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Children of the Dawn by  Elsie Finnimore Buckley




I N the city of Calydon long ago there were great rejoicings because the queen Althaeæa had given birth to a son, her first-born, who, it he grew to years of manhood, would in time sit upon the throne of his father Œneus, and rule the land. Some seven days after the child was born it chanced that the queen was lying alone in her chamber, with the babe upon her breast. It was winter-time, and the shades of evening had fallen early about the room, but a bright fire blazed upon the hearth, and the flickering flames threw dancing shadows on the walls. The queen was very happy as she pressed her bay to her breast, and held its soft little hand in hers, and whispered in its ear words which only a mother knows how to sue to her child.

As she lay she watched the shadows playing up and down upon the walls, and to her eyes they took strange forms of men and beasts. Now it was a great fight she saw, with horses and chariots rushing over a plain, and mighty warriors meeting face to face in battle; now it was [189] a hunt, with winding of horns and dogs straining at the beast, and a white-tusked boar breaking through a thicket. But whether it was a hunt or whether it was a battle, everywhere there was one figure of a man she watched—a man tall and fair and brave, who stood out conspicuous among his fellows—shch a hero as her son might grow to be if he lived till years of manhood. And she prayed that her vision might come true, and her son grow up to be a hero—a man mighty in sport and mighty in battle. In time the flames died down, and the fire burned clear and still upon the hearth. The queen's eyes grew heavy, and she was about to turn on her side to sleep when a strange thing happened, which took from her all desire for rest. The wall of the room in front of her, which had glowed bright and cheery in the firelight, grew grey and misty and seemed to vanish before her eyes. And through the opening there came towards her the forms of three strange women, taller and more terrible than any women of earth. The first one carried in her hand a skein of thread, the second a spindle, and the third a pair of great sharp shears. The queen lay still and motionless with terror as they came forward slowly arm in arm and stood beside the couch, looking down upon the child at her breast. At length the first one spoke.

"I give to thy child, Althaea, a thread of life exceeding bright and fair."

"And I," said the second, "will weave that thread into dark places, where it will shine the brighter for the darkness round about, and bring him honour and great renown."

The third one said never a word, but walked slowly [190] round the couch till she stood before the fire on the hearth. A great brand had fallen from the grate, and lay smouldering on the stones. Bending down, she took it in her hand, and thrust it deep into the red-hot heart of the fire, and stood watching it till it was well alight, and the tongues of flame shot crackling upwards. Then she turned towards the queen.

"As soon as that brand upon the fire is consumed," she said, "I will cut the shining thread with my shears, and his life shall be as ashes cast forth upon the wind."

As she spoke, she held out the shears, and they gleamed sharp and cruel in the firelight.

With a cry of terror the queen sprang up from her couch, forgetful of her weakness, and thinking only of the life of her child; and she rushed across the room, and, drawing forth the blazing brand from the fire, she smothered it in her gown, and crushed it beneath her bare feet, till not a live spark remained about it. Then she hid it in a secret place where she alone could find it, and cast herself upon her couch and knew no more. When the attendants came in, they found the room empty, save for the queen and her child; and she lay senseless on the couch, with her feet and her gown all scarred and burnt.

For many a long day she lay between life and death, but at last the gods had mercy, and her strength came slowly back to her. But when anyone asked her the cause of her burning, she would shudder and mutter some strange tale of a brand which fell from the fire, and would have burnt out the life of her child. What she meant no one ever knew, but they thought that the gods had stricken her with a sudden fever, and that, not [191] knowing what she did, she had burnt herself in the fire. But of the half-burnt brand and of the word of the Fates they knew nothing, for Althaeæa had said in her heart,

"The Fates have spoken, and their word shall surely come to pass. A fine and fair thread of life has Lachesis given to my son, and Clotho will weave it into dark places, where it shall shine exceeding bright. The gifts they have given are good. The hand of Atropos alone is against him, and she has measured his life by the life of a frail piece of wood. But so long as the gods shall give me strength no careless hand shall place that brand upon the flames, and no man shall know the secret of his life, for grief or madness may turn even the heart of a friend. On me, and on me alone, shall my son's life rest; for well do I know that neither prayer nor sacrifice can avail to turn the heart of Atropos, the Unswerving One."

