field that day. When they
hail thee victor, and bid thee come to fetch away thy
bride, as her father willed, answer boldy that the next
day at noon thou wilt come in a chariot drawn by a lion
and a boar to bear her away to thine own land. Then do
thou hasten alone to the wood that lies on the road to
Pheræ, five miles from Iolchos, and there, by the
temple of Hecate, wilt thou find me and the chariot
ready harnessed. Believest thou that I can do this
"O master, do I not see before me the lion lying tamely
by the sheep and the wolf by the side of the lamb? How
can I doubt thy power?"
"So be it, then. One word of counsel would I give thee:
in the day of thy triumph forget not the gods."
"From my youth upwards have I honoured the gods, O
stranger. How, then, in the day of my triumph, should I
"May they deliever thee in the hour of thy wealth,
Admetus, and save thee from blindness and hardness of
heart! Above all, when thou art coming home with thy
bride, beware lest in thy haste thou pass by the altar
of Hecate without the tribute of a prayer. Mighty is
 the goddess, and in her hands are life and death. The
sun with his glad warm rays shines down upon the bosom
of the earth, and draws forth the young corn from her
breast, and with loving hand he paints the purple bloom
of the grape. But when summer skies are cloudless, and
the breath of the breeze smites hot upon the land, men
pray for rain and the cooling veil of mists to hide the
parched and thristy fields from the cruel shafts of his
rays. Even so is the might of Hecate; in one hand she
hath a blessing, in the other a curse. She may stand
beside thy wife in the hour of her need, and bring thy
children with joy into the world (for the life of
all young things she loveth); or if she be
slighted, she can blast the parent-stock ere it hath
time to bear fruit, and cut off the fair promise of the
"Surely, I will not forget her," said Admetus.
"An hour before noon, then, on the day after the
contest of the suitors, I will await thee in the wood.
May the gods speed thee in thy trial!"
the day before the games were to be held Alcestis went
on to the roof of the palace, and looked down upon the
great courtyard below. All was bustle and confusion.
The bronze gates stood wide upon their hinges, and a
stream of people passed to and fro. The chariots of the
suitors thundered across the pavement. Through the
colonnades re-echoed the clattering of horses' hoofs
and the clanging of harness chains, and from his post
at the gateway the warder shouted his orders to
 the pages and attendants. Far out across the country
Alcestis gazed and traced the white roadway where it
wound over the bosom of the plain. He for whom she was
looking had not entered the courtyard, and she strained
her eyes to see whether, among all the folk who were
wending their way towards the city, she could find him.
But the palace stood high upon the hill, with the
houses of the town nestling below, and the folk upon
the road were like flies, so small and black they
seemed upon the dusty highway. Many a long hour she
watched upon the roof, and still he came not. At
length the sun went down behind the mountains in a
glory of crimson and gold, and the purple hills cast
their shadow across the silent plain. Then Alcestis
laid her head upon her arm, and great tears stole
through her fingers, and fell upon the cold stone
"Ah me, the gods are cruel!" she sobbed. "They have
planted the seed of love within my heart, and now they
would have me tear it out. Hard is a woman's lot. In
bitterness of soul she sits within, whilst out in the
great world men fight for her beauty, as though she
were some painted image or lifeless weight of gold. On
the slipping of a foot or the cast of a die her fate
may rest for weal or woe, and the happiness of her life
hang upon the issue of a moment."
Then she felt in her bosom for the lock of the Golden
Fleece which Admetus had given her, and drew it forth
and kissed it.
"Alas, he has forgotten me! He is a great king now, and
thinks no more of the maiden in whose eyes he looked
when he first came back from his voyage."
 Sadly she put the lock back in her bosom, and turned
and went down the turret-stair. It was close upon the
hour when all the suitors were to be feasted in the
great hall, and with her sisters she was to sing the
pæan song at the pouring of the third libation.
Full often had she sung it in her father's halls; for
only unwedded maidens, pure and innocent of soul, might
sing it, and ask for blessings on their home and
kindred, and return thanks to great Zeus, the saviour,
for the gladness of a well-filled board and the happy
faces of friends and kinsfolk round the hearth. Her
heart was heavy within her when she thought that now
for the last time this task would be hers, and that
only one more sun would set before she would be far
away in a strange land, the wife of a man whose very
name she knew not yet. Her one hope lay in the words of
the prophet and the will of her father, that she should
wed that man only who could come to bear her away in a
chariot drawn by a lion and a boar; and from the depths
of her soul she prayed that all might find the task
"Better to die a maiden," she thought, "than to be the
prize of a man I do not love."
As she reached the bottom of the stair she heard her
"Alcestis, Alcestis, where art thou? The feast is
well-nigh finished, and all men wait for us to sing the
pæan song. Tarry no longer, but hasten and come."
"I come, I come," she answered. "Yet the song of joy
upon my lips will echo like a dirge through the
chambers of my soul."
And the sisters marvelled at her, and shook their
 "She hath always wayward fancies," they whispered, "and
is different from other folk."
Their hearts were a-flutter with hope and joy, for on
the morrow they would each one be wedded to a brave
man, and go to a strange new land, and be queens in
their own palaces. So they took no heed of her words,
but tripped along the galleries with joyful feet, and
took their places in the crowded hall. After them came
Alcestis. Slowly, and with sad, unseeing eyes, she took
her seat beside them.
Meanwhile Admetus had tarried alone outside the city
walls. He had sent his servants before him with his
chariot and his gear to secure a stabling for his
horses and a sleeping-place for himself in the crowded
alcoves of the king's palace. But his soul longed for
peace and quiet, and he felt he could not face the
was needful. Time enough if he slipped into the great
hall when the company was gathering for the feast. Only
then might he hope to see Alcestis. So he turned aside
into the quiet fields and wandered by the winding
stream. Behind him the dust rose in white clouds from
the high-road as the chariots of the suitors thundered
up towards the palace, and Admetus knew that many a
brave and mighty hero would stand against him on the
morrow. Yet hope burned high in his heart, and he felt
that his love for Alcestis was a power which his rivals
lacked—a power which would nerve his arm and give
him the strength of ten. The desire of his heart went
up the the throne of Zeus like the breath of a good
man's prayer; and Zeus heard the cry of his soul, and
into his veins he poured of that fire which runs in the
veins of the
Im-  mortals. On earth men know not what to call it, and they name it
with many names—inspiration, genius, and the
spirit of prophecy, or, when it works too far beyond
their understanding, they call it madness.
As the sun was sinking low in the sky, Admetus turned
up the steep roadway to the palace. In the courtyard
he found his servants, and they brought him water to
wash with, and a change of raiment, and clothed him as
befitted one who had come to woo a fair princess. As
the shades of evening fell he entered the great hall,
and mingled with the company, and when the tables were
spread, he took his seat among the rest. But when his
neighbour spoke to him, he would answer at random, and
ever his eye wandered restlessly up and down the hall
to find Alcestis. Now the feast drew to its close, and
yet no womenfolk appeared. At last one of the
serving-men drew aside the great curtain that hung
across the doorway, and as the daughters of Pelias
entered Admetus felt his heart leap in his bosom, and
he leant eagerly across the table. The moments that
passed before Alcetis came seemed eternity, and when at
length she entered, her eyes were cast upon the floor,
and she saw him not. But when she had taken her seat,
the silent voice of his soul sped across the great
hall, and found an echo in her heart, and she raised
her eyes and looked at him, and for one moment they two
were alone in that crowded place.
