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Children of the Dawn by  Elsie Finnimore Buckley

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THE SACRIFICE OF ALCESTIS

I

[124]

O 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 [125] 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, Hippothœ, 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 to wife.

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 [126] 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 [127] 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 [128] 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 waters of [129] 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.


II

One 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, [130] 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 darkness?"

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 master's; [131] 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 [132] 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 [133] 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 flocks."

"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 purified."

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 shepherd lads [134] 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.


III

Meanwhile 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 [135] 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 the prophet.

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 [136] 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 prize.


[Illustration]

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."

[139] Again the herdsman gazed at him, and seemed to read his inmost soul.

"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 thing?"

"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 forget them?"

"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 [140] 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 race."

"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!"


IV

On 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 [141] 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 parapet.

"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."

[142] 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 impossible.

"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 sisters calling.

"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 heads.

[143] "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 noisy crowd before it 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- [144] 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.

[145] "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.

[146] "My daughter," she said, "come to my arms and lay thy head upon my breast, and I will ease the trouble of thine heart."

"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 prayer to-night."

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 the suitors.

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 [147] 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 leading.

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,

[148] "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 prize."

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.


V

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 [149] 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 [150] 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.


[Illustration]

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 [153] 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 bride.

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 head.

"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 hiss.

"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."

[154] "Nay, with these hands will I strangle them," cried Admetus.

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.

[155] "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 steadfast look.

"Why do the gods torment me?" he cried hotly. "What have I done that I should be tortured on my bridal night?"

"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 bride."

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 disdain."

Slowly and sorrowfully did Admetus return along the [156] 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.


VI

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 [157] 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 [158] 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 [159] 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 thee."

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.


VII

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 [160] 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.

[161] "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 break."

"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 thy song."

"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. Farewell."

So Apollo sped away on the wings of the wind, far, far [162] 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 plea.

"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."

[163] "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 joy."

"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.

[164] 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 left him.


VIII

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 [165] 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 of men.

"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. And [166] 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.

[167] "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 stead.

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 well.

"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 her life.

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,

[168] "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 [169] 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 hands.

"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 smiled.

[170] "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 front.

"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.


[Illustration]

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 [173] 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 midst.

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 from his [174] 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."


IX

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 [175] 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 friend."

When Admetus heard him, he turned and came towards him.

"Welcome, Heracles," he said, and held out his hand in greet him.

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."

[176] "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! [177] 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 [178] gifts about her, and sacrifices of blood to the grim god of Death. When all the rites were accomplished, they went away sorrowful.


X

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 mourning.

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 unseemly."

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 countenance.

[179] "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 faces."

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 [180] grieve for a stranger as thou wouldst for one of the household. Thy master and mistress live. Let that suffice thee."

"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 dear."

"Have I been deceived? Has he hidden some misfortune from me?"

"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 of it."

"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, his wife."

"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, master."

"How came she to die?" asked Heracles, and took off the vine-leaves from his head, and poured out the wine upon the floor.

Then the old man told him the whole tale.

[181] "Where have they buried her?" he asked, when it was ended.

"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 quickly?"

"There is a footpath by the fields that I will show thee."

"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."

XI Meanwhile 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 [182] 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 beside him.

"Why couldst thou not trust me, Admetus?" he asked. "All thy household, all the city, knew that thy [183] 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 friends."

In spite of all Heracles could say, he refused to take her.

"I see that thou wouldst no more be my friend, Ad- [184] 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 my friendship."

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 more."

[187] "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.


[Illustration]

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."


[Illustration]


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