So she kept the brand securely hidden where she along could find it. Many other fair children did she bear to Œneus the king—Phereus and Agelaus and Periphas, and Gorge and Melanippe, and the hapless Dejaneira, who married Heracles, and unwittingly caused his death. But best of them all she loved Meleager, her first-born; for the word that the Fates had spoken came true. He grew to be a great warrior and a mighty man, and was feared by his foes and loved by his friends through the length and breadth of the land; for there were great wars in those days between the Curetes of Pleuron and the Ætolians of Calydon, and on either side fought men whose names were not despised among their fellows, but among them all there was none so famed as Meleager. In all the country-side there was no man who could hurl [192] the javelin with such force and skill as he, and whenever he went forth to battle the victory lay with the men of Calydon, and he was called the saviour and protector of his city.

When he was in the flower of his manhood, the call of Jason came from far Iolchos for all the heroes of Hellas to join him in his search for the Golden Fleece. Amongst them sailed Meleager in the good ship Argo, and came to the land of the dusky Colchians on the shores of the Euxine Sea. One tale goes that he slew Æetes their king, the child of the Sun, and saved his comrades from deadly peril. But whether this be true or no, certain it is that he played his part like a man, and came back to Calydon with a fair name for courage and endurance. Then was he hoisted on the shoulders of his countrymen and carried through the streets of the city, and feasted right royally in his father's house.

Soon after his return it chanced that the harvest was more plentiful than it had ever been within the memory of man. The golden corn stood high upon the plains, and on the sunny mountain-sides the olive-trees were thick with berries, and the vine-branches drooped low with their weight of purple fruit. Wherefore Œneus the king ordered a great thanksgiving to be held throughout the land in honour of Dionysus and Demeter and grey-eyes Pallas Athene, who had given such good gifts to men. At every shrine and temple the altars smoked with sacrifice, and glad bands of youths and maidens with garlands on their heads danced hand in hand around, singing the song of the harvest.

"All hail to thee, Demeter, great Earth-Mother! [193] From Evenus to the silver eddying waters of wide Acheloöus thou hast covered the bosom of the plain with golden ears of corn, and they dance beneath the west wind like the waves on summer seas. All hail to thee, Dionysus, who bringest joy to the heart of man! About thine altars the juice of the vine shall flow like water, and the souls of those who were bowed down beneath labour and toil shall be uplifted to thee in the glad harvest-time. And Pallas Athene, grey-eyed maiden, thee too we hail, for thy gift of the fragrant olive. The shade of thy trees lies cool upon the panting hill-sides, and thou hast looked with kindness on your land. Oh, come hither, all ye townsfolk and ye dwellers on the plains and hills come hither in your hundreds, and dance about the altars, and sing thanksgiving to the great gods on high."

Thus did they dance and sing, and there was gladness and rejoicing through all the land, and not one soul among them all knew how soon their laughter would be burned to tears. For when Artemis, the huntress, saw that everywhere the altars smoked in honour of Demeter, and Dionysus, and Pallas Athene, but that never a single stone was raised to her, she was filled with jealousy and wrath. One night, when all the land lay sleeping, she left the mountains, where she loved to hunt, and came down to Calydon. The arrows in her quiver rattled as she strode along in her wrath, and the flash of her eyes was as the flash of summer lightning across the sky. With great swinging strides she came and stood over Œneus as he slept.