And now the wine was mixed, and each man held out his
cup for the pouring of the third libation. Then
Alcestis rose from her seat, and her sisters played a
prelude on their pipes. When the prelude was ended she
raised her voice and sang.
 "O all-bestowing Zeus, Father Almighty, for the mercies
thou hast showered upon us, for the evil thou hast
warded off, lo, with thankful hearts we make libation
of the sweet dark wine! O friend of the stranger, who
searchest out the secrets of men's hearts, midst the
whirlwind rush of the chariots and the dust of the
wrestling-ring, stand thou beside the brave man and the
true! Make firm his axle-pin, and the earth beneath
him sure, and chain blind Fortune's hands. So shall
the prize fall to the most valiant. To those whose
lives must be moulded by another's will, grant thou
patience and an understanding soul, O Lord, and may the
desire of their heart be according to thy will. O
father of gods and men, cloud-enthroned, who ridest on
the wings of the whirlwind, joy and sorrow by thee are
blended into one harmonious whole. By the sunshine of
thy mercy, by the scorching fire of thy wrath, open
thou the blinded eyes of men to see the glory of thy
works. All hail to thee, saviour and king most high!"
As she sang the people marveled, for her voice was as
the voice of some priestess of the gods filled with the
breath of heaven.
When the feast was ended, the pages took down the
torches from the walls, and led forth the guests to the
shadowy alcoves where each man's couch was laid, and
there was silence in the halls. On noiseless wings
Sleep glided through the palace, and stood by each
man's side. With gentle hands she soothed his weary
limbs, and put fresh courage in his heart for the
contest of the morrow. But when she came to Alcestis
she found her gazing out upon the starlit sky.
 "My daughter," she said, "come to my arms and lay thy
head upon my breast, and I will ease the trouble of
"Ah, sweet Sleep, not to-night," Alcestis answered,
"for with Zeus a mortal's fervent prayer availeth much.
I cannot stand beside Admetus in the lists, but at
least he shall not fail for want of a true heart's
So Sleep passed her by, and till the bright-haired dawn
shone out in the east Alcestis sat by the open window.
When it was light she went to rouse her sisters, for
early in the morning they were to lead the procession
of the maidens to the temples of the gods and lay
wreaths and garlands before the shrines, while the
men-folk gathered in the plain to watch the contest of
Now once more there was bustle and confusion in the
city, and the streets were thronged with eager folk
hurrying to the lists. Ever and anon there was a
shout, and the crowd parted this way and that, like the
earth before a ploughshare, as a chariot thundered over
the stones bearing some proud suitor to the games.
Last of all, when everything was ready, came the king,
Acastus, and took his seat beneath a canopy, and the
people rose as one man, and greeted him with cheers.
Then came a herald, and blew a call upon his trumpet,
and one by one the suitors marched up and stood before
the king, and with a loud voice the herald proclaimed
each man's name and station and the contest he would
enter for that day. Truly it was a goodly sight to see
them marching past, strong men all, in the prime of
life. B road were their shoulders, and their limbs
were straight and brown, and
 the rhythm of their marching was like the swell of the
sea. Never since the day when all the heroes gathered
at the call of Jason for the search of the Golden
Fleece had there been such a goodly concourse of men in
fair lolchos. From all the wide plain of Thessaly they
flocked, from hill-girt Attica and the Spartan
lowlands, from Argolis and the green valleys of
Arcadia, and from the isles of the sea.
All the day long the people sat and watched the games,
and ever and anon a shout went up to heaven when a
strong man overthrew his adversary, or one swift of
foot passed the others in the last lap of the race.
There was hurling of quoits, and leaping and wrestling,
and beneath the feet of the boxers the earth was
trampled hard. Far away across the plain the chariots
flew, and the people shaded their eyes with their
hands, and strained to see which was foremost. But the
dust rose in clouds about the horses' breasts, so that
till they were close at hand no man could say who was
At last the great day drew to a close, and once more
the herald stood before the king and blew a call upon
his trumpet. Each in turn the victorious suitors came
forward, and when the herald had proclaimed his name
and the contest he had won, the king placed a crown of
leaves upon his head, and told him which of the
daughters of Pelias was to be his bride. Brave men
were they all, and bravely had they fought that day,
but mightiest among the mighty had been Admetus of
Pheraeæ. Last of all the victors, the herald
called his name, and he came and stood before the
throne; and the king placed the crown of leaves upon
his head and said,
 "In token that thou hast proved thyself the mightiest
in the field, I place this garland on thine head,
Admetus. Verily, the gods have stood upon thy side and
filled thee with the fire of heaven, so that the
strength of thine adversary was turned to weakness
before thy might. May they grant thee, in like way, to
fulfil the last part of the task; for, of a truth, it
would grieve me to see one so mighty depart without a
Then Admetus answered boldly,
"But one more sun shall set, O king, before Alcestis
shall be my bride. To-morrow at noon will I come to
bear her away in a chariot drawn by a lion and a boar."
And those who heard him marveled at his confidence.
THE next day towards noon the king came forth and sat upon
a throne in the portico before the palace, and all the
nobles and suitors stood round about and waited to see
if Admetus would fulfil his word. As the sun stood
high in the heavens there fell upon his ears a sound
like the moaning of the sea far away when a storm is at
hand. Louder and louder it grew, drawing nearer every
moment, till at length, like the break of a mighty
wave, a host of cheering citizens surged through the
great bronze gates. Into the wide courtyard they
poured, and then stood back upon either side, and, up
in the alley in the midst, drove Admetus in a chariot
drawn by a lion and a boar. Straight across the court
he came, and, like well-trained steeds, the beasts
looked neither to right nor left, nor heeded the cheers
of the people. With a jingling
 of bells and the rattle of harness-chains, they trotted
between the ranks, and came and stood before the king.
"I have kept my word, O king, and have come to bear
away my bride, as the prophet of the gods ordained."
Then the king rose up and greeted Admetus.
"Right glad am I to see thee, Admetus," he cried, "and
right glad that my sister shall be thy bride. May the
gods bless thy wedded life, even as they have blessed
thy suit this day!"
Thereupon the pages threw open the palace doors, and a
chorus of maidens came forth playing upon pipes, and
singing a marriage hymn. Last of all came Alcestis,
clad in the saffron robes of a bride, and to Admetus
she seemed like the sun heralded by the stars of dawn.
Gently he took her hand and raised her into the car,
and the people piled rich tapestries and vessels of
gold and silver beside them for gifts of marriage.