"O king," she said, "too long have I been patient and [194] waited for my dues; but I will suffer thine ingratitude no more. When the young corn stands green upon the plain, and the vine-leaves are shooting, and the trees cast once more their shade upon the bare hill-side, then shall thou have cause to know my power. Demeter may sow her golden grain, and Dionysus and Pallas Athene may fill their fruits with gladdening juice, but thou hast yet to learn that, if it be my will, though the promise of the harvest be fair, the fruits thereof shall lie spoilt and ungathered where they grew. Broad and dark are the forests which cover wild Arachynthus, and deep the ravines, and many a wild beast lurks therein that is tame at my word alone. One of these will I let loose upon thy land. Many a fair field shall be trodden underfoot, and many a vineyard and olive-grove laid waste—yea, and red blood shall flow, ere my wrath be assuaged, and I take away the pest from your midst. I have spoken, and no sacrifice shall turn me from my word."

Thus did she speak, saying the words in his ear, and turned and left the room by the way she had come. With a start he awoke from his sleep and looked around him, but no one could he see. Only a sudden storm of wind lashed the branches of the trees against each other, and a dark cloud hid the face of the moon.

"The sad winter-time is coming," he thought, "with its storms and its darkened days. Yet, lest there be aught in my dream, I will remember Artemis to-morrow, and her altars, too, shall smoke with sacrifice."

So on the morrow a great festival was held in honour of Artemis, the maiden huntress, and Œneus laid aside all thought of his dream. But when the spring-time came [195] and the early summer, he had cause to remember it with sorrow, for out of the forests of Arachynthus, there came a great boar which laid waste all the country, right and left. In size he was more huge than an ox of Epirus, whose oxen are the largest in the world, and the bristles on his neck stood up like spikes. His breath was as a flame of fire that burned up all that stood in his way, and his cruel little eyes gleamed red with blood. Over the cornfields he raged, and trampled the green blades beneath his hoofs, and with his strong white tusks he tore down the vine-branches and broke the overhanging boughs of the olive, so that the young berries and fruit lay spoilt upon the ground. Not only did he lay waste the fields, but the blocks and herds on the pasture-land were not safe from his attack, and neither shepherds nor dogs could protect them from his fury. Through all the country-side the people fled in terror for their lives, and hid within the city walls, only now and again a band of the bravest would go forth and lay nets and snares for him; but so great was the strength of the beast that he broke through every trap they could devise, and, killing any man who stood in his path, he would return, with greater fury than before, to his attack upon the fields and cattle. At length things came to such a pass that, unless the monster could be checked, famine would ere long stare the people in the face. When Meleager saw that neither prayer nor sacrifice would turn the heart of Artemis, nor any ordinary hunting put an end to the boar, he determined to gather around him a band of heroes who, for the sake of glory, would come together for the hunt, and either kill the beast or perish themselves in the attempt. [196] So he sent a proclamation far and wide through all the kingdoms of Hellas.

"O men of Hellas," he said, "the fair plains of Calydon lie trodden underfoot by a grievous monster, and her people are fallen upon evil days. Come hither and help us, all ye who love adventure, and fear not risk nor peril, ye seasoned warriors whose spirit is not dead within you, and ye young men who have yet your name to win. Come hither to us, and we will give you fair sport and good cheer withal."

In answer to his call there flocked from far and wide to Calydon a great host of brave men, and mighty was the muster which gathered beneath the roof of Œneus for the hunting of the boar. Jason himself came, the leader of the Argonauts, and Castor and Pollux, the great twin brethren, whose stars are in the sky. There was Theseus, too, who slew the Minotaur, and Peirithous his friend, who went down with him to Hades, and tried to carry off Persephone from the king of the Dead. And swift-footed Idas come, and Lynceus, his brother, whose eyes were so sharp that they could see into the centre of the earth. Others were there besides, whose names are too many to tell, and Toxeus and Plexippus, the brothers of Althæa the queen, whom she loved as she loved her own son Meleager. For as a little maid she had played with them in the palace of Thestius, her father, and she remembered how she would watch for them to come home from the hunt and clap her hands with joy, when from afar she saw them returning home with their spoil. And they would findle her and play with her, and so long as they wer with her she was as happy as a bird; but when they went [197] away, her heart ached for them to come back. The memory of those days still shone bright within her heart, and when her brothers came with the other guests for the hunting of the boar, she welcomed them right gladly. In the great hall a sumptuous feast was spread, and loud was the laughter and bright were the faces, as one friend met another he had not seen for many a long day, and sat down by his side in good-fellowship with the groaning board before them. The feast was well under way when one of the attendants whispered in the ear of the king that yet another guest had come for the hunting of the boar.

"Who is he?" asked the king.

"My lord, I know not," the man replied.

"Well, keep him not standing without, at all events," said Œneus, "but show him in here, and we will make him welcome with the rest."

In a few moments the man returned, and held back he curtain of the great doorway for the new-comer to enter. All eyes were turned eagerly that way to see who it might be, and a murmur of surprise ran round the hall; for they saw upon the threshold no stalwart warrior, as they had expected, but a maiden young and beautiful. She was clad in a hunter's tunic, which fell to her knee, and her legs were strapped about with leathern thongs. Cross-wise about her body she wore a girdle, from which hung a quiver full of arrows, and with her right hand she leant on a great ashen bow like a staff. Her shining hair fell back in waves from her forehead, and was gathered up in a coil behind, and she held her head up proudly and gazed round on the company unabashed. The glow of her [198] cheek and the spring of her step told of life in the open and of health-giving sport over hill and dale, so that she might have been Artemis herself come down from her hunting on the mountains. She looked round the hall till her eyes fell on Œneus, the host, in the place of honour, and in no wise troubled by the silence which her coming had caused, she said,

"Sire, for my late-coming I crave thy pardon. Doubtless some of thy guests have come from more distant lands than I, but, as ill-luck would have it, I chose to come by way of the sea instead of by the isthmus, and for a whole day I ate out my heart with waiting by the shrine of Poseidon for a favouring breeze; for the east wind blew like fury across the Crisaeæan Gulf, and any barque that had ventured to try the crossing had been blown to the isles of the Hesperides ere it had reached thy land. So I waited perforce till the wind fell and I could cross over in safety."

Concealing his surprise as best he could, Œneus answered,

"Maiden, we thank thee for thy coming, and make thee right welcome in our halls. Yet we fain would know thy name who, a woman all alone, hast crossed barren tracts of land and stormy seas unflinching, and come to take part in a hunt which is no mere child's sport, but a perilous venture, in which strong men might hesitate to risk their lives and limbs."

As she listened to his words she smiled.

"O king," she said, "thou hidest thy surprise but ill. Yet am I not offended, nor will I make a mystery of who I am. My name is Atalanta, and I come from the moun- [199] tains of Arcadia, where all day long I hunt with the nymphs over hill and over dale, and through the dark forests, following in the footsteps of her we serve, great Artemis the huntress. At her command I stand before thee now, for she said to me, 'Atalanta, the land of Calydon lies groaning beneath the curse, wherewith I cursed them because they forgot me, and gave me not my dues. But do thou go and help them, and for thy sake I will lay aside my wrath, and let them slay the monster that I sent against them. Yet without thee shall they not accomplish it, but the glory of the hunt shall be thine.' Thus did she speak, and in obedience to her word am I come."

When she had spoken, a murmur ran round the hall, and each man's gorge rose within him as he determined in his mind that no mere woman should surpass him in courage and strength. The sons of Thestius, the queen's brothers, especially looked askance at her, and their hearts were filled with jealousy and wrath; for her eye was bright and steady, and her limbs looked supple and swift, and there seemed no reason why she should not be a match for any man among them, in a trial where swiftness of foot and sureness of eye would avail as much as brute force. When Meleager saw their dark looks he was very angry that they should so far forget their good breeding as to fail in welcoming a guest, and he rose from his seat and went towards her.