With a shouting and waving of hands the chariot passed
once more across the court and down through the echoing
streets, till at length they two were alone upon the
white highway. The joy that was born of their hearts
threw a magic light on all the land. The green grass
waved in the meadows, the leaves danced gaily on the
trees, and from the thickets and bushes the birds sang
songs of gladness. On and on they drove, as in a
dream, heeding neither time nor distance. The glare of
the dusty highway changed to the shade of the woodland
path, with green arches overhead, and a murmur of
dancing streams. Before the shrine of Hecate a
shepherd had placed his offering, and was standing with
his hands held high in prayer. But Admetus heeded
neither shepherd nor shrine, nor remembered when last
 he had stood there and taken his strange team from his
herdsman. Without a thought he passed the altar by.
As the gleaming chariot grew dim in the distance, the
shepherd turned and watched it, till the curve of the
road hid it from sight. Even then he stood and
listened to the jingling of the bells, as though he
thought that still it might turn back. But the bells
grew fainter and fainter, till he heard but a tinkle
now and again borne back on the wings of the wind, and
at last he could hear that no more. Sadly he turned
back, and stood again before the shrine with
outstretched hands, then silently disappeared into the
depths of the wood.
ADMETUS HEEDED NEITHER SHEPHERD NOR SHRINE....WITHOUT A THOUGHT HE PASSED THE ALTAR BY.
On went the two till the shades of night began to fall,
and one by one the stars came out in the sky. Now they
drew near to Pheraeæ. High up upon the hill the
palace gleamed bright with many a torch, for messengers
had gone before to say that Admetus was coming with his
bride, and all the folk had gathered together to greet
him on his return. As they entered the city gates
choruses of men and maidens came forth to meet them,
and up the steep hill the glad procession wound, with
the singing of hymns and playing of pipes. When they
reached the palace gates the maidens raised Alcestis in
their arms, and bore her over the brazen threshold,
that no evil omen might befall her as she entered her
new home. Long and merry was the marriage-feast, and
ere it was over the night was far spent. But at length
the last libation had been poured, the last cup had
passed round the board, and the maidens stood waiting
to take Alcestis to the marriage chamber. So she rose
and went with them, and they decked her in the robes in
which for the
 first time a young bride greets her lord. When all was
ready, they took down the torches from the walls, and
left her. Outside the door they formed in chorus to
sing the love song till Admetus should come to his
Not long did they wait. With eager steps he came and
drew aside the curtain from the doorway. In the middle
of the chamber stood Alcestis, and never had she looked
more fair. As the sweet notes of the love-song stole
softly through the door, she held out her arms to
Admetus. Her hair fell in a cloud about her shoulders,
and her white robe touched the floor. From the
casement the pale moonbeams fell slanting down, and
cast about her a halo of light. With the silver
shimmer of her hair and the gleam of her outstretched
arms, she seemed to Admetus a messenger of the gods
come down by the ladder of light. With a cry of joy he
stepped towards her. As he did so a terrible thing
befell. Between him and his bride there rose up two
huge serpents, and as he rushed towards them they
circled Alcetis about in their gleaming coils. The
nearer he drew the more closely did they clasp her, and
their forked tongues flashed like lightning about her
"Back, back!" she gasped, "or they will strangle me."
Unconsciously he fell back. As he did so the great
beasts relaxed their grip, and fell down in shining
coils upon the floor; but their heads waved to and fro
above the ground, and when once more he took a step
forward, they rose up again about her with an angry
"Oh, leave me, leave me!" cried Alcestis. "The gods
are angry, and will not let thee touch me. Fight not
against their will, or the serpents will slay me."
 "Nay, with these hands will I strangle them," cried
Again he rushed forward, and again, before he could
cross the room, the monsters had wound themselves about
Alcestis with a clasp of iron, so that she could
scarcely breathe. Just in time Admetus drew back, or
they would have squeezed the life from her. With a
groan he turned and fled from the room, and the
love-song changed to a shriek of terror as the maidens
scattered this way and that before him. With head
bowed down and wide eyes full of horror, he staggered
on like a drunken man, and disappeared into the
darkness of the silent hall. In terror the maidens
clung together, with whisperings like the twitter of
frightened birds. At length one more bold than her
companions drew aside the curtain from the door and
looked into the chamber. Full in the path of the
moonbeams Alcestis lay stretched upon the floor. Her
eyes were closed, and her face was pale as with the
paleness of death. Yet there seemed nothing in the
room that should have cause dher to swoon away. The
maiden called to her companions, and together they
lifted Alcestis upon the couch, and ministered to her,
till at length she opened her eyes.
Admetus meanwhile had rushed through the deserted hall
and out into the moonlit court. All was quiet, save
for one solitary figure, who walked up and down in the
shadow of the colonnade. As Admetus staggered across
the court, the man came out and stood across his path.
"Whither goest thou, O king?" he asked.
Raising his eyes, Admetus found himself face to face
with his strange herdsman.
 "My head burns from feasting in the crowded hall," he
said, "and I am come out to get the cool night air."
His herdsman answered him never a word, but gazed at
him with his strange piercing eyes. And Admetus
glanced this way and that, but could not meet that
"Why do the gods torment me?" he cried hotly. "What
have I done that I should be tortured on my bridal
"Nay, think rather what thou hast left undone."
"Left undone?" cried Admetus, and pointed to the altar
in the centre of the court. "Seest thou not the fire
still red from the burning of the sacrifice? Not here
only, but throughout the whole city, do they steam with
the savoury smoke."
"Altars may steam while hearts are cold, Admetus. One
fervent prayer before the solitary shrine availeth more
than hecatombs of oxen slain without a thought. Did I
not stand before thee in the path this day and lift my
hands in prayer to Hecate? But with unseeing eyes
didst thou pass me by, and the goddess is wroth at they
neglect, and her anger standeth between thee and thy
And Admetus stood with eyes downcast before him, and
had never a word to say.
"Yet because I love thee I will help thee once again,"
the herdsman said. "Go back upon thy road and offer
now thy prayers. I too will intercede for thee, and
methinks that the voice of my pleadings she will not
Slowly and sorrowfully did Admetus return along the
 road he had traveled with so light a heart before. For
three days and three nights he was not seen within the
palace, and for three days and three nights Alcestis
lay tossing to and fro upon her bed, with wild words
upon her lips, and before her eyes fearful shapes that
she alone could see. On the fourth day Ademtus came
slowly up the hill. The dust of the highway clung
white about his clothes, and the sweat of weariness
stood out upon his brow. Yet straightway he came and
stood beside Alcestis, and took her hand in his. Then
she opened her eyes and looked at him, and for the
first time since her marriage night she looked on a
face with eyes that could see. The fearful shapes and
visions fled away, and she smiled at him with tears of
joy. Then Admetus knew that his prayers had not been
vain, and that Hecate had heard his cry, and given him
back his wife.
QUICKLY the days and nights sped by, and the palace was full of
joy and happiness. At last the season came round that
had brought the strange herdsman to Admetus the year
before. On the selfsame day of the month he came and
stood once more before him.
"Twelve moons have waxed and waned, O king," he said,
"since the day when first thou gavest me shelter in thy
halls. The time of my cleansing is accomplished, and I
am come to bid thee farewell."