"O maiden," he said, "we make thee right welcome to our halls, and we thank thee because thou hast heard our appeal, and art come to help us in the day of our trouble. Come, now, and sit thee down, and make glad thy heart [200] with meat and wine, for thou must need it sorely after thy long journeying."

As he spoke, he took her by the hand and set her in a place of honour between his father and himself, and saw that she had her fill of the good fare on the board. As he sat beside her and talked with her, his heart was kindled with love, for she was exceeding fair to look upon; and the more he thought upon the morrow's hunting, the more loath was he that she should risk her life in it. At length he said,



"Atalanta, surely thou knowest not what manner of beast it is that we are gathered together to destroy. Thou hast hunted the swift-footed stag, perchance, through the green wood, but never a monster so fierce as this boar that Artemis has sent against us. I till thee, it will be no child's play, but a matter of death to some of us. Hast thou no mother or father to mourn thee if any evil chance befall, or any lover who is longing for thy return? Think well ere it be too late."

But she laughed aloud at his words.

"Thou takest me for some drooping damsel that sits at home and spins, and faints if she see but a drop of blood. I tell thee, I know neither father, nor mother, nor husband, nor brother, and I love but little the lot of womenkind such as thou knowest. Never have I lived within four walls, and the first roof that covered me was the forest-trees of Mount Parthenius, which stands where three lands meet, on the borders of Sparta, Argolis, and wooded Arcadia, that I have chosen for my home. Whence I came or how I got to Parthenius no one can tell, and I have no wish to find out. As for savage beasts, [203] had I not the eyes of a hawk and the feet of a doer, I had not been safe ten seconds on the uplands of Arcadia. For there, as doubtless thou hast heard, there dwells a fierce tribe of centaurs-monsters half human and half horse— who have the passions of men and the strength of beasts. These, when they set eyes upon me, were fired by my beauty, and pursued me over hill and dale, and I fled like the wind before them: but ever and anon I found time to turn and let fly from my bow a dart which fell but seldom short of the mark. So dire was the havoc I wrought in their herd that after a time they gave up in despair, and molested me no more. So talk not to me of fierce beasts or of danger. All my life long I have breathed in danger from the air about me, and I had as soon die outright, as sit with thy womenkind in safety within, whilst all of you went forth for the hunting of the boar."

And nothing that Meleager could say would turn her from her purpose.

"Dost think I have left the mountains of Arcadia, and the nymphs, and the joys and dangers of the hunt, to come and sit with the old wives round thy palace fire in Calydon?" she said with a laugh; and her white teeth shone like pearls in the torchlight, and the gleam of her hair and the fire of her eyes kindled yet more surely the flame of love in his heart, so that he could have fallen at her feet and begged her for his sake to keep away from danger. But across the board he saw the eyes of Toxeus and Plexippus, his mother's brothers, fixed upon him, and their brows were dark and lowering as they frowned upon him and Atalanta. So he said no more, lest they should discover his secret and taunt him for his passion; [204] but in his heart he knew that on the morrow his thought would be as much for her safety as for the killing of the boar. As for Atalanta, a stone would have returned his love as readily as she. For a companion in the hunt she liked him full well, but to give up her maiden life for his sake was as far from her thoughts as the east is from the west. As yet she knew not the love of man, and had vowed in her heart that she never would. Howbeit, such things are not altogether within the power of mortals to will or not to will, and Atalanta, like any other woman, was destined one day to bow her proud head to the dust before a man's great love, though the gods had not ordained that Meleager should be the one to win her. But more of that hereafter.

When the morrow dawned, great was the bustle and confusion in the court of the palace, where all were to meet together for the hunting of the boar. Attendants ran this way and that to fetch and carry for their masters, and, as the huntsman blew his horn, the hounds barked impatiently, and strained, whining, at their leashes. At length, when all was ready, Althaeæa with her maidens came forth into the portico, and bade farewell to her guests, her husband, her brothers, and to Meleager, her son.

"God speed thee, my son," she said, as she looked proudly on him, "and good luck to thy hunting."

Then she stood on the step and waved to them with a smile as they turned to look back at her before the curve of the roadway hid them from sight. But though a smile was on her lips, her eyes were full of tears, and her heart within her was dark with a dim foreshadowing of evil. [205] With a heavy step, she turned and went into the house, and as she passed the altar by the hearth she stopped and bowed her head.

"Great Artemis," she prayed, "have mercy and bring my loved ones safely back to me this day."

Then she went to her chamber and drew forth from its hiding place the half-burnt brand on which her son's life depended.

"His life, at any rate, is safe," she thought, "so long as this brand is in my keeping."

And she hid it away again where she knew no one could find it, and set to work restlessly, to while away the hours as best she could, till the hunters should come home.

They, meanwhile, had gone their way up the steep path which led into the mountains and deep into the heart of the forest, where they knew their prey was lurking. Soon they came upon the track of his hoofs leading to the dry bed of a stream, where the rushes and reeds grew high in the marsh-land, and the bending willows cast their shadow over the spot he had chosen for his lair. Here they spread the nets cautiously about, and stationed themselves at every point of vantage, and, when all was ready, let loose the hounds, and waited for the boar to come forth from his hiding-place. Not long did they have to wait. With a snort of rage he rushed out. The breath from his nostrils came forth like steam, and the white foam flew from his mouth and covered his bristly sides and neck. Quick as lightning, he made for the first man he could see, and the tramp of his hoofs re-echoed through the woods like thunder as he came upon the hard ground. As soon as he rushed out, a [206] shower of missiles fell towards him from every side, but some were aimed awry or fell too far or too short of him, and those that touched him slipped aside on his tough hide, as though they had been feathers instead of bronze; and he broke through the nets that had been spread to catch him, and galloped away unharmed, whilst behind him a hound lay dead among the reeds, pierced through with his tusk, and two of the hunters, who stood in his path, and had not been able to rush aside in time, lay groaning on the ground with the iron mark of his hoof upon them, and a gaping wound in the side of one. When the rest saw that he had escaped them, they gave chase with all speed, headed by Castor and Pollux, on their white horses, and Atalanta close beside them, running swiftly as the wind. Ahead of them the woodland track gave a sudden turn to the left, and the boar, rushing blindly forward, would have plunged into the undergrowth and bushes, and escaped beyond range of their darts. But Atalanta, seeing what must happen, stopped short in the chase. Quick as thought, she put an arrow to the string, and let fly at the great beast ahead; and Artemis, true to her word, guided the arrow so that it pierced him in the vital part behind the ear. With a snort of pain and fury, he turned round upon the hunters and charged down towards them as they came up from behind, and great would have been the havoc he had wrought among them but for Meleager. As the brute bore down, he leaped lightly to one side, and, gathering together all his strength, buried the spear deep into the beast's black shoulder, and felled him to the earth with the force of his blow. Immediately the others [209] gathered round, and helped to finish the work that Meleager had begun, and soon the monster lay dead upon the ground in a pool of his own blood. Then Meleager, with his foot upon the boar's head, spoke to the hunters.



"My friends," he said, "I thank you all for the courage and devotion you have shown this day. My land can once more raise her head in joy, for the monster that wrought such havoc in her fields lies dead here at my feet. Yet the price of his death has not been light, my friends." And they bowed their heads in silence, as they remembered the two whom th boar had struck in the rush, one of whom was now dead. "Yet those who have suffered have suffered gloriously, giving up themselves, as brave men must, for the sake of others, and their names shall surely not be unremembered by us all. Once more, my trusty comrades, I thank you, every man of you. As for thee, lady," he continued, turning to Atalanta, "while all have played their part, yet the glory of the hunt is thine. But for thy sure hand and eye the beast might yet be lurking in the forest. Wherefore, as a token of our gratitude, I will give to thee the boar's head as a trophy to do with as thou wilt."