"Farewell?" cried Admetus. "That is a bitter word in
mine ears. Fain would I have thee with me always. Yet
have I no heart to beg thee to remain, for thou art
 mightier than I, and even to call thee guest and friend
would sound presumptuous in mine ears. Farewell, then.
May the gods reward thee tenfold for the blessings thou
hast showered upon my house!"
"When first I stood within thy halls thou didst say to
me, 'Stranger, who art thou, and whose blood is on thy
hands?' Dost thou not ask me that question now once
more ere we part?"
"Master, I asked it then in ignorance of thee and of
thy ways. To-day it lieth with thee to tell me or not
as thou willest. If thou wouldst hide thy name from me
still, I am content."
"Nay, I will tell thee, for 'tis meet thou shouldst
know. The fame of the deed I wrought has spread far
and wide throughout the world wherever men speak with
awe the name of Delphi. Thou knowest how in the
beginning Earth held the sacred shrine, and gave forth,
from the mouth of her priestess, dark and dreadful
oracles, and Chaos and Night had their seats there, and
the wingless foul Furies, the trackers of blood. Round
about the awful spot the mountains re-echoed the voice
of lamentation and the cries of human victims led forth
in sacrifice; and lest at any time one strong of arm
and stout of heart should come to wrest away the shrine
from the powers of darkness, there lay before the gates
a guardian fierce and terrible—Python, the
sleepless dragon. In and out and round about the
portals he wound his monstrous length, and his scales
threw back the light like points of flashing steel, and
his eyes were like the red-tongued flame. No man in
those days could pass that dreadful portal, but, like a
dim, uncertain echo, the
 voice of the priestess floated down to the trembling
folk below. At last one day there came a shining one
whose sword was the sunlight, and his arrows were darts
of living fire. With the strength of his right arm he
slew the Python, and stretched out his monstrous coils
beneath the hot sun's rays, till the flesh melted and
rotted away, and only his bones lay gleaming white upon
the rocks, to show how once he had guarded the shrine
against all comers; and the victor took the shrine and
made it his own, and placed his priestess there to
utter forth true oracles to men when the divine spirit
filled her breast. The waters of the Castalian spring
he purified, so that those who came might wash away
their guilt, and stand with pure hearts before the
shrine. And over the green lawns beneath Parnassus he
led the choir of the Muses, the bright-haired sisters
of poetry, and music, and dancing. Because their feet
have touched the earth where Castalia has its fount,
men say that those who drink of those waters are filled
with their spirit, so that they words that they speak
and the songs that they sing are immortal, and will
live for ever upon the lips and in the hearts of men.
He who did this thing and turned the darkness into
light stands here before thee now."
"Apollo!" cried Admetus, "lord and master!" And he
fell upon the ground before him, and clasped him by the
knees. "Ah, forgive the blindness and presumption of
my heart!" he begged.
"Nay, there is nought to forgive. They that shed blood
must pay the price—yea, though it be the blood of
a monster rightfully poured out upon the ground. Light
was the cost of my purification, for thou art a kind
 master and an honourable man. But now my hands are
clean, I go back to my seat on fair Olympus, where high
above the clouds the deathless gods dwell evermore in
the clear, bright light of heaven. Yet do I love thee,
and will not forget thee. When the shadow of despair
falls dark across thy path, call on me, and I will help
So saying, he bent forward and took Admetus by the
hand, and raised him up. Once more that piercing
glance burned through to his very soul; then the
stranger turned and strode away across the palace
court. Like one changed to marble Admetus stood and
watched him go. Then with a start he rushed to the
gateway, and looked eagerly down the road. But though
he shaded and strained his eyes, he could see that
familiar form no more. Only far away on the dim
horizon the veil of clouds which hung about Olympus
melted away beneath the sun's bright rays, and the
snow-clad peak flashed clear and sparkling as a crystal
against the summer sky.
"Lo, even dread Olympus smiles a welcome to the god of
Light and Truth!" said Admetus.
Then with a sign he turned back into the palace.
FOR ten long years Admetus and Alcestis ruled in
Pheraeæ, and the gods gave them joy and happiness
and two children to bless their wedded love. And when
Admetus looked back to the days of the past, he was
well pleased with the story of his life. Had he not
held an oar in the good ship Argo, whose fame
had reached to the uttermost parts of the earth? By
the strength of his
 arm he had won to wife the fairest maid in Thessaly,
and brought her home behind a pair such as no man
before or since had dared to yoke together. Moreover,
through the length and breadth of Hellas his house was
famous as the home of hospitality and good cheer. Not
men alone, but great Apollo, the bright-haired god of
Light, had been his guest—nay, his very servant.
Was he not king, too, of a rich and fruitful land, in
which year by year the earth brought forth plenteous
harvests, because the greatness of his name held back
the tide of war, and peace with unfettered feet walked
joyously through field and city? When he remembered
all these things, his heart waxed big with vanity and
pride, and he began to forget the gods and to look down
upon his fellow-men, and think that he alone of all
mankind had done great deeds, and that without him the
world would be but a sorry place. This pride it was
that made him do a mean thing that marred all the glory
of his life.
One day Death came and stood beside him, and put his
seal upon his brow, and Admetus knew that he must die.
When he felt that now he stood upon the threshold of
Hades, the dim dark world of the dead, where high and
low, rich and poor, strong and weak, wander for ever as
voiceless shades through the sunless groves, where
kingship and slavery are one, his heart was turned to
water, and his spirit called aloud in his anguish,
"Apollo, O Apollo! Hear me in my sore distress, and
deliver me from death."
Far away on the sunlit peak of Olympus Apollo heard his
cry, and swift as the lightning crosses the sky he came
and stood beside him.
 "What wouldst thou with me, Admetus?" he asked "I have
come in answer to thy prayer."
Then Admetus raised his head, and pointed to his brow,
and Apollo gazed sadly at him. "I see the seal upon
thy brow, my friend—the seal that none may
"Ah, say not that, my lord! Am I not even now in the
prime of my manhood, when others look forward to many a
long year of joyous life? Why should I die before my
time? My mother and my aged father still live, and
rejoice in the sunlight, yet no kingdom standeth by the
might of their right arm. The meanest slave within my
palace is more fortunate than I. Why, out of them all,
hath Death laid his hand on me?"
"He is but the servant of the Fates, Admetus, whose
ways neither gods nor men can understand."
"The Fates? Are they lower than the beasts, then, and
will not listen to the voice of reason?"
"The voice of man's reason is to them as the baying of
jackals in the wilderness, Ademtus."
"O god of Light, is there nothing that will touch their
hearts? Canst thou by they music turn the souls of man
and beast, and soothe the fury of the whirlwind and the
crying of the rain, and yet over them alone hast thou
no power? Ah! By the love thou once didst bear me, go,
strike thy lyre before them, and sing thy song of
magic. Surely they will not withstand thee, but will
put my life into thy hands in return for the beauty of
"Because I love thee I will go, Admetus. Yet, if I go,
it is because they call me; and if I prevail, or if I
fail, it is because they have willed it long ago.
So Apollo sped away on the wings of the wind, far, far
 away beyond earth's widest bounds, beyond the region of
unmelting snow and the land of the midnight sun, beyond
the ever-rolling stream of ocean and the deserts of the
air, till he came to the unchanging land where the
three Great Sisters dwell together, without beginning
and without end. In that land there is neither north
nor south, east nor west. There is neither sun nor
moon, night nor day, time nor change. On three great
thrones of mist the mighty Sisters sit, and their forms
are neither foul nor fair. On their brows are crown of
sovereignty, and in their hands the destinies of man,
which they sit spinning, for ever spinning, into the
mighty web of Life. The first is Lachesis the Chooser.
From the tangled mass beside her she picks out threads
of varied hue and hands them to Clotho the Spinner, who
weaves them into the web upon her knees. On the other
side sits Atropos the Unswerving One. In her hands she
holds a pair of shears, and as the ends of the threads
hand loose on the wrong side of the web, she cuts them
off and casts them at her feet.
So Apollo came and stood before them with his lyre in
his hand. Softly he touched the golden strings, then
raised his voice and sang. At the sound of that magic
song Lachesis forgot to hand the threads to her sister,
the web dropped low on Clotho's knee, and the hand of
Atropos fell lifeless by her side, and till the ending
of the song Time itself stood still. While the magic
of his singing held them spellbound Apollo urged his
"Almighty Sisters, from the ends of the world have I
come, from the haunts of mortal man, to ask a boon for
one I love."
 "Say on, Apollo. Thou last turned or hearts to water
by the magic of thy song. What wilt thou?"
"In the fertile land of Pheraeæ, Admetus lies
a-dying. He is young, and the love of life runs hot
within his veins. He is a great king, too, and rules
his subjects well and wisely, and loud will be the wail
of the people if he must die before his time. If my
song has pleased you, mighty ones, O grant that he may
live to a green old age."
"All mortals would live to a green old age, Apollo, and
thou lovest many among the sons of men. There would be
no end to our bounty if for every song we must grant
thee a life. Nay, ask some other boon, for thy song
has reached our hearts!"
But Apollo turned sadly away. "There is nothing else I
would ask of you, great Sisters. For this, and for
this alone, have I come."
"On one condition only can we grant thee thy boon,
Apollo. Thou sayest that Ademtus is a great king, and
well loved by all his folk. If among them all he can
find one soul that will go to Hades in his place, we
will let him live on to a green old age. Surely we ask
not much. Some slave who loveth not his life, or some
old man whose grey hairs are a burden, will gladly die
that one so wise and great may live on for his people's
"So be it, mighty ones. Yet methinks 'tis an empty
boon thou hast given me, for men cling to life and the
sunny days on earth, and Admetus may seek far ere he
find one who will cast it aside for the darkness and
gloom of the sad underworld. And, in any case, he is
not one to live on at the price of another's life."
"We can grant no more," they said.
 So Apollo went back by the way he had gone; and he came
and stood beside Ademtus, and told him the word of the
Fates. When Admetus heard it he was glad.
"O God of Light, thou wast ever my friend, and now I
shall owe my very life to thee. How can I thank thee?"
But Apollo looked through to his inmost soul. "Dost
thou accept the condition, then?" he asked
"What else can I do, master?" he replied.
"Thou canst die."
"I know it," cried Admetus; "but why must I die before
my time? With the Argonauts I sailed the unknown seas;
in the lists I have fought and prevailed against the
flower of Hellas; and for twelve months a god deigned
to dwell beneath my palace roof. Surely my life is
worth more than most men's, and I do well to keep it
while I may."
"So be it," said Apollo, but his face was stern and
terrible, and Admetus trembled at his frown. "Go now
and find one who will die for thee." And he turned and
WHEN Admetus was left alone his heart was in a tumult. He
felt the wrath of Apollo like the lash of a whip, and
he knew that his anger was just. When he looked back
on his life, he was ashamed at the change which long
years of prosperity and peace had wrought in him; that
much manliness at least was left him. When he thought
of the great deeds he had done in his youth, and how,
when he had but sipped of its joys, he had been
 ready a hundred times to cast life lightly aside, he
felt like a thief slinking guiltily home by night,
laden with the spoils that will make himself rich and
leave his friend poor and starving. If he took
another's life as the price of his own, he felt he
would never be able again to look a man straight in the
face. And yet he could live his life but once; and
life, with prosperity and ease, sunshine and riches,
had become more dear to him than honour, more dear than
the love and esteem of his fellow-men. His very deeds
of valour had become a snare to entice him to the path
of meanness and dishonour, to make him hold another's
life as a cheap price to pay for one so great as he.
So he quenched the last spark of manliness that still
struggled for life in his heart, and sent a
proclamation through the land, bidding all those who
would die that their king might live, to come and stand
before him in the palace, that he might choose between
them; for he thought that many would be glad to die for
him. For many along day he waited, and no man came.
Then he sent forth trusty messengers to stir the
people's hearts; but they returned with words instead
"We will ride in the chase, we will sail the stormy
seas, we will fight against our country's foes, and in
all these things will we risk our lives to save the
king. But we will not leave our wives and little ones
and the pleasant life on earth, for no cause save that
another may live beyond his fated time."
Such were the words of the people.
Then Ademtus sent for all his household—the
slaves that had been born and bred within the palace.
 they said that they would toil for him all their days,
but die for him they would not; for even the life of a
slave was better than the endless years of gloom in the
kingdom of the dead.
Then the heart of Admetus grew bitter within him, and
he hated the thought of death more than ever b efore
when he found that even the meanest life was dear to
the hearts of men. In his despair he turned to his
aged parents, for he thought within himself,
"Surely one of them will be ready to die for their own
son. At best they have not many years of life, and if
I die before them they will have no son to bury them
and perform the funeral rites and prayers, as only a
son can do for his parents."
So he went to Pheres his father, and begged that he
would die in his place. But his father answered,
"Dost thou think that because thou loves the sunlight
thy father loves it not?"
"Nay, but in any case Death must lay his hand upon thee
soon, whilst I am in the prime of life."
"Because the years that are left me are few, they are
none the less sweet. Nevermore in the land of Hades
shall I warm my old bones in the sun and I look forth
upon the fruitful earth. So the years that are left
are doubly dear."
"Then, when thou comest to die, men will point the
finger of scorn at thy grave. 'Behold the coward, who,
though his hair was grey and his limbs were feeble, yet
refused to die for his own son!' Thy name will be a
byword throughout all Hellas."
"When I am dead it matters little what men shall say of
me," said Pheres.
 "May the gods forgive thee for what thou hast said!"
cried Admetus, and turned away in wrath. For it was a
dreadful thing for a Greek to say he cared not what men
would think of him when he was dead.
Then Admetus went to his mother. But she, no less than
his father, clung to life, and refused to die in his
Last of all he turned to his wife, Alcestis. From the
beginning she had been ready to die for him, for she
loved him, and placed his life above her own. But he
had said there was no need that she should die and take
away half the joy of his life, when another would do as
"It needs a great love to sacrifice life for the sake
of another," she had answered, "and there is no one in
all the world who loves thee as I do."
Now he found that her words were true, and that he must
either die himself or take her life as the price of his
own; and his self-love had the mastery, though he tried
to persuade his heart that he was living beyond his
appointed time for his country's sake and his people's
good. Yet at bottom he was not satisfied, and his
heart grew bitter against all those who had refused to
die for him, and he accused them of being the murderers
of his wife. But he knew full well that it was his own
hand that was sending her to the grave in the lower of
At last the day of doom arrived on which Alcestis was
to die. Till then she had put aside all thought of
death, and had lived her life as though no shadow hung
over her; for she thought within herself,
 "At least I will be happy my last days on earth. I
shall have long enough to mourn for my life in the
kingdom of the dead."
But now the last day had come she could put away the
thought of death no longer. Before a gleam of light
shone forth on the far horizon she was up to greet the
first rays of the sun, for she was a true daughter of
Hellas, and she loved the glad sunshine and all that
was bright and fair, while death and darkness and the
gloom of the sad underworld filled her soul with
horror. For the last time she looked upon the faint
gleam in the east and watched it spread over the sky,
and saw the red disc of the sun as he rose from the way
of the sea and made the pale dawn blush. The clouds
were tinged with glory, and the heavens were filled
with light, and the earth awoke with a smile of flowers
dancing in the glad morning breeze. Then she washed in
the fresh fountain water, put on her gayest robes, and
went and stood before the altar on the hearth, to pray
her last prayer on earth.
"O lady Goddess! I am going far away across the dark
river of Death, and for the last time do I make my
prayer to thee. Ah, when I am gone, have mercy on my
children. Hard are the ways of the world, and they are
young to be left without a mother's love. Put forth
the right hand of thy pity, lady, and bring them to a
glad old age. Let them not perish, as I must, in the
bloom of their life, but give to my son a loving wife,
and a noble husband to my daughter; and may they be
happy all their days!"
Then she went through the palace and bade farewell to
all the servants. To each one she gave her hand, even
 in the meanest slave of them all, and spoke kindly to
them. And they bathed her hand with their tears, for
they loved their mistress, and knew that when she died
they would lose a good friend. As she went the
children clung weeping about her skirts, for they, too,
knew that she must die.
Last of all she went alone to her chamber, for she
could endure no more; and she threw herself upon her
couch, and wept as though her heart would break. She
kissed the pillows and smoothed them tenderly with her
"Alas, alas! For the happy days on earth," she cried,
"and happiest of all the years that I have lived here
as the wife of Admetus! Farewell, my
cound—farewell for ever!"
She tried to rear herself away, but again and again
when she had reached the door she turned back and fell
once more weeping upon her couch. At last she felt the
weakness of death creeping over her, and she knew if
she did not leave her chamber then, she would leave it
nevermore alive. All her tears were spent, and she had
no strength left to weep any more. Outside in the
great hall Admetus sat with his head upon his hands,
weeping for his wife, and cursing the bitterness of his
fate. And she went and stood beside him.
"Take me out into the sunlight, Admetus," she said;
"the darkness within oppresses me. I can breathe more
freely in the air."
When he looked at her he was afraid, for she was as
pale as death. Gently he raised her in his arms, and
placed her on a couch in the portico before the palace.
And when she saw the blue sky and the sunshine she
 "O sun and light of day," she said, "and ye dancing
eddying clouds, farewell!"
"O ye gods, have mercy!" cried Admetus. "My dearest,
look up, and leave me not all desolate."
But with a cry of fear she started up, and pointed in
"Look, look! The boat of the dead, and the ferryman of
souls with his hand upon the pole—Charon! He
calls, 'Alcestis, why dost thou tarry? Hasten and come
with me.' "
"Ah, Fate, Fate—cruel Fate!" cried Ademtus.
"He is snatching me away—oh, save me!
—down, down to the dark halls of death. Away,
let me go! He frowns with his dark gleaming brows.
Ah, the dread journey before me!"
"Leave me not, leave me not!" cried Admetus.
"Lay me down again," said Alcestis, and her voice was
scarce more than a whisper. "The strength is gone out
of my limbs, and darkness creeps over my eyes. My
children, where are you? Come here, my little ones,
and nestle close beside me."
And the children crept silently to her.
AND THE CHILDREN CREPT SILENTLY TO HER.
Then she held out her hand to Admetus.
"My lord," she said, "farewell. Already my feet are
planted in the paths of death, and thou canst not hold
me back. I have been a loving wife to thee, Admetus;
my beauty, my youth, my joy of life—all these I
give to thee. Ah, when I am dead, forget me not, for
the children's sake, for these poor little
ones—promise me. Promise me thou wilt not wed
again, for a stepmother's heart would be hard against
my children, and
 they would suffer. Promise me that thou wilt be a
father and mother to them in one."
"I promise," said Admetus.
"Then into thy hands I give them. Poor little ones,
what will you do without me? My son, for thee thy
father will ever be s strong tower of defence, and will
bring thee up to be a true man. But for thee, little
maiden, my heart bleeds. Thou wilt have no mother to
dress thee on thy wedding-day, or to comfort thee in
thy sorrows, when there is no love like a mother's. be
doubly tender with her, Admetus."
"I will, I will. All that thou sayest I will do, and
more also. Not for one year only, but all my life
long, will I mourn for thee. Forget me not, I pray
thee. Prepare a place for me below, that I may be with
thee when I come to die."
"Nay, I will not forget thee. Lay me back now. I can
say no more."
Gently he laid her back, and knelt down by her side,
and all they that stood around bowed their heads in
silence, for they knew that Death was standing in their
At last Admetus looked up.
"My friends," he said, "she is gone. Help me now to
carry her in, that the maidens may clothe her in the
robes of death."
Gently and reverently, with heads bowed in grief, they
carried her in. the maidens clad her in long white
robes, and laid her on the bier, and the mourners stood
round and sang a dirge for the dead. On the threshold
before the palace Admetus placed the locks he had shorn
 head in token that within one lay dead, and he put on
long black robes of mourning, and took off the golden
circlet from his brow. Throughout the city he sent a
proclamation to say the queen was dead.
"Men of Thessaly," it said, "all ye who own my sway,
come, share with me in sorrow for my wife who is dead.
Shave the bright locks from your heads, and don your
sable robes. Harness your four-horsed chariots; put
the bit in the mouths of your steeds. Cut off the long
manes from their necks, and follow with me to her
grave. Let not the voice of the flute be heard in your
streets, nor the sound of the lyre, till full twelve
moons have waxed and waned; for she was the noblest of
women, and dearest of all on earth to me. Her life she
sacrificed for mine. Pay her high honours, then, for
she is most worthy."
WHILST the preparations for the funeral were being made,
anyone who chanced to look along the highroad would
have seen a stranger making his way towards the palace.
He was a strong man and tall—three cubits and
more in height. The muscles of his arms and chest
stood out like thongs of cord. In his hand he carried
a huge knotted club, and over his shoulders hung a
lion's skin. If the wind or the sun were too strong,
he would draw the jaws of the beast over his head like
a hood, and the great teeth shone out white and
terrible over his brows and under his chin. He walked
along with great swinging strides, balancing the club
upon his shoulder as though it were some light twig,
and now heavy as a sapling oak. As he
 went through the villages the people stood aside from
his path in wonder, and even the strongest champion of
them all would whisper, "May the gods deliver me from
ever having to stand up against him in single combat.
In his little finger is the strength of my right arm."
But he walked on, little heeding what folk thought of
him, singing now and again snatches of some
drinking-song, and passing the time of day, or cracking
some joke with those he met upon the way; for, in
truth, he had a merry heart, and wished well to all
mankind. Those who were frightened when first they saw
his club and lion's skin forgot their fears as soon as
they could see his face, for his eyes were blue and
laughing as the summer sky, and his smile was bright as
the sun in spring. And yet there were lines and scars
about his features which proved that he was no idler,
but one who had looked labour and danger in the face.
So he came to Pheraeæ and went up the steep path
to the palace. It changed that Admetus was standing in
the portico on his way in. when the stranger saw him
he shouted out,
"Hail to thee, Admetus! Turn back and greet an old
When Admetus heard him, he turned and came towards him.
"Welcome, Heracles," he said, and held out his hand in
But when Heracles saw his black robes and shorn locks
he was troubled.
"I have some at an evil hour, Admetus," he said; "thou
art mourning for one who is dear to thee."
 "Ay," he answered; "It is true."
"One of thy children, can it be, or thy father?"
"Nay, there is nought amiss with them. It is a woman I
am carrying out to burial this day."
"Is she a stranger, or one of the family?"
"She is not one of the family. Yet she is very dear to
us, for on her father's death she came and lived with
us. She was a fair and noble woman, and all the house
is plunged in grief at her death."
"Then I will leave thee and go elsewhere. A house of
mourning is no place for guests."
"Nay," cried Admetus; "I beg of thee, do not go. Never
yet have my halls turned away a traveler from the
gates. The dead are dead. What more could we do for
them? 'Twould do them small good to lack in friendship
for the living. Come in, come in, I pray thee."
In spite of all his entreaties, he forced him to come
in, and bade his steward take him to a guest-room
apart, where he might eat and drink, and hear nothing
of the sounds of mourning when the body was carried out
to the tomb; and he did all in his power to hide from
his guest that it was Alcestis who was dead; for he was
ashamed for Heracles to know that he had allowed his
wife to die for him.
Meanwhile all had been prepared for the funeral, and a
train of citizens stood waiting in the court to follow
behind the bier. Their long black robes fell trailing
in the dust; their heads were shorn in grief, and with
slow steps they followed behind the bier, whilst the
mourners sang a dirge for the dead.
"O daughter of Pelias, farewell, farewell for evermore!
 Mayest thou have peace in the world below and such joy
as may be in those sunless places! O thou black-haired
god of Death, never has one more noble come down to
dwell in thy halls; never, O Charon, thou grim ferryman
of souls—never hast thou carried a burden more
precious across the dark and dreadful stream! Oft
shall thy praises be sung, lady, by minstrels of music
in every land. On the seven-stringed mountain-lute
shall they sing thee, and in hymns, without lyre or
lute, in Sparta, when the circling seasons bring round
the summer feast-time, and all night long the moon
rides high in heaven. In bright and shining Athens
shall they praise thee, too; for thou alone, O
brightest and best, hast dared to die for thy lord, and
give up thy young life for him. O dark Necessity, who
shroudest all men about with death, how heavy is thy
hand upon this house! From thee none can flee, and
Zeus himself bows down before thee. Thou alone, O
goddess, hast no temple, no images to which men turn in
prayer, neither hearest thou the voice of victims
slain. Alcestis is gone—gone for ever. Our eyes
shall see her no more. Light may the earth lie above
thee, lady. Dear wast thou when thou wast among us;
dear shalt thou be, too, in death. No mere mound of
the dead shall thy tomb be, but honoured of every
passer-by, as some shrine of the Immortals. The
stranger toiling up the winding way shall bow his head
before it and say, 'Here lieth one who died for her
lord; now she is a blessed spirit. O lady, have mercy
upon me!' So great shall be thy glory among men for
ever. Fare thee well, fare thee well, most beautiful."
So they laid her in the polished tomb, and placed rich
 gifts about her, and sacrifices of blood to the grim
god of Death. When all the rites were accomplished,
they went away sorrowful.
MEANWHILE Heracles had been led to a guest-chamber apart, and the
servants ministered to all his wants, and brought him
water to wash with, and change of raiment. As they
waited on him, he talked gaily to them of his
adventures on the way, and made them laugh in spite of
their grief for their mistress. Only the old
serving-man stood aloof, and looked darkly at the
stranger who dared to make merry in a house of
When he had washed and dressed, he sat down to meal.
They placed an ample meal before him, and brought him
wine to drink. But in his eyes their bounty was
dearth, and he kept calling for more till they could
scarce contain their astonishment at his appetite. At
length, when he had eaten his fill, he crowned his head
with vine-leaves, and fell to drinking long and deep.
The wine warmed his heart, and sent a cheerful glow
through all his veins. So happy was he that he could
not sit in silence, but raised his voice and sang, and
his singing was like the roaring of a bull.
"Great Zeus, preserve us!" sighed the old waiting-man;
"never have I heard anything more discordant and
But the guest grew merrier and merrier, and the face of
the serving-man, as he watched, grew longer and longer.
At length Heracles himself noticed his disapproving
 "Ho, there!" cried he; "why so dark and gloomy, my
friend? I had as soon be welcomed by an iceberg as by
thee, old sour-face."
The serving-man answered him never a word, but only
scowled the more.
"What!" cried Heracles, "is this the sort of welcome
thou art wont to give thy master's guests? Come
hither, and I will teach thee better ways."
And he took hold of the old man and set him down beside
him at the table.
"Alak! What a countenance! And all for a strange girl
who has chanced to die. How wilt thou look when one of
thy masters is laid in the grave? I like not this mask
of hypocrisy, my friend. Thou carest not for her who
is dead, but pullest a long face, and strikest a chill
to the hearts of all beholders, because, forsooth, it
is seemly to mourn for the dead. Why, we must all pay
our tribute to death, every man of us, and no one
knoweth whether he shall ever see the next day's light;
then count the present as thine own, and eat and drink
with me and make merry. A frowning face profits not
the dead—nay, it serves but to blacken the
sunshine of this life that we can live but once. Up,
man, drink and wash away thy frowns! Believe me, life
is no life at all—only labour and misfortune to
those who walk through it with pompous steps and sour
And he poured out a brimming goblet.
"All this I know full well, master," answered the old
man, "but the shadow that has fallen on this house is
too heavy for me to join in thy revelry."
"Thou makest too much of death. Thou canst not
 grieve for a stranger as thou wouldst for one of the
household. Thy master and mistress live. Let that
"What! My master and mistress live? Alas! My master
is too kind a host."
"Must I starve, then, because a strange girl is dead?"
"It is no stranger, I tell thee, but one most near and
"Have I been deceived? Has he hidden some misfortune
"Ask no more, but go in peace. My master's sorrows are
for me to bear, not for thee. And he bade me not speak
"Speak, speak, man! I see he has hidden some great
sorrow from me. Who is the woman who is dead?"
"Ask me not. My master told me not to say."
"And I forbid thee not to say. Tell me forthwith!"
So fierce and terrible did he look that the old man
trembled before him.
"May my lord forgive me!" said he. "It is Alcestis,
"Alcestis!" cried Heracles. "And he would not share
his sorrow with me, his friend, but let me come in and
feast and sing while he went out to bury her. Woe is
me! I thought he loved me."
"It was to spare thee pain that he did not tell thee,
"How came she to die?" asked Heracles, and took off the
vine-leaves from his head, and poured out the wine upon
Then the old man told him the whole tale.
 "Where have they buried her?" he asked, when it was
"Out yonder, where the white highway leads to Larissa,
in the plain. There, on the outskirts of the city,
thou wilt find the tomb of the kings of Pheraeæ,
where they are laying her."
"Is there no shorter way I can go and reach her
"There is a footpath by the fields that I will show
"Come, then, straightway. I must go and lie in wait
for the black Lord of Death. He will come up to drink
of the blood that is poured out for him beside the
tomb. Then I will fall upon him from my ambush and
wrestle with him and prevail, and he shall give me back
Alcestis. Even if I must go down to Hades and fetch
her, she shall come back. She is too fair and too
noble to pass her young life in the dark underworld."
The old man marveled at his words; but he went out with
him, and showed him the footpath across the fields, and
stood watching him till he passed out of sight.
"Verily, we talk and weep," he muttered to himself,
"and he laughs and acts. He is worth ten of us."
the funeral procession was coming back along the
highway. As they came into the city each man departed
to his own house; only Admetus with his near friends
and kinsmen returned to the palace to celebrate the
funeral feast. Whilst they were waiting for the
 feast to be prepared, Admetus stayed outside alone in
the court. He sat down on one of the stone seats
beneath the colonnade, and buried his face in his
hands. He could not bring himself to go into the
house, where every thing would remind him of the wife
he had lost—the chair in which she used to sit,
empty now; the fire on the altar burning low, and the
ashes scattered about, because she was there no more to
feed the dying flames. The full force of the sacrifice
came home to him now, and he shuddered as he thought of
the deed he had done.
"I have slain her—I have slain her whom I loved,
to save myself from death, because I loved my life, and
hated to go to the dark world below. Woe is me!" he
cried. "The sun is turned to darkness and the earth to
Hades since she went away. I grasped at the substance,
and all the while I followed after a shade. Fool that
I was to upbraid them who refused to die for me and
cast her death in their teeth! She is dead,
dead—slain by my hand alone. Nevermore can I
look my people in the face, nor glory in the deeds I
have done. The shame of my cowardice will blot them
all out, and I shall slink like a cur among my fellows.
Would that I had died with her!"
Thus he sat making fruitless moan. His friends came
out and tried to comfort him and bring him into the
house, but he sent them away, and would not go in. All
the evening he sat there alone till darkness began to
fall. At length he felt a heavy hand laid upon his
shoulder, and, looking up, he saw Heracles standing
"Why couldst thou not trust me, Admetus?" he asked.
"All thy household, all the city, knew that thy
 wife Alcestis was dead. Me only, thy familiar friend,
didst thou keep in ignorance. I had thought to stand
beside thee in thy sorrow, and thou didst not even tell
me of it."
"I was ashamed," answered Admetus.
"Well, well, what is done cannot be undone. There is
but one way now that thou canst prove thou art still my
friend. After I had eaten, I walked out across the
fields, and came upon a place where the people were
holding games and giving rich prizes to the
winners—horses and oxen, and a fair woman to the
best man of all. When I saw the woman I determined to
win her. So I entered for the contest and beat all my
rivals. The woman I have brought back with me now, and
beg of thee to keep her till I come back from the wild
Thracian folk, for I cannot take her with me there. If
by any chance I should never come back, but meet my
fate away, I give her to thee to keep for thyself. I
have brought her with me now to give into thy care."
As he spoke, he led forward by the hand a woman who had
been standing near him. She was closely veiled, so
that Admetus, when he glanced up at her, could not see
her face, but only the outline of her form.
"Oh, take her away, take her away!" he cried. "In
height and figure she is like my wife, and I cannot
bear to look upon her. I would do much for thee, my
friend, but ask not this of me. No woman shall ever
live in my house again. Take her to some other of thy
In spite of all Heracles could say, he refused to take
"I see that thou wouldst no more be my friend,
Ad-  metus," he said at last. "First thou wilt not tell me
of thy sorrow, and now thou wilt not do this little
thing for me. I will go and trouble thee no more with
At this Admetus was cut to the quick.
"Ah, say not that. Thou knowest that I love thee, but
this is a hard thing thou askest. Whenever I look at
her I shall be reminded of my wife. And the tongue of
slander will not be silent. Men will say that I take
comfort, and have forgotten the woman who gave her life
for mine. Nevertheless, if thou wilt have it so, I
yield. Take the woman in, or let one of the servants
show her the way."
"Nay," said Heracles; "to thee alone will I trust her.
She is fair and noble, and I would not have her treated
as a common woman."
And he forced Admetus to take her by the hand.
"Now I know that thou wilt treat her honourably, thou
mayst look upon her face," he said, and lifted up the
veil which shrouded her.
When Admetus saw her face, he fell back terrified, for,
pale and beautiful, scarce looking as though she
breathed, Alcestis stood before him.
"Ye gods!" he gasped; "the spirit of my wife!"
"Nay," said Heracles, "but her very self."
"Thou mockest; it cannot be."
"It is no mockery, as who should know better than I who
won her?" said Heracles. "By Zeus, I have wrestled
many a tough match, but never a one so tough as this,
the gods be praised! I have met Death face to face,
and I hope I may never have to stand up against him
 "Ah, my friend, how can I thank thee? I have not
deserved so much joy," cried Admetus, and fell on his
knees before them.
"I thought not of thy deserts, but of hers," said
Heracles. "Come, take her in."
"I dare not touch her. Ah, lady, canst thou love one
who sent thee to thy death?" he asked, with head bowed
down before her.
She answered him never a word, but held out both her
hands and raised him from his knees; and he looked deep
into her eyes, and found them full of love. Tenderly
and humbly he put his arm about her and led her away,
and felt that, if anything on earth could ever raise
him from the depths of selfishness and meanness to
which he had fallen, it would be the boundless,
measureless love of the woman before him.
SHE ANSWERED HIM NEVER A WORD, BUT HELD OUT BOTH HER HANDS AND RAISED HIM FROM HIS KNEES.
"Now to change the funeral feast to a banquet of
rejoicing," cried Heracles. "Truly, I could eat an ox
after this last bout of mine."