At his words a murmur of applause went round the ring of them that listened. Only the voices of Toxeus and Plexippus were not heard, for they were mad with jealousy and wrath, and as soon as there was silence they spoke.

"By what right," asked Toxeus, "shall one bear off the trophy of a hunt in which each one of us has played his part?"

The insolence of his words and looks roused the anger [210] of Meleager to boiling-point. All through the hunt the brothers had shown scant courtesy to Atalanta, and now their rudeness was past bearing.

"By the same right as the best man bears off the prize in any contest," he answered quietly, though he was pale with rage.

"Happy is that one who has first won the heart of the judge, then," said Plexippus with a sneer, as he looked at Atalanta.

By the truth and the falsehood of his words Meleager was maddened past all bearing. Scarce knowing what he did, he sprang upon him, and before anyone knew what he was about, he had buried his hunting-knife in the heart of Plexippus. When Toxeus saw his brother fall back upon the grass, he sprang upon Meleager, and for a moment they swung backwards and forwards, held each in the other's deadly grip. But Meleager was the younger and the stronger of the two, and soon Toxeus too lay stretched upon the ground beside his brother, and a cry of horror went through the crowd of those who stood by. Pale and trembling, Meleager turned towards them.

"My friends," he said, "farewell. You shall look upon my face no more. Whether I slew them justly or no, the curse of Heaven is upon me, and I know that night and day the Furies will haunt my steps, because my hand is red with the blood of my kinsmen. O fair fields of Calydon, that I have loved and served all my days, farewell for ever. Nevermore shall I look upon you, nor my home on te steep hill-side, nor the face of the queen, my mother; but I must hide my head in shame far from the haunts of men. As for thee, lady," he said, turning [211] to Atalanta, "their taunt was false, yet true. Right honourably didst thou win thy trophy, as all these here will testify;" and he pointed to the hunters standing round. "Yet my soul leapt with joy when I found that into thine hand and none other's I might give the prize of the hunt. Wherefore, think kindly on my memory, lady, when I am far away, for a grave man's heart is in thy keeping. Farewell."

And he turned and went away by the forest-path. So surprised were all the company that no man moved hand or foot to stop him. The first to speak was Atalanta.

"Comrades," she said, "do you bear home the dead and break the news as gently as may be to the queen, and I will follow him, if perchance I can comfort him, for the hand of Heaven is heavy upon him."

So firmly did she speak that no man found it in his heart to withstand her; and when she saw that they would do as she bid, she ran swiftly down the path by which he had gone, and disappeared from sight.

Meanwhile the day had been drawing towards its close, and Althæa had come out into the portico to watch for the return of the hunters. The rumour had reached the city that the boar had been killed, but not without loss among the gallant band that had gone out against him, and with a heavy heart Althæa was waiting to know who it was that had fallen. In time she saw them returning home, and in their midst four litters carried on the shoulders of some. When she saw them, her heart stood still with fear, and as they came up and laid down the litters before the doorway she was as one turned to [212] marble, and moved neither hand nor foot. When Œneus the king saw her, he took her gently by the hand.

"Come within, lady," he said; "the hunting of the boar has cost us dear."

"Ah! tell me the worst at once," she cried. "I can bear it better so. The suspense is maddening me."

"Two of those who lie before thee are strangers who have given themselves for us," he said. "One of them is sore wounded, and the other is gone beyond recovery. The other two, Althæa, are very near and dear to us—Toxeus and Plexippus, thy brothers."

And he pointed to two of the bodies which lay side by side with their faces covered before her. With a wild cry she rushed to them, and drew back the covering, and gazed upon the faces that she loved so well. As she looked, she saw the wounds that had killed them, and she knew now that it was no wild beast that had slain them, but the hand of man. Drawing herself up to her full height, she looked round on those who stood by, and the gleam of her eyes was terrible to see.

"Deceive me no more," she said, "but tell me how these two came to fall by the hand of man."

"Lady," said Œneus, "they sought a quarrel with one of our company, and in anger he slew them both."

For a moment she was silent, then in a low voice, yet one that all could hear, she spoke.

"My curse be upon him, whosoe'er he be. O Daughters of Destruction, foul wingless Furies, by the blood of my brothers yet wet upon his hand, I bid you track his footsteps night and day. May no roof cover his head nor any man give him food or drink, but let him be a vaga- [213] bond on the face of the earth till just vengeance overtake him. On thee, Œneus, do I lay this charge, and on my son Meleager, to avenge the death of these my kinsmen, who have been foully slain."

In vain did Œneus try to stop her. She was as one deaf to his entreaties. When she had finished, she looked round for Meleager, and when she could not see him, the blood froze in her veins.

"My son," she cried—"where is my son?"

"Lady," said Œneus, "even now the wingless bearers of thy curse are hunting him through the forest."

For a moment she swayed to and fro as though she would fall.

"Ye gods, what have I done?" she muttered.

Then with a cry she turned and rushed through the doorway, across the deserted palace to her own chamber, and barring the door behind her, she took from its hiding place the brand she had kept jealously so long. As on the day when the Fates had come to her, a bright fire was burning on the hearth, and deep into the heart of it she pushed the log with both her hands.

"Oh my son, my son!" she cried; "to think that I should come to this! But though the flame that devours thy life burns out my heart within me, yet must I do it. Thus only can I save thee from my curse. For the word, once spoken, never dies, and the Furies, once aroused, sleep never, night or day. Wherefore Death alone can give thee peace, O Meleager, my first-born and my dearest."

Œneus meanwhile had followed her, and stood without, asking her to open to him. But she cried out to him,

[214] "All is well. I beg thee leave me. I would be alone."

So he left her; and she stood watching the flames slowly eat the wood away, and at last, when the log fell apart in ashes, she sank down upon the floor, and with her son's life hers too went out for grief.

Meleager meanwhile had gone blindly forward along the forest track, and from afar Atalanta followed him. For a time he went onward, straight as an arrow, never stopping, never turning. But when his mother's curse was spoken, faster than the whirlwind the Furies flew from the realms of endless night, and came and crouched before his feet, loathsome shapes of darkness and of horror. With a cry he turned aside, and tried to flee from them, but wherever he looked they were there before him, and he reeled backwards and forwards like a drunken man. But soon his strength seemed to give way, and he fell forward on the grass, and Atalanta ran forward and took his head upon her knee. To her eyes they two were alone in the heart of the forest, for the foul shapes of the Furies he alone had seen. But now he lay with his eyes closed, faint and weak, and she thought that some time in the hunt he must have strained himself, and lay dying of some inward hurt that no man could heal, for on his body she could see not a scratch. So she sat in the gathering gloom with his head upon her lap. There was nought else she could do. Help lay so far away that he would have died alone had she left him. At last, when his heart beat so faint that she thought it had stopped once and for all, he opened his eyes and looked up at her, and when he saw her the fear and madness died out of his face, and he smiled.

[215] "The gods are kind," he said. Once more he closed his eyes, and Atalanta knew that he would open them never again. Gently she laid him with his head on the moss-covered roots of a tree, and sped away to the city to bear the news of his death. In the darkness of night they bore him through the forest, and all the people gathered together and watched from the walls the torchlit procession as it came slowly up the hill; and the heart of each man of them was heavy within him as he thought that the hero and saviour of his country was being carried dead into the walls of his native town. By the side of his mother they laid him, and burned above them the torches of the dead, and the mourners, with heads bowed in grief, stood around.

Thus did it come to pass that the hunting of the boar ended in grief for the land of Calydon, and Atalanta went back to the Arcadian woodlands with a sore place in her heart for Meleager, who had died happy because his head was resting on her knee.